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Archive for June, 2011

I work in the game industry as a technical artist.  I’m somewhere between a designer and a “real” artist, and my college degree (Bachelor’s of the Fine Arts) was in computer animation, where I specialized in animation and rigging.  I’m sort of a “left and right brain” artist, and I wind up doing a lot of different things in any given production.

In college, I used Autodesk’s Maya for 3D work.  It’s a solid, if expensive, program that is used professionally in the film and TV industries.  My first job in games used it, too… but now I work at a smaller studio that uses 3DS Max.  It’s also a solid, if expensive, program, but three years of using it, and I’m still running into mental and physical tics where I want to use Maya workflow or keyboard/mouse functions that have no parallel in Max or are handled differently.

One particularly egregious dysfunctional keyboard shortcut in Max is the almost omnipresent CTRL-S.  In almost every single Windows program that’s the shortcut for “Save”.  That’s even true in Max… unless you’re editing UV layouts, which is pretty common in my work.  Then, CTRL-S toggles the “Snap” setting.  This tripped me up more than once, as I thought I was saving a file, only to find that I was turning Snap on, which messed up what I was doing with the UVs.  I’ve also lost work when I thought I saved a file before walking away from my machine, only to have it crash while I was away.  My reflexive CTRL-S didn’t save the file, so I was out an hour or so of work.

I consider this to be Bad Design.  When user expectations are based on muscle memory and mental habits, there need to be extremely good reasons for going against that grain.  That’s not to say that changing things up is always a bad thing, just that it needs to be carefully done and actually make a user’s experience better, not worse.

We see this in game design, too, from the FPS glut to MMOs.  So many games look very similar and play very similarly that players come to expect that a new game that fits the mold will offer a similar user experience.  This can run as shallow as pressing the same button to advance dialogue trees (a problem between SNES and Playstation era RPGs, where “cancel” was “accept” on the other controller and vice versa) to camera control (games really should let users flip the X and Y axis controls) to actual moment-to-moment gameplay.

I have an XBox game called PURE, an offroad ATV racing/stunt game made for the SSX mentality.  It’s full of crazy stunts and absurd tracks, but it’s a lot of fun to play.  My wife and I play SSX3 on occasion on our PS2, and we love playing together.  PURE doesn’t offer a single-screen multiplayer game, which is a bit annoying, but much more annoying on a subconscious level is that the default controller setup asks the player to hold down the right trigger button to make the silly vehicle move.  This winds up making sense as the face buttons (A, B, X, Y) are used for stunts, but going from SSX3, which uses the shoulder button (more or less the same thing as the XBox trigger) for a turbo boost which must be used carefully to the trigger that is almost constantly held is a bit of a jarring transition.

This has nothing to do with how the game itself plays or looks, except inasmuch as those taint player expectations.  It’s not a game design issue, it’s a User Interface issue.  Yes, that’s part of the overarching “game production” pipeline, but it’s not a function of the core game design (the game mechanics).  Good UI design is crucial to making a good game playable, but it’s not something you can just toss a game designer or artist at and hope it works.  It requires a bit more thought and study.  That not to say that a designer or artist (or programmer) is incapable of good UI design, just that it’s a specialty in itself that needs attention.

Similarly, the Star Trek Online that I’ve been playing lately plays a lot like World of Warcraft in some crucial ways.  Holding both left and right mouse buttons down makes a character jog in the direction you’re aiming the camera.  Right button dragging moves the camera, left clicking selects targets, right clicking tells your character to attack the target, combat abilities are in a clickable hotbar that can also be activated with the numerical keys on the keyboard.  At the same time, ALT-Z doesn’t turn off the UI visual elements that would allow a nice clean screenshot.  It’s just a stupid little keyboard shortcut, but I find it annoying every time I want to take a screenshot… and that’s pretty often.  STO is a pretty game.  Apparently, the UI is automatically turned off for screenshots… but what then if I *want* the UI in the shot?  There’s a command for it, but the default function is different from what I’m used to.  I’m also not given any sort of feedback to know if hitting the Print Screen button actually takes a screenshot like it does in WoW.  That’s not to say that WoW is perfect, just that there’s a difference.

