10/27/2014

Currency systems in RPGs

Whenever you hear "RPG" you instantly think of a handful of elements that are almost always present. Like a leveling system or a robust story. A character customization in western RPGs and turn-based combat in jRPGs. And a currency used to buy and sell stuff in the game. Especially the ability to buy stuff from shops seems to be present in every little subgenre of RPGs, but lately I'm observing that more and more games could easily be just as great without it.

I understand the compulsion the designers have when they are introducing the currency in their RPGs. The players expect it. That's great, but we should ask ourselves a question: why do we need it? Let me give you a few examples of good games where the currency makes little sense.

The Witcher series. I don't know about the third installment, but in first two games I went through the game saving up all my money to be able to buy something cool. Some endgame gear. I often saw a vendor that had a sword maybe 5-10% better than what I was currently having, but it did cost like 90% of my money, so I have always decided against buying it. Before I knew it, I either found a better sword, or the game ended. What made matters worse, the reward for most sub-quests was... money. Money that gave a short term feeling of accomplishment, but in the end, when I was finishing my game with a few thousand orens that I had nothing to do with, left me feeling tricked at best.


Allright, US. It's your turn. Diablo. In the first game, money was more or less useless, as you found the coolest stuff as drops anyway. The only thing the cash was good for was repairs (that's more of a pain than a gain for a player anyway). In the sequel, they introduced the gambling mechanics. What for? To finally give the player a way to get rid of all the useless coins... and get useless overpriced stuff that was still inferior to what dropped from the mobs. And in Diablo III the Auction House and coins pretty much broke the game, resulting in millions of Asians farming cash to sell it to thousands of Americans, Blizzard closing the AH and by doing so, openly admitting it was a really bad idea.

Let's get out of Europe and US and visit Japan. Zelda series. You find rupees everywhere. Literally everywhere. You always have enough of them. Finding blue, red, silver or golden rupees is fun, but in the end, they are nothing else than a shiny thing that you pick up. You never really have to manage your currency, as you will be able to buy everything you currently need as you discover it anyway. Rupees are so commonly useless, that Ocarina of Time had to introduce the bigger wallets to keep you from buying all the coolest stuff at the very start of the game. One has to sit down and think though... Maybe instead of having currency that's useless and wallet that has to keep you from becoming a billionaire just by cutting grass and breaking jars... Just give the player all the basic stuff as soon as he reaches some town and let the player find the rest in the dungeons.


There's definitely more examples of games that have greatly misused the idea of currency. Games with useless vendors that have nothing interesting to sell. Games, where the amount of gold can be translated to number of repairs or arrows. No wonder that the modern design is starting to look at the currency from a different perspective. Souls series have souls that act as both exp and currency - this way you always have something to do with your currency. In Lords of the Fallen, we've gone one step further. We simply didn't introduce currency at all. An RPG without currency and vendors? Every time a journalist asked me this, I just replied that we didn't need them. Because why would the player want to buy crappy stuff from vendors, when he/she can just get the cool stuff from enemies and bosses.

Currencies make much more sense in MMO games, where they have a similar purpose to real life - to give a common denominator for goods so that the players can trade them more easily. Here, what gives the currency the reason to exist is the economy. It isn't there to keep the player from getting some stuff too fast or to give him a dull reward for a quest or to create an illusion he gets something for all the loot he got rid of at the vendor.


To be honest, currency and ingame economy was the first thing that has drawn me to the RPG genre. It wasn't the story, because all the games were in English or Japanese back then and I was maybe 7 years old. It wasn't the gameplay or skill, as I couldn't really appreciate it either. It was the fact that a game did let me earn money and then buy a cool sword. I have spent hours in Oblivion just to make money to buy a house and a horse. I wasted hours in Gothic forging swords to sell them with some small profit. I have played Merchant/Blacksmith class in Ragnarok Online and a Dwarf Artisan in Lineage II. And the experience was extremely rewarding as long as the money was actually worth something (yeah, Gothic, I'm looking at you and your useless money).


So even though I love having the currency in my RPGs, I much less enjoy having money that is worthless. I really wish developers who start a new RPG took more than a minute to think whether they are introducing currency, because they need it or because it's the "genre must". Really, it is relatively easy (compared to other systems) to get it right. You just need to give the player something of value that can be bought with the money at every stage of the game - basic equipment, mid-game potions for stats boosts, endgame trinkets... If you can't think of a system like this, don't worry - there's dozens of ideas how to make a game without your standard currency. Don't put it in just for the sake of having it.

