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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Nov 10, 2009
How Blizzard was able to keep the game engaging for so long is by changing the strongest state a player could achieve.

Of all the things Blizzard Entertainment has accomplished in the video game industry, the most interesting thing might simply be the longevity of their titles. Diablo 2 is almost a decade old but continues to be played by a core group of dedicated players thanks to several overhauls of the game design. Diablo 2 is free to play on battle.net and has been since its release. This essay will focus on how the game evolved to keep players interested for such a long period of time.


The design is a traditional RPG except all of the basic elements have been simplified and streamlined into a constant flow. Combat is either to use a physical attack or ability that is executed with a mouse click. There are only 4 attributes to upgrade, each character class is unique through abilities. Since the combat is simple and fluid, the creatures drop items at a rapid rate to keep fighting engaging. Money, magic items, jewels, and other unique goods can be dropped by one of the thousands of different monsters you’ll fight. In other words, the design is a very complex slot machine. Killing things pulls the lever, how you approach fighting is constantly improved and adjusted through the items you win and skills you develop. At a certain point there is, arguably, an ultimate state where you have the best items and are the most efficient at fighting in the game. How Blizzard was able to keep this process engaging for people for so long is through its carefully managed patching process that kept changing what that ultimate state was.


Understanding how a patch works in this game means differentiating it from a mere technical overhaul. The programming glitches and problems in a game will often be fixed through patches. While the Diablo 2 patches still address this aspect, it also changes up the stats of the items and skills.  These changes are not always noticeable to the average player. I’ve beaten the game at Normal with several different character classes, but I never really noticed any of the changes. They mainly affected players who continue through the game at higher difficulties, which rewards the effort with better items and tougher enemies. What happens in such a stat heavy game for the devoted player is that they will eventually figure out the most efficient way to play. A group of players from the diii.net forums answered a couple of question and broke down their personal experiences of the game’s evolution for this essay.


Explaining how the game plays today, Flux writes, “At this point there’s very little trial and error, since the game has been out for so many years, and it’s been a long time since a patch really shook things up. Players have long since figured out the best builds and strategies and equipment, and the skill synergy changes in v1.10 did much to limit character variety.” The best armor and weapon in the game have been clearly identified along with the quickest ways to obtain it, leaving little experimentation in the wake of reliable tactics. The consequence, as Flux notes, is that “there’s no need to actually “play” a new character at the lower levels, and it’s become almost a lost art on Battle.net. New characters are rushed through the game by friends (or players do it for themselves by using multiple accounts/computers), all of their gear is twinked (shared amongst a player’s various characters), and come the end game they might only do one or two areas over and over again, and only in large groups.” For a game like Diablo 2, once you identify the final most powerful setup in the game and achieve it, there’s no more incentive to keep playing. The objective of a patch is to then adjust the numbers of this final, epic state so that you keep having to find new tactics. This is called ‘mudflation’ or when a developer introduces new items to a game that make the old ones inferior. The ultimate goal changes and players have something new to do as they find new methods of pulling the lever. Some players aren’t worried about perfectionism, instead just playing with all the different options in this game. BlameGBush describes this approach, “I motivate myself by trying a different build that I’ve never tried before. I’ve had the game since the day it came out, and just when I think I’ve seen all the builds worth playing, one pops up that I haven’t played and its very creative.”


Most of the other users commented that there were two adjustments to the game that radically changed this peak state: the Expansion Pack and Patch 1.10. The first major change to the game was the expansion. Sean Wallace, a longtime player writes, “The expansion was great fun in the beginning, new classes, new enemies, a new Act to play in, new drops, new equipment, new mercenaries, new quests.  It was all fun.  But…it got REALLY complicated in my opinion.” The two new character classes in the Expansion, the Druid and the Assassin, were overpowered at first before being reigned in by a subsequent patch so that they balanced out. Due to the increased power of the gear monsters might drop, the game’s monsters increased in difficulty overall to compensate. The interesting effect this had on multiplayer was that the Final Act of the game features such powerful monsters who drop so much strong gear that there really isn’t a point in playing the mid-game portions. A player starts a new character in the opening levels then skips to the final Act while a partner kills enemies and levels them up. Although efficient, when a game design starts to encourage skipping the actual game you start to run into a conflict of interest. To the frustration of someone like Sean, who enjoyed sitting and playing the game with others, the Expansion Pack encouraged just playing the last boss over and over because that was the best gear.


