Monday, August 9, 2010

What Game Are We Playing, Anyway?

I was (briefly) embroiled in a conversation on the Forge regarding the interaction between rules and fiction. (Truthfully, the conversation was fruitless for my conversation partner, who essentially stated "Rules win every time, what you mean rules aren't the rulebook, you don't get what I'm saying, la la la I can't hear you.") The conversation did, however, spark some reflection in my mind. When you consider your favorite tabletop RPG system -- D&D 3rd, White Wolf, Traveller, BESM, 3:16, doesn't really matter -- how do the "fiction", the story situation as it stands, and the "rules", the system by which the story is played out, interact?

The "conversation" I had involved the often nebulous dilemma that isn't really approached in most rulebooks; if the rules say you can accomplish some particular action, does the GM have the right to say that the fictional situation your character stands in makes that action impossible? The example I saw repeated most frequently involved a fighter in close combat with an ogre. The ogre slams the fighter with a tremendous club. Okay, fighter loses a chunk of HP, no problem. But then when the fighter's turn rolls around, and he announces his counterattack, the GM states, "The ogre's attack knocked you too far away. You can't get to him to attack this round." Wait, what? When was that established? Was it in the rules?

As written, combat like this in a D&D-style system (and I'll move forward assuming we're playing D&D, but probably without a grid) says no. The attack simply beans the fighter for 2d8 + (1.5 * STR mod) damage, and life goes on. That said, I'm not trying to imply the GM was wrong in stating that the fighter was SOL this turn on attacking. I'm sure this statement seems incongruous -- it's a violation of the rules to say the fighter was knocked back, but the GM wasn't wrong to say he was. How does that make any sense?

We can start with a bit of an off-the-wall question: How do you define "the rules"?

The easy answer, of course, is the stuff that's written in the rulebook. I don't, however, think that tells the full story. I mean, consider a couple of friends of mine, whose system of choice is first-edition White Wolf. For those unfamiliar, the resolution mechanic for most actions is as follows:

Add together the number of points ("dots") your character has allotted in an Attribute and a Skill. Roll that many ten-sided dice. Now, count up the number of dice that show a number equal to or greater than the established "difficulty" of the action (six is standard, but it's variable). Then subtract the number of dice showing ones. If your character has at least four dots in either the attribute or the skill, and he has selected a specialty in the action being attempted, reroll all tens as if they were bonus dice, and add them to your total. If the total is positive, the action was successful; zero, the action failed; negative, the action "botched" (snarl), resulting in complications.

The group in question, however, doesn't use these rules as written. They instead apply the following modifications:

  • Always reroll tens.

  • Having a relevant specialty decreases the difficulty of the roll by one.

These modifications are what are referred to as "house rules". Quite frequently, GMs and gaming groups as a whole will make modifications to the rules of the game in play, in order to better facilitate their style of play, overhaul perceived imbalance in the system they are using, simplify mechanics, or add complexity to increase depth.

All right, so let's consider the impact from that tree-trunk club again. Let's assume the GM states the fighter can't get to the ogre, and the group as a whole is okay with that. Now we have a house rule, theoretically speaking: particularly strong physical blows can knock characters back, even if it isn't specified in the monster's stat block. Fine, I don't see a problem with that, assuming the GM applies the rule consistently to both player and NPC actions.

The reason the debate on the Forge even began was a situation like this, in which the GM decreed the same thing (once again, fighter hit with tree trunk, blasts off again), only the player did not agree; the GM said "tough", and the next time that happened, the player wasn't knocked around and could fight as normal. The player, in this instance, has a right to get pissed, because the decision wasn't made as a house rule; instead, it was an attempt to facilitate the direction of play that the GM wanted, using "the fiction" as an excuse. A compromise, therefore, is necessary to resolve two diametrically opposed (arguably straw-man) viewpoints: the rules in the book should always win, or the fiction should always trump the rules. Neither is right, but not, in my opinion, for the reason you might think!

I argue that there is no compromise necessary, because both schools of thought want nothing more than a consistent interpretation of both the "Shared Imagined Space" and the rules or system by which the action therein is adjudicated. In essence, the "fiction", interpreted correctly and uniformly by all participants at the table, is part of the rules, just the same as an explicitly defined house rule would be. Therefore, the rules in play are NOT what is written in the book, but the rules explicitly or implicitly agreed upon by all players at the table as a consequence of consistent play.

In my previous post, I pointed out how simulationist players, to once again borrow the GNS terms, wouldn't be particularly fond of the White Wolf system, since a substantial amount of detail is abstracted away in favor of (relatively) simple mechanics to facilitate roleplaying. In the comment thread, "Lynne" pointed out the fact that she and a few of her friends tend to lean more toward simulationism, and make modifications to the application of rules in play to explain the idiosyncrasies between the abstractions made by White Wolf and their own particular interpretation of the "Shared Imagined Space". Does this mean that White Wolf is a good system for simulationists? I don't believe so. I do, however, believe that the changes they make in play yield a ruleset, based on White Wolf's framework, that is useful as a hybrid of simulationist and narrativist play. The instant they make a rule change, they're no longer playing White Wolf as written -- well, that's not entirely true, since the first line of the "rules" chapter in White Wolf texts is usually "Ignore these rules". But the point stands.

Let me bring up a point in OneShot's design that isn't entirely apparent; when I first set to work on building OneShot over a lunch break, I intended to create a simple, simulationist game that enabled players to roleplay cool gunfights in a mafia setting. I failed catastrophically in that attempt. What I created, instead, was a framework with which to build that concept, or to build a really cool story, or to just set to work in an encounter and see who wins. OneShot is not a simulationist game, but it's also not a narrativist game or a gamist game. Hell, at some level it isn't even a game at all! It's tools to build a game. That fact is more or less true of nearly any tabletop RPG system devised. Some, of course, make this easier than others.

So, to bring this back to the point with which I started this post. Properly defined, the rules and the fiction are one and the same. Used capriciously, they're a tool, crutch, or excuse by a GM who wants to railroad or confuse his players, or play his story, his game. If he hopes to keep his players satisfied and help his players tell a story, he'd do well to at least try to interpret everything as consistently as possible. Given that, who cares how closely he follows the rules as written? Those aren't the rules he's using, and more power to him.

Don't play D&D, don't play White Wolf, hell, don't play OneShot. Play your game.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Why D&D Sucks

You'll have to excuse the somewhat abrasive title of this piece; it'll be explained momentarily.

I've been working on OneShot for a while, a project which has been enormously fruitful. I've participated in or set up no fewer than five campaigns/settings in the system, each of which has been a resounding success. I'm still working on coalescing the various documents I've generated into a single concrete "first edition" rulebook, complete with a campaign setting called OneShot: PSICOM. The purpose of this entry, however, is not to toot my own horn.

I've done a significant amount of research on RPG theory, mainly via the efforts of Ron Edwards and Vince Baker at The Forge, a progressive forum for independent tabletop RPG design. The site began, it appeared, as a dual-purpose device, hosting both the forums proper, and a series of articles published by Edwards and others. The one thing that I admired the most was the (apparently outdated) GNS Theory. Those letters stand for Gamism, Narrativism, Simulationism. There's an impressive level of detail on each of those terms within the Forge articles on each, but I'll attempt to sum up each one here for the purposes of this discussion:

  • Gamism: The concept of "playing a game" comes first -- that is, being principally concerned with figuring out the variables and optimizing both actions and character setup in order to win or lose.
  • Narrativism: The story comes first. The purpose of roleplaying is to tell a story; game mechanics and character sheets are a means to that end.
  • Simulationism: A main focus on simulating a world, whether real or invented. Rules exist for exactly how a laser beam interacts with a blast door, or how your sword damages a character protected by different types of armor in different locations.

Nowhere in any of the articles does Edwards present any of these design foci as wrong, though he expresses a fondness for Narrativism above others -- this can be seen in both his and Vince Baker's works.

So, let's get back to the title of this entry -- why does D&D suck? Depends on who you ask. A common misconception among RPG players is that games, and people, who don't cater to their style are either bad or are missing the point. Simulationists decry Vampire: The Masquerade (or, honestly, any White Wolf product) as too vague. Gamists can't understand why "winning" conflicts in Dogs in the Vineyard might still kill you or do you more harm than good. Narrativists don't appreciate the obsession in D&D 4th edition on the concept of "builds" and "cooldowns".

Ah, I got sneaky; I mentioned D&D a little early. Well, the problem is that D&D simultaneously caters to and frustrates each type of gamer. That's why D&D "sucks"; not because it doesn't work for players of various ilks, but because it doesn't do any of them particularly well.

Let me digress for a moment -- there's a concept in software development (my principal occupation) called "breaking changes". When a new version of a program is released, any change significant enough to cause documents, saved games, or code generated with an earlier version incorrect or incompatible is a "breaking change". For example, when a game releases version 1.2, and tells you that saved games from 1.1 don't work anymore. In general, breaking changes are a bad idea, because it causes users a significant amount of strife in dealing with modifying, converting, or simply recreating their work.

D&D got its origins from a game called "Chainmail"; it was a tabletop wargame, dealing with maneuvering armies in battles. One of its scenarios involved moving through a dungeon to access a castle from underground; the setting was so well liked that it was expanded, bringing the focus from masses of units to individual heroes, and adding the conceit of hit points so that beloved warriors didn't die on a single failed roll. As the game expanded upwards from its wargame roots, into a first, second, third, and eventually fourth edition, it carried with it a lot of baggage. You couldn't leave "Armor Class", or Vecna, or "Magic Missile" behind and still call the game Dungeons & Dragons. Just the same, you couldn't leave behind the exhaustive rules for unarmed combat and grappling, nor the immense realism in certain spots, nor the narrative aspects. They're all expected. (Well, that's not entirely the case in D&D 4th edition; I've heard it best described as "D&D: The Boardgame"; but that's neither here nor there.) The bottom line is, since D&D has been around since the very origins of tabletop roleplaying (and is arguably the forefather of roleplaying in general), the fact that it carries so much baggage is almost expected.

That's simultaneously the charm and the curse of D&D, sadly. Everyone sits down at the table to play their version of the game, and no one gets what they want.

My friends and I lean narrativist, generally. We like to tell stories, and D&D is a fine vehicle for it. That said, there are a good thousand pages of rules, not to mention rule supplements, to digest before you really understand how the game works; if you don't have a character concept, race, or whatever that's present in the system, it's a herculean feat to try to create it. And then, even if you do, you're stuck with a huge quandry with respect to game balance.

Simulationists kind of like D&D, because spells, materials, and items all have statistics that allow them to interact with each other. You'll know exactly how a sword or axe will break down a wooden door. But you'll be disappointed if you try to figure out how explosives work, or how fireballs affect grass or other items; the rules for the fireball seem to contradict each other, as the damage comes from an explosive burst which is gone in an instant, and doesn't set characters on fire, but does fire damage, not concussive, and sets flammable objects on fire. What?

Gamists love D&D because there are a laundry list of options. That list expands tenfold (at least!) if your unwitting DM allows races, classes, and spells from external supplements, not all of which are official. There's simply so much material out for version 3/3.5 that a sufficiently wily player will, given time, find a game-breaking combination that makes him win every encounter.

Here's where things get difficult -- all of these players have reasons to love D&D, but if you put members of each group in the same party, bad things happen. So, Gamist sits down at the table with his buddies, Narrativist and Simulationist. The GM starts to tell a fantastic tale, when we encounter the party at the local tavern. Suddenly, a squad of goblins busts down the door, axes at the ready; who'll save them but the local party of adventurers? Narrativist describes in exacting detail the process of slamming his drink down, pulling out his rapier and lute, and the soulful yet aggressive tones that fill the air with magic. The Simulationist wonders aloud whether the tanglefoot bag he's carrying can create a web across the door to clothesline the goblins as they pass through the doorway. But who cares? The gamist took Cleave and Great Cleave, Two-weapon Fighting, and is dual-wielding Greatswords using Monkey Grip. Oh, and he's a half-ogre so he has reach. They're all dead before they get a turn. The other plans are wasted; they're clever and may work, but they're suboptimal, and don't kill the most punks per second. They're shunted to the sidelines. Simultaneously, the gamist complains that his allies aren't putting their best foot forward, while the narrativist laments his well-crafted description gone to waste, and the simulationist wonders aloud how this jerk can kill six enemies in two seconds using weapons that can't feasibly function in a room that small. For that matter, how'd the ogre fit through the tavern door?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Exclusive Unlockables -- or, Get a Free Gun to Shoot Yourself in the Foot

I purchased Splinter Cell: Conviction recently, and played it to completion in about three days. I haven't played with the side modes or the co-op campaign yet, so I can't pass judgment on them yet, but the main campaign plays very well. It's not the old Splinter Cell you remember, but as a stealth/action hybrid, it accomplishes its goal with gusto.

But I didn't post to discuss this game. On the contrary, I saw a few exclusive features attached to it that I'd like to discuss. It seems like a few developers make deals with electronics and game stores, particularly GameStop, to bundle extras into the game if it's purchased or reserved at that particular store. It's actually a very sound marketing tactic, isn't it? Come get the game at our store and get early access to the F2000 rifle, one of the best in the game!

I say, the developers are very, very carefully shooting themselves in the foot with tactics like these.

Balance is a very strange concept in gaming. It's almost Zen-like in its steadfast refusal to be described in terms that aren't vague or nebulous. Balancing weapons, as I've discussed in posts before, is a very challenging task; we discussed the "no duplicate function" method, the "quantity over quality" method, but games like Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter subscribe to a third process. Since you can only carry one primary weapon in either of these games, they make things interesting by allowing you to select better and better devices as the game goes on; we'll call it "quality ramping".

