Showing posts with label interface. Show all posts
Showing posts with label interface. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Open world RPG design notes from Enderal, a big long Skyrim mod

I'm playing a giant Skyrim "total conversion" mod called Enderal. It does a lot of interesting things but also less-than-good things. I'm told it's inspired a bit by the Gothic series, which I've never played, so maybe a lot of my observations are more about Gothic than Enderal? 

Be warned that some of the screenshots are a bit spoilery (e.g. there's a tropical biome!) and my notes are obviously going to spoil some of the game's structure, but all these spoilers are pretty vague and anyway I don't name any names.

Anyway, here's my notes... 

Monday, November 26, 2018

Notes on "Sparkling Dialogue", a great narrative design / game writing talk by Jon Ingold at AdventureX 2018

My colleague Clara Fernandez-Vara pointed me towards this great game writing talk by Jon Ingold this year at AdventureX, an excellent narrative design conference in London. Unfortunately the Twitch video of the talk is hard to follow and the YouTube version of this talk is still forthcoming, so I thought I'd summarize the talk here because I found it very useful. As of December 1st, the YouTube version is now online!

(NOTE: This post isn't a transcript of Ingold's talk. It's a summary with my interpretations, and I might be wrong or misunderstanding.)

Ingold begins with something that should be obvious and uncontroversial to everyone: generally, most video game dialogue is poorly written. This isn't to say video games are bad, or that they we shouldn't try to do any dialogue at all. There are also many reasons why game writers are forced to write poorly, whether it's because of lack of resources, or last minute changes in the design, or other production constraints, etc.

The point is not to blame writers. The point is to highlight a problem in the craft and to define a better ideal. So, how can we write more competent game dialogue that is slightly less embarrassing?

To demonstrate the problem of typical video game writing, Ingold shows us this conversation from the first hour of Assassins Creed Odyssey in the starting mission "So It Begins":

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Grinding as repetition as savefiles as insistence

In "Portraits and Repetition", Gertrude Stein argues that repetition is better understood as "insistence":
"... there can be no repetition because the essence of that expression is insistence, and if you insist you must each time use emphasis and if you use emphasis it is not possible while anybody is alive that they should use exactly the same emphasis." (PDF)
This rings true to me for basically any activity. Woodworking, cooking, dancing, guitar-playing, painting, writing, welding, negotiating, swimming, typing -- everything requires practice, and in practicing, we insist on the continued value of that activity each time. We can never repeat any performance or action exactly, by virtue of memory and time. Each repetition always means something slightly different, and changes the meaning of all the repetitions before it.

Game design theory formalizes this repetition as a "core gameplay loop" or "mechanic" or whatever, but let's keep following Stein's insistence on insistence for a minute:

Friday, January 26, 2018

It's all about how you use it: on NSFWare, by Pierre Corbinais

This post is SFW-ish (somewhat Safe For Work, depending on your workplace)

Pierre Corbinais has a long history of making short poignant games about relationships and intimacy. (Before I had played this game, my personal favorite had been Tiny Soccer Manager Stories.) His choice of tool, Adventure Game Studio, is especially interesting -- this tool is very much not designed for Corbinais' abstract staging and gestural interfaces, but he makes it work anyway.

NSFWare, then, is a joyous and colorful collection of simple reflex-based games in an engine that is constantly trying to destabilize it. (When you press ESC, the quit menu confesses that it doesn't know whether the game is broken or not.) Corbinais' use of low-res neon pixel art is extremely effective here for several reasons: the bright nonrealistic color choices help soften the politics of porn, limited use of animation helps draw your attention to specific sex acts no matter how "small", and the chunkiness also helps mask how the engine wasn't designed for animated sequences like this at all.

