Archive for March, 2009

Searching for triggers

March 29th, 2009 1 comment

While playing Killzone 2 I was once again reminded of how important feedback is in games. In most parts of the game, feedback was clear and effective; bullets had an impact, when taking damage the edge screen was splashed with blood to indicate the direction of attack and vehicle damage was visible in the form of smoke and fire. It was strange to see that at some points the feedback was suddenly flawed.

wrong feedbackAt a certain point in the game I am told to breach a beachhead held by the enemy forces. They are well fortified and have a heavy gun emplacement. Storming ahead doesn’t seem wise so I start picking off enemy soldiers at long range. Every time I take out some units, reinforcements seem to arrive from behind enemy lines so I decide to try and storm the gun emplacement. It doesn’t take long for me to be flanked and shot by the next wave of reinforcements so I respawn and try to take out more soldiers before charging ahead. After many kills and several respawns I decide to try and kill the soldier behind the turret. After taking him out the reinforcements stop and I am no longer stuck in the same situation.

Since it was not clear to me that the gun emplacement and the reinforcements where interlinked, I felt no satisfaction for solving that situation. Several such situations occur during the game and they make me feel powerless. Sometimes spawns stop after a certain amount of kills or a set amount of time has passed, sometimes I have to reach a certain point on the map or complete a given task. At such points I have to start searching for what triggers the reinforcements to stop instead of playing the game. Destroying a passage to stop forces coming from that direction makes sense and can be logically deduced. Solving such a situation can feel rewarding, while searching for triggers that are seemingly unconnected elements of the game feel random and break the flow.

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The illusion of freedom

March 22nd, 2009 No comments

A simple fact is that every game has a scope; some things are within the games premise and many other things are not. One cannot (and should not want to) put everything in one game. When you put more content in a game, you need more polish and balancing for it to work properly. Even if you choose to create a massive world filled with diverse content, you will have to draw a line somewhere. Bumping into that line can be a game breaker for players. Especially the immersion in game worlds simulating lifelike environments, can suffer badly if awkward limitations are encountered. But how can such a confrontation be avoided?

As many games have relatively lifelike setting, it is not surprising to see that many different boundaries have been employed:

-The player character does not want to go beyond a certain area because he has something important to do in the current environment.

-The world is wrapped, which means that leaving one edge of the playing field will have you enter on the other side.

-Leaving the defined game area will deplete your health until you eventually die.

-The game has clear boundaries that are visible in the game world. (poison gas, impassable water, mountains, debris, closed doors, force fields, etc )

-Outside the designated gaming area players can keep moving but there is nothing of interest there (an endless ocean all around the playing field for example)

-The player is warned and killed when staying outside of the playing area for a certain time.


To avoid a confrontation between the player and the boundaries of the game, one has to convey a clear motivation why the player should not be heading for the boundaries and opposed to that a good reason to go somewhere else.

When a player is stimulated to explore every corner of an open world game and runs into an invisible wall at the edges of it, the player was motivated to get there. Without a clear reason why he should not be heading there, the player will feel his freedom awkwardly limited in a seemingly open world. In contrast; when a player tries to walk through a poison gas cloud while his party members ask for his support behind him, the player has no real reason to keep going forward and a good reason to turn back to the game-world.

Finding the right boundaries for the game premise can be a big challenge. A game with a relatively small scope but expertly placed boundaries, can feel larger in scope then a huge game with boundaries in the wrong place. Moments of freedom in a game are only interesting if the limitations and rules that guide them are good.

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No more base building

March 16th, 2009 No comments

No more base buildingSome might say that RTS games are all about base building, which some recently released games have proven not to be true. Take Endwar, Dawn of War 2 and World in Conflict for instance; none of them incorporate base building, but all of them are solid games. Does this mean that base building is an antiquated concept that will not be missed?

Endwar has got voice commands and some light micro managing. The army size is relatively small and units move in squads to keep this console title manageable. The player is constantly cycling through different units on different locations of the map. Since there is no base to check up on and the player views the battlefield from a third person perspective through his units, this gives the game a very mobile feeling. Depending on the amount of control you have over the battlefield, more units can be dropped at a specified location. Lost units can be replaced after a certain amount of time.

In Dawn of War 2 the player has got only 4 squads under his command. Directional and destructible cover keep the player on his toes. Micromanaging the various abilities also requires the player to be aware of his squads at all time. A typical mission takes about 14 minutes to complete, which stands in stark contrast to the typical RTS map that can take more than an hour. Units cannot be build in the single player campaign but are selected and outfitted for each mission. Lost units can be reinforced at specific locations and healed in various ways.

World in Conflict gives the player command over a reasonably sized army. Units move in squads and some have an ability that can be activated. The general combat procedures are comparable to a typical RTS, but since the player has no base to defend or units to build, the game has got a distinctly different feeling to it. Missions will have you move around from one objective to the next; completing various tasks. Additional units can be acquired through mission triggers and some units can be dropped into the battlefield.

In the titles mentioned above the focus of the gameplay has been shifted heavily towards strategically commanding troops, and away from the mechanics of unit production. With the exclusion of the moment to moment decisions that a base requires, these games ask for a different approach, from designer and player alike.

While I never missed base building in these games, I do not think it is an aspect that will disappear entirely. The building and managing of a base is far to addictive to be discarded completely, and interesting enough to be the primary focus of a game. I am convinced that shifting the core gameplay in that direction may yield results that are just as refreshing to the genre as the games mentioned above.

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Everyone can do this

March 1st, 2009 No comments

caught before the fall

Since the success of the Wii has unveiled a huge new audience of casual players, other platforms have started to cater for that same considerable amount of people. Next to the titles that are specifically aimed at these casual gamers, some IP’s that were previously labeled hardcore, are also trying appeal to it. While this is an understandable step, it is one that must be taken with care.

Drawing a casual audience to a previously existing IP or genre has the basic difficulty that it did not appeal to them in the first place. The appeal of a game can be divided into many different parts like; visual appeal, difficulty, theme, learning curve, etc.

An existing franchise that lowers its difficulty to be accessible to a larger audience runs the risk of losing its appeal to the original audience. Changing the visual style of a game might make a game more appealing to a new audience but that by itself will not keep them interested if they dislike the core gameplay.

A clear example of a game that fails at some of the points mentioned above is the latest iteration of Prince of Persia. The visuals and theme of the game have been polished and will most likely appeal to a broad audience but the core mechanic is still platforming, which is a genre that many find too hard and/or just don’t like. In this new version of Prince of Persia the difficulty has been lowered so much that the game almost doesn’t feel like a platformer anymore. A minimal amount of player input is required to execute impressive moves and jumps and some of the sections are so simple, they can literally be played with one hand behind your back. Furthermore there is no skill development throughout the game. The moves you start out with are the same ones you will use from beginning to end.

The drastic change in difficulty within the franchise displeases many fans. Though even a player that has not played a platformer before will be able to successfully play this game within a few minutes, most do not want to, simply because it is a platforming game and platforming doesn’t appeal to them.

Making a game more accessible is a good thing, just make sure not to lose the appeal of your core gameplay in the process. If saving the world by fighting monsters and making incredible jumps is so simple that even your little sister can do it with one hand behind her back, why do it at all?

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