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.


esruel said...

The Minimalist Beach is a ringer for Lindisfarne! Just needed to be bleaker and I'd be the guy in the picture.
The picture I'm getting is slightly unbalanced: you've taken over a team that wasn't hitting the high spots and made them hit the high spots. But it seems an almost immediate lack of internal financing has made your team struggle to maintain momentum. Hmmm, raising game prices may be a way - though this could only work if sales were maintained. Another way would be to recruit free artists - like a publishing house might do when recruiting staff. Similarly, story-makers could be cultivated in the same way Star Trek helped new writers, or old ones! Just a thought...

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Mike Y said...

Very informative. Thanks for your perspective.

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