The Particle Trilogy

As a little break from Caper Corp., I finished a making a new video game this weekend. This one is called In the Wind. Much like Balance and Doubt, In the Wind’s entire visual style is driven by particle effects. Well 2D text too, but that’s only because making particles to represent text looked ghetto at the size I needed the text to be. In the Wind brings an end to the particle trilogy style of games I started back in December. This game would have been completed back in January or so, but unlike both Balance and Doubt, In the Wind was started more because I liked this color composition:

Unfortunately, that was really all I liked about the game that I was thinking about making, so it never really got beyond some movement physics, a wind effect/simulation, and the tree. My goal with the game was to always convey a “natural economy,” in that everything in the game was able to act because of the energy the center tree provided, and the player’s goal was to just feed more and more energy into the tree. It was an okay idea, but I never really had the thematic commitment to it that I did for the other two games. My goal with the particle projects was: no more than seven average days of work (so an hour or two after work and then maybe a weekend afternoon) and a set of systems which mechanically conveyed a single, coherent theme. For Balance and Doubt, I had the theme and the systems down for what I wanted to convey and, between the two, Balance is the only one that really succeeded as a fun little project (though I still have some love for Doubt, despite that). For In the Wind, I never really had that and, as a result, despite the second wind I got that drove it to completion, the game kind of waffles. The other problem was that after a night of work on In the Wind, I was already prepared to go back to work on Caper Corp., so it was this weird divided interest.

Still, I was able to get In the Wind done in a fashion very similar to the other games in the series: a Saturday after returning from a run I realized I had to scramble together all of the final elements (usually some systemic touches, audio, and a starting/ending screen), upload it to my site, post to Twitter, and get some quick feedback, incorporate those changes into a new build, and voila. New game.

Working on these three games with the self-imposed constraints under which they were worked on was a fun little endeavor. It was nice to do something a little bit different and to establish a visual style that was (hopefully) uniquely mine and explore some one-off systems. And now it’s back to Caper Corp., which should have another entry forthcoming at some point in the next week or two.

Final games in the particle trilogy (because they’re not real games if they’re not part of a trilogy):

Game Design Roundtable 1: The Death of Death

Round Table Topic

There has been a slow and steady progression of the role that death plays in video games since the days of Ghouls and Ghosts and Super Mario Bros. No longer are most games tied to the old tenet of providing a player with an arbitrary number of lives, typically three for some reason, before the player is sent back to a previous spot in the game. This was a particularly brutal practice back in days of arcade games (which the aforementioned Ghouls and Ghosts and Super Mario Bros. were no doubt influenced by) where the goal is to punish the player and, more to the point, convince the player to insert an additional quarter or so. There were also extra lives given to players along the way to sort of feed the mini-addiction that these arcade-inspired games needed to feed in order to get players to cough up more change.

This practice has persisted in the industry for ages to the point where designers still treat death and the process of player punishment much the same as we have for ages. Game developers and designers have largely abolished the system of giving players a finite number of tries or lives in a game, but so many games still cling to the concept of a player having a “life” to work with. This approach to handling the mortality or failure cases for the player can often lead to frustration (oh hey look at that) and that, for most titles, is not a desirable trait to aim for. There will always be the occasional Ninja Gaiden that will be released where designers very intentionally challenge player’s skills. These kinds of games rely on a failure case as a means of reinforcing the lack of player skill or, alternatively, enforcing a certain in-game aptitude.

There have been a handful of recent AAA games which attempt to make death less deadly. One of which is Lionhead Studios’ Fable 2 which allows the player to die but then instantly resurrects him/her with permanent aesthetic scars applied to the player’s avatar (also a minor experience loss). This mechanic still allows players to die and experience a failure case but it does not impede their progress through the game or, really, make for much player frustration (faux-challenge). The most recent and notable game which attempts to make its players think about death differently is Ubisoft Montreal’s Prince of Persia. Prince of Persia treated death as a mere “misstep” and, essentially, gave it players an incredible number of mini-checkpoints that they would be restored to in the event of failure.

Should games continually rely on death as a means of enforcing player skill? Is “death” the best way to do that? Is the current system of dying and returning to some designer-specified game checkpoint the best way of managing a player’s progress through a game? Dying isn’t fun, but is overcoming what caused a player to die before fun (and worth the annoyance of repeating a gameplay segment)?

The Death of Death

A game is often defined by its rules. If every game was played like Calvinball then there would be no common understanding of the game for people to play. Games without rules would play out like they were written by Kafka; one person would seemingly understand everything that is going on while another may feel constantly lost amidst faux-procedure. For a game to have any real comprehensible significance to its players, then, it needs to have some set of rules. And for these rules to have any gravity or meaning attached to them, the players of a game need to feel that the rules are there for a reason. This is the kind of “fact of life” that any child hears repeated throughout his or her life.

If rules exist for a reason then it stands to argue: what if the rules are violated? If a rule of a game is that a player needs to keep himself above zero health in order to progress through the game, then something has to happen to reinforce the importance of this rule to the player. Or, in a similar fashion. And then there is the condition of gameplay where a player may want to just break the game rules as he sees fit for the fun of it. There isn’t a game player in the world who doesn’t at some point wonder: what happens if I do this? What should be the recourse for some sort of failure to obey (or, more generally, a failure case)? The role of these failure cases coupled with a reward (progression, character development, winning the game, etc.) forms the basis for the primary psychological structure fundamental to games: risk and reward. And like a lot of other design concepts, this is not one that is exclusive to games:

Denial and reward can encourage the formulation of a rich experience. In designing paths of travel, try presenting users a view of their target — a staircase, building, entrance, monument, or other element — then momentarily screen it from view as they continue their approach. Reveal the target a second time from a different angel or with an interesting new detail. Divert users onto an unexpected path to create additional intrigue or even momentary lostness; then reward them with other interesting experience or other views of their target. This additional ‘work’ will make the journey more interesting, the arrival more awarding.

– Matthew Frederick, 101 things I learned in architecture school

The role of death in games is, in the general case, the game designer’s primary form of denial and reward. A traditional action game, for instance, may employ the occasional puzzle but its primary frictional force to hinder player progression through the game is the use of enemies and combat. Making a player invulnerable for combat encounters would allow for a guaranteed progression through the game, but the player may struggle to find meaning in the killing of enemies or toppling of non-mental obstacles along the way. Death is our answer to this. By allowing a player an easily-conceptualized form of punishment, we work to reward their eventual triumph and make the forthcoming activities more meaningful by that virtue. And, as a lot of the contributors to this round table surmised, death is less about any concept of “death” and more about the relationship of a number of universal gameplay concepts that designers must battle with in the development of any game across any genre: failure cases, challenge, and the symbiotic relationship between risk (or denial) and reward.

Tobias Hoffmann starts out this topic’s discussion with what he feels is a solid rule of thumb regarding the three life rule:

Losing the three lives are three non-fatal failures to the player, and it communicates the simple rule of thumb:

If at first you don’t succeed, try harder.
If you don’t succeed at the second attempt, try even harder.
If you don’t succeed at the third attempt, give it up. There’s no need to make a fool of yourself

It’s a cute rule, but it’s one that simply doesn’t apply to modern games save for those that intend to evoke the feelings of the days of platformers on the NES. Thomas Kiley shares a well-written summary of his feelings about the relationship between failure cases (death), challenge, and the balance that must be struck between them:

I think this topic ties strongly in with difficulty within a game. It is all about balance. I’ll use two extremes to explain my point. In the first game, there is no punishment for failure. Death (or equivalent) is simply not possible as you have infinite health. In game B, if you die once, which is perfectly possible, the game resets. You have to start again, your save wipes.

The problem with the second one is fairly obvious. If you played a game for more than about 20 minutes and you had to do all that again, you simply wouldn’t.

The problem with the first one is there is no challenge. If there is no challenge, there is no reward. Not only do you lose all sense of realism, and hence, immersion, the game ceases to be tense in any way. You no longer feel connected to the world or your character. If you can’t fail, there is no point in succeeding. [...] So, like difficulty, it is about balance. In Fable (2), I feel no fear when rushing in, as I know I can’t die. I don’t think this is a straight out bad thing – your meant to be a super powerful hero whose going to save the world, I would find it very difficult to believe that some small time criminal can take me down. Indeed, any death breaks immersion because, in real life, you can’t die then try again.

For me, the answer is that the player should constantly fear death (depending on the game, but as a general rule) but never actually experience it [...]

Spoonbender attempts to argue the inherent problems with death in games:

[...] there’s nothing immersive about dying either. Death will, pretty much by definition, always destroy immersion. No matter how you handle it. [...] Go and watch a typical action movie. The hero regularly screws up, experience setbacks and so on, but they don’t die. They might have to start over from scratch, get booted out of the police force or whatever else. They get punished, sure, but they don’t die. Perhaps games should do the same thing. Rather than killing the main character every time they screw up (and then ending up in a situation with no realistic/immersive way out), just let them, well, screw up.

In an attempt to frame the discourse of the conversation in such a way as to allow everyone to work off of the same definition of death and challenge (spoiler: most didn’t work off of it), Tyler McCulloch gave a concise post on just that:

One of the things we must overcome is what we define as a challenge. Do we really need death in order for a game to be perceived as challenging?

The most common challenge in games today is the avoidance of death. While this works for many games, this does not mean that we cannot think beyond this.

Challenges and the difficulty of a game can become more grey instead of just a black and white, ‘do-or-die’ situation. Puzzles, World navigation, character modifications are all examples of challenges that don’t necessarily need to involve death.

Tyler’s point received a very well-worded counter-argument by Tristam MacDonald a few posts later (the emphasis is mine):

Tetris is challenging because you are trying to avoid ‘death’ (the playing area filling up), world navigation is challenging because you have to avoid certain situations that risk death, and character modification is challenging in that it affects your ability to avoid death.

Most games quantify player progress in the form of resources – be it gold earned, stats/levels, or just time. Challenge is synonymous with Risk, and the player can only risk resources – challenge then is allowing the player to be deprived of resources, a mechanic commonly called ‘death’.

We can of course call it something other than death, and disguise it however we choose, but the core Risk/Reward mechanic remains.

The last sentence is one of the most poignant posts made in the entire thread and summarizes a lot of what this discussion is about while also pointing towards gaming’s reliance on a profound failure case (death) to make up the “risk” portion of the risk/reward relationship. This is a concept that Gary Hoffman delves into:

Death is just one motivator that can be used in game’s design. It’s a state of failure and the player has to work to avoid it. You can call a failure state something else and wrap it up in a pretty bow but it’s the same concept at its core. The player knows they will be punished if they fail to succeed at some part of game. Yes, the type and extent of the punishment varies, but its punishment none the less. This motivates them to achieve the game’s goals while giving the player a sense of risk. Since, risk is often associated with fear & adrenaline (and hence excitement), well introduced punishment mechanics like death can make games more exciting while motivating the player to advance.

The other powerful motivator in games, reward, can motivate the player but seems to lack the element of risk. A game that doesn’t use death (or punishment in general) has to rely on the player seeking some sort of reward to motivate them to continue advancing. This reward could be something in game like completing a quest and getting gold or it could be personal satisfaction at completing a puzzle, etc. Getting a reward can lead to satisfaction and excitement (especially with random rewards like finding a rare item in a game) but still lacks risk and the feeling of danger about it.

Personally, I don’t like dying and having to repeat some section of a game. It lessens the impact, not because I “died”, but because I’m now going through the motions I just went through simply because I made a mistake. I’ll now defeat the challenge of the game but not because I played better as much as I simply know what’s going to happen.

Everyone’s tolerance for death and having to replay parts of the game is different so I don’t think there’s a right answer but I think in the perfect (unachievable) world the threat and risk of death would exist but the game would keep the player on the cusp of death, always teetering over the edge of the cliff but never letting them fall.

