Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Review: The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, by Jesse Schell

I began reading The Art of Game Design in an attempt to find guidance while creating my own games.  Not only did the book satisfy my curiosity and give me the direction I desired, it actually provided inspiration: not just on the subject of creating games, but for succeeding at any endeavor which relies upon providing a pleasing experience for humans seeking a playful diversion.

The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, by Jessie Schell

Schell's book addresses the subject of game design from a much higher conceptual level than "pick your theme, design your levels, blow stuff up," which was an unexpected surprise.  While I hesitate to scare a potential reader away, these are lessons in human psychology which identify the reason that people play games in the first place, as we have for thousands of years.  Throughout the book are literary "lenses."  Lenses are not laws or rules: each lens is formed from simple questions that pose whether a game fulfills identified human needs and wants that arise during gameplay.  To that end, Schell is quite brilliant: considering his target audience, he still succeeds in writing a book about the study of human nature that masquerades as a book about gaming.

Rather than coming off as intimidating, the lessons presented by the lenses throughout the book are a welcome change from the typical image associated with video games and their design.  Other design books provide more specific guidance, but may not be as applicable or flexible.  Even with its high-level approach, the book remains grounded in reality and is filled with examples from Schell's own experiences in the industry.  It excels at answering not just the "what?" questions about game development, but also the "why?", which can be all-too-easily overlooked for something as simple and fun as playing a game.

The book has a rough organization that introduces important concepts of game creation.  Earlier chapters deal with the definition of gameplay and why it is important to humans, as well as methods of finding inspiration for creating games of your own, and how to give your player a game they will enjoy.  The book then moves into the elements of games, and how important it is to balance gameplay to keep the game interesting and fun from beginning to end.  Later chapters deviate somewhat, and deal with the process of creating a game with topics such as teamwork, playtesting, and the business of video games.

I appreciate and respect what Schell writes in the later chapters, although it does feel as though he has to stretch to fit it into the framework of his book.  The lessons are universal when considering how to exceed with people who are excited and passionate about their work, and how to handle conflict that arises when so many strongly-opinionated people work together on a single creative vision.  They are relevant not only to video game development teams or software engineers, but to anyone who values the amazing things that can be accomplished with a team who works together because they share a common goal.

Perhaps the most important point of the book for myself is Schell's assertion that a game must create an experience for the player.  This can be difficult, since everyone will interact with the game in different ways.  A game is not an experience itself; it enables an experience, one that must be "interesting enough that it holds the player's focus as long and as intensely as possible."  At first, this seems obvious.  But, for myself and other developers, it is important that throughout the discussions about implementations of technology and the latest techniques, the ultimate goal is to give the player an experience they will remember.  All other goals of a game are secondary to this, and the best games demonstrate this trait.

For instance, few people will deny the incredible experiences that Minecraft has already given so many players.  Indeed, after reading Schell's book, his collection of lenses seem to define the recipe that Markus Persson followed when creating his popular game.  One initial complaint about the game that I've heard from several younger players who have yet to try the game concerns the simplicity of the graphics.

Upon trying the game, these players have been instantly compelled to build, explore, and feel the freedom of the "sandbox."  After reading The Art of Game Design, I believe this is because advanced 3D graphics are not an essential part of the experience a player derives from the game.  By boiling the graphics down to the necessary elements, Persson was able to focus completely on the experience he wanted to create, and in the process gave his game a distinctive look and feel.

The kinds of games you create and what you want the player to feel while playing is, of course, up to you, but it's something I will always keep in mind with any game I work on from this point: what is the essential experience I'm trying to create.

This is a wonderful book for anyone curious about the human desire to play games, and is an easy read no matter what your background may be.  I imagine even non-gamers would find themselves wanting to get out the Monopoly board or the Checkers set and come up with a few custom rules of their own.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Fairy rings

I recently read The Art of Game Design, by Jessie Schell, for which I should have a review up in the next few weeks.  I picked up the book to try and better understand game development at the highest conceptual level: while it's still a developing idea.  In the process, I became inspired to create a small game of my own.

While driving home from work on a rainy day, I noticed a fairy ring growing while I was waiting at a traffic signal.  The ring I saw was comprised of just a few mushrooms, but they can grow to be quite large.

One section of Schell's book talks about the importance of using your subconscious mind to think of cool and crazy ideas.  There are few things that let your subconscious mind wander like driving home in Houston traffic, and what's more crazy than a giant ring of mushrooms?  I started to think, if the mushrooms in a fairy ring grow from a single point, what if the other mushrooms in the ring could start rings of their own?  Would it just keep growing and growing in a fractal pattern?

I'm not a mycologist, but as the idea took off in my head, I could have cared less about the scientific reality of the situation.  I thought it sounded like an interesting idea for some kind of game.  I got home and immediately started jotting down ideas.  After iterating on different concepts for a few days, I had come up with some better developed notions of what gameplay could be like.  I tried not to think too deep about it, so I wouldn't latch onto an idea and have a difficult time changing my mind if something didn't work.  Here's the minimalist basics, from my notes:

  • mushrooms are growing in a forest
  • the ground starts bare; tap to plant a seed
  • seeds grow until they pop, and spread a ring of mushrooms, which can be popped themselves
  • mushrooms cannot be popped until fully grown
  • there are different mushroom types which have varying attributes
    • fast growth, small burst radius
    • moderate growth, moderate burst radius
    • slow growth, large burst radius
  • tapping on a mushroom selects it; tapping it again causes it to pop
  • mushrooms destroy everything inside their blast radius
  • quiet and relaxing
  • ambient noise: bugs, wind, rain, thunder
  • dark with high contrast colors: environment lit from glowing mushrooms, fireflies, stars, and distant lighting flashes
  • mushrooms glow in different colors, depending on their attribute types
  • mushrooms rings are not perfect circles and all attributes have a slight randomness
  • mushrooms have subtle anthropomorphic qualities so that casual punishment and reward can be incorporated
  • top down view
  • touch interface
  • pinch to zoom in/out
  • touch a mushroom centers and zooms

After reading that outline, you may have noticed something missing: goals and objectives. They're missing because I haven't figured out what they are. I honestly don't know what I could do with gameplay of this type that would be fun: a strategy game, where there's gameplay AI controlling "enemy" mushrooms?; a puzzle game, where you have to cover the ground with spores, similar to Qix?; an abstract game, where all you do is pop mushrooms and form random patterns in your "mushroom garden"? Since I'm not an experienced game designer, it's difficult for me to answer these questions before the gameplay has been implemented.

Some concept art I did in Photoshop for a glowing mushroom and fireflies.  I'm not an artist, so don't be too hard on me.
I think my favorite idea so far is to create a multiplayer game. Since mushrooms destroy everything inside their blast radius, I could potentially do something along the lines of Missile Command, where one player has to destroy the other player's mushrooms while growing their own mushrooms. Playing around with XNA networking services would be a lot of fun, and would be a great learning experience. If I pursue that course of action, I will, of course, be sure to share my trials.

With networked multiplay, one player could have cool-colored mushrooms, while the other could have warm-colored mushrooms.  In this image, the green mushroom on the left has been popped and is launching its spores.
I was able to get very basic gameplay developed in one quick iteration.  This is just a prototype, so the code was not test-driven.  I've discovered that when thinking creatively, I can move quickly and get more things accomplished without writing tests.  If I were to develop this fully, I would start with a clean slate and write my gameplay logic using TDD.

One of the most challenging aspects of designing a game like this, which is essentially a one-button game, is accomplishing what Schell refers to as "balancing." I've experienced the feeling of an unbalanced game during development, but I was unable to articulate or appreciate the problem. I imagine mobile designers deal with this in an attempt to keep their games as casual as possible. Since the player cannot (or does not want to) control the customization of the game as in a traditional PC game, it becomes important for the elements of gameplay (such as my mushroom attributes) to "feel" correct and behave as expected.

Sorry about the FRAPS watermark.  I'm cheap.

This is my first time developing with a touch interface.  I have an iPhone, so I've been using the Windows Phone emulator that ships with Visual Studio.  Because the performance of the emulator isn't optimal, I also have a Windows game project in tandem with the phone project.  My friend and colleague, Jacob Beaudoin, has a Windows Phone, for which he recently began developing games.  He will, undoubtedly, be doing some amazing stuff, so you should visit his website.

While writing this code, I found myself questioning a lot of my design decisions when attempting to decouple gameplay components.  For previous projects that I've worked on, this was never much of an issue.  After speaking with Jacob, I believe the next book I'm going to read is Game Engine Architecture.  The title sounds as inviting as a Junior High health textbook, but it's a topic I could definitely afford to learn more about.  I'd also like to try reimplementing this game in UDK, to get some experience with UnrealScript and the Unreal Editor.  All these objectives would dovetail together nicely.

