Archive for April, 2006

The game content dodge

Monday, April 24th, 2006

There are a number of forums on the net where people from and around the game dev industry ventilate thoughts and ideas about game production issues. If you hang on any of those and read the “Game Design” threads (there are usually one dedicated to that) you will quite quickly notice a few things. One of them is the frequent posting of new game ideas where someone have thought up a nifty idea for a game and now requests feedback. Sometimes these ideas are really good and interesting, but ever so often you get kind of crappy versions of already made games (it should be like “Oblivion”, but in space!)

Meanwhile, on the other end of the net … Raph Koster is talking about game-dev dinosauriasis. Others tell similar stories.

So what the heck do these things have in common?

Content production

One of the biggest problem with modern game development is the content production situation. As Raph and others point out, the cost for making new content for games is sky-rocketing. With the introduction of the Xbox 360 and the upcoming PS3 and Revolution launches there is lots of new shiny tech that just begs for more advanced content. The race is continuing. In-game models need millions of polygons to get normal-, parallax- and oogabooga-mapping going. Soon all gamers will crave hair and cloth and who-knows-what-more. That is the reality of the Triple-A league.

However, there are some tendencies towards different models of production. Some studios report that they outsource production of content. It is also getting increasingly attractive to buy ready-made content to put into games – content that is really cheap and that definitely look acceptable (at least if you measure against GTA3 and its clones). I believe we will see more of this in the future. Each game featuring human characters, cars or real world weapons need not spend millions of dollars creating models that are becoming more and more like any other game. Why should you go the hardest possible way if you can buy the content for a fraction of the cost? There has been a similar development on game engines and physics engines. Third party is going strong and coming even stronger.

Game design versus content design

Game design is not about content design. That is something many aspiring new game designers need to realise, at least many of those posting on the forums I spoke about earlier. However, focusing on content is an easy trap to fall into. Formulating a new idea about content is quite fun – and easy: how about a game where you play a janitor in a skyscraper who is a Ninja at night? But the real job of designing a game is not to make up all the brands of cars that will go into the game, nor to decide on the story – even though these things are related to game design. The job is about game mechanics and about nailing down details in the design that are supposed to be fun and challenging – and that can be used for actual implementation. The content needed for a game is closely related to the design, but I believe content production should be governed by game design (and story if you have one), not the other way around.

The challenge

There’s a large number of indie-dev contests going on all over the world. The Swedish Game Awards is coming up next week, for example. These contests are all great and provide a platform for aspiring young game-creators. However, I would like to see a contest that is a little different – that has a different focus. I would like a challenge with the following premises:

  • All games should be produced on the same content.
  • Submitted games are not allowed to alter the content in any way.

The content for the games should include in-game models, images, animations, textures and a font (and maybe even levels?). A library of sound and music should also be provided. The game should be produced in 2D (to take focus off standard 3D issues) and should be playable on any platform (“Flash” is hence a viable target technology).

The aim of the challenge is not only to foster future industry talent into thinking about game design in new creative ways (which you are forced to when heavily restricted), but also to foster players into seeing games for what they provide in fun and challenge instead of graphics. Since the challenge will (if it will ever happen) present game that does not compete with content – they will all look the same (well, sort of) – both players and creators will be forced to look beyond the surface and dig into the real stuff – be it pure mechanics or a fascinating story told within the game frame.

Also, if the day come when your game publisher drops a DVD on your desk and says, “Here’s all you need. Now make a good game out of it,” then you’d better be well prepared.


Probability drama

Friday, April 21st, 2006

One interesting and fundamental difference between traditional games and videogames is the videogames’ ability to meddle with information in a powerful way. Take an ordinary card game, one with hidden cards in a stack and a good deal of luck involved. In such a game, the shuffling of the deck sort of sets the premises for the game. The shuffle can be bad or good for you and you will never know until it’s too late (and you can’t do anything about it). In games of perfect information, where all information is available to all players at all time, this is not an issue. But wait a minute… “not an issue?” How is the randomness of a shuffled card-deck an issue at all?

Card Games

In a way it isn’t. Card games with hidden information and shuffled decks are build on the fact that there is an element of randomness and luck to the game. When you play with a few friends, this can be lots of fun. You can probably easily envision the social interaction that follows when some gets a “bad card” in a game. Frustration and anger are probably common feelings and some of the common actions following within the playing group are most certainly words of encouragement, or teasing.

In the social card-game there would be little point in altering the randomness on the cards. In fact, if the deck is shuffled bad it is instantly spotted and accusations of cheating will hail across the table. This, I believe, is a bit strange. Think about it in this way:

The shuffled deck is available to all players giving them all equal chance.

Even a badly shuffled deck will premiere a random player (unless it’s deliberately tampered with) and there’s no way to tell who it’s gonna be. So playing with such a deck is really equally fair to playing with a deck that’s shuffled better.

Note though that I only said “fair”. There’s a series of other aspects of this. First of all, no one enjoys playing cards with a deck that is badly shuffled. The reason is that the game can become predictable really quickly. When we play games with a large portion of chance involved, we expect the game to deliver an even flow of randomness. If the game suddenly starts behaving otherwise, we get irritated and the game looses its appeal. We feel that the game becomes more “solitair-like” in a sense, where the chance is just present in the beginning when Mother Fortune selects who of the four players should get the long string of Aces, Kings and Queens in the fifteen rounds to come. In short, we feel cheated.

We react the same way when the game, purely by chance, delivers cards that appear non-random. This is, of course, within the nature of randomness. If I roll a dice long enough, I ought to get some series like 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5 and if we look at it in the long run, it’s perfectly natural. However, when those fives show up, one after another, the game we are playing feels all but natural.

