Negative Progress Sort of Sucks

I’ve played NHL ’10 quite a bit online now. There’s one thing that seemed really cool to me, but now I wonder if it really just sucks and takes away from the gaming experience. In NHL ’10 you must complete certain amount of games and get good enough rates in 3 different categories (team play, positioning, stats).

In paper this sounds pretty good: you can progress in game!

There’s just couple of issues with this system from a game design point-of-view. It sort of spoils the fun.

First point is that after completing enough games, you also need to have good enough average ratings in order to progress and gain “experience points”. This means that if your ratings are A in one game and C in other, your average is B. Since it’s a team game, your ratings depend also how your team mates play. If they give you good passes, you have good chances to score and get good stats as a right wing player for example. But… let’s suppose you play well, but lose the game and since one player can do only that much, it eventually affects your score and gives you a negative penalty. After one badly played game you need more than one good match to recover.

So, this means that some players rather end the game (I don’t) instead of completing, since they know they would get a bad rating. So… this is a party spoiler feature. I would have chosen absolute measurement in the system. Things like “Complete 100 games AND get 30 points in the last 10 games”. Now your bad history can ruin the fun. Basically, your progress sort of stops at one point (or requires toooooons of playing).

And then to the other bad point. The averages are based on system that you need to play by the game strategy. That’s sort of fun, except that sometimes it’s better not to follow the instructions, pick pocket the puck in the opponent’s side and possibly score a goal. You might get “stats A, positioning B” for doing that sort of thing – which kind of sucks.

And… if you position right (and don’t steal the puck), then your positioning rating might go to A, but stats are perhaps B or whatever. It’s a lose-lose situation since it means you cannot progress. Not very rewarding.

The worst part is that instead of enjoying playing the game (like I’ve always had with NHL ’95) now I’ve started to watch those freaking “experience points”.

Goddamit.

Replay Value?

I’ve been drawing the first level for my co-op stealth prototype, and there’s one major gameplay issue I started pondering: replay value.

The multiplayer games I’ve played are all about replay:

    Zombie Panic (or other Half-life zombie mods): I kept playing the same 2-3 levels over and over.

  • L4D: Versus or co-op mode, but I did spend some time playing the same levels.
  • NHL ’10 (and of course ’95) is pretty obvious: skating on the ice with bit different teams doing the same thing over and over.

This got me thinking whether I should try find ways to offer replay value for the first level by various systems (such as randomizing the places of important objects, guards, guard AI, and so on) or whether I should focus on doing a totally handcrafted level where guards, objects, and everything are found from the designed locations.

Since stealth games are different from action games, adding the replay value might become tricky as the levels are somewhat “puzzles to be solved”. Once you know the route to complete the mission, the replay value is close to zero.

I know I’ll just start with simple system: I’ll design a map that needs to be “solved” cooperatively and see how that works out. Better not try make things more complex than necessary.

Your take on this?
If you’ve played online multiplayer games, what has been the most useful elements that have got you back to play the game over and over? To me, the biggest replay value has been people – the multiplayer gaming experience in itself. Even a simple game of Risk becomes much more fun when playing against Real People instead of AI.

Note for self: there’s tons of material about “replay value” in the net and design books. Re-reading some resources might bring more ideas on how to handle this.

Share Your Most Memorable (Online) Multiplayer Gaming Experiences

I touched the surface of this topic earlier and wanted to hear some more experiences about what you guys like in online gaming.

What I like
To me, the one-timer experience is certainly a thing I look forward, but I also enjoy doing great passes to others that might shoot the puck in the net. In Zombie Panic I liked the collaboration in building defenses and shooting out zombies (or protecting other people). In L4D I liked to bandage others or get them up (or shoot zombies near them).

Some memorable moments
Not sure if these were actually so fun, but there’s 3 memorable online incidents that I really remember well.

First one happened in Zombie Panic. In this game, one side (humans) does barricades, while the other side – the zombies – try eat the freaking brainz until all humans are dead (or time runs out). Well, once when I looked forward to starting to play a round of zombie survival some guy started telling Michael Jackson jokes via the microphone. This was so unexpected that it sure was memorable. Reminds me that giving players a way to communicate can help them bring memorable moments.

Second recollection comes from NHL ’10. In one game, there was 12 human controlled players (6 on each side). One of the opponents left the game for a moment and his player was standing in the ice without nobody controlling him. Well, one brainiac from our side got this idea and moved the idle player to our defense area – meaning the opponents couldn’t attack because it would have caused an offside. It was pretty interesting to see how a game of ice hockey turned into “move the player on one side of the blue line” when couple of guys started pushing the idle player. (This reminds me that NHL ’10 sure needs some sort of “I’m idle” button, and it also means that when given tools to people, they find truly creative ways to change the whole gaming experience).

The third experience comes from Left 4 Dead. In this game, players are supposed to protect and support each other and make it to the next checkpoint. In one game, there was this one guy who constantly kept running solo and ended up beaten by the zombies – which made us 3 (the rest of the team) constantly helping him, and it was hindering our progress. It was pretty hilarious moment when quite near the end of the checkpoint this one guy got once again beaten up by zombies (and he was lying in ground) one of our teammates started shouting “leave him! leave him!” (since without him we could finish the map if the zombies killed him). Well, I pondered for a second and thought it was a sensible move. We run with the rest of the team to safety while you could still hear one guy shouting “leave him! get to the checkpoint!” – so much for cooperation…

Tell your story
Now I’d really be keen to hear what kind of multiplayer experiences have been most memorable to you?

What kind of multiplayer experiences you really enjoy?

What’s Your Favourite Theme?

I’m into this sneaky oriental samurai stuff, and I like zombies (as a theme, not as nocturnal creatures who want my brain). I don’t know exactly why. Samurais are just so cool (especially those silent guys who just swing the sword once and see their opponent fall ground… dead). Zombies – well, zombies are cool – everybody knows that.

What themes have you used in your games, and why you’ve chosen those?

Also, what favorite themes you guys have? Fantasy? World War II? What kind of themes you really enjoy seeing in games?

Is there a theme you’d like to see in games, but for some reason it’s rarely done?

(Disclaimer: I reserve the right to steal your theme idea and put it to my next game if it ticks me.)

What Happens If You Fall In Love With Your Project?

In the tough school of marketing there’s often mentioned how “target market/audience” and the “potential customer” needs to be thought when creating a (game) product. One “mentor” – sort of speak – I had in the past mentioned how he chose his project by first creating some concepts and then picking the one (Shorthike space simulation game) that had the most market potential. It wasn’t the concept he liked most but he thought it would be most profitable (and of course fun to do as well).

I have been thinking the same way for quite many years now, up until yesterday or so.

Yesterday I was changing diapers for my sweet girl and there was plenty of poo. Earlier (let’s say… close to decades now) I thought that babies are smelly poo factories that eat and sleep a lot. That statement holds true by the way, but something has changed.

I’ve got ownership. It’s my baby. Now I just think the poo is cool thing to wipe off. It doesn’t even smell bad (which is strange since up until this day I’m positive that baby poo smells bad).

By the way, I’m not trying to suggest that my baby is a project, and now way comparing her to a game dev project. I’m comparing the experience I had.

The experience suggests me that if you fell in love with your game project, a strange thing most likely happens: those hideous ugly tasks (whatever they might be in your project) might not seem so ugly any more. In fact, you might even find out that when you are working on the project you truly have ownership and treat it “like your baby” (as I’ve heard some devs mentioning about their products) you’ll go extra mile to get stuff done.

If on the other hand the product is “not yours” and it’s “done for the money” you might translate part of that lack of passion to the product. It might be done well, but something personal might be missing. Something that tells that you love your product.

What’s your experience on this? Have you fell in love with your current or past projects?

Do You Like Puzzle Games?

I have this love/hate relationship with puzzle games: as long as I can keep solving the puzzles, they are just fine.

When I get stuck, it’s just annoying.

I can spend some time working on some puzzle, but if there’s no hints and the only solution is to check some walkthrough from the Internetz I tend to just stop playing.

And of course I play puzzle games just once (after they are solved, why bother playing the same thing again?).

What do you think of puzzle games? Enjoying them?

