Relationships in Games

Games have a unique advantage compared to other entertainment mediums that they can have players experience aspects of life. In Pokemon uses the aspect of coming of age, leaving home and learning about the world through your own experience. Some games like Heavy Rain use the aspects of parenthood slightly, where the player is introduced to the aspect of fearing for your child when they loose sight of them.  Then some games dabble with relationships, either with other players or in game characters. My analysis is on what aspects of relationships have not been explored and the impact it have on a player from using in game characters.

                                             Heavy Rain

The impact games have from using aspects of real life…

Some issues with how games implement relationships right now is that they make it very one sided, only have explored 1 or 2 aspects of relationships, sometimes treat getting the characters affection  like a trophy or only an achievement. In most games, the stages of a relationship are obtaining someone’s affection, intimate relations or sex, and dating (I include marriage in this because in some games it is something you can jump straight to). Not that there is no value in a player working to obtain someone’s attention, but it turns getting a relationship into a quest or something that you achieve. That is a poor representation of this aspect of life. How many games have you go out to find a lost item to gain a characters attention, or awkwardly drag them in hand to a location and call it a date. How powerful of a moment could it be for your two characters to find things they have in common and for a stronger bond from it. Or only after trying to get the person’s attention you realize they are not what they seemed. Then the players choice is to shut them down now before it gets to deep or stick with it and hope that its not as bad as it seems.

Why is it always the player doing all the leg work in the game? What if an NPC makes the 1st move and the player has a lot or not investment into the relationship? Can players be put into a position to ask ” Do I give this a chance”, “How can I let them down easy”, or ” I have completely no idea what to do?” Also say the player does reject them, how does that NPC react later in the game, if they are a crucial part of the experience, does this moment make them full of malice, still friends but always wanting more, or do they eventually move on and find someone who shares their same feelings.

I remember the surprise and shock I felt when playing Mass Effect 3 and I walked in one two of my party members being intimate in the ship. I wondered when did this happen, how long has it been going on, how did I miss the signs. All questions we ask when we find out a friend of ours has been secretly or not publicizing their relationship. This aspect of life shows that life is unexpected, and relationships form without your influence or knowledge all of the time.

While some series, like Fable or Skyrim, are known for having a marriage system, the marriage is similar to “a working husband” situation. One stays home to take care of the house and waits for other to come from working, were the player is the one venturing out into the world “working.” Most times the player can venture out into the world as long as they’d like and their spouse would welcome them as if they only left yesterday. Fable III worked in a happiness system that if you neglect your spouse too long you may come home to them cheating on you, some cases getting a divorce, taking half of your home. If your characters had children, they will be taken away by Child Services and removed from the game. What a loss the player could feel at that moment, that their neglect to their spouse or family led to its destruction. Though this does not affect the larger game, its an attempt to hit on aspects of life that the player could understand. Maybe on some level show they player that a marriage and a family require time just like saving the world hero.

Like being in a relationship, rejecting or being rejected, and the heart wrenching break up in the game.

Moments like these makes games not only memorable, but more valuable of an experience . The player can walk away can feel the game delivered more than entertainment to them but a glimpse of what living in the real world entails. Fantasy without reality is nothing but a dream. To marry a character in Fable only to burn down their home village the next day will surely have its consequences and push your spouse away from. Many games are fixated on uplifting the player, and turns gaining someone’s love a mission to accomplish.

As developers of games, I hope to see the medium pushed at what it does best, have the player do things, and not just being a power fantasy, but bring in aspects of real life. Imagine if there was a game you could find out you have a child that you didn’t  know off, raise them as a new single parent who now has to protect a town but also their son or daughter. Or Have to teach them about right and wrong, while your character may have to commit evil acts just to survive. How would it the child grow up, would they become rebellious if you reject them or misguided if you aren’t around enough.  What about a game where your character works to get someones affection, only to be rejected by them at the final moment? Each of these aspects of life and more can create moments for the player adding that extra slice of life towards immersion.