On level one, you might be stuck with a couple of basic pistols, gain a shotgun or SMG on level two, a mediocre assault rifle on three, and eventually find better examples of all of these as you progress. The pace of weapon unlocks is often tied to the difficulty curve, keeping your equipment level generally on par with that of the enemy; depending on theme, you may be consistently behind, and trying to make up the difference with your skill; be a bit ahead, representing your funding and support level; or, if pace is tied to a currency like money or some performance metric, in a constant arms race to stay one step ahead of your foes.

The GameStop exclusive pre-order for SC:C gave you instant access to the MP5-SD suppressed SMG, the SC3000 assault rifle, SR-2M machine pistol, and SPAS-12 automatic shotgun (which is also freaking suppressed). All of these are very strong weapons; the MP5 doesn't come along until about halfway through the game, and the SC3000 comes in level ten of thirteen. The SPAS-12 isn't normally available at all.

Do you see the problem yet? By introducing these weapons early, the player's arsenal quality is well above that of his enemies. This effectively blunts two of SC:C's best design qualities: first, the constant tension produced by keeping pace with the enemies' equipment level; second, and more importantly, the old "progress bar" reward system where the player is eagerly waiting for the next piece he can try. If he already has all the good weapons, who cares? The fleshed-out, interesting selection becomes little more than picking the best gun in the game from minute one and then forgetting the selection menu is even there.

Pardon the extrapolation, but imagine playing Super Mario Bros. -- the first one, before the formula expanded into world maps, inventories, and so forth. Can you imagine an exclusive version that enabled you to start each level Super, with one additional hit-point? It'd break the game's difficulty entirely. Marketing probably wants some kind of nifty new exclusives, but they don't realize they're trying to do the developers' job for them -- and failing. You're asking your players to plunk down five or ten extra bucks, or go to your preferred outlet, for the privilege of playing a game that's less fun.

I'm sure there's a wide swath of gamers who love this concept; next to cheat codes, it's a great way to get that elusive "edge against the game" that has sold millions of Game Genies and strategy guides. (Or maybe it's just elitism: "I have the SPAS-12 and you don't.") Companies who throw in these extras make a killing extracting a tax from their players; this fact is slightly less true now that the online era has brought about the advent of GameFAQs and CheatCC, so it doesn't terribly surprise me that the next step is this bundling process, alongside releasing six collector's editions of every game that's come out in the last ten years. If I sound bitter, I apologize; I just can't quite wrap my head around the mindset of these people. I generally avoid Collector's Editions, particularly the ones with these downloadable unlocks, mainly because I have a preference for playing the game as it's intended. It's not quite Horse Armor (though the avalanche of DLC for games these days is another post), but it does bug me.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Kindling the Fire -- Game Design in Another Arena

So, a large gap of real-life induced silence has occurred. Truth be told I've made little progress on any of my various projects, and my creativity was stifled and stunted by amazing amounts of drama and life-altering events. I'll spare you the details, as they're completely irrelevant to the point of this blog.

There is one place my energy did get focused, and it wasn't in the arena of digital gaming. In much the same way as the esteemed Brenda Braithwaite applied herself to board games, so did I enter an offbeat field: tabletop RPG design.

If you haven't seen the work of D. Vincent Baker and are at all interested in tabletop RPGs, you really need to. I won't invoke the tired "stop reading this post right now" turn of phrase, but honestly, if you want to get a picture of the full length and breadth of the concept of a tabletop game, his work really is required reading. I got pointed, I don't remember how, in the direction of Dogs in the Vineyard, a game about enforcers for the Church of Faith in All Things of the King of Life, Reborn -- a thin rebranding of the Mormon Church as it existed in the 1840s-50s. The player characters are effectively religious enforcers in what could have been the Deseret Territory, a wide expanse eventually becoming seven US states, but which was at some juncture proposed to be a single unified territory under the command of the LDS church. There they are judge, jury, and executioner personified in a roving band of priests on horseback, wielding the supreme law of the land while fighting the sinful influences of the west.

This game's importance is not due to its subject matter, provocative though it may be; indeed, it attacks at the core what most people think of when they contemplate RPG design. The strict damage, rate of fire, to-hit or THAC0 tables, hit location tables, and hundreds upon hundreds of pages of spell descriptions, are thrown out entirely in favor of a simple system which places character, interaction, and the plot at the forefront. The Dogs aren't facing insurmountable odds; on the contrary, the game is weighted so that they win most encounters they come across. The question becomes, "how far are [they] willing to go?" Damage is inflicted not in HP loss, but "fallout", regardless of the arena of conflict; personal, physical, gunfighting. It also comes in the varied forms of experience, stunted relationships, or (possibly) physical injury or death. That said, fallout depends on the highest roll of two dice accumulated over the course of a conflict, and lethal injury comes very rarely except in physical fighting, or gunfighting. Death means something.

Inspired by both this game and his series of blog posts, "anyway", I gave myself a challenge, considering how I was foundering in my attempts to both GM a weekly game, and create anything meaningful in the computer game arena. Over the course of a lunch break or two, I had my answer: "OneShot". It was seven pages of rough copy that put together an almost trivially simple game system. Designed for, not surprisingly, one-shot games or short campaigns, its name is a pun on both that and the initial inspired setting: mafia-style or personal scale shootouts. Then I realized the game was more than that, and could be applied to any genre. I'll post a full "rulebook", such as it is, once I've had a chance to edit and format it; it's a little gnarly in its current form. The gist, though, follows.


Characters have 20 points to assign to each of four attributes, or stats. Four is human average; basic characters are therefore slightly better than average.

  • Strength: Used for feats of physical strength, close-quarters combat with heavy weapons or blows, and to represent toughness by absorbing damage or resisting poisons and other physical ailments.
  • Speed: Used for fine dexterity, raw speed, close-quarters combat with light weapons or blows, and dodging and general defense.
  • Perception: Used for both physical and mental perception -- vision, hearing, mental insight and intuition are folded in here. Also used for ranged attacks of all types.
  • Aptitude: Used for feats of mental calculation and endurance. Folds intelligence, charisma, and similar into one.

Each character also has four "specializations", things they're good at. Pistol shooting, longarm shooting, lockpicking, computer hacking, linguistics, cooking, driving, toughness, dodging, cover, shields, are all examples; anything that can be narrowly defined goes.

Boom, you have your character. Simple as that.

Anytime a character wants to do something that he can practically fail (no rolling for tying your shoes, guys), he rolls a d10 and adds the most appropriate stat. If he has a specialization that applies, add 2 (unless it's an attack or defense roll, in which case you add 1). 10s are automatic successes, 1s are automatic failures, otherwise compare to a target number (or the opponent's opposed roll; attacker wins ties).

Combat is resolved with opposed rolls; Strength vs. Speed for heavy attacks, Speed vs. Speed for light melee attacks, and Perception vs. Speed for ranged attacks. If the attacker wins, the defender takes Damage points equal to the power of the attack used, plus half the margin of success.

