7/16/2014

Monster Hunter Freedom Unite - Controls design analysis

Hey guys and gals! Taking a break from the games for education topics, I wanted to perform an in-depth analysis of the control scheme of the Monster Hunter game I recently purchased and tried to get into. I haven't played any other MH games, I took on this one to feed my curiosity - everyone around kept telling me how good this franchise was, not many of them actually played it though.

For those of you who don't know, Monster Hunter games came out on a variety of platforms: PS2, PSP, PS Vita, Wii, Wii U, Xbox 360, 3DS, iOS and PC. I will be analyzing the Freedom Unite for PSP. 


The game is stunningly deep and immensely satisfying. It took me several hours to get past the tutorial, a few next hours to get at least some decent skill to finish my first mission, but when I finally did slay that monster, wow. That's what I call satisfying. Then I get to upgrade my gears with the spoils from the hunted creature and it gives me a visible boost. Brilliant. Deep crafting and combining mechanics and this feeling of really going for a difficult hunt, preparing yourself, studying your target's habits... Even killing bosses in Dark Souls isn't this satisfying.

However, the game has one big flaw, and if you ask anyone who played MH, he/she will tell you the same: "the camera is a bitch". No matter if who you ask is a seasoned MH veteran who loves every bit of the game or a noob that gets killed by everything there - the camera is a bitch for all of them and the number one reason for people ragequitting. There are some guys that try to argue that the camera is an element adding to the game's difficulty and that's by design. 

Terrible camera as a difficulty element? Don't make me laugh. Camera can be used for showing off nice things (Final Fantasy XIII) or adding to the mystery (Resident Evil), but treating it as a factor of a difficulty setting is just straightforward bad design that frustrates the player and does nothing else. In a game as deep as Monster Hunter, if the designers wanted to make it more difficult, they would play around with dozens of other parameters that were a lot less frustrating. And I honestly don't think that was the reason for having the camera act the way it does.

But the camera problem in MH is actually a part of something way bigger. It's the controls. And the way they work on PSP is just some big misunderstanding. After an hour in the game or so I was able to design a much more user-friendly controls layout for the game. What is the control problem in MH all about?

Monster Hunter Freedom Unite controls.
Take a close look at the controls and see if you can see what problems these controls bring. Done? Okay, let me list mine:
1) There is 4 buttons responsible for the camera (the whole D-pad) + L button that resets the camera to the direction our character is facing. With PSP having a limited number of buttons, wasting so many on the camera control is unforgivable.
2) The camera controls (D-pad) and the movement (Analog Stick) are all supposed to be controlled by the left thumb, which means you either look around or run, never both at the same time. 
3) Having the select button for the kick action pretty much guarantees nobody will use it. 
4) To select an item from a list you need to hold the L button then browse through the list using Square and Circle (why these?!) and release the L button when you are done, then press Square to use the item.
5) There are controls dedicated specifically to ranged weapon classes only, useless with well over a half of the weapons.

Look how easy it would be to fix:
- assign camera control to L and R to make it possible to look around while running
- assign the camera zoom to select, as most of the time you just set a zoom level once per quest and you don't have to reach to that button too often.
This already makes us use 3 buttons instead of 5 for the camera movements. The two extra ones can be now assigned to something useful. For example we could assign "left" and "right" on the D-Pad to the item selection without the need to hold L button while doing the selection. This way the player player wouldn't use an item using Square when what he wanted was to select a different item with L+Square.

The only problem it would spawn would be the dash button, but that could easily be assigned to the Circle button. It could then retain its cancel selection function and the examine + climb ledges functions could be taken over by the X button as these are only contextual controls. The game already differentiates between weapon drawn and weapon sheathed states, so there wouldn't be a situation where you want to dash and instead start climbing or picking flowers. 

This all lets us:
- select the items more easily
- move, run and look around simultaneously
- retain all functionalities of the previous control scheme
And we are still left with the "up" and "down" D-pad buttons to use for whatever the designers want to put there, like selecting the bottles and ammo for gunners or whatever.