References:
Extra Credits https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyWiGL3Ampg

Fable III http://fable.wikia.com/wiki/Marriage#Fable_III

Mass Effect https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0Pu7pzK28A

The Rush to a Quick Buck

Recently I read an article about monetization, but not for learning about tips and tricks for making revenue in games, but the wrong reasons to monetize your game. Lets be honest we are in the age of the indie developer. People want to work on a game in their garage with their friends, release the next Flappy Bird,  and make a quick buck. They work out a plan for monetizing their product along with designs and start development expecting to make money off their first few games.

There is a fundamental problem with this logic, no truly successful game, was a developers first. Only a handful of studios putting out games expecting to make money and actually do it. I do not claim to be some guru, but anyone can tell you, most mobile games in app stores are not successes or hits. Many of those apps are developed by inexperienced developers who are still working on their craft as developers thinking they can get a quick buck of their game. I am not against people making games, go do it, we need more people in the industry for it to grow. But when you are getting into something (be it a career or a passion) those that become hits are those that do it well.

Especially long lasting hits, come from experienced developers who failed many times. Angry Birds developers,  Rovio Entertainment made over 40 games that were not nearly the hit as Angry Birds was. People can get the wrong idea when all they hear is a small studio made a game that got millions of downloads. They do not hear about the mountain of failed games or prototypes, the energy put into marketing or PR, the search for funding, or the time it took to build a name for the studio. Monetization takes time in development and design for finding out when and how the player may do an In App Purchase (IAP). If you are starting out, take that time to master your craft, as the saying goes “If you are good at something, don’t do it for free” and please get good at it before asking for money.

Designer Empathy: Understand the Fear of Failure

Recently I attended a talk at GDC 2015 by Brandon Dillon from Double Fine Productions about their game “Hack n Slash” , Making It to Break It: Designing Hack ‘n’ Slash. The talk covered their various design elements to have players literally hack the game to progress through it.  I was amazed by one of the few about programming and hacking where you are changing actual code and values in the game.

This blog post isn’t about the talk so much as a statement Brandon made about the users that played his game. You see, the game is not dressed as some techno future computer hacking game, but as fantasy adventure. Heck, the protagonist looks similar to Link. So when Brandon talked about the difference between code savvy adults and non code savvy adults he said

Those familiar to coding went through the game fairly well, eventually confronting challenges even they felt were hard to pass. With those not familiar, once they realized the game was about computer coding and hit a challenging part, they would quit or think they could not go any further.”

They were already predisposed to thinking that I know what I can and can not do, and I can not do coding. Hearing that shocked me, after witnessing how well the hacking is integrated into the game-play as such as the sword for hacking objects, and how the hacking elements are a tools that can be used for multiple solutions. How could anyone not feel they could triumph over the game?

Then he said “That children would get very far in the game. That children’s curious minds haven’t developed the concept of what their limits are. To them anything is possible. They kept experimenting and failing until they succeed. ” This shed some light.

Most children have no coding experience at all, but still felt compelled enough to play through it. What as going on in our adult minds that makes us flee from a game? As a game developer who is familiar with programming, I wanted to get to the bottom of their “fear of failure”. My mission was to find the signs of this fear, and relate to it based on my own experiences. I reflected on memories and examined by emotional state during those moments. For it is one thing to know why, but it’s another to be able to feel  why.

Symptoms for the Fear of failure

1. Unsure about their choices

“I am worried about all the possible ways of me being wrong, I would rather not risk it”

“I am so unsure on the right choice, that the consequences are not worth it”

We have all had these thoughts or feelings pass through us during times of “unsure-ity.” Decision making becomes a life altering event, with the weight of the world on our choice. At times it drives us to pace around a room,  flip-flop between choices,  and stack questions about making  . It does not matter if being in this state was the right path for us or not. What matters as designers is being aware when we are in this state. To recognize the signs in ourselves may help see the signs in those we make games for.

