Procrastination, ECAI and Ludum Dare #24

This week I will be busy preparing for a presentation I’m giving at the “European Conference for Artificial Intelligence” (ECAI) on the 28th. I will thus be in silent-mode until the 24th… when the Ludum Dare kicks off. This is going to be a hectic week!

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If it’s broken, don’t fix it

Hi all. Again, because of my course-work it’s hard to justify working on “Bugger!” at the moment. That said I’ve taken a few baby steps: work has begun on special effects, another important entity that needs to fit into the hierarchy somewhere (they’re visible and updateable but not collideable). I’ve also added (blob) shadows and a nice big cross-hair, but nothing impressive enough to make a video about. I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, here’s a nice little Game Design rant for your delight and delectation!

If it’s broken, don’t fix it

Batman is broken!

Once upon a time…

“I tried out the Batman demo for a while at a local game store, and their fighting system is totally broken. If you keep pressing the ‘counter’ button with one hand and read a book with the other, you will win all of the fights without getting hit.”

Okay, let’s back up a minute. The game in question is “Batman: Arkham Asylum”, and this discussion took place some time before its release. Now that it’s been on the shelves and in the press for some times, I think we can all agree that it’s probably, at very least, the first comic-book-super-hero-based-game not to be shit since “Spiderman 2″ was released in 2004. This is worthy of merit in itself, and quite surprising. But the game was more than just surprisingly un-shit. Aside from the usual console-port issues (poor optimisation and keyboard controls) it trounced all educated expectations one might have had of it, which is more than can be said for a lot of carpet-marketed commercial releases. Whatever you might think of it the fact remains that it impressed critics and gamers alike. It was, all told, a surprisingly good game.

But I’m not here to write a review, especially not of a commercial release. The thing I wanted to talk about is the fact that, despite Arkham Asylum being a surprisingly good game, the combat is indeed “totally broken”. Oh yes, it’s possible to “cheat” your way through almost every fight in the game simply spamming the ‘counter’ button. And then there’s the ‘dodge‘ and ‘stun‘ moves that effectively render you invulnerable. The question is: how can these combat mechanics have garnered so much praise despite their clear flaws?

Lugaru is broken too!

Okay, I’ll stop teasing. The above quote is actually from David Rosen, the child-prodigy behind “Black-Shades and “Lugaru”. Lugaru‘s design stinks of teenaged rebellion (it was made during High-School lunch-breaks), giving fighting-game conventions the finger (most notably button-combinations and -mashing) instead opting for a set of interesting and very challenging mechanics that have earned it a cult following (as you’ve probably guessed, I’m a part of it). But while a lot of typical cheap-tricks were prevented, there are still of few ways to beat the system. For instance, Jumping up and down next to cliff will cause the enemy to leap off and kill themselves, while spamming the attack button while armed or fighting armed opponents will make the character to block and dodge anything that would otherwise hit them. And, of course, there are other tactics of varying “cheapness” that are often used to beat the game’s most difficult levels.

That said, the discovery of these techniques has done nothing to shake the game’s cult status. How can this possibly be!?

“Exploits” and “Emergent gameplay”

I could keep giving examples until the cows come home (dear cows, please come home, we miss you). The enemies in “Elder Scrolls: Oblivion” can easily be dispatched by climbing onto a rock and shooting them full of arrows. “The Butcher” in “Diablo” can be (and most often was) trapped in a staircase and likewise killed with ranged weapons. Some levels in “Quake” are trivial to complete if you know how to “rocket-jump“. Etcetera, etcetera.

What I’m trying to get at here is that practically any game, no matter how well-made, will probably have a few flaws (most often AI flaws) that the player can take advantage of. Such flaws are generally referred to as “Exploits”. Now, before anyone pipes up about it, I know Quake is a bit of a special case, since the exploit in question led to what is called “Emergeant Gameplay”. But Emergeant Gameplay probably deserves its own post, so we’ll talk about that in detail some other time: for now let’s focus on the exploits that are simply exploits and nothing else.

I said “onus” – not “anus”!

