Monday, June 27, 2011

A thought or two concerning user interfaces

Well then, it's that time again where I rant a little bit to myself while sitting at the PC and hope that some of my thoughts make it coherently into this post.  I've been thinking a bit lately about User Interfaces, specifically user interfaces in video games. Honestly, they bother me. At least usually they do. What I am referring to as a user interface in this case is data that is displayed on the screen during game-play that is  unmarried from the game-play itself. Examples of this would consist of, say, an ammo counter that is displayed in some static location, players health levels are often  also in this category. And while I do understand the importance of a static health bar in some genres, fighting games, for example certainly rely on them as a primary mechanic, I can't help but wonder why more of these historically static UI elements aren't being phased out more? You actually see this a good deal in some of the newer shooters, in Gears of war you have no continuous health measurement, your health level is only ever displayed right after you take damage, though the giant emblem that they superimpose over the center of the screen is ever so annoying. But other games have done the same with simple screen glow, and in the case of nonregenerating health, even with player speed reduction and even simulated limping when at lower health levels, not only does this add realism to the game but it removes an unnecessary UI element! hooray, more screen real estate for the actual game!

Redundant ammo counter is redundant.
 Ammo counters are being married with the guns they belong to more and more as well, I am all for this, and was about to add this halo 1 screen as a good example before I realized that there is a second ammo counter on the top left....well anyway they almost got it right, and hey the other one also tells them how many grenades they have.
In any case folks, all that I am really saying is that I think there are a lot of ways available to developers to display information to the player that can HELP immerse the player with the game, as opposed to simply printing out boring alphanumeric data that is not a part of the game world itself.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

More Random Asides

Another question for other Dungeons and Dragons players out there. What do you guys use for your battlegrid? I suppose this could apply to any other type of miniatures game as well. My group and I have been through innumerate different ways, large sheaves of paper with hand drawn grids, but those took too long, the official tiles are pretty expensive, and we like big BIG maps, I think we had a whiteboard at one point but grid that was even worse than the papers. What have you guys found that works? I've heard there are some whiteboard grids out there custom tailored to us, though I've yet to see them.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Non Invasive Mechanics 2 - Silhouettes

Let's talk about silhouettes today shall we? But first, lets define it for our purposes! When I speak about a silhouette in this post, I will be referring to the physical outlines of a character, regardless of how they're textured. Valve has been doing a lot of pioneering in this field, so a number of you are likely already familiar with this aspect of design and know why it is such an important aspect of game design.
For the most part I will be talking about player character silhouettes, but just note that much of what applies to them applies to npcs and inanimate objects in games as well. So why are silhouettes so important? The simple answer is "Ease of Recognition", it lets you identify what you're looking at quickly, at greater distance than recognition via fine details (facial features, designs on the players model, etc.) and as a result, allows you to react accordingly more quickly. A good implementation of silhouette differentiation between character models also has the effect lowering breaks in a games continuity, allowing players to tell the difference between other players/npc's at a glance as opposed to needing to concentrate continually on fine details to tell who is who.

How about we just look at some examples? Below I'll look at 3 games and offer my 2 cents into their implementation of good silhouetting.

First of all, let's look at a game that doesn't really utilize silhouetting to the fullest. Actually, let's talk about an entire Genre, and that is the "World War II Shooter", realistic shooters almost as a whole tend to have problems with silhouetting simply by virtue of BEING realistic. Soldiers tend to look alike, they wear much the same gear and colors as one another, and its hard to differentiate. Though there is a spectrum to be considered even within this genre, so lets compare two games within this genre.
Pictured above, Soldier A, Soldier B, And Soldier C

Pictured on the right is a screenshot which I am praying is from "Brothers in arms: Earned in blood" (One of my favorite WWII shooters by the way, it's amazing, go download it on steam now). And the simple fact that I have to think twice about which game this might be says something about the ease of recognition of their character models. As you can see from the picture it is very difficult to tell one soldier apart from another.  And at greater distances, it not only becomes difficult to tell your allies apart from our allies, but your enemies from your allies. A Nazi looks just about the same as an american soldier once they're far enough away that you can no longer tell the difference between the drab brown of the allied forces clothing and the grey of the Nazi soldiers.

Different hats for everyone!

So let's look at a game that does a little better  job at it. Bad Company! It's necessary to differentiate the single player and multiplayer in this game, as while the single player makes displays a fairly good use of silhouetting (All of your squad mates have distinguishing features that allow you to tell them apart, even at distances), the multiplayer leaves you to decide which type of enemy you're looking at by the gun he is likely already shooting you with by the time you've figured out that its an Assault class with an assault rifle and not a spec ops with an SMG.  I think the decision that companies have to make is how realistic they want their game to be. And I don't really think that there is a correct answer. The more realistic the game, the more likely it is that half of your characters are going to look nearly identical. And people who like realistic games are probably going to appreciate that. Or you could go the other direction, make the medics slighter of build, bulk up your assault classes a little bit. They're going to stand out more, and that is going to be a good thing in some peoples eyes and a bad thing in others, so it really just depends on how you're going to market the game I suppose.

