Category Archives: Computer game business

In search of pleasure – again

Or.. “If it’s fun then please let me do it again”.

I have for a long time been preoccupied with what you might call the hedonics of playing arcade games but have always failed to accurately articulate my thoughts.

Games that sell have mass appeal and when we place them under the microscope we probably look a little too hard for a magic ingredient or design feature.
If you place a football in to a room of schoolboys and watch them play you’d not expect them to suddenly form strategic patterns as you would see on a Saturday afternoon in the Premier League. Nor would you expect them to immediately nominate a captain or designated free kick taker. These things just don’t matter to them. What does matter is getting a kick of the football.

The pleasure in playing football lies in the chance to kick the ball and score a goal. Everybody on the pitch would be thrilled to score, even the Goalkeeper.

In video games I often think that designers try to force gamers in to a place where they don’t necessarily want to go. In some cases the pleasure accompanies them wherever the designer takes them but in others the gamer is left pondering where all the fun went.

Pleasurable experiences in games can be found in countless places. What’s more if something is fun it is in my view something to be repeated not necessarily saved for that brief and infrequent moment that you manage to collect all 50 sacred items. If the attack style is fun to execute, fun to watch and fun to perform on your adversary then make it a central feature of the game.

The Legend of Zelda and Prince of Persia:Sands of Time are two fine examples of a cool feature that the player can repeat without having to be in any specific situation (spin attack, wall run). OK, so you have to be stood near a wall in PoP. But there are walls everywhere !

It is precisely this that makes me go back to Shoot ’em ups so frequently. The pleasure in shooting aliens (or whatever) is in the immediacy of the shoot >  die > explode combination. The pleasure is all in the hitting the fire button and then having that translate in to a very visual sequence of events on the screen.

PRESS FIRE BUTTON > STREAM OF LASERS > AUDIBLE RESPONSE > DESTROY ALIEN > AUDIBLE RESPONSE > ALIEN EXPLODES IN TO TINY SHARDS

But there is a bit more to it than that.
When you press the fire button you actually feel the control. You feel the tactile response from the button and in most cases it’s a highly satisfying thud in to the game control surface.
In the arcades my beloved Defender epitomised this sensation. At home games like Jet-Pac continued it.

But it’s not just in shoot ’em ups. It’s everywhere.

Gran Turismo has always been an excellent game experience.
With the default controls you still get a fantastic sense of control that is fed back to you in spades via the stunning audio and breathtaking visuals. As a real driving simulator you do of course need to learn how to drive the cars but once you’re there there’s no going back.
So where’s the thrill in such a game ?
Why play a racing game ?

Simple – drive as fast as you possibly can whilst whistling past the other cars.
If you want more detail I’d say that the thrill of any racing game is mastering the corners such that you use every bit of road available. Combine that with actually passing the car you’ve been following for 3 laps and you’re in to orgasmic territory.
The thrill in a driving game is in tearing up the road with little consideration for anything other than the speedo.

Burnout and Need for Speed:Hot Pursuit are other fantastic arcade variations on the theme. Just drive as fast as you can – we’ll handle the physics.

Working as a game designer / producer in a AAA studio must be a real challenge. Not only do you have the pressures of delivery but you also have the multiple egos of your team to deal with. In some cases maintaining a vision for your game must seem like an afterthought.
If I had that role I’d make sure that I communicated the absolute core of my game and to get to that I’d quickly identify where the fun was to be found. Where is all the pleasure ?
It would serve as a single line design document that I’d probably staple to the wall in the studio. Everything in the game would be a spoke off of it. If a new design idea for the game was presented I’d want to see it logically link back to the core pleasure in one single step. If not, well it’s probably not right for the game.

Some more thoughts on building fun and challenging arcade games

I’ve written it before that I’m not a huge fan of design documents for small projects. I’d rather be coding. So please don’t consider this as a literal document it’s more my own thoughts on some pointers for creating cool arcade games. I guess it goes hand in hand with my previous thoughts on the importance of arcade game design.

