Over on Idle Thumbs, Alex Ashby did a pretty nice writeup of my NTI talk.
I got away fairly unscathed, especially compared to Peter Molyneux.
Over on Idle Thumbs, Alex Ashby did a pretty nice writeup of my NTI talk.
I got away fairly unscathed, especially compared to Peter Molyneux.
They've got a term on the Call of Duty: Big Red One team here at Treyarch...a term that's starting to spread...and the term is "cowbell".
It comes from this famous SNL skit. And I love it...because I used to be a huge Blue Oyster Cult fan. I've seen them play live a half dozen times...have all their albums...my AIM logo is their symbol, the upside down question mark with the lines coming out of it - a broken ankh? Who knows. Anyhow, scary big fan.
But I was talking about the Call of Duty team. "This level needs more cowbell," they'll say.
And what do they mean by that?
In a word - explosions. But more than just explosions. They mean seeing your buddy get capped right in front of you. They mean a plane gets shot down overhead and plummets straight at you, trailing smoke. They mean stuff catching fire. They mean the building collapses around you.
I like to think *Half-Life* invented the videogame equivalent of cowbell. But they probably didn't call it that.
The COD team's cowbell is a little more expensive than the musical kind.
So supposing we were to redefine "cowbell" to mean "little changes to your game that make a huge difference?" Examples might include narrowing the field-of-view so you get a closer look at the action - the Ninja Gaiden trick. Or the way God of War narrows the field of view when you do a finishing move. Or atmospheric rendering effects. Or the motion blur when you're going really fast in *Spider-Man 2*. Or changing your squad AI so that your teammates are usually in front of you instead of following you - Brett Douville claims that made a huge difference to *Republic Commando* with very little coding.
What sorts of cowbell have you guys put in your games?
Although, you know, I'm not quite as jazzed about Canvas Curse as everybody else seems to be. When I first started playing it, I was like, "God damn this is terribly freaking clever." But whenever I'd get to the end of a level I didn't feel any strong urge to play the next level, and generally I'd stop and do something else and then maybe come back to it later.
One thing I'd like to write more about at some point in the future is videogame "affordances" - that's not quite the right word, I'm looking for something meaning the motions you make with the controller translate intuitively into the gamespace. I met a guy at NTI who works for Nokia who is completely devoted to studying this kind of thing...and I forgot his name. Sorry! If you're reading this, give us a shout?
Anyhow, Canvas Curse and Warioware are great examples of this phenomenon. The first example I can think of is Shufflepuck Cafe for the Mac - the motion you made with the mouse was just like the motion of the air hockey thingy on the screen. It was a kind of immersion you don't normally get.
Also, there's this Japanese cooking game - I don't even know what it's called; James Chao has an imported copy in the office - and the various motions you make with the controller (swirling, moving and chopping, and so on) match the various preparation steps for the thing you're cooking. It's really quite fun.
Actually, that's all I had to say on the subject. So I guess I have written about it, now. Still looking for a better word.
Mostly to try out this "trackback" thing, I'm going to comment on Damion's Monday Design question on a franchise superhero MMO here:
As it stands, the MMO's I've played do a pretty piss-poor job of making you believe you're in another world. CoH cocks it up with the zillions of superheroes with stupid names running all over the place; WoW cocks it up with the queues in front of respawning quest characters. Why not just accept that it's cocked up and let everybody be whoever?
But what I'd personally like to see is you get rid of the MM in your MMO and have instanced Manhattans with only a hundred, hundred-fifty tops, superheros each. You'd still get a lot of competition for Wolverine and Spider-Man, to be sure, and maybe you could resolve that on the aforementioned ladder system, but what really excites me about the idea is that if you break your social groups up into guild-sized chunks you increase the likelihood of social bonds forming among the players, and you eliminate the feeling that "everybody's super." Because...when everybody's super, no one is.
On the guild-sized chunks thing - you'd want to subdivide even further than that. There was some study I can't find a reference to right now where they compared a dorm hall of 60 people to a dorm hall that had been partitioned into groups of 15 - the people in the partitioned dorm were more likely to form friendships with other students in the dorm. I could imagine an MMO where when you first get dumped in you're only exposed to a handful of other people, and thus more likely to form some friendships with strangers, because it's not this overwhelming seething mass.
It makes you wonder, if games piss her off that much why doesn't she stop playing them?
