Archive forGame Dev

The Road Ahead

Well, it’s been a while since I posted here.   A long while.  There’s a mess of reasons for that, some of which I’d like to rant about but shouldn’t, and some I don’t want to rant about but probably should.  Ah well.

To start with, I finally got some real “vacation time”.  It doesn’t feel like much of a vacation since I still have a little web work to finish off, but I don’t care that much right now, the web work will be finished off soon enough.  Technically, it’s not a vacation, but for a little while, it is.

The vacation time comes at a bit of a cost- My parents and I are taking care of my Grandmother for a bit.  For a “Bit” I mean indefinitely- she has Dementia.  It’s not quite as bad as Alzheimer’s, but it’s amazingly frustrating at times and sad to see her start to deteriorate in general.  The last month or so she was staying with us at our place, but being away from her house was very stressful to her.   So, that means we’re out here, on the family property, in the middle of a tick, mosquito, and chigger infested woodland, miles away from town.

The greatest peril out here isn’t the parasites, but rather, the fact that the American “deep south” has some really funny ideas on “high speed internet”.  The last time I was here, two years ago, I saw several signs advertizing high speed 56k dial-up.  No, that’s not a joke…  It’s just the grim reality of how technology isn’t distributed anywhere near equally.  So far the best data throughput rates I’ve seen here have been off my Sprint phone on the 4gLTE towers in town, but out here I’m down to 1.5 bars of the Verizon 3g antenna by that our mobile hotspot picks up, and it has a 10gb/month data limit that is woefully inadequate for life’s needs.  At least I have it, tho’.  I’d be sunk without it.  (I have to go into town to download my anime, tho’.  Yay to sprint having unlimited data plans and 4gLTE networks)

The situation isn’t all that bad, despite the blood and flesh sucking insect-life and near-total internet disconnection, life continues on.  My day job, the family computer business, has been passed off to the son of a family friend, who, hopefully, will make it his own.  While I help my parents out by being around to keep an eye out for Grandmother when they need time for various tasks, I’m getting the opportunity to sit down and do what I’ve always wanted to do – work on my game development work.

For the moment, I’m choosing to focus on HTML 5 Canvas.  It’s an interesting technology, closest to the Flash AS3 scripting that I had started to learn, and with some of the numbers I’ve seen recently, seems to have enough market penetration to be counted upon as a mainstream platform, and there are various “middlewares” which are basically a fake-app wrapper for an HTML/Javascript “app” that can be used to deploy them as an “App” to the various smartphone/tablets.   They’re no native app,  but I expect that for certain kinds of game- the oldschool indy 2D RPGs and 2D platformers, for example, that they’ll be satisfactory.

Past that, I wish I had much of a clue what to do.  I’m so used to my plans failing or being rejected/preempted that I feel like I should just do something, and plan once I’ve begun to learn what my capabilities are.

On the fun side of things, for the next few weeks I’ll be blasting through my gaming backlog.  I’ve got this huge list of things I’ve wanted to do, but held off on for various reasons.  (Mostly to keep myself from retreating into escapism as a solution to depression.)

While it’s not to the level of a plan, some things I’d like to try to get finished in the coming week or two, amidst the gaming:

  • Polish off the website I’ve been working on the last five months- the one bit of work I couldn’t leave behind.  It’s almost done, just waiting on the client to do some content authoring before I make a few minor tweaks to it’s template code.
  • Finish working on my new Forum Avatar. (It’s coming along nicely!)
  • Get a few postable practice works of either sketchbook art or html 5 canvas practice.

I think the above seems realistic enough.

On the gaming side of things, my gaming backlog that I hope to whittle away at over the next 5 months looks like this:

  • Valkyria Chronicles – My replacement PS3 came in before I left, so I’m in the process of re-clearing Valkyria Chronicles in it’s entirety.  I hate losing saves to dead consoles.  Also, because this is one of the most beautiful games of its generation.
  • Ys Celceta – Would you believe I own a copy of every version of Ys 4 except the SNES version, and I’ve never beaten any of them?  Hopefully the English Vita version will fare better.
  • Valkyrie Profile 2 – I found an undub copy of this that I hope to get emulated.  I never did finish my english copy of this game, I stalled out at the sudden difficulty spike that was the Volcano.
  • Fate/Extra – I’m stalled out on Week 3.  Just haven’t gotten around to it.
  • Tactics Ogre: Wheel of Fortune – Halfway through the lawful route, just haven’t gotten around to finishing it off before using the wheel of fortune system to skip back and do Chaotic and Neutral routes.
  • Minecraft: Resonant Rise Modpack – I put minecraft off shortly after the FTVcraft server went down, but really wanted to try this modpack out.  Finally getting a chance to now that I’m no longer afraid of losing myself to escapism.
  • Gnomoria – Because Dwarf Fortress needs a real GUI.
  • Ys Origin – If I manage to finish off all the others.
  • Probably some others I’m forgetting about.

