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.

Sim State

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while. This idea really started when I watched Day[9] play the new Sim City, and then picked up Sim City 4 again. I wanted to create a game which brought the ideas of micromanaging infrastructure and government into a larger scale. The player would be able to control education, government type, military, trade, etc. Eventually it grew into a sort of “third-world country simulator”, since that seemed like the most interesting route to people I pitched the general concept to.

The basic premise is that you are the leader of a small country, recently put in power by a violent revolution. This country is located in a faux South or Central America, but there is also the possibility for having multiple templates: African, Southeast Asian, etc. The player can only really see the small land area he controls, plus some of the bordering sovereignties. There is no global map (and this isn’t a game about conquest), but there are references to current global institutions (or fictitious characterizations thereof) like the UN and US, or WHO, etc.

Winning the game means pulling your country out of poverty and onto the world stage. This requires many parts, including building infrastructure, establishing governmental rule, and appeasing the international community. However, the win condition is gaining control over every province in your nation. Control just means being the dominant power faction. Routes to control include stamping out resistance (militarily) and appeasing interest groups. Thus a large part of the game is balancing political control; keep the military leaders on your side, stop workers from striking, and stay elected. The last one may mean establishing a dictatorship, rigging elections, or spending a lot of resources maintaining public image.

At the start of the game, your country is poor and unequipped. There are two forms of currency: money, and international repute. International repute can be spent on relief or treaties; perhaps getting a foreign oil company to leave your country. On the other hand, if you drive out the oil company by force, some factions in your own country may approve, while the international community may impose sanctions. Similarly, if their are pirate along the coast, you could demand tribute or try to exterminate them at a potentially great cost. If the world catches wind that you are allowing pirates to operate, however, you will lose repute.

The other form of currency is money. A little macro-economics comes into play here, since you have to manage your currency (printing money), and real “world dollars”. Rapid inflation can be bad for your industries, but it attracts tourists (but only to good parts – nobody is going to visit the region controlled by drug cartels). Real dollars come from exports, mainly. One way to get a boost in the beginning of the game is to exploit your natural resources: cut down rain forests, strip mine mountains, etc. However, you have to establish a more mature manufacturing industry at some point, otherwise you will exhaust your resources and fall back down into poverty.

In terms of infrastructure the player has to build, the main forms are education and industry. Industry includes transportation networks and resource collection, as well as processing. Industry also means municipal improvements, since nice cities attract high-tech corporations and commercial companies. Another route to improving the quality of your workforce, reducing crime, and eliminating overpopulation is education. Building schools takes a lot of resources for little immediate payoff, but it will start to improve your country greatly. It is also a great way for dictators to indoctrinate the population.

Late-game opportunities may include hosting Olympic Games or researching nuclear technology.

As you can see, there is a lot of room for expansions; this is more of a framework for a game, rather than a fleshed out game idea. I know there are games like this, such as Tropico. I think this would be more political and deep than Tropico, but obviously I would aim to offer a different experience overall were I to build this.

Using Games to Educate

In the last few years we’ve seen the Internet playing a larger and larger role in education. Everyone seems to expect a revolution in education within 20 years. It’s possible, although I don’t think it will come from the direction that everyone thinks it will (see my post on online education). I want to give my two cents about an ancillary approach: videogames. Games don’t have to teach the students anything. In fact, I think they are much more useful as vehicles for the education. Games provide a background, a context, for new knowledge. For example, playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution (play chapters of a game as homework instead of reading chapters of a book?) could help spark discussion about the current situation of computers, implants, artificial intelligence, politics, etc. The experiences within the game outside of the lesson help students stay interested and apply the knowledge, even if subconsciously, beyond the classroom.

I’m going to focus on two games: Kerbal Space Program and Minecraft. Prmrytchr has a whole blog on using Minecraft (as well as other games) in the classroom, so I’m going to focus on the technical aspects.

the KSP splash

Kerbal Space Program (KSP) is an indie game currently under development with an open alpha available for purchase. In the game, you run the space agency of a particularly derpy alien race in their Sol-like system. In sandbox mode, you can throw together rockets, probes, rovers, space stations, planes, and planetary bases from a wide assortment of parts. Then you launch your constructions and control them to the best of your abilities.

