Archive for the ‘ Games ’ Category

On Kero Blaster

I downloaded Kero Blaster on iOS a few days ago and I absolutely love it. If you would have said I’d compare a action platformer on iOS to my favorite NES game of all time, I would have called you insane. But now I’ve played through the entire game 3 times and have a feeling that it will one day surpass Megaman as my most re-played game ever (about 100 replays).

It’s kind of insane when you experience a game and it feels like it was made JUST for you. Two of my favorite games of all time are Megaman and Super Metroid. I love the super tight and ultra precise platforming and combat of Megaman and I love exploring the world of Super Metroid. While Kero Blaster is much more like Megaman than it is anything Metroid, it does give a nice little touch of it feeling like a world rather than a bunch of random themed levels of your typical Megaman game. It’s a world with characters, coherence, and constant surprise.

But to me, the world of Kero Blaster is just the icing on the cake. The core of the experience, like many great games, is captured in both the simplicity and depth of gameplay. At it’s most fundamental core is an absurdly nuanced and precise movement scheme. You have the full analog range of jump heights combined with a distinct weakness of air control, which leads to a much more planned an executed movement than your typical reactive action shooter. Layered on top of it is the 4 state directional auto-fire system, which pushes even more focus onto the planned and executed movement core. Layered on top of these are various weapons with various upgrades and a massive array of diverse, well-progressed, and interestingly set up enemies. And of course to top it all off, there are a number of incredible boss fights to that perfectly match the players in game and in brain skill.

But the thing that makes me love Kero Blaster so much is the thing that makes me love any game–the ability for mastery. When you start playing Kero Blaster, it’s just a simple little action platforming game (more action than platforming). As you play through more and more, obviously it gets harder and harder. But the curve of the progression is so perfect, that you never notice yourself getting better. And with the upgrading of your weapons and health, you definitely don’t know whether to attribute your handling of these new, more difficult situations to your in game upgrades or your own personal skill. Then you finish the game and start a new playthrough and you are a GOD.

The things that felt challenging once are a piece of cake and the patterns that you barely stumbled your way through the first time you perform like a dance. It’s at this point that it not only feels like the creation of this game is a piece of art, but that your playing of it is a matter of art as well. The game is your instrument and you continue to get better and better and produce more and more beautiful music. And while you can always look at your boss fight time attack for a numerical encapsulation of your skill, the much more important aspect of each performance is the feeling of overwhelming power on each turn, each double jump, and each perfectly choreographed dance around a stage of enemies and projectiles.

Kero Blaster is not just a masterpiece to experience and appreciate, it is a beautiful instrument to play and master.

While this is a bit of a footnote, an important aspect of this feeling of power and mastery is the short length of the game. You don’t see the contrast until you’ve started your second playthrough. And unlike many other games, you don’t face an instant decision between playing a bit more and 20 hours of your life. So, instead of having to skim read the game, you are given the opportunity to play and replay and replay and replay. You get the opportunity to properly appreciate the depth of the creation and hone your performance. And in total, I’m sure I will sink more time into this game than many which have more hours of gameplay, but the quality and depth of my experience will be at a fundamentally different level.

And if you want to pick up Kero Blaster, you can get it here:

Reacting to Realities

In terms of accessibility of information, we live in the most amazing time that has ever been. And it doesn’t stop with looking up facts about history and reality. It is easier than ever before to try new things. So much of our lives are built upon technologies that allow us to experiment and try things that have never been before. We can quickly gather information about hypothetical futures by quickly making them realities and seeing how they play out. This sounds like it’s a post about AB testing and an amazing middleware that I’m about to pitch to you, but it’s not.

This is a blog post about opinions.

The first games console that I ever worked on was the PS2. It was a console where for the most part, you had one shot at getting the game right. And because of that, there was a very specific way we made decisions on PS2 games. We would argue and argue and argue until we were blue in the face and then we would do something random. It’s not truly random. It might be the idea from the person with the loudest voice. It might be the opinion of whoever has the most years in the industry. But from the perspective of making the right decision, it wasn’t far from random.

Most of us don’t live in that world any more and don’t make video games that way any more. With the speed of modern day tools, we can quickly mock up a prototype, see how it plays, and make decisions based on reality. We don’t spend all our time bickering and designing by rhetoric about imaginary worlds. We try things and we make decisions based on reality. Some times we even do release things to the world or AB test them. The important thing is that we can make decisions based on some sampling of reality.

But as game designers and game players, our culture has not caught up. When we catch wind of something, we don’t have the faith to let it become a reality and see how it will pan out. We don’t let our world have a chance to happen and iterate. More and more, I’m seeing decisions made by rhetoric and theoretical universes where we have trivial access to the data we need.

Today’s discussion is about open development. It’s a fine piece and it could be right. But it is written from a theoretical perspective when we are living in a world where we are surrounded by data about this precise issue. It’s not that I think the author is wrong or that his opinion is invalid. I just feel that with so many developers presently undergoing open development, we can easily gather the data and it’ll be much more accurate than any theoretical view regardless of the intelligence behind it.

