Monday, November 26, 2007

Game Difficulty: Front loading the pain

In recent months, my work focus has been tuning player weapons and abilities, enemy AI, and game systems. I spend a lot of my time thinking about the "feel" of how each of these systems interact and how they affect the play experience. As a developer, systems are tough to balance because everyone has a different play style and preferences. After a fair amount of internal and external playtesting, two conflicting opinions come up regularly - some want more challenge while others feel like they aren't powerful enough. While these two opinions seem at odds with each other, they reference different areas to improve. I address the first issue by crunching numbers on permutations of different combat outcomes and poking around for where the numbers break down. To address the second, I look for ways to improve presentation, because the perception of power is equally important to balance when crafting player weapons and abilities. Because it relates to my current work, I feel extra sensitive to difficulty curves in games I play these days. Three memorable examples come to mind.

First off is Blue Dragon, the RPG brainchild of former Final Fantasy series director Hironobu Sakaguchi and developer Artoon. RPGs are an interesting difficulty case study because by and large, they give players the ability to determine their personal difficulty curve. Your characters become stronger gradually via combat and equipment upgrades, and you can tweak the difficulty down by spending more time fighting enemies to collect experience and money. Blue Dragon presented an interesting conundrum because I found myself dying a total of 5 times in the first 2 hours of the game. The first time this happened was when I stumbled upon the first boss of the game. While I should have been wary once I had received a 'checkpoint' notification, I had gotten lost when wandering around the map. A short cutscene ensued and I found myself in the midst of combat. The first boss requires a relatively simple but specific strategy to defeat. Unfortunately, that strategy rendered one of my three characters almost totally useless and forced another one to heal every turn. If the character that could effectively damage to the enemy was knocked out, I fell into a vicious cycle of reviving that character, then healing them, only to have a different character die. After about 3 tries I had the strategy down and won the fight.

Shortly after this encounter, I walked into the nearby wilderness. Having just defeated a powerful enemy, I felt confident in my abilities. Unfortunately for me, this victory was a ruse to boost my ego. In a battle with one of the 'normal' enemies, I was on the receiving end of a spell that did enough damage to kill my entire party in one round even though they were all nearly at full health. Lesson learned - don't mess with that monster. Then I found a path that looked like it might be the next area I should explore. That path was blocked by a sleeping bear. Once again I decided to tempt fate and bypass this bear. He proceeded to annihilate my party with only a few swings.

After this death, I became a bit dismayed. I didn't know where to go and it seemed like every time I tried exploring somewhere new, death was the only one there to greet me. The solution seemed simple - kill lots of easy, well understood enemies, right? As a general rule, I tend to over train my characters when playing RPGs anyway. The problem lies in the fact that the location of these enemies relative to early parts of the game clearly didn't indicate to me what was dangerous and how strong I needed to be. In addition, the game punished me for one of my favorite aspects of playing RPGs - exploring the world. Also, the game hasn't taught me much about how I can fare better in those unexpected circumstances, other than grinding enemies over and over. All of this added up to a poor early impression. I was also left to wonder if the developers spent much time observing people play through the early game or thought about how powerful a player could be at the time they encountered these early enemies.

The second example I'd like to call out is Stuntman:Ignition for the Xbox 360. As a caveat, I must admit that I have never played Stuntman games before so I had no idea what to expect. The result was ultimately an exercise in frustration. I failed the first level within 30 seconds of playing the game. I proceeded to fall in holes, instant death lava, and missed the timing on scripted sequences about 10-15 times before I completed that first level. One failure lead to another. In addition, there was a timer which served as another failure mechanism. This creates an additional pressure that pushes you forward while you attempt to avoid the numerous hazards. Each of the hazards can instantly set you back to the start of the level. In addition, the stunt sequences are fixed, but you encounter several in rapid succession, and you have to be familiar with the geography of the level and timing of the events to complete them. You also have to get within close range of each objective to complete it, with very little wiggle room and a ticking clock staring at you.

