Monthly Archives: December 2013
Merry Christmas to all y’all in the blogosphere!
To be totally honest with you, the break I’m going to be taking in my blogging is only partially due to the looming holiday stuff. It’s been pretty disconcerting to write pretty extensive posts which I think are insightful and well thought out, only to have them not be read by anyone. I’d rather have thousands of people read them and receive vitriolic hate speech from every single one, because at that point I’d know at least I’d be having an effect. I don’t think that video games are that polarized at that point, unless I said something like “Women need to be more sexualized in games” or “GTA is not violent enough,” but it’d be a nice Christmas present to get my comment inbox blown up with rage.
Regardless, I write because I enjoy writing, not because I want anyone to read it. In the end, however, my publishing of my blog implies a hope that people will read, subscribe, and share with their friends who might enjoy it. Even the people closest to me won’t do such a thing, so it begs the question: why publish? And to that, I answer: “I guess I won’t for a bit.”
Don’t be disheartened, I’m not quitting. Besides, you’d have to read the blog to be disheartened by it. I’m just going to take some time off, rethink why it is my blog is unsuccessful after nearly two years, and come back with renewed vigor and fresh material (and a style to go with it).
Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year, folks.
I haven’t been thinking about games much. Finals are rapidly approaching and so is Christmas. Though I’m not technically in classes, everything is coming to a head and I haven’t had a free moment to do some serious processing of my gaming experiences for this week. But I had had an issue a couple of weeks back that I wanted to blog about but couldn’t, so I figure there’s no time like the present to try and get my ideas out there (and probably crash and burn in the process).
There are a lot of issues with the indie game community, which I have tried to be involved in supporting and encouraging through my blog posts, my money and in a (very) small part my musical/programming ability. I feel like it’s a healthy community with a lot of people in it that doesn’t get nearly enough recognition from the mainstream media. (Interesting tidbit! NPR just did an article on “The Stanley Parable” that was an actual serious review of it in an artistic sense. Huge step forward! Read it here. As it turns out, they have articles about indie games every Tuesday? Who knew?)
I find it’s also a lot more of an artistic medium (the indie game community, I mean) than the triple-A games because there’s not so much commercial pressure. I’ve talked about that before, too.
But here’s the thing. It’s a COMMUNITY. There is no triple-A game community. There are businesses and that’s about all we can say for it. Sure there are developers and programmers and musicians and artists and writers and etc etc etc who are all well-known in their own communities of developers and programmers and (you get the picture)… but no crowdsourcing, no community involvement, no back-and-forth between the people playing your game and the people developing it. Massive outcry over Mass Effect 3’s ending got them to change part of it, and some other large protests (please note, PROTESTS) against things done in triple-A games have sparked change. But there’s no suggestion box at Blizzard’s or EA’s HQ.
There’s a lot to be said for that, though! Producing a PRODUCT is what video gaming is all about. You want something that a player can immerse themselves in and enjoy. They don’t worry about how it was made, they don’t question whether or not it could have been made better. Did you do your beta testing? Did you work out the bugs? Are you suuuuuuure?!?! (I’m looking at you, Skyrim.) Then we’re good. Ship it out, sell the preorders, make the DLC, reap that cash cow for all it’s worth. We’re done here. That’s how the industry works. You don’t regularly update something you sell people on a Blu-Ray disc. You can’t.
Granted, some game companies try to. It’s not always pleasant.
But an INDIE game, oh! The possibilities are endless! Every time you play it, there’s a new update! New updates every Tuesday? Twice a week, even? Say you’re playing at 8pm, and the update comes out. After you download it, at 8:30, you could be playing a different game! One that’s better, has more features, has less bugs, and more exploding cool stuff! (That falls under the realm of “features” but bears special mention. I mean, c’mon, EXPLODING STUFF, HELLO.)
Indie games have the ability to get you up close and personal with the development process. Let’s go into WHY that is!
