Thursday, April 23, 2009

Environmental Continuity

In this article, programmer Nels Anderson looks at the production realities of short-form games.

While shorter games have gained prominence in the last couple of years, some veteran developers have been espousing the benefits of shorter games for far longer. Ron Gilbert wrote about the design advantages of shorter games 20 years ago.

Unfortunately, the cost of development for shorter games is rarely proportional to their reduced lengths. As almost everyone in the industry knows, production costs are not linear. The initial costs of making shorter games means the core technology and design will need to be reused to recoup costs. It’s not really feasible for any but the smallest of teams to make a single, stand-alone short game.

Portal, the critical darling of short games, was only viable because Valve had already built its core tech for Half-Life 2 and Source. Portal’s new elements were lightweight to create - the portal system was relatively simple to implement, the main mechanic was already proven in Narbacular Drop and the environmental palette was minimal and uncomplicated. This isn’t to say there is anything wrong with Valve’s approach; it’s actually a brilliant example of embracing constraints. But another studio trying to create a similar title would face far greater costs, not to mention it would lack all the advantages Portal garnered being bundled with one of the most anticipated multiplayer games in years.

Telltale has done quite well in striking a balance between reuse and new content in their first two episodic series and look to do so again with Wallace & Gromit. Spicy Horse's Grimm skewed too far to reuse of design. While each release of Grimm features a new fairy tale, made dark and malicious, the shallowness of the gameplay left me feeling like I was just playing different levels of a game that wasn't that sophisticated or compelling. The art direction and variety of content is fantastic, but the gameplay mechanics do not repeat well.

It seems that making a series of shorter games means following the television model, but I think there are a lot more opportunities here that haven't been explored. E.g. instead of having a continuity of characters and storyline, I think a very compelling design could utilize a continuity of place. Examine an area of London throughout different historical eras. Perhaps starting as a Roman outpost, then during the Norman Invasion, the Black Plague, the War of the Roses, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, Queen Victoria's reign, the Blitz, etc. Practically any world city could be used- Dublin from a Viking settlement to the Irish Civil War, Osaka or Kyoto, Cairo, Vienna and countless more. It might be feasible to stylize each era different, loosening art dependencies and enriching the aesthetic of each era.

This use of continuity of place was executed in Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, with three different locales (a Cambodian temple, a French Cathedral and a Persian forbidden city) being visited by different characters hundreds of years apart. Similarly, Assassin's Creed used the Crusades-era Holy Land setting to good effect. It was the aspect of the game I found most compelling. The sequel looks to be attempting the same with a Renaissance Italy setting. This era of history, where Italy was divided into numerous merchant city-states, is an incredibly rich setting that is far fresher than another generic Arthurian-ish knights and castles setting. It still astonishes me that, outside of a few short time periods mapped to specific genres (a la the WWII shooter), historical settings are largely absent in games. Why create elaborate fantastical settings when historical setting offers so much inspiration, so many resources and an opportunity to bring the past to audiences that might not engage with it otherwise?

The unfortunate truth of game development is that costs mean most short games will have to be made serial in some fashion. But instead of immediately assuming a segmented storyline or reoccurring characters, there are many designs that can utilize core tech reuse while providing a unique experience. Continuity of place is only one; another might be experiencing a single event from overlapping perspectives of different characters. As always, good design arises from embracing constraints. Coming at the constraints of shorter games from different angles has the potential to yield some truly excellent and different games, if we are willing to look for these opportunities and seize them.

Nels Anderson is a programmer at Hothead Games. He's probably the only game developer in Vancouver (and maybe all of Canada) that was born and raised in Wyoming. He writes about games and game design at


Alan Jack said...

You raise a perfectly good point here, and one that many designers should pay heed to - embracing restraint.

Personally, I'd say I'm at my best when designing within restraints. Give me a blank canvas and sometimes I'll struggle to fill it, but give me a canvas and tell me I only get to use two colours, and I've got something to work with.

Single room games had a brief spurt of popularity in interactive fiction during the 80s, if I remember correctly (I was pretty young then). "Behind Closed Doors", for example, was an entire (albeit short) game that set you the task of escaping from an outdoor privy that you'd been locked into.

This problem came up a lot during my University tenure - as production management students, a lot of my cohorts didn't have the skills necessary to develop a game themselves, and some just threw their hands in the air and said no to development opportunities. The few prototypes I saw developed, however, were fascinating - art assets being replaced with simple geometric shapes or text characters, etc.

Sometimes pushing yourself to fit into limitations can lead to new directions and inspirations.

Nels Anderson said...

I think that's exactly right. It's very easy to say "embrace your constraints," but it's much harder to actually execute on it. Coming up with ways to make those constraints fundamental and unavoidable is a very useful practice, I think.

As you said, being given a blank slate is much harder than fitting even the most broad of requirements. The difference between "write a story" and "write a story about a forest" is truly vast. "Paralysis of creativity" might be an appropriate phrase.

Alan Jack said...

Interesting find:

Pastel Games re-use the assets from their series of room escape games, making the "last hurrah" of the series an amalgamation and retreading of the previous games. Brilliant move.

Nels Anderson said...

Awesome, thanks for the link Alan. I'll have to check that out.

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