Let’s get to the point. Your game has a few flaws your players can take advantage of: what of it? Some players will take great pride in finding these exploits, and will enjoy feeling that they’ve somehow beaten the system: great! A small and minority will get very annoyed about them: who cares. But the rest will probably play by the rules, whether they find the exploits or not: why? To find out, let’s take a closer look at our two main examples:

In Lugaru, there are probably two reasons why people generally don’t use cheap tricks too often. The first and most obvious is that spamming a button isn’t much fun, and hurts after a while. But the second is that it seems somehow “dishonourable”, doesn’t make you feel like a badass, and all told it’s simply not very much fun.

The same is true of Arkham Asylum, but there’s something else at work too. See, in Lugaru you either win or you die: there’s no middle ground. Meanwhile Batman shifts the onus from simply surviving a confrontation to doing so while maintaining an uninterrupted flow for a long as possible. Needless to say, the exploits mentioned above instantly break the flow.

The advantages of shifting the onus from winning to winning-with-style are many and varied. Most obviously, you can make simply winning a lot easier, without making the game feel “too easy”. More skilful players are welcome to (and most often will) impose additional challenges on themselves, especially if rewarded for doing so. I’m not a fan of achievements in general, but adding a system of rankings like the one in “Hitman 2″ (“Silent Assassin”) is a very good idea. You are rewarded for perfection but you’re also at liberty to just do things the easy way, and either way you get to play the next level:

All told making your game easier, without “lowering the bar” per se, is good if you want more people to be able to play it, and unless you’re catering exclusively to your own super-hardcore tastes, this is generally a good thing (personally I’d rather make something I can show to non-gamer friends without making them cry, although now that I’ve -finally- gotten into Dwarf Fortress I’m quite a big fan). Not forcing the player to restart so often (or at all) is also good for avoiding the frustrations of “hostage content”.

Nota Bene: less forced restarts does not necessarily mean the game is easier! In “Abe’s Oddysee” you’re not forced to retry whenever a Mudoken gets killed, but hardcore players will want to because they’re not just playing to finish the game: they’re aiming for perfection. And perfection in that game is exceedingly difficult! This is also a good example of how “broken” gameplay fosters replayability: the Oddworld games are more or less designed to be played twice, if not thrice: the first time simply to escape, the second to rescue enough Mudokons to get the “good” ending, and a third time to rescue them all and get the “perfect” ending (though of course tricking the player like that can’t be good karma).


It is impossible to lose in “Murder Man”, yet thus far I’ve had no complaints about how “broken” it is. This should raise eyebrows in itself: the idea of making the player restart when they “fail” is, like the now vic-to-vanished system of limited “lives”, inherited from the arcades. And, if not to the same degree as “lives”, it is fairly obsolete nowadays, when you think about it. When not just let the player play? Why force them to retry again and again until they’re good enough. Why fix what is broken?

In case this is the first you’ve heard of Lugaru, here’s something funny to check out, and in case you don’t like mysterious links: David’s left-hand man is shaving his beard for charity.

Except that by “charity” I mean Youtube subscribers :-P

Good games for Linux: part 4 – Puzzle and Arcade games

The Netherlands made it to the FIFA finals but didn’t win – sorry Patrick :-(

I still don’t have a stable set-up, but I’ll keep up the posting whenever I can. Things will probably have settled down by September. Emphasis on the “probably”.

Oh yes, I also did another guest post for the Wolfire team – check it out if you haven’t already!

Puzzle games

Here is the final episode in this little series about good games for Linux. I’ve gone through my favourite free and FOSS Linux games, but there are many more out that, commercial or not yet released. You can find the other parts of the series by following these links:

  1. Real-time strategy games
  2. Turn-based strategy games
  3. Action games
  4. Puzzle and arcade games

Okay, so, arcade and puzzle games to finish us off!

Deadly Rooms of Death: Architects’ Edition

“DROD: Architect’ Edition” is an FOSS port for the wonder that is DROD. On the surface, the game looks like a dungeon crawl, but don’t be fooled: at heart it’s a puzzle game!

The protagonist has to keep his sword between himself and whatever monsters he happens to encounter. There are a ridiculous number of levels and enemies to outsmart in different ways, so plenty to keep you amused. The later games introduce a somewhat unnecessary plot, but thanks some brilliantly dry and sarcastic humour it makes them well worth taking a look too (they’re not free of course).


This game looks a lot like Tetris at first glance, but there’s actually a whole lot more to “FreeAlchemist”:

The aim of the game is to line to connect 3 identical ingredients either horizontally or vertically. The three will then be replaced by a single new ingredient of greater value. This give the game a real sense of progression despite it being essentially a little time waster. But it’s fun, addictive, and takes mere moments to load, so it’s exactly the sort of game to play when your code is compiling.

