Monday, April 30, 2012

Teaching Your Players: Board Game Edition

Teaching your players how to play a video game is very different from teaching them how to play a board game.  There is no interactive component of a board game that can show you how to lay out the pieces or explain how to win, so players are required to read the rule book at least once (at which point that player may teach other players and intentionally or not make up other rules for the game...).  This does not mean that you can't make it easier to teach the player.  It also doesn't mean all the game explanation should go in the rule book.  There are three areas to focus on to help the player understand your game quickly: The Rule Book, Helper Cards, and the Game Components themselves.

The Rule Book

This is where the bulk of the game explanation needs to go as well as all special case situations that came from your play testing.  Most players won't want to read a wall of text to figure out how to play a game, especially when they are playing it for the first time.  Also, I don't think many players want to have to study a game they just bought before their friends come over to play it for the first time.  The first thing to do to alleviate these problems is to have clearly separated sections explaining each aspect of the game as well as a section for explaining the general flow of the game.  Generally, you'll want the following sections: Objective (how do you win?), Game Components (explain each component, which also builds a vocabulary for talking about your game), Board Layout (what should the board look like while playing?), Game Flow (how does one turn or round play?), and then detailed sections of each phase of a turn.

For ease of clarification, there should be plenty of pictures (Game Components section has pictures of each of the pieces, Board Layout has a big picture of the board) as well as examples (Jimmy draws 1 card and then plays an Action card).  The examples should be either off to the side or somehow separated from the game explanation (italicized or put in a different box) so that players who don't need further explanation can skip to the next part they care about easily.

If this game is a small card game, the rules might be either a card itself or a very small sheet of paper (both Fluxx and Bang have rules like this),  which makes it even more important to have good layout and lots of pictures, since you have such limited space to describe the rules.

Helper Cards

Even if a player has read the rule book and fully understands the game, it is a pain to have to hunt through the rule book if you forget something of the game.  This is why a lot of games come with cards that display some key information used repeatedly by a player.  This way, multiple players can have this information in front of them at the same time.  For example, Settlers of Catan has a card that illustrates the cost of the various things to purchase.  Bang has cards that quickly describe what each symbol in the game means.  I like to make Helper cards that describe the game flow so all players can see what is supposed to be happening.  Some games like to put this information on much bigger cards that every player already needs.  For example, Tales of the Arabian Nights has a Character mat for each player for the player to store their tokens on.  This mat also has lots of information about how the game plays.

Game Components

In many cases, the game components themselves can teach the player how to play, sometimes without them even realizing it.  The simplest way is by having outlines or colors on the board that match specific tokens.  This way, the players know where to put specific tokens.  Another simple way is in a game with cards, the cards themselves have a brief explanation of what they do.  My favorite example of this tacks on another method of teaching.  In the game Bang, not only do the cards tell you what they do (with a few exceptions where you have to look them up in the rule book), but they do so with a set of symbols that are universal to the whole game.  If you ever see a hat with a line through it, you know that card counts as a Miss, no matter what other effects it has.  As stated above, these symbols are explained on Helper cards for all the players.  The reason this is so nice is that it gives the cards more room to display art that gets the players in the right mood/mindset/character for the game.  It also means that when any expansions come out, cards can be added with combinations of the symbols and players will immediately know what they do.

Ultimately, all of these methods require a good graphic designer and/or artist since ultimately it's all about the layout.  If you can utilize these ideas during the prototyping phase, it will significantly help things out, but it's not a requirement since you'll be there for when those prototypes are being played.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Character Movement

Moving your character around is essential to any first or third person video game, so much so that most modern games insist on teaching you how to move within the first few minutes of the game.  In some games, it's very methodical.  For example, Robotron, players move from one space on a grid to another in one of 8 directions.  In Super Mario Bros., players move left or right with the ability to jump up and "gravity" pulls them down.

Most of the time while playing a game, I don't really think much about character movement, but every once in awhile, a game will make some poor decisions in regards to player movement.  I have classified three consistent design flaws that can happen with movement - backtracking, slowing a character down, and speeding a character up.


Backtracking is when a player is forced to walk through an area they have already been through before.  In most single player games, once a player has gone through an area, there won't be any more events in there and they have already seen the location, so walking back through it is incredibly boring.

Event/Enemy Respawns

One solution to this is to have enemies respawn in an area once the player has left.  Dead Island does this throughout the game - even though there are no people left to zombify, zombies keep reappearing after you clear an area out.  Although this does make backtracking more eventful, it also makes it even more tedious since not only is the player not experiencing anything new, but they're being forced to experience something they have already experienced before.  Traveling to the same village/hub again and again also adds additional design flaws such as the repetitive NPC who is spouting out some dialogue to try to make the world feel alive, but when he says the same thing for the hundredth time you passed him while revisiting the town, it gets a little ridiculous.

