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.

Escaping UI Idioms

Personally I find that whenever my engineer brain switches on, my designer brain switches off. I have to step away from coding for a while in order to objectively make the best decisions about what to implement and how. When I let my engineer brain do the designing, I end up falling into age-old preconceptions about how things should be. This is especially true when it comes to UI design.

But is it the best idea to blindly follow UI conventions, either new or old? On the one hand, a familiar UI layout and universal UI idioms will make it easier for users to jump straight into your program. However, if those idioms aren’t well suited to your application, the user can quickly find themselves confused, frustrated, and lost. If the UI was unfamiliar but uniquely designed around your application, the users will be less confused because they have no expectations which can be unwittingly subverted.

Some bad features:

  • Confirmation emails which require you to click a link before you can do anything with your account. Confirmation emails that require a link to be clicked in 24 hours but which do not impede progress are much better.
  • The “re-enter your email” fields on signup forms. Every modern browser automatically enters your password.
  • Separating the “Find” and “Replace” functions, putting them in the “View” and “Edit” menus respectively.
  • Speaking of “View” and “Edit” menus, the standard “File”, “View”, “Edit” menu tabs often don’t suit applications. Choose menu item labels that suit your application.

An example of a good feature is the use of universal symbols for universal functions. Using a crazy new “save” icon is not a good subversion of conventional UI idioms. Another is exit confirmation; in a lot of cases, confirming whether you want to save before exiting is a great feature.

Here are two features which are not standard for applications with text-editing capability but which should be (I’ve only seen it in a handful of programs, of which Notepad++ is most prominent):

  • A “Rename” option under the File menu, which saves the file with a new name and removes the file with the old name. This saves the tiresome task of doing “Save As” and then deleting the file in the save window, or (God forbid) having to navigate to the file in your OS’s file browser and renaming the file there.
  • Special character (\t, \n) and Regex support in “Find and Replace” modes.

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.

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.

Does Space Exploration have an ROI?

It’s easy to dismiss the current space program as a giant waste of money. Collectively, the world spends billions upon billions of dollars launching tiny pieces of metal into the sky. How could that possibly be better than, say, building a school in India or providing clean water to poor African countries, or even spending it domestically to improve our country? In the face of recent budget crises, this cry gains even more clout.

And indeed, a lot of space programs are very wasteful, especially NASA and the Roscosmos. However, this is generally due to the fact that politicians treat space as a football — another barrel of pork for their constituents. When politics and space exploration mix, you get bloated programs like the Space Shuttle and the new SLS. It’s much better when the politicians set broad goals (AKA land on the moon), fork over the money, and let the engineers work their magic. Otherwise you get a twisted maze of bureaucracy and general management which ends with wasted money and subpar designs.

But let us not forget that NASA has produced a number of very tangible technological advancements, which is summarized here better than I could. In addition, satellites are a cornerstone of the global communications network, not to mention the Global Positioning System, which is satellites. Although communications satellites are now built and launched by commercial ventures, NASA was the first and only customer for a while, and allowed companies to get some expertise in designing and building rockets. Furthermore, the space industry employs tens of thousands of people, all possible because of initial government funding.

However, those examples involve geostationary orbit at the most. What is the practical value of going out and scanning the other bodies in our solar system. Why should we launch space telescopes and space probes? If you don’t believe in the inherent value of knowledge, here is a very down-to-earth example (so to speak): the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) watches the sun 24/7 from L1. It gives us an advance warning for solar flares, allowing satellite operators enough time to turn their expensive pieces of equipment away from the sun, shielding the most delicate electronics from the impending wave of radiation. It is estimated that SOHO has paid for itself 10 times over in this fashion.

Finally, part of space exploration is the attempt to answer some of the big questions. Deep space telescopes answer some part of “Where did we come from?”, and probes to the surfaces of other planets and moon are often trying to answer “Are we alone?”. If you think this is far too sentimental an appeal, I urge you to imagine the ramifications if a future mission to Europa found microorganisms living in the oceans under the ice, or a mission to Mars found lithophiles buried under the Martian regolith. How would world philosophies change?

Regardless, we may be spending too much money and spending it in the wrong places. I submit to you the Indian space program, which designed and launched a mission to Mars for about 75 million dollars. I think the US should follow India’s example and lean towards frugality and very specific, directed goals. Accomplishing a single mission for a small amount of money is better, in my opinion, than developing several high-profile, high-cost programs simultaneously.

While my language and previous post may make it seem like I am opposed to any sort of space exploration, I am merely of the opinion that our society views space exploration in the wrong way. Space exploration should not be about sending humans to other bodies, at least not right now. It should be about trying to find out more about the rest of our solar system, so we can extrapolate and make predictions about the other systems and exoplanets we are discovering. And if all else fails, it can be a platform for many kinds of materials and electronics research.

Into the Unknown: UDK Part 4

I’ve finally reached that breaking point where I am comfortable with the Unreal Engine. I may not have knowledge of every aspect, but I am finally understanding the basic axioms driving the inner workings, which allows me to intuitively understand where to look when I am stumped. The unfixable problems are falling away as my problem-solving abilities increase with respect to the environment. When you are utterly clueless about the engine, it can be difficult to know what kind of help to look for.

So in the past few weeks I began working on the project again. This time, I would build up an easy, lightweight framework from the UDK (rather than UT) packages — that is, I started out with much less pre-built functionality so that I could understand everything that was going on.

I succeeded. So far I’ve built a basic Pawn framework (Pawns are objects controlled by players or AI) with a custom crouch system and an Inventory Manager that better suits my needs. I’m also working on a Weapon system, although I haven’t implemented sounds, particle effects, etc. My HUD system is minimal, but so far that is all I need.

When I need to, I go to the UT packages and look at their implementations. However, the number of times I’ve copied and cut down code has decreased dramatically. Now I can write my own code with confidence that it does everything I want it to (note that although I am perfectly comfortable coding, it is more about knowing which function calls go where in the logic chain, and what to reference).

Note that I don’t have grenades, vehicles, sounds, shields, AI, other characters, or environments yet. However, I’m more comfortable having a small, solid base of functionality that I completely understand, rather than a thin spread of half-implemented, opaque features. Down one road lies abandonment, down the other lies slow but steady plodding to completion.

%d bloggers like this: