Cut!

Here’s a good interview hosted at Iron Tower Studio. It’s with Annie Carlson of Obsidian Entertainment; she was the lead writer on the Neverwinter Nights 2 expansion, Storm of Zehir (and no, I have yet to pla it; it’s in the queue). [irontowerstudio.com]

She makes a lot of interesting comments but I’ll jump on one: cuts. But first, a quick preface…

When you’re looking to get into the video game industry, you’ll notice that most companies want you to have the experience of a “complete project cycle” or two. And while many industries are looking for potential employees with experience, I think the difference is that it takes a certain type of person to thrive in the gaming industry for a long period of time. When you go to war, you see things that can’t be unseen. 🙂 The gaming industry isn’t much different. A lot of people aren’t cut out for it and employers, I think, are just making sure that if they invest the dollars in you to bring you on board, you’re not going to bail during the first signs of gun fire.

And that brings me back to the topic of cuts.

Cuts are prevalent in the gaming industry. Name a BioWare title that I was associated with and I’ll tell you all the features and content that were cut from it – or I would if I wasn’t worried about legal ramifications.

I will say this. I remember working on the original Neverwinter Nights as a writer. We had designed one of the chapters around the idea of achieving specific goals to aid you in a guerilla-warfare scenario. The idea was that there were seven situations where you could provide assistance – and you needed to be successful in five of them. Well, cuts happened and the scenario became three-of-five, and then three-of-three.

How did I handle it?

I remember another of the writers, a senior writer, Luke, coming up to me and asking me how I felt about the cuts. I said that I understood (no, not really) that they were necessary, but that this was all I had been working on since I’d been hired and it was fairly tragic to see it swept away.

He told me that game design is all about promising the world and then delivering something much smaller, but hopefully more focused and polished – the idea being that we’d tighten the areas up. Take the best content from the seven stages and, where possible, fit them into the three stages. But I was so caught up in the idea of how each stage played out – as well as the idea of potentially failing and those failures heightening the tension. I really didn’t want to see it happen, but… it happens. One day you’re focused on writing 2,000+ words for a scenario, and then someone comes in and says “it’s been cut. Start working on this new task right away, and get back to me by 4:15pm today.” You have to be prepared to mentally reset yourself.

Eventually, I became a senior member and a tech lead at BioWare (in QA). And cuts were not just a way of life, they were a way to focus a project. I can’t even remember how many cuts for which I advocated. And even now, when I play a game (like KotOR 2), every time I find an area that’s dull or buggy, I wonder why they didn’t just make cuts so that they had the time to polish a more focused project.

What a strange turn of events, but after a while you see parts of the project that are dragging, that are too costly, that add too little, and that just don’t make sense. Experience really plays into seeing that, too. You now realize they were great ideas at the start but that they no longer fit the project’s new, streamlined focus.

And it became my job to play the role of Luke and pull people aside when they found out we were cutting, for example, dual-wielding in Mass Effect and ask them how they were handling it. And that brings me back to the beginning and why developers really prefer the idea of people who have seen it already and won’t be so traumatized when it happens to them.

I’ll stop there. Go read the interview. 🙂

Recessions Brings New Hope?

As a one-time member of the video game industry (looking to get back in), and as someone who has written a few times about the lack of an independent gaming industry, I found this article interesting. [gamesetwatch.com]

There are a lot of talented people out of work in a lot of major metropolitan areas. If you’re the type of person who can motivate them to get together, this seems like a prime opportunity for new studios, new indies, and new ideas about the shape of the industry.

and

It’s very possible that this recession could usher in the next age of the indie. Smaller, less expensive games made by smaller, more agile teams seem like a very logical step, now that the industry structure is better able to support it, with no less than three venues on which to distribute content as a small team.

Designing a Better RPG – Death & Aging

(today’s post: 643 words)

(I honestly am not planning to jump into independent role-playing game development, as I admitted yesterday in my post on Passage, but that doesn’t mean I can’t think about what I would do if I were making a game. I think it’s obvious that this series is a fun hobby for me in its own right.)

