Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Game Design Notes: Persona 4 - Dating Sim Technology

I never actually got the chance to play Persona 3. My attention span at the time it came out was dangerously short. I did get to experience a fair amount of it, though; my roommate at the time played the hell out of it. I enjoyed it vicariously, watching for long stretches of play and squeezing gameplay stories of of him.

You see, I love roguelikes. I have a longstanding fascination with tarot imagery. Throw in my guilty appreciation for dating sim style gameplay and you can understand why I jumped at the chance to play Persona 4. Sure, the characters no longer shoot themselves in the head to cast magic spells but aside from that disappointing change, Persona 4 is a successful iteration on a formula designed to appeal specifically to me.

For those who have not played either game, each modern Persona game is essentially two different games that play off of each other. The first is a straight up roguelike dungeon crawl. You spend your time going deeper and deeper (or higher and higher) into a dungeon. Most floors are randomly generated each time you enter them so you can't just memorize the map. Each floor carries more deadly enemies, and more valuable treasures, than the last. Occasionally there is an extremely powerful boss monster.

The second game is a dating sim/visual novel. Each day is divided into discrete parcels of time that the character can spend enhancing statistics like "courage" and "understanding", earning money, or socializing with other characters some of whom are friends some of whom are potential love interests.

The two halves are tied together first by the main plot. Both games have periodic time limits where, if some threat is not dealt with in the dungeon, there are consequences for one character or another in the "real" world. These are essentially the chapters of the game.

The halves are also tied together by the central "persona" mechanic. The system is, in fact, fairly complex. It boils down to this: player can take on the personality aspects of people he's formed relationships with, and can use those aspects in combat. For example, if he makes friends with the athelete, he can choose to be strong and resilient. The more he understands the athelete, the more resilient he can be.

This core idea is a little obscured behind some arcane tarot references and a "gotta catch 'em all" list of gods and monsters. If you're really into mystical symbolism, and I happen to be, you might get it kick out of it. I could also see where you could find the amount of detail needlessly tedious. Then again, needlessly detailed tedium is a hallmark of JRPGs.

But I digress. My point is that the dating sim half of the game provides a compelling way to link the characters and caring about the characters and the story to the gameplay itself. In general, dating sim technology is a powerful engine that can be hooked to a variety of different game types.

For an example of this take a look at one of my guilty pleasure games - Dead of Alive Extreme Beach Volleyball. Here's what you need to know: yes, it is blatant exploitation of women and their bodies. However, the core game is also fundamentally fun. In a nutshell you have to get a partner to join your team and you have to keep the partner happy so that her AI will play well. The hardest partners to please are also the best players. And to sweeten the pot, you can play as any of the players so any swimsuits you give away you can then use when you play as the other character.

Dating sim style play hooks into motivations that I don't think are fully tapped yet for gaming, unlike experience systems, high scores, other more common motivation mechanics.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Game Design Notes: Warhammer Age of Reckoning - Public Quests

There is a common misconception that people like to play MMOs because people like to interact with other people when they play games. It's true that people like to play MMOs; World of Warcraft hit 11 million subscribers not too long ago. It's also true that people can find playing games with others extremely fulfilling -- my own experience with tabletop rpgs, Left 4 Dead, and even running instances with friends in World of Warcraft has taught me that. However, many players, myself included, often enjoy playing by themselves.

People play MMOs for the recognizition by other players, not for the interaction with them. City of Heroes' badge system and, more recently,WoW's achievement system, give nods to this style of play. Vanity mounts, titles, and sexy, glowing gear all make sure everyone around you knows how awesome you are.

There are, of course, exceptions. The first are large raiding guilds and the second are small groups like my guild: friends organized social-network style where every member of the group knows at least one other person face-to-face. These kinds of groups, however, have something that pick up groups do not: they're not full of strangers.

Pick up groups are terrible 90% of the time. I don't care if you're playing WoW, Team Fortress 2, or tabletop d&d. If you're playing with a bunch of people whom you havn't vetted then you have a high chance of ending up with someone who just doesn't mesh with your style of play -- or sometimes with any style of play. In the real world you would not go into business with four random people off the street. You wouldn't plan a roadtrip by posting a LFG notice on the local bullitin board (ok maybe you would, but you would probably be desperate and would expect some issues along the way; there's a reason hitchiking is illegal).

