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.