Rachel introduced me to a phrase today:

"It is folly to ascribe malice where incompetence will do."



Last night, I met for dinner with Jake of Idle Thumbs and Telltale, and it reminded me-- thanks to Telltale's benevolence, I've achieved my first Mobygames listing. And so has Rachel.

As someone who counts Sam & Max Hit the Road as probably his favorite game ever, I've been happily surprised with Telltale's new Sam & Max episodes. I'm also happy that they're doing good business for Telltale, since that means a couple friends of mine still have jobs.




I haven't been updating the blog!

Beneath Pt. 2 is in the thick of the planning stages right now. I am going to dive back into WorldEdit and try to wrap up the story. I hope this one won't take quite as long to build. It's pretty ambitious. Once that's spun up, this space will see more words.

I also need to get back into writing for Idle Thumbs. When I put something there, you'll get the commentary track on this blog.

I promise not to make a liar out of myself by letting this blog sit silent. See you soon.







Lately, I've been playing a few games:

Replaying Resident Evil 4, to check out the extra PS2 content I've never tried. It's a very good game, but it's starting to drag after leaving Regenerator country.

Replaying Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, which is better than I'd remembered. But after reaching the North Korean missile installation, I remembered that the ending to the game is really lame, and probably not worth playing all the way through.

Playing God Hand, Clover's last released game. An amazing, pointless romp at a budget price. I don't think a game could take itself less seriously. It's a complete blast.

Just finished Bully, which I threw myself into for a week solid. It was an amazing experience. The town of Bullworth and everything you can do in it are superbly realized. The atmosphere is wonderful. I can't praise the game highly enough. I really feel that this is Rockstar's most engaging game yet. They've sent off their PS2 era with a bang. Everyone should play this game.




One of the central questions about playing video games, I think, is what motivates us to play. Figuring out why people play the games they do is at the core of both development-- if you know why people enjoy the games they do, you have a good idea of how to draw them into your project-- and to the player experience: Why do I like the games I do? Beyond simple introspection, if I know that, then I'll have a better idea of what other games I might enjoy.

I think the concept at the core of a game's enjoyability is player identification with the experience. I don't believe this is necessarily limited to the player's identification with the game's protagonist or side characters; that assumes too much. Many players identify most strongly with games that have no discrete "main character" or personified characters at all.

So I'm going to talk about identification, but not in generalizations. I'll talk about an aspect of games that I, and probably gamers like myself, identify with.

I think that part of my engagement with playing video games is an extension of 'playing' as a child-- imaginary scenarios made up with friends, running around backyards, pretending to fight 'bad guys;' generally imagining the mundane world as something entirely else. These childhood games placed myself as the main actor in whatever fictional setting, story, or conflict we thought up, but usually "as" some other character outside of myself, be it an established persona from a children's TV show, or an avatar of our own creation. They took place in our own homes and yards, but morphed these settings into some other place.

I believe that the connection between these imaginary experiences and what I expect out of a video game is subconsciously very strong. I am drawn to games that provide a human-scale conflict, one where the individual clashes with a similarly-sized group of antagonists. The focus on the individual-- "me" in the game-- is central. Broad conflicts-- battles, wars, the rise and fall of civilizations (RTS games, 4X titles, or Civilization) are of little interest to me. Similarly, being depersonalized as one small implement of a faction in games like Battlefield 2, Team Fortress, or Dystopia is of no particular draw. A personalized experience, one that revolves around the player and provides a gameworld that hinges on his actions, as did my imaginary worlds as a child, is always the dynamic that draws me in. I identify personally with the individual, the person, and the individual's conflicts with other individuals; I identify with being the focal point of a miniature world.

This link to childhood fantasy also spawns what I've begun thinking of as "the appeal of the everyday." Make-believe as a child turns your family's house into a different place, or sets new and strange experiences in that familiar setting. Your attic becomes a secret lab; monsters, ghosts, aliens, or simply other imaginary people might suddenly be found in your basement, or need to be driven from your backyard. I think some semblance of this experience persists at the fringe of adult life. Maybe your mind wanders as you walk through the city, or drive down the highway, and you briefly picture something fantastical occuring in this ordinary setting; a car chase, zoo animals running free. Free reign to wreak havoc in the supermarket with your friends. I think games that set extraordinary events in ordinary settings benefit by way of the appeal of the everyday, and the ability to subvert it-- the desire to transform familiar settings into something new and exciting, to let you do something you can't normally do, somewhere that you normally go. Games like Dead Rising, which lets the player run amok in a shopping mall, smashing windows and grabbing any product that's not nailed down, or Grand Theft Auto 3, where you can jump into any car you see and ramp it off the side of a building in an otherwise calm city street, appeal to this desire. The Hitman games cast the player as a powerful wildcard in otherwise civilian locations, and the most successful levels in Blood Money-- a suburban neighborhood, a crowded city street-- take place in the most familiar settings. From fighting colorfully-named gangs in the towns, schools and city parks of River City Ransom to doing the same in the grimy streets and apartment courtyards of The Warriors, it's always been the games that twist excitement into the otherwise mundane, "normal" world that grab me.

Am I rationalizing the way that video games appeal to my "inner child?" Maybe. Probably so. That games can help return some players to the childlike mindset of make-believe is, I think, incredibly compelling, and valuable to adults who might otherwise be consumed entirely by the banality of work, home life and running errands. I hate to think of games as simple escapism, but the psychological implications of this phenomenon are far from simple, and the results most likely beneficial to the player. It's a unique bond to childhood, through a medium that is complex and intriguing in so many other ways as well.



My Fair Lady

The other night I watched My Fair Lady, the classic musical/romantic comedy starring Audrey Hepburn. I'm not a fan of musicals at all, but it's a classic and Rachel is fond of it from childhood.

I'd never realized why I disliked musicals so much. My Fair Lady helped me understand. It's not the acting or the story, the songs themselves or even the spontaneous song outbreak phenomenon that musicals are most often lambasted for. I ended up being frustrated by the heavyhanded delivery and stuttering pacing of the plot.

Musicals were developed for the stage, and film musicals were adapted from these stage productions. Early musicals played to the limitations of the stage, especially the lack of amplification. Subtelty was not an option, which dictated the plot points and their delivery. Everyone in the audience needed to understand what was going on, which meant every line had to be shouted, and the really important plot points and characterization needed to be repeated a dozen times in a catchy song, so people would remember what was going on. As the life of film went on, directors learned to exploit the elements unique to film; Brando's mumbling naturalism could be captured with well-tuned booms; the camera itself and the editing of the film could be used to convey two characters' feelings towards one another with the shift of an eyebrow and turn of the head, as opposed to a 5-minute song. My Fair Lady is fixed solidly in the 19th century mode of the stageplay, and all that entails.

What this translates to is a very long and hammy production, which plays to none of the strengths of the medium. This is where I started to think about video games.

For one thing, the bipolar nature of My Fair Lady reminded me very much of the schizm today between gameplay and story in video games; that they are two completely separate types of entertainment that are expressed in opposing ways (passive versus interactive, watching versus directing, etc.) yet attempt to coexist in the same production, though most often 'take turns' as opposed to really sharing the same space at the same time. Just the same with this classic musical; a coreographed song and dance number is something completely apart from a human drama expressed through dialogue and character interaction; one interrupts the other; the entire mode of the production changes gears briefly, then reverts. You don't need to sing a song to tell a story. You don't need to play a video game to tell one either. Music is to film a valid but wholly separate form of entertainment, as film is to video games.

The logical analogue here then is that as a film musical is to the modern video game, the music is to gameplay as the story in one is to the story in the other. But that's not the gut feeling I got from the experience of watching My Fair Lady. While watching the movie, whenever a song came up, I wanted the film to get back to what it was good at-- characterization, dialogue, human interaction, not this broad song and dance. The songs got more tedious as the film went along and I just wished I could skip to the next segment where the film got to be a film instead of a stage production. And in a game, you want to skip the cutscenes, not the gameplay.

In other words, I don't think the analogy here is about the type of enjoyment derived from each element of the production (I'd say the "pure" enjoyment derived from the mechanics of well-designed gameplay riffs off a lot of the same input that makes a song with an enjoyable melody and catchy lyrics pleasurable.) I think the analogy between film musicals and narrative video games lies in both forms trying to be something they're not. My Fair Lady is emulating the stage, in a medium totally unfit for it; when video games try to be movies, they suffer for the same reasons. Gamers want to play, not watch; games aren't as good at being movies as movies are. These are games' growing pains; they will find a way to be more expressive through the gameplay itself than any static cutscene could be. I'd never realized so clearly that film went through much the same stage in the age of the gilded musical.



Cop Stars

After hearing some positive buzz, I downloaded the Saints Row demo from Xbox Live Marketplace. I played it for an hour or two last night. It's just what I expected-- a fairly ugly (graphically) next-gen (there's ragdolls!) clone of Grand Theft Auto 3. It copies every feature of the game, but tweaks some of the already unrealistic mechanics to make them even less convincing. For instance, where in GTA3 there was the Pay 'n' Spray, which erased your notoriety by repainting your car, Saints Row features a drivethrough "confessional," which instantly erases your notoriety without touching your car or providing any kind of rationale for why the cops no longer care that you killed a dozen of their fellow officers. Likewise, in GTA, when you are busted or sent to hospital, you lose all your weapons since, logically, they would be confiscated (though it's a big jump to believe you'd be out on the streets after your 20th consecutive arrest for mass homicide.) The mechanic is the same in Saints Row, but you get to keep your weapons. Sure it makes the game easier and more fun for players who don't like the annoyance of losing their AK when they die, but from a plausibility standpoint it just further breaks a gameworld that's already pretty far-fetched. The graphical style is completely style-less; everything looks like a bad CG render from 1998. As much of the story as I played is completely boilerplate and forgettable. "Grand Theft Auto: Worse" was the least witty but most appropriate phrase that went through my head while I was playing.

What it really made me think about was the disposability of notoriety in this type of game. You kill a few dozen people in broad daylight, you hide in an alley for 5 minutes, and it's like a global memory wipe. You get arrested, and you're back in Ammunation that afternoon buying a fresh sniper rifle. Nothing you do in the game, aside from pre-scripted missions, "matters" as far as the gameworld is concerned.

I would love to play a more low-key version of GTA. One where role-playing, as it were, impacts the experience, and matters to the gameworld. You are a criminal, maybe a hitman, but drawing attention to your crimes has a serious impact on your notoriety and the penalties you face when caught. Your goal would be to kill and steal, but to do so with cunning, so you're either not witnessed or cover up your deeds. Being arrested would be a serious penalty, and there would be separate notoriety for the police and criminal organizations; being "known" in one way could be a boon, while the other just meant you'd been sloppy.

I'd just like to play one of these games that hugged the earth a little more; blowing up a car in the middle of the financial district with a rocket launcher would make you infamous across the city, and you'd be hunted relentlessly by the police.. unless you had incredibly strong protection from the criminal underworld. I want to feel like I'm in this world, interacting with its populace, as opposed to an invincible little god of destruction who never sees any long-term repercussions to his actions. Being able to do whatever I want with no penalty acts to remove any kind of weight the gameplay itself could have. I want to have to be careful when I'm an unknown street thug, no mafia kingpins backing me up; I want to have to plan a hit and plant a bomb under my target's car, the satisfaction of getting away scot free, instead of simply lobbing grenades into a crowded street for kicks, then running for the cop star pickup to wipe my slate clean. I'm looking for Grand Theft Auto with gravity.




Germany-- a great and beautiful country, or so I've heard. The glorious architecture of Berlin, the frost-tipped peaks of the majestic Alps*, the warm and friendly leiderhosen-clad country folk. And BENEATH.

That's right, at the end of September, you will be able to find all of these things in Germany.** BENEATH is scheduled to appear on the coverdisc of September's issue of PC ACTION magazine, probably Germany's leading PC gaming publication!

I'm psyched to have my map show up on newsstands and in subscribers' mailboxes across the great country of Germany. This will be the first official publication of one of my maps in a legit print enterprise, which is exciting in and of itself. But for BENEATH to glide into the hands of millions of genuinely wonderful German citizens, courtesy of that fine nation's leading PC gaming publication PC ACTION magazine? I just couldn't be happier.

Confidential to Germans: sorry in advance for the green blood or whatever. I swear when I made the map those guys weren't robots.

*possibly not in Germany




Welcome, visitors from ModDB!

You know, it took me a while to think of putting BENEATH on ModDB. I'd never really thought of the level as a 'mod' per se. But, I guess that a single-player map, that has its own story, and stands apart from the original single player game, is a sort of mini-mod. Not a total conversion, or really any sort of conversion, but a modification nonetheless. If Minerva is a mod, then BENEATH is, too.

To the ModDBers, thanks for stopping by. This blog probably won't be of any huge interest, though there's a little of the process and behind-the-scenes info here and there. Download mirrors are below if you missed them, and I hope you enjoy BENEATH.

As far as the rest of the below post goes, let's hope I spoke too soon :-)




The final version of BENEATH has been uploaded to the following download mirrors:


I made the opening more user-friendly and tweaked a few things. Everything, I believe, is just how I want it.

This morning, I announced the release of this map on a few message boards I visit, including the official VUG modding board, and the SA Games forum. I'm surprised that there really hasn't been any response in the threads at all. Are people just not interested in single-player maps? Am I aiming at the wrong audience? I haven't been able to find a solid general mapping community site. There are sites based on specific engines, such as Unreal sites or Source sites, but no "mappers' haven" that I've come across to just generally talk about mapping and level design and share your work regardless of engine. The only place I've gotten any response-- which was positive, granted-- was on www.fearmaps.com. I appreciated the feedback from the forumgoers there, but I just wonder... how does a mapper get the word out about their work, and get involved with a community? Especially when they're working with an engine that doesn't have a huge amount of fan support behind it?

It's not that I made the map for the attention it would give me. My work with WorldEdit started out as a self-driven desire to make my own single-player scenario for one of my favorite new games. Then it turned into a desire to do well in that FilePlanet contest, once that was announced. But after the contest, turning Residential Evil into BENEATH has been nothing but a labor of love, as it were. I just loved the gameplay of FEAR, and couldn't think of another game I'd rather make a single-player adventure for... and there it was, an SDK with the capability of making single-player content, right there, for free! I've enjoyed working with WorldEdit immensely, and I'm personally satisfied with the results I've come up with... but now that it's finished, it would be nice for more people to see and enjoy the actual product.

I feel like this is the way every one of my personal projects has gone. All the comics I did in high school and college had distribution that you could count on one hand. The webcomic I put 9 months of work into managed to garner about 15 fans. The Journal, while again another project I was personally very satisfied with, managed to move about 10 copies per issue. It served its purpose-- I got to write about something I really cared for, got paid freelance work out of it, and got to contact a number of my game industry heroes in the process-- but still, personal drive can only get you so far. Wouldn't it be nice for someone else to appreciate the work? I don't know. I just can't seem to get the word out.

I think I'm bad at publicity.




Okay, so!

