Death: From Dungeon Crawl to Meat Boy

2012, October 31st 8:52 AM

Let's talk about death.

More generally, let's talk about losing. And more specifically, let's talk about losing in a PvE game, either solo or cooperative.

In the world of the early arcade, the player had to lose in order for the arcade to stay in business. More losses meant more quarters. The player couldn't lose too quickly or they'd get frustrated and bored, but they also couldn't win or they'd lose interest. On the development side of things, the nascent industry couldn't afford complicated endings, complicated plotlines, or often, even multiple levels. The combination was a perfect coincidence, producing what quickly became an arcade staple: difficult never-ending games, usually with little-to-no variety between levels, where the challenge was tied into getting as far as possible and another quarter would let you continue where you left off.

Things were happy. Things were good. Then the arcade died, we started purchasing games for a flat fee, and it all went to hell.

We never quite recovered.

Today, games seem to take one of a handful of approaches towards the "lose" state.

The simplest, and in some ways most intuitive approach, is to approach death as you would actual death. You died. That's it. Game over. Play again? This is generally called "permadeath", a term used to emphasize just how permanent this form of death really is. There's many problems with this approach for general use. First, most players aren't interested in replaying the early stages of a game over and over again to reach the later stages. Second, this means, to prevent extreme frustration, the beginning of the game often has to be more difficult than the end of the game, which is . . . weird, let's say. Third, most modern games are designed with a plot and with a large amount of hand-crafted content. You don't want to spend a ton of money on things the average player will never see, but with the permadeath approach, most players will never see most of the game.

The benefit to this is that you can design a game that is approached as a full-sized challenge. Dungeon Crawl is a roguelike that takes this approach, and single games often take between ten or twenty hours, where a single misstep (occasionally) means death. The game is crafted with this in mind. In the world of the ARPG it's usually called "hardcore mode", and it's been a staple of the Diablo series, and of ARPGs in general, essentially since the genre's beginning. Finally, this is a concept that's spread into the strategy world as well, although its existence is a little more dubious in the world of strategy games since generally by the time you realize you've lost, you've actually been on the losing path for a few hours.

The complete opposite approach is to make death completely irrelevant. Died in the middle of a battle? No problem! Just step back in and keep on shooting! There are very few games that take this approach, and those that do are usually castigated for it. The most recent example is Borderlands 2, which, in co-op mode, allows you to effectively suicide-rush most bosses over and over until you eventually win.

As I said, this approach is uncommon – but a slight modification to this approach is quite common. Instead of allowing the player to resurrect with the world state unchanged, you save the state of the world at specific points – we'll call these "checkpoints" – and if the player loses, they're returned to the checkpoint, with their ammo and health refilled but with all the enemies respawned.

Curiously, this slight modification of a system which is completely opposite permadeath still manages to accomplish many of the same goals as permadeath does – just in a different manner. If permadeath is meant to encourage extremely long difficult but fair games, then instant-retry is meant to encourage long games that have very difficult sections . . . carefully partitioned into tiny, tiny pieces.

Super Meat Boy is the best example of this. The vast majority of the game's levels can be comfortably beat within a minute, given a skilled player, but many of the tougher levels may take *hundreds* of attempts, if the player is capable of beating them at all. People sometimes object to this by saying that the lack of a "game over" screen means that every player is guaranteed to win, but this isn't really true – by ensuring that failure isn't a catastrophic waste of player time, the difficulty of each section can be tuned to be far more difficult, meaning that many players will simply be unable to ever progress past a certain level of difficulty.

While Super Meat Boy explicitly chops the game up into literally hundreds of levels, many other games accomplish the same thing in a more subtle and implicit manner. I actually don't know where this started, but my first experience with the checkpoint system was in Halo. The game attempts to detect when you're out of combat and "safe", then saves a snapshot of the game at that exact moment. If you die, you go back to the snapshot. Halo's auto-checkpointing works, most of the time, but there are alternatives – Ratchet and Clank chose to manually author checkpoints, and Arkham Asylum's game layout resulted in an intuitive and natural checkpoint layout. This is more of an implementation detail than a major game design change, however.

With so many good solutions for dealing with game saving, I find myself wondering why so many games still use bad solutions. Explicit save points were popular with early console games, both for storage reasons and for game design reasons, but there's just no good excuse for them today. Nobody enjoys going out of their way in order to find another save point just in case there's a big nasty monster behind the next door, but that's what explicit save points encourage. Worse, people end up double- and triple-guessing the game designer's savepoint placement, sometimes missing important save points entirely and having to replay large chunks of the game. Shadow Complex is a fascinating example of almost getting this right – "save points" merely have to be entered in order to save, and many of the save points are along major routes that you'll walk across during normal gameplay. But then many of them aren't, forcing the player to guess which door the save point is through, or take tiny detours in order to not risk a loss of progress.

And then there's World of Warcraft.

I don't understand World of Warcraft's death system.

Oh, sure, I understand its behavior. It's not complicated. When you die, you lose a bunch of money and appear at a nearby graveyard. You are given two choices: you can waste *even more* money and have to wait ten minutes to have fun again, or you can spend a bunch of time walking to your corpse in order to resurrect, then spend a further tiny amount of money regaining your health and mana, which, for some unexplained reason, don't just fill up to maximum when you resurrect.

What I don't understand is its purpose.

It's not a significant game penalty – the amount of money lost isn't particularly major, and money isn't hard to acquire in the game (just slow – so really, when I say "money", I mean "time"). In solo content or easy content, nobody has ever said "oh shit, I died, what am I going to do now". The answer's easy: you waddle over to your corpse and un-die. In raid content or difficult content, you really hate dying, but not because of the monetary penalty – you hate dying because dying means you didn't win. Meanwhile, the death penalty adds a whole bunch of wasted time before you can get back to the fun part, namely, trying to win again.

Oh, and when I say "when you die you lose a bunch of money" I don't actually mean "lose a bunch of money", instead your equipment gets damaged and you have to go pay to get it repaired, eventually, and if you forget, then your equipment stops working at all and you suck until you get around to forking over the money. So it's like losing money, except more annoying in every imaginable way.

The whole thing seems like a mechanic specifically designed to ensure that you spend the minimum amount of time having fun and the maximum amount of time being bored, while not actually penalizing failure in any more of a severe fashion than the simple fact that you failed.

Failure, like all game mechanics, should be treated as a tool to improve the game experience. If your game experience requires significant consequences for failure, then by all means, ensure that death comes with consequences. But if your game experience does not require those consequences, don't add a punitive death mechanic just for the sake of making death "sufficiently awful". We don't need extra punishment for failure – ideally, failure itself should be sufficient.

Reflecting the World with the Game

2012, September 30th 10:35 AM

There's these two board games: Arkham Horror and Betrayal at House on the Hill. They're both horror games, in a sense. Arkham is Lovecraftian horror, Betrayal is horror-movie style. I've played a lot of both of them, and they both do a great job of atmosphere – but while a good deal of this atmosphere is conveyed through writing, some of it is conveyed through a far more important and far more subtle manner: the very rules that the game runs on.

A theme of Lovecraftian horror is that, fundamentally, the world isn't an evil place. Sure, there are evils in the world – a whole shitload of them, actually – but until someone has actually been influenced by an Elder God, they're probably a good person. Almost all the evils in Arkham Horror are explicitly set apart as something unworldly: an invader from another plane of existence or a minion of that invader.

Betrayal is the exact opposite. Betrayal takes place inside a haunted house, and no doubt about it, the house hates you. The only things in this world that are on your side are your friends, and even one of those is going to betray you. The world of Betrayal is explicitly malicious and is constantly out for your blood.

Each game manages to demonstrate this through game mechanics.

In Arkham, the world's alliance with you is reflected in several ways. The game is cooperative, and almost all conflicts are phrased as "player vs. monster". When a tie happens, the player will generally win that tie. Second, situations where a value needs to be rounded are generally rounded in the player's favor. Finally, random events – the thing you spend a good deal of the game doing – are generally good things, giving you money, clues, items, or other minor bonuses.

Betrayal, despite also being mostly cooperative player-vs-monster, works quite differently. Ties are generally considered losses. Rounding is always against you. And random events, while sometimes good, tend to be harmful, gradually stripping away your stats or giving major penalties – the game is a race against your own inevitable death at the hands of the House.

I've always liked this method of creating atmosphere, but surprisingly few games do it. Most games either have very little connection between the mechanics and the environment, or the two are so deeply intertwined that there's nothing subtle about it. Not, by the way, that either of these things are bad – I'm not suggesting that Bejeweled needs to weave plot threads into its game mechanics somehow, nor that Braid was worse off by presenting a highly unified front to the player – but subtle atmosphere is an important part of a designer's toolkit, and it's something that board game designers have tackled with great success.

Luckily, it's not completely unheard of in the game world, so I can give a few examples.

Demon's Souls is a hardcore dungeon crawler released a few years back. There has since been a spiritual successor, Dark Souls, that I've heard is quite good, but I haven't yet played it so I'll be talking about Demon's Souls.

