Archive for June, 2010

June 29, 2010

Does depth require complexity?

Gaming has always been a bit of an underground scene. Even with products like the Wii seemingly changing the way gaming is perceived. However it’s clear to me that the foundations of gaming are unchanged and that in a multiplayer environment, games have as many barriers to entry as they always have.

The problem with gaming is that it has to impress too many people. In order to make money, a game has to be accessible. But in order to be a high quality game which people play for years (surely every game developer’s dream) it has to have depth. The most difficult task that any developer will face is creating an accessible game with enough depth to provide long lasting entertainment. Indeed, this is so difficult that very few have achieved it. The most popular online multiplayer games have huge barriers to entry. Fighting games, arguably the most popular offline multiplayer experience, are my favourite examples of unending depth. However, even more so than online games, fighting games have a ridiculous number of hurdles for new players to overcome. More often than not, they fall flat on their faces.

Providing a game with depth yet minimal complexity is the holy grail of gaming. In Facebook games, where the target market is non-gamers, games have to resort to pestering, low skill addictive gameplay and The Sheep Factor in order to keep any users for a considerable amount of time. Gamers look at games in a different light to non-gamers. Gamers have a high tolerance for complexity. This is evident in multiplayer strategy gaming, with titles such as Civilization, Warcraft/Starcraft and Defense of the Ancients being examples of such intricacy. These games have been around for entire generations, they’ve stood the test of time with very little change in the core gameplay. The same is for fighting games; Tekken, Virtua Fighter and Street Fighter have been played since my childhood. Why are these games so popular? Because they have depth.

Strategy games have numerous units, upgrades, races/armies and maps to provide almost endless possibilities to not only win, but to beat unpredictable and diverse opponents. Fighting games have characters with huge movelists and highly different styles. Like strategy games, this genre does not just provide a fun character to use, but requires knowledge of your opponent to win. In these games, anything can happen. The endless possibilities are what keep the game fresh and replayable. However, what else do all these games have in common? Huge entry barriers. Even for a gamer such as myself, playing one of the aforementioned games requires me not only to learn how the game works, but to understand the metagame in order to be competitive.

I recently started playing Defense of the Ancients (DotA). DotA has 97 individual heroes with 4 different abilities. There are 118 items which are created by combining each other using ‘recipes’. This is a lot to learn, and this is just what you can see. Basics that you have to know include orb-placement priority (whether the item you bought overrides another’s effect), that you should only last-hit and not push the creeps forward too far (unless you want to push) and the roles of each character. I’m pretty good at games, but DotA is just crazy. You cannot pick-up-and-play DotA, it’s not possible. I’ve been reading guides, forums and playing regularly for about 6-7 months and I’m still scared to play online for fear of being completely schooled, verbally abused and then having to sit on my ass doing nothing as the huge respawn times count down. To play even slightly effectively I’ve had to memorize item builds, skill builds and strategies. It has been a massive time investment. But guess what? It was worth it. I love games as complicated as DotA because I see the potential fun in reaching THAT level as being worth the time studying the game. It’s like professional sport. Football players do not just play for the money; the higher the level of their sport, the more fun they have. They sense achievement and challenge that’s worth sacrificing their entire lives for. The money probably does help too though.

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97 heroes. Are they all needed?

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Another example. I’ve been playing Tekken for years. Unfortunately, the arcade scene in the UK is appalling. It’s expensive, hard to access and there are very few people who play regularly. Therefore I’ve not really played anyone who’s played as much as me. I schooled everyone who came to my house. I learnt all of King’s moves, all his multi-throws and I basically tore everyone’s ass up. I thought I was the shit. I played a bit of Soul Calibur against my friend, also getting ‘pretty good’. Then the Xbox 360 came out and I got online. Man was I wrong. My ass got handed to me time and time again. Everyone I played destroyed me. I began to hate the game. I wanted to throw the controller through the screen after every match. It was horrendous. I went online to find out how on earth I was losing. As with DotA, fighting games require research. For the level I want to play at, it’s not possible to just play alone. You need an army of brains on the internet, discussing strategies, match-ups, the strengths and weaknesses of the characters. Even though I’d love to play at that level, it’s too much for me. I have a job, I have other games I want to play. Most of all, I don’t have to patience to be ass-raped for months until I can finally return the favour to other poor people like me. These games even alienate other gamers. I wasn’t ready to swim in the deep end.

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Prepare for eye-strain

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Do these games need such complexity to provide long lasting gameplay? In the case of fighting games, I cannot see any way around it. You control one character. You are in identikit environments, restricted in how you can move and what objectives you have. Your only goal is to beat the other player in front of you. Could you think of a way to make that less complex but retain the depth that a 100 move movelist brings to the table? There is no metagame in fighting games, it is pure micro skill.

Strategy games are a completely different beast however. Does DotA need 100+ items? Probably not. Does it even need stat items when 90% of item builds require the same starting items? For example, most heroes currently get the Magic Wand as one of their first items. It’s cheap, highly useful and serves every hero almost equally. Therefore is there any reason why you have to buy this item? Everyone is going to have it anyway. Why not include it as an inherent ability or incorporate the effect (the Magic Burst) into another cookie cutter item? It’s the same with Bracers/Null Talismans/Wraith Bands. These items all provide +stats for strength/intelligence/agility. Heroes are classed into one of those 3 attributes, so there has to be 3 +stat items right? They have to be split for each category or it’s not fair, right? Wrong. Why not just combine them all? Is it really necessary to clutter the shops with near-identical items? Other items are so situational that they’re not used by 90% of the heroes, so is there really a need for them? If an item has to be created specifically for a hero, then surely the hero should just be changed. Now I’m sure there are many flaws in my arguments. I’m not an expert on DotA. I even like all the items, I like the option to buy an item my hero totally doesn’t need if I want to. It’s through stupid amounts of options that new gameplay is discovered.

The problem is that this level of complexity cuts down the player base. Who needs the noobs? I hear people say. Well it’s that attitude that’s why gamers are still a joke in society. Why shouldn’t everyone be able to play these games? Is it really fair to exclude someone who could be a great DotA player, just because they can’t memorize recipes for 50-60 items? It’s not just a question of fairness, do you really want to exclude potential opponents? Isn’t the reason you play competitive multiplayer games because you want a diverse opposition that isn’t constrained by an AI?

This post has been long enough, but this subject is going to come up again and again on this blog. There are games that hit a sweet spot with simplicity vs depth and I’d like to analyze them to help me work on hitting that sweet spot myself.

Sam

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June 25, 2010

And what do I do now?

Hey everyone…

I’ve explained who I am, which gives you an insight into the way I think, but I guess now I should explain what I currently do and what I want to do! This project does have a purpose, so here’s why I’m doing what I’m doing…

I’m currently working in Shanghai for a start-up software development company. We first started with Virtual Worlds, akin to Habbo Hotel or Second Life. Now though, we’ve shifted into Facebook games. We’re creating something which hasn’t been done so far on Facebook and it involves me interacting with a lot of Facebook games.

If you’re a gamer, I think you’ll predict where this is going. Facebook games SUCK. It almost makes me sick to see how popular games like Farmville and Mafia Wars are. The complete lack of challenging gameplay and the total absence of skill. They are not games, they’re just virtual activities/chores that somehow fool people into believing that they’re fun. I’ve played tons of these games and I will be for the next 6 months. I hate to say it but I know what I’m talking about. I want someone to prove me wrong.

Unfortunately these games make a ton of money and are extremely easy to churn out. Since they have no mechanics and no balance, there’s a lot less to think about from a development point of view. That means there’s very little impetus for developers to do ‘the right thing’ and start converting the millions of casual ‘gamers’ into mainstream gamers. Hell, a much more realistic goal would be to provide a real game for the real gamers on Facebook (there has got to be a big market there). But that’s not going to happen, not while gamers can have a better experience outside the Facebook realm.

Here is where things get interesting. Facebook games cannot compete with real games. They’re restricted by the platform. However Facebook’s platform does have advantages over a non-social network foundation… the social bit. I truly believe that the social aspect of Facebook has massive potential for real games. It’s an in-built lobby, with people you’ve probably met in real life. It’s a lobby that your non-gamer friends can’t avoid, a lobby that’s constantly advertising. It’s the best chance the gaming industry has had to convert non-gamers since the Wii… and it’s much more accessible than an expensive piece of hardware (it’s free).

The game I’m going to work on could possibly be a Facebook game. It could be through this project (although I think learning to code and learning network gaming through Facebook is a bit too much to do) or it could be through my company. I’d love to bring one of the first true gaming experiences to Facebook but, I don’t know what I’m doing so it’s a very unrealistic goal. However, the objective of this project is to give me a solid understanding of how game design works. That, coupled with the experience I get from my job here in Shanghai, and you never know!

While I might not be the first to bring a good game to Facebook, I could be bringing something to your screens in the future and that will be directly linked to this project.

Sam

June 23, 2010

Who am I?

Before I start my project, I thought it would be best to tell you all who I am and how I got to the position where I want to make a game at the ripe old age of 23.

I’m from England, I’m 23 and I graduated last year from the University of Manchester with a degree in International Management. As you can already tell, I don’t have a computing background. I did ICT in college for 1 year, but dropped it as soon as I could because it was one of the most boring subjects I’d ever learnt. Back then it wasn’t really even computing, there was no code. What it did do was completely put me off my childhood dream of being a computer game designer.

