Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Longest Journey

I know that I want to look at user experience in games. The end result, and what the player receives, is an experience. Some would call it fun, a word despised by many game designers as meaningless and impossible to use for actual analysis. Marc LeBlanc suggests that we should look at these experiences as a set of Aesthetics (PDF-link).
Regardless of terminology and classification it all comes down to end user experience. Most kinds of media, including movies and books, communicate this experience through a linear stream of content to the user. However, the majority of games do not work in this way. Games are typically defined by the fact that they require active user-participation, having players drive the experience forward by acting upon decisions made based on the experience they have received until that point. This is of course a very general description but the main concept holds true for whatever sort of game there is, regardless if it is the movie-inspired linear action-game, the ever-repeating puzzle-games of Bejeweled or the isolated battle between players that is a game of Starcraft 2.

Active participation can amplify some emotions greatly, when done right. Horror-games are a prime example of this. While the end-user experience you seek from the players are very close to what you expect from the same genre in movies, the methods used to achieve this differs greatly.

Having users drive the experience means that games need to employ a wholly different set of tools and methods to communicate a desired general experience. So, what are these tools and methods?
Well... That question is of course too large (and ever-evolving most like) to ever answer straight up. One could perhaps isolate a limited set of experiences and try to find mechanics and such specific to games that encourages this end-goal.

It could be done through a live production with a team of students in this education, but there are some issues with this approach. The strongest one being that the production would have me as a designer developing what would most likely be a project heavily focused on delivering a completed product meant for sale/pitching, which may not be the optimal environment for experimental work. One upside would be getting additional experience in live projects, in addition to the project-work I have done in previous years.
It could also be done by me working in a completely isolated state, building simple prototypes based on the theories I set up and through having them play-tested by others draw conclusions for analysis. This of course runs several risks, one being the balance of creating prototypes that are well enough made to effectively communicate an experience while not taking up the majority of my time through their development.

So my plan for the spring is, loosely stated, that I would formulate a theory regarding user experiences communicated through game mechanics and by some channel test it out and/or propose solutions/findings. I am thinking that this would take form as either methodology or categorization, rather than hard truths. The details would have to be formed in discussion with teachers and while looking at possible opportunities in which this could take place.

From all this would emerge an increased personal knowledge of the end-user experience as a whole, a subject that is vitally important in all types of game regardless of audience. It would naturally also cross over somewhat to other forms of presentable media. Depending on the form of the research I would also gain increased experience in a more specialized area, such as game as commercial product, game as competitive tool etc.

Optimally, I would like to be able to do this research in connection with a live professional environment. While I can do this on my own through the means of quick prototyping (both digital and analog), working in connection to a professional team would give me an opportunity to test my theories “for real” and more importantly in communication with experienced developers, in design as well as other areas of production. The connections gained would certainly be useful, regardless of what I choose to do after the project is completed. As the production would most likely not depend fully on my designs, the issues of a lack of freedom could perhaps be minimized.

For this to even remotely have a chance for success I need to set up strict limits and a clear focus. Researching user experience through game mechanics can be done in a multitude of ways, even more so when considering that approach and intent may vary greatly depending on the format the research would take. I feel that this subject needs to be hacked away at over a number of studies and preferably by different researchers. This can however be done in isolated instances and does not need to be a coordinated effort.

Aiming to be a brick in the wall. It can be a good thing.

The primary stakeholder in this project would of course be myself. This means that I will take the primary responsibility to make sure I can perform the work needed, with support from teachers and staff at my university. This will give me a large amount of personal freedom, good and bad sides included. The major factor will be personal discipline when it comes to scheduling, planning and so on, something I have found to be challenging at times but allows for a very effective work-environment when done properly.

Looking at this short-term, I will need to have decided upon a general approach to take regarding the research before Christmas. This should give me time enough to discuss the subject with the subject responsible teacher and at least allow me to be aware of what criteria I would have on any possible opportunities that could arise.
Some time after Christmas, end of January, my theory should have taken form in a such a way that I can formulate and present a problem to be solved and what method I would use to find answers. I should ideally be set on the environment in which to do my research, be it a professional studio, student project or individual work.
At the end of spring I would have to make sure to finish the work up to the point where I can draw some conclusions and communicate these in a paper, taking in to account the time needed to do this. This would be a critical point in the planning.

