Monday, August 29, 2011

Experimenting with Concept Art and Vector Graphics

Recently a friend asked me to do some concept work for a weapons mod he is hoping to sometime release for the sandbox, brick building game Blockland. His idea is to have two competing manufacturers' guns available for players to use. When the focus is on only one aspect of the game, in this case the weapons, there is a more abundant attention to the finer details. So currently there is a semi-huge back story to the universe in which these weapons exist that informs their cultural significance, their meaningful design, and overall context.

My role in this creation process is to basically draw up concept art that the 3D modeler can use as a reference for his work. I decided to try something new and enter the realm of vector graphics, using a wonderful open source program called Inkscape. So far it is rather intuitive to use and fits my needs perfectly; the tools do a serviceable job of letting me use my angular artistic style. I am trying to feel my way through understanding everything that is possible with vector graphics and how they should be properly handled.

The other challenge is learning how to properly draw interesting weapons that look like they function properly. Function is extremely important to providing a sense of realism. I am not at all an expert in guns, but I know some of the basics and am trying to further educate myself in the subject.

Here is a sample of what I am working on. This is a pistol from the cooperation Visage, whose products are focused on both great useability and stylistic looks:

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Note to Self...

...remember that competing in the "Ludum Dare" competition would be an excellent opportunity to create a small, reasonable game with the incentive based motivation of competing with other developers. I have been spending some time over this weekend watching Notch (the man who made Minecraft) work on his entry for the 21st competition over a live stream he is broadcasting. And while his work is definitely some of the most inspirational out there, watching him program fills me with all of the positive emotions I associate with game development. To start from scratch, having to create a simple pseudo 3D game, is really impressive. Anyways, here is a link to the Ludum Dare website for further reference:

Monday, August 15, 2011

On a New Approach to Dialogue Trees

This is concept is based upon what I was talking about earlier in reference to my interest in a radio drama like game. When the player is given only audio to comprehend the game world, what sort of input should they use to interact with it? Though in the end it is probably too simplistic and limiting, I have been considering what this type of game would be like if the player had access to only one button. Though it is not a perfect solution for all interactions, after some thought I have found that it could probably work well for dialogue trees.

When someone is considering what they should say, there is a thought process. They twist and turn through different reasoning, considering different options as their understanding evolves. Based upon what has happened or been said before, their brain processes the next course of action. In an aural game, the player's controllable character's thought process is heard and it is up to the player to determine when to stop thinking and act. One single press of a button accomplishes this. There is a balance to be considered; choosing to act too hastily can lead to a bad decision, but over thinking the solution can also result in bad answer. However some situations will call for strictly quick action, since there is not enough time to completely think everything through. If the systems behind this can become dynamic enough to be satisfying and deep, it could really be an innovative new approach to the rather elementary concept of dialogue trees.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Games are Typically Extremely Social in Nature

In fact, I would argue that games can create some of the most satisfying, encouraging, and constructive social experiences to be had. Put away the connotations of the shut-in playing computer games in a basement for their entire existence; instead, picture a high school football match or a midnight round of Settlers of Catan. These are the games that are coming to my mind when I think about games socially. Even video games, which, thanks to the predominance of single player experiences, have been seen as naturally anti-social (rightfully so), are starting to show their capability as an impressive social platform due in part to the rise of networked play.

I truly do believe that if one's task was to, as easily and non-awkwardly as possible, introduce several strangers to each other, that the best way to warm them up to engaging in social interaction with each other is through some sort of analog game (board game, sport, or folk game). The magic circle breaks pretensions and fears, allowing for the players to work towards a goal either with or against each other in a common universe of understanding.

