Friday, December 19, 2008

The Mechanics of Immersion

In an opinion piece at Gamasutra, the usually practical Lewis Pulsipher lurched off into the fever swamp of "only mechanics-driven play is real gameplay" advocacy today.

As he put it:

"Immersion" is an illusion of another reality. The danger with this Holy Grail is that we’ll forget gameplay while trying to improve immersion. Games are games: gameplay, not "Art", is what counts.
I find this very strange. Why do some people, including some experienced game designers, feel that any expression of interest in seeing more simulationist or narrativist elements in major games is such a threat to mechanics-driven play that it must be aggressively countered by claiming that simulationism and narrativism are will-o'-the-wisps that should not be followed? What's wrong with wanting games to be more immersive?

Maybe my puzzlement comes from thinking of immersion as being less specific to 3D graphics and more related to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi's concept of "flow": when you're "in the zone," when your concentration is so fully engaged by a game (or other form of entertainment) that you're no longer consciously aware of most aspects of the real world... that's immersion.

As a game design goal, this kind of effect ought to be strongly desired. It's what elevates a good game into a great and memorable game. A highly immersive game creates a distinctive experience that people want to tell their friends about.

What's important to note about this definition of immersion is that it doesn't restrict immersion to being the product of mere dynamics or aesthetics -- it's also possible for mechanics to be so absorbing as to blot out the real world for a player. All of these forms of play content can and do contribute to creating gripping "flow" experiences.

Dr. Pulsipher, however, seems determined to join the strange new breed of gamers who feel compelled to argue (as though it were an obvious fact that only the ignorant or willfully obtuse could deny) that simulation and story are less valid forms of play than rules-emergence, that games with strong simulationist or narrative elements somehow aren't really "games." They try to dismiss statements of interest in deep and well-realized worlds or engaging characters and stories by exaggerating such requests as foolishly extreme demands from a socially inept minority for a "holodeck" or a "chat room" -- or as "Ultimate Escape" or "High Art."

If they're right, and all that most gamers really care about are pure mechanics, then why aren't very popular games rendered with simple abstract shapes or even text? Why spend any time and money on simulationist/narrativist elements if they add no value?

Rather than promoting mechanics-based play by denigrating simulationist or narrativist play, it seems to me that the smart designer tries to engage gamers on all fronts: world-depth and scene-setting, audio-visual style, and sound rules of play. Of course the exact proportion of effort expended on these should depend on the needs of the game being designed. But to suggest that any content other than pure mechanical rules-following actually fails to qualify as "gameplay" and thus deserves less attention from a game designer, is I think to willingly choose to dump all screwdrivers and saws out of one's toolbox so that all that remains is a hammer.

Sure, you can build things with just a hammer... but what kind of working professional actually practices such self-gimpage?

Not every game needs to be a "dream" exclusively. But making the effort to wrap good gameplay inside an appropriate and satisfying dream will make most games more immersive (in the sense of the term given above) than they otherwise would be. That's not a foolish quest for some illusory Holy Grail; it's a practical approach to making games more fun for more gamers.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Pitfalls of Project Processes

Gamasutra today posted an excellent article by the experienced game Design Director Mike Lopez on a process for insuring great pacing in game level design.

As a long-time software developer and software project manager, I'm a believer in having sensible processes. ("Sensible" == "adaptable plan.") That said, however, it seems to me that the team scenarios painted in this article are somewhat best-case. That's not wrong for a short article -- it does no harm to promote the benefits of improving the pacing design process. If focusing on the benefits will encourage some project leads to try the process ideas suggested, that's a Good Thing.

But it's worth bearing in mind that, as with any intersection between neatly defined processes and messy, individualistic human beings, there are numerous ways in which the locomotive can start to go off the tracks. Here are just a couple.

Brainstorming: Some people are naturally hardwired to prefer seeing the problems with other people's ideas, as opposed to generating ideas of their own. These folks are valuable, but they're more valuable later in the process. When coming up with an initial set of ideas, it can be useful to make it clear to everyone that the time for applying critical judgement will come later -- the "idea assassins" need to hold their fire during the brainstorming phase in order to encourage the more sensitive members of a team to participate. This improves the odds that there'll be enough distinct ideas generated to cover the range of intensities required in level design.

Buy-in: While teambuilding is useful, buy-in (i.e., enthusiasm management) often needs to be handled on a individual basis in order to effectively address the "ownership problem." In any development project, some members are likely to be the type of person whose sense of self-worth is intimately connected to the work they do. In these cases, it can be hard to walk the fine line between encouraging these often highly productive individuals to fully invest, and allowing them to feel they (and not the project) "own" whatever work they're assigned. While investment is desirable, these individuals will often believe that their agreeing to invest in some task constitutes an agreement on your part to let them perform that task however they want to do it. Any subsequent effort on your part to change or cut that task for intensity or pacing needs will be considered a betrayal of that supposed contract, and can result in persistent arguments, emotional confrontations, sullenness (and substandard work), denigration of your competence (creating an "us versus them" atmosphere among team members), and potentially the loss of a productive worker. It's not always possible to manage these individuals; what's important is recognizing that they exist and that they make achieving the goal of buy-in more complex than simply getting everyone to be enthusiastic about the project.

I'm completely on board with the goals described in this article, particularly the top-level goal of using a well-defined process for achieving emotionally satisfying pacing in level design. Following some form of the process suggested is indeed likely to yield better results, both artistically and commercially, than proceeding directly to implementation and hoping to iterate toward quality in time to meet a scheduled ship date.

It's just useful to recognize that some people seem to enjoy sticking their thumbs in the metaphorical eye of processes, no matter how good those processes may be. (Creative types may be especially prone to this.)

So by all means, follow the process ideas described. Just be ready to handle the many forms of resistance, both overt and covert, that always occur when trying to persuade actual human beings to follow a process.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Fallout 3 Mini-Review

Overall, I'm really enjoying Fallout 3. I think I can best sum up my reaction by noting that I look forward to getting home so that I can return to wandering through the devastation of the Capital Wasteland.

I've got some other games lined up after Fallout 3 that I'm looking forward to playing. But I already know I'm going to feel a sense of loss (probably mixed with a little relief) when I've finished poking my current character's nose into every single ruined office building, Metro tunnel and cave complex in this game.

It's just that absorbing to me.

That's not to say I've found it to be a perfect game. Right now I've got two major complaints and one minor peeve.

Major complaints:

* Crash to desktop errors after VATS slowdown when encountering multiple raiders. Completely turning off antialiasing is a workaround for this particular bug, but after what I paid for my gaming rig I'm not happy about accepting jaggies in my gameworld just to be able to play it without crashing.

* Only halfway through exploring the world (and halfway, I think, through the main quest), I hit the level cap. This just stuns me. The gameworld is still interesting to explore, but I miss getting a little XP and the occasional fun perk. The thing is, if this bothers me, how must other, more leveling-oriented gamers be feeling about it? Months from now, when I start a new game with a new character, I can change this overly-rapid progression through the game using player-created mods to reduce some kinds of earned XP... but why in the world should Bethesda have balanced normal progression so that I'd need to apply a mod?

Minor gripe:

* The patriotism and anti-Communist concerns of 1950s USA are persistently lampooned as mere mindless jingoism. I don't mind poking some fun at this, and it's not inconsistent with the vibe of previous Fallout games, but the constant "oh, weren't they so silly" is getting on my nerves.

Those things noted, there are some things that I find I'm particularly enjoying:

* Large world with massive amounts of content. Bethedsa said they'd make the world of Fallout 3 smaller than that in Oblivion, but with more content per unit area, and that this would keep the action going more consistently. I think they succeeded.

* Generally interesting locations. I lived near DC for ten years, so perhaps more than some other players I found it a real hoot to visit locations I knew personally and see how Bethesda had twisted them. Other, made-up locations were (with a few standout exceptions like Rivet City) considerably less interesting -- why, for example, is nearly every house that's still standing built to almost exactly the same plan? And the office/tunnel/cave "dungeon construction kit" for F3 is obviously congruent with the tomb/mine/cave dungeon texture-map system used in Oblivion. Even so, the overall design of locations was good, and occasionally rose to excellence.

* Consistent aesthetic vision. The Capital Wasteland is grim, which is exactly as it should be, both for any post-nuclear-apocalypse game and for one that's inspired by the two previous Fallout games. The occasional bit of dark humor (check out the logs of the hotel next to the hospital, for example) only emphasizes how much has been lost. The few NPCs who are optimists seem crazy. The "tone" is just really well done.

* Much more satisfying voice acting than in Oblivion. The quality of the voice acting isn't that much better; it's that F3 used a lot more actors than the four (other than Patrick Stewart and Sean Bean) they used in Oblivion. It's surprising how much this variety in voices makes interacting with F3's NPCs more enjoyable.

* Dialog (quest and otherwise) is generally well-written. I can't think of any NPC interactions that I'd call badly done, and there are a couple that I thought were absolutely brilliant. (Go talk to Cerberus in Underworld, for example -- great stuff!)

* Many different weapons with perceptibly different charactersistics. This creates interesting choices: should I try to one-shot that giant radscorpion from afar with one of my precious .308 rounds, or would it be better to risk injury by getting up-close and personal with the Chinese assault rifle for which I have lots of ammo? That's fun gameplay, that is. (There's also lots of different armor, but I didn't find it to be as distinctive. I've basically only worn two types through the entire game so far.)

