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Game Design

It’s been a bit of a weird month. I haven’t worked deeply on much, but made a lot of slight progress on different things, and have also made some substantial revisions to the game design.

Well, first things first, I made this piece of background art:

I like how this one turned out, but I also need to make an alternate version of it for a special effect I have planned and that one is proving to be a bit difficult. A lot of these background images are almost technical problems, where I need to figure out a way to depict the idea I have in my head without getting bogged down for hours and hours, and also to depict an area that makes some sense relative to the actual navigable portion of terrain the game takes place in. This background already has taken far more time than any of the others, and the potential for an even more detailed and time-consuming version has me a bit concerned, so I’m trying to figure out a clever way to approach it..

With these concerns in mind, I decided to drop the background work for a bit and work on some animations. I began creating animations for one of the other early-game enemies, the Crawler:

This is one of very few enemies in the game what does damage on contact rather than having to do a particular attack, and is more or less completely unaggressive and minds its own business – an obstacle as much as an enemy, really. The animations aren’t quite complete yet, with the turn animation in particular being a bit of a troublesome obstacle, but it’s coming along. Once this and the mask enemy are complete, there’s only one more enemy type planned for the first couple areas of the game, so I’ll have pretty much everything I need in place to finish building out the early areas. I also spent some time building out some of the animations I’ll need for the other variations on the mask enemy, such as the stone throwing and spear throwing types, but nothing finished as of yet.

There were some other minor side-lines – a system for making it possible to modify a value from multiple locations without overwriting each other’s modifications, building a special ‘alternate reality’ effect for the second area, roughing out some of the level designs… near the end of the month, though, I realized, or perhaps merely acknowledged, a number of substantial design flaws that were threatening to undermine the game. These had to do with the upgrades I had planned, when you were likely to find them in the game, and how useful and interesting they would be. The biggest problem that emerged was that I had come up with the idea of this attack using the sling and, when I thought about how it would feel in action, I realized it was completely unsatisfactory. Essentially I was planning this whole ability which didn’t really have any role in what the player was doing – it would be the only ranged attack available, sure, but in a game where ranged attacks weren’t really necessary to succeed, and it would totally clutter up the control system.

I spent a few days thinking about this, and eventually came up with a whole new system, with a set of 4 elemental attacks and alternate forms of each attack, along with a system of special attack ‘charges’ that get restored whenever the player gets hit. I think this is a pretty good idea! But it also presents a lot of issues with, again, when the player finds upgrades and what role those upgrades play in the overall flow of the game. I’m still not 100% there with this design, but the missing pieces will probably be small things that I can fit into place as I go rather than massive gaping holes that I need to invent whole new game systems to fill.

Since then, I’ve just been reworking the way attacks are programmed to make room for this system. The new attack system is far more flexible than before, though there are probably still some ways I could improve it that I may have to consider.

This month will probably have more work on creating enemy animations, a little bit more design work figuring out what the flow of upgrades and specific properties of special attacks will be (along with whether I want to have, say, special objects that the player can interact with using said special attacks), and perhaps laying the groundwork for creating the special attacks themselves – though they are mostly a low priority for a moment, since most of them are planned to be found later in the game than the first chapter, which is where I am currently focusing my development effort. If I don’t feel like that stuff then creating assets and level details for the first couple areas, finishing the mentioned background image, or building improving tilesets are also strong possibilities for productive work to do next.

 

For a long time I didn’t like to use a microphone while playing games. I’m still not thrilled about the idea of talking into my computer while playing with strangers, but I’ve gotten used to the concept enough to be comfortable playing with friends. It adds a lot: It’s fun hanging out with people that way and, obviously, you can exchange information much more quickly and effectively when you’re using a microphone, when you can speak directly to teammates and they to you. However, less obviously, there are subtle things you start to miss out on.

