Monday, November 1, 2010

The Stalker games are doing something right. (Part 1)

The first thing Stalker does is teach you to be a coward.

There's no deliberate instruction involved- it's a lesson you learn naturally, which makes it ten times as effective. The tutorials are the pack of wild dogs who maul you because you tried to shoot them, the anomalies that reward your curiosity with poison and radiation, the handful of men that kill you five times over despite the quicksave which puts you in a perfect ambush position.

With uncharacteristic speed, your subconscious gets the message: this is not a world that was tailor-made for your pleasure. The gun in your hand was not placed there by God, so that you could accomplish a mission He has laid out for you. The dangers you see are not elements of a meticulously arranged shooting gallery- they are dangers pure and simple, under no kind of obligation to compensate you for the hardships they incur.

Ten minutes into Call of Pripyat, I found my first camp. A young man squatting by the campfire referred me to the boss, who I found on the other side of a nearby cargo container. My gamer instincts relaxed as I entered familiar territory: An NPC I interacted with via a conversation tree, ready to dispense basic exposition at the press of a button.

As I asked him about the availabled missions in the area, our conversation was cut short by the sound of a shotgun blast- the dialogue box literally closed while I was still reading his answer. While I blinked in confusion, the man turned away and took cover up against the wall. Drawing his gun, he started moving back towards the campfire. I saved the game and followed him. The bandits who had just killed the guy at the campfire shot us both dead in seconds.

I loaded the game. He advanced towards the campfire. I backed away and watched as the bandits shot him dead again. When I moved closer, they saw me and muttered warnings; I holstered my gun, and they went on their way.

The two corpses at my feet were a sad thing, but I didn't really feel guilty. After all, I didn't know these guys; we were just talking. I was just relieved those bandits hadn't cared about me.

I didn't want any trouble.

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Saturday, October 30, 2010

And the crowd goes wild!

I don't get nearly as many chances to stretch my game-writing muscles as I'd like. One exception was last May, during a conversation with a fellow designer who was working on a warcraft 3 arena map. The setting was described as a sort of fantasy roman empire, and each of the 15 characters had some interesting backstory (which I've included below for context. Among his intended features was a neat crowd element:

The crowd gets in on the action! The dynamic crowd will cheer, boo, chant, or roar its support based on player actions, providing a variety of special effects. For example, there are killstreak rewards (somewhat like, say, Call of Duty uses, but don't expect to see helicopters ;))

(3:43:19 PM) Dagda: It's interesting, I like the allusions to the culture/background society
(3:43:28 PM) OneWinged4ngel: Go on?
(3:43:50 PM) OneWinged4ngel: Don't just tell me "it's good." Everyone tells me that about everything I make. It's not terribly helpful feedback :(
(3:44:41 PM) Dagda: Just that all their descriptions imply that their stories tie into a larger context- with the player's imagination being free to fill in the blanks.
(3:45:39 PM) Dagda: This isn't just random archetypes, all of them have ties to a larger world
(3:46:59 PM) Dagda: It'd be interesting to have the crowd shout character-specific things via text, though I'm not sure where you'd have it appear.
(3:50:02 PM) Dagda: The Abomination, for example. Cheer: "Great ___, it's hideous!" Boo: "Inhuman creature! Someone put it down!" Roar: "What a terror!" Chant: "Eat their brains!"
(3:51:03 PM) Dagda: Gives you a sense of how your character looks in the eyes of Rulaan's masses.
(3:51:46 PM) OneWinged4ngel: That's a good idea. I shall implement it.
(3:52:01 PM) OneWinged4ngel: Come up with more lines for them to say for other characters though.
(3:52:03 PM) OneWinged4ngel: >_>
AND SO I DID. Just to reiterate, the descriptions below aren't my ideas- I just came up with the crowd reactions.

The Missionary: An evangelistic priest and explorer from a faraway, previously unknown land who had set out on a mission to spread the gospel of his monotheistic sun god to the world. Upon arriving in Rulaan, the Missionary's compelling faith formed the seeds of a revolution against the established belief system, and he was imprisoned as an enemy of the state. Now, he is forced to fight against his will in the arena. In battle, in addition to sword and shield, he wields the wrath of God itself, calling down fire from the heavens.
Cheer: "It's that foreigner!" Boo: "Give up on your false god!" Roar: "Unbelievable!" Chant: "Prea-cher!"

The Heretic: A corrupt former high priest of the Order revealed and imprisoned for committing atrocities against his fellow Rulaani, the Heretic is a master of the dark arts who bargains with the masters of the underworld for power over death. He knows the secrets of blood magic, offering of his own flesh and soul to gain dominion over the damned. Ironically, he finds that in bonds he has been freed to go about his work; few comprehend his methods, and where once he had to operate in secret, the arena presents him with a plethora of living sacrifices.
Cheer: "Foul traitor!" Boo: "A quick death's too good for him!" Roar: "Such power!" Chant: "Wipe them out!"

The Witch: A pagan practitioner of the Old Ways, the Witch is in tune with the mind of nature and the sacred feminine, and is a master of herbalism, wards, charms, and hexes. The old ways are no longer observed in Rulaan, however, and since the rise of a new organized religion, the Order, the last practitioners of witchcraft are hunted down and imprisoned. Like all prisoners, however, they too are given the opportunity to participate in the blood sport.
Cheer: "Country girl! You don't stand a chance!" Boo: "There's no place for your kind, not anymore!" Roar : "Damn, she's a tricky one!" Chant: "Witch!"

The Abomination: Amongst the exotic monsters captured from the far corners of the earth to be put on display in the arena, the Abomination is the most unique and frightening. Captured from the deepest depths of the underdark, this nightmarish psychic Abomination employs staggering psychic powers to subdue his victims, break their minds, and finally consume their brains.
Cheer: "Great ___, it's hideous!" Boo: "Inhuman creature! Someone put it down!" Roar: "What a terror!" Chant: "Eat their brains!"

The Warlock: A centurion among Rulaan's warrior mages with a penchant for cruelty, the Warlock is a master of vicious evocation magics, able to call fire from the earth, lightning from the sky, frost from the air, or even tear paths through the fabric of reality. Already wealthy and powerful, she fights in the arena for simple sport and bloodlust.
"Centurion! Show them what we're made of!" Boo: "Fraud! This can't be our lady!" Roar: "Truly the finest of our warrior-mages!" Chant: "Rulaan!"

The Knight: A lovestruck former Rulaani nobleman whose forbidden passions have cost him his title, disgraced his lineage, ostracized him from his family, and landed the Knight in prison with only one hope of freedom to reunite himself with his love: becoming the champion of the arena.
Cheer: "There he is, a lord no longer!" Boo: "An utter disgrace!" Roar: "Truly, he fights for her!" Chant: "Fight on!"

The Hero: Once a celebrated war hero of the northern dwarves, the keepers of the ancient secrets of the Way Gates, the Hero was defeated and captured in a heroic last stand, which some saw as the moment that ended a long war with expansionist Rulaan. Now, he is a prisoner of war, forced to fight in the arena for the amusement of his captors in order to stay alive from day to day, wielding the power of his mystical heritage and secrets of dwarven craft.
Cheer: "Pathetic dwarf!" Boo: "This is the best his people could offer?" Roar: "Astounding!" Chant: "Hold the line!"

The Gladiator: A thrillseeking Rulaani freeman who fights in the arena for his own personal glory, fame, and profit, the Gladiator is a returning champion of the arena who hasn't let age dull his skills. The Gladiator is a master fighter with his axe and gladiator's net, and knows how to play to the crowd.
Cheer: "He returns once more!" Boo: "Old man should just retire!" Roar: "What skill!" Chant: "Champion!"

The Savage: A proud warrior of one of the many relatively primitive tribes of ogres scatterred around the western edge of the expanding Rulaani empire made victims of genocide, the Savage was captured and hauled off to be goggled at by audiences in the arena. Channeling his fearsome sorrow and rage on those he is forced to fight, the Savage wields a towering stone axe like a wrecking ball with sharp edges, trampling foes with his sheer size and strength.
Cheer: "What a beast!" Boo: "Who gave that animal an axe?" Roar: "He's unstoppable!" Chant: "O-gre!"

The Amazon: The overextended expansionist Rulaan is plagued by barbarian raids from far corners of the empire, and perhaps the most infamous of these raiders are the Amazon women from the southern reaches. A savage warrior woman captured in such a barbarian raid on Rulaan and put on display in the arena, the Amazon is a swift huntress with a vicious killer instinct.
Cheer: "It's a wild woman!" Boo: "Come on, fight like a man!" Roar: "She's amazing!" Chant: "Amazon!"

The Madman: A relentlessly clever inventor and a homicidal maniac to boot, the Madman defines the line of genius meeting insanity. After using his technological expertise to disintegrate one of the wonders of the world, the authorities stepped up their efforts and finally managed to capture the rampaging goblin. Now imprisoned, the Madman gleefully turns over his pioneering doomsday machines to the Rulaani army in return for an endless supply of live test subjects in the arena.
Cheer: "The goblin! Who knows what he'll do!" " Boo: "Deranged lunatic!" Roar: "He's a madman, but he's OUR madman!" Cheer: "Genius!"

The Outlaw: A daring brigand and expert marksman who terrorized the roads of Rulaan, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Even now that the law has finally caught up with her, the Outlaw does not intend to give up her mission of redistribution of wealth and is planning a daring escape with the help of her allies who still walk free. Until then, however, she must survive the carnage of the arena.
Cheer: "And they said she couldn't be caught!" Boo: "Time for her tale to end!" Roar: "A true legend after all!" Chant: "Freedom!"

The Assassin: A hired killer who once stalked the upper echelons of the Rulaani courts, being wrapped up in so many intrigues came back to bite the Assassin when one of her employers betrayed her, and she was caught in the act. Now, her mastery of the deadly arts serve her well in fighting for her freedom in the fighting pits of the arena.
Cheer: "Nowhere to hide now!" (And yes, they're badly mistaken) Boo: "This is no battle!" Roar: "A deadly foe!" Chant: "Kill!"

The Wanderer: The Wanderer is a traveler from far, exotic lands on a journey to become the world's strongest warrior, testing his skills against those of the greatest fighters from across the world and learning from every encounter with a new style. Now that he has arrived in Rulaan, he seeks to once more bathe his blades and challenge his skills in the Colosseum.
Cheer: "He'll see what the Arena has in store!" Boo: "Get out of the ring!" Roar: "Never seen anything like it!" Chant: "Warrior!"

The Gambler: A devious Rulaani lord with a compulsion for betting on arena matches who, after finding himself mired in debts, finally decided that the best way to rig the game was to enter himself! The Gambler is a master of Chaos Magic, wielding unstable arcane powers focused through cards inscribed with runes and sutras. And yes, he charges up the cards with explosive energy and throws them at people like Gambit from X-Men.
Cheer: "His luck's run out!" Boo: "Nothing but cheap tricks!" Roar: "Fortune's favorite, indeed!" Chant: "Against the odds!"

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Friday, October 29, 2010

Court de Capitate: New Playtest Cards

So here's my bright idea for making this game available to all of you: Business cards!

All you need is eight sheets of business cards, size 2x3.5 inches; in my experience you can find decent ones for less than $5 at any office supply store or big retail outlet. Print this document onto those pages, and you'll have all 80 cards needed to play a the game! I do suggest scrounging up a d10 for each player, but a pencil and scratch paper can fill the same role just fine.

I'd wanted to share this ages ago, but my perfectionism and urge to tinker have been getting the better of me in the rare moments where I had time & energy to spare for this game. On the plus side, I can say with confidence that this delay has resulted in a better and more playable game (though there's still plenty more I can do to improve it!). Now I just need to finish an update to the manual. To bad I'm terrible at writing those. Maybe I'll just record myself the next time I explain the rules to someone in person?

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Friday, October 22, 2010

Influence Map: Complete Version

Finished! Got to say, this was a fun bit of navel-gazing.

Really, the hardest thing was separating "stuff I like" from "stuff that I find myself drawing on." For example, I really dig Metroid Prime, but it hardly informs my own work- I don't make first person adventure games, at least not so far.

Edit: I've been asked a couple questions about this, so I thought I'd elaborate some here. The material on the left side of the image is what I draw on (so far as I can tell) when coming up with fictional ideas and concepts- a random character, the background for a world, the fluff premise for a game. The material on the right side is the stuff that's influenced & advanced how I think about game mechanics of all sorts. Pretty much everything on here comes highly recommended, feel free to ask if you want more details on something.

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Influence Map: Part 2

Here's the rough for the second half. If anyone can guess one of the unrevealed items, I'll give them a game-as in, I'll design one for you.

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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Influence Map: Part 1

I've been taking a stab at doing this in the spare moments between calls at my job. This image is the first half, give or take.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Brainstorming: One Hell of a love story

