Thursday, June 18, 2009

Designer Emails #2: Item Hoarding

Dan Teasdale

Welcome to the designer email thread, Mr. Brian Chan! In honor of him joining the thread, I have a topic that he might have some idea on how to solve:

Item Hoarding

As a collector, I find myself hoarding powerful weapons and never using them "in case I need them later". I did it with airstrikes in Mercs 2, I did it with nukes in Fallout, and there's probably a bunch of games that I've repressed doing it in.

Is this good? Is this bad? How do you think designers can solve this, or at the very least balance a game where people won't use the most powerful weapons?

Brian Chan

Thanks, everyone, for presenting me with such a warm welcome. I'm looking forward to learning a great deal from all of you. And thanks, Dan, for asking me something I can actually answer (I'm still in that muddle of new terminology and culture shock that comes with switching workplaces [and cities]).

When a player finishes a game with "leftover" items, it can be either a positive or negative indication. On the positive side, the leftover items suggest that the game presents choices, with the items representing the path not taken. If players vary as to their leftover items, even better-the game presents meaningful choices and allows for alternate solutions. On the negative side, leftover items might signify poor communication to player of item utility or scarcity. That is, the player might not have used the item because he or she didn't understand its value or how common or rare it was.

The problem is summarized by the notion that, if players cannot experiment, then they cannot plan. By providing safety nets for experimentation (and failure), designers can discourage item hoarding.

I like when a game provides the player with some sort of consequence- free sandbox in which to "try before you buy." Often, games do this via gated tutorials. In a game where balancing is achieved via scarcity or resource cost, it's nice to give the player "freebies" so as to whet their appetite. And, if an item is a higher- magnitude version of another item the player is already familiar with, then this fact should be made abundantly clear to the player.

A few games solve the scarcity problem without sacrificing balancing- by basing the economics on (easily) renewable resources. In Bioshock, I don't mind testing out new plasmids because EVE is relatively plentiful. In World of Warcraft, all resources can be translated into time, which is a resource that the game's players don't seem to mind spending prodigiously.

Chris Foster

I thought I came to Harmonix after past jobs strategy games and MMO's so that I didn't HAVE to think about balancing uber items of destruction!

I can think of a few tools to balance hoarding versus wanton nuke-spamming: consequences, limitations and scarcity.

Consequences are ways to say that using a superweapon isn't all wonderfulness and smiting, but that there are potentially painful tradeoffs at work. If a super item is going to create lasting negative faction somewhere in your game, or hurt your character/base while crippling someone else's, then you can make people think more strategically about its use.

Limitations are ways to make sure a superweapon isn't always useful in every situation. I think there are a bunch of limitations that aren't appropriate here, since if a weapon is too limited, it's by definition NOT super. I'd be more interested in limits that make the weapon harder to use but no less potent, such as a missile that is slow moving and therefore somewhat easier to avoid, or a weapon that requires prolonged manual control to hit its target in the most destructive manner possible.

Scarcity is a double-edged sword, as Brian called out. Having plentiful resources in your game, but a significant cost for the best weapons, can be a pretty potent balancing factor. You can see this in everything from Civilization to Death Tank. (And if you haven't played Death Tank multiplayer, stop reading this and play it now.)

Dan Teasdale

I'm going to channel a conversation Sylvain and I had after I sent the email, and in turn steal his thunder. Hopefully I'll misrepresent it and he can come in and make it sound more awesome.

So, the biggest problem I have isn't on the spamming end - making something less appealing to use is kinda easy. My problem is when things are so powerful in a way that's not a direct tie to my standard weapons, with the direct example being airstrikes in Mercs. I'll swap my normal weapons up to the most powerful instantly, but I'll hardly ever launch airstrikes unless:
* I've cornered myself in a save and have nothing else to use
* The game forces me as part of a mission objective

Sylvain then brought up Halo, which solves this problem so elegantly that I didn't even realise they'd solved it. Essentially, restricting you to two weapons means you can never hoard a weapon. If you get a superweapon, your incentive to use it is that you'll be able to pick up another weapon soon, so you'll happily spend the small amount of resources.

Thinking forward to Fallout 3, they end up in this weird mushy area. You have your inventory, and when it's full you'll start burning through some of the cooler things in order to make room for other cool things. The problem with that though is that there's still enough room to carry lots of weapons, so the "superweapons" you're burning are things like medical supplies and stimulants.

