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. :)