Archive for the ‘Design’ Category

Assassins Creed 2: Eagle’s Flight
December 12, 2009

I’ve decided not to play through the game, but rather just base this one off of my experience watching the game being played.

Assassins Creed 1 was a gimmick. Assassins Creed 2 is a game. Remember all the good things I mentioned about Assassins Creed 1? Free running, free roaming, free killing. Assassins Creed 2 took these ideas, these undeveloped gimmicks in AC1 and made a game out of it. Improvements were made, linearity and repetition is hidden, cut scenes are now mobile and active. What is interesting is that gameplay is still similar. There is progress from investigation to assassination. And there are few types of investigation. Interrogation, Race, and Tailing are a few of the examples. What makes this game different, and far more endearing, is the method in which the game delivers its content.

Which brings me to the main point of this review – Storyline. The major factor that made Assassins Creed 2 so much more engrossing and entertaining was the storyline. What most game developers don’t understand is that the writing in the game, especially for RPGs, is at least as important as the gameplay itself. Story puts the game in focus. Games aren’t just about the original thinking that was involved behind the mechanic, nor is it about the fluidity of the physics engine or the beauty of the graphics. These are extremely important for a high quality game, but games with a simple mechanic, basic physics engine, and low quality graphics but good story can easily be better than a game with high quality graphics and physics but no story.

For example, we can take a look at a cult classic for anyone who has touched an N64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. In the light of modern gaming, Ocarina of Time has a basic gameplay mechanic (you have various items and swing your sword), a simple physics engine, and mediocre to low quality graphics. You go around collecting various upgrades to improve your stamina in battle, and to get these items, you go through various dungeons. All of these are, in part, what compels us to play this game. But the main factor, the tipping point for this game, is the story. It’s the tale of a young boy who, brought to a forest of elves, grows into the Hero of Time to save not only the Princess Zelda, but also the entire land of Hyrule. Yes, the story is corny. Yes, the story is overdone and easy to predict. But it’s still a compelling story. It’s this story that gives you a goal, that focuses you on your goal and that allows you to relate to your character. It’s this story that makes you want to get all the tokens in all the temples, that make you feel sad to know that some of these characters are dead.

The power of story is also shown, quite clearly, in the Final Fantasy series. Almost all, if not all, of the final fantasy games have turn based battle systems. This simple gameplay mechanic, added to some variants on magic use and skills, is the singularity of all the FF games. The Fire, Fira, Firaga sets of magic, the white and black mages, the fighter. All of these components of Final Fantasy are universal in all their games. Then, what is it that makes this game so popular to have created 13 separate games? Once again, there is the story behind it. The story, even though highly repetitious, is what brings home the gameplay.

What story does to a game, is it delivers the gameplay to the gamer. It’s the goals that the story provides that motivate you to find new items and kill new targets. It’s the directions that the story points you in that keep you focused on your goal. It’s the dialogue that keeps you entertained and the dialogue that keeps you thinking. The story is what gives you the feeling of accomplishment when you complete a particularly hard objective, and the story is what gives you the hint to help you on your way. Without a story, a game is nothing more than a gimmick, an idea. For Assassins Creed 1, this was the case. There was no coherent story, no correlation between story and gameplay. This is why there was so much repetition and tiresome chores. In Assassins Creed 2, everything comes into perspective. Every action you take is done for a specific short term goal. Human nature is one to enjoy instant gratification. You don’t feel the need to do all these investigation missions if none of them matter. But if, say, you were doing these side quests in order to win a prize at a carnival? That allowed you access to your targets main quarters? That is motivation.

The other reason that story is so important, that is almost abused in the case of Assassins Creed, is anticipation. AC1 and AC2 left off with, in my opinion, come of the gaming world’s most annoying cliffhangers. AC2 is a bit better than AC1 because of the glyphs but nonetheless is an extreme pain. And that is what a good story can do. AC2, for all the fans of AC1, was an immediate purchase. Everyone who had played it would replay the ending, and everyone who hadn’t, would play AC1. By putting Assassins Creed as a trilogy, Ubisoft generated a market of gamers that would purchase all three games if they met even a mediocre standard.