Would it make the game easier? No. Less frustrating? Yes. Would they loose their fanbase if they introduced a new control scheme? No, the fanbase complains about the camera controls as much as anyone else. I am quite sure many of the designers that actually worked on Monster Hunter could have come up with a similar solution, probably even a better one. Why didn't they implement it then? Now what I will do here is just a wild guess, but lets me show you how a game studio works. What could have happened was:

1) The control scheme could have just been put there as a first draft and then the whole team got used to it and didn't see anyting unnatural about it for a few years and a few games (happens more often than you might think).
2) There might have been a lead designer with enough power to be able to push towards a control scheme that felt good to him and not let anyone change it.
3) The producers could have simply forgot to plan the task of revising the controls or assumed that the controls from the previous games are good enough since the games sold and established a fanbase. 
4) The producers could have cut the controls tweaking out of the schedule when the delivery date was approaching way too soon.

Whatever was the real reason, the end result is a great game with tons of depth and a control scheme that looks like it's been designed by some three-handed mutant design intern having a feud with logic. I really hope that other platforms got much better controls than PSP. 

7/13/2014

Get paid thanks to games: A game blogger / vlogger

Today we're continuing with the second part of the last part of... Uhh, that got complicated, didn't it? So, this is the second part of the "Get paid thanks to games" series. "Get paid thanks to games" are actually the third and last part of bigger series, which is "Stop wasting your time with games". Now that this confusion is just a tad less confusing than before, let's proceed to the actual topic. Last time I've written a bit about pro gamers, and today it's time for...

Game bloggers / vloggers 

This is a career with an extremely low entry barrier. Practically everyone can do it and frankly, I would encourage everyone with sufficient skill to try it. YouTube channels are free. Blog hosting is free. Your only investment is your time. Here's some tips how to avoid most common mistakes:

Generate your own content. I cannot stress it enough. If you want to deliver game news, don't copy news from other sites, seek, rewrite and compile them with your own style. If you want to review games, give your opinion, not repeat after others. Original content is a beautiful thing. Uncredited copy-pasting is just stealing someone else's work and it should be punished with cutting off the thief’s hand.


Almost as important as the previous one. Seriously, don't start writing if you don't know how. Don't go making videos when all you do is mumble to yourself. Nobody will be able to read that. Nobody will be able to watch that. Spare everyone the time. Be a valuable voice in the discussion. If you have nothing to say, just don't write, don't make videos. The world will be better off without it. You will have more time to do something more productive. Win-win.


Decide who your audience is. Decide what you want to deliver. Do you want to be the number 1 source of knowledge about one specific game? Do you want to review racing games? Do you just want to play a bunch of games and talk about them? Whichever you decide on, it's best to stick to it until it succeeds or fails.

Know, how to sell yourself. Bloggers and vloggers are rarely successful without serious marketing skills. Network, share your link, comment on others, link others. Be visible in the community. Support it and make it fuller.


Also, mostly for vloggers - please look decent. Heal your acne before showing your face. Wear a clean t-shirt. Clean the part of your room that's going to be visible. You don't have to be pretty or handsome, you don't have to wear stylish clothes and horn-rimmed glasses. You don't need to shave and don't need to grow a beard. You don't need a ton of makeup. It might be a good idea to find a cool look for yourself, as people seem to respond to that, but above all, just look clean. And open your mouth while trying to speak and know what you want to say instead of umming and erming.

Success is easily measured - if your blog or channel gets enough followers, you can start trying to get in some revenue from the ads. If it is enough to put food on your table, congrats - you have succeeded. The most successful vloggers are currently earning serious cash and can set trends as successfully as the leading gaming sites. They no longer do simple videos. They're employing people to deliver well-developed entertainment. It's enough to check out the Angry Joe's website to see what I mean. Lately, my studio invited the most popular game vlogger in my country to show him the game. He came with his team of 9 more people to check it out.

If, however, you weren't able to gather enough audience, your work wasn't necessarily all in vain. If it shows you can easily and fluently pass on your opinions that aren't a complete bullshit, your blog or vlog can easily be your portfolio for some other game-related project or job, like a journalist or a junior developer. For example, the blog of yours truly has a relatively low audience, but thanks to the content, I've already been asked to publish my articles in several places around the web. 


Sometimes opportunities can present themselves quite unexpectedly. The most popular Dark Souls streamer – EpicNameBro - was asked to help prepare the Dark Souls 2 strategy guide and test DS2 way before beta tests were open. In the age where gaming communities are growing in power, being an active and outstanding member of your favourite game's community can lead to working with the developers. And then, beta testing and community management can open you even more doors.

