The future most important element of gaming

July 10, 2010

There´s an obvious trend visible in current JRPGs, or Japanese adventure-games in general. That trend is something that´s been part of western gaming-design for probably all of its existence´s time. It is the option of letting the player customize his in-game characters – creating true avatars.

Where it´s at - Customization at its current best

All the typical, big Japanese adventure-games, most of them RPGs, used to feature a preset cast of characters, each of them with his or her set-in-stone background story and individual behavior. Just think of games like Final Fantasy 7, Skies of Arcadia or Dragon Quest 8, to name some of the most popular ones. Each of these games puts you in the shoes of an already-developed character. You simply navigate that character through the course of his adventure, his story. As fun as many of these RPGs were, in terms of immersion, they all more or less failed. Immersion being the part where you, the player, are accounted for as a vital part of the game´s progression. If truly mean-minded, you could say, this kind of games is hardly better than watching a movie – only shaken up by filler-ish combat-systems.

That is where some Japan-developed games grew to stray away from. One of these games would be Monster Hunter. Of course, Monster Hunter has been around for many years now, but that just makes it a pioneer of what I´m writing about. In MH, you don´t navigate some preset character through a given story. Instead, you create your characters appearance, you choose your weapon, each of which heavily changes the gameplay, and finally, you choose what to do next. And how you do this “next“. MH brings truly individual adventures to the player by giving so many options that are up to the player to decide. Of course, MH is, at least in its best form, a multiplayer-focused experience. It dismisses any story and has you fighting monsters. That is all. While it is fun for hundreds of hours, it is kind of an easy-route to go. The hard-route would be to implement this kind of customization into singleplayer-games.

Japan catching up

The game that made me write this article was Dragon Quest 9 for Nintendo DS, which has been released in the US just now and will be out in Europe by July 23rd. What´s so special about this ninth entry of the most popular, traditional RPG-series in Japan is its cast. Unlike its predecessor, Dragon Quest 8, every member of your party, including the “hero”, is created from scratch by the player. Gender, appearance, everything. Eye shape, eye color, hair style and color, and so on. Later on, you can put on clothes part by part, being separated into various categories, to give each and every character a truly unique look. Of course, I haven´t played the game yet, but from what I heard, the way you obtain new items is very similar to typical loot-games like Diablo 2 for PC. So that´s definitely a big step for such a traditional series, from Japan nonetheless.  And here is where I´d like to take customization one step further.

Customizing every part of your character - if only he´d be involved in the story now

The biggest flaw of Dragon Quest 9 is, at least that is what appears to be, the lack of personality within your customized party. None of these self-created characters will have a dramatic, heart-wrenching story. They won´t talk with each other, each one showing a different attitude. None of that. Your party is faceless. They´re a tool for combat, giving you what it takes to beat all the enemies to get through the game, but that´s it. And this is where I wondered: Why not put that up for customization, too? “That” being: Character traits and story-bits (the Jurassic Park-theme is playing as I write this, you should do so, too). Of course, I realize that this would take a lot more effort to put into reality, but it´d be worth it. And it could be as basic or complex as the respective developer wanted it to be. Varying attitudes shouldn´t be much of a problem. If you look at one of the most popular western RPGs of the year, Mass Effect 2, you´ll find out that depending on which character you have in your party, you´ll be able to listen to different conversations. Character A tells Character B something different than he would tell Character C. That is nothing to costly, it´s doable right now. And ME2 features expensive HD-3D-visuals and voice acting. A game like Dragon Quest 9 would be a lot cheaper to create in that way. That´s that for character traits. Simply let me choose from traits such as “innocent”, “loud mouth”, “secretive” or “nice guy” and we´re set. If you have four party-members and, say, ten different traits, you can calculate how many different combinations that would make. But it´s doable. As for customizing parts of the story, that´d be more complicated. Surely, the more elaborate a developer wanted his game´s story-telling to be, the more complicated, the more of an issue that would become. But again, it´s something that could be as basic or complex as the respective developer wanted it to be. For a minimum, there could be four stories to choose from, making it, if we stay with a four member-party, one story for each of your party-members. So none of these fours stories would go to waste. The only thing that´d have to be watched out for is that the attitude of a character, choosen by the player, is presented in a fitting way. But depending on the scenario, that´d be minor changes. That´s the minimum. Yet, it´d be already really awesome. Now make it five, six or more stories to choose from, or even different pieces of story that you could freely combine to create a truly unique background story for each of your party members, and it´d be even more fun. And a truly customized adventure.