While the conversational interaction found on an online multiplayer video game server leaves much to be desired for, it is soon to evolve in quality to someday match the depth of conversation found in reality. If computer AI technology slows in its growth, a multiplayer predominate industry, instead of a single player predominate industry, is a very possible, very real, and very bright future. The communities focused on competition and custom content found for many PC games such as Quake and TrackMania will become the norm. And while the audience who grew up on single player experiences of the past three decades will probably have a large resentment for the trend (as they already do now), they will have to realize that, with all of humanity in mind, they are a niche. Single player games will always exist, but soon they will no longer be as common and widespread as they are now.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Brief Analysis: Mass Effect

With the passing of the most recent Steam summer sale I have been left with an intimidating backlog, and one of the games on that list that I am currently trying to knock out is Bioware's space RPG; Mass Effect. The concept of the game is appealing to me; a heavy science fiction atmosphere, action RPG gameplay, and a large universe to explore. Back when the game came out in 2007 it was met with critical praise and admiration, especially for its approach to narrative.

I am now playing the game four years later and I am a little confused as to why the game was given such high regard. I have not yet finished the experience, so maybe some of my notes make less of an impact when the experience is taken as a whole (which is often the case for a game that focuses heavily on story). Currently I am playing in hour to hour an a half intervals, since I can only play so much until I get disgruntled by some element of the game and outright quit.

The single most infuriating part of the game design is by far the overly simplistic and uninteresting dialogue wheel component. There are two major issues with how it functions. First, the "good", "neutral", and "bad" selections are always obvious due both to how they are written, but also due to where on the wheel they are placed. This really trivializes any attempts the developers make to have the player's conversational interactions meaningful or interesting. Second, the player's character, Commander Shepherd, will always paraphrase the responses chosen by the player on the dialogue wheel. So, for example, I select for Shepherd to say, "Get out of here! I'll handle this situation." But what he actually says in the game is phrased so differently from this at times that it gains new connotations and sometimes even causes something to happen completely contrary to what the player was hoping for. Unpredictable, random, and even unfair results from player decisions are not bad, in fact, they should be encouraged, but when the player chooses to specifically do something, that thing should happen. Does Mario only sometimes jump when I press the jump button and other times run? No, because in such an unstable system as such the player's ability to make meaningful decisions is hindered greatly.

Most of the dialogue falls flat from just being personality-less and at times unbearably formulaic. While the game must certainly have an extremely large script, taking into account such things as NPCs, quest events, mid-battle chatter, mid-elevator chatter (I am not going to go into technical issues in this analysis since they are more a failure of the early UE3 and the game's first in a series status than bad game design decisions on Bioware's part), and codex entries, there should be plans to approach such ambition properly. The dialogue's inability affects the story and characters, making them harder to immerse in.

And finally, the shooting is just bad and the inventory is unnecessarily tedious to operate. These points I am too lazy to elaborate on.

The sound design, and in particular, the soundtrack, are fantastic however. The synthesized electronic music that features throughout the entirety of the game is both atmospheric and unique. One of  the better moments of the game is just simply pressing "start" on the front menu. A crisp image of earth fills the screen, and when the player presses start a beautiful electronic note chimes as the camera pans to deep space and fades into the menu.

I also like where some of the art direction tries to go. The alien races, while most are humanoid, aren't as embarrassingly dull as the near human races found in other science fiction series (Star Trek in particular is the main offended I am afraid). The environments and the objects within are also pleasant designs, mostly playing off of the clean, white future promised by Apple.

Though I was at first surprised and upset that I had united with my whole party very early into the game, looking back I think it was an interesting and risky move on Bioware's behalf. What if the JRPG tradition of acquiring new party members along the long journey was put aside for a static cast of characters who would all get equal development and screen time thanks to being introduced all in the beginning? Game designers and their games need to be far more open to this breed of subversion.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Quick Thought From the Dark Depths of My Mind

Since my schedule specifically dictates that I am to be heading to sleep within the next forty minutes, I have decided to make a quick post sharing what is perhaps a whiny and petty thought.

But a thought none the less, right?

What should be the proper way to discuss a game experience with another person, whether they participated in the game or not? Does there exist an adequate vocabulary to share these experiences or is there current dialog just lacking in depth? A lot of times I struggle to listen to other people, friends and what not, talk about their times playing games such as Call of Duty. It can sometimes be painful, even for someone like me who has a deep interest in games and the sorts of stories that come out of them. Is it because most modern video games rely heavily on space, which due to its very nature is hard to put into words? What about how people verbally communicate the happenings of competitive games, such as sports, chess, or Star Craft? Should gamers and game designers look to these communities to see what terms have developed and perhaps borrow a few?