KSP Screenshot KSP Screenshot 2

While hard to grasp at first, the game is incredibly fun. You do need a rudimentary understanding of kinematics to play well. This is the first step in its ability to act as an educational tool. While you can strap an engine onto a fuel tank and try to fly it, you quickly realize that doing anything impressive — such as putting an object in orbit — requires a bit of education. While you could watch tutorials, you could also get a lesson about basic kinematics and orbital mechanics from a present teacher. There’s an opportunity for lessons on engineering, as well.

As students become more proficient, more complex opportunities open up to them. Orbital rendezvous and gravitational slingshots get more involved physically. Spacecraft design, between mass conservation, fuel-mass ratio, reaction thruster placement, and properties of engines, is a great opportunity for springboarding into other physics. Other elements of spacecraft design that aren’t simulated in KSP, such as heat management, enter the realm of thermodynamics. Ancillary topics that arise when discussing space exploration can involve relativity and electromagnetic waves.

minecraft splashMinecraft, on the other hand, is about as physically unrealistic as you can get. However, it provides an awesome way to teach logic and economics. Even vanilla Minecraft has a growing arsenal of parts which allow rudimentary (or not so rudimentary) automation. Redstone is a powerful tool for doing any sort of logical manipulation — or teaching it. Watching your toolbox of gates and mechanisms grow out of a few basic ground rules is amazing. Creative minds are pushed to imagining new ways of using redstone, pistons, minecarts, and all the other machines being added in. While I’m not a fan, mods like Technic or Tekkit expand the array of basic parts at your disposal.

Multiplayer in Minecraft is an interesting case study of economic theory. Because the system varies so much from the real world, it provides an outside perspective on traditional economic theory. As you teach the basics of microeconomics, you can analyze why Minecraft’s multiplayer economy and identify how to restrict it. The ultimate goal of the class could be to establish a working economic system on a Minecraft server (perhaps through plugins/mods?).

Redstone Schematic Redstone Screenshot

Whether or not any of these are good ideas, it illuminates how games don’t have to be the primary vehicle of learning to be a useful educational tool. Games can merely be a springboard, a point of reference from which lessons emerge. The game keeps the students interested and grounded in the topic, while providing a useful outlet and vector of fortification for the knowledge they are getting in class.

Zombies, Pixels, and Cubes (Oh my!)

It’s no secret that many games these days have incurred that oh-so virulent infection. Like the T-virus, it has spread to every sector of the market, turning developers in shambling shells of their former selves. I speak, of course, of zombies. Just last year we saw WarZ, ZombiU, BlOps 2, and Amy. The year before that saw Yakuza: Dead Souls, Rise of Nightmares, Dead Island, and the rather well-named Zombies. That list excludes low-profile games and those which aren’t, in my opinion, terrible. Is this trend developer laziness, or perhaps a corporate influence? I wouldn’t be surprised if teams were pushed towards zombie games because, statistically, they make more money.

While it is reasonable when large-budget games are zombie-based, the same rationality falls short of protecting indie games. Zombie games are a prop-up, a cop-out for a developer who can’t come up with a better framework. Sure, it saves you the effort of establishing a complete universe (which is extremely tricky). That effort can go back into making other parts of the game better. But is the tradeoff worth it? To me, zombies don’t allow for a lot of avenues in terms of creative gameplay and storytelling. Are zombies a fall-back for those who need an extra kick in their games? Just search “zombie” in the Steam Store and sort by release date. Decide for yourself.

On a seemingly unrelated note, I want to talk about retro graphics. Let’s take a stroll down the Steam Greenlight aisle, shall we? In the first few pages we see:

  • MANOS: The Hands of Fate
  • Dead Colony
  • Deprivation
  • Hammerwatch
  • Potatoman Seeks the Troof
  • Dungeonmans
  • Topia Online
  • 16 Bit Arena
  • Spuds Quest
  • Legend of Dungeon

Keep in mind, these are those that are easily distinguishable by their image tile – many more lurk out there behind well-illustrated thumbnails.

