Sunday, August 28, 2011

Focus in Game Development

What's a camel?
A camel is a horse put together by a committee..
At my former employer, Ensemble Studios, one of the core tenets of the culture there was a sense of shared design.  That is, it was really important to the founders of the company that everyone in the company - be they artist, designer, producer, or programmer - feel like they could participate in a game's design in a meaningful way.  And this wasn't really just hand waving - we actually worked really hard to actually execute on that notion.  And you can imagine the appeal of such an idea to the typical newcomer to the company - the concept that regardless of what role you play in the game's development, you could still speak your mind, and still count on that idea at least be entertained, if not executed, in the game's design.

This worked phenomenally well as the company was small, but as you can imagine, as the team size grew, it became exponentially difficult to reach design decisions that made everyone happy.  And it became almost impossible for any singular vision of a particular game, or even of any particular portion of a game, to survive, as it weathered the brunt of multiple raging conference meetings and play sessions of people either championing or lambasting it.  This was a pretty important lesson that I took with me from Ensemble.  Shared design had its pros - those of buy in, participation, and a feeling of connection to the game.  But it also had a pretty dark underbelly, as progress on the game could be significantly delayed when even the simplest of design decisions had to go through the company ringer and attempts to get buy in from everyone - whether they were involved or not.

So one of the things I was absolutely most excited about when I set about making Atomic City was that I could execute with focus.  I may not have a big team to work on all of the aspects of the game, but I did have a singular vision.  I could form a plan, execute the plan, and I could entirely avoid the days or even weeks of discussion that would inevitably accompany every decision made, as it would have been at my former employer. It may sound selfish, or a bit hedonistic, but when you've sat through those interminably long design meetings that consume entire days, and sometimes weeks, over whether or not Victory Points in an RTS are a good idea, it's hard to understate just how appealing the notion of making a decision and executing that decision is.

So, if you're a reader, then you know Atomic City started off as a prototype for an MMO.  And I had a pretty solid definition of the set of design mechanics that would form the root of that MMO.  And I was pretty darn excited about them, because they formed a carefully constructed blend of mechanics that were familiar to MMO players, but also presented some interesting innovations on some of those fundamental concepts.  And history has taught us that small innovations to a core familiar gameplay are the key to a new MMO's success.  At least, in my opinion.  But when I didn't succeed in getting a publisher to byte on the MMO, I set about stage two of my business plan, which was to turn the prototype into a "small" singleplayer game for the PC, with a definite story - beginning, middle, end.

Now, I play a lot of City of Heroes.  And there are quite a number of design tenets in CoH that I really like.  And if you've played Atomic City, you have undoubtedly noticed City of Heroes' influence on that game's design.  And for a significant portion of when I'm playing CoH, I often play solo.  And so are a whole lot of other people I know.  So honestly I wasn't too bothered about the idea of taking Atomic City's MMO prototype and turning it into a single player game.  After all, it's exactly how I play most MMO's I play!

Original prototype, complete with ability bars
So I set about doing exactly that.  I was still able to remain pretty faithful to my original design.  My design focus was not in any real jeapordy, and though building the content (the zones themselves) took far more effort, time, and expense than I had originally forecast, I wasn't too worried, because I had been able to keep right on marching with my tightly focused design, and execute on that design.  So sometime around November of 2010, I had crafted several complete zones, and I pretty much had completed the programming and design of an RPG like game built around abilities and talents.  I had already implemented over 45 abilities, split along three different talent trees, that were designed in such a way that the player would specialize in either plasma, beam, or missile weaponry.  There were offensive abilities, buffs, debuffs, damage over time abilities, and even some healing abilities.  Players and mobs had offensive and defensive stats, armor, and chances to hit, miss or evade.  You specced out a hotbar with four abilities, and you could get different hotbars for when you were on foot or on a vehicle.  So I took my almost completed game, that really had for the most part only zones left to build, and I showed it to a fairly good sized groups of trusted friends, peers and former colleagues, and began collecting feedback.

And it was.. almost a complete disaster.

Because by far and away the biggest amount of feedback I got, from among that group, was that the core gameplay really.. just wasn't fun.  Somewhere along the way, I had broken an implied promise that I had made to the player.  I put a gun in their hand, but told them they didn't shoot it, they fired abilities to use it. And I put them on a vehicle that had guns attached to it, but I told them they didn't shoot those guns, they fired abilities that used those guns to do cool things.  What was the most fascinating, was that those exact same mechanics, when presented in an MMO (CoH) that couched those weapons with other more "ability type things", like firing bolts of ice from your hand, worked just fine.  The player was able to buy into that design mechanic in that game without problem.  But when presented in a single player game that had its focus on shooting guns and getting on vehicles and shooting more guns - well players didn't want to fire abilities that used guns, and see Miss Miss Miss roll up over a fleeing mob's head.  They wanted to point those guns at those mobs and hold the mouse button down until they were dead.

