Archive | August 2015

A Wizard Did It – Post Mortem (Prototype)

Over the last six weeks, we’ve been prototyping our major project – A Wizard Did ItAWDI is a 4-player asymmetrical multiplayer game, with one team focusing on action team-based gameplay and the other on strategy and manipulation. One team is the Heroes – 3 players who are working together to defend their castle from the oncoming horde of monsters, which are being summoned by the other player, the Wizard. The following is a list of what went wrong, what went right and we’ve learned from developing our prototype.

Title_Screen

What Went Right

Networking

AWDI relies completely on it’s multiplayer – a singleplayer mode was never planned or intended, and we’ve managed to implement multiplayer that’s not only functional, but very well polished. Actions occur for both players simultaneously, and we don’t have any real synchronization issues in the final build. Since our focus for the prototype was to set up the groundwork for the bulk of development in the next trimester, this is a huge win for us.

Asymmetrical Design

This was a big worry going into the project, and it was an equally big challenge – developing an asymmetrical game is essentially developing two games that are fun not only on their own, but when played together. It’s too early to give a definitive answer as to whether our design’s going to pan out nicely, but as of the prototype both sides of the game are good fun to play and function well together. The logic is consistent across both modes – either way, the crystal’s the goal. and the monsters are the key to either your destruction or your downfall. It’s very easy for players to understand the mechanics of both sides, which was also a concern of ours. Developing the prototype’s given us the confidence that – assuming we do our jobs properly – we’re onto an idea that’s actually a lot of fun to play, and seems to have a good amount of appeal.

The Style

For our prototype we used a fair bit of asset store meshes and materials (purely for the sake of saving time) to get our art style across, and it worked well. The final prototype build isn’t quite where we envisioned it in terms of art, but it’s very close – certainly more than close enough for what we actually needed to show. We’d always planned for AWDI to have a very “cartoony” art style, and it’s apparent in every screenshot that we’ve accomplished that.

 AWDI Screenie

What Went Wrong

Navigation

A massive part of AWDI (arguably the biggest part) is how monsters act and react in the game world. Our plan for the final build is to have them running around the castle doing things, like destroying buildings and kicking over buckets. At present, they’re just…pretty awful, really. They don’t navigate the game world very well, and are frequently getting stuck on terrain. This wasn’t a problem with our implementation so much as it was a problem with our pipeline – we simply tested the AI too late. It was great that we learned this in our prototype, though, as we now know to use greyboxes to test the navigation before we finalise anything.

In-game Feedback

I’m a little hesitant to put this in the “what went wrong” section, because it’s an issue we knew would be present in this build all along and opted to work on other features instead. So this didn’t “go wrong” so much as we let it “be wrong”, but our prototype doesn’t have much in the way of player feedback, whether positive or negative. Hitting monsters isn’t satisfying, and being hit doesn’t worry players the way it should. We’re conscious of the importance of feedback and plan to spend a lot of time developing and polishing it during main development next trimester, but as of the prototype it’s sorely lacking.

Documentation

During the course of developing our prototype, we’ve done a lot of documentation – I’d say more than ever. However, most of it has become irrelevant in the face of what we’ve learned from our prototype. This is actually normal – it’s why you develop a prototype and have several GDD versions – so that’s not the problem. Our problem is that the documentation hasn’t been updated since, and needs to be for next trimester. There’s still time to get that done, but it means that as of our deadline, our documentation isn’t up to par. We could’ve potentially avoided this by finishing our prototype earlier and getting testing done, though there’s every chance that would’ve left us with a less polished prototype and less useful feedback, so it was always a hard choice.

Screenie

Each area of the castle is visually distinct.

