Monday, July 1, 2019

Expectations and a Rapping Dog

Apologies for being later than normal.

I'd like to write briefly about rhythm games.

Parappa the Rapper was the first exposure many in the west had to rhythm games.  The endearing characters, the funky music, and the outright comical plot made a fascinating game people enjoyed. 

In addition, for being a Japanese game, the English was done rather well -- given how this was during a time where English voicework in games were still very questionable, it was rather notable.  It turns out that the game's audio was originally done in English, so that explained the quality, even if sometimes the grammar doesn't make perfect sense.

Still, one of the problems that popped up in Parappa the Rapper came when it was the player's turn.  The game was set up as a call-and-response style of game, where the opponent of the stage said a line consisting of button presses, and then the player would repeat said button presses.  What was not clear was when exactly the player's turn was supposed to start.  In addition, the underlying mechanics of what exactly was "good" and "bad" was unclear.

The next installment of the series, although it was more of a spiritual successor, addressed the issue of when exactly do the players start their turn.

Still, it wasn't entirely clear just how to actually accomplish the best rating since strictly mimicking the opponent will just net you an acceptable rating.  So in the actual sequel, Parappa the Rapper 2, they added in meters along the bottom that judge how your current line did in getting to a "cool" rating.

However, even though there was a visual display of what you're supposed to do, the rules themselves felt very inconsistent.  Notice Parappa strictly mimicking and sometimes getting halfway up to Cool, but sometimes failing, despite strictly mimicking.  The intention was to have the player freestyle and do their own thing, but even that doesn't exactly work all the time.

Implementing your rules in a way that makes sense and is consistent is key to player satisfaction.  The fact that the freestyle doesn't work all the time, or why some freestyle is better than others isn't easily understandable even by someone who's beaten the game. 

Consistency is very good.  This doesn't mean you need to remove randomness of any sort, but as long as you're clear what parts are randomness and not just buggy implementation, it's absolutely fine.

Like I had wrote about earlier, you need to also manage player expectation when you're making a game.  Just like a performance, everything needs to appear intentional, or else the audience will assume something was a mistake that wasn't.

And for your enjoyment, here's a player who edited the files to make one of the stages in Parappa the Rapper 2 far more interesting.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Sometimes, Not Too Random

Randomness of any sort in electronic games is determined by what's called a Random Number Generator, because machines cannot make a decision randomly, they can only approximate randomness.  In a few cases the machine will use an external source to generate an actual random number, such as atmospheric noise or even a lava lamp.  Most of the time they use algorithms to approximate randomness, and that is called a Pseudo-Random Number Generator.

For the most part, they're good.  Sometimes implementations of PRNG can leave vulnerabilities, allowing the user to manipulate the system in ways that are not intended.  PRNG in slot machines for criminal gain, PRNG in cryptography to bypass encryption on computer data, but also PRNG in video games.  In many speedruns, players will take specific number of steps, press buttons in only specific patterns, and listen for sound cues in order to make critical strikes appear on demand, avoid every attack, or have a specific rare item drop, guaranteed.

Most players won't find them, or even particularly care about them, so from a developer standpoint those sort of PRNG vulnerabilities are pointless at best to worry about, to a negative experience if it were fixed.  The vast majority of the time those vulnerabilities exist only in closed systems in a one-player environment, at which point however they enjoy playing the game is entirely up to them.

A more interesting potential of PRNG when it comes to video games, is having the randomness be not too random.

Valve implemented a system on top of their PRNG in Dota 2, in order to make their competitive game less vulnerable to overly large lucky or unlucky streaks.

On melee heroes, Skull Basher icon.png Skull Basher's Bash has a 25% chance to stun the target. On the first attack, however, it only has an ~8.5% probability to bash. Each subsequent attack without a bash increases the probability by ~8.5%. So on the second attack, the chance is ~17%, on the third it is ~25.5%, etc. After a bash occurs, the probability resets to ~8.5% for the next attack. These probabilities average out so that, over a moderate period of time, Bash effect procs nearly 25% of the time.
What this meant was that no longer could there be games where you'd get a bash four times in a row, get a crucial kill, and win the game.  On the other hand, neither would you have a game where your basher never activated, leaving you to wonder if the stupid thing is actually bugged.