What do you need to become a decent blogger / vlogger?
- an idea for your own, original content;
- a lot of insight into whichever piece of the field you want to dig into;
- patience, as you'll be doing a lot for free for an extended amount of time;
- great writing and language skills;
- great presentation skills (mostly for vloggers, but doesn’t hurt in a blog as well);
- ability to network, if you want your online baby to reach a wide audience.

7/04/2014

Get paid thanks to games: A Pro Gamer

I grew up in a relatively small town in Poland, in the 80's and 90's (they were pretty much like 70's and 80's in the US). Games were just something that we played and some companies in the far away USA and Japan were making. Sure, there was maybe one or two games developed in Poland, but it was still in a city far, far away. Careers I could think of were either being a writer with no guarantee of any real income or a lawyer, an economist or some other suit to be able to support my family.

It took me a while to realize that hundreds of hours I have spent on games can literally pay off. The passion for gaming, the titles I could reference, the conclusion I was able to draw from what I've seen in games landed me a job in the industry and are now paying my bills.


With this short introduction I welcome you to the third and the final part of my "stop wasting your time with games" games for education rant. In previous parts I've described how games can enrich our lives and teach us skills useful in real life. This time, I am going to get to the ultimate argument how games can be the very opposite of a waste of time - how they can turn into a career. Unlike in the first two parts, now I will be harsh. Skills can be learned pretty easily and widely applied to many situations. Career connected with games is far from a piece of cake though. Let's get started with...

Since a career in the gaming industry is an extremely broad topic, part three of the "stop wasting your time with games" gets to become 4 separate articles. Today it'll be about pro gaming. Next articles will touch game blogging and vlogging, game journalism and finally a broad description of game development career. Without further ado...

A professional gamer
Who doesn't dream about getting paid for just playing games? Lately, I have even seen news materials about "kids who earn lots of money for playing in tournaments". They vaguely mentioned the hard work required, they never really showed the scale of competition, they focused on hundreds of thousands of dollars these gamers earn. So... How do you become a pro gamer?

Above everything else, you have to find a game you are extremely good at. By extremely, I mean beating all your friends 100 to 0 in five minutes while blindfolded and hanging upside down. If anyone you know in real life can give you any kind of challenge, you are not good enough. You have to compete with the whole world. Struggling on the level of your neighborhood is just not gonna cut it.


What's more, the game of your choice needs to have a league. And games with worthwhile leagues are the biggest, most popular multiplayer titles: Starcraft 2, League of Legends, Counter Strike, FIFA, DOTA 2. Farmville, WoW and Minecraft might be the most popular games on the globe, but no matter how great you are, you won’t go pro there.

Pro gamers spend at least 8 to 10 hours a day on one and the same game over and over for... well, years. Top players are already adults. They started early, played since they can remember, but... they did finish schools. Being a pro gamer doesn't mean flushing your education down the toilet. It's a job like any other - sometimes monotonous and frustrating. It's important to invest in hardware as well. Good gaming PC with a gaming mouse and keyboard fit for professionals is needed. Obviously, good, communicative knowledge of English is a must as well. You also have to control your language and actions. No good team will invite a raging hater that risks being banned in every single match.


Pro gaming is a career in which your only kind of promotion is to get higher in rankings. That's pretty much the only ladder you are going to climb. Luckily, with e-sport becoming more and more popular, there are many options for the pro gamers that know when to quit. There are pro gamers like Fatal1ty, who design or at least promote lines of gaming hardware. There are pro gamers who get hired by gaming companies as representatives. Still, you have to be aware that the game you are so good at sooner or later will die. Some other game will take its place. Some other game you might be good at, but never good enough to go pro again.

While preparing for this job you have to focus on one specific game (or - only sometimes - on one type of a game). Research it, get in deep. Really deep. There will most probably be no time for any other games. Once you find a game you might go pro with, you will miss a lot of other titles over the course of a few years. If you get high enough in the leagues, if you manage to win some tournaments (not regional ones - we're talking nationals), make more friends than enemies, you might eventually get invited to go pro. Once you agree, you will start getting paid for exactly the same thing you've been doing for the past years. Playing the same game over and over for many hours every day.

