Oct

14

Zerg Rushing Bobby Flay

Clint Hocking recently wrote a piece for Edge, republished on his website, in which he called out fashion design games for not living up to their potential. These games don’t get at the true essence of fashion design, but instead act as an easy sell to pre-teen girls who need a game to play on the DS while their brothers are hogging the TV playing Call of Duty.

I’m not a fashion designer (my wife would append “by any stretch of the imagination” to that), but I have been known to cook on occasion. I love to experiment with new ingredients and dishes beyond that of the classic Midwest casserole. When I’m eating that amazing Creole scallop soup at the fancy restaurant downtown, I’m already thinking to myself how I could recreate it at home. Cooking provides me with a playground to experiment and challenge myself.

So any cooking game worth its salt should be able to capture these elements of experimentation and challenge, right? My first foray into the world of cooking games was at a friend’s house playing Cooking Mama on the Wii not too long ago. For those of you not in the know, Cooking Mama’s gameplay consists of a series of WarioWare style micro-games that attempt to simulate the motions you’d go through in preparing a given dish.

And going through the motions is exactly what you do. Need to chop some carrots? Waggle up and down! Need to stir the pot? Waggle in a circular motion! The game scores you based on how proficiently you waggled and decides whether the particular dish you were making is a success or failure depending on this score. I swear, skillet frying more than two ingredients without burning anything is nigh impossible. As a party game, Cooking Mama is actually quite a bit of silly fun for a little while as people race to see who can dice veggies fastest and, in the process, throw out their arm. Plus it’s got a cute aesthetic, complete with “Mama” handing out Janglish encouragements such as “Geddeeen betttttahhh!”

But it’s not a game that is about cooking.

So what’s the essence of cooking–of being a gourmet chef? I’m a game designer, so I can’t claim to know all it takes to be a chef, but from my own adventures–not to mention my religious watching of the Food Network–I can make an educated guess at some of the key elements. The first things that come to mind are knowing how to work with individual ingredients, knowing which ingredients compliment each other well, and knowing the audience that you’re cooking for. There’s also technique in preparing the food, timing everything correctly, and the ability to multitask. Not to mention the more creative side such as plating aesthetics, creating a a cohesive “story” for your meal (beginning, middle, end), invention of new dishes, and reinterpretation of classic dishes.

Cooking Mama touches on maybe 2 of those elements (technique and timing), but you may just as well be chopping up and combining twigs and glue.

But there is a game that I’m playing at the moment that happens to share a lot of the same ingredients as the above list. Can you guess what that game might be? That’s right, Starcraft 2! If you’ve ever watched any of Day9′s Starcraft 2 analysis, you’ll quickly hear many of these terms mentioned as keys to success in Starcraft. Instead of working with ingredients, you’re working with in-game units. It’s important to know the strengths and weaknesses of each of your units. Unit compositions, like flavor combinations, are another important factor. If your opponent is going mass marine, opting for infestor/baneling to stun them and then blow them into juicy delicate bits is good to know–just like knowing a little heat such as cayenne pepper can kick those dark chocolate truffles up a notch.

The parallels go on from there. Mechanics are a huge part of Starcraft–cleanly executing your build orders, ‘macro’-ing well, ‘micro’-ing well, etc.–just as technique is foundational to cooking. Actions Per Minute (APM) is how Starcraft players measure their ability to multitask and it’s easy to see how that term could be applied to cooking a three course meal. Timing pushes in Starcraft refer to key windows of time when it’s advantageous for you to march your forces out to battle (such as when an upgrade finishes). Timing “pushes” in cooking happen when you need a particular ingredient to be ready at a precise time in order to be properly combined into the larger dish.

I’ll leave drawing the rest of the comparisons between Starcraft and cooking as an exercise for the reader, but hopefully you get the picture.

So why aren’t cooking games more like Starcraft? The obvious answer is that party games are pretty easy to make, reasonably fun to play with friends, and sell pretty well. But Cooking Mama doesn’t teach us anything about cooking, does it? Cooking, like Starcraft, is deep and interesting because, if you keep at it, you’ll be acquiring new techniques and new mastery your entire life. And the great thing about video games is they provide a sandbox for experimentation and learning. You don’t have to worry about going broke to buy white truffles for that new dish you wanted to try or starting the kitchen on fire!

Now I’m not saying that you should go and create a total conversion of Starcraft 2, replacing the units with fruits and vegetables. My challenge to any budding game designers reading this would be: if you’re making a casual game about a topic such as cooking, first, make sure the game is actually about that topic, and second, don’t be afraid to be inspired by some of the tried and true ludic elements from existing genres such as the real time strategy game.

