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Feb 29

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Five things I wish game developers would just stop putting in games:

  1. Crates: They’re just the point where developers ran out of ideas.
  2. Explosive Barrels: Barrels don’t explode in the real world and nobody would put explosive devices right in the middle of their base.
  3. Blowing in the DS’ microphone: It was a gimmick the first time somebody put that in a game, now it’s just a tired feature.
  4. Beating again all the bosses at the end of the game: Can you say “filler”?
  5. 20 minutes long cutscenes:  I’m running your game to play. If I wanted to watch a movie, I’d watch a DVD.
Feb 28

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On the surface, Bioshock is about a man shooting his way through a dystopian underwater city. What it’s really about — its subtext — is objectivism, the consequences of following a view of the world that’s too absolute, and the limits of free will. This added layer of complexity is what made the game something more than another mindless shooter.

What’s the subtext of your game? What is it really about?

Feb 27

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Andreas Roman is a Swedish novelist and game designer. You can find more details about him on his site — if you read Swedish — but the short of it is that he has many published novels, he was lead designer at DICE and he’s now working at HiQ Interactive. I decided to interview him based on his interesting experience mixing the gaming world and the literary world.

You’re both a novelist with many published books and a designer with many published games. What did you learn about game making from writing books, and about writing books from making games?

From the books, I learned that writing in games is one of the areas where we’re the least developed. Both in the practical art of writing, as well as composing a good story for a game. Many of the fundamentals, that belong to the please do and please don’t (and they aren’t many, according to me, which makes it even more important to get the few right) are still missing from writing in games. In short, we’re still in high school essay land when it comes to stories in video games. Even the better ones don’t compare to a barely good-enough novel or movie.

From the video games, I learned to present a concept in a simple and understandable way, no matter its complexity, and still keep the drama and intensity. I’ve also learned a a lot about finding the visual cues to trigger the right images in the reader’s or player’s mind. While writing is words only, it’s still a matter of projecting an image in the reader’s head, and when it comes to visual stimulation, video games are in the forefront. That can translate into words and writing as well.

The game design world is evolving quickly these days with the rise of popularity of casual games, the popularity of free-to-play MMOs in South Korea and the sudden explosion of games based on unconventional controllers (Guitar Hero, the Wii) to name just a few things. What do you think is the most exciting trend in game design right now? How will video games change in the next 5 to 10 years?

The most exciting trend for me is the rise of the small studio, the aim set at PSN, Live Arcade and Wii Play. First of all, the agenda from the publishers are clear on this one: Go nuts. But don’t forget your audience. Games like Everyday Shooter, Flow, SuperStardust HD and Mutant Storm Empire prove that high quality can be produced by two or three people, and these people can make good money too. This in turn is already enforcing a change in business models, which will create ripples in all directions. It will allow small studios to contribute with their applications to high-profile AAA-titles, separate downloadable content productions, debut games produced on your spare time like a novelist writing in the evenings before he’s published and makes money. We’re back to the 80’s in terms of freedom and opportunity, but we’ve got all the advantages of present day. Tools, editors are engines have never been better. If you’re a dreamer working in a supermarket or cleaning public lavatories, you can realize your vision with only hard work and time. A few years ago, that was not possible.

In your opinion, what’s the best-designed game of all time (video game or not)? What makes it special?

Best-designed or most enjoyable? Most enjoyable is easy: Okami is the best game I have ever played. Period. There are many reasons for it, but the main one summaries them all: It never stops giving on any level. Audio, art, challenge, gameplay, story – you are surprised and challenged and awed up until the very last second. It is a modern masterpiece.

Best-designed is a lot harder, since I don’t think that any game has made all the right decisions when it comes to the craftsmanship of game design. But one that keeps popping up in terms of references, is Metroid Prime. Mainly because it’s so aware of what it is and makes all its decisions based on that. If you like the Metroid Prime thing, there simply is very little to complain about. Any critique you might have against it, is more directed towards the game and concept. It would be easy to go for more abstract or clever games, such as Flow, Crayon Physics Deluxe or even the Wiimote as an idea (I’m not even going to mention Little Big Planet (and yet, I did)). But although they have interesting and playable stuff, they’re still things in the making, ideas evolving from ideas, whereas I consider Metroid Prime to be a complete experience. It might not be for everyone, but every decision was made with the perfect awareness of what those who would enjoy it, wanted.

The educational games you make are quite different in tone from the thriller novels you write. Why the difference?

Because of client needs. I enjoy switching from the outrageous to the serious to the horror to the violent. But there is a tone in all I do, a voice which you’ll recognize once you get more familiar with my work. Even in the darkest moments, there are subtle tones of humour. And even in the most hilarious cuts, you’ll find a hint of the dark. Although if you look at my darkest moments in my novels and my sunniest moments in some of the educational games, the stretch in between is long. Very long.

Groucho Marx once said “We should learn from the mistakes of others. We don’t have time to make them all ourselves.” What mistake have you made as a designer that we could all learn from?

