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Force Majeure

My Latest Favourite Game

The vast majority of my game playing time is in the online, casual arena, because I am able to sneak in a few minutes here and there. The range of quality you can find in free flash games is vast, but many of them would, as Sturgeon's Law dictates, fall under the heading of 'crud'. (Or 'crap' depending on how you term the law.)

Even so, I have found a number of games that manage to key in on some aspect of fun such that my time is not wasted on them. If, as much of my time recently has been spent, I am playing on Kongregate, these would be games that warrant three or four stars.

On occasion, however, is a game that surprises me.

Thus, Musical Catch 2.

The first Musical Catch was an enjoyable little music game. Simple to control, you move your cursor around with the mouse, picking up shapes while trying to avoid red ones. Yellow shapes increased your score multiplier and size. A combination of relaxation and anxiety, the game had a lot of promise.

But it was somewhat limited. The designer had a full version download, but as an online flash game, it did not go very far.

Musical Catch 2 is an example of a sequel where designer understanding what made the first game work and what to correct to make it better.

In Musical Catch, if you hit a red shape, your score multiplier is cut in half, instantly. The same happens in the second, but you also drop a corresponding number of yellow pieces, similar to how Sonic the Hedgehog lost all his rings if he took a hit. You can pick those back up to recover a bit of your power and size. If you happen to have a convenient purple shape around, you can recover just about everything in short order. The game does not feel quite so punishing because of this.

Musical Catch has but a single shape movement pattern. Musical Catch 2 has the possibility of twenty-five different patterns (two different settings of five options apiece) and has one spectacularly 'Mix it up' mode where the movement will change over the course of the song. This can be quite difficult and surprising at times, but is incredibly fun.

I had gotten through most of the basics, and thought that Musical Catch 2 was a nice update to the first. A strong game, and worthy of a four star rating, but certainly not one of the best.

Then I unlocked the final song option: mp3 from URL. This had been hinted at in the first, since the full (paid) version of Musical Catch had that option for your hard drive, but combined with the added gameplay features and the complete playing in browser experience, Musical Catch 2 is a certain winner.

I realised that the designer had done the perfect thing to get me hooked. Much as Harmonix' Rock Band is a strong experience because of the large (and growing) library of work, musical games that allow for expansion have an easy way to extend the playing experience. Plus, moreso than Rock Band, it is expandable at my whim.

I began to wonder what various musical genres would be like. The classical-inspired piano pieces that are included have a certain feel to them, but what about a rock song, or jazz, or something really off beat. I suppose it would be entirely possible to put in a spoken word track, perhaps from a comedy album. Would Musical Catch work to the dulcet tones of Lewis Black?

It seems I have to try. The rock song I have done was very challenging, as the bursts of notes that come with rapid guitar work would often contain a number of harmful red shapes. More exploration and experimentation are certainly needed. There is a bit of a hassle in that I need to upload my songs to a server to then link; it would be much easier if it had the option to play from my own computer, but that may be beyond the capabilities of an in-browser Flash game. But that is but a minor headache considering the amount of fun available.

Five out of five stars.

GCPP: The Final Week

Over the past month, we have seen all the puzzle designs offered up for Furnishing. Now, in this new year, there is one last week to try them out and offer comments and constructive criticism before they are passed onto the developers to decide which will be added to the game.

Remember that if you try out and give feedback on all of the designs, you will be eligible for a prize drawing.

The puzzles:

Carp - Comment (How to play)

Danio - Comment (How to play)

Fredi - Comment (How to play)

Gilthead - Comment (How to play)

Loosejaw - Comment (How to play)

Mariggle - Comment (How to play)

Shad - Comment (How to play)

Snapper - Comment (How to play)

Remember that you can discuss all of the puzzles and the entire furnishing round here.

I would like to extend a hearty thank-you to everyone who has commented thus far. The discussion will help the developers make the best possible choice for the furnishing puzzle.

Happy puzzling year!

