Thursday, March 31, 2011

Taking advantage of a bad situation

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am taking the loss of the majority of my data on Thirst less as a calamity and more as an opportunity.  One way I've done this is by trying to make some of the quests more natural in how they're picked up, and more open in initiating them.

One of the major side-quests I had been working on concerned a feud between two merchants, Olen Ortiga and Mason Wynn, the former a dwarf with a friendly demeanour but sometimes brutal methods business methods behind-the-scenes, and the latter an honest, hard-working smith who's getting on in his years and can't keep up with the competition Olen has provided him lately.  It's the player's role to help resolve the matter, and depending on who the player supports, and what sorts of increasingly drastic actions the player takes, the quest can unfold in at least a dozen ways.

In the initial iteration of the quest, the player had to initiate it by talking to Mason Wynn, specifically, asking him about his business and then passing a persuade/intimidate check to get him to reveal his insecurities.  While this worked great, unfortunately, Mason was not the most visible character in the environment, with his smithy nestled away in a corner of the Market District - not hard to find, but not obvious for such a major quest, certainly not nearly as obvious as Olen Ortiga, who has practically an entire quadrant of the Market District dedicated to himself.

For the "new and improved" version, I've allowed the player to initially take the quest from Olen as well, who asks the player to eliminate Mason as a competitor, first by investigating any potential business opportunities, and later by outright murdering him.  Previously, the player had the option of ratting out Mason to Olen, in which case Mason would be beset by thugs, and possibly killed depending on the player's actions.  With the changes, this has slid much more elegantly into the new quest design, where the scene will play out without the player having to betray Mason. but still ending up as optional.

A smaller change also involves adding cunning checks in addition to the usual persuade/intimidate/bribe options, allowing for a greater variety of players to handle the quest effectively.  I'm also experimenting with adding items that can be pickpocketed, or found in locked chests, which help move the quest forward.  Building solutions like this isn't all that difficult, but when one is "locked into" an existing design, it's harder to add new options than when you've gone back to the drawing board.

I'm also going through initial dialogue to add more hints towards other quests, lore, etc.  For instance, while it was always intended that Olen get his goods from a particular source, the player couldn't ask him about it until the quest was in progress.  Now it's possible to press Olen on the matter even before the quest has been accepted, and while it won't allow the player to bypass a section of it, it does help suggest that Olen is not quite the jolly, friendly person he presents himself as, and hopefully gets the player a bit more interested in uncovering the mystery.  It's also just generally nice to let players take advantage of their characters' skills, even if in relatively inconsequential ways - a little bit of extra information on the world or a character can be just as affirming as a major quest outcome, provided of course that you don't fill your game with "dummy" choices.

Progress report: as of one day's work, the majority of the Market District is restored, including most of the buildings and the characters in them, sans dialogue.  I've added more generic NPC models and more of them in general to all the locations, to give a better feeling of the city being "bustling" with activity.  It's times like this when I'd appreciate the ability to add a few lower-poly models for NPCs, similar to what was done in Dragon Age II, if only because it'd let me convey an even more lifelike world.  Still, I think the results represent an improvement in all respects.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

... And a huge setback

Well, this is lovely.  Earlier today I installed Internet Explorer 9 because Windows was bugging me about it.  Fine, I had the Release Candidate already installed, but whatever.  Except apparently, it decided to take down my entire Windows installation.  Although this sort of thing was fairly common "back in the day" on XP, I'd never seen so mundane a task as a system update utterly ruin a system to the point where it was unbootable.  Despite my attempts at recovery, it seems like the only solution is to reinstall Windows.

The unfortunate side of this is that the Dragon Age Toolset uses an SQL database to manage all of its resources, and I hadn't made a backup of Thirst since starting it.  Yes, dumb, I know, and the irony is that I was reading up on how to backup my work in the first place just recently.

So now I'm stuck in the situation where I'm running Windows 7 off of a different drive.  All of my files are intact, but due to the nature of the SQL server and the Toolset, I'm having a really tough time getting to the point where I can open my work and back it up.  The Wiki for the Toolset has been pretty helpful, but unfortunately doesn't have any information covering a situation where one needs to get a database file up and running again.

Now, I still have all of the mod's level layouts, and I know all the characters, quests, etc. that I've made so far, so I could probably re-write them relatively quickly (a week or two for two months' worth of work isn't so terrible) but I'm just not sure if it's worth reinstalling Windows.  While I still have the physical database files backed up, I'm not sure if they'll be of any use if I wipe out the install altogether, in case there are other files they're dependent on.

Anyway, a big roadblock, and a colossal headache (not to mention a bunch of wasted time).  I'll still keep working on Thirst despite this, whether I can restore things or not, but it does put back progress at least a little bit.  At least such adventures reinforce the need for frequent backups, which means I should be more cautious in the future.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Progress, ho!

Over the last couple of days I've made a pretty significant milestone in my mod project, by bringing one of the biggest quests in it so far close to completion.  One of the early key quests involves obtaining an information on a crime lord called Bloodblade, and to do this the player is funneled in the direction of the city's slums by many different characters.  I've prepared a walkthrough video detailing one side of the quest.  There's a small bug in the video which has been since resolved, and some of the cameras/animations/dialogues could use some work, but it's nearly done

I recommend watching in fullscreen/HD since the in-game text is a bit hard to read at lower resolutions.  There's also annotations on the video itself, which don't seem to work using the HTML5 player (Flash should be fine).

When the player arrives, he/she is met by a gang called the White Falcons, who demand a toll.  Far from the standard "pay them/kill them" routine, the White Falcons have a dispute with another gang, the Drakes, that the player can get involved with.  The player can turn them down and continue on, eventually running into the Drakes, or he/she can elect to help the Falcons.  The Drakes have a similar proposition: their leader, Aneza, is consumed by revenge, and demands that the Falcons die.