That’s not a problem by any means, it’s just a little annoyance.  Those tend to add up, though, even if they are subconscious.  Players might find that they aren’t liking a game any more, not because the game itself isn’t good, but because they keep fighting their own reflexes and assumptions about how it’s supposed to work, and that tension is a constant low-level irritation.  Something like Star Wars The Old Republic or Guild Wars 2 might find itself in a bad position between wanting to innovate and being stuck with gamers in a mental rut.  (That rut may not even be a bad place, for that matter… even if it might hold back the potential of the genre.)

Another example is the vestigial jumping of Wizard 101, which has absolutely no function.  It’s purely cosmetic… but because players have come to expect that the space bar makes your character jump in a PC game, by gum, it makes your wizard jump in Wizard 101.  As I noted in my original article on it, I think that’s a smart business move, even if it doesn’t make sense within the game itself.

This can also run deeper and run into game design territory.  STO has a vague (thankfully not strict) combat trinity of tank/healer/damage dealer with a few tricks thrown in, like WoW or any of a dozen other MMOs.  That’s a little odd, but hey, it works for what players are used to, so it makes sense to use it.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense for the game itself, and almost certainly not for the Star Trek IP, but it makes sense to gamers who might be coming to the game, so it’s a smart move.  SWTOR will almost certainly be a “reskin” of WoW with many of the same core mechanics and UI.  That’s smart business, even if it isn’t actually anything innovative or even evolutionary.  Players don’t want to relearn how to play a game that they are expecting to play like their old favorite.

I’ve also done a bit of web design here and there, and I try to work within the W3 standards.  That’s all well and good for practice, but in reality, Firefox, Opera, Chrome and that idiotic Internet Explorer all handle HTML, CSS and even the supposedly-universal Javascript differently.  Standards are only useful if they are actually used, and it’s a mess when not only individuals ignore them but also the browsers.  Each browser has its strengths and weaknesses, and can be perfectly usable in itself, but when they don’t cooperate on basic usability, it causes users trouble.  Standards are incredibly important to communication in all sorts of venues.

By the way, Firefox, why in the world did you move the “home” button to the other side of the address bar?  It’s one thing for different programs to change UI, it’s more troubling when a given program changes things between versions.  Don’t get me started on Photoshop and its spawn, or the barely-incremental changes we see in other big software packages in an effort to sell a new box each year, not only adding to the cost (since previous versions no longer get sold or supported) but also decreasing usability.  That’s not really a good pairing.

But so what?  Why does any of this matter?

Well, if your audience is likely to have developed expectations, whether mental habits or actual muscle memory, you need to be aware of that and design your product accordingly.  Automobile designers don’t arbitrarily switch the accelerator and brake pedals in an effort to differentiate their cars from the other guys.  DVORAK keyboards still aren’t the dominant model.  Single-button mice are still a dumb idea for Mac users who may be using PCs during the day.  Americans still don’t use the metric system and we drive on the wrong side of the road.

Maybe the alternates are better for those who don’t have expectations, but how often is that truly the case?  Designers don’t always have to cater to expectations, but flaunting them in ignorance or spite is a bad way to do business.  And perhaps sadly, games are still business.  Big business.  We need to understand our customers.  We still might have the courage or bullheadedness to do things our way instead of the “standard” way, but we shouldn’t do it from a position of ignorance.

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World of Warcraft finally steals the WarHammer Online “perpetual limited free trial” hook.

Too little, too late, says I.  The time to flank the F2P tide was a couple of years ago if not earlier.

It’s still probably a smart move.  It will be interesting to see what effects it has.

As for me and my house?  I’ll have a new baby Druid to play with when the itch strikes, and I don’t have to plunk down a sub for the privilege of picking up the game whenever I darn well please for a bit of sightseeing.  Oh, and I can patch the blasted thing without feeling like I’m wasting a couple of days of a month’s sub or firing up a new dummy trial.

…and I’d still pay for an offline version.

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Do What You Want, OKGO

Why are so many gamers content to just do as they are told?  Who exactly is to blame for not exploring the world of an MMO?  (Which is, after all, still a game, not a pure world simulator, for better or worse.)  Why, in one of the most potentially interactive entertainment mediums, are games so constrained or controlled, and so many “consumers” still so passive?

