Baking Bad

125g grams of butter. 100 grams of light brown soft sugar. 125 grams of caster sugar. 1 beaten egg. 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. 225 grams of self raising flower. Half a teaspoon of salt. 200 grams of chocolate chips. Now you have all you need for some delicious home baked cookies. Or, I guess, you could just click.

Cookie Clicker (Orteil, 2013) is a free Javascript game that allows players to bake virtual cookies by clicking on a giant cookie, and also spend cookies on various upgrades that will allow the faster accumulation of cookies. It is unclear whether Cookies are the primary currency in this dystopian future of hyper-obesity, or if you just bake such a damn fine cookie that businessmen worldwide fall over themselves to trade their grandmothers and time machines for a few delicious crates. The goal of this paragraph is to describe the systems of this game, but while I’m fleshing it out as best as I can that is literally the entire experience. There is clicking and buying things that gradually make the clicking more and more redundant – that’s it. Basically you know when you were doing GCSE Maths and instead of doing the equations on the board you would just input “1+1=” and then keep tapping the “=” button until the end of the lesson to see how high you could go? …No? Well, congratulations, you probably did better in maths than I did. But that’s what Orteil are asking you to do here.

I’ve written before about the notion of ‘false rewards’ in games, and here we have an entire game based around absolutely nothing other than the accumulation of those false rewards. I have criticised MMOs and progression based FPS games for having weak mechanics propped up by an illusion of progression, but games like Cookie Clicker take it to a whole new level. That illusion is the entire game.

And it is terrible. On a personal level, games like this sadden me to no end; here is the human species, all mental engagement abandoned in order to stare at our screens and watch a number increase. But hey, I’m not here to moan about what kind of monsters we may or may not be becoming, so let’s look at what Cookie Clicker does well: it is bloody brilliant at manipulating the human mind. If you go search for reviews of this game, you’ll find a lot of repeated phrases. “Dumb, mindless fun.” “Compelling”. “Addictive”. The people obsessively playing this game are very lucky it isn’t being monetised because many of them would soon find themselves very short on cash. The genius of Cookie Clicker in this regard is the way it shows the entire progression system right from the start. Even before you click your very first cookie into existence, you can see that once you reach 4 billion cookies, you’ll be able to purchase an ‘Antimatter condenser’, which will of course condense the antimatter in the universe into cookies at a rate the likes of which you cannot even imagine. We’re talking millions of cookies a second here. It’s science, people. But while 4 billion cookies may seem unattainable, an automatic cursor might only cost you ten cookies. This, once bought, will simulate a click once every ten seconds, and contribute to your cookie count with no input from you, the player, at all. Once you have a few of these, you can set your sights on getting help of a ‘grandma’, who can bake cookies faster still… and so on and so forth.

Cookie Clicker gives the user bite-sized targets that are always frustratingly far ahead. Each purchase grants a small amount of relief and satisfaction as your rate of cookie creation increases, but at the same time the prices for more grandmas increases and you become more and more desperate for the next ‘tier’ of assistance to increase your efficiency. In other words the progression you feel is not progression at all, because duplicates of items you have already purchased become more expensive every time. Also bear in mind that as the currency to purchase upgrades is the cookies you produce, every purchase sets you back – further still increasing the time needed to reach the next upgrade. This is carrot-on-a-stick psychology 101, perfectly balanced to allow for hours upon hours of wasting your time instead of doing your job, probably.

The endgame shows the weakness of this sort of mindless, repetitive product. Once players have built one or two antimatter condensers, they will tend to start getting bored. Because there comes a point where they run out of new targets to aim for, and finally begin to see the game for what it is – a number that slowly increases. Without another goal, another upgrade or aesthetic junk to spend all these cookies on, the compulsion vanishes. At that point, there is only one way to enjoy the game again. One way to bring back the fun – to feed the addiction:

Hit F5 and start all over again.

Achieving Unrewards

Thanks for clicking the link. Here, have 20 gamedissections points! Don’t worry, there are no hidden microtransactions or anything – they’re all yours.

That felt good, right? I know I’d be pretty pleased if I was given random rewards every time I accidentally clicked the link to some idiot’s gaming blog when I was aiming for the youtubes. The best bit is that if you collect enough points, you’ll get to level up! That’s a good thing because you have a bigger number and thus makes you better at reading. Or at internet. Hmm… maybe I should knock up a little trophy for you in MS Paint for you to display on your Facebook profile? I guess you’ll have to let me know in the comments below which is preferable, but in the meantime you can go ahead and bask in the warming glow of a further ten points if you have guessed what this evening’s entry is going to be all about.

There was a time not so long ago when I owned a Playstation 3, but not an Xbox 360. I remember playing early titles like Resistance: Fall of Man and wishing it had something like Microsoft’s Achievement system; wasn’t it just so cool to get these little rewards for playing the game or doing interesting things? Wouldn’t it just be great to show off your high scores to your friend? Sony of course duly delivered the Trophy system (which in my opinion was the better solution), I “platinumed” [sic] Dirt 2 and all was right with the world. With time comes wisdom, however, so I now think these things are rubbish. I mean, they don’t get you anything at all and, more importantly, they alter the motivation for actually playing the game. I am constantly astounded by how many people I encounter who play games they are not interested in – perhaps even actively dislike – just so that they can get the achievements. Seriously, I once worked with a guy who would buy every 360 game that came out, blitz the achievements to increase his gamerscore as much as possible and then instantly trade the game back in. I’m pretty sure this sort of thing qualifies as some sort of compulsive disorder, but even those of us not so obsessed with collecting every little thing may have often found ourselves driving in circles for a few hours, or hunting 100 of the same kind of boring monster in an effort to ‘earn’ these meaningless rewards.