If the player chooses to accept either side's invitation, he/she can then move on to the next stage of the quest, which is how to deal with the rival gang. Depending on the player's skills, different options present themselves: trap-making allows the player to set an explosive trap for the other gang to fall into, poison allows the player to bypass combat entirely, etc.  The player may also simply charge head-on, or with enough persuade/intimidate points, get one of the gang leaders to join him/her in battle for a much easier fight.

Depending on how the player resolves the quest, he/she ends up with a sizable reward, potential information on where to head next in the main story, and a new follower in the form of one of the two gang leaders.  Both are very different characters with different abilities, and I tried my best to make them both likable in their own ways - Aneza is a contemplative, extremely wordy elf who longs for absolution for past misdeeds, and Errol is your more typical money-driven mercenary-type, with a wry sense of humour.  It's never clear which side is the aggressor in the conflict or which one has the moral high ground, so I hope players will feel that the situation is open to interpretation.

Completing this means that I'm probably close to 25% done the quest content for Thirst, which, for the size of the project and the number of potential quest outcomes and options available, is already a very significant amount of content (probably close to an hour's worth of gameplay so far, with very little combat and virtually no FedEx quests).  For me, providing the player with logical and compelling options at every juncture is enough motivation to drive me to include new options, even if it increases the complexity of development exponentially.  The benefit in providing a true role-playing experience far outweighs the bad.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Quick update and apology

Just a public service announcement: I'd like to apologise for the lack of an article this week, but I just don't think it's going to happen right now.  I've been working on my mod for Dragon Age: Origins, nearly as a full-time job with the amount of hours I've been putting into it each day since I began.  As a result, I've had generally less time to interact with the gaming world as a whole, and perhaps more importantly, significantly less time to play and examine games.  While I'll try to have a new article up by the weekend or early next week, after writing on average 1000-2000 words of dialogue a day, I'm finding myself fairly burned out for writing.  Anything that I've written for Critical Missive since beginning work on my mod, I simply haven't been particularly happy with the quality of, and I'd much rather miss a week's update than I would publish a sub-standard article.  I'd like to offer an apology to my readers for that, and a resolution that I'll try to approach updating this blog with a bit more foresight and planning in the future.

While I'm generally not one to shamelessly self-promote, I suppose it's also time that I gave a few details about the mod I'm creating, since I've already spoken about it in a prior article.

Thirst is a stand-alone campaign for Dragon Age: Origins which revolves around themes of loss, redemption, desire, and sacrifice.  Taking place in the non-canon trade city of Arceris, Thirst will be a semi-open-ended adventure focused less on combat and far more on providing the player with significant choices and consequences in how they go about solving quests.  While the storyline itself is relatively fixed in its progression, the player has quite a bit of freedom in just how he or she wants to go through it.  As a result, Thirst will be a little shorter than its amount of content suggests, but more replayable than the vast majority of stand-alone campaigns for Origins.  I don't want to quote an exact game length, but I will say that as of current development, there's probably a good 30-45 minutes of playable content,

One key goal in Thirst is to create a believable, palpable game world.  While I obviously don't have the resources to create a full-sized city, the city of Arceris will be roughly comparable to, or even larger than, Denerim in Origins.  Every building with a door on it can be entered by the player, every building has a unique interior built by me, and the vast majority of areas and buildings have at least one character with a dialogue sequence, with the most extensively-written characters reaching up to 2500-3000 words.  I've paid quite a bit of attention to world-building and creating a place where events feel as if they have had lasting and real effects on the people within the city, and try to weave the main story in with sub-plots and the existing politics and conditions of the world.

Unfortunately, due to limitations in casting and the sheer size of the script and number of characters, it is well beyond my means to include voice-acting.  I've tried to compensate by adding more dialogue branches, paths, unique responses based on how given characters feel towards the player, etc.  It is even possible to annoy certain characters to the point where they refuse to speak, just as it is possible to "butter them up" and get store discounts or extra information from them.  While much of this is based on character abilities and other traits, I've tried to leave plenty of options available for players regardless of these factors, so the entire game won't be 100% predetermined by how you build your character.  Dragon Age is, unfortunately, not quite ideal for handling complex character interaction and conversation; player responses are fairly limited in length, and there can only be six shown on-screen at one time, which means lots of "(more options)" dialogue nodes.  I've tried to work my way around these limitations, but be aware that you still won't see the 15-odd responses typical of Planescape's more complex conversations.

I've always felt that Dragon Age was rather lacking when it came to giving the player options outside of combat, so Thirst's main goal is to bring a sense of role-playing closer to what is available in late-90s/early-2000s computer RPGs like Fallout and Planescape: Torment.   Many quests are dependent upon the player making certain decisions throughout the game, and new options become available on the player having certain skills, abilities and attributes.  I am striving to provide at least four or five outcomes for every single quest in the game, with the quests I have designed so far topping out at about ten outcomes.  Unlike many RPGs, choice and consequence is significant: decisions made in side-quests can have an effect on the main storyline, and it is totally possible to get a less-than-ideal outcome for a quest by failing to uncover a key piece of information or missing a skill check.

By de-prioritising combat, I have hopefully balanced the combat skills which dominated Origins with other skills.  Now, having ability in the Survival or Herbalism skills may just come in handy, instead of only Coercion and Lockpicking being the only relevant non-combat skills.  As I am only one person and I hope to get this mod done within a reasonable timeframe, unfortunately, this may mean combat isn't up to par with the base Origins game (for instance, there are no new classes, skills or abilities, and at this point no companion characters), but I feel that the trade-off is worth it in order to provide a distinct and memorable experience.

