Monday, June 24, 2013

Theming and Gameplay Mechanics

Themes and gameplay are both important parts of game design, and it's kinda sad to see how easily developers will just throw them in without any thought given to how they will work together. If you followed me on twitter a few months back, I'm sure you heard my rambling on Bioshock Infinite. Now, Infinite is a good game, and can even be considered a great game to some, but to me... it felt, unguided.

Nothing says utopia like THIS GUN.

The story aspects in the game blew me away. I couldn't believe how much I got invested in this new world, and many of the characters in the game... and then how quickly I could get sucked back out once I walked into another shooting section. You see, Bioshock Infinite is a shooter. Shooters are popular. Frat guys like shooters. Ergo, Bioshock Infinite is a shooter. So you'll quite often come upon sections of the game that forces the story to come to a complete stop so that you can kill a set number of hard-working police officers who think you are trying to destroy the society of their town... which you do. (But don't worry, the game says they are kinda racist, so its ok to shoot them.)

This leads to a complete disconnect in the game from the story. Early on in the game, your partner Elizabeth sees you kill people for the first time, and runs off horrified at the monster you seem to be. I saw this part and thought the game would use this moment to show us the consequences of our actions, and that maybe the violence should be avoided for the greater good. Instead, after a quick moment where she's basically told "No no no, it's OK to kill these guys", she is now suddenly completely fine with it, and begins to help you find ammo to kill hundreds of more policemen with.

Also this thing... killed a few of them too...

Theming and gameplay MUST work together if you want the player to be invested. Yes, the shooting sections were fun and well put together. But why did we need to kill so so so many guards? Because THAT'S what the gameplay was. Because Frat boys buy shooters and I've said this all already.

Let's now compare it to, say, Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga. Mario and Luigi is a "Comedy RPG Adventure". But to me, the key word there is Comedy. Nintendo didn't just throw in some witty writing and let that be it. They looked at comedy as a design philosophy, and incorporated it into EVERY part of the game. True, the writing of this game is indeed quite funny. I've found myself laughing endlessly by the lines of Fawful especially. But that isn't where the comedy ends. Comedy is embedded into every facet of the game. From character design, to even gameplay mechanics.

You'd be surprised how hard it is to find screenshots of this game...

Lets take a look at the influences just on the surface: Aka the Story. Mario and Luigi must travel to the neighboring BeanBean Kingdom to recover Princess Peach's voice. Already we're starting to see how the concept of comedy is already starting to impact the story. Peach's voice is replaced by a strange language that causes comical explosions, and they have to recover her normal voice quickly before she blows up the kingdom. They've now introduced us to the power and importance of speech in this game, and using comedy to do so.

From here we're introduced to some of the crazier denizens on the Bean Bean Kingdom including our two main villains, Cackletta and Fawful. You can already see that their names are derived from the words Cackle and Guffaw, respectively. This entire world and all of it's citizens are based around comedy including locations like WooHoo University and Chateau de Chucklehuck.

In fact, when thinking of Chuckola Cola, it's kinda impressive the way Nintendo filled this game with Burp and Fart jokes without actually making a single one. Think of the all the references to beans. The main products sold are Cola and Coffee. All of these things which can provide a volital reaction when abused.

Luigi being a rebel with his striped socks.

Now, lets look at the way the brothers themselves. In fact if you think about the subtitle for the game, "Superstar Saga", it should let you in on some of the underlying humor of the game. When Mario and Luigi arrive in this new land, they quickly discover they are quite popular. Well, Mario is anyways. Luigi is just kinda known as that Green guy hanging around Mario. He is often ignored and abused, letting him slowly begin to develop his own character arc. Halfway through the game, Mario is given a poison mushroom, meaning poor, cowardly Luigi must muster up courage to rescue his brother. Here, we see Luigi get a miniature, comedic version of the Hero's Journey, that involves not a small amount of brainwashing. All of this is accented by the fact that Luigi can still only mime his way through conversations.

Mario and Luigi bring us to the main part where we see comedy affect design: The gameplay itself. Now, as a Mario RPG, the series uses turn based battles with a slight twist of being able to dodge attacks or increase damage by pressing buttons at the right time. Standard stuff. But now, the attacks have a more comedic take on them. Think about the various Brother attacks. These team ups feature Mario and Luigi doing things like smashing the other brothers bouncing the attacks back and forth like a game of tennis, and using each other as props to get more damage.