GCPP: Furnishing Round Four

And now we come to the fourth and final week of our furnishing puzzle highlights. I hope you have enjoyed trying out all the puzzles so far.

This week our two puzzles are a bit of an abstract approach to the Furnishing idea.

Danio. A variant on a classic mathematics puzzle to include material sturdiness.

Shad. Combine and build patterns with icons.

Combined feedback for the entire furnishing round and all the puzzles may be done here.

Remember, players who comment on all eight puzzle designs will be eligible for a prize drawing.

Enjoy your furnishing as we enter the New Year.

GCPP: Furnishing Round Three

Thank you to everyone for joining us in this third week of furnishing puzzle highlights.

This week the GCPP furnishing puzzles will focus on two variations of a similar theme. Both of the puzzles are drop puzzles where you will attempt to put pieces together in patterns. The end conditions are slightly different, however.

The two puzzles are:

Mariggle. Drop pieces to form furniture shapes.

Snapper. Drop pieces to enclose coloured areas.

Remember that all discussion and commentary on the entire furnishing round can be done here. Discussion comparing the two puzzles directly would be helpful.

Anyone who comments on all puzzle designs will have a chance to win a prize.

In light of the severe weather conditions please take all necessary precautions before trying out the furnishing puzzles. Keep warm and enjoy your furnishing.

GCPP: Furnishing Round Two

Welcome to the second week of the GCPP highlights. I would like to thank everyone who played and commented on Fredi and Loosejaw. Those puzzles are still open for further comments as well.

This week we bring our focus to two new puzzles:

Carp. Construct patterns by rolling a bed of cubes.

Gilthead. Build the legs to a table with pieces from a stream.

As always, you may comment on the round as a whole here. Please note that anyone who comments on all of the designs is eligible for a random prize drawing after the focus round is complete.

Happy puzzling!

GCPP: Furnishing Round One

We are nearing the end of the third and final round of the Grand Crafting Puzzle Project. This round focused on the furnishing industry. The designers have worked very hard to try and come up with fun and invigorating puzzles that could be added to the game to round out the crafting industries.

Now is the chance for all the players to help out.

Each week we will be highlighting two of the designs for discussion and feedback. To take part, you just need to play the designs, answer some questions, and optionally add other comments you have.

After all puzzles have been highlighted, we will have a random prize drawing for the players who provided feedback on all of the designs.

This week the designs are:

Fredi. A pattern building game similar to tangrams.

Loosejaw. Build furniture out of wood off of a conveyer belt.

Discussion and feedback for the entire round may be done here.

Enjoy the puzzles. And furnish well.

Two Panels by the Captain

Yesterday afternoon I listened to a panel as part of the Casual Games Summit on which our own Captain Cleaver took part. The topic of the afternoon was the changes that casual games will make in the future, particularly the way that the business will change.

As always, the Captain was a compelling speaker. Even while some of the information presented was a bit dry, he managed to remain entertaining for his portion of the talk. One nice point he made is his continued dislike for the term 'User'. The people who engage in our games are 'Players' and it feels wrong to refer to them otherwise.

One other interesting point made is how the casual industry fell upon the 'try and buy' model (exemplified very well by PopCap and various game portal sites) where players will download a trial and then choose whether or not to buy it later on. While it is not a new business model, since shareware has done a similar thing for many years, it was one system that managed to succeed following the dot com bust. However, as the Captain and the other panelists noted, it seems to be a dying business form and will likely be replaced by others in the next few years.

Then, this morning the Captain took part in a panel on Player Generated Content, which is of some interest to me due to the GCPP. While his portion of the talk covered Whirled rather than the rather non-standard format we have used in Puzzle Pirates, it was still quite educational since much of the talk covered the motivation that players find to continue to generate content.

Because this is a rapidly changing area of the industry, with many different games and companies getting into it in some fashion, it is very difficult to tell where it will all end up. It does seem that allowing for player generated content helps increase the depth and longevity of games, which is to the benefit of everyone involved: developer and player.

