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Column: The Interactive Palette

Column: 'The Interactive Palette' - Opposing Goals in Minotaur China Shop

December 23, 2008 4:00 PM |

Shot of a minotaur in a china shop['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at goals and immersion in Minotaur China Shop.]

Virtually all digital games provide goals. It's a defining feature of the medium. Even games often described as "toys," such as The Sims or Tamagotchi, provide implicit goals that players can choose between. It's through the pursuit of these goals that players experience challenge and interactivity.

When a goal is difficult to achieve, it creates challenge. A game is interesting because of the challenge, but if a game is too hard, it becomes frustrating. Frustration is the enemy of fun and engagement. It makes players detach from the game, and possibly quit altogether. If a game is too easy, however, it can become boring, which also causes the player to give up. Even worse, different players have different difficulty sweet spots; some players want hard games, and some want easy ones.

There are several solutions to this problem. Selectable or adaptive difficulty allows the player to customize the game, and RPG-like experience mechanics allow the player to adjust their character's strength. However, there is another way to address frustration and boredom: offer more goals to the player, in the form of side quests or alternate play modes. That way, when a player becomes frustrated or bored with one goal, she can switch to another.

Flashbang Studios has taken this one step further. In their latest free web game, Minotaur China Shop, they have created a game mechanic that channels the player's frustration and boredom and uses it to add sympathy for the player character and transition smoothly into an alternative, opposing goal.

Column: 'The Interactive Palette' - Puzzle Quest and the Best of Both Worlds

December 4, 2008 4:00 PM |

Shot of puzzle mode with character stats['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at genre fusion in Puzzle Quest.]

The concept of the video game genre is one which is both a blessing and a curse on the medium. Video game genres categorize and describe games, allowing players to easily guess what games they will like and allowing developers to use a successful and proven formula.

That latter aspect, however, is what makes genres a limiting concept. A genre, in this context, is really just a collection of game design elements: a perspective, a mode of interaction, a game structure, and so on. An individual game might benefit from most of the elements in a genre, but be better suited by a different choice of perspective or gameplay style. However, a designer who blindly follows a genre will miss that fact, and shoehorn her game into a genre just for the sake of fitting the template.

Few games utterly ignore genre. There is, however, a long-standing tradition of genre fusion: taking two or more established genres and combining them into a game that is neither one nor the other. ActRaiser, Sacrifice, and System Shock 2 are among the many excellent games that take this approach.

This allows developers to pick and choose from the design elements of multiple genres without abandoning the benefits of easy recognition by players. Marketing can refer to a game as a "FPS/RPG" and appeal to the fans of both genres. Especially well-done instances of genre fusion can spawn genres themselves; The Legend of Zelda was originally an action/RPG hybrid, but it's now regarded as one of the first examples of the action-adventure genre.

Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords is an excellent example of a game that mixes genres well. Created by Infinite Interactive in 2007, Puzzle Quest combines the color-matching puzzle genre with the RPG genre. As a pure concept, it's appealing: a strategic roleplaying game where battles are fought through a Bejeweled-like puzzle system.

However, what's remarkable about Puzzle Quest is that it actually works. Beyond being a high-concept novelty, Puzzle Quest is a good game. By looking at how it combined genres, one can get a deeper understanding of how to effectively create a genre-bending game.

Column: 'The Interactive Palette' - Grim Fandango and Diegesis

November 20, 2008 4:00 PM |

Manny Calavera with scythe['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at diegesis in Grim Fandango.]

In video games, there is a division between the world inhabited by the game's characters and the representation of that world to the player. The game environment, world objects, and most sound effects and dialogue exist in the game world; that is, they can be perceived by characters. Other elements, such as most background music, loading screens, and subtitles, exist outside of the game world. They are part of the narration of the game, and help to provide the player with information or emotion that is not necessarily apparent to the characters of the game.

The film world calls this concept "diegesis." This is most easily explained in relation to music. If a film's music comes from a source inside the world of the film, like Casablanca's piano-playing Sam, it is said to be diegetic.