I have what I'd call a release candidate of BENEATH prepared and ready to install! If you are somehow reading this, but haven't already been contacted by me to test the map, download it...


It's an auto-installer that provides a shortcut to run FEAR with the BENEATH module enabled. Just start a new game after launching the BENEATH shortcut.

If you play this, give me feedback: steve.gaynor@gmail.com

I'll throw in a couple of screenshots while I'm at it, to remind you what this is all about:

"This level is not considered a prequel, sequel, or continuation of the original game's story, but a "what if?" What if F.E.A.R. were a tiny, inexperienced agency, whose existence was based entirely on the whim of an eccentric Army general who'd begun to take wartime ghost stories a little too seriously? What if F.E.A.R. primarily investigated "anomalous" incidents-- flukes, rumors-- that no other agency cared to waste their time on? What if the F.E.A.R. crew never expected to stumble across any significant threats while chasing shadows... and then suddenly, they did?

Coincidentally, recruit, it's your first night on the job. And you think you're in for a walk in the park."

I am fairly confident this will be the final version, but we'll see. Let me know what you think :-)



System sellers

Since I started buying my own game consoles, I've always waited to pick up any given hardware until a game comes out, specific to that system, that I can't resist playing.

My parents bought me my NES and SNES when I was young, and I think I just wanted them for games in general. But I bought my own Playstation, and if I remember correctly, I, like so many people my age at the time, bought the PS1 "for" Final Fantasy 7. With the Dreamcast, I didn't buy one until ridiculously late in its lifespan, and for some reason it was for Phantasy Star Online. I think I really liked the character designs, and might have been attracted to it being online. But the game didn't end up being fun or engaging. On the upside, I did finally buy a nice backlog of Dreamcast games, but that was probably one system I wouldn't have missed if I'd skipped it. Again, I picked up the PS2 for a popular choice: Grand Theft Auto 3. This one was worth it for the game itself, and well as all the PS2 games that followed it; the Metal Gear Solids, the Katamaris, the Shadows of the Colossi and the rest.

Now I've been sold an Xbox 360, and the game that sold it was Dead Rising. Like other system sellers, it will only appear on its native system for the forseeable future, the gameplay it offers can't be found anywhere else, and it has a bunch of elements I'm hugely interested in. I love beat'em ups, I love games set in the 'real world,' I love games that give you free reign over the environment, I love games where you can pick up just about anything and toss it around, and I find games that are inherently short and encourage multiple playthroughs to "re-see" the narrative a really interesting approach to pacing and exploration. I've been playing the Dead Rising demo on my new 360 for a couple days now, and it looks amazing, and is huge fun to play. I'm looking forward to digging into the story and character elements of the game when it's released this week. As far as system sellers, I think this one's already made itself worthwhile.

Now that I think of it, the Wii won't need a system selling game for me. The hardware sells itself. And no game is going to sell me a PS3; that thing is a million dollars and the 360 seems like it has stolen most of their exclusives. But for now, Dead Rising has earned the 360 its place on my shelf.




BENEATH is almost finished. I'm going to estimate it's got another couple weeks til completion. Then I want to test it myself and with a couple people I know for a little while before I release it publicly.

To do:

  • Finalize and record spoken dialogue
  • Script in vocal/story sequences, including opening sequence and useable laptop objects
  • Create and script in onscreen text elements (titles, credits)
I can't think of anything else! I guess that's really it!

I'm excited. I'm really happy with the map itself. I think it's a tightly constructed space, and I have fun with the gameplay experience (even though I'm already pretty jaded towards the actual layout and encounters... a lot of the basic stuff has been in and working for a relatively long time.)

This stuff coming up is going to be fun and easy. I'm looking forward to it.




The number of current-gen releases is dying out, but there are a few PS2 games coming down the pipe yet that I've got my eye on. One is Yakuza, an extremely by-the-numbers Japanese mob story told through a city-roaming street brawler game. On one hand, I'm delighted that it managed to make it over to the States in the first place, since it's so tightly tied to Japanese culture in every respect. The game takes place in Japan, all the names are kept Japanese, the structure and customs of the Japanese mafia are central to the game, and pretty dense to keep straight, what with untranslated terms like "oyabun" being tossed around freely. Like many great yakuza epics, such as, say, Kinji Fukusaku's "Yakuza Papers," the character dynamics and relationships between the various yakuza families are almost too dense and complex to ably track, to the point that the game, humorously enough, includes a chart accessible from the start menu to remind you who's the oyabun of which family, and what that family's relationship is to every other family, and so forth.

Which brings me to my point. This game is very Japanese in every respect. I'm impressed that Sega believes there's an American audience for this kind of enterprise, culturally inaccessible as it may be on some level. Which is what disappoints me, annoys me, actually, about their decision to dub the entire game over with English language voice actors. I played the demo of Yakuza this week, which still had all the Japanese voices in (as well as a disclaimer stating that the full game will feature all-English voices.) The Japanese cast was simply terrific, and I couldn't think of a game where the native Japanese voices could possibly be more appropriate. It made me really disgusted to picture the same game, but with Eliza Dushku and Michael Madsen awkward Japanese pronunciation popping up between lines of a rewritten English script.

What bothers me about it is how inappropriate the decision seems. I expect the idea was to help broaden the appeal of the game by removing the need for subtitles (Sega states in the interview above that they wanted to include the Japanese voice track as well, but didn't have room on the disc.) But this game is one that defies broad appeal by its very nature. It's integrally foreign in every regard, from the setting to the plot to the character's names; to deny the game its original foreign voice fundamentally opposes the experience the game is built on. It's doubtful that an English voice cast, even with known Hollywood names attached, will draw in players who wouldn't be interested in the game otherwise; who asks about subtitles when they're buying a game?

When a publisher decides to bring a game like Yakuza overseas, I wish they would just pony up and go 100%. This is a game that's going to appeal to a niche of players who either love Japanese culture or are looking for something out of the norm; why diminish the total experience in the interest of drawing in a non-existent middleground of consumers? Disappointing.




Hitman: Blood Money. I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's the best game I've played in... six months? A year? I'm a longtime Hitman fan, ever since playing the pre-release demo for the first game of the series in late 2000. My friends and I absolutely fell in love with Hitman: Codename 47. Due to the nonlinearity and massive replayability of each of the levels, we spent over six months playing the game on a near daily basis, re-exploring and pushing the boundaries of Lee Hong's compound and the hotel in Traditions of the Trade over and over again. When we discovered the slow-motion, freecam, and giveall cheats, the game's lifespan was extended another six months. Codename 47's engine brought a bunch of revolutionary touches together for the first time-- features like ragdolls physics (which were meaningful to the gameplay through the body-dragging mechanic) dynamically shifting cloth banners and foliage that reacted to the player's movement, glass that dynamically shattered and fell, persistent bullet holes on both world surfaces as well as characters, and more. Together with a unique spin on stealth gameplay-- more like infiltration, really-- and freeform levels you could replay individually from the title menu at any time, Codename 47 was truly unique, something I'd never seen before.

But I digress. Hitman 2 and Contracts lost a lot of the strengths of the first game, making the play more restrictive, turning the enemy AI into a frustrating mess, and skimping on the graphical touches. For years I was on a disappointment yo-yo, get psyched for Hitman 2 before being horribly disappointed, getting my hopes up for Contracts only to lose faith in the series again. Finally, during the lead-up to Blood Money, I started to hear a lot of exciting info on the Games forum. I couldn't help but get hyped up once more for another Hitman game, reluctant as I was. And to my surpise, and great relief, this was the one they got right. It brought back the magic of the first game, and added so much more. Incredibly, it was worth waiting 6 years for.

