Gamer Hate

Belligerently lacking in remorse.

Friday, March 10, 2017

GDC Notes – 2016

So I was thinking… I archive almost everything I do, in terms of game design. Meetings, discussions, plans for new game mechanics, games, features, storylines… Stuff that will never ever be used, or help anyone (except myself). I saw that as unfair, so I’m just going to start posting random stuff that I think might be useful to others here. Because why not.

Here are my notes from GDC 2016, mostly in shorthand based on my understanding of what was said. For some real fun you could potentially look up the lectures in the GDC vault and see if you agree or disagree with what I thought. 😉

GDC Takeaways

Social Media Q&A
Developing a community and keeping them informed is critical to success.
Amazon Monetization
We should sell t-shirts, use Amazon Coins, and Amazon Underground.
Digital River Monetization
Americans use Credit Cards and Paypal, buying things is scary.
Free To Play Design Roundtable
How does New York Times have subscriptions but remain in games?
Digital River Monetization Esports
Tailor ads to consumer, use visuals.
UX Onboarding Notes
Make players fall in love with your game (then shake them down for cash).
Design Roundtable Loot Tables and Rogue-Likes
True random sucks, never do it.
Character Design for Diverse Audiences
Make characters racially ambiguous to attract adults and kids.
Vungle Secret to Game Profitability
Buying installs is stupid, make your customers spam their friends.
Design Roundtable – Mind Altering Design
Celebrate good stuff, make good things happen if bad stuff is happening too much.

Social Media Q&A
Ideas for Improvement
– Release Beta of games to Newsletter readers for early feedback and to grow our community while making them feel appreciated.
– Create community site for games. Blog, forum, etc. Collect feedback, color code it.
– Consider Tone of Voice, potential tagline to create personality (e.g. Hey Solvers!), generally build identity.
– Research journalists, reach out to those who would appreciate our products.
– Use e-mails with gifs attached to demonstrate gameplay (wordventure promo).
– Write in tone of demographic, make up a character that is your audience and speak like them based on where you’re posting.
How to Build Following
– Post pictures with every post. Text is scrolled past by most.
– Use #ScreenshotSaturdays
– Find # for similar games and hijack their threads (e.g. #NYTimes
– 1/3rd of posts about our stuff, 1/3rd engaging with others who do similar stuff, 1/3rd amplification of other people’s messages (become part of community).
– Post videos of products.
Dev Blog
– Post content daily to create backlog of information.
– Create community and interest pre-release (e.g for Wordventures).
– Read community feedback to improve games.
– Post often.
Older Women
– Keep messages short. Imitate those with similar messages.
– Use # for that age group (research). Do they even use twitter?
– Talk to older women, get reactions.
– Use Fiver…
– Facebook interest graph?
Hiring Community Manager
– Look for most engaged and dedicated in community.
– Test them with questions from community reviews.
– Writing test/style: reviewer vs PR vs marketing.

Amazon Monetization
Amazon Coins – Discounts and incentives for users, while devs get full price of coins.
Merch by Amazon – Shirts and other stuff printed on demand with no min/max. We get money, no overhead.
Amazon Underground – Free to users, amazon pays us per minute of play (approximately USD 0.12/hour). Based on median engagement (5 minutes) and 50,000 DAU, roughly USD 2,500 per day).

Selling Points for Amazon
– Higher conversion to payers among amazon coin customers.
– Can spike sales with 20% amazon coin return scheme on IAPs.
Other Tips
– Use merch as community engagement tool, ask them what art they want to see (wordventures).
Digital River Monetization

PC Gaming
– Free to play growing. Steam growing.
– Global PC market 25.5 billion with ½ revenue from DLC.
– Subscriptions are in decline.
– Payment methods by country differ:
– U.S. favors: Visa +30%, Paypal 24%, Debit 15%, Mastercard 10%.
– Germany favors: Paypal 52%, Paypal Express 10%, Paysafe 8%, Credit/Debit 12%.
Purchase Point Notes
– 50% cancel transaction if preferred payment method is not available (44% US, 61% Germany).
– Reduce spending friction by saving billing information/user account when possible.
– Have a confirmation screen to reassure customer that payment was successful.
– Visual design of payment screens should be our brand/product/company (not payment company, or other non-related graphics).
– Checkout Resistance Issues:
– Website insecure 62%.
– Preferred method not available 44%.
– Redirected to website 43%.
– Took too long (too many screens) 40%.
– Bounced to new window (feels insecure).

Free To Play Design Roundtable

Coin Economy Tips
– Give currency for free so people use it more frequently.
– Hard currency price should have higher value to time.
– Create collection systems (gatcha system).
– Subscription requires you to leave games category in Apple store (NY Times doesn’t??).
– Incentivized ads, cannot use if under 13.
– Separate cash and grind currencies.
– Time vs Money vs Friends – 3 currency types.
– Allow to convert between currencies.
– New currency every X levels in order to prevent mudflation.
– Raffles to remove money from economy.