(As a side note: It's unnerving how many pacing and design problems Halo solved compared to how revolutionary people think of it as being - especially so considering how much designers didn't enjoy it past the first few levels (myself included). Say what you want about the level design issues in the second half or the cookie-cutter narrative, but things like balancing health for encounters rather than levels, or getting players to experience more cool things by reducing their amount of choice, these things have ended up changing how people balance all types of games.

Funnily enough, designers never give Bungie never credit for it because of the other issues in the game. At the same time, Half-Life did the exact same thing but flipped (standard mechanics, amazing narrative innovations) but it's the game that people reference in terms of the turning point of FPSes. For mechanics designers, it's mildly depressing food for thought :) )

Chris Foster

While waiting for Sylvain to take back what's rightfully his, I'll chime in with this observation.

Your Halo anecdotes remind me that good game mechanics are really like good film editing. When I studied film in college, one thing that was hammered into me is that bad editing -- like an jump-cut, or someone facing left talking across the room to someone who's supposed to be looking at them but is ALSO facing left -- immediately draws attention to itself. However, good editing is invisible editing; it works so well that no one realizes it's working, and all of its subtle emotional and psychological manipulations occur while no one is looking.

When a game mechanic does exactly what is necessary to produce fun, then it's likely that no one will notice that the mechanics are even there; they're too busy having fun. And while that can be a little tough on the designer's ego, remember that the flipside is someone calling you out for your BAD design decisions. I'll call it a fair trade.

Sylvain Dubrofsky

Thanks Dan! I realize at this late hour that the deadline for this email is tomorrow and you typed up a lot of stuff I immediately thought of from my own gaming experience so I won't have to lose too much sleep :)

I remember finishing Half-life 1 having used primarily pistol and crowbar throughout the game. I had all this ammo left over for all these cool weapons that I barely used. The same thing happened with RE 4. I must have had 30 grenades when I finished that game!

Halo had a nice natural solution for the problem. As an aside I am a fan of the series (especially Halo 1 and 3) and think the innovations the game generated are often overlooked - primarily: checkpoint saves, dedicated melee and grenade buttons, 2 weapon slots, dual wielding, regenerative health and the FPS-style driving controls.

I agree with the Brian in the previous email that I prefer getting each new weapon (or any item really) in an environment where I can freely experiment with it - AND that fact is made clear to me. Also agree with Chris that Death Tank rules :) I find if I get too many weapons in Death Tank I get overwhelmed so I tend to only concentrate on 3 or 4 powers at a time.

The biggest improvement in this area was a personal change. I've changed my tune since I was younger and started "trusting" developers more. By this I mean that I will now use my best/funnest weapons first and trust I will continue to get ammo drops such that I won't be stuck with just my pistol and melee weapon. This trust worked very well in Half-life 2 - they had very well paced ammo caches and the tension of getting low with my best weapons had a nice release when I found the next cache of ammo.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Where I answer questions about getting into game design

I've been kicking around some emails with Nick Cummings basically giving job advice and answering questions about how I got into games, and I realised that it's probably good fodder to put up here and link people to whenever they have questions about how to get into the games industry.

Below are Nick's questions and my replies. I'll update this post whenever people ask me new questions.

What led you to get into game design? Was it what you expected it would be?

A near death experience and ladies.

Long story summarized: I caught Cerebral Malaria when I was five, almost
died. My present for not dying was an Amiga 1000, which I played while I
was recovering. I became a huge game nerd and played games and made small
games for ages. I started doing an IT degree, but hated talking about
Pascal and database structure.

At the time, I had an unrequited crush on an older American exchange
student, and was looking for excuses to fly over to the US in April
during break. I was also trying to figure out what to do with my life,
and I was curious about games and had dabbled in making some games in
high school. GDC (then CGDC) was around that time, and as a huge game
nerd I'd always wanted to know what goes into making games - so I
attended and had my mind exploded open by people talking about the nuts
and bolts of making games. It was exactly the kind of thing I liked
doing, and I knew then that I wanted to make games as a job.

