A trap I’m tempted to fall into when I design games for something other than my own enjoyment is to start designing levels for the game. It’s not that I’m bad at designing levels, or that levels are inherently bad, but it’s just too easy to let your games degenerate into static, linear puzzles. I mean this very broadly. It may be a blast to play through Half-Life 2, but eventually every fight has been puzzled through, consumed, solved, and exhausted. After I finish a game like that, I rarely come back.

I want to make games that will stay on people’s hard drives long past its expiration date, and still make sales to nostalgic gamers after they’re discounted to a dollar on Steam a decade later. These types of games inspire me as a designer, and drive me to analyze them and ask what makes them tick. Most seem to have at least three things in common — I’ll discuss them, then give examples of how Civilization V, Starcraft 2, and Team Fortress 2 meet them. These three examples are chosen because they are all games with the potential to consume hundreds of hours of play time.

The challenges change continually, both within the game and between sessions.

Multiplayer, procedural content, and artificial intelligence are all ways of continuously transforming the challenges so that no two games are exactly the same. There is some element of chaos and unpredictability in the system. This isn’t just the flavor of the challenges either, or the color of the textures — it’s a recombination of the fundamental elements of the game in ways that totally change the game. Most games are about solving some kind of problem. In these games, the problems are infinite.

In Civilization V, the randomly generated terrain and layout for the world, alongside the AI opponents, means that every game tells a different story. In Starcraft 2, each online opponent will play a different strategy against you, and the real time nature of the game means even the same two strategies will play out differently every time. In Team Fortress 2, every recombination of players, classes, positioning, and timing makes each game unique.

The player is rewarded for applying new, creative solutions to the challenges.

The games that grab me are the ones that let me use my head. That doesn’t mean figure out how to solve a see-saw physics puzzle the designer put in (another loving Half-Life 2 reference), that means there were many ways to solve the problem, and you are free to find the best one you can. The rewards for a better solution may be efficiency, aesthetics, preparation for future challenges, or radically changing the direction of the story.

In Civilization V, I can try out different build orders, diplomacy strategies, and military tactics, finding degrees of success along different axes. In Starcraft 2, every situation has multiple viable solutions with different outcomes, and even at the highest level of play, players have distinct and recognizable playing styles, and often work to discover new tactics. In Team Fortress 2, every skirmish and shootout is a puzzle to outwit and outplay your opponents, and winning faster or taking less damage requires quick, creative play.

The game is almost impossible to completely master.

As soon as a player has developed a mental algorithm for successfully solving every problem the game can throw at them, the game tends to be less interesting. This may not be true for all players and all games, but the ability of a game to never lose its challenge will help it to be spared the shelf for a longer period of time. Golden paths, unstoppable strategies, and permanent “god mode” abilities kill games.

In Civilization V, even if a game-breaking strategy exists with one civilization on one map type, it may be totally non-viable when playing with a slightly different setup. In Starcraft 2, there’s no way to anticipate every possible response and counter to any strategy, and even complete mastery of the mechanics leaves a rich depth of gameplay in strategy and thinking on your feet. In Team Fortress 2, the dynamism of multiplayer is bolstered by new maps and metagame-changing patches on a regular basis, continually altering and adding challenges whenever older ones seem mastered.



Soren Johnson on “Fear and Loathing in Farmville”

I didn’t attend GDC this year, and I was glad to be able to see this post. I found it most useful to explore why, aside from the business angle, so many developers are enthusiastic about social media games. The “dinosaur panel” sounds like it’s something I should like to have seen. The four points at the end that describe things social media games have that are genuinely exciting — true friends list, free-to-play business model, persistent asynchronous play, and metrics-based iteration — very true, I admire those things in social media games. However, I also agree with virtually every criticism given of social media games in the post, comments, and links.

In my Freshman year at DigiPen, Christopher Erhardt said something to the effect that everyone in the room (all programmers) would have a choice between those who will consume player’s lives with additive games like MMOs, or settle for less money with less intrusive games. Since then the choice seems to have become more stark.

