Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

You can enjoy PAX without supporting Penny Arcade

Posted by Ben Zeigler on September 8, 2013

There’s been a lot of interesting pieces written about Penny Arcade over the last week, and it’s been a good conversation that I’m glad is happening. I don’t support at all the kinds of things that Mike/Gabe has said about… well most things. But, I do not feel morally obligated to boycott the Penny Arcade Expo. My main reasoning is best explained by this great essay:  How to be a fan of problematic things. But, what about PAX specifically?

There are 3 related but distinct entities here: Mike Krahulik, Penny Arcade the corporation, and Penny Arcade Expo the event. Mike Krahulik is the artist and part owner of Penny Arcade, and Penny Arcade is the originator and organizer of Penny Arcade Expo. If you strongly object to something Mike does or says, obviously you should not support him. But, should your opinion extend to Penny Arcade the corporate entity? Considering that every other member of Penny Arcade has been silent or supportive of Mike, it probably should. I personally don’t feel comfortable supporting Penny Arcade financially and I would not consider funding their kickstarter or buying their merchandise given the way that company acts.

But, does this mean that I should boycott PAX because of my feelings towards PA? This is a more complex question, but for me it rests on the question of what PAX really is. Is PAX a corporate event primarily built to push the company’s agenda (say, something like the D23 Disney Expo), or is it attempting to be an authentic community-driven event? I think PAX is more owned by the overall gaming community than it is by Penny Arcade itself, and it’s been deliberately designed that way.

The policies and activities of PAX itself are managed by a collective of volunteer Enforcers, who as a group have far more say about how the show runs than anyone in Penny Arcade. The entrance fees are low enough that PA isn’t getting rich off those, and it sells out every year so buying your ticket doesn’t affect their bottom line in any way. The proper Penny Arcade influence on the show consists of a few merchandise booths and some panels, much less presence than Firefall had the last time I was there (that booth was huge). At this point PAX really is it’s own entity that could drop any official PA associations with no loss of prestige or attendance. Penny Arcade sets some policy directions and has broad control over logistics, but it has nothing to do with 90% of the experience.

So, I have no problem supporting PAX while not supporting Penny Arcade. PAX has been a positive influence on my own happiness and on that of others, and has done a lot to encourage positive interactions within a community that is often poisonously negative. I have no problem supporting something that I view as 80% positive and 20% negative. If I see something that is mostly positive but could use some reform, I feel engagement and communication are more likely to be useful than boycott. In the end I’m glad these discussions are happening, and hopefully it leads to a better PAX in the future that sheds more of its poisonous Penny Arcade connection.


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Things I Wish I Knew About BioShock Infinite Before Playing It

Posted by Ben Zeigler on April 11, 2013

I finished BioShock Infinite last night, and I had a few thoughts that I wanted to get down on virtual paper. First of all it’s fantastic and you should play it. This post is plot spoiler free, and it would be nice to keep the comments relatively safe.  Anyway, thinking back on my experience there’s a few things I wish I had known before I started, so here’s some unsolicited advice that you should feel totally free to disregard. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. Not that you’d be mean and say something like that.

Bask in the Splendor

The art direction of Infinite is absolutely incredible. I’m not one to take screenshots of games, but there were a dozen or so points were I felt obligated to capture the moment. I had no intention of sharing the screenshots with anyone else, or even really doing anything with them. I just saw a certain angle and knew I had to capture it, in case the visual images were ripped from my head before I could sufficiently enjoy the experience. I played the game on PC, and I strongly recommend that platform for the visuals (you can play with a controller), the game looks great at 1080p and 60 fps. One last piece of advice is to actually read the signs. There are dozens of unique period-appropriate signs throughout the game, and they’re all very well done and help tie together the environment and plot.

The only thing better than the art direction is the audio. First of all the voice acting is terrific throughout, and the incidental dialogue is always worth absorbing. The environmental audio did a great job of immersing me into the world and made the city come alive.  Most vitally, the music is a standout and ties into the plot and themes of the game better than any game I can bring to mind. The soundtrack has a very clear and specific reason for existing, and is so tightly integrated into the themes of the game that I can’t discuss it any detail without spoiling the experience. But, I will advise you to listen closely when you hear music that sounds incidental, it’s probably more than it sounds like at first listen.