The good stuff in the game is the breadth of missions and the amazing environments that IO has built; what makes the game great is the way that IO opened up the play, giving 47 more abilities, and therefore the player more leeway in accomplishing his goals. 47 can now throw items, which opens up a whole range of possible offensive and passive actions, such as tossing a mine over a wall and setting it off, throwing your equipment into a guard's field of view to draw his attention, or simply throwing a knife at a dude to take him out. 47 also has new ways to get up close and personal, using melee attacks and human shield grabs. The ability to push NPCs around, shoving them over railings and down stairs to set up accidents, is another hilariously useful addition. There are more ways to do any given thing, and more Plan B's available when things get hairy. Essentially, the designers implemented a more robust set of affordances to the game, in the form of new actions that 47 can perform, and new types of items for him and the NPCs to interact with. Instead of the limited inputs of "shoot or strangle" as in the earlier games, 47 can affect the world more subtly by throwing objects around it, and the AI reacts more robustly by taking these objects into account and reacting to them. Similarly, 47 can now affect NPCs more directly but less overtly, by pushing them or grabbing them as human shields, to move them around the level. To use another Word, the player is given more agency in how he wants to approach each mission by the gameplay's range of affordances, leading to a more nuanced and satisfying experience. Put the rich gameplay and lush environments together with a tightly-constructed but unintrusive tale of political intrigue, and you've got a game that grabs you and just won't let go. It's outstanding. Simply outstanding.

One thing I've seen people say often about the Hitman series is that they're not action or stealth games, so much as puzzle games. This springs from the fact that all of the NPCs behave in an identical, clockwork fashion each time the player starts up any given level. If Guard A walks through Door X at the :25 mark on your first run, he'll walk through Door X at the :25 mark on your second run and third and thousandth. Barring player disruption, the actions of every character in every map and the patterns they create will be exactly the same every time. This encourages one approach of devising "perfect" playthroughs by observing the level, reading the predictable patterns, and then finding a way to time your own actions right so as to slip between the gears of the clockwork and accomplish your mission. Someone described the experience as similar to being Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, but to much different ends. It's an apt comparison, and it's one of the weakest points of a game that I still love regardless.

What I'd like to see in the Hitman framework is something a little less predictable. Currently, NPCs have a series of nodes that they path to in a single, consistent pattern. Say that a man has four nodes: his sofa, the bar in his kitchen, the swimming pool, and the shower. He sits in the sofa, gets up to go to the bar, takes a quick swim, showers off, and sits back down on his sofa. He repeats this forever. I propose a slight alteration to this scheme. Each NPC still has a limited total number of nodes that they path to, but it's not in a static sequence. Instead, each node relates to each other node through a variety of properties that determine the likelihood of pathing to any given node when he leaves his prior node. So, in the above example, if the man starts out at his sofa, he might have an equal likelihood of going to the bar or the swimming pool; his likelihood of going to the shower from the sofa might be extremely small, or nonexistent. Since the chance of going to the bar or pool is equal, the destination is chosen at random. From the time he leaves the sofa, both the sofa node and swimming pool node start to build priority; the rate of priority gain can be set for each node. When the NPC reaches any given node, its priority is reset to zero. So, from the beginning of the level both the bar node and swimming pool node begin building priority; when he leaves the sofa, its priority begins to rise; when he arrives at the bar, its priority is reset to zero. When he leaves the bar, the swimming pool, which has been gaining priority longest, is first choice for the NPC.

Now, to keep this from turning into a more complicated system of achieving the same results, some randomizing factors come into play. One: for an NPC that has three or more nodes, the NPC randomly approaches one of the two nodes with highest priority. So in this case, he might go to the swimming pool, or he might return to the sofa. Additionally, some NPCs share nodes. So if someone is already on the sofa, he will be forced to go to the swimming pool. When an NPC has half a dozen or more nodes, and he shares these with multiple, other NPCs, you can see how his patterns would become much less predictable.

The point is, this guy gets up and goes to the bar. Then does he go back to the sofa, or to the swimming pool? Let's say he hits the pool. He swims for a bit, then he's hardwired to hit the shower after the pool. Then what? He either returns to the bar or the sofa. Then what? I find this much more interesting and exciting than knowing that he will move from sofa to bar to pool to shower to sofa in a neverending loop.

This is a simple example, but my goal is to maintain some predicatability--the range of possible locations and actions for any given NPC is limited-- but make the NPC behavior in the game dynamic in nature, instead of static. The gameplay then becomes a matter of observing NPCs, determining all their possible actions, and then adapting your approach to fit what they might do. Predicting their location and your own options becomes a matter of reasoning and improvisation instead of memorization. It also ups the tension, because you can't be absolutely sure who might be coming around the corner at any given time. It changes each map from a static, predictable, and therefore gratingly artificial and eventually boring clockwork, to a box of low-key controlled chaos. Dynamism. Tension. Improvisation. Fluidity.

Another jarring aspect of the gameplay in Blood Money--and this goes for many stealth games as well-- is the absolute conviction with which NPCs stick to their predetermined routines, even following extreme disturbances. This is most apparent in the levels that take place in a smaller, more residential setting, such as A New Life or Til Death Do Us Part. You can set off a mine in the middle of the dancefloor or snipe the groom at the wedding, and after an initial freakout, all the NPCs will go back to their normal routines. You can burn the wife to death in A New Life and within 5 minutes the husband will be back to nonchalantly watching TV in the front room. It's completely unrealistic and weird. If half the party guest at my wedding got blown up by a mysterious bomb, do you think I'd be up at the altar 15 minutes later?

What I propose are "standard" and "panic" positions. Standard position is the set of nodes and behaviors that NPCs on the map initially use. Panic position is engaged after a major disturbance-- when an explosion happens, when gunfire is detected, when an important NPC is killed. Panic position engages a secondary set of nodes and behaviors more consistent with a state of great duress, which continues for the rest of the mission. So in A New Life, if the husband was sniped through the front window, the wife would gain new nodes: crying by her husband's body, hiding in her room, and taking swigs from the bar; the guards on the map would fan out to cover the area more vigilantly; the hired help would leave the area. On Til Death Do Us Part, after a major disturbance such as an explosion, the father of the bride might hole up in his room with his gun in the ready position, while the groom might go aggro and begin searching the grounds for the perpetrator. The bride would hide in her room with a number of her bridesmaids. The guards would go on more active search patrols. Again, this would make each mission more dynamic, as the entire place has two possible states, determined by the player's actions; along with the more dynamic system of NPC desire nodes, all but the highest level predictability is eliminated, giving the player a different experience each time they enter a level, and removing the somewhat robotic feel of the missions. Working towards dynamism and a system of strictly controlled chaos-- knowing what could happen, but never being SURE-- would push an already hugely enjoyable game to a whole new level.

Let's see what IO does with the next in the series :-)




It's official: BENEATH now contains DUDES.

Oh shit here comes one now!


That's what I've been working on... I scripted in some opening sequences and an assassin encounter. I also continuously mess with the geometry (tweaked the banisters, added a vaulted ceiling) and the lighting. Now to move deeper into the facility and lay down some soldiers. Watch for it here.




Why hasn't this blog been frequently updated of late?

  • The actual environments of Beneath are more or less final at this point, so screenshots aren't too new or exciting right now
  • I've been scripting in sound, music, and enemy encounters which, again, don't photograph well
  • I haven't been seeing/reading/playing a lot of cool stuff lately to talk about
  • Haven't been having many Big Thoughts about game design that bear repeating
Before long, I'll have screenshots of all the enemy encounters actually occuring in BENEATH, and then not far after, the actual map will be released. I should also write up my thoughts on Blood Money for real, soon. Hell, I should probably do the Blood Money stuff today.. servers are going wild at work this afternoon anyway.

