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The Tutor System

A typical narrative structure in games is to have an opening cinematic as a prologue, a tutorial, another cinematic that establishes the setting and character, then you trade off telling story and having the player play levels. If your narrative branches, those branches are actually contained within the narrative itself, simply having you pick a “narrative track” at defined points. The big answer to this has been to have story bits, disconnected portions of story that the player discovers, or doesn’t, at their own pace. In between the two is Bioware’s solution of larger but totally required story bits that the player can take in any order.

And then there’s my brainchild.

The Tutor System.


Constructing The Narrative

You begin by laying down a large arc, we’ll call this the ideal scenario. Then we design the game without any attached story, then we test the game without any attached story and have the testers send us back replays. From these we take the players that performed the most optimally and write the story of their play through using the ideal scenario as context. We take those that failed and start searching them for common points of failure, we then write stories where the players failings are commented on as the failings of the main character, and sympathetic characters give advice for how to come back from there. Then we go back through our scenarios and find milestones that are common to all or nearly all players, these milestones become testing points where we place in scripted events. If the player has performed well to this point, they are given a reward and a greater responsibility, for instance they may be awarded with a new colony that needs to be saved from a desperate shortage. If on the other hand, the player has failed to perform to the ideal then they are given an easier scenario to handle but one that won’t reward them nearly as well, the player is given some free ships their clan scored in the colony’s foreclosure sale. This creates a new story line, that of the ideal ideal, a player who has met the ideal conditions at every point.

Pros

It’s a game. No really the story itself is a telling of how the player played the game, meaning the story and the game are always in near perfect agreement.

We already keep track of these statistics, how else can we have achievements for walking 2 miles?

All the writing is done after the game is already done, meaning we can be inclusive and get the community in on fleshing out the writing.

Writing can be done one or two paragraphs at a time, we really don’t need or even want a novel at the various points.

You can pace your writing so that it fits the game, being laconic when the player is busy and being long winded when the player isn’t moving very quickly.

It can be relatively personal, since you know what it takes to come up with certain statistical combinations, you can talk more or less directly to the player about what their options are.

Finding holes and improvements in your narrative becomes part of your bug reporting process.

It never really ends.

This is a great system for Strategy Games and RPGs.

This creates a situation where writers will be learning how to write for games, not how to adapt novel and movie story lines to games. There will be a need for structures that match how a player interacts with the game, and supports those interactions.

Cons

All the writing is done after the game is already done, so you are never going to get your writing done early. Also patching the game may break your entire story.

Lots of writing…. lots and lots and lots and lots and lots…

We rarely store that much data right now, there’s a big difference between storing a single score variable and some semblance of that score’s history.

Voice actors, if you have any, will either hate you for calling them every couple of weeks or love you for giving them permanent employment.

There won’t always be a story, since scenarios you haven’t had people actually play yet won’t have any checks built into them.

You’re going to have to spend a massive amount of time sorting and “reading” play throughs, and that’s not going to scale well.

It never really ends.

It can be more difficult to keep the story cohesive with itself, especially since the writer can’t really force the player to follow a script.

Before I begin, this could be seen as another way of talking about Horizontal vs. Vertical design. As well, what I’m pointing out isn’t “what’s wrong” with anything, it’s just my observations of what things are. This post was inspired by Spinks post about obsession with choices, and may be considered something of an open response to that as well.

I’d like to begin by focusing on the differences between two games that are very common in Japan, Shogi and Go. Specifically the different balances in creative versus technical options available to players at a given time. A creative option could be thought of as one that is asymmetrically balanced, though the choice is made between two different options neither one is inherently better or worse than the other. A technical option on the other hand is where the choice is between something of high value and something of low value, in other words even if there isn’t necessarily a “right” choice there is one that is mathematically/logically better.

In Shogi, the creative vs. technical options are kept in near perfect balance on the board, though are traded between players as the game progresses. To capture a piece in Shogi means to have that piece to play yourself almost anywhere on the board. This means that as a player begins to loose they are forced into a corner where their choices are limited to various technical options to improve their situation, while every time the opponent captures one of their pieces it increases that opponents creative options. If you were to change the king in Shogi from being the Achilles heel of the team to instead being completely invincible, it is conceivable you could have a game of Shogi that both never ends and continues to generate interest.

In contrast Go has exponentially higher options from the outset, and to begin with they are all creative options. Experienced players know of technically good openers, but even in that case they have to choose from the set of openers they know which is a creative choice. As stones are placed the number of total options reduces and the ones that remain become increasingly technical. After both players have finished staking out their opening positions comes the central game where the creativity and technicality hovers around the sweet spot between the two. There are many creative options, and many technically correct options. Having a good result depends on you understanding how to use creative options to situate yourself somewhere that your own particular set of technical skills gives you an advantage. Towards the end however, the number of creative options sharply declines and is instead the players vie for advantage through finding best technical moves they can make.

