Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Who's a slacker?

It's me!

So, here's the short version - shooter got scrapped, I made a puzzle game, hit a brick wall trying to get someone to make graphics for it, and am now instead helping with programming on a fighting game built in Python.

Unfortunately the game is already some 30-40% finished, and HAS a designer, so I won't be doing design, but I figure the game programming experience (even though it's not a language I'd prefer) will be useful. This HAS convinced me that you really need at least two people to build this sort of thing. One-man teams tend to cause you to lose sight of scope, and of course there are the technical limitations you hit having only one skill set available.

So, recently (and by recently I mean "for the past year") I've been playing League of Legends, (there's an old post about it, that I may not agree with so much these days). I'm toying with the idea of throwing my own champion evaluations/changes up here, but I have to both get the time and stop being lazy when I do.

We'll see how it goes, but I just figured I'd do a "hey I haven't forgotten about this!" post, mostly to remind myself!

Friday, March 26, 2010

It begins!

I've dabbled very lightly in game development before, but I'm actually going to put a serious effort into building my own game this time.

I have a rough, top-down shooter concept in my head, but don't want to jinx it (or get ahead of myself) and starting going off about what I want to do with it. I'll try and provide updates as I go from noob to... slightly more informed noob.

On a side note, I'm FINALLY making my way through Bioshock, so there may or may not be a post on that coming! Stay tuned!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Real Gamers Don't Waggle

The Wii is a veritable gaming juggernaut. Selling some 70 million units, it is hands down the best selling system of this console generation. It has a huge market presence and is in several households that until now were console-free. So why, then, are the best selling games for it not grade A, quality titles, but shovelware mini-game collections?

This may seem like a new phenomenon, but it has, in fact, happened once before. Let's hop into the wayback machine and take a trip to the mid-90's. The Super NES was just starting to fade out, and the fancy new CD-based consoles were moving in, but there was another big system out at thie time: the arcade machine.

Yes, this was the golden age of arcades, where one was never more than 30 minutes away and they were packed with whatever the latest Street Fighter/Virtua Fighter/ Fighter was. People would come and put their quarters up on the machine to play next, and with quality online play still years away, this was the place to be for the gaming community.

A few years and Street Fighter variations later, arcades are having a hard time staying open, and a shift begins to occur. Instead of getting patrons to pay 25-50 cents to play a game until they lose, arcades began to fill with large, gimmicky machines. Racing games, shooting games, skating games, jet ski racing games, motorcycle racing games, boat racing games, and some game that was literally a small soccer net and a ball on a rope. Yes, for the low, low price of $1, you could play "kick the ball."

Essentially, gamers were just not a big enough market to keep arcades afloat anymore, and to pull in an average person who didn't necessarily want to invest time, money and effort into learning a game, the "games" began to pander to the lowest common denominator of gamers. Which is to say, non-gamers.

Now, I don't blame the downfall of the arcade on any specific party. Arcade operators thought they could print money and not bother with any sort of upkeep on their machines, console gaming becoming more powerful meant you could get near-arcade experiences at home, and rising prices of everything meant that a quarter to play a game just wasn't what it used to be.

That said, part of me fears that we may be treading down a similar road that arcades went. The Wii is tremendously successful, and that's largely reliant on the fact that non-gamers love it. This is not to say that gamers don't also enjoy the Wii - of course we do! - but we only make up a fraction of the Wii's sales, and we play it (mostly) for the same big reason non-gamers do.

Wii "games" aren't really video games.

At least not in the sense we've grown accustomed to. There's no story, no characters, no advancement, and in some cases, not even a way to progress the "game." These games are, essentially, a fun control scheme and a way to experience that control scheme. They are the home console equivalent of Big Buck Hunter.

In reality, it's nearly impossible to have a serious gaming experience using Wii's waggle controls - the fact that you're physically moving your controller around constantly serves as a reminder that you are, in fact, in your living room, and removes any real possibility for game immersion.

This is, of course, perfectly fine. Some people want to waggle. The Wii may even serve as a gateway console for potential new gamers. The problem is in its enormous market share. The Wii is the goose that laid the golden egg, and the fact that your average Wii owner/player is fine with a new mini-game collection and related peripheral every few months or so means that projects for the Wii don't take nearly the level of effort as other games do, and can still pull in a profit.

Because of this, serious gaming on the Wii is scarce at best, which is fine. Gamers looking for a deep, enthralling gaming experience can go to one of the other two systems available. However, with the announcements of the Playstation Move and Xbox's Project Natal, the big "gamer" consoles are trying to get in on the action.

