Monday, July 31, 2006

Design Genres #7: Sim Builders

Wikipedia calls these "Economic Simulation" games which is probably more accurate, considering the player has to balance resources and profits to get the maximum of the latter using the minimum of the former. If you want an example of the type of game I'm talking about, Sim City is pretty much the biggest name out there followed closely with any series with "Tycoon" in its title.

The central focus to this sort of game is how efficiently your unit works (steady) and unlike other strategy games - where the goal is usually a satisfactory answer to the question "how well does your unit work in beating the crap out of the bad guys?" - the unit in question tends to be something slightly more mundane and non-violent. Such as a city, a hospital, a space installation or an, um, ant colony. Of course, more often than not, the games themselves aren't quite as mundane as the reference material it uses.

I don't mind saying that this genre, like RTS games, simply make my eyes glaze over when I try to play them. It takes a level of micro-management I don't think I'll ever be able to provide enough attention to to benefit from. But again, there are ideas in this genre that interest me a lot more as a designer, especially when the games get more fantastic and surreal such as the more futuristic entries of the Sim City offerings. The attention to detail on matters such as archeology (both current and experimental/potential, like arcologies or cold fusion power stations) is again, one thing I always admire with these massive simulation games.

So where's the idea? This one sort of ties in slightly with my Alien World idea a few weeks back and even more slightly with the Stargate Sim idea from several months ago, in that's it's basically the expansion of a race as it slowly takes over their native star system and eventually their galaxy. Rather than have lots of fights with sentient races also vying for galactic control (a la something like Starcraft, which has Zerg-rushed to death) the planets are mostly devoid of life (or have their own form of it, though primitive). So where's the fun? Basically, you control a giant terraforming ship that can either mine a planet or convert it for your species to live on (or maybe a few other uses also, if I come up with any). Because the planet's government works as a series of competing corporations that care of those in their respective territories/countries rather than an elected democracy, you're in contention with the other corporations and their ships. The Sim element comes from how you choose to expand your corporation's ship (as both its captain and executive officer) and how you control the planets you leave in your stead (which may become bases of operations, mining planets or planets for settling sympathizers of your corporation, or the families of its workers).

As the story progresses, you'll eventually be bumping into other corporations and their territory. There is a very small amount of out-and-out inter-corporation warfare in this game, as the corporations are at least somewhat civilized (though the real reason is to stop it becoming too "RTS" combat-orientated), though there's plenty of industrial espionage going on, and behind-the-scenes takings down of rival companies. Think Civilisation, and how you could get rid of opposing civilisations in that game without actually fighting them. Some of these corporations have been around for centuries, so they'll have more than a few tricks up their sleeves. As the story progresses further, you'll discover more about the galaxy you're in, including why several planets seem to show traces of a previous ancient space-faring lifeform and why their whole race seemed to suddenly vanish...

Gameplay is divided into two modes: Ship and Planets. With the ship, you're required to expand and upgrade parts of it and fit it as needed for the next mission (which you'll be briefed on each time you return to company HQ after finishing the previous mission). If there's a mining planet that the company's found, make sure the ship has drillers (both machine-wise and trained people), plenty of storage space free and enough resources to set up a permanent mining base. If the planet is unhabitable, but in a favorable position close to its star for life to prosper, you need to make sure you have the sufficient terraforming equipment to handle it, etc. As you travel there, you may need to deal with various issues and events you'll meet along the way (sort of like Oregon Trail, where half the crew gets Space Dysentery and dies. Well, maybe not.) There may even be a few profitable side-trips on offer, though you have to be careful to still have enough resources to be able to finish the main mission.

The second mode involves the planets you've set operations on, and is also where the personnel feature comes to the fore. The game has a bunch of NPCs which join you for various requirements, and though they can be simple positions like soldiers (always helpful for space pirates or other types of trouble) or engineers, there'll also be highly skilled diplomats and commanders which your company will assign you. It is through these commanders, once they've been set up as an overseer of operations on a particular planet, that you'll be able to control the planets you have taken over yourself. So not only do you have the ship to worry about, but also the many different kinds of planet installations you'll be making. And they'll be increasing in number as the game progresses. Of course, the commander NPCs can take care of business themselves if you don't feel up to it, but they'll benefit more (as will the corporation) if you give them direction yourself. Each planet type will have its own simulation mode, with mining planets involving searching for new veins of precious minerals (using ultrasound or maybe some kind of technologically-advanced alien gizmo) and using the resources available when you formed the colony to produce as much yield as possible. Newly terraformed planets with colonies will need supervision to avoid the various unseen dangers the planet has, such as persistent corrosive gases covering the planet or an unprecedented orbit path through an asteroid field. To ensure the colony's safe success, you'll need to monitor their situation carefully, though they - and you - will have plenty of warning with orbiting satellites and advanced monitoring equipment broadcasting any potential cataclysms.

