Sunday, November 30, 2008

Gears of War 2: The Little Things

Played through Gears of War 2 this past Thanksgiving weekend. It was great. You all already know about epic scope, mind-blowing audio/video presentation, and "chainsodomy," but what really got to me were the little things-- small gameplay tweaks that manage to make the single most polished game on the Xbox 360 into a true masterpiece of combat design. Gears 2 iterates on the decisions made for Gears 1 in ingenious ways. In no particular order:

"Down But Not Out"
Design objectives of Gears of War 1:
  • Establish emotional connection between player and squad mates
  • Somehow explain that these characters stay alive throughout the story
  • In cooperative play, alleviate frustration and guilt when one of the players dies
Gears of War 1 design decision: When teammates lose their vitality, they are put in a "down but not out" state where they can be revived by the player.

Problems with Gears 1 solution:
  • The player became a babysitter for his idiot squadmates, constantly having to run through machine gun fire to pick up bullet sponge friends.
  • The death of the player (the only Delta Squad member with magic healing powers) meant instant game over.
  • Infinite revivals meant long battles became wars of attrition between the magic medic's squad and the non-healing Locust.
Gears of War 2 implementation:
  • Incapacitated characters can now crawl, so hurt squadmates can now inch their way toward the player (and more importantly, out of the line of fire).
  • AI characters can now revive other AI characters, further removing the responsibility for the player to babysit his squad.
  • The player's death is no longer instant game over-- AI can revive him as well.
  • Enemies can also revive one another, forcing the player to go for complete obliterations or else hound down wounded enemies.

The Sniper Rifle
Design objectives of Gears 1:
  • Make weapons feel powerful.
  • Reward the player for executing Active Reloads.
Gears 1 design decision: Locusts without helmets are killed with a single head shot. Active reloads double the damage of a sniper shot, making body shots lethal.

Problems with Gears 1 solution:
  • Head shots are pretty hard to get, and it sucks to land one only to see that a helmet got broken.
  • On the other hand, Active Reloads are pretty easy.
  • Ergo effective sniping was not about aim (head shots) but rather about reloading properly. That's... kind of lame.
Gears 2 implementation:
  • A head-shot will always kill normal sized Locust, rewarding aim above all else.
  • Non head-shots can never kill an undamaged Locust. Active shots will cause stuns.

Gears 1 design objective:
  • Create a scary, swarm-type enemy for some frantic close quarters combat.
Gears 1 design decision: Lambent Wretches: small, fast enemies that deal explosive damage upon death.

Problems with Gears 1 solution:
  • Easily the most dangerous enemies in the game. Once they were within range to attack, the player was in huge trouble, since even if he could kill them, they would kill the player in their death throes.
  • Couldn't tell where they were until it was too late.
  • Close quarters combat obviously was not ideal-- meaning that the player fought Locusts at range, and also Wretches at range. Boring.
Gears 2 implementation: Tickers.
  • The distinctive ticking warns the player that they have to look for small explosive enemies.
  • Suicide attacks mean that each Ticker can only attack once, unlike Lambent Wretches that can deal damage forever. Even if the player isn't doing well dealing with the Tickers, at least he doesn't get stuck in an impossible situation.
  • Melee throws Tickers very far, meaning the player can use them as grenades against other enemies, which is fun!

Baby Bear Enemies
Gears 1 design objective:
  • Create big, impressive enemies.
Gears 1 design decisions:
  • The Beserker, a huge melee machine that hunts by smell and sound-- no shooting, no running! Impervious to bullets; only vulnerable to Hammer of Dawn.
  • The Seeder, a big bug that looks cool but doesn't really do anything. Only vulnerable to Hammer of Dawn.
  • The Corpser, a big spider defeated Zelda-style by repeating an easy pattern 3 times.
Problems with Gears 1 solution:
  • This is a game about shooting. Having weapons that yield no effect makes the guns feel weak, the player feel weak, and the game feel more like a puzzle than a combat situation.
  • The player needs to give up one of his weapons for the Hammer of Dawn which is only useful for this purpose. Lame.
Gears 2 implementation:
Medium-big enemies. Far larger than normal humanoids, but still shootable. Reavers, Bloodmounts, 4 new varieties of Boomers round out the Locust ranks. The player can take them down with any weapon he wants, as long as it's got enough ammunition in it. When they appear, the combat gameplay amps up in tension, instead of dumbing down into "puzzle mode." Think of the HL2:Ep2 Hunters. These enemies are just right.

