Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for March, 2010

Quippy Quote

I just saw this over at Lum’s place (Broken Toys) and had to share.  From this article:

Crafty That

If the key to success in your game is tedious repetition, you are not a game designer. You are a torture expert.

-TPRJones

That sums up many of my concerns not only with WoW, crafting and MMOs in general, but also the recent “Facebook games” GDC kerfluffle.  I’d add that “success in your business model” is another valid phrase to slot in there.

Read Full Post »

How important is setting?

A reading of this Anton Chekhov quote might suggest that everything that exists should have a meaning to do so.  It’s certainly a literary and stage tradition to only introduce things that are really necessary for the audience to understand.  That’s perhaps a limitation of those genres, since plays tend to be more about the acting, the characters and the story, and books aren’t a visual medium.  Time spent building up the world is time away from making the plot get on with it.

At the same time, if the only things that are introduced are important things, the world can feel sparse and shallow.  I’ve been playing the latest Ace Attorney game, the investigations of Miles Edgeworth.  It’s a great game, better than the Phoenix Wright games in my book.  Even so, there are only a few characters introduced in any given “case”, and it’s usually pretty quickly apparent who the guilty party is just because of the small cast and processes of elimination.  It’s arguable that such is intentional, but it does make a story seem a bit overstreamlined (and too easy) at times.  Also, when running investigations, you can only examine certain things, almost always relevant to the case.  This is also intentional, I figure, since it keeps players on track instead of getting bogged down in unnecessary details that can be interpreted in different ways.  It’s investigating on rails, but it works for what they are trying to do.

That TVTropes article rephrases the quote as “do not include any unnecessary elements in a story.”  That’s fine for a medium where you can rely on the reader or viewer to fill in the visual and setting gaps, but what of these MMO things and other games where the world itself is a significant part of the art budget and production pipeline?  It’s almost worth arguing that the world itself is a character, or each zone is a character.  They certainly have their own personality in many games… if a place can be thought of as having unique traits and moods.  They are certainly meant to be distinct and to evoke moods.

Crafting a world by hand is a daunting prospect.  We can certainly use procedural content generators to fill in the world for us, but even that has technical and artistic limits.  Even the real world is procedural, of a sort, but the complexity is orders of magnitude more than we usually want to bother with simulating.  So, we have to decide the threshold of detail that we want to bother with for our window dressing.

I like setting and backstory.  I’ve always been that way.  I wanted to animate for Disney, but found myself wanting to do the extra characters (stage dressing) and backgrounds more than lead animation.  In high school, the few times my friends wrangled me into doing something social, I helped with stage setup and the school TV program.  I spent a LOT of time working with computers and cameras trying to make some cool blue screen effects for the daily broadcasts.  (It never worked out, but dagnabbit, we tried.)  I’ve written game design documents that are 80% background and setting, history and sociology.  I do more worldcrafting than anything else when I do my own creative work.  To me, the setting is the backbone of a well-presented story.

Tangentially, that’s why I still enjoy watching Sleeping Beauty.  That Disney film still has one of the most distinctive settings in animation history, and it’s far stronger for it.

Yes, yes, character really drives a story and makes the plot move, but if it’s not set within a framework that makes sense and is interesting, the story loses plausibility in my mind.  I’ve been to a handful of stage plays in my life, some with intricate settings, some with sparse props.  Inevitably, the ones with more interesting staging are the ones that I remember best.  Let’s call it “immersion”, shall we?  I want to believe that the play is taking place in a place that isn’t merely a platform with a few spotlights.

Of course, this need not always mean huge attention to intricate detail.  Sometimes it just means some well-crafted props, often designed to have multiple uses with clever use of lighting and positioning.

Back to games, then, we do a LOT of this sort of positioning and lighting fudgery.  We reuse textures as much as possible, stretching our assets as far as we can.  World of Warcraft is a crazily colored place, with a single hallway or tree having several color shifts.  The Forsaken capital of Undercity is a colorful place, almost a circus of colors.  Even though there are weird skulls and other trappings of Undeath, the place has an almost festive feel.  For a bunch of undead grumps, the Forsaken really know how to liven up a catacomb.