Prevention of Cheating
– Delay sales/transfer of items to make it harder to steal (gold farmers).
– Chargebacks can cause Visa to close your account.
– Limit gifts per day.
– Hard drive ID – if you chargeback you get banned.
– Limit or eliminate P2P transactions.
– Increase time to enter the regular game economy cycle.

General Notes
– Plan for A/B testing and put elements in place for it.
– Change text colors and other innocuous seeming things to check if they influence purchases (e.g. red text increases purchases in America).

Digital River Monetization Esports
General Notes
– Contextual ads are important: they need to be relevant to the users.
– Build loyalty to your app/brand first, then advertise to the loyalists.
– Value added content: get X if you buy Y or N% off if you buy Y.
– Customer loyalty card or discounts?
– Use visuals when advertising, makes it easier to get a return.
– 15 second videos are very popular (vines).
– Animated gifs.
UX Onboarding Notes
Core Notes
– Balance luck versus skill to develop sense of mastering the game.
– Simple inputs that lead to a variety of outputs (duh).
– “Right” amount of choices. Don’t overwhelm, don’t give impression of overly simplistic.
– Clear consequence of actions (I do this, I understand that X will occur).
– Clear path to improvement of player’s “account,” (e.g. collection or experience or skill practice).
– Innovate… um… duh.
– Ask yourself: “What would it take to make me fall in love with this game?”

Theme
– Keeps player invested until they learn core mechanics.
– Sound, graphics, music, story, etc. All to keep player invested until the mechanics of the game become known and understood as a path to self-improvement.
– Replicate emotions of universal experiences (e.g. Walking Dead Season 1, teaching a child).
– Doing > Showing > Telling : Make players complicit in the core premise of the game/theme.
– Environmental storytelling, characters & animations, etc.

Design Roundtable Loot Tables and Rogue-Likes

Procedural Generation
– Provide context, where will this drop, is it appropriate for this area/creature?
– Use procedural for basic items.
– Prefix/Suffix to match themes, categorize by theme.
– Don’t try to be too specific to player experience, match the world/theme, or it feels contrived.
– E.g. Nemesis System (Shadows of Mordor) : Orcs fight orcs, what are events that would occur, what are the outcomes, how does this affect the world?
– Spend money to bypass randomness.
– Use progressive % to fix short term random frustration.
Character Design for Diverse Audiences
General
– Phenotypic identifiers that match user increase player interactivity.
– People look for phenotypic identifiers that they identify with, so characters of ambiguous or mysterious backgrounds tend to get identified as the player’s race.
– Character abstraction or ambiguity allows players to identify by parts that they believer are similar to them.
– Children 8-12 said that they preferred “Mysterious” character they can’t racially identify.

Vungle Secret to Game Profitability
The Problem
– LifeTime Value vs Customer Acquisition Cost of every user.
– 1.2 to 1.5 USD is a healthy value.
– Average CPI USD 4.00 * 1.2 = USD 4.80
– .012 per impression : of 5000, 770 engage.
– .09 per attentive view : 770, 194 click
– .34 per click, 194, 17 install
– 4.00 per install, 17, 1 pays
– Grand total of USD 67 per paying user. Compared to 4.80… hahaha… omg.

Solutions
– Qualify users through creative ads. Create ads for each segment, target them.
– Personalize first experience, good 1st impression (onboarding).
– Higher quality users through friends: facebook share, ask a friend about a puzzle via chat?
– Rewarded videos – Watch this get that.
– Push notification messages, determined by ad company?
– Give users deep links that benefit them if they share it (e.g. here’s your special link, share with friends, whoever uses it and installs our app, you get something).
Design Roundtable – Mind Altering Design
General
– Negatives should eventually build up to positives (e.g. after X wrong answers you get a free hint).
– Have an engagement currency – e.g. Solver Coins that are earned by solving puzzles or just by being in the app (typically done as a daily login bonus). Cannot be purchased with money.
– Steer towards largest sale : Best most obvious option to make player feel good about their choice (yeah I made the right call).
– Emphasize celebrations.
– Set goals but give them the benefit of already partially completed tasks.
– Players that get to see an end boss or get very close to a completion of a puzzle but then fail, tend to blame themselves rather than the game for the failur.
– Remind players when they are close to completion of certain goals to get more engagement (counter on magazine covers to show how many puzzles are left?).
– Bucket quests – prioritized by things player enjoys doing and is focused on (other quests are deprecated until player focuses on them). Reduces noise and potential to overwhelm.
– The more rare the event, the more impressive the celebration should be.

posted by CommanderHate at 2:37 am  

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Fixing Games : No Man’s Sky

I recently completed No Man’s Sky (or at least, as much as you can complete it). Spoilers will appear in my design analysis so you are forewarned. This is a new series in which I pick apart the bad components of games and attempt to fix them through my knowledge of game design.

