Category: Games

Beta Comics

I want to share Azarimy’s Battlefield: Bad Company 2 beta comics with you. They’ve been posted on the EA UK beta forums, but not really had the recognition or attention they deserve. It’s an amazing feeling that we’re not just making a game, but also inspiring other creative art like this.

My respect to Azarimy for some awesome comics, and my gratitude for his permission to share them with you here.

Awesome stuff. Azarimy’s got more coming, so if you like them, head on over to his thread on the forums. And on that note, I wish you all a happy new year.

(I’m a ninja, I’m a ninja, I’m a ninja, I’m a ninja!)

A Beta Release is Born

I’ve had a few minutes here and there to keep tabs on the EA UK forum for the BFBC2 PS3 beta, and toss in a few answers here and there. One thread turned into a discussion on the pros and cons of patching vs not patching the beta build.

There’s a limited amount of internal stability testing we can do. That testing can run down most things, but can’t test large-scale things (like server backends and what happens when 5000 people all log in at once). So, we get three things out of the beta: backend/large-scale stability tech testing, large-scale balance data and feedback from people.

I understand that people would rather see us implement our fixes resulting from all three directly into the beta. But putting out an update of the beta would require us to use up some of our internal testing to make sure the beta update is good enough. If sending a broken build to 100 people is bad, sending a broken build to 10000 people is a lot worse.

So in that situation we’re in a place where we have to choose between a spending our quality assurance resources on a beta update OR on the final product. To me, at least, that choice is quite easy. The led to this comment from poster 1Bryce1:

Isn’t a beta essentially a broken build to begin with? Any patches just eliminating problems and addressing balance issues along the way. So unless you break it more, any update would be less broken. Not only that but the “Backend/large-scale stability tech testing, large-scale balance data and feedback from people.” you get from each patched version would be more accurate to the finished game and give you better results. Wouldn’t it? I mean some of the most basic tweaks can drastically change the game and how people play. Spending some QA resources on a beta update IS contributing to the final product.

I started answering on the forum, but I figured this could be interesting for a wider audience and moved it here. A beta build is expected to be more broken than a final release — though I wouldn’t call it broken as such. A public (closed or open alike) beta is a reasonably unbroken build, from where I sit. The catch in the above line of reasoning is in this: “unless you break it more, any update would be less broken”. Essentially this is how it goes:

Lots of people in the dev team are making changes to the game. Each such change is to fix a bug or improve something. However, each time you change something, there’s a small risk of breaking something without noticing it. So together, the small risks of any one change breaking the game becomes a fairly major risk of *some* change breaking the game in one way or another.

Which means that the more work you do on a game, the bigger the risk that more stuff is broken at any given time (while, on average, the quality increases). As a developer, you can put up with that… either go back to an earlier, working, build or ignore the error for a while until fixed. Sending a build out over PSN is major though… you guys can’t just go back to an earlier build, or not jump into the tank because that crashes the game, or ignore the fact that all names in the score board come out as “PLAYERNAMEHERE_PLACEHOLDER” or whatever… a hundred small fixes can cause one large error, which you then fix as you find it.

So the way to deal with this is to stop development, test the build thoroguhly to find all the bugs. The closer you get to shipping something, the more stuff you will leave in there because of the risk of breaking something if you touch it, which means that as you get ready to ship the game off, the only bugs you fix are the really major ones. That way, when we ship, the game has been really well tested and we’re sure that it wont break.

This procedure has to be done regardless of whether it’s a beta update release or the final game… and that sucks because of the thing with “stopping development” I mentioned. So for a beta, what you do is branch the development. This essentially means you copy the entire source for the game to a separate repository, where it sits while everyone else keeps on improving (and breaking ;)) the game. The beta branch is tested, and thoroughly bug fixed. Needed bug fixes are done to both the main game line and to the beta line, while other improvements are done only on the main game line.

A slightly simplified version of this procedure as an image:

branchSome things are easy to see from this image: First of all, when the beta gets released, the main (somewhat broken) game line has already progressed a fair bit beyond the state in which the beta was branched. Second, there is no obvious way to update the beta from where it is… you need to start the entire procedure over again, branch another branch out of the main line game, and stabilize that the same way, and it is this process that takes resources away from the main development line.

I know there have been some comments that other betas do update. I’m sure they have rational reasons for that, which make the cost worth paying. MAG has come up as a name, and though this is pure speculation on my part, I’m guessing that their player count makes the game hard to test internally, which would mean that doing public beta updates is a very good choice for them.

Game On

I’m not dead. First of all, we’ve moved into a house and have spent a great deal of time sorting out things and selling my old apartment. And then, just as I thought I would have some more time for the blog again, we launched into crunch mode.

I’m hoping I’ll be able to write more again soon.

For now, I urge you to try the Playstation 3 beta of Battlefield: Bad Company 2, which opened yesterday. I have a couple of beta codes laying around (EU ones), so drop a comment here if you’ve got a PS3 and haven’t been able to get one.

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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