* As in most games, there's not really enough variety of enemy types for my taste (I count only eleven basic types), and group AI among enemies is not outstanding. But VATS is a hoot! As other reviewers have noted, you might think that using VATS to make someone explode in slow motion would get old fast, but it never does.

* Integration of character attributes, skills, and perks with dynamic gameplay is generally good. Pretty much all of them matter, if only in a few NPC dialog options. But some of them (such as charisma) would have benefited from being amped up and more uses found for them.

* The use of "karma" to define one's character as "good" or "evil" is handled pretty well... as far as I can tell, having played only a "good" character. There do seem to be some consequences, but they're minor. I'll have a better idea of whether karma really matters once I've played through F3 again, only next time as the most vicious, hard-bitten scum imaginable.

* The hacking and lockpicking minigames are competently implemented. They're both too simple and too frequently encountered to be enjoyable for long, but they're not so complex or so frequent that they get too annoying.

* There are companion NPCs, which is a really nice touch. Not only does this also echo previous Fallout games, one NPC in particular creates an astonishingly compelling "Mad Max"-like experience.

* There's even a minor crafting subgame!

On balance, I'm definitely getting my money's worth from this game (unlike other games, such as the brilliant but far too short COD4). Fallout 3 is not the greatest game I've ever played -- Deus Ex still owns that title.

But it's darned close. With mods and eventual expansions, it might come even closer.

All I really have to complain about is that Bethesda has decided to make their official downloadable content available only through Microsoft's Games for Windows Live client. Grrrrrrrrr....

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Full-Spectrum Games

Brandon Sheffield, editor-in-chief at Game Developer magazine, recently offered an interesting editorial on "Social Responsibility And Why Games Should Grow Up" (reprinted at Gamasutra).

I agree with the premise of this opinion piece, although I think the title is a bit misleading -- "social responsibility" and "broader appeal" aren't necessarily the same thing.

Setting aside the question of games as instruments of political persuasion, the question of expanding the appeal of games is one that's on my mind most of the time these days, too. Most games today are focused on mechanics. That's understandable; by far the most common understanding of "game" involves action-oriented, competitive rules-based play, so the primacy of mechanics as the focus of design makes some sense.

But as numerous theorists of play have pointed out, action and competitive resource-acquisition aren't the only kinds of activities that people enjoy -- there are also intellectual (puzzle, strategy) and emotional (social, story) forms of play.

I think the intellectual and emotional play experiences are represented by the "dynamics" and "aesthetics" portions of the MDA design model, and give games the virtues of those design concepts. Great dynamics create highly interactive and internally plausible worlds to explore, delivering an intellectually stimulating play experience. Great aesthetics give the player's choices meaning, illuminating emotional resonances within our personal lives.

In short, human beings are capable of enjoying forms of play that involve not just action but intellect and emotion as well. (We can think of these respectively as hands/mind/heart, or mechanics/dynamics/aesthetics, or gamism/simulationism/narrativism, or any of the other models of play which I've previously suggested are isomorphic.) All of these are valid forms of play. And thus they all are appropriate targets for game design.

Does anyone believe that Deus Ex continues to receive critical praise, and has inspired one sequel and another currently in the works, solely for its mechanics?

Where discussions on this subject of full-spectrum game design often go astray is that someone who personally prefers action-oriented play reads comments like mine and reacts, "Oh noes -- they're trying to make all games artsy with no commercial value!" That's usually followed by a response strongly endorsing mechanics-focused game design.

The problem is that this reacts to an argument that no one has proposed. What I favor, and what I believe Brandon Sheffield was encouraging, is not that all games must from now on be designed to appeal equally to action and intellect and emotion -- it's only that there be some games made that hit on all these cylinders. It's perfectly OK -- desirable, even -- to offer some games that focus only on providing great mechanics, so long as we support other developers when they try to make games that aspire to simultaneous greatness of mechanics and dynamics and aesthetics.

Games with great mechanics alone are enough for some people all of the time, and perhaps all people some of the time. They're not enough for all people all of the time.

There are game consumers who want more, who long for games that engage not only their hands but their hearts and minds as well. When all of these elements are present and focused, games, like other creative media forms, will have the expressive power to speak about the human condition. But they'll do so in a way that's unique to games as an interactive entertainment medium. And that uniqueness, beyond its artistic value, gives such games potential commercial value.

Whether the game industry moneylenders can be persuaded of this, and that it's in their best long-term interest to seed the marketplace with such games that exercise more than our fast-twitch muscles, is a problem that will solve itself as soon as there's a full-spectrum game that unexpectedly grabs the attention of the masses and makes a zillion bucks.

Then all we'll have to complain about are the crappy knock-offs that suddenly get funded. :)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Aggro Considered Harmful

I find all the various debates about "aggro" and "tanking" and "taunting" very strange, regardless of whether they're related to PvE or PvP.

From my perspective, aggro was a relatively simple/quick coding hack invented back in the days of slow computers to avoid having to spend precious CPU cycles doing collision testing. Tanking and taunting showed up soon thereafter as natural extensions of the aggro concept. So why in the world does anyone talk today about aggro and tanking and taunting as though they're a permanent and even desirable design goal in and of themselves, rather than artifacts of an arbitrary solution to a temporary problem?

I love the idea of competitive encounters (combat and otherwise) being opportunities to intelligently select and skillfully execute offensive and defensive actions from a rich assortment of tactical options. But if that's an appropriate goal, is "aggro control" really the only possible way to get there? Why should gamers be satisfied with (much less demand) that "combat" be defined in terms of "managing" an abstract value like "aggro"? How are pulling and taunting adequate substitutes for stealth and formation and maneuver and cover and camouflage and ambuscade and overlapping fields of fire and occupying the high ground and shock/surprise and all the other well-known forms of tactical action?

I truly don't mind if some people enjoy playing the aggro game. People are free to like what they like. And it's true that even aggro and its attendant functions (tanking, taunting) can be made complex enough to support tactical decision-making.

What bugs me is the notion that some gamers, because they've never seen and can't imagine anything different, now actually resist suggestions that other rules for combat in online games might even be more fun than aggro management and are worth trying. I'm not saying, "all games must immediately cease and desist using aggro rules"; I'm saying, "hey, can't we have just a few games that, instead of cloning some other game's aggro rules, try something that's possibly even more tactically interesting?"

So my intention here is not to try to kill aggro as the starting point of a model for combat content. As the title of this piece indicates, I don't think much of it as a basis for combat rules in MMOGs today, but if some people really like it, I support their having games that provide it. All I want to do here is express the view that, in addition to there being games where the combat rules are wrapped around the notion of aggro management, I'd like to see some games that define combat content using different rules. I'd hope they're as diverse and interesting as the examples of tactical action I gave earlier, but just "different" would be worth trying at this point.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Third-Person, No-Save, and Consolitis 3

In addition to Bethesda, I'm happy to note that there's another developer/publisher who "gets it": Stardock.

From another story at Gamasutra today:

One thing the company doesn't plan on doing? Moving to other personal computing platforms. Stardock "does not, nor does it plan to, support the Mac or Linux markets," the report states. "Our focus is to help make the Windows platform as successful as possible. Stardock’s entertainment group may eventually make console games as well, but when it comes to application software, Windows is the platform."
Hallelujah! Apparently there are still some development houses where the Reality Distortion Field effect has not yet won the day.

Interestingly, Stardock also released its latest "Gamer's Bill of Rights." I usually think such efforts, while well-meaning, are a bit silly as they fail my test of a "right" being something which is inherent to a person and as such cannot be granted, but can only be recognized.

That said, Stardock's list of (what I would characterize as) "corporate intentions" is absolutely brilliant. It directly and specifically addresses the concerns in my "Consolitis" blog posts, and its provisions deserve to be highlighted:

1. Gamers shall have the right to return games that are incompatible or do not function at a reasonable level of performance for a full refund within a reasonable amount of time.
2. Gamers shall have the right that games they purchase shall function as designed without defects that would materially affect the player experience.
3. Gamers shall have the right that games will receive updates that address minor defects as well as improves gameplay based on player feedback within reason.
4. Gamers shall have the right to have their games not require a third-party download manager installed in order for the game to function.
5. Gamers shall have the right to have their games perform adequately if their hardware meets the posted recommended requirements.
6. Gamers shall have the right not to have any of their games install hidden drivers.
7. Gamers shall have the right to re-download the latest version of the games they purchase.
8. Gamers whose computers meet the posted minimum requirements shall have the right to use their games without being materially inconvenienced due to copy protection or digital rights management.
9. Gamers shall have the right to play single player games without having to have an Internet connection.
10. Gamers shall have the right to sell or transfer the ownership of a physical copy of a game they own to another person.
I didn't care much for Sins of a Solar Empire. (As an RTS game it's not "strategic," and even if it were the real-time aspect would kill any hope for any strategic thinking.)

That said, I bought a copy of Sins (and played it), and I'll buy pretty much anything Stardock publishes. Because I so strongly support their positions on being PC-focused, on DRM, on performing as advertised, on being able to play a single-player game without an Internet leash, and on not restricting secondary sales, I'm ready to do my small bit to support not just their individual games but Stardock as a company.

Having those rules doesn't guarantee that every game developed or published by Stardock will be a winner. It just improves the odds.

These days, that's worth supporting.

Third-Person, No-Save, and Consolitis 2

Apparently matters are worse at EA than I thought.

