Godmode and an Astronaut's imagination

On Friday I have ran across an article on godmode that Adrian Chmielarz wrote on The Astronauts blog. I happen to disagree with majority of statements of this gamedev veteran. Even though, as a noob, I might be way out of my league, for the first time in my blogging career I am going to write an article that's a reply to an article. I will be losing my virginity here, so I'll try to be gentle with myself.

Adrian brings some interesting arguments to the table. He claims that the power of imagination itself can be enough to generate the feeling of danger. He reminds us the childhood imaginary danger games and suggests that by using the same mechanisms we can design games in which you cannot die, but you still are afraid to die. That's true. Imagination can do that. But lets ask ourselves one question - why would a designer limit himself to just imagination? These imaginary danger games lacked the "death simulation feedback" not because it was the core of their design. It was the lack of technology. If kids on the playground had a portable and harmless device that could - let's say - freeze one of them for one minute when he/she touches the floor, I am more than sure they would be using it for "the floor is lava" game. Why do children prefer to play with water guns when they can be shooting from their fingers? Because it gives them an experience closer to the "real thing". For the same reason when they are older they switch to ASG or Paintball if they are still interested in this kind of fun. Following the logic of "why let the player die when he can just imagine he's dying?" we can ask another series of similar questions: "why install force feedback in a gamepad when player can just imagine he got hit?" or going further "why design a cRPG when pen and paper work so well?"

Another point he's making is how naming the difficulties can be misleading. The discussion on that is nearly pure semantics. I myself see nothing wrong with naming the difficulties however the game desingers want. Hey! After all, since the first shooters, these difficulty names were used to show off creativity or to interact with the player even before the game started. They are a part of game design and making some universal pattern out of them would not only be impossible, but also pretty boring. The name of "normal" mode might be unfortunate, true, but I don't see hundreds of players complaining that they couldn't do it on normal difficulty and therefore feel humiliated by the game. After all, what "normal" difficulty means is far more intuitive than "insomnia" or "daydream". Having problems with "normal" difficulty is pretty much like blaming Coldplay for not freezing their audience.

The thing I most disagre with, however, is the concept that games have their experience and gameplay sides. This is the first time in my life where I see someone dividing the game on such level. This - call me paranoid - means pretty much excluding gameplay from the experience. If we take out the whole gameplay out of a game, the experience we are left with will be something between a black screen and a movie, depending on a game type.

Fortunately, a few lines later Adrian promises "but wait, it gets better." And it really does. I can agree with the big chunk of the article that follows. I agree, that including godmode cheat in a game could be a good idea. I agree, it can help many people experience at least a part of a game. It will exclude death as a gameplay tool, but yes, it will make the game more accessible to people who would otherwise never try it. Including a very easy mode isn't that uncommon either. The first difficulty level in Diablo III lets you die only if you leave your character in the middle of a group of mobs and go pee. Losing on the lowest difficulty in StarCraft II probably requires killing your units yourself. The difference between Bioshock's vita chambers and a godmode is a half a minute walk from the chamber to the place you "died" at last time.

On the other hand, let's look at the potential dangers of introducing godmode in a game. Let's say all developers agree with Adrian and from now on all the games have an embedded godmode. What happens? 
- All the laziest game reviewers will beat these games on godmode, not being able to say anything about learning curve or difficulty level. 
- Game designers will have to start taking into account that lots of the players will be playing on godmode, so the godmode needs to provide some kind of interesting features as well. Features that can often conflict with features of the "regular" gameplay. In some cases, they would be designing two games.
- A number of players that would normally end a game in a regular mode will just turn on the godmode to check off another game and move on to the next title, never really experiencing the depth of gameplay.
- The sites selling game trainers go out of business :)

I cannot agree that "Godmode is good for everybody". Sure, there are types of games, where godmode is pretty much a given, like oldschool adventure games. But imagine any strategy game with godmode: you just take the few units you had in the beginning and run through the map. End of gameplay. Imagine Gears of War in godmode: why use cover system when you can just rambo forward? Imagine... No, you don't even have to imagine. Look at the infinity mode in Bejeweled: it turns a simple logical game into infinite clicking into colors that makes it completely pointless. Lastly, imagine Dark Souls in godmode: Prepare to die! Oh, wait, you're immortal? Sorry dude, your whole experience is fucked. 

