Thursday, December 27, 2007

Design Genres #17: FPS

Seems odd that I've covered 16 of these Design Genres without covering the noble FPS, possibly the most popular (and most populous) of the genres aimed for the Western market. The appeal is immediately apparent: FPS puts you directly in control, point-of-view and everything, of the game's protagonist - giving you an unparalleled level of immersion. The commonly high amount of violent content also helps sales somewhat. Milestone games include Castle Wolfenstein 3D, the Doom series, the Half-Life series and server-inundated online FPSes such as Team Fortress and the incomparable Counter-Strike.

There's two reasons I've given this genre a wide berth in this blog until now. The first is that I don't much care for it on the whole. While the games mentioned above are classic staples of any gamer's library (god knows I've played and owned most of them) there are many, many examples of the genre out there, most of which are mindlessly derivative and not all that great, frankly. Which brings me onto the second reason: there's such a huge market of these things that innovation is hard to come by and, thus, harder still to come up with without some important technological breakthroughs (Half-Life 2 wouldn't have mattered so much without its iconic Gravity Gun, for instance).

Now, the difficult decision when coming up with an FPS game idea is whether to take the simple route or the complex route. A reason why the FPS genre is so strong is its relative simplicity: you simply point at a bad guy and press a button until he goes away. As such, it's almost a form of relaxation for some people: a way to blow off steam for a few minutes either against the combined forces of evil in one-player mode or a bunch of friends on multiplayer. So making it simple would appear to be the best course of action, perhaps even shortening the range of weapons and enemies you might meet to minimize confusion. Games like Halo pride themselves on their microscopic range and lack of innovation - choosing to focus instead on the bare essentials and multiplayer, thus becoming the beloved of all casual gamers the world over.

On the other end of the spectrum, players don't feel challenged unless there's a new gimmick or, perish the thought, some sort of thought process required. Games like Rainbow Six give you a somewhat realistic level of health (that is, one round in the chest or head and you're done for) and so some amount of strategy and forethought is needed in order to come out unscathed. Games like Gears of War will kill you quickly and mercilessly unless you regularly take advantage of cover. Mass Effect, a game I very much enjoyed recently, even bases an RPG system around the combat, allowing you greater control with your weapons upon levelling up and even providing psionic attacks (called Biotech in the game) and various clever less-hazardous methods to take out the enemy (like short-circuiting a robotic enemy). Bioshock, Deus Ex and the System Shock series are all examples of an "intelligent" FPS game.

I'll quickly outline two game ideas that respectively adhere to the philosophies above. In other words, an idea for a brainless slugfest and an idea for a complex shooter with more going on than meets the eye.

IDEA #1: Now, the main feature of a game idea like this is to simply make it fun and highly playable, something which is usually provided with sharp and accurate programming. On the design side of things, all a designer needs to do is make sure the levels aren't too complex, don't require a lot of backtracking for keys and the like while configuring the amount of content to keep it a minimalist paradise. At the same time, they need to direct most of the action, keeping the game constantly exciting with a series of action set pieces and a plot that never waivers too much or gets too complex at any given point.

What this pre-idea prattle all means is that it is hard to simply come up with an idea for a game such as this without writing the entire game's story and claiming that as the game idea. In this blog I always tend to concentrate on elements I would feature or a trend or gimmick I would employ, rather than create an entire game world and story from scratch. So for Idea #1 for this genre I'll outline some kickass scenarios an FPS game could follow:

A) You're a space marine who.. wait
B) You're a regular marine who has to fight off an alien incursi.. wait
C) You're a regular marine who doesn't fight aliens at all, but instead has to fight the undea.. wait
D) You're a regular marine who doesn't fight any kind of fictional fantasy creature, but instead must take on Nazis in Normand.. wait
E) Vietcong? ..No?
E) No aliens, undead, Nazis, the VC, ninjas, conspirators against the presidency, pirates, scientists, mercenaries or evil penguins. Instead, you're in this underwater city that.. oh damn it all, I give up.

