Tuesday, July 27, 2010

August 2010: Design 2020: Imagining the Future of Gaming

August 2010's topic, Design 2020: Imagining the Future of Gaming, was submitted by game designer Ryon Levitt with contributions from game designer Josh Sutphin. 

Join us and discuss the possibilities of the next 10 years of game design.

What major innovations will this decade bring? What tiresome trends will stubbornly cling to life? What old genres will we see resurrected and which current ones will die?

Will there be a revolution against the current corporate models that will turn around what is mainstream and what is indie? Will we all be out of jobs? Or will we all be making Holodecks?

With all the new tech that keeps popping up, and the changes in view of what is a good game for value, what do YOU think will be the future of gaming?

Ryon Levitt is a programmer-turned-designer for TECMO KOEI CANADA, with about 3 years of credited design experience.  Ryon is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG, and helped coin the acronym GDAM.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

SCUMM: The Joys of Exploration (Part II)

In Part I, postdoctoral researcher Clara Fernández-Vara elaborates on the influential design decisions that have made SCUMM adventure games just as engaging today as they were a decade ago.  In Part II, she explains the impact of those decisions.

Solving the puzzles is not a matter of “a thousand deaths” any more, but of learning more about the world. There is a lot of information that we can obtain by talking to characters or exploring the objects. One of my favourite examples is the Important Looking Pirates at the SCUMM bar at the beginning of Monkey Island. You can talk to them and get a lot of information about the island where the game starts. These characters inform you of what your immediate goals: become a master of thievery, sword fighting and finding treasure. The player does not have to talk to them to advance in the game, but since it’s one of the first accessible locations, it’s also one of the first things the player will do.

Even if there is a specific sequence of steps that the player has to follow to advance in the game, the player is free to explore the areas of the world that are open. At the beginning of Loom, for example, the player can explore the different tents of the weavers before going into the temple, where the events of the story will be triggered off. It provides the player with the impression of false freedom that other genres strive to achieve. Yes, there is one path that the player must follow, which usually coincides with the preset events in the story. But the player can take her time to explore the world, probe it, and be surprised (any shop or a cluttered room in a SCUMM game is guaranteed to have a couple of fun Easter eggs).

The absence of “game over” states before the story has actually been completed has its downsides as well. The first and more obvious is that for some players it may be easy to get lost in the world, forgetting what the short and long term goals of the game are. Dying in the game provides immediate and clear feedback to the player: “you shouldn’t be doing that.” It may be frustrating, but it is very effective. In adventure games, the player progresses by solving a series of problems in a specific way, which is one of the keys to bring together the story and the game design. If the player can explore the world, the pacing will slow down, to the point that it can also be very easy to lose sight of what to do next. Day of the Tentacle, with all its fantastic puzzle design, has a bit of this problem, since there are so many threads the player can and must pursue simultaneously.

Point-and-click adventure games are notorious for often turning into clickfests, where players click around try every verb with every possible character or combining everything with everything. The SCUMM games are not impervious to having players clicking around, since it is almost natural player behaviour once one feels stuck in a game and does not know what to do next. Many adventure games seem to have been designed under the assumption that it’s what players will do. SCUMM games, however, often do an great job of letting the player know what may be clicked on and what not by giving visual cues. More importantly, the design of these games tries to prevent clickfests by actually providing clear goals to the player at the beginning of the game. Bernard, one of the player characters of Day of the Tentacle, has the following exchange with Dr. Fred:
Bernard: “Now what am I going to do?”
Dr. Fred: “I think I made myself perfectly clear. Step one: find plans. Step two: save world. Step three: get out of my house!”
The first step is the immediate goal of the player, finding the battery plans, which must be sent back in time so Hoagie, the character trapped in the past, can build it and start up his time machine. Saving the world is the ultimate goal in the game, and getting out is the end of the game.

