Double Buffered

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

The Core Process of Creativity

Posted by Ben Zeigler on August 17, 2010

I’d been meaning to write a bit about what kind of creative/design processes seem to work for collaborative work, but then danc over at Lost Garden writes the entire article for me, with a variety of attractive and useful diagrams! I suggest anyone who’s even vaguely interested in the process of creating something of interest take a look, as it beautifully explains the concrete process that leads to collaborative creativity.

The software world tends to go through various development fads, from Extreme Programming to Scrum to Agile. Each of these approaches are attempts to codify a set of specific rules that may not be well adapted to a specific project (ie, pair programming may not make sense for a specific company), but at the core they all share one commonality: a vision of iterative development that is closely aligned to what is laid out at Lost Garden. It’s not super important what specific methodology is followed, but any process that is both creative and requires high quality output is best performed using the same model: brainstorm, cull, repeat, practice.

What makes danc’s article so useful is that he goes through all of the possible ways the process can fail, and I think I’ve experienced all of them in the last few years. The biggest danger spot in my experience has clearly been the Culling phase. As a single creator it’s pretty easy to cull your own ideas, but as soon as you bring group dynamics into it it starts to get way more emotional. When I make an idea and it doesn’t work out, I can tell myself that without bringing up any sort of resentment. But if I tell someone else their idea doesn’t work there are hundreds of ways to screw up.

I could say it in a rude manner because I am a programmer and make them personally offended. I could hit on the insecurities of the other party accidentally and bring on a bout of self consciousness that paralyzes future brainstorming. I could do it in a way that implies I could do their job better, pushing them to defend their flawed idea in order to defend their position at the company.

Setting criteria for evaluation and a strong vision up front is vital to this process,  but even with it things can get uncomfortable. We’re all cranky, creative humans who have histories and an emotional life outside of work. I think dealing with the human element of the culling process in a productive manner is what separates a competent producer/director from a truly great one.

Posted in Game Design, Game Development | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

The Psychology of Starcraft 2

Posted by Ben Zeigler on August 10, 2010

I’ve now played about 5 hours of Starcraft 2, on a guest pass. I’ve been concentrating on the Challenges (which are great for teaching multiplayer) and multiplayer because if I am going to pay $60 for a game I want more than a single player campaign that I’ll enjoy but never finish. After playing through all 9 Challenges and my 5 placement matches (1-4 record with sole win via disconnection), I am convinced that I will never be good at Starcraft 2 or any other conventional RTS because of how my brain operates at a deep level.

I’ve never been very good at RTS games, and even back in the day multiplayer Warcraft 2 was too much for me to handle. I am pretty good at both League of Legends and Dawn of War 2 single player, so the problem is not the perspective or controls. I am just not mentally capable of dealing with multiple focuses of attention at the same time.

The perfect test for this is the Opening Gambit challenge. The challenge is to optimally play the first 20 minutes of a simulated multiplayer game. You need to get a certain number of units produced within a certain time limit while dealing with pre-programmed assaults. I managed to get the bronze level on every other challenge on my first attempt, but Opening Gambit took me 8. After stumbling around a bit, for the last 4 I had a perfect plan that I completely failed to execute. After finally failing to suck I spent 4 more attempts trying to shave enough time off to get a Silver before giving up in frustration.

The reason was the same each time: I would start to focus on specific building or group of units and would neglect the rest. I would get my bunkers setup but completely forget to requeue my marines. Or I would be busy placing a building and completely miss the 30 aliens eating up the poor miners. Since I have been a child my brain is predisposed to stick with something until it’s finished, and to do well at Starcraft 2 you have to do the exact opposite.

The conscious brain is only capable of focusing on one task at a time and takes a certain amount of time to switch between areas of focus. There’s plenty of research that switching focus quickly lowers overall performance and increases stress, and there is no task that requires as much context-switching as playing a RTS game. In hardware terms think of the human brain as a single-core processor with a variety of vector units that can be dispatched for various tasks (your unconscious mind handles all the extensive pattern matching required for a Starcraft 2 game, and anyone can get better at that). Your consciousness is not doing more than one thing at a time, and context switching takes up time. For myself, I suspect that my cost of context switching is very high, and as a result I can never be good at Starcraft 2 or anything that requires real multitasking.

So what mental skills do you need to do well at Starcraft 2?