Assassins Creed 2 is, for me, an example of a very well learnt lesson for Ubisoft. Whether or not they developed the first one with the faulty story in mind, it is obvious that they definitely learned how to utilize a storyline for the second game. Everything is coherent and relevant, and the glyphs, especially the glyphs at the end, are enough to leave this game in mind for a good amount of time.

The Optimal Play
December 4, 2009

Ok, so the other day I was playing a 5 player game of Settlers with a few friends. The game got unusually close and heated toward the end, with a 9-6-6-6-6 score. We’ll call the player with 9 points “Alex.” I was sadly one of the sixers tied for second. Alex had just taken Longest Road, which catapulted him from a safe 7 to an unsettling 9 (10 points wins the game). The general consensus was that Alex had the game on his next turn if he was allowed to keep Longest Road. Unfortunately for us, he held the Longest Road by a large margin and we determined that none of us could overcome it alone. After some discussion and plotting, however, we determined that if we all pooled our resources we could grant one of us enough to steal Longest Road (turning the score into 8-7-6-6-6). Alex’s turn had just ended. What would you do?

This is a troubling situation from every player’s perspective. Alex realizes that his best chance at victory lies in us doing nothing. And although we recognize that Alex will likely win if we don’t act, we also recognize that whoever we grant the resources to will be given an enormous advantage and will likely win themselves. This outcome is no better than Alex winning. So what is the optimum play here?

Let’s define what an “optimum play” is (which was what the ensuing argument at our game table was about). Two definitions were considered in the argument: “the play that garners the individual player the greatest chance of victory” (my definition), and “the play that creates the most ‘fun’ and generally minimizes the use of any douchebaggery.” These definitions are each very difficult to assess. How can you measure how an option effects your chance at victory? How can you measure how much fun is generated from your actions? I’ve come to expect that all players in a game should always act in a way that optimizes their odds of victory, but what does “victory” mean?

Let’s switch gears and consider a simple analogous 3 player free for all Starcraft game. Really any multiplayer FFA strategy game will do for this analogy. Player 1 is currently winning, player 2 has about 70% the strength of player 1, and player 3 has about 40% the strength of player 1. Without cooperation players 2 and 3 are essentially doomed, but if they work together they are 10% stronger than player 1. Player 2 should want cooperation the most, as he stands the best chance to come in first once player 1 is eliminated. Now player 3 has little chance at first place, but can choose between second and third (second if he cooperates, third if he doesn’t). The question then is “what is the difference in value that player 3 puts on getting second versus third?” Interestingly, I contend this depends on the particular game and player. In Starcraft, I personally would much rather be second than third. In Settlers, I personally value all non-first places to be about equal (if you’re not first, you’re last).

If the last place players place significantly different values on non-first positions, then we can expect them to behave in a way that maximizes their odds of attaining the highest place they can whereas if they care only for first place they will behave in a way that maximizes their odds of attaining first place. If our Starcraft player 3 cares about non-first positions, then their behavior is easy to predict: they will cooperate with player 2. If they only care about first place, they will behave much more erratically. They might give up hope and just cripple a player based on personal vendettas, they might ally themselves with player 1 and backstab them when they’re weak, they might do the same to player 2 in a desperate attempt at first place. In reality, a player probably experiences some mix of these two victory perspectives, but the mix is probably more or less unique to the specific game and player.

Now that we have defined “victory” I will invoke a concept from basic economics and claim that any “rational” player will act in a way that optimizes their odds of victory. Sure, they could do otherwise. I’ve played with players who get bored of a game and decide to help the winning player just so the game ends faster. I’ve played with players who simply don’t understand the game and make nonsense moves. I’ve played with players who just like “the pretty colors” and make their moves purely on whims. These actions, however, are not rational in the context of the game. In a 6 player game of Monopoly all players could elect to sign over all property and money to a single player and end the game instantly (which in all fairness would probably be the best way to go about playing that horrid game), but do you consider this a “game of Monopoly?” Certainly not. Any reasonable game requires a push and pull of opposing wills struggling for their individual victory. Without that you simply have madness.

So finally, optimal play: “the play that garners the individual player the greatest chance of victory.”