Frozen Bubble

Another game to play while your code is compiling is “Frozen Bubble”, because everyone loves cute penguins (especially Tux):

The clone is based on a clone of a clone of a clone. I’m not entirely sure what the original game was, you might as well argue about who invented the concept of tower defence. The important question is whether or not it’s fun, and the answer is yes. This game is also very pretty to look at, and the music doesn’t get annoying for a good little while…


Here’s another clone. You’re probably thinking: Linux nerds only seem to make inferior copies of games that already exist. Okay so there are a lot of those, but there’s more to it than that: some of the copies are really quite good. “Pingus” certainly stands up reasonably well by itself: it looks fairly decent and the levels are interesting:

It’s worth taking a look anyway :-)

Good games for Linux: part 2 – Turn-based Strategy

Why is it that I should install Windows games? There are plenty of good cross-platform games out there, you just haven’t heard of them! Time to remedy this…

Linux games work a little differently from most: they’re generally open-source, meaning that they’re the work of many, many hands, slowly developed over the years. Most importantly, they’re the games those people making them want to play, not the games a publisher thinks will sell: they’re free-ware after all, there’s no money involved, so it’s all about the game itself. Most of these games should run on Windows and Macintosh too.

Turn-based Strategy (TBS)


“Hedgewars”, like “Wormux”, is a “FOSS” (free and open source software) Worms clone, but unlike Wormux, which is simply a very respectable clone, Hedgewars not only rivals but often surpasses the original series at its height. What I’m trying to say is: it has all the polish of a commercial product, only it’s free ;-) What’s more, the project is still being actively developed by the community, with new weapons and other cools stuff added quite frequently – whether you use Linux, Mac or Windows, I highly recommend it. Check out their awesome trailer here.

Battle for Wesnoth

“Battle for Wesnoth” can only be described as “huge”: with 6 factions, 15 official campaigns and hundreds of units, it’ll keep you amused for a long time. Again, the degree of polish is incredible – the game looks and sounds beautiful. The mechanics are also very simple, making it easy to pick up, and yet come together in such a way that the game stays interesting as you get better, and ramp up the difficulty. Speaking as someone who struggles to get through “beginner” campaigns, I can tell you that’s it’s certainly difficult to master. Here is a trailer.

UFO: Alien Invasion

I never played any of the “X-Com” games, so I can’t tell you how faithfully “UFO: Alien Invasion” keeps to its roots. Yes, UFO is an XCom clone, but then it’s also so much more than that. Again, the game is huge, and again, the polish is incredible. The gameplay reminds me of “Chaos Gate” for the tactical battles, with elements of over-world strategy as in “Total War”, while the economy reminds me of “Evil Genius”. Then again, that’s probably like saying that “HAL” reminds me of “GLaDOS”. Here‘s a trailer.


Before I talk about “Toribash” I must warn you: it is dangerously addictive! Now, I want you to imagine a fighting game where, instead of randomly mashing buttons and watching your character being dominated by some guy with a good memory for combinations, you design your moves on the fly, by manipulating the movement of your character’s limbs directly. How is this possible you ask? Simply because the game is turn-based. And I classify it as turn-based strategy because the game does often play-out like a games of checkers: each player countering the other’s attacks.

Of all the game I’ve talked about today, “Toribash” is the only one that can be said to be truly original. The idea behind it is really inspired, and the execution is as glorious as it is gory, comical and generally just great fun. Since every match is automatically recorded, I guarantee you’ll spend hour working out exactly which muscles to contract to pull off the perfect kick, and when you’ve done with that you can try out all the modifiers: everything from samurai swords to pogo sticks is included. Say goodbye to your life :-)

Playing effectively against another player online is very hard though – I’d recommend getting a lot of practice against the dummy before you try to play against a human, as you’ll be given a very limited amount of time to take your turn!

Edit: Just a minor pet hate when it comes to Toribash: the game doesn’t let you reconfigure the controls, which is rather inconvenient if you’re using an AZERTY or DVORAK keyboard. You’ll need to find some sort of keyboard emulation software to play.

