Archive for the 'Games' Category

Sound adds so much to our experiences

11 August, 2010

I just watched a trailer for Dumb and Dumber that was made to have a style similar to the Inception trailers.  Here is a trailer for Inception, in case you have been living in an underwater cave for the past 6 months. Inception is a taut psychological thriller, which still keeps the viewer guessing on what is actually happening after multiple viewings. Dumb and Dumber is a comedy from 1994. If you haven’t seen Dumb and Dumber all you really need to know about the movie is that it was heavily based on slapstick humor, and played on the main characters having no idea of what grand scheme they were caught up with. Now here is the mash-up trailer I just watched.  Part of the reason this mash-up is so enjoyable to watch is because the two movies are about as different from each other as possible. I want to focus on a comment which SilentEcho8 posted for the mash-up trailer:

“this is great. LOL if i hadn’t ever seen dumb and dumber i would think its all serious, this music makes everything epic.”

Now, if I remember correctly, I talked a little bit about music and sound effects in an earlier post about horror games. I discussed then about how sound really affects the player, and can bring the player deeply into the experience or environment. Well its not just horror games that use sound. Shadow of the Colossus has a flowing soundtrack, in which the developers were able to change almost seamlessly from peaceful (when the player is exploring) to hectic (when the player is fighting). Its such a subtle effect, yet so powerful in pulling the player into the world. Another example is in most puzzle games when the player is at risk of losing a game, the music becomes quick, causing the player to mash buttons even faster. Music thus not only serves as a bringing a player into the game world, but also alerting the player when some new event is occurring which needs to be acknowledged. In Morrowind (The Elder Scrolls III) the music would change when an NPC targeted the player, and began fighting. This way the player knows that an enemy is around, and allows the player to prepare for a fight.

Sound effects are just as important as music in games. Take for example most WWII first person shooters. When a player is in the middle of a battle there should be gunfire heard from different directions, maybe off in the distance, away from the player. In the Castlevania game series (namely Dawn of Sorrow for the Nintendo DS) the main character grunts when hit, or when swinging a heavy weapon. There are sound effects to know if your attacks are hitting, possibly even different sound effects if you are hitting a target but not dealing any damage. Sound effects are indicators of events that are happening in the game, providing information in a more precise way than music. Take for example when Mario jumps, he makes a noise. There doesn’t need to be a noise, you know that he jumped by seeing him jump. If you take away the visual aspect though, say someone walks in front of you, then you still know Mario is jumping because the sound effect tells you that he is jumping. It doesn’t provide in what direction or speed, but it still provides information. In a first person shooter, if a player runs out of bullets the gun may just make a clicking noise, indicating that the player must reload the gun or find more ammo. In Wolfenstein 3D a player can hear enemies opening doors, which allows the player to react by finding which enemies are coming to attack.

A while back I used to play games without the sound on, choosing instead to listen to my own music while playing. I didn’t realize until recently how much this subtracts from a gaming experience. After beating Diablo II for the first time, I decided I didn’t need to listen to the music anymore, and listened to whatever I wanted. Just a week ago, I started re-playing Diablo II. I turned the Diablo II music up and realized how much it added to the dark mood of the game.  At that moment I swore off listening to other music outside of a game while playing. Maybe it was a drastic move, but I think its worth it in the end.

Now I want to leave with a few questions:

Can a game be made in which each time a player plays through the game the music changes?

Can there be a way for players to select their own set of music for the game, thus changing the genre?

What games have you played in which the music and sound effects still live on in your memories?

(My answer is Castlevania Symphony of the Night)

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Torchlight, a New World, a New Love

31 March, 2010

On Sunday I bought Torchlight on Steam for $5. Thus began my plunge into the abyss.

