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GDC Report – Thursday

Encouraging Cooperative Behavior in Co-Op Gameplay

There’s a difference between having two players in a game space, and having truly cooperative gameplay. The Splinter Cell series has become well-known for the latter; missions that really reward cooperation between two agents.

Players respond to collective agency. When they feel like they’re both making an impact on the situation, they want to hold up their end of the bargain.

Players will work together to optimize their output. This can be a challenge, because two agents can interact with a system in unpredictable ways, and really be more effective than one player. Or, they can screw up.

Twice as many players = way more that twice the chance of detection. Creating meaningful stealth opportunities when you need to conceal two agents is much harder than concealing one. But, players can use their knowledge of the game to improve their odds, making it an interesting challenge.

Allow players to express themselves through gameplay. Let them develop their strategies, make plans, and take risks. Make both players feel smart and effective.

Players dislike forced cooperation, but enjoy meaningful cooperation.

Cooperative dynamics are how the mechanics influence the player’s inputs, and the outputs they receive.

Many mechanics were introduced.

  • Gating/tethering: The most basic mechanic. No player can proceed unless all players are present. It’s usually pretty obvious.
  • Exotic challenges: One player has a unique perspective/controls, and other players need to cover them. An example is manning the minigun in Left 4 Dead: you’re more powerful, but you can only aim in a 180 degree arc, and you can’t melee to defend yourself.
  • Punitive systems: One player is trapped, and requires rescue/help from another player. Too much of this can feel like punishing the player just for trying to play the game their own way, but it can also create cool situations where players can keep the team alive even after a normal failure condition. These systems can be a little weak at creating coop play, because they’re avoidable by skilled play. Don’t let a smoker get you, and you never need to do the smoker rescue mechanics.
  • Buffing systems: One player makes another more powerful, usually sacrificing their own effectiveness to do it. This can create cool coop gameplay, but you can’t rely on it too much, because players can always choose to just ignore it and fight on their own.
  • Asymmetric abilities: Each character has special abilities and/or weaknesses, and you work better as a team. MMORPGs are a good example of this.
  • Combined Actions: A situation requires different player skills at once. This is different from character skills; you’re not limited by your character, but you need to specialize briefly. The classic example is the Warthog: one player driving, one player shooting.
  • Survival/Attrition: The game continues as long as one player is alive. Death is permanent (at least until the next checkpoint), so defending each other to ensure that at least one person get through is a victory.

Overall, high-level plot isn’t as important as character events. Players don’t talk about how they stole data and transferred it to the U.S., but they do talk about how they totally elbowed that guy just in time for you to get a clear shot on them and it was awesome.

Don’t put a lot of effort into prescriptive systems, like needing to hoist a friend over a wall. Players understand these things. They know you need these coop points. Trying to mask these points as natural parts of the gameplay will just result in players getting confused about what they need to do.

Give players the tools they need to support each other, and be reliant on each other.

Focus on readability in your gameplay mechanics, path, stealth, etc. Two players in the environment creates lots of sensory, system, and social noise. Make it all easy to read.

Trust that groups of players will naturally find improvise their own solutions to hard problems.

Biofeedback in Gameplay

Valve did a cool panel on using biofeedback systems to gather data and/or control gameplay. Biofeedback means stuff like heart rate tracking, eye movements, and such. It should be the most natural form of input – you don’t need to think or do anything, you just need to be human and get into the game!

Exposing biofeedback data to players can create a feedback loop. They get nervous, and they see that they’re getting nervous, which makes them more nervous…etc.

Controls map player intent to the game.
Biofeedback maps player emotion to the game.

You get to factor in not just what the player is explicitly telling you, but also what they’re feeling about the game.

Emotion is a response to external events. It has a vector, with an intensity, and a direction (positive/negative emotion).