OK, so it’s pretty clear why achievements are bad right? 10 points if you agree with that so we can move on, because as much as I loathe them this entry isn’t just a rant about meaningless collectibles. The true crux of this issue is off on a little bit more of a tangent.

False Rewards

Character progression is a tricky think to get right in games. Think to any RPG you’ve ever played: how many of them feature some kind of ‘level-up’ mechanic? In recent years this has become a staple of big multiplayer games as well; once upon a time that sort of system was limited to big MMOs like World of Warcraft where the twitch based competitive FPS games were dominated by the likes of Quake 3: Arena and Counter Strike, but now the majority of multiplayer FPS games will feature an experience based progression system. The fundamental problem with these systems is that they change what the motivation for play is.

“Why do I want to shoot that guy?” – Because shooting is fun. Because it is a challenge to do so. Because this is a competition and if you shoot him you can win.

“Why do I want to shoot that guy?” – Because doing so will give you 50 XP. Then it’s just another 200 XP to level 12, where you will unlock a new gun that you can use to get more XP.

Point based progression systems are flawed because they turn the acquisition of higher numbers into a reward, and the only way to keep the player invested is to continue to give them bigger and bigger numbers to strive for. This is especially unfortunate when a game has underlying mechanics that are strong enough to be enjoyed by their own merit, but are tainted by the moving goalposts inherent in these false reward systems. Let’s take a look at what can be achieved by a game that does away with this sort of thing altogether. The Last of Us by Naughty Dog was released earlier this month (June 2013) to universal acclaim. It is set in world blighted by what amounts to a Zombie Apocalypse, and the ultimate objective of the game amounts to little more than “get from A to B while staying alive”. While much of the praise for the game comes from its solid story and incredible interaction between the leading characters, this is no good without a solid set of game mechanics to back it up. Over the course of the game players will often find themselves in a vaguely open ‘arena’ (such as an office building or museum) filled with enemies that they must either sneak past or fight. By shirking the notion of progression systems, Naughty Dog succeeded in offering the player real choice in the way that they approached the game: so killing everyone was a viable option, sneaking through was a viable option, improvising a mad escape from hastily scavenged materials after your first plan went horribly wrong was a viable option. Due to the lack of XP for killing enemies, players felt no obligation to kill their enemies. Because they were not given rewards for staying in the shadows, they weren’t pushed into never using their gun. Naughty Dog did not express ‘progression’ or ‘reward’ as a number, which meant the player was free to explore the tools the designers had given them and, more importantly, set their own objectives. If you want to kill a monster in an MMO but you can’t, you don’t level up and are less powerful than you would otherwise be. If you fail to kill a target in The Last of Us the only thing that suffers is your pride.

With reduced player restrictions comes increased player agency, and the false rewards offered by level or ‘experience’ based progression systems definitely count as a player restriction. These systems are also used to arbitrarily control a difficulty curve, and while in Final Fantasy this might just mean grinding up a few levels to get strong enough to face a boss, in the Free-to-Play market this is a cynical tactic to frustrate players out of their cash. Frustration is not fun, and the only ‘reward’ these systems offer is a temporary relief from the frustration they impose. And does the notion of ‘unlockables’ not inherently infuriate you? Why does Call of Duty keep so many of the toys you have already payed for under lock and key until you hit some arbitrary number? The best games are strong enough not to hide behind such things and trust the player with all the mechanics it has to offer. Unreal Tournament never stopped me picking up a rocket launcher.

Stuff

It isn’t all just the hunt for bigger numbers that gets in the way of the gamey part of games. Jonathan Blow, developer of Braid and upcoming PS4 title The Witness, had this to say during a recent E3 demo:

“If you have a game that’s about getting loot, and you’re fighting monsters to get loot, you end up not necessarily being interested in fighting monsters for its own sake, you just want loot.”

20 points if you get the eye.

This is why Shadow of the Colossus will always be better than Monster Hunter, because the latter has you constantly searching for rare and interesting stuff to make bigger and better swords and greaves and fishing rods, all of the enjoyment from the former comes from the experience of battling the Colossi themselves. The loot problem is one MMOs tend to suffer from due to their need to keep players playing their game long after they’ve experienced all the content; after all, it may take five years to develop but a good player could get through the lot in a couple of weeks. So how do you get them to come back and do the same dungeon over and over and over again? Rare drops. Super rare equipment that can only be forged after acquiring five rare pieces of loot from five different bosses, and once you have that equipment you will have the strength to venture in the Chamber of the Mighty, where you will face an even tougher boss with even rarer loot… and so on, and so forth. Here’s fifteen points for getting this far and a further five if you think these kind of game mechanics are awful.