Know your character

Create your game character / spaceship / thing and set up some basic controls. Play it. Use it. Get to know it.
Is it fun to watch and control  ?
What situations would it be cool to have to deal with with your on-screen character.
Start to consider the look and style of a potential adversary for your character.
If you character can jump what kind of obstacles and challenges might he face ?

For many people just getting something on to the screen is an achievement – often the result of an initial technology test. It’s an exciting time. When you bind it to input it becomes even more thrilling.
I remember walking the Wizard in Wizard Wars around a blank screen for hours before it came to me that he should be collecting things.
Initially I had wanted to stage a battle between the Wizard and a number of mythical beasts. One in which my goal was to battle through waves of beasts using bolts of magic lightning and other such fantastical things. I guess in my mind it was Robotron with magic.
But I was controlling the little guy on a touch screen (first gen iPod Touch) and really didn’t feel comfortable with littering the screen with magic. Especially as the Wizard could move freely in 8 directions and wasn’t just restricted to his own area of the screen. It could have started to look very messy and confusing for the player.
I liked the idea of the Wizard tidying up his room. To me that was his role and formed his identity. Perhaps he was less the all battling Warlock and more the bumbling Merlin-esque Wizard who just happened to have magic.

Back to the controls.
Hurling the birds in Angry Birds is a lot of fun. It could easily be a device for another game. e.g. aim for the furthest distance.
Running the corridors in DOOM and just pulling the trigger is a lot of fun. As is flying over the planet surface in Defender just blasting lasers left and right.
There are so many games where just interacting with your character / vehicle is tremendous fun regardless of the actual goal of the game.

For me this is very much the first thing to get right in your game. If the one thing that you spend your entire game experience doing is poor or less than stimulating or heaven forbid confusing then your game will die.

My wife I’m sure despairs at the sight of me running a simple animated sprite around an empty screen whilst making all manner of noises and talking to myself. But for me it is a hugely creative experience.

Define the broad goal

Games need goals. Something for the player to aim for.

I’m a big fan of layering content in games. That is, you keep in mind the broader goal but the path to it is paved with smaller ones.

In DOOM your goal is clear. You find the exit and start over in a new level.
Same goes for Angry Birds. You wipe out the pigs and move on. The fact that death and destruction lie between you and your goal is merely an enjoyable consequence.

Your broad goal should be explained and where possible available to the player at all times as a visual reminder. I am of course thinking of PacMan. Games where everything is on the screen at once really allow you to achieve this. Multi-screen games are more of a challenge.

With hindsight I would probably have altered Wizard Wars to have the star count decrease to zero rather than simply incrementing the figure in the top corner of the screen. The reason is simple, not everyone reads the instructions. If you just drop in to the game it’s not at all obvious that you are aiming to collect 50 stars. Far better to count down since the player will quickly identify the goal as being zero.

In HyperGunner I dangled the carrot of “miles to Earth” at the end of every level.
This quickly forms the broad goal of the game and is mentioned in the pre-game screen.
Working back from there I was able to provide suitable sub-goals that moved the player through the game logically. i.e. collect stars to build up the hyperspace power bar.
Once in hyperspace the player is hurled that bit closer to Earth – the ultimate goal of the game.

Again with hindsight I would probably have staged the game a bit better. As it is the stars, diamonds and score multipliers are all generated randomly. Perhaps it would have been better to have spawned the hyperspace stars in line with an alien bomb or a saucer missile to add an extra challenge to the player.

These things invariably come to you once you’ve played your game to death.

Know your enemy

Your enemy is vital to your game. Games without challenges are dull. Games without conflict are dull. Of course you can define conflict in the true sense as being a shoot out or a physical struggle or you can express conflict as more of a struggle against time or resources. Either way the concept of conflict is key.
Your game needs to constantly throw stuff at you and you as the player must control the game such that you overcome all of it.

Your enemy should provide all of this.

Whether you define the enemy as an array of aliens, a wall of bricks or a ticking clock they should all seek to get the better of you by taking your goals and doing their utmost to prevent you from achieving them.