In any case, thanks for your understanding in the matter.  As I said, I'll try to have a new article out soon, but I've simply been engrossed by Thirst's development.  It's definitely been an eye-opening experience.  I've had to learn some (basic) C++ in order to do scripting, it's the most extensive level design I've ever done (and in a different genre than what I'd previously designed levels for), and the size of the project has meant I've had to pick up some better organisation and management skills to simply keep track of everything.  With lots more hard work and a little luck, hopefully I'll be able to provide fulfilling, enjoyable and unique game experience when all's said and done.

I've posted an official project page on the BioWare Social site, which I hope to keep updated.

And for the heck of it, here are some screenshots:

Friday, March 18, 2011

Observations on RPG environment design

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been extremely active working on a mod project for Dragon Age: Origins.  While I had a pretty solid underlying concept for how the mod was going to be structured, built, what sorts of environments it would feature, gameplay style, story progression, etc., actually sitting down to create the world that it will take place in has provided me some interesting insights that I’d like to share.

Create a world for the gameplay you want

This first point seems obvious, but I’d like to start out with it for that reason.  The majority of my level design experience in the past has been focused largely on first-person shooters.  First-person shooter level design, especially in a multiplayer context, is something you could already write a book on, but suffice is to say that it requires special attention to a few key features:

  1. Flow – easy to say, not so easy to describe.  Generally refers to how the player moves through the environment and transitions between areas, and the movement options at any given juncture, i.e. can I go up or down?  Left or right?  Is there cover? 
  2. Tactical opportunity – designing levels for a shooter is all about risk versus reward; every power-up has to put the player in some level of danger to acquire, requires some sort of skill to achieve, etc. 
  3. Aesthetics – by aesthetics here, I don’t mean simply “is it pretty”, but how light, shadow, colour and so on interplay to provide the player with suggestions, i.e. a light in one location will cause players to move towards it, while a dark place will be more likely ignored.  Helps direct movement through spaces and make the level easier to read and memorise.
The big mistake I went into my level design in Dragon Age was to pretty much design like a first-person shooter, which is to say, I prioritized function over form in a gameplay style which is basic enough that function isn’t  really something one needs to design around.  Since the player’s movement options in Dragon Age are quite limited, i.e. simply running, without any jumping or leaving the ground, I initially created flat environments which were extremely open and good-looking, but also not necessarily useful for gameplay, navigation, and so on.  The end result, in the end, was visual monotony, confusion and a lack of variety in combat environments.

RPGs are different

When designing an environment for an RPG like Dragon Age, there are some similar design considerations to take into account as when designing levels for shooters, but with some very important deviations in the reasoning as far as the hows and whys go.  Most of these stem from either the differences in how the player moves through the environment, and the needs of the environment in conveying story and lore to the player.

  1. Accessibility – the player needs to navigate a large environment with many places and characters; these need to be easily visible and generally easy to find simply by following the natural suggestion of the level design, not hidden away or placed at random. 
  2. Tactical variation – while in a shooter, variation is something which occurs from the fast-paced nature of the gameplay and designing environments around flow, in an RPG, this extends to the level design itself.  The player can’t do many interesting things beyond run around, so the level design has to pick up the slack; you can’t get away with placing a few pillars or chest-high walls.
  3. Aesthetics – while in a shooter, aesthetics serve the function of reading an environment, in a RPG, this has to be balanced with lore as well.  A very tricky proposition, but generally set-piece environments are memorable and also help flesh out a world, so use this to your advantage and build a world that is interesting to explore with many unique locations, buildings, etc.
To illustrate this, I’ll refer to a couple of screenshots.

In the first iteration of this environment, the fountain in the middle of town was situated on flat ground and didn’t serve as a very good focal point.  I found that in play-testing with a couple of friends, they ended up getting lost and confused in the world because they weren’t quite sure of their relative position in the world.

Putting the fountain up on a hill, putting an eye-catching statue on top, adding trees, plants, grass, and some subtle sunlight coming down gives the player a much greater sense of where they are in the environment, especially from an “on the ground” perspective.

Initially, the entrance to the Slums, which is the location where much of the combat takes place, was a simple hole in the wall which didn’t really lead anywhere.  Not only was it not obvious where it went, but it blended in so well to the rest of the environment that play-testers simply ran past it entirely.

To help change this, I did a number of things.  First, I added a large archway to symbolise its importance as a transition area.  Second, I made sure some of the sky was visible through the arch’s opening.  Third, I played with the lighting to give the entrance more shadows, and placed a lot of random clutter, including trash piles, overturned carts, rubble, and added a downhill slope to all help impress on the player that it was not just the lower-class district lore-wise, but that it was also a rough and dark place, unlike the open air of the Market District.  The Slums themselves, while not complete enough to demonstrate yet, are a much different environment, with smaller corridors punctuated by open spaces, with branching paths and choke points to help the player manage enemies.

Lastly, there was the problem of the Council Representative (effectively a town crier) in the middle of the Market District.  While he had a lot of things to say, including important plot information, I found that when play-testing, he was very easy to ignore, since he blended in so much with the random crowds standing around, and nobody spoke to him unless I suggested it.

To help make the Representative more visible, and in turn help better communicate the conditions of the story and world to the player, I decided to put him up on a podium and surround him with a large crowd complete with appropriate sound effects.  Not only that, but a trigger added to the area would cause the player to enter a dialogue sequence with him if the player moved close enough to the podium.  I found that with a little bit of tweaking, I could get it so that players would not just notice the podium, but run towards it almost instinctively due to its raised height, and be given the necessary information every time.


