Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mini-Games and the Compartmentalizing of Design

When we think of mini-games, we think about flashing button icons, cartoon mascots, and tedious and repetitive actions.  Most of the time, we as gamers look at mini-games and groan - while they're often well-intentioned, we also find ourselves quickly loathing them as we end up having to repeat them over and over.  As much as we might enjoy them in isolation, mini-games tend to be a source of frustration over the long haul.

However, the problem with mini-games goes well past beyond the usually-accepted repetition.  Whereas many titles have elected to make their mini-games shorter and sweeter, the general understanding of mini-games in relation to game design as a whole tends to be anemic.  In truth, mini-games are more than they appear.  While they may deserve all the positive and negative sentiments we send their way, mini-games speak to a deeper issue - the compartmentalizing of game design.

What is a Mini-Game?

Before discussing the impact of mini-games on game design, it's worth taking into account the question of exactly what constitutes a mini-game in the first place.  After all, every game is made up of smaller interlocking mechanics which end up forming gameplay systems - and reasonably, all of those could be called mini-games if not for some artificial boundaries we have set.  Lining up headshots in BioShock isn't necessarily any more a game than its hacking mechanic, yet we draw the line very clearly all the same.  Why is this?

Part of the distinction is entirely cosmetic.  In BioShock's case, the mini-game is compartmentalized to a degree that makes it easy to identify.  The player initiates a gameplay sequence so divorced from the standard first-person action gameplay, right down to completely different controls and interface (i.e. 2D vs. 3D).  Everything about this visually says "this is a mini-game; this is separate from the standard gameplay."  I find it likely that, if these same mechanics played out in the main game state, many people would have trouble referring to such a sequence as a mini-game.  Thus, it's fair to say that mini-games are at least to a degree defined by presentation.

BioShock's hacking is the ideal example of a mini-game: visually and mechanically distinct, and self-contained from the rest of the game experience.
Second, there is usually a mechanical distance in a mini-game.  Most games consist of some form of repetitive, cyclical mechanic which informs and influences either itself or other mechanics (i.e. output state going directly back into input, such as a shooter's "pick up ammo; spend ammo; pick up ammo" loop), but a mini-game tends to take this to a whole other level by providing something that simply doesn't mesh with the existing gameplay systems.  Whether it's a literal mini-game like Grand Theft Auto IV's bowling, or an abstract one like Mass Effect 2's pattern-matching, there really is nothing about playing them that directly influences the central mechanics and systems within the rest of the gameplay - links are tangential at best, like feeding into a currency system or a friendship rating.

Third, mini-games tend to be self-contained and have short-term ramifications.  The mechanics do not persist or go beyond the mini-game's duration - when we crack a safe in Alpha Protocol, the precise actions the player takes don't have much if any bearing on the player's overall progress in any direct way.  This is in stark contrast to other game elements, like management of resources such as ammunition - even if getting that safe open provides us with ammo or money, the details in the acquisition of those resources are basically incidental.  What starts in the mini-game ends in the mini-game, in other words.

All of this adds up to suggest that mini-games are, at their root, defined not by any inherent properties, but by context.  We tend to attach certain archetypes to mini-games, usually hacking, lockpicking and other functions, because most titles commonly incorporate them this way, but the boundaries only exist because there is something else that stands in opposition.  As a fun thought experiment, try to think about how certain games can be redefined simply by changing the proportions of mini-game to "real" game - the results might be surprising when the presentation itself is stripped away.

Breaking the Illusion

Of course, from this realization comes a somewhat disturbing thought - if we allow that mini-games, are, at their core, basically just games that aren't fully fleshed out grafted onto existing games, what does this say about our understanding of our favorite videogames on a more fundamental level?  Suddenly, those "30 seconds of fun" that make up your standard first-person shooter start to seem just a little bit more shallow, and the long-term goal of completing a level or finishing the story can be just as easily compared to an online leaderboard or a score mechanic.  Could Final Fantasy really be nothing more than a sequence of mini-games held together by a series of cinematics?  Is Halo really just about pointing while managing a few choice resources (time, ammo, health), no different from a Mario Party challenge?

The height of this can, of course, be seen in the oft-derided mini-game collections.  Titles like Carnival Games and the aforementioned Mario Party make no apologies for what they are, but as much as we tend to poke fun at this sort of game (or package of games), the fact remains that these types of games aren't all that much different from most others, and in fact often have far more mechanical variety - they've just dropped the pretense, the illusion that they are some grand unified symphony of gameplay.  Yet gamers tend to refuse to accept that such a thing constitutes a "real game."

Zelda is a veritable mini-game legend, but we tend not to think of it as such because it tends to disguise it so well.
This is best exemplified in a game like The Legend of Zelda, especially the newer titles.  Although the games do feature overarching goals (beat Ganon, collect all the Heart Containers, etc.), in minute-to-minute gameplay there often isn't much to link the different bits and pieces together beyond the aesthetic context.  Using the grappling hook to swing from point to point isn't too similar to fighting with a sword, or throwing the boomerang, or solving a block-pushing puzzle.  As much as we like to think of Link's adventures as grand and epic tales, the truth is, practically speaking, a lot less glamorous.  Of course, finding a Zelda fan who would admit to this is probably going to be a challenge.

Granted, this isn't really a problem in itself, or something to apologize for.  So much of game design is so heavily focused on improving and innovating within the frameworks created by other games, it's easy to get caught up in making minor changes to established formulas without necessarily stopping to think about what a game really is.  If your job is to make, for example, Grand Theft Auto IV, chances are you're not going to be thinking about how to create strong mechanical cohesion on any fundamental level of gameplay - you're thinking about how to provide players with new and exciting scenarios that build upon what they already know and love.  This is true for just about any sequel and even for new games within established genres, like the upcoming dungeon crawler Legend of Grimrock.

Compartmentalizing Gameplay

Where things start to go awry, and where I think the protests of gamers begin to make more sense, is when game design begins to change in order to service the mini-game mandate.  Increasingly common in modern games is the creation of a game almost entirely around individual feedback loops and mechanics which exist in isolation and are linked only in the most incidental of ways.  This is common across virtually all genres and has, in my opinion, led to a general degradation in the quality of gameplay over the last generation of gaming.

