Monday, December 28, 2009

Branching Dialog and in Game Choices

Intro
Today I'm going to reflect on in-game dialog choices. In some games they're just thrown in to give the user an illusion of choice. If done poorly they can take out the immersible quality of the game. This is mostly inspired by me playing lots of Bioware games and thinking back on dialog choices in other games. So I'll start with those.

-Sample Games-
Neverwinter Nights 2 (Obsidian)
Knights of the Old Republic (Bioware)
Harvest Moon Island of Happiness (Natsume)
Harvest Moon Sunshine Islands (Natsume)
Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess (Nintendo)

Okay here are the five games I'm going to look at for this post. We're going to start from the bottom and take a look at Zelda (from here on LOZ).
LOZ is notorious for having false choices in the game dialogs. One of the more famed examples is in Ocarina of Time (N64) when Zelda first asks Link for help. You have the choice of saying "no" but what happens is you go through this endless loop of Zelda asking for help until you say "yes".

They still do this a little in LOZ, except they hide it a little better. If you say 'no', you get some dialog and are allowed to roam free again.
In any sense, LOZ is a good example of BAD choice handling in games.

Next the newer Harvest Moon games for the Nintendo DS. (HM from now on.)
There are sequences where you can make choices in conversation with the villager you are "dating". In HM: Island of Happiness, a single sequence could have up to 3 choices.
In the newer HM: Sunshine Islands a single sequence only has 2. One is obviously positive and the other obviously negative.

The older version (HM:IoH) was more fun because not all the choices were black and white. There was more mystery and excitement associated with choices made. Not to mention that even some negative choices could open up opportunities to see "hidden" sequences.

NWN2 and KOTOR are both examples of mostly the same clothe. There are some subtle differences. Both games have in game choice dialog that affects multiple factors. Both games usually give multiple choices to a question. How the effects of the choices are presented are what differ in these two games. KOTOR has a pop-up screen announcing that you made a "Light Side" or "Dark Side" choice. NWN2 keeps it in a "live feed" that is always on screen. The player is not alerted to the choice's consequences as it were.

-Choice Styles-
So these game examples illustrate some of the various styles or methods used to give player's an element of choice in the game.
LOZ uses a yes/no approach and really gives an illusion of choice. There is only one path for the story to follow.

HM is different in that there is no story only a premise and some goals. It follows the lines of a dating sim when it comes to conversation choices. One of them falls into the LOZ trap of a black and white choice for an answer. The other has Black, Grey and White. (Or Good Bad Neutral). It was also sneaky in that sometimes giving a "bad" or neutral answer was more interesting than giving a "good" one.

NWN2 and such are very immersive. The choices are not always clear cut. It does affect the direction and flow of the story (Branching paths). This in a sense makes the player feel like an author. However, it is still limited by the choices it offers.

Now, I'm going to go over the Pros and Cons of using this style of choice in games.

-Black/White Style-
Pros -
  • Easy to program/script
  • Keeps on one track
  • Easy to Write
  • Obvious affect
The beauty of this one is the ease of use for both player and developer. It is usually a clear cut choice and the overall affect is obvious to the player. It's not necessarily always "yes" or "no". For instance, it could affect which ending you get for for the game.

Cons-
  • Boring in terms of choice
  • Not helpful for immersion
  • Risk the Forced Choice (e.g. You must answer yes or the question keeps looping).
  • Keeps on one track
The drawbacks all relate to the fact that the choice is just not very interesting to a player. And my academic nerd classes taught me that "games are a series of interesting choices". The more variance the choice seems to have the more fun it seems.

-Dating Sim Style-
If your game as an aspect that does not affect the game story or your game does not have a one track story then this style may be used. I call it Dating Sim because of the "style" of gameplay that has. The story does not matter. All that matters is that you end up with the girl/boy you choose.

Pros-
  • Player reward is obvious
  • Usually more than 2 choices
  • Usually the affect is obvious
  • Does not have to affect a one track story
This is usually a bit more interesting than just yes or no answers. Granted some may be obviously black and white choices. But the effect is usually instant. Many RPGs use this if they have any "friendship" systems in the game. For example, Summon Night use this to affect character responses in certain cut-scenes. It does not change the story's ending but it does give the player their "own ending" with the character they had the highest friendship with.

Cons-
  • Too Black and White
  • Simplistic Choices
  • Can be tricky to track
This still can run the risk of being a boring choice. Do you compliment the girl or insult her? The outcome just seems so obvious.

-Branching Dialog/Choose your own Adventure-
Pros -
  • Immersion
  • Interesting choices
  • Can be subtle
  • player feels like they can affect the story's flow
Cons -
  • Difficult to plan and write
  • Outcome of choice not always readily obvious
  • Can still be cut and dry
  • Choice really does NOT affect story flow
I look at these a bit like those choose-your-own adventure books where you turn to the page of the choice you made. To some the unclear nature of what is affecting the game or not can bother people. For example, I'll get four responses to a character. One of them I know will illicit a hilarious response and be more of what I WOULD say in that situation. However, I also want to attain a certain goal in the game and I'm concerned that the sassy remark would ruin that outcome.

At the same time there are cases where it seems like a choice but really the author's intended story gets told anyway. If done well this is a true illusion of choice. If not done well, the player feels cheated and resentful of the game.

On top of that the planning and organizing of the writing can be a pain. There is a crap-ton of dialog in Bioware games. A couple novels worth you know.


Designing your Own
The choices you give players in the game need to be accounted for. And each style can appear in one game. What you want to consider is this: How much of an illusion is choice?
If the player really has no control over the ending sequence that should be reflected in the choices.
LOZ only has one ending in mind thus there really is not much in dialog choices.
A Dating Sim has several endings to choose from.
Branching Dialog can either all lead to one or two endings or have many.

-Software to Help-
There are a few software options to help organize branches in branching dialog. It's good to have a flow chart or timeline.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Hero Character: Design

-Introduction -
Heroes are a fascinating topic. There are many stories and adventures especially interested in exploring the anti-hero. I intend to explore the topic of a hero character with particular interest to adventure stories in various visual medias with a focus on comics and video games.
For another discussion on the topic of heroes, check out this episode of The Dish.

This thought bubble was inspired in part by an opinion blog on Gamasutra about the New Prince of Persia characters with focus on the general opposition to the new "prince" character.

So we shall start with what is appealing about a hero.

-Universal Appeal-
There is something about a hero that is appealing to the audience. In general, people like to see a happy conclusion where the character over comes a conflict of some sort. So the act of the hero vanquishing evil is a very clean-cut representation of this ingrained (perhaps even cultural) pleasure of seeing "the good guy" win. So there's probably a good deal of historical and sociological stuff I could delve into but I really won't for now. Let's talk about character and appeal.

For me personally when playing a game or reading a comic, there are some types of heroes that appeal more to my tastes. Things such as the hero being an average Joe or slightly Athletic, having an open/friendly face, and generally someone in their 20s or older. I prefer my heroes to be smaller and skinny because it is less likely they can rely on brute strength to solve their problem. For example, Frodo Baggins. :)

Now that's my personal taste in what is appealing in a hero. However, there are some common things in my list that have universal appeal.
- The underdog: In general, it seems audiences prefer an average person against above average challenges. I think it is because the story is more interesting in that way. Spiderman can fit into this although he's a super hero.

-Ideal Age: Someone in their prime is more appealing as it turns out. This is perhaps also related to Attraction.

-Inner Strength: Not all their power comes from strength of arm but of will, heart, spirit, mind etc. It's easier for most people to related to that.


-Unlikely Heroes - (Children, Animals, Women, Elderly)
There has also been lots of exploration with unlikely heroes. One of the more untapped of these is the Elderly. (Think of the Pixar movie "Up".) Children are usually more common as heroes in children's adventures (such as Chronicles of Narnia). There is lots of appeal to that too.
Animals are sometimes used instead of humans. (Like several Disney films).
And finally, Heroines. They're just not as common as a male hero protagonist when looking at adventure tales or video games.

Now, comics and movies cover all these. Video games...only some. I could pull out some numbers but I'm sure it's obvious that a majority of game heroes are male humanoids. You are actually more likely to play as an animal character than a female heroine.
Just some trivia for thought as you may try to design your next adventure.


- StereoTypes: Video Games-
In the wide range of titles in games, there is a big stereotype that I see.
White, hyper-masculine, (bald), mean-looking, dudes. Along with that I also see White, Androgynous, Cartoon males from Japanese RPG.
It's so white...it's transparent.

Now the interesting thing to remember while designing a video game hero is that the player wants to associate with the character they control. They either want to "be" that character (roleplay) or "care for" the character (empathy). It is only my assumption that the big, muscle man is something that the player wants to "be". Powerful, dominating, and "attractive". (I have never bought a western video game because I thought a main character was attractive. They're all the most fugly sons of b*tches I've ever seen. The exception is the Prince of Persia series.) It's really bland.

On the flipside, white Japanese heroes are generally more the type you want to "care for" or empathize with.