Designing an RPG, even the relatively short one that I intend my mod to be, has been a pretty informative experience right from the beginning.  Although I have approached level design on plenty of occasions before, creating a world that worked for the gameplay style, as well as for story, was something that I wasn’t wholly prepared for initially, but with a few tweaks I managed to vastly improve the gameplay experience as well as the player’s absorption of the story and lore.  I hope to use this knowledge in designing future environments in order to help build even more interesting and compelling locations for players to explore.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Save kitten/eat kitten: Collected thoughts on moral choices in games

There's been a good number of articles posted on Gamasutra lately dealing with moral choice in games. After writing a number of comments of my own in response, as well as some more discussion in other venues, and my own private consideration, I'd like to provide my thoughts on a number of dimensions in designing moral decisions. While what's written below isn't necessarily a framework for going about designing such decisions and systems, it can be seen as a checklist of things to do or not do when considering how to build moral decisions. I also apologise in advance for my critical attitude – I love many of the games I use as negative examples, and can only provide them because I myself have considered them and engaged with them at such lengths in the past.

Why am I doing this?”

When designing a moral decision in a game, the first question that should always be asked is, “why?” More specifically, why should the player care about the decision they're making, and why should they be given a decision in the first place? At first glance, sounds like a pretty simple question to ask, with an equally simple answer of “because we want the player to feel like he or she is in control of his or her destiny”, or thereabouts. “Either a game has moral decisions, or it doesn't” seems to be the current mode of thinking of many designers.

However, asking the question “why” is integral to designing good moral decisions for the player, because it leads to deeper and deeper questions, which, when answered, can help strengthen a given scenario. Would giving the player a choice in a particular scenario make the game better? Would the possible decisions be equally compelling from both a gameplay and a narrative perspective? Is it possible to actually provide meaningful consequences for the player's decisions, or are they going to be largely cosmetic? Is the player going to feel affirmed and rewarded by the decision they make, or will the game scold them for making the “wrong” choice? Is a player going to feel genuinely conflicted about the decisions presented, or simply choose “good” or “evil” because he/she has already decided to play that role? Moral decision-making is hollow and useless if one choice is obviously better than another, and if the game is going to make sure that the player receives an ideal outcome no matter what decision is made, then why should the player choose anything other than the “good” option?

Werewolves, huh?  Well, I selected "lawful good" so I guess today's your unlucky day...
To take an example, in Dragon Age: Origins, the player has the option of either liberating a pack of dangerous werewolves from their centuries-old curse and saving the nearby elven tribe, thus recruiting them to the player's cause, or the player may elect to side with the werewolves and slaughter the elves, gaining the favour of the werewolves in the process. While on the surface this seems compelling, the game gives very little reason for players to side with the werewolves, other than because it's an “evil” choice to kill the largely innocent elves. To solve the problem amicably requires no extra effort on the player's part, and the reward for siding with the werewolves is no better (and potentially even worse) than siding with the elves,. The only reason a player would ever conceivably want to favour the werewolves over the elves is if the player has already decided to play an “evil” character. In other words, throughout the game, the player has only really made one choice. While there's something to be said for always having the option to change one's mind or deviate from one's path, if the player is never truly tested by any choice, is there a real reason to include that choice in the first place? This is the real answer to the “why?” question.

Do I want telekinesis or electro shock?”

One method many games have elected to take in order to make their moral decisions more difficult and meaningful to the player is by providing different rewards for different choices. While sometimes offering up a greater reward if the player chooses to be evil can serve as sufficient temptation, the player can usually rest assured, via meta-game knowledge and genre familiarity, that any negative repercussions of their actions can be mitigated easily, if they aren't simply forgotten as soon as the given scenario is over. It is a rare game which truly reserves its best techniques, items, weapons, etc. for those who choose to go the “evil” route, which means that often anything missed can be simply found through alternate means.

One has to ask, why should the player care about giving up a reward if he or she chooses the moral high ground? Given that so many games equate being morally good with forgoing rewards and possessions, it seems odd that they are so eager to later reward the player for their efforts. At best, an “evil” player might end up with some extra money or a modestly useful item, but if it comes at the cost of an ideal outcome, no player would truly have to sit down and consider their actions. I can honestly say that there has only been one game which has ever managed to successfully tempt me to do something “evil” for the sake of the reward, and even then the decision was hardly irredeemable, only brutally pragmatic.

Jack froze up when he realised that he could have afforded his ice plasmid without killing all those children.
BioShock was one title which made a big deal of the player's ability to either rescue or “harvest” (kill) its sympathetic Little Sister characters, who were the key to providing the player with new powers and upgrades. The decision as envisioned by the developers at Irrational, I imagine, was that the player would have to rationalise killing a little girl if they wanted to have enough currency to purchase the game's best powers. In practice, however, the player ends up receiving additional rewards for taking the honourable route, including exclusive powers that an “evil” player could never receive. The difference by the end of the game is almost insignificant, considering by that point the player is practically rolling in money. Not only is the decision to do good morally superior, in the case of BioShock, it's also far more rewarding. Considering the player ends up with the “bad” ending after choosing the “evil” option only once or twice, there's very little reason to ever consider that road in the first place.

All good, all the time”

Another way that games attempt to make moral decisions more compelling is by providing increased rewards and abilities for staying consistent in their alignment. This sounds like a good idea on paper: the player who sticks by his or her ethics and morals throughout the course of the game will find him or herself in higher standing than the player who is “wishy washy” and changes his or her mind to suit the situation. Positive reinforcement, and all that.

But why is the ability to remain neutral and capitalise on a given scenario a bad quality? Why do games indirectly punish the player who decides that they want to take every situation as its own, and come up with the most advantageous options as they come? One would expect that, if anything, a game would choose to reward the player that's able to manipulate each and every situation for the best possible outcome. As a gamer, I tend to be highly driven by rewards and not by whether or not something is “good” or “evil” - I've never turned down a reward when it's offered because “the satisfaction of helping is enough”, and it takes a pretty negative outcome to make me consider giving up those valuable trinkets I worked hard to attain. I'll do good just as easily as I'll do wrong, so long as the decisions aren't reprehensible. To me, forcing myself to be strictly one alignment is limiting, feels artificial, and brings me out of the game because I know that I can't truly make decisions without losing out on better things.