Won't be long now.




I'm back from a trip to Portland, and I've finished Blood Money, and I swear this blog will resume normal operation shortly. I really want to get back to work.




Alright, I borrowed a video card from work, got the editor reinstalled, and I'm completely ready to roll again. I also just finished Blood Money the other night, so that's out of the way too... after one more playthrough, I think.

Keep an eye here for new updates on BENEATH soon.




Update on BENEATH's progress since my last post:

None :-(

While switching up my hardware in preparation for a system upgrade, I ended up reinstalling Windows. This screwed up my copy of the FEAR toolkit, and attempting to reinstall only screwed it up further. I formatted the drive and reinstalled Windows again, but now attempting to install the FEAR SDK (again) returns an error message. I don't know what's going on. I'm attempting to download all the FEAR patches and SDK versions (again) in hopes that I'll be able to get WorldEdit working (again) ASAP. For the time being, I don't have access to my map. It's getting irritating.

I've also been playing Hitman: Blood Money. I think I'm fairly close to the end now. I'm lovin' it. After about four solid years of disappointing, lackluster Hitman sequels that failed to live up to the original game, they finally rediscovered what makes the series great. The Mardi Gras level is awesome, as anticipated. The experience of simply being in the crowd isn't that mindblowing, but the mission entails actively tracking a couple of different people through the crowd, which is something I've never played out in a game before. Trying to keep track of your mark's bobbing head as he weaves through the dense crowd in the middle of the night is really intense and engaging. Blood Money is awesome.

Between finishing that up and getting my damn level editor running again, I hope to be making more progress on BENEATH very soon.




Here are a few shots of BENEATH (ie, the modifications I've made to Residential Evil to turn it into a single-player level.) This is the slightly-reworked entry lobby:

Note that the banisters now extend all the way down each side of the central staircases. I wish I'd had those in the original map, but I just recently got comfortable enough with the tricks of modeling more complex geometry in WorldEdit. I think they look rather good now.

This is the sub-basement/storage dock where the final boss fight takes place. It's a cavernous hangar-like space featuring a central control room, a raised catwalk, and an enclosed passageway on each side of the central room.

Last but not least: explosions!!Watch them stray bullets :-)




I want to take this opportunity to propagate something I've seen linked in the Games forum and by prominent designers alike: MTV's Game Makers Roundtable. At E3, MTV brought together four of today's most relevant game designers: Will Wright, Harvey Smith, Cliffy B, and David Jaffe. Gideon Jago asked them a bunch of high-level questions about why and how they make games, what influences them, what drives them to design the way they do--generally the 'big picture' questions about relationships between game design, the individual, and society. Jago surprisingly knows his shit, and the answers given, as one might expect, are really engaging and thoughtful. It's a pretty exciting thing to be able to watch. I suggest you check out all the segments they have online. I know I got a lot out of it.



By the way, let me just congratulate Rockstar on another great prank:

Microsoft: Hey guys, we need you to make us something new, something edgy, something pulse-poundingly incredible, exclusively for the HD Generation. This is the future of gaming!

Rockstar: Okay how about we remake Pong~~

me: lol




What role do you take on when you go to see a movie? What is your relationship to the characters onscreen? You are always part of the viewing audience, watching the events unfold. Likewise, when you read a book, you are always the reader-- the interpreter, perhaps, but you maintain a consistent, detached role. You are outside of the story, observing the events unfold.

When playing a game, you are always the player, but your relationship to the characters onscreen can vary greatly from one title to another. What role do you play? Do you inhabit the character itself? Are you an abstraction of the character's will? Are you just the guy outside the screen, playing a video game? Or do you inhabit some vague omniscient third precence in between? Probably the most concrete metric of the player/character relationship is the UI, and the raw quantity being measured is the flow and availability of information. What does the character know, and what does the player know, and when, and how? I'm only talking about human-level, single-protagonist games here; obviously guiding the rise of the Roman empire or fostering a species as it evolves is on a completely different level. And I'm not talking about the simple difference between first and third person. The player/character relationship is only partly determined by the position of the camera.

A couple of the games I've been playing have informed my recent thinking on the player/character thing: Condemned: Criminal Origins and Hitman: Blood Money. Condemned is first-person, while Blood Money is primarily third person with an optional first-person toggle. What got me started thinking down this track was the Blood Money HUD. Blood Money is a game about a super-assassin who works by infiltrating heavily populated sites to eliminate his target by any means necessary. As such, the protagonist, Agent 47, often disguises himself to pass undetected through restricted areas. The HUD breaks down into four persistent readouts:(click to enlarge)
1) Contextual action menu
2) Compass
3) Health
4) "Tension meter"

The first three are pretty standard. The tension meter is the element that stands out. Being discovered by hostile forces isn't a binary event in Blood Money; you can tell when guards or passersby are starting to freak out by observing the tension meter, and quickly backing off or silencing any nearby witnesses to avoid your cover being blown. The question is, where does the raw info for this meter come from? Obviously on a code level it's drawn from the AI states of the NPCs in 47's vacinity, conveyed graphically. But in the context of the game, is this a representation of 47's perception of the people around him? If so, it seems too accurate, and also takes into account the states of people outside 47's range of vision. If the info comes from an omniscient third entity-- 'the computer'-- is that info also available to 47, the character? Or is it only available to the player? If the info on the tension meter is only available to the player--if the player knows something that the character onscreen doesn't-- it serves to separate the character, the computer, and the player into three distinct entities. "I am the player; I am observing the information provided by the computer; this informs how I direct the character in the video game." Any HUD element that draws the player's locus of attention out of the character's gameworld, and onto a graphical element that exists only in the player's world, breaks the player's experience into something more artificial than it might be.

I believe it's possible for the player to 'inhabit' a character in the third person. For one, the player identifies with the character's actions through the familiar act of visualizing their own physicality in everyday life. Right now, you probably can't see anything of yourself but your hands on a mouse or keyboard, but you know how you're sitting, what your posture looks like. When you walk, or run, or duck down, you can feel how that must look and can easily picture your own performance of these actions. I believe that the player inhabits a character in the third person by projecting their own sense-memory onto the character's actions, and treating the wider camera as a surrogate for the peripheral vision missing from the first-person experience. As such, for the player to maintain inhabitance of the character, everything the player knows about the gameworld must be directly observable through the physical gameworld itself; everything the player knows, the character must also plausibly be able to know. So, in Blood Money, the player's knowledge of surrounding guards' tension levels would ideally be dictated by directly observing their reactions to 47's actions, their body language and vocalizations, the sounds of movement in the next room. The player would need to swivel the camera around and carefully observe the results of their actions within the gameworld to gauge how much leeway they had in their actions at any given moment; likewise, the game's designers would need to ensure that NPCs' AI states were realiably readable through consistent body language signals and vocalizations depending upon their current state. In this way, the act of determining nearby NPCs' tension levels would no longer entail the player removing his attention from the gameworld to check a meter that only exists as an artificial construct on the screen, but instead to more closely examine the gameworld itself, drawing him further into the inhabitance of the character onscreen.