There's lots of articles picking apart why this may be but if looking for universal appeal for your hero, you want to design the type that is easy to "empathize" with and not just "roleplay" as. And there is definitely ROOM for change and different types of heroes or heroines (if I may ask) to be explored. There are secondary characters that are ethnically different than the main character. But rarely is an adventured carried out by a darker-skinned character (of any ethnicity Indian, Native American, Ethiopian, Etc.) This is even true in Fantasy Novels!


-Conclusion-
It really is the market and culture of the creators that drives hero design for visual media. The hero encompasses an ideal or represents a cause.
When designing your hero look at examples from many cultures. You may find some surprising inspiration from another country's legends. Don't look to other video games for your inspiration.

Also take a look at how superheroes have changed over time. Also look at Disney Animation for a good visual design of heroes. And look at the variety. Hercules looks different than Aladdin or Prince Phillip (Sleeping Beauty...yes I know his name) or Quasimodo (Hunchback of Notre Dame).
Disney is actually a very good source to look at when looking for "universal appeal". They have heros you can admire, empathize with and desire to be like...or not.

Or do take a look at books about the subject of heroes. There are plenty.

Good Luck!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

LOH: ReSkinned

I had another idea for this game using a visual novel style instead.
Basically the fun part for me is writing the story and having the user pick their favorite love interest for the end. However, it would not be a LOZ fangame but an original set of characters.

Currently I'm writing the script.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Opinion: Visual Novels

So since I started my project on Ren'Py, I've been introduced to another facet of the game creating community. Visual Novels.

My intention for the engine was something different than what it's usually used for...I think. I have seen a life sim created on this engine so I know it's possible. Visual Novels are a genre not very popular in the Western World. I used to wonder why...and now I get it.

Originally when I heard "visual novel" I imagined something a bit like "Hotel Dusk" where it was very interactive. Or even a choose your own adventure. However, I downloaded someone's free visual novel to check it out. I kept clicking (and not reading) wondering WTF I would get to make a choice. It was then that it dawned on me that perhaps I don't get to really MAKE a choice. OR it took a LOT longer before the player could make one.

And it was boring as hell. I could NOT believe how this was popular. Something on a computer or game system is interactive...there's no argument. The Visual Novel (VN) has an INTERFACE which suggests HUMAN INTERACTION. The only interaction I got was clicking to "turn the page" in a sense. Boring. SO BORING.

Now the community surrounding this engine are mostly making anime based games. Which is fine. And also why I'm going to use NOT anime art in my games. (I think it'd be hilarious if I threw in some 8-bit characters. XD) And there are a few things about anime the style that I like but many things that turn me off.

1) Everyone thinks it's easy to draw anime style - And there's very NICE looking anime style and very amateur looking anime style.

2) People write using anime/fanfic logic - which is bullshit. I call it. Anime has a tendency to not follow a pattern of sense.

3) The "weird Japan themes" - I wrote about this before in another blog post. Japan has some very...unusual fetishes. These are of course echoed in the themes of visual novels.

Sounds like I'm really talking down VN. It's true I think it could have lots of potential but I get frustrated when people call it a "game". Either that or the really "long" VNs really need to work on "pacing" that is giving the user a chance for input fairly early on so they know that there IS interaction. Many of the VNs I also played did have a LOT of choices to pick from making it feel more interactive and not having a lot of down time between choices. Or keeping the images interesting otherwise.

And that's really all I can say on the subject for now. I am le tired. :P

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

First Impressions: Avalon Code

You know it's actually pretty hard to find a decent DS RPG title. And even harder to find a DS game with controls that make sense. Recently, I got a game by Atlus (one of my fave companies) called Avalon Code. I had read reviews on Amazon.com about it and decided I liked the idea behind the game. It was worth checking out. Here is what I think so far...

-Graphics-
Shoot me please. Why do DS titles insist on 3D graphics? They look TERRIBLE! The anti-aliasing is so HUGE it's like I'm looking at pixel sprites blown up to 4 times their actual size. It's one of those things where at a distance, yeah the sprites look okay. But they keep showing CLOSE UP shots of the character! And for me how graphics looks adds a whole lot to how I perceive a game. I would have been much happier if they went the same route as Disgaea where you had cut scenes where still shots of the character speaking (with different expressions) overlay the small sprite animations. Actually if I remember correctly, that is exactly what they did in Rune Factory. That was more acceptable.

It really is a shame because the illustration work of the characters (which made me want to buy the game) are beautiful. I was looking forward to seeing them play out in my game. No...blocky 3D graphics with really awful texturing...when you at them up close.

The cool thing though is that some "accessories" you get can be worn and SEEN on the character. So my character has this awesome hat right now. (It looks like one of MY hats.)

-Controls-
Actually I can't complain about the games controls too much. They work pretty well. It utilizes buttons for moving and basic fighting and the touch screen to manipulate things in the "Book of Prophecy". Now that I think about it...it works and I can't fault it. Darn. :D

-Sound-
DS just sucks at sound...can't really fault the game too much for that when the hardware sucks ass. There is some limited voice acting but lord I wish I could turn it off.

-Design-
Here is where I CAN get picky. The whole idea is that you are using a book interface to record things about the world. So you run around hitting things with this book. You get information about it and can manipulate it and therefore change the world around you. Like I said...cool concept. I still think they pull it off okay but the problem is this...

THE GAME DOESN'T TELL YOU HOW TO DO ANYTHING!!!

I've actually even opened up the manual to figure out things. And they're in there. :/ I KNOW right? Using the user manual? How absurd! Thank goodness I bought the game new! Sure it tells you where to go but the in game tutorials SUCK. For example, I stumble into a mini-game somehow and usually you get an in game explanation of what to do. Nope. They just threw me in the game. Somehow it kept score and I had no idea how! I had to read the manual (after losing and not wanting to play again) to learn how to score in the mini-game.

That's just a small example, but there is also an element where you can change the "code" of an item or person. There is a mini-tutorial how you do this to save an injured cat but no hints or clues on combination for other things. Even the recoding you do for the cat made NO sense and could not be deduced. I figured out how to make my weapons stronger and inherit a certain element just fine. And some monsters can be weakened.

It's just very lax on giving enough information to really learn the game. I'm just stumbling about blindly. Although on the plus side, it DOES tell you where to go next. So that part is all right.

-Story-
I'm not really feeling very attached to the story. Partly because it's another END OF THE WORLD story and you are the CHOSEN ONE! Please. I've played this shtick before. Boring.

-Conclusion-
Like I said, I'm not quite sold on the game because it's not helping me understand its own mechanics. And that makes me frustrated. But Some things are easy enough to figure out so I'll keep playing. I haven't had to crack any online walkthroughs yet!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Game Design: Force Feedback

So I've officially given up (for now) on Kingdom Hearts and moved on to KH2. I know...I'm such a glutton for punishment...but to be fair...they DID clean up some things in KH2 like being able to skip cutscenes (bless you) and some way cooler fighting animations and stuff. And the gummi ship crap isn't as crappy anymore AND...

Right analog stick controls the camera. *tears of joy* Thank you!

But that's not what I wanted to write about today. While playing the game and watching cutscenes I began to notice how much that darn controller buzzed or "rumbled". I thought...when did this become cool?

Looking Back
I want to say arcade games were the ones that provided more of the "force feedback". That made them cool. You're sitting in a driving chair for a car racing game where it shakes when you bump something. Or the gun has some realistic throw back in a shooting game. Bringing this same subtle rumble into the home systems may have started pretty early, but the first one I really remember is the N64 Rumble pack.

It was an optional accessory. And it would vibrate the controller in certain games. Since then, it had become standard and built into game controllers. In games there are options to turn it on or off.

What's the deal?
I ask myself while watching my controller do a little dance on my couch while the it had its little seizure: Why is this appealing? I feel dirty holding it like it's some vibrator. Is THAT what makes it so popular?
Actually holding on the back of your neck feels pretty good...but it depends on the intensity of the rumble.

I mean comparing this vibrator to the shaking of arcade feedback, it feels cheap. If my controller were a gun or a driving wheel, then the rumble/vibrations feel like a part of the product. But the hand held controllers are hardly appropriate. It doesn't feel good. It actually bugs me more than add to my play. And it makes a stupid buzzing sound.

Game Play
So what does the vibrating/rumble do for game play. Well, I imagine it's suppose to add a level of immersion. In a fight if your character gets knocked to the side, you get a short buzz. So I suppose it could ALSO be punishment. The weird thing is that I notice the vibrations mostly happening during unplayable portions of the game...like the cinematics. Why? Why would I need force feedback now?

While I haven't played many games that do this, I'm sure that the buzz/vibrations can work with game play. It can be an indicator like a sound effect, there's a level of immersion, player punishment, or a warning.
These are examples I vaguely remember seeing in games. But it's been awhile since I've noticed the rumble.

Most games it's an option you can turn off...but what I don't understand is why the default is to have it on! Well, I think I do understand. How else would you know that the game had rumble capabilities.