People form social groups for a reason: to find like minded people easily and to keep people you can't work with at arms length. While mainstream mmos are getting better, many games still throw you into a world and expect you to commit to partying with strangers. Noone wants to do this. Occasionally you get really desperate and either go looking for someone else to help you or answer some msg or plea to help. This usually results from the same kind of desparation that makes people think it's ok to ride in the same car with a stranger for 8 hours, and usually has about the same results.

Enter Warhammer: Age of Reckoning's Public Quests. In brief, these are quests that you can participate in simply by being in the right place. You don't need to join a group, you don't need to start an instance. All you have to do is show up and start killing guys.

These quests have multiple stages. The first stage is almost always soloable by someone of average level for the zone. The second stage is sometimes soloable but is often a 2 person gig. The third stage requires multiple people -- anywhere from 2 up depending on the difficulty and the scale.

Participating in these as a solo artist can eventually give you access to some nice reward gear. Being involved when the third leg of the quest is completed gets you in a drawing for some pretty swank gear.

The result of this is that solo players come to the first leg of the quest to defeat it. If there are a few solo players there together, they might stick around for the second leg. As happened with me twice, they might start hanging close to one another -- a tank tanking, a dps staying farther away and picking things off. If they succeed at closing out the third leg they might stick around for the last section, other players might even come in an join for the chance at the loot roll.

In other words, it encourages players to get to know each others play styles without putting up a requirement to party that gates so many single players. This is not a perfect solution, but it does provide not only something for solo players to do without committing time to strangers, it also provides a foundation for building relationships organically, the way real people do.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Game Design Notes:Castlevania Order of Ecclesia - Discrete Dungeons

The new Castlevania(Order of Ecclesia) now has a world map instead of the giant sprawling single castle -- a first for the descendants of Symphony of the Night. This is a big departure and is, as I see it, part of a larger movement.

Having played only a few hours of Ecclesia, There are some problems, but they're not as bad as I thought they'd be. For example, playing the same section feels a little more monotonous this way. This, however, is my own dementia I think and not a wider issue. I thought that I was going to be dissapointed with It's still really hard to get to certain places, and the individual chunks are still about as big as the distinct different parts of the castle, it's just way easier to get to them. In general, the advantages outweigh the bad.

Some of the benefits are obvious. First, it's easier to get everywhere, which I was skeptical about at first but now consider to be a complete win. From a game design standpoint, it makes it much easier to vary up the world as well. Fitting everything onto 1 map is a huge design constraint that this game just doesn't have to deal with.

There are, however, two BIG wins. First, you ALWAYS know where you're supposed to go next. Metroidvania games have in general suffered from at least one or two moments of game where you have to scratch your head and try to remember where, "mist could pass," after you get the ability to turn into mist. Some of these are good -- special weapons etc. reward players who remember all these little places. However, gating the main progress of the game with these is another matter entirely. The new design lets them put in special areas you can access with special powers without making overall game progress require you to routinely search the castle for places you might have missed.

The second big win is that successes come in smaller packages now. Previous castlevania games, and most video games for that matter, have put the boss at the end of the level in order to give the player a sense of accomplishment. Several Ecclesia bosses are at the BEGINNING of the level. This gives the player something to overcome right off the bat that gives them the juice to play through the rest of the level. After all, the boss doesn't need to be at the end if getting to the end is all the sudden its own little accomplishment.

Order of Ecclesia is not the only game to make the break towards bite-sized game play. I've already mentioned how the new Prince of Persia has an open world style, and how the sections of that open world are all bite-sized challenges. Persona 4 has done something similary, taking the single tower dungeon and broken it up into several smaller dungeons -- moving from Nethack to Pokemon Mystery Dungeon. It's a trend that started back sometime around the original Mario 64, and has, I think, grown as games have become more mainstream. By parcelling out wins this way the games remove the need for a certain delay of gratification on the part of the player and, I think, is part of the same trend that is making games easier as a whole. Is it good for games and gamers? Maybe. But no matter what I think, it's the direction the industry as a whole is going and is worth paying attention to.