Not that all games that feature this stuff are bad of course. I mean… Final Fantasy, come on! And I would never say Dark Souls is a bad game just because it rewards you for going through the same area three times to ‘farm’ more stuff to get better weapons etc. But games like that get away with it because the core motivation to play is never altered; here upgrading your gear is a means to beat the more difficult enemies, not the other way around. Getting better gear is a crutch players lean on to complement their skill in order to get the most fun out of the combat system – their primary motivation of play. It also allows players to set themselves challenges such as playing through the game with a certain type or level of gear, and customise the level of skill required in their game in a way which gives them the most enjoyment. An MMO that will simply not allow you to enter a dungeon without gear of a high enough level, on the other hand, has it entirely the wrong way around.

Be wary of systems that give you false rewards. Achievements, level ups and loots are all clever ways of keeping you interested in the game, without really allowing you to experience the game. Mario was never about collecting stars.

- Luke

Tutorial Free – Learning Game Play

It is rather odd how many games will flatly refuse to begin until the player fulfils a few arbitrary orders. I remember the first time I ever plonked Sonic 2 into my Mega drive. It was probably around 1994 or ’95, and it is one of my earliest gaming memories. That iconic theme began to play, Sonic poked his head up into the logo like a wannabe MCM lion, and the words ‘Press Start’ flashed on my screen – inviting me to begin my game experience in the same way a biology teacher may ‘invite’ me to open my textbook to chapter three. Fortunately, once the game has seen that I am capable of obedience it lets go of the reigns, loads Emerald Hill Zone and allows me to play.

Remember that pop-up you get in Act 1 where the game tells you to “Press -> to move?” Me neither, for Sonic 2 assumes either you have played platform games before, or that you aren’t an idiot. Sure enough, I can’t remember exactly how long it took me to suss the whole ‘running to the right’ mechanic, but I don’t think my six year old brain had too much trouble with it. Combat mechanics were similarly tutorial free – in Sonic 2 there are two ways to take out the Badniks and liberate the Flickies trapped within; you can either ‘jump’ on them by hitting one of the face buttons or do a ‘spin dash’ by holding down as you tap a face button and then release. Again – no tutorial, no interruptions to the game – just level design that encourages the player to mess around with the controls they have and the systems they have at their disposal.

Let’s compare this to Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (Namco Bandai, 2013) that I am playing at the time of writing. There’s no question that it’s an excellent game, but here I am nine hours in and I’m still being told how the game works. I should probably go easy on Ni No Kuni – and I will – seeing that it is a 30+ hour RPG that contains systems far more complex than “move right and jump on stuff,” but at the same time there are some very fundamental issues. I don’t mind being told that in order to metamorphise my Familiar I need to feed him the correct kind of treat which will grant him an extra ability slot and raise his potential power but simultaneously reset him to level 1. This information is specific to this game and it’s a pretty complex mechanic, so it makes sense to inform players how it works. On the other hand I do mind when before I am even given control at the start of the game I get a little pop-up that says “Press left stick to move!”

Double tap square for a counter throw!

I will hold my hands up and admit right here that I have played a few games in my time, and I would wager the majority of people who have dropped £250 on a PS3 and a copy of Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch have played one or two games in their time as well – certainly enough that using left stick to move is the first control they assume. But I suppose it is possible that Ni No Kuni is somebody’s very first game as Sonic 2 was mine (I’m pretty sure Sonic 2 wasn’t mine, but it was a long time ago, OK?). An epic and complex RPG seems like an odd choice for that, but perhaps some guy bought a PS3 that he saw second hand on a whim but he never got around to playing it. Perhaps this man has a daughter and he thought that she might like something to play on, and maybe he was wandering around the shops and saw the lovable character art, the fairy tale blurbs and decided that this looked like a nice first game for his little girl. So let us imagine a six year old girl with a controller in her hand for the first time, mashing some buttons to get through the main menu and finally starting to play. What would happen if the “Press left stick to move!” prompt never appeared? Somehow I find it hard to imagine this girl hurling her controller through the screen in a frustrated rage before she had tried pressing some of the buttons and twiddling some of the sticks. Surely, upon moving the left one and noticing a corresponding movement from the character on-screen, she would have learned all on her own?

Moving around with the left stick is a simple enough mechanic that it needs no explanation. Everyone already knows how it works and if they don’t it is simple and intuitive to work out. It doesn’t matter how simple or complex a game is, they should always try to keep explanations of these simple mechanics to a minimum or, preferably, out of the game entirely.

So we’ve erased tutorials for these simple mechanics from today until the end of time. Hooray! But we still need to worry about complex systems. In DmC: Devil May Cry (Capcom, 2013), for instance, no tutorial is required to figure out how to swing Dante’s sword or perform a simple combo. But once he picks up multiple weapons that have different effects depending on the commands they are used with, a tutorial becomes required. I like the way DmC handles its tutorials for new mechanics, and here’s why:

  • Each tutorial takes place in a custom built level that focuses on the new mechanic.
  • The skill that the player needs to employ with the new mechanic to progress through the level gradually increases.
  • Towards the latter stages of the level, the player is encouraged to mix their new ability with previously established ones.
  • All the tutorials take place within a single area with a consistent theme.
  • Completing each tutorial unlocks a little more narrative.

By tying the unlocking of new abilities in with the narrative, the game is able to gradually introduce more complex mechanics to the game and reducing the information dump at any one point. By keeping text prompts minimal the player isn’t left frustrated by being kept out of the action. Each tutorial level is also aesthetically interesting and stands out from the main game environment, so the player doesn’t feel like they are wasting time but instead experiencing new content. Finally, by tying the mechanic tutorials into the narrative the player gets rewarded for sitting through a tutorial and also learn more about the characters they are interacting with in the game.

