GDC 2009: Thursday

Again, the usual applies – these are at-the-time stream of consciousness notes, unedited.  Pure live-blogging with the added disadvantage of not actually being live.  I have to write quickly to keep up, probably missed everything, apologies to speakers I just didn’t understand.  It was a fantastic conference, and you’ve all been a part of it.  My personal additions are in ().  This is nowhere near as good as having actually been here or having the actual audio, I’m afraid.  But here’s something to remind us all with.

(A great quote from casual conversation:  Jonathan Blow – “Process is what everyone talks about in post-mortems, but the learning and creativity happens outside of it. Minimizing process is the goal.”

What does that mean for us? Can we minimize process away and have managers serve to cover the edges?)

GDC Microtalks – One Hour, Ten Speakers, Unlimited Ideas

Clint Hocking, Eric Zimmerman, Frank Lantz, Jane McGonigal, Jenova Chen, John, N’Gai Croai, Richard Lemarchand, Robin Hunicke, Tracy Fullerton

Robin Hunicke on @Home and the 4 Cs – Creativity, Collection, Community, and Competition. Climbing, Jamming, Where’s Waldo, Graffitti.  Was booting up laptop, couldn’t get most of it down.

Eric Zimmerman has a game called colors, depending on adjacent colors in the seats. He calls out how the index cards immediately got meaning, transformed the room with what would normally be trash, made a messy system with a new social system, speaking to the power of play.

Clint Hocking on Five Stars and the Truth – discussing Kent Hudson’s deconstructing lockipicking systems. It was a good talk last year, and he judged them on 5 star ranking system. Why 5 stars instead of 100? Well, 100 is too fine a granularity, yet we could get that level of specifity. Compare to reviews – where it’s even more abstract then design. Goes to the Wine newsletters, and how there’s formed the Cult of 90+. “90 is not just one more than 89.” Actually 90 is just one more than 89. Attributing mystically significant system. 100 points should remove dependence on thresholds. The wine industry has incentivized critics to give higher review scores. Inflation. If you look at colleges, colleges have to keep raising thresholds for admissions, teachers inflate grades, colleges inflate thresholds, etc. Except it comprimises the whole system. So we can’t compare games across years. And we as designers need to be able to do that. Are we getting inflation? Over 85% of the top 41 games have been released since 2001. College pressure grades, students pressure teachers, teachers relent, and inflate grades. Market puts pressure on developer, pressure on reviewers, reviewers make comprimises, which leads to inflation. The problem is the valve. Review are too analog, the pressure release is too granular – but it just slowly increases over time. Which would game reviews a great tool for everyone.

Jenova Chen. Evolution of Media – technology and user experience are evolving at different rates, and we’ve reached a threshold where user experience has exceeded technology. Our fun right now is too limited. It’s natural for a new medium – think early cinema. But as audience gets older people want more variety. The Video game audience is growing every year, and there’s more desire every year. It’s driving all our new genres. He sees games stimulating everyone. How? Socially, Intellectually, Emotional. You can map all our entertainment mediums to somewhere on this pie chart. But what is in the middle? First he thought of Disneyland. Games are good at Intellectual and Emotional, but we haven’t got Social. We kep trying to ducktape it in. Social is so subtly, and we are bad at subtle. We use 10 year old technology, IRC and VOIP. Because gameplay is very primal, all we are expressing is very primal. The gameplay itsself has to push social ideas. Think reality shows and their communities, or Disneyland. (Reminds me of an idea to push people to talk and build communities, and try and push the game in to that, rather then the other way around).

Frank Lantz – Games are not media. How do games mean? Media delivers information to our hungry brains. Why does it matter if games are media? Assumptions: Games are brand new – media is new. Not hundreds of years old. Oh wait. Games are not brand new – adding a computer doesn’t make games work. Assumption: Games go in computers, oh wait. Games Don’t go into computers. Computers will ultimately go away, we are really just interested in computation. Computers will go into our games. Assumption: Games are Content. Oh wait, games are not content, that’s just market pressures. There are more opportunities out there, games as community, club, service. Assumption: The message model of meaning. Games make messages that translate to the player. Games are somehow a statement from sender to receiver. But games are not a message, players are not an audience. Games are like meaning machines or networks. Players and designers are participants, and systems are participants. Suggests a brand new way to think about communication and knowledge in general. Stop trying to fit games into existing categories. Rethink our categories in light of games. Media is an artifact of old historical assumptions. Stop and think about how games are not media. Games can lead us out of media, and to a place of networks built around conversation.