IDEA #2: Here we are, gimmick county USA. Right at home. For this idea we'll imagine that there's some novel scenario that we're following. The gimmick is that one of your weapons can disintegrate tiny objects if you shoot them with it. While mostly useless in busy firefights, where firepower and running around like a crazyman until everything else is dead is the objective to success, it becomes useful at certain points in long-drawn out battles or pre-battle sneakery. For instance, a giant robot would have several smaller parts that it requires for movement and blasting at you. A tiny cog in the right section gets disintegrated and ol' Devastator is in a heap of trouble. Likewise, dissolving the correct piece of minor machinery in an automatic lock would allow you to get past. It works on organic creatures too. Can't get past the body armor? Disintegrate one of the dude's eyes. That should keep him distracted for a few moments.

This weapon, though powerful at the right moment, would require such precision timing and aiming to be effectively useless in most situations. But the situations where it can be used.. oh me, oh my.

Another gimmick, preferably in a game where you can slowly regenerate, is realistic body part damage. If you manage to fuck up your foot in a mine trap, your speed is lowered. Bust your arm and your aim goes down. Bust up one hand bad enough and you may need to switch weapons, also lowering aim (if you don't happen to be ambidextrous). I have a feeling there are games that have done this in the past and were a complete pain, especially if you had to limp slowly to the nearest health pack. Hence the insistence of a regeneration feature.

A third and final gimmick is one where the gravity suddenly cuts out (so presumably this is in space, then) and you're suddenly drifting. Shooting anything, if sleeping through Physics has taught me anything, would propel one backwards from the force, since the recoil would be sufficient enough force to move a large mass (such as an armored trooper) in zero-G. Your first priority in that situation would be to either turn the gravity back on or find some way to stop floating around like a loon. Again, something like this has probably already been done, though I don't know if that game turned it into such a fun little "how the hell do I stop floating around?" puzzle to figure out first.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Game Idea: Carnage in Candyland

Kind of a low-brow game idea this one, but it's for the kids and kind of suits the festive season anyway. At least it does if you eat as much sugary stuff as I do over Christmas.

The game is set in one of these worlds that is brought into existence from the shared imaginative power of kids the world over, sort of like Santa's workshop. However, it has long been out of the hands of its childlike progenitors, either because the kids have forgotten it or have grown up to become moody adults with issues and the like. As a result, the Candyworld has become sort of a dark and violent place, but still with all the coma-inducing sweetness in every corner of the land and its inhabitants. Currently, the various tribes of the world (which are typified by the type of candy those tribes are comprised of) are in the midst of a bloody and endless war for supremacy.

You are a member of a new tribe that has shown up because of a candy-based innovation in the real world. As such, you not only have to survive with the limited support of your fledling tribe, but also grow powerful enough to take over the other tribes too. Fortunately, as the newest and therefore most technologically advanced form of candy matter, you have an advantage over most of the other tribes, which feature--but aren't limited to--beings made out of marshmallows, chocolates, lollipops, boiled/hard sweets and the always terrifying fudge tribe. The player's tribe I haven't decided on yet, but I'm thinking it'll be some kind of space-age candy that is able to take on the attributes of any other candy, to create some sort of power-acquisition-based progression in the game (taking over one tribe's territory allows you to use their strengths, for instance).

The game itself is a third-person squad-based shooter, though I've yet to decide on an "over-the-shoulder" view system of many recent squad-based games, or the slightly more convenient bird's eye view. The world itself will be a little like Crackdown or GTA, in that the politics of the world is dynamic with the NPC tribes scoring various victories and losses against each other in real-time - these battles, if you're not actually in the vicinity of them, will be calculated using randomized figures for casualties and who ends up getting more territory out of it. If you are close by, the battle will be going on all around you and you can use the warring (and therefore distracted) tribespeoples to your advantage. These tribal wars are mostly random, but constant, so you should find yourself entering several by accident. Of course, you'll also want to make an effort to join them as soon as one occurs if you want to take down the enemy's numbers quicker. There'll also be various attacks on your home base which you may want to be present for (though your tribe should be able to handle most minor skirmishes). You'll be given the choice of systematically destroying one tribe at a time, or using your intel to take down large numbers of opponents at the most opportune moments (the aforementioned tribe wars).