Likewise, Grinding Gear Games and Path of Exile has the same sort of system with Evasion, but in that they implement an entropy system.  Everytime you evade an attack, your evasion is lowered until you're hit.  If your evasion comes out to be 90%, that means on average you will have evaded 90% of the attacks.  Evasion as a stat felt far more useful and, importantly, reliable.

There are some key things to take away from these anecdotes of pseudo-pseudo-RNG.  When you're playing a video game and something that happens on a very low percentage chance, fails to occur for a very long time, it is a real possibility that there is a bug in the game.  In real life, you don't have to worry about programming glitches keeping you from rolling well in a board game, but in video games you do.

Another thing to keep in mind is that randomness averages out to certain numbers over the span of many iterations.  Depending on what you're implementing and how often it's likely going to actually occur during the game, those iterations may not occur anywhere needed enough for the randomness to actually average out.  A 25% chance for something to drop, and the player hasn't gotten it in 20 tries?  That's needlessly frustrating if it takes about half an hour for each attempt, but it's something that absolutely can happen with randomness.  There's no particular reason why that player would be overjoyed when the item finally drops since the expectation was for the drop to have happened a long time ago.  A key point here is managing the expectations of your players.

In addition, having core mechanics in a game feel reliable is also very attractive to a player.  If it's something core, you want to rely on it.  Button presses need to always do what you expect them to do, movement in an action game should not be an unsure experience.  The same extends to anything that is core to your game.  So if there's something core in your gameplay that has an element of randomness, consider stacking the deck a bit and not truly leaving it up to chance.

All in all, you don't need to implement these systems for every aspect of your game, and there certainly are times and places where being ridiculously lucky or unlucky has a certain appeal and makes for a great story.  That said, there are places in your game where you don't want to gamble big.  So gamble small, constrict your variances in RNG, or just flat out shape the data the way you want, so that you get the effect you want.

Fiddling with numbers can change a lot, after all.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Rush to Endgame Pt. 2 - Filling In The Levels

Game developers are not stupid.  They know that leveling up, increasing numbers, and filling in the bars to completion is inherently satisfying in a staggering amount of players.  When they make endgame content, which in this situation meaning content that comes only when you're at max level, they include all sorts of methods for increasing your own numbers, whether it's grinding reputation, climbing pvp ranks, or acquiring shinier and better gear in places you can only access once you've finished the leveling process.

The smart ones will have these systems running concurrently with the leveling process, so that when leveling abruptly ends, these other systems that incentivize play will remain familiar to the player.  To do otherwise is to have an experience where you play two completely different games, the leveling "tutorial", and the "real game" at the end in which you do completely different things during leveling.  This sort of tonal dissonance between the two sections is very aggravating, and akin to having a nailbiting horror movie end in a ten minute light-hearted slapstick section that intentionally tries to make the previous horror bit pointless.  One of those things for the avant-garde and those bored with the genre, but for people just wanting to enjoy and immerse themselves in what's going on, it's jarring.

In which case you may ask yourself... why halt leveling at all?  Part of it comes down to design choices.  If the game is very strictly gated by levels, allowing uncapped leveling can quickly make any challenge set forth pointless.  To explicate, imagine a single-player game with an RPG-ish structure.  In this game, you are only allowed to set foot in the dragon's lair once you are level 60, and anytime before than that you cannot even enter the zone.  The game will not let you, and even if it did you would very quickly become slaughtered as inherent level differences between targets carry strict penalties.  The game designer for this example included this feature so that players would be compelled to stick only to zones appropriate to their level and not try to level too quickly by fighting enemies a much higher level than them.

At level 60, this fictional dragon in this fictional game is a very tough challenge, and the dev team put a lot of heart, soul and effort into this encounter.  A player trivializing it would basically waste the time they put into making it, in their mind.  Regardless, the player fights the dragon, and finds himself not up to the challenge.  If the player can still level, he can simply grind experience until he holds the advantage and take out the dragon, trivializing the difficulty of the encounter away from execution of game mechanics, into simply spending more time killing what's likely to be far less challenging monsters.  So is the solution simply to water down levels to be far less important?  Not necessarily. 

It all comes back to knowing what kind of game you're making.  In my personal experience as a player, games where levels can make a huge swinging difference are absolutely fine and even great when you're playing games where you're expected to start from the beginning often, such as in roguelikes.  That kind of game, however, is completely different than a game where you're expected to invest a lot of time into a very small set of characters.

Again, there's no particularly good or bad game mechanic, just a good or bad situation to implement them.  They are multiple different tools in your toolbox, and I hope that as you grow as a skilled craftsman, you are able to determine when to use the hammer, and when to use the mallet.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

The Rush to Endgame

My first introduction to MMORPGs was actually Ragnarok Online, a fairly thriving game that came from Korea in the early 2000s.  There, it took an excruciatingly long time to level, and thus every loss of experience on death felt even worse.  A lot of people never made it to max level, but still played the game and had fun.  There were hardly any quests, and no pointers on what zone is the next area to level -- many times you would wander a bit too far and a very aggressive enemy would sprint at you and lay you out in the dirt, putting you back to where you saved.

When I moved over to World of Warcraft, quests were far more abundant, death was far more of a nuisance than a fear, and you had a pretty good idea where you needed to go next.  Still, there was a sense of a journey being taken when you leveled up, and there were a lot of toons who never quite made it to the level cap.  This was a fine and good thing, because the majority of the content was in the leveling.

Let's approach this from a different angle.  I'm not a designer or developer for World of Warcraft, and declaring the makers' motivations as if I were one of them would be absolutely foolish.  Thus, this is a theory from the player's side of things.

To me as a player, the vast majority of a player's experience was expected to be from 1-60, not at 60.  A lot of care was put into that world experience, which when a player hit max level never particularly saw that much of, unless farming for specific materials.  And those materials very often didn't necessitate being max level either!

No, Vanilla World of Warcraft was far more like that Korean MMO I started with than it is like the current expansion, where zones and leveling are just glossy extended tutorials for the real game at max level.  Leveling up was an achievement, and the experience pre-60 was a lot of the content.  And that's one of the reasons why it's so beloved.  Gathering experience and leveling up, getting measurably stronger in the process, is a very simple but effective pleasure no matter the game.

In other words, the core draw of the game changed drastically throughout expansions.  Leveling versus end-game theme park being just one of them.  This sort of effect splits your userbase every expansion and alienates your earlier players.  Expansions change things, yes, but if you change the core concept of a game, it becomes a completely different game.  It has failed to accomplish its primary objective when its objectives were changed, much like SJW convergence in companies starts rotting it away from the inside.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Horizontal Balancing

Icefrog's approach to balance in Dota, and later Dota 2, has been a rather interesting one -- one that I would call ingenious as well.  So for this post we're going to talk a little bit about what I call horizontal balancing.

Dota 2 is a competitive PvP game at its core, with currently 117 different characters to choose from.  Each of those 117 different characters bring something unique to the table, and thanks to how they're balanced there's a time and place for each of them.  Some characters, called heroes in game, have a slightly higher winrate than others, but it's always in the scope of having an overall 60% winrate instead of something absurd like 80%.

Keep in mind that this level of balancing is actually a very difficult concept to execute, as it's easier said than done.  One of the difficulties being the instinctual human tendency to hammer down the parts that stick out.  By that, I mean if you have something in your game that's been deemed as overpowered, or too strong to be fair, the instinctual response is to nerf, or reduce in strength, the overpowered aspect until it's fair.  For example, you have a character or a class running around killing every enemy player with one shot, so the first response is to nerf that character's damage until they're roughly doing the same damage as everyone else.  The game is now safely "balanced".

The unfortunate side effect of this is that it makes each player option just a bit more homogeneous.  The player's choices start meaning less.

In comparison, horizontal balancing would take that same oneshotting class, let them keep their oneshot capabilities, but make the windup to doing that damage take a ponderous amount of time.  The oneshot class keeps their separate identity, and they're still good at what they do particularly if no one notices them winding up their big strike, but they're no longer good in every single case, and that is what you're aiming for. 

Eventually with everyone having their own identity and point in which they're useful, very small changes to the environment itself or natural player tendencies to counter the current popular classes/characters will force those same overplayed or overpowered characters out of the meta, with no drastic number changes needed whatsoever.