Jane McGonigal: My Idea of Fun. Remember CZADOF -when she says fun, think C – Confuscious had a theory about Jen – what seperates us from zombies. Little acts of kindness. There is a concept of Jen ratios that helps measure the health of the space. Burning Man has an extrordinarily high ratio, youtube comments are awful, and it relates to how you feel. The higher the happier you will be. So L4D has the highest Jen ratio on Earth, which makes it the Happiest Place on Earth. And it’s the Zombie Apocalypse! Some cool science to support this. Eric Weiner and Bhutan, no room for assholes. Left 4 Dead is the Bhutan of the videogame planet. Fun Checklist – mathematically optimized, lots of fear, ancient chinese philosophy. Humilation = Happiness. When we’re embarrassed we have a physiological response to happiness. So Dance-offs – shows her dance-off Top Secret Dance-Offs game and the level-ups, stats, quests, as in the crosswalk quest where people break into dance outside. Which creates happiness for both sides. Use masks to hide identity, embarrass themselves, and make others happy, which makes them happy

Keynote: Solid Game Design: Making the ‘Impossible’ Possible

Hideo Kojima

Making the impossible possible. Focusing on avatars as players. Too easy to steal from others, to use others to define what’s possible, but instead need to think laterally and come up with your own solution.ereatively. Avoid stereotypes, think around problems. Don’t always go through, don’t think you have to go over, go around or go under or do something creative. So what barriers of impossibility do we encounter when we develop games? In games, the floor that pushes you up to the top of the wall rises with technology – you can sometimes get over walls with technology. Hardware and software. But game design and game creation is the ladder that can get you to the top. Goes into the history of his games and Metal Gear. Designing a combat game in 1986. 2D, more then 4 enemies, a player, bullets. And remember the hardware – could only draw 8 sprites at a time on the background. So creating combat games for this hardware – totally impossible. So tried to work around it. What about no fighting? What about just running around? Or a combat game about hiding? But not heroic enough. So he turned it into an infiltration game. Where when spotted lots of enemies can come to train you. In sequels added wider vision and a larger range of dangers outside the screen with PiP radar. Noted that he hit some boundaries he couldn’t cross – 3D for MSX2. But when Playstation came out he could do 3D, hardware helped him get over the wall.

From Counter-Strike to Left 4 Dead: Creating Replayable Cooperative Experiences

Michael Booth

Describes goals for why make L4D – co-op, blend single player/multiplayer Valve experience. Required cooperation, core feature, wanted crisp focus and to mitigate risk. Also replayability, encourage community and long term development.

How did they encourage cooperation? Structure game so players want to do the right thing – require cooperation. From the ground up, ensure the only way the players can win is together, not at the expense as their friends. They treated the whole survivor team as “the player” They also penalized non-cooperative behavior harshly and simple – abandoning the team = death. The trick was to avoid player rebellion,, natural design solutions in the environment. So no invisible leashes, teleporting, that sot of thing.

Survival Horror genre was the perfect fit, because well established and everyone knew “The Rules” – it matched their cooperation goals. For Enemies, they pushed on cooperation. Right at the offset there are thousands of zombies. No way a player can survive on their own – clear and obvious. Totally outnumbered, lays frame work for implicit cooperation without the leash. Also, infected stop you when you get hit, so you can’t just duck and weave away. In addition, there are special tougher infected for spice on this baseline. Oh – and playtest, playtest, playtest. Started as world full of grey boxes and got pretty fun, and they knew it was good. But the spice – each has a special ability that incapacity’s or overwhelms at least one character that forces interesting team choices.

First, The Hunter – nimble and can get anywhere. Exists to outrun and kill stragglers and “lone wolf” players. Completely incapacitating pounce attack. The Smoker pulls apart tightly coordinated teams – pulling survivors out of position. Survivor teams that were too disciplined would damp down the drama, and the Smoker breaks that out. Force fun moment players were denying themselves through being too good (hmm… interesting depth here). The Boomer – whose purpose was to break the rule of shoot everything that moves, to break open the mechanicalness. Hesitate on your shots. And of course the vomit explosion creates excellent moments of Dramatic Tension.

Incapacitating attacks, which prevent a player’s input, make players fear being separated, which builds team cohesion. If you aren’t the victim, then you also get to be the hero. Player’s really like to help each other – huge driving force for the survivor team, which brings in lots of different kinds of players.

The Boss Infected – specifically the Tank. It forces the OH SNAP moments, to change tactics and react. Breaks up the pacing and forces the players to immediately talk to each other. Puts survivors in defensive position, requires full attention of entire team. Also forces reconsideration and reevaluation of their environment. Tanks can throw cars, for example. Oh, and more Dramatic Anticipation.