A single hallway might shift color a half dozen or more times in the space of forty game yards.  Upon closer inspection, though, each ten yards of the wall has the same exact texture, and that texture is even mirrored across each section from left to right.  That’s how we get away with having a lot of building geometry without a huge texture footprint.  We reuse stuff.  To make it more interesting and keep the eye from seeing the pattern, though, we can layer vertex color on top of the texture or position things such that you don’t usually get to compare them in the same field of view.  This segment of the wall might be green, that one is yellow, and that one is orange.  Break them up with lighting tricks and darker pillars, and boom, it looks different enough that you don’t really notice the repetition unless you’re looking for it (and with buildings, there’s always some repetition in the real world anyway).  Since you’re usually prowling the halls on your way to somewhere else, it’s not an issue; your mind just files it away as “different enough” and accepts it.

That’s the threshold we want; “different enough”, which translates to “interesting enough” to read as plausible.  The real world is a varied, amazingly detailed place.  We don’t have that sort of fidelity in the digital realm… though each “generation” does get more and more detailed (and more expensive to produce).

When you look at a shot of most game worlds from a bird’s eye view, you see the repetition in the ground textures.  Sure, critters, trees and other plants, vertex color, lighting and assorted other effects break up the visuals, but we naturally see patterns.  Zoom out enough to where the staticy fudge factors slip below our “immediate surroundings” bubble, and the patterns assert themselves.

Maybe we shouldn’t try to directly replicate reality. Toying with stylization can pay off big when you’re trying to sell a place.  It need not be realistic, only believable.

In summary, then, I don’t think that we as world crafters have the luxury of only showing the important bits.  What would WoW be like if the only NPCs present were questgivers?  If the only towns were those with questgivers in them?  If the only critters were those who you could slaughter for quests or super special loot?

Those level 1 rabbits or snakes?  They are almost completely useless, but they help sell the world.  Sure, you may see a wolf take one down randomly (very cool for setting the mood and hinting that mobs have a life beside being loot pinatas), but even that action is window dressing of a sort.  The real world is full of moving parts that we will never get to, and that aren’t important to us in any practical way, and yet, they tell us in subtle, almost subconscious ways that we are somewhere real.

If the sense of place is even remotely important to us as game designers, we have to create and implement those things that have absolutely no use in our game world, other than setting the scene.

As with the special effects artists in some movies, it’s a grueling task, ultimately successful when it’s not consciously obvious to the end user.  And yet, they will notice it if it’s missing, even if only subconsciously, and then wonder why they don’t feel immersed in the game.  Birds in the sky, critters on the ground, gusts of wind… it’s all just so much window dressing.

And that makes all the difference.

Edited to add:  Since Callan invoked Tolkien in the comments, Syp’s recent article on the good Professor is highly relevant:

Escapism is a Good Thing

Read Full Post »

Mortiphoebe is offline.

She was a character destined from the beginning to only be around for the ten day trial that WoW offers.  I do actually have a box of WoW that I can redeem for 30 days, but she was an experiment.  I’m not sure that I’m going to revisit her with my CD key.  I find that I’m much more of a Druid/Hunter player, even after enjoying the Warrior well enough.  I don’t have any significant complaints about the Warrior, it’s just not quite what I’m looking for.  So, Mortiphoebe languishes in limbo, last seen in a Mushroom Vendor’s hut deep in Orgrimmar, pondering another Ragefire Chasm run.

In another world, Tish, Tosh and Tesh, Gibberling Psionicists, are also presently offline.  I’ve run into a grindy patch of Allods Online, with the PvP-heavy Holy Lands looming on the horizon, so the furballs are thinking of retirement.  They made it to level 17 (of 40), skirting the dreaded “midgame” where expectations derived from early play are changing, and the promised “endgame” is far enough away as to be little more than a pipe dream.  (KTR has a great article on this curious and unfortunate phenomena thisaway.)  The drive to play, rooted in exploration and experimentation for me, has settled into a routine grind.  It’s still a pretty game, and pretty fun, but I’ve stopped learning.  I’m just going through the motions.  True, PvP looms, and that would be more learning (which Ixobelle rightfully notes has potential), but it’s learning I’m not particularly interested in.