One-Way Levels

Another solution is to make levels one-way so there is no chance of backtracking a la Mass Effect 3.  This can be a major problem for the Collection gamer because if he thinks he missed something, he won't be able to go back to it later and it will be a constant irritation that will affect his outlook on the game. If this happens enough times, the player may stop playing altogether.  The player should always be able to backtrack if they choose to do so.  If it's the player's choice to backtrack, then they cannot (or at least should not) blame the game.

Fast Travel Maps

My personal favorite solution is the fast travel map like in Skyrim.  Once you have visited an important location, it appears on a map and at any time you can select that location an instantly travel there via Load Screen rather than walking.  This is the closest solution I've seen to eliminating backtracking, but what happens if you want to go somewhere that doesn't have a quick travel point?  When I played Legend of Zelda Wind Waker, I hated the sailing.  I would point my ship to the next destination, set the wind to take me there faster, and then just get up and do something else.  There was at least one time I had enough time to go to the bathroom and make myself a sandwich before I reached my destination.  At one point you get a song that lets you teleport to specific quadrants on the map.  At that point, I thought, "Finally!  Now I can enjoy this game!"  Much to my dismay, I discovered it only took you to certain arbitrary quadrants on the map, not any of them.  What's the point of quick travel if it doesn't take me where I want to go?

Slow Down

Generally, the player speed is calculated out so the player can reach their goal in a good amount of time, but not so fast that they miss the view on the way.  Generally, players are pretty impatient if they feel like they have nothing to do where they are and want to move the game along (or maybe that's just me).  So when a character is forcibly slowed down, it is incredibly frustrating.  In both Uncharted 3 and Mass Effect 3, there were sequences where the player was chasing something and was either badly hurt or had been drugged, so they understandably walked slower.  That part makes sense to me.  What doesn't make sense to me is why these parts are interactive.  The character is moving slow (not fun) and there is nowhere to go but forward (no hidden goodies around).  The end result is that the player is just holding the joystick forward during what essentially is a cutscene.  So why not just make this a cutscene?

I stopped playing Red Dead Redemption for this very reason.  Every mission started the same way: meet a character in a town and hold A to follow him on a horse while you two talk.  You know what'd be more fun than sitting there holding the A button?  Making it a cutscene or locking my movement to auto-follow him unless I press a button so that I can put the controller down and enjoy the dialogue someone worked hard on writing and voicing.

Now if slowing the character down was caused by some action the player took and gives them some risk/reward situations (doing a power move, which uses up all my stamina, which causes me to move slower while the fight is still happening), then that is fine.  But even then, the slow down should only last a few seconds at the longest.

Speed up

Eric, I thought you said gamers (or just you) are impatient!  Why would speeding the character up be bad?  That's a good question!  This is only a problem if you ever expect your player to replay your game from the beginning.  Once they get used to moving quickly, starting over and moving at the original speed is going to feel like the character is walking through molasses.  So really, this is the same problem as the previous one, but indirectly.  I generally don't play games more than once (at least not since high school), so usually this is not a problem for me.  It has become a problem for me with Star Wars: The Old Republic.  In that game, there are 8 different classes, each with their own story.  Since it is from Bioware, I know I will enjoy the stories, so I want to experience them all.  At level 14, you get an ability called Sprint that lets you run faster when not in combat (you can turn it off, but why in the world would you want to do that since it costs nothing to have active?).  Then at level 25, you get the ability to ride a personal speeder around in most open areas.  However, once you have a character that far, if you start a new character, guess what?  It feels like torture getting around for those first 25 levels!  What's the harm in eliminating Sprint and making that the default run speed and letting players have speeders from the beginning of the game?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What Is Your Video Game Nature?

I've always had a great fascination with personality tests.  I haven't figured out why, but I love to classify myself and see what I am/where I belong.  I even love the silly "Which Harry Potter character are you?" quizzes that used to be all over Facebook (at least if they're well made and especially if there are more outcomes than Ron, Hermione, and Harry).  So I guess it's no surprise that I love to try to classify my video game play style to try to figure myself out even more.  I've come up with six ways to describe my gaming nature: Collector, Explorer, Strategist, Button Masher, Problem Solver, and Problem Maker.


There has always been an inherent need in my game style to collect everything and see every bit of content a game has to offer me.  Sometimes this need is so overwhelming that I will push through a game I'm not enjoying because I need to check it off my mental to do list.  Sometimes I know I won't be able to find everything by myself, so I resort to cheating (I played Assassin's Creed with a map of all flag locations up so I could get them all).  I never feel good about that, but it means I won't be bothered at the end of the game when I have 99/100 of something and there's no way to know where it is.  The lack of free time that comes with being an adult has gotten me to be able to override the Collector.  If I start losing interest in a game, I may be able to ignore side quests and just finish the game because unfinished games are an even bigger problem to me than a beaten, but not completed game.  The Collector loves any game with unlockables.