The witch – breaks the rule of shoot everything that moves, but with more contrast then the Boomer. If you make a mistake someone is probably going to die. Just leave her alone. She gives you a lot of warning – crying, music. She changes up the pacing again, becomes stealth game – turn off flashlight, watch every bullet.

Furthermore, they did quite a bit with vocalizations. For example, how much stuff Francis hates. This built community unexpectedly, people exploring game. But original intention was improves situational awareness – AI for every player that communicates the situation. It’s automatic, builds team communication in an obvious way. It also communicates short term goals – letting players know what they should do next. And lastly it encourages a baseline of camaraderie – sets a foundation of civility. Discourages jerks in a subtle way.

They also limited critical resources, which they thought was counter-intuitive. First aid kits are rare, and using them is critical for success, but players have to work together to use them wisely. You could be a jerk and just grab them. Because of the structure of the game though, people share their resources readily, because of the other mechanics which encourage cooperation – everyone wants an extra gun. But when someone else heals you, it helps break the ice as well, makes everyone feel like friends.

Helplessness also demands cooperation. It’s clear to the team that the other player needs help, and is effective for a lot of the same reasons health kits are.

Moving on to Replayability. How do we do that to keep it fresh? One was Dramatic Anticipation. If event X implies event Y after a short delay, adds anticipation of reward or punishment is very strong. For example, the old Boomer vs. the new Boomer. Originally he was a bomb, but this was really a problem for new players. But exploding as a zombie attractor was very different – it avoided the bomb problem, but it also created anticipation for all the players. Lots of examples everywhere – breaking through doors, tank incoming, witch nearby, interactive music anticipations, finales/crescendo events, finale escape vehicle, incoming Mobs, Ledge hanging save, car alarms, incapacitation, “Third strike”/last leg. Car alarms are like double anticipation because there’s first you see the car and then you set it off.

What about their Structured Unpredictability – collection of interesting possibilities selected at runtume using intentionally designed randomized constraints. (Interactive Storytelling!) Low probability + High drama = Memorable. Designers often want players to see everything – in L4D they deliberately avoid that. By being rare, when they juxtapose or sit on top of each other they create the crazy stories. Even the worst possible game is pretty compelling, this greatlly enhances replayability and drama, creates memorable stories.

Part of this is Adaptive Dramatic Pacing. Algorithmically adjusting game pacing on the fly to maximize “drama”. It was inspired by observations from Counter-Strike – the natural pace of CS is spiky, big unpredictable fighting with periods of quiet tension. Peaks and valleys of drama, and constant combat is fatiguing, and long periods of inactivity are boring. Key thing is peaks and valleys need to be unpredictable. Same scenario can be used, but as long as different/compelling experience each round it doesn’t matter. de_dust has been played millions of times in CS.

The AI Director creates these peaks and valleys of intensities. Estimate’s the emotional intensity of each survivor. Track max value, if it’s too high, remove threats. If too low, generate more. How do you estimate the intensity? Use a value. Easiest was that, if damage is taken, raise proportionally to damage taken, when incapacitated, when zombie killed, etc. Decay over time but not if active infected in the area. Use Survivor intensity to modulate the infected population – build up to peak survivor intensity threshold. Sustain the peak for 3-5 seconds at peak, and then go to Peak Fade where you decay out of peak ranges while they mop up what they are fighting. Then settle into relax mode with a minimal threat population for 30-45 seconds, or until survivors have traveled far enough towards the next safe room. So Build up is full population, Relax is minimal threat population – no mobs, no wanderers, no special infected. Boss Encounters are not affected by this – they tried doing it, but the worst case games were always bad because there would never be a boss battle. The best thing about the system is that because it’s influenced by the player’s action, each game is totally different.

He shows a graph of the procedurally generated population chart. Sort of a debug mode for the AI Director. Then he shows the tracked survivor intensity. It’s using a pretty stark too high intensity threshold. In Relax mode wanderers appear again after the intensity has decayed all the way, but they are still in the relaxed time. Some nice structural randomness. Shows what it would have been like if the AI Director hadn’t happened, and you can see the biggest change is how the Relax mode really limits the population.

