Moving Forward

So I’ve been pretty focused lately on doing more game development, hence my not updating the blog as much. After the Summer Game Academy, I started learning UDK, GameSalad, and the Creation Kit.

One thing I’ve discovered about myself, and I’ve known this for awhile but I never understood it, is the fact that I thrive in a team environment. I see myself as a very creative person but it means nothing when I’m the only one creating because my mind just gets too caught up in all of the details. It halts my progress every time. It’s part of the reason I started teaching myself GameSalad; I needed something fairly straightforward and simple so that I didn’t get bogged down by over complicated mechanics. I started making some progress but then I get hit by the double whammy of a) my Macbook Pro needing to be completely wiped and b) GameSalad updating to a version that my OS couldn’t handle. It wasn’t until later that GameSalad came out for the PC as well, but I was already moving forward with newer plans.

I really like the Creation Kit. I never realized it before but I have done mods in the past; I just never actually shared them before because a) I didn’t realize there was a community where you could share your creations, b) I was restricted with my internet access, and c) I was too young to and the internet was too young for me to do the research to share my creations. So, there I sat with the Starcraft, Warcraft II, Tenchu 2, Timesplitters 2, and Red Faction level editors, making levels that only I would play.

Creation Kit brought me back to why I enjoyed all of those level editors from my childhood. It rekindled a passion that I knew was a part of me but wasn’t finding any means of being fulfilled. Coupled with some new friends I’ve been making, I finally have a burning desire to create things again, not just experience what others are making.

Which leads me to a project that I’m more than excited to share. I’ve been invited to contribute to an indie game called Lvl 26 and I have to say that I’m more than thrilled. I’m working with a team that I’ve worked with a few times at HU and when they announced that they were going to focus on game development, I knew an opportunity presented itself. This was about a year ago and now I’m a level designer for their game. I’m revisiting what sparked my initial interest in game design and I’ve never felt more motivated.

I encourage you guys to check it out. We’ve just started development on the project and the website just went live this past week. We’re keeping it completely transparent so that whoever is interested in how a game is designed from the ground up can join us for the ride. We’re also still looking for some developers so if you want to show your support for the games industry and have the necessary skills, you can contact us through the website.

I’m looking forward to this rekindled passion. I know I’ve been dragging my feet through the sands but I realize it’s because I thought I was alone. But not anymore.

Cheers.

Summer Game Academy

It’s been awhile since I posted but I feel the urge to reflect on how I handle The Summer Game Academy, a 2 week summer camp for high school students interested in game development.

I was never a great student in school. I was B average, didn’t do extracurricular activities, and I took notes but could never retain information. I guess I didn’t feel engaged enough. Knowing that my knowledge was graded didn’t motivate me enough to care. I only cared if I got below a C which, I must say, am glad that it didn’t happen much because I cared enough not to fail. I doodled like nobody’s business on the margins of my homework, tests, binder, book cover…where ever there was blank space and a lecture on things that I felt had no effect on me, I was day dreaming with lines of graphite. I wanted to create but was limited to how much I could do with out obviously not paying attention.

In retrospect, I imagine teachers must have looked upon me with impatience, disdain, or maybe indifference. I can’t imagine I was encouraged to doodle but I did take notes so that must have accounted for something. There just wasn’t any interest beyond what was required.  I wonder how different I would be today had I tried as hard as I would now, understanding how interesting math, science, foreign languages, and literature have become in my mind. Knowing how much these things could benefit all of the little instances in life that require more than a general understanding. But I’ve always been a generalist; I’ve always been good enough.

Flash forward to now and I’m teaching students. Not in a grand, tenure based, semester long, pass or fail sort of way…but I’m teaching people how to think differently in small intervals of time. I see myself as a brief interjection in an otherwise master plan that was chartered for each one of these students’ lives. Philosophy has always fascinated me because it was always about different perspectives. In most instances, I don’t think in black and white and I try to catch myself when I do (my wife catches me faster than I ever could), and I don’t want to think in black and white because that leaves nothing to the imagination. I teach game design, another type of art. And I say art not to start a timeless debate but because it requires a creative approach to problem solving.  If you look at art as simply expression then I think you’re limiting your perspective on just how creative so-called non-artists appear to be.

I worked as a landscaper for awhile, doing hardscaping for residential homes. I worked with a guy who has been hardscaping for over a decade. We had a discussion regarding the craft of turning a hill into an elaborate stairwell or a pock marked section of a backyard into an inviting and organic patio. He mastered the craft long ago to the point where he could eyeball measurements, levels, and angles. He would always measure just to be sure, but he knew his craft. And it was this innate understanding that pulled him out of a simple skill set and into the realm of an artist because he no longer had to think about the math, just the way it was created. This allowed him to focus more on making it look amazing.

The same could be said for a programmer; someone who understands the intricacies of code so well that they no longer focus on creating code that works but code that is elegant, efficient, and understandable.

This is why I think anyone can be an artist and that art isn’t simply the creation of something left open to interpretation.

I could keep digressing, but the point I’m trying to make is that the Summer Game Academy always challenges me to think about my approach to interacting with someone who is there specifically to learn from me. I’m noticing that my preferred method is to show the basic concepts and then step back as they try to apply those concepts to their own creations. I’ve read and I’m told that this is a solid approach but how much distance is necessary? How much do I let them struggle or hold their hand through the process? How much do I leave to “you’ll learn the more you do it” versus “this is how you should approach this problem”?

I was never one to interrupt someone else and I’m finding that I do the same thing when it comes to the classroom; I introduce and then I let them run wild. I only intercept if conversations turn into heated arguments, but otherwise I just sit back and see what happens. Game design is such an organic process that I feel the need to keep it as organic as possible. As of now, my only interaction is introducing concepts, providing materials, enforcing deadlines, and sparking conversations. Everything else I leave to them, which means I leave the learning to them.

Is that wrong? Is it even good enough?