Writing this prototype was fun, and it was good to feel inspired and excited after the tedium that my day job has become lately.  I will keep developing this only as long as it feels right.  I appreciate other people's opinions, so if you think this is lame or awesome, be sure to give me some feedback.

In the meantime, I'll see if I can incorporate additional...


Thursday, March 3, 2011

Review: Secret of Mana, by Square Enix

What started as an essay on one of my favorite games has turned into something new I'd like to try.  I'm going to experiment with writing reviews of relevant media I consume, such as books, movies and games. I won't blog exhaustively on everything I put in front of my face, but I think it's important that I am able to articulate why something does or does not work for me.  I am an easily entertained and laid-back person, but I need to improve my constructive criticism of creative formats if I want to successfully produce something of value myself.

I'm going to begin with an easy one: Secret of Mana, released as Seiken Densetsu 2 in Japan.  I just purchased the game for my iPhone, available in the App Store for 8.99 USD.  I can't say this is my first rodeo with Randi (or, as he was known back then, Justin) and the gang: we were first introduced when I was 12.  I'd won a free SNES cartridge that I already owned (Super Mario All-Stars) from a Nintendo Power contest.  I took it to Wal-Mart, said I'd gotten it as a duplicate birthday present; they took it back, no questions asked.  Now you know what a horrible person I am for ripping off a mom and pop establishment.

1993 Version

That last bullet point on the right used to haunt me as I stared at this beautiful box art: "When's the sequel coming out?!"
Secret of Mana wasn't my first RPG, but it did mark the point where I started to get "serious" about gaming.  I'd already owned a CoCo 3 and NES, and I'd played plenty of games.  But, the games I owned were the popular selections all my friends had, or were just some weird stuff I picked up because the box looked cool.  SoM, however, was the first time I researched a game and went into the store knowing specifically what I wanted to buy.

An hour after popping in the cartridge, I was submerged.  The beautiful graphics; the classic musical score; the thrill of getting weapon upgrades; the mystery of what was going to be in the next dungeon; the expansive world with different people and settings.  For the first time, the characters were well-developed, which is something that's always attracted me to movies and games.  Sure, it was no Mass Effect, but they were more dimensional than a certain Italian plumber.

Gameplay was simple and fun.  You could play as a button-masher if you wanted, or get a little more strategic by dodging and feinting.  The menu command system of Final Fantasy (loved by some, abhorred by others) is absent, in the style of The Legend of Zelda.  This casual gameplay is a reason others and myself originally took to the game so quickly.  This game and its English fan-translated sequel, Seiken Densetsu 3, remain two of my wife's favorites, and we have played both cooperatively many times.

As an angst-filled teen growing up in a small town, the story of SoM and its successors (Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, etc.) struck a particular chord with me.  The hero was brave and optimistic about saving the world with his friends, even though he was kicked out of his village by the people he loved.  He could go anywhere he wanted, and each town he visited had a neatly-packaged happy ending when he left.  He and his friends were forced to grow up quickly and leave those dear to them.  Those feelings were reflected in me even as I played the game.  I would wonder what would eventually become of my home and the things that I thought were important, once I grew older.

Even the subject of life and death was addressed, albeit in a simplified and kid-friendly manner.  But, for someone becoming self-aware and cognizant of his own mortality, it made me feel like I could handle the challenges that faced me the same way the game's characters faced their own problems.  I related to them, and felt like they could relate to me, if we were to meet.  This is a powerful storytelling device, and something I feel writers often overlook when they create sullen or hyper-stylized "cool" characters.

Looking back, it's easy to dismiss these impressions as the over-romanticized musings of someone remembering his childhood with nostalgia, because the game definitely had its faults.  The battle system was simple, but the supporting character AI was driven by a complex grid that 12-year-old me could never figure out.

My opinion of the leveling system held then as it holds today: my anxiousness to play the game and advance the story far exceeds my desire to grind magic and weapons for hours on end.  I would rather spend my time exploring castles and forests than wandering around casting the same spells over and over.  When discussing the game with friends, I realize this is a common complaint of those early Square RPGs, and I believe they've tried to address with subsequent releases in their franchises.  SoM attempts to balance some of the tedium associated with grinding by giving you destructive "power ups" for weapon attacks and increasingly fun magic animations.  However, powering up your weapon takes so long, the payoff is rarely worth the wait.