(10:27:25 PM) Dagda: You know that massive image collection I've got?
(10:28:29 PM) Dagda: 7k character portraits, and just as much other stuff?
(10:28:53 PM) Dr Nurse: Yes?
(10:29:43 PM) Dagda: Basically, I have it all on the ipod, with the slideshow set to shuffle. So I open up the "Portraits" gallery, and declare that the next pic that comes up will be the protagonist.
(10:39:08 PM) Dr Nurse: Holy shit, no dude, I could play that game forever
(10:39:18 PM) Dagda: Same
(10:40:14 PM) Dagda: Here, let's do it now! You declare the character's role, I'll grab the result & give you the web gallery link.
(10:40:25 PM) Dr Nurse: :-D YES!
(10:41:02 PM) Dagda: (Or you can declare something like "this is his weapon of choice" and I'll go raid the Equipment gallery instead, for example.)
(10:41:15 PM) Dr Nurse: Right!
(10:41:19 PM) Dr Nurse: Okay, then... setting.
(10:41:39 PM) Dagda:
(10:42:35 PM) Dagda: HELL ITSELF
(10:42:43 PM) Dr Nurse: Damn, I was hoping for more scenery but YES. THE WAR IN HELL.
(10:42:46 PM) Dagda: We appear to be off to an excellent start
(10:42:51 PM) Dr Nurse: WONDERFUL.
(10:42:52 PM) Dr Nurse: Hero?
(10:43:11 PM) Dagda:
(10:43:14 PM) Dagda: Huh!
(10:43:36 PM) Dagda: Some kinda elric/samurai guy? This one gives us alot of flexibilty.
(10:43:56 PM) Dr Nurse: ...Wow we are off to a great start. A lost soul in the middle of a war in hell itself.
(10:44:14 PM) Dagda: How about love interest?
(10:44:24 PM) Dr Nurse: Oh! Yes! This could be interesting.
(10:44:27 PM) Dagda: Take advantage of the androgynous protagonist
(10:44:35 PM) Dr Nurse: Totally!
(10:44:44 PM) Dagda:
(10:44:51 PM) Dagda: Hmm
(10:45:11 PM) Dagda: Well, she's got the right attitude for a war in hell
(10:45:36 PM) Dagda: (right attitude being yelling angrily while hitting something)
(10:45:54 PM) Dr Nurse: Well, this is easy. Apparently this war in hell is asian themed or some shit. Maybe it's a Dante's Inferno (the shitty game i mean) situation. He went into the depths of hell itself to fetch a lost love...
(10:45:59 PM) Dr Nurse: and she's a little busy kicking ass in a war.
(10:46:34 PM) Dagda: Less "I have come for you my darling" and more "Honey maybe it's time you took a break, dinner's almost ready"
(10:46:58 PM) Dagda: Hmm
(10:47:50 PM) Dagda: Maybe you've got the Doom-esque "gate to hell opens" scenario, and an order of monks sends people in to desperately try & find a way to close it.
(10:49:14 PM) Dagda: And this lost soul- who happens to be a badass swordsman, hence him not being devoured decades ago- is immediately drawn to her (which is a good thing, since she really needs help. Not many visitor aids in hell)
(10:52:10 PM) Dagda: I find myself envisioning a blend of action-movie and "my love interest is damned" dark romance.
(10:52:31 PM) Dr Nurse: I LIKE IT.
(10:52:37 PM) Dr Nurse: So hey, Villain time. Make it happen.
(10:52:47 PM) Dagda: Hmm
(10:53:26 PM) Dagda: Do I go to Portraits (i.e. people) or creatures (i.e. inhumanoid monsters)?
(10:53:44 PM) Dr Nurse: Hey, do both and see what we can come up with
(10:53:49 PM) Dr Nurse: this IS hell after all
(10:54:03 PM) Dagda:
(10:54:31 PM) Dagda: First reaction is :/
(10:54:51 PM) Dagda: Second reaction: SHIT YES INFERNAL WARGOLEM ON WHEELS
(10:55:05 PM) Dr Nurse: IT'S A MECH. IN HELL. AWESOME.
(10:55:06 PM) Dagda: A little generous interpetation voila!
(10:55:41 PM) Dagda: . . .Oooh!
(10:55:49 PM) Dagda: Person result:
(10:56:18 PM) Dagda: Whaddaya say we have our reason for the hellgate opening in the first place?
(10:56:49 PM) Dr Nurse: I think so. A vengeful warrior dude trying to claw his way out of hell and, barring that, bringing everyone else into hell with him?
(10:58:37 PM) Dagda: Oooh! Oooh!
(11:00:07 PM) Dagda: So I'm thinking, maybe mortals- those badass enough to actually hold onto their souls while in hell- can actually use the metaphysical advantage their soul gives them to start bringing demons under their will?
(11:00:21 PM) Dagda: A sort of charisma that comes from them having free will?
(11:00:34 PM) Dr Nurse: OH YES! So we get the MegaTen element of monster recruitment?
(11:01:45 PM) Dagda: I was thinking this as an explanation for the warrior guy being a villain- but then I realized this could mean our love interest has to learn to do the same over the course of the story!
(11:02:36 PM) Dagda: i.e. stare down the mob of fiends and say "No, YOU get on your knees and beg for mercy"
(11:02:56 PM) Dagda: And then crack heads until they get the idea
(11:03:09 PM) Dr Nurse: YES! This mortal girl has to learn how to be a lord of hell to fight a lord of hell.
(11:04:27 PM) Dagda: And her love interest guy has to rebuild his sense of self, through her, enough to give her the crash course.
(11:04:48 PM) Dagda: OH! Just thought of a viable ending!
(11:05:18 PM) Dr Nurse: Oh?
(11:06:18 PM) Dagda: The whole "dark" part of the romance setup comes from the giant This Will Not End Well factor, right?
(11:06:42 PM) Dr Nurse: Right!
(11:08:36 PM) Dagda: She's on a suicide mission, even if she beats this guy there's very little chance of her being able to escape afterwards. And he's a lost soul, fighting alongside her guarantees that he's attracting too much attention to measure his lifespan in more than hours.
(11:10:37 PM) Dagda: And even if they weren't up against such staggering odds amounts of ass, the best could hope for would be to win her a way out and wave a sad goodbye. Heck, maybe he repeatedly tries to persuade her to cut & run with that very goal in mind.
(11:12:43 PM) Dagda: Then comes the climactic battle against this villain (and his wargolem!). Let's say that there's this big soul-devouring sacrificial altar thingy, maybe with big barbed spikes to impale your victims on.
(11:13:08 PM) Dagda: Or some similar device.
(11:13:12 PM) Dr Nurse: Right!
(11:14:43 PM) Dagda: And say that our final battle ends with this lost soul attempting a Taking You With Me sacrifice, expending his essence enough to physically tackle the villain into the devour-your-soul-o-matic.
(11:16:11 PM) Dagda: Villain soul is devoured! Bloodied, lifeless body crashes to the floor, whites of his eyes showing.
(11:18:06 PM) Dagda: Same soul-devouring forces rip at our lost soul. . .only for it to become clear that they're pawing ineffectively at him. WIth this last act, he's officially become to pure for hell to have any power over him.
(11:19:37 PM) Dr Nurse: OHHHHH
(11:20:09 PM) Dagda: but he's still spent to much of himself, his spiritual form's integrity is comrpomised. He's drifting away, presumably to heaven. She's watching him with this tearful smile, in such rough shape that she can't even stand, demons and/or a still-functional wargolem battering down a nearby door & seconds a way from crushing her to a pulp.
(11:20:36 PM) Dr Nurse: So we still get a badend?!
(11:22:10 PM) Dagda: He's completely not okay with this ending, she's completely okay with it. This way one of them gets out of hell, and it's the one who never had any hope in the first place.
(11:23:30 PM) Dagda: We hear screaming no & struggling to force himself to stay in more and more heartfelt fashions, but after one final, determined, fading cry he's gone.
(11:24:26 PM) Dr Nurse: D:
(11:24:37 PM) Dagda: She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, turns to watch the berserk war golem break free of the door/whatever they trapped it in mid-fight and barrel down towards her.
(11:27:07 PM) Dagda: An intact mortal body, with a freshly empty place where its soul used to be.
(11:27:27 PM) Dagda: TWIST GOOD END
(11:27:39 PM) Dr Nurse: THE BEST END.
(11:27:46 PM) Dr Nurse: I LOVE TWIST GOOD ENDS.
(11:27:55 PM) Dr Nurse: "OH SHIT THINGS LOOK BLEAK"
(11:29:56 PM) Dagda: So.
(11:30:12 PM) Dagda: We need to do this on a regular basis, methinks.
(11:30:19 PM) Dr Nurse: This is the best game.

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Sunday, September 12, 2010

I Live!

Boy, it sure is nice to come back from PAX and take a much-needed rest. Or so I assume, since I for one had to immediately dive into a 45-hour work week. I'd like to say I've now made it to the weekend and can finally get started on all the follow-ups I wanted to do. But the truth is that I'm writing this on my lunch break, because my one day off was yesterday. That day was spent getting some much-needed extra rest, catching up on a boatload of household chores & errands, participating in an experimental game of Dawn of Worlds (more on that in another post) and determinedly attempting to improve the playtest cards for Court d'Capitate (or deCapitate, or duCapitate; I'm try to make a final decision there too).

That last item wound up being my main playtest/demo focus for PAX- I spent half a day trying to figure out how I could import info from a google spreadsheet into a card template automatically, then threw up my hands and put the whole thing together manually. $5.50 at Target got me 25 sheets of 2x5 perforated business card paper, enough to print 3 complete 80-card sets (and for you to print a copy now and have enough left for the eventual stage 2 tests, where I add cards for Events and your own secret identities). There are a few quick changes I want to make to their format to help make the mechanics clearer, and a bunch of little playtest tweaks I keep stopping to add in, but I HEREBY SWEAR that I ON THIS VERY NIGHT (Edit: Yeahhowaboutno, I wound up spending the better part of three hours walking home after missing the last bus and have another early-morning shift, we're pushing this deadline back 24 hours) I will:

A-Somehow make the time to meet my self-imposed perfectionist standards,


B-Deal with it, i.e. recognize that the cards are fully functional and format's all placeholder anyway, and release them along with a bare-bones version of the revised rules.

PAX was fantastic, by the way. I met a bunch of great people, ran alot of productive playtests (i.e. the type where you run into a buttload of things to improve on but the core game proves itself as solid), got to play a bunch of interesting hobby games with mechanics I'd been wanting to check out. . .I'd love to talk more about it, but I need to actually follow up with all those people first :P.

For now, I'll just say that the two best games I discovered at PAX were both tabletop games- Ascension and the Marvel Superhero Squad TCG. Both are simple card games (to the point where many cards only have a name, 1-2 numbers and a type symbol) that take a core element of the formula and twist it around in brilliant, elegant ways that make them truly fun to pick up and play. Check them out!

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Thursday, September 2, 2010

PAX Tabletop Playtests

Here's the games I intend to run playtests/demonstrations for: Court d'Capitate, Mass Effect RPG, and Trigger Discipline. Rules-lite Divers games will also be a possibility, depending on what people tell me.

If you're at PAX and you're interested in participating, e-mail me! Also feel free to contact me if you're just interested in meeting in person; I'm always willing to help out with things like campaign ideas and so on.