I then spent 6 months making mods for Quake and applying everywhere, and
was picked up by a company called Auran Games (they did Dark Reign, a
pretty good for its time RTS) as an Assistant Designer. It's exactly
what I expected post-GDC, and I still love making games.

What do you love/hate about game design?

I love making things that are fun to interact with. That "critical mass"
point where the game is fun for the first time is an amazing feeling.

I hate it when I miss something that makes a game not perfect when it's
released. Having "Continue" and "Choose Rocker" on the RB1 matchmaking
screen is a great example of this - it was originally just "Continue",
and we snuck in "Choose Rocker" at the last minute without thinking of
the ramifications of having another state-changing button on the screen.

That one stung a lot, since it was one change with a huge ripple effect
that made it really hard to get into bands. Needless to say, first thing
we fixed in RB2 development.

How much variety is there from company to company (or game to game) in what a game designer actually does?

It's massively different not just from genre to genre, but also from
company to company. It's one of the main reasons that the current
courses on game design aren't great for learning how to design games -
they teach you a toolset, but not the instinct that you need across
games and companies.

A good example is going from a Senior at Pandemic (where my time was 30%
open world level design, 60% systems scripting and iteration, 10%
narrative and specwork), to consulting at Irrational (40% UI design
consultant, 60% audio implementation), to a Senior at Harmonix (50%
specwork, 30% scripting and balancing, 20% UI), to a lead (50%
mentoring/managing, 20% specwork, 20% iteration oversight, 10% vision

From your experience, what skills and interests are beneficial for a game designer to have?

There's a bunch of things.
- Communication skills are key, since you're either trying to describe
a system to other team members, or communicate an experience to a player
through level design.
- Being able to disassemble and reassemble why you like or hate
something is also important. A bunch of iteration skill is in
identifying what's wrong, and plotting a solution to fix it.
- Secondary skills in programming and/or art are always useful. They
don't have to be at the level of "I can ship a game", but enough so that
you can hang yourself always comes in handy.

What advice would you give to somebody who's potentially interested in a career in game design?

Make games.

Seriously, the best way to show that you understand the basics of game
development is to go and make a mod for an existing game, or make a
flash game, or generally just try and complete something and show that
you've gone through the process. I'm more impressed by a game doing
something cool than I am any amount of university.

Can you elaborate a bit on some of the terminology you used to describe the things a designer does? (Specwork and iteration in particular)

So, there's a bunch of things that designers do, but they all vary from company to company.

The common ones involve coming up with a proposal for how to implement a system or a level, and documenting out exactly what you're planning to do. In the olden days of design, this would be part of a huge monolithic Game Design Document that was like 90 pages long and had everything about the game.

The thing designers learned about a decade ago is that nobody reads a 90 page document - the only benefit is to show how awesome you are at typing things. People on the team would print out the 90 page doc a month into the project, throw it on their desk, then reference that printed out document instead of viewing the latest document.

This spawned smaller more concise documentation called specifications, or specs for short. These are 2-3 page documents with clear goals at the start, and easily digestable information for what the system is and how it should be implemented. It's also easy to track changes between revisions too, since they usually live in a hyperlinked form like a wiki and you can track their individual changes.

So, you write your spec, sign off on it, then put it in the game. Unless you're inhuman, your design won't be perfect the first time. The process for going from that first revision to the final thing you ship is called "iteration" - which is basically making changes and course correcting until you come up with something perfect.

What was it like making your first mods? Was it much of a struggle? Where did you look to for inspiration and ideas?

Making my first mods was pretty cool. It was a little bit of a struggle as my programming knowledge was a little weak back then, but it was easy to cobble together and infer things from other mods and make your own unique thing.

The biggest help was just having a community of developers that you could share information with and get answers to questions from. There was an awesome Quake 1 community that I learned a lot from, and there are more places like that now for things like XNA, Unreal and Source that I'd totally recommend people check out.

And just for the hell of it: What are some of your favorite games, and why?

Favourite Game that nobody has head of: Midwinter II, by Mike Singleton. I played this on the Amiga back in the early '90s and it blew my mind. It was essentially a huge sandbox with loads of vehicles, open ended missions, a strategy metagame campaign tree, metric-based minigames, and pretty much everything you'd want in a sandbox game to get narrative consequences across, but ten years before GTA coined the "sandbox" term.