In Demon's Souls, the world is out to kill you. Violently, rapidly, and efficiently. When it does – and it will, frequently – you lose all your hard-earned money. (Represented, in this game, by souls.) You're sent back to the beginning of the level, and the levels are quite long. Worse, the game doesn't get easier on the second try – no, now you're considered a ghost, and you have half as much life. And if you die more, the enemies get harder. That's right: Losing makes the game harder. This isn't a game where you get to keep making gradual progress despite dying, this is a game where dying makes anti-progress.

You know how many games have "town", or a "trade hub", or some other location that you can go in order to buy and sell stuff and stock up for your next run? Demon's Souls has that. And if you go the wrong way, you can die in town. And come back as a ghost, with half health. And the enemies got harder. And you lost all your souls. From dying in the safest part in the game. Good fuckin' job, man.

All of these mechanics fit the game style perfectly. The world of Demon's Souls is brutal – the backstory is about a war that has, in all practicality, already been lost, and the game reflects that. But importantly, none of the mechanics are unfair. The game never randomly kills you. It kills you because you screwed up, and then it kills you again in the exact same spot because you screwed up in the exact same way in that exact same spot. The lack of randomness is reflected in the game's storyline – the Bad Things didn't form out of nothing, they didn't just show up one day and decide to start fucking up the kingdom. They showed up because the king did something very, very bad, and now you get to suffer for it.

Borderlands, in many ways, is the exact opposite. Sure, the Borderlands game mechanics are also out to kill you, no arguments, but they'll give you every possible opportunity to survive while doing so. Running away is effective. Many characters have survival skills. "Dying" results in a period of time when you're lying on the ground wounded, but can still shoot things, and if you kill an enemy, you'll be instantly revived. And even if all that fails, you'll find yourself resurrected nearby with no loss besides a little bit of money. Not much money. Just a little. Plus you get some free ammo, just in case you ran out. And all the bad guys you killed? Still dead. Having trouble with a boss? Just keep throwing yourself at it, it'll go down eventually. Killing enemies is often rewarded by random guns appearing out of thin air, ammunition and health absolutely litters the game stashed away in chests, boxes, and even mounds of dirt, and the general philosophy if you're about to run out of something is to simply not worry – more will be along shortly.

On first inspection, the world of Borderlands seems like a grim brutal struggle for survival, but if you look a bit deeper it's a cartoony jokey "struggle". Sure, you slaughter nameless mooks by the thousand, but anyone with an actual name is guaranteed to survive until their plotline is resolved. Betrayal is rare and generally strongly telegraphed, wealth and riches seem to simply fall out of the sky for people to collect, and even the craziest nutcases find a successful niche to survive in.

(In the Borderlands world, even the average character is more than a little nuts. The craziest ones are truly out there.)

The interesting part about Borderlands is that the plot, originally, was quite different. Borderlands was developed as a gritty scifi roleplaying shooter, full of all the science fiction paraphernalia that we've grown to love from games like Mass Effect. But many of final non-gritty game mechanics were already in place. You'd shoot a horrible monster in the face, a gun would pop out. You'd walk around the world and find chests of ammo just sitting there. The game world and the game mechanics were in conflict – the mechanics kept saying "hey, look how ridiculous this all is, look how many guns you have, it's so many guns", and the plot kept insisting that this was a serious game with a serious plotline meant to be taken very seriously.

Compare the original trailer:

With the release trailer:

And then compare that with the Borderlands 2 trailer, which continues the path taken by the art revamp:

To wrap this all up:

Game developers have a tendency to consider the game mechanics and the setting to be two different things. In reality, they aren't – they're two parts of the same game, and at the very least they need to coexist peacefully. Ideally, they should riff off each other: both the game mechanics and the theme should be based around the same atmosphere. People will accept a brutally hardcore game if the setting feels appropriate, and people will accept a massively exaggerated game if the setting feels appropriate, but with an inappropriate combination, the game will feel jarring and out-of-place.

A few weeks ago I ran into a Flash game called Lab of the Dead. I ended up getting far deeper into it than I'd expected, and the damn game wouldn't leave my brain. That's a good sign I should be talking about it.

Lab of the Dead is one of those games that doesn't match any particular genre. You could call it a limited sandbox game, or a puzzle game, or a grind game, or a plot game – it's unclear. The game mechanics are simple. First, you pick a zombie to experiment on, which has almost no influence on the game besides what your test subject looks like. Then you subject the zombie to various items, including anything from shooting it with machine guns, throwing eggs at its face, letting it eat a dead cat, or putting a pair of headphones on it and playing rock music. Depending on the emotional state of the zombie (measured on three scales – "aggression", "hunger", and "humanity"), these various items will result in one of three basic reactions, with a fourth Advanced Reaction that can also depend on what previous reactions the zombie has experienced.

In order to progress the plot, you must experiment on the zombie a certain number of times and discover a certain number of reactions. Progressing the plot unlocks more items that you can use for future experiments. Importantly, there's no way to lose – one could eventually beat the game by clicking randomly.

The most crucial part of the above, however, is that "emotional state" thing I mentioned. Every interaction with your zombie will affect two or three of those scales. Perhaps a squeaky toy will increase their Humanity and reduce their Aggression, perhaps feeding them a dead rat will reduce their Humanity as well as their Hunger. Since the game is gated based on the number of unique reactions you've seen, and since you need to change the scales in order to unlock more reactions, you'll be spending a reasonable amount of your game time trying to do things like increasing your zombie's humanity, or decreasing their aggression, or starving them so they'll attempt to eat a book.

All the reactions have custom animations with appropriately themed behavior. The mid-aggression Live Cat response might result in the zombie attempting to bite the cat. The high-aggression response may have the zombie straight-up disembowel the cat, while the low-aggression zombie may actually pet the cat a few times before the cat runs away. All of this comes coupled with appropriate music and sound effects – I mean, sure, it's still a zombie, but an aggressive zombie's growls tend to be a lot more furious than a passive zombie.

The end result is that you're sitting there spending 15-30 minutes at a time to train a zombie how to pet a cat. No, no, stop eating that mouse, look, let me show you a squeaky duck! See? How about listening to some music, are you feeling better now? Oh, you're getting hungry? Here's some meat I found down in the kitchen.

For a zombie game, it's a surprisingly personal game. I said "you pick a zombie to experiment on, which has almost no influence on the game besides what your test subject looks like," but let's be honest, that's actually a pretty major choice. Your options include half-rotted horrors, schoolgirls, average Joes, you name it. The "choice" segment really immerses you in the zombie's welfare, because out of a whole ton of zombies, you explicitly chose that one. The game's design aims quite directly at establishing an emotional connection between you and your test subject.

Which makes some of the game quite horrifying.

Because, remember, this is – in the end – a test subject. A zombie test subject. And for all that you may want to test the various toys and games you have available, there are also other, less fun items available. Knives. A machete. A shotgun. Grenades. And these items, as well, have to be tested extensively.

You know what happens when you shoot a zombie in the head with a shotgun?

It dies.

And when that's a zombie you've been carefully tending for half an hour, when you've taught that zombie how to play with a Barbie doll and a big stuffed bear, and when you are the one who has to scientifically determine what happens when you systematically fire a pistol into each of its limbs, its torso, and then its head . . .

. . . well, it's kind of a painful game.

Doubly so because of how little the game seems to care about your zombie's death. The main character sighs dramatically about needing another test subject and then it drops you right back at the "choose a zombie" screen. Pick a new test subject and the tests continue. The game considers the zombies completely inhuman, but I found that resulted in me being more aware of their humanity.

I'm definitely not the only one who felt this way. The top comment on Kongregate as of this writing, with a score of over 3000, is asking for the ability to switch zombies without killing your current specimen. I've seen the same suggestion in many other places. And yet, I think providing that would lose a large part of the game's beauty. The game, in its current state, *forces* you to destroy something that you've spent time on, and something that you've acquired history with, for the sake of a nebulous ill-defined long-term goal. The very fact that people are asking so loudly for the ability to switch zombies is, perhaps, a good indication that that ability should not be provided.

One of the things games do badly, and should be working on doing better, is emotional connection. It's a very rare game that leaves you personally invested in the welfare of the characters. I'll admit I hadn't expected to encounter that in a Flash game about experimenting on zombies, but I did, and I'd strongly recommend checking the game out and seeing what makes it emotionally tick.

The Importance of Focus

2012, May 31st 7:31 AM

I've been watching a lot of movies lately. This means that you get to read a bunch of posts connecting movies and game design.

Today, let's talk about Rango.

Rango is a movie about a chameleon. The chameleon's terrarium is lost on the highway and he is left abandoned in the middle of the Mojave Desert. If you were going to list the ideal places for a chameleon to live, the Mojave Desert would be very low on the list.

Terrified and dying of dehydration, our titular chameleon runs into a philosophical armadillo who's been bisected by a truck and is in the mood to dispense advice. The movie gets surreal.