Do you really want this to be you?
Knights of the Old Republic, for instance, grants the player more and more powerful abilities for moving towards moral extremes, and the game goes so far as to grant stat bonuses based on alignment, meaning that there is very little incentive to play a morally neutral character. Worse still is that the story does not sufficiently adapt to anything but extreme alignments: the ending will either be “good” or “evil”, with nothing in between for the player who wants to conduct themselves in a more restrained, conservative or mediating fashion throughout the game. This is all in spite of the fact that in many, many situations, the player may elect to pick a morally neutral or less extreme side. Why bother if all the game pays attention to is extremes?

Save the world, or save that puppy?

It's quite common in moral decision-making to present the player with either tiny, largely irrelevant choices, or huge, world-shattering decisions – both, to me, usually strike me as both uninteresting and a major cop-out in designing interesting scenarios. The best decisions are those that stem out of the player being emotionally involved with the world and the characters.

Crafting something the player cares about is hard work. It requires good writing, interesting characters, a world the player needs to feel involved in and personally attached to for some reason or other, etc. Calling on the player to make a choice isn't enough – that choice has to be genuinely meaningful in order to be difficult in any way. If the player doesn't care and the dilemma proposed is either too black and white, or too ambiguous, then the player is going to either pick the best or worst option with no reservations or consideration, or they'll consider themselves unqualified, confused, etc. and the decision to ask the player to decide the outcome will seem arbitrary.

Never mind that you have amnesia and rolled a 2 on wisdom, we need you to decide for us right now!
This is why I so often cringe when I see a typical “save the world/doom the world” scenario presented: usually, the designers have neglected to emotionally involve me in the situation, and instead they have attempted to win me over on the sheer size of the decision alone. To me, offering the player a momentous decision smacks of laziness – it substitutes substance with size, or quantity with quality if you will. It's the same sort of lazy shorthand in writing one might see in expecting the player to care more if a character is referred to as “sister” or “cousin” before being killed off – the designer expects me to care not because he or she has provided a compelling scenario, but by making reference to vague ideals. It's almost as if I'm supposed to care by default.

It's no better when a small decision is offered as well, because often I can rest assured that my actions in that situation are totally disconnected from the game as a whole. When faced with your typical “save kitten/eat kitten” scenario, I don't feel as if I need to consider my actions beyond that scenario in the least, because I can almost tell, through my experience in games, that it's not going to matter one bit. In Dragon Age: Origins, I rarely paid more money to anyone than I had to, and most of my decisions weren't fuelled by their implications on the story, but my companions' approval rating. When a player spends more time thinking about how the small-scale decisions will affect a slider than they do thinking about what is right in that situation, and whether or not it will have consequences down the road, I think that's a pretty clear indication that the designer has failed.

I didn't mean it that way!”

Far and away, the biggest problem I have with the construction of player decision-making in games is that games tend to focus on actions, rather than thinking of the player's motivations. While the choice of one action over another indicates a certain intent by the player, usually designers are overly presumptuous in assuming why players have made a decision, and put all the weight on the action rather than the intent. Too often, games treat decision-making as binary, but almost never give players an opportunity to justify themselves.

The best choices are those which have pros and cons the player has to weigh, and preferably, they won't be clear-cut in their benefits and downsides. Most of these take on the form of “the ends vs. means” or “the needs of many vs. a few”, and these are the decisions which are most interesting to us because there are no easy answers in them. Furthermore, these decisions are often complex enough that it's not easy to divine why the player made a decision simply on whether or not the decision was “good” or “evil”. Killing a kitten may be rather unquestionably bad outside a few very particular circumstances, but what about endorsing slavery (or child labour, etc.) because it will lead to more rapid economic development? What about animal testing in order to ensure proper medical treatment for humans? These are questions that we consider on a frequent basis, and they're ones which often don't have easy answers for us. We'd all like to say that animal testing is wrong, but most of us value our own lives over the lives of animals, and it's quite conceivable that child labour would be tolerable in a society different from our own.

The worst example of a moral choice is one where a game provides a morally ambiguous situation and then forces the designer's morality down the player's throat, or refuses to allow the player to justify him or herself, and assigns a default motivation to the player based on the designer's anticipation. This sort of practice isn't as commonplace as simply staying away from the hard decisions altogether, but when it happens, it can be jarring, and even unintentionally insulting and alienating to the player.

Games are an amazing venue for considering moral questions because they are able to make us consider them from different points of view than what we would normally have access to. They introduce the hypothetical, the “X factor” by modifying what we are familiar with. To avoid these sorts of questions in favour of binary good/evil decisions isn't just rote and lazy from a design perspective, it's also damaging to games as an art form, and denies their potential to be a medium where players can find meaning through intellectual development and philosophising.

["save world" image credit]

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Size isn't the only thing that matters: An analysis of open-world and sandbox games

Two major styles of game design which have begun to show up in increasing numbers over the last several years are open-world games, and sandbox games. There is still a good degree of confusion as to just what constitutes a sandbox game an what constitutes an open-world game, whether or not they may even be both the same thing, and exactly where the threshold between them lies. A large number of games, including big-budget titles, have experimented with sandbox and open-world design, but it's my opinion that few of them have actually leveraged the specific qualifies of those design approaches in truly effective and original ways. For me, the difference between the two doesn't lie in ambition, or narrative, or the size of the world, but rather, in the approach given to challenge and progression through the game. In this article, I'd like to take the time to deconstruct exactly what it is that defines an open-world game versus a sandbox game, using a number of examples, and the most important game design considerations for each of them, with respect to those aspects of challenge and progression.