Ok, let’s come full circle to our Settler’s game. If we assume that the players put a reasonable amount of value in non-first positions then we can assume that they would not cooperate to dethrone first place. Why? Because the score would then be 8-7-6-6-6 and dooms the majority to third place or worse. If Alex was allowed to win, then the remaining players (6-6-6-6) would each have a much better shot at second place.

But this was not the case. Apparently, we place high value on first place and very little on even second place in Settler’s. We all conspired to grant one of us (myself as it turned out) nearly every resource available on the table in order to outbuild Alex. This is of course the expected outcome, because if Alex is allowed to take first then it definitively denies it to all other players. Even by widening the 1 point victory gap to 2 points, the majority gives itself just a little more breathing room to get to first.

Sadly we’ll never know how the game would have ended. Everyone felt extremely unhappy about this massive exploitation of the rules and we all gave up after the decision was reached. It’s unfortunate that the nature of the game induced this kind of behavior. An optimal play should never produce such a massive feeling of “brokenness.” This is a failing on the design of the game, and surprisingly I’ve seen this happen many times during my Settler’s career. Tip for game designers: don’t encourage massive acts of collusion. It just makes us upset.

Virtual Reality: A Commentary on Simulation Games
November 24, 2009

Hello Everyone!

My name is Peien and I’m currently a senior E.E. major at Northwestern University. Like my colleagues, I’ll be contributing to this blog, but with a twist. Like Dan and Rudy, I often enjoy playing RTS’s and other games with hard-core strategies, but my true passion lies within the realm of simulation video games.

If we all think long and hard about why we play video games, we inevitably all reach the same conclusion: we play because we want an escape from reality. In the real-world, it is impossible for you to engage in magic, kill 250 zombies in a span of 15 minutes, or save a princess from a reptilian megalomaniac. But the genre of simulation video games has a different spin on the ‘escapism’ ideal behind video games. Games like Gran Turismo and Microsoft Flight Simulator aren’t designed around fantasylands. They seek to allow the average person to be placed in scenarios that comparatively few around the world have experienced while keeping realism at the center of game design.

Before I continue, I should define what I mean by a simulation video game. By this I mean games that stick as close as possible to reality and don’t trade realistic dynamics for easy gameplay. I also am not referring to games like SimCity and Roller Coaster Tycoon (although they tend to be lumped in the simulation category at Fry’s and Best Buy, I refer to these games as management games). As such, focus on America’s Army rather than Call of Duty, Gran Turismo rather than Need For Speed: Underground, and IL-2 Sturmovik rather than Ace Combat. These simulation-lite games, as I like to call them, are great fun, but really lack what I’m looking for.

When it comes to true simulation games, the realism of the physics are just important as the realism of the graphics. For example, in the WWII combat flight simulator IL-2 Sturmovik, a Mk. I Hawker Hurricane will have its engine stall out when you pull into too steep of a dive. This accurately reflects the primitive fuel delivery technologies of the 1930’s (when the Hurricane was developed) and adds an additional challenge to the game. When I’m driving a mid-engined Ferrari in Gran Turismo 5 Prologue, if I lift off the gas pedal in the corners, I experience snap oversteer and will spin if I don’t correct it. This is in stark contrast to other driving games where all the car models are extremely forgiving and a mistake won’t cost you the race. As such, simulation games give me a thrill because I am able to experience flying an F-104 Starfighter or driving a Ford GT at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca as if I could do them in real life.

Of course, there are limitations to how far simulations can go and even with the best graphics and the best physics engine, you are often limited by the gaming accessories that you own. For example, Forza Motorsport 3 is supposed to be one of the most realistic driving sims out there, but given that the only two control options are the XBox 360 controller or the XBox wheel (which has a limited steering range and terrible pedals) you aren’t able to really reap the fruits of the programmers’ hard work. Indeed feedback and immersiveness are integral parts to a simulation game’s success. Gran Turismo 5 became so much more enjoyable after I played it with a Logitech G25 steering wheel (it has a full facsimile manual transmission and a force feedback 900-degree steering wheel). IL-2 Sturmovik is pretty much unplayable for me unless I have my TrackIR 4 head-tracking unit (a device that you mount to a baseball cap which tracks your head movements and, correspondingly, moves your view around the virtual cockpit).