The biofeedback methods presented were:

  • Heart rate: Cheap, easy to measure, but prone to errors due to movement, and delayed. It takes several seconds for your heart rate to change due to stimuli.
  • Skin Conductance (SCL): Very cheap to measure, and short lag time, but the range differs between subjects, requiring evaluation and calibration.
  • Facial Expressions: Great for getting an exact emotional response, and expression is usually instantaneous in response to stimulus. But measuring expressions generally can’t be done in real-time, is intrusive and expensive to record, and requires training to interpret.
  • Eye Movements: Very good measure of exactly what the player is paying attention to, and for how long. It tracks player thought processes fairly well. However, it requires very expensive gear to track, and gaining data from eye movements requires later review and evaluation.
  • EEGs: Measure the electrical potentials of the brain. You can get a good measure of arousal, and a general idea of what kind of thought the player is doing. But EEG setups are very expensive, very intrusive (a big metal thing on your head), and it’s difficult to really get clear data out of all the signals.

Valve showed three demos:

1) Left 4 Dead 2, with the director’s estimated tension level replaced with an actual, measured tension level from the player. Valve’s data showed that players had more fun, as the game reacted more naturally to them.

2) Alien Swarm. A stage was created where players would kill 100 enemies in 240 seconds. However, if they got nervous or agitated, the clock started ticking faster. They definitely saw a feedback loop – get nervous, the clock speeds up, which makes you more nervous.

3) Portal, with eye tracking to control the crosshairs. I was impressed by this one – the player’s gaze flicked rapidly from surface to surface, firing portals with pinpoint precision. This has the potential for perfect control in shooters, instantaneous reactions and perfect headshots. But is that desirable? It takes time to raise a gun, sight it, and fire. On the other hand, it seems wrong somehow to suggest that what we want is less accurate, less responsive controls than are possible.

Valve knows that biofeedback isn’t coming to the consumer level any time soon, but their research still served an important role. Is there an optimal arousal pattern, which leads to an optimal gameplay experience? Can we use biofeedback to make good gameplay become great?

Rise of the Power Creative  – Cliff Bleszinski

Cliff’s talk on the power creative has been covered pretty well in other locations.To give a quick summary:

“Power Creatives,” like Peter Jackson and John Romero, are rare. They get to call the shots, they have diverse skills, and they bring value to any project.

How can you get there?

Know your weaknesses, and bring in partners to fill the gaps.

Delegate. Learn what you can do, and what you can’t.

Make it personal. Make games for you, about your experiences.

Design is sales. An idea has to sell. Not just money – you have to be able to sell it to your peers, too, so they’ll be excited about developing it.

Understand PR and marketing. You have to be public, brand yourself, and capture attention.

You’ll catch a lot of criticism, too. Take it and make it your own. Be distinctive.

You’re the frontman for your company’s band. Take that role and be distinctive.

Stay in touch with marketing, and keep control. You know your game’s image; don’t let them present the wrong one.

Understand your audience. Keep up with where videogames are going, and who’s playing them.

What’s in the future?

Games that reward multitasking. Devices that talk to each other. Carry a part of the game with you.

Reward often, and in the long-term. Create a visible calendar that keeps players anticipating the next piece of news or content.

In the future, AAA isn’t going to die, but it’ll be challenged by social games. Create long-term games, experiences that your players want to marry, not just date as a short fling.

Steam will help – more digital downloads, more instant gratification.

Tap in to the feed. This means Twitter feeds from characters, viral videos, and deeply buried Easter eggs. Get people talking! Get that free press coverage!

A power creative builds IP. Think about your game and your brand:

  • Can you give a one-sentence pitch? Tweet it – 140 characters or less?
  • What tattoos would people get from your game?
  • What quotes will people use?
  • What memes will you start?

The best ideas have cool gameplay, reinforce the game’s fiction, and show off your unique art/technology.

A Power Creative understands the business – or else the people who understand money will be happy to take yours!

Innovate! Never fall back on “Traditionally in this genre…”

Keep your IP sacred, it’s your most valuable asset. Parents introduce your IP to their kids. Fans write stories and make fan movies about your IP. Protect it, keep it, own it.