My fear is that if they successfully break into the market, the lure of "free money" will cause publishers to drop developers working on new, interesting game concepts in favor of Shovelware Party 32. I know real gaming will never die, but I'm afraid it may become more scarce than we'd like.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Been A Long Time Coming

Ah, my poor, poor blog, how I've neglected you! You may be covered in dust and wrinkled, but still you hold your head up proudly, awaiting the promised time when I would return and gently caress you with my words of approval.

So I return! And would a return to Better Gaming be without a post about, well, better gaming? This time I'll actually touch on the reason I remembered this blog in the first place: League of Legends.

For the uninitiated, League of Legends (LoL, from here on out) is a MOBA (Massive Online Battle Arena) game. It - for the most part - pits two teams of five players each against each other, in a bizarre version of a RTS game, where you are controlling only one champion. It's not an easy concept to explain, but if you're unaware of the game type and are curious, I highly recommend going to and giving it a whirl. If you're on the fence, I should add: it's free.

From here on I'll assume you're at least mildly familiar with the game, in which case it's time to get to the meat! I'm going to list out a few issues I've found with the game and some proposed solutions. Here we go!

The Snowball Effect
One of the big issues with the game is that a small advantage early on can very quickly turn into an enormous advantage. Often times the first 10 minutes of any game are by far the most important.

Now, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, as you want the early game to matter. If any team can come back at any time regardless of how they've played, the back and forth would remove a pretty big strategy element from the game. You definitely don't want to reward a player for losing, but an average game between two somewhat equally skilled teams should play out as such.

So how do we alleviate the problem? Well, let's look at the source - an early kill removes an opponent from their lane, and early on levels move fast. It's not unlikely for you to come back to an opponent 1-2 levels ahead of you, even if it's your first death, and the level difference only makes them more of a threat. Part of the problem here is that each level is a big deal - the difference from one rank of an ability to the next can be big enough to really push your damage over the edge.

Now, if we were able to start from scratch, maybe spreading out the curve from level 1 to max could work. If one level is 50-75% as effective as it is now, being outleveled isn't such a loss until the gap gets much larger, and it makes it easier to come back from a small deficit. Unfortunately this isn't the kind of change that's feasible to make once the game is solidified, so we'll have to look elsewhere.

So what else can we do? Slowing leveling down would work, but you never want to make a game slower. The only other dimension we can control for progression (besides player skill) is gold earned. A decent chunk of gold is given for killing an opponent. This, coupled with the fact that while they're respawning you get free reign to farm, can really get that snowball rolling.

So how do we keep the gap small without flat out rewarding the loser? I'm glad you asked, I happen to have a couple suggestions!
  • Increase the flat gold earned rate. Not a huge increase, but not a tiny one either. The idea here is that you don't want a game to be a steamroll unless one team is actually steamrolling. Here's a bit of math to show the logic, based on gold earned over the course of a game:
    500g (flat gain) + 1000g (minion/champion kills)
    1000g (flat gain) + 1000g (minion/champion kills)

    Now the numbers are clearly not to any kind of scale, and I know it seems silly and basic, but the idea is that instead of gaining an additional 200% gold from kills, you're gaining an additional 100%. You're not actually gaining any less from kills, so you'll still get your advantage, it just won't create as big of a gap. You will, of course, still have your levels - we're not eliminating an advantage for higher skilled play, we're just making it so that a couple mistakes won't cost you the game.
  • Allow "assist" gold on minions. When you attack a champion, if they die shortly after to someone else, you get gold for the assist. This is NOT the case with minions, and makes it harder to gain gold after being killed, as you have to be more careful about approaching the front line once your opponent has a level advantage. In this case, actually attacking minions without getting the last hit will hurt you, as it'll move the front line further away from the safety of your turret.

    Allowing assist gold on minions means that you can still be effective and earn some gold, without having to put your lower-leveled butt on the line. Now while the assist gold from a champion kill is 50%, I'd propose something much smaller for minions - 10% or so. Enough to keep you in the game, but not so much that you can come in, fire off an area attack and rack in the gold without effort.
I'm personally a much bigger fan of the first suggestion than the second, but if something must be done, I'd be okay with giving minion assist gold a shot.

This post has gotten far, far longer than I'd expected, so I'll have to save the rest for a sequel - which will hopefully be sooner than 6 months away.

Until next time kids!

Monday, April 20, 2009

On CCGs, Fun, Money, and Business

I've been doing a little bit of research on CCGs (Collectible Card Games, e.g. Magic, YuGiOh, etc) lately - both digital and physical - and generally they run into a few basic problems. The biggest of these is balancing money vs. fun.