Sure, I have completely nothing against games having cheat codes. If someone wants to have infinite cash, all upgrades, all weapons, fly, clip through walls or be just invincible - let them have it! But at the same time, not making a game mode out of it gives them a clear message - this is not the way the designers intended this game to be played. You will probably still have fun, but don't blame anyone if you happen to ruin the experience for yourself.

Whether I agree with Adrian's article or not has nothing to do with the fact that The Astronauts blog has a number of interesting articles that challenge the way we think about games or at least provoke a discussion. And hey - I let myself get provoked, so they are succeeding! :)


Catching up: Valkyria Chronicles

Valkyria Chronicles was recommended to me when I talked to one of my colleagues about jRPG's. Although not strictly an RPG itself, VC was supposed to get me on my knees to praise SEGA. And well, one of my knees certainly did bend, almost touching the floor. However, I find many elements of the game disputable, and that's why I would recommend it the most, but more on that later.

The game uses very stylised, anime graphics. Which is a huge plus in my opinion. Seeing the same gameplay with generic photorealistic approach would take the majority of the charm away. Also, it did let the developers focus a bit more on the gameplay and the story. On the other hand, the decission to invest less in graphical assets shows very clearly in dialogues. Imagine a static image of a location, pretty much a wallpaper. On this wallpaper a window with a face pops up. It says something. The other window pops up and says something else. Sometimes these kind of dialogues can last up to three minutes. All the time you have to press a button to hear/read the next line. It's hard to imagine a more oldschool way to present dialogues. It reminds me of all these generic hentai games, there's just less boobs. 

Cutscenes tell a story. A pretty damn good one for game standards, really. Good enough to make anime TV series and three manga adaptations out ot it. The characters are well built, some are a little cliche, but to the extent that makes them easier to understand, but not boringly predictable. Every single one of your soldiers (there's dozens of them) has different personality. You get lots of dialogues, that help you get to know the main characters, learn more about the plot, about the military situation on the front - everything. Some dialogues make you laugh, others make you cry and surprisingly few annoy you with being naive or generic. Again, there is a downside. Since the game is so story-heavy, you get tons of cutscenes and dialogues before you can get into another fight. After initial excitement with the story, you are left with 19 chapters of the game where for every battle you get at least six cutscenes or dialogues. Mostly dialogues. Cutscenes you can just view, but the dialogues mentioned above you have to click through. That really gets tedious.

That brings us to another element - the whole game is in so called "book mode". Since it is so story-heavy, it seriously makes sense. We see 2 pages for every chapter. Very clean and intuitive menu. On every page we have pictures we can choose to see. Every chapter has 6-10 pictures. In vast majority of the chapters, only one of the pictures directs you to the battle. The rest are cutscenes and dialogues. The decission to focus so much on the story leads to a ridiculous result: you actually end up clicking on the pictures to read/listen through the dialogues that, although well-written, are just being fed to you without any relevant action from your side. And the longer I played the more uneasy I was with the "click for a cutscene" approach and on one hand I really wanted to see more of the story, but I wanted it to be told in more interactive way. What we get here is the story almost completely separated from gameplay.

Where the game shines is the battle system. It is a turn-based strategy. You control a variety of unit types. Foot soldiers can be levelled up and equipped with weapons that give different bonuses. The tanks can be upgraded and outfitted with add-ons. Furthermore, every character has up to eight potentials boosting or decreasing his or her battle abilities depending on the situation they are in (type of ground, proximity of other units, amount of health, etc.). Imagine controlling 9 members of your squad in every battle and spice it all up with the parameters like range, accuracy, damage and effectiveness against armor types. What you get is an impressive amount of possibilities and play styles available. To make it even more engaging, you get to actually run with your soldiers instead of pointing them in some direction. Drawback? Of course there is. Every mission just takes soooo much time! If you want to use all your mobility points in the current turn it takes at least 5 minutes to finish your turn and then, when the enemy is moving, you can just go make yourself a coffee. A whole battle can easily last for over an hour. The designers of course tried to remedy that by adding some scripts to the enemy behavior. The result? Either you trigger the enemies, causing them all to move and make you wait until the end of their ridiculously long turn or you trigger just a few, causing them to attack you head on while the whole army of their mates doesn't react to the massacre in front of them.

