Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Eyes of Master Chief

"Why are you getting Halo 3?" my co-worker asked.

I gave him my answer. "I cannot go another day forward as a game designer without playing Halo 3. It is too important of a game for me to have missed." (And I'm over a year late!)

I had read the reviews and back story, of course, and I'd had many long conversations with fellow game designers about the glories and wonders of Halo 3, but somehow, none of that prepared me for playing the real thing.

At once, I drank in the beauty of the game. The music, the environments - and all the loving detail put into the weapons, vehicles, and characters - it was delightful.

In the initial sequence, my teammates help me up. They're so happy to find that I am well - they treat me like we've been friends for years. They have so much respect for me, I don't know if I've ever felt so welcomed.

What an unexpected sequence of emotions! I thought I'd be shot to death many times over in the first few minutes, not step into a living world surrounded by friends.

Then, at the end of the intro, the camera shifts to become the eyes of Master Chief.

Somehow, I wasn't prepared for it. Yes, the first two letters of "FPS" stand for "First Person" - you'd think that would be a big giveaway.

So I try moving around. No good - apparently my armor is still locked up. However, my friends are here to help, and one of them offers to recalibrate my suit.

He asks me to look up, so I look up. Then he asks me to look down, so I look down. We repeat the process. And then he tells me he's set my look style to "inverted."

I'll admit that I'm most accustomed to 3rd-person-style controls. In many 3rd-person games, your camera sits on the outside of a sphere and always looks inward towards your character's head. Thus, when you move the camera downward, you see more of what's above your character, and likewise, when you move the camera up, you look down. While it is "inverted" to move in the opposite direction from the way you want to look, it's completely natural for someone used to playing in the 3rd person (like me).

Satisfied with my inverted controls, my armor unlocks, and I'm free to move about on my own. I try all the buttons. Movement with the left stick - check. Shooting with the triggers - check. Reloading with the bumpers - check. Jumping - how do I jump again? Ok, the A button makes sense.

And then I try looking around. I can't do it. Looking up and down is great - we tested for that - but every time I try to look left, I end up looking right, and vice versa. What gives?

Unable to aim my weapons, I hit pause and go straight to the configs. I check all of them, and realize my problem. Inversion is only an option for the Y axis, not the X axis.

I try to get used to it. I run around, trying to look at rocks, plants, and my companions. It's a no-go. I'm moving the stick the wrong way every time.

Disheartened and frustrated, I go online to see if anyone else has my problem. Yes! Games with unalterable X axis controls are frustrating people on both sides. Final Fantasy XII has an inverted X axis that you can't switch to normal, whereas many FPS games, like Halo 3 and BioShock, have a normal X axis that you can't invert.

Sadly, many of the forum posts I read were hurtful. To put it nicely, players said that those who use inverted controls are backwards, and players who use normal controls don't know how to use a camera. Arguments on both sides generally ended in "just get used to it!"

So that is what I did. It took me a long hour of play to start looking in the correct direction, and it took me another hour to learn to aim accurately.

During those two hours, I spent a lot of time hiding behind rocks, being frustrated, and not shooting aliens. I felt like I was letting down the Arbiter, Avery Johnson, and the rest of my team. I could have jumped right into the game if I could have inverted the X axis.

With this experience, I have taken this lesson to heart: It's important to make a game's controls be configurable in as many ways as possible without breaking the game.

Designers can't assume that they know where a player is coming from, and players should not be forced to re-map what's intuitive to them - nobody likes to hear that they must "just get used to it."

Aside from that point, I took to Halo 3 fairly well. In fact, it's probably because the rest of the game is so intuitive that my X axis issues stood out like a sore thumb... or should I say, a confused thumb!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Players and Branding

I attended the >play conference in Berkeley today.

One of my takeaways from the Creativity for Everyone panel was that as media becomes easier to create and share, everyone is developing their own brand.

It doesn't take long to write a blog post, put up a home video, or display artwork or photographs. Because many of the old barriers to self-expression have been taken down, people are joining the global conversation in droves.

By using new media to participate and interact, people are effectively creating brands for themselves. And they enjoy doing it.

This isn't news to web developers, but it's interesting looking at it from a gaming perspective.

People aren't just creating brands with websites like Facebook, Flickr and deviantART - they're using games like Second Life, Spore, and LittleBigPlanet to create in-game content that enriches and differentiates their personal brands.

So how can we, as game developers, help players nurture their own brands?

In my opinion, games that have the following components already help players. The more games that incorporate these features, the better!
  • Tools that let players meet/find each other easily
  • Engaging multiplayer play that allows players to communicate
  • Character and gameplay customization that lets players express their personal tastes
  • Systems that enable and encourage social networking outside of the game (and inside the game, if the game type allows for it)
  • Tools that help players create and share some form of game content
  • Methods whereby players can experience and rate other players' shared content
  • Rewards that both commemorate and display players' gameplay choices, and those that reward excellent shared content

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Spore: Biological Details

Spore makes use of some incorrect biological premises. However, it's all for the sake of good gameplay.

