destroy object

game design and fiction. new stuff on tuesdays and thursdays.

Category: non-fiction

GDC: Inspiration and Sore Feet

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Sorry about no updates last week. I’ve got a lot of little posts planned, but instead opted to attended this year’s Game Developers’ Conference. I am better for it, and I didn’t think anyone would mind.

GDC is something that holds this weird mystical energy… an energy that can only be captured by watching this video. You get a vibe that you’re part of something bigger, something about making games a grand, unified conversation, and you get to do so in an industry-facing event that wants you to improve. Needs you to improve to better its own existence. It’s a powerful, summer camp-like feeling, if summer camp ended with you going off and starting your own camp.

With that in mind, I’d like to recap a few of my favourite moments that really encapsulated the experience.

1, Hex Heroes


Alex and I had a chance to play Hex Heroes, a kickstarter-funded project coming to Wii U and Steam. The game is about playing an asymmetrical RTS, one person on a game pad builds buildings and manages resources, and the others play AS the units. The game is really coming along in development, but our experience hanging out with the devs reminded me of something really close-to-the-bone.

They said very little opportunities to play with press presented themselves, but that’s not really the point of GDC. Because GDC is about developers, the opportunity to show your game at GDC Play is a chance to play with devs… a chance to get real feedback on your game (which they said they received a lot of), and to find out how your game plays with people who love play. It framed a lot of our experiences with the rest of the devs and I started accepting looking at every chance to play a new game as a rare and trusting one. What a cool feeling.

2, Giant Cop


I have very often said that I haven’t had “that” VR experience. The one that really sells the medium and actually makes me feel like it is the future that everyone says it is. By and large I haven’t been 100% convinced that everyone can attach to it, but I have played some games that are actually genuinely fun games.

In the Canadian-made Giant Cop you play a literal giant cop and have to actually throw people in jail. With your giant hands. This game nailed everything; the immersion, the tone (hilarious 70s cop show, weird ideas about law enforcement), and the creation of emergent gameplay by applying objects that can be treated with similar rules. (Read this amazing article on Spelunky for more ideas on that. Seriously read it.)

The point is, Giant Cop is at its heart a game. It uses the rules of VR to make an experience that is fun and challenging, one that introduces new rules about searching and challenges you with the skill of throwing. VR is going to be the future, for sure, but we’re going to need more Giant Cops to make it the future of games.

3, The Music of BloodBorne


I can nerd out a little bit, as an audio director, even though I’ve never played the game. The sheer insanity that went into this soundtrack which is, really, meant to drive you insane, is amazing.

To get the score just perfect across 6 different composers and orchestras, the audio directors demanded a limit on the instruments that can be used–a certain number of strings, a certain number of choir voices, a certain number of horns. This is unheard of when coming to hire individual composers, and it gives the score (again, written and performed by a world of people) a sense of coherence. Plus its terrifying. Check out the track above and keep your eyes open for the GDC Vault when it becomes public.

4, The People

In addition to a ton of other positive games and talks, this is a massive reminder that this industry is fuelled by humans, and GREAT humans at that. It is a pleasure to be so internationally connected with people that have the same curse, and to see them in a flurry around the Moscone center. I could go on for quite a while about all the positive elements of being a part of this but you have to go yourself. If you can’t afford to go, you have to watch the talks, and if you can’t afford to take the time to watch the talks, you have to bust ass to get the most out of the game design experience of a world of developers that WANT to help you.

If you do get to go, the easiest way to get the most out of this experience is to walk until you can’t feel your feet anymore. Hence the title, but trust me. It’s worth it.

 

Systems Test: Grinding Here vs. Playing On

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Every now and then I have a question or a theory that can only be solved with a Systems Test. Hope I’m not wrong, because the internet isn’t a place to admit you’re wrong. 

(Note: Last Pokemon post. I’m going to try to keep things to one game a week, but like I mentioned in my first tirade, I couldn’t exactly decide why I was going down this nostalgia trip. At least I had fun, and now I’m enjoying the game again.)

Question: Is it better to grind and level a Pokemon in a single patch of grass, or to just progress forward?

I had an idea it would be better to just progress forward, but I’ve always been a stay-and-grind type, and I really wanted to know the nuts and bolts of which system was better. What I ended up discovering, however, was that I wasn’t even asking the right questions, and I learned a lot more about the sheer depth of the design at work in this game. As you’re reading this, you may discover that you already knew some of the things that I learned, which is fine. I didn’t factor in Trainer fights or the complicated and impossible to research EV training, but the important part for me is that what I found changed how I understand the game’s design, and that’s worth sharing.

Method: I caught two L6 Sandshrews in the first patch of grass right outside of Mt. Moon to pull this off. My goal was to train one of them in that same patch and move on to another with the other.

Data: I won’t report to you my detailed findings, but I started grinding every Pokemon in that bush. The fun thing about scientific analysis in a video game vs. the real world is that you can get a much clearer idea of the reality of the situation from a smaller sample, because, you know, programming. Within about 10 fights (split between low-level Sandshrew and a Wartortle) I started to notice a pattern. Level 12 Rattata: 48 EXP. Level 10 Spearow: 41 EXP. Level 10 Rattata: 40 EXP. Level 8 Spearow: 32 EXP.