I didn’t choose to become a programmer, or game designer, to make things that customers would spend time playing. I chose this career because I wanted to make things that would improve people’s lives and give them something that they would take joy in. As much as I like that social media games engage players in games against their real world friends and have the potential to be low-impact and enjoyable diversions, the inclusion of mechanics like crop rot are the result of what seems like a perverse incentive system for designers. AAA may be a clunky and high risk business model by comparison, but at least it doesn’t involve compromising the principles that drew me into game development.

I have two further take-aways from reflecting on this debate. First, I’m heartened to see the moral backlash against Zynga and social media games in general building in intensity. I have strong feelings about this and I’m glad I’m not alone here. Second, through this lens my respect for Blizzard’s new Battlenet 2.0 system (to be fully introduced with Starcraft 2) is increased: They are combining real friends and social space tools, persistent asynchronous play through meaningful scores and ladders, and metrics-based iteration as demonstrated through their current closed beta process. The beta is also free-to-play, for now, and they’re helping players to invite friends to the beta so they will be able to play with others they know. They’re cracking a lot of the benefits that Soren Johnson ascribes to social media games in a AAA title, without selling their souls in the process.

Yes. Mass Effect 2 may be the greatest RPG I have ever played.

My last post was a now fairly dated investigation of the Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 pre-release review scores on Metacritic. The updated information is that Mass Effect 2 didn’t have its average go down when post-release reviews were taken into account, as I speculated; instead, it actually increased from 95 to 96. Perhaps this disproves the hypothesis that pre-release exclusive reviews are biased in aggregate. A competing explanation would be that Mass Effect 2 so good a game that no inflation was necessary.

I liked the first Mass Effect game. It was buggy and frustrating for the PC, but I still admired it. I liked the Paragon/Renegade system because I was able to largely ignore it and play my character the way I wanted, though I know many people found it distracting. I liked the many choices they included, and some even had sufficiently ambiguous morality that they caused players to deviate from their chosen alignment. I also liked the depth and creativity in some of their lore. When I played Mass Effect, I wanted to see sequels and spinoffs, and explore this universe more. Mass Effect 2 was one of the games I was looking forward to most.

I haven’t been disappointed. Though I crave the opportunity to play the game with a character that saved the council in the first game (I did not, and the ME2’s default history didn’t either), I can’t bear to replay the original when I could just play this one again. The combat in ME2 is more streamlined and satisfying, almost completely abandoning traditional RPG combat in favor of action. It’s still an RPG because you are roleplaying and make meaningful choices about your character and his or her interaction with the world. But, the combat resolution mechanics are now almost pure tactical third person shooter, eschewing traditional RPG strategy mechanics.

I love strategy games very much, but RPG combat systems are often interesting only because you have a stake in the character. This new action combat works and I love it; I restarted the game after beating it in part because I wanted to play through the battles again on a harder difficulty, with new skills. What if I have that cloaking ability and use sniper rifles? What if I start controlling my ally powers? As I discovered, it becomes much more tactical as the difficulty increases. Amazing how the game slides seamlessly between action and tactics.

Many RPGs fall into the trap of having combat be a tool to pace out your consumption of content by slowing you down. Ideally, the fights in a great RPG should be just as interesting as the characters and story. Mass Effect 2 fulfills that goal. I consistently look forward to the combat, and am drawn to play through sequences I’ve already beaten because the battles are just that good. I absolutely love roleplaying. I love it even more when the gameplay that supports it is so enjoyable.

Let me step back from my praise, however. My biggest disappointment is that BioWare continued the pattern established in the first Mass Effect of only allowing same sex relationships for a female Shepherd. I respect that they do at least that much, and I further respect that BioWare designed the game with the intent of including M/M love interests, but this was simply cut for time on grounds that the audience interested in this is small, and I find that very disappointing given that there are no less that three potential F/F love interests. This isn’t just some idle fancy. It is a huge difference in my sense of identification, agency, and ownership of the world.

Michael Abbott at The Brainy Gamer writes about early exclusive reviews of Mass Effect 2, and questions the integrity of early exclusive reviews in general, since they tend to skew higher than average, and may have (and in this case do have) significant restrictions placed on the content of the review. Spurred by these questions, I pulled up Metacritic and recorded the scores each reviewer so far has given Mass Effect 2, then those reviewers’ corresponding scores for the original Mass Effect, and how those compare to the average reviews among all reviewers, including those who have not yet had the opportunity to review Mass Effect 2.

ME2 Score (ME1 Score) – Reviewer
100 (90) – games(TM)
100 (100) – X360 Magazine UK
96 (94) – IGN
95 (100) – Official Xbox Magazine
93 (n/a) – IGN AU
90 (90) – Xbox World 360 Magazine UK

Metacritic average among critics given an exclusive early review of Mass Effect 2:

ME2: 96
ME1: 95

Metacritic average among ALL critics:

ME2: ??
ME1: 91

Evidence here does not contradict the theory that the reviewers granted early reviews have been filtered to ensure and reward good reviews. On the other hand, those same reviewers gave Dragon Age: Origins, BioWare’s most recent release, an average of 85 for the same console, which is actually one point lower than the final average.

Batman and Joker
“You are truly incorruptible, aren’t you? Huh? You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever.”

Batman doesn’t kill people. It’s too easy: Once he does, he wouldn’t be able to go back to never killing. He’d do it again, and again, because it’s easier to solve problems that way. And where does it stop? He kills a killer, a rapist, then a drug dealer, a robber. A corrupt cop or politician. Bruce Wayne is a dangerous man, and Batman is just a vigilante. He can only justify his own existence by not killing people.

In most games, the player doesn’t have that freedom. They trivialize life: That businessman was funding terrorists, therefore, he deserved to die. This criminal was mugging someone, therefore, you can cut him down in a fight. If it’s just pixels on the screen to him or her, mass murder is meaningless, leading to the mindless and endless body count of most games. The player sits on their computer and kills dozens, hundreds, even thousands of simulated people, without a second thought. Even games with alignment systems and complex moral choices rarely give the player the simple choice to not murder by the truckload. It’s just not exciting otherwise!

In my plays of Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, I’ve been torn in many situations. You get a higher stealth score for avoiding a body count, but aside from that, there is no penalty on most missions for killing the bad guys. Several even have no penalty beyond score and severe chastisement from your superiors for killing civilians or allied soldiers. There are various less than lethal tools at your disposal for dealing with enemies, but often the easiest and most efficient solution to a problem is a bullet to the head. If you choose to ignore your score (and it doesn’t matter much to me), then the choice to kill or not to kill becomes one for you to decide for yourself. I like that choice — a lot.

The freedom to embrace a Batman morality to your heroism, declining to kill those you run across simply because they’re your enemy, is a freedom I crave in many games. I wanted it in Far Cry 2, and railed against the simulation boundary when it deprived me of the opportunity to play a character I could believe in. I want the freedom to play the fantasy of a badass hero who has the sense of mind not to become a heartless butcher of men — and the freedom to fall short of that ideal, to fail in its pursuit. In many games where I can’t do this, I’m shaken from the game, and lose some of my sense of immersion. Not everybody wants to enter a fantasy where the only answer to evil is to kill everyone. Sure, it’s easy to solve the problem by killing them. Batman would say it’s too easy.

Batman watching over Gotham City
“Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce. I always feared you’d become that which you fight against. You walk near that abyss every night but haven’t fallen in and I thank heaven for that.”

Batman is an amazing character. He appeals to our craving for justice and order, and our desire for a hero. His strength is his brilliance, his athleticism, his wealth — and he inherited the wealth. He is exceptional, but not superhuman. And he makes his own rules, then lives by them. Part of the compelling darkness of Batman’s mythology is that he forms his own moral judgments, without regard for the views of others. He is sometimes hated by society, sometimes loved, but he does what he believes in, and we are fascinated by it. Games rarely touch on anything like this. Alignment systems discourage players from making their own moral judgments, substituting the game’s. At worst, players choose once what sort of character they are from a selection of two alignment extremes, and every junction, the player reiterates that, without regard for the intricacies of the situation. This undercuts the power of moral choices in games. Are we better off dropping alignment completely?