A Second Look at the GDC

When I took part in helping out at the Game Developer's Conference last year I really had little idea what I was in for. The following week was somewhat surprising, very tiring, and extremely enjoyable. It was a learning experience throughout that I found aided me in surprising ways with my work as an Ocean Master.

This year I came and began to see faces that I had not in the past year. Friendships that began then picked up immediately, which created a wonderful sense of camaraderie. The group I found myself with last year congregated again, and we spent a good amount of time catching up and noting the changes in the industry since we last met.

Thus far, I have not seen many of the talks, although I did catch part of the Casual Games Summit. One gentleman from Big Fish Games made the point that since the video game industry started, much of the progress has had the upshot of closing out potential audience. I missed a panel our own Captain Cleaver took part in, but I hope to catch another one this afternoon.

I did help out at the Intel Interactive Lounge, which had a very impressive set up for Microsoft's Flight Simulator. The chair and controls were such that you had a very immersive experience. Likewise, there was an interesting fully virtual racing game for attendees to try out.

Today has proven to be another light day, but I am sure that there will be new experiences throughout that will surprise me.

Puzzle Design: Mechanics

My, it has been a very long time since I have written a post here. The winter has been especially busy, with extra shifts, December events, and the inevitable family and friends taking time  away from work. As such, this post has been much delayed. I believe I intended to write it sometime in November.

In my last post I discussed the importance of analogies in puzzle designs, at least within the context of Puzzle Pirates. This time I will attempt to wrestle with the more important side of design: the mechanics. The mechanics are everything when it comes to playing the game. The analogy may help set the tone, but the mechanics are how the player interacts and will ultimately determine if the puzzle is good in keeping the player interested over multiple sessions.

Because there are a number of different types of puzzles within the overall game, the mechanical decisions are going to differ. Ship puzzles have a different set of expectations and requirements than competitive puzzles which are likewise different from crafting puzzles.

For a number of reasons, there is a specific time limit expectation for a single game in a crafting puzzle. Ideally, this is somewhere between two five minutes, but is not firm. A player should be able to complete a puzzle in less or more time, if desired, but the average time should be in that range. The reasons for this are partially economic - the crafting sessions should retain approximate parity with time spent elsewhere in the game - and partially interest. If a session is too long, the player may feel like the game is not proceeding in a progressive direction. If it is too short, the player may feel rushed and unable to enjoy a more laid-back puzzle atmosphere.

However, somewhat critically, a player should be able to do it faster or slower. Consider Alchemistry, which has no specific time limit. When it first came out, I would literally spend an hour or more on a single board, studying it to get the perfect fills. From conversations with others at the time (in my player days), others were much the same. More recently, in my observation of the crafting bake-offs, I have noticed that players will be able to complete multiple puzzle boards in five minutes.

The second facet of design is the action limit. How many different things can a player do in the puzzle? In most cases, one or two distinct actions is usually sufficient. Three is also a possibility, but we do not currently have a crafting puzzle that does.

To see what I mean, look at each of the current crafting puzzles. Distilling has one major action to swap one piece with another, and one minor action to send up a row early. Alchemistry has two actions: rotate a piece and choose to fill. Shipwrightery likewise has two actions: swap two pieces and match a pattern. Blacksmithing actually only has one action: to pound on a piece.

The limit on actions is fairly critical because if you have too many, the player is likely to get confused or overwhelmed by the options. It creates a situation where the decision tree is likely to become too complex for the player to adequately plan ahead. If that happens, the outcome of the game begins to feel more luck-based than skill-based.

That is not to say that all crafting puzzles must have just one or two action choices. More are certainly possible, but the actions do need to be considered carefully within the game balance.

Third, the designer needs to consider the ability to forecast the effect of specific actions. When the player is presented a choice between one of two things can the player see what further choices she will have?

Note that the choice need not be between two different actions. It is not just "swap a piece" and "match a pattern" in Shipwrightery, but also a decision between which pieces to swap. As designed, what the player is looking for and forecasting is the order of matches to make in a row without swapping pieces. Part of the puzzle is fitting all the patterns into the available space.

