Low-Level Systems

In my absence from writing and independently making games, I’ve been doing my best to play as many as varied games as I can get my hands on. The game combination which has specifically spurred this set of pieces (and it is a set) is: F.3.A.R. (henceforth entitled ffthrir), Shadows of the Damned, Bioshock 2 (“Minerva’s Den”), The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, DiRT 3, Tactics Ogre, Trenched, Outlands, Gods Eater Burst, and Dead Rising 2. I’m also in the process of adding Fallout: New Vegas to the mix. Also Starhawk, but I’m making that once so I’ll omit it from discussion. None of these games have much (if anything) in common other than as a set indicating that I both play entirely too many games and play entirely too many games at once. One game in particular prompted the thought exercise that led to this series: ffthrir.

A F.E.A.R. 3 Analysis

ffthrir is such a strange game. If someone was to take a cold and impartiel view of ffthrir, I wonder if that person would find what is simply a largely competent and uninspired first-person shooter (a very crowded genre). What I found when playing ffthrir, however, was a game which appeared to not have the significant budget or AAA polish of its predecessors but, despite that, remained an incredibly fun and entertaining game from start-to-finish. On the surface, there was absolutely nothing extraordinary about the game other than its story hinging on a dead psychic girl who is pregnant with the rape-child of the player character from F.E.A.R. 2. What made ffthrir so enjoyable, however, was its dedication to ensuring that everything it did mechanically, it did well. While that is often not enough, it was in this case because the game didn’t really ask much of its player (which, industrially, is far from a commendable attribute). What ffthrir aimed (har) to be was an enjoyable shooter with an interesting cooperative mode and even more interesting multiplayer modes, and they succeeded on all counts. The reason their success was made possible is due, entirely, to how rewarding and interesting their low-level systems were designed and executed; it was simply fun to move and shoot.

That moving and shooting in a first-person shooting is fun is by no means a revelation. It’s why the genre exists and why Call of Duty has made more money than exists in active circulation at any one time (not a real statistic). What’s remarkable about ffthrir is how little else of the typical first-person shooter supporting cast is there: the story is passable, there isn’t a lot of complex scripted sequences or cinematics, no open world, no real continuity from level to level, and the level design itself is a throwback to shooters of the late 90s in its workmanlike environments and linear progression/cover placement. To tangent: this is with the exception of one remarkable bit of a level set in a Best Buy-esque electronics store. It’s astounding.

ffthrir is a shooter about moving around an encounter space as ammo and AI maneuvers dictate and all accompanied with the [present] industry standard two weapons and regenerating health. The fact that this is an entertaining game to play through given how many games I play through yearly, seems like it would defy explanation. In most media that wouldn’t be the case, but so much about what makes video games unique is through the interaction with a human player. A game which feels like it gives the player a unique experience solely through how it interprets the player’s actions on-screen has the capability to immerse and enthrall players almost regardless of the game’s specific context and surrounding elements. That importance of that supporting cast of X (where X is the set of the innumerable amount of things that go into the game) should never be far from a designer’s mind, but focus is often a helpful tool. So, in the interest of focus, here is an attempt at breaking down the low-level interactions in ffthrir(for the “Point Man”, which is the traditional shooter character in the game). There is going to be some interactions and overlap between these core systems and higher-level ones, but there isn’t really much of a need or use in being overly pedantic about how granular a given system or mechanic is:

  • Moving
  • Melee
  • Shooting
  • Cover
  • Inventory Management
  • Throwing a Grenade
  • Reloading
  • Avoiding Death
  • Slow Motion

All of these interactions are commonplace in the span of any given encounter throughout all of the game. To take it a step further: with the exception of slow motion these are all interactions that are commonplace throughout the first- and third-person shooter genres. It’s the specific execution, prominence, and the allowed overlap between all of these systems which give each game its unique second-to-second and minute-to-minute gameplay.

Low-Level System Design

Back when I discussed what I was then calling the “systemic integrity of expression”, I got a little bit ahead of myself discussing the high-level importance of various game systems when there is a lot of value in starting with a quick discussion of the lower-level systems that most gamers like/dislike on a largely subconscious level. One of the aspects of first-person shooters that has always fascinated me is the degree to which people begin to internalize all of the lower-level mechanics and systems. Whenever I get a new game, I have about an hour of complete unfamiliarity while my hands, eyes, and brain adjust to the slight differences in systems and input response from the last game I played. And then, once that learning curve has been surpassed, I subconsciously move on to the next layer of design features to really understand.

When I think about what constitutes a low-level system in design, I think of a single interaction (or feature) from the player’s perspective. So, while a number of various code features or content may make up something like the firing of a weapon, it is the act of shooting that weapon which is the system. And that system is made up of any number of individual art assets and code components, but it’s the combination of these varying factors which makes up the system as a whole. Firing an AK-47 in any modern first-person shooter is likely going be composed of a variety of the same components from game to game — sound effects, art effects, lighting effects, camera shake, controller vibration, aim/bullet assist, and recoil — but it is the specific tuning, combination, and implementation of these components which makes one weapon differ from game to game.