Essentially the way these games work is that you pay for either a service or for actual cards/pieces/whatever, to expand your library and create the deck/arsenal you want. The obvious, inherent problem here is that in addition to the cost of entry (buying a starter deck or buying the game) you have to pay extra on top of that to get to the entry point you want to be at.

This is a tricky problem because anything you do to help the player out will immediately and drastically affect your profits. CCGs are pretty much money machines, but then, this isn't the Better Business blog.

So we'll take a hit on profits, specifically the constant stream of it. Create a digital package (which we call a "video game") with a base of cards, with something like 20% unlocked at the start, 40% unlocked through a single player campaign, and the last 40% unlocked through competitive play.

Now there are two routes we can go: leave the base game as standalone and create expansion packs with new cards and a new single player campaign, or charge a subscription fee for competitive play online.

Expansion Pack Goodness
The key thing about using expansion packs is that, development-wise you already have an engine built, so all you really need to do is focus on new content. If you're feeling adventurous you can add in new features as well. It's compact, it's optional, and if you add enough content your customers will never feel ripped off.

This is the key here, as you keep a healthy community going because, well, no one has to pay to play - and community is the most important aspect here. It becomes very cyclical, in that the better your community is, the more likely you are to sell your expansion pack. Of course, this is the least lucrative of the available options, but will also keep your player base fat and happy.

Subscription Fees and Fears
The main thing with subscription fees is that there's more to consider than recouping development costs and paying for bandwidth. You have to be certain of two things:
  1. That your service is good enough to be worth a subcription fee. Glorified chat rooms are NOT paid services!
  2. That your subscription fee is reasonable compared to the quality, content, and support of your game. There have been several games that could have been infinitely more successful if they had lowered their monthly fee to a price point fitting of their game (ex. D&D Online, Age of Conan).
These are the downfalls of many pay-to-play games, it becomes hard for people to justify a price point so high ($15/month isn't a lot in the scheme of things, but when you've just paid $50 for the game it's asking a lot) for a product that is clearly in its early stages. Keeping customers, and keeping customers HAPPY, is far more important than the extra loot you'll pull in for those first couple months.

While I've spilled over a bit into MMO territory, I do believe that this sort of model will be vital to CCG-esque games soon enough - they're practically built for the medium. These are somewhat random thoughts on the matter, but it was something that popped up in my mind recently (while considering game design options) and I wanted to regurgitate my thoughts onto the internet!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Street Fighter Revisited: Designing A System

I wanted to come back to Street Fighter IV for a moment, as I was recently thinking about how defensively oriented the game is. It's hard to catch opponents and at higher levels of play it seems that things like Focus Attacks aren't used very often for anything besides cancels, so I started thinking of a way to alter the game to be a little more balanced between offense and defense.

Eventually, this led to a rethinking of the current system and the addition of a new one. Obviously it'll be broken at some level because, well, there's no way to do any sort of testing, but really what I'm going for here is the theory of the system.

Before we get into it, you may want to read the previous Street Fighter IV posts, as this is building upon those suggested changes, and wouldn't work as well without them. Now ladies and gentlemen, I introduce to you...

The Momentum System
The idea itself is very basic, and in a way somewhat similar to the K-Groove from Capcom Vs SNK 2. Each character's health bar will pulse - essentially a heartbeat (I suppose you could call it the heartbeat system, or adrenaline system, but nomenclature isn't the point here). This is really just another gauge on screen, done without adding anything bulky to the interface - there are tons of different ways you can handle it, but this way seems the most unintrusive.

We'll say the heartbeat starts at 1 beat per game second. We'll call this 50%. As you attack, the heartbeat speeds up (meter increases) and as it does so, your damage percentage increases at a rate of 3:1. This means at 80% you are doing 10% more damage than normal, and at 100% you are doing 16.7% more damage than normal. Your heartbeat also goes up minimally when you're hit (1% per hit).

When your heartbeat hits 100%, you go into Momentum Mode (or whatever the hell you want to call it) and for 5 seconds your heartbeat will not decrease, Focus Attacks absorb two hits instead of one, and Supers cost only 2 bars of the Super gauge. Afterwards your heartbeat resets to 25%, not 50%.

Your heartbeat will only decrease during moments of inaction (including whiffed normal attacks), at a rate of 10% per second above 50%, and 5% per second under 50% - when decreasing, your heartbeat will hover at 50% for 5 seconds, and your heartbeat will only begin to decline after 2 seconds of inaction. Also under 50% your damage percentage decreases at a rate of 5:1, so at 0% you are doing 10% less damage than normal, and you gain heartbeat (back up to 50%) at a 1.5x rate.