Outside of the games themselves, why do players offer critique, punditry or backseat driving without seeking to understand before demanding to be understood?  I guess it’s always just easier to blame the other guy.

Why do devs cater to player trends?  Might I suggest that at least some of them still want to make money?  That may be a tough question: make a game specifically to make money, or make the game you want to make and try to market it?

There’s a place for products that are built from a singular vision and that are uncompromising in how they approach it, counting on their labor of love to find the right audience instead of opening the tent doors to all the camels.  I suspect everyone has their pet product that might fit this mold.  I hope we never lose that corner of the game industry.  (Though it is changing thanks to budgets and tools.)

but it’s still an ecosystem of niches, not a way to survive the mainstream.  There’s gold in them thar hills, but it’s risky business.  The less risky mainstream might stumble onto a gem here and there, but by its nature, it’s more about keeping that shareholder cash flowing, and that means you can’t rock the boat much.

Oh, and challenge is still a variable, completely dependent on the perception of the player.  Too many players (and devs) don’t understand that.  There is no golden equation that collapses the player skill distribution curve into the Perfect Game.  Even player-driven variables (difficulty settings, for one) can’t possibly cover all possible players.

So what do you do?  You make the game you want to make, and you play the games you want to play.

…and let others do the same.  In a market that is ever more digitally distributed, there’s room for the mid-size games with modest scope and other assorted indie products (including hardware, apparently, which is fascinating).  The niches can work… but it may not always be easy.  They can’t try to be AAA games (barely interactive movies), they have to embrace the niche and, well… do their own thing.

As one author noted…

 Isn’t the point of an RPG — MMO or otherwise — to let me roleplay what I choose?

Not every game is one of those RPG things, but games from Puerto Rico (an interesting example as there are no dice rolls and very little mechanical randomization; the most important random elements are the other players) to Chess to Rook to StarCraft rely on player choice. Players need to make choices (not just solve problems), and devs need to let them… even if that means letting them choose not to play their game because it’s too different.  We all need to be confident in our choices and not worry so much about catering to anyone else.  I think we get better games and better gamers that way.

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Akimi Village

The first PS3 game I’ve ever worked on, finally released!

Akimi Village by NinjaBee

Of course, I don’t actually have a PS3… but still, it’s a sweet game.  It’s sort of like… A Kingdom for Keflings crossed with StarCraft‘s Zerg creep… except you’re trying to use the sorta-creep to save a village.  And the hero has Jell-O hair.  And the mentor is a raccoon.

…yeah, we’re kinda weird.  We like it that way.

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Star Trekkin’

Star Trekkin’, across the blogoverse..

I’m a Trekkie… sorta.  I grew up on reruns of The Original Series, loved the later seasons of The Next Generation, tolerated Deep Space 9 until it got really good, laughed at Voyager (though “Timeless” is one of my favorite episodes across all ‘Treks) and had an allergic reaction to Enterprise.  I disavow knowledge of the J. J. Abrams production.

When Cryptic announced Star Trek Online, I was tentatively curious.  I figured after the ENT era, the IP was pretty much gutted anyway, so I didn’t expect anything like the classic (surprisingly good) adventure game Star Trek 25th Anniversary.  (Hey, GOG.com, when do we get that one?)  When it was noted that there would be tanks, healers and DPS roles in ‘Trek combat, I shook my head and shrugged.  When it was announced that it would require a subscription, I gave up.

…When Steam had a sale and offered the game with 30 days of play for $3.something, I buckled and bought it.  Longasc has been enthusiastic about the game for a while, and I guess it rubbed off.  (Articles from Tipa and Blue Kae have been good reminders, too.  I’m sure there are others I’ve read, so please forgive me for not remembering who wrote them at the moment.)

And, y’know… it’s a game that I would buy happily as an offline game.  It’s a game that I’ll play if/when it goes F2P.  I still hate subscriptions, but the game itself, well… I like it.  More than I thought I would, actually.