1. The Kickstarter
Kickstarter/IndieGogo/Steam Greenlight have helped indie games in development get community support (and build their fanbase) since their inception (ooh, Inception!). They say, “Look at the potential of this idea! Help me make it a reality!” And the community overwhelmingly responds…
What else? They provide “stretch goals.” This is also brilliant because even at the very outset of a game’s existence you’re involving the community in deciding what is in the game. Whoa. (This theme comes back, remember it.)
2. The Wiki
Great indie games have great wikis. How do these wikis get built? The community! Now, having said that, this is definitely a two-way street. The developers have to put their time into giving people the framework they need to edit and expand a wiki, and they need to be diligent about its upkeep… but the rewards are enormous! All you have to do is create and maintain a webpage (which I’m certain every gamedev has to do twice or three times for each blog/merchant site/github/etc. they own), and now your community is talking, discovering, playing your game, and making things happen. If they run across an item or dungeon that they don’t know about, it’s only a matter of time before they start figuring out how to explain it or use it in wiki-able terms. People talk about your game? People can get an inside look into your game before buying it? People can see how it develops? Good news, everyone!
3. The Forums
It seems ridiculous that a triple-A game would be without forums, and for the most part, you’re right. There are, of course, discussion forums for many, if not all triple-A games, but please, I beg of you, go on them and lurk for a bit. You’ll notice that it’s a greasy mixture of bragging, complaining and outright indecency and it quite frankly scares me.
But, go on the forums for a game like MineCraft or Gnomoria, or Proteus or Bastion or Desktop Dungeons or or or or… and you’ll see something different. You’ll see (most of the time) a nicely organized and well-run site that puts updates up and posts patchnotes, encourages discussion AND FEEDBACK about their game. WHOA WHOA WHOA. Stop the presses! Feedback? That makes a difference? My god! You mean that involvement in the process of the game’s development could… somehow… influence the game’s development in a positive manner? Holy cow!
Sorry about the sarcasm. But many triple-A games ignore their communities, and they sort of HAVE to. In a commercial business model, there is no open beta. There is no free updating. There might be some bug fixes, but if there’s going to be extra content, you’re going to be paying for it and it was probably already in the works when the game came out. The gradual adding and changing of features is something that’s only possible with an indie game community that’s involved and active in the development process. They don’t need to know how to code, but they do need to be able to say, “This was unbelievably frustrating. I tore out chunks of my hair.” or “Man, I wish this could be faster.” or “Wouldn’t it be cool if there were horses? I like horses.”
That’s community right there.
4. The Let’s Play
Everyone knows that MineCraft started the Let’s Play boom (sort of). People made living wages by being entertaining commentators of their exploration through the game’s mechanics. They showed curious users how to do everything from starting the game to building a house to farming to finishing the regular content of the game. Many just show people playing, screwing up, dying, figuring out their mistakes and growing from their experiences (okay, maybe not that last one). If there’s an indie game, there’s an LP of it.
I don’t know if I have to go too deep into why this is great! Why do you test-drive cars? And why DON’T you test-drive games? An LP is a real-life look into how a game works, how people play it, as well as figuring out a lot of the mechanics and playstyles of the game. It’s a fantastic and free way to get people interested in your game. It’s free advertising that comes from the ground up.
A lot of triple-A games have significant Let’s Plays behind them as well, especially in-depth, open-world games like Skyrim, but if you watch enough of these, you’ll notice a difference in the flavor of commentary and playing styles. In triple-A games, it’s not an adventure of discovery, because even in the newest, most innovative games, you’re still expecting the quests, blacksmithing, vendor trash and conversation options of the next Elder Scrolls game, or the “boogey-boogey-boo” scares of a game like Dead Space. When a Let’s Player plays a game like Proteus, Journey, or even the first forays into the world of MineCraft, often the player (and the audience) has no experience and, as a result, few expectations. You get this excited sense of discovery with indie LPs, instead of the… less discovery-oriented excitement of “WOOH LET’S KILL ZOMBIES GUNS GUNS GUNS FIRE YEAH!!!”