That’s all for now, but they’ll be more to come over the coming weeks :-)

Learning, modding, languages and teamwork

I haven’t been so regular lately, because of exams (a belated round of vivas), a visit from family, tax declarations and various other things to sort out as I prepare to leave the country.

I’ve also recently been offered some free webspace by “”, so a special thanks to Patrick Ruitenberg. I’m likely going to migrate the blog over there when I’ve had some time to sit down and learn a how to install and run a WordPress server.

I’ve always made games, just not on computer: when I was young I used to make them using coloured pencils, but somehow it never occurred to me that I should try to do some actual programming. Then I was making maps for “Starcraft” and “Warcraft 3″ (Blizzard have always provided great mod tools), none of which were very much good and none of which I have any more: I kept them for a while by I ended up deleting them because I didn’t have the actual games any more.

That’s trouble with modding: if you want to show somebody else your work then they need to own the game too. This restricts your audience greatly. You’re also very restrained, because no matter how good the mod tools are they were made to make the original game, not yours. And of course if you lose your licence details your work may be forever locked away in a game file you can’t access.

I used “Gamemaker” for a number of years: it really is a great tool, and unlike the mod tools I used before, it creates an executable at the end that can be run by anyone who uses Windows. This means that unlike “Unity” or Flash, Java or Python (“Pygame”), the user doesn’t need any software installed to play your game, because it’s compiled, rather interpreted (or compiled and interpreted like Java). This makes it a lot easier to share. The trouble is of course that it only runs on Windows, and as I’ve explained in great length, I’m not a huge fan.

In addition, this ease-of-use comes at a price, and that price is efficiency: when I started building rigid-body, particle and constraint-based physics systems I ran up against a number of problems related to the way the program worked on a very base level. So Gamemaker is brilliant for doing little mock-ups really quickly, but you’re not going to be able to build something like “World of Goo” or “Braid” unless you start from scratch.

Last time I talked about the “Spring” RTS engine: I actually worked with it for some time, and had a lot of fun learning to make 3D models using “Wings 3D” and how to texture them in “GIMP”. I also messed around with “Lua” a bit, in order to script animations. By the time an exam period came round to take the wind out of my sails, I had a couple of units working in the game, which was very satisfying.

But even though Spring is open-source and cross-platform, there’s still a sense that it was made specifically for “Total Annihilation”: for example, the fact that animations have to be scripted limits their complexity, and it’s not possible to deform meshes in any way, which is fine for tanks and robots but a serious problem if you’re trying to make something organic (remember how strangely units moved in “Total Annihilation: Kingdoms”?). Okay, so technically I could go in and rewrite the engine myself, but if I’m going to do that, why not try doing it myself?

Also, although I learnt a lot about 3D modelling and texturing, most of what I had to learn was how that specific game engine had been designed, something that’s not really much use for anything else.

The reason this is a bad thing is that I consider myself to be very much in a learning period: I’m not good enough at programming, 2D animation or 3D modelling to make any of my wild ideas come to life, so everything that I work on needs to teach me something new. Hence the little games in C with SDL”. First a Sokoban clone to learn the basic of drawing sprites on a screen with a simple graphics library, dealing with input, loading and saving. Then there was a Snake clone to practice regulating frame-rates and drawing text on the screen (a short while ago updated the graphics and released it). The results are not nearly as important as the lessons learnt.

Recently I’ve been working using C++/OpenGL with Striker, of “” fame. Striker built the basic engine architecture and I’ve been doing the higher logic code (we haven’t actually done any work for a while, because of my exams and family visits and his new job).

Working with somebody else has taught me an important lesson: that although it’s nice to do everything yourself and from scratch, and occasionally frustrating to work within someone else’s framework, it is simply impossible to do be everywhere at once, and making a reasonable game from the ground up is not feasible for one person. Unless, of course, that person’s name is “David Rosen”.

Alas, for us mortals, stubbornness can only get one so far. If anyone else has insight to share with regard to getting into game development, teamwork, modding and choice of languages, please speak up!

Good games for Linux: part 1 – RTS

It’s a commonly held belief that there are no games available for Linux. After all, go to any game store and I guarantee you’ll find only one or two with an Apple on the box, let alone a Penguin. To most commercial developers “cross-platform” means Xbox360, PS3 and Windows, so Linux games are unheard of, right?

All this is true: Linux games are unheard of.

But that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.

As it happens there are a good number of truly Cross-Platform games out there, you just need to know where to look. Yes, that’s right: you’ll have to actually look for them, not because they aren’t good enough games to get press, but because they have no marketing budget: the games featured on sites like “Gamespot” and “IGN” are generally those who can pay for the privilege, not those who necessarily deserve it.

Below is a list of what I, personally, consider to be the best free games for Linux at the time of writing. I’m limiting myself to free games because I really want to talk about the home-grown. Most of these will work on Windows and Mac too, and since they’re free you can also go and check them out immediately. This is not to say that commercial developers avoid these platforms though: for example, ID software is very good about porting their games, and the current Humble Indie Bundle features five six independent games that will run on Windows, Linux and Mac (the deal has been extended till tomorrow to celebrate the games releasing their source-code).

Anyway, let’s get cracking – good games for Linux, coming right up! The list is far too long to cover in any depth in one post, so I’m going to go through this genre by genre, starting with my favourite…

Real-time Strategy (RTS)

Globulation 2

I wanted to start with “Globulation 2″ because it’s a game so obscure that even Linux gaming sites rarely feature it, despite it being, well, a really good game. This RTS was made in reaction to games like Starcraft, where memorising build-orders and clicking really quickly are more important than actual strategic thinking:

In other words, Globulation 2 hates micro-management, replacing it with AI and a very intuitive control interface, and in so doing frees the player to think about how they’ll overcome their opponent. Another feature I really like is the way the maps wrap around, meaning that nobody can hide in the corners.

Spring Engine

“Spring”, as the title suggests, isn’t a game so much as an engine. Originally built as a way of playing “Total Annihilation” in full 3D, it has evolved over the years into an Open-source “Supreme Commander” clone, and framework for all kinds of different games/mods (they’re never quite sure what to call themselves). Most of these are TA-based, as it is assumed that the game is abandon-ware, and so using the resources is kosher – in theory.

There are some exceptions though, and these are, in my book, a lot more fun to play than the rule: this community has existed for a very long time, and the TA-based mods feature hundreds of units, making them very tricky to get the hang of. My personal favourites would be the computer-themed spam-fest “Kernel Panic”, the futuristic cyber-daemon-themed “The Cursed” and the epic-scale Company-Of-Heroes-like “Spring 1942″.

“Supreme Commander 2″ has gone the way of “Command and Conquer”: dumbed down for consoles with experience bars and achievements, so Chris Taylor’s plans to put the “strategy” back into “real-time strategy” seem to have been abandoned. This makes Spring the last bastion of the “old-school”, TA-style RTS. I heartily recommend it!


“Glest” is a fantasy Warcaft-like that really deserves mention because of its professional quality, despite the fact that it is, well, a bit of a click-fest (or maybe I just suck). Either way the game is really very good-looking, with two distinct sides, interesting and well-animated units and challenging AI:

I’d also mention “0 AD”, but then that’s not out yet so doesn’t count. Anyway, those few should keep you going for the time being. Till next time at any rate… guest post and “Pitivi”

Exams are next week, so I’m going to do Wednesday’s post today, while I still have some time ;)

I’ve written another ridiculously long blog-post for the chaps over at Wolfire games. My hope is that if I write enough, someone will start paying me to shut up. Anyway, if you haven’t already seen it, here is the link. Oh, and for the record, that post was written before my revision period: I wouldn’t dream of writing about video games when I’m supposed to be revising.

However, one needs to take a break occasionally: I’ve been fiddling around with Pitivi, the Linux video-editing tool, using the command that Linus Sjögren was kind enough to show me (ffmpeg with x11grab) to capture the video. Course, the exact command doesn’t work any more, now that I’m on Ubuntu 9.10, so I fiddled around with it until I got:

ffmpeg -f x11grab -r 30 -s 1280×800 -i :0.0 /home/william/Desktop/out.ogv

Welcome to the wonderful world of Linux by the way. Trouble with my improvised command is that it encodes in real time, which chews up my tiny processor (especially seeing as I’m emulating Windows to run Gamemaker) and causes massive amounts of lag, making my games look very un-optimised. Still, I’m pleased to finally be able to present my first piece of gameplay footage ever!

edit: the game in question is “Murder Man”, now almost ready for release. For more information, check out the game’s page in the showcase section.

