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.

Advertisements

Programming Paradigms

Computer science is a relatively young field, and it has rapidly evolved ever since its inception. This becomes increasingly evident when you look at computer science being taught versus computer science being used. This is extremely apparent in the misnomer: computer science. CS is more technical art than science.

For a long time, computers had finite computational resources and memory. Today, our average consumer-grade computer is comparable to a super computer from 1985. Thusly, the twenty first century requires programming paradigms far different from those taught in the twentieth century. It no longer pays off to optimize the number of calculations or amount of memory your program uses, unless you are specifically performing mathematically intensive operations. This blog voices that sentiment much better than I can.

So programming now is about implementing an idea. Its easy to rise above the technical nitty gritty details and focus on the concept at hand. Then programming becomes a form of poetry, in which you express your ideas in a structured and rhythmic way. Programming, at a consumer level, is no longer about getting a machine to do what you want; its about empowering people.

Just like a poet spends many hours revising their verses and getting the words to say exactly what is meant, a programmer spends hours rearranging and improving code to fulfill their idea effectively. And like poetry, there are many genres and styles of programming. Unfortunately, programming is also like poetry in the way that many students get turned off to it by the experiences they have with it in school.

Programming should be taught with the main objective in mind: we are here to accomplish a mission. Writing mechanics are practiced and improved, but without an idea behind a poem or story, it is pointless. Algorithms are important, and so is project design and planning. But these are merely implements with which to express the programmer’s idea.

This is why the most successful software is easy to use, is powerful, or grants people an ability they didn’t have before. When you use a program, it doesn’t matter whether all the variables are global, whether the project was built top-down or bottom-up. The functional differences of some of the most disputed methods are miniscule. Optimization is a trivial concern when compared with the user interface. Is the parse speed of one file format more important than the support of a larger number of formats?

Kids want to be programmers because of coding heroes like Notch, the creator of Minecraft. But Minecraft isn’t well-designed. In fact, the program is a piece of crap that can barely run on a laptop from 5 years ago despite its simplicity. But the idea is gold, and that is what people notice. This is why Minecraft and Bioshock, and not COD, inspire people to be game developers.

However, functional programming is the CS taught in schools. Schools need to teach the art of computer science, not only the science. Imagine if writing was only taught, even up through college, in the scope of writing paragraphs. Essays and papers would just be a string of non sequiturs (kind of like this blog). Fiction would have no comprehensible story, only a series of finely crafted paragraphs. Only those who figured out the basic structures of plot, perhaps by reading books by others who had done the same, would learn to write meaningful stories.

In the future, everyone will be a programmer to some degree. At some point data will become so complex that to even manipulate information people will need to be able to interface with data processors through some sort of technical language in order to describe what they want. To survive in a digital world you either need software to help you interface with it, or learn the language of the realm.

Yet children are being driven off in droves because computers are being approached in education from completely the wrong angle. Computers are tool we use to accomplish tasks; the use of computers should not be taught just because “people need to be able to use computers in order to survive in the modern world”, but because children will be able to implement their ideas and carry out tasks much easier if they do have an expanded skillset on the computer. Computer skills should be taught in the form of “how would you go about doing X? Ok, what if I told you there was a much easier way?”

Silent Protagonists

Why are game developers so loath to assigning personalities to the player character? Duke Nukem had one of the strongest personalities in a game, and the series was a big success (mostly). It seems that a paradigm has infiltrated the industry, teaching story writers that the player should be able to asset his own personality through the character’s actions. I can’t see why this has become such a popular concept, since in my opinion silent protagonists take away some of the game’s and story’s magic.

For instance, Halo CE was pure magic for me. The whole plot enchanted me. Halflife 2 had a story at least as good, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much. The game was linear, so your character was going to do the same thing no matter what. They tried to let the player express themselves in a meaningless way. The game would have been improved ten fold if Gordon Freeman had a voice. Most of the cool story I learned after I played the game, while reading about auxiliary documents and developer commentary on wikis. I learned about the Combine and the different concepts behind them. The same logic powers Freeman’s Mind, a playthrough of Halflife 1 voiced over with what thoughts are going through Gordon’s head at the time. Its hilarious and adds way more depth to the game.

Gordon Freeman
What is this guy like? Nobody knows.

Crysis was such a cool game. The graphics were great, the plot was nice and solid, and you could relate to the characters. Crysis was way less linear than HL2, and THEY managed to create a versatile character. Crysis 2, on the other hand, had a weak main character who was just a pawn of the voices in his helmet. It was way less fun, although that probably also had to do with the worse gameplay and unexplained story. Speaking of which, I don’t understand the connection between the first game and the sequel. The aliens in the first game were aliens that possessed and lived in anti-gravity, with wiggly, blue bodies and tentacles. They also needed a cold environment to live in. They sent out robots to kill their opponent and stayed inside their massive spaceship. In Crysis 2, the aliens have become way less cool. They are red, squid-like aliens that use nano-suits. They have different forms, don’t use robots, and don’t need a weightless or cold environment. There are no big floating spaceships, except for ANOTHER spaceship buried under Central Park. A spaceship which apparently doesn’t have an inside, except for pipes full of biological weapons. Seriously, I could have written a way better story. A story in which the main character talks!

Some games are better off without dialogue, of course. Bioshock’s mind slave Jack is better off without a voice, except for narration. In fact, giving him a voice would be unnecessary and probably would have ruined the atmosphere. Skyrim substituted written dialogue for actual audio. While it let you imagine any voice for your character, I think a selection of voices would have also been OK. Strategy games don’t need protagonists, such as Starcraft or Command and Conquer. Sure, Starcraft 2 was fine with its cutscenes and personal characters, but the game also had very personal storyline. World in Conflict had a better defined player character (whether he was the protagonist or not is debatable), but he was still a mute.

I know that there are still lots of games with talking protagonists, but a lot of mainstream games don’t. I didn’t even mention some of the more popular games, like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. Anyways, the point is that I hope the game industry sees a resurgence of games with awesome characters like the Master Chief or Duke Nukem.

%d bloggers like this: