Wednesday, 3 July 2013

A Theory of Game Design

This is a framework for thinking about game design that I've been mulling over for a little while now. I was considering including it in my last post about the Touhou games, but I quickly realised that it was getting big enough to merit its own entry. It consists of three categories into which I think all the primary aspects of a game fit: mechanics, level design, and avatar design.

Mechanics covers how a player controls the game and what their objectives are. In a platform game, it concerns things like the acceleration of the player character and how gravity affects them, or how a stage is beaten (usually "reach the end"). In a multiplayer real-time strategy game, it can cover things like unit selection and control, resource management, how technology trees work, and victory conditions (destroy all of an opponent's buildings, eliminate their army, kill their commander etc.) The mechanics essentially dictate a game's genre, and their level of refinement defines how pleasing it is to play on a basic, ergonomic level (compare Cheetahmen to Super Mario World). I would label this the "primary" of the three categories: any changes to the mechanics will usually necessitate changes to the levels or avatars. In general, the better a game's mechanics, the more depth it has.

The second aspect is level design. The world "level" here is used as a catch-all term for the arena or arenas in which the game takes place. Its significance is obvious in the context of, say, platform games, but I also use it here to refer to, say, maps in a strategy game, or raid dungeons in an MMO. Some games don't have different levels. Street Fighter II, for example, has different stages on which one can fight, but the differences are strictly cosmetic: they are functionally identical (Vega's stage being the one exception). Levels can be created in a modular fashion after a game is "finished" without any changes to the mechanics. This can take the form of mission packs for an RTS, fan-made hacks for platform games, and so-on. Generally speaking, the number of levels available in a game defines its length.

The third aspect could be called either character design or avatar design. The first sounds a bit less stuffy, but is not as precise, as it suggests a visual design component. This concerns the controllable characters available to a player. Many games have only one avatar. The first Sonic and Mario games are good examples. Later installments of both series introduced more options. Avatars are a core aspect of many competitive genres, such as fighting games. In a real-time strategy game like Starcraft, I would consider a race, rather than a single unit, to be an avatar (races and units are analogous to characters and their moves in a fighting game). As with levels, it is possible to add avatars after a game is released (this was largely the motivation for Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3, for example). Speaking loosely, the more avatars a game has, the more breadth it can be said to offer.

These three aspects can be defined seperately but they are inextricably linked. The levels can only make sense within the context of the mechanics, and must be accessible for the avatars, the avatars must have abilities that give them options within the levels, and so on. Sonic 3 & Knuckles is a great showcase of the necessary synergy between characters, levels, and mechanics. Playing the game as Sonic, one can see a certain amount of every level, but upon trying out Tails or Knuckles it becomes apparent that there are parts of many stages that only they can access. Knuckles can climb walls to reach higher areas that Sonic can't get to, and can smash down certain walls that are impenetrable to other characters. However, his jump is subtley lower, and since he can't climb on spikes and certain other surfaces there are still places he can't go that Sonic can.

Knuckles cannot climb on these platforms, and, unlike Sonic,
his jump is too low to get on top of them.
However, there is a secret wall here that only Knuckles can break down.
Tails, meanwhile, can fly. This has distinct advantages and disadvantages compared to Knuckles's climbing. Tails can move upwards through the spike-lined shafts in Marble Garden, impassable for Knuckles.

Tails, however, can only fly for so long at a time before tiring out, whereas Knuckles can climb infinitely given grippable surfaces. Thus, there is a tall vertical shaft at the start of Sandopolis Act II that only he can traverse.

Knuckles can get all the way up here no problem.
But Tails can only get this far before running out of steam.
Compared to all this, Sonic seems disadvantaged. However, certain mechanics are made to privilege him in different ways. There are 3 elemental shields that can be collected as powerups, which offer protection to all three characters. However, Sonic gains extra moves by picking them up. These maybe aren't as powerful as the abilities of the other characters, but they let him do things faster. The fire shield's dash doesn't cover potentially infinite distance like Knuckles's glide, but it does provide a more immediate, gratifying speed boost. The electric shield's double jump and the bubble shield's bounce may not go as high as flight or climbing, but for the places they can reach they're alot more immediate.

On top of this, one of the game's secondary objectives, the Chaos Emeralds, favours Sonic. Upon collecting all of them, every character can make use of a more powerful "Super" form. And in short, Sonic's is the best. Super Sonic's acceleration, top speed, and jump height are far superior to those of Super Knuckles and Super Tails. It even affords him access to a whole level that neither other character can enter, the climactic Doomsday Zone.