PAXEast Review and Lessons Learned

So I just got back from my first PAX experience, PAXEast. For those who haven’t been to PAX before, it’s a convention that celebrates gaming in many of it’s different forms and has events for both gamers and game developers. I was pleasantly surprised as to how much was available for such a little cost (1 day passes gives you access to everything and it’s only $65 for a three day pass). Compare this to GDC 2012 where the all access pass was $1475 for the early bird ($2100 for full price) and you can see why this particular event keeps growing in numbers.

It is worth noting that, since this is open to both gamers and game developers of all ages, you will have more of a mixed crowd that isn’t there just to learn about furthering their careers or refining their skills. The panels weren’t separated into different tracks (art, programming, design, audio, etc) and were focused a little more on providing insight, but the nature of a panel can generally lead to more interesting aspects of game development that you overlook or take for granted.

Most of my time was spent going to the different panels of interest but I did have some time to try a few games. I was mainly interested in The Secret World and Max Payne 3 and, without boring you with the personal details of my reactions, I can tell you that I was disappointed in The Secret World and am more excited about playing Max Payne 3 than before I had hands on time with it. For those who follow the series and know how difficult the controls were; everything is much smoother now. Like, worlds smoother. They changed the controls quite a bit from the original setup but I was told that the buttons were still customizable.

I was also looking forward to seeing the Assassin’s Creed 3 booth but decided that a two minute alpha gameplay trailer wasn’t worth the two hour wait and an inflatable tomahawk.

Speaking of waiting times, one valuable lesson was how fast lines for the panels fill up. Underestimating how early people will line up for certain talks, I was usually in the back of the room where the audio wasn’t always the best, depending on the speaker. Certain panels had people line up as early as 3 hours before hand (the one being referenced was held by Gearbox who is apparently known to give out plenty of swag and pizza to everyone who attends). Having never played the Borderlands series (it’s on my to do list), it was hard for me to get excited about the entire panel, but it did make me want to play the games after I was done. But I will get into that a bit more later.

Some of the other unique aspects of PAX were:

  • Daily live concerts and dance parties
  • A massive section solely for board games
  • An even massiver (I know) section solely for PC gaming
  • A classic arcade section that featured an arcade machine collector from York, PA (kind of cool)
  • Rooms dedicated to console gaming (I didn’t get to check this out)

This truly was an event for gamers; I’m certainly no hard core gamer these days but it was quite the experience seeing borderline obsessive gamers when they’re given the chance to go wild and talk with other borderline obsessive gamers. Until this past weekend, I didn’t have an understanding of just how insanely large the gaming culture has grown in both culture and demographics. It was certainly an enlightening experience.

My main concern for my first PAX was the panels: there were a lot of good ones and it was difficult because they were setup to start every 30 minutes with each panel lasting 60 minutes. Add to that the fact that multiple panels had the same blocks of time and you quickly prioritize the most interesting talks from the ones that you feel you can live without. I will briefly go over the ones I went to some of the lessons I took away from them.

Gamers with Jobs Presents: Gaming for Grown-ups

The gist of this panel was how to gamers who’ve gamed since childhood now engage with the medium on a personal level. I was interested in this panel because I wanted to get some insight into whether professional game developers still play for fun or if they mostly play for research. My initial question wasn’t answered but what was interesting was how games used to be such a solitary experience. Ken Levine mentioned how, having no friends, he would always be in his room making new characters for D&D and playing through campaigns by himself. His personal story led to the revelation that most people tell you that you have to grow up and he thought that that statement was bullshit. He’s proud that he still has the same interests now that he had as a kid and it’s enabled him to want to make such compelling experiences.

My take away from this panel parallels a similar frame of mind to the current viral video of John Cleese on creativity, where he talks about creating within a closed mode versus creating in an open mode, even going so far as to reference Johna Huizinga and his theory of play. Ultimately, what the research mentioned concludes is that the most creative people have no problem entering a state of play. Certainly, one should have a disciplined mind when working in a professional setting, but, like the Buddhist idea of the beginner’s mind, once you’ve acquired the experience to craft these experiences, true skill is exercised by having all of that knowledge in your mind but approaching the problem as if you didn’t know what you were doing. The connection between the two talks being the ability to stay curious and know when you need to make decisions as opposed to play with possibilities.

Design an RPG in an Hour

I wasn’t sure what to expect  with this event but I was expecting the panel to break us into groups and actually design games. Instead, this was more of an audience participation chat where a game designer walks us through the framework of a successful RPG, has the audience suggest different things, and then the audience votes on the suggested items.

The most interesting thing about this particular panel was that it engaged the audience to discuss why they made certain decisions which then would lead to why certain elements are more friendly to game design than others. My biggest influence from this was actually using this exercise for events that we hold.

Educating Through Play: The Future of American Education

I was interested in this talk simply because I know it’s a growing issue and, since I will eventually be having kids, it would be good to have some developer insight into this subject.

The panel involved professionals from Extra Credits, RIT, and Learning With Portals, as well as Alex Peake who created Code Hero, and their individual efforts into how they’re incorporating elements of play into the teaching. The general consensus from the panel was that this is a healthy direction for education because generations from here on out will be so engrossed with technology and games that teaching them without utilizing these resources ,and applying what they learn to what they love to do, would actually inhibit their ability to learn. This stems from the fact that the current American education system was put in place when America needed to educate factory workers and soldiers. There is apparently actual research that shows that the current system in place was designed for drill instructors who are trying to get their soldiers to remember facts as fast as possible.

Ultimately, the current skills that are needed for the current workforce are lateral thinking, group collaboration, and spatial reasoning (I may not have transcribed those from my memory accurately), all of which are utilized in game design. The last interesting thing about this talk was the attendees who had their own unique challenges to solve like not wanting to lose the ability to use books. One particularly passionate attendee who was a college professor on rhetoric completely disagreed with the panel and it was interesting to watch the debate.

As for what I took away from this, it’s hard to say. I understand that there are more interesting ways of engaging students but there is some nagging doubt as to how well it can be pulled off. You hear a lot about successful implementations and it will be interesting to see how this develops as time moves on.