Conclusion
Not much of a rant really, just a thought bubble. There's nothing really wrong with the vibrations. I just feel like it's a cheap imitation of what arcades offer. Or it's a dirty toy. :/ Ew.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Game Design: Combat Themes

99% of all games made seem to have some sort of combat theme. Okay, that's so not an accurate percentage, but that's how much it FEELS like. There are obviously several very awesome games not based on combat. One of which I'm currently playing now, Harvest Moon. But enough of that pacifist style storylines, let's talk battles.
OH, and I'm totally zeroing in on Fantasy stories too. Two birds with one stone and all. :)

Dealing with Conflict
Every story needs conflict. That is what a story is after all: a series of conflicts and resolutions. In story writing books or classes, there are 3 very basic forms of conflict.
They were:
Man vs. Man
Man vs. Nature
Man vs. Self

Many stories have these conflicts and when they do, it boils down that the only way to resolve the conflict is physical force. Fighting. Violence. Etc. At the very least in games and fantasy it does.

The reason for this is that it's simply the easiest and most exciting method of solving the conflict. An epic battle. When playing a game, you get to control a fighting character. Yes. There are countless versions of battling monsters and armies and aliens and ninjas and zombies.

Stories can often still be interesting and deal with the problem without resorting to just fighting. Because writing action is difficult. Playing action is fun.

Messing with the Formula
Not that there's anything wrong with combat based games, it's just that it's so...over done. But people never tire of it so onwards we march. Still, it makes me think about what OTHER ways can a game be fun and interesting and not be centered around fighting. Particularly an RPG.

There are a few examples, but most of them are "sims" or simulation style games.
Unless you count, SRS Games...I mean...Serious Games. Most of the games I've made in my program have been non-violent and non-combative style games. We created a non-violent RTS game.

Anyway, a bit of a sidetrack, what other methods can there be? Is this something just so ingrained in games in general? (Chess is military strategy and so is GO).

One of the games I have been working on tries to "mess" with the a-typical battle system. Most RPG games you just charge straight through battles with slimes, monsters and people without regard...or remorse. My game takes advantage of that mindset and turns it by making some battles (even random ones) unacceptable to kill to win. Your party will lose experience if you kill these enemies. I chose to do it this way so that the player would think about battles and the group the player controls isn't necessarily "evil" or "tainted".

Just an example of an idea. I actually haven't tested it yet so hold the thought until I do.

Novels...now it's your turn
It is actually impressive if you take the time to write out a descriptive fight scene. However, is facing a villain or his/her army in a fight really the only way to resolve it? No. I think you can do better. In fact I know it's true. These are novels and only limited by human imagination.
Again, resolving conflict with battle is not always a bad thing. Sometimes it really is the only way it can work in a novel.

The Point
I really felt like this blog post was going somewhere. And it ended up not where I wanted sadly. I suppose then I'll just issue my challenge to fantasy in general to stop fighting so much. Put down the swords and sorcery and let's resolve this in a different maybe more creative way.
If you can't, then at least make the battles worthwhile and meaningful.

Good luck.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Game Design: Controllers

Back to games. Sorry for the odd detour. This time I'm going to talk about INPUT methods for games.

Intro
Granted I'm just over two decades old, but I have seen my share of unusual controllers. Although I've not used them all.
They ranged from keyboards to joysticks and buttons. There are some things that I like and dislike about some of the more recent controllers. But being the nostalgic git that I am I'm going to look back before looking forward.

Joysticks/Keyboards
Early games on computer systems used a keyboard. (Yay for text based games). And there's not much to expound on that. The keyboard remains a staple example of a game input device. Although now it's often combined with a mouse.
In the past, I remember that it was ONLY the keyboard that controlled everything or only the mouse. (Or you could switch between the options.) Now very often I have to combine them. Now on the surface there's nothing particularly wrong about this method of input. However, I do feel it can discriminate. YES. Discriminate.

Back in the day (she whines from her rocking chair), There was only a handful of buttons needed to play a game. Arrow keys for movement and enter or space bar or sometimes even esc. Mostly RPGs fall prey to this but now you can assign ANY key to a short-cut to perform a command. While using a mouse at the same time! For example, World of Warcraft you can assign menu items to keys. Although I've played regularly for a couple of months I still have a hard time remembering which key opens which menu. Some I have memorized due to use.
I don't like my controlls or commands to be overly complicated.

Joysticks now...well...they've certainly evolved. I didn't mind them as long as they ACTUALLY WORKED. They were really best for those flight simulator games. Some of my favorites were those WWI bi-plane flight games which really made the joystick as a input make sense. And I think it was just the sort of joystick we had. It was one of those with a trigger button.

For other games like arcade games they were okay. It still remains a solid method of input.

Keypad Controllers
Like the ones for the SNES and such. You had the cross pad (D-pad if you will) and a certain number of other buttons. A number of buttons that steadily grew as the consoles progressed. I want to say that the NES only had the D-pad and two buttons besides start and select. Adding up to a total of 8 buttons. SNES adds four new buttons to this increasing the button number to 12. (These numbers DO count the 4 directions on the D-Pad).

Hand held systems also had these traits. So they totally count in this category too.
The point is that the input was very limited. You had input to control movement and actions. Which why games were pretty simple as far as performable actions could go. (This doesn't mean that combinations of buttons or controlls were simple. You got creative.)

I actually don't count N64 onwards "keypad" controllers. Those are joystick/Keypad hybrids which I'll talk about next.

Joy-Pad Controllers
Okay from N64 on (I'm sure there was an earlier system that had these I just don't know it.) controllers mix a joystick system with the keypad. Granted most joysticks ALSO had buttons. It was just a very limited number. I think the most we had on one was 4 (2 triggers and 2 buttons on the base). But these take the layout of the keypad and add small joysticks.

But boy oh BOY do these suckers have a LOT of button inputs. The N64 controller on top of the joystick had 14 buttons. (It also had a d-pad).
Game cube has 2 joysticks (the dual stick system is popular now.) along with 12 buttons. (It also still has the d-pad)
PS2 has 2 analog sticks and 14 buttons.
Xbox also has 14 buttons.

Okay 14 buttons!! (Granted a D-pad adds 4 buttons per controller). Wow that's a lot to fit on a small space. That's also a lot of buttons to keep track of. Well it IS. 14 seems to be the standard.
The shapes of the controllers are what really get me.
PS2/3 and Gamecube have good sized controllers...for MY hands. This is a personal pet peeve, but I have TINY HANDS. They're very petite, delicate and ladylike which is perfect for an artist like me. However, getting a grip on a controller and being able to reach all the buttons properly gives me some challenge when I get a standard Xbox controller. It was made for fat hands...which granted aims for the majority of the demographic. (I mean big hands. :))

Alternative Inputs
This is a growing field in entertainment. Nintendo started it long ago. It wasw the running pad that I first remember seeing commercials for. There was also the glove and balance balls and other what not. In the end they were not all that successful. :/ They didn't work well at all. Except the guns...they could be pretty reliable.

Now we're seeing this reborn...except the controllers DO work. (yay progress). We have Motion cameras, dance pads, guitars, drums, microphones, wiimotes, balance boards and probably more fun stuff in the future.

The quality of an alternative input depends on a couple of things. 1) Does it even WORK?
2) Is it easy to adapt to?
All the newer inputs do work. Things like the guitar and dance pad were relatively easy to adapt to. HOWEVER, to me at least, the Wii-mote is not as easy to adapt to.
Granted it's great for sport games and carnival games but if I were to play one of my action-adventure titles, I'd be scrambling for my comfort zone of joysticks and buttons. (No...nunchuck doesn't count. I still play Smash brother Brawl with my GC controller.)
Speaking of Wii-mote despite being so revolutionary it's still COVERED in buttons!! and you can ADD more buttons to it with the nunchuck.
Total you can have...well...the standard 14 buttons. On top of having a joystick.
...
.....
Okay tell me how this is revolutionizing gameplay again? Shouldn't motion censoring REPLACE the need for a joystick? Whatever.

Conclusion
In the end I feel that controllers are trying to become more like keyboards! I mean on the one end of the spectrum you have your standard computer keyboard. (Over 80 keys...or so. I'm just using a laptop right now. There's more on standard keyboards.) That's a possiblity of over 80 input commands. Let's not forget combining keys!
On the other end of the spectrum you have the simplest joystick with maybe 2 buttons.
The more buttons you have the more choices the player has to deal with. This can open more possibilites for input commands but can also lead to excluding new players. It's a lot to learn. Now for most people, growing up WITH the technology we grasp how to handle it and can adapt to the number of buttons currently before us.

As long as assigned commands aren't ridiculous then I'm fine. But to me, it feels like the high number of buttons increases the pressure on the player and the entry way into games.

I like games that don't utilize ALL the buttons on a controller. It's nice to have an easy to control game.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Game Design: Lights, Camera, Action!

