Saturday, April 26, 2008

QQ More Emo

Some games are quite emotional. Although I can honestly say I have never really been moved by a game as much as say a good book or movie does, however, as a piece of entertainment, games do have strong emotional components. These are not necessarily emotions derived from gameplay, such as frustration or joy. Emotions can come from the narrative aspects of games, heightening experiences of tense gameplay or adding meaning to saddening and depressing aspects.

Instead of simply ranting on about the various emotions a player can experience in games (like I would usually do), I would like to highlight only a few specific emotions that I have experienced while gaming. These few are quite unique in the sense that they are usually pretty strong and most of the time, only relevant to the one game or game type.

1. Getting Ganked (or gang killed). I have discussed this before in a post a few weeks ago, basically describing the sickening helpless feeling you can sometimes get when you get ganked in MMORPGs like WoW. I believe that this emotion is more to do with panic and surprise because if you are expecting to get ganked, you do not usually get too worried when it happens. World PvP dynamics in MMORPGs like WoW are usually very brutal systems where lower level or outnumbered opponents will receive the short end of the stick, sometimes multiple times. Initial impressions of PvP at an early stage can form the basis of an opinion later on, especially considering the whole PvE-PvP feud that exists in the game. Below is an old 'quitting wow' video created by a friend and I where we decided to go on a killing rampage and break our usual 'honorable' PvP attitudes (well sorta). It clearly demonstrates the complete helplessness that lowbies have when faced with unfair odds.

Below: WoW - One Shot One Kill

2. Victory Rush (racing games). Although I would not call myself a great fan of racing games, I do enjoy playing them at certain times. There is however, one aspect of racing games that is so stressful and intense that sometimes I think I am going into cardiac arrest while playing them. This rare sensation is the feeling you get during that last 20 seconds of a race where you are only just beating the car behind you by at mere car's length. Ridge Racer IV on the PSX used to do this quite a lot, though mainly due to the perfection at which you needed to drive. However the much more recent single player in Trackmania and especially Need For Speed games also deliver the same exhilaration.

Below: Trackmania - Yes, you can drive through that

3. Freaked out. Now, let me be the first to say that I don't usually find many games to be overly suspenseful or frightening. I am usually the one laughing my guts out at horror movies where everyone else is cringing in the corner. Horror/fear games just don't really do it for me. That does not mean, however, that I am completely immune. The first time I played Silent Hill (the original) I was genuinely disturbed, and it was the middle of the day. The scratchy radio that would increase in volume when enemies were close by was juxtaposition to the limited light source emitted from your flash light.... which drew the enemies nearer to you! Turning the light off didn't exactly help either, as bumping into enemies in the dark was usually not very healthy. This experience was akin to general freaky stuff I encountered in both F.E.A.R. (the invisible wall climbing dudes) and Doom 3 (floating corpses and deceptive mirrors ftl).

Below: Doom 3 - "Hellknight" means "brick-shit-house" in Tongues

Emotions in our game? Well Crusaders already will have a large amount of emotional content, considering the allegiance swapping nature of the game. Certain emotions such as betrayal, envy or even direct resentment for other players is sure to ensue for periods of time due to the nature of the game. The 'leader' will constantly feel like they are getting ganked, while the underdogs will undertake swift justice to the give themselves the edge. Through our prototyping, the game is already showing strong emotional content that is sure to be both enjoyable and engaging for everyone involved, no matter if you are winning or not (because you won't be for long).

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Needs Moar Epics!

Rewards in games. Best example of a reward based gaming system I can think of is WoW. The quest for better gear and weapons in this game is pretty much the reason for most people's addiction to it. Whether it be through PvP or PvE gameplay, Epic quality items are both highly sought after and (at the moment) quite easy to attain. These sort of rewards are very 'physical' awards, in terms of the game itself, as their contribution affect how effective your character is (or isn't) at particular roles. This sort of reward system can be both extremely pleasing (working towards gear and achieving it) as well as frustrating (not getting your drops) as well as the various arguments concerning hardcore and casual (scrub, apparently...) players. This sort of reward system is in my opinion, an excellent model for catering to addictive and repetitive play, especially if you constantly make the best items in the game redundant through high content patches.