It’s risky to stick your neck out. Eh, whatever. Just do it!

Design in Detail: Tuning the Muzzle Velocity of the Assault Rifle on Legendary Difficulty across the Halo Franchise

I enjoyed this session a lot. Instead of vague design principles, it was about one single decision in the Halo games, how they came to that decision, and how the answer changed throughout different games.

Jaime Griesemer had done a lecture last year which was about balance, but this one was all about tuning. The difference is that balance is about longevity, keeping the game playable forever, making it fair, and making multiplayer work better. It has nothing to do with fun.

Tuning, on the other hand, is all about fun, making an experience feel good and immediate. It has nothing to do with making something fair or balanced.

Before we can come up with ideas for the speed of the assault rifle shots, we need to understand the context of our decision. The assault rifle is the most common enemy weapon, which means that it’s the most common shot that will be coming at the player. It also means that the player will scavenge lots of assault rifles, so they’ll be firing this gun often, too.  The speed of this projectile really defines the feel of combat across the entire Halo series.

Fun actions have three things in common: they’re reactive (the player starts them), they’re repeatable (they’re not one-shot events or complicated to pull off), and they’re reliable (you get a nice impact and a cool result from this action every time).

To start, guess at what the extremes might be, then start narrowing in on the right value. They started with muzzle velocities from 1 to 20 unit/sec, and then tested and repeated until it felt right.

Jaime said that making the game harder just by turning up damage/turning down health is a mistake. Increased damage doesn’t make the game harder, it just punishes failure more. The shots are coming in at the same speed, it’s just that a mistake is lethal instead of just inconvenient. Making a game actually harder involves increasing the speed of the action, increasing enemies, increasing AI, and requiring better skills.

When tuning, avoid habituation – it’s easy to get on the wrong track, and start micro-tuning something that was the wrong idea to begin with. Take breaks from a project, then come back and see if the idea still feels fun. Try intentionally breaking things – set the values to a number that you know is completely wrong, then see how it behaves. Maybe you’ll realize that there’s another approach you should be taking.

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  1. Joy
    March 9, 2011 at 9:18 am

    On the topic of the eye-movement controlled shooters: Even though it takes time to raise, target, and fire a gun, it doesn’t take nearly as much time as targeting with a joy-stick and (for me anyway) is not nearly as difficult. Even if the targeting wasn’t wholly done through eye-tracking, I feel that a game could integrate the data of where you were looking to help steady your targeting (eliminating the “Oh crap the cursor just jumped over the target” phenomenon I ran into in the Fable shooting mini-games, and the first HALO, and really anything where I’ve had to shoot a gun using a standard controller). This would allow for easier and more realistic targeting, which in turn increases the playability and allows for neat new areas of exploration (specifically, I feel like distractions in combat become more meaningful as where you are looking/what you are focusing on in the game now more directly affects your shooting ability).

    • March 9, 2011 at 9:57 am

      I agree, that would be interesting, to have mechanics where you don’t just need to execute the controls properly, you also need to be paying attention and focused on what you’re doing to make it work. It would certainly make target selection easier if the game could know that you’re staring at a particular target.
      The question may be, what assumptions are we making about the player’s character? In a military shooter like Modern Warfare, the classic FPS style of having your gun rock-steady and your crosshair directly in the middle of the screen is actually the most realistic. Good tactical operation means that where your eyes go, your gun goes. A shooter featuring civilians, such as Left 4 Dead, would be more appropriate to a system that lets you swing your gun and your attention around wildly, and get bonuses when you focus.
      As a compromise, I’ve heard good things about using the Move with Killzone 3. I had a pretty mediocre experience when I tried the demo, but it wasn’t too far off from my usual console FPS experience, actually – wildly swinging left and right, and overshooting the target. I should give it another try and tweak the settings, because I’ve heard reports that it really works well.

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