I’m playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution right now, and enjoying it quite a bit. There is one thing annoying me, though.
Deus Ex has a wide mix of gameplay modes, including casual conversation, stealth, and all-out gun battles. The controls are the same for every mode, which is good. Unfortunately, this creates a situation where half the buttons on the controller are ‘instant fail’ buttons. Whether it’s accidentally tossing a grenade, pulling out my gun and firing, or knocking out a civilian, a single errant button press can mean a ride on the fast train back to my last auto-save.
This ties into another pet peeve of mine – that we haven’t quite got a standardized control scheme for a lot of gaming genres. Sometimes L1 is aim, sometimes it’s L2. For Deus Ex, cover is L1 and aim is R3. Crouch? Circle in Borderlands, L3 in Deus Ex. Both control schemes are well-suited for their respective games, but when I go back and forth between them, I end up doing things like throwing a land mine at the feet of the cop I wanted to talk to. And that’s never a good way to make friends.
An article in Kill Screen made an interesting statement – that if you looked at the first 100 games on the Atari 2600, and the first 100 games on the Xbox 360, the Atari features dramatically more variety of gameplay. Figured I’d take a look at some of the early games of each.
Atari’s 1977-78 titles (my best guess of genre for each):
Card Games x3
That’s 23 titles. So, the first 23 games on Xbox 360:
Action Sports x2
First Person Shooter x4
The lists are about the same length. We’ve certainly seen the clustering change, but the variety is about the same. (It would look even better, too, if we excluded all the yearly updates of sports titles. They’re not really indicative of changing trends, since they’re updated every year like clockwork.)
I see comments like this occasionally, boiling down to “I miss the good ol’ days.” It’s all nostalgia, and it makes me sad for these gamers, because their nostalgia is blinding them to how good they have it now. These are the good ol’ days. Games like Mass Effect and Red Dead Redemption are amazing achievements, and I’m glad I live in an age where they can exist. Some genres have seen an objective increase in quality, such as racing and sports; Pole Position has its charms, but Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit controls better, looks better, plays better, rewards better, and progresses better. Because we’ve learned something from making video games for 30 years.
Totally worth reading about how to generate ideas, and turn those ideas into actual games. A lot of people think that game design is Mad Libs-style idea generation. “The game will be a cover-based shooter with a plucky, dwarf hero with microtransaction-based upgrades and cel-shaded graphics.”
The core of game design is more about killing ideas than creating them. The design space is full of possibilities, and you have to identify the possibilities with potential, and rapidly test them, improve them, and cut them away to arrive at only the ideas that will create a great game.
I had a chance to play a bunch of Nidhogg (Tournament Edition) this weekend. Thinking back on why the game is so compelling, I think it draws people in by being specific, yet vague, and allowing each person to fill in the blanks with their own imagination.
The name, for example. The game could have been called “Swordfight Tug of War,” but instead it gets the enigmatic name “Nidhogg.” What is Nidhogg? Is it the dragon seen during the intro?
Likewise, the animations show a dichotomy in the player characters – they fight with an elegant, one-handed fencing posture, but when the chance arises they abandon all poise and run full-tilt. Who are these people, obviously trained in a formalized style of fighting, yet desperate to reach their goal?
And that goal – running past a crowd of cheering spectators, only to be devoured by the Nidhogg. Why fight so hard only to sacrifice yourself? Why is this death permanent, but the many deaths incurred during gameplay don’t count?
Even the third room on each side was interesting – a giant fan, blowing clouds into the air. What purpose does this area serve?
By enticing your players to ask these sorts of world-defining questions, you create an environment as compelling as their imagination. One of the talks I went to at GDC on Game Writing emphasized that you should cut down your exposition as much as possible – identify what the player needs to know to play the game, and give them that. So ask yourself – what does the player really need to know in order to play?
LittleBigPlanet 2 has been a pretty amazing experience. I’ve designed, built, and published three levels so far. Between them, they’ve collected maybe twenty plays. Still…that’s pretty awesome. My work has given a few random people a minute or two of entertainment.
The first level I made was for Valentine’s Day, called Valentine’s Day Skeet Shoot. You jump in a turret and shoot down pictures of myself and my wife – it’s all very lovely. I think this level is a great example of how it can sometimes take constraints and restrictions to get you to finally pull the trigger and do something good. I had a very strict time limit for this one: my wife was out of the house for about five hours, and I couldn’t put it off, because I wanted to get it done for Valentine’s Day. So with that deadline looming over me (and a friend’s help placing decorations) I figured out the logic, built the level, and published it.
It was a few moments later, when a pin popped up stating “5 plays!” That it really hit me – people were playing my level! And most of them were liking it!
A week or two later, I sat down and built Cat Tank versus Space Wolves. I just wanted to try out some stuff with LBP2, but I approached it with a very different philosophy than usual. Instead of saying “I’m going to mess around with some stuff, then delete it all and forget about it,” I decided “I’m going to mess around with some stuff, then work out the bugs, make it a playable level, and publish it.”
