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. :(