Revisions to A New World

March 15, 2011

I’ve been revisiting my Uni project recently and looking at the colony production/consumption chart and the interface notes I had for managing production I found I wanted to make some changes.

Old Version:

New Version:

You’ll notice a number of the buildings are gone, deemed somewhat unnecessary. In this fictional setting, the residential blocks are setup as a sort of self contained living, shopping and recreation zone – With music halls, theatres, shops and all sorts of other basic amenities in addition to housing. Second, the chart takes into account that many of the goods are consumed by people rather than buildings which may or may not be crowded.

Bio Plastic Crops were added, because when you’re setting up a colony on an alien world, there’s not likely to be any fossil fuels from which to make plastics.

Note also that the Life Support, Mine/Smelter, Agriculture, Factory & Laboratory are facilities that produce more than one sort of good, each with their own production capacities and this would be reflected in the user interface.

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Not long ago I posted two diagrams showing the layout of an island and a sequence of actions required to ‘complete’ the game, here’s the island layout.

And here’s what I’ve put together so far in the last 24 hours (and slept):

Where I am so far:

I’ve built the general layout of the island. There’s a ton of tweaking to with the textures/terrain shape and those trees are place-holder assets that come with Torque 3D.

In addition to that there’s placement of the camera/scene transition triggers and objects the player interacts with…

…Which means I’d need to create the following assets (World objects and frequently inventory icons) – Trees, Ship wreck, Cooking Utensils (Pot with water in it), Sharp Knife, Axe, Sewing Kit, Jug, Map & Compass, Damaged sail, Repaired sail, Logpile, Incomplete Raft, Complete Raft, Vines, Coconuts, a Boar (Boars meat as an icon), a player character/avatar, Long stick, Spear, Berries (& a bush), Cave entrance/Interior. Since I can’t really use Maya without breaking the law now (Can’t afford my own copy) I’ve got a book on Blender and plan to learn using that, guess I’ll have to learn the Blender – Collada – Torque DTS workflow for that.

And whilst I’ve scripted out the code for camera position/scene changing, I haven’t yet built the UI, nor coded the picking up & using of items.

There’s a long way to go. Might focus on the coding side of things once I’ve done the scene transition triggers before I worry about making tons of art assets. Decisions decisions.

 

One Page Concept: Discovery

September 8, 2010

I figure I’m overdue to put some new content here, so here’s something to mull over. Exploration is the central focus of the game, many games which lean heavily on exploration as part of the gameplay have done, shall we say, rather well. The Myst series, World of Warcraft, The Fallout Series, The Elder Scrolls series. We do love exploration, us gamers.

Discovery

A game of exploration

Goals: The players’ role is effectively that of a cartographer, and must explore the continent/island whilst attempting to achieve four main goals/achievements:

1. Discover all the places of importance – Something to tell the children.

2. Find a mate – For a lasting legacy (Different partners have different requirements before they’ll like you, though maybe that’s a bit old fasioned. Examples might be, chase a fallen star, like out of Star Dust, or protect the local wildlife from some threat)

3. Earn (Amount) – Retirement is expensive

4. Buy/Build a house – Have someone to settle down following your exploits

The above are the main ‘achievements’ to be pursued in the game, there are also minor achievements which can help enable completion of the major achievements. Notice that whilst there is combat as an option, it’s intended to be mostly out of the way, creatures wandering the wilderness will generally be tame or only aggressive when defending territory, aggressive monsters will only be found in dungeons/deep-caves and you don’t have to go inside one to ‘discover’ it, just find the entrance.

The game plays in first person, though it might be wise to move to third person for any close quarters combat with swords (etc). The game will fit well with console systems that require ‘achievement’ functionality as choosing and achieving goals is the primary focus of the game.

Possible places to discover by type:

Man made – Fortresses (Some abandoned), Pirate Cove(?), Villages/Towns, The Great Bridge, Lighthouse, Quarry, All piers.

Coastal – Island, Beach, Coastal Cave, (Coastal) Cliff face, Archipelago,

Inland – Mountain peak, Cave, Glade, Cliff face, Tar pit, valleys, Mountain walkway, fallen star landing site.

Inland water – Waterfall, Fjord, Marsh/Swamp, Lake/Pool/Pond, Oasis

Possible professions the player can pursue (Note that adventuring can involve killing and finding things as either/or):

Finding things – Hunting, gathering (berries etc), Archaeology, Adventuring, Mining, Thieving(?)