Of course, I cuss out games all the time, and keep playing them too.
*Fire Emblem* is one game seriously in need of save anywhere, yo.
Since I studied psych in college I often think of games in terms of operant conditioning - we set up systems of reinforcement and punishment in order to guide the player into having the experience we want them to have. Mark Nau, who studied econ in college, often comes to the same conclusions about design via a different engine of thought.
*Spider-Man 2* demonstrated an interesting phenomenon - for the most part, people's favorite thing to do with that game was to A) free play around New York, swinging and exploring and B) find tall buildings and throw themselves off of them.
Neither of these things have built in game rewards in the game economy. Throwing yourself off a building is even a bit punishing, in theory. (Of course, behaviorists know that you can't tell if something's punishment until you watch subjects' response to the stimuli. For some people, seeing Spider-Man swan dive into concrete is apparently quite rewarding.)
Now that's great. We spent a lot of effort on the swinging and sense of speed and it's good that people are playing with it, even though we didn't really set up the game to encourage that sort of behavior.
Which got me thinking: maybe we should have explicitly encouraged that sort of behavior. Watching focus tests, it seemed like people were towing the line, playing the story missions, making progress - and in that sort of rigid setting, maybe they were forgetting to have fun. Maybe a lot of our players forgot to have fun. Maybe we should have found ways to reward pure swinging.
But that got me thinking about a line of research that we only barely touched on in my psych classes: http://www.ntlf.com/html/lib/suppmat/1303a.htm and http://naggum.no/motivation.html are good summaries.
In short, play is intrinsically motivated. Putting extrinsic rewards and conditions on it turns play into a chore. (Which may be why I find MMO grinding such drudgery. Of course, that's just me. The rest of the world loves the grind.) And maybe that's one of the reasons why free swinging is fun; we never made it into a chore.
But how does this theory fit in with games like Zelda (where various kinds of power ups reward your side quests?) and Tony Hawk (where being able to do wicked aerial stunts and grind long rails should be a reward in itself, but the designers saw fit to build a whole scoring system around it?)
Exploring a dungeon in Zelda is great fun; it's my favorite part of the game. The reward is you progress the story and get to go to the next dungeon. There are smaller, side dungeons that you can explore for various sorts of power ups. What would happen if they took the progression and rewards away? "Here are a bunch of dungeons. Explore them in any order you please."
And what if Tony Hawk took away the high score system?
My untested theory is this: a given kind of play is going to be an intrinsic motivator for some period of time. The more interesting the play, the longer the time. Drawing could be fun forever, for example, but exploring Zelda dungeons might not last that long. At some point, people do get bored. Probably at a different point for each person. You can extend the life of your play by building a reward system around it. This encourages people to explore the play more deeply, and possibly discover rewarding things about it that they wouldn't have discovered without the carrot leading them on.
The most important kind of reward you can give is recognition. "You made it to the end of the dungeon"; "You found a new area"; "You did something you never did before." Points and power ups and unlockables are nice but at some point a player will realize that they're ultimately meaningless, and it puts you on a slope to Hell - each reward has to be bigger than the last; the rewards have to be commesurate with the challenge; or else you hear the fearsome "That's all I get?" When you hear "That's all I get?" it means the player isn't playing your game for intrinsic motivations anymore.
Along with the Mac and the idea that computers could be made simple by icons came the idea that programming itself could be made simple by turning it into a visual medium where icons are hooked up to each other with arrows and drop down menus set parameters and so on and so forth. The first I heard of this was on some TV special on a language called "Mandala" - from the brief sketchy research I just did via Google, Mandala later became a VR environment in which very little of what we'd consider true programming was actually done...and when true programming was done, it was with scripts that were written in - you guessed it - text.
Mandala was invented for noble reasons: so that the noble, joyful activity of computer programming could be shared by the masses. We often bring up the idea of making our videogame scripting languages visual sometimes for noble reasons (so programming-alienated game designers can express their game design directly) and sometimes for not-so-noble ones (so we can make videogames a deskilled activity and hire cheaper, unskilled workers, thus turning videogames into a sort of fast-food assembly line operation.) It's the same sort of logic that was behind Fortran - "Non programmers will be able to program."
Let's discuss the not-so-noble reason first.
These languages, in theory, lower the barrier to entry. People who are afraid of or intimidated by programming, by pages full of text, will be more comfortable hooking boxes together, and we've now enlarged the pool of people we can hire.