  • Quickly switch between different tasks at different levels of progress instead of following one task through to completion.
  • Respond to a huge number of stimuli simultaneously
  • Interact with the game at a hyperactive rate as high as 100 interactions per second.
  • Never stop moving your focus of attention between different points on the map.

Those are about half the symptoms of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. To be diagnosed with ADHD a person must also have difficulty constructing integrated plans, and the top tier Starcraft 2 players are able to juggle the multitasking as well as construct build plans and react on the fly so the match isn’t 100%. But, I suspect strongly that if you were to poll good-but-not-top-tier Starcraft 2 players there would be a strong correlation with a diagnosis of ADHD. I am very skeptical that ADHD is a proper mental disorder (due to it’s crazy overdiagnosis as a catchall for behavioral problems), but the symptoms describe a cluster of mental properties that are well adapted for playing Starcraft 2.

ADHD isn’t a cluster of mental properties that develops later in life, and I suspect the same is true for RTS multitasking ability. Your brain is either set up for quick multitasking or it isn’t, and ADHD is probably what occurs when that cluster of brain properties matches up with difficulty controlling a bored brain. ADHD is also strongly male-oriented which matches with my anecdotal evidence of gender ratios in RTS vs FPS (I cannot find good data for this, please comment to prove me wrong). The problem isn’t that the RTS genre is “inaccessible”, it’s that doing well at it requires a certain type of brain structure that is NOT easy to develop after adolescence.

Interestingly, there is a bit of research indicating that experience with multitasking can interfere with solving more focused tasks, so in the best interest of my own brain I think I should probably stop trying to get good at Starcraft 2 multiplayer. Or, you know, it may just be because I’m a noob who can’t l2p. In the end I can better learn how to deal with a Roach rush, but there’s no chance of me really learning how to manage my economy and an enemy attack simultaneously.

Posted in Game Design | Tagged: , , | 11 Comments »

Another Reason DRM is a Bad Idea: Patents

Posted by Ben Zeigler on August 4, 2010

I’ve been pretty critical of game companies using DRM before, but today’s article from Gamasutra points out another reason to stop trying. Uniloc, who is a DRM provider, is suing Activision, Sony, and Aspyr for patent infringement. The patent in question, “System for Software Registration” was filed in 1993 and has been the focus of a large amount of previous litigation. A jury awarded Uniloc $388 million in a suit against Microsoft (currently in appeal) over the exact kind of infringement being discussed. Macromedia (another DRM provider) settled with Uniloc over the same patent. As far as patent law goes, that’s a pretty strong case for it being valid. And considering Uniloc is a company built around intellectual property protection I would not expect them to stop enforcing this patent any time soon.

So, what is actually patented by Uniloc? I’m no patent lawyer so the following should under no circumstances be treated as anything vaguely resembling legal advice. The key seems to be the ability to generate a “digital fingerprint” of a particular machine and use that to authorize a limited number of product activations. It also heavily mentions demo vs. authorized mode (a concept I’m sure I saw in hundreds of shareware products prior to 1993). In broad terms it can be interpreted to apply to any form of DRM/copy protection that provides a unique license unlock that is only valid for one physical machine.

Not only is DRM that ties a purchased product to a specific machine actively user hostile (I’ve played my steam games on multiple computers over the years legitimately), it is legally risky. When you add to it how pointless it is, it’s hard to see how a responsible game publisher would consider such DRM to be a good investment.

Posted in Game Development | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Everquest 2 is going to be Free to Play! Sorta! Maybe?

Posted by Ben Zeigler on July 30, 2010

SOE recently announced their free to play “option” for Everquest 2, confusingly named “Everquest 2 Extended“. We’ve seen via D&D Online that a Free to Play/subscription hybrid can work within the premium fantasy MMORPG realm, so I was initially excited because I assumed SOE would follow Turbine’s lead. Then I actually started reading the 37-question FAQ (already a bad sign), and my hopes quickly fell. SOE has managed to produce the single most confusing game-purchasing system in the history of the world.

