Saturday, February 21, 2009

Habits of video game designers...

I always enjoy a good video game. I don't get a whole lot of time to play them but when I do, I tend to enjoy playing them. My reason for playing video games is to relax and enjoy the game. Mostly to relax though. Relieve stress. That sort of thing.

I'm going to simultaneously review three different games I've played over the past few months in regards to how they SHOULD have been developed. The three games are Bioshock, Assassin's Creed, and Crysis. There are LOTS of spoilers if you haven't played them. I tried to not ruin the final bosses though.

Which brings me to my first point: If you are designing a video game and the person playing the game selects the "Easy" difficulty, it should be nearly impossible to die. Nothing is more frustrating than waiting for a game to reload the last saved game for the 10th time just because the character died again....on Easy. I'm not the greatest gamer in the world, but I'd like to think I am better than average. However, I am the sort of player who enjoys sneaking around and getting headshots through covert means. In that department, Assassin's Creed offered me the most satisfaction. Being able to just walk around, use the from-behind-knife-stab-kill and then nonchalantly walk away into the shadows before the target hit the ground was definitely entertaining. Bioshock and Crysis offered no such options. Ironically, Crysis was a military strategy-esque game and, from my perspective, the most elite units in the U.S. forces are SEALs - and they don't run around like idiots. They do things covertly - so I figured that was the best way to play Crysis. I found that the only way to beat Crysis was to essentially run around like an idiot. Until I did that, I died on "Easy" so many times it was silly. You can't sneak around Crysis and expect to win without dying a zillion times.

Also in this vein, I play on "Easy" for several reasons: The enemies are supposedly easier to beat. It gives me plenty of time to get used to the controls. And - I get to enjoy the environments the designers created. What is the point of playing a game if you beat it in 3 hours? I like to take my time - LOTS of time. All three games took me at least 40-80 hours to beat. I like to walk up to the trees or climb to a high mountain and just pause and look around. Most gamers out there on forums are all along the lines of, "I spent $50 and beat the game in 5 hours". Not only is that an insult to game designers everywhere, it is a waste of perfectly good money.

Now onto the next issue: All the latest games seem to go from completely normal (or at least plausible) to really bizarre just so there can be a final boss. Obviously games aren't meant to be realistic, but I didn't see Assassin's Creed's ending coming. It was completely normal right up to the final boss but then all the laws of reality suddenly went out the window.

Bioshock also had an equally weird ending - the designers at least kept the whole game bizarre so you at least knew the final boss was going to be odd. But from the first sight, it was obvious to me that the main character and the final boss were in two completely different leagues (even on "Easy"), so my character shouldn't have even survived the first round of the Adam fight.

The first Crysis boss should have basically torn apart the front half of the aircraft carrier I was on or at least sank the whole thing just from its own weight - especially since the ship was already taking on water. The final Crysis boss could have just simply squashed the aircraft carrier and instantly sank it by landing on it. Sometimes I wonder if game designers do this in a meeting: "Let's create a game engine with real physics and then throw both the physics engine AND logic out the window at the end of the game........ Awesome!"

Nest issue: Level loading. I will keep saying this until someone pays attention! Game programmers - start loading the next level while playing the previous level! This, of course, requires cooperation with the designers - some sort of waypoint/trigger to begin loading the next level. If you can't do that, then please, please, please load some sort of wireframe overview of the level and load the textures for the level as you go. I refuse to accept that such as I described is impossible. Bioshock was the worst in terms of level loading times. It used to be that games loaded instantly or it was assumed something was wrong with the game and the reset button on the computer was pressed. It should be possible to load a level instantly without a splash screen. Just do it.