Interestingly, it plays a bit like Dungeons and Dragons Online in my mind, in that a lot of the content is mission-based, effectively little encapsulated instanced stories, stitched together with an overarching shared space.  (Conveniently monetizable via selling content in mission packs, not unlike DDO or Wizard 101, while we’re at it…)  It doesn’t play like a MMO in the sense that anyone can bother you wherever you are (instanced raiding and dungeoneering aside).  It’s more like a giant shared interstellar space lobby with nuggets of story to play alone or with friends.  The thing is, that works perfectly for the ‘Trek IP, what with the theme of missions and “episodes”.  The quasi-military nature of Starfleet in a time of interstellar war makes mission-based play work really well.  (It makes me wish the Stargate MMO hadn’t folded; that’s another game that would have been perfect for mission-based play.)

Of course it’s silly in the way all MMOs are silly, in that the bad guys respawn for the next player, wars never end, combat is way too prevalent, and the economy is wonky.  Animations are weird, the Uncanny Valley causes a few stumbles, the Admiral stands on his chair, and I’m still not sure how we got Spock’s context-relevant voiceovers if he’s stuck in Abrams’verse.  Character development is a bit unclear as to what really matters down the line (yeah, there are wikis, but the in-game descriptions aren’t terribly helpful) and respeccing costs real money.  The item shop layered on top of a sub is a dumb cash grab.  The fact that I had to officially register for a subscription (PayPal or credit card) just to gain access to the thirty days that come with the box still annoys me, especially with all the hacking going on lately.  The Klingon war declaration is a bit… forced, but hey, I guess playing as Klingons was more appealing than playing as Romulans if players didn’t want to be good little Federationistas.  It’s still just a little rough around the edges in a lot of little ways, but then, what MMO isn’t?

It’s not a perfect game, but I still like it.  I have fun playing it, and in the end, that’s the important part.

The sounds are great, the ambiance feels Trekkish, the visuals are sufficiently Okudaish, and the little nods to history and canon are like a bunch of easter eggs for an attentive nerd, er, fan.  (I even got an ENT reference… for shame.)  Space combat is great fun and ground combat is pretty good.  The incidental Scienceish objectives (go scan that anomaly!) are a nice nod to the exploration mandate of Starfleet… though I wish there were more of that.  (Yes, I’m playing a Science officer… which is ostensibly a Healer, but whatever, I’m going to be the best Spock Dax I can be.)  Conveniences like remote contact with quest, er, mission-givers makes sense, as Starfleet really can’t function if everyone had to come home to Earth to turn in personal reports.

I’m sure that true blue diehard fans have quibbles with the game, and I’m sure many MMO devotees don’t like its departures from the DIKU mold.  In the end, though, taken for what it is, a big ol’ Star Trek multiplayer game, it’s been my experience that there’s plenty of fun there to make it worth playing.

…at least for the 30 days.

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Apparently raiding is fun.  But only some players can do it, despite efforts to open the raid gates to the unwashed masses.  Even though “accessibility” is a swear word for some, and the true Achilles Heel of World of Warcraft, if hyperbole is to be believed.  (Never mind the newbie hose, newbies don’t want to raid.  They would probably do it wrong, too, or maybe they just don’t care about the endgame that they either haven’t heard about or have no hope of ever seeing.)

My solution is simple:

Make raids soloable

Yup, soloable.  If Blizzard is so concerned with getting players to see their content, let them see it already.  (Tangentially, they really aren’t selling content, they are selling access.  If content is important, they should sell content like Guild Wars does and drop the subscriptions, but I digress.)  DDO lets players solo almost every dungeon, and GW does something similar by letting players have computer-controlled associates.  (Notably, both of those games sell content, but I digress again.)

Maybe this means “Battle for the Undercity” buffs.  Maybe it means NPCs shepherding players.  Maybe it means no experience gain or loot drops from these soloable raids, so they are truly just content tourism.  (Speaking as a soloist interested in content, I wouldn’t mind losing the XP potential or loot, since that’s not why I play.)

Of course, I’d also make raids at all levels, not just five man dungeons.

If raids are so important that the game is designed around driving players into them, let’s put players in raids already and stop making it an elite activity that you have to play for months and find a bunch of other players to get into.

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GoG.com announced that they have just gained access to EA’s back catalog.  They now have this little gem:

Wing Commander: Privateer

Yes, yes, my day has been made.  I’ve been waiting for that title since GoG got started.  Between that and the X-Com collection I got from D2D last week, I’m neck-deep in retro gaming goodness.

Life is good.

…posting may be delayed…

…just sayin’…

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