I may have to curtail the gaming again if I find myself relaxing a little too much.  The next few weeks are “Time off” to clear my head, but after that… I’m going to have to be a little more strict with time.  Ah well.  This has gotten a bit ramble-y.  I just wanted to make a blog post again, for the first time in forever.

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FTVcraft, CNC Milling, illness, and so on.

Well, it’s been a little while.

Since I’m sort of drawing a blank on what I’ve mentioned here vs what I’ve mentioned in the “What are you doing?” thread, I’m living out the misadventure filled life of a bachelor since my family is out on a long vacation and left me as housesitter.

Naturally, I got sick while they’re gone and there’s a ton of work to do.  I’m over it at this point, but it was ill timed.

Fortunately, most of the really bad stuff is dealt with, but while it was going I didn’t really feel up to writing.

The first and coolest thing I have to ramble about is how fun the FTVcraft server is!  Nioki’s got a nice server going, and we all have interesting bases! ^_^  Minecraft is one of the best ways to kill time when you’re sick or stressed.  Daft and I are sharing the spawnpoint base and it’s turning out pretty nice.  He’s mastered Industrial Craft 2 power distribution and Minefactory Reloaded mob farming, while I’ve been all over the place with automation, storage and power production.  (We have a trio of 36 HP boilers that take a lot of work to max out)  Wedora makes a cool neighbor, too!

Modded minecraft is a strange thing, there are things I like about it and dislike about it at the same time.  Every mod has it’s own distinct “feeling” and every player will find it different, either liking it, disliking it, or indifferently regarding it.  For example, I don’t see much of a point in railcraft, but I loved the now(?) defunct Zeppelin mod, and Applied Energistics is one of those “I can never live without this mod ever again” mods.

Eventually I want to create a mod, but for now that remains little more than an idea that takes a back seat due to other priorities and just an unrealistic obstacle of Mojang not working on the Mod API at all.  (The Mod API might as well share a subtitle with a certain scabbard: “All is a distant dream”.)

This past Wednesday I ended up missing a milestone meeting for the mechanism I’m designing for someone.  I was on track when an accident trashed one of the screws on the CNC machine and my chances of making it on time both.  Trying to work out a recovery plan will be awkward.  The pressure is off for the immediate short term as they know what happened, but I still want to try to blitz that job to completion.

Working out a plan of attack has been interesting.  While fixing the screw will be easy, I’ve discovered I can actually do most of the work by hand, needing the CNC for only a very small, specific application I might even be able to do by hand if I come up with the right jig.  Given that the CNC machine has had difficulty milling plastic- The NEMA-17 steppers it has aren’t fast enough to move at the speed needed to properly cut the plastic- I will probably fix it then try to do as much as I can by hand rather than fiddle and futz with the machine.

This week’s primary task will be getting the equipment needed out of the garage and trying to re-learn basic carpentry.  This involves a lot of cleaning and organizing before I can even get the power tools online.

If I can get through this, then the last major obstacle to resuming work on my practice game is cleared, and from then it just becomes a matter of carving out enough uninterrupted time to work on it.  I’m especially looking forward to getting back to it thanks to a programming concept Daft introduced me to while working with Computercraft turtles, and something else I discovered a really cool website that visually displays the various popular methods of AI Pathfinding.  The pathfinding one is really significant since it represents one of the more intimidating and often under-developed parts of game design.

On the other hand… I still have a bunch of work to do.  Ah well.

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Random vs Luck: A Goal inspired by nethack

(And the template I was using didn’t have bullets.  amazing.  I think this one might be a better choice.)

Life is going better.  It’s got some up and down, but I’m back to coding.  This has me back to thinking about game design theory stuff.