When Go enters the endgame the board metaphorically calcifies. If you kept playing without passing you could eventually bring the board to the point where the only open spaces are the ones that have been completely closed from entry. Barring any spots of infinite repetition, the game will always end simply due to how pieces interact with each other. You couldn’t change a single rule and continue the game infinitely, since the very act of playing destroys options.

If I had to say which game WoW, EQ2, and LoTRO remind me of, it’s Go. The player begins assailed with options, while veterans will recognize some as better than others in the long run the simple truth they are all creative options to begin with. As the players gain levels they enter a sweet spot where there are technically correct choices, but there is also a good variety and some options that are purely creative. Towards the end, the game calcifies, builds are no longer good enough or better, they are right and wrong, classes are right and wrong, and the methods of following through the final bits of progression are left almost entirely to technical options. In time, the board is essentially calcified with nothing but the infinitely repeatable Ko moves left.

I don’t think any MMOs I’ve played to date remind me of Shogi. There are certainly some closer than others, but I don’t think any of them have that tit for tat mentality down. Far too much inflation. Of course, that may not be a bad thing, Shogi could be a terrible MMO.

I mentioned recently on a post by Syncaine that I felt the people who create Wow-a-likes and the people who could resolve the issues of wasted content in the lower level areas were simply not the same people. I think it’s important for me to get to the root of that distinction. Hopefully, by the end, the flaw I’m pointing out will seem obvious enough to stand out as a good measure for future MMOs and VWs.

I’ve been in the center of the debate between worldly worlds, and game worlds, between virtual worlds and MMOs many times over and what I’m consistently impressed with is that we’re having slightly the wrong discussion. What it comes down to most specifically is that of a competition between two fundamental business concepts, that of the creation of a product, and the running of a service. What dominates the AAA North American MMO space right now is the sort of unholy union, so to speak, that publishers have reached between their concept of a product driven business and that of actually having to run a service. Since they are primarily product it isn’t entirely surprising that, by and large, the service end is treated as the red headed step child.

This creates a secondary battle between placeness and gameness. You see, the goal of a product driven business is to release the initial game with a certain amount of stickiness, hopefully full on addiction, to pay the intervening time frame until you can release another product. The goal of a service driven business is to create a ‘place’ that people want to be, and then to use that place to sell products, advertise, and/or charge admission. While a service may benefit from a more addictive style as well, it’s single most valuable asset is positive word of mouth, and putting that in danger for a little more stickiness could cost you everything.

Another difference is that a product should always end leaving you wanting more. This is how you make money on sequels and expansion packs after all. The goal of a place is to be all inclusive, to fill as many wants as possible so that people are more likely to remain loyal to you. In order to create these environments you also have to focus on very different players. For this we’ll use the Bartle types, despite their flaws, just to simplify the taxonomy somewhat.

The primary audience of any product will always be the achievers, those who want it for it’s own use and to excel within it’s use. The secondary target would be explorers, those who are interested in seeing it in it’s entirety. You may still want some socialites to build buzz for you, but they are more likely to strain your system without seeing very much content so their presence is more a marketing investment than anything. Killers are last place, to one extent catering to another audience is always a good thing, on the other, killers are more likely to drive away other players or cause harassment issues. Killers are probably only given serious representation now because they simply make up one of the largest minorities in MMOs.

For a service your audience priorities are somewhat different and the primary target will always be the socialites. Not only do they create good marketing, but they also drive retail sales and will work to improve the experience for other users. From here you have a fair amount of freedom and it depends significantly more on your team’s specialization. A focus on killers can give your socialites and achievers purpose, see EVE online for an example. If you have a team capable of constant content output or immense amounts of user created content, explorers are a very viable option for secondary focus, ala Second Life.

The simple fact of the matter is that everything in the MMO genre is a service, but are being given the treatment of products. Those who make WoW-a-likes are banking on people wanting more of the same product, which is a complete fallacy, since they are trying to create a competing service. It’s hard to blame them too much though, since it was WoW that was continuing on the mistake in the first place. I tend to believe part of the reason for WoW’s success was primarily because they improved on the fundamental experience they were giving to their players compared to most games released before it.

This dichotomy also comes up over and over again in RMT debates. When RMT is discussed surrounding a product, the great fear is that it will be used as a means of assisting people to “win the game”. I can’t entirely blame them since given a product driven design, most designers will attempt to design micro products as tools for playing the game. However, it’s important for both designers and players to understand that within a service, your most effective line of sales are things that increase the player’s enjoyment of the place, and are best targeted towards socialites. New looks, more ‘comfortable’ areas, bigger houses and better decorations are probably your best bet. These will add to the enjoyment of your service without, assuming you had even a general plan for this while designing the game, disrupting other portions of your service.