When Torchlight first came out I downloaded the demo. I think I played for half an hour before saying to no one in particular, “Hey, this is just a Diablo II wanna-be!” (ok, so I might have yelled a little). I then promptly placed the game into the back of my mind, well the memory of the game. We aren’t cyborgs yet! I didn’t think about it until this weekend, when I checked Steam for any deals. For the past couple of weeks they usually have something decent for cheap. Well here in front of me is “Torchlight $5” and I think to myself, “Maybe I should try the demo again.” I try the demo again, somehow it remembered my character from the last time I played the demo, even though I had uninstalled it. So my character was still there, and I played for about 10 minutes. For $5 I was sold. I should have been sold on $20 the first time I played the demo, but I was half a year younger and naive. What changed my mind? I’ll tell you what:

1) The game-play was smooth. Usually I get these new games and they run like a bowling ball thrown in space. That has nothing to do with game-play, but it impressed me. The game-play is extremely similar to Diablo II, which is actually helpful in this situation because that means simplicity. You just click on the screen and boom you are there, or you click on an enemy and boom you are attacking them, or you click on an NPC and boom they are like, “What do you want to buy from me? I have an infinite supply of potions.” Then you just hold shift and click on potions. You just bought a potion.

2) The game made me realize what I have been missing in games recently: The feeling of actually being the character in the game. Torchlight completely immerses the player in the game. The sounds, the sights, the skills. Everything in the game just works together so well. It might seem cliche at first, but the setting is familiar while still being unique. For example, there is a robot bard that gives you xp and fame points for killing unique enemies.

3) The skills are fun to use. I’m using lightning and can’t help but smile every time I hit an enemy and they are knocked back off screen. I’m just a few hours into the game, but I’m looking forward to starting again with the other classes. I don’t mean this in the, “Oh dang, my build sucks” kind of way, but the “These skills are crazy, I wonder what else there is!” kind of way. With these skills the only way to mess up is to not put your points into anything. The skills work well together, and there isn’t a skill that is too weak. Whoever did the work on the skills should be promptly promoted and set to work on all games which have skills. In Diablo II there were skills that were obviously weak and worthless. The player would need to dump all their points into one skill in order for it to pay off at the end of the game. So far in Torchlight I haven’t had that feeling of desperation.

4) It made me realize why I don’t like playing games online. Some games need to be online, they are built around social interaction, and need the feeling of companionship. Torchlight is not one of those games, and I love it for that reason. You are the champion, there aren’t 1,000 other champions running around and doing the same things you are. It adds more weight to everything you do. In other words your actions have meaning. You aren’t constantly reminded that 1,000 other people are playing the same game you are. You don’t have to worry about someone stealing all the loot, or killing all the enemies and taking the xp. Its intimate. You can go your own pace and actually enjoy the game. Torchlight finally proved to me that online games lack personal experience. Sure, you can interact with thousands of people, but having to see that many people is just distracting your attention from the actual game. In Torchlight I actually want to listen to what the NPC’s say because they move the story forward. I actually look forward to fighting hoards of enemies by myself. I can see my progress, and that is all that really matters to me when playing a game. Also, you know that you can’t depend on someone else to hold your hand through the game. Enemies are manageable, skills work by themselves, you don’t have to find a tank if you are a mage. You also don’t have to prove yourself to someone else. If you die in Torchlight you know its your own fault and you can adjust. In an online game you have to take everyone else into consideration as to why you died, “someone wasn’t doing their job!” Most importantly though, Torchlight has a story that is concise. You don’t have to read through a mountain of text, or run for 20 minutes to find an NPC that advances the story. You are always doing the story, which is how a game like Torchlight should be. After playing Torchlight I realized how much I loved playing Diablo II for the first time, before I went online and ruined Diablo II for myself. In Diablo II when I started playing online I would just worry about leveling up fast, doing Trist runs and Baal runs. Well you know what? I can’t remember most of the story now. I barely remember the III act. I was worrying more about how people said I should have fun instead of actually having fun. That is why I love Torchlight, it forced me to realize that most games should not be online games.

5) I realized how much I love to collect loot. I know it may be weird to some people, but I like to organize my inventory. I like to decide what I need to keep, and what I should sell. I’m not sure why, but it gives me some peace of mind.