One that’s been a discussion point more than a few times with a bunch of my friends is randomization as part of the gaming experience.

I like many others cannot begin to count the sheer number of times that I have been screwed by the random number gods.  It’s almost without saying that any time randomization enters the picture in a game, it becomes a luck based outcome.  If it’s an RPG, simulation or strategy game of some sort, you encounter the worst monster possible or a 99% chance to hit misses.  If it’s a platformer game or shooter, as you approach the edge of the screen a dispenser that has a random timer between shots will always choose the perfect moment to hit you, as if sniping.

In this sense, Randomness is effectively a synonym for luck.  But I don’t think it has to be this way, I think it just ends up this way out of both sloppiness and carelessness.  To demonstrate what I mean, I almost have to switch gears for a lengthy lead in:

One of the strongest traits I think a game can possess is uniqueness.  Each game should be a new experience of some form, or there really wasn’t much point to it.  Usually you only get this experience once per game, and everything is the same the next time you start the game, making a second play of the game a mere test of memory.

Making the same game give that new and unique feel more than once is an ambitious task, generally accomplished by either multiple difficulty settings, picking a different character, branching stories where each branch has a different ending, the player using self imposed challenges, having a competitive multiplayer feature, or randomized content.

While most choose to implement one or two of those, Randomized content is relatively uncommon – it’s easier to build more than one scenario than it is to build rules to make a multitude of scenarios by throwing dice.  One kind of game that embraces the challenge of creating random scenarios is a very specific subgenre of RPG: the Roguelike.   Many games will randomize to some extent – RPGs are fundamentally based on the dice rolling mechanisms of tabletop Roleplays, but roguelikes take it a step farther than most.

For those unfamiliar with the genre, it is characterized by being like the 1980 game Rogue, a text based dungeon crawler heavily influenced by Dungeons & Dragons, notorious for a learning curve that few games can match.  The game begins with you being dumped unceremoniously in the entrance to a dungeon either wearing crude, borderline useless gear or stark naked.  The dungeon is randomly generated and your goal is generally to get to the bottom/top.   Once there you might have to retrieve an item for someone or kill a god, and your journey is marked by many deaths along the way.  (While not a “pure roguelike”, a modern roguelike fused with arcade beat’em up action would be the Diablo franchise.)

And while your journey features many deaths, there’s a bit of a sting to it: Roguelikes generally feature permadeath, meaning once your character dies, that’s it.  Reroll and start from scratch.  Because the game is random, you are forced to memorize not a dungeon map, but to memorize the bestiary, develop strategies, and learn techniques for survival.

The roguelike became popular with a niche because it was skill rewarding.  If you learned, and played it carefully, you were rewarded by further progress.  If you were impatient and careless you were probably going to destroy your keyboard in frustration from having to start all over.

My introduction to the genre came years ago with Castle of the Winds, on a then relatively new 386, and it took a while for me to figure out that Castle of the Winds was not the same kind of RPG as Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy.  (It was the traps and the D&D style  that always got my young and inexperienced self.)

More tame than most roguelikes, Castle of the Winds had rich graphics for the time, was relatively simple by roguelike standards, and did not permanently erase your save if you died, allowing you to roll back from a mistake.  Give it a shot if you’re curious about the genre- the author switched it from shareware to freeware some years after it had become irrelevant, and it should be easy to find a full copy for download.  (His personal webpage disappeared in a server crash late last year, it was available for DL there)   It doesn’t work under x64 versions of windows, but should run fine in compatibility mode under any 32 bit version of windows.  (WinXP in a VM is great for this.)

At the opposite end of the spectrum are intimidating monster games like Nethack.  Nethack is the epitome of Learning Cliff.  Hack was a follow up to Rogue very early on, and development was picked up and it was renamed “Nethack” long before the internet even became popular.  Nethack is still maintained and widely ported to this day as an open source software project.  It’s one of those games you almost have to play once, just to understand what the fuss is about.    There are also graphical mods and remakes available, such as Vulture or just “tileset” versions that are the same Text interface with 8-bit tiles layered overtop.