10/12/2014

Narrowing your audience: Zelda vs. Ni no Kuni

Yeah, I know these two games don't have much in common at first glance, but bear with me, as these titles are excellent edge examples of a lot of elements can make or break the game for audiences. Especially for the kids.

Ni no Kuni is just beautiful. The world is perfectly crafted. The locations are breathtaking. The characters... well, all Ghibli characters look the same and Olivier (main character) is just a generic Ghibli boy, but that doesn't bother me. I just won't say they are as awesome as the rest of the world. The story, when you follow it, is also very nice. So what it's basically a Japanese version of Harry Potter. The world you get to explore is original, interesting and full of life.


Zelda, on the other hand, recycles the same story for the… I think it’s 17th time or so. The whole environment is built with repetitive assets that look like stock mobile game models you can buy in packs for 5 bucks. To make sure that the player notices that, everything is placed on a square grid, because gods forbid any of these destructible jars was standing out of line. But all that is perfectly fine, because the grid-based world works perfectly for the gameplay. And in the end, the story is mostly about you figuring out how to use new tools to beat the new dungeons, not about Link rescuing Zelda for the hundredth time.


Both games theoretically have a huge potential to be titles for everyone. Not only graphics, but also themes are quite children-friendly. At the same time, there's enough depth to keep older audiences interested. And both titles had a great chance to reach a very wide demographic. Now let’s see how various tiny things drove the games apart in that regard.

Intros

What makes or breaks these two games is how they are introduced to the player. In Ni no Kuni you start by watching a cutscene that is followed by a cutscene, that's followed by a dialogue, after which you get another dialogue and then you get to run down the street to watch another cutscene. In Zelda, Link wakes up and you're free to run around. Sure, you have to run to a few places close by, but by the time Olivier manages to get out of his house, Link already has a sword and is cutting grass and breaking jars! In the first moments of the game one of the games has already managed to filter out the short-tempered gamers from their audience.


Tutorials and Pacing

Three minutes into A Link Between Worlds I knew all the controls I needed, I had no problems going through the consecutive sections of the game. Whenever a new mechanic or new item was introduced, there was a whole dungeon designed to let me use it and learn all the possibilities that came with my new tool. Each of these items comes with an extremely short description. Bow: "Arrows fly straight to take down enemies! You can also move while aiming!" All I need to know in two sentences, followed by a dungeon letting me figure out all I can do with this bow. Six hours into the game and I still get new mechanics, still have fun experimenting with new things and haven't been confused or bored for a second. On my way to new dungeons I found mini-games, a collectable quest and a bunch of secret areas to keep my explorer and achiever sides happy. Every half an hour or so I feel rewarded with something: a piece of heart, a new secret, a new dungeon, a new quest item, a new mechanic...

Even though Zelda series are famous for their nagging navi, Ni no Kuni has somehow
managed to make its sidekick, Drippy, even more annoying.

Three hours into Ni no Kuni and I still felt I am in the tutorial. Still felt I didn't really know anything about this game. My weird sidekick still kept bugging me with long and overstylized dialogues explaining new mechanics, menus, options, equipment, spells. I have been fed at least a dozen tutorials and I have still been waiting to actually do something cool. Trying out new things limited itself to the sidekick telling you "Now, select the new spell you acquired". You then had to  select it (and most of the time it is the only spell you can use anyway) and the game progressed to another dialogue. Sure, I levelled up a few times, I bought a sword for my Pokemon, err... Familiar and I met some fat cat, but somehow, three hours into it, I still felt like I haven't accomplished anything in this game.

Narrative and language

Writers in Ni no Kuni had a lot of work. Dialogues are chasing dialogues, characters are very diverse and each has their own little way of speaking. We have a classic purry cat, we have an owl that’s having a hoot, our sidekick, our main hero, everyone is speaking just a little bit different. And they are all talking a lot. This attention to diversity and details is very pleasing to all the dialogue-driven game nerds (myself included), but what does that mean for the accessibility? The complexity of the dialogues makes them unsuitable for youngest children. Also, since the game only comes in Japanese and English, non-natives without at least upper intermediate knowledge of one of these languages, will have little idea what is going on in the game.