All shapes and sizes!
Anyway, lets talk about another game for a little bit, this one has some very good implementation, but also some bad implementation that sort of goes away as you level up. I'll explain. The first thing I will say is that the differences between the races is excellent, even when armored it is very easy to tell who is playing for which team so to speak. Even the two most similar races, Blood and Night elves, are easily told apart.  However, it is much more difficult to tell the games classes apart. This is due to the large impact that different pieces of gear will have on your player silhouette, and with multiple classes being able to equip the same gear, you of course run into instances of a say, a Priest and a Mage wearing the same dress to a party. This is alleviated a little bit once a player reaches the end game, as there exist specials suits of armor for each class referred to as "Tier Sets", but until you've attained the best gear in the game, your class will likely be difficult to tell. Admittedly blizzard has given some of the classes an ability with a persistent visual effect that denotes not only their class clearly, but even their specialization as well. Examples of this would be the Death Knight's bone shield ability, Shamans elemental shields, etc. This is a trend I wholeheartedly encourage and hope to see more classes being given their own neat persistent graphical effects.

I will end with a game that excellently implements silhouetting, and it should surprise nobody that said game was developed by Valve.  Just a glance at the picture shows how different each characters model is from the other, nobody ever mistakes Francis for Zoey, or Bill for Louis at a glance, which is a damn good thing because the window of opportunity between wondering if you need to shoot something and a terrible death is usually pretty short. The enemies also enjoy unique silhouettes, the common infected all share roughly the same shape and size, as they should, they are legion. But the special infected each stand out very starkly from the sea of drones, and, importantly, from one another, which is great because each special infected represents a different threat than the others, and requires a different response.

That's about all for today, sorry this post turned out so long, haha

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Another random aside.

Going to sit down after work and put out another game design post, but for right now I'm just going to jot down a realization I had a little while ago about the level of computer education I received throughout my primary education. The realization being that I  had essentially taken the same damn class every year from 3rd grade until my freshman year in Highschool. They would sit you down, cover your hands, and have you type sentences, and measure your accuracy and Word Per Minute. Does this mean I can mark down 8 years or so of secretarial training on my resume? I think our Highschool offered some web design classes but they were cut by the time I became a Sophomore. How about you guys, similar experiences? Or did your schools have a more robust computer education program?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Non Invasive Mechanics

Hey there folks, this will be the first of a few posts talking about non invasive game mechanics. Now I'm certain that I'm  using the term horribly wrong, but when I refer to non invasive game mechanics, what I mean is something that adds to the game, but is something that the player often has little control over or even awareness of.

So lets talk about audio

And when I say audio I don't mean the games soundtrack, that deserves a post unto itself. I mean the games sound direction. Happily, I've seen a trend in recent years that seems to denote that the gaming community at large is beginning to acknowledge excellent sound direction, with games like Dead Space especially being recognized for excellence in this sector. So what denotes good sound design? Well that's something that isn't easily pinned down. In a game with good sound direction, there is no dissonance between what you are hearing, and what you are seeing, or perceiving as the source of any sound. A robust 3d positional sound system is key to this in my opinion. Well implemented this, this system lets you differentiate between things like, different bullet impact points. This by itself raises your awareness of your surroundings at that time from "Hey someone is shooting at me" to "Christ that bullet hit just to the right of my head!", a whole different level of immersion. 

Ambient sound too, I believe is very very important for creating a believable, cohesive environment. An environment that looks believable and is done well is a work of art, add to that a menagerie of audible minutia specifically designed to exist within THAT specific environment, then I believe, it becomes a great deal more. Without the constant croaks, beeps, clinks, clangs, whistles, rustling leaves, blowing wind, we would be left to  traverse muted landscapes, things that, seem alive but do not breathe! Anyway folks, that's it for tonight, just a reminder that sometimes it's the little things that hold all the big things together.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Ebberon and Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms! Oh my!

Getting ready to start up a new D&D campaign and I'm running into a problem that I imagine a lot of DM's run in to. And that is that I have no idea which setting I want to use. My first campaign was a custom setting and while that was fine as the world was pretty much 100% malleable, it becomes a lot of work, and PAPERwork to contain everything pertinent to the campaign. How about you folks, any of you Dungeons and Dragons players have a preferred campaign setting? If so, why?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Oh and Sonic too...