In the end, this would be the next step of customization in video games, and the next step towards the hypothetical procedural story-telling – automatically individually generated stories that don´t suck. However, it´s a long, long way until something like that is technically possible. Until then we have to take the costly, time-consuming path and create all possible choices beforehand. But even so, it´s effort and work that´d be an enormous plus for the world of video games. Gamers want to experience individual adventures, they want to immerse themselves within believable worlds. And that´s why this is so important: Customization brings individual adventures to life.


Praised coop-modes in otherwise bad games

April 6, 2010

That is something that has angered me in the past many times, and still often does. I love coop-modes, they´re usually great fun. My favorite coop-games were Armorines: Project S.W.A.R.M. and Turok: Rage Wars. But there´s a limit to how much you can give such games credit.

The worst offender in that regard was Resident Evil 5. Of course, a Resident Evil-game gets its hype, it´s too big of a franchise to be ignored. But when it was finally released, no, when its demo was released, it was really bad. Bad compared to Resident Evil 5. The controls are mainly the same as RE4´s, but somehow Capcom managed to make them feel off in that game. It also didn´t help that RE5 consisted of pure action only, no moody setpieces as those being found in RE4. What´s worst, though, is that when finally everyone dared to express their disappointment about the game, some people started to use the “but it´s great in coop-mode!”-argument.

Well, let me tell you this: Every game in video game history is more fun in coop-mode. Every single one. I´m sure, had Superman 64 featured coop, it would have been fun. That´s because games are always more fun when you´re playing with friends. It´s like watching a bad movie. Watching it alone just bores you, maybe makes you angry at the crap you´re watching. Now invite a friend, and the crappy movie turns into a funny movie, with you and your friend loudly laughing and talking about it while watching it. That doesn´t make the movie good, though. And you wouldn´t advise other people to watch it. It´s like that with video games. Together, you can laugh about it, alone, it´s just plain bad. That´s why it´s unnecessary to say praise otherwise not-so-good games for their coop-mode. It´s not something special.

Lost in Stats

March 23, 2010

I love stats. I´d take the risk to assume everyone loves stats about his favorite games. It´s the reason why playing Super Smash Bros. Melee was so much fun (well, part of the fun). Stats give you insight into your individual playing style. The data often shows habits or simply what actions you prefer. And despite all that additional, passive fun, stats are still something rare in video games.

There really isn´t much more to say. Get stats into every game where it makes even slightly sense. No wait, put it into every game, no matter of how much sense that makes. I want stats in the next Zelda-game, showing me how many enemies I killed, how I killed them and how many meters I ran in complete. I want to know the jumping distance in Super Mario Galaxy 2 and how long the longest time in mid-air was. I want stats in Mass Effect 3, showing me who I had the most romances with, who I talked most with and how my moral developed over the course of the game. Give me also stats in the next Mario Kart-game, which actually would make sense. Give me stats about any activity I could possible engage in on my consoles. And then, at the end of all that, let me compare my various stats with those of friends.

Stats, especially when you can compare them with others, are great fun for those interested. And I fathom that it´s rather easy to track the data for these stats in most games. Seriously, give me stats for every game out there. Let the consumer decide if he wants to look at or ignore them. Stats are fun.

Personal Pets and Unified Ingame-Avatars

March 17, 2010

Videogaming and technology in general are still far away from creating a true Artificial Intelligence, short A.I. For many of those interested in the subject of A.I., it´s so damn fascinating because it would allow for so many option in whatever technological way. Using an A.I. for making navigating your MP3-player easier, exploring philosophical matters, and, of course, using them in video games. Imagining that every single NPC in a game would be “alive” is one incredible thought. So that´s what could be awesome somewhere down the future. But there´s stuff we can do even now.

