Monday, September 24, 2007

Writing for Quests

Attending Jess Lebow's panel at AGDC, I was reminded of just how difficult it is to write quests for MMOs.

Jess spoke of the differences in approach that designers and writers take to quest writing.

Typical designers often just want to get the instructions across to the player, like so:
"Take Spike's club to the Ulbroth foothills. Ask an attendant of the Great Gates where Ulbroth Graveyard is. Go to the Graveyard and search for Spike's gravestone, then right-click Spike's club to activate it at his gravestone."

Typical writers often just want to tell the player a story, like so:
"The great ogre, Spike, once wielded this very club. He smashed more giants than any other ogre at the battle of Ulbroth, where the ogres fought the giants for control over the Ulbroth foothills. This battle meant everything to both factions, for Ulbroth is a land rich in both iron ore and peasants waiting to be turned into slaves..." (writer hits text character limit)

My experience indicates that a third kind of quest writer exists - the 'hardcore' quest writer.

These 'hardcore' quest writers intentionally omit key details from their quests because they want players to figure out the quest for themselves, like so:
"All that is left of the great ogre, Spike, is this club. Some legends speak of him fighting giants."

And, I must admit, depending on the complexity of the game you're writing for, sometimes a puzzling quest is a welcome diversion.

So what's the ultimate goal? Ideally, quest writers must balance all three of these needs (instructions, story, and puzzle) within the context of the game they're working on. They have to give the player enough of a clue to figure out how to resolve the quest, tell enough of a story to keep up the player's emotional interest, and generate enough of a puzzle to keep the player's mind engaged... and do it all within the text character limit constraints of the game.

It's not easy.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Accessibility Matters


So, I cracked open BioShock the other day. I installed it without any problems, and started up a new game. The intro played smoothly, and already I was wrapped up in my character, destined to do great things.

Then, it dumped me into the game. Blackness filled the screen as large white squares spun before my eyes. Orange blurs smeared across the screen every now and again as I panned the mouse around. I tried moving - WASD - and heard some sloshing and gurgling noises. I couldn't tell where I was, or what I was doing. Just blackness, white squares, and orange blurs.

What's wrong here?

Well, obviously, my Radeon 9800 Pro wasn't up to the job - but that's not really the problem. The issue is that I made it that far into the game without knowing that I didn't meet the system requirements.

One of my pet peeves is the lack of courtesy that some games have towards their players. It would have been courteous if BioShock had warned me I couldn't play before it let me get sucked into the story. Back in the day, video games wouldn't let you install them if you didn't meet the system requirements. They'd often even let you know what you were missing. This is a feature that every game needs - and it needs to be up front.

You might ask, "Aren't the system requirements written right on the box?" Well, after reading the box, two of my game developer friends and I thought my machine would run the game just fine. The truth is, system requirements paragraphs have gotten to be about as mumbo-jumbo as EULAs.

You might say that that's why we have readme files. Well, after the game didn't work, trust me, the readme file was straight where I went. Here is what it says I need - "Video Card: Pixel Shader 3.0 compliant video card with 128 Meg Ram and floating point frame buffer blending." Like the average player knows whether or not their video card has those things!

It was only after some googling that I found a raging community of would-be BioShock players, all of them with video cards lacking in Pixel Shader 3.0 compliance, and all of them just as upset as me.

This brings me to my second point, which is, when you are making a game that won't work with a large percentage of potential players' graphics cards, consider making your game compliant with those graphics cards. BioShock is a great example - it only takes a few user-made files to get the game to run (albeit only passably) with a pixel shader 2.0 card. It wouldn't have taken too much more effort on the developers' part to make BioShock to run well with those cards.

As Gordon Walton said, "This is not about getting some more customers -- this the opportunity to get lots more. Like 4-10x more. There is maybe one game a year that drives hardware sales... they get a lot of hype, but look at their numbers. How much do they sell?"


Monday, September 17, 2007

New Toy!

I was going to write a nice serious post tonight, but I've been thoroughly side-tracked by Game Maker.

It's a fun little game-building tool that I was introduced to at AGDC. If you haven't played with it yet, give it a shot!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Transportation vs. Travel

In my last two posts, I've been careful to use the word 'transportation' instead of 'travel,' and with good reason: My goal is to highlight the gameplay differences between the two.

Transportation lets players move among places they've already been. In some cases, transportation lets players move among places that their characters would have had easy access to - even if the player is new to the place.

Players travel when they go somewhere new. When players successfully travel through a new area, they often earn new modes of transportation.

However, the line gets blurred fairly easily. For example, when players choose to take 'the long way' or 'fight their way' through an area they've already been, I would say that the players are traveling.

Another blurry line appears when players use their own mounts or vehicles. If players can whiz by content that would put them in danger if they weren't on their mount/vehicle, then I'd say that's transportation. However, if the use of the mount/vehicle only causes players to encounter danger more frequently, then I'd call that travel.

Links to my other posts on the subject:
Meaningful Transportation
Beautiful Transportation

Beautiful Transportation

So, let's run with the idea that transportation in MMOs doesn't need to generate fiero. This still leaves designers with a variety of emotional options.

My two favorites are delight and wonder - the twin joys of beauty and discovery. No matter what the medium (running, teleportation, vehicle-on-rails, etc.), transportation gives designers the perfect opportunity to bring about these emotions in players. It fits because players can be shown things they don't often see, and because the experience doesn't last long. Wonder is a brief emotion, just like transportation in MMOs must be a brief experience. On top of all that, there's a real-world connection: wonder and delight are emotions of fun that you experience while traveling in the real world.

Taking players to places they don't often go is a great way to generate wonder. In WoW, for example, the griffon flies over places that are inaccessible to players, and each different griffon route shows players another piece of Azeroth they would never have otherwise seen. Taking players over these areas encourages them to piece together the world and discover its connectivity. This is a refreshing mental exercise in WoW, since the main play experience has players spending their time in walled-off zones.

Viewing enjoyable artwork generates delight, and moving through an artistic landscape heightens that delight. Artists who know their trade can work with designers to put together amazing transportation paths that elicit delight at every hill, lake, or turn. Vehicles and mounts should be artistically engaging, if not detailed; players are likely to watch their mount or vehicle more than their own avatars during travel. Even in a teleportation situation, the means of teleportation can be made delightful with the skillful use of particle effects, animations, or cut scenes.

Possibly the most important fun emotion related to travel is the visceral pleasure of movement, which can be represented in games by animations.

If 'run' animations for avatars, pets, vehicles, and mounts are crisp, clean, smooth, and exaggerated correctly, it can give players an enjoyable sense of movement. If those animations include some sort of whimsy (like the cat ears that swivel in WoW), all the better. As someone who has studied birds, I'm something of a connoisseur of flight animations. It's more enjoyable to watch strong, flexible wings that pull you through the air with each downstroke than it is to watch stiff wings with plain up-and-down movement. Well-made animations can make earning a mount (or any form of travel) worth the hassle.

So, looking at these emotions (delight, wonder, and pleasure of movement) as the requirements for fun travel, we can evaluate the types of travel found in games.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Meaningful Transportation

Players often expect 'meaningful travel' from MMOs, and they become frustrated when travel becomes trivial. I think some player frustration could be alleviated if there was a clearer separation of transportation from travel in MMO gameplay.

From both a social and gameplay standpoint, transportation in an MMO can't take more than a few minutes. An emotionally invested (hardcore) player will have a higher tolerance for longer travel times, however, ultimately, it's an MMO's job to get players playing with each other, and if it takes too long for players to meet up, transportation becomes a huge deterrent to group play.

Games use a variety of strategies to create the illusion of distance. There's teleportation via interactable objects or player-cast spells; rail transportation, which includes vehicles and mounts that go along fixed paths in the world; player-owned vehicles and mounts that increase player run speed; and any combination of the above.

If fun can only come from fiero, the joy you feel at overcoming adversity, then options for transportation are limited. For example, if players start out in different areas of the world, and each player must fight through tough mobs to earn a griffon ride to the dungeon, they'll experience fiero, but they'll also lose time that could have been spent with each other.

I think it will help hardcore players to think of the situation this way: What is a dungeon if not a place where groups run a long distance while fighting mobs? If you think of the dungeon as the place where 'meaningful travel' occurs, suddenly, the act of getting your friends together in front of the dungeon - transportation rather than travel - doesn't have to cause fiero - you can trust that the fiero will be there for you inside the dungeon, and it will be accompanied by and magnified by the social fun you will have.

I've been tagged!

Well, after all of that esoteric pondering about the nature of emotional cycles in games, Cuppycake has tagged me with my first chain blog.

Here we go:

~ The Rules ~

1. Link to your tagger and post these rules.
2. List eight (8) random facts about yourself.
3. Tag eight people at the end of your post and list their names (linking to them).
4. Let them know they’ve been tagged by leaving them a comment on their blogs.

Ok, random facts:

1. My favorite living animal is the Northwestern Crow.

2. My favorite extinct animal is the Magnificent Teratorn.

3. I like making chainmail. I suppose that says something about my tolerance for tedium.

4. Raw salmon is my favorite food.

5. I broke my right arm just before a birthday where I received colored markers and art supplies. I had to wait three weeks before I could use them. (I'm right handed.)

6. One of my favorite non-computer games is Carcassonne.

7. I am native to Oregon.

8. I have a Warhammer Fantasy lizardmen army. Someday maybe I'll paint them.

I'll have to skip the tagging part this time. I like making chainmail, not chain mail :)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Timing Emotions of Relief, part 2

I'll muse on X for a bit.

If X is too large - such as when designers make puzzles comparatively easy to solve yet difficult to execute - then it can lead to player frustration.

