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.




Designer as Deity: There are many interpretations of what "god" may be. People think of god as anything from the very literal, personified man in the clouds that speaks directly to chosen prophets, to some sort of nebulous higher power that originally set the universe in motion and now sits back to watch, to some form of amorphous spiritual energy that pervades all living things. The game designer as deity inhabits that middleground godly role. He's not the watchmaker; instead, he merely creates all those individual, intricate mechanical parts, and allows the player to build his own watch, for better or worse.

Obviously, Will Wright is the original, and still reigning, deity of game design. The Sim games pioneered the idea of handing the player nothing but a toolset, or a toybox, and simply allowing them to build whatever they want out of those bits and pieces. The designer as deity creates the pieces of the world; the player creates the world. "Success" or "failure" can only be measured by how successful the player is at achieving their own goals within the realm of possibilities presented by the pieces of the world that the deity creates. One player might find success in creating the richest, most powerful Sim family in their whole SimCity; another might find success in faithfully creating their own version of the most horrible, run-down trailer park ever. Some entries in the Sim series--and there have been a whole lot--rely on imposed goals, rewards, and failure states, but at their purest, deity designers present only a range of simple elemental components to the player, and allow them to decide how they will be assembled. The designer as deity doesn't impose the "how" on the player, or even the "what"--only the "what might be."
It's hard to come up with other designers as deity besides Wright, though the classifaction seems like it should be more broad. The designer as deity's connection to the player is the most distant of the three roles so far, their guidance of the player the most general, almost to the point of being completely hands-off. The designer as deity says to the player, "You can build a city;" "You can forge an ecosystem;" "You can raise a family"-- and is tasked with designing the means for the player to do so. I guess then that some of Sid Meier's most successful games, like the Civilization series and Alpha Centauri, cast Meier as the deity of an extremely open political/historicak space. "You can build a civilization," or "You can rule the world" are the possibilities, and the means to do so can be arranged in an infinite number of configurations, depending on the player's whim. Just as no two SimCities are alike but are all built from the same components, no two world histories forged in a Civilization campaign are alike, but all rely on the same tech trees, races, and underlying strategies.
What other grand, general concepts can be provided for players to flesh out that haven't already been covered? What domains are left for the designer as deity to oversee?




Designer as Watchmaker: This role describes designers from the opposing school to the designers as entertainers. They both create character-based narrative games, but the approach to it and philosphy behind it differs.

The designer as watchmaker sets the elements of a clockwork world into motion, and motivates the player to manipulate those elements to in pursuit of goals, either of the designer's or the player's own specification. The designer as watchmaker creates world systems and arranges them in provocative ways, inviting the player to activate them however he sees fit. Often, the watchmaker still directs the player, guiding them with imposed objectives and predefined storylines within the gameworld, but the gameplay itself arises from a process of the player observing and deciphering the elements in the world and how they react to one another, then figuring out amusing ways to set them up before knocking them back down.
This designer's approach opposes the entertainer's fundamentally. A game created by the watchmaker will be similar from player to player, but fundamentally different depending on the decisions that the player himself makes and the ways in which he approaches the problems set before him. Whereas every player will encounter the same events in the same order in the same way in a game like F.E.A.R., how the player tackles the gameworld in Deus Ex can be as divergent as night and day from one player to the next.

This isn't a question of the watchmaker building in multiple binary choose-your-own-adventure paths (simply flipping a switch between Stealth Path and Demolitions Path,) but consistently providing a useful array of affordances in the gameworld, so that the player's experience comes down to his own values and his own ingenuity.
More than other roles, though, it's hard to design a game wearing the watchmaker's hat exclusively. The problem of motivating the player on some forward trajectory, and providing a sense of measureable accomplishment and resolution, is difficult to address without inserting linear, choice-free, hand-holding segments in the form of unalterable expository interludes, a rigid progression through a set series of levels, or cut-and-dry missions inserted into the otherwise open gameworld. The prime examples of watchmaker's games (Deus Ex, Thief, Grand Theft Auto 3) all regularly resort to methods that remove any illusion of player freedom in order to push the game forward towards a satisfying conclusion. The watchmaker is concerned with the core of the play experience, the meat of observation, improvisation, and problemsolving, but at present must necessarily make certain concessions to the largely linear, restrictive nature of the character-driven video game.



