The Future Of Our Virtual Workspace

OmmwriterSplash

So I was browsing the Mac App store and saw this thing called Ommwriter at #3 in the top ten list. I was curious and so read its page, finding it sounded a bit gimmicky. I set out to continue about my day, but the curious itch continued until I could no longer resist the temptation, and so I tried out the free Dana version 1.

Wow. Can you say Heavy Rain? Remember ARI? What we’re seeing here is the idea of virtual reality finally being seamlessly meshed with productivity technology. While most companies are blindly looking to add features, bullet points, connectivity, power, strength, and flexibility to their software, they’ve completely neglected the idea of the user experience.

Now, Apple has paid a fair amount of attention to improving and developing the user experience and culture of its customers, but all its advances, and iterations developed by “follow the leader” competitors like Microsoft, seem to have mainly focused on improving usability and form. None have really tapped into improving the user’s sense of place or mood, the emotional side of things, you might say.

Ommwriter proves that in a world where it feels like technology is tearing down walls and thrusting us into the lightning fast cacophony of information ubiquity, that we can still steal ourselves away into a quiet corner to contemplate and reflect. It’s the headline theme of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” applied to our virtual workspace, and still rings as true as ever.

The program isn’t perfect for me, though, especially at work. I do need more advanced formatting options, otherwise it’s a pain to copy and paste between a text file and Word. I can only pray that the big software behemoths realize how important developing technology in this direction will be. Otherwise they stand to be wiped out, not by a technology that quantifiably better, but by failing to provide the very basic human experiences we all yearn for.

Some might cry out that it’s not Word’s place to make you feel relaxed, focused, peaceful… but these are things many people value, and if other programs provide that experience with few enough or no drawbacks, it is to them that the people will go. If customers are waiting with baited breath to abandon their go-to company, that company will soon find itself playing catch-up once again.

The Phaaaaaantom of the Opera is here!

ThePhantomOfTheOpera

So the game I’ve been working on the last few months, since moving to Canada, has finally been released! It’s a “traditional casual” hidden object game, but if that’s not your style I still recommend trying it out or getting it for your folks. Check out our review and check us out if you’d like to play a demo or buy it! Head on here if you’re on Mac.

Though the project was already far along when I joined, I was still able to contribute the cutscene and Evelina’s in-game dialog and work out a walkthrough for the bonus content. I appreciate the support, and if things go well we’ll be coming out with even greater games in the future!

Two Demos, Two Frustrations

The Force Unleashed II
Epic Landing

I would love to be excited for Force Unleashed II, having played the first one and enjoying it despite a few misgivings. However, after playing II’s demo (playing through the demo of the first game was probably my best experience with that title) it seems the second game hasn’t really improved upon the first at all in terms of the general quality of experience. In fact, the developers seem to be outright antagonizing the player now.

How else do you explain being given an exhilarating sequence where you fall from a skyscraper and then land safely using force magic, but then, if you try to jump out another large window that’s right in front of you immediately after landing, you instantly die. Not only were my hopes dashed of continuing the previous sequence, I was outright killed. Communication in games is important, and if in the game’s first few minutes you say, “Hey it’s cool to jump out of skyscrapers, check this out” and then 10 seconds later say, “Whoa now what’s wrong with you stop jumping from high places” I start suspecting the rest of the game might be just as confusing and arbitrary.

Vanquish

Laser Death

I’d like to contrast this to Vanquish’s demo, where I died far more often but never felt so wronged. In Vanquish’s demo you can take cover to avoid nearly every attack. Even if missiles are exploding on the other side of a cement roadblock you’re ok. But then comes a boss who has a large laser attack that pretty much ignores any cover. It took me a few deaths to figure out I wasn’t doing anything wrong but in fact the laser just kill everything within it and that I should be dodging out of it. They could have communicated that better as well, but at least they don’t tell me to take cover to avoid the robots laser one minute and then have the laser kill me while taking cover in the next.

I’ll probably skip out on Force Unleashed II, there are just too many other quality games out right now/on the horizon (in fact I should probably finally get to playing through Dark Forces II or Jedi Knight or whatever it’s called). It’s really frustrating and disappointing because the Star Wars universe is really great to revisit but LucasArts really needs someone to light a fire under their asses. Come on guys, step up your game! You’re frickin’ LucasArts!

