Friday, 16 December 2011

Hero Core: Observations

Hero Core, sequel to Hero, is a little action/adventure/shooter game available for free on author Daniel Remar's website. It blends elements of Metroidvania (world exploration) and side-scrolling shmups (spacially-restrictive combat).

I finished the main quest (100%) in 2 hours 19 minutes which is more time than I've been willing to give a lot of full-price AAA games. I didn't tackle the bonus modes (harder difficulties, boss speed runs, etc.) as they're not my cup of tea, but the 'story mode' was a blast. If you haven't played it yet I highly recommend that you stop reading now and do so.

In this piece I will identify some of the design decisions Remar made and what I thought of the experience as a whole (short version: I loved it!).

  • Move and shoot, move and shoot! Player movement is mapped to your standard Up/Down/Left/Right buttons, while shooting is mapped to Shoot Left and Shoot Right. Splitting the shoot direction into two buttons was a smart move which allows a lot of flexibility in player manoeuvres. Often in games you have to change the direction you are facing to shoot in that direction, but here you can move in a smooth arc while alternately shooting enemies on either side. When enemies close in from all angles this is a useful ability.
  • Compressing vertical space. You can only shoot along a horizontal plane, (not up and down or even diagonally) so you are forced to close the height gap between yourself and your target. For several of the enemy types this means putting yourself directly in their line of fire.
  • Compressing horizontal space. In addition to the vertical space restriction mentioned above, there is an interesting effect which comes as a result of only allowing 6 of the player's bullets to be on-screen at any one time. If you position yourself far away from your target you must wait for your bullets to travel and hit something before you can fire another shot. This encourages you to get close to your target so that this delay is reduced. But of course getting close means giving yourself a shorter time to react when the enemy shoots back. This classic example of risk and reward allows skilled players to get right up in their enemies' faces and hammer away without any enforced delay, while giving less-skilled players a fighting chance at the cost of time. Time is obviously an important element if you are trying to speed run the game.
  • Excellent boss battles. There's not a lot I can say about these without going into specific detail about each one, but they were all great fun to fight and stood out as intense, climactic moments. Most of them explored unique ways of compressing space and promoting different move-and-shoot patterns on the part of the player. My favourite was Liquid Metal Processor (pictured above), whose weak points were on the inside, forcing you to get in, quickly deal damage and get back out before it crushes you. Another interesting boss was the Eliminator: a relentless hunter who can randomly appear almost anywhere in the game whenever you enter a new room. He retreats after taking some damage, so defeating him is tough until you have upgraded your gun. It was a joyous occasion when I was finally able to take him down (about 4/5 of the way through the game).
  • Unhindered exploration. Several elements combine to make exploration as hassle-free as possible, the most significant of which is the liberal use of save points. Touching a save point restores all of your health and you can teleport to any save point you have touched from anywhere in the game at any time. This massively reduces time spent back-tracking to get into that one little room you now have the right abilities to access. As well as this, you never have to unlock gates and doors more than once. Many rooms have their exit locked until you have defeated all the enemies in there. While enemies respawn upon re-entering any room, any unlocked doors stay unlocked permanently, even if you die before reaching a save point. When you pass through these rooms again later on you can skim past all the enemies if you wish.
  • Free-form exploration. The game world has been designed in such a way that you have a lot of choice in how to explore and in what order. Bypassing many of the obstacles requires certain abilities and upgrades, which are unlocked by defeating bosses. You can take on the bosses in pretty much any order and each boss will increase your level by 1. As far as I am aware, your suit abilities are upgraded with your level in a pre-determined order so you don't have to defeat a specific boss to gain a specific ability. This means you can, for the most part, branch out quite early in the game and choose your own route through the world as long as you make an effort to defeat a few bosses along the way. Your final goal lies at the centre of the world map so you will most likely spiral around it a few times as you search for rooms that have been made accessible by your new abilities.
  • The final boss is waiting for you. As soon as you can find the entrance to his domain and feel ready to take him on you can do so. This gives skilled players a significant upper hand in speed runs. Less skilled players (like myself) can continue to explore the surrounding world and build up their suit abilities to make the fight easier.
  • Story snippets. I wouldn't be able to deconstruct a game without mentioning story somewhere. Hero Core takes what I call the 'book end' format: a short introduction sets up the premise and the overarching goal, and an ending sequence closes the arc when that goal is met. Everything in-between is player-driven action. There are two noteworthy methods used to give snippets of backstory along the way. Firstly, the player will gradually find 10 computer terminals which download data in a sequential order, causing their character to reflect on his mission. The order seems to be fixed regardless of which order you find the terminals. Secondly, the layout and appearance of the scenery hints at its purpose and therefore the story behind it. You progress from uneven rocky asteroid caverns through to the harsh orthogonal structures of the machine factories. Numerous 'sleeping' enemies can be seen locked inside parts of the level geometry, hinting at massive production lines and giving a terrifying sense that you are outnumbered by something vast and unending. This gives an elegant, unobtrusive impression of the game world without ever stopping the player to burden them with exposition.
If you haven't played Hero Core, do it now! If you have, what did you think?

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Nuggets of Wisdom: Portraits Not Stories

I've noticed Tadhg Kelly's comments on Gamasutra draw a fair number of negative responses, particularly when he declares that games are undebatably ill-equipped to tell stories. This week I took the time to read through several of his blog posts and was pleasantly surprised to find a lot of correlation with my own game narrative philosophies, particularly the importance of brevity and the argument against heavy-handed, one-way gushes of tedious exposition. I'm sure this is something many writers and designers would agree with, but few seem willing to take an axe to quite so much of their painstakingly crafted 'content', whatever that's worth.

I think this excerpt sums it up nicely (the emphasis is my own), but I urge you to read the full article when you have time.
Storysensing is not storytelling. In a dramatic arc, the structure, pace and timing matter a great deal for delivering impact, but storysensing is better when focused on enhancing the portrait of the game world. Unlike storytelling, storysensing does not need to be dramatic. It can afford to be loose around the edges as long as those edges are not too apparent to the point that the player is seeing the frame.
Left 4 Dead creates a zombie-infested world and places guns in the player’s hand. Through a combination of co-operative dependent loops, and a game dynamic that deliberately paces out the encounters and objects, the game conveys a world in motion. Add a layer of snappy character dialogue and numina such as posters on walls and other touches, and Left 4 Dead draws the player into its world so completely that he wants to play it again and again.
Storysensing is best when deft rather than deep. Roleplaying and adventure games have tried for decades to use mechanisms like branching dialogue to storytell to the player, but in practise these mechanisms are heavy handed. Mass Effect in particular is an example of a game whose rush to storytell is so replete with redundant detail and branched dialogue that it just becomes tedious. It actively works against the sense of story because it reminds players too often that they are watching a mechanical game system simply go through motions.
Source: Video Game Writing and the Sense of Story

Incidentally, the idea of 'painting a portrait' rather than 'telling a story' is a technique I have been experimenting with for Luminesca.

Super Mario 3D Land: Observations

This post is a list of observations I made while playing through Super Mario 3D Land on the 3DS. It's part opinion, part design analysis, and all waffle.

  • It is short and easy, but with reasons to come back. Completing the 8 worlds is not particularly difficult if you're vaguely familiar with Mario games. There is an abundance of 1-Ups if you take the time to search the nooks and crannies as well as a generous, widespread distribution of coins which seem to reward a vast array of actions in a way that is reminiscent of certain online FPSes. By the end of the game I had over 130 lives. But then you have the Star Coins to find (three giant coins hidden in each level, which usually require extra poking around) and completing the game unlocks a large number of 'special' levels. I have only played a couple of these so far, but they seem to mix up the standard formula with special twists to the usual rules like a 'Dark Mario' who chases you round and prevents you standing still.
  • It shows off the 3DS' capabilities. There are few cases where stereoscopic 3D actually brings something worthwhile to the table (mainly depth perception which greatly helps with judging your position mid-jump). But beyond this, SM3DL is packed full of little moments that would simply not look/feel as cool in 2D. Some memorable highlights were the giant screws on the airship levels that come hurtling towards the camera in synchronised aggression, seeing Mario bounce up into your face in the top-down perspective levels, and the Piranha Plants that spit inky goo on to the screen.
  • Mario loses his hat when he's small. Did this happen in other 3D (not stereoscopic) Mario games? I suspect it is because you no longer have the consistent sense of scale that you get in 2D ones, so this change was probably made to provide additional visual feedback.
  • The Tanooki suit makes jumping easier. You just need to hold the jump button after lift-off and Mario will slowly glide back to the ground. This makes long-distance or precise jumps much easier to execute. I suspect this may be a response to both the inherent flaws of distance-gauging in 3D (although the 3DS should alleviate this) and an attempt to make the game 'more accessible'.
  • The boss battles were repetitive. There were only 3 types of boss battle in the game, although each one changed the arena layout and added threats like fire pits in the floor. Figuring out and exploiting the attack patterns of the bosses is one of the things that makes them so rewarding to beat, so it was a shame to diminish this by making you fight the same boss with the same patterns several times (although the game pretty much redeems itself with the exhilarating final boss battle).
  • The contraptions make you look before you leap. There are these platforms that flip between red and blue every time you jump, leaving a drop into oblivion wherever the other side of the platform was. It's very easy to jump about wildly when you play Mario games, but these really make you stop and think one step ahead to anticipate where the platforms will move to. They can, however, be somewhat undermined by the Tanooki suit as seen in the linked video.
Next stop on the 3DS Express: the special worlds, then Mario Kart 7!

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Nuggets of Wisdom: Power vs Curiosity

The combined power of the nifty iPad app Instapaper and an hour-long commute has helped me catch up on some bookmarked game design articles I had been intending to read for a while.

As I consume them I tend to pick out little nuggets of wisdom which I feel compelled to share. This may or may not become a regular feature, who knows?

I'll let the nuggets speak for themselves (except my bold highlights) and simply provide a link to the full article for those interested in further reading.
The intrinsic motivators of power and curiosity are at odds with each other. The more you are motivated by curiosity, the stronger the desire to test your new understanding becomes. And against increasingly difficult challenges, the more you fail, the more motivated you become to switch over to an learning playstyle to build your skills up. As this pendulum of motivation swings back and forth, it can be very stressful and dangerous to fun if the user is significantly restricted from freely moving between these motivations. Being forced to learn when one expects to flex or being prevented from learning when one desires to understand can cause players to lose motivation and therefore lose play and fun.
Source: Critical-Gaming Network: The Zero-Sum Funomaly pt. 7
Part 1 in the Zero-Sum Funomaly series is here.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Nuggets of Wisdom: Game Development in a Bubble

An argument for why the industry needs to encourage fresh perspectives on the games we make:
I'm just saying my misunderstanding of the games industry, as a non-gamer, coming in making games -- I was taking the subject matter and the content in the cutscenes seriously. I was honestly looking for the stories that are on the back of the box, or the media, the propaganda, that they put out about the game. 
I was thinking, "Oh, all this content is in there somewhere, and I just have to find it and I'm missing it," whatever. When in actuality, no, they really want to make another fucking first-person shooter. That's amazing to me. Still, to this day, I'm amazed by that. 
Auriea Harvey (Tale Of Tales)
Full interview with Auriea Harvey and MichaĆ«l Samyn can be found on Gamasutra.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Cold Relief: a game made in 0 hours

As I was up late I decided to take part in the 0-hour game jam: a challenge to make a game in the hour gained when the clocks go back.

It was impromptu and entirely unplanned so the final game is a result of listening to Lustmord at 1:00am, combined with some floaty uncontrollability inspired by a dream I had. The original goal was to have an Antarctic environment based on the trek in At The Mountains of Madness, but this soon shifted to a more abstract dream world when it dawned on me just how quickly an hour passes.

I spent another half an hour or so polishing it off and fixing up the code a bit.

The audio was sourced from here and here. The first-person character controller is the Unity prefab with tweaked jump and movement parameters.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Resurrected Post: Luminesca Evolved

I removed this post last year, and decided to re-post it for the sake of completeness. It has a new date stamp now, but you can see from the comments' date stamps that it's quite old! Ahh, those were the days.

Luminesca is now, of course, a fully-fledged project in development.

Original post:
I've been toying with the idea of an updated Luminesca game, and came up with this mock-up screenshot. All comments and criticism are more than welcome! 

Saturday, 15 October 2011

The Binding of Isaac (demo deconstruction)

This small yet cloying sample of The Binding of Isaac is an admittedly incomplete experience of the game, but due to its procedurally-generated nature there is no such thing as a complete picture; only random cross sections cut at unpredictably obscure angles.

The game is reminiscent of the 8- and 16-bit Zeldas in its mechanics, enemy design and level design, although dungeons are made up of never-the-same-twice rooms and the whole thing is draped in a nightmarish basement aesthetic loosely inspired by an ancient story about child sacrifice.

The Binding of Isaac almost overcomes its lack of melee combat by compressing the ranged attacks to just the four cardinal directions, placing additional importance on aligning yourself with your targets either horizontally or vertically, and complicating this process using various static obstacles (such as piles of degrading faecal matter). When enemies close in on you it is possible to move and shoot in different directions, but I did encounter the odd occasion where the available space was too confined, the enemies advanced too quickly and my fire rate was simply too slow. Randomisation has its drawbacks.