What We’ve Learned

Have awful players test your level (or game)

While we didn’t spend as much time testing as we could have, those that did play the game were all experienced gamers, which is a problem. People who play a lot of games are, of course, much better at them – gathering feedback exclusively from people who are good at something just isn’t that helpful by itself, as average-or-worse players are going to have much lower performance, leading to our game being overtuned for skilled players to the detriment of the majority. In the case of AWDI, it’s important for players to quickly navigate around the level, as well as tell where the monsters are in relation to their current position. After developing and testing our prototype, we don’t really have a definitive answer as to how difficult it is to navigate our level, which is something we’ll look to as soon as possible.

Game design is hard; Asymmetrical game design is harder

I’m not sure we ‘learned’ this so much as we expected it, but it’s still true – designing an asymmetrical game can be kind of a nightmare. At first, we assumed the difficulty would come mostly from balance (and that’ll almost definitely be the case in the future), but for our prototype we actually had a very difficult time designing the level. For a long time we were trying to develop a square level where enemies could come from all directions, and each of us went through dozens of designs that all had big flaws for either the Heroes or the Wizard. Eventually, we realised a rectangular, linear design was the answer – if the Wizard had to push his or her forces into the castle from a specific direction, it not only lent itself well to the gameplay, but also to the idea, theme and feel of a siege. This seems mighty obvious in hindsight, but we spent a couple of weeks on this design problem until we solved it by scribbling in MS Paint and arguing about it (which is typically our main design process). Still, having an asymmetrical game is bringing in all sorts of new challenges, for better or worse – I don’t doubt we’ll be facing a lot more in the near future.

From here, AWDI is entering the bulk of development. We plan to redevelop the prototype with what we’ve learned in order to use it as the base model of our main project, fix up some documentation, play an ungodly amount of Metal Gear Solid V and then get into development proper shortly before our final trimester. I’ll be posting updates and information on my blog as we go, so stay tuned! Thanks a lot for reading.

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Gentleman’s Gambit – Post Mortem

Gentleman’s Gambit is a collectible card game (or CCG) built for PC in Unreal 4.8. The game sets two players against each other, each of which have 3 Gentlemen who use insult cards to reduce each other’s integrity until one team is ashamed enough to quit. As a collectible card game, there are some cards which are objectively better than others, though these tend to be rarer. This collectibility is key to our monetisation system, where players can choose to buy packs of randomised cards. While we didn’t manage to implement some features before the end of the project, we managed to implement each major feature and even had time for a bit of polish and testing. The following is a list of what went wrong, what went right and what we’ve learned from the experience. 

GG Main Menu

What Went Right

Basic Design

Gentleman’s Gambit was made over a six-week period, which was a time limit we were given from the outset. As such, we were able to scope our project for that time, and that’s something I think went extremely well. While we did have to cut features – something I’m learning is inevitable – we only ended up cutting things that we were always aware may not make it into the game, such as a taunt system. However, that means all our essential features made it, and we had time to polish non-essential areas such as menus.

This is because we successfully scoped our game for the time frame. Developing card game meant we could easily scale the scope forward or back depending on how successful we were at developing according to our schedule, and while some cards didn’t make it, that was the point.

Humour

Humour is a big part of Gentleman’s Gambit, and so far it’s been well-received. People find the art and the text funny, which is a big win – it was essentially a joke we told six weeks ago and only just found out now that it’s funny.  Writing comedy is extremely difficult, probably because it’s so subjective, but we seem to have found a point at which everyone who’s played it has enjoyed and gotten a laugh out of something. None of our previous games have had humour written into them, despite generally being silly enough to be funny, so this was a good experience.

Gameplay and Deck Building

The gameplay came together nicely, which I think was more of a happy coincidence than anything. We didn’t spend as much time iterating the design as we normally would, because initial testing was mostly positive. We realised as more cards were designed that combos create themselves – for example, we’d create a card that does X and it would work with a card that does Y which we’d created weeks before. These card combinations are essential to CCGs and it was an interesting experience to see them come together naturally. After some early balancing we found that each deck stood on it’s own as well, and that – at least at this stage – no card or combination is obviously overpowered.

