Ugggghhh….

Was sick yesterday. I hate having to call in sick; my work ethic is strong enough that it makes me feel vaguely guilty, even though it’s a bit hard to work when you can barely stay awake or focus your vision…

Anyway, I’m hopped up on DayQuil now, so bring on the day!

Randomize

Warren Spector has a dream. He calls it the “one city block” RPG idea, and he’s talked about it several times. The design consists of a relatively small area that is modelled with such detail and interactivity, and has NPCs that are so “alive”, that this small area can support as much gameplay and story as a “normal”, mission-driven game. Warren was certain that with Deus Ex he was going to get the chance to create this dream design of his – in fact, the original design of Deus Ex called for three such city-blocks – one in New York, one in Hong Kong and one in Paris.

As the development of Deus Ex continued, he discovered that the technology to implement his design still wasn’t there, even after all these years. So as the development of Deus Ex progressed, the game became a lot more linear and mission-driven, like other games.

But Warren’s attempt wasn’t a complete failure. The second mission of Deus Ex is set in New York, and comes very close to fulfilling his goal. Far too much stuff is scripted, but there are a lot of people on that map, all with different personalities and goals. There are a lot of very different places, and a metric ton of secrets (including a secret mission that is very easy to miss). All of these make Hell’s Kitchen feel more real than environments in most other games.

Hong Kong is almost as good, but by the time you get to Paris it becomes apparent that the incredible amount of work necessary to put a map like this together was beginning to wear on the designers. Paris is the last map with free-form elements in the game – all of the rest of the maps in the game are very traditional, mission-based maps. They still have secrets and alternate paths, but the conflicting goals, the complex NPCs and the scripted optional sequences are gone.

This is one reason that Warren has called for the development of tools that could generate game content automatically.

Content created through generation used to be extremely common in gaming. All of the maps of the original Populous were created simply by generating strings of random numbers (and Peter Molyneux admitted in his 2000 GDC presentation that the Promised Lands expansion pack to Populous simply consisted of those random numbers reversed).

Starflight is another older game that benefited greatly from generated content. Starflight attempted to give players the experience of their own Star Trek five year mission. In order to do so, it was necessary to give the player a very large number of star systems and planets to explore – too few and the player would feel too constrained and wouldn’t get the sense of grand exploration that the designers were going for. So the designers stuffed the game with over two hundred star systems to visit and over eight hundred individual planets to explore. But Starflight was made back in 1986, before hard drives were common and CD-ROMs even existed, so the game had to fit on floppies. The only way the designers could fit so much content on two 360k floppies was to generate each planet on the fly using algorithms.

So if generated content (both pregenerated and on-the-fly) was so common, why isn’t it used any more? Why is Warren’s request so difficult to fill?

If there is one thing the human brain is good at, it’s pattern recognition. In fact, the brain is so good at it, we humans often see patterns where none exist. The nature of the “game worlds” of Populous and Starflight were very simple – they weren’t hard to generate, and they weren’t large enough for patterns to develop to clue the player in to the fact that they weren’t hand-made.

That’s all changed. Generating a Shenmue-style world is a much tougher challenge than generating a 64×64 heightmap – but it may not be impossible. If this problem could be solved, it could allow game worlds to get bigger and more detailed without requiring teams to double in size and schedules to extend even farther than the industry standard eighteen months. It could also finally make Warren’s dream a reality.

Chat With A Friend

Session Start (ICQ – Nathan): Mon Sep 22 09:55:38 2003
Badman: Wow, you’re still alive?
Nathan: How do you mean?
Nathan: I can’t die until we ship…
Nathan: It’s scripted

Yes, it’s the same Nathan that stars in The Cheesehead. He’s currently at Ion Storm, crunching on Deus Ex: Invisible War.

Final Fantasy VIII

Final Fantasy VIII sucks. Right? Worst Final Fantasy Ever. Right? Am I right? Come on, you all hated that game, right?

Well, I did.

I mentioned previously that Final Fantasy VII was the first “real” Final Fantasy I played, so I wasn’t really expecting the change-up in both the presentation and tone of Final Fantasy VIII. Nor was I expecting a much more complicated character advancement system.

So as I continued to play the game and Squall refused to act like a hero (i.e., like Cloud) I became more and more frustrated. My frustration increased as battles got tougher and tougher because I wasn’t using the Junction system properly. The result was that I ended up borrowing a Game Genie and cheating in order to finish the last boss so I could finally see the ending. And while the ending was nice, my feeling was not of elation, but “I’m glad that’s over.”.

But I recently began to feel a bit of nostalgia for FF8. Had I really given it a fair shot? Could I get more enjoyment out of it with another playthrough? I remembered the game having some wonderful characters – I hadn’t cared much for Squall, but Selphie, Zell, and Quistis were all great characters. And there were some aspects of the storyline – the Gardens, the Sorceress – that I thought were really well done. Was I up for trying it again?

And the answer was yes. I booted up Disc 1 and started a new game. This time I paid a lot more attention during the Junctioning tutorials and realized that I had neglected a vital aspect of the game – basically, drawing magic from enemies and junctioning it to character statistics.

Character advancement in Final Fantasy VII was very much like a ladder. Get enough XP and you (and your materia) get more powerful. Use your Limit Break 100 times and you get another one. Pretty simple.

Final Fantasy VIII’s advancement is much more like a graph on two axes. On the axis going up, you’ve got your level. Yes, gaining a level will make you more powerful in FF8. But on the other axis, you’ve got your junctions. Drawing out tons of magic from enemy characters and junctioning it well can make characters much more powerful without having to level. This is important, because in FF8 monsters level up as you do – you’ll never get the upper hand on a powerful monster just by levelling, because it will level with you. You need the extra edge that good junctioning provides. And high-level characters that also have good junctions are godlings. This was what I was missing in my first playthrough – drawing magic can be very tedious, so I didn’t do it. But levelling up is tedious as well, and you don’t have to draw nearly as much as you level. And if you’re smart, your Guardian Forces can learn abilities that allow you to refine magic from items, which means you have to draw even less.

But what about the whole “Squall is a jerk” aspect?

I’ve heard tell that Squall didn’t translate well from the Japanese, which is a possibility. But even so, on my second playthrough I’m finding him a much more interesting character – much deeper than the “obvious hero” type. Why is Squall so introverted? Why is so abrupt and hostile, even to his friends? He’s scared! He’s terrified in the way that only a teenager with the rest of his life in front of him can be. He’s afraid of death, and afraid of the rest of his life. Once you realize this, a lot of his behavior (like his sudden outburst upon learning of Seifer’s death) becomes easier to understand.

So in the words of my good friend Moof, I was doing it wrong. I was putting my own expectations on the game rather than taking what it gave me. Once I stopped doing that my characters became superpowerful and the game overall has become much more enjoyable.

But I still think Metal Gear Solid 2 sucked.

Class Begins

I worked for a brief period at 3DO, on a game called Crusaders of Might and Magic.

CoMM wasn’t a great game. It pains me to say that, because the guys who were working on it were all really nice, and I thoroughly enjoyed working with them. The game just didn’t come together properly, as least partially because it was the first PSX game for a lot of them. And of course it was rushed.

But I have a particular memory from working at 3DO. We were all sitting around a table discussing the game, which was a third-person medieval hackfest. The game was really hard to play, and people were suggesting ways to make it easier. I suggested that we make it possible to “lock on” to enemies, like in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

I got blank looks. No one else at the table had played Ocarina of Time. And they called themselves “game designers”.

At the Disney studios they have a vault that contains the rough animation for every Disney feature and short, all the way back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Disney has done so much stuff over the years that when an animator gets a task, the first thing he does is to check the vault to see if something similar has been done before. That gives him a leg up on what he’s doing now – he doesn’t have to start from scratch.

We game designers also have a vault. It consists of all the games that have been done before ours. If you want to be a game designer and you don’t know gaming history and you haven’t played the classics, you’re going to spend a lot of time re-inventing the wheel, and yours is guaranteed to be less round.

But Badman, I hear you say, where can I learn about gaming history? What are the classics, and how can I play them?

Excellent questions, both. As much as I’d like to write a history of gaming, a) I don’t really have time, and b) it’s been done much better than I ever could. I hereby present a linkstrip in my navbar, sorted by group, and the first group is The History of Computer Gaming.

General Gaming History
Gamespot’s The History of Video Games
The Dot Eaters – Videogame History 101

The Classic Consoles
Intellivision Lives!
Creating Adventure for the Atari 2600
Programming NES Games for Konami
Programming MC Kids for the NES

More forthcoming. I haven’t yet found a good “history of PC gaming” link yet – if you know of one, email me.

And what are the Classics?

Well, there’s a lot of opinion involved here (of course). But I’m going to start by providing a list of games that differ across platforms and genres but have one thing in common – they are all brilliantly designed. If you want to be a game designer, playing great games and both and experiencing what they have to offer and analyzing them to discover how they provide that experience should be one of the first steps you take.

I’ve tried to pick games that are commercially available and on still-common platforms. I’ve also tried to pick at least one game from every common genre. This list is also not exhaustive – I’ll be adding to it as I find games that merit the list.

Ultima VII – Traditional Role-Playing Game – PC
Quake and Scourge of Armagon – First-Person Shooter – PC
Deus Ex and System Shock 2 – First-Person Role-Playing Game – PC
Ratchet & Clank – 3D Platform Game – PlayStation 2
Age of Mythology – Real-Time Strategy – PC
The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time – Third-Person Adventure/Role-Playing – Nintendo 64 and GameCube
Civilization III – Turn-Based Strategy – PC
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City – Third-Person Open-Ended Gameplay – Playstation 2 and PC