Creating things – Smithing, Woodworking/Carpentry, Farming

Killing things – Bounties (Hunting Criminals), Adventuring

Smuggling(Illegal goods)/Trading

Unlike many roleplaying games, this isn’t a land that’s under threat from some great big evil. In a way, it’s a game-ified medieval life simulator.

Lately I’ve been growing increasingly concerned about an over-emphasis on simplicity, there seems to be this assumption that simplicity is ‘the goal’, the thing to strive for in games, that your game will sell better if only you can make it that little bit simpler.

Honestly I just don’t agree, it’s too easy, too simple an answer, it almost sounds like an assumption. Ok, granted, there’s historical precedence for it, the early side view fighting games would have a punch button and a kick button and they’d combine that with how you were moving and lots of people got into it despite it just being a game about fighting. Then they added more buttons – three kinds of kick, three kinds of punch – WOW this is progress! Look at it, isn’t it great!…

…Except it wasn’t, by adding those extra buttons they lost me because I didn’t want to play a game that forced me to have 6 standard attacks and combos. If they’d allow me to play the game through once or twice without having to worry about combos however, I might have given it a chance. You see, it’s not the complexity that is the problem, it’s your introduction to the complexity where the danger is because if you get the introduction to the complexity wrong (Introducing too much, too quickly or with insufficient explanation) you break the game for some or most of your players (depending on how fortunate you were). I found the jumps between difficulty in one of the Guitar Hero games nightmarish, especially later on, I really needed the option to have 2.5a & 2.5b difficulties, one where the overall pace would go up and one where the next column of button presses are added so that I can get used to each of the two elements of added difficulty in separation before going up to difficulty 3.0.

Simplicity can be valuable from a designer perspective – start with something simple, then build it up slowly overtime, evaluating each element you attempt to add both for its own inherent complexity and for how easy it is to introduce a player to that element, you might need to experiment with different ways of doing that introduction and that’s fine and natural. Simplifying things for the sake of simplicity though, I feel that’s dangerous because it risks you avoiding introducing an element to a game that sets it apart from the competition and that’s boring for the people who actual want a little bit of variety in their games. (Plenty of people say they want games to be completely different, whole new ideas, not sure about that either, it can be hard to get people to buy into a completely new idea, not saying it isn’t worth doing but you have to consider carefully how to approach the audience when doing it, so that what they’re expecting is what they’ll get. Setting the right expectations is an art form, not many have mastered it, too many seem to assume that the way to do it is to simply control information to stop the wrong bits leaking out)

Simplicity can be good for the player too, I’m sure many of us are familiar with interest graphs/flow channels (The last time I saw it mentioned was in Jesse Schells The Art of Game Design), where a game starts simple and then grows in difficulty as the player becomes more experienced; the same applies to complexity, if we’re going to add complexity, it should generally happen over time, making sure that at each step where complexity rises the game continues to be interesting/fun/enjoyable to play. Spore fell into this trap, there’ve been reports of people who were quite happy to play the first stage of the game and never venture forward, in some cases that first stage was just the sort of thing that person wanted and that’s fine, the question is, how good was the introduction to stage 2?

Ok, let’s move on:

“I’m going to make this game simple to try to reach an audience not usually interested in games!”

Woah, hold on there bucko, why aren’t these people interested in games? Maybe it’s because people are quite content with books and TV and film and don’t feel the need to try new things… That, also, is fine. What about the sort of person who says they’re “not interested” in games though, why is that?

I think it’s a problem with perception personally, there’s this idea that’s gotten out there (Just as where all comics now are apparently just about people in tights punching eachother in the crotch, which turned into a self fulfilling prophecy – the market for comics is mostly super heroes because the audience has come to mostly expect super heroes) that all games are just for kids, just for people obsessed with violence, just for people addicted to “that sort of thing” and unfortunately, there’s a lot out there in the old media world that’s re-enforcing that view, we’ve got the newspapers that love to make stuff up about games (my particular favourite is claiming that violent games would lead to a surge in violent behaviour, despite the statistics saying otherwise) and particularly troublesome TV shows that like to abuse the existing misconceptions, it really doesn’t help that adverts for violent games like Grand Theft Auto (and soon Red Dead Redemption, I’m sure) also play on the telly, further cementing this misconception. Farmville has helped, yes, but its cute visuals re-enforce the notion that games are for children and the audience on facebook is already tech savvy to at least some degree, it is the people who are not on Facebook that we haven’t reached yet. These people have had a bad introduction to games before even picking a game up and ultimately, I feel that is the obstacle we need to climb over: A combination of making sure that there are interesting games getting into the public eye which avoid the predictable themes of space marines and elves & orcs that also do a good job of introducing people to simple or complex (or where ever you end up between those extremes) games.