That is what I think about Torchlight after only playing for a couple hours. I hope it continues to be fun, which I know it will be. If you didn’t catch the sale that is alright. It seems to go on sale every once in a while. Although, I wouldn’t mind paying full price for it now.

At least do yourself a favor and play the 2 hour demo.

Part 2: Linear Games, Linear Stories

7 February, 2010

Often linear games can be more engaging than other formats. Consider that a person who is writing a linear game will know exactly when an event will occur. A writer can then know how characters have interacted, and how players have interacted with their characters. In open ended games a writer must create an immense world in which the player might never fully interact with. I would much rather spend more time creating a full story and character knowing the player will interact with that character, and that they won’t just overlook the character in a crowd. This is why even open-ended games have some linear element to them. I would be grateful to see a game with complete interactivity along with the depth and width of a 100,000 word novel, but its infinitely complex. Its always a trade-off between interaction and story telling. I recently played Bioshock for the first time a week ago. The game pulled me in immediately, and only in a way that a linear game could. For example, if I was allowed to just roam the streets of an underwater city I would have no idea where to start. For the first hour I would probably try to find a purpose to exploring. With the linear story though you are given exactly that purpose up front. Do x to receive y. Meet with x to talk about y. If something odd is going on, the player knows it will be explained soon, without the player having to ask everyone in a town what is going on (receiving the same 2 answers from everyone).

In any other format, creating a strong bond with a character might be difficult, if not impossible. Creating a bond might not be with just a character you control, but other characters in the story. For example in the Mega Man series the player never controls Dr. Willy, but has a strong bond to him because he is Mega Man’s creator. In Resident Evil 4 the player has to protect the president’s daughter, and after a while the player will probably despise helping her out. However, the player still feels a stronger connection to her than a guard in World of Warcraft (or really any MMO). A player could imagine the guard as being the next king and set upon defending the guard from any danger that approaches. After a while of defending the guard the player will probably find it pointless, as the guard will respawn when it dies. In the act of making the game open-ended, the player has no real way to bond with the guard. It is just another object in the world. In a linear game there could be a sequence where the player must aid the guard in defending a castle, and during the fight the player learns about who the guard really is. Perhaps later in the game the player will be able to visit the guard and have a conversation about when they defended the castle together. It seems like a tiny point in what a game is, but these little bits add up to the overall engagement of the player with the game. The experience can be vastly more rewarding than the ability to defend any guard who will never truly interact with the player.

Part 1: Linear Games, Linear Stories

4 January, 2010

Linear games are like books and movies. You are told what happens to a character (or characters) through a series of events. Books and movies show the same material through multiple viewings, yet the way a reader or viewer witnesses the material is different each reading or viewing. Simple actions that the character did in the beginning of a book might be explained later in the story, and in a second reading of the book the reader will know why the character did these actions. It may be very subtle, and these little nuances make a book or movie interesting after many readings or viewings. This is also why people have created book clubs, or why movie critics have differing opinions of a movie. In a group discussion, each person brings their own experiences, which can add new meaning to the material. Sharing the experience with others might open up your eyes to things you may have missed, something that can completely change your perspective on the material. For example, a viewer may have sympathy for a character with Alzheimer’s and the family struggle that occurs with such a disease. If the viewer has a relative who actually has Alzheimer’s and has to deal with these problems, then the meaning is completely different based on their experiences. Maybe the character allows the viewer to speak up with friends and family about the disease. Those people who are told about the disease will in turn have a new perspective on the character.

Linear stories are never static. Even though a story is written down on a medium people will view it differently over time.

Its not the shape of these stories that make them linear, but the direction in which the story takes a reader, viewer, or player. Linear stories guide people through a series of events in which the person has no control over. When referring to games this seems like a paradox because the player is always in control of the character. In linear games though, the player can not control the direction of the story. A player can carry out actions within a linear story, but they can never change the events which occur. Super Mario Bros, for example, is linear because the player either makes it to the next level or doesn’t. Each level is a progression of Mario trying to save the Princess. The levels are events that occur in the story, and although the player controls Mario through each action (jumping over pits), the player does not directly control the course of the story. A player can not find another princess to fall in love with, or find a princess who does not need rescuing.

