Monday, September 26, 2005

Game Critics Hate the Third Act?

While I was reading the reviews of Indigo Prophecy over the weekend I was pretty surprised to read how most of them criticized the games ending. I havent played it yet but it was kind of shocking to see the strong feelings the game's third act engendered in the reviewers. Then I realized something: most of these reviews read much more like a movie or play review than a game one. In fact most critics spent less than a third of their column inches on the graphics and gameplay and concentrated on what they saw as tight writing in some places and flawed writing in others. Gamespot even went so far as to say they wished they had cut 30 minutes from the first act and added 90 minutes to the final act. I've never heard a game reviewer saying anything like it. It seems to be a testament to how compelling the games interactive story was. I'm interested in checking it out.

To read some of the reviews, follow some of these links on the game's Metacritic page.

Friday, September 23, 2005

No Death for McGee

I just read the interview with American McGee over at Idle Thumbs. Bad Day LA sounds like a pretty cool project (fantastic concept art from Kozyndan), and McGee's business model is pretty interesting from an indie development perspective. However, the thing that really caught my eye was this little tidbit about a "no death" mechanic:
The "no death" mechanic is super simple. Basically it means that if you die, you hit the ground for 5 seconds, then jump back up. This isn't really a "feature" as a crutch for novices to use while playing the game. This idea came about as I watched non-gamers struggling with the idea of save games, load games, and death in general. While hard-core gamers aren't going to care for this feature, we've found that novice gamers really appreciate how straightforward and non-confusing it is. By the way, this mode is ONLY available on the Easy Difficultly setting. Don't worry, I'll add in a "punish me" difficulty level for those of you who think that games should be annoying and frustrating instead of fun.
It's good to see someone questioning even the most basic tenets of game design.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Johnson, Koster, and Blizzard: Is WoW a Big Skinner box?

I just finished reading Stephen Johnson's excellent book Everything Bad Is Good for You (Johnson's blog), and I've restarted reading Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun (book site here). Both books take a look at videogames (or in the case of Johnson, pop culture in general, including games) through the lens of learning and cognitive theory. Johnson posits that the increasing complexity of pop culture (especially as embodied in today's interactive media, ie. games and the internet) has contributed to an upward trend in general intelligence (see the Flynn Effect). According to Johnson, games provide a cognitive workout that isn't really available elsewhere in pop culture.

Koster comes at the same idea from the reverse direction, trying to explain why we like games. He comes up with the idea that our brains constantly hunger for patterns to decipher and understand ("grok" is the word Koster prefers). Games satisfy this hunger with simplified patterns which the player groks through play. The "fun" of the game is in understanding the pattern. The best games, according to Koster, bounce between challenging and do-able, never getting impossibly hard but never becoming too easy. The joy of learning the pattern is balanced by the introduction of new patterns.

These ideas were floating around in my head as I was playing World of Warcraft the other night. WoW does a great job of introducing new patterns at a satisfying pace. Just as I get a handle on one system, another is introduced to keep things interesting. It is certainly a triumph of design in this regard, keeping players interested far beyond the lifespan of most other games. However, I was talking about this with a friend (who has some knowledge of cognitive theory), and her response was "it's just a big Skinner box." This got me thinking about some of the more insidious teaching that is going on in WoW, and the conclusions are a bit scary.

My friend is not the first person to look at MMOGs as operant conditioning devices (this article at looks at Skinnerian theory in the design of City of Heroes), but her comment got me thinking about what exactly is being conditioned. The conclusion I came to is this: MMOGs condition their players to grind. Even WoW, which seems to be the most popular (at least in the West) and certainly isn't unpleasant, essentially habituates players to the constant collection of xp through almost pointless means.

In operant conditioning, one teaching technique is to sometimes give a reward for each exhibition of the desired behavior. Basically, you teach the subject to operate on the potential of a reward as opposed to the actual reward. In WoW, the further you advance, the longer it is between rewards, and the more pointless grinding you have to do in the interim. At the beginning, you are rewarded with a new item or skill or level almost everytime you kill something or complete a quest. Soon however, the items become commonplace and the skills and levels are fewer and farther between, but you're doing just as much killing and questing in between. And everytime you do level or gain a new skill, it reinforces that feeling of potential reward, and you go right back to the grind.

Is this genius design at work? Or is WoW just a big Skinner box? Or are these options really one and the same?

Am I really this predictable?

PS. Both Johnson's and Koster's respective books are great. And also, WoW is pretty good.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Will Episodic Content Calcify Gameplay?

As anyone who's read Laundry Sessions knows, we're big fans of episodic content (at least I am). SiN Episodes, Half-Life 2 expansions, Tell Tale's Bone, and others are all giving the episodic model a whirl, and a Half-Life mod team has recently adopted an episodic distribution model as well. With the episodic distribution of content gaining steam (pun intended), I have to raise one question:

Will episodic content lead to stagnation in gameplay?

Here's why this comes to mind: If individual game experiences are only a couple hours long, there isn't really time for players to learn complicated interfaces. I suspect that interfaces and control schemes will become even more standarized than they already are in order to afford quick "pick-up-and-play" experiences. In general, I think this sort of standardization will be good, making games more accessible and saving developers time. However, will the need to conform to some adhoc standard interface prevent developers from trying something new?

Film formats were standardized around the time that film became a mass medium. Generally, this is seen as a good thing and even a contributing factor in the maturation of film as an artform. However, it also cut out a lot of experimentation. On the other hand, I guess the constraints of standardized formats also provide a fertile ground for experimentation. Plus, people will always find places to experiment outside the standards of the mainstream.

Now that I think about it, I remember that gameplay isn't really the same thing as interface/control scheme. The gravity gun in HL2 is a good example of a gameplay innovation within a standard control scheme.

So anyway, I don't think episodic content will kill innovation, but I just had to raise the question.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Future of Online

I've been quoted as saying that the future of online gaming is on the console. I firmly believe that the PC , which is now the major player in online, will become less relevant. This is one reason why I am so interested what the next gen's online offerings will be like.

In that spirit here are two interesting updates:

The XBox 360 will be very restrictive. Microsoft is including a laundry list of requirements for developers who want to make a game for the new console. Included in this list are things like keeping enough memory available for one-on-one chat between games, having their UI available to slide in from the side in every game, making all the background music replaceable by player's own soundtracks, etc.

On the flip side, while PS3 hasn't announced much, Sony's Phil Harrison did hint that they would not have a central service comparable to Live. In fact, they probably will have a more laissez-faire system:

  • "We want to provide an open platform wherever possible," he said. "We want to create a platform on which publishers can exploit their services. We are happy for publishers to form their own commercial relationships directly with the consumer."
My opinion? I love Live and I think the central, consistent interface will help casual gamers. Sony is making a mistake by leaving up to developers. The player will get very uneven experiences as developers begin to skimp on "standard" features.

On the flip side, as a developer, I am worried that Microsoft will go overboard with their requirements and soak the precious few development resources I have, leaving very little left for gameplay innovation.