Riffing off of the example games I listed in this round table’s description, Orangy Tang takes on Bioshock’s death mechanic (or lack thereof):

Fable [2] still actually punishes the player for dying (albeit relatively lightly), whereas in Bioshock there’s zero consequences for dying – you’re simply resurrected in the nearest vita chamber, which is never more than 30 seconds walk away. You lose no experience, ammunition, status or kudos other than the personal frustration of not hitting “heal” quick enough.

Personally I’m not a fan of having death have minimal or zero side effects – not only does it make a mockery of people who actually play the game skillfully, but because it can mean a player can force their way through a game without really understanding it. I’ve witnessed this first hand when a friend was trying to play Bioshock like they’d play Quake 3 – run around frantically while shooting everything that moves. The result is that they miss the subtler stuff (like listening out for enemies or security cameras), and fail to learn how to use the weapons or environment properly. They end up dying repeatedly (and frequently) but because they’re making slow (but painful) progress they never stop and realise that they’re missing the point of the entire game, and end up dismissing it as too frustrating to be fun.

Thomas Kiley fires back with an argument about player interpretation of the important aspects of a game:

Interesting points, and Bioshock is a good example. My counter argument is this; in Bioshock the point of the game, for lack of a better phrase, is to explore and discover the cool under-water world. If the game was continuously challenging, the player would end up focusing on the combat and ignore the story. In a game like Halo, I focus on the combat, so I haven’t collected any of the skulls, I don’t explore the world, because I don’t find that to be the focus of the game. By making death so irrelevant, they allow the player to explore the world fully without constantly worrying about dying and having to repeat an entire section. Without this mentality, many players wouldn’t explore, as dying miles away from where you are supposed to be is worth than dying a few feet away.

This discussion yielded a very important point, if a very tangential one: what happens when there is a major, if understandable, difference between a player’s intent with the game and the one of its designers? Bioshock is a game that had some of the most gorgeous architecture, interesting level design, and brilliantly-handled atmosphere in the history of the gaming medium, but it’s also a game that, in my mind, ended up focusing far more on combat than I would have expected (or wanted). Its choice to allow players an infinite number of “lives” (resurrections through nearby vita-chambers) with no real punishment other than a minimal amount of backtracking and the chance that some enemies may have found a way to regain some health in the mean time was one that enhanced its players ability to make their way through the game. For players who may have been more focused on the game’s aesthetic design and narrative than its combat and difficulty, then, playing through the game was more tolerable than, say, the Ninja Gaiden and God of War games of the world.

Johannes gets the discussion back on track, or is simply kind of a conversational downer, by bringing us back to death:

The problem how I see it is that death [of the player character] is usually not an interesting gameplay event, mostly because it’s usually is paired with a save system which makes it meaningless.

Take an example. Assume a game, any game really, with the added game mechanic that periodically forces you to press some specific button, failure to do so within some reasonable time would lead to a reset of the game with the associated loss of progress. I think it’s not far fetched to consider that particular game mechanic to be detrimental to pretty much any game. It’s similar to functions such as eating or sleeping that get left out of other games because they add nothing valuable to game experience, and are instead implied to be performed automatically behind the scenes.

This is analogous, although admittedly far-fetchedly so, to the save mechanic of modern games. “Death” means that the player is forced to resume from the last saved game. So as in previous example, why should you get punished for not pressing the quicksave button every 10 minutes instead of saving being done automatically behind the scenes? And if it is done automatically, popping the player back to the last safe position upon “death”, why bother to model it is as death at all since it’s quite clearly not the permanent end it implies?

Then on the other hand, there are scenarios where death is a fundamental gameplay mechanic. Any multiplayer deathmatch game is a good example. There your death means the success of the opposing player[s], which is in itself interesting. It’s not hard to come up with other scenarios either. Tetris for example, here the “death” mechanic is interesting because it marks an end of the game. The challenge, a meta-game in a sense, is to see whether you are able to play better next time.

This is a concept worth exploring: if death/rebirth is instantaneous and very little is lost in the process of dying, is the “punishment” of allowing another player to succeed enough? In a competitive game, the sole goal is generally not to get one kill (unless the player is really awful at the game) — no, the goal is to win. Every death in a deathmatch game means that a player is further from winning than he/she was before, and in the realm of competitive multiplayer, that may be enough on its own accord. Most competitive games make death more punishing still through the removal of a player’s previous weapons and, maybe, a “time out” period that they must wait in order to be resurrected, but the primary punishment is allowing others to pull ahead.

GerardL brings up the topic of Mirror’s Edge as a game that handles death well by splitting it into, as Thomas Kiley writes it, “compulsory punishment” and “optional punishment.” GerardL makes this division by saying:

The normal campaign has an insane amount of checkpoints, so that you never have to do a large part twice, but broke up the challenges is small parts, that you did have to complete in one go.

However in the speed run/time trail is where the game really shines. If you die, it is almost impossible to achieve the target times for the levels (because dying takes a little time). You can however still finish it the level.

This is a bit of a flawed example in practice as, in Mirror’s Edge, the time trials are only unlocked by playing through the entirety of the game’s campaign. While playing the story mode of a game may not seem like a poor activity to ask a player with, as it’s the focus of Mirror’s Edge in theory, in practice it is incredibly painful. The divergence of gameplay across two modes which enact the risk/reward model differently for the player, though, is a great concept that is definitely worth further discussion.

Jacob Ensign writes one of the closing contributions to the threads which discusses the importance of “death” as a means of influencing player strategies and play styles through adaptation in a way that is beneficial to the integrity of a game’s gameplay and mechanics:

There have been a couple people that have pointed this out in some way or form. A player’s strategy is devised in response to the rules and goals of a game. A light death penalty will cause the player to create different strategies than if there is a harsh death penalty.