Screenshot

What went wrong

Networking

There was one feature we had to cut that wasn’t something we considered optional, and that was networking. I don’t know exactly what went wrong, but the networking just wasn’t finished and implemented in time for our final build, so we’ve settled for a rudimentary AI to show off the mechanics. Playing against other players is the entire point of the game, so not having this feature is a big miss for us – though not necessarily essential, it is something that’s very disappointing to miss out on.

Atmosphere

Something we were always aware of but never managed to implement was a better atmosphere for the game. In the screenshot above you can see the board, well-lit, floating in a strange void. Our earliest build was set beside a fireplace, indoors, with whisky and cigars along the side of the board, which was much better atmospherically. While this is something we chose to cut because of our time constraints, it’s still a real shame, because it’s lost a lot of the identity of the game along the way. Were we to revisit this project, improving the atmosphere would be a high priority.

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What We Learned

Implement major features ASAP

Like everything else, this is extremely obvious in hindsight. Networking shouldn’t have been left as long as it was, because in the end it hurt our game – this is something that should have been implemented as soon as possible. All major features should be included as early as possible for various reasons, and not including one was an issue.

Keep documentation up-to-date

I didn’t include this in “what went wrong” because I don’t think it hurt our end product, but it would still be good practice to improve our documentation in the future. It was fairly old, and if we’d all been in a horrible accident, nobody would have been able to make the same game based on the documentation we had.

In the end, we managed to create a well-polished and fun game, even if it didn’t have everything we’d wanted, and we’re happy with the end result. We plan to continue similar development methods in the future, with some tweaking to accommodate for what wrong this time – but it feels like we’re closing in on something without too many glaring issues! Thanks for reading.

Multiplayer Done Differently

Thanks to PS+, I’ve only recently played through Journey, and yes, it was every bit as amazing as I’d been led to believe. Not only were the world and the art incredible, but the multiplayer is phenomenal. If you haven’t heard much about it, play it for yourself first – it’s not worth reading my (incredible) post and having it spoiled for you. 1894874-997885_20120301_024

In Journey, players can either jump (and glide) or ‘sing’ with the press of a button. Singing is used to summon creatures of living cloth to help you, but it’s also used for the game’s best feature – the multiplayer.

Multiplayer in Journey is totally unique. You’re randomly paired with one or more players when you enter an area, and you can spend time travelling with them, though your only means of communication is by singing (nameplates aren’t displayed, so you can’t message them through PSN).

As you wordlessly travel and solve puzzles with strangers, you create a bizarrely powerful emotional bond. The incredible ending helps enormously, but it’s the journey itself that’s so memorable, and it astounds me that something so simple could have such a powerful emotional impact, and I don’t think I fully understand how it was accomplished.

Other games have handled multiplayer in interesting ways as well. There’s one in particular – unfortunately, I can’t remember it’s name or find it online! It was a flash game I played years ago. The graphics were shoddy, and it was extremely short, but it had an amazing payoff.

The game was focused on first-person exploration. Someone in your village had gone missing in a nearby mine, and it was your job to go find them. When you enter, the game lets you know there’s some seriously creepy shit going on. There are animal bones, strange occult symbols, the works.

Eventually, you run into a man covered in blood and holding a knife. You’re prompted to ask him three (pre-written) questions, and when you do, you get answers – though they’re sometimes ridiculous and baffling, depending on your luck (more on that in a second). You’re then given the choice to kill this person or let them go free.

As you progress, you eventually manage to get covered in animal blood and pick up a knife to defend yourself – or, you can, I believe it’s possible to not have that happen if you’re not an idiot, but I wouldn’t know. When you find the missing villager – who was killed in an accident – you run into someone on the way out, who asks you the same questions you asked the last crazy guy.

You’re free to type anything you like, and what you’ve typed is sent to the next person who plays the game. When that happens, you’re emailed the result – did they kill you, or show mercy?  Other than showing the power and importance of not immediately judging people, it’s a great multiplayer idea.