That's probably enough text for now, but I feel this could be a game that both covers the colonization feel of space exploration (which has been done a few times, most notably by Alpha Centauri or Colonization) with the spaceships and adventure of space exploration itself, though removing any other sentient alien races to keep it simple (and far more feasible, since the appearance of advanced alien lifeforms don't appear to be much of a possibility according to current science). Having rival corporations will probably be competition enough.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Game Idea Stage 2: Horror Hotel

OK, with this blog entry I plan to expand on a game idea I put in this blog about a month ago (go look it up) with some conceptual artwork to better illustrate the nuances of this game, should I ever find myself presenting it to industry people for their approval for the project. Now, I cannot draw to save my life (which really bodes well for my career chances) which is why the following conceptual artwork will be presented to you with the finest graphical art program that technology has to offer: Microsoft Paint.

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So here's the first part of the introduction story, which still needs some tweaking as far as the jokes are concerned. Obviously the game's version would be a lot more detailed concerning in-game stuff (like the Helper Golem and the castle), but this is the basic storyline as outlined in the previous Horror Hotel article.

Next, we move onto some non-comic conceptual stuff of how the game will look and play. Once again, I'd like to reiterate that these are design sketches and are in no way finalized or industry-quality as of yet (I'll make industry-quality work when the industry pays me to do so):

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The Horror Hotel Select Screen, for choosing which mode to enter. It's a little primitive at the moment, but I wanted two big icons for the respective modes to choose from. Everything inside the icon is a microcosm of the mode itself, with the furniture/guests/money in the hotel icon and the monsters/treasure/ helper-golem in the dungeon icon.

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The Hotel Mode Screen, which requires some explanation: The thing on the left is the object tracker, which you can use to spin, turn and position the object right in a 3D element. It's not a perfect rendition, but anyone who's used a 3D graphics tool or played something like the Sims should recognise it. The glowy yellow line around the bed is the cursor, which means the bed is currently selected (which is also why it appears in the tracker). The right menu bar is the mini-inventory, the bottom bar is the instructions and the top bar is the "helpful hints" from Weird Uncle Pete, which you can turn off once you've got the hang of everything.

That's all the updates for this game idea at the moment, though expect more concept stuff (with that same MS Paint flavour) and more concise details about the game to follow in future blog entries. Maybe even a game flow-chart!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Design Genres #6: Survival Horror

What started out as simply a minor spin-off of the all encompassing Action-Adventure genre has quickly settled into a genre in of itself, with many disparities and its own set of rules to separate it from its father genre. As such, the goal of the survival horror is most often simply to survive whatever present situation you're facing. Of course, there needs to be an overall goal to either stop or escape from whatever supernatural terror currently threatens the player character, but the danger can be so overwhelming that it is often better to just run or hide than use up precious resources fighting something that won't stop coming.

Based on the corporeal nature of the opponents you fight, your character may indeed be practically powerless against whatever dangers are around, or at the very least can only temporarily fight off the darkness. This is the case in such "pure" Survival Horror games as the Fatal Frame or Clock Tower series, where you often find yourself controlling a high school girl who couldn't shoot or fight worth a damn and needs to rely on other means to survive. Other Survival Horror games tend to have more of an action edge to them, where you are perfectly able to fight back. These include the very iconic series of Resident Evil (in which you control fully-trained special military or police officers) or Silent Hill (which has characters who are not fully trained in weaponry, but can use them as well as they are able).

As advancements in computer graphics allow them to become more realistic with movie-quality animation, the survival horror genre is one that continues to improve with these advancements, allowing the scary bits to seem more genuine and therefore more effective.

My idea today is again something I should think already exists in some capacity, but I cannot find anywhere. It therefore stands to reason that the game either doesn't exist, or failed so badly despite the premise (or maybe because of it, I'm not perfect) that it has been mostly forgotten. Anyway, the idea is a survival horror based on the Apocalypse.

You'll play a hapless guy caught in the middle of Judgement Day. Instead of it being a gradual 7-year long thing in the Christian Bible, the shit sort of hits the fan all at once. As well as the footsoldiers of the Apocalypse and regular staple of the genre, namely the living dead, there'll be all sorts of terrors unleashed at the same time. I'm talking some really nasty things going on, ranging from non-corporeal horrors that - while unable to physically harm you - terrorize the survivors by chanting their various sins in life and working as scouts for the bigger guys to find you. The bigger guys in this case range from all sorts of Apocalyptic creatures: from the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to Lovecraftian uber-colossal Hell creatures to hideous creatures from various ancient civilisations who had been sleeping for countless millenia. Pretty much every bad element that has ever been waking up simultaneously to end mankind.

