Indiscriminately Valuing Non-Violent Games

Starting with the 1980s arcade games Galaxian and Missile Command, games and combat became nearly synonymous. This was only exacerbated in the 90s by the advent of wildly popular shooters like Doom. The choice to focus a game around antagonism, combat, and violence was not a conscious design decision, but a necessity of the industry and environment. There were abstract games that didn’t contain violence, but in general the highest-profile games were about, in essence, murder.

Doom screenshot

Doom: you shoot things. Dead simple.

Then a renaissance occurred in academia, and suddenly games were art. Nobody really knew what to do with this fact or what it meant, but it was revolutionary, and regardless of anything else, games were definitely art. To support this, a number of innovative (perhaps iconoclastic) non-violent games — games like Journey and Gone Home — were foisted up as evidence that games are art. “Games are art, they can convey aesthetics beyond violence.” Good, great. Innovative games that are fun without using violence in their designs are awesome.

Journey screenshot

Journey is one of the seminal games in the recent wave of “artistically-valuable” indie games.

However, this easily morphed into a reactionary movement. Since these games without violence or combat were touted as being somehow better or “more elevated” than your run-of-the-mill murder simulator, it became obvious that a game that was violent was inherently less.

Obviously, this sort of indiscriminate valuing of non-violent games is a terrible idea. A game that doesn’t use violence can be poorly designed and not-fun (Dear Esther, Mountain), just like a game that uses violence and combat can provoke deeper aesthetics (Hotline Miami, This War of Mine). Part of the problem is that nobody has developed the proper critical skills to analyze these non-violent, pacifistic games. Those that could view the design choices evenly and rationally are too busy climbing up their own assholes and praising the games for not using combat. On the other side, core gamers are immediately turned off by the lack of combat and write it off as boring.

This War Of Mine screenshot

Refugees have said This War of Mine accurately conveys the constant fear of living in a war-torn region.

One result of this dysfunction is the proliferation of so-called “walking simulators”. These are games whose main play involves walking around consuming either written, visual, or aural media, perhaps with light puzzle-solving mechanics (or similar accents). Many enterprising developers, whether they realize it consciously or not, have seized on the fact that making such a game guarantees some measure of success. They will be praised by academics and critics interested in furthering games as a legitimate medium, and have their game purchased by the small-but-steady audience of non-core, non-casual gamers (most of whom probably chafe at being called gamers).

Some walking simulators are great; I actually enjoyed Gone Home, in a way that I probably wouldn’t have if it had been a movie. They do a good job of immersing you in a focused, meaningful experience. Others are scattered or diluted by dissonant design decisions — like Corpse of Discovery. But nobody cares, because these games aren’t being evaluated on their merits as a game. They are either praised for being a game without combat mechanics, or they are ignored because they are a game without combat mechanics. Little else tends to go into the evaluation process.

Gone Home screenshot

Gone Home gives the player a meaningful experience despite being limited to looking at rooms and listening to audio.

A student game at USC, Chambara, got changed during development to be “non-violent”. The game originally saw samurai dueling in a starkly colored world. Now instead of blood, hitting an enemy produces a burst of feathers. Apparently this one tweak now qualifies it as “a transcendently beautiful and artistic entertainment game with a pacifistic outlook”. That is a direct quote from a faculty member at the school. You may see why this is troublesome to me. First of all, changing blood to feathers doesn’t change the fact that your game is about sneaking around and hitting other people with sticks before they hit you. That seems a far cry from a “pacifist outlook”. Second, this change actually hurts the game aesthetically. The blood splatters beautifully complemented the dichromatic nature of the game’s world. I consider the stark look of a blood splatter to be more artistic than a burst of feathers. Yet the game’s devs decided to make this tweak. Did they do it because it would benefit the game? No. According to the devs, “we were uncomfortable with the violence the game displayed and did not feel like it accurately reflected who we were and what we believed.” In other words, they value a game that contains bloodshed differently than a game that does not. Are they allowed to make this decision based on their personal beliefs? Absolutely. But isn’t it absurd to pretend that this tweak lends the game a “pacifist outlook”, and that it in turn allows the game to transcend to the angelic ranks of non-violent video games?

Blood Splatters

Blood splatters…

Feather Splatters

…and “feather splatters”.

I would urge critics and academics to judge pacifistic games on their merits as a game, not on their merits as a non-violent game. I would urge developers to treat the presence of combat and violence as just one among a countless sea of other design possibilities. If it aids your experience goal, you should include it and tailor it to the needs of your game as an experience. If it doesn’t don’t include it. But don’t decide to make your game non-violent or exclude combat mechanics just because it means your game will be valued as inherently better by a specific set of people.

VR Isn’t Ready

Recently I’ve heard a lot of hubabaloo about VR, especially with regards to games. This wave of hype has been going on for while, but it has personally intensified for me because one of my professors this semester is running a VR startup. I’m also working on a VR-compatible game, so VR talk has become more relevant to me.

Array of current VR headsets

Array of current VR headsets

First off, I believe VR is still 10 years away from its prime-time. The tech is just not advanced to a viable level right now, and some fundamental issues of user experience have yet to be solved.

For example, my professor gave an example of why VR is such an immersive mode of interaction: the first time people put on the headset and jump into a virtual world, they reach out and try to touch objects. He trumpeted this as being evidence of a kinetic experience (i.e. it pushed them to “feel” things beyond what they immediately see). While is this kind of true, I see it far more as evidence of a fundamental shortcoming. The moment a user tries to interact with the world and fails, they are jerked out of the fantasy and immersion is broken. This is true in all games; if a user believes they can interact with the world in a certain way but the world doesn’t respond correctly, the user is made painfully and immediately aware that they are in a game, a simulation.

Control VR isn't enough.

Control VR isn’t enough.

This brings me to the first huge issue: the input problem. VR output is relatively advanced, what with Oculus and Gear VR and Morpheus. But we’ve seen little to no development effort targeted at ways for the user to interact with the world. Sure we have Control VR and such projects, but I think these haven’t caught on because they are so complicated to setup. Oculus made huge strides by turning the HMD into a relatively streamlined plug-and-play experience with a minimal mess of cables. We have yet to see how Oculus’s custom controllers affect the space, but I have a feeling they aren’t doing enough to bridge the haptic gap. We won’t see VR takeoff until users are no longer frustrated by the effort to give input to the game by these unintuitive means. As long as users are constantly reminded they are in a simulation, VR is no better than a big TV and a comfy couch.

Speaking of big TVs: the output tech isn’t good enough. The 1080p of the DK2 is nowhere near high enough to be immersive. Trust me: I’ve gotten to try out a DK2 extensively in the past few months at zero personal cost. My opinion is informed and unbiased. Trying to pick out details in the world is like peering through a blurry screen door. As long as I’m tempted to pop off the headset and peek at the monitor to figure out what I’m looking at, VR isn’t going to take off. Even the 2160×1200 of the consumer Oculus won’t be enough. When we get 3K or 4K resolutions in our HMDs, VR will be a viable alternative to monitor gaming. Of course, this tech is likely 5-10 years away for our average consumer.

These never caught on.

These never caught on.

This all isn’t to say that current VR efforts are for naught. These early adopter experiments are definitely useful for figuring out design paradigms and refining the tech, However, it would be foolish to operate under the assumption that VR is posed to take the gaming world by storm. VR is not the new mobile. VR is the new Kinect. And like the Wii and Kinect, VR is not a catch-all interaction mode; most gaming will always favor a static, laid-back experience. You can’t force people to give up lazy couch-potato gaming.

Of course, outside of gaming it may not be a niche interaction mode. In applications where immersion is not the goal and users expect to have to train in the operation of unnatural, intuitive controls, VR may very well thrive. Medicine, industrial operation, design, and engineering are obvious applications. It might even be useful for education purposes. But temper your expectations for gaming.

Trapped between Eye Candy and Motivation

There’s this really big problem when it comes to working on games (or really any sort of project that lies at the intersection of engineering and design). It has nothing to do with programming or design or testing or art or sound or anything else like that.