Review
No Man’s Sky is a Minecraft styled planetary resource collection adventure game. You collect resources, turn them into upgrades that make you more efficient, and then explore the galaxy. The primary goal is to get to the center of the galaxy, and if you succeed you are rewarded with another galaxy to explore. That is effectively where I stopped playing the game. There is a side story about Atlas, which allows you to create a new star, but otherwise seems to tell you that following the path laid out by the developer is a fool’s errand… However, I haven’t fully translated the Atlas’ words yet. I plan to do so on my next play through in the new galaxy.

Atlas Eye

An incarnation of the Atlas.

Progression
One of the main problems with No Man’s Sky is that the sense of progression that makes the early portions of the game so compelling, quickly falls apart once you have the majority of upgrades and complete your 48 slots of inventory space. These two things effectively cuts down on 70% of the fun exploration aspects of the game. Buildings become much less important (only trading areas where you can sell goods off are still needed), and it makes exploration much less fun.

20160814152034_1

Upgrading Inventory.

Progression – Sub-space Home
The most important thing missing, and the one that actually had me baffled when I never got it in my playthrough, was a place to call home. A place where you could store critical materials you wanted for later, as well as capture and place creatures and plants you had found on your journey. The whole time I was seeing crazy things on planets (and taking screenshots), I kept thinking, wouldn’t it be cool if I had a house to decorate and I could grab these plants and animals and put them there? Then allow other players to tour your home for that sense of achievement and sharing that is sorely lacking from the game. Add on yet another layer of building and creating inventory space in the home and you have another 10+ hours of good times for the player. Just require the player to be outside a planet’s atmosphere to access it (same as the warp drive), and you have plenty of reasons for them to fly in and out of planets for the additional storage.

Like this, but more expensive.

Like this, but more expensive.

Inventory Fix – Progression
The easiest and most obvious fix for this is to add tabs for inventory space on the player. If they had simply done that, the players sense of progression and the need for Units (the in-game currency) would remain throughout. For example, if they just added one tab and made each new slot cost 2 million units, people would be very interested in gathering money and filling in those slots. Continue the cost increases on the inventory slots, and you effectively maintain the sense of character progression for at least one entire playthrough. Add up to 5 tabs and I doubt anyone would ever complete their inventory in years.

Maximum character inventory.

Maximum character inventory.

Upgrades Fix – Progression/Variety
For a game that relies so heavily on procedural generation of planets, animals, and perhaps even galaxies, it’s bizarre to me that they wouldn’t look for procedural variation in their itemization. They have all the variables needed to do so, and it would have added many many many hours of additional gameplay for people who like to collect things. So for example, instead of having a Sigma, Tau, and Theta that is an incremental upgrade of your mining beam’s ability to destroy rocks. Why not have a Sigma, Tau and Theta version that varies in where its stats are focused. So you might find a Beam Focus Destruction Sigma, which destroys chunks of a resource faster as you are mining than the Beam Focus Spread Sigma, which increases the area of the resource being destroyed. You could have individual variation within that where you expose the stats, and see that you found a Beam Focus Spread Sigma that affects 50 to 100 cm more than the other Beam Focus types, and thus you now have variation and incremental periodic upgrades for players to be seeking. If you wanted to cheat, you could even check what they have on their multi-tool and put a leash on the range of what they find next (e.g. they have the 60cm version, so when that type drops again, it’ll be 61cm to 70cm). All of the upgrades can be generated in this way, adding a significant amount of replayability (as people change tactics from one to another), as well as keeping that feeling of progression throughout.

Imagine variations that did fire, poison, or frost damage when bounced...

Imagine variations that did fire, poison, or frost damage when bounced…

Upgrades Recipes – Progression/Variety
Along with the Upgrades Fix I mentioned, you could maintain the recipe building by adding a secondary pop-up window during the construction process where you get to tweak your variables on the thing you are creating. However you can only tweak them to the degree that you have found that level of upgrade. In the prior example, if you build a Beam Focus Spread Sigma, you can only build one with a spread up to the number of cm of the upgrade type you have found. Alternately, you could forego building anything and require players to find these upgrades in the world and then apply them to their ship or suit. Either would work, though the latter would require a bit more work, and the former would have the player’s recipe menu explode to gigantic proportions. Allowing the player to tweak the variables once they’ve “absorbed” a recipe that allows for it feels right for the game to me though.