So inspired by something I noticed in my previous rant, I'm going to write about cameras in games. Which is strange because there's actually (usually) NO cameras using in game production. But it comes from 3D animation which uses "virtual cameras" to shoot scenes. Well you could argue it came from 2D animation too but you actually do use cameras for that. :)

3D Space and Camera
I got a degree in film and video...which I only say to validate the amount of money I spent getting said degree in hopes that it validates what I type. VALIDITY!
Now that most console games and many casual games have gone 3D camera position and angles are important. But the camera (from film) has a language! A cinematic language. And there are also rules of thumb or rather things like rules of thirds (which photographers should also be familiar with. It's about framing a shot for those unfamiliar). However, only in-game cinematics (out of the player's control) use this language. A low angle shot to make someone look more intimidating. That sort of thing.

But such is not the role for the camera in all parts of the game. No, the camera has a more functional role and a less "artistic" one. Although some games do try to mix them (mostly Indie ones.) But "views" (such as third person) are often made using some forms of classic cinematic language.

In first person shooters, you may have choices to use a first person view (which is used in film at times) or an "over the shoulder shot". This technique in film is often used to show one character engaged with another. (Conversation or fighting).

The Camera's "Job"
Outside the cinematics, the camera is something the player uses functionally as part of the game. It needs to show an optimal angle of the character (in 3rd person views) and a certain range of sight for the player to interact with the environment. In first person views there is some control of angle but it's always framed the same. By that I mean that the camera does not need to include your character in the frame it'll always be from their point of view.

What is expected though is that the camera shows US the character the information we need to best act within the game. Which is why some 3rd person view games allow you to switch to a first person view because that is the BEST way to view the lay of the land with out that darn character being in the way. But other games do an over the shoulder shot instead...which is fine.

Camera Control
For interactive parts of the game, the player is usually allowed control of the camera to suit their needs. If you need to see a platform better to make a jump you can rotate the camera around. Generally the camera follows you and you can not change that but you can change the angle, rotation point and closeness which it follows you. (Pitch, Pan, and Zoom...I went to school. )

Camera controls are one of the stickiest parts of 3D games, expecially on a console. There are a limited number of buttons (although they keep adding MORE) that can be assigned to the control of the camera. Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation puts it best, left analog stick for movement, right analog stick for camera. It's a great system...don't mess with something that works! Although before we had 2 analog sticks, N64 days there was at least a directional pad that worked the camera which was in the area where the right analog stick would be in the future.

In my last post I complained about Kingdom Hearts which has only rotational control of the camera which is done by L2 and R2 buttons. I still wiggle my right analog stick in denial sometimes thinking I can change the camera angle. But I only get mocked by Sora as he does nothing.

Ideally, it'd be great if you the player did NOT have to keep worrying about the camera and controlling it for optimal view. What I like is a game where the camera (on an automatic mode) will adjust itself accordingly and only need tweaks from me the player.

2D Games?
I know this may come off as a bit weird but camera views in 2D games are something to take into consideration. Just as 2D animation considers what angle to draw the character from so must a 2D artist. There are 3 commonly used views in 2D games.

Top-Down - like in the older Legend of Zelda games. (Except for Link's Adventure). Actually it's a very high angle and not a bird's eye view (true top down like in Galaga).

Side-View - Camera is level with the character. Any side-scrolling game known to man or woman. We'll say Link's Adventure for this one.

Isometric - or a 3/4 view is top-down and to the side to create a faux-3D look. Paper boy does this and the first Sonic 3D.

Other views include first person such as Wolfenstien or Hunting games. There were a few third person view behind the characters in Race car games, some special levels in Sonic games. It can be done but it's mostly based on the "look" of the art. There are 2D "tricks" to make something look 3D.

Conclusion
So most of this little article was stating the obvious now. But it is important to consider the type of framing or views that your game will have. Does it suit what the player needs to do? Do you want to convey some emotion at the same time? (In artsy games.)
And if you have camera control, make sure it makes sense. I didn't touch on PC games but they can have some strange commands too. Holding down a key and moving the mouse works for me.
Camera is one of those under appreciated artforms much like sound design. It's subtle until it ruins your game play.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Game Whining: Kingdom Hearts

So I'm not great at "gaming" although I spend many hours in the activity. I'm not trying to be awesome or really think too much about the game play or strategy until I get stuck.
I've started playing Kingdom Hearts which I got for Christmas a couple years back. I started it and had to put it down for school and other games. I have been meaning to play it and now I am.

But there is so much I HATE about this game that I must complain about here. We're going into rant mode.

Controls
This is a classic example of a game where there are too many control options for battles. I've played the game for several hours and usually after the first couple of hours things become second nature. I fear it may take more like 10 hours or more before I get used to these blasted controls.

First off they don't make much sense. It's as if they were trying to combine action based combat with menu-based JRPG battle. Which CAN work, in certain cases but usually there's a problem with that but I'll get into that later. Controls are which buttons you press.

Left analog moves you. Fine. Direction pad changes menu options. Okay. X is excuting an action. Acceptable. L1 changes a menu to a magic menu. R1 turns on the Lock On enemy option. L2 and R2 control camera.
Okay now you're getting into some WTF schemes.
This is the WORST camera control system EVER. I've gotten trained in the fact that Right analog stick controls camera or holding down an "R" button and Right analog stick. The camera is NEVER where it needs to be to be optimal which is sucky in a 3D game. Camera is SO important. (Ooh I feel an idea for a blog topic on that. :3)

Battle System
Okay this is the REAL booger in the works. Menus are great if you can pause your battle and switch equipment or grab a potion. But there are so many nested menus in the battle system, it's ridiculous and you can't access them when the game is paused!!
So here I am mashing my X button to swing the keyblade at shit. Suddenly I need potion quick. I have to use the directional pad instead of moving my character to select "Item" and then select potion (IF I remembered to equip Sora before battle...which doesn't always happen. My bad) and went I select potion, I have to select who to give it to...JUST MAKE IT SIMPLE!! That's 3 menus to go through before I can sucessfully heal myself and continue fighting if I'm not already dead cuz the camera was in such a position for me NOT to see an enemy punk me from behind.
BALLS!

You can't combine action and menu systems LIKE THAT. Menu systems of JRPGs suggest strategy or quick access. Another game I've played that combines some menu and action is the Tales of Symphonia. But the battle was at a mostly fixed camera angle. You had pretty good visuals. The battle PAUSES while you access an item menu. You can select the item and who to use it on and then battle starts up. Granted your item doesn't take effect until battle restarts where your character pauses and throws the item. THAT is how you combine menu systems with action battle.

Another thing that pisses me off is the magic menu. Okay the INSTRUCTIONS in the game say you can attach magic to a button for quick access. Guess I misread somewhere that you need to hold down L1 at the same time and then you can fire magic. No, BAD. But not terrible.
Most other games I've played allow you to equip spells to buttons and then all you have to do is push the button and voila. It fires. This game not so much. You assign some skills to the buttons for one effect (actions like rolling) and magic to them for others. (Thus pressing L1).

Like I said, it's not "terrible" but it's not great. And when your in battle trying to fire off magic, it doesn't help that there's a tiny extra action that is needed before you fire. Because timing is everything.

Menus
Speaking of menus jeez the cheese there are TONS. And okay I think its something from Final Fantasy that has come through. It just feels superfilous. Some menus I understand.
Items, Save, Options/Config, Equipment.
Those are expected in an action rpg game. Customization...okay this is perhaps just a bad "naming flaw". And now I'm just being picky right? Customization doesn't tell me much...I could confuse that with Config. But it's not that it's assigning your spells to buttons. "Magic/Skills" would have been a better name. PICKY.

It's the Gummi ship crap. I really DON'T care about building my own ships even if I can make a flying dick. (Everyone has I'm sure). That's something cool for like a PC game. Where you have more control. Sort of. It's just I don't like it and it needs to go. I want to collect parts of ships and then just select new ones or have the upgrades added on automatically when I choose them. I don't care WHERE they go on the ship just put it on.

I think it's really the layout and format that bothers me. It doesn't feel "neat" or friendly.
I'm also pissed you can really only access these menues at a SAVE point. This is a little tedious. I understand that to SAVE my game I have to be at the save points.
Actually I think I can access the item menu anywhere. I forget.

I prefer "save anywhere" options and then just starting me at some save point.

Story
Part of the draw of this game is playing with Disney characters. That's WHY I got this game. But the cinematics...sweet lord. I know they're trying to go for this lucid dream sort of feel...but they over achieved. The opening sequence tells me NOTHING about my character or makes me sympathize with him. It's all this bizarre dream sequence and they ask me weird questions that might affect my game play but I don't know. Then we have these kids on an island building a raft to sail to another world. Fine. I still know nothing about the main character except that he lives here and has friends and has a pre-teen crush on the girl and competitive relationship with the guy.

I don't know it's presented all in a very bizarre way and not storytelling methods. It looks cool. but it's not.

Oh and not to mention cinematics are LONG as FECK! You can't skip them and if you die during a boss battle...you get to see them again and again. (This makes me NOT want to finish the game because I KNOW this will happen a lot).
Your dialog is stupid. Makes no sense. And some of the imitation voices suck. (Which is to be expected.) Do not want.
(I hear in KH2 that there are skipping options. Yay they learned!)

