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Archive for the ‘Flow’ Category

I like open world games. Some of the recent games to include open worlds include Grand Theft Auto 4, inFAMOUS, Far Cry 2, Prototype, Fallout 3, and Red Faction: Guerilla. Open world isn’t trivial on the technical end, and I remember when Sucker Punch came to DigiPen for a company day and discussed the technology they were using to load and unload pieces of the world in real time in order to keep a handle on memory usage and avoid loading screens. It takes a certain commitment to the idea of using an open world to go for it, and it carries challenges and design limitations of its own. All of the above games use local heavily designed “level” areas for quests or missions to take place in; only about half of them completely eschew the dungeon mentality by placing all of these levels in the open world landscape itself instead of in separate areas behind loading screens. These level areas exist in all of these games as buildings, sewers, villages, army bases, or other places where designers have planned certain experiences to texture and grant variety to the basic experience of running around the game world blowing stuff up.

The title of this post refers to a belief I hold fairly strongly about open world games. I believe they’re all about freedom. They’re about being able to go where you want and do what you want within the game world. Thus, if the open world game heavily restricts this freedom, it becomes a closed open world game — one where the world is out there, but you can’t truly enjoy it. In this post, I’m going to look at all six of the games I mentioned earlier, and discuss how I see the open world working, or not working, in each of them, especially as it comes to their support for player freedom.

Grand Theft Auto 4

GTA4

Starting with the latest Grand Theft Auto is appropriate for me because in my mind, GTA is the baseline for an open world game by which all these games are compared. Fundamentally, open worlds are all about freedom, and Rockstar truly understands that. Every car in the game can be stolen, every weapon can be picked up and fired. If there’s a television helicopter overhead, you can find the TV station’s helipad and steal the helicopter, then fly up to the top of a skyscraper and BASE jump off the top of it. If you want a shootout or car chase, you can spark one anywhere, anytime, and at any intensity, from a fistfight with an angry driver to firing RPGs off of buildings onto tanks in the streets below. It’s all in your control, through dynamic responses in the game world based on your actions. Death and arrest are very lightly punished because boldness and life-threatening situations are encouraged. This is a game that is truly about freedom, and it is the ultimate embodiment of this ideal in a game.

Unique among the games I’ll be looking at here, Grand Theft Auto is known for having multiple minigames. From taxi driving to playing arcade machines to going clothes shopping with your main character, they all fit into the game world as things your anti-hero might actually do. From a theoretical standpoint, I have trouble justifying minigames. Why put a playable arcade machine inside your game? If the player wanted to play something else, they’d just turn the game off and do that — right? But in practice, I love this about GTA, and that just means my theoretical instincts aren’t strong enough to represent what’s really going on here.

I think that it comes down to two things: Immersion and pacing. For immersion, a game in which I can dress my character up in a suit, pick up his girlfriend in a nice car I just stole, and then drop by the comedy club to watch a skit is a lot richer than one in which the only part of that with any bearing on the game is the point where I steal the nice car. For pacing, it gives you a break from the primary gameplay, which is all about rebellion and criminal enterprise. Like outfitting your characters in Rock Band, these little things in the game let you take a rest from the core gameplay, which can be exhausting when done exclusively. These minigames are all a part of Rockstar’s approach to giving the player the freedom to do whatever they want, whenever they want. The results speak for themselves.

inFAMOUS

inFAMOUS

It’s a cool concept, and one I had high hopes for, but I didn’t really like inFAMOUS that much. The game falls victim to some tragic problems, and playing this during the last summer was the seed for the idea to make this post. The idea behind inFAMOUS is that you’re a superhero, able to do whatever you want — for better or for worse. It’s got a cool story (or at least a cool twist ending), but the gameplay is inconsistent.

When it comes to delivering on the idea of freedom, inFAMOUS is half there, half elsewhere. The game grants you parkour abilities to scramble up and across buildings, which is nice and liberating, but then shuts down some of your movement abilities and has you getting constantly attacked by enemies when you venture into the wrong area, which is much more limiting. Progressing the story lets you restore powers and open up new areas for you to freely move in, but to get those enemies to stop pestering you, you have to engage in seemingly endless side quests, which feels more like work at times. Doing this clears out the enemies, but that then prevents you from having real battles in the areas you’ve cleared, since they’re now devoid of enemies. This all works in terms of the game’s internal logic, but it’s just not as fun. The world starts out as a closed open world, and only through great effort can it be opened up, and then you lose the ability to engage in some of the core gameplay in those areas.