Let Me Steady That For You

Auto aim in shooters. From Uncharted to WET (unless your in slow mo, as far as it seems from the demo) there’s no auto aim! Bioshock had the auto aim toggle which was great. Warhawk has different weapons with different levels of auto aim. That’s an acceptable solution for the most part. Player’s with low accuracy can perform decently with the game auto rifle. If they don’t need it they can run around with the sniper rifle. Getting a kill with the sniper rifle while shooting from the hip is a definite “hell ya!” moment.

Especially in this day and age, where enemies have smarter AI and nearly all move as quickly as the Arch-vile in Doom II, I’m for the wider use of auto aim. Basically, I, as the player, just want to shoot things, and if I’m not good as tiny incremental movements with two thumb sticks then my experience will be extremely hampered. I think it’s fair that as long as the player aims in the general direction of an enemy, as long as the game can properly discern, “ah, the player wants to shoot this guy” then it should lock the player’s weapon on that enemy (I wouldn’t go so far as a hard lock, but a soft lock that wouldn’t make it too hard for the player to break or switch targets).

Auto aim certainly isn’t required for all games, but trends in “challenging” the player certainly could use a nice counterweight in the “fun” department. Personally, I found playing through Doom II with a joystick to be a great experience. It’s hugely inaccurate and slow, compared to keyboard and mouse, but it worked well for Doom. The game’s design (from its resolution to monster design and AI) worked well with it. The entire game was balanced to allow that to be such an enjoyable experience. I wouldn’t dare try Half Life II with a joystick, the accuracy required is just too great. That’s the tradeoff that seems to result when you replace dumb, plodding demons with limited attacks with machine gun totting meth crazed special forces bouncing off the walls.

Just like in my previous posts on brawling games, it’s the same idea, that if the player knows what to do, and is actively trying to do something, the game should give it to them (provided they have the required tools). I think adding layers of difficulty that exist only due to the limited input device the player has to use appeals only to a very small niche group of hardcore players. If we can recognize that certain input devices have certain handicaps then we start down a road where those handicaps can not only be eliminated, but the challenge originally imposed by such handicaps can be replaced with more challenging gameplay.

A Balanced Battle System

In my last post I examined strengths and weaknesses of combat systems and how they relate to the player doing what the player wants it to do. Now I’ll look more into possible ways to improve this connection between the player and the game. In a reply I mused, “Perhaps another facet needed for a more perfect combat system is the balancing of all components of that combat system, so an attack, a counter, a dodge, a block, whatever, are all equally viable moves towards eliminating opponents.” Bear with me as I walk through the basic steps one might take to create a balanced combat system: You can always attack. If someone is standing there you can attack them. You can’t always counter. You can only counter when the enemy is attacking. You don’t want the enemy to attack you, though, you want to hit them before they can attack you. So how can countering ever be prioritized on the same level as attacking? If countering is made too powerful (Heavenly Sword) the player will just not attack, they will wait to be attacked and then counter. If countering is too weak (Batman: Arkham Asylum) they will opt to attack even when they really should have countered.

Perhaps you could combine the two. If you attack a non attacking enemy you hit them. If you attack an attacking enemy you will counter them. Now the issue is how to appropriately challenge the player. I can’t imagine that being an insurmountable issue. A possible answer that sprung to mind as I wrote that question is to have blocking enemies. The player can attack all they want but not make any progress towards defeating that enemy. As long as the actions the player intend to happen are happening. You can give the player a strong and weak attack (perhaps only the weak attack also counters), or require the player to move around the enemy (ala Arkham Asylum).

I would say as long as the player’s character is doing what the player wants, enemies now have a lot more leeway presenting other challenges. The task of the player now isn’t pressing the right button at the right time, but identifying what challenges are being presented to them by the enemy and then dealing them. What’s key is to stay away from making those challenges “disrupt the player’s expectations and intentions.” Basically, expanding slightly on an example used in my previous post, when I try to punch a guy that’s approaching I feel frustrated when he decides to attack and disrupts my attack, but, if I see a guy training his gun on me, as long as I have a way to get to that guy before he fires, I don’t feel frustrated if he ends up shooting me because I opted to punch a closer guy first (as long as I intentionally chose to punch that closer guy).