What is the cause of this tsunami in indie game market that is retro graphics? Pixel graphics have the added bonus of nostalgic appeal for a certain generation. Art assets may be cheaper to produce. But, at least to me, pixel graphics convey a sense of harsh, delineated gameplay, where fun is equated with difficulty. My mind drifts to games like Megaman, where the reward for beating one level is to play the same level over again, with a different color tileset. I think the benefits of pixel graphics fall by the wayside when the decision is made. Pixel graphics, like zombies, are a knee-jerk reflex for the mediocre game developer. Often these developers are different, but I guarantee that there is more than one pixellated zombie game out there produced in the last five years.

Which brings me to cubes. Thanks, Minecraft. I both enjoy and loathe your trend-setting magnificence. It’s time for another stroll through Greenlight. Bonus points for games that have the word “Cube” in them.

  • Block Story
  • Slip
  • Logicubiks
  • Cell Emergence
  • Brain Cube Reloaded
  • King Voxel
  • Cubes and Zombies
  • Ace of Spades
  • Cube Park
  • Cube World

Ugh. *shiver*. I should do another post on how to not make your game look totally unappealing on Steam Greenlight. You would think choosing a good name and thumbnail would be at the top of everybody’s list. Apparently not.

PlanetSide 2: First Impressions

I made a post a while ago about an MMOFPS/RTS. Turns out, this dream has come true, and it is PlanetSide 2 (it’s free-to-play. go download it right now!)

In the first two hours of play, I was zipping around in a dropship with a squad, capping points like crazy. I was rolling across vast plains in a tank convoy, or running along the ground with dozens of others as aircraft zipped overhead. I infiltrated an enemy compound and disabled a generator. I defended one of our larger complexes from a full-on siege. This game is amazing.

Actually a pretty typical thing to see.

It’s a little hard to get into, as you are just dropped into the action. You have to figure out what the vehicles do, the difference between classes, how the maps are laid out, what you are doing, etc. Basically, you have to figure out how the game works. But after you join an outfit (which are basically clans), the fun blossoms. You run and fight along side your teammates in giant, mile-wide maps. The 24/7 combat goes back and forth across a ravaged landscape. As you cower behind a rock and take potshots at the other factions, aircraft scream over head, blowing each other up. More than once I’ve had a smoking aircraft crash and break apart into a fireball meters from me.

The basic objective is to capture facilities, which are fairly far apart from each other. At the top-most level, the game is a back-and-forth struggle across a territory. The territory is broken in hex-shaped regions, which are linked to the nearest facility. Your platoon (under which there are squads) chooses where to focus their efforts, and then a blitzkrieg spearheads into fortified enemy territory and tears a hole in their defensive line. Overall, the best strategy is to keep a strong front line; if a facility gets isolated in otherwise enemy territory, it is usually much harder to defend.

Each facility has one or more capture points. In order to gain control of a facility, you need to hold all the capture points for a certain amount of time. One in control, facilities can have weapon-change stations, ground vehicle factories, or aircraft factories, depending on the size of the facility (larger facilities have more capture points). You get resources for kills (or assists) and captures. Resources allow you to buy equipment or vehicles. Different facilities give different resource bonuses to the owners.

The actual combat is OK. You can choose between a few classes: sniper, light assault (who gets a jetpack), medic (who can heal and revive people), engineer (who can build stuff) , and heavy assault (who gets a rocket launcher). At a equipment station, you can upgrade to mech-form, for a cost. Death bears little penalty, with only a short respawn and no deductions otherwise. In addition, medics can bring you back to life (for no cost). Each of the three factions gets different bonuses for each class, as well as different vehicles. The ground vehicles are a little annoying to control, and have a strange FOV. Aircraft are extremely hard to control, and I still haven’t figured out the best setup for them. But really the best part of the game is moving with a group of players; you feel like an insignificant part of the combat, not the star.