The game's story will begin with our guy simply tracking down his family, first going to the surburbs where he lives for his wife and then onwards to the high school where his son is a pupil. After which it's simply a battle to survive for as long as possible, through brave fighting, fortuitous circumstances and lots of running like the dickens before something you cannot handle spots you. Towards the end of the game, it turns out the remaining group of humans - mostly powerful mystics and similarly lucky or well-trained personnel - find a way to finally fight back against the world-killers, culminating in an over-powered showdown in which you're a vital lynchpin to the eventual success of humanity. I'm not sure if it's going to be technological-based or mysticism-based as yet: The former would be better story-wise as it reflects humanity's talent for what they do best: making giant machines to kill things. The latter would make more sense considering the storyline however, with the survivors lending you their life-force so you can become superhuman and start kicking copious amounts of supernatural butt. Or it might just end with your eventual death and with it the death of mankind itself, since it is supposed to be Armageddon and all. Maybe delaying your death until you've done enough good in the world by saving people will be the goal, so you end up going to a better afterlife. It's not like alternate endings are unheard of in this genre.

So as it stands, the game is a combination of Silent Hill's kind of "everyman versus the undead" and something like Clock Tower where the stronger enemies are simply too powerful for you (currently) and you need to escape. Escaping the city where you work just as a 300ft tall colossal beastie shows up to level it would make for an awesome cutscene I think, and there'll be similar-scale calamities wherever you go. The game will take you all over the continent as you escape one danger to find yourself in another, and it'd be cool to bring in monsters from all sorts of apocalypse myths of the world: instead of limiting it to the Christian Bible (Four Horsemen and Hell Demons), you could include parts of Ragnarok (such as the Midgar Serpent or Fenris the giant wolf) or even elements from fictional mythology like the Angels from Neon Genesis Evangelion. Maybe even something like the Meteor from FF7 or the Moon from Mask of Majora, as an ever-present threat in the sky to deal with. The Apocalypse should be disturbing on more than just the physical destruction element alone, with all sorts of dangers unleashed to extinguish human life.

Actually, it turns out a game with a similar premise (though a completely different playing style: this sounded more like a Devil May Cry action title than a survival horror) was being made by 3DO shortly before they went belly up. It was called 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse and used our favorite four icons of unholy evil as bosses to fight with guns and stuff. Sounded a lot more interesting than most of what 3DO put out back then.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Game Review DX: The Atari ST

The Atari ST was a home computer in vogue during the late 80s and early 90s, just before Windows killed off all non-fruit based competition to the PC computer. The Atari was slightly older than its main rival the Amiga, and as such died out just before it did. The two systems were very close in popularity back in their day however, with Amiga having the slight advantage games-wise while the Atari did slightly better with the non-games market of early paint tools and music synthesizer programs. That isn't to say it didn't have some great games also.

Somewhat nostalgic update, this. What follows are three of my favorite games from this system - the first I ever played way back when I had an age in the single digits - and an explanation for why and how they stand the test of time:

Elite - Space Sim - Elite is probably one of the best space sim games of all time, as they perfected the simulated, first-person space-faring formula the very first time anything like it had been tried. You were a trader, carrying goods from planets who didn't need them to planets that sorely did, making tidy profits from your ventures and using them to upgrade your ship for easier travels. Of course, it wasn't all plain sailing: pirates constantly tailed you to steal whatever supplies you had, and you needed to defend yourself on every occasion. If the pirates weren't bad enough, seeing the gigantic hexagon-shaped ships of the insectoid alien race known as the Thargoids baring down on you was reason enough to get the hell out of there ASAP with your ship intact. As you became more experienced, the dangers increased and more frequently did you encounter the worse space has to offer.

The greatest part of Elite was the choice of how your reputation would proceed: You could become the strongest, most reliable trader in the galaxy, fighting off whole bands of pirates and fearing nothing the cosmos could throw at you. Or you could become a despicable smuggler or pirate, taking dubious bounties onboard (such as slaves or firearms) and destroying friendly traders for their supplies (which you could pick up with a handy cargo scoop upgrade). You could find the space police on your trail at any given opportunity.

