Wednesday, March 19, 2008


“Conflict is the beginning of consciousness.” M. Esther Harding

Ah conflict. The root of all gaming (for me at least). It may be true that nearly all games are based around conflict, whether it be violent (blood and gore) or simply competitive (times, scores). I have to agree that conflict simply makes challenges more personal. Challenge without conflict does become predictable, much in the sense that challenge without conflict becomes boring. They come hand in hand.

As I have mentioned in nearly every post before this one, I am a fan of the violent type of conflict/competition that is found in so many games today. How boring, yes I know. I do think it is worth mentioning though that I personally prefer to play these sort of games co-operatively or with a team of people, whether that be humans vs humans, or humans vs bot/npcs. To me this style of gaming is very appealing as it forces team work and co-operation and generates positive gaming mechanics (healing a friend, covering the flag carrier, assisting the defence etc...). So far to date the most enjoyable experience I have had in this area of gaming was Serious Sam (the original) with a group of 7 friends. Epic.

Below: Serious Sam - YEEEEEHAWW!!!!

It is necessary though to distinguish other sorts of conflict and competition in gaming, lest game designers get funneled into thinking that a competitive game has to be violent. An example of non violent competition can even be seen in economic models in MMOs. Using something as simple as the auction house in WoW, you will find many users not only competing for items to bid the lowest price on, but people who wish to sell their items for less than the lowest person (known as undercutting). This is a contest involving gold and greed that is not really a big deal, but nevertheless often results in some angry customers.

Below: WoW AH - Sif undercut me you #!*$@^!

Is conflict and competition necessary? In my opinion, some form of either is necessary for a game to be a game and not simply a form of leisure. A leisure activity it is, yes, but you would hardly call sitting in a virtual rainforest listening to the rain a 'game'. Something needs to be happening. Even in a game such as Audiosurf, a recent music themed game combining elements of racers and tetris, has competition in it, as enjoyable as the game is. Online scoring of music 'tracks' generated by the game's engine are often a source of player's re-playability of the game. After all, beating 'Killer747' at your favourite song who lives in ... somewhere ... is the most important thing in the world after all. Even solitaire has minor competition in it, if you take the time it takes to complete and the tactfulness of play into account (though not many people do).

Below: AudioSurf - seizure inducing fun ftw!

About the only game I know of that doesn't have some form of conflict or competition (even in an AI or scripted sense) would be the Sims. Which is unusual because it is apparently the highest selling PC game at the moment. Is that because the majority of gamers (i.e. casuals) prefer a lack of conflict/competition in their gaming? Interesting...

I do agree however that a degree of unpredictability and uncertainty in gaming is necessary for it to be wholly enjoyable. Uncertainty, whether that be ignorance of an encounter or the skill level of another opponent, results in challenging and refreshing gameplay, even if it does turn out to be rather easy. Even games that are largely based on random number generators can have high levels of unpredictability which can still be considered skillful and not entirely random (e.g. WoW PvP). Although I do not really believe that games require complete unpredictability to be entertaining, let alone skillful. Hardcore competitive FPS shooters and strategy games are games that are both incredibly skillful and unpredictable. However, compared to games like Guitar Hero which also requires a large amount of skill, it also tends to be rather predictable even if you have mastered it on expert difficulty and played it long enough.

So what does this mean in terms of games design, and more importantly in our board game protptype entitled currently as 'King of the Hill'? There will be competitive play, that has been established. Players will compete against each other to be the best at this game which will require the reaching and holding of a priority node (in this case the top of the hill). The idea of introducing co-operative play (i.e. underdogs teaming up on the leading player/s) is still in debate. It could be entirely optional or forced when one player starts leaving everyone in the dust. Historically, King of the Hill games have been about the lone winner, beating everyone else who had teamed up against him or her. Introducing cooperative play in this sense would possibly result in interesting alliance-switching games that should be both longer and more enjoyable, as well as greater glory for the eventual winner.

The rolling of dice will fulfill the role of the random number generator, adding unpredictability to the game. Strategy can be added if the allowance on directional movement goes through, considering the environment for play is linked (circular spiral based). Ambushing or cutting off opponents could add interesting elements to the gameplay. These topics and many related issues are currently in discussion amongst our team's members and should hopefully be resolved in the following weeks to come.