Embedding doesn’t seem to work – oh dear. Anyway, Pitivi is a great little tool and having tried a couple of video-editing programs for Linux, I’d definitely recommend it. It’s apparently included in Ubuntu 10 (“Lucid Lynx”), but I don’t think I’m going to upgrade for a while: I know there’ll be bugs, especially on my rig (French laptop anyone?).

I’d like to be able to record higher quality video with less lag: anybody skilled in the use of ffmpeg, x11grab and generally making videos on Linux, please send me your suggestions! And anybody willing to pay me to be quite, please send me all your money!

Why “Heavy Rain” is not the future of Game Design

Generally when I press ‘publish’ I assume my post will actually be published. Sorry this is a day late – should have double-checked that it actually went through :-S

“Non-linear” is one of those buzzwords Game Designers like to throw around all the time. Others include “Parkour” and “Dynamic”. This post emerged from a very fruitful discussion with the kind folks over at the Wolfire forums.

What does it all mean?

Before I start swinging, it’d probably a good idea for me to give a few definitions (even if they’re wrong) so that we’re all on the same page (even if it’s the wrong page).

A “linear” work is one whose content is experienced in a specific order and its entirety. Literature is a good example of this: generally it’s assumed that you’ll read every word on a page before turning to the next one. We often refer to Literature as a”narrative” medium, because it tells a story.

Meanwhile a “non-linear” experience doesn’t impose any order at all on its audience. Take Painting for example: the artist might guide your eyes a certain way, but you’re free to take in as many or as few of the details as you please and in any order. Because of this freedom to explore content we call Painting a medium for “exposition”.

I’m taking extreme examples here: as with all things in life there’s no sharp line dividing “linear” from “non-linear”, and often you’ll find works that combine elements of both. Comic-books and detective-novels for example.

Where does that leave Games?

Games are actually a “non-linear” medium by default: in Chess there’s no pre-defined chronology, and the player may not even use all the pieces. They won’t come close to experiencing all that game has to offer until they’ve played it a great many times. But if Games as a medium are a naturally non-linear, why do “non-linear games” get so much attention from the press?

Well, let us imagine a game almost identical to Chess, which is played at first with only pawns but then, after a few wins, knights are added. Then bishops, and so on. As you can see the experience of playing this new game has a distinct order to it. This is what has happened to our games over the years: they have had linear elements added to them, and as such are no longer truly non-linear.

Why has this happened? Well, there are a few reasons. The first is that beginning with a simple solution space and building upwards helps ease new players into the game. I discussed this technique in a previous post (Freedom, Challenge and Progression). Then we have designers trying to insert linear narratives into their games for whatever reason. One of the biggest reasons though is that deferring access to content is a great way of keeping players hooked: many times I’ve kept playing a game long after it stopped being fun, just so I could get the satisfaction of having completed it. These last two points were discussed in more detail previously (Games, Narrative and “Hostage Content”).

Multi-Linearity: a dangerous dead-end

So this generation of games are mostly linear, and designers want to return them to their non-linear roots, right? Wrong. When a designers says “non-linear” they really mean “multi-linear”, like a choose-your-own-adventure book. All the big “non-linear” titles such as “Heavy Rain” and “Mass Effect 2″ use a finite number of decision nodes to shape the progression of the game. The illusion of freedom may be very convincing, but as explained previous (Decisions and Interactivity) there’s no real future for this way of doing things, because scripting the consequence of ever possible decision means an exponential rise in the amount of content required.

Hang on, “there’s no real future” for games like Heavy Rain? Yes, you heard correctly: it’s a brilliantly executed dead-end: the most dangerous kind of dead-end. What, then, is the alternative?

Games as Exposition

Believe it or not, I think Valve has the right idea. Their games (the singleplayer ones at least) tend to be perfectly linear, and yet the company seems to have realised something that other game developers have yet to grasp: that games are far more effective when it comes to exposition than narrative.

The opening of “Half Life 2″ presents you with a fascist state, complete with enforcers who’ll push you away, beat you, bully you and humiliate you. It may only be 5 minutes at the start of an otherwise text-book FPS, but it shows that you can create a scene and make a powerful statement without so much of the predefined “what will happen where when” that a linear narrative requires.