Even the concept of the turn based battles work within the game, as it shows off how talented the brothers are at attacking, and setting it up as if it was a performance, a concept later run with to its full extent with Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door. Superstar Saga isn't the only game to master this. I can think of a great recent example: The Walking Dead. Yes, you will do some shooting in this game, but it comes at awkward times, without much warning, and isn't set up so that you can somehow master it. You are just a survivor in the apocalypse, and so the game treats you as such.

Well, THIS motel isn't gonna be getting a great rating on Travelocity...

Shooters can do this too. Think of Halo and Gears of War. Both take the concept of shooting and make sure it fits with the theme. You're at war, whether you are a Super Soldier Spartan, or an ex-soldier who is fighting to survive with the last of humanity. Booker is a mercenary, yes, but one that can decimate hundreds of people without anyone bothering to give him a second glance afterwards? Why do people not panic at this mad man. Why is no one else using these vigors to fight him, except those 2 types of people who rarely show up?

Theming and gameplay must work together if your game is to be great, not simply thrown in together because both are interesting on their own, so you hope they just might work in the same game.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Why the Wii U isn't worth buying at launch.

I really want to be excited for the Wii U, but it has some problems they just are not wanting to face. Yes, more traditional controls are nice, but no one can really agree on which should be the main way to play. The two biggest games on the Wii U so far (New Super Mario Bros. U and Pikmin 3) have very little use of the new controller. Hell, Nintendo even tells you to use the Wii Remote over the new gamepad. And if you look at the big games released on the Wii, most of them involved the Wii's motion controls as little as possible (minus the Zelda games, but they make these controllers FOR the Zelda team).

The Wii controller was LITERALLY designed for this game... which took 5 years to be released.
Not to mention the fact that Nintendo can't figure out how to appeal to two audiences. They want Hardcore gamers and Casual gamers, but they keep trying to sell them the same things. NintendoLand is a complete mess in tone! The gameplay is too confusing for casuals, and no where near as accessible as Wii Sports was. The themes are based on franchises that only the hardcore players really care about. Likewise, the games are too simple and shallow for any hardcore player to give them more then 5 minutes of their game time.

Try convincing me that THIS is gonna go over better with CASUAL gamers than Wii Bowling.
And don't forget the fact that Nintendo just CANNOT learn their lesson about releasing better games in the launch window. This is why the 3DS sales plummeted, and you think they would have remembered that, considering how much it cost them. And yet, there are only two "big" Nintendo games being released, and Pikmin 3 was delayed from launch. New Super Mario Bros. U is the farthest thing from new, has no real "important" use of the Wii U Gamepad, and does nothing to show off the "high-def" graphics they are trying desperately to please us with. Not to mention they don't even give us any info on future games, or at least something to reassure people that it will get better. If they had put out some fake trailers for Smash Bros. and Zelda (both of which are known to be in development), they would have gotten better reactions than that terrible 30 minute NintendoLand preview at E3, and would have gotten the hardcore fanbase pumped for the future.

Does this look fun to you? It does?! Too bad, you get to play a crappy F-Zero minigame.
The Wii U is going to have great games. It's Nintendo; No matter what crazy controller they think up, or twist they try to add in, the actual developers are gonna keep making the same games we love to play. But until those games ACTUALLY come out, I can't see any reason to buy this. It will end up like the 3DS did for the first year... sitting around on shelves waiting for the ACTUAL interesting games to be released.

Still waiting on this game... sigh....

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Why Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX is a good sign of things to come.

Those who know me, know that I am obsessed with this game series, and if you have played it, you know why. Engaging characters, fascinating storylines (though they can be muddled), and a childlike sense of wonder thanks to the Disney worlds and their accurate portrayals... well, minus the humor. Square Enix butchers the classic jokes from the original movies.... just butchers...

The problem over the last few years is that Square Enix has been dangling a distant "Kingdom Hearts 3" carrot over people's head, constantly remind them that it is coming... after some other games they make. After this last game, they told us that the next new game in the series would be the fabled Kingdom Hearts 3... and they didn't lie. The next NEW game... now they are re-releasing the originals in HD.

I actually could tell this was coming, and I am quite happy. I'd like them all put on one system to make things simpler, though still not that simpler. They are putting Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix (The Japanese extended cut of the first game) and Re:Chain of Memories (The 3D Graphics remake of the GameBoy Advance game) on the disk, as well as remastering all the cutscenes from 358/2 Days (The DS game with the weirdest name in the series so far, just beating out Dream Drop Distance). Some may be confused about why they are not putting the whole 358/2 Days game in the remix, but to me... it now only makes sense, but it tells me about the future of the series.

That's right... I'm psychic now. Observe:

Kingdom Hearts 1 and Re:Chain were both PS2 games, and upgrading their visuals would not be as difficult as 358/2 Days' visuals would be to convert. 358/2 Days graphics were designed for the DS, and are of far worse quality. In addition to working out the graphics, they have to revise the gameplay since it included touch screen gaming. Because they don't want to spend the time on this, it tells me two things.

The first thing is that there will be a Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 ReMIX if the first ReMIX sells well. It also means the will have Kingdom Hearts 2: Final Mix and Birth By Sleep: Final Mix on the disk remastered, because they have PS2 level graphics. Meanwhile, they will remaster the cutscenes from Re:Coded for the DS. More than likely, they won't include Dream Drop Distance. The game uses the touch screen alot, so it would require more time to reprogram. They might could include the cutscenes, but since Dream Drop Distance is a new release, they may not want to hurt it's 3DS sales. That one is up in the air at the moment.

The second thing I can see is that because they are trying to put out these remixes quickly, they are getting ready to unveil Kingdom Hearts 3 on the PS3. This way they can have the entire story on one console, similar to how God of War did.

So good news, Kingdom Hearts fans! The wait is about over!


Thursday, June 21, 2012

Kirby has a happier anniversary than Mario, Link, and Samus combined!

In the flurry of Nintendo news that happened tonight (alot more than I have even posted about), some information slipped in about a Kirby Anniversary game coming to the Wii. The best part is that unlike the Mario Anniversary game, they put more than 20 minutes effort into this.

Rather than just copy a compilation games (Like Super Mario All Stars), Nintendo is putting 6 different Kirby games from different systems on here, including Kirby 64. It also comes with alot of extra features, like episodes of the awesome cartoon series, plus the usual soundtrack and behind the scenes info.

It is surprising how much more effort they put into this compared to it's Big Three. Mario got a $10 game sold for $30, Zelda got a concert, but no game, and they just plain forgot about the Metroid anniversary.

Then again, I guess I can't blame them for downplaying Samus from the media after... ...

Dark times indeed....

Namco is creating the next Smash Bros. game, and a bigger 3DS is on the way!

UPDATE: I forgot to mention, if anyone didn't know already, that the new Smash Bros. game will be on BOTH the Wii U and the 3DS. I'll be happy to have some Smash Bros. on the go and at home!
Well, I can't say I expected this.

Tonight, Nintendo held a conference where they announced a few big things, the first of which is that Namco Bandai is working with the Nintendo to create the next Smash Bros. game. This sounds like it could go either way, but I am happy about it. This means (hopefully) that these two fantastic things might happen:

  1. The game will be finished sometime in our life cycle. Brawl took a ridiculous amount of time to finish, and even then it had problems with balance and too many clone characters. Hopefully Namco joining up means they will be working overtime to get this game out sooner.
  2. Namco could bring along some of it's own characters to the fun. I will be truly shocked if Pac-Man isn't featured in the game.
Also, Nintendo unveiled a new version of the 3DS called the 3DS XL!

That looks roughly the size of a George Foreman grill.

The screens are each roughly 90% bigger than the normal version. This will be a welcome addition to me, even if that will never fit in my jeans.

I do however worry that this is further proof that Nintendo is dropping the ball. Both of these would have been huge announcements for E3, so why did we hear about them weeks later? Plus, why doesn't this new 3DS have a second control pad? This would have been the best time to fix that issue! Not to mention, because of the size of it, the Control Pad Pro attachment won't fit on it now! This seems like a no brainer!

I still can't figure out why Nintendo would wait to unveil all this information at E3, but that is their loss! Either way, I'm still gonna play the hell outta some Smash Bros. when it comes out.

Sonic all the way, baby!!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Okami is Okam-ing back.... ... I'm sorry for that pun...

So, this is pretty awesome for anybody who missed out on this.

OKAMI is an action/adventure title in the vein of THE LEGEND OF ZELDA. It was released originally on the PS2 and the Wii, so if for some reason you never played this game, here is your chance to correct it... assuming you have a PS3. It's got support for Playstation Move, but find me a person who owns AND still uses his Move Wand and I will be impressed.

The Fundamental Flaws of the "Morality System"

Many avid gamers may have noticed that many developers love putting "Morality Systems" into their video games. The idea is novel, if not usually underwhelming. The idea is that if you give the player different choices in the game, he will become more invested in it. A great way to make the player feel involved is to let them have the fate over the characters and world in the game. This is essentially a form of what RPG's have been doing since the days of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest on the NES. An RPG's main focus is on how you character adapts to the world around him, though. A Morality System's main focus is on you changing the world around your character. The problem is most of them don't work.

... Well, it is a bit more specific than that. There are two main problems when it comes to designing "moral choices" in a game.

Number 1: Choice means nothing without conflict.

Let's think about this for a moment. When you go to a restaurant, you have to choose what kind of food you want. The conflict in that situation would be deciding which of the food choices you want to eat. There could be many different options, but you are probably only gonna have room for one type. That choice, of which dish you want to eat, now has conflict. Either way, you are gonna be satisfied, but you had to give up one of the options. Most games, however, don't have options that can cause conflict for the player. For many games, they rely on a good or evil choice system. It means that the player's character will do a "good" or "evil" thing that will affect part of the story. The problem here is that it usually doesn't.

That is the look of a man who has no clue what to say till you tell him to say it.

The Mass Effect series was built around the idea that every choice that the Player made wold affect the entire series, including how it would end. And, true enough, there were some pretty deep moral choices put into the game. At one point in the second game, you were to decide the fate over an entire race. They had been an enemy throughout the entire game at this point, and you had an unique option. You could either Brainwash (or Reprogram) them to join your cause, or you could destroy them all. Now, if you have ever watched Extra Credits (and if not, you really should), you may have seen an episode where they discussed this very point. It made the writer of the series, James Portnow, sit and stare at the TV for half an hour as he tried to decide what to do.

Here is the episode in question. Give it a watch if you want!

For him, this was a big moment. It forced him to consider what his views are.
For me, it was simple: Brainwash them.

Now, you can see where the developers were going with this. They meant to make the player really consider how his actions would affect the world. And to many, it did work. I mean, it made James Portnow stop in his tracks to consider the ramifications. When I played this game however, there was no moral choice here. I viewed the choice as to how it would affect my gameplaying experience. In either option, the robot enemy would be out of my way. So now, the choice became, do I kill them off, or make them my allies in the game. Being allies would probably help me win the overall series alot easier, while killing them would not affect my gameplay at all. No matter which option I chose, they were out of the way. So why not have them help me? This is where the flaw was revealed to me. The choice became less about morality, and more about game difficulty. It just became about whether I like tougher gameplay or easier gameplay. Now, maybe if up to this point, I had more interactions with this race besides making sure my bullets hit them, it might have meant more to me. The only person of this race you interact with can't even be affected by this choice, so there goes any emotional connection. The developers really wanted me to consider how this would affect the game world, but in the end it made no difference at all.

Number 2: Morality is biased.

The biggest challenge a developer faces when making morality choices is deciding what is moral. Despite what many people like to think, there is no universal "good" or "evil"... at least not that any human can figure out. Every person has their own idea of what is "good" and what is "evil", right and wrong. That whole idea is probably not gonna sit well with people, but hear me out. Each society has their own views on what is right and wrong. We grow up learning these "values", and then teach them to our children. Think about how in places like areas in the Middle East, women are treated like property. We can sit here and think about how disgusting that is, but for the longest time in our history, we did the same thing to African Americans. Think about how you see some Christians talk about God's love towards everyone, while others say God hates gay people and anyone who disagrees with the church is going to hell. These aren't people being evil (even though it can sure seem like it). They are simply doing what they "believe" is right.

Ok, that was alot of heavy, but necessary, discussion. Lets move back onto topic. Game makers who put "good" and "evil" choices in a game have to assume that the people playing it will have the same views as them. The best example I can give is Fable 3. This game series has always tried to create deep, emotional choices for the player to make. The problem is that they labeled each choice as good or evil.

Being royalty is fun...

Near the end of the game, you are proclaimed the king of your kingdom. You are tasked with saving the kingdom from an attack that will happen in 1 year. The former king ruled with perceived cruelty, but you learn that he was simply trying to make sure he had the resources to fight this upcoming war. So when you become king, you are immediately presented with choices that will affect your kingdom. You can choose the good option, which repairs the damages the former king did to the kingdom, or you can choose the "evil" option, and continue the hardships so you can make sure the kingdom is ready for war.

Do you see where the problem is in this situation? The evil option decrees that everyone suffers, but gets to live another day. The good option means everyone is happy... until... you know...

Why can you not just have the hardships for one year, then after the war, restore the kingdom to normal? Why can't, as king, you explain to your citizens that war is coming, and everyone needs to stop partying and get ready to defend?

Because the game won't let you. There are no reasons in the game for this. The developers just took out the options. Still, at least you are faced with a choice... or are you?

You can supply the funds yourself to defend the kingdom from the money you make when you go on quests and from buying real estate. And since buying houses basically lets you print your own money, that means you can do the good option AND still win the war. So now, that question of morality was destroyed with an act of laziness. My theory (and it is just a theory) is that someone saw the earlier flaw, but instead of reworking the game, just slipped in this little "get out of jail free" card. So, not only did your choices suck, but you didn't even have to make a choice.

I wanna give one more example from this game, before I move on. There is a choice as King to either remove the alcohol tax, leave it alone, or raise it. Now, since the game labels "remove tax" as the good option, I chose it. Next thing I know, everyone in my Kingdom is drunk. I'm not sure about you, but I have a hard time thinking that everyone becoming an alcoholic in the face of Armageddon is the "good" option.

Yep... we're ready for war now...

So, we know that choice (for a gamer) means nothing without conflict, and that everyone has different views on "right" and "wrong. How can a developer implement moral choice into their game that will involve the player? Well, it is easier than you think: Take morality out of it. The developer can still give the player choices that can really make them think, but without calling things "good" or "evil". The goal should be to make the player make a choice that will affect his gameplay. The best example I can think of to look at is Fallout: New Vegas.

Yes, believe it or not, this bug-ridden glitch fest did something right.

Now, New Vegas still had it's "Karma" system, a feature that stuck around from Fallout 3, but let's ignore that for a moment. They added a unique feature that too few games have thought to add: Factions. Every town and every group in the game had a "faction" that they represented. Many of them were enemies to each other, but to the player, he basically starts out neutral to everyone. To go on a mission for someone in the game, more than likely, you'll come into conflict with another group. They may not want you to do what the first group asked, and then you are presented with a choice that has conflict for the player. What benefits to my gameplay do I get for picking a side? Maybe one side will offer you more money. The other side might offer a great weapon you had not found yet. One may have a character on their side that you enjoy talking to or doing missions with. The player now has to think, what option do I want to let me further enjoy the game? There is no simple option because each player may want different things. One may want more money, so they can buy a house in the game. The other may want that rare weapon instead. Maybe they want both, and now they have to really think hard. This choice means more to the player because it will affect his gameplay. In Mass Effect and Fable, many of their choices were meaningless because they didn't affect how the player would interact with the game. But in this game, the choice meant that the player could either get one great option, or a different, but still awesome one. Now they just had to choose which one.

Not every game needs to have factions, but you should make sure that if you want to have choice in a game, the conflict has weight for the player. If you simply make the player choose between options that only really affect the story, and not the gameplay in any real way, they will only focus on what will help them finish the game. Naturally not everyone who watches this video will agree with me. That is my main point in this article. Your view of the "right" thing to do may be different than mine, but that doesn't mean that it is a bad option, or that mine is the bad option. To me, morality systems are not working, but to you, they may be the best thing about your game. Just don't expect everyone to agree with you... I know I won't.