And suddenly, my game's much heralded tight focus wasn't worth shit.  To make matters worse - it didn't test poorly with everyone.  With people that typically didn't play video games, they loved it, because it was so gosh darn easy.  You didn't have to put any crosshairs on anything.  You pointed the vehicle in the general direction of a mob, pressed '1', and explody-shooty things happened and you felt really good!  And those, honestly, were the type of people I wanted the game to appeal to.  So I had actually succeeded in my goal - I had built a very casual friendly 3rd person RPG action game that involved weapons and hoverbikes and was fun for anyone that wouldn't normally play these games.  But extraordinarily unfun for anyone that had ever picked up a game like this before, because of their already preconceived notions.  Hell even I wanted to just shoot the gun at the mobsters, once I let myself think about it.

So I was faced with a huge dilemma.  Monumental.  Because you don't just wave a wand and fundamentally change the precepts and assumptions around which months and months of code was built.  I had to decide - do I stick to my guns and finish the game as I had originally conceived it, or did I acknowledge the feedback I was getting, and undertake the monstrous task of fundamentally changing the game's core mechanics to make it more action oriented. Would I abandon my focus and do exactly the kind of thing I had railed on designers at Ensemble for doing.

Well if you've played the game, you know what I chose.  Because the game didn't come out for another 8 months later, and the game is very much a 3rd person action shooter game, and all of those RPG mechanics were mothballed when I changed the game's design.

The moral, of today's parable, if you will, is that design fails when it's practiced at either extreme.  When you have a company of even a few dozen people, much less a hundred of them, and you try to meet the needs of every one in the company in your design, your game is going to flounder in a morass of indecision, argument, discussion, and watered-down-compromise-based design.  But if you build an entire game on a single person's vision, in what is essentially a design vacuum, you run real, genuine risk of building something that just isn't really, all that fun, or is going to do well.  And that is easy to see when that single person is someone else and you're the one picking on his design.  But it turns out it's quite a bit harder to see when that person is you.

I still don't know if I made the right decision for Atomic City Adventures.  I feel like I did, because in the end I liked where Atomic City ended in terms of its design, and I feel like it's a helluva lot more fun than it was when I was "almost finished" back in November.  And I'd be interested to hear what you think as well.  And if you haven't played it yet, well for cryin' out loud go pick it up and give it a try!  And come back and tell me what you think.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Company or Person? Identity Issues as an Indie Developer

In October of 2008, the management of Ensemble Studios gathered the entire company together in the conference room, and informed all of us that Microsoft had made the decision to close down our studio after Halo Wars was shipped.  It was, for many of us in that room, a watershed moment.  It certainly was for me, because it was at that time I decided the time was right to take the biggest risk I'd ever taken in my life - to forsake a steady job and a paycheck - and to attempt to form a new studio to make games.  A whole lot of us then were thinking that same thing.

But the thing you find when you talk to independent developers, or those thinking about becoming such, is that we all have our own vision of what the next great thing will be.  And because we've quite often spent years working on someone else's vision, we're pretty darn reluctant to let go of ours.  Occasionally you'll find two or three that have a shared vision, and honestly, those are the ones that succeed.  Or at least, have the most chance of success.  But there are a whole lot of us out there that have a dream (tm), and we are extraordinarily loathe to give that dream up.  So though I did try to convince a few of my peers to join me on my endeavor, I honestly didn't try very hard. Because I knew I had my dream, and I knew they had theirs (which included getting paid, curiously enough, something I couldn't offer), and I just didn't feel right asking them to punt on their dream to come help me work on mine.  While I'm extremely proud of what I've accomplished, in retrospect, I would have tried harder.  And would have been more willing to find compromise.  If there is one bit of advice I can offer, it is that going this route alone is very hard.  I do not recommend it.

But regardless of what I say, many of you will do exactly as I did, and you'll form a company that has one person.  Yourself.  And so we get to the crux of what this post is supposed to be about, which is then - how do you present yourself?  As a company, or a person?

Well, for myself, I went the company route.  I wasn't Dusty Monk.  We were Windstorm Studios, and that was how we presented ourselves.  The reason for this was that originally I wasn't trying to build a game.  I was trying to pitch an idea, to publishers.  And publishers really aren't interested about one person shops.  They want to hear about you team.  Well I had a team - I had a full group of about a half dozen artists that I was contracting with to produce assets for the prototype.  I had a music composer and a talented voice cast -- all that I was contracting with for their work and their time.  So I didn't have any employees, per se, but I certainly had a team.  So throughout the process I presented Windstorm Studios the company, and never really talked too much about Dusty Monk the dude.  Now, I do want to interject here I never lied about Windstorm Studio's size or its make up.  If ever asked by anyone I told them exactly how it was - one man company, with contractors for hire.  But I just didn't really promote the fact that I was in reality a single guy working in his house on a prototype.