Let’s first take a look at the “Membership Matrix” chart that is trying it’s hardest to summarize tons of information. We can compare it to the same chart at DDO’s site for their membership levels.  Here are the 4 membership levels of the F2P version of EQ2:

  • “Bronze” is the free level, fine so far. This is your typical free level of service that is comparable to DDO’s “free” level. You start with 3 character slots, but cannot purchase more a la carte. You can’t have more than 5 gold/character level. You can get to level 80, but cannot equip high quality weapons or spells. You cannot use most chat commands or send any mail. DDO has a few restrictions on free accounts using chat and auction but these are largely to avoid spamming problems. Bronze players can only have 20 quests active which is probably for database reasons but just comes across as spiteful to the average player. A Bronze player has an experience that is significantly inferior to a current subscriber, even if they were willing to pay for those benefits a la carte.
  • “Silver” is a level that can be purchased once, at a cost of $10. This is vaguely similar to the “Premium” level of DDO, but the big difference is that Premium happens as an automatic upgrade with any purchase. Silver is basically “Less crappy free”. You still can’t equip the highest level of spells, but you can do a bit better. You still don’t get unlimited gold storage, but your limit is 4x higher. You get one extra character slot but still can’t buy any more. You still can’t send mail even though you are obviously not a gold spammer. You can now have 40 quests active, but not the full 75. This level is extremely confusing. You’re better than a bronze player, but still objectively nerfed in terms of game balance and functionality compared to a subscription player.
  • “Gold” is the $15/month level, which is comparable to the VIP subscription level of DDO. You’re finally a “real” player in that you have access to all the game’s spells and equipment. However,  a gold subscription does not include all of the game’s content! For $15/month you get customer support, 4 character slots, some classes (still only 4 races), and various upgrades to storable items. But compared to a “proper” EQ2 subscription player you lose out on many races and gain no benefits.
  • Finally we have the “Platinum” level which is the most superflous. First it appears the only way to become platinum is to pay by the year and not by the month, so it’s not a new tier as much as it is a different way of paying. For your $200/year ($20/year more than Gold, so Platinum costs 10% ish more), you get access to a bundled expansion pack, 3 character slots, and a point stipend. Why does this level exist at all, other than just as a “yearly subscription” version of Gold?

With those 4 tiers we have 4 entirely different ways of game acquisition, with a bewildering array (11 by my count) of transitions. Let’s say you buy a Gold subscription, let it lapse, and go back to a Bronze one. You’re now worse off than someone who paid $10 once for a Silver level membership. Or let’s say you move from Platinum to Gold because you don’t want to pay yearly. You now lose access to that expansion content and can’t access your level 85 character despite still paying $15/month. There are 5 different ways to downgrade the service level of an existing account, all of which are tricky and will almost certainly lead to horrible bugs. Contrast this with DDO, which has 3 tiers but only 3 transitions: Free to Premium when you buy anything at all (which is never reversed), Premium to VIP (which can be combined with previous one, as buying a subscription permanently marks your account as premium), and one downgrade path from VIP to Premium. This was already complicated to work out but is significantly simpler than the EQ2 system.

Now, what I’ve described so far isn’t even the most confusing part of the whole thing! The absolutely stupidest thing is that this whole 4 tier system coexists with the current $15/month subscription to EQ2 proper. That’s right there will be 2 completely different, unconnected ways to pay $15/month to play the EQ2 content.  They claim to wish to continue supporting traditional EQ2 for the long term so this may be the case for years to come. Let’s say you have friends on both, you’d need to pay $30/month or pick up a Station pass. Oh, and if you want to move over to the extended server from the current server? You need to pay a $35 transfer fee per character. Whatever the result, the existing subscriber base will fragment, with some of them moving to the extended servers and some staying put. The game will be less fun.

In conclusion, this is a very poorly designed system that is obviously the result of hundreds of hours of negotiations at the corporate level. It makes absolutely no sense. Someone at SOE felt they absolutely had to keep EQ2’s current model alive, and someone else decided that SOE needed a F2P version. So they did both. They’ve lost sight of what the actual goal is of making a free to play game: low barrier to entry. DDO works because the existing players were able to convince their friends to try out the free version so they could play together. Those new players would then start buying microtransactions and maybe pick up a VIP subscription (total subscription numbers went up for DDO). With the EQ2 system, if I have a subscription and want to get my friend to play I have to jump through tons of hoops. I have to pay $35 to transfer my character to the free server, I have to pay an additional $15/month to get the same access I had before (and possibly maintaining my $15/month on EQ2 if I have a guild there), and I have to explain the “free” system to my friend. That friend won’t be able to buy new slots or features a la carte if they want to get into the high end play. So, they’ll stare at that membership matrix for a few minutes, say “screw it” and go play something that makes sense.