FIRST SOLUTION: You gain ~4x the EXP of the level of the Pokemon you’re facing. Problem solved.

This makes perfect sense and, therefore, it is totally logical that playing on with a given Pokemon will grow them faster over time if they’re in patches of grass with higher level monsters. The test was pretty much done. A simple answer to a simple question.

Except the Sandshrews.

New Question: Why are the Sandshrews I’m fighting in this patch of grass paying out more EXP?

Consistently the Sandshrews I was fighting here paid out 6.5x the level, every time. I thought at first this was because I was playing as Sandshrew, but that proved to be wrong testing with other monsters.

New Hypothesis: Blue- or red-specific Pokemon pay out more because… reasons.

Method: The whole thing about Pokemon is that it is designed to ensure that you have plenty of opportunities to interact with the real world, and people in your own life that have the game and make different choices than you. The Cable Club ensures this right off the bat. It makes sense that a game-specific Pokemon would pay out more because of the risk-reward factor: Do I trade this to a friend? Or grind it for even more EXP?

On the other side of the Nugget Bridge there’s a patch of grass in which to find a few Bellsprouts. Also a Blue-specific Pokemon, it makes sense that they too would pay out an increased rate if this hypothesis were true. More testing! Also, First solution was wrong.

New Data: The second patch of grass did not yield EXP consistent with the first test. In the first patch I was getting consistently Lvl x 4 for a fight where I split the fight between 2 monsters. This number did not change if my Sandshrew was level 6 or 16. In the next patch I did the same thing, and was getting consistently 8x the level for a split fight. This is not a simple equation. This is design.

NEW SOLUTION: The patches of grass have SPECIFIC multipliers for EXP. These change from patch to patch.

Think about it: not only is it better to move on from the initial patch you catch a monster in, it’s even better to explore and find better patches. The game is mechanically rewarding you for exploring the world learning  where the best places to train is. This is also in keeping with my last post about how the game rewards engagement with the world… But what about the Bellsprouts?

Turns out they pay out less than average in this bush.

Less.

Again: the blue-specific monster Sandshrew paid out 6.5x lvl in a 4x patch of grass. The blue-specific Bellsprout paid out 6x lvl in an 8x bush. The inconsistencies were starting to grate on me, but whenever I’m doing a design analysis, I try to do the old “seek first to understand” trick. Assume this isn’t a mistake. Why make this choice?

The most consistent explanation with both cases? Misty’s Gym.

Both of these patches of grass are located on either side of a Water Gym. Ground type Pokemon are more likely to die in that fight, so the game shows you that, in this instance, it might be more rewarding to kill these. It might not be the best idea to put one of these in your roster right now. On the flip side, the Bellsprout is more likely to win a fight against the water trainers, so the game lets you know that it is less rewarding to kill these grass-types than it is to take them in, at least at this point in the game. All without saying any of it explicitly.

There is a subconscious teaching at work here that just speaks to the depth of this game, and it’s consistent with my earlier post about this being a game that rewards exploration, and rewards getting lost in the world and paying close attention to your surroundings. If you can notice these things, you might get hints about fights on the horizon, you might learn a little more about how future gyms will pay out.

LESSONS

Everything is a teaching tool in a game. Conversation, EXP, exploration, you name it. There are so many different ways to gently usher your player in the right direction if you just take the time to ask yourself how they can succeed.

Comic by Michael van den Heuvel.

One-Oneing: Pokemon Blue

One-Oneing takes the oft-repeated spatial design analysis of Super Mario Bros. level 1-1 and tries to apply it to the things learned in the opening levels or moments of other games. 

It’s actually amazing how much Pokemon teaches you without directly telling you what to do. This is more amazing considering everything is text based… but it’s how they tell you that matters. The idea of applying the 1-1 analysis strategy to an RPG can get a bit overbearing and literal, but I think that’s part of Pokemon’s entire goal: make you very comfortable with being in the world.

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1. The Naming Sequence

First, you learn about Professor Oak, the world, and the premise of Pokemon if, for some reason, you didn’t know it before booting up the game. You are told explicitly that some people keep them as pets, but others train them for fights. Call back to the opening credits sequence with Jigglypuff doing that gnarly headbutt, and you understand that combat is the name of the game.

You then give you and your nemesis a name (I chose the awkward to pronounce “Grulden” and “Flormp” for my pro- and an- tagonists) and the screen miniaturizes you from your full-body sprite to a one-head-tall isometric child-ball. This makes the world you are a part of seem bigger than it is. Like the world refers to something larger than it shows you. This is important.

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2. Movin’ Around

Your little child-ball comes to life in his room, facing downscreen, his back to an SNES (and a little bit to the right). I think this is an incredibly deliberate and interesting choice. Your character who you named has shrunk down to its in-game representation and is playing a video game, just like you. I’d argue this is here to cement you to your Pallet Town avatar. “Time to go,” the game reminds you. Now you (the player) is no longer playing a video game. Now you’re on an adventure. Now you can start sinking hours in.

