Monday, August 30, 2010

Why Enterprise Failed

My wife and I were discussing Enterprise (the most recent Star Trek television series), and specifically that several of our Star Trek-loving friends didn't enjoy it. "Why was that?" we wondered. I hit upon a theory that I would like to share. One of the most appealing things about Start Trek and core to Roddenberry's vision is a future where all humans are unbiased, peaceful, team-oriented members of the Federation. The Federation, in turn, is an interstellar idealized United Nations. Humans have learned to tolerate each other and aliens, and are open to new adventures and new discoveries. In addition, they are level headed, calm, and easily respected leaders led by the very best decision makers among themselves.

Enterprise is the story of humanity getting from the biased, self-centered jerks we are today to those ideal Federation future humans. Vulcans are also worse than we remember them, playing the role of arrogant overprotective parent. Individual characters display a lot of these problems as well, making them rather unlikable.

Archer begins the series biased against almost everyone, and counters Vulcan logic with emotional decision making at every turn. Trip is a bad stereotype of a country conservative instead of a good down-to-earth stereotype of one. Hoshi is so afraid of herself that you can't respect her even though you want to like her. It's difficult to connect with them because their flaws are so prominent, instead of being hidden away to be discovered in an intense character-development episode later in the series.

Kirk, Picard, Janeway, Sisko - all were cool-under-fire diplomats and logical decision makers that exemplified the idea leadership for humanity. Their crews were already experts in their fields and all likable characters.

This core difference in the humanity presented to the audience is what I believe drove away my Star Trek-loving friends. People watch Start Trek to see those idea future humans and fantasize about a universe where equality, fairness, and teamwork abound. It was completely lacking in Enterprise, and even though the characters transitioned toward it by the end of the series it was too late.

What does this have to do with game design? The same thing happens in games all too often. New games can miss their audience by not understanding what are the most important tenets of their genre. Sequels can miss their audience by not understanding what are the most important tenets of the predecessors in their series. Star Trek isn't just a future space exploration show with Klingons and Phasers. It's a vision of idealized humanity that has overcome its biases and unfairness.

Oh you want me to list video game examples? I'm afraid that's an exercise left to the reader. Post them in comments!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Teaming up with an old friend

Continuing from my last post, another game my first friend in the whole world and I played at the arcade last week was two-player Arkanoid. It is a classic breakout-style game from the 80s. In two-player mode we each controlled a paddle, increasing our chance at blocking the ball from dropping off the bottom of the screen.

I found the teamwork in this game to be particularly interesting. It was very hard to blame your friend for failing because you had virtually the same opportunity to block the ball that they had. Both of you have to fail for a bad outcome to result. The purity of teamwork made it very easy to enjoy playing together. There are a lot of "team" games that turn out to be two solo games played at the same time.  Time Crisis (from my last entry) suffers from this. Occasionally I was able to shoot an enemy that was taking aim at my ally, but I could also shoot my ally by mistake and I could choose to ignore enemies with their backs to me as I was in no danger from them. With separate scores we were almost competing more than cooperating.

Shooting an enemy whose back is to me is a particularly intriguing event. If doing so doesn't benefit me (if no points were earned, or if my teammate would earn those points), would it be a more interesting decision? If I want to beat my friend, I won't help them get more points and I won't reduce their chance of getting killed. On the other hand, in a real shootout I would always defend my friend, because losing them is much more permanent than it is in a video game. It seems like a subtle difference in the design can have strong consequences for the way the players interact.

The next time I create a teamwork mode, there are a lot of questions I'll ask myself about how the players will interact with each other, especially about how they interact with each others successes and failures.

  • Are their fates intertwined?
  • Are both rewarded when either succeeds?
  • What do they compete for? (Power ups, score, a place in the story)
  • What can they only accomplish together?
  • How can they directly help each other?
In other news: I plan to use the Monday-Wednesday-Friday updates plan for this blog. We'll see how that goes for a while. So, see you Monday!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

There's always time for crisis.

Last week my very first friend in the whole world was visiting from out of town. I drove into the city to hang out for a few ours before his whirlwind tour of the area carried him away. After lunch he suggested we go to an arcade. While I love games, arcades aren't usually my thing, but I didn't have a better idea and he was paying. I'm glad we went because I had a lot of fun. More fun than I expected, especially from a couple of arcade classics.

The first of these was Time Crisis 3. I have played many games in this series and always loved them. They are squarely in the shooting gallery or rail shooter category, in which a large plastic gun is used as the controller to shoot enemies that appear on the screen while the player's perspective moves (on rails) through a preset sequence of scenes. The creators of Time Crisis gave it a huge upgrade compared to other games in the category: the foot pedal. The foot pedal is used to pop out from hiding. While your foot is off the pedal you hide behind a barrel or around the corner. When you press the pedal your view shifts and you can see the action - but can also get shot by the enemies. This very simple function added a depth and excitement to the shooting gallery genre that takes it to a new level.

What is so special about it? What does the ability to hide bring to this type of game? There are several pieces to it. First, a feeling of safety. Until Time Crisis, rail shooter games could give you a rest, but only on their terms. If you wanted a second of pause in the middle of a level, you couldn't get it. In Time Crisis you simply release the pedal and are free to catch your breath.

Releasing the pedal also allows you to dodge a bullet. In other games if a bullet, knife, or grenade is coming directly toward you the only thing you can do is shoot it down. This is not ideal because the task of shooting down the rocket relies on the same skills that you failed to kill the rocket launching enemy with just a few seconds ago. If you are a mediocre player and you couldn't hit the enemy you're equally likely to miss the rocket. If you are a good player who hit a bad 3 seconds of play you also aren't likely to regain control while shooting down the rocket. Taking your foot off the pedal is an entirely different action, and one that you might be better at - or at least that tests a different skill. Layering these two activities makes for a more varied experience that challenges the player in more than one way while simultaneously providing the escape mechanic.

The pedal also brings greater engagement. Have you ever jerked your hands around while holding a controller and playing Super Mario Brothers? Have you seen someone do this? You get so involved that you unconsciously move with the character on the screen. The Time Crisis pedal brings this to a new level. The visual on the screen moves when you use the pedal, suddenly jerking your perspective around the corner. I move a lot when I play this game, dodging every bullet as I lift my foot. The game is much more fun because you feel like you're actually there, poking around the corner to deliver a furious flurry of bullets and zooming back to take cover from incoming fire.

The design of the pedal interface gives us three interesting considerations:

  • Testing two skills instead of just one in a fast action genre can both deepen gameplay and balance the pressure on medium and low-skill players.
  • Try putting the player under time pressure to complete a task but give them a little control over the breaks in the action.
  • When the perspective and game action match the players physical reactions engagement can be taken to a new depth.

I'll leave the second game we had fun with for another time.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Welcome to Design-Side Out

This blog is about game design from the inside out. I will talk about games and how I see them as a professional game designer. Often I will look at a published game and discuss parts of the design I find interesting, try to figure out why they were made that way, guess what the designers were thinking, and sometimes say what I might do with the hindsight of how their decisions worked out.
I hope you enjoy it.