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Sunday, August 29, 2010

So I'm going to PAX!

I've been on a tight budget for a while, and hadn't planned on attending any conventions. But last friday an opportunity came knocking (as illustrated above), and these last several months of overtime have earned me both the disposable income and the time off I needed to attend.

This means. . .several things.

First, PLAYTESTS! At each of the three conventions I've gone to, I've wound up spontaneously doing tests & demonstrations for one of my games; mainly Trigger Discipline, since these were all anime-oriented cons. This time, I've got plenty of different games I could take for a spin; Court deCapitate and Trigger Discipline are both ready for some more test runs, and there's an embarrassing number of other options I could have playable by friday- Divers, Mass Effect, Avatar. . .

Mind you, I'm not sure just how many of those I'll be able to get shipshape. So I'll take requests. If you'll be attending PAX, and would be interested in trying out one of my game ideas yourself? Let me know via the comments and I'll do my best to have it ready. And of course, even if you're not inclined to try a game or two I'd still love to meet you guys in person. Send me an e-mail and I'll give you my phone number.

Of course, one of my other priorities here is going to be the blog itself. This site is supposed to be a portfolio of sorts, and I've been unearthing alot of old documents as of late while reorganizing my hard drive- piles of various campaign ideas & brainstorm transcripts. It's high time I started sharing some of those. . .

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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Court d'Capitate: Beta playtest rules

Oh right, you guys still need the rules for how to *play* this thing, don't you?.

Fine, here you go.

I've been striving to crank this document out in my spare moments, which are still fairly scarce; let's just say that my last 2-week paycheck had 96 hours on it. You can thank a couple different folks I ran into IRL I ran into last week for providing the motivation; turns out they've actually been hoping to see more of this. (Seriously, it gets hard to keep making these things in a feedback vacuum. Those of you who do make those thoughtful comments are helping more than you could know.)

It's been a little surprising to realize just how bad I am at doing manuals. I have no problem explaining my games when I demonstrate them to someone in person, but when the time comes to lay out all that info in the form of a text document I tend to gloss over lots of vital details. Attempting to buckle down and lay everything out step by step produces instructions that, as someone said about an early draft of Trigger Discipline, "read like a legal document". Hopefully I've been able to put a little more natural voice into this one.

Can you tell this another one of those sleep-deprived posts? If not, you will soon.

I've gotta balance this part of the game first, but I can tell you now how those Mastermind cards will work. You each who you're playing as from several random draws, but your identity is kept secret for as long as you like. Revealing your identity grants you the benefits of your character (such as larger hand sizes, cheaper turn point costs, conditional bonuses, that kind of thing) but also makes you a target- you now have a Luck and Paranoia score, and can be targeted just like any of your Pawns. On the plus side, your hand becomes the scheme cards you're carrying, so you can reveal ones with defensive abilities.

What makes this interesting is that lots of Event cards involve characters which may or may not be one of the Masterminds a player drew for this game. If the next round's event card involves a speech by Prince Albert, and gives Prince Albert's stats as well as a fat style bonus if someone manages to whack him, and you're playing Prince Albert (and don't want anyone to know). . .well. Things are about to get interesting.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Divers vs. Inception

I went into Inception with a "baseless hunch" about what seeing it would be like for me, one that turned out about 80% correct. Among the expected factors: It's got a ton of parallels to Divers (enough that it'll probably be the biggest "so it's like ___" reaction I get for the project from now on, quite a feat when Divers has parallels to EVERYTHING). It gave me plenty of ideas for antagonists. It's got my mind racing enough that I'll be up all night and should definitely harness this energy towards somethings productive (like this blog plost).

The two big exceptions:

-It didn't give me many ideas about the environments for Divers. The film was too well-grounded for that.
-By having such a thoroughly explored internal logic, Inception provides a reference that helps me better understand my own ideas.

There's a few clear realizations this has currently produced. . .
Where Inception is about the subconscious and our imaginations, Divers is about our intuition and feelings.
The internal logic of the Depths (in Divers) doesn't produce a world where things having match events that could happen in 'reality'; it produces a world where everything 'feels' right. Punching through concrete with your bare hands? Clearly couldn't happen in the real world, but show it to us in a movie or comic and we readily nod along.

Instead of being semiconsciously built from our imaginations, the depths in Divers are formed through the experiences we have- from our feelings, if "feeling" is a label you give to the process of experiencing something.

Inception's world is an increasingly hostile environment that forces you to "lay low", fueling adventures similar to heist movies. Divers' world is an increasingly symbolic/fantastical/significant environment; it fuels adventures where you discover more about the world around you as you fight to better it.
I feel like I've had one element of a personal agenda with Divers, one conscious moral I built into the world's themes. It's simple: Everyone can have qualities that make them worth respecting. Any random person- a surly blue-collar worker in his early 50s, an anxiety-prone housewife, an incoherent bum on the bus- can turn out to have extraordinary depths to them, sides of their character whose virtues would never see the light of day in almost any other premise involving decent action sequences. :P

Mind you, there's a corollary: Anyone can and will have terrible, pathetic failings. Anyone can be force for ill through the Depths, be it through ignorance, denial, or pain too great to bear. That includes the same people who're worthy of respect. That includes you.

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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Idea: Provide a world for users to fill with secrets.

Just an open brainstorm as to how you might implement this. For a tabletop RPG, it seems like you could use a wiki-like approach to build a campaign setting full of intrigue and hidden motives; the person handling the meat of the setting serves as the admin, with others stepping up to suggest various motives/intentions/goings-on for everything from shopkeeps to nobles to the beggars in a given alley. The big design question is how you'd handle this in some kind of video game.

The approach I'd envision there is making a moderately expansive 3D world, with several different wilderness environments, some small and large towns, etc. It'd hopefully be done well enough that it'd be moderately interesting and beautiful, something you might enjoy running around in with no particular direction; at the same time, it'd all be within the bounds of normality (albeit with the landscape distilled a little, so that you've got more fancy waterfalls and so on). But you'd also provide a set of tools that users could use to modify or add to the world, providing various assets but also letting you make your own.

I can open up this toolset, go in, and add something like a small grove in the middle of a forest or a strange rock formation. I can also go much further than that, adding things like a hidden valley containing ancient ruins or an underground cave system. Other options could include things like giving a seemingly generic building a working door and an interior, and a creature creator that lets you give them all kinds of different behaviors (i.e. your little stick-man will always stay far away unless the player stands still for at least 10 seconds while the moon is full). There'd be a moderator panel I can check in with; they'd offer feedback and be the ones who'd incorporate the altered region into the world. (These moderators *could* act as quality control, but I think their main priorities would be to avoid having one user's additions conflict with another's (i.e. they'd inform you that there's already something going on with that cliff face, and suggest several similar areas to implement your idea instead) and maintain a couple of general guidelines (secrets shouldn't be obvious from a distance, though subtler clues are fine). Players should feel free to give their contributions all kind of unique quirks- winding trails of sky-blue flowers that lead to hidden cave entrances, inscriptions on walls that tell fragments of a story. . .

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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Games as art- yea or nay?

I usually consider art to be abstract self-expression- having something to say. Working off that idea, it's safe to say that almost anything can be art once you're fluent in it.

That being said, I make games, and I know I personally am no artist- the label I do use is /craftsman/. It doesn't really matter whether the core premise is my own or someone else's; my focus is on running with that concept and implementing it in the best way possible.

Ask me anything

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Monday, June 28, 2010

How do you make a game about love?

Another question that someone else posed and I attempted to answer. What came to mind for me was cases where a player decides, of their own volition, to keep an NPC safe when they could easily have let them die instead (and the GM/game designer likely expected them to), and the amazing dedication they can show when pursuing this self-determined goal (as opposed to the utter frustration people feel towards escort missions).