While this will automatically trend you towards “worldliness” there isn’t any reason to limit these lessons to sandbox games. Free Realms for instance is one of the best examples of this thought process when dedicated to a more gamey experience. Likewise, it also doesn’t mean that mini-games are the wave of the future, just that they are something which shouldn’t be dismissed or underestimated.

As great a divide as there seems to be between the two, our games do not need to go through incredible changes to come more in line with the reality of services. In some senses, the more difficult battle is simply in forcing both industry vets and players to unlearn certain reactions that have been conditioned in over decades of community segregation. For starters among players, it has to at least be understood that social players are as much a valid part of the game as the achievers/killers. As for designers there are more lessons than I can count, the importance of UI, world design needs to go back to the drawing board entirely, horizontal design focus, project scale being proportional to demographics, point of contact needs to be improved tremendously, and perhaps controversially I think senior community management needs to be a part of the design team. But the final play experience could change only subtly from what it is now at the end of all that, it’s just that those changes would be in the places that really mattered.

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Frustration

I’m sorry to any of my new readers, haven’t exactly been in best foot forward mode lately. This post, probably isn’t going to be a great exception, but it’s just eating away at me inside. Every post, every comment, everything I write is colored by a certain amount of snark over these same underlying issues.

It’s funny, I’ve been working with clay again lately. When I was a kid I worked with clay to relieve stress, you see I never argued with my parents even though I often disagreed with them. In fact I never argued with anyone. I hadn’t started seriously drawing yet, had done some poetry but I didn’t like frustration poetry, I still don’t like my writing when I’m frustrated. So I molded clay, some air dry, some kiln fire, all mixed together into this sort of blue-gray mess that I’d work around in my hands, never really wanting to fix into any one shape too long.

Lately, I’ve had drawing to help me along. I always figured it would help me with my work, and be something I could share. For a while I thought about working in art, but I’m not competitive, just plain not that good. So it’s been subsumed into a greater pursuit. And it is a great pursuit, there are days that all I wish for is that I could let someone else see inside my mind. Then I realize what a jaded misanthrope I’ve become. I’m not sure I’d wish this on anybody.

I’d work with the clay at night in bed. In the dark, just seeing with my hands. I liked people, but I hardly had enough for huge amounts of detail. Legs, torso, I liked working out that big shoulder bone on the back, and the ankle was always interesting. I suppose that’s how I was able to make the skull I made the other day. Hardly what one might call brutally realistic, but understandable, all the right pieces in pretty much the right places.

I was raised to be a problem solver. See the problem, examine the problem, learn what you could about why something worked to begin with and why it wasn’t working now. A broad knowledge base helped, a solution to a problem could come from any number of fields. After coming from Neveron into WoW, I saw my own growing dissatisfaction. Things I didn’t like, things I hated, things that just got to me. Problem found, and better yet a problem in an area I like. Information began to coalesce, forming into a new stream of consciousness merging old, sometimes original sometimes not, settings and mechanics into a new form as I plumbed the depths of my knowledge for working answers.

The funny part about clay is that I use a lot of the skills initially developed in it in Maya. There is one particular shape that has always evaded me in Maya. I’ve only produced even a close facsimile once. The shape of an Angreal’s helmet. I can produce it on paper in an instant, perfect in every detail. Voluminous, three dimensional on the paper, but not in Maya. I’ve been trying for a couple days now to make that helmet in clay. It’s just not coming out, even though it should, it simply is not taking form.

It was August or September of 07 when the final setting emerged, perfect in every detail for a virtual world. In world explanations for immortality, for why the players existed, for why they would not understand or have already been part of the existing lore. Trans-dimensional travel at it’s very core, allowing for every server to have a forward moving timeline, for them to have events that fundamentally change their very nature. And allow server transfers, hell for a while I was thinking it could be as simple as walking through a portal any time you wanted… now I can’t decide yea or nay on that one. One shard, many shards, I’d have a working answer for both, and a working middle ground. Combat made sense, ARMOR made sense instead of being the puddle of half understood garbage that plagues rpgs. It was magic incarnate, and it wasn’t until February of 08 that I penned it into existence for others to see. The final problem stood before me, creation.

The great insoluble problem. I threw myself into design projects, knowing I needed more design know how, more skills before anyone would take me seriously. The knowledge from my early prototypes of Birth were fresh in my mind. A character who’s conceit allows the minimum friction between player and character, because they are a blank slate and don’t have amnesia. I made mercenaries, and it died as nobody play tested it. Too complex, too inaccessible, I could do better.

Of course in the mean time I talked a bit about what I saw in the industry. For instance I stated that anyone who competed with WoW was going to have to handle a max of 500k players. I think Age of Conan and WAR disproved the exact number, but not the idea. They did prove growth in the market though.

