Monday, December 8, 2008

Street Fighter DNA

The Street Fighter franchise is seemingly enjoying an emergence of sorts with its arcade-first release of Street Fighter IV and its impending console release as well as the better-late-than-never Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo HD Remix version featuring updated graphics and a new mode containing various command and move tweaks. Moreover, Street Fighter IV plays more like a tribute to yesterday's Street Fighter ( with no air blocking, guard meters, parrying or any other advanced and layered mechanics you'd find in more recent iterations of Street Fighter like Third Strike or Alpha 3. In light of the current SF hype, I'd like to briefly talk about how some game developers have been subconsciously (and consciously) been showing tribute to Street Fighter ever since they first started their first job as a game developer.

Inspirational Assets

And there are a few reasons why Street Fighter is a major influence among some of today’s game designers. On the surface, Street Fighter is all about their iconic characters such as Guile and Chun-Li, memorable moves like Ryu’s fireball to Blanka’s ball projectile as well as the ability to string together attacks more commonly referred to as a “combo.” Sound familiar? Many of today’s action adventure games contain these fighting game elements.

On a deeper level, SF was a revolutionary game that introduced an unmatched level of player control, immersion, game feel, depth and instant gratification via responsive controls, clear and concise actions and reactions and unique special move control inputs.

Some additional inspirational elements: constant risk/reward feedback loop depending on strength or type of attack; different types of normal attacks: jab, strong, fierce, short, middle, roundhouse; blocking; throws.

The Catalyst for Inspiration

So it’s hard to imagine what many of today's action adventure video games would be like without the existence of Street Fighter. Without Street Fighter you probably would never have two-in-ones, special moves and super moves. Without Street Fighter you probably wouldn't have Devil May Cry or God of War in their current and memorable states. Most importantly, you never would have had the arcade explosion that resulted in the U.S. Street Fighter competitive scene that brought together some of the top Street Fighter players in the country to show off their skills and strategies.

And here's where the Street Fighter DNA was copied and transferred. The genetic makeup of Street Fighter--its essence and feel--was completely dissected, analyzed and permanently mapped onto some of these player's instincts where eventually this DNA will provide inspiration behind many of today's game developers.

Exposure either through local SF gatherings or regional tournaments allowed these future game developers to witness these game systems pushed to their limits. From here, they had the extreme starting point in which to go backwards and breakdown how these strategies are executed and how each system, individual mechanic and their respective properties work together to deliver the maximum feeling and amount of expressiveness to the SF player.

Street Fighter Playing Skill Not Necessary

Now as I mentioned many of the top Street Fighter players gathered at these national tournaments to show off their skills and compete against new players. Interestingly, many of those players that went on to become game developers weren’t necessarily the “top” SF players. In other words, being a high level game player wasn’t a prerequisite for becoming a game developer that used SF as an inspirational and research tool. Although it didn’t hurt to have the ability to be to able execute these expert strategies, the factors that contributed to becoming instinctively one with Street Fighter had more to do with the amount exposure to the high level strategies, passion for seeking out competition as well as the ability to meticulously breakdown, compare, contrast and analyze the game systems that allowed for the highest level of gameplay skill and flash.

Fighting Game Community Babies

In summary, the creation of Street Fighter would be the first step that would eventually inspire these players to become game designers. The second step was the creation of a more official gathering and showcase of talents: the Evolution Fighting Game Championships. Interestingly, many of today’s game designers have these two characteristics in common. Below is a list of just some of today’s game designers that have been birthed from the Evolution Fighting Game Championships or another portion of the fighting game community:

Derek Daniels - Xmen, Backyard Wrestling, God of War franchise
Eric Williams - Xmen, Backyard Wrestling, God of War franchise
Mark Acero - Backyard Wrestling, The Incredibles, Golden Axe
David Sirlin - Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo HD Remix
Seth killian - Capcom Community Manager/SFIV Influence
Jason de heras - God of War 3
Adam Puhl - Mortal Kombat Shaolin Monks, God of War franchise
Ben Cureton - Xmen, Wu-Tang
Jason Cole - Backyard Wrestling, TNA Impact!
Omar Kendall - Backyard Wrestling,
Mortal Kombat Shaolin Monks, GUN, Tony Hawk

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Game Designer Reel

I was asked an interesting question today by an Art Institute of California – San Francisco student: “Do you have a [designer} reel?” The student wanted to get an idea of my involvement in the games I’ve worked on. At first I was a bit taken aback by the question because I never really thought much about having a “reel.” What actual material would I put in this reel? Design documents? Level walkthrough? Emails? Notes? Transcripts of conversations? Of course when you think of traditional game industry reels you think of animation or art reels. In an animation reel, you see, well, animations. In a concept art reel, for example, you obviously see concept art.

