Monday, December 29, 2008

The Definitive Gameplay Theory

I touched on this one one of my previous posts, and decided it was worth expanding into a whole thread dedicated to the subject: what makes a good game? This seems to be the gold nuggets that every developer and publisher strives to achieve, and few actually reach. Numerous, more experienced developers have written loads on this subject, and since the notion of gameplay and game design is clearly very close to my heart, I'm taking on the mantle of taking these lofty notions of theme, gameplay, and story and boiling it down to its most distilled essence.

Pure, unadulterated game design theory for the masses.

So, with that said, the first, and arguably most important, aspect of game development is gameplay. Good or even great gameplay will allow developers to slip in other areas (art, sound, story, etc.), because gamers won't really care about anything else. If the game is fun to play, then the game will sell.

Which leads me to my first theory of game design, The Definitive Gameplay Theory, which states: If the play experience provided by the game is clear, specific and refined, the gameplay is definitive and therefore desired.

The definitive theory is observable in numerous games of all stripes. Since games as entertainment have existed since antiquity, it has been the games that fullfilled the three criteria of the Definitive Gameplay Theory (Chess, Go, Backgammon) that we still play and enjoy today.

But with the speed of development, use and discard of games these days, the Definitive Gameplay Theory illustrates how the best games on a year to year basis achieve immortality. So, to illustrate: let's look at three great games to come out in the last five years and see if the Theory can be put to the test:

Tetris: the epitome of the theory. It doesn't get more clear, concise and refined as using random geometric shapes to balance between building and eliminating an ever growing base of fallen pieces. The game is simple, elegant, and definitive.

Grand Theft Auto Series: while the GTA series has always been linked to its gangster storylines, the gameplay has always been built around a huge open world as the primary focus. Since the days of the P200 GTA that shipped on 3.5" Floppys as shareware, the GTA series has always pushed the envelope when it came to content, whether it be controversial dialog or technological with it's massive cityscapes.

Final Fantasy Series: Classic Final Fantasy has always centered around turn-based combat. The RPG elements are there to lend depth and control to the player, but in the end, it's turn-based gameplay writ large. By following a stream of menus, the players perform the functions needed to play the game. Based on the original Ultima series (which, in turn, was based on Dungeons and Dragons), Final Fantasy core gameplay is easy to use and get into, thus, making it accessible to play.

So, how does this translate into making a good game? It means the best developers pick one (at most, two) core gameplay features and ensure that they permeate the entire game experience, polishing them to a high sheen and ensures that they are essential to the entire game. These features are typically genre defining conventions, and often are technologically driven to differentiate the new game from previous, current or future competitors. Limiting innovations to one or two features ensures that these gameplay crucial features recieve the time and attention needed to polish them to a high sheen.

Too often, as been my experience, developers and publishers alike push for more and more features, expecting that the shotgun effect - throw in as many features as possible and hope something sticks (something I call the 'Network TV Casting Effect'). The games that sell the best aren't a shotgun but a laser beam.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Civilization: Colonization

I'm an absolute whore for the Civilization series, and whenever a new expansion back comes out, I'm usually the first to go pick it up and play it.

I loved the original boardgame, but the series didn't really sink it's hooks into me until Civ II. I missed the first because, well, I didn't own a PC - I had a sexy Apple IIe (with 2, count em, 2 5 1/4 floppy disk drives). But, in college, two games caused me to loose a lot of sleep: Frontpage Sports Football and Civilization II.

So, when Civ III came out, and by that time, I had graduated school and gotten married, I jumped in with two hands and head firmly ready for some rewriting of history. What I got with CivIII was a overly complex mess. Too many resources muddled down exploration and forced civilizations to place more cities in play to gather critical resources. Example: saltpeter is required for making gunpowder in the real world, but its inclusion in the game made it one of the most useful early resource in the game, without it, no gunpowder, no musketry, and domination by an opposing civilization.

Anyway, I digress, Civ III left a bad taste in my mouth, but when I heard more and more about Civ IV, I sighed in relief. Not only did they simplify the game after the twisted mess of Civ III, they made the game far more maliable and moddable. After Civ IV, and it's outstanding mod, Rhyes and Fall of Civilization, I was hooked again. So, when they released Civ: Colonization, I knew I had to get it because there was finally a game that combined two of my obsessions: The Era of Exploration and Video Games.

So, the game, its outstanding. Of course, it requires some micromanagement (it wouldn't be a Civ game without it) and the game is sufficently challenging, even on the easier difficulty levels. If you enjoy the Civilization series, you can't go wrong with Colonization. That being said, the game is ugly. Civilization has never been a gorgeous game, but Colonizations UI palette is horrible - a real step backwards.

So, if you need me, I'll be attempting to break the subjegation from my Imperious ruler.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Everyone is working for the weekend

Well, my working has encompassed the following:

- Getting my Aunt's stereo hooked up: She's got her house wired for sound, but is a complete neophyte when it comes to technology, so I spent the morning getting all of the various channels hooked up. Small price to pay since she is letting me stay with her, rent free, until Gina and I can find a house up here in Tulsa. Long story short, the stereo is hooked up, sounds great, and over Christmas, Christmas tunes can be blared throughout the house. Ho Ho Ho.

- Laundry: Not much to say about that; its laundry, if you're interested in how I do my chores, well, you need to get away from the computer a bit, constant reader.

- Ace Combat 6: I know this is from the "About frakin' time" pile, but I wanted a new game to kill time over the weekends for my 360 and didn't want to drop a hundred bucks on the new Guitar Hero World Tour Guitar-only kit. The game is gorgeous. The dialog is unbelievably funny. Not just a little funny with wonky translations, its as if someone just took the Japanese dialog and literally translated it into English. Why don't these Japanese companies hire English writers to clean up (or, rather, nuance up) their literal translations into a more fluid text.

Right now, I tune out of the in-game dialog and skip the cut scenes. The narration and dialog irritates me as a writer.

So, to summarize: the game is fun to play, gorgeous to look at, but skip the cut scenes, you'll thank me later.

I'm heading home for Christmas on the 23rd. I'll try to post from home, and maybe get a picture or two from the family posted as well.

If I don't post before then: Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Left 4 Dead

I was absolutely not surprised when Left 4 Dead released and it wound up being an absolute gorgeous marriage of technology and design.

For those that say games aren't art, I would gladly offer up Left 4 Dead to refute those claims, particularly if playing online with a group of friends. The claustrophobia of some of the levels, with their sparse lighting and narrow confines makes the sound of the shuffling undead and the dreaded super zombies that much more terrifying. The game provides emotional moments, both funny and terrifying, so if that doesn't qualify as art, then I don't know what does.

Which leads me to a little commentary: I've worked at three studios thus far. Two of them thought very highly of themselves, trying to make something greater than themselves. One succeeded on their first attempt, and has never been able to recapture their former glory. One has consistently put out product on time, under budget, creating one of the bigger sex symbols of the PS2/Xbox generation of games.

After admiring L4D, I now understand why both companies have never reached those heights again: neither of them had the strength of design (or testicular fortitude) to pick one or two really solid game concepts, polish them to a diamond sheen and base the entirety of the game around it. But take the concept of zombie horror movies as a central theme, and in terms of game design, build the entire game around required multiplayer support (both cooperative and adversarial) and a dynamically scaling AI that you have this game. No fancy physics mechanics. No flashy quick-press sequences (looking at you God Of War) . Combat is surprisingly simple, but incredibly addictive; nothing beats blasting brainless zombie hordes and dealing with crafty super zombies.

This has really been the year of creative games - and unfortunately, sales have just not been that strong (perhaps, due to the economy). Some excellent new IPs came out this year: Dead Space, GRID, Bloom Blox, Sins of a Solar Empire. And what I've noticed between the really good games (new IP or no) and the medicore games is that the medicore games either try to do too much (too many good ideas, not enough time to polish them all).

Hardcore players appreciate a polished experience and are willing to forgive depth if the game is fun. L4D is definitely NOT deep, but it is a lot of fun.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Musings on Casual Design

So, I've been thinking a lot about casual games and casual game design. By and large, classic arcade games (Pac Man, Asteroids, Centipede, etc) are pretty close to the epitome of casual games for the following reasons:

1) By and large, can be played and enjoyed in less than ten minutes
2) Simple controls mean instant awareness and gameplay capabilities
3) Bright colors and simple interface make initial learning curve extremely shallow

Now, I mentioned that they are close to the epitome, and in one level, they are not, their difficulty. The classic arcade games could be devilishly hard, and justifiably so: if folks didn't plop in their quarters, the game wasn't making any money, and defeated the purpose of the arcade game.