Well, publishers didn't bite - at least the ones I talked to, and it had always been a part of the contingency plan to turn the prototype into a game if they didn't, and I set about doing that.  But I still really presented Windstorm Studios as a company.  Because I wanted it to be a company.  Hell I still do!

But somewhere along the way, in fact, really only recently, I came to the realization that perhaps, I was doing it wrong.  I looked around. I looked at other what other indie developers were doing, and I came to realize that, once you decide to go independent, then maybe it was time to stop presenting yourself as a company full of bustling people, and instead, just let people know who you are - a guy working out of the upstairs bedroom of his house to make a game.  Maybe I should stop trying to obscure that fact as a weakness, and instead point to it as a sign of strength!  Maybe it was time that I embraced my indie-ness, as it were.  So I did.

Which is why on the website, and in tweets, and in just about anywhere I'm promoting Windstorm Studios and Atomic City Adventures, you see a lot more I's and less We's.  And this is to not by any means to take away from the incredible contributions that everyone that worked on Atomic City Adventures put into it.  The people that I contracted did amazing work, and they put forth way more time and effort than their contracts called for, because they too absolutely began to believe in the project and wanted it to succeed.  But I'm the one that took the risk.  And if you're someone that's recently decided to not take a steady job but instead build the next Words With Friends or Minecraft while living on a waiter's salary or no salary at all, then you're taking a hell of a risk too.  And the cold hard truth of the matter is, for most of us, that risk isn't going to pay off in riches, and we know that going in.  But the fact that you're doing it is pretty damn significant.

So I guess I would just advise to be true to yourself.  Be proud of what you're doing, and of the risks you're willing to take to do them.  Until you are a company, be a person, not a company.  I know, pretty cliche message.  But for a guy that actually think's he's pretty smart, it took me a helluva long time to figure it out, and I still struggle to do it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

In which we discover Jennur's Horde is hard!

So with all the buzz about Guild Wars 2 these days, I've decided to return to Guild Wars 1, and see if I can work on my pathetically outfitted Hall of Monuments.  I already had a few points, as I've actually got one statue for completing the Factions campaign.  And I spent enough time running the Dajkah Inlet challenge mission to outfit four heroes, plus a pet, to place in my fellowship monument.  So I'm up to ten points.  The next goals I'd set for myself were to complete the Nightfall and EothN campaigns - both of which I have made numerous forays into, but have never actually completed.

So last night's adventure in Nightfall had me making attempts at a mission called Jennur's Horde. There is a description and walkthrough at that link.  The thing about this mission that makes it especially difficult is there are multiple paths to failure.  First, there are fairly large numbers of static mobs milling about in close proximity to one another.  If you're using minions, and pets, and/or henchies and heroes, then it's extraordinarily easy to aggro nearby groups, and to quickly find yourself overwhelmed.  And because it's a mission, party wipe means mission failure.  Second, there's the dreaded vulnerable NPC that must be kept alive.  He stays near the mission entrance, but every two minutes a group of mobs is spawned at the back of the zone, and starts making a bee-line to the NPC.  Miss that group of runners - let them get past you, and the NPC is quickly killed, and mission failed.  Finally, scattered throughout the mission are these deadly melee creatures called Harbingers.  Harbingers are immune to all of your forms of attack.  The only way they can be killed is to carry an item that is given to you, and drop it at their feet.  This makes it even more difficult for melee classes to complete, as most of theirs skills are turned off while carrying an object.  Thankfully I'm a caster, so I can still be effective while carrying things.  Oh - and to make it more interesting, for each of these Harbingers you kill, the size of the group that is spawned and runs towards the NPC gets larger.  Fun, right?

So there are several walkthroughs for this mission, and I definitely suggest reading them.  What I'm going to do is offer some additional tips on completing this solo, with heroes and henchmen.

Flag your group to the top of the stairs at the end of the hall
First, as the walkthrough suggests, it may be wise to leave the first two Harbinger's alone, so as to keep the runner group spawn size low.  I too definitely suggest this.  However, with a group of heroes, this can be easier said than done.  What I found worked for me was not to lead them through, but before you aggro the first harbinger, flag your heroes to the stairs at the end of the hall.  They will run past the harbingers, and through the static group at the base of the stairs, taking some damage, but that's okay.  Let them.  Hopefully, by the time you get to the top of the stairs, you'll be beyond the leash range of the second harbinger, he'll run back to his spawn location, and you can finish off the static group.   One note here - I definitely recommend waiting for and killing the first running group before you drop the Light of Seborhin at the harbinger at the top of the stairs and kill him.  If you kill him right away, the first run group will run and attack the Spirit of Seborhin, and trying to kill them will mean you will almost certainly also aggro one of the static groups at the top of the stairs.  This can get pretty ugly pretty quickly.

