Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Game Art Explained

In this article, aspiring game designer Gabby Taylor explains the role game art plays in a game's overall design.

Graphics are usually the center of the console versus PC argument (next to overall cost). We argue about how noticeable pixels should be, acceptable frame rates, and sometimes even perspective. And nearly everyone comes up with one reason or another why they’re right, but so few people seem to actually understand what role game art plays.

Our eyes play a huge role in how we explore the world around us, but it’s how the world is perceived that gives this visual information its potency. This psychological phenomenon is what game art plays on. It’s what causes you to beeline for the one lit area in an otherwise blacked out room. It’s what makes you feel confused or alarmed when things are blurred and red, and what makes the scene with a faintly violet glow seem enchanting. Horror games also use this to clash against our idea of what should be, thus making it creepy. There are a thousand different ways game art assists the design, for those who know how it works.

Game art can be broken down into two basic building blocks: color and design. Each area in a game is carefully crafted using these two principles in order to achieve the feeling the game design needs to successfully immerse the player in the gameplay and story. Think back to Batman: Arkham Asylum. If the place were brighter, or painted in pastel colors, do you think it would have felt the same? No, of course not. It sounds simple, and it is in theory, but applying them effectively requires lots of practice and expertise. Let’s clear the air of all the nonsense arguments, and briefly examine what each game artist has to know.

Colors typically have a meaning attached to them, that can vary by culture. In the United States, for example, white stands for innocence and purity. They can also have physical effects on us, like increased heart rate when we see the color red. Colors affect everything from our appetites, to how heavy something appears, to what emotion we feel when we look at it. The use of color is further broken down into values, hues, and contrast. Hues are the colors themselves, whereas the value is how light or dark that color is. For example, pink is a lighter value of red, and navy is a darker value of blue. A scene with all light values is called high key, and a scene with all dark values is, you guessed it, low key. Colors complement and contrast one another, creating different effects. Using yellow and red, for instance, creates a much different scene than using green and blue, or purple and brown, or even shades of grey.

Design is more about how the scene and the colors in it are arranged. This is not to be confused with overall game design, though; this is artistic design of a scene or area. When designing the scene, you’re focusing on lines and objects to which the colors are applied. You can think of design as the skeleton on which color is the fleshy bits. Going back to the Batman: Arkham Asylum reference, the whole game would have a different feel to it if Calender Man didn’t cover the walls of his cell with calendar pages, or if Poison Ivy didn’t have plants everywhere, or if the whole place looks like it had been meticulously cleaned.

These two elements come together to create game art, which is necessary for the game design to convey the intended message and emotions. That’s all it is. There is no art style that’s superior, or acceptable frame rate ceiling. It’s the emotions, the perception, that’s important to the game’s success at allowing the player to delve into the world set before them.

Gabby Taylor is an aspiring game designer and head of GreyBox Studio. When not making design documents, she contemplates going outside, and sometimes even takes a few steps when feeling particularly frisky.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Writers, Stop Obsessing Over Three-Act Structure in Games

In this article, game writer Sande Chen muses about the Three-Act Structure and whether it ought to be the dominant structure in video game writing.

If you're a writer, you probably know about the Three-Act Structure.  It's a popular yet arbitrary format for Hollywood screenplays.  It's a great framework to learn, especially if you want to know more about screenwriting, but it's not a One-Size-Fits-All solution.  Video games are not always going to be like Hollywood screenplays.  That's like trying to hammer a square peg into a triangle.  If game designers don't use the same design pattern for each and every game, why should every video game be written like a Hollywood movie?

The latest console blockbuster shooter isn't going to be designed like a free-to-play Mahjong Solitaire social game.  There are different target audiences, different genres, different technologies, different play patterns, and of importance, different business models.  Many times, the business model does inform the aims of the game designer.  Coin-operated arcade designers back in the day knew that the goal was to get customers to plunk in quarters.  Episodic game designers naturally want players to keep on buying episodes and free-to-play game designers would like to maximize sales on virtual power-ups and goods.

This situation is not unique to the game industry.  Writers, too, understand the whims of the market. TV writers use cliffhangers to entice viewers to return after commercial breaks.  Charles Dickens often wrote his novels in monthly or weekly installments and would even modify plot and character development based on reader feedback.

My point here is not to slam the Three-Act Structure, but to get people to realize that the needs of a game writing project may not be the Three-Act Structure.  There are plays with 5 Acts and screenplays with 4 Acts.  Evaluate each game writing project carefully and understand how the writing fits into the overall scheme.  The Three-Act Structure is useful, but there's no need to apply it to everything.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose experience spans over 10 years in the game industry.  Her credits include 1999 Independent Games Festival winner Terminus and the 2007 RPG of the Year, The Witcher.  She is the chapter leader of the IGDA Game Design SIG.