The problem is staying motivated. This is especially bad when you are working alone, but it can even happen in groups of 2 or 3 people. Beyond that, you can always find motivation in the stuff that other people are doing, because it comes from outside of your personal drive and creativity. But in small groups or solo projects, the game becomes your baby, and then you get tired of your baby.

Sometimes this happens when you work so long on one subset of features that they sort of blur together and become the totality of the project to you. You quickly get tired of this smaller sub-problem (especially tweaking and tweaking and tweaking), then get tired of the game without realizing there is other interesting work to be done.

Or maybe you realize that there is a lot of stuff to do on the project, but you’ve been working on it so long without much visible or marked improvement that you begin to despair. Maybe the project will never flower, you think. Maybe your efforts will never be used to the full extent they were designed for.

Wherever this loss of motivation comes from, there is one piece of advice I heard that really helps me. It boils down to this: if you keep wishing your game was awesome, make it awesome. Add in that feature you keep thinking about, but keep putting off because there is more important framework-laying to do. Or take some time off and mess around with that one technical gimmick (shader, hardware stuff, multi-threading, proc-gen, or what have you). When you feel yourself losing motivation, give yourself permission to go off and get it back. Don’t soldier on, because your project will inevitably end up on the dump heap with all the other projects you abandoned.

The only problem is, everyone (including myself) always says that adding eye-candy and little trinkets to your project prematurely is a Bad Idea. If you make your game cool by adding eye-candy, the wisdom goes, then your game is no longer cool because of the gameplay (you know, the point of a game). Arguments about whether gameplay is important not-withstanding, if adding a few bits of visual indulgence saves your game from succumbing to ennui, then by all means, add the cool things!

From Light

I haven’t posted in a while, in part because I’ve been busy with a lot of things. Maybe I’ll make posts about some of those other things at one point, but right now I just want to talk about From Light.

Logo for the game.

From Light is a game that I have had the pleasure and honor to help develop. It was originally created as a class project by two other students, but when it showed promise they decided to develop it further. Our team has now grown to 10 people, all (save one) students at USC.

The game is a 2D puzzle platformer based on long-exposure photography (holy hell have I said that line a lot). Basically, you can etch out light trails onto film using the stars in the sky, then jump on those trails to navigate the levels.

I mention that I’ve said the above line a lot because the game got accepted into the PAX 10 for PAX 2015, and I went up to Seattle last weekend with 3 other teammates to show the game off at the four-day gaming convention. This, you may have gathered, is completely and mindbogglingly awesome. I get to work on a game that is recognized and validated by real-world people! And truly, the reception of PAX was way more than I ever would have expected. People frickin’ loved the game!

 PAX 10 Logo  Photo of us at the booth.

And at PAX one of the things I heard again and again was that taking a game to completion, to the point where it could be shipped and sold as an actual game (y’know, for money), is an invaluable experience. Not only do you get a sellable game and a fantastic line on your resume, you also get all the experience involved in taking a game from 80% to 100%, and all the non-development business stuff involved in getting your game out to consumers. Needless to say, this convinced me that we should take From Light to completion. Before, I had been hesitant because as students it was unlikely we could put in the time to finish it fully. However, I am now willing to work harder than I have ever worked before to finish this game.

I’ll continue to post either here or on Gamasutra about development (both technical and non-technical posts), so make sure to look out for that.

In the meantime, if it strikes your fancy please “like” the game on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, or just download the game from our website.

The Community-Driven Game

Imagine you are driving a car, and you have three of your misanthropic friends in the back. Suddenly they lean forwards and ask if they can help steer. You think this might be a bad idea, but before you can react they clamber forwards and put their hands on the wheel. Most people would at this point judge the situation as “not a good idea”.

Replace your annoying friends with the Internet (uh oh), and replace the car with an indie game. Congratulations, you have just created the perfect environment for a terrible game to develop. Actually, often times the situation only gets as far as the Internet playing backseat driver, yelling out confusing and contradicting directions that are both useless and hard to ignore. But for a game like KSP, the community has leapt into the passenger seat and nearly wrested controls from the developer.