Here are a couple of quotes from an extensive interview given by EA boss John Riccitiello to Gamasutra regarding Mirror's Edge from DICE:

... Riccitiello says that at first, the idea of a first-person game with no shooting seemed risky and made him "a little freaked out" as a concept. In a particular meeting on the title, he was "pushing the bejesus" out of the idea that the game should be a third-person title.

"I was totally convinced that game needed to be third-person and not first-person, because I wanted to see Faith," Riccitiello says. Hence the DICE-developed game’s titular mirrors. "It didn’t have mirrors in it before the meeting -- I got mirrors so you can see her."

And now that he’s seen the end result, Riccitiello admits, “I was really wrong about the third-person thing.”
This raises a bunch of questions. For example, what in the world is the CEO of EA doing pushing any particular creative decision on the people designing a game? If he's so certain that their game design judgement is completely wrong on a matter as fundamental as the game's perspective, why fund their game at all? Did he also insist that Mass Effect be third-person? Did he also insist that Dead Space be third-person? And while he's busy interfering in creative decision-making, what's not getting done at the actual CEO level of business, which is what he's presumably being paid to do?

I respect Riccitiello's willingness to admit error on a creative choice. It's good to see that he's willing to give developers a chance to show him their ideas even when they conflict with his own; it's good that he's able to decide that he was wrong about a design feature and take appropriate action; and it's good that he's ready to acknowledge that error even in a public statement.

But why is he interfering in the creative side of game design in the first place? Yes, of course that sort of thing happens all the time; Riccitiello is not alone in this. And yes, of course when you make a big financial investment you want to exercise some level of control over the product being made with that cash.

The thing is, how far should that level of control extend? Can EA tell a developer what to do? Sure -- it's their money. But "do they have the power" is not the right question -- the right question is "is it wise?" Should John Riccitiello be telling creative leads what to do, especially after recently insisting that EA was backing off from trying to tell third-party developers how to do their jobs? Why, after all that, is EA's CEO still substituting his creative design judgement for that of professional game designers? After giving money to those folks on the basis of their creative capability, is it wise to assume that their judgement is wrong? What message does that send to game designers?

Finally, if Riccitiello was wrong to substitute his creative judgement for that of the developers at DICE, and if in particular he was wrong to insist that they use third-person perspective, does that mean he could be wrong to force that perspective on other games such as Dead Space?

I would hope that this experience would teach John Riccitiello two things: first, that third-person perspective is not right for every game and he should quit pushing it, and second (and more importantly), that he needs to stop interfering with creative decision-making and trust the talented people he's paying to do that stuff.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Third-Person, No-Save, and Consolitis 1

The infection of consolitis is spreading within the population of PC games.

I noticed today that Dead Space, which I had been looking forward to as another take on the wonderful System Shock, is not only third-person-only, but apparently the developers also decided to impose a checkpointing "feature" instead of allowing players to save their game when and where they choose.

So now I'm forced to reconsider buying this game. Now I have to miss out on what otherwise could have been a great game because its developers -- for whatever reason -- chose to impose game design concepts from some cramped console spec onto a PC version of the game that doesn't need them (with Dead Space being the latest example of such a game).

As a gamer, I'm really unhappy about the particular trends toward third-person and no-save designs. I do not find them immersive, which is what I want from a character-based game in a detailed gameworld.

I'm aware that some people claim it feels more "immersive" to them when they can see their character. I want to find these people and say to them, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

To me immersiveness is about suspending disbelief in a high-bandwidth gameworld to the point that I identify with my character and can easily pretend that the gameworld is a plausibly real place. Seeing the gameworld through the eyes of my character helps me to achieve that suspension of belief. That makes my gameplay experience of a very world-y game much more enjoyable.

Getting to watch my character's back as I move him or her through some landscape for fifty hours is not immersive -- no one's back (or other body part) is that interesting. All this forced third-person perspective does for me is prevent me from enjoying the more direct, personal, visceral experience of the gameworld that I enjoy.

Being able to save my game whenever I choose to do so also enhances my enjoyment of a detailed gameworld with a branching storyline by allowing me to back up and try different options. As I previously noted, I can cope with a checkpoint system in a game like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare because it's intended (in most parts) to be a very fast-paced, adrenaline-pumping action game, and saving/loading/replaying does slow down the action.

But in a more thoughtful game, such as a narrative-based or puzzle-rich game where thinking about options and exploring alternatives is the primary form of fun, a checkpointing-only system is unnecessary to the point of abusiveness. After promising a game with lots of conversational or interactive possibilities, the game then takes them away from you by not permitting you to save and restore in order to try out alternative approaches. How does that make any sense?

In some checkpoint games, the only way to see more of the game's content is to restart the whole damn level from the last point at which you were generously permitted to save. Maybe that works for the kind of mindless Mario/Kratos cotton candy that constitutes most console games, but it's absolutely wrong for a detailed-world game that takes advantage of a PC's capabilities. Here the developers have gone to so much trouble to make a detailed world full of interesting characters, ripe for exploration... and then they lock down the gameworld with a heavy-handed "we know what's best for you" checkpoint system that marginalizes the urge to explore.

If Dead Space is an example of a trend toward this kind of developer obtuseness, I guess maybe my gaming days are coming to an end.


Of course I know that the days are long gone when good games were made first for PCs and then ported (maybe) in reduced form to consoles. Now they're built pre-crippled for consoles and ported (maybe, or maybe not) to PCs.

That doesn't seem like progress to me. It feels more like "we don't want your filthy PC gamer money."

Too bad.

And why is EA so often the offender here? Madden NFL 2009... console-only. Mass Effect... console-only for months, and third-person-only. Dead Space... third-person-only, no save. Has EA under John Riccitiello really given up its lust to control game designers? Or is EA already back to its old tricks by insisting that all its third-party developers distort their games to meet some corporate "design-for-consoles-first" demand? (Of course it's possible that the developers of games published by EA all happen to be following a consoles-first design choice independently and voluntarily, and EA has nothing to do with it. But what fun would that be?)

Meanwhile, thank you, Todd Howard and Bethesda for resisting this stupid trend. Oblivion demonstrated (and I expect that Fallout 3 will follow suit) that it's possible to design and launch a game for the PC that supports console SKUs as well, and without having to be massively dumbed down in the process with third-person-only and no-save restrictions that degrade the immersiveness of the game.

Maybe there's still a glimmer of hope left for PC gamers....

EDIT 2009/01/23:
There is yet another utterly stupid issue occuring to PC games designed first for consoles: PC gamers using widescreen monitors actually lose big chunks of the gameworld as displayed on the top and bottom of their screens compared to gamers still using 4:3 glass monitors.

Instead of displaying more of the gameworld to the left and right (to fill the greater area available on a widescreen monitor) by increasing the horizontal field of view (FOV), designers who take the console-first approach actually zoom in on the gameworld and clip the top and bottom sections of the screen.

According to the invaluable Widescreen Gaming Forum, the reasons for this seems to be that many console games today are designed for a default display with an aspect ratio of 16:9. When they port their game to the PC, they simply don't bother messing with a FOV setting that would allow PC widescreen users to see the same amount of world vertically and more of the world horizontally as a 4:3 PC user.

This laziness afflicted BioShock until a clever gamer created a solution. (Months later, Take Two finally issued a patch of its own.) It afflicts Far Cry 2. It afflicts STALKER: Clear Sky. It afflicted Spore until the 1.001 patch. Strangely, it does not afflict Assassin's Creed or Dead Space, but those games (especially Dead Space) are so cripped by the other common symptoms of consolitis -- lousy controls, no quicksave/quickload/3rd-person only -- that while they may look good on a widescreen monitor, my experience of trying to play them on a PC was an non-stop exercise in boredom punctuated only by frustration.

So poor widescreen support for PC gamers isn't as common as the other aspects of the dread malady of consolitis. But it's bad enough to warrant a mention here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Dynamic Assistance

When thinking of ways to let players define for themselves how hard a level is, most folks come up with the idea of a "difficulty slider" or its equivalent. (Pick one: "hard", "normal", "easy".) There's nothing especially wrong with this approach... but what about some other approaches? Has game technology progressed to a point where there are now viable alternatives to a static difficulty system?

How about this: What if the game itself could detect that you were having trouble and respond appropriately with help? What if instead of being balanced for "easy" and made harder by a slider, the game was balanced for "hard" and players were dynamically helped through tough spots?

As an example of how this might work, let's take the big strider battle from Half-Life2 Episode 2.

For those who haven't played this game, this is a big fight sequence between the player as the scientist-protagonist Gordon Freeman and several slow but huge and deadly three-legged "strider" tripods, each with several attendant "hunters," which are fast, agile and aggressive. To counter the striders, which spawn with their hunters every few minutes and all of which must be destroyed before they reach a key location on a large map, the player is given a number of tools: an explosive device that can be launched at and sticks to a strider and which will destroy the strider when hit by fire from one of the player's weapons; several buildings containing stockpiles of various kinds of ammunition for the player's weapons; numerous NPCs who provide minor fire support; and a fast vehicle that includes a simple "radar" showing the location of striders on the local map.

This fight generated a certain amount of controversy on Valve's user forum. While some gamers (typically the self-described hardcore FPS gamers) claimed to have found this section of the game trivially easy, many other gamers reported finding it frustratingly difficult. They reported frequent deaths and reloads, in some cases quitting the game without finishing it. The most common analytical complaint was that the difficulty of this section wasn't just harder than previous sections (an earlier section of the game included a major firefight), but that it was hard in a different way from the rest of the game which "taught" the player that all challenges had at least one relatively simple solution, although you might have to think laterally to realize it. The strider battle, because it had to be solved quickly and often contained multiple challenges (striders plus hunters) which required challenge prioritization, seemed to demand a shift from the leisurely tactical puzzle-solving typical to Half-Life generally to frenetic twitch gameplay.

Shifting the requirements for success from the intelligent use of environmental features to mere speed and accuracy seemed to make this part of the game much harder for many players. Many suggestions thus concerned the perceived difficulty level of this section of the game. By far the most common suggestion for improvement was some variation on "reduce the difficulty." The "slider" approach (already available in HL2 Episode 2) was a popular suggestion.

Instead, what if we turned that around? Rather than maintaining the utility of all the tools given to the player and reducing the difficulty, let's instead consider leaving the high difficulty level where it is but increasing the value of the assistance given by tools.

Imagine two gamers, A and B. A has played some action games before, but mostly enjoys solving problems through planning and creative use of resources. B, meanwhile, is a veteran gamer with great coordination who enjoys the adrenaline rush of solving problems by tackling them head-on with massive firepower and agile movement.

Player B goes through the strider battle, and it plays pretty much like it does for most people who nailed it without breaking a sweat.

Player A then tries it, and the first two hunters kill him immediately; he keeps trying to shoot them and missing most of the time; he doesn't realize he can use his vehicle to ram the hunters; he has trouble getting the explosive device to stick to the strider; and so on. He dies and reloads a lot. He feels frustrated that none of the skills honed by previous parts of the game seem to be helping him here.

Suppose the game notices Player A's many deaths on that level due to the hunters. What if instead of expecting the player to turn a dial to make the game easier somehow (and lose some of the intended fun), the game could give Player A some useful assistance? How about if the game started spawning NPCs who were effective at engaging the hunters? "I'll take care of these hunters, Freeman -- you concentrate on taking down that strider!"

Now suppose you figured out how to ram the hunters but you keep missing the strider with the explosive device. The Half-Life2 game engine could, I think, pretty easily spawn humans who would form a convoy to bring more of these devices to you so that you wouldn't have to keep racing back to the nearest building for a fresh one, thereby losing time against the striders. You'd still have to do the shooting because you've got the only gravity gun, but wouldn't it be helpful if the game itself noticed that you could use some help in this area and offered it to you?

This "dynamic assistance" feature would work for other challenges as well. For example, if some gamers were being killed repeatedly by the antlion guardian in the tunnels, the game could pop up a notice reminding them to use the Shift key to run. If that didn't seem to help, it could start spawning antlions for the guardian to "chase," distracting it long enough to give you a little more time to sprint to the next safe location.

You get the idea. Instead of (or perhaps in addition to) static difficulty sliders, today's games should and could be smart enough to notice when a player is having problems and offer some kind of dynamic, in-game, context-appropriate help. Help would be provided only when and where needed, rather than "dumbing down" the entire game through a global difficulty setting.

It should be noted that this is not the same thing as a "dynamic difficulty adjustment" system. Such approaches (like the automatically scaling opponents in Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion) have been criticized for not allowing players to experience very difficult challenges early on in a game. A dynamic assistance feature would allow such challenges to be designed hard and remain hard; the difference is that gamers who persist in trying to take on these challenges would eventually get a little game-supplied help in doing so. Anyone who didn't want the help could simply move on to some other challenge, then come back later when they're more powerful. This combines the advantage of having hard content to come back to with a way to help more persistent gamers not to feel frustrated and discouraged at being unable to progress.

Finally, not only would a dynamic assistance feature improve the playability of challenge-based games for more people, it would be a great way to get even more value out of a developer's investment in NPC AI, since NPCs can be a particularly valuable tool for helping players in that they also help contribute to a game's story.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Technology Levels in a Star Trek MMORPG +

With development on Star Trek Online progressing over at Cryptic, I'd like to take another look at the notion of "technology levels" as a gameplay feature.

As we fly through the galaxy in our mighty starships, we're likely to encounter civilizations at differing stages of technological development. Some will be less advanced than our faction (Federation and Klingon to start), while some are likely to be more advanced.

Should being able to classify the technology levels of the different civilizations we know and discover be part of the gameplay of Star Trek Online?

Classification systems are not foreign to Star Trek. For example, there's the well-known (in the Trekiverse) system for planetary classification that describes the habitability of planets, in which planets like Earth are described as "Minshara-class" or just "M-class." So why not offer something similar for classifying the level of technological sophistication of the inhabitants of a planet?

Let's say the answer is a tentative "maybe" and consider some possible ways to classify the level of technology of both known and alien civilizations in the Star Trek universe.


The first and most obvious classification (from the Federation point of view, anyway) is whether or not a civilization has made its first faster-than-light journey. In fact, distinguishing between pre-warp and warp-capable civilizations is considered so important to Starfleet that it forms the basis of their Prime Directive. So if the Prime Directive is part of the gameplay of Star Trek Online, then being able to classify a civilization according to the following scheme:

0. Pre-warp
1. Warp-capable
is a minimum requirement.

We could, however, be a bit more creative than that. If exploration is to be a meaningful part of this game, then it's not unreasonable that players ought to be able to study new civilizations in order to properly classify them. Doing so might even provide in-game rewards. (I'd be careful not to take that too far. however. Not every gamer is an Achiever, and not every gamer wants the kinds of accumulable in-game rewards that are valued by Achievers.)

For that to work as interesting gameplay, a more detailed classification system is probably in order. Players would need to spend some time (and perhaps, through their characters, use some kind of Survey skill) to determine the most likely technology level classification code for a newly-encountered civilization.


The usual way of doing this is to identify key technologies whose widespread adoption within a civilization signals a critical point in that civilization's progress. (Note: Some people dispute whether the development of increasingly advanced technology should always be considered "progress." That's not an unfair concern, but it's outside the scope of this thread which is intended to be a relatively simple look at possible gameplay in an MMORPG. I'm not against exploring the notion of other ways of defining "progress," but I'd prefer to wait on that until we've considered the simple version of this question first.)

So here's a starter suggestion for a short list of technological advances that could serve to define the level of development of civilizations in Star Trek Online:

0. pre-civilization (no sentient lifeforms)
1. simple hand tools
2. machine tools
3. nuclear power
4. networked computers
5. warp drive
6. matter/energy conversion
7. subspace power
8. intergalactic travel
9. non-corporeal sentience
For purposes of MMORPG gameplay, we might even want to consider a more detailed classification system:

0. pre-civilization (no sentient lifeforms)
1. fire/wheel
2. roads
3. printing press
4. combustion engine
5. nuclear power
6. networked computers
7. fusion power
8. warp drive
9. antimatter power
A. matter/energy conversion
B. sentient programs (incl. androids)
C. subspace power
D. Dyson spheres
E. intergalactic travel
F. non-corporeal sentience
Some notes on these suggested technologies: first, they're all applied technologies; they don't include theoretical/intellectual advances such as mathematics, Newton's laws of gravity, or the general theory of relativity. Those things absolutely are important, but they're harder to see when you're assessing some alien civilization than a practically applied technology like a hammer or a nuclear power plant. (The same holds for other kinds of civilizational advancement, but I'll get to that in the "Non-Technological Scales" section below.)

Also, while I've tried to stay true to what's been seen in Star Trek, there seems to be a gap between the technology of A.D. 2400 and the tech level needed to build something as monumental as a Dyson sphere. So I've tried to suggest a couple of "new" technologies that seem to fit into the Star Trek universe, such as "subspace power" and "intergalactic travel." Also, there seem to be a lot of lifeforms based on energy in the Star Trek universe, some of which definitely evolved from "lower" life forms... so that seems like a natural end-point for technological progress.

Once the members of your civilization can turn at will into amorphous blobs of glowiness that can go anywhere and become anything, you're pretty much done with conventional measures of technological progress....


Another way of classifying the technology level of a society was proposed by the Russian cosmologist Nikolai Kardashev.

This Kardashev scale, while probably not based directly on the ideas of anthropologist Leslie White, does expand on White's notion that a culture's technological capability is directly proportional to the amount of energy it consumes.

Kardashev proposed three tiers of civilizations -- Types I, II, and III -- each of which uses about 1010 (ten to the tenth power) more power than the previous tier. Others who followed Kardashev added Type 0 and Type IV classifications, leading to a system as follows:

Type 0 can harness only some of the power available on a planet (about a megawatt)
Type I can harness all the power available on a planet (about 1016 watts)
Type II can harness all the power available from a star (about 1026 W)
Type III can harness all the power available from a galaxy (about 1036 W)
Type IV can harness all the power available throughout a universe (roughly 1046 W)
To give you an idea of how this energy-technology scale might be applied, Carl Sagan once calculated that the most advanced portions of humanity (as of about 1980) were about seven-tenths of the way toward becoming a Type I civilization.

Warp capability probably occurs about a third of the way past attaining Type I status. So the major races of the Star Trek universe might be said to be just a couple of clicks before entering the Type II tech level.

Type III civilizations, Type IV, and beyond are essentially beyond our speculative comprehension. It's impossible to know with any certainty what a human could do -- or become -- with so much power.

Join the Q continuum, maybe...?


Finally, it needs to be acknowledged that technology is not the only -- or best -- measure of the degree of "advancement" of a civilization.

