Jun 23, 2008

keys in game design

Keys are a common feature of loads of different sorts of games, but there is a great deal of diversity in the way in which they can be implemented. In earlier game such as Adventure for the Atari 2600, keys as a game mechanic were very literal. In Adventure, the yellow key opened the yellow door, the black key opened the black door, etc.

Needing to block off certain areas of play is a common necessity for many designs, but the use of a key can be integrated into the story. In Rachet and Clank by Insomniac, ‘keys’ are primarily implemented in two different ways:

One way that areas are made inaccessible is by keeping the player ignorant of the location altogether. Until a player finds an ‘infobot’ (in area that is already accessible), the player does not know that the corresponding area exists. The infobot then plays a movie which informs the character (and the player) of the newly accessible area.

The other way that areas are made inaccessible is by having items that serve as keys for progression within a particular map. The interesting thing is that the item is almost never a key. An ‘O2 mask’ will let the character into places that he couldn’t breathe earlier (like a gassy planet or prolonged time underwater). Magnetic boots allow the character to traverse bridges formerly inaccessible with a satisfying aesthetic twist. These items (and countless others) serve as keys in the gameplay sense.

Jun 21, 2008

Rise of the Indie Developers

Game production is getting pretty buffeted right now by much of the developer community. There is a great deal of talk about the ‘lack of innovation’ and the issues with publisher based funding. There are major complaints that with all of the technical developments, the development teams need to be larger and larger to take advantage of the technology – thus needing more capital to get started.

For all of the criticism that current game development gets, there are some major things going on right now that will change the face of gaming over the next 20 years. The biggest advancements being in the emergence of high quality, affordable development tools. This includes physics engines, game engines, 3D software, 2D tools, etc.

In some cases some concessions may need to be made if money is tight, but there are loads of options. Can’t afford Photoshop CS? You may need to buy Photoshop Elements. Can’t afford Maya? You may need to pick up Poser or Milkshape. Don’t have time (or knowledge) to build a 3D engine? Pick up a copy of the Torque engine.
The other component is the availability of a great deal of information online. There are more tutorials on various aspects of development than any other time in history. Just hop onto youtube and type in “actionscript game tutorial” and you can be writing a game in Flash in no time.

Even if you want to do something highly polished, I feel that the technology boom only helps independents. Zbrush or Mudbox make doing highly detailed models crazy easy and fast. As an indie, you may only be able to build a fraction of the content that the big guys are doing – but with some old school tricks you can find ways to reuse content.

These advancements will give indies an opportunity to compete unlike any other time in gaming history.

Jun 17, 2008

Game Violence

Games have some really bad PR. Some of it is certainly undeserved, but lots of it (sadly) rings true. When I tell people that I make games, the first thing that is said is “ooh they are so violent. Doesn’t that bother you?”. It doesn’t occur to most normal folks that violent games are only one genre from a large spectrum. No one has that reaction to the idea of a movie – although it used to be fairly common.

I am not really against violence in media, though. I guess what I have issue with is the glorification of violence. One of the most common sorts of challenges in games is to fight/kill/crush “bad guys”. Who decides who is bad? Where’s the love? What roles do games play with our society?

For most animals (and historically for humans as well) play is form of practice/training for adult life. Animals pretend to bite and scratch each other for fun, but it is direct training for survival in predatory world. Children used to go fishing – a skill set that has a pretty direct application in that it is a means of obtaining food. Likewise, children would play with dolls in part as preparation/familiarization for parenthood.

Sooo… what does that say about the games we play (or create)?

Either developers are either inadvertently training our audiences to solve problems with force, or (what I find to be more accurate and relevant) NOT training our audiences for anything they are more likely face in their lives.

The play that developers are offering isn’t relevant to our players' lives.

Could we make interesting games with more general relevance? Perhaps there could be some form of economic content that would help folks understand money and debt better in real life. Maybe there could be something that helps people to better understand how to work up the social hierarchy of the corporate ladder.

Could we make a game that prepares people for life in a cubicle?

On the game that I currently have in production, the core mechanic is all about exploration, which seemed fine to me – as it does not have any particularly negative aspect to it.

But perhaps that is not good enough. The ‘message’ of the game as I intend it, would be the importance of exploration and experimentation. But then I wonder if it’s just an excuse and that I could be offering content that is more directly useful in people’s lives.

May 13, 2008


Tetris is an abstract puzzle game released by Alexey Pajitnov in 1985. Tetris enjoyed a great deal of success with many demographics, across multiple platforms.

This game is usually categorized as part of the “puzzle” genre of games. Ironically, it behaves quite different than a puzzle – a puzzle has only one solution, but there is a host of different strategies and play styles.

The core mechanics of the game are absolutely simple, including only 7 piece types. The player maneuvers falling blocks by moving them left or right, or rotating them. The goal is to make horizontal sections without gaps (which disappear) while avoiding having the pieces reach the top of the screen.

There are only a few rules for this game, but the strategies for the game can very greatly from player to player. Some players will leave a groove missing in the accumulating structure in an attempt to fill them all at once to earn more points, whereas a conservative player may try to make lines disappear as quickly as possible.

Tetris was created 23 years ago (at the time of this article), but the original design has a completeness to it that leaves little that could be added to. The game would not be significantly improved with power-ups, more shape variety, or story. Adding anything more to the design would risk throwing the elegant simplicity off balance.

The experience of playing Tetris would not translate into other media. The experience can be so intense, in fact, that it is known to cause unusual - almost obsessive symptoms in some players - which is described by Wikipedia:

The game can also cause a repetitive stress symptom in that the brain will involuntarily picture tetris combinations even when the player is not playing the game (the Tetris effect), although this can occur with any computer game showcasing repeated images or scenarios.
-from Wikipedia Tetris entry

The Tetris effect is the ability of any activity to which people devote sufficient time and attention to begin to dominate their thoughts, mental images, and dreams. It is named after the video game Tetris

…People who play Tetris for a long time might then find themselves thinking about ways different shapes in the real world can fit together, such as the boxes on a supermarket shelf or the buildings on a street.[1] In this sense, the Tetris effect is a form of habit.
They might also see images of falling Tetris shapes at the edges of their visual fields or when they close their eyes.[1] In this sense, the Tetris effect is a form of hallucination.
They might also dream about falling Tetris shapes when drifting off to sleep.[2] In this sense, the Tetris effect is a form of hypnagogic imagery.
-from Wikipedia Tetris effect entry

[Wow... I thought it was just me]

In 1985 it was far more common for a game to be created by one person. It is perhaps understandable that many games of that period are stripped down to one or two single game mechanics.
Even today, the most successful games seem to be built from a simple set of mechanics that have been polished to a high degree.

May 6, 2008

A Critique of The Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda was first released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1987 and gained a great deal of notoriety. It is an indirect descendant of Adventure for the Atari (which in turn was a direct descendant of Adventure for the PC).

This game was a genre blend of RPG style play, and an action.

The control of this game was using the control pad for avatar directional movement, and the two buttons. One button was used for the sword, the other uses an inventory item – whatever item is selected at that point.

Inventory item collection and management were a large component of the gameplay. In addition to fighting enemies, the player collects items – giving reward for exploration and combat, and enabling progress within the game.

The items in this game were noteworthy in that in most cases they could be used in several different ways.

The fire could be used to 1. light up dark rooms, 2. burn down hedges, revealing secret entrances, 3. attack enemies
The boomerang could be used to 1. pick up coins, OR 2. stun or kill enemies.
The recorder allows you to 1. kill the crab boss, 2. Open level 7, 3. Warp from place to place, 4. Annoy some enemies.
[You get the point]

Another noteworthy aspect of this game is that the level progression is primarily nonlinear. Levels are labeled 1 – 9, but in many instances there is no particular incentive to go in the prescribed order. If a level proves too difficult (or easy), a player has the option to explore other areas of the game world.

Item acquisition also has a nonlinear aspect to it. Items are scattered throughout the levels (with at least one unique item in each dungeon), as well as being hidden in the over-world. Obtaining an item is not tied to level completion, so it is entirely possible to acquire an item without fully exploring or completing the corresponding level.

Despite the nonlinear composition, The Legend of Zelda is an extremely structured game. There are rules for each level which give the game a high level of consistency. Each Level has a map and compass that can be obtained, an inventory item to be found (in some levels two), a boss to be vanquished, which is then followed by the acquisition of a heart retainer and a tri-force piece.

Doors in dungeons can be opened by keys – and any key will open any door. This changes the gameplay from traditional games with keys (that is to say that each individual key opens one specific door) significantly. A key becomes less of a rare item to be quested for and turns into a resource to be managed.

Bombs function as a resource in much the same way. Bombs can be used either to open passages hidden in rock surfaces or as a fairly powerful offensive weapon. The player is then faced with the decision of whether to use this resource offensively or to save it to aid exploration.

Bombs can open up secret passages that hide goodies, as well as things necessary for progression. Players have to either bomb every rock surface or get directions from an outside source in order to obtain particular items or progress at certain points.

Enemies have individual attributes which dictate how much damage they can incur or inflict, which player items/actions will cause them harm, as well as how the patterns and speed of movement. Most enemies have a twin created in another color, most likely to get maximum use of the art assets and give visual variety.

There are four main musical scores in the game - one theme is played in the over-world, one theme is played in each of the 8 main dungeons, one theme after the avatar is killed, and the last is played in the last dungeon. The first two themes are playing throughout the majority of the game – and have a high degree of complexity compared to games created at that time period. [I would guess that the complexity was a conscious attempt by the developer to keep the music that is played so frequently from getting stale / boring]

Sound is a major source of feedback to the player. There are different sound effects for: setting a bomb down, a bomb exploding, picking up a heart, having only one heart left, picking up money, killing an enemy, harming an enemy, hitting but not harming an enemy, receiving damage, finding a secret passage, getting a piece of triforce, etc. [Even today hearing the secret passage music fills me with glee – like I am about to see something never before uncovered]

Story elements are a non-central to the game, which is uncommon in the Adventure game genre. The majority of NPC interactions have only puzzle-solving or gameplay progression content.

Legend of Zelda’s nonlinear gameplay and systematic design made it an important participant in the history of gaming, and established a valuable license.

Apr 30, 2008

A critique of Galaga

Galaga is a top-down shooter game released in 1981 originally for the arcade and continues to have a following today (27 years later, at the time I’m writing this article). This game is a derivative of Galaxian, and to a less direct extent Space Invaders.

This game’s control scheme is extremely straightforward – there is a joystick and one button. It is also noteworthy that the player can only maneuver the avatar left and right, there is no vertical control. A player can understand all major control mechanisms the first time they play the game.

Galaga follows very consistent structures throughout the entire game. The player usually comes to expect certain patterns and the game which can give a feeling that the game is “fair”.

There are only 4 enemies in the entire game (I believe), and their behavior doesn’t change dramatically throughout the game. Blue and Red bad guys explode after one hit. The Boss enemies (Green and yellow) die after two hits, but change color after one to give the player feedback on their status.

There is only one ‘power up’ in Galaga, which is probably the most famous feature of the game. The boss enemies can capture the player’s ship, which the player can win back by careful play – giving the player control on a double ship.

The implementation of this design feature is unique in that when a player gets this ‘power up’, it is as much a liability as it is an asset. The avatar shoots two shots at one time, but also is twice as large – making it an easier target. There is also the possibility that the player will accidentally shoot his own ship, loosing a life in the process.

The levels follow a recognizable pattern: The enemies fly onto screen in a predetermined formation, sometimes firing or attacking. Then they fall into a pattern at the top of the screen. Lastly they take turns coming down to attack individually or in small groups until all enemies have been vanquished.

Each leveI becomes slightly more difficult with the exception of the bonus levels. I believe that every 4th level is a “challenging stage” which is a bonus level where the avatar is not attacked – dropping the intensity for a while.

Feedback in this game is extremely fast and clear to the player. There are audio cues for firing a shot, for hitting a target, as well as the beginning of a level. All enemies are seen on screen at one time, so there is continuous visual status on progress within the level.