Combined with the catchy minimalist beats and the retro-style rotoscoped animation handpainted in the Paint of Persia tool from diverse footage at Pornhub, this game makes a strong case for sex as craftsmanship: it's not how impressive or advanced your tool is, it's more about how you use it.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Nostrum design problems and world as interface

I am currently trying to prototype some sort of social simulation in Nostrum, and I am currently facing three main design problems:

formal definitions (within my system) for emotional responses to information
While showing the game at GaymerX, I had to disconnect the social sim portion because, internally, the NPCs kept getting upset at each other for talking about each other to someone else -- and they would be so upset that they would just go inert. What is the difference between discussing someone else vs. talking behind their back, and does my system have the context to make that distinction? Information currently does not have a "positive" or "negative" valence, it is just information that might be true or false. Should I remove this from the system entirely if I can't make it intelligible? At the very least, I want a system that will collapse in an interesting way.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Reading public Google Drive spreadsheets in Unity, without authentication

I'm working on a project with a collaborator who doesn't use Unity and doesn't really have an interest in game development (gasp) but it is still important that she can add/edit item data for the game. From a practical workflow perspective, I probably would've kept the item data separate from the game code anyway, to make it easier to balance and tweak stuff. This is usually the stage at which you'd make your own level editor or game database editor or something, but maybe there's a better way -- we can just tell Unity to read from a public Google Docs spreadsheet and parse the data. That way, anyone can edit the game levels or localization strings or whatever from anywhere in the world, and the game client will update data seamlessly.

A lot of this post comes from Clark Kromenaker's great post on accessing Google Docs services with C#, and a lot of my setup process is the same as his.

However, my particular project didn't need any data kept private, the game itself didn't need write access to the documents, and authentication looked like a pain (e.g. using OAuth 2.0 requires you to open a browser window so the user can okay the permissions? Yeah, no thanks) so I worked out how to access read-only publicly published Google Drive spreadsheets without any logins or anything.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Nostrum update: now with a map!

I added a map. This was the first version.

Then I tweaked the colors a bit. And animated it so it flaps in the wind based on how fast you're flying.

Then I added a border from an old atlas, and a map trail that indicates where you've been...

... But now I'm probably going to remove the trail, since I want the player to orient themselves with the compass and local landmarks.

Friday, June 21, 2013

"Press F to Intervene": a brief history of the Use Key Genre

There are NO *detailed* spoilers for BioShock Infinite in this post, so relax. I try to speak in a really general / vague way about what happens in the last third of the game.

Can a game about picking the right hat to decrease your machine gun recoil by 45.2% -- can that game reasonably do the work of talking about what it's actually about, much less talk about what it thinks it's about?

No, of course not.

But if there's one image from BioShock Infinite that I'm going to remember, it's this:

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Notes on first person virtual reality / implementation in Unity.

I've been implementing the Oculus Rift VR goggles into my first person projects, and the process has been... interesting.

Valve's excellent introduction to working with virtual reality (per their experiences in porting Team Fortress 2) is the definitive primer to working with VR in a first person context, and more or less the state of the art. However, it also ends with a powerful notion: we're only just beginning with VR, and it's going to take time before we know what we're doing. Here's a very brief summary of general design guidelines, as defined by Valve:

Friday, January 25, 2013

More talk, more rock: on algorithmic game narratives, speculative narrative design futures, and "Shakespeare."

by Nexus

Last time, I wrote about procedural narrative in the context of "process intensity." Here, I expand more on designing the procedural / process part.

Back in an expertly-conducted 2011 Rock Paper Shotgun interview, Dan Pinchbeck argued that game development culture unnecessarily separates narrative from the rest of a video game:

"I just want story to be talked about as a gameplay element that sometimes isn’t there. It’s part of the set of tools that a game designer uses to create an experience – and it should be thought of along the same lines, as physics or AI or something more mechanical."

We have physics engines or texture libraries, so why don't we think of narrative as a modular "asset" or "engine" or "library" to be swapped around as well? Why can't narrative be more "mechanical." Where's all the narrative middleware? (Storybricks doesn't seem to be doing too well, unfortunately. I also don't agree with them, that proc narrative is mainly an AI problem...)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Deceptive epistemologies in strategy game interfaces, and a theory of strong vs. weak fallibility.

When you play Command and Conquer or Starcraft, you're supposedly some anonymous commander at a console who can see everything and command everyone via some combination of technology and/or space magic. When you play Warcraft, maybe you're looking into a magic mirror. When you play Company of Heroes, uh, you're... uh... a plane is flying above and radioing battlefield recon back to HQ, and some lovely women in neat khaki caps slide pieces around on a map?...

As far as user interface framing goes, there's very little metaphor outside of fantasy magic and holographic virtual magic. Of course, none of these are "problems" in these games, because everyone knows it's a trick -- that is, we all know it's just some stupid bullshit that doesn't matter, and that's okay. ("Tetris doesn't need a plot!!!")

