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.)