This whole blog post is going to be mainly a theoretical exercise and lays out an idea intended to provoke thought, because the chances of it doing anything beyond that are small.

At the moment I feel that the single categorisation used for types of films (Genre) is insufficient as compared to what happens with games, I think it needs to be set into THREE distinct categories, the first two are fairly obvious and these are what a games journalist or gamer might be most interested in knowing about. The third of these will take some explanation and is where the actual theory comes in, serving as a high level way of thinking about a game. I’ll rifle through the two obvious ones first:

1 – Gameplay Type – First Person Shooter, Third Person Action, Adventure Game, Side-On Fighting Game, and on and on. Basically, a one sentence overview of the mechanics of the game, notice here that I’ve stepped away from the use of the term ‘Genre’ because it’s becoming increasingly twisted up as new entertainment forms emerge. For instance, is film noire purely its visual stylings or the form of its stories? A mix of both, possibly more?

As an aside, I find myself somewhat concerned with an us versus them attitude that has developed between different console systems and even different kinds of games, there could be greater recognition that different folks have different tastes such as being horror film fans, or romcom (Romantic Comedy) fans and so on, and respect that difference instead of judging it! This can apply to games too.

2 – Genre
Traditional filmic genres (Horror, Action, etc). Obviously some games don’t have a genre as such, or certainly weren’t designed with one in mind, Pac Man probably inhabits a genre, but one based more on art style than narrative/story/plot/tragedy/what-have-you. In many cases the genre would best be described as ‘abstract’, after all just what genre is tetris, if not a puzzle game? You could think of Pac-Man as a sort of survival horror, only without a lot of horror to it.

3 – Gameplay Sphere Hierarchy – This is more of interest to a designer rather than a player and is a way of focusing the overall design of a game project. I’ve concluded that the following six are the main (or at least most obvious) gameplay spheres:

A Game Design as Simulation (Deus Ex, Thief, ‘serious games’) – These take a genuine real world principle, perhaps with some make believe worked in, in order to ground the game into realistic territory. For instance, though Deus Ex is ostensibly a game, what it’s really doing (Especially in the first part of the game) is simulating what it would be like to be a secret agent/police man with bio-modifications that turn him into a super-cop. The original Command & Conquer was more of a simulation of being a commander of armies, whilst later C&C games have more of an emphasis on the other gameplay spheres of fun, experience and challenge.

B Game Design as Challenge (Street Fighter series, PvP games generally with little/no single-player component) – This one is more self explanatory, basically games intended to be difficult to beat, this one has also subsided in value in design terms, where designers have been keen to avoid making games particularly difficult in order to minimise the problem of only a relatively small number of games actually being completed.

C Game Design as Experience (Story games, Beyond Good & Evil, Dreamfall:Longest Journey) – Typically this is an emphasis on creating a compelling setting, story and/or characters. Survival Horror games are probably the best example of this, where they focus on creating a gameplay environment that is unsettling so that horrific events have more impact on the player.

D Game Design as Social Interactivity (Mostly MMOs and co-op centric games like Left 4 Dead) – These games have focused on trying to bring players together, at which some are more successful than others. The emphasis is on providing players with the tools & motivation to work together to achieve a common goal, simple or otherwise. This might potentially also cover interacting with non-player-characters, this is yet to be defined.

E Game Design as Fun (Most games) – Currently the most popular emphasis for games (Not necessarily a bad thing, per se) where there is an emphasis on trying to make sure the player is having a good time all the time and preventing boredom, frustration and fatigue from getting in the way of the fun. There are of course many kinds of fun, so this category is slightly iffy in terms of pinning down it’s specifics.

F Game Design as Accessibility (Casual & Part Time or quick web/mobile games) – There’s been a big move towards  casual games, but I’m not yet honestly convinced that design philosophies have kept up. Theres certainly been a move to simplify games for console control schemes, but sometimes I’ll see what looks like simplification made to a game that should have merely been streamlining. Anyway, in this category, there is an emphasis on making the game easy to get into and easy to get out of, save points are counter-intuitive if you are aiming for accessibility as your primary gameplay sphere, let the player choose where to save/pause so that he/she can go put food in the oven or change a babies diapers (etc).

E Game Design as Discovery (Fallout 3, recent Elder Scrolls games, Grand Theft Auto series and several MMOs) – Games with Discovery as their primary Gameplay Sphere focus on providing an environment suitable for exploration. Few games attempt to follow this path extensively, due to the amount of content both in design terms and content creation terms required to pull off a satisfying world to explore, some may sidestep this problem altogether by giving players the ability to shape a lot of the content of the world such as Wurm Online which focuses on letting players populate the world with buildings and so on.