My god. I have made so many mistakes. But a few wisdoms along the way: Know your concept. Know your core. What is your game really about? If you’re on the right track, the core emerges quite early in a project. If it doesn’t, that should be a warning sign to you. Either your idea is fragile or you need help in understanding its potential. Furthermore: If a game identical to yours came out, what would differentiate yours from the competition? Decide early on in what way your core concept stands out, beyond just the idea? Is your art direction special in some way? Are you doing something new with a dialouge system? Are your levels designed in a special way? And so on. What would make people go “Oooh”, once you’ve caught their attention with the idea itself. And: don’t assume people get you just because you’re a killer design document writer. Be everywhere. Talk to everyone. Test everything. Communicate. As a game designer, you’re a diplomat. But you’re not a democrat! If 100 people and focus tests and a selected target audience are against you, you might still be right. Never allow for voting or design by committee. If you know you’re right, that could be because you are. Don’t be scared at being conventional. Some of the best stories, games and movies we’ve experienced, are just variations on a well-established theme. There was nothing special about Half-Life, really. It was just a lot better than everything else that tried to do what it did. Difficult to sell, though: “Well, our game will simply be the best game out there.” But if your vision is strong and you see the result before your inner eye, you’ll get there.

Some genres have fallen from popularity: adventure games, turn-based strategy games, etc. Is there any genre you think is due for a revival?

Yes and no. The story-focused adventure game, like Monkey Island, deserves to be brought back. But before that can happen, those who think that the click-and-point interface is the way to go, need to be executed. Contrary to what many might think, people are more than ready to play well-written and properly directed adventure-games. If you can write thousand-page novels and direct three-hour movies that are slow-paced yet amazingly addictive, you can produce those kind of games as well. But as long as those who design them think that LucasArts got it all right, then it’s not going to happen. And in the other corner, we’ve got people like David Cage who thinks that the genre needs to be more complicated, elaborate and all camera-angly. Look, like in a good book, people don’t want the message shoved down their throat, they don’t want to be forced to think along just one dotted line, they don’t want to be patronized. The LucasArts genre died when the players realized that and until a game designer has understood what that means, it will remain dead and only attractive for the die-hard fans. Those that try really hard also tend to forget that the story needs to hold some basic line of credibility. The level of maturiy in these games are still comparable to previously mentioned high school essays. In some games, it’s a conscious style and the way it should be, like Viewtiful Joe or the latest installation of Devil May Cry. But in games like Fahrenheit or Dreamfall – shame on you, people. Grow up.

Feb 26

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Call of Duty 4 is a really well designed game. The one thing I admire most about it is that the whole game makes sense. Where most games take shortcuts with logic — why can you open any locked container in Mass Effect by playing a short game of Simon Says? — CoD4 stays grounded in reality for the whole thing. The whole experience is consistent.

I believe that’s an important next step for games: making sense. Gamers are used to the inconsistency of game, but non players are often put off my the abstraction of games. The closer a game behaves to what the player expects, the less has to be explained to play. The purpose of a machine gun is obvious, whereas the purpose of an alien gun in a sci-fi shooter needs more explanation. Very little context is needed for the action in CoD4 because the action is close to something players already know (soldiers in the Middle East).

“Making sense” doesn’t mean that the game has to be realistic. A very stylish game can be consistent, credible and close to the reality the audience is familiar with. What’s important is that things behave in a believable way, in a way that fits logically with the game world. The logic of CoD4 is not the same as the logic of a Looney Tunes cartoon, yet Bugs Bunny acts in a way that fits perfectly well with his cartoon world.

So ask yourself: how can you make your game more logical and consistent? How can you remove the abstractions that might put gamers off?

Feb 25

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When I start a single-player game, almost all of the time all I want to do is get to the point where I can start a new game or where I can continue my previously staved game. Why do most games put so many obstacles in the way of doing that?

First you’ve got a bunch of splash screens — the publisher, the licensor, the developer, the engine developer, the legalese, the sound technology and what have you — then you’re faced with the utterly pointless “Press Start” screen, then the main menu where you choose “Load”, then the menu to select where you want to load (in the case of the Xbox 360) and then the menu to select the save game you want to load (even if there’s a single one). After a minute or two of this pointlessness, you can finally play.

Is all of this really needed? Can’t a single initial splash screen show all the appropriate logos while the game is loading, only to jump directly into the game afterward? Maybe the “Press Start” screen would actually be useful if the action started immediately after pressing start. It’s a small thing, but it would put fewer obstacles between the player and his entertainment.

Feb 22

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The barrier of entry for making movies is very low: with a few hundred bucks you have a camera and software to edit your video. If you want to make a movie about a couple of convenience store clerks, you just need a few friends as actors and an empty convenience store. Nothing too hard to get a hold of. You can reuse a lot of the real world to make an indie movie.

You can’t reuse the real world at all when making an indie game. If you want to create a game about a couple of convenience store clerks, you need to model the store and the clerks, then code all the behaviors in. That’s a lot of work. That’s the problem indie games face: they must create everything that’s in their game. That’s why games with abstract graphics (Geometry Wars, N, Rez) are so popular with the indie crowd: abstract graphics graphics are easier to make.