Now, first, recognize that I try to go into movies with no knowledge of the plot. Going into Rango, I think my full knowledge of the movie was "there's a chameleon voiced by Johnny Depp". Every once in a while I end up watching a movie which completely defeats my expectations at every point, for better or worse, usually for the better. (Pixar's great at doing this.)

In the case of Rango, I started thinking, hey, this is pretty weird, this must be a surreal movie! This is going to be great! I love surreal movies!

Then the main character ran into the sidekick and all the surreality went out the window, to be replaced, briefly, with a goofy buddy plotline.

For the remaining 90 minutes of the movie, the tone changed repeatedly. First it turned into a story about trying to fit in. Then it became a story about a band of elite commandos, who largely seem to have been picked by the main character because he needed a band of elite commandos and, well, they were there. The Elite Commando arc finished, in a weirdly comedic scene full of exploding bats, and most of those characters faded quietly into the distance as the movie transformed into a minimal murder mystery. The surrealism came back when the main character meets the Spirit of the West, then quickly gets shuffled off camera yet again, as a villain quickly vacillates between a colossal threat and a friend.

With Rango, I never quite knew where the movie was going to go. But that's cool. I don't need to know where the movie's going to go, and I don't want to know where the movie's going to go. Problematically, though, I had the feeling that the movie didn't know where the movie was going to go. It didn't feel like a unified production. Even though the plot was solid, even though all the Chekhov's Guns were properly placed and recovered by the end, even though all the character arcs intermingled and interacted, the movie as a whole simply didn't feel cohesive. There was no theme.

Now let's talk about video games.

Brutal Legend was an open-world exploration game released two years ago. The demo, and most of the promo materials, showed it off as a third-person brawler. This was accurate for the first third of the game . . . until it morphed unexpectedly into a real-time strategy game.

Devil May Cry was a plot-based third-person brawler/shooter . . . right up until the final boss, which drops you straight into a Starfox-esque 3d shooter.

World of Warcraft is a game about playing a fantasy hero, defeating big bad guys and collecting loot, using a palette of moves based on your character class. Or that's what you used to think! Then they introduced a dungeon named The Oculus, which unexpectedly shifted from controlling your character on a mostly-flat plane to controlling a dragon in full 3d, with a new, limited, and painfully uninteresting set of moves. Worse was the raid equivalent, Malygos, known for causing frustration (and motion-sickness) in a large amount of the playerbase.

And finally, Drakengard, a game which could charitably be considered a gigantic troll from beginning to end, finished up its Ultimate Ending by throwing away all of its normal game mechanics and transforming into a two-button rhythm game, of all things.

Now, I don't want to claim that games should never introduce new game mechanics. Many games make great use of minigames, sometimes giving the player a break between long segments of the primary mechanic, sometimes using the opportunity to tweak the tone of the game. The inevitable lockpicking minigames that always seem to show up in fantasy RPGs is a great example – you want to pick a lock, suddenly you're playing a minimal lockpick simulator. Once that's complete, back to the main game!

The difference is that these games don't include it as a shoehorned-in part of the main plot. The games that include lockpicking simulators are generally intended to be semiaccurate sandbox games, including lockpicking, and the designers want something that feels a little more concrete than a random die-roll. Maybe they're sandbox-simulating a magic-slinging fantasy hero, sure, whatever, but in a game like that, the gameplay is taken from the behavior of the character. One can easily imagine a magicsmithing minigame, or a horseriding minigame, or a shopkeeping minigame, side-by-side with the lockpicking. Conversely, nobody anywhere said "hey, I really like beating up crazy heavy metal archetypes while wielding a magic guitar, but you know what I've always assumed would go along with a heavy metal beatdown? Resource management, unit construction, and research!"

The real key here is that a game, like a movie, must know what it is. A game about kungfu should stick to kungfu. A game about fantasy warfare should stick to fantasy warfare. And a game about destroying thousands of bad guys with long-range artillery backup from a dragon should remain that way.

The problem with Rango, as I see it, is that nobody sat down to determine what the movie was really about. One group wanted a surrealistic mind exploration. One group wanted a goofy action comedy. One group wanted a murder mystery. The movie's backbone was never properly laid out, and so the movie itself ended up being indistinct and illdefined.

Brutal Legend had a similar issue. I think it could have made a great brawler. I think it could have made a great real-time strategy game. But the unhappy medium didn't work – the two parts didn't feel unified and didn't feel appropriate. I wasn't involved in the design meetings, of course, but I have a hard time imagining how people could have sat down and described the intended theme of the game, the intended backbone, and come up with what Brutal Legend ended up being.

The theme needs to be determined. Movies, games, books, it doesn't matter – artwork without firm intention simply does not stand up.

Defeating the Theme Park

2012, April 29th 1:06 PM

Game plotlines have gotten complicated.

We've come a long way from "the Princess has been kidnapped, go rescue the Princess". The Super Nintendo acquired a pile of RPGs with complicated plotlines, the gaming industry had a brief but ill-fated flirtation with live-action directing, and we've attempted all sorts of curious branching plotlines and fully explorable worlds.

Somewhere in here, the gaming press and public came up with an interesting term. "Theme park". A "theme park" game is one that calmly shunts you along from awesome event to awesome event, like a Disneyland attraction on rails. You get to see a lot of amazing stuff but, in the end, you had little to no choice in your actions. The most popular accusations, and the most damning of them, tend to be leveled at World of Warcraft. The curious part is that World of Warcraft plotlines never involved choice. People claim to have felt more immersed in the game years ago, and despite the complicated and deep plotlines that now fill the World of Warcraft universe, and the identical amount of influence players have on the world (namely, none), the game just doesn't grab people like it did.

Now, part of this is probably just people tired of WoW. The game has been out for a very long time and people are bored. But I think there's a different reason – one that can be analyzed carefully, and, with effort, avoided. In order to demonstrate that reason, we're going to have to take a journey back in time, tens of thousands of years ago.

Or, if you'd prefer, six years ago, to the release of Ice Age 2.

Spoiler-laden plot synopsis: The main characters of Ice Age are happy in their new home paradise. Then disaster strikes! The gigantic ice wall that's holding the ocean back is beginning to melt, and the entire population must migrate to the other end of the valley, where a boat awaits to rescue them. Will they make it in time?

Well of course they'll bloody well make it in time. It's a kid's movie. Right off the bat you know that it will have a happy ending, and that means everyone's gonna survive. The problem is that they've already tipped their hand. Nine minutes into the movie and you know the whole plotline. Sure, it's a kid's movie, and that means it will be happy, but that doesn't mean they need to tell you how everything will work out. Compare Ice Age 2 to Hook. We all knew Hook is going to have a happy ending also, but we didn't know how. We didn't have the entire plotline of the movie spelled out in the very beginning. This is important.

Second, the Ice Age 2 universe feels painfully contrived. Hundreds of creatures are all crammed together in the very end of an ice-filled valley, which is next to a gigantic wall of ice, and right beyond that wall is the entire ocean. What the hell? How did they even get there? Ice Age 1 ended with them walking into a sun setting over a gorgeous vista, Ice Age 2 starts with this:

Did they enter the valley on the other end, then troop all the way down here? What do they eat? Everything around is ice and bare dirt! The universe feels incredibly artificial – there's The Place That Everything Happens In, and then there's an impassable barrier ensuring that you're not allowed to think about stuff outside that place, and then there's an infinite ocean.

As the movie goes on, there are a lot of events. Many things happen. But in almost every case, these things are small self-contained events. Character gets in trouble –> character gets out of trouble. Hooray! Trouble is over! Let's move on to the next trouble! There are only a few plotlines that last any appreciable time, and as mentioned, none of those are really suspenseful. To make matters worse, Ice Age 2's closest attempt at a bad guy – a pair of prehistoric water carnivores – have no personality, no motivation, and no reason for the viewer to be interested in them. We know they're gonna lose. They're bad guys. You can largely discount any scene where they show up because you know in the end they'll be completely irrelevant. (In the end, they're completely irrelevant. Surprise!)

It felt like the world was created for the sake of the plotlines they wanted to make. Like they had a checklist of things they wanted to include, and by God they were going to make sure to include all those things, so they went down the list and when every event was checked off they called it a movie and released it.

Move forward three years and we've got Ice Age 3, which takes a dramatically different approach. Two minutes in we've got a plot point: the main character's wife is pregnant! Three minutes more and we've got another: one of the side characters is getting easily exhausted while hunting, and wants to leave the group! Another two minutes and we've got yet another: the main character is neglecting his friendships for the sake of his pregnant wife! Another five minutes and we've got a fourth plotline: someone's found some eggs! And then they hatch dinosaurs! And the dinosaurs don't play well with the smaller and fuzzier babies of the area! And, seriously, what the hell is the plot of this movie?

The answer is that there isn't a single plot. Everything listed up there is important and interwoven. Instead of having a single backbone plot, with subplots interspersed like a monotonous drumbeat, Ice Age 3 interweaves every plotline together – the short ones, the long ones, everything. The "main" plot isn't even started until 25 minutes into the movie.

The end result is that you never quite know what's going to happen. Oh, sure, it's going to end happily ever after, it's a kid's movie, we know that. But it's unclear what "happily" means in every case, and it's certainly not as obvious what the exact events are going to be. With that many plotlines running in parallel there are ample opportunities for them to bang into each other and interfere with each other, such as when the mommy mammoth needs for the hunter to defend her against attacking dinosaurs, despite his feelings of inadequacy. Dual plotline resolution, go!

And finally, Ice Age 3 spends a lot more time attempting to insert personality into the various side characters. With mixed success, I'll admit – the "main villain" is still little more than an angry killing machine. But this time it's a killing machine with a name, and backstory, and significant history with one of the main characters. I start caring about him because his behavior will actually have long-term consequences with the other characters in the movie.

Now, take a look at MMO questlines.

Today, each zone has a single largely-linear questline. You're shunted along a backbone plot from one event to the next. Sure, each event is related to the plot, but none of them go outside the plot in an unexpected manner. Each quest is predictable – hell, with few exceptions, each quest gives you the entire quest description before you've even accepted the quest. And there's no way to escape the relentless march of the plot. There's nothing outside the plot, there are no surprising interactions. You start the zone, and several hours later, you finish the zone.

But several years ago, things worked a bit differently. Sure, each quest was, if anything, even simpler. But zones tended to not have single unified plotlines. Often, they had a pile of smaller plotlines. And you weren't shoved along a single plotline – if you went and explored, you could find a different plot. You could pursue these in any order you wanted. There's the opportunity – you're walking around the world doing one quest, and bam, you walk straight into another quest! It didn't feel like you were on rails nearly as much, it felt like you were walking around in a significantly more alive world, where each player would end up experiencing the world in a slightly different order and with a slightly different flavor.

Another problem is the characters. I think this is a situation where, with the best of intentions, MMO design has gone in exactly the wrong direction. Modern MMO quest design is all about participating in epic plots. But that's the problem in a nutshell. It's not your plot, it's someone else's plot. It's Thrall's plot, or Asha's plot. With the old style of MMO quests you had limited choice, but you still had the option to say "haha, screw that, that's not worth the effort". And a lot of the best-known MMO plots were single people asking you for assistance with their person problems. With the modern style, it's the big leaders of your faction or alliance, requiring that you help them with whatever disaster has popped up lately, and if you don't, you can't continue the plotline. It doesn't feel personal.

As an example of how subtle but important this can be: Imagine you're talking to the Emperor's engineer. He tells you that he needs a left-handed sprongwhacker in order to build a machine to drive back the Infernals. You go and retrieve a left-handed sprongwhacker and give it to him. He says, "hey, thanks! Here, have some platemail." Received: [Platemail of the Emperor].

Now imagine a different quest. You're talking to a mechanic in a village. He says, "oh man, I'd totally make you a set of platemail, but I'll need a left-handed sprongwhacker. I used my last one yesterday!" You go and retrieve a left-handed sprongwhacker and give it to him. He says, "fantastic! Here's that platemail you wanted." Received: [Sprongwhacker-Imbued Platemail].

Which of these feels more personal? Well, the second one does by a long shot! You did something, not because a guy told you that you should, but because you wanted to. And your reward is a permanent badge of honor. You found that sprongwhacker, and this is the platemail that proves it! Whereas in the first place, you just got some random platemail. In fact, pretty much every piece of armor you find in a modern MMO is random. Every once in a while, a quest will offer a reward, but it's rarely thematically appropriate and never mentioned in the quest text. There is exactly one difference between a quest that offers equipment as a reward and a quest that doesn't: the quest that offers equipment says "you can choose one of these pieces of equipment as a reward".

I think this is a problem. I want to feel like I earned that equipment, and I want to feel like the person giving me the equipment has noticed that I am worthy of a new shiny piece of armor. As it is, there isn't even acknowledgement that you've gotten equipment. It feels like a perfectly mechanical side effect of pushing the "complete quest" button.

The fundamental problem is that MMOs are trying to design their questlines like they're movies. Movies have it easy: they can tell you who the most important people in the movie are. They can focus on one character and now it's important, or they can give backstory with sad music and now you know the other character's important. But with games, we already know who the most important person in the game is. It's you. It's the player. It always will be the player. And that means that every event, every plot point, has to interact with the player, not a bunch of other characters that the designers are dancing across the screen in the hopes that you'll get entangled with their plot.

If you want me entangled, you need to make me entangled. And that means either giving my avatar a chance to develop some personality of his own, or giving me a chance to influence my own story, even if this is something as simple as giving me a choice between which stories I feel like pursuing.

There's a phrase I've heard a lot lately. "Long tail". The theory is that there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people out there just waiting to give you small amounts of time . It's a good theory, and it's accurate, but there's a corollary to it: there's a small number of people out there just waiting to give you *huge* amounts of time.

As game developers, we, of course, want to harness that. Luckily, there are a few good ways to do so.

Many years ago, back in the SNES days, a game called Chrono Trigger had a clever innovation. You beat the game, and then, after the game was done, you could start the game again . . . with your existing characters, levels, and equipment, and with a whole pile of new endings unlocked. It was called New Game+.

The beauty of New Game+ is the the most devoted players, those who had loved the game and wanted to keep playing it, could keep playing it. It wasn't just a grind either, there were things to do that you could do only in this new mode. For example, killing the boss five minutes into the game, with a single character, resulting in a completely new ending. The game contained a lot of equipment that could be gotten once only, but of course, on the second playthrough you could get it again, allowing for combat strategies that simply weren't possible on a single playthrough. And, of course, you could see the effect of different choices on the plot, without having to spend all the time slowly bashing your way through the game at a normal level.

Most players, I assume, never tried New Game+. Or perhaps they tried it for a few minutes and stopped. But some – a very small number of players – played the game over again, once, twice, maybe more, trying to unlock all the endings and all the equipment, just enjoying their time in the game world that they loved.

Recently, there's been an interesting new financial model for games. It's called Free-to-Play. The idea is that you provide a game that doesn't cost any money, then you ask people to start forking over cash once they're already playing. There's a bunch of variations – some leave you hilariously underpowered unless you're giving them money, some games make it mandatory to give them money to proceed, some games make it frustrating to not give them money, some just constantly hound you for money, and some provide a fun game and let you fork over cash for vanity items and out of laziness.

I think there are a lot of interesting moral comments you can make about the various first variations, but this entry isn't about that, which is why I'm going to talk about the last one. Tribes: Ascend is nearing its release date and it's one of the more elegant and friendly Free-to-Play models I've seen. The only things that require money (known in-game as Gold) are purely cosmetic skins – everything else can be acquired simply through experience, acquired by playing the game.

And we're not talking boring grinding, either. The game is a team-based competitive shooter. You get experience by playing the game in a normal fashion. Now, you might think this means that someone who finds the game fun wouldn't want to give them money – after all, there's no reason to do so, you can still unlock everything without it – but there are two distinct groups of people who happily pay out.

The first group is the obvious group: those with more money than time. The game's fun, they want to unlock classes and items, here you go, have some money.

The second group isn't as obvious. It's the group of players who absolutely love the game.

About two weeks ago the first player reached Rank 50. Ranks have absolutely no bearing on the gameplay, they're merely an indicator of how long you've been playing. He's been playing a lot. He posted a screenshot of his progress, and one of the things quickly noticed was that he had enough experience to unlock every single item in the game several times over, enough gold to unlock every single item in the game several more times over, and enough Boost – an experience-multiplier purchased with Gold – to easily acquire yet more complete experience-based unlocks. And it turns out that he'd recently paid them even more money.

There's no logical reason for him to do this. You literally can't unlock anything repeatedly. He already has enough experience and gold to most likely unlock everything the developers will ever release. And yet, he loves the game, so he's willing to put more time and more money into it.

The long tail is usually a major point of interest with free-to-play games. In theory, there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who don't care enough about your game to give you $10, but maybe you can get $2 out of them, or maybe you can get them hooked and get $5. And, yeah, you get a lot of money off those people. But nobody talks about the outliers – the people who give you $300 extra just because they really enjoy playing your game. The people who will finish your game from beginning to end two, three, five times, as long as there are things for them to work on and achieve.

I think there's a lot of crossover between the free-to-play customers and New Game+ players. In both cases, there's a person who has deeply loved your world and wants nothing more than an excuse to give you more money, to spend more time playing, to do something more in the world you've created. Not only is this person going to play more, but they're going to evangelize you to their friends.

That's valuable, whether it be in goodwill or cold hard cash.

If you're making a game with a world, if you're making a game with an experience and not just a final boss, remember to let the player leave your world at their own pace. If they want to stick around, make sure there are things for your player to do. The benefits are hard to calculate, but you'll find them very valuable.

The Complexity Budget: Moving the Focus

2012, February 29th 11:54 PM

We've spent time talking about Anno 2070's subtle shifts in complexity. We've spent time talking about Gyromancer, SquareLogic, and FF13's attempt to unearth new game mechanics by removing complexity. But we haven't talked about adding complexity, and we haven't talked about explicitly moving complexity.