So with this in mind, I can’t wait for the first cooking game that gets it right. Oh, and you get extra credit if you add multiplayer to your cooking game so I can Iron Chef it out with my friends.

Nov

16

You’ve Got Options

So I’m 1 of 4.7 million to be playing Modern Warfare 2 right now. (As a side note, does anybody else find themselves constantly typing it as ‘Modern Warefare’? I imagine this as some sort of Tupperware party simulator. I digress.) Like many others, I’ve been anxiously awaiting the reviews to trickle in, you know, to see how it compares to the original Modern Warfare, one of the best FPS games of all time (according to reviewers at least). GameRankings tells me that it has a 94.46% (roughly), which just barely edges out MW1′s rating of 94.17%, which is interesting, considering how relatively revolutionary MW1 was compared to MW2. But that’s another post.

What caught my attention was Simon Parkin’s comments on the game’s multiplayer perks in his Eurogamer review:

“Each perk has been carefully balanced to provide options rather than, necessarily, an advantage.”

Which reminded me that this is something that’s been bothering me ever since the first Modern Warfare was released. The claim is that these unlockable perks and weapon upgrades don’t provide an explicit advantage to players, but just provide more options. Perhaps I’m just nitpicking here, but I think it’s essential to point out that options beget advantages.

What exactly does, having the ‘advantage’ in a game mean, anyway? I’d contend that there are two major forms of advantage in games. The first form of advantage is generally associated with player skill and is generally well revered. The most obvious advantage here is inherent ability. Some players are just better than others. Game knowledge is another advantage the player is responsible for. This includes knowing openings in chess or knowing map layouts in a shooter. A third, and often overlooked, form of advantage arises from providing yourself with options.

To clearly demonstrate advantage arising from options, I present you with Chess and Quake.

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In chess, one of the first things you learn is that the center 4 squares are very powerful–controlling those squares inherently grants you more options and thus an advantage. Your knight can attack 8 squares rather than just the 1 or 2 in its initial position. In Quake, especially in duel matches, positioning is everything. The top of the jump pad in Q3DM6 is an example of providing yourself with options–do you stay and wait for the megahealth to spawn in at the bottom, go left and grab the yellow armor, or go right and challenge the red armor?

The other major form of advantage in games is not directly tied to player skill but arises from the game design. These are the types of advantages that get called out for being “unfair” at times. There’s the advantage of going first in Chess. This isn’t really something the player has earned–it is essentially randomly given to him or her. There’s the BFG in Quake–a game imbalancing weapon that grants the player who wields it a great advantage.  Game designers have to be very cautious when including these types of potential advantages in games. It’s not that they are inherently evil or anything–in fact, these types of advantages can often spice up an otherwise monotonous game experience. But still, designers need to be careful when including these so as not to upset the game balance too much.

Where does this leave Call of Duty’s perk system then? On the one hand, it feels like it falls in the latter category of game advantages–to some players it feels “unfair.” Why does that level 55 guy get the Uber-Scoped-Laser-Sighted-Fully-Automatic-Sniper-Rifle and all I get is this measly AK47? On the other hand, it is providing another axis of skill for players to steadily improve upon–how best to equip yourself for the given situation.  Between two level 55 players of equal ability on the battlefield, the one who has more skill in selecting his loadout should generally win out.

So providing more options to players who play longer (and thus rank up in levels) confers an advantage. But is this a problem? Not as long as we’re honest and admit that there is, in fact, an advantage. We gain a dimension of skill at the cost of it feeling “unfair” to some players. And by admitting the advantage, we as designers can do things to address it. Luckily, Infinity Ward has, in fact, done things to mitigate the potential imbalance, such as level-based matchmaking and the ability to copy/steal perks or pickup dropped fancy weapons.

One other benefit the perks system has–as players, we have a pretty good excuse as to why we lost. And we can never have enough excuses. :)

Sep

28

Feast Your Eyes On This

hospital0000

Korsakovia is a game about eating your eyeballs out.

It’s a game about stretching the player to his limits. It’s a game where, near the end of it when my keyboard periodically failed to respond to my input for brief, random durations, I assumed it was just the game trying to mess with my head. I couldn’t tell which it was–keyboard malfunction or a brilliantly frustrating game mechanic. It turns out the keyboard was malfunctioning, and still is. Apologies if any letters are missig.

Perhaps I should back up a bit. thechineseroom is a research group at Portsmouth University whose focus is to experiment within the first person gaming realm. Their last project, Dear Esther, received some well-deserved attention for its unique approach to storytelling and its minimal interactivity. This time around, their goal is to see what happens when certain key information is removed from the player, putting the player in the dark both literally and figuratively. I should note that Korsakovia is a mod, which means it requires Half-Life 2: Episode 2 to play it.

You play as Christopher, one of the rare unlucky souls to have to endure Korsakoff’s Syndrome. Not only can he not remember his past, he can’t create new memories either. Sprinkle in a dose of confabulation (invented memories) and you get one mixed up fellow. You also get a great premise for a game. The actual gameplay consists of navigating through various distortions of a psychiatric hospital, frantically running away from little black balls of smoke known as the Collectors. The Collectors represent thechineseroom’s attempt at removing all traces of meaning and motive from outside agents. Meaning and motive both implicitly assume a continuity of events–e.g. – first you form your motive, say, to eat a cheeseburger, and then you proceed to act upon that motive, by going to McDonald’s and chowing down on said cheeseburger. However, without the ability to create memories, continuity flies out the window, along with meaning and motive.

And that’s what makes the Collectors so unnerving. They lack motive–they simply exist. Most enemies in games can be rationalized away. Take the Locust grunts in Gears of War as an example. Their motive is clearly to eliminate the human race because they believe the Locusts to be superior in some sort of fashion. One could imagine them having little Locust babies back home they’re fighting for. But the Collectors cannot really be explained. Combine this with the fact that the player never has a weapon to defend himself, and the audiovisual feedback such as the high pitched screams and screen flashes it makes for an overall feeling of PANIC.

Panic is a player experience that the game excels at. As a player, this is something I’m readily willing to accept. After all, there’s an entire genre built around fear and panic–survival horror. I’ve experienced games like Resident Evil 4, F.E.A.R., and Penumbra that all, at certain points, create a sense of panic in me. I can accept this because it is clear that this experience was the game designers’ intent, just as death-defying thrills are the intent of a roller coaster designer.

But what happens when the designers wish to communicate another experience–frustration? Frustration is markedly different from panic in that it flies in the face of what is generally considered to be good game design. The problem with frustration as an intended game experience is that players have no idea the difference between intended frustration and frustration as a result of poor game design.

Korsakovia finds itself in exactly this predicament. As Christopher, it must be unimaginably frustrating to not only be unable to create or retain memories, but to also have an entire reality to oneself that nobody else will believe. The game demonstrates this in several ways. The player is all alone in the hospital. He’s left to question which reality he is in–real, imagined, or a hybrid. Voices come into Christopher’s head, but often times they are rendered largely unintelligible due to static and white noise. thechineseroom did not include subtitles for Korsakovia–this may be a technical limitation or, more likely, is a conscious decision on their part. While the Collectors are initially and overall panic-inducing, they are frequent enough, their screams loud enough, to also become frustrating–especially when trying to delicately crate-stack.

Which brings us to the number one frustration tool in Korsakovia’s handbag of pain–level design. Oh, the level design. The level design was responsible for making me (temporarily) quit playing Korsakovia on at least two occasions. It’s as if somebody wrote up a big list of THOU SHALT NOTs and then promptly turned that into their design doc. Ridiculously long, snaking dead-ends are the norm. Doors are everywhere, but are not marked as being locked or unlocked so you have to try every one. Inconsistencies abound in interactive objects. Signposting is particularly poor in places, with a couple spots leading me to quit the game to try and find tips for progression on the internet. Not to mention everybody’s favorite: first-person platforming in the form of crate stacking and floating platform jumping. Oh, and did I mention that you get to experience all of this fine craftsmanship while under attack from the Collectors. Had it not been for the wonders of quick save and making light use of god mode (okay, a lot), I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have made it through.

So where does that leave us? Overall, I feel like the creators of Korsakovia, to some extent, succeeded in communicating the frustrations of having Korsakoff’s syndrome, whether that was their intention or not. But it was at the cost of me forcing myself to trudge through a largely painful experience. Perusing through a few forums, it sounds like the majority of players have not been quite so forgiving as I have been. I have to wonder if it is because it feels like Korsakovia has both kinds of frustration–intentional and unintentional–that is what muddies the waters. But, then again, who am I to determine whether something is intentional or not in a game like Korsakovia where the lines are so blurred? Perhaps if the creators would come out and say “these frustrations over here–they’re intentional; those other ones are mistakes that we will fix” then it would clear everything up and make for a more enjoyable experience? Or, perhaps, having both actually leads to a more effective message in that there is sort of a meta-level of frustration because, as a player, you can’t effectively discern between manufactured and accidental frustrations?