The other quirk is that the huge number of powerful items in the game meant people could create characters which significantly overpowered someone without the gear. BlameGBush argues, “I don’t care how skilled you are in this game, if you are a level 90 character with weak items going against a level 90 beginner who bought all his items off ebay, you will die every time. Once players both have relatively equal quality items, then strategy comes into play.” By creating epic gear that only rarely occurred in the game, you encourage people to go outside the intended modes of play to win. Some players used bots to automatically harvest money & items, trading outside the game’s economy, and mule characters to swap out gear. The rare items became so valuable and gave you such an edge that cheating was inevitable. A lot of players even play without the expansion pack installed. Most of the powerful gear is gone while the increased difficulty remains, meaning that group play is more challenging. There’s also no real incentive to skip sections and rush to the final portion of the game because the payoff isn’t as large there.


Although the game has had over a dozen patches, none was considered more game-changing than the 1.10 patch which introduced synergies. This made it so certain abilities boosted each other, radically changing the ways characters powered up while leveling. Although a lot of players like RobbyD were angry that all of their characters were now worthless, but it’s also possible to restore the game back to pre-patch status. Flux explains, “Past patches have made major changes by nerfing(weakening gear), but they usually add new things that are just as imbalanced. Players have usually been more interested in finding the new thing than in grieving over the old one.” Therein lies the key to Blizzard’s success with patching their games: you don’t have to force people to play the game differently. You just keep changing the final goal of the game and they adjust accordingly.


It’s interesting how this dynamic reflects back on a more casual player like myself. I spent most of my time as the Sorceress milking Chain Lightening and Fireball, ignoring the stronger spells except to try them out. I dumped all my points into jabbing as an Amazon, boosted my immunity to elemental attacks as a Paladin, or became a wicked teleporter as an Assassin. I wouldn’t call the game hard at this setting but you still have to put together some kind of strategy with your skills to get very far. The difficulty’s biggest impact seems to mostly be not leaving any room for experimenting. I could afford to dump a few random points into skills just to see what they did, while on higher difficulty every bit counts. I found a couple of rare pieces of loot while playing that were fun to wear but it’s not like I ever really needed them at Normal. Diablo 2 is impressive in that regard, the players interested in playing at the max difficulty get stuck having to farm the last level. The ones who are just playing around at lighter difficulties are the ones sightseeing anyways. Diablo 2’s experience is both enormous literally and in the way your playstyle can change everything about it.


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Text:AAA
Friday, Nov 6, 2009
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is proof that, when done right, cut scenes can add to the depth and enjoyment of a game.

I recently read a rumor that Assassin’s Creed 2 might have three hours worth of cut scenes. Unlike a lot of gamers, I don’t mind most cut scenes. I remember when games would advertise “X hours of realistic CG cut scenes” as a good thing. I understand the common complaint against them, but I also think cut scenes are a fine way to tell a story in a linear game, and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is proof of this.


Cut scenes get a lot of hate because they interrupt gameplay. Too often a boss fight will suddenly become a cut scene, and after a quick verbal back-and-forth the protagonist will perform one final action that kills the antagonist. This wouldn’t be so awful if the scene only involved dialogue, but by reserving the death of the villain for a cut scene the game removes some of the satisfaction of winning. Technically the player never gets to kill the main bad guy as it happens in a cut scene.


One reason these non-interactive sequences work in Uncharted 2 is that they never interrupt gameplay, in fact gameplay sometimes interrupts a cut scene. During a couple movies, just when the player thinks the action is over, an enemy attacks a nearby companion and suddenly we’re in control again, shooting the attacker. As soon as he’s dead the cut scene continues. Action always happens to the player, Nathan Drake only fires his gun once in a cut scene, every other time he shoots it’s because the player has pressed the R1 button. When a building starts to crumble with Drake in it, we’re in control; when a stone platform begins sliding down a hill with Drake and company on it, we’re in control; when he has to jump from car to car during a high speed chase, we’re hitting the button to make him jump. By making these grand set pieces interactive, it feels like they’re happening to us, not just happening to him. We become more invested in the character and his struggles because we’ve gone through them as well.