Alternate Gameplay
Gears 1 design objective:
  • Give the player something to do other than shoot Locust.
Gears 1 design decisions:
  • Kryll come out at night and eat fools. The player needs to stay in the light, create light, and not die.
  • The player drives an APC with a UV gun. He needs to switch between driving and shining the light to get from point A to point B.
Problems with Gears 1 solution:
  • Sneaking around is boring as hell.
  • It's not that people don't want to shoot stuff-- it's that they want to shoot stuff in a different way. This is a game about shooting; doing things that are not shooting is boring.
Gears 2 implementation:
  • Drive a tank! Shoot the boss enemies of Gears 1 in the face!
  • Drive a Reaver! Fly around and shoot fools!
  • Drive a Brumak! Take control of a boss enemy from Gears 1!

So at the end of the day, Gears 2 refines every last bit of gameplay that Gears 1 had already polished so well. Good game.

Monday, November 17, 2008

How to Get Ahead in Rigging

Boing boing! Squash, stretch, and inverse kinematic spline solutions.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

When on a Rocky Path...

...just keep on rockin'.
Fail often to succeed sooner.
Tom Kelley

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

No Fighting in the War Room

I play games for their combat systems. But it's not like because I like to fight-- it's because I'm chasing a certain feeling, a certain emotion: fear, exhilaration, accomplishment, or maybe the ones in between.

If combat design is an art form, I like to think that the primary colors of combat design are Murder, Destroy, and Kill.

Murder is the art of the player creating a situation in which his target is completely helpless, then striking without fear of retaliation.
  • One on one fighting games: The player is free to execute a combo once his opponent is stunned or juggled.
  • Jet dogfighting games: The player has no fear of being shot down when he is behind the enemy plane.
  • Stealth action games: The player is easily killed when detected; he must strike only when the time is right.
Murder is probably the most advanced, most sophisticated form of videogame combat. It requires the player to learn (more accurately, it requires the gameplay to teach) the various ways to win, creating a game environment that allows for such complex rules, and artificial intelligence that operates properly -- that allows itself to be tricked believably. The characters need to understand that they can destroy the player except for in a specific situation, in which their personalities show that they're vulnerable. Once the player figures it all out and finally wins, the sense of accomplishment and relative ease of the coup de grace is enough for the player to want to do it all again.

Destruction refers to the a player's concern not necessarily about how he will win a given fight, but how efficiently he can kill many of his enemies at once.
  • Scrolling shooter games: The player can destroy an enemy without even thinking about it-- the challenge comes in the form of huge hordes of enemies with patterns.
  • Action-role playing games: The player is generally confronted by a large number of weak enemies at a time.
  • Realistic jet simulations: With an advanced arsenal, the player can effectively engage and destroy many enemies at once from far away. He is more concerned about fuel and armament economy than about the combat itself.
Destruction is generally considered to be an arcade style type of combat. The player is the most powerful entity in the world, and he feels a sense of strength and exhilaration. The simple pleasure of having an effect in an environment is amplified by the fact that this effect is by far the largest source of change on screen. While much of game design is learning how to create a stimulus to evoke a response from the player, the art of destruction is all about allowing the player to provoke the game world.