On average, this game probably reinforces failure more regularly than any recent game in memory. In addition, once you succeed, you rarely get a perfect score, and several of the achievements are tied to perfecting each level. After playing the game for a while longer, I made a couple of adjustments to my strategy, one of them being to set the difficulty to easy. This mode was still quite challenging and as a long time gamer, I feel aversion to feeling forced to play on a mode called "easy" to make progress. Gears of Wars' naming convention of 'Casual' difficulty has a much nicer ring to it, but I digress. While switching difficulty temporarily stopped the frustration, the challenge naturally ramps up over time and the levels become longer, and at one point a 'shelf moment' (not my term, but a good one for declaring when the game has an event that makes a player turn it off and leave it to sit on a shelf for the remainder of its life) was triggered. I stopped playing without any intention to return.

For my last example, I'd like to offer a counterpoint to these games. Guitar Hero 2 has one of the smoothest difficulty ramps I have experienced in any game. Easy mode felt like a difficulty that was fairly unchallenging for me until I shifted my focus to perfect each song before moving onto Normal. The tail end of easy mode flows nicely into the early parts of Normal. Attempting to perfect each song on Normal segues perfectly into Hard, and Hard difficulty introduces another chord which makes you feel like you need to expand your toolset even more. Finally, expert feels as it should, an exercise meant only for those that seriously practice the game in order to develop the muscle memory needed to reach the peak of their skills. Along the difficulty progression, Guitar Hero 2 made me feel as if I had genuinely improved my ability, and that I could consistently perform at that ability, even after putting the game away for some time.

My appreciation for Guitar Hero led me to the GDC talk Harmonix gave at GDC last year. It was enlightening to hear the evolution the company went through in making abstract games such as Amplitude as well as mass market titles such as Karaoke Revolution. To them, each game felt like a success in some ways and a failure in others, until they arrived at Guitar Hero. The lessons they shared about making games deep for core gamers and accessible to casual ones were well stated and resonated in my personal experience playing Guitar Hero. Harmonix managed to create a game that hooks you early, teases you with challenges that are ever so slightly out of your reach, and generously rewards you along the way with digital gifts such as new songs as well as an intangible sense of satisfaction from reaching the next plateau in your personal ability. They also created a game that truly follows the "simple to learn, difficult to master" mantra. It's refreshing to have games that balance their challenge so well when there are other well produced but poorly paced games that also cross my path. As I stare at the combat numbers and playtest results at work, I think of the Harmonix design principles and aim for the goal of achieving the finely tuned balance present in their latest creations.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The pain of the wait

My second Xbox 360 is on its way back after flashing the dreaded Red Ring. I felt like a baby ripped from the womb because it died on me during the launch weekend of Halo 3, when I planned on coordinating some serious co-op games with my friends. Having been through this before, I knew the process and wasn't excited about the prospect of starting it again. I called into the repair center the following day. I was pleased to speak with a helpful service representative who processed my repair after lecturing me about using a surge protector with the system. Apparently for both the Xbox 360 and PS3 you are supposed to plug the console directly into the wall outlet or you risk burning out the system faster and voiding your warranty. This came as a rather large surprise to me since there is a substantial market for high end power protection solutions for home theaters.

All of that aside, what I found fascinating is how my gaming habits changed to accommodate the loss of my primary game system. Unrelated to this incident, I recently put together a new PC to replace the one that died on me. I spent a fair bit of time playing The Orange Box with the traditional mouse and keyboard set up. I always intended to do this because the PC is the platform Half-Life 2 was originally developed for. I generally prefer to experience games in the way that is closest to the original vision, which is why I like playing old games on an actual NES rather than through the Virtual Console (although convenience and shelf space are slowly winning me over). In addition to being highly engaged by Portal and Half Life 2:Episode 2, the updated community features of Steam impressed me quite a bit. It's amazing to see this service turn into something truly robust and user friendly. In addition, I installed the free copy of Lost Planet that I received with my video card. It looks gorgeous on the PC and with my Xbox controller it played as well as I remember it, which is to say that I feel has a lot of untapped potential. I also started digging out PC games that couldn't be installed before for lack of hard drive space on my old computer. I managed to play a little bit of Titan Quest, which is by far the prettiest looking game that pushes a magical "I love Diablo" happy button in my brain.

