Tuesday, 28 February 2012

I See

Something's been bothering me for years now. A mystery.
Every now and then, I happen upon another clue, but I've never been able to find any peace of mind. It's one of my many heels that didn't quite make it into the river Styx.

Is it better to withhold information from the reader/viewer and then deliver it as a powerful reveal (provided it has been adequately foreshadowed), or to share the information with the reader/viewer but withhold it from the characters? Are we in a bathtub of apples and pears?

Beyond that, you have all manner of perfect and imperfect information permutations.
I just find it hard to choose - to make an informed decision.
So, taking the advice of a wise lecturer I once studied under, I shall spit this stuff out and see if I can finally find some peace of mind.

Hitchcock's argument is rather persuasive. He said something along the lines of If you're going to plant a bomb under a table, let the audience see it.
Makes good sense. As those characters sit at the table, eating or chatting or drinking or milking reindeer, every moment is imbued with tension.
Consider, too, Dallas, captain of the Nostromo, crawling through the ventilation system in search of the full-grown alien. At first, we don't know where the alien is. We share the characters' knowledge. The sensors pick up a moving entity; again, our knowledge is that of the characters'. If Hitchcock was correct, then would it not have been 'better' if we knew where the alien was, but the characters didn't? Or how about if communications went down, and we and the crew could see the alien closing in on Dallas, whilst he was deaf and blind, alone in the dark?
See my confusion? Where's Mimsy and his hairy shoulders..?

Ten minutes later...

Okay, that's the refresher done. (I find myself requiring refreshers on pretty much everything these days. Some of my spellings have become atrocious! And I keep forgetting basic punctuation stuff - either that, or I've gotten into awful habits. Note to self: Sort it out you lazy ass. Note from self: I am you bossy old penis head. Why d'you think I'm sat here blogging after an exhausting day's work? Note to self: You keep meaning to order Eats, Shoots and Leaves off Amazon. Do it now. Note from self: Done it. And how amusing to see so many reviewers fretting over their every hyphen. Note to self: Sorry for being bossy. Note from self: No worries. Sorry about the penis head remark.)

In MYSTERY the audience knows less than the characters.
In SUSPENSE the audience and characters know the same information.
In DRAMATIC IRONY the audience knows more than the characters.

If we look at the effects of these ways of connecting the audience to the story, and if we understand our audience, we can make informed decisions right?
Paraphrase time.
Mystery is about arousing audience's curiosity - keeping her in the dark, sprinkling hints and red herrings, revealing at climax. Outcome is always certain: detective always catches killer. Ends on up state.
Suspense might end on up or down state: nobody knows how it will turn out. In this relationship, we feel empathy with protag; in Mystery we feel sympathy. Suspense accounts for some ninety percent of movies.
In Dramatic Irony, we feel compassion for someone we see heading for disaster.

Based on these observations, it appears as though Hitchcock was in the minority: looks like Suspense has, for whatever reason, become more popular than Dramatic Irony. I'd suggest that this is, at least in part, because Suspense allows for the greatest degree of bonding between audience and protag and, hence, the greatest scope for deep emotional stimulation.
How does that sound?
Captain Brain... You happy now?

Here's a humbling game.
Brink of Consciousness: Dorian Gray Syndrome.
I really can't think I've seen reviews like this before; pro and user comments alike are overwhelmingly positive.

I've performed a little dissection of the trial hour; in-so-doing, I find myself wondering if I'm looking in the right places and asking the right questions. I can examine and measure the pace - the frequency of developments and the clever employment of loudspeakers through which the antag repeatedly taunts the protag; and I can understand the variety - the movement between strings of inventory item quests to puzzles or narrative developments, and the quantity of back-tracking (and, indeed, the inexorable revisiting of the slow-moving lift does become wearisome). Polish is self-evident. Dialogue is sloppy: there are more than enough flatulent adverbs in there to upset any literary agent; but that could be a translation issue, and hasn't appeared to upset a single player. However, the suspense it generates carries it through. Suspense. I remember with crystal clarity Peter Cox championing suspense - expectation.
There's a line of dialogue right at the end of the trial. It's genius. Brief context: Sam's a journo; he's investigating a narcissistic killer; killer phones Sam asking him to come on over; Sam bikes over there (for a peculiarly long time in the opening cut-scene); Sam discovers that killer has taken his girlfriend Anna hostage; Sam is forced to play through killer's (IMHO laborious) puzzles and deadly traps in order to save girlfriend; along the way, Sam discovers killer's other victims - embalmed and posed as works of art. After solving a major choke puzzle, killer's voice comes over loudspeakers again:

Wonderful! I think you're proud of yourself! Aren't you? I've got many more interesting things waiting for you. Anna is soon going to appear on stage in her first act. No, no, it's not what you're thinking, but it will be very interesting I promise you.

What a great place to suspend the player! All those images and questions requiring resolution.
And, to follow up on my previous post, this game appears to play for some eight or nine hours!
At the time of typing, 115 out of 122 players recommend this game. (That's 94%!) There's clearly lots for me to learn buried away in there.
I just don't get how it only made position four in the charts.

David Hockney was hanging out with Andrew Marr last night. They drove to David's beloved copse 'on the road to nowhere'. They stepped from the Land Rover and David beamed in divine ecstasy. Andrew was puzzled by David's reaction, for he saw only grey clouds and bare trees. David was puzzled by Andrew's reaction: he saw shapes and colours and all manner of things hidden from us mortals.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Quality Quantity

One of the few dilemmas that isn't particularly shared by game design and novel writing! At least, I can't think many people would judge a novel by its length.

It's undeniably one of the gnarliest challenges I face. How do I create four or five hours of great gameplay from a team of three artists?
Length is certainly a consideration for the BF forumites: Invariably, somebody will play through the demo hour and consult the strategy guide to see how far in they are; then they extrapolate the whole duration.

I've posted many times about how I've tackled this problem. It was the one major issue that came up in the M3 survey tests. I had held the player in the cottage and immediate grounds for too long, and I had done this predominantly with a succession of dream card games (reusable, scalable assets! My saviours!), interspersed with a small selection of other puzzles and inventory item quests, with the odd cinematic/cut-scene or two thrown in by way of narrative development. Once the problem was identified, it was a dead easy fix, dropping one of the dream cards games and opening up the village a little earlier. (Believe me, identifying problems from hundreds of disparate comments is itself one heck of an acquired skill.)

Players would much rather have a game which develops rapidly and offers relentless variety than play a long and repetitive drawn-out game. (My use of the word 'relentless' isn't entirely accurate because we still need an element of familiarity, which encourages us to repeat carefully selected components.) Ideally, that rapidly developing game will also be lengthy, but that's regarded as a bonus. The current top ten stalwart Witches' Legacy: The Charleston Curse demonstrates this well. It's a short game by any standard, with players completing it in around four hours or less. (I'm using control players: those who would typically take five or six hours to complete an iHOG.) And the CE bonus content came in at under an hour. But significantly few people minded. It was a quality game.

Back-tracking is a strange one. Asking a player if she likes, or minds, back-tracking is kind of like asking her how she takes her coffee.
The amount of locations I can use is determined by how much time Ben has to create them. Furthermore, every scene would then need populating, which means that André and Sally would need to be thrown into the mix. There are scant few exceptions, and none have really succeeded: one particular dev team like to drop a maze into the world. These mazes appear to be semi-modular: a set of scenes which have been created from a selection of trees, grasses, and so forth. It's a way to gain perhaps ten minutes of extra gaming from reusable unpopulated background assets. Whilst the time gain from minimal art origination is evident, the problems here are twofold: the scenes all look too similar such that nothing feels as though it is changing; our players aren't renowned for their love of navigation, especially when this is complicated.