There are sometimes you do need to scale back direct numbers of overpowered things, but not to a very large extent.  Which is fortunate, because players can get very upset over what they perceive as huge nerfs to what they currently play.

For a topical example, since there's been a hubbub about Classic WoW for a while, let's talk about World of Warcraft as it was when it first came out, oft dubbed Vanilla.  Some of the many reasons why WoW did well was because the team put an absurd amount of passion into the project, the game released at a good time, and there was a lot of hardcore fans eagerly anticipating and building up hype to explore the world they loved from the Warcraft RTS series. 

Another reason why WoW did well was because each class felt very unique from each other.  There were a vast amount of things that only one or two classes did that each was a completely different experience, and had their own identity.  Blizzard's method of balancing over the years and expansions lost a lot of that identity.  Shamans use less totems, warlocks less dots, druids stay in one form all the time, there's a litany of stuff.

Absolutely, there was a lot of stuff that was removed from WoW because it honestly wasn't fun, and I think that Blizzard was right when they said, "You think you do, but you don't," when people asked for the Vanilla experience again.  However, that's because Vanilla WoW wasn't balanced all that well. It's unfortunate Blizzard balanced the way they did, because what people actually wanted was a time where their class actually felt like it meant something, their item choices felt like it meant something, their every choice in game felt like it meant something.

And for Classic WoW, that's something horizontal balancing could fix.  Unfortunately they won't do that since they're aiming for a strict recreation of how WoW was back then.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Love Thy Fans Pt. 2

Imagine, if you aren't already, that you're a successful game developer and you have your game on the market, and you want to get some feedback from your customers because you're good at what you do and you want to make the best game you can.  When you set out to canvas your current audience, you quickly discover that their suggestions contradict each other.  What do you do?

Well first off, don't be surprised.  Remember, not everyone will enjoy your games the same way.  One person will derive their most fun from a game by setting limits on themselves and accomplishing challenges, whereas another person will get the most fun from a game by making their avatar wear the most fashionable clothing they can find.  Thus, one person suggesting changes to maximize one area, will find their suggestions either explicitly or implicitly contradicting suggestions from another.

The next thing to realize is that your game cannot be everything, to everyone.  It is impossible, and to attempt this is to water down your game so much it has lost all tastiness.  It can certainly be a lot to some, but it can't be everything.  Part of this is due to the amount of time, money and manpower you have available to develop things, but part of it has to do with simply contradictory things.  Do you make an easy mode for Sekiro, or do you not?  Attempting to split the difference on things like that makes everyone dissatisfied, so you have to pick one or the other.

So you have to be selective with what feedback to actually implement.  Who do we take more seriously?

Your actual hardcore fans.  These hardcore fans are emotionally invested in your success, and really want to see you make a great game.  Feedback from casual players can be useful, but along the lines of bug reports and how to make any tutorial make more sense.  Be very wary of taking gameplay balancing or feedback of new systems from casual players, since they often don't have as good of a grasp of the big picture.

Again, your hardcore fans won't all agree with each other since they'll like different things about your game, but immediately it's a smaller section of feedback to wade through.  Instead, you subdivide the feedback again.

The long-time developer of Defense of the Ancients and DotA 2, Icefrog kept in contact with the absolute highest skilled players of the game for balancing testing.  Since DotA is a game about competitive player versus player, the top players had a far more accurate idea of what was strong, what was weak, and what was outright broken than Icefrog knew himself.  Numerous posts on the forums about so-and-so being overpowered, Icefrog please nerf, would correctly go ignored, as after various minor tweaks to completely different systems lead to different play, and those in-game heroes or items decried as overpowered just fell out of favor.  Nothing really different about them, they were still good at what they did, but those situations in which they shined just didn't happen nearly as often if at all.

Those players on the forums were just as hardcore of fans as the top-skilled players were, but relying on them for feedback on balancing would have been a terrible idea.  Too often, they'll want something nerfed into the ground or buffed into heaven, to simply scratch an emotional itch they had regarding some dissatisfaction.  Still, they're your hardcore fans, you have to treat them well.  They can still give good feedback, just don't weigh it as heavily as the skilled players.  In many cases, these middling or poor-skilled players can give a wide panoply of suggestions that the top-skilled players didn't even think to cover which are still valuable goals.  Is there something about the UI which could honestly be improved?  The average-skilled player who puts in a lot of time can give effective advice on that.  The top-skilled player may not even remember it most of the time, when they've focused on wrangling out the rules for a competitive advantage as much as they can instead.