It is unlikely that any one game would only fit into a single gameplay sphere, what actually tends to happen is that a game will have a hierarchy of spheres, some with greater importance than others. These might intersect partially or be entirely one on top of another. When designing a game, consider which gameplay spheres are of the greatest importance to the design, then ask yourself with each feature how that feature fits into the gameplay spheres if at all… It may highlight that a particular feature isn’t really all that appropriate for the game, in which case, consider removing the feature altogether or changing it to fit into the primary & secondary spheres that your game is already encompased by.

Some analysis suggests that for the most part, games tend to have a primary sphere and then one or more secondary spheres. In some cases, a game might have two primary gameplay spheres with roughly equal value, if we were to return to some survival horror games, these are on occasion equal measure gameplay as discovery and gameplay as experience as a dual primary sphere, with a secondary sphere of gameplay as challenge which deals mostly with helping to maintain the overall tension of the game.

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It’s unfortunate that World of Warcraft has reached quite the level of success it’s reported to have achieved, because now there’s rather a large number of executives out there who think they also need to produce their own version of this mythical ‘big thing’. Of course, despite it being 4 years since WoW began reaching towards it’s stratospheric heights, no one has successfully displaced WoW from it’s mantle, but why?

Well, firstly, World of Warcraft is based off of the Warcraft game world, which meant that the game already had a potential userbase of active gamers in the form of the RTS players (Note that, as time has gone on, RTS games have fallen out of favour with many publishers which means there’s been a relative shortage of those kinds of game to keep them in the RTS gameplay genre, so it’s not hard to believe they would try a different kind of game to continue to experience a lore set they were already comfortable with). Meanwhile, games like Lord of the Rings Online and Age of Conan are based on successful book series which have strong readerships but with people who may not be inclined to spend lots of time on a game.

However, the main reason for World of Warcraft’s success isn’t what they have done, but rather, what they haven’t done, which is to lose momentum. How? Well, firstly Blizzard had an unfair advantage, in that when the game was released the vast majority of players who were picking up didn’t really know what they were getting into and didn’t have expectations of some kind of ‘end game’ scenario to keep players going after reaching their maximum character level. They do now, which was unfortunate for Age of Conan, whose players were reaching the maximum level of 80 a mere month into the games release, but the game wasn’t ready to meet a core player expectation which is to have something to occupy their time after reaching the maximum level. Age of Conan had the potential to be hugely successful with initial sales proving to be very encouraging… Unfortunately Funcom lost momentum a mere month after the games release, though it has held onto a good number of players it lost more to a broken expectation of there being significant end game content, than it kept.

Another problem that will often be encountered is that many MMOs too often try to duplicate many of the core design elements of World of Warcraft, the problem being that there isn’t much point playing a new MMO if the gameplay of it is going to be exactly the same as an existing MMO that the player already has a moderate to high level character on it. You have to differentiate, possibly significantly.

Another issue relates to the visual style, people are far too quick to judge other MMO’s as looking like World of Warcraft (Sometimes even to the point of it not being a fair or accurate comparison), perhaps the best way of avoiding this is to avoid the fantasy setting alltogether, or reinvent it significantly by removing Elves with stupid pointy over-long ears (Ok, thats a personal gripe on a visual style I absolutely *hate*) and Dwarves with stupidly long beards, go back to the original myths and legends and re-invent it all, step away from the obvious.

Overall, you’ll have to face up to the issue of player expectations for an MMO. Firstly, you’ll need to communicate to potential players (Even long before release) what is and isn’t going to be in the game and then make sure players are hearing the communication and understanding of it. Secondly, listen to the expectations of the players and do some analysis of it and do your best to meet those expectations. It’s a balancing act between listening to players in order to adjust the game mechanics and listening to players and explaining that “No, we can’t put in Elves because thats what every other fricken fantasy MMO already has and we want to give you, the players, a fresh game experience”.

Another issue which I can’t stress enough – Make the game stable, if players are logging out because a quest didn’t work or because players didn’t know what they were getting into you again lose momentum. All quests should work at release or be left out of the release candidate altogether until they do work so that the player doesn’t run into bugs unnecessarily. Also on the subject of quest design, borrow a page from the design of Left 4 Dead – Try to break the quests into relatively short discreet segments and then build a quest system that makes it extremely easy to pick up where you left off, so that part time players are able to join in with even the most hard-core of quests. Boss encounters should probably just be given their own access point from the quest entrance so that as long as the previous quest tasks are complete the player doesn’t necessarily need to go through the whole quest all over again if they got to the boss but weren’t prepared for that particular encounter yet. In otherwords try not to force your player to do something they don’t want to do.