Summary
I know this could have been done better. And several people I know have finished the game so I know it's possible. But I'm concerned how long it'll take me to get there. Especially since the leveling up is NOT obvious. No you only do that if levels don't really matter like in Legend of Zelda. They DO matter in KH. But because they're downplayed, I don't notice.

Anyway, I forsee many frustrating hours ahead and I'm kind of sad because this is supposedly a "classic" for the PS2. I liked Chain of Memories. That's fun. This...this is just worrisome. And full of nonsense. I really hope I can finish this game. :(

Monday, June 29, 2009

Game Design: Level of Difficulty

One of my favorite online video feeds is the Angry Video Game Nerd and Zero Punctution. The former goes the nostalgic route and looks at early games to point out and mock all their flaws. Of which there are many. Zero Punctuation criticizes newer games on some of the same fronts.
Some of the complaints are about the difficulty of the game. Old games are Harder in that they're more unforgiving, the programming is buggier, and poor design decisions were made. (Such as the "trial and error" method). I was just reading an article outlining how the Zelda games have gotten "easier". It got me thinking about level of difficulty in games.

Audiences
This I think is one of the more important factors of designing the difficulty of a game. I mentioned in an earlier blog post, that there are certain preferences and styles of game players. Some that are obsessed with their skills, some looking just to relax and some to play socially.

Audiences of mainstream games are changing. Some gamers are getting older and some are younger. I think what is happening is that games are trying to be more accepting to a wider range of markets thus increasing the distribution of said game.

Too Easy?
Some have complained that today's games are "too easy". There are lots of in-game aides that almost hold your hand through the whole thing. Really, you only have yourself to blame. This is because no one read the instruction manuals that came with the game. You know the one that tells you the basic controls and what not. Those are now IN the game. Which I guess is helpful if you bought the game used and it didn't come with the original instruction manual. I like those. I read 'em.

I had a classmate that thought games were too "forgiving" in that if you fail at something usually you can easily pick up where you left off without back tracking too much. In older games that's not the case. You would have to start at the very beginning if you lost completely.

Tutorial/training levels, extra lives, and a more "fair" damage equation have helped make games more playable but at the same time less challenging for some gamers.

Or Too Hard?
Now for ME, I find newer games HARDER. There may be several factors to that too. One, like most female gamers I fell off the gaming wagon in high school, limited only to Pokemon and a few games on the N64. I got back into gaming in college when I got my own systems. So, I've missed some gems. When I was younger still we didn't have the popular systems so I'm not very good at the old games either. The games I did play were exploratory, easy paced, and thought provoking (games like MYST, Oregon Trail, Carmen Sandiego, and such). No time limits, fast reflexes or depth perception.

There are a lot of potential gamers like ME. Many of which are female. This may be a gender preference (again I have research to back this up) but games that are "intense" or fast-paced and require reflexes tend to fail females. Growing up, we are encouraged to take it easy whereas boys are encouraged to be more active. (Granted that's sort of changing due to obesity.) Point is, that timed games, pressure added, memorizing controls does not come as easily to many gamers.

General Difficulty
Now there are some things that are difficult for ANY human being interacting with a computer program. Precision is one thing. Humans are prone to error and estimation more than a computer. This was one of the failures of older game programming. Some games required exact commands or landing to recognize and accept a move. Such as jumping onto a platform.

Logic is something expected from games. The answer should be deducted from the information a player receives in the game. This however, is not a failure of the program but of the designer so it's human error. Illogical puzzles can make for a challenge but it is not the type of challenge that a player wants. It's not fun. Fun is recognizing patterns and successfully applying deduction skills.

As a game designer, if designing a puzzle based game, you have to make sure the puzzles make "sense" and can be solved with deduction. Some methods of trial and error are okay. Trial and Error is good if the player is not completely punished for it and the player can "learn" from their error.

Lastly, ratios. In an rpg, you "level" your character giving them more powerful statistics. The ratio between your character and an enemy character should stack so that the odds are in favor of the player without shorthanding the enemies. (I hope that makes sense). In other words, if the player character has 10 health and the enemy has 20 health, then either the player has to have some slight advantage to make the fight fair...not easy, but fair and doable. Granted the player may learn that, "Okay, that monster was pretty tough to beat, I better buff up my character's stats."

Special Difficulties
These range based on a player's age and background. Such as using certain "lingo" within the game. Someone who has played many rpg games is familiar with "stats" and what they do. Not so with a new player.

Remembering which buttons to push. This becomes a problem for newer and older gamers.

Readablility. I know this may sound strange, but okay I have a 13" TV screen and it's not plasma or LCD or anything. Images and words are not super crisp. I actually need my glasses if I'm to do reading from a distance. (I'm near sighted). However, many older gamers have this problem too. And when I say older gamers, yeah...I mean your grandparents. Sometimes it's the lack of contrast between the words and the background.

Speaking of contrast, sometimes distinguishing background from foreground becomes a pain. Zero punctuation often complains about the brown tones in most games.

3D vs 2D is another one that I still have trouble with. Clearly my in-game depth perception needs help. Aiming and accuracy falls under this too. This can be determined by the program's ability to accomedate for human error. But my aim sucks. Always has in games. I remember to this day that Super Mario Brothers gave me the business at that hole you have to jump over. The first one. I think it's because I was laughing so hard because I fell so often. I would literally forget it was there and just walk off. It was pretty funny.

Conclusion
It seems to me, difficulty is in the eye (and hand) of the beholder. It's true that games can feel like they're coddling but remember, that's because this game was not JUST for you. It was meant for a wider-audience.

Which is why unlike the author of this article, I actually like the newer Zelda games and their lack of letting me be lost. To me there is nothing more frustrating that being lost, in real life and in a game. It's just scarier in real life. I've tried to play the original Zelda, but because I was more familiar with the "new generation" of gaming I didn't like it. There was no direction. That's because now, there IS an order to do things in and I applied that to the old game thinking "if I don't do things in the right order...I'm screwed!" (Because one thing I know about older games is that they're very unforgiving.) Then again, I was challenged enough by that added third dimension to the game. There's now more aiming in those games and distances and I can still get lost despite the maps. BUT I am able to back track easier and find my way out. I have played most of the other Zelda games, but the newer ones remain my favorites.

And that's mostly thanks to Epona. :3

So remember, there are some things that make it difficult for any human being and somethings that make it difficult just for "certain" people. These are things to take into consideration when designing and building your game.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Game Design: Sound...of music

Audio as a part of game design is an often "neglected" part. Usually because it's a low priority to what a game NEEDS to function. A game needs programming and visual interfaces which is why so much effort is put into a game. Audio was not a necessity in a game. For a long time they were just beeps and buzzes. Now that we are in a more sophisticated generation of games, audio plays a larger role or can. There are a few games that rely on audio as part of the game play.

What Audio Does
When I was working on my master's project, we were almost completely focused on getting graphics and programming in. In my evaluation, I was told that my game needed more audio to feel more complete. And you know what? There is a world of difference between my soundless game and my game with audio.
And it was nearly effortless. All we had were some bells and whistles for positive and negative feedback. A click noise for buttons. And some sound loops for background audio.

In short here are some things audio does for a game.
1) Adds Polish - while this a very simplistic sounding job, does make a game feel finished.
2) Provides Feedback - humans associate certain sounds with a good or bad feeling. An irritating noise for negative feedback is a quick indicator that an action was wrong.
3) Validates an action - that click noise is an indicator that YES you did click the button.
4) Creates an environment - sound effects can reaffirm a game location. Such as jungle noises for a jungle setting. It helps with immersion.
5) Creates an emotion in a player - In a study I read, players found a game more intense and more frightening with the sound on. Music can create different emotions and fire off different parts of the brain. And sudden loud noises are a sure way to at least make me jump.

Types of Audio in Games
Most of game audio is similar to film audio with a few exceptions.
The difference is reaction sounds such as the click of a button or a grunt after you command an action from the character. These act as indicators that the program recognized your command. This works with the visuals of course. A happy chirrup to me at least makes me feel confident that the program recognized my action. It's subconscious but it's there.

Similar to films, sound effects and music play a role similar to anything visible on the set. Like a stage there are background and foreground sounds. Background sounds are usually the musical score used to set a mood in the scene. It's fast-paced if the action is fast or slower for a more emotional scene. Sound effects play both in the background and mid-ground. Subtle sound effects such as trees rustling or just the expected sounds of the scene I consider background. That doesn't mean they're unimportant but it does mean that they are meant to be subtle and build the scene. Mid-ground or even Foreground sound effects are sounds that the characters are reacting to or causing. Hammering a nail, cutting food, breaking glass and so on. Lastly, voice overs. Are probably the most foreground sounds since they are what we are paying attention to. The words tell the story.

This leads to my next point.

Voice Acting
I'm coming to appreciate this art more and more as I listen to commentaries by voice actors and listen to my own voice online. Usually I'm a terrible voice actor. It could be that I have a really crappy microphone or that I'm currently living at home and would be embarrassed to go all out. On top of having a good sound environment and equipment, being a good actor with JUST your voice is a challenge.