So I created a management game. A few bugs, no ending state, but more accessible. It was a toy one could play with, but I never did complete the design… I don’t remember why exactly. I began writing more, drawing more, programming more. I could do all to begin with, but not enough for a project of this size. More, and better, all of them, hour after hour, sometimes in states of mania or utter catharsis. My writing improved, my drawing improved but I lost a key element… my scanner. I no longer had a way to display my hand drawn works, my best works, for people to see or critique. Only those I was making in a brand new medium on my pen tablet. Far too small for drawing, it was more like painting and the bad news was, I knew jack shit about painting. Slight tremor in my hand being magnified far beyond what could ever be seen on paper didn’t help much either.

I went to school again… I’d consistently failed out of all but five classes my first two years. This time was different, straight As in three classes, and then the money ran out. No job, no school, more time to work, and more time to let depression sink in. It’s strange how these days I have so much time, and yet can hardly use any of it because I simply don’t have the energy. Part of me thinks I should be out there job hunting for a part time job, it’s the right thing to do after all, get work, support myself. But I can’t bring myself to do it. Can’t bring myself to come out to a new set of people, not knowing if I’ll get to keep the job. Having just enough money to start thinking about transitioning and putting everything else in life on hold for the next three or four years. Or worse, trying to do it in my parents house and dealing with that stress every day. Watching myself waste every paycheck staving off depression and spending all my free time recharging so I can face dealing with people I don’t know or even like on somebody else’s terms. Dealing with the fact that it is just a delay tactic, that I could easily enough end up like my mom, delaying my whole life away.

School has crossed my thought sometimes. Not the one I went to, god I couldn’t walk into that building and face those people again unless my life depended on it. But school has a cost I can’t ever recoup, the years spent in it. My dream is ahead of the curve now, but I’m already seeing pieces that I put real soul into creating slipping out into the games around me. Chronicles of Spellborn released in Europe last year with only minor differences from my parallel thought based combo system that I finalized last October, but had in rough draft form for several months before. Free Realms took so many of the same questions that founded Shattered World, and simply found different answers for them. Answers for a different target audience. I thought I might still be ahead of the blog-i-verse, but not as certainly anymore. Any more delay and I’m going to have to watch pieces of my dream taunt me from every side for years, maybe decades. I’ve seen that too, in my dad, and I’ve seen what it’s done to him… what it’s doing to me.

And so I have the great dilemma. No route to success, no palatable road to tomorrow. Just a big lump of blue-gray clay all molded up into a lumpy sphere, taunting me with the vision of what it could be… what I should be able to make it. Here I am, though, writing a fucking blog post. Wasting my time pondering how to make an interim project whose prototype was so stunning it spawned complete and utter silence into something that can fund some sort of start up.

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Mechanic: Prayer

I haven’t sat down and designed a full mechanic in a while. Let’s see if I still have the touch.

Variations:
Blessing
Curse
Sealing
Summoning

Sub-Mechanics:
Alignment
Sacrifice
Lore

Alignment is your relative standing with a particular Spirits. A spirit you have a good alignment with will grant you more power than one with neutral or enemy status. Alignment is a floating scale between 0 and 100.

Sacrifice is the ability to power the prayer yourself by sacrificing something of high enough power/worth to activate the prayer. Levels of sacrifice are item, power item, drop of blood, ounce of blood, digit, appendage, incarnation (you will respawn), soul digit (permanent), soul appendage (permanent), soul (permadeath).

Lore is your ability to decipher the make-up a prayer from it’s effects. The exact source prayer is needed in order to counter it’s effect.

Lash Back happens when the prayer is invalid or the power source does not cover the whole cost of the prayer. Lash Back will begin a countdown, at which point the character must either sacrifice items enough to make up the power, or it will be sacrificed from their body automatically to cast the prayer. A powerful enough Lash Back can consume the supplicant’s soul. If even the soul of the supplicant is not enough to pay for the prayer, the prayer will simply fizzle at end of countdown, and the player will take a 60 second silence effect.

Basic Prayer Mechanic:
A prayer is something the player says in chat. It cannot be a macro, it must be typed directly.

/prayer [prayer type] [aoe var] [power level var] [effect] [duration var] [power source] [target]
/dispell [target] [power source] [duration] [effect] [power level] [aoe] [prayer type] [your power source]

Prayer Words (making it up as I go):
Au – Blessing
Ku – Curse
Lu – Sealing
Hu – Summoning

Oon – Self
Ion – 5 meters
Hoon – 10 meters
Hion – 15 meters
Goon – 20 meters
Gion – 25 meters
Foon – 30 meters
Fion – 35 meters
(r – 4, i – 5, y – 6, j – 7, t – 8, e – 9)
Wano – Target

Ooa – Flea
Ioa – Cantrip
Hoa – Lesser
Foa – Minor
Ioa – Standard
Joa – Higher
Eoa – Greater
Hooa – Greatest
HHoa – Legendary

Ori – Instant
Hri – 1/10 second
Hori – 1 second
Iori – 5 seconds
Hoori – 10 seconds
AriHri – 1 hour
AriGri – 2 hours
EriHri – 1 day
EriGri – 2 days
Era – Permanent

Shutho – Strengthen/Weaken
Whutho – Speed Up/Slow Down
Dhatho – Increase Health/Decrease Health
Hitho – Heal/Damage
Kitho – Cure Blind/Blind
Iatho – Luck Up/Luck Down
Motho – Cure Silence/Silence
(more to come, I’m sure)

Blessings:
Blessings are always buffs. A blessing gains additional power if the spirit powering it is a sympathetic aspect to the effect being used. A blessing may target a player, an object or players/objects in a range around the supplicant.

