Monday, January 31, 2011

Leveraging social networking for new game experiences


The rise of social networks has largely coincided with the current console generation.  Online networks like LiveJournal and MySpace always had a certain cult following, but it wasn’t until the latter half of the current decade that things really began to take off, especially with the introduction of Facebook and Twitter into the realm of social networking.  The inclusion of development tools for Facebook in particular has led to the emergence to runaway successes of Facebook games, most notably Zynga’s products Mafia Wars and Farmville.

However, while this market has proven itself to be at least successful in the short term for quick, easy to pick up and play games that leverage Facebook’s community features, they have largely been met with critique and scorn by traditional gamers, ostensibly for their lack of depth, as well as their inclusion of extensive advertising and freemium models of play.  While more traditional games, both those distributed digitally by smaller developers and big-budget retail titles, have attempted to integrate social features, these have been pretty mixed in their implementations – everything from posting multiplayer scores to Facebook leaderboards, to sending tweets about achievement progress, to wholly dedicated networks created by publishers, such as EA’s BioWare Social Network, and Ubisoft’s UPlay.

In the following few paragraphs I’d like to propose what could be possible in the future for social network gaming from a design perspective, how existing games can be improved by the inclusion of social networking features, and discuss what I feel will be the ultimate result of this phenomenon, consolidation between retail and web gaming.  This is less a formal article and more a smattering of my own collected thoughts, but comments are appreciated nonetheless.

Facebook doesn’t  just have to be about farming

So far, current social games have been pretty limited as far as their gameplay goes.  Farmville, for instance, is effectively a “lite” management-type game which requires frequent but relatively undemanding investment into the care of one’s farm – players are rewarded for both helping grow their own enterprise, but also by cooperating and getting their friends to join the game (one of its most criticized elements).  Some of the other most popular games available are clones of traditional board games such as Scrabble, classic arcade games like Snake, and branded tie-ins for television shows and other big-budget retail games.  There is nothing wrong with these sorts of games, of course, but they are undeniably experiences that fall within the realm of what was possible on the web before the advent of social networking.

Titles like Scrabulous do not need to be the extent of social network gaming.

While the types of games available on Facebook are effectively limited by Flash and Facebook’s own API, there is a lot of untapped potential for much more complex and full-featured games.  Existing titles have largely taken the route that smartphone games have, by providing play experiences that can be completed within the span of only a few minutes.  Given the ubiquity of web-enabled devices, however, it seems a little silly that the best of Facebook be essentially the most barebones of what web game developers have to offer.  While balancing quick play sessions with lengthy, retail-style storylines and quests could be a difficult proposition, it’s certainly not a challenge developers are incapable of meeting, given how many similar games are available on the likes of Xbox Live Arcade and Steam.

The technical limitations of the web platform mean that the best games to translate over are those which don’t rely so much on fast action, and instead focus on puzzle and turn-based play.  As any Civilization player can attest, the removal of fast reflexes from the equation of a game does not at all mean that the game has to be stripped of depth.  In fact, Facebook is wholly ripe for strategy, role-playing, adventure and puzzle games well on the level which populate handheld gaming systems like the Nintendo DS.  Visuals aside, there is no real downside to developing these sorts of games for web platforms, and providing deep, compelling game experiences to more traditional players could reveal new demographics, or reach gamers who may not have the money to afford game consoles or expensive computer systems.

I just conquered my friends list!

In addition to this, however, the design of traditional games could be altered radically in the wake of social network features.  Online leaderboards are certainly a way of providing integration, but this only scratches the surface of what is possible.  When design becomes informed by what’s possible in the domain of social networking, previously untapped potential is revealed that I think could totally revitalize the way traditional gamers play, especially in the multiplayer realm.  Down the road, the question may not be so much “how can we incorporate social networking into our game?”, and much more along the lines of “in what new and different ways will this game let players interact within their existing social networks?”

Civ World presents one of the first in a wave of new "harcore"
games that are truly built around social networking.

Civilization World is one of the first games that I’ve seen to attempt to bring a truly deep game experience to the realm of social networking.  In addition to providing a similar game experience to what players can get from the full retail titles, Civilization World also leverages the multiplayer potential of social networking by allowing players to form empires and battle against those on their friends list.  Effectively a multiplayer version of Civ that allows players to coordinate beyond the scope of a traditional game, via the inclusion of long-term goals in addition to short-term ones, it also introduces people who just don’t have the ability or will to get too involved in as complex a game as Civ by providing a gateway through friends and family members.  While the game is still in development, features such as custom leaders and civilizations informed by players’ own Facebook profiles could expand the feature-set of the Civilization series in a way that the most recent PC title, Civilization V, could not.