But what should be the contents of a game designer reel? Do designers even need to create a reel to remain a competitive commodity? Will future employers, the gaming public or even fellow co-workers know exactly what you had a hand in creating if you don’t have a designer reel? Is it enough to be credited on a game as a “designer?” How does a designer “prove” he spearheaded/owned a certain game mechanic or created and maintained certain game systems?

Unless you are Miyamoto, Molyneux, Jaffe, CliffyB, Kojima, etc, many game designers aren’t a well known commodity outside their current employer, even though many of them are instrumental in executing the vision of these high profile names. So, are designer reels necessary to further establish yourself as a game designer if you haven’t reached a certain level of high profile and reputation?

I’m not sure if they are necessary per se, but I don’t see how they would hurt. It seems logical if other game disciplines have reels, why not design? So, if I was to create a designer reel, I would essentially create a personal post mortem with the following:

  • List of all of the game elements I was responsible for concepting/brainstorming/designing/testing/implementing/tweaking
  • Video walkthrough/deconstruction of the final product showing the examples of the elements detailing your design intentions (yes, this will be time consuming)
  • What went wrong/hurdles
  • What went right
  • Details: Did I design and implement?; day-to-day duties

Basically, this reel is a resume on steroids that would hopefully give the person(s) watching a better understanding of your worth to the game you had a hand in developing.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Street Fighter Lessons: Throw Range

Welcome to the first installment of Street Fighter Lessons! Each lesson will briefly explain one particular element or nuance from the classic fighting game series Street Fighter and then explain how implementing that element into a 3D action-adventure game may improve the overall fun and feel of the player character.

One of the most satisfying moves you can perform on your opponent is the throw. The throw can be used to interrupt combos, setup combos, distance yourself from your opponent or just plain humiliate your opponent. In many Street Fighter games, the throw input command requires the player to press only one button; meaning, the Risk/Reward ratio is Low/High. In addition, you can perform a throw even when your opponent is blocking. (Back in the early days of competitive Street Fighter, throwing an opponent while blocking was considered "cheap." Quite honestly, the best feeling you can have in SF besides beating your opponent is throwing your opponent while he's blocking.)

In early SF games from SF2: World Warrior to Super SF2 Turbo, the throw range distance was significantly big for many characters. The result: you can throw your opponent from a very far distance even though your character's sprite is nowhere near your opponent's sprite.

Street Fighter Lesson:

In general, the more throw range your character has the more powerful and in control you feel during the fight.

So what does a significant throw range mean for a 3D action-adventure beat-em up? Many gamers still have issues with judging depth correctly. If your player character doesn't have an exaggerated throw range, the player is forced to analyze his surroundings and find the right camera angle to ensure he's next to the enemy, potentially breaking the combat flow. The increased throw range ensures the player doesn't have to consciously recognize if he's in the correct range of the actual character and enemy's geometry.

Below is a screenshot of Kratos about to throw an enemy. Notice the distance from Kratos and the enemy. At this point, the enemy is already in the process of being thrown even though Kratos is not physically near him. If you ever played Dhalsim in Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo, then you know exactly the feeling you have when you perform a throw with this much range.

Thanks to Eric Williams for providing the inspiration to write this post!

Brief Notes on my Defintion of a "Game Designer"

In my experiences, being a designer is akin to building jigsaw puzzles (not sure about this analogy, but I'm super tired right now so bear with me). You have all of these different pieces that are scattered about and it is your job to make them fit together into one cohesive and recognizable entity. Each piece enhances the overall entity. Without each individual piece, the overall presentation suffers.

For instance, let's say your a combat designer and it is your job to build enemies that follow the vision of the game. To do this, you'll need the following: brainstorm, direction, model, animations, vfx, sfx, level scenarios ideas (to give the enemy some world relevance), AI building, etc. Obviously, without any of these elements, you won't have any kind of enemy creature. In this case, it is the combat designer's role to ensure that each element associated with this creature adheres to the overall vision of the game the micro vision of the creature itself.