To Multiplay Or Not, That Is The Question

Online multiplayer is a tricky beast. There’s couple of things that make it bit difficult to decide from an indie dev perspective:

1) Online multiplayer is cool. Like the coolest way to play games. NHL ’10 gets boring playing against CPU… but put there 12 human players on the ice and you are looking at a totally different experience. Left 4 Dead – I tried it like once solo (boooooring), but go for online multiplayer and it rocks. (Versus mode makes it even rockier).

2) Player base.

That point number two is the tricky part, the part that makes online multiplayer slightly painful for indies. In order to get players, there needs to be players. But in case there’s no players, new players won’t appear.

(The AAA game publishers have sort of figured out a solution to this puzzle: pour millions and zillions of money into advertising and building hype. Then the game might have a chance.)

With indies, it’s slightly trickier.

Even AAA studios were vary of online multiplayer only games. Battlefield 1942 was an “online multiplayer” only game and publishers were staring the devs like a rotten fish or something (a true event based story I just made up) when they heard that it was going to be online only. I recall that it was said to the devs that they should get single player campaign or that game would never succeed.

Well, they didn’t. And the rest is history.

In case you don’t remember the game’s history, I’ll tell you: they made BF1942, they got an publisher, I bought the game, it was the most excellent game I had played for long time and I spent tons of time playing it several years ago, other people also bought tons of games and now the devs pretty much have a solid brand and tons of money in their pockets. Not sure about that last point, but the bottom line is: that game was a success.

The point is. I wonder if it’s monetary wise to even consider doing an online multiplayer only game as an indie. Businesswise my brain is telling me “stop thinking that, do a hidden object game”. The other side of the brain is saying “well, what kind of games do you play? Online multiplayer? Would it – like you know – make sense to focus on doing a game that you know you will truly like?”

Casuality Creeps Into Hardcore Games

If you read my yesterday’s blog post, you probably noticed I bought bragging rights (that would be Playstation 3) for some very unknown reason as I have no time to play it anyway in the nearly future (baby coming in any day now).

Anyway, with my newly purchased PS3 I also got NHL ’10.

There was several things that caught my eye in terms of “casual friendly”. Casual games are more about “guiding player gently to do something and then mainly rewarding the player” whereas hardcore games are more about “you gotta have fast reactions and if you fail you are dead”. Okay, that’s a tiny simplification, but you get the point.

In NHL ’10, there’s several “casual gamer” friendly things.

Tutorials/learning puck handling
Before you can play the game, you can train how to shoot, pass and do stuff with the puck. There’s practice modes to give you a soft landing on real games.

Rewards/feedback
One really cool feature I noticed was that the coach gives feedback after each period. Depending how I played, I get feedback such as “good assists” or “avoid no bad penalties”. In the first game, I paid attention to these and they really felt good guidance on what to do more and what to avoid.

In-game guidance
During the game, there’s an arrow pointing “where to position”. For example, if I play the left wing attacker, the arrow points me “where I need to go”.

Many adventure or action games provide “where to go” information, but it was cool to see the same in a sports game. Really user friendly.

Penalty
Okay, playing as a goalie is hardcore: “if you do one mistake the opposing team will score”. And half of the time, you just wait for action to happen, and you have no control over getting your team to win – get some points you know.

But, in “be a pro” (or in online multiplayer) there’s a really sweet way to penalize player. It’s pretty obvious for an ice hockey game: penalties. In my first games, I was tackling too hard (doing bad things) and took penalties. Well, when you sit in the bench for 2 minutes (game time, that’s like 30 secs real time) watching others play… you sort of get the idea that “maybe I should stop getting penalties”.

It was cool way to penalize the player. Do stupidities = you don’t get to play for a moment.

Okay, there’s hardcore stuff as well
I’m not trying to say that NHL ’10 is a casual game. Or that it would have anything to do with casual gaming. It’s a hardcore game. I’m just trying to make a point that there are several game design elements done similarly as in casual games. NHL has tons of hardcore things: first is the menus (they are from Dante’s hell: I have to press like 17 buttons and menu items before I get to play), then it’s the six axis controller (left stick to move, right stick handles the … well, stick. Down, up… buttons. That’s certainly not casual), difficulty levels (there’s really tough opponents), learning curve, and many many things.

But for me… it’s casual fun, I’m a casual hardcore guy anyway.

Sorry, Lost Track of Time. Here’s The Blog Post I Was Supposed To Write Yesterday

This article is about game design and “knowing better than others”.

I got PS3 + NHL ’10 couple of days ago. I read some reviews and heard that NHL provides a “be a pro mode” where you can create your own custom player and gain experience during your ice hockey career. After I heard about this (please keep in mind that my NHL experience stopped to ’95 since all those ’97, ’01 were crappy) I thought that “it’s a stupid idea, people want to control their favorite NHL stars, not create their own guy there”. I knew that EA got this thing wrong.

Well, I knew it totally wrong. I got suck down in the game and got that “just one more game” feeling and forgot to write a blog post.

To break down the situation, here’s some facts:

  • NHL ’10 comes with “be a pro mode” where you create your own custom player.
  • EA thinks this is a good idea: EA’s group of designers obviously think this is a good idea and they probably have some years of experience in doing ice hockey games and improving the game.
  • Jesse Schell (author of Art of Game Design) suggest that this might be a good idea: in his book he mentions how “boys want to be superstars/heroes”. Don’t remember exactly how he put it, but basically I can draw a conclusion that book favors this idea.
  • Then there’s this guy who plays NHL ’10 using nickname “cheeseinmyhat” who had already decided that “be a pro is a sucky” idea before testing the game. That would be me.

EA thinks it a good idea.

Designer work suggest the same.

Yet I come “knowing” how “that won’t work”.

Boy was I wrong.

I tested the game once and immediately fell in love with the idea. I tested the game online and in the very beginning it was cool to see “HIETALAHTI” in the back of the jersey (hockey shirt? whadda heck is that called?). I was in the game now. It wasn’t just playing as Koivu or Selänne. I got in the game. And after some matches, when I saw “HIETALAHTI” appearing as 2nd star in the game – it was a great feeling.

And all because I could put my name somewhere.

Couple of notes to self:
– Saying “no” to something before checking/testing/evaluating the idea is not leading anywhere.
– Need to get more points in NHL ’10. I wanna see my name more on those 3 game star selections.

P.S. If anyone wishes to play against – or with – me NHL ’10 with PS3, you can find me using nick cheeseinmyhat.

Right Amount of Challenge In Game Makes Jack a Bright Boy

Couple of days ago I set my alarm clock to wake me up at 5 am. I wanted to watch the Finland – Czech Republic match. It wasn’t after 3rd intermission when Finland scored 1-0 (and soon after it was 2-0). The whole game was a thriller – and and the challenge was just right. Game was a one big fight that ended in a good end result (at least from the Finnish perspective). The best gaming experiences can be like this: the player encounters challenge and barely wins in the game, with chance of losing.

It was totally different in the next Finland – USA match. The match became so that after 3 minutes or so, USA scored 0-1 due horrible error. Then couple of penalties and some minutes later it was 0-3. Then 0-6 after 15 minutes or so. It was slaughtering, and the first intermission wasn’t even over. At that point I went to bed to sleep. There was pretty much no point for me to watch the game as it was pretty certain that USA would win (1-6 was the end result).

So, when you “know” already who is going to win, there’s no point playing. One could argue that one should not stop fighting and all that… and yes, I agree on that. But I also agree with the design lesson that it’s much more fun to play when game provides just the right amount of challenge instead of playing a game that’s nearly impossible to win.

So, how can this be achieved?

Sometimes, it’s possible to provide handicap for the losing side. Some games have mechanisms that help the losing side to catch up. This can sometimes work pretty fine if done properly.

Some games might do the opposite (“rich get richer” attitude) or nothing.

In video games, it’s sometimes done so that the “AI balances/tweaks its behavior based on the game situation”. In video games, this feels like cheating. It can also lead to conclusions such as “why play as good as possible, if the computer will match my skills no matter what I do” – it’s like there’s no point of trying to get better since the computer is always mimicking my actions. It’s like playing chess with a mirror or something.

I think video games can learn from board game mechanisms in this issue. Board games don’t have similar AI that video games, thus they need to build the game mechanisms so that it works properly. Checking that side of the fence can be useful.

What you think? What kind of balancing you like in games? How you handle balancing in your game? How you like if computer difficulty is adjusted based on how well you are playing?