And lastly, when choosing this path you have to always remember it's like playing in a band. Most of them bands never get out of their garage, very little become a one-hit wonders and pretty much one in a million really sells albums and tickets.


Summing up, you will need:
- an early start - trying to go pro when you're 40 and have never used a computer might be tricky;
- extreme talent and knowledge in a game you want to go pro in;
- tons of determination and time spent on the the game;
- great communication skills and (if you are a foreigner) good knowledge of English language;
- decent gaming hardware to start with before you get better stuff from sponsors;
- lots of tolerance and support from your family and friends, be it parents or life partners, as rarely anyone will take your career choice seriously.

6/06/2014

"Stop wasting your time with games" - part 2

Back with the topic of what games can give the player other than just entertainment. Previous part was about how games can enrich our lives with new experiences. Today, I will be touching the topic of skills acquired in the games.

It was back in the summer of 1998 when I think I have heard this sentence the most - "stop wasting your time with games". I have "wasted" over 80 hours of my life playing Final Fantasy VII. But you know what happened next? After a month of school, my parents got asked by my English teacher "Did he attend some intensive course over the summer?". And then it dawned on them. No, all their kid did was "waste time" over a video game. A video game that gave me way more vocabulary in 80 hours that I have learned at school over a few years.

Teaching a language is an obvious perk if you're not a native speaker, but there are tons of other skills that can be learnt through games. These skills will be the main topic this time. Not all of these skills are so obvious and not every game teaches them. Also, to really benefit from them, once again, while playing - you have to pay attention.


Here's a bunch of skills you can quite commonly learn in games:

Communication 
Learning a language is actually the tip of the iceberg. Single player games teach us, through predetermined responses from the NPC's, how various people might react to different situations and our dialogue choices, but it's multiplayer games where communication really can be learnt. From coordinating attacks with the rest of your squad, through bowing before a duel in Dark Souls to simple chirping in Journey - all of this increases our communication skills.


Problem solving
Games have a unique way of putting us in abstract situations, giving us complex tasks and the tools to solve them. Even kids that don't consider themselves bright are able to find solutions to these problems. That's extremely valuable for personal development. Lets a person know that given some pieces of the puzzle, they can attempt to solve it. Every type of a game can teach problem solving - from extremely robust strategies to the simplest shooters. Where there's data, objective and obstacles, there's always a harder or easier problem to solve.






Cooperation
Strongly connected to communication. What you can achieve alone in most games is far from what you can do with a group. Many online games push you very strongly towards cooperation, making many tasks simply impossible to do when playing alone. Cooperation lurks in everything from setting up a balanced squad through battle tactics, to loot distribution. In many cases, when you can't be a team player, nobody will want to team up with you. Learning to cooperate is pretty much forced onto players in the online environment.


Competition
Where there's a game, there's a competition. Many games show leaderboards and statistics, many encourage to post and compare them online. Even before the internet age video games thrived on competition. Who will get farther? Who will get there faster? Who will get somewhere on first try? Who will beat the game without dying? Possibilities are endless and if you take a look at the challenges people themselves force upon them, you would be amazed what amount of self-improvement and self-proving games can induce.


Leadership and people management
This is mostly true for online games, but not only. In real life, we rarely get a chance to be a leader. At school, at work, most of us are just cogs in the machine. In online games, we get to lead squads to battle. Even if we are shy and feeling unimportant in real life,  in online games we get a chance to manage the whole guilds of hundreds of people. To make the guild successful, leaders need to assemble a real management team - recruiters, event managers, battle advisors, finance managers... And before every battle, the leaders get to speak to all of the guild members to motivate them to victory. How often do you get to experience or practice something like that in the real world?



Innovation and creativity
Games are becoming more and more open, letting players explore their creativity. In the 90's many games included a map editor that let players create their own experiences in the games. Now games like Minecraft or Little Big Planet are all about creating your own worlds. As long as games have existed, players have used their mechanics to do things these games were never designed for. Playing with physics systems, "breaking" the game mechanics to create amusing situations - every game is a potential tool for exploring your creativity.




Logical thinking
Games are based on systems. Systems, in order to work, need to be based on logic. If the player wants to succeed in a game, he needs to at least instinctively follow this logic, as going against it will almost always mean failure. Whether you like it or not, every game, even the most abstract one, will force you to use logic to progress in it. Be it solving a complicated puzzle or just a simple task of ammo management, it's always based on logic.




Planning and optimization
This is actually something that I will probably write a whole separate article about, but the general idea goes like this: Every game has a goal. Even if it doesn't, like Minecraft, it lets us easily come up with a goal for ourselves. This goal is most of the time very specific and well-defined and we do get the right tools to reach it. Based on these tools, the player consciously and naturally optimizes the time spent in the game, planning his build, his next quest, how to spend his money or experience, in order to reach this goal. Now think how useful it would be to apply this skill to real life.


Reflexes and precission
Majority of games includes a fast-paced action requiring incredible reflexes to master. Fighting games, sport games, platformers, racing games, strategy games... Even simplest games like Tetris or Pac-Man need extreme hand-to-eye coordination if you are to master them. Research has shown that "Action game players make more correct decisions per unit time. If you are a surgeon or you are in the middle of a battlefield, that can make all the difference." - Daphne Bavelier, cognitive researcher (source).




Art skills:
Depending on the interests and perceptiveness of the player, games can teach incredibly many artistic things. They are a fast-developing visual medium, with often amazing art direction. They also focus more and more on story, creating compelling characters and interesting storylines. Many kids start drawing thanks to the games. Many kids try writing because of games. Many kids listen to game music. Of course not all of them will become world-class artists, but I personally know quite a few who got interested in various kinds of art this way and are now making their living thanks to that.



This is by no means a complete list of skills the games can teach. Every new game that comes out has a chance to have some new mechanics with a potential to teach something new. Also, I most probably forgot about many of them, quite possibly very obvious ones too. Purpose of this article was not to list them all though. It was to show you, how games can teach you things without you even knowing you are learning. There are two requirements for you to meet if you want to really benefit from games in such way.

First and I cannot stress enough how important, is pay attention. Yes, I know I am repeating myself. It's just that important. If you pay attention during your online sessions, you will learn how to effectively lead and communicate, how to apply correct tactics to every situation and solve new problems, how to improve yourself through competition. If you don't pay attention, you are just jumping around, shooting stuff and even if you happen to win a match or two, you are loosing a lot that the game has to offer.


Second is to realize how you can transition these skills to real life. All to often, we are unable to make the connection between what we learn in games and its applications outside of them. Have you ever realized that you can make tons of virtual money in an MMO, but for some reason you are not doing it in real world? I know that the real life is much more complex than any game can possibly be, but on the other hand, have you realized, that in games you are able to solve complicated problems and in your life you are struggling with the simple ones?

So once again - play games, pay attention, and once in a while stop and think how what you learned can help you make your life better. I guarantee it can. So far I've covered how the games can enrich your life as a medium and what skills they can teach you without you even realizing it. In the next and the final part of this article series I will touch the topic of how the games can actually become your career. And yes, you guessed it. A big part of it will be paying attention ;)

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Polish version of the article available on zgranarodzina.edu.pl


5/23/2014

"Stop wasting your time with games" - part 1

That's a sentence I'm sure many of you have heard a lot. From your parents, partners, co-workers, friends - both gamers and non-gamers. I have, too, and most of the time I felt offended, but you know what? I've said it a few times in my life as well. Obviously, calling games a waste of time by default is an extremely biased thing to do, but it doesn't mean games always a valuable pastime.

Games can give us many wonderful things, but, like with every other activity, we need to know how to make the most of it. Like with a sport. You can do it purely for recreation, and that's fine. You can also try to get better at it - not necessarily to become a world champion, but just for the sake of being better than some of your friends. But ultimately, making the most of sports is letting it contribute to your own personal development. To apply lessons you've learned to other things, beyond sport. Games can be used in exactly same way.

Over the next three articles, I will be talking about three ways in which games can contribute to your life. I will start with the most obvious and the least measurable of the three. It seems to be the least convincing of the three, but I just can't ignore it and also, I like to save the big guns for later. I am very sorry if you are an attentive gamer - what I will write here will most probably be a parade of obvious arguments for you, but this article's goal is to clear it up for people who might not be into games too much or kids who would just swallow any game without thinking. I promise the next two articles will be less painfully obvious. 