How do they fill the environment wit interesting threats? Layers of structured unpredictability. And only populate around the survivors. Akin to Perlin Noise, having independent layers that stack on top of each other creates an interesting, robust population that can be modulated effectively by the AI Director. They use the Nav Mesh to populate – reason about the space your in and put attributes in the area. Has an area been seen by an actor? Is area X visible from area Y? Have notion of flow distance, 0 at start safe room and maximum at end distance. This defines the direction the level is going in. There’s an active area set of nav mesh that follows the survivor. As it cleans up, they delete things and repopulate in front of survivors. Populating is done at randomized intervals (90-180 seconds on Normal diff). Usually create Mobs behind the survivors, to create a pinch behind wanderers threats. Special infected are populated at randomized intervals except during Relax areas, and they can spawn in areas you’ve already cleared. Boss population created every N units along escape path at random amount, shuffled with Tank, Witch, and Blank. Only can’t have same card next to each other. Avoid manually placed script/triggers – they started with that, they had randomized sets of scripts, but player’s figured it out, and player’s learned all scripts and locations and player’s lost all suspense. And then it kills cooperation because player’s expect everyone to have memorized all encounters, and it becomes a race.

Slides on Weapon placements as well, skipped. He mentions other supporting technologies – VOIP for communication, Game Instructor for training help to encourage cooperation, In-game voting to deal with jerks, split screen helped train buddies, achievements that encourage co-op actions and replayability, Stream/Matchmaking for groups that want to play together, and Robust AI Actors/Bots for all the enemies as well as survivor bots, which allowed them to assume the survivor team was full – reduced the number of variables to balance. Assumed the baseline. And gave them drop-in/drop-out for free, which was critical given how long campaigns were.. Another really cool thing was they could do automated testing, and the AI Director needed Ais to direct.

Summary – players really do like to help each other – if your game is structured to facilitate it. Procedural Content is an excellent solution for a replayable multiplayer experience – avoids scripting becoming really complicated. Allows smaller teams. Dramatic anticipation and structured unpredictability are very powerful, and simple algorithm can generate excellent pacing schedules. The sales seem to bare it out – 2.5 million retail sold, #1 new IP on it’s platforms.

Question (Borut): Do player’s notice the Relax timeframe? Really got that number from playtesting. Lots of tweaking. Effects of too long was boring, too short was boring and people burned out. Question: Why not limited ammo? Militantly simple. Only handful of weapons, wanted to focus on teamwork – game is not about zombies but teammates. Experimented with different ammo situations early on, but just not fun to run out of ammo. Question: why are sounds for the Special Infected not structured unpredictable? Really important not different, just where you encounter is different. Want to encourage recognition of Special Infected as a skill. Question: Non-combat co-op mechanics? Did combat specifically because known quantity. The sharing or the help mechanics were shockingly compelling. To the point that there seems to be a class of players who play just to help others. Question: How do Dramatic Anticipation with turn-based? Depends how you quantify time. Give notification and then time to plan to deal with it. Just enhances the contrast within your game. He argues it’s the structured unpredictability that keeps people coming back. Question: Player classes? Yes, went around with it. But again, wanted to be as simple as possible. Barebones, period. No arguments about who is who within the team, who fulfills what role. They didn’t need to add it, when they playtested it themselves it was fun. Question: Random constraints for spawning, how was it authored? Mike in C++, not ideal. Became a constraint when team got really large. Question: Why does versus seem to be more popular? For long time was only versus. But split into too modes, and in versus now no AI Director. Let the player’s sort it out. Ongoing area of research. Question: Is it survival horror? No! Not survival horror, gave up on creepy early on, wasn’t sustainable. Not replayable. Just were able to do excitement, thrill. It’s a survival thriller. Question: Did AI Director mess with difficulty? It doesn’t, because it’s reactive, only backing things off once hammered. Either everyone makes it, or they all die, or it’s a great story. You have to be able to survive the first hit, so it’s maximally difficult. Question: Weapons/Health factor into enemy spawning? Disconnected, almost entirely. There’s some designer hand in it. One exception is AI Director can change pain pills into health kits.

Master Metrics: The Science Behind the Art of Game Design

Dan Arey and Chris Swain

Survey studies of game design measurements. First study – Measuring Noobs vs. hardcore – Hit ratios – figured out Army of Two there was a 4 frame firing delay that experts took into account by aiming and new players didn’t, so in the next title expect that to be 0 frames like in Gears of War.

Or controller retention test: quizzed them on certain moves between Fight Night 3 and 4. And then kept tweaking FN4 controls until retention score percent for each move was as high as they wanted. They used this to make sure everybody could play through measuring. And also found out that players thought it was more fun, as a bonus.