So what does the designer actually do day-to-day in this case? Usually, the elements I listed above are done by an animator, vfx artist, sound designer, etc. So, again, what does the actual designer do? First and foremost, he will possibly use some kind of scripting/pseudo-code program that allows him to manipulate all of these elements in some fashion and “program” the enemy AI to behave according to what is fun and falls under the micro-vision. So, let use this information and create a checklist as to what the designer actually does:

• Uses scripting/pseudo-code program to tell the enemies how to behave (technical skill/aptitude needed here) If you have the ability to master/exploit a tool that has been created specifically for your design role and show that you can “design” or create situations that the programmer never thought possible or intended, then you will be on the right track.

On a side note: Most companies I’ve seen, robust and powerful end-user tools have been created for designers where programming knowledge isn’t necessary. It seems more and more gameplay systems that were once under the realm of the “programmer” are being driven by the non-programmer. In short, the designer becomes the “programmer.” In the end, what does it matter how a gameplay system is maintained, tuned for fun, whether it be through C++ or through some proprietary in-house tool. The results are the same, but some would argue the drive to push control of gameplay systems into non-programmers' hands is much more efficient as it removes the technical barricade and allows those with the creative expertise to make the magic happen.

Is this all the designer does? No. Simply changing a few variables and testing them out to see what is more fun is just part of the role.

Who is making sure that each element falls under the micro vision? Obviously, today’s games are massive so, in this case, it is up to the designer to ensure all of the assembly line elements fit into the micro vision. This requires a basic understanding of each discipline (animation, art, etc.) but more importantly the ability to communicate what is wrong with the individual element and providing possible solutions based on the vision.

• Communication skills and the ability to problem solve and offer solutions that adhere to scope and vision (soft/hard skill)

Knowledge should your weapon of choice for most designers. This can be said for any role in game development, but since the contemporary game designer is usually labeled as possessing only soft skills, then the knowledge you possess as it relates to your specific system or entity can be invaluable. In this case, being able to deconstruct an action adventure combat game and ascertain/extract the systems that make the game fun but also frustrating will help you out tremendously.

• Expertise/insight based on research and/or experience

I think of designers as mini-creative directors responsible for their individual level or system. It is their job to ensure the macro vision is translated correctly into the micro/mid-level elements. Designers are creative and technical problem solvers. The modern designer role is there for a reason. Without designers you would have a bunch of amazing elements but no cohesive presentation and experience.

NOTE: Nowadays, there are many types of designers such as combat, level, sound, camera, mission, story, dialogue, technical, etc...the list goes on and on. The need for specialists within the design discipline is becoming more apparent as games grow larger and larger. If you have a design "skill" and preference, more likely than not there will be a job for you if you dedicate yourself and work hard.

Should Reviewers Care About the Details?

Below are my thoughts after reading Ben Fritz's article in Variety regarding reviewers obsession with the game details and downplaying the game's overall "big picture.":

Video games are unique because they combine other classical forms of entertainment and allow the player to move through these mediums literally and figuratively through gameplay. Gameplay is the driving force because gameplay is what separates video games from other mediums such as television, paintings, books, etc. (Sorry for the Captain Obvious statements.)

Books can make us laugh. Movies too. So can T.V. Video games make us laugh as well, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. If our interactive medium, video games, has done its' job, we were made to laugh because we caused it to make us laugh. Our inputs resulted in an output that caused us to evoke a type of emotion. That's pretty powerful. Instead of passively watching a movie, we were in control and actually physically invested (albeit only with our hands and fingers mostly) into the outcome of our inputs. It took some effort to reach that emotional outburst.

The point I'm trying to make is that gameplay, controls, input/output feedback, AI...the combination of these systems unique only to video games need to, at the very least, collectively be equal in quality to the theme, the art style, the story, the writing, and whatever borrowed mediums are used in shaping the game's vision. They need to be equal because the combination of these systems enhance (or detract) from the game's artistic expression/goal. If anyone of these systems isn't up to par to current systems, the suspension of disbelief will be broken. Flow is broken. Many gamers have been conditioned to sort of recognize what is established quality of any video game system. If any system is out of whack, the artistic goal of the game could be quickly dismissed by the player.