Below: WoW - BC greens > Pre-BC epics

There are however other rewards, even in games like WoW. Games that give you titles, rankings or even just recognition for doing difficult or skillful based objectives can also be ... well rewarding. They don't really make you a better player (or person) and don't necessarily enhance the gaming experience, but they do give you a sense of accomplishment. Another example in WoW for me was grinding rank 11 (Lieutenant General) back in the day in WoW's old honor system. This was both an extremely time consuming and wasteful period of gameplay that I will never do again (or can for that matter). You basically needed to be in the best honor farming team on the server, sometimes pitted against the best of your opposite faction. This also required you to PvP for long periods of time and win successively if you wanted a shot at increasing in rank. You therefore had to be an above average PvPer, as obviously only the people who are on the top of their game were ever allowed in these teams.

Below: WoW - Razial: Lieutenant General

Moving away from WoW (a good game that is rather bad for you), there is also reward in the unveiling of the narrative of many singleplayer games. Series such as Final Fantasy and from my personal experience Legacy of Kain contain very rich story lines and history that is a pleasure to unveil during the course of the game. This sort of gaming experience is more akin to reading a book, though you are rewarded with the storyline depending on your ability to move through the content. It is the sort of gaming experience that is probably the most gratifying in my opinion, and something I would like to eventually get back in to (*prays for Soul Reaver 4*).

Below: Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver opening (1999)

And of course, you cannot talk about rewards without mentioning the personal achievement or pride based awards. Did you beat that game on extreme difficulty? Yeah? Did you get anything for it? No? Who cares! You still beat it on extreme! It's a way of measuring one's prowess at a game, much like saying you can beat godlike or nightmare bots in UT2k4 and Quake 3, and saying you can 100% 'Through the Fire and Flames' in Guitar Hero 3. It's a goal/objective you set for yourself, and even though you may never be able to do it again, at least you can say you did at one point.

Ideas? Well, the only type of reward you will be getting in our game is the reward of winning, so the reward is based upon the skill and tactics of the player themselves. However, there may be recognition in the game concerning the odds and outcomes of winning, which could be seen as rewarding as well. Rewards will definetly be something worth looking into, especially during consecutive games.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Killing Spree!

In the previous lecture, the topic of challenges and intrinsic skill was brought up concerning gaming. This type of skill is based on the player's own individual prowess involved during the stress and pressures of a gaming environment. Finer details of gaming were also discussed, describing in more detail, aspects of games that are either understood or become instinctive after gameplay becomes second nature. Some of these will be discussed in this entry.

Understanding the physics of a game is a simple example of something that, while not enitrely necessary towards achieving success, can skew the odds in ones favour. Game physics are used in many popular titles including racing, sports and FPS games, all having variations of a real life physics model (though some lean towards a more arcade style). Knowing when to brake and how heavy your car 'feels' on a certain track is often the key to winning in various street racing games, especially where a drifting style of control is preferred over a grip. Ridge Racer IV, probably the most stressful arcade racing game I have ever played on the original Playstation, severely punished the player for making mistakes. It was therefore necessary to maintain total control of the vehicle throughout all stages of a race if you wanted to even have a remote chance of winning. I can also honestly say that understanding the physics of a FPS game is probably the greatest factor contributing to success as everything, from ground friction, ballistics, weapon accuracy and jumping distance can all be instinctively learnt and benefited from. Hitting people mid air with a rocket in Quake is not dissimilar to reflex sniping with a handgun in Counter-Strike.

Below: Quake 3 - Intercept course in progress

Spatial awareness is also important. If you have ever played a new FPS title or witnessed someone else new or veteran-ish to them start playing, you will notice an uncanny knack for them to aim close to the ground. Even if you advise them to look up (to see incoming enemy fire) they will eventually place the crosshair on some form of horizon or on some ground based level to better get their bearings. This is not really their fault, and is quite understandable. Unfamiliarity with environments and/or levels generally result in confusion and helplessness if pushed too quickly. By effectively 'grounding' themselves in an area, a player can slowly explore their surroundings from all angles and understand the intricacies of it. The result of this can be seen on the opposite side of the spectrum, where hardcore FPS fans are completely aware of their surroundings and move their senses to other forms of identification. Having witnessed and been part of many online 1v1s in UT, you can begin to feel where the enemy is, rather than actually seeing them. Simply registering what you can and cannot see via line of sight, you can make a rough pinpoint to where an enemy is located in the level, especially if you can get to another place quickly and make further assessment. In my opinion it is this sort of hunter/prey instinct that makes 1v1 dueling in FPS games possibly the best example of competitive based gaming, as all the cards concerning player skill (both physical and mental) are put down on the table.