The better arcade games offered variety in the design of the enemy.
PacMan (again) with its varying ghost AI. Defender with its Baiters, Mutants and Saucers.

More recently DOOM with its mix of monsters and of course Angry Birds with its varying HP amongst the pigs.

Design is everything here.
If you have an enemy that hurls a visible bolt of magic at the player where is the best place to position it ?
If you have an enemy that seeks to crush the player where might you place it  for maximum effect ?
If you have a goal that is set against a ticking clock in say a driving game what kind of  enemy might you place in front of the player ?

It’s all about countering the interests of the player and his ultimate goal.

When you are designing your game on paper try to write down the role and actions of the enemy before you draw what it might look like.

The curve

In drama there is a simple rule that your protagonist must become something through his actions.
The simplest example I could find is the young farm boy Luke Skywalker in Star Wars who dreams of flying starfighters and taking on the Empire. Of course not only did he do that but he also had very close links to the Empire. Luke’s character curve (or arc) was quite pronounced and extremely satisfying for the viewer to consume.

In games we should strive to achieve the same thing. Whether we control a physical avatar or simply manipulate the contents of the screen we should ultimately feel like we have come from humble origins and through our actions – and hence increasing skill – have become something quite special such that we can take on anything that the game can hurl at us.

The game therefore, for its part, should naturally hurl everything it can at us by this stage.

A player needs to be tested at all times and then rewarded.
The “curve” that the player experiences can then be measured by their accumulation of rewards.

In modern FPS games you see this done with bigger weapons, greater ammo capacity and tougher adversaries. Well, bigger adversaries with higher HP. FPS games are frequently dull since they fail to move beyond this dynamic for progressing the protagonist through his curve.

In shoot ’em ups, another fine example of the character curve in action, you cannot get away with simply throwing bigger, faster and more deadly aliens at the player without first preparing the player with such things as shields, laser improvements and smart bombs.

More often than not your character curve is identifiable through the staging of your game’s content in the later stages. By virtue of the fact that your character is sat amongst complex enemy AI with all manner of obstacles in his path is evidence that the player has taken that journey and accumulated all the rewards en route.

So when you’re designing your game consider a snapshot of how you imagine your game or character / screen to look in the final shot (if of course your game ever ends !) and overlay that with the very first view of the game that the player saw.
If the two images look similar you may want to re-think some of the obstacles and goals.

 

Hopefully these thoughts will help you to lay the foundations of your game.
Designing games is a huge amount of fun. Coming up with the various levels, obstacles and game “personalities” is what makes it such a thrilling exercise.
Realising that your game is dull and devoid of challenges at a late stage in its development is no fun at all and extremely frustrating.

I believe that anybody can design a fun game. It’s not the preserve of large corporate entities and 5 minute wonder studios.

X Company – old game idea in new clothes

I’ve always wanted to create a game for a mobile device that effectively goes to work when you stop playing. Initially I had the idea of a sort of Tamagochi approach. Fairly predictable. But the more I played with the idea in my mind the more I came back to something a bit more adventurous.

The scenario that I often consider sees the player firing up the game to be told that his health is low and he is in desperate need of nutrition. Worse, his comrades are all ill and fading fast. But this is no RPG. This is a game of survival that probably has more in common with the Atari classic M.U.L.E.

My cast of characters, amongst them the player’s main character, are all the stranded crew of a failed mission to the far depths of space. When luck, fuel and oxygen started running out they aimed for the nearest planet. I call it planet X.
The basic premise of the game is that X Company must survive against the odds in an hostile alien environment.

Having crafted their own base, equipped with oxygen generators and water purification systems, the crew seek to systematically explore their new home in the hope that they might some day find some form of civilisation.
I always wanted it be pretty tight in the same way as Kirk and his senior crew were actually old friends.
I wanted the server to process away the player’s input and decisions (e.g. Divert 90% energy away from O2 to perimeter shields) and fire out emails periodically to reflect a) the state of the complex and b) the impact on the crew.
I’ve gradually become obsessed with the notion of playing Kirk in an hostile and mysterious distant world.

