Archive for May, 2006

Feel-good is pay-off

Sunday, May 21st, 2006

When you design a game, one of the cornerstones is the idea that games need to give players some kind of pay-off. In an action game, a good idea is to try to find and work with “memorable moments”, events or situations that the player will remember at given points in the game after finished. A good game leaves you with many moments that will stick to your memory and over the years get wrapped in a pink cloud of nostalgia-fluff.

Another way to think about pay-off is as rewards. The player is given rewards for dealing with and solving particularly challenging situations. This might be a boss-fight, a level, a new opponent or whatever. Many games are sprinkled with pickups, boosts and all sorts of nice things that work as rewards and they often work well as pay-off for spending time in a game. Of course, the use of these kinds of devices should be done with great care and thought. Just peppering the player with pickups could be counter effective.

Feel-good in games

But there is a deeper form of pay-off that I believe differentiates the really good game from the average. Here are two examples:

  • In the “Ratchet & Clank” series, whenever you smash something bolts fly out of them and you can collect these bolts. When you collect bolts, the game emits a sound that makes you feel good.
  • In “Shadow of the Colossus”, just riding Agro, your horse, through the vast landscape feels good.

These are highly subjective reactions to those games, but I know that many agree with me. One of my colleagues, Anders Backman, claimed that any store that played the “collect bolt” sound from “Ratchet & Clank” when you step through the door would increase its sales immediately. It’s a somewhat silly notion, but I kind of believe that he is right.

“Shadow of the Colossus” has been criticised by some for its long transportation sequences, but I do not agree with those people. To me, one of the beauties of the game is that is makes you focus on the horseback-riding and get to know Agro real well. The feel-good of riding is utilized to the max, which I think is a stroke of genius.

There are tons and tons of things that make people feel good about playing and many games hit the spot right on. Whether that happens by design or by luck is somewhat irrelevant to players – they get their games and they like playing them. But if games tend to be successful in this area by luck, chances are that the opportunity to work with those feel-good devices is badly exploited.

Therefore, I think that it is a good idea to, if you haven’t started to do so, look at your favourite games, play them again, analyze them and find those components that triggers you. Chances are that your triggers are similar to many other people’s. And with that little piece of knowledge, you can go back to your team and try to enhance your game, making it pay off even more to those who will eventually play it.

Public licensed content

Tuesday, May 16th, 2006

I have previously talked about how bizarre the videogame industry is. We produce games that has extremely short longevity (in comparison to other media like film and literature) and that by technological progress becomes hard to access. We see that the Xbox 360 “backwards compatibility” towards the Xbox means that there are tons of games that cannot be played on the new console. Now Sony has declared that they are going to solve compatibility with the PS1 and PS2 on the PS3 (sic!) in software – just like Microsoft did on the Xbox 360 – so let’s all prepare for limited backwards compatibility on the PS3 – at least for a while. Luckily, there is a large emulation-scene that works hard to keep old games playable and we should all be forever thankful to these technological wizards.

[Edit: Interesting stuff is also happening on the on-line services provided by the console makers. Nintendo, for example, are going to provide their whole back catalog on the new Wii console]

Open Sourced Games

The compatibility issue is a problem that applies mostly to code. When it comes to content, there are issues involved: endianness on data, special formats on textures and sounds that makes the usage of special hardware on some platforms possible. Now, if one had the source code available it would be much easier to port a game to a new platform, extending the longevity of the game into virtual eternity. There are games that has been released as Open Source and that is a good thing. I sincerely wish more of that happening in the future.

However, most of the games that are candidates for Open Source releases are quite good games that has lived a previously prosperous life. These are games where the content has served a purpose and where the production of unique content for one sole game (or two, like Fallout 1 & 2) is perfectly justifiable. But there are tons and tons of games out there that get very little shelf-time, sell very little and then get sinked into the mud of the digital river Lethe. The reasons for most of these “failures” are that the many are average at best, some gets little or no marketing and some are just victims of pure bad luck.

Content Waste

That a team of developers spend years on a product that then gets thrown away is a Cardinal Sin. Sure, one cannot expect all games to profit – but if there is good stuff in there, why not use if for some other means? Why not make another game with the same stuff? EA and the sports game people have realised this, but they are also the ones making big money (well, perhaps not for so long some say, but that’s a separate issue). On the other end of the scale are the endless stream of WWII games that look exactly the same. I bet they all have custom built content. All of them…

Whoah! Now, wait a minute! In a previous article, I wrote about a hypothetical publisher dropping a disc with content on a developer’s desk saying “Here’s all you need. Now make a good game out of it.” Isn’t the idea of reusing content ideal for publishers? If a project goes bad, just take the content from it and give to a new developer who makes another game (for very little money), and perhaps this time, the publisher starts making good money?