But we're making a bizarre assumption: that reading and writing text is the hard part of programming. The hard part of programming is actually understanding the logic and flow of programs. The hard part is knowing how to maximize either a program's productivity (by being a kick-ass optimizer) or your own (by knowing how to reuse code, make it readable and extensible, make it less likely to have bugs.) By lowering the barrier to entry, it's like we're reducing the admissions standards to a hard college. The college accepts more applicants and then they flunk out...or barely muddle through.
Now Maxis did this for *The Sims 2*, with Edith, a language where you can connect command-boxes with arrows to create programs.
I only know what a couple of people have told me about Edith, so I may be making a lot of unjustified assumptions, but hiring people who would have been afraid of programming in text to do your programming seems like a terribly inefficient way to get a game made. Of course, having teams of one hundred to two hundred people and cruncing the crap out of them is also terribly inefficient. Efficiency is usually the last thing on EA's mind - as long as they hit their ship dates (their number one priority) and make the best game they can in that timeframe (their number two priority) they're willing to spend a bundle to make that happen. So from that point of view, Edith may actually be a pretty good idea.
But all the programmers and scripters I know, no matter what their skill level, look on these sorts of efforts with horror. With apologies to Jake Simpson, I even met someone who's worked with Edith, and he would have much preferred to program his Sim objects in text.
Visual languages put up a wall between us and the code, making it so we have to do a lot of cumbersome mouse clicking to get our code written. While it may offer advantages - providing a palette of commands we can use, and validating parameters as we create - we'd tend to prefer to just type.
Now let's discuss the more noble reason: not all game designers can program; maybe a visual language would allow them to express their game design directly, instead of having to write a spec which they hand to a programmer.
Chris Hecker once wrote a Soapbox in *Game Developer* magazine where he urged game designers to learn how to program: a game, he argued, is a system of rules out of which gameplay emerges, just as a program is a system of rules out of which behavior emerges. If you can design a game, he figured, you can program a computer.
I'd tend to agree. Game designers in general are pretty smart people who already understand logic, and should be able to learn how to program. Some game designers are *really* smart: Reiner Knizia and Richard Garfield are both mathematicians, and I don't have to tell you about Will Wright.
We have trained a lot of our designers to script with good success. But occasionally I'll meet a designer who does seem a little intimidated by programming. Maybe a visual language is just what they need to get their feet wet; a sort of training wheels. But I imagine once they got proficient with it they'd want to discard it and script directly.
I would have bet that the Fantastic Four wasn't going to touch Batman Begins, even though it seemed like they were dropping a lot more marketing dollars on it: lately I have the feeling that "I can't get away from" Fantastic Four, but I never really felt that way about Batman during its marketing push.
My reasoning was simply Google numbers. A couple years ago I googled the various superheroes to see who had the big mindshare - Superman was the clear winner, followed by Batman, followed by Spider-Man, and then the various other Marvel guys were fighting over scraps. The Fantastic Four was down at the bottom of the pile.
Now, Batman is at an insane 11M Google hits and FF has just edged out Spider-Man at 4M. Meanwhile...Superman himself is still hanging out at 3.7M...man, he used to be a contender...
So it looks like marketing overpowers mindshare. Or maybe the Google metric just isn't that useful. Or maybe there's something I'm not thinking of?
I'm in London now - I brought a DS, to play *Canvas Curse* and *Fire Emblem*, but did not bring a PSP. As I understand it, the PSP is outselling the DS in the states and the DS, mostly due to Nintendogs, is creaming the PSP in Japan. I have a theory that the DS will overtake the PSP in the states.
What's awesome about the PSP is its 3D. Which raises the question: what is 3D for? It's usually for providing an immersive virtual experience. Which a handheld simply cannot deliver, no matter how good its graphics are, because the screen is too small. So if you have a handheld game, you want it to be a game-game-type-game, rather than the sort of funhouse thrillride game you'd want on your Xbox or PS2.
And that's where the DS is shining: the stylus makes it great for games that engage you on that other dimension. It's playing to the handheld strengths.
Of course, hindsight is 20 - 20. Up until I heard the DS was creaming the PSP in Japan I thought Sony was going to win.
And I could easily be wrong. With the success of the iPod it seems like sometimes style is a lot more important than substance, and the PSP has the DS beat hands down on style.
Going to practice my talk now.