Archive for the Game Design Essays Category

Prepare to Live ( Dark Souls Diary, Part 3 )

Posted in Game Design, Game Design Essays, Game Diaries, Games, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 16, 2011 by Matthew VanDevander

Rest for the Wicked
Dark Souls is a unique game. Simultaneously planting one foot in the checkered video game past, and the other so far in the future that you will find yourself lost as you try to keep up. There is something truly special at work here. Even if you don’t enjoy the experience, it is impossible to deny admiration for the boldness of its conviction. It is truly a work inspired by a unbending philosophy and a belief that games can and should offer different experiences.
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Dark Souls Diary, Day 2

Posted in Computers, Game Design Essays, Game Diaries, Games, Rants with tags , , , , , on October 8, 2011 by Matthew VanDevander

So I cheap-shotted the Taurus Demon.

After grinding for a while, I begin to grow weary of the Undead Burg, so I try to tackle the tough monsters who were holding me back earlier. I gather enough Souls to purchase eighty or so bolts for my light crossbow. The merchant seemed upset when I walked off without closing his menu screen. Stingy guy I guess.

I try to aim the crossbow to no avail, the shots just seem to go off randomly if I don’t lock onto an enemy with a click of the right thumbstick. Eventually I get the hang of the crossbow. And I seem to be getting better at this Parry-Reposè thing. The undead still swarm me occasionally and I die, but the combat is something I’m at least grasping now. So, with much ambition, I head off to fight the big black knight. I shoot him from as far away as possible.

He smashes me.
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Dark Souls Diary, Day 1

Posted in Computers, Game Design Essays, Game Diaries, Games, Rants with tags , , , , , on October 6, 2011 by Matthew VanDevander

I stumble into the house at 1 AM. There is a package on my porch. I think to myself, “That seems to be a rather large box for just a video game.” I bust open the package to reveal a collector’s tin box.

Dark Souls. They sure do make this an event. Free upgrade to the collectors edition with a pre-order. The tin has a plastic sleeve around it, emblazoned with the usual box art amenities. Prepare To Die, it says. So I open the tin to find the standard box as well as a fancy-smancy hardcover art book that smells of fresh ink and dead tree pulp.

Hope the game lives up to all this packaging…. I go to sleep.
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Games Are Art.

Posted in Computers, Game Design, Game Design Essays, Games, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2011 by Matthew VanDevander

Roger Ebert

So, are games really art?

Roger Ebert has quite famously come out to say that Games cannot be art, or as he calls it “high art.” ( Essentially meaning all forms of art that most people consider when they talk about art. Art as in “artist,” as opposed to “artisan.”) I’m not sure this distinction was entirely necessary to make. I don’t think that many people were attempting to argue that games should be considered art alongside dance or pottery. The question is really about whether games are or are not a medium for communicating ideas and emotions in at least the same capacity as film or books.

I am not simply dismissing the issue imposed by Roger Ebert’s statements, but it would seem to me that he does not truly understand games as an art form. More specifically, he does not understand that the way in which games function artistically is quite different from films and other media. Unfortunately, many modern game designers do not understand this distinction either. Viewed as works of art, most games are quite meaningless when compared to great works in other mediums.

So, can we solve the dilemma we face in dealing with Roger Ebert’s belief? He stated that “If you change [the ending of a story], you become the artist,” proposing, “Would “Romeo and Juliet” have been better with a different ending?” It is here that he makes his claim most poignantly.

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The importance of critical thought on games…

Posted in Game Design, Game Design Essays, Games, Rants with tags , , , on June 15, 2011 by Matthew VanDevander

Case in point:

I find it funny that people can catch flack for actually critically reviewing a game. Readers spout back nonsense like, “This review didn’t tell me if it was a good GAME or not, though.” Worshipping “gameplay” is like looking at the cost of the pigments in a painting to decide if the painting is good or not. Gameplay is just a piece of a puzzle, and critical thought about games is not about gameplay. It’s about the experience as a whole. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think that gameplay is a factor. It’s just that critical evaluation must look at how gameplay jives with the artistic purpose of the entire work. Building games around mechanics is fine, but as a designer, you have failed if you haven’t look at what the mechanic is saying. If mechanics were all that video games were about, then I would be done with Duet already. Gameplay is just half the story. You need to do the extra work to make a complete game. And judgement of a game definitely involves looking at the gameplay, but a half-rotten banana is not saved by the half that’s still good.

The FPS is dead, if your game is not going to do something about it. Then I don’t give a damn. I don’t want to play it.

I’m currently in the middle of L.A. Noire. And although it’s certainly not the crowning achievement of what video games could be. I must commend it for being a step in the right direction. Even though some would criticize me for supporting something that is only a small step, that seems to be the best that I can do. I try to vote with my wallet, and currently my vote is “no” to more thoughtlessness.

A brilliant game is not afraid to bore me. Games are slices of subjective experience, and all the possibilites of experience in life definitely over-shadow the “fun” section. Games like GTA and Gears are great, but mindless fun is overrunning the mainstream industry. Why can’t game with a budget actually deal with something besides how cool explosions, space marines and goblins are.

Games and Puzzles

Posted in Duet, Game Design, Game Design Essays, Games, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2010 by Matthew VanDevander

Work continues to crawl along on Duet, however I have been banging my head against a few things recently. Notably I have this question of “How do I know if a game is worth a person’s time to play?” I have been reading some literature on the subject of games and puzzles, so I felt it would be pertinent to share some of my thoughts:

On games, versus Puzzles…

Duet is a puzzle platformer. But that really just describes the mechanics of the game, without really delving very deep into the definitions of such mechanics.

So, in the worst style of writing, let’s define these terms with help from the internet.

A Platformer is a type of video game “mostly presented in 2D” which features “jumping to and from suspended platforms or over obstacles” Requiring the character to start from point A and get to point B by jumping and traversing various obstacles.”

A Puzzle is a type of problem that “tests the ingenuity of the solver”, and according to puzzle collector Stan Isaacs, it is “fun, and has a right answer.”

So, these definitions seem about right to describe Duet. But my research seems to suggest a divide between games and puzzles. So the question that I’m proposing, is where do I draw that line? Is Duet a puzzle or a game?

There are many definitions of what a game is, but my favorite is:

“A Game is a rule-based formal system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable.” – The Game, The Player, The World: Looking for Heart of Game-ness

Games typically are designed to be as replay-able as possible, the idea being to explore the nebulous space afforded by the game’s mechanics. Once that exploration is completed to the satisfaction of the player, Playing the game is no longer necessary or interesting. Therefore all games must be inherently educational and interesting, but one must remember that a person’s prior experiences in and outside of games can reduce the novelty of an previously unplayed game to a point where she may find it not worth her time.

Puzzles–as defined earlier–however are intrinsically free of replay value. Once a puzzle has been solved–deliberately and with understanding–it is no longer valuable to the solver. This is to say that puzzles are only replayable if the solver does not understand why he solved the puzzle in the first place. Puzzles are similar to games in that prior experience with similar problems can nullify the intrinsic value of a puzzle to the point where the intellectual gain from solving it becomes trivial. However, the primary difference between puzzles and games is the goal.

The goal of puzzles to find the solution, the goal of games is to win against an opponent. However, there are still contradictions within these definitions. What exactly is an opponent in a single player computer game, what exactly is a solution?

Duet, as well as other games (Braid, Portal) are (perhaps uncomfortably) straddling the line between games and puzzles. On one hand, they quickly fit into the earlier definition of a game, they are based on formal systems and rules, they do have quantifiable outcomes with different values assigned to them, the player does exert effort to influence the outcome, she feels attached to the outcome, and the consequences are negotiable. However, the games also fit the definition of a puzzle, they have a solution–solvable only once– having limited replay value.