I'd frame it as a subversion, similar to fathom. You could do a 2-D side-scrolling action game with a B-movie feel, reminiscent of Metal Slug. The level opens with a shot of a diner, then monsters burst in and start wreaking havoc. Pan left (with "GO!" flashing several times, big enough to fill the screen) and we see your character emerging from the bathroom, with an exclamation point appearing over their heads as they see said havoc spill into view. A bouncing arrow points out a shotgun to the left, so you grab that and then use it (along with a jumping kick attack) to fight your way out of the diner and down the hill to an oversized boss. Except that when the boss dies, the music just stops. We see the character walk offscreen back towards the diner, cutting back to the back hallway where we first started playing. He walks over to the body of one of those background NPCs from the intro, and shows some kind of grief- whatever body language and gestures prove the most expressive for the character model. Fade to black.

If you play the game again, you'll likely notice that the woman in question dies *after* you gain control of the character, in what looked like a scripted event. And if your first action is to run to the right and attack the monster with your difficult-but-functional kick attack (which the game doesn't tell you about for another 20 seconds, so you don't know about it your first time through), instead of grabbing the shotgun first, you can actually save that character, and continue to defend them as you fight through the rest of the level. They'll die if any monster gets to them, making it very difficult to make it through to the end of the game without them dying; but it's still possible.

Perhaps you'd actually expand on the gameplay- every section of the game sees the woman doing something else while you fight the monsters, changing how you play during that section. She'd interact with elements of the apparently-static background, demonstrating alot of resourcefulness and ingenuity (though not any combat prowess). It's important to note that her efforts to help herself and you never make the game easier; they just create another slim window of opportunity for you to keep the two of you alive a little longer, and by extension give the game experience noticeable variety.

I'm not doing this because I have any love for the "damsel in distress" option, I'm doing it to deliberately remove outside incentives- where there's no rational reason to shoulder all this hardship except that you care about what happens to this person, damn it. And when you stick with that approach, you wind up getting alot more out of a life that used to be much more effortless and predictable.

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Sunday, June 27, 2010

What's the best way a game can tell a story?

Someone raised the question in a discussion I had a while back. This was my response:

I think it's important to consider what stories are, underneath all the different ways we tell them (all the mediums, plot structures, et cetera). I could bring up Robert McKee here, but instead I'll lift a quote from this piece:






During a good story, the protagonist is trying to overcome challenges in order to pursue their goal.
During a good game, the player is trying to overcome interesting challenges.
I suspect there may be some potential synergies here. :P

Let me shift from theory to the pragmatic end of the spectrum. The most powerful storytelling trick I've noticed in games so far has cropped up in these isolated moments in a number of different games. Some examples from video games:
-In Metal Gear Solid 3, standing there as you wait to pull the trigger of a gun- one that's pointed at a person you love more than anyone else in the world.
-In Modern Warfare 2's conclusion, staggering up to a crashed helicopter and its injured pilot, a knife in your hand.
-In The Darkness, watching a movie with your girlfriend on the couch, knowing you can press a button at any time to get up and leave.
-In Assassin's Creed, using your one available action during conversations (walking around within a 20' by 20' area) to pace in circles, turn your back on someone and walk away, etc.

Moments like these stand head and shoulders above the rest of the game experience in terms of having the story be engaging and meaningful to the player. It took some reflection, but I think I've figured out why. The thing all these moments share is that the narrative that's playing out contains a variable which has been given dramatic significance by the game, but is now determined by the player. If Solid Snake stands paralyzed while the minutes drag on until he finally pulls that trigger, that's a different story (in a dramatic/significant way) from the narrative where he hesitates for all of a second. While that moment lasted, the player had a degree of genuine control over the narrative while it was unfolding. Psychologically, they went from an audience member (albeit one who gets to walk around the set and sometimes give an order in the director's place) to one of the actors on the stage.

And as a bonus, the narrative has gone from being a mass-produced experience to one that only this player has had, something that can be very important to people.

Any of that make sense?

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Monday, June 21, 2010

What I've been up to, take 2:


"Oh my god, it's like 1945 on steroids."

"Wow pretty good. I liked the speed and control and level progression."

"Nice. This is much harder [than a previous build], forces you to cope and change strategy every minute."

"I gotta say this game is tough, and I'm totally okay with that."

I was never in any hurry to get into computer game design, because you can spend so much more time working on the implementation rather than the design itself. I underestimated the siren call the 132 design process would have for me.

Milestone 1 for this game has been to put together a loadout that allows for potent playstyle customization, as the emergent result of small number of choices. This is basically a test for some of my own ideas about how to have the substantive mechanics seen in the "rpg" video game genre, without resorting to artificial reward cycles to keep the player involved. The standard here was (and is) a moderately balanced set of choices that all mattered, so that changing any one of those options has a noticeable effect on the "smart" way to play the game.

This build's aimed at milestone #2: Fun core gameplay. The standard here is for the basic, underlying mechanics to be fun enough (in and of themselves) to make for a passable endless mode. To this end, I've temporarily taken out the options to choose your loadouts; instead, it cycles to a new random arrangement once every 20 seconds.

Feedback and reactions are always welcome. If nothing else, let me know what you think about the different weapons and what sort of scores you can get.

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Friday, May 28, 2010

K, let's see. What's been going on with me. . .

A dangerous game.

In no particular order: I've got about 4 largely-complete posts that have sat in the drafts folder for about a month. Blogspot dates posts based on when I started writing them, so when I go back and finish them off it'll retroactively make this hiatus seem to have only been half as long. So I'll do another quick blog post tipping people off then.

I have a new full-time job after half a year of bank account-draining underemployment, which is great; it also eats up a ton of time, what with hour+ commutes both ways and having to adjust my sleep schedule to get up before 5 AM. (This post is being written right before I crash for the night, so pardon the rambling. Then again, since it kinda helps me avoid the habits that slow my writing speed to a miserable crawl, you might do well to expect alot more fatigued posts in the future.)

I have a nearly-finished site touch-up, most of which was already implemented a week ago. The big thing remaining is to test a bit of custom html, a "highlight reel" sidebar item that displays excerpts (randomly, chosen each time you load a page) from some of the better posts on this site. That's not really content, though.

I've also been figuring out a couple other kinds of scripting. During my spare moments on the job yesterday and today (breaks and the spare time while I wait for other class members to finish training modules) I've used google spreadsheets to make a 35-question test/survey related to Divers. You can take it as yourself or in-character; it'll give you your base ability scores, gauge your personality's relative strengths and weaknesses, and outline your supernatural combat capabilities. It helps that the above is actually just the same thing stated three different ways.
Scripting feat #3? Well, I bit the bullet, crossed the threshold, mixed the metaphors and started making an actual computer game using Game Maker, which has turned out to be an unexpectedly potent tool. (Yes, I messed around with Unity around the start of the year. That doesn't count, for reasons I'm to tired to come up with atm.) This first game of mine's a scrolling shooter- playable alpha, gotta churn out some more sophisticated enemy types to fully implement the first draft of the core gameplay. Graphics-wise, I've deliberately restricted myself to this sprite sheet, plus whatever I can make by hand using the built-in sprite editor:

The game itself- the mechanics and such- is probably closest to a classic title known as Raptor, though that's more of a jumping-off point. The other aspect of the central gameplay is something the scrolling shooter genre's never really seen, as far as I know; you might label it as "rpg elements", but it's more like an upgrade system minus all the fundamental things that label would lead you to expect. Really, the whole game is a test/demonstration for my ideas as to how developers could circumvent the inherent design issue I mentally refer to as The Diablo Problem.

Also, I've been reading a boatload of Tim Rogers & Co. I started printing out the text of the articles to take notes and read on the way to work, double-sided in 9-point font; these days I've got an actual binder. If you fancy yourself a real game designer, start reading these guys. The piece on Super Mario Bros 3 alone contained more novel, thought-provoking ruminations on game design than virtually any attempt I've seen to create educational material on the topic.

Now sleep. Back later. Can answer any questions then.

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Post-Apocalyptic Bogeymen

A fellow on /tg/ was trying to come up with some monsters for a post-apocalyptic horror game. My first question for him was simple: Do you want the kind of monsters you blow fleshy chunks out of with guns and plenty of ammo, or the kind that stalk you through the shadows like surreal nightmares? He was after the latter, and had actually been considering having the creatures be intangible (though they'd still have a high body count). Here's what I suggested.