Creatures in Spore evolve by spending earned DNA to develop new body parts. In a very general sense, this is a decent representation of how real species develop different traits over time.

However, Spore ends up confusing modern evolutionary synthesis with Lamarckism, which has been disproved.

Essentially, Lamarckism is the the concept that individual animals who use a body part more than other individuals will have offspring with a better version of that body part. For example, if a gazelle tries to run faster than other gazelles, then Lamarckism states that that individual gazelle's offspring will be able to run faster than other gazelles.

This is how Spore gameplay works. The body parts you are most likely to discover through play are the upgraded versions of the parts your creature already has.

However, that's not how evolution works. A population of creatures (like gazelles) will have a variety of genetic traits that they have acquired over time through random mutation. There are all kinds of traits that individuals in a population can have (like long and short legs), and those traits can be good or bad, depending on the situation.

If cheetahs attack our gazelles, the shorter-legged gazelles get eaten because they are slower, and the longer-legged gazelles survive to breed. The next generation will have longer legs.

Evolutionary pressure doesn't happen like this in Spore. If you die, you are reborn with the same features you had before. Whether your creature gets chewed on by a sea monster or outruns an angry troupe of freeps, your creature's next generation doesn't get tougher skin or a better run speed.

From a gameplay perspective, though, would "realistic" evolution be fun? Probably not in Spore's context.

Pre-tribal gameplay is already rather low key. Basing new body part choices on what features allowed you to survive (or die) might result in the same Lamarckian options. Removing part collection would take away perhaps a third of the game.

On top of that, if you earned DNA mutations at a steady rate, all you'd have to do is survive in order to progress - you'd have no motivation to befriend other animals, only eat them.

In the end, the Spore cellular and creature stages probably incorporate the best of both the biological and gameplay worlds.

Spore: No Water World

There is one obvious omission from Spore: the 3D underwater phase, which, according to this interview, had been partly developed, but was cut.

I had wanted to take my cellular creations on a gradual path from the microscopic to the macroscopic in a 3D world filled with bizarre aquatic creatures.

However, instead, you go straight from a single cell to a vertebrate with legs, and find yourself somehow eating whole fruit with your filter-feeding tentacles.

I can forgive Maxis for leaving out 'water world,' but they could have incorporated a less abrupt system for the cell-to-land transition. Despite the heartwarming cut scene, it feels like it was cobbled together at the last minute.

Something as simple as requiring players to replace all of their cellular parts would have made for a better experience. For example, my first attempt at a land-based creature couldn't walk, because I had given it fins for feet.

My only clue as to what I had done wrong was the name of the fins: cilia. Real life cilia are like fuzz, so of course you couldn't walk on them. But because Spore let me keep my cilia as macroscopic structures (and they sure look like fins), I assumed my creature could still use them for locomotion. I was wrong.

On a more amusing note, another missing feature is procedural mating (they kept the dance, but not the finale). Apparently, the creatures of Spore have figured out how to produce hard-shelled eggs without internal fertilization - and good for them! Players are already going to spam the world with Sporn; there's no need for the game to offer them any encouragement.

Spore Creatures: Unavoidably Cute

As a student of both biology* and game design, I have followed Spore with great interest. Since my copy arrived in the mail, I have spent most of my free time playing the game.

Spore is a technological breakthrough dressed up in cutesy visual design. The creature eyes, sounds, and procedurally generated animations are endearing, but there's a less-obvious source of charm: every creature's torso, tail, and limb segment is nearly circular in cross-section.

You can shrink a Spore creatures' eyes as small as they go in order to obscure their adorableness, but there's nothing you can do about the rounded bodies.

It made me a little sad to discover that you cannot laterally or horizontally squash and stretch body segments. I tried using Shift-Mousewheel and other key combinations in an attempt to discover hidden creature-shaping features, but I didn't have any luck.

So, ultimately, there is no way to flatten your platypus's tail. You cannot make a disc-like body for your lizard, a deep torso for your horse, or a broad chest for your ape.

No segment is allowed to shrink below the built-in minimum thickness, either. There is no way to make a gracile leg for an insect or a bird, nor can you properly taper a tail.

All in all, these limits don't detract from the enjoyability of the creature creator. While they enforce a certain humorously cute body type, that type can take many forms.

However, no number of spikes, claws and toothy jaws seem able to make Spore creatures less cuddlesome.

* My best college paper incorporated kinglet banding capture data from Manomet. I wanted to see if evolutionary pressure could be seen in action on kinglet populations; would the size of birds caught be smaller in warm years (since being small allows them to feed more effectively at branch tips), and larger in cold years (since being large allows them to survive cold weather)? The data, sadly, were inconclusive.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Casual vs. Hardcore

After making my opinion known about this touchy subject on my recent podcast, I figured I should shore up that opinion with some reasoning.