Something to keep in mind during all of this though, is that the vision of the game your hardcore players want probably will be a slightly different game than what you've intended.  Still, love thy fans.  They're the reason you can feed your family.  Treat them well, and it'll be hard to drive them away.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Love Thy Fans

I've touched on this briefly, but now is as good a time as any to go more in depth on the subject.

Love your hardcore fans, developer, for they will see you through the rough times.  Appealing to the casual audiences may bring lots of dough, but make one misstep and you'll be having some really rough times.

What do I mean by this?

Look, it's pretty clear to anyone without a god complex that not every game you make will be a success.  When those games aren't a large enough success to recoup the amount of work that went into them, you start having financial troubles.  This is very obvious.

Sufficiently large enough games take an extraordinary amount of work to complete.  Practically every game actually worth $20 or more, has had years to percolate.  So to recover from a disastrous game puts a lot of stress on a studio, because you need a lot of time in order to release a new game that addresses what the players hated.

Video games generally aren't a hugely profitable industry anyway, and when you have a good success of a game it's quite easy for that money to fly away.

Your fans who are hardcore supporters of you and your studio though, will forgive your inevitable missteps.  They'll buy your crappy game, and be eager to buy your next game because they have faith that the next one will be better.  In fact, it's actually hard to accidentally alienate a hardcore fan.  You have to very purposefully treat them like dirt in order to drive away the most fanatical.  Love them, because they love you.

Really, dealing with fans is just an extension of normal interpersonal relationships.  Fairweather fans are fairweather friends, and you can never rely on them.  Just appreciate them when they're there, but never make plans around them.  They're just there for the experience of it all, not because they want to actively contribute and make it their own.

This division between the fairweather and the fanatical extends even further in unexpected ways when you start conversing with your audience, which I'll write more on next week.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

More Human Than Human

Let's talk AI.

An aspect of gaming that has been there for almost as long as there's been games, Artificial Intelligence fleshes out the world in MMOs, provides training dummies for competitive PvP games, and for many single player games is the entire reason they exist.

Yet, AI in the gaming sense is not AI in the academic sense.  Let's get this perfectly clear, because that's a rather important distinction.  In games, the Artificial is clearly artificial, and the Intelligence is a misnomer, whereas the academic AI definition seeks to make Artificial Intelligence indistinguishable from regular human intelligence.  There's a good reason for that.

Remember, what is the game being made for?  One would hope it would be for the enjoyment of its audience.  If the only one enjoying themselves are the creator, that's simply a mockery, not a game.  Academic AI isn't made for the audience to enjoy themselves, even people can certainly derive that via wonder at the advancement of technology.

Game AI is for the enjoyment of the user however, and as such often means intentionally flawed AI, very often due to being direct competition for the player.  A perfect AI in an MMO would realize he has no chance winning against the player character whatsoever, and as such would run away immediately upon spotting a player.  This might be fun for awhile, until the AI realizes that the only winning move is not to play, and simply decides not to respawn.  Suddenly fun times are over.

Even not going as far as that, an AI with no intentional flaws has an absurd advantage over human players in that there is hardly any reaction time.  Gauging a threat and determining a course of action happens over the span of ~16ms, versus a human reacting blindly out of reflex taking ~160ms, ten times slower than the computer.  A machine won't mentally tire from stress or fatigue either, making random "dumb" mistakes.  So gaming AI will often have artificial limitations set on their artificial intelligence.

It could be said that part of the reason why is so that it'll be more fair.  This is a mistake of what the goal is.  Rather, the reason why gaming AI will often have artificial limitations is because it is more enjoyable to play against, not because it is fair.  Sometimes it's really fun to smack around very dumb AI, as Valve found out when they were making Left 4 Dead and discovered that mowing down hordes of mindless zombie AI was actually really fun, instead of small amounts of tactically placed enemies.  Sometimes it's really fun to challenge yourself and play against very unfair AI as it becomes a tightrope of trying to stay alive while discovering the AI's Achilles heel, and you search for the Achilles heel because you know full well it's impossible to win a straight out fight.