These low-level components aren’t exactly topics that are broached in casual design conversation, but they’re where the type of tuning and fiddling that make a game’s “feel” unique are derived. Two of the best talks across GDC 2010 and 2011 were both given by ex-Bungie designer Jaime Griesemer and carried session titles like “Design in Detail: Changing the Time Between Shots for the Sniper Rifle from 0.5 to 0.7 Seconds for Halo 3″ and “Tuning the Muzzle Velocity of the Plasma Rifle Bolt on Legendary Difficulty Across the Halo Franchise.” It’s hard to think of a more seemingly minute detail of a game that could possibly make for an hour-long design lecture, but both years Griesemere not only pulled it off, but made it superb. And game development and design is a string of these sorts of seemingly-insignificant decisions; this is true regardless of the scope of the game.

If a system is defined as the concerted operation of its components, then it follows that good system design is about breaking down problems into a bunch of little pieces and knowing what to tune and when. That’s far more general advice than is particularly useful, though; specifically, good low-level system design is being able to identify a problem and consider one of the many solutions that could possibly fix it. In addition, the problem being identified needs to be at an appropriate level of granularity to yield positive and productive discussion following its identification. It’s not enough to say “the game is too hard,” designers need to know enough about the game to be able to say “enemy A does unbelievably aggressive” or “enemy B is impossibly accurate” or a more fundamental “the player’s health takes too long to recharge.” Saying “the game is too hard” identifies a feeling, which is a good starting point in a discussion, but it’s a fundamentally meaningless statement by which to balance the game.

Basically, in thought and discussion, spend time identifying the right problem before tuning things which will at best be a partial fix and, at worst, cover up a more glaring issue. Beyond that, system design is generally learning the granularity with which to break down a system as well as what is and what is not important to tweak (see: Sid Meier/Soren Johnson on tuning).

The Shooting in the Manshooter F.3.A.R. (ffthrir)

When compared to F.E.A.R. (1ear) and F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin (fe2r), the weapons of ffthrir are actually fairly reserved and tame. There’s no particle cannon which vaporizes enemies, there’s just a laser and a nailgun (video games). There are the standard fare weapons, though, and these provide not only a good baseline for design comparison, but they’re also the primary weapons in the game as well.

For the sake of comparison, I’m going to look specifically at the initial SMG (acquired in the introductory level of the game) and the “advancement” of that, the assault rifle. First, there are the common gameplay elements you’d expect in a modern first-person shooter weapon:

  • Ammunition: max clip size and total ammo count
  • Rate of fire: the speed at which the weapon fires every individual projectile
  • Reload time: the amount of time it takes a player to reload the gun
  • Damage: How much damage each projectile does. This is modulated by where the projectile hits on a target and while I don’t know the specific breakdown for the game, it is, hypothetically, base damage for a torso hit, 0.75x damage for arms/legs, and 2x damage for a headshot.
  • Recoil: the amount the gun kicks the player’s aim vector per every shot fired (may operate with a different value set depending on hip fire versus iron-sights fire)
  • Spread: the x/y velocity variance (and the increase per shot) when firing a projectile — this may also function slightly different when using iron-sights as recoil will take care of the spread that is simulated when hip firing
  • Muzzle velocity: speed at which the projectile is fired from the weapon (which determines the delay between firing and the projectile hitting its target)

This is by no means a comprehensive list of all of the values which go into the gameplay behavior of ffthrir‘s weapons, but it’s a decent working list. And to get the desired gameplay variance for two types of weapons, it’s just tuning these values to end up in a happy place for each weapon and each weapon within the context of every other weapon (both criteria have to be satisfied).

  • SMG: The “quick,” reliable, low-powered weapon. Moderate clip size/ammo belt, moderate rate of fire, fast reload time, low damage, low recoil, and moderate spread.
  • Assault Rifle: the “go-to” weapon is moderately powerful, accurate, but takes longer to reload and has more recoil. Low clip size, moderate ammo belt, moderate rate of fire, moderate reload time, moderate damage, moderate recoil, and low spread.

Here are two weapons with similar characteristics, but which behave slightly differently at a numerical level and, in practice, “feel” differently enough from each other that in my playthrough of ffthrir, these were the weapons I chose to have on me most often.

It’s not enough to have purely numerical variance between weapons. While these two weapons will feel different in the hands of the player who is familiar with the game, there may not be a perceptible difference to someone who is not extensively familiar with the game. This is where other presentational elements pick up the slack. The weapon model and audio will obviously be different, but there are other things that the game does to further differentiate their behavior in a very low-level way: controller vibration and camera shake. The only tool the player has for interacting with ffthrir is the game controller and how the game responds to his input. Controller vibration plays an obvious role in that it simulates the feel of actually firing the weapon, but the game camera needs to have the same caliber of response as well to maintain the player’s perceived simulation. By giving the assault rifle a stronger vibration and more potent camera kicks/shakes, that weapon is more obviously differentiated in a way that is consistent with the player’s perspective of the game.

That’s still not enough.