So let's talk about that.

Starcraft 2 and Supreme Commander

You could just as easily compare Starcraft 1 and Total Annihilation, but I'm sticking with these because it'll be easier to find screenshots. (And no, we're not going to talk about Supreme Commander 2. That game didn't exist.)

Starcraft 2 and Supreme Commander, on first glance, occupy the same genre. They're both real-time strategy games, where the player is given control over a base filled with resource gatherers and production structures, has to construct an army, and is told to go blow up the bad guys.

It's the same genre, but the two games differ drastically after that.

A race in Starcraft 2 consists of 13 to 15 units and 15 to 18 buildings. Most buildings have orders they can be given, either to produce units or to produce upgrades for units. The units themselves almost all have a gimmick – sometimes a passive gimmick like the Observer's cloaking field and cloak detection, sometimes an active gimmick like the Marine's stimpack. Combat in Starcraft 2 is mathematically simple, without any worries about ballistics or dodging. A fired shot will always hit and always do a predictable amount of damage, albeit with a little travel time. However, the complexity of the units make combat fast-paced and difficult to perfect.

Supreme Commander takes a dramatically different approach, with almost fifty units and fifty buildings per faction. Production buildings build units just like Starcraft's, but control over your utility buildings is limited to a simple on/off switch. The vast majority of units have no gimmick, either passive or active, and while there are technically "fifty units" the majority of them are simple upgrades on previous units – like the "Conservator T1 Interceptor" vs the "Swift Wind T2 Combat Fighter" vs the "Corona T3 Air Superiority Fighter". In Supreme Commander, there's no reason to build the older models of aircraft – you'd always want to build the new, higher-tech version.

First, there's a moving of complexity. In Starcraft, you upgrade units by researching upgrades at your various structures. In Supreme Commander, you upgrade units by building a new factory, then producing upgraded units. The result is that, while Supreme Commander has two classes of "thing" – buildings and units – Starcraft 2 has three classes of "thing", adding upgrades into the mix. Supreme Commander simplified the basic concepts available in the game by adding far more types of unit.

Ironically, despite having well over three times as many units as Starcraft 2, Supreme Commander's units are, overall, much simpler. Most of Supreme Commander's units do three things: they move, they shoot, and they die. In the meantime, Starcraft's units can do all sorts of things, from kamikaze explosions to directed area-of-effect attacks to mind control to teleportation.

Supreme Commander's base-building is significantly more complicated. Structures in Starcraft are largely passive, acting as large lumps of hit points that let you build things. Supreme Commander leans much more heavily on active buildings with weaponry, giving you an entire range of close-range and long-range defensive buildings, as well as a small number of ultra-long-range artillery buildings. To supplement this, Supreme Commander provides a range of defensive shield buildings that can protect nearby units and structures from incoming fire. Finally, Supreme Commander's energy-generation buildings also act as augmentations for nearby structures, doing anything from reducing resource consumption to increasing fire rate.

To compensate for this dramatic increase in complexity, Supreme Commander's bases are far easier to automate. While Starcraft's factories require manual intervention for every single unit, Supreme Commander's factories can be set to automatically construct units without the user being involved. This is a good thing because Supreme Commander armies are far far larger. Starcraft limits the player to an army of 200 "food", and the vast majority of units take one or more food – some reaching up to eight food per unit. Endgame armies frequently number around 50-75 actual units. Supreme Commander, by default, limits you to 500 units, but this is more of a computer performance limit than a game balance limit.

So, the Complexity Roundup so far:

Starcraft has more complicated units, more base management, and more complex upgrades to deal with.

Supreme Commander has more complicated base layout and far more units, but once your base is laid out, it mostly manages itself.

From what I can tell, the goal with Supreme Commander was this: Make the player spend effort only on things that are actively improving their position. Building a larger base is worth spending time on. Keeping your base running is not. Changing your production is worth spending time on. Mass-producing units one at a time, by hand, is not. Your base is meant to run itself while you're away. So what do you do during those times you're "away"?

The intention, I think, was to set the player up as . . . well, as a Supreme Commander. (They're not subtle.) You have hundreds of units and you order them all around constantly. The trailers showed the player doing pincer attacks, feints, all sorts of clever military maneuvers.

Unfortunately, this doesn't work out well in a modern real-time strategy game. In real warfare, many of these clever military maneuvers worked due to limited information, bad communication, and extremely slow units. It's easy to do a pincer maneuver when the enemy is nearly incapable of relaying orders from one side of their formation to the other, and it's easy to do a pincer maneuver when the enemy is unable to look into thick brush. It's a whole lot harder when the enemy has a circle of visibility around their units roughly equal to yours and when the enemy can retreat at the same speed as you can attack.

And "far more units" isn't really a source of complexity in itself. When your units do individual important things, it certainly can be – if you're familiar with the game, imagine trying to efficiently manage a 1000-food Starcraft 2 army – but in the world of Supreme Commander, more units simply means a larger blob of death that gets moved around the map as a sort of conceptual amorphous accumulation of power.

Supreme Commander tried to move a large amount of Starcraft's base management and micromanagement complexity into largescale strategic positioning . . . but it turns out that really doesn't work well in the RTS genre. The end effect is to take a complicated game and just make it simpler, and that's one of many reasons Supreme Commander was unsuccessful.

But with that in mind, I can talk about a more successful example.

World of Warcraft raids vs God of War boss fights

I'm not going to even pretend that one of these was inspired by the other. We all know that's not true. But they make for an excellent study on how you can get dramatically different gameplay by moving complexity around.

For the sake of this discussion, let's just ignore the whole multiplayer thing. Assume your World of Warcraft pals are simply AI bots, and the boss lives or dies based on your success at your role in the fight.

World of Warcraft characters are very complicated. Even standing in one place trying to maximize damage on a single target, you're generally juggling half a dozen abilities or more, each of which has to be used properly in order to do your job right. Many of your abilities interact with each other in complicated and nonobvious ways and have to be activated in the right patterns. If you start having to move, or deal with large groups of enemies, or target-switch often, it gets far more complicated.

Conversely, controlling Kratos, God of War's main character, is quite simple. Maximizing damage is a matter of mashing a single button repeatedly, and your alternative attacks vary in only a few simple ways – usually recovery time or area damage. Kratos has no complex interacting moves. The only interesting thing Kratos does in terms of combat techniques is his combo moves, triggered by pressing the buttons in certain patterns – but Kratos has only a small number of these combos, and they are both completely predictable and easy to trigger.

Kratos is, fundamentally, much simpler to control than a World of Warcraft character. Basic understanding of Kratos's abilities takes minutes at most, and expert control takes perhaps a few hours.

Simplifying his control scheme opens up a lot of space for complexity in other places. Namely, bosses.

Much has been said of the complexity of World of Warcraft bosses, and in a sense, this is accurate. The most difficult boss fights tend to take a month or two for the best groups to kill. But this isn't a particularly even comparison. Warcraft bosses are intended to be tough to kill, while God of War bosses are intended to be relatively easy to kill. Challenging, yes, but doable. We're going to compare Warcraft bosses that are roughly the same difficulty as God of War bosses.

When making this comparison, the Warcraft bosses start looking simplistic at best.

Complicated bosses might do something every fifteen or even ten seconds – simple bosses will often have thirty-second-long periods of time where you're simply standing there whaling on the boss. Some bosses, such as the semi-infamous Patchwerk, have literally no gimmicks. They stand there and beat on you, you stand there and beat on it, if you survive long enough to kill it within the time limit, you win. Meanwhile, the God of War bosses tend to require a response every five seconds or so, at most. There's simply no time to get complacent and no time to rest – the boss will be smacking you if you let it.

Modern Warcraft bosses will usually have two or three basic attack patterns – "run away when he does this", "don't stand in fire", "get ready to cast a lot of healing spells", but all of these are telegraphed with a clear indicator and several seconds of spare response time. The God of War bosses often give you one second's worth of notice, at best, and frequently require that you quickly and accurately recognize the boss's movement and respond in the correct manner out of several options.

World of Warcraft has chosen to put a large amount of the gameplay complexity into the character. Once you understand your character – and that can take a phenomenally long time – most of the bosses end up being relatively similar. God of War, conversely, has chosen to put a large amount of the gameplay complexity into the boss. Each encounter is dramatically different, but your character is relatively simple and easy to deal with.

Proper complexity budgeting isn't just about putting complexity in the spots you want complexity to be – it's also about taking complexity out of the spots you don't want. If Kratos had a complicated control scheme it would take away from the real goal of the game: beating the shit out of horrifying monsters the size of a house. But if World of Warcraft had a simple control scheme, then the process of creating new bosses would be far more complicated and expensive, possibly resulting in huge budget issues. You can't get away with strictly removing complexity because that results in a dull game, but likewise you have to stay below an upper threshold, or your game is impenetrable and unplayable.

I could probably go on with more examples for months, but this has gone on easily long enough by now. I'd like for you readers to analyze a few games based on complexity. Take a look at what a game explicitly avoided adding, or what a game added that was unnecessary. Compare two games in seemingly the same genre but with different behavior.