This ability to forecast ties into the different actions a player may choose. As noted above, if there are too many choices, the player will have an increasingly difficult time attempting to see ahead in the puzzle. If there is no ability to see a series of moves ahead, the player cannot develop a strategy.

However, there is a flip-side. The player needs some ability to forecast, not a complete ability. Which brings us to the fourth point. There must be a degree of randomness in the puzzle.

This is necessary for a number of reasons. First, a bit of luck in a game keeps the outcome somewhat uncertain, which is helpful since all of our standings measure relative performance. Second, randomness encourages players to consider different strategies. One decision may work well in one situation but not in another. Third, randomness prevents perfect play. If there was one perfect way to play the puzzle, we would eventually see play for that puzzle stop when players had solved it. Worse, it would be ridiculously easy to program the strategy into a computer to play instead.

I remember discussion in the design of GCPP Knightfish, before it was chosen as Blacksmithing, there was a fair degree of concern that the design could be solved for perfect play. However, upon deeper consideration, the fact that the board is essentially three layers with only the topmost layer being known until a piece is struck mean that any strategy could not be perfect.

Puzzle Design: Analogies

After about a year to observe the Grand Crafting Puzzle Project where numerous designs have been proposed, refined, put together in play-test versions, further refined, and finally submitted for consideration from the developers, I believe I have finally reached the point where I am able to give some critical consideration to not just what makes a good puzzle design, but what makes a good Puzzle Pirates puzzle design.

What separates Puzzle Pirates from puzzle game collection sites is the degree of immersion. Every major activity has a puzzle, and every puzzle has a defined activity. As a standalone game, a puzzle may be or do anything. It does not need to represent anything at all. Indeed, some of the most invigorating puzzle games I have played are little more than a manipulation of lights and sounds with no connection to the world we inhabit.

Likewise, other MMORPGs may have similar activities, but rarely is every instance going to be defined by playing a game within the game. (Very often, when a friend or acquaintance has espoused the virtues of another game, I silently ask "What is it that you do when you fight something else?")

The critical point for Puzzle Pirates is the analogy of the puzzle. Every puzzle has elements to represent the activity it implies. The degree may vary significantly, from gunnery's nearly accurate depiction of the activity process to the subtle presence of the elements of wind, water, and rope in the sailing puzzle.

Within the crafting puzzles, the importance of the analogy is perhaps even stronger than in the rest of the game. Because the crafting puzzles are for a distinctly material activity, the sense of manipulating the components of the craft to make a finished product needs to be there. Because these puzzles are often intended to be more relaxing, the player will often have the chance to observe the analogy more easily and more critically.

Because of this, the analogy for a crafting puzzle must be quite strong to retain the sense of world. We could not, for instance, make a Tetris clone where the pieces were cloth cut-outs and call it tailoring. Well, we could, and it may make a fun puzzle, but it would not be a good tailoring puzzle. There is a need for the analogies to step further.

However, these are analogies, not simulations. I remember early on in the GCPP there were some designs submitted that seemed to cover the activity in question quite well. They were often quite elaborate, however upon a deeper consideration the question of what the puzzle elements would come forth. Despite mimicking the activity well, the designs were not true puzzles, but simulations. Within the context of a puzzle game they would not have worked.

Striking the balance in the analogy can be quite difficult. Go too far towards a simulation, and the puzzle aspect is lost, go too generic, and the feeling world placement is lost. I am not sure every puzzle within Puzzle Pirates have done the analogy perfectly, but they all do it rather well. As within the narrower context of the GCPP, so is it with the design of the game overall. There is a learning process for what does and does not work.

If this post is an overview of the style of design, next time I shall try to delve into the substance: the mechanics of design.

Easy Objectives, Difficult Decisions

One recurring question we Ocean Masters get is "how do you become an Ocean Master?"

The answers we give may vary. Often the player is asking how he or she may become one. To this the answer is usually that we are not hiring at this time, but may in the future, along with a link to the Three Rings job page.

