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
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.