Besides that, I'm a big fan of a lot of the classics. The first commercial game I played was Winter Games by Epyx, which made me want to make awesome party games that everyone could have fun with. LucasArts adventure games shaped (warped?) my sense of humor very early on, and made me want to make funny games. Super Mario World was the perfection of platform gaming for me, and just oozes perfect balance and Miyamoto accessibility on multiple levels. I lost a lot of time playing through the scalable missions in Goldeneye, and I still go back to it from time to time. I play Peggle like it's free crack. I grew up in an aviation family, so I'll fire up X-Plane now and then to mess around with taking off and landing planes, but that's more towards the simulation rather than gameplay side of things.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Designer Emails #1: E3

So, a bunch of us designer types are kicking around a weekly email thread to talk about things both gamery and designery. Besides keeping our brains balanced and not just thinking about work, it also gives us free blog post fodder!


Dan Teasdale

Okay, let’s try kicking off this whole email design thing with something that’s sure to cause contention. I am a classy gent, after all.

E3 is next week. It’s the return of the huge 40,000 person behemoths of old, complete with 8 hours of doof and awkward-looking booth babes. What is everyone looking forward to? Any games that are off most people’s radars that you think will be awesome? Any trends you hope to see, or not see?

Casey Malone

Well, this is my first E3, so I'm expecting an orgy of decadence the likes of which even David Bowie or Robert Evans would back away from slowly.

Seriously, though, growing up reading about and imagining the floor of E3 I'm not sure what's coming; is it going to be full of multimillion dollar booths with lights, decorations, props, costumes and fun like Disney World or is it going to be a starkly lit nightmare full of cranky nerds and too-loud music like Euro Disney? I'll let the old hands at this convention thing take guesses towards that.

I guess what excites me the most is seeing what some of my favorite developers are bringing; I have been itching to get my hands on the next game from DoubleFine since the moment I finished* Psychonauts, so I'll be rushing to try Brutal Legend. I'm hoping that Warren Spector brings his long-rumored Mickey Mouse game, so I can at least get a look at what he's bringing to the Disney universe. I want to try out The Legend of Zelda: We Love Toy Trains Edition**, because I have no idea what's happening with this title. And I will proudly wear the badge of the only Harmonix designer who is excited at whatever new game Kojima Productions is working on; yes, I'm sure they'll announce MGS4 for 360, but I'm really crossing my fingers they're bringing something else with them.

As for games that'll secretly steal the show? I think people are going to walk away from Scribblenauts amazed - and no, I don't just love games with "nauts" in the title. And I don't mean to get all "blow our own horn-y"***, but I think The Beatles: Rock Band is going to make jaws hit the floor.

The trend I really want to see and also want to see avoided is sort of a contradiction - I want to see less of a casual market taking over the games industry and instead see games move more towards accepting a casual audience. I mean fewer fitness and weight loss products, and more games that have bright friendly art direction and no lose conditions. Fewer mini-game collections and more intuitive controls. I want to see game makers trending away from the hardcore, but not the point where we lose focus of what makes games fun - interactive fantasies we can provide that movies can't. If the focus of E3 is on experiences like that instead of the gritty FPSs of the world, I'll be really excited for gaming in the next year.

* I never finished Psychonauts, but instead had to watch a friend finish it. Damned Meat Circus.
**Which Dan will tell you he designed a decade ago, I'm sure.
*** There was a better way to say that, I'm sure.

Dan Teasdale

Casey, you have reminded me of Scribblenauts and made me throw in my 0.02c for that as potential dark horse of the year. I'm really curious to see how deep the vocabulary is. Maybe they're really smart about it and target common words plus people's playtest list? I heard that's how Al Lowe did the vocabulary in the first Leisure Suit Larry, and it seemed to work pretty well in being a jerk to me because of it.

I loved E3 the first few times I went. As a game nerd, having everything you want to play on a show floor is awesome. I'm pretty sure this will be the Casey experience. Then, I demoed a game with a 15 minute linear demo for three days and got to see the seedy underbelly of E3, and now I'm a curmudgeonly old jerk. This will probably be the Sylvain experience.

This curmudgeonliness has raised a question in my head: Do we need E3 anymore?