To get a grip for what I mean by “learning cliff”, some examples:

  • you can write magic words in the floor with everything from writing in dust with your finger, using ink or blood with a pen, or using a hammer and chisel.  These magic words have to be learned by simply finding the writings of previous adventurers on the floor and guessing what the missing letters are, as letters fade with time.  These words are located semi randomly (random chance to find them in certain areas) and you almost have to learn the entire dictionary of magic to beat the game.
    (Edit: Apparently, I might be mixing up games.  I went looking at spoilers last night and either I’m not looking at the right spoiler, or only one engraved word has a magic effect.)
  • Status ailments can be cured through a multitude of ways, some ingenious, some obvious.  The most simple being to pray to your god.
  • I might be remembering another roguelike and not nethack, but I believe it’s nethack where if you pick up a basilisk corpse with your bare hands you will turn to stone.  At the same time, you can also put on gloves, pick up the corpse and use it as a flail.  It petrifies your gloves, but you now instantly petrify any enemy you hit!  Enjoy your collection of dragon statues you can’t loot!
  • A mid game tactic is to leverage different kinds of magic against your junk items to transform them into different items altogether.

And that’s just some highlights. The other side of the game is actually kind of odd: Nethack is fun to lose.  There are so many ways to die in Nethack that you will rarely die the same way twice.  Some are comical, some are not, my favorite tale of woe comes from the time I triggered a cursed treasure chest in a shop, was blinded, tripped over a boobytrapped chest which exploded, injuring a level 25 shopkeeper who upon being damaged, promptly crushed me in one hit.  (There was a little more to the domino effect, but I was laughing so hard that only those highlights stuck in memory.)

My experience with Nethack is why I believe procedurally generated (read: random) content extends a game’s longevity.  You will find many posts all over the internet from people who have been playing nethack for years but “just recently X years later beat it”.  (I saw one blog post where a guy said “20 years later, I finally beat nethack”)

However, roguelikes are a curious mix of random and luck.  While being completely random, they aren’t as luck based as you would think – usually the right knowledge, patience, and methodical play will minimize the luck component.  While you explore and learn, your early runs are  mostly luck based, but as you die and learn ways to defeat and overcome the random number god, the randomization itself keeps the game feeling new, exposing you to a mix of old and new challenges even though you’re on your umpteenth dozen run.

That form of random content inspires me.  While I don’t believe most roguelike mechanisms “as is” are fit for mainstream gaming (I fully recognize most people don’t have the patience for the more hardcore roguelikes), I love the goal of a game creating it’s own balanced content to make replays fun.  I also like the idea of people “learning how to survive” and being exposed to new and different challenges instead of “memorizing the game that never changes.”

Another place where modern gaming has worked to mitigate the luck part of randomness comes from leveraging statistics to normalize your dice rolls.  Under a normalization scheme, a time unit is chosen and used to guarantee quoted chances.  If you have a 20% chance to crit, and attack 30 times a minute, 6 attacks per minute will crit as an enforced chance.  This can be accomplished a number of ways, and it takes away from the feeling of being cheated by random chance – the enforcement of statistics makes you do exactly the damage you expected to.

Statistical normalization is not a new concept.  Some tabletop roleplayers, convinced the dice are really out to get them, who always roll too low to accomplish anything, will replace their dice for a deck of cards or a bowl of numbers.   The idea is simple.  A deck of 52 cards is effectively a 12 sided dice with an equal number of chances for each result.  There are only 4 chances to roll a 1, equal to the number of chances to roll a 12.  You will accomplish the exact same statistical average as with dice, but where dice are random, there is a predictable pattern – the same pattern that blackjack players use.  You can count cards and make realistic risk assessment.  No more 1’s in the stack?  You can take more risks, etc.

I can’t help but think there must be some way to unify randomization and skill to create a randomly generated game that doesn’t really require luck.  Perhaps this is just a naive goal, but this is something I intend to work on and flesh out as I work through projects.  Again, I think that “new” and “unique” feeling that each game has on the first playthrough is important.  I’m down for an achievement run as much as the next guy, but if a game can keep showing me something new, it’s good.

Sadly, everything I’m working on right now is static.  I’m working with baby steps while I ponder carefully over long periods of time and I hope the time will give me a chance to arrive closer at some ideas to achieve that goal.

If nothing else, I need more time to learn how to use Randomization in general.  After all, Random is something that has to be done well – if your random pool is too small and gives predictable results…  It really isn’t random anymore, is it?

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My code works, I have no idea why.