Extra Credits

I wanted to sit in on this panel because the Extra Credits teams is amazing and I wanted to see my friend James Portnow in action. Unfortunately, the whole cast wasn’t able to make it due to deadlines, so it ended up being James and a microphone answering people’s questions. A lot of it turned into a breaking into the industry exchange so I can’t say that I really took anything away from this talk except I now know why Dan’s voice on the Extra Credits videos sounds the way that it does.

Irrational Games: Making a Monster

This was a highly anticipated panel which I’m glad I had the opportunity to attend. Not only did I get a free poster out of it (everyone did) but it was such a great experience listen to how passionate Irrational Games is about creating living, breathing characters.

Ultimately, the takeaway was that they always try to think of the monster not just in terms of the game but how they existed before the moment the player interacts with the monster. For each of their monsters, they always want the player to have a  context for the monster’s existence; a moment when you almost feel sorry for the creature, hinting at the tragedy of what they have become before the moment that their kill mode takes over and a battle takes place that mimics the downfall of the city in which the story takes place.

I can honestly say that very few games have tugged at me emotionally in a way that experiencing a Big Daddy did. The combination of their hauntingly sad moans as they look for Little Sisters always caused me to pause for a moment and observe them, making up some sort of internal story of how they have come to be what they are. It made the idea of killing Big Daddies much harder than it should have been. Nothing is more motivating that being chased with a giant drill or being shot at with a rivet gun, but the moment before and after the battle is always filled with some sort of remorse.

Legal Issues in the Game Industry

This panel was meant to educate me on the current topics of SOPA related efforts and the lawyer side of game development. There was a lot of talk but the overall message to the audience was that the rights of video games as art are not in any immediate danger. The Supreme Court has stated that video games are just as much an art form as film, literature, and visual art. It was unfortunate to hear about some of the struggles of hobbyist developers versus indie game developers, but there are efforts to make it easier for smaller developers to be legally represented without huge costs.

Plot vs Play: The Duality of Modern Game Design

I attended this panel to get some more insight into Ken Levine’s approach to game design. The talk included other professionals rom Obsidian, Joystiq, and Kotaku. Honestly, I’m hitting a wall with this talk; I can’t remember much from it. I don’t recall there being much of a significant debate on the idea of plot vs play. There was a lot of experience sharing and positing of the reason certain developers focus more on story, but there was nothing apparently conclusive about this panel. Which is was kind of unfortunate.

Transmedia, Alternative Reality Games, and Storytelling: Why Players (and Creators) Should Care

This was the first panel that I attended that didn’t fill a room. Granted, it was at 7:30pm so most people were exhausted and/or hungry. Needless to say, it was sad not to see a lot of people interested in this aspect of gaming. The other disappointment was with the presentation itself. I went into this expecting them to go into some awesome examples of how ARGs can be further utilized for different situations but instead it was a simple recap of previous ARGs that came out. They speculated a little on where they think ARGs are going, but it was completely nebulous and didn’t offer any excitement. It’s a shame too because the description of the talk and the expertise of the panel built up this expectation of how the different traits of ARGS should be used in more areas of entertainment, not just advertising. In no way did this talk tell me why players and creators should care.

The Genre Divide: Reassessing How We Define Videogame Genres

This was another talk by my friend James Portnow and the talk was about how merging particular traits of certain games together is making it harder to know how to analyze games in general. This is important when it comes to understanding your  target demographic or even knowing what games to let your kids play.

His talk was based off of a research paper called MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research which talks about the relationship that developers and gamers have with games, breaking all of the components down to three major parts: Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics. It then goes on to explain the different types of core experiences that gamers have how this can help us to start to understand games in a more educated light. I won’t go into the details but he basically made it a discussion with the audience as to what games they play and why they play them. This suggested that the different genres of games do have some core experiences that translate into different types of game mechanics.

James didn’t get to finish his talk but my initial feelings centered around the idea that if different people play for different reasons, how can you even begin to categorize games based off of the experience gamers have or want to have? I’ll leave it at that for now. I do want to explore this topic more.

Inside Gearbox Software

This panel was the Gearbox team showing off new things for their two upcoming titles: Borderlands 2 and Aliens: Colonial Marines. I can say that I want to play both of these games…that’s my takeaway from this panel.

Whew…that was a lot.

Nostalgia and Extras

Lately, I’ve been craving old video game sound tracks that came on Playstation 1 discs. I remember discovering the Nightmare Creatures soundtrack which brought my mind more in tune with the actual music that goes into video games. At this point, I only really remember a few others from my PS1 collection; Fighting Force and One.

This gets me thinking to more recent games and all of the goodies that come with the track, independent of completing the game, which is basically zero. And that’s ok, I enjoy the motivation of unlocking cool things by playing through the game. I remember playing through Indigo Prophecy and loving some of the music. After I completed the game and realized that I could “purchase” songs from the soundtrack with points I accumulated in the game, I unlocked the songs I liked and then listened to the music while doing the dishes or something.

I think what I ultimately enjoy is the fact that this is content that I isn’t used in the game; it’s the aesthetic choices of the developer that they’re sharing with the audience which I think is something more games should do. It would be awesome if the soundtrack (whether it be the highlights or the entire score) could be included with the game. They do it with concept art a lot but with musicians being some of the forgotten masters in the video games industry, I think it would be appropriate to unlock full versions of the music just so I can listen to it while I read a book or draw.

This leads me to think about what else could come with a game that is completely separate from the gameplay itself. What if games could provide full, high res statues of the main characters that can be simply rotated…allowing us to appreciate all of the details of some of the main characters that may go unnoticed in the game. I remember God of War having a section where you could look at character designs that were omitted from the final game but shown off in a bonus section. That’s the kind of insight that makes me appreciate a game even more.

I do enjoy the concept art that comes with certain games, although, I hate that they usually make it really small. I would love it if there was a simple interface that allowed me to zoom in and explore the images up close, paying attention to how that artist handled light, perspective, composition, etc.