But the only way to coherently read this kind of fiction is to disembody it, to assume you're more like some abstract "force" -- maybe you're the collective human will to survive or collective unconscious manifestation of nationalism, some system of belief guiding all these people and resources toward some grand purpose that few of them can imagine. (Frozen Synapse imagines that you are literally "Tactics," the player character is the squad's abstract ability to think, perceive, and act.)

Monday, November 26, 2012

Radiator Blog: Three Year Anniversary

Wow, I've been blogging here for about 3 years now. This blog is now approaching the end of its toddler years. Much like last year, and the year before, here's a "greatest hits" compilation of this past year's posts:

(Oh, and feel free to have some cake. Forks and plates are over there, on the table.)


  • Level With Me, a post-mortem. A Portal 2 mod I did for Rock Paper Shotgun. The level design is some of my better work, and I like the idea of game journalism in the form of games, but it seemed somewhat cooly received. I have to conclude that it must simply be not as good as I think it is... or that Portal 2 players are super lame.
  • The Future of the FPS, written for PC Gamer UK in issue 240. A short essay and list of really cool indie FPS games and how they're changing the genre, kind of the basis for my later RPS series. Thanks Graham!
  • A People's History of the FPS. A three-part essay series for Rock Paper Shotgun that argues mods are transcending their video game bodies, becoming genuine culture that is increasingly independent of the products that they're meant to be "modding" and adding value to.

  • The myth of psychological realism in narrative. Argues that thinking of fictional characters as "people" is meaningless for a writer. It is much more useful to write by thinking of a character as a vehicle for plot, and let the player fill-in character for themselves.
  • Dishonored fails as an immersive sim in its first minute. The simulation should be "immersive" -- meaning, the scope of it should be consistent and everywhere. Scripting special cases goes against this genre dogma.
  • Dishonored uses the Heart to lie to you. You'd expect the Heart to be an unreliable narrator of some sort, but it doesn't lie to you with narrative -- it lies to you through gameplay and psychological framing.
  • "Stair K": architecture criticism, Thief, and a coffee maker. Situates Thief as dialog on social class and urban architecture. (e.g. stairs are invisible to rich people who take taxis, not subways, and frequent buildings with abundances of elevators) It argues that in Thief, stealing is framed as an ethical act because the rich deny the truth and infrastructure of cities.
  • Thief 1's "Assassins" and its environmental storytelling. I really hate the type of analysis that just thinks of game narrative as a static text that you read -- game narrative is also a game design tool, a way to make the game better to play. Games tell stories, yes, but those stories tell games too.
  • What do simulations simulate? Argues that a simulation gap is important for framing a narrative.
  • The structure of Sleep No More (part 1, no spoilers) and (part 2, detailed and spoilery). You paid a lot to see this damn show everyone's raving about and now you're inside, on a timer. Are you going to spend your valuable time (a) reading faint scribbles on random pieces of paper under a dim flickering light-bulb or (b) follow the crazy naked people who have an interpretive dance orgy in a blood-smeared disco?

    I still think a lot of "game critics on Sleep No More" like the idea of it more than how people actually consume it -- unfortunately, reading is boring and performance is captivating. So I argue the readables function as set dressing to assure you of the production's expense, not to serve as barely coherent narrative in a familiar plot that's hundreds of years old. Of course, the dancing's fantastic, but I guess it's hard to argue for the value of dance to gamer culture.
  • Rule Databases for Contextual Narrative. On modding Valve's dynamic self-branching conversation system and using it to author dynamic self-branching narrative, and how Emily Short's already doing something like that, naturally. I think it's one of the more promising directions toward a holy grail of procedural narrative.
  • Balls and conversation: let's narrativize the sports genre. I really love baseball movies, but I'm really bored by the focus on statistics, which is probably why Moneyball sucked. There's a rich tradition of sports narratives in film and literature, but in video games it's conspicuously absent. Let's change that.
  • "Do you think shooters take themselves too seriously?" We watch blockbusters in a special way, I think, but the gulf between action films and action games is this: the films are structured to be human and sympathetic, but games are sociopathic and mean. This is a game narrative writing problem.