Matters get worse in the last third of the game, where the continuously attacking enemies in uncleared areas become too tough to ignore (thus limiting your ability to run around), and in a particularly ill-advised game mechanic, high pitched beeping land mines of irritation litter the rooftops, forcing you to stop on every second building to find and manually destroy them, lest you stumble into one and lose health and momentum. Even if they didn’t hurt you, the sound alone is enough to drive you crazy. These mechanics aren’t about giving you freedom — they’re just trying to give you challenges, even at the expense of your freedom to move around and do what you want. But if they needed to close the world down to make it challenging, they shouldn’t have made an open world game in the first place.

The trouble is that inFAMOUS’s concept is perfect for an open world game emphasizing personal freedom. You’re a superhero in a city descending into anarchy and gang control. You can go where you want and do what you want. You can be good, you can be evil, it doesn’t matter, because nobody can stop you. And yet for every step the game takes in the direction of fulfilling this promise, it trips over mechanics that seem to betray it.

Prototype

Prototype

In Prototype, you play as a virally infected anti-hero infused with the power to transform your body into different shapes, and set loose in a quarantined Manhattan during a biological attack. Prototype was released about the same time as inFAMOUS and got a lot of comparisons with it because both are open world third person action games about playing a character with super powers, but fundamentally, Prototype shares much more in common with GTA than inFAMOUS — and since you’ve probably just read what I think of both games now, you’ll know that’s a good thing in my book. Where GTA emphasizes the freedom to do whatever you want, Prototype is all about power, and the resulting formula is quite similar. Like GTA, Prototype bends the rules of its game world to maximize your freedom: in GTA cops ignore speeding, running lights, and all sorts of reckless driving, while in Prototype soldiers don’t notice you even if you’re traveling at super speed and soaring between buildings. In Prototype this is done to the point of weakness, as it compromises the believability of their stealth game, but it ensures that one thing Prototype doesn’t have a problem with is keeping their open world open.

Movement across the game world in Prototype is a joy. You can simply sprint up walls, leap between buildings, and soar for great distances. It may not use parkour moves of the sort inFAMOUS and Assassin’s Creed have to suspend disbelief in their freedom to move about the world, but the greater velocity reinforces the feeling of power the game focuses on, and it works wonders. All of your character’s abilities are like that; you’re an unstoppable monster that smashes tanks with your fists and can kill a dozen people in a single sweep of your whip-like arms.

Prototype is about power, and the freedom to use that power, and unlike Sucker Punch’s work with inFAMOUS, Radical Entertainment clearly worked to ensure nothing interfered with the maximal expression of that theme. As a result, though Prototype is not as rich of a game in concept, I enjoyed it far more than its press-appointed rival. Instead of leaning back in occasional disgust, my lean back moments with Prototype were to reflect on how much of a blast it was. From top to bottom, Radical Entertainment made a game with focus, and they delivered on their concept.

Far Cry 2

Far Cry 2

Far Cry 2 is a tragic game in my book, because it has some fantastic core gameplay that is marred by only a few serious errors. Far Cry 2 is a first person shooter that casts you as a mercenary in a country in Sub-Saharan Africa being torn apart by civil war. You are stricken with malaria, diamonds are the only currency, and both sides in the war are corrupt and dangerous. The world is broken into two open maps, and the only loading screens exist at a few key plot points. The game is all about immersion and player agency. On any mission, you choose your weapons, plan your approach, and execute the attack using improvisational tactics.

I suspect the most criticized aspect of Far Cry 2 is its most direct affront on the open world: The use of respawning checkpoints full of hostile enemies everywhere you go. Traveling to missions becomes a pain in the game because you have to avoid or fight through several checkpoints to get there. That’s fine in small doses, but it becomes very repetitive in longer sittings. They’re hard to ignore if you don’t want to deal with them, there are no easy ways to stop a fight if you don’t want to engage in it (like the pay and sprays of GTA), and they magically respawn almost as soon you make it over the next hill.