Thus, the game's three avatars offer truly different options for a player, and reward different styles of play. Compare this to Sonic Advance. In this there are 4 characters available, the familiar trio plus Amy Rose, who uses a squeaky hammer as a weapon and pole vault for higher jumps. However, the stages do not offer any interesting alternative paths or secrets for any character. There's the odd shortcut one can make, but they seem to be accidental rather than intentionally designed. There's essentially no part of a level that can't be accessed by every character. In short, it feels like the levels were designed around Sonic, and then the alternative avatars were added as an afterthought. The mechanics are still solid (the physics are pretty faithfully copied from the Mega Drive games), but the level design fails to take advantage of the avatars offered.

This framework offers some perspective on Starcraft, a game whose design has possibly undergone more scrutiny than any other's, especially in relation to its successor, Starcraft II. The former is highly revered by almost anybody with a general interest in competitive games, and while the latter has gained some coverage, if you ask somebody familiar with both as to its actual competitive quality you will usually get a lukewarm response. You can find complaints fitting into all three of the categories I've suggested. In mechanics, one can look at things like "deathball syndrome" that is ironically caused by a pathing algorithm that is too good.

Deep, tactical combat.

Or the economic tools that often seem to balance a race on the razor edge of unplayably underpowered or gamebreakingly overpowered.

For level, or map, design, there are the destructible rocks that many felt were a dull gimmick to delay base expansion possibilities, or the high-yield gold minerals that had apparently broken synergy with Terran's high-yield mining tool, the Mule, (until their interaction was patched) not to mention the long transitional period from Blizzard's tiny maps that resulted in games that were too short, to huge league created maps that went to the other extreme and created dull stalemates. And for race/unit design, there are the Terran Marauder and the Zerg Roach, which feel against the core design principles of their own races, resembling Protoss units more than anything else, or the Protoss Colossus and Sentry, which only seem to reduce possibilities for good tactics and control.

Welp, guess the Protoss wins this fight. Again.
Players and leagues are trying to fix the map design problems by continuing to create new maps, and Blizzard are trying to fix the unit design problems with constant balance patching and new expansion, the first of which, Heart of the Swarm, is already out. However, if one understands that level design and avatar design are always subservient to mechanics, it's clear that if the problems truly lie in the core design of the game then these are merely patchwork solutions.

The relation to my previous major post is probably clear by now. I wrote a bit about the mechanics of scrolling shooters as a whole, and then focused on the level design in the Touhou games. I could also talk about the avatar design in these games, since for a long time they have offered a selection of characters with different shot types, bombs, and other gimmicks, and they do expose a few clever design traits in some installments. However, it's not what I feel is the strongest aspect of this series, so it's not what I focused on.

I hope some of that was interesting. Nothing I've written here is really new, but I think it's a neat way to categorise ideas. Also I'm sorry that alot of my examples are probably impenetrable to those not familiar with the games I'm talking about, but the only way to avert that would be to make this post way too long. If nothing else, I hope this provided some food for thought.

In other news, here's a drawing.

It's our party from the Pathfinder campaign I'm currently playing! From left-to-right-top-to-bottom: Pan, Catherine's human rogue/ranger, a little urchin who's already got us into trouble with her unchecked thievery; Robomir, Sam's human fighter, Pan's uncle, generally trying to safeguard his niece's supposed innocence; Jammy Dodger, Blanca's gnome summoner/alchemist (or jamchemist), plus her eidolon, the marmalooze, she specialises in chilli bombs, handbag slinging, and mage-hand hair-pulling; Dorfbram Boozelmite, my dwarf-revering gnome barbarian/boozehound (for the record, there is no good reason to ever play a gnome barbarian); Slok, Joe's half-orc druid, specifically frogwarden, who we thought was going to be overpowered but whose squadron of giant frogs have turned out to be largely a liability (R.I.P. Kruk). It's really hard to make such different characters mesh in an image. Especially when people have such disparate colour sensibilities. My progress on this drawing was essentially logarithmic, and even looking at it now I can see more stuff I want to try tweaking, but I should stop here for the sake of my own sanity.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Birthday thing and Monkeys thing

It was recently my friend Blanca's birthday so I drew her a card with some of her favourite characters on it! At least the ones I know. Clockwise from top left is Rarity from My Little Pony, Batrider, Puck, and Bane from Dota 2, and the Pokémon Nidoking. Alot of them are purple. I could also have added Luna from Dota and Lulu from League of Legends and that would've been even more purple. This was the first time in years I'd broken out my old coloured pencils (I've had the same box for about a decade). I'd forgotten how hard I find working in any sort of natural medium. You can't even erase or patch up mistakes with coloured pencils. And there's always the temptation to add just one more layer of colour. Also my browns were all really short so doing a chocolate cake was taxing. Overall I'm a little ashamed of how naive my technique feels, but it was rewarding to do again, and she liked it! She is lovely and extremely talented, so if you haven't already, make sure you check out Dungeons & Drawings, the blog she co-runs with her partner Joe Sparrow. They just got done with a really good elementals week.