Below: UT99 - Stalemates usually occur when both people are equally skilled ... or equally foolish.

Youtube version:

But not all skillful gaming is the result of adaptation, accuracy or mental agility. Puzzle solving ability is an excellent example where imagination becomes more of the success factor than anything else. Having witnessed three people, including myself, get through Valve's recent game Portal, I was quite surprised at some of the methods people employed to progress further in the game. Certain places where I was lost were quickly overcome by my housemates, and areas where they had no idea what to do were rather frustrating to watch as they did completely the wrong thing. Having played various puzzle adventure games before, such as the Soul Reaver series (which added 2 dimensions of existence to the mix) I found I was better attuned to solving environmental problems such as getting a box from one point to another without being shot to pieces. Navigation was strangely an issue for me as several times I had no idea where I should be going, which is unusual as the game is rather linear. It is an interesting area to explore as it demonstrates both the strong and weaker aspects of people's play styles.

Below: Portal - "There's a hole in the sky through which things can fly..."

Own ideas? Well for our game there is not so much intrinsic skill as there is the chance of tactful play. While there is control over where and how you counter opponents moves, it is really based down to the roll of the dice when it comes to it. This is not a bad thing, as unpredictability is often an aspect of games that invites re-playability. Having little need for spatial awareness, and no need at all for a physics engine (lol), the skill factor of our game is really down to how well people work with each other and how well they manage their offensive/defensive resources in combating and/or becoming the king of the hill.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

That's a 50 DKP Minus!!!

This will be a relatively short post where I won't explore too much as it is quite late already (like a week).

PvE Balance. Necessary in many singleplayer and multiplayer games where players take on AI/scripted opponents. Imbalance disrupts 'flow' straying too far into boredom, whether that be to easy or not exciting, or too hard, whether that be incapable of doing or too adept for the player's skill level.

In WoW endgame, this sort of balance is maintained for PvE raiding guilds via the release and arduous testing (public test realms) of new content every few months in what is know as content patches. Although the recent Burning Crusade expansion has undoubtedly added a plethora of content, it is primarily the addtional content added later that keeps PvE interests in the game. One problem with this is Blizzard's tendency to make high level content available to casuals (or at least easier to access) and make the hardcore players efforts redundant. As a PvPer and general non-carer of the state of PvE in the game, those problems do not interest me greatly. However it is necessary to acknowledge the consequences of these changes, as while it is an excellent business decision on Blizzard's behalf (most of player base is casual), it does lose face and playerbase with critically acclaimed and often promoted raiding guilds (such as Nihilum). While this may not affect Blizzard's income much (if at all), their game does lose reputation on the hardcore gaming scene. Avid anticipation for new MMOs such as War and Conan are examples.

Below: WoW - "I see", said the blind man

Although I have mentioned clear actions and goals sometime before, I feel the need to stress it again here. The ability for a player to move on to a new part of the game is as important as holding interest as every other element. Confusion on directions, illogical or inaccessible placement of key game progression components or even just unbeatable opponents are all good examples of difficulties that result in lack of player motivation. Even in well polished games like Crysis, this is evident. Without spoiling too much of the plot, when the Island is frozen solid by the alien technology, there is a scene where you must escort one of your team members to a warmer zone. There is little to no visual indication where this place is and upon finding it, you realise your friend is still back where you left him or dying slowly somewhere in the tundra. You basically have to end up shoving him in the right direction, while shooting enemies, with around 50 seconds to complete the checkpoint objective. It is very frustrating and the cause of many reloaded save games, something a player should not have perform.

Below: Crysis - The visuals will make you weep ... and then the AI will.