The reason Far Cry 2 makes this very poor design choice is to address the problem inFAMOUS blundered into when allowing you to drive out the bad guys from the world: it keeps the map populated with challenges and enemies. The problem is that this solution is so heavy-handed that it closes down the open world, depriving the player of the freedom to move and explore. As with many of the other games here, Far Cry 2 gives incentives for exploration by scattering small rewards around the game world, but with the degree to which movement through the world is unintentionally blocked and punished in this game, it’s just not worth it.

Fallout 3

Fallout 3

Fallout 3 is the latest of Bethesda’s RPGs, set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland around Washington DC, and reviving an old and much beloved IP. Like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion before it, it blends action and RPG elements in an open world, and also like Oblivion, it dynamically scales enemies to your level. Unlike Oblivion however, it doesn’t level up enemies in areas that you’ve already explored, so it always feels like a statically scaled game where your explorations are never into places that are over your head. It works well, and for the most part, the open world is truly open. Leveling up gives you new, tougher challenges in the unexplored wastes, while making familiar territory easier to cross.

Although Fallout 3 isn’t about freedom the way that GTA is, Bethesda’s choice to go with an open world in their RPGs is. They want to give you a world to play with, and ways you can change it. They’re also about exploration. Thus, you move slowly through the world, and have a fast travel ability to jump between places you have already explored. With the tremendous amount of side content in the vast areas of the game world, only the most committed players will actually discover and consume it all, leaving you most players with a perpetual horizon filled with new and interesting hand-crafted content to discover.

Bethesda’s biggest mistake with Fallout 3 wasn’t some mechanical inconsistency in the vision, but the decision to end the game when you concluded the story. In a game with such a rich world to explore, the story was just another quest string, and its conclusion shouldn’t have been assumed to be the end of the player’s experience.

At least as of this writing, the header image on my blog is taken from a promotional screenshot of Fallout 3.

Assassin’s Creed

Assassin's Creed

I would prefer to write this about the newly released sequel to Assassin’s Creed, but unfortunately I won’t have the opportunity to play it before it is ported to Windows in March, at the earliest, so I will have to make due with the game I have played. Assassin’s Creed is set in the third crusade, and you play as an assassin resisting the crusader incursions. The world is broken up into several pieces, but the gameplay is fairly non-linear, and each chunk of the world is relatively large, including three separate sections encompassing each of the game’s three cities, where most of the gameplay takes place. Movement through the cities is quite free, with parkour mechanics to allow you to scramble up the sides of buildings and across rooftops. Unlike GTA and Prototype, Assassin’s Creed penalizes this behavior by arousing the suspicion of the crusader guards, but this mechanic is balanced with sufficient evasive tactics and combat prowess as to not to feel punishing.

Assassin’s Creed’s open world is about the freedom to go where you want and do what you want, but that doesn’t extend to the point of making every part of the area easily traversable. For example, one of the cities has a large castle that is largely restricted, and while you can still access it, it takes a mixture of stealth, agility, and combat prowess to get through in one piece. This doesn’t limit the world’s openness, however; it simply gives additional activities for you to engage in. It’s not difficult to get to the point where you can access this.

The flexibility of the world in Assassin’s Creed feels like the flexibility that Far Cry 2 aimed to have, but missed at. You have an open world that frowns upon your character and is actively suspicious and hostile toward you. It transmits the sense of constant danger without actually preventing the player from navigating through the world, or discouraging them from exploring. Assassin’s Creed wasn’t a perfect game, but it was a good game, and their environment and movement trough the environment was one of its great strengths. Assassin’s Creed 2 is supposed to have brought the rest of the game to the level of these aspects. I look forward to seeing that in action.

Red Faction: Guerrilla

Red Faction: Guerrilla

Where inFAMOUS and Far Cry 2 are otherwise strong games that suffer from a couple of boneheaded design choices, Red Faction: Guerrilla is a potentially mediocre game uplifted by inspired design choices. Being set on Mars, the game isn’t as resonant as some of these others, and its combat isn’t more viscerally satisfying the other games of its release period, especially Prototype, which may have been the game that really dampened its sales. But Red Faction: Guerrilla had one really strong core feature going for it, and that’s the ability to blow up buildings more satisfyingly and spectacularly than in any other game out there. Volition knew this was their competitive advantage, and they exploited it.

