Games, how they work, and how they should work

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Scary, I guess…

Well, it’s all hallows eve tomorrow, and the western world is getting worked up about, as it does every year. I’m sorry everyone, don’t stop getting into your costumes for me, but I find no enjoyment in it. It’s just an expensive excuse to make a fool of yourself at night, and needlessly scare yourself for “fun”. Still, I suppose it’s a reasonable excuse to  talk about scary games, and I do believe there’s an art to a successful horror game even though I don’t tend to play them. Yes I know, I don’t play horror games regularly so I’m in no position to judge, but I have played “scary” games and even downloaded the Amnesia demo just for this, which everyone knows is just about the scariest thing ever.

OK, so what makes a game scary? Even something as apparently simple as getting this right seems to be a little tricky for game designers. The reason is that it is actually kinda hard to get consistent. No seriously, no one is being stupid this time. The trouble is, as with many of the problems that film once faced, what works for media like books and film doesn’t apply to an interactive medium like games. There are three simple steps to making scary scenes in films and TV. Step 1, build tension, usually with slow panning shots or moving shadows the character never quite sees. Step 2, make the character and the audience jump with some sort of sudden action, often emphasised by a jump-cut. Step 3, either return to step 1 but with a clearer sense of danger, or use the cut to change scene or change to another character who hears the commotion. Lingering too long after the surprise often ruins the effect, so the cuts are fast enough to move on before the audience has recovered. Films always go at the same speed, each scene taking an exact amount of time, unless someone is messing around with the projector, so it is easier to control this progression. Games on the other hand leave the pace almost entirely in the control of the player, simply by their very nature. Amnesia actually plays with this as a method of keeping tension high. By forcing the player to slow down, by way of cut-scenes, no ability to run, and the sluggish controls when your ‘sanity’ is low. Not only does this keep the player going at roughly the right speed, but it puts them on edge because they don’t have the level of control they are used to.

The common mistake made by many games is to make everything happen too fast. Sure big freaky mutants and aliens jumping out at you from the dark is startling, but without making the player unsure as to when that’s going to happen makes them become accustomed to it. A synonym for fear is dread, and dread implies a sense of apprehension, an uneasiness in what is coming next. If you fill every moment with these kinds of sudden encounters, there’s no room for step 1, the building of tension. Of course, people still get scared by things jumping out at them (not ashamed to say myself included), but anyone with sufficient nerve can battle through the first 15-30 times can become immune to it. This effectively nullifies  the whole fear aspect of the game. All that has to be done is to mix it up a bit. Cut down number of encounters, build up to each one, show them what’s coming but not enough to know what it is, or even show them something irrelevant in the distance then spook them while they are looking.

Not sure what else I can add. Yes it’s a short one, and yes I probably got a lot of it wrong or made vast sweeping generalisations, but as I explained above, I don’t play these kinds of games. I just thought it was appropriate for the time of year and couldn’t think of anything else. Enjoy! Seriously this time, post some comments below, I want to hear what you guys think. Noticed anything in a genre of games that just doesn’t work except in a select few? Found a game that does work really well, but you have no idea why? Tell me about it and I’ll see what I can do. Until next week, bye everyone.

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Single Player Companions

Ahhh, it’s good to be back. Apart from the crazy weather (hail? In October?) and the massive distance from my friends and family, it’s all going well an uni. Now let’s get down to business. My internet hasn’t been particularly regular recently, so I’ve been falling back on my supply of single player games, and I’ve noticed a few small aspects of character development of companions that have quite significant consequences.

“You go on ahead, I’ll watch your back”

It’s pretty much a standard in single player games to have some sort of friendly AI. It’s pretty hard to depict the main character as a heroic protagonist if they kill everything in sight before if they are friendly or not, but in a very boring sea of similar assistant characters, there’s some strange stuff going on. I first noticed this when playing Half-Life 2 and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, which makes for a useful comparison as both use the same engine and both have similar combat environment*, regardless of the contrasting settings. Note, the following analysis of Dark Messiah is based on what we know about Leanna in early game (before you acquire the skull of shadows) as after that her presence gets… complicated.