Feb 21

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Yesterday I talked about why some games don’t need a constantly rising difficulty level. But if difficulty doesn’t keep rising throughout the game, it’s really important to choose the right difficulty level. Too hard and players just give up, too easy and they breeze through it without the sense of achievement of beating the game.

You can’t really trust players to choose the difficulty level by themselves because they don’t know what difficulty is appropriate for them until they’ve played the game. The best solution is to adapt the challenge level to the player’s skill automatically. Here are a few ways to achieve this:

  • The Algorithmic Approach
    The most sophisticated way to have dynamic difficulty is to analyze how well the player is doing and tweak the difficulty based on this. In a shooter you could analyze how much damage the player inflicts and receives, how often he dies and so on. Max Payne used this approach pretty successfully. It can be tricky to do properly, potentially requiring a lot of development time to tweak and tune for some types of games. Some games lend themselves to this approach though: racing games often give a speed boost to cars lagging behind the player and a handicap to cars ahead — simple, but effective. The advantage of this method is that you don’t need extra content some players may miss.
  • Open Selection
    The Mario 64 approach: you let players choose which challenge to face. For this method to work you must give the player a wide selection of challenges and let him cherry-pick which one to try (like selecting which star to get in Mario). Individual challenges can be harder than those in a strictly linear game because players won’t get stuck at a specific level they can’t beat. The problem with this approach is that you need content that some players will never see — a problem if your development budget is tight. You also can’t quite control the player’s experience as much as in a linear game.
  • Optional Goals and Side Quests
    If you want to keep players on a linear path, you can give them optional objectives to achieve along the way. The player must find the Amulet of Whatsitsname to progress in the game, but they can go look for the princess’ brooch she lost in the swamps if they feel like it. Optional side quests like this can be more challenging than the main path because they won’t block the player from progressing. More skilled players can try them while unskilled players will just walk on. Note that side quests don’t have to be explicit: a challenging side path to reach a powerful weapon in a FPS doesn’t need a cutscene and explanation to be an optional goal for players.
Feb 20

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The typical way to design game is to ramp up the difficulty progressively: the game starts easy and becomes progressively harder until the end of the game. But is that the best approach?

For some games it is. Some games test your skills and constantly push you to your limits to force you to get better. The games that gain the most from constantly increasing difficulty are those focused on the mastery of a simple skill. Guitar Hero would get boring if the level of challenge stayed the same throughout, for example.

Richer, denser games don’t need a constantly increasing difficulty nearly as much because what keeps the game fresh is the renewed content of the game, not the increased difficulty. In Mass Effect, for example, I found the last part of the game easier than many earlier parts — but that didn’t make it any less enjoyable. A cinematic game doesn’t need increasing difficulty to keep players interested, it’s the cinematic aspect that’s interesting — it can get more intense without being particularly more difficult.

It’s a bit counter-intuitive, but it seems casual games gain more from a constantly increasing difficulty level than typical hardcore games. Tetris has a much clearer increase in difficulty than Gears of War.

Feb 19

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Richard Garfield is the game designers who created trading card games — he’s the mind behind Magic: the Gathering and many other traditional games. A few years ago he had a monthly column about game design in the magazine The Duelist. Ten of those articles are now online, and they’re worth the read. You can find them here.

Feb 18

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We all have a few favorite games in genres we wish were revisited more often. Sadly, lots of genres fell in popularity for one reason or another. Some of those genres are ready for a revival — here’s my pick.

  • Turn-Based Strategy
    Turn-based strategy games used to be really popular until their increasing complexity relegated them to obscurity. The Japanese have kept the genre alive through their “Simulation RPGs”, but American turn-based strategy games are rare. The rise in popularity of online multiplayer would be perfect to bring new life for this genre — the turn-based nature of the games mean you don’t have to play them in real-time against your friends and you’d always be able to find new challengers.
  • Adventure
    Ask anyone what their favorite games of the 90s were and you’re sure to hear mention of Monkey Island or Day of the Tentacle. Since then LucasArts has focused on all things Star Wars and Sierra is but a shadow of its former self. Where have the great adventure games gone? Improved technology would not only improve the experience, it would allow more interesting gameplay. Adventure games that are less linear and feature interesting moral choices could push video games in new directions.
  • Flight Sim
    Whether realistic or space-based, flight simulators have all but disappeared. With console controllers sophisticated enough to support the depth of flight sims it would make sense to bring back the flight sims, yet they’re still extremely rare. This genre’s complexity was one reason of its demise, so efforts at revival should try to keep all the gameplay depth while keeping things simple. Fast-paced action would probably be more popular than realistic simulators.
  • Robot Sim
    Driving a 30 feet tall robot in MechWarrior remains one of my best gaming memories. Why do so few games try to get back to this feeling of driving a huge walking machine of war? How cool would it be to drive a mech in Iraq in an alternate-present game? The challenge in reviving this genre would be to find the right balance between making it approachable while not making it feel like just a first-person shooter in a mech.
  • Pinball
    How much more casual than pinball can you get? It’s perfect for the Wii: one button on the wiimote and the nunchuck for the flippers, and you shake them both to shake the machine. All the fun of old arcades back in your own home! It would sure beat another mini-games collection.

So, what’s your favorite genre you wish was revived?

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