  • Frog Fractions should really win something at the IGF.
  • On appreciating the UV texture flat as fine art. Here, I propose three aesthetic modes for enjoying texture flats on their own merits and glorifying them as authentic game art, rather than the silly concept art we parade as game art. I later re-wrote this piece for Game Developer magazine, as "Loving the Bones."
  • Desperate Gods and rules-forcing in games. Pretty recent, but I think it's a good summary of current thought on the issue -- if you can play a game of Starcraft in your head, and Starcraft exists fundamentally more as a mental construct than a product, then why can't we just argue the rules of Starcraft in the same way we interpret and amend the laws of board games.
  • On grad school for games / what studying at Parsons was like. Imagine a cohort of game developers from all around the world, and 50% are women, and 10% aren't straight people. Parsons is like the rainforest: diverse, beautiful, and vital to the global ecosystem -- but it's also humid, with lots of insects everywhere, and it's constantly in danger of deforestation. It's not for some people, while others will really grow to love it.

  • Why Indiecade is the best games conference / festival I've ever been to. It might sound like hyperbole but it really isn't.
  • I spoke at Games for Change this past year, on LGBTQ attitudes and developers in games. It went great. I began with "I'm Robert Yang, and I'm a practicing homosexual" -- and the entire auditorium erupted in applause and cheering. It was an amazing feeling.
  • Notes on the Games for Change industry. Fun fact: I got into an argument with a G4C speaker in the comments. His stance -- yeah the games suck, but people want to put a lot of money into this, so just accept it. My stance -- art should be a free or reasonably available public good, not a product.
  • How the worst part of the game industry uses PAX East to teabag your entire face with its cancerous scrotum. I encourage everyone to go to at least one big mass market game convention, because that's when you will know what "indie" really means and you'll realize how small, puny, and insignificant we "video game intelligentsia" really are. The sheer amount of money being thrown around in this industry is insane -- the money spent on a 20-foot tall Blops booth-complex, blaring out noise at a regular interval, is a huge contrast to the humility and humanity of indie game culture.
  • What were the main trends of GDC 2012? A look-back on what happened and what stuck out as significant.

    • Shader-based worldspace UVs ("triplanar") in Unity. The worst thing about BioShock's environments is the cookie-cutter feel of the game architecture, the result of modular building in game engines today. The scale and proportions don't feel human or plausible. To me, one answer is to embrace old school BSP construction techniques with procedural UVs so that you can scale your primitives to arbitrary sizes without texture stretching.
    • How to integrate Unity and Twine. Notes on Unity's web player JS hooks, and how that can feed into Twine's JS, or any webpage's JS, really.
    • How to dig holes in Unity terrains. How to use depth mask meshes to selectively mask geometry, then disable the terrain collider temporarily.
    • The best Unity tutorial writer in the world. He really is. I'd pay him to write a book, in fact, but unfortunately I'm poor.

    Wednesday, October 17, 2012

    Talking about Convo.

    Figuring out how to talk about your game is part of designing your game -- so trying to explain Convo to various people has been extremely helpful in refining my design goals.

    My favorite version so far has been, "it's an attempt to make The Sims accessible for hardcore gamers."

    The argument is that social simulations like The Sims and Prom Week are actually really complicated systems, more complicated than most supposedly "hardcore" games -- like, I tried playing Prom Week again the other day, and couldn't understand how to achieve anything because each character has a dozen abilities and a dozen moods and a dozen relationships. It seemed like a brute force approach to simulation, to dissect the gamut of human feeling and then to directly design and represent each facet. Don't even get me started on how much stuff is in The Sims... it's all very fascinating, but it's also really intimidating.

    But take something like XCOM -- I really like how there are just 3 core verbs (move, shoot, overwatch) that produce a variety of situations. However, the player stories consist mostly of "my squad was in danger and we survived" or "we got massacred" or stuff along those lines. I don't think XCOM's relatively limited range of emergent narratives come from its limited verb set; I think they come from the premise of its simulation, a military squad battling aliens. What if we replaced that premise with, uh, the mundane but thrilling dramas of everyday life?

    "My bros were in danger but one chatted up a really hot girl, but then she started talking about particle physics which he knew nothing about, so I had him text his friend about particle physics so he could talk to her instead. Turns out, they both hated plaid."

    Other elevator pitches:
    • "It's like XCOM plus Jersey Shore."
    • "It's about applied linguistics and binge drinking."
    • "It's like XCOM plus Love Actually."