However, linear story telling is not limiting for either the player or the writer.

Often linear story telling can be more engaging than other forms. (will be continued…)

This Week’s Question: Linear versus Open-Ended?

28 December, 2009

Which game model do you prefer, linear games(which guide a player through the game), or open games(non-linear games which allow for more creativity and offer more side quests than a core story). An example of a linear game would be Mario where you have to complete each level to find out something new. An example of an open-ended game would be the Elder Scrolls series. Can games be both effectively, or are they exclusive? What are the positives and negatives of each?

Today’s Response: What Keeps Players Coming Back To Games!

22 December, 2009

Entertainment, critical thinking, and sense of self achievement.

Entertainment: I don’t always think of games as entertainment. Sometimes games are down-right tedious. They make the player do chores and then don’t reward the player properly. Taken out of context games could be viewed as the most boring form of work. “I sat all day pushing buttons that didn’t decide an outcome in the real world.” I’m sure people will gladly want to join in next time you want to play a game and tell them what really is happening physically. Sometimes I ask myself why I keep playing. Then Diablo II will be sitting on my desktop and says, “PLAY MEEEEEE!!!!” Video games are of course a lot deeper than just pushing a button. Diablo II proves this very well. A player could make it through the entire game by just left clicking, but thats not the point. The point is that demons are running around everywhere and you have the fun task of eliminating them all. Pure entertainment should take us out of the boring world that we spend most of our lives in. Games are meant to take us into other worlds where we can be a knight, a race car driver, or a horse. As long as a game is entertaining a player will come back to play. When games become a chore then players will find other games to play which fulfill their entertainment needs. I am making an assumption that chores are boring, which not be the case, as in Harvest Moon. I suppose a deeper question is what makes a game entertaining? That is a personal question, and I’m sorry if I made you feel uncomfortable. For me, critical thinking is high up on the entertaining meter.

Critical thinking: What keeps bringing me back to RPGs and strategy games is critical thinking. I feel a challenge that can be thought through and “solved” is a challenge worth taking on. Brute strength has its perks, but for me its thinking through all possibilities and choosing an action is entertaining. This is a very tricky element to carry out in games. If there is too much information given, then I won’t want to play because I will think it is too easy. If there isn’t enough information given, I will stop playing the game eventually (I’ll try for a while but if I don’t see any way to make progress I become frustrated). I love puzzles, choosing which equipment will give the best outcomes in the battle, or flanking a force in the heat of battle. As long as a game keeps a player thinking about the game, a player will return to play. One of the best ways to keep a player thinking about a game is to give them something they can think about without actually having to physically be playing the game. I suppose this would be taking the game out of the tv or computer and into the player’s mind. When there is a puzzle that I can’t solve I usually think about it all day until I can return to the game. This keeps me coming back to games.

Self Achievement: Feeling that you have improved in some way by playing the game. There are the achievement mongers that thrive on this ideology. Play XBOX 360 or on Steam and you will know what I mean. Although achievements keep a player challenging themselves, I want to focus on personal improvement. When a player can use knowledge from inside a game in the world outside of the game, then they will feel a sense of achievement. I know a lot more about racing after I played Gran Turismo 2, and that made me keep coming back. I would see something on tv about racing, and I would know what the announcers were talking about. I felt proud about what I learned from the game. I wanted to keep playing so that I could know more about racing. There is also a sense of achievement when I obtained the licenses because they were almost impossible to complete. I remember being a little frustrated, but it wasn’t an unfair game so I kept trying until I succeeded. When I did I felt more proud than I had in almost any other game I played. Of course completing any game might give a player a similar feeling. We all have stories of games we played where there were insurmountable odds, but we didn’t back down. We did the impossible in a way that no one else might be able to do, and that is a feeling of self achievement. One can also measure growth in games this way. When they start playing a person might not be able to beat level 1, but after a month they have completed all 100 levels. If a player feels that they are improving they will come back to a game. There is also the dreaded “brick wall” in games where no matter what a player does it feels they haven’t improved at all. Maybe they have mastered the game. When this happens the player might not return but find a new game to master. They will still love the game, but they might not play it for a while.