Ideally, you should want to find a way to acquire the abilities of one tribe and use them on another tribe that may be weak against them. Sort of like the Mega Man bosses. If you take out the Warheads (extremely hot-flavored candies) you can use their firebreath to melt the marshmallows and chocolate factions, who are considerably strong against other forms of damage. Because there's no blood (but lots of jelly filling), the game can be as gleefully violent as it wants. The cutscenes can be gritty as all hell (especially if they involve cotton candy) and the various deaths of the candy tribes can be pretty explicit, since it's just candy and all.

I will admit to two things while coming up with this idea. The first is that the general premise (violence in candyland) came about from this Perry Bible Fellowship comic (great comic series by the way, if you didn't already know). The second is that this is sort of an example of how to get incredibly violent games into the hands of youngsters without too much controversy. See, it'll be violent and bloody (well, jelly-y) but there won't be any swears or bad polygon boobs to make it unholy filth. Perfect.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Game Idea: Dumbgeneers

This idea kind of builds on various elements of other ideas I've had, which is shorthand for "after ripping off so many other game designs for ideas, I'm now resorting to ripping off myself for ideas". Only pretend I didn't say that. I'm innovating. That's what's going on here and that's all that's going on here.

We zoom out so our token party of adventurers are shrunk down and we (the player) are able to see a large cut-section of the dungeon the adventurers are about to explore. Now, the gameplay's focus (and much of the humor) comes from the fact that these entirely computer-controlled adventurers are dumb. They will wander into pretty much any impossible situation without a thought and quickly perish. They do have some amount of combat ability and magic between them, but their ability to apply it effectively is limited. So, as is usual in these scenarios, it's up to you to try and keep them out of trouble, while still procuring for them enough treasure to make the entire ordeal worth it.

The adventurers will level and haul treasure around like they do in any other hack and slash, but generally their role is minimal. You, the player, control a guardian deity of sorts that is using its diminishing divine powers to keep the small gaggle of true believers alive long enough for them to start influencing others and restoring your strength. The fact that these morons are the only worshippers you have, who in actuality only wrote your name as their patron deity on their Adventurer License application forms to avoid requiring a referral from any of the established churches of the land, is causing you some grief. You have some limited amount of godly powers in this role and can directly influence parts of the dungeons for the benefit and safety of the goonish heralds you're stuck with. These powers include forcing stone passages to open/close, increasing the water levels, flooding chambers with poisonous gas and other powers based on any given dungeon's natural attributes. A volcano dungeon (I always use a volcano as an example for some reason, strange huh?) might allow you to raise/lower the level of deadly lava, but only while you and the adventurers are in that dungeon. An ice dungeon wouldn't have lava, so you can't use the same power there. That's just an example, the point being is that every new dungeon will have its own tricks and related powers, and it'll be up to you to explore and experiment with what you can do before the adventurers tumble along into whatever trap is set along their path.

Which brings us to the core gameplay. You have to ensure that the adventurers get into as few traps and fights as possible (they can survive some, granted that the traps aren't too deadly and the monsters are well in their league) while acquiring as much treasure as possible (it'll be important for influencing others to join your religion, boosting your power reserves with their prayers). The best way to do this would be to keep the adventurers out of trouble while eliminating the monsters in the dungeon with your powers. If possible, think of ways to eliminate the monsters guarding some treasure without also destroying or blocking off said treasure, then allowing the adventurers to come across the now unguarded booty. Keep in mind that the adventurers have no idea that you're actually real (why would they? They used your name as a convenience) and that if a dungeon appears to be blocked off to them (when really it's just you temporarily blocking the passage to protect them), they'll leave. Similarly, they'll panic if you see your powers in action or somehow find themselves trapped (which might be something else you'd consider doing if you didn't want them wandering off). This panicking could cause them to run around aimlessly and be even dumber than usual for a while. While every attempt will be made to keep your adventurers lovably stupid, there will be some situations where they might just end up annoying you slightly by doing something unbelievably idiotic that they end up destroying both themselves and your progress in acquiring a clergy. Hopefully this kind of thing can be kept to a minimum.