Best of all, if the galaxy you were in got a little too hairy, you could buy a Galaxy Jump and skip over to the next one. My absolute favorite instance of this game is when you were performing a standard hyperspace jump to get close to the next planet on your trading route, and accidentally find yourself in non-space: complete blackness as far as the eye can see. You had to fly around sheer nothingness while your hyperdrive repaired itself, with no-one for company besides other trapped spaceships. And since the only other spaceships with hyperdrive technology were the Thargoids, you ended up seeing quite a lot of incredibly pissed-off, incredibly hungry Thargoids around the place... scary stuff.

If this game sounds very familiar to you, it's probably because you've played one of the many deviations of this classic game, or maybe its sequel Frontier. Frontier, while being a lot more varied and deep, lost the simple effectiveness of the original, instead becoming a very complex game, and therefore somewhat alienating for the average player. But then there are lots of people who prefer it to the original, so it's up to the player I guess.

Space Crusade - Squad-Based Strategy - Space Crusade remains one of my all-time favorites. A precursor to all the Warhammer 40k games that inundate the market today, Space Crusade was a simplistic, Hero-Quest type game that allowed you to control a squad of five marines and their commander as they boarded derelicts to achieve mission objectives that varied from Search and Destroy to Search and Rescue. The gameplay was turn-based, allowing each player (you could have up to 3 human players playing at once) to move all their units and attack (if they were going to) before handing it over to the computer for its turn. As soon as the primary mission objective was fulfilled (and the optional secondary objective), the players had to escape back to their pods and clear the derelict.

The missions were the best part of this game, being as varied as the simple derelict maps could allow. Simple missions (or at least simple on paper) included killing the Dreadnaught (not an easy task) and got steadily more complex, such as killing a whole Chaos Marine sect (who were equal in power to your marines), opening the ship to the vacuum of space and getting the hell out of there before the entire derelict got depressurized (which was a gradual turn-based blackness issuing from wherever you purged the hull by a certain amount of squares per turn), securing a scientist's disembodied brain and securing an antidote to a space disease (and killing off the other players so you didn't have to share it). Each mission success got your commander closer to a promotion in rank, and the overall game goal was to make sure the commander survived each mission without failing them (as failing a mission means the commander goes back to the derelict alone to kill himself honorably) so that your commander could become the highest rank available.

A game based on Hero-Quest itself was also available, but I always preferred Space Crusade. Despite generally preferring Fantasy over Sci-Fi, SC was better all around.

Wizball - Shooter - Finally, we come to a game most may recognise from other systems or the arcade. Wizball was, in essence, a side-scrolling shooter similar to Defender or R-Type, but it skewed the genre so wildly that it was by all rights its own genre. You controlled a green floating ball called Wizball, a vessel for a certain powerful wizard to traverse space with. Your mission was to collect paint from special enemies and paint the various levels of the world red, green or blue (or a mix of thereof). As you colored the worlds, bizarre enemies from all over tried to stop you and you needed to shoot them down.

This game was an early user of the power-up system: killing all of one wave of enemies allowed you to pick a power-up icon, and collecting these icons got you stronger and stronger upgrades. The first two upgrades were for mobility, as prior to collecting them you were just a bouncing ball with barely any control. After that were the usual shield and triple-direction bullet upgrades. There was also the Cat: a flying satellite that followed the Wizball and was a requirement needed to collect the much-desired paint.

The game was so bizarre that further explanation would be sort of fruitless, but it was such an interesting twist on an otherwise standard arcade genre with rules that had been so rigorously established prior to this game that I couldn't help but like it. Genre-benders such as these continue to be my strongest influence when I come up with game ideas.

It also had a sequel, Wizkid, who took the "Breakout" (otherwise known as "bat and ball") genre and twisted it in much the same way. Wizkid got a little too surreal at times however, and it was sometimes impossible to get past a level without a guide of some kind. I recommend trying both games just to take in the bizarreness, though they're both very playable as well.

I may do another ST review post at some point, since we've only hit the tip of the iceburg. There are far more classics such as the early RPGs of that period (such as Dungeon Master, among others) that need exposure.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Design Genres #5: RTS

This time I cover a very popular genre of games, the Real-Time Strategy title. Like most strategy genres, the RTS has a very specific definition to make it stand out from all the various other strategy types, which I'm hesitant to take a prod at without resorting to Wikipedia. It basically covers any real-time game where you control a force of troops and a gathering of buildings and installations, and continue to expand your operations across a map while expanding your operation, making new troops and buildings by mining the nearby resources available to you. The idea is to do this quicker and more efficiently than the other guy, so when the time comes you can roll all over him instead of vice versa.