Unfortunately as of the writing of this piece, Microsoft Flight Simulator has been terminated by Microsoft due to low revenue and most racing games have gone the way of the ‘customizing’ route (e.g.: Need for Speed). Here’s hoping that  other companies will pick up the torch from Microsoft and EA, making new and improved simulation games. With skyrocketing insurance rates and gas prices, I believe that demand for simulation games will increase as people strive to escape from moving about in boring Toyota Priuses and Airbus A320’s into a virtual world filled with Aston Martin DB9’s and Lockheed F-22’s.

Left 4 Dead: Compelling Co-op
November 12, 2009

On the eve of the release of the sequel to one of my favorite FPS’s of all time, Left 4 Dead, I would like to explore what I believe to be its greatest design strength: its implementation of the classic co-operative mode (one would hope this is its greatest strength, as the whole game is really just one massive co-op romp).

For this analysis, we’ll assume that the players are playing on a difficulty commensurate with their ability (one very good player can more or less solo a campaign on easy mode). Under this assumption, it’s safe to say this game is very hard. This can be a frequently overlooked design choice in a game, but its difficulty is very central to how it appeals to its audience. Make the game too easy, and its boring; make it too hard and you risk frustrating your players. Most games get around the “too easy” problem by adding additional difficulty levels, but the “too hard” problem is a bit more delicate. Hardcore players will strive to beat the game on the hardest difficulty, and accordingly it should be just difficult enough to provide them with an extreme challenge while still being possible to defeat.

Left 4 Dead does an exceptional job of balancing these difficulty levels (often with the help of the AI Director, who makes subtle tweaks to the difficulty based on the players’ performance). The most important effect of this extreme difficulty is it requires the players to work together seamlessly. Even one weak link in the group will bring down the entire party. This is of course a blessing and a curse. For just as it is extraordinarily fulfilling to work together like a well oiled machine, it’s equally irritating to fail time after time due to a less experienced teammate.

One of the annoying problems with many co-op games is that players tend to compete viciously for items and weapons. This rivalry often turns into a meta-game within itself to see who can collect the best stuff, and therefore make the most progress toward the objective (kill the most bad guys, etc.). This does not foster a team mentality and usually detracts from a co-op experience. Fortunately, weapons in L4D are infinite. If everyone wants the shotgun, they can all pick up an instance of the shotgun. Granted, this detracts from the realism, but the benefit in gameplay more than makes up for that. The items that players can get a bit greedy with are the finite health items (med packs or pills) but the player greed here is offset by their will to beat the level. If myself and my terribly wounded partner are the last two remaining in the party, and I’ve been hoarding the last med pack, I’m very willing to give it up because I realize that without him I have no chance of survival. Which brings me to my next point: the dangers of going it alone.

Anyone familiar with the game has come to this unfortunate revelation early in their career: if you’re alone you’re as good as dead. The special zombies have been carefully tailored to wreak the most havoc on lone individuals. The hunter will pin your helpless body down until your dead. The smoker will do the same thing to a loner, but has the added advantage of being able to easily pick off stragglers as well. The boomer, while a bit more complex in that it doesnt explicitly incapacitate the players, makes it extremely difficult for a loner to defend themselves. These foes are designed especially to keep the party tight and working together (if by no other way than natural selection). This ensures that the party doesn’t develop that oh too common hurried leader that runs ahead and kills everything before anyone else gets to have any fun. That guy’s dead outta the starting gate.

One fun twist in the game theory behind surviving the level is that only one person needs to survive for the party to advance to the next level. There comes a point in the game, when the safe room is in sight, when suddenly chaos breaks out and it’s every man for himself. Inevitably, some players will be left for dead (I couldn’t resist). This is often the most tense and usually hilarious segment of the level, when the alliances all suddenly crumble in favor of individual survival. While those left for dead can sometimes feel abandoned and bitter over this, the game leaves them some comfort in knowing that only one of them needs to make it and that they gave their life for the good of the team.

All in all, L4D is truly a model of a well thought out cooperative game. Sure its got its quirks, and player skill can often influence how fun the game is, but its not too hard to get good at (as far as FPS’s go) and has incredible replay value. Way to go Valve! And I anxiously await L4D2 (or, as I was hoping it would be called, L5D).