For the idea to work I need to define the character of each of the crew members. I also need to consider exactly where the fun is to be found. I have a clear vision of the presentation and gfx style but as yet have no consideration for how the code would work.

Games on mobile phones are going to be huge this next year. HTML5 games employing web sockets et al will be big business. I’m keen to develop my idea as a technology test if nothing else. If I get it right the game will be portable and flexible in terms of how it is played.

More to follow…

5 reasons why classic arcade games are relevant to mobile game design

Anyone who has read my blogged blitherings before will know how pre-occupied I am with the importance of the video game arcades of yesteryear.
Arcade game designers did not have the luxury of being able to present protracted stories through endless cut-scenes and fancy cinematics. Their task was to entertain the player and take as many coins as possible.

The latter is perhaps the key to why arcade games are so relevant to modern mobile game design since by definition it is an exercise in keeping game times short and thrilling.
So just how did they do it ? Why were some games more appealing and revered amongst gamers as others.

Here I offer 5 basic reasons why I think the lore of classic arcade game design is relevant to the design of modern mobile games. I’m by no means an expert but through my observations I’ve also managed to come up with what may be some useful tips on designing your own mobile games.

1. Attract

Anybody old enough to remember the heyday of the video game arcade will probably remember the sights and sounds that greeted you as you stepped in clutching your fistful of coins.
It was giddying to say the least. Especially when faced with a selection of new cabinets.
I remember fondly the times I spent treading the boards of the local arcade hunting for that one machine to which  I would offer my coin  in return for a few minutes of pure pixellated thrills.
The cabinets had a life all of their own as they jostled, beeped, whined and occasionally spoke to you  to attract your attention.
Every game had its attract mode. That brief glimpse you got to view the game for free.
Some of the better games had an audible identity that set them aside from the all too generic laser bleeps of most.

Defender’s electronic wind-up sound, Galaxians’ diving alien sound, Spy Hunter’s stunning Peter Gunn soundtrack…

It was perhaps the effective use of sound that attracted me most. Perhaps I hunted with my ears far before I’d engaged my eyes.

In some cases it was about the cabinet itself.
Who could forget the striking 6 foot alien that adorned the side of the Space Invaders cabinet ?

What’s important is that the game had to get you in. It had to pull you toward it such that you were close enough to see what it had to offer. By the time you’d got to within a foot of the cabinet you were probably more concerned with the controls than anything else. Just how damned hard is this thing going to be ? I sure as hell don’t want to waste a coin on trying to figure out how to control the blessed thing !

For me there is a valuable lesson to be learned here in attracting a player to your game.
In the ever-expanding app stores that we see for games on the web your title has to stand out as being attractive, playable, controllable and of course entertaining. You don’t get much time to sell your wares. The app stores are full of 3 minute thrills.

My tip: design your game to look good in ANY screenshot. Even the title screen.

2. Accessibility

In anything that we do in life we are most likely to shy away from anything that looks confusing.
This is a huge concern for game designers and was a huge issue for arcade game designers. The spaghetti fingered controls of Defender aside most games kept it very straight forward.
Indeed you could glance at a game’s control system and instantly know that you were going to enjoy playing the game.
Early games employed a single stick and a single button. This simplicity was vital and of course enforced on the designer. The same limitations apply today. Especially on hand-held devices where a certain amount of improvisation is required in terms of controlling the action.

Later games with better capacity provided brief tutorials on how to control the game.
Useful but probably rarely read through in any detail.
A huge factor in enjoying an arcade game was being able to instantly pick up the controls and feel like it was all very natural.

But it’s not just about controls. Where do you start your game ? Are you hurled straight in to chaos ?
Nothing is going to irritate a gamer more than standing absolutely no chance from the outset. All your hard work in designing the game’s numerous wonderful scenarios will be wasted if you turn your audience away within 30 seconds.

My tip: provide the player with a safe zone on entry. Before you unleash hell on him with countless dive-bombing aliens let him have a period of calm as he uses common sense to fiddle with the controls. In a shoot ’em up, for example, I like to give the player a few seconds to move around and shoot at nothing before I introduce the cast.

