Archive for the A Philosophy of Design Category

Difficulty you are a cruel mistress

Posted in A Philosophy of Design, Video Games on October 5, 2011 by halbard100

Have games these days made us a little to soft? Difficult curves are a corner stone to the game experience, especially when you look at it versus the consumer. These days, everyone wants to have a nice slopping difficulty curve, so the player won’t get discouraged. There’s a concept of Flow, this perfect state where an equally high difficulty of a game is meet with a equally high requirement of skill, the game is hard but requires you mastering the elements it presents you and ultimately over coming it. You reach this happy moment that in my mind goes a little something like “Fuck yeah! I am AWESOME.” You feel powerful from overcoming this grand obstacle. But, there’s a catch, that fight to succeed needs to feel equally rewarding even in failure. Note, its hard, you are going to fail, its just a fact of experimenting and learning. “Why do we fall Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves back up.” But each time, you are slowly mastering your environment, if not in actuality, in recognition. You see what you should be doing and how you are screwing up, but you still are learning and having that ‘Aha’ moment. One thing I hate in games, in a feeling of helplessness, not helplessness given by narrative, thematic, or to build tension for a climax, but feeling like you just have no control over what you are doing from a play perspective. Helplessness to eventually make the player feel powerful is one thing, helplessness of feeling like you have no control over actual play is another. The best example I can think of is fighting games. There is a concept called ‘zoning’ basically controlling space between you and your opponent with reach or projectiles. The problem is there is the possibility that you can do it so well, your opponent can’t doing anything about it. You’re stuck; helpless. I personally believe you can do the same with excessive aggression where you are stuck being attacked. Skill is taken out of the equation for you, and the burden of your victory falls to your opponent screwing up. Keep that in mind: burden of victory, skill, progression, and difficulty.

Now we come to the game that has spurred this: Dark Souls. I love epic dark fantasy and action rpgs, and hearing a game is hard feels more like a taunt than anything else. That and shinny free if pre-ordered collector’s edition art book and stuff. Anyway, there’s been a lot of talk about the difficulty in this game, which got me really excited it. I love that fighting through and the feeling of victory after overcoming the obstacle. But I was meet by something a little different with Dark Souls, it wasn’t so much as the game was difficult as it was difficult to play. I hesitate to use the word cheap but so far I’ve had this overwhelming feeling of just getting pushed around not because I was bad at the game but because I wasn’t allowed to be. With action oriented games, combat is a big deal. Tooling, tightening, and retesting that combat so it feels just right, gratifying and rewarding, often times becoming a puzzle or dance between you and your enemy; a deadly ballet if you will. But this is something that has hung me up with Dark Souls, it doesn’t feel very tight or tooled. There’s a lag to when I attack or try to dodge, there just isn’t a crispness that I feels needed in a game that’s so unrelenting. I miss an attack and the lag from recovery or even wind up gets me killed. Over and over and over again. Its not so much hard as I just can’t do shit. I’m shackled into getting railed, smashed, stabbed, burned, gang jumped and I just can’t react to the moment at hand. Remember that principle of learning from your failures and flow? Yeah, I’m not learning much besides ‘Don’t get hit.’ since if I screw up because I wouldn’t dodge as quick as I press or I get mashy with the button and an extra action pops out and causes me to get smacked and I just die. That’s it. Done. I’m not seeing where I went wrong, not realizing how to play the game and getting that happy moment. I’m getting frustrated, pissed off, and discouraged. There’s no recognition of where I went wrong, and I don’t feel like I died because of my lack of skill but because of the game forcing me to be open to attack. And then there’s just the ration of the damage I dish out and take versus what I’m up against. Even with the weak enemies, I have to work so hard to get a single attack in that deals maybe a fifth of their health, probably less, and yet, they get one hit on me, I’m left open by that initial attack and then the follow up and finally the death blow. Boom, you’re dead fool. And when that victory finally comes, it doesn’t feel gratifying because of pushing me to my limits and knowledge of the game, but instead I feel like I lucked out and just have a ‘Thank god I don’t have to deal with that again’ feeling.