Next issue: Hardware adaptation. Game designers seem to absolutely love pumping as many texels into models as possible. Programmers, conversely, love putting as many of the latest graphics card features into the game (shadows, blur, HDR, etc.). Fine, but don't make me guess which feature/setting is causing my framerate to drop to 1 fps. Bioshock and Assassin's Creed were fine - in fact, my hardware was capable of running the game smoothly at maximum settings and did not require restarting the game to get them (and I was also able to run them both at desktop resolution). Crysis, on the other hand, basically required restarting the game whenever I tweaked the settings, which I had to do several times. For the final aircraft carrier deck scenes, I had to turn several options to Low just to be able to play the game - looked really bad too. I now understand the Crysis supercomputer "jokes" I've read plenty about on the Internet. The Crysis game engine leaves something to be desired in terms of performance (poorly written). I was able to, however, play almost the entire game with the default settings - right up to the aircraft carrier deck scenes. However, even that was insufficient at times (occasional lag). Most users won't even understand most of the settings in the settings panel any more (they have weird, technical names) and even fewer understand which features/settings will affect performance the most because each game is different.

So here is a great solution to this problem: Create an frames per second range selection and automatically adapt the quality settings accordingly. So, let's say I'm willing to accept framerates from 15fps to 30fps under non-battle conditions and 23fps to 50fps under battle conditions. Basically, this means that the game should track the frames per second at all times and whether or not the main character is under attack or about to be under attack. It would also be extremely useful for the game engine to know how difficult processing the scene through the hardware will be. What this should boil down to is a threshold system. If the framerate falls below or rises above specifically set conditions by the user, automatically adapt the game settings starting with the most expensive settings and working down to least expensive. Crysis, however, didn't handle setting changes very well (caused weird flickering to take place requiring a game restart), so care obviously needs to be taken in the programming (the other two games seemed to handle most changes just fine). Obviously, quality setting changes will cause most games to pause...BUT it would be very useful if such changes could be phased in (like the level pre-loading idea). Unless, of course, the game is lagging so badly that the player is getting less than 5fps - then pausing while drastically altering the settings would be better instead of staggering the changes.

The user should also be able to configure how long the framerate has to be outside the range before actually doing anything. In my experience, noticeable framerate drops typically only last a brief time (a half second or so and then the game continues for another half hour without problems - no point in altering settings at that point just to have them altered again a few seconds later).

The user should also be able to configure the settings thresholds for online play as well. Single-player lag is fine by me but multiplayer lag is not good at all. I don't play online very much though. Too many 12 year olds with foul mouths if you know what I mean.

Next issue: Stop with the NVidia stuff. I'm sorry, but I've used enough NVidia hardware to know that I can generally get a better video card for the same price with ATI. While NVidia is generally ahead of the curve, ATI cards are cheaper for the same performance as NVidia. Used to be a NVidia fanboy too. So, the switch to ATI was basically an ego-bruiser but way easier on the bank account and I was able to afford decent video cards. NVidia hardware runs hotter than ATI hardware too. All three games were pushing the NVidia brand for no particularly good reason (I doubt Crysis really runs well on ANY hardware where you spent less than $8,000 USD - I built my own system for $1,500 and Crysis is the only modern game I can't max. the settings out on). Also, the drivers for NVidia are written by programmers who clearly don't know much about authoring software - what good is awesome hardware if the software (driver) is causing the OS to BSOD every time you go to play a game? Never had any stability issues with ATI - meaning they have better programmers and QA personnel who know how to author a stable software driver.

Next issue: Foul language. Bioshock and Crysis (especially the latter) have foul language throughout the game. Assassin's Creed was pleasant in this regard. Users should have the option to turn off the foul language and multiple voice recordings should also exist. I'm tired of foul language being in everything ranging from games to movies to people. The English language is diverse, rich, and powerful enough to avoid dropping four letter words every few minutes. Show some class when designing games. Thank you.

Next issue: Game startup screens that I can't skip. All three games had them. Bioshock and Assassin's Creed were the worst. I understand companies want to have their logos displayed. Fine. Display your logos the first time I fire up the game. You can even force me to look at them the first time. But after that, let me press ESC to jump to the main menu. If you absolutely have to show me logos, why not display them right at the beginning of the game itself? I'm not talking about the intro. screen, I'm talking about an overlay of sorts in-game at the beginning.

