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.