So how does one avoid these sort of problems? Testing. Test test test test test. Everyone. All demographics, level of intelligence, player types and/or age groups. Get a general idea of what elements are problematic and cater them towards the people who need help. We shall have to at some point do this with the game we are developing as releasing a product that does not make sense straight out of the box is a recipe for failure. If and when the game can be played easily by someone newly introduced to it than we know it is ready.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Maintaining Equilibrium

This week's lecture and content material covered aspects of the term 'balanced' game play in both PvP and PvE game play environments. This is sure to be a hot topic for many gamers of virtually all genre types, as game play balance is usually something of a concern, especially for those who have ever believed they have received the short end of the stick. Worth mentioning from the lecture was the term 'dominant strategy', a term usually given to game play activities or behaviours that are either non-counteractive or have high levels of success for minimal effort or skill exerted. Examples of dominant strategies include such things as tank rushing in Red Alert, Zerg rushing in Starcraft, spawn camping, button mashing (in exploitable fighting games) and even corridor sniping in games such as CS. While not entirely implicitly designed into games, these sort of game play behaviors can often restrict the outcomes of PvP games, and make them more about a race to or match-up between dominant strategies. It is a 'funneling' effect, that can inadvertently make players either adopt to using said dominant strategies, or expect to lose, severely limiting the many other possibilities game play could present.

Below: Tekken 5 - The button masher's heaven

A subtle example is WoW. I hate to have to use WoW's PvP as an example for this, but I do not know of any better. WoW has strong PvP elements, which, due to the nature of the game, could never really be balanced (especially where PvE is concerned). Completely imbalanced on a 1v1 level and only really leveling out where larger groups are concerned (which is fine), WoW's PvP is an intransitive relationship based on a (very) sketchy rock-paper-scissors model between the nine classes of the game. While this system doesn't always work, there are several major flaws with the design that I find both unacceptable and game breaking, stemming from the 'dominant strategy' idea. Certain classes and certain specs (talent point distributions) of certain classes are infinitely more superior than others for PvP scenarios. Admittedly, some of these weaker 'trees' are more useful for PvE situations, with specs better suited for tanking, efficient healing and high sustained dps.

The problem is that many dominant classes and specs in PvP do not have strong 'shadow costs' (ambiguous weaknesses) that even out the differences between them. For example, distributing talent points into survivability may grant a high level of offensive power for one class, and incredibly weak dps for another. A matchup between these two classes becomes skewed in favour of another, even if the class is not considered its counter. Certain classes also have general dominance over a vast majority of others. Rogues at lvl 70 are a typical example, able to negate both physical and magical damage taken by high amounts as well as having effective and reliable escapes and crowd control, some tied directly to dps (combo point abilities).

Below: WoW PvP - kaaaBOOOM!@!!

*Refrains from using TF2 as an example of good class PvP balance in a game*

Footmen Frenzy, a map modification for Warcraft 3, is an example of a massive PvP imbalance. Much to my displeasure, my housemate's relish the idea of this map, where you are given a free, constantly reinforcing army to assist a hero or hero's of your choice in PvP combat in a small area. Games are usually short, the argument often used to play the map, and my reasonings to dislike it as I know exactly why they are short. The problem with this map is that there is too much reward for the victor of an engagement. Killing an enemy hero and his army means you gain 2-3 more levels than him/her, a large sum of gold (to improve your army) and a numerical advantage in the next engagement. The objective might as well be who can kill the enemy hero first and call it quits after that as it is simply an uphill battle for the fallen of the initial engagement for the rest of the match.

Below: Footmen Frenzy - Basically the guy on the right is dominating the guy on the left

Well after a rather tedious post bordering on a rant, what does this information do for me as a games designer? And how will it relate to our game King of the Hill? There is still debate and confusion as to whether direct skill based PvP will be in the game or not, or whether it will based entirely on the roll of the dice. The exclusion of PvP entirely has been suggested, which in my opinion will result in a rather boring game considering the nature that is classic King of The Hill gametypes. I believe that a strong, strategical implementation of PvP where the player can switch between offensive and defensive positioning by simply rearranging their resources will be an excellent way to incorporate balanced PvP. If everyone has access to the same resources (i.e. number of tokens or whatever) then having a strong defensive will result in a weak offensive and vice versa. PvP outcomes could still have a level of unpredictability by including dice rolls in the encounters. Say a clash of 3 tokens vs 2 tokens will result in the total of 3 dice rolls vs 2. Three dice still have a much larger chance of winning, but two dice could still come out on top. Basically it is a battle of resource distribution, with a small element of chance thrown in for good measure. We shall see how this works in our prototyping...

