Saturday, June 24, 2006

So You Want to be a Game Designer (Part II)

In Part 1 of this article, I summarized the state of gaming industry careers and outlined some of the barriers to breaking in. I finished with a short list of achievements that can increase your chances of success in finding job. In Part 2 of this article, I will expand upon each of these critical achievements. I have avoided ranking them or numbering them as steps, because they are all important, and many can be accomplished at the same time.

Educate Yourself
In Part 1, I mentioned that education is critical, but a gaming school is not necessarily the place to get smarter. The burden of education is, and always will be, on your own shoulders. The Internet has a wealth of tutorials, wikis, and newbie-friendly forums where you can learn. Absorb every ounce of information you can find. Buy books if you have to.

If you do go to school, don’t just pass your classes, ace your classes. Are you going beyond the course, or simply trying to keep up? Don’t accept the school’s curriculum as the ideal level of education. Expect to teach yourself three or four times as much as you are taught in class.

Practice, Practice, Practice
As soon as you have even a little knowledge, begin to practice what you have learned. Build models. Create textures and art. Make maps. Create characters. Write stories. Start scripting. There is absolutely no substitute for doing it. I would strongly encourage you to join a mod team or start your own. A number of games come with free editors, scripting languages, and other mod tools. Learn them inside and out.

Go Public
Finally, and most importantly, publish something. I’m not talking about making money (yet); I’m just talking about releasing your work to the public. Get feedback and learn from it. Enjoy the positive response. Learn to take criticism, and learn how to use that criticism to make your work better. This is a more important skill than you may realize.

The purpose of doing work for free is to get noticed for contract work. Studios are sometimes willing to “sub-out” certain aspects of development to reliable contractors with proven talent. Contract work gives you invaluable experience as well as an opportunity to develop a professional portfolio. The money can be nice at times, but as a rule you probably shouldn’t quit your “day job” quite yet.

Don’t just troll the community forums, become an active member. Make as many friends as you can by developing an affectation of professionalism. Mod communities also attract attention whores, ingrates, and worse. Don’t sink to their level. You want to join a community to make contacts. Get to know people who are either in the industry or might one day be in the industry. Share everything you’ve learned as selflessly as you can. Leave them with a favorable impression of you. Stay out of political and religious discussions.

This is probably the biggest barrier for most aspirants. You need to live where the work is. It’s true that even in Green Bay I was able to find some work-from-home opportunities, but publishers are very shy about giving contracts to studios that don’t have offices and staff. If you want more than just an occasional contract job, you need to go where the permanent full-time jobs actually exist. Keep in mind also, that a job in a well-established studio with at least two successful titles is far better than a job with a startup.

Buy Time
The key word here is buy. To follow your dream, you’re going to need to accept reality. You must find some way to pay the bills while you’re still trying to make it. That means you’re going to have to work some other job to keep people like your creditors/parents/girlfriend happy. If you have a chance to go to college, take it. That’s an instant “Plan B” right there. You’ll have four years to learn what you need to know about gaming while keeping your parents happy. Imagine where you’ll be once you’ve had all that time to learn and make contacts.

Success in the gaming industry requires more than just talent and imagination. You need to understand the steps required to get yourself educated and noticed. Regardless of whose plan you follow, success is almost always a result of hard work.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

So You Want to be a Game Designer (Part I)

It seems to be the latest calling. For those young men (and I suppose a few young women) not aspiring to pro sports or music careers, game design appears to be the dream of choice. I recently took a programming class at a local technical college where it seemed every student under the age of 20 was looking forward to a career in games. When I attended a high school graduation party for some of my cousins last week, I encountered the same sentiment. Even here in Green Bay, game design schools have started to pop up in television ads. There’s something to this, and it’s starting to become big money.

Did You Say ‘Big Money’?
But, who’s making the money? In the cutthroat world of video game publishing, it’s probably not the designer. Sure, there’s money to be made, but usually not big money. Unless you’re in an established studio working on the next in a series of hits, the big payday is an almost mythic daydream. Worse yet for the upcoming designer, the interim paydays are barely enough to cover the rent on your parents’ basement. Is it any wonder your dad looks grumpy whenever you mention your dreams?

What’s an Aspiring Designer to Do?
Aside from all of the industry barriers (which are formidable), the biggest achievement obstruction for the average aspirant is the lack of a clearly defined road to success. If your plan looks like: a) go to game school, b) get a job, then you are missing quite a few steps. Education is critical to success, but it’s like paving your driveway. You have smoothed the very beginning of your road into the world of video game publishing, but you still have to get in your car and drive it somewhere. You, my friend, need a serious roadmap.