Like any genre that has a bajillion games with miniscule variation, there have been various attempts at partitioning the RTS genre further for all its minor disparities. The most logical of which is the micro/macro-management system. Micro-management assumes that you have a small, non-increasble force and need to strategically plan on how your inferior numbers will take down the superior numbers of your enemy with guile, cunning or whatever. A lot of the squad-based tactical games use this method especially, such as Commandos or Fallout Tactics. On the opposite end of this management scale are the macro-management games, which involve a massive force of units and territory which the player must expand on with great speed lest the enemy overtake them in numbers. The final battle comes after each side has expanded as far as they can go, and then it's simply a clash of the titans to see who prevails.

My feelings for this genre is that it is one that appeals to me a designer and as a designer only. I hate playing these. For the most obvious reason: I suck at them. I just can't get my head around keeping an eye on a hundred things at once, and being innately aware of what's happening at all times so the enemy doesn't surprise me or so I don't end up having units not doing anything useful. It's also a game where knowledge is power, and memorizing the best way to take down a specific player type (one who is defensive, or focuses on units which are slow and powerful are examples) is something I'm not always focused on a game enough to bother learning. However, like I stated previously, on a designer level the complexity of these games has always intrigued me. I love how the screen can fill up with all these minutely detailed units and buildings, all clamoring at once to get things done, and how there are always a hundred ways to finish a particular level based on your own personal style. Of course, the number of potential paths to take rather narrows down as the opponents get so difficult that only those using the most efficient methods can hope to defeat them.

So now I come to what I can hope to bring to the genre should I be given the chance. My game idea today feels so much like it's been done before, but for the life of me I can't seem to find any trace of a game using the same general idea. Simply, it is thus: an RTS game that takes place entirely within the human body.

You control the white blood cells, and various other agents in the blood stream able to tackle infection and other ills that plague the human body. It is your task to find the problem area and eliminate it, all the while protecting the more vulnerable areas of the body from damage. This includes vital organs, but also various cartileges and nerve areas which repair very slowly and so must be protected. As the game progresses, you'll meet stronger pathogens, viruses and malignant bacteria and may even have to take out a clump of cancer cells or other potentially fatal ailments.

The story of the game will follow a new drug, which supercharges the white blood cells and allows them to combat illnesses that would normally overcome them without outside medical assistance. The white blood cells of a given test body will mutate into various forms and gain almost a sort of sentience, which is where the player comes in. Using the powers of the drugs, the white blood cells can mutate to tackle whatever problem is currently in front of them, assuming the roles of penicillin or other cures (which will make up your inventory of unit types) while farming the necessary nutrients for these changes from the bloodstream. As the drug is tested on even worse cases to monitor its efficiency, the player must deal with more complex and difficult problems.

Obviously a game like this will require a knowledge of anatomy and medicine far beyond my meagre understanding, but I could see a RTS game as frantic as any other situated entirely within the somewhat alien environment of the close-scale human body. It's when I starting thinking about combating nanotechnology that had infiltrated the body for some of the later levels that I started thinking that maybe I'd heard of this game before somewhere, but I still don't know where. Maybe I'm just thinking of Innerspace?

Friday, July 07, 2006

Design Licenses #4: The One

A classic case of a movie idea being better than the movie itself, The One was one of several Jet Li vehicles to bring his impressive Wu Shu skills to a western audience in the most inplausible way possible. I'm convinced that it's a rite-of-passage for any martial artist action star to be in a movie where they have to fight someone who looks just like them. Whether it turns out to be a clone (Arnie in 6th Day), their identical twin brother (Jackie Chan in Twin Dragons, Van Damme in Double Impact), themselves from a different time period (Van Damme again in Timecop) or - in this case - an alternate dimension version of themself, it gets to the point where one tends to roll their eyes at any new attempt Hollywood makes to say "the only guy left for _______ to beat... is himself!"

The One's premise actually has promise though, if you excuse the alliteration. Basically, there are various alternate universes that make up "the multiverse", each with the same people living completely different lives in a completely different version of Earth. There's one dimension in particular that has managed to advance so much technologically that they have learned about the existence of this multiverse, and have taken it upon themselves to police it. Probably because the only people likely to take advantage of the multiverse criminally would be those from the same dimension, since they're the only ones who both know about it and can travel through it. These dimension-travelling agents who work for the multiverse police force have various gadgets at their disposal allowing them to move between the dimensions and track down elements that don't belong there.

In the movie, one of the many characters Jet Li plays is one of these dimension-travellers who has discovered a way to become Godlike by eliminating all his likenesses across the dimensions. Apparently, each time someone dies, their life essence spreads to the other surviving likenesses across the dimensions, making them marginally more powerful. After killing so many of his likenesses Yu Law (Jet Li's character) has become incredibly potent, boasting superhuman speed and strength. And with these skills he continues his massacre of likenesses practically unchallenged to achieve his goal of becoming The One. The only one strong enough to stop him is his only remaining likeness, also played by Jet Li, who is just as strong and fast as he is. I also need to stop saying "likenesses". Right now.