For every release of Battlefield prior to Battlefield: Bad Company, hit feedback was relegated solely to the game’s user interface. When the player hit an enemy, an ‘X’ appeared on the UI signalling to the player that his shot connected. There wasn’t much in the way (if any) of hit reactions on the player model and there was no blood. Without the interface, it was almost impossible to discern when a player hit an enemy and when he missed. As a result, games of Battlefield 2 (when the graphical fidelity reached a level where the lack of hit feedback became jarring), the game’s core shooting mechanics felt wrong. For all of the violence going on between vehicles and the large explosions, infantry combat was relegated to a very sterile, non-dynamic shooting model. It wasn’t until Battlefield: Bad Company was released where DICE added blood sprays and hit decals to the world, giving players a more natural, visual response to their primary method of interaction within the game.

Ffthrir handles hit response like any other first-person shooter, but they do it to a level of completion that manages to completely sell their first-person shooter gameplay. Enemies have blood sprays for every bullet they take, decals that get projected onto walls to highlight where the enemy was when the player hit him, animated hit responses so the enemy can clutch whatever part of him was just hit (and also momentarily stun the enemy), the crosshair/UI will have a quick flash to indicate a successful hit, and a voiceover clip to play for the added aural response. At the very least, one of these methods of hit response will be noticed by the player, providing him/her with the information he needs while maneuvering and shooting around the complex encounter space.

And that’s an analysis, more or less, of one of the lower-level components of the game that I outlined earlier. The resulting gameplay is the result of all of those low-level systems being tied together through a set of mid-level systems, which serve to deliver on the goals of the game as a whole. In my mind, that’s the ideal state of a low-level system: a thorough, encompassing set of components delivering on one aspect of the game. The firing of a weapon in ffthrir is by no means original or innovative, but it is a very simple, straight-forward, and well-executed system. The interplay with everything else in the game is what makes the game ffthrir, but taken as an isolated component, the weapons and the feel of using them in the game are solid.

By no means are all of those layers of the shooting systems necessary, but it’s all informed by the kind of game that ffthrir wants to be: a fast-paced first-person shooter which seemingly has more in common with an FPS from ten years ago than the more cerebral, genre mix of the genre presently. And the game is completely consistent in all of its low-level systems with this goal, and that is largely why it works so well. It does everything it aims to do, and it executes on each of those goals well.

Starhawk

The game I’ve been working on as a designer for the last couple of years was announced last night; the game is Starhawk. The official site is at www.starhawkthegame.com and there are some good screen shots and videos there.

Basically, though, we have a giant transforming robot. And here are some more screen shots for good measure:

The Systemic Integrity of Expression

I receive strange looks when I tell people that I think Alpha Protocol was a better game than Mass Effect 2. More strange looks, still, when I talk positively about games like Nier, Lost Planet 2, and Kane & Lynch 2 over those like Fable 3, Red Dead Redemption, and so on. I’m used to it.

It’s not like I don’t understand why people like some of these games. Mass Effect 2 is a well-made space opera that brings fond memories from an abundance of 70s-onward science fiction source material that is close to a lot of gamers’ hearts. Red Dead Redemption is a very thorough, loving recreation of the an underused setting (one which I have a great deal of personal love for). Fable 3 is the third game in an ever-evolving, clever action/RPG series; a series of whose first entry I played through at least three or four times. These are all appealing games in a lot of ways, and I have little-to-no doubt as to why some people adore them so. I also understand the predisposition to like these games as they represent the culmination of years of talent from the very well-respected and remarkable studios which produced them.

More still, I understand how easy it is to fall in love with a game which so wholly reproduces the feeling or memory of things which are near and dear to our past (or present) interests. To argue against the allure of riding a horse through the rolling landscape of Texas and Mexico in Red Dead Redemption is likely impossible and, more to the point, unnecessary. There should never be a doubt that what Rockstar San Diego achieved both artistically and technically with Red Dead Redemption is anything but outstanding. And if Red Dead Redemption was the film it sometimes so desperately seems to want to be, that might be enough (probably still not, but that’s neither here nor there).

Thing is, these games are all so mechanically and systemically broken — or, worse, simply uninteresting — that their allure seems to reside largely in the appeal their reference/source material allows them.

In playing through Mass Effect 2, I wondered what kind of game I was supposed to be playing. Am I playing a third-person action game? If so, the care devoted to a feel and control in a game like Uncharted 2 is certainly not present. And if I’m playing a role-playing game, why am I either bound to a good path or bad path (for maximum use of their associated gameplay systems) or a schizophrenic character who punches children in one scene and resuscitates a polar bear and carries it to safety in another. There’s either a comically good (or bad) role that I’m bound to playing to put the game systems to best use — one which does not carve out something even close to a believable, much less a compelling, character — or I choose the answers of the character I want to build and become some systemically ineffective player but maybe get an interesting story out of it. That these systems can’t really be narratively reconciled is a design sin in its own right, but it’s compounded by the fact that whatever shallow or complex character I create in the dialogue/story bits of Mass Effect 2 is entirely irrelevant to the character I play as during the overly abundant shooty bits of Mass Effect 2. It’s not a matter of ludonarrative dissonance, it’s ludonarrative irrelevance.