It is interesting that the game has had such longevity despite (or because of) its ultra simplistic user input and general predictability.

Apr 22, 2008

Resident Evil

Resident Evil was one of the first and most prominent survival horror games created for the Playstation.

I want to launch with an exploration of the control scheme for the game. The user inputs that were chosen for character movement were heavily criticized for being ‘unintuitive’. [Indeed it took me 3 or 4 attempts at playing this game before I finally figured out how to shoot the pistol]

The game uses an unconventional mapping for character movement - the ‘up’ button moves the character forward, and the ‘left’ and ‘right’ buttons rotate the character. I believe that this mapping was chosen to anchor one consistent direction to the up button. Because the game has dramatic camera angles that change orientation in almost every room, it is functional to be able to hold down one button and continue progression in a consistent direction.

In order to shoot a weapon the player needs to hold down the L1 button while pressing a 2nd button on the keypad. This is also an unconventional choice but serves the useful function of not wasting ammo by accident – because this is a game with limited resources.

The limitation of resources is not only a gameplay mechanic, but adds a level of emotional tension. Most players experience a sense of anxiety as their resources diminish. The amount of times that a player can save is also a commodity. This inability to easily leave the game world beautifully mirrors the core of the story – that the characters cannot escape the house.

The flow and content of the game is fairly predictable, but balanced and well executed. The player can find various keys that unlock different types of doors. This mechanic is straightforward and in most instances the game does nothing to mask this element.

At certain junctures there are puzzle elements which are necessary for progression. This is a bit curious in that the puzzles are not a core element of the game, yet do not add substantial depth.

The visual aspects of this game do give substantial depth, however. The backgrounds are pre-rendered, which allowed them to be created with far more detail than its real-time contemporaries. That detail allows each part of the mansion to look unique, and helps the feeling of reward when a new area has been unlocked. Each room is displayed from different camera angles, giving a dramatic aesthetic.

Apr 11, 2008

A critique of Katamari Damacy

Katamari is certainly a unique game, and many people have had different feelings about the game.

The first thing that I want to point out is that this game is a direct descendant of Pac Man – a game also built by Namco many years before. The primary focus is on collecting things and avoiding baddies – unless the game is in a state where you can consume enemies.

Much like its ancestor, this game is extremely focused on simple core mechanics. There are no power ups to manage in Katamari, and user control is absolutely consistent within levels. This allows the learning process to be fairly straight forward, slowly refining the skills that are introduced early on.

The visual and auditory feedback is continuous, letting you know how much you are picking up with satisfying pops (and the occasional scream from a sumo wrestler).

One of the things that make the mechanic of collect distinctive is that the relationships between your character and the environment are not absolute. An item that serves as a barrier early in a level will usually become something consumable later in the level.

Also an animal that causes you harm (or at least inconvenience), can be rolled into your ball later on. This potentially taps an undercurrent of the human compulsion for revenge.

I would guess that this relative relationship between things would make level design extremely challenging. How do you place a level wall that is also an item to be collected? I can almost imagine the items needing to be placed in a fractal sort of arrangement.

The game has an extremely simple but unique Art style. This item simplicity has a couple of secondary implications for the game:

1. They can be created faster, allowing for more things to be built in the same amount of time, and
2. They have a lower polygon count so that more items can be shown on screen at on time.

Both of which contribute to a larger variety of items that can be seen and interacted with throughout the game. If there were only a handful of items that could be picked up, the game would feel significantly different.

The multitude of items and their (seemingly) unusual placement give the game a powerful sense of absurdity. The game has a sense of humor, but does so without telling any jokes.

Ironically, the story elements of the game are fairly serious. The relationship between the main character and the father character is strained. But in a subtle way. There is not any major event that plays out for the sake of drama. His quiet disapproval of an incomplete mission adds some emotional weight to the game. Somehow this is accessible in a personal way that more epic stories are not.

Emotional content aside, the concept truly uses the media of games in a powerful way. It allows the player to experience something that they cannot in regular life in an interactive way. You would NOT have a similar experience if this was described in book or movie form.