Posts tagged: Game Design

Game AI Keynote Slides

Last week I went to the Game AI conference in Paris, arranged by the AI Game Dev web site to hold a keynote titled “Building the Battlefield AI Experience”. The slides to the talk are now available on slideshare and as a downloadable powerpoint file. If you want the quick version, flick through the slides online:

The powerpoint presentation and the two movies that go with it contain more information, however, including notes for each slide that loosely reflect what I was talking about in the presentation. They are all available on DICE’s publication page.

I’ll try to turn this presentation into a post in a way that makes more sense online eventually. If you’re subscribed to the AIGameDev web site you will be able to watch the presentation video online eventually as well.

Enjoy!

Game Developers are Better Than Everyone Else?

In a post over on gamasutra, Brandon Sheffield argues that the Dead Space campaign “design a kill” is a very regressive thing for our industry:

I don’t believe we should shy away from violence in games – violence is a part of life, and can make for very interesting scenarios in games. And it’s no secret that a large majority of fun video games are based on conflict, much of which is combative. But I also believe that asking fans to think as hard as they can about an innovative way to kill someone is a very regressive thing for our industry.

Just think for a second about what EA is actually asking people to do. Yes, this is what many of us do every day – there are those of us who design combat and combat scenarios for a living. But asking fans to do it is just too much.

I’m not sure what he’s trying to get at here. There is pretty much two options: either game devs are much better than everyone else, or game devs are horrible people. Neither option seems very reasonable to me.

So why can’t our fans do what we do all day? Is it because as game developers, we are much better than everyone else, and can thus stand the moral strain of thinking about how to dismember humanoid monstrosities all day, without being irreparably damaged by the ordeal?

Or is it the opposite? Are we damaged people, horribly affected by the thoughts on monstrosity dismemberment, so bad that we should take care to shield others from the horrible things we go through daily to bring the public these sinful products?

Neither option really makes sense. Sheffield argues out of the old moral high ground that game violence would somehow damage people, and should be censored. We are talking about a rated game, for adults, not a kids game — so this is not about damaging the fragile world view of children.

Honestly, do you really think that asking someone “think of ways a fictional character could attack, dismember and kill a monstrous humanoid” will have any kind of affect of them that playing the game in question wouldn’t? That is somehow an idea that using the human imagination could be bad for you.

To me, nothing could be further from the truth. The human imagination is a beautiful thing — it creates all culture and all our progress.

Get off the “games are bad for you” horse. No one on this side of the 1980s would argue that the violence in a movie causes people to go on murderous rampages. Would asking someone to design a kill for a movie be as bad? I somehow doubt it.

What about an even more imaginative media, like books? Books are highly based in the communication of imagination between author and reader. We are asked “imagine this”, when we read descriptions of events in a book. But somehow I don’t think the “write a gruesome description of a brutal murder” competition would come under any flack.

There are many things that are wrong with our society, which lead people to do nasty things to others. Taking out your aggressions on characters in a computer game instead of reality is not one of them. Imagining new ways to kill computer game monsters is certainly not one either.

I’m not much for dismemberment and blood splatter in games myself — I just don’t think it adds much. But I’ll happily let other grown up individuals make their decisions for themselves on what they’d like to play — or imagine.

And if you’re going to argue that games are bad, please do so outright, don’t try to hide it behind saying that playing games is fine, but thinking about them isn’t.

Scarcity of Content in Games

There’s an interesting difference, if you compare games to other art forms like movies, in how they get consumed across different groups of people. With movies, there’s pretty much two categories of viewers: the big screen people and the DVD people. With minor differences within those groups, everyone has pretty much the same potential experience. Very few people turn the movie off before its end.

That is very different with games. A sizable portion of everyone who plays a game, especially multiplayer-enabled games, will put a huge amount of time into that game. That’s awesome, but those people are not in a majority. The majority of people who buy a game wont even finish the singleplayer campaign. For these people, the game was too long. This is something like the dark secret of game design, and its a reason that makes constructing games a bit sad — no matter how much love you put into your story, it’s unlikely that most people will see its conclusion.

You would never guess that this was the case, looking at game reviews. Reviews regularly complain about games being too short. This has happened to a range of great games lately — from Portal to Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune and Mirror’s Edge — all games that I enjoyed a lot. What conclusions can we draw from this?

Well, first of all, if you are the kind of person who rarely completes games (like the average gamer out there apparently), game reviews aren’t taking your interests into account. I’m assuming here that being able to finish a game is more enjoyable than abandoning it along the way.

Second, we’re creating ever-longer games that cater to a portion of the gamer community who will not buy games that are too short, which means that at the same time we’re making sure that a majority of players will play even smaller part of the game. That’s quite a problem from where I see it — a small part of players are allowed to dictate how games are made, which actually lowers quality for the majority.

In addition to this problem, more time in games tends to mean more repetition. Content creation for modern games is incredibly expensive, which means that longer play means more play time made from the same content. Maybe that means more of the same kind of objectives (ever play Assassin’s Creed?). My own experience is that I’d much rather play through Uncharted on its Hard difficulty setting than play through a longer, but more repetitive game.

The result of this is a kind of scarcity of actual content in games. The longer we make any given game, the more diluted the experience becomes. We get more of the same enemies in the same locations, and more locations made up out of the same building blocks.

You can see this quite easily if you compare the soundtracks of different media. Movie music is a movie-length musical score which has changing music to the events in the movie, usually with common themes for parts of movies but with the music still shifting to each individual moment.

How much variation is there in game music? Sometimes, game music is a movie-length (yes) musical score, played straight or randomly to a game (usually 4 times longer than a movie). Sometimes it’s a song-length musical score played to each level. Sometimes it’s “dynamic music” which usually means tying musical start/fade triggers to action. I commented on game music before in Give Me Some Emotion, Maestro, where I suggested a more involved form of dynamic music for games with composers as first-class game developers, but that doesn’t go all the way — we also simply need an appropriate amount of music to cover the length of a game.

More enemies to kill in the same way, more of the same concrete blocks to make up new parts of levels, more of the same music and sounds, more of the same experience. These things all lead to the current playing experience you get from games, which tends to be a repetitive flat-emotion slaughter even if you look at non-shooter games. Yet making more content for the games would make them more expensive.

I think games as a medium need to focus better. Yes, shorter games would probably be good in the long run. There are some people who would wish that movies be 10 hours long as well — but those aren’t the main segment of customers for movies. In the end, bringing quality of games up needs more variation — in environments, in challenges, and in emotions. Then maybe the average consumer would actually have the pleasure of finishing the games they buy.

I don’t mean there can’t be long games here either. People obviously liked the The Lord of the Rings movies, despite their long run time. But those movies are still beautifully crafted all the way through, and do not lack the focus you would get from doing the same thing to other movies. It also has something to do with an insanely large budget.

For singleplayer games, the question then becomes how to satisfy the people who want longer play times? I sure don’t have that answer, and any comments are definitely appreciated.

And Here Come the Aliens — Storytelling in Games

Why do games inevitably end with you shooting monsters, zombies or aliens, regardless of what the game was about from the beginning?

Game story design lacks some maturity, compared to other media. It seems to me that we’re too obsessed with the spectacular, or too afraid of not making a splash, that we violate one of the fundamental pieces of storytelling advice there is: keep the story believable.

The central concept in all great storytelling is the suspension of disbelief. We’re asking the viewer, reader or player to ignore all their preconceived notions about how a world works, and join you in your world for a bit. This can work as long as your story is compelling enough to keep them interested, and consistent enough that the world makes sense in the mind of the viewer, reader or player.

alienWhy, then, is it so common in games that start out with a fairly reasonable story, there inevitably seem to be aliens, zombies, super mutants, experimental super-soldiers or some similar monstrosity near the end? I’ve played through a fair number of games with this problem, and I’ve actually quit a fair number as well.

Some games have stories that aren’t exactly masterpieces, yet they still get smashed to pieces by this kind of move. One example of this would be Far Cry — not exactly known for it’s brilliant story, but I still lost my interest when the super-mutant-experiment-soldiers showed up.

Since actual good game stories are so few and far apart, story reviews tend to look favorably on anything that actually has a story.

Game story designers fall into this trap for several reasons. I think, first of all, that it’s a sign of a certain lack of maturity — we don’t take our stories seriously, don’t focus on them and thus we don’t think they can hold their own.

For me, the story adds so much to a game experience that it deserves to be treated better. Trust me, playing the single player campaign of something like Bad Company during development, before the story elements are in place, is but a pale shadow of the final product.

Our demands on gameplay and difficulty also makes this an easy trap to fall into. Adding more HP and weaponry to enemies only makes sense to a certain point, I guess, so in order to have an appropriately difficult grand finale, we throw in something supernatural. The funny thing about this is that many times, the same games have already shown themselves to not need this. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, for instance (which is an awesome game by the way) has both a story and difficulty measures good enough to stand on their own feet. It simply didn’t need monsters.

These thrown in monsters, mutants and aliens provide an opportunity to make something spectacular. However, the best moments I’ve had in gaming must be the ones that both made sense and were spectacular.

I hope game stories can move with time to the more mature, nuanced theme of telling a simple but powerful story in an interesting way that keeps me hooked. However, that requires us to respect the power of a story well told… among all our fancy graphics, powerful hardware and surround sound systems, we get to face the idea that perhaps the most important piece of the game shares more qualities with a good camp-fire story than with the tech labs that produced the chip we’re running.

What do you think about the state of stories in games? How would you like to see them improve?

Image credit: kevindooley on flickr

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