So we have this intriguing mix of Timecop and Highlander, as powerful entities become more powerful as they narrow themselves down to a single omnipotent being. Of course, it has its gaping holes in logic (such as what happens when all but one version of that person dies of old age? Providing the last few versions don't all die at the same time), but it's still an enthralling concept. Even ignoring the whole "becoming the One thing", there's a lot of video game mileage out of simply policing the alternate dimensions alone. The film often hints that fellow agents have been following Yu Law from all the dimensions he escapes to to kill his next lookalike. So there are various ways a game could work:

1) The character would control Yu Law, the bad Jet Li, as he travels dimensions to kill his copy. Each new dimension would have its own rules, its own Jet Li to contend with not to mention the agents that are always on your tail. While Yu Law would have the advantages of his advanced technology and the element of surprise, they would be fairly minute compared to the odds stacked against him. While people might not always like playing the bad guy, this idea makes the most sense of any I can think of, as it not only allows for the most interesting gameplay but the act of killing a different version of himself can "level up" Yu Law, allowing players to choose how he develops and becomes more powerful. Skills and stat boosts can come from each new casualty, but these boosts are also given to the next Jet Li clone which you'll meet. An endless series of Jet Li lookalike bosses, each gaining in power as you do.

2) The character would control one of the agents after Yu Law, probably the one played by Jason Stratham in the movie. They would monitor the dimensions, receive word when they find out where Yu Law is, and pursue him in whichever dimension he was hiding in. While this mode seems the natural course for a game to take (they can just as easily assume a non-movie character with the same task of bringing Yu Law down), it would mean letting Yu Law get away each time after he had successfully killed his double until the very last level. This repeating failure would get rather frustrating after a while.

3) The character would control Gabe Law, the good Jet Li and the only remaining double besides Yu Law himself. In this case, his first mission would be to remove Yu Law (and place him in the prison dimension) like the end of the movie, at which point the rest of the game can continue with even bigger and more apocalyptic dangers for the new dimension-travelling agent to contend with (invented, of course), perhaps finishing the game with a second bout with his battle-hardened and even more dangerous twin.

Of course, you could always centre the game entirely around the events of the movie itself like so many licenses opt to do, but you would be largely ignoring the only interesting aspect of the movie: travelling the multiverse with all its varied sights and dangers.

In conclusion, this kind of idea could also work equally well for a game based on Sliders, or any game that uses a dimension-travelling aspect. Travelling between dimensions is probably the best and most logical way for a game to give each level such a wide disparity from the last. One version of Earth could be calm and peaceful, though actually being full of fascist security troops and security technology so that people too scared to put a foot wrong (in which case it would be difficult to kill someone). The next could take place in the same city but with 24-hour rioting, which would provide a problem for anyone to find their target. Dimensions could be very technologically behind or, adversely, very advanced: the dimension that discovered the multiverse may have just gotten lucky, and so it stands to reason that there could be versions of Earth which are much more futuristic (maybe space-faring) and have no inkling of the multiverse.

So anyway, dimension travelling - though farfetched - as always appealed to me more in a creative sense than, say, time-travelling or moving through space from one planet to another. Those last two can allow for some interesting concepts themselves, but have both been overdone way too much recently in games considering the likes of Kingdom Hearts, Meteos or Timesplitters. Using the same world reshaped differently each time you step through a portal would be intriguing for both players and designers as they figure out how this version of Earth is different, but would also save time on making an entirely new world for each level. Which, while parsimonious, would certainly have enough merit for any games designer to consider.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Technical Aspects Of Game Design

OK, let me start this entry by saying I don't really like discussing the various softwares and skills required for game development. For the most part, they're simply tools: a means to an end. I consider ideas far more important than the processes that those ideas go through to become actually playable games. Unfortunately, this is not so in the games industry itself.

There are three basic routes into the industry, ignoring lateral switches from non-game-development related fields for the moment: become a seasoned programmer (either through a university degree or plenty of demonstrable coding experience), become a seasoned graphical artist (same way as programmer: either through a degree course and/or with an impressive and extensive portfolio) or become a designer after years of playtesting experience (since you'll eventually get an idea of how both games and the games industry work). I, perhaps unfortunately, believed that the third field of games development - Design - could be entered the same way: degree course or portfolio. This is not necessarily the case however, as the design role is still very much undefined as far as the skills required for the role are concerned.