On occasion, the player will elaborate by asking how we specifically became Ocean Masters. While this is often a request about the hiring process (which is rather typical of any hiring process), it has had me thinking about what skills and abilities one needs to become one.

Obviously, knowledge of Puzzle Pirates is critical. But while depth of knowledge is necessary, it is not sufficient. Many players have equivalent understanding of the game as we do, and some will have a greater understanding in certain areas. But many of these same players would not be good Ocean Masters and often have no wish to become one, either.

To me, the most important skills would be a good ability to establish a rapport with other people, an ability to handle stressful and tense situations, and an good sense of humour. This is important because the primary purpose of being an Ocean Master is to improve the game experience. This is a very general task that covers nearly everything we do in some fashion. Whether it is answering questions from the newest players, dealing with problems that arise, or providing some insight to our veterans, the goal of improvement is there.

The skills I have listed are important because not all situations we approach are easy. We will occasionally have to make a judgment that will be unpopular because it ultimately does improve the game. In such cases we will face angry players, criticism, and be questioned. In such cases, being able to metaphorically smile, explain the decision as best we are able, and remain calm is difficult but necessary.

A greater difficulty arises when we must make a decision which will affect multiple players. This may often be the case of a judgment between two or more positions. A choice that will positively affect one may negatively affect the other. While it may be easy to determine which would affect more players directly, when we consider the effect down the line as well as other situations it becomes more difficult to determine what is the best decision.

Sometimes the difficulty is in keeping a clear picture of what matters, both by not getting caught up in the moment nor by letting ourselves be handicapped by taking a decision to the illogical, slippery slope conclusion. Weighing the consequences between action and inaction is part of the job as well.

We will on occasion make mistakes. Despite our otherworldly appearance, we are only human, after all. In such situations, as with making the difficult decisions, a smile and a helpful demeanor is important as well.

Media Manipulation

The bizarre and damaging fascination the gaming industry has with new technology is perhaps nowhere worse than in the state of the media as it stands. This is not the general media, which has a tendency to focus on narrow, headline grabbing issues that are often not accurately depicted or representative of the industry as a whole, but rather the media that is specifically focused on games.

This focus on technology is often without compelling reason. While in some instances it makes sense, as in discussing the system requirements of a game or the strict comparison between the hardware capabilities of two different consoles, but often it is completely beside the focus of the games as to be a distraction. If there are discussions on polygon count, size of the data, or a hyped sentence of the  depth of a physics engine, I tend to become wary.

Because while those may be important parts in putting together the package of the game, they are not, in and of themselves, the game.

I think some may disagree with me. In an early discussion on the Wii Overlords article, one person who agreed with it called himself technophile and mentioned that these things mattered. I frankly must disagree, because the approach with the game industry and media is very different than how the movie industry and media approaches advertising a product.

Movies, even bad ones, will have the focus on the story, on the excitement, drama, and action. Movies will focus the potential customer on the primary experience of the movie: the act of viewing the movie itself. The technology used to create a movie will, at best, be granted an occasional side-story, as was the case for the Massive engine used in the Lord of the Rings films or Deep Canvas system used for Disney's Tarzan. Even the most effects driven movies will not have the technology used in creating these special effects brought into the forefront.

Somewhat ironically, this can create a case where a film will utilise industry shifting technology, and the general public will often not be aware of the effect the film had. For instance, there was a film in 1993 which had a drastic effect on the film industry and the movie viewing experience. While it was a huge blockbuster, few people know the effect it had, because that technology shift was not a large story. The technology helped to improve the viewer's experience, but knowledge of the technology was not necessary.*

In the game's industry, this situation is often backwards. We have the technology used thrust upon us almost from the first announcement, such that it may be easier to find out what goes into creating the game than what has actually come out of the creation.

If you look at a website for information on a forthcoming title, you will often be greeted with picture after picture of screens from the game. These may be very nice, high resolution screen captures with the intent of showing off how much effort has been put into making a game look nice. This will be followed with videos of the game, again showing off the smoothness of animation, clearness of audio, or how good the physics engine makes things act.

