Friday, 17 June 2011

Story and Writing in Games #3: Deadly Premonition

Deadly Premonition might be a bit of a controversial addition to this series of blogs, at least among those who know its name. The game was released in February 2010 and has achieved cult status after some of the mixed praise it received. IGN called it the definition of a system seller - "once you play it, you'll want to go sell your system". Other reviews since then have been kinder, some sites like Destructoid even deciding to give it their top honours and a perfect 10/10 score.

Detective Francis York Morgan. Call him York.

Deadly Premonition follows detective Francis York Morgan as he travels to a rural town of Greenvale to solve a mystery murder case. When zombie-like creatures that only he can see start sprouting out of the ground upon his arrival, it's clear that there's something supernatural going on behind these murders.

The game utterly reeks of Twin Peaks - hell, Greenvale itself is a recreation of the same town which was used to shoot the show. The gameplay is, admittedly, terrible and the controls are at times unbearable. The graphics don't look acceptable for a game from five years ago, and the music has a habit of playing the wrong tunes at the most inappropriate of times. But - at least in my opinion - the story has enough twists and enough of a payoff at the end to make it worthy of playing.

I don't really want to focus on the story today as much as I want to focus on one particular character, though. Francis York Morgan is one of the most interesting player characters I have ever seen in a game - perhaps even my all time favourite. More details after the jump, but be warned that there may be significant plot details below. (or not. I often can't bring myself to spoil a good story... but just in case:)

Thursday, 16 June 2011

General Update - 16th June 2011

Okay, so my semester of university study is actually over this time. For reals. Had my programming exam Tuesday afternoon, and think I went fairly well. I know I got some stuff wrong like an algorithm for one of the early questions, but I wrote it out in pseudo code and java anyway just to prove I knew some stuff. It's going to be a while before I get my results back, though.

But now that everything's done, I have a few weeks to do some work in my spare time. Build up my portfolio a little, learn some new programs and work on a few projects of my own.

I went down to the local library last week and picked up one of Stephen King's short story compilations, since I hadn't read anything in a while and wanted a bit of inspiration for a psychological horror-based game. So far I haven't had inspiration for that - but his works have inspired some ideas for other small games that I might be able to work on myself. Hopefully I'll be able to do enough with them to be able to pitch something by next  year. At the very least, I want to be able to come up with a few different game concepts to file away that I can bring out when the time is right.

I've started playing around with Flash again since holidays started. I've created a few simple programs so far, and it's proving hard to keep myself from rushing ahead at times. Last night I tried grabbing someone's code for a Pong game, but even though I could see which parts of it didn't work so well and which parts of the design I wanted to improve, my knowledge of Actionscript 3.0 just wasn't enough.

A Flash Program I wrote demonstrating a few basic skills - importing objects to the stage from a library, drawing shapes using ActionScript, creation of working buttons, rotation of objects using code - all that sort of basic crap.

I think the other problem is that for the past six weeks or so I've been learning Object Orientation with Java. So when I jump back to basic code, regardless of the language, it just seems really messy and gross to work with. Especially when the programmers don't format their code right or name variables terribly vague things or whatever.

I don't have much else to say today, but I wanted to post an update anyway. So I think I'll finish with a motivational quote from Jesse Schell, in his book "The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses" - just something that I read today which felt pretty inspiring, but also felt like it could be applied to any field and not just game design.

"Well, here is a little secret about gifts. There are two kinds. First, there is the innate gift of a given skill. This is the minor gift.
The major gift is love of the work. If you have the major gift, the love of designing games, you will design using whatever limited skills you have. And you will keep doing it. And your love for the work will shine through, infusing your work with an indescribable glow that only comes from the love of doing it. And through practice, your game design skills, like muscles, will grow and become more powerful, until eventually your skills will be as great, or greater than, those of someone who only has the minor gift. And people will say "Wow. That one is a truly gifted game designer." They will think you have the minor gift, of course, but only you will know the secret source of your skill, which is the major gift: love of the work."

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Story and Writing in Games #2 - Braid

Yeah, I decided I'd continue this series because it's fun, plus I've been getting some interesting feedback and comments on these blogs from both friends and casual readers.