Today’s Question: What keeps players coming back to games?

21 December, 2009

What keeps players coming back to games? Why do you return to games?

Today’s question will be reflected on tonight, to allow for ample thinking time. Also, any comments will be highly appreciated and considered for use in tonight’s post.

Today’s Response: What game have you spent the most time on!

19 December, 2009

There are many games that I simply can’t stop playing. Tetris, Age of Empires 2, Driver, Final Fantasy XII…but the most time I think I have ever spent on a game is on Roller Coaster Tycoon. I have played Roller Coaster Tycoon on and off for over 5 years, and will probably play for many more. Why Roller Coaster Tycoon? Well, I’m a sucker for creation, and RCT allowed for plenty of creation. Not only could I create my own parks, but I could create roller coasters! What impressed me the most was that the roller coasters followed actual physics, which should be basic for a roller coaster simulation, but I was impressed by the quality placed in creating the physics for RCT. I know that the physics aren’t altogether real (I made a roller coaster that exceeded 100 mph and went through 20 vertical g’s) but I had to constantly think about where I placed turns and drops in rollers coasters. There was always a balancing act between how long and exciting a coaster could be, while still staying within a certain price range.

I enjoyed the economy of the game. I couldn’t just build roller coasters, I had to build a park with food, restrooms, and workers. I was fascinated by the depth of the people in the park, how they had needs and would leave if those needs weren’t taken care of. Specific roller coasters had to be built for specific people. There were those who enjoyed excitement, or those who craved a quiet peaceful ride. I never had to think so much about the computer controlled characters in a game before. There was never any question as to what was being done wrong either. If people were leaving your park they would say why they were leaving. Maybe the park needs more security, or the sidewalks aren’t clean. Maybe there just aren’t enough rides, or everything is too expensive.

Roller Coaster Tycoon was such a great game in that it allowed me to search new territories that I had never thought about before. I got my first taste of economics from RCT. My friend and I were playing once and he raised the price of a ride to what I thought was an absurd amount. I asked him what he was doing, and he just replied, “they’ll pay for it, and if they don’t we’ll just lower it a little.” I had always thought in terms of what I thought was a reasonable price. I had never thought about what the people would be willing to pay for the rides. The whole economy of RCT is excellent. I could get a loan from the bank, but not too high of a loan. If people didn’t buy anything, I couldn’t build anything. To expand I had to know what the people wanted. I couldn’t just think about myself like I had in most of the other games I played. It was a whole new experience, and I think that is what has stuck with me for all these years. I’m sure I could have just as easily picked up another sim and had a similar experience. In fact I just picked up Capitalism 2, which came out in 2001. I am completely absorbed in that game, and maybe the next time I ask this question Capitalism 2 will be my answer.

I remember the first time I played RCT was at my cousin’s house. I was over there for Christmas and I was running out of things to do, so my cousin showed me RCT. I was hooked instantly. The pace of it wasn’t overbearing. It wasn’t too slow or too fast, it never felt out of control. When I was younger I always played with Legos, and I suppose I always wanted to build something. RCT was that outlet where I could build, where I wasn’t limited to the world around me, but a virtual world where there were no bounds. I found this so appealing that I kept asking my parents about buying the game. They quickly gave in, and I was on the computer constantly playing. It was also fun because people could see what I had made. My dad was able to watch me play and comment on my roller coasters. It was something he could grasp, unlike an RPG or Mario, where he could see something interesting was happening, but it only lasted for a few minutes. A jump in Mario only lasts a second, while a roller coaster last a lifetime.