Since a good cut scene doesn’t have much, if any, action in it, it relies on the plot to keep players interested. These moments of calm have to move the plot forwards while setting up the next action scene, but these are also fitting moments for character development. Characters can be developed during gameplay through animation, voice over, or by having a unique skill set, but cut scenes are by far the easiest method for doing so because of their similarities to film, a medium with several standards already in place regarding proper character development. But any cut scene, even a well directed, well acted, graphical showcase, is still interrupting gameplay, so it must accomplish these goals quickly, or risk losing the interest of the player.


The Metal Gear Solid games are infamous for their failure in this regard. The high production values of its cut scenes are obvious, but the scenes drag on far too long thanks to endless exposition by various characters describing their personal motivations, their complicated pasts, the current political landscape, or others aspect of the plot. While some may defend these long movies for their high quality and intriguing themes, there are just as many people that hate them for their meandering dialogue and length.


On the other hand, the cut scenes in Uncharted 2 are never more than a couple minutes long, even when the plot twists and turns. In one scene Drake is caught by the villain Lazarevic and makes that classic “You need me so you can’t hurt me” stand, but when he’s searched Lazarevic gets a hold of a map with a giant X on it. The balance of power swings from Lazarevic to Drake and back to Lazarevic within the span of two minutes. The plot is pushed forwards by dialogue that gets straight to the point, there’s no exposition, so the player is constantly engaged by the quick pace.


The cut scenes in Gears of War 2 were successful in moving the plot forwards quickly, but never contained any meaningful character development. The new characters of Tai and Dizzy are interchangeable with out other teammates, personality wise. But since the cut scenes focus purely on the plot, the game give these new characters a distinct look to set them apart. Tai’s tattoos make him look like some ancient mystic, and Dizzy has a cowboy hat; the game then hopes that we’ll get attached to them based solely on their unique appearances.


The second cut scene in Uncharted 2 fully introduces us to Chloe, one of the new characters in the sequel. Within a few minutes we learn that she and Drake have a romantic history, that she’s using Flynn (the other new character) to help get a treasure, and that her and Drake plan to run away together after the heist. Too often in games a women is portrayed as tough by being cruel or indifferent to everyone around her (see Rubi in Wet). We see a little bit of that in Chloe as she casually plans to betray Flynn, but then we see a vulnerable side to her as well: She has genuine feelings for Drake, she wants to run away with him because she actually likes him. She’s not the one dimensional “tough bitch” stereotype that games normally fall back on, she’s a complicated character with complicated motivations.


Cut scenes are a viable way to tell a story in linear games. They provide a chance to advance the plot while developing characters, but the gameplay must always take precedent, and that’s a mistake many games make. The player should get to partake in all the action. Successfully implementing a cut scene is difficult, the many failed attempts are proof of that, but Uncharted 2 is proof that, when done right, cut scenes can add to the depth and enjoyment of a game.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Nov 4, 2009
Despite being a simulation of dictatorship, Tropico 3 is largely about questioning authority.

In Tropico 3, you take on the role of a Latin American dictator on a fictitious island in the Caribbean.  Sounds like fun, right?


Well, as anyone who likes to play god in simulation games by taking on the role of managing cities, zoos, movie studios, or amusement parks can tell you, doing so is generally a fairly complex undertaking that generally tests your own abilities in administrating but rarely tests your authority.  Despite being a simulation of dictatorship, Tropico 3 is largely about questioning authority and also about questioning the ideals of those politically motivated enough to arrest power.


Like other god games, this one will have you building an economy while developing and managing resources (both natural resources as well as people).  Unlike other god games, the political aspects of leadership become an additional management issues.  While “El Presidente” is free to make decisions about what to build and how to allocate the treasury of Tropico, he or she will also need to pay attention to the interests of a host of interest groups that influence the tiny people that find themselves under the sway of your “benevolent” guidance.  These interest groups range wildly from Capitalists to Communists to Militarists to Nationalists to the Religious.