One of the things that playing Passage made me realize is that if I were going to make an RPG I’d have to incorporate some type of time limit/aging process.

There are a lot of so-called “hardcore rules” that some RPGs use – such as sleeping or eating requirements. And, most of the time, those rules add little to the game. At best, they’re there as a lazy “drain” – that is, instead of balancing the economy just force the player to constantly buy food and housing. At worst, there is no thought at all given to their implementation. They are there, perhaps, only because the designer think he’s making a more immersive or challenging game – or maybe because the designer played a game where it worked well, but hasn’t given thought as to why it worked.

I think aging not only works in the vision of the RPG I have in my head, but I’ve come to realize it’s likely necessary.

  • For one, my sandbox-style RPG is based upon the idea of time lines. The world itself progresses. Small groups of monsters band together to form large clans – which destroy similarly-burgeoning cities. It only makes sense that time applies across all ements – the character, too.
  • For another, there is the idea of replayability. Consider the amount of potential discovery there is in a world where you can only see so much of it on any given playthrough. If you can see it all on the first go-around, why play again?
  • For a third, I think time limits, as suggested in Passage, come with all sorts of inherent motivations. In any given RPG, I’m trying to resolve every plot. Faced with a time limit, I’m going to focus on what I consider important to my character. That could mean a lot of different things, but it certainly impacts my choices.
  • I like the idea of assigning a random starting age to your character. At 15, he has a head start on disrupting (or taking over) that band of ogres that may eventually destroy our city. Maybe a more wise, well-rounded hero doesn’t leave the nest until he’s in his 20s – well after the wheels of motion are moving to destroy the town. Characters can become legendary for one significant accomplishment or a long life filled with them.

Of course, these lead to the natural question of “how much time is enough?” If the game ends just as you’re getting lost in enjoying the world, you’re angry. If your character dies of old age before you can rescue the one princess you set out to save and marry, you never play the game again. But equate a life span to a play session, and it feels natural. Sit down for an afternoon, create a character, play it through, and try again tomorrow.

Getting killed by trolls doesn’t sting as badly if that death only represents a small investment of time.

Additionally, setting time limits actually helps me-the-designer acknowledge scope.

If I were making this game on my own or with a small pool of volunteers, I have to make a smaller game. I’d also have to worry about game size if I wanted people to play it more than once (most people aren’t going to play a 45-hour game more than once; most people won’t even finish a game longer than that). And if I’m implementing crazy-complex-scripted-but-alterable time lines, I’m going to have to minimize world size.

When you’re looking at something from this high up, you shouldn’t micromanage the little details. But for a point of reference, not knowing even the basics of this “game”, I think I like the idea of starting with a life span of 4-5 hours (with a potential range of 2-12 hours). You could play it all in one shot or quit and resume that game later (no save & reload, though!).

Thoughts?

Designing a Better RPG – Epilogue

The prior three posts (post one, post two, post three) each made me happy to write. I liked musing on fun ideas. What makes me sad is that game design is an object at rest. For various reasons (ego, money, job security, insane hours, focus groups, risk/reward formulas, constant turn-over, etc.), new ideas are rarely forthcoming; instead, many games are derivative – each one slightly improving upon an established, successful formula.

I read a Spider-Man 2 (dev: Treyarch) post-mortem that discussed their web-slinging mechanic. In the first title, the camera was fixed overhead and the player was in a lot of interior locations. The webs that you swung on didn’t “attach” to anything; you hit a button, Spidey shot a web off-screen, a swing animation played, and you moved. Perfectly fine.

No, not this Spider-Man game...

No, not this Spider-Man game...

But someone at the company got the crazy idea of letting the player freely move about the city. And he complemented it with the new-fangled idea of using a physics-based, web-slinging model. You’d fire a web at a wall or light post and – based on speed and angles and other factors – you’d move. It would make movement a lot trickier, he assumed, but it would be more visceral and Spider-Man-like.