Behind the scenes videos are pretty cool too, like when Ghostbusters: The Video Game had videos with Dan Akroyd talking about his involvement with the project and all of his insights into the movies. I think it’s a great way of rewarding the audience for investing the companies game, more so than how social media is used to show off a lot of content and gameplay before the game is released. To me, part of the excitement of a game is not knowing the majority of things I’m going to encounter when I play the game. As much as I love Irrational Games, this is my biggest complaint with them; they’re giving me so much information about the game play in Bioshock Infinite that I already feel familiar with the world which is not where I want to be. I stopped watching all of their social media releases because I wanted to feel like there were still a lot of surprises left.

I’ve been following the Max Payne 3 social media insights and I have to say those feel a bit better. Instead of showing all of the new things they added (hard to miss since it’s in a completely different setting) they’re focusing more on how the familiar elements from the past two games have been tweaked for the newest installment. They also introduced the multiplayer game modes but they didn’t overdo it by talking about the details.

Coming back to the point, one more thing I liked that certain games used to do was provide the spectator camera to watch AIs battle it out. Twisted Metal did this as their one of their main menu screens ( I forgot which one). Even Warcraft had a quick segment where, if you waited too long to do anything on the menu screen, it would show you a section of land with a bunch of units from two sides that were within range enough to just start duking it out. I think it’s fun to just watch how things unfold and I would enjoy seeing that in more games. It would be for those moments where you just completed a game but weren’t ready to leave the entire world alone.

Anyway, does anybody on the other side of the internet tubes have things they would love to see as extras in a game but don’t involve game play?

Level Design Pt 3

It’s interesting that the IGDA newsletter, Perspectives, comes out with a focus on level design as I go through my own inner understanding of it. What’s refreshing is that a lot of my reflections are similar to approaches used by professional game designers. It’s certainly worth a read. For fear of too much bias based off of reading new information provided by professional game designers, I will continue down my own path.

Now that  we have a brief overview of the Journey out of the way, we need to now understand the player’s experience in the game, or what I currently dub The Path. I call it the path because the journey is specifically for the character in his own story. There is no avoiding the journey’s entire design…it is meant to be experienced in a particular way (if it exists at all) and it is meant to have a conclusion, whether it be one specific conclusion or a variety of endings determined by the player’s path.

That being said, the Path is the amalgam of the design decisions that allow the player to interact with the world. Just like you are able to see the path down the hallway of a school or the path of a hiking trail through the woods, the player is presented with a way to progress through the world and through the character’s journey. This includes all of the obstacles that challenge the character (apparent or not) and the details necessary to make both the journey and the path feel believable and real (environments, characters, vehicles, weapons, sounds, weather, etc).

I’ll go through the different genres again so we can get a better understanding of this. This will be a little more obvious since this is, for lack of a better term, the superficial part of level design.

  • Puzzle / Strategy Games - This category focuses on every level have similar playing fields that reuse the same basic game resources throughout.
    • Puzzle - The path laid out for the player is usually quite simple; a contained area within which the puzzle pieces are manipulated or effected.  This can be seen in both non-character games like Tetris and character games like Angry Birds. The player’s path is generally the same and repetitive, with the challenge coming from how complex the puzzles become the player progresses to higher levels.
    • Strategy - The path is generally less linear in terms of physical structure or boundaries with more of the path unfolding with how the player chooses to pursue the challenges at hand. Generally, these types of games are to overcome another community while surviving whatever obstacles are presented. This usually means that the path is governed by finite resources available to both competing communities and the risks each community is willing to take in terms of exploration and offensive / defensive tactics. The path, in this case, is the main reason to play these games with the journey being a way to introduce new levels or upgrades and provide context for the experience.
    • Sports / Racing - The path here is the playing field, the stadium, or the track. These are usually built off of existing arenas and areas designated for sports so it makes it easy for the player to understand what they need to do.
    • Fighting - Falling back to a similar approach with puzzle games, level design here is basically the same layout with only cosmetic details providing the variety. There has been exploration with levels branching out when certain conditions are met, as demonstrated by games like Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe.
  • Narrow Path Games - This category’s underlying progression is a step up from Puzzles and Strategy in that the levels are usually more context rich and focused on movement through a generally linear space, getting from location A to location B.
    • Platform / Action  / Adventure / Survival Horror / First and Third Person Shooters / Stealth - All of these types of games generally have a planned out route for the player to go through in order for them to experience the the character’s journey the way the designer wanted them to. This ranges from simple “on rails” games where the player has no choice but to go in a specific direction to the narrow path with gives players freedom within fairly tight boundaries; the player can explore this area as much as they want but once the area has been cleared, there really is no reason to stick around. This is done for a reason, obviously, as the designer wants the player to not get bored or not get stuck in a certain part of the game. Giving a clear path with little to no alternative almost guarantees the player will keep moving from segment to segment. These segments are generally broken up as the levels that we, as knowledgeable gamers, have come to understand them; the character starts in a safe area and moves through dangerous territory, trying to find checkpoint along the way where there is a break from the dangerous goings on, and then keep moving through dangerous territory until that level has come to end, usually signified by a change of location, a change of pace, a change of character…anything that lets you know that you’ve successfully maneuvered this particular area and are ready to move on to the next.
    • Action RPGs – These are generally designed the same way as the above genres, with the exception being that these levels are more often randomly created so that, while the journey remains the same for the characters, the actual path for the player can change every time. You still have the obvious starting point and ending point, like a set of stairs that leads to a lower part of a dungeon or a bridge that leads you out of the forest and into the path up to the mountains.
  • Open World Games – These types of games can certainly be incorporated into many (maybe all?) of the previous genres with one key change.
    • Sandbox - The nature of these games is to give players as much freedom as possible to make their own decisions regards to the character’s journey and the player’s experience. The character’s journey can certainly end but that doesn’t mean that the player’s path needs to. If we look at Grand Theft Auto III and on, we are introduced to the story and the world through a series of events, however, once we are in control of the character, we don’t have to continue his journey one bit; instead we’re completely free to explore the world, affect it’s objects and inhabitants, and create our own unique moments. Now, a difference between GTA and other open world games is that the designers do try to get you to engage with the character’s journey a little bit by making certain sections of the world off limits until you’ve completed so much of the character’s journey. They also limit all of the resources available to your character as well so that you’ll be more inclined to finish the journey so that you can have access to all of the goodies the game has available. If we look at a game like The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, as soon as we’re injected into the world (after the initial dungeon crawl), we can go where ever we want and do whatever we want. Locations are not reserved for completing certain parts of the character’s journey; they are all there waiting for you to stumble upon them. Now, again, the player is enticed to complete the character’s journey so that they can get access to some pretty cool gear, but it’s always a choice. And, like all of these games, once you finish the character’s journey, you can continue down whatever path you want until you’ve explored the entire world.