Don’t Let It Play You

Do not play BioShock Infinite on hard. I’ve played all of the *Shock and Deus Ex games, so figured I would jump on a harder difficulty for more challenge. This was a big mistake, and I made an even bigger mistake by never lowering the difficulty out of stubbornness. Honestly the difficulty scaling on Hard is poorly done, the smaller encounters were still too easy and the larger encounters became extremely frustrating. Instead of making the game more tense by making you feel like every encounter matters, it instead made the encounters extremely binary.  Every encounter was a complete success or an abysmal failure. You take far too much damage so you need to stay as far away as possible and snipe, which makes it difficult to enjoy most of the powers and weapons. This ended up distracting me from the plot and characters at critical moments.

Do not search every object in the game. Infinite has an obscene number of searchable containers, but it’s really not worth it to open most of them. The scavenging elements feel very vestigial, and only seem to exist because Infinite was designed by people who once worked on a survival horror game. Scavenging is important in a survival horror game like System Shock 2 because it helps reinforce the concept of being low on resources and having to make difficult choices. But, in Infinite, there are no actual choices when it comes to resources. There are no usable health potions or other consumables, ammo was plentiful, and refilling health via apples doesn’t really matter due to all the full health kits laying around and the respawn mechanic. Most of the money in the game comes from certain types of containers like purses, and none of the upgrades are super essential. You should still explore the world to look for Voxaphones (audio logs) and locked doors, but the world will not end if you do not eat every garbage can sandwich.

Don’t Worry, It’ll Work Out

I had my share of issues with the gameplay, but my fears with regard to plot, characters, and theme were all unfounded. Inconsistencies of character or plot that seemed like gotchas either totally made sense or were very minor. I was worried that I would over-analyze the plot and break the illusion, but that never happened. I’ve over-analyzed dozens of games and movies until nothing remains but a morass of contradictions, but I wasn’t close to ruining the experience of Infinite. A big part of it is that the plot doesn’t hinge on a Sixth-Sense-style plot twist like the first BioShock, but instead is much more interested in the details of characters and how they react while living inside an interesting world. Infinite is a great example of my favorite type of science fiction, where creators creates an interesting world based on legitimately novel concepts and ideas, and use it as backdrop for a character study with relevance outside of the fictional world.

BioShock Infinite is clearly one of the best interactive experiences of this generation, and is absolutely worth purchasing for anyone who’s bothered to read this far into the article. I recommend the steam version with a controller or mouse. It may not have the best FPS combat, but it more than makes up for it in every other way. I’m not sure if single-player story-driven experiences are economically viable in today’s market, but Infinite clearly proves that there is plenty of fertile artistic ground left to till. Now off to read more spoiler threads, and corner people at work to discuss the finer details of the last hour of the game. Cause, you know, there’s that thing that happened, and, like, what does it all mean?

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Reality Is Broken: Yup, Sure Is

Posted by Ben Zeigler on January 15, 2012

About a year late, I just finished reading Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken and have some thoughts on the subject. First off, it’s a well-written and well-sourced book that I can safely recommend to anyone who’s read this far. There are important ideas worth discussing and passing along, and I wish there were more books like it. It’s basically divided into 2 halves: A well argued first half discussing the ways that well designed video games are superior to reality, and a series of conclusions about how to best apply this knowledge. This is a case where I completely agree with the premise of the book, but take issue with many of the conclusions. I’ll save that for a second post, but for now it’s worth discussing some of the ways in which reality Kind of Sucks.

Work is Broken

I’ve talked a bit about motivational psychology before, and the evidence (much of which is referenced from within  the book) is overwhelming that most people’s jobs compare very miserably to playing a well designed game. The job of a well designed game is to provide a set of unnecessary obstacles for a player to optimistically attempt to complete, while most jobs alternate between work that is too easy, and situations that are incredibly tense. The ideal is to get into the psychological state of “flow“, where the difficulty of tasks are just right such that you can focus all of your mental energy on a problem and achieve meaningful and creative results. Games are great at this, jobs suck.

The feedback loop is the key to achieving flow. I’m lucky enough to be in a job where I get clear feedback about the success of my creative work (I just made that guy jump!), and there are other types of “satisfying” jobs, ranging from playing music, to crafting physical objects, to harvesting a crop. But, how do you provide the feedback our brains crave for participating in meetings? Or filling out paperwork that never seems to end? There aren’t easy answers here, so many of us turn to games to fill a legitimate, real need that cannot be satisfied by the rest of our lives. This isn’t an “addiction”, any more than water is an addiction: it’s a base human need that is being met less and less by what we spend most of our day doing. On a sidenote, I appreciated the reminder by Jane that introducing extrinsic rewards (ie much of the current “gamification” craze) has the real chance to suck all the intrinsic motivation out of a task. You need to be careful with rewards.

