Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Gameplay Versus Graphics

This blog post was triggered by a certain thread on the Scirra forums that seems to resurface once in a while, never quite resting among the other old threads. In it, the original poster asks if he should focus on gameplay or looks when making a game. There has been a good ammount of intelligent replies about the value of visual content in games, but I've also come across some of the usual "gameplay is everything" talk. That is why I am writing this post.

Over my stay on the Internet, I have seen many self-professed "true gamers" going on about how gameplay is the most important thing in a game, to the detriment of everything else, with graphics being a common victim. They enjoy feeling superior to the other sheeple who judge games solely based on their photorealistic graphics or lack thereof. They almost worship this gameplay thing as if it is indeed a deity, putting down those that worship a false god. A minority among them even goes so far as to almost imply gameplay and graphical qualities are mutually exclusive, becoming instantly suspicious of any game that has good looking screenshots.

However, for this supposed holy grail of game design, gameplay is a vague term. Ask ten people what they think gameplay is, and you'll get ten different definitions. (That is, if they are all capable of even giving a definition. For many, gameplay is one of those things you just have an innate ability to recognize, but can't be described in words.)

To progress, we must make an attempt at defining gameplay, then. Gameplay is something exclusive to games, something other forms of entertainment, like films and books lack. Gameplay must therefore be related to the interactive elements of the game. I choose to define gameplay as the set of all mechanics present in a game.

Those mechanics are the way the game interprets your input. If seen as a state machine, the mechanics are the state-transition function of the game. They determine what happens when you give a certain input while the game is in a certain state.

A game is a system that takes input from the player, processes it, changing its state, and feeds output to the player. The player recieves that input, and based on it, decides what input to give the game.

The output is given through light and sound. Since we mostly use our vision to map our surroundings, we get most of the data from the first source.

Good graphics should convey the information to the player in an effective way. If they don't, the connection between the player and the game is broken. If we take the metaphor of the mechanics being the plot of a book and the graphics the font, not having well thought out visual content is like having the book written in Zalgo.

You need good UI design to tell the player all the information needed to play the game. You need to allow the player to be able to tell interactable objects from those that are simply background. This is why graphic design is one of the most crucial parts of a game. If the player can't tell what's going on in the game world, you have failed as a game designer.

Even when it comes to the purely aesthetical elements, polygon count and resolution are far from the most important elements. You may have the best graphic processing technology avaliable in the market, but that won't save you if the visual style is not well thought out. If your game looks like the visaul equivalent of the Crazy Bus theme, even if your mechanics are the best in the world, no one will want to play it.

Your visual style has to be coherent and fit the game's theme. A dull brown and grey color scheme will simply not work on a game about cute cartoony animals, the same way as vibrant, high saturation colors will not work in a realistic war shooter. Avery visual element has to fit with the rest, or the players will notice how out of place it is. (I know that something that obviously doesn't belong with the rest can be used to create a sense of creepyness and mystery, but unless you really know what you're doing, you should stay away from taking these kinds of risks.)

A good style will do a lot for your game's appeal, and you don't need to have the best of what's around to be able to create that style. Even a pseudo 8-bit look can be extremely appealing if well thought out.

In the end, the visual elements are one of the most important parts of game design. They help the player know how your game works and set the mood. Even if you see yourself as a pure coder, if you have an interest in game development, learning some principles of graphic design will do wonders for the quality of your work.

And that about wraps it up. I'll end this with a question for my readers. How do you define gameplay?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Character Improvement: Vertical and Horizontal

Ah yes, the so-called RPG Elements.  Leveling up has nothing to do with role playing, yet it has become the mechanic most associated with the RPG genre. Character development is an integral part of storytelling, and leveling up is a good way of showing how the character becomes more skilled during his journey. So, when other genres copied the character levels system, they called it RPG Elements.

But sometimes, these periodic increases in power feel empty. Even though the numbers tell you your character is stronger, you hardly feel it. Why is that the case? The game might have too much vertical development and not enough horizontal.

Vertical Development

Imagine a field. Imagine each of your character’s attributes as a tower on that field. Strength, for example. When your character levels up, his strength increases a bit, that tower gets taller.

One of the first problems that we can see about that is diminishing returns. However, that has a widely used solution. Just make the stat increases per level rise exponentially.

But that means that after a few level ups, you’ll be blazing through enemies like a god! How do we fix that? Simple, you scale the content to your level.  Some games simply have the enemies in later areas of the game be stronger, while there are others that go the extra mile and have all enemies actually scale with your level ups. And that’s where those improvements start to feel empty.