Zelda doesn’t bother much with the story. There’s a world, there’s another world, we play as Link and he’s the link between these worlds… Link is the link, get it? And there’s Zelda and she’s obviously to be rescued and there’s Ganon that’s obviously to be defeated. And there’s a Triforce and Seven Sages and all that stuff that we’ve seen already so many times. Dialogues and descriptions are short, simple and to the point and even without reading them we can figure out how to progress somehow. I am fairly certain I would have been able to beat the game if it was in some language that’s exotic for me. Swahili… or even worse, Hungarian ;) A Link Between Worlds manages to remain accessible to pretty much anyone with opposing thumbs, but of course, there’s a cost – it won’t really satisfy those in need of a deep, dialogue-driven story.

Gameplay

The type of gameplay is very different in both games and the only comparable thing is the amount of pure gameplay. Ni no Kuni is much more dialogue-driven while Zelda is almost purely gameplay-driven. Obviously it’s a matter of preference here, so the gameplay section of this article is here mostly to tell the nitpickers I didn’t forget about it :)

Who are these games for?

At this point I think I’m already able to answer that somewhat accurately. With Zelda: A Link Between Worlds I have no problems stating that the game can be for anyone that likes good gameplay and isn't repelled by cute, cartoony and well, straightforward childish graphics. The depth of mechanics paired with excellent tutorials make the game extremely easy to get a hang on and entertaining and engaging enough to stick with it till the end. Story geeks that are not Zelda fans will definitely not be satisfied here though.


Ni no Kuni has much more restrictions. People who didn’t accept Zelda for art direction, most probably won’t like Ni no Kuni either. Long and boring tutorials are definitely not suitable for anyone with short attention span. Sparsely distributed save points make it a game difficult to play when you might be yelled at by your parents to stop playing already. Tons of dialogues, written in a very stylized way, will make it hard to understand the game for children who are not Japanese or native English speakers. The topics in the story place the game in a very good position. There's both lots of joy and depth and even though it reeks of a Japanese Harry Potter, it is quite bearable even for adults. Unfortunately, with the dialogue chains going on and on with little interactive elements in between and then long dungeons with repetitive fights, the game feels very, very tedious pretty much all the time. So if we put together all these elements, we see that Ni no Kuni is actually suitable for a very narrow group of cartoony graphics-loving, native-speaker level people that have a lot of patience to go through a ridiculously boring tutorial and then several dozens of hours of similarly boring gameplay just to read/hear more of the story. But… Wouldn’t any Studio Ghibli anime be a more engaging pick for them?

9/08/2014

PAX Prime 2014 - personal highlights

Hello guys and gals! With jetlag out of my way I can now focus enough to bring you some info on this year's PAX Prime. Being freshly after the GamesCom 2014, I can tell you - it is really different!

I guess a lot of these differences are because of the venue. Washington State Convention Center is both confusing and cosy. Confusing, as everything is happening on various floors and even hotels across the street. Still, getting from one place to another was way faster than drowning in the crowds that visit Cologne's Messe. Cosy, because there were no giant halls that overwhelm you. Companies didn't buy out spaces that could fit a football stadium. The floors of the corridors next to the escalators were littered with giant pillows for people to hang out on. The parties in the evenings take place in clubs and hotels around the place. Whichever hotel in the vincinity you entered, people were sitting around on the floors, playing their handhelds or board games and everything was just way more relaxed. If anyone tried to play a board game on the floor on GamesCom, he would catch a cold from the freezing surface at best, but most probably just get trampled by thousands of people trying to get from one hall to the other.

Just as on GamesCom, I didn't get to see much - I spent most of the time in our media suite in the hotel, showing off our game. We also had a booth in the public area, where we let people try their best against a boss, gave away t-shirts and showcased the incredibly cool hammer that was a prize in a facebook contest.


Highlights of Friday would involve the ScrewAttack live stream and Angry Joe so overwhelmed with our game that he forgot his wallet. On Saturday I had bit more time, so I went gift hunting. The selection was much smaller than on GamesCom, but it was somehow more attractive. Instead of studio-branded toys and tons of anime merchandise, there's way more custom t-shirts, jewelry and plushies. Also, lots of board games, retro video games like N64, NES and PS1 titles and tabletop game figures. I managed to find super cool earrings for my girl:


Right after that we headed for the Twitch booth, where we hosted a spontaneous first ever streamed hands-on of our game, Lords of the Fallen. You can check it out here. Overall, the reception of the game was really good and we were very happy with how things went. My job on PAX was done.