Inventory Fix – Buy/Sell/Trade
One of the most annoying oversights, and the easiest to fix, is to simply add a button or modifier key that allows you to increment or decrement excess resources by 1 inventory slot worth of that resource (250). Each inventory slot on the character is 250 resources, so having a modifier that allows you to instantly set your selling of a good to 250 makes perfect sense. It would have cut down on probably the most annoying aspect of selling resources in the game, and it’s undoubtedly an easy fix.

Why you no take increments of 250??

Why you no take increments of 250??

Main Story Spoilers Below
The Path of Atlas – Story/Progression Fix
What a horribly missed opportunity here. I can’t even fathom why they would build this unique space, screaming for a boss fight, and then simply not do one in it. Not only that, but the main point of Atlas seemed to be to indicate that the player following the path the developer set out for them was enslaving themselves to the developer’s will when they should be out exploring on their own and doing what they want. I got it… I got it. I still have to get enough Atlas words to translate the full text of what Atlas was saying (as opposed to what the narrator was intimating), but I doubt the gist of it will change too much. That said, if the point of Atlas was to make the player feel enslaved and like the path was pointless, tack on a bunch of a normal tedious questlines into the Atlas. For example, you go to Atlas 1 and it looks at a planet in the system and tells you to go get X Venom Sacs (or Gravitino balls, or whatever) and bring them back to it. Maybe it tells you to go to a nearby planet with animals and to name them all Poosnake. So many things could have been done to add hours of gameplay onto that main path, but I did the whole Atlas series in probably an hour just jumping from one to the next. No boss fight, no real sense of loss (hell those Atlas stones made me a ton of units), and an obvious somewhat ham-handed message that I was trapped in a simulation. Meh.

Jaded intellects indeed...

Jaded intellects indeed…

The Ending – New Galaxy Fix
To be fair, this actually was my favorite part of the game. What??? If you don’t know, what happens when you reach the center of the galaxy is that it pans back out to the edge of the galaxy and then you find a new galaxy, and you are crashed on the surface there with every system on your ship and multitool wrecked. So you have to dismantle to get iron to rebuild your mining laser (cause you can’t mine since it’s destroyed), but yeah, you’re starting from square one, exact same start as when you first begin the game. Is there more to it than that? I don’t know yet, but I get the point. It was the journey that mattered, and now you’re starting over in a new galaxy. With another opportunity to gain more Atlas words before you deal with the Atlas quests… But this time you have already got everything that made the early game interesting. You just need to get lucky finding proper resources and make your way off the planet. It’s somewhat fun, because rebuilding all your systems is quite the epic quest, but overall, I’m not feeling that compelled to play again. Which is why I think they need to add something on here that makes it something more… Maybe a new Atlas? A new voice that’s taking over the Atlas? Something, anything so it’s not just the same thing over again…

You can watch the ending:

 

Procedural Planets Player Markers – Player Generated Content Fix
Because all the planets are procedurally generated, you find a lot of crazy missed opportunities. Deep crazy looking caves that lead to dead ends with nothing in them, underwater secret coves that have nothing in them, every planet is rife with disappointing areas, caves, and buildings. So, why not give players tools with which to make them cool? Let us build and place boxes, put things in them (animals we’ve found, resources, tools we’ve built, etc). Let us place down signs, change terminal text, or even make voice recordings. Yeah, I know, this would spiral out of control pretty quick, but there is no disappointment greater than landing on a discovered planet and finding that literally NOTHING is different from any other planet you’ve found before. There’s no indication a player was ever there. Not so much as a mined resource (and I ran into plenty of named systems and planets near the system core, so I know it’s not a fluke). I’d say that is the greatest disappointment I had with the game, because I knew when I saw no marks from other players anywhere other than system names, I knew that all the effort I had made naming things on other planets and systems was effectively useless. I never saw another player outside of a spaceship, and I could never confirm for sure that any spaceship I ran into was a human (they traded the same even when I thought they behaved oddly). Nothing disappointed me in this game more than knowing for sure that all my efforts to leave a mark had been in vain.

It can sure be pretty though.

It can sure be pretty though.

Which seemed to be the core message the game was sending me at the end of the day. If you didn’t appreciate the journey, you just wasted hours of your time (in my case, 137 of them).

That's a significant investment of time...

That’s a significant investment of time…

posted by CommanderHate at 1:47 pm  

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Tencent’s Acquisition of Supercell

First you must read about the potential hostile takeover of Supercell by Tencent.

Tencent is basically initiating a hostile takeover of Supercell. The developer who brought us 2 of the most successful global mobile games in recent history. Clash of Clans, and Clash Royale (setting aside Hayday and Boom Beach for now, which are also successes). What this primarily means is that within China, Supercell will now become a major influence in their mobile game market. How Tencent will change the game and Supercell’s structure itself remains to be seen.