Falcon punch!

Of course, there is one cardinal sin that all games need to avoid: the failure state if the player does not follow a tutorial to the letter. You know the ones, where you get some order to “Do X to accomplish Y!” But you don’t do that or fail to pull it off properly, so the game resets you to the point you were just as and says “try again!” The otherwise stellar Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker falls into this awkward trap during its archaic opening sequence, and more recently Assassin’s Creed 3 pulled the same trick with its hunting mechanics tutorial. The latter example was especially egregious considering I was four hours into the game at that point. Apart from being a frustrating constraint (and, if the player is failing often, indicative of either a bad explanation or a bad control scheme, neither of which players will want to spend much time on), these tutorial systems also remove the joy of discovery from these games. Assassin’s Creed 3 teaches me how to hunt game by hiding in the shrubs, throwing bait and then striking when the creature comes close enough. But wouldn’t it be nice just to tell me I can attract animals with bait and let me figure out the rest myself? How much more rewarding would that first kill have been had my hand not been held the entire way?

The most important thing to take away from this is that tutorials suck. Nobody likes them – we sit through them because we must. Because if we didn’t we wouldn’t have any idea how to interact with the complex product in front of us. As a result, the ultimate objective is to keep tutorials as small and unobtrusive as possible. Given what we’ve looked at, let’s try and come up with a few rules of thumb when introducing players to new game mechanics.

  • Do let the player figure out simple mechanics for themselves.
  • Do explain more complex systems gradually.
  • Don’t be afraid to let players use things that haven’t been explained yet. Many will figure things out via experimentation.
  • Do incorporate your tutorials into the narrative.
  • Don’t feel obligated to explain every system in great detail. Give players the basic functionality of the mechanic and let them play.
  • Do keep text and button prompts to a minimum.
  • Don’t incorporate fail states unless absolutely necessary.
  • Do include tutorials in an encyclopaedia for players to refer to later.

Con the Ashes: Post Mortem and Rebirth

Ailing Autopsy

There are a lot of things games can lack and still be successful. They don’t need super-high res textures, they don’t need to run at 60fps. They don’t need a soundtrack by Jack Wall and they don’t need to be 100% bug free. It doesn’t necessarily matter if some of the mechanics are a bit imbalanced, or there’s a difficulty spike, or some of the guns lack that satisfying recoil. But one thing they absolutely cannot lack is fun. That’s kinda what games are about, so after completing the Nothing For Something alpha I felt compelled to evaluate where the project was, and why it was lacking the sense of fun that I was anticipating. I mean, it’s basically Hustle but as a video game, what could possibly go wrong?

Mickey Bricks is not amused…

The major problem was that I had diluted many of the original mechanics beyond recognition in order to make it a more realistic project to create. Gone was the conversation system, gone were the personalised marks with their own schedules, property and goals. Instead the player was thrown into a relatively small area with a 5 minute time limit and the goal to ‘get as much money as possible’, with only very limited tools to do that. Sure, you could change your outfit, pick someone’s ID from their pocket and get somebody who trusted you to open doors for you, but to what end? To a safe that had £20 and a key to the next area of the building in it? The player character didn’t have an identity of his own, none of the NPCs had a name, there wasn’t even any way to tell the name of the building you were in. I think it was pretty clear it was a bank though.

So the entire game just amounted to little more than a very basic stealth game. 1) Make a distraction. 2) Take money. 3) Don’t get caught by the police. Simply put, this was just not fun; a top down Metal Gear-come-Hitman prototype that couldn’t capture the magic of either of those two games. This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of problems: the control system was awkward, the AI was basically non-existent, there was a simple lack of variety in stuff to do, the mini-puzzles all boiled down to “X is locked, find key”. There wasn’t enough stuff to do, not enough systems for the player to manipulate and no motivation for them to do so anyway. That’s not to say there weren’t some nice ideas in there though. Take the electrical systems, for example. The lights were all wired up in zones, that were controlled by light switches locally and power globally. Flick a switch, the lights on that circuit go out. Cut the power, and all the lights go out.

Also nice was the way that suspicion was calculated. The player’s ‘Notoriety’ would increase as they were seen doing things that were out of place. For example, picking someone’s pocket would shoot your Notoriety right up if you were seen. A better example would be tampering with electrical equipment. If you were spotted doing that in your hawaiian shirt, that would increase the Notoriety value quite a lot, but if you were wearing a maintenance jumpsuit you wouldn’t be considered out of place, and the Notoriety increase was much lower or perhaps even non-existent. Different NPCs also responded differently to you based on certain character traits, so if you used the ‘Persuade’ skill to try and get a middle-manager to open a door for you, you had better have put on that fancy Italian suit to give yourself an air of authority. Talking to an executive or investor might require a touch of deference or charisma, on the other hand. This was a good system that was lacking more in variety than anything else – there needed to be more personality stats, more detailed customisation, more types of people to interact with, more ways to tell what kind of people you were dealing with. It’s somewhat ironic that on this occasion a good mechanic was somewhat spoiled by a lack of ambition, whereas my default position is to have eyes far bigger than my proverbial stomach.

Go Phoenix, go!

