Archive for April, 2011

Talking Shop #6: Shop Talking vs the World

To all of the 6 people that read this blog, and that strange cookinh (sic) site that once visited me 127 times in a single hour, a message.

You might have noticed that the site hasn’t been updated in a while.

Sorry for that.

The thing is, though, that I have exams coming up. Thousands of them. Well, 19. Starting from tomorrow, ’til July. And as much as I like venting my spleen of knowledge all over the pasta of the internet, I may need to stop that. So, this’ll probably become monthly, bi-monthly, until the exams are all over.

Gaming: Level Design

So, this is another foray into an aspect of gaming. Today it’s level design, as you can probably guess from the title. Can’t think of a good introduction today. Anyway, here I go;

The Corridor.

This is the easiest type of level to design. It is a long, long tube, down which the player walks. No matter how you might disguise it, the game is effectively on rails, and unless it is a rail shooter, you’ve done something terribly wrong. (Yes, I’m talking to you, Final Fantasy XIII.) However, this is the cheapest form of game to make, as you effectively have a series of 2D shooting galleries, if you “fix” the view of the player.

Branching Corridors.

Here you have the same set-up as the corridor above. However, there are now different paths you can take, either simple ones (through a firefight) or more complex ones (an alternate level). If the straightforward corridor above was Time Crisis, this is House of the Dead. This now only gives the player the illusion of freedom (as most of the levels should be unchanged, even though they might have made seemingly significant decisions, it also gives the game replay value, which is always good for any game.)

The Boxy Path.

Now, this, at the outset, looks identical to the initial “Corridor” set-up. A long path, full of environments where you get shot at. But now there is more freedom for the player. Where before there was a shooting gallery, you can now move about. There may even be multi-level environments. The player can move around, react, and there is now a lot more freedom. But now, of course, it gets a lot more expensive, as you have to model things which the player could not have seen before – parts of the ceiling, and areas of the walls behind and below the player, as well as the vistas. This is Doom-style gaming. You have one route to follow, and you cannot deviate from this. Unfortunately, as well as this being Doom-style gaming, it is also the way modern Triple-A shooters seem to lean towards. A great step backwards. They look lovely and photorealistic, though. And brown. And covered in lens flare. (Sigh)

Boxy Boxy Paths.

This is to the “Boxy Path” as “Branching Corridors” is to “Corridors”. However, the main difference is that, as well as being multilevel (gotta love that) it is also full of different ways to play through the level that can interact with each other a lot more than from the normal rail-shooter style. This also allows for more hidden paths, and for you to put more freedom in a smaller space. Continuing with applying this to games, this would be more like Quake – lots of paths, lots of secrets, and hardly any of them are pointed out to you. However, you still move through the same areas no matter which way you go through the level, and there are several segments per level that you have to do. This set-up is not a sandbox, but it gives the illusion of one, whilst remaining easier and cheaper to make.

The Sandbox

This one is where the level stops being scripted, but instead is created, and left at that. For every level there are many, many ways through, some of which are radically different to each other, utilising different skillsets and gameplay styles. If you want to determine whether a level is a true sandbox or not, is too test whether there is anywhere you cannot go, or is unlocked later, or “locks” later. If so, it is not a sandbox. Take Deus Ex, for example – one of the finest sandbox games out there. Each skill you have gives you different ways to play through the level, and your fragility makes you make serious choices about where to go. Nothing is locked, and with minimal points allocated to each skill, you can go just about anywhere. The “locking” comes from the fact that you can never max out all of your skills, so that’s where the replay value comes into play. Also, look at Medal of Honour: Airborne. It’s “gimmick” was that you spawned dropping out of a plane above the level, and had several objectives to achieve – take out the AA towers, kill the Nazi Commander, etc, etc – but when you dropped out of the plane, the level was laid out below you, and you could choose to land anywhere in the level below – rooftops, back alleys, next to said objectives – which meant that the level designers could not script as much as you could if you had to play through the game linearly. Instead they had to make better AI and hope for the best. Unfortunately, this came out at the same time as the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and this discipline of level design fell by the wayside due to poor sales, and it has not been revisited by any big-name studio as of writing.

General Level Design Stuff.

Space is of the Essence – you, really, want to design as little as possible, while creating the longest game possible. It means you can polish what you have created to a higher shine, and make more levels. That is why so many games let you see where you are going to go before you go there, as it means that they have to create a new vista, and can instead just copy and paste the later level. Or they might make you try to find the Blue Key, and then go all the way back to open the Blue Door, then try to find the Red Key. This is sloppy design, and is just a cheap short-cut. Instead, use your environments, by making them wide and deep, and make the paths through be both vertical and lateral. See the Storm Drain level in Mirror’s Edge as a good example. You spend 10-15 minutes climbing up this huge cylinder, criss-crossed with catwalks and struts, until you finally get to the top, and open a small door. F.E.A.R. does this a lot, too. When you fight through a warehouse, you fight through the whole warehouse, and every room that you can see, you can go into. You don’t have to be too shrewd with your level design, but then, you don’t want to end up like Halo 3, where the smallest room cost 300 man-hours of work, and you sped through it in 5 seconds, at most.

Variety, Colour and Rainbow Goodness.

Next time you are going to buy a game, look at the colours in the pictures on the back of the box. They will be brown, brown, brown, and black. The same goes for the enemies, and for the players. What you really need is colour and variety. Rainbows optional. Paint everything in technicolour raiments, and bright and cheery scenery. This will not make things more “realistic”, however, as the colour palette for that is very reduced, but, for a fun game, it will provide both contrast and allow you to make your various enemies look unique. If the player can immediately differentiate between the enemy, his allies, and the terrain, that is always good. For example, compare Gears of War to the first Unreal. In Gears, all the enemies, environments, vehicles and allies are brown, to the extent that it becomes hard to tell what’s what. In Unreal, there a huge, multi-coloured monstrosities, vivid outside environments, diverse indoor arenas, and a whole medley of kaleidoscopic weaponry.

Also,remember, if your level is large and colourful, then it is very hard to get lost, or not know where to go. You can get the brown cathedral area confused with the brown warehouse area, and the brown castle area (all of which might feature in a single level), but it is a lot harder to get the electric-blue water area confused with the lush, green tropical area, or the arid yellow-red desert area.

I can’t think of a good outroduction either today. Well, that’s it. Have fun.

Talking Shop #5: Stop, Drop & Roll

One week into my new posting scheme to post twice a week, it clearly hasn’t worked, due to a combination of incompetence, laziness and upcoming exams. So it’ll be the normal one-post-a-week schedule, until it isn’t.

Worldbin: A Proper Villain

Every story needs a villain. Someone, or something, for the protagonist to struggle against, and ultimately overcome. In this post, I’m going to talk about designing a Big Bad, the most common type of Villain, and explain some of it’s idiosyncrasies. They can be the Evil Emperor, the Ruthless Warlord, the Omnicidal Nether-Horror, the Annoying Manager, depending on your setting and genre. If your story does not have a villain, then it is most probably a bad fanfic.

Note: The other 2 most common Villains are the Mindless Villain, and the Villainous World. The Mindless Villain is the Virus, the Zombie Outbreak, the Alien Invasion – an enemy that cannot be argued with, talked to, or even understood. All you can do is to defeat them before they defeat you. The Villainous World is a world in which everything – fauna, flora, mineral, you name it – wants to kill you. It’s either a Death World, and you are (perceived to be) weak, or it’s a (pseudo-)Intelligent World, which knows what you are doing, and doesn’t like that, so it tries to kill you. It may or may not have warned you first, though.

Anyway, back to the crux, or nub, or the piece. Designing a Big Bad Villain.

First of all, he must be Evil. Or Ruthless and/or Unprincipled enough to be hated, or at least detested by the Hero. Common ways of doing this are;

  • Hedonism. He’s a big eater, and only eats the finest pickled dove’s eggs on iceberg lettuce, grown on real icebergs. All fed to him by beautiful consorts, of which he has many. If they are also slavegirls, it intersects nicely with the next point, which is;
  • Slaver. He supports slavery, or at least treats his serfs like them. Even if they are indentured servants, and entitled to some legal protection, he doesn’t care. He’s doesn’t care about lesser people than him. This leads to;
  • Nepotist. He believes in Sovereign Power (Nobles have the right to rule because they are Nobles, and have the support of God) and sees all those without blue blood as lesser. He’s a bit of a dick, and may also be terminally stupid, having inherited his title or;
  • Homicidal. 3 Years Ago, he was 12th in line to the Throne. Now he’s King. Everyone that opposes him vanishes. If you try to rebel against him, he kills you, your family, your friends, your friends’ families, and the village you grew up in. He’s not a man to cross.

Secondly, he needs to have crossed paths with the Hero at least once, normally when he is rising to power, and the Hero is still young / is disillusioned / has taken up a life of prayer and meditation /is full of angst. (delete as appropriate) Whilst this happens, he does a completely, unambiguously evil act – killing their parents is the most conventional way of doing this. He might also burn down the lovely little idyll the Hero lives in, as well. Also, if the Hero has any younger siblings, he will either a) Kidnap them and force them into a life of servitude (if it’s a girl) or b) Kidnap them and indoctrinate them to become his lieutenant (if it’s a boy). If the Hero has any older siblings, they will give their lives to shelter the Hero, or give him time to escape. The Villain’s Henchmen might also rape, murder and pillage their way through the surrounding countryside, causing widespread death and destruction in their wake, just so you know that the Villain is Evil. Something you can play around with this here is for when, in the final showdown, the Hero confronts the Big Bad about the terrible event that he caused in the past, the Big Bad does not remember it, or considers it a small matter, or was simply an unintended side effect of a larger scheme. For the Hero, it might have been the most important day of his life. But for the Villain… it was Tuesday.

Thirdly, he needs a Plan. This is crucial. Every Villain needs a Plan. It can be as simple as “Kill The Hero”, “Rule The World” or “Live Forever”. Alternatively, it can be a multi-stage complex scheme in which countless projects weave together, culminating in a (seemingly) unstoppable nefarious strategy to “Conquer The Multiverse” or “Become A God”. Bonus points will be awarded if it appears to be one of the former, but is actually one of the latter variety. The Plan can allow for the Hero’s victory. He might defeat the Villain in the Western Marshes, but that was just a ploy to allow the Villain to succeed in the East! If this happens, remember – It’s All Part Of The Plan. That evil, evil plan which the Hero has to stop, for the sake of all Mankind! (or something similarly dramatic)

Now you have a Villain with the Hero knows, hates, and has a plan. Now you have to give him the means to carry this out. And this means that you have to give him some redeeming qualities. Take Julius Caesar. He worked to undermine the dictator Sulla, and participated in at least 2 coups. He arranged show trials in his career as a lawyer, and managed to get himself elected Pontifex Maximus – the chief priest of Rome, a position which gave him tremendous power. He became the governor of Spain, where he began to annex his Roman allies and expand his governorate. He managed to become Consul, and when he was declared an enemy of the state when the political tide turned against him, he marched upon Rome, caused the Roman Civil War, and disbanded the Senate when he assumed emergency powers, hunted down Pompey, his former mentor, and ruled until he was killed on the floor of the Theater of Pompey. The resulting power vacuum quashed any hope of Roman Democracy, and Emperor Augustus ruled after him, and the Augusto-Caesar line lasted until Nero. But them again, he strengthened the dying Roman Empire, got rid of the corrupt and inefficient government, and brought civilisation the most of Europe. So, it all balanced out in the end. (well, kind of)

Here are a lot of things Villains have, and how they could achieve it;

  • A Huge Empire. They are a statesman without peer. They can soothe old wounds between embittered countries in an morning, and have them pledging allegiance by afternoon. The bureaucracy he has set up runs smoothly, and everything ticks over like a finely-tuned machine.
  • A Devoutly Loyal Legion. These are people he has saved. They used to live in squalor, and were treated like filth. He might even have been one of them. But now he has raised them up from the slums where they used to live, and they are so, so grateful for what he has done to them. He might even have cured them of something horrific that caused them to be outcasts in the first place.
  • Monstrous Minions. This one of the easiest ones to answer. The reason you have hoards of trolls, orcs and swamp creatures under your command is simple. The world is a horrible place to live, especially in the outer regions, so you need personnel who can deal with those conditions. In the marshes, the Swamp Creatures keep the Empire safe. The Orcs patrol the Sunless Wastes, where their aversion to light is not a problem. Trolls defend in the Sulphurous Deserts, as only those hardy enough, or with significant regenerative capabilities can survive there for long. They have both. This is why, when they are drafted in to fight your peasant uprising, they are so ineffective. They have never been trained to fight on a field, in lines, or in formation. They have no idea what to do.
    Note: You can mix this one with the Loyal Legion one above, if you wish, as they work together very well.
  • His Evil Mines Of Evil. Everyone knows there was an obscenely advanced race that came before, of which the Hero has one of their fantastical weapons. The Big Bad has found a veritable treasure trove of Precursor Artefacts down in this mine, and send people down there to dig them out. This may be purely so he can use them for his own gain, or maybe it is for the good of the Empire, but either way, he’s getting them out of that hell-hole one way or another.

If you are going to make a good Villain, be sure to check out the 36 Stratagems, a Chinese book detailing 6 sets of 6 ruses to help you win. (In I Ching, six is the number of Yin that is associated with the dark schemes involved in military strategy. As thirty-six is the square of six, it therefore acts as a metaphor for numerous strategies) They detail the Stratagems for Winning, Dealing With The Enemy, Attacking, Causing Chaos, Gaining Ground, and When Near Defeat. They are invaluable when you need inspiration on how the Villain could deal with the Hero.

Also, there is the Evil Overlord List. It deconstructs the traditional Villain Clichés, and within it contains 100 Rules any competent Evil Overlord should follow. These include; not taking the Hero’s love interest as your consort, not assuming that the Hero died in that fall, not leaving people alive as an example to others, and never playing fair. Check them out. They’re both good reads.

Well, I think that covers most of the tropes and clichés commonly associated with Big Bads. Don’t hesitate to tell me if I missed any. Hope you enjoyed that.



Talking Shop #4: Electric Boogaloo

Small change in my update schedule for posting stuff. I’ll now be posting an article on Monday, and an article on Thursday! That’s right! I’m now posting bi-weekly! Rejoice!

No, but seriously, it’ll be a Worldbin-thing on Monday, and a Gaming post on Thursday, if all goes well, which it probably won’t. It probably won’t last a week, but, still, Yay!, for mindless optimism!