Because of the placement of the stairs, to leave the house you have to use all four cardinal directions and get a sense of movement… if you’re feeling ultra daring you can even talk to your mom, using the same interaction model as the SNES. You know pretty much everything you need to know about conversation, interacting with items, secrets, and who you are in this world before you step out of the door.

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3. Prof. Oak

If you’re like me, you ignore everyone talking about Prof. Oak and you mess around in a few other houses and head north into the grass. The game stops you dead in your tracks and asks you:  are you sutured into the game? If the whole “now-you’re-not-in-a-video-game” logic has worked on you, Oak shouting that there are Pokemon in the grass doesn’t come across as tutorial. It’s prefaced with exclamation, with danger, with characterization, and tells you something as it pertains to the safety of your character. It’s the difference between “Press X to pick up sword” and “It’s dangerous to go alone, take this.”

Oak fills you in on everything going on in this world and gives you your starter Pokemon. Flormp comes in and automatically picks the type advantage against it. The game asks you to pay a little closer attention to learn this lesson, and hopes that you pay notice what your nemesis is picking. If you pick Charmander, the water-type counter choice should teach you something. If you pick Bulbasaur, the foil might not be as obvious if you haven’t read the type chart, but the game still sets you up to learn this lesson the hard way if you learn nothing about types before you face Flormp next.

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4. The First Fight

This is where the game teaches you its final major lesson. Flormp lets you know that he wants to battle. Any delusions you had about being one of those people that use your Pokemon as pets quickly disappear. But by now, you know enough about navigating the game systems to survive the battle. The cursor rests naturally on FIGHT, which at the very least will get you through the match. If you’re feeling adventurous, the game lets you learn about how to switch Pokemon, access items, and even run. You will also learn that you can’t run away from some fights and, depending on the outcome of the battle, that you can lose. It’s important that the game lets you lose this one without blacking you out.

This is small potatoes, maybe, but its important to notice how much the game does without changing the core systems between fights. There are no exceptions programmed into the battle system between trainers and regular Pokemon, so there is nothing new to learn about the game between this fight and the next grass sequence.

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5. Grinding

Now the game shows you its most important lesson: you have to be willing to wait to progress. Oak asks you to run an errand and forces you through the grass. If you didn’t get the experience from the first fight, you are bound to eventually with this high repetition of low-level monsters. It feels good to play, and rewards you continuously.

Then, using all of the world-exploration mechanics you learned in the first little batch of houses, you can interact with other people and learn how Pokecenters and Pokemarts work, both of which are incentive to come back after you complete the errand. Once you do come back you can meet a man to teach you about catching Pokemon if you didn’t learn it yourself, and another will teach you about the Cable Club if you haven’t had a friend explain it.

Pokemon rewards you for engaging with it. Consistently, every conversation pays off in quick bursts with information about the game. Everyone in this world is crazy about Pokemon, and everyone is there to tell you about something that helps you. Playing the game in the way the earliest interactions force you play it makes you better at the game. That includes conversation, exploration, and backtracking through tall grass to level up. You learn more, you get stronger, and by the time you’re ready to take on Viridian forest, you can start earning money for performing well.

Lessons

This game is about engagement, and waiting. It teaches you to get in, experience as much as you can, and take your time. Levelling and even conversations are an exercise in waiting… take a look at how often you spam the A button waiting for a conversation to flip or a fight to progress. Look at how long it takes you to load your Pokemon onto the healing bed at the Pokecenter. Everything is about slowing you down and encouraging you to work at the game’s pace, including wading through tall grasses, waiting for trainers to walk over to you, and that all-encompassing dopamine rush on the third shake of the Pokeball. The more you wait for it, the more you take your time with it, the more it rewards you.

On Categorizing Literally Everything

I am currently in the process of writing out a Twine story about cleaning up the apartment of a recently deceased friend. It was brought to my attention by a friend that this may be a slightly more traumatic experience than I had previously assumed, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to do a number of things: design a game, start a blog about game design, and unpack the unfathomable.

As I’m writing this, my first post, I think a lot about the starkness of the theme I chose or the tone I’m trying to write in, right now, for whatever reason. I think it’s okay.

I laboured over a good name, a good theme, and a good identity for a lot of things I’ve done in my life. I think I’ve never started an endeavour without knowing what it is going to be called; I want this to be different. I want this to be a place where I can go. While I know that “Destroy Object” is a bitchin’ name, I think it means a little more to me than just that.

I have the Twine story broken down into categories, like a design document or a vertical slice. There are locations, tangents, lists, items, and anecdotes. They all sit on different rows, which I think is a useful way to make a Twine story. Use the space they provide you to organize your thoughts. Locations, tangents, lists, items, and anecdotes all have different functions, and as I unpack the events themselves, it helps me to see it all there plainly, broken down by category, and stripped to the bones.