Consider Super Mario Bros.  Nostalgia aside, it's a fantastic game, and a masterwork of design, but why?  We often point to simple but effective controls, brilliant level design, and good pacing as examples of why it works, but I think on a deeper level the question can be answered by examining what the game mechanics are built around and for.  Super Mario Bros., at the end of the day, is about rescuing a princess from the clutches of a monster.  How do we do that?  By traveling across the land to reach the final stage.  How do we do that?  By overcoming a number of obstacles and challenges?  How do we do that?  By jumping, dodging and running our way to the end.  Each question has a smaller answer, until we reach the central mechanic that fuels all of these goals.

Gameplay in Super Mario Bros. can be conceptualized as the logical answers to a series of questions, with each defining the mechanics of the game while getting closer and closer to the smallest pieces of gameplay - running and jumping.
Now, take BioShock.  What's our goal?  Well, that depends on the player - is it to defeat Andrew Ryan, or help Atlas, or save Rapture, or get back home?  How do we do that?  By moving from level to level until we reach whatever end point the designer has decided encapsulates all these disparate goals.  How do we do that?  By walking along and overcoming obstacles on the way.  How do we do that?  By exploring and acquiring new powers and abilities, by pattern-matching, by puzzle-solving, by shooting, by managing resources, etc.  It all gets just a little bit messy and unfocused - mechanically, I'm really not sure what BioShock is supposed to be about, and narratively there isn't a direct relationship between what's going on and what the player has to do to accomplish that task.

Mass Effect 2 is another game that ends up being heavily impacted by this compartmentalization, to the point where practically the only thing differentiating different pieces of gameplay is the visual packaging.  Effectively, Mass Effect 2 is about pattern-matching.  You've got hacking and bypassing, which are mildly different pattern-matching time-limited games.  You've got planet-scanning, which while not time-limited, is still a pattern-matching game (and arguably limited by the player's patience).  Even the game's core shooting, revolving around health/shield/armor/barrier mechanics with rock-paper-scissors solutions, effectively boils down to time-limited pattern-matching.  The only game mechanic that feels truly separate comes in the game's "Firewalker" DLC pack, which involves piloting a hovercraft.  While these are all fun in isolation, baked together as they are through cutscenes and conversations, they don't build on each other in any meaningful ways.


Granted, I don't mean to turn this into an argument about game focus.  Games can be singular, or they can be large and involved and huge.  The key point to take away is that without a strong unifying theme that helps drive things ludonarratively, a game begins to feel less like a coherent experience and more like a series of relatively arbitrary actions divorced of greater meaning.  This is why I'd argue a role-playing game with a strong core ruleset that influences all aspects of the game, despite being extremely complex and large, can still be very focused so long as each aspect of the design informs the other in a logical and consistent way.  There's nothing wrong with making a large game (or one with mini-games for that matter), but when the glue holding the experience together is a frame for a series of mini-games, the integrity of the complete game begins to suffer.

That, to me, is what many modern games have started to lose.  Videogames have always been driven by bullet points, features, and industry competition, but more than ever I think the bar has been raised to the point where developers are competing not in terms of games as a whole, but games as literal packages of mechanics, as products that aren't defined by what experience they offer the player but by how many things they include next to the competition, and how well-polished each of those individual things are.  The unfortunate truth is that many of the examples I've provided - BioShock, Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Mass Effect, etc. - are all beginning to resemble the mini-game collections more than single videogames.

Closing Thoughts

This mini-game trend isn't really surprising, in a way.  Game projects are getting bigger and bigger with every year, with more people working on them and more money and time being spent.  The individual impact of a single person on a game is becoming very difficult to spot except for in very specific roles (such as writer), and without a strong creative direction defined by a prescient individual or a group of people that are all on the same page, I don't think the mini-game design dissonance is something that can be easily avoided.

I want to stress that this isn't an argument from nostalgia. I love a lot of new games that fit the mini-game model, just as I love classic games that feature a tight, unified design.  Indeed, I've perhaps inadvertently drawn a line in this article that suggests that older titles weren't susceptible to these same issues, or that new games can't feature a single defining mindset - which is also something I don't necessarily mean to insinuate.  Summarily, this isn't an "X games are better than Y games" argument either.

I don't think there is an easy solution to this problem.  Unless larger game projects all manage to end up governed by a single or very few controlling individuals, we're still going to get lots of games that feel discombobulated and mechanically compartmentalized.  Similarly, I don't think indie developers are necessarily the saviours some consider them to be - as much as I appreciate the creative control afforded to indies, many also find them locked into the same familiar genres, concepts and ultimately still have to compete with each other and with bigger, more expensive games.  Ultimately, it's something that designers simply need to be aware of and understand in creating the mechanics and systems that move a game forward, and while the consequences of failing to do so might not be disastrous, in my opinion they can mean the difference between a good game and a great game.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Questions on Designing DLC

In the games industry today, it's almost impossible to release a big-budget game without any sort of downloadable content waiting in the wing.  DLC has become not just an attractive avenue for supplementing the sales of existing games, but it also helps contribute to customer loyalty and allows developers expand beyond the constraints they may have faced during a game's development.  New features, locations, characters, storylines, items and more can all be explored within DLC, and importantly, unlike the traditional retail expansion pack, DLC price point can be much more nuanced, ranging from small aesthetic add-ons like character skins at $1-2 USD, to additional campaigns and game levels for $15 or more.

Despite this newfound freedom, however, developers and publishers are still generally working out the kinks of what constitutes the right amount of value for their customers.  DLC attach rates tend to be in the neighborhood of 10-15%, and while no developer is going to convince it's worthwhile to shell out extra money for new game content, there are a number of questions that can be asked both in order to hit as many market segments as possible, and, more importantly, in my opinion, to provide players with quality new gameplay that goes beyond the formulaic.

What Does My Game Need?