From the Ashes

But with every failure lessons are learned, and the preliminary designs for the rebirth of this game are very promising indeed. Before I go into more details I want to thank Sam English for his work on the Nothing For Something soundtrack, and I will still be using the excellent pieces he created in this next iteration of the game. Check out his work here, which includes a few pieces for Vita Essentia and various other projects.

The new version of this game concept has a much more concrete goal in mind for the player, and a much more interesting set of mechanics to go along with it. Now under the working title: ConVict, our con artist Vic finds himself in prison after one too many rolls of the loaded dice, and fearing for his very life. The mafia boss he conned months ago has found out who he is, and it is only a matter of days before the Cleaner finds his way into the prison to take him out. Vic will need to make alliances with inmates and guards alike, MacGyver up some useful gadgets, find or make an opening in security and make his escape before it is too late. The most significant features to look forward to are:

  • Dynamically generated objectives from NPCs based on their relationships with you and each other.
  • A highly versatile crafting system.
  • Customisable in-game AI: get people on your side, give them orders and pull off elaborate escape plans.

All these will be in Version 1 of the game. I hope to get somewhere near the Alpha point by the end of the month, but I don’t want to set any specific targets. There’s still a lot of design work and technical testing to do before then, but there is an awful lot of potential here even in just the initial brainstorms. The prison is going to be built on a number of systems (check out Prison Architect for something along the same lines, although the fundamental aims of the gameplay are still very different from mine) that the player will be able to manipulate. For example, any wall or door can be broken down if enough force is applied. Objects will have mass and can be swung at force, and the force they impart will by calculated based on their mass and velocity while swung. So the player may be able to smash a window by swinging a fire extinguisher, for example. Or, the player could do favours for other inmates to get them to smuggle the materials they need to craft an explosive which, when detonated, would impart a dynamically calculated force (based on amount and properties of combustive material) within a calculated radius.

The player will also be able to give orders to friendly NPCs that owe a favour. An example of the flow might go a little like this: Bubba doesn’t like Jack because the personality traits that were generated for him at the start of the game don’t get on well with Jacks. Also due to his personality traits, Bubba has a bit of a temper on him. So he generates a desire for a shiv. You, the player can then craft him one and, once handed over, Bubba will have friendly feelings towards you and owe a favour. Let’s say you want to call in that favour, you would give Bubba orders along the lines of: If [Any Guard] is in [Player Cell] at [Time: Lockdown][Attack Guard]. And voilà, now all the player has to do is make sure he and Bubba are in the same cell at lockdown, lure a guard in and Bubba will take care of the rest. The downside is next time he gets the chance, Bubba will probably kill Jack. That’s one less potential ally for Vic and collateral damage will impact the player’s end score. Managing relationships not just between player and NPC, but between multiple NPCs, will be vital, and the player will be able to get on the good side of guards as well, which could earn bonuses such as more stuff that the player can use to level up or barter with other prisoners.

There’s a fair amount of design work to go into the details of this, but in terms of a set of core mechanics I am very optimistic that this redesign is a winner. Once version 1 is out I’m hoping to make a mode that will randomly generate a new prison each new game, which should keep the experience nice and varied. But all that is a little way down the line, there is more than enough work to do on the core systems first. Next week I will be starting some technical tests, followed by AI pathfinding and the first pass at the crafting system. Before that over this weekend I’ll be working hard on the design, and I hope it wont be too long before I have something to show for this.

If you have any feedback or ideas based on what you’ve read here, let me know in a comment! Either way I look forward to bringing you a significant update in the near future.

- Luke.

Alpha

Whilst Vita Essentia is a very personal and very ambitious project, it’s still such a long way from completion that it is no good to show off right now. Why should anyone be interested in looking at a game that ‘might’ be finished in a couple of years? So on the side I bought a copy of Game Maker and decided to make a game or two in that. The first of these was known by the working title of ‘Con Man’, but has now been renamed now that it is playable to ‘Nothing For Something’, a not-so-subtle reference to one of my favourite TV shows, Hustle, which was inspiration in large parts for this concept. The project wasn’t originally mine, a small team was started by my friend Rob early last year, and we came up with some interesting designs and a basic prototype for a conversation system before interest was lost and the project was forgotten in time.

Seeing as the Con Man concept was my idea though, I certainly did not forget, and I later asked Rob permission to pick up where we left off. He said yes and I started adapting the teams ambitious mission-based design into something a little more reasonable for one man to do. The solution was a score attack game, where players have to steal and con as much money as possible within a given time, without being arrested. Sam English kindly agreed to create the music for the game in a very short period of time, whilst my housemate Ben did most of the sprites; allowing me to focus on code. The version just released was created in under two months in my spare time, and is still very incomplete. The ‘change outfits’ mechanic is in place, for example, but there is currently only a choice of three which do not have any affect on NPC behaviour, which they will in the future. NPCs also lack proper pathing routines, although if the player is spotted stealing eventually the police will be called and they will come to make an arrest.

So what are the plans for the future? The first step is to flesh out the level with the mechanics I already have. Make sure keys and locks are tagged together so that using the correct items will unlock the correct doors. It is also very important to sort out proper NPC pathing and further define NPC types, which will allow them to navigate the level and behave in believable ways depending on their role. Maintenance workers will check everything is fine in the server room, for example, or fix any broken equipment, whilst managers will keep themselves locked up in their offices or attend to the problems of the floor workers. After this, simply adding in a wider variety of outfits will expand the gameplay a lot, as the code already exists to adjust NPC’s level of suspicion based on the outfit being worn (example: it is less suspicious to disconnect a security camera or access a restricted area when dressed as a guard).