Lately I've been thinking (blogging) about game design philosophy, and the contrasts between different approaches to making games; the different ways a designer can provide the player a variety of experiences. And it's made me think about how, in the games industry, someone who "makes games" can take on so many distinct, completely unique roles, depending on the experience they're trying to convey. A filmmaker is always a filmmaker; the difference may be in their style or technique, the genre of movie they're trying to make, but they're always a filmmaker. On the other hand, tell me just how different it must be to design the next Madden title, compared to designing Puyo Pop or Final Fantasy XII or World of Warcraft, the completely unique mindset and skillset that one must have to create this or that type of gameplay experience. The expansive array of roles that a game designer can take on is incredibly diverse.

So I started laying out exactly what the different archetypal roles they fill might break down to. Of course there's overlap between some roles-- all game designers are entertainers, many are storytellers, simulators, and combinations of the following. But I'm designating the primary role for a game designer, based on the experience they want to impart to their audience, and the method with which they go about it. That said, no game design role is an island. Here we go.

Designer as Entertainer: All games are supposed to be entertainment, but that doesn't mean that all game designers take on the role of an entertainer. By entertainer, I mean such as stage performers, filmmakers, TV show producers, musicians, comic book artists; people who aim to grab the audience's attention and give them one, specific, received experience (a song, a television episode, a comic book) to be taken in from beginning to end, connecting directly with the audience in a binary dialogue of entertainer-to-entertained. The game designer as entertainer aims to craft a specific, uniformly-expressed game that is tuned for optimal entertainment value, at the cost of any plasticity in the experience. The designer as entertainer is making a singular piece of entertainment that will be experienced in essentially an identical way by anyone who plays it, and aims to make that one, contained experience as enjoyable as possible.
Prime examples of games that have come out of the designer-as-entertainer mindset are Half-Life 2, God of War, Splinter Cell, Resident Evil 4, Doom 3, Killer7, and the Monolith games I've gone on about, like No One Lives Forever/2, F.E.A.R., and Condemned: Criminal Origins. Square's RPGs, such as the later Final Fantasy games also arise from the entertainer's mindset. Besides the fact they they've become more and more linear and restrictive as the series has progressed (see FFX's lack of worldmap,) they've always focused on very structured, immutable stories that dictate the player's progression, and game mechanics that restrict player freedom beyond the very lowest level of equipment loadout and party-building. FF's designers, despite the difference in format from the other games in this category, are focused on crafting a very specific narrative experience with each installment of the series, and allowing the player to step through it as the designer intends. Though some players may see more or less of the overall world than others depending on how much time they put into it, this isn't a question of magnitude. The story, progression, and abiding experience of, say, Final Fantasy 7 is identical for everyone who plays through it.
That's the basis of the Entertainer role. The focus is on the audience playing out the intent of the designer, not the intent of the player. This does restrict player choice and expressiveness, but it also allows a deliberate dialogue from the designer to the player. It's a one-way dialogue, but in a gameworld where the experience is dictated outright, the designer can speak directly to the player, since he knows exactly what the player will be experiencing and when. The designer as entertainer has a greater ability to employ his own voice, to express his intent directly to the player, than a designer in any other role. This can be very powerful.

I'm going to break these entries into a series, since this is starting to get long. Up next is Designer as Watchmaker.




When I was younger--high school age I guess-- if I could have chosen only one superpower to have, it would have been to be invisible. I could spy on people, see what they were really like, go anywhere without being caught, hang around naked girls, sneak into places that are normally off limits, get free admission to concerts, movies, ride on planes for free, whatever.

I'd have a different superpower now, if I could choose. It would be the power to never have to sleep. For a superpower, it's pretty mundane, but I would love it. There are too many things I want the time to do. I want to play lots of different video games, including old ones I've never had a chance to replay, read books I have backlogged in a stack by my bed, spend time with Rachel, work on my level design stuff, write, and also I have to go to work. I already stay up too late and don't give myself enough sleep, but needing absolute zero sleep--awake 24 hours a day, 8760 hours a year... That would be awesome.




I've been doing some thinking and I've come up with a theory.

When Will Wright gets older, he needs to grow a big, white wizard beard. The evidence follows.

Wright before beard:

Wright after beard.

Add a pointy purple wizard hat and a robe to the equation and Wright is basically unstoppable. I'd show you just how powerful that would be, but at this point I want the beard to stand on its own two feet. I'm being scientific about it. If reaction to the beard alone is strong enough, the robe and hat may follow. A wand is not completely out of the question, nor is a dragon at his side as a familiar.

Why does Wright need the big, white wizard beard? I think the answer to that is fairly self-evident. For those of you still unconvinced (unlikely, I know):



I hope that we can all rally together on this important topic.




I saw this game at CompUSA the other day and found the cover to be sort of sad/funny.

Check out the main dude! NO-LOOK SHOT! I bet like 30 Nazis are dying offscreen at that exact moment. It's a pretty weak cover, nonsense and all, but I can perfectly imagine the decision-making process that led to it: The original version of the cover was just the main dude carrying his injured buddy to safety. It spoke of cameraderie, desperation, fortitude... brothers in arms! But then the marketing people saw it. This is a game about shooting, right? People who want to shoot guns aren't going to buy this game if they just see a cover with a main dude on it who totally isn't shooting a gun. It's cool, you don't have to change the whole thing, just put a muzzle flash right about... here... done! Perfect! TOTALLY MAKES SENSE, I LOVE IT! Good work guys, good work.

Video games are stupid.




My experiences at GDC stirred up a lot of my own thought on game design, and what I think I know about it, and the directions that progressive game design are going. I'm talking about the functional-academic stuff you've heard of, like agency, emergence, intentionality, affordance; the kind of thought on game design that grew out of the Looking Glass school, and has been picked up by the guys at Ubisoft, if Friday at GDC was any indicator. The train of thought I'm on right now has come from the points made by Clint Hocking and Patrice Desilets at the conference, and reading I've done since by the Smiths, Doug Church, Matt LeBlanc, et al.

Here's the foundation of the progressive school of game design (as I've termed it,) as far as I understand: to create a single-player, character-focused video game is to place the player in a world which is populated by a variety of discrete affordances, each with its own distinct set of significant properties. Through his own judgement, the player deciphers the possible relationships between these affordances based on their properties, and forms intent based upon this range of perceived possibilities, defining his own hypothetical paths to the goals either imposed by the game's designer or created by the player. When the player follows through on this intent by manipulating the affordances in the world, he has acted upon his own intentionality; when a chance interaction between affordances results in a dynamic outcome unforseen by the player, they have experienced an emergent behavior, which may subsequently become an element of their strategy in approaching the gameworld. Gameplay becomes an extension of the scientific method. The player is placed into an unfamiliar space, and learns how best to navigate it by using observation, experimentation, trial and error. An effective game designer from the progressive school successfully creates and arranges the affordances in the world to provide the player with maximum functional agency to address the conflicts in the gameworld using his own judgement and creativity.

What does this translate to, in practice?

Ideally, it allows the player to address ingame obstacles in ways that the designer didn't specifically plan, and possibly never foresaw. In many games, the designer dictates both the "what" and the "how" (What: a locked door that blocks progression; How: the door requires the yellow keycard.) A successful progressive designer only dictates the "whats," which lead to a natural accumulation of "hows" (What: a locked door that blocks progression; weapons; enemies; robots; a keycard; lockpicks; special player abilities; bot control base station; How: the door may be unlocked with the yellow keycard, blown down with an explosion, picked with a special tool, or bypassed entirely by discovering a hidden route. Explosion option: An explosion of necessary magnitude can be created with a remote-detonation explosive charge, a proximity detector explosive charge, a rocket launcher, by detonating an explosive canister, or by detonating a damaged robot. Robot option: a robot can be detonated by draining its HP with straightforward attacks; hacking its control base and ordering it to self destruct; or setting it to a stunned state and hitting it with a single attack. Stun option: a robot can be put into stun state by hitting it with an EMP grenade, or by taking remote control of it and then exiting remote control, at which point it will be stunned briefly. Hereby, if the player has been observing the robot and door's properties, he knows that, while one bullet cannot destroy the door directly, he has the option of remotely controlling the bot, navigating it to the door, releasing its control, then hitting it with one bullet, causing it to detonate and breach the door. This is one of the classically cited examples of intentional play. On the other hand, maybe as the player is examining the door, he is discovered by the patrolling robot, engages it in combat, and happens to destroy it as it stands next to the door, breaching the obstacle and clearing his path. This is an example of an emergent occurence.)

It's worth mentioning that, in the above example, the player still has the option of approaching the stated obstacle the same way they would in the game that offered only a binary interaction. They can still search for the yellow keycard and use it to open the door. The hallmark of progressive design is the unspoken presence of any number of alternative approaches. And, as above, the most often-cited examples of progressive design are always extremely complex, and only the rarest of players will ever actually perform them unprompted. The beauty of the progressive design approach is that creating the conditions for such a solution is much less complex than the solution itself. The designer doesn't need to predict every possible solution and design it in specifically, but only populate the world with independent affordances that bear the necessary properties for that solution to occur. The key is to create only affordances which have significant relationships to one another and to the gameworld. Each affordance should be capable of affecting any other affordance it might come into contact with in at least one significant way; no affordance must be an island.

So, successful progressive game design presents the player with a series of challenges, and then provides them with a variety of pieces to build their own solutions, simple or complex, to these challenges. The solution can be as complex as turning a key in a lock, or simple as a Rube Goldberg device.

Character-based games on the opposite end of this spectrum--those linear, restrictive, or closed in nature-- are derided as too simple. Chris Crawford: "Explosions may be sexy, but as an intent, it turns the player into a trigger." But it's not the explosion, or the trigger that is the problem. It's what happens between those two concepts, or more accurately, what can happen, that is important. "To create an explosion" is in no way an invalid intent, and no matter how many elements lie between the player and the explosion, the player still fills the role of trigger. Like setting off a chain of dominoes or engaging a Goldberg device, the player is always the trigger; a successful progressive game design allows the player to choose and set up the dominoes himself, before knocking them over.

I think the major impediment to this school of design is the human factor. For a progressive game design's domino effect to work, all affordances must behave in a systematic, predictable way--a player can only employ his perceived agency effectively if all affordances perform in a manner consistent with his expectations. Since all games that have come from this school revolve around individual-level interactions between living characters, humans in the gameworld necessarily become affordances, and must also act in a systematic, predictable way. This obviously runs counter to our own lifetime of experiences interacting with other people; they don't all act the same, nor do they consistently react the same way to the same stimuli. I think that this objectifies humanity to serve the game's systems, to the detriment of the entire endeavor's sense of believeability. How can believeable humans--believeable in large part because of their unpredictable nature--exist in a system that demands they act in a predictable way? This is one of the primary conceits of video games now--that people have a limited set of possible reactions to a limited set of possible stimuli, and that their reaction to any given stimulus will always be reliably predictable. It's a limitation of AI technology, and of content creation--an AI can't be expected to respond believably and dynamically to every possible stimulus, nor can the game's development team be expected to include voice samples and animations to account for every possible situation. If the goal of progressive level design is to create a more dynamic, less linear, more natural, more believable gamespace for the player to inhabit, I think that the complexity of human behavior as a viable affordance is the next major obstacle. It's worth attempting to tackle, and many games have devised convincing ways to mask their AI's limitations, most often by restricting the scope of situations in which the player encounters other people to binary, life-or-death hostile conflicts, or by restricting the options that the player has in addressing other humans. Even within the most effectively crafted system of inanimate affordances, I wonder if there is any way to break out of the inherent artificiality of the game experience without actually bringing other, real human beings into the play. I wonder if the logical endpoint towards which the progressive school of game design strives is achievable in a single player setting. Again, not that it isn't worth striving for-- the steps along the way are very entertaining. But realistically, is this approach to game design a dead end? Or am I just extrapolating it out too far?

I guess that's the nature of the progressive school. It's the most interesting and rewarding segment of the current game design dialogue, but also perhaps the most problematic. It is the school that is essentially trying to work against the nature of single player games as they currently stand. They directly oppose the design philosophy of some of the games I love most, such as the Monolith titles I cited a couple posts down. That type of game, that aims to give the player a specific received experience, is a completely different beast-- largely linear, extremely focused, and essentially identical for each player who experiences it. It is almost entirely author-focused, which is an extremely conservative, if not outright outdated, design philosophy considering the current climate. Is it a contradiction to find them more enjoyable than their more progressive alternatives, then? Is it because they're "easier," conceptually? Is it because they're more movie-like, more passive, more directed than titles from the progressive school? I suppose my own preferences really says more about the player than the product.

If you ask me, the ongoing functional-academic dialogue among the progressive school is the most interesting avenue of game design theory going... Maybe I'm just not convinced that it's always the most fun. But perhaps it's precisely that oversimplified, assumed goal of "fun" that these games are trying to progress beyond.




I've put about 40 hours into Oblivion at this point. During all the pre-release hype, I never had the intention of buying it. I skimmed a few previews and saw the huge anticipatory buzz in the Games forum, but I hated Morrowind, so its sequel didn't appeal to me. I've been fooled enough times by sequels, or the promises of an author/director/studio's latest work, to know that if I didn't like the first title in a series I should tread extremely carefully when considering its successor. Morrowind was a really dry, empty game. You spent most of it walking across desolate, unpopulated wastelands. When you came to a town, the majority of inhabitants were robotic, all sharing the exact same dialogue trees and standing in place. I can't remember a quest I took on that wasn't a fedex. I'd come across a random cave in the landscape, go inside, and be killed instantly by level 30 ghosts. My Morrowind experience ended relatively quickly.

Oblivion is quite the opposite. The world is lush and densely packed with towns, dungeons, inns, countryside manors, abandoned daedric temples, and the Oblivion gates. Besides the limited number of Rumor dialogues in each area, every NPC has their own unique set of dialogue, all of it voiced aloud. Enemies in any given location scale to your level, providing a challenge that is evenly proportionate across the entire game. Navigation is no longer entirely in real-time, as you can travel instantly from any major location to another, and the location of your next quest goal is always marked on your map. And the quests are now the best part of the game. Since interminable traveling or wandering is no longer a valid delaying action as it was in Morrowind, the length of each quest is extended by adding twist after twist to the main objective. Something as simple as "retrieve the book that so-and-so has" can be twisted into a five- or ten-step quest involving questioning people around town, infiltrating a castle prison, finding a secret passage, fighting vampires, aiding the escape of a convict, fleeing the city, then sneaking back in to finally retrieve your goal. Almost all of the quests are like this, turning into something you never could have predicted from the initial description, and it makes them greatly engaging, a series of fun little stories to play out. It's the best questing I think I've ever done in an RPG.

