Archive for the ‘ Gaming ’ Category

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.

Gaming: The 3-Act Story

This is a technical post, of a sort, so feel free to skip it if you were expecting more space travel goodness. Basically, it’s an introduction to storytelling in games, with a couple of examples, and some soapboxing at the end.

First of all, here are the 7 plots;

1. The Quest
2. Voyage and Return
3. Rebirth
4. Comedy
5. Tragedy
6. Overcoming the Monster
7. Rags to Riches

However, a couple of these are not applicable in gaming, or at least not for a mainstream game, so in gaming terms, it looks more like this;

1. The Quest – this is the staple of any shooter / RPG / whatever. The plot is “You want to do X! Now do it!”
2. Voyage and Return – The big JRPG one here. “You are in another world / time / dimension! Find a way to return home!”
3. Overcoming the Monster – This is more horror than anything. Plot is “X is bad! Overcome X!”

Now, for a brief explanation of the 3-Act structure.

Act 1 – Set-Up.
The protagonists and antagonists are set up, exposition is given, you learn about the world in which you are set, and the Inciting Incident kicks off the plot. This is the tutorial, when you meet your team, but then your home town is destroyed, and you set off into the big wide world.

Act 2 – Confrontation
You now know who the Big Bad is. Now you grind, do sidequests, and collect all the pieces of the Deus Ex Machina Plot Device to defeat the Evil Empire. You learn more story, visit exotic locations and play through all the loyalty missions. When you have recruited everyone, and reached Level 99, you set out to kill the bad guy.

Act 3 – Resolution
Fight your way through the fortress, defeat the Minibosses. Meet the Bossm, kill him, watch the cutscene, start a New Game Plus.
Standard time allowance is about 10-20% for 1, 60-80% for 2, and 5-10% for 3. Because of the huge amount of time Act 2 has, it can be broken up into 2A and 2B.

2A – This is when you explore your world map, recruit your party, and discover magic. You will meet your first Bosses (outside of Tutorial Bosses) and see what the Antagonists have wrought, and be angry. Meet the people of the land, and marvel that they all sound like white, middle-class Americans, even though they look nothing alike.

2B – Now you’ve specialised, and reached advanced classes. Loyalty missions are here, and you discover all the heavy lore-based stuff. You start to understand the idiosyncrasies of the world further, and do a couple of Serious Moral Choices. The Bosses become more varied, and your party gets all the top-tier gear. Then the suit up and go off to face the Big Bad, and have your horrifically cheesy romance cutscene.
Of course, these Acts only hold true for games with story – RPG’s and the like. Modern Brownfare 8 – Brownfare Evolved can’t have the same level of story. However, it can have a similar set-up – Basic Training, then learn how to use all your weapons, then advanced tactics, then kill the Big Bad Corrupt Multinational. (or something equally bland)

The 3rd Act, however, is where a game can truly shine. It is also where most twists come. (Spoiler – it’s always a betrayal.) If it has been foreshadowed enough, then it can make the game go to new heights, and reveal hidden depths in the world, the story and your companions (Jade Empire, System Shock 2), or make it worse for you due to the twist being trite (Star Ocean 3) or downright confusing (Metal Gear Solid 2).

A risky gambit is the 4th Act. Here’s an example;
1. You meet the Evil Guy. He’s killing people, enslaving them, and forcing them to work down the mines of in his hell-hole empire. He also kiled your father, or something.
2. You meet like-minded revolutionaries, and set out on a quest to restore PollyAnnaLand back to it’s original glory. You disrupt all the evil things he’s done, free slaves, and rob trains. You even find your missing sister/mother/whatever! The people revolt, and you march on the Fortress of Doom.
3. You kill everyone in the Fortress (why else would they be there?) and free the rightful Prince from the dungeons, go to the Throne Room, defeat the Black Dragon of Doom, and prepare to kill the Emperor.

Normally, this is where you chuck him in the dungeons, and watch the sugar-sweet, clichéd epilogue. However, this is where it diverges.