If Murder is outwitting a superior opponent and Destruction is out-muscling many inferior opponents, Killing is the middle ground: defeating an opponent of equal ability.
  • Multiplayer combat: The opposing players are on equal (or at least balanced) footing in honor of fair competition.
  • Difficult action-adventure games: The enemies have to be taken very seriously, and often don't have built-in ways to "trick" (murder) them.
While Murder rewards the player with a very easy killing blow and Destruction essentially makes the player a god in the game world, there's nothing easy about Killing. Straight Killing does not offer any easy elements of the combat, and generally the player needs to keep killing and killing until a certain goal is met. Without the payoff of Murder or the ease of Destruction, Killing demands the player's full attention constantly.

So what's the moral of the story here? What's the magic formula to creating a game with great combat? There's no way to prescribe a perfect combination of Murder, Destroy, or Kill, just the way one can't simply describe the RGB values of the Mona Lisa. The prognosis in either case is the same: it depends both on the taste of the artist and what is appropriate to the piece itself.

I guess there's no way to get combat exactly right. Too bad there are a million ways to get it wrong, huh?
This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. Without me, my rifle is useless. Without my rifle I am useless. I must fire my rifle true. I must shoot straighter than my enemy, who is trying to kill me. I must shoot him before he shoots me. I will. Before God I swear this creed: my rifle and myself are defenders of my country, we are the masters of my enemy, we are the saviors of my life. So be it, until there is no enemy, but peace. Amen.
Marines (Full Metal Jacket)

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Cooler Than Cool

Maybe sometimes you just need to shut up and enjoy yourself.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Tick Tock

I only have a couple months left in school, and then all of a sudden I won't have a bubble to protect me from the real world. The invincibility of my work here is going to be gone soon, and that idea affects every decision I made nowadays. Two years ago, I wanted to do and learn anything and everything. Nowadays I think long and hard whenever presented with a potential project: is it worth it?

The concept of worth is something I'm so confused about now. A year ago my time was worth nothing-- now I get furious about classes that waste three of my hours per week. My tolerance for being forced into doing anything that will not directly augment the skills I want is as low as it can be. Every requirement shoved on me by the school seems an obstacle, not a helping hand toward my final destination.

And of course I start to think: If I know so damned well what I shouldn't be doing, why is it so hard for me to come up with ideas of what I should be doing? Shouldn't I be using my final year to come up with some great animated film or epic 3D game? Don't I want to bring home some sort of magnum opus to show my parents what I plan to do with my life in a language they understand?

Or should I be doing short exercises, studies that I can complete and learn from in short amounts of time? Should I be experimenting and learning from my mistakes? Should I be producing large volumes of small pieces with great variety, adding to my experience and versatility?

Why do I even ask myself these questions when I'm too tired after school and work to even attempt any such projects?

I've been at the company for about a month and a half now. I've been mostly animating 3D game characters, in addition to creating my own rigs, and being free to code whatever I want whenever I want (as long as a core gameplay animation isn't broken). This is... exactly what I've been dreaming of for the past couple years. Isn't it? If I'm living the dream, then why does it feel like work anyway?

Is it relativity? When I had no idea what it'd be like to work in games, the job was on some fantastical pedestal in the clouds. Does living in the clouds make one long for the stars? I wish I knew what was up there-- I could really use something to look forward to nowadays.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Delusions of Mandeur

Look at how manly Richie got! Just look at him!

Is this even the same man that got banned from his own server for hax0ring? Sigh. Looks like e*ice™jtrich is all grown up.

In any case, it is now clear that I've got to step up my game. Thinking through my daily routine in order to infuse it with more grunting and moving heavy objects set me off on a kind of goal-setting binge. So! What am I going to be up to till I get back home from winter break?
  • Work out 5x /week.
  • Push ups and pull ups every day.
  • Whole fruit 2x /day.
  • Fish 2x /week.
  • Eggs 2x /day.
  • Limit myself to no more than 1 soda /day.
  • Body fat 10%+
  • Body weight 150+
  • Work on film every day - animation AND color OR backgrounds.
  • Maya work every day - art OR scripting.
  • Sleep early.
How hard can it be? In any case, I'll let you know.
7:34:33 PM gogogogogogoseb: yo dawg whas good
7:36:55 PM dragonfire2300: just googlin some girls