It was time for the party with the Extra Credits crew. It was way off-site, but it finally let us meet in person. We have exchanged so many e-mails that we found out gmail has a limited number of messages in a single conversation. Here is me and the boss of them all, the sweet Soraya.

If anyone thinks James Portnow is the boss in Extra Credits, think again. It's thiss blue-haired girl! :P

The party was quite intimate with maybe around 30-40 people. People played Portal 2 co-op and Divekick on the beamer while the rest scattered around the tables to have some board game fun or to just socialize. I had a lovely time chatting with Carrie, the clips editor, and then, if we're to believe the Cards Against Humanity game we played, me and Dan Floyd were the least funny guys at the table, scoring last with 0 points. Of course we don't believe the game. We're both hillarious.

Around midnight James and a bunch of other guys started a design analysis of the new Deus Ex. Since I personally find the Human Revolution incredibly boring, I didn't want to be the asshole that just sits there, trolling, A bunch of us have left to get some sleep. A final photo got taken somewhere in the tunnel of the Washington State Convention Center:

From the left: Daniel Floyd (narrator), Carrie Floyd (editor), Games Making Noob (translator), Scott DeWitt (artist)

The next day I took off before noon to get to the airport. Spent another 15 hours to get to my own bed, exhausted. It was all great fun. Many thanks to all Bandai Namco folks, to the Extra Credits crew, Twitch guys, everyone who visited the media room and the public booth to see Lords of the Fallen. Thanks for making it not just work, but a great experience!


8/25/2014

Quickie #3: Attacks on PSN, Battle.net and others

My first thought when I heard that was "okay, but why do that?" Then, of course, my thoughts kept wandering. It didn't really make me all that angry or scared. If it's "just" DDoS, then my credit card info should be safe as far as I know and yes, it does suck that I can't purchase and download a new game online, but... But I immediately thought that it is just an opportunity to catch up with the dozens of games that I've already installed or have in boxes or clutter my Steam Library. Seriously, I could probably live and play happily for a year or two without really missing the online services.

But... That's just an approach of a guy who grew up without internet. For all the players that base their entertainment on online rivalry or developing their artificial life in WoW, attacks on such services are like a kick between their legs. Imagine what would happen if all these online junkies wouldn't get their fix for a month. Would gaming really have nothing to offer them? All these kids writing "multiplayer or gtfo" under every gameplay trailer would actually have to gtfo and play some football or chess or something.

The image barely makes sense here, but I couldn't resist anyway.
I am far from justifying or giving meaning to what was most probably just an act of a group of extremely bored teenagers, but if there actually was a message behind this, what would it be? For me it would be something like this: "Play a game for the story once in a while. Instead of running, shooting and shouting in CoD, check out what happened in Dubai in Spec Ops: The Line. Instead of cheesing through a choke in Starcraft, check out how Kerrigan became what she became. Instead of spending 10 hours a day in WoW, well... Play just any other game that came out in the last 10 years."

8/22/2014

GamesCom in the eyes of a GameDev

Hey everyone! Last year I described my first GamesCom experience. It was a... simpler time. Last year I've only been there over the weekend and my job was to do a stage show two times a day and look after the cosplayers my company hired. It has still left me plenty of time to look around and soak in all the stuff, even though getting from one hall to another took ages. 

This year was different. Extremely different. I arrived in Cologne on Monday evening to help set everything up on Tuesday. We had 20 PC's in the public area and another 6 in the business area to show off our game, Lords of the Fallen. All of them were provided by our partner, so we had to check if our game works stable enough on those. Luckily there was no major issues and we were able to wrap it up within maybe four hours. Tuesday has passed relatively smoothly.

Media room ready for the visitors
Wednesday. Media and development day, GamesCom is still closed to general public. Everything starts at 9:00 a.m., but we arrive at the venue around 7:30 a.m. to double-check everything and get ready. Even though general public theoretically can't enter the fair yet, the public area is already pretty lively. Some clearly underaged peeps are running around, amateur cosplayers have also most probably confused the dates, but oh well, who really cares, as long as they don't get their hands on the 18+ stuff, right?