There are generally two types of DLC in the current games industry - micro-sized add-ons that take the form of aesthetic or small gameplay upgrades, and large-sized game content updates which either include single-player campaign additions (or new campaigns entirely) and/or multiplayer map packs.  Both of these are tried and true - many players are willing to pay a little extra money for a cool new skin, or a new weapon to play with, while others are more interested in the substantial updates that will bring them hours of new enjoyment.

However, it's easy in paying attention to these two models to stray from the question "why do players play my game?", and perhaps even more relevant "what does my game need to make it better?"  Very few games come out the door with developers entirely satisfied, whether that's due to outstanding gameplay issues, matters of polish and production, cut content, or bugs.  While it's easy to say "more is better", and players are sure to appreciate additional multiplayer maps or new toys to play with, it's very rare to see DLCs actually add onto or enhance the core mechanics and feature set of a game.

One example I'd like to turn to that struggles with its DLC options is Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.   Although I enjoyed the base game well enough, the one thing it was certainly not lacking was content - Reckoning is absolutely massive, and if there's one issue with it, it's that it has too much for the player to do and spreads itself too thin as a result.  About a month after release, its first DLC pack, "The Legend of Dead Kel", has seen the light of day, and it offers up about 10 additional hours of game, including a new island to explore, a new quest line and so on.  This comes after a number of smaller item packs, as well.
"The Legend of Dead Kel" might be great content in and of itself, but is it what the game really needed?
The problem with this "DLC equals more content" mode of thinking is that it doesn't always play to the strengths and weaknesses of a game.  "Dead Kel" is great value in the sense that players get a lot more game for their money, but when most players are never going to fully experience Kingdoms of Amalur for themselves, is that new bunch of content really going to entice players?  If anything, it's only the most dedicated who are going to be interested in such an addition, the ones who have already poured 200 hours into the game and still want more.  The same goes for the item packs - Reckoning is already full of hundreds of items, so do players really need more, even if they do look shiny?  Chances are those items will be discarded within an hour or two anyway, the way the game's loot system works.

Instead, I think Big Huge Games and 38 Studios should consider a less traditional model.  Many players have been clamoring for a new difficulty level, and one of the biggest complaints made is the repetitive nature of the game and, even with fast and frantic combat, it still grows stale several hours in.  Instead of focusing on adding "new" content, why not enhance existing gameplay?  Adding more enemy types to the game, doing a full balance pass, additional mechanics that force the player to use more interesting and varied tactics, or even new options and consequences for solving certain quests would all be more appreciated in improving the core game experience.  Unfortunately, this leads to another question...

What Do Fans Want?

Producing games, and DLC, is all about appeasing a fanbase.  Believe it or not, most gamers are not attuned to the intricacies of the game design process - they aren't really aware of things like game balance, encounter design, systems and mechanics design, and so on.  Trying to sell a balance pass or additions to existing mechanics is extremely difficult because players expect that kind of thing as intrinsic to the game itself.  This sometimes works in the pen and paper realm - see Dungeons & Dragons and its numerous additions - but even so there are usually expectations of new content along with these mechanical overhauls.

This means that DLC is generally bound by certain constraints related to content.  As much as I'd love to see balance and mechanics overhauls for games, and would be willing to pay for them in some cases, the fact is that in most gamers' eyes, this falls squarely into "patch territory."  Practically speaking, engineering new gameplay and gameplay options can take hugs amounts of time and effort, but because there aren't new art or audio assets, or new stories and characters to experience, this sort of content isn't considered substantial enough to sell.

There are a few exceptions to the rule, but these are often special cases.  Beat Hazard, for instance, is a long-running indie shooter that has seen its share of both free and paid updates, and this came to a head with the "Ultra" DLC.  Featuring new weapons, game modes, a perk system missing from the original game, and even an online mode, this is a pretty substantial update mechanically.  However, it's also worth bearing in mind that as a high-score-based shooter, Beat Hazard can't turn to new storylines, characters and levels - the mechanics in the game are encapsulated in its enemies, weapons and so on.  The new content is great, but if you added "new enemies!" to Mass Effect 3, would it sell?
Despite being content-less from a gameplay standpoint, aesthetic DLCs tend to sell well because players have an emotional investment with the game and characters - but a "mechanics overhaul pack" has no such appeal.
 The compromise to hit usually involves introducing new game mechanics in addition to new story content, levels etc.  Instead of a new special move certain enemies can perform, how about just creating a new enemy built around it?  Instead of dropping a mechanic into an existing game, why not create a campaign that takes that mechanic as its central focus?  This not only gives developers a way to expand the existing gameplay and solve certain issues, it also effectively camouflages it from players underneath a veneer of new visuals, sound and "real" content.

As far as examples of this go, there are plenty to find.  Dungeons of Dredmor's "Realm of the Diggle Gods" effectively adds more and better, with both new mechanics (teleporters, new character classes and skills, new crafting) as well as new aesthetically-focused content (new monsters, new items, new dungeon levels, etc.).  Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City added features like gang wars, base jumping and more into the existing package, along with a new narrative, characters, vehicles, weapons and more. Fallout 3's "Broken Steel" added new perks, enemies, weapons, increased its level cap, and integrated many of its new features with the existing gameplay as well.

Unfortunately, this can also sometimes lead to a disconnect between the base game and the DLC.  In adding these sorts of features to a stand-alone product rather than the original, not only is the player base segregated (for instance, finding Call of Duty games might be difficult or impossible for players who don't download a map pack), but it also means that in order to get the new features, players will have to play the DLC on its own.  This works well for games that are reasonably short and DLC buyers can be expected to have finished it already, but what of a game like Reckoning, where most players never will finish in the first place?  In these cases, reconciling the mechanical upgrades and balance changes with the full game may be impossible to do elegantly.

Closing Thoughts

Generally, I think DLC should stick to the rule of providing players with new experiences that improve upon what they already enjoy.  Many developers have already got the hang of this, but at the same time there are lots of opportunities for adding onto games that don't simply take the form of map pack or character skin.  Would players pay for a whole new element to be added to Magicka, complete with the thousands of possible new spells that would entail?  What about a new weapon type in Skyrim, like spears or crossbows?  These sorts of improvements are more than possible, but solving the value equation is difficult.