The monsters *are* entities that, objectively, exist- at any given moment, two people looking at one of these creatures will be observing the same thing (heck, if you've got a working camera you could take a picture of them, though any situation where you'd have a decent shot isn't going to be one with a good chance of you getting out alive). They're sentient, and certainly intelligent to some degree. But they also seem to exist almost entirely in our own minds- for the most part, they can barely affect the physical world. The one exception is us- one swipe of a claw and you'll be bleeding profusely beneath undamaged clothes. And while they'll often toy with a victim like a cat toys with its prey, they'll throw people around like rag dolls once they're agitated enough.

Getting into "things the players don't know at first" territory:
-They quickly lose the ability (or possibly the inclination) to affect someone who's dead. In fact, they quickly lose interest in doing much of anything after one victim dies. . .well, most of the time. And that's not gonna stop other victims from bleeding to death shortly after.
-Interestingly, they'll also pay little attention to someone who isn't conscious- or at least, they won't start paying attention. Their focus waxes much quicker than it wanes. One end result of this would be children waking up to see the bloody remains of a mother who never made a sound, rather than crying out and thus waking them up.
-Whether it's correlation or causation, their attacks do less damage to someone who manages not to panic. This doesn't mean not feeling fear- that only happens if you're dense and naive, and it doesn't protect you- it means feeling intense fear and resisting it enough that it doesn't affect your actions. Some elders (and there aren't many out there) advise people to stand and face a beast rather than trying to escape- not because that makes it less inclined to attack, but because that way there's a chance your injuries won't be lethal. Of course, alot of that hinges on there being someone else at the scene who's freaking out more than you.
-The creatures are fairly territorial. Each seems to have its own quirks, abilities, form and general personality (though these evolve over time)- residents typical tell stories about it and call it by a nickname. Personally, I'd use the monster in the '9' short film (and likely the monsters in the feature film version, haven't seen it) as a reference:

Also, it'd be interesting (i.e. really damn creepy) if they could imitate human behaviors-i.e. this twisted nightmare thing occasionally makes some casual nonverbal gesture you'd see a person make in conversation, or whispers something under its breath when before now it only made guttural, inhuman howls.

Perhaps it's not an imitation, and they're spirits of the dead who retain trace amounts of their old selves.

Or maybe those trace amounts come from their latest victims.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Court d'Capitate: Schemes

O, what tangled webs we weave! The other vital part of the alpha playtest build, schemes represent the various individual steps of your grand master plan. (You do have a grand master plan, right?)

As you'll see, most schemes are used in murder plots. These cards all have three scores, which are added together to determine the total score in each area for the plot itself: Lethality (The target dies unless their Luck exceeds this number), Cunning (The plot is exposed if the target's Paranoia exceeds this number, and if the target was also unoccupied you must frame and sacrifice one of your pawns to avoid being executed yourself), and Style (You get this many victory points if the plot succeeds without being exposed).

Two more card types will be worked in as the playtests proceed. First, there's Events- whatever's going on in a given round, and the mechanical tweaks (and potential targets) this introduces. Each event is revealed the round before it goes into effect, so people have a chance to plan ahead.

Second, there's Masterminds- the various nefarious minds at work in the court, their identities mysterious and plans most adversarious. Each player selects one of these characters, through whom they'll act in a manner vicarious NO BAD DAGDA STOP RHYMING YOU'LL BE HERE ALL DAY. Ahem. Each mastermind grants some neat bonuses, that tweak core rules like turn point costs and maximum hand sizes; but you have to reveal your identity to get those benefits, creating an alternate loss condition where someone can try to assassinate you directly. Fun times!

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Monday, April 12, 2010

Court d'Capitate: Pawns

Squint hard enough and you can just make out one of the notecards I made for the playtest.
I've made a few vague references to how I playtested Court d'Capitate back around Christmas. Here's the full story: Every year my dad's side of the family (the grandparents, their three children (all happily married) and their ten energetic grandchildren, of whom I am the eldest) all pitches in to rent a big vacation home for several days, so that we can all be together. We arrived the evening of day one, and would be leaving the morning of day five. I had dice, a set of blank notecards in different colors, and the core rules sorted out on my head. On day 1, I spent my spare time brainstorming the cards out in my notebook. I spent most of day 2 actually writing all the cards out, often while holding a week-old baby girl in my left arm (creating a rather striking clash of mindsets- Lady Macbeth quotes spring to mind). On the third day, I massaged my aching, cramped hands while roping various family members into the actual playtesting. And it was good.

At any rate, today I'll be sharing the first half of the information on the cards I made back then. Here are all the pawns I came up with. Pawns are the hapless fools under your control, whether or not they realize it. All pawns have three scores- Luck (How hard they are to kill), Paranoia (How hard it is to get a way with trying to kill them) and Ability (How many of your scheme cards you can attach). Since you have a limited number of Turn Points each round, you want to have a large number of Pawns to attach scheme cards to- that way on future turns you'll be able to do more at once, since pawns can occupy to play attached cards free of charge.

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Thursday, April 8, 2010

A response to "Just Die"

First, Ron Edwards is to RPG design what Freud is to psychology- someone who's done an admirable job of raising the visibility and (in some ways) respectability of his chosen field, while doggedly insisting on theories that mix some basic, essential insights with a whole lot of bunk.

Second: Mr. Gillen, I don't disagree with most of what you've written. As an attempt to quell the "my sub-area of interest > yours" geek squabbling, it's an excellent piece (with a most noble goal). But your analysis of what a roleplaying games are strikes me as a tragic oversimplification, because it overlooks the one element of the experience that only a roleplaying game (in the literal sense) can have- an element that far too few game developers in any medium try to focus on (Ice Pick Lodge and Eric Chahi being two notable exceptions).

If I just want to roleplay, to participate in a narrative as a character that I or someone else invented, I can do that as a freeform exercise- no need for a bunch of rules and mechanics. If I just want to play a good game, there are board games and video games that offer better tactical challenges in a much more direct fashion. If I want that gameplay to include "rpg elements"- which is a label for the strategic gameplay of character advancement and optimization- then titles like Torchlight distill that far beyond what any pen and paper rpg has done. And if I want to "play" in the other sense- exploring and poking at a virtual world in a way that's not unlike a child playing with a toy- that doesn't have to involve stopping every few minutes to shoot at some wandering mutant, nor does it require that I be a character in some deep storyline.

So what's left, after you account for all of the above? Are rpgs just a combo platter, giving us smaller servings of those elements together in a single package? Or is there a chemistry between some of these ingredients that creates something new?

Screenwriter David Mamet tells us that good stories provide drama- the quest of a hero to overcome those things which prevent him from achieving a specific, acute goal.

Game designer Raph Koster tells us that good games provide fun- the player's struggle to overcome interesting challenges, those things which prevent him from achieving a specific. . .sorry, is anyone else getting a sense of deja vu?

The unique power that's found in the experience of playing a roleplaying game is what happens when the game is the story. When the challenges a character faces and the ends they seek begin to overlap and merge with those of the player. It's not an easy feat to pull off, of course. Each medium is in a better position to leverage certain techniques to that end- video games can do more to make the challenges visceral, while tabletop games can allow players more of a hand in determining their character's goals (which reduces the work required to get them on board with the character's motives).

To steal a line from a drunken Jack Sparrow: That's what an rpg is, you know. It's not just a story, and your character, and the levels and the xp; that's what an rpg needs. Usually. But what an rpg is... what a role-playing game really is, is you living the story.

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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Backseat Designer: Mass Effect 2's Ammo System

The Mass Effect RPG is hardly the only way these games have been bouncing around in my brain for the past several weeks. I've held off on posting this, because I couldn't find any kind of statement by the ME2 design team explaining their rationale for adding reloading and ammunition mechanics to the combat. I'd hate to have overlooked something while hashing out this proposed alternative. Happily, one of the slides from Christina Norman's recent GDC presentation lists what I'll assume were the primary factors:
-"Encouraged using different weapons" (Gives the combat more variety & tactical depth.)
-"We could make weapons more powerful with limited ammo" (I'm guessing she's referring to 'feel', though this also expands on the weapon-switching tactics. It's a shame they wound up treating new weapons like clear upgrades, rather than letting variables like this create more interesting choices when it comes to your weapon loadout.)
-"Stopped bullet spraying" (Shooter gameplay gets brainless very quickly when you're running low on reasons to worry about making each shot count.)