2. Exhibits the thought process of the Fear of Failure

Well I don’t want to mess up, so I will stick to what I know works. And if what I know does not work, I will silently agree that I suck or blame the game. If I do not know anything about what to do in the game, I will simply pass it off to someone else. But I may not ask for help, asking for help is the first sign that I am incompetent, and I don’t want them to think i’m incompetent.

3. “Hiding in my shell”

Fear is the force that pulls us to the back row so we do not stand out. It is the chains that holds our hands from being raised. It is the sinking sensation in our gut that keeps our mouth shut.

This is the  point were I creep closest to shutting down and giving up. My thoughts tell me to run, head for the hills. It is at this point of no return, once players step past this their self esteem is broken. Helping a real person as a friend to repair broken self esteem is hard, doing that through a game is even harder … if you can’t see it coming. Some games have detection of players’ failures and “rubber banding” the game. For those uninformed, its to change the difficulty of the game during game play.

A past experience

Once when I was play testing a mobile application for a hospital with an 11 – year old boy. Me and my team all came out to be a part of the session, which was 6 of us . The boy entered the room, looking down, speaking under his breath meekly. The boy was quite shy and took some time for him to warm up to us during the play test. Even though we only approach him 1 or 2 people at a time, the age difference was enough for him to fear messing up or looking foolish in front of us. No matter how much we smiled and told him okay, his shyness wouldn’t leave him. He was hiding in his shell.

We asked him to play some of his favorite games to at least gather data on what games children like. These were ones he felt  especially proud of his accomplishments. In one game he unlocked some of the hardest to obtain characters, and it gave him confidence to show that off to us. By now he’s more comfortable with us and had so much to share that we ran out of time before he finished. As you may notice, the key is confidence, we gave him a platform to bring his unique accomplishments and be celebrated them.

The solution to getting the boy to warm-up to us was not on purpose. If we thought to be empathetic, be an 11 year old boy for a moment, or when we were shy as a child that change could of happened sooner.  I could of thought “how did I ever get past that shy moment as a kid.” I might remember the moment I was flying an a plane by myself.  I was alone on a 3 hour flight next to two old adults at least 3 times my age. Then I overheard them talking about tv shows, my favorite pass time as a child. We connected to them over anime we all liked and the Simpsons.

Final note: the eyes are the windows to our soul…and how uncomfortable we feel. Use them to notice the signs early.

The never ending story – the game

How about making a never ending a game by constantly creating meaningful goals.

Would it be possible to create a game were the world was conscious to the players actions? In this game, the world reacts to the player differently as the player accomplished their goals, be it quest objectives, story driven, exploration driven,  or maybe even achievement based? With each new reaction, the world would be evolving in a sense. The NPCs would treat the player differently, maps could be reshaped possibly, and the players goal would be related to the changes made to the world.

(Minecraft maps are famously known for their procedural generation, revealing new areas as the player explores further)

Should this world house massive amounts of players or should it hold a handful? If it housed a massive amount, it could be a metaphor for how everyone’s actions  has an effect on the larger picture. If majority of the players make similar choices in the game, the world would respond to it. Like how millions of people rode the bus or carpooled, it would cut down on carbon emission into the atmosphere. Could experiencing these world wide changes in the game from even small choices made make the player feel the impact of their choices? Would they see that every action has a consequence (good or bad) and maybe be able to relate that to their real lives?

So maybe the goals given to these massively online player should relate to how the world evolved (or maybe de-evolved). Would that make the players form factions for certain choices or would it become chaotic impulses for choices made? Should these choices be from completing the goal or simply choices made along the way? Would groups of players have undesirable views on how the world evolved this time? Could the undesirable changes, motivate other players to change that some how?

(MMO’s now a days have Raid events which can shape the story or the world based on who wins in a match)

Would this fun to players? Being a world that is dictated by their choices and other players. A world that recognizes each player, or recognizes all of the players as a group. Reacting to them based on the history of changes to the world. Would players be engaged by having NPCs praise them or despise them for how the world had evolved? In some games just having the world react to the player at all makes it all the more interesting. How many people were excited in GTA when they gained more cops stars and eventually had a city wide man hunt after them. The gradual raising of it all made GTA so good. The thinking was how many more laws do I break until I get cop cars chasing me, then to SWAT teams, then to helicopters, then maybe the military after me?