*By “similar combat environment” I mean that in both games you have some goal to get to with a number of areas populated with scripted encounters, and your companion follows your lead when they are around,  I don’t mean the mechanics like the grav gun/kicking etc.

When playing Half-Life 2 (and episodes 1 and 2) you go through periods of going alone and with Alyx. As you do this, you establish an emotional bond with her and she becomes just as important to the mission as you, despite not having the trusty HEV. This inevitably makes her soft a squishy compared to Gordon, but her tech skills and dead-eye with a pistol are invaluable. This subtly pushes the player to protect her at all costs with very little prompting. This also, at least in my own experience, makes me want to get through the solo bits as quickly as possible, which helps with the pacing (as most of the story happens with Alyx). Later, in episode 2, (spoiler alert, but if you haven’t played HL2, why the hell not? Go buy it now!) Valve really took advantage of this bond you develop and make you risk your life, and the lives of some rebels and vortigaunts, to save her life. All in all, a brilliant example of character development and emersion.

Now imagine that Alyx was even squishier, hardly did any damage to enemies (yet is suddenly very powerful after you’ve nearly died 4 times in killing everything is sight) and every enemy that could see her swarmed to and killed her instantly. Everything you do with her is now a pain as she has become a liability. That’s exactly what Leanna is in Dark Messiah. Because of some story complications that become apparent quite early in the game, the developers seem to rush Leanna’s character building, giving the player a rather shallow view of her (more on this below). The really detrimental aspect though is her total redundancy in battle. She claims to be this powerful apprentice of one of the greatest mages in the land, yet she only ever uses her power to move around heavy things with her mind at really convenient moments in the story (and you can’t, despite the fact that you too can have a telekinesis spell really early) yet she never thinks to pick up heavy things and put them on top of the fleshy things with swords. Another spoiler warning, (and this is pretty big so skip ahead if you want to play DM. Highlight to view) she suddenly realises her true power when she’s the one you have to fight. Funny, isn’t it? So instead of actually being useful in combat, or even just holding her own when they enemy get too close, she just says “right behind you, Sareth!” Everything we learn about her in the story is disjoint with everything we experience in game-play. What this all means is while I want to get back to Alyx as quickly as I can, I find I want to get away from Leanna as much as possible, and relish the times I do.

“I THINK I WUV YOU!”

So most of that could’ve been fixed  by just letting her just kill stuff (there’s hardly a shortage of solo combat elsewhere in the game) but how her character is developed outside of combat is far from perfect. First, let’s take a look at Alyx’s development as a benchmark. First she saves you, then she respects you as a scientist (without kissing proverbial ass or being patronising) and as you get in and out of dangerous situations together, her affection for your grows and becomes apparent at the same rate as yours for her. This is key, it happens at about the same rate. Contrary to romantic film standards, true affection (but not infatuation) between 2 people, be it romantic or just friendship and trust, is generally mutual. Nothing sucks more than feeling like you have a connection with someone but they make it apparent that they don’t feel the same way. Leanna’s affection, as mentioned above, is very one-sided and happens way too fast. That’s not a spoiler either. It starts from your very first meeting and repeats without anything advancing. Without going into too much detail and making this thing devilishly long, she starts out flirting with you badly as she is shy, then you help her out and she flirts badly again, saying herself that she’s “not very good at this” before doing it some more in the middle of a dangerous mission.

I think that’s enough for now. I’m in danger of entering a blind rage and becoming (even more) incoherent. If you would like me to become a raging ball of critique, do tell me and I can expand more on the problems with Dark Messiah. I must say though, I love the game despite its short-falls. The mechanics are brilliant and interesting from a development point of view, but it hardly has the narrative power it feels like it should have. Until next time, so long! I really need some sort of closing catchphrase that isn’t cheesy, if that isn’t an oxymoron. Comments, write them!