I like to go into every nook and cranny of a game and see what hidden goodies I can find.  Partly this goes hand in hand with the Collector, but it doesn't always.  The Explorer in me likes to get to places I'm not supposed to get to just because I want to see where I can go.  This need to explore is precisely why open world games like Skyrim and Dead Island are so dangerous to me.  Those worlds are so gigantic that it would take hundreds of hours to explore everywhere, but not exploring somewhere means not seeing an interesting view or getting a bonus item of some sort.  The Explorer is also why I never beat Baldur's Gate.  I fully explored every single area in the outside world in that game, finally got to Baldur's Gate, and found out it was yet another giant grid of areas to explore...The Explorer loves non-linear games and secret areas.


I love being able to take time to assess a situation and figure out the optimal way through this.  Min-Maxing (making choices in a game in order to maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses) is a crucial part of strategizing.  This is another reason I have to do all side quests before I complete any main quests in a game.  By the time I get to the main game, I am so powerful that nothing can stop me.  In the game, Blue Dragon, the final boss didn't even get to attack my players a single time before I killed him.  The Strategist loves turned based RPGs and tactics games most, but strategy can be found many action games as well (do I kill the large, powerful enemy first or all the little weak ones?  Which attack works best in this situation?).

Button Masher

I've never been any good at fighting games because when I start to panic (like when my brother has me trapped in a corner in Street Fighter II), I start to wildly push buttons and hope something happens.  I also love to just push buttons to see what happens (which is why I think explaining what buttons do in a game is pointless).  The Button Masher WILL ALWAYS push the red button that says Do Not Push.  The Button Masher works best when the Strategist has had time to analyze the situation because he can direct the Button Masher towards the correct buttons.  For example, with nearly any third person action game like God of War or X-Men Origins: Wolverine there are heavy and light attack buttons.  The Button Masher will begin mashing these buttons arbitrarily when he sees his first enemy.  After a few fights, the Strategist will be able to see patterns of button presses achieve what result and will direct the Button Masher to repeat that button combination in the future.  The Button Masher loves any game with combos or interactables.

Problem Solver

I have always had a huge fondness for puzzles.  One of the reasons I love programming is the deductive part of code debugging.  Trying to figure out what caused a crash, following the trail, and analyzing the data is amazingly fun.  The Problem Solver combines with the other parts in interesting ways.  Seeing a floating object to collect, the Problem Solver goes in to action to figure out how to get the item so the Collector is appeased.  When the aforementioned button combo stops being effective, the Problem Solver goes into action to figure out why this enemy is different from the others and figure out how to stop him.  The Problem Solver loves puzzle games and any game situation that makes him stop and think.

Problem Maker

I've always been good at breaking programs.  I love doing things that I shouldn't in them to see how it deals with that.  The Problem Maker is precisely why I was so good at being a tester for Atari and it's why at work, my co-worker will ask me to break his new system he implemented once he thinks it's complete.  The Strategist likes the Problem Maker because he'll find exploits that give the Strategist a bigger advantage.  Much like the Explorer, the Problem Maker likes to go places he shouldn't, but mostly because he wants to fall through the world.  The Problem Solver and Problem Maker go hand in hand when coding since the Problem Maker gives the Problem Solver something to solve.  The Problem Maker is the game designer's worst enemy and his happiness is usually mutually exclusive to the game designer.

I'm sure there are many other categories of gamers (i.e. reasons you play games and you play them how you do) and as noted, these categories tend to go together, so this exercise isn't about pigeonholing your players (a.k.a. customers), but more about assessing their motivations so that you can include something to appease all the different aspects in your games.  For me, the ideal combination would be an item that let me jump extra high so I could get to weird locations, hidden down a side path, blocked by a door that has a puzzle involving buttons to solve, followed by a wave of enemies of different types (support, combat, etc.).

Monday, April 23, 2012

Teaching Your Players: Video Game Edition

Anytime you play a new game, you will have to learn the rules, objectives, and tools at their disposal for that game.  In video games, this generally means figuring out which action is performed with which button on the controller, what causes a game over, and what your objective is.  In board games, this generally means figuring out what purpose each game component serves, how they operate together, how the game ends, and how a winner is determined.  This learning process is the first major hurdle players have to get over in order to enjoy your game.  So it's very important that you make this process as painless and enjoyable as possible.

Video Game Education

In video games, you have two extremes for how to teach your player: experimentation and exposition.  Experimentation is where you don't tell the player anything and instead you let them figure out everything on their own.  Exposition is where you explicitly tell the player how to play the game through visual prompts and tutorials.  These lessons aren't just for teaching the controls, but also if players are free to explore (Will an invisible barrier keep them from jumping off cliffs or will you let them fall to their death?  When they fall off a cliff do they die or do they reappear on the cliff's edge possibly with some health gone?  When they do die, how much of the game do they have to replay?), what the terminology of the game is, what actions can the player perform, how does the player distinguish between something that aids the player and something that hurts the player, etc.


First party Nintendo games (Mario, Zelda, Kirby, Metroid, etc) are very heavy on the experimentation.  The games rarely tell you how to play and instead just put you in situations where you need to figure out the rules of the game yourself.  For example, in Super Mario Bros. 1 opens with Mario on the left side of the screen and nothing else on screen.  The game does not need to tell the player to press right on the + Control Pad to move forward.  It assumes you'll try the various buttons (granted there are only 8 buttons to try on the original NES controller) and find out that moving to the right moves the screen to the right.  Suddenly you're presented with a ? block and a Goomba walking towards you.  You either continue using the one thing you've learned so far and press right, thus walking into the Goomba and dying (and learning about death in the game) or you try other buttons and learn you can jump by pushing A.  If you got killed by the Goomba, the level restarts with the same scene, so maybe this time you'll try jumping over the Goomba since touching it kills you.  If you time it poorly and land on top of the Goomba, the Goomba is squished, a 100 appears where it was, and a pleasing sound plays.  All that is a lot of small rewards to indicate to the player that's a good thing.  Super Mario Bros. 3 continued this style of teaching.  The risk with this method is that a player may never learn about some aspect of the game and possibly blame the game when they don't understand something.


The other extreme is exposition.  If you do this too much, you will inevitably make your player feel stupid or feel that you think they're stupid (which is essentially the same thing) and this never goes down well.  I'm amazed at how many modern games force me to move my player and the camera around with explicit instructions before I'm allowed to do anything else.  Even if you haven't played any other video games in your life, if you start up a game, are given a controller with two thumbsticks on it, then chances are good you can figure out how they work.


The ideal balance is in between, but closer to experimentation rather than exposition.  As many game lessons as possible should be taught by requiring the player to figure it out.  If you just got a new item, there should be a barrier you couldn't pass previously that requires you to use that new item and figure out how it works.  This lets the player feel smart and it also eliminates the need for illogical barriers to guide the player.  For example, say the player gets some sort of hookshot/grappling hook/whip/etc, then there should have been a cliff they needed to cross with some sort of obvious protrusion above the other side.  For more advanced tools (button combos, complicated combat or crafting systems, etc.), you will need to display text prompts or force the player through a tutorial to teach them how to use those systems.  If this happens, try to make it flow as naturally as possible.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Review: Mass Effect 3

Mass Effect 3 is the finale to an epic sci-fi series made by Bioware.  The purchase suggestion itself is pretty short: if you haven't played Mass Effect 1 or 2, don't get 3 (start with 1 if possible and work through all three); if you have beaten Mass Effect 1 and 2, you need 3.  Unlike most video game trilogies, the Mass Effect trilogy really is a series.  There is a grand sense of continuity and that your choices matter.  Obviously, the major choices you make in 1 and 2 (did you kill this person or that person, who did you romance, etc.) will impact the third.  But I noticed numerous times where even my more minor choices impacted the game or at least felt like they did.  And that is the key here, player perception.  If you can make the player feel like his choices mattered, then they mattered whether it actually changes any dialogue/events or not.

In the Mass Effect series, players take the role of Commander _____ Shepard.  They can choose whether it's a female/male Shepard, what the first name is, and what they look like.  The forced last name and title allow the main character to be mentioned by name in the voiceovers, which was a clever trick when Mass Effect first came out.  The first two Mass Effect games have you fight a threat to the galaxy, while building suspense towards the much larger threat you fight in Mass Effect 3.  Mass Effect 3 is essentially just one big set of cameos from all the characters you've come to know from the first two games.  The really interesting thing that comes out of this is that if you talk to anyone else who has played Mass Effect 3, the stories can be very drastically different.  The most obvious example being choice of gender - every time my friend talks about Shepard and says he, I get confused because I play as a FemShep (Female Shepard voiced by Jennifer Hale, my voice crush).

These choices and differences in story really help to solidify the Mass Effect story as a whole as a player story. I think because of this, the ending to Mass Effect 3 hit players much harder than a typical video game ending.  Typically, video game endings are nothing to talk about (Rampage only gives you a single Congratulation.  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the NES gives you a Game Over when you beat the game.).  There are a few exceptions I can think of (first off, don't click those links if you don't want endings to Splosion Man, You Have to Burn the Rope, Portal 1, and Portal 2 spoiled, secondly, I think I see a pattern in the video game endings I enjoy...).  Mass Effect 3's ending represents the culmination of 120+ hours of commitment to your particular Shepard's story.  I think just like Lost's ending, there's no way to appease everyone.  Maybe it's because I knew this ahead of time in both cases that I was able to enjoy both endings for what they were.  Yes, that's right, I enjoyed Mass Effect 3's and Lost's ending.  Not just "was okay with them", but was actually pleased by both of them.  Obviously, I can't really discuss the endings here without spoilers, so if you want details, you'll have to talk to me personally, but I'd love to do that to see where our stories differed and what you thought.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Game Jams

If you're not familiar with the term Game Jam, it's where a team of game developers (artists, programmers, designers, etc.) get together to try to create a new game from scratch in 48 hours.  Sometimes this is done as a challenge to see what the developers are capable of, sometimes it's done in order to try to make a simple game to sell on an app store, and sometimes it's done to perpetuate a running gag.