4. The Emperor reveals that Horrible Lovecraftian Monsters are going to invade in world in the next 8 months, and the Ancient Superweapon is the only way of defeating them once and for all. The weapon in question is in the mines, which you have just closed down. He’s really got your best interests at heart, but no-one will believe him if he told them, and if you work down there, you will die within the year. Now the player has to make a Serious Moral Choice about whether to

a) Kill the Emperor or Not
b) Believe him or Not, and
c) Re-open the Mines or Not.

If people don’t expect this, then it can come as a fantastic plot-twist. However, if it is implemented badly, it’ll all fall to pieces. Fable 3 tried to do this, but everyone knew about the twist, and the choices were stupidly polar. (Do you want to destroy the Adorable Woods, and die in a year, or do you want raze them to the ground, kill everything in them, and survive? No, you can’t strip-mine half of the woods. Or reforest somewhere else. Choose one.)
Another 4th Act Twist is changing the genre of the game suddenly, due to an left-field introduction.

Example – a horror shooter. You’re going along, having fun, and have nearly , but then a new strain is released, a gate to Hell opens, or the Mothership arrives, but either way, it’s not good. Everything goes to pot, and you run out of ammo quickly, and the monsters are much, much more powerful than anything you’ve seen recently. Their health can regenerate like yours, and they are quick, jumpy and fast. Your exploration of the derelict ship / scary island / strange town  is now lower priority. You retrace your path through the earlier levels, and try to get to the exit, and back to your ship / vehicle / airplane before you become food.
Most writers have this grand idea of a world, and want to implement it. The set-up is good, too. So that’s Act 1, and some of Act 2. But people tend to forget that it doesn’t stop there, and Act 3 is generally the most disappointing. You’ve got to plan each Act out, scene by scene in some cases, and make sure you try not railroad your players at any opportunity, or make the decisions the character makes illogical. Put a bit more love into your work, and don’t dumb it down for the “mainstream” audiences. They’ll enjoy a good plot as much as the next man.

Gaming: The 1 Hit Point Problem

Health is a tricky concept to put into game systems. There is a whole spectrum of health systems that have propagated over the years, the most prominent at the moment is the fast regeneration, popularised by the Halo series.

The reason regen is popular is simple – it makes the game easier for the designers, and to some extent, the players. In the old days of medkits, if you were a good player, you would get the the climatic boss fight with 100HP remaining. However, if you had screwed up the early stages of the level, you would be fighting it with 15HP. This meant that the level designers had to either put large amounts of health and ammo directly before the boss fight, telegraphing what was about to come, or they could try to balance the boss fight for players with different HP. The second option requires excessive testing, and is expensive, and hard to do. (A good example of this is in Half-Life 2 – when you have lower HP, the Combine get less accurate. Most people don’t notice it, therefore it is a good example.) But with regen, you know how powerful the player will be, meaning it is easier for the designer, and the game requires less testing.

Unfortunately, this also means that weapons now have to do more damage, in order to compensate for people being able to go back to full health after 3 second’s hiding. This is why Call of Duty multiplayer is so fast-paced – the regeneration speed, and resulting increased weapon damage, means that whomever gets the drop wins. Contrast this with, say, Team Fortess 2, where it is a lot slower – you can empty a full clip into somebody, and they still might not die, depending on the characters you are playing. This means that there is a more tactical play, as reflexes are no longer the be-all and end-all.

 

The other way, with fixed-health, as the titular 1HP problem. This is prominent in D&D, and goes a little like this;

I have full health, and can walk, run, climb, swim, fight, whatever. The world is my oyster.
Now I have 1HP, and can do everything I can do at full HP with no penalties, even though I have multiple stab wound, been recently electrocuted, suffered massive blunt-force trauma and am on fire.
Then I take stub my toe, take 1 point of damage, fall over and die. (or bleed out, or whatever)

Perfectly realistic.

The 2 easiest ways to combat this problem is to have  a sliding scale of damage, and the associated penalties.

Sliding scales are always tricky, as they can feel a bit arbitrary, or they can have only quite minor penalties. As someone gets more and more hurt, they get slower, hit lighter, and can’t run as far. In the end, a long-running battle would end up moving at glacial speeds. Locational damage is a good compromise, but is trickier to implement, though Deus Ex did it well. Your body was split into six sections – left arm, right arm, left leg, right leg, torso and head. Each had it’s own health-bar. If you lose one arm, your aim goes shonky and your reloading speed is slow. Lose both, and it’s spray-and-pray with a long reload time. Lose a leg, and you’re hobbled. Lose both, and you are shuffling along the floor at crotch-height. However, if your torso or head goes, you’re dead. As Deus Ex was a shooter, it was relatively easy to assign damage – where you we hit, you took damage. However, other than called shots or random hit tables, it is much harder to implement in tabletop games. (Unless the thing you are attacking is huge – then you can call it simply by which way it is facing, and where you are when you attack it.)

However, due to the advantages of regeneration, and the fact that it is the current status quo, then a way to combine it and static HP is for slow regeneration – you still have 100HP, but you regenerate at 1HP/second, after not being shot at for 15 seconds. This means that when you move from room to room, you will have max health, but in a hectic fire-fight you cannot rely on ducking behind cover for 5 seconds and wiping the jam off your eyes. Medkits are now a combat item, and bullets do not have to be the insta-kills they are in faster-paced games. It’s a nice middle of the road for people who prefer the older style of gaming, but with the convenience of the newer games.

Gaming: Swords, Guns and all that Jazz.

Ever since Snow Crash, a lot of futuristic world contain some silly cyberpunk antihero with a katana in one hand and a semi-auto in the other.

(This a big move from the older Gibson-style with a guy doing clearly criminal activities, working for a something much bigger than himself, and trying to find his was in a world reminiscent of a Hunter S. Thompson novel. Anyway, that is for another post down the line somewhere. So now back to your regularly scheduled post.)

Sword and Guns – are exceptionally polar styles of weapons, and I’m not thinking simply of the range. This applies to most Cyberpunk 2020 and similar, in which “classic” forms of fighting are rubbing shoulders with gunplay.

The classic styles have a much higher requirements in term of skill, training and body. A novice with a blade will be skewered by a master with the same weapon. He probably won’t even be able to land a single hit, and the fight would be over quickly. Now compare that to a bloke with an Uzi vs. a soldier with an Uzi. Chances are both people will hit each other, and its good odds that both would die. Anyone can pick up a gun and cause some serious havoc. If you try to do that with a knife, you will realise that a) range is useful; and b) the sheer stopping power of a firearm is fantastical. A single bullet wound is deadlier than a sword blow, because if you stab someone to deep with a blade, it sticks when you try to pull it back out, meaning his friend can revenge him. However, if you shoot someone in the chest, you don’t need to worry about that. Range and damage have always made ranged weapons better – just look at Agincourt. When a longbow can piece plate, and you are firing 10-20 a minute, 7500 longbowmen and small contingent of men-at-arms can defeat upwards of 50,000 swordsmen and knights.

Using a sword makes no sense, nor a kama, nor nunchucks, swordchucks or woodchuck-chucks. However, the unarmed martial arts do. High-tech society means high-tech weaponry. When a handcannon can shoot through 6 feet of concrete, it makes sense to have scanners in most places. Unless you have ceramic or plastic weapons, then hands, feet and foreheads are the way forward. Also they are just generally useful, even without some exceptionally keen x-ray police force. You don’t have to reach for a weapon, nor carry one, and you will have the element of surprise. And as long as your clothing doesn’t impair your movement, then it doesn’t matter what you wear at all.

However, if there are no scanners, then projectile weapons are probably the best bet. Stand 20m away and ventilate the idiot who comes running towards you with a bit of sharp metal. All those silly gamebooks that put swords at the same level as a sub-machinegun need to stop and look back at history.

Gaming: Rocks Fall, Everyone Respawns.

I play a lot of RPGs, and it is always annoying when a player dies unexpectedly, even more so than when anyone dies. So here is a little sliding scale that I put together a while ago dealing with death, becoming more realistic as you go down.

1. Hi, this is my identical twin brother, Renee 2.

Just respawn  them. Tada!