I remember the infuriated screams of one of my friends as he played Tomb Raider. He had figured out which jumps to make, and he knew when and where to make them, but because the timing was so delicate, he ended up failing too many times. When he finally made it to the next area, he was still quite angry about having wasted so much time. I saw his fiero change from a potentially cheerful "Hurray, I did it!" to an angry "Finally!" Not only that, but the negative emotions of his frustration likely overran the "Cool" emotion he would have felt at discovering and exploring the next level.

That brings up an interesting aside. One player behavior I've noticed frequently in myself is that I prefer to save games in the middle of levels. After completing a level, I find that my curiosity about the next level is so high, I seek relief (Cool!) by going and exploring it. Once that need has been met, I feel more comfortable ending the game session.

Back on topic, an example of highly variable X can be found in Shadow of the Colossus, where players fight nothing but bosses called colossi. Each fight is a puzzle, and depending on the boss, the battle requires more or less dexterity of the player. For a few of the colossi, once I figured out how to defeat them, I killed them on my very next attempt. For most of the colossi, it took me a few tries once I solved the puzzle. And, for a few of the colossi, it took me a frustratingly large number of attempts to take them down even after I knew exactly what to do.

So, how do we keep X from becoming frustratingly large? I think that after players have solved a puzzle, they should be able to execute the successful strategy in just one or two tries. X can (and probably should) be greater for boss fights, since players have emotionally invested more in the game by the time they reach a boss, and will be more tolerant of failure.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if X is too small, it may be possible for designers to prevent players from savoring their "Aha!" moments by overwriting them with potentially more powerful "I did it!" moments. Then again, if players are allowed "I did it!" right after "Aha!," the effect of both forms of relief might be magnified. It warrants observation.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Timing Emotions of Relief

Players experience relief when they achieve goals, but in games where they must reach multiple smaller goals to accomplish a larger one, when should they experience different types of relief?

In many games, especially first person shooters and platformers, players run into a new area, suffer setbacks, figure out why they were set back, then use that knowledge to avoid the setbacks. Usually, the player iterates through this process a few times, solves the area, and proceeds to the next one.

Players experience emotional relief* in at least three ways during this process. First, there is the relief to their curiosity, which happens when they learn what's in the game area and how to manipulate it (Cool!). Next, there is the relief they feel when they figure out what they need to do to solve the game area (Aha!). Lastly, players experience fiero (I did it!), and the relief that follows it, when they actually solve the puzzle.

So, should players experience these emotions at once, a few at a time, or widely separated from one another? I've heard Damion Schubert** suggest that the cycles of tension and release be based on the level of emotional investment a player has in the game. It makes sense that a casual player should experience relief (or reward) more frequently. As the player moves up the continuum from casual to hardcore, the cycles of emotion should take longer, and the relief achieved should be greater. This pattern can be seen in most MMOs, where getting from level 1 to 2 takes minutes, yet getting from level 49 to 50 takes days.

If we accept that players' emotions (and game designs) follow the 'short time, small emotion leads to long time, big emotion' pattern, I'd like to focus further on when players should experience the different _types_ of emotional relief.

I'll use a hypothetical game experience as an example: In an FPS, you reach a big room that has several ledges high on the walls, a few boxes scattered on the floor, and a rope hanging from the ceiling. After playing through the room several times, you discover that a monster appears on one of the ledges after you have been in the room for a short while, that there is a horde of ankle-biting creatures that appear on the floor, that the boxes are movable and stackable, and that you can swing on the rope to get to a few of the ledges (Cool!). The price you've paid for this information is, let's say, six deaths: four from the monster's guns, and two from falling.

You get excited (Aha!) when you solve the puzzle: You've found the place where the boxes must be stacked so you can jump up to the rope. You've also figured out which is the best ledge to swing to; it gives you a few extra seconds before the monster can climb up to you. You've discovered that you need those extra seconds to use a combination of weapons and available artillery against the monster, but once the monster joins you on the ledge, only one of your other weapons can kill it. You've solved the puzzle, but you haven't completed it yet.

Now, you prepare for your moment of triumph. Stacking the boxes is dangerous; the creatures on the floor bite at you mercilessly, and you can't afford to spend time killing them. The jump from the box to the rope is a tricky one. If you don't make it on your first try, you're too exposed and the monster gets in enough shots to kill you. After X number of additional tries, you finally manage to kill the monster (I did it!).

Let's look at X for a moment. X is the number of times players must attempt to execute the correct strategy before they succeed at their game's objective. We can also look at X as a variable span of time: How long after a moment of puzzle-solving relief (Aha!) do players experience fiero relief (I did it!)?

Each different span of time between moments of player relief could be given its own variable. For example, we could also look at V, which we could define as the gap in time between when a player experiences curiosity relief (Cool!) and puzzle-solving relief (Aha!).

Watching when X and V (or any other gap) become too large or too small may be valuable in game design.


* My parenthetical emotions borrow from Nicole Lazzaro's 'fun keys'.

** Damion Schubert's blog is Zen of Design. The concept of players existing on a continuum of casual to hardcore is just one of the ideas I learned from his panel at AGDC.
These postings are mine alone, have not been reviewed or approved by any employer or company, and do not necessarily reflect the views of anyone but me.