Don't get me wrong - I really enjoyed the game and I found it greatly entertaining regardless of quite many annoyances. But it's not why I would recommend it. I would mostly encourage you to play this game just to see these tiny defects. I think every designer or designer wannabe should play it to see how much every element affects the whole game like a double-edged sword. How choosing the narrative means affects pacing. How the battle system can be incredibly engaging when we are in control and utterly boring when you are just watching the other side's move. It makes for an excellent case study.


Why the word "indie" shouldn't exist

A problem with all the things that are "indie" is that it's just an empty term. There is no clear definition what makes a piece of art indie. I might be strongly biased about the term "indie" since the first time I heard these sad kids trying to make some use of the instruments, calling themselves an "indie rock band". Then again, I haven't seen any proof so far that the term is worth anything. I saw people trying to narrow it down to some basic commonalities of indie stuff. One of the most popular and - it seems - ground characteristics is "not being financially backed or in any way dependant on publishers". If that was to define "indie", then Square Enix is an indie game developer and Timbaland is an indie musician.

Let's take a look at writers as an extreme example. How is it that self-publishing authors are generally ridiculed for being not good enough to publish while "indie" authors are considered to be so cool? After all, they are doing an exact same thing! I completely understand how the catchy slogans of independence and innovation arouse the masses. Someone came up with a brilliant idea of marketing the same product under a different banner. These aren't struggling writers that can't get to be published by anyone. These are writers that are fighting the system, a possibly globally controlled secret association of publishers to smother the creativity and devilishly laugh while counting money. The artistic value of it stays the same.

I am not a historian of the game industry, but the the popularity of the whole indie game movement is relatively recent and began more or less with game designers quitting their jobs in bigger companies and starting from scratch, on their own. But what's so fresh in games made by Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel or Jonathan Blow? How is Molyneux starting 22 cans different than Molyneux starting Lionhead or Bullfrog? The same kind of startups weren't called indie in the 80's or 90's.

The difference lies in the market situation mostly. Smartphones and electronic distribution happened along with new, free and more complete game making tools. An era of games in great quality for affordable price finally arrived and everyone lived happily ever after! No? Well, not really. The barrier to entry got significantly lower, yes, but no miracles were involved. Making a good game still requires skills. With the skilled veterans breaking indie came rising stars like Markus "Notch" Persson. And along with them came thousands of startups with more, less or no experience whatsoever. All hoping to get their slice of the pie.

The sad truth is that for every excellent indie game released, you get 10 copies of Angry Birds or Bejeweled, 50 generic point-and-clickers and 100 barely finished school projects. Normally, these would never see the light of a day and frankly speaking, nobody would cry because of it.  The only reason why these games get to be released is because they are branded "indie". Meaning their authors get credit for being not-so-professional developers that don't pay the publishers, for fighting the system and wanting the industry to grow in a more innovative and less money-driven direction. They get all that benefit of doubt just for being in the "indie" basket while what they often actually do is try to cheaply rip off a popular idea for money. It's almost a shame there is no instance that could browse through all this stuff for us and just hold back the games that don't meet even the lowest quality requirements, like... I don't know... a publisher or something?

The whole indie movement in gaming is often perceived as a revolution. And let's maybe look at it as such for a moment. A revolution is an act of uprising led by the middle class (here: mid-sized developers), that encourages the lower class (here: every wannabe developer and small company) with the use of catchy slogans (here: independence, creativity, freedom of artistic vision, return of fun, you name it) in order to overthrow the upper class (here: biggest gaming companies) depicted as the common enemy (here: greedy moneymakers producing generic games for masses) and introduce new order, in most cases meaning getting the power for themselves (here: taking the market share from the bigger companies). Every revolution ends when the lower class gets tired of fighting and looses interest. Will the indie movement take down the biggest companies? I don't think so. Will it steal their market share? Maybe a small piece. Still, there are surprisingly many similarities to the revolution, at least in the mindset and slogans.

How does it actually work? Suddenly nearly anyone can make and publish a game. Sure, it is now easier than before, but... there's nothing really uncommon about it. All these "indie devs" are doing exactly the same thing the current giants did 20 or 30 years ago. They are starting small studios and how big they will become depends mostly on the success of their games. Yes, some guys have quit the bigger studios to have more creative control. Once they succeed with their first small game, they can still have this creative control when they hire 20 people to help them to make a slightly bigger one. Then they will hire 100 more people to make two games at once, still having the creative control over both and making at least a few of this hundred people think "maybe I'll quit and start my own company to make the game I want to make..."

Glorifying the "indie game" term actually leads to more negative than positive things. It puts great games developed by skilled individuals together with hundreds of mediocre products unifying them under one mushy category. The term draws attention from actual brands, like World of Goo or Jonathan Blow, to promote a blob of games whose only common element is being non-AAA. Furthermore, it creates a state of fictional conflict between "the creative indie" and "greedy and repetitive AAA" industries, completely ignoring that the vast majority of indie games could be pasted on Wikipedia under "recycling" and that pearls of creativity like Okami, The Sims, Shadow of the Colossus, Dark Souls or Little Big Planet have been developed by these dreaded AAA gamedevs. It causes misinformation for the players, stereotyping insanely broad categories of games with tags that cannot possibly fit them all.

My prediction would be that in a few years the studios that actually managed to stand out of the indie crowd will do their best to get as much distance from the movement as possible. They will realize quite soon that being branded as "indie" will just stall their progress. The most mediocre developers will keep on holding the indie banner up, shouting their slogans of independency, of hatred towards sell-outs that aren't living on instant noodle anymore. Will games evolve in a more creative direction? A considerable amount of them will. But not because of some silly indie fad - because of the natural tendency of the market to satisfy an identified demand. And thanks to brilliant individuals that will deliver these games.


How graphics are killing gameplay

I have been circling over the idea for this article for quite some time now. It all started when I realized that even in a gamedev environment, people tend to care much more about the visuals of the game than how you actually play it. When you have a gameplay build or a prototype with placeholder graphics, barely anyone wants to play it. Only after adding considerable amount of finished graphical assets, like characters, environment or motion captured animations, you start attracting attention. In a way, players tend to treat games like men treat female strangers - they are all drawn to the ones that are most visually stunning.

Then comes a disappointment - why is something this pretty so shallow? Because it can! Choosing women by their looks means they are off the hook when it comes to being engaging in intellectual way. The same goes for games. What's more, if you are among the people that are cursing this state of things, you are in minority. The fact is... most guys expect their girls to be mainly pretty. Most players expect their games to be mainly pretty. Depth of character or gameplay, being commercially less attractive, gets overlooked. That's how both markets work.

Since we are in the mixed girl/game topic and it's only a few moments before the big opening, we can take a look at everyone's favourite, Lara Croft. Let's focus compare Tomb Raider (1996) to Tomb Raider (2013). There's no doubt that the new one is way prettier than the old one. Not only in terms of graphics, actually. The story is much better, much more versatile. Pacing is incredible, sounds cinematic - everything is top-notch and I have no doubts that even hardcore and oldschool gamers would enjoy the new Tomb Raider more. I will go on with my nitpicking anyway, though. 

Take a closer look at the jumping mechanics in both Tomb Raiders. The 1996 one had a world looking not much better than Minecraft. It was built out of cubes. Even if they tried to hide that by half-cubes or triangular slopes, it all came down to big cubes being a bit taller than Lara. These cubes didn't only build the world though. They were building the movement mechanics. By pressing forward one single time, we could make Lara run forward by exactly 1 cube length. She could jump 2 cubes high to grab a ledge. She could jump 2 cubes forward to land on a cube in front of her or 3 cubes forward to catch a ledge in front of her. She could  jump 1 or 2 cubes to the sides, jump 1 cube backwards or backflip 2 cubes. These numbers might be inaccurate here and there, as I don't really know by heart every game from 17 years ago, but you should get the point. The cube was a linear measure. It helped the gameplay team build the whole levels. They designed mazes and series of barely grabbable ledges to add to the core esthetic of the game - becomming an Indiana Jones in tight shorts that solves puzzles. And the players, since they could actually see these cubes, could also fairly easily assess how far they can jump. Jumping was a skill.

In 2013 to jump you need to press X. Lara will jump over any gap between two platforms. You don't have to worry about this. As long as the game tells you "X" you know you will jump if you press it. That might actually be good, because the new Tomb Raider isn't about jumping from platform to platform, but I myself feel robbed from the opportunity to think by myself whether I will make a jump or not. The level designers got robbed of this opportunity as well, since they only had to design the levels from the visual point of view, gameplay being a secondary element. New Tomb Raider is about moving forward. Jumping when you are told to. Shooting when you get to some arena. Pressing what you are told to press. Why? Because in order to make the game look great, the designers needed to limit your options.

The sad truth is nicely revealed in this article. Another big franchise, Final Fantasy. The big number VII was released in 1997 and the newest parts, XIII and XIII-2 came to us in 2009-2011. As you can read in the linked article, making number VII in the XIII quality would take 3-5 times more than it took to make XIII-2. This means 6 to 10 years. I don't know how many of you played both games, so I will try to avoid spoilers. I will focus on simple facts. In XIII you run forward through tunnels for 90% of the game. These tunnels are beautiful, but are still tunnels with nothing to explore and nothing to see except for nicely rendered ass of the main heroine. Even a tower that looks like a puzzle location at first is nothing more than a straight line dragged through a few floors. In VII lots of parts were tunnelly as well, but you were given puzzle levels, like Shinra headquarters or train graveyard. In both VII and XIII-2 you had a casino. In VII you could play snowboard, bike-and-slash, arm wrestling, boxing, shooter, submarine simulation, mog tamagotchi, chocobo racing, fight on the arena. In XIII-2 you can race a chocobo, play one-armed bandit and poker (if you bought DLC). The snowboard alone in VII gave you way more fun than all games in XIII-2 put together. So what it was also way uglier. In order to make their games visually stunning, Square had to make them simply less fun.

The game industry, especially its AAA part, works just like any other industry. The games need to make profit. They need to be sold. What sells is new technology. Since sound or mechanics cannot possibly utilize the technology in a more exhausting way than they already are, new technologies in games practically equal better graphics. I think there must have been a breaking point in the game industry evolution where the balance between graphics and gameplay got seriously screwed up. Nowadays everyone expects at least a decent level of graphics. Do you know how much work this means? I'll tell you. If a concept is ready, a 3D artist spends more or less 20 days to make a single character model for an FPS. Now multiply it by the number of characters and by the salary of the modeller. With 30 models it is over 2 years of work for one person and I can assure you, 3D modellers aren't working for a bowl of rice per day. And that's only character modelling. Add to it all the environment assets, concept arts, all the animations, shaders, lighting and physics and you can multiply the whole number by ten. And as our imaginary calculations have already exceeded the price of Ferrari F12 a while ago, let me remind you that we are only talking about the "decent level of graphics", which means around 7/10. Games do not have unlimited budget. There are only two solutions to make it work with a limited budget. Either you cut down a number of assets and make the game shorter and/or more linear or you agree to have poor graphics. I can assure you that 9 out of 10 producers will choose the less content option.

Fortunately, there are games that go against this trend. The new remake of XCOM got really poor notes for graphics, yet is kept an impressive metascore of 89 and was a commercial success. All thanks to the simplified gameplay from 20 years ago. Dark Souls plays in the same league - the same metascore, one of the most beloved games of the last few years, nearly 2 million copies sold. All that with - let's face it - shitty graphics. Still, its gameplay held up. This gives us hope that in the nearest future more and more studios might abandon the race for most stunning graphics and focus on what the games are all about - gameplay. We just have to remember that for a studio to decide to go in this direction, there must be a market need. If the majority of players will keep buying games for their graphics, majority of developers will keep producing eyecandies with gameplay placeholders.