Reality is Unforgiving

One of the most confusing aspects of the psychology of gaming is that most gamers derive enjoyment out of failing. This is very confusing to both outsiders and inexperienced game designers, because it’s contrary to what happens in the “real” world. Jane McGonigal does a great job of explaining why this, and the first key is “optimistic failure”. Nearly every game is created with the expectation that a player will eventually solve it, and experienced players realize this. So, when that player fails horribly and explodes in to a pile of guts the reaction isn’t “life sucks”, it’s “next time I’ll get it!”. There are tons of ways for badly-designed games to subvert this (too easy and there’ s no satisfaction from losing, too random and the player has no way to actually improve), but there’s always the reassuring thought that, if you try hard enough, you can win.

Reality isn’t so forgiving, and there are real situations where no matter what you do, you cannot win. But, from my personal experience the lessons I’ve learned from gaming help me navigate reality: there’s always a way to win, if you have the ability to redefine the game. If there’s one thing games have truly taught me, it’s that there may actually be a way through and you should keep trying, at least until you run out of lives and it plays the sad music. And, I think those of us who grew up on games are demanding realities where there truly is the chance to succeed. This is stymied at every step by political realities and entrenched social values, but that optimism has some value to contribute to society.

Games for Social Safety

One of the most important roles for games in today’s society is to provide a place for introverts like myself to safely experiment with social interaction. It’s easy to screw this up (witness Xbox Live chat or the rampant hatred present in theoretically cooperative games), but it’s one of the most important areas that game designers should be focusing on to do legitimate good. Jane wisely identifies the first step as Ambient Sociability, or having the feeling of being around real people during enjoyable activities. This has been identified as core to the MMO experience, and when this is the only form of sociability (like in Demon’s/Dark souls) you can really see the power it has. People feel comfortable around other people, and it helps to associate good feelings of accomplishment and flow with the presence of other people, which is the first critical step to breaking out of social isolation.

On top of that, Jane points out other critical social experiences that gaming enables. Happy Embarrassment is the kind of polite trash talking and teasing that happens during games between friends, and helps to erase social stratification. Game designers need to do a better way to encourage this behavior in contexts where it is appropriate (facebook is great), while actively discouraging it when playing with strangers (due to lack of context, the same words go from playful teasing to hurtful bullying). Vicarious pride is the great feeling you get when you mentor someone and watch them succeed at something new. Cooperative console games are great at this, but lots of other games (most MMOs actively discourage this by restricting grouping) would benefit from more opportunities here. Every single game being built today would benefit from designs that encouraged positive social interactions.

Everything Can’t Be Epic

The last major advantage that Jane identifies for games is an improved ability to feel part of something greater. This is where the thesis starts breaking down for me. One element that does ring true is that in games you feel like you’re part of a larger world that you can truly influence, which is usually lacking in real life. Truly “large” world are easier to build in games, but honestly movie directors and authors do just as good a job here so that doesn’t feel like a real advantage to the medium. It feels like a real failing of the state of video games that “meaning” is equated with “huge”, and it really bothers me that that type of meaning is what 99% of games are striving for. There are still “awesome” movies and books, but those mediums have evolved to look for true meaning in other ways as well, games generally haven’t gotten there yet.

It may be my cynicism from playing entirely too many video games, but if every single game is “Epic”, then none are. The key to feeling involved in a real world is the interactions allowed by that world, not the sheer scale of it. A game like Skyrim takes advantage of scale to make you feel important, but just throwing me into large environments like Halo does tends to wear off after a game or too. The feeling of Awe, in games and in real life, acts like an addiction in that you need more and more of it to get the same feeling of deep connection, when it would be better to experiment with other avenues to build a feeling of deep connection with the world and other people. Also, Jane uses the term “Epic Win” repeatedly, which reacts poorly with my inner cynicism/realism.

We’ve Got Work to Do

At this point, I’ve covered about 1/3 of the page count in Reality is Broken, and the strongest conclusion I’ve reached is that most games are nearly as broken as reality. Sure, games generally do a pretty good job at creating flow, but these days “movie games” are starting to take over that dictate the experience directly from designer to player. Online multiplayer games are just as harsh and unforgiving as the real world, and opportunities for mentoring are sometimes stymied by a game’s design. The primary source of larger meaning that games strive for is giant explosions, which is starting to reach tolerance and lose it’s impact. We can do better, and we need to do better if we want to show the rest of the world how it should be done.


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GDC 2011: Dynamics, The State of the Art

Posted by Ben Zeigler on March 15, 2011

The first session I attended at GDC 2011 was Dynamics: The State of the Art presented by Clint Hocking, newly of LucasArts. In broad overview, the talk was was another attempt to answer the question “What/How Do Games Mean?”, and posits Dynamics as the base unit of meaning within the medium of Video Games as a whole. Overall it was a great talk, and it was a pleasure to see Clint talk for the for the first time. Like always, any mistakes are purely my own.

Meaning in Film

  • Initially, film was a curiosity, such as the film produced by Thomas Edison of an elephant being electrocuted. The goal was to inspire fear of AC current, but it failed to connect with the audience. Film didn’t know what it was doing yet.
  • The Kuleshov Effect was the first time anyone figured out how to really use film. An actor with a neutral expression was edited together with images of food, a woman, or a coffin. Audiences immediately attributed different emotions to the face of the actor, which was identical. Editing was creating meaning.
  • Editing is the basic tool of meaning in the medium of film. It’s what separates the medium from theater or radio. If you strip more and more of the editing out, eventually you get a televised play, and it’s not truly taking advantage of the medium
  • Games are still in the curiosity phase, and are still looking for their base method of meaning.

Dynamics Show the Way

  • Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics is an approach to analyzing games. Mechanics are the rules explicitly designed into the system. Dynamics are the runtime behavior of the system. Aesthetics is the wrapping of graphics/sound/story over top of both.
  • There’s a continuum of  where meaning comes from in games, between mechanics and dynamics. On one end we have a message model of meaning, where the designer builds the meaning directly into the mechanics. On the other hand we have abdication of ownership, where the meaning comes out of the dynamics. Dynamics is really the Kuleshov of games, the unique element

The Continuum

  • The original Splinter Cell was very far towards a designed experience. Goal was to get across the themes of sensitivity, proximity, and fragility. The game mechanics are designed to reinforce this, so by necessity there was little player choice.
  • Splinter Cell: Chaos theory built on these concepts, but added those of Exploration and Domination, which opened up the choices and pushed more of the meaning towards Dynamics. But, it was still fairly constrained
  • Far cry 2 was designed to be an exploration of human cruelty, comparing the savagery of humans to the savagery of animals. Was designed to be horrific, intimate, shameful. But, the dynamics didn’t always encourage this. For some people it was about being safe and boring, by being as efficient as possible. For others it was the chaos of lighting a field on fire. It turns out the chaos/paranoia of the dynamics overwhelmed the proscribed meaning of the mechanics, and the dynamics are where the meaning really came from.

Dynamics in Context

  • Tetris is about anticipation and keeping opportunity alive, but is largely abstract. The power of aesthetics can be seen by adding an aesthetic layer to add context, such as transporting prisoners. Then, new meaning is derived in the dynamics despite the mechanics being identical. Now the goal is to be less efficient or possibly to fail the game.
  • Competitive games such as fighting games are unique. In those games the true meaning derives from the conflict between the world perspectives of the two players. Each player has a conception of what the game is and should be, and that conflict builds over concepts such as what “cheap” is. The meaning is “synthetic” in that it comes from synthesis of other concepts. It’s “rigorous” in that the meaning depends on how much the players care about the match. And it’s “instantial” because the meaning comes from the individual match instance, not the mechanics as a whole


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GDC 2011: A Mature Industry Reflects

Posted by Ben Zeigler on March 8, 2011

I know I haven’t posted in forever (Gears 3 Beta in a few weeks!), but last week was GDC 2011 and some thoughts are in order. First, I’ll be putting up some talk notes later, still collecting those. But, I wanted to lead with my general thoughts on the conference as a whole, as from my perspective the whole experience fit pretty well into a central theme. Officially this was the 25th annual Game Developer Conference, and it hosted a set of retrospective panels to reinforce the theme (and that I avoided due to excessive lines). Educationally most of the sessions I went to were about building upon previous research or practically applying previously experimental ideas. Personally this was the first GDC were I spent more time meeting existing friends than making new ones (which was my fault). There wasn’t that much radically “new” at this year’s GDC to be honest.

A large factor in this is the timing of technological advance. In terms of console lifecycle, 2011 seems to be paralleling 2003/4, with the prior generation trundling on, a bunch of great games coming out, and two handhelds on the horizon. PC gaming is on the rise (Minecraft won essentially all awards this year), and there’s plenty of focus on nonconventional business models (2004 was the year of MMOs). There are tantalizing glimpses of the future, but the focus right now is on games instead of tech.

The overused phrase “Paradigm Shift” comes originally from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which is an insightful analysis of the history of science. The part of Kuhn’s thesis that inevitably gets lost is that the paradigm shifts are only part of the equation: during the “normal science” period all of the actually useful work gets done. That’s what this GDC was about for me, incredibly useful work that incrementally built on the work of previous innovations.

Matthias Worch’s talk on The Identity Bubble is a great example of this. I’m not going to bother to put up my notes, because his annotated slides are far more comprehensive. Quickly, the talk was about techniques for keeping the “identity bubble” of the player intact, and synchronizing the identities and motivations of player, character, and person. The talk explicitly built on concepts from Rules of Play, Second Person, Shared Fantasy, and others. Even better, it integrated these concepts together in a way that can be directly applied to any game currently in development to make it better. This is exactly what a game developer conference should be for.

GDC will eventually return to a crazy world of apocalyptic change (probably not next year at this rate), but it’s nice to remember that sometimes it’s good to sit down, reflect on what has happened, and reconstruct a solid base of knowledge. This is just as true for individuals as for the industry as a whole.

Although, I really didn’t go to enough insane parties to meet crazily exciting new people. Oh well, there’s always next time!

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With Cataclysm, Blizzard took the World out of Warcraft

Posted by Ben Zeigler on December 28, 2010

Now that I’ve hit level 85 with my Feral/Resto Tauren Druid and had a bit to think about it, I wanted to share some thoughts on the newest expansion. The short of it is that if Cataclysm is the direction Blizzard wants to take their open world content, I am not interested. Now, before I get into that I’ll quickly discuss what’s good: The PvP additions, the new instanced dungeons, and the changes to the existing old world content are all well made and great improvements. I very much enjoyed Azshara, and thought it was as good as any existing zone in the game.  But, as soon as I bought the expansion proper and dropped into Hyjal, things went south quickly.

Remember, “Polished” is a relative term

Actually when I dropped into Mount Hyjal for the first time I and hundreds of other players were immediately slaughtered by “friendly” NPC guards (this got fixed a few days ago apparently). You’d think this kind of bug would get fixed in the months long beta, but oh well, things happen.  But throughout the rest of the open world content I ran into constant game breaking issues. The end of the Troll starting area left me in perpetual in-combat until I restarted. The story event at the end of Vash’jr broke on me 3 times in a row, leading me to kill the executable after getting stuck in a cutscene for 20 minutes. When I first entered Uldum I ended up in a broken phase where I couldn’t get out of the small cage it spawned me in until another reset. An Uldum turret mission took me half an hour because 90% of the enemies were moving but invincible. At least 4 separate times I ran into issues where enemies I was fighting would randomly despawn (not even evade, actually disappear) right before the end of boss fights.

I didn’t play Burning Crusade or Lich King right at launch, but playing vanilla WoW at launch I never ran into so many quest progression issues (stability is way better now though). All of the failures I ran into seem to share the same base cause: complicated single player scripting that interacts poorly with the actually massive number of people in the world. After the success of Lich King’s content (nearly everyone seemed to enjoy phasing and vehicle missions), Blizzard has pushed their design farther in a direction their engine cannot handle. There are now a ton of in-engine cut scenes that tell the story, but their quality is often abysmal. Awkward voice work, camera angles that constantly lead me to be staring 90 degrees to the right of the subjects, jerky animation, and an excess of shots of characters slowly walking made me want to skip all of them. But, I stopped trying after half of them prevented me from skipping and 1 of them actually dropped me to login after I skipped it. I’m the kind of player who doesn’t love cut scenes in narrative action-adventure games, but if you constantly take control away from me to show me poorly edited machinima that could easily exist in the game world, I’m not going to play your game.

The Rollercoaster of Warcraft

It isn’t just the cut scenes that take away player control, the plot of the expansion is constantly trying to making you feel small and useless. After helping defeat the scourge of Arthas, jumping into the defense of Hyjal felt satisfying as the zone made you feel important. Deepholm continues the same theme, as you literally save the earth. But when you enter Vashj’ir you almost immediately get kidnapped by completely normal Naga. It vaguely makes sense because you’re in their domain, but it still feels a bit silly for one of the heroes of northrend to be overpowered by a single humanoid. Then, the first thing that happens when you get to Uldum is… you get kidnapped by a small group of stereotypical pygmies and thrown into a tiny cage. Before you end your questing you’ll get abducted AGAIN by inconsequential minions. I’m sure this was meant to make things feel “dramatic”, but it just made me feel like my character was useless as I rode the Rollercoaster of Warcraft.