Another game design idea I’ve been batting around lately has been effectively a co-op Facebook role-playing game, one which features party-based, turn-based combat that requires players to coordinate with each other against both AI and human players to progress through the story.  Players will not only be able to create their own characters, but will also be able to effectively play as themselves by importing their profile information into the game (only should they wish it, of course).  Competitive play, as well as additional, serial-style episodes could also keep the game and story going into the future.  Not really an MMO, this sort of game design would hearken back to the CRPG games of the late 90s by BioWare and Black Isle Studios, a genre that has more or less died out today, but still has a sizeable fanbase and community surrounding it.  Technically advanced visuals, for this community, are far less a concern than game mechanics and story are, and thus I find web gaming makes an ideal fit.

Of course, there is nothing preventing traditional retail titles from integrating these sorts of features as well.  However, being able to frag your friends list is only one very limited part of the equation, which leads to…

The consolidation of retail and web gaming

In the near future, I can see social networking games going a couple of different ways.  The first of these is to have more extensive integration of the browser and retail games, with events and accomplishments in one influencing progress in another.  EA have already begun to experiment with their promotional games – the short Dragon Age Journeys web game unlocked some bonus items in the retail version of Dragon Age: Origins.  While Journeys featured a much different combat system inspired by Heroes of Might and Magic, the core Dragon Age experience was left surprisingly intact despite the technical differences between modern gaming PCs/consoles and Flash.  Journeys was never significantly expanded upon after the release of Origins, but the potential is certainly there for greater integration and experimentation… alternate quest outcomes or story events for those who have played or are playing the web version of the game, for instance, with the social networking features effectively being the true platform the game runs on, the glue that holds the experience together.

The second way I see games going, is that existing games will become available on multiple platforms, effectively feature-identical, and progress will be carried between both , for instance, the console version and the online version.  Already titles like Bejeweled are available over Facebook, but once again, this only really scratches the surface of what ‘s possible, especially as web technologies continue to develop.  Once again, it will be the social features that begin to define where a game “lives”, not what console it’s played on or whether it runs on the Unreal Engine or Java.

The pitfall to all of this, of course, is that that social networks are not unified; they are as discrete and separate as the existing gaming platforms are now.  While most individuals are more open to joining multiple social networks than they are to owning multiple gaming platforms, putting the effective ownership, or even meaning, of one’s game data in the hands of a social network, is not something that certain players will want to do.  Combined with the ambitions of publishers themselves to build their own internal communities around games, like the aforementioned UPlay and BioWare Social Network, this results in users needing multiple accounts just to get the full gaming experience.  Figuring out how to bring games into the realm of social networking without placing the functionality of a game in the hands entirely in one or more social networks will be a major challenge in the future.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The problem with stealth

Stealth games have always been a little bit of an anomaly when put up against larger, more successful genres.  Even since games like the original Metal Gear on the MSX, it's always been a bit of a risky proposition to build a game where the player's greatest asset isn't a gun, but hiding and moving slowly.  Especially when put next to fast-moving arcade titles of the day, Metal Gear's emphasis on sneaking seemed almost counter-intuitive.  Common thinking states that players like to feel empowered when they play games, that they enjoy being able to do things that they'd have no hope of in the real world; most developers interpret this as the distinctly masculine act of performing excessive acts of violence against others, or in placing first in a competition.  Stealth, by nature, is somewhat contrary to what most developers think players want.

The suggestion made by stealth games over the years is that basic sneaking just isn't enough to keep a game interesting.  The Thief series was able to gain a niche interest by providing tools the player could use to stay safe and escape from danger (water arrows to turn off lights, climbing gloves to scale walls, rope arrows to grapple and swing), but when it came to directly dealing with threats, the player was often at a severe handicap.  It was only as of the third Thief game, Deadly Shadows, that players were reasonably equipped to deal with their enemies head-on.

The same trend followed in the rise of so-called "stealth action" titles, including Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell, games which attempted to buck the conception that stealth was all about moving slowly, hiding, and generally keeping out of harm's way.  Their protagonists embodied masculine power: Sam Fisher, a whiskey-drinking war veteran worth a thousand men, and Solid Snake, a cloned super-soldier who was a master of using his environment to outwit enemies.  While both still relied upon stealth, they were also both capable in direct confrontations, so much so that their respective games could be nearly played as straight-up shooters, if it wasn't for the occasional mission which forced non-lethal measures.  Interestingly, both of these games departed from the steampunk-medieval theme of the Thief games, using the advanced technology of the modern era to justify the extreme abilities of their protagonists.

This isn't the

This isn't the stealth I thought I knew...

Now, with the recent release of Splinter Cell: Conviction, stealth action has taken a very bold step in the direction of action.  While Ubisoft's latest game does allow for the use of stealth, but amidst the chaotic gunfights and action movie venues, the game certainly tries its best to encourage players to play less like a ninja and more like a commando, a one-person fighting force who only relies upon stealth and deception until his or her enemies are riddled with bullets.  The question that remains in the wake of Conviction is, "where can we go from here?"

The cynical approach...