Having a strong point in analysis and a high interest in how game mechanics in different forms can shape the dynamics of a game session should prepare me well for this work. My previous education have given me both tools and mindset to be able to at the very least give me a starting point. As previously mentioned I can also use the staff at the game department as an anchor, along with the connections I have made during previous project work. My motivation for doing this is mainly personal as I take a great interest in game design theory in general and game mechanics specifically. It should also be possible to use this blog documenting the work as proof of my abilities when looking for further work and new opportunities.

These simple mechanics have carried Mega Man through a large number of games pretty much unchanged.

To sum it up, this kind of research should have a general value for the area of games as a whole and could perhaps be a smaller part of a larger effort. As I mentioned in my previous post I do have a special interest when it comes to mechanics supporting the experience players seek from highly competitive gaming (perhaps in addition to how you attract this extremely loyal group of customers to a micro-payment model). If I choose to focus my research in this area the knowledge gained should be valuable at all levels for those looking to take part in this model or further develop their already existing product towards this goal.

Friday, October 12, 2012


Autumn has come in truth and with it the rain. The horrible weather does in part reflect on the mind when the intoxicating joy of summer is a thing of the past. Now is a time to look ahead and prepare for a long and dark winter, only stockpiling ideas and plans rather than foodstuffs.
For a long time I have wanted to take a closer look at multiplayer games based on competition and challenge. I feel the need to explore these competitive aspects of gaming as it is the realm of this industry that I personally am most interested and invested in, speaking as both a player and a designer. I believe it is one of the major areas of gaming that is yet to be explored beyond the surface and taken advantage of.
My examination of it would most likely be delivered in the format of a research paper of some kind, though with the aim to be of as much use as possible in live design with a commercial product-focus. In short, it should be useful when creating an actual game targeting a competitive audience. To my knowledge there is a lack of work being done in this area, as it is only recently that titles are made with competition as priority and not as an adaptation of the single player experience (fighting-games are an exception, as well as a few first-person shooter titles).
There is of course a very real risk that the nature of what makes a successful competitive title is far too elusive to properly express in pure game design without major research in to other areas of science such as psychology or behavior analysis. This would leave me with pointers on how to encourage competitiveness in games through design but without the necessary knowledge of how and why that, while still quite useful, is perhaps not the result I would have wished for.

Fighting games have a long tradition of competitive play.

Were I to do this I am sure it would make me more valuable in the area of game design I am aiming towards, as I have mentioned previously. The range of different kinds of game design (if not available positions) is large enough that specialization would help greatly when looking for interesting opportunities. It would also let me further develop my personal toolbox, as the specific knowledge/content gained would be focused towards competitive games while the method should translate to be useful in general game design.
We have very clear methods and models of development when it comes to the big movie-inspired story-driven game titles focused on delivering a set experience in a very linear fashion. Series such as Gears of War, Uncharted and Assassins Creed are prime examples. Games like these are linear developments with heavy promotion at release, much like movies; they are fire-and-forget products if you will.
However, interest in competitive nature as the driving reason for a games existence is rising enormously, with examples such as League of Legends, DotA 2 and Starcraft 2. These kinds of games require a wholly different approach in many areas of development, from production-layout to the continuous iterative design-changes and updates needed post-release as the player base is vocal and demanding. This kind of ongoing product support is becoming more allowed and enabled by the fact that the financial model is moving away from one-time purchases to a system based on free-to-play games using micro-transactions as the main source of income. A system that works well with the dedicated audience often connected to competitive titles.

Competitive games can engage the target audience in areas outside the act of playing the game themselves.

A month ago Valve held The International Dota 2 championships. Two weeks ago Blizzard along with Dreamhack held the Starcraft 2 World Championship Series in the Ericsson Globe Arena. Last weekend Riot Games held their League of Legends World Championship playoffs with finals happening tomorrow. These are the heavy hitters at this point in time, with many more companies coming in looking to challenge the market for player shares. The competition between them will not be decided by the measuring criteria of traditional games. It will all come down to who can bring the best competitive spirit.

Now is the winter of our discontent; Made glorious summer by this sun of York.

Simply replace “this sun of York” with “game developers and publishers discovering the promising return of investment huge competitive multiplayer titles can bring, both inside and outside the actual sale of a single unit of the game“. Catchy!

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Fountain of Eternal Motivation

My main motivator is definitely the search for ever-stimulating work. I need my tasks to provide some sort of intellectual interest, or at least allow for it while being performed. Using terms from the Two-factor theory perhaps it could be said to exist somewhere inside a three-point area of Achievement, Work itself and (personal) Growth.

An instant prototype for a multiple-screen rotation-based puzzle game.
Does involve leading trains of cute creatures past lethal traps.