Peter Molyneux is a famous game designer who created the Populous, Fable, and Black and White games.  He's also famous for making ridiculous promises or having wild ideas for game concepts.  He's so well known for this that a parody twitter account was created spouting even more ridiculous ideas.  At some point someone decided there should be a game jam using these fake ideas as inspirations for games.  Some of the results look surprisingly fun.  I don't understand how some of them are games (without any explanation, the videos I watched didn't make much sense).  Of those 18, these are my top 5:

#5: Don't Deux It

You play a pigeon who must find the right item for people on rooftops to keep them from jumping off.  Honestly, I just like this one because of depressed Spider-man, although the game does seem fun and well made.

#4: PsychoBaby

You play as a baby with the arms of "a dead baddie".  The arms do not believe this is reality, so they are wantonly destroying and killing things.  You must convince them this is reality by finding cameras and getting your picture taken.  The concept of this one is just so insane and the look on that baby's face for not being able to control his arms is pretty hysterical.  I also like how the arms just randomly pick up any objects in range and chuck them around angrily.

#3: Friends 'Til The End

"You play as a small boy with a remote control helicoptor that is alive and your friend, then you discover a nuclear missle inside it".  This game actually looks like it'd be a challenging, but fun game to play.  Although they do make losing pretty spectacular, so I might die on purpose a few times.

#2: Days of Your

You are a period.  When you meet other punctuation marks they will speak to you and you must place yourself at the right points in the sentence.  Once you do, you collect that punctuation mark and go meet the next one, but now you have two punctuation marks at your disposal.  This one actually seems like it could be a really awesome edutainment game if it is more fleshed out.  People may actually learn the difference between your and you're or its and it's with this game!  I would love to see this turn into something that ends up in schools someday.

#1: Breaktris

I can't really describe this one without ruining a bit of surprise, so just watch the video.  I could definitely see this on the AppStore and of all of these games, it seems to most complete to me.

Bonus: Pause Pirate

This wasn't in that one playlist and is definitely an epic game worth noting.  The original idea was "What if the pause button was a weapon? Until developers think outside the box we're going downhill."  Again, I don't want to ruin the novelty of the game's idea by describing it, so just watch the video.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Game Design: Testing != Playing

So you've got your great idea and you've spent all the time to build a prototype so now comes the time to play your game. This should be the fun and easy part, right? Unless you're some game design wizard, chances are the game will have to go through a lot of testing before it's really marketable. Make sure to stay focused on what part of the game you are trying to test while conducting your test. Each area has its own quirks and pitfalls. Also, make sure any rules you set at the beginning of the test remain the same throughout the test. One small rule change can drastically alter how a game plays.

Game Mechanics
To start off with, you should simulate a few turns or an entire session of your game by yourself acting as multiple players. This will help you figure out if you don't have a component for a certain aspect of the game you have to keep track of or find out that two game mechanics work horrendously together. It also can give you a rough estimate of how long your game will take and where you could speed the game up (hint: If you're constantly swapping tokens with a bank or other players, this is a large time sink that is generally not fun for anyone). These tests should be done before anyone else sees your game so you don't waste your friend's time.

Game Components
You always need to keep a few things in mind with regard to game components. The fewer components there are, the cheaper it will be to make and sell the game and the less frightening it will be for new players. Also, more standard game components (6-sided dice, hex tiles, 18"x18" game board, etc) will be easier and cheaper for most manufacturers to produce (I'll go more into depth on manufacturing at a later time). Also, be mindful of the ease of using those components. For example, I have a game that made sense to have square tiles that made up the game board, but you also have to flip the tiles over while they are laid out. During one test I realized (with the help of my testers) that that was difficult once all the tiles were laid out, so I've cut off the corners of each tile and made them hex pieces. They are still laid out on a square grid, so there are two corners to use to flip the tile over with.

Strategies vs. Exploits
One of the most interesting things I've noticed while testing a strategy game of mine is trying to decide the difference between a clever strategy and a broken game. Whenever a special case arises and you need to decide how the game should deal with it, it can be tempting to make a decision that best helps you win the game. Whatever you decide, make sure you take a note of this case to make a final decision on. This decision will have to appear somewhere in the text of the game (generally the rule book).