On the console side of things, I went back to the tried and true Persona 3, one of the best RPGs I have played in ages and a severely under appreciated game. I also fired up the Playstation 3 for the first time since MotorStorm was released. After updating to the latest firmware, I decided to give the remote play feature a whirl. I love the concept behind it - this feature allows you to access much of the PS3 functionality remotely via your PSP. You can watch movies, listen to music, view photos, and even play a limited selection of games through the PSP. This hints at the the nirvana of gaming I hope to see in the form of a high quality console console gaming experience that you can take with you on a handheld that plays off the same data and save files. Unfortunately, with this technology there is a fair amount of lag for anything that needs to render images, but music seemed to play reasonably well. I sincerely hope this technology can be improved because I think it's a fantastic idea.

Once I had my fill of remote play, I decided that it was time to get my Playstation Network account properly set up. I was looking forward to checking out the PSN interface and downloading some of the original games including Calling All Cars, Flow, Super Stardust HD, and Everyday Shooter. I also pulled down several larger commercial demos including one for Ratchet and Clank Future. I wasn't sure what to expect having spent the bulk of my online gaming on Xbox Live. As it turns out, I rather enjoyed the interface. It mostly looks like a web site but it was clean and relatively easy to find what I wanted. There are some navigation issues when you want to go back and forth, but the overall time it takes to find an item is relatively speedy.

To round out my gaming, I picked up Castlevania: Dracula X Chronicles for the PSP. I was grinning from ear to ear playing it until I reached stage 4 where the game crushed my soul and reminded me of the good times of classic game difficulty ramps. I've since managed to get further along and have learned the game systems well enough to play better, but the difficulty spike felt like a punch to the gut.

Throughout my recent gaming journey I've missed being logged into Xbox Live and collecting achievements alongside my friends. During this waiting period, gaming felt a little lonely since many of my friends have since finished both Halo 3 and The Orange Box on the 360, and are now rocking out on Guitar Hero 3. I am still looking forward to finishing Halo 3 but I feel like someone who missed the train. It won't be new to my friends anymore and the experience of playing it co-op won't be that novel. My gamerscore has also remained stagnant and is no longer that high relative to my colleagues. All these feelings make me a stronger believer in the notion of a connected playing experience where gaming communities are perpetually online. The one caveat is that I wish there was something even larger than Xbox Live that tied all the services together so that I could be "gaming alone, together", no matter what platform I was on. The timing of the defect and subsequent repair is truly unfortunate because Super Mario Galaxy is guaranteed to turn me into a non-connected hermit for some time. Only after this hopefully joyous experience will I be able to reemerge from my cave and embrace the community I have become estranged to. I only hope that the little man living in my Xbox 360 doesn't decide to throw another temper tantrum after being ignored on his return. The recent journey has been fun, and I now understand the power of a platform to be compelling for more than just the games that play on it.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The cat's out...

Or rather, the cat has been out for a while - since E3 anyway. The game I have been working on has oficially been announced. Destroy All Humans!: Path of the Furon is a title that immediately excited me. You can find videos of the project at Gametrailers. Write ups and impressions are available at IGN, GameSpot, and 1Up.

There are many reasons why I find this franchise to be fun and compelling to work on. For one, humor is a large part of the game fiction. I've always felt that comedy is woefully underrepresented in games. I remember reading that the number one reason people go to see movies is to laugh. In games, the reasons people play them seem to be different and perhaps more diversified. There are inevitably exceptions. Playing board games or MMOs will generally lead to laughing more often than what you get in a typical single player adventure, but I chalk that up to the social nature of those genres. Through the entertaining exchanges between the main characters and the playful harpooning of pop culture throughout the ages in Destroy All Humans!, there are many moments that arouse a chuckle.

Another reason I was particularly drawn to this game is its stylish take on the open world genre. Grand Theft Auto opened many eyes about the wonderful possibility space games can achieve as a medium. Since then many titles have offered their own twist on the genre and, as is is to be expected, some have succeeded more than others. Destroy All Humans! is one of the franchises that I believe has staked a unique claim. While driving cars around town is fun, being able to control a UFO and run around the world with alien super powers is compelling for a lot of different reasons. There are many opportunities to harness the open ended nature of the game because of all the permutations of powers that are available to this franchise. Developing gameplay within this sandbox is a fulfilling journey as a developer.