The justification about Ye Olde E3 was that it was a single location that publishers could meet with retailers to buy shelf space for the holidays. Sure, there was a nice side bonus of all the people attending getting to play each other's games and see in action upcoming trends, but the only reason you were flown out there was so that you could guide your hastily-duct taped demo for the King of Walmart*, who would then decree the amount of shelf space you'd get in November.

In the break between Ye Olde E3 and this year's E3, the publishers figured out news ways to talk to developers and vice versa - shows like EA3 and the GameStop Manager's Conference took the place. Bloggers picked up video cameras, thereby negating the need for me to walk the floor or wait in a three hour line. Services like Steam and the first party marketplaces have meant that shelf space isn't a problem, so they can focus on spending their marketing budget towards players rather than wooing retailers ($1mil+ on a booth for E3 2006, EA? Really?) Games like Bioshock have proven that you don't have to come out in the holidays (or be held over to March 31) to be successful.

My gut is that while it'll be a good press boost, it's going to be more like Harrison Ford in Crystal Skull than it is Harrison Ford in Raiders. We'll see this old format played out, realise that it was great before, but that as an industry we've grown since then and that our needs for an expo need to be different if we're going to treat it as a PR festival rather than a distributor pimpathon.

To end on a cheery note, my predictions for E3:
* Brutal Legend blows peoples brains open
* The Beatles: Rock Band gets nominated for an E3 Critics Choice award.
* The most popular booth will be the Target relax-and-feed-me-snacks lounge.


*I'm assuming he's your king, or at the very least your Governor General.

Chris Foster

Between being seven months into Raise-A-Baby-Quest, and only now getting de-Beatled after over a year in the Rock Band mines, I'm going into this E3 fairly cold and devoid of specific expectations.

But while it's been a few years since my last E3, I do have my memories. I think my first significant recollection of E3 (though maybe it was an ECTS from the same year) is seeing this mindblowing, totally unexpected 3D console called the "PlayStation." I particularly remember that they demoed Ridge Racer using these weird pre-Dualshock analog controllers from Namco called NegCon, where you steered by twisting one half of a split controller while holding the other half.

I also remember, a year or so later, the massive robot-spider both that Scavenger Software used to present their dozen games and game demos-in-progress. I think that spider-booth was pretty much the only concrete thing they ever actually shipped.

I also remember the multiple appearances of the Gathering of Developers outside E3 at their personal trailer park -- though I never personally visited due to a pathological distrust of strippers and loud people.

I guess that covers the range of experiences I'm hoping for. I'd love to be wowed by something as monumental and game-changing as it is unexpected. I'll also keeping an eye out for those companies where you catch glimpses of a massive train wreck to come, if only in hindsight. And I'm expecting to see things that I will immediately wish that I could unsee.

E3, how I've missed you.

Sylvain Dubrofsky

Hey I remember that E3 booth that you manned Dan. I was actually really looking forward to DAH after that presentation.

I'm really excited E3 is back in the form I remember. I've been in the industry for almost 10 years. I think I went to E3 in years 2-7. At first it was a similar experience to going to a big out-of-town concert. The first couple industry jobs I had wouldn't pay for us, so we'd get our own flights, share beds in hotels, and take vacation days. By the end I have been spoiled getting my flights, hotel room, and per diem covered.

There is one common experience with all my E3 visits. Exhaustion after it's all over. As much as I love it, I'm sure I'll get massive headaches, muscle soreness, and extreme lack of sleep. This year that will be mitigated by my excitement showing off our HMX games which I'm tremendously proud of.

Ok enough history. To the games! I'll be on my usual hunt for obscure titles that may not have received enough coverage. The truth is, besides actually playing the games, you can get a large picture at home in front of a computer or watching G4. That's why I'm gonna do my best to actually play the games while I'm there and have free time.

Things I wanna play if they are there:
Modern Warfare 2
Halo: ODST
Half Life 2: Episode 3
Batman Arkham Asylum
Splinter Cell Conviction
Starcraft 2
Anybody else's music games

Casey, I find it odd that you mention FPS-sequel-X as a problem but are excited by yet another Metal Gear. Everyone has their things they enjoy (I'm always excited to try each new Madden, or anything by Valve, Bungie, Infinity Ward, Epic...). I personally don't get the fandom behind the regular E3 trailer of the next Metal Gear or Final Fantasy but I don't see it as something that takes away my excitement.