Social Interaction
Players should always have something to do/occupy themselves with. If players take turns, then either turns need to go fast, players need to interact with each other, players need to be able to strategize, or players should have something to play with. A good example of these is Settlers of Catan. On anyone's turn, they can trade with other players so there is always potential for social interaction even when it's not your turn. You also have lots of little tokens for roads and settlements that people invariably build pictures with while they're waiting (or is that just me?). You can always look at the board and your cards and be strategizing about what to do next. Also, if the player doesn't trade on their turn, then turns tend to go relatively quickly. So while testing your game, be watching what people are doing between turns. Are they looking at the board? Are they just plain bored? Are they constantly zoning out?

Don't worry if the first few tests are no fun as long as you can still see potential for fun. Just figure out what to fix and try again. Also, don't be afraid to do drastic redesigns on your game. Just keep in mind the game design goals you have for the game.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Player Driven Story Part 2

Frequently while playing video games, I like to imagine how people would react to my character's actions/choices if it were real life or even a movie.  I have been trained to completely ignore any warnings about imminent danger or impending doom if I feel that is part of the main story.  Unless a timer appears on screen, I know that nothing will happen until I get to the designated spot to trigger the event.  So, I like to take my time, make sure I don't miss any hidden goodies, talk to everyone until their dialogue repeats, etc.  This breaks the excitement and drama of the scene, but feeling like I missed something bothers me far more than not feeling as rushed as I'm supposed to.  A few times I've managed to specifically ignore my need to "catch 'em all" and just rush through things to keep the feeling of the story going (generally this happens while playing any Uncharted game).

I was actually surprised when doing this impacted the story in the very beginning of Deus Ex: Human Revolutions.  When you first reach your headquarters, your boss says you must get to the helicopter immediately, so I automatically go, "Screw you, I want to explore my office and talk to people first."  A few minutes later you receive a message, "Where the [heck] are you?  Get down to the helipad now!"  I'm used to insistent warnings like that to try to get the story going, so I again ignore it.  What I didn't expect was the next message, "Thanks to your screwing around, all the hostages have just been killed."  Wait, what?  You mean you ACTUALLY wanted me to listen to your urgent warnings?  Huh, that's novel.  Since it was the beginning of the game, I just restarted and actually rushed through to save the hostages.  I was actually impressed they did this.  I figured since they did it as part of the first mission, it was the game's way of teaching you that timing matters.  Unfortunately, that's the only time in the entire game where timing really matters, which is a design flaw I'll talk about in a future post.

So here is where designer story and player story collide:  In the original Mass Effect, Command Shepard is charged with finding a rogue Spectre before he can hurt any more people.  "Uhhh...Commander, why are you driving the Mako around this planet when we know Saren is in a completely different system?  What do you mean you're looking for other threats to the galaxy?  Your mission is to stop Saren!"  In Mass Effect 2, Shepard is tasked with stopping a strange threat known only as the Collectors.  "Commander, shouldn't we be looking for the Collectors and not scanning this planet for Platinum?  This seems like someone else's job. If we really need Platinum, can't you use your Cerberus resources to get some sent to you?"  In Mass Effect 3, Shepard is trying to get as many forces as possible to stop the Reaper invasion currently happening on Earth.  "Commander, I'm getting complaints from citizens on the Citadel that you keep walking up to them and just standing there staring at them while they are talking to someone else.  No one will trust you if you don't stop being such a creeper."

Or take Adam Jensen (Deus Ex: Human Revolutions): "I just have to infiltrate this base, stealthily take out all the guards, save all the hostages, and then...OH MY GOODNESS!  There are cardboard boxes in the corner of the room!  Who knows what could be under them!  I better start throwing them all around the room just to make sure there's nothing there."

Of course, I'm not the only one to notice these descrepancies between designer story and player story...

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Player Driven Story

One of the talks I heard at GDC a couple years ago was about how games have two kinds of story telling: The designer story and the player's story.  The character's story is the events that happen to the characters and world in a given setting.  Books, movies, TV shows, most video games, and some board games share this form of story.  Video games and board games also share a form of story derived from the interactivity of their medium.  This story is what happens to the players and what choices they make while playing the game.  When a player describes what happens in a game, the designer story will be described using character names ("Commander Shepard becomes a Spectre in Mass Effect") while the player story is described with I ("I romanced Liara in Mass Effect").

Most games have at least a little bit of each in their design.  For example, Left 4 Dead has a setting and characters (the designer story), but the events of the game are what happens to the players.  Making that final run to the helicopter in No Mercy with a Tank chasing your team down, choosing whether to go out and save your friend or leave him to die is all player driven story.  An example of heavy designer story and weak player story would be the Uncharted series.  Essentially you are playing an interactive movie (a really fantastic one, mind you).  The player has no choices to make other than what weapons to use against the waves of enemies during combat.