The late Georgetown University historian Carroll Quigley, in his excellent book The Evolution of Civilizations (about which I've written more here in a Star Trek Online context), discussed how different civilizations might be distinguished from one another. Quigley, while noting that any division of characteristic high-level qualities is arbitrary and imperfect, suggested six key qualities against which the development of civilizations could be measured: Intellectual, Religious, Social, Economic, Political, and Military.

For various reasons, I actually prefer to extend this classification system to span eight characteristic qualities, ranging from the most abstract to the most concrete:

Intellectual: The need for comprehension
Technological: The need for control of the physical world
Ethical: The need for control of human motives
Religious: The need for psychological security
Social: The need for community
Economic: The need for material security
Political: The need to organize power relationships
Military: The need for group security
Just as I broke down the Technology quality into numerous key artifacts, we could do the same with each of the seven other qualities listed above. For the Economic quality, for example, we might identify concepts and organizational inventions like currency, capitalism, fractional-reserve banking and the public corporation as key markers of progress within that quality.

Through gameplay in which our characters can observe these qualities in each new civilization we discover, we could build up a reasonably effective picture of how every civilization stacks up against our own factional civilization. It wouldn't tell us everything directly -- for example, are the people in this alien civilization I just encountered typically friendly to strangers, or are they as xenophobic as the Malcorians in the TNG episode "First Contact"? So there could be other factors worth noting about new civilizations than these eight qualities.

That said, using this multi-frequency kind of cultural assessment model in a Star Trek MMORPG, whether it's the eight qualities suggested above or not, is preferable to a purely technological metric. It's not only a more adequate measure of "progress," in a way it's better for Star Trek Online because it creates more opportunities for gameplay for those who enjoy exploration. Clandestine observation of new cultures to assess their qualities played a role in numerous Star Trek TV episodes and at least one movie. So having several different kinds of qualities that can be monitored and recorded by an exploration-oriented character in a Survey role could turn out to be a lot of fun. (It could also be useful in generating appropriate qualities for bridge NPCs adopted from newly-discovered worlds.)


A system like this obviously has some edge cases and things that might change over the course of gameplay. That raises several questions:

1. Should civilizations be classified with just one tech level? Or should a general tech level be calculated as an average of a culture's level of advancement in various specific technologies, such as transportation, communication, energy production, computers, military hardware, and so on? What about as an average of a civilization's progress across several different kinds of scales (as noted above), including technological, social, economic and other bands?

2. How should the tech level be determined for a Balkanized planet on which exist multiple civilizations at different tech levels? Should the tech level of the civilization with the highest tech level be used (especially if they're close to their first warp 1 flight)? Or should an average tech level be calculated? Or is there some other approach to defining a specific tech level that would be more fun?

3. Should civilizations at a particular tech level be able to increase their tech level during the course of Star Trek Online's lifespan? Wouldn't it be interesting if a pre-warp culture were to make their initial warp 1 flight and suddenly become a new candidate for a First Contact mission, or even -- after suitable diplomacy -- for admission to the Federation or a competing faction?

4. Cryptic has said that in their version of Star Trek Online we may be able to "adopt" as characters in our NPC bridge crew some members of cultures on new worlds we discover. Should those characters come only from worlds that are warp-capable?


I know that some are going to think this is overkill, that defining every faction/civilization in terms of specific levels within eight different qualities will take way too much development time for not enough benefit.

In particular I know it'll seem strangely excessive to the more combat-oriented players. But I think it's safe to guess that Star Trek Online will be designed to offer plenty of the kill-it-and-take-its-stuff content that the Acheivers among us typically enjoy. The kind of richly-detailed world features I'm talking about here are for the Explorers, who -- in this particular game, with its particular license -- require an equivalent amount of content that's as enjoyable to them as competition/acquisition is to the Achievers.

So my goal here is to describe some different ways of implementing one core gamplay idea: allow player characters to assess the level of advancement of newly-discovered alien civilizations. We've been told that exploration will be an important part of the game that Cryptic is making -- well, designing the many civilizations in this game to have unique cultural qualities is one way of helping to create plenty of solid, enjoyable exploration content to enjoy.

I'm looking forward (though not without some reservations born of experience) to seeing just how deep Cryptic's verbal commitment to "exploration" as an important part of Star Trek Online actually goes. Tech levels won't necessarily be a part of that design, but it might help if they were.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Saving Games from Game Designers

David Sirlin offered a great essay at Gamasutra on September 1, 2008. His thesis this time around was that game developers need to stop trying to impose their vision on gamers of when they think players should be permitted to save their games.

As he put it: "Saving should be treated as one of the player's natural rights, not an earned privilege or a game mechanic around which to make strategic decisions."

For the first part of that statement, I agree whole-heartedly. I don't like the "we know what's best for you" attitude when it comes from the usual political social engineers; even less do I need or want it from the designers of the games I play.

As a diehard save-gamer, I was extremely unhappy when I discovered in playing the original Far Cry (for PC) that there was no quicksave/quickload feature. Save and load were implemented; they just weren't made available to the player because the developer had the "we know better than you how you're supposed to play this game" attitude. Fortunately there was a console hack that allowed a quicksave/quickload key-bind or that game would have been dumpstered on the spot... but why should such a gross hack have been necessary in the first place?

Furthermore, as a dedicated PC gamer, the (from my perspective) misbegotten choice being made more often these days to design first for consoles and only later -- if ever -- for the PC means that more games are following the Far Cry no-save-option model. As a result, my gaming experiences are becoming worse, not better. I'm buying fewer games. Isn't that the opposite of what game publishers should be wanting?

Having said this, however, I have to acknowledge I'm not closed to all no-save-option designs. I recently decided to give Call of Duty 4 a try. (Again, this is the PC version.) When I realized that there was no way to save when I wanted to save, I growled something about "Far Cry all over again!" and nearly quit. But out of curiosity I kept playing a little longer... and discovered that the checkpoint system in CoD4 actually worked pretty well. The number and location of the checkpoints was usually close enough to where I would have saved so that I was willing to accept the game's handling of that for me. I still didn't like it, but I could live with it.

So this approach can work, even for someone like me who absolutely hates having a developer's theory about when I "should" be able to save my gameplay experience imposed on me.

It's worth noting, however, that this may not work for all kinds of games. CoD4 and BioShock, for example, are very different kinds of games. A linear shooter intended to be a high-adrenaline experience might be able to justify a checkpoint system rather than a save/load option that could supposedly "interrupt" the visceral experience. (I'm not sure save/reload is any more interruptive than dying and magically restarting at a checkpoint, but let that go for now.) I could accept not being able to save in CoD4 because the pace of gameplay in that particular game made a checkpoint system feel reasonably natural.

But in a slower-paced, more thoughtful and more exploratory game like BioShock, I and, I suspect, most other players want to be able to do what Doug Hofstadter once called "subjunctive replays" -- we want to be able to explore one path, then reload and see what would have happened had we taken a different path. RPGs with branching dialog trees generate a similar desire in players to try all the options to see all of the possible content. Games like these need to reward players who try to explore that content, not punish them for their curiosity.

One approach for accomplishing this would be to provide the traditional save/load feature so that players can -- without having to replay the entire game or level -- see everything the designers spent time making (and for which publishers want $60). Alternately, designers could design games with some kind of explicit subjunctive replay feature that allows the player to scratch that "what would happen if I...?" itch. Why not design exploratory games so that the act of saving and reloading (which a game can easily be programmed to detect) is an active and perhaps even necessary feature of the gameplay? What if reloading wasn't thought of as a punitive "ha! got you!" but as a "hey, if you think that was cool, go back and try it again!"

It might be OK to treat saving as a game mechanic around which to make tactical decisions... if game designers can break out of thinking of saving only as an enemy to be destroyed and start thinking of it as a feature that, for the right kind of game, could be fun to explore and play with.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Evolution of Starship Class Designs in Star Trek

If you stare long enough at images of all Star Trek ships (excluding those from the Star Trek: Enterprise era), and then do a completely ridiculous amount of research and interpolation and outright guessing, I think it's possible to discern three major periods of Starfleet ship design, each period with a visibly different design ethic. Not surprisingly, these three periods correspond pretty well with TOS, TNG, and DS9/VOY.

Generation 1

According to my spreadsheet, Generation 1, from about 2240 (TOS) to about 2293 (ST:VI), started with the iconic Constitution class and ran through approximately 2288 with the Sydney class. These ships distinctively featured a saucer, an optional secondary hull, and slender, proportional-length warp nacelles.

(It might even be possible to see a generation 1.5, starting from about 2268 with the Miranda and original Constitution refit look first seen in ST:TMP that featured the angular warp nacelles. But the basic saucer/secondary hull/nacelles-on-pylons look remained pretty consistent, so I wouldn't call these second-generation designs.)

Generation 2

Generation 2 began in about 2320 with the Ambassador class and the New Orleans (ca. 2346) and Galaxy (ca. 2353) classes that soon followed it. The Nebula and Niagara classes, along with the strikingly different Akira class with its downswept pylons (perhaps a technology transfer from a Klingon Bird-of-Prey?), concluded this evolutionary line in the early 2360s. G2 "ended" shortly thereafter with the first great burst of experimentation from 2364 to 2366 that produced the almost-elegant Freedom class and the baroque Challenger, Cheyenne and Springfield classes.