Saturday, April 5, 2008

By the Book

"What you must learn is that these rules are no different than the rules of a computer system. Some of them can be bent. Others can be broken."
-- Morpheus, The Matrix

Rules in games define the boundaries to which game play is integral to. Without rules, games can become a jumbled mess of ideas and information that have no connection and no underlying purpose for their existence. Rules are necessary as placing constriction on game play elements as to what a player can and can't do tie directly into how the game itself works.

Rules are not necessarily just guidelines that a player should abide by when playing a game. The collision detection a player faces with the floor, wall and ceilings are a simple example of rules which define the boundaries of game play. Not being able to shoot your team mates, build where they have built or take their stuff are examples of restrictions a player has over their friends. An example of these sort of rules becoming a game play element can be clearly seen in (and I hate to use this example yet again, but there is simply nothing out thats better) Team Fortress 2.

In TF2, every player has a hit box and a collision box that prevents them from passing through things or taking damage incorrectly. However, while it is not possible to move through the opposition's collision box (i.e. run into each other), you are able to pass through friendlies and certain friendly fire with no noticeable collision restrictions (though you are pushed out of them if you attempt to remain within them). This adds a simple yet effective gameplay element for uncovering the 'Spy' class in the game. The Spy, who has the ability to make himself appear like the enemy, is not granted the same collision detection as the players he is fooling. This therefore makes the detection of Spy's as peaceful as running into your team mates, purposefully. Anyone you do not simply pass through would therefore quite likely be a spy, therefore the delivery of airborne lead or explosives should be placed towards the location of the spy quite promptly. This tactic is usually employed by suspicious team mates who are either conservative on their ammo or are brandishing some form of deadly melee weapon.

Below: TF2 - Irritating spy is irritating...

Rocket jumping, found in many action based FPS's is another example of how a rule can be used to change how a game is played. Most explosives in games are programmed to have some form of area of effect knockback or pushback to entities in close proximity to it. This usually is represented on the positive Z axis as well. It is therefore not surprising that many players often use this extra 'boost' from explosive weapons/objects to reach extraordinary heights while jumping.

Below: TF2 - Awesome rocket jump is awesome!

Demonstration: How to Rocket Jump

These sort of game play defining rules are not only present in computer/console games. Even in a card game like snap, a physical pain and endurance element can be added depending on how quick your reactions are and how hard the slower people hit your victorious hand.

From a games design perspective it is important to realise how the various rules of a game will change the game play, and to either cater or cut down on certan things if the results are not desirable (e.g. exploits, unfair game play). This is where extensive testing from both closed and beta levels would be necessary to balance said game play elements derived from the 'influence' of rules.

Decisions decisions...

I shall keep this post brief as I have rather pressing needs this week.

I think you would find that most games that are quite commonly played have some form of decision making elements at their core. Whether this is the best placement for a turret in a strategy game, the itemisation and stat point attributes in MMORPGs or simply whether to dodge left or right from an incoming rocket, decision making breathes freedom into gameplay.

Below: TF2 - Shooting or moving are difficult choices for the Heavy.

There are exceptions however. Obviously games that are totally reliant on luck (e.g. snakes and ladders) present few, if any decision making abilities. A more popular example can be seen in Guitar Hero, where decision making is replaced with a more primal gameplay element (hand-eye coordination), which is both incredibly fun and challenging, depending on your experience.

Below: Guitar Hero 3

As far as decision making goes though, a game like chess would have to be on the complete opposite side of the spectrum. Chess, a tactician's game, not only requires an intuitive strategic mind, but also the ability to judge your opponent's game and play style. I would personally rate a game like chess quite high up in terms of decision making as it's gameplay is essentially derived from thought processes, and little to do with luck and chance.

What this information tells me from a games design perspective is that games don't necessarily have to have a large amount of decision making for them to be enjoyable. Although games that do lean towards higher levels of decision making are generally considered to be more 'skillful', it is not always the case (such as in Guitar Hero). These exceptions however, really come down more to practice of the game, and not actual skill, as constant repetition of the same tasks usually results in some proficiency in it over a period of time.