Just semantics?

Traditionally, games focus on guiding the player either through a set path in a relatively closed or limited environment, mostly due to limitations of design, technology and narrative; it's just easier to create something and fine-tune it when you know precisely where the player is going to be coming from, going to, and what abilities they might have at that given point in the game. From a management perspective, it's also generally easier to coordinate development of limited but highly-detailed environments than it is to, say, construct a fully realised model of New York City, as seen in Grand Theft Auto IV. Open-world and sandbox games usually represent a much greater challenge simply due to their vast size, but I think coming to a clear idea of what separates open-world and sandbox games can help to determine the direction of a game's design, as well as focus on strengths while eliminating weaknesses.

On the surface, what makes these games might seem obvious: the sheer scale of the world and options available to the player. After all, most games of this nature in the past have featured immense scale when compared to more linear games. But looking a little deeper, that can't just be what it is. Although the size of the world is especially a consideration in an open-world game, to say that sheer size is what makes such a game is foolhardy. After all, FUEL had the largest 3D game world in history, yet its design utterly failed to capitalise on the scale the technology was able to provide, nor did it manage to motivate players to continue through the game after the initial “wow” factor. No, the differences between open-world games and sandbox games are much different, and are largely due to the fundamental differences in design approach.

Zelda resembles modern open-world games arguably more than modern open-world games themselves.
The Legend of Zelda is one of the earliest open-world games, even though it's largely not thought of one by many gamers. In Zelda, the overworld map is divided into a series of fixed “screens”, with brief environmental puzzles, mazes, or enemies standing in the player's way. These challenges serve to both inhibit the player's progress, but also to provide practice for the game's more significant challenges. These challenges come in the form of dungeons. Dungeons themselves are arranged like the overworld map, with multiple interconnected screens, but feature more maze-like layouts, more difficult enemies, and so on. Furthermore, when the player enters one, he or she is “locked in” to that particular area, and the deeper he or she moves into the dungeon, the greater the risk is, because leaving becomes more and more difficult, and more progress will be lost. At the same time, the rewards in dungeons are much greater, and to ultimately make progress in the game, the player is going to have to explore them fully.

The key thing to note, however, is that the challenge in Zelda's world is largely situated to specific instances, which the player does not have a significant amount of control over. While it is possible to gain new equipment, including more health, armour, and abilities that allow more damage, attacking at a distance, etc., these are all gained by plundering the depths of the dungeons. Sooner or later, the leisurely challenge of the overworld isn't going to be enough for the player, and the desire to explore distant and locked-off areas will continue to build. Thus, while the player has some control over how and when he or she experiences the challenges in Zelda, ultimately the player is still going to be experiencing them on the designer's terms, complete with all the challenge and risk that entails.

By contrast, sandbox games don't solely offer up this sort of localised, constructed challenge. In a game like Just Cause 2, the majority of the challenge comes from the game reacting to the player's actions. There are no specific screens which limit where the player can and can't go, and there are no set encounters which are significantly more difficult than the rest of the game. The “Heat” meter in Just Cause 2 indicates how much challenge the player has, and to a degree, the player has control over it. Cause a small amount of destruction, and the army might send a few soldiers to try to take the player out. If the player can deal with them quickly and effectively, their Heat level will drop. However, if the player continues on a path of violence and isn't able to dispatch of initial opposition, more challenging enemies will be sent, including attack helicopters, jet fighters, soldiers with heavy weapons, etc. As the player continues, greater Heat levels are unlocked, resulting in even more challenge. Heat, and therefore challenge, can occur pretty much anywhere in the world, so long as there's an enemy to take notice of the player's actions.

Got Chaos?  Just Cause 2 tracks player progress mostly per-explosion.
Progression in Just Cause 2 also takes perfect advantage of the sandbox format. Although there are missions in the game which are required to move the story forward, the bulk of play-time is actually dedicated to the random, wanton destruction that the player causes at his or her whim, managed by a “Chaos” ranking. The more Chaos the player causes, the more new weapons, missions, vehicles, and so on are unlocked. These, in turn, feed into yet more Chaos. Rather than tying the acquisition of new abilities and items to completion of set tasks, as in Zelda, Just Cause 2 rewards the player simply for exploring, experimenting, and causing as much destruction as possible. Since the game world is limited, the player is eventually going to run out of things to do, so in this case the size of the world exists not so much to give the player lots of options, as it would in an open-world game, but to effectively outlast the player's interest in the game. It's possible to “win” Just Cause 2, but it would likely take most players hundreds, if not thousands of hours to exhaust all of its gameplay, well beyond what most would likely dedicate.

Ultimately, then, what determines a sandbox game isn't how large its world is, but the way in which the player navigates through it, is presented obstacles to overcome, and makes progress, in whatever way it is measured. In a mere open-world game, the player may be able to explore at his or her leisure, but progress will still largely be governed by playing through specific designer-made challenges, be they dungeons, missions, etc. Sandbox games are, and should be, about what the player brings to the table, and providing fun mechanics that can be experimented with in fresh and interesting ways. That's why the distinction between sandbox and open world is so very important: the approaches taken in order to ensure successful design are completely different from each other, and why games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Faction: Guerrilla find themselves in a strange medium between offering up player freedom, and restricting them to a set path.

Designing for the open world

Open world games, in order to be successful, need to adopt a lot more structure than what many existing ones do in order to achieve cohesive design. The open world's strength is just that: sheer size, and freedom to explore and progress without too much restraint. Giving the player the opportunity to complete objectives in the way he or she wants to is what open world games should be all about. In Fallout, the player is given free reign of the world, with success in the game tied to solving a number of objectives. While its mystery-style storyline does push the player in certain directions, there is no set path through the game, and the player can actually leave large parts of the world unexplored if he or she doesn't want to bother with them, or simply comes across the ending on his or her own. Depending on the order the player solves (or doesn't solve) certain challenges, the game will respond accordingly. To me, this is true open-world gaming: give the player a task and set them loose on accomplishing it. Any game which attempts this, only to funnel the player through the game in a wholly designed order, has failed as an open-world game. After all, what's the point in a big, open world to explore and lots of fun rules if you still put the player through veritable linear corridors to move forward?