Another common HUD element in action games is the ammo readout. At a glance, the player can see how many shots they have left in their gun, and how much ammo they have left total in store. But who's keeping track of these things? Is the character counting how many dozens of shots have been fired from their gun, and how many remain? It seems unlikely this is a function of graphically depicting the character's perception, and instead is being conveyed the the computer, showing the player information the character doesn't actually know. Condemned addresses the old ammo readout issue, but only goes halfway:

There is no persistent ammo readout onscreen. The player must input a specific keypress to physically check their ammo count if they lose track (or when they first pick up the gun.) However, upon doing so, a graphical ammo readout appears briefly, and the count is not physically observable by the player. In the screenshot above, would you be able to tell how many bullets are in the magazine the character is holding? No, you must again break out of observing the gameworld, and shift your locus of attention to an onscreen readout. This seems easily avoidable. I mean, it's a problem that's been solved by firearm manufacturers in the real world:
In Condemned, the problem is almost solved in game design terms, but then forces the player to rely on a HUD element instead of his own observation, breaking him out of the gameworld.

I believe that the ideal solution is a game that exists primarily in the third person, but allows first person when useful (such as, for instance, when checking the ammunition in a gun's magazine.) The most important thing is that all information available to the player be physically observable, and equally available to the player character. Being in third person only facilitates this, by allowing simultaneous observation of the player character's state and the gameworld surrounding it. This also gives the designer a means of eliminating the mainstay of video game HUDs: the health meter. If the player is constantly observing the state of his character, and is capable of swiveling the camera around him at any time to examine him from every angle, the character's physical state can be reliably observed without a graphical readout. The character must react to damage incrementally, gradually slumping more, slowing down, visibly bleeding from wounds, shaking, dragging injured limbs, etc. This is less easily quantifiable than a numerical value displayed onscreen or a graphical health bar, less exact, but more meaningful to the player. I find it more useful to see that my character is physically limping
and bleeding than to read that my character has "26 Health" while still acting as they would with 82 Health or 100 Health. I believe that we can do without acknowledging the computer as an entity of interpretation, that we can completely omit the man behind the curtain from the experience. What should be important is making the player's experience as congruous with his character's as possible-- creating a seamless player/character relationship. This is HUD-elimination not in the pursuit of the cinematic. When the designer remains aware of the gap between character perception and player perception, and concentrates on eliminating it, the game experience itself becomes that much more pure. It just makes sense.




My approach for making the single-player level BENEATH is to use my multiplayer deathmatch map Residential Evil as a foundation, and build a directed, narrative-based experience into it. One of the first steps in doing this was to take the undirected, free-flowing map and impose onto it a linear path. It's been fun figuring out how to give the player a directed space by making as few meaningful alterations to the multiplayer map as possible.

RE started out something like this:

It's a three-tiered map that centers around tight corridors and interlocking gameflow loops for flanking and unpredictable movement patterns. There are multiple stairways leading between each of the tiers, allowing a good use of Z-space, but not just a bunch of huge caverns. I think it was successful at giving the player freedom of motion in all directions, while maintaining a focus on close-quarters combat.

BENEATH, as the name implies, focuses on leading the player further and further below the surface. At the beginning, the player is tasked with exploring the mansion to find the source of the disturbances at the site. Once he finds the secret door in the attic, the free-roaming/undirected segment of the level ends. Two powerful enemies enter the mansion from beneath, and the player must confront them to proceed. It's at this point that I started constricting the player's path.

The entrance to the basement is directly below the attic. I removed the stairway that led straight from the attic to the downstairs hallway (1), bringing the player's confrontation with the assassins out into the main room of the mansion. I also removed all but one of the stairways leading from the bottom floor of the mansion down into the basement (2,3). Once the player clears the two assassins from the mansion, he follows the only available path into the lower basement level. The basement is a dense combat zone populated by a number of soldiers working in teams. Again, the final destination on this floor would be too easy to reach with the multiplayer layout, so I closed off two of the three doors into the final/central room of the basement (4,5), leading the player in a roundabout path following the perimeter of the basement floor. The player must work his way through each room in sequence before exiting the final room of the basement through a newly-installed elevator. The elevator descends into a new, cavernous arena-type sub-basement that hosts a boss fight (not pictured.)

Point is, it's been fun to take a space that was meant to give the player as much freedom of movement as possible, and through a subtractive approach, create a space that directs them down a linear path. It's been a good exercise and I'm enjoying the results.

I'll have shots of the new sub-basement area when it's gotten a little more polish. It's starting to come together.




The official word:

Map Contest Winners:

  • Grand Prize Winner: (F.E.A.R. skinned Alienware PC) Caverns 11 by LK
  • 2nd Prize Winners: ( NVIDIA GeForce 7 Series Video Cards)
    • Garage by Tyler A.
    • Complex 10 by The_One
    • Resident Evil by Steve Gaynor
  • 3rd Prize Winners: (F.E.A.R. Prize Packs)
    • Operation Masada by VMan
    • Aftermath by Hevoc
    • Anyway by Fatal Justice
    • Holocaust by Dementia13
Hey hey, I'm takin' home a sweet video card... and they almost got the name of my map right! Thanks to all my friends/family/colleagues who voted and helped me with this thing. I really appreciate it. When I'm playing FEAR at a million frames per second on my new GeForce 7 series graphics card, I'll have you all in my heart.

Next time... I'm goin' for the gold :-)




So, I've spent the last week or so laying out and setting up the new, final segment of BENEATH, and just this afternoon I decided to scrap it. I just don't think I had a cohesive idea of how I wanted to approach the space. It was sort of an underground hangar space, or warehouse/shop floor, with a control room and employee bathroom incorporated, and the lift came down into the middle of it onto this raised platform... and then you fought a robot. I don't know.

I'm thinking I may take this opportunity to create a cool little space using Sketchup and import it into WorldEdit.

Or I may take some time and replay FEAR to get some ideas regarding how they did things.

Either way, it's back to the drawing board. The map up to this point is still lookin' good, though!!




This is a note to you and to myself that I need to start publishing notes on my level design work again. I'm currently at work converting Residential Evil into a brief single-player experience called BENEATH. It's been an interesting project, changing around a freeflowing, open multiplayer level to make it a linear, directed single-player level.

The process goes something like this: Create a multiplayer map with a free flow of player movement in all directions, allowing for dynamic firefights between multiple combatants. Think up a story that could be told in that space. Decide on the path that the story would lead the player through the map. Close off extraneous doorways and stairwells, creating a linear progression through the map for the player to follow. Add extra spaces not present in the original level as needed to flesh out the single-player experience.

That's the step I'm at now. I've added a small cubbyhole in the attic of the mansion, rearranged the passageways in the whole map, and now I'm adding a large fourth, subterranean sublevel to the basement, where a miniboss fight will take place and from which the player will exit the map. Once all the spaces are laid out and dressed up, I'll need to go back and script in all the enemy encounters, AI navmeshes, story elements, interactive objects, and so forth. I've already put in some new doors and triggers, and an industrial lift that gave me some problems for a while. Right now I'm dressing up the sub basement. Hopefully that'll be at a point I'm happy with before the end of the week. Then it's on to scripting, scripting, scripting. Fun stuff.

Oh yeah, and recording new voice samples. Wouldn't want to forget that.

I'll have some screenshots in here once I get home.




It's been a little while-- three weeks probably-- since I finished playing through the PC port of Monolith's first-person thriller Condemned: Criminal Origins. I liked the game a lot. The combat was really fun and felt a lot different than in any other action game I can really think of. The ending got a little weak, but not for gameplay reasons, really. It was more of an artifice thing-- the final boss of the game seemed sort of like a vague idea of a 'bad guy,' and the wacky "OR IS IT...?" final shot right before the credits was a let-down. Also, on my machine the entire outdoor farm level looked like absolute garbage. I guess it was a function of having my graphics turned to medium, but the grounds of the farm seriously started looking like Quake 2. There was nothing but mid-tone ambient light and all the textures looked washed out and shitty. I still wonder if it's my fault for not having a computer that could run the game at top-tier graphical settings, or if the outdoor part of the last level just looks like that. I didn't crank my settings up as a test to check. Maybe it looked that awful on the 360, but I can't imagine that. It's not even a case Condemned being one of those games that completely loses it in the final act (ala Half-Life,) there were just a few aspects of it that were really distracting.