It's very easy to take a look at Conviction and echo those tired old words: Ubisoft sold out.  After all, the latest Splinter Cell seems to have more in common with Epic's Gears of War than any other game, and the supposedly "too old for this" Sam Fisher is now more agile and capable than he was ten years ago.  In fact, the stealth in Conviction nearly mirrors similar gameplay mechanics in the Gears of War series - sneaking is only a tool that the player uses to approach enemies from unexpected angles before attacking them.  Splinter Cell, of course, takes greater advantage of stealth, but the focus of the game has shifted radically: no longer is the goal of the game to sneak through and complete objectives, with weapons only as a last resort, but rather, it's to take out all opposition in the way.

Given the relatively slow evolution of the stealth genre, the transition may seem a bit more gradual and the differences a little superficial, but it's clear precisely which mode of thinking informed the design decisions surrounding Conviction.  The player's new ability, Mark and Execute, for instance, is geared entirely towards killing enemies quickly, and many portions of the game are designed in such a way that sneaking around is extremely difficult or even impossible.  Where it used to be perfectly possible in previous Splinter Cell games to finish entire missions or even the whole game without alerting, killing, or even laying a finger on enemies, in Conviction, that seems like a near impossible task.

Of course, Splinter Cell isn't the only game series to move in this direction.  Metal Gear Solid 4 also shifted towards action in a big way by offering control options and scenarios which mirrored successful Western third-person shooters.  While stealth is still a component of the gameplay, and much of the game can be completed in such a fashion, there are also vehicle chase sequences and hectic gunfights where subtlety is clearly thrown to the wind.  Once again, the cynical eye would examine Metal Gear Solid 4 and argue that this was done in order to appeal to a greater market segment, and this may be true to some degree given the recent popularity of the third-person cover-based shooter.  However, I'd like to propose an alternate analysis of the situation...

How do we make stealth exciting?

Stealth games, as I mentioned above, have always faced the challenge of providing excitement to the player, while at the same time attempting to maintain that they are thoroughly about sneaking and hiding from danger.  To say that these are contrary goals isn't quite accurate, but given the settings that recent stealth games have employed (i.e. modern military), there are only a handful of ways to spice up hiding from danger.  The easiest way to do this?  By adopting shooter elements.  Solid Snake and Sam Fisher both have guns, after all, so why shouldn't they use them more often if their missions are so critical?

The game flow seen most commonly in the stealth genre goes something like this:

  1. The player enters a level/environment/room/etc.
  2. The player performs reconaissance and assesses potential goals, threats and opportunities
  3. The player plans a method of approach to that goal
  4. The player executes this plan, attempting to avoid obstacles along the way
  5. The player, if impeded, deals with the obstacle using the appropriate mechanic
  6. The player reaches the goal, and continues on to step 1 again

While good environment design and story can help to drive the player along, the optional step in this sequence, step 5, is where the majority of tension in a stealth game comes from.  While planning and executing a sequence flawlessly is enjoyable for the player, there's no real threat, and thus no tension, if the player does not risk or encounter some sort of obstacle.  In most stealth games, these will be enemies, though the obstacles can also be of an environmental nature (locked door, electrified fence, snowstorm, etc.).  This is the proverbial "wrinkle" in the plan where 90% of game's fun really comes from.

As said, the modern military setting of current stealth games has been rather limiting.  A quick brainstorming session will likely reveal that, if a developer stays within what are conidered to be "realistic" boundaries, the potential problems the player can face are actually quite limited in scope; avoiding repetition within the existing setting is already difficult enough as players continue to tire of the same old "brown and grey" military themes, but when the number of potential obstacles is also highly limited, coming up with unique, plausible and fun challenges is quite the task.

Barrels? Check. Crates? Check. Sneaking suit? Check. Originality? Hm...

Barrels? Check. Crates? Check. Originality? Hm...

I believe that the gradual shift towards more and more action isn't simply a result of market demands and executives dictating that stealth games have "more action", although I'm sure there is some truth to that, whether the efforts are explicit or more emergent trends after the same developers have grown tired of making the same types of games over the last decade.  Rather, the shift that has occurred is a result of increasingly overcompensating for the lack of problems designers can reasonably present to the player.  Put simply, if you've already done the bank robbery, the "no alarms" mission, the "no fatalities" level, the "outdoor" mission, et al., where can you go from there?  The set pieces have to get bigger, the stakes have to get higher, and the action has to get more intense.  Players aren't willing to tolerate the same old ideas; those ideas need to be supercharged, electrified and intensified.

The solution is setting

In light of this assessment, there's really only one option I can see to truly invigorate the stealth genre, and that is to ditch the modern military theme, or at the very least, to let loose and stop being so concerned with maintaining illusions of reality.  Videogames are all about creativity and excitement, and when something ceases to be both creative and exiciting within its existing framework, it takes a shake-up to bring in new ideas.  Mind, I'm not suggesting that the next major stealth franchise take place in a sci-fi environment, or that it takes a page from Tolkien, but a change in setting is exactly what the stealth genre needs in order to become relevant and exciting again, a genre that feels more like its own and less like a subset of the shooter.  Looking to the future, I'm hoping that the new Thief and Deus Ex games on the horizon will be the kick in the pants that stealth needs to get on its feet again.