It isn’t just the story progression that took away my feeling of control, it was the game mechanics. The changes to talent trees were great for balance purposes, but did remove the feeling of being able to choose your own path as you had to stay within the constricted path chosen for you. The biggest change is in quest structure, as there are now far fewer quests available at any given point. The game leads you from quest hub to quest hub in a very precise manner, and if one quest is broken due to bugs you will be unable to progress any further because all the quests are in very long chains. When I got to a quest hub in vanilla wow and got received 6 quests spread across a geographic area, I got to plan my approach and have the satisfaction of doing it efficiently or not. In Catacylsm when I get to a quest hub I get 2-3 quests which are geographically on top of each other and nearly impossible to do in isolation. The confusing part is that because an 80+ character is guaranteed to have a flying mount, they could easily space these out a bit better to make the world feel more alive without killing efficiency. As it is, you’re lead by the nose throughout Catacylsm, with the only choice being which of 2 linear paths to progress down first. Oh, and all these linear chains mean that 99% of quests in Catacylsm are not shareable so group questing is both less efficient and less fun than going it alone.

Massively no More

Blizzard appears to have completely given up on the idea of open world content that is designed for a Massive number of players. In addition to the constant bugs and lack of mission sharing, anything that isn’t easily soloable has been removed entirely. But, the mob and quest mechanics have not adjusted to the fact that everyone is now soloing. The vast majority of quest objective spawns do not share credit if two groups/players simultaneously engage them. A smattering of them do correctly handle split credit but it’s completely random and not tied to any visual or text feedback as far as I can tell (I thought it might be tied to rather an enemy HP bar turns gray when tagged, but this seems to be unrelated). Half of the time quest objectives would quickly respawn when farmed and half of the time it would take 10 minutes. Sometimes the players would informally group up to help share quest credit and half the time someone would gank an enemy despite you clearly being in the front of the line. The only time I died while questing in Catacylsm was when the accelerated spawn timers from farmed enemies would cause them to respawn before they hit the ground. Other than that, the only challenge in questing Catacylsm was in developing a comprehensive spawn camping strategy and stopping myself from raging at kill stealers who are supposed to be my allies.

There are exactly 2 open world experiences that are designed for a “massive” world, and neither of them work. The Crucible of Carnage in Twilight Highlands is the now-traditional forced group quest where you fight dungeon-boss-quality enemies in a full group. But, it’s even more broken than ever. For the experience to work correctly there has to be EXACTLY 5 people who want to perform the quest at any given point. If there are less you will fail because the enemies are difficult. If there is more than one full group the quest breaks as two group compete to start fights, gank spawns, and generally screw with each other. Oh, and sometimes the enemy fears you, you run out of the arbitrary quest area, and fail a quest 4 times in a row. Finally, Tol Barad is the Wintergrasp replacement that aims to provide large scale objective PvP. But, in it’s current form it’s completely unbalanced as the attackers have a nearly impossible task while the defenders can basically not move the entire game and automatically win. Tol Barad may get better, but in it’s current form it’s much less fun and rewarding than the instanced battlegrounds.

Fun to visit, wouldn’t want to live there

What does today’s World of Warcraft gain from being a massively multiplayer game? The open world content is trying to be a linear action-adventure rollercoaster without the satisfying gameplay or high polish and production values required to make that work. The end games of PvP and dungeon instance running are almost entirely run through matchmaking services or via explicit guild activities. Oh, and if I want to play with a friend of mine from work I have to spend 100 hours leveling a character to max or pay $30 and abandon my existing friends to set up a server transfer. 18 months ago I said no MMORPG would ever beat WoW, but it looks like World of Warcraft is on it’s way to killing the genre itself, by abandoning it.

Posted in MMO Design | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

11 Vital Lessons To Learn From Game Dev Story

Posted by Ben Zeigler on October 26, 2010

Something like 50% of my twitter follows and coworkers spent most of last week playing Game Dev Story, myself included. Basically, it’s a stat-based simulation game for the iPhone, but instead of being about sports or whatever it’s about making video games. It perfectly hits the balance between a parody and a legitimately interesting game, and if you’re reading this blog you’re guaranteed to enjoy it. Anyway, I picked up some Incredibly Valid advice from my 5 hours or so of playing Game  Dev Story that I would like to share with you all:

  • Spending half a million to get a C-list celebrity to show up at your tradeshow booth is a strangely alluring prospect that I fell for repeatedly. Despite the fun it provides your marketing team you’re way better off getting a simple booth for $100k and spending the rest on development.
  • Masked luchadors, bears, and Middle Eastern monarchs are best qualified to be the stars of your development team.
  • A generally good strategy is to try out low budget genre and theme combinations until you find one that works and gain some experience with the elements. Then, spend some real money on a high quality game in the same genre, that really won’t make much of a profit. Lastly, drive that franchise into the ground with cheap sequels that are guaranteed to sell. Repeat.
  • When the programmer with no artistic skill proposes his AWESOME plan to improve the art of your game, he will fail miserably, costing you hundreds of thousands of dollars and adding dozens of horrible bugs.
  • Artists, designers, and sound guys are useful and all but if you REALLY want to make a hall of fame-level game you need to cross train them as Hardware Engineers and Hackers. Truth.
  • Building a series of Golf-themed Audio Novels is not the route to financial success.
  • However, creating a Game Development Simulation is nearly guaranteed to succeed (Hopefully the players of said simulation learn the same lesson).
  • A development license and basic engine for the Microx 480 costs $50 million, while developing a modern console system from scratch only costs $40 million (Note: completely false in the real world, and the only major factual error in the game).
  • Marketing your game to 41 year olds is a waste of time and money. Soon enough they’ll be too old to buy any games at all. You’re better off getting hordes of school children to love your games: they’ll grow up and keep buying them.
  • Giving your staff energy drinks improves all aspects of game development.
  • You can spend millions of dollars and your best talent on a project that is guaranteed to succeed. But, sometimes your asset backups are destroyed by a freak accident, a competitor releases a massively hyped game in the same genre a week before you, and you’re forced to rush a fatally buggy game out the door just to meet payroll and keep your employees off the street, killing your reputation in the process.

Other than issues related to platform (given that it comes from the Japanese gamedev community this might say something about regional biases), Game Dev Story is actually pretty educational. Next time some random fanboy gamer suggests that companies should really just start making GOOD games, make them play Game Dev Story and see if it changes their perspective. Sometimes making yet another Othello Puzzle game for the Intendro DM really is your only option, and your lead scenario writer is just going to have to suck it up.

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Good Old Games: WTF?

Posted by Ben Zeigler on September 22, 2010

Last Sunday, Good Old Games (GoG from now on, it’s a DRM-free digital game download service) announced it was abruptly closing. This was alarming to me, as I had enjoyed several of GoG’s packages (bought Master of Magic off them), but given the financial climate and rumors of acquisition I figured it had something to do losing licenses to older games or some sort of business disruption. They announced “On a technical note, this week we’ll put in place a solution to allow everyone to re-download their games.” but tons of other internet gaming companies have announced the same thing before abruptly closing, never to be seen again. People mentioned it may have been a weird hoax but that didn’t make any sense to me.

Imagine my surprise this morning when I see this was all a stupid PR trick for a relaunch of the site. Well I say surprise but what I really mean is irritation. First of all, why does launching a new version of a site take 5 days of downtime? During this downtime all of GoG’s customers were completely unable to access the games they already bought and paid for unless they happened to have them installed. Another big failure is in the original announcement. Looking back at the original announcement I can see what they were going for, but the language in it is 100% identical to what you would see when a company actually closes. It may have read as humorous to them but it read as deadly serious to everyone else. Also, the way they apologized did not come across as particularly sincere: dressed in monk robes in a weird YouTube video.

There are a few things that don’t make for very funny corporate hoaxes, and death is one of them. The whole idea of a service like GoG is that it needs to be reliable, because you are purchasing theoretically lifetime access to games as well as becoming emotionally attached to the service as an entity. GoG has spent years building up positive word of mouth and emotional connection, and they severed those connections the same way as if a friend sent you a serious-sounding suicide note, wouldn’t answer his phone for 6 days and showed up in a clown suit saying “Just kidding! Check out my new suit.” It’s a bit amusing, but it doesn’t really make you inclined to lend him $100 the next time he says he needs help. In the back of your mind there’s always a bit of doubt about them: Was that the only way they knew how to get your attention? Can I really trust them with my personal information? Are they lying to me right now?

When a company builds a personal relationship with their customers (which GoG definitely did, by trading on nostalgia and using social media effectively), it’s up to them to realize the gravity and importance of that relationship. Screwing with the emotions of a friend just because you want attention is a good way to lose friends. I’d be very reluctant to buy anything off of GoG until they prove their trust to me again, and based on twitter and message boards 90% of their core audience feels the same way.

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Realtime Worlds and Runic Games: Vastly Different Strategies

Posted by Ben Zeigler on September 17, 2010

It appears to be official that APB is closing, a mere 2 months and change after it was released. This might be some sort of record in the MMO world, especially given the much-heralded pedigree and investment capital behind APB. I don’t know anything about the internal workings over at Realtime Worlds, but ex-employee Luke Halliwell has posted a set of thoughts on his blog. They’re quite frank, which may be a bit of an English thing as compared to the average game developer perspective it’s pretty unedited. I have no opinion on the veracity of his notes, but I did find them a fascinating read.

I found his Part 2 to be the most interesting, as it directly discusses what happened when the company received $100m in funding: they figured out how to spend as much of it as possible as quickly as possible by hiring 300 people. Then, when they ran out of money they started nickel and diming expenses instead of releasing some headcount. It turns out that many companies have tried this strategy, and it rarely works out. It’s hard enough to scale up to be a “real company”, but no game company I am aware of has done it successfully over a 3 year time frame. You cannot grow a company built around creative work and software development that quickly. I recommend you read the linked entry, as this kind of rapid growth leads to the specific type of gaps between “business” and “development” that leads to something like the APB monetization model.

In contrast with the Realtime Worlds strategy, you can take a look at the strategy Runic Games is taking. Last week’s (9/9/2010) Active Time Babble podcast features a great interview with Max Schaefer from Runic Games, starting at the 42 minute point. The first half is discussion of the design of Torchlight 2, but starting at around 65 minutes Kat Bailey starts asking him about the business decisions behind making Torchlight 2, and Max answers them candidly in a way that few PR departments would allow. It’s not a problem, because he answers it in a way that makes me feel great about the quality of Torchlight 2 and the future of Runic. It’s particularly interesting given Max’s history at Flagship Studios, which is a company that shares some commonalities with Realtime Worlds.

Basically, the original plan for Runic was to make Torchlight 1 and then move directly into the Torchlight MMO which would be the real money maker. But then Torchlight 1 was extremely successful and fueled strong demand for a peer-to-peer multiplayer version. Because Torchlight 1 only took a year to make and the studio is only 32 or so people, they were able to refocus the company and work on Torchlight 2, which is a product that is directly based on user demand while also serving as a bridge to expertise needed to build a successful MMO. By being small and responsive to the community, they can make a product that satisfies both the market and their own creative impulses. Instead of there being a rift between business and development, they’re unified in a way that works out better for both game quality and the long term health of the company.

On APB specifically, Max says the following: “Projects have gotten too expensive and too risky and have to return so much or else they’re giant money losers, so people seem to go All In too often with their bets on getting into the online world. There’s always a temptation to go big and make the biggest and best thing ever made… it’s just so risky and the numbers are so big now, and the timelines are so long, it’s very, very easy for a project like that to fail spectacularly”. In contrast to leaping into it, Runic is “rappelling down slowly into the abyss” of making an MMO.

The Realtime Worlds story continues to develop, but I can at least appreciate that people are starting to talk about the process via which games are created. Hopefully the industry can start to learn from the mistakes of the past, at least when it comes to company structure and growth. “Go big or go home” is what investors (from VCs to the public markets) seem to want to hear, but that isn’t actually what gives a return on investment in today’s world of rapid change in the gaming space.

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PAX 2010, Steam Indies, and a Job

Posted by Ben Zeigler on September 13, 2010

It’s been a bit since I updated here, so I thought I’d share a few quick bits that piled up:

Last weekend I spent a great time at PAX 2010. Personal highlights for me where the Giant Bomb and Idle Thumbs (recorded a quick bootleg of The Wizard) panels, as well as the time spent with a bunch of my friends from the industry. Seattle is always lots of fun to visit, and anyone who hasn’t made the PAX trip by now absolutely needs to. The expo was pretty big this year, and I had a bunch of fun playing games of all types. SpyParty, Slam Bolt Scrappers, and NBA Jam were my personal highlights.

After I got back from PAX, I picked up 2 indie games on Steam, both of which I highly recommend. I talked a bit about vvvvvv before, and now it’s $5 on steam, which is an absolute steal compared to the $15 it launched at. I actually ended up buying it a second time, because I will pay $5 for a game to show up on my steam game list. Then, I picked up Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale, which is a translated Japanese dojin JRPG shop simulation game combined with a dungeon crawler. In addition to being a crazy concept that I fully support, the game is a bunch of fun and well worth $20. I played about 8 hours of it over the last week to finish out the main quest, and there’s tons more content if you’re into grinding out all possible items. There’s a free demo for the game, so just try it yourself it it sounds interesting.

Lastly, I have a new job now! Starting in October (after my 2 week vacation to Europe), I’m starting as a Gameplay Programmer at a certain Unreal-related studio in North Carolina. I’m super excited because I’ll be working on high quality games where I get to use both my technical and design skills. I won’t be talking a whole lot about what I’m doing, but I’ll keep updating here with random thoughts. Expect more discussion of console-based FPS design in the near future as well as plenty of discussions about why the MMO sub-industry is doooooomed to failure.

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