Posted in Game Design, Game Development, MMO Design | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Game Development Stack Exchange Is Open For Business

Posted by Ben Zeigler on July 26, 2010

If you’ve never heard of StackOverflow, it’s a very popular site for programming-related Q&A site, which has largely replaced the sleazy, due to a hugely superior interface and community features. If you ever need to know anything about programming, that’s the place to go.

Well, the guys who run it have been expanding into other areas, and one of the newest ones is the Game Development StackExchange site, which is currently in Open Beta (snazzy name to come at a later date). I’ve had a bit of free time lately so I’ve been trying to help out over there, and it’s been a pretty rewarding experience. It’s up to more than a thousand active users and is growing every day, with already quite a few interesting questions:

But, there are still tons of unexplored areas, so if you have any questions about game development, be it programming, design, art, production, or marketing come over to the Game Development StackExchange and let a community of experts answer it for you. And hey, if you like answering questions and giving advice there’s no better place.

Posted in Game Development | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

5 Years Is A Long Time

Posted by Ben Zeigler on July 21, 2010

5 Years and 1 month ago I entered the gaming industry. Right out of college Cryptic Studios took a huge chance and hired me. Luckily it worked out, and Cryptic has always been a great place to get started in the industry. I had some awesome mentors during my first year there, and the working conditions were uniformly excellent throughout. For the first few years I had an absolutely perfect job. But after 5 years my passion for the job has completely faded and for my own happiness it’s time to move on. Officially as of last Friday, I have resigned from my position as a Lead Programmer at Cryptic Studios. I am doing this largely for personal reasons. Cryptic is still an awesome studio to work for and has many exciting projects in the works, but it is no longer the studio for me. I am currently taking a few months off to focus on my personal life (travelling to mainland Europe for the first time) and evaluate all of my future career options. I did not make this choice lightly, but I feel strongly that it is the right one at this point in time.

Reading the thoughts of Manveer Heir and Clint Hocking has helped me to clarify my own. If I was personally motivated by financial interests or quality of working conditions I would have absolutely no reason to quit, as Cryptic has treated me very well. But I am motivated by 2 things: the opportunity to solve interesting problems, and the satisfaction of seeing my work appreciated and enjoyed by others. If I can’t get those out of my life, I am objectively not a happy person.

Halcyon Days Gone By

During my first year I was dropped directly into the fire, working hard to get City of Villains shipped on time. For a kid right out of college this was an exhilarating thrill, and I was more than happy to work some overtime to help craft a great game. The final product had a few issues, but overall I was very proud of what we had accomplished in a short period of time. During this time I volunteered to fix a few tricky database corruption issues and I somehow got stuck with maintaining the database despite not having any official training. But hey, it was a new challenge and I took to it, reading up on the intricacies of MSSQL and database transaction theory. Despite being hired as a gameplay programmer, I started diving into the deeply technical infrastructure systems and learned more by the minute. Problems to solve abounded, and I could check the forums every day to see the real improvements I was bringing to players.

Going into my second year, the software team had some high ambitions. Coming off the largely successful launch of City of Villains the focus turned towards future projects, and that meant some extensive changes to the server infrastructure. The server team as a whole decided that a new system based on an Object Database would make the most sense, and because I was too inexperienced to know how hard it was I signed up to construct a database from scratch. It turns out it actually IS possible to construct a database from scratch, and I spent the next year and a half doing exactly that. Here was my chance to really make an impact, and build a critical component that would be at the center of an entire community of users. Despite the naysayers I can report that the Object Database has held up just fine under load from tens of thousands of active players at once. I was solving a deeply interesting technical problem, and I knew my work would enable new experiences (dealing with larger per-shard concurrency) that were otherwise impossible.

Heading into year 3 I started to get tired of the whole database thing. I hadn’t entered the games industry to write game-agnostic infrastructure code. I could have worked at Oracle for better pay and less satisfaction if I was going to do that! My interest in game design is after all why this site exists in the first place. By this time I’d proven my technical chops so I was able to spend half of my time being the principal gameplay programming on a new project. This was REALLY what I wanted to do! Work directly with designers to make a truly great game! It was a stressful but rewarding experience, trying out new gameplay prototypes, learning to manage the expectations of your teammates and superiors, and dealing with horrible game-destroying fires whenever they came up. I was learning how to actually design a game, and I could see the fruits of my labor every week during our playtests.