MOBA games and the Free to Play model

Hello again! It’s been a while hasn’t it? What have I been doing? Oh, you know. Fretting about A- level results, getting ready for uni, the usual. Anyway,  Let’s get going. This week I’ll go over the games behind the recent boom in the popularity of DotA clones. I’ve also written a guest review-type-thing of the 2 current leaders of the genre, League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth, for Buy That Game. You can read it here. It covers the basics of how to play, whereas this will go into how their finer differences affect the whole experience of playing each game. If you have no idea what these games are, I recommend you read the review first.

Finished? Good! Now, in that review, I gave over the impression that League of Legends is  an over-all better game for the beginner. It’s a shame really, as I think having the choice of the 2 different takes on the genre really quite interesting, and the games were never really in direct opposition. I’m not just being picky here, I actually think S2 Games, the makers of Heroes of Newerth have got the idea of ‘free to play’ all wrong. To see why, we have to look at both games beginnings. DotA was a pretty hard-core games, it was built in an RTS game by a skilled RTS player for skilled RTS players. It’s quite a interesting piece of game design, blending RPG style levelling and stats with RTS style tactics and recourse control, but that’s for another time (maybe when Dota 2 comes out?). Some time passes, and Riot Games and S2 Games show up and make their respective titles. Back then, and this is the important bit, Heroes of Newerth was built as a “regular” game, with a single flat fee model, whilst League of Legends was to be free to play. They each went their separate ways, with HoN sticking with the original DotA mechanics and LoL updating almost everything, but suddenly HoN changed to the free to play model, much like games such as TF2 did not so long ago. What a mistake.

The problem is not simply that they changed their minds, but that they did so with seemingly little planning. A game like DotA has quite a steep and unforgiving learning curve,  so an enormous void sits between new and experience players. Now, HoN stuck to the original DotA design, including all the small things that add up to make it an intricate system that’s hard to master, which was good as their target market was ex-DotA-players. LoL on the other hand went after the more casual players or people who had never played either because they never had the chance or they were too intimidated by the finer complexities. Now, with those target audiences in mind, the original market models each developer chose makes perfect sense. LoL couldn’t scare the very people they were targeting away by forcing them to pay up-front, and HoN charging people acted as a sort of passive screening process, only letting through the people who were dedicated enough to make the game pay for itself.

OK, so S2 made a mistake, but what’s the real damage? They’ve widened their target audience surely? Well, yes, you could argue that it is doing them any harm and that their player number are going up. It’s not really that simple though. Before the change to free to play, you probably could’ve bought HoN and worked hard and got good, but now the rather butt-hurt community make it hard for you to keep your self-confidence or your patience, and the fact that you didn’t pay for it means you have no compelling reason to keep playing. Then you go to all your chums and tell them about your horrible experience, you all go and get LoL but you forget to cancel your HoN account. Now, S2 Games have useless statistics and are probably down a couple of thousand particularly touchy players. Yes, I know, I’m blowing it out of proportion, and yes, I know the player numbers are probably genuinely increasing, but I’m sure by not as much as they were anticipating.

What can we take from this? Don’t rush anything, ever. Valve were probably planning the switch long before they introduced hats and random item drops. Don’t assume it’ll work, it takes planning and, more importantly, testing. Just because you have a micro-transaction store doesn’t mean you’ll make lots of money from it, and finally remember you can lose parts of your demographic as well as acquire new ones.

I’m not sure when I’ll be able to write another one of these, university is going to be pretty hectic for a while. Still, be sure that I will write another one eventually. See you all then!

P.S. Don’t forget to check out my review (and all future posts!) at http://buythatgame.wordpress.com/

(permalink directly to the post: http://buythatgame.wordpress.com/2011/08/29/guest-review-league-of-legends-and-heroes-of-newerth/)

 

 

 

The DLC debate

Welcome back! Long time no see, eh? Before we jump in let’s catch up. College is over, I’m free to relax, blog a little and generally get ready for the mammoth that is university, which I will defeat starting in September. Anyway, in the mean time, I can write more posts on this blog, and I’ve even written a guest piece for the blog buythatgame.wordpress.com and plan to do a few more. It’s a site that reviews games that you can buy on a budget. Right, now let’s get to the juicy topic of this week’s blog.