Which brings me to Casual Games, everyone knows that Casual Games need to be:
1) accessible: if someone can't pick up and begin playing the game within a short amount of time (5 minutes), then your game is not casual.
2) easy to understand interface: if someone can't make heads or tails of the game within the first two minutes, your game isn't accessible to a casual market.
3) shallow initial learning curve: if someone can't potentially be successful in the game within the first life, your game isn't accessible to a casual market.
4) short, sweet experience: if it takes more than 10 minutes to have a meaningful gameplay experience, your game isn't accessible to a casual market.

But what about depth?

Interesting question, casual games can have incredible depth. Reversi (I had a copy when it was known as Othello) an outstanding casual game. The rules are incredibly easy, the game board simple, its easy to learn the rules, and can be played by just about everyone. Reversi also has an incredible depth of strategy, maximizing your points while minimizing someone elses.

After working on games that predominantly skew toward gamers familiar with the conventions of video and computer games, I find the thought of designing casual games an interesting mental exercise.

Curious Silence

Dear Old Friend,

Two years ago, you helped me get a job down in your home town. It wasn't without some irony that I was the one that encouraged you to get the job you know hold, and now you were working to get me a job at the same company.

Up until that point, our closest point of contact was email. We'd met in chat rooms, communicated via ICQ and later MSN Messenger. We'd put our collective creativity together several times with great results. We communicated well, and on more than one occasion, had a clarity of creative vision that had not experienced with another person before. So, in working with you directly, I was expecting that sort of collaboration once again.

And it all started out very well. I should have seen the warning signs within the first few weeks, but I convinced myself it would get better. I could feel an undercurrent of fear, that questioning decisions made by some in management would either be seen as insubordination or grounds for termination. I even mentioned it at one point when we went out for lunch, to which I respond "Well, not at this point, but I certainly feel the undercurrents that I could be fired unless I fell into line even if I feel the decisions are bad."

It wasn't for another 8 or 9 months that the reality of the situation really presented itself. And when I was let go, I certainly was surprised, but to be honest, it was not unexpected. I was already looking around, and within a week, I had two phone interviews, within 2 weeks, I had my first onsite interview, and within 3 weeks, my first offer, and within a month, 2 offers, and another two onsite interviews planned. I've since moved on, and I wouldn't have had the opportunity I have now had it not been for your hardwork in getting me that job, so thank you!

The petty side of me is finding satisfaction that many of my major warnings are finally being heeded, after being proven in code that they were indeed bad ideas. I lament the fact that it took several months to illustrate just how bad those ideas were, particularly in how little time there was in the schedule for error, and that no one else had the balls or the conviction that push back with me, particularly when folks around the table knew they were bad ideas and that it was a waste of time. Which only serves to reinforce my opinion of the undercurrents in that company.

I made several good friends who I would gladly work with again down there, and I worked with others that, I can honestly say, that I would actively discourage others from working with, and would point people elsewhere who ask me about joining that company. I've already been asked my opinion by several folks getting ready to get out of school and I told them to look elsewhere or be ready to move on after the project ships.

There are great people there, but there are also...somewhat gifted amateurs...and the worst thing is: the benefits are terrible. For such a large company, the health benefits are a joke, the relocation package are laughable, and despite all of the rah-rah from management, nothing is done to keep morale up. And it's down, really down. Even in my first project, where we crunched for six months, Morale was never bad there as it is in that office. I'd expect that most of the folks that are working there that have worked elsewhere will leave as soon as the project goes gold, assuming it reaches that state. Not a commentary on the state of the project, mind you, but I've worked on enough projects to know that nothing is certain until it goes out for duplication.

But, you know, there is one discouraging thing that continues to haunt me to this day: your silence since the day I was let go. No email. No MSN. No XBL Voice or Text. Nothing. Silence. My email hasn't changed - I know you have it somewhere. My instant message capabilities have not diminished or changed.

That hurts, and I thought we were friends enough to not let something like this come between us. But, it looks like I was wrong.

So, I'm writing this as some catharsis (funny how that works here on a Blog). I don't think you'll ever read it unless one of our mutual friends points you to this humble bit of cyberjunk. I just want you to know I don't blame you. It didn't work out, and I likely hung myself by pushing for many things that was against managements wishes (and, as it turns out, I was right, and given the circumstances, I will say this: I told you so!), but believe me when I say: I was already looking to leave, and my dismissal simply showed me the door.

I will close with two things:
1) I learned a lot in my time there (see my previous posts), and feel I have grown a lot as a Game Designer.
2) I hope you move on at some point and see how other companies do things. I told those to many of folks down there, particularly those who were new to the industry and that was their first job. The company doesn't do a lot of things right, in fact, I can count on one hand the number of things they do right, and you and everyone else that has not worked elsewhere would be better served seeing how other companies do things.

I'll be the one that breaks the silence, and I'll likely point you at my blog so you can read this so I don't have to write it again.

Talk to you soon.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Frak the Weather

Well, it looks like the travel snafu in Chicago has meant that my wife won't be flying in tonight, and instead, flying in this morning.

So much for a wonderful night together, spent in orgasmic bliss.

Frak me.

Frak the Weather.

Frak its cold

We had a high here in Tulsa of 19 degrees yesterday, and expecting a high of 30 today.

19! 30!

And what is the high supposed to be on Friday? 60! In the span of four days, we're going from deep winter to midfall temperatures. Warm, Cold, Warm, Cold. My balls can't take much more of this!

The house hunt continues; the best news is how much response my wife has gotten from nearby hospitals and doctors doing research who need a CCRC (Certified Clinical Research Coordinator, for the layman), as well as an RN.

Considering that we see her going back to work as a good thing both financially and socially, since Max will have to be enrolled in school or daycare, it's a win win.

On the house searching has been narrowed down to five or six homes, and, well, my Mom has volunteered to come down to Houston and watch the boy so Gina can come up here and interview as well as experience the cold icy embrace of northeastern Oklahoma.

Did I mention I haven't seen her since Thanksgiving.

It will be epic. Simply Epic.

Monday, December 15, 2008

...and the Vault Dweller lives on now, but only in memory...

So, I played through Bethesda's Magnum Opus Fallout 3 (with props out to Josh, Phil and Nate). I was a huge fan of the original Fallout series, and had long hoped that the pixelated violence and quirky sense of humor would be accurately replicated in this latest entry in this series.

The more I played it, the more I realized that the game is exquisitely written, but there was something missing in terms of the campaign. It wasn't that the game was too short, quite the contrary, the campaign was satisfyingly long with plenty of content and colorful characters. The problem I had was that the speed at which I gained XP far outpaced my participation in quests. I barely got into the main quest, focusing instead on side quests that took me throughout the capital wasteland. By the time I got around to getting on with the main quest, I was nearly level 20.

And in looking at my achievement listings, it looks like I completed about 1/3rd to 1/2 of the side quests.

Why is the level cap so low at level 20? Or, more importantly, why is the XP curve so gracious as to let a player max the level cap without completing more of the side quests?

So, in that regard, I was disappointed. By the time I started into the campaign, I had nearly maxed out my XP, and so combat at the end in what was supposed to be the most difficult combat turned into a laugh.

Began with such great promise, and ended with a bit of a whimper.

New Job, Thoughts on the Old Job

Well, I was let go from my job in Houston a little over a two months ago. Don't worry, in less than three weeks, I had no less than five job offers from around the country. I find myself working at a new job, better pay, better people, better potential. None of the political or bureaucratic crap of my last job, and while I'm not working on "AAA Game of the Year", and, I haven't been this happy since I got my first job.

Alright, I need to have some catharsis, so, here we go:

If I ever own my own game development studio, I learned the following:
  1. If you are going to pay top dollar for experienced talent - use it, exploit it. Don't be arrogant, thinking that the way it is done now is the way it must be; let your new talent challenge assumptions and the processes.
  2. If you are going to pay top dollar for world class technology, be prepared to modify your workflow to fully embrace that technology. Licensing an engine means understanding the workflow of the company that made it and bending your processes to that method; if you try to fight that, you're going to spend a lot of time, energy, and effort trying to shoehorn in what you think is right, even if its suboptimal to the workflow established by the creators.
  3. Too much secrecy is a morale killer. Game Developers love what they do - they get excited when they are working on something cool - and then telling them they can't talk to each other about what they are working on is killer. Secrecy makes good sense in worrying about with people outside of the office, for obvious reasons, but within the office, is really hurts.
  4. Sending memos asking people to limit discourse in the office is a morale killer. See above. And, more importantly, good game development is all about communication. Stifle that, and you might as well put out the "Help Wanted" sign, because people will leave.
  5. Micromanagement is a killer. Good Leads ensure people stay on task, they don't tell people how to do their jobs as long as the end product performs as requested and is optimized for performance. Present subordinates with a problem and let them solve it - you'll often be amazed at the results.
  6. Not everyone is going to be happy, but learn who the talkers are and convince them what is happening a good thing. In every team, there are the most vocal folks and they drive the morale of the company. Don't ignore the problems, and don't say "this is always the way we've done things" because that means nothing to someone that you brought into the company - if they see problems, explain the process. If they point out flaws in the process, don't ignore them and if you do ignore them, more importantly, don't look for input and then tell people that change is not coming. That is brutal for morale and, for folks not intimately tied to the company, will have them running for the door. Game Development is one of the few corporate ventures where everyone can express their creativity toward a common goal, and contrary to what you tell yourself, there are always other jobs.
  7. Worry about word of mouth from former employees. The game industry is still small, but word gets out fast when it comes to how a company does business. Like all business, the best thing you can get is positive word of mouth.
  8. Benefits are more than free dinners and soft drinks.
  9. Retain experienced, senior-level staff. The best companies in the industry retain more than leads and recruit more than entry level staff. If you have trouble keeping your mid level employees, you have problems. Either they are under payed, overworked, under appreciated or feel ignored and marginalized, or all of the above. Game Developers can be incredibly loyal, but, that loyalty only goes to a point - and given how much interest a experienced developer gets on the open market, retaining them should be top priority. Entry-level folks can burn out. Mid to Senior-level are in it for the long haul; most have seen the fire of crunch and wear it with a badge of pride.
  10. Disagreeing with Management isn't insubordination, particularly if they go ahead and do what is asked for anyway. Good management is all about communication, and if you aren't communicating properly - no matter how many meetings or verbose emails you send - expect their to be miss communications. Further, if you have someone create something, and you as a manager have preconceived notions on what that something should be , don't be surprised if what is created doesn't match your notions. Also, don't be surprised if you, as a lead, have to fight to have your idea used, particularly if someone else was instrumental in designing a system.
  11. Object Oriented Design is only as good as the long term plans allow. People are more willing to work in the more generic, esoteric designs if they know that the hard work they are doing now is going to be used multiple times - see the discussion about secrecy above. However, if no plans are made (or are communicated) as to the next project, expect morale to take a huge hit as people work extremely hard for a one-project game, creating code and designing systems that may or may not be used again.
  12. Be realistic with your development schedule. If management wants more out of the game, get estimates sooner and modify appropriately. Minimize wasting development time on systems and content for something you never had the time or manpower to address anyway.
  13. Be prepared for people to challenge management, particularly on creative things. Management needs to be prepared to either compromise or abandon their ideas if they are either unfeasible or are simply bad ideas. Wasting time to indulge management kills morale and, more importantly, will waste time. This is not always possible, particularly if they are expressed at the start as being core to the game, so this is a two-way street. Management needs to be willing to abandon ideas that test poorly. Talent needs to be willing to embrace other ideas that test well.
I wish well of my former colleagues, and if the game is a success, it will be a success despite the creative direction and management, not because of it. Which is a shame, the IP has potential.


I'm currently working at a startup, surrounded by industry veterans that have been behind some huge hits. Communication is open and free, which means we actually talk less and get more done. We're incredibly incentivized, and everyone is busting their asses. More to the point, I'm working on something I never thought I'd work on, and its much more stimulating than my last job.

We're having fun, and after a year and a half of work, its a welcome change.