One more example, DICE and Battlefield asked can metrics help validate their own design? They built a matrix with a target goal and percent, a current player percent, and a why asking. The lead designer writes up the stuff he wanted for competence in the game, and the team agreed and ranked the importance of each thing. And it gave them targets to iterate for. Players would get surveys in game after they learned a new move and they would rate it right there. Junior people would monitor how players behaved and when they would fight when they weren’t supposed to. In the example 40% were doing it right, but wanted 80%, so kept iterating and retesting. They were finding that they were doing it at the end. They made game out of polishing their game – gave each department levels playtest has to pass. Best practices for persuading developers with data. 1) Developers do not read whitepapers. 2) Video record and show video of cameras hands and faces where the issues occurs, and then show it back. Measure like titles to get apples to apples comparisons. Relative accessibilitiy useful for many different types of tests.

The more data you look at, the more patterns you see in human response. Halo heat maps show organization of play in the levels, and could watch it move around as they changed and iterated. They’re talking about getting some much data you can see subtle patterns designers can’t predict. Godel, Escher, Bach – book you had to read if you were going to work at Naughty Dog – discusses the underlying structure of math in science and art. Bach would have been a programmer in the 1970s. A Fugue is a very specific structure, beautiful and flowing to hear, but highly mathematical at its core. Can be built by software. Levels are very similar to music in structure – there’s a creative heartbeat. As you play a game, you still have a heartbeat players are responding too. For early Naughty Games, they would compose the notes of gameplay. They’d count the challenges like musical notes. 2 or 3 in a row would be double/triple notes. Levels were very structured in Crash Bandicoot – interesting flow process players would detect in the back of their head. Jak & Daxter had 20-25, much higher density. Had dynamic continues that determined where in the level players would respawn. They were mathematically figuring out time between challenges, the distance each challenge covered, the length of each challenge Added timing to levels, total gameplay per area. Very much like music. Did all the way through Uncharted. If you want to ramp your challenges, they would ramp the challenges to climax successfully. A bit of linear pacing control. Consistency is the point – to create that structure in pace. They in the design phase had a wheel that would predict where players would go within open areas. And they’d space challenges out to match where players were going. And then when you get actual numbers you can react your plan to where players are actually going. A ramping heartbeat. Count the challenges a player will face. There’s a harmony like a fugue. Compile the numbers in a mathematical way. Not formula but form. Place patterns in the gameplay, it’s a manageable structure.

Another study – Immersyve’s work – 15,000 test subjects, 20 studies to date, getting at hy/psychology of what the player is doing. They measure Autonomy, competence, and Relatedness for each game using surveys and other techniques. Model has been predictive of sustained engagement. Research of motivation in games is forming around self-determination as the big theory. What motivates people is consistent acrosss different areas of life – work, play, relationships, all of it. Humans value the activities that satisfies these specific motivational needs, which are well-defined and can be measured and predictably create motivation. So Immersyve builds a system that measures those 3 things. Developers can iterate until metrics goals are met. Needs satisfaction predicts sustained engagement over 9 months – fun does not. (May be why fun is not a good fun metric). Needs satisfaction gives survey results that lead to buying sequels and playing longer.

Measuring Autonomy is the need to experience personal agency and feeling of freedom of choice. The principle is games that have more choice will satisfy gamers need for Autonomy more than games that have less. And Autonomy is the most important need player’s have. Are you giving that feeling of Autonomy? Denser spaces with less empty space is better autonomy then larger with more stuff. (My my my!) Measuring Autonomy – 1) Designer designs level, 2) Immersyve tests with real people, 3) if Autonomy satisfaction < target then go to Step 1, else Done. Example of this data from 5 different builds on scale from one to 5 among multiple types of gamers. High Autonomy satisfiers include Sims 2, WoW, GTA 4, and Little Big Planet. Why is WoW so sustainable? Maybe because it is hitting all 3 levels? If you look at the activities in the game – leveled up, items acquired, area reached, quest finished, crafted, skill raised, etc. On almost all of these levels Autonomy is exceedingly fulfilled. The Immersyve guys can actually explain why something isn’t satisfied, because they understand the game.

Measuring Competence – the need to experience of efficacy, growth, and mastery. The principle is games that allow player to develop tangible skill and express mastery of that skill deliver Competence satisfaction. Competence satisfiers like Guitar Hero, God of War, and WoW again. WoW satisfies competences a lot at exploring new zones/area, getting epic items, and a little bit in rare items and group quests. Competence is a little less important then autonomy.

Measuring Relatedness – need for meaningful connection to others, defined by others support for our competence and autonomy. Humans are intrinsically motivated to connect with others, so design for that. Wii Sports, Magic, Pogo, and WoW are all Relatedness games. WoW is particularly good with Group quests and epic items, and Relatedness.