First, this is Raph's Post that started the discussion.

The question is, where does a player sit on the continuum between casual and hardcore? I think you can best figure this out by looking at the player's emotional investment in the game in question. This is very close to Damion Schubert's definition.

If you establish the casual-hardcore continuum only in terms of numbers of hours played, you misrepresent players who would play more, but are prevented from playing (because of illness, parents, social pressure, etc.). Number of hours played is a good indicator, but it's not the whole story.

If you base the continuum on how failure-tolerant a player is, you misrepresent players who play a game with great intensity, but who don't happen to take as many risks. For example, much ado is made about care bears vs. PVP'ers. Having watched players at various points on the care bear - player killer axis, I think it's safe to say that they're looking for different sorts of emotions, but the players' actual level of emotional investment is not necessarily affected by one play style or the other.

If you label players based on what kinds of games they play, you misrepresent players who are heavily engaged in games that just happen to be given the "casual" label. I agree with Raph in that the "mass market" label might be better here.

What we are left with as an accurate measure is the level that players feel like they are emotionally invested or engaged with a game. People who are heavily invested in a game are hardcore players, and those less heavily invested are casual players. Regular players fall somewhere in-between.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A Podcast!

I've just participated in my first podcast.

Just to make sure my bases are covered, I want to say again that my opinions stated in the podcast - like my opinions stated here - are solely my own, and not necessarily those of my current or past employers.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Official Forums: Yes or No

Should MMOs have official forums? The question has been debated for years.

This is the most recent incarnation of the question, as posed at the Stargate Worlds forums.

And this is Darren's take on the situation, along with many interesting comments made by his readers.

Also, Jaye writes in defense of official game forums. Given my experience on the development side of Vanguard, and my pro-newbie stance, I generally agree with Jaye.

MMOs are huge, constantly evolving games. As developers, we need to complete the circle of communication with our players. And we can't expect to accomplish that by solely relying on fan sites.

When Vanguard launched, the beta forums were taken down and no official forums came up in their place. Players had been warned, and they were given a list of fansites to visit instead.

Players, now offered a score of potential communities, didn't have an obvious place to give feedback. Because the barrier to player entry increased, the fansite-only system weeded out those less familiar with using forums - people who could have given valuable feedback.

Designers now had a similar barrier. We needed to comb through dozens of fansites to find new feedback. In order to meaningfully respond to players, we had to set up dev accounts in multiple places.

Regardless, without the familiar official channels to post in, players offered less feedback. Players seemed to think that without the official forums, they weren't being heard. Many players posted on fansites as though their only audience was other players.

While 'noise' was reduced, so too was 'signal.'

My argument is this:

Encouraging good player-player and player-developer conversation is so important to the health of an MMO, it's well worth the publisher's effort to have official forums.

Official forums provide players with a familiar, safe and reliable place to find information, give feedback, and receive developer responses. They show that the developer cares, and is listening.

As well, compared with most fansites, game publishers are better equipped to take advantage of modern media and proper information design to avoid losing 'signal.' Also, they can afford responsible moderators (and search technology) to help bypass 'noise.'

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Are Designers Playing Too Many Games?

Game designers tend to agree that playing games helps you learn about how to design them.

For example, in Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman write, "Students should play every possible kind of game, digital and non-digital, contemporary and historical, masterpiece and stinker."

They give several good reasons why, including the fact that designers need to learn how games function to create experiences, and they need to see what does and doesn't work about design choices.

Yet, Raph Koster offers a word of warning in his book, A Theory of Fun for Game Design.

He writes, "They [game designers] build up encyclopedic recollections of games past and present, and they then theoretically use these to make new games."

So what's the problem? Essentially, due to the way human brains work, designers are more likely to pull from their existing mental library of game design solutions than they are to try to innovate new ones.

Raph writes, "The most creative and fertile game designers working today tend to be the ones who make a point of not focusing too much on other games for inspiration."

So, the very library of knowledge that designers must build in order to understand and design games can prevent them from exploring new potential game designs.

How do we get around this?

Game designers, of all people, need to "stay ahead of the game." Not playing as many games probably isn't going to help.

Perhaps simply having an awareness of our 'mental game libraries' can help designers choose whether or not to select a solution from them.

Perhaps, too, we can be mindful of fun wherever it occurs. For example, it might be worthwhile to make note when you see yourself or others having fun outside of a formal game environment, and ask yourself how you could bring that experience into a game.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

GDC Swag

At GDC, it is a steadfast tradition that the booths at the expo offer swag to potential customers and hires.

Some booths offer buttons. Other booths offer pens, candy, notepads, toys, gadgets, cloth bags, plastic necklaces... and T-shirts.

However, none of the booths I visited had any women's styles or sizes of shirts.

I stayed hopeful, though. At each booth with clothing available, I would ask, "Do you have anything for women? Or any men's sizes that would fit me?"

The answer was no. Most booths had run out of everything "small" and "medium" on the first day of the con. Size "large" had disappeared soon after. By Thursday, the only size most booths had left was "extra-large".

The folks at one booth, though, had a story to tell that's worth repeating.

This particular booth had, in fact, stocked a significant quantity of women's style shirts - you know, the kind that are just a touch narrower at the waist. The kind that keep women from looking like amorphous barrels.

Anyway, a small group of women discovered this rare stash on the first day of the con. So pleased were they with their discovery that they proceeded to inform other female conventioners. A crowd of women soon appeared at the booth, nabbing every last shirt.

Alas, I didn't make it in time.

So, my thoughts on the matter are these: If you are in the position to stock a GDC booth with swag, do not underestimate the number of smaller-sized attendees. And, if you want more women to attend your booth, by all means offer clothes tailored just for them!

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Prepare to be Tested

When I was first hired in the games industry, it was based on the merits of my portfolio. At that time, only one of the companies I applied to gave me a test. I saw it as an unusual hurdle.

This time around, however, it became the norm. Virtually every potential employer gave me one or more tests; I ended up taking over a half-dozen of them. Some tests took me only 2 hours, others took me over 2 days.

So, at this point, I feel adequately informed to offer some advice to those seeking game design work.

1) Don't be offended. If a game design company says you must pass a test (or even several tests), don't act shocked. Don't make the assumption that the company doesn't like you, even if someone else who applied there wasn't given a test. Simply, if the company is one you want to work for, take the test.

2) Be timely. Do not take more than 6 days to complete your test. If you're really interested in the company, be done in less than 3 days. If they ask for the test to be completed in a certain number of hours, finish in under the time limit. If you have schedule conflicts, discuss them with your potential employer so you don't have to rush.

3) Be clear and concise. Companies aren't just testing your game design skills - they want proof of your ability to communicate effectively. You must walk a tightrope with each of your answers. You cannot afford to ramble, yet you must explain your thought processes and math choices.

4) Research. All but one of the tests I took was "open book." If you come across something that you're not sure about, Google is there for you. Cite your sources as needed. Plagiarizing is just as unwelcome here as on any test.

5) Edit your work. When you're done with the test, go do something else, then come back and edit your answers with a fresh mind. You'll at least catch some typos (well, I sure did), and you may come across answers you'll want to rework. If it's a timed test, save a few minutes at the end to give your answers a once-over.

6) Pace yourself. Read through the whole test before you start answering questions, so you have a good sense of what you need to do. Design tests can vary widely in content, though the core of most tests will have you design a game, level, or quest/adventure. In general, if you find yourself spending too much time on one answer, come back to it later. You may find that you have fresh insight after working on other questions.

7) Don't worry. Even if you aren't offered employment, by working through the test, you've learned more about game design and you've become a better game designer.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Kicking Stereotypes in the Face

Normally, trips to ye olde gaming store are a straightforward ritual: I cast my eyes around the store for new inventory while I gab with friends.

This time, however, it was my first time visiting a gaming store in a new city, so I scoured every shelf.

After going over tons of games and minis, my eyes landed on a book - a book with pink dice on the cover.

Now, I fear pink in the same way that most goths would fear a daisy-print blouse. Yet, I felt compelled to pick up this book. I simply could not fathom it was real.

I turned it over and over in my hands, trembling, trying to disbelieve it out of existence. No, really, here it was - Confessions of a Part-Time Sorceress: A Girl's Guide to the Dungeon's & Dragons Game by Shelly Mazzanoble.

I hugged it, and I hadn't even opened the cover.

Then I did crack it open. Seeing words written by R.A. Salvatore put inside a pink border made me chuckle - he and his wife wrote the introduction. Then I flipped through and found a recipe for Initiative Rolls. That sealed it. I had to buy the book.

In a nutshell, Shelly speaks right to you about what D&D really is, and why it's fun for both genders (especially women, thank you very much). Her fantastic sense of humor and liberal use of cultural references bring her stories and explanations home.

More to the point, Shelly smacks a Chuck Norris-sized roundhouse kick to the face of the gamer stereotype.

It is so refreshing, empowering, and downright enjoyable - I can't help but recommend it to everybody.

Personal Update

I feel it's important to find fiero in my own life, not just build it into games.

For those reasons and more, I've moved up to the San Francisco area to work at Backbone Entertainment.

With all the job hunting and moving, I had put posting on the back burner, but no more!

So, unless something else comes up (and trust me, I hope nothing else does for a while), I'll be posting more frequently now. Like, more than 0 times per month....
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.