I recently played Wii Sports Resort, the frisbee-game. For those that haven´t played the game yet, you have to throw a frisbee that then is caught by a virtual dog. That dog is beyond cute. Really adorable how it shakes its tail and brings the frisbee back to you. That got me thinking: Why can´t we have such a pet for the menu of a video game console?  Or forget the dog, it could be whatever virtual being, ranging from a dog, to hot girl, to a dinosaur. Basically, integrate a fake-A.I. that interacts with you. Using voice-recognition to navigate through the menu. In the end, it wouldn´t be anymore than a cosmetic change, but being a scifi-fan myself, it´d be so much more awesome. Starting your system, being greeted  by name by your fake-A.I., which then would ask how you are. Game publishers could integrate advertisements, like “Hey, Max, there´s some interesting news about XYZ. Do you want to know more?” and you answer yes or no. And back to navigating the menu, say you´re starting your 360. Instead of clicking through all the menus, you simply say “Start Mass Effect 2” and it´s being done for you. Depending on what´s offered, you could enhance your fake-A.I. by adding new behaviors and teaching it when a certain reaction is expected. That´d really make the whole experience more lively and, for scifi-fans like myself, more fascinating.

Another topic are main characters in video games. We´ve reached a time where either customization plays a bigger role, or games feature more unusual human variations, i.e. characters that differ from your typical white, male, 30-year old Rambo. I´m of the opinion that said variation should be taken to the next step. By taking away pre-made main characters from games and instead let your create your very own main character in the console´s main menu. Think of it like creating your Mii or Avatar, and using it in every game you buy. Of course, depending on the art style, your self-made avatar would change to fit in the game. But you´d also play as exactly the person you want to play as. The only kind of games that would have a problem with this concept would be cinematic games with lots of voice acting and pre-rendered cutscenes. But who cares, these games are taking the wrong direction anyways.

True Freedom in Games – Non-mandatory content

March 7, 2010

A lot of gamers love games that allow for a lot of freedom. Freedom in choice, freedom in where to go, freedom in customizing the ingame-avatar. All the concepts indeed help to make a game experience more open, putting the player into the game as if it really was his personal adventure. But there is one aspect that developers (or publishers?) are either too afraid or too unwilling to take on. There exist obvious counter-arguments to using the following concept, but it really goes against the sense of freedom within a video game. I´m talking about mandatory content.

Mandatory content means that no matter what you choose to do, you WILL see said content. One example would be old point’n click-adventures, where you have more than one solutions for a puzzle, but in the ends it will lead you to the same goal. Another example would be The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, where you can decide if you want to tackle the shadow temple before the spirit temple, or the other way round. It gives you that choice, increasing freedom within the game, but at the same time it doesn´t matter, because no matter how you decide, you WILL see either temple. There are more, much more examples, but almost every modern game that, at some point, gives you the choice to decide where to go, is doing the same.

So what is that true freedom that this article´s title points towards? That true freedom is not about having the choice to go to or do whatever you want. It is the choice not to do something, full stop. There are two recent games that greatly demonstrate that concept, even if it could be much more expanded. One is Mass Effect 2. Of course, you´ll find your typical mandatory scenes that you have to see. But depending on how you decide, you will not see half of the game. Or even less, if you consider sidequests. Some people will finish that game in under 20 hours, whereas other gamers will take well over 30 hours. It is totally up to your own decision of how much you experience. The other recently released (in Europe) game that shows of the concept of non-mandatory content is Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. The game uses a very fascinating psych-profile where, depending on your answers, the ingame-content changes. To give a harmless example from the very beginning of the game: Depending on your answers, you´ll either enter a diner and talk to a police officer, or, you will visit a small pub and talk to some middle-aged woman. However, you will not see both. That´s because either the other building isn´t there at all or its door is locked. There are many more of such content-altering choices, but the point is: You will not see all the game´s content in just one playthrough.

These superior concepts for freedom in videogames are, of course, a tough choice to make for developers. That is, because these guys basically have to put effort into creating assets and scenarios that many gamers will probably never see. It is both stressing on a personal level (“man, there I created this beautiful piece of story, and not everybody will see it. Why create it at all?!“) as well as expensive on a financial viewing (“why pay someone to create something that won´t be seen by everyone?!“). That is also exactly the reason why it almost never happens. The only non-mandatory content you´ll often find are smallish sidequests that bear no relevance to the overall plot. But non-mandatory content that heavily inflicts the main plot of a game? Very rare.

It is a pity that so few developers/publishers take the risk of creating this true sense of freedom, as it makes a gaming experience much more meaningful. It feels completely different when you know that you explored something by free will…or chose not to do so. I talked about a rather futuristic solution for that concepts problems, but it really is possible even today. It just takes the will to create such a unique experience. Until we get something better, you´ll come closest to true freedom by playing Mass Effect 2 and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.