The business area is getting crowded. Our BizDevs are having one meeting after another while my job is to help out the press representatives with the controls of our game. Repeating the same controls over and over every ten minutes I fail to notice that the last time I ate something was around 6:30 a.m. and it's almost noon. Luckily, our booth in the business area comes with catering, so I am able to grab a cheese and ham toast, wash it down with a glass of coke and get back to my controls mantra. Every other visitor needs some help with the game or asks some questions, so I end up going back and forth between them.

When they finish playing, they usually have questions and those questions take anywhere from three minutes to half an hour. Most of them walk out happy, complimenting our game - makes a gamedev happy. In the early afternoon someone wants to shoot a video interview - usually with our Executive Producer (EP). "Sorry, busy, you do it" I hear. Allright, let's pop a cherry, shall we? The first interview starts awful, but gets better with each question. It's time for another toast when it's over. They're out of toasts, so I grab some fruit snacks that I swallow together with another glass of coke and that's what keeps me going till 7 p.m. Our community manager comes back from the public area to share what was happening there and I realize I didn't even have time to check out the showfloor.

20 stations occupied for 10 hour straight in the public area
The next day, Thursday, turns out to be almost the exact copy of Wednesday for me. Luckily, this time we can arrive just before 9:00 a.m. Explaining controls, answering questions, guiding the guys who are playing, showing the advanced stuff in the game, answering more questions, giving interviews, grabbing two toasts before they disappear, sitting down to close my eyes in tiny breaks before someone new comes in. This time video interviews get a lot easier - there's no question that you haven't already answered a dozen times already. Thurday is the first day with general public on the showfloor. The line to play our game is between one and two hours long. We're closing the booth at 7 p.m. again. There's supposed to be a party tonight. None of us wants to go, everyone just wants some peace and quiet.

Friday, the same drill. At 9 a.m. we get first visitors, more controls explanation, more interviews of all kinds. There's a twist though - at 4 PM we're going on Twitch, yay. Somehow I managed not to die and the video is already roaming the web. People seem to like it, challenge Near the end of the day we gather the stuff we don't want thrown out, erase the game from the PC's and head to the hotel - the business area is going to be no more within hours.


We have our flight back on Saturday evening, so we have a whole day to finally attend GamesCom public area, check out what's going on, soak in all the gaming coolness. We arrive early again to take advantage of our exhibitor's passes. We get in 15 minutes before the general public is even let in to stand in line to check out Bloodborne. We're first in line. We get in exactly at 9:00 a.m. and after more or less 10 minutes it's over. We head towards our public booth, where we spend less than an hour checking out if everything is okay. After spending 10 hours a day for three days straight watching people play our game we don't really feel like doing the same on day four. We split to take a look around.


Thanks to a VIP pass I got to see Alien: Isolation. First five minutes left me unimpressed. Then I got a basic hang of the alien management mechanic and I have to say that even though the game is definitely not my cup of tea, I enjoyed it quite a lot and will gladly check it out once it releases. Then I took a walk around the shopping area, taking photos of merchandise and looking for a gift for the girl I left at home for almost a week. With the shopping done I looked at my watch... 11:00 a.m. I take a brief look at the Nintendo zone, get a glimpse of Final Fantasy IV, check out what Sony offers and get amazed how much free space EA has paid for and... And I didn't even feel like visiting all the halls. I just met up with our EP and around noon we both decided to just head for the airport.

Imagine how exhausted an avid gamer has to be to prefer sitting at the airport for a few hours instead of spending them on the biggest consumer gaming convention of the year. A week of rest and... already preparing to leave for PAX.


8/11/2014

Get paid thanks to games: A game journalist

In the previous part of the series I wrote about game blogging and vlogging. Today I will be continuing on the subject, by moving on to game journalism. I believe many conservative guys who write about games for living will get a bito offended, but... a difference between a game journalist and a game blogger is getting more blurry with every passing year and both professions have a lot in common.

Let's face it, it's not the 90's anymore. Paper magazines are dying, the online gaming sites have become a much more successful substitute and with the embedded videos and hourly updates, there's no way in hell paper magazines will get back on that horse. Game journalism, that was once a profession of the selected few, has become a free for all job market. There's almost no entry barrier. You should know how to write, but we all read these online magazines and we all know that not everyone there meets this requirement.