Like my previous Lemmings-ish Hack-N-Slash game, what I'm really interested in messing around with is scale. So giant monsters will end up really big, appropriate to the scale between them and the heroes. No simply using human-sized enemies to keep to conform to a specific sprite size, no sir. Monster AI, too, is something that needs a strong focus. The game needs to repeatedly demonstrate that most of the monsters are actually far superior in mental agility than the dumb treasure-hungry humanoids invading their homes, which is why your input is so necessary to keep them alive. You have no qualms about destroying any kind of lesser life, as a god and as the player, so feel free to wipe out whole civilisations of sentient, peaceful but potentially-dangerous-if-riled monsters to keep your followers alive long enough to demonstrate that having you as a patron god might not be such a bad thing. In fact, if other, slightly more competent adventurers start taking you on as their patron god, you can go help them and simply abandon your current bunch of dumb assholes to the inevitable grisly fate that they've dodged for so long. I guess I should note that the deity you're controlling is not necessarily the benevolent type.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Design Licenses #8: Heroes

For the one or two of you that don't know what this show is, it's basically X-Men plus a bunch of other superhero comics set in a "real world" universe and how the super-powered characters deal with their powers and each other. As someone who follows most of the references (read: theived material) and is addicted to the show regardless, I generally make it a point to make fun of the show and its various flaws. Because I'm going to be watching it next week anyway. Sort of a love/hate thing.

Anyway, there are already many games being made for Heroes and they'll probably all be cash-in license games with little originality or charm. They'll also follow the show closely without revealing anything new. Which is fine enough, I suppose, since not all the fans of the show will be willing to play these games for some vital answers to any of the concurrent plotlines going on in the main show.

So with my idea I'll take it in a different direction. Instead of controlling one or more of the protagonists of the show, the game will instead follow a couple of "morally grey" agents in the shadowy anonymous company that is dealing with all these super-powered anomalies. To make sure not a whole lot is given away, the game will follow a newly recruited rookie with a similarly fresh super-powered partner (as is policy). Both of these characters will be new to the universe and you'll control both in turn, depending on the situation. You'll go about business subduing super-powered humans as they're identified by the company's research department (whomever they might be) and follow orders like you're supposed to. Of course, eventually you'll start to ask questions and get involved with the internal politics of the company and the game will start to focus on that after a while - though, again, without giving away too many secrets that will be revealed eventually in the show but also making sure the game gives you some closure on its own story at least. Maybe a non-canon section leader of the company that's gone corrupt will be the game's main antagonist.

The gameplay will be pretty standard, at least in coming to terms with the controls and such. It'll be either a 1st or 3rd person shooter that is set up as a series of missions with targets to be captured in a (preferably) stealthy manner, sort of like a non-lethal Hitman. Of course, most of the targets will either be dangerous (either to you or, indeed, to themselves and bystanders) or are particularly evasive and you won't get the benefit of the deus ex machina that is the Haitian (memory wipe and power nullification? that's a little bit too good, really) to stop them. Your partner's powers will help though (I have yet to decide what these will be, or those of the non-TV show super-people you'll be tracking down). The game will build a database as heroes are brought in, and there'll probably be various hidden collectibles (like XIII's dossier files) that reveal what the company knows about other, more famous characters.

Obviously, you'll be seeing a lot of the show's main characters, either trying to bring them in for testing/tagging/whatever it is the company does or just as cameos in the background or something. Maybe you'll get roundly defeated by one or more of them in fights you're not able to win, because everyone loves those in their video games. Or maybe they'll be tough optional battles in some kind of "non-canon" mode where you can imprison or kill all the show's main characters, continuity be damned (let Hiro go back in time and sort it out afterwards).

So that's just my interpretation of a Heroes video game. Something a little more interesting than simply reliving events of the show with various cast members. My other choice would be a Fighter game, since the powers format and large cast is perfect for one, but that would be a little obvious I think.