I'm playing as a thief and assassin, which makes security one of my primary skills. Breaking, entering and stealing can be really satisfying, but the functional game systems they have in place to play out lockpicking and pickpocketing mar the experience to some extent. Essentially, they encourage the player to save immediately before each sneaking/stealing attempt and jam on quickload upon failure.This is lame in an of itself, but from a logical standpoint it's also bad-- anything that occurs between quicksave and quickload never happened in the gameworld, meaning that all those failed attempts don't have any impact on the player or the gameworld. When a level 1 thief quickloads 30 times while trying to steal an elven broadsword off the count of Cheydenhal before succeeding, from the gameworld's point of view, it's as if he succeeded on the first try. Functionally, a level 1 thief can clear any obstacle in the game with no repercussions if they're persistent enough on the F9 button. This is a broken system.

How pickpocketing (PP) works in Morrowind: The player enters stealth mode, approaches an NPC, and right-clicks to enter the NPC's inventory. When clicking on an item therein, the player either successfully receives the item, or the inventory window closes, the NPC goes aggro, and the player's bounty amount rises. This is a binary success/failure system, which the player can instantly reset by quickloading. Since the penalty for failure is much more trouble than it's worth (especially since a thief loses all stolen items in his inventory when nabbed by the guards) the player will always quickload.

What needs to change: PP shouldn't be binary. Instead: if a player is unseen by any NPC during their PP attempt, failure never results in being caught. Instead, failing simply closes the NPC's inventory window, and PP can't be attempted for five seconds. Chance of success is a percentage based on the following factors: PC's security skill, mass of item being stolen, and relative gulf between PC and NPC's character levels. Hereby, a level 1 player with 20 security skill attempting to steal the elven broadsword off the level 25 count of Cheydenhal might have a 1.2% chance of success. Since the player would have to wait five seconds between each attempt, the penalty is the player's own time investment, which could be major. Most likely, the player will give up after his 20th try, functionally making the overall PP attempt a failure without directly punishing the player (and prompting a quickload.) Of course, with enough persistence/luck the level 1 player could eventually be successful, but this success would be earned through the player's (and thereby the PC's) time investment.

Also, as no failed attempt would be detected when the PC was unseen by NPCs, any failed attempt would be detected when the PC was seen by NPCs. Because of the five-second wait between each opening of the inventory window, the player with a low success rate would have to monitor whether they had been spotted between each attempt before trying again. On the other hand, no successful PP attempt will ever be detected, whether they PC is in an NPC's sight or not. So while an unskilled thief would have to follow their target to an isolated area and be sure no one would be around for a while to guarantee a successful theft, a top-level thief could walk down a crowded street stealing people's coinpurses and jewelry without worry, knowing that they had an extremely high chance of every one of their attempts being successful. This entire system would work better from the standpoint of game logic, and be more satisfying for the player from a play standpoint.

How lockpicking (LP) works currently: The player buys lockpicks from a thieves guild or assassins guild rep. Upon encountering a locked door, they enter a lockpicking minigame, in which the player much manipulate each tumbler of the lock, then click it into place at just the right moment. Once all tumblers in the lock (more or less depending on difficulty) are raised, the door opens. The game is paused the entire time this minigame is played. If the player is seen when initially attempting to pick the lock, they will be pursued by a guard. When the player fails to click a tumbler in at the proper moment, their pick breaks, drawing from their total supply of picks. When the player runs out of picks, they cannot proceed.

Since picks are a limited commodity, this setup encourages the player to quicksave before approaching a lock, then quickload if they waste too many lockpicks. If the player is not seen before approaching the lock, they can spend as much time as they want in the LP minigame, meaning that the speed of cracking the lock has no value, counter to what one might expect.