Many open-world games, unfortunately, don't know what to do with the vast world they've provided to the player. Some of them settle for allowing the player to do minor side-quests on the way to the main objectives, and others fill it up with extra abilities and bonuses for taking the time to explore. While these provide meaningful rewards to the player, they are wholly optional and secondary to progressing through the game. Sure, I could go and shoot all the pigeons in Grand Theft Auto IV for the modest rewards provided, but why bother other than for completion's sake? To provide a game with optional content is one thing, but to make the only motivation in completing that optional content an arbitrary percentage counter? That's just a crutch for lazy design.

Since open-world design is so tightly integrated with the way challenge and progress are presented, it's extremely important to provide the player with motivation for continuing in the game. At all times, the player must have an understanding of where he or she is in relation to the rest of the game, as far as objectives and story progress are concerned. Sub-goals are the easiest way to ensure this: the player has a final goal to work towards, but there are additional challenges along the way that must be completed in order to succeed. Furthermore, the player has to be given motivation, not just to complete that smaller goal, but that smaller goal must be related effectively to the progress in the rest of the game. Since different players are motivated by different things, this means the onus is on the designers to provide multiple types of motivations. Usually, this can be expressed in three ways: narrative, functional, and aspirational.
GTA IV's cutscenes aren't just there for flavour: they give you smaller goals and stories that motivate you to continue.
Narrative motivation is simple: provide the player with a good story reason for doing what they're doing. Obviously, this is contingent on a lot of things: the player has to care about the characters, places, events, etc. going on; the player has to have an understanding of the game world as a whole; the player has to understand the implications of success (and failure); and the player has understand why success or failure are contingent upon his or her action (best if it's not just a simple Game Over screen). Most of this can be handled in the early stages of the game, where exposition is even more necessary, but throughout the game it's good to remind the player why they should care about what's going on. Maybe this means a love interest being put in danger, the player's own abilities and power being threatened, revenge for someone already injured or killed... without these smaller events punctuating the larger quest, the player is going to lose sight of what's going on in the big picture as well. In an open-world game, story often takes a backseat to the player's freedom, and so it's even more necessary to make sure that the events are tied together strongly. Grand Theft Auto has traditionally done an excellent job of involving players in the story, with lots of interesting characters, twists and turns, etc. Each character on the map represents a tiny story in and of themselves, but also presents a smaller narrative arc, which in turn ties into the rest of the story as well.

Functional motivation is effectively what sorts of material benefit the player can receive from continuing through the game. This usually takes the form of a tangible reward, like a new item, a new ability, money, a health boost, and so on. Rewards are always best when anticipated and worked for, not simply handed to the player on a silver platter or seemingly at random, which means that it's always best to tell the player exactly what cool new benefit they'll receive if they keep playing. The important part of a functional motivation is that the mechanical benefit of the item is what is important to the player, not necessarily the effect the acquisition might have on the story, or its aesthetic appeal. Why should I care about getting the rocket launcher? Because it'll let me blow up those enemies that cause so much trouble for me! Why do I want the hookshot? I can use it to grapple around the environment! Functional motivation is effectively material, and ties into the player's empowerment fantasy, but it's no less important in keeping them going through the game.

Aspirational motivation is the most esoteric of these, as it deals with why the players are playing the game on a “higher level”. The aspirational motivation appeals to the sense of discovery, the player's vanity and aesthetic sensibilities, the desire to get all there is out of the game. Yeah, the hookshot might let me grapple to the dungeon's boss, but I'm really more concerned with how it will let me visit that cave I spotted off on the other side of that cliff! That new armour all well and good, but it's not important to me if I look silly in it – I want my character to be a badass! Aspirational motivations assume that players aren't just interested in one specific element of the game, i.e. the story or the mechanics, but are interested and fully invested in the experience of playing. The more such sensibilities can be played to, the better, and recognising how they interact with the narrative and functional elements of the game is also integral.

Moving through an open-world game should be an experience dictated by the player, but still controlled by the designer. The goal of an open-world game is to give the player a sense of freedom and control, but not to surrender it completely. An open-world game recognises that the player's interaction with the game is important, but that there still needs to be a strong supporting framework and specifically engineered challenges to test the player. Titles like Zelda, Grand Theft Auto IV, and Fallout all acknowledge this to varying degrees, and they are all equally successful.

Designing for the sandbox

If the strength of open-world games is in crafting a specific experience that the player is able to guide and manipulate on his or her own terms, then the strength of sandbox games is to provide the player with a set of tools to experiment with. In a sandbox game, objectives, progress, etc. aren't static things created by designers to be overcome by the player. As a result, sandbox games face quite a few more challenges than open-world games, since they can't rely on ushering the player forward with carrots in the same way more traditional games do. Sandbox games have to be fun, wholly and completely, on a base mechanical level in order to be successful.  Additionally, much of the challenge of the game has to come from the base mechanics and the way they interact, as well as the plyer, who in turn is also in control of game progress.  A number of design considerations have to be made in light of this.