When a character takes damage, he must make a Strength roll against the total damage he's taken so far. Success means nothing happens; the hit was a flesh wound or simply harried him, lowering his endurance. Failure means a vital wound was sustained; blood, organs, broken bones, and the like. Each character begins with three Life points; failing a wound roll means they lose one. Lose all three and they're done.

Characters also have five Resolve points; they can succeed at tasks through sheer force of will. Upon failing a roll, they may spend Resolve points to increase their die roll by +2; any number of points can be spent on a roll. If they spend enough to meet or exceed the target number of the roll, the action succeeds instead. The GM must tell the player how many points he needs to spend; the player can then choose to spend them or not. (There's nothing more aggravating than blowing action points or whatever resource the game chooses to apply, buffing your roll by 10, and being told by the GM you still failed.)


So there you have it. It's not groundbreaking, but the main value in the system is twofold:

First, simplicity. There's little that aggravates me more than combat in a D&D system; in fourth edition especially, a simple combat seems to take hours upon hours, because each attack has exceptions, a dozen rules and subrules, sixteen keywords, and umpteen thousand modifiers. Others require you to calculate THAC0, make an attack roll, check a hit location chart, check for a critical hit and its exact effects on two other tables, and god help you if you try to make an unarmed attack or some tactical maneuver.

Second, the applications. I think OneShot is what GURPS wanted to be -- a universal system. While GURPS got mired down in over-simulating things, though, I think a true setting-agnostic game MUST be simple; rules that work in a futuristic setting with psionics and plasma rifles make little sense in a low-fantasy world with barbarians wielding obsidian axes. OneShot, above all else, is a framework; I've run a short campaign in the world of Halo, a dark fantasy with swords and sorcery, a near-future environment with psionic experts (Aptitude rolls for whatever psi power they could think of), and now a demi-hero game with galaxy-spanning races and roles, determined by the players themselves, and using emcee-style narration.

I don't intend to sell this system; use it as you will. The full rules will follow; any feedback or suggestions are appreciated, though I can't promise I will use all of them. If you do apply this system to anything, please let me know; I'm interested in the ways people implement and use it.


If you'll allow me to espouse a bit on the nature of RPG gaming, such as it is, I've found through the investigation of Vince Baker's games, a few other indie projects, and the creation of my own system, that RPGs as published, almost since their creation, are way, way too damn complicated. I loved, for example, the concept of Spycraft, an RPG by Alderac Entertainment Group. The plot involved a stereotypical organization of superspies which thwart world-threatening crisises. Players requisition equipment and gadgets from Control, then go on missions to accomplish their tasks.

But oh, my sweet god, did they overcomplicate the thing.

Your gear requisitioning, for example. You've got a quantity of gear "picks" to apply; they come in Class I through V, depending on the threat level of the mission; and categories include gadgets, vehicles, weapons, "security", and so forth. You can trade three picks of one level for one of another, or back down. You can buy further items with reputation. And each and every piece of gear has somewhere between one and seven keywords, which change how it operates, interacts with armor, affects your skill rolls, causes problems when you use it, and so on. You have to check four or five places in the book to figure out what your MP7A1 with laser sight and suppressor actually does. When running a mission, I'd allot twenty minutes for gear selection; it would regularly take an hour or more. Additionally, there are fully six or seven pages of rules for damage! Damage comes in lethal, nonlethal, fire, vacuum, laser, cold, stress... each with its own half-page of rules and modifiers.

So I'd really love for someone to tell me why we should care about all that detail, when your average player wants to sit down, say "I take a silenced submachine gun, a spy catsuit, and a lockpick set sequestered in the heel of my combat boots" and get on with the action? Simulation-based play is all well and good, but there's a limit. OneShot states the following: "Your silenced MP7A1 has power 5, a 40-round clip, and enemies are at a severe disadvantage (-4) to hear your gunshots." Done. Some games might distill this even further; White Wolf's Old World of Darkness Second Edition distills that into "submachine gun", regardless of model, attachments or other effects. Your average Vampire player cares more about the narrative and why he's pissed off six guys wielding SMGs than the exact nature of the weapons.

The end result of what I created was built with two purposes in mind: first, can I create something worthwhile still, after all this time? And second, can I create a tabletop RPG that strips out all the BS and focuses on characters and their struggles? I'm proud to say that, in my mind, the answer to both questions is a resounding "yes".

Friday, February 5, 2010

Flipping Out -- or, One Mechanic Is All You Need

I had the opportunity to play Terry Cavanagh's excellent VVVVVV just after its release. It was purchased for me as a birthday gift, and it was a fantastic selection. There are a lot of reasons to like this game -- excellent soundtrack, fantastically captured retro nouveau feel, hilariously named rooms, and lots of clever references to games and culture from days of yore.

The real winner in this, however, is the very same thinking that pervades most highly-successful indie games (and in some cases, highly-successful mainstream commercial games as well). The game is succinct and simple; I've heard it compared to the Metroidvania genre, a comparison I'm not entirely sure is valid. VVVVVV does lift ideas from Metroid-style games, such as the map, free exploration with your current powers, and so forth. The difference is in the linearity, or rather the lack thereof. A hallmark of most Metroidvania style games is that areas of the map are closed off to you until you acquire a certain item or power to overcome the obstacle closing it off; in VVVVVV, the only pickups to find are the "Shiny Trinkets", a set of 20 items enabling unlocks.

No, the entirety of the gameplay in VVVVVV comes from the thorough explanation and exhaustion of a mechanic derived from three commands: move left, move right, and flip. Captain Viridian doesn't jump, he flips the direction of gravity locally for himself, moving from floor to ceiling and back again. The game is still at its heart a platformer, but not the standard run and jump fare.

Flipping gravity requires you to think a bit outside the box, both for what you can do with it, and what you can't. A few puzzles rely on the fact that your character cannot move "up" under his own power without flipping. One great example involves a trio of vertically-moving platforms, and a ceiling coated in spikes. The player can't flip, because he would die on the ceiling, so he's forced to wait until the platforms align and walk off one onto the next. Another is a puzzle which puts a Shiny Trinket in front of the player, blocked by a small box. Of course, Viridian can't just jump over the box, he has to flip -- and the only safe platform on the ceiling is *six rooms up*.

In trademark style, each area puts a different spin on the mechanic, requiring different thinking to accomplish. There is a basic area similar to the first mission, which relies on simple (if you can call it that) flipping. Another scrolls vertically, requiring that the player not be too quick or slow or he'll get killed on the edges of the screen. Still another adds beams which will flip you on contact; tactically moving through them to move through maze-type rooms is a fun challenge. Finally, there is an area in which the sides of the screen don't necessarily link to new rooms; they can wrap around to the other side of the room horizontally or vertically. The "final challenge" adds all of these together to produce a mind-bending sequence of puzzles in the home stretch.