Or maybe I am just sick of Call of Duty...

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Human Imagination as the Magic Missing from Major Video Games

Today's post will be a quickie as I talk about some of my thoughts that have led to me formulating an interesting game design concept.

There is an aspect to literature that I believe to be the most beautiful of all. And it is this; each reader develops in their mind their own picture of the fiction, of the characters and universe described. Mere words craft in to being a vivid and personal vision. Every person will imagine a character in their own unique way, based upon the connotations they associate with certain words and their personal experiences with similar imagery. It is magical in the same sense that dreams are magical.

So recently my thoughts have been directed towards bringing this same magic to games and it very quickly (as in 5 seconds quickly) came to me that this very magic had been in use for games since the beginning of history. Particularly, the human imagination had been used in five specific ways:

1. Physical games and board games have always been using imagination to turn a playground's sand into lava and the king piece of a chess board into a living figure of royalty.

2. Early text adventure computer games and their modern incarnation, interactive fiction, use words too draw images in the same way as literature.

3. Video games found on simple hardware capable of only low resolution graphics (ex. Atari 2600) required the player to look at 14 pixels and say, "Hey look! That's ET."

4. Mods for video games will use the assets of the parent game to represent entirely different items or objects. Usually this is done when the mod developer doesn't have the resources to create their own assets to import into the game or when they can't import their own resources into the game. For instance, look at how much of the more scripted community content for Garry's Mod uses default Half-Life 2 assets to represent other objects which they are not.

5. Finally, I'll end with the method I currently have an interest in (since, from what I have seen, it is the least used of all these approaches to evoking emotion); audio only games. Currently there are only two deeply communicative output types that video games utilize; the screen and the speakers (yes, rumble and smell-a-vision also exist, but do not have the fidelity of the two major output methods). I imagine these games relating to radio dramas in much the same way as the text adventures relate to books. I personally only know of two games that use this concept, so I have an interest in developing it further, despite the fact that it might not seem all that progressive.

(The title might seem misleading, but it makes clear very briefly a point I would like to get across.)

Monday, August 8, 2011

So I Have Noticed I Am Terrible at Posting Regularly...

This blog is for my benefit. I become a better writer by contributing to it because it counts as experience. I become a better designer since it requires me to transfer my abstract ideas into words, making them some sort of reality; not a playable reality, but a reality none the less. I gain a heightened sense of accountability, of responsibility, to make sure that my thoughts are of some sort of higher caliber because I am posting them on the Internet in a place where the public can potentially judge them, even though at this moment in time I am almost certain no poor soul has had to wade through all of my tripe.

So to ignore this blog for around a months time (what happened? I don't even know, unfortunately) is really hurting me and my future. But whateves! Right? Wrong! I'm going to try once again to keep myself working hard to write regularly, and this time I am going to try doing this not in the middle of the summer, but in the middle of school. It is actually uncertain whether or not this or boost productivity; it will be fascinating to see.

Everything learned about game development between this post and the previous one is conveniently listed below:

1. Cloning Tic-Tac-Toe is not fun, and regardless of how easy it is to do, it does not inspire one to build an acceptable interface around its system.

2. Avoid any RPG Maker program like the plague. I remembered having fun with these tools in middle school and now, as an older, wiser designer I see that they do nothing but inspire uninspiredness. Strangely enough, they are dangerously simple.

3. Tools, tools, tools. I made an entire sokoban engine, but then discarded it since I wasn't willing (and probably not able) to create the proper level design tools. It will be great, intuitive tools that will save this industry from spending 200 million dollars to produce a game.

4. Are you starting a project by first creating character sprites or drawing the tileset for the second world? Yeah, that project isn't going to ever be finished, thought I'd let you know ahead of time.

5. Working with other people, even one other person, makes all the difference in the world. There is no shame to be had in looking for support in a team.

6. Live, networked playtesting on a server for single player content is an amazing approach to getting player feedback. A buddy and I did this for a small platformer build in a game called Blockland (I will write up a post about this game someday).

Here is to the hope that I might deliver my next post within a weeks time!