A Plan for Success
First, I feel it’s my duty to point out that there is no plan of success that will work for everyone. As I’ve already alluded, game design is a tough industry and the apparent record amount of young blood pouring into (or perhaps onto) the field means that an even higher percentage of aspirants will fail. Any good plan, therefore, is a plan to increase your chances of success. Given that this is already a very low figure, it is critical that you push that number up as much as you can.

What Kind of Job Are You Seeking?
There are a variety of jobs in the game design field, but I’m focusing here on creative and technical talent. If you’re the entrepreneurial, upper-management type looking to start your own studio, you’re aiming too high. This is like building a brick wall at the end of your driveway. No matter where you’re trying to go, you’re going to keep crashing into that brick wall until you either wreck up or give up. Either way, you won’t get where you’re going.

In any job, you should learn first, advance later. Once you’ve joined an established studio and experienced the release of a title or two, you’ll have enough experience to understand what you don’t know about studio management. Then you can put together your own plan, which most likely involves sucking up to a major publisher you met along the way. That’s for you to figure out when the time comes.

So What Are You Going to Do Now?
To get a job as a game designer, you need to make yourself into an ideal candidate. You must be educated, experienced, professional, well connected, and you have to live where the work is. You must be able to pay your bills while you’re searching for work in the gaming industry. You must have a “Plan B” in case your job search fails or takes longer than you expected. In Part 2 of this article, I will expand upon each of these critical achievements.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Tactical Imbalance in Single Player Gameplay

If you have not already done so, you may enjoy reading my essay on Balance vs. Imbalance which summarizes my ideas about balancing tactics with strategy in a multiplayer environment.

By request, I have written this essay to clarify how these principals can be applied to a single-player game.

The Single Player Experience
Single player games have a two-fold obligation: gameplay and storytelling. Storytelling is the break in the action that adds immersion and interest to the playing experience. This essay will focus on gameplay because this is where the strategic and tactical elements exist. Storytelling generally connects itself to the gameplay sections with reveals. For example, the player may overhear a conversation that reveals the location or nature of a future objective. Or the connection may be to the past. The player may learn why he has spent the last three hours trudging through sewers fighting mutant rickshaw drivers from outer space.

In addition to revealing objectives, the storytelling could also be used to reveal tactics or even strategy. The player might learn of an enemy vulnerability that could lead to a strategy of attack, or the player might learn of a weapon cache that might lead to a tactical advantage. These types of reveals force the player to pay attention to the story, increasing the immersion and interest.

As a rule, the game should not rely on the player paying attention, but should most definitely reward such attention.

Tactical Imbalance
As described in my previous essay, tactical imbalance is key to creating an exciting gameplay experience. In particular, a variety of tactical imbalances increases the replay value of a game.

Consider whether you've ever had this single-player experience. You're trying to solve or clear a level and you keep failing. Finally, you hit on the correct solution (maybe even a step at a time) and realize the author has carefully crafted the level to be completed by solving or deducing a specific series of steps. You congratulate yourself and move on. Such levels, however clever, do have a limitation. Once solved, there is no mystery and no challenge. Let's call this the straight or guided method.

Now consider a level that makes use of several tactical imbalances. Perhaps there are multiple routes through the level; a stealthy route and a direct route. Perhaps there's a key weapon pickup, but taking it early exposes the player to attack. Maybe there's a small, defendable area where the player can make noise and then hole up and blast away the enemies as they turn the corner. All of these may be available in the guided method, but what if they were available at the same time? The player could choose the strategy that best fits his style, or perhaps one that would conserve a particular type of ammunition for later. Once solved, the possibility still exists of going back and trying to solve the level another way.

Bringing in Strategy
In order for the player to be able to develop a strategy, he needs an opportunity to assess or reconnoiter. Otherwise, the player is merely reacting to immediate threats, and this leads to a purely tactical response. It is important to note that many games overcome lack of balance by respawning the player at the beginning of a difficult section so that after a number of failed attempts, the player can form a strategy that has a decent chance of success. This is the less preferred method of including strategy.

By giving the player a quick peek at a challenge before he tackles it, you give him the ability to combine his tactical ability with strategic thought. As I've said before, this is the key combination that makes a game fun. But don't take this to an extreme. You should still surprise the player with unforeseeable obstacles, or you risk making the game too easy. Players expect to die periodically before they "master" a section. So when giving them a quick peek, don't reveal everything all the time. But be sure to reveal enough that the player's use of strategy is rewarded.