Here is the download link to the current executable and alpha notes. There will be significant updates in the coming weeks and please: constructive feedback is useful!

http://www.mediafire.com/download.php?xch95obiybiiali

- Luke

The Well Oiled Machine

I remember back around the time of my 18th birthday, I went to my friend Lana’s house planning our big party. Three of my good friends were crossing that milestone within the space of a few days you see, so we had decided to have one big party between the four of us, and invite all our friends. We had fun times and there were amusing shenanigans to be sure, but this is of course a gaming blog and no matter how brilliant those dances were in our silly wigs, they aren’t why I’m here. No, the important bit is that I was at Lana’s house planning this party, and whilst there she showed us a video on Youtube. It was a Japanese video showing a ‘Pythagoras Switch’ (or “Pita-gora-su-ii-chi!” as it was pronounced in the chirpy jingle), otherwise known as a Rube Goldberg machine or… I’m sure we have our own term in the UK, but I have no idea what it is. Better to show than tell!

 

Wasn’t that the coolest thing? I love machines that have such intricate detail, one event entirely dependent on the event that preceded it, like falling dominoes or a Wallace and Gromit toaster. Or, of course, pretty much every machine that has existed ever. It’s pretty easy to forget that the wheels on my car turn because the axle is rotating thanks to the motion of the driveshaft that gets its energy from the transmission which turns because of the power of the engine which works by the precise movement of pistons propelled downwards by the expanding gases of a controlled explosion when a spark is introduced at a particular moment after the introduction of a small amount of injected fuel into an oxygen environment. And breathe. The intricacy involved here is just as awe-inspiring as the Pythagoras Switch; maybe even more so because it is not a one-use thing; but because it is so reliable, reusable and under-the-hood we seldom notice it.

Video games (see? I was going somewhere relevant with all that after all) work in similar ways. The player pressing a button on their controller may call a function that fires a ‘bullet’ and changes a few variables, which in turn has an effect on the game. Perhaps the player’s ammo counter goes down, or their score goes up, and/or something explodes, if you can imagine such a thing. All caused by the systems underneath the chain of events that were started by the press of a single button. I find all these underlying mechanics fascinating, as they are both unbreakable limitations of the player’s experience and tools to create their own. Much like how gravity is an unbreakable law that we are restricted by, but at the same time it is something we can use to make amusing little machines out of plywood and ball bearings. There are plenty of games that use these systems to restrict the player into an extremely focussed experience, take the latest Call of Duty games or the classic on rails shooters of old, where the player is given a very limited number of tools to have as minimal an impact as possible on the game environment. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, I hasten to add, although I do much prefer something a little more liberating; which brings me to the other end of the spectrum and the titles I really want to discuss. There are a few games out there with some wonderful underlying systems that give the player so much freedom to mess around and create, although I want to discuss those where these tools are a fundamental part of gameplay, rather than mod tools which don’t really count for the purposes of this discussion.

One of my favourite games to incorporate these kind of systems into actual gameplay is a little indie puzzler called SpaceChem (Zachtronics Industries, 2011). Note to self actually: play more SpaceChem! I think I stopped shortly after making a load of Formaldehyde. I didn’t ask why they wanted so much of the stuff, but I’m sure it was for a long-term benevolent purpose. In SpaceChem the player is put into the role of a chemical Engineer working for a future off-world chemical super-company, whom there is nothing evil about whatsoever. The player is given some elements and is asked to create a particular molecule out of those elements. The best way I can describe how this occurs is to tell you that it all works a bit like a model railway. You send the atoms of each element down a track you build yourself, using ‘nodes’ to do things like rotate the atoms, join them together, break them apart, and then deposit them at the end of the machine with a completed molecule. The challenge of SpaceChem comes in two forms, firstly: how to get the machine consistently creating the correct molecule at all, and secondly, how to do it efficiently? Completing a solution and watching your machine work its magic (chemistry is magic doncha know) ten times in a row to meet your ‘quota’ for the molecule in question is a satisfaction difficult to rival; and the incentive to push yourself to try and perfect your design with an even more efficient follow up is strong. Here’s a video of the joys of SpaceChem’s joyous systems in action.

 

Another game I am thoroughly looking forward to, (although somewhat concerned about thanks to forced online DRM) is Maxis’ resurrection of SimCity, which is to be published by EA. This perhaps isn’t a game you would assume I would be excited about, seeing as the last title in the franchise I played was Sim City 2000, a game I loathed so much I had an entire cities population blown up by aliens. Something I was astounded to learn could also happen in the game. Anyway, the reason I am looking forward to the new one is the underlying systems in the game operate have been literally turned upside down, with previously ‘top-down’ mechanics being replaced with ‘bottom-up’ ones. Let me clarify that. In previous entries in the series, the player could make various adjustments to things like the budget for certain areas.  If the player increased the money going into healthcare at the expense of the roads, the game would make the ‘number of healthy Sims’ number higher, whilst simultaneously informing you that traffic jams were occurring, spawning random gridlock animations to suit.