So, I’ve gone over the character’s Journey and the player’s Path. That leaves the Obstacles which, honestly (and after reading more of the Perspectives articles), can be lumped into the Path part of level design as these are things the player directly interacts with. I think the most important clarification is understanding how the Journey and the Path are two separate but parallel experiences in games.

Level Design Pt 2

Ok, I touched on my definition of a level; a specific segment in a video game that reinforces the progress a player has made in that game while challenging them to advance to the next segment.

I’ve also touched on some simple categorization of different types of games and their approach to level design: Puzzle / Strategy, Narrow Path, and Open World.

So, what can I do with this information? The next step I took was to understand what each level should contain. Again, details will be determined by the game mechanics, the story being told, player dynamics, and player psychology, but so far I understand level design to contain the following pieces:

  1. The Journey
  2. The Path
  3. The Obstacles
For this post, we’ll look at the first piece and explore how it it utilized in different game genres.

The Journey

The journey is what the player as a character is supposed to experience. This ties into the entire story arc, if there is one put in place, and will involve whatever elements that cause the character to grow, hopefully allowing the player to become more engrossed in the story line as well as more connected to the character they’re playing. As I keep mentioning, game mechanics will define the details of an experience, which will start breaking the categories into sub-categories. We’ll look at the most common categories but, again, keep in mind that a) we’re focusing specifically on level design and b) I haven’t played every game that exists so it’s likely I’m not accounting for every innovation out there. We’re sticking to my personal experiences.

  • Puzzle / Strategy Games – This category focuses on every level having similar playing fields that reuse the same basic game resources throughout.
    • Puzzle – Puzzle games are one of the few genres on this list that don’t need a story to keep the game engaging. Logic puzzles like Tetris are less likely to have a story but physics puzzles like Angry Birds are more likely to have some sort of plot development. In many other games, puzzles help break up monotonous game play which means they will tie in to some aspect of the story, but not necessarily be central to it. These are generally called mini-games and are sometimes central to family games, like Mario Party. In any of these cases, if a story is present, it is used to help us understand how the character is progressing in their story but isn’t focused on diving deep into a player’s emotions.
    • Strategy –  Obviously, all games, by their nature, require the player to form a strategy in order to overcome the obstacles presented to them. This particular genre, however, is more a reference to the real time strategy games like Starcraft or Civilization. The player is usually the character and is meant to be an almost omnipresent being that leads a community of beings towards a goal. This suggests that the journey of the level takes place through accomplishing a range of tasks that benefit the community. Ultimately, though, specific criteria must be met and the level must be completed in order for the journey to unfold.
    • Sports / Racing – The majority of these games have their own implied journey since they are usually copies of real life people, teams, or machines, allowing the player to vicariously (albeit, loosely) experience a day in the life of a these types of experiences. A journey, in this sense, can then be defined by a player since these games are mostly about the individual matches between teams and developing those teams. Now, there are sports games that are more comical such as Outlaw Golf but, having never played them, I can’t offer anything more than a guess.
    • Fighting – As the name of the genre implies, these games (in most cases) offer little more than beating the crap out of someone or something else. In this case, each playable character can have their own unique journey that is revealed as they battle through the other fighters. In a lot of cases, each character even has a level designed with them in mind which helps give a sense of where the character came from or what is unique to their demeanor story progression. Generally speaking though, and relating to the rest of the genres within this category, the character’s story is revealed when the same type of task is completed, with each level increasing in difficulty.
  • Narrow Path Games - This category’s underlying progression of a journey is a step up from Puzzles and Strategy in that the story is commonly revealed during the level as opposed to at the end of a segment of play.
    • Platformer / Action / Adventure / Survival Horror / First and Third Person Shooters / Stealth - Games in this genre focus a lot on a combination of exploration and combat which means that the character’s journey can unfold while they’re experiencing a level. Like a lot of the games in this category, there are usually checkpoints or save spots around areas of significance. This leads to snippets of the character’s journey being revealed throughout a single level, which also usually yields much larger levels or smaller sections that can be accessed while inside of a particular level. The key in this genre though is figuring out how the journey relates to the level that they’re in; why they are there at that particular time, what they have to do to get through it, and what happens at the end that allows them to progress to the next part of their journey (the next level).
    • Action RPG – Action RPGs generally grant limited customizaton to a character, usually having a few characters of pre-determined class, sex, and ability trees. This allows the focus to be on slaughtering endless amounts of minions and demons while focusing little on story progression. An important thing to note, however, is that journeys like this focus more on the world that the characters are trying to save as opposed to the characters themselves.
  • Open World Games - These types of games can certainly be incorporated into many (maybe all?) of the previous genres mentioned with one key change.
    • Sandbox – I realize this genre epitomizes the category in which it is contained, but we’re still focusing on level design and how it affects the journey of the character. Sandbox games, whether they be RPGs, Platformers, Survival Horror, Racing, etc, unravel the story completely through story based tasks. Players have complete control over their actions (as defined by the designer) and are free to do what they will (within the confines of the game), but if they want to actually experience the story, they simply complete quests. Quests then become mini versions of Narrow Path Games or Puzzle / Strategy Games. For instance, Assassin’s Creed is an open world game. Certain tasks that unfold the story involve foot races (Racing), while others involve espionage (Stealth), while others involve traversing an abandoned building (Platformer). Another example would be The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion; certain story based tasks have the character assassinate targets (Stealth), finding a location (Puzzle), clearing a cave of goblins (Fighting). This suggests that open world games are various different genres that are available in a single world. Levels can be dungeons and towns, but they can also be scavenger hunts and escort missions; all of which further the character’s journey.