Also worth mentioning: dedicated Let’s Play creators are an amazing asset to gamedevs who want people to experience firsthand the changes made during beta. Instead of reading patchnotes, your prospective clientelle can watch the new features and cool stuff unfold before their eyes with snarky British commentary.
5. The API
“What’s an API, Another Gamer?!? Is that a kind of beer?” No.
It’s the Application Programming Interface, which is a complicated term (like everything in CS…) that explains a simple concept: it’s how the parts of your program work together, and how they receive and deal with extra parts. The modding API of games is a modders ability to reach inside the code, change things, add things, and extend the functionality of an already complete game.
Whew. A lot to take in there.
Why do you care? Because the mod API for games like MineCraft turned it from something of a curiosity to a fantastic, enormously massive game of never-before-or-since-seen proportions. Indie games have a penchant for letting their users fiddle with the guts of the game, and with MineCraft especially it has produced results that never fail to boggle my mind. Computer crafting, power and electricity frameworks, extra minerals, creatures, trees, biomes, items, weapons, items, armor, items… there’s a mod called “Too Many Items,” and a snarkier, newer version called “Not Enough Items.” There are mods that stretch the bounds of creativity, crafting elegant storylines and forging brand new dimensions for you to explore, mine, battle, and die in.
It’s about involvement in the process. It’s about involvement in the product. Indie games can do this, and they’re unique in their ability to. It’s a magnificent skyscraper of artistic and technological achievement that is built from the millions of users and their involvement with making something greater than an already pretty great game made of blocks.
Of course, not every indie game supports modding as well as MC (as a matter of fact, none of them do). It may be the difference between changing the zombie skins to My Little Pony characters, but most games have some small ability to be modded. Word to the wise, though: this mutability and versatility is what made MineCraft what it is. If you’re smart and you’re creating a game that is in any way a changeable experience, then let your users change it. Let them design new events or levels or characters or enemies. If you build it, they will come :3
I couldn’t figure out how to work in Garry’s Mod, but… Garry’s Mod.
It’s a long post, I know, but there’s a lot to be said for involving and building your community when you build a game. It’s something that indie games can use to gain a huge advantage in popularity and advertising reach, and it’s just a nice thing to do. Whereas big companies may have insidious ways to push their new game (toolbars, mobile apps, etc etc etc), this is a pure, simple way to be a good development company while putting yourself out there (or allowing your users to do the work for you!). As a dev, it’s great. As a consumer, I find it equally great, and if you didn’t appreciate it before… go out and buy MineCraft and start appreciating, damn you!
Yeah, yeah, I didn’t update Monday. Sue me. (Actually, please don’t.)
So I’ve been running through Dead Space as well as a couple of other games, and I keep seeing this recurring theme come up with how the games are constructed: algorithms. When I open a locker in DS and find the ammo for the gun I don’t have any ammo for, it’s like unwrapping that Christmas present from that aunt you never see, and it’s EXACTLY what you wanted. “How did you know?!?”
Algorithms. That’s how they knew. Well, your auntie probably called your mom and was like, “Listen, I need to buy this kid’s affection. PlayStation 4? Got it.”
What’s an algorithm? You probably cringe every time you read it, because it reminds you of math and being trashcanned in high school. Don’t be afraid of math! I hear this all the time in my programming classes and online in tutorials. Don’t be afraid of it. You know what? That’s ridiculous. Of course you shouldn’t be afraid of math. Math is so useful, you should dress math up nice, take math out to a nice restaurant, bring math back to your place for an expensive bottle of wine and a rom-com. If you were a proverbial gold-digger, math would be the extremely rich, nice old guy who’s still very handsome in a rugged way. That’s math. It’s awesome. Love it.
Algorithms are nifty things that basically collect data and do stuff with it within a certain set of guidelines. Game AIs are extremely algorithm-based, because the data they collect is YOUR actions, and what they do with it involves figuring out a way to either help you (a la Left 4 Dead) or how to kill you (also a la Left 4 Dead). More examples, you ask? Minecraft worlds are generated to a very specific and complicated set of algorithms, making sure there are different biomes, caves, ores, enemies and special dungeons all over the place. In the case of the “data collection” part of MC, you have to put in a “world seed” when you create your world, which is essentially a word or number that sets parameters for the world’s look and composition. Whoa. Think about it. A word generates a world. That’s the power of algorithms.