So, I almost missed blogging this week because I’ve been working on a proof of concept engine.  Put a 8 hour gap between these two images and you pretty much have my Sunday:

This isn’t entirely true.  I understand most of what’s going on, although I don’t have as much understanding of Flash’s layering process as I think I need.  (I spent an hour trying to figure out why something wasn’t working.)

My project at the moment is creating a basic S/RPG in Flash.  It’s a fairly simple project, but it’s giving me a good way to test a bunch of different concepts that will hopefully make other projects easier.  XML map parsing and stage scrolling is the biggest one.  I was pleasantly surprised to see how easy that was.

Experimenting like this is really fun.  Right now I’m using square tiles.  When I get this working, I’m planning on duplicating my codebase and converting into a hex map.  Drawing the hex map will be easy, but then converting the movement logic could be difficult.   I actually intended to start with hexes, but I decided to start with something a little closer to what I know.

That said, what I know is kind of diminutive.  My only real finished “game” to my name is a Battleship game I created for my C++ class final just over a year ago.  When C++ class started, I was trying to write Tetris in AS3 from a mixture of what I already knew and tutorials.  I basically finished Tetris, but I shelved it to devote full time to class and never got back to it.  I only had block removal left, and I have no idea where the code is today or I’d finish it just to say it’s finished.  I think it’s sitting on the Linux 2.5″ HD that used to be in my laptop.

So, coding a little S/RPG will be a good project.  At the moment it’s borrowing assets from another game and doesn’t actually have any gameplay or I’d post a link.  I plan on trying to finish core gameplay before I draw any original assets of my own, just as I don’t want to derail myself.

I’m torn on time management, as well.  I still have several major projects floating around I need to get finished.

I mentioned it in the “What are you doing?” thread, but I partially escaped from my computer business job, but there are some limitations.  The way I got out of it was I got my dad to take it over and do the work again.  For the most part, this means I’m out from under it, but some of the major projects I have floating around are computer business projects, so I need to get those finished to finalize my escape.

And then there’s just the fact that my escape is for the most part provisional.  I need to get my game dev work where it’s bringing in money, which is part of why I’ve been putting off other, technically more important, projects to get something- anything- playable built.  I technically have a year, but I’m trying to get there sooner than later and also to show solid forward progress to keep family tension low.  (the joys of living at home. ~_~)

My engineering project got sidelined to work on this, but I need to get back to that soonish.   Time management will be the end of me.  ヽ( ̄д ̄;)ノ

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Game Design: Target Audience

Welcome to week two!  Last week I touched on Narrative and talked a little about how a distinct sense of  identity benefits a game.   While there’s still a great deal of information to cover on that topic, I don’t want to get too in depth on any one topic as I start up.   This week I want to explore the various effects of  designing a game for a target audience, then shift gears for a few weeks and get off into some of my other interests.

To start with, I want to point out that this is a disagreeable topic.  Many target audiences have highly polarized members, some of whom- but not all of- are exclusionists by nature.  They know what they like, and more than ignore what they don’t like they readily will trash or argue against what they don’t like in gaming forums, stores, etc.  Whether these represent a vocal minority or are the average member of a target audience is generally up to debate.  I’m also afraid to try to draw any sort of east vs west comparison for this as for all I’ve read and learned about Japanese culture, I’m really not confident I understand the Japanese gamer enough to comment on their audiences, so I will largely keep this one to what I know.  Since the easiest place to start with something is to glance at its history, let’s take a look at the beginning.

The earliest of games had a target audience that would define gaming for decades: Nerds.

This was a matter of practicality.  The earliest games were played in the research labs of the companies or colleges that developed them.   Surprisingly, the mainstay genres all emerge relatively early on, by title count if not by year:  The first game was a war simulation, followed by ports of tabletop games, then a sports game, followed by some early touchscreen games (via light pen), then arcade shooters, followed by the first space exploration game, flight simulators, text adventures, the RPG, shortly after the MUD, and finally the Platformer as the latecomer.

As an aside, I was pretty surprised to find touchscreen gaming predates arcade video games, and the hands off gameplay of Mouse-In-The-Maze reminds me of some of the “those mobile games aren’t games!” complaints I heard early into the smartphone era.  I also for some reason had it in my head that Pitfall predated Donkey Kong, although some cursory fact checking brought me back to reality.