I've found this to be a surprisingly powerful tool for analyzing game design, and I've already modified some of my game plans by reconsidering where I'm putting complexity. If you find anything interesting using it, let me know!

The Complexity Budget: Removing Repetition

2012, January 28th 10:35 AM

This is part two of this increasingly enormous writeup on complexity. I recommend reading Part One before we get started.

The concept behind this megapost really started about two years ago, when I played a pair of games that made unexpected but excellent design choices. Later, I found a third. In each case, the game removed an uninteresting mechanic that had become a staple of the genre, and in doing so, unearthed some new interesting mechanics that had gone unnoticed.

Just to warn you: two of these games don't really succeed. That's what happens when you try experimental things. But they're all intriguing games, and they all open up areas of game design that I think are worth analysis.

First off: Gyromancer.

Gyromancer is, at its core, a big-budget version of Puzzle Quest. Puzzle Quest is, itself, Bejeweled with an RPG grafted on. In the case of Gyromancer it's Bejeweled Twist, with a pile of surprisingly pretty art and a plotline that's . . . well, it's a plotline. We'll just go with that.

Most of the complexity of Gyromancer (yeah, we're back to complexity, you saw that coming) is tied up in your abilities, your opponent's abilities, and the effect of gems on the board. All of these have to be dealt with rather carefully. Spells can morph the board rapidly and only somewhat predictably, your opponent does quite a lot of damage when he attacks, and many of your abilities interact in complex ways.

And on top of this, you have to play Bejeweled.

Bejeweled Twist, at that, which is a more complicated variant – instead of the relatively simple block-swapping mechanic, you have to rotate a square of four blocks. It's a little harder to understand the side effects of a move and a little tougher to come up with long-term plans. Now, I'm sure Bejeweled experts will have no trouble with the mechanic, but I am not a Bejeweled expert, and I had trouble with it. The game has a lot of mechanics piled on top of each other and it was almost too much to handle.

I say "almost" because the developers made one little concession to crummy players like me. See, your cursor lights up when it's held over a valid rotation. This means that you figure out incorrect moves before you click and screw up. This also means that if you can't find the valid move, you can just skim over the entire board watching for your cursor to light up in order to find it.

In other words, they took out some of the complexity of "find possible next moves", and they moved that complexity into "choose the right ability or move to make". Being a Bejeweled expert is no longer as necessary, and training your eyes to detect valid Bejeweled moves isn't as needed. Instead, you can devote that time to choosing the right move to make.

But imagine what would have happened if they'd gone even further. Instead of telling you whether a chosen move is valid, they could simply show all valid moves. They could have removed all the difficulty of finding a move and simply left the player to figure out the best move. Even less player effort in the brute-force scanning, freeing up time and effort for the interesting decisions! I'm not going to claim this would have been a better game – I suspect I'm not the target audience – but it would have been a game I personally found more interesting. If I'd wanted to play Bejeweled, I would have played Bejeweled, but really I was most interested in the new mechanics, which Bejeweled masked.

Next up, we've got SquareLogic.

SquareLogic can be best described as Sudoku on acid. Sudoku takes place in a 9×9 grid, further divided into nine 3×3 boxes. You must fill each box with a number from 1 through 9. You can't use the same number twice in a row, or twice in a column, or twice in a 3×3 box.

SquareLogic, on the other hand, goes from 4×4 through 9×9. You're roughly limited to the same count of numbers – a 4×4 grid will take numbers 1 through 4, a 9×9 grid will take 1 through 9 – and you're still subject to the row/column restrictions. But it gets far weirder from there. First, while SquareLogic does have subcontainers, they aren't necessarily square. They might be rectangles. They might be strange bendy shapes. Worse, these containers don't care about uniqueness. They care about other things. For example, you might have a 24x container, which means that the product of the numbers within the container must be 24. Maybe that's 1*2*3*4. Maybe that's 1*1*4*6. You might think it could be 2*2*2*3, but you'd be wrong – remember, you can't have the same number duplicated in a row or a column, and there's no way to lay out 2*2*2*3 such that no two 2's share a row or column. But 1*1*4*6 would fit in an S-shape, with the two 1's on opposite ends.

That's not all, though! SquareLogic doesn't tell you where the containers are. You're given one square in each container, and the rest of the container locations have to be derived logically. Sometimes that's easy: if the container is "12x", you know it needs to be at least two squares large. Sometimes that's tougher, though: is "12x" two, three, or four squares?

And then, just when you feel confident in that, SquareLogic throws double-board puzzles at you. Two boards, the same solution on each board, but different containers. You'll have to solve them simultaneously to win, as neither board has enough detail to get a full solution.

All of this could easily become overwhelming. In fact, just the busywork could be overwhelming – Sudoku-style games require that you keep track of which numbers have been used in which rows or columns. But SquareLogic, after throwing an enormous amount of complexity in your face, quietly shuffles much of the busywork away and takes care of it for you. Each box contains, greyed-out and in small type, all possible numbers that could fit there. You can eliminate numbers manually by right-clicking them. But if you make a decision and place a number in its final location, SquareLogic instantly clears all instances of that number from that row and column, as you can guarantee the number won't show up in any other similar places. The busywork is boring, and the computer can do it, so why shouldn't it?

SquareLogic helps in other ways. If you mouseover a container, it will list all possibilities. Mousing over 12x will show 3*4, 1*2*6, 1*3*4, 2*2*3, 1*1*3*4, and 1*2*2*3. If you've determined that your 12x container is only three squares large, it will restrict that down to 1*2*6, 1*3*4, and 2*2*3. If you've shown that none of the squares can contain a 3, it will cross out 1*3*4 and 2*2*3, leaving you with just 1*2*6. Sure, you could do it by hand, but does anyone want to spend their life trying to factor numbers?

(Especially the larger numbers – multiplication containers can easily reach the thousands, as 6*7*8*9 = 3024. I don't want to factor 3024. That's why I own a computer.)

The end result is a horrendously complicated, but surprisingly manageable, puzzle. When you get stuck, it's usually because you missed something clever, not because you misclicked or forgot to cross out an option. Since the game keeps track of all the little mental details for you, your brainspace is available for the far more interesting logical derivation.

But it's worth noting what SquareLogic didn't automate. SquareLogic will never actually choose a number for you, even if you've eliminated all alternatives. SquareLogic will happily tell you that there's only one possibility for a container, but it will never narrow down the elements in that container without your explicit input. The automation is solely limited to removing row/column conflicts and informing you about container possibilities. If you go too far, you end up writing a game that plays itself. SquareLogic went further than most do, but not too much further, opting to stay back and leave the fun bits up to the player.

Last, though with unarguably the highest budget of any of these games: Final Fantasy 13, and specifically, FF13's combat system.

(Before I continue: no, it hasn't escaped my attention that all of these games either involve squares or are made by Square. I promise this is a coincidence.)

From Final Fantasy 1 all the way through Final Fantasy 10, the most fundamental assumptions of Final Fantasy's combat system remained unchanged. You controlled a party of characters, from one to four at a time. Each character had a number of abilities, generally including Attack, Magic, Item, and a special gimmicky thing. Each character attacked in some order – generally determined by the character's speed – and used a single command at a time to damage the enemies, heal friendlies, or cast helpful (or harmful) spells. The enemies did the same, interspersed with your units.

There were many variations, of course. Some games used an "active time battle" system where characters attacked somewhat in realtime, although this was essentially a realtime wrapper around a turnbased game. For a while, every Final Fantasy game came up with a new way to gain magic, from Espers to Materia to Guardian Forces to the Sphere Grid. In FF7, your characters' spells were highly customizable before battle. In FF10, your characters could be swapped out at a moment's notice in a fight. FF8 let you buff your characters by "attaching" spells to them. It got complicated. But the fundamental design didn't change – one character took their turn and did something, the next character took their turn and did something.

FF11 broke the pattern by virtue of a genre change. FF11 was a massively multiplayer game, where you controlled a single character, and your party fought as a cohesive, realtime group. The gameplay didn't surprise anyone, at least after the MMO layout was announced – MMOs don't work with the old Final Fantasy method. But FF11 heavily influenced FF12. In many ways, FF12 felt like a single-player MMO. Instead of controlling a party, you directed a party – you wrote general-purpose scripts to automate what you intended, then gave direct commands to your characters when you needed to override their behavior.

Which taught us some very curious things. It turns out that the old Final Fantasy combat style is, fundamentally, very repetitive. Classic Final Fantasy combat consists of three things: healing, buffing, and attacking. First, make sure nobody's about to die. Then, cast the spells that make your characters vastly better. Finally, kill the bad guys. Most of this can be automated. In fact, the only part that takes any thought is "attacking", as various monsters require different attack spells. For example, robots are vulnerable to lightning, so if you're fighting robots, hit them with lightning. That's all the thought you need to put into it, though – after you've figured that bit out, it tends to be quite formulaic.

When FF12 automated all the basic bits, they were able to use that freed-up gamespace and make the bosses more complicated.