Curses:
Curses are always debuffs. A curse can only be powered by sacrifice. Items that are naturally sympathetic to the effect will give a bonus in power when sacrificed. Items imbued with power from a god with sympathetic attributes give an additional bonus. A curse can target a player, an object, a place, or players/objects in a range around the supplicant.

Seal:
A seal can be either a buff or a debuff. A seal can be powered by anything, but gains no bonuses from sympathetic power sources, instead sympathetic power sources make it a buff, while antipathetic sources make it a debuff. A Neutral power source will trigger Lash Back. Seals effect everything within target range. A seal may target a player or a place. A soul-seal is a seal that has been powered by sacrificing a portion of the soul, the sacrificed soul material is not destroyed until the seal is destroyed. (Sacrificed soul parts also cannot be used as a power source)

Summons:
A summon calls a player or ally from one location to another. Summons may be powered by anything, and are cheaper if target is sympathetically aligned to power source used. The syntax for a common summon is simpler, requiring only “[prayer type] [power source] [target]“. A summon with full syntax is considered a summoning soul-seal, it can only be powered by sacrificing a portion of the soul and can only target mobs. Summoning Soul-Seals allow the player to summon the target anywhere any time at minimal cost, the summon is then capable of growing more powerful, and gives it’s summoner a natural buff when not summoned. A supplicant must have good alignment with the mob’s patron spirit, or it can cause the seal to fail or a lingering debuff. (When a player is summoned, they have the option of not accepting the summon, this will not cause lash-back with the summoner.)

Imbuements:
An Imbuement is technically a seal, though considered separate for our purposes. Imbuements can only target items, and have no outright effect. An Imbuement places power of the type used as a source into an item, allowing it to be sacrificed for that power at a later date. If it is a weapon, then the player will gain damage benefits related to it’s type. Those benefits are proportionally limited by the players alignment with the source of the power imbued in the object. A weapon Imbuement that involves the sacrifice of a player’s body or soul is instead proportionally limited by time spent holding the weapon and number of times it is used to attack and can only effect damage output. An item can only be imbued once.

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SMT: Persona 3

Let me make this clear, Persona 3 is the single most brilliantly designed game I have ever played. The only games that I could even be convinced to dethrone it with, are the other Shin Megami Tensei games, since I haven’t had the pleasure of playing them yet. Before I go on though, note the word I used, brilliant. I didn’t say it was the most original, most novel, most beautiful, most popular, etc…

It’s brilliant in it’s subtlety, and the seemingly effortless grace with which it destroys the biggest problems in game design. By and large, games have the subtlety of a fireworks show followed by a Slayer concert. Loud, obnoxious, in your face, are practically watch words of the entire industry from top to bottom. Time is always measured in milliseconds (literally in many modding tool sets), story is an excuse of varying thinness to shoot/stab something, and choices are generally some amalgam of “our way or your fucked” and “I choose the blue door… both of them”. Persona on the other hand is quiet, confidant, and capable.

There has been a constant argument as to how story and game play should interact. Generally the Eastern ideal is strict separation, while the Western ideal is to take personal realistic control of the story. One is generally too light for the palette, the other faces the problem that most fictional heroes are actually pants on head retarded/crazy and nobody would ever do the things they do especially if it is just a game. Persona approaches the problem by having a strictly defined set of rules in the game section, then begins to tie in your performance to choices made in the story section. Even better, if you choose to get involved in the side stories, it gives you a means to circumvent the rules in the game section. According to the rules of persona fusion, you cannot fuse together a persona of a higher level than your character’s those are the rules. However by exploring the stories of minor side characters you form social links. These links give a persona of their archetype a huge experience bonus when fused, allowing the persona to level up, beyond the level of the main character.

This is hugely effected by the property of choice since you have to choose which friends to form and support those links with. Persona takes a diametrically opposed view to the Western ideals of choice, i.e. where the player is given the impression they can change the direction of the story, but have no options in how they experience the story. In Persona, the main storyline will advance as written, without deviation from the script, but you choose how you will experience it and in many ways who your character really is. You have some dialogue options, but more importantly, you will decide how you approach the game, where, and with whom you spend your time in-game.

