Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Are we our limbs, or our hands?

The answer to this may seem self-evident, yet that anything is being written also makes it evident that the reality is, as ever, something of a strange mess to sift through as far as this writer's concerned.

The Kinect
While motion controls are heavily derided in the "core" gaming community, they are generally enjoyed by the "peripheral" gaming community, or to rephrase that, everyone who doesn't go out of their way for titles that are, to most, somewhat niche in nature. Indie titles, 4X strategy games, probably many RPG games, and games of that nature. That being said, even those in the peripheral category didn't exactly flock to the Kinect, despite possibly having leapt to the Wii. Ignoring cost, and ignoring the absence of core titles as a factor, why might this have been?

Well, the Kinect is extremely ahead of the game, it doesn't seem like anyone would disagree with that, but the Kinect also has some unique expectations for its users. It doesn't expect you to be fit, by any means, however, it does expect you to have space, a 360 or Xbox One, and probably decent lighting to get solid motion capture down for some games. Two of those problems are easily resolvable, lighting and the console itself, despite its pricing, are much easier to acquire than restructuring your home to give you space for an additional control peripheral.

That being the case, there's another hurdle. It expects you to be patient with its quirks. That's a huge problem because, let's face it, people expect technology not to expect anything of the them besides knowing how to plug it in and activate it and press buttons or keys, everything else should just work. Admittedly, that's not an unreasonable stance to hold, where technology that's been well established is concerned, but it is when it's a very new technology that's trying to find its bearings.

Yet that doesn't stop people from being unreasonable. So we let these newfangled devices gather dust and return to what we know...

The Wii and the PlayStation Move
If there's one thing we like to think we know how to use, it's our hands. That's why the Wii was so popular, alongside a multitude of other factors, and had the Playstation Move arrived sooner, with a more accessible console pricewise, may have been met with matching success. With all this being the case, there's little doubt that the Wii has been the most successful move into the motion control space, perhaps only because it was bold enough to strike the market before anyone else, with an inexpensive product and apparently a good marketing campaign to back it, forcing the competition to play catch up.

So what is it about the Wii that has everyone hearing more stories about it than anything else? It's certainly not all Nintendo, and even with the minor bruise of users accidentally tossing Wiimotes at their televisions, it continued to sell very well. It's hard to pin down, but it's very likely to do with the inclusion of a decently designed demonstration game with the product, Wii Sports, that not only acted to demonstrate but was able to stand on its own as a fun, enjoyable experience for those unfamiliar with gaming. It wasn't something terribly strange and unusual like the mushroom and turtle filled Mario, or tense and gritty filled with men dying and orange-eyed men shooting at you like Killzone. It was something everyone knew in some way, either through watching or having played themselves, and gave them something tangible to emulate the motions with without having to overexert themselves, unless they found themselves very excited and into the experience.

Wii Sports was, possibly without ever intending to be, a perfect trojan horse of gaming into otherwise non-gaming people's lives by simply giving them an easy to relate to foothold to take their first steps into a strange and fun world. Throw in the fact that it supported local multiplayer, imbuing it with another subtle key to viral word of mouth marketing, and you can throw in the towel if you're trying to compete. It's game over man, these guys have it in the bag, and those that have bought into it? It doesn't matter to them if Nintendo doesn't manage to replicate this occurrence, as long as their console doesn't deteriorate and malfunction on them.

These circumstances, alongside the poor price point and difficulty of development on the PlayStation 3, compounded by the absence of an entry point game with the PlayStation Move, were almost certainly the major stumbling blocks that prevented the breakout success of Sony's attempt at entering into the motion control market. Not only were they late to the party, but in the American market at least, gamers that had a console were largely in the back pockets of Nintendo and Microsoft, to the point that it wasn't too unheard of for them to have both with the exception of the PlayStation 3.

What about now, where does it all stand?
Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on who you ask, it doesn't stand at all. It's all moving quickly away from motion controls, as if the whole affair was a big mistake and a failure, with Nintendo having moved on to the Wii U and its Gamepad but retaining Wiimote and Nunchuk support, Microsoft removing the Kinect 2 from Xbox Ones to cut its price, instead selling it separately, and while Sony continues to support its PlayStation Move with the PlayStation 4 and a new PlayStation Camera to replace its old PlayStation Eye, it has otherwise shown no major support for the peripheral.

For many observers, it may seem like it was nothing more than a fleeting fad, and they probably aren't too off. The gaming industry is known for its fads, such as the brief rhythm game craze games such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band stirred up, only to promptly fade away for most to forget. In this way, we're neither our limbs nor our hands, if anything, we're only our eyes and ears, and it's a matter of finding what really appeals to those. As such, we now have the virtual reality craze coming to the forefront of gaming, but whether it will take off or not remains to be seen, and even if it does, according to companies that have been working intensely on it, such as Valve and Oculus VR, it will remain largely a sedentary affair.

This is partly due to one of the aforementioned issues that the Kinect presented, space and hitting or running into things, but mostly due to a mixture of wires and the risks of motion sickness. Albeit the latter has been greatly reduced with improvements to the Oculus Rift, wires remain and will probably remain, a problem for these headsets. Unless they're of another sort that utilizes smartphones as the screen or are wired up to a backpack, but those are both less popular and in some ways, even less convenient than the frontrunners, the Oculus Rift and Sony's Project Morpheus.

With all this being said, it looks like we're back in the seat, twiddling our fingers about, having learned nearly nothing from motion controls, and are sticking our head in the cyber sand of VR. Why, though, are we here, after the incredible successes of Nintendo and, even after having had to drag themselves anywhere close, the mild success of the Kinect? Provided that this is already a long post, this question will be followed up in a subsequent post.

World designs, go open or go hub?

Welcome to Empire City
In my mind, Infamous is one of the first, and last, open world games to truly present a compelling open world. Why do I say this? The world recognizes you. You're a savior or a tyrant, and the people respond to you in as appropriate a manner as they can find to. They gather together to fend for themselves against the gangs, as well as praise you, or they join together to protest your actions and try to kill you.

More than this action alone, they do this together. The people are represented as intelligent, rather than bumbling over confident fools that don't realize how powerful you are. They know you've got power, and they know they can't match it alone.

Now, you may say, other open world games do this too! They have police come after you, or they say something about your driving or clambering up buildings. You're right, of course, but that's such a mundane and limited response, it's hardly even noteworthy.

Infamous takes this all a step further. They integrate the people in a clever way that complements what's occurring in the world. Then, they subtly change how your character and the world appears to hammer it all home. You're influencing things, for better or worse, the world's getting cleaner or it's getting gritter, the people are growing fond of you or they're finding you absolutely intolerable and they're taking action.

Later installments in the Infamous series, unfortunately, seemed to tone down this level of influence, much to my dismay. They became like every other open world game.

Let's go to New York City, Empire City's inspiration
Supposedly the game's highest structure
Spider-Man 2, the tie-in game with the movie of the same name, was hailed by many as a fantastic game. Being the first open world Spider-Man game, it was especially praised for the freedom of movement as the renowned webslinger, compared to earlier, highly limited games (due in large part to hardware constraints). However, as the first open world superhero game, to my knowledge, it was also accompanied by many of the same issues as every other open world title of the time and to date.

In all honesty, I never completed the game, due in some part to these, as well as not enjoying it very much. I do, nevertheless, recall the flimsy heroics of recovering children's balloons, fighting rooftop criminals (as they strangely love heights, something even Infamous doesn't escape), and some other odd side tasks. What's problematic about all of this is nothing in particular, except that ignoring them is largely inconsequential. The world doesn't care either about your menial acts or your grander acts in the main story.

Infamous only barely skirts outside of this issue through its karma system, or its reputation system in other words. You beat up civilians? You're a jerk, you're bad. You save them or knock out criminals instead of killing them? You're a hero, you're good. Your menial actions are relevant, but your grander actions still aren't entirely as influential as you might hope.

Spider-Man 2? The people don't care what you're doing. They're scenery, they're nothing more than a background crowd, a backcrowd, to everything you're doing. They are only present to give the sense that you're navigating an inhabited city, and nothing more.

In Infamous, some of them are transformed into an old school chorus, as found in old Shakespearean or Greek plays. They respond to their current situation as I've already mentioned above.

Beyond the unresponsiveness of the world to your behavior, except in very minor ways, it also treats the world as an extremely diluted hub for your activities. What do I mean by this?

The diluting effects of persistence
All open world games are, by their design, large open persistent hubs of activity for you to experience, but by focusing on persistence, they dilute their world's potential in numerous ways. Here are a few of the ways...
  1. Aesthetic variance. By limiting a game's world to a single location, they can, if they choose a real location, improve its accurate resemblance. In the process though, they run into the same problem we have in the real world. Everything comes to look very samey. All buildings are, approximately, the same. If you enjoy the gameplay, it may not be a problem, but if you enjoy gameplay and world design, you may find yourself frustrated by never being able to take your gameplay out of the setting it's rooted in.
  2. Character capability. Once you've set your world, be it in a fictional city setting or other real world approximation, you've set the expectations for what your character's capable of. Unless you go to lengths to emphasize otherwise, such as in Prototype, Infamous, Assassin's Creed, or Elder Scrolls, players will expect to use vehicles and shoot guns, but not be able to enter or scale every structure or jump very high.
  3. Content variance. This follows entirely from a persistent world and aesthetic variance. It's not merely a case of the side-content being reduced to mini-games or limited to what makes sense within the world, it's that often, this content never takes you out of the hub. You are always stuck in New York City, Empire City, the Middle East, or the province of the moment in the Elder Scrolls series. By restricting content to the hub, and rarely, if ever, branching into a temporary world, the content is highly diminished.
In other words, a persistent open world grants much freedom in movement and emergent adventures throughout, but in the process sacrifices a great amount for the sake of aesthetic, functional, and event cohesion. This doesn't have to be the case, but this is often the case in my experience, and it makes sense on some interesting levels. By limiting the design to a single setting, you can better focus how it all fits together, and if your setting is largely homogenous on an aesthetic level, even better, as it requires less work to produce distinct structural models and textures. 

If done "well" then, an open world design could potentially prove easier than a more nuanced, intricate closed world (e.g. linear games, level to level) or hub world design. It's no great wonder in this case, really, considering the success of Minecraft and the rise of games with procedurally generated worlds. However, it should be noted, that a procedurally generated open world will almost always be easier to make than a handcrafted open world, and it's for this reason that, while an open world game could prove easier, it often does not since many would rather handcraft their worlds than work away at calibrating algorithms.

Although, if made really well, a procedurally generated world will be equally as difficult to make as a handcrafted open world, due to ensuring everything is generated as desired. (See games such as Limit Theory for a crash course in difficult procedural generation design work.)

Nevertheless, to return to the point, it is simply the case that despite the difficulty of handcrafting large worlds, it is often considered worth the effort because as appealing as a unique world each time may be, content implementation and player directing is much, much harder to figure out. There are workarounds that wouldn't be too difficult, but for most behind the creation of games of this type, they want a core story that can be followed, a structured setting that is easy to learn and navigate, and easy content distribution and mapping to ensure the player discovers it.

There's nothing wrong with any of that, except that they could do this just as easily in a sequential hub world design.

Okay, we get it, what's the deal with hubs?
As noted, all open world games are already hub worlds by design, the difference is that they are most like hollowed out, branch less tree trunks than anything else. You live inside the trunk, and you never leave, you don't even realize you're in a hub necessarily, because everything you can see is strewn about it. The only thing that reminds you of this is when you hit its borders, which often designers try their damnedest to hide because they want you thinking about what's before you, not what's around you.

Again, tree trunks are nice and everything, and arranging my nuts around it is fun for a time, but occasionally, I want to go outside...I want to see other trees, or at least step out on the branches. This is where what I promote comes in, which is nothing revolutionary or new by any means whatsoever, but the revisiting of sequential hubs and branches. What's this then?

It's Spyro the Dragon, Spyro: Ripto's Rage, and Spyro: Year of the Dragon, it's Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back and Crash Bandicoot: Warped. It's the Sly Cooper series and Vexx. It's Dustforce and Bastion.

Each of these games has either a series of hubs with unique branches that follow the theme of their hub, or a central hub with distinct branches that in themselves act as hubs. This is fantastic because it retains the focus and cohesion of a single-setting large open world, but divides it to produce varying, and in my mind at least, more interesting, experiences. The major problems of such a design approach are the difficulty of realizing distinct looks for each hub and its branches as well as designing uniquely appropriate events for each, not to mention the loss of persistent crossover effects from hub to hub, but these are problems worth solving, rather than neglecting. Why? They can prove inspiring and they create more fascinatingly unique experiences to encounter than yet another Earthly natural landscape or cityscape.

Better yet, the lessons learned from revisiting this design approach could improve the open worlds of games today through more minute focus on little details, that an open world design may incidentally overlook.

In the end...
Whether you go open or hub world, it's best to recognize the necessity of minutiae and variance in both to improve the overall experience of the player. It may be overlooked, but most things, when done the best, often are anyway.

Monday, May 26, 2014

A Proper Introduction.

Which where?
When it comes to approaching ideas, the first things I'm left wondering are, which where does this fit into? What's that supposed to mean? Well, it's simple, everything is somewhere out there, now which where do I put it that makes sense, and is that where here or there, or between? 
So where does all this fit into? If I keep with this to any extent...The idea is that the wheres are game dissections of some sort. What sort? Probably narrative. A little gameplay maybe. We'll find the where when we get there. 

Why games?
Why not books if for narrative, why not movies? Why? Because games are more interesting to me. Why? Because you fill the shoes, you're the hand up the puppets' backs of the driving forces of games. That alters your mindset in a way that books and movies can only ever mildly hope of achieving. Books, depending on the perspective from which they're written make you a distant telepath or god. Movies make you a reviewer of fantastical documentaries of events you may never experience.
Games make you the main actor, director, and experiencer in a way that neither of the aforementioned media are capable of making you, through something as simple as interactivity.

Why care?
No reason to, really. I probably won't even maintain this very well, and my thoughts are rarely very organized or coherent except in spurts. However, more seriously, games are a great way to keep the mind active and can potentially help develop empathy through the deeper experiences they may provide. It does everyone a disservice if they are not carefully analyzed for where they achieve this well and where they fall flat on their face trying to be something they're not (mostly movies). 

Hello world!

Hi everyone loving lollipops on whimpering old rolling lampshades dancing.