Before playing Dragon Age: Origins, I perceived many of the arguments in favor of stripping alignment systems from games to be reactionary: Alignment systems as currently implemented are broken, therefore, we should remove alignment from games and allow players to explore morality without them. This didn’t strike me as necessary. The core problems with alignment are in two domains: Mechanical, and psychological.

The mechanical problem comes when a game gives incentives to the player to adhere to a specific alignment. The worst offender that I’ve seen for this was inFAMOUS, which punished the player for inconsistent alignment choices by stripping the player of access to abilities they’ve already paid to unlock. Other games, like Knights of the Old Republic, take a less severe stance, but still give a mechanical effect to your alignment choices that dissuades inconsistent decision making. Why is supporting inconsistency important? Because most of life — and most moral choices — are not black and white. If all moral choices in a game are whether to mug beggars or save children, you’ve not put real moral choices in at all. You’ve put a class selection into the game, and allowed the player to decide whether he or she wants to be good or evil. Good writing will allow believable characters to make choices have inconsistent alignment effects, and if the mechanics discourage that, you’re just punishing the player for exploring the moral space the game creates, which sabotages many of the ideas behind having an alignment system in the first place. I won’t talk too much more about this, since I already have.

The second problem is psychological. Alignment systems typically are linked to immediate and high-profile feedback on alignment changes resulting from your choices. It’s as if you have an angel hovering behind your shoulders and taking notes at all times, butting in to inform you of its judgment. It follows the principle of giving vivid and immediate feedback for player actions, but strips much of the meaning for those actions away. Your own views about an issue tend to become replaced by the game’s, and most players act in accordance with the game’s perspective on morality. Moral choices lose their punch for players. Batman judged his actions by his own moral structure — is it even possible for players to do the same when the game is micromanaging your moral choices like this?

Alignment systems can be done well. Even the much-maligned Dungeons and Dragons alignment system, with a good-evil axis and a law-chaos axis, has been used effectively in Planescape: Torment, where the world was so alien that your choices were boiled down to things like choosing to side with psychic rats, the walking dead, or killing both. Due to the deep writing in the game, and the lack of emphasis on alignment, this worked. But in the ten years since its release, Planescape: Torment remains unique.

Now BioWare has started to explore de-emphasizing alignment. Mass Effect split its “good” and “evil” analogues into separate scales that accumulate points, stepped down their terminology to “paragon” and “renegade” to avoid loading the system with good and evil, brought in more ambiguous choices, and detached alignment from skill development for combat, reserving the effects for determining your persuasion specialization. Mass Effect 2 takes it a step further by merging the two forms of persuasion into a single skill, and simply spinning the character’s dialog based on alignment, and further emphasizing difficult choices. But the most bold and simple implementation they’ve tried so far has been Dragon Age: Origins, which drops the concept of alignment entirely, without removing the moral choices.

The game does give feedback for your actions, but it’s not an angel with a clipboard, it’s not the game itself passing judgment — it’s your party members. Their feelings toward you, and their loyalty, change based on your actions. Many of the party members have strong personality clashes with other party members, giving multiple points of reference. But these are not simply one or two dimensional points on an alignment grid. For example, Zevran, the elf assassin of the game, has a severe deficiency in his respect for life, and may at first point appear to be a classically selfish and evil character in many ways — perhaps a neutral evil or chaotic evil on the D&D alignment grid. He will disapprove of most self-sacrificing choices or unnecessary heroics. But when you encounter people that are enslaving elves, he will be furious if you decline to bring them to justice.

After I played Dragon Age: Origins, I reflected on its lack of alignment system. As promised, I felt liberated. I chose to do what my character thought was right, what fit him. I felt torn between my characters, but not between mechanics. I liked it. Perhaps this was better.

