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Nov 4

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Magnus Alm, CEO of Muskedunder Interactive and good friend of mine, pointed me toward his company’s latest creation. It’s a fun little rhythm advergame created for Pepsi’s Swedish website with a few cool songs. The game is in Swedish, but if you’ve played Guitar Hero or Dance Dance Revolution, you know how to play.

The most interesting thing about the game though is the presentation. The game is in 3D, played straight in your browser with no special software to install. The graphics won’t rival dedicated PC games, of course, but nevertheless impressive considering the limitations.

3D games in browser are becoming more common. InstantAction is a website that lets you play directly in your browser — it has better graphics and faster framerate, but requires a special download. A little while ago, iD Software anounced Quake Zero, an upcoming free version of Quake 3 that will be playable in your browser.

Browser gaming with 3D graphics is definitely on the rise. It’s a trend worth keeping an eye on.

Sep 21

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The rise of popularity of casual games has demonstrated that two great principles of game design are not nearly as universal as we thought — Guitar Hero is a great example of that.

The first principle came from Chris Crawford. This early thinker about video game design compared a game to a conversation: the computer “talks” by showing pictures and playing sound, then the player “talks back” by doing various actions at his disposal — he called each action a “verb”. Since then, designers have tried to make more and more verbs available to players. Grand Theft Auto IV has a lot of verbs available to players, so many that the controls take 2 pages in a very small font to explain in the manual.

Problem is, each new verb adds complexity. A game like Guitar Hero keeps the number of verbs, and complexity, very limited and yet it’s a massive hit. Guitar Hero slays the sacred cow of verbs: not all games are improved by giving players more verbs; simplicity is a virtue.

The second principle came from Sid Meier who once described a game as “a series of interesting decisions”. Sid Meier makes great games (who doesn’t like Civilization?) and so designers tried to emulate that approach. What’s an interesting choice? How can we make players make more decisions? A lot of efforts went into answering these questions, to make games deeper and more interesting.

But here comes Guitar Hero, a game with no decision whatsoever. The whole game is about doing exactly and precisely what you’re asked to do and nothing else — and it’s a lot of fun. It proves that not all games are a series of interesting decisions. Another sacred cow slain.

My point is not that those principles are worthless — they apply to a great many games and are useful tools — but rather that they’re not universal. What other sacred cow of design can be slain? I bet that’s where the next great new game will be born…

Aug 6

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“Final Fantasy XIII” is gaming’s greatest oxymoron - sequels are used and overused a lot in gaming. One of the greatest challenges when making a sequel is how to add new stuff for  experienced players while still keeping it approachable for new players. If you keep adding new features, you’ll soon get a game so complex that new players are overwhelmed by it.

Magic: the Gathering and Final Fantasy are two franchises with a long history of sequels and expansions. Both handle this problem the same way: by removing content. Every Final Fantasy is different from the previous ones: new things are added, but the last title’s additions are rarely kept. Same with Magic’s many sets: new abilities are included, but the previous set’s disappear.

If you’re making the sequel to a game that’s already pretty complex, getting of old stuff to make place for new features in often the way to go. Removing possibilities for the player can actually change the game just as much as adding new ones. Removing the sniper rifle in a FPS could change the gameplay massively, for example.

It can be hard to convince people that removing features in a sequel can improve it, but it actually becomes essential after a few titles to keep complexity in check. When designing a sequel, it’s better to ask yourself “How can I create an experience that’s different from the previous game?” rather than “What features can I add?”

Jul 5

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There’s a long and fascinating interview with Ron Gilbert on Gamasutra where he speaks about his next project, Deathspank, episodic games and the way the gaming industry works. Well worth the read.

Here’s an excerpt:

 You know, the movie industry certainly has its share of space marine movies as well. There are big blockbusters that are shallow, but they make hundreds of millions of dollars, and I think the movie industry is pretty good at taking that money and funding a lot of more indie movies, and smaller movies, and movies for niche audiences. And I think the game industry needs to move into that model.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with Halos and Half-Lifes, and all these other things being out there. But I would like to see companies like Microsoft, and EA, and all these people take some of that, and really start to support different levels of titles. And I think if the industry continues to be financially successful, we will eventually start to see that; so I think that’s actually a very positive thing.

May 26

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Somebody at work asked me today for a list of good book recommendations for game designers, so I figured I’d put the list here to help as many people as possible. All of these books have taught me important things about design or have helped my work even though they’re not directly about games development.