A light death penalty might cause a player to develop strategies that are more focused on the completion of the game at any cost. This may even involve leveraging the effects of death to accomplish a particular goal if it is expedient. Take for example a room that is filled with deadly traps. Instead of the player taking their time to locate the traps, they may die repeatedly in order to discover the locations of the traps or bypass them using brute force if they are instantly revived every time they die.

A harsh death penalty might cause a player to develop strategies that are focused on survival. This would include doing things like hoarding resources, building impenetrable defenses, or putting more consideration into the effects of their actions in different situations.

Are death and failure the best way to encourage a player to create unique and entertaining play strategies, though? At this year’s GDC, Clint Hocking gave a presentation on influencing player strategies through a combination of intentionality and improvisation. These two high-level concepts formed the two tiers of a player’s play style: one is, essentially, a strategy that a player has going into a scenario (intention) and one is a strategy that forms dynamically in response to a failed execution of that strategy (improvisation). The Far Cry 2 team encouraged this method of play through a series of gameplay systems that occurred while a player was fighting and none of the strategy-altering ones would, necessarily, cause a player to die, just to adapt his/her strategy; however, death was certainly a possibility of a failed strategy, but the team also gives a player a sort of “cushion” against death by allowing an in-game buddy to come and rescue the player. This gives a player an immediate second attempt at executing a combat strategy before he/she dies in the more traditional manner (having to reload from a saved game).

I’d like to close out The Death of Death with a post made by Jason Kozak who, instead of providing lengthy arguments, made a very insightful observation regarding Orangy Tang’s earlier post and chose to pose a few very insightful questions:

What is particularly interesting about this point, and identified in OrangyTang’s player-story, is the failure of death as a game mechanic to actually force a player to adjust their play style. It is interesting because death as a mechanic is applied broadly across all methods of failure. A player who charges in recklessly receives the same response from the game as a player who runs out of ammo at a bad time.

Which begs the question: Are some of the issues resulting from death as a mechanic a failure of a mechanic, or a fault of the broad application of it?

Should we be applying separate mechanics based on the conditions of failure?

In the end, how a game implements its fundamental denial (or risk) and reward structure is completely dependent on that specific game. There is never going to be a concrete set of rules by which a designer can know the best way to make a player constantly feel as if he is performing a set of activities that are bordering on just the right amount of challenge to be meaningful for that player. What the concept of death in games really comes down to is how much of a punishment needs to be attached to a failure case? What kind of stakes should a player have to keep in mind whenever he is playing a game and how much caution does a designer want to impose on a player’s style of play? This is a topic that is being experimented more in games in the last couple of years and, while there is no perfect definition, seeing non-standard takes on failures cases in games like Bioshock, Prince of Persia, Fable 2, and even a game like The Path, is great topic for further discussion in the field of game design.

You can read the whole discussion at GameDev.net at Game Design Round Table 1: The Death of Death.

Game Design Round Table 0: No More Health

Over the last couple of months I’ve been nurturing an idea to hold a sort of casual attempt at a game design round table where I (or another organizer) would present a topic (and some basic information and potential arguments) to a group of independent or professional game designers. Everyone involved would then be let loose to sound off on their opinions on the topic at hand, argue with each other, and so on. The goal was to provide a format and location that would encourage designers to discuss topics in game design intelligently and thoroughly throughout the duration of the seven weeks that the topic is left open. Once the seven days of discussion were finished, the person who initiated the event would both write a piece which compiled original thoughts and combined them with arguments and perspectives of everyone who contributed to the discussion. Originally, I was planning on doing this by setting up a mailing list and slowly getting more and more people involved but then I realized that the Game Design forum at GameDev.net would be a near-perfect locale for this. With this in mind, I started up the first attempt at the Game Design Round Table (it’s a metaphorical table) entitled No More Health.

Round Table Topic — Regenerative Health
Regenerative health systems are actually a pretty simple one that have radically changed the way that first-person shooters and a number of third-person action games are played. The idea behind regenerative health is that players can take a finite amount of damage in a short span of time before they are sent into a “dying state” — which is typically indicated by a pulsating red screen — and if they take more damage beyond that then they will die. If a player does not take any more damage when they are in a dying state, though, and instead seek cover and avoid enemy confrontation and fire, they will slowly return back to their normal state. The concept of player health is now entirely dynamic and up to player interpretation via some sort of interface cue, red tinge, or other full-screen indicator. The effect of this mechanic is that it abstracts the older method of requiring players to manage their health and pick-ups, something that most players inherently understand (mortality), into a very streamlined and intuitive experience.

GiantBomb has the first occurrence of regenerative health in Wolverine Adamantium Rage (Genesis, SNES; 1994). The mechanic’s first mainstream appearance, though, was in its devolved form in Halo (Xbox; 2001) which had fully rechargeable shields which absorbed most of the player’s damage. Once the shields were out of energy, though, Halo still relied on a more traditional health system which included requiring players to find health pick-ups. Halo 2 took this concept a step further with a fully regenerative health system, tasking the player with only managing the ammo and type of his/her weapons. The net result of the widespread adoption (in games like Resistance 2, Killzone 2, Call of Duty 2-4, and so on) of this mechanic into modern action games of all types is that players are no longer thinking of their health some arbitrary number or percentage in the middle of a heated combat encounter.

Does this mechanic simplify action games in a good way? Is the reduction in manageable resources a boon or detriment to players? Are the hit-and-run (to cover) tactics that regenerative health systems not only encourage but often demand beneficial to most of the games that this mechanic is employed in?

No More Health
A health bar is one of the most iconic interface features in the history of video games. Children of the 1980s to the early 1990s have that grown up with a concept of health as being integral to their gaming experiences. For those of us with that gaming history, unless a game designer attempts to trick us, we know what a red bar on user interface means or what a numerical value next to a cross or heart or similar icon represents. That interface feature tells gamers one thing: how safe they are. A low health value or a slim portion of a life bar means that a player is going to play things as carefully as he/she can; no chances taken means that a player can reach his destination, doing something brave or stupid means that a player has little to no chance of surviving a given stretch of gameplay. A full health bar gives a player the sense that they’re safe, they can screw around — maybe get a little explosion happy — and still have room to breathe.

