I’m an eternal malcontent, hater and troll. When I look at something, I immediately know that, if I’d done it, I would have done it differently and naturally better. I take to few things that I would not tinker with and simply enjoy them for what they are. Many people have a problem with that and I’m not even very surprised by it. Not everyone has a need to consider things in such detail; most are content to enjoy by their reaction and grouches like me pointing out the errors only spoil their enjoyment. Who does it bother that half-naked barbarian women are running around in three feet of snow in their favorite RPG? Maybe only miserable female cosplayers who decide to have their picture taken for real in a fur bikini in a snowdrift and discover that at -20 degrees it’s good to be wearing more than a thong, tassels over your nipples and a helmet and that their sword has frozen to their hand.
Brr, it’s cold! How could I have been so stupid and not put on pantyhose! Now, I’m going to get a urinary tract infection and that’s worse than taking an arrow in the knee…
Without discontent, there is no progress. If everyone were reconciled with how things work, they would have no motivation to improve them and create something new. Therefore, every poorly executed thing carries a germ of an idea how to do it differently, more logically and better – a challenge, inspiration and interesting puzzle to solve.
Most games can be criticized easily. They’re very poorly thought out and with many of them it’s easy to think of ways to improve their playing mechanics or level design. A paradise for a discontented troll like me. Or is it the naïve view of an arrogant simpleton, who has no idea why things are the way they are and who is going to burn his fingers badly when he tries to design them differently? Are game designers stupid and don’t know how to do things differently or cannot do things better, because it would be too expensive or demanding on the hardware?
An Example from Life
I’ll try to illustrate using a simple example: An FPS, enemy soldier AI. The designer has to resolve