Since I wasn't part of the team that originally birthed this series, I hope that our studio can exceed all expectations and that the hard work of crafting such a massive game pays off. We still have a ways to go, but in the meantime I will continue to pontificate on other areas of the game development world.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The joy of conferences

With Casuality, Austin Game Developer's Conference, and Gamefest looming on the horizon, I wanted to reflect on what excites me about conferences in general. I love to absorb information that can make me a better developer whether it be in the form of books, conversations, lectures, or podcasts. Conferences are great for the networking, reconnecting opportunities, inspiration, and challenging thoughts to ponder. For all of these reasons, I feel compelled to pack my schedule at each one. Thus far I haven't managed to construct a talk of my own, but that is certainly on my short list of upcoming career goals.

I've been attending GDC since 1999. Since then, I have missed 2 of the conferences on account of school or work taking precedence. I make it a priority to attend whenever possible, and I'm always empathetic when speakers mention team members that couldn't attend because they were crunching away on a game. I think this is one of the unfortunate side effects of short term management thinking in the games industry today. I firmly believe that developers need to constantly learn. Learning is important not only for their personal career growth, but also for bringing effective new processes to their studio. I can understand why managers don't perceive sufficient value in these conferences - they cost a lot, they disrupt teams while members are away, the sessions are of inconsistent quality, and it's often hard to improve work processes with the inertia inherent on most projects.

So why do I enjoy attending so much? The reasons are many. One of the great things about our industry is its relatively small size. This means we can still get a large amount of the best quality developers together in one place. These industry leaders offer deep insight into the voodoo of crafting the awe inspiring games we play each year. We also get to hear the success stories of indies who manage to bring their unique ideas to market in spite of the ever increasing barrier to entry. Hearing both ends of the spectrum talk is highly motivational and challenges me to work harder at mastering my trade. I come back to work far more excited about whatever it is I am doing. This excitement tapers off eventually, but my productivity is noticeably higher for a short time after a conference.

Another reason I love conferences is for all the meeting opportunities. More specifically, I frequently run into long lost colleagues and classmates. DigiPen has proven to be not only a solid educational foundation, but also a wellspring of contacts within companies all over the country. While attending college I had the good fortune of interacting with several different levels of the school while I tutored. Former schoolmates I run into at conferences surprise me because of the brief shared moments they remember. They also have plenty of interesting stories to share about their work experiences. In addition to the fascinating peers I reconnect with, I also manage to meet with several new friends during the sessions and parties. I value this human connection very much because it allows me to better appreciate life outside the company I'm working at. Perspective is a wonderful thing.

Finally, there is definite value in the sessions I have attended. I make it a habit to attend diverse talks across different sectors of the industry including academia, serious games, casual, mobile games, pay for play models, and each of the different disciplines within game development. Attending talks on different business models allows me to better understand market trends and shapes my thinking about the evolving needs of players. Talks from different disciplines increase my overall knowledge of the development process. Attending lectures on production, for example, helps me to be more effective at presenting information to producers who can then do a better job of scheduling the project. In a slightly different example, going to a lecture on sound challenges me to think more deeply about improving game design through dynamic effects and music.

For all of these reasons and more I continue to eagerly anticipate each upcoming event. I hope that others can also appreciate the value provided by these gatherings and are able to find the time to attend. I also hope that we can one day share our stories at a conference together in the near future.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Tale of Two Co-Op Games

Recently I had the pleasure of playing two excellent games that feature co-op gameplay. The games in question are Gears of War and Crackdown. While I thoroughly enjoyed both games, my opinion on the quality of the cooperative experience varies greatly for each game. To me it seems that Gears was created with co-op in mind early on. On the other hand, Crackdown's co-op strikes me as a feature tacked on late in the development cycle. In principle, sandbox games would seem like the perfect fit for a co-op experience, but Crackdown simply missed the mark for me.