The concept of the health bar is one that the “core gamers” — the kinds of video game players that have been around for years — all understand perfectly, but the attempt to concretely display an abstract concept isn’t a particularly elegant solution for conveying player stability and well-being. And along those lines, the necessity to replenish a health bar yields some realism-breaking gameplay conventions: floating health supplements (medicine packs, wall-mounted rejuvenation centers, etc.) that games generally have players walk over to either be added to an inventory or be instantaneously consumed for additional health. Putting aside for a moment the lack of realism inherent to this gameplay practice, such a system also tasks a player with an additional layer of resource management. This is typically an additional resource to whatever weapons, ammunition, and other items that a player has in action games, though as Aaron Miller points out this is not necessarily a bad thing:

The search for health can be a very interesting diversion in an FPS. It can flavor encounters, making some situations more desperate or requiring stealth or diversionary tactics. It can also, as it was in Doom, be a source of meta gameplay in and of itself, requiring players to risk environmental hazards or rewarding them for quirky exploration.

And as Jason Adams adds this can create for a sort of exigent mid-combat tactic on its own:

[...] a system with health pickups can lead to interesting situations where a player makes a mad, basically suicidal run into a group of enemies with the goal of reaching a health pickup just before death, or where a weakened player can be tempted into navigating difficult environmental obstacles.

While both of these points are absolutely valid reasons to adhere to the more time-tested approach of a concrete health-based method of conveying player well-being and sustainability, are any of the aforementioned points actually necessary? While the presence of in-world health gives players a reason to move about the battlefield when they are near a death state — which is an inherently tense gameplay scenario — the same behavior can be demanded of a player through weapon and ammunition scarcity and management. More than just the management of health, though, a concrete health system enforces a certain type of play style, one of which is that of a strategy of long-term survival as gxaxhx points out:

However, in a game were resource management is part of the experience, I believe regenerating health would be a detriment. Imagine if Left 4 Dead used the health generating mechanic. Most likely the zombies and special infected would have to hit much harder to be any threat to the players. So, rather than experiencing maps where the players literally limp across the finish line, pleased with the way they managed to pull through as a group, most maps would be either the players getting shredded by the infected or flying through the map with no problem.

While specifically referring to the style of gameplay that a non-regenerative health mechanic promotes or enforces, gxaxhx’s argument actually goes back to the treatment of health like an in-game resource. So long as health is a player-managed resource, the player’s actions and carefulness, based on current game events, will be directly related to the scarcity of health in the game world.

If a concrete, or non-regenerative, health system is some form of resource management, then a regenerative health mechanic is a means of enforcing certain player behaviors and game flow. As Josh Petrie says it:

[Regenerative health systems] almost necessarily cause gameplay to be sliced up into reasonably short, controlled encounters of at least some minimum intensity. A regenerative health system basically gives the player a damage threshold: get through an encounter under this threshold, you live and can move on to the next encounter. Otherwise you die. Killing the player is accomplished by overloading this threshold in a short period of time, which means you can’t build suspense in the player via prolonged needling little encounters that keep them at low health [...].

KnTenshi argues the drawbacks of such a system:

You’re in the middle of a skirmish with a group of enemies. You are blasting away at them as they quickly bring your down to the ‘dying’ stage. You dive for cover and a few moments are back to full health. You now return to the blasting away part and them subsequently returning you to near death. This cycle continues until either all of the enemy are dead or a lucky shot from the enemy drops you to 0. There isn’t much suspense unless you willingly run into the midst of the enemy. [...] For me, if a game designer wants to implement a regenerating health bar, it should a a [sic] large chunk of time to fully recharge. Using a slow health regen, enemies are more likely to start hunting you down rather than just using suppression fire, which would increase the pressure for the player to do more than just pop in and out of a hiding place.

And Luke Parkes-Haskell writes a superb post that begins with praise about regenerative health systems while bringing up what he feels are complications when the system is carried over into the competitive arena:

Personally, I feel that the system has it’s merits. In a game that warrants quick encounters with equally matched opponents (e.g Call of Duty 4 multiplayer), wherein the player has the potential to be eliminated reasonably quickly, giving the player the ability to regain their health prevents them from suffering immediate game-impacting permanent health loss if they are glanced early after spawning – and thus they are also not immediately forced to predictably move to locate health pickups. It serves in some respect to assist in leveling the playing area in an often sprawling, maze like arena, and prevents lucky or random shots from killing outright, but with a lower player health, a misjudgment or tactical error can easily lead to death.

[...] However, such a system certainly has no place in some competitive arenas. Consider Unreal Tournament 2004, and the common one-on-one death match. Ultimately, a regenerative health system could only detract from the nature of the game. Experienced and veteran players are very much familiar with the strategic and tactical nature of determining one’s path through the chosen environment, denoting that damage and health critical pickups are only available at certain intervals. Failure to adopt an appropriate means to control these power-up points and deny them to the opponent is a very prominent emphasis in what would otherwise be a much more bland and imbalanced game; since otherwise the player could not be encouraged to move; since they can find a suitably strong position to sit in, and remain within it, given that they are able to always regenerate their health. Without the ability, they can occupy this position, but will be forced to abandon it should they take damage – and in the case of many a good level design, health pickups are in the more vulnerable and frequently passed through areas of the map.

My favorite contribution to the thread comes from Drew Marlowe (a designer on Full Spectrum Warrior: Ten Hammers, Mercenaries 2, among others):

I think that regenerative health systems are definitely a step in the right direction when it comes to simulating firefights in action games. This is because in many circumstances those systems are fantastic at simulating the real life feeling of being fired AT but not being hit which makes up the majority of 20th and 21st century combat. [...] In a real firefight (disclaimer – I’ve never been in a real firefight) many more bullets are fired into walls, the ground, the air than actually hit a target. The oft quoted statistic is that in the current US wars the US is firing a quarter of a million bullets for every insurgent they kill. All these bullets are getting fired in order to scare the shit out of the targets, and get them to not move or fire back while the US figures out how to safely kill them. It usually works because getting shot at is FUCKING SCARY. They also fire so many bullets because it is really REALLY hard to shoot someone. If you’ve ever shot a gun, you know that it’s a little bit harder in real life than it is in games to get an accurate head shot at 50 yards.

However, getting shot at (not hit) in a game is a non-issue. It doesn’t really phase most gamers because it’s just a game. With their music up, they may not even know that a bullet just zipped over their head. It doesn’t feel scary because you’re not punished for almost getting hit. So how can a game properly simulate the feeling of getting shot at, of needing to be behind cover, that makes first and third person shooters look and feel realistic? You can do it by make it a lot easier for the bad guys to hit the player, but allowing the player to respond to getting shot without a long term punishment. Against 5 or 6 enemies the player will stick his head out of cover but quickly be overwhelmed at the volume of fire and duck back down – not because he was afraid of the amount of bullets being shot at him, but because his health was getting low due to being hit.

The concept of a player experiencing and understanding the distinction between the danger of shot at compared to the consequences of being shot is fascinating. The influence that a game’s health system can have on such an experience is arguable, but the benefits of allowing players to experience a sort of “warning shot” that does enough damage to cause some visual/interface/post-processor effect but doesn’t incur any long-term damage (that would be almost inherent to a more concrete health system) seem worth looking into (in theory, if not practice). Drew goes on to illuminate one of the most notable difficulties of simulating such a experience by saying:

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, it is extremely difficult to communicate to the player exactly what circumstances will cause him to be shot. If I stick my head up will I have 3 seconds to fire, or will I be shot immediately? If I am shot immediately, does that mean I am never allowed to poke my head up at that spot, or is it just the randomness of the AI’s fire that caused the shot to land so quickly? The player has no idea, and because he needs to find a health pack every time he makes a mistake he is discouraged from experimenting in order to find out more about the combat systems.

Stroppy Katamari went back to the days of Action Quake to illustrate the benefits of a sort of hybrid health system that merges some aspects of a concrete health system with those of a regenerative one:

Action Quake, an older NRH game which everyone interested in FPS game design should check out, has a bleeding/crippling/bandage system which could easily be adapted to a RH game. When you are shot (anywhere but on armor), even a very minor hit like 5hp from grenade shrapnel, you start continuously bleeding health – slow or fast depending on how serious the initial wound was. To stop the bleed, you must bandage yourself. This takes several seconds, cannot be cancelled and leaves you defenseless. So there is an awesome trade-off and mindgame that follows from one player being wounded; they have to bandage, eventually, and if you catch them at that moment you win. But they know this, so they can wait (and bleed) long enough to ambush the other player following their blood spatter tracks, and then bandage. There is also a leg damage mechanic which cuts the runspeed to half or so when you recieve a hit to the legs, also curable by bandaging. This makes for viable tactics like taking one fast shot at the enemy at long range, inflicting the bleed and leg damage, and then stalk the slow, bleeding enemy while staying out of sight. You can even use a shotgun for this as the initial shot only needs to hit the legs, not do real damage. [...] You could do regenerating health the same way, requiring the player to go defenseless for a while, etc.

As a number of the people who contributed to this first attempt at this kind of project and discussion noted, the usefulness and enjoyment that can be derived from a given system are entirely dependent on the specific game which employs it. This is, of course, an incredibly valid point, but one I’d like to encourage further round tables to worry less about. The goal of these discussions is to attempt to get developers and designers to communicate with each other about certain issues in game design; this requires a knowledge of gaming trends, for one, but more importantly it requires designers to make intelligent arguments with one another. Making an argument isn’t as simple as posting a quote from a famous designer or citing an excellent game which had a certain design but, rather, making an argument and supporting it with a combinational of practical examples/experiences and general theory. A discussion about games is generally impossible to boil down to pure empirical data and concrete facts, so I would encourage contributions to think a bit about their own arguments and, if necessary, feel free to generalize into theory rather than relying on an obvious fact like “this all depends on implementation” or “this only works in this specific game.” There are lessons that can be extracted from specific examples and that’s, ideally, what I’d like to have people take from their discussions with one another in the future.

There is no correct way of handling the concept of a player’s life and longevity in a video game; there is no genre in which this is more true than in the fast-paced action of a typical first-person shooter (or a similarly-designed third-person action game like Gears of War). The varying means by which shooters achieve intensity and encourage players to adopt certain play styles is, in a lot of ways, entirely dependent on the way it handles its health system. As a number of the discussions and points made throughout the round table discussion illustrate, there are benefits to both an abstract health system where a player’s life is largely up to his interpretation of interface/screen cues (regenerative health) and that of a more traditional, concrete health system that relies on life bars, numerical values, and in-world health replenishment. There were some absolutely great contributions to this sort of test run of the Game Design Round Table — a name which I admit sounds incredibly pompous and pretentious but I think reflects the goals of the discussion pretty well. Before I wrap up, though, I want to point to a post made by Nick Halme which I couldn’t figure out a way to integrate into this article but, also, made a number of very poignant design points through Halme’s own past design project.

The next Game Design Round Table will be posted to the GameDev.net Round Table, with some revised guidelines, on Tuesday, April 21st. If anyone has comments regarding my first attempt at handling this whole thing that they want to direct personally to me, feel free to e-mail me trentp@gmail.com. I plan on doing this every two weeks (this may turn to three, as preparing this took a decent chunk of time) with the first week being a discussion of the posted topic and the second week being the eventual posting and discussion of the aggregate/argumentative article written by whoever organized the current topic. I’ll probably keep doing this for a few more times and refine the guidelines and eventual article format as I go along, but if anyone would be potentially interested in spearheading a later iteration of this feel free to e-mail me.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to this, the discussion was great, and I’m sorry if I couldn’t work every post into this piece.