The solution that seems to ring truest for me is to produce larger DLC packs that include a variety of things, rather than individual bite-sized pieces of content.  In this way, game creators can build upon their existing ideas and take mechanics to their highest points, while at the same time players can be left feeling like they have a genuinely new game to play. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

From Ashes and the On-Disc Dilemma

To what degree do customers have ownership over a game's content?  This is the fundamental question that has made its way to the surface after the recent controversy surrounding the day-one downloadable content, "From Ashes", present in EA and BioWare's Mass Effect 3.  Featuring a Prothean squadmate and a separate in-game mission, players who don't buy the Collector's Edition will have to pay $10 to experience what many consider is a fundamental part of the game universe, and one that some players posit was intended for the final product from the start, and later removed.

Although day-one DLC discussion is definitely not a new thing, and not even to BioWare's own games (it goes as far back as Dragon Age: Origins), the anger surrounding Mass Effect 3's is made more significant by the context and content of the DLC.  In this article, I'll be taking a look at both sides of the discussion - and while I feel consensus on the matter is impossible (and, perhaps, futile), I think it's an important issue that draws attention to some very important questions about public relations and player authorship.

Who Owns My Story?

At the center of the controversy is this question - who owns my story?  Mass Effect, from the first game forward, made its mark by giving players a cinematic, film-like experience regardless of the decisions made in the story.  Although offering less choice and consequence than many other games, Mass Effect made up for it in style, by featuring characters and a world which reacted to the player's tone and methods.  Choice is at the core of Mass Effect, both in its marketing and in its game mechanics, right down to its multiple character classes, weapon types, and its morality system that defines many of the game's interactions and outcomes.

Rightly so, players feel that they should be in control of the game's story - if not its overall direction, then the tone it takes and the individual details.  Questions of whether the ends justify the means are common, and this moral grey makes Mass Effect both interesting and personal to players.  "Did I save the colonists of a planet, or kill them knowing that their sacrifice could enable the success of a larger cause?"or "Is revenge or atonement the more important virtue?" are the sorts of problems that make Mass Effect leave its mark on players, and vice versa.

Mass Effect encourages authorship of players over game experience to a degree not seen in most modern games.
Bringing DLC into this equation raises all sorts of additional questions about ownership, and creates more problems on a technical side for designers as well.  Players expect the DLC of a Mass Effect game to be narratively charged, and important to the main quest, but for ease of development, these story excerpts have to be self-contained at the same time.  This has worked to reasonable degrees of success - Mass Effect 2's "Lair of the Shadow Broker" add-on continued the story past the second game in a believable way, but Mass Effect's "Pinnacle Station" met a cold reception as it was effectively a set of arena fights without any meaningful place in the story (or much story on its own for that matter).  Reconciling the discrepancy this introduces can be difficult, because players have a different game experience and may have different degrees of understanding about the game universe - not only does this mean more exposition is needed, but in the case of consequences to decisions, it also means additional work is necessary to create follow-ups that make sense for players who have played the DLC and those who haven't.  In other words, it's a mess.

Mass Effect 3's "From Ashes" DLC is different, though.  It's tied more into the game's story than any prior DLC, and players who miss out on it don't just feel like they're missing out on some gameplay, they feel like they're losing a key piece of the narrative integral to understanding the situation.  Given that the new Prothean companion is a character whose very presence is a huge deal to the game's story and universe, many fans perceived this DLC as damaging not just in terms of value, but in terms of their personal stories being told as well.  This is the fundamental disconnect that EA have with their fans, and the major source of the conflict - whereas EA see it as simply another commodity to be bought and sold, fans interpret "From Ashes" as a sucker-punch because of the dozens of hours of gameplay and emotions they have invested with the Mass Effect franchise.

Truth & Lies

This actually isn't the biggest problem with "From Ashes", however.  Although day-one DLC is something many players object to, it's a reality in the gaming world for major releases, and after both Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2 featured it, players certainly can't be surprised at it being offered in Mass Effect 3.  Where the real issue comes in is in EA's and BioWare's handling of the situation, which I suspect has not only hurt Mass Effect's brand image as a whole, it's also turned some players away from BioWare games entirely.

The first signs of controversy came when the Mass Effect 3 demo's files were found to contain dialogue and other assets related to, what fans correctly surmised was, a Prothean squadmate.  Further confirmation came in the form of leaked pictures from the official art book shipping with the Collector's Edition of the game.  Shortly after news of a "From Dust" DLC pack on Xbox LIVE came out, the "From Ashes" DLC was announced.  Fans very quickly put the pieces together and determined that the Prothean companion had been intended for the full game from the start, and had been later removed both as incentive for the higher-priced Collector's Edition and to be added as DLC.

BioWare's response was swift and to the point - first, producer Michael Gamble posted on BioWare's forums that the DLC was "developed by a separate team (after the core game was finished) and not completed until well after the main game went into certification", and afterwards, creative director Casey Hudson tweeted about how the "From Ashes" DLC went into development after the core game experience.  At least for now, it seemed clear - the DLC was not on-disc and it was not part of the core Mass Effect 3 experience, nor was it even in production during the same time period, although the statements carefully avoid saying whether the content was DLC from the beginning.

Whether or not it was originally intended as DLC, the marketing was kicked into effect well before the game's launch.
However, shortly after the game's release, fans went looking through the game's files, without the DLC having been installed, and discovered that, through a simple INI tweak, the Prothean squadmate could be unlocked for use in the game, complete with portions of dialogue and his full power set.  While this tweak did not open up the possibility of using the character in plot-oriented situations, nor did it station him aboard the player's ship like the rest of the game's characters, it did show that at least some of the core game assets related to the DLC were included on-disc.  Fans who did download "From Ashes" also realized that the Prothean character was far more integrated into the story, cutscenes and dialogue sequences than they expected, especially next to the downloadable Mass Effect 2 characters from a couple of years back.  In short, not only was this compelling evidence that the DLC was at least in part on-disc, it also caught EA and BioWare in what many perceived as a bold-faced lie.

EA and BioWare were forced to amend their original statements in light of this.  An official statement was made explaining that, in order to "seamlessly integrate Javik into the core campaign, certain framework elements and character models needed to be put on disc."  The statement also reinforced that the DLC was a sizeable download in itself and that much of the content, from the DLC's exclusive mission to dialogue and cutscenes, were not part of the game files.  To what extent this "framework" and other assets were, or whether content was designed as DLC or stripped out of the core experience, remains unclear, but it's fair to say that "From Ashes" is not "on-disc DLC" in the traditional sense - otherwise a simple unlock code, a few bytes in size, would be enough to unlock it.

What this revealed, and what did most of the damage with fans, was that BioWare were not completely up-front about "From Ashes" from the start.  Due to the vagueness of the original statements, as well as the incriminating evidence produced by fans in the form of the INI tweak, BioWare's amended statement unintentionally revealed that their first words on the matter had been inaccurate, and, in the eyes of fans, that was enough to make BioWare look deceptive.  For players whose relationship with BioWare and Mass Effect has been years long, however, the message is a tough one to hear, as realistic as it is - that BioWare care more about making money than they do about ensuring players receive their complete game and story experience.

The On-Disc Dilemma

This isn't the first time that players have been up in arms about day-one DLC.  BioShock 2's "Sinclair Solutions" DLC pack came under fire two years ago after it was discovered by fans that the DLC itself was only 24 KB - effectively proving that the game content was included on the disc all along, and other games, from Soulcalibur IV to Burnout Paradise have also been criticized.  The reasons for this often come down to multiplayer compatibility, but either way the message sent to fans is that what you see is not always what you get.

On-disc DLC is actually quite defensible from a developer's standpoint.  Since game content is produced in a haphazard manner, with game assets coming online at unpredictable stages of development, and, much like with traditional art, often no clear line when something is actually "done", directly pointing at a piece of content and saying it should be part of the core experience or not is not so cut-and-dried a question as "is it on the disc?"  Much like in the "From Ashes" case, maybe the ideas existed in advance but were taken out for one reason or another, or perhaps there just wasn't enough time to finish up some of the content - game discs are often stuffed full of cut content, so where do you draw the line?
BioWare did not help their situation by insisting accessing on-disc content via INI tweaks was equivalent to piracy.
The fans' perspective is certainly a different one.  Development is largely viewed as being a straight line, start to finish, and intentional from the beginning.  Once the game is on shelves, there is an expectation that the product be a complete vision of what the developers intended, even though in reality that is almost never the case.  The different phases of game development are often invisible to the gaming public, due in part to a lack of transparency in public relations, and as such there is the perception that game content is fixed and absolute.  This is reinforced by the physical nature of the medium dating back to cartridge days, where what you saw was literally what you got.

There is really no good way to reconcile the realities of development with the expectations of fans.  There are always going to be a few players who have very high expectations for game content that simply can't be met, and these players are going to feel betrayed no matter what a developer does - especially if they're looking for reasons to be angry (which also likely factors into some of the outrage around Mass Effect 3's DLC).  However, coupled with other public relations gaffes by EA and BioWare, including the personal attacks towards Jennifer Hepler, censorship of their online forums, and The Old Republic's mysterious vanishing unsubscribe button, the handling of the "From Ashes" controversy was also far from ideal.  BioWare may not be in the wrong with including on-disc DLC, but it's clear that their treatment of various controversies has not come across as especially honest or in the interests of their fans.

Closing Thoughts

I'm not about to pass judgement on BioWare or on any individuals involved in the events - this isn't a problem where blame can be easily placed on a single person or group.  The reality is that it is a sign of trends within the games industry that have been developing for the last several years, and in many ways have come to a head now that such a high-profile release has been brought into the spotlight.  I think both sides have a good point, but it's also indicative of the dissonance between the authorship players have over their experiences and the business of making and selling games.  EA, I hope will discover through these discussions, that they simply can't market a game like Mass Effect the same way they market Battlefield 3.

I think a more productive question to address isn't whether or not players own content that is on-disc, but rather whether developers should exploit the emotional attachment and sense of authorship players have over their game experiences in order to produce DLC.  The "From Ashes" pack is better-integrated with the story than any prior BioWare DLC, but in doing so they also alienate fans by making the content feel necessary rather than optional.  Unintentionally or not, this also suggests that the emotional value of a game experience hinges on the amount of money players are willing to spend.  As a company whose business is getting players emotionally invested in their stories, characters and worlds, BioWare will need to seriously re-assess the messages they're sending to fans through the content they're producing, and how they offer it.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Mass Effect 3 and Ludonarrative Dissonance

Like many gamers, I've been spending my free hours going through Mass Effect 3 for the last several days.  As the epic conclusion to one of this gaming generation's most recognizable original franchises, the game has some big expectations to live up to.  It's always hard to cap a trilogy with something that does justice to the setup, and BioWare have certainly given it a good try.  The first two Mass Effect titles, while nowhere near as interactive as some, managed to create a good illusion of choice for players, with reasonable consequences to actions and a personalized feeling to the experience.  Unfortunately, though, I find myself unable to become fully invested in the conclusion of the story.

In this article, I'll take a look at the disconnect between narrative themes and gameplay in Mass Effect 3, which ends up resulting in an experience that feels less like a struggle for survival and more like "just another Mass Effect game".  For plot analysis, well, I'll leave that to smudboy.  Please note that some spoilers follow.

The Galactic Errand-Boy

The first two Mass Effects were, for BioWare standards, very forward-moving and purpose-driven games.  Each of them had a clear goal - in the case of the original, it was "find information on the Reapers and stop Saren", while in the second it was "assemble a team to take out the Collectors."  The third in the series, on its surface, presents "defeat the Reapers and stop the invasion of Earth" as its goal, but beyond the initial opening sequence, featuring a futuristic Earth in flames and deaths by the millions, things begin to fall apart as the plot becomes derailed and caught up in its own minutia.