3. Continually dangle the carrots

Take all your fantastic game ideas, implement them, play them, remove the duds and then concentrate it all down for maximum effect.
If, for example, you have the wonderful idea of a power-up that the player receives  for collecting certain items make sure that you constantly remind him that this is a goal to be achieved. Don’t let the player forget about all your wonderful little ideas.

Some of the most effective arcade games had that one game-changing element – the power-up. That single item that when collected gave you complete control over your adversaries.

Pac-Man is the epitome of this. Everybody knows that eating the larger energy dot gives you the edge. It’s pretty obvious and is always in view. It’s something to aim for even though at times you find yourself in a sticky situation. You’re being chased by Pinky (or whichever one did all the chasing) but you know full well that if you could get to that larger dot the tables will be turned. Excellent design.

My tip: constantly drip feed the small bonus items that comprise a much larger benefit to the player. Don’t let them forget what they’re aiming for. When all smaller items are collected hit the player with his well earned benefit. Remind the player that bonuses really are worth aiming for.

4. Keep it obvious

Any game where a single character / avatar stands out by virtue of the fact that they are visibly different to everything else on screen is going to help the player understand what is required of them. A quick glimpse on screen and a quick glimpse down to the controls ought to be enough for a potential player to take that all important step up to your game.

Gamers are (or can be) very lazy. They expect much of the hard brain work to have been done by the designer. For the gamer it is all about picking up the controls and just getting on with it. Gamers want breaks. If they fall off the edge of the cliff with their first attempt at steering the car they don’t want to be told it’s GAME OVER.

By virtue of the fact that the car COULD leave the cliff on the first bend within 10 seconds of game time ought to suggest to the player that this is a relatively safe action but something they should get very used to. It’s going to be a common feature in the game and not going to get any easier.

As the old Atari mantra used to read – simple to learn, hard to master.

Every successful video game has this underlining its design.

Modern classics such as Angry Birds epitomise it.

Much of the art of keeping things obvious is in the presentation.
If you have a squadron of aliens hovering in formation above a solitary gunship at the base of the screen it’s pretty obvious what’s going to be expected of the player.
Similarly if you see your kung-fu character standing directly opposite a similar looking character it’s pretty obvious what you’re in for.

As mentioned previously helping the player to become familiar with your game is vital to it being adopted and enjoyed. It’s also  key to it being played time and time again.

My tip: in your game’s artwork consider a visual separation between the player’s character / avatar and the rest of the game’s characters. Also consider the staging of the action. If possible visibly divide the screen up in to the player’s zone and the enemy’s zone. The latter is not always relevant but useful where possible.

5. Reward everything

Take your basic actions – movement, shooting, jumping, implement them and then play with them. Make them 10x more fun. Exaggerate them and provide as much audio / visual feedback as possible. Reward every action and every consequence in as flamboyant a manner as the platform allows.

Again I go back to Defender.
Hit the fire button – stream of multi-coloured lasers thrash across the screen – satisfying electronic laser sound – alien explodes in to a million shards – satisfying explosion sound.
Make it count that the player has just performed the most trivial of actions. Reward everything !

It might seem silly to you to do nothing more than present a simple “puff” of orange when the enemy has been shot but the rewards to the player of seeing a shower of debris are enormous.

Rewards in games are not limited to collecting things or completing challenges. Rewards extend to just about everything that a player is doing in a game.

It’s not a classic arcade game but consider the process of shooting an Imp with a shotgun in DOOM.
Aim, hit fire button,  deep gunshot sound, imp falls in shower of blood, visual reloading of shotgun with accompanying sound.
You could take this scenario a step further by suggesting that the shotgun going off is actually a wake-up call to nearby monsters. This in itself is rewarding the player since it brings on a whole new level of chaos ready for the player to deal with. And all that the player had to do is press his fire button. Beautiful game design.

In the arcades there were many genres that lent themselves to rewarding the player in style. But none were as instantly satisfying as the shoot and destroy approach of Space Invaders and its clones.