This can of course be achieved in different ways through different types of work. Inside the realm of game design I have found that the greatest enabler of this is the possibility of exchanging thoughts and ideas with design-interested peers, regardless of the specific work done. For me, discussing game design at a theoretical level can be equally as interesting as creating actual systems and detailed mechanics. Having a discussion on a theoretical level gives the luxury of exploring, where you can do whatever without having the need for it to actually “work” in a sense. The joy of theory where everything works and no compromises have to be made, neither technological nor economical. One can dream.

A defeatist attitude brings nothing to a project.
There are always fixes to be made, often bringing a large payoff with little effort.
The tricky thing is to identify them.

While I do specialize in system and mechanics design I have found that I can be useful when it comes to evaluating and iterating assets when cooperating with group-members with other fields of specialization, mostly from a larger end-design perspective. Having some experience with both code and 3D-modeling I at least know the limitations, which is usually enough to give constructive (and more important realistic within the production) feedback and at all costs staying away from ever trying to micro-manage others work. Trying to hunt down those small fixes that bring huge positive effect for little work is greatly rewarding, both for the end-product and team morale. When working like this it helps greatly not to be in charge of management and scheduling, something that I try to avoid. In the best of worlds should a designer never manage the time and resources of a project but simply focus on improvement at all levels.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Visions of Self

I have completed my education! I have decided to go into further education! It truly never ends, so it is somewhat fortunate that I enjoy the whole thing. With now having completed three years of university with a major in game design I've gone into an advanced fourth year studying the somewhat broader area of convergent media, while still keeping a focus on game design, game systems and how I can apply my knowledge in areas outside of commercial game production. I've yet to fully map out exactly in what direction I'll be headed but I do have some ideas.

A simple game from basic prototype to finished game in 20 hours on the theme Impeding Doom.
My art is proudly shown in the middle image. Bottom one is very much not me.

Some of the stuff I'm looking at would have me dive in to areas outside my comfort zone, such as pedagogics. Having no deep knowledge in this field is problematic but I'm not too worried. Throughout working in projects and interacting with different types of expertise I've found that I can assess how to best use the competence of others to great effect, adapting the way I work to the knowledge and expertise available. Issue is that I'd rather seek to use or in some way translate their competence and knowledge in to my field of interest, rather than applying my knowledge to other fields. Finding a balanced path can be somewhat difficult at times.
Having analysis as a strong point also helps me outside of game design. I've found that being stuck on a problem is mostly not knowing from what angle to approach it and once you know why and what needs to be done, figuring out the how is a lot easier. I will need to overcome my ever existing urge to convert any area of knowledge to an abstracted game system or input though. Researching stuff is an enormous time-sink when you constantly get sidetracked using the new information to puzzle together game mechanics that would support an interesting dynamic between players, forcing them to make decisions that balances... well, yeah, you get it. It amuses me but is not always useful.

Artist drew visual for a serious game concept I was part of about the morals of creating and selling weapons.
Intentionally overplayed for absurdity.

The single most major reason for studying a fourth year, regardless of what project I may work on, is that gives me an opportunity to gain a deeper knowledge of purely theoretical game design. Having previously tutored groups of first year students I became more interested in the academic side of game design and how it can be analyzed and taught effectively to others. A previous teacher of mine, Jakob Berglund Rogert, has in a way for me become the personification of an intellectual view on games and is someone I learned a lot from. However, rather than a set person there is a state of mind that has stuck with me that has inspired me the most, perhaps best explained thus;

Nietzsche, The Gay Science §341
“The question in each and every thing, "Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?" would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. “

Moving forward, as I see it the understanding of formal game systems I have gained throughout my education can be applied for some purpose without the commercial area, perhaps within a purely academic setting. I also have an interest in outlining some kind of production-focused design methodology based on my experience of using MDA when creating basic rapid prototypes as well as more complex systems.

My main interest is in using systems and mechanics to solve the ever-changing problem of how these tools can be used to encourage a set behavior, communicate a message or evoke a desired emotion amongst a group of players. The joy of seeing a set of mechanics come together and properly form that elusive magic circle to be experienced and enjoyed by others is intense.

Mechanics coming together. Carnage was shown at GGC11, GDCE11 and Gamex'11.

If one were to look at me through the lens of OCEAN I'd say I exist within the area of openness, however leaning heavily towards intellectual curiosity and abstract thought and less towards art, emotion and fantasy. I can also show signs of conscientiousness, mostly through having a planned and organized mindset towards tasks.

