Posts Tagged ‘ design

Playing Optimally

My latest article is up at Gamers with Jobs. It’s about cover-based shooters and how cover mechanics push shooters in a lot of bad directions. I used Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead Redemption to illustrate how cover usually goes wrong. But what’s been interesting to me is how many people have come back with a variation on what I call the Hocking defense: “If you’re bored, it’s because you’re boring.”

I call it the Hocking defense because of a remark he made at a talk I attended. One criticism a lot of people directed at the otherwise excellent Far Cry 2 was that it was repetitive. You could play just about every mission using the same three weapons, and one random encounter or mission tended to look a lot like another. Hocking laughed and, admitting he was going to come across like a jerk, said, “I think if you find Far Cry 2 repetitive, then you’re probably repetitive.”

Hocking’s view was that he’d created a game where there were dozens and dozens of ways to approach the same problem. Players had access to different weapon combinations and weapon types, an incredible fire and physics model, and a beautiful open world in which every battle was likely to be different. If your reaction to all that freedom was to do the same thing over and over again, that was on you.

If that Krogan ever managed to get close, I would have been in mild danger.

In the case of Mass Effect 2, the problem isn’t with the game, but with the way I played it. The argument goes that it is my fault for, first, picking the soldier class. The soldier only has access to guns, and the only opportunities to use biotic and tech powers come from her AI squadmates. Had I played a different class, I would have been less tied to cover, and been able to adopt more variable tactics. Second, nobody made me play every encounter the same way. I could have tried different strategies than the “stand in cover and shoot” tactic that saw me through most of the game.

Now, in Mass Effect 2, there are several reasons why I suspect changing classes or approaches will still leave every battle in the game feeling generic and boring. But I’m more interested in the widespread assumption that because other options are available to players, they should use them. The existence of these other options apparently makes boredom or repetition the fault of the player.

The argument seems a little churlish to me, because I don’t generally consider it my responsibility as the player to locate the fun and variety in some aspect of a game. Besides, if a game is not fun or appealing while I am playing it, that makes me less inclined to try alternate approaches. The games that I experiment with are the ones I loved while playing in whatever was my natural style for that game. That’s what gives me confidence that experimentation will be rewarded. Great games invite you to consider other options, and they often show them to you.

Bioshock 2: where crazy stuff is always about to happen

But the argument is also naive about the powerful draw of optimal play styles. If the same tactics work again and again, players will use them again and again. Even if they don’t want to, because it is a guaranteed way to pass the next challenge. In fact, it becomes a vicious circle. The optimal tactic works everywhere so players use it too much, their overuse of the tactic makes the game boring, their boredom and frustration makes them want to rush through the boring parts, so they use the optimal tactic.

Second, if the same one of two tactics work in every situation, there is a problem with the game. Optimal tactics should be situational, not universal. Is the sniper rifle turning every encounter into a shooting gallery? Take away long lines of sight. Is the assault rifle slaughtering everyone from cover? Have enemies that can close quickly and deal massive close-range damage, before the rifle can whittle them down. Or simply deny the player cover and force him to close and assault. There are so many ways to introduce and force variety that it’s hard to forgive a game, even an RPG-shooter, that lets you coast through using the same tricks.

Apex Predator

Bioshock is an exhausting universe. By the end of the first game, I was actually disturbed the brutal ways I killed splicers. Their constant wailing and sobbing and ranting had driven me out of my mind before I was halfway through the game. I came to love listening to them scream as they burned alive, these mewling psychopaths with their self-pitying, incoherent monologues. Revulsion had hardened into hatred and and then turned into sadism, which only served to deepen my revulsion.

Then there is the decay that surrounds you: the mouldering books, the shattered edifices, and the fetid bilge that has overrun every floor. Every splicer is a disfigured parody of a human. The general oiliness of the game engine and lighting effects, combined with the lurid art deco colors, creates a cloying sense of over-ripeness.