Let's sum things up in a list and see if we can't simplify all this a bit now. There are essentially two sets of rules: above 50 and below 50.

Above 50%
  • Damage increases 1% for every 3% heartbeat increases
  • Heartbeat decreases at a rate of 10% per second
  • Heartbeat will pause at 50% for 5 seconds when decreasing
  • At 100%, player gains 5 seconds at 100%, 2 bar Supers, and 2 hit armor on Focus Attacks
Under 50%
  • Damage decreases 1% for every 5% heartbeat decreases
  • Heartbeat decreases at a rate of 5% per second
  • Heartbeat increase is boosted by +50%
  • Heartbeat will begin to decline after 2 seconds of inaction
  • Heartbeat remains stationary when blocking or performing a special move
  • Heartbeat increases on successful attacks
  • Heartbeat increases minimally on damage taken

And that's it. The trick here is that characters who are not made for frantic close combat (Dhalsim, Vega) shouldn't be negatively affected - this is why under 50% it's harder to lose momentum. Generally the idea is to keep combat going, and that if you decide to stay away from your opponent for long periods of time you also have to make the conscious decision to reduce your damage.

This system rewards the aggressor, and in a way is a counter to the Ultra system. The idea is to prevent staring contests and keep both players on the move at all times.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Spy's Sappin' Mah Game!

I am, admittedly, not a big fan of shooters. Specifically of the first person variety. So when I enjoy an FPS, it's a big deal. It's an even bigger deal when I find one to be completely awesome.

Enter Team Fortress 2. A class-based shooter that is fast-paced, team-oriented, and bucketloads of fun. This is one of the rare times I'll take a game and put it on a pedestal. The game has its faults, but they're mostly balance issues that I believe will be ironed out in time.

The great, great thing about this game is that it avoids the big pitfall of the shooter - generally you are either killing, or being killed. This very basic ideology is the downfall of many, many games, as there are really only so many ways you can kill or avoid being killed without one way being clearly better than the other. In single player games this means you strive for that one, most efficient way, and in multiplayer games it means you either choose the best way or end up frustrated.

TF2 manages to squeeze 9 completely different playstyles out of "kill or be killed," each of which is fun in its own right. You can switch from the fast, furious Scout, who can't take a hit but is incredibly mobile, to the Engineer who sits back and builds defensive equipment. Not only are these classes a great variety, they also provide enough difference in style of play that almost anyone can find a character they enjoy and can play effectively. This character usually ends up being a gateway drug into the other classes of Team Fortress.

In addition to these, the geniuses at Valve (creators of TF2 for the uninitiated) have begun putting out packs of new achievements and weapons for each of the classes. Unfortunately, here there is room for improvement, so let's run down a quick list:

One at a Time

These packs are released one class at a time, and usually several months apart. This means you usually get a large influx of whatever the new class is for quite some time while everyone gains the new achievements, which are a problem in and of themselves...

Achievement Whoring

To unlock the new equipment, you have to get a certain number of achievements. This would be fine except that some of the achievements are silly (see: example) and result in people doing stupid things they wouldn't normally do to unlock achievements. Silly and fun achievements are fine, but they shouldn't be required for new equipment.

Either add more standard achievements that reward good gameplay (without upping the amount needed for new equipment), or remove achievements as the qualifier. Maybe use kills/points instead?

Equipment Balance
Some of the new equipment is great (see: the Pyro's Flare Gun), adds a new dimension to the character, changes the way you should be playing, and fills out some gaps (while creating new ones, which is very important).

Some, however really do nothing for the class (see: the Heavy's KGB). They fall short of being useful, and are really only a status symbol. In the example of the KGB, the heavy really shouldn't be meleeing much at all, and when they do, slower swing speed and more crit is not at all useful. It fills in no gaps, it creates no interesting situations, and in general is somewhat half-assed.

Finally, some are simply clear and better options than the weapons they replace (see: the Medic's Blutsauger). Once you get these items there's really no reason to ever switch back. This essentially introduce an artificial form of "leveling" into a shooter, where it has no business. If the class needed a boost, it needs it across the board, and if it doesn't, there's no need to make a weapon simply better. The Blutsauger loses the ability to crit, but crits, in addition to being a rare occurence in the first place, aren't really a concern for the medic. There is no reason to not use this weapon, and that's a poor design decision.

Altogether, TF2 is still an awesome game, and these updates certainly don't detract from the experience in any way - they are additional and never detrimental to playing. I only think if the new equipment erred on the side of being more interesting, and they released updates for two classes at a time, we'd be in much better shape.