“Left 4 Dead” takes this a step further, by eliminating scripted dialogue almost completely: we learn everything there is to know about the world and its characters by exploring: by looking and listening. Like a painting the game never force-feeds its audience content, but rather leaves it lying around for curious players to find.

I think this concept needs to be taken further: start thinking of games as painting a picture, only this picture is one the player can interact with and leave their own mark on. Game Designers shouldn’t be thinking about what will happen in their games, but rather what could happen: I predict the future of Game Design will be one of designing AI parameters, not directly scripting decisions and consequences.

So for your own good, don’t look to games like Heavy Rain for inspiration.

I should probably point out that I haven’t played Heavy Rain, though I have read enough to understand how it works. If anyone reading this has played the game, please feel free to share your thoughts, and even if you haven’t – more opions are always useful!

Decisions and Interactivity

Miss me? Didn’t think so. Here’s the last in this little 3 part series – slight name change but the same generally thrust ;-)

It might seem, to anyone who’s watched Daniel Floyd’s “Video Games and Choice, that when I’m talking about “Freedom” and “Challenge” I’m just re-branding “Choices” and “Problems” so I can plead ignorance when I’m accused of plagiarism. In truth, while I am taking inspiration from Floyd (or rather James Portnow), I don’t agree with everything he says. Some of the points I’ve brought up are more in reaction to his views than in agreement with them, and it is for this reason that I’ve used slightly different terms.


This week I’d like to explain my choice of wording, in other words the differences between “Freedom” and “Choices” (which are, in essence, the same are those between “Challenge” and “Problems”).

Discrete or continuous?

That’s “discrete” meaning intermittent, as opposed to “continuous”. A choice is discrete because it is always associated with a given point in time, whereas freedom is, more generally, the ability to make choices at any time. The trouble with punctuality is that a game is a continuous experience, so adding intermittent choices can create ruptures in the flow. Most games that promise choices jerk the player out of the experience make them: they are mostly relegated to dialogue screens, which divorce the choice from gameplay as well as breaking the suspension of disbelief.

I don’t think we should be seeing games as a series of “decisions”, because making a decision implies stopping, weighing up all available options and picking one. Freedom, on the either hand, never makes the player choose from a list of options, instead allowing them to think of their own solution.

Surrendering ownership of the experience” is an expression that’s thrown around a lot these days, but this can only really happen when the player is able to come up with a solution that you, as the designer, haven’t even thought of. And the only way this can happen is if your game is based around continuous simulation rather than intermittent scripting. Seeing Game Design as “designing decisions” is dangerous, because it goes against this idea of fostering creativity in the player, instead taking them very much in hand. Giving the player ownership of the experience means “designing interactivity”.

Choices are “what”

Portnow defines choices as decisions that “allow the player to choose their goal”. This makes me think of “The Witcher”, which often has you choosing sides, in order to pursue one agenda or another. Thing is, these decisions have no impact whatsoever on how you play the actual game, firstly because they practically take place outside of it (in the aforementioned dialogue screens) and secondly because no matter who or what you’re killing the gameplay is exactly the same. Don’t get me wrong, I think The Witcher is a very good game, and one of the few fantasy titles that’s dark enough that I can play it without retching. The trouble is for all its interesting characters and choices every interaction is scripted, and this way of doing things is dead-end for obvious reasons (attempting to raise the number of possible interactions will increase the amount of content required exponentially).


Mass Effect” is another game that uses scripting rather than simulation: these games are great today, but tomorrow’s Game Designers must, unfortunately, look elsewhere for inspiration, especially if they are independent and simply can’t make that amount of content.

There was some freedom in The Witcher and Mass Effect, as with many RPGs, but it isn’t what you might think: choosing your attributes and equipment is about as far as it goes, and this too is divorced from the main game (which, let’s be honest, often involves clicking on people till they die).

“Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic” and “Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines” are two other RPGs which, aside from having obnoxiously long titles, offer the player slightly more freedom. You can, for example, sneak past enemies you might otherwise have fought, or hack or pick locks to access areas that might otherwise have been out of reach. There are two problems with these games though: first, success in the aforementioned strategies depends almost entirely on character statistics, so you effectively choose your play-style in advance (more restrictive than liberating). Second, the obligatory boss-fights can be next-to-impossible if you’ve chosen to put all your money on stealth and subterfuge. I had a similar problem in “Oblivion” and “Fallout 3”

Again, these are games that I really like, but none of them really offers the player true freedom: just a varying number of distinct choices, and the trouble with hand-crafted choices is that they take a lot of work to implement if your game uses scripting rather than simulation.