However, conversely, there is something that Dark Souls is reminding me of that I’ve been sorely lacking in my playing and a lot of games these days: patience. Because of the lag in attacking, I have to wait and plan my attacks and pick and choose my moments. I can’t react on a split second. Its rough. Its really rough. And a little frustrating at the same time, because I want a more active role in my playing experience, not a passive on in waiting for an opening. But in a way, this is a throw back to old platforms, you had to keep reactively dodging and taking your time analyzing your environment or your enemies pattern. One aspect of Dark Souls is the parry and riposte system. You parry the opponent’s attack, then respond with what so far appears to be an instant kill against lower enemies. The only problem is that overwhelming onslaught of life ending attacks and I’m leaving myself open as I get ready to try and parry the enemy I’m focused on. Maybe its going to take more practice on my end. I really can’t figure out the timing for the thing to work most of the time. I am personally one who likes to be very forward, direct and active in my combat, usually using a number of whams to make my point, I like sweeping, damaging attacks with a lot of reach, but Dark Souls seems to be pushing me into a more defensive, predicting style of combat that’s not really my strong suit. But as a whole, Dark Souls is poking holes in a lot of the more modern styles of design. Unrelenting and unforgiving. No hand holding, you died, you fucked up, live with it or go home. Like I said earlier, its rough. I think of games from when I was little, the same thing happened, but I never really gave it a second thought. Sure I got frustrated but what choice did I have? Whine, or go back in. Like I said initially, I feel like Dark Souls is taunting me. Laughing at my futility and fueling a fiery rage to destroy it and stand up to proclaim my dominance of it. Perhaps my stubbornness has some how caused me to shift where I am in that concept of flow. Has it pushed me into flow because I want to succeed or has my lack of patience done the opposite and put me into the frustrated zone? Who knows but for some reason I keep going back for more. Okay Dark Souls, I’m ready for my daily ass kicking.

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Too quiet…

Posted in A Philosophy of Design, Video Games with tags , , on April 8, 2011 by halbard100

Well New Year’s resolution to put something up every week kind of fell through pretty hard. Working minimum wage nearly forty hours a week nights kills your drive somewhat. Besides youtube, I’ve kept to my respective cave on the net and haven’t even been using twitter until lately.

But anyway, in other news:

I’m working on a fighting game with a friend and honestly I’ve never been more excited about something in my life. Design is quite honestly the love of my life right now and actually seeing progress on ideas and working with someone else to the same goal is a really gratifying experience albeit a little slow. Also though, working on something has reinvigorated me. I had fallen into a bit of a pit of cynicism about game design (not as a whole, just for me personally) but being to actually see some fruits of labor has brightened my outlook. Go out there and create, to hell with expectations of others or self doubt, just go and make something. Program a small square being able to jump one day, then add a platform the next, and just keep plugging away. I think my biggest issue in the past has been too strong a desire to make exactly what I want in my head spill out into existence in a matter of hours and being held back by the rational that it just wouldn’t happen the way I wanted it. So, I’m taking strides to be a little better at one step at a time and just chip away at it. Its really not something I’m good at, I’m better at just throwing myself at work indiscriminately for MASS amounts of time without a care. Its a tough change of pace. A skype chat about character design here, a text message during work about mechanics there. And if my playing Minecraft (got I love that game waaay too much) has taught me much, I guess you’ve got to lay a foundation before building anything. Or something like that.

In other obscene perkiness, looks like my old class is getting some crazy activity. If you’re in the game industry in any respect check out the whole story here. That’s kinda AWESOME. I doubt its possible to get #ims211 trending, and honestly I think thats besides the point, but for a class that has only been going for a year, I can only imagine the world domination in five years. Guess it shows the power of the internet. (Though I’m kinda jealous the new kids get to have all the fun)

The future looks pretty damn good from this point and I’m looking forward, that or the alcohol has put me in a good mood. Either-or.

I shall now return to the darkness of my cave.

A Philosophy of Design — The Platform

Posted in A Philosophy of Design, Video Games with tags , , , , on January 10, 2011 by halbard100

I’m a gamer first and a programmer-designer second, as much as I like making something, playing it is really first and foremost in my mind. My drive is not so much in “hey I want to make this game”, its “why can’t I play this already!”. Its the total package though, the action of playing the game, what I get out of it, story, sound, the whole kit, but one of the biggest concerns for me is in using what a platform has to the advantage in the game. I’m a bit of a Sony fanboy, I’ll admit it, I went out and preordered the PSP and I still have that 1000 (loaded with BlazBlue and Monster Hunter Freedom 2 I might add) but for years, a consumer argument against the device that as lingered is the need for a second analog stick. To me, its not so much that the device needs it, but rather that the games designed for it need the second stick. Now this isn’t supposed to be what device is best, yadda yadda, I’m merely putting out an example, and Nintendo has done very well with the DS and having games designed around the strengths and functions of that system, which is one reason I’m not as frothing at the mouth about the 3DS as some of my friends are, simply because I want to see where the 3DS can come into play to make something that can only exist on the 3DS, not simply another whistle.