Consider Roller Coaster Tycoon: while there are a number of specific rules the player has to follow, and a good deal of scenarios to play through, the game is effectively a toybox for the player to have fun with. Certain rides, including the eponymous roller coasters, can be hand-crafted by players to allow for a wide variety of outcomes, anywhere from gut-wrenching, to mildly entertaining, to fiery and horrific. The flow of attendees throughout the theme park is governed by simple AI, as well as their wants and needs at an individual level; this is all open to manipulation by the player, who is able to build gift shops, toll booths, walkways, food vendors, and much more. The game is much less driven by any actual objective than it is by the player simply fulfilling his or her own set goals, whether that's to build the prettiest amusement park, the most profitable, the most dangerous, the largest, etc. The way the attendees behave is directly tied into the different ways players choose to enjoy the game, meaning that they receive a challenge no matter what they try to do. Coupled with an easy-to-use interface, Roller Coaster Tycoon offers up a game whose mechanics carry it forward; the player does everything to make the experience meaningful.

Roller Coaster Tycoon is, despite its age, more a sandbox than most current titles.
In sandbox games, there are a number of ways to ensure that the player has a fun and challenging experience regardless of how he or she chooses to play. Tropico 3's “sandbox mode”, effectively an endless, objective-free play through the game, might offer one style of play, but within that, additional objectives can help provide flavour while still effectively maintaining a sandbox feel. Since the player's enjoyment of a game is contingent upon the success of those basic mechanics, it is of the utmost importance that those mechanics operate successfully and aren't prone to exploitation, bugs, and anything that would otherwise cripple the delicate balanced. Pared down to a few basic concepts, there are three governing factors which are most imperative in a sandbox game's design: action & reaction, constraints, and interdependence.

Action & reaction is the most fundamental, and while heavily important to all games, it's central to the success of a sandbox game. Put concisely, the player has to be able to exert some influence over the world, whether that is as a “god”, as a “commander” or as an individual character; then, the player must also be provided with accurate, easy-to-understand and clear feedback as to the effects of their actions on the game world. This applies to both simple and complex elements. In Just Cause 2, the player is informed instantly if his or her Heat level goes up, both by interface indicators and by a change in the pace, tempo and intensity of the in-game music, which begins to swell with dramatic strings and thumping bass. In Roller Coaster Tycoon, when the player increases prices for entry, he or she may see visitors leave or turn away from the amusement park gate.

In sandbox games, “doing things” is where most of the fun comes from; it's the joy gained from the mechanics themselves that motivates the player to keep going. However, if the player were capable of doing anything at any given time, not only might the game be over very quickly, but the player would have no reason to explore the game's systems fully. Constraints are necessary in order to focus the player in a direction of his or her choosing, while offering incentive to explore other aspects of the game that may normally go untouched. Roller Coaster Tycoon features money as its primary global constraint, but there are others, including the individual properties of rides and the sensibilities of the visitors at the amusement park. Note that a constraint is not the same as a goal: it provides motivation for continuing through the game and exploring new aspects of it, but it in itself is only a means towards another end, while actually dealing with a goal is usually what's fun in more traditional games.

Interdependence, is why a sandbox is any fun in the first place. A bunch of mechanics which are wholly independent from each other and have no influence might be fun to toy around with a little bit in isolation, but don't provide any meaningful decisions for the player to make and would quickly grow boring. Money in Roller Coaster Tycoon is a constraint, but it also allows for complex interaction between all of the different amusements and infrastructure the player can build: what happens if I spend all my money on drink stands, but don't make any bathrooms? How does that affect my park's visitors? Is it more worthwhile to charge lots of money at the door and less in the park, or vice-versa? In Just Cause 2, at the low level, the player has a grappling hook and parachute which may be used to scale the environment in extremely creative ways, but the ability to fight back at enemies is sacrificed for mobility, and poor navigation can lead to the player becoming an easy target for enemies. At a higher level, the player's successes in causing Chaos throughout the world open up new story missions, as well as new weapons and vehicles, which in turn can be used to cause even more Chaos – but the higher Heat level attained also means the player will be more vulnerable when using those new, destructive toys.

The key here is that while sandbox games can be big and open when it comes to geography and world size, they really don't have to be. “Sandbox” first and foremost refers to the ability to toy with the game mechanics in order to set new goals to overcome, and achieve creative and interesting effects. In the case of Just Cause 2, the huge map exists less more to exhaust the player than it does to provide a fully-furnished, extensive game experience as it would in an open-world game. A sandbox game can elect to have a story, and characters, and certain scenarios where the player may or may not be limited or driven by specific goals and constraints, but at a base level it has to be able to stand on its own as fun even when wholly divorced from the motivations that more traditional and open-world games require.

The hybrid?

Of course, games being what they are, there are many different titles which fall into a nebulous territory between sandbox and open-world. I've already mentioned Grand Theft Auto as an open-world game, which I stand by, but it also incorporates sandbox elements, namely, in the form of police officers and the Wanted level. Similar to Just Cause 2's Heat meter, if the player performs any illegal (usually violent) acts, the police will come after the player, first in limited numbers. These are fairly easy to escape from, but if the player chooses to fight back against the police, he or she will be beset by increasingly difficult SWAT officers, and even the military in some of the titles. While Grand Theft Auto isn't quite a sandbox game, it does have a level of challenge which the player is able to manipulate and isn't limited by scenarios the designers have created. The Civilization series could also be seen as a bit of a hybrid, with its potentially endless empire-building gameplay, but the strong competition and definite victory conditions means that it too doesn't quite qualify for the sandbox label.

Whether or not games should actively seek out sandbox-style gameplay when they have not necessarily been constructed as “pure sandbox” experiences in the first place is a difficult question to answer. I'm sure many gamers would appreciate a linear or open-world experience that has been very tightly refined, while others are more concerned with fun and don't mind if their games are unfocused, so long as they're enjoyable. For better or for worse, I don't think that this is a question that enters too much into the design of games: given how iterative development is for many, the “throw it against the wall and keep what sticks” approach can be beneficial, even if it results in something which doesn't quite have the unity and consistency of vision or elegance of something more precisely tailored.