Eventually, it all just wears me down. I start trying to avoid encounters because the splicers have gotten inside my head and I just want things to be quiet for a bit. Besides which, Bioshock never lets me feel like I’m particularly strong or well-equipped. The controls have a slipperiness to them that makes it hard to use cover effectively, and most weapons are too inaccurate to be much good at long ranges. So Bioshock, and especially its sequel, is a game of close-range slugging matches that leave me depleted of ammunition, health, and energy. This is completely antithetical to my preferred style of play in an FPS. In general, I’m a tactician. I like to control the engagement from start to finish, and be able to stand the enemy off at a distance. If there’s going to be close quarters battle, it’s going to be on my terms: room-to-room fighting, done with grenades and shotguns.

Bioshock games make me feel more like a walking dreadnought, going broadside for broadside with psychopaths who don’t have the brains to take shelter. The strain and unpredictability of those engagements means I avoid them more than I should.

In Siren Alley, avoidance graduated to full-on paralysis. I was too low on ammunition and money to fight effectively. Every battle left me teetering on the brink of death. I was rapidly approaching a point where progress would be impossible.

The problem is that I was still thinking defensively, and as out of touch with the creative cruelty that powered me through Bioshock. I’d been clinging to my machine gun because it was comforting. But now, as I took stock of my options and surroundings, I realized that I was finally ready to turn the tables.

I had two great advantages. The first was the speargun, which is the only weapon in the game that never really runs out of ammo. Spears can always be recovered and they’re a perfect sniper’s weapon. The second advantage was the Enrage plasmid, which caused splicers to start attacking everything in sight. Including Big Daddies and the musclebound brute splicers.

This is where I finally started to get into Bioshock 2. The game’s systems started interacting in interesting ways. Using an ammunition saving weapon, I was able to stalk through Siren Alley and start racking up splicer kills, which allowed me to acquire more ammo and cash from my victims. The research camera, which lets you film hostiles in action so that you can learn more about them and unlock upgrades and bonuses, went into action alongside the enrage plasmid.

I started arranging little gladiator duels and filmed the results. Then, as the victorious splicer stood over his fallen enemies, I would reward him with a spear through the neck. In the meantime, the camera was making the splicers ever easier to for me to take down.

Since I needed to get hold of the Little Sisters and their Adam, I always made sure to enrage splicers in the vicinity of Big Daddies, and watched as the Big Daddies annihilated them. After the Big Daddy had been weakened by enough combat, I would open fire with my heaviest weapons and bring him down.

Brute splicers were a huge problem for me, since they’re as powerful as a Big Daddy and just about as tough. With them, I’d get the camera rolling, shadowbox them a little bit, and then put a Big Daddy between me and them. When the Brute charged, and he always would, the Big Daddy would go berserk, and an epic brawl would commence. They would just go on on each other with fists, drills, auto-turrets, rockets, rubble… Oh, the joy of watching my two most hated enemies devastating each other!

Over the course of about an hour or so of hunting, filming, and Adam-harvesting, I completely changed Bioshock 2. By the time I finished Siren Alley, I was a superhero, even capable of getting splicers to fight alongside me when I wanted them to. I tagged Father Wales, a viciously strong spider splicer, with the hypnotize plasmid and got him to demolish his own followers in his makeshift church. Then, when he ran out of followers to kill, I executed him.

Was the game broken, its balance destroyed by my employment of all these tools? Not at all. If the first half of the game was about struggling to get my bearings and survive, the second half of the game was about revenge and salvation. After Siren Alley, I was on a mission to save a little girl, and I was going to kill everything that got between me and that child. There was to be no more hiding.

Boston GameLoop 2010 – Overview

Saturday morning, at Too Damn Early AM, I was sitting in a large briefing room at Microsoft New England and clutching a cup of not-quite-hot-enough Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. A hundred or so other people, game designers, artists, programmers, academics, and writers like myself were listening to Darius Kazemi and Scott Macmillan explain exactly what the hell we were doing here.

Well, Darius was trying to explain. Scott, and most of the audience, were trolling him. Still, he managed to get a few key points across.

  • GameLoop is a small local conference that is seeing rapid growth. ’09 had about 100 guests, this year was closer to 200.
  • We were here early to raise topics for discussion and vote on sessions that sounded interesting. Anyone was free to bring up anything, though it was best if he was prepared to run a session.
  • Once a session had enough interest, it won a slot in the schedule.
  • Expert talks should be clearly labeled as such, and moderators should keep the discussion on track so that it remains the proper knowledge level.
  • Bail on sessions that you’re not getting enough out of. No hard feelings.
  • Tabletop gaming is not dead and this audience doesn’t think it’s funny if you make jokes like that.

It’s a great concept and quite a ridiculous amount of fun. Before I get into some of the conversations I had during this conference, however, I should point out a couple things that didn’t seem to work quite right.

For one thing, GameLoop seems to be getting big enough to the point where it is causing problems. The informal nature of the conference agenda (the fact that it is created on the spot) seems like it would work brilliantly for a hundred people. Beyond that, it seems like it started to cause problems. Voting took forever, and the morning schedule filled up with the most popular topics while there was a bit of a “leftover” feel to the afternoon talks. Not that these weren’t valuable, it’s just that there were schedule conflicts in the morning, where 3 out of 5 sessions sounded great. In the afternoon, I was having a hard time finding any talks that I was keenly interested in. But it was the nature of the chaotic morning vote.

Second, I can’t help but wonder if maybe Darius and Scott have made GameLoop too welcoming for guys like me. Mind you, I really hope I can attend next year and they’ll still have a spot open for writers, but I also picked up on some frustration from some of the more advanced professionals attending the event. There were not enough talks for working professionals, and the discussion level tended to operate at an amateur level. If I were at BGL wanting to hear about new design tools, principles of level design, or get a primer in a new coding language, I’m not sure it would have been an entirely satisfying experience. I’d be interested to know whether this jives with what other people observed.

For instance, my day was bookended by two discussions that sprawled into armchair design by people who really didn’t know what they were talking about, but were plenty willing to share opinions. I was one of them. They were great discussions, one about making conversation in games a more satisfying from a gameplay perspective, the other about creating the illusion of life in AI-controlled characters. But the first conversation trended toward some truly ridiculous armchair design that had more to do with what people thought sounded cool than with what was actually practicable for a working designer. The second was largely about what people found lifelike in AI characters, and not about how to make life-like characters.

One last point: Bioshock seems to be growing more important with time, not less. The simple fact is that absolutely no discussion of any game-related topic occurs without reference to it. Narrative, level design, morality, choice, character… someone, every time, will bring up Bioshock. And it is never out of place. It is well on its way to becoming a crucial part of the conceptual framework that everyone uses to interpret and understand games.

The Bioware oeuvre is similarly important, though mostly within discussions of narrative and character. No discussion of storytelling in games passes without someone using Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age to illustrate something. I think what these works have in common is that they point the way forward in a number of ways, but that only serves to underline their limitations.

Caught in Translation

My GameSetWatch column returns with a piece on DLC for Napoleon: Total War. I couldn’t resist checking out the “Peninsular Campaign” Creative Assembly released a month or so ago, because I could not for the life of me imagine how Creative Assembly were going to translate that fascinating, messy campaign to the highly conventional, orderly Napoleon: Total War campaign engine.

Now that I’ve spent a lot of time playing with it, I have to say “The Peninsular Campaign” is a minor masterpiece of scenario design and maybe the best campaign yet for Napoleon. I explain why over at GameSetWatch.