I’d like to talk more about this topic, and I may in my next post, as there are many more games to bring up – such as Demon’s Souls Dark Souls – but I’m out of time for now! Thanks for reading.

What makes a great game?

I love To the Moon. I always will. I have incredibly fond memories of playing it, though I’ve only ever run through it once. The story is unique, well paced and touching – I actually cried playing this game (a single manly tear).

But, is it a good game? I remember struggling through the beginning because of the awkward puzzles that were clearly forced onto the player. Luckily, these were scrapped halfway through, but that made them feel even more jarring and out of place.

It’s memorable, and the story is amazing, but I think it falls flat as a game. There’s little to no interaction, and what’s there is lacking, as all of the story is told through text. To the Moon would’ve likely worked better as a book or movie. Tothemoon02

It’s a tricky question, though. Games are the sum of all their parts – story, sound (which I forgot to mention was also fantastic in To the Moon), graphics, gameplay, etc. In this case, the story and audio shined so brightly that the rest didn’t matter, or at least, mattered less.

Does that make it a good game? Personally, yeah, I think it does. I think it’s a great game, with crappy gameplay. But, the story more than makes up for it.

On the flip side, we have one of my favourite series, Devil May Cry.

Devil-May-Cry-1-2

This is essentially the polar opposite of To the Moon. The story in Devil May Cry is, in a word, trash. The voice acting is horrendous, the story is cheesy beyond mortal comprehension and some of the character relationships are questionable at best.

To be fair, I’m being a bit harsh – the first game I think this is all true of, but in the sequels (DMC3 and DMC4 were the only sequels) they managed to play with their reputation a bit and run with a super-cheesy B grade vibe to great effect. It’s still something of an acquired taste, though, and many still don’t see any appeal to the series’ plot.

However, what all critics and audiences can agree on is that the gameplay is phenomenal. Without talking too much about it, DMC is all about the stylish combat – players are graded based on how stylishly they defeat demons, rather than how efficient they are, and the grades are more important than anything in the games. This means style is everything, and when the combat system is so deep and refined, even a single encounter can keep you occupied for hours as you practice and improve. On that note, the games are extremely unforgiving; at the time, they had a reputation similar to Dark Souls, if not as intense.

This is similar to To the Moon, in the sense that one part of the game rose so far above the rest to make the entire experience shine. Games aren’t unique in this sense, but they take this multifaceted critical approach to a new extreme. A movie can be expected to be (critically) shunned for shoddy camera work or a bad story, regardless of how good another factor happens to be.

With games, people tend to ignore certain faults in favour of others. Games vary so wildly that no two genres can be compared the same through a critical eye – imagine comparing the new Call of Duty to Limbo. They’re both games, right?

I realise that films are similar in some regards. It’s not easy to compare Her with The Avengers, even though Scarlett Johansson is in both. However, both can be criticised in similar ways, such as pace, cinematography and plot.

I know this post is rambling a bit, so I’ll just wrap it up – games are so different from one another that some don’t even feel like they’re a part of the same medium. People often get up in arms over scores (“this puzzle game received 79, but this action game received 97, *publication* is so *expletive*”) but the fact is that all games just aren’t comparable. No single thing makes a game great, except maybe your own experience, which is so objective it’s worthless in terms of critique.

But, that’s the only thing I’d consider to be the crux of a great game – a great experience. Whether it’s intense, sad, happy or simply fun, I believe that a memorable experience is the only sign of a game that’s done it’s job.

Great Games, Rough Edges

I’m an outspoken Metal Gear Solid fan for a reason – MGS makes the most of every mechanic, while being highly polished, unique and just generally well put together. It’s the same reason I’m a fan of Final Fantasy or the The Legend of Zelda – however, not all great games receive the love (or money) that these series do.