The target audience of most of the above were nerds, as a matter of practicality.  The technology to play these games at the onset was largely limited to the research labs of large tech firms and colleges.   They were played on mainframes or oscilloscopes juryrigged to electronics to make them do stuff.  Once the first “modern” arcade game hit, the number of target audiences went up by one: arcade gamers.  Then Consoles were invented, Atari crashed, Nintendo and Sega happened, the personal computer became a thing, Sega crashed, Sony and Microsoft stuck their noses in, eventually we get to today where there are dozens of target audiences, each with their own preferences, wants, and needs.   We have moved beyond the time of nerds, although gamers still have a bit of a reputation as nerds as a consequence.

Usually a target audience will share a genre or several genres with other target audiences.  For example, in America, the line between the target audience for Sports games and the target audience for Console FPS shooters is generally a very blurry line.  It is not uncommon to spot Halo and Call of Duty beside NFL, Baseball, Basketball, etc. games on an American gamer’s shelf.   The target audiences for these games are actually driven by a mixture of personal interest and social cliques, and typically the developers of the games themselves tend to be members of the target audience themselves.  Of course, there are exceptions, such as Movie/TV series licenses.  Aside from very choice IPs like Star Trek line up with developers who are also longtime fans, most developers hate making movie/TV games.

Another kind of overlap isn’t overlap at all.  Consider the FPS gamer of the 90’s and the RTS gamer of the 90’s.  Typically, you couldn’t look at an american gamer’s desktop without seeing at least one RTS and one FPS shooter.   (and as I started fixing people’s computers around ’96, that’s largely a personal anecdote.)   One would generally be inclined to think these were two separate audiences, I believe they were actually the same target audience –  the competitive gamer.   They were generally interested in the newest way to compete against each other, and were always interested in competing on more than one level.  Many of them would push for newer, better, stronger, faster computers for every edge they could get, and the developers would always release new titles to take advantage of these games.  The string of Quake games, Unreal Engine games, Crytech games, all pushed graphics and more graphics, usually amounted to deathmatch only tech demos, but that is exactly what the target audience wanted – more head to head competition.

On that note, some target audiences are also unusual.  Quake, Unreal Tournament, Farcry, and Crysis also had game developers as a secondary target audience: the games themselves were commercials with the goal of getting developers to use the game engines for their own projects.  Unreal Engine and Crytech are popular middleware engines, easily cutting 1~2 years of development time off many game projects.  I picked on Unreal Tournament as a game last week for being a tech demo, but the death-match tech demo trend had a critical role in introducing the benefits of middleware to an industry where few studios had the time and money to drop on developing their own 3D engine from scratch.

Since Target Audiences tend to have either overlap or “a specific interest”, I think designing for a single target audience is actually a bad thing.  Many of the most memorable games in history are cross-genre titles.  Often times if you mix two genres together, you get fans of both.   As the 2000’s got underway, we saw every genre start to adopt RPG mechanics and become more interesting for it.  The rise of RPG mechanics also saw many games which previously lacked a story mode realize the importance of one, and so the competitive FPS games of the late 90’s began to fade.  Many of those same competitive gamers are today playing MOBAs, which can safely be called the fusion of the Arcade, RTS, and RPG genres.

I actually believe that while a game may be made for a target audience, the target audience is usually different from “the audience they get”.  Further, I believe that great games are born not of targeting a specific target audience, but taking the desires and needs of many audiences and making something new, that doesn’t really want any specific audience but rather to create a new one.  Emphasizing the earlier tech demo point, Unreal Tournament managed to be just that outside of the normal marketplace – by targeting both competitive gamers and game developers themselves it helped create the middleware market we know today.  (which really does make it difficult to judge fairly.)

Nintendo actually fell afoul of this not too many seasons ago with the Wii, coming so close to getting it right, yet opting to “fire” their own target audience and attempt to build a new one.  As one of the angry, bitter gamers who went into that year expecting a revolution only to get fired, I am still shocked that years later Nintendo’s leadership now thinks they made a mistake.  Objectively, even as a disenfranchised core gamer, I can’t say they made a mistake in looking beyond their existing audience, so I’m baffled they could come to the conclusion they have.  As was the oft given reason for the decision, many of the “Core gaming audiences” are actually impossible to satisfy in the long term, as to fully satisfy them requires increasing difficulty in an exclusionary way.   Trying to introduce a new gamer to a game series that prides itself on being Nintendo Hard can be almost impossible.  (As I’m sure most of the people on this site can appreciate, try showing an American fan of shooters a recent Touhou game.)  In that light, the decision to create a new audience makes sense, even: Less work, more gain.