Some games don't necessarily need designer story (there is no setting, characters, or scripted events in Apples to Apples, Tetris, or Bejeweled) and in fact most of the time designer story is ignored in board games (does anyone playing Settler's of Catan really feel like a settler or even care about that aspect of the game?).  But that doesn't mean it should always be disregarded as a designer.  A proper setting can make a game extra entertaining.  Pirate Fluxx has a card that rewards players who talk like a pirate.  Axe Cop Munchkin is just as ridiculous and entertaining as the webcomic it is based on purely because of its setting.

However, the real fun of board games comes in the player interactions and choices (the player story).   The game of Apples to Apples where everyone's adjectives they won described characters from How I Met Your Mother; the game of Tales of the Arabian Nights where one player spent the entire game in prison, finally escapes on an airship, only to fall to his death (that player hates the game for some reason now...); the game of Betrayal at House on the Hill where all the players start aging except one, so they all kill that player and the only person to escape alive was the player who started as a boy and ended as an old man (I stole this story from my brother, Adam).

So when designing games, it's important to keep in mind the balance between designer story and player story.  What are some great player stories you've experienced?  Can you think of a game with no designer story that has any complexity?  (Every example I've thought of has very simple gameplay mechanics...)

Monday, April 9, 2012

Taking Inventory

After recently watching an episode of The Office where they had to take inventory, I thought it would be an interesting idea to take inventory of what media I am currently consuming, what I've recently finished, and what is next up in various queues.  Now would also be a good time to request reviews of any of these if you want.
  • TV shows
    • Currently watching
      • On Netflix
        • Star Trek: The Next Generation
        • Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood
        • Bleach
        • Naruto
        • The Incredible Hulk
      • On live TV
        • Survivor
        • The Amazing Race
        • Revenge
        • Ringer
        • New Girl
        • Big Bang Theory
        • How I Met Your Mother
        • The Office
    • In my Netflix queue to start
      • Star Trek: DS9
      • Star Trek: Voyager
      • Battlestar Galactica (the new one)
      • Stargate SG-1
      • Dr. Who
  • Movies
    • Watched in the past 6 months
      • The Muppets
      • Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows
      • The Three Musketeers
      • Puss In Boots
      • Real Steel
      • Rise of the Planet of the Apes
      • Harry Potter: Deathly Hallows Part 2
      • Cowboys and Aliens
      • The Hunger Games
    • Looking forward to
      • Avengers
  • Video Games
    • Started in the past 6 months, but may never finish
      • Thor
      • Red Dead Redemption
      • Wario Land 4
      • Kirby and the Amazing Mirror
      • Fire Emblem
      • Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword
    • Finished in the past 6 months
      • Professor Layton and the Last Specter
      • Batman: Arkham City
      • Dungeon Defenders
      • Uncharted 3
      • Dead Island
    • Still working through
      • Mass Effect 3
      • Star Wars: The Old Republic
      • Skyrim
      • Dead Space
    • Backlog
      • Super Mario Land 3D
      • Assassin's Creed 2
      • Assassin's Creed Brotherhood
      • Assassin's Creed Revelations
      • Lego Harry Potter Years 5-7
      • Lego Star Wars 3
      • Syndicate
      • Sly Cooper Collection
      • Kingdoms Of Amalur: Reckoning
      • Binary Domain
      • Journey
  • Books
    • Finished in the past 6 months
      • The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
      • Gulliver's Travels
      • Treasure Island
      • The Time Machine
      • Frankenstein
      • Holes
      • The Count of Monte Cristo
      • A Princess of Mars
    • Currently reading
      • Journey To The Center of the Earth
    • In my Kindle queue
      • The Gods of Mars
      • Warlord of Mars
      • Thuuvia, Maid of Mars
      • The Chessmen of Mars
      • The War of the Worlds
      • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
      • The Legends of King Arthur
      • The Mysterious Island
    • Eventually need to read
      • Game of Thrones series

Friday, April 6, 2012

Review: Hunger Games

The Hunger Games movie was adequate at what it does. It got across the main points of the Hunger Games story without really messing anything up. However, I think the only reason the movie was good at all was because the Hunger Games book was so fantastic.

For me, until the Hunger Games started, the movie was incredibly boring and I don't remember the book being that way. I think a lot of that is that the book can and does devote time to explain and detail the history of this world they've set up and the backstory of some of the characters, so you get a better feel for the characters' motivations and struggles. In the movie, you get a wall of blah text at the beginning, you see Katniss go under a fence with a sign you briefly see that says "Do Not Enter" or something, but you have no idea why she can't enter that or that hunting is forbidden. The movie just doesn't have time to go in to the whys of the world so when Katniss and Gale are in the forest and a ship drops down on them, you don't know why they run and hide from it.