Granted, portraying a full-scale galactic war is a near-impossible task, so BioWare took the smart route and decided to focus more on small-scale special operations, diplomacy, and the tactical decisions that are often far more important than direct conflict.  The game opens with Shepard and company coming across an ancient superweapon capable of defeating the Reapers, the story's villains, and it's established that this will be the key to winning the war.  However, once this is revealed, the plot shifts from focusing on the superweapon to the BioWare mainstay - performing random tasks for various characters and organizations.

Now, I have no problem with side-quests or with Shepard being asked to participate in tasks other than those directly related to the main goal.  However, these actually make up the vast majority of Mass Effect 3 and almost none of them relate to that goal set up in the game's opening.  What starts out as a simple rescue mission on the way to a larger objective turns into a lengthy chain of events that lead to a cross-species diplomatic summit and the forging of an alliance.  Although these are all appropriate to the wartime setting, it's never really made clear why Shepard is the one going about doing this - why not politicians and diplomats?  What are the Citadel Council, the galaxy's rulers, doing during all of this?  Why is Shepard, whose mission is vital to the survival of the entire galaxy, being asked to solve completely unrelated problems?  This is like if Mario suddenly decided he'd go rescue Luigi from Wario's castle - important, maybe, and fun, but it doesn't really further the main goal of rescuing Princess Peach.

For a galaxy in chaos, players will spend a surprising amount of time on the clean, pristine Citadel performing fetch-quests and taking in the local attractions.
I understand why this likely happened.  BioWare set themselves up a huge universe and there are a lot of really interesting plot threads in Mass Effect.  Integrating these into the main storyline in a seamless fashion would be very difficult, and making sure players would see the conclusions to long-running arcs was a priority, even while saving the galaxy - relegating these to side-quests and optional content wouldn't have really done justice to the two games' worth of setup.  However, it also leads to a story that doesn't feel so much like an epic struggle so much as it does a bunch of loose ends being wrapped up, while the "real" plot takes a backsteat.  Mass Effect 2 suffered a similar problem to a greater degree, with its companion recruitment taking priority over the main objective, and it's unfortunate to see BioWare are still struggling to integrate all their disparate plot threads in a cohesive manner.

What's more, Mass Effect 3 puts heavy emphasis on concluding many of the romances and personal relationships of the previous games.  BioWare have made it clear they place very high importance on players being able to emotionally connect with their characters, and that's well and good, but in the case of Mass Effect 3 it's also hard to ignore that many of these interactions, romantic or otherwise, make up a very large portion of the game's writing and its choice and consequence (including the save import feature).  Not only does this draw attention away from the wartime themes, it's also very expensive from a development perspective - considering there are bigger consequences to decisions made regarding romance than main plot events, it seems like more attention was paid to these than to the core narrative itself.  I'm not too interested in this sort of thing, and I'd rather have another couple of plot-critical missions than a bunch of sex scenes.

A similar problem also rears its head in some of the main plot events.  While I don't want to go too deep into spoiler territory, suffice to say that there are several main characters who can die over the course of the game.  However, the actual mechanisms governing these can at times seem arbitrary and do not make use of the existing gameplay to an effective degree.  Instead of fighting off enemies to save the life of a companion, for instance, you may choose a vague dialogue option which, depending on other variables appended to your save file, may or may not result in a dramatic end.  No matter how sad your piano score is, it's easy to feel cheated or shocked at the arbitrary nature at some of these events, especially when they occur in cutscenes - I wouldn't feel nearly as bad about such a situation if it really was overwhelming, but the classic issue of gameplay and story segregation constantly rears its ugly head.

War Without War

Mass Effect 3 is all about war.  The massive marketing campaigns and pre-release hype surrounding the game have made loud and clear that the galaxy is no longer safe, and that the conflict with the Reapers will get bloodier before it gets better.  In some ways, Mass Effect 3 succeeds in demonstrating the horror and brutality of war in manifold ways, both on the front lines and away from them.  In others, though, it's a let-down, primarily because it isn't able to manifest this theme in any way beyond presentation.

Where the first two games in the series took place on a small scale and thus could focus on a small cast of characters performing a select number of events, Mass Effect 3 sticks to the same formula and leaves gameplay feeling completely disconnected from the events of warfare that drive the story.  The warfare that drives the narrative is often pushed into the background, and the corridor-shooting action can seem insignificant in the larger picture.  The game's token effort to portraying a galaxy-wide fight for survival, the "Theater of War" map, is little more than an indicator of which ending the player will receive, which itself boils down to completing all the game's side-quests rather than smart use of war assets.

Despite dozens of potential War Assets, all they do is fill up that bar on the bottom of the screen.  What could have been a strategic meta-mechanic has been relegated to a progress meter towards the "best" ending.
It becomes obvious very early in that Mass Effect 3 could have benefited immensely from some sort of strategy element. As a game about galactic conflict, tying the core missions into a meta-game of resource management, supply lines, and other wartime concerns could have made the conflict seem real and immediate.  Instead of hopping from one mission to the next, the player could have had to make hard decisions about whether to save or sacrifice certain worlds as the wave of Reaper forces made its way across the galaxy.  These sorts of choices could have filtered into the standard missions, too - do I allocate valuable espionage agents to this sector, gaining extra intel for an upcoming mission, or do I requisition troops for additional fire support?

Mass Effect has never quite made effective use of its galaxy map; its side-quests have always seemed a bit arbitrary and the exploration of the galaxy has never been particularly adventurous or fulfilling.  Repurposing the map to display battlezones, and to slowly show the extent of the Reaper invasion increasing over the course of the game, could finally give a degree of purpose to all that space.  An entire galaxy under threat by a world-ending force, and the best way to realize that mechanically is through a mini-game where players have to fly the ship to safety every once in a while?  Frankly, I expected more.

Now, it's a fair point that Mass Effect is a game primarily about character interaction and third-person shooting.  I am not proposing that Mass Effect 3 become a strategy game or completely deviate from the established model.  However, I am a firm proponent of using game mechanics to tell stories, and taking advantage of this could have proven far more effective than all the cutscenes and dialogue trees in the world.