So where do these games lie exactly, are they really games at all? Is a game a type of puzzle? Is a puzzle a type of game? Are puzzles, by their very nature, inferior to games?

The creative process…

Posted in Duet, Game Design, Game Design Essays, Games with tags , , , , , , on November 3, 2010 by Matthew VanDevander

The game that I am making currently is about cooperation. So what exactly does that mean? It means that every mechanic, every puzzle, and even every piece of art must be scrutinized to determine if it is core to this concept.

The process by which I create new mechanics for the game goes something like this:

Idea – From somewhere, either through playing the game, or from other games or other media, get a possible idea for a game mechanic.

Mentally Prototype – Imagine how the idea would affect the game. For some ideas, this is very easy. For instance, if the element has already been in another game. For others, I may have to skip mental prototyping, since the idea cannot be easily imagined.

Mentally Check for “Core-ness” – An interesting idea that does not fit with the games core theme is not worth implementing. For my game, the core theme is cooperation. In life, people like to establish relationships with people who have strengths where they themselves are weak. (In addition to common interests and similar experiences) Based on this aspect of human relationships, the players in my game must always have different abilities. Usually the bad ideas are those which do not create a give/take relationship between the players. Bad ideas are those do not create interdependence, but instead spur self-centered behavior.

Prototype – If the idea that I have cannot be discarded through mental prototyping, and seems like it may fit in the core of the game. Then I program it in, in the simplest way possible. Usually creating a bunch of dirty code. (But that’s okay, if it’s a bad idea, it’s a waste to write clean code)

Test – I try the mechanic out in many different situations, and in combination with existing mechanics. If the new mechanic creates any interesting puzzles that I couldn’t imagine when I first thought of the mechanic, then it is a candidate for the final game.

But how do I decide which things are interesting enough to make it in the game? That is certainly a tough problem, and there are many solutions. The simplest solution is to include everything that might be interesting. However, for my game, I have some fundamental guiding principles. I believe that the player of my game is an intelligent person, and should be treated as such. They are not stupid, and will be able to solve any of the puzzles that I can create for them, without breaking them down into simpler elements. I also believe that this player’s time is valuable to them, and I should respect their time, and not waste it. So therefore, I should never put filler into the game by repeating ideas that I have already explored.
Based on these principles, I will remove any puzzles which either waste a lot of player time on execution, or have very obvious solutions and may only be different than a previous puzzle in insignificant ways.

Even still, I struggle with this game every day. Sometimes I have to ask myself if the entire game is not just a waste of time for the player. It is certainly possible. But I am a game designer, and I want to make games, not incomplete products. So it is better to ship a game that I found interesting, even if no-one else will, than it is to not ship a game. As the Duct Tape Programmer says, “Shipping is a feature. A really important feature. Your product must have it.”

So time marches on…and there is much work to be done.

Grey, The new Black and White.

Posted in Computers, Game Design, Game Design Essays, Games, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2008 by Matthew VanDevander

Bear with me, because this is a bit of a long rant, but it’s hopefully worth the read…

Alright, so lets talk about morality and moral choices in games. There’s obviously a lot of games out there that provide moral choices as a core game concept: the Fable series, Bioshock, almost all of Bioware’s games… So all of these games are supposed to be centered around this idea of moral choices between good and evil.

And the basic way in which these games implement morality is with what basically accounts to a slider with good on one end and evil on the other. So in order to become an evil character you have to have a lot of evil points, or if you’re wanting to play a good character you’ve got to have a lot of those points. But the problem is that in order for this to work, and for the game be able to determine where you are on this slider, every decision in the game has be reduced into a simple black and white decision; one choice will yield good points and the other choice yields evil points. Unfortunately, this also makes the most of the game’s choices uninteresting and defeats the initial draw the whole moral choice idea had in the first place, because all of the choices are so easy to make. Continue reading