Later shoot ’em ups delivered visual rewards in spades.
The combination of  lasers and explosions can quite often leave the player feeling a little confused but there’s something utterly mesmerising about watching it all unfold on screen. Patterns of lasers resulting in patterns of explosions against the rippling patterns of an alien formation that litters the screen with patterns of falling bombs.

This is a huge visual reward since everything that the player does effects the pattern.

My tip: create as much of a “safe” visual experience as the platform will allow. If you eliminate something from the screen don’t simply remove it – destroy it. Throw single pixels around at the very least. Better still accompany its removal with a satisfying and relevant sound effect. Subconsciously the player will seek to repeat this as quickly as possible since it is an enormously satisfying experience. But never force the player to have to handle the fallout of the action.

I hope that my thoughts meet with your own somewhere down the line. Or at least prompt some thoughts. If that is the case please feel free to share your comments.
This article is not meant to be an “how to design an arcade game” more an insight in to the observations I have made whilst researching the classic games of the arcades.

As mobile platforms evolve and their games mature it may be surprising just how relevant the design ethos of arcade games from 25 – 30 years ago are.

Whatever game you design the most important thing is to have fun. If you’re enjoying it you can be pretty sure that there will be an appreciative audience somewhere.

Wizard Wars on HTML5 games

I’m really proud of this. My first little HTML5 project Wizard Wars is featured on the excellent html5games.com website.

Play the game here: http://html5games.com/2010/11/wizard-wars/

Wizard Wars game for iPhone

Brief thoughts on Facebook, Ravenwood Fair and the future of casual gaming on the internet

I generally don’t like to talk about anything other than my games on this blog. For the most part I am far too opinionated on matters outside of my cosy little world of crafting simple games that I’m sure I’d end up in some libel case or something. But a few stats that I read this morning intruiged me. So much so that a few thoughts came to me that are probably worth sharing to invite discussion.

World of Warcraft has always been something of a benchmark for me in terms of the numbers of people playing it. As a MMORPG with upwards of 12million subscribers (how this breaks down in to active players I don’t know) I have always seen it as an unrivaled phoenomenon in terms of online gaming.

But Facebook more than trumps it.
500 million users with half of them active every day. (October 2010)
(Source: www.facebook.com/press/info.php?statistics)

That is staggering.

Little wonder then that John Romero (he of DOOM and Quake) should choose Facebook as the platform for his latest release Ravenwood Fair.
Just this morning I read that Ravenwood Fair’s userbase (within a week or two of launch) had shot up to 2 million.

These are incredible figures.

So what does the future hold for hardcore game designers ?
I’m fairly sure that John has other projects bubbling away but to be able to develop something against Facebook’s architecture and see that kind of take up in such a short space of time must be attractive to every game development biz guy out there. Certainly the designers.

You have far reduced operating costs, minimal marketing fees (what’s better than word of mouth or the odd “Like” on your Facebook page ?) and the added bonus of an instant audience/market to the tune of several million people.

What it surely means is that game designers can sit back and spend most of their time doing what they do best – designing entertainment for the masses.

So what can we expect in the near future ?
What bracket of gaming are we talking about here ?
Is it relevent to the wider gaming scene ?
Will the so-called “hardcore” gaming crowd ever embrace a social network for the means of delivery for its favourite games ?

I’m already thrilled by the potential of HTML5 being adopted by all major browsers. The bedroom game designer’s revolution is upon us and gathering momentum. Good old fashioned individual creativity that spawned some of the finest games of my youth (Jet Set Willy, Mercenary, Chuckie Egg etc) can once again hold its head up high and find an audience of millions.
The now common scenario of publishers throttling true creativity through financial limitations and reluctance to spend cash on untried and untested ideas can be overthrown by genuinely creative people who don’t care for or require a budget of millions to produce simple games.

I am now encouraged to investigate further exactly what Facebook can offer as a platform.
Even if I don’t totally adopt it I can rest assured that there is enough of a culture of casual gaming amongst its userbase to be able to successfully market a game hosted elsewhere.

Wonderful times ahead for casual game designers.