Next issue: Vehicle controls. This is pretty much a Crysis-specific thing but both Bioshock and Assassin's Creed had "vehicles" too. When you are in a lumbering, hard-to-control vehicle, it helps to know what in the world you are stuck on. The specific vehicle I'm thinking of is the tank in Crysis. I died so many times because I got stuck on a little bush it wasn't funny; it was incredibly frustrating (it was a tank, for crying out loud - tanks can flatten pretty much anything - sheesh). Going third-person in a tank would be silly though - third person worked well for Assassin's Creed, wouldn't work for a tank in Crysis since there is a battle still going on around you. I should have been able to press a key (say, Ctrl) and be able to quickly glance around without having to rotate the main weapon.

Next issue: Equal distance from start to finish for each level. Game designers seem to put a ton of effort into the first few levels, make them highly polished, extensive, and creative but then give up on later levels. Occasionally I get stuck in a game and go view a walkthrough. I don't immediately view walkthroughs - I only do that after dying 30 times and trying every strategy I can think of. Usually the solution is obvious. What I typically discover is that I am close to 1/3rd of the way through the game. I usually think, "Wow, this is a pretty long game if I'm only 1/3rd of the way there." I usually stop after using a walkthrough just to give my brain time to think about strategy so I won't have to use the walkthrough again. Assassin's Creed was the most balanced of the three games - but only because of the issue I will cover last. Each level was of roughly the same length in terms of time taken to complete. Crysis was the worst - I literally finished the last two-thirds of the game in 8 hours - a fraction of the time it took to complete the first third.

Next issue: Hurrying the plot along or not providing a good enough "memory". I've said before I like to take my time in games. Crysis was the worst in hurrying the plot along and Bioshock was the worst in regards to knowing where to go next for the plot to continue. There was always someone in Crysis yelling, "Come on, we don't have all day." There were times in Bioshock where I was supposed to find things without a directional arrow (which was fine, but did get tedious wandering everywhere). There were also times in Crysis where the HUD stopped showing where to go next, but it was rare. If I were to stop playing during those times and returned a week later...would I remember where I left off? Assassin's Creed's plot was fairly obvious but dull.

Next issue: Linearity. This has been repeated so many times by so many people, it is ridiculous. There is only one game ending to almost every game made. Replay value of one-game-ending games = zero. The only reason I replayed Half-Life 2: Episode Two a while back was to get the Garden Gnome Achievement. I got it but it was the most hideously difficult achievement ever.

Supposedly one of the absolute best games ever is a game called Chrono Trigger (unfortunately not for PC). The graphics were bad, the gameplay repetitive, and the story was not the greatest (but was also heart rending in some spots), but what made it special was that there were 13, yes thirteen!, different endings. You could choose to meet the final boss at basically any point of the game. For the singular reason of 13 different endings to the game is why it shows up on "Top 10" games-of-all-time lists...every...single...time. There was supposedly only one ultimate path to the game though. I'd love to play a first-person shooter where you get to make several choices and each choice has consequences later on in terms of what levels you get to play, people you meet, stuff that gets said, and the number of endings that can happen. Supposedly Mass Effect is like that but limited and still supposedly ends up having just one ending.

Next issue: Achievements should be possible to get without having to pull hair wondering what you missed (particularly for the "find these 50+ things" hunts). I mentioned HL2: Episode Two, but Assassin's Creed also had an achievement system as well. I like the concept just because they are sheer fun to get when you get them (usually I have some sly smile on my face) but you should be able to select the achievement(s) you will be attempting to get - that way you don't miss them - perhaps directional arrows/reminders. It would take the fun out of some achievements by doing that, but you could collect all the flags in Assassin's Creed much more easily. Or know that the garden gnome fell out of the car for the millionth time (which begs the question - surely the designers KNEW of that issue and could have designed a working trunk).