I enjoyed the enemy AI a lot, especially the few times when their system to search for and acquire better weapons came into play. There were a couple of times when I dropped a gun with a few rounds in it in favor of some entry tool or powerful melee weapon and forgot about it, only to have a dangerous psychotic toss aside their rusty pipe and pick up the gun, surprising me with a sudden burst of gunfire. Really cool, really made me think about how I needed to carefully track all my cast-offs. Tangible implications of persistent useable items. Good stuff.

One thing that started to wear a bit thin as the game progressed was the central combat mechanic itself. Combat in Condemned is both nuanced and very simple at once. It breaks down to "swing or block?" and while each weapon differs in its few basic stats (speed, block, attack power, reach) it pretty much turns into a somewhat repetitive bludgeon fest after the first few chapters. The appearance and stats of each variant of the single weapon type in the game can be quite diverse, but the weapon types themselves could use a bit more variety.

To this end, I'd propose two new aspects of combat in Condemned. One is the breakable "one-time use" (OTU) weapon. A OTU weapon is something that deals extra damage and possibly a status effect (such as stun) on impact, but is destroyed after one successful use. This would probably take the form of a beer or wine bottle. Brandishing such a weapon would bring an extra element of strategy to the following encounter: by carrying a OTU weapon, the player would have a distinct offensive advantage over the next enemy they face, but also be at a couple of distinct disadvantages: for one, you can't block with an OTU; it would break. Second, after its first use, deploying an OTU leaves you completely unarmed. So, if the player comes across a single enemy while holding a beer bottle, the OTU is great, because the player can bum rush him and lay serious damage and a stun on the enemy, essentially leading to a free kill. On the other hand, if the enemy gets the drop on the player while he is armed with an OTU, the player is unable to block incoming attacks; and if he comes upon a larger group of enemies, he will be left briefly unarmed after attacking the first of them, leaving him open to follow-up attacks from the rest of the group. It's a risk/reward setup that adds a new element of strategy to weapon selection in Condemned, and adds some variety to what can often be fairly dry encounters.

Going along with these breakable OTU weapons would be the ability for 'standard' weapons to break instantly on block, depending on what they were hit with. In Condemned, if someone is attacking me with, say, a fire axe or crowbar, I can successfully block it with a rotting 2x4. Both logically and from a gameplay standpoint, it would be more interesting if some weapons could be broken when attempting to block other, more powerful weapons. If I were brandishing the 2x4 with nails, and came up against a psycho with the fire axe, sledge hammer, etc, I would need to reconsider blocking his attacks to avoid being disarmed, and possibly search around for a more durable weapon such as a steam pipe or locker door. Similarly, if I had a poweful melee weapon and came across an enemy wielding a desktop or wooden plank, I could swing on them with impunity, knowing that they would be unable to block my attacks, and actually would suffer for trying.

I guess you could combine these two features into one category called "Strategic Item Breakability." I think it would add a lot to the combat dynamics of Condemned, a fun and engaging action thriller whose own gameplay simplicity can sometimes work against it.




2007 is shaping up to be the Year of the Game.

Assassin's Creed
Metal Gear Solid 4

I mean come on people.




Game Designer as Simulator: "Realism" in games is an extremely relative term. Though many games tout their high degree of realism as a selling point, very few games attempt to accurately recreate a real-world experience through gameplay. Those that do are the flight simulators and racing simulators, the Gran Turismos, Silent Hunters, and the Jane's helicopter sims. Most game designers place the player in situations that are fantastical to some degree, whether it be taking on the role of a blue hedgehog and racing across impossible landscapes, or killing dozens of Nazis and singlehandedly blowing up entire tank platoons while absorbing ten rifle rounds without dying. The game designer as simulator instead attempts to place the player in a situation exactly like one they could be having in real life, but aren't.

This raises a number of unique issues. Almost out of necessity, the learning curve is very steep for this kind of game. In part, this springs from the difficulty of the designer mapping all the physical interactions that one's hands can have with a complex piece of mechanical equipment into the inputs on a standard console controller or keyboard. Besides memorizing all the minutae of the machine's interface, the player must also memorize what keypresses they must input to manipulate that interface effectively.

Another challenge for the designer as simulator is the difficulty of designing for a dual market. How does one satisfy the small but dedicated playerbase who have actually had the experience being simulated in the game and know first-hand how it "should" work, without alienating the less hardcore broad market of gamers who just want to see what it might be like to, say, fly an airplane? It's a trying dichotomy which either leads to the designing of multiple iterations of the game within the larger game (a 'realism' slider that reduces or increases level of automation provided by the computer, requiring the designers to build in those automated systems and balance and test them on each setting,) or the alienation of one or the other segment of your audience ('this is so dumbed-down it's hardly a simulation at all!' vs. 'I keep running into the wall what are all these damn knobs for?') Sadly for the minority of hardcore types, if someone needs to get cut out of the equation, they're often the ones on the chopping block.

The designer as simulator takes the fundamental tenets of what a video game is or can be-- a means to virtually place someone in a situation they can't normally experience-- and runs with it in an extremely literalist direction. It's one of the most technical roles, from both a design and gameplay standpoint. Incredible amounts of minutely detailed research must go into accurately reproducing the interior of a nuclear sub's command bridge, but the designer as simulator wants to portray it perfectly, and the core simulation player won't accept anything less. While most game systems are broad abstractions of realworld activities, the designer as simulator refuses any compromises to the experience he is recreating. This is the role of the perfectionist.




Click this link, then watch "Gameplay Video 1" from the selection. Look at that crowd. It is the first really believeable crowd scene I've ever seen in a video game. That is not GTA, where a 'bustling' city street plays host to six pedestrians. That is Mardi Gras. That is Shinjuku on a Friday night. That is something that games have always been missing, a sense of dense population. That Hitman gameplay movie is what Patrice Desilets touched on in his GDC presentation, the physical sensation of moving through a crowd; it's what EA's Neil Young referenced when he talked about pushing the balance between functional gameplay processing versus graphics processing to 50-50 instead of 80-20. I imagine that when I pick up the game I will spend a lot of time just being in that crowd, strolling through it or standing still as it washes past 47. I'm giddily looking forward to seeing what happens when that crowd goes into pandemonium. The possibilities.

What games are capable of is advancing every day!




Game Designer as Tinkerer: Sometimes, the role of the game designer is determined by the functional role of the game. With games that serve as a platform for player-versus-player competition, the designer takes on the role of a tinkerer, working at first in broad strokes and eventually focusing down to the finest detail, in the pursuit of creating a perfectly tuned and balanced machine as a basis for human competition.

It's a process of creating a complex mechanism that appears fluid and organic at first glance, but is so obsessively tweaked and balanced on every level that the outcome of any competition based upon it is decided entirely by the player's skill at manipulating it, not by their choosing "the best" strategy and easily steamrolling the competition. Any piece of this mechanism must be a valid counter to any other piece, and two players of matched skill should each an equal percent of the time when facing off against each other. These are fighting games, competitive shooter games, competitive puzzles games, realtime strategy games.