2. Damnit! 6 bodies gone already, only 3 left.

Instant(ish) respawn, full abilities, but only a limited number of uses. Sidequest option – get more.

3. Wait, I’m sure I backed up recently.

Time penalty, maybe a loss of abilities, as you are decanted.

4. It’s a bit draining.

Proper level loss.

5. It cost me how much?

Lose a limb or two.

6. It’s not a game any longer.

Kill the player.

 

I mainly use 2&3. 1 is best suited to quick games, and 4&5 for the more serious story-arc driven games. If you are ever asked to GM F.A.T.A.L., use 6.

Gaming: Hidden-Move Games

[As you can tell by now, I subscribe to the Ronseal approach to Post-naming.]

I have found that there are very few games in which one player makes move that the other play either: can’t see, or, doesn’t know about. I don’t see why though – it could be quite entertaining.

Anyway, I watched Das Boot recently, so let’s think of a sub-themed game.

 

A simple set-up is this – one player controls a guarded convoy [Player 1], the other some submarines [Player 2]. Player 1 has to get as many of his ships to the other side of the board. Player 2 wants to kill the Merchant ships in the convoy. Pre-game, Player 1 designates some of his mechant vessels as Q-boats [Destroyers hiding as merchant vessels]. If this is a model game, then it could be written underneath, or something.

Lets give Player 1 some nice ships to play with though. For a convoy of, say, 20 ships, he has 2 Q-boats, 6 Destroyers, and 1 Dreadnought.

Player 2 has a measly 4 U-Boats.

It should be played on a large squared board, with the Merchants and Destroyers taking up 2 squares, and the Dreadnought 4. Each ship has a certain allocated HP – merchant vessels 1, Destroyers 2, and the Dreadnought 6. If a submarine takes 1 hit, it’s out.

However, in order for Player 2 to be “hidden”, Player 1 can only see along which line Player 2 fired his torpedoes. Player 2 also tells Player 1 in which areas he has submarines, but not how many. The board may be divided into a larger 3×3 grid, above the smaller isometric grid.

If the game lasts 10 turns, then each Player can have a “timer” ability. When Player 1 drops charges, he can choose to have them delayed until any turn he wants. He says he drops charges in a 2×2 grid, and writes down the co-ordinates, and the turn at which it goes off. Similarly, Player 2 can use Timed Fuses, in which he puts down the line of action (where it originated from, and in which direction), which works under similar principles.

Each player could also have an offensive and defensive ability. Player 1’s offensive is to launch a Hedgehog – a 4×4 grid of charges, that last 2 rounds. His defensive may be the aforementioned Q-Boats. Player 2’s defensive may be Silent Running – for 1 turn, he does not have to tell Player 1 where the sub’s are. His offensive may be HE Rounds – the torpedo does double damage against the target.

Each player can move his ships every turn, in order for the game to remain fluid.

The problem here is for Player 2 to keep track of the subs, but a small notepad should solve that problem, with the subs laid out in chess-like notation – i.e. Sub 2, d3to b7. Or something. You’d only need 10 lines anyhow.

Not sure how I should expand / modify this any more, so I’ll end it here.

Gaming: Space Combat #3 – Now with added realism!

Space combat as depicted below is completely silly. In reality, the distances involved, and the speed of the projectiles would be that you would only notice the slug just before it hit you (how close it is depends on how near to c (the speed of light) the slug was going.

Take this situation;

Two ships are travelling at .5 c, one due east, one due west. Their projectiles move at .9 c. They are 1 light-minute apart. (18 Million Kilometres) They fire at each other. One ship knows the other has fired 11 seconds before it hits. However, in this time it has moved 1.11 light minutes relative to the other ship (20 Million Kilometers) eastwards, and is now 27 Million Kilometres away.

If your shot is, say a hundredth of a degree too high, then you will over shoot by over 3000 kilometres. In space, you have to be accurate. In fact, it would be better to fire shells which fragmented into thousands, or millions of smaller sub-munitions in order to hit the enemy.

Looking at this, you can see that even “close” distances of only 1 light-minute mean that shooting is a tricky business, and is more statistics than gunplay.