I also recently finished working on a music video for the Arctic Monkeys' new single Do I Wanna Know, once again directed by David Wilson.

I was "head of design", though I feel my role would be better described as a layout artist. I drew most of the key compositions for the animators to work to (the "storytelling" images, a bit less than what you'd call full keyframes), and animated on a segment or two. It was an insanely fast turnaround, but somehow we produced the whole thing in about three weeks thanks to a huge team of unbelievably talented people. Blanca was one of them. I haven't seen a full credits list anywhere, so here's what I can remember of what all the animators did.
  • Alex Grigg/Jasper Trenfield/Simone Tartaglia - All of the oscilloscope (which was done in Maya).
  • Sean Weston - Smoking lady to tyre running over two ladies (a monster of a section!) and the mushroom cloud just before the buck-toothed mechanic lady I think.
  • Joe Sparrow - Strutting girl stomping on oscilloscope and subsequent procession of girls setting down tyres.
  • James Lancett - Girl stopping rolling tyre (he got stolen from us to work on a different project).
  • Nicos Livesy - Various transitions, including the crossing legs, the zip, the AM lady that eventually got used for the iTunes album artwork, I think the lady sitting on the car, and finishing off the girl that James Lancett started on.
  • Sean Buckelew - Booty lady, flag-waving lady, drivers leaping over oscilloscope hills, everything from the buck-toothed mechanic lady holding the tyre to the diving lady. Yes, all of that! He was the hero of this project, it seemed like he basically animated half the video.
  • Mak Ying Ping - Closeup engine blowing out smoke.
  • Me! - Large lady getting blasted out of a pipe to James Dean man in a cartoon car leaping over bumps on the wing of an eagle.
  • Frankie Swan - The eagle and everything else up to the mushroom cloud (I can't remember if he or Sean did the mushroom cloud itself).
  • Tom Bunker - Little fish flying into the mouth of the mouth-car (I think).
  • Blanca Martinez - Car driving into the giant fish's mouth up to the kissing couple, and the burning man in the ending sequence.
  • Linda (I'm sorry I can't remember your surname ;_;) - The entire ending sequence minus the burning man.
If there's anything I've misattributed or anyone I've forgotten hopefully somebody with a better memory will be reading this and will correct me. There were also lots of random little bits that had to be attended to by different people towards the end, but these are the things that people were largely responsible for. Everyone really owned their sections and added something to the video!

Compositing was done by Thomas Ormonde (who also did the same on the Tame Impala video), and Monica Domanska was our heroic producer, coming blind into the project about a week and a half in and taking excellent control of everything.

Special thanks to all the interns, including Duncan, Elisa, and Morgan for massive help with cleanup and colouring.

And massive kudos of course to David Wilson himself for coming up with a visuals pitch that the band liked so much they decided to make it a full video, working up that pitch into something even more amazing in less than a week, and constantly coming up with awesome and fun ideas and working harder than anybody else right up to the end!

And finally props to the Arctic Monkeys for making such a great song!

Friday, 10 May 2013

What I like about the Touhou games part 1

Over the past couple of years I've been working my way on-and-off through the Touhou scrolling shooter series of games, created by Junya Ota (more commonly known as ZUN). Recently I beat the 10th numbered iteration, Mountain of Faith, and started on the 11th, Subterranean Animism, and they got me thinking about why I enjoy these games so much. I figured I'd write a bit about it.

Phantasmagoria of Flower View is not included because it sucks I don't like it.

The Touhou games occupy a distinct sub-category of scrolling shooters that's mostly called either "bullet hell" or "danmaku" (lit. bullet curtain) depending on how weeaboo/actually japanese you are. The distinction is a bit fuzzy, but in general a bullet hell game will have a smaller player hitbox and higher bullet density than a game like Gradius or R-Type. I've enjoyed examples of both types, though Touhou is the only bullet-hell series I've played extensively. Cave's Donpachi is apparently credited with codifying the tropes of the subgenre, though the one time I tried one of them (I think Do-Don-Pachi Dai-Fukkatsu) it proved thoroughly too hard for me. The only other ones I can think of that I've played are one-offs: Treasure's fantastic Ikaruga, and a relatively little-known doujin shooter called Samidare.