OK, next topic. If counting the fun is like creating a Bach Fugue, thn Combinatorial Play Design is like composing a Mozart Symphony. The Art of being playful with the gameplay. The patterns and harmonies are more playful . By listing out and adding up the combinations of enemies, objects, environments, and challenges, the designer will not only Document their available opportunities, they will also inevitably Discover much more than they were looking for. Surprising patterns and combinations. The player will subconsciously Feel the breadth of possible experiences and interactions in the game. Junior designers make lots of VOIDs – varying only in degrees. Only varying enemies by adding a few more. Reality is still the same gameplay, just changing rates. Good gameplay is to avoid the VOIDs – change up the gameplay. Looking at the enemy list of Mario 3 – Miyamoto understood human interactions in games – each enemy in the game elicits a different player response, every enemy forces the player to do something. Koopas you hit twice, Baboombs you hit once and run away. Paratroopers zigzag and require different movement. BulletBill was fast moving, straight, required jump attack. And Miyamoto would then combine them in different ways. Half the guys look like what they do and then others do what they look like. So put together game design documents paying attention to attacks and defense but movement and also what makes them different to the player and what creates their unique play, something widely different. Go back to the mathematical concepts and put them on a map and comparable. Really think about your combos before you put them together. Sony, when testing to see what mechanics loved, got really good bang for the buck. Portal is based on only a few objects and obstacles, maybe 16-17 moving parts, but combinatorially can mix and match to create their puzzles and gameplay. Plan it out, graph it, and force yourself to take that analytical step to set yourself up for the Symphony.

1 more: Reasons to use User Researchers who are independent from the Devs. 1) URs are passionate about user experience, not about design specifics. Microsoft Game Studios puts about 3 URs per project. 2) URs practiced at translating user experience into something measurable. Eg Measuring chaos in a level of Halo 3. Can target towards abstract feelings developers are struggling to achieve. 3) URs specialized in research methodology. Ex. From Bill Fulton on survey design. If you do a forced choice it’s more actionable for game developers, as opposed to gradation scale. Gradation scales can hide the interpretation. User actually has to think harder and define their own criteria in the decision model. Last, URs help figure out what to measure and how to translate that into something useful. They can look at metactritic for example and evaluate whether it’s valuable or not. Eg metacritic only measures reviewers, who have the most experience. A UR measures the average gamer, a much different bell curve. Reviewers are not a representative sample. They can skew the measurements about your game. A UR will go direct to gamers and get source data.

Costs? Microsoft spends about ~3-8% of production budget on UR. They’ve found this to be the most cost effective way to use resources for delivering top products.

Question: Related music to gameplay a lot – can you manipulate/transform game design in the same way? Note Guitar Hero‘s instant fusion of music and game design. Yes, USC is looking at cultural translations.

Read Me: Closing the Readability Gap in Immersive Games

Patrick Redding

On measuring immersion. Not about accessibility or UI or uncanny valley, although consistency and interface feel ultimately trump graphical feel. Leading player through all their senses through the world, even though we’re putting all this work into these other systems. Representational depth in games is going up exponentially compared to dynamic complexity. Games now benefit from this giant bandwidth they are able to toss at the player in sharp contrast to the player’s thin-pipe input. Meager channels to input choices, and the contrast leads to a weird disparity. And almost a sense of overcompensation. So the games systems as a result a lot of times become unrecognizable and disconnected from what the player is actually doing. Shows a chart of games on representation vs. readability, and he asks how well can we make simulation/emulation to low/high readability. And there’s a clustering of games in each grid.

Elements of readability – he starts with game cues going through, to give hints to what players can do, and then feedback when the player’s take that action. Simple games use flashes, particles, UI for game cues. More immersive games will use camera, body languages, animation anticipation. And on the feedback side, people do away with the HUD now by using softer collision model yet still using level cues, animation, particles of blood, animations conveying enemy state and next action.

There’s also an element of coherence. How does the player perceive the information is actually being delivered to them – easy to recognize, easy to interpret, and prioritized. Players know when they are being told something. As games feel this kind of pressure to push info out of the HUD and onto the game world, they still need an obvious way to flag importance.

Also important is consistency – the representation should match natural expectations and respect conventions, as well as group meanings and behaviors of similar forms. Don’t violate the logic of form. The simple example is if forward it walk, then think very carefully about changing what left thumbstick does.