Despite some variation among them, these ships together form a stylistic bridge between the fairly simple and clunky looks of the G1 ships and the highly refined and angular looks of the third-generation ships. The separate sections of the G2 ships were beginning to be more integrated, in some cases appearing to be fused together, foreshadowing the highly integrated designs of G3. Also, most of these ship classes sported the fat, stubby warp nacelles seen on the Galaxy class which, while more slender in G3 designs, remained (with the exception of the Sovereign) equally shortened in G3. However, G2 designs still retain the original G1 themes of a generally rounded saucer section and warp nacelles on pylons, and thus don't quite fit into either the piecemeal G1 or highly-integrated G3 design aesthetics.

Generation 3

Generation 3, from 2370 to 2374, was the second great burst of experimentation with forms by Starfleet naval architects. Although these ship classes shared some features, it's possible to see that they branch off into two divergent design paths. The first definining element of G3 ships was complete integration among the hull elements, finally ending Starfleet's long love affair with the saucer separation feature. The first line of G3 experimentation was driven by this new design aesthetic, and may be seen to flow from the highly integrated Akira design into the Defiant class, which took this concept to its logical conclusion by becoming an all-in-one design. The later Steamrunner and (somewhat less clearly) Norway classes appear to be additional variations on this theme, retaining the tight (or, in the case of the Norway, very-short-pylon) coupling of nacelles to the main hull but cutting out hull areas between the nacelles, perhaps to reduce mass in an effort to improve maneuverability.

The other design element generally common to G3 ships is the replacement of the rounded saucer section with an angular saucer or even an acutely triangular wedge. The Intrepid, Nova, Sovereign, and Prometheus followed this second design path (with the Saber as an intermediate experiment), generally retaining the warp-nacelles-on-pylons theme but shifting to a "saucer" that was not only integral but angled and stretched along the long axis (as opposed to saucers stretched along the transverse axis as was characteristic of G2 designs). These ship classes thus enjoyed a remarkably sleek and rakish appearance. In fact, these are, IMO, the most attractive of all the designs that Starfleet has ever produced. (Note: The Elkins and Yeager types [and note that these are "types," not classes] with their obvious Intrepid-based primary hulls also appear in this generation, but it's probably just as well to accept the invented story in the DS9TM which implies that these ships were pieced together by non-Starfleet shipyards to respond to the Borg/Klingon/Cardassian/Dominion threats. And we will not speak of the evil that is the "Curry-type" abomination.)


There are probably other ways of imagining the design evolution of ships in the Star Trek universe that are equally or more valid than this one. (Especially considering that we're all trying to impose some kind of rationality on a 40-year sequence of stuff made up for TV shows and movies!) But I think there's some value in this three-generation model -- it's reasonably defensible based on ship appearance and rough chronology, and even if not perfect, it's at least a marginally plausible framework for thinking about the evolution of Starfleet design philosophy.

Which is fun. :)


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

MMORPGs Without Roleplaying

I read some comments recently that today's gamers -- in particular, players of MMORPGs -- don't value roleplaying. They were reported as saying things like "it's creepy to think you are the toon" and "I'm playing the game, not the character".

I think these are accurate observations. The "RPG" part of MMORPG has atrophied and is about to fall off.

The current population of gamers simply isn't interested in the original D&D model of storytelling through action. Instead, they favor what I suppose we might as well call the WoW model of action-oriented materialism. The land of MMORPGs has been thoroughly colonized by the Achievers, and the rest of us are living in their world.

This has been a self-reinforcing process. Gamers who prefer rules-based acquisition over narrative-based storytelling come to roleplaying games; as they do, new games are released that cater more to these rules-focused gamers; the greater supply of rules-based games attracts more rules-focused gamers; and so on. I'm not implying that this is good or bad -- it's just how things appear to have gone.

As I've put it before, most of today's gamers (especially MMORPG players) see the avatar not as a character with a story, but as nothing more than a vehicle to be inhabited temporarily for accessing game content. "It's just a game." From this perspective, the avatar is merely a tool.

As a mere tool, the avatar could be anything -- a human person, a nightelf, a cyborg, a mech, a car, a cloud of particles from the Xlpnrx Galaxy -- whatever. The form of the tool is vastly less important than its functionality to the type of gamer whose enjoyment comes from collecting the most stuff by being the best at following the rules of the game.

The way I see it, the gamers whose enjoyment comes from experiencing a compelling story have always been in the minority. The first major multi-player roleplaying game -- D&D -- just happened to cater to the Narrativist interest of these folks. Within the world of roleplaying games at that time, these gamers looked like a majority merely because few others were playing this kind of game. But as more games followed D&D, and especially as roleplaying games moved onto the computer where there was no human DM to place the game's action in the context of an emotionally compelling story, games about "stuff" overtook and eventually overwhelmed games about story.

To anyone who naturally enjoys gameplay that's about following rules to collect stuff, this probably seems like a obviously sensible progression, and not like any kind of "problem" at all. Developers are just giving gamers what they say they want.

To us old-school types, however, we're left scrounging for leftovers in the wastebin like a bunch of crazy old bums. For each of the rare games published these days that offers more than lip service to storytelling and interesting characters and roleplaying -- BioWare being about the only developer consistently making such games as KOTOR and Mass Effect -- there are probably 10 or 20 "kill it and take its stuff" games.

And the ratio is even higher in the MMORPG world. Is there even one triple-A MMORPG that caters primarily to roleplayers? Really?


That's a pretty grim picture for those who enjoy action but prefer that it flow from and support a meaningful narrative about people. But I'm not convinced that we're doomed and might as well just stop playing games entirely.

For one thing, BioWare's acknowledged success could spawn some imitators. (If so, I hope they won't repeat BioWare's mistake of initially releasing roleplaying games like Mass Effect solely for consoles, but that's another essay.)

For another thing, we don't know that there's not some new technology on the horizon that could create a new playing field for story-driven gamers in a way similar to D&D. What if someone came up with a dramatically (and I use that word deliberately) improved model of NPC AI where the NPCs felt much more emotionally plausible? What if someone dreamed up a new roleplaying system that made it incredibly easy to build emotionally engaging content?

Such innovations could produce a new golden age of true roleplaying games. Narrativist and Simulationist gamers (who are still around, IMO, because those are innate motivations, not learned preferences) would be the first to explore these new game spaces. Later, of course, they'll be overrun (again) by the larger population of Gamist folks and Gamist games once they realize that this "new world" exists.

But until then, it'll be nice to be able to play interesting characters in immersive worlds again.

I'm such an optimist. :-)

Friday, August 1, 2008

Star Trek Online: A Simulationist Manifesto

One of the complaints that always seems to be leveled against Star Trek fans asking for Star Trek Online to be faithful to their concept of the license is that they supposedly are demanding a "Star Trek simulator." This is usually followed by the diversionary claim that what the Star Trek fans really want from STO is a glorified chat room in which what little gameplay there is will be about scrubbing plasma conduits and watching the dials on the matter/antimatter reaction assembly.

We're never going to get past this silly level of chatter until we have a shared understanding of what we mean by "simulation."

To start with, "simulation" means a heck of a lot more than just "complicated starship controls."

What we're really talking about when we ask for simulationist features in Star Trek Online is for unique aspects of the world of Star Trek to be implemented as features of the gameworld. Not the trivial stuff -- virtually no one has ever seriously insisted that Jeffries tubes simply must be implemented or they won't play -- but the operational features, the things that characters in the world of Star Trek can do that help tell interesting stories.

Certainly that includes wanting starships to be implemented as large, mobile, multi-person, multi-system tools. Starships are a major story-telling tool in Star Trek; it would be a mistake not to implement them as high-functionality systems. (It's a big hint to Cryptic that detailed starship controls are the first thing everybody seems to think of when the subject of "simulating Star Trek" comes up.)

But simulating Star Trek goes far beyond just starships. And it doesn't only benefit the simulationist gamers and hardcore Star Trek fans.


For one thing, Star Trek is also about cultures and organizations. The point of having starships is to be able to go to new places and meet interesting people (and survive the trip!). What's the current state of relations between the Federation and the Klingon Empire? Heck, what's the current state of the Klingon Empire? Is Martok still running the show? What challenges is he facing, both internally and externally? Military? Political? Technological? Economic? Social? All of the above?

And what about the Romulans? Who are they allied with currently, and why? (And for what benefit, and how long will the alliance last?)

What about the smaller political entities? Are they moving toward joining up with the Federation, or are they looking elsewhere for support? Why? What does the strategic map of near-Federation space look like? Where are the key resources, and who holds them, and what do they want?

Nor should we forget the Federation itself. What's the prevailing attitude among Fed citizens -- war-weariness and a growing distrust of contact with new worlds, or great eagerness and energy for expansion? And what is Starfleet's position on this? Who's running the Admiralty these days, and what's their agenda? Will characters in Starfleet in STO be able to earn the Starfleet ranks we saw characters gain in the TV shows and movies?

Simulating this level of social-factional reality pays off big in a character-driven gameworld. It's not just making stuff up because somebody thinks that making stuff up is fun, or to have some cheesy "story" text available to dump on people when they take missions. Simulating large-scale NPC factions -- in both their motivations and their actions -- is valuable because that provides a vast source of material to support both storytelling and action within the Star Trek context.


"Simulation" is also about mimicking some aspects of physical reality as portrayed in Star Trek. It's about having planets that act like planets, with varying gravity, rotation periods, temperatures, atmospheres, seasons, and weather; it's about plants and lifeforms whose forms and behaviors are appropriate for their environment; it's about planetoid fields going 'round and stars going nova; it's about having millions of worlds to visit so that there's always something unexpected to be found in the game even if some players try to learn and publicize every secret on Day One.