With the entry barrier practically non-existent, you can guess - there's a lot of people who want in. And whenever the market gets saturated and the supply of work keeps growing, there's only one reaction you can expect: the labor becomes cheaper. So while inthe 90's these relatively few people who wrote about games were able to support themselves doing this, nowadays the vast majority of game journalists have to treat it like an additional (and usually poor) source of income.


There's a nice article on GamesRadar that gives a rough overview of how much the game journalists can actually earn. Please keep in mind that the article seems to only take into account the guys that have actually succeeded in networking and manage to publish quite a number of articles. When you start out, you'll be lucky to get one or two reviews published a month, and that won't give you anywhere near the tens of thousands of dollars a year.

How do you get into the zone and make it possible to live off the game journalism then? Here's ten steps that will help you get there. Of course the sooner you start, the better:

1) Learn to write. Write well. The fact that you grew up with your language and were taught it at school means nothing. Read a lot - not only gaming sites, but good, well-edited books. Analyze the language. Learn to use it, learn to write.

2) If you're not from an English-speaking country, learn English. Yes, you will probably be writing in your native tongue, but eventually you will want to do some research on the global level and most of the news and info is first available in English. Also, how do you expect to get an interview with a foreign game maker when you can't communicate?

3) You have to learn to play a variety of games. Having 15 max level characters in WoW or having a 1000 hours of playtime in Call of Duty won't get you far. You need variety. You need to derive pleasure from exploring and discovering new games. Versatility and being interested in the whole industry are the key to success.


4) When you finally learn to read and write and play something other than StarCraft 2, start a blog or a vlog. Here you can find some tips how to go about it. It's important that the blog doesn't only consist of classic reviews. Any form of originality is great - screenshot-based stories, essays, your own drawings to illustrate the text... Some of the big gaming sites let their users start blogs there. If your blog is supposed to be your foot in the door, why not place this foot closer to your target?

5) When your blog or vlog has enough entries to make it possible to assess your skill, attack the offices of the game magazines and portals, offering your services. If you skipped the blogging step, you will have to send them some examples of your writing via e-mail. Seriously, it's as easy as "Hey! I was wondering, maybe you guys need some more content for your website? Here's a taste of my writing". It's of course easier to start with smaller sites - most often they just require less experience.

6) If you've been successful in the previous step, don't pat yourself on the back just yet. Well... maybe a little pat won't hurt. Still, you're just getting started. A few bucks for your review is great when you're 16, but you won't support a family with it. Continue to learn more about the industry, about the process of making games. It's time for learning from your older journalist colleagues and polishing your writing skill. Don't get discouraged, if you don't get many assignments or they aren't overly ambitious. These can't be avoid even in the next steps.

7) When you'll gain some notable experience working with the editor-in-chief and quite a few published articles, you should repeat step 5. You should get out there and offer your services to as many magazines and portals as possible. This time, trying the biggest ones as well. In most cases, nobody minds if you work with more than one magazine.


8) In a bigger and more "professional" team, you have to be prepared to be a newbie for a while. Newbies don't attend international game conferences, don't interview the game making stars. They put together uninspired top tens, they write reviews of second-rate games and trash articles on the evolution of Lara's boobs or which DoA girl has a skimpier outfit. These articles generate pageviews. You still shouldn't expect to make any good money at this stage. If you're lucky, it'll be enough to get by during your college days.

9) When you finally manage to get past the newbie step, you get a shot at more serious reviews. Older colleagues might take you to watch and learn during some interviews. Because your goal here is still to learn. It's easy to end your career on step 8 or 9 - there's lots of journalists like that. These are the guys that keep writing stock reviews, mumbling something about engines and middleware they have no idea about. If you want to get to the top, you will need to show a lot of commitment: visiting all game-related events you possibly can, being active in your editorial office and constantly increasing your qualifications.

10) Congrats. If you managed to get to step 10, there's a big chance that the reviews of the top titles, interviews with game developers, stories from game events and game industry articles let you make enough money to support yourself. And it's a high time - most likely you're already too old to delay starting a family anymore.


It's very important to be original. Articles that stand out can easily end up for example on digg.com - writing articles with such potential is a desired skill. Of course, the center of attention will always be reviews and news and your editor-in-chief will not always give you complete creative freedom. If you can write and keep learning more about the industry, you don't have to finish your career as a journalist or editor. PR departments of game studios constantly need people who know the industry and write well. Working at a gamedev studio is a whole other topic though.

Many thanks to Mielu from gram.pl for help and insight.

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.