The new version, on the other hand, simulates everything from the ground up using things called ‘agents’. For example, water agents will travel from a water tower with a limited supply along pipes to places that require water. Power plants produce electricity agents that get sent along power lines, but they need to have their supply of fossil fuels replenished by truck agents carrying new supplies. Each car on the road is now a Sim on his way from somewhere to somewhere else, and any traffic jams are caused by poorly planned or maintained roads, not an animation spawned because the ‘road budget’ number is too low. Power plants produce pollution, which contaminates the water supply and makes Sims ill, which stops them going to work, which reduces the efficiency of factories producing the goods that they export to other cities and thus damages the player’s economy…

SimCity looks like it relies on emergent gameplay based on very simple underlying systems. By utilising the simple premise of “a limited supply of stuff gets distributed around the city”, the game that emerges on top of that is one that demands careful planning and attention to detail. It could of course all go horribly wrong and be the worst city simulator since that one I built out of cardboard at my grandma’s house 16 years ago, but everything I’ve seen so far about the mechanics design suggests it is destined for great things. Here’s a quick look at what I’ve been talking about.

 

Emergent gameplay from simple game mechanics is a difficult trick to pull. Specifically because designers have to stop worrying about the player in order to make it work; instead of designing a mechanic that allows a player to ‘do X to accomplish Y’, they have to remove the player from the equation and focus on the laws of the game world. What does the AI do when they run out of food? Go to the food shop. What does the food shop do when it runs out of food? Find the nearest supplier. What does the supplier do when it runs out of food? Find the nearest farm. How does the food get from the Farm to the Supplier? In a van. What does the van do when it runs out of petrol?

All this information creates a game ‘environment’, which the player then builds the game on top of. Their challenge is to use the tools the game provides to create the best possible experience for themselves. Sometimes they might have some form of objective, such as reaching the correct molecule on SpaceChem or perhaps reaching a certain population and economy value in SimCity, but the journey there is the player’s to create. The challenges that emerge are theirs and theirs alone, and the solutions to those challenges are more personal as well.

I believe this is the future of many more games, especially in genres such as simulation and strategy. How long before Creative Assembly give each soldier in their Total War games his own strengths, weaknesses, hunger and sickness? Whilst there is nothing wrong with a focussed experience if that is what you’re aiming for, especially if you are trying to tell a story, the future is filled with incredible machines; Pythagoras Switches that let players build their own playground as they’re playing in it; a playground that no two people will ever play in quite the same way.

- Luke

The Dark Souls Conundrum

The internet is Marmite.  It is a coin. It is buttered toast. Basically, it is a dichotomy, and any fence the indecisive may wish to laboriously ponder upon has had its posts cut to a razor point and glazed with cobra venom.

If you have spent any significant time online (especially on forums, opinion pages or social networking sites), you may well have noticed the love or hate attitude millions of cyber-denizens have towards pretty much everything that is ever created. It would be unfair to only criticise online communities for this attitude though; anybody who has been to a football match or voted in an election knows the phenomenon just as well. The point of the matter is this: we need more reason. I know trying to find middle ground or claiming that there is a ‘balanced’ solution to every problem under the sun is a hideous cliché, but then again shouting two equally wrong points of view at each other ad nauseam doesn’t get us anywhere either. Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet; “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”; well I suggest that in this modern high-speed age, it’s the lack of thinking that makes it so as well.

‘Dark Souls’ (2011) is an action RPG published by Namco Bandai and developed by Japanese developer From Software. It is the sequel to the critically acclaimed Demon’s Souls, and is as hard as nails. Chuck Norris’s nails, to be more precise. Dark Souls was released last year on Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, and it was critically acclaimed by pretty much everyone who maintained the willpower not to throw it out after the window by the first boss. Players find themselves in a dark medieval fantasy environment with plenty of undead, dragons, possessed suits of armour and any other horrible thing you could really imagine trying to kill you, and doing a damn good job most of the time as well. The basic combat mechanics involve careful movement, blocking enemy attacks, looking for openings in their defences, and mixing sword and spear play with magic spells and the very fine art of ‘running the hell away’. Also on offer is an in-depth RPG system, allowing players to level up stats and spend ‘souls’ they have collected from fallen enemies on upgraded and ever more interesting gear. For fans of the genre this was about as good as it got, and considering the extreme difficulty From Software had also provided one of the last havens of the hardcore gamer; people who grew up with Megaman and Battletoads, Tomb Raider and Deus Ex.

This man will spend the majority of the game dead, by the way. And it'll still kill you when you're a ghost.

A few months ago a thread was posted on the Namco Bandai forums from a PC gamer casually asking for a PC port of the game. This wasn’t something the publisher had ever planned for, but the community manager of the forum said ‘Tell you what. If PC gamers want this, show me, and I’ll pass it on to the higher ups.’ Word of this spread like wildfire and the response was astronomical. Thousands and thousands of PC gamers signed their names and pleaded for Namco Bandai to heed their calls and bring this most excellent of games to that most excellent of platforms. This was all just prior to the incredible Kickstarter revolution that was kickstarted into action by Tim Schafer (co-creator of Monkey Island) and the team over at Double Fine productions, which really put the power of the consumer in the spotlight like never before. Suddenly, not only could fans buy games and talk about them on the internet, but they could fund them as well. After this came the release of Mass Effect 3, an excellent game that was heavily criticised for the final 5 minutes of play. Petitions were signed, threads were made, and Bioware and EA agreed to extend the endings with some free content. In the time frame of a few short weeks, the entire perception of the consumer’s relationship with game developers was turned on its head; and it happened on the PC.