“Stealthing” – An Ignored Common Gameplay Mechanic

February 12, 2010

Within the realm of myriads of gameplay components some are more important than others. Varying in importance depending on what genre you visit. Jumping-mechanics alone could fill dozens of paragraphs. How far to jump, how high, how fast to fall back to ground, double jump or not, long jump or not, wall jump or not, and so on. Fighting mechanics are another very important part of gaming, of course. There´s so much variety in how you can build up a game from the ground. There is, however, one mechanic that has yet to make its entrance into the realm of “general gameplay options”. Jumping mechanics are something general, first person has become general, as have many others. Stealth mechanics have not.

To this day, stealth mechanics are being kept exclusive to, well, stealth games. Be it Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid, you will not find many other games out there that feature proper stealth mechanics. One of the few, better examples these days is Assassins Creed. Another great example is Mini Ninjas.

Stealth mechanics shouldn´t be exclusive to games that focus on them. The reason why “stealthing” is fun in many games is because it gives a sense of freedom, of non-linearity. Be it fully developed stealth games like Metal Gear Solid or just games with certain stealth mechanics, it´s always so much fun to find out how to approach a problem. Kill the enemy head on, sneak by or sneak near him to suddenly finish him off. In a way, stealth mechanics really are what could make the difference between a typical action-adventure and a real adventure-experience. It´s a common problem in most videogames that once you´re within a certain radius of the enemy, he magically makes you out. Just like that, without actually having seen you. That takes away a lot of the fun, as you are granted only one approach by the developer. I can remember James Bond: Agent Under Fire where that was a big problem, but also the Zelda-series.

There are three games that used stealth mechanics the best, as far as I have experienced them. One is Assassins Creed. There is so much satisfaction in sneak-killing someone, slowly walking away, folding your hands as if praying, and acting as if nothing happened…while several meters behind you people finally realize what´s going on and are shouting nervously. Where AC fails is in hiding once you´ve been found out by guards. You can only hide in one of those roof-boxes or in a bunch of straw. No hiding within the masses of people, no running away, running around a corner…they will keep hunting you as if you have been marked by something. The second game is Mini Ninjas. I didn´t expect anything genius from this game, but it has superb stealth mechanics. You have to know that the game features very nice grass, high grass where you can crouch and hide yourself. This is super fun. You can sneak just one or two meters next to an enemy, and he won´t see you. You can pass by an enemy behind his back and hide within grass on the other side. And most importantly: Once you have been spotted, you can crouch within high grass and try to get away by sneaking…the enemies will start searching where you crouched. Truly awesome. As is the third game I´m going to mention: Crysis. A game that is criticized so often by people that didn´t even play it. “It´s just a graphics demo”. No, it is not. Definitely not. The open world structure of Crysis wouldn´t work as well if it wasn´t for the non-linear gameplay. The invisibility ability plays a huge role in that. You can activate that one at any given moment. I had some of the funniest scenes with that ability. Once, there were six enemy soldiers. I was hiding behind a small hut. So they keep storming in, I become invisible. Some are coming from the left, some from the right. One or two enter the hut. Meanwhile, I take out two of them. I become visible while shooting. Two other soldiers come running, shoot at me, but I run around the corner of the hut, invisibility on. I slowly sneak away a few meters, the soldiers are confused. I take out another two of them. The scene repeats. Just like that I have an intense fight only within the area of that small hut. Thanks to stealth mechanics that are by no measure standard within first person shooters.

In a way, it is no wonder why stealth mechanics are either shitty or don´t exist at all in modern videogames: They demand more thoughtful design, more effort. But it is effort that´d be worth it. After all, it is the game that I can play in many different ways that I keep putting in my disc drive.

The Future is 3D (again)

December 25, 2009

Last week I saw Avatar, James Cameron´s latest movie. After all the overhyped movies a bunch of fanatics hyped up (The Dark Knight, Inglorious Basterds, etc.) I was pleasantly surprised of how this one film actually held up to all the expectations. Of course, the story presented in Avatar is run-of-the-mill, evil human corporations attack peaceful aliens to make more money and so on, but not only was that story well presented, the imagery of the whole film was great. So great that I constantly thought of how my favorite videogame-franchise should borrow parts of this film. A small, or big, I cannot decided, role played the fact that I saw the film in 3D, using rather cheap 3D-glasses. The resulting effect complemented the movie very well, though it didn´t stand out too much. Where the 3D-effect really shone was in a trailer for some upcoming Disney-animation movie (that I am SO going to to watch). Long story short, I think 3D images is the next big thing in video gaming.