Currently, I'm planning on making a commentary for a game with a lot of cutscenes so I'm listening more carefully to the voice actors/actresses and finding little nuances which I feel make a good voice versus a bad voice. There are voices that "fit" a character. Now you can play with this as a design decision but a character's voice should fit their visual look. Having a petite girl have a deep, gruff voice is great for parody because that's NOT what you'd expect. A petite girl needs a petite voice.

Then there's chemistry between two character voices. When you have a very talented voice actor with a not as talented one, you can hear a difference. One will just sound more bland than the other. It also can depend on if they record together or separately. If one recorded before the other, the second actor can play off the first performance. Which gives the second actor an edge over the first.

Sound Design
It's the sound designer's job to make sure all the audio is working together for a desired effect. Now, I'm no expert in this field. Sound has always been the weakest point in all of my productions. (Particularly my animations). Again, good equipment and recording environment helps create GOOD quality sound. That's why my sound is so weak. I also don't have a very good ear for nuances like some sound artists. I can not play an instrument by ear nor sing music just by looking at the notes on a page. Knowing a sound and where it fits takes some talent.

However, even a toneless ear like mine knows when something sounds "bad" and when something sounds "good". If working on Indie things there are resources to download good quality sound effects for free or a small fee.
http://www.soundsnap.com/ - Sound Snap is one of my favorites for high quality sound effects and music loops. You don't have to filter through as much crap as other sites. You get 5 free downloads a month and you can pay for a subscription for more OR wait another month for 5 free more. ;)
http://www.flashkit.com/ - This is another free-ish resource although the quality of these sounds are less awesome. Always free though.

Equipment
Believe it or not, I did take a sound design course in undergrad. There are lots of fancy microphones and things you can get to make pro quality sounds.
For the cheap Indie like me just making games for fun, you can find most of your needs online. But for audio, expecially voice acting head-set game or internet phone headsets are pretty decent. The foam boom mic captures voice well and most are pretty good at filtering out other outside noises. (Noise cancelling).

If you're more serious, then you'll want some multi-directional microphones, with a P-pop screen and a mixing board. Or if you want to record your insturments. Keyboards, I think can be directly plugged into a mix board/computer. Guitars: for acoustic you need a mic near the body of the guitar. For electric you need a mic by an amplifier. (I had to mic a rock band once. ONCE. I forget the exact TYPE of microphone we used, but hey...that's what google is for.)

The room you are recording in should have NO ECHOES. Ideally, a booth with soundproof material on the walls. But for an Indie, a carpeted room or making a tent booth should be possible. Or just hope that your noise cancelling mic is truely awesome.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Stories: What's Love Got to Do with it?

In an earlier blog post I discussed various relationship types and how they are handled in stories. Well, I'm mostly taking that same subject but going on a deeper perhaps more philosophical method. And by philosophical method you know I'm going through the 3 loves. Knowing the three loves can help in the understanding of relationships between characters and people.

Introduction
Now the 3 loves are a very Western Philosophy rooted subject. Being as most of my education in philosophy is western based, I can not vouch for any Eastern or New Age Equivalent.
The three loves are: Eros, Philia, and Agape.
There are also other philosophic and sociology based love types or styles including: Stoge, Ludus, Pragma, and Mania.

In this I will first start with the classic three and make notes on the other styles. Because they're all important when considering love between two characters.

Eros
Plato was the one who wrote down the philosophy behind the 3 loves. (Based on Socrates teachings.) Eros was considered the initial love for beauty. It has since come to mean lust or erotic love. It is a sensual style of love and very focused on the physical aspect of things.

What sort of relationships come out of this? Well, it could be considered classic romance. Beautiful couples, physically attracted to one another. The sensuality of the relationship holds it together. Of course, eros does not always equate "a sex only" relationship, although that is common.

The basis of this love type is beauty ergo attraction. Whether it be chemistry or physical beauty, that is the draw for this type of love.

Philia
Brotherly love is what this Greek word translates to or more commonly "friendship". Philia is not considered a "love style" since it is rarely used to describe "lovers" in the same sense as eros. The point of "friendship love" is not really affection, attraction, or desire for that other person in a physically intimate way.

When a friendship love is felt between members of the opposite sex it is called "Platonic". However, a personal belief of mine, there is no fighting biology. Especially if they are attractive. On the other hand, now that I think about it, my friendships with the opposite sex were always based on a common interest or activity. (In my case making video games and comics.) The gentlemen I hang out with that I think are attractive, sure I get that notion of something beyond philia but then there are others that it is only the interest in a subject that keeps us friends.

This is important I think to comics. If you think about it, usually characters are designed to be attractive. It is a little jarring if two pre-teen - adults that are good-looking and they're just friends. It's a slight stretch of reality to believe that there are no "feelings" beyond friendship. There has to be a reason for one or the other to repress that attraction. Usually one party in a serious relationship with another, different sexual orientations (although, she could want to straighten him out. :D), fear/shyness, or something. Usually if characters are young there is no attraction like there would be in people past puberty.

My last point about philia is this that once a couple goes beyond that, it's really difficult to going back to being "philia". (aka "just friends"). I really respect people who can still be friends with ex-boyfriends. It IS possible, but it does take a certain personality type. For a hopeless romantic or someone very naive, it's not just going to go back so easily.

Agape
This was considered the highest form of love in the philosophy of things. It's also a very Christian virtue. That's because Agape is self-sacrificing love or unconditional love. Said to be the love that God has towards his children. Or to use more earthly examples the love of a mother/father for their children. (Well...good parents/ideal parents. I feel its what we all want our parents to love like.)

The main quality of this love is self-giving. It can be considered very intimate or very basic such as being generous. Usually in a story, agape is shown through a character ultimately sacrificing themself for their beloved. (Which can be children or a lover). Supposedly this is the ancient magic protecting Harry Potter.

If going with romantic relationships, agape lovers can be seen as the naive lover that can easily be taken advantage of. Because they are so willing to give up anything for their beloved, they can be manipulated by a selfish lover for their own means. Like very bratty children that take advantage of their doting parents. However, usally Agape love is idealized in the self-sacrifice way.

Other Love Styles
Storge is the classic best friends become lovers situation. Long time friends of the opposite gender (or the same gender if that's their preference) grow together over time to the point where it just makes sense to stay together and be a couple. The word storge means "natural love" and is often used to refer to family love or love between friends.

Ludic is Latin for "game" or "playing". And you know what..."Players" are ludic lovers. Love is a game and it's all about the fun in a relationship not about the commitment. It's all about the sex or the challenge of having many relations.

Pragma refers to "practical lovers". These are couples who measure how the relationship best values them. It's more like shopping and comparing items in a store. (Like internet dating!) Pragma can also refer to business partnering and not just romantic encounters. I like to think of them as the mercenaries of the romantic world.

Mania is teenage love...or that crazy possessive love that a person usually NEEDS to validate their existence. They just can't LIVE without their beloved. You could say it's "fangirl" or "fanboy" love. :)

Putting all together
People are complex and can relate or act on various love styles or types. They can be combined in various ways but should make sense for your character's personality. For example, a "Mania" type person is more likely to be a teenager or a very disturbed adult. It's often seen as unhealthy, BUT two people with SIMILAR love styles are most compatible together.

However, a relationship's situation also play important roles in the ways the love styles portray themself. In an arranged marriage, a pragma lover will see the advantages and be more likely to accept the situation. An agape lover will also probably accept the situation. Eros, Mania, and Ludic would not accept the situation. Stoge and Philia don't really apply unless the couple become friends after marriage.

Even if your character is a nymphomaniac, their love style can differ. An eros nympho is very different from a ludic nympho.

It's not necessary to think about "love styles" specifically but recognizing what they are and how they work helps build more realistic relationships or rather more believable relationships.

More Information
For further reading and better examples:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_styles
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Four_Loves (or you can read his book)
http://www.lifegoeson.net/MonkeyShines/4loves.htm
http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/symposium.html
http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/symposium (or the SparkNotes version.)

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Comics: Mature Themes

What are mature themes?
Have you ever heard of the "three subjects never to be discussed at the dinner table"?
They were: Religion, Politics, and Sex
(Which some say are actually good things to discuss with the family.)
Anyway, these three things are generally the subjects people feel very personal about and very passionately. It is sure to get a reaction when posted for public viewing. And usually that's what the artist/writer intends.

Mature Themes used in media
Including these topics in your story is guarantee to bring eyes to your work. Sex Sells is a phrase often thrown around, but it's true. Controversy also sells, particularly political or religious controversy. To me at least, it seems like Mature Themes are used as an advertising ploy to get the most attention. Because attention means money.

Similarly, the idea applies to Indie media too! Web-comics are the medium I'll focus on in this blog. Sex is certainly a seller if you want people to read your comic. Looking at the top comics on TWC, most of the top comics are rated PG-13 or R. (While self-rated comics should be taken with a grain of salt, some of the PG-13 I would actually rate as PG. Although the top comic is properly rated.) Point is that they're rated "R" because of sexual content.

Using them in Comics
As I've repeated the major on the surface reason for including mature content is to get more attention on your comic. Which is not bad. However, keeping those eyes requires you to fulfill expectations. And usually for "mature" comics, the only mature content is sex and usually not politics or religion. So since the biology states that sexual cues for men are visual, pleasing this target audience is as easy as drawing a naked woman...an attractive one at that. Hey scantily clad is all right too, but boobies guarantee more viewers.

I'd like to say I'm joking. But, I won't repeat myself. (sex sells...I lied.)
However, again looking at the top web comics list, the actual content of the mature comics are different.

In the top 10 (for today) there are 4 comics that are "fan-service" with their sexual content, Cru the Dwarf, TwoKinds, Once and Future (formerly Twisted Kaiju Theatre), and Flipside.
For Cru, the advertising is blatant in their animated banner and description. Once and Future when it was TKT had visual fanservice on the banner as well (now it only has reputation). Flipside adds it in the description and shows appealing art. Two Kinds has a fanservice image.
These all deliver what they promise for the most part, some better than others.

TKT and The Meek (which advertised a naked girl in the description) both used this mature content as a mere hook. While TKT does have galleries of explicit images, the comic itself is a photo manipulated comic that uses satire to poke fun at religion and politics as well as using the sex sells method.
The Meek on the other hand fools you. It used "sex sells" in a more base sense that even suggesting there will be nudity and having some nice quality art on the banner would attract attention. In reality, the nudity in the comic is probably not what is expected. The art is styled in such a way that makes the nudity not sexy. While proportions and such are exaggerated (very well), the character's assets are not given special attention such as enlarged size, small waist and wide hips. Nor are her facial features giving any sexual cues. (Big lips, heavy eye lids, blushing, etc.)

Be that as it may, I would hardly consider "The Meek" a work-safe comic. It goes over very mature topics in the course of the story.

-Religion and Politics
Well, I've pretty much covered how sex is used in "mature" comics, for the most part. Religion and Politics probably won't grab as much attention out of a crowd. But there are such things as Political Cartoons right?

There are a couple of ways these subjects are portrayed in comics (that I've commonly seen): Humor , Satire , and Pamphlet.

Humor usually just pokes fun at religion or politics in general. Sometimes it can be considered offensive. Usually if you agree with the view, it's funny but if you disagree it's not. If you are really good at humor, whether you agree or disagree doesn't matter. It's like when a famous political figure makes an appearance on Futurama. (Lame example).
On the flipside, humor comics can be at extreme ends and try to offend to get attention. Usually by singling out a specific denomination's beliefs. For example, the South Park's history of Mormon is probably offensive to Mormons.

Satire I'd like to think as a more sophisticate humor about a subject. Political Cartoons often do this type. Usually Satire is considered a non-offensive way to critique an aspect of culture or human life.

Pamphlet is when the subject of your comic tries to advocate or defend a belief or political view. It can be done subtly or overtly depending on the talent of the story teller. Online, there's lots of Christian themed comics defending an aspect of the faith.

Suggestions for Comic Artists/Authors
Handling a mature theme in your own work is something you have to figure out for yourself based on your moral upbringing and intention for the comic. In my day, I've come across some seriously weird stuff and ridiculous content that's been considered "mature".

  • Be Mature Yourself - What this means is be of proper age to view the content you intend to make. 18 up seems fair enough. I've seen "porn" comics that must have been drawn by a very disturbed 7 year old. (At least the art style suggested so. The characters looked like fetuses and they used "censor bars" for the male characters. Meaning clearly they didn't know their anatomy).

  • Shock-value vs. Meaningful Story-telling - I've seen some terrible comics that degrade women to pass it off as humor. (Which was really poor taste). Clearly it was done for shock value which is usually just a cry for attention. Meaningful story-telling means you validate having this content within the context of a story or setting.

  • Satire and Humor - I've gone over some of the differences. Try to make yourself seem educated though. Don't just copy South Park.

  • Prepare the Audience - Obviously, the comic, if displayed on the web should have the proper "warning labels". Depending on how explicit your content is should be balanced with how much of a warning you put on it. Again, mostly due to laws (I think) and as a general courtesy for those who connect to the internet in public places, school or work. (Although, It's bad to read comics at work. >=( LOL. I kid.)

  • Learn to draw and write well - if your writing is bad you lose credibility. If your art is bad, you lose viewers. Like I mentioned before I came to a "mature" comic that had a warning pop-up and everything only to find this crudely drawn abomination. It was not sexy or mature at ALL. Actually, this is probably true for ANY style of comic. If you draw and write well, your comic will do well. The top 10 webcomics all have good art OR use a photo/machinima style and have mostly good writing.
Conclusion
There are other themes that would be considered mature such as rape, death, violence and gore. But these follow most of the same generalizations. It could offend certain groups or be insensitive. (Then again, this is the internet...I say no excuse!) I have seen rape taken so lightly in comics and stories that I find it both disgusting and disturbing. Hate crimes, racism and other hot topics are themes that are expected to be handled with sensitivity (if to be shown to general public).

My Relations with the Elves

It's no secret that one of my favorite fantasy creatures to draw and write (besides unicorns) is elves and fairies. Even when I was in middle school I enjoyed the fantasy of fairies being like the creatures in Disney's Fantasia or the cute little dolls I had. And as I matured and read more fiction and watched more fiction, I grew to like the idea more and more. Now I still like elves as a fantasy creature but it's a very shall I say "popular" version that I prefer over the "traditional".
Yep. This blog post is going to be similar to my post about unicorns I made awhile ago.

Traditions, Traditions
Most folktales about the fair folk come from the British Isles (although I'm well aware that the rest of Europe had these stories too!). But the ones most familiar I think are the ones from Ireland. In general, they're miserable little buggers. (Bugger is such a naughty British term. :)) Fairies would steal children, cause back luck, and make mischief. There are also courts, some good and some bad.

Elves...man I can't think of their traditional stories beyond the Elves and the Shoemaker and Santa Claus. Maybe they're the nice ones. Ah wells. Sometimes they're lumped together as the "Fair Folk".

It was when Tolkein and D&D became popular that newer notions of "elf" came about.

The Modern Day Elf/Fae
I'm sure the true origins of the modern day elf or fae can be completely traced to visual media like Hollywood and comics. (Thank you ElfQuest...I think).
The Elf is often beautiful and wise, fully of grace and somehow "better" than the human counterpart.
The Fae is more exotic, intoxicating, tricky but still somehow better than humans. (Not always prettier as it turns out).

The "Fair Folk" in the old tales were often described as cruel, but beautiful.

Of course then there are the children's version of the creatures which are always wholesome and cute. (Seriously though, I love the Disney Fairies.)

There is certainly nothing "wrong" about modern versions over the traditional. They do tell different stories now. And in ways have made the creatures very different things.

The Stories They Tell
When you read a fantasy about elves or fae, they're no longer a creature (usually) but a "race" of sentient beings. There are new expectations about what the elves are and how they act. It's quite normal now for an elf to be tall instead of short, arrogant instead of generous enough to make shoes, and often in some sort of conflict based on racism between another race in the world.

The origins of these creatures vary as either children of stars or trees or demi-gods or a cross between an angel and a human (my least favorite origin story).

In the folktales the stories were...well folky I suppose not a very drawn out engineered story about resolving conflicts or having superpowers. And that's another thing that's new. Sometimes elves have superpowers...thanks to anime and video games.

Point of this is that Fairytales have certainly changed into something else. Elves are now more visually interesting and exciting.

Getting to my Point
Old versus the new, I have to say that visually I prefer the new and think I like their role in stories better. Now that it's become a trope and general folktale of our age (I suppose), I feel it's just as acceptable. Granted most people would "blame" Tolkein for his establishments in fantasy the genre, I think that many would agree that the idea was there somehow but just not always called "elf" or "fae".

However, I do enjoy the old traditions of the fair folk for what they are. It is interesting that this is where the modern elf came from. But there are some things about the modern fair folk I don't care for. And I feel many agree with me. So here we go.
-Elves-
  • Constant descriptions of their beauty, perfection, or awesomeness.
  • Long hair
  • Arrogance and general aloofness as if they're SO much better
  • Half-Elves that are somehow better than elves
  • Immortality (immortal creatures are boring. Long-lived is fine.)
  • Forbidden romance between elf and human
  • Obsession with being tree hugging/worshipping hippies OR being used as an advocate for nature vs. technology
  • A general tension between elf and dwarves
-Fairies-
  • Very sexual creatures (which I guess is in their nature)
  • Again with the "I'm so pretty descriptions".
  • Basically being human but with bug wings
  • Actually I really don't have much to complain about Fairies. They're not nearly as over-used as elves...or I just haven't been reading the right books.
My own personal Elf/Fae Characters
So I have a few...it's no secret. My deal though is that they're really NOT elves. Nope, they're aliens from another planet. People just called them elves because that's what they looked like. The aliens just went with it. Their "powers" are just natural abilities and technology.
(And technically that IS my backstory for my elves, but it's never apparent in any of my stories so it can't be called cannon I guess.)

In general, I go with the anime stereotype, visually. But I try to write them differently and avoiding all the things I don't like about modern elves. In my current work, Song of the Brinds, Elves and Fae are a race. They don't have magic. They're not very nature based, in fact quite the opposite they're very into science and technology and rather un-religious. I guess you could say they're still arrogant but it's the type of arrogance that the Imperialists had about developing nations. That's different than say arrogance towards humans because humans are like little children incapable of learning in their short years of life.

In another story I'm doing about fairies, because it's more of a children's tale I take the Disney Fairy Tale route.

And I've taken up enough of your time. This was very much a fluff post.
But in short, movies and video games and comics have changed fantasy forever. Deal.

Game Review Magazines

Last year for a research project, I did an analysis of the content of game review magazines. For the project the purpose was to provide a competitive analysis for our proposed project. My project was a family oriented game review magazine. There really aren't many. In fact, I could only find one online magazine.

The Big Players
For my analysis I chose what I considered the most popular game magazines in print. They were:
Game Informer
GamePro
Nintendo Power

By far, game informer had the most previews and reviews of all the magazines. Consequently it also had the most ads. Nintendo Power is the oldest of the three and was pretty exclusive to Nintendo brand games so naturally the list of reviews and previews were less.

For awhile I had a subscription to Game Informer and I got some free issues of Nintendo Power as a bonus for some pre-order. Personally I preferred NP because I really only had Nintendo systems so it made sense. When I signed up for a member's card at Gamestop they signed me up for a year's subscription. I thought, "Hey, why not. I'm sure this poor cashier has a quota to fill or something."

At first, it wasn't so bad. I must have gotten lucky on that first issue but as I looked at more games and read their reviews the angrier I got. Until I basically just stored the magazines to be used as fly swatters. (Which did come in handy as it turns out.)

When doing my analysis I already had my opinion about Game Informer as a clearly frat-boy style magazine. Just like all the others! GamePro I had expected to be maybe a little less so, but it had the same macho man talk and boob jokes as GI, if not as many. The fact that I could learn about new games coming out was just not enough to make me want to keep my subscription. Why would I read something I felt insulting?

The Online Reality
Most Game magazines also have their online counter-part or are solely based online. If you want to find some of the most hostile looking websites, try looking at a gamer's site. It's always grundgy with yellow and metal and yuck. Now I'm not asking for pink ponies and rainbows but a more pleasing aestetic. IGN and GameFAQ have some decent designs, but Gamasutra is my favorite. Mostly because it's not gamer-focused per se but developer focused.

What bugs me the most about online magazines is what annoys me most about the internet in general. It's a breeding ground for trolls and general idiocy. Communities around always felt hostile to me and I would be too intimidated to make any posts without being shot down. I know I would not really be taken all that seriously. There's just far too much immaturity.

It turns out that I'm not the only one bothered by these things. One bit of research I read on older gamers is their desire for mature conversation about their games.

Why Most Game Magazines SUCK
Why do people buy game magazines or go to these sites? To make plans for future purchases right? So the job of the magazine is to make the games seem appealing to their demographic. It also has the job of entertaining or informing the demographic about what's going on around the industry.

To me it feels like all game magazines only care about a narrow demographic: college frat boy and immature high school kid. So naturally the content is catered towards this. Why do the guys at gamestop think that a MOTHER would want this magazine for her 10 year old son? The images and humor and writing are not very age appropriate and very unfriendly towards the female demographic. In fact, GamePro and GI had special "sections" called Ask a Girl Gamer as if it was some kind of circus side-show.

However, I know they won't change anytime soon because these magazines have been in print for over a decade so they're doing all right. What I would ask for is some more diversity in their writing staff.

Conclusion
When I was a kid, it was so cool when a magazine came for me. (Like Highlights or American Girl). This was something meant for me. Now as a gamer, I want a magazine for me. There are a few online options like Women Gamers and Gamasutra, but I really don't have any options in print, except Nintendo Power.

Of the three major magazines, NP was the most gender neutral and generally children friendly. However, it was limited mostly to its own products. I have a Sony Playstation 2 and a PC.

In the end though, I actually get most of my product reviews off of Amazon.com where I can buy it once I read about it. :) Amazon is great at recommending me games that are coming out based on what I've bought before. Very handy and very friendly. The user reviews are super great and really help with purchasing decisions.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Japanese Games

I had promised to speak a bit about this in another post. First, I should start with a disclaimer. In no way do I claim to be any sort of expert of Japanese culture. My resources are from friends who have visited the country, movies, anime, and some game research. Any claims I make is pure speculation and if I am making any blatantly incorrect statements I ask any readers to please point them out so I can correct them.

But luckily this should have very little to do on Japanese culture expertise and only reflected in their games. (An expression of culture like any art form.)

Some Literature
I have with me a very lovely book my friend, professor, adviser gave to me (that she help write) called "Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat". (Shameless plug?) In it there is a chapter written by Mizuko Ito called "Gender Dynamics of the Japanese Media Mix". It outlines the way Japanese media (including video games) have time and again created something that crossed gender boundaries. And more importantly how various forms of media are catered to female consumers in Japan and elsewhere. (Mentioning of course the diversity of the manga genre and appeal of yaoi. Which is boy on boy love for those who don't already know.)

It's plain to see that several of the games that have come over from Japan have been popular despite gender implications. What sorts of things and games? Well, this particular chapter highlights the Pokémon craze. I remember that time. We had gameboy color, the cards, the N64 game. It was the "thing" to have and play regardless if you were a boy or girl. Why? Well, the chapter attributes some of it to the "cute" factor. There are several designs of pokémon that are considered girly and cute while others are cool and boyish. And perhaps some of the media surrounding it (like the cartoon) showcased that both boys and girls competed.

Then there's also the factor of game play (of course). The idea of collecting is something very appealing to many people. (I think it may be evolution at work here.) The "battling"/competing may be more appealing to male players but there are other aspects to the game. There are also options to "trade" or share Pokémon with friends, making it a social game which again appeals to people in general.

Winning Ideas From Japan
I have to give kudos to Japanese game companies for producing a wide range of games and particularly Nintendo for taking risks and playing with the formula. I'm not going to expound much on the success of the "Wii" experiment. Most everyone is already aware of it and I don't feel like being redundant. However, I also like to look at their general game features.

-Going for Cute: More often than not, a game features "cute" characters. Often with disproportionate features, big heads, googly eyes and very simplistic. The Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh success point this out as well as Animal Crossing. A non-threatening character appeals to a wide audience including children (usually of both gender), females in general, and parents who feel that these characters are "safe".

-Story-mode: This can be a positive feature or a negative. But there is a lot of "reading" involved and story-moded games. RPGs, Interactive Novels, and Life Simulators are all samples of genres that rely heavily on story. And why is this important? Well, easily because stories are a very basic human pleasure. Everyone likes to tell and hear stories. Whether you like playing the story or prefer that stories stay in movies and books, in the end a story adds appeal.

-Beyond D&D: Settings and themes are important to games. Many Japanese games have a fantasy setting, but it's not the same as a D&D based or Lord of the Rings style fantasy. Dark, gritty and "realistic" seem to be very appealing which in contrast to the bright colors of many Japanese RPG games. Also many of the games have you take the role of a younger character.

-Experimenting: This can either be good or bad but some of the coolest game designs, accessories and so on came from Japanese games. For example, Okami's "drawing" battle system was a pretty neat trick. Or DDR was a pretty big hit.

And some of the Weird Stuff
There is a darker side to some of the stuff that comes over and some that have not.

-Failed Experiments: Well, you get good eggs and bad eggs. Not all accessories worked well or even practically.

-Too Weird?: While some games are just too hilarious to be taken seriously, some are just too alienating. Such as games that appeal more to Japanese pop culture which hasn't really reached a level of appeal here.

-Too illegal?: The laws on pornography I believe differ between the two countries. One game I know got a lot of heat was a supposed "Rape Simulator".

-Too Anime: The style does not appeal to everyone. The androygny, silly hair cuts, and simplistic cartoon shapes is not everyone's piece of pie. Also many of the themes seem to annoy people by being too simplistic or very "Buddist". Some of the philosophy can get a bit weird.

Closing Thoughts
Personally I find Japanese games much more appealing to my interest in games. The design of the characters, the themes of the stories and the brighter colors all appeal to me. (I have to admit something about me and colors...I need them BRIGHT...or at least CLEAR. That's why I LOVE 2D animation so much.)

Also I feel that Japanese companies are really PROGRESSING much more than Western companies who seem to be satisfied making Sport Games, WW2 games, FPS and gritty RPGs. I just find much more variety from Japanese companies. I really wonder if current companies will ever "get it". Sometimes graphics don't matter as much as gameplay. Stop blowing funds on epic cinematics. We get it. You created a monster console with tons of processing power.

Lots of Indie games are taking the hint and producing lots of awesome and interesting games. Like Diner Dash, World of Goo, and Winds of Orbis. When I was at the Indie showcase at GDC, there was a lot of innovation. And I feel it's the market system we have that is hindering larger companies from taking risks and making something innovative. Why fix something that's not broke right?

All things aside...Sims 3 is looking pretty cool. :3