Will they make dramatic changes? Probably not to Supercell itself or to their games on the global market. Instead, they will likely add things to their games specifically for China’s internal software market (they have separate app stores from the rest of the world). They may add QQ and other layers in to entice and keep Chinese players playing the app.

If Riot Game’s acquisition is any indicator, this will be a net positive for Supercell, as they will likely be able to initiate new projects with Tencent’s money, or at the very least generate revenue from China far beyond what they were able to get on their own (for reference, only Clash Royale is just barely in the top 25 grossing apps in China). Given the 6.6 billion that Tencent has paid, you can rest assured that they are certain they will make this money back and then some over the course of 5 years. The real question is, what will Tencent do with all these acquisitions when their income finally slows and if they have no other products prepared.

posted by CommanderHate at 11:18 pm  

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The End of Organized Game Media?

I’ve been reading recently about the struggles of organized game media news companies, such as The Escapist (one of my favorites when they started). With the shut down of Game Trailers, it’s apparent that game news media sites are deep in the shit. Their struggles revolve around the fact that the majority of us really don’t care what they have to say anymore. I mean, yes, it’s good to get an informed opinion on a topic, but as we all know, when it comes to the “professional news media,” they often don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.

This has been more true of standard News Media, such as Fox News, CNN, etc. If you’ve ever been involved in a news story or personally knew the facts about something they were reporting on, you know that they get shit wrong all the time. This isn’t too far off from what I’ve seen from Game News Media organizations that, for whatever reason, couldn’t be arsed to do the job they’re purportedly created to do. Which is give honest and accurate information about games.

So what are the major issues that these dying game media sources need to deal with in order to survive?

1. Stop fucking taking money from game companies and publishers. Just stop fucking doing it. “Oh we need advertising dollars to blah blah” shut the fuck up! If you were legit and honest, people might pay for your service. Right now, we know you’re full of shit half the time, so why would we give you money for inaccurate reporting?

2. Admit your damn biases. Everyone is biased in some way. Every person you have working on game reviews or content for your media sites has their own personal preferences and biases. Admit to them, EMBRACE THEM! Let us know that you fucking love RPGs and that you’ve never met an RPG you wouldn’t have babies with, so that we go to you for detailed information about RPGs… That’s why you’re really losing your audience… Which brings us to…

3. Youtubers, Let’s Play, and independent individuals are KICKING YOUR FUCKING ASSES. Why? Because they are open and honest. They present themselves as human beings, as biased sources, as people with preferences, and they (mostly) don’t take money from corporations to give their views. Everything worth having now is crowd sourced. Let me repeat that… Everything new and innovate that we want, comes from us giving money to support those things. If you don’t have credibility, you have nothing, and right now, I would trust Pewdiepie over GamePro or PCGamer or even The Escapist. Though that wasn’t always the case.

4. Game News Media is suffering from a severe case of corporate necrosis. I look back at things that The Escapist produced when they first started, and I’ve read a few recent articles. The difference is night and day and it happens to every company at some point: they get big, they get set in their ways, and they stop doing things out of love, and they start doing them because it makes money. Most people who work in the game industry do so out of a love for games, and what happens at larger corporations is that the process of making games gets removed from you. You have to follow all the rules and regulations set forth by management types who haven’t created anything in perhaps a decade or more. Worse, they may simply tell you exactly what to do (like put a turret here because marketing believes people like turrets and mowing down enemies every X minutes of gameplay). The end result is passionless decrepit products that eventually no one wants. Just take a look at any franchise that EA gets a hold of and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. This is what Game News Media is going through right now, and the first to fall are the ones who don’t have their own personalities creating content. Which brings us to…

5. You’re two steps removed from your audience. You have the outward layer of the corporate brand, then you have the inner layer of your writers and content creators. Your outer layer prevents the inner layer from connecting with people, for better and for worse. Maybe you have great writers and content creators, but because you’re representing yourselves as brands, the people beneath that layer of the brand are obscured and often interchangeable (though not always, as is the case with Zero Punctuation at The Escapist). The end result is that the people who come to your site fail to make a human connection with your content creators. They must ask, can I trust your brand as a whole? Because maybe Gershwin will write that article on that game I’m interested in… or maybe it will be Mr.Fuckrpgs who fucking hates RPGs. Do I know that Mr.Fuckrpgs hates RPGs when I read his article? Maybe I figure it out, maybe I don’t, but if Mr.Fuckrpgs shits on a game that I later try and like, guess what happens to your brand? I don’t trust it anymore.

Corporate styled branded game media outlets are on their way out in a similar way that magazines and print media are on their way out. They’ve been superseded by something that people find more trustworthy, more human, more up to date, more able to quickly respond to whatever is trending or coming out. That is to say, individuals who review games or talk about games. Pewdiepie, Angry Joe, and a litany of other youtube and on-line personalities have a much stronger connection to their audience. There’s no confusion about the sorts of things they like or dislike, because anyone who follows them will hear about their likes and dislikes 10 times per video they watch. Their biases are fully known entities the majority of the time, and their unwillingness to accept corporate money or stay on the good side of various publishers is something they tend to discuss openly and honestly with their audience.

We don’t know what sort of things Ubisoft or EA or whatever publisher has forbidden a Game News Media brand from saying, writing, or discussing openly. We do know that there are various nefarious back door dealings that go on in order to stay in their good graces and get review copies of games. We also generally know that such things don’t occur with various youtube personalities, or if they do, these personalities often discuss it openly.

When it comes to games news media, we don’t know who we can trust. Which is why youtube personalities and individual game writers who turn themselves into personalities are on the rise (or really, they’ve already won). They can be open and honest and say things that a corporate brand really can’t. Even if someone did speak for a game news media brand, they’d never be trusted in the same way that a person facing a camera and speaking their mind will be.

posted by CommanderHate at 5:02 am  

Sunday, February 7, 2016

What Happened to Commander Hate?

Some of you may know that this website basically vanished around 2010. The main cause of this was that I had moved to China and was working at Ubisoft. Since I let the domain lapse during that time period, something horrible happened.

Some shit-stained scumbag domain squatter grabbed gamerhate.com because it had a decent amount of traffic. Of course, no one else ever wanted it, and I am not the type of person to cave and try to rebuy my own domain back from some fuckwad domain squatter (who probably resides in the 10th circle of Hell below traitors, if you believe in that stuff). So I waited.

I waited patiently, for years…

And now I have returned, ready to continue with honest unpaid reviews of video games and thoughts about the game industry, unbound from corporate interests or outside influence. Are you ready?

posted by CommanderHate at 9:00 pm  

Monday, May 18, 2009

Yoink! You’re On This Game Now!
Indecisive Game Studios

I couldn’t tell you how many studios do this. In fact, it’s been a relatively rare event within my own career. The normal course of events is that you’re assigned to a project and you stay on that project to completion. This is the first time I’ve ever been yanked off one project to lead another, then 2 months later, yanked back off the project and put on my old one.

I was only on my first project for 1 month, and it made a lot of sense for me to be on it. I had a lot of experience related to the game and I was gearing up to craft a great RTS. Then they asked me to help them redesign another game that was in trouble. Along with several other designers we met for a couple days and I apparently impressed someone with my design proposals because shortly thereafter I found myself Lead Game Designer on the very same title.

Let me say, the game was/is a clusterfuck of poorly done junior design work, poorly presented ideas, misdirection and indecisiveness from the publisher and a little bit of self-sabotage. That bad? Yeah, that bad. Programmers were literally hard-coding values so that the game designer wouldn’t tweak the game anymore… THAT bad…

So I spent 2 months trying to reshape the vision of the game and get it into a workable format for a 9 month cycle of continued development with the goal of releasing shortly thereafter. At the end of those 2 months I was to present the idea to a group at the main publisher and get their approval. At the last second, the trip for the presentation was canceled, another project was canceled, and a new Lead Designer was assigned to the project from that one. I was moved back to my ORIGINAL project and I gave my presentation over video conference to the publisher group which was then approved.

I’m VERY happy to be back on the first project, it made the most sense for my design background and I can tell you I’ll do much better overall on it. However, it FRACKIN’ SUCKS to have wasted 2 months on that hell hole of a project (doing some inspired design work in order to turn a piece of crap into a high quality product) only to know that every bit of work I did will be tossed into the trash.

It’s just one of those things. When one designer takes over another designer’s work, no matter how good the work was, it will almost entirely be tossed out. Not because it’s bad (though there can be arguments there), but because it’s difficult to execute a game designer’s vision without that game designer’s presence. That doesn’t make it any less frustrating. I’ve basically spent 2 months doing almost nothing.

Okay, not entirely true. I learned some valuable lessons on presentations and on the inner-workings of this company. Primarily, that I cannot trust their snap decisions. That their group in charge of giving the okays on products has had a sordid past of steering projects wrong. That being handed a nearly completed game from another company gives everyone extremely unreasonable expectations for the timeline of the release of the product (there’s a reason they couldn’t finish the game!!!). And finally, that if you’re a well-spoken presenter, you can make anything seem like a good idea.

posted by CommanderHate at 8:46 am  

Friday, March 27, 2009

Designer Worries

I was looking at old reviews for the Da Vinci Code game. It’s funny how almost all of them agree that there were some really interesting puzzles and a compelling storyline, the two areas of the game I was 80-90% responsible for. Whereas the combat is universally panned by almost every critic and it was the one thing I was diametrically opposed to having in the game. Pretty much every other game I’ve been involved in has been pretty good (okay, downright spectacular), with the exception of a few projects which I had little to do with up front or was not allowed to stay on to the end of.