I think about when twitter rolled out it’s new block policy and everyone got so up in arms that they had to roll it back and only yesterday I noticed someone who would have benefitted from the new block and not had his day ruined. It’s not that the new block policy was better. It’s that we didn’t wait until someone was suffering from it. I couldn’t find a single tweet of an actual victim of the new policy. Everyone was just standing up for the theoretical victim they imagined. In fact, it took me three or four hours that night to find out what the change even was and another few hours to find what twitter intended to do with it.

When Mighty No. 9 appointed a new community manager, people (and I know we’re all saying “not me”), got upset at the theoretical situation that a female would be running the community and ruining the game. And when Depression Quest hit Greenlight, people erupted at this theoretical world where Depression Quest existing on Steam was going to ruin their lives.

Firstly, I’m not saying the open development reaction, the twitter reaction, the Mighty No. 9 reaction, and the Depression Quest reaction are all the same.

What I’m saying is that they all have one thing in common. We had the opportunity to react to a reality that we experienced but instead we reacted to a theoretical future that we imagined and we took the latter option.

The reason this pains me so much is that with the reality we live in and all the data we have, it’s still very complex and difficult to sort out. But if we spend all of our time focusing on the theoretical futures and never letting the reality play out, we’re really going to struggle finding the future that we want.

Imaginary Users

So I’m going to attempt to do at least one of my own projects in the near future. Last time I tried this, it ended in failure, but I think I’ve learned a lot of lessons since then–or at least I hope I have. I thought it’d be a good exercise for me to write out some of the specific lessons that I have learned so that I don’t repeat them, so that others might learn from them, and just to think them through a little bit more.

The first lesson is about imaginary users. Originally, I thought the lesson was about chasing “the next big thing,” but after further inspection, it wasn’t the deepest root of the problem. So, when I left my awesome job at Media Molecule, I didn’t have a project in mind. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I just wanted to do something. I tried a non-games thing very briefly, which just reminded me how much I’ve learned about making games and how little I know about anything else. So I decided that I’d make a game. It was 2009 at the time and social games were just starting to take off. I decided that I wanted to make a Facebook game. This was a mistake, but it wasn’t a mistake because Facebook games couldn’t work, it was because I knew nothing about Facebook games and most importantly, I knew nothing about the Facebook game audience.

We decided to make a game about pet monsters who players could grow and make happy by allowing them to destroy things. How in the world did we decide on such a random game? The first step was to incorporate all the information we had about the Facebook audience. We were told that most players were housewives. So immediately we’re on all kinds of horrible ground. Firstly, this statement isn’t anywhere near true. Facebook games appealed to a huge demographic that included pretty much everyone with a slightly weaker contribution from the male 18-25 year old demographic generally strong with hardcore games. Secondly, even if Facebook games were 100% played by housewives, they do not make up a homogeneous pattern of human behavior. Thirdly, and possibly most importantly, we didn’t know any of the common psychologies or motivations that might be prevalent amongst such a demographic. So basically, we were making a game for a parody of a stereotype.

I think the parody of the stereotype could be subconsciously reasoned along the lines that many housewives have children and enjoy nurturing things. Therefore, we should make a game where you nurture things. However, if you look at the description of our game, that doesn’t explain the whole thing. There are two big things unaccounted for. The first is monsters. The second is destroying things. So where did these come from? They were things we thought were cool. Monsters would allow us to create much more interesting and non-obvious art assets than common pets would. It would be cool for us to make, obviously ignoring what might be cool for our misunderstanding of an imaginary target audience. And destruction, I think it was just a matter of momentum. You’ve got monsters and what do monsters do? They destroy stuff.

At this point, I’d like to highlight the second major crime committed. In addition to actually knowing nothing about our target audience (which wasn’t really a target audience), we created features that were half motivated by our misunderstandings about this not-a-target-audience and half the features based on what we (who are not members of this not-a-target-audience) thought were cool.

A few years later, the creative director of a company I worked at constantly brought up this issue. If you have a particular theme that appeals to target demographic A and a particular type of gameplay that appeals to target demographic B, if you combine them, will you get the union of A and B or will you get the intersection. I think in general, you’re much more likely to get the intersection than you are the union. The way I think about it is that the theme is what gets people through the door and the gameplay is what keeps them there. If someone is only in group A, they’ll try out the game, but hate it. If someone is only in group B, they won’t even try the game out. If someone is in both, they’ll be happy.

So looking back at Monstroscity, which actually didn’t perform as badly as it should have considering our approach, I think one of the biggest problems was having absolutely no understanding of who the game was for. We actually got lucky having a great art style and some decent distribution help through Facebook and Applifier, but the product was fundamentally flawed.

The top level takeaway from this is that you need to understand who a product is for and really understand who it’s for. There are two ways that you need to understand your target audience. Firstly, you need to define what it is that actually ties that group together. It could be demographic or behavioral or something else. Secondly, you need to actually understand them and their motivations. You cannot work on some imaginary model you have in your mind of these types of people might do.