So simplicity IS good, just please don’t do it for the wrong reasons or in a way that could be harmful to the end product.

I should probably also make clear that a good introduction doesn’t merely show you how to play the game, it should show or hint at how/why you’re going to enjoy the game, sometimes that doesn’t happen.

Earth & Beyond may not be a title you’re particularly familiar with – it was a space centric MMOG (Massively Multiplayer Online Game) being developed by Westwood and released in September 2002. Sadly, if MMOG charts is any indication (http://www.mmogchart.com/charts/), it didn’t exactly set the world on fire and peaked at around 40,000 players. Its players still hold a certain amount of animosity towards Electronic Arts (which bought Westwood back in 1998) and blame EA for the games lackluster performance.

I have fond memories of this game myself, I would read course materials for an Open University Computer Science  Degree (which became an abbortive degree attempt when I realised whilst struggling with a Java programming module that the final project requires you to use Java, a language I was learning I just didn’t have an aptitude for) whilst my space ship would be travelling from sector to sector doing trade runs or perhaps whilst exploring. Eventually the game was shut down (referred to as being ‘sunset’) in Sept 2004 and sadly I was too busy working on Open Uni work to visit for the closing down ceremonies. Earth & Beyond has recently been reborn in the form of an emulator project (http://enb-emulator.com/) and the people behind it are currently running stress tests, funded through donations from folks who have come back for its return. This has provided me with an opportunity to revisit it and I’ve been re-examining the game and seeing what I’m happy with and what I’m unhappy with, I’m going to break this game down into a few pieces and discuss it here…

(Disclaimer: The comments here are not intended as a reflection of the emulation project, but rather as a reflection of the original game itself, many issues will inevitably have carried over to the emulation project but that is not really the fault of the project which seeks to become like the original game as best as possible then expand from that point onwards)

Progression & Skills

One of the primary aspects of any game is in the progression, how does the game change as time goes on, what drives the player forward. In MMOGs the progression tends to centre around the concept of character levels (There are exceptions of course) and Earth & Beyond isn’t an exception to this rule in general terms. It does however take a slightly different approach – sub dividing 1 overall level down into three seperate roles – combat, exploration & trade. This has upsides and downsides, it gives a visible indicator of how you’ve progressed in the game but it also means that if you want to reach maximum overall level (150, at which point all experience goes into a single pool rather than each sub type progressing separately) you’ll have to do tasks that you might not otherwise choose to do. They wisely kept the crafting of equipment out of the equation except in the token way of contributing some points to one of the existing progression sets so analysing an object to work out what its composed of contributes to the exploration pool (your exploring how the device works) and making objects such as ammunition & shields contributes to trade experience. Not all of the character archetypes/classes have a strong manufacture element and not all of them can mine so to put those prominently as their own experience grouping would be problematic. Ultimately, I like this three tiered experience system as it lends the players an additional amount of agency “Shall I work towards exploration experience today, or maybe do some trade or combat, perhaps all three?”, this addition isn’t strictly necessary, you could streamline the whole thing out but the overall game would suffer for it.

I should also mention that each character class has a different selection of skills they start with and can get, theres some cross over especially in the core skills like shield skill, weapon skill and so on. The skills have their own requirements for advancement (in effect this is an alternative to the skill/ability tree system that some other MMOGs use) where missile weapons level 3 might require combat level 21 or 18 (etc) depending on which character class you’re playing. The skills system is a little problematic in that if you make a mistake when upgrading a skill you can’t undo it without the aid of a level 135 Progen Sentinel that has the ‘Call Forward’ ability (currently disabled in the emulator project as far as I’m aware), so for instance if I’ve decided to forgo upgrading beam weapons to focus on projectile weapons instead but accidentally upgrade beam weapons without thinking it through first I have to go through significiant effort to correct a mistake that is rather too easy to make (namely finding and meeting a progen sentinel willing to help out).

