Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Frustration in games; find and polish it

We know games are all about fun. And the greatest question that all game designers try to solve is: "What is fun?". It's an impossible question, because everybody is different in many ways. However, we must also realize that everybody is the same in many ways too. The answer to 'What is fun?' is actually not totally impossible.

So how to we answer the 'What is fun' question? The other way to look at the question is 'What isn't fun'? Now that question suddenly seems more answerable. I feel that it's because people remember shitty things more than good things. Human are first pessimistic before they become optimistic. They look at shitty things around them and try to improve it, either by effort, delusion, offsetting pros and cons, etc. Only then they become optimists. This is one of the things I observed in the army.

The main idea is, we usually realize more bad things than good. When the bad starts to outweigh the good, we become frustrated. In fact, as long as we have too many bad things in the game design, we get frustrated.

Frustration exists in so many areas in a video game. Loading screens, unwanted cause and effects, lack of goals and objectives, waiting times, fairness, difficulty, ugly graphics and art design, bad camera angles, the list goes on and on and on. In fact, there are ways to frustrate players that you can't really list in just phrases.

So as you can see, the question isn't really "What is fun" first. For a game to become fun, first it must eliminate what isn't fun. By looking at this perspective, I believe, you will be able to keep track of the bigger picture of your game. By doing so, you will be able to polish your game. You will start to know why companies like Blizzard takes such a damn long time to release their incredibly polished games. There's always something to be done.

Because what (you believe) is fun usually revolves in the gameplay, I find that sometimes designers overlook other smaller aspects of the game like UI, music, sound, menu user-bility, instructions, and other accessibility issues.

If you look at board games, vanilla Catan is fun for the first or second playthrough, until you realize how dependent on luck it is. People will start to slowly become frustrated when they didn't get their stuff when they logically should. Finally when they realize that they are being controlled by circumstances, they quit.

A comic strip inspired by Settlers of Catan's gameplay

Another example, this time a video game, is 'Cross Edge' on PS3. I played through the game and gave it like tons of chances. I know I'm not the most tolerant of gamers, but sometimes almost every aspect of the game turns me off. The music is not fitting, the gameplay is novel but tedious, difficult and has a ridiculously high learning curve, and the controls and mechanics are quite confusing.

More painful to play than it looks

If I weren't a JRPG player, I would've dropped it the first 10 mins into the game. Of course, I'm sure people still play it, but if you look at the package, you know it's going to be, at most, a cult hit. And it's going to be popular only because of its characters.

Sometimes I wonder what some of these devs are thinking. Are they just making games just to hope that fans will love it just because of its popular characters? I understand that some sources of frustration are beyond the game developers' control (like players dying constantly in games like DOTA due to lack of experience, stupidity or bad teammates), but there are sources which are totally controllable.

Everytime I play a game, I would always think what the designers were thinking. Why did they do little things like this and that, from gameplay, to UI, to sound. Sometimes I find some parts frustrating and wonder why the developers overlooked it. Either they honestly did not notice, there was no time to fix it, or they don't give a damn. 'Cross Edge' truly felt like the devs don't even care.

Of course, nothing can be compared to the all famous Big Rigs:

Before you start making a game, video or board game, you must first decide its audience. There is a reason why Catan is designed that way and I believe it's not really for the hardcore people who enjoy scheming a planning like in a chess game. The only reason why Catan was designed that way, I believe, was because it's catered to casual players. If you look at Catan that way, it actually makes a lot of sense.

And then there are the grey areas; aspects of the game where you really need to know how much your target audience tolerate. You have to find out what your audience is able to tolerate. This is especially true for a game that is heavily based on numbers. Not everyone 'gets' Civilization series or the like as the numbers probably overwhelm them. In such games, aspects that could probably be labeled as 'frustrating' to most would become a 'necessity' for the target audience.

However, even if an aspect is necessary, it is still important to make it as un-frustrating as possible. Not everything is perfect, but it can be close to being one.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

I saved my weekends

Well, the past 30 days has been rather busy with tons of random stuff. I've been spending my weekends completing ME2 and MGS4 (finally get to play it). Also bought myself Hokuto Mushou for a small fortune but I'd say it's pretty well spent even if you are a small Hokuto no Ken fan.

The admission interview for Digipen is finally over, and I don't really have much comments about it. It didn't take long; it doesn't even seem like they are grilling me for data or anything, but I showed them whatever I could so I guess it'd be okay.

I've spent past few weekends at home playing ME2, MGS4, Hokuto Mushou, BFBC2, going out only to somehow end up at bugis for some BBCS. And now thanks to Jae I have a good way to practice combos (secret training).

And of course, handheld games, my only salvation in camp. I've completed Ace Attorney: Investigations. It's great to see that game take even the slightest step in another direction and yet did not falter in any other aspects. I felt the story was excellent, especially when they managed to heavily link all the chapters together, as opposed to its predecessors where chapters felt separated from each other. Maybe I should review it? I'm not sure how to though.

So yeah, spending my weekends to play games and coding on the side is really relaxing, as opposed to tiring myself out and return to camp feeling like crap. Maybe it's because I finally have some GOOD games on the shelves (thanks ZH!)

SSF4 is releasing soon and I can't wait for it :), and I wonder if I should get the new Pokemon for my DS (buy, the rom version keeps dying on me)? I hate to admit it but I actually think looks pretty good. I have been avoiding pokemon for more than a decade so why not just give it a shot?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Review: "Mass Effect 2"

When I think about writing a review about Mass Effect, I find it hard not to be biased, because I really liked the setting. Here I'll try to be straight to the point so I won't drift away from topic and into my random fanboy ramblings.

Mass Effect 2 is THE sequel, storywise. Honestly, comparing past RPG sequels, I haven't felt the hook of nostalgia used as much as this game. When you venture throughout the galaxy, you will run into old NPCs, some important, some not, to catch up with. You will meet your old party members, and thankfully, Bioware is smart enough to give them significant roles to play in your quest.

Mordin might be noisy to some I think, not to me though.

But it's really the way they take Mass Effect into something like a movie, with huge focus on the cutscenes. Most of the dialogues, voice acting and cutscenes were choreographed so well, it seems like you are playing a movie at times. It gives exaggeration to a situation, making mundane chat into something that's seems cool enough to make players think that it's important.

The story continuation is just the way I like it. You saved the galaxy in ME1, but it's not all fine and dandy from there. You restored galactic peace but things don't always go so well. It really connects with realism, so straight away, ME2 pulls the player into the game.

I mentioned before that a good game, especially an RPG, is good only when you manage to immerse the player enough that he does not start to look at your game-flow structure. I didn't really think about that in ME2. All I wanted was to travel, meet random NPCs, look for interesting dialogues, and talking to my party members. In other words, I just want to explore.

Tali joins you!

Now on to the mechanics:
They only changed one thing in the FPS fights, that they resort to using ammos instead of plain overheating. I don't really know what's the rationale behind that, possibly to limit players from spamming pistol or sniper shots (which were the only weapons you can actually run out of ammo imo). Heh with this concept, suddenly I thought about how alike it is to the Nanoha anime.

Levels have been shortened from 50 to 30. Your skill points are now compressed and easier to understand. You are given a set of powers you can put points into and the more you level up a power, the more powerful it becomes and the more expensive the next upgrade is. At the highest level of each power (which is 4), you get to choose 2 different ways of the power to become (like having more damage or more AOE).

As I mentioned, there aren't weapon shops anymore. You just upgrade your weapons if you have enough materials for a certain upgrade. You can still find different weapons throughout the game, but just keep in mind that it's not like ME1 where you can just buy stuff.

As for character sidequests, needless you say it was very well done (when I say well done, I meant the whole package from storyline to voice acting to cutscenes), espacially Mordin's and Tali's. The rest were at least mildly interesting. I'm stating the sidequests here because I think it is worth stating in any review.

Garrus, the whimp to a badass.

Finally we have a new traveling system. I'm not going to elaborate much about moving your ship around the galaxy because it's self explanatory when you play it. Exploring of planets though, is alot less painful than before. Remember the old vehicle system and the randomized terrain you have to deal with? It's not there anymore thankfully. All you need to do is scan around the planet and shoot probes where you detect rare minerals.

Remember how those minerals are useless in ME1? They are now used for all your upgrades in ME2 so scanning planets become a bread and butter sort of thing. It gets tedious and occasionally boring but hey, it's way better than riding the stupid APC.

ME2 is truly worth a play. Apparently, I give up hope on Bioware too quickly when they released Dragon Age. ME2 could easily top my list of RPGs for the last decade I think and I really enjoyed it from the start to the end. It was the first time in many years when I forced myself to play a game.

Now if you'd excuse me, I'll go start my 2nd playthrough :)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Nagato tops May Newtype

Stolen from Sankaku: here, which reminds me that I still need to watch (or rather, keep finding) Suzumiya Haruhi no Shoushitsu which is what seems to be an awesome movie.

Somehow it's the reason that it boosted both Haruhi and Yuki to the top of the chart this month, although the lack of Mikuru can be considered disturbing (than again, I don't think you see much of her in the movie)

I guess everyone loves blushing Yuki to everything else :p

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Review: "Spelunky!"

Hi everyone, sorry for the slow posts these days. I've been busy reading up stuffs, applying for my Uni and playing Bad Company as well as Mass Effect 2. So anyway I'm here to introduce yet another game!

Game Link: http://www.spelunkyworld.com/

Spleunky is a platformer game led by indie game developer Derek Yu. It's basically very much like NetHack on a platformer. You are given basic instructions to the game and was immediately thrown into the world, letting you discover the rest for yourself. There are no save points, no checkpoints. When you die, you die and your high score is recorded.

I have split opinions of this kind of 'NetHacky' games. For people without skills like me, it can be very frustrating. Up till now, I've barely seen the 5th level of the game, mostly because I'm too greedy at the wrong time or I don't even know what happened to me.

But ironic part is that I loved it because it gives me the sense that there are many things to explore and know about in this game. What does picking up an idol do? What's with this empty space with a evil looking object in the middle? What the hell is this item? The list goes on.

Best of all, each level is randomized so each playthrough is always different. Props to whoever did the codes.

If Derek were to ask me if his game accomplished obtaining a 'NetHacky' feel, my answer would be a 'yes'. It's great to see such polished game become popular.

Oh I didn't mention? It's going to XBLA soon in a more polished state =)