Avoid the problem of farming ultra rare items, a drop chance on an object production item (Like for a weapon, or armour or whatever) should NEVER be less than 2% if it’s just the one instance of that production item they need. Players don’t generally like wasting time grinding for gear, so don’t force them to, please. If you really must require players to put in effort, keep the drop chance relatively high and the number of units required higher instead. A drop chance of 1% may only drop once in 500 or a 1000 times for someone who is really unlucky (I’ve seen it happen in Age of Conan for example). EG instead of a drop chance of 1% for that 1 item you need, make it 3% for 3 units, it’s better that way as it limits frustration and can aid in satisfaction because even though the first drop is a mere third of the way, at least you’ve made some progress.

Perform analysis of which quests players complete, how many times and in relation to changes made to those quests. Perhaps more importantly, track which quests are cancelled or still sitting uncompleted in the quest logs of players who have unsubscribed, if you find that certain quests show up more often as incomplete or cancelled find out why and either change or remove the offending quest. For instance theres one or two quest chains in Lord of the Rings Online which are unpopular and difficult to find group members for and thats one reason why my subcription to the game lapsed.

Make sure the core gameplay is fun or thrilling, perhaps exciting to watch. Folks may disagree with me on this, but the core combat gameplay of most MMOs, including World of Warcraft is actually kind of boring, it would be nice for example if you could actually see your avatar properly fighting other avatars/mobs, hearing the clang of weapons as they actually make contact with eachother (Yeah, that system presents all sorts of potential implementation issues but it’s worth trying to do in my opinion). Also, a battle where the outcome can always be predicted should be avoided, I’d like to be able to pick a fight with a mob where my chances of winning are a bit low, but it’s still doable through skill or what-have-you. An interesting case study is Auto Assault, originally I was hearing good, positive buzz for the game until it was decided by someone that the game needed to copy the principles of item farming and levelling, a decision that destroyed the chances of the game with positive buzz quickly turning negative.

So that’s a bunch of the issues involved in making an MMO and why many MMOG’s suffer at launch. Overall, control and adapt to the expectations of your players – Obviously there is a balance to be struck, but you are serving the players, not the other way around.

Honestly though, I have an issue with the idea of trying to be as big as World of Warcraft (With WoW itself as well as pretenders to the throne). Make no mistake about it, World of Warcraft is operating a monopoly that is harmful to the games industry, I’d much rather see 10 MMOG’s with a million players each than one MMO with 10 million players – it means the players get more choice and it means there are more game developers and support staff with a day job, less people claiming income support or whatever. As WoW is so successful people treat the bally thing as a bench mark, with immature comparisons being made to it for every new MMO released whilst also forcing games development into being constrained down very narrow design routes because apparently you have to copy WoW’s gameplay in order to be successful (If you ask the people with the money, that is). Ok, I’m griping again.

Aims for the Summer

June 14, 2009

I get the impression that in the States, University runs through the middle of the year. In the UK however, it tends to run from September until June/July. This leaves several months during the summer to do… Things.

I’m now currently in the summer between my second and third years of University and whilst previously I might have spent plenty of time just playing and analysing games, this time I need to be better focused. For starters, thus far I’ve done some modelling and level design and bits and pieces. I’ve had to in-fill in a few areas where I’ve lacked knowledge and it hasn’t been taught, for instance, no time was spent on giving us the basics of photoshop (Though I understand this has since changed, partly on my recommendation).

Worst of all however, is that I don’t have a strong understanding of anything above mod making level. As far as I’m concerned this isn’t good enough, it’s all fine and well being able to chuck some static mesh models into a level and light them but if I hope to get anywhere in this business I need to form a stronger understanding of a proper tools pipeline and a working game engine. Plus, I’m not overly sure I’m happy with the depths of information taught on the theory side, fortunately a gent by the name of Ian Schreiber has been kind enough to put an online game design course on the web for free as a trial for a paid game design course.