One of the reasons I find scrolling shooters appealing is the simplicity of their mechanics. The controls and victory conditions are easy to understand: you move in whatever direction you press, and if you touch anything you die. I also enjoy plenty of games with rich, nuanced, subtle workings (the Sonic games come to mind; Starcraft is another, different example; Dota is an extreme case), but I feel there's a nice purity to uncluttered mechanics. As well as making a game easy to understand for a new player, it provides an obvious, direct measure of very basic skills like hand-eye coordination, reaction time, and concentration. Bullet-hell shooters basically exaggerate the principles of traditional scrolling shooters. Rather than your character's hitbox taking up their entire graphic, it will be a much smaller area in the centre of their sprite. Accordingly, the attacks that enemies fire at you can be much more densely packed before becoming impossible to dodge. On a basic level, this means that the action is more intense, and your precision and reactions are that much more taxed. I wouldn't necessarily say that the skill ceiling is always higher as a result (I'm not well-read enough to make blanket statements about the whole genre) but it feels that way, and even though I'm not actually that good at these games, it's gratifying.

This is an exaggerated comparison.
 Of course, individual series or titles add their own specific mechanics on top of this central core. Some will be relevant for the layman just trying to survive all the stages, while others may only relate to the scoring mechanics, and thus only the most hardcore will concern themselves with them. However I feel the best are those that are important at all levels of play. As a good example, Ikaruga's dark/light polarity switching mechanic is central to the entire game: it is practically impossible to survive even the first level without using it, but knowing how to exploit it allows for an extremely high skill ceiling.

This is epitomised by the last boss. If you just gun it down as quickly as possible, it's not too challenging. If you want a high score, however, you have to milk it for bullet absorption, waiting until the last second on the timer before killing it. Which means doing this...

...for 50 seconds.

The Touhou series's signature mechanics are rather modest in comparison. The blue point items dropped by enemies are almost always worth more the higher up the screen they are collected, maxing out at the "Point of Collection" about 1/5 of the way down. Moving above this also usually causes all items on-screen to gravitate instantly towards the player. Most games also feature a "Graze" mechanic, whereby the player is rewarded in some way for passing close to, but not touching, bullets. Combined, these offer incentives for risky, aggressive play. However, they are generally "scoring only" features, and do not hold any inherent relevance for the casual player, outside of possible extra lives at certain score intervals, or game-specific mechanics.

Where I feel the Touhou games excel is in their level design. Although in this case it might be more relevant to call it "pattern design". The actual levels have their own strengths, but it's when the bosses appear that I think the real design happens. As you might surmise from my most recent posts, I like it when design elements work in multiple ways: I like a character design, for example, to look good, but it should also immediately suggest things about the character's personality, their place in their world, their role in a story and, if they're in a game, how they play. The bullet patterns employed by Touhou's bosses touch on this idea, and I feel they're actually getting better with each game.

The patterns are well designed on a basic "gameplay" level. ZUN is pretty good at balancing their difficulty, while making them distinctive and varied such that a player will need specific skills to beat specific attacks. It's not all just twitch reaction or rote memorisation: you need pattern recognition, concentration, patience, endurance, and even planning to get through a whole game's worth of Spell Cards (the series's name for character's special attacks).

They're also pretty just for prettiness's sake. Fitting for a series where all the characters are cute girls.

A boss will generally have overarching themes to their attacks, which helps give each one a distinct identity outside of just their design and personality as written in the dialogue. The enemies aren't nondescript monsters or spaceships, they're characters. Sakuya in Embodiment of Scarlet Devil uses waves of knives in tandem with time-stopping, a likely reference to Dio Brando from Jojo's Bizarre Adventure.

Sanae in Mountain of Faith uses bullets densely arranged in pentagram formations that then gradually unfold and invert in various ways.

However, I feel ZUN is at his most ingenious when he communicates a specific idea through his patterns, especially if it relates directly to the character using them. A very simple, early example is Cirno's "Perfect Freeze" spell card in Embodiment of Scarlet Devil. She sprays bullets rapidly across the screen, freezes them in mid air, then allows them to thaw so they slowly disperse in random directions. Cirno is an ice fairy, so this is thematically fitting for her.

Nitori, the stage 4 boss of Mountain of Faith, is a kappa, thus many of her patterns suggest jets or streams of flowing water in some way.

Even though it was Mountain of Faith that prompted me to write this post, I actually think the following game, Subterranean Animism, has the best bullet pattern design in the series. There are two characters that perfectly sum up what I'm talking about.

In stage 4, a red and black cat appears multiple times as a sub-boss. It assualts you with highly aggressive, screen-filling patterns.

