Thursday 7 July 2011

How to make a game (Part 1)

This is intended to be a series I'll occasionally add articles and opinion too. This is Part 1. This section will be on : Graphics, Linearity, Plot.

Will you learn how to create a game? No. I am not a coder so there will be none of that, nor am I fully privy to the economics of the game industry. I'm well aware that game designers are probably dreadfully constricted by finances and if they had an unlimited income they probably would devote time and resources into a huge, perfect project.

But regardless of finances or technical ability occasionally games which some questionable design decisions (more apparent in modern titles which have larger staff and budget than the past). Also, it is becoming more commonplace to encounter criticism that is a little short-sighted. I hope to brush on a couple of these, heap extensive praise and recommend games that have some great decisions and to address some of the more short-sighted criticisms people can wield.

* * *

There seems to be a modern obsession with 'graphics'. But what do people mean by this? CGI in films and graphics in computer games is ever closing on looking realistic but it isn't quite there yet. We are some way off true virtual reality.

This isn't to say that graphics aren't important. They are tremendously important but I suppose my point is I can't really think of a game that succeeded or failed solely on graphical capability. There is usually something else that was wrong, or right. A further proof that graphics aren't everything is the success of the console market. These are the release dates of the current generation of consoles :

- November 22, 2005 (Xbox 360)
- November 11, 2006 (Playstation 3)
- November 19, 2006 (Wii)

The Xbox 360 has been on the market for nearly 6 years. It used to be said that computer power doubled every 6 months, and they are still making games and selling very well with a hardware set up that is that old. If graphical power alone dictated the success or failure of a game, the PC market would be more successful. And the Wii would not be the highest selling console.

Crysis is a good example of a game famous for its graphics. Crytek set out to make a fantastic looking game and they definitely succeeded. Few years on, new games still pale in comparison and graphics card enthusiasts still run Crysis as a benchmarking tool. However, Crysis does illustrate a point I want to make in general in this blog. If a game focuses too much on one particular area (whether it be graphics, soundtrack, plot, multiplayer etc), then the other areas often lack in some way. If the prime focus is of high quality then the other lacking areas can sometimes be forgiven.. The lack of good AI and at times badly handled plot of the game became more acceptable. It is very rare that a game hits all bases, and the few that do are usually always remembered.

I think (or rather, I hope) the average gamer cares more for graphical style than graphical power - and I think sometimes people can confuse the two when offering opinion. Being able to render one million objects at once, or have the best Anti-Aliasing known to man doesn't mean much, whereas having a well implemented style will do wonders.

Take one of my all time favourite games ever: Bioshock. It's definitely not as good looking as Crysis, but so much effort was made to the Art Deco style of the game with the posters, structures and attention to detail that it was a delight to play/look at. The first time I played Bioshock it was on low graphics setting and I barely noticed the difference when I was able to play it on maximum. Yes, everything was a little nicer but it in no noticeable way increased my enjoyment of the visuals.

Now graphics are out the way, let's turn to Linearity. Being linear is something that gets said a lot about games. The new Duke Nukem: Forever is said to be "overly linear", Bioshock was tremendously linear, and most puzzle games are almost linear by definition; the list could go on forever. It's unfortunate though that now, linearity seems to mean "bad design". It seems to be saying: "the designers have only designed the game one way, and you play that and how boring it is!"

Obviously, I disagree. Of course, over-linearity can be a bad thing. In an FPS (First Person Shooter) being rigidly linear can indeed be negative. Walking down a corridor and every door is locked/conveniently blocked except the one you have to go through fools no one. There is no illusion that you 'could' enter all those rooms thus leading to the feeling you are proceeding along a predetermined course. Eventually the gamer does not wonder where to go and an aspect of enjoyment has been removed.

Linearity should not be confused with pace. Having only one way to go is different from the Call of Duty: Black Ops style "You can't open a door, an NPC opens it for you and propels the game along". That isn't linear, that is a restriction on the pace. Possibly correctly interpreted as designers forcing you to slow down and enjoy this amazing masterpiece they are presenting you with, or them cheaply lengthening the game play experience in real time. That is not "more Linear".

As I see it, there are a few ways to deal with linearity shown in good games.

One is to give the gamer the feeling of choice, without actually giving one. Take the corridor example again, some games will have those doors open up to rooms which are either dead-ends or tiny loops. Some of course will be locked/blocked because game designers have reasonable limits but the pointless rooms with nothing of value inside them will give the gamer that few extra seconds of "having a look around", keeping them feeling they are deciding which way to go.

Some games may make you double-back. Travel an area you have been before to obtain some item such as a key-card. As long as this is not overdone it can make the game feel a little more open (whilst actually still being a directed and linear experience). This is also a good way to showcase level design, instead of slowing the game down have someone revisit it, but the second time there are some changes or something. This tactic has to be well done because many gamers feel it is cheap to reuse levels.