As with all gameplay design decisions, it is up to you the author to balance these elements to achieve the experience you're trying to create.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Balance vs. Imbalance -- An Essay About Strategy

What is Balance?
I have found that in the course of making, beta-testing, and reviewing maps for the Unreal Tournament series, a subject that is often broached is balance. "Good" balance is often perceived as a map where players all have equal chances of reaching critical power-ups and weapons, and where there's no area of the map that a player can camp out and hold an overwhelming advantage. I will deal with this slight misperception later, as good balance can be difficult to spot. Most players/mappers have an easier time recognizing the opposite. For example, suppose your map includes a narrow corridor with lots of shock ammo on one end. A player might camp the end of that corridor spamming combos with little danger to himself. I will call this "poor" balance. With that in mind, let's try to figure out what "good" balance really is.

What Good Balance Is Not
Good balance is not a matter of measuring distances between weapons and power-ups to make them all even. Let's call that concept "fairness". As a mapper, you need to be reasonably fair to all your players, but acheiving this merely avoids poor balance; it doesn't create good balance. To make this point, consider the most "fair" gameplay there is. An instagib arena. Everyone spawns with the same weapon and unlimited ammo and they just have at it. Would you say such a map has good balance? No. It is merely fair. Good balance is more than this.

What Good Balance Is
Good balance is an approximately even potential between the strategic and tactical characteristics of a map.

In other words, the players can use strategy to overcome the tactical imbalances of the map. For example, in UT's classic Deck 16, players often camp the sniper roost at the top of the main atrium. The player on top has a tactical advantage of higher ground, a long-range weapon, and easy movement to avoid missiles. To overcome this, opponents could use several strategies. A player might try charging in with a short-range weapon like a flak cannon, or he might try lobbing a redeemer blast to force the sniper to leave. He might get directly below and try to catch him with a shock combo. The sniper might employ strategy as well. He may vary his position, sniping from different directions, or he may make frequent treks to the shield belt to give himself more staying power.

What is important to realize is that sniping is tactical. Putting yourself into position to succeed is strategic. A well-balanced map needs potential for both. When players can develop strategies (rushing the sniper with a flak cannon) to overcome tactical advantages ("that guy up there keeps taking my head off"), then the map can be said to have good balance.

Why is Good Balance Important?
Good balance is what makes a map fun. What's more fun than cleverly conceiving of a needed course of action and then summoning all your skill to bring your vision to success? As players, we all do this without even thinking about it. Every gametype has this interplay, in fact every sporting contest in the world has it as well. If a sport has an offense and a defense, then you can bet that each side is trying to exploit its strengths while minimizing those of the opponent. The more evenly matched the sides are, the more interesting the contest. But keep in mind what we've learned so far. "Even" does not mean the same. Take basketball. One team might have a strong inside game while the opponent has great outside shooters. Who wins? The answer is that it's the team who can use strategy to put itself in position to exploit its tactical advantage (great shooting/strong inside game).

Back to gaming. If your map is merely fair, then players rely on their tactical skills to gain victory. If your map is balanced, then players can develop strategies to overcome their opponents' tactics, and to help their own tactics succeed. The successful (or unsuccessful) execution of these strategies is what makes the game.

Better Balance Through Imbalance!?
Ironically, it is tactical imbalances that give us the balance we crave between strategy and tactics. Remember the instagib arena? With no tactical differences, it's hard to develop a successful strategy beyond dodge and shoot. But a well-balanced map with a variety of "tactical features" leaves us with many strategic possibilities. A tactical feature is some advantage that you might be able to exploit if you develop and execute the correct strategy. The sniping roost in Deck 16 is one example. Remember the corridor example at the beginning? I said this was poor balance, but that's not exactly true. It's merely a tactical imbalance. There's nothing wrong with a strong tactical feature, as long as it is balanced with strategic potential.

The more different tactical features you have, the more strategic possibilities you create. Every feature should have at least one or two ways it can be exploited and one or two ways it can be overcome. When you have players using strategy to attempt to overcome their opponents' tactics, you have achieved strong balance. It doesn't matter if the strategy succeeds, as long as the strategic potential is there. Remember a strategy that always succeeds is just as boring as a tactic that always succeeds.

Ok, Now What?
If you've come this far then, you should have some idea how to implement these ideas in your maps. Did you make your item layout completely fair? Hmmm, sounds like there might be a lack of tactical imbalances there. You might want to push two of those more powerful items closer together. Now what if your players start camping that area? Hmmm, maybe you should put in another route where opponents can sneak in from behind and smear the campers. Maybe you should create some more imbalances in other areas of your map so that players don't all flock to the same one. Sounds like fun? If you do it right, it will be.

Welcome to My Blog

I have for some time been thinking that I'd like an outlet for some of my opinions, ideas, and experiences with game design. I will start by reposting some of my articles and essays from Unreal Playground. Some of these were posted in private forums, so may be new to the general public. Enjoy, and feel free to comment.