I went with a friend who hadn't read the books before watching the movie. It apparently was clear enough for him to understand mostly what was going on, but at the end he said, "I need to read the books now." That's probably what the book authors are hoping for, but personally I feel if you haven't watched the movies or read the books, save your money and just read the books. You're just going to get a fuller, richer experience than you do with the movie.

The one thing the movie did wrong in my opinion is a trend among movies nowadays and that's that blasted shaky cam. The first half of the movie when Katniss is in the forest, the camera is shaking like there are earthquakes everywhere. Does this add anything to the movie other than nauseated customers? Whenever there is a fight, just like most movies now, the camera gets right up in the action so you can't actually see what is going at all, you just see lots of movement. I understand that this is supposed to make the fight feel action-packed, but you know what they used to do that worked better? Have fight scenes with good choreography with a camera pulled back so you could actually see what the heck is happening. I don't need to be manipulated to feel action on the screen. In fact, the more I see that, the more I realize I'm being manipulated and immediately get pulled out of the movie and start entering critique mode.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Nonfiction in Fiction

No matter what setting a story is in, there are always elements of nonfiction in them. There need to be in order for people to understand what's going on. Lord of the Rings may have orcs, dwarves, and elves (which are all still humanoid sentient beings), but it also has swords, bows and arrows, castles, horses, boats, and most importantly, second breakfast.

What I find interesting are stories that take some existing concept/technology and take it to its next logical advancement (Michael Crichton), place it in the context of a completely different setting (Terry Pratchett), or have a story take place during monumental historical events (Count of Monte Cristo). Each of these raise different questions for me that I enjoy trying to answer. What would happen if cloning became cheap and freely available? How did people decide what signal meant what using semaphores? Did history actually take place like that (History was my least favorite class in school...)?

I think the sign of a good author is one who does his research and makes the uninformed or semi-informed people doubt what they know or think things could happen the way they do in the story. This should also apply to other forms of media, but I can't really think of any movies, TV shows, or video games that made me really ask these questions. Some even make it very clear they don't understand anything about what they are portraying.

So what are your favorite extrapolations of existing technology? What is your favorite story that takes place in history (but doesn't necessarily affect/alter that history)?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Game Design: Fleshing Out an Idea

Designing a new board game always starts with an idea, whether this is an idea for a really clever game mechanic ("The game board should be a randomly generated shape based on player actions"), a great theme or setting ("Man, this book/movie/video game would make a GREAT board game!"), some random game component you want to utilize (Did you know there are 7-sided dice?), a goal for the players to achieve ("I really want to make a truly cooperative game"), or some goal you want to accomplish as a designer ("I want to make a game that has absolutely no violence in it"). Ultimately, all games need to have all of those things (game mechanics, setting, game components, a player goal, and a personal goal), your source of inspiration merely tells you which area is already filled and what to base all your design decisions on.

So now you have a starting point and as I stated, you have other major areas to fill in. Using this, I like to make a Microsoft Word doc with headings for each of those areas - Game Overview, Winning Objective, Player Turn, Game Components, Game Design Goal.

Game Overview:
Where does the game take place? Who are the opposing sides? Is this game a funny game or a serious adventure? Being thorough about the setting and theme of the game will help players immerse themselves in the game. There's a reason there are a million versions of Fluxx and Munchkin. Some players want to be pirates. Some want to be space ninjas from the future. Some want to be vampire chickens. Do note, however, that when play testing a game, it will be important to test just the game mechanics themselves minus any theme because if the game isn't fun without a theme, it will be difficult to have fun with it even with the best of themes, but at the same time, keep in mind what theme you will want the game to have eventually because some game mechanics may change to better fit a certain theme over another.

Winning Objective:
What are the player goals? Are they working together? Are they competing? How do they win? This is almost always where I start my game design documents because deciding whether a game is directly competitive, indirectly competitive, mostly cooperative, completely cooperative, etc. will greatly impact many other decisions made about the game.

Player Turn:
What does a player do each turn? What actions can they take? Do all players play at the same time? This is really the core of the game. This is where all the game mechanics and rules are defined. You also must define here how a full game round works and if anything happens each round. For example, do all players take their turns simultaneously? Do they take turns one at a time? Does some even take place between game rounds (after each player gets a turn)?

Game Components:
What are the actual physical pieces required to play the game? Does it have a custom board? Is it just a card game? What are the player tokens? What other counters or other tokens are needed in the game? Are there dice? Being as thorough and precise about this section will greatly help you when you start trying to figure out how to build the game and will keep you from having moments during play testing where you have to grab random things around the house to represent things.

Game Design Goal:
Goals you as the game designer have for this game that you want to base decisions on. Some examples include, "Must fit theme", "Must not have any numbers in the game", "Must use as few game components as possible", or "Must be a 15 minute or less game". Every decision you make while designing/testing/refining the game must keep these goals in mind. You can have as many goals as you like, but if the list is too big, you're going to be hard-pressed to make everything fit them all.