Really, that is the key part of this game. You understand that you are just one cog in the machine, that the battle doesn’t hinge on you. You also start to realize the scope of the battle raging around you. On the overhead map, you can see which territories are contested. You realize that at each one of those spots, there is a battle as massive and intense as the one you are in. Then you realize that there are two other maps on this server. At any point in time, someone is having a last-stand defense, someone is storming a citadel, someone is cruising over head in an aircraft and shelling ground forces, like an AC-130.

The only problem is that the game is fairly intensive graphically, and has some occasional issues with lag. Also, it is widely believed to have some sort of memory leak. But despite the shaky performance and occasionally flaky servers, this game is still a shining gem in today’s game industry.

9/10

A Solution for Difficulty Curves and Power Creep

Most games portray you as a hero of some sort. A common trope is for the hero to be either inexperienced at the beginning of the game, or lack his equipment. This gives a reason for why the hero does not just plow right up to the main baddie and kill him at the beginning. In any case, a lot of games suffer from a strangely shaped difficulty curve. The game starts out fairly easy as the player learns the ropes, then the enemies get harder. Finally, you max out your stats and the game begins to get easier again.

Granted, the best games suffer from this less, but a lot of games have trouble with this type of power creep. Spore is a prime example of a ridiculously easy endgame (the space stage was essentially a sandbox). Some developers solve this by making enemies more powerful as the player progresses. This can work in games where, for instance, the enemy starts to realize just how much of a threat you are. In open-world games like Skyrim, though, this makes little sense.

Yahtzee, of Zero Punctuation, mentioned in one of his Extra Punctuation an inkling of an idea for a game that is designed with this problem in mind. I have taken the liberty of gripping the nebulous concept by the horns and fleshing it out.

The game is based around the power suit you wear. It is a magnificent piece of High Technology. Unfortunately, this means that nobody is quite sure how it works. The machining of the piece is much too fine to replicate, in any case, which means any replacement parts have to come from other pieces of High Technology, which are few and far between.

At the start of the game you escape from the main fortress of the Bad Guys with some sort of Valuable Item (perhaps information). You raid the armory and steal the suit before plunging yourself deep into the wilderness around the citadel. You spend the game running from a cadre of pursuers, trying to make your way to the border. At every encounter with an enemy, it is up to you to protect your suit as much. Each blow is physically simulated and, depending on where you place armor, where the hit was, how hard it was, etc. a component on your suit has the potential of breaking. Parts also wear down over time.

The most critical part of the game is deciding how to keep your suit in working order. Some systems are critical, like the pneumatics that let you move (damage to arm parts may impair aiming speed, damage to legs may reduce speed or jump height, etc), and some are dispensable, like weapons. If a critical system receives a hit and becomes in critical danger of breaking down, you have to stop and either fix it with any spare parts you find, or scrap a non-critical system on your suit to get the essential parts.

This meta-game with the suit solves the problem of power creep. You are at maximum power at the beginning, but enemies are also at the greatest density. Slogging through the wilderness and fighting enemies wears your suit down, so by the end you are barely limping along. As time goes on, you have to choose which weapon or system to scrap for parts. This means that you get a sample of all abilities at the beginning, and can keep the ones that best suit your play style. One of Bioshock’s biggest problems was that there was no incentive to try new plasmids. I’m sure the majority of players just improved the starting set, because buying new powers was too much of a liability.

I like the idea of having the game being mostly free-world. You can choose the best path through the different types of terrain to avoid encounters. Cold environments, wet environments, and sandy environments all have different types of wear and tear on the suit. Roads are easy to traverse (meaning less food consumption and lower likelihood of suit failure) but are more likely to find troops on them. Towns and other population centers are more likely to hold supplies (food and maintenance items are critical for survival) and spare parts, but the citizens will raise the alarm if they see you, and there are likely to be troops in towns.

The catch is that any alarms you raise will alert the search parties to your general presence and means a higher chance of encountering troops. Same goes for any military engagements in which an enemy scout or survivor escapes. The game is part stealth (avoiding conflict), part tactics(managing the suit, choosing your world route), part combat (winning conflicts you get into). At the end, instead of a boss fight, you have a final battle at the border of the kingdom as the search parties converge on your position and a friendly militia comes down from the other side of the border to help you across.