Oblivion is a pretty infamous case. It’s a game where, unless you plan your level ups perfectly, your enemies scale faster than you. You actually feel weaker each time you level up. Why go through the trouble at all? Why improve your skills when it’ll only make the game harder for you?

You’re improving your stats by less than five points. An open invitation for the game to brutally sodomize you from this point onwards.

But scaling that isn’t so brutal can still leave you feeling empty.  Let’s use some Final Fantasy terminology here. In the beginning of the game you have your useful fire spell, called, of all things, Fire. Then, at a later point in the game, you get its upgraded form, Fira. It costs more MP, but it hurts all enemies. How cool is that? Then, later in the game, you get Firaga. It’s just like FIra, but it costs more MP and deals more damage. That’s cool, it’s like a faster car that also requires more fuel. But then, you’ve played the game some more. You have more MP now, which means Firaga costs about as much relative to your MP total as Fira did before, and now you’re not fighting the same monkeys as before, but the more powerful mega monkeys.

Yeah, kinda like that.

Firaga is now doing the exact same thing as Fira did before. This boost of power you got ended up being meaningless in the long run. And now, you feel empty.

To be fair, it is hard to avoid this trap in common JRPG battle systems, in which combat is basically just the computer solving a series of equations, without time or space being taken into account.

But then how do we solve this problem? Well, if this is vertical development, then the answer must be…

Horizontal Development

Recognize those names? In case you don’t, they’re the weapons you get from beating the bosses in Mega Man 2. It illustrates my point about horizontal development pretty well. Mega Man doesn’t become better at doing what he already does, he becomes able to do more things. Crash Bombs allow him to blow up certain walls to uncover new paths. Leaf Shield gives him a very effective way to defend himself against the enemies that charge at him in the moving platform segments in Crash Man’s stage and Wily’s Castle. Bubble Lead is the only way to damage the final boss.

You become more powerful not because some numeric value that tells you how powerful you are, you become more powerful because your options increase. And no matter how hard the challenges the game throws at you, those options remain with you. You feel like you’ve become more powerful when you are able to do something you couldn’t do before.

Game: Broken

For implementing better horizontal development in an RPG, I think Guild Wars is a good case study. One of their design philosophies is that every skill must remain viable for the whole game. As such, all skills are on the same relative power level, and  there are no skills with simple effects. There is no skill that simply heals. Every heal skill does something else too. And the vast majority of attack skills offer something more than just damage. Skill choice becomes more situational when you group effects together. Take, for example, the Phoenix skill in Guild Wars 2. You send out a bird-shaped flame in front of you, damaging enemies in front of you, turns back, and heals you when it comes back to you. That’s a perfect example of a complex skill, and I’m sure it’s possible to implement something similar even in a turn-based JRPG battle system.

I’m not saying that vertical development is inherently bad, but just by itself, it’s extremely underwhelming.

I hope I have enlightened at least some of you on this subject.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Intro Stage's Intro Post

Hello one and all, ladies and gentlemen, children and adults, humans and members of other species, prokariotic and eukariotic beings! Welcome to the first post of this brand new blog, which I can assure is not part of a convoluted plot to achieve worldwide mind control.

This blog is, instead, simply a place for me to talk about game design. And who is this me I'm talking about? My name is Filipe, which is equivalent to Philip for you native English speakers. It is a fitting name, as I do like horses. I am usually located in Lisbon, Portugal, a place located on the western end of Europe, for those who are having trouble finding it and should go back to school. I am currently studying Computer Engineering. I will be 22 very soon.

But enough about trivial details. I have always had a passion for video games, ever since I saw Sonic 2 on display in a local toy shop, which sadly no longer exists. I was part of the original Pokemon generation, and I still play the games today. Maybe because of that background, I have a certain fondness for retro games, while not dismissing newer types of games.

As such, my main objective in life is to become a game designer/artist. One thing I would love to do is make a fighting game, design the different characters and their moves.

I created this blog so I could exercise my critical thinking when it comes to games, and my creativity as well. You will see games being disected, wild ideas being thrown around, and a bit of humor to lighten things up.

I had a lot of trouble choosing a name for this blog. In hindsight, this name's a pretty obvious choice. I was actually expecting it to already be taken when I went to try it. Guess I have more luck with blog names than girls. As for the meaning behind the name, a good intro stage should teach you all you need to play the game, and I plan to teach something about games to those that want it, so the name kinda fits.

And that's it for now! I've gone on long enough. Tune in soon for a post about improving a character in a game, and the facelift this blog deserves. (I need a logo.)

Fact of the day: Did you know that the orca, commonly known as killer whale, is actually a dolphin?