Finally, there’s the notion of context. The idea that there’s the game space or a possibility space which is something the player has a mental model of.

So, working through MDA (mechanics, dynamics, aesthetics – LeBlanc, Hunicke, Zubek), looking at readability you can look at even simple games and you can change one simple thing and have long far reaching consequences for the game’s experience. He describes an A-designer and A`-player, where designer passes authorship to the player after ship to play. He defines a line to the left of that A1-systemic, and a line of simulation that is A2-representational depth. Usually we add representational depth to build up the production values.

MDA represents a sort of plural vision, but we have a multiple component Aesthetic experience, an awful lot of which is not coming from MDA. Let’s not confusing aesthetic experience for aesthetic content, be careful. Why does this happen? Usually for production reasons. As we try and innovate, things get riskier, and someone decides at some point that it’s enough – that we should stop designing the depth and just throw representational aesthetics at the problem directly. Part of this is the content creation pipeline hiring and kicking into gears. Those artists should be doing something, right? It’s not difficult to justify that, but it is a willful act of self-deception. There’s no relationship between the procedural and non-procedural aspects of those aesthetics.

Jonathan Blow at the MIGS 2008 keynote articulated this succinctly – games are becoming a place for meaning, but there’s this overwhelming urge to put all this dramatic tension in the game. But they are antithetical and it creates procedural fiction. Jon doesn’t think we can solve that problem, and Patrick’s not sure he agrees, but while traditional authorship might feel safer, doing it can be antagonistic to meaningful play.

One of Far Cry 2‘s goals was immersion. Wanted the player patching themselves up, and they found that required a huge amount of data – graphics, animation, audio, physics. This is an action that happens from pushing one button on the controller. We’re adding a huge amount of representational content to the gameworld, but it’s only one action, so we’re creating a procedural disconnect from the simulation. Not to say that it was bad, but there was a readability impact. Game information is now both game system state and ‘verisimilitude’ and player needs to be able to distinguishes these two.

Frank Lantz talks about how we fetishize immersion. He says immersions probably a good thing, but all games are procedural simulations. Players get satisfaction from trawling the boundary conditions. We should be careful not to get seduced and cleaning up these rough edges and preventing their satisfaction.

There’s this unreliable witness problem. Groups that get debriefed do markably worse. Discussing results corrupts your memory of what you already saw. As players move back and forth between representations and understanding systems, we may be degrading their understanding of the game. Might be the root of the readability problems?

Dynamic narrative systems had lofty goals. Wanted emerging story from the player’s regular gameplay. Wanted to have designers help craft the player’s input for them. There’s some set of local minima. We want the progression of local minima in order to yield a narrative dramatic arc. One of their failures is they have this story output to the player and the player’s game input, which are very much divorced and causally disconnected – sheer timescale of hours. Doesn’t support meaningful play. Presenting buddys and unique characters but not linking them readably to the game’s system, so the player’s investment is in the representational level and not in the deeper systems themselves. We’re reinforcing the wrong part here, and pulling players away from the meaning, which is in the systems themselves.

His point is we might have dug ourselves in a hole and gone done the wrong road. Recent art games are simple maybe because they are trying to get out of the hole. Let’s not get preoccupied with representational, let’s roll back a bit and get simpler and find things people are familiar with and find meaning in that. Down the road we’re going to do a better job of balancing the two here.

Interlude – parts that need to be fixed. Redoing production. Fight design precision in decision. Fight lack of incrementation in abstraction phrase. Actual design is happening during implementation, by programmers who know about design then they want to admit. Industry now dominated by game designers without programminng backgrounds. And all this iteration and playtesting is more then finding the fun, but players understanding their choices. And we’re fire-proofing our interface schema.

Proposes an actionable readability model. Redefines giving player’s visibility of choice. Not giving away the best choice. Take a look at Portal. Portal is linear, constrained, FPS, and subversive. It subverts every aspect of the game. The game environment is highly linear, and the game is about non-linearity, projected topology. Subverted. Challenge design is intended to give the player a huge range of options. Implication is that the player is reading the game and figuring out the biases of the environment, that favor and contract a set of choices. Looks at Portal the Flash game – very similar on paper. But it has complete overview of gamespace, perfect information. The real portal differs because you can look through portals, a level of spatial information. But the subtle information comes from parallax, moving back and forth through portals, giving you additional spatial information. It’s a unique instrument of readability in Portal.

There is a number of scales on how player’s make choices, on importance of each choice, and measuring upside, down side. Wants a more readability-centric scale. With threats, progress, conditions of locality, agency/boundary/constraints, and state of the avatar/self. Player’s read these things, and are presented with opportunity to map a number of choices onto a number of different axes. The player evaluates whether the choice is obvious, immediate effects, and whether information to base it on is complete or incomplete, at the very least.