What it comes down to is a meta game of expectations. The system designer, the event/encounter/mission designer all have to be on the same page as far as presenting and executing a logic which the player can easily understand and at a basic level grasp and then which, and this might be the real challenge, evolve and play out according to the player’s understanding and expectations of that logic. This can be especially difficult as the designer often starts out seeing the entire picture, knowing what the combat will ultimately evolve into and how each component of combat can be woven together for optimal effectiveness, but the player doesn’t (or worse, can’t because XYZ has yet to be unlocked/received).

The player experiences whatever is first introduced to them and from that point on creates their own internal design doc, their own interpretation of the rules (this can start from just the very first button that is pressed. In most action games, how many people try out their attacking before dodging or blocking?). Everyone might come to different conclusions based on that initial experience, so the designer has the challenge of doing everything in their power to direct what the player’s expectations should be. Having the player’s character “level up” and expanding combat over the course of the game adds another layer to this challenge (for both the designer and the player). The foundation is always the most important, though, and it can lead to the player either facing constant frustration as they play through the game or “getting it” and having a blast.

Also a clear delineation must be established in regards to rewarding, punishing, and remaining neutral to the player. Rewarding the player for a certain action in one situation but then punishing the player for that same action in a situation the player doesn’t distinguish as being different from the first is a sign of design failure all around. At worst, the effectiveness of the action should be neutralized, thus prompting to rethink their strategy, but never should it outright backfire and harm the player. That just frustrates and confuses.

Perhaps balancing combat between specific mechanics shouldn’t be focused on, but instead, in regards to complete game cohesion, emotions and immersiveness. In most action games the fighting doesn’t elicit a huge reaction in me. I see the action on screen and my reaction is “yep, there goes that guy, doing his thing.” It’s very blasé. In Ico, though, I didn’t see it as just the character doing his thing. Now there are plenty of games with normal people having to fight (most survival horrors like Silent Hill 2) and the combat is horrible but excused by fans. In Ico the combat isn’t bad, per se. It’s basic, yes, but when the kid swings his wood plank you can really see his inexperience, his desperation, and that, in my eyes, makes the combat leagues better than the combat in most action games. That emotional bond is priceless.

Now in Arkham Asylum, the tone is much different, but the combat is none the less cohesive. Batman has complete control of the arena and his opponents, as long as you play “right” Batman will be able to counter any attack from any direction and take out any thug no matter where they are, all in the same combo (I can’t wait for the action game where the entire game can be played through using one long continuous combo. Perhaps they can steal the idea of the plot from Crank). And that personifies everything about Batman. Just in his combat, his character traits come through.

If they wanted to improve God of War’s combat I’d say make Kratos meaner, require him to block less, because blocking is a coward’s tactic. Sure his attacks are already fierce and he grunts and yells appropriately, but then comes the moment when you have to block and the illusion is shattered (even more so when you have to wait for the enemy to finish their long boring combo string or for surrounding enemies to also finish their attack as they attack you in turn without giving you an open frame to retaliate in). Maybe make Kratos get even more pissed off while he blocks so when you can finally make a move that frustration the player was experiencing can be released vicariously.

The more the action, the character, and the player jive the more you’ll be able to enthrall the player and truly deliver a memorable experience. Whether it’s addressing the mechanical or emotional side of this part of game design (and both should be) keeping things within the player’s perceived logic of the game world (while still offering surprises) is essential.

To counter, or not to counter. That’s the limitation of your combat system.

Batman, to me, was the first serious shot in what will hopefully be a revolution of a new standard of combat mechanics and design. Every combat system is has its limits, but I saw Batman as very intentionally and mostly successfully eliminating those limits players most often run up against, and otherwise hiding remaining deficiencies under mounds of good design. It was a bold and successful statement on eliminating frustration, without dumbing things down, but by changing the nature of combat. Gone are the pages of combos relying on complex timing and button input, replaced by a pure and unfettered allowance to focus on the battlefield. Batman makes no qualms about not being anything like your regular VS fighting game, but it’s not some simple button mashing arcade brawler. Batman takes the best aspects of both those genre of fighting game, added its own innovations, and has given the player what they’ve always wanted: A game that does what the player wanted it to do when they gave a thusly intentioned command (how many times in past games have you made a move you didn’t want to do and subsequently got your ass kicked?).

Put that way, it seems so simple. A game where the player fights multiple enemies with combat designed specifically to deal with multiple enemies. I found it very similar to a combat system I was attempting to flesh out when dreaming up my own ideal “ultimate” system. A combat system that would automatically string possible combos for you, an AI director for the player’s moves basically. I figured, “When I want to hit a guy I just want to hit them, I don’t care if I use move A, B, or C as long as they hit him and keep him from hitting me!” I was quickly conceptually stone walled, though. What the AI determines to be the most effective move at one moment might not be the most effective move on the whole. How could the AI, without becoming too autonomous relative to the actual player, perform in a non frustrating manner when it’s focused on winning battles (single enemies) but not the war (the surrounding group of enemies all with their own AI running and trying to make decisions to counter the player’s combat AI).

The combat in Batman generally does a fine job of creating combos for you, mixing long range attacks with short range, forward attacks, back attacks (at least once you have your combo meter going, you start out impotently punching the air just as in any other fighting game)… if there’s someone to attack, no matter where they are, Batman will have a move to attack them with. But it didn’t exactly solve my problem of always being able to execute the “best” move for any given situation. In fact it’s one of the few frustrating aspects of the combat. Batman might be targeting a thug on the ground, one posing no threat, while another thug is running up for a punch. Ideally, when the player tries to attack, they would attack the approaching thug, the greatest threat, but instead they finish off the grounded thug and get whacked in the back of the head. The game, as in all other games to date, requires the player to recognize the limitations of its combat system and conform to its order of operations. In this example the player has to first counter the approaching thug and then get back to offense (unless the previously grounded thug has gotten up by now and is also winding up an attack, in which case you’ll still be stuck in counter land for a while). It’s never fun to have your hand slapped when hitting some arbitrary point at which you’re “reaching too far.”

How can this system be refined further? What is the endgame of such a system? Once taken to its logical, perhaps extreme, conclusion what will the combat experience be like? One solution could be simply putting in more moves. It’s an expensive solution, though, requring more design, more animation, and more programming. It’s not really a viable solution. Perhaps as procedural animation advances, as processors continue to become faster and better able to simulate physics we might someday have a completely dynamically generated combat system. Hoping for some cure all bit of code doesn’t help any of us in the present, though, and is just lazy. Creating moves that cover every situation, every array of baddies in various states (neutral, attacking, stunned, etc) would be impossible, and thus the design of combat situations would either have to be limited or the player will hit the limits of the combat system and face frustration.

Another solution is to simply design in such a way that the player is encouraged to avoid situations where they will encounter the combat’s limitations. While you can get through most fights in Batman by simply punching, using the full array of combo moves rewards you with more points for that particular combo string. It actively rewards (not just punishes) the player for using counters, dodges, and gadgets along with punches. Still, even this is only a superficial solution, and often times the player will find that they want to punch a thug in a situation that will get them hit unless they choose another move.

One last possible solution would be creating a system that allows the player to more easily do what they want to do. I’d imagine such a system would have to severely limit the player’s options and simplify combat overall to make sure all combat options are just a button press, and perhaps a directional input, away from being enacted. While none of these solutions perfectly address the problem, Batman shows that a combat system doesn’t have to be perfect to still be really, really fun.

My fascination, love, and interest in combat began with perhaps an unlikely game, Ico. It’s one button simple combo system could not have been more basic, but it worked, it did everything it needed to do, it was expressive (as all animations in the game were) and it was never frustrating. It also focused largely on offense and practically not at all on defense. To me, nothing is more frustrating than having to block, having to turtle, hold back and wait patiently for an open frame where I can finally say ‘My turn.” Heavenly Sword wooed me with its excellent counter system, turning defense into an effective (if not the game’s most effective) offensive option.

With an interest in combat, in how combat can be better interwoven into the player’s experience, I looked back to slightly older games. I sought to educate myself on what many consider pinnacle fighting games, like God of War, Ninja Gaiden, Devil May Cry, and (ok, maybe not as widely considered a pinnacle of fighting games) God Hand. In God of War and Ninja Gaiden, both games suffer from requiring extensive blocking (Ninja Gaiden especially) and both have anemic counter systems (Ninja Gaiden at least balances it’s requirement of extensive blocking with a slightly more powerful counter system). Devil May Cry and God Hand don’t emphasis blocking per se, but put the same emphasis on dodging. All these games have weak (if any) (auto)targeting systems, making it a chore sometimes to just point in the right direction, let alone go from one target to the next.