The structure of VVVVVV is oddly familiar; the acclaimed Braid did the same thing with its time mechanic, subtly changing the rules of the world with each broad area to add complications to the player's actions. This is not to say VVVVVV "ripped off" or even referenced that game's structure; in some cases, great minds do think alike, and we find that thorough exploration of a single mechanic, a recurring hallmark of indie games in general, produces titles that rival sixty-dollar titles for fun factor.

Stretching this out a bit, we could argue that the exploration of a mechanic practically defines the genre. It largely depends on your definition of "mechanic", but games like shoot-'em-ups could be considered one-mechanic games; that mechanic is flying vertically/horizontally, attacking enemies firing upward/to the right. Bullet-hell games take this to its extreme, making dodging the primary mechanic even more so than shooting enemies. Interlacing multiple mechanics is doable, but developers always run the risk of stretching too thin, or trying to combine genres that have no business together. (For example, why is there a vehicle dodging game in Resident EVil 4? I'm battling mechanics I'm unfamiliar with, I just beat the final boss, and now you expect me to perform this minigame perfectly or die each time I hit the smallest thing? I swear I died on that sequence more than the rest of the game combined.)

The one-mechanic ideal that makes indie games so succinct and pleasurable in their simultaneous simplicity and complexity calls out to classic games, both video (consider Breakout, Centipede, hell, even modern rail shooters) and otherwise (chess? backgammon? poker?). The success or failure of it depends on the execution, but it's never a bad place to start. And with VVVVVV, Terry Cavanagh has proven he is a master of the concept.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Another Epic Butt-Kicking

I broke down and bought a PlayStation 3 the other day. It's ironic; after examining the horrors of Sony's attempts to provide (and later remove) PS2 backwards compatibility, thinking a $600 price point was the best of ideas, and my general attitude about Sony's business practices, I was dead-set that I would never touch a PS3 willingly. But then something happened.

I examined their library of titles -- LittleBigPlanet, Metal Gear Solid 4, Uncharted and Uncharted 2, Demon's Souls, and so forth. There were too many good exclusive titles for me to ignore. And then the hammer drop: the price cuts. $299 for a new 120GB system. Or better yet, $349 with two bundled games. I could wait no longer.

I picked up the bundle, along with a copy of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. The bundle came with LittleBigPlanet and, of all things, Ratchet and Clank: A Crack in Time. I set those aside for the time being and booted up Drake's Fortune, which I liked quite a bit. They did a lot of things right, but I can analyze that in another post. Once I completed it, I had intended to settle down with LBP and get my Sackboy on. I played a couple of levels, but decided I should probably at least give R&C a shot. So I fired that up, and played the first level.

And then I played ten more.

If I were asked when I first bought the PS3 what game I'd gush about in a post about amazing 3D shooter combat, you could bet that I would've envisioned a Drake's Fortune post. But as much as I liked it, I honestly think R&C did combat that much better. Possibly one of the best interpretations I've seen on a shooter in years. And trust me, folks, that's saying a lot.

First, if you have any competence in shooter games at all, put the thing on hard. It's an E10 game, and you'd expect it to be a cakewalk. I sure did. But then I started getting smacked for 14 damage from enemy attacks with a total lifebar capacity of 37, and I realized that this game was no slouch. On hard, combat was at points a white-knuckle affair. You had to pay attention, you had to know where the enemies are, and you had to be prepared to use the right weapon for the job. With a selection of some 16 weapons if I recall correctly, that's no easy task. Enemies may not have the same arsenal of tactics that the mercenaries hunting Nathan Drake had, but their attack patterns are so varied and so inventive that you'll be in just as much danger. And this time without the regenerating health bar.

In "On Regenerating Health", I discussed the kind of game that a constantly recovering hit point system would serve. Drake's Fortune is just such a system. Enemies flank, think tactically, move for advantage, and punish you under a hail of bullets. You will take hits, and you will take them often. It's built on setpiece combat, and without the break you get by hiding for a couple of seconds, the game would be impossible.

Not so with Ratchet. It's a different game, and it's not entirely fair to compare the two. Your health doesn't regenerate, and there's not much to go around. But enemy attacks are more quality over quantity. If you take damage, it's your own fault. In classic platformer style, there's a way over, around, or under every shot fired by your adversaries. A large bipedal tank might fire a heavy barrage from twin plasma turrets, which sweeps across the battlefield. Keep moving or jump over the stream. The next might launch an elecrified barrier either at your feet or above you. Jump over or walk underneath it. Time bombs? Run away, or better yet, snag 'em with your wrench and throw them back!

The shooting controls are very, very tight. You have a reticle on screen that varies with your equipped weapon. Using the pistol, you'll have a precise dot in the middle of the screen. The bomb glove, on the other hand, plants a circular target mark on the ground where your projectile will land. The angling is not 100% perfect, but in large part it's intuitive and you should be able to put your shots on target the vast majority of the time. Movement feels like a hybrid of an FPS and Devil May Cry -- dodge jumps/rolls, strafing, even odd objects in the environment to use for cover. (There's no "cover system" per se, in the style of Gears of War or similar, but it's not necessary.)

The platforming isn't perfect, but 3D platform games are notoriously hard to get right, and Ratchet provides the best experience I've seen yet. I've only suffered a couple of cheap deaths, mostly from bounding box issues with environmental objects. The small mistakes are forgiveable, particularly in light of the very small penalty for death. (Checkpoints are quite frequent, and help to deter frustration.)

The weapon list is extensive, and each one serves its particular purpose, with very few repeats. The pistol and shotgun do exactly what they suggest; the bomb glove provides pinpoint grenade throws; the Negotiator is a solid RPG weapon; the Dynamo of Doom fires a large electric ball that can be rolled around the map independent of Ratchet's movement; the Tesla spikes plant a pseudo-minefield that electrifies anything in the vicinity; the list goes on. The only duplication in functionality I saw was the "Groovitron Glove", which throws out a large disco ball that forces nearby enemies to dance, and the "Cryo Mines", which freeze enemies in place. You don't really need both, and their effects and timing are similar; the Cryo Mines trade a smaller radius for larger ammo capacity. Considering this is the only violation of my standard "each weapon should serve a unique purpose" rule, I commend Insomniac for their selection, particularly considering no weapon is bad. Each one has its purpose, and none are throwaways. You won't feel "stuck" if you're forced to use one, even if it's suboptimal for the job.

A post discussing the value of Crack in Time would be remiss if it didn't mention the pervasive sense that Insomniac put a lot of love into every area of this game. The environments are lovingly detailed. Ratchet's movements are believable and generally look good. Enemies will taunt you and provide amusing idle animations. The story is, if a bit cliche, hilarious at every turn. Even Mr. Zurkon, your gun-platform companion droid, provides hours of amusement with his hilariously violent taunts. The puzzles are well thought-out, fair, and provide a sense of satisfaction on completion, something that doesn't happen all that often these days. There are hours upon hours of levels and optional areas, each of which feels fun. Nothing is tacked on or unnecessary.