It was too late into development for Spidey 1, so they shelved it for a potential sequel. Before Spidey 2, they brought it back to the table. The producer, faced with the possibility of investing limited man-hours into this new, untried feature, said it was too complicated to develop and offered too little – at the cost of making things too difficult for the gamer.

In other words, objects at rest. But a small group formed and, probably in their off-hours, assembled a prototype and showed it to the producer. This time, he could see it. And it was fun. He was sold. And Spidey 2 revamped the movement system to incorporate this feature. And the genre feasted on fresh air.

One of the big differences between games and movies is a thriving-and-mature independent industry (movies have it, games don’t). Jane Doe can write a great-but-controversial story with never-before-seen film techniques, gather some actor friends who are interested in the subject matter, and release it in arthouses across the country and make a few million dollars. Or she can release it on YouTube, for free. Regardless, she can compete. And Hollywood can spot these successes and grow from them. The industry as a whole gets better. The fans are made happier.

In gaming, I can put together a role-playing game that features architecture assembled from placeables as opposed to static level art – so that I can swap pieces to create an illusion of a growing/crumbling town. I can write dialogue for a romance interest and then dynamically drop it on the character that the player happens to choose for a romance. I can create an “Escort Linda” quest and then, when the player ignores Linda and she dies, have other characters talk the next day about the unexpected tragedy – and use that to create a murder mystery or a revenge plot.

ASCII Adventure

It’s hard enough getting people to play big-budget games when they don’t trust or respect reviewers, dislike the other elitist gamers out there, and can’t afford the games themselves – or the three systems they need to buy to run the three games they want to play. (And that’s completely side-stepping the majority of games, all designed for horny, pre-teen boys – and turning off everyone else simultaneously.)

But if it looks like an ASCII adventure, what gamers left are going to play it? If it isn’t pimped by Electronic Arts or hailed by a (non-existent) Roger Ebert-equivalent, what gamers left are going to play it? I’m proud of my ideas, but ideas are a dime a dozen; game development is costly. And complicated. If no one is buying it, or making it, or playing it – then developers aren’t taking notes. The industry isn’t growing. And the fans are left to suffer with the same ol’ stale games.

Designing a Better RPG – Part 3

(I mentioned in this post that it’s fun to think of ways to fill the gaps we spot in entertainment. With that in mind, what follows is one of a three-part series (a TBS first?!) about designing a better RPG – or what I currently think of as better – with each post focusing on one unique or not-seen-often-enough game feature.)

(today’s post: 500 words)

I saved the most difficult for last. And maybe that’s why we haven’t seen it yet (have we?). But I’ve thought on the idea and it can work.

So what’s the idea? For lack of something better, I’ll call it time paths.

Our 2x2 Grid

Our 2x2 Grid

Here’s my thinking. We have a 2×2 grid. Each square is self-contained. Each square contains a linear story. Time starts at unit “1” and advances through to unit”10″ when the story ends.

OK?

The top-left square is A1. It’s the story of a town’s foundation (at time 1) through to its eventual role as a key city on the map (at, say, time 7). I think that alone is more than most games attempt to accomplish – since most games feature static areas or, at best, an occasional before/after location (i.e. the village you grow up in is later burnt to the ground).

Just envision coming across a small encampment that later becomes the typically bustling city. You’d realize that this is a a living, breathing world.

But wait, there’s more!

What if the squares’ linear stories overlapped? What if, for example, the storyline of the top-right box – A2 – was about a clan of trolls who grow larger in numbers until they’re eventually so plentiful that they banded together and conquered the nearby city of A1? So instead of the city of A1 growing to great heights at time 7, they, instead, are destroyed at time 5. Our time-line for A1 is now: 1 foundation; 2-4 growth; 5 war/destruction; 6-10 wastes/overrun by trolls.

But that’s not all! There’s still more!

What if the grids not only overlapped, but you – the player – could affect these time paths?

You arrive at A1 during your adventures at time 3 and find a bustling little village. You perform a few small quests and help them grow – but ignore the rumors of nearby trolls. You leave for a long period of time. You return at time 7 and discover troll settlements amidst human ruins.