Other benefits I would name:
-Finding time to reload=tactical gameplay. The player's mental muscles get a better workout if their plan of action for the next 5 seconds has to account for the need to reload. It's a significant part of the shooter formula- look at the Call of Duty series, where the tutorials go out of their way to stress how the choice of when to reload also includes the option to switch to a sidearm.
-Maintains intensity. Waiting for your weapon to cool off was definitely a buzzkill in ME1. Most of ME2's improvements in this area come from the reworked controls, powers, defenses and enemy behavior; still, reloading also helps.
-Pushes the player to remain mobile during combat. Hang back during ME2's larger engagements, and you'll soon find yourself hungrily eying the pile of thermal clips beneath your enemies' feet. The option to shift positions so as to scoop up more thermal clips presents players with another dynamic challenge.
-Rewards exploration out of combat. This would be the one benefit this proposal would have to give up, though the level designers didn't really leverage it anyway: Some thermal clips could have been placed as hidden goodies, a lower-key version of the minerals and credits.

So what's going on in that youtube clip up above? Here's the details for my proposal.
-You always carry a small number of spare thermal clips. The exact number's obviously something playtests would determine; I'd envision having 2 at the start, 2 obtained by researching upgrades, and 2 more for those who equip spare ammo packs (or 'extra cooling units'). If we're hypothetically applying this to ME2, you could put the 'blueprints' in Mordin's recruitment mission and the disabled collector ship, with the armor upgrades on Omega and Tuchanka. There could also be several research upgrades providing small boosts to your clip's cooling rates.
-Eject a clip from a weapon and it'll start to cool off at a steady rate. You can't load a clip until it cools off completely. My initial playtest estimate would be 15 seconds for a fully-used clip to 'recharge'. I'd originally written out a lengthy explanation for how the GUI could convey all the relevant information in an intuitive fashion; then I remembered that I had access to a copy of After Effects, and could just show people what I was talking about. Something the above video doesn't demonstrate is that once a clip is fully cooled, it blinks white (with an appropriate audio cue) and loses the red aura.
-Clips inside your unequipped weapons also cool off, albeit at a slower rate. Regularly swapping weapons thus reduces your need to reload without making it irrelevant. The classes that spend more of their time shooting things are also the classes with the larger arsenals, so I think this could balance them out nicely. The fiction would be that a firearm's heat vents are open while it's in the 'folded' state. If I had to guess, I *think* it'd be best to still have a fully spent clip 'overheat' and not be usable until fully cooled (or until you eject it and load in a fresh one).
-Picking up a thermal clip swaps out your hottest spare clip for a cool one. Most enemies could still drop clips, and there'd still occasionally be one or two on the ground/shelf/convenient waist-high rock formation. You might also have the player stop and take half a second to pick up clips a la recent Resident Evil titles, just to add to the challenge a little.
-Bolt-action weapons like the Claymore and Mantis only expend about 1/3 of a clip, but 'overheat' with each shot. So you still have to reload (or swap weapons for a moment), but each clip cools off quickly. This is just a way to 'translate' these weapons so as to preserve their unique pros and cons (which are wonderful, the sort of thing that ME3 could expand on beautifully. I'd love to launch into a tangent on this topic, but it'd take up a post itself). The ammo capacity upgrades for shotguns and SMGs could translate in a similar fashion, altering the weapons so that their ejected clips are only half as hot.

One last set of bullet points- the advantages this proposal would give.
-Changes the mechanics to match the fiction. Mass Effect 2's in-game rationale for the use of cooling clips ties beautifully into the game's overarching plot while providing a simple, easy-to-grasp explanation for the mechanics. Yet people are still baffled, and not just because said explanation's tucked away in the codex. To quote Tom Francis: "That’s not how it works. You can run out of cooling clips for your pistol and still have 245 for your sub machinegun. There’s no way to use the pistol until you find more cooling clips for it: so weapons do have mututally exclusive clip types."
-Helps the IP regain a measure of the lost originality. This was the thing that made infinite ammo so cool in the first place- it was the setting's originality made manifest in the form of unique gameplay elements.
-Adds interesting tactical depth to the gameplay. As always, this is just theory. But keeping track of your total ammunition is more of a healthy play habit, with the interesting moment-to-moment challenge only really cropping up when your ammo runs low. This would help give players an engaging cognitive workout on more of an ongoing basis, with players planning out their actions so that all but one or two clips will be cooling at any given moment in time (so as to maximize their "enemy being shot in the face" rate).
-Reduces the workload for level designers. Rather than having to place a hundred thermal clips in every combat mission, they can plant a clip or two in the middle of most firefight arenas- or any other visible location that'd be interesting to try and advance towards while the bullets are flying, especially if it wouldn't normally be the smart/conservative thing to do.

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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Tower Defense Design Proposal

The following's from an email I recently sent to a fellow who's started messing around with a flash tower defense game. I don't normally share this kind of "game design consultant" work here; I probably should.

Let's say we go with a generic fantasy premise, just for the purpose of this description- I can handle the fiction and any writing needs. The "Overworld" gameplay in between rounds is similar to the Last Stand 2. You see this overworld map/matte painting-esque image depicting the ancient, overgrown ruins of a once-magnificent city, with a variety of locations marked out on it. A bar across the top depicts the monster types that're stalking you and will attack that night- clicking one displays information regarding their strengths and weaknesses. There'll typically be one you haven't fought yet; their info consists of a black silhouette along with some cryptic lore containing hints as to how you fight them.

Any unexplored locations are described via similar cryptic hints, giving the player some indication as to what benefits might be found by searching there (especially whether they've got the upgrade that's going to be effective against a given incoming enemy- you have access to the day's search results when choosing your battle loadout). Each location also contains a note as to how defensible it is (there's a number of factors we could use to actually alter the challenge enemy waves pose, lots of potential for each location having unique quirks). You'll have to actually go to a location to get the description that has concrete details.

In other words, you're simultaneously choosing where to search for upgrades and which stage you'll be fighting the next wave on; naturally, the most dangerous locations will contain the coolest upgrades. I like the idea of a player who's had the last battle go badly being wounded/vulnerable, but because of how the game's set up their response is to retreat to a safe location and just rest in preparation for the next night (rather than just hitting reload).

Next, there's the actual battles. This concept and the overworld concept were brainstormed together, but neither needs the other. I'll skip a bunch of micro-level design ideas and just focus on the tower setup, as sketched out in those cruddy webcam pics.
  • On the left side of the 1st pic, the UI displays 9 items.
    • The 3 tower types you'll have throughout the game- +Damage, +Range, and +Chain (AoE is alot tougher to balance, even before mana effects come into the picture). The display also shows the random positions of the 3 link nodes on the next tower of that type you'll place.
    • The 3 mana generator types you've chosen for that round. In addition to providing a bonus effect to any tower they're linked to, they generate mana at a rate equal to (X/[1+# of linked towers currently firing])- 1 active tower reduces its mana generation to half capacity, 2 active towers reduces it to a third, etc. The current mana supply for each type would be listed next to its icon.
    • The 3 (?) spells you've chosen for that round. You use mana to cast these- I expect you'd click the spell, then click the mana type you'd use to pay for it, with each spell having one or two favored mana types that can cast it for a third of the normal price. (This'd be an extra motive to explore in the overworld- you've found this great spell, but not the associated mana generation rune, and it sounds like it might be in one of the most dangerous stages. . .)
  • Every X seconds, you can place a new tower or generator.
    • If you want some mana types to be more powerful, they could incur a larger delay before you can place your next item.
    • Since linking towers enhances both of them, you'll often want to start by mostly placing towers
    • X could get longer as the round went on.
    • In the 2nd pic, our hypothetical player started by placing a +Range tower (with the node links the UI displays in the 1st pic), then a +Damage tower, and then a generator for Death mana.
  • Node links can cross open spaces (and go under the monster path) so long as there's another placement point on the other side.
  • Each tower has its own starting upgrade, plus up to 3 more upgrades from the generators and towers it's linked to. (So in the pic, both towers are getting +1 range, +1 damage, and whatever Death's benefit is- say, bonus magic damage equal to 10% of the target's max HP, making it good vs waves of a few tough targets. Don't worry about bosses, they'd- whoops, I'm getting into micro-level design.)
    • We can screw around alot with how many nodes a tower gets and how many upgrades they can have max, along with a number of other sub-matters like whether links should be two-way for towers.
    • Multiple upgrades of the same type stack, though the exact progression depends on the type for balance reasons. A +Range tower linked to one other +Range tower shoots 4 times as far as the base distance; if all 3 of its links are to other +Range towers, it can shoot enemies on the other side of the map (though it'll be dealing the base damage with no side effects).
So the experience of playing the game consists of placing towers and generators in interconnected networks, and using the spells to influence things. (As for how much influence those spells would have. . .imagine if instead of having to click to pick up the sun in PvZ, every [40/sunflowers] seconds you could make a few clicks to either deal 3 peas' worth of damage to a zombie or make one lane fire down a neighbor for 5 seconds).