Simulating physical phenomena also extends to both the macro and micro levels. Space in the world of Star Trek seems to be littered with objects and fields and particles and even lifeforms; you can't back up your mighty starship without bumping into something that wants to eat you, mate with you, or turn subspace inside-out.

Spending the time to simulate this part of Star Trek is valuable, too. It's necessary to be able to tell many of the stories that Star Trek is noted for. But having lots of different kinds of materials and energies (most of which should have gameplay effects) will also provide a lot more interesting things to do, both in space and on away missions. What if you can mask your ship's energy signature by hiding in the photosphere of a star? What if you can blind your opponent's sensors by ducking into a Mutara-type nebula? What if you can lure a pursuer into a cloud of metreon particles and set it alight? What if the kelbonite in those rock formations on Planet X prevents your tricorders from detecting an escaped spy?

Again, Simulationists don't favor implementing world-y features like these merely because they think that slavishly recreating such stuff from a TV show is "cool." It's for the practical purpose of bringing the literary world (in this case, Star Trek) to life; it's for generating surprises to explore; it's for providing rich environments for brilliant tactical action.


This is the "running a starship" thing that people think about, but it's also about "what tools are there," and "how does stuff work?"

Starships in Star Trek, even down to the runabouts, are fairly complex systems. Operating such devices requires some knowledge of navigation, piloting (helm control), sensors, power systems, warp drive, impulse drive, deflectors, and emergency systems like transporters and space suits. Starfleet vessels also require knowledge of offensive tactical systems such as direct-fire beams (phasers) and torpedoes. There are also science and medical facilities that can be used to gather knowledge and interact with objects.

And then there are all the other bits of high-tech gadgetry that Star Trek is known for. How many ways can a hand phaser be used? Is there anything you can't do with a tricorder? What happens to a transporter system if you don't keep the Heisenberg compensator in alignment?

Star Trek is about characters exploring their world, and an important aspect of that is science. It's why Shuttle astronaut Mae Jemison and physicist Stephen Hawking have appeared in episodes of Star Trek -- they understand that the joy of scientific exploration is a big part of what has given Star Trek its long appeal. So where does doing science fit into Star Trek Online if none of the requirements for it are simulated, if there is no technology for doing science, if there's no vast array of physical phenomena to study with tricorders and ship's sensors?

The world of Star Trek is filled with technogizmos like these, even to the point having its own word: "treknology." Implementing these technological devices and processes in Star Trek Online isn't something to do for its own sake, but because it both makes the gameworld feel right to those who enjoy the show, and it provides unique (license-based) opportunities for action-oriented fun to those who care more about pure MMORPG gameplay.


My point is that "simulation" does not mean arbitrarily making starships complicated. It's about taking many of the familiar parts of a highly detailed literary franchise and implementing them as elements of a multiplayer game. Doing this serves roleplayers and explorers and combat-oriented gamers alike by insuring that there's a huge source of license-specific features for generating and influencing gameplay.

When simulating the best bits of Star Trek means not only that the gameworld feels more real to fans but also that there are more fun things to do, why should we not hope for lots of simulation from Cryptic's version of Star Trek Online?

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Politics of Far Cry 2

Patrick Redding, narrative designer for Ubisoft Montreal's upcoming Far Cry 2, gave an interview to Gamasutra recently in which he discusses his views on how story and gameplay can both be more effective when tightly coupled throughout the development process.

I respect many of the ideas Redding mentions. For one thing, I admire the willingness of the development team and producers of Far Cry 2 to go big, and if they fail, to fail usefully. For another, it's great to see the positive references to System Shock and Deus Ex -- there can never be enough intelligent games.

Unfortunately, that respect for the intelligent games that Redding cites is severely undercut by a remark he offers early in the interview:

[O]ne of the things we did is we said, "Well, one kind of overriding question we want the player to be asking themselves is, 'How far are you willing to go in order to do the right thing?'" In other words, how much bad stuff are you willing to do, how much of your soul are you willing to sacrifice, in the pursuit of a larger good?

And it's important to say that we're not trying to take a position on that. We're not trying to say, "Oh, the trouble with people today is they're not willing to do really terrible, evil, monstrous things in order to accomplish the greater good." This isn't like some neocon wet dream, right?

Let's set aside the question of whether Redding's disdain for U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq is a proper distrust of foreign adventurism or a foolish blindness to realistic long-term national security policy.

Instead, just consider for a moment that even conservatives play computer games, and more so every day as the kids who grew up with computers and consoles discover their political beliefs. So why is it that so many developers seem, like Redding, to be desperate to go out of their way to stick a verbal thumb into the eyes of a lot of potential purchasers of their product? Purely from a business standpoint, making such comments is dumb.

But let's assume few game consumers will ever notice comments like these on Gamasutra. What about the question of whether this tiresomely juvenile political attitude is shared by the other writers of this game out of Montreal, possibly infecting and weakening the story design of Far Cry 2? (Deus Ex 3, currently being developed by Eidos Montreal, may suffer from the same malady, which would be a shame for a game that aspires to the greatness of its original predecessor.)

I'm not saying I want game developers to have no opinions, political or otherwise, or that they should never express those opinions in the games they make. Some games (and the game developers who make them) can and should challenge everyone's beliefs; that way lies interesting gameplay.

But that means everyone. It's easy to mock only conservatives when all your pals have the same left-leaning political opinions you do; just ask Pauline Kael. That's playing it safe. But that's precisely why this impulse needs to be fought -- if you're going to embed your politics in your game, but you can't bring yourself to develop gameplay and narrative that unflinchingly questions those beliefs, how can you expect any other player of your game to give a damn about that part of the story?

It may be very satisfying personally to use a game as a soapbox for unleashing some political opinion (of any variety). But it's bad business if you're trying to appeal to a mass market, and it's bad game design if you're trying to craft a game that inspires actual thought on topics that matter.

So now, thanks to an offhanded political crack, I have to wonder if Far Cry 2 will be worth spending my money on.

Too bad.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Key Features of a True Strategy Game

Something that's been bothering me for several years came back to me recently.

Gamasutra featured an interview with Soren Johnson, previously a designer for the last two Civilization games and now working on enhancing the gameplay of Spore. I enjoyed most of the interview, but one thing kept jumping out at me: I kept reading references to the "strategy" of real-time strategy (RTS) games.

There's no such thing. If it's real-time, it's not strategic.

RTSs are almost entirely about tactical action. They don't include gameplay elements that enable player actions at a strategic level. There's no coordination of multiple theaters of operation; there's no personnel management; there's no contingency planning for the gain or loss of key transportation nodes; and so on. The usual "send units out to collect resources until the source is depleted" feature is marginally strategic in that it's about locating, defending and exploiting resource nodes. But it's not fully strategic because resources don't persist over time -- they're used up so quickly that they're more for short-term tactical advantage than long-term strategic dominance.

Even the rare RTS such as Star Wars: Empire at War that does offer a strategic feature like semi-simultaneous theaters of operation (in this case, different planets) undercuts that gameplay by making it real-time as well. This demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what "strategic" means. When even the high-level gameplay is real-time, when you're given insufficient time to gather data, assess its value, and weigh alternatives, then that gameplay is no longer about planning. What's left may be a kind of gameplay, but it's not strategic gameplay.

I've discussed the definitional differences between tactics and strategy in multiple essays already, so I won't belabor that point again here. Please visit my Strategy vs. Tactics and Combat Modes and Player Ranks in a Star Trek MMORPG essays for an in-depth discussion of what these terms of art actually mean.

In brief, though, here's what the Wikipedia entry on military tactics says: "Tactics should be distinguished from military strategy, which is concerned with the overall means and plan for achieving a long-term outcome, and operational art, an intermediate level in which the aim is to convert the strategy into tactics."

There's nothing hard to understand about the distinctions between these levels of the application of force. So it's very strange to hear an experienced game designer like Soren Johnson -- who presumably understands the difference between strategy and tactics -- repeatedly talking about RTSs as though they give those gamers who long for truly strategic-level gameplay any chance for that kind of activity. Calling these things "real-time strategy" games is misleading.

Under other circumstances I might push this as just a technical gripe, similar to fussing about the way people misuse the word "aggravate" (which means "to worsen") when they mean "annoy." But there's no point in ranting about some mere error in word usage. Besides, Johnson clearly does have pro experience with the strategic level gameplay in the Civ games.

The reason I'm highlighting the meaning of the word "strategy" is not to complain about words; it's to point out that there seems to be a game design opportunity here. We talk about RTS games as though they're strategic, when they're actually not... so why not make a game that really is about strategic play?

To some extent, of course, we already have those: as the Wikipedia entry on strategy video games points out, they're the hex-map wargames and 4X-type turn-based strategy (TBS) games from whence RTSs sprang. But lately even the TBS games (Civilization, Master of Orion, Galactic Civilizations, and to some extent Sins of a Solar Empire) aren't much about actual strategy; they're more about moving units around in a tactical fashion than about making strategic-level decisions. These days about the closest we come to strategic decision-making in games is allowing the player to set a single overall tax rate and then allocate that tax income among military, scientific, or cultural production. While from a strategic perspective it's better to have that than nothing, it's not much better than nothing since for most players it's a "fire and forget" function -- it's not something that can really be counted as active gameplay, which is what sells games.

I think there's an opportunity here for some developer to make a game that highlights actual strategic functions as active gameplay, that's a different kind of fun because (unlike most games) it rewards competent high-level thinking. To highlight this as a key product differentiator, and to avoid making the game overly complex, some of the tactical features people take for granted in TBS and RTS games today would need to be minimized or even eliminated.

Some readers may be shaking their heads at this point and thinking, "typical noob designer mistake, putting the setting before the gameplay." Not so. I'm not looking to define a set of game rules solely according to whether they fit some finicky technical definition of strategy -- that wouldn't be a game, it would be a military strategy simulator, and that's not what I'm after here. What I'm trying to do is take a closer look at the real-world definition of strategy to see if there are any aspects not currently being exploited as rules in a game. My goal is not to try to fix existing strategy games, but to explore a more rigorous definition of strategy to see if it can be mined for new gameplay ideas... or, if not new, at least ideas that have been neglected for a while.

I haven't finished my thinking on this subject -- this essay (like my earlier essay on a "Living World game") is just a first draft of some ideas in the direction of something different. So don't expect The Answer here.

That warning given, here are some design concepts I'm currently considering for a strategy game that would actually support strategic play.

1. Consider eliminating individual units altogether.

Having units always seems to incline game designers to tactical-style design thinking driven by the conceptual simplicity of unit-against-unit gameplay rules. Once you decide to have units that players can move, it's just too easy to start building your gameplay around assigning strength and defense values to those units and making up rules for how they interact... at which point you've got another game of tactics.

Instead, allow players to place directional pointers (arrows) or goal markers (stars) as guidance to strategic forces. This would let players suggest the high-level direction of movement of resources without shifting the focus of the game to personally managing each movement of specific units.

If you just can't bring yourself to try something so radical, then consider allowing units, but treat them as large-scale objects with very limited movement and behaviors. Rather than being specialized units with this combat strength or that movement rate, units would mark locations of force projection.

The idea here is to take the focus off of the management of individual units, which elicits tactical thinking, and base gameplay instead on mechanisms by which players can define and perceive patterns of force spread over relatively large swaths of space and time. The goal should be to allow players to make choices similar to that faced by Gen. Eisenhower in the European Theater of Operations of World War II: support the "knife-like thrust" into the heart of Axis territory favored by Field Marshal Montgomery, or order massed movement along a "broad front" (which is what was actually adopted)? That's the level of strategic thought that would be fun to enable in game form.

2. Focus diplomacy features on strategic-level concerns.

Diplomacy as usually implemented in TBS games is actually more of a grand strategy feature in that players are able to negotiate directly with opponents who control all aspects of all possible assets. In effect, players (including opponents, whether human or AI) are empowered to act as the supreme rulers of the faction they represent. While that's a kind of very high-level strategy, it's maybe a little more high-level than the textbook definition, which is what we're considering here.

A truly strategic-level diplomacy game would impose some constraints on the power of players to determine the selection, collection, and allocation of resources. This might take two forms. First, players would need to establish and maintain positive relations with multiple representatives of the dominant cultures in a theater, rather than with a single fully-empowered entity. Part of the challenge would be to acquire strategic assets (access to key resources or intel) through various means, such as playing representatives against each other, offering inducements, making shows of strength, or even veiled threats. The challenge here would be to try to achieve strategic ends through non-military channels.

Second, the role of strategic leaders is to develop plans for achieving the overall vision of those who do control the entire institution. So strategic-level diplomatic gameplay might also involve taking very high-level direction from the leader or leaders of one's faction. For example, the player might receive direction from civilian commanders to take and hold -- by whatever means necessary -- some strategic resource (e.g., a large refinery or a FTL jump point) and the transportation lines leading to it from secure bases. It would then be up to the player to determine and set in motion the best means of accomplishing this task, whether that would be negotiation, force, or some combination of those forms of persuasion. A strategic leader might also be faced with the interesting challenge of working with political interests in his own faction in order to obtain desirable internal resources such as negotiating authority, advanced weapon systems, or troop increases.

3. Movement of resources should always take time.

This significantly increases the value of planning-type thinking, which is key to good strategy. Since resources need time to move from where they're produced to where they're needed, part of the strategic game is to anticipate both production and application requirements, as well as transportation and distribution capabilities. In other words, a strategic game is also in part a logistical game.

During a game, new sources of raw materials or constructed goods will be located or captured, and existing sources will be depleted (which should be rare), replaced with better sources, captured by the enemy, or destroyed. Similarly, different resources will be needed in different locations due to advances or retreats, and to the types of challenge present at different locations. As all of these events occur, players of a strategy game will need to modify their transportation models continuously so as to insure that every need is fulfilled as accurately and as soon as possible.

Transportation systems also factor into this part of strategic gameplay. The number and location of routes in the player's transportation network, the maximum speed and loading of the mobile elements on that network, and the placement, number and capacity of storage depots, all determine the player's distribution capability.

In a way, maintaining and enhancing this distribution network (and trying to foul up the distribution network of enemies) could be seen as a defining element of a strategic-level game. This doesn't mean embedding a version of Railroad Tycoon; letting the player lay down specific transportation lines is too low a level for a strategic game. (See item #1 above.) But it does mean having gameplay that enables players to demonstrate an understanding of logistics. Functions allowing the player to invest in different kinds of transportation modes (where different modes have both advantages and disadvantages), to assign priority weightings to different resources, and to establish the general number and capacity of storage depots are examples of gameplay elements that could be found in a true strategy game.

4. Make personnel assignment part of the gameplay.

Something that's a crucial factor in strategic decision-making that might also be fun to replicate in a game is the fact that no one can do everything. A strategic leader acts through subordinates who are entrusted with performing the operational design tasks necessary to successfully achieve your strategic goals.

So I'd like to see a game in which you have a vast number of subordinates, some of whom you'll need to select to fill the roles required to meet your strategic needs. I imagine this might work as one window where you can define strategic goals and the functional roles necessary to meet those goals, and another window containing a tree of names showing the current hierarchy of assignments. In the tree of names you could click on any name to bring up each person's "service record," and then assign individuals to desired roles. Each subordinate would have enough freedom (defined by the game rules) to translate your strategic goals into tactical actions for their own subordinates to carry out. They could even provide evaluations of their fellow subordinates, or suggest (competing) ideas to the player for which strategic actions to take.

Notice that this game feature has several ramifications. Imposing a time delay from assigning a subordinate to getting the results of the tactical actions they order, as well as simply getting a subordinate into the right location in the field for their mission, creates an additional kind of logistical problem for the player to solve. And if subordinates are implemented as non-player characters who can react to your decisions affecting them (and perhaps even the different factions they might represent), choosing which NPC to assign to a high-prestige role could be its own fascinating political subgame.

To return to the example of Eisenhower during WWII, the complex struggles among Montgomery, Bradley, Patton, and other top generals for Eisenhower's favor are legendary. Even in a relatively simple form, a feature allowing for such machinations could add significant depth to a strategy game.

5. Minimize the tech tree.

The tech tree as usually implemented in turn-based strategy games is probably not right for a true strategy game. What a tech tree feature really amounts to is the imposition of policy controlling scientific research. Some games (like Civilization) implement this in a kind of unit-like fashion; the player is able to choose specific technologies to research. Other games (like Master of Orion II when the "Creative" perk is not selected) only permit the selection of broad fields of research; the specific technology learned from a particular field is randomly selected.

In both cases, however, the player over time is able to specify something like a research policy. (I say "something like" because in practice most games implement so few technologies that by the end of the game the player has usually learned them all, which means that no real policy preference can be expressed.) While I've personally had a lot of fun with that kind of thing, it strikes me as somewhat suspect as a feature that's appropriate for the strategic level of action. Eisenhower, for example, didn't get to tell Rolls-Royce to do the R&D that led to the Merlin engine used to power the P-51 Mustang fighter. Instead, he defined high-level mission goals; some subordinate translated that into equipment procurement requirements; and the Allies got whatever was available to meet those requirements.

Something similar might be appropriate for a strategy game. Rather than exposing the elements of a tech tree to the player as a gameplay feature, if a tech tree is appropriate at all for your game, keep it internal and let the game rules determine when some new technology becomes available. The player would then need to react appropriately to this development -- perhaps to exploit it, perhaps to prevent an opponent from obtaining it, perhaps (as with the atomic bomb) both. (Note that a game in which new technologies can occur should take care to define only technologies that have strategic value. There'd be little point in implementing a "Coffee Grinder" tech, for example, but even the mere threat of building "Ballistic Missile Shield" technology could have major strategic effects.)

The one caveat to the advice to minimize the tech tree might be to implement some version of the "military-industrial complex." In such a game, the player -- in addition to other forms of negotiation -- would need to manage relations with production sources. Working with equipment suppliers to negotiate supplies of vital goods or services might be an interesting gameplay feature in a strategic-level game. (Or it might be lethally boring, or just not a good addition to more obviously strategic play. If there are enough other features, this one might not have enough value to be worth implementing.)

In any case, as with management of individual units it's probably best to forego the tech tree feature in a game that aims to let the player focus on strategic decision-making.

There are some other features that a truly strategic-level game would likely need in order to be fun. After all, if it's going to be a game, the player has to be allowed to do things!

I'll probably return to this "Real Strategy Game" concept in a subsequent essay as I give some thought to what those other player activities might be. For now, these suggestions seem like a reasonable starting point for thinking about what such a game ought to look like.