The developers of KSP are driving towards a cliff of not-fun. They could probably make a good game that stood on it’s own and appealed to a certain audience if left to their own devices. However, because the early prototypes of the game drew such a diverse crowd, the fans want the game to head in a couple of conflicting directions. Few people share a common vision for the game, and a lot of people like to play armchair game designer.

I honestly think some of the more prolific modders in the community have been taking the game in a more suitable direction. Meanwhile, the community quibbles over what should be included in the stock game and what shouldn’t. I want to take one of my biggest peeves as a case study:

One of the most touted arguments against certain large features is that the feature merely adds another level of complexity without adding any “true gameplay”. For example,

  • Life Support would just mean another thing to worry about, and it would reduce the amount of shenanigans you can do (stranding Kerbals on planets for years, etc).
  • Living Room/Sanity mechanics? Nope, it would just be a hassle. You have to bring up bigger habitats any time you want to send a mission to somewhere far away. It doesn’t add any gameplay during the mission.
  • Reentry heating? That just restricts craft designs, making people conform to certain designs and plan around reentry.
  • Different fuel types? Too complex, requires a lot of learning and planning before hand, and only restricts your options during a mission (again, restricting shenanigans).
  • Realistic reaction wheels that don’t provide overwhelming amounts of torque and require angular momentum to be bled off with a reaction system periodically? Could prove to be annoying during a critical part of a mission if you hit max angular momentum. Requires you to put in a reaction system even if you only want to rotate your craft (not translate).

Do you see the problem with these arguments? You are arguing that something shouldn’t be added to the game because it adds gameplay that isn’t in the game right now. See how circular and pointless the argument is? The worst part is that it could be extended to basically any part of the game that exists right now.

  • Electric charge? What if you run out of charge during a critical maneuver, or go behind the dark side of the planet. It’s A GAME, we shouldn’t have to worry about whether or not the craft is receiving light. Just assume they have large batteries.
  • Different engine types? That would add too much planning, and just limits the performance of the craft. What if I need to take off, but my thrust is too low to get off the ground? That wouldn’t be very fun.
  • Taking different scientific readings? That sounds like it would be pretty tedious. You shouldn’t add something that is just going to be grinding. The game doesn’t have to be realistic, just fun.
  • A tech tree? Why restrict players from using certain parts? What if they want to use those parts? You shouldn’t restrict parts of the game just so the player has to play to unlock them. That doesn’t accomplish anything.

Hell, why even have a game in the first place? It sounds like a lot of thinking and planning and micromanagement and grinding.

Of course, this could be considered reductio ad absurdum, but the problem is that it actually isn’t. The arguments against Life Support or different fuel types or reentry heating just don’t hold any water. Yet people hate against them, so the developers are less likely to put them in the game. Since I started with a metaphor, I’ll end with one:

The developers of KSP are driving towards a cliff because the community told them to. Fortunately, they realized it and are now putting on the brakes. In response, the community is shouting “why are you putting on the brakes? That only slows the car down!” To which I reply, “yes, yes it does.”

Advanced Game Projects

In the USC Games program (which spans a number of majors and schools), we have annual process that falls under the moniker of Advanced Game Projects, or AGPs. This process involves a student-assembled and student-lead team building a game in a roughly 10 month development cycle. I’m excited that this process exists.

Bloom, an AGP from a previous year.

It starts with a pitch process in the Spring semester, currently consisting of three phases: a paper proposal, submission of a prototype, and finally a live pitch sessions with a board of judges. Games that pass successfully through the pitch process get slated for development the following year. A student lead (who presumably came up with the idea, assembled a small team for the pitch, and is generally the main driver behind the project) begins to recruit a large team and pound out pre-production design over the Summer.

In the Fall, most people on an AGP team register for the associated class, which gives time to meet and talk with mentors from the industry about the management problems that have cropped up. Because working on an AGP is a requirement of my major, there is always a pool of student talent for teams to pick up. This results in AGP teams that can range anywhere from 20 to 40 people. Needless to say, this is a huge undertaking and an incredible responsibility for the team lead.