The theme of Red Faction: Guerrilla is destruction. Your open world freedom is essentially your freedom to pick what to destroy, when to destroy it, and how exactly you’re going to level it. The game is a third person shooter, yes — but you can’t win an extended shootout. Too many enemies, too many vehicles. You have to plan an attack, strike fast, do a lot of damage, and then retreat when the enemy starts to show up in force. Each part of this is fun. Every mechanic in Red Faction seems to be designed to support, encourage, or otherwise feed back into this core gameplay loop, save for a few side missions that help with pacing and variety.

You can move freely around most of the world in Red Faction: Guerrilla without harassment from the evil EDF forces you’re fighting, with the exception of a handful of restricted areas. This is crucial, as it enables you to plan your attacks freely. The openness of Red Faction: Guerrilla isn’t a matter of finesse, but simply their decision to not screw up by acting contrary to the interests of their core gameplay. Their game was about making surprise guerrilla strikes against defended targets and blowing up buildings, and harassing the player during transit would simply have interfered with that, the way it did for Far Cry 2.

What else?

That’s a lot of games, but it’s certainly not all of the open world games that have come out recently. There are other games, including older games, that would be interesting to look at. I’m interested in hearing from you, having read this:

What other open world games do you think have suffered from restricting the player’s freedom too much, or discouraging exploration of the open world?

Which ones avoid this pitfall?

And of the games I have talked about, do you think that I’ve misjudged some of them?

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Is the goal of our participation in any economy to maximize our utility? Something very much like that guides my actions, so that seems a reasonable assumption. When running game economies then, what could be better than to maximize utility for players?

In a post on the Bay12Games forums, Servant Corps writes in response to my post on Cost and Utility in game economies:

If the goal of a SP game is to produce the most utility (and it does not have to have such a goal, granted), then cost is counterproductive. Cost reduce the amount of utility that can be acquired. Sure, you got the +5 Sword of Slashing, but you spent an hour of your time getting that item. An hour that would never be gotten back.

Thus, why would one have the Player pay any Cost whatsoever? Give the player all the Items he wants. The player gets all the Utility from the Items, and do not have to pay any Cost.

To answer this, I think it’s important to step back and address why we are putting these items in the game in the first place. Let’s say that our purpose, in creating a game, is to maximize the utility that game has to the player. We do this by making the game extremely fun, and by giving it replayability and longevity. Key to maximizing the value the game has to players, then, is to address how to make the game fun.

There is a concept of the flow channel that carries a lot of water with game developers, based on the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The basic idea is that people are in a state of “flow” when they have clear goals and challenges that approximately match their skills, leaving them neither anxious nor bored. As applied to games, it means that the challenges must increase as the player’s abilities increase:

Flow Channel

When we design games, we do try to make sure that the player chews up plenty of time playing our game, but it’s not just throwing up a treadmill. We want players to move through the flow channel, neither overwhelmed nor bored, moving up and to the right on that graph over time. Players complaining of grinding and treadmills aren’t in the flow channel, they’re in the boredom section — their skills exceed the challenges. This is failure on the part of the designer. But to consume time isn’t in itself bad; after all, the whole point of games is to provide fun and recreation. The longer we can do that with a game, the better we’re fulfilling that purpose. In other words, providing utility to the player means keeping them challenged for an extended period of time.

Players work hard to beat the challenge because that’s what the game is about. In an RPG, they’ll grab the best equipment they can buy, and minmax their stats. Players are exercising their skills to demonstrate mastery over the game. If the game ever beats the player by making a dungeon so hard they can’t progress, the player will give up and play something else. If the game ever surrenders to the player by not having another dungeon, or having each challenge so easy it’s not worth the player’s time, the player will get bored and play something else. Either way, we failed to entertain, and the utility of the game is decreased.

Taking this into account, there are two reasons we don’t just give the player the +10 sword of devastation at no cost. The first reason is because it breaks the balance, the PC dominates all enemies, and the game drops into boredom. The second reason is because, even if the sword is appropriately balanced against the enemies the player is fighting now, managing money and equipment is part of the challenge of the game. The cost of that sword is actually part of the flow equation, and removing it drops the challenge a few points closer to boredom.

Ultimately, the reason simulated economies like weapon shops exist in games is because it’s more fun to have them than to just give the player that power directly. Many people love to browse through, pine for some sword they can’t afford, save up for it, and then laugh gleefully as their power increases substantially due to your shrewd decision to save up for it. Taking away the costs here is like using cheat codes — it’s fun for awhile, but it drops you out of the flow channel, and in the end you’ll get bored and move on to another game.

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