I probably don't have to explain this, but one of the design priorities here is elegance- rather than giving the player forty options, give him a few meaningful choices that combine to produce the same flexibility. I'd guess that there'll be no more than a dozen mana types, and half of those are 'bonus options' (a normal playthrough will find 2-3 by the endgame). But the potential for combinations between different upgrades means that your 3 chosen mana types are going to play in a way that's noticeably different from other combinations.

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Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Meanings Of Play

The way I'd put it is that there are two kinds of activities which we label as "play".

The first is playing a game- Halo, basketball, and so on. The activity here is working to overcome an interesting challenge. It's worth pointing out that this is a much broader definition of "game" than the sorts normally used- it can apply to any case where the act of trying to do something is inherently rewarding (a sensation we typically refer to as "interesting" or "fun").

The second is playing like a child plays with toys. The activity here is exploring possibilities through interaction. The psychological drive is curiosity, which I'd describe as wanting to see everything there is to see. When you search obsessively for all 100 Green Stars because you've heard that unlocks a secret ending, curiosity is what's motivating you.

(Of course, this isn't to say that every case of 'play' has to be only one of these two types. Human beings rarely have only one motivation to be doing something.)

So what's a practical takeaway? Curiosity will keep a player engaged if they believe their interactions will yield something they want to see. They'll participate because they want to see the consequences of that participation.

(The above was all originally written as a post on the forums, which have sucked up a ridiculous amount of my time by this point. I'll throw in a follow-up exchange between me and God At Play:)

"Great addition Dagda. Those fit well in the Why We Play Games essay. Challenge and Mystery would be Hard Fun and Easy Fun.

That essay also mentions
Altered States (they also call it Serious Fun). They refer to it as "games as therapy," and it's about exploring the rhythm of your own mental/emotional states during play. Not sure how that translates, but it's something to think about.

What about things that would motivate you outside of what you'd typically think in a play experience?"

Hard fun and easy fun would definitely match challenge and curiosity. I hesitate to use the word mystery, because the player's drive is rarely abated by knowing approximately what will happen- the important thing is to have gotten the full experience (not counting any remaining elements of that experience which don't feel like they'll be worthwhile).

Altered states strike me as a confused catch-all that covers the ways numerous other factors affect us on an emotional level (the biggest one is being immersed in the game's narrative, which roughly same as emphasizing & identifying with the protagonist of a story). This isn't to say I disagree with the idea of games as therapy; experiencing emotions can be therapeutic in the same way that eating food can be nutritious, regardless of how those emotions were triggered.

Other things that would motivate and engage players? There's external rewards (which are just a kind of challenge that takes longer to overcome), escapism (which I believe exists, but have yet to noticed in my experiences), social elements (as identified in that essay, and brutally leveraged by facebook games) and various psychological tricks like loss aversion. Personalization is also effective. Any high-quality elements of the production (The writing, music, imagery, choreography...) can have the same lasting appeal that similar works have on their own. The player will be more inclined to immerse themselves in that element (so as to better savor it), and by extension become more immersed in the game as a whole (at least to whatever degree said element ties into that whole).

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Monday, March 29, 2010

Just what is the "RPG" genre?

Now picture them on my shoulders in the standard angel-devil arrangement.

I've found that the term "roleplaying game" is typically. . .okay, you know what? SCREW the academic writing style. This isn't advanced theory, this is blazingly obvious crap that almost nobody's noticing because the bar for game design & analysis is set so damn low.

There are two big meanings to the phrase 'RPG'. First one's the literal game where you play a role, I went into detail on this a year ago and what I wrote then still works fine as an intro. The second definition is used to describe a whole genre, mostly in the context of video games. People use this label reliably, they just can't give a decent explanation for what it actually means; hence the boatload of whinging over whether Mass Effect 2 is an RPG or not.

Seriously, it's simple. "RPG" games have strategic gameplay that revolves around building a powerful character. The redundancy in that definition's deliberate- a way to emphasize how the terms that make up the "RPG" acronym have little relation to its meaning in this context. We use it as a label because Dungeons and Dragons effectively invented this kind of gameplay. (It didn't invent roleplaying games in the original sense of the word- they've arguably been around thousands of years- but it *did* come up with the best format yet for exploring them.)

"Strategic" gameplay means actions with direct consequences that play out over the long term, whereas the other end of the spectrum is "tactical" actions with immediate short-term results. When you do things to get xp, or go through your loot looking for better equipment, or pick one branch of the talent tree instead of the other- it's all stuff you do because it's how you do a good job of making your character stronger.

Is Mass Effect 2 an RPG? Yep! Doing sidequests for the extra xp, stopping to hack a terminal or probe planets for minerals, and choosing how to spend squad points are all cases of RPG gameplay. So are all the times where you did or didn't do something because you wanted more Paragon or Renegade points. Shooting enemies in the face so that their shields will drop and Samara can Throw them, that's action gameplay.

Now, picking dialog options because that's what you want to say to a character? Taking a renegade interrupt action because you wanted to make that Krogan Clan Speaker shut his arrogant mouth? That's playing a roleplaying game in the original sense of the word.

This actually leads into a matter that I *would* consider an advanced-level game design topic. Mass Effect 2's a great example, but hundreds of other games (such as recent editions of D&D) have faced the same question: How do these three kinds of gameplay (Strategic character optimization, tactical action, and narrative-focused roleplaying) overlap with one another? The answers depends on the game, but it'll usually go one of three ways:
-Segregation: You're either doing A *or* doing B, rather than taking actions that're significant for both aspects of the game.
-Conflict: A and B are blended together in a way that diminishes both experiences. (In Mass Effect 2 certain dialog options are the "right" ones for a player who wants a high Charm or Intimidate score, which undermines the experience of choosing what to say based on how you want the story to play out.)
-Synergy: A and B are blended together in a way that enhances one or both aspects of the experience.

The dilemma a game designer faces is how he can implement the aspects of the game so that they overlap in ways that cooperate rather than conflict. It's a question I've been dwelling on alot for the past year or so, and I'm sure I'll write out some of the answers I've come up with at some point in the future. For now, these are the games I'd identify as having the best synergy- they've taken 2 aspects of the trinity and interwoven them in ways that are more mutually beneficial than any other instance I can name.

Action and RPG: Resident Evil 4
Action and roleplaying: God of War
RPG and roleplaying: Fantasy Craft

I hesitated when adding God of War as an example, because it doesn't give the player choices as to how the narrative proceeds. But then I realized that the point of roleplaying gameplay, as I conceive it, is about participating in the story; the point is to engage you enough that character's actions (the ones that matter to the story) also be your actions. Some games (Deus Ex, Mount and Blade) do this by having an avatar who can act like the player would; God of War does it by prodding the player to act like their avatar would.

Yeesh, and now I've veered into a third topic. I should do these rants more often.

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