I commend Insomniac Games for providing one of the best-designed games I've seen in a long time, and showing me that even today, a game can be pure, 100% fun.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Jerks and Xbox Live

I've made passing reference to some of my friends to the common perception of players on Xbox Live. (I mention Xbox specifically because I have one and am closer to the source; I still don't have a Gold membership and don't plan on getting one. I'm sure that PSN isn't much better.) A common refrain is "When you log onto Xbox Live, you immediately lose ten years of maturity."

While I confess that comment isn't exactly fair, it's hard not to be competitive in multiplayer games. The added incentive is that restrictions on quantity and quality of speech are almost non-existent, and rarely enforced where they do exist, on top of the anonymity of the online environment. I'm sure almost everyone has wanted to call someone a jerk or some other, more derisive term, but refrained because they were in the same room. (As an aside, this reminds me of a joke a friend of mine from college told me some years back: I believe it was called something on the order of "The Asshole Proximity Theory". Said theory states that people are bigger assholes the farther you are away from them. As in, regarding someone in the same room you might whisper "This guy's an asshole." Across town, you might state it louder. Now say a politician shows up on the television: "THIS GUY'S AN ASSHOLE!!!!!" But I digress.)

You'll see quite a few horrid comments leveled at the fans of two games in particular: Halo and Madden. Now, I don't really play sports games, so I can't speak personally of the quality of the Madden series, but enough of my acquaintances have played it and I've observed enough of it to know that it's a well-designed and implemented game. One with a vast audience, and which is easily accessible to most players.

I have played Halo, on the other hand, and while I do know some people who dislike the game (often on very reasonable grounds), I admire the series, and in particular how well-balanced it is. Generally, the game is fair, and has a very shallow learning curve for new players. You can pick the game up and go with a minimum of training or adjustment. As a consequence, you get quite a bit of strategic depth. (I won't go so far as to relate the game to chess, but I've mentioned before how overcomplicating a game's system limits potential winning strategies by virtue of one solution being optimal or close to it, and the rest being dominated away as a result.) Halo rewards many players with many options and many paths to success.

So what do these games have in common? Strong design, and a wide audience because of it. The consequence comes from that audience size itself. I submit that the reason most online Halo or Madden players are jerks is that the bar for entry to these games is set quite low (and I believe rightly so, but that's another argument), so you get a wide swath of players representing a larger cross-section of the general population than most games.

Let's face it -- we all know people whose gaming prowess consists solely of these "triple-A" titles, and who lack a breadth of appreciation for the medium as a whole. It's a lot like a person who watches sitcom television shows and nothing else. There is nothing inherently wrong with this attitude, but there's the small matter of a sense of scale. You'll find people of this ilk who will chastise more "legitimate" gamers about how the games they play "suck", or claim superiority as a "better gamer" because they can beat you at Halo. Leigh Alexander of the excellent Sexy Videogameland analyzed this very topic in short form recently, and she makes a valid point -- but while the kind of stereotypical player I just alluded to is certainly obnoxious, it's also not fair to say he doesn't understand games or his choices aren't worthy because they're common.

Even more so in (what I believe is) the more common case, where our player isn't a jerk with a superiority complex, but simply prefers more accessible games, perhaps because gaming is a minor hobby. Let's face facts -- not everyone has the kind of free time or money to play dozens of games, to sink eighty hours into Chrono Trigger, or to figure out what the hell is going on in Metal Gear Solid 2. We certainly wouldn't want to be chewed out for occasionally watching the Super Bowl or something like that. You know, the "no true Scotsman" ploy? The vitriol can go both ways.

I certainly play some esoteric games, but I refuse to stand idly and "hate on" Halo or Madden because they're popular, or because some jerks like to play them. You have to give Bungie and (shudder) EA some credit for designing excellent titles. As a consequence, I also find that I can extend some respect for the "hardcore casual" segment of the marketplace. It's probably contentious to call them that, but it's an apt description -- Halo is by no means a "casual game", but people who play it exclusively can't fairly be called connoisseurs of the medium.

And that's okay.

To the sophisticates of the gaming world, give the casual Halo and Madden player a break. To the casual, "stereotypical" player, go right ahead and keep on enjoying games for what they are, as long as you can respect those of us who delve more deeply into the medium. And can we all stop being so nasty?

Friday, July 24, 2009

On Recharging Health

I've always been an action gamer at heart, starting with the original Duke Nukem sidescroller from 1991. A main part of my upbringing in games has been first-person shooters, and shooters in general. From time immemorial (and for gamers, the 1980s are time immemorial), the standard currency to represent a character's resilience has been hit points (HP), or sometimes just health.

The most commonly referenced origin story for the concept of HP is the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The original D&D was derived from a wargame called Chainmail -- specifically, a scenario in which the advancing army must penetrate a castle's dungeon to come up into the main courtyard. Players enjoyed the dungeon scenario so much that Gary Gygax decided to make it a game in its own right. Of course, with a party of four or so characters, dying when you failed a single combat roll sucked, so he invented hit points, a measure by which a character could take some amount of damage and continue fighting.

Action games usually subscribed to one of two philosophies for a player's resistance to damage -- either he died in one hit (and usually several lives), or had a stock of hit points, called by various names, against which damage would be applied. Hit points could usually be restored by various measures, allowing a player to progess through much or even all of a game without dying given sufficient skill.

Arguments have been made, however, against the realism of this flat "life bar" system -- it fails to take into account the physical effects of damage to a human, for example. This degree of realism scarcely mattered in the games of yesteryear, where attention to detail was the exception rather than the rule, but since games are becoming more and more detailed, more and more realistic, and since player expectations have grown, some attempt has been made to address the percieved shortcomings of the hit point system.

One rather persistent trend seems to have taken root after the release of Halo, and particularly Halo 2. Halo used a system (which had appeared in games prior to it) wherein the player's HP was divided into a "shield" and "health" gauge. Shields would absorb the brunt of damage until they reached zero, and further damage would be applied to the player's health. Shields regenerate after a couple of seconds if the player doesn't suffer further hits, but health does not. Halo 2 removed the health gauge entirely -- the player still has a stock of health points, but they are not displayed on screen, and regenerate over time (at a comparatively slow rate).

I have always particularly liked the shield/health system from Halo 1 -- to tell the truth, I liked Halo 1 better than the other games in the series as a whole, but that's another discussion. The recharging health system has a handful of effects for gameplay:

- Increased short-term lethality. Almost universally, the recharging health system brings with it a reduced HP maximum -- the player will die in a few shots if he does not seek cover to let himself recover.
- Simplification of the supply dynamic. Games with recharging health need not provide the player with items to restore his HP -- it happens automatically over time. (The console version of Call of Juarez is an exception -- while the PC version had a strict HP counter, the console versions allowed the player's health to recharge, but left in the liquor bottles as a way to immediately recover HP.) Not having to include health packs means that the game no longer has to analyze that variable in the long term, meaning it becomes easier to balance encounters; the player is never in a low-HP state to begin with. The downside is that game effects that use HP as a cost variable (collecting items through hazardous terrain, "rocket jumping", special effects charging the player health points to use) are no longer a valid design decision, as there is no real consequence to the player unless he hoses up and kills himself.
- Simultaneous increase and decrease of realism. This one requires more explanation.