I generally get a rap for being overly invested or analytical about the systemic integrity of games; what confuses me, though, is why everyone else is not. When I talk about my love of mechanics and systems which reinforce themes and narratives, I’ve actually had the example of the Uncharted — a game series I thoroughly adore — cited as some purported counter-example. While it’s true that the Uncharted games are linear and feature a sometimes disturbingly cheerful protagonist despite his having killed hundreds (thousands?) of enemy soldiers, Uncharted is a game which I feel elegantly marries its narrative and systems. The goal of this game series is to emulate that of the Indiana Jones-era action/adventure movies and, despite its flaws, Uncharted and Uncharted 2 absolutely nail this goal. There is no point in either of these games where I feel like I’m limited from what I want to be doing within the universe these games exist in.

Jack Bauer endures more moral dilemma and executes better judgment in the matter of “who do I shoot and who do I not shoot” in the most absurd and overwrought episode of 24 than Commander Shepard does at his absolute best moments in any of the Mass Effect games, so we can’t possibly be looking at this as some sort of fulfillment fantasy can we? It’s either pulp science fiction, in which case it’s a game that is theoretically relegated to the nerdiest of the science fiction nerds (much like my library of Jim Thompson books are for a Noir nerd)… But that’s not the case. Mass Effect 2 is a major AAA game development endeavor beloved by millions upon millions of gamers across the world. So, again, why do we care?

We care because there’s something alluring about the mere concept of having anything to do with the path that Commander Shepard takes throughout these games. The illusion of choice and the perceived consequence of our personal decisions as the controller of these games is an intrinsically interesting prospect to us. Despite how much the Mass Effect games make explicit both visually and through its narrative, our minds will still fill in the gaps with something that somehow makes this mass murdering do-gooder (or do-poorer or schizophrenic do-whateverer) compelling. And, likely, this occurs because there is absolutely nothing in Mass Effect 2 that is not hideously well-polished. There is very little in the game that can be considered a “rough edge” — it’s just all so pretty and palatable.

There aren’t an abundance of times where you can find as close an analogue between two recent games as there is with Mass Effect 2 and Alpha Protocol, so let’s stick with that.

Putting Alpha Protocol side-by-side with Mass Effect 2 is an unfair exercise; one of these games is gorgeous and polished and the other is Alpha Protocol. It’s hard to look at Alpha Protocol and see anything remarkable but, given the time, it’s a surprisingly clever game with expressive mechanics that are tangibly (if loosely) tied to the narrative. And even the level design in the game allows for a modicum of expression within the realm of the game’s high-level conceit: empowering the player to play through an absurd super-spy storyline as a character reminiscent of James Bond, Jack Bauer, or Jason Bourne. You can shoot dudes, you can tranquilize dudes, or you can stealth your way around dudes. At times, you can smooth talk your way out of dudes entirely, but the conversation system in Alpha Protocol is actually somewhat complex and timing/situation-dependent and does not, at any point, highlight what the “good” or the “bad” way to react to a situation is (thus, it’s difficult to exploit your way out of a situation).

Alpha Protocoldoes, at no point, imply that you could Sam Fisher (pre-Double Agent and Conviction) your way through the game; you’re bound to the kind of spy that could kill an entire room of dudes easily if you so chose to. It’s not a complex simulation, but it’s a fully, if roughly, explored set of consistent systems. It’s within that conceit that there is expressive wiggle-room, and the mechanics of Alpha Protocol do a lot to take that conceit as far as it can within it’s sub-AAA production values. It’s not a pretty experience, but it’s all there, and it all works to create an entertaining experience that surprised and entertained me, on the whole, more than Mass Effect 2 did.

When I think about my time with games like Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect 2, and Fable 3, I think I had a perfectly acceptable experience. I probably had the experience that the development team wanted me to have with their games. With Red Dead Redemption, I at no point didn’t experience the story of John Marsden, but I sure didn’t play it. With Mass Effect 2 I got the new gang together and did some really cool stuff in space, but outside of the combinatorial approach to a “dynamic” ending, I didn’t bring much to the game as a unique player.

And then there’s Fable 3. When I played Fable in my college dorm room after a particularly dull Michigan football game (Wolverines! or something?), I had a ball. I got to be this asininely powerful guy who, over the course of an admittedly short experience, I defined into this hideously ugly magic-abusing lightning rod of a guy. And, sure, it only took four-five hours. And, sure, it was ludicrously easy. And, sure, it wasn’t a particularly novel storyline. But, what Fable was remains one of my fondest gaming memories: an action/RPG where the way I played the game actually seemed wholly unique from my friends. My old, magic rune-covered dude rocked some mean lighting that cleared entire screens of enemies. One friend had a big weapon and a dude with horns. Another actually tried to find some kind of balance. And while it doesn’t sound like much it was, in practice, a refreshing thing to see how differently we all played this one, seemingly hyper-linear game, from one another. We all, largely, experienced the same story, but we all took the gameplay segments we were given and put a little bit of ourselves into those.