However, by Demo Day in the Spring, the team will have (hopefully) created a relatively well-polished game, albeit generally small in scope. The games are displayed at Demo Day, and not only do students attend and sample the various AGPs, but industry professionals are present as well. So AGPs are a great opportunity for networking with professionals and finding mentors, as well as landing a big, fat, good-looking game in your portfolio.

I have an ambition to lead an AGP in my sophomore or junior year, but in the mean time I’ve hopped on board with an AGP that plans to pitch later this Spring. Being present from the start of the process and being able to talk with the team lead gives great insight. Even if the AGP doesn’t make it past the pitching process, I’ve learned a lot about do’s and dont’s of assembling and running a team, as well as formulating and developing an idea into a pitchable game.

The idea we are pitching is for a humorous single-player side-scrolling multi-character action-adventure role-playing hack-and-slash, or more basically, Castle Crashers meets Dawn of War 2. Or something.

A screenshot from our latest prototype.

The eternal struggle is a combination of scope and pushing the game in a direction that is likely to pass the pitch process. You see, certain types of games tend to be favored; the faculty making the decision explicitly point this out. Games that focus on pushing the boundaries of technology, implement rare or radical gameplay concepts, are socially progressive, or take risks and target uncommon platforms are generally selected over games that try to put a small spin on a well-worn concept, or aim to execute a tried-and-true concept especially well.

This difficulty is compounded by an ultimate lack of direction with our current concept (at least in my mind). The takeaway is that a game concept should be centralized around a single, appealing idea. Hearing that concept should instantly spark at vivid image in your mind, and should either inspire you to work on the project or play the game. This is why iterating on an existing idea is less appealing. In addition, if you find yourself searching for material to fill out your game with, the core concept probably isn’t strong enough. The feel or driving mechanic (whatever makes your game sound good in the first place) should spawn a myriad of possible directions. Thinking hard about what to cut out of your idea is a good position to be in; thinking hard about what would be a good thing to put in is not.

Maybe this seems counter-intuitive, or vague and unhelpful. Let me give you an example by explaining one of the concepts that I might potentially develop into a pitchable AGP.

I actually described this in a previous post. Basically, the player struggles to keep their third world country afloat, and build up. I like to describe it as Banished crossed with Civilization. The player experience goal is something along the lines of “after struggling to balance a myriad of factors based on real-life, players gain a new appreciation for the difficulties faced by distant and otherwise foreign places.”

As you can see, I would be approaching the game from a social-awareness / global education standpoint. Like KSP teaches players physics, this game would teach players the difficulties of third-world politics. Of course, the game is also a technical and design challenge. Technically, building a simulation with enough fidelity that also performs well would be hard. Creating challenging AI opponents would also be interesting. Design-wise, the game needs a fun yet realistic interplay of economics, politics, and sociology, which is a design direction I doubt many AGPs have pursued. This sort of novelty would be appealing to the pitch process, I imagine.

However, my plans continue to evolve as I watch the process unfold. If all goes according to plan, I’ll pitch next year.

Execution vs Conception

I love having ideas. Ideas are fun, manipulable, infinitely complex or simple. They don’t take any work to think about, expand in breadth and depth. It doesn’t take effort to plan execution. Much like calculus, the manipulation of abstract possibilities is fun and easy. Once it gets to the actual computation and execution, though, the process becomes less fun.

This is why I experiment with so many engines and SDKs, and why I draw and write much more than I model and map. It is enough to know that I have the skills to do (or figure out how to do) what I want to do. If carrying through and actual doing the boring grunt work isn’t fun, why should I do it? That said, having a final product is the most satisfying thing in the world. When an external motivator hits the project, like money or responsibility or grades, I am motivated to work through the grunt work. Then I get to stand on the other side and beam at my beautiful realization of an idea.

Carrying this through to its logical extreme, I feel like the best way to force myself to produce a final product in the real world is to throw myself headfirst into the deep waters. If I make game creation my livelihood (and preferably a few other persons’s too), a final product will emerge in due time. If I keep it as my hobby, my ideas will never get off the ground floor — at most I will get some proof of concepts, or a half-completed level.

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