Sorry, That Was Pretentious

But then things started to go wrong. A newly acquired project delayed my project’s release window. The project’s thematic vision shifted while maintaining most of the same personnel. And then it shifted a second time, with commensurate delays. Eventually I was the only team member left from the original incarnation, and I had spent 3 straight years working on the “third unannounced project”. During those 3 years I had implemented several different combat systems from scratch, sat through hundreds of meetings, and fixed thousands of issues created by the rest of the company forgetting my project existed. This is all while I was spending the other half of my time maintaining and optimizing back end functionality that was about to ship in 2 commercial titles. I was spending more time fixing the same broken sink over and over than solving interesting problems, and I was increasingly skeptical of my gameplay work ever seeing the light of day. I wasn’t happy but I figured that was because I was so stressed out all the time.

Over the last year I made a conscious effort to try and achieve a better work-life balance, and I did a better job of delegating to some of the newer, very talented programmers. I worked hard at my collaboration skills and really focused on my primary game project. But over time something curious happened: as the adrenaline high wore off I realized I hadn’t actually enjoyed work for the last 2 years. What kept me going through the day was the sense of obligation I felt to the company, and my refusal to slack off and release poor quality work. But a huge chunk of my high-quality work had been completely trashed due to company reorganizations and personnel switches, and there were no interesting technical problems left to solve within the the constraints of the organization. As ties of obligation loosened I realized that the structure of the company itself was keeping me from doing my best quality work. Issues that were minor and ignorable 5 years ago were now highly irritating and galling. After spending copious time attempting and failing to “fix” the company’s issues, It was time for me to “fix” my own personal issue of working a job I hated.

Creative Differences

5 years is a long time for any creative collaboration. I consider myself to be a creative person, and I also consider myself to be a slightly odd person. It turns out these are very related, and every truly creative person I’ve worked with has had a variety of personality quirks that can either be interpreted as endearing or highly irritating. The Beatles managed to go a whole decade, but only by constantly switching up the dynamics through reinvention. Hollywood movies are made on a contract basis over 2-3 years, which I think has more to do with the creative process than it does labor politics. Some of the best game ideas I have been involved with have come directly from spirited and slightly emotional arguments. Eventually the emotional weight of those arguments adds up. When a band breaks up over “creative differences” you can bet they’ve had those same creative differences for years. What has changed is that the level of resentment and anger over those differences has finally boiled over.

So I guess what I’m saying is: it’s time for me to leave the band. You guys can probably find a bass player who fits in a bit better and I want to explore a few more exotic styles of music. But thanks for the years of great memories and maybe down the line we can get together for a reunion tour. Until then I’m really looking forward to hearing that new CD you guys are working on, although I kinda wonder how much of my bass part will be in the mix by the time it comes out. I’m proud of what I put together, and you guys are welcome over any time to share a few beers.

Posted in Game Development | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Blizzard Does Not Understand The Internet

Posted by Ben Zeigler on July 6, 2010

Yesterday, Blizzard posted a notice explaining changes to their official forums. Basically, for 99% of users you are going to have to prominently display your legally given name on all forum posts you make. With no way to opt out. Now, people have theorized that this is Blizzard’s plan to drive everyone out of their official forums, but I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they mean well. However, this is a bad idea for several reasons. Lum over at Broken Toys gives a good summary, but I want to break out a few specific points:

  • Using real names is completely unnecessary to get what they want. As I’ve discussed before, and illustrated across the entire internet, consequences-free internet chat has huge social issues. Without any sort of accountability or reputation, trolling will be omnipresent and eternal. But, there are many solutions to this problem that do NOT involve disclosing your private name. For instance, Metafilter and SomethingAwful charge a small fee to create new accounts, which discourages the creation of sock puppet/smurf accounts that are used for trolling. In the MMO space, you can do the same by forcing each player to use a player-settable “account name” for all their forum posting and characters. This forces accountability because players can connect your forum identity to your in-game identity but does not expose personal information.
  • The interaction of this system and minors is confusing and full of legal pitfalls. There are strict laws against revealing certain personal information about minors online, so this system will either ban minors entirely or allow them to be completely anonymous. As minors are undoubtedly causing many of the social issues they wish to solve, a reputation metric that does not expose personal information would be far superior.
  • Either this system will be easily spoofable, or will be incredibly complicated. This is because the idea of “real name” is a contentious one, and in fact several of my close friends go by names other than their legal name in personal correspondence. If they’re forced to use their legal name that would make them extremely uncomfortable, and it gets very tricky when it comes to gender and family identity issues. If players are not forced to use their legal name, I don’t see what is stopping the trolls from picking obviously fake names while the honest players get stuck revealing private information.
  • This will have a chilling effect on the participation of females and members of non-american origin. Many comments I’ve read from female players of World of Warcraft are extremely negative towards this idea, as they are already extremely concerned with harassment. Perceived gender is a huge deal in the MMO space, and these female voices will simply stop contributing. Similarly, if a player was forced to use an obviously-Muslim name in forum correspondence one can see how that might discourage them from contributing at all.
  • This can have very bad consequences for players with rare or semi-rare names. John Smith is totally safe (although it will be very confusing when there are 3 John Smiths in the same thread) but if your name is more unique there are two distinct possibilities: Firstly, say that you do post in a WoW thread and say something relatively innocuous but upsetting to another player. That player could then use this information to contact your employer or spouse and report that you have been playing games, which in certain areas can significantly affect your reputation. Even worse, if someone that shares a name with you has been posting actively abusive posts, their posts could be erroneously assigned to your real-life identity and lead to stalking or worse.
  • 4chan /b/: Imagine the possibilities.

Real world, legal name is not the right solution to this problem. If I had to post on a gaming forum as “Ben Zeigler” I simply wouldn’t post. It’s not that it’s very difficult to google the connection between my common internet handle and my legal name, it’s just that in the context of online forums, JZig is my actual identity. It’s a real identity because it is shared across many sites and has a shared reputation. It turns out when it comes to identity, the internet can do a better job of it than our parents and governments and Blizzard is going to alienate a huge number of individuals from their community and as a consequence their game.

Posted in Game Culture, Game Design | Tagged: , , , | 6 Comments »

12 Reasons To Play Alpha Protocol

Posted by Ben Zeigler on June 30, 2010

I just finished my second complete playthrough of Alpha Protocol, and I thought it was an appropriate time to drop some knowledge: Alpha Protocol is a very good game. Sure the controls could use a bit of work, the central plot could be stronger, the bosses are frustrating, and it has a few bugs, but Alpha Protocol is a unique game that does stuff no game has done in years. I highly suggest you play the game on Novice Easy the first time through, and pick up either Pistol or Assault Rifle. If you do, you will avoid most of the awkward bits.

So why’s it so awesome and cool and stuff? Here’s an arbitrarily numbered list of cool things you can do in Alpha Protocol that I haven’t been able to do in video games for years!

  1. Instead of having a “morality” system, the game’s method of scoring individual character preferences allows you to selectively be a jackass to people. Taunting someone into a duel to the death is very satisfying when there’s an actual system behind it.
  2. The PC version features some very sharp textures and some attractive character models. The Saudi Arabia safehouse is particularly beautiful.
  3. The game has a few forced “save a baby or do your mission” choices. But, if you’re playing with the unlocked Veteran background you use your superior gruffness to subvert that annoying video game morality cliche and do both!
  4. You get an in-game perk for being an asshole and hanging your futuristic spy phone up on people. Always wanted to do that.
  5. You can directly ally with Islamic terrorists who want to destroy America. The game doesn’t seem particularly interested in making you feel bad about doing so. Or, you know, you can murder all of them.
  6. The in-game emails feature brilliantly hilarious writing. Whoever created them should write all things ever. Earth has 4 corner simultaneous day.
  7. The information you learn about characters from exploration or conversations with others directly affects your interactions with them. Uncovering their horrible secret will either make them like you more or cause them to try and murder you in your sleep.
  8. It’s got way better loot than either Mass Effect. A variety of basic items open up due to conversations or story choices and there’s a wide variety of weapon customization fiddly bits to play with. And like 10 types of grenades if you’re into that kind of thing.
  9. After spending the whole game patiently stealth killing hundreds guards the top level stealth ability is ridiculously fun. It gives you 30 seconds of invisible stabby power that confuses the hell out of the already brain-damaged AI.
  10. Nolan North plays a completely psychotic intelligence agent and manages to act nothing like Nathan Drake.
  11. You independently choose the order of tackling 90% of the missions in the game and it subtly affects both the plot and gameplay objectives. My second playthrough was pretty drastically different just from this.
  12. This spoiler-filled YouTube video of the various ways you can be a giant dick.

If you’re into this kind of thing go buy it. I recommend the PC version for Steam, as it’s been relatively bug-free compared to other branching narrative RPGs on the PC.

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A Decade of Deus Ex

Posted by Ben Zeigler on June 23, 2010

10 years ago yesterday, Deus Ex was first released. I’ve discussed my irrational attraction to Deus Ex before, so I can’t help but be a bit emotional when I see the loving treatment Rock Paper Shotgun gave it yesterday. The roundtable verdict is particularly relevant. I have the exact feeling as the guys in that article: I am afraid to replay Deus Ex, as I know it won’t be the same now as it was when I first played it. Hacking around the Deus Ex mod tools (worked on an aborted Deus Ex Fortress that went nowhere), being a professional game-sausage maker, and being an adult know ensure that.

PC Gamer has also been running an entire Deus Ex-themed week, with some nice articles and previews of the Deus Ex 3. If you’ve never played Deus Ex, Taking Liberties is the best attempt I’ve seen to break down why Deus Ex is so important from a game design perspective. It has convinced me to go back and play the first level of it again, because I know that will hold up. As for Deus Ex 3/Human Revolution, I am largely avoiding all media out of a fear of getting overhyped or overcynicaled by it. It is a game, it sounds like it may end up being pretty cool. Art is pretty nice.

Oh, and it’s on sale right now on Steam for $3. $3! I already own 3 copies of it or I’d buy it again.

Posted in Game Culture, Game Design | Tagged: , , | Comments Off on A Decade of Deus Ex

Why Can’t I Jump? The Perils of Player Autonomy

Posted by Ben Zeigler on June 8, 2010

A few years ago, I bought Guild Wars and mostly enjoyed it. It had a well crafted world and an interesting combat system, and should have been right up my alley. But every few minutes I would instinctively hit the space bar and deflate when my avatar failed to jump. Having come right off City of Heroes and a series of FPSs, the game’s rejection of my will instantly pulled me out of the experience. I know I’m not the only one, as most reviews of Guild Wars mentioned the inability to jump Guild Wars 2 previews inevitably emphasize the ability to leave the ground on command.

Research I’ve been exposed to recently has made it abundantly clear why this disturbed me so: Guild Wars was not meeting my need for Autonomy. Basically Autonomy or Volition (well named game company!) in this context refers to the need of players to feel like they can make real choices. Individual choice and open ended game design is associated with increased autonomy but is not required, because research (working to cite a source, this is based on my notes from a presentation) has shown that the important bit is that a player feel like they made a choice, and not that they actually did.  It is incredibly vital to do as much as you can to align the game’s available choices and the player’s expectations. When they get out of sync, the long-term engagement of players with your game will plummet, which basically means no word of mouth or sustainability.

Despite being a supposedly open-ended game with lots of player choice, Grand Theft Auto 4 violated my Autonomy repeatedly. They introduced a compelling character interested in changing his life, and I bought into the premise. But then the game forced me to murder hundreds of people for threadbare reasons. Sure I could run around and shoot pigeons if I felt like it, but when it came to anything important I was strait jacketed into highly scripted and linear missions. This is a very real problem recently as this has popped up in other games (Uncharted 2 left me cold for the same reason) that are attempting to mix real character motivations with slaughterhouse gameplay contexts.

Games that focus on satisfying player Autonomy can create drastically variable responses in different players. Let’s take a game like Alpha Protocol, which by all accounts is quite bad at satisfying the Competence need (the action is pretty bad) but like every Obsidian game tries to really embrace player Autonomy. For a reviewer like Scott Sharkey of 1UP, the game obviously satisfied his Autonomy in compelling ways, while for a reviewer like Jim Sterling of Destructoid it completely missed the mark. Recent games like Deadly Premonition and Nier share identical review score profiles for arguable similar reasons. If you want a universally well reviewed game, you’re going to have to work overtime to craft the expectations of players (and reviewers) to match with the choices the game provides.

Back to Jumping, I think there’s one thing every game designer needs to learn about Autonomy: If some reasonably large percentage of your audience keeps trying to do something and is frustrated when they can’t, you either need to let them do it or change your presentation so they stop trying. For instance Gears of War does a great job of setting the expectations properly (the physicality of the characters and terrain flatness make it so you never want to jump), but if your game looks and controls like a PC MMO your audience is going to need to jump. Yes, this will mean a reduction in the autonomy of the designer, but hopefully we can learn to deal with that.

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