While it’s true that my interest in Mortiphoebe’s adventures has also waned a bit as she as in the “early midgame slump” as far as leveling goes, she was also digging into her allies’ territory (she just picked up a quest that took her to the Crossroads in the Barrens) to see new sights, and the Random Dungeon Finder provided for some new experiences as well.  Tish, Tosh and Tesh are finishing their third area (counting the small newbie zone).  Both have places to explore further and more things to do… but I have to admit that the future looming in front of Mortiphoebe is a bit more interesting, even though I have more fun with the Psionicists in Allods.  She can visit more places, and doesn’t have to deal with PvP for a while yet.

Tish, Tosh and Tesh are just over a third of the way through the game, measured by levels.  Mortiphoebe is just under a third of the way through the Old WoW (pre-expansion, with the level cap of 60), also measured by levels.  I do think that there is a natural slow patch in the midgame that will be little more than a time sink in each game, so levels aren’t a good measure of progress of actual content consumption, but I’m at roughly similar places in the progress curve of each game.

The huge difference between the two is that I can jump back into Allods without paying a cent, while WoW demands a toll.  The barrier to progress in Allods is personal, rooted in game design.  The barrier in WoW is monetary and time-based.  It’s not unlike the difference between a time-limited demo or shareware program, and a content-limited one.  As I noted back in my Torchlight article, I really didn’t like the time-limited demo the publishers offered, but the Steam content-limited demo (and great sale) ultimately sold me on the game, since I was able to explore the game mechanics for as long as I wanted, and it left me wanting more content.  (Oh, and it’s on sale again this weekend, if you don’t have it yet.)  I’m much more likely to buy a game that is content limited, instead of time-limited, even if it means that the “full product” content itself is limited, rather than an endless treadmill.  The time-limited demo had me rushing through, trying to see as much as I could before the timer unceremoniously kicked me out of the game, not really giving me enough of either content or mechanical exploration.

I can’t help but wonder if this is part of why players skip quest descriptions and other storytelling in sub games, and a factor in the “game starts at endgame” mindset.  Taking time to smell the roses costs money and time, rather than just time in something like Guild Wars or Allods.  When you could be progressing and Achieving, Exploring actively costs you.  There’s a very real, if subconscious, drive to keep pushing on, doing important stuff, which is, of course, measured by the Ding and the Loot.  (Including Achievements, of course.)

Yes, yes, I love exploring in WoW as well, but since exploring is intimately tied to leveling because of gating mechanics and the wide power band (mobs a few levels higher than you can eat you alive), I had to make my character stronger in order to explore more.  Well, that, or fire up the Mapviewer.

*sigh*

Lengthy prologue aside, I did go into this Mortiphoebe experiment with the ten day limitation in mind.  The limit has a way of focusing your goals, since you know that the clock is always ticking.  For this trial, I wanted to do the following (which I’ll write more about later):

1.  Try out a Warrior, maybe even tank a little (I’m certainly not taking on Ragnaros on a trial account).

2.  Specifically, try an Undead Warrior, since that’s what Ixo suggested, though I’m not much of a Forsaken fan.  I wanted to learn more about their lore as delivered in-game.

3.  See what a RP server is like, and maybe even write up some stories, with screenshots to fuel the journey.

4.  See if I could run into a SAN member, even though I wouldn’t actually get in the guild as a trial player… even if contrary old me could hack it in the Collective in the first place.

5.  Study the newbie experience in WoW, and see how it compared to Allods in the early levels, and how it compares to WoW circa 2005, when I first played the game in a 14-day trial a friend gave me (the only way to play a trial in those days).

6.  Have fun without drawing wife aggro (another significant problem when you’re trying to get the most out of your waking hours as the timer keeps ticking) or burning out by trying to take it all in.

As I played, I picked up a new goal:

7.  Experiment with the Random Dungeon Finder tool.

I didn’t know that this was available to trial accounts, or lower level players.  When I hit level 16, the tutorial tooltips prompted me to check it out, so I figured it was a prime opportunity to not only see the new tool at work, but experiment a bit in groups.  Those are hard to find as a trial player, since you can’t actively group up.

All in all, that was a fair number of goals I had in mind, especially for what turned out to be about 10 hours of play.  (That was a lot in itself for me, as it happens.  I spent more time in-game than I would have during typical “gaming” hours, since I wanted to get as much as I could out of it.)

I can’t help but extend the logic and wonder what my goals would be for a 30-day playthrough when I activate that key.  (OK, 40 with a trial in front.)

Also, what about tracing that logic down another tangent?  What would you do in a given game if you only had a limited amount of time to play?  Note that there’s even a difference between an amount of calendar time (the clock is always running) as opposed to amount of time in-game (time-limited demos) or even “days played” like Puzzle Pirates’ badge system.  (Badges are microtransaction permission devices that only decay if you logged in that day, and they decay in one day increments; all logins on a single day count only against that day.)

If you only had ten days to live in a game, what would you do?

Tangentially, you can also play WoW as if it were Groundhog Day, and just play a series of ten day trials.  You’ll never breach the hard level 20 cap or have privileges that full accounts enjoy, but hey, if you don’t mind trying the same thing again and again and again, it’s pretty much free WoW.  What could you get out of such a playstyle?  Might it be best to try out all of the classes this way before paying to go further, rather than paying as you experiment?

Read Full Post »

I don’t usually do this bandwagon thing, but Scarybooster touched a nerve on this one.

Developer Appreciation Week

See, I’m a developer.  I’m not looking for cookies (though sending me fudge would be OK) or cards, but let me tell you a little bit about this side of the console.

Game Development is a job.  It is hard work.  It’s packed with thankless iteration, long hours and soul-grinding, mind numbing inanity.  We do have our moments, though.

It is really great to see something you’ve worked on get to playable form.  (“I love it when a plan comes together.“)  Even small victories through the day, when some code works or a piece of art actually looks right in the game, well, those keep us going.

Many of us believe in the potential of games as not only entertaining (though primarily that), but also uplifting and educational.  Putting something you created out into the wild and watching it make people happy is a boon to the soul that few things in life can match.

We love it when people pay our salaries, to be sure, but those sterile numbers on the quarterlies don’t tell the human story.

The occasional blog post or Facebook blurb where someone praises our games are islands of refuge in a sea of grumpiness.  The few times I’ve had someone chime in here on the blog that they liked a game I worked on are delightful.  Most people like to know that their work is appreciated.

And y’know, it really doesn’t take much.  I don’t think I’ve ever had the Boss bring an email or letter to a company meeting, sent in by a fan to praise our work.  Sure, Blizzard has people falling over themselves to praise their name, but they aren’t the only people who make games.  I can almost guarantee that even taking five minutes to send an email or “real” mail to a company, praising their product, will be much appreciated by the sometimes forgotten devs.

We’re not greedy, we just like to be liked and appreciated.  Fudge is good, but a brief “that was an awesome game, dude!” is candy for the soul for the guys in the dev trenches.

So, in closing, let me thank a couple of people quickly:

Thanks to the Three Rings crew, mad geniuses behind Puzzle Pirates.  Special “mad props” (what does that even mean?) to Apollo, Demeter, Nemo and of course, Captain Cleaver, and a huge round of applause from me for the whole dev team and the dauntless Ocean Masters.  The community around Puzzle Pirates is particularly tight knit, it seems, and these folk keep making great additions to the game, and keep the community rolling in good will.  That may not show up itemized on the quarterly financials, but it’s as good as money in the bank.

Individually, I’d like to tip a hat to the good Brian “Psychochild” Green.  He and I don’t always see eye to eye, but he’s taken time out of his crazy days to communicate with me on a handful of topics, and I find his insight to be valuable and interesting.  If you’ve not http://www.psychochild.org/ yet, might I recommend it highly?

To everyone who has chimed in with a comment here about games I’ve worked on, thank you.  Words on a website may not look like much, but the goodwill behind them is always felt and appreciated.

And, if I may, to anyone who has enjoyed a game for any reason, please consider sending a nice email (or more if you feel like it, to be sure) to the guys and gals who made it possible.  In an age of megapublishers and blockbuster games, sometimes it’s easy to ignore the real people doing the work.  Heaven knows I’ve forgotten too many times, and I’m no stranger to either side of the fence.  We could all stand to be kinder, and going out of your way to praise someone is healthy.

Game on!

Read Full Post »

My Art Director here at work just mentioned our new NinjaBee website, found hereabouts:

http://www.ninjabee.com/

We’re also running a sale on A Kingdom For Keflings on the PC.  It’s been a significant hit on XBox Live, and it’s really cool to see it on the PC (especially since it’s the only way I can play it at home)!  Thanks to the guys who took the beta testing plunge when I mentioned it earlier!

Read Full Post »

Larisa has a great post up on making your own Cataclysm while you wait for Blizzard to release the real thing.  I highly recommend it, found thisaway. Her bonus link to Ixobelle’s PvP adventures is worth following as well.

Commenting on her post, I noted that I would love to see Blizzard really shake things up in the industry by changing business models.

With Guild Wars as a spiritual model, Blizzard should:

1.  Instead of consigning the Old World of WoW to the digital scrap heap, slice it off into its own phased existence and sell it as a standalone subscriptionless product.  Call it “PreCataclysm Azeroth” and watch it sell like hotcakes and introduce a new batch of newbies.  It’s like a free trial on steroids… that you can charge for.  Forget a piddling $1 for a week, try $30 for a lifetime sub, a direct stab at the market that GW has had mostly to itself, and a kick in the teeth to those other guys who sell lifer passes.

2.  Watch the rest of the industry scurry about trying to reconcile the notion of the biggest sub MMO in the lake stomp through the F2P shallows.  (Note, there are Subscriptionless games and Item Shop games, both possibly referred to as F2P… here, I’m talking more about Subscriptionless games.  Marketing matters.)

3.  …

4.  Profit.

OK, OK, I’ve written about this before, and I doubt that they will follow my admittedly selfish wishes on this, but I’m really very curious as to whether they might have some sort of long-term plans along these lines.  Not that I’d mind, mind you… Still, with a new MMO in the pipes that may well cannibalize their WoW base, it’s a good time to start tinkering.  The natural split of “old Azeroth” and “Cataclysmic Azeroth” is a perfect vehicle to segment the market a bit and diversify their death grip on the industry.

Whether or not that‘s a good idea is up for consideration, perhaps… especially since what’s good for Blizzard need not necessarily be what’s best for gamers.  It’s not like WoW is the root of all evil and the herald of doom and all that, after all.  (Please read that whole article.  Ferrel is having a bit of fun, but voices some legitimate concerns.)

Read Full Post »

Meet Mortiphoebe, Forsaken Warrior.

Mortiphoebe, Warrior Noob

Some time ago, I agreed to Ixobelle’s curious suggestion (seconded by Spinks) to try out an Undead Warrior for another spin through Azeroth.  When I read of a blogger guild, curiously named Single Abstract Noun (SAN), I thought I might poke my abnormally large nose into matters that were little of my business.  (Though as Pitrelli and Hatch rightly noted, SAN is a recipe for a wee bit of drama, as might be seen of late, but hey, it’s fascinating either way, even if I’m just on the proverbial sidelines.)  It turns out that trial accounts can’t join guilds anyway, but so it goes.

SAN plays on Argent Dawn, a “Role Playing” server, so I spent a bit of time reading up on the Forsaken and the Scarlet Crusade, trying to craft a backstory for my little undead lady who was deathly afraid of the undead (hence the name she chose for her new self, a delicious portmanteau mixture of “cute, perky and emo”… or something like that).  I’m sure my lovingly crafted story of a former Human Priest who joined the Crusade to fight her irrational fear of the Undead, only to be turned to the Undead in a botched operation, was the stuff of legend and totally original, but I wisely chickened out of playing it to the hilt.

Sure, it explained why she was a Fury Warrior, totally shunned by her former allies and the Light, driven by blind fury to destroy those nasty tricksy Undead that she was now surrounded by… and it even played into my own rather soloist tendencies, but in practice, since she couldn’t attack those of her own newly adopted faction, it just didn’t work out.

I had grand notions of writing a pair of diaries from her point of view, one of her old life, one of her new one, reacting to her old diary and the new circumstances in which she rather uncomfortably found herself.  I took a LOT of screenshots (637) that could have helped this endeavor, and may get to it someday.  I still think it could be a fun writing exercise, but with my lack of time and the difficulties it provided in actually Playing a Role, I didn’t bother with it.  Ultimately, I’d like to write my own stories, anyway.  Ah, the troubles with Role Playing…

When a random Forsaken player kneeled to Mortiphoebe, that sealed the deal.  If a random stranger in an Undead body took the time to welcome my little zombie into the fold, well, the RP was irrevocably broken, and I just went ahead and played the dang game.  See, Mortiphoebe as I’d imagined her would not have calmly nodded at the stranger as I told her to in the game, she’d have whipped out her two handed sword and lopped his ugly little Undead head clean off and then stomped on the rest of the corpse and scattered the bones, then shrieked until she was hoarse, running into the forest.  (Of course, that she didn’t do that to the NPCs was easily attributed to shock and the fact that they didn’t actively talk to her.  It’s a whole new level of interaction when a player takes the time to stop and do something welcoming.)  Irrational paranoia and fear of your own faction doesn’t work in the WoW RP framework, even if they weren’t trope-laden emo gibberish to start with.

*ahem*

Sooo… I’ve played another ten day trial with this character, hot on the heels of playing Allods Online.  I’ve gathered some notes of comparison, and have a few things I’d like to dig into from a game design and art perspective.  That means more articles in this vein, likely all titled “Dead Again: Subtitle”… and lest one get the impression this is now a WoW blog, I’m done with the ten day trial, with no current intention of proceeding further.  I have a few other articles in mind that I’ll toss in between the DA series, too.

After that, I hear the Meridians are worth exploring, and I really want to see what I can tease out of the 59th one.

Since that’s sort of what I do.  Play, analyze, write.  It’s like going to a movie; I’m trained in CG animation, I can’t help but analyze the things.  It’s really hard to just go along for the ride.

In the meantime, though, a quick vignette that might explain a lot about just how hapless I was.  I tried out the Random Dungeon Finder when the tutorial tips prompted me to at level 16.  I wound up in Ragefire Chasm with some of those other players.  It turned out to be fun (gasp!), and we steamrolled the boss.  It was my last night of the trial, so I signed on for another random dungeon, and we wound up in Deadmines… whereupon, after downing one boss, we promptly wandered into a pack of goblins and wound up wiping.  I’ll write more on that later, but what struck me as interesting was after that.

I “released my spirit” and wound up in a graveyard out in Westfall.  I’d never been there before, so I was totally lost.  I saw a player outnumbered by some sort of piggish bipeds, so I went to investigate.  Her guild tag proclaimed her to be a part of SAN, so I figured I’d go help, though it took me a while to get there.  I killed one of her assailants and then wandered off again into the unfamiliar hills.  She thanked me and I nodded.

Only after I looked back did I realize that she was playing a Gnomish character.  Y’know, one of those Alliance mooks.  It must have been baffling for her, seeing a Forsaken come in and help, then wander off.  What can I say?  I was lost.  Um… I was Alliance once?  For the Alliance? Rah, rah, team?  Gooooo Varian?  Nice ‘do, who does your hair?

So, Steelspark of SAN, sorry it took me a while to get there to help (but you survived, which is all I was really angling to help with).  Here’s hoping your evening went well.  Don’t mind the unguilded teenaged Forsaken who looked lost and incompetent.  First impressions can be misleading… or accurate.  It’s not worth worrying about which.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 138 other followers