Roller Coaster Tycoon also opened my eyes to theme parks. Whenever I went to a theme park I couldn’t help but relate it to the ones I had created. When I saw a roller coaster I was amazed by the design, but I also thought about how it could be improved. I could relate to the people in the game, if I was hungry and couldn’t find food then I became upset. I know that sounds a little strange, but its true. That is why I played RCT so much.

Today’s Question: What game have you spent the most time on?

18 December, 2009

What game have you spent the most time on? Why have you spent so much time on it? What did you love or hate about the game?

Today’s question will be answered tonight, to allow for ample thinking time. Also, any comments will be highly appreciated and considered for use in tonight’s post.

Today’s Response: How big is too big?

18 December, 2009

Games have the potential to be needlessly complex. Developers sometimes throw in elements that are not needed to drive the game forward, or add elements that end up hindering a player. Is it pride that prevents developers from taking out such elements? Could it be that developers want to create this content so that they appear to have created something that is new and fresh? Could too much information and too many decisions be a sign of poor game design?

Certainly there a people who enjoy complex systems. There are war games which have an absurd amount of objects to control. There are games where skill trees alone are almost impossible to read comprehensively. People enjoy this though on some level, because it gives them something to learn. These games give players the ability to test their limits of memory and coordination. Such games can be very telling of a player. If a player who doesn’t fully understand the complexities of a game is playing against a veteran (who has seen every strategy that can be used) then the chance of the inexperienced player defeating the veteran is very slim. These games can lead to a true use of skill and knowledge by players for advantage in a game.

Some games don’t have to be complex in design, but the strategies developed by players can be very complex. Chess is a game with very simple rules. Each piece moves a certain way, and when a king is threatened with no form of escape the game is over. These simple rules are very deceiving. The strategies involved in playing chess are very complex and differ wildly from person to person. This complexity is very rewarding for the player who takes the time to learn every aspect of the game. Can video games be the same way? I think a lot of developers are trying to shy away from simplicity, thinking if there are few rules, stories, or bits of information, then the players won’t be able to create vastly different strategies. I can only think of a few games which can claim such simple rules and yet produce such complex strategies. One of those is Tetris. Within Tetris there is one rule: don’t let the pieces reach the top of the screen. However, arranging the pieces so that they don’t reach the screen requires many strategies. Learning patterns is rewarding for the player because they have a better chance of improving over time.

What about story telling in games? Isn’t it important that the player knows a back story to a character? Yes, but when games go into great detail about histories of characters and backgrounds their races, does that really benefit the player? I played through Vagrant Story several times, and each time I was amazed by how Squaresoft developed the characters. They tell very little about the characters inside the game. It isn’t necessary for them to do so, because all that matters is the main plot arc. If they need to bring up characters in another game they can develop those characters for that plot arc. A game doesn’t need to go through 100 years of history just to explain why x is fighting y. It may develop the characters, but honestly, I won’t care unless it advances the plot. If you learn about an enemy and their weakness through a flash back, then it would be helpful to learn about. If you learn that the Hero used to pull a bucket up from a well all day only to see his or her father once a day, well, that really doesn’t concern me as a player. What generally happens in these situations is that games have so many back stories of characters that it is almost impossible for the player to keep track of accurately. I don’t want to sit through cut-scene after cut-scene of history that doesn’t affect the game play at all. What is worse is having to read through a mountain of information inside of a game only to find out one or two details that will advance the plot. Riven is an excellent game, but at times I was frustrated that to advance in the game the player had to read dozens of books, some of which never aided in advancing the player.

Games can quickly become too big too handle. When I play a game where information is constantly being thrown at the player I have to sit back and wonder, “why is this information here?” Could the developers have spent less time focusing on creating a mountain of information, and instead focused on problems with game play? I think people sometimes are confused by the difference of enjoyably complex and needlessly complex. If the game play revolves around being complex, like in chess where the player has to know all information at all times throughout the game, then it is fine to include complexity. Otherwise think carefully about spending the time and energy to develop or play a game which is complex just for complexities sake.