What else do they do? They allow for a mutable gameplay experience. Whoa, big words, I know. Imagine you’re playing a level of some puzzle game you like. You finish a level but you really wish that you could do more levels of the same variety. If your game is designed with specific levels, then you’re outta luck (like Candy Crush, for example). However, if your game uses an algorithm to spit out levels and then calculates the difficulty of them (by using a solver or figuring out minimum number of moves to solve, etc.), then you have an infinite number of levels at your disposal, each with its own unique and algorithmically pooped solution. Nifty, right?
**DISCLAIMER. IF YOU ARE NOT A PROGRAMMER OR INTERESTED IN GAME DESIGN, YOU MAY SKIP THE NEXT COUPLE OF PARAGRAPHS**
In terms of programming, it saves you as the game designer a lot of work! I’m going to use the example of my RPG, “Blue” to illustrate what I’m talking about. I algorithmically generated my treasure. I placed treasure chests in the world and filled them “randomly” with treasure of several varieties. The bonus is that I save both lines of code and data. I don’t have to have a file specifying which treasure chest locations contain which treasures, and I don’t have to implement the code to deal with said file. It also gives me a lot more freedom with how I want to give the player treasure. I personally had two lists of treasure: a basic list that would always be a possibility for a chest’s contents, and a “unique” list that had better treasure, but could only be gotten once. Instead of placing them in the chests at the beginning of the game, I calculated what was in the chest when the player gets it. Bingo, more data and code saved! You can play with the algorithm as much as you want to make it fit you: change the favoring of the basic list to the unique list (which gets found more often?), make unique lists floor specific, or don’t and let the player get the previous floor’s treasure on the next floor. Make it possible to get unique treasures from battles (just in case luck doesn’t provide them with their dandy new equipment). Huge amount of possibilities, all of which don’t require a lot of work.
Another game design thing that algorithms do very well is “hiding the strings.” The “strings” are the hard and fast rules that govern your game. With Mario, it’s “jump on heads, try pipes, you can only jump so high and run so fast, get powerups to change what you can and can’t do, don’t fall in pits, on spikes or in lava.” Pretty simple and straightforward, and understanding the rules (“strings”) is how the player plays the game. In MineCraft, there are hard and fast rules that the player is made aware of, but the majority of the brilliance of the game is in the algorithms. The player need not understand the math behind the world-gen to play with it. They explore to find new biomes, they explore to find caves and dungeons, and they don’t have to be aware of the math that put them there to know that their exploration will yield results. They just won’t be able to predict WHEN, which means they’re playing the game without seeing the strings that make it work. The gamedev (that’s you) is saying, “Don’t worry about how it’s made, but trust that you’ll enjoy playing this level/world/fight.”
**END NERDINESS** (well, not really)
So what do algorithms mean for you as a gamer? Tons of stuff! They change the way we play games. Think of the AI Manager in Left 4 Dead. If you haven’t heard about it, that’s okay. It was a big deal back when L4D came out, because it governed the spawning of hordes of zombies and special zombies in partial response to how the players were playing. It allowed the 4 levels that L4D had to be played over and over, changing when the stress points and bad stuff occurred over the course of the level. Your objective is: get to the safe room while killing as many zombies as you can. Now, if you dally too long in a weapons closet, the AI Manager will send zombies after you again and again until you get moving. It will place obstacles in your path like special zombies to make sure the excitement level doesn’t get too low. It will place witches (bad, bad, bad zombies) in the most inopportune places to ensure that you don’t sleep at night. It allows players to react to challenges in an extremely ORGANIC way, because they have to be able to deal with problems as the occur without being able to predict WHEN they occur, even if they’re an expert at the game.