In the end, what makes combat feel best to me is the establishing of a concrete flow. Batman is all about flow. I feel games with stronger counter systems and well broadcasted (Viewtiful Joe still reigns king in this arena to me) attacks allow for better flow. To me, blocking is anathema to the feeling of flow. It’s like the period of a sentence. Games that rely on a great deal of blocking feel like reading through a lot of “…” text in a JRPG. It feels silly and dumb and your mind is trying to think of what would have been better said. All the other games I’ve played have had spectacular arrays of moves, but they never made it any easier to land a punch when all I want to do is land a punch! Honestly, after Batman, if my character doesn’t automatically attack in the right direction when I hit attack (and just whiffs air), it feels incredibly archaic. I hope to see game reviewers call out future fighting games on that point if they insist on sticking to the same old tired formula. Such combat systems feel as tired to me now as tank controls.

Here’s looking forward to Bayonetta and it’s take on combat (the video showing off it’s “super easy” mode really impressed me).

Desert Mountain Mines (Little Big Planet)

So I’ve finally finished my second Little Big Planet level. Check out Desert Mountain Mines. Being able to take my experiences from making the first level, Light Travel, was a huge help and I think there’s a notable difference and improvement between the two. It’s a bit harder, a bit more linear (not completely, though, don’t be shy about poking around every nook and cranny), but overall a much more concerted and integrated experience.

From a creative perspective this level was much easier to execute. I planned it all in advance (check out my notes and drafts of ideas at the levels web page) and, while there was basically a complete overhaul of the idea at the beginning of building the level, after that shift things staid on track for the most part. I couldn’t get in everything I had planned (my level overheated!) but it’s always nice to have ideas left over to use for the next level!

This level had its fair share of complex contraptions. Planning out the order of operations and the different tools the game has available took a good deal of ingenuity, patience, and research, but for the most part I was able to get everything in and working the way I envisioned. The LBP community is pretty smart, so there’s always resources to look at for crazy circuitry. Even if they don’t have exactly what you need it’s a great place for ideas and inspiration.

Once again, please check out Desert Mountain Mines. I hope you enjoy it. Any feedback is most welcomed. Have fun!

New Design Content

I’ve added a quintuplet of game designs to my list of Personal Work in the Design section. The overarching theme to them is quick, small, and stirring games. Whether they’re on a web browser or the iPhone, I think any medium can deliver a unique and moving experience. I’d like to prove that hypothesis some day.

The Player as the Final Ingredient

What is the value of text in games? Well, it requires the player to internalize things, to apply their own imagination and judgment into recreating the subject of the text. This internalization of the text and its processing through the player adds to the experience in such a way that it cements their immersion into the game. The game world and their imagination become inexorably interwoven.

Most games only have the player contribute in a spacial manner. Move here shoot there use attack A at time B if target C is moving along vector D. On the competitive side people can find much joy in this: trying to guess their opponents next move, leading their opponent into a trap, applying that level of mind games. But that’s a level of hardcore most people don’t strive for. Most people enjoy using their own judgment in regards to more cerebral content. They enjoy having a meaningful impact to a larger world (rather than just another player, even if it’s just the illusion of a meaningful impact).

Being able to apply their imagination and judgment are key components of why I think many have enjoyed such games from Myst to Killer7. In Myst the final puzzle piece of the story doesn’t fall into place until the end. For the duration of the game they’re left with their intuition warning them against their quest and the haunting clues they stumble across in the various worlds. What’s most enjoyable is trying to figure out what happened as the game progresses, and trying to figure out how any choice can be made between the two brothers when both are painted as equal though different kinds of evil. It creates a moral dilemma for the player, and it’s the desperation of this moral dilemma (and probably a healthy dose of curiosity, and perhaps unfortunately some trial and error) that drives the player to make the correct choice. Once the final puzzle piece is revealed everything becomes clear (more or less).