The first way in which games can contribute to your life is enriching with new experiences. This is actually something every piece of media does better or worse. As with any other media, you get a fair amount of crap - games, books, movies, plays, music - they can all be created purely for money without any potential for depth of any kind. And that's okay, I guess... If consumers want it, well, they vote with money, don't they? But, for the sake of our argument, let's focus on the games that actually have some real value.

Games tell stories. What's more, being interactive, they let the player be a part of the story. I have touched the topic of narrative in the article on Dark Souls vs. Heavy Rain, but to sum up quickly: The story in the game is not only what is seen in cutscenes and told in dialogues. It is also what the player does. Every won battle. Every solved puzzle. Every explored area. They are a crucial part of the story, told in most cases without a single word.


This means that games let us live through experiences like no other media ever before. They let us take actions and make decissions. When books teach us the value of friendship, they show us characters whose friendship lets them overcome hardships. When games teach us the value of friendship, they let the player become friends with game characters. An average player will always be closer to the main character than an average reader. An average player will much easier learn the value of friendship from Persona series than from Lord of the Rings. 

Games put the players in situations they don't encounter so easily in real life. Players make relevant decissions that have often serious consequences for the further development of the game or at least one of its quests. Games let players save princesses or even worlds. Especially Japanese games start exploring the "difficult topics" like tolerance, fidelity, sexual orientation, religion or death. But... to really benefit from that, you actually have to pay attention.


The sad truth is, most of the players click through dialogues without reading them and skip cutscenes, to get to the "gameplay". In majority of games, gameplay without context of the backstory is deprived of meaning. When you pay attention in BioShock, you get a game about a failed utopia, about man's dream of greatness and where it might lead. When you don't pay attention in BioShock, you get a shooter with pretty clunky mechanics, where it's sometimes too dark to see the enemy. 

Next time you are playing a game, ask yourself - are you just mindlessly killing mob after mob or actually benefitting from what the game offers your, well... soul, or any other equivalent you accept as a part of yourself. Next time your kid tells you about this awesome game he/she is playing, listen carefully. Is your kid talking about the journey he embarked on? A story of the characters he met in the game? A dilemma the game presented? A question it asked and now your kid is struggling with? All of these indicate, that your kid is an attentive and empathic human being. You should be happy and proud. You should encourage these kinds of observations in all media.

And if your kid just tells you about the number of guys he killed? About the raids he's been on? About the bases he built under opponent's nose or rushes he pushed back? It still doesn't mean your kid has necessarily wasted his/her time with a game. There are other ways to benefit from games, but that will be the topic of the next two parts of this topic. Stay tuned. :)
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This article was also translated to Polish and published on zgranarodzina.edu.pl 

4/16/2014

Comedic games

Hello everyone! I was recently  translating the newest episode of Extra Credits for Polish audiences. Guys did a very good job at analyzing the pitfalls of creating an interactive comedy, but for some reason (most probably the length of the episode) didn't elaborate on the reason why we have so few comedy games in general. Here's the episode, freshly baked:


Now... As much as I agree that making interactive comedy is not a piece of cake, I also believe that it's not the reason of the diminishing number of comedy elements in games. In my opinion, the main reason is fear of the public opinion. 

Let's face it. Every artist wants to get recognized for what he does. Every artist wants to be admired and benefit from his/her art. Every single garage, Metallica-bashing band wants to get discovered and "sell out". Every Coelho-hater would gladly write books making even less sense and sign them with his name as long as it gives them a decent income and recognized name. Now let's make short lists of "the greatest" rock bands, movie directors, writers, singers, actors... First three that come to your mind. How many of them were involved in comedy? Why did we list Iron Maiden not Tenacious D? Why almost none of us knows the director of any of the comedies released in the last decade, but everyone knows Spielberg? Why Stephen King and why do these names not ring almost any bells? Why Sting, not Stephen Lynch? Why Anthony Hopkins, not Vince Vaughn?


Because comedy is silly. It doesn't matter that John Cleese is a brilliant philosopher. It doesn't matter Jim Carrey is an amazingly versatile actor. It doesn't matter Tim Minchin is an incredible musician. They are all comedians. They are silly. Human society has developed an unnatural harshness to everything that makes us laugh. We all love a good laugh, but within our four walls. When we choose a movie to relax with in the evening, we watch American Pie, but then we discuss the new Scorsese with our colleagues at work. We instinctively degrade our comedic experience to something irrelevant, a filler, a method to let the steam off in our otherwise boring, sad, mature lives. We feel somewhat ashamed and guilty to spend too much time with comedy. Comedy is this funny little brother of the mature, majestic art. Comedy episodes in TV series are 20 minutes and the "serious shows" are 40-60 minutes. And games... 