As a result, while the various scenarios that the player can choose to play out in campaign mode have specific overarching goals (like shipping a certain amount of tropical goods over the course of several decades or building an economy based on oil profits or staying in power for three decades or socking away a large amount of cash in your Swiss Bank account before your tenure as dictator is over), any of these specific goals can only be met by kowtowing to the whims and needs of these various interest groups.  While building up an agriculturally based economy might seem like a simple enough goal, try doing so at the same time that religious Tropicans want you to build them a cathedral or the military wants better pay for those that defend Tropico against foreign and domestic threats (especially domestic threats but more on that in a moment) or the Communists are demanding better health care for all Tropicans.


Thus, Tropico suggests that you might play at being a seeming “master of men” while exposing the political reality of such “mastery”: that even a dictator has to bow to the demands of the little people if he or she wants to remain in power.  An almost Jeffersonian claim concerning the assumption that power is only granted through the will of the people underlies this democratization of dictatorial power.  This is democracy born of antagonism with the people, though, not by being directly empowered by them.  Indeed, any of the interest groups (of which there are seven in total in addition to the foreign interests of the US and USSR, since the scenarios are all set during decades of the Cold War) that might choose to begin attacking the infrastructure of the nation if they become sufficiently uncomfortable with your power.  Particular groups, like the Militarists, become especially thorny problems as they may simply mount a palace coup and remove you from power altogether if their needs are not addressed or if they feel that the safety of Tropico is threatened.  Elections may also be difficult to control (though, fraud provides some limited options) if a large enough group of variant interest groups find themselves generally dissatisfied with the fruit of their dictator’s labor.


Tropico then is played as a balancing act made up of constant political pandering.  The addition of edicts that can be issued unilaterally aids this process of pandering.  Edicts change the rules of the game and also cost a regular amount of money to maintain over a period of time.  Some edicts are just generally helpful to the Tropican community.  For example, the literacy edict improves relationships with the Intellectuals but also improves education and skills among Tropican workers.  However, the more interesting edicts are those that tend to pit interest groups against one another.  Declaring same sex marriages legal on Tropico will help to assuage any rifts that you have managed to create with the Intellectuals, but the edict will also open up new rifts with the Religious.


This emphasis on practical pandering, too, emphasizes another aspect of the game’s themes concerning the nature of politics themselves.  Since you have your own goals as dictator, which are not necessarily bad for the people of Tropico (building a grand economy for them couldn’t hurt could it?), practicality and pragmatism tend to trump any kind of adherence to political philosophy or ethics.


This Machiavellian vision of the machinery of the political can be quite pleasing from a gaming perspective as well as leading to often cynical observations about how certain philosophies’ ideas can be used pragmatically rather than idealistically to meet the goals of the individual in power.  A troubling but also surprisingly thrilling moment for me came in a scenario in which I was building a very strong economic infrastructure and realized that my workforce was not sufficient to maintain my economic engine.  My relationship with the Nationalists was quite poor at the time as I had hired a good many foreign workers to try to keep up with my need for a larger workforce.  However, my open immigration policy was pushing them towards rebellion.  I had never had the need to issue a contraceptive ban during the game before as I had merely seen it as a way to please the religious while pissing off the intellectuals.  Doing so seemed a pointless tradeoff of potentially rebellious citizenry.  However, I suddenly saw the very pragmatic purpose of “finding religion” and additionally realized that doing so could also benefit me by creating a native workforce, thus, stabilizing my fractured relationship with the Nationalists.  Philosophy and ethics bore very little relevance on my quick decision to issue the ban.  I needed more Tropican babies and the religion of Tropico allowed me to create them.


It is these moments of pragmatic insight and decision making that carries with it complex consequences (hurting you in some ways and helping you in others) that make the simulatory politics of Tropico 3 most interesting as they are expressed through gameplay.  Being a dictator is indeed fun, but it is also a rather wicked way of coming to understand the practical ramifications of seemingly absolute power.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Nov 3, 2009
In what way has the design of the FPS changed in the past ten years?