 

Please leave comments if you want to discuss this further. My next post will move on but I’m happy to keep the conversation going.

Until next time.

Level Design Pt 1

It’s been over a month since I’ve posted anything. I’ve been so incredibly busy that I couldn’t find the time to sit and get some of the thoughts out that have been wandering around in my head.

Something that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is level design. Here at HU, we’re on our first (what I deem to be) real game project. It’s student supported and spans three colleges, so it’s a pretty big production and, being the main overseer of it all (with Charles being the big cheese, obviously), it has been exciting seeing the progress so far. I can’t get into specifics but between that and planning out how I’m going to refinish my basement, level design has been on my mind a lot these days.

As with most approaches to game design, I don’t think there are specific rights and wrongs on how to do something. There are certainly approaches that work better than others and designers learn efficiency with every project they tackle (and complete). But without having a lot of practical experience (unfortunately) due to a lack of game projects that focus on having a player navigate a space, my reflections come from playing games, enjoying the moment as a gamer but also pulling back every few moments to ask myself why I made the decisions that I did. This is common practice and is actually on the lower end of critical analysis seeing as how I’m a passive observer as opposed to a designer, but I still think it’s worth the effort to immortalize it into written (or typed) form which, at the very least, will get it out of my head so I can make room for more musings.

My common approach to analyzing design starts with the following question: What are the common factors that all levels contain? This is quite an abstraction but it is also a very good starting point…I have to start somewhere, right? Also, for the record, I’m fully aware that my approach seems like a recreation of the wheel given the fact that there are already books written on the subject. But, this is the beginning of my journey into understanding level design and, as such, until I get the opportunity to design a level, I will stick to this. Besides, my current free time endeavors are more on re-understanding the human anatomy in 2D and 3D. But I digress.

So, what are the common factors that all levels contain? This might even be a horrible blanket statement because I must first figure out, what is level? Now, I suggest the following answer: a level is a specific segment in a video game that reinforces the progress a player has made in that game while challenging them to advance to the next segment. This statement allows me to now understand how different types of games utilize levels. For instance:

  • Puzzle/Strategy Games generally fix players to a single or similar types of playing fields with each level being a more difficult version of the last. These games will usually always incorporate the same types of game bits that have their properties slightly altered with each passing level. Tetris, Angry Birds, and StarCraft would be good examples of this.
  • Narrow Path Games commonly treat levels as self contained paths that are generally linear in design and contain a lot of obstacles to traverse. Most games can fall into this category with game mechanics separating the core game play experience, like FPS, Platformers, and Racing Games. The difference is more in the game mechanics than the level design. Games like Super Mario Bros., Portal, and God of War would be good examples of this.
  • Open World Games approach levels through story segments; story development and character development are not mutually exclusive in this case with the exception of certain segments not being available until the player has reached a certain level. This is becoming the more popular approach to level design, at least in terms of AAA development catering to the sandbox crowd. Assassin’s Creed, Grand Theft Auto, and The Elder Scrolls are good examples of this.

Now, obviously not all games are created equal and there is a lot of grey area, but this is a good basis for the overall feel for how levels can be approached. Breaking down all games to their base elements will probably reveal one of these three types. Also keep in mind that when you remove an ultimate goal, the experience no longer becomes a game but becomes a toy. “Games” like The Sims and Minecraft are ultimately toys that are turned into games through a player’s natural tendency to create goals when none are present. This changes level design creating an inviting and intuitive sandbox. I think it’s also important to understand that sports games are very complex puzzle games (I could be completely biased given the fact that I never play sports video games so feel free to argue that point).

So, this post is already getting long so I’ll turn this into a series of thoughts so that these can be digestible chunks. I need to get back to work anyway.

I’ll post again soon.

Global Game Jam

It’s been awhile since I posted, I know, but these past few weeks have been crazy.

I was at the Otronicon earlier this month shmoozing with the local Floridians regarding the Virtusphere and how we’re using it to development educational experiences of locations you couldn’t visit in real life (think inside the human body, outer space, or history as some examples of this).

After that, I’ve been using most of my available time planning for the Global Game Jam, with is HU’s first foray into hosting this much anticipated game creation event. This year is a record breaker with a total of 247 registered jamming locations within 48 different countries. As of now, there are a total of 1761 games being created.

Of those 1761, 6 of them are at Harrisburg University. The official submit deadline is 3pm tomorrow so you can’t play them yet. But, after 3pm there will videos to see what each of the games are like and soon after there will be playable games. So, until then, we have a live stream running 24/7 so that you can see what we’re up to at all hours of the day.

When our teams present their final games, you can watch that live or see it at a later date (that link saves all of the presentations so you can see some of the other events HU has had.

What is my role in all of this? Normally I would be making a game but I wanted to stay an organizer this time around. I have been making a board game on my own when I have down time, but I’m not submitting it to the jam. Next year, I think I will help organize and also be an official participant. So, some pictures because I need to put those in my blog.

^ LighthammerFX, representing the heaviest hardware of the bunch with Manic. ^

^ The team in the back is in the early stages of Echo, while one of the members of HUpocalypse is catching some ZZZ not 5 hours into the jam ^

^ The developers of Desert Runner discussing a topic of importance…mainly an awesome Aperture shirt. ^

^ Most of the team behind The Ouroborus in the early stages of conception. ^

What I don’t have is a picture of Jason VandenBerghe because he’s kicking ass from a distance (Montreal, Canada) with his game, The Last Stand.

So, in 16 hours, the final games are to be submitted and presentations of those games will follow a little afterwards. Hope to have some of you watching the results of all of this hard work.