Y’ALL NEED TO LEARN SOME ECONOMICS

I recently had a discussion with a friend regarding the Wii motion plus device. My friend, who in the interest of anonymity we shall not call Leah but instead Scott, was complaining that something like that should either have been part of the original hardware or not used at all. Scott clearly doesn’t understand economic rivalry. Basically, in the conversation, I explained that Nintendo could have easily released the hardware built in, but it would have delayed the release date and that would have had disastrous consequences on sales. Then Scott mentioned that xbox have free updates and that lead to DLC, and how DLC is basically the same thing as hardware add-ons. This got me thinking. Why are so many people adverse to paying for extras, and why do many companies still not take the time and effort to fix bugs regularly?

Bug fixes are easy, so let’s start with those. Developers don’t generally get paid to make good games, they get paid to make games that look good, so that they sell a lot of units. Publishers just suck as much money out of a game as possible then make the developer make a sequel. Keeping a game running is expensive, but the long-term profit is small, so publishers have resorted to cut-and-run tactics. The industry is suffering artistically because of it, but that’s for another blog post. The other problem is logistical. If you’ve got the same game spanning a number of platforms, you want to keep them all consistent, but consoles are harder to apply game updates to because most of the game data is on a disc.

There are several mentalities regarding DLC. I’m just going to say DLC, but the same applies to hardware and micro-transaction. First off, we have the ‘against’ argument, or what I like to call the ‘cheapskate argument’. It is similar to Scott’s argument, and usually goes along the lines of “I paid for the game, so why should I have to pay more for all this stuff?” Next, we have what I call the ‘money-bags argument’ which is simply “you don’t HAVE to buy the stuff, so what harm is it doing?” Finally, there is the developer/publisher view. Creating DLC means you can squeeze even more money from the game, which pays for those pesky updates, thus keeping players around for longer and get even more sales! Cheapskates, you’re out of luck I’m afraid. DLC is here to stay, and all the whining in the world won’t change that. Still, do comment below on your thoughts about DLC.

As a last note, since writing this, I noticed Extra Credits’ new video. I covers micro-transactions in games and, as always, it’s good stuff. Check it out. http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/extra-credits/3689-Microtransactions

Aah, it’s good to be back! Come back soon for the next one, and don’t forget to check out bythatgame.wordpress.com!

The un-hackable PSN

Welcome back! I know it’s been a while, but let’s get cracking straight away!

I’m sure all of you know about the recent system outage of the Playstation Network. I saw something like this coming, but why didn’t Sony, or at least why didn’t they act?

PRIDE COMES BEFORE A FALL

One statement. The claim of being impossible to hack. Never tell a bored programmer with too much time that they can’t hack into something. I’m not saying don’t make things un-hackable, just a little forethought by the PR team could have easily prevented a major attack. Advertise user security, not the inability to mod the console in any way. On the subject of security, the PSN internal system was apparently not very hi-tech. I’m no expert, and the details are hazy, but people were able to break into developer version of PSN store and using fictional card details they could buy anything, and it wouldn’t cost them a penny. That’s just simply absurd, for a company wanting to keep everything private and in their ownership yet they kept development tools functional (even if a little hacking was needed to reveal it). If Sony had just fixed all the problems right there, “Anonymous” would probably have let them be and eventually whittled away into nothing more than a memory. They didn’t. Never piss off a community of programmers by suing one of them because he wanted an open source operating system on an “un-hackable” device.

So that didn’t work, but what does? An excellent example of a company that works with its community members rather than defending against them is Valve. The company is basically built on the philosophy that community modders are better game/content makers than they are. This doesn’t mean that they are immune though. There was a major leak of everything they were working on for Half-Life 2, but this was actually illegal and the perpetrator was jailed, whereas Sony’s issue was not in breach of any law just the terms of use. Anyway, this didn’t harm them in the long term as you might expect, as it made them realise how poor the game was and a massive effort was put into it to make it an incredible sequel. Now they have a thriving community of modders (including myself) and a clear boundary is laid out. Whatever Valve is working on is not worth stealing yet, but what’s done is free to use/edit. This kind of relationship is a healthy one and has proved very beneficial to both Valve and successful modders.