Freedom is “how”

Choices are about choosing what your goal is, freedom is about choosing how you accomplish this goal. For example, “Civilisation” and Solium Infernum tell you to conquer the world (or Hell in the latter case) but give you a near infinite number of ways of doing so. Games like “Thief” and “Hitman” allow the player to approach their objective however they please.


It’s important to keep this distinction in mind when you’re designing the game. Why? Well, in the future (assuming, of course, that the world doesn’t end) it will be increasingly important to move away from scripting, motion-capture and conventional narrative, and towards simulation, procedural-content and exposition, simply because of the workload required to do all these things by hand.

To do this though it will first be important to move away from the conventional mindset, that games are made up of a series of decisions that the player must make, and toward a new way of looking at our medium. Games give designers the ability to present a universe for their audience to interact with, and in this sense they are more like paintings than films. I maintain though that, unlike many so-called “art” games, this exposition needn’t be obnoxious, boring or devoid of feedback or direction. Quick the opposite in fact (seeWhy Games should be Fun”).

In other mediums “by a man’s work you shall know him” but in games it is by your work that others can know themselves and each other.

Well, that’s the end of this three-part design-rant – what did you think of the post, and of the series as a whole? Have you had similar problem with the games mentioned?

Games, narrative and “hostage content”

This is part II in a small series of extra snippets following on from a post I wrote for the Wolfire blog. Be sure to check out the original post, as well as last week’s part I.

Last week I talked about progression: the amount of freedom and the amount of challenge both need to vary over the course of the game to prevent the player from being bored or confused. The start of the game should provide little freedom or challenge, to allow the player to get used to the mechanics, but for most of the game you’ll want to open up and let the player choose their strategy, while gradually increasing the difficulty.

Games, narrative & “hostage content”:

At this juncture I’d like to point out an important distinction between progression and narrative. Progression can simply mean an algorithm that spawns more and more enemies based on how long you survive, or maybe something a little more complicated like the “AI director” in Left 4 Dead. Narrative is slightly different – it’s less about creating an experience and more about telling a story. In my original post I spoke out against games as a narrative medium simply because other mediums do narration better, that games should concentrate on their (exclusive) interactivity instead. There’s more to it than that though.

The thing is, interactivity isn’t just a boon, it can be a burden too – especially if you’re trying to tell a story. This is because, in any story worth telling and whatever its manifestation, failure is a possibility. And if the player has an influence on the protagonist, then this means there’s a chance they’ll fail when in the story they’re supposed to succeed, or succeed when in the story they’re supposed to fail. What happens then? Most games will make the player restart and try again, over and over again until they get it “right” (I am watching Heavy Rain with some curiosity). The result – hostage content:


“Hostage content” is anything you’re not able to experience until you’ve overcome a given obstacle: this is the equivalent of a film director handing out questionnaires half-way through a screening, and evicting anyone who hasn’t been paying attention. It’s entirely possible to do this by accident, but many games actually hold content hostage on purpose as a way of retaining their audience’s attention. When it comes to the “Dark Side of Game Design“, hostage content is second only to creating the illusion of accomplishment in my opinion. Both trick the audience into suffering gameplay that simply isn’t fun: like a bad film that promises you pancakes if you sit through it until the end.

So, the player is forced to restart and try again whenever they fail a challenge. A good story is more than just a series of challenges however: the characters need to be faced with difficult choices too. Most games side-step this issue by removing control from the player whenever the characters are deciding what to do next. The result of this is often little more than a CGI movie interspersed with mini-games. Often such games are quite are quite popular – take for example Metal Gear Solid 4 – and hell, I’ve said it many times: I loved Final Fantasy 7. But putting nostalgia aside I really can’t condone any game that isn’t actually fun, and which gets by based on the merits of its narrative. If the story is the only thing keeping your audience playing, maybe you should be making movies.

Narrative and interactivity are at odds. Luckily narrative is not the only way of conveying meaning: it is time we looked into alternate ways of getting a message across.

Next time we’ll be looking at the subtle differences between “Choice” and “Freedom”. What are your views on games as a narrative medium? What do you think of the tendency to keep content hostage?