Heres the full list of tasks I’ve set for myself during the next 16 or so weeks between now and the time my degree resumes for the third and final year:

  1. I’ve bought an indie license for Torque 3D, I aim to learn it well enough to use it in the third year, the documentation looks to be really strong which was why I was willing to put down the cash. I hope to, at the very least, build a framework for a mechanically straightforward adventure game set so that in year 3 I can focus on putting a game together instead of losing time to learning the engine. http://www.garagegames.com/
  2. I’ve already signed up for Ian Schreiber’ design course it conveniently runs during my down-time months which is all kinds of awesome. Plus, it’s clear that stuff that hasn’t been covered on my degree is going to come up on this course, such as prototyping. If game design is something your interested in, then I’d suggest you either sign up yourself or visit the site during the coming few months, either way, it’s bound to be interesting. http://gamedesignconcepts.wordpress.com/
  3. I’ve already paid for Develop in Brighton (The event itself, the hotel room and the train tickets at least), running from 14th-16th July it’s an event aimed primarily at game developers from a variety of fields including design, art, audio and plenty more. And students (like myself) get in for half price, though that’s still more than I would be likely to pay for a science fiction conference or something. Having been to two previous Develop conferences, I feel it’s good value for money. http://www.develop-conference.com/
  4. As my degree has an inevitable academic background to it, there’s a dissertation to be done as well, I understand that 6000 words is actually rather light for most dissertations and on the face of it that doesn’t sound like a lot. That said, I’ve been in situations where I’ve struggled to hit a 3k word count on an assignment for one reason or another. In order to reduce the chance of this happening I’m gonna need to put some advance work into it… I’ll leave the specifics of what I’m going to do for another blog post though.

That’s the full list, I’ve got several months, technically, but I know that those will all dissapear in the blink of an eye… So I won’t be counting months, I’ll be counting it in weeks and asking myself, what have I achieved this week and probably end up telling myself that’s not enough…

Great Expectations

June 9, 2009

It’s becoming increasingly clear that a bit of a disconnect has been building between games development and the folks who play the games over the past many years, but nowhere is this more evident than in the behaviour that occurs around the pre-release stage of a new game, from it’s initial announcement right up to it’s release and way beyond. The problem being that, as soon as you put the information out there, in the moments between it being read and being digested by the person doing the reading, the information changes simply by being observed and internalised.

An excellent example of this lies within the announcement of Left 4 Dead 2, note that I speak from the advantage of hindsight and connect claim to have predicted the announcement nor the reaction. Here it seems clear – to me at least – that the folks within Valve working on the original had developed so much enthusiasm for the concept that they found it extremely easy to dive into a mass of ways in which they could vary the gameplay to the extent that the result was similar to the original in only relatively superficial ways. Unfortunately, that’s not quite how the fans have percieved it, where the initial reaction was effectively one of rage.

A strong part of the basis for this is an assumption that the announcement a sequel pretty much automatically means that Valve were therefor going to fall back on further development of the original Left4Dead, which is a bit of a problem considering that Valve have built up a reputation for supporting games long after release and now gamers not only expect that to continue, many demand it. The road to hell is truly paved with best intentions.

Part of the problem might be in the name, sequel usually means full price and though they probably don’t represent the majority, there are a number of folks who feel that they haven’t yet gotten value for money out of their Left4Dead purchase, it’s a bit subjective though, afterall the game does have around 20 levels even if they are divided up into 4 specific campaigns, I’m not personally convinced that L4D was bad value for money, even at release. Perhaps much of this anger could’ve been avoided by calling it an expansion pack, Left4Dead: New Orleans or a name with a tinge of dark humour to it (Though at the moment I can’t think of a good name to use), time will tell how this situation is going to be handled.

Meanwhile, take a look at the sequel heavy nature of the industry in general, any game that has been well recieved, particularly games like say Deus Ex & Thief will develop a fanbase who has grown quite comfortable with the existing gameplay mechanics. The moment a sequel gets announced what do you think is the first expecation players will form for the sequel? Yep, that’s right – More of the same, but different. As such, if you plan to make wholesale changes to a core gameplay mechanic (Such as the climbing gloves in Thief: Deadly Shadows) you might want to consider how to bend the players expectations instead of breaking them. For a start, if you are going to make a massive change to core gameplay, just rename it otherwise it’s going to get unfairly judged against it’s predecessor – Just take a look at Deus Ex Invisible War, not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but the core design was so far away from the comfort zone of existing fans that the reaction was reportedly unpleasant to behold.

Of course, it’d be nice if certain groups of gamers were less prone to an emotional over-reaction, but in the absence of that it’s probably better to change a few design ethics to take this behaviour into account, than it is to try and change the mindset and attitudes of thousands of gamers, who seem to have stopped listening to reason.

That said, I can understand why folks prefer rope/vine arrows to climbing gloves, the item scarcity gives them extra value, the effort of having to stop and aim them means they can’t be abused as an easy way of getting out of trouble and frankly, the sound of your arrow successfully lodging itself in the wood is significantly more satisfying that a leathery wall climbing noise. But then, hindsight is 20/20 and there might have been good technical reasons for why putting rope arrows in Deadly Shadows wasn’t possible.