For readability, player is looking at individual game ingredients and the game as a whole. There’s one channel but multiple dimensions. Different players see more in the information presented as they get more system literacy, learning from the A all the way down to the M of the game (and back up). Also, if you are simulating it, there is less readability in it . Far Cry 2 has way more “noise” then Doom, and we shouldn’t be trying to simulate everything. Systems get fuzzy and ambiguous. Special case representations fail though because they can be simplistic and misleading, so they aren’t perfect either. Designers favor systemic over the special case because it’s harder to make special case more granular, systematic easier to fix. So usually combine, and have to look at readability of both representations. In Thief, torches are a dynamic system of light. Player can try and snuff these out with arrows, which have systematic physics, but the rule that snuffs the torch out is an emulated rule. Point is there should be some consistency between systems.

Last principle is game systems are only readable if players can perceive the relationship between game cues or feedback, and the player internalizes the game’s metaphor. A working model.

We need to solve these challenges – breadth of simulation, depth of abstraction, and how we integrate them together. We need to introduce these ingredients and keep them consistent, represent them procedurally and affordably. He presents a challenge management pipeline for readability we can use throughout production. We need core activities at every given moment understood, with motivating goals. We need accurate actions devolved into player verbs. What is your gameplay based on in most simplistic terms of player verbs? We need low-level controls from that and understand the range of meaningful input and whether we’ve communicated that to the player. Do the player’s understand what the verbs do? Can it be tuned in response to pre-release player feedback. Then, we need this palette used by level designers – player’s using them in the context of the larger game. Beyond a bag of parts, but a tested and known readable set. And then can we look and see this parts in playtesting?

It’s just one possible tool – a lot of different ways we can do this. But we can’t preempt the problem through documentation – we have to get it on screen.

Question: Longer game, change readability to reflect trawling? Trawling is a willingness to step outside fiction, so not sure we want to break metaphorical cushion in response, likely to obscure metaphorical consistencies. Question: Is readability always good? Can’t think of alternates. Even if a player is willingly suspending disbelief with imperfect information, there’s a contract with the designer that defies designer abuse. And obscuration is a form of abuse. Question? For social play (implication about hidden information on systems being useful)? With a social motive, people are interested in gesture, we don’t gain a lot by obscuring how to gesture. So don’t interfere with those affordances of the game? Question: Eternal Darkness insanity mechanic? Exception that proves the rule. Question: Mercs in Far Cry 2 bad representational examples? Not as bad as the narrative problems. People though hated the respawning checkpoints. One of the problems is that respawned checkpoints aren’t always readable because the AI is off doing something to the side, and lead the player into making mistakes. Or situations in Far Cry 2 required preparation work, but there were systems like malaria had a disruptive effect. They wanted to have more analog failure, but readability was hard, and it hurt accessibility. Question: Geoffrey Kaplan on WoW quests – improved readability through exclamation marks – improved readability? Used to think it was a joke, but can get away with a lot more then you think you can. There’s this escalating ramp in the dev community, and we’re probably a bit too hard core about it. There’s always ways to do it that are subtle and well-executed. The HUD can be just good graphic design, and fun to look at. WoW sacrificed immersion there for readability. Question: Augmented readability through scans, but restricted at baseline play? Is that really a degradation of readability if it’s not concealing information about the game’s systems itself. This is almost adding more info, above and beyond.

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2 thoughts on “GDC 2009: Thursday

  1. ugh, this makes me want to go on a gdc panel and rant.

    we talked a lot about how so much of the games industry is finally moving into a direction that separates games from films. I am excited about this!!! people been trying to force the media together, saying that games have the same opportunity to send a message and communicate with the players – what if we viewed games as not ways to send messages from designer -> player, but a way to set up scenarios where messages and communication is occuring between player -> player…it’s how games were started!

    and jane’s assessment of dance & breakdancing is interesting. lol. dance is all about the experience of sharing (two-way street)- NOT, the experience of having a viewer watch the dancers (one-way street) – the viewership of dancing has sort of ruined the dance scene, and brought out a lot of the negative aspects of it – if you go down into the roots of dancing, it’s all about community and sharing

    i am so excited that people are finally catching on with this premise – seems like it’s been a slow thought, but finally people are buying into my vision for games.

    this is why MP rocks. ;o

  2. Pingback: Meaning: Mathematics of « Game of Design

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