Some people were more ambivalent about it. When these choices were not enforced, they felt less meaningful. These are games, after all: Nobody really dies in games, nobody is robbed, nobody is victimized, at least not in single player experiences. They’re all pixel colors and bit flips. If the game doesn’t tell you something was immoral, is it really immoral? If the player doesn’t feel a sense of reality in the world, then the weight of choices can easily become insignificant. To some extent, it’s a matter of immersion.

There are challenges developing a game that gives the player freedom and customization, and still brings a compelling experience. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile. As a player, I want the freedom to decide what the rules are for myself. I want the freedom to be a dark knight. As a designer, I want to give players that freedom.

Indigo Prophecy

Fahrenheit, or Indigo Prophecy as it’s known in the US, is a spectacular example of storytelling in games and a triumph for the nearly-dead adventure game genre.

Personally, I’ve always liked games that give me the ability to create my own stories, but I enjoy a good movie as much as I enjoy a good game. So when I installed Indigo Prophecy this last weekend after picking it up in the holiday Steam sale last month (known outside the US as Fahrenheit), I was a little skeptical, but willing to give it a chance — and it paid off. Somehow, a game in which the number of mechanical systems number in the single digits managed to draw me off of Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory for ten hours of game time in a single twenty-four hour period, and that’s more than one and a half playthroughs.

Indigo Prophesy is a 2005 adventure game that is so far on the narrative end of game design that even its developer, Quantic Dream, hesitates to call it a game, instead calling it an interactive film. Despite that, everyone I’ve spoken to about it says it’s an amazing game — and I agree. It it a testament to the power of giving small amounts of freedom and interaction in an otherwise extremely linear game.

The story covers a man who is possessed and forced to commit murder, then is on the run as he tries to discover what happened to him, even as he grapples with his emerging supernatural abilities. At the same time as you control him as he tries to avoid the police and discover the truth, you also play as two police detectives as they draw ever closer to hunting him down.

Through this story, you pick a character and play out a scene in the movie. You can change only a few things; the order of some scenes, which objects a character interacts with, the course of some conversations, what clues someone examines or tries to hide, the success of some efforts. Some of the choices are fairly meaningful, but they’re never earth-shaking in their significance to the plot. It’s still enough, because it gives the player agency — they form a goal as to how they want a scene to play out, they pursue it, the game supports them and allows the scene to happen that way.

Tyler Miles
Tyler Miles, police sergeant, detective, and owner of one of the funkiest apartments and coolest sweaters in New York. The characters are one of Indigo Prophecy’s several extremely strong points.

One of the things that struck me about Indigo Prophecy was that it was the second game that I’ve played in which it allowed you to control the actions of people in direct opposition to one another, and in both games it worked. (The first was Orange Revolution, which is playable through the link.) This is an idea that on the face of it strikes me as unlikely to work, but in practice, it’s a lot of fun. The key is to ensure the player doesn’t compromise one side’s integrity to enable the other side to win. Indigo Prophecy accomplishes this in two ways: one, it’s impossible to make either side act out of character, and two, both sides are extremely sympathetic and well-developed.

Indigo Prophecy isn’t all good through, as toward the end the plot veered in a direction that broke my suspension of disbelief, before shattering what was left with a random romance that had no reason to occur and no justification from the characters’ points of view, and left me vocally disgusted at the game. Additionally, the game’s short length and low replayability (I squeezed ten hours out of it before getting tired of replaying) means that — by my standards — it wouldn’t be worth the game’s original price. Indigo Prophecy is a triumph for extremely linear narrative game design, but it still lacks the staying power to pull me away from more non-linear game designs for an extended period of time.

Despite this, Indigo Prophecy is a fantastic game, and an excellent update to the adventure game genre. Its example reinforces a lesson I learned a long time ago about video games: It’s a big tent. There are many types of games, and many types of players. In thousands of years, we haven’t been able to develop a working grand unified theory of physics, and physics is unchanging. Video games work differently on different people, and we’ve only been making them for thirty years. Chances are, if you think you have a grand unified theory of what works in games, it’s already wrong. Indigo Prophecy is just another demonstration of that.