You pick the game up at some point in the future and remember how A1 fell to the trolls. You know you can’t change destiny (right?), but you decide to have fun with it. You help A1 flourish – establishing trade routes, building walls, recruiting militia, etc. At time 5, you man the walls when the trolls attack. But – you repel the trolls. The city grows to greater heights. And you discover new characters and adventures that only exist if the city survives.

Now you’re really curious how the game works and you fire it up a third time. Instead of going straight to A1 to build up, you move to the origin of the problem: A2. And that’s when you realize there are more options: attack the trolls and wipe them out; trick them/talk them into leaving the region; convince them to work with the town at A1; etc.

And that’s when you realize this is an RPG like no other. And it’s as “simple” as an array of events/scenarios matched against time/location – and coupled with some writer/designer love.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s epilogue to wrap this all up.

Designing a Better RPG – Part 2

(I mentioned in this post that it’s fun to think of ways to fill the gaps we spot in entertainment. With that in mind, what follows is one of a three-part series (a TBS first?!) about designing a better RPG – or what I currently think of as better – with each post focusing on one unique or not-seen-often-enough game feature.)

(today’s post: 500 words)

Last post, I wished developers would offer gamers a go-for-broke in-game strategy to allow for greater dramatic flair. I talked about the rewards, but what happens when the player lays it all on the line and fails? That leads us to our next entry: the idea of failure as a mechanic to advance the story.

Precious few games have used failure as a forward-moving plot device. I know that the The Witch’s Wake allowed you to die to access an area that you couldn’t otherwise. Similarly, Planescape: Torment. Some games even give you the task of completing 3-of-5 objectives so that if you mess one up you aren’t blocked. There may be a few other instances here and there; if you’ve got some examples, feel free to add them in the comments.

And while these are innovative and commendable, and impactful from the point of view of the story, this isn’t exactly what I’m thinking.

I’m thinking more along the lines of a mission where you’re tasked with safeguarding a caravan that is escorting a holy relic to a nearby sanctuary. In game terms, you must protect the relic for five minutes. Normally, you fight off some would-be robbers, protect the caravan, see the relic safely delivered, and enjoy a moment of happiness-and-unicorns at the end. And if you fail? You re-load and do it again until you figure it out.

Imagine if, instead, you failed. But the game didn’t force you to re-load. Lying on your back, near unconscious (thanks to your actions and not some intruding cinematic), you watch your fellows similarly beaten – some of whom are killed. The rival faction steals the relic you were protecting and leaves. Maybe they take you with them as a hostage – something you don’t find out until the next day when you wake up in chains, on a ship at sea. Not only is there the realization that it was OK to lose the fight because the game is moving forward, but there’s the tension of being side-tracked from delivering the relic and wondering how this new path impacts that old route. What new possibilities are there?

It throws the gamer off-guard, and that’s a good thing.

The funny thing is that the better developers like to be creative and create “replayability”, allowing alternate routes through a story. They’ll provide options where you can charge a gateway, or distract everyone guarding the door and sneak through it, or let you bribe one of the guards into helping you sneak through the lesser-known sewer route. And gamers love discussing the way that they proceeded through the story to contrast it with their friends’ decisions.

My contention is that failure is an alternate route, too. And a potentially exciting/rewarding one. But right now, developers are afraid that gamers will be demoralized from failing. Or that gamers will stop trying because they think they can succeed no matter what. And those fears (or is it something else?) are blocking developers from seeing the available avenues. Like my prior post, I know this is no small undertaking. Games with options are complicated to make – but a) we’re getting better at procedurally-generated content, and b) we need at least a few more 10-hour wide-open games to compete with the bevy of 100-hour linear games.

Feel free to comment! Until then, stay tuned for post #3.

Designing a Better RPG – Part 1

(I mentioned in this post that it’s fun to think of ways to fill the gaps we spot in entertainment. With that in mind, what follows is one of a three-part series (a TBS first?!) about designing a better RPG – or what I currently think of as better – with each post focusing on one unique or not-seen-often-enough game feature.)