"When one ceases from conflict, whether because he has won, because he has lost, or because he cares no more for the game, the virtue passes out of him." Charles Horton Cooley

Put Dispenser Here!

Having not had a lecture for ITB016 yet this week and requiring an additional 2 blog posts before submission tomorrow, I thought I might discuss something that has been on my mind lately that has affected my gaming experience to a slight degree. As it is to do slightly with gaming Demographics and not completely with games Design (and the next lecture), consider this an off topic personal post with a focus on more psychological aspects of games design. While I don't like making these blog posts too opinionated or focused around my experiences or beliefs, I do think a reflection on personal gaming experiences would assist in my Games Design ability.

I used to be (and still am to a slight degree) a hardcore FPS gamer. Not being a fan of Counter-Strike, I was left with the Unreal Tournament's and Quake's of earlier years which I personally had more fun with. Although I loved strategy games (Red Alert, Dark Reign, Warcraft 3), sometimes even to death (Total Annihilation) I would still consider myself to be a better FPS action gamer than anything else. I would play against bots, online with friends and randoms and then eventually with friends I knew. If I could highlight any section of my gaming 'career', it would have to be the LANs I had with friends back during high school.

Below: The result of an ancient battle between friends.

During this time, I would never get annoyed or frustrated with the concept of death in these games. Getting 'fragged' so to speak was something that just happened, sometimes completely unavoidable. Spawning, rearming and getting back into the fight was nothing to be worried about. It was a part of the game and would not even make me blink or recognize as a 'negative' factor.

Then along came a game called World of Warcraft. At first, WoW was quite alien to me. Having played Diablo and other RPGs in the past, I was uncertain of WoW's unnatural MMO style of interaction and felt awkward with both the various chat (socializing) and combat (hit buttons to perform abilities) method of control. I started as an Undead Warlock, having no idea what anything was anyway. It was both fun and frustrating, bordering on addiction, but not quite at a level to absorb me completely, mainly because of several gameplay flaws and imbalances which I believe I have mentioned previously. Soon enough though, I leveled to around level 20 and headed off to Hillsbrad Foothills....

... where I was promptly ganked* (while picking a herb). One shotted to be more accurate, by some weird looking dude of skull level who simply appeared out of nowhere. "That's odd," was my first reaction, as I had never died so quickly before or to something that just simply appears. Having ran back to my corpse and started moving on it wasn't long until it happened again. And again. And again. It took me awhile to realize I had become a victim of 'corpse camping', where higher level players will attack and kill lower level players simply for the joy of irritating them. This is more formally known as 'World PvP' or Player Vs Player combat in an open environment. I eventually ended up doing some small scale PvP myself (though I usually attacked higher levels), and eventually upon hitting 70 (on two characters) really only PvP anyway (though in fair instanced scenarios), but by god, getting ganked and corpse camped repeatedly was the most frustrating game experience I have ever had.

Below: WoW PvP - Warsong Gulch and being corpse camped by a bastard.

But hang on! Death in games where you can simply come back to life were not supposed to irritate me. Why did they now? The answer was simple. Time. WoW is the sort of game that you unfortunately have to give copious amounts of time towards to get anywhere, especially leveling. You create an avatar which, through time (and effort) personifies your existence and reasons for playing the game in the first place. Whether this be through gear, or role or reputation, you cannot achieve any without time, and without them you are simply nobody. Time, or more particularly the wasting of time, and even more particularly the wasting of it by someone else, with the inability to do anything about it to your 'character' is incredibly annoying.

Below: Dying in TF2 shouldn't be irritating (it happens), but sometimes it is...

So, when I returned back to FPS gaming after giving WoW a much needed break, I noticed that I was (and still do) get angry or a little annoyed when I die in FPS games. This never used to happen, especially considering the inconsequential factors of FPS games and the little time requirements. So why was I getting angry over something that really did not matter?