For anyone that wants to contribute to further discussion for this piece (casual comments can be kept here), I recommend visiting this post’s entry at GameDev.net.

No More Mechanics

Last week I lied a little. It is likely that there will be no more Mechanics articles in the future or, if there are some, they won’t be on the weekly basis that they have been lately. I do plan to continue writing a weekly article of sorts, but I don’t really want to limit the scope of topics to game mechanics as I’ve past up some interesting topics (interesting to me, at least) in order to fit the goals of the column type. One of my favorite ones, the Far Cry 2 one, wasn’t really even a valid entry in the series.

So, yeah, that’s done.

I did start my second play-through of Far Cry 2 recently, though, and that’s proving to be just as enjoyable as the first time through was.

Also of note: The Shield is now over and it was fantastic, Rambo and Hancock were pretty bad, Left 4 Dead is overrated, The Wire’s first episode was promising, Sacred 2 is mindless fun, Fallout 3 was okay, and Fable 2 was disappointing.

Mechanics 7: Heart of Darkness (Far Cry 2)

I just got another mission from the unnaturally quick-speaking warlord of the African UFL — one of two warring factions in Far Cry 2 — when one of my buddies gave me a call on my cell phone telling me to meet them if I wanted to make my mission take twice as long as it would if I simply followed orders at no real additional benefit to me. I guess I could just do it, though. I mean, my buddy Nasreen is, apparently, one of the only two women in all of Africa. It wouldn’t hurt to endear my playing character to her a bit more. It’s an awfully big safe house, after all.

Wait, why is my screen pulsing and turning yellow? Oh, it’s my Malaria. It’s flaring up. There’s an on-screen pill bottle that’s telling me I should press my left shoulder button. But, I’m also in the middle of driving through the jungle since that checkpoint I just cleared out before getting my new mission already is restocked with new people. Maybe they’re just meandering civilians? Probably not. They have guns. Do civilians in Africa have guns? All right, I’ll just slow down my truck and take my pills. Done. No more yellow screen. I’m also out of pills, but I just got them refilled after I delivered some transit papers to an African family hiding in a broom closet in a veterinary office (under control by the African Underground). Am I really out of pills or do I just need to deliver more transit papers? Africa has a strange exchange rate.

Malaria is probably contagious. I guess that rules out my chances with Nasreen. Maybe she’ll give me more conflict diamonds when I help her out in lieu of, well, anything else. I think I just hit a zebra while I was looking at my map; oh, and I just entered into range of the checkpoint. That’s okay, I’ll just drive away fast — my engine is smoking. They shot up my engine. I could run faster than my truck’s new top speed. Normally I’d be able to get out and repair the engine back into it’s racing shape, but considering that I have an assault truck with two angry African soldiers speeding towards me is probably out of the question. Normally, since I have a vehicle of my own and don’t really want to steal theirs, I’d just whip out of my high-grade rocket launcher — since I just payed thirty-five blood diamonds to get access to it since my old RPG was far too inaccurate — but that has a bit of a blow-back that would probably cause my smoking Jeep to burst into flames (killing me in the process). The assault truck is getting closer; I don’t have much in the way of cover around me and if I get ran over it’s game over. I got it: I’ll bring out my AR15 and try and pick off the driver, leaving the gunner out of range to do any serious damage. Got him. Now the gunner that is moving into the driver’s seat. Done and done.

Now my screen is pulsing red and the quickly-diminishing last notch of my life bar tells me I’m in the process of bleeding out. Unfortunately, I took far too much damage to just hit the left-shoulder button and inject myself (with what I assume/hope are mere painkillers) so now, instead, I see my player character look down at his leg — there’s an enormous bullet entry wound. That looks pretty rough, but it can be bandaged up. Wait. What. What is my character doing? Why does he have pliers? Is he — oh, okay. He just pulled the bullet out of his own wound. And I have my gun back, which means I guess I’m going to live. Why is there someone in front of me with a shotgun — oh, that wasn’t friendly. Ouch. Neither was that.

I guess I’m dead now. The screen is fading to black, so I’ll just load my last saved game; wait, the game faded back in and now I see my other friend Michelle (the only other woman in all of Africa). “Hold on, I’ll get you out of here” she says as she whips out her AK-47 and fires at some off-screen enemies (I assume she avenged my near-death by killing my almost-murderer). The screen is fading back to black. Was she too late? Oh, it’s fading back in. Michelle is dragging me somewhere. She is saving me, right? Fading back to black. And back to Michelle; “all right, patch yourself up” she tells me as she places a shiny, new Desert Eagle in my hands. I get up, inject myself with the last of my mysteriously-filled syrettes I carry around, and now I’m out for blood. Not mine this time. Why did I forget to stock up on syrettes when I was in town? Why?

I should have been paying more attention while I was taking the drive to my destination, as this isn’t any old checkpoint; this one seems to have about ten or eleven mercenaries spread across a small plot of land. And they already know I’m here, so that makes any stealth kills nigh-impossible. But, I do see a way to take out about six guys with a single action. Three of the mercenaries are standing near a large ammunition dump; if I hit that with a rocket then the immediate explosion should kill at least one guy, but that will also cause the ammunition canisters do explode and every single round of ammo contained within to go crazy and start firing in a every direction which, hopefully, will take out the other two guys. The other thing the explosion should do is set fire to the nearby trees and grassy areas which, ideally, will engulf another two mercenaries (and hopefully, that will spread far enough to kill one more mercenary).

That plan ended up working for all but the fire-spreading. Which I “aided” by throwing a molotov cocktail at the desired patch of grass and trees. At this point, I still have full health, but I also have to deal with another four mercenaries. From my well-covered spot (a big rock), I was able to pick off one enemy but, by this point, the other three were well within range to kill me swiftly. As I started frantically firing at one of the trio my assault rifle jams up — in the heat of taking a new mission and figuring out if I could somehow woo Nasreen or Michelle I forgot to make a trip to the armory to replace my rifle and pistol. My rifle is rusted to hell at this point; I’m actually pretty lucky that it just jammed and didn’t, essentially, disintegrate. At this point I’m madly mashing the X button (reload/fix jam), fix the jam, and then fire another few shots at my assailants. Then the gun disintegrates. At least I have my shiny silver Desert Eagle that Michelle gave me, though. A few seconds later and I’m free and clear. I only have two of my six health bars, but I’m not bleeding out.