Put in other words, AI from an academic standpoint is meant to be like a human, whereas AI from a gaming standpoint is meant to be a puzzle for the player to try and solve.

So don't be worried if your AI isn't perfect.  The real question is, is it fun?

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Service with a Smile

Ross from Accursed Farms makes a case as to why Games as a Service is fraud.

It's interesting seeing his side of things because it's very firmly rooted in the player side of things.  And I could very easily see why players could view Games as a Service (GaaS) as something shady.  However he also only comprehends GaaS on the player end, missing exactly what it means to a developer.  And really, it's not so much that Games as a Service is fraud, but rather it's the methodology du jour of fraudsters, just as licensed shovelware and obnoxious game 'collections' like Action 52 used to be.  But licensed games, game collections, and even GaaS isn't the cause of fraud, it's just the low-hanging fruit being used.

Ross correctly begins with trying to define exactly what GaaS is, and amusingly goes to Wikipedia before realizing that they aren't very helpful in figuring out what exactly it is.  Rather, the concept of what exactly goods and services are, come into play here.  Goods being something you own, tangible or intangible, such as a hammer, an ebook, or an intellectual property.  Services instead are... services that you pay people for, such as getting a haircut.

Games used to treated as goods, fullstop.  The developer made the game, handed it off to the publisher, and promptly forgot about it until either making a sequel or translating it for another country.  Otherwise, the code was very static, and any bugs found, <i>remained</i>.  Because that's what goods are.  You make the good, sell it, and it's no longer your problem unless you're legally liable for injury.

That started changing when the internet became more widespread, patches could realistically be made and applied to all current copies of a game, and more importantly reoccurring server costs started becoming a thing thanks to all of these popular internet-based games.  Patches mean you can push off some of the minor bug fixing until later, and even delaying certain game content until it's actually good and ready to be played, instead of rushing it out the door in a buggy mess because the publisher is knocking down your door asking firmly why it's not ready yet.

Approaching the game like this is not treating the game as goods anymore though.  Instead of a one-and-done, fire-and-forget, you have to baby the program long after it is released, feeding it, growing it, and maintaining it.  The maintenance costs man-hours, and any associated servers cost money.  Those are not free.  You're servicing the game.  It has become a service.

Ross makes an analogy in the video where he compares Games as a Service to a rest stop in a mountainous park area, and that when the state loses money and shuts down the rest stop it somehow denies complete access to the mountains and forests.  This is a stretch of an analogy.

If looking to strictly compare services, the service provided by the rest stop are strictly of maintenance of the rest area, and they have nothing to do with the mountain and forest.  And what happens when the service for the rest stop is halted?  It is the same as with a game hosted on the internet, the whole thing breaks down and you can't use it anymore.  The only difference is that the rest stop will break down over a much longer period of time than pulling the plug on a server, requiring years for nature to reclaim building and paved areas.  The rest stop is not gatekeeping you from enjoying the nature.

A more accurate analogy would be a theme park, where you have bought a lifetime pass.  An online-only game, much like a shuttered theme park, becomes completely unavailable when it closes down despite having paid upfront for a lifetime pass.

Now with all of this said, games as a whole are rather odd, and probably don't rightly belong squarely as a traditional "good" nor a traditional "service".  Often it's a bit of a weird combination of the two, and we really don't have a good word for it as far as I know.  Computers are still a relatively young concept compared to, say, a hammer and a haircut after all.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

The "Incorrect" Way to Have Fun
Between 2001 and 2004, game designers Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, Robert Zubek gave a series of lectures discussing a formalized approach to video game design. As part of the lectures, they outlined a list of what they called “aesthetics of play.” Basically, eight broad categories that describe the reasons why people engage with games. Put simply, they outlined eight basic types of fun.
 I highly recommend the link to anyone even remotely interested in how games work.

This week I spent a couple of hours debating with someone over why he can't just outright declare, sans context, certain game designs to be objectively better or worse.  Opening up the discussion by sending him the above link, I told him that since not everyone enjoys the same thing about video games, you can't objectively state any game design is completely superior to another, and that they all can be used in different ways.  There is no game mechanic or design I'm aware of that can completely antiquate any other.

It's hard to be more concise than the conversation I had, so I'll quote it rather heavily.  My debate partner brought up random battles, specifically the mechanic in several JRPGs wherein after having moved a random number of steps, you encounter an enemy and are forced to either fight or flee.

"We've kind of figured out in the 25 years since FF5 that random battles aren't a very good way of doing battles anyway. Modern games that use them only do so out of either nostalgia or lack of funding."
"By what metric are you determining that random battles are bad?"
"Well, it's not a single metric. It's a combination of a lot of things. They're unpredictable, for one. The lack of ability to influence when they happen makes them feel like an interruption.[...]They're also, by their nature, inherently meaningless. Because they're random, they're guaranteed not to have any story reason for existing.[...] And the randomness interferes with good pacing as well. Having battles break up a dungeon actually helps with the flow if done right, but it's better if the designer has more control over the timing of those encounters, because there's a cycle of buildup, climax and denouement that human brains really like, and that fails if you get in a battle after 2 steps or go 8 screens without one.  Even by FF4, they'd figured that much out, which is why battles are 13-28 steps instead of 1-255 steps.
"So then is it not simply that random battles are inherently bad and a simple hearkening of nostalgia, but rather it can be implemented poorly?" 
"Well, both. They can be implemented in better or worse ways. But overall, battles in general can also be implemented in better or worse ways. And game designers as a whole have basically reached a consensus that random battles on steps are one of the worse ways, without enough pros for their massive number of cons."

Already his position changes a bit, and he appeals to authority in place of specifying the exact pros and cons.  Further down the line, he admits, "I do agree that 95% of my problem is with the implementation though."

What does this have to do with the mutability of fun perception?  He had been hammering on how random battles were just not fun.  Thus, throw the whole thing out!  It's old and busted!  And that is regardless of who still actually enjoys the style of game as it is.

It was only old and busted because he didn't enjoy it, however.

There's something I've noticed, that people who are inexperienced in a matter will very often fill their gap of understanding by filling in details with their own personal experiences and tastes, whether it's correct or not.  This holds true in video games as well.  If he didn't enjoy it, then other people aren't enjoying it either.  And those who do enjoy it are just weird and don't know any better.

Keep yourself from this mode of thought, friends.  Know what your goals are in making a game, and know what kind of game you want to make before starting.  Because not everyone experiences fun the same way, not everyone is going to like your game, so aiming to make a game that everyone would find fun is an exercise in frustration.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Snowflaking with an Idea

“But the truth is, it's not the idea, it's never the idea, it's always what you do with it."

I've been chatting off and on with a fellow who's been trying to break into video games.  Amusingly enough, he's always asking opinions about one thing or another, but the only time he accepts the opinion is if it's of a superficial nature.  He's rather stubborn that way.

A problem crops up though, where he'll often ask an opinion on something and the only correct answer is, as with most things relating to subjective matters, are "it depends".  The only way to get a sense of whether it would be better to have a character who swings a slow attack strongly or a weak attack quickly, is if you can actually quantify what's exactly strong, weak, slow, and fast.  For what purpose would the attack serve?  Is it for the player character, a faceless mob character in a sea of enemies, or the final boss?  What type of game is it anyway?

The last question is the most important and the game as a whole hinges on it, but to truly understand what exactly he's going for, I need to actually look at all of the material and plans for this marvelous game idea he has, so that it makes sense.  If this fictional character is an old decrepit man, having quick energetic attacks don't make sense.  Unless he's an assassin in disguise, in which case it does.  Unless the way he assassinates is via kidnapping his target and setting them up in a bizarre trap while he very very slowly attacks them with a powerful attack.  It just depends.

Unfortunately getting information out of this guy is pretty tough.  He'll give the bare minimum and not much besides that.  He is intrinsically afraid that someone will steal his idea.

It is a ridiculous fear.  Making a game is far more time-consuming than writing a script and drawing some art assets, so the amount of time saved for someone to do that is laughable.  Not to mention, someone stealing your idea doesn't mean that they will actually implement it well!

How many times do you remember a game with great design, a fine story, good art, but it's still somehow just not fun to play?  You could have a nice innovative design for a puzzle game, but if the levels are lackluster, the whole game is a farce.  You could have a gripping story being told through an expressive RPG, but if the game is a buggy unplayable mess, who's going to care?