Friday, August 1, 2014

August 2014: Agency

August 2014's topic was submitted by game designer Pascal Bélanger.

He writes: 
Agency, as defined by Janet Murray in the great industry reference "Hamlet on the Holodeck," is the fundamental feeling of having an impact on a virtual world. It is somewhat the basis of immersion and many game designer consider that their main quest is to pursue a better feeling of agency.

On the other hand, we have games like World of Warcraft that use mechanics that go against this feeling (e.g. Resetting mission states to permit players that have already completed a mission to redo them with their friends and/or clan mates). This acts as a Distanciation Brechtienne" (after Bertolt Brecht) -  a French theater concept whereby an element constantly reminds the spectator that what's in front of him is not real agency because it always reminds the player that he is in a virtual world and that in the end he does not have any real impact on it.
Even though many have gone long ways to argue about its systems, one cannot deny the success of World Of Warcraft. And all this without pursuing that particular feeling which is supposed to elevate the medium to another state.
  • How does the pursuit of agency impact you as a designer and as a player?
  • Do you think it is a requirement for immersion? 
  • Do you think it is a requirement for games in general?
Clint Hocking on Agency: http://www.next-gen.biz/blogs/agency-beyond-the-magic-circle
 As always, submission guidelines along with submission procedure can be found on the right hand side of the blog.  Topic suggestions and articles are welcome! 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

IGDA Webinar: Multiplayer Economies

Last week, I had the pleasure of interviewing game designer Adam Thompson on the topic of Multiplayer Economies during the IGDA's most recent Webinar on Game Design.  Adam Thompson is responsible for economy design on the upcoming MMO, First Earth
First Earth

The IGDA Webinars started recently and we hope to cover a lot of interesting topics.  Feel free to suggest topics for upcoming Webinars.  During the Webinar, which happens on every third Wednesday of the month at noon Eastern, attendees can interact with panelists and type in questions.  We have a recording of the Webinar here, but as you will see, it's better as a live event, where you can see the speakers' Webcams. 

If you want to listen in:



Adam Thompson is game developer with twelve years experience in mobile, educational, and multiplayer PC games.  For the last four years he's been consumed developing First Earth, a next-gen game meant to fulfill the promise we saw in classic MMOs like Ultima Online.  He has a particular interest in the philosophy of game design as it relates to multiplayer games. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Screw Narrative Wrappers

In this article, game writer Richard Dansky examines the assumptions behind the term, "narrative wrapper."

And here is why I hate the term “narrative wrapper”.

What is a wrapper? It’s something that’s put around an object, not intrinsically part of the object. It’s something that’s taken apart to get to the good stuff. It’s something that’s discarded as unimportant. It’s something that, 9 times out of 10, has disgusting congealed faux-cheese on it.

And so when we talk about the “narrative wrapper” of a game, we’re implicitly stating that the narrative is not of the game itself. It’s something we’re supposed to wrap around the gameplay to make it transportable and attractive, and keep the targeting reticule from dripping burger grease on our fingers, but it’s ultimately unattached and disposable.

Which, to be blunt, irritates me to no end.

Because yes, you can have a narrative wrapper on a game, one that you discard as soon as it’s time to start blasting or moving geometric shapes around or whatever. But I’d like to think we’ve moved past that. That we understand that narrative and gameplay are part of a unified whole that, when combined with a player’s choices, creates the play experience. That a game doesn’t have to have a lot of narrative to have an appropriate amount of narrative for what it presents, in order to provide context to the player actions and create a satisfying arc to their progression.

But Rich, I hear you say, not every game has a narrative element. Not every game needs a narrative element. Take, for example, tower defense games. Or Minecraft. Completely narrative free!

To which I say, cunningly, that’s absolutely not the case. Because when most people think of game narrative, they think of the explicit narrative - the story of getting from point A to point B, and probably slaughtering a zillion hapless orcs/enemy soldiers/terrorists/space aliens/zombies/geometric shapes infused with dubstep along the way.

But that’s just the explicit narrative. There’s also implicit narrative built into every game though the choice of setting, items, character design - the assets of the game tell a story, if only by their very existence. Or, to put it another way, think about the archetypal tool you get in Minecraft. It’s a pickaxe. It’s not a tricorder. It’s not a Black and Decker multi-tool. It’s a pickaxe, and through it’s very pickaxe-ness - low tech, implied manual labor, etc. - it tells part of the story of the world it exists in. Ditto for those towers in tower defense games that everyone claims come narrative free - they’re shaped like something, they’re shooting something, and those choices frame a story before word one of any dialog or plot gets written. If you’re shooting aliens in a tower defense game, you’ve established genre (science fiction) and technology (aliens with enough tech to invade, you with enough tech to fight back); your backdrop implies the course of the conflict so far, and so on. As soon as you decide what a game asset is, you’re implying the narrative that allows it to exist and function.

Which is another way of saying that narrative is baked in, blood and marrow, to games. It’s not a wrapper, though God knows enough people have tried to separate story and gameplay like one of them has to walk home across the quad in last night’s jeans. Yes, you can divorce narrative elements from gameplay (Or as we used to call it, “put it in the cut scene”) but that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what the narrative elements of a game are, and how they interact, inextricably, with gameplay. If you think of narrative as something external to the game - a wrapper, perhaps - then you’re missing the point, and your game will be the worse for it.

And that’s why I hate the term “narrative wrapper” - because it damages narratives and it damages games, and it damages the understanding of how narrative works in games. And it gets crappy congealed cheese all over my deliverables, and we just can’t have that sort of thing.

[This article originally appeared on Dansky Macabre.]  

The Central Clancy Writer for Red Storm/Ubisoft, Richard Dansky is a 15 year veteran of the games industry. His credits include Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Outland, and Driver: San Francisco. The author of six novels, Dansky lives and works in North Carolina.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

July 2014: Creativity Enhancing Games

July 2014's topic was submitted by Vbwyrde GrayFalcon.

Video games can spark our creativity in so many different ways.  Some games, like Minecraft, explicitly promote a Creative mode whereas other games or simulations provide creative outlets for players to sell player-designed clothing or other items.  Players of The Sims franchise post illustrated stories, all staged in-game with characters and props from the games.  Games can also inspire mods.  Any game that allows us to build, decorate, and express ourselves is tapping into our creativity. 

If one were to focus on enhancing player-led creativity in a game, how would one go about designing such a game?

Besides allowing players to create new levels or new in-game items, is there a way for the player to leave the game with a creative masterpiece, like a song, painting, or written epic that is utterly unique to that player?  And would that application still be considered a game?

What are your thoughts on the topic?  Do you know of any examples of great creativity enhancing games?  If so, why do you feel they work as well as they do?

As always, submission guidelines along with submission procedure can be found on the right hand side of the blog.  Topic suggestions and articles are welcome! 



Friday, June 27, 2014

Interchangeable He and She

In this article, game writer Sande Chen explores the role of gender or lack of gender in branching narrative.

After all the protest about the amount of work to animate female characters, it appears that female characters, like Assassin's Creed III: Liberation 's Aveline de Grandpré, can use animations created for male characters.  As Aja Romano points out, this works out especially if animators decide not to oversexualize the movements of female characters.  It's also a production issue, since interchangeable male/female animations would have to be the plan from the beginning.  Interchangeable animations, along with a couple of gender-specific ones, would save both time and money so that there could be male and female playable characters in the game.

  These animations weren't so interchangeable...
But say, it's not the beginning, what I might call the pre-production phase, but at the beginning of crunch time hell, or even worse, at the end or after the game is released?  Then, sure, a development team may find it hard to provide a fix.

All of this reminds me of a thorny problem a video game company presented to the game writers Facebook group.  This video game company created romance games (in text) and after a game was released, customers asked why there wasn't a gay romance option a la Dragon Age 2.The company wondered if a solution could be found by simply replacing all of the love interest's pronouns by the opposite gender. 

Would that work?

I have played a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) game that did something similar and I truly felt cheated because my choice of gender was as meaningless as the selection of eye color in the game.  OK, the story was supposedly set in an enlightened (yet vaguely RenFaire) society in which men and women were treated equally and men had even achieved pregnancy, but I still felt cheated.  I can see that this might work in a different game, but not one that was all about relationships.  And a romance game is all about relationships.

I understood that the author had very cleverly done this to avoid writing whole sets of branching narrative.  Yet, I couldn't help but feel that the whole fun of choosing a female or male character in a romance game had been taken away from me.  If I had a female character, what would happen here?  How would people react differently?  Might I be able to succeed as a female character but not as a male character?  I feel that even if writers do create enlightened societies, we are still viewing their world from the present.

In our flawed and unenlightened world, females don't always act and talk like males and hence, the need for female-specific animations and dialog.  Female relationships are different from male relationships.  I believe that the experience of growing up as a female is special and worth exploring.  When this informed background isn't there, then the relationship feels hollow.  To me, all the romances, including the gay ones, in this CYOA game were somewhat shallow.

In the end, the video game company with the problem decided that a quick switch of pronouns would not be respectful to the gay community.  Gender would not be a meaningless string variable. 

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.