And this is what Far Cry 2 is about. There are complaints about the amount of driving, the incredibly quick enemy respawns for checkpoints (never when you’re in the area, at least), and the lack of civilians that populate the country (strange given the story is about them), but Far Cry 2 goes beyond such petty issues. It’s one of the first games I’ve ever played that really embodies the concept of emergent game design (or progressive game design). It’s an open-world game that, although only partially “open” in terms of its narrative progression, does everything it can to keep players confined to the game world. There is only one time where the game camera doesn’t function as the player character’s eyes and that is when a player “sleeps” in a safe house and the player is treated to a time-lapse view of the outside world as the amount of daylight changes.

The primary result of placing the player so firmly in the game world is that every player action has a sense of gravitas attached to it. It’s a feeling that pervades the single-player portion of the game so strongly that the first I jumped into multi-player I felt oddly confused. Missions near the end make players wonder if what they’re doing has any semblance of “right” to it whatsoever; the mission may get the player closer to his/her objective, but what’s the cost attached to the player’s action? It’s a shame that the player is locked into a limited number of actions when given a mission; there has never been a game I wanted to have more narrative choices in than this one.

I still can’t believe I accidentally hit a zebra.

Mechanics 6: You’re the Hero Now, Dog

Ruff, ruff!

This quote comes from one of the only, if not the only (aside from Half-Life 2′s Alyx Vance), video game companion that never becomes annoying or troublesome to gamers. One of the most recurring problems in any video game is that of trying to create a companion in a video game that can tag along with a player character’s exploits throughout a game in a fashion that is not only realistic but, more to the point, doesn’t require constant babysitting to avoid the common video game companion pitfalls of getting stuck, going the wrong way, or committing suicide in one of any number of possible ways depending on the hazards that fill a game world. It’s an understandably difficult game mechanic to have in that, especially in an intimate single-player game experience, to have an AI intelligent enough to act predictably “human” in the same way that the person controlling the main character would act.

Ruff, ruff!

This quote is arguably the most memorable thing that players will experience in all of Lionhead’s recently-released Fable 2. It doesn’t come from farting to impress women to the point of marrying you. It doesn’t come from the manual or various cinematics. It certainly doesn’t come from the wooden and awkwardly-presented narrative cutscenes. No, the above quote comes from — and I’m sure this is a surprise — the only dog known to the world of Fable 2: the player’s dog that can change names as often as it changes collars (no, really). The little furry fella attaches himself to the player’s character from an early point in the game and, from then on out, is by his side throughout a majority of the rest of the game. The dog is not the interface but, instead, a helper to the main character; he will point out treasure chests, dig spots, and he will help in combat from time-to-time.

Though, what the dog adds to Fable 2 is not really related to his gameplay functionality. Such a large part of the game is based around a concept of community; the player aims to either impress or strike fear into the randomly-named denizens of the various towns and, at some point, get married and impregnate (or get pregnant) to some of them. The player interacts with the game’s townspeople by a little expression-based minigame where a particular expression is chosen from a radial menu (dancing, flexing, farting, etc.) and then “held” via a semicircular bar with a constantly-moving indicator that needs to be released at just the right time for a maximum impression value that affects every townsperson in the immediate vicinity. This gameplay mechanic makes for some entertaining situations from time to time but not only is it very gamey but it is also an incredibly unnatural and bizarre way to interact with people who spit out their limited amount of voice acted lines.

And so the onus of player/game emotional connections falls upon the canine of Fable 2 and, throughout the entirety of the game, he succeeds. The dog’s interactions with NPCs ends up being far more realistic and understandable for every human gamer controlling Fable 2′s “hero” and, meanwhile, it is the player’s connection to the dog that grows with every new situation that the player/dog combo comes up against. When a player enters a cave the dog may start acting timid and frightened and move at a slower speed to the point where the oft-oblivious player may wonder where his dog is; upon looking back, there is the normally-friendly and perky puppy face now cowering near the ground while his legs shake as he trots slowly towards the player. If the person playing the game isn’t heartless, he can use a dog treat expression to throw a treat to the dog as if to say “It’s all okay buddy” and the dog will perk back up and stick by your side through the dungeon. The dog can also get hurt in combat and will whimper with every step he takes until he received a “Dog Elixir” which sound, roughly, as sad as it is to see.

The importance of the dog to the player becomes clear at three key spots throughout the game; one of which is early on and occurs a bit too soon to really have much of any emotional resonance with the player, but there is one event midgame that plays out after the player character has been absent from the world for a good chunk of time. Once a narrative sequence has played out in its normal filled-with-awkward-pauses fashion, a character says “Oh, and there’s someone who has been wanting to see you” and the dog, which now greatly reflects the player character’s alignment (bad dog ends up like a hyena and a good one like a golden retriever), comes bounding up a bridge and jumps up at you for a doggy hug. One of the NPCs involved in the sequence goes on to point out that the dog came to this spot in the game world once every week while the player was absent in anticipation for his return. It’s a throwaway line in terms of the main story arc but it is, without a doubt, one of the most potent lines in the game. Next to “Ruff, Ruff!

Functionally, Fable 2′s dog is a negligible piece of design that had his most useful features seemingly shoehorned into the experience to justify the dog’s existence as anything but window-dressing, but as an enjoyable and completely harmless companion for the player as he makes his way through the duration of the game the dog is an absolutely superb feature of the game. The dog takes nothing away from a theoretical dog-less Fable 2 game experience but it adds a layer of natural interactions and human/animal companionship that, really, is unmatched by anything else in Fable 2.

Ruff, ruff!