[On that note - feel free to comment with your opinions on these blogs, especially if you have a different view on things - I won't bite. I'm a young uni student with a passion for learning about game design, I'm not trying to write these as some know-it-all god of creating games. I'll let you be the judge of that once I actually put out a game of my own. For now, though, any feedback is appreciated, especially thought provoking comments and questions that don't just agree with everything I have to say.]

Anyway, enough of that. Today I'm going to be talking about a little game known as Braid, designed by independent developer Jonathan Blow. I've mentioned Braid several times in this blog already and it's one of my favourite games, so I guess it just made sense to me that I'd write about it in a little more detail.

Braid's interactive title screen

Braid is a downloadable puzzle-platformer revolving around time manipulation. It only spans about six hours, maybe less if you're really smart (or if you happen to cheat with GameFAQs, I guess). It's available to download on the PC, Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Network, and I'd strongly recommend you to pick it up as soon as possible if you haven't already. You should probably download before reading further anyway, since there may be significant plot details revealed below.

E3 2011

Because there was no way I'd personally be able to make a game design blog without making some sort of comment on E3.

I've kept up with the conferences of E3 for the past 5 years or so, 2006 - year of the Giant Enemy Crab and Riiiidge Racer - being the furthest back I can remember. Of course I had heard of the expo before then, I just hadn't been so interested in keeping up to date with all of the announcements, especially when I had to stay up so late to see them. This year I watched all of three of the main conferences - I didn't mind missing EA, Activision and Ubisoft's too much.

Microsoft's conference was a real bummer, even more so than last year since I thought they would have looked past Kinect a bit by now. A bunch of third party games were utilising its features but, as usual, they just seemed gimmicky and awful. The voice commands in Mass Effect - while a cool show of the technology - were really pointless and not something I'd want to be shouting in my living room whether by myself or with friends/family. Most of the time it seems like designers are just using voice, touch and motion control to substitute the use of a button. Bad substitution, I might add.

I'll probably buy Gears 3. I didn't finish Halo CE too long ago so I'm not sure about the HD remake, and I still have to get through Halo 2 and 3 so Halo 4 wasn't too exciting. As I said though, the conference was a bummer.

I woke up early with about four hours' sleep for Sony's conference, and it turned out being a little better. The Playstation Vita looks like a nice step up from the PSP to compete with the Nintendo 3DS, but even then I couldn't help but think the thing was dead on arrival.

In terms of games for the handheld, I felt a bit conflicted. Uncharted looked great for a portable game - but it was also at the point where I'd rather just be playing it on my television with a controller instead. I'm sure it was a good decision since it will sell a lot of PSVs, but it doesn't look like a good portable game.

Uncharted on the PSV

For good portable games I generally like to try something called the public transport test. That is, if I can take the game with me on a bus - be able to boot it up, play for a few minutes without being overly immersed, then pause or stop my game without missing my stop - then it's a game well tailored to the portable system. Games on the DS without too many cutscenes that you could put into sleep mode were generally good for this. Grand Theft Auto: China Town Wars was a good example. The Professor Layton games, even better.

If you can't quite pass the public transport test, then at least have some reason that your game is better off on the portable system than on a console. Kirby Canvas Curse was a great DS game because of its use of the touch screen in platforming. The Pokemon games are best suited as portable titles because they're designed for getting out there, meeting new people and trading/battling your monsters. With the Uncharted game at E3 I could only see myself plugging it into my PS3 to play on a bigger screen.

Nintendo seemed to steal the show this year, rebounding with a new console and a pretty nice slew of games for the 3DS. I'll probably pick up a 3DS for myself later this year when I have the cash. Ocarina looks great. Co-op on St--Lylat Wars was a great move and actually something I had written down as a game concept just a few weeks ago, so I'm glad Nintendo's finally doing it.

Luigi's Mansion 2 I'm a bit skeptical about since the ghosts don't seem to have the same charm as the first game, but otherwise it looks okay. The two Mario games coming out (Super Mario and Paper Mario 3DS) will likely be added to my collection pretty quickly. Mario Kart 3DS wasn't too stunning, but the Animal Crossing game sort of caught me by surprise just by the fact that they had added more new stuff to it than the Wii version.