The dimensionality of the characters seems to have diminished, but the villains, in particular, are simple caricatures.  Imagine the worst Scooby-Doo bad guys if their dialog were reduced to one or two sentences ("Take care of my pet!  Remember to feed him, HA HA HA!!"), and you've got an accurate picture of SoM's antagonists.  I'm not demanding Colonel Hans Landa-levels of sadism in a light, Japanese RPG, but for all that great adventuring and exploration, it would be nice to have a credible threat to back it up.

2010 Version

As you would expect, it's a huge thrill to be able to revisit a favorite game of mine outside the confines of a PC-based emulator (too bad a certain jerk-faced noob couldn't get his threads together for playing it on the Xbox).  Imagining the old setup of my CRT television, Super Nintendo console and controllers, and particle-board stand all being condensed down to a hunk of metal not much bigger than a credit card amazes me, and I work with "Technology and Cyber Bits" for a living!

The game has been given a subtle face-lift, but, mercifully, this is no "Special Edition."  Colors and textures are richer and the "cartoon-y" feel has been enhanced, while a few enemy sprites have been inexplicably redesigned.

One of the most obvious graphical upgrades is a reflection of the sky and animated clouds in standing bodies of water.  It's a simple effect, but makes the scene feel much more dynamic.

The touch interface is mostly intuitive and welcome.  One of the best side effects of this new gameplay mechanic is a shortcut toolbar on the side of the screen.  Commands are dragged and dropped from the ring menus.  Tapping on a shortcut appears to execute a macro which drills down through the menu system to the selected location.  The cryptic supporting character AI grid has been replaced with a "multiple choice" selection for controlling behavior, making it more suitable for younger players.  Gameplay remains well-balanced, as long as you don't mind spending some time leveling up between dungeons.  Unfortunately, the cooperative mode for which the game was so well-loved, has been removed.

Some elements of the touch interface feel as though they could have been streamlined and improved.  In particular, the ring menus seem as though they've been shoe-horned into the game for the sake of nostalgia and continuity.  A look at the description in the App Store page for SoM gives one the impression that this is a selling point for Square.

This wouldn't be so bad if the menu didn't rotate when you ran your finger around it.
With touch interfaces, scrolling through menu choices is unnecessary, and becomes a liability.  Rather than preserve each ring menu as it was in 1993, I would have preferred to have the top of the menu hierarchy presented in a table, laid out for quick selection.  Bringing up the menu system already interrupts gameplay, so I'd rather not derail it completely by panning to the menu and option I'm searching for.  Additionally, some choices in menu and store interfaces generate a "popup" message, which is a particular thorn in my application developer side.  Once the popup is displayed, you have to tap to dismiss it, which is completely unintuitive and slows down menu transactions to a crawl.

I would have rather silently assumed I was feeding his family with my continued patronage.
Perhaps the most disappointing element is that the script for the game remains almost identical to the version released in 1993.  Ted Woolsey's translations of the old Square RPGs are golden oldies, but it's no secret that they were rushed.  Original material and plot was omitted, due to the technological constraint of limited text.  Thankfully, the font has improved, but those mysterious plot elements must remain lost in the janitor's closet of an Oslo mental institution, along with La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc and my innocence.  Hélas!

In conclusion, I couldn't be happier that Square Enix has started to revisit some of their old IP, which they've defended for so many years.  With the release of this game, Chaos Rings, and a few of the older Final Fantasy games, the company has made it clear that they won't be participating in the "< $0.99" casual games market on the App Store.  If that business model includes the release of high-quality, compelling experiences such as this, I believe they will continue to have success.

It's easy for me to geek out when I think of the possibilities of Square Enix investing in the 2D mobile market: porting their backcatalog of RPGs (Final Fantasies III-VI, Chrono Trigger, Secret of Evermore, and all the other GameBoy releases); official translations of Japan-release-only games (Seiken Densetsu 3, Star Ocean, Bahamut Lagoon); and finally, most unlikely but most mouth-watering of all: new games based on these incredibly successful franchises, developed in 16-bit, 2D graphics.  C'mon, Chrono fans, you know you'd buy an iPhone just to play that long-overdue sequel.

But, that's just wishful thinking.  In the meantime, I'll continue to enjoy Secret of Mana for many more years to come, and praise the developers responsible for this port with jealous (of their jobs) admiration.