In Killer7 players simply aren’t even given all the pieces to the puzzle. Educated guesses can be made to fill in many blanks. Many things can be vaguely deduced from small bits and pieces the game throws out but never particularly highlights. The real joy of the game comes from trying to understand everything the player is seeing and what is explicitly stated creates and intriguing and evolving narrative. Like Silent Hill 2, something impossible is taken as reality at the beginning of the game (dead wife wrote a letter? guy can change form?) and even if the player began the game with skepticism as to the reality of these presented truths, everything points to their validity until the player hits the twist, at which point all past experience must be viewed in a new light. That, in and of itself, is possibly one of the best ways to ensure a game has replayability. The narrative one experiences the first and second times playing such games is vastly different, without there being any differences on the game side at all. Polish a game all you want, but unless the chance is taken to rely on the player as the final piece of the game experience the longevity so few games enjoy will not be achieved.

The common element seems to be the use of withholding information from the player. It’s a dangerous tool, that can just as easily enrage as intrigue. The Xenosaga and even Metal Gear Solid series use this technique quite flagrantly and both can be said to have gone too far in various instances. The transgression comes when the ambiguity reaches the point where the player feels helpless in figuring out what’s going on, where the narrative is too concrete to allow for wild interpretations but at the same time too poorly lit to allow the player to make heads or tails of various shadows. In such cases it’s sometimes better for the player to go with the flow and simply enjoy information as it’s given, not trying to futilely read into things prematurely, but such a position can be counter intuitive and simply not enjoyable to many people.

What place does text have in a modern video game, though? The crucial thing to realize here is that it’s not important how information is given to the player (as far as reading or listening to it), but what form that information takes in the game world and what personal experiences the player can relate to the information’s delivery method. Something heard on the radio is fundamentally received differently from something read in a book. The creation of a world that provides opportunities to encounter such content is key to creating a solid base that can draw in the player’s imagination.

Emotionally Deep Fists

Can combat be as deep as dialog? Movement can convey just as much information just as much as a spoken word, but in the limited and defined worlds of video games what can be said has to be limited. Well written games with diverse dialog trees do a good job of allowing the player to find an option that matches how they feel, but combat is generally purely about efficiency and ease. Dialog can even facilitate changing moods, but changing combat styles on the fly is less common (and generally switches out one set of moves for another set, which are generally supplementary within similar dimensions rather than opening up a whole new perspective).

Combat also seems to distill down to an idea of “the best moves.” Combat is fairly linear (outside of competitive fighting games where many different play styles can be selected by choosing different characters). There are highest hit combos, high damage hits, etc. You don’t have the openness as has been explored with dialog. A simple example would be SMT: Nocturne. You have several endings available to you based on the dialog options you choose during the course of the game. No one dialog option is necessarily better than another, the path you choose is up to you. When it comes to combat, though, there are very clear and hard set right/wrong choices. Further, there are varying degrees of right choices. Even God Hand, which has much more free form combat, still requires the player to arm themselves with a well balanced portfolio of moves if they hope to succeed. In Devil May Cry, where your moves are more set, combat styles don’t proffer up much of a psychological profile difference, though by planning your moves/combos rather than button mashing you are rewarded with more powerful moves (perhaps that would mean Dante is a much more thoughtful brawler than his attitude would let on).

What sort of system could be used to address this communicative/immersive gap between dialog and action? It would most likely end up being determined on a more case by case basis as far as what the vision of the particular game required. Perhaps instead of tasking the player to choose the exact move they wish to execute, the would simply have to choose which “mood” they wish to attack with. It could still be largely analogous to current conventions (angry to strong, antagonistic to light, etc). An AI could determine the “best” move to make in any particular situation based on enemy types, numbers, and proximity. This could be seen as taking away some control from the player, but even now games don’t task the player with physically swinging every fist and weapon they wish to wield (and in some/many cases shouldn’t. I can’t wield a sword as deftly as Zoro, and if I play a Zoro game I want to see some fancy sword work). A balance must be met, of course. Perhaps having the AI combat director could be turned off to allow the player to simply bind moves to each button.

The end goal should always be to attach the player to the actions on screen. Specifics could be brainstormed and playtested for months, but I feel a large shift on combat conventions could help refresh the genre right about now.

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