I’ll come back to choice in a moment, but first I need to talk about time. Playing Persona beginning to end takes a pretty damn long time, but that isn’t even what makes it so important. In Persona, time flows in a relatively fluid fashion. playtime is packaged into days and sub packaged into times of day, most days are school days as well taking up the morning and afternoon in most cases. After school however, you have the chance to decide on a variety of destinations and characters to spend your time with, but this takes up a certain package of time. I’m not going to go into the various activities and exactly how they overlap or interact, but suffice it to say you can’t do all things in one day. Not only that, but you can’t do all things, or meet all people on all days. Learning how to manage your time between the dungeon crawling segments, the story segments, your school performance and getting to know the side characters you particularly care about is actually a daunting task at times. And even more than that, your time is quite literally limited, you only have about a year of in-game time to do whatever it is your going to do. The game also doesn’t seem to imply that it’s going to give you a freebie and let you suddenly win if you failed to prepare in all that time, each monthly encounter being a significant enough step up in strength to remind you that you probably could have been training more.

And there in lies the real choices the game presents. While you can’t stop the game from moving to it’s inexorable conclusion, you can choose how well well you “live” up to that point. The addition of status ailments that can utterly destroy your ability to play the dungeon crawl well and prevent you from exploring the story as you wish for failing to get sleep also means you can’t just cut rest from the schedule to make it all fit. So every in-game day you face a wide array of choices that you know will effect your experience not only now but also far into the future across any number of individual play sessions.

Also there is a certain elegant balance to the system. Unlike many games where there is no appreciable penalty for gaming the system, in Persona you have to literally force yourself to cut out well written segments of side story in order to min/max your “build’s” social links. Even more so, once skipped a player can’t experience content again without starting from the beginning or some similar save point, meaning they can’t actively choose to min/max their character and experience all the content at the same time, it’s one or the other. This ties back into choice, since every choice comes with a reward, but every choice also comes with a penalty. It’s perfectly normal to make a choice in Persona and wonder if an alternative choice might have been a wiser use of your time, and it’s also perfectly normal to be happy you made the choice you did, because otherwise you might have missed out on what you just experienced.

Final word, brilliant in the way that a great work of art is. It’ll be held up as an example of greatness long after myself and everyone reading this is six feet under. Though it’s hit or miss whether it will ever be “main stream”.

P.S. This is not a review in the usual sense. I’m not trying to inform a consumer as to whether or not they should go out and buy the game. The purpose is to point out great game design, so that other designers can learn from the brilliance I see in their work.

I’ve written more than my fair share here in the past about various MMO designs. Unfortunately, as I’ve bent my mind to the issue and kept an ear to the ground I become increasingly concerned. Chiefly, I’m concerned that the audience to which I can market, is not the audience for which I design.

At various times I may have mentioned that my background in online multi-user worlds is from MUSHes. A MUSH is a fundamentally social thing, and I’ve only even connected to a handful that had combat mechanics. I was simply never interested in MUD style game play, running around collecting gear and killing monsters. In the offline realm, sure I enjoy spending an hour or two on Diablo II every once in a blue moon, but for the most part rouge-likes and dungeon crawls simply aren’t where my heart is.

For many people, their first great MMO would be Evercrack, Ultima Online, Second Life, or World of Warcraft. But for me the first brush was Neveron, an empire management game based in the Battletech universe. The featured a primarily player driven economy, players fought for land which had the chance of granting them resources, they would research the ability to build better weapons and units, and above all players formed their own political landscape. I think it’s fairly easy to see why my current go to game is EVE Online.

But as I’ve designed, theorized and listened, I’ve consistently found certain detriments. I for one want an ever changing world, but by and large most people don’t. They would like change on their schedule, they would like to experience all the events and all the content at their leisure. So far, I’ve found it impossible to reconcile change that matters, with change people want. Oh, I could probably take the teeth and the meat out of change and give the players “I can’t believe it’s not change” and I’m sure some arbitrarily large number of people would be happy, but I won’t make that game. That game doesn’t interest me in the slightest, and the player’s reactions to that game are equally uninteresting. (Unless they uniformly hate it, then I might be interested.)

Secondly, I’m not in the mood to play to everyone’s masturbatory instincts. No, I’m not talking about titillation, I’m talking about instant gratification. I’m all for relatively high rates of feedback, but not this silly structure of ‘ding’ you’re better. Rewards should be commensurate with effort, talent and time. A patient and intelligent investment of one of those three should always reap greater rewards than simply bashing your head against the wall until someone gives you a gold star for effort. This is one of my main problems with the MUD style, the concept of Mobs that aren’t actually trying to win.

