game-play vs context

i just saw a usenet post saying something like, ‘a few years ago i wrote a SEAL team warfare storyline for a game and now Rainbow 6 comes out…’ the person posting seemed frustrated by something. i’m not sure whether she thought that someone had ‘beaten her’ to executing a great idea or what. but the post reminded me of what i consider one of the hardest lessons i had to learn about game design.

games are first about simple interactions–player action and system response. any fictional ‘storyline’ comes second and is far less important in creating a good game.

this may sound like an odd thing for a person from a writing/rpg design background to say, since it devalues the writer with regard to the game development process. five years ago i would have argued that this was not true until i was blue in the face. now i am a firm believer.

so in the rainbow 6 example, what makes the game fun is far more centered around moving through a maze, avoiding line of sight detection with enemy ‘units,’ avoiding the fired projectiles of enemy units, shooting the enemy units before they shoot you, switching to a different avatar unit if the one you inhabit is ‘killed,’ etc. and of course, shooting and killing simply mean putting your cursor on top of a section of the enemy art and pushing the mouse button. the terms ‘shoot’ and ‘kill’ are simply more of the fictional context. and initially, until the simple game-play interactions are worked out, they are irrelevent. in fact, they seem to me to get in the way of development.

this may seem simple to some people, especially programmers, since they usually evolve as game makers by painstakingly building a series of games from the root level up. by the time a programmer is ready to get hired by a professional company, he or she has probably systematically created a number of small games. and in the process of doing so, the programmer has come to understand games at an abstract level: how does game piece A relate to piece B?

the person from a fictional background comes at the problem from the opposite side: wouldn’t it be cool to do a game about the power struggles between kingdoms?

and from the collision of fundamental game-play and fictional context, hopefully, you get something like chess. for good game-play, which is the most important aspect of any game, you have to focus on the simple interactions that actually make the game. and hopefully your fictional context is so interesting that it enhances the game experience, as it does with Rainbow 6.

the context is still very important (and as we move closer to simulations instead of classic games the context is of course getting more important). much of the modern game experience comes from the player immersing himself in the context–thinking of himself in the terms established by the game’s setting and fiction…a medieval thief, a modern special forces assassin, etc.

i hope this does not sound like preaching. and many people, especially programmers, will think it’s obvious. but it was one of those things about game design that took me a while to grasp.

Buffy, My Chateau & the RPG Anti-life

hmm…now that i think about it, the mixing of those three headline elements comes close to expressing one of my more moving fantasies. but that was not the point…


i really have to say, buffy the vampire slayer is the greatest show on tv. and aside from the twilight zone, i can’t think of anything on tv i have ever enjoyed more. i started watching buffy midway through season one, after hearing from Rob ‘Xemu’ Fermier (non-stop) that the show was really funny and cool. soon i was hooked. not only does the series have a clever sense of humor, it has the Undead *and* a harem of cute, quirky chicks like sarah m geller too. anyway, the What If episode that aired this week was an amazing thing. as a comic fan, i have always loved the what if concept. (when i was a school kid, the alternate time line issue of the x-men in which some of them were killed rocked my world.) anyway, buffy did it as well as anyone ever.

the chateau:

this is one of my Deus Ex paris locations. i am working on it (with UnrealEd of course, which is totally cool) side by side with ION artist Russell “the love muscle” Hughes. he & i actually have some contacts in paris who are cool enough to send us reference photos via email. i also have photos (and some interesting memories) from my trips to france. anyway, we are attempting to create a place, out in the country, that has a distinctly different feel from our more urban parisian sites. the more we work on the game, the more i am convinced that the plot itself will be one of the most powerful parts of the Deus Ex experience. people have been asking for more story, more character interaction and other rpg elements and they are going to get it… regardless of the focus of each individual Deus Ex mission, there is a heavy emphasis on role-playing. looking over the maps done by the team’s designers, i am amazed at how different some of the locations look and ‘feel’ while still maintaining the overall Deus Ex vibe. steve powers is doing the exotic Hong Kong locations, for instance, which are completely alien to bob white’s gritty NYC missions. warren has always made it a point to push the ‘exotic world travel’ element of Deus Ex and i think it’s going to pay off, judging by the ‘places’ the art & design teams are pulling together.

rpg anti-life:

since the night of my 11th birthday i have played role-playing games with a passion. real life and geeky gamer activities have always clashed. years ago, explaining to parents or to a girlfriend that you really were up til 4am sitting at a table with a bunch of social outcasts playing a strange, hard-to-define game was tricky. my dad, the next morning, would always ask: ‘did you win?’

anyway, recently i’ve been involved in a Rifts campaign & a ‘play-by-email’ fantasy rpg campaign. also, playing through Thief: the Dark Project, by Looking Glass, felt for some reason very much like a thief in a solo rpg campaign. (play Thief if you get the chance.) yet all this is still not enough. i constantly find myself wanting to play more. when i was younger, and had more free time, we played even more frequently. now work & life get in the way. it’s a difficult juggling act and it forces me to wonder if the ‘growing up’ of the rpg crowd has been one of the factors behind the growth of computer rpg’s–it’s a hell of a lot easier to get a game going if it’s just you and your computer. and it’s even easier if the game does not take 8 hours on a saturday night, but instead, via the save game feature, the ‘campaign’ can be broken up into little hour long sessions.

ION party & longish news update

last night was the ion storm (austin) christmas gathering. round one was laser tag, which i bailed out on because, depending on who you listen to i am a) an anti-social bastard or b) i am to ‘fun’ as the Grinch is to Who-singing. whatever. actually i skipped the first part because i get up at 6am and get to work by 7…so by the time i get off in the eveningi am totally wiped out and need some battery recharge time.

anyway, about the dinner party, which i did attend:

all the people i work with were there and of course it was cool to see them in a more relaxed environment, where we did not have to fight it out over various techno-creative issues. warren was congenial, flitting about and doing a good job of making everyone feel like part of the company. romero, tom hall & (ion art director) jerry drove down from dallas to have dinner with us. people seemed relaxed and in the right spirit. (something i was not into prior to arrival–for some reason i was in a black mood and had it in my head that i was going to interrupt the party halfway through, standing up loudly and proposing a toast “to all the social retards and creative vampires in this industry…” fortunately, drinking a few glasses of merlot & chatting for a while took the edge off my misanthropic feelings. ho, ho, ho.

i did get to discuss rainbow 6’s excellent game-play dynamics and half-life’s overall extremely high quality with romero. he just finished half-life (without realizing there was an alternate fire mode on the weapons, which must have made it a tad more difficult). thief, rainbow 6 (co-op multiplayer) and half-life are some of the coolest 1st person pov games i’ve played in years.

special thanks to leesa grills for setting the christmas party up and making sure it was cool and smooth.

there’s a bunch more that has happened recently that i want to rant about, but i’ll save it and keep this one somewhat focused.