What none of these things do is engage the player. For that, you need a game demo. The game demo is the equivalent of a movie trailer. It provides the product for the consumer, in miniature. Demos are nice, but somewhat more rare than the screen capture or movie.

Why does this situation exist? I can only assume that it is because providing information and commentary on upcoming games is big business. Websites dedicated to this do very well selling memberships, providing inside information, and giving those exclusive looks.

A look is all it is, however. While I confess that recently I found myself on one such site looking for information about an upcoming game I have been anticipating (Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock), at the end of a trailer and two interviews, I had to turn it off. The information was particularly worthless because without the chance to try any of the new gameplay, it is not possible to have an informed opinion. Both interviews ended with "buy this game", which I may do, but I hope to have the chance at a demo version first.

These websites cannot provide demos of games, at least they cannot do so directly. At best they can pass along information that developers could do themselves via press releases and blog posts. However, the public seems to clamor for more information now, so is willing to pay for what could be gotten for free.

I wish there were a stronger analogue of the movie industry. Perhaps a company could provide a very short "teaser" demo. Perhaps it only covers a couple minutes of game play. A single fight in a role playing game, or just the ability to try out a few punches and kicks in a fighting game. It need not examine the entire depth of the game, but if it gives some early sense to the player of what it feels like to play, that is significantly more valuable than seeing screen capture after screen capture.

Further on down the line, provide a few longer demos. Again, it need not be long, but if well constructed, it should provide some of the story (if any), and progression in the game. Such a situation would be far more beneficial to the player and the company, instead of our current situation which seems to put the needs of both behind the business of the media.

 

*For the curious, the movie was Jurassic Park, which pushed for the change to digital sound in movies and theaters.

The Writing Metaphor

Many years ago, I was working on my first novel-length writing project. I wrote it on weekends when I was not focused on work or classes. One day at work, I was talking about it with a co-worker and she mused that maybe she should write a novel. It seemed easy. At the time, I did find it easy. I had a loose plot, some characters, and few distractions. Over the course of about nine months, I actually completed the novel. But I also realised that it was not very good.

Since I had an interest in improving myself as a writer, I began to take classes. I began to converse with other people who were also writers and looked to hone myself. What I found that was while I did improve as a writer, the ability to put together a long piece of fiction was harder. I have started an number of novels since then. None have yet been completed, but some have begun to turn into stories that may, one day, step far beyond the quality of that first completed novel. (Much like many youthful writers, I had a series of aborted projects before that, too.)

In a philosophy class I took, my professor told a story of his days in a writing course. He mentioned that early in the class they were given writing assignments with very loose guidelines. Write about a certain topic with few limitations. These assignments were easy. He could write for hours on a subject with little problem. I am certain most of the population could do the same, if a grade were on the line.

One day they were given an assignment to read a random chapter in their book and then summarise it in under a thousand words.

This assignment had him completely turned around from the previous ones. Before he had had an easy time, now he could not find what to say or how to say it.

The question arises as to why this is the case. Why did my professor, who had such an easy time with the first assignments have such trouble with this summary? Why did my writing, while improving in quality, also have me struggling to complete a story?

My co-worker was wrong. Writing is not easy. Or rather, good writing is not easy. And good writing very often stems from limitations. Consider two different writing assignments. The first is about someone who is waiting for someone else who is late. The second is about two characters and neither is allowed to talk.

The second is a more difficult story to write. But if you approach that story, you have to think about how to make it work. The way you write the story will require a more creative approach, such that it is not possible to write it well without applying yourself.

When I run writing events, I design them with this in mind. If you consider the microfiction tournament, each successive round had requirements that were progressively more difficult. While this was meant to match the increased difficulty on one hand, the other was a desire to see the players involved apply themselves at a greater level.

The common adage "necessity is the mother of invention" applies. Increasing the difficulty by providing an additional challenge forces the writer to engage in the craft at a higher level, thereby improving the writing.

Other creative endeavors will be similar. Poetry is an obvious example, where there are numerous difficult forms. Paint a picture using only tints of blue. Compose a song with only minims and quavers.

This is not to say that such limitations are necessary, just that by using them the writer, painter, or musician will be able to improve his or her craft more than without. Limitations are not obstacles, they are tools to be utilised.

Game design will be similar. If there is a limitation, something preventing the sky being the limit for the designer, he or she will have to come up with a creative way to achieve a goal. In the realm of computer games, this may be near absolute. There are some things that are not possible, due to limitations of hardware.

However, there is constant momentum to bypass these problems by keeping the hardware baseline moving forward. Rather than letting designers work within the limitations, they are told to use the upgraded graphics and sound.

That means time must be spent understanding these upgraded graphics. While this may make for a pretty product, it also means that the designers are working on those and not the core part of the game that makes them fun. In movies when this happens, the product is hollow and forgettable.

Consider the Wii. While it is in some respects and innovative and revolutionary product, the core hardware is very similar to the GameCube. As such, there is far less difficulty for designers on one to transition to the other. Likewise, Nintendo has apparently developed programs that will aid designers in the interface.

What is left is that there is little time that needs to be spent understanding the machine, so that creative energy may be applied to designing the game. However, there are limitations, and from there the more creative solutions will appear and, with hope, make even greater games.

Three Rings, I must note, operates similarly. Our games are programmed in Java, which has a number of limitations in comparison to other languages, such as C++. Overcoming these limitations requires creativity and no small amount of skill. But the games that we have are engrossing and fun. They also have the advantages of Java, in that they may be played on nearly any computer.

With hope the creativity and skill can approach the limitations that exist such that our games continue to be the most fun possible.

Overlord Analysis

Much like Hypnos, I have been mulling over the Wii Overlords article for the past few days. Much of the discussion I have read has focused on the viewpoint of the author. Certainly, as the brother of one of the designers for Gears of War he is not unbiased.

My initial reaction to the article is one of great caution. The urge to cater to the hardcore element of the industry is one fraught with danger. One could look at the state of comic books in the United States to see the state of an industry that has done exactly that for the past twenty years. Sales are down to a fraction of what was achieved, and the actual media has been marginalised. Certainly it is not due to a lack of interest in the product; even mediocre movies based on comic books regularly earn blockbuster status in the theatres.

While the video game industry is not a direct comparison, over the past five to ten years it has increasingly catered to the so-called hard-core element. Sales have not yet suffered, but competition has narrowed (both in terms of focus and the number of companies providing products) and budgets have continued to increase. Continuation along the same path could be a very unwise decision, economically.

However, there may be a valid point of core concern within the argument. At the very least, he brings forth some interesting questions. In truth, I do not think the concern is truly about hardcore versus casual but rather a focus on game design choices. What importance should technological advancement play in video games design?

The recent focus on hardcore gamers has gone hand-in-hand with a near religious adherence to advancement. This makes sense, in as much as those players are more likely to be people who will have the latest multi-channel audio systems, large flat-panel HDTVs, and computers running five-hundred dollar video cards. This approach has clearly worked in some ways. Games aimed at this market are very pretty. The production standards are high.

But I must stop and wonder, right now, why is such advancement tied to game design so closely? I cannot think of any other industry where this is true. In most cases, a revolution in design will happen in two ways. First, someone working on a product will consider a piece of technology and how it can make the product better, easier, more efficient, or more impressive. The internet was not a piece of technology developed for fiction writers, but they have managed to utilise it quite well to further their craft.

Second, a creator will want to do something and be force to figure out how to do it. In some cases, this leads to technological innovation. You can see this with movies, as new technology is developed to make special effects more impressive.

In both cases, the creation comes first; technology is a tool, not a directive. In video games, the paradigm seems to be backwards. Technology drives the game design. What this sadly seems to generate is a situation where emphasis is put upon the technology and not the design itself.