And against all odds, Nintendo succeeded in creating a new audience.  The metrics telling us that are everywhere.  However, as the author of the article I linked points out:  What they actually failed at was giving this new target audience something to play that wasn’t Wii Sports/Wii Fit/Wii bowling.   While the Wii had many mechanical mistakes such as the lack of HD, consumers typically only hate mechanical mistakes if they actually get in the way of something.  How much more successful would the Wii have been had it not fired it’s old audience, and simply added to it?  Could the old audience have said “Hey, you’re new here, I love that game too, you ought to try this one as well, I love this one.” and made all the difference?  Perhaps Iwata gets it more than he lets on with his comments, as Nintendo’s theme this time around is reconciling the two target audiences.  Perhaps Iwata just chose to phrase things the way he did because he was talking to investors and not gamers.

Creating a new audience does not mean having to fire an old one, like Nintendo did.  As an example, Portal didn’t exclude the First person shooter audience of the day.  It welcomed everyone that gave it a try, using the FPS audience as a building block.  (You will recall that Portal came bundled with two of the most anticipated FPS games of the year it was released in.)  Further, Indie games as a whole have been creating a new audience out of necessity.  While individual indie games are aimed at a specific genre, the target audience is distinctly different – it’s anyone that will play it.

In closing, Target Audiences (And genres both) are great starting blocks, but like with all tools, they can’t be given too much or too little focus.  In the end, people play games to have fun, and we should be focusing on just that, the fun of it.  Next time I’ll be talking about either art or engineering, with a side of career stuff, I feel like I’ve tiptoed on eggshells too much with game stuff.

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Game design: East vs West and narratives

One of the most interesting parts of the game industry is the unique approaches that Eastern developers have when compared to Western developers, and the effect that has on the narrative style of a game.

When designing a game, a western developer is going to get an idea, go find his middleware, and build his idea in middleware and ship it.  When developing that game, progress will appear nonexistent until it reaches one of its seemingly random bursts until suddenly it resembles a finished product.  The game will almost always ship before finished and that won’t matter because its primary selling points will usually be its technical specs anyway.

In the same situation, an Eastern developer is going to get an idea, and then just start coding.  They will likely use little to no middleware, and they will make slow, steady, demonstrable progress, allowing you to watch the product assemble almost like a lego project.   The game will meet deadline with an overtime crunch that makes an early 19th century industrial factory look humane and its primary selling point will be the game itself.

From an end user perspective, however, the distinction will tend to be somewhat different.  Lacking any way to know about the development side of things beyond what shows in the game itself, they will merely look at what can be seen.  From an end user perspective, traditionally most Eastern games tend to be narrative driven, where most western games tend to be specs and feature driven.

As basically a niche gamer that prefers cRPGs and turn based strategy in general, my experience with games is different from what a puzzle gamer or an action gamer’s experience will be.   The most “mainstream” game I play is World of Warcraft, which is a bit of an aberration merely by being an online game with bad specs and socially driven narrative that changes based on how many “friends” you have/abuse.   I look at the average first person shooter and to a fault the overwhelming majority are engine specs and engine features with no narrative.

I should qualify something here.  When I say “narrative”, I don’t necessarily mean story or plot, but more the concept of the plot’s pretense and how well the game obeys that concept.  A good narrative will echo through the fans that play it, and should be something that someone who doesn’t play the game learns from exposure to fans.

Consider, what was Unreal Tournament‘s narrative?   To my perception, Unreal Tournament is a tech demo to showcase the Unreal Engine middleware.  Sure, it’s a game, but could you describe the game’s concept to me, without using the term deathmatch?

Narrative can also be communicated through distinct visuals.  Especially distinct visual narratives survive even parody.  Virtually anyone would recognize a Super Mario Brothers parody because the original game has such a distinct visual narrative.  Would you recognize a parody of the Unreal tournament characters if you saw them?

Halo stands out in a sea of generic FPS games by having a rather distinct setting inspired by a mix of 1980s anime and classical science fiction.  As a result, you recognize parodies of master chief. Would you recognize a parody of say, the Crysis super soldier?  Would you mistake a parody of the Crysis super soldiers for a parody of master chief?  If you saw a parody of the main character of Gears of War, would you recognize it as a parody of gears of war, or would you think you were looking at a parody of Cabal from X-men?