Some games I love despite that fact that they’re honestly pretty awful, such as Drakengard. However, this post is about games that are genuinely great, despite some (often extremely) rough edges.

First up is my go-to example when this sort of thing is brought up – Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines (the name doesn’t help).

vampire-the-masquerade-bloodlines

When you first boot this game up, you’ll notice that it’s kind of…not good. The opening cutscene is notoriously glitchy and hard to watch, and those kind of problems continue throughout. Animations are generally just bad, and there are some fairly serious glitches. Looking past that, though, The Masquerade is one of the best RPGs ever made.

The game begins with you selecting your ‘clan’, or type of vampire. This choice seriously affects your game, with one clan being forced to spend most of their time in the sewers and another that’s literally insane (it gets unique dialogue options, and unique conversations with inanimate objects).

Other than that, the options were great – it was a lot like the original Deus Ex in the sense that there were several options for any situation. The story was interesting, the characters memorable, and so on. It was just a genuinely great game tarnished with serious glitches and poor animations.

Another series I love that arguably has ‘rough edges’ is Monster Hunter. Now, I need to say upfront that the Monster Hunt series is polished to a mirror sheen, both in terms of animations and gameplay. However, I consider it “rough around the edges” because of the awfully high barrier of entry and poor tutorial. This is a game with serious depth, and it’s a huge issue that they drop the ball at the beginning.

Similarly, another game I love – and this one is actually quite great – is Dark Souls. However, I’ve always thought that Dark Souls drops the ball in a big way, and that’s explaining it’s own mechanics.

dark_souls_wallpaper_pictures_3046_high_quality

I get that a huge part of the series is about building community, and one way in which it does this is by keeping things vague. Communities gather as they figure out how mechanics work and slowly piece it all together, and that’s great – what isn’t great is finding out that the reason this already difficult game is nearly impossible is because you’ve made a terrible character. This is compounded by the fact that the game never actually explains major mechanics like weapon or element scaling – this stuff is super important for building a decent character, but you have to look online to find it.

Some wouldn’t define that as “rough around the edges”, but I think it’s a major enough problem to be included. The entire series suffers for this, though Dark Souls 2 included a way to change your character’s stats later in the game, all it took was an explanation at some point to fix it. Whether or not the community building was worth the obscurity is up to you.

Games sans Graphics

If you’re reading my blog, it’s no surprise to you that almost every game has graphics in some form – images that comprise the game world (if this is a surprise, the rest of the post won’t make much sense). Graphics are every bit as essential to games as vision is to the real world, which conversely means that it’s very possible to live without it.

The most obvious example would be text-based games, such as Zork. In these games, players are presented with text that describe their surroundings, like in a book. Then they type a command – such as ‘Eat beans’ or ‘Look east’ – to perform that action.

Zork_I_box_art

However, some may still consider these to be games with graphics. Pretty crappy graphics, sure, but graphics all the same. I think it’s arguable, but in my opinion, they still fall under games without graphics. These games have potentially limitless scale, as they’re only bound by text, which can be written much more quickly than an environment can be modeled.

They also allow many options. Typically, if a game had a can of beans, you’d only have maybe two options max (eat or drop). In a text based game the player is much more free to experiment – want to try and fuse your soul to these beans? Try it! Depending on the game, it may work (dibs on the beansoul idea if it hasn’t been done, though).

Another example of games without graphics are physical games, such as any and all card games, or something like the unfortunately named ‘Atari Touch Me’.

ET_Atari

No thanks, Atari

The Touch Me was a physical game, where blocks would light up and play a sound. Players then hit these blocks in the same order that they lit up previously – it was like any number of those crappy memory games you’ve seen throughout a thousand games before. Technically, though, it had no graphics, and was actually blind-accessible; which is great!

Not many games are accessible to the vision impaired, and luckily for them accessible games other than the ‘Touch Me’ exist – mostly in the form of “audio only” games.

In-game screenshot

In-game screenshot

As the name suggests, these are games that are comprised entirely of audio, often with no visuals whatsoever, though some may include basic unimportant visuals, such as a screensaver desktop. While I’m not a huge fan of audio-only games because I’ve played literally zero of them, I’ve done some initial research and found something I consider a little unfortunate.

Most of the characters in these games are blind – and that’s okay, right? There should be some justification for the player not being able to see, and there’s nothing wrong with blind characters, so it’s a win-win. What’s less great is that they’re almost all horror games, and the protagonists blindness is often the reason they’re scary.

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m sure blindness can be scary as hell, especially if it’s a recent occurrence. But it seems to me that plenty of blind people lead completely fulfilling lives, and boiling them down to “scared only because they can’t see” in every game (and the only games) targeted specifically towards people with vision impairments doesn’t seem like it’s spreading a super positive message. Not all audio-only games are like this – such as Three Monkeys – but the vast majority seem to be.

Graphics are an important part of gaming. Part of me doesn’t like to say that, since I often go back through Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy IX or much older games, such as Super Mario Bros or even Space Invaders, but all of these examples were trying their best at graphics when they were released (to varying degrees of success).

"Sets a new paradigm for environmental detail, character design, and special effects." - IGN

“Sets a new paradigm for environmental detail, character design, and special effects.” – IGN. 

Graphics can tell their own stories, through environments or props. Graphics can give form to concepts that are either impossible or much harder to achieve through text – especially in the case of exploring environments or solving puzzles. Graphics are also a serious money-maker when it comes to trailers and screenshots. However, graphics aren’t necessary, and I’d love to see more games designed to be accessible to the blind, both because I think everyone should enjoy an unhealthy amount of games and because it’s an interesting design challenge.

On the Fall of Arcade Games

Many people have fond memories of arcades – dimly lit, stinky and full of yelling. It was like going to a nightclub, but the only one popping pills was Pac-Man.

Why, then, have arcades seemingly dropped from popularity in recent years? The obvious answer is that home consoles have become more popular than ever – more than that, everyone has access to the internet, and even the cheapest of modern phones are as powerful as a lot of arcade machines.

And in this case, I think the most obvious answer is spot on. There are other contributing factors – arcade machines are very expensive to build, and won’t see a return on that investment for a long time if at all – but home consoles seem to be the biggest factor.

video-arcade-meme

Now, at 23, I’m a little young to be talking about arcades. I never got to experience them in all their glory – I grew up with Mortal Kombat on a SNES (arguably not the healthiest game to grow up with), not in an arcade. I spent plenty of time at LANs growing up, and I imagine the experience is similar. Sitting around with your friends, playing games, consuming obscene amounts of sugar and caffeine – it’s great.

But the reason I grew up with LANs instead of arcades is because we were having a very similar experience without as much cost or effort. It’s true that arcades were a unique experience and I’m sure were a lot of fun to visit with your friends (or even with strangers), but having a PC or console at home that provides the same service at a fraction of the cost (eventually) is simply too amazing.

I think it’s a bit like pirating movies. Nobody rents movies any more, because if they’re not interested in buying it piracy is simply more accessible than ranting. It’s not even about the cost in this case, but convenience. Travelling to arcades is swell, but when you can have your friend/s come over to your place and do the same thing (with at least one party not spending any money) it’s pretty clear why arcades have dropped in popularity.

lazy-gamer

You can’t get away with this in an arcade

It’s interesting how arcades affected game design, though. The most obvious example is difficulty – arcade games were designed to be extremely difficult, so players would continue to fork out money every time they died in order to continue playing. This continued into the earlier console games, likely because many of early home games were direct arcade ports (such as Mortal Kombat). This meant that very popular games were also very difficult, and it took quite a while for the difficulty of games to move away into what we have today.

Arcade games are an essential part of gaming history, and I don’t think they’ll ever go away completely – but they’ve well and truly taken a backseat to home gaming, for better or worse.