A while back I was lucky enough to be asked to talk about what had caught my interest in the 2009 crop of video games for a Brainy Gamer podcast. The thing that caught my eye at that point was the curious rejection of a particular brand of FPS that was prevalent on the Wii and DS. Due to the technical limitations of these platforms, a game like The Conduit mostly takes place in hallways and arena structures. You’re always in a never-ending bunker, sewer, or science lab in the game. Another example would be the FPS titles like C.O.R.E. or Dementium: The Ward, which are also mostly indoor experiences. What was curious was that all of these games are receiving average scores on metacritic. In my review of The Conduit I pointed out that it mostly played like a game from 2000 or so. The same could be said about the DS titles, their level design and gameplay immediately bring to mind the old FPS days of Quake or even Doom. The player runs about a maze-like space, fighting monsters as they go, and unlock doors and flip switches to progress. What’s odd is that in an industry whose love of nostalgia can drive sales and scores of games like Shadow Complex and Mega Man 9, why is that one particular game design of fighting through indoor mazes mostly rejected? In what way has the design of the FPS moved on in the past ten years?


From http://www.khaldea.com

From http://www.khaldea.com


The initial answer would just be a common sense one: spatially comprehending and navigating a maze is easier to do in 2-D (or 2.5?) than from the FPS perspective. A wide open space is much easier to process mentally and navigate than a series of hallways that you are meant to sequentially enter. An interesting example of a modern game that still relies on the old formula is the F.E.A.R. series. Relying on a complex AI to create a game that’s chiefly about strategic squad encounters, the game’s levels are almost Kafka-esque for how much time you spend wandering around endless government buildings. In a write-up on the level design in F.E.A.R. 2, Steve Gaynor comments that the game is too linear in the options it gives players. You just walk into a room full of enemies and they start shooting at you. He writes, “Conversely, the best space is arena-like and varied, with an emphasis on flanking opportunities. The closer any given encounter space drifts towards the hallway model, the less interesting the gameplay there is going to be.” He applies all of this to a map that orients itself around a central point which is the conflict. Instead of being a line that you plod through, it’s a circle with varying degrees of cover and methods of engagement. He writes, “The most useful cover should be placed in the arena’s mid-orbital, the dense ring between the outer edge and the central point of the encounter space. This encourages the player to move into the thick of the action instead of hanging on the periphery, and leaves the central dead zone as a no-man’s land that remains risky to advance through, encouraging circular navigation.”


What Gaynor is describing is essentially an emergent form of level design, a principle best explained by Jesper Juul in his book half-real. You create a series of rules that link together in terms of strengths of weaknesses (think rock, paper, scissors) and then continue to compound and expand those rules into an elaborate web. Not all game elements have a direct strength/weakness relationship, but they are interlinked by mutual ludic aspects. Once you start making the focus of your game be about choices instead of linear engagement after linear engagement, you have to adopt new techniques for communicating information. Look at a design doc from a 2003 retrospective on Star Wars: Bounty Hunter, the level is essentially a long corridor that twists back and forth. An emergent level instead operates by creating a large and easily navigable series of clusters. In these levels the player never goes from room to room, you instead create a central space and then outlying rooms to explore. Citing another post by Gaynor on Bioshock, he explains the new principle behind this kind of level, “Minor spaces are always closer to major spaces than they are to other minor spaces—the player always passes through the hub to get to another spoke. The player never proceeds directly from spoke to spoke, getting lost without an identifiable anchor space to reorient themselves by.” Like the conflict nexus and circular structure of a well-designed combat situation, an entire level mirrors this same principle.


From Star Wars: Bounty Hero via Gamasutra

From Star Wars: Bounty Hero via Gamasutra


This is not to say that the linear structure has been abandoned, just that it has evolved far beyond its hallway roots. A game like Call of Duty 4 uses what might be described as a theme park ride approach to level design. The player will usually move down a wide corridor with multiple setpieces that travel between more emergent encounters like the one Gaynor describes. A careful visual language, pioneered by Valve and earlier games, helps orient the player to what they should be looking at. In that post, Matthew Gallant explains how Valve will have a flock of birds take off from a key passage or item to catch the player’s eye. Ammo and health items are often also placed where they can seen to attract the player’s interest. The player is still inside a big artificial hallway, but it feels real because they can explore the stage while being guided by a trail of visual and ludic bread crumbs. Call of Duty games also accomplish this feat by imposing objectives (like put a sticky bomb on this tank) or just having endless enemies shoot at you until you hit cover. Although not quite a wheel & spoke level, these games are incorporating tiny moments of emergent gameplay.