Some games disguise the linearity. The game play is so fun, or innovative. Or the plot is so interesting. The idea is, it propels you through the game so that you don't even notice the Linearity. Dead Space 2 is a fine example of combining these various points. Driven by it's engaging plot, occasional pointless rooms and occasional doubling back you charge through the game never really stopping to be bothered that you are proceeding along a linear, guided experience.

However, a bad way to disguise linearity is contrivances - and I intently dislike this method. For example, you are chugging along and you reach something impassable. Then a helicopter gets shot down and the crash-site is somehow arranged in a way that now allows you pass. Contrivances are just that, contrived. You 'feel' a little cheated or directed when they happen. Well-made contrivances happen "out of sight" or something, but badly designed ones happen right in your face. In my opinion, good game design should never present you with an obstacle that is subsequently solved for you. Whether this is a high wall that was scalable after the helicopter crash, or a door that could only be opened by the AI at the right moment.

Plot is something I feel very strongly about. It's obviously a personal preference but in my opinion, many of the great games have good plots driving them. Even if it is just the tiniest bit of context, having a reason as to why you are killing all these aliens/soldier/building this puzzle provides that extra piece of enjoyment. There is nothing quite like discovering that the monster who's been terrorising you all game was actually a normal person who's been mistreated at the hands of greedy scientists. Or something equally plot-tastic. Plot is the difference between completing a game because it's something to do, and extracting enjoyment from finding out "why" or "how did this happen" etc.

But as usual there is a right way and a wrong way to do something and there are many examples of great plot delivery and unfortunately many examples of either bad, or complete lack of plot. Whether it is rightly or wrongly done there is a vast array of ways that plot can be dealt with. It's simply about the device the developer chooses to implement.

Sometimes plot can be dealt with 'out of game'; CGI cut sequences and the like. A perfect implementation of this is the Starcraft 2 single-player. Between games you are presented with a click-only interface and variety of objects/people to interact with, for those only interested in the actual game they can move on to the next mission but for those interested in the plot you're presented a variety of characters to click on or a TV news show to watch the latest instalment or even just a picture on the wall, with some line narrated by the hero. This frames the game and characters in a great way, whilst at the same time giving players the choice of getting involved in it. Out of game plot has to be careful though, if you only explore plot there then there runs the risk of people detaching the plot from the game. A good style used to connect the two was seen in Diablo 2 and Splinter Cell: Conviction where a narrator is dictating a story and the gaps in his story are played out by the player.

Whilst on the subject of Splinter Cell: Conviction, that game has an example of a fantastic in-game plot device; used when plot was being presented to you (often through dialogue or some in-game event). During these conversations black and white projected images appear on the walls of the surroundings :

You are presented with a visual image to accompany what you were told, or a flashback of a painful memory of Sam's involved with whatever was going on. It was incredibly unique, innovative and well worth playing just to experience it.

My favourite plot device first appeared to me in Doom 3. I have no idea if this is the first incarnation of this device, I know a similar version was used in Fear. Simply put, in Doom 3 you run around with your trusty PDA (with its own interface). Throughout the game you will find PDAs you could download, belonging to other, usually deceased, people. The PDAs you found would serve two purposes - to let you into restricted areas and such, so a key-card style gating process - but the other was to enhance plot and atmosphere. A PDA could have emails and voice logs (sometimes both) to read and listen to; often used for discovering a door code to a 'secret stash'. The voice logs were well acted (i.e. they contained emotion) and could be left playing whilst you were running around. Walking through a dark hallway whilst listening to the terrified rambling of the technician you just found dead knowing it was his last words creates an emotional involvement and desire to find out more.

This plot device was also used to a lesser extent in Bioshock, although they decided to just do the voice. Sometimes the key characters would talk to you on your (Atlas, Ryan etc) and you could play voice diaries you found. But why is it such a great device? Apart from the effort of finding many voice actors, you could choose whether to get involved. If you wanted to read the Doom 3 emails about regular people complaining about the lights flickering, organising dungeons and dragons games, or listen to the Bioshock ordinary citizens recounting how Rapture started to fall apart - you could. If you didn't want to because plot isn't part of your enjoyment, you didn't have to (although sometimes it helped to solve puzzles).

That is really the key. Plot should be all around you, in little chunks. In items you can find or read, people to listen to/interact with. A gamer should be able to completely ignore should they want to. Plot should never be too much in your face and if it is, you should never be forced to enjoy it. Developers should rely on the quality of their plot/graphical marvel of their CGI to keep your attention. What they shouldn't do, and it's appearing more and more in modern games, is this attitude of: we've spent time on this plot. We paid this voice actor. Time for a contrived reason as to why you can't proceed. You WILL enjoy this.

And that often just leaves the gamer feeling slowed down, mildly pissed off or most importantly "out of the game". In my opinion discovering key information out for yourself is far more enjoyable than being informed of something, and always will be. And those that are not interested in plot, should never be forced to endure it without some "skipping" mechanic. Get the choice, or well crafted illusion of choice back into the hands of the gamer.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments and opinions always welcome!