Next issue: Limited weapons. This is related to the final issue but if you are a gamer, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Assassin's Creed was actually pretty good about weapon selection, but some Greek Fire (or a bit of flint) could have been nice for a "create a diversion" Challenge.

Bioshock came in second place. The Plasmids were interesting but expensive and I ended up setting everything on fire most of the time since ice didn't drop items and the rest were lame. I ended up just shooting Big Daddies with the RPGs and didn't really care for killing the little sisters (even though I could have gotten more Adam for it). Most gamers tend to settle into a groove once we know some specific approach works well. Upgrading weapons was useful but not many choices were given (the game brochure prides itself in how you can custom upgrade and make enemies do things they wouldn't do otherwise). Your average Joe-schmoe RPG game has more weapon customization options than Bioshock. The camera "weapon" was an inconvenience. In order to get some Plasmids and upgrades, you had to take pictures - and the best time to take them was in the middle of a firefight.

But Crysis was the worst. Ironically, you could hold nearly unlimited ammo but only two weapons. The RPGs were even more annoying - why you couldn't carry more ammo was silly. You also had to bend over and pick up all the ammo. Kind of a nice touch at the beginning, but got tedious really fast. There should have been a "Maximum Magnetism" mode. The main character was basically made of metal. I only used grenades one time in the entire game. I find grenades annoying unless they are of the explode-on-contact-when-fired-from-a-projectile-weapon type. Grenades are usually lobbed around corners in real life with a known threat inside - a feat that is VERY difficult to accomplish in games (especially since grenades in games are never as powerful as they should be). The general solution most games use is to face the enemy, throw the grenade, get out of the way, and then hope you get lucky. During which time you could have already killed them and moved on.

Even more annoying was the TAC cannon. I was pretty annoyed with the game by the time I reached the TAC cannon since my weapons had been taken away from me for the second or third time (I like to build up an arsenal when ammo for each one is limited - taking all my weapons and ammo away annoys me). Then I got somewhat excited by the prospect of being able to fire nukes from a cannon. Then I discovered you could only fire nukes at an enemy that previously got more powerful when a nuke was fired at it, absorbing the nuclear energy. That was a pretty serious plot hole there BUT I was willing to overlook that as long as I could fire nukes at anything. It turned out that I could only fire it at the final boss, which, according to the plot hole, should have been able to absorb the energy of the nuke. Plus the final boss was ridiculously easy. I didn't mind too much about that though. It looks like the end of the game was given significantly less creative license and there are glaring storyline oddities/inconsistencies/plot holes that make it seem like it went through multiple iterations without proper quality assurance and beta testing (e.g. the island "shield" on the display expands BEFORE the nuke hits and then does the same expansion animation AFTER the nuke hits. Also, the Gauss cannon is an energy weapon - which should have had the effect of making the enemy stronger).

Final issue: Repetitiveness. I tire quickly of games that become overly repetitive. Bioshock was the worst in this regard. Close to the end of the game I swore that if I heard "Welcome to the Circus of Valuuuuuuuuuues" one more time I was going to find and put my fist through the person's face who vocalized that for the vending machines found liberally throughout the game. Actually, I was ready to do that after the second time I heard it. The ONLY interesting vending machine in the game was the one that delivered a live grenade at your feet for free (can't beat that price tag!). That one was fun. Not as fun as throwing bunnies into a spinning fan on a vehicle destined for a cliff dive, but still fun. (Can you name the game I just referenced in that last sentence?) It is the little things that make a "good" game "great".

Crysis was repetitive in that it was shoot bad guys, wait for health to replenish itself, pick up ammo off the ground, repeat. Or, die, try something else, repeat. The only "cool" weapon in the game was the Gauss cannon and the occasional RPG. Everything else got boring really fast. The vocals in the game, "Maiximum [whatever]" were cool but equally repetitive. I left it on "Maximum Armor" most of the time since it was a pain to change the settings. Every reviewer of Crysis seems to complain about the "temple's" lack of gravity making the controls harder to use. Maybe on consoles but the PC was nice and smooth AND offered relief in an otherwise dull set of repetitions. The vehicles, on the other hand, were impossible to control on the PC and I got very tired of my tank blowing up for the stupidest reasons. The ground-to-air fights were also fun breaks in the monotony (although at the end of the game, everything flew). But, for a first-person shooter, it was better than most games of the genre. I liked the bosses at the end but bosses are really what keeps games interesting because otherwise it is the same thing over and over again. So there should have been some mini bosses to help balance things out. I did like the changing terrain and day/night cycles though.

Assassin's Creed was the second worst in terms of repetitiveness. I got VERY tired of climbing buildings to each and every lookout location and saving citizens by starting massive, bloody battles (some of those battles took a while and, when I was done, I'd look around and people were running around screaming at the massacre of at least 25 corpses - which should have likely drawn the ire of even those people). Then I'd have to run off to the next "save the citizen" battle. I also wanted to find the people who created that annoying woman, the one who would constantly get in the way saying, "Please sir, just a little coin. I'm hungry and starving..."; find the programmer, designer, and voice actor responsible for that and put my fist through their faces. I couldn't shove her out of the way, I didn't have any money, and killing her reduced my health and created a mess because she was a "civilian". The things I most enjoyed in that game were the various Challenges - in particular the Silent Assassin and Merchant Challenges. They offered the necessary diversion from an otherwise repetitive game. I did like climbing on the walls too, but that got tedious when it involved the eagle nests and the scenery didn't really change all that much. I would have liked a bit more variety - such as a "find the missing brick(s) needed to reach this birds nest" Challenge or a "Where's Waldo" Challenge or a "follow this person" Challenge or a "this Challenge is the basis for unlocking another Challenge [or two]" Challenge. The eagle eyes concept was cool but WAY underutilized. I used it once at the beginning and once at the end but otherwise didn't need it nor found it very useful. I didn't really care for the end of each level. I simply secretly stabbed the guy and then ended up having to run around each level for a while. One level I literally was running around non-stop for a good hour-and-a-half before I was finally able to stop. The only thing good about Assassin's Creed's repetitiveness is that each level was roughly the same length and thus took about the same amount of time to complete. An assassin is supposed to blend in (more or less). The main character stuck out like a sore thumb in his outfit. It would have been interesting to have participated in the evils consuming the land prior to carrying out the assignment. Get to know each target on a personal level by working with them, thus making it harder to complete each assignment but easier to gain the trust of the target beforehand. Lots of possibilities this game did not explore. The absolute ending leaves you hanging, though, so perhaps Assassin's Creed II will correct these problems and create an immersive and less-redundant experience. The problem with a sequel is there is basically no room for a clever past life like this game was. A past life experience will be difficult to pull off convincingly. More than likely, the present will be focused on (and probably do more with the eagle eyes), which will likely be riddled with plot holes. Surprisingly, right up to the final boss, there were few to no plot holes in this game (with the sole exception of the beginning where you come back to life without ever receiving a solid explanation). Of the three games, this had the best, most complete game storyline I've played through in a really long time.

If you are a game designer who worked on any of these games, you should know that I still enjoyed the games but they could have been a LOT better. Graphics are good in all the games but good plot consistency, a solid, emotional storyline, immersiveness, and not annoying gamers (especially PC gamers) should also be at the top of the list.

Consider adding me to your external beta testing team for your next game. I've played thousands of PC games ranging from Sopwith and Striker to Monkey Island I-IV to Total Annihilation (STILL the best RTS game ever) to Narbacular Drop (Portal's predecessor, Portal was made by the same indie team) to the latest and greatest. I'm also a software developer and have developed my own games (mostly for ancient handheld devices) - so I know how difficult making a video game actually is.