And lo! There came to be a German magazine that leaked an announcement before it’s intended time. And it did proclaimeth: ‘Hark! Heed my words fellow citizens,’ (obviously imagine this in German) ‘for Dark Souls is being ported to the PC!’ And there was much rejoicing. Unfortunately, a couple of days later it was revealed that the PC port would be using the Games for Windows Live service. Trouble. You see, Games for Windows Live is to the PC gaming community what Michael Bay is to the Transformers movies. On its day it can be reasonably slick and unobtrusive, and Xbox fans will love the achievements integration… but the rest of the time everything just blows up.

This is a sadly common sight...

Here’s the cliff notes version about why the PC gaming community hates Games for Windows Live. The biggest issue, by a mile, is the regional restrictions. GFWL is supported in 35 countries, which you may have noticed is one or two short of the 200 or so that exist on the little blue-green rock we lounge about on. So there are thousands of willing consumers who are not able to legally purchase the game. Some of these players will simply be saddened, others will turn to piracy. This then adds to the piracy numbers gathered easily through torrent tracking software, which the shareholder will look at in scorn after release. The second biggest issue is that, thanks to the need to protect the ‘purity’ of Xbox achievements and gamer points, save files on GFWL games are encrypted. This is a problem when somebody tries to change their hardware, for example getting a new hard drive, as the save file will not decrypt and the player loses all of their progress. This is before we even get to constant connection problems, update difficulties, a difficult to use interface and all the other minor niggles that make the service a frustrating one to use. I personally had a fun time with GFWL when I purchased Section 8: Prejudice and tried to log on. ‘You have parental controls enabled and cannot play this game’ it said. Only I did not have any parental controls enabled, and the web page it linked me to in order to rectify these supposed restrictions no longer existed. Eventually I just kept hammering the ‘Sign In’ button until it got bored with arguing with me and gave up.

As a result of the announcement that Dark Souls will be using this service, there has been somewhat of an outcry, and after reading that last paragraph you may feel it entirely justified! There is certainly the case for that. Half the internet cries out that GFWL is ridiculous and Namco have doomed the prospects for good PC sales with this terrible decision and they must be urged to rectify it. The other half of the Marmitenet declares all who complain ‘self-entitled whiners’ who ‘should be grateful’. This is where the discussion tends to end.

But let us not fall into this trap. Let’s have a look into why Namco Bandai has decided to use this service. After all, they are not so stupid as to think it a popular one among the audience they are targeting with a PC port. So what’s the deal? Simply put it all comes down to money. The big advantage that Games for Windows Live has over its rivals (such as the oft-celebrated Steamworks, which provides much the same service but…um.. better), is that the netcode is almost identical to that used on the Xbox 360, for which Dark Souls has already been released. It is far easier for them to port the online elements of the game directly from the Xbox within this existing framework, than it would be to rewrite the whole lot from scratch for a better service. It is important to note that the decision to port Dark Souls at all is a huge risk, so naturally the publisher is doing everything it can to mitigate its costs. From Software only have until August to get the new version finished; they will have had limited man power and limited budget provided to them to get it done, so GFWL is a necessity from that perspective in order to make the most of the limited time and resources available to them.

Dark Souls PC is a toe-in-the-water affair from a cautious publisher. They have answered the calls of the community, they are even throwing in extra content. And at the end of it all they will come to a decision regarding the viability of the PC market for future games. But how will the use of GFWL affect sales? How much will they lose through boycotts and piracy that would not have occurred with a better system? How many will be too dubious to buy at full price and will wait for the sales? And if they don’t release anything through Steam at all, that will be disastrous. But this is what PC gamers who want this game must understand: we must persevere. Yes, Games for Windows Live is a big turn off. But can you live with it? If you put your name down asking for a PC version and have a computer that is physically capable of putting up with GFWL, it is vital that you buy the game full price. Regardless of the reasons for it, if this is a flop then Namco Bandai will never release on PC again. They certainly won’t listen to forum threads filled with thousands of consumers who then don’t buy their game. And other publishers will take note of that as well and think twice before showing some love for the PC community.

Equally, the publisher has to be shown that GFWL is not acceptable to vast numbers of PC gamers. There is a petition at the moment that numbers thousands of signatures asking for GFWL to be removed; and it is important that these things are presented in a calm and rational manner, and that they tot up the signatures. This game must sell well despite  the inclusion of Games for Windows Live. Remember that this was a decision made by necessity, and if we can show that the PC market is a profitable one, they will be more inclined to design their games to work with a better online service in future. Let’s not miss out on “Very Dark Souls: Black as Coal Edition” because we refused to buy this game out of spite. Just because they include a service you don’t like, doesn’t mean the publisher hates you for the sake of it. Similarly, petitioning and presenting arguments against their decisions in a reasonable way is not ‘whining self-entitlement’, it’s legitimate consumer criticism. But for all the arguing and the disappointment and the anger, there is something players who want Dark Souls on their PC must bear in mind.

The simple fact of the matter is that for whatever the issues with the details, Namco Bandai are taking a one-time gamble on us. And it is up to us to step up to the plate.

- Luke

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