My interest with “Keys to the Kingdom” is one of translation. Games so often take their inspiration, their theme, from complicated real-world subjects. But it’s always interesting to see what designers choose to emphasize. Sometimes they do nothing more than take their appearance from history, as in Empire: Total War. That game had a great deal of 18th century flavoring, but very little of the gameplay bore any resemblance to what you might find in a history of the Seven Years’ War. It was a bad costume-drama without a shred of substance beneath it.

On the other hand, a flight of sci-fi fantasy like Sins of a Solar Empire made a valiant and partially successful effort to make players role-play their empires by introducing co-operative mechanics into an ultimately competitive game. “Frienemy” mechanics are familiar in board games, but unusual in an RTS.

When I write about something like the “Peninsular Campaign” DLC or Europa Universalis III, I try to make the reader see the connections that I see. That these design decisions don’t just come out of the ether, and they are not purely driven by a desire to create a good game. There are a lot of ways to reach that destination, but the choices along the way are often made with an eye toward something that happens in the real-world. The goal with games like this is not just to give the player a good time, but to make him face decisions that other people, in other times, also faced. Games like this are, in part, attempts to let you live the fantasy of being a desktop Wellington or Richelieu. Much of what makes them unique and interesting is owed to the negotiation between game design and the concepts being translated into design.

Anyway, go check out the new piece, and leave comments on it at GSW.

Clearing the Rubble

Having a review assignment go spectacularly wrong feels a bit like being John Dortmunder. Dortmunder was the protagonist of Donald Westlake’s comic novels, a brilliant but hopelessly unlucky professional thief who always had the best plans for pulling down a huge score, but who always watched it all go wrong in slow-motion tragi-comedy. While the general arc of the stories was formulaic, the adventures themselves were not, and it was always a joy to watch the new and horrific ways it could all go wrong. But of course, to Dortmunder it was all deadly serious.

I went through a similar thing with this last review. I thought I’d identified a good job, something that would be quick and rewarding, and I sold a a few people on the idea. Then, once I got to work on the assignment, it started to turn on me. In the meantime, other work was sliding away from me because I was furiously trying to extricate myself from the debacle. Now I’ve managed to pull off my daring escape, and the review will go up sometime in the near future, but in the meantime it’s left me in some deep trouble with other assignments.

Still, there is a part of me that feels suffused with virtue. I knew, within an hour of starting my first game, that this game was in trouble. Not too much longer, I knew it was nothing I could ever enjoy or recommend. But I didn’t entirely understand why, which meant I hadn’t yet completed the review process. Anyone can tell you what he likes or doesn’t, but that reaction won’t help anyone unless the reviewer can explain where he’s coming from and why he had the reactions he did. So I continued my grim death-march toward understanding.

I suspect it’s probably a good thing to, every once in awhile, find yourself locked in a room with a bad game. Not because it helps us keep other games in perspective, but because it underlines the bromides and truisms that critics and designers like to throw around. Meier’s “series of interesting decisions” description of a game means a hell of a lot more once you’ve played a game that’s a series of pointless, illusory decisions. It’s easy to wonder why a game doesn’t have certain features that might make it more historically accurate or interesting, until you see how verisimilitude unbound from design discipline can send an entire game cartwheeling into an abyss of incoherence.

Still, it came at a cost. It’s Wednesday morning and I still feel like I’m shaking off a bender. There are sources that must be harassed, editors that must be appeased, stories that must be written, and games that must be played. And there’s not enough time for any of it.

Neptune's Confusion

Thank merciful God, our Neptune’s Pride death-struggle has finally reached its end. I logged out for the last time yesterday afternoon, conceding my inevitable defeat to the powerhouse duo of Nick Breckon and Chris Remo. I finished a solid third in the game, and maintained my territorial integrity far longer than anyone initially thought possible.

There is so much potential in a game like this. But it goes unrealized. Problems bedevil this design, not least of which is the fact that it becomes increasingly burdensome to play. The technology progression only serves to make the game happen faster, as ships travel through space more quickly thanks to upgrades. Battles also become deadlier, because the ships are better armed. So the stakes get higher and the game moves faster, which means you have to spend even more time watching it, despite the fact that it is not appreciably more interesting.