Also worth noting that it means the player is never “safe.” If you totally clear out a building of zombies in MOST games, you know you can hunker down there without pausing and go get a Mountain Dew. Not so in L4D. You come back, wiping Dorito dust off on your heavy metal band shirt to find that your entrails have become your extrails.
Algorithms also govern how the game “plays you.” In Dead Space, like I mentioned, there isn’t an algorithm that spawns enemies like in L4D, because the experience is supposed to not be a question of “survival” so much as a question of going insane from terror. Those kinds of experiences need to be carefully crafted. However, there IS an algorithm that takes stock of your inventory (and probably which guns you like), and spawns ammo more often for that gun. The game accommodates your playstyle. Let’s say you’re not a gun person (flower power, y’all! Kill the zombies with love <3), but you do enjoy beating them to death with your bare hands. I actually love this approach in a lot of games. I don’t know why. The “B” button just looks so nice on those Xbox controllers, and it never gets enough love. Well, a game like Dead Space would have a caveat in its algorithm saying, “Mr. Treasure Manager, sir? The player is taking a lot more hits than normal.” And the Treasure Manager decides that instead of putting ammo in crates, he’ll put medpacks instead, ensuring that you can run up to spiky zombies with blades for arms to your hearts content, as long as you manage to hit the “heal” button with sufficient excess as to live through it.
Lots to think about. I want you folks to give me something to work with, here! Comment or otherwise get to me an algorithm YOU’VE found in a game you’ve played, whether it’s a particularly pesky enemy AI, or the thing on your phone that gives you new Sudoku puzzles whenever you need them. I want to hear from you! Seriously.
See you Friday!
Hey folks, look at me! I’m updating! And I’m not going to say that I’m busy! Although I am! (Curses.)
Due to the business that is inherent to my life, the only thing I’ve really gotten to do video-game-wise this week was a full playthrough of We ❤ Katamari. A worthwhile effort, let me tell you. Those games are addictive.
But the “new ground” I’m breaking in my video game experience is in the area of thriller games. I did Left 4 Dead a lot, I tried Amnesia and failed, but… I needed a new game, and in one Humble Bundle or another, I’d picked up both Dead Space and F.E.A.R. 2. (I’m planning on buying the first F.E.A.R. game at some point). This meant… well, it was high time for me to foray into the horror genre in earnest.
Having said that, I just finished Chapter 1 of Dead Space. It doesn’t help that my real name is the same as the main character’s name, so when they start screaming things at him (me) through the intercom, I get a bit jumpy.
So where am I going with all this? Well, ironically, I’m doing this to not be just “another gamer.” The more I play games, the more I want to dissect them and figure out what makes me feel the way I do. How does horror in games work? How do I recreate it as a game designer? These are tough questions to answer and I fully intend to play through these games until I’ve figured it out.
It’s going to be a while. I have to take lots of breaks.
See you Monday!
Okay, misleading title, I’ll give you that. But at least I’m updating! It’s not as easy as it seems!
What do I mean by “Triple-A games?” I’m glad you asked, person-who-is-not-a-gamer! They’re the games you hear about. “You mean like Mario?” No, person-who-is-not-a-gamer, not quite. Good try, though.
They’re the games that you see ads for on TV. They’re the games that have life-size cutouts of their characters plastered in front of every GameStop or video game store in existence. They’re the large franchises of the big three consoles, and they’re the games that you pay 60 bucks for (unless you live in Australia… poor aussies…). Think BioShock, GTA, Mass Effect, Call of Duty, the Zelda games, the Final Fantasy games, Dead Space, StarCraft, etc.
They’re big titles with a huge amount of support and money behind them. Their credits are longer than some flash games I’ve played on Kongregate. They have language teams, they higher game testing firms, and they have multinational branches of operations. They’re the games that you hear about in that they’re pretty much the only games you know of if you aren’t a serious gamer.
Of course they’re “the future.” They have the most well-funded operations, they have the best technology and they’re the most widely publicized.
But what most people don’t realize is this this rather strange truth: people like Pong.