Its fictional premise is unique compared to most games and the intro cinematic was certainly entertaining, if a little overt in its Biblical themes, but I sense that it takes the Shadow of the Colossus / Metroid approach of using cinematic sequences to merely bookend the lengthy action part of the story. That is to say it opens with a 'premise cinematic', lets you spend a very long time doing stuff in response to that premise and closes, when you reach your goal, with a 'job done cinematic'. I may well be wrong (please correct me if I am), but that's how it appears from the demo. It's an effective enough structure (and has been touched upon here) but does leave the bookends feeling like exposition overkill when the rest of the game's narrative is delivered so sparingly.

For all its flaws (which I tend to dwell on when I deconstruct a game) Isaac is a shining example of a top-end indie game which demonstrates a strong understanding of the challenges presented by overhead camera angles in 2D games.

It's dirt-cheap on Steam (with soundtrack available too) and the free demo is playable in your browser on Newgrounds.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Rocket Knight - Folded Level Design

I've been intending to play Rocket Knight for a long time and finally got round to it today. It's a solid game which knows what it's about. It clearly understands what makes a good 2D platformer and has some interesting level design in certain sections.

The Cyberswine Labs level provides a great example of folded level design. A 'fold' in the level occurs when the player has to backtrack through areas they have already visited. While backtracking can easily become tiresome if those areas are now empty and devoid of challenge, a folded level can retain interest by changing the way the player interacts with the environment the second time through and providing challenge variation. A folded level can be broken down into "the way there" and "the way back". The way back often provides the more difficult or complex gameplay.

In the example in the video above Rocket Knight has to ride the moving platforms down through a maze of dangerous energy beams. As the platforms lower the player must Rocket Burst between them to avoid the beams. On the way down gravity is on the player's side so they can simply fall down on to the next platform as they drop below.

The Rocket Burst ability forces the player to commit to moving in a fixed direction and is restricted by their fuel supply (which is limited in the ice level). But it doubles as a fast attack and is the strongest tool the player has to defy the platform game's most persistent obstacle: gravity.

However, when the level folds (when the player hits the switch at the bottom and reverses the direction in which the platforms move) the player has a new layer of difficulty added to the challenge. Because the platforms are now moving up, the player has to fight against gravity to keep up with them by jumping as well as Rocket Bursting in a test of precision timing at a fixed pace.

A second overarching fold occurs in full glory during the dramatic escape sequence at the end of the level. Rocket Knight destroys the laboratory core, setting off a massive explosion which constantly swells in size. The player must now backtrack through the entire level with the explosion hot on their tail (literally -- Rocket Knight is an opossum). So the way there features all the standard level design features and challenges the player is used to in the game, while the way back entails a test of speed and precision timing, as well as a slightly modified path to allow short-cuts and less stilted movement through the level. The whole thing now mostly takes place above a bottomless pit, meaning the constant force of gravity is always working against the player.

After the second fold, most players will probably race back through the aforementioned 'moving platform energy beam room' so quickly that they won't even realise they've passed through it twice before. Thankfully, the beams and platforms have now deactivated so Rocket Knight can burst freely and bounce off its walls at great speed.

Through this smart level design, Rocket Knight gets extra mileage out of its restricted space (as nearly all game spaces are restricted) without ever becoming repetitive or tedious.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

What I've been doing

It's time for an update, seeing as I haven't done a proper one in over a year. I've been very busy since then with all this  stuff...

I graduated from UEL last year and got a First for my efforts. Hooray! This was largely thanks to my dissertation which you may remember I talked about on this very blog at the time. That dissertation is now freely available for you to read in my portfolio ( Hopefully it will help out anyone who is writing their own dissertation and maybe even interest people generally interested in level design.

After I finished university I landed a job at EA Bright Light where I worked on Create and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. My first job in the industry was an awesome experience and it has equipped me with a good understanding of game development to take forward into future projects.

Now my contract has ended at Bright Light and I am spending my time working on Luminesca (which you might also remember me mentioning on this blog). I'm trying to gain crowd funding for the project through IndieGoGo, so head on over and take a look, and if you like it please consider donating (any amount)!

As well as all this I've tried to squeeze in some gaming time here and there. Highlights that spring to mind from the past year have been:

  • Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (big multiplayer battles, but not too big)
  • ilomilo (I love games that play with space in simple yet profound ways)
  • Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (best co-op since Left 4 Dead)
  • Machinarium (charming little adventure and a perfect length)
  • Portal 2 (sublime writing)
  • Talesworth Adventure Episode 1 (solid little adventure with no frills)

Finally I should mention an excellent game design blog I stumbled across earlier this year called Critical-Gaming Network. There's a lot to read, but it's well worth it, so get started now! Start with the Courses 101-6.