Once you have your beachhead at the top of the stairs, from this point on, you want to practice a slow and methodical approach of alternating between killing static groups and runners.  This is not a mission that you want to rush through.  But there are times when you need to hustle.  Essentially, you kill a running group, then immediately kill a static group.  When you finish off the static group, return to the middle and wait for the next running group to intercept and kill.  If you're super fast, don't be tempted to take on two static groups between runners.  Rest up, mana up, and be patient.  And if you take too long killing a static group, then keep an eye out for that runner group, and be prepared to break off if need be and flag your heroes over in front of them to intercept.  If a single runner group gets by you, the mission is all but assured to be failed.

Figuring out which order to tackle the static groups was tricky for me, and again took me a couple of attempts to get right.  Especially if you're going for the Masters reward, and want to get the two Harbingers and their groups up the stairs to the right and left of the center chamber.  The order that worked for me is that pictured here.  Clearing these floor groups before attempting the stairs helps in not accidently aggroing them when attempting the stairs, plus if you have to break off and race across the floor to intercept a running group, it's much easier if the floor has been cleared of enemies.

Among Nightfall missions, this one definitely stands near the top for me in terms of difficulty.  But like all things that present a challenge, there's a huge sense of accomplishment when the Master's Reward double-sword and spear sing across the symbol.  If you're just returning to Nightfall or Guild Wars and your travels take you through this mission, I hope these tips help you out some.  And don't get discouraged if the walkthrough's you read were written in.. say.. 2006.  We tackle our MMO's when we're darn good and ready by gawd!

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Return of Of Course I'll Play It

So one of the things I promised myself I'd do, once I finished Atomic City Adventures, was to return to blogging, in some fashion.  And since the introduction of Google+, I'd already decided that I'd take up the mantle of blogging here at blogger, with the notion that I'm hopeful when it gets rolled into and under the Google+ umbrella, it's done so in a first class citizen fashion, as G+ is where I spend the majority of my social network time right now anyway.  What would be especially swank would be if comments on a G+ thread that is linked to a blog on blogger would get turned into or in someway push back to comments at your blog site, so you can capitalize on the impressions a bit.  That is, at least, my hope.  Regardless, I realize that comments at blog sites are pretty much going away these days, with people doing their discussion at the almagamater - G+.  So I figure blogger is best poised to take advantage of that in some way.

So I've got a little over 2 years of posts though at OfCourseIllPlayIt, and as I was creating my blogger blog, I saw an Import option.  "Oooh - I can import my old blog!  Sweet!  Of course they'll support WP import.. I mean it's the most popular blogging platform in the world!"  So without really checking further, the thirst thing I did was to restore the old OfCourseIllPlayIt WP site.  About four months ago, I was forced, due to circumstances beyond my control, to transfer all of my domains to a new account, and at that point I backed up OfCourseIllPlayIt, but decided not to restore it until I could return to it.  So I busily set about this morning setting up a new MySQL database, uploading my old WP site to a directory on my webspace, and even jumped into MyPhPAdmin and imported the entire WP database.

So the first thing that went wrong was that, even though I had specified UTF-8 encoding on both import and export, a rather significant number of the characters in my posts and comments were mangled.  Like.. pretty much every double quote, single quote, whatever, was now some collection of latin character sets.  And brother, let me tell you, I use quotes a lot!   Well.. I said to myself.. it's still readable.. and these are old posts, so I guess we can live with that.

But the site was up and readable, all the posts and comments were there.. and I was golden.  Or so I thought.  Because when I went to import my blog - guess what blogger allows you to import!  That's right... other blogger files!  Gah!  So a bit more googling later, I found an online coverter that would take a WRX WP exporter, and turn it into a blogger exporter.  So I ran my already munged WP blog through the magic xml converter tool, and imported the blog.

So.. apparently something the XML converter guy didn't bother with was trying to maintain paragraphs.  So yeah.. now I've got 74 posts, hundreds of comments, all rife with mangled character sets and with all paragraphs, bold, italics, everything - stripped out.  Each post is just one like continuous single paragraph. Bleah!

So we're starting new!  Welcome to the new Of Course I'll Play It!  I'll be mucking about with the theme over the next few days - suggestions are welcome - and I might even return to the old blog and see about restoring a few posts I thought were worthwhile, but for now, it's forward!

Of Course I'll Play It will continue to focus mostly on MMO's - both ones I'm playing, and design thoughts on same.  But as I've just completed creating a single player 3rd person action game, I'm also playing more of them these days, so there will be plenty of posts about gaming in general here as well.  If you're new, welcome!  And if you're one of the 5 loyal readers that visited the old site - welcome back!

Comments?  Sure, feel free to leave them here!  Or if not, I'm at Google Plus too.. :)