Closing Thoughts

When all's said and done, Mass Effect 3 is a fairly effective conclusion to its franchise.  It doesn't forget about major plot elements, it features all of the series' most memorable characters, and it probably does about the best it can trying to reconcile the sheer hundreds of decisions carried over from the previous two games.  Nobody has ever quite attempted a save-importing feature with such a drastic or persistent effect on the story before, and for what it's worth, BioWare deserves a ton of credit for even attempting such a crazy thing.

At the same time, where Mass Effect 3 steps up its production values, general quality of gameplay, and provides an effective conclusion, it isn't able to capitalize on its own thematic weight.  As a game from a developer that prides itself on pushing the boundaries of game narrative forward, Mass Effect 3 is surprisingly conventional, and unfortunately, that's also its undoing.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What is Your Game About?

For such a derivative medium, the gaming world has a lot of distinctive brands and properites.  Glancing over a lot of newer releases and big-name franchises, it's very easy to identify the unique qualities of all of them.  Alan Wake is about a writer dealing with his own inner demons made real.  Borderlands is about fighting monsters on an alien world while feeding the random loot demon.  Call of Duty is about intense action and high-grade military gun porn.  Fable is about exploring a large, reactive world and watching your hero grow and develop.  SSX is about impossibly steep mountains and even more impossible snowboard tricks.

Almost every single gaming franchise of any note can be easily described in a few short words, as far as brand and aesthetic go, and this is how games are marketed, why players become attached to them, and what generally separates successes from failures - if your game isn't memorable and distinct, it doesn't matter how good it is mechanically.  Competition is just too steep to not stand out, and there are so many games crowding the marketplace that being able to communicate to players exactly what a game's strengths are in a manner of seconds is often more important than all the work put into the game itself.

However, while questions about image, aesthetic and so on are integral to the success of a game, we rarely take the time to address what a game is about mechanically and structurally.  Distinctiveness is something we express in terms of looks, not in terms of the fundamentals that actually drive the gameplay experience in the first place.  Even among experienced and successful developers, much of this comes down to "feel" rather than any particular critical understanding.  In this article I'd like to take the time to draw attention to a few aspects of games that we don't always think about, but have a bigger say in defining our experiences than all the branding in the world.

Success and Failure States

One rule that has yet to be seriously rewritten in the mainstream games industry, beyond more than a few experiments, is what the terms of success and failure are.  Almost any single game can be summed up as: overcome obstacles for rewards.  If we fail, we try again, and if we succeed, we typically move on to the next challenge or complete the game.  This definiton of what constitutes a game is so fundamental to our understanding of the medium that key ideas tied into success and failure - game over, respawning, cinematics, inventory, character progression - are all expected in just about every game; despite this, we rarely stop to think about why they are there, or why they take the forms they do.  It's possible to create great games without even knowing why a multiplayer mode should revolve around attaining the greatest number of frags, or why an RPG should feature disposable loot - we just take these as givens.  More generally, our reliance on success and failure states is so great that even when we talk about games that deviate from the norms, we tend to think of them as non-games.

Unfortunately, this mentality can be backed up by players as much as by developers, and experiments with failure states are often met with anger or confusion.  Ubisoft's Prince of Persia (2008) attempted to reinvent both the aesthetic and gameplay of the series by effectively removing the consequence from death - though players would always have to overcome specific challenges to proceed, failing would not result in lost progress.  This was enough to set off a torrent of complaints from many gamers, especially the more traditional fans of the series - even though Prince of Persia, since its revival with The Sands of Time years before, had featured this exact same consequence-free gameplay, albeit with a limit imposed.  Tale of Tales' The Path also experimented rather boldly with the idea of failure and success states by providing different endings for different play-styles, without sticking to obvious good and bad outcomes - the result was a game that was praised for its innovation, but many players simply did not "get."

Because it was familiar, Ubisoft's Prince of Persia series went back to convention with The Forgotten Sands regardless of whether it improved gameplay.
Interestingly, in the multiplayer space, failure and success states play by very different rules, and deviation from the norm is common.  Minecraft is an obvious example with no clear success or failure (or even strict rules save for the laws of physics and crafting system that govern the game world), but this is appealing primarily because players enjoy the game more as a social experience than as a traditional game.  However, Minecraft is not as different at second glance as it initially appears - MMO games have shown for years that players are often less interested in direct competition and winning as they are with simply occupying a space with others.  Different players get different things out of different games, of course, but Minecraft scratches a very particular itch without feeling the need to tie itself to more traditional structure.  In this sense it is not so much innovative for what it does so much as what it doesn't do - fetter itself with unnecessary baggage.  In this light, its success is easier to comprehend.

Considering exactly how a game will be "won" or "lost", or whether such terms will have any meaning at all, is something fundamental to design that we almost never think to question.  Even death is so much a synonym that violence can often work its way into games where it may be wholly inappropriate, such as titles aimed at children.  Many game concepts are never even considered because of this - how many titles do we see that seriously build themselves around social interaction, exploration for exploration's sake, or freeform building and creation?  If designers (and publishers) want to distinguish their games, looking to and toying with the very basics of what constitutes "game over" opens many doors.

Input & Interface

There are hundreds of different factors about a game that can be fine-tuned when it comes to input, controls and game feel - from more general things like button layout and user interface, to camera distance and field of view, to smaller details like the threshold of action required to move a character at different speeds, or consistency of certain control functions (should B always cancel, or does the Back button make more sense sometimes?).