In terms of a solution for this problem, there are many parts (and probably many I’ve yet to learn). Firstly, I’ve learned a lot about how to think about players and design products and features from a player’s perspective. I no longer focus on what would the the cleanest to code or what would be most elegant in some abstract philosophical way. I focus purely on what a player is currently thinking and how to make it most understandable and enjoyable for them. It doesn’t mean making everything easy, but making sure the rules are as clear as I want them to be. Secondly, nothing is really a replacement for watching people play your game and making sure you have all kinds of different parts of your target audience to experience it. And lastly, but most importantly, I’m going to be making my next game for me or at least some aspect of me. It’s too dangerous and time intensive for me to make something where my gut reaction might lead me completely astray.

So I’m going to start building something I’ll love and once I get to that point, I’m sure I’ll be employing many of those I know to sculpt it onto something that isn’t JUST for me.

Rage of Bahamut: A New Paradigm in Game “Rewards”

I’ve been playing Rage of Bahamut for about a week now and the more I play it, the more I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s the perfect game for the modern day. Well, more specifically, it is the tip of the iceberg on a trend that I see being the future of games for the majority of people.

The best way for me to explain my reasoning for this is through a single word: reward. Just for sanity sake, I decided to look up the word reward to make sure I wasn’t just crazy. I got the following:

1. a sum of money offered for the detection or capture of a criminal, the recovery of lost or stolen property, etc.
2. something given or received in return or recompense for service, merit, hardship, etc.

While I know languages are living things and dictionaries are often out of date, these definitions, especially the second one, resonate with how I think of the word reward.

I’ve played many games in my life and I think reward has always been a very important part of the experience. Even when the rewards are trivial, they were core to the experience. It could be as simple as a higher score or access to another level, but it was always there. It could even just be the knowledge that I won.

The key to it being a reward, though, was as definition 2 states “return or recompense for service, merit, hardships, etc.” The way I think about it personally, I got a reward for some work or skill that I performed. So when I’m playing Final Fantasy, I won a battle and therefore got a reward of XP and items. Or when I played Super Metroid, I overcame some kind of traversal challenge to get my extra missile pack.

The clever thing about the more sophisticated games I played was that there was a loop. Some would call it a gameplay loop or a reward loop. Essentially, I would perform some act, which would get me a reward, which would enable me to perform a harder act and so on and so forth.

As the years went by, though, the balance between the work and the reward has continued to shift. It started with increasing rewards. Take Pong for an example. You played the game and the reward at the end was the knowledge that you had won. Fast forward to Zelda where there the reward was a new gameplay item, an animation, and a sound effect. Then onto Metal Gear Solid where you get new weapons and an epic cutscene and storyline.

Then there was the era of lessening the work. Start with Final Fantasy where a battle is not much more than mashing a button. Take it further to Farmville where all you have to do is go away and then click.

So let’s come back to Rage of Bahamut. If Rage of Bahamut was a conventional game, it’d be a pretty obvious structure. You would fight battles with your cards, and when you won, you would earn more cards that you could use to fight more battles. You could still evolve and enhance your cards and all that jazz, but the key is that you’d be forced into a work-reward loop.

Take very close notice to each piece. The work part of the game is battle and battle setup. There are decisions and choices to be made by the player. The reward part is getting a treasure chest and finding out what new card you got. Then you’d be back into work part of the loop.

This is where Rage of Bahamut changes the game. They remove work as a precursor to reward. It’s not even reward anymore, but it still feels like it. The card accumulation part of Rage of Bahamut 100% reward. It requires absolutely no work at all. There is not a single decision required of the player to earn cards. You could argue that tapping the screen is work, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s purely interface.

Once you’ve played the reward part of the game sufficiently, you are given the option to perform some work. You can decide which cards you want to evolve or enhance. You can decide which quests you want to go back and replay. You can choose where to allocate your stat points. However, the most important thing is that you don’t have to. Working is optional. Reward is mandatory.

I’ll lead with this video on why this makes me believe this is the perfect game for the modern day.

While I’m not nearly as cynical as Branford, I do believe that a growing sense of entitlement is a real trend in modern society and I definitely don’t think games are immune to it. If you don’t make the game that requires no work to get rewards, someone else will and they will get their money.

And while it may sound all doom and gloom, it isn’t at all. In the exact same way that freemium has come along, it’s just another thing to think about. In fact, it’s almost completely parallel. I used to come from a world where you put payment before play. Everyone wants to play, but not everyone wants to pay. So someone turned it around. Now, you can play and payment is optional. We as game designers need to start thinking this way. Paying is optional, how do we invite them to do so. In the same way, I think in the future of games, work will be optional, but we should invite players to do so.

I don’t think Rage of Bahamut is a fluke or a genre that will live in isolation. I think it is the beginning of an absolutely massive trend that will spread throughout our industry. And just as I don’t think payment-optional games will completely replace payment-required games, I don’t think work-optional games will completely replace work-required games. But they are going to be taking much more of the money than they are now.