It’s not a good level by any sense of the word, but it’s playable, and it’s out there in the wild now!
The last level I made is the one that I’m proudest of: The Monty Hall Problem. It’s a full implementation of the classic Monty Hall probability puzzle in LittleBigPlanet 2, with an explanation of the problem, buttons that allow the player to move through the game one step at a time, and counters to keep track of the player’s wins and losses based on their strategy. It’s complete, (hopefully) bug-free, and hopefully it’ll teach someone on the internet a little bit about probability. I wish there were a better way to type out a lot of information in LBP2. You can do a few sentences at a time, but not enough to fully explain a complicated logic problem. Maybe someone will make a comment on the level, telling me that I’m crazy and the probability is 1/2 – that’s always a great conversation-starter.
So now I’m looking around to see what I want to do next. Conway’s Game of Life? (Been done, but maybe I can do it better.) Or some other probability puzzle? One way or another, it’s pretty exciting to be playing, creating, and sharing, even if it is limited to one game on the PS3.
Recently, I’ve been working on getting all the unlockable items from LittleBigPlanet 1 & 2 for Create mode, so I’ve had a good chance to compare the two games. Perhaps the most striking difference is an overall shift in metaphor.
LittleBigPlanet is all about the idea that the world is handmade. Objects are very big, thick, and blocky. NPCs are obviously made of bolted-together objects, with their interactive parts pasted on. When LBP came out, there was no option to change the visibility of your connectors, so everything is exposed in story mode. If an object wobbles, you can see the wobble bolt. If something reacts to you, you can see the proximity microchip light up. There’s a heavy emphasis on presenting the idea that you could make this yourself.
LittleBigPlanet 2 is more about presenting a finished world. The seams are hidden more. NPCs act like characters, following you around, and reacting (in a limited fashion) to your actions. There’s still a blocky, handmade look, but the connections and game logic are hidden. It’s more of a traditional game story: rather than being a puppet moving through a diorama, you’re a character in a world.
Other than that, they just did an impressive number of tweaks without changing the underlying game mechanics. Characters seem to move better, objects look better, and fire looks like fire instead of a wispy sheet of flames. It must have been an interesting development experience – needing to tighten the gameplay and improve the graphics without invalidating any levels created in LittleBigPlanet 1.
It’s the classic question of a sequel: how much can you change without fundamentally changing anything at all? In LBP’s case, the answer is “quite a bit!”
There have been a lot of really interesting platformers lately, both indie and non…but a lot of them have left me cold. Even stuff like Braid and Limbo.
I’ve found that I dislike games where there’s only one solution to the level. I’m calling these Puzzle Action Games. You have a lot of freedom of movement, and usually some special powers, but there’s only one way to accomplish the level. The classic example is the Zelda games – when you find the awesome new item, like the Hookshot, you can be sure that you’re about to face a bunch of puzzles that can only be solved with the Hookshot.
Another example is a Playstation Move demo I tried, Funky Lab Rat. Your rat has the power to dispel clouds of darkness, to freeze time and manipulate the level, and to rewind time. And you can be sure that every level requires freezing, manipulating, dispelling, and rewinding. If the game gives you five uses of the Freeze power, it’s a safe bet that the level will require you to freeze it 3-4 times to win.
Here’s the thing. Let’s take two characters.
One can jump five feet. In this level, there’s a five foot pit. He jumps it.
One can jump thirty feet, then fire up his booster jetpack to hover, then slam into the ground four hundred feet away with a thunderous roar. In this level, there’s a four hundred foot pit. He jumps it.
Which character is more powerful? Neither – their core game mechanic is the same. Jump a pit. One is just gussied up and made really impressive.
If you give me a special power that breaks the rules, then let me break the rules a bit. Give me a pit that can be jumped normally, or can be made much easier with careful use of my special powers. If I can phase through walls, give me a few optional walls to phase through to take a shortcut to the exit. These things let me feel powerful, and let me feel like I can subvert the level designer’s rules instead of being dominated by them.
I feel like Portal did this well, even though it falls into that ‘only one solution’ framework. For the first half of the game, the player is trapped in a test facility, and is explicitly being taught how to play. It makes sense that there’s only one solution to the level, because when we start the level, we’re told “this is the level where you will learn about momentum.”
Halfway through the game, we break out of those test chambers, into dirty back rooms. Here, we are presented with obstacles that resonate with us as human beings: a locked door, a missing walkway, a broken ladder. We’re welcome to try to open the door, or try to jump across the walkway. We’re never forced to use our portal gun – rather, we’re given the opportunity to use what we’ve learned and subvert the level design, turning obstacles into opportunities, climbing in forbidden areas, and, in general, feeling like our portal gun is empowering us to break the level, rather than feeling like the level is designed around restricting us.
In video games, power is always an illusion. But that illusion of power can be the difference between an exhilarating experience and a mind-numbing slog.