To this end, picks should not be expendable. A lockpick is a single tool which has durability like any other piece of equipment. The player can buy or find better quality (more effective) lockpick kits over the course of the game. The player's LP skill is determined by the following factors: his security skill, the quality of LP kit he's using, the condition (current durability) of his pick, and the relative difficulty level assigned to the lock in question. The LP skill, then, functionally determines the window of opportunity that the player has to click each tumbler into place. For instance, a level 1 player with a level 1 pick against a level 10 lock may have .1 second to successfully click a tumbler into place. If there are five tumblers, and missing your click on any given tumbler can undo another tumbler you've already successfully raised, the likelihood of success, and likely time investment required by the level 1 player to successfully raise all tumblers consecutively, becomes daunting, while still possible. On the other hand, a level 40 player with a level 10 pick against a level 2 lock might have one or two seconds in which to click the tumbler in, making the opening of this lock an elementary endeavor that could take less than a second or two to pass.

Another factor here is that the game does not pause while the LP interface is overlaid. So, if the locked door is in a patrolled zone, opening it as quickly as possible is to the player's advantage, lest the patrolling guard return to the area and spot the player in mid-LP. This would be another functional advantage for the skilled player, and another factor discouraging the low-level player from attempting a lock that's out of his league, which would greatly increase the likelihood of being caught by the guards. One situation that would be greatly satisfying to the player under this system: say the front door to a jewelry shop sports a level 20 lock with five tumblers, and a guard walks from one end of the block to the other, leaving only five seconds for the player to manipulate the lock unseen. At first approach as level 1, the player has almost no chance of successfully entering the shop, since breach such a disproportionately leveled lock will almost certainly take much longer than five seconds. However, upon returning to the lock after significantly leveling up, the door becomes passable in only a couple of seconds, allowing the player easy access to territory they were earlier denied. Very cool, and makes the player feel like a badass.

In both of these cases, the proposed game system more accurately simulates its real world counterpart, and completely invalidates the quickload button as a valid strategy. These changes would make the thief career track much more satisfying for the player, and allow greater opportunities for obstacle design and balance for the developer.





A quick update: The map file has gone up on FilePlanet and can be found here. It's the newest version, so even if you've tried a beta with me, please download from FilePlanet and rate the map honestly :-) I am hoping this will do well in the contest. Thanks!




[FAIR WARNING: this entry has not been edited for typos or bad wording whatsoever because it's 2:15 am and I'm going to bed. Sorry!]

Last night, I downloaded the PC demo of Condemned: Criminal Origins. I've played through it twice, and it was intensely entertaining. I am really looking forward to its retail release next week. But playing the demo, and seeing how fun and well-constructed it was made me think: is Monolith my favorite contemporary game developer?

I'm not the kind to pick favorites when it comes to media. I couldn't tell you what my favorite movie or favorite album or favorite band or favorite writer or artists or video game of all time was. Broad categories? Top 10 lists? Sure. But I'm not defined by my number one favorite things of all time. I think that I find so many different aspects of any potential favorite exciting in their own unique ways that I have trouble picking just one that personally trumps all.

But, playing the Condemned demo, and realizing how much I enjoyed it, and then thinking back on FEAR, and No One Lives Forever 2, and the original NOLF... it just made me wonder, what other studio can I say that I like more than the Lith? I'll just address studios as they come to me, stream of consciousness style. Valve? No. I didn't really like Half-Life 2 that much, and I don't remember much about HL1. BioWare? I didn't like Baldur's Gate or really anything they've done besides KOTOR. Oh, and defunct outfits are out of the running, so Bullfrog and LEC (not to be confused with contemporary Lucasarts) don't even qualify. Speaking of which, Double Fine? Full Throttle may be one of my favorite games, but brand loyalty doesn't necessarily extend 10 years forward. I thought Psychonauts was okay but not the best game ever or anything. Maxis? I've been playing Sim games ever since I was still learning to read, but no, they don't really grab me. Kojima Productions? Well, two out of three ain't bad, but I'm just not in love with Snake, good as MGS1 and 3 were. Irrational? Well, getting closer... between System Shock 2, Freedom Force, and SWAT 4, they've really impressed me. Ken Levine seems to have his shit together. But somehow Irrational doesn't quite manage to get me riled up. Rockstar? Closer, perhaps... the GTA series is undeniable, plus The Warriors was one of my favorite games of the past few years, and Bully looks promising... but Manhunt was pretty weak, and maybe I just have that indie band "aww they sold out and now everybody likes them," too-big-to-love thing going on, but somehow Rockstar just doesn't tug at my heartstrings. Ubisoft's Montreal studio is definitely in the running-- between Splinter Cell, Sands of Time, and the upcoming Project Assassins which I saw demoed at GDC, I've had some of my favorite recent gaming experiences with them.