Basically, a designer needs to know games: How they work, why some sell better than others, what people look for in games, enough knowledge about existing games to come up with something different for a new one, etc. So there needs to be that sort of media studies edge to it (though an unsurprising amount of it is common sense). A designer also needs to know enough about the coding and art aspects of game development in order to properly synergise with those respective departments, not to mention that a game designer will be frequently in the position where they make their own levels, which will require a knowledge of both scripting (coding's little brother) and molding the level itself (which is kind of arty, though a designer's level will end up looking fairly primitive graphically until the art guys fill it in). Also, most importantly, designers need to be highly literate both verbally and on paper if people are going to need to figure out what they're talking about.

The designer role is still sort of new; previously, any senior programmer or artist would be the one required to figure out how the game would play, and then assign the tasks to their underlings in those two areas. Smaller companies still do this for the most part. Having a separate staff for a Designer group means the artists and programmers simply do as their told in terms of how a game will work (though obviously will be quick to point out to the designers what can and cannot be done within the existing budget).

So, technical skills to be a designer, based on what I've learned through either succeeding with an interview (which I've done once) or failing an interview (which has happened, um, more than once):
* High level of literacy.
* High level of verbal communication.
* Scripting knowledge/experience (would be very wise to have some proof of this)
* 3D Graphics knowledge/experience (see above)
* A degree (surprisingly unnecessary)
* A lot of testing experience (beneficial from what I've learned from designer peers)
* Plenty of mod levels, made with something like UnrealEd (*important*, since this is what you'll be doing a lot of)

You can gleam the same kind of information from any "how to be a game designer" site, but I'm telling you as one of those people who have suffered over the past few years in trying to get somewhere in this field: You need to prove that you're better at this stuff than the hundreds of people like me applying for the same job. Once you've got a couple of design gigs under your belt it gets a lot easier (so I've been told), but the first few jobs are highly critical.

If all else fails, be a graphic designer or programmer (either inside the industry or out) and switch to games design. Even if you know barely anything about how to make a game, they'll probably accept you for your related expertise alone.

Just a quick note here: I haven't actually mentioned any software by name that you should be using. This is simply because software comes and goes into and out of fashion. You'll rarely use the exact same piece of software twice, especially when you consider a lot of companies have their own "in-house" modifications of existing software. Just try everything: play around with software until you've got the hang of it, maybe make some small thing to prove as much, and then move onto something else. Try all the programming languages, don't just stick with one. Ditto with graphical tools, paint programs, level-creating mods and even music programs. Even if something's old and outdated, tinker around with it and add it to the list of tools you know how to use. Employers need to know that you can quickly get to grips with whatever tools the job will throw at you, so no piece of software you learn will be entirely useless to you.

OK, to wrap this up, don't take my word entirely as gospel but keep it in mind. There are plenty of excellent designers who have made it giving out similar advice elsewhere. But they're no longer where you are now, and they've probably forgotten that it was partly luck that landed them their first real design job. So for all you would-be designers out there, good luck, and don't you dare apply for any of the same jobs I'm applying for. Or I'll kill you with fire.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Design Licenses #3: The Simpsons

I thought I'd set myself a challenge this week and try to come up with something for the most overdone TV license on the gaming market: The Simpsons. First, a quick recap of most (if not all) of the Simpsons games and their respective genres, just to make sure I don't repeat any:

Bart Vs The Space Mutants (Platformer)
Bart Vs The World (Platformer)
The Simpsons Arcade Game (Scrolling Fighter)
Bart's Nightmare (Mostly Platformer)
Virtual Bart (Mostly Platformer)
The GB Simpsons games (Beanstalk, Camp Deadly, Vs The Juggernauts - all Platformers pretty much)
Simpsons Wrestling (Wrestling)
Simpsons Skateboarding (Skateboarding)
Simpsons Road Rage (Crazy Taxi Clone)
Simpsons Hit & Run (GTA Clone)

That's about it, though there's been a few "interactive features" for the PC, including a cartoon studio and a virtual tour of Springfield.

So how to come up with something new for this outdated but otherwise excellent show? Since the characters are so well developed and it's a genre that still has the capacity for a lot of humorous asides and scenes, I figure there should be a Simpsons RPG. As in, a regular console RPG akin to the Final Fantasies and Suikodens and what have you.

Now, we can't really give Homer a +3 sword and have him slay Mr Burns, so there would have to be some in-game game that the whole of Springfield have gotten themselves addicted to with a grand prize for the best player. Of course, our favorite family is determined to win that prize for whatever reason, so they challenge the whole town one area at a time at what I'm thinking at this stage is either some kind of monster fighter thing (the creatures would all be relevant to "The Simpsons"'s characters controlling them in some way, like Homer would have a very Homer-like ape called the Kwyjibo while Apu would have something like the Jerkysaur to represent his love of the selling power of beef jerky) or - and this seems more likely - something like Card Fighters or Megaman Battle Network.

