Category Archives: Design / Production

Language Processing

Those of you who played text-input adventure games back in the day (King’s Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, etc) will recall how fun it could be to test the limits of the game designer’s imagination by experimenting with language commands. It was thrilling when you tried something “unusual” or “outrageous” (in your mind) and yet the game responded appropriately. Of course, it was also frustrating when you tried to accomplish something serious and the game didn’t understand you. (For an exercise in said frustration, give the much-hyped Facade a try if you haven’t already. It’s a glimpse into what made these games fun, and everything that made them less-than-fun.)

At any rate, most of that “joy of experimentation” disappeared when adventure games migrated to mouse-only. Perhaps not coincidentally, adventures games themselves began to disappear soon afterwards. But text-input has returned in the form of viral marketing gimmicks like the Subservient Chicken campaign, and in IM bots like Spleak, which capture the imagination in part by encouraging users to test the limits of the designer’s vision and resources via text input. Both the Subservient Chicken campaign and Spleak have proven quite successful within a limited but significant audience.

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Demographic Advocates

It recently occurred to me that video game publishers might be well served by having an internal advocate for different demographic groups. (The details: i.e. is it one specific person or several people with other responsibilities are less interesting to me than the idea itself.)

The idea came to mind when I was thinking about Marble Blast Ultra, one of our XBLA games. I have heard it said on more than one occasion that “if Marble Blast Ultra included a sandbox mode in which there were no penalties, no timers, etc, it would be a perfect kid’s game.” Conversely, when playing Pokemon Diamond, I’ve often thought “if only there were a way to speed up the rather slow and repetitive feeling of battles (among other related issues), this game might have some chance of appealing to more adults.”

(Those of you who’ve played Pokemon will understand what I’m talking about here. How many times do I need to sit through the same animation of the same attack? Is it OK to be bored after the 500th time I’ve watched the “throwing my pokeball into the field” animation? The repetition is valuable to kids but adults might enjoy a “skip” option…)

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Board Games vs. Video Games

Memorial weekend has slipped by. My folks were visiting from out of town. They asked the usual questions about what I do, and only time will tell if my answers were more satisfying than usual. (I’m think that analogies to retail businesses help.)

We did not play video games.

Given my occupation, why is that the case? Because I don’t currently own any video games that would do a better job of bringing us together (and creating time/space to chat) than old-fashioned, non-digital Scrabble or Blokus. So we played Blokus.

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Travian Under the Microscope

I’ve been meaning to write about a web-based MMO called Travian for a long time. Travian is, to my mind, the very embodiment of the phrase “so close, and yet so far.” It has all the basic components of a perfect low-budget MMO, but a few maddening design flaws make the game basically unplayable (in the long term) for most people. The following is a very long deconstruction of the game. If you’re interested in MMOs, read on. If not, it’s safe to skip this post. ;-)

Travian in a nutshell

In a nutshell, Travian is a pseudo-real-time massive multiplayer strategy game. You build towns and armies, and use your armies to conquer and pillage other towns. I say “pseudo-real-time” because, while the game operates in real-time and you can take action whenever you wish, each action requires a variable but substantial amount of time to complete. (For example, building a granary might take 20 minutes in the real world; upgrading it might take several hours. And while you’re building your granary, you can’t build anything else. Likewise, sending your army on a raid could take as little as 30 minutes or as long as a day.) There is real genius in this — it preserves the feeling of a real-time game while effectively preventing people with tons of spare time from overwhelming competing players. The eleven-year-old who wants to can obsess over the world map and communicate with allies to his heart’s content, while the forty-year-old parent with twenty minutes to spare can quickly take his turns and tune out till the next day.

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Restaurant Game

Jeff Orkin, the brain behind the exceptional AI in F.E.A.R (and current PhD student at MIT) is working on a cool new project and needs your help:

The Restaurant Game is a research project at the MIT Media Lab that will algorithmically combine the gameplay experiences of thousands of players to create a new game… Everyone who plays The Restaurant Game will be credited as a Game Designer… Designers will be ranked based on how well they play their assigned roles… There will be only one Lead Designer… This project attempts to address two frustrations I experienced as a professional game developer. 1) Convincing human social behavior is difficult to model with existing hand crafted AI systems. 2) Play testing by people outside of the development team typically comes too late to have a major impact on the final product.

Indie Concepts and XBLA

(I’m currently in Shanghai and having a blast. Haven’t had time to write something about my experiences yet, so here’s an unrelated article I wrote a few weeks ago but never got around to posting…)

Since I joined XBLA, I’ve refrained from writing about my job because most of what I do is considered highly confidential. In addition, there’s been so much to absorb (intellectually, organizationally, and creatively) that I’m still digesting most of it. But I think there’s one thing I can share that you all might find interesting.

Five months ago, I wasn’t sure what kinds of content developers might be pitching to Microsoft. My assumption was that many pitches (if not most) would involve content that traditional publishers generally shy away from. Experimental gameplay, completely original IP… that sort of thing.

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Game Design Research, ala Avellone

The article below was written by Chris Avellone, Chief Creative Officer of Obsidian Entertainment. Chris also designed Planescape: Torment, which is my favorite game of all time, as I’ve noted repeatedly on this blog (much to Chris’ acute embarrassment, I’m sure.)

Anyway, Chris is also a great writer, so I asked if he’d do this guest spot. No strings attached, any subject allowed. The only requirement: it had to include his famous stick figures. (Famous, I say!) Chris gracefully accepted. And with that, I’ll stop yammering now…

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Bridging Demographic Gaps

A couple of weeks ago, Kim Pallister and I were chatting about a particular video game. Kim mentioned that it would be nice if the game included a “little kids’ mode” — i.e. one in which the player can’t actually lose and doesn’t even need to follow any “rules” per se; he/she can just experiment with the controls and have fun within the virtual environment. (I believe the comment was inspired by the exploits of Kim’s two-year-old twins.) In essence: open the game to more members of the household (in this case, very young children) without much additional cost.

Shortly thereafter, I read a post on Ben Mattes’ blog exploring a related theme; offering “little brother” co-op mode in hardcore games, so that experienced gamers can more easily invite less dextrous family members and friends to play along. A quote:

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Whither Viva Piñata 2

Today my buddy Rhys called me out for criticizing Viva Piñata a couple weeks ago, then playing it for significantly more time than I initially intended. (I’d have kept my indulgence a secret, but the Live achievements system sold me out.) So I’ll admit it: I’ve played Viva more than any other 360 game I own. So sue me.

Many other people have written detailed descriptions of why they like this game, so I’ll pass. Instead, I’d like to focus on what I think the Viva Piñata franchise could become, and what that means for gaming in general. In short: I’d like to see Viva Piñata 2 (assuming it’s ever made) focus more on self-expression and social networking.

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“Depressing” Games

A question I’d like to pose: do you think a game with a serious theme (i.e. the Holocaust, or the African-American civil rights movement) could be commercially successful in the US market?

Such a game would almost certainly go a long way towards silencing skeptics who say “games can’t be art.” More importantly, it would help young people understand the great injustices of the past. Reading a textbook is one thing, playing a prisoner in a concentration camp is quite another.

But would these games reach enough people? Would they be profitable? And how would you make them fun without blurring the social message?

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