(today’s post: 487 words)

My first game mechanic is “exhaustion”.

Most games feature a go-go-go mentality. Characters don’t sleep. They adventure through constant stress for weeks or months on end. Characters come within an inch of their life, pop a potion, and keep going without a care.

I *fully* understand that it’s this way because no one wants to watch their character recovering/eating/using the bathroom/other-non-heroic-activities instead of playing – and that’s good (unless we’re playing The Sims).

But I would like to incorporate exhaustion in some way toward the goal of making you feel more heroic when you overcome it or achieve despite it.

What’s a more powerful image in fantasy stories than the wizard or fighter who exceeds his own limits and battles into unconsciousness, knowing only that he did his best but uncertain if that was enough for survival?

In my immersion post, I talked about my character struggling to stay conscious after in-game days sought trying to escape a dungeon. Knowing my character would pass out at any moment, I gave up the search for the exit, crept into a room, and hoped that closing the door behind me might help in some way to let me survive the night. Whether or not it did anything, my character did wake up. I escaped the dungeon. And I had a gaming moment.

Developers are all for sandbox games that allow gamers to have their own story, so why not give players additional tools to let them add flourishes to their dramas? When a player comes up against a tough situation, instead of the same ol’ boring crutch of the “reload” to try again and hope to do it the way the developer wants you to do it, why not an in-game alternative?

Imagine a battered, seemingly-defeated warrior trapped against a cliff face by overwhelming odds using a “berserker rage” so he has a chance to survive when normally he would not dream of it. Or a sorcerer hunkered down in an abandoned, barricaded cottage, slinging spells well after he normally would have used them all up in the hopes that he can make it another hour or two until daybreak when the zombies will disperse in frustration?

Instead of the player reloading and tension evaporating, the player makes his final move and wonders, as the screen fades, if it will pay off. What if he is afraid that his character might actually die because there is no re-load? What if he is holding his breath, hoping his gambit paid off, as he waits for the screen to fade back in? It could be a winner.

This isn’t an easy idea. It comes with all sorts of issues, balance and otherwise. It needs a lot of attention. But to get “drama,” the alternative is a pre-packaged cinematic coming, predictably enough, at the game’s conclusion – and generally lacking in any real tension. And that isn’t good enough. RPG developers can do better.

Crazy? About time? Let me know what you think and stay tuned for post #2!

Ideas

(today’s post: 361 words)

Every once in a while I come up with a decent idea – whether it be for a story or a video game or something similar.

As an example, at a time when football video games were very simplistic, I thought it was only natural evolution that we’d see what has since become Madden Football. A few years later, we had that cash cow makes its presence felt. Another idea I came up with I actually submitted for a game-concept contest. My idea? More or less, Driver. The contest people laughed at my submission. A few years later, again, Driver was a huge hit (critically and financially).

But I’m not an overly ambitious person and I’m not especially good at driving production. (I’m not selling myself short. I have a large list of things at which I feel I am very good.) That means most of my ideas sit idle while I sit around waiting for someone else to get to them. And since my ideas are generally good, and not too unique, they inevitably come about.

To be honest, I don’t mind. It isn’t that I want to be the guy who made Madden Football or Driver. It’s that I want to play those games. Sure, I’d loved to have been involved in the creation of those titles, but really it’s just the gamer in me that wants something fun to play.

One of the things I’ve gotten into on this blog is incorporating more of the stuff that makes up who I am – such as the recently-posted short story and screenplay. It’s one thing to tell you who I am and another entirely to show it. I like showing. But thinking along these lines, I also realized that posting an idea to the web might be a great way to get other people motivated.

So now I’m thinking maybe I’ll start posting some of those ideas in the hopes that they’ll spread out there somewhere and get used. And saying that makes me realize this is a long post to introduce the possibility of potential posts in the future, but what are you going to do? They can’t all be gold. 🙂