I am quite sure that we will see things like this happen. I actually believe it is happening right now. Take the game “Knights of the Temple 2”, for example. The first game was not really a smash-hit, but nevertheless a sequel is out. From what I can tell from the screenshots, it seems like the team behind the sequel has used a lot of content from the original game and put it to life in another game engine.

But this is not inherently a bad thing. Some of you probably believe it is, but think about it this way: if publishers can see that a risk-taking project is not really that big a risk anymore, then they could possibly be more risk-prone and more eager to try new innovative things. If the project does not pay off, they can still reuse the content and get their money back. That’s not such a horrible thing, right?

New Developer Opportunities

However, there are other implications. If the above scenario becomes common within the industry, developers will probably adjust their contracts accordingly. My impression is that most game developers sign away all rights to a game’s content and that it is the norm. I guess that some get to keep source material and that others keep the rights to stuff like proprietary code and so forth. I also guess that most of those sign-aways are done because everyone knows that the stuff is never going to be used anyways – in worst case a shitty game produced in a small country with lots of consonants in its same, but nothing that can compete with the original game.

If content reuse of third party developments becomes common we should expect games of fairly high quality to be produced. New developers specialized in working with ready-made content will emerge and the old garde will need to adapt. Sure, they will probably negotiate contracts that either gets them to keep the rights to their content – or they get more money – or they get screwed for good.

Adding to this whole equation is another little interesting thing that can be noted about modern game content…

Source Content Quality Longevity

Much of the game content produced to make next generation games are made in extremely high quality. A normal-mapped character model is modelled with millions of polygons. These are then process and applies (as normal-mapped textures) on models with thousands of polygons. As technology takes further steps, the source quality of much of the game content need to be stellar.

In fact, I believe that really large portions of the produced source content for a game is in shape for usage in games for years to come. Sure, the poly count goes up, but that only applies to the actual in-game model. The source models are still going to have millions of polygons.

You see how this fits into the production model I outlined above? It’s not perfect, though. As soon as some new tech is introduced in an engine, alterations is necessary. One might need to add cloth or hair or some new rendering component to textures – or whatever. But as long as available tools are somewhat easy to use, one can probably come a long way with good source material in a relatively short amount of time.

Serving the Community

Let’s say that I am right in all this. Then developers around the world will face new ways to work and probably somewhat different contract negotiations. If that is the case, why not seize the moment and make something good for the community and for mankind as a whole?

Here’s the additions to developer’ contracts I want to see:

  • If a game sells good, the rights to the content goes back to the developer. The developer can then use that content to create a new game.
  • If a game sells bad, the rights to the content is donated to the PUBLIC after 2 or 3 years.
  • The licensing for the public content should be liberal, like the BSD license for code.

This is a pipe dream, I know. But think about it. With an ever increasing base of public content I believe that the industry would benefit hugely. Just look:

  • Indie developers can make games much easier.
  • Publishers can use public content and drop it on developers to lessen risk. (The “Here’s all you need”-scenario)
  • A whole plethora of refinement-companies will pop up. They will keep the shape up on public content They will add bones to animation-rigs, put hair on bald characters, run animations through newer software to simulate whatever. They will sell top notch stuff based on free content.
  • … and so on…

Light at the End of the Legal Tunnel

Of course, this is a nice dream. And with the advent of 1-800-SUE-THE-BASTARDS mentality, all dreams are prone to become legal nightmares. So do this one. Today, there are so many issues involved in IP rights. I can only imagine how lawyers would define where those IP rights start and end when it comes to game content. Is a model of a rock part of this-or-that franchise? “You bet!”

But leave the legal issues aside for a minute and answer this question:

Honestly, who would be the looser if the videogame industry went this way?

Me, I can only see winners.

Rebuilding the site

Saturday, May 13th, 2006

My site was moved to a new server a week ago and suddenly my Movable Type installation stopped working like before. I never really liked MT so I am taking the opportunity to rebuild the whole site like I want it to be. So bear with me during the near future. All of the game design articles has been migrated, but there’s still lots of things to do.

For the time being the only thing here are my articles, but in due time I will start publishing photos again. Managing photos in MT was pure evil so I guess I can get something going that I can actually work with and that feels nice. We’ll see.