Having read an article about MUD's by Richard Bartle, I was intrigued about the section explaining the 'Killer' sterotype of people who play MMORPGs (the other three were Explorers, Achievers and Socializers). To be fair, everyone apparently has varying levels of degrees of these types of gaming styles which, while I won't explain in depth here, I found I mainly related to the 'Killer' type. What was interesting though is that it discussed an egotistical attachment to a player's character, that when disrupted or threatened (i.e. killed) creates varying levels of anger, resentment and even helplessness (explaining the sickening feeling when you are getting ganked). What I seemed to have done was transfer over this egotistical attachment of my character to competitive FPS games, which was ridiculous as I only ever played those games for fun (not to win or be victorious).

So, after a very long winded post, what does all this information mean from a games design perspective? In my opinion, it means that gaming should not really be viewed on an individual game level, rather more universally. Games, ideas, play styles, beliefs and even (in my case) views on games and gaming aspects can and will be transfered and even be stimulated/evolved from other gaming material in popular culture. Reasons for why certain aspects of games do and don't work can stem directly from similar aspects in other games, and feelings gamers get from exploring particular content can be similarly expressed in other games of the same nature. Understanding the demographic 'level' that the general public is currently engaged in and catering games design around that will be an important aspect to the success of future games.

Below: UT Online - Winning: as fun as losing

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Witty blog title about Clear Interaction and Goals

Getting lost, getting stuck, not having the motivation to continue, running back to the start or simply missing some obviously important key or crystal located underneath an empty can of baked beans in woop woop land are all examples of unclear interactivity and gaming goals. The problem is that they are inherent in so many games, it ceases to be funny.

If you have ever found yourself victim to any of the above mentioned conditions (or any similar) then you can relate to this post. When immersed in a game only to find that you are either unable to continue for unknown reasons or to realize you need to travel all the way back to the start to do X thing, it is normal for frustration and annoyance to be the response. Gaming, something that should be enjoyable, is not something that should ideally contain these elements.

Two examples, both different, I will use to prove my point in this case. Soldier of Fortune 2, a game I had a great deal of fun with at LANs with friends back in the day, had an uncanny knack of kicking the player out onto the street in the singleplayer campaign. Although the maps were rather linear, the direction and even objectives in some of the locations were extremely vague. You would eventually find your way to the end by simply hugging walls and jumping on/opening everthing that looked like it could be interacted with. Passages that were blocked and could be 'cleared' via gunfire or explosive gave no visual indication other than being another random pile of crap in the corner. Although I eventually finished the game (and still had an immense amount of fun) it is a game that really didn't need to be so confusing, considering the Rambo style shooter that it is.

Below: SoF2. A very peaceful game.

Another game, and one that will draw both resentment and acknowledgment for discussing, is actually (unfortunately) World of Warcraft. As great a game as this is (and I am not being sarcastic when I say this) there are several major flaws in the quest and leveling system, particularly between levels 25-35. At this level, there is virtually no information on where you should quest next or where the heck you should head off to. I originally believed that this was simply a flaw in the Horde leveling scheme but I have also heard the same from many Alliance players. It is also (and I can back this up with evidence) the most common levels for people to stop playing the game. I know 3 individuals, two horde and one alliance, who all stopped leveling and playing the game at some point because of a lack of influence on where to move on to and motivation to keep playing. Fortunately these people did not obtain the crack like addiction that WoW can cause and although one of them returned briefly to level a further 10 levels later on, none of them continued playing the game.

Below: WoW - Desolace, the 'WTF am I doing here?' zone.

Despite this small flaw (and others involving PvP balance and the caters for casual/hardcore players), World of Warcraft is still (in my opinion) one of the best designed games in the history of gaming. Although I do not play the game anymore (may start again when WotLK comes out) I was motivated to level both a warlock and warrior to 70. This fact alone, as well as the fact that it is the most popular online game in the world, is why (despite my biffs with it) it is still one of the best games around.