But there's just something about the Lith. I think partly it is that indie band thing, a bunch of dudes getting their shit together, doing their own thing, keeping it on a kind of small scale. Monolith isn't huge like Ubi, and they don't have four different studios in three different countries like Rockstar. They're just chillin up in Kirkland Washington, holding down the fort, making game after game. I like that they cater to the PC audience, despite market indicators staring them in the face-- they make FPS, damn it, and FPS has always equalled PC. They keep it old school, releasing dedicated Linux server versions of their games. They push the graphical envelope. They do the nerdcore thing, like all the command line and IT geek nomenclature in Tron 2.0 . They have a stable of characters that just refuse to be denied-- I'm talking about NOLF's Cate Archer and Magnus Armstrong here, mostly, but damn it, the whole cast of the NOLF series is so well characterized and written that they easily carry enough cred for the whole studio. But I think the main thing to me, besides the fundamentals of making well-crafted and entertaining games, is the stories they choose to create. I love their campiness, their pulpiness, their lack of self-consciousness. They made a 60's parody spy thriller starring a no-nonsense female lead. They made a hardcore, in-depth trek into how Tron works. They made a game about genome soldiers and slow-motion and supernatural powers and didn't give a fuck. And I just played the demo, twice, for a game where a desperate FBI agent trawls the rotten underside of some derelict city for a psychotic serial killer, smashing the teeth out of wild-eyed junkies with 2x4's and lead pipes the entire way. It's campy, it's trashy, it's fucking PULP, and it's absolutely wonderful.

I love pulp. I love hardboiled detectives and absurd urban fantasies. I love self-indulgent, ridiculous entertainment that refuses to apologize for itself. I love sensationalist, raw, visceral shit, like smashing a beer battle against a cop's face in slow motion in The Warriors, or slow motion bicycle kicking a cloned supersoldier in FEAR. If a game, or a book, or a movie can touch me and be meaningful to me, then that's a different story. That's a completely separate level of appreciation. What I love about pulp, and what Monolith does in that regard, is that it's the product of people who are just out to give people a wild experience for the sake of entertainment, no holds barred, because they're not embarassed to admit they this ridiculous, sensationalist, over-the-top shit just plain kicks ass. Fun for fun's sake. Pulp for pulp's sake. Refusing to take yourself seriously. Some of my personal philosophy is bleeding over into my thoughts on Lith here, but that's okay. Monolith isn't revolutionary; they aren't on the cutting edge of game design philosophy (intentionality, affordances, emergence, etc.) What they do is give the player one single experience, wonderfully fleshed out and full of its own very focused sort of life, and then move on. I believe that Lith is in the business of creating discrete experiences for the player to receive, and though it's certainly not the future of the medium, it's something that I personally enjoy more than about any other kind of game, and I love the style that Monolith brings to it.

So yeah, they're probably my favorite developer going right now.





I do believe I've finished Residential Evil for good. I fussed around with the last little bits (adding ambient sound, placing the Slow Mo object, tweaking lights [more], moving the powerups around a bit) and I'm calling it complete. Good to go. Ready to ship.

So I'm going to sit on it for a few more days and see if anything else pops to mind. But as of now I have a zip file on my drive that I'm planning to submit to the FEAR contest, and barring any crazy mishaps, I'll be submitting it well before the due date. Sweet.

Stay tuned.

Actually, I freaked out and just submitted it as-is. Check out FilePlanet in the coming days to see it up for download.