Sunday, September 4, 2011

Movin' On Down to the Dino-Farm

In my efforts to combine... well, my efforts, I've decided to consolidate my video-game blogging.  Please stay tuned to http://www.dinofarmgames.com for future updates from me.  In the short run, anyway, I'll be writing my game design articles up there instead of here.  See you there!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Games and Music

People who were raised with digital games as their primary source of games (I'm definitely one of them) grow up to essentially assume that games have music.  The mid 80s to early 90s boom of wonderful, memorable game music only solidified this impression.  The melodies from Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda are probably just as famous as the games themselves.

But is it actually kind of a weird thing that we expect games to have music?

What if toys came with music?  How would that make us feel?  Or board games?  What if you unboxed Chess to play a game with your girlfriend, and all of the sudden it starts playing some song you never heard before.  Maybe you'd be excited, and say something like "whoa, cool!  There's music!"  But if all board games came with music, I suspect your reaction would be more of an annoyance.  What if you already had music on?  Or the TV?

These days, more and more digital gaming is taking place on portable devices such as smartphones and tablets.  With these devices, it's all the more likely that users will probably not want music coming out of the device.  They're on a crowded bus, they're watching TV, they're listening to music of their own.

With 100 Rogues, one of the very first complaints we got was that the game didn't allow users to play their own music while the game was running.  As composers, our first reaction was "but... we worked hard on our music!"  Of course, we understood and patched in the feature as soon as possible, but it did make us a little sad.

For Auro, we're discussing whether or not to include gameplay music.  At the end of the day, a big factor in whether or not we'll include music in our games is the fact that we just want to compose and publish our music for people to hear. 

As long as it's easy to turn off, adding music to your game definitely isn't a problem, and some people will even really like it.  However, we should not assume that video games need music any more than any other type of game.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

"Leveling Up" - Game-Balancing Made Near-Impossible

"Leveling Up" - it's the first check-box on the modern checklist-game-designers lists' everywhere! Because every game's gotta let the player Level Up, right? What could be the harm in that? Numbers are increasing!

That seems to be the thought process for designers these days, anyway. What was the last game that came out that you can honestly say had no sort of "leveling up"? Depending on how you define it, a commercial game with absolutely no "numbers are increasing" feature just won't get made these days. Some popular games, like Pokemon and Farmville, are almost nothing but leveling up. Now, I have massive problems with those games - don't get me wrong - but they are not what I'm here to complain about today (I haven't written about Farmville yet... I suppose because I feel that anyone can see what's wrong with Farmville; I almost believe that the creators and everyone who plays it already knows how much it sucks but they simply don't care). Today, I'm going to talk about the problems with adding Leveling Up into a game.

The most common example is in an action RPG of some sort, especially one that has a real-time combat system. Obviously, the player starts off with low player-skill at the game, but as he plays, he improves. Therefore, as the game goes on, the difficulty of the game should ramp up so that it's always providing the player with a challenge. However, there's also some sort of leveling-up system, meaning that the character is actually getting stronger. This, of course, makes the game get easier over time. As you can see, we have two elements working against each other in this extremely common model.

Another clear example would be sports games. If you have a sports game, you generally want to be pitted against more and more difficult teams as you play, because you're getting better, so you need tougher challenges. However, many sports games these days add "leveling up" on top, meaning that your actual players are getting better from match to match. If your players are actually getting better, then that means the game is getting easier to some extent. So, now if we still want the game to be getting harder, we have to make it even harder than originally planned to make up for the player's leveling-up.

So, I hope that it's clear how in a skill-based game, having leveling-up is really out of place, and thus it makes your game much harder to balance. Assuming your leveling-up system is at all non-linear (which it really should be), it becomes impossible to track where your player will be in terms of his core-stats, and therefore impossible to balance the game appropriately. Combine with this the fact that most digital games are probably too inherently complex to begin with and we have a recipe for the current status of digital games: perpetual imbalance.

Our games should not be fighting against themselves like this. When designing a game, we must decide what it's about, and stick to it. Is it a game about timing, accuracy, and twitch skill? If so, how does a leveling up system compliment that? I am not saying, by the way, that an action game cannot introduce new mechanisms to the player as he goes, in the form of new enemies, new weapons, new environments. These are all great ways to increase the difficulty that force the player to increase his own skill.

So where would you want a "leveling up" system? Firstly, I think that we need to re-examine what "leveling up" means. The most common type of leveling up causes most or all of your stats to simply increase. As this does not at all change the options This is the most useless form of leveling up that has no place in any game, as far as I can figure. Good games are about making interesting decisions. If leveling up is not interesting, then it has no place in a good game, because it doesn't have anything to do with making interesting decisions. This is a big factor in why games like Pokemon and Farmville are mostly just grinds - they're just about increasing the numbers.

One possible way to have a leveling up system that would work in an Action RPG would be to offer the player some new verbs that come with distinct upsides and down-sides. Obtaining a new weapon, or tool, for instance. Perhaps each weapon you can equip has a strong upside and downside, and you can only equip one at a time. This means that it changes the decisions you have to make dramatically, but it still does offer some new mechanisms or strategies.

The main thing that's important is that our game designs are not fighting against themselves from the inside, but we also don't want needless complexity in games. If your character's health is scaling upward regularly, but enemy damage is also scaling up, then you can just cut that whole system entirely out. A big part of game design is finding those sorts of things which cancel each other out, and remove them.

Finally - I know that all of the game designers reading this are still going to want to put leveling up in all their games. I just want everyone to recognize that not all games need it, and that if you do use it, use it wisely in a way that increases strategic depth.