But most of all, societal interactions being important seems to be the rift that simply shouldn’t be. What is it that makes people think banning Goonswarm and the like for being assholes is a “wrong way” of dealing with them. Griefers are as bad, if not worse, of a problem as gold farmers, but our rules for dealing with them are practically non-existent. But in a greater sense, why are the social realities of an MMO the very last on the list of priorities. Guild management tools, chat tools, social environments, these all come out as the red headed step children of the MMO world. Even starting areas are completely ludicrous. Rather than beginning players in major population centers where they are guaranteed to see, meet, and interact with other players, they are instead positioned in the middle of fuckallistan. Anyone joining after the initial rush will be lucky to see another living soul after hours of wandering.

All of this has got me thinking about making games with significantly more limited multiplayer options. After all, a Thursday night group of 4-8 people can certainly have fun playing a persistent world game without the need for a thousand other assholes. But then, there is the alone together factor that tells me they also wouldn’t be interested in investing regular time into something without having those other thousand assholes around to pointedly ignore. Perhaps someday I’ll find my perfect answer, but for now, I’m more just frustrated than anything.

P.S.
EVE doesn’t work because it’s open PvP. EVE works because it has a complex socioeconomic simulation to offset that PvP, creating a world with a balanced variety of activities along the bartle types. Just thought I’d share.

I’ve been meaning to make a more general post about some of my more general views and concepts with games since before I started the Q&As. For one reason or another, I’d not start it or get part way through then abandon it displeased with how it wasn’t communicating it. Since that is the case, this post is going to contain an amalgam of the various concepts that may have gotten their own whole posts if I felt I could properly express them like that.

So lets start with some of the basics, how I view what I set out to create. I call what I want to make games, some would call them simulations, some toys, some sandboxes, I’m content to refer to them as games. MMOs fascinate me greatly, and either work very well with I like to design, or may not work at all simply because of the scale, I haven’t seriously discovered which yet. But to really understand what I’m making you may have to see it through the jargon I use within my own mind. I work primarily with two things, physics and experiences.

Physics, as I use it, means much more than how a rag doll falls. Game Physics is a set of consistent rules which the game must always follow when working within the game world. Personally, I dislike breaking those physical laws, but considering the popularity of scripted events, I am probably very alone on that front. To put it into a good example, lets say that a player has five statistics, and they can have a maximum of twenty points spread across those statistics, in a game not trying to work in Game Physics, you could give this players NPC opponents 40 or 50 point pools to work from, but when working with Game Physics the NPCs are also limited to 20 points. In a game with game physics, if the computer seems to be wearing armor, that armor is made of items, handled exactly the same as they are for a player. Those are rather RPG mindset examples, but you can just as easily expand it to FPS, a fall that is fatal without the equipment to break it/fly, is fatal for everyone, weaponry is consistent and if the player can use anything they can pick up, they should be able to pick up all guns. All this is probably a little oversimplified, but in it’s most basic form, it’s about consistency especially of the rules which make the world function.

The second half is experiences, or as I like to think of it, experience crafting. Just as the frame and color of a wall behind a picture can be important in how it’s viewed, presentation is every bit as important in games, if not more. It becomes incumbent on the designers to try and craft an overall experience for the gamers, even more than just a game to play. This could be small things like interface colors, but also in the art style and especially in the emotions evoked within the player. Left4Dead’s great claim to fame is the sheer excellence they’ve poured into their experience crafting, making sure you really feel certain ways about certain things, and that the game’s AI assists in creating a great experience rather than hinders it.

Using those two things, I then design another two things, the first toy and the room. I tend to prefer the “room full of toys” approach to gaming, you can see this almost perfectly presented in The Force Unleashed. I usually begin with the toy and then build the room such as to make the most sense, and provide the best play experience. But that toy, for Shattered World it was the character development, for Jabberwocky it was the activism, Birth it was your space ship, every design I’ve ever made has one. The most important aspect of a toy is that it be deep and interesting. Hopefully those will combine to make it fun, but fun is a fickle beast.

Over time more toys can be added, to compliment the first toy and bring out the interest of the room. But then, this is where I find MMOs so interesting, we can even introduce other players, other people playing with the toys and effecting our own understanding and interaction with the toys.

There’s more to go into, but I’ll leave it at this for now.

There is something deeply humbling about looking up from a book about people dealing with an impending doomsday and using a slip of paper smaller than a folded napkin that contains a brief history of my working life as a bookmark. Of course, I’m writing this while tired with a whole day of classes stretching out in front of me, so I doubt I’ll be particularly coherent from here on out, but I’ll try.

Recently I got the chance to listen to Chris Martenson’s Crash Course on the American economy and where we stand overall. Of course I haven’t done further research to verify, so I’m not willing to call it gospel, but the underlying prediction isn’t so different from what I’ve been thinking for years. Quite simply, what’s coming is not going to be as big as what came before… and that means bad things if the underlying presumption of the business is constant growth. Which means especially bad things for corporations, since growth, read profit, is essential to sustain a corporation of any size. They need profit the same way a fish needs water or a person needs air, and unless we start rethinking what we get and how… well it’s not going to work out too well.

