Double Buffered

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

Posts Tagged ‘design’

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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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.

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Batman Arkham Asylum: Greater Than Its Parts

Posted by Ben Zeigler on September 16, 2009

I just finished playing Batman: Arkham Asylum and it’s probably the best game I’ve played all year. I’m not alone in heaping praise, but I mean Best in a very specific sense. It’s not my favorite game of the year (others have left deeper emotional impact) it’s not the most interesting or innovative, and it’s not given me the most total enjoyment (hard to beat Fallout 3 there), but it’s the best-constructed game I’ve played in a long time. First of all, it’s technically and artistically proficient and uses the Unreal engine extremely well. Secondly it has a good set of base mechanics (brawling and stalking are both individually fun) and a well designed collection metagame. Thirdly the narrative is well written and presented. Many good games have excellent individual components, but what makes Arkham Asylum a GREAT game is the way the design brings together these disparate elements together into something greater than the sum of it’s parts.

The key to this is the pacing and flow of the different components. The game starts out with some sweet atmosphere and character development as you bring joker into the high-security area of the prison, in a scene that is highly reminiscent of the start of Escape from Butcher Bay (nothing wrong with that). From there, it transitions into your first combat scene which teaches you the basics while also instantly establishing that Batman is a badass. Then you do some duct-crawling before stalking and taking down a lethal enemy. Finally, you get the last piece of the puzzle as the Riddler Challenge metagame is introduced, which wraps the whole thing into a compelling Metroid sandwich. From then on it simply alternates linearly placed story/brawl/stalk sections while allowing you to indulge in more free-form exploration at your leisure. Hours 1 through 10 of the game follow an identical structure, but it never gets old. Why not?

It’s obvious that this game went through a lot of playtesting. The secret to why it works is that I never once thought “I am tired of doing what I am doing”. As soon as you finished a tense fight there was always a break before the next brawl, letting the lessons you’d learned sink in while you stalked some fools. Even better, the variety is doled out at a masterful rate. After playing the demo I was worried the stalking would get repetitive, but every single encounter has something new to deal with (stupid exploding gargoyles). For the entire game, there is ALWAYS something new to learn and apply. The high-tech prison environment of the first section changes into what I am convinced is the largest variety of environments that is theoretically possible given the setting. There is no frustrating artificial difficulty curve, the progression in the game mechanics comes naturally from more components being available at once. Arkham Asylum is exactly as long as it needs to be and is almost entirely lacking unnecessary filler.

The clearest evidence that the pacing is key is available inside the game itself. Once you beat the main narrative you can complete the rest of the exploration metagame on it’s own, and it became way less compelling without thugs to beat up and the taunting of the Joker (also I think there are about 25% too many collectibles). There are also separate brawling and stalking challenges that extract those components, but I quickly grew bored. It started feeling more like the game I played immediately before and after Arkham, Uncharted. Uncharted features similarly excellent components, but it tends to clump exploration, narrative, and shooting sections into large repetitive clumps with weird difficulty spikes. The odds are I’ll never finish it despite it’s many positive qualities. On the other hand, I played through Arkham Asylum in 3 very long sessions because I didn’t want to stop. Unlike the vague addiction that comes from playing an MMO, I didn’t keep playing because I HAD to, I kept playing because I wanted to see what would happen next. It never disappointed me.

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The World Ends With You: Best JRPG Ever

Posted by Ben Zeigler on May 13, 2008

I’ve now played 30 hours of The World Ends With You (for Nintendo DS), and I think it is the best Japanese RPG ever made. It may not necessarily be everyone’s favorite (I think Chrono Trigger is still mine), but as far as game mechanics, presentation, and innovation, it is the current pinnacle of the genre. It may seem a bit weird at first (modern day setting? dual screen-dual character combat system? bizarre animal-shaped music enemies?), but once you get about an hour or so in, the game is transcendent bliss. Every time I thought of something that would make the game better, they’d do that exact thing. Here’s my capsule review:

The World Ends With You is a Japanese RPG set in an alternate version of modern day Shibuya, which is lovingly recreated and integral to the game. The conflict between the creative and destructive aspects of a style-driven place like Shibuya is central to the gameplay and plot. The main character, Neku Sakuraba, arrives confused and without his memories. Shockingly, the amnesia actually makes sense given later developments. He is forced to team up with a partner, and battle music-based animal enemies (Shrew Gazer, Gabba Bat, etc) in a two-character Action RPG combat system. You control Neku on the bottom screen using an extremely wide variety of stylus gestures to activate special Pins (you know, like Flair from Office Space). Your partner is on the top screen, and you control them using d-pad motions (or the AI can auto control them for ease of use). This sounds incredibly confusing, but after half an hour or so you’ll be an expert at focusing your attention. The main quest can take from 10-25 hours, and there is extensive post-game content. As far as graphics, it is one of the most attractive games on the DS. It features 2.5D scaled sprites with lots of detail and parallax. The characters are designed by the same guy who did Kingdom Hearts, and I much prefer them here due to a complete lack of Mickey Mouse. The interface is cleanly designed and very usable. The soundtrack is absolutely outstanding, and consists of a somehow cohesive mix of J-Pop/Rap and more Ambient pieces. If you own a DS and are vaguely interested in RPGs, Action games, Japan, Fashion, Theology, or Fun, this game is an absolute must buy.

With that out of the way, I wanted to talk a bit about some of the more innovative parts of the design. First, the overall structure of the game is great. It’s split up into 21 chapters, and all of them are self-contained experiences that switch between free-range sections and tightly controlled goals. Narrative developments tie them together, and there’s no extended “you now have an airship” portion of the game that drags down the pace. I found myself alternating between grinding and plot development, and the game supports whatever mix the player wants. The best part of this structure is that it drives the New Game + mode, which is an objective mode where you revisit past chapters. The goals tend to be fun and challenging, and finishing them opens up extensive information on the game’s back story. I’ll talk about Pins below, but the other major components of the game’s overall mechanic are Items. Items are either clothing or food, and you buy them from stores. Food gives you permanent stat boosts, and you can only eat a certain amount per day. Clothing gives you stat boosts while worn, as well as special abilities. The interesting thing is that these special abilities are unlocked for you by the various shopkeepers as you develop a relationship with them. The bondage pants only give you improved attack while in critical condition if you become friends with the creepy shop owner. Oh, and the brand of clothes you wear affects your battle performance. If you bring sweat pants and a hoodie to the high-class zone, you’re going to suck. The upshot of all this is that buying and trying on different items is really fun, and it’s extremely easy to lose yourself in this part of the game.

The most innovative part of the game comes with the Pin system. Pins are what you use to activate powers, there is a huge variety of them. They work by tapping the screen, or scratching enemies, or by drawing a path, etc. Every gesture you can think of is used. Additionally, the pins all have a Brand (which ties into the zone), a description, some art, and possibly an Evolution. Pins can evolve through battle, shutdown (gained for real-world time spent between plays), or mingling with other players (you get exp for talking to people who own TWEWY, with other DS’s, and with “Aliens” that randomly occur). So, there’s a complex and complete system for evolving pins into other pins, and the pace of evolution is very high. But where do you get Pins from in the first place? Most Pins drop from enemies. So, you spend a lot of your time in game repeatedly killing enemies in order to get rare drops. What’s so innovative about that?

The vital part is that drop rate is part of the game mechanics. At any point, you can lower your effective level to increase Pin drop rate. Additionally, if you chain together more than one battle, you get an additionally boosted drop rate. So, the game encourages you to fight as difficult a battle as possible, and there is a risk-vs-reward dynamic for getting the 1337 drops. Oh, and you can also tweak the AI difficulty (which switches classes of items that drop, instead of just frequency) in addition to your own level. Plus the better you do in combat, the more Pin experience you get at conclusion so player skill is encouraged. On top of that it gives you a comprehensive list of all possible item drops (with undiscovered drops listed as ????) with percentages, so you know what you need to fight. And if you fail at the battle (once you pass certain point), you can retry right away at a lower difficulty if you just want to progress in the story. To make it even better, the Pin progression system (because it’s so fast and easy) ensures that you switch pins out frequently. This means that each battle plays out differently even against the same enemy. If you add all this together, what you get is a system where grinding isn’t required, it’s totally awesome. I’ve fallen for this part of the game in a way I never fell for Diablo 2 or Pokemon, and it’s because it’s just so fun and non-frustrating. I’m pretty sure I’m going to master this game (which I don’t think I’ve ever done to an RPG before), and enjoy it a hell of a lot in the process. I can honestly say that so far I have enjoyed every single minute of this game, and I don’t think it’s going to let up any time soon.

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