However it is obvious that even the king of games suffers from unclear interaction and gaming goals. As a game designer, it is important to know that keeping the player aware, motivated and most of all directed are the most vital aspects to keeping them playing the game and enjoying it. Hopefully this knowledge can be passed on in future endeavors.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Designing Experience

Everyone has different play styles and methods in gaming, which, depending on the methods and play styles used, will alter one's gaming experience. Sometimes this can be seen as negative, such as laughing your way through Doom 3 or playing Guitar Hero with your feet, but as long as keeps the player engaged it shouldn't be considered a bad thing. In fact, it is sometimes the diversity in play style and demographics that can enhance the gaming experience to more enjoyable or even hardcore levels (such as Tekken Torture).

I ran an experiment a long time ago, back in grade 11 when my friends and I would run LAN parties at a local private hall. We would play Unreal Tournament until the waking hours, usually co-op or team oriented (CTF) game modes, but occasionally the odd Deathmatch. These matches were usually dominated by a select few but it wasn't until I decided to demo record a few of the matches that I began to see how very different everyone played from each other. Some were very methodical about their killing, cautious and clear headed taking their time. Some were rather frenetic, bordering on the berserk, running into empty rooms with guns blazing shooting at invisible spirits like they were Ghost Busters or something. A few were even timid, hiding for the majority for the map until they could pick up the most overpowering weapon in the arena and blow everyone to high hell with it. There were even a few who were rather care free in their placement of... well themselves, which I would simply call 'suicidal'.

Below: Clan war screenshot from 2003 (Gr 11)

Whatever the playstyle, I was surprised to see that everyone still had as much fun playing the game as I did, even though we were all on very different skill levels and all had our own ideas about how to play the game. This free form, 'play-it-how-you-want-to' style of gaming has really influenced my ideas of how games should be made: with freedom. Freedom of play allows players to explore the gaming experience at their own pace without any unnecessary pressures or expectations. They will develop their own tactics and strategies which (as mentioned from a previous post) they will even carry on to other games of similar caliber.

This sort of game design of 'Designing for Experience' is something worth considering especially when making co-operative or competivite games (not necessarily FPS).

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Yellow Brick Road

Having discussed the importance of game beginnings (whether through story or tutorial) as well as game ends, it is probably a good idea to seriously consider what happens between the two from a design perspective.

In my opinion, a well liked, fun to play and continuously engaging/challenging game is simply one that does not repeat itself. The mind's ability to get bored or even sick of the same thing over and over again is quite significant to the point that the individual will simply avoid the task or event completely. This not only applies to gaming, but thousands of other aspects of life (unfortunately including uni).

The narrative or character progression of a player in a game, whether it be the anonymous FPS protagonist (aka. Gordon Freeman) or the slayer of armies of some single-player RPG, must be something that is not only fresh but interesting to some degree. The player's skill, ability and mastery of the game should be something that allows for continual improvement or refinement, even on a small level. Games where the ability to win is to perform the same boring task once again get tiresome very quickly. Variations of the same task is perfectly fine, as long as it is (or does not become) tedious for the player.

Another important aspect for a game is to with-hold is immersion. Whether this be through atmospheric audio effects, moody music, believable graphic effects or even consistent and refreshing graphical themes (e.g. TF2), a player that is immersed is more likely to continue playing a game once again than one who believes what they are doing is non-compelling. In my opinion, a good example of bad immersion came from the psychological FPS thriller F.E.A.R. Having tried to play through this game twice, on both occasions I simply left the game and uninstalled it. The idea and action were both great, but the environment, play style and theme did not change at all throughout the first 1/2 of the game. This alone, despite the great story yet to be revealed, created a sense of annoyance while gaming and prevented me from ever finishing it.

Below: F.E.A.R, a great game but an environmentally boring one.

So how does this work in terms of games design? Basically it is of my opinion that a general increase and variation in all the categories mentioned above (skill, story, environment, difficulty etc.) throughout the course of a game is something that should be considered if a developer wants their title taken seriously. Variation provokes interest and reduces boredom which is the opposite of fun. If you can create fun through variation and increase interest over time than you can make a game that is not only worth the gamer's time, but something they will consider they get something out of as well.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Beginning of the End

Because I think I may be writing slightly too much for these weekly posts, I shall endeavor to shorten them slightly from now on.