This effects my thinking on the industry and current business models a great deal. Right now I rather feel we need to focus on two areas, making the content creation process cheaper and more accessible, and increasing the artistic quality of our works such that they can stand on their own as great works. Frankly, I don’t think I’m entirely alone in those priorities, though I may be more unique in my reasoning.

Spore was a good, if gamey, step towards the first section. Lots of tools for the creation of content and sharing of said content, but unfortunately a bit… strict on the rule sets governing that content for my tastes. I’m trying to have high hopes for MetaPlace, but I find my hope to be somewhat thin on the ground these days. Who knows, maybe I should have been an avid Second Life player/activist, but I find it significantly hard to form any amount of excitement over SL.

The second has been a much touchier issue lately, at least in the MMO space. Single player games have been doing better on some fronts, we’re seeing some serious play with physics and world environments along side some very focused story telling.

I want to get the controversy out of the way early here. As many of you already know, I was quite firmly on the WAR too close to WoW side of that debate, more recently a Blue commented on everything they plan on taking from WAR. I’m pretty derisive of it, but contrary to at least one commenter’s opinion I’m not some shit stupid cynic who bitched without any thought for the sole purpose of bitching. What it all comes back to is homogeneity, that is my great problem with the current MMO sphere. We have a few budding sub genres, but so far it’s a battle between dungeon crawlers and sandboxes, of course I’m sure if you compared the sub base between WoW, WAR, LOTRO, AoC, EQ1/2, DaoC, AC1/2, AO, Neocron and TR, with that of EVE, SW:G, Ryzom, MystO, and Second Life the concept of a battle begins to seem patently absurd. You can talk yourself blue about there being no great innovations in RTSes, but the simple fact is they exist and evolve alongside FPSes, RPGs, 4x, Racing, Sports, and a number of other genres. MMOs on the other hand tend to patently ignore the best features of single player games, meaning either the they simply aren’t evolving alongside or they can’t evolve alongside. This begins to paint a rather grim picture as we find ourselves in a state of stagnation where the surrounding genres have failed to evolve in the parallel state needed to retain evolution in the primary genre. From this perspective, WoW stealing things that do set WAR apart rather than focusing their development dollars on the aspects of gameplay that make them unique is just another step towards homogenization in a dangerously homogenized market.

But the question in my mind is how many magna opera do my generation have left in us? Have we really hit the kinds of peaks that can grant us the respect to last through at least of a century of cultural starvation? If I honestly felt we had a century or two to perfect the art I’m not sure I’d be so vocal about it, at least to the offline people who have to listen to me. Problem is, I’m not sure we have forty years; it’s certainly probable the industry will last that long, but inevitable… hardly. So have we built games that will still inspire people even after centuries… actually, better put, if worse came to worse, would future generations of game designers achieve greatness because of us, or in spite of us?

I guess meanwhile, I’ll keep working on the business theory I never actually outlined in this post. Keep working with what I’ve got towards where I thought I was going. All though, I am curious if anyone heard that initial 500k number for WAR and immediately thought, “that’s it?”


Artist Unknown

A ->
A bad story is exponentially worse than no story at all.

B ->
If you cannot make a good story, tack on something simple, spend 20 seconds explaining it, then get to the good part.

C ->
A story told through the characters and the environment has a profound impact on the overall experience. A story told in block text at the beginning, or through constant repetition of the synopsis by characters of the story, does not.

D ->
There will still be people who want to fast forward to the good parts.

E ->
If the sex sucks, they really won’t stick around for the story.

F ->
Gaming is a fundamentally masturbatory activity. The more pleasure you can output for the least amount of user obligation with adequate marketing, the better your market penetration.

G ->
Hard Core is all about finding your niche and filling it, though some niches are bigger than others.

H ->
If you neglect the over the top responses, your product will probably seem pretty boring.

I ->
Bad music may be cheap, but you’d be amazed the jump in quality that comes with turning it off.

J ->
Amateur is about .1% solid gold, 2% comedy gold and 97.9% too shitty to bear.

K ->
Yes, you’re serious acting career is over.

L ->
No, you cannot make a real movie out of this.

M ->
If at first you don’t succeed, hope the studio didn’t blow too much money on you.

N ->
When in doubt, remember that a sequel to a crappy game will still sell at least %50 of what the original did.

O ->
No matter how shitty the original was, someone will bitch about how the sequel ruined it.

P ->
A long series in short form is better than a short series in long form. No matter how bad your writer is, at least 1/100 will show some real ingenuity.

Q ->
Change genres every now and then, it helps you think outside the box.

R ->
Choose a look, cheap or classy. Don’t EVER mix the two.

S ->
There is money in the non-pg13 market.

And that’s all that comes to mind at the moment.