Co-op feels like it was weaved into the design fabric of Gears of War. Even in single player, there is a strong teamwork component built in. I was a little disappointed that your AI stand-in couldn't revive you, but I felt a duty to back them up when they got into rough situations. The single player game also featured conversational interplay between members of the squad. While a lot of this dialogue wasn't exceptionally deep, it was amusing and fit with the character archetypes presented. Many of the game scenarios specifically split the squad up and provided "windows" into which you could provide cover for the other half. If one of the squads died during these segments, both had to restart from the previous checkpoint. This lead both sides to focus not only on what was ahead, but what was going on with the other squad.

The high quality of the co-op experience really hit home when playing online with a friend. While playing through the harder difficulty modes, it was essential to lay down a game plan for how we would navigate upcoming encounters. Feelings of guilt arose if a game over screen appeared when I had missed an opportunity to protect my friend. Fundamentally, Gears put me into a gaming mode that is usually limited to MMOs or team based multiplayer experiences. My fate in the co-op story mode was intricately linked to my ability to support my team mates, a rare thrill indeed.

Crackdown provided an entirely different experience. On the positive side, it featured a great multiplayer interface. I could immediately find and host co-op games or jump into someone else's world whenever I wanted. Crackdown was one of the first games where I used the Xbox Live friend invite functionality regularly. The trouble is, once in a game with my friend, there wasn't a compelling reason for us to stay together. Maybe I didn't get the co-op vibe they were going for. YouTube features several videos of emergent gameplay that is fostered by co-op multiplayer. I suspect the loosely structured single player experience was a major part of the problem. While there was a framework - namely, hunting down mob bosses, the fiction surrounding this hunt was stretched thin. I rarely felt that defeating these bosses made me feel like I was affecting the world until all of the bosses in a particular section were defeated. In addition, it was easy enough for one player to defeat the boss while another was returning to the scene. I also loathed the friendly fire that was constantly present. I spent most of my return trips grumbling about a stray rocket that was fired while we were engaged in a close quarters fight with our enemies. My friend would wait for my return to finish off the boss, but eventually I realized I wasn't missing much and he took them out while I headed off to the next mark.

The co-op experience improved substantially when we started doing the vehicle stunt achievements. Some of the car stunts were fairly hard to accomplish and we would take turns trying different approaches, including the infamous "toss a car occupied by your friend into the ring" trick (or cheat, depending on your point of view). Together we were able to cut down our completion time on these challenges. Even if we failed many times in a row, it was hilarious to watch spectacularly failed attempts. I think the main story mode could have benefited from requiring more teamwork in the way that we were able to assist each other for the stunt challenges. In the end, I was very satisfied with my overall Crackdown gameplay experience, but I'd love to see the co-op mode fleshed out in future versions, which I'm definitely looking forward to.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Long overdue update

My writing has been sparse for the last several months and it's time for me to explain. When I left Nintendo last year I spent my time enjoying the summer, catching up on games, doing interviews, and learning various technologies. I also begin filling this space with my thoughts. Towards the beginning of fall things started getting busier and my list of potential topics grew without a corresponding burst of inspiration. Then I began working again.

I'm now officially a designer at Cranky Pants Games/THQ where I am working on an incredibly fun, super-secret title. I was looking at different companies for a while and I'm glad I hooked up with the talented group over at CPG. I've been working full time since November and it's been a great experience so far. The game is looking great and I get to work with awesome people every day.

While my title has changed I'm leveraging my background as well. While working at Nintendo I did a lot of gameplay programming on Mario vs. Donkey Kong and Metroid Prime Hunters. I worked on areas such as player control, gameplay objects, enemy AI, and boss development. These days I'm not programming so much as prototyping and experimenting. In addition to writing design documentation and thoughtful discussions I look forward to being hands on with the game as much as possible. That's the approach that worked best for teams I've been on.

I'm happy to have firmly established myself in a design track. Engineering is an amazing discipline as well but ultimately I decided that I needed to love engineering for the sake of engineering to truly excel. I didn't get jazzed about new shaders,APIs, and algorithms in the same way as my colleagues. I was always much more interested in getting the controls of Mario down or making the enemies feel right. I also preferred to use tools that were more abstract than the programming languages I'd become accustomed to. I definitely enjoy design for the sake of design. In fact, when I go to GDC my tendency is to mostly attend design talks with a smattering of production and engineering lectures. I'm looking forward to bringing some great gameplay to our super-secret title. And to updating my blog..