I'll probably end up covering CCG (Collectible Card Game) Video Games in a future update, but The Simpsons is a license with so many characters; some well-developed, some less so, some who have just appeared for the sake of an in-joke (such as Disco Stu) and variations on the major characters (such as Donut-Head Homer) that something like a Collectible Card Game would be a perfect way to represent them. Better than a Pokemon system at any rate, where you find and capture a bunch of Nelsons while searching through tall grass. There would be plenty of rare cards, hidden areas full of difficult opponents to find around Springfield, and plenty of in-jokes from the card descriptions and dialogue with your opponents.

So there's a few potential versions of how this game would come out as:

1) The Simpsons are playing a card game, in which case you'd see the cards and the players and the game would continue with dealing, power-ups and all the stuff that goes on with CCGs. Like I mentioned, there'll probably be a Design Genre piece on CCGs at some point that will go into more detail, but for now I'm thinking there would be fighter cards (from weak ones like Milhouse to strong ones like Groundskeeper Willie or McBain), event cards (Meltdown at the Power Plant, all fighter cards take damage) power-gaining cards (such as the Kwik-E-Mart or Springfield Hospital for healing) and so on for players to collect and build a decent deck with. For beating a player, you'll receive a special player card with their likeness on it as proof of your win. Collecting so many of these will net you the grand prize.

2) The Simpsons are playing a Tamagotchi/Pokemon-type game, in which case you'd have a little virtual monster that closely resembles the Simpsons character playing it and it would fight and grow like any regular RPG character. Improvements would come from winning battles and receiving your opponent's treasure and experience, which would both be spent on making your character's little monster stronger.

3) Like above, only instead of monsters it would be the Simpsons characters themselves in the game. They would fight each other electronically in the same turn-based RPG fashion.

The Simpsons have done practically every other genre, why not try something that can afford them the kind of comedy depth that the show is so famous for?

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Design Genres #4: Point & Click

Having mentioned this genre in both the Firefly post and the recent Design Features, I figured it was about time to give one of my favorite game genres of yesteryear its own article.

Point & Clicks were the next logical step in the Interactive Fiction field after text games, a popular field that all but indundated home computers since the early ages of the Commodore 64. Possibly even before, though my knowledge only tends to go as far back as the 80s, what with having been born then and all. While those text adventures have gone off on a indie/fan-based tangent of their own that's still around today, commerical games took the leap to graphical adventures shortly into the 90s with early successes - such as Maniac Mansion, the King's/Space Quest series and Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade - for the game consoles of the time (Atari ST/Amiga/NES). The gameplay behind them wasn't much different from the original text adventures: You played a part in a story, and needed to use items and the world around you to progress slowly through the plot. What was new with Point & Clicks, as the name suggests, was that you could now point and click on objects to use them instead of inputting a text command to do the same. The emphasis on the graphical surroundings meant you could explore a fuller world, with more hidden or inconsequential discoveries to be made.

Instead of going too much into their history, the seemingly last appearances of the genre were made in the late 90s with excellent titles such as Discworld Noir (the third P&C based on Terry Pratchett's amazing Discworld series), Grim Fandango and the latter entries of Curse of Monkey Island. After which, the genre sort of sputtered out. Until the release of one console that was a natural choice for the Point & Click to call home: Nintendo DS. With the touchpad, players could now literally point and click places of interest or items to collect in a game, and the compact format still had the graphical power to produce sharp and concise 2D backgrounds to explore. Several brilliant games have used the touchpad for this effect, most notably so far Phoenix Wright and Another Code (or Trace Memory as its known in the US).

Rather than come up with design ideas like I usually do for this type of article, I've decided to leave this one purely introspective as the genre's creativity comes through the deep story and narrative as well as the puzzles the player must solve. There are no devices; no features or gimmicks that will make a Point & Click work better than any other of its type, all it needs is an awesome plot to follow with situations and puzzle solutions to keep players guessing. While some games used some experimental features, such as Indiana Jone's fighting subgame (which could usually be avoided with some quick-witted bluffing) or the Gobliiin's real-time puzzle solving which involved one goblin character performing an action that allowed the second to reach an otherwise unreachable area or item, most depend on the complexity and entertainment of the narrative itself.

Unfortunately, I'm no author (you may have gleaned as much from the blog entries so far), so in order to contribute to such a game, I would probably be required to create some of the item puzzles for the player to progress while making sure to stay relevant to the story. Which would be pretty interesting I think.