It hounds you again in stage 5, attacking even more ferociously.

 Even though it's just a cat, you get some idea of its personality, just from how it fights you. Then, at the end of stage 5, it appears again, assumes a human form, and finally talks to you... and this cat, Orin, turns out to actually have a very friendly, outgoing, almost cowgirl attitude.

It seems her aggression was more akin to boisterous playfulness. When I first saw this, I thought, "Oh... that makes complete sense too." My perceptions weren't refuted, merely recontextualised. And in this new context, the rest of her attacks, no less vicious than before, make sense in a different way.

The last boss, however, is a work of genius. Reiuji Utsuho is a hell raven who consumed a Yatagarasu, a sun crow, and has thus attained the power of nuclear fusion. She is determined to use this to turn the surface of the earth into an extension of hell. However, even if you skip through her dialogue, her very first attack instantly tells you exactly what she's like, and suggests how the rest of the battle is going to go.

It's simple and not particularly difficult, but also violent and very fast. She's a creature of no great sophistication, but with massive power. She is simple, but brutal - and so are all of her attacks.

Many of her subsequent spell cards involve massive blazing fireballs as projectiles. Their sheer size, orders of magnitude larger than the bullets you're used to seeing, hints at Utusho's bloated, overloaded power.

Spot the miko.
They're so huge that they often mercilessly restrict your available space. It induces a feeling of constriction and oppression in the player... and this is exactly what the character you're controlling would be feeling, fighting in a swelteringly hot environment, with walls of flame in every direction. Just through level design, ZUN manipultes the player's emotions to connect them to their avatar. That's clever.

And her final card is the cleverest of all. Utsuho spawns bullets all over the screen. She then creates an artificial sun in the centre, which begins to gravitate all the bullets towards itself... along with your character!

And it only gets worse, as sunlight starts streaming outwards, and the pull of gravity intensifies... all while the sun gains mass and expands, restricting your movement even further.

Your enemy's power is so great that not only does it violate the physics of the world, but it even directly affects the way that you, the player, interact with it. This isn't suggested by some corny dialogue (the Touhou games do, admittedly, have plenty of corny dialogue), you aren't just told "Her power is too great! She's sucking in everything!" You are made to feel it in a visceral way. One might be reminded of the ending of Shadow of the Colossus, and that is also a fucking amazing game. Of course, games have interfered with a player's controls before, but Touhou's language is so refined, so limited, and so well established that it's a shock to have this happen, for the first time in eleven games. And it's perfectly placed: a fantastic climax to an intense final battle.

Comparing Utsuho to earlier final bosses, she just seems clearly more sophisticated from a design perspective. Remilia's okay. Yuyuko's patterns are absolutely gorgeous, extremely fun to play against, and she's actually one of my favourite bosses in the series for how well she brings together so many secondary elements like pacing and music. Kaguya's spell cards are ingeniously patterned around elements from the story of Kaguya-hime, on which she is based, and takes the game's Last Spell gimmick to a satisfying conclusion. Kanako uses a bunch of very clever and enjoyable patterns. But I don't think any of them approach the level of sophistication of Utsuho's attacks. None of them are so refined and thematically tight: none of them so completely describe the character's personality.

In a way, bullet pattern design like this is the most pure and perfect form of level design. Aesthetically, they're almost like abstract geometric patterns, which is the most basic kind of visual design possible. Functionally, however, they're able to be as complex and nuanced as a designer's imagination can fathom, as the rules of the game itself are so simple that there's almost no way to create something unintuitive or convoluted within it.

There's more to Touhou's clever game design, but I want to save those thoughts for another post.

(By the way, all the GIFs are from my own play on Normal mode.There are two more difficulty levels above this, Hard and Lunatic. And Touhou games are apparently not even considered hard by the shooting game community at large. On that note, if somehow a person who is actually familiar with games like Donpachi and Mushihimesama reads this post, and it turns out that those games do all this stuff but better, I apologise: I just haven't played them.)

Also I offer no apology for the tons of massive GIFs.

Mountain of Faith took me a very long time to beat, so I drew a picture to commemorate the fact. It's just fanart of the dodgy character designs and has nothing to do with what I've gone on about in this writing, but I tried to make it look nice, at least. I made it a bit of an exercise in colour and composition, though I still have lots to work on. Many sincerest thanks to Joe Sparrow (again) for giving me advice and generally being a bro.

More soon (actually never). Also I got sick of the X-Large image preview size being just slightly too wide for the default layout so I actually started dicking around with my blog design finally. I'll probably get rid of that cluttered sidebar at some point, as well as actually maybe concocting a background. It'll be a treat!