May 15, 2014

Brute force multiple paths

One of the design aspects that I always disliked about Deus Ex (as an immersive sim) was how authored most of the solutions felt—they rarely seemed to arise organically out of the situation and the player’s tools and skills.

Multiple solutions falling out of our simulation didn’t happen as often as we’d hoped. We just didn’t have a deep enough simulation nor did we have the time or personnel to create one. We found ourselves in the position of having to brute-force the multiple-path idea, as developers on Ultima games, for example, have done for years — though I think we do more of it, more consciously and more effectively, than anyone else has to date. Designers have had to plan a “skill” path past problems, an “action” path and a “character interaction” path. It works, but it’s not what we originally intended.

Warren Spector’s Deus Ex postmortem

Dec 8, 2013

Thief: The No Spiders Project

The spiders in Thief and Thief 2 really freak me out. The way they look, they way they sound, the way they move—ugh.

It’s not so bad that I can’t play the game, but it makes parts of it really hard. For a friend of mine, it’s even worse: he can’t bear to play the first Thief at all because of all the spiders.

So following in the footsteps of Jocke’s no-spider patch for System Shock 2, I have done the same for Thief Gold and Thief 2.

Download it from Mega or from Mediafire.

This patch makes all the spiders:

  • Friendly to the player
  • Attacked by other AI
  • Have only one hit point
  • Die as soon as the level starts anyway
  • Look like a small white mossy stone.

Big spiders, small spiders, chaos spiders, spiderbots: all are either completely gone or already dead, looking like this:

Alas, poor Longdaddy!

Have fun!

Oct 25, 2013

Jenn Frank writes:

I do think there’s a problem, a serious problem, with using “depression” as a “play mechanic,” as a convenient means to an end. I do think using “depression” is cavalier, that it really does diminish a clinical health problem.

You write that “mechanics are often the best tool for representing complex emotional concepts,” and I agree, wholeheartedly. But here you’re literally saying that mechanics can add up to an economical explanation of a complicated concept. That is not the same thing as using a complicated concept, like “depression,” to explain a game mechanic: it’s the literal opposite. It makes zero sense. It’s like saying “I can use a lot of mechanics to explain what it’s like to live with cancer” — sure, a talented game designer can build that intricate system, can make that experience real for a player — but that is not the same thing as “I can win a battle by using My Cancer!”

I started out by saying you’d written a great explanation, and I mean that. The thought processes themselves are totally valid, and the game is really really clever and often very funny. I think the people who have seemingly antagonized ICC throughout the day are, by and large, totally aware that this was a creative endeavor executed all in good fun and good faith. I also think the game is, not too frequently but enough that some people have noticed, tone-deaf at times.

But I also think — and this goes back to the “depression” point — games always, always become problematic when we use intricate concepts to explain comparatively simple play mechanics (as opposed to going in the other direction, which you say was your intent). Braid, for instance, goes in the other direction. It is, if arguably, a game that layers simple mechanics to eventually explain a more complex philosophy about the permanence and impermanence of decision-making, about the passage of time. People admire it because the mechanics support the larger idea. (This is why, in ‘Indie Game: the Movie’, Jon Blow complains about Soulja Boy’s cursory interpretation, I think.)

But any time you try to force complex ideas into supporting a game’s mechanics — and people, individual human beings, are each one a very, very complex “idea,” if you will — it becomes so reductive, so misrepresentative, that yes, any argument in those mechanics’ favor invariably becomes “problematic.”

This is written specifically in response to Laura Shigihara’s post about the “Indie Custom Cube” card set, so please do read that for the full context.

But I am quoting her for the broader principle of design of game mechanics that she describes: if you have game mechanics designed to represent something real, the simplicity or complexity of your mechanics should align with the simplicity or complexity of the real thing.

I don’t know if that’s always a good principle to follow, but it’s easy to see that its inverses have issues:

  • Complex game mechanics to represent a simple real thing will feel overwrought and probably tedious.
  • Simple game mechanics to represent a complex real thing will feel ‘unrealistic’ and unsatisfying.
Oct 15, 2013


Jeri Ellsworth and Rick Johnson have revealed the augmented reality system they have been building, and are asking for funding on Kickstarter to turn their prototype into a finished product.

The CastAR prototype augmented reality glasses are a lightweight glasses frame with twin micro projectors, shutter lenses, and a tracking camera.

Three things bother me about this project:

  1. It’s unfocused. They’re throwing everything but the kitchen sink into what this will do: projected AR, true AR (to use their term), and VR. Oh, and the odd wand input device. Oh, and the RFID-sensing mat which appears to be entirely unrelated (though perhaps a useful adjunct for many purposes). I get the feeling that their product will be mediocre at all of these instead of really good at one of them.

  2. They’re suspiciously quiet on the true AR and VR performance. They talk up how the projected AR is comfortable on the eyes due to normal focusing distances, and doesn’t need adjustment for individual users. But they fail to mention how their true AR and VR clip-on solution will require both of these. They don’t address the technical or user experience details of this at all.

  3. They don’t talk at all about cabling for signal and power. Their pictures of their current prototype also hide these details which are an essential component of the user experience. This makes me worry that they’ve not thought about this aspect of it at all.

So yeah, I’m not backing it.

Referring once again to Lauri Malkavarra’s letter: This product looks like its most important mission is to advertise itself to people who are interested in AR technology.

Oct 14, 2013
I feel like all of those games are about trusting the player, in a really meaningful way. Saying we’re going to make a world that stands on its own, and that you’re a part of, and that you’re visiting and interacting with, but that doesn’t cater to you, that trusts you to be curious enough and invested enough to navigate it and be interested in it and figure it out and be a part of it because of your inherent interest in exploring that space. And not because of extrinsic rewards or awesome cutscenes or all these things that are made to motivate the player to play the game in this heavy-handed way, but instead are hands off and an invitation for you to invest yourself.
Steve Gaynor, quoted on Hit Self-Destruct
Oct 10, 2013

Product Design

From Lauri Malkavaara’s letter to Nokia:

My new Nokia telephone model is called the E 51. Unfortunately the phone has not been designed in so that just anybody could learn to use it easily.

On the contrary, I think that it has been designed as if its most important mission would be to advertise itself to people who are interested in telephone technology. All kinds of amazing functions are offered on the display, but as I do not understand what they mean, I guess that I will never use them.

This is the most concise statement I’ve seen of a longstanding problem in technology product designs.

How does your device/app/website/game look? Does it look like its most important mission would be to advertise itself to people who are interested in device/app/website/game technology?

Sep 2, 2013


In a tweet a few weeks ago, Rocket (Dean Hall, the creator of DayZ) posted this picture:

(The picture shows another player, kneeling on the ground with his hands cuffed behind him; Rocket’s caption is “It worked! finally… As yes, I am working on more important things. This was just for fun.”)

This got my attention and interest in DayZ back up again like no other news about the DayZ standalone. Why? Well, here’s the other things that we know Rocket and his team have been building into the standalone:

  • Network architecture changes.
  • Centrally controlled loot economy.
  • Loot spawning under beds, on top of shelves, in car boots, etc.
  • Improved inventory system and user interface.
  • More enterable buildings.
  • New areas of Chernarus.
  • Water purification.
  • Infections and transmissible disease.
  • Customisable player clothing.

The first six of these are about security, usability, and polish. They will make it more accessible, and perhaps make exploration more interesting, but none of them will change the way people play.

Water purification and infections add an additional burden of micromanagement-of-the-self. I feel that these will just force players into scavenging for purification tablets and medicines in towns just as they already have to scavenge for food and water. They add two more dimensions to the player’s needs, but they’re only fulfilled by scavenged resources. In contrast, the existing food and water systems in DayZ are already slightly differentiated: players can collect drinks and food by scavenging in towns, but water can also be collected from the lakes scattered across the country, and food can be found by hunting animals. Towns force players to face zombie threats; lakes are few, and so are a common place to encounter other players; hunting usually requires shooting, which alerts nearby players. As a result, there are tactical implications (however small) to the manner in which a player chooses to fulfill these needs. I don’t see that water purification or infections will add useful variety.

Transmissible diseases might, but I’m doubtful. Obviously players will want to avoid disease. If there are clear indications that a hostile player is diseased, it simply adds another reason to shoot them. If it’s a friendly player, do you go find medicine? Or do you shoot them anyway and look after their gear for when they respawn and make their way back? On the other hand, if the symptoms of disease are not immediately obvious, players will be frustrated by ending up infected without knowing how or why. Invisible systems are rarely good game design.

Customisable player clothing is the first interesting new feature—that is, the first with a clear value to players and effect on how they play. More than just personal expression, being able to recognise other members of your team visually can literally be the difference between life and death (and is partly why the removal of “bandit skins” was so detrimental to the game). It also adds the possibility of subterfuge: if you know that a group identifies by wearing the same item of clothing, if you wear the same, you may be able to confuse them long enough to gain the upper hand in an attack.

Ultimately, my measure for whether a change to DayZ is good or bad—and this is of course, like, just my opinon, man—is by the impact it has on player interaction. I deplore the tendency towards shoot on sight that developed in the game, so a rule that allows a broader range of interactions is good. An example might be NPC-policed safe zones (not that they’re on the table for DayZ), where attacking another player guarantees an overwhelming (but not invincible) retaliation. And this handcuffing feature falls right into the same category.

Handcuffing allows one player to guarantee another’s inability to harm them, for a limited amount of time (players can struggle free from the handcuffs eventually). It means surrender could become a viable option in fights. It means players can take prisoners, which has interesting implications for inter-group relations and prisoner exchanges. It means that finally there is a way to impose conditions on other players that’s less lethal than a bullet to the head. It won’t in any way obviate the interplay of trust and betrayal (that made DayZ so interesting in its early days), but gives players a new and interesting tool to use when trust is lacking.

So I’m really excited to see the handcuffing feature; but seeing Rocket call it “just for fun” and that he’s “working on more important things” leaves me worried that the standalone DayZ won’t be the game that the mod promised so early on.

Update: The latest devblog shows this handcuffing in action. Rocket also demonstrates in some detail how item degradation works, and in particular how shooting another player can damage or even destroy the items they are carrying. He hopes that this, together with the handcuffing, will help address the “kill on sight mentality”. Fingers crossed.

Jun 17, 2013

Thief: Rebooted, Not Respected

My Experience: I’m all for reboots and reinventions breaking outside the box. In fact, I encourage it. If I wanted to play old-school Thief, I’d just play old-school Thief.

That said, goodness gracious great balls of fire, what were so many great balls of fire doing in my Thief game? The scene I played saw the mansion collapsing, with rivulets of fire slithering across my path while larger conflagrations mushroomed up all around. The obvious objective? Run for your life. Run or die. Run run run run run run.

This section was essentially on rails, and sneaking wasn’t even a factor. I dashed over burning bridges, stumbled across collapsing rooftops, and watched entire sections of mansion crumble into the tar-black waters below in sloooooow mooootion. Trial-and-error came fast and furious, with various sections nearly requiring death and a subsequent restart before making sense.

There was also a fair amount of third-person during this section. I didn’t hate it or anything, but any sort of climbing basically was Assassin’s Creed – right down to little animation details like the way Garrett swung his leg to build momentum before bigger leaps. Far more egregious, meanwhile, was an insta-death QTE involving a loose chunk of wall and a quick button-mash to give Garrett’s grappling line a life-saving toss. I mean, really? In Thief? Why? Why at all?

Nathan Grayson, Rock Paper Shotgun

That a scripted action sequence like this was even considered for a Thief game, let alone made it into the press demo (and almost certainly the final game)… this makes me very sad.

Apr 11, 2013

The Invisible Elizabeth

The player in Bioshock Infinite interacts with the game in three roles: passively observing first-person cutscenes; explorating the environment and collecting loot (money, ammunition, audio diaries, etc.); and combat. As a shooter, the majority of the player’s time is spent in combat, followed by exploration.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth’s role, when considered in the light of the mechanics the player operates under in both exploration and combat is inconsequential nearly to the point of invisibility.

While the player is exploring, Elizabeth moves around constantly. If the player is standing still or walking around a small area, Elizabeth will sit down, or wander around peering closely at things, or dance a few steps—animations for “boredom”, I guess you could say. When the player starts moving with purpose, Elizabeth will sometimes run ahead, or sometimes fall behind; she doesn’t call for the player to catch up or to wait for her, but just tags along, undemanding. In these states, the game offers no incentive nor pressure to interact with Elizabeth, nor in fact any way to do so.

The opportunities for interaction with Elizabeth feel artificial and mechanical. From time to time, Elizabeth will call out when she has spotted a lockpick or audio diary. When the player is collecting or spending money, Elizabeth will sometimes offer some money that she has supposedly gathered from the environment (but is in fact spawned for the occasion). That these offers always follow immediately after the player’s actions adds to the artificiality.

Booker catches a coin that Elizabeth tosses towards him

Elizabeth also has the role of deciphering the two or three codes and picking the many locked doors that separate the player from the next area or a small side area with special loot. It is odd that while only Elizabeth can pick locks, and notices lockpicks in the environment, the player is required to pick them up, and has a HUD display to indicate how many lockpicks they have, and how many the door requires. In consequence, the rules of this system are more visible than Elizabeth’s part, and the resource management more important. The player doesn’t even have to seek Elizabeth out and ask her to pick the lock for him: merely looking at the lock and pressing a button makes Elizabeth come tripping up, pick the lock, and a few seconds later waltz off again.

This is notably different from the system Ken Levine described to Polygon not long before release:

“We have all of these systems that after you are in combat and you ask her to, like pick a lock or something she wouldn’t be like, ‘OK, Booker.’ She actually cools. Her emotions cool down over time because you have a lot of dissonant moments.”

There appear to be no such systems in the game, but instead two or three scripted sequences where Elizabeth confronts Booker about his violence.

During combat, Elizabeth’s role is much the same: she sometimes offers the player salts, or a health pack if he’s running low on either. She will occasionally call out to alert the player to a new enemy; but it’s not as if the player has to look at her and see where she’s pointing (a very human kind of interaction)—instead the enemy is automatically highlighted on the player’s screen so as to be immediately visible even through any objects that are between it and the player.

A central element of the narrative in Infinite is that Elizabeth has a unique talent of manipulating “tears”, wormhole-like rifts that connect parallel universes. But in the exploration and combat roles, the mechanics again belie this, both for the few tears that you encounter while exploring, and the many weapon stashes, turrets, oil spills, and so on that can be summoned in combat arenas. To open one of these years, the player looks at it and pushes a button, and it appears. Elizabeth says a line of dialogue in response to this, but is not involved in the mechanics of it. She does not even have to be near an object to summon it, unlike the narrative depiction of all the tears in cutscenes. Nor does the player does not have to be concerned about her emotional state or fatigue, as the E3 2011 preview promised.

There is a real missed opportunity here to design the player’s interaction in such a way to present Elizabeth as a human character, and to reflect the codependent relationship that the narrative insists that she and Booker share. But instead, the systems the player interacts with are simplistic and transparent resource management or powerup activation problems, with Elizabeth’s character shoehorned in between a button press and its action.

Apr 10, 2013

80 word review: Bioshock Infinite

The flying city of Columbia is rendered in bright, loud colours. The game’s only nod to flight is the skyrails, which offer even less freedom than the city streets. The oppression, the racism, the violence too is bright and loud. But the player is neither oppressor nor saviour, but merely interloper, until the game forgets the oppression and revolution. Everything is bright, loud, but wasted. As the song says: “I can’t stand this indecision married with a lack of vision.”

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