Now, FF12 didn't do a great job of it, because in order to play the game efficiently you basically had to be a programmer. Your characters had little automated scripts that you had to design. If you weren't good at that kind of process design, you sucked at the game. But FF13 took this to another level altogether.

In FF13, you didn't really control your characters at all. Instead of telling them what to do, you told them how to behave. For example, you'd tell one character "be a healer", and that character would start lobbing heal spells around to keep everyone else alive. You'd tell another character "cast buffs", and that character would automatically choose appropriate buffs and keep your party fully augmented. At the same time, FF12 took the old three-role Final Fantasy system and split it into a whopping six roles. The "buff" role was joined by a "debuff" role. They picked up a fully functional tank role, able to absorb firepower and take minimal amounts of damage. And, in a rather uncommon twist, "damage the bad guys" was split into two separate roles – a Ravager that gradually knocked the enemy off-balance, and a Commando that did enormous amounts of damage, but only once the enemy was off-balance.

Now, you did have direct control over one character, but to be honest, most of the time you just mashed the "do whatever you would normally do" button. The AI was smart enough to prioritize buffs intelligently and it understood which debuffs worked on the enemy. The tank would do a good job of keeping damage contained, the healer would distribute healing spells appropriately, and the various damage roles would quickly figure out the right spells to use and . . . well . . . use them. Instead of spamming Lightning on the robots, you watched while your characters spammed Lightning on the robots.

And as you'd expect, this opened room for more complicated bosses. Bosses in FF13 are truly deadly – a few turns of the wrong actions will often result in a party wipe and a game-over. Your characters will respond quickly, and do an amazing job of efficient damage mitigation and recovery, leaving the only real in-battle decision to a moment-by-moment choice between party roles, deciding on the fly which combination of roles will prevent your party from dying and kill the boss.

Which is, in many ways, where FF13 fails. You simply don't have enough choices. I'm all for automating the repetitive parts, but it turns out that the Final Fantasy combat model is repetitive parts. When you take away all the repetition, and don't replace it with something new, you're left without a game. In the case of Final Fantasy, the "game" becomes recognizing the right response to half a dozen boss abilities. When boss does this, you mash Tank button. When boss does this, you have time to rebuff. When boss does this, you can go back to kill mode.

The problem is that the roles are very, very specialized. If you need a tank character – and you often do – that's a full third of your party's functionality tied up. If you need a healer as well, that's another third. That leaves you with one character left to do damage, and that's only if you don't need buffing or debuffing. The game stops being about fighting the monster and starts being about juggling role timings.

Which is admittedly an interesting mechanic. Perhaps not one that stands on its own, but one that could be used as part of a much better game. And a mechanic that simply wouldn't have been uncovered without automating all the boring parts of combat.

So, what's the conclusion to all this?

I've talked about three games that got rid of large parts of their complexity. In the case of SquareLogic, I think it was a clear win. In the case of Gyromancer and FF13, I think it was a bit more dubious as a game, but quite valuable as research. The real lesson is that removing obvious sources of complexity does not always result in a better game, but it does usually result in learning more about your game and finding unexpected deposits of fun deep inside your game's emergent behavior. Even if you don't want to do it in your final release, it may be worth trying it out as an experiment, just to see what you discover.

And that neatly segues into our third entry, in which I'll compare pairs of games to see how differences in complexity layout can result in vastly different gameplay. I'll see you again next time. :)

The Complexity Budget: Anno 2070

2011, December 29th 2:05 PM

I've been spending a lot of time thinking about complexity.

I've also been spending a lot of time playing Anno 2070.

Let's start with Anno 2070.

The game industry is fickle and deadly. Franchises appear out of nowhere, make it big, and instantly fall on their own sword, only to be resurrected in a sort of grisly undead state years later when some publisher realizes they still own the rights. The surviving franchises are either mutated out of recognition within a few years or exploited beyond all sanity. The Anno franchise is an exception. Anno 1602 was released way back in 1998, and it's been followed by four major sequels, two spinoffs, and an expansion pack. Despite this 13-year history, the core game mechanics are unchanged since the very beginning, which makes it absolutely perfect for this discussion.

Unfortunately, I've only played the most recent two games. I'm sure I could say a lot of fascinating things about the entire series of five games, and maybe someday I will, but that's not today. So, instead of talking about the Anno series as a whole, I'm going to talk about the changes between Anno 1404 (known in the US as Dawn of Discovery) and Anno 2070.

Anno is a citybuilding game. There's combat in it, but very little – the core game mechanic is about building a really big city with a whole lot of people and industry. Now, in most games, you'd expect that a city would need a lot of workers in order to run factories and farms. Anno doesn't work that way. Production buildings work whether or not you have people, but they cost money to run. Houses, meanwhile, do only three important things. First, they unlock new technologies and new buildings, based on your population type and your population count. Second, they give you money in taxes, which is needed to keep your cashflow positive and your production functional. Third, they consume the output of those aforementioned production buildings. Playing Anno isn't about balancing Residential, Commercial, and Industrial zones, then watching people move in, it's about building a ton of houses and then trying to keep them fed when they start demanding eighty tons of pasta every minute. And you're the one in charge of the pasta.

(All goods in Anno are measured in tons. This makes perfect sense when talking about wood, coal, or oil, less sense when talking about pasta or glass, and very little sense when talking about diamonds, lobster, or marzipan. You get used to it.)

For a game that's all about production quantities and production chains, Anno 1404 provides very few tools to keep an overview on your industry. In fact, until midway through the game, the only way to count your buildings is to do it manually. To make matters worse, Anno 1404's tech trees can be complicated and interdependent, and figuring out the proper building quantities requires that the player either do a lot of math by hand or use tools.

For example: To run a a wine press at full capacity requires three vineyards, one barrel cooperage, 2/3 of a lumberjack hut, half an iron smelter, half an ore mine, and half a charcoal burner's hut. An Optician's Workshop at full capacity requires 3/4 of a quartz quarry, 3/4 of a copper smelter, 3/4 of a copper mine, and half a charcoal burner's hut. A Redsmith's Workshop requires 1.5 candlemaker's workshops, 2 apiaries, 1.5 hemp plantations, 3/4 of a copper smelter, 3/4 of a copper mine, and 2 charcoal burner's huts. Now: If you want four wine presses, five optician's workshops, and three redsmith's workshops, what buildings do you need?

The answer is "I have no bloody idea, let me alt-tab out to check my Excel spreadsheet".

Even worse than that, however, is the fact that the game doesn't tell you these ratios. I had to look them up. The early tutorial gives you some of the basic ratios – "you will need two hemp plantations for every weaver's hut" – but the complicated stuff has to be determined either by trial and error or by looking it up on a wiki.

Anno 2070's solution to this is . . . incomplete, but an improvement. First, the very first buildings you can construct in Anno 2070 give you access to an easy building-counting station. Apparently they decided that counting buildings manually was boring.

I'm going to pause here, because that last line is the crux of this entire entry. They decided that counting buildings manually was boring. Got a boring mechanic? Take it out! We don't want that here! Every time you get the player to stop doing something that's boring, the player will have more time and more intellect available for things that are interesting. Counting sucks -> get rid of counting.

But they didn't think that calculating building numbers was boring. Now, it's obvious I disagree with this assessment, but I strongly suspect this was an intentional choice of theirs. You can't spend 13 years developing a franchise based around an accidental game mechanic. They also don't seem to think that production numbers are something they need to show. It'd be easy enough for them to do so. As it is, a chunk of the Anno community spends time figuring out the actual production numbers, which the rest of the community embeds into utility programs and the like.

Counting isn't the only interface improvement in Anno 2070. I've mentioned "production buildings", but really there are two important and unique kinds of production buildings – factories and farms. Factories take up a fixed area of land. Farms include a farmhouse, which takes up a small area, and then some number of farm plots – frequently larger than the farmhouse, and always more numerous – which have to be near the farmhouse. Through sheer bulk, the farm plots end up dominating your industry in terms of size, and you spend a good deal of the game time trying to lay out farm plots efficiently.

In Anno 1404, this is somewhat difficult. Farmhouses have a circular zone that you can place plots within, and there's a bit of latitude in how far outside that zone the plots are allowed to go. However, if your farm plots go too far outside the farmhouse radius, they'll produce slightly less efficiently. Remember the mess up there about building production quantities? Imagine if a few of your hemp workshops were running at 90% efficiency. Yeah. You don't want that. To make it even more complicated, some of your farms need to be within range of a water-producing building, which has its own circular radius. To make it even more complicated, you get further bonuses by having overlapping water-producing buildings.

Anno 2070 simplifies things considerably. First, there's no longer such a thing as a water-producing building. Second, while the farm plots still have to be placed nearby, and while the latitude still exists, farm plots placed "close enough" count 100%. Always. You can still be clever and place plots slightly outside the circular range . . . and now that's totally okay! There's no downside! It's just a little extra flexibility you have with placement.