Creating allies is safer than building high walls. Giving people free stuff to use within limits is far easier to control than keeping everything out of reach while shouting about it.

As you may know, exams are starting soon for me. This means I may not get time to write blog posts as frequently as I’d like, so don’t expect regular posts but keep a eye open!

Not Just Toys

Games can be more than toys that everyone judges you for playing in your late twenties when you should really be looking for a job. Games and game techniques can be used in the “real world” to generate startling results.

PERPENDICULAR TO THE RADIUS

That’s a tangent to you non-maths-type people, and that means tangential learning. Tangential learning is really more of a side-effect of creating references in games or films etc., but can be used intentionally. How many of you watched 300 and then decided to read more about the Battle of Thermopylae or Spartan history in general? That’s what tangential learning can do, and it’s effective because the information is not being forced on the audience. This incidental tangential learning (that’s a mouthful) is already present in many games, but there are some out there that use it deliberately, and there is definitely more potential.

ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: LEFT THE HOUSE

We are beginning to see a new technique in commerce arise, and it stems from some great aspects of the gaming world. It’s already working its way into advertising, and is superseding the old method, which is shown not to work well any more. Earning or winning something when you buy a particular brand is a much better reason to purchase it over a rival brand than if they just say they are better. A prime example of this is the McDonalds Monopoly Game. It persuades customers to collect rare items by purchasing products in an attempt to win big prizes. You could also argue that BOGOF deals use the same psychology. Rephrase it along the lines of “Extra [product] when you the same [product] between [allocated time window]” and you can at least begin to see the similarity with achievements. Of course advertising is a rather shallow use of “gamification” as I’ve heard it called, but it is not the only application. Imagine it being used to motivate workers or get them to do over time, or school children to do their homework, or any of your own ideas.

Both these phenomena are incredibly powerful, and that power is just beginning to be understood. Expect to see more these kinds of effects soon, but until next week, farewell!

Character Design

Having explored Immersion (somewhat) I now hope you all understand it enough so that I can drop it into the future topics from time to time. This week though, as you may guess by the title, we are moving on character design, mainly in single-player games. Sit tight, pay attention but most importantly, enjoy!

WAY BACK MACHINE

Some of the greatest and most loved characters in games have come from the arcade and early console games of old. I’ll give you a moment to think of a list of some of the most known game characters of all time… Done? You probably have at least one of Pac-man, Mario or Sonic on there, but why are they so iconic and how do they manage to stay in the public eye? The story of Mario best illustrates good character design of the time, so I’ll quickly tell those of you who don’t know it. Nintendo where in a rough spot and needed a new franchise, so in a single lunch break a group of developers came up with a new spin on the popular platformer game. A simple game with an eye-catching art style was called for, and so the red dungaree wearing Italian plumber was born, with his bulbous nose and bushy ‘tache leading the way. Each of aspect was a necessity given the technology at the time, but their inherent simplicity made the character of Mario appeal to the public (the uncanny valley principle again).

BACK TO THE FUTURE

Modern games have to try a bit harder. Highly stylised and pixelated games exist, and can be very successful, but generally only work when coming out of indie studios. A common trap that many larger studios fall into is to carry the old-school, stereotype-based character design techniques straight into the big flashy engine. This is understandable though as many great characters have made the move into higher definition and 3D fantastically, not excluding our friend Mario, but it’s a very hit-and-miss area. With the rise in graphics quality in modern games, developers have to look for a different set of guidelines (rather than hard-set rules) on which to mould their characters. The protagonist of any story should instantly make a connection to the player that grows through the whole adventure, so a one dimensional guy with incomprehensible goals just isn’t going to cut it. As the world of game design gets better and better, the more it behaves like the traditional media like books and film. Writers are increasingly being needed in the games industry, as they simply understand the workings of a great narrative more than a game developer

So there you go English students, I’ve just opened up a new career path for most of you. Enjoy!

Until next week, farewell!

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