These are games that can support tournaments, such as Street Fighter 2 and its derivatives, Counter-Strike, or Starcraft. The point in these games is that any skilled player should be able to hold his own against any equally skilled opponent using any unit, character, or faction, based on how effectively he can control that unit, character, or faction. Ken should not be able to defeat Chun Li every time; the terrorists shouldn't constantly win de_dust, and a Protoss hero unit shouldn't trump a Human platoon in every encounter. A team in Counter-Strike shouldn't be able to all load up with AWPs and run every single match they enter. Every piece of the game must be equally balanced against every other piece. The game designer as tinkerer endeavors to create the perfectly even playing field.

These are the games that start edging towards the classification of "sport." The designer is essentially responsible for tweaking a rulebook down to the tiniest degree. But no game like this will ever be a "sport" per se, since they take place entirely within self-contained, artificial gameworlds, leaving them squarely in the realm of strategic traditional games like chess. The designer as tinkerer must define the rules of the game, as well as the rule of the entire world in which it exists. Someone setting up a real-life recreation of Counter-Strike by way of paintball or Airsoft competition would be responsible for only a relatively simple set of rules-- time limits, number of players per team, the location where 'bombs' could be planted, number of shots a player can receive before 'dying.' The designer of the video game Counter-Strike must define exactly how a grenade bounces off a wall; how long the flashbang effect lasts and how it looks; the shoothrough values of doors and walls; recoil effects and all the other attributes of each gun; and create every aspect, every brick and every railing, of each arena, as opposed to throwing down in some abandoned office park in the real world. To create an entire artificial ecosystem, if you will, in the interest of providing players a valid place to test their skills, is a complex and often thankless task. The players are striving twice as hard to break the game as the designers are to balance it. But, when a completely new venue for human competition does come to fruition, and thousands of players are manipulating the mechanisms that the designer has put so much time into perfecting, the result must be extremely satisfying.




Game Designer as Storyteller: Another designation that at first seems too broad to stand alone, I have a definition specific enough to differentiate it from other design roles. I am referring here to game designers whose primary role is to place the player in a world filled with loose threads, the seeds for individual stories, that are then picked up and played out according to the player's individual approach, telling a story through the assemblage of these bits and pieces. This designer's game isn't a singular work, one discrete storyline that every player will experience equally (i.e., the work of a designer as entertainer;) this is a world with any number of stories hidden below the surface, for the player to discover and unravel of his own will.

Most of these games are RPGs. I'm thinking of Fallout, and Planescape: Torment, and Oblivion, and other less-exposed RPGs that rely on the player both to instigate each individual storyline, and to dictate how it will play out. I'm thinking of games the designers of which wanted to tell a bouquet of stories through the actions and decisions of the player. What the player gets out of this sort of game is proportionate to what they put in, but they always get something, because the option to play out or not any given story branch is an equally valid decision in an open world.

Consider the recent example of Oblivion. It's a common claim for one to play dozens of hours into the game without touching the central storyline quests. It could be equally valid to claim those dozens of hours without touching any particular quest. The world is open enough, and full enough, that the choice to simply roam the countryside exploring caves and ruins, slaying beasts and collecting treasure, is as valid as undertaking any predefined story quest. But those quests are there, and they are the central draw for most players. The world of Oblivion is one with a daunting array of stories embedded in it, but none of which compel the player to any action beyond his own whim. The game designer as storyteller seeks to tell these individual stories by hooking the player and motivating them to play out each quest in their own way, but he also seeks to tell the broader story of the player's entire experience in his game, by way of the overall tapestry of smaller stories he creates through play, and the order and manner in which the player tackles them. Not only may any individual quest that a player undertakes be unique to himself as opposed to others, but the story of his complete experience with the game from start to finish is also dictated by when and how the player did or didn't decide to play out each individual thread in the world. In this way, the designer as storyteller conveys cohesive narrative through both the small, individual quests that he may dictate very specifically, and the way that he allows them to dynamically interlock throughout the world, giving the player the freedom to tell another, larger story through his actions as well.

The designer as storyteller is a direct collaborator with the player to tell the game's stories, as opposed to the designer as entertainer, whose player's main role is to hold down the gas pedal until the designer's story has been conveyed. The storyteller's is a different sort of player freedom than the designer as watchmaker, too, as in a storyteller's game, the player's main relationship is with the game's story itself, as opposed to the game's physical world and the interactive affordances within it. The gameworld in a storyteller's game can be affected by the player in fewer significant ways than that of a watchmaker, since the story branches become a sort of complex choose-your-own-adventure, but the limited outcomes can each be perhaps more dramatic, more affecting than the smaller revelations allowed by the watchmaker. The designer as storyteller must know all of the ways that the world's story can be told. It's up to the player to decide just what form that story will take.




Game Designer as Obstacle Course Administrator: The scale of decision-making for someone playing a video game spans from extremely low-level (press button at the exact right moment to make a headshot in Counter-Strike) to extremely high-level (I want to build the most environmentally-friendly city ever in SimCity.) On the low end, some game designers aim to challenge the player's reflexes by presenting him with a linear series of physical hurdles that must be passed by precisely-timed button presses. The player who has mastered this sort of game glides over the landscape, perfectly interlocking his actions with the gameworld's impediments. Many of us came up on this type of game-- the Marios, the Ninja Gaidens, the Mega Man series. This design role is embodied by old-school side-scrollers up through the new school of Mario64-derived 3D platformers like Crash Bandicoot, Jak & Daxter, or even Psychonauts and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. This designer challenges the player to hone their controller-manipulation skills to the point of effortlessly navigating a series of complex obstacle courses.

The concept behind the designer as obstacle course administrator may be the simplest to grasp, and for a long time was one of the most common roles held. It seems a natural fit: you've got a character; you've got buttons for controlling that character; you want something that will challenge and entertain the player, while providing equal opporunities for triumph (motivation to continue) and failure (need to throw more quarters in the machine.) Placing a bunch of obstacles in the player's path for them to jump over is probably the most straightforward way of filling these parameters, and one of the most mutable in execution. While their mechanics are largely uniform, the breadth of titles encompassed by this design role, from the early 80's up to the present, is innumerable.

I'd say that this is mostly because the core concept is so fundamentally solid and easily graspable, and expressed so simply, that 'reskinning' any competent platformer almost leads to a new, valid game experience on its own. Also, the sheer range of possibilities in laying out a platformer level is practically endless, meaning that with some cleverly-designed stages and a unique game mechanic or two, creating a brand new platformer that draws in players with both its familiarity and uniqueness is relatively simple.

It's been a long time since I really enjoyed a platform game (besides the excellent Sands of Time, and possibly combat/puzzle/platformer God of War, if you're stretching.) I don't know if it's because platformers are easy to grow out of as you get older and want a more complex experience, or if it's a function of the waning of that particular genre as time's gone on. Maybe it's because I'm largely a PC gamer, and platformers have never been the PC's strongpoint. I think it may have something to do with the fact that as the graphical presentation of games has become more convincing, realistic, lifelike, the core gameplay of platformers has become less viable. Characters jumping 20 feet over chasms and up onto ledges doesn't really "read" when you've got hi-res, super-lifelike graphics onboard. And how do you set up an exciting, challenging platform level in a realistic setting? When I'm walking down the street, I don't tend to see a lot of floating planes or gaping holes I have to jump over. One exception seems to be the new Prince of Persia series, which has successfully matched its realistic-fanciful setting with a new and engaging approach to the 3D obstacle course, but that series is more the exception than the rule in this day and age. Maybe, as the possibilities of game experiences have grown and developed and broadened in every direction over the years, the traditional, very straightforward run-and-jump experience provided by the game designer as obstacle course administrator has fallen by the wayside. Maybe people just don't feel like jumping over hurdles anymore.