The first game I properly played, and was totally addicted to, was Tekken 2 for the Playstation. That was back in 1996 and I was 9 years old at the time. Before then I’d played a number of games on the Amiga such as Rainbow Island, Bubble Bobble and Zool (I loved Zool). So I started young, especially for the time. However, I didn’t get into PC gaming until much later.

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Tekken 2 - My first real game

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I started around a year after Half-Life was released. I never had my own computer and I was frequently banned from the Internet for being a.. erm… bad young man who was trekking to sides of the Internet he wasn’t allowed to!┬áTherefore my proper PC gaming preferences began much later, my first proper game being Team Fortress Classic. What an incredible game I thought. I loved the classes, picking your own unique playstyle and then working with others to capture the flag or take zones. Back then it was pretty much my goal in life to play TFC. I had to stay round my friend’s house in order to do so. He’d play Counter Strike all night (I was terrible and didn’t like it), then when he went to sleep I’d play TFC until 8am. Those were the days!

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Team Fortress Classic - The cause of many sleepless nights

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When I finally got my own computer, I found the first game I truly got in-depth with; Age of Mythology. I was part of a casual clan (The Orion Clan represent!), I wasn’t really very good but I read forums, I read guides, I tried to be the best player I could be. AoM completely changed my gaming life, it turned me into what some would call a ‘Hardcore Gamer’. It was also AoM that inspired my first foray into game design, when I designed a new Japanese race for the game. It was very successful and I was featured on the front page of Age of Mythology Heaven. A very proud moment for me, but I thought nothing of it. At the time I didn’t really relate it to game design, that was all about writing in binary and creating 3D models.

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Age of Mythology - My introduction to clans

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When I got my PS2, I was more focussed on console games. I particularly enjoyed Timesplitters and Timesplitters 2. One of my favourite memories was on my 13th birthday. I went Go-Karting with 3 of my friends and then the 4 of us plugged in the Multi-tap and played Timesplitters for hours. I created a map using the mapmaker; very simple, just a corridor of death. It was a last stand, we’d set all the bots to the hardest difficulty and then hole ourselves in a room, defending ourselves from the attackers. My post-AoM in-depth love of games continued with titles like Vagrant Story (I was a late bloomer with that) and Tekken 5.

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Timesplitters + Multitap. Fighting with friends is best.

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Then I got to the age when I left home. I had my Xbox 360, my reasonably powerful PC and lots of free money from the government to help me with my studies! Suffice to say, I played games a lot. Dawn of War, Team Fortress 2 and World of Warcraft were my main timesinks (the latter being the obvious leader). In WoW I helped create a guild on the roleplaying PvP server EU-Defias Brotherhood; the Second Gurubashi Empire. My character was Morrigan, a Troll Hunter who’d been left for dead and picked up by a husband and wife from the Forsaken and raised as one of them. I wrote stories for her, I played stories with her with my other guild mates. It was a brilliant time, and I was truly addicted to the game.

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World of Warcraft - Fighting with 100 friends is better.

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Eventually my time with World of Warcraft ended and I went back to regular games, focusing most of my time into Team Fortress 2 and Dawn of War 2. At that point I finished university and headed to China to work for a pseudo game company. And that’s where I am now! I’ll explain more about what I do, and what my company does, in a future post. But there is just a little explanation about how I got to be 23 and how my love of gaming has inspired me to take on this project.

Sam

June 22, 2010

I’m Sam

I like video games and I’d like to make one.

Therefore I’ve decided to create a diary/blog which will detail the whole process from my mind into (hopefully) an actual working game. Initially this blog will help me document my thought processes as I come up with a design document. I want to outline my influences, what I think of the current market and its needs and finally create the story, characters and mechanics of my game proposal.

After that I’ll ┬ádecide what platform to create my game in and start coding! At this stage it will probably move from the theory phase and turn into more of an amateur coding blog, a sort of ‘learn to code along with Sam’ project.

Why I made this a blog and not a private diary? Well I’d love to hear everyone’s insight on what my brain is doing! I’m not making a game for cash, I’m purely trying to understand the process of game design so that I’ll be able to understand how it works ‘in the real world’. I would like to carve out a career in this industry but haven’t had the computing background, so this is my learning project!

So… when I cite my influences, give me some more! If I post a concept for a game, tell me if it’s good or bad. You guys get to help me define my path through this process and I’m definitely in need of guidance!

The next few posts will discuss who I am, what I do and why I decided to do this, then it will get interesting as I spill my brains and come up with some concepts for you to check out!