Inventory related – Trading, mining, manufacturing

There just isn’t enough cargo hold space, you get more as you increase in character levels, but the increases are small (2-4 cargo spaces every 10-25 levels). When mining if you don’t find resource fields that are of one type you can quickly fill up your cargo hold and be unable to get more minerals without first dumping a stack of ores (or what have you) that you’ve already collected. At a guess, it’s a database issue – that the developers were concerned about the impact of large cargo holds on ships, yet I still wish there were more slots even though it might be necessary to tone down the amount of trade xp earned for each crate of trade goods as a result.

On the subject of trade goods, most of them aren’t even worth bothering with – once you’ve learned about which trade routes are the better ones  you won’t even glance at the lower rated trade goods (level IV/V tend to be the best, there aren’t higher rated ones) and as a result you’ll get a high proportion of players following just 2 or 3 trade routes creating a potential performance issue in the handling of traffic in each sector. The player will rarely feel compelled to pick up trade goods as they travel from place to place even if they have a map to pre-plan routes, instead choosing only to do trade runs when they actually choose to do trading. There are also trade missions, but I haven’t really looked at them as they appear to be more for high level characters generally and it takes a while to reach high levels in the game (Theres a mission system built into the game, where you can get privateer like missions from mission terminals and serves as an extra alternative way of earning cash, experience and positive reputation with the games various factions). By putting in more high level trade routes that run around the outskirts of known space rather than just through the middle to Somerled station and back you spread the load out across the other sectors and reduce the risk of poor performance in one line of sectors.

Manufacturing meanwhile has significant usability issues, where information about what is required to build a component or equipment is only actively visible whilst the player is viewing the manufacturing interface. If the player then decides to build that device, it is necessary to walk to a vendor to buy the equipment, because the manufacture interface is now closed (it only opens when you use it, and places the avatar in a ‘busy’ state so you’re stuck there until you exit it) it becomes necessary to either write the components needed on paper or in a captains log facility (basically, think of it as a multi-paged version of notepad.exe that is built into the game itself). This is a waste of the players time and the game could do a much better job of supporting manufacture, perhaps by allowing the player to purchase the components required through the manufacture interface itself on condition that there is a vendor on the station that sells each of the required components.

Edit: Also, I can’t help but wonder if there’s really any harm in having a the ability to transfer stuff between characters through an extra slot of storage spaces in the players vault that is maintained between all the characters on an account. If the player wants to put in the effort of having multiple characters and having one of these characters be an object builder, then they should be able to without needing a second account or a helpful other player to move built devices between one players characters. /End edit.

On the subject of vendors, the games equivalent of shops, there is no at a glance indicator of what level(s) of objects are being sold by a vendor. This is especially proplematic in the case of component sellers where you might have to go up and speak to each vendor until you find the one selling the level 3 components you need to make that ammunition, again, wasting the players precious time unnecessarily. Some of the vendors will tell you the level of equipment being sold during the “hi, I’m shop vendor x and I sell items type y & z” but not all – the emulator project folks are addressing that to some extent by updating the shop intro texts to more clearly state what they’re selling but I think the situation could be improved further by putting numbers on the storeholders ‘shop type’ flags that hang from the vendor stalls as below. This isn’t an attempt to streamline the game, but rather a matter of not wasting the players time with weak handling of information.

Missions

This area is a little bit problematic as well, often times a mission will have requirements which may or may not be explained to the player, a mission that gives the player a ‘build shields’ skill might require Combat Level 14 but until you actually reach combat level 14 the non-player-character won’t acknowledge the possibility of the mission at all. There are several instances where an NPC does tell the player that he/she is not experienced enough to take on the task, but then does not tell the player what those requirements are – this can lead to the player running around looking to see if the missions have actually become available on occasion, wasting their time yet again. This is basically a case of poor feedback, not telling the player what is required to progress and shouldn’t really be allowed. I suspect some people would try to claim this is ‘dumbing the game down’ whatever that is actually supposed to mean and whilst I agree that sometimes games seem too streamlined often times ultimately it was right for the game and possibly also right for the target audience.

Combat

I hate to say it, but the combat was lacklustre and doesn’t really give you the sense of being in a spaceship flying about shooting at things. Whilst you can fly around a fair bit with missile weapons which will automatically wind their way to a targetted hostile regardless of your position or facing, the beam and projectile weapons require you to be looking in the general direction of the enemy and you inevitably end up with two turrets sitting almost perfectly still in space firing at eachother until one of the two combatants is dead, combat skills try to liven up things a bit but really only serve to provide you with a few extra buttons to press whilst your ship sits there turreting the opponent. Depending on which character class you play, fighting monsters and villians can be very unforgiving or almost comically easy, particularly with the use of a tactic called ‘kiting’ where you stay out of the range of an enemy by flying directly away from it whilst firing missiles to the aft, the only thing that slows you down with this tactic is running out of reactor energy. More could be done to make movement a stronger part of the combat, perhaps monsters have weaker armour on the sides or back so that players are encouraged to try and outmaneuvre opponents instead of just sitting there watching health bars slowly empty and occasionally pressing a button.

Overall

However, despite the games few weaknesses, it remains a compelling game – the 3 tiered levelling system gives the player a feeling of a greater degree of control over what to focus on with their character and despite being many years old the game still looks fantastic. There are some slight issues with the animations on certain player characters (at the avatars waistline) but this is only a problem if you’re looking for it. Its strongest aspect is the sense of place, of being there – space stations (the busier ones at least) regularly get the hustle and bustle of people going about their business whilst audio adverts for companies and other factions in the game world play in the background and theres plenty to explore. If you’ve played the game before and missed it, it’s worth revisiting and donating a bit to help the emulator project staff do their thing.

http://www.enb-emulator.com/

Peripheral Vision

August 20, 2009

Update 4th October 2009: Just a quick mention that I’ve spotted a small flaw in this since I posted it, I’d overlooked the fact that the first person view does actually tend to have a little bit of curvature around the sides of the viewpoint, none-the-less I still hold to my viewpoint that those curved sides could have their reach extended to create the affect described below…

In  First Person Shooters, the players viewpoint does not take into account the peripheral view range of a typical human, who can normally see left/right across a range of more than 180 degrees.

As such, any game which involves situational awareness but locks itself into the first person viewpoint encounters a limitation that forces the player to consistently look around, when in actuality a normal human should not need to do this to the same extent.

Often, this limitation will be corrected for by including a mini map in the game, which represents some limited information on the environment and the relative positions of the player and any opponents and allies in a location. This is insufficient to account for the limited viewpoint problem because really its more of a solution for a different problem, that of aiding teamwork or assessing the number of enemies on a 2d flat plane instead of a full 3d view of events in the players current location (Alternatively you could use 3rd person view, however this is an aesthetic choice that not all players will be comfortable with).

Additionally, you can often end up with a situation where the player focuses on the minimap more than the actual on screen 3D events or alternatively, in an information overload situation, where the player is having to watch the minimap, the main 3D view, the health information, a toolbar, and so on; all at the same time – The minimap could be the straw that breaks the camels back.

Imagine, instead that the left and right-most 10% of the screen is actually split up into 5 instances of rendered view. At these segments, each segment that is further from straight ahead (0 degrees) is an additional 20 degrees from the forward view. The result would be 11 instances of the rendered view, with the central 80% looking straight ahead whilst the left and right edges of the screen would wrap around to simulate the peripheral vision of the player character.

Usage

A system such as this would be useful in reducing the necessity of a tactical minimap whilst still giving the player a wide view of events happening in game.

Alternatively, this might be particularly effective in a horror game where the monsters have a curious habit of attacking the player from the sides (Even when they run towards the player from behind), giving the player a (Small) chance to go through a sequence of sight, fright & reaction rather than just suddenly getting hit by an attack without even having a chance to respond to it (This may have been why I disliked Doom 3 so much, for example).

Potential Issues

Whilst some games have successfully implemented multiple views on a single screen simultaeneously, its pretty rare, no doubt because of the difficulty of running multiple instances of the 3d renderer together. To the best of my knowledge, it has never been done on the scale of running 11 instances of a 3D renderer at the same time. Indeed, there is some question as to whether a setup like this would run at all without taxing older graphics cards beyond breaking point, some version of the concept may have been prototyped elsewhere and abandoned as unfeaseable (Though it may have been some time ago).

There are potential usage issues, a view setup such as this may be nauseating to some users and testing would be necessary to ensure this is not the case. On the other hand, if the system does create merely a sense of unease then this might make the concept even more well suited to a horror game.

The actual implementation itself could prove to be awkward as each segment of the wrap around effect would need to link to eachother perfectly, though there is the possibility that a single line of grey pixels could fake the interior edges of a helmet with glass/perspex visor to reduce the potential impact of that problem.

Lastly, there is some question as to how well the system would react to different screen resolutions and the interchange thereof.

None-the-less, if this were to be implemented, especially for a horror game, it could set a new benchmark for first person shooting.

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.