Until next time…

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations Part 2

So I finished AC:R over Christmas break and I have a few more things I would like to share:

Quick Thoughts

  • I miss the Subject 16 mini games. I know that it was time for those to go away so that they wouldn’t get overdone, especially since you finally meet Subject 16, but they were wonderfully crafted and did a great job of breaking up the game play, keeping the player aware of the Templar / Assassin back story throughout history, and instilling even more tangential learning through historical fiction. They were very engaging segments and have inspired my game design thinking when it comes to mixing story with puzzles.
  • I’m glad they got rid of horses. The controls got better with each game but always felt like a chore were never a welcome way to assassinate in my opinion.
  • I’ve always enjoyed renovating the shops in the cities for extra income but I miss seeing the surrounding area improve because of it. It’s a small detail, but a visual improvement helped solidify the idea of me improving the city through my actions. It would have been even more effective given the fact that Templars are able to reclaim their territory, thus giving you a visual reminder that you failed to maintain this area, causing it to go into disrepair again.
  • The game was over before I knew it; even after focusing a lot more on collecting items and renovating shops between missions, the story came to an unexpected close and I was left a bit unfulfilled. Maybe that will change when I watch Embers, but longed for more narrative driven game play.
  • The direction that the story is going has me eagerly anticipating the announcement of the third installment in the series but it is a bit jarring once you realize where the story is actually going. It’s only because, out of the three main settings of the entire story so far (present day, recorded history, and unrecorded history), two of those settings are very familiar and connected to how we’ve come to understand the world. The development team will have to be very careful with how they continue to develop the third element of the story if they want the series to have an engaging yet mature completion to the story. Subject matter like this can become inane to certain mindsets, if the development team is going in the direction I think they are.

Bugs

The Assassin’s Creed franchise has had a very successful track record of seemingly bug free games given how big the cities tend to be and all of the things you can do in them. I don’t remember encountering any bugs from AC or AC:2. In AC: Brotherhood, these was only one bug which required me to restart the game (while on my way to assisting a citizen, I was about to do an air assassination on the final guard harassing the citizen but the citizen killed the guard after I launched from the rooftop. This ended threat to the citizen, causing Ezio to lose his target and slowly float into the air. Had I left it alone, Ezio would have floated into oblivion since I couldn’t access the menu to restart.). In AC: Revelations, there were numerous times when people appeared right in front of me, sometimes causing me to screw a minigame. Other instances involved riflemen, after they’ve locked onto me, being able to see me through walls, and the clipping distance seem to screw up sometimes when I saw a giant ball of fire in the sky and, upon walking a little closer, saw a Templar tower pop right back into place.

Now, all of these didn’t detract from the overall experience, but it does raise the question of whether or not pushing out a title a year is causing some hiccups in their attention to quality.

Collectables

Usually I don’t care about collectables in games because they don’t serve any practical purpose to the narrative. In AC, however, I always go for the treasure chests because I could always use more money. This time they also threw in a bunch of Animus fragments hidden throughout the city. What made them worthwhile was the fact that after you accumulated so many, you could unlock first person mini games that dive into Desmond’s past. Pretty cool except that out of 100 Animus fragments, you only need 35 to unlock all of the mini games. I find that a bit ridiculous because the expectation was built up that if I collect these things, I am rewarded with something. Instead, they stop giving me something at less than halfway through the collection process. I feel like they should have given me more challenges if they were going to include that many fragments. They didn’t all have to relate to Desmond’s past either; they could have been more Altair memories, glimpses into Subject 16′s ancestors,  maybe brief insights into more of Desmond’s ancestors. With the mini games being as abstract as they were, they could have been interactive glimpses into the First Civilization, maybe showing the creation of the Pieces of Eden or different parts of a time line that led from the creation of the First Civilization to its destruction.

The bottom line is, the development team created an expectation with the animus fragments but then ended it prematurely in the gamer’s eye. I don’t think that was a wise design choice.

Enemy AI

I would say that this has been the most challenging AI to date. There was a taste of this in AC: Brotherhood, but now there were different approaches for each enemy type as well as enemies that needed distance in order to attack you helped to really break up the combat and force me to think about each battle. Annoying as it was, I hope this doesn’t go away in the next (final) installment.

Mini Games

The mini games within Constantinople are, more often than not, a sore spot with me.

Racing other assassins, for example, is always frustrating due to the simplistic parkour controls being both a blessing and curse. Thankfully this game had the least amount of racing challenges of all the games because I could never seem to understand how to take advantage of the auto-lock functionality when in active mode. Every race would have to be redone several times because the auto-lock function seemed to choose when it wanted to lock onto a ledge and when it felt like letting me just miss and go crashing into the ground below, causing me to lose the mission. It always seems to be when I want to make subtle adjustments to my path as opposed to complete 90 degree turns or something along those lines. The hook blade assisted in quite a few of these mishaps, but the frustrating part is witnessing the successful execution of jumps that I know shouldn’t have worked and then wondering why something not so daring failed miserably.

I have to say, I did enjoy the cinematic action sequences, particularly the final horse carriage / parachute chase scene. I know the controls are made sluggish to make it harder to control (I probably wouldn’t have any control in moving my parachute left or right while para-carriaging) but some of the turns they have you try to avoid  seem pretty impossible to me to accomplish without taking any damage. The only other complaint is that they only happened at the beginning and the end of the game, nowhere in between.

Storyline

In all of this talk about narrative, there is one issue with the plot that I need to bring up and that is how Desmond is reliving his ancestor’s memories. The very fact that he is reliving his ancestor’s memories implies that no real change can take place; the entire purpose of the Animus is to see what they saw in order to discover hidden knowledge which would then mean that they can only see the memories exactly how they happened. Now, controlling his ancestor within the Animus is the crux of the narrative experience so I can allow that one to slide. One gets me is how Minerva and Jupiter are able to talk to Desmond through his memories of Ezio AND how Ezio is suddenly able to acknowledge Desmond. This ties into the whole paradox of time travel; if it already happened, then how is the past able to acknowledge the future. Furthermore, this is all within Desmond’s head (or, I guess, DNA) which means that Ezio can’t acknowledge Desmond due to the fact that it’s just a digital reinvention of a dead person. It would be like watching a TV show or, (yes) playing a video game. The characters are not aware of themselves being controlled because they are not aware at all.

 

I think that’s about all that I have to say. I’m diving into the multiplayer experience now and I’ll probably have some reflections on that in the next few weeks.

