Work

Lately, I have been nothing wanting to play games every once in a while. Sometimes I just feel like it will be too much of an effort. The fact that I mostly just play the first few hours of a game and therefore always have to go through tutorials might play a major role in my problem but I think that it wouldn’t have to be. I think that some games really just force the player to learn too much at once.

Picture this; you have just had a long day of work and now you want to play a videogame to relax. You decide to try and play Dota 2 because your friends recommended it to you. I can assure you that you will not have a good time. You immediately have to learn what items to buy, what skills to upgrade, how to last hit and so on. It takes more than a little motivation to get into a game like that. At this point the game isn’t relaxing anymore, it has become work.

Work is whenever you have to do something in order to be able to just play the game. It can be very tiring to read through text after text or when you are forced through a tutorial. Of course, games can ask something of the player but it really almost never hurts to make to whole experience a little more accessible. The trick in doing this is trying to keep it simple in the beginning and slowly build up towards more complex things. Like how in most RTS you can play the entire game with just your mouse, clicking in the menu to select what to build and what troops to select, but any advanced Starcraft player will be using the keyboard for most of their actions. But the fact that at first you don’t have to learn all keyboard combinations to be able to play makes the game a lot more beginner friendly. Also making the basic game something you can play without any kind of tutorial will make your game into an experience that is a lot more enjoyable. Simplify your turn-based rpg into a simple attack/defend choice and build upon that. Allow your players to button mash through the first 15 minutes of your brawler, make them learn to dodge at the first boss and to block at the second. I could name more examples but you get the point.

A great example of this done right is Fez. The puzzles you have to solve towards the end of Fez are among the most complex in all of gaming. Those puzzles would scare away 95% of all beginning players when it would have been the first thing the game had you do. But because the game begins as a basic platformer you are eased into the game and you slowly play and learn yourself towards more complex puzzle solving. Because of the admirable pacing of this game it can challenge the player in ways I never thought games could challenge people. It also makes Fez one of my favourite games of all time, but that is a slightly unrelated matter.

A game can really challenge any player to do the most insane tasks but only if you don’t require too much of them at once. Pacing is key when you want your game to be for everyone instead of just the players that are already very experienced in the genre. I can understand if you think you can ask a little more of you player.  But I think a world in which everyone can play any game is a much nicer one than the way the people on Dota treat me for my lack of skill make me think this one is.

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Why Mass Effect is a jrpg -part 3

So let’s begin the last part of my rpg story with making it clear what both genres are about. I was heading in that direction in that direction in my last blog but it was getting kind of long.

So simply said jrpgs or console rpgs have a stronger focus on the story and the adventure. You play them because you want to experience something epic that you couldn’t in your own life. Examples are Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy and Ni No Kuni.
Wrpgs or computer rpgs are more focussed on creating a character. You play these games because you like the feeling of growth that comes with levelling your character and the sense of control of what you going to be. It is also compelling because it allows you to be awesome, perfect even, to be more than you could be in real life. Examples are the Elder Scrolls series, Baldurs Gate and Diablo.

It is not the case that a game can only have one of the two, jrpgs still need a levelling system to give the player a sense of character development and progression and a wrpg still needs a story to give everything context and not make it feel like grinding without a purpose. It is what the main focus of the game is on that makes the difference between the two.

Now think for second (I you have ever played a Mass Effect game that is) what was the most compelling thing about Mass Effect? Was it the buying upgrades for your guns and suit, was it the levelling up and upgrading your active skills. Or was it that every character felt like a human being, with flaws and a fully fleshed out story line with development, was it the way the entire galaxy felt real and made you care for what you were trying to save. Was it the adventure or the creating of your character? For me it was the first, and I think that Is the same for most people. Mass Effect is a game you play for the narrative, and that makes it classified to be called a jrpg.

So there you have it, why Mass Effect is a jrpg. See you next blog with “why pokemon is a wrpg” (just kidding). But this should make you think about games in general; ask about every game “why do I play this, what is compelling about it?” A game that has a strong focus on its compelling aspect is always a better game. And when you start to accept and understand the difference between genres you can make better games in each of them.

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Why Mass Effect is a jrpg -part 2

So last time I talked about how the two subgenres of rpg came to be. This time I’ll try to actually get to the explaining of why Mass Effect really is a jrpg.

So I talked the history of rpgs, not because I like history, but to give you an idea of what the ideas behind both are. They both try to replicate dungeons & dragons. The Japanese focus on creating an adventure you can experience and the western ones focus on you creating the hero, you being the hero. And that is where I feel we can find the actual difference in genre that is between the two.
Defining games by their topographical location is an illogical and maybe even racist thing to do, yet people still seem to do it. This is because there is a difference between the two, a subtle difference, yet a difference with such an amazing impact, the difference being why you play.

I think we should categorize all games by the reason why you play them. When a game is a 2D platformer you have no idea what kind of experience the game may hold for you. It could be a challenging cheerful game that you play to test and prove yourself (super meat boy). It could be a puzzle game that goes deeper than you could ever have expected (fez). It could be a stealth game (mark of the ninja). These games are nothing alike, yet they can all be found in the same category on steam. I think we want see games as experiences rather than just ‘games’ if we really want people to take games seriously. And categorizing them by experience rather than type of system the game uses to be played. If you’re struggling to find the reason of play just ask yourself “What is the most compelling aspect of this game?”

But let’s get back to rpgs. Rpgs are a curious case because there are actually to entirely different genres melded together, but almost nobody realizes.
The first one is obvious; it the experience of you going on an adventure, of you being a hero. This part becomes better as you let the player play your story rather than let him just listen to it. Choices concerning the story are a very good way of making the player part of the story.
The second one is less obvious. It isn’t as simply understood as the first, but it is still a very powerful experience. I have no other name for it then “character building”. Think about when you’re playing Skyrim. How often do you think about the story of the game? And how often do think things like “I only need 3 more levels in smithing and I’ll be able to make dragon armor” and spend time considering how to spend your perks. The idea of creating the perfect warrior/mage/rogue, creating the perfect you, is a very compelling one. Combat in these games is difficult thing to design; since it needs to be influenced by your stats otherwise your choices wouldn’t matter at all. This makes balancing the difficulty a challenge.

This is a huge topic to talk about and takes more words than I expected. I’ll bring you part three this evening. Then I’ll explain why Mass Effect is a jrpg. I promise.

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Why Mass Effect is a Jrpg

Yes your read that right. I said Mass Effect is a jrpg. Not in the literal sense though. Yet is some way I am right, but to explain that I should really explain some other things as well. So let’s get started.

Let’s start with talking about the origin of rpgs, both the western and the Japanese. It all started with dungeons, and there were also dragons involved. The first rpgs came to existence from the idea “how do we make D&D a videogame?” The Americans were the first to answer this question. This was at a time that computers were still a novelty, only common at universities. What this meant was that the only the most extreme nerds were playing and making games. The first western rpgs or computer rpgs were games like Ultima. Try and play the first Ultima game, you’ll find yourself confused. The game was an extremely user-unfriendly experience. There was a great game to be found, hidden under all the dreadful overly complex features, but you’d have to be willing to put a lot of time in it just to get anywhere. This game is great example of a crpg/wrpg. Skyrim, Baldur’s Gate and Dark Souls are also all more influenced by this style of rpg.

But let’s get to the other half of the story. Japanese gamedevs were also among the few people to play those early crpgs. And they wanted one as well, on the NES. The game they made was supposed to be ‘like ultima, but as user friendly as possible’, and they made Dragon Quest. Dragon Quest really made rpgs popular with the mainstream market. The Dragon Quest series was so popular that the year after they released a sequel and the year thereafter another one. The first series of rpgs was a fact. Final Fantasy was quick to follow. And later, on the SNES came games like Chrono Trigger and Earthbound. The jrpg or console rpg quickly became far more popular than its nephew the crpg. And it remained that way for quite a while, but now it seems like the jrpg titans like Final Fantasy aren’t what they used to be while wrpgs are more popular than ever.

Since this topic has more to it than I’ve got time to write right now I’m making this a two part blog. I’ll try to get part two up by the weekend.

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The Cycle of Play

Before even starting this article I’d like to say that this is very basic stuff. Any moderate game designer will probably know this already but to anyone that is aspiring to be game designer or someone with an interest in the topic might still find this blog of any use.

So ‘the cycle of play’ is something that happens in all games. It is a loop that the player subconsciously goes through and that makes up the biggest part of the entire gaming experience. It can simply be described as the process that generates actions from the player. It consist of five parts; the observation, the thought, the action, the processing and the reaction. I will explain the entire process with the help of an example. When our example game begins you see a screen with a character on it that doesn’t move. The player also sees the controller in his hands. This is the first observation. The player overthinks his possibilities and makes a choice, the thought. The player decides to press a button, the action. The game generates an answer for this action, the processing and ultimately the screen shows that the character starts moving/jumping/punching. The second observation of the player is that he controls this character and is capable of doing all these things. He has learned the absolute basics of the game. A logic second action the player could think of would be to try and get to the edge of the screen, so the player starts moving to the right. The game generates an answer and the screen starts scrolling with the on-screen character. The player makes his third observation; he learns that the game is about going places. So the player continues this action. Then the player encounters a pit. He walks into it and dies, only to return to the beginning of the level. The player has learned that pits are bad and should be avoided when at all possible. The player earlier learned he can jump. Combining these two observations he can think of jumping over the pit. When this succeeds he makes his fifth observation and learns that pits are meant to be jumped over. He later encounters a large pit with a platform in the middle. After another cycle he has learned how platforms work. After this the entire process repeats itself with enemies instead of pits. The player has now learned all basic mechanics of this game.

Now this doesn’t only go for 2D platformers, it happens in all games ever. Like how in Pokémon the player sees that fire isn’t very effective on water and therefore uses grass instead. Or how the player sees that late game is lower level than the others in League of Legends and in his next match tries to get more XP early game. Every game has loops because every game needs to learn the player something.

This idea really helps when you find that your tutorial isn’t teaching properly, just analyse every single loop and see where it goes wrong. You could design your entire game loop by loop but luckily that won’t be necessary because this process becomes somewhat of a second nature to designers and you’ll do things without thinking.

A game that is really fine example of a loop by loop crafted experience in portal. A good exercise in understanding this cycle would be if you try and experience how every loop teaches you something new. Understanding or better yet comprehending this will both render all my blogs about tutorials useless as make you an awesome game designer. If you can see your game loop by loop you can tinker with the experience until it is exactly right.

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The inevitability of the pixel art apocalypse

I have been noticing something, something rather depressing. It is something that has gradually been happening. But the real proof I found in the indiestatik top 50 free games. A lot of 2D games now are sporting a “nice retro pixelated aesthetic”. At least, anything that looks like it has put some effort in its graphics does. Within a little while all of the indie scene will have devolved into things that belong in the 80’s. But why? Doesn’t it make very little sense to limit your visuals in such a major way? Is it just fashion? Nostalgia? I have been confused a long before I could come to understand why pixel art still even exist.

The short explanation is the following; it looks professional while still easy to pull off. If you’re making a game and aren’t the best artist it is going to show. But there’s is just less to mess up when doing it pixelated. Now I don’t mean pixel artist are lazy, there is still so much skill required to make a pixelated game look really good. It’s just easier to make a game look moderately OK with pixels than without.

But why do pixels look good? To answer this question you would first need to dig deeper into the question of ‘why do games look good?’ Because here is the funny thing, a game doesn’t need to look good. The player hasn’t got the time to check out every detail the game has to show. The player is busy playing. But what the player does notice is the general shapes, the textures and most importantly the colors. Think about you see when you play a game. When you look at an enemy in Killzone you don’t notice the well-designed armor, you just see the dark silhouette and the red eyes and how evil that looks. You also notice how it really isn’t just a silhouette and has more details but you don’t really care. That is the strange thing. You notice when something is wrong, when all the buildings are just copies of each other, but when nothing is wrong you just don’t care because you’re busy playing.

So in short; a good looking game needs good color use and strong convincing shapes. And in order not to look noticeably bad you also need to make all the little things look good, you need details. And this is where we can find the reason why pixel art looks so good. When you’re making something with pixels you can simply focus on the colours and shapes. Details aren’t as big a problem because it isn’t as difficult to make something look convincing when it is more abstract. Things do not need to look perfect because the player doesn’t care.

So are 2D games doomed? Probably. Does it really matter? Probably not, the fact that it can make otherwise ugly games better is undeniably a good thing. Actually pixel are sexy and cool and have an incredible potential for visuals in games, just look at blogs like http://cellusious.tumblr.com and http://noirlac.tumblr.com/. But games like the newer Rayman titles prove that non-pixelated games can also look absolutely stunning. I would like more people to be conscious about their decision to go pixels, even though non-pixelated games are harder to make, less intuitive and bring loads of other problems with them. But when done right it will be better. Just wonder, does this really need to be in pixels? The answer might be yes, some games (Fez) couldn’t have looked any better in any other way. But some games don’t. So be cautious, when the world ends in a terrorizing pixelated agony I warned you.

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Focussed experiences

Unless you are rockstar and you’re making GTA V it is impossible to put in all the features you’d like your game to have. A game cannot do it all. But that isn’t such a tradegy since a game doesn’t need to. Skyrim doesn’t need complex combat system and Super Meat Boy is a complete experience even without a good story. The only thing a game needs to do is deliver one powerful experience.

So how do you make a powerful experience? Well, simply said; a more focussed experience is always the more powerful and more memorable. This means that everything you put in your game should be there to enforce the core experience. The art, the music, it should all help make one tightly fitting experience.

A good example of a focussed experience is Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery. Lets say the goal of this game was to have you experience a grim fairytale. I will not give away too much about the game because I’d really like everyone to play this game and experience it for themselves. If you get to play it try to notice how everything, from the slow pacing to the fact that it had so little combat, music and visuals, all help enforce this very focussed experience.

It is not just that focussing your experience will make it better, not doing so can harm your experience. Let’s talk about Chrono Trigger (also because I like talking about about that game). The core experience Chrono Trigger offers is that of a grand and spectaculair adventure. A lot of what the game is helps enforce this experience, but some doesn’t. I am talking about the items and the interchangeable characters. The game isn’t about breaking your head over the problems of what is the most effective setup to use for each battle. This just resulted in me feeling like I was always doing something wrong and made me stress and even put the game down for a while. This could have easily been avoided when all when one of the designers had asked himself “would this help the core experience?”

This ‘rule’ definitely has exceptions, to many to go into detail with. All I’m saying is that it is better to make one powerfull experience than two weaker onces. Games that do have a good focus mostly turn out to be the games that stick with you for the rest of your life. Games that offer you such a powerful, special experiences are the things that show you the magic that is videogames, and we need more of those.

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Different experiences

Last week I read a book (I know the blog says games, but lessons in game design can be found in different media as well). I do not read books that often but this time it was recommended to me a friend of mine. She told me how the book had brought her to tears and how beautiful it was. Intrigued as I was, I gave it a shot. But I didn’t cry. That might not be the most mind blowing thing in the world; it just means that I’m different from my friend. But it does mean I’m different from my friend.

If different people have different experiences, different people will enjoy things differently. Some might not even enjoy things at all. In the case of this book, my friend ended up relating to the main character (a girl) the most, whereas I related to a boy that was in love with the main character the most. The boy dies somewhere towards the end of the story. The last few pages emphasize the sadness of the girl. This made me feel better about the death of the boy, how he ended up being so important to her, how he would be missed. To my friend on the other hand, those last pages made the story so very sad. How this girl would never kiss the boy she loved so much. How she was left all alone. I had the lesser of the two experiences, just because I read the story with a different mindset.

Now, the thing is, I don’t know how the same story could have the same impact on two different people. I don’t think that any kind of introduction, as perfect as it could be, could get people into the exact right mindset.

But I do have one more thing to discuss (this is even less related to games). In my spare time, apart from playing games and writing blogs, I also teach gymnastics to little children. There are certain things any trainer should be able to do, like keeping order in the group, explaining things in ways 5 year olds understand. But there really is just one thing that makes someone a great teacher; the ability to differ in ways of teaching. The best teachers are the ones that understand that not everyone is equally capable to learn and are those that give each kid a different exercise to work at.

I understand that this is easier when teaching 12 kids than with when making a game for several hundreds of thousands of people. But I think that if we can start making games that will be perfect not just for a very specific audience but for everyone. Things like the ability to choose your gender in games like Pokemon and the adaptive difficulty of Cloudberry Kingdom are small but good examples of what games should try to do more.

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Tutorials: What don’t I do?

A little while back I posted a blog about tutorials in games, it wasn’t a good blog because I ranted about bad ones without any kind of solution. But I have given the subject a lot more thought and I have come to some conclusions.

The big deal with communicating what the player is supposed to do is not in what you put in your game. It is in what you leave out. This may sound a little confusing but believe me, it is very logical. Simply said, when there are more side paths the player will find it harder to figure out where to go. This is the most obvious way this can occur but it can be seen in a lot of different ways.

Try playing a point and click adventure game (I suggest “Day of the Tentacle” which is apart from a great game also a great example). In this game you collect items and you use or give these items to get you through the game. This very quickly becomes a very tiring “try all the things with all the things kind of game” which is not a good time. You’re just trying at random and when you figure something out it is because of luck rather than skill. Games are meant to make you feel smart, not the opposite.

Now imagine that all the objects that you did not have to use in a certain puzzle were disabled. This would make the game a lot easier, but also a lot more enjoyable. Also, this would allow for harder puzzles since figuring out how to use the five items is a possible and fun challenge (whereas figuring out which five of the 21 items would be a nightmare). The more possibilities you leave out the clearer the right path becomes.

If you’re interested in a game that does this horribly wrong in another quite obvious way I would suggest Afterfall: Insanity. This third person shooter will put you in rooms with a big piece of interactive looking scenery in front of you, namely a big door at the end of a stairway, blocked by some rubble. Naturally you try and figure out how to get to the door visible behind the blocked stairway. You try and blow things up. You search for a way through the rubble to get there. You start to feel lost. And then it turns out it was only there to look pretty and the real exit is through some door on the right. If the door wasn’t there I would have been confused at all.

So when making a game, do not wonder ‘how do I show my player what to do?’ Rather, try to wonder ‘what do I need to show my player?’ Also leave a like if you liked this blog, it really means a lot to me. But more importantly, do not leave a like if you didn’t. I’m really just trying to figure out what to do with this blog and any kind of (negative) feedback is welcome.

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It just won’t end!

“80% of gamers that begin playing a videogame do not finish it”. I read this statistic on some unreliable website, but it has a thruth in it. Most gamers pay for more than they will play. Most gamers just get bored after a while and find a new toy to play with.

The thing is, most games do not even need to be so long. Try a few online flash games. The ones you enjoy the most, the ones that give you a memorable experience are almost never the ones that take the longest. And just because you pay for most games doesn’t mean you should value quantity over quality in priced experiences.

I think that idea comes from a time when there weren’t a lot of games to play. In the 16-bit era there wasn’t a new game being released every day. And they also weren’t as cheap as they are now. When you bought a game it was a commitment for the next month. Now things are different. There is a sea of games out there right now. Filling time isn’t the main goal of a game. The quality of the experience is what matters. Backtracking, grinding, ridicolous difficulty and other means of artificial increase in the length of games aren’t a acceptable thing in modern gaming anymore. In fact they are all sins a designer should not even consider, ever. A longer experience might in some cases be a better one but most of the times the length doesn’t add that much.

Even when you are aiming for good reviews with your game, having a short but powerfull one will give you the better ones. Reviewers mostly don’t play games to completion anyway. As long as he has a wonderfull few hours the review will be positive. And when you don’t even give the reviewer time to get bored with your game he will only remember an exciting game. Being short is only one negative versus all the positives the reviewer will talk about.

Games that get to long tend to overstay their welcome. Every gamer remembers a game that became a boring routine after it had been going on for 10 hours to long. Most people quit playing at that point. Wouldn’t the game have been better if you actually reached the end. Closure really adds to a experience. Also, making a shorter game is cheaper. You’ll be busy with it for a shorter while and you get to make more games. But since the consumer gets less, he should also pay less. So then you are making more games, the consumer pays the right amount for what he plays. Everyone is a winner. And when there’s ask for more game just make DLC. Hell, make a sequel if people want it.

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