It may seem obvious, but creating games that work with the strengths of their interfaces can mean fighting downhill rather than uphill.
Understanding how these methods of input affect gameplay is crucial to actually building it in the first place, especially in the broad strokes of interface.  Though I don't go into each and every one, below are some of the most common forms we see, as well as their implications on gameplay:
  1.  First-person perspective.  Conventions for controls tend to vary based on standards set by the biggest shooter (for a long time inverted controls were standard due to the legacy of flight simulators), but these games almost always rely upon striking some sort of balance between positioning and facing - in the case of a shooter, it might be aiming a gun while dodging bullets, while in a role-playing game, interacting with objects may take on the same function.  Despite the cosmetic differences, the method of action is effectively identical.  Sometimes, the limited field of view can be used to interesting effect, as well.
  2. Third-person perspective (3D/over the shoulder).  Generally third-person games place more emphasis on navigating an environment.  Due to the fact that the player's spatial and situational awareness are no longer hampered by what is immediately visible by the avatar, instead the challenge relies less in identifying and pointing at targets, and more on piloting the avatar - complex dodges, rolls, jumps and so on are almost always impossible to pull off effectively in first-person games, but work just fine when the player can see how their avatar moves.
  3. Side-scroller.  Whereas third-person games usually rely on dodging obstacles through positioning, side-scrollers tend to be much more about mastery of controls and understanding whole game worlds.  The limited (usually 2D) perspective means that challenge is not about navigating on a micro-level (do I dodge forward or forward-left?), but rather about performing complex sequences of input that form larger chains of action (jump from platform X to Y, duck, shoot, duck, jump down, etc. - see Contra for a classic example).  In some cases, the focus also turns to navigation of an overworld environment and sub-levels, especially common in the Metroid and Zelda games.
  4. Isometric/point and click.  These types of games are only common on devices with pointer-style controls or touchscreens, and with good reason - in almost all cases the challenge comes down to speed and precision of the pointer device, coordination of complex input combinations (as in the case of strategy games like StarCraft) or managing large tasks that would be impossible in any other interface (such as ordering groups of soldiers around a map) - whereas most games put the emphasis on the player's ability to manipulate an avatar held by certain constraints, isometric games usually emphasize the player's own dexterity.  Necessarily, games played from this perspective are generally larger-scale, although of course there are exceptions.
Granted, there are always exceptions, and there is also a lot of overlap - some strategy games are not so different from side-scrollers, for instance, in that much of the difficulty comes in managing difficult chains of input (correct timing, sequence, etc.), and a racing game is not unlike a 3D platform game in that the goal is to avoid obstacles (cars or, say, rolling boulders) while piloting an avatar.  However, paying particular attention to the effect perspective and input mechanism have on potential for gameplay can help emphasize strengths while minimizing weaknesses in design.  Games like Mirror's Edge or Fallout: New Vegas demonstrate that unless your level design and gameplay accommodate input and perspective, you're going to run into problems (overly difficult navigation, in their case), while Super Metroid is successful precisely because it so expertly builds itself around the inherent strengths of its interface, and Portal because its portals literally open new perspectives for the player.

Gameplay Systems & Structure
 
There are generally two approaches to game design on a broad level - go for a very tight, well-balanced, focused mechanic and stick to it, making sure to master the essentials and create a pure gameplay experience, or try to manage the interactions between multiple systems (mini-games in themselves) and make sure that the balance between all of these is able to make up for the general deficiency in the individual mechanics.  One isn't necessarily better than the other, although smaller games may be suited to the former approach to avoid feature creep and bloat; defining and managing the systems that make up a game is crucial to understanding how or why something works, or doesn't.

Both the games on older consoles (Atari, NES/SNES, Master System/Genesis, etc.) and the newer mobile games (iPhone/Android) tend to fall into the former category, with games whose designs effectively polish a single idea to a mirror finish, adding only what's needed to keep the experience fresh for its intended duration.  Cut the Rope might be absurdly simple mechanically, for instance, but the challenges it presents and variable scoring system repurpose those mechanics in new contexts to keep things interesting.  Meanwhile, Sonic the Hedgehog puts heavy focus on replayability and speed-running, featuring levels that reward fast completion and facilitate it for players who are skilled enough.  Neither of these games are especially "deep", but they are able to leave lasting impressions precisely because their core mechanics are so polished.

Castlevania 2 may be one of the best examples of a game trying to strap on too many mechanics to a relatively simple design, and buckling under its own weight.
Conversely, many games opt for sheer size and the interaction of many mechanics to produce their fun.  Although applicable to the largest games, like The Elder Scrolls series, many smaller-scale games also rely upon this interplay.  Consider how Call of Duty requires players manage health, ammo capacity, risk/reward in terms of movement and exposure, reload time, and even killstreak reward use in order to force constant movement, repositioning, and ensures things are always tense.  We might think of it as a "mindless shooter" at times, but the truth of the matter is there is a lot going on that we never even stop to think about.  Some of the most successful mechanics in Call of Duty, such as the aforementioned killstreak rewards, work so well precisely because they tie into the continual risk/reward systems at play, whether that's in accumulating them (through either consistent or risky play), or in using them (pick the wrong time and the reward is wasted).

Most games are going to sit somewhere in the middle.  The reality of game creation is that while on paper it's easy to specify and articulate many aspects of gameplay, actually turning it into something fun requires months of tweaking, and with modern production values being what they are, developers rarely have the resources to perfect their mechanics.  The interplay between mechanics is very often enough to make up the difference, however, so much so that players are willing to forgive a lot of balance problems or shallow mechanics if the interactions are interesting and addictive enough.  A bloated or anemic game will give players pause far more than one with balance issues or endgame pacing concerns.

Closing Thoughts

We too easily attribute the success of games to the aesthetics that surround them - and this is often very tempting to do, because as fans of games we tend to see what fans see, and even experienced designers can sometimes fixate on the surface elements.  Granted, game design is as much about creating interesting mechanics and understanding the impact of control scheme on challenge construction, as it is about being able to unite narrative and art style, or create the perfect rise in tension through a game level by using subtle audio cues, but just as knowledge of music theory is important to composition, being able to understand exactly how and why a particular element of a game influences how it plays can allow for the crafting of more compelling experiences.

More broadly, I also hope that, as gamers and game creators develop critically and intellectually, and the vocabulary for understanding games grows, the answers we give to the question "what is your game about?" will change.  This might sound a bit game design 101, but even so it can be easy to get caught up in the minutia and miss out on the fundamentals driving a game.  Ideas are all well and good, but in focusing too much on genre and on image, we restrict the articulation and precision of our expression, as well as dampen our understanding of what constitutes a game in the first place.