Recharging health systems have an odd effect on realism -- it all depends on the player's frame of mind. Combats become more realistic for two main reasons: First, the much decreased maximum HP count. Real people tend to die (or at least become incapacitated, which in most action games is as good as death) after just a hit or two. Since the player cannot have a large buffer of health to fall back on, it "knocks him down a peg"; he's no longer a Superman, but an average joe in a rough situation. Second, gunshots and other attacks often inflict much in the way of physical and psychological trauma, but may not have much lasting effect in the case of "flesh wounds" or wounds that are properly treated. I suppose some hand-waving is assumed in which the player character seeks medical treatment or patches himself up between scenes.

It is that "hand wave" that provides the decrease in realism as well: the player is essentially invulnerable, as long as the bullets he recieves are evenly spaced. A character could suffer a hundred or more hits against a life bar that lasts as long as three or four, and still survive with no long-term ill effects. I don't intend to argue for the inclusion of long-term damage effects in a game like this, as the player as a matter of course suffers far more damage than any reasonable person could be expected to absorb, and he must for the sake of the story keep going. Inflicting some kind of permanent penalty means the game would become a drag very quickly for anyone but an expert player.

This dichotomy becomes perfectly clear in a few recent games. The most standout example I can think of is the Rainbow Six: Vegas series. Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six series of games has always been notable for very easy player lethality. The original squad-based combat games would find characters out of action or even permanently killed if they suffered more than a hit or two; the effect is mitigated by the fact that the player had a roster of twenty or more characters, and an endless "reserve" stock of soldiers. More recent games, such as Lockdown, were more action-oriented, but still had the player suffer much damage from enemy shots -- the player's lifebar was quite small, and characters could not heal in the middle of a mission, in a nod to realism. In the Vegas series, the player's very low HP total returns, but Ubisoft has opted to include a recharging HP system. It's realism without being unfair, on a surface level. But for a RS game, it seems odd to include characters that can suffer dozens of hits, and in fact are largely immortal given enough adrenaline shots in the buttocks to keep them going. (The player is the sole exception -- if his HP reach zero he's down for good.) It makes for a better game, to be sure, but it does require some serious suspension of disbelief, particularly among series congnoscienti.

To tell the truth, I don't understand what's wrong with the good old lifebar. Even Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon included a fixed health system (and a medic character to keep the player and other characters going). I can see how the recharging health device is useful for some games, but it tends to crop up in places it doesn't belong -- RS: Vegas, but also such games as Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, where the protagonist is intended to be an everyman stuck in an unusual situation. (This is a textbook example of a phenomenon called ludonarrative dissonance -- a mental block occurring because the demands of the plot clash with the demands of the game system and mechanics. That's still another discussion.) It's a tool for simplification, and a handwave against realism. If you want realism and limited HP, give the player a realistic way to heal his wounds -- bandages, a medic, something along those lines, rather than a glut of medkits stored in unbelievable places, and leave the magic healing devices for sci-fi or fantasy games. Or strike a compromise.

An interesting system I saw came from a slightly older PS2 title, kill.switch. The player had a dual-layer lifebar, which for the sake of brevity I'll refer to as "stamina" and "health". When the player suffered damage, a significant amount of the trauma was applied to his "stamina" bar, which overlaid his health. The health bar suffered a small portion of the damage -- something like 20-30%. If the player's stamina bar ever reached zero, he died, but given time to recover, it would fill to a maximum level equal to the player's remaining health. He was able to suffer only a few hits in the short term, but there were still long-term consequences for suffering damage: a reduced capacity to absorb further hits in later battles. It left the player to make tactical decisions about how to approach battles, and didn't depend on him being in perfect condition; also, it satisfies the realism demands of a low HP max as well as accruing wounds over time. It's a system I wish I saw used in more games, and one I intend to test out if I get around to making a pure shooter game. More on that concept later.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Weapon Cross-Sections in Shooters

For Spacebot, my current project, I've thought about a couple of weapon systems and ammunition methods, but settled on a solid approach to use.

The player will encounter (currently) six weapons through the course of the game. They have limited capacities, but can be reloaded by pressing the "R" key. Reloading is done through magazines, rather than a spare ammunition pool (which has become the de facto standard -- more on that later). Reloading uses one magazine in inventory, and any remaining loaded ammunition is discarded.

The current weapon list follows. The descriptions should be straightforward except "Vacuum", which represents whether a weapon can fire in open space. (There's no oxygen, so weapons relying on an explosive action won't work.)

Capacity: 10 (unlimited reserve magazines)
Power: 8
Vacuum: Yes
A semi-automatic laser pistol. Fires one shot in a given direction.

Pulse Rifle
Capacity: 40
Power: 5
Cyclic Rate: 750 rounds per minute (12.5/sec)
Vacuum: No
A fully-automatic projectile weapon. Fires a rapid burst of metal slugs forward.

Fusion Pistol
Capacity: 24
Power: Variable (12-96)
Vacuum: Yes
An energy pistol with a charge function. The longer a player charges the weapon, the more damage it deals, but also the more ammunition it uses (anywhere from one to eight charges).

Charge Projector
Capacity: 8
Power: 50
Vacuum: No
A short-range dual-fuse grenade launcher. Fires in an arc forward; the grenades will detonate in two seconds or on impact with an enemy.

Flechette Gun
Capacity: 12
Power: 5 (times 6 shots)
Vacuum: No
A shotgun-style weapon that fires a spread of needle-like flechette projectiles forward.

Plasma Lance
Capacity: 5 seconds
Power: 150 per second
Vacuum: Yes
A flamethrower-style weapon. Fires a powerful jet of blue-hot plasma in a short-range lance.

(As an aside, any readers familiar with Bungie's Marathon series might recognize a few of the weapons in there -- I confess I did get some inspiration from there.)

The goal for this game's weapon set is to provide the player with a varied arsenal of tools, none of which duplicate another's function. I've thought carefully about the weapon set, and I want it to fall in line with Spacebot's overall design goal -- keep the game fun, interesting, but simple. Don't overwhelm the player with choices.

Therein lies my first conundrum -- does the Flechette Gun duplicate the Plasma Lance's purpose as a short-range power weapon? I've been thinking about this for a while, and I've come to the conclusion that it doesn't, and here's why. The Flechettes are designed to be wide-range, and allow the player to hit targets without precise aim. You may note that the overall maximum power of the gun (30 points) is quite small compared to what you might "expect" a shooter's shotgun-like weapon to have -- this is also by design, but more on that in a moment. The bottom line is that it is not a "power weapon" by any stretch of the imagination.