The future I imagine consists of three major pillars: Controls, A.I and Interactive Visuals.

I talked about A.I. in an earlier blog-post, so let me go on about the other two. In terms of controls, we´re getting “there“, thanks to Nintendo starting the whole thing with its Wiimote. MotionPlus was another big step forwards, and I think, sooner or later, though hopefully sooner, we´ll get some kind of data gloves, or combination of MotionPlus and Microsoft´s natal (see Minority Report). The controls are there. A.I. will be there as well, or can, at least, be presented well enough so that people will think it is “there”. That leaves Interactive Visuals. No matter how expensive your TV is, it is always limited to a flat picture. Current HDTVs aren´t capable of any 3D-output, and though Sony is working on 3DTVs, they´ll have a hard time to catch on, considering how most of userbase just upgraded to “mere” HDTVs. 3DTVs aren´t the future in terms of gaming. I don´t know of any efforts coming from Microsoft, so maybe they have something or have not. But there is another console manufacturer that might work just on what I envision. Here´s a quote from Shigeru Miyamoto, from November 2005:

It’s convenient to make games that are played on TVs. But I always wanted to have a custom-sized screen that wasn’t the typical four-cornered cathode ray tube TV. I always thought that games would eventually break free of the confines of a TV screen to fill an entire room. But I would rather not say anything more about that.

For those saying that maybe Miyamoto just talked out of his ***, in an interview in one of the last issues of German magazine “VideoGames“, he said that in his vision thanks to lower costs of discs (instead of cartridges), they (Nintendo) would be able to include special hardware with games. Guess what we saw happening with Mario Kart Wii, Link´s Crossbow Training or Grand Slam Tennis!

It is also reason I believe Nintendo to give the deciding push towards 3D-gaming, because they´ll follow a different approach in terms of setting the whole thing up. With Sony, they clearly want you to buy a 3DTV. They´re a hifi-entertainment company, selling not only videogame systems, but also TVs and a lot of other stuff. It is in Sony´s interest to bet on these new TVs. Not so Nintendo. Prior to the Wiimote´s unveiling at Tokyo Game Show 2005, there were a lot of rumors about a built-in projector. As in, a projector being within the videogame system. No need for a TV, AT ALL. That would certainly fit in line with Nintendo´s philosophy, as head of Nintendo, Satoru Iwata, told in a recent interview that there won´t be mobile phone-functionality included in a Nintendo handheld as long as it´s not free to use. So what would be more fitting than the independence of the gamer´s personal budget and build a home console where everyone experiences the same? No more “I have more money, I can have a better experience from the same game.” And that´s only speaking of costs and equality.

A 3D-effect works best with a big, a really big picture. When I turned my head while watching and saw the borders of the big cinema-screen, the effect lost a lot of its strong impression. So I believe that it is necessary to have an as big as possible screen. Something certainly not possible for most people. Not even the biggest HDTVs would work for that. But imagine the whole wall of your room being a screen! Whoah! Together with Motion Controls, virtual reality would finally come true. If these controls and the 3D-image were tightly woven one into the other, a real sense of touching virtual object could be the result. Incredible.

(An old picture I created in full hype beforehand Nintendo´s Wiimote-unveiling in 2005)

Now, projectors, even if not that expensive to buy, are expensive to keep running. The bulb of such a projector is expensive. It could work as an overall business, with Nintendo offering new bulbs at a reasonable price point, but there´s an even more advanced, more awesome solution for Shigeru Miyamoto´s vision: 3D-video-glasses, or shorter, visors. These visors were also heavily rumored within the whole “Nintendo Revolution”-turmoil, but they could resurface. Visors would make TVs obsolete as well, yet wouldn´t have running costs for the consumer. The old saying “visors make your eyes hurt” is long overdue, technology made several steps forward since then. Best part, though, is that these visors wouldn´t be exclusive to videogames. It could mark Nintendo´s step into a bigger business, being the one company that pushes that technology, instead of keeping on relying on TVs.

Whatever it is, I believe that 3D will make its way into video gaming. And if Nintendo doesn´t stop to innovate, it´ll be their next big thing as well as gamers´. After having experienced Avatar, it´s all I can hope for.