Archive for December, 2008

To Keep or not to keep it simple

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

Jeez, there’s been over a full year since I wrote anything here. The main reason is that I’ve been extremely busy working on a game. But things change – the games industry is very “agile” and you never know what lurks behind the next milestone. For good and bad.
In our case, what was lurking was bad. A couple of weeks ago, we got canceled due to the publisher having deep financial troubles (as many, many, many companies have nowadays). This is a huge setback for Avalanche and the fantastic team that has been working on this magnificent game for a year and a half has fallen into pieces. It’s all very, very sad. The material we created is awesome, the project had enormous potential, but now we can only hope that somehow the game can be revived. But given the financial state of the world, I’m not holding my breath too hard.

But let’s talk of something merrier. I went into GameRankings some time ago and checked the review scores for “The Darkness”. When the game was released I watched GameRankings, MetaCritic and all those sites closely but now I was just leisure-browsing the site and started clicking around. And I noticed a few things… The reviews for “The Darkness” is distributed quite widely between 2 out of 5 and 9 out of 10 (averaging 83% on the Xbox 360). “The Darkness” landed on a lower average than “Riddick” (which scores 90.7% on the PC). I read some of the higher scoring and some of the lower scoring reviews and I paid attention to what they said about story (which was my main focus when working on the game). Strangely enough, the story of “The Darkness” divides people into two very distinct camps. Those who think it’s brilliant and those who think it’s almost sub-par – or just downright confusing. The reception of “Riddick” was much more uniform and people seemed to generally like the story qualities of “Riddick”. Very few disliked it. How come, I wonder?

Well, it might be that the sci-fi setting and main character of “Riddick” has a more general appeal to people, but I really doubt that is the case. Instead, I believe it boils down to one single issue: simplicity.

“Riddick” tells a much more straightforward story than “The Darkness”. Riddick is thrown into jail and must escape. That’s it. Jackie, on the other hand, is driven by revenge and is fighting his inner demons (literally). Setting up the premises for Jackie took a considerable effort and if you play the game you will need to spend time with it and its characters until the story starts to really propel. For instance, Jenny plays a major role in Jackie’s story and she needed to be introduced properly. When you fire up “Riddick”, the game opens with Riddick (you) being led into Butcher Bay prison and that’s pretty much all you need to know. It’s that one guy against the system. Now, Riddick is by no means dumbed down story-wise. We spent as much effort getting characterization, themes, motives and story arcs right in “Riddick” as we did in “The Darkness”, but I don’t think there’s any question that Riddick’s story is much more straightforward.

I think that this pinpoints something that needs to be thought, re-thought, told and re-told over and over and over again: KISS. Keep it simple (stupid). And this applies not only storytelling in games, but to absolutely everything. Still, for some reason, game design and storytelling are notoriously hard to keep simple so it’s good to keep the KISS mantra in the back of your head day and night. During the year and a half I’ve been working on the design on the, now dead, Avalanche game we have actively been forced to go through this over and over again. This has been the general process:

  • We look at an area of the game and design something that we feel is cool.
  • Usually, this design is pretty much crap but you don’t see it at first.
  • Luckily, there’s hopefully a golden nugget buried in that pile.
  • And fortunately, as we continue to rework and iterate the design and think about implementation details together with the team, we’ll realize that the only way through is by simplification.
  • After many iterations and tuning, the final implementation is usually a fifth (or less) of the original design, but it works, feels good and is straightforward and intuitive.

A specific example where a mechanic went through this process was the hand-to-hand combat in “Riddick”. We had two or three total overhauls of designs that were all pretty complex. They locked the player in a “combat mode” (with a modal controller) which featured series of advanced maneuvers, attacks and counter attacks. These were prototyped but dismissed as essentially crap. In the end Jens Andersson (one of the Lead Designers) went in a different direction and created a quick prototype of a combat system that was much more simple and straightforward. The final game ended up a refined version of that system and it worked a million times better than the previous attempts.

It’s easy to analyze in hindsight, but keeping something simple when you’re waist deep in creative golden quicksand is very hard. There are several reasons for that:

  • If you’re working on an AAA game, there’s a lot to juggle and maintaining KISS takes a lot of effort.
  • You strive to create something unique (that’s fine) – but you want to be unique all over the place (which is a mistake).
  • The easiest way to be unique is to be complex (just look at all gazillion spins on “Tetris” and you know what I mean).
  • It feels good to play cerebral and design complicated ideas and systems.
  • It is hard to kill your darlings (and your darlings are probably not simple).

Now one could be mean and say that KISS is hard because we are lazy and narcissistic, but formulated any way you like, this is why I think it’s a hard problem to remedy. The only way to fight it is through awareness, continuous reflection and hard work. So this is my recipe for the future:

  • I’ll try to always keep my head cool.
  • I’ll remember that there is (almost) always an easier and more straightforward way to do whatever I’m currently doing.

Eventually, I will hopefully learn.