I do agree that there are way too many great scores nowadays. I attribute that to sequelitis as well as "groupthink" as one journalist mentioned in one of her blog posts. At the same time, however, I believe mechanical problems and concerns should be at the forefront of the review as well as the game's "big picture" and the developer's attempt to push the medium into a more well rounded direction. Like you mentioned, there doesn't seem to be a good balance of this as big games don't get called out for obvious, obvious sub-par systems. For example, GTA is notorious for horrible combat systems, gun or melee, but yet inundated with 9s and 9.5s.

Video games are the art of electronic interacting and without the solid mechanical/gameplay/control foundation to drive the intuitive feel of the player, I believe the game's vision is already at a disadvantage of being realized.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Kids Deserve Better

I played Wall-E this weekend for the following reasons:
  • I briefly, briefly worked (2 months) on the pre-production prototyping basic environmental interactions
  • I heard from around the way that there were many, ahem, odd decisions made during the development of this game
  • I still had hope the game would turn out ok because I somewhat enjoy playing movie licensed kids games
  • If it did turn out bad, playing a “bad” game is good design exercise…and I haven’t played a really bad game in a while

When I think of the type of consumer that will most likely purchase this game, I think of my aunt and my nephew. My aunt is pretty much one of the best aunts on the planet as she is pretty much an acting mother to my nephews as well to me back in the day. She gives the kids as much love as possible and makes them smile and spoils them in a good way. My aunt will take my nephews to see the latest kids’ movie during the movie’s first week release. And she loves buying the kids the most popular toy characters out there namely anything with the Pixar brand name on it: Cars, Ratatouille, Wall-E.

And if my nephews were a bit older and had the latest and greatest video game consoles, I know for a fact she would buy them the latest and greatest video games based on the kids’ movie they just watched. She would buy the video game because she would think it’s cute because she thought the movie was cute. She’d buy the video game based on the movie of the same name because she wants to bring a smile to the kids’ faces. She would buy this game because she thinks the game would evoke the same type of smiley, wonder, charm, fun and warm fuzzy feeling the movie just gave them. She would buy them the game out of love.

So is it too much to ask for the game developers making these types of licensed kids’ games to reciprocate the love and inject the same type of tender loving care into the quality of the product they release?

I’m not going to go into detail about what’s wrong with this game. There’s simply too much to say in that regard. The point is: Is there anyone thinking of the kids and the mothers (or aunts) when these types of games are being developed? Sadly, the answer is usually no.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Little Things Add Up And Begin To Detract From The Overall Experience Rant (Yes, when I spend $60, I have every right to nitpick)

I want to experience many things in my day besides playing video games all day. I spend most of my video game $$$ on experience-based games as opposed to skill-type or mechanic based games. I want my experience to go as smoothly as possible while providing me some kind of flowing challenge. As I get older, my playing patience and tolerance starts to dwindle to the point where every little thing affects the overall experience. Below are just some nitpicky ranting items that I have started to have a more keen sense for as I get older. I'm not saying it's good or bad design to have have/not have these elements. And, yes, I know this has been written about ad nauseam on the interwebs, but I don't care. Anyways, I'll probably just keep adding to this list
  • Save spots: I pay $60 for a survival horror experience. Please allow me to save more often. I have other things to do in my day than to spend time reaching a save point
  • Health pacing: Before an encounter, put some health in easy-to-find spots
  • Health Cheat: Starting a save with very little health makes for one night of shirt ripping and controller throwing. Throw the player a little bone by giving him just a tad of pity health when he restarts. Just a tad. A teeny weeny tad.
  • Skipping previously viewed cutscenes: I saw it once; I don’t need to see it again
  • Combat Camera Zoom: Bringing the camera in closer when a monster appears works in a fairly open space, but not in a room with two monsters
  • Cheap Hits: It's no fun getting hit during reaction
  • Camera Connected To Character's Turn Speed: The camera rotation isn't independent of the character makes for one slow rotating camera. Adds to the fear as well as the frustration
  • Suspension of Disbelief 1: The main character just came face-to-face with a zombie and then the next cutscene he’s calm and wondering where his brother is…and doesn’t mention that fact he just tangled with the undead? This happens numerous times where he’s oblivious to what just happened.
  • Suspension of Disbelief 2: He goes home to his mom’s house (pre-zombie encounter) but he opens some doors by shoulder ramming them and some by turning the knob? I want my player character’s demeanor and movement and actions to reflect his current knowledge of his surroundings and past
  • Suspension of Disbelief 3: Pre-zombie encounter, I cannot un-equip his knife..and I’m in his mom’s house
  • Huh? Started off in a nightmare, but still can keep my weapons I found in the nightmare?
  • Is this next-gen?: The path is blocked…by a teeny weeny pile of debris but I can't climb over. Classic gameism. (I’m not for or against this, just stating it)
  • Argh! In this day and age, there is no invert camera option?????????????????
  • Menu Combat: Weapon selection: instead of holding left or right to rotate the weapon stash, I have to aim and then hold a precise analog direction towards the weapon to highlight...Many times, I miss selecting the weapon of my choice
  • Visiting Menus: Can’t seem to quick select a weapon (w/out going into a menu). Not a big fan of constant menu visiting
  • Why? I can't cancel into map select during gun aim mode