(The Infamous series is known for having civilians praise the hero or form mobs to attack him if his karma is extremely good or evil)

If the player realizes their choices impact the world, but now which choices, would that make each action a meaningful choice to them? If you knew that stepping ant, would incite an ant hives vengeance upon you, wouldn’t you avoid ant hills then? Could players enjoy an experience while examining each corner for how it may change the games world? I guess on some level, the players need to understand the hidden mechanics on how the world changes. Or even given a small view on a few things they do that affect the world, because then it would be a game about figuring out the game (hmm sounds like a card game called Mao ). There can be motivation in frustrating games, if the player feels they are figuring out the pattern bit by bit.

(Mao, a card game where the first rule is to not tell anyone the rules)

 All in all, can a game like this be created? Would it be possible to make a massively online experience were the structures, entities that inhabit it, or NPCs are being changed after the players achieve some major goal. And what dictates these changes are based on the players choices. All the while having the game react to the players based on the changes made after each evolution of the world. Well after so many questions, the vision of it seems clearer.

Any who thank you for reading this thought piece. Please comment below, if it was random, unfinished, maybe heading in the right direction or just a bunch of malarkey~!

Game Design Question: How can we learn about loading high end models in menus from fighting games?

The question I come to today is what are some ways to design a menu system that displays high end character models, but avoid slow load times (which just kills the menu experience)?

I came to this question while reading an article on dragon inquistion’s menu load times, something I experienced quite often while playing dragon age. I thought to expand this to not just dragon age, but other games I have seen this issue. I can not try to poke holes and see the technical issues in the game, but I could theorize design ways to minimize this. So here are some of the games I noticed with this issue and how they attempted it.

(Here is the video from the article to demonstrate the problem)

Fighting games!

1. Soul Calibur 4

Solution: Preview first!

They used 2d images of their 3d character as a preview, then once a character is selected, all the 3d models ,including alternate costumes, for the character are loaded.

(here is a snipet of Soul Calibur 4’s character selection screen)

In their next installment, soul calibur 5, they simply used stylzed 2d images. I think here would have been a nice place to display their 3d models as in their last title, but I think the 2d images fit the style better. What I mean is they have a moving background that is 3d with a 2d character select and 2d representations of them. I think in this setup, the 2d images seem less static and flat to the user while they are deciding on their fighter (this keeps the flow going into the 3d fighting portion)

2. Street Fighter vs Tekken

Solution: Spinning Cubes!

They had a spining cube replace the character until they loaded. And you would go through each character on a board (as in most fighting games) switching out spinning cube for cube while the announcer said the name of the character you would see. Then eventually the characters would start filling instead of spinning cubes. Once the fighters are loaded up, you might notice you don’t see their whole model. In fact I think to save load times they only loaded the upper half of these models for the character select screen. To be honest you may not even need to see their whole body, just show enough to see their face and shoulders would be enough (especially if the character is turn 45 degree looking off the screen).

Last Thoughts

Looking back at Soul Calibur 4’s approach to this problem, I wondered why Dragon Age had not done the same? Why just leave the player to experience any anguish while they go through their menus?

For a game like Dragon Age Inquisition which uses tarot magic cards to represent characters for loading screens and in its appendix, I wondered why they would not do the same here. I know this could be an issue for time and resources, but I went deeper into the rabbit hole for pros and cons on this one. On one end they could have a characters card show up as a place holder until the 3d models were ready. On the other hand, would the styles be clashing? I started to notice that these highly detailed cards were usually shown in simple backgrounds. I think Bioware did this so nothing would clash with the personality and style in the cards. Who knows maybe, dropping these in a menu with weapons, armor, and character stats would be all to distracting.

So I hope you enjoyed reading my first blog post. And please post any other games you noticed with slow menu load times and how others solved that issue or how you would solve it.