Essentially, narrative is important, but it’s nebulous and it doesn’t matter quite what it is as long as it’s distinctive.

On this point, I think the Japanese have traditionally had an edge over Western devs, but this advantage is quickly fading as the Japanese see Western triple A titles plow through the entire world.  The Japanese have become distracted by the sales figures western AAA games push, and are feeling pressured to compete.  We’re seeing a rise in design by metrics games coming out of Japan and traditionally strong franchises are crumbling left and right as the eastern publishers and developers  both worry about the sales power of AAA titles in general.

Interestingly, at the same time as the East began to lose it’s narrative to the pursuit of Triple A gaming, the Indie game began to move into the mainstream perception in the west.   Many popular Indie games have exceedingly strong narratives that aren’t just successful, they’re evocative to the point non-gamers can understand them.  Plants Vs Zombies was so successful it moved Popcap out of the indie spectrum altogether.  Angry Birds‘ narrative is so distinct that you can buy plushies of the birds.  Minecraft creepers are so iconic that I actually saw a creeper themed hoodie for sale and you will occasionally see Creeper-ko CGs go by on Pixiv’s recent list.

Disappointingly, the Japanese mainstream seems to be losing their sense of narrative more and more in pursuit of the bottom line.  You would think that such a strong indie/doujin scene- capable of birthing a Touhou/rule ⑨ themed reskin of almost every game ever- would be more influential on the mainstream’s sense of priorities in the same way the west’s indie scene has shaped our own mainstream gaming.

A good narrative also doesn’t have to be something positive, either.  Consider Grand Theft Auto, easily one of the most disagreeable titles in gaming history.  The series began life as a pac-man clone, replacing pellets with cars, and evolved into something iconic when it made it’s narrative into a controversy.

The traditional narrative strength of Japanese games came from the anime and manga industry inspired art style they used as a vessel.  At a time in the 80s when games were defined by either literal stick figures, blocky cars, or generic D&D inspired fantasy art, the Japanese offered us named chibi protagonists with distinctive appearances.   (Looking back on this early gaming era, trying to think of distinct protagonists in western games, I came to the realization that the west made heavy use of “create a character” and “Faceless protagonist” systems during this period, and still does to this day.)

Even as gaming continued into the 90’s, western game narratives suffered.  Several games with relatively strong narratives and Visual narratives, such as Commander Keen, Duke Nukem, Hugo, Turrican, the Lemmings, and the entire Point and Click adventure genre died out and became a forgotten relic of pre-online deathmatch gameplay of the then new 3D era.

During 3D gaming’s early days, on both sides, the art was reasonably distinctive because photo-realism was impossible.  Star Fox achieved a rather distinct look adapted from primitive 3D games that came before it (Battlezone, Arctic Fox, Starglider 2, Carrier Command) that it built on as a style.  The more realistic the games became, the core style remained the same.   Myst attempted to be as realistic as possible and fell into the uncanny valley due to the deficiencies of the era.  Final Fantasy 7 took the old point and click adventure graphics style, slapped on FF controls, upgraded the backdrops to pre-rendered graphics and the look was so distinct for its era that most people you ask would say the game originated the style.

Now that technology has improved and almost anything can be photo-realistic, you get unusual games where photo-realism robs the game of an identity.  Contrast the last five WW2 games developed by different western studios against the distinctive look of Valkyria Chronicles and you might think you were looking at 5 screenshots of the same Madden WW2 game compared to an ink and watercolor painting of WW2.

At the same time, there are western devs really starting to get the importance of a good narrative.  A number of the Indie games I mentioned earlier tend to have a very distinct visual narrative in addition to an excellent gameplay model based on the narrative.  Even Blizzard uses a SAI painter art style for their non-cutscene 3D textures.  The gap in distinctiveness between east and west is narrower than ever before.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years with the gaming market as we approach an era where for the first time since the early 90’s we will have 5 game consoles in the market at once, 3 western, and 2 eastern: Steam-box, Ouya, X-Box 720, Wii U, PS4.

It’s shaping up to be an interesting next 5 years.  I’m looking forward to making my own games and playing what everyone else makes.

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