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Video Game "Nutrition" Facts

Around 20 years ago, The FDA mandated that most food products be labeled with a nutritional label listing various elements such as fat, cholesterol and protein along with their measurement per serving. This informational addition to the food product spawned a new sector in the food industry that marketed their food products as low-fat, low-calorie foods. Suffice to say, the nutrition label has had a major impact on food companies and consumers alike by creating certain groups of consumers that would only buy a food product based solely on the contents of the nutrition label.

So what if video games had a similar "nutrition" label based on the core elements of that video game? For instance, would consumers be less inclined to purchase the next best 3D action-adventure combat game based on more core system-specific hard data such as the inclusion/frequency/exclusion of individual combat system elements?

This was one of the random thoughts that popped into my head when I was thinking of a clever way to list the core ingredients of an accessible combat system. By no means is this particular "nutrition" list comprehensive or even weighted correctly. In the future, I'll be going into more detail for each of these accessible combat system elements and also regurgitating some of the topics written about by these guys.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Carrying The Torch

Lately, I've been reading Manwatching: A Field Guide to Human Behavior by Desmond Morris where Morris attempts to categorize human actions, gestures, body language, verbal, nonverbal communication, etc, into a sort of human gesticulative glossary...

In particular, he writes about Relic Gestures which he defines as: "...a gesture that has outlived its original situation...gestures that have survived long after their primary contexts have vanished." He goes on to give the example of the telephone gesture where the person would act out the posture of holding the receiver to his ear and cranking it. Even today, this gesture is used in some parts of the world by people "who may never even have heard of a cranked telephone and who do not understand where the action stems from."

As a Combat Designer on God of War III, an inherent part of my job is to adhere to the groundwork laid out before me by the original God of War I and II combat designers and ensure the original contexts and philosophies survive and are translated into the God of War III combat/enemies. Although some of the core developers have left the God of War franchise, Adam Puhl and Jason McDonald remain as the surviving primary contextual guides for God of War combat.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Part One: Ratatouille to God of War 3? Say What!?!

I’ve been at SCEA Studios Santa Monica for roughly 5 months now learning my role as a Combat Designer. I say “learning” because that’s exactly what I’ve been given the opportunity to do. Before I get into this a bit more, let me briefly detail what my previous and first design position entailed at Heavy Iron Studios, a division of THQ Inc:

SpongeBob Squarepants The Movie:

Placing breakables
Creation of breakable/crate puzzles

Joel Goodsell, the Lead Designer of SpongeBob Squarepants The Movie, is an established game design veteran who gave me my first “shot” at a design role. Currently, he’s one of the heavy hitters at Insomniac Games. Thanks, Joel.

Incredibles 2: Rise of the Underminer

· Responsible for scripting and progression of the enemy “waves” for three arena levels

This was my first game in a full time designer role. No actual “combat” design here. Just pure wave behavior and some dabbling into level design by introducing some interactive set pieces that enhanced the battles.

  • Tons of pre-production mechanics test level building
  • Tons of pre-production mini-game building
  • Prototyped a chase level ala Crash Bandicoot chase levels
  • Production: Responsible for creating missions within one of the worlds

No geometry building; just layering missions onto already designed environments (platforming missions no less, so you could imagine retrofitting these kinds of missions into already designed environments. Yikes! But I digress.)

As you can see, no combat design experience whatsoever. So how do I currently find myself in such a specialized role as a Combat Designer on God of War 3? Two words: Street Fighter.

Part 2 coming soon.