What defines the modern FPS, as opposed to similar games from even a mere decade ago, is the ability to break outside a linear path. One of the best analogies I’ve read on this modern take is from Michael Licht’s  Star Wars: Bounty Hunter retrospective. He compares brief bursts of player choice to soloing in jazz music. Licht explains, “When a Jazz musician plays, he has to follow the song as it is written for the most part. This is called “staying in the groove” and it’s what gives identity to the piece. But during the song there are certain opportunities for that artist to express himself through solos. This allows for variation in the piece without a complete departure from the overall song and keeps things from getting too repetitive or predictable.” It’s the moments you cut the player loose that make the game meaningful in the long run.


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Text:AAA
Friday, Oct 30, 2009
The more blood there is in a game, the more unrealistic it becomes; it ceases to have any real meaning and becomes a joke.

Whenever a critic of the gaming industry starts to decry the level of violence in games, the response is generally the same. It’s standard to point out that violence in games pales when compared to the more explicit violence and gore in movies. While that may be true when comparing a game like GTA IV (the mass media’s favorite whipping boy) to a movie like Hostel, it doesn’t hold up for games versus movies in general. If we go by gallons of blood spilt, games are more violent and gory than movies by a longshot. But what’s the real effect of all this violence? A little blood is realistic, lots of blood is scary, but the geysers that often fly from enemies in games is cartoonish. The more blood there is in a game, the more unrealistic it becomes; it ceases to have any real meaning and becomes a joke. Any message or deeper meaning the game might have is lost because no one takes it seriously.


Gears of War 2 is a prime example of this sideshow gore. It embraces violence as one of its selling points but also tries to be serious at times. When we chainsaw a Locust in half, the camera rotates slightly giving us a better view of the chainsaw cutting into our enemy; blood spews out and splashes all over the camera to emphasize the very bloody nature of this kill. A lot of care and attention to detail went into this short scene because it’s important, it’s our reward for getting in close for a kill. We could have shot at the alien from the relative safety of distance, but instead we chose to get in close where we could have been easily flanked or killed by a single well-placed shotgun blast or been punched and cut in half ourselves. The violence has been embellished to the point of ridiculousness, and that’s why it works as an entertaining reward.


It’s interesting that the most emotional scene in the game is completely bloodless. When Dom finally finds Maria, his missing wife, she steps out of a tiny cell looking normal and healthy. They embrace, and when the camera pulls back, we realize that we’re seeing her through Dom’s eyes, and in reality, she’s nothing more than an emaciated skeleton that is mentally dead. But there’s no blood. There are scars on her face, we can see her bones through her skin, but no blood is presented in the secne. Gears of War 2 embraces bloody mayhem as it’s chief attraction, but the lack of it here suggests that this scene is not supposed to be enjoyed, this scene is meant to be taken seriously. But it doesn’t work.


Gamers make fun of the Maria subplot in Gears of War 2 because that single moment of seriousness is out of place in the game. It really is a powerful moment, but when surrounded by ultraviolent fun, it alone can’t grab the player’s attention and make him care.


Where ultraviolence helps make a message clearer is in parodies. Madworld and No More Heroes are two of the most violent games on consoles, let alone on the Wii, and both have embraced their cartoonish ultraviolence by becoming cartoons. They parody other violent games by exaggerating other aspects of the game, the art style, boss fights, and characters to the same extent as the violence. In this context, the ultraviolence seems normal, but being normal in these kinds of over-the-top worlds serves to showcase how out of place it is in purportedly realistic games.


Games must learn restraint before they can be taken seriously, however, “restraint” doesn’t just mean less violence. Bloodless violence is common in games rated anything but M, and this kind of violence is often seen as childish, as the removal of something graphic in order to make it more appealing to a younger audience. So to avoid this unwanted label and to make themselves immediately stand out, M rated games tend to go to the opposite extreme but end up looking just as juvenile. It’s then up to that player to actively try and get over his immediate preconceived notion that these games are just over-the-top mindless fun. There’s nothing wrong with a little ultraviolence, but not every M game has to embrace it to the degree that’s currently popular. Everything in moderation.


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