Nintendo talked briefly about a free version of Zelda: Four Swords on the 3DS, a game I'd really love to finally be able to play with three other people. Kid Icarus also looked nice for a series reboot and different from all of Nintendo's other standbys.

From what I've heard so far, navigation of the 3DS shop is great (at least compared to that of the DSi) and the virtual console library is also something I'd love to get my hands on. But the best thing about the 3DS so far in my eyes is probably the great level of support from third parties, which carries over to the other side of Nintendo's press conference this year.

The console itself is pretty easy to confuse for a regular Wii from afar

I'm glad that the Wii U is finally trying to compete on the same field as the Xbox 360 and PS3 - being able to play some of Nintendo's prettier titles in 1080p has been long awaited. The controller is also pretty big, but I love the concept of being able to continue playing your game on it while something else happens with the television, or being able to use it as a map in Zelda or whatever.

But again - best part of the Wii U for me was the solution to an ongoing problem I had with the Wii - third party support. A handful of third party games and developers were shown, and several top third party designers such as Ken Levine of Irrational Games (the one I remember clearly who wasn't Warren Spector) sounded off with their support. The Wii's main criticism was a distinct lack of variety of its games - the best usually being first party titles from franchises which had already been done to death. Throwing top franchises like Ninja Gaiden, Bioshock and Rocksteady's Batman Arkham City into that mix makes the console a lot more appealing than the Wii, especially after its drought of games in late 2008-early 2009.

The Wii U still has a year until it's set for release, though - plenty of time to prove itself worthy of purchase. I'm pretty excited for it, albeit a little wary this time around - not about to rush in and get suckered a second time after what happened with the Wii.

Overall, though, I think it's safe to say that this has been a pretty good year for videogames - be it games that have already been released or announcements of what's to come. My only regret is not being able to be there in person and demo some of these products myself, such as one of my most anticipated downloadable titles, Bastion. But perhaps I'll be there at some point in the future. Perhaps I'll even have something to show off, myself. We'll just have to wait and see.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Story and Writing in Games #1 - Bioshock

This is part one of a new series of blogs I feel like making about the story and writing of games. Now that I'm working towards a game project of my own with a small team at university, I'd like to analyse a few games with particularly good writing, ideas or storytelling - so that I have a better idea of the best practices of storytelling in games, and how to help construct a well told narrative myself.

I should probably clarify on that point - I'm not so great at writing stories myself, at least without borrowing too many ideas from stuff I've read or experienced. I might be getting someone to help with the story itself for my own projects. However, the important part I wish to focus on with games is not the story itself, but how that story is told. Since games are an interactive media form, one has to take into account the player being a part of the story rather than just a simple onlooker. It may be acceptable to read in books, and it may be acceptable to view in films, but in games the goal should not be to read or view - but to play.
Space Invaders. One version of it, anyway.

In single player games, story is of great importance, even if it is paper thin. It puts motive behind the player's actions, and a reason to keep playing. The best story is one which creates a hook, appealing to a player's natural human curiosity and their desire to find out what happens next. Even in games like Space Invaders, you may not notice it, but there is a story used to give the player a motive. In the name alone, Space Invaders gives a setting, an antagonist and a player motive. Would the game be as successful if it had been called Spaceship Shooter or some such variant? Perhaps not.

Bioshock is a game which was released in 2007 by 2K Boston (Irrational) and 2K Australia. The game was a spiritual successor to the PC game known as System Shock 2, and shared several story elements with that game. I'm going to be talking about Bioshock today though since a) more people have played it and b) it's the one that I played. Note that there may be significant plot details revealed below - don't read further unless you have finished the game.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Collectibles in Games and Player Reward

This was something I started thinking about this evening (okay, yesterday evening since I'm late in finishing this), when looking at some of my favourite games which utilise collectibles, and how well they reward the player (if at all!). I wanted to make a small study on this aspect of games, so that I had something to base my design on when creating a game of my own with collectibles involved.

col·lect·i·ble also col·lect·a·ble (k-lkt-bl)
1. That can be collected: a collectible loan.
2. Worthy of being collected: collectible antique coins.


That last line is the key. How do we define what is worthy of being collected in games? Is something worthy of being collected simply if it has a reward of some sort at some point? I wouldn't say so. We still call them collectibles regardless, but that doesn't mean they're good collectibles that players will actually want to go out of their way to find.