In a few years I'm hoping to be working as a game designer with a focus towards mechanics and systems enabling competitive multiplayer gaming. I think having an interest and also specializing to a specific area of game design will help me target certain positions, while still unbound by technical platform which will be ever-evolving. As said in the report Strategic Skill Assessment for the Creative Industries; “Ideas often need to be multi-disciplinary and media neutral so that they can be applied down a number of channels.” I may not be multi-disciplinary much but most of the work I do can be adapted to pretty much any kind of media or interactive content, either before, during or after the work-process.

As a game designer I sometimes get to draw big arrows on things. It is a vital skill.
Research for a "competitive level" design project.

I will admit that the prospect of more time as a poor student is not all roses and while it will require a heavy investment in time and effort to reach my target goal, focusing on what you enjoy and find interesting can hardly be called a chore. There are worse things in life.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Change of direction

With recent changes in the project the need for code has greatly decreased. Decreased to the point of non-existence actually. This makes my role as single programmer for this project somewhat abundant and I will instead focus on game design, layout, production and other menial tasks. I have also taken full control of the Carnage project-blog, which means all my activity will continue over there. The link is just to the right, please dare make the jump over there. I will see you on the other side.

Oh, and this one? It will stay hibernated for a while until I can decide what to do with it. Most like, there will be other personal design-work unrelated to Carnage on here. Just not yet. Later. Perhaps.

Friday, April 8, 2011

At the crossroads

Joy. Progress made. I have successfully extended some of the classes needed for Carnage. Focus has been on creating functioning pawns with a proper (temporary) mesh along with movement and some very basic game-rules.

Above is an in-game image showing a simple track used for testing code. The individual tiles can be seen as separated by the dark lines. The cars are un-textured meshes that are still being worked on and the text seen is used to debug, along with an editor-log not shown with a lot more detailed info. At the moment of this image I am testing out the navigation using track-nodes.

The small grey icons placed on the track are track nodes. These are used by the cars to navigate around the track, checking where to go, how fast and if other cars are currently occupying a node. The rules of Carnage allow two cars occupying each tile at the end of each turn. With four cars racing we need a system checking if the tile the car will move to is currently occupied, by whom and if it is the destination of the moving car who to ram out of the way to the next tile. I figured this could be done with a system of navigation nodes placed on the track. Each car stores info about what node they are placed on and uses that combined with current speed (decided by inputs from the player during action-phase) to decide where to go next. It works fine as a stand-alone and it should not be any issues connecting this to the player input/main game info.

The amount of work to be done is huge and what worries me most is that I cannot set up a reliable time-plan as I would need to do a lot more research and gain more experience in UDK for it to be even close to realistic. This creates a risk of the project not functioning fully or even lacking vital features at deadline. The often used option of delaying the presentation of this game is non-existent as our deadline is set in solid stone, with the 27th of May as the date of Gotland Game Conference. Cutting features is a valid option but downsizing the game too much will create a less than impressive (and most important, less fun) product. Just going along with it and hoping for the best is insanity as we would then risk having nothing at all to show.

We need to sit down as a group, re-evaluate the risks and rewards of the project and see what is to be done.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Unraveling UDK

Since last post I have been focusing on the UDK and its scripting language UnrealScript. We will not touch the native C++-code running the low-level engines as it is far too complex for me to mess about with alone for such a short project. UnrealScript runs on top of the C++-code and handles most of the gameplay, being based heavily on classes and inheritance. As it is originally built for Unreal Tournament 3 it can be modified to pretty much any sort of first-person shooting game without too much trouble. While you can create basically any sort of game in UDK the more you diverge from the action-shooter the more tinkering needs to be done and it becomes increasingly complex to handle the inheritance-structure.

Since our game is a turn-based strategy game with multiple player-input I will need to decide what parts of the original class-structure we need to use and where to branch off. Things like camera-positioning, actor-creation and placing pawns can most likely be implemented without too much trouble. Adapting the input/player controller and setting up the main game-class to run in game-loops and ignore the event-based setup normally used in games created in UDK will be trickier. As it is we will not be needing complex physics and can probably skip that part completely.

Not researched yet is interface, cut-scenes and sound-management. Ideally I would like to implement networking as well, enabling each player to run a copy of the game and still play together instead of the arcade setup we got going now. A simple AI would also be useful so players don’t need to find three living and breathing opponents for a quick game. As expected there is a long list of features we would like to have in the game but being realistic we will not be able to implement them all to the 27th of May when we are to show the game at Gotland Game Conference.