The important thing to realize about complexity is that it's not simply a matter of increasing or reducing complexity. We're not talking about making a decision between Cow Clicker and Paradox Interactive's insane wargame simulators. This is all a matter of moving complexity. I'm going to use the term "complexity budget" – you have only so much space for complexity (both in your game design, and in your poor player's brain) and you have to spend it wisely. Anno 2070 took some of the complexity out of farm placement, which meant they had complexity to spare, which meant they had complexity to spend. And spend it they did!

Anno 1404 has several farm variations. The most common farm is the one that has four 3×4 plots. Later, you find a farm with eight 2×3 plots, as well as the behemoth Cattle Farm that has five 4×4 plots. But that's as weird as it gets – with the exception of the eight 2×3 plot building, every farm has between three and five plots, sized between 3×3 and 4×4.

Anno 2070 goes absolutely insane with farm layouts. Early buildings have a mere two 3×4 plots. The Fruit Plantation has eight 3×3 plots. The Corn Farm requires nine 3×6 plots. 3×6? What the hell is 3×6? And nine of them? Meanwhile, the behemoth Dairy Farm has seven 5×5 plots, making it by far the largest and most irritating structure in the game.

This, right here, is what I mean by the complexity budget. Anno 1404 spent a bunch of complexity on the difficulty of placing farm plots correctly. Anno 2070 threw away that complexity and replaced it with the difficulty of aligning farm plots in efficient patterns. 2070's Dairy Farm would simply be a nightmare to deal with in the world of 1404. With 2070 logic, it's certainly challenging, but it's nowhere near as horrifying as it could be. Moving the complexity out of one area of the game allows you to move it into another area without actually making the game more difficult to deal with – and if you're clever, you've moved it into a more fun location.

2070 moves complexity around in a few other directions as well, though I'm going to go over these quickly. Compared to 1404's Patricians, 2070's Executives are easy to keep happy. The Patricians gain a whopping six new demands at the end of the game, while the Executives only acquire two. But while 1404 has two population types – one complicated type with four stages, one simpler type with two – 2070 has three population types, two with four stages and one with two. The end result is that you spend far less time clawing your way up through the final stage and far more time watching your population upgrade. If 2070's four-stage populations had the complexity of 1404's four-stage population it would just be intimidating.

Finally, 2070 does have a replacement for 1404's water mechanic, but it's a simpler island-wide mechanic. Instead of overlapping circular water radiuses, you can change the ecology of the entire island, anywhere from a polluted hellhole into a glorious green paradise. It's a heavier-weight mechanic – instead of being a little localized effect on certain farms that you can ignore if you don't care, it's something you can and probably will put a significant amount of effort into – but it also has big and, more importantly, predictable results. It's not quite as complicated and minmaxable as 1404's mechanic but it's a lot easier to understand and has simpler ramifications through your supply chain. Anno 2070's water mechanic is made a running theme of the story and set, with a large amount of documentation explaining exactly how it works, while 1404's water mechanic is so undocumented and unintuitive that it's considered by some people to be an exploit – the developers have never fixed it through several major patches and an entire expansion pack.

So. Summary: 2070 takes 1404 and makes incremental improvements to it. They moved complexity out of some mechanics (counting buildings, finicky farm plot placement, water, complex population end requirements) and were able to use that space to add new mechanics (complicated farms, ecology, third population type). The game doesn't feel any more complicated than it did before, but most people seem to feel it's more interesting. Without removing the old things, it may simply have felt overwhelming.

Right now, I think this entry has gone on long enough by far. But we're not done with this subject – oh no, we have quite a lot further to go. We'll be posting more later.

Back in 2010, this game called Rocketbirds Revolution showed up as an Independent Game Festival finalist for Audio and Visual Art, an award it richly deserved. Rocketbirds had a distinctive art style and sound. They did something which is largely unheard of in the game industry – they got an actual band to do their music, and the band's style complements the game's style perfectly. Even past the sound and cutscenes, the developers clearly put an incredible amount of effort into the art, as the entire game is filled with gorgeous backdrops and animations.

More recently, the same developer released Rocketbirds Hardboiled Chicken. R:HC is a remastered version of the original R:R game, with an additional half-dozen levels grafted on the end and a pile of cutscenes. See this intro for an example. It's pretty dang badass. The game is filled with similar cutscenes, and every one of them is enjoyable and stylistic.

The whole contraption didn't quite gel for me.

Rocketbirds has trouble figuring out what it's about. On one front, it's a sidescrolling action game, with plenty of guns and enemies to mow down (see: Shoot Many Robots). On another front, it's a puzzle game – the Hardboiled Chicken spends a surprising amount of time pushing crates around (see: Abe's Oddysee). On a third front, it's an atmospheric game, with a distinctive art style and soundtrack (see: Limbo).

Now, all of these things are totally awesome. Seriously, I'd joyfully play any of the games I just described. The problem is that Rocketbirds didn't have the funding or time to do all of it well.

The action game, for example – the Hardboiled Chicken gains multiple guns as he travels through the game. But almost each one of these guns is just a number increase over the previous weapon. New gun? More damage! Since your enemies are upgrading at the same time, this comes across as just a number treadmill. Bigger gun -> tougher enemy -> back where you started. Worse, the majority of the Hardboiled Chicken combat isn't really about firepower, it's about stuns. Shoot anyone, they're stunned for several seconds. If you're facing a single opponent, here's your strategy: you shoot them, they're paralyzed, they die. If you're facing multiple opponents in one direction, here's your strategy: you shoot them, and hope you manage to hit the guy in back before he fires his weapon. If you're facing opponents on both sides of you, here's your strategy: shoot one, then the other, and keep swapping back and forth to keep them off-balance, and eventually they die.

None of the weapons change this fundamental mechanic. Sure, you get a shotgun which does a ton of damage at close range and almost no damage at long-range, but this just isn't relevant to the combat – it simply means you kill the enemies faster, if they're at close range, and slower if they're at long-range. Or change to a longer-range gun.

The puzzle game includes three major gimmicks: crates can be pushed, doors can be unlocked with keys, and you can take over the minds of your enemies. That latter one has a lot of potential for cool puzzles (again, see Abe's Oddysee), but that potential isn't really exploited. Abe's Oddysee made it a fantastic game mechanic through providing new abilities to each creature type, but in Rocketbirds, the monsters have a strict subset of the protagonist's abilities. Mind control is nothing more than a way to pass through inconvenient walls.

And then there's the plotline. In Rocketbirds Revolution, the plot was thin at best – the Hardboiled Chicken is trapped behind enemy lines and must fight his way out, destroying the bulk of the enemy forces at the same time. In Hardboiled Chicken, this plot was augmented by a pile of stylistic music videos.

The problem is that this doesn't really improve the plotline. I don't want to watch these music videos, I want to play them. They actually look like a lot of fun! Sure, it's not the most innovative plotline, but whatever – it's an action game, I'm fine with that! Instead, though, we're relegated to watching cutscenes that look more interesting than the actual game's plot.

Once you get out of Rocketbirds Revolution, and into Rocketbirds Hardboiled Chicken, everything kicks up a notch. The combat gets a bit more deadly, the puzzles get a little deeper, the plot moves away from cutscenes and into the game itself. But even during this segment, it never quite clicks. The combat is deadly, sure, but it's still not interesting – the game mechanics are unchanged. The puzzles are still mostly restricted to "walk everywhere, then mind-control the guy standing in a place you can't reach". The plot eventually moves to a full assault on the penguin castle followed by chasing the evil leader Putski, who escapes in a rocket, into space.

Which, I'll admit, is pretty neat. It's a step down from the coming-of-age story shown in cutscenes, but it's certainly better than the non-plot provided in the first half of the game.

Then you hit the final boss battle and the combat takes a major step up.

The final boss is actually a really complicated boss fight. It involves the boss, a near-endless swarm of simpler enemies, and – unlike every other battle in the game – takes place across multiple screens. The boss an invulnerable energy shield that he only brings up occasionally, powerups can be requested with some delay, and the terrain is varied enough to make it a significant, though not critical, part of the fight.

It turns out that, given the appropriate battlefield and enemies, Hardboiled Chicken's combat is really good. The final boss suffers from a few problems – you haven't actually been taught many of the tactics you need to use, for example – but overall, that boss is the highlight of the entire game. It's a fast-paced battle requiring you to really know the character and really know the mechanics and it flows better than the entire rest of the game.

Which makes me wonder what the game could have been like if they'd started with those game mechanics, then gone from there.

In the end, that's the most disappointing part. It's clear the designers are able to make really good games – they just, in this case, didn't. I'm not sure it was worth the effort to go back and remaster the original Rocketbirds Revolution. Fact is, Revolution just isn't as good as Hardboiled Chicken – so why spend all those resources on replaying Revolution? Why not make an entire new game, with entire new mechanics, set in the same universe?

In the end, Rocketbirds Hardboiled Chicken feels like a teaser. It's saying, "hey, look, we could have a good game here! We don't, but we could." Which is crazy disappointing . . . but also leaves me optimistic for that developer's future games.

Rocketbirds II, guys. Let's see it.