Until next time…

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations part 1

So I’ve sunk about 20 hours in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations since purchasing it. I think it’s time to reflect on some of the new designs implemented into the Assassin’s Creed universe:

Hook Blade

I find this to be a welcome addition to the overall design. It takes a bit getting used to but it can become quite effective for maneuvering Constantinople, not just for using the zip lines but also because it gives enough of an extended reach to make a lot of jumps not so daunting or horrible failures. It’s also quite entertaining when it’s used with killing enemies in close combat, a nice touch for sure.

I don’t find myself utilizing intentionally using it to encounter enemies (there is a specific move that allows you to basically do a Jackie Chan over the enemy and then toss him to the ground in one smooth move) but, then again, I don’t charge into battle often to begin with. My combat style is more focused on defense and counter attacks which makes wonder if the development team ever considered a way for Ezio to grab enemies with the hook blade in close quarters combat in order to pull them into a kill (think Scorpion from Mortal Kombat but much more short range).

One last criticism would be how the development team handled the camera position when travelling on a zip line; I don’t find it to be an ideal solution. Now, I’m only so far in the story (about 37% synchronization), but so far my use of the zip line has had me wishing I could see more in front of me by default as opposed to what’s below me. Generally, for a zip line kill, the enemies are on a roof top by the base of the end of the zip line which would, in my mind, imply the need for the camera to be more forward oriented. As it is now, every time I use the zip line, I have to readjust the slow moving camera so that I can actually see where I’m going, which tends to mean I’m not paying attention to any potential, rapidly approaching enemies.

Overall, I do enjoy all of the advantages that it gives Ezio and I think, camera angles aside, it’s a well balanced mechanic.

 

Bomb Craft

Another new mechanic meant to encourage more diversity in strategy, I’m still 50/50 with it. I do think there is a healthy variety of bombs that can be created.

The only issue becomes actually using them. The physics of tossing a bomb is quite informative since it’s lays out the path the bomb will follow and shows you its area of effect, however, the camera becomes an issue because, again, I feel like it focuses on the wrong field of view to be throwing a bomb. Instead of giving me the same amount of camera control I normally have and fluid controls to easily direct where I want to throw the bomb, I’m restrained to a slower moving camera in a narrow field of view that I’m unable to pull away from AND it’s almost directly behind Ezio making it extremely difficult in many scenarios to throw it exactly where I want it because Ezio is blocking part of the view in which I’m already restricted. It works much better if I’m on a roof top and planning to throw a bomb into the crowd below but if my target is on the same plane as me, it becomes extremely frustrating to throw the bomb exactly where I want it.

I think an easy solution to this, assuming the development team adjusted the camera controls for more precise aiming (with questionable results), would have been making Ezio transparent when planning the bomb route so that the player could see everything. This would at least solve the limited field of view. Ultimately, I feel like this system could have been fleshed out more but, camera issues aside, I do enjoy how it adds another layer to my strategy. Fully mastering when to use specific types of bombs will help me appreciate it more.

 

Tower Defense Mini Game

I’m sure that any gamers who read this have, by now, heard all about the Tower Defense mini game that has Ezio reclaiming lost territory by positioning assassins on roof tops and stopping waves of enemies from gaining access to the tower. I’ll let you do your own research into who is saying what but I agree that this was probably the worst thing that the development team could have implemented.

I do enjoy the idea of a more direct approach to Ezio commanding his clan of newly trained assassins that is deeper than sending them out on missions to other parts of the world, but the execution of this particular idea is clunky at best and becomes a burden. Ultimately, any challenge put into a game should not feel tedious or cheap in terms of forcing the player to make quick decisions. After playing four of these, I made it a priority to make sure it never happens again.

The biggest issues that stand out are it’s unbalanced enemies and unrefined interface. The enemy waves can easily become overpowering very fast, especially when it comes to the riflemen and tanks. I do like the fact that the enemy isn’t just a line of soldiers with no interest in defending themselves as is the standard for other tower defense games, but it’s been frustrating losing a group of assassins to a group of rifleman who hold back from the action without realizing it until I’ve found myself standing alone on the rooftops and in desperate need of refilling spots. I do get an animation for each assassin that I’ve lost,but this leads to a common issue of spending all of my points to place all of my units up front only to find that they can’t do anything when the tank plows through everything and is attacking my base. Yes, I can recall assassins and re-position them, but the time for them to get in and out of position compared to how much damage the tank can do in that amount of time always makes it a futile effort. Ultimately, my assassins who are trained for stealth and sneak attacks are no match for a military assault and it is explicitly illustrated with each battle.

That leaves the interface which is unfortunate given how well Ubisoft does with intuitive interfaces in other aspects of the game. Much like the camera issues in Bomb Crafting, I’m stuck with a limited field of view and camera movement that has been slowed down to allow for more precision. That’s fine, except that in a standard tower defense game I’m given a top down view to help me gauge the area of influence within which each of my units can deal damage and I can see the enemies path clearly, allowing me to figure out my strategy. In AC:R, it’s a fairly straight path which helps alleviate knowing my enemies route but I still have no clue as to how far each of my units can reach; something that’s very important when planning a strategy during a battle.

Along those lines, placing units is quite the chore; I’m given a modest amount of rooftops but the cursor to place a unit is too fluid meaning that I can easily glide over the spot that I want to place them. Just having some sort of grid system, or at least marked areas where the cursor snaps to would help instead of fudging with a sensitive cursor.

I think, overall, that what makes this game frustrating is how fast the enemy troops can move compared to how difficult it is to do seemingly simple tasks. This particular system could have used a lot more play testing and tweaking in order to make it more successful, at least in terms of game design. It does bring up a good point about game flow and how it fits in with the entire AC approach; has Ezio really gone from an assassin to a general? Would have been better to have an advancing army but have Ezio and his army take them out like they normally do? Sure, have a time limit, but allow Ezio to climb around the route and find weaknesses as a large number of soldiers advance upon the Den location. This would make it feel more like Assassin’s Creed and not a failed attempt to break up the game play with a new combat system.

 

That’s it for now, I’ll write more later so that this doesn’t end up being a huge post.