The other problem comes from how players interact with the game. With most boardgames or email strategy games, everyone is on roughly equal footing. But with a persistent, synchronous strategy game, the game is skewed by the fact that people are trying to fit this game into everyday life. We had relatively strong players vanish from the game just because they took the weekend off. Neptune’s Pride, so dependent on shifting alliances and power-balancing, can get thrown into chaos because someone visited some friends out of town.

So here’s how my game went:

I started strong, and diplomatically isolated two of my neighbors. However, in honoring my agreements with an ally, I ended up doing the lion’s share of the fighting in a two-front war. I saw that the game rewarded being a vulture. There is no way to fight a war without getting torn to shreds, especially since the game heavily favors the defender. But a third-party joining a war late will clean up. At the end of a grueling two-front war, I had expanded my holdings only very modestly.

Here, and for the only time in the game, I made a significant mistake. I took a weekend to watch how the game developed, and did not attack my weaker neighbors.

However, the game was already being lost across the map. For some reason, nobody else seemed to realize that Remo and Breckon were collaborating. Their neighbors sat paralyzed while they were picked off one by one. Bryan Mark saw the trouble early, but none of his neighbors intervened against Remo or Breckon when he was under attack. By the time they started to realize that Remo and Breckon were a major problem, they were too weak to do anything. They waited, even though time was against them.

Then Megill seemed to lose interest in the game. As Wasteland and I formed an alliance to head off Breckon’s expansion in the north, Megill stripped his empire of ships and hurled them at Breckon. Unfortunately, this eliminated him as a balancing force. At that point, the game was over. It would go on for another week and a half, but it was over at that moment. If Megill, Wasteland, and I had held a line against Remo and Breckon, we might have stood them off. But with Megill’s collapse, Remo doubled in power. The rest of the game was a slow delaying action as I fell back to my core star systems.

So what went wrong? I say two things, neither of which could be foreseen. First, Megill giving up on the game. At the time he cashed out, he was running a solid third in the game. He was in deep trouble, sharing a border with Breckon and Remo, but he might have held out with alliances. With his departure, the entire balance of the game (which had existed from Day 1) was destroyed.

Second, Remo was never really playing to win, and I’m not sure Neptune’s Pride really works if people are not aiming for victory. Breckon and Remo were able to win because they could trust one another and collaborate on their strategy. On my half of the map, nobody could trust anybody that far. The whole game is founded on reciprocal paranoia. I think I could have trusted Justin Keverne far more than I ever did, but our border made that impossible. He was only ever a 12-hour jump away from my most crucial systems, so I had to watch him. Megill was surrounded by potential betrayers,  but was also powerful enough to crush some of his neighbors. Paralysis set in.

Remo and Breckon were freed from that system, which meant they were basically free from the game’s constraints. That gave them a huge advantage that nobody else really enjoyed, and that was ultimately what decided the game.

However, I’m not sure when they decided that Breckon would win and Remo would settle for second. Remo mentioned that he thought he could have confronted Breckon, but he was going on vacation and also did not want to deal with having to backstab a personal friend. Real-life concerns, once again, played a huge role in the game’s outcome.

Remo also argued that the game rewards second and so that is a viable goal, but I’m not really sure about that. I think the rewards for finishing second or third are consolation prizes for people who go the distance, but I suppose that is up to the player. But games like this depend on everyone sharing an understanding of what the object of the game is.

Or do they? Neptune’s Pride is an odd game. It is designed so that real-life can easily interfere with it, so perhaps Remo is correct. The “magic circle” is porous from the start, and that contributes to the game’s unpredictability. On the other hand, that does not seem like a recipe for good strategy gaming, which is about making plans and choices within a well-defined system.