In essence, I can truthfully say that over my career, all of the game design work I’ve done has been of excellent quality and my portions have turned into good gameplay that people enjoyed.

Despite all that, I can’t help but feel that if I ever get my own project, it’ll somehow not come together right. Perhaps I’m only good at working on a part of something and not the whole…

Or maybe I’ve got cold feet.

posted by CommanderHate at 2:47 pm  

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Game Theory Versus Making Great Games

At Ubisoft it has become apparent that there is a French held ideal of putting the theoretical as the pinnacle of game creation. That is to say, you come up with a theory and you try to apply that theory so that all your games fit within that theory. Of course, most of the theories I’ve seen are applied to the game after they have been created instead of used as an underlying principle of how the game should be created. What’s worse, is when they try to force the application of the theory to another game that has nothing to do with the first game.

Let me give an example…

Let’s say you made a 2D side scrolling shooter, like Contra (you all know Contra, right?). Contra did very well, so you make a theory that Contra did well due to the number of inputs the player puts into the game. For example, you can shoot in any direction by pressing the D-Pad in that direction, giving you freedom to shoot at any 45 degree angle (up, upright, right, etc). Therefore, it is important for every game to have similar inputs to Contra and you must make a document showcasing how your game demonstrates a similar behavior in order for them to consider it a good game.

So you’re making a new version of Tetris and you’re given a game design document asking you to show the number of inputs for the game to prove how awesome it is. Well, you write the document and you only have 3 basic directional inputs. Move the piece left, right or down. This upsets your bosses who say that you don’t have enough directional inputs in order to compete with Contra and games like it, since they have proven successful, your game will not be successful.

What?

Yeah, the French can be weird.

posted by CommanderHate at 6:36 am  

Friday, January 23, 2009

Is it better to innovate, or imitate in games?

I’m asking myself this one because it has come up recently in my work.

When you look at the successful companies in the game world, what you end up seeing are a lot of imitators who just happen to do it the best or at least better than the rest. Blizzard wasn’t the first to make an RTS, but they did it very well, and then they continued to improve on their previous models. No doubt Starcraft II will be a serious improvement over Starcraft I, but will it be an innovative game?

I think people get stuck on the idea of innovating. Of making something from absolutely nothing. The truth of the matter is, we as humans have been building our knowledge based on old knowledge since we started. To have a truly new thought that has no basis on anything before it is actually quite impossible. Everything we do is based on something that we have already learned or been taught. Even if you could actually come up with something like that, no one would understand it, and no one would pay you to make a game out of it.

So what it comes down to (for games at least) is how much should you push for innovation over imitation. The truly successful companies don’t innovate much. How different (really now) is Gears of War compared to Doom? If you look at all the things that came between Doom and Gears of War, you’ll see that GoW really is only about 3% innovation. The rest is built upon hundreds of established (and obscure) games.

When something truly new comes out, almost no one plays it. Where is the game built upon the foundations of the arguably very innovative Facade? I want to do that, but damned if I can find a company willing to let me (or anyone willing to fund me). Most companies shun innovation on a large scale. In fact, most innovations are afterthoughts that come from sudden technological inspirations (Endwar’s voice commands for instance came in during the last few months of production).

Blizzard in particular has made an empire out of copying the best things from all its competitors and cutting the things that aren’t fun. Practically no innovation comes out of Blizzard, yet they are the number one PC game maker in the world (I think).

Is it the consumer that doesn’t value innovation? They cry out for something new, but when it comes time to make a purchase will they buy a game based on Facade that they may not understand, or will they buy Starcraft II? My money is on Starcraft II. =P

Of course, it’s funny how many game companies I’ve been at that don’t understand the very simple Blizzard model. Most companies can’t comprehend how amazing games can come from simply stealing all the good things your competitors have done. Maybe they think that innovation really is the way to get more marketshare, but I know that’s a fallacy. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Innovate too much and the consumer will run away screaming. But take everything they like from other games and package it together, they’ll buy millions of copies. That’s why I’m working on the ultimate version of Solitaire combined with Minesweeper.

So is it better to innovate or imitate in game design? Well that depends on how much money you want to make… ;D

posted by CommanderHate at 8:44 am  

Monday, December 15, 2008

Games That Won’t Let You Die
Awesome or Bad Design?
From Kohyunu

Kohyunu was wondering something about the latest Prince of Persia game.

“One of the biggest thing I noticed was that you cannot die. Even if you deliberately try and fall off a cliff, Elika is there to save you. She even saved me when she was trapped and couldn’t move herself!