Now, six years later, I’m playing Fable 3 and wondering what the fuck happened to the potential I saw in that game. I’m now playing a game where, almost insultingly, I’m meant to be along for the ride rather than defining my gameplay style. Rather than defining my game through play, I’m opening discrete chests along the “road to rule” which ends in me unlocking everything there is to unlock in non-dramatic and uninteresting fashion. Instead of playing how I want to play, I’m making a few high-level choices about how I run my kingdom in order to prepare for an oncoming assault. And, while it’s a clever twist, it’s a wholly unexceptional one that allows me, as the player of this game, very little room for expression. I eventually find that I can exploit the passage of time in the game and just leave my Xbox 360 running while my various estates pool absurd amounts of gold instead of oppressing my people for money during discrete game events, but this is not a rewarding discovery, it’s a cheap one. I’m not using lighting to kill everything (and, in the process, making my character age quicker and get scars everywhere), I’m doing the equivalent of taking the game disc out and hitting it on the ground until it does what I want when I put it back in.

None of these games are bad games; not by any means. I’ve talked to people who have loved all of the games that I’m presently ranting against and their reasons for loving them are entirely valid. As a game designer, though, it seems that we’re arbitrarily limiting the potential of what remains a limitless medium in order to maintain some collective vision of the narrative experience. The nature of an interactive medium should be the feedback loop between the player and the game; to not explore (or, at least, consider) the expression space of this cycle seems to be a missed opportunity.

Games of 2010

In years past, I would have dedicated an entire entry to each of the games that I liked the most over the span of a year, but I know I don’t have the time (nor particular love of that format) to do that this year. My favorite games of 2010, then, will instead be talked about in a long, rambly, largely unorganized list. I wish I could write entire entries about some of these games (and I may still at some point), but that’s unlikely to happen. So, for now, my favorite games of 2010:

Jump to: Vanquish :: Bayonetta :: Dragon Quest IX :: Halo: Reach :: Cladun :: ZHP :: Gravity Hook HD :: Metal Gear Solid: Peacewalker :: Lost Planet 2 :: Other

Vanquish
As a result of reading too much pre-release hype about Vanquish, I went into the game expecting a ridiculous, over-the-top, shoot-em-up-styled third-person shooter where speed, accuracy, and weapon choice were all that mattered. Upon playing the game for the first time, though, I was disappointed to discover how much of a role cover played in the game. I died a dozen or so times in my play-through of the first chapter of a game due to continually attempting to play the game more like The Club than, say, Uncharted or Gears of War. There were always moments where I was enable to enact the shmup-styled projectile absurdity that I went into the game hoping for, though, and that made the first half of my play-through of Vanquish more than enjoyable enough for me.

It wasn’t until I hit the 75% mark of the campaign that I realized how I was supposed to be playing Vanquish. It’s not a cover shooter, it’s a cover-to-cover shooter. If I was ever picking off an abundance of enemies in any given encounter from one single piece of cover, then I was, basically, playing the game wrong. The role of cover in Vanquish is solely to cool down your overheat bar (which is what your power slide, melee, and “bullet time” is based on) before you do another slide through the encounter space taking as many enemies as you can with you. And with this play style mindset, Vanquish is one of the most superb shooters I’ve played.

Much like the Halo series, Vanquish is also one of those games where playing on the harder difficulties makes the game much, much more enjoyable (and challenging). The one systemic aspect of Vanquish which remains a mystery to me, however, is the option to piecemeal weapon upgrades by collecting a weapon pickup for a weapon you have full ammunition for (with this method, three weapon pickups equals one weapon upgrade pickup). This design choice makes the most efficient play-through of the game require players to avoid using the weapons they actually want to use until they have maxed out the upgrade path. What’s more, weapons lose an upgrade rank whenever players die — something which is avoidable if you quit to the main menu at the time of death rather than just reload a checkpoint. These are curious design choices which I have yet to figure out a decent explanation for.

My minor issues with the game aside, Vanquish remains a great game with solid mechanics, great gunplay, gorgeous environments and effects, and an appropriately campy and absurd story.

Bayonetta
I’ve written about Bayonetta in the past and, really, my love of the game has not changed since I wrote that piece. The two active weapons that you can set for Bayonetta allow players to customize the “feel” of combat to an extent that isn’t replicated in any other game in the genre I’ve played. That PlatinumGames manages the fluidity it does given the variety of weapons and moves that the game has continues to impress and amaze me. The combat and movement from encounter-to-encounter in Bayonetta just feels so good and it all has such a remarkable energy to it.

While Bayonetta‘s story is entertaining and thoroughly campy and while Bayonetta herself is one of the most thoroughly clever and original characters to enter the game industry in ages, the integration of this story with the actual gameplay remains my sole issue with the game as a whole. The game sits alongside the Metal Gear Solid series as a poster child for how not to convey a narrative in a video game. The cut scenes are frequent and, what’s more, they are all surprisingly lengthy. As much as I enjoyed the whole experience my first time through the game, my subsequent play-through of the game was almost ruined by the frequency of the interruptions amidst such a superb pace of play through any given level.

Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies
Generally, when I play a JRPG, I only care about playing the games that are systemically complex or incredibly confusing or are simply well-made strategy RPGs. I care nothing for story or dialogue trees or anything like that, so most of the recent Final Fantasy games, Lunar, Dragon Age (not a JRPG, but it’s so long and dull that it felt worth mentioning) and so on are all remarkably unappealing to me. Dragon Quest IX — hereby referred to solely as dqicks — is not a particularly deep game. dqicks is, however, an incredibly well-designed, simply and solidly presented, and an exceedingly well-written game in areas that most games simply ignore quality writing in. dqicks also does something that, for whatever reason, a lot of JRPGs seem to ignore: the value of “loot” and the enjoyable aspects of putting a lot of cool-looking shit on your digital dude/dudette doll.

dqicks is spartan JRPG game design done better than, I think, any game before it. No particular aspect of it is complex, but all of the individual parts that compose the game come together well. The hallmark Level-5 shine only adds to the experience and the US release of the game has a brilliant translation full of charming puns and alliteration whether the text is in a dialog text box, combat updates, or ability/spell names. None of this is to say that the game doesn’t have some rough edges, the occasional grind-requiring section, or anachronistic design elements (like the ability to “miss” a target when casting resurrection), but it is, by and large, a remarkably solid game.

It’s a strange thing to commend a game on, but one of the aspects of properties that I enjoyed the most about dqicks is how “portable” it felt. It’s one of only a few DS/PSP games I’ve played over the years where I could play for five minutes or two hours and the game would, generally, feel like it was accommodating to either time window.

Halo: Reach
This one is simple: it’s a “best of” Halo, Halo 3, and Halo: ODST. The campaign feels surprisingly fresh, the multiplayer is exceptional, the dual-wielding has been removed, and it all looks very pretty.

Cladun: This is an RPG!
Cladun is, at times, my favorite game of the year. It is after the times where I only play Cladun for a ten-fifteen minute game session that I think this is the case. I still like it if I play it for more than a ten-fifteen minute session, but the game loses something when played for longer durations. It’s a PSP game, though, so I consider this a positive feature of the game.

The reason for Cladun‘s excellence in short bursts is that it’s a game made, primarily, for those condensed windows of gameplay. Any given level can take anywhere from thirty seconds to three minutes to complete, and a particularly lengthy level may take upwards of eight-ten minutes (though such instances are rare). The Cladun gameplay cycle is this:

  1. Choose which character you want to use.
  2. Update that character’s equipment.
  3. Update that character’s magic circle layout.
  4. Start a level and play through it fairly quickly in a Diablo-ish, action/RPG-ish manner.
  5. Finish the level, see which of the characters in the magic circle leveled up, and repeat as desired.

The “magic circle” is the primary factor in character development and customization and it is filled with a combination of other characters and various upgrade/customization elements. All characters that you place in a magic circle receives experience from a play-through of a level and, in practice, they basically act like shields around your active character that suck up damage on your front, rear, and sides. Once a given character (or pair of characters) in the magic circle dies, your main character becomes vulnerable to attacks from that side and when the main character runs out of health, he dies. What’s generally worse, though, is that when a character in the magic circle dies while playing through a level, you lose access to any upgrades that were dependent on that character’s mana pool. This could mean that your skills cost more to use, that you move slower, take more damage, and so on. It’s a remarkably clever — if a bit complicated and overwhelming at first — system.

Basically, Cladun is one of the most numerically-governed games I’ve ever played and, for this reason, I like it a lot. It also helps that the actual game systems and control response for the action/RPG dungeon gameplay are solid as well.

ZHP: Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman
ZHP is a Rogue-like from the same studio that makes the Disgaea series; this should be enough of a description to convey what kind of tone, style, and feel the game has, I think. Beyond that, though, ZHP is the best Rogue-like I’ve ever played. It maintains the “if you die in a dungeon you lose all of your stuff” convention that most Rogue-like games adhere to, but what it changes is that there is a persistent character level and dungeons are not infinite. Every storyline beat has a lengthy dungeon that players go deeper and deeper into, but at some point that chapter of the narrative ends (at either a staircase or a boss battle) and the player goes back to the home base with all of the items/equipment that were found and any levels that were gained on that trip are added to the total character level.

The total character level allows persistent stat growth, but it’s on a much smaller scale than per-dungeon level growth. So, while dying is still a setback, it’s not the “screw everything” setback that these sorts of games generally elicit. And aside from this means of character development, ZHP also has the “shadowgram,” which is a grid-based representation of the character’s body that you can fill with items and boosters that all take their power from a different power source (one on the head, one on the torso, one on each earm, and one on each leg). And, to be honest, I still have yet to fully figure out how the shadowgram works and what allows me to sometimes place upgrades and be completely unable to place upgrades at other times.

In some ways, ZHP is a very similar game to Cladun, just with different goals and focuses. There are still an absurd amount of ways to customize your character, but now you’re focusing exclusively on one character and the goal is to make him as persistently powerful as possible through the “slow burn” total level-ups, statistical modifications to the character’s body in the shadowgram, and continuing to gather more and more powerful item. ZHP is, unlike Cladun, a game which is very easy to sink hours and hours of gameplay into in any given session. Since playing both games, I’ve come to think of them as companion pieces; one which excels in short-bursts and one which excels for long-sessions. This summation is somewhat unfair to ZHP, though, as it works just as well in short gameplay sessions as it does in long ones, it’s just hard to ever stop playing it after a few minutes.

If no one else has figured it out by now, I have an extreme amount of love for games which have a lot of numbers. And speaking of games with a lot of numbers…

Metal Gear Solid: Peacewalker
Peacewalker is a dreamy, portable combination of traditional Metal Gear Solid games, X-COM, and Monster Hunter minus the endlessly long cut scenes that the Metal Gear Solid series is generally known for. If this one-line description doesn’t sound like the best game ever then, well, I don’t know what does. Peacewalker is not the best game ever, but it is excellent.