This all leads to a larger question–are certain experiences essentially not conducive to being communicated in games. Does the shape and form of the medium limit designers to only representing a subset of all experiences? I’d like to think not, and that, instead, somewhere some designer is going to nail “frustration.” On the other hand, if there are, in fact, “hard” limits, we should be doing everything in our power to trace out the contours of the medium so that we know just how high we can go.

Like it or not, Korsakovia is a game that forces us to feast on our eyes in order to catch a brief glimpse of something greater.

Sep

7

The “Fear” Factor

FarCry2

In a recent Gamasutra article, my colleague, Manveer Heir, argued that Naughty Dog,  when creating Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, shouldn’t have introduced monster rushers into the latter half of the game because all the player’s training up to that point had to do with patient, cover-based tactical combat. It’s akin to your high school history professor lecturing about 20th century US politics all semester long and then throwing a pop quiz on pre-WWII economic conditions in Germany.

The interesting part was the response to the article. Many commenters were completely fine with Naughty Dog’s inclusion of monsters. They liked the change of pace that it brought and even enjoyed the experience of unpreparedness, of fear. This got me thinking about a seemingly inherent conflict that game designers face. On the one hand, we’re in the business of creating player experiences, whether that be ‘fun’ and ‘engagement’ or ‘fear’ and ‘loathing.’ All human experiences are fair game for attempting to recreate in video games. On the other hand, as Raph Koster argues for in Theory of Fun, the medium of video games lends itself to a student/teacher paradigm. In this view, games are only good as long as the player is still learning. But what happens when the desire for a certain player experience, like fear, collides with everything the player has learned up to this point?

Does this mean we have to throw legitimate experiences like “fear” or “frustration” out of the equation because they don’t necessarily fit neatly into the games-as-learning paradigm?

One could argue that Uncharted is still, in fact, teaching, by throwing the player the ‘monster’ curve ball–in this case, it’s teaching how to handle unexpected situations that arise. Unfortunately, it’s not a full semester course, it’s a single isolated lesson in handling unexpected situations.  Far Cry 2 is a game that gives the full semester course. In addition to teaching the obvious things like taking cover in a firefight or picking off targets at range, it also teaches, on a higher level, about how to deal with unexpected situations through improvisation.  By building in mechanics such as spreading wildfire and guns jamming, the designers allow the player to inevitably experience moments of uncertainty and even dread throughout the game. Everything might be going well until the wind changes directions and the one-time small campfire becomes a raging inferno when it hits the local ammo cache. By dealing with these moments again and again, players begin to not only identify with what their avatar is experiencing, but also learn ways to cope with these experiences.

Traditionally, games have utilized a linear model similar to that of books or movies when trying to convey certain deep experiences such as fear or sadness. That is, an event such as a loved one dying occurs once in the game before moving on to other things. What if more games subscribed to the procedural model of relaying experiences to players,  where systems are designed to produce the conditions necessary for a certain experience a la Far Cry 2? I’m not saying all games need to adhere to this model and stay away from one-off experiences, however, it does seem like a good direction to explore given the medium’s strengths. Perhaps we’ll quickly realize that a systematic approach can’t create the same deep experiences that a traditional author-centric approach could, but we won’t know if we don’t try.

Aug

27

It’s Good Stuff, Maynard! …DOT COM

I suppose it is only fitting that now, in the era of Twitter, Twatter, Facebook and all that is Web 2.0 (or are we up to 2.5 by now?), I start off with a Youtube video. After all, how will I ever hold my tween girl target demographic’s attention without some sort of a moving picture reference to an obscure 1980s television commercial? Amiright? It’s funny–up until a few weeks ago when I decided to Google it, I never actually knew the origin of the phrase “Good stuff, maynard!”

And yet, here I am, posting on goodstuffmaynard.com.

So why “Good Stuff Maynard?” No, it’s not because I’m so obsessed with Malt-O-Meal that I want to take a bath in it (although if the Malt-O-Meal company sent me enough free samples as a result of this website, I might). It’s much less glamorous than that–it’s actually a phrase that my Grandpa used occasionally that I picked up on. I take it to mean something that is both good and good for you.

Like video games.

Of course, not all video games are both good and good for you; in fact, many are neither. I’m particularly interested in the ones that can be both. I, along with a growing number of game designers and enthusiasts, believe that video games, in all their manifestations, have the potential to not just entertain or even educate, but to also inform, persuade, evoke emotion, enlighten. That’s not to say I’m not interested in games that are simply good–I’ll most likely cover those as well.

This website will serve as a venue for expressing my thoughts on video games and game design, partially for my own purposes since writing thoughts down forces your to flesh them out, and partially for the purpose of taking part in and contributing to the larger discussion on where video games are headed.