If you want someone to take a look at your hot new game idea and you really want good feedback, show them everything.

Everyone has an idea.  Those ideas are never truly new.  What matters with those ideas, is what you do with them, so stop putting your ideas on a pedestal.

"What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
"See, this is new"?
It has been already
in the ages before us."
-Ecclesiastes 1:9-10

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Easter Tidings 2019

"He is risen!  He is risen, indeed."
Article will go up tomorrow.  Happy Easter.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Hydra of Opportunity

Chris Wilson, Managing Director of Grinding Gear Games, gave a rather good talk at GDC this year.

His presentation is roughly an hour long and he talks rather fast, but he covers a lot of ground.  In it, he covers missteps and valuable lessons Grinding Gear Games learned from startup until present day.

Particularly brilliant is how Grinding Gear Games (GGG) will reuse assets, but also reuse content in a sane way.  Much more sane than some of the very wasteful ways Blizzard does, particularly in regards to World of Warcraft, in which every new expansion pack of WoW throws out numerous babies in bathwater, simply because it's not new.

Seriously, watch the presentation.  There's a lot of lessons you can learn and parallels you can draw, not just between Diablo-like games, but in almost every genre.

With the latest large update of Path of Exile, GGG's flagship title, there's a hidden problem that I had never realized was possible until I read a post from Reddit that gave me an epiphany.

See, GGG is very good about reusing assets and content, but the content of the last four large updates (leagues) has been very... pace-breaking.  These pace-breaking systems encourage players to stop normal play and to hurry up and go do their content.  Now, when it was released this wasn't so terrible, since the way the game is designed you'll be playing like normal, and every once in a while you'll get 'unlock' an extra area which you feel compelled to do since it's just one thing and the rewards are rather good.

If you wanted to ignore the system completely, you could, but if you wanted to be efficient with your rewards you had to interact with it every time the system wanted you to. Again, not the worst thing in the world since compared to the game as a whole, they're rather very minor things and don't eat up much of your time.

Last league however, as part of content reuse, GGG rolled in three of those pace-breaking systems into the baseline game.  And with the current league, there are four of them.

This causes a problem because it's increasing pressure on the player how they must play.  And that is not the mental state you want to be in as a game developer, to be some sort of tin-pot dictator, since it unnecessarily limits your audience.  Not only that, but having multiple features that compete for your attention is stressful for a player.  Having a few can be fine, even fun, but there's a point where it becomes not worth the hassle.

Thus it becomes a hydra of opportunity.  Accomplishing these systems gives you rewards in game, but when they keep coming back when you don't want them to and seemingly in greater numbers than you want to deal with, it becomes an enemy and not an opportunity.

And you can apply that lesson to other games and genres too.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

The Sekiro Question

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a game that came out recently from From Software, recently notorious for the punishing Souls game series, and it has certain people clamoring for an "easy mode".

Various reasons emerge why they want the option for an easier difficulty, such as 'it'll widen the audience', 'it'll increase accessibility', 'there's no reason not to do it!'.

The question is: should I make an easy mode for my game?  And the answer, like many relating to video games is... it depends.  What is your goal for making this game?  How are you making this game?

What is your goal for making this game?  Determining your goals is an important part of making a video game, as making a video game is not a simple matter.  If your goal is to simply make your first video game, full stop, then making an easy mode for your game will just add in development time and be more of a headache than simply finishing your very first video game which has already brought several headaches you never expected.  Adding an easy mode means extra numbers, even if they're smaller, and planning the easy mode numbers that they're actually easier.

If your goal is to simply move copies and make a short term profit, it's hard to argue with adding an easy mode, but blindly chasing accessibility is a trap.  Chasing after immediate sales profit will hamper long term growth, and is akin to eating the seed corn.

How are you making this game?  Rather, are you tailoring your game towards an audience, or are you making your game first and letting the audience come to you?  Both approaches change things drastically.

Either way, it's clear that a lot of the divide in opinions on whether Sekiro should add an easy mode, stems from a difference of opinion of what From Software's goals should be.  Those in favor can't understand why anyone would not want their game so that anyone could enjoy it, and those against can't understand why anyone would want to devalue the prize.