We have all noticed that the game industry is no different. Comedy is becoming more and more scarce. Smaller games, like Plants vs. Zombies can still afford being humorous while titles with bigger budgets get even easter eggs removed, because it's "silly". We are somehow okay with "small games" being funny, because they are just "small, silly games". With bigger titles we expect depth and maturity.

There's another reason why games with bigger budgets have problems getting away with humor. Investors have hard enough time believing in the silly game industry. Believing in the silly game industry making straightforward silly games is even harder. Seeing what sells, I would rather put a million dollars into another Assasin's Creed rather than The Mighty Quest for an Epic Loot. Developers themselves also have a deep problem with the image of the industry they work with. They want to appear professional, they want to show the stuff they make is not just for kids, it's mature. And how can a comedy be mature, huh?


And if we want to make the comedy mature, we encounter another problem. Mature comedy is not about shallow tit jokes or hitting someone's face with a pie. It often needs to challenge the current status quo we live in. Society, religion, politics - no matter how silly or clever you go about them, majority of people will always feel like you are offending them. And in a way they will be right - many people really believe in their way of living. Games already don't have the best image. Adding bashing of religion to the list of game sins is not exactly what the developers are so eager to do. The heat Portal got for adoption jokes is a clear example of society not being ready to accept an above-PG comedy in games. Cartoonish explosion and stars circling above character's head - good. Jokes about euthanasia - very bad.

Let's sum it up: society looking down at comedy + lack of respect and recognition for comedians in general + developers wanting to show how mature they are + investors unlikely to support comedy games + risk of touching the touchy topics in a humorous way in games = shitload of reasons why as a developer, you would rather make another shooter than a decent comedy game.


So yeah, interactive comedy in games is widely underdeveloped. But it's no wonder not many people even want to try and change that. It would have to be a comedy genius. Also, a game designer with a fair amount of fourth-wall-breaking knack. On top of that, he/she needs to have a relatively high disregard for money and be immune to social heat that he/she is very likely to get. Not so high odds of that getting together, right? I'm sure someone like that will sooner or later come and revolutionize the way we think about game comedy. But while we are waiting for this savior to be born, let's do our part. Let's all have a laugh in public once in a while. Let's all admit we love comedy, and not only the half-too-boring, half-too-clever Woody Allen comedy. That will make it so much easier for everyone. And definitely more fun!

2/28/2014

Rewarding the player vs. achievements

A few days ago, me and my Art Director, Damian, were discussing rewarding games. As a flag example of game rewards done great he brought up Guild Wars 2. Since we played it together and equally enjoyed it, at first I agreed. In that game, you get a reward every five to 10 minutes. Quests pop up like crazy wherever you go. If you are not finishing a quest, you are leveling up or finding a vista point or unveiling the map or getting a new part of main story, leveling up your crafting skills, digging a herb or earning an achievement. Rewards are on every corner of every brick of every wall. 


It was later that day when I started thinking... What exactly am I getting in Guild Wars 2? Experience and levels are meaningless, as the game scales you up and down more often than you can even notice. Gear? At level 80 I still don't really care what I am wearing. Crafting skills are a nice, expensive piece of crap since I don't care what I wear. Skills are all unlockable in the first 10 minutes of the game, coins are useless as merchants have absolutely nothing I'd like to buy. Even the guilds do nothing together and server wars are just an uncoordinated free for all that do a lousy job at motivating you to get better gear. Yet still, I was playing this game with pleasure, because once in a while, for completing my dailies, I got a treasure chest containing absolutely nothing useful for my gameplay. I was getting achievement after achievement congratulating me on slaying 100, 500 and 1000 mobs of the same type, but apart from this achievement, killing these poor creatures got me close to nothing!

What kept me going here was a brilliantly executed Skinner Box technique. Our friends from Extra Credits have explained it very nicely in one of their videos:


But I wouldn't be myself if a realization "Oh, it's Skinner Box!" was enough for my overly active brain. I was naturally analyzing it further, and here's a probably not too groundbreaking theory that many people came up with before me:

Rewards tied to gameplay are cool, achievements disconnected from gameplay suck.