Feel the need to clarify my distinction here. Ideally, you need to constantly develop. Whether you're creating prose, or creating a gaming experience, your audience needs pulling along (forward motion), and regular developments are absolutely, definitively essential. (Apologies for the tautology, but I still regard this as my biggest lesson learned.) However, instead of developing, you can simply change. It's not the Bob McKee-approved technique, but it does do the job of sustaining the forward motion. The difference is that, whilst development is inextricably connected to the narrative and moves the audience closer to the denouement, often in the shape of a reveal or reversal (typically knowledge and/or functionality), change isn't so.
For example: In Surface: MFAW, the designer relies on change to move the chapters along. Examine a puddle and a watery face appears. It's a nothing event - one of several repetitious 'surprise' tactics that reinforces the concept of monsters out there - but an event nonetheless. In M4, the player returns life to a generator and statues rise from the ground. The statues allow the player to activate a power node and wake the guardian Seer. (And the Seer, in turn, develops something else, and so on.)
So, to sustain that all-important forward motion, you can develop or you can change. Of the two, development creates the most meaning; but either will keep your audience engaged.

By constantly developing three scenes, I was able to keep the usability testers engaged for thirty minutes from a paucity of art assets. And by developing through a variety of means, I was able to keep the narrative fresh and also spread the art tasks between the three artists.

In M4, I'm reusing every scene. I hold the player in a selection of scenes, developing through puzzles, mini-games, and cinematics; then I open up a new selection of scenes and do likewise. As the world opens up, I begin redefining existing scenes, sending the player back with my white rabbits, and utilizing the player's new knowledge or abilities to create fresh meaning from those scenes.
If you follow the progress on my map, it looks like a Gordian puff adder.

How does the player return to these scenes?
Provided that they are expectant - anticipating something special - the back-tracking is framed by something valuable. But it's still a danger zone. I'm mindful of g@mrgrl's comment:

Margrave: The Curse of the Severed Heart falls just short of achieving true greatness due to some repetitive puzzles and annoying backtracking, but its ambition and effort to break the glass ceiling between hidden object and traditional adventure games is obvious and well-appreciated.

Without hiring more staff, the obvious (and easy) solution to these issues is to reduce the back-tracking and re-usable puzzles, which would remove a sizeable chunk of gameplay. But there are always less-obvious and more difficult solutions!

I built into the M4 world three secret passages. Once the snaking begins, I immediately open up the first passage and the player can 'teleport' instantly (two clicks: first click on passage entrance in scene, which opens map; second click on desired destination, which opens scene) to the other side of the world.
There are many wonderful articles on navigation in games on the interweb. I should've bookmarked some. I'll see if I can find the one with the argument: Why make your character walk when he can run? Why make him run when he can fly?
Maps have historically served a variety of functions in iHOGs. The Thirteenth Skull map featured little detail: it was more of a pretty appetizer and an overview. The Phantom of the Opera map was a more detailed layout of the world, and was designed with navigation in mind. The Surface map is pared down to pure functionality: a sterile network of circles and lines which allow for teleportation to anywhere at any time.
I designed the M4 map as a pretty appetizer, a reasonably functional navigation system (more of an overview), and a teleporter. I am, however, swaying towards full teleportation for the next project. This functionality could oh so easily defile immersion in favour of functionality, but I have plans for marrying the two with meaning..! (Indeed, the network of secret passages in M4 also serves to explain how Uisdean is travelling around the town! My beloved duality.)

Does beauty sustain back-tracking? If the scenes are stunning on the eye, is the player content revisiting them?
Maybe for a bit; but only for a bit. Certainly nothing to be relied on.
I chanced upon Lisa Evans' blog. She's had a couple of stabs at alchemizing her beautiful artwork into a game. With such lack of development or change, or meaningful interaction, and with such slowly paced navigation, note how quickly the beautiful artwork, and the melancholic soundtrack, lose any mastery over the player's experience. And then extrapolate.
With some form of development required at pretty much every moment of the game, the question How? becomes rather daunting.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Solv Needs Help Building a Coffee Machine

Not true. It just came up when I clicked in the title bar.
Reckon it's from Zynga's now retired Baking Life, but don't know why it's joining us here on the farm.
However, turning 'coincidence'* into relevance, (another invaluable talent in the writer's talent tree) we should have a quick shuftie at the current gaming headlines.

*My son and I play the 'coincidence' game. You each think of a word, or theme, and sit back and wait. A few weeks ago, we were walking back home with the shopping, discussing the nature of 'coincidence' (and I shall now stop with the apostrophes) and, to demonstrate my point, I chose the word artichoke and my son looked at his watch and chose 1:14.
The word artichoke indeed presented itself on several occasions during the course of the weekend. (As did the time 1:14.) The following week, watching Masterchef, the word artichoke once again did its jaunty jig and there in the background a wall clock duly displayed the time... 12:14! Pretty close. (And, naturally, I mentally adjusted it to the precise hour difference, whereas I suspect it was much closer to 12:12. Two twelves! A coincidence? [Probably should bring the apostrophes back.])

If it wasn't for the assistance of the auto-coffee machine, I would've forged a title from the ideas of money and balance and getting rich quick and so forth.
It's been an eye-opening few weeks (for me, at least), with Spry Fox sticking up for the indies, and Zynga employees, both current and ex, confessing that Zynga pounce upon successful games, attempting to buy out the developer and, if that fails, reskinning that dev's game and bolting on their crew mechanic, and claiming the end result as their own 'original' concept.
There's no way I'm going back to the topic of originality. I'm still with Maltzman. You can find my thoughts easily enough by typing those keywords into the search bar. Suffice to say that neither reskinning nor bolting are required to acknowledge the balance of mechanics within any given game and are, IMO, reprehensible.

And, more recently, we have the revelation that (a staggering amount of) certain devs have been hiring botfarmers for the relatively inexpensive sum of $10-$15k. At the press of a few buttons, the botfarmer unleashes his bots. Over the course of three days, those bots repeatedly download the targetted game, lifting it up through the rankings until it hits the top 25. (Often easy to spot because that game will appear in the top 25 with no reviews, although I've heard of 'automated' reviews in broken Portuguese too!?) Apple are threatening to revoke licenses.

You can do something similar with human peoples. Make $$$s from the comfort of your own home! You just need a computer with internet access, and the most rudimentary understanding of computery stuff.
I've left you a few examples to look at. You don't need to scroll down very far to find comments directing you to services. I've deleted some, but I'm cool with the polite ones. (Just remember kids that I haven't followed any of the links and don't endorse any of the sites!)

My bosses have just returned from the Casual Connect conference in Germany. There, they learned the truth behind the ERS games - and it's hardly a revelation: Hundreds of coders and artists working tirelessly on multiple iHOG projects for minimal salaries.
Just as we've seen in the world of console devs, the drones are disposable: they come and go with the regularity of a ticking pocketwatch; they set up their own rival companies or services; and more drones are plugged into the empty chairs. These services are interesting: For a modest fee, you can outsource your art and code to ex ERS employees. Good pedigree, good price!

(As an aside, my bosses also learned from the horse's mouth that Big Fish went too far with the MCF8 title and received lots and lots of complaints about the game's poor taste. However, Big Fish are in the position where they don't have to worry about these complaints.)

So, quite a whirlwind of activity of late! And it all leaves me with this question:
How can a tiny dev team with typical British salaries make a game of CE standards and turn a healthy profit?
M3 made a similar profit to M2. That's to say that the game pulled in enough extra dosh to cover the combined salaries of the extra five staff members.
Given the revenue ceiling that exists for iHOGs (at least through the BF portal), it's unlikely that M4, however well it is received, is going to make a significant profit.

I had a meeting with my bosses and they presented their ideas for generating more profit. They were:
Cut dev time down to nine months; lower the quality of the artwork; don't invent any new systems - just use more inventory items; make the trial hour great, and pare everything back thereafter.
All understandable and predictable responses*, and all pointless unless you can answer the How? (See my question!) And it's because the How? is so difficult to answer, especially with British salaries what they are, that we hear barely a British whisper in the iHOG charts.
*In their defence, they haven't declared 'Story isn't important!' for several months now, so I think they're making an effort.

Naturally, I was ahead of them: I had already taken it upon myself to react to the three months we had lost during the staff drought. I used the M4 CE act to experiment. My internal brief was:
How can I create an hour of gameplay and wonderful experience in under two months with the team we have?
I think I've achieved that. I might be proven wrong, but I'm pretty pleased with myself and the systems I've invented which deal with our own particular obstacles.

In theory - and we can test the theory with minimum risk - I've found a way of making four acts and a CE act of high quality at a shade under two months per act. That comes in at around nine months, and does not allow for sickness or holiday, or for creating guis and menus (although it does accommodate cut-scenes and cinematics). Nor does it allow for the iterative nature of game design, and that alone can constitute a sizeable nugget of time.
But nine months? The whole shebang in nine months?
Where were we? Oh yes:
How can a tiny dev team with typical British salaries make a game of CE standards and turn a healthy profit? In nine months?

To their credit, Big Fish have eased the pressure by introducing a mid-range accolade which they call the Deluxe. It's priced mid-way between CE and SE and eases the financial suffering of those devs that fall a fraction short of the CE score. But it's a cushion, and not something to aim for. (And I can only imagine that it could be achieved by a team attempting to hit the CE score in the first place.)

We're now at that place where things break. If I can't answer this question whilst retaining my integrity, then I have to either shed my integrity, convince my bosses to lower their profit expectations, or walk away with my integrity intact.
It's a place defined by both terrible shadow and challenging sunlight.
And it's a painful truth that (arguably) the #1 requirement for a writer/designer is that she has finely-honed powers of empathy; ergo, the better the writer/designer is at her job, the less likely she is to disrespect her audience.

Speaking of #1s...
Currently occupying the BF #1 spot is Surface: Mystery of Another World. I played the trial. Next morning, I drenched poor Ben with spittle as I related my experience of that trial - and it truly was a trial - to him. Poor Ben. And poor me: two nights with barely a wink of sleep! But mainly poor Ben.
First thing: if forum posts are to be believed, it's evident that S:MOAW spent a considerable time in the hands of the beta testers. Full credit to them for their persistence.
Now, to me it doesn't look great, and the story is ok but delivered without any technical prowess and, hence, gave me no emotive thrill. It lacks originality and sophistication. The live action cut-scenes are well hokey. I can't abide the relentless string of inventory item quests - put x in b and f in y and arse in biscuits and on and on - and the logic is laughable, unless you're able to believe that the only thing that will smash a window is a stone, despite having multiple heavy metal tools at your disposal...

But, studying the trial, I can reasonably confidently describe how it managed to achieve the CE score. Pretty much all you need to know is here in the last five years of blog posts. Forgive my heavy-handed paraphrasing, but it goes a bit like this: Hook, resonance, clear gui, atmosphere, regular developments (good pace+enough variety), strings of inventory item quests punctuated by puzzles/mini-games (which were, on the whole, pretty good), simple map with teleport, abundant hints and quick meter refills, enough fluidity to sustain the immersion cocoon through the bad things. The bad things were those things that are allowed to be bad. If your bad things are those things that have to be good, you get Bedtime Stories: The Lost Dreams (which, sadly, had lots of good things, but those were good things that could've been bad).
Furthermore, I'm well aware that I am not the market. My expectations of art and mood and story are much higher. No use me reading the glowing reviews and shaking my head in disbelief. Neither is there any use in my contemplating how to be more bad or, worse still, forcing Ben and Sally to be more bad. They're far too talented for me to even consider that!

Well what do you know: Providence has indeed presented me with an apt title for this post! Now I need your assistance with a cigarette machine...


P.S. Lovely comment on Wild Tangent (re. M3), and one heck of a pat on Ben's back. Let's play the coincidence game! I choose the words 'unique and 'original'!

JR: One of the best, most beautiful and most unique hidden object games.

Wild Tangent Games: What did you like most about this HOG?

JR: WildTangent Games The graphics were the best I've seen in HOG's. They were like walking into a Thomas KinKade painting. I loved the tarot card bits, where you had to line them up to produce different shapes. Very original. I also liked playing the sheet music on the piano. Things liike the horse race (blueberry, cotton candy, etc) were fun also. The story line was also sweet. I liked that the first object picked up (the rose) was the last one used. It tied up the storyline nicely.

Wild Tangent Games: Thanks for your awesome feedback Jeffery! Appreciate it :) We'd love to hear more reviews from you about other games!

P.P.S. Friend of mine has released his first iOS app! It's called Monkey Pole Climb. I've not played it, but it looks great and, more importantly, the guy poured fluffy ewers of love and care into it! Do go take a look!