I bring this up because a friend and I were discussing designing games for the iPhone. His original idea was something like FPS, but it sounded like there would be a huge amount of buttons and UI controls for playing the game. For me, a truly successfully designed iPhone game is one that takes the limits and the perks of the system into consideration: the touch screen, the gyroscope, the one handed ease of use, the mobility, etc. I think “What can I do with one finger? One hand? One motion?” This isn’t meant to be limiting but rather to look to the strengths of a system. There’s a lot you can do with one finger; you’ve just got to figure out what they are.

Evolution? Standards v Principles

Posted in A Philosophy of Design, Video Games with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2010 by halbard100

So I made this wordpress a few months ago but never really thought of anywhere to go with it. Recently I’ve read a collection of blogs about MMOs and how they are or aren’t evolving and various related musings.

We Need a Mutant MMO
The Innovation Paradox
Thats a Terrible Idea: The Immitation Rut
We’re Working Backwards
WoW is the iPhone, not Walmart

For me the best and easiest place to start is WoW, everyone mention its and you have to — its gotten to be the standard that every other MMO is and will be judged for a while. But in terms of evolution, look at the environment and style of pre-WoW and post-WoW. Pre-WoW we had games like Ultima Online, Everquest, Star Wars Galaxies, and City of Heroes and one of the biggest things about these are that they are all different, sure there are a lot similarities but they all take that base knowledge and ran with it in different directions. There was nothing to say, “Okay, that is what we have to beat out right.” at least not in the same sense that there is today with WoW. But with anything starting development post-WoW, we see a lot of these elements that have become fairly standardized, from things as simple as using the A, D, W, and S keys for movement and User Interface, to elements as core as game play and interactivity.

When something becomes “standardized”, everyone pretty much expects it and generally, you don’t like it when something you expect isn’t there. Whether you realized it or not, we all tend to work like this, its where the idea of “People fear change” comes from. In many cases, standards are good, they lay a foundation that we can stick to and make sure that things never fall below a certain level of quality. The Con? These standards become closer to shackles. They can become so omnipresent that as soon as you reach them, your done; this continues, it becomes habitual. You spread this effect amongst large groups, and it spirals into the main stream. I remember something my English teacher mentioned in 8th or 9th grade about writing papers. We were required to have a 5 paragraph paper, and it always seemed a chore to get there, a relief to get there, and excessive to go farther. When we asked why that was the rule, her answer was that way back, students just wouldn’t stop writing and it was made to limit how much was written so we could keep our ideas concise, but after so much use, it actually became restrictive as we frantically worked to get enough sentences and girth to our papers to get to that point. Whats the point of my little tangent down memory (hell) lane? Its a similar reaction, a practice that came into place to improve things, end up hindering them.

If I was where I am today 6 years ago, I would have honestly said and believed, and I do believe it today, that when SWG came out, it was or was near the next generation of MMO. Looking at what it had, there were a lot of things that broke the mold — though being similar to UO from shared developers. No true levels, but instead skills. No restricted zones, but a sandbox world. Deep crafter and player run economy verse the merchant and loot based of the past. Going from some of the other blogs I read, that’s a mutation and ripe with innovation. And look at what concepts are being innovated in MMOs now: housing, more robust crafting, distancing from a leveling structure, etc. WoW took concepts that had been well established and loved and discarded those that were hated to make an amalgamation of those loved concepts covered with their own IP and were handsomely rewarded for it. WoW was the golden poster boy for everything that old MMOs to that point had done right. On top of that it showed that an MMO couldn’t just be successful, it was a good business investment and could explode. Ideally this should have set a standard for what an MMO should start from, and there was no where to go but up. Given the list of things that makes a successful MMO and shown that it wasn’t a gamble, the industry should have opened to innovation and to try new and different thing now that developers didn’t have to look for what worked. The actuality was we got nearly half a decade of so called “WoW Clones” from the big budget MMOs as developers hung to those standards and were scared, unmotivated, or just didn’t think about moving outside because those standards were in plain view and screaming at them constantly.

I’d rather that we would have principles instead of standards. Something that is less restrictive than “You have to have this” and be more “Something like this.” Evolution, innovation, or whatever you care to call it, is halted by a misconceived or misused notion of what a developer “has” to do, and only lately have we begun to get out of that rut. I feel its important to bring DOOM up in this discussion. Why? When DOOM first came out, it defined the FPS genre. Subsequent games were viewed as clones to DOOM but over the course of time, things differentiated enough and calling something a Doom Clone went a way, and we’re where we are today. With games coming out like Allods Online that takes the WoW model as a standard and builds on it, or Star Wars: The Old Republic that aims to really innovate and add something past what MMOs truly are, we could be looking at a shift to principles and not an adherence to a standard. Whether the industry will strive to evolve, mutate, and innovate out of it current shadow or will stagnate and simply collapse under its own weight of retaining an old method of thinking, only time will tell.

–Halbard100