Creativity and Innovation

Project Management

  • Facts and Fallacies of Software Engineering by Robert L. Glass: Quick overviews of lots of interesting topics on software development — nothing really in-depth, but you’ll get a lot of information in few pages
  • Peopleware by Tom DeMarco and Timethy Lister: A classic on project management. The only management book I’ve read 3 times — it’s that good.
  • Patton on Leadership by Alan Axelrod: Leadership methods based on General Patton’s approach to leading his troops

Interface Design

  • The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman: Essential tips on creating interfaces that are easy to use
  •  Emotional Design by Donad A. Norman: Going beyond interfaces that are easy to use, how do you make people have an emotional reaction to your design?

Writing Well

  • The Elements of Style by William Strunk jr. and E.B. White: A small book with a ton of tips on improving your writing.
  • Creating Unforgettable Characters by Linda Seger: How to create believable and interesting characters for any kind of fiction.
  • Story by Robert McKee: Learn how to be a great screenwriter

Communication

Marketing

  • Made to Stick by Chip Heath & Dan Heath: Learn what makes ideas stick in people’s mind.
  • Positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout: Essentials of modern marketing
  • The Anatomy of Buzz by Emanuel Rosen: How to create word-of-mouth marketing
  • The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell: More on word-of-mouth marketing and the effect of social networks on the popularity and impact of things.
May 20

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PC Gaming hasn’t been doing so hot the last few years, especially for traditional games sold at retail. Here are a few causes for this and some thoughts on avoiding those pitfalls.

  • Piracy: That’s a huge factor. Sales of PC games have fallen faster than the number of actual players. It’s easier than ever to find pirated copies of games on P2P. I believe DRM and other rights restriction systems are pointless and only annoy legitimate users. There’s a number of better solutions:
    • Games as Service: Give the game away but sell the experience. Subscription games like World of Warcraft and the Korean model of free games with extras at a cost both avoid piracy very well.
    • Advertising-supported games: It works for TV, why not games?
    • Pay what you Play: Some “real world” games like Warhammer and Magic: the Gathering only make players pay for what they play — you don’t need all the Warhammer figures or Magic cards to play. Casual gamers pay a few dollars, hardcore players pay a lot. This model hasn’t been used much in video games, but I think it has potential if done well.
  • Complexity: PCs have become a commodity. Hobbyists aren’t the only ones to buy them anymore and most “ordinary” folks can’t tell the difference between an Intel Core 2 Duo and an AMD Phenom, between a Radeon HD 2900 and a GeForce 9800. Making games that run fine on a 500$ computer or a cheap laptop is more important than ever. Games that only run on the latest generation of hardware are shooting themselves in the foot. That does mean focusing less on fancy graphics and finding another way to distinguish your game from the lot.
  • Cost: Cheap PCs are more expensive than consoles — you’re not getting much of a gaming PC for the price of a PS3. This brings us back to the previous point: target lower-end PCs because that’s what a lot of people have.

So that’s for the problems. PCs do have a number of strengths over consoles for gaming:

  • Openness: There are no gate keepers for PC games. You don’t have to please Nintendo, Sony or even Microsoft. That means space for edgier content, but also lower distribution costs because there are fewer middle-men.
  • Unparalled Connectivity: Only the PC has full access to the internet, with no restrictions at all. There’s a lot of experimentation that can be done that wouldn’t work on console manufacturers’ limited networks.
  • Unique Input Devices: The mouse and keyboard allow many things that consoles just suck at (and vice-versa). I’ve yet to see a RTS that’s easy to play on consoles for example.
May 13

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I’ve been playing a lot of GTA IV recently — that’s why I missed last week’s update — and what really stands out for me is that the game doesn’t feel unfocused even though it has many different types of gameplay. A lot of games with that much stuff to do feel disjointed: one time you’re driving and another time you’re shooting, but it feels like two separate games slapped together. GTA feels very consistent throughout.

I believe this is because each of GTA gameplays is a different dimension of the same core focus. The focus is to be a gangster in New York City, and everything else flows from that. Driving, shooting and handling relationships are different parts of being a gangster, so it all feels very consistent.

Each of those dimensions of gameplay combines to make an experience that’s richer than each dimension individually. Combining driving and shooting makes the whole larger than the sum of those two parts because the intersection of those two aspects creates new gameplay: killing enemies by driving over them, shooting enemies in cars, shooting while driving, etc. Because they’re two dimensions of the same core gameplay, their effect multiplies instead of simply adding up.

A counter-example to this multiplicative effect would be Mario Party. Mario Party has a lot of different types of gameplay — dozens of mini-games are available. But each mini-game is separate from the others, so each new mini-game just adds to the total of gameplay, it doesn’t combine with anything else. Each mini-game is a separate game entirely, it’s not another dimension of the same core gameplay.

You could remove a bunch of mini-games from Mario Party with very little impact on the game. Remove driving or shooting from GTA however and you’ve changed the game entirely.

Exploring one core concept with multiple dimensions of gameplay makes for a richer experience. Each part combines with the others to create a very large amount of possibilities for players. A lot of games follow this approach: Assassin’s Creed (stealth, acrobatics and combat), Gran Turismo (racing and car tuning), Civilization (strategy, diplomacy, expansion), etc.

Focusing on a single dimension of gameplay is easier however, as it lets you focus all of your energy on one thing. Guitar Hero does one single thing but does it very well, so does Ikaruga. Casual gamers like this type of game because it’s easier to approach. Fewer dimensions reduces complexity but also the richness of the game.

The most important thing is to know what the focus of your game is. Slapping together a bunch of types of gameplay doesn’t make a game good. Each part of the game — whether it has one dimension or many — should stem from a clear core experience.

Apr 21

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I’ve played pen & paper role-playing games quite a bit in the past. Being a game master is great training for game design: you have to create an exciting and entertaining experience for your friends on a regular basis.

One thing a game master must do is create a lot of non-player characters. The challenge is to create memorable characters on a regular basis. After creating what must be a few hundred characters, I figured a few simple tricks. These tricks are useful whenever you’re creating new characters, whether they’re for a pen & paper RPG, a video game or even a novel.

The key to a memorable character is distinctiveness. The character must stand out from others — nobody remembers the average Joe. If your character is distinctive in multiple ways, that’s even better. I try to create characters that are distinctive in 3 different aspects:

  • Appearance: The character should be obviously different by simply looking at her. This is particularly important for characters that are not actually seen, only described — like in a novel. A character with a peculiar haircut might be good enough for a movie or a comic book, but it would probably be hard to describe memorably in a novel.
  • Actions: The character should act in ways that are different from the norm. This can take the form of special abilities (like a superpower or a peculiar weapon the character always uses) or the way the character acts (a weird way of speaking or is she’s paranoid, for example).
  • Background: The character’s past should be interesting, to somehow hook into whatever you’re creating. A character could be an orphan, or have trained with a secretive order of ninjas for example (or both, like Bruce Wayne).

Let’s take Captain Jack Sparrow as an example of a memorable character. He has a distinctive appearance, what with the thick black eye-liner, the dreadlocks and the bandanna, he most definitely acts in a memorable way, thanks to Johnny Depp’s wonderful acting, and he has a distinctive past, having been the captain of a mutinous pirate crew turned undead.

Another good example is Darth Vader. Vader’s apperance is definitely unique, with his black outfit that doesn’t show a single inch of skin. His mastery of the force gives him unique abilities that make his actions distinctive. As for his past, it’s interesting enough that it spawned a whole trilogy of hit movies.

Of course these guidelines aren’t the most subtle thing in the world, so they’re probably not ideal for stories with very realistic characters. The broad strokes these guidelines create are very good at creating memorable larger than life characters however, and that’s a type of character that’s useful in a lot of games.

Apr 7

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Tutorials suck. Nobody likes learning the rules of a game before playing it. That’s one of the reasons casual games are so popular: shallow learning curve. Yet players must learn how to play your game.

The best approach I’ve seen is the way Bioshock does it (Half-Life 2 is similar and really good too). The game starts slowly, setting ambiance without too much action. You just move around, exploring the world of the game. The important thing is that it makes you do the basic actions in the game — moving, looking around, activating stuff, using a weapon, etc. — in a slower paced, safe environment while you’re exploring. It only prompts help if it detects that you’re stuck.

What’s brilliant is that it makes you discover the rules of the game by yourself rather than explain them to you. This is both more fun and more memorable than being taught everything in a rigid way. You’re more likely to remember something you figured out by yourself than something you’re told.

Removing visible tutorials applies to more game types than just first-person shooters. You just need to open the game with a safe environment where players can experiment with the game. You put a few basic puzzles requiring the use of the game’s basic skills and you’re set. The key is to trust players will figure out the way to play the game themselves — and if your interface is intuitive enough, they will. If they don’t, then you can give gentle tips that help them along without interrupting their experience.

Mar 28

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That’s the question a lot of people hold as the standard for games becoming a mature form of art, capable of engaging audiences in meaningful emotions.

The vast majority of fine art I’ve seen hasn’t made me shed a single tear. I’ve visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York — 3 of the world’s most respectable museums — and I didn’t cry nor did I see any visitor cry (well, maybe a baby or two). Very few movies in IMDB’s top 250 movies of all time are tear-jerkers.

If “making you cry” isn’t a good standard for evoking meaningful emotions in other forms of art, why should it be for games?

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