"To be continued... ". "Congratulations on your new high score of .... ". "You died. The End". "Gameover". Do some of these sound familiar? For me, yes they do. They reflect upon an expression, usually facial but sometimes even verbal, that I sometimes possess when I reach the end of a game I have played through. Usually the feeling is positive or mutual, but sometimes it is rather negative.

Bad game endings are like bad movie endings (and especially like bad game movie endings). You can base your entire view of the game simply on the ending. Usually a game that you have stuck with until the end is one that keeps you interested to an extent through some sort of aspect, whether it be the action or the story. Therefore when such games reach their epic conclusions and we are presented with what appears to be a half-assed, last minute scratch attempt finale (usually due to lack of funding or pushing developer deadlines) one cannot help but feel a bit ripped off. Bad endings can alter one's entire opinion of the game, even if most of the game was actually pretty good. It is important that game designer's understand that the end of a game, or even the end conditions for a level, match, skirmish or battle are not only conclusive narratively, but also clear, defined and to be expected.

Perhaps however, more important than game ends are actually game beginnings. Starting conditions and information for games (excluding plot) should be given to the user at a steady, need-to-know basis to avoid both distracting the player unnecessarily (i.e. in combat) or drowning them in too much irrelevant data. An excellent method for achieving this could be done by including a form of tutorial early on within the game, especially if the game is plot driven. The user will accomplish learning objectives concurrently alongside playing through the actual game. This is both a useful and time saving design choice as it removes the need for a separate tutorial level or area as well as forcing the player to learn the game while playing through it properly (instead of skipping the tutorial). It is also important that the player can actually perform the tasks early on in a new game as frustration can be an instant turn off for gamers. Keeping the user in an interested (and not confused) state is an essential method to keeping them interested in the game and wanting to play it more.

It is through this information that it is my opinion that most new games should be played by the user at their own comfortable pace, instead of thrown straight into the heat and expected to perform or compete. Whether this is achieved through difficulty levels, match-making (skill/gear based) or even statistical achievements (aka. TF2 stats) should be left up to the game designer to decide.

Oh, and if you are going to have a game that has an ending, make sure it wasn't written on the toilet 5 minutes before work at a company that's going bankrupt. Not a good idea.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Gaming Abstraction

There is something I have noticed about games, their re-playability and their tendencies to being people's favourite games. This may not be the case for every person, but it definetly is the case for me.

It is all to do with character. More specifically, it is to do with the character (or entity) that an individual is or controls during gameplay. In my case, the greater the abstraction and ambiguity towards the player's character, the more I seem to enjoy and play the game. For some this could be entirely the opposite. Some people enjoy playing games where their character is a fully fleshed out individual or thing with a history, relationship and possible future (though this starts relating to the story of the game more than anything).

So what do I mean by this? For me, I seem to distinguish myself best when playing games that contain little to no story line, or can be played in some way other than in a single-player or campaign mode. This freeform action, whether it be skirmishing in RTS or deathmatching in FPS is (in my opinion) the most fun gaming has to offer. The ability to simply be yourself though not necessarily unique is where gaming becomes more than just 'playing through' or 'finishing' a game.

This is because these games simply have no end. There is no end condition to say you have done everything in the game and that it is time to move on. From a competitive gaming perspective, the only objective of the game is to get better at playing it. If this process is fun, spiritually fulfilling (on a personal achievement level) and allows you to cooperate or compete against other like-minded players, then you essentially have a winning game design formula. Because it never ends for the gamer it turns out to be a game that the gamer will always return to to play.

This should not be mistaken for a game like chess. Chess is a game where there is an end condition, to win. Whoever wins.... well wins, and that's that. Whether you win or lose in the types of games I am discussing is irrelevant. What matters is how you feel you have performed and whether or not you think you can do better, even if you DID win!

For me, games such as Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 are the defintion of this type of gaming. There is no real story, no final game objectives or requirements for playing. It is straight out FPS action without asking questions. Some may say that this is very simple gaming stemming from very simple game design. I completely agree, but that is the beauty of it! Games such as these allow the player to become better gamers, not through upgrades of gear, level or attributes, and not necessarily even through experience, luck or prior-knowledge. The skill-sets you develop while playing these sort of games are entirely your own. They can't be taken away from you and you can definitely express them in other games of similar caliber. In a sense, the person you control in game is simply you.

Below: Quake 3 - The most hardcore skill based FPS shooter ever!

That is not to say that I do not enjoy games of the RPG or story-mode style. I have many favourite (and sacred) games that I hold dear (MG:S, Legacy of Kain, Elder Scrolls). However ... ten years from now I don't see myself playing through them again. They were great at the time, but in terms of re-playability they have little to offer except the same story again. You cannot really play the game better a second or third time around, much like how in chess you can either win or lose.

From a design perspective this opens some interesting avenues. While I am not preaching that all games should not have any form of story or campaign, I do believe that some form of gaming outside of the usual quests, A to B, win or lose stereotypes should be included. What this is, however, is entirely up to what the game itself is about.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Definition of Gaming

Well I guess this will be the first proper post here. Because I need to relate topics to the lectures (in this case Lecture 1 - Fundamentals of Game Design) it is important that I discuss my point of view in relation to what we are currently learning about (or something). As I am still uncertain what exactly I should be writing here I will nevertheless give it a go lest I start this Journal too late and get caught several days (weeks) behind.

I have realized over the years that gaming means something very different for every person interested in the activity. For some, games are merely a distraction, something to keep the mind occupied while bored or lazy. Some genuinely love playing games and would quite happily (without being embarrassed about it) label gaming as one of their favourite past-times or leisure activities. Many gamers even develop strong relationships with their games, possibly due to their experiences with the game or the rewards (either mental or in-game) that can be achieved. This strong bond with games can lead to what I familiarise with as being a 'hardcore' gamer, someone who, in a simple sense, takes gaming (or games) quite seriously. There are also, of course, people who take this one step even further and become 'game-addicts', something that usually happens with RPGs.

No matter what type of gamer people are, they will all generally play games for a single reason. Enjoyment. Playing games is (and should be) fun. Whether it be fighting games, FPS, RPG, platform third-person adventure, strategy or sim, people undoubtedly get something out of the games they play which pleases them and encourages them to play more. This is basic human nature, if something is enjoyable or desirable then the instinctive reaction is to simply want more of it or return to it at some point in the future.

What is interesting though is that not everyone likes the same games. Indeed, the willingness to play a game stems from certain motivational factors that a game must possess for it to be interesting. These motivators are completely different for every person. Sometimes they are quite clear, genre or theme based. For example, a hardcore FPS fan may not find an FPS set in the 1800s to be all that engaging. Sometimes they are more in depth, such as the speed of the game, the rate at which you can change weapons or how you interact with NPCs. Preferences such as these are not simply characteristics of the game, but more so the characteristics of the gamer.

So having established that gaming is not the same for everyone, even though we all play games for the same reason, it becomes rather difficult to define exactly what Gaming is, except simply put as 'fun'. I don't believe that one can easily define Gaming in a generic explanation because everyones play-style and preferences are different. Gaming is simply what gaming means to the gamer, which is something that should not be disputed in any way.

So how does this help from a Games Design perspective? Well, from this we can deduce that is pretty much impossible to design a game that would be enjoyed and played by every type of gamer. It would therefore be wise to stick to a genre, theme or category instead of making games that are too abstract in their entirety. This would lead to more focused and clearer design objectives for game developer's, something that I think a lot of games (particularly recently) are missing, especially on the PC.

Make the emphasis of the game based around fun (or some sort of enjoyment, however twisted) and you are sure to make a title that will be enjoyed by at least someone in the world. Even if it is only yourself :).

What a load of nonsense. I might throw a picture or two in later if I feel like it...

Yeah that

Right. Apparently I need to make a blog for this unit, that being ITB016. The reason being is so that it is quite visible that entries for this piece of assessment (Game Development Journal) were done over a period of time and not all done on the night before submission. That's fine, I can understand the necessity for that.

Not being a fan of personal blogs like Myspace and having only a simple Facebook account (which I rarely even use) I decided to google 'free blog' and go with whatever the first find was.

So welcome to my (David Conroy's) Game Development Journal Blog. This is officially the first entry. More shall follow in the weeks to come at the appropriate times.