What’s your take on it? What was your initial reaction to the ‘No death’ design choice, and how did you feel when you played it? (If you played it that is 😛 )”

Well, to be quite honest I haven’t played the latest Prince of Persia so consider my opinion highly academic, but I have discussed the game with people who have played it and I’ve come to some conclusions about it.

First of all, not being able to die in games isn’t that uncommon. Some of my favorite games don’t always have a death condition. Particularly adventure games and puzzle games of a story nature (like Professor Layton, Myst and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney) don’t ever allow you to die unless it’s a story ending possibility (though those three examples don’t have that). Dying in those games doesn’t make a whole lot of sense as it just causes you some frustration and you never pick that option again. They’re like choose your own adventure books (my guilty pleasure as a child) where you would pick the option you thought was best, mark the page, peek ahead and if it abruptly ended the story you would pick the other option.

In fact, my favorite game of 2008 did not allow you to die. A game called Braid which was about time travel (and apparently nuclear weapons), and every time you died you would simply rewind time to a point before your death was imminent. Given that the game was about time travel and that rewinding time allowed you to try and retry the gameplay puzzles to your heart’s content, it worked perfectly for that game (and when gameplay also expresses ideas, it’s a true joy to behold). The Prince of Persia Sands of Time had a somewhat similar ability to rewind time, but it had a limitation on it to prevent the game from being too easy. It seems the latest PoP has done away with that limitation.

The first problem with an action game that doesn’t allow you to die, is that there is no challenge to the game anymore. The point of an action game is to develop your twitch gaming skills to allow you to advance through obstacles that may have been too tough only a moment ago. With an NPC basically dragging your ass through everything, you don’t really develop your abilities and as the game progresses in difficulty, you will continue to suck at it so you will spend more and more of your time being rescued by the secondary character. Not exactly heroic…

The second problem with an action game that doesn’t allow you to die, is that the primary reason to play has been done away with. If there is no risk of death in combat or skill challenges (because everytime you fall you are rescued), why are you playing? If the story is good, that’s great, but that’s a reason to watch a movie, not play a game. If you don’t have to work to get the next tidbit of story, what are you really achieving by playing? How can you take pride in your victory if you didn’t really accomplish anything to get it?

Well apparently the solution to this is to make the boss encounters reset everytime you would normally have died but are saved. What are the boss encounters? Well they’re sequences of button presses that are displayed on the screen. Probably the worst style of gameplay ever invented. This stuff came from the original Dragon’s Lair and is the subject of my rant on Quicktime Events in games.

To reiterate my points on that though, you’re basically forced to push a sequence of buttons which cover the screen and interrupt your view of the gameplay, and if you fail you have to try to push the same sequence of buttons again exactly. “But Commander, isn’t that in essence what every game is,” you ask?

NO!

In most games you get to choose how you solve a problem as well as exactly how you do it. There are margins for error in many directions in those situations. If the button presses are exactly the same everytime then there is no element of discovery, you’re just playing Simon Says, but not even a fun version of it. You’re told a button to push and you push it. It’s more a reaction time test than anything else, which can be fun for a few minutes but should never ever ever ever ever be the basis of an ENTIRE FRACKIN GAME!

Yes, I know, you Dragon’s Lair diehards are totally pissed at me now. I’m sorry but Dragon’s Lair at least he had the good taste to hide the button pressing gameplay within the game itself. It’s still a reaction test but at the very least you can still see the whole sequence play out without some stupid button appearing on the screen. Though to be honest, Dragon’s Lair was more a memorization test, because I don’t know anyone who had a fast enough reaction time to play that game without having done it at least 100 times before.

So, not being able to die in games is not inherently bad. I just don’t think it was the right solution for an action game like Prince of Persia. Between the latest Prince of Persia and Mirror’s Edge (in which you die constantly and must frustratingly start over and over and over) I think there’s a happy medium. Perhaps Prince of Persia Sands of Time got it right with their limited time rewind?

No, I take that back.

I think the correct answer for Prince of Persia is to come up with a more compelling reason to play. From what I’m hearing, continuing through the story is the only satisfaction you get, and the rest of the gameplay is the annoyance that’s in your way to that. You trudge through constantly being saved by your companion, but there’s no fun in mastery because there’s no chance of defeat. Perhaps what Prince of Persia needs is some actual thought provoking decisions to make during gameplay that aren’t just jumping puzzles or Quicktime Event boss fights.

I think most action games are missing that “something new” that will escalate their gameplay to the next level. We need a mixing of genres that will make all games more compelling. Right now, Braid is the only game to have truly impressed me as far as that goes, but I can’t help but think that if all these game companies would try to actually innovate in the area of gameplay instead of slightly improving what they already have, we might have a wonderful revolution in games.

Time will reveal all I suppose.

posted by CommanderHate at 7:46 pm  
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