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Counterintuitive

October 20, 2012 1 comment

I was talking with a friend a while back, who said that he played a game with updated graphics but was disappointed at other qualities of the game. Specifically, he said that since they put so much effort into making the game look good, he expected that the gameplay aspect would be fun. That got me thinking. Long-time readers of this blog will know that I put creativity and polish in gameplay and design much higher on a list of priorities than graphics in games. But could it be possible that developers are actually shooting themselves in the foot by focusing so intently on making their games look shiny?

Let’s back up a second. Graphics certainly have their role to play, and on its own, enhancing graphics does produce a positive effect. They quickly describe the environment and action of a situation to the player(s), and they contribute (if not in the most important way) to the immersion of the experience. But by making a game that looks fantastic, developers are saying to some extent, whether they mean to or not, “We have this amazing experience that we want to show you in the most detailed way!”, and if that experience doesn’t hold up to the built-in hype, then it’s like a coat of paint on an outdated car, and it can feel more like a letdown than a decent game with the plus of nice graphics.

That explains part of the appeal of independent games (the best ones, at least). By and large, they’re not all that concerned with the greatest graphics (they often don’t have the resources for AAA-level art anyway), and instead focus on delivering a compelling and/or unique gameplay experience that they think will be fun.

I’d love to get some discussion going about this topic. Do you think developers are actually hurting themselves by adding shiny graphics over better gameplay mechanics and design? Do you think better graphics are always a plus? Leave a comment!

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Categories: Design, Games Tags: ,

Shifting Focus

April 29, 2012 Leave a comment

For this, the blog’s 200th post, I wanted to share some ideas that I have been pondering recently. Long time readers of the blog will recall an article I wrote about how the challenges presented in games are a core component of the design and to a large extent, “define the gameplay…”. In that article, I mentioned a classic game of old called Descent by Parallax Software. Lately, some friends and I have been getting back into the multiplayer portion of the game by way of the DXX-Rebirth project which adds some features and updates it to compatibility with modern machines. Descent is as excellent and classic as I remembered.

I can give some summary and identify some key points, but it’s hard to convey what makes Descent so special without you playing it for yourself, so if you haven’t, I highly recommend it. The full rotation and free-flying freedom are the golden basis of this game. Descent’s circle-strafing, dodging, rolling, flipping, fast-paced flight takes the combat of a typical first-person shooter and elevates it to true thrill-ride status. Every aspect of the game is multiplied by the additional freedom in movement, including tactics. Each of the weapons and missiles uniquely contributes another possible tactic. The game’s core design is fairly simple, but its implications are deep and varied. Modern designers could learn a few things by firing up some matches of this game with some colleagues.

Now that I’ve established the game’s quality for you, think about this: Descent was released a mere year and a half after Doom, and over a year before Quake. I recognize the accomplishments of id Software’s titles, such as classic FPS gameplay and the use of BSP trees for rendering and so on, and I like their games – I have nothing against them, let’s get that out of the way. Still, I don’t understand why Descent isn’t regarded with the same level of acclaim. While Doom has you running and gunning against demons in flat, minimally 3D environments, Descent gives you the freedom to fly without restriction in creatively designed, completely 3D areas. While Quake improves the technology, the gameplay still struggles to eclipse the lasting appeal of Descent. Don’t get me wrong, I like Quake and Descent. But what would the gaming world be like today if its participants had latched so tightly onto Descent instead of the origins that led to the flood of first-person shooters we see today? Better yet, what if it had learned from the best parts of both?

It’s food for thought, to say the least.

If you have comments on these classic games, or if you would like to throw in another great game that deserves more attention, leave a comment!

Categories: Design, Games, Links Tags: , , ,

Is Anti-Lag Worse than Lag?

January 13, 2012 3 comments

Lag has been around since the very earliest days of online gaming, and there’s not much that can be done to remove it. It’s just a fact of life that, with current technology, it takes a bit of time to send data from one place to another, so someone is always going to be a little behind. Before, the lag was just accepted and played through, but recent technology has attempted to mitigate the problem with prediction and other forms of compensation. This lag compensation has some nice effects, allowing players to move smoothly and without the nasty skipping effects. Unfortunately, these techniques are not without their price.

While the immediate effect is that the player’s and other movements appear smooth, the lag still exists. As a result, weird stuff appears to happen and the player doesn’t even know it’s lag. The classic example is the dreaded “kill around the corner” scenario, typically observed in shooters. The player runs around a corner to take cover from enemy fire and dies thereafter, when he was clearly out of harm’s way. Little does he know that he was hit before he made it to safety, but didn’t know about it until a little more seemingly smooth game time passes by. These sorts of inexplicable alterations to the normal game flow can really become frustrating to the player, and their root cause is hidden by prediction or anti-lag.

I suppose what we can learn from this is that, in lower latency situations, anti-lag can be a useful technique for smoothing out the jitters. Unfortunately, when lag becomes more severe, its aggravating effects can be exacerbated. Perhaps an alternative technique could be employed for higher lag situations? Maybe games should just put heavier focus on matching people with nearby players? Or, perhaps this is just another argument for dedicated servers? I’d like to get your take and start some discussion on the problem and its potential solutions. Let us know what you think in the comments!

Categories: Design, Games, Rant Tags: ,

Video Roundup: MW3-Style

October 29, 2011 2 comments

UPDATE 2: Call of Duty Elite trailer included below.

UPDATE: New Multiplayer Modes trailer included below.

With all these behind-the-scenes, trailer, preview type videos being released, showing off some of the finer points of Modern Warfare 3, it seems about time that I do another video roundup. A word of warning, though: There are mild spoilers that obviously reveal the workings of the new features behind the multiplayer portion of the game. If you’d rather be surprised, maybe hold off for now. Otherwise, read on!

More videos after the jump…

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The Bar is Set High for MW3

August 28, 2011 1 comment

… as if that wasn’t clear already, this being a Call of Duty game we’re talking about. I’m absolutely thrilled that the Call of Duty series is back in Infinity Ward’s capable hands, though I’m definitely curious to see what kind of influence Sledgehammer Games has on it. Obviously, the developers need to polish Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 to a high level to live up to the expectations. In my mind, a huge part of this is using the very best of the last two games in the series, Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops, and very importantly, recognizing and fixing the mistakes of each. I’m sure the game will inevitably sell many millions of copies, but let’s get to the specifics on what MW3 should learn from its predecessors.

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Maintaining Immersion

July 11, 2011 2 comments

“Immersion,” or a person’s state of being caught up in a fictional world, has been a hot topic in game design and reviews for a while. People have long made a big deal of games’ realism, a quality that many see as central to providing this for the player. For years, games have been focusing very heavily on graphics effects for this purpose but I’d like to suggest that this is a relatively inefficient approach to achieving immersion. Sure it helps, but there is so much more than that.

Many games break immersion through what I call a Triviality of Death™. That is, the player knows that if they die, they’ll just load their game, or start again at the last checkpoint. What you end up with is a scenario like this: the player has suspended his disbelief and is having a fantastic time right up until he dies, at which point he thinks, “It’s OK, because it’s a game and I’ll come back.” Oops. Stack on top of that the loading screens and other distracting game elements before he starts again and the player is yanked back to reality, forced to start again on getting into it. I realize this is a very difficult problem to fully solve (though possible with an appropriate plot explanation, or through gameplay like Braid‘s time-reversal mechanic), but it is definitely a relevant one. Even if a game fails to solve it entirely, its effects can be minimized by making the break in gameplay quick and subtle. That way, the “It’s a game” thought stays marginalized and “OK, let’s try this again” becomes the focus. Alan Wake‘s short, dim loading screens are an example of a minimal effect on the player’s gameplay experience.

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Categories: Design, Games, Links Tags: ,

When did Games become Work?

July 6, 2011 2 comments

Or did work become a game? While World of Warcraft is not the only game guilty of it, this is high among the reasons I stopped playing that particular game. A significant portion of my game time eventually became dominated by repetitive actions which in themselves were not particularly enjoyable, but promised a contribution to future activities. Why not just make the whole game fun and fresh? I understand the ideas behind the needs for these items, such as an economy or producing new usable items and weapons. Still, farming cloth or metal, or grinding, does not make for a compelling gameplay experience. There must be a more mentally rewarding method to provide the player with these resources. The word grinding holds a negative connotation for me now, because it represents going through the same portion of the game time and time again. Sure, a game should have some replay value, but this is a separate issue.

I should mention that it shows up in other games too, but more commonly in role playing games. RPG’s and grinding are a very obvious example of this phenomenon, but the genre is not bound to this fate. Mass Effect 2 is an excellent example of a role playing game that avoids this behavior almost entirely. Yes, you can scan planets for resources, but it doesn’t take a lot of time, and you don’t really have to if you don’t want to.

As always, I’m interested to hear different viewpoints on this topic, and your comments are most welcome.

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