Let's take a look at an old RPG from way before anyone invented achievements or trophies. Final Fantasy Tactics. You could have up to 16 characters in your formation, each one could have one of mixes of 20 different jobs, using thousands of combinations of skills and equipment. Every battle was rewarding. Every slain enemy could leave skills or items. Actually useful skills and actually useful items. Every action gave you experience and job experience points. Actually useful experience points giving you stat boosts and currency to buy actually useful skills. Every job level could unlock new jobs with new skills and abilities. It got you checking your formation after every battle, tweaking gear, learning skills, assigning jobs... Every piece of reward was a pure gameplay reward. After 15 years, Final Fantasy Tactics still has one of the best battle systems of all times and there are countless games drawing from it.


Squaresoft designed Final Fantasy Tactics this way to make the game rewarding to the player to make it fun to play over and over. The game now has an impressive amount of FAQs on gamefaqs.com with people coming up with new challenges years after the release date. I never needed external motivation like trophies to get back to this game many times over the years.

Nobody can deny that the achievements are a powerful motivator. They are also a powerful tool to conceive how flawed the game actually is. Especially on PC, where achievement lists can be better organized, therefore there can be thousands of them. Thousands of achievements, popping up every 10 minutes to give the player an illusion of progress. Covering the dullness of the core gameplay.

I am far from an expert, but I strongly believe in what I will write here, so I'll act like one. So... How to do the achievements right? Achievements should always be linked to an actual reward that comes from gameplay. Is building a Laboratory in XCOM a great gameplay moment that deserves a trophy? Not really. It gives a gameplay perk, but a feeling of accomplishment? Nah. Reaching Anor Londo in Dark Souls on the other hand... You stand on top of the staircase, say to yourself "praise the sun" and a few seconds after that incredible feeling washes over you, a trophy pops up to confirm you have done something great. That's how you use trophies. To emphasise an actual achievement, not create a fake one. Or, continuing with the Dark Souls example, you can use trophies to create an additional challenge and encourage exploration: "Collect all the unique Weapons" or "Learn all the spells". These are examples from Souls series, but also found in hundreds of games. But "kill 500 monsters of this type" or "use the weapon you don't like a 1000 times" - those are not achievements. Those are artificial progress bars. A boring game's life support system.


A great example of achievements done right is Rayman Legends. This game could do just fine with no trophies whatsoever. You get lucky tickets, you unlock new paintings, you rescue Teensies, you get new creatures, you collect lums, you earn bronze, silver and gold cups, you unlock new heroes. All these things please the player, give him/her obvious gameplay perks. The fact that collecting all the creatures unlocks an achievement is just a nice additional bonus. The player wants to have them all regardless of the achievement, because they are fun to beat up and give you lums - a currency that is actually useful. Me and my girl have spent long hours with the game to collect all 700 Teensies, not to get a trophy for collecting them. We wanted to beat the crap out of every single map, because it was just fun, rewarding and unlocked more maps for us to play.


Unfortunately, since achievements have been invented, more and more games are getting away with boring gameplay. So what could just as well be about as entertaining as hitting a rock with a stick a million times? You will get an achievement after 10 hits. Then after 20. Then you will get one if you hit it 3 times in a second. Oh, and then you will get one if you keep your rhytm for half a minute. And for level two, you can use your left hand. Oh, and just so you don't notice that you are just hitting a rock with a stick all the time, here's a cutscene. Now, since you got an achievement for watching the cutscene, get back to hitting the rock.

Is that how we want the games to evolve? Even the best developers use the achievements to make up for the boring parts. Take Diablo III - it's a really good game, but think how much better it could be. If only the developers focused on introducing some new, interesting stuff to higher difficulty levels instead of scaling up mobs and giving achievements for slaying hundreds of them. Yes, exactly - rewarding the player for hitting a rock with a stick a few more times. And it's Blizzard who did such a shameful thing! The studio that did great job on achievements in StarCraft 2, where they encouraged the players to hone their skills, learn new tricks and beat new challenges instead of a mindless grind.

I am far from being against achievements. There's a fair part of me as a gamer that's an achiever. And even this part of me doesn't like being tricked to believe I am actually earning something when all I did is hitting the stone one enough times.