The dramatic music that plays over a James Bond action scene, however, cannot be heard by Bond; it is non-diegetic. Video game music can be looked at in the same way; Super Mario Bros.'s earworm background music is decidedly non-diegetic, but when the player comes across a radio in Portal playing a Latin version of "Still Alive," that music is diegetic. The player character Chell can hear it just like the player can.

The concept of diegesis applies to more than just music, of course.HUD elements can be non-diegetic or, as in Metroid Prime or Star Wars: Republic Commando, incorporated into the player character's helmet and therefore diegetic. Metroid Prime, in fact, plays with diegesis via the game's very interface. By using the X-Ray Visor, it becomes clear that while the player selects Samus's weapons with the C Stick, Samus herself chooses weapons by moving her fingers into various positions.

One work that pays particular attention to the concept of diegesis is LucasArts's 1998 game Grim Fandango. The game creates a very cinematic atmosphere by dispensing with many non-diegetic elements. Playing the game feels very much like watching a film noir piece due in part to this decision. By looking at how Grim Fandango handles diegesis, we can see how this concept can be used in video games.

Column: 'The Interactive Palette' - Integrated Character Creation in Spore

November 7, 2008 4:00 PM |

Spore galaxy screen['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at Spore's character development innovations.]

An experience common to most video games is that of inhabiting a character. Since the days of Pac-Man, players have adopted the roles of people and creatures with distinct appearances and personalities. Today, few games are released where the player character is not given a specific identity. Sometimes, this identity is fixed; the Half-Life series stars MIT grad Gordon Freeman, and the Mario series features the world's most famous plumber. Other games, however, allow the development and customization of a character which is unique to each player.

Character creation can take many forms. In many cases, characters are created seperately from the game, usually in a "character editor" that pops up before the beginning of the game proper. The Fallout series, most MMO games, and many more allow this sort of customization, where forming the character is a very "meta" experience; it's done in a seperate mode, and any changes that are made after gameplay begins are separate and disconnected from the actual experience of the game proper.

Pre-game character creation has an essential downside, however. Because it is separate from the game, the player does not know when making her first character what the consequences of her choices will be. When playing the game, the player may discover that some statistics or abilities are less useful than they initially appeared, or decide that a differently built character would better suit the game.

Additionally, having character creation as a completely separate takes away some of the unity of feeling of the player's experience. Because of this, a few games integrate character creation into gameplay. Maxis's recent game Spore takes an unusually broad approach; the entire evolution of the player character's species is shaped over the course of gameplay.

Column: 'The Interactive Palette' - The Goo Variations

October 20, 2008 4:00 PM |

World of Goo title screen['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example.]

Musical composition has a technique called theme and variation, where a musical theme — a sequence of notes, chords, or rhythms — is repeated throughout a piece with variations, inversions, and embellishments. Variations serve both as a demonstration of the composer's prowess and as an exploration in depth of a specific theme. The most famous example of this technique among layfolk is probably Bach's Goldberg Variations.

We see a similar technique used in video games. Many games, especially those focused on puzzles, start with a simple concept and complicate it by embellishing and expanding that initial idea. Lemmings is a classic example. The game begins with simple introductions of the various "skills" that the player can assign to the lemmings, then gradually adds hazards and obstacles until the player is navigating truly complex levels.

This technique of increasingly complex variations is useful enough to be presented as a design pattern, a specific, repeatable approach to a commonly encountered situation. As Staffan Björk and Jussi Holopainen have pointed out [PDF], a creative task like game design is less-suited to the solution-based approach used in other software design patterns. Instead, game design patterns serve as a template with certain advantages and consequences. By looking at 2D Boy's recent (and excellent) game World of Goo, we can see how this pattern works in practice.

Column: 'The Interactive Palette' - No Quit Without Saving

October 10, 2008 4:00 PM |

Mount&Blade sunset['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example.]

The ability to save is a given among modern video games, but there doesn't seem to be a save system that can satisfy everyone. As players, we want to be able to save and resume our games at any point. For many, even save points are too restrictive; PC gamers are used to quicksaving, which allows the player to save every five seconds in fear of failure.