The Plasma Lance, however, is tremendously lethal at close range, but deals no damage at long range (the weapon simply doesn't reach that far!). It could be used in situations where the player wanted to hit several targets in a wide range, but he'd have to do some complex maneuvering to get that to work.

Why do I carry on about the notion of the weapons not having duplicate functions? I believe that having several weapons doing the same thing adds complexity -- that doesn't mean it's wrong necessarily, but it does depend on the overall aesthetic you're going for. Here are a few systems and some discussion of examples.

No duplication
Take a look at Marathon, the game whose weapon system I'm probably closest to. That game had the following array of weapons:

Assault Rifle/Grenade Launcher
Fusion Gun
Rocket Launcher
"Alien Gun"

The only weapon that needs explaining is the "alien gun", which was a rapid-fire weapon that shot from three barrels in a spread pattern.

The principle of this game was similar -- don't duplicate the effects of any one weapon in another. The only two weapons whose functions are similar are the grenade and rocket launchers; the difference is in their deployment. The grenade launcher is a tactical weapon; it has an indirect fire arc, and can rapidly shoot seven grenades per load, but the grenades are low-yield with a minimal blast radius. The rocket launcher was a two-shot weapon reminiscent of the same weapon from the Halo series (in fact the Halo launcher was more or less a copy of Marathon's, with the same name and all!); it has a very wide blast radius and deals significant damage, but is slower, and has a direct fire line.

Jet Force Gemini did this too; there was an array of about 20 weapons to choose from, but each had its own purpose and none duplicated another.

The rationale behind this system has already been explained; let's compare it to another system.

Large weapon array
A large number of shooters in the early 3D era (roughly around the time of Quake II) had, as selling points, a bewilderingly large array of weapons for the player's use. The consequence was that a lot of them did largely the same thing. This system leaves a lot more room for interpretation, because there are a few reasons for including a huge array:

Duplicates of increasing power: Wolfenstein 3D used this system, and it's the most basic example thereof. The player had three projectile weapons: a pistol, submachine gun, and gatling-style gun. Each one used the same ammo, dealt the same damage, but had a progressively higher rate of fire than the previous one. This gave the player a sense of progress, as his gun got badder and badder and he became more effective in combat. Once the player acquired a weapon, he wasn't expected to use the previous one again. This rationale can be applied in other games, too -- Doom did this with its pistol -> chaingun combination, but the system broke down when it introduced the plasma rifle, another rapid-fire machine gun weapon, but which was clearly superior and still used its own ammo; could the game not have dispensed with either the chaingun or the plasma rifle entirely and just kept one or the other as the "machine gun" weapon? The pair of shotguns from Doom II is more in line with the theory -- the "super shotgun" dealt triple damage despite only using two shells, and had half the rate of fire of the basic pump-action.

Sheer quantity: You saw this in some games, like the original SiN. Having 20-some weapons was nothing more than box-copy, and was supposed to be a selling point. A less materialistic interpretation came from Ratchet and Clank, where the player obtained dozens of weapons with their own ammo and purpose, but the quantity was built consciously into the game's mechanics rather than as an afterthought. The whole point of the game was the accumulation of an arsenal -- it was a means to its own end.

Limited Inventory: The most straightforward example of this comes from most present-day shooters in common circulation. The Rainbow Six: Vegas pair of games is a fair example: there are at least four of each "class" of weapons (handguns, shotguns, assault rifles, and so on), but there is no way to determine which one is necessarily "better" than the rest. It's usually a matter of personal taste. However, since the player can only carry two primary weapons, he isn't forced to slog through a massive inventory to find the specific piece he wants. He's forced to think, tactically, about which variation on the assault rifle is best for the upcoming combat scenario. This is the system I'm most willing to accept, because even though there are weapons that duplicate each other, the player would be silly to carry a pair. What use is having two pump-action shotguns, for example, if you can't engage targets at range?

The large arsenal theory makes some sense in each of those decisions, but it can be dangerous in some cases. If the player accumulates many weapons quickly, he will eventually come across a weapon that is "best" -- something he uses, constantly, in just about any circumstance. Give him enough ammo for that weapon, and he'll never touch anything else. It's an extension of an issue apparent in some fighting games: the "power move". Give the player, say, twenty unarmed combat techniques, but put in one that deals an inordinate amount of damage with few drawbacks. It's the only move he'll use; the rest are wasted code. You essentially have two options at this point: 1) Weaken the move so it's more in line with the rest of the options. Say, decrease its damage, or increase its recovery time, or provide some other sort of disadvantage to it. Or, 2) Remove the other moves that compete with it. Sometimes this can be the better option; if the player always uses one weapon, build the game around that weapon and ignore the rest! It's purer and gives the player fewer extraneous details to suffer through.

So there you have just one of the litany of thoughts that go through my mind with respect to game design and how I can apply lessons learned and overall feel to the games I design. More to follow.


My current project lacks a cohesive title, and I'm having trouble digging up something pretentious enough, so we'll give it the working title "Spacebot" for now, as that's what the game's source code is saved as.

I'm building a platforming shooter. It's a basic notion, and it's been explored (almost to death), but I'm okay with that, as my design focus has shifted from being completely original to doing something that's fun and that players can enjoy. I've been struggling to gain ground with a reasonable shooter game, but I think I came up with a set of mechanics and overall feel that I like, so I'm going to try to press forward.

The basic notion is rooted in the game I built for an honors research project in college, "Linear Proportional Control in Dynamic Level Design for Computer Entertainment Software" (I know). That project analyzed the idea of tailoring a game's difficulty level to the player's skill capability, which was a blast. I'm not carrying that concept over to this game; that can wait for something a little more complex. But the plot and basic premise is the same -- I don't have much in detail yet, but I'll get there as I go.

The player is an agent or mercenary of some sort, tasked with investigating the termination of communications signals from a distant space station. As it happens, the station is under control by the robots and drones that worked on it, turned rogue, which have killed (presumably) all human crew members. The player's goal is to reach the central computer system and shut down the AI coordinating the drones' efforts.

The game I created for the LPC project used a mouse-keyboard control system, reminiscent of modern shooter games. I wanted to do something a little less detailed for this game, so I'm going with a pure keyboard control scheme. For simplicity, the player can only shoot forward, up, and down. The weapons each have a base capacity, and can be reloaded through magazines -- more detail on the weapons and their behavior systems will follow in a subsequent post.

I've been doing some thinking and digging on possible game scenarios, and how to balance platforming and shooting, and I came across a good example of how I want the game to operate -- Super Turrican 2 on the Super NES. There is a significant amount of solid platforming, but the game's core is in shooting everything in sight with an array of weapons. It's that sort of balance and speed that I want to recreate in this game.

There is much more to say about the design decisions I'm looking to make, but those can wait for now.