The SCUMM games are usually good at giving cues to the player to the right solution to a puzzle. The cueing is very subtle, and requires the player to read the text attentively, which is part of the challenge. The game design thus depends a lot on the writing. The text is not only fun, it must provide the information the player needs. There are few “hunt the pixel” puzzles, and more “pay attention to what you read”, thus rewarding observant players. In The Secret of Monkey Island, the prisoner Otis has halitosis, so the player character Guybrush will not talk to him. Otis says “It’s hard to keep my breath minty-fresh when there’s nothing to eat in here but rats.” The player gets a hint right there about what to do: finding breath mints (which can be found in the general store nearby). Once his breath is refreshed, Guybrush will talk to Otis, who explains that he’s in jail for tampering with certain flowers in the forest, called Caniche Endormi. The player can find those flowers in the forest; a basic knowledge of French will make the player realize that the name of the flowers means “sleeping poodle.” There is indeed a pack of fierce poodles guarding the mansion of the Governor, and the player has to get them out of the way. Flowers do not have the inherent property of putting people or dogs to sleep, so it’s not knowledge the designer can expect from the player. That’s why the game provides the player with the (subtle) information needed to solve the puzzle.

Adventure games where the player character did not die have become the norm nowadays. From Myst to the recent Machinarium or Ceville, thanks to SCUMM adventure games discovered the potential as games which encourage exploration and let players figure them out at their own pace. It’s a different type of gaming, more suited for players that enjoy story-driven games and thinking their actions through rather than using twitch skills. In the end, their enduring appeal comes from a set of generally solid game design.

Clara Fernández-Vara is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. Her work concentrates on adventure games, as well as the integration of stories in simulated environments.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

SCUMM: The Joys of Exploration (Part I)

In Part I of this article, postdoctoral researcher Clara Fernández-Vara elaborates on the influential design decisions that have made SCUMM adventure games just as engaging today as they were a decade ago.

The release of Maniac Mansion in 1987 became a milestone in the history of videogames. Although the game itself was quite popular, what is important for us is the framework developed for it: the Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion, more popularly known by its acronym, SCUMM. The significance of SCUMM is not the scripting itself, but a series of design decisions that have had a tremendous influence on adventure games, even to this day.

The two first Monkey Island games and Loom have been re-released for modern platforms, with new graphics in the case of Monkey Island, and they are as engaging as ever. Why are these games so good, even today? One of the obvious answers is that they were well written, had memorable characters, and were fun, even though not all of them were comedies (see Loom or The Dig). Some of their stories are as engaging as a good movie. However, just focusing on the writing overlooks their actual design, which is what we care about. The SCUMM games created a design model that encourages exploration and experimentation in the game world, a model whose influence extends to games currently released.

The SCUMM games are distinguished by a lack rather than a design feature: the player character cannot die. This was not completely true of their earlier games (Maniac Mansion, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure), but soon it became the design statement of the Lucasfilm adventure games. Loom explained this in its manual:
“We believe that you buy games to be entertained, not to be whacked over the head every time you make a mistake. So we don’t bring the game to a screeching halt when you poke your nose into a place you haven’t visited before. Unlike conventional computer adventures, you won’t find yourself accidentally stepping off a path, or dying because you’ve picked up a sharp object.

We think you’d prefer to solve the game’s mysteries by exploring and discovering, not by dying a thousand deaths.”
This design decision was a reaction against the traditional adventure game model inherited from Adventure and Infocom interactive fiction, amongst others, and perpetuated by contemporary Sierra adventure games. These games had “game over” states, like arcade or console games. The player had to die a lot to learn how to solve a specific puzzle, often without forewarning. Although the death messages could be fun (think if Infocom’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Sierra’s Space Quest series), dying just because the player was examining something or you entered a new room could get very frustrating. Adventure game design entails a contract between the player and the designer, the designer poses the challenges, and the player must have all the information needed to solve them; that information is usually obtained by exploring the world. It’s a matter of fairness: if the designer is forces a game over state to provide information about what not to do, it is somewhat abusing the position of power. On the other hand, if the player has the information and makes a mistaken choice, it can encourage the player to decide what to do more carefully.

Knowing that the player character cannot die in the game encourages players to explore the world. One of the reasons why players remember the writing in the Lucasarts games is not only because it’s well executed and funny, but because the overall design of the game encouraged the player to talk to everybody and examine every object. The game provided fascinating worlds that the player was encouraged to explore by the design of the game.

Clara Fernández-Vara is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. Her work concentrates on adventure games, as well as the integration of stories in simulated environments.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

August 2010 Poll

Please vote for the August 2010 topic!

You'll see the poll to the right. The choices are:

  • Cheats
  • Design 2020
  • Augmented/Alternate Reality Games
Please vote by July 21. Thank you!