We can look at Gears of War as an illustrative example. During this year's Game Developer's Conference, it did quite well in the Game Developer's Choice Award, winning awards for technology, visual arts, and game of the year. Afterward, there was a bit of discussion among the Ringers about the appropriateness of these choices. When I finally got a chance to play the game, this discussion crystallised itself.

Gears of War is a visually impressive game. I am sure it does quite well with the technology it uses. However, as a game, the design felt very dated. The third-person action setting is not innovative and despite the addition of a few interesting manoeuvers it felt derivative of many games that have come before. In comparison to the other options available, it seems the award was more for popularity than innovative design.

While I do appreciate pretty games, I must question why so much energy is dedicated to utilising new technology rather than pushing the boundaries of design. I honestly cannot see, as the overlords article, that the hardcore game design truly provides an in-depth and unique experience that truly utilises the advantages of video games. While I may enjoy the occasional console RPG, I usually do not find the storytelling, characterisation, or immersion to be any more advanced than a choose-your-own-adventure novel. In many cases, even that amount of branched storytelling is too much.

I shall explore some design choices and options next time, as I am more sure that, contrary to what the article argues, technological adherence is detrimental to good game design rather than an enabler.

On the loss of friends

The two plus years I have worked as an Ocean  Master have been incredibly fulfilling. Not only have I been able to engage myself in a wonderfully dynamic and active game, I have wonderful co-workers and have met many creative and enthusiastic players. Without a doubt, this is the best job I have ever had.

With that said, not everything we Ocean Masters do is all fun and games. At times, the work can be trying and even a bit annoying. The times I have had to try and patiently explain a concept to a player through a difficult language barrier are ones I do not look forward to. But they come part and parcel with the ability to run events and oversee the efforts of the GCPP.

Some of the least fun times come when we have to essentially tell a person that they are no longer welcome in our game. As much as it may seem otherwise, we do not look forward to banning players. Indeed, from a business perspective, it is an action that seems immediately wrong. Players are our customer base and our livelihood. While my job may be much easier if I never had to deal with players, it would also not exist as a job.

At its core, the decision to ban is one where we weigh the potential benefit from a player to continue playing against the potential detriment for the same. You can consider this as a balance between the positive and negative contributions the player has to the community and game as a whole. Some players do very well to encourage others to have fun with them. Other players are quite divisive and difficult to get along with.

Simply being controversial and argumentative is not enough. We do like to encourage competition between players. Preferably good-natured competition, but it is often difficult to control such a line. But even so, we have rules to provide guidelines for what is or is not acceptable. If you cross a line, we will issue a warning. Cross one too far or too often, and we must regretfully show the player the door.

Sometimes, after a ban, we will be questioned. This can be a question of the nature of the infraction that led to the ban. A few times, we get the question of the appropriateness of the ban. In the case of a rules interpretation, this is usually not difficult, but may lead to some lively debates on the forums.

The strangest, to me, response is one that brings in the character of the banned player. If I may create a fictional argument: "Why was Beardedpirate banned? He is just playing a character in a game who likes to start fights. If you knew him in real life you would know that he is not like that at all. He is really just a nice guy and would not harm a fly."

Whether an unfortunate accident of geography or not, we do not know most players in real life. As such, we really cannot consider their character as such because it has no bearing on the game. If you choose to play a character who breaks the rules, then we must only consider the rule breakage in our decision. How accurate or not that is to your actual demeanor is irrelevant.

Consider two hypothetical players. The first is Mahatma Gandhi. He was a wonderful person, but if he played Puzzle Pirates in a manner inappropriate for the game environment, we would have to ban him, even if he did so as a conscious decision to escape his every day life.

The second player is Attila the Hun, among the more notorious and despicable historical figures. Even if he were a war-loving player, he would be allowed to play as long as possible provided he followed the rules. This is true regardless of how he may conduct himself outside of the game.

Our decision to ban Ghandi would likely be quite controversial, especially if players knew that Attila was allowed to continue playing, but the first broke the rules despite warnings while the second followed the guidelines we have established. Within the context of Puzzle Pirates, that is all we can consider.

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