So there’s a good deal of psychology involved here.

Videogames

Now, let us think a little about videogames. Those games differ from the social card game example above on several points. First of all, the game is often played against a computer, or with a computer acting as a play-master. Most videogames are also designed to be played by one single player. The computer can provide the proper opposition, even though it is often rather dull to play against simulated human players (in a videogame about poker, for example).

So, imagine a single player game, one that’s really simple and that we all know. It’s called “Memory” and is played with square little cards with pictures on them and is about finding pairs.

In the game “Memory”, the player sets up the board by spreading out the cards, or arranging them in a grid (6×4 cards, for example) – back side up. The player then picks a card, turns it and looks at the picture on it. Then another card is selected and looked at. If the two don’t match, then they are put down again (on their original position) and another try is made. This game can be played on a computer by a single player. The challenge then is to find all the pairs in as few number of tries as possible.

Now, think a bit about how this is typically implemented. In a board-game version of “Memory” we shuffle the cards and spread them out on the table, then begin to play. In the videogame version, the program will probably do something similar. It will shuffle a virtual deck, create a 2 dimensional array, a set of lists or whatever and then put one card on each position. The game logic then allows the player to point at cards and turn them according to the rules. But the whole thing is static once the board is set.

But does the board need to be static? Well, we couldn’t just shuffle the board about at some interval, can we? The game is about remembering the position of cards and if those cards suddenly change places without any warning, the game will most certainly suck as a game. However, there are cards throughout the game that has not been seen. When the game starts, all 24 (or whatever) cards could be shuffling around like crazy on the virtual table. And we wouldn’t know that since we can only see the back-side of the cards. It is only at the moment the player decides to turn a card that the game needs to decide what card should be shown. The same goes for every card that is not yet turned.

Why then don’t we look at ways of using this “trick” that only the videogame adaption of “Memory” allows us to make? Clearly, there are drama connected to the outcome of randomness in games. Players get frustrated when chance work against them and they are happy when they get lucky. Furthermore, players are frustrated when randomness does not look all that random.

In the “Memory” example, it is easy to see that the game can do two tricks to accomplish a better (or different) gaming experience:

  • Reorganize cards to prevent that pairs are found at random.
  • Reorganize cards to help the player find pairs “at random”.

An AI can overview the game and decide what route to take by altering the odds in real-time. This is somewhat similar to a “drama manager” that keeps track of what the player does and tries to make a dramatically efficient experience. In the “Memory” example, the drama is really simple since the player can be taken between feelings of luck/happiness and misfortune/frustration. That may not be enough to motivate the effort needed to create a “probability drama manager” for “Memory” – the payoff is perhaps to small. But the game is a good example of a system where the computer can be active in parts of the gaming where it traditionally could not. And we can now start thinking of other places where this “probability drama” method is applicable. Just to name a few:

  • RPG loot dropping
  • RTS combat “dice roll” situations
  • Bullet hits in shooters
  • Weather exposure in flight simulators
  • Zombie wake-ups in a horror game

Of course, there are risks involved. A player who feels that the computer is altering the odds will cry “cheater!” instantly, so an implementation need to be extremely well tuned and thought out.

In the straightforward implementation of “Memory”, the game is driven by chance only and that is fine. But then again, nowadays we have the processing power and we have an ability to make something a little bit more psychologically fine-tunes – so why shouldn’t we?


HUD’s up

Thursday, April 6th, 2006

This, as it turns out, is a new revolution in games: the anti-HUD movement.

These are the words of Clive Thompson, taken from a Wired news column about video-games. (I read the article on collision detection, one of the most interesting blogs around about weird research, games, science, technology, and culture. Please check it out!)…

In “Riddick”, we spent a lot of time and effort to eliminate HUD elements. Since then, other games has gone further. “King Kong” is one example. Other examples are “Condemned” and “Call of Duty 2” – and “Myst”… Yes, the strive for complete immersion has gone on for quite some time, so while we were ahead of most of the games that take the HUD-less design path (although we did have some HUD elements in “Riddick”) we all are far behind the earliest attempts. Actually, when you think of it are most of the solutions to HUD problems quite simple and straightforward. “Call of Duty 2” simplifies the damage model to be able to remove a health-bar. It works like a charm. “Condemned” removes the need for an ammo-counter by making it really easy to keep track of the amount by memory only (most guns have 2-3 rounds left). If you need a reminder, the game allows you to open the gun and look – in-game. (“Riddick” does like some other games and puts the ammo-counter on the weapon.)

But while these designs are deceivingly simple I believe they are extremely hard to come up with because they require some new thinking. In most examples where a traditional HUD has been removed the required information has to be presented in some other way. Some games replace the health-bar with walk speed and animation, but that sucks big-time because the more hits you take the harder the game gets. “Call of Duty” does exactly the right thing here and approaches the problem as a whole. The question asked should be “what is the required information?” and “how can we make the mechanics harmonize with what we no longer got?” These questions are tackled properly by the “Call of Duty 2” designers.

I, like Clive Thompson, also believe that there is an anti-HUD movement, one that Starbreeze is very much part of. The game we are working on currently (“The Darkness”) have some hard HUD challenges that we are thinking hard about right now. Clive Thompson argues that there is nothing inherent in HUDs that ruins immersion, that HUDs can actually serve immersion. In part I belive he is right. It is more important to deliver the proper information than to frustrate players, but I don’t see HUDs having value in themselves (but then again, I’m not a fan of “Steel Battalion” either). If the information channel between game and gamer can be made simpler, less ambiguous and more naturally mapped, that is the way to go.