For this blog I've decided to analyse a couple of examples of collectibles used in games from the last ten years or so. Yes, let's just ignore the 90s right now and all of those platforming games which focused on practically nothing but collecting junk.

Collectible Example 1: Assassin's Creed - Templar Flags
Number: several hundred
Payoff: Eventual (after collecting all of a certain kind)
Reward: Achievements

Ubisoft has gotten slightly better with the AC flags as the series has gone on, from a terrible collectible in the first game to a sort-of-tolerable one in the most recent game, Assassin's Creed Brotherhood.

In the original game, there were roughly 100 flags in each area, with the exception of Masyaf. They could only be seen from a certain distance and from the right angle and had no real indicators of being there aside from some sparkly-ness. The player was only rewarded with an achievement after collecting every single flag from a particular area eg all the Jerusalem flags. They did not affect the story or the player's abilities and were only used for achievements.

In Assassin's Creed 2, flags were replaced with feathers. There were only 100 feathers in the entire game, and this time a reward for collecting them all was not only an achievement but also a special cape to wear around as an in-game trophy of sorts. Better, but not perfect.

In Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, there were 101 flags in the entire game along with 30 feathers to collect. From what I remember the only reward for collecting these was an achievement/trophy. However, the developers still managed to design these collectibles fairly smartly. For one, 101 flags was just enough to make finding them all a challenge for the most devoted of players. Second of all, the game introduced special maps which could be bought from stores, which would reveal the locations of most feathers on the map.

While it's arguable that revealing the locations takes away some of the reward in discovering a flag on one's own, showing them in this way also gives the player enough motivation to collect them, to go out of their way to collect a flag which wasn't in plain view.

The collectibles in the Assassin's Creed games have never been perfect, but it's easy to see from analysing each game in the series that they've definitely gotten better.

Collectible Example 2: Metroid Prime - Missile/Energy Tank Expansions
Number: 50 missile expansions, 14 energy tanks

Payoff: Immediate and Eventual
Reward: Increasing Player Strength, Unlocking Hidden Endings

To be fair, this type of collectible didn't start with Metroid Prime - it's been around since the original Metroid, Super Metroid and Castlevania: SotN. While games may have evolved tremendously fast over the past twenty years, this element of design continues to rear its head in new games like Shadow Complex -- because it's just plain fun and works!

I immediately use Metroid Prime as my example here because it's one of my favourite games, but feel free to replace Prime with any of the other games I've mentioned above. The difference with collectibles in Prime, as opposed to games like Assassin's Creed, is that the collectibles have an immediate payoff. In Metroid Prime, one of the protagonist - Samus's - key abilities is a missile launcher built into her firearm. While the player starts off with a measly 5 missiles, they can increase their total missile capacity by collecting missile expansions. The same applies to the player's health - while the player begins with 99 units of energy, energy tanks can be collected to increase the total energy high above that amount.

How this works, I liken to traditional roleplaying games, where the player would constantly be trying to improve their abilities and stats through experience - either by defeating monsters or completing tasks. The only difference in Metroid Prime is that you improve your abilities by exploring and seeking out these upgrades, rather than fighting more monsters than required.

This system puts the player in control of the game's difficulty. Seasoned players can choose not to seek out energy tanks if they wish to be challenged by particularly tough boss monsters. On the other end of the spectrum, new players who are having trouble with certain parts of the game can take a break to explore and build their strength before continuing.

The game also puts rewards in place for those players committed enough to retrieve all of the game's collectibles, though these could possibly be improved upon in modern games. A hidden ending probably shouldn't be used as the reward for the more dedicated players unless there is additional gameplay involved or something else interactive involved. I know this from my own playing habits - if all I'm missing out on is a hidden ending by skipping all of those monotonous sidequests in a game, then I'd prefer to just look it up on youtube instead.

Definitely something to think about though, both for myself and anyone else interested in designing something. Is that collectible you're using really worth it, and have you thought about why players might want to go out of their way to pick it up? If not, stop, go back to the drawing board for a second and rethink your implementation. A collectible used for the sake of having a shiny thing in your game is not good design.

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