The most immediate thing you stop noticing as much is the in-game sound. Normally, when playing a game with strong sound design, audio is one of the most important channels of information you have. You can hear where nearby opponents are, who’s attacking and in what direction. You can hear someone switching weapons, someone sneaking up on you, someone suddenly stopping, turning, jumping – or, when you notice something making a loud noise, you can use that sound to conceal your own footsteps or attacks. This aspect of the game is not, of course, entirely removed from play by the introduction of voice chat, but an active voice chat, especially one you’re listening to for information, by necessity forces these valuable audio cues to recede – not only makes it harder for the ears to hear these sounds, but also for the mind to track them, interpret them, evaluate them.

It’s not surprising that you stop being able to perceive audio information as readily. What is, perhaps, more surprising is that certain kinds of visual information stop being easily interpreted as well. For instance, when you’re playing Left 4 Dead, particularly as the infected(zombie) team, you interpret your teammates intentions by the positions they take. A hunter climbing up to a roof is probably intending to pounce from above at the next choke point, while a smoker setting up underneath a walkway is probably looking to grab someone and pull them down. Where your teammates move, how your teammates move, and where they’re facing all tells you what they intend. However, this information becomes much less important if they can just tell you what they intend. Neither form of information is perfect: Intentions shift, things fail to be communicated or are miscommunicated – and, in the end, in the vast majority of circumstances, the microphone becomes redundant. In a few cases voice communications can even be misleading – true, in practice there will probably be fewer circumstances where voice communications are confusing than where the absence of mics will confuse or mislead, but still something is lost, even as something is gained.

The extent of non-verbal communication available to us in games is subtly remarkable. Many games don’t have any explicit non-verbal communication – no waving, beckoning, bowing, dancing… Nothing. Still the underlying concepts of these motions are conveyed through the context of the game’s normal movement, through looking at something, shaking your view up or down, crouching and jumping and leaning. It’s startling, sometimes, noticing how much we come to inhabit these virtual bodies, the same way a car becomes an extension of ourselves, its grace and speed becomes our own, and without thinking we signal our vehicular intentions by little boosts of speed and turns, turn signals and horn beeps, in a delicate and potentially lethally dangerous cooperative dance with other motorists.

But we lose some of that, when we talk. In cars that loss can be dangerous – which is why we frown on cell phone usage while driving – but in games it’s, at worst, mildly saddening. Even the most wonderful gifts carry subtle and unforeseen costs and consequences.

Anyone who’s been playing games for a while has probably, by now, encountered the concept of experience points and leveling up in a number of different contexts. I find nowadays that I’m enjoying this design trope less, that I’m less comfortable with gaining experience and leveling up, than I used to be – and I think that’s partially a slow shift in who I am, and what I value in games, and how I see the world, but also represents a shift in how games use exp systems and what the priorities are that lay behind that usage.

Of course, the satisfaction is still there. Every moment, every action, making you better, stronger, more effective – intoxicating, really. Becoming learned without learning, becoming strong without exercising, discovering one day that, to your surprise, you know kung fu. How delightful, to feel we have earned our power fantasies, not through the specifics of actual work done to develop a particular skill or capability, but through the application of genericized soylent work product. Plenty has been said about and against this aspect of unearned reward – and, indeed, part of what divests my interest in experience systems is that I’ve come to find it much more rewarding when a game demands I actually practice and learn rather than merely grind. In this context, however, what interests me more, what has increasingly begun to unnerve me, is the form of that reward.

It’s strange, and almost a kind of body horror, to find yourself slowly and inexorably becoming a more effective killing machine. RPGs have had many kinds of leveling systems, and in the past most of them allowed you some degree of control. Sure, the end result was usually to make you more effective at fighting, but you at least chose how and why – and, though I never thought about it much at the time, you also chose whether to level at all. You could, if you’d rather, remain exactly who you always were – you could, if you chose, remain weak. This option is not available to us in most games with leveling systems: Now we level up the way we breathe, rather than the way we eat.

And, man, it kills me that everything I write goes back to Dark Souls, but that’s a game where you get to make that choice. And, man, it also kills me that everything I write goes back to Undertale, but that’s a game that actually explores the subtle horrors that are implied by experience systems. Having played these two games, it’s hard to ease myself back into the classic experience of classic experience points without feeling a bit of discomfort.

Maybe, though, this is the realer system. We change, uncontrollably. We go through puberty, become physically stronger whether we want to or not, learn things we were happier not knowing. Experience accumulates, and the numbers that describe us go up and down, mostly up at first and then mostly down as they describe our arc. The lie of the exp system is that it pretends we always become better and more capable, which is never true. Every moment something is gained, yes – every moment, as well, something is lost, and we change. We do charge forward, uncontrollably, but we never level up.

Most games are power fantasies. It would be nice, perhaps, if games focused on providing more diverse and interesting experiences, but, still, there’s nothing wrong with a good power fantasy… right? However, sometimes creating that fantasy of capability involves undermining the actual ability for the player to express their personal competence. Sometimes we create a fantasy that no longer has a place for the player.

Let’s look at level-up systems for a moment. Originally, in the Pen and Paper role playing games where they originated, they were a way to create a sensation of character growth and progress, increasing their agency within the world created by the dungeon master (sometimes to the DM’s dismay). Later, in video game RPGs, they maintained the sensation of growth but without really adding to the player’s agency, since they were still constrained to the sandboxes the developers had devised for the player. Later still, in MMORPGs, levels became a way to restrict the player, hiding game content behind challenges that were beyond them and drip-feeding that content to the player as they slowly grinded up.

All of the above may seem similar in concept and in practice, but the slight differences – from having challenges constructed for your un-mighty character, to having challenges constructed to funnel your un-mighty character into becoming mighty, to challenges constructed to keep you busy until might was, inevitably, in the due course of things achieved, end up creating a vastly different experience. The difference is in the goal that is presented. In the classic pen and paper RPG, the goal is to complete the adventure: Experience and treasure are things you accumulate along the way to ensure that you are prepared for a bigger better adventure next time, but the current adventure is always your primary concern. In the classic video game RPG, the goal is completing the grand adventure, ensuring that you tackle the game’s challenges in the proper order to complete the quest that is the game. In most MMORPGs, the goal is to get to the maximum level, which is where the real game starts since you’re finally at a high enough level to hang out with the big kids. Now, once you actually reach that level there are other goals that are dangled for you – PvP arenas, high-level dungeons, mini-games, and so forth, but these are mostly gated behind reaching that maximum level.

We’ve created a collision between min-maxing mentality of creating the best adventurer that can do the best adventures against the role-playing mentality of trying to create the most interesting adventurer that can have the most interesting adventures – and, sadly, and the former has decisively won. Higher level characters are more powerful than low-level characters – therefore you should always prefer having a high level character – therefore any low-level game content is, by definition, there to be rushed through as fast as possible so you can get to the biggest, therefore most impressive, and therefore best, part of the game.

It’s an experience that’s difficult for me to get excited about. To me, becoming strong is far more interesting than being strong, doing important things is more worthwhile than being an important person. Thus, what should be the most interesting part of the game, the story of how your hero became heroic, becomes a rote exercise, becomes an extended tutorial. But what is the appeal of ultimate power, when it comes to playing a game? It’s much harder to make a good Superman game than it is to make a good Batman game, but MMORPGs presume that we’d rather play Superman than Batman.

It’s saddening that, in a genre full of so many possibilities, this is what has become the industry standard. Why have leveling at all? Why have a journey to reach mastery if all that happens on that journey is trivial and unimportant? If the real story of the game is about the struggles of demi-gods, why even bother making the player chew through a 50 hour preamble about the birth of those demi-gods? In the end, we have a genre of games which are all uncomfortable compromises between the many things they are assumed to be, paying tribute to all and committing to none.

Games, as a medium, have been rediscovering the art of the secret, of the hidden. For a while, around the mid ’00s, it was incredibly rare for games to be anything beyond just what they appeared to be – and no more. The major studios didn’t want to pay for work that wouldn’t go directly into selling a game on day 1, and smaller indie games hadn’t really emerged into the market enough to fill the void left behind. Everything was exactly as it looked like. Surprise was dead.

It wasn’t just cowardice that made games so boring and averse to surprise: A substantial problem emerges when you make a game not what it appears to be, which is that, naturally, it no longer appears to be what it is. The problem with hidden depths is that they’re hidden, and many people who would love to explore those depths will never know there is anything to be explored. How can you sell a game like that?

Fortunately times have changed. Now that there’s a scale for game development below the nine digit development cost, we have a lot more leeway to make games that play with expectations. There’s room now for games to be strange and surprising, for them to have big secrets or sudden shifts.

One of the games most well-known for not being what it appears to be is Frog Fractions – and, at this point, if you have any interest in the idea of secrets and discovery in games and haven’t played Frog Fractions, now might be a good time to check it out Frog Fractions is, to first appearances, an educational game – this is, of course, just a facade. Underneath the surface, Frog Fractions becomes a series of strange, divergent mini-games that tell a surreal story about a frog’s adventures through space, with detours for a fanciful description of the invention of boxing and an exploration of the economics of bug pornography. One of the criticisms of Frog Fractions is that it fails to maintain plausibility as an educational game, being obviously absurd and lacking in educational value from the first moment. How, though, could this problem be fixed? This absurdity is necessary in order to signal that there’s something off about the situation, something to be uncovered, something to be found.

So we find we run into the same problem as before: How can you sell a game that is other than it appears to be? Not just in the sense of getting people to pay money, but even just getting people to pay enough attention to actually see the game for what it is. Holding something in reserve is an act of tremendous confidence as an artist, because it necessitates withholding the most special and exciting aspects of your project so that they can emerge later. Yet, still, you must have some way of signaling that something has been withheld, that something is hidden beneath, otherwise your audience continues sailing along the surface, unaware that anything unknown might hide within the depths.

A number of strategies seem to have emerged. Frog Fractions, as mentioned, is just a little bit too absurd, too out there to be quite what it appears to be. Dark Souls has messages from players scattered around, ensuring that those hidden things which a few players stumble across by pure chance can be found by other less observant or lucky players. Games like Axiom Verge, Anodyne, and Problem Attic signal that there’s something off in the world through the symbolism of video game glitches. Other games, such as Candy Box, just ask you to spend enough time with the game that the weirder elements of it will eventually become apparent to you just through exposure. Undertale uses all of these tricks to tell a stranger, scarier, and sadder story than it at first appears to.

Secrets are wonderful, but the only secrets we know are the ones we find – others fade away, merge into the vast sea of things we don’t know and never will.. It doesn’t help anyone if we squirrel around, hoarding nuts for the winter, only to forget where they have been buried and have all our work come to nothing.

They say whatever fails to kill you makes you stronger. Everyone knows it’s a lie, but we say it anyway because we so wish it were true. There are probably more accurate proverbs we could introduce: “Whatever makes you stronger is also probably slowly killing you”, or “regardless of how strong you are you will definitely die one day” – somehow these alternative sayings have never caught on. So, when we make games, we tend to make them so that whatever fails to kill you makes you stronger. There is no wound that cannot be healed, no trauma that cannot be resolved. It is a story of becoming bigger and better, stronger and healthier, until we inevitably become too great to be stymied by the pathetic obstacles that remain.

We become the strong, crushing the weak. You know: A hero.

The body is a machine. We can do the best we can to keep it in running order, but many of the parts don’t get replaced. There’s no way to fight each grain of sand that might get in the gears. You can exercise and eat right, and probably those will help but also you might get hit by a car or poisoned by a bad batch of kale. On some level we all understand this. However, that’s not how we make our art: We make art in which those who work hard succeed, and those who don’t fail, because no one wants to see the heroine die because she slipped in the shower, and no one wants to play a game where the threats of monsters and enemy soldiers are eclipsed by the terror of heart disease – or, at least, so goes the popular wisdom of the marketers

Nevertheless it remains a lie.

We want to believe it so badly – so badly that we vote for it, vote for the good to be rewarded and the bad to be punished, where ‘good’ is defined as those who have already been rewarded and ‘bad’ is defined as those who have already been punished. The one thing we could do to really protect ourselves from the stray grains of sand is to create support networks for those whose gears have been jammed – but we don’t, because to do so would be to admit the terrifying fact that whatever fails to kill you will, eventually, one way or another, still see you dead.

But how can we acknowledge this in our work and still make art that is enjoyable? Art that people want to experience?

Perhaps the shift in what people want to experience has already begun. As I discussed last week, in PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS much of your fate is left up to chance and happenstance – and all the more so since right now the game is full of weird bugs which make things turn out even more unexpectedly. No, you probably weren’t supposed to randomly take fall damage walking off that 2-foot high step, but as things stand it makes an adequate stand-in for the accidental misstep and sprained ankle that could easily claim a life in a combat situation.

Or occasionally more exotic scenarios

Maybe we don’t need to be subject to entropy in quite that extreme a fashion, though. Maybe, rather than being constantly menaced by a bevy of invisible health risks, as we are each day in real life, it could be enough just to depict even the most mundane of actions as having consequences – that is, potentially negative consequences, of having costs as well as benefits. There are games like that around, too: In the Princess Maker games, you’re tasked with raising a child, and do so by way of creating a schedule for her to go through each week. It becomes a balancing act: Every action has a cost, where work makes her stronger and earns her money, relaxation becomes necessary to maintain her health and happiness, and study and practice are costly but provide experience that’s impossible to acquire elsewhere. The game ends when she becomes old enough to set out on her own, and depending on the particular balance of skills and attitudes you have imparted on her she finds different paths in life.

It’s just so strange to have a game where the things you gain come at a cost, where you cannot become the best at everything in every way. At least, not in one lifetime.

“We are not dead yet, so we can still become stronger” – perhaps that would be a better saying. The hard part is deciding how to develop that strength – and to know, hopefully before it’s too late, the cost at which it may come.

PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS is a very silly name for a very strange game. The oddness of this game isn’t apparent at first: It looks and sounds like the most generic first person shooter ever made, where a hundred players are dropped into an island arena scattered with weapons and whoever manages to be the last person (or group) standing wins. PUBG is only the latest of what seems to be a burgeoning genre of battle royale games, and improves upon its predecessors by consolidating and simplifying boring mechanics while adding a lot of interesting and (sometimes) useful items to find, along with a few choice subtle nods to realism that mostly add new ways for things to go hilariously wrong.

None of this sounds strange, of course. No, what makes this game strange is that it’s incredibly popular while being blatantly, overtly unfair. This is so interesting to me because the idea of a game like this being successful even a few years ago is unimaginable to me: A game with the trappings of a hard core competitive tactical shooter, where skill can frequently be overcome by dumb luck – who would possibly want such a game? But now people do want it, and I wonder about what has shifted to make this something that we crave.

What’s changed, I suspect, is that people no longer expect fairness. PUBG feels right: It combines skill and luck in a way that feels real in a way that most shooters with more realistic graphics don’t – since most of those games are compelled to hold true to certain game design ideals of skill-based meritocracy. In the battlegrounds, finding good loot early on rolls into ‘finding’ better loot later, as you can easily kill less well-equipped opponents and take theirs. However, clever play can easily make up for an equipment disadvantage, and a well-timed ambush will easily leave an opposing team dead and their resources at your disposal. And yet, as the playable space is closed off, even if you have all these advantages, if you just so happen to be in a bad location you’re still at a huge disadvantage. Resources, skill, and luck: You usually need all three to survive.

It sounds awfully familiar.

It makes sense that it’s a game we crave now. It makes sense to model the gaps and myths of meritocracy, to reify this growing suspicion that the world isn’t fair and all we can do is our best and hope that it’s enough. It feels like we’re playing paintball themed around the collapse of capitalistic ideology – made all the more poignant by the game environments themselves being themed around soviet ruins. And, in the end, whether we win or lose, we’re given a few virtual coins – which we can use on a new coat or pair of shoes, to take away the sting of losing, over and over and over.

Which, too, seems familiar.

To play PUBG is to resign oneself to dying over and over and over again. Even very skilled and experienced players seldom can manage better than a 10% victory rate. We try to do the best we can, and give ourselves to fate.

And, if we can spend time with friends while we do so, so much the better.