And that's the downside of saving, really. While it means that players can exit the game without losing progress, it also means that player failure — as well as player choice &mdash holds less weight. Playing Half-Life 2 can turn into an exercise of frequent quicksaves, where taking too much damage or becoming overrun can be reversed by loading the save made just seconds before.

In this environment, messing up doesn't matter for longer than five seconds, and important decisions can be trivially reversed, meaning that there's little consequence for poor strategy and little impact for momentous decisions. Imagine the cliche where a protagonist is presented with two identical allies, and must shoot the impostor. There's little urgency in the situation if the player knows she can just quickload if she makes the wrong decision.

Checkpoint-based save systems seem like an attempt to address this, but they really just make mistakes and choices more inconvenient to reverse at the cost of limiting the player's ability to save and exit the game at any time. Persistent-world multiplayer games often address the issue by eliminating saving and permanent death altogether, but this is hard to apply to most single-player games.

However, there is a rare approach that allows saving at any time while also making the player's choices and actions important and irreversible. It's the approach taken by TaleWorlds' recently-released game Mount&Blade, and it can be used in any game that would benefit from stronger consequences for a player's actions.

Column: 'The Interactive Palette' - Three Kinds of Replay

September 25, 2008 8:00 AM |

Iji title screen['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example.]

One of the nebulous terms that game journalists seem to use to taunt developers is "replay value." According to many reviewers, a game's not very good unless it's fun to play multiple times. This is partly an issue of economy; a game that bears replaying provides more hours per dollar than one that does not.

It's more an issue of breadth, however. Replay value comes from many things, and one of them is the ability for the game to let players have a different experience each time they play. This breadth of experience means that players who enjoy a game the first time can experience more entertainment from the game by replaying in various ways.

Replay value's not just a buzzword. It means that players that like a game can see more of it without the developers creating an expansion pack or a sequel. It increases the longevity of the game in the hearts of individual players and, on a more mercenary level, increases the amount of time word-of-mouth can spread about the game.

There are three basic kinds of replay value. The first is the ability to reexperience previous game content, in relatively unaltered form, with a minimum of fuss. The second is the ability to reinvigorate the game's challenge by making it more difficult or adding constraints on the gameplay. The third is the ability to reimagine the gameplay by changing the goals or the style of the game on a second play-through. Each of these three has a different appeal to different players.

There's really no excuse for a developer making a large game to leave any of these three types out. Each of the three kinds of replay value — reexperiencing content, reinvigorating challenge, and reimagining gameplay — can be added to a game with little additional effort.

Daniel Remar's new indie game, Iji, is a good example of a game that gets this right. Besides single-handedly creating a strategic platformer to rival Flashback and Turrican, Remar included an array of features to enhance Iji's replay value.

Column: 'The Interactive Palette' - Love Transcending Death: Challenge Versus Story in Calamity Annie

September 9, 2008 4:00 PM |

Calamity Annie title screen['The Interactive Palette' is a new column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example.]

In video games, there has been a gradual trend from skill challenge to story. Many of the first arcade games were tests of skill and reflexes: the player was challenged to score as many points as she could before losing. High score tables are a symbol of this era: a skilled player's initials were immortalized for all to see... until more skilled players pushed her off the bottom of the table.

Ever since the debut of saved games and passwords, however, games have been becoming more and more forgiving of failure. This allows for longer, richer experiences, as in the classic The Legend of Zelda, the first game to feature a battery-backed save feature. This has allowed developers to write stories that last longer than one gameplay session, has made death much less final, and has led to our modern story- and character-focused games.

But the skill challenge aspect of gameplay has largely been lost. Players expect a story, and that apparently conflicts with the concept of running out of lives and getting a game over. The loss of that very experience, of finding the player's skill, is often lamented among old-school "retro" gamers and new-wave "indie" gamers alike. The two ways of designing games seem mutually exclusive.

However, indie developer Anna Anthropy's recent freeware PC game, Calamity Annie, manages to do the impossible: provide a cruel skill challenge and still have a long, ongoing game story. It's a groundbreaking lesbian cowboy fast-draw romance where every game ends with the shot of a pistol, and it uses an approach that I think is applicable to a wide array of games.