Now that I sit down to consider it, Sonic the Hedgehog had a pretty neat take on the whole health system too. Not only did rings represent your health, at least to the extent that to have rings was to stay alive. But rings were also the monetary system for the game, though in this sense by "monetary system" I mean the way in which the player can accrue extra live. In retrospect it was a super forgiving life system, as you only needed one ring to continue to survive (considering the breakneck speeds one can attain in sonic, having a health system where it is easy to get back on ones feet quickly was very important), but at the same time to flourish (especially back on the Sega Genesis, where your lives were very limited) one needed to become a friggin savant at collecting the things without losing them. Thus newer players are given a good chance at not dying repeatedly, and experienced players are rewarded by having a nice buffer of extra lives once they reached the later, less forgiving levels. This my friends, is a good way to go about designing a video game (or at least one aspect of one). Anyway, blah blah rant rant. Feel free to comment if you can think of any other games that use a unique health system!

Concerning Health Systems

Introductions.....right..... well hello whoever you may be and thank you for taking a look at my blog. A short disclaimer before I go ahead and jump into things in earnest, I am in no way affiliated directly with any part of the gaming industry, I am not a programmer, not a developer, just a gamer. As such I would recommend that any of you who have read this far take everything that I post with a grain of salt.

Alright, now that we've taken care of that, time for my inaugural post. For today, lets have a look at Health systems in video games and the ways in which they've changed over time. Most video game health systems fall into one of two categories. A finite resource system, and a self repleting system. The former is something with which I should hope we are all fairly well acquainted. Your health is represented by a set value ( be it hearts, a numeric health tracking system,or even Mario's Shrink/Grow method) , and the only way to regain lost health is through the expenditure of items, power ups, healing spells, what have you. This health system was fairly ubiquitous during the earlier years of console gaming (Think Mario, Zelda, etc.) This system lends itself very well to, say, platform or open world adventure/puzzle games, as players are usually given leave to stop or progress through levels or worlds at their own pace, as such, a regenerative health system could be easily abused. Considering the time period in which such health systems were prevalent, you can see why they worked so well, nearly every game fell into one of the above categories. However, with the advent of the 21st century, with competitive multiplayer games becoming the mainstay for many gamers, there needed to be a change. The finite resource system certainly worked when implemented into such games (think Goldeneye), but in retrospect, it was far from an ideal situation.

Now if you'll wait a moment before verbally tar and feathering me, I would like to make my case as to why I believe that the regenerating health paradigm works better (in most cases) for than a non-regenerative method for a large portion of games on the market today. There are two reasons, the first is player limit. Non-regenerative health systems may have lived longer as a viable option had had multiplayer servers not become able to support the large amount of players that they can at present. This becomes an issue because you're left with only a few options with the health pickup method, you either have to have very quickly respawning health pickups (which then become easily abusable by way of sitting right on top of their respawn points) or you leave their respawn rates untouched and simply litter the level with them liberally (this isn't a terrible idea but it not only leads to players spending almost as much time hunting health as they do completing objectives, but also leaves players reliant upon a health kit that may or not be there). Additionally there is the issue of "fairness", if you've just had an amazing 1vs1 duel and come out just barely on top, using the old paradigm, anyone could round the corner at any time and find you at low health, at that point almost regardless of how good you are at the game you're likely going to die, quite possibly to a much lesser skilled player. Replace the health with a regenerating type and so long as you manage to buy yourself a few seconds in between fights then situations like this become much less common. Mind you they can still happen, however taking cover for 5-10 seconds between fire fights seems a much better methodology than sighing and beginning the trek towards the nearest health kit, which is likely a point of conflict all by itself.
That all said, there is indeed a fairly well established method for taking the non-regenerative paradigm and applying it to todays shooters that has been shown to work, but only when very well implemented. What I'm speaking of if the idea of a class system. The complete or partial decoupling of the responsibility of a maintaining a players health from the player themselves followed by the allocation of said responsibility to another player. I will admit right now that I am biased towards this system as, if properly executed, it simply rocks. What is important I think, when developing a good healer/healee(?) infrastructure in these types of games is to ensure than your class distinctions are very clear. Support type characters need to feel like support characters and should be given the tools to do their job properly, what they do NOT need is the ability to heal other players AND the ability to compete toe to toe with say, an assault class of equal skill level. A great many developers have made the mistake of allocating too much offensive power to a class who'se primary role is to ensure that other classes stay alive long enough to perform THEIR role. Team Fortress 2 is a game that I'm currently enamoured with simply because of how well they've developed, differentiated, and allocated tools to their classes. Not only does the medic have a healing method that is at once engaging (I'm speaking of the medigun) in that you must keep it trained on the player you're healing, but they also had the foresight to add a 2 second or so buffer during which the gun will continue to heal your target even should they have just rounded the corner (allowing for players with slower connections or simply just a moderate amount of lag to still heal at a competent level).

Lets leave it at that for this week shall we? This post has already grown several times larger than I had originally intended. As you finish reading this, please realize that there is a lot more that can, and should be said about the ideas that I've explored herein, so if you feel I'm talking out of my ass, or perhaps you have something to add, please feel free to do so.