What really struck me about Peacewalker was the approach that Kojima Productions took to making the Metal Gear Solid series work on a portable platform in ways that I don’t think Portable Ops succeeded in doing. Most of the missions in the game take no more than eight-ten minutes to complete and there is a surprising amount of variety in the type of missions that you can undertake. Some of the the missions are solo-friendly, others are designed more for co-op experiences, but most of the missions are somewhere in the middle. It’s all so very similar to the way that Monster Hunter is structured and this absolutely works in the Peacewalker‘s favor. Well, most of it anyway. Peacewalker has moments — almost all of which are related to boss battles — where the difficulty of the game and the amount of time a mission takes to complete seem to absolutely skyrocket before settling back down into the excellent groove where most of the game resides. This is not true of all boss battles, but the ones that it is true of are enough to drag the whole experience down a bit. That said, some of the boss vehicles are superbly designed and the ability to acquire them for your own private army is a nice touch.

The critical design change that Kojima Productions adopted for Peacewalker that manages to make the game far, far better than it would have been purely on its own merits in a more traditional Metal Gear Solid structure is the way that the Outer Heaven hub and in-mission gameplay work together. By knocking out (instead of killing) enemies you can choose to send them to Outer Heaven at which point they will join your ranks. Every enemy that joins your ranks has a particular set of skills and, depending on what a given soldier excels in, you can send that soldier to be a soldier, chef, researcher, medical worker, or mechanic. Soldiers can form mini-armies that you send out on missions for additional items/experience/”money”, chefs bolster the Outer Heaven food supply to support everyone, researchers allow you to developer new items and weapons, medical workers fix up injured soldiers, and mechanics can repair your personal Metal Gear (which I have yet to be able to use) or any vehicles that you acquired from boss battles. It’s an incredibly fun little metagame that serves as the backbone of the entire game. Also: numbers. Lots of numbers. I love it so much.

Gravity Hook HD
Even more so than Osmos and Canabalt, Gravity Hook HD is, in my mind, the benchmark for how to make a game for the iPhone. Any given session of the game is short enough to fit into the kind of downtime I’d have if I’m already pulling out my iPhone and the level of interaction it requires of me is perfect for what I’d want to be playing on my phone in public. It’s actually a surprisingly difficult game to get used to at first — and I remember telling people that the flash game felt better for the first few days I was trying to play Gravity Hook HD (the flash game is also unlockable, as I later found out) — but once that initial learning curve has been passed, it’s just a solid game that I always can rely on for being a quick shot of enjoyment.

Lost Planet 2
I’m firmly convinced that Lost Planet 2 is the most underrated AAA game of the year. It’s a true co-op game that almost requires you to have two-four players playing to get the most out of at least a handful of the missions throughout the game but, hell, I enjoyed the game a great deal playing it as a strictly single-player affair. It’s a solid third-person shooter with, yet again, a Monster Hunter flair to the whole game. It’s not particularly well-presented and has one of the worst interfaces I’ve seen in any game this year, but if you can get past that whole thing, Lost Planet 2 is a strange, varied arcade shooter with a fair amount of character customization possible as you get random pick-ups from giant enemies.

The slot machine is the devil, though, pure and simple. As you play through Lost Planet 2 you’ll acquire enough credits to be able to purchase a spin of the slot machine and, every time, you’ll get something new, but what you really want is a new weapon. And the game taunts you as the weapon icon scrolls by and, instead, you get a new Street Fighter IV-like “title” to attach to your personal license plate-like construct.

And it’s great.

Other
There were some other games I played this year that I can’t quite fully argue their excellence to others or even myself, but that I still find noteworthy. I also wanted a section to briefly mention games that didn’t originally come out in 2010 (or that I did not play until this year).

The first and best examples of this are Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days and Alpha Protocol. I’ve already written about Kane & Lynch 2, but I still feel it’s a series which has a lot of potential. If nothing else, the visual style and atmosphere of Kane & Lynch 2 alone are worth playing through the game for (but it’s also a pretty okay third-person cover shooter as well). Alpha Protocol has an amazing dialogue system and a host of decent ideas all of which are executed at a mediocre level. That said, Alpha Protocol is closer to the kind of action/RPG that I keep hoping Bioware will make some day; it’s interesting, works at times, and provides a lot of dialogue and gameplay choices that are actually interesting instead of the throwaway shooter segments and ridiculous paragon/renegade system of Mass Effect 2.

I also tremendously enjoyed aspects of Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (and, more recently, Battlefield: Bad Company 2: Vietnam). The single-player component of Bad Compnay 2, as I wrote about earlier this year, is a thoroughly disappointed change in design from the original Bad Company. Instead of a uniquely-Battlefield approach to a single-player mission (taking place in large, wide-open, mini-sandboxes), Bad Company 2 chose to move in a more heavily scripted, prescriptive Call of Duty-like mission design. It’s an experience which is saved solely by the excellent core systems which make the game up. The multiplayer of both Bad Company 2 and Bad Company 2: Vietnam is, however, absolutely superb. And the select button “spotting” mechanic which automatically marks a target for everyone on your team (or sets a squad order, depending on the context) is an incredibly clever feature.

I never got a chance to play Persona 3 when it was out Playstation 2, but with the reworked release of the game on PSP earlier this year I got my chance to play it. And, as everyone already knows, it’s great. It’s systemically deep, it’s got catchy music, the writing and universe is superb, and it’s simply a very well-made, unique, polished JRPG.

Some of my systemically favorite games that I played this year, though, all came from a Japanese studio called Sting Entertainment; specifically, Knights in the Nightmare, Riviera: The Promised Land, and Yggdra Union: We’ll Never Fight Alone. Each of these games is unlike any other game I’ve played before and they’re all remarkably well-designed considering how different they are from one another. Knights in the Nightmare is a SRPG combined with a bullet hell shmup. Yggdra Union is an SRPG card-based game where you have a variety of characters on a grid and you can only attack once per turn. Riviera is an item-based SRPG whose closest resemblance is Ogre Battle in terms of its combat flow, but with a character customization/development scheme based entirely on mastery of individual (and limited-use) items. I haven’t really played any of these games enough to do a proper write-up on them yet, but that will happen some day.

And that’s 2010.

New Project: Civility

I’m going to start up my game of the year posts soon, but I also wanted to post my first screen shot of the new project I’m working on: Civility.

This is going to be a decent-sized project and, unlike my last four, more of a straight-up game rather than another attempt at mechanically expressing an emotion or state of mind or anything like that. Civility is, at the high-level, a customizable shmup set during the “civil war” (thematically and conceptually, not temporally) with the structure of a Monster Hunter game.

Balance Source Release

Around a year ago, I released the first of what became four straight particle-only games in Unity. The game, Balance, was both my first attempt at a more rapid design and development cycle as well as an attempt to treat a game as a very focused expressive piece (kind of like a short story). Balance is also still my only attempt to make a one-button game ever and, aside from Broken, it is my favorite of the games I’ve worked on independently.

Anyway, point is: someone recently asked me if I would release the source for any of these recent games, so I am! All of the content that I think is necessary to build the game (under Unity 3.0) can be found here. I also uploaded a new build of Balance with a couple bug-fixes and an improvement to the postprocessing effects.

This release does come with the obvious caveat of: things are ugly. I treat the programming of my independent projects like one would a rough sketch; too much thought into architecture and system design generally just impedes progress when it’s late at night and you’ve been drinking, so I just generally roll with it. I don’t think this is as big an issue with Balance as, say, Broken or my current project, since Balance is a simple game, but who knows! Do let me know if there are any issues or if I neglected to include some critical file or what not. And if this actually proves useful to anyone, I’ll do similarly for Doubt and In the Wind in the future.

Broken


Broken is my newest game; you can click the above image to check it out. Alternatively: here. There’s also a Universal Mac OS X build and a Windows build.

It is, to some extent, a game I’ve been wanting to make for a long time but, well, it ended up going in a somewhat different direction than I had always wanted to take that game. Oh well. The metaphor isn’t exactly what one might call subtle. It’s a strangely personal and yet impersonal game and I’m glad I finally got around to making it. And I owe a big thanks to colleague Josh Sutphin for composing some music specifically for the game based on a prototype and some information that I passed along.

And I guess when I said that I was done with the particle-styled games I was, really, just completely lying. I just like the style too much.

Aside from the more narrative/thematic goals I had for the project, I wanted to do something to evolve the style I’ve been working with for the last year while still keeping to the fundamentals of it: abstract visuals and a very dynamic scene. This was also my first project using the new version of Unity, so I wanted to see what kind of visual effects I could work in that I hadn’t messed with before. Strangely enough, the two biggest changes I made had nothing to do with the change in platform at all, just a change in how I composed the scene. The first step was putting a 2D plane in the scene and attaching point lights to every object, then modulating the range/intensity of that light whenever I wanted to draw attention to the object (generally when it was hitting something or when the object was destroyed). The next step was creating a 7.5%-sized render target — which was a duplicate of the finalscene minus some additional post effects — and overlaying that on the final composition for the pixelated look. Without any bloom, the frame buffer acted as a new-retro-styled bloom effect, which I really dug. I then went the extra unnecessary step and added Star Trek (2009)-style lens flares to everything, though, because… Well. That one has no deep meaning. I just thought it looked good. The final real stylistic step was to also apply a noise filter to the 7.5%-sized render target to get a more dynamic background.

One of the goals I had for the new style was to incorporate more pixel art into the game, but I really only did that with the individual heart pieces (the mines are untextured 2D quads too, I suppose). I’m going to be relying a lot more on low-fidelity pixel graphics for my next project.

All things considered, I’m happier with the way the style turned out than I am the actual game systems, but the design of the thing does accomplish all of the “storytelling” goals I had for it. Those goals just happened to turn out to be far more cynical than I was originally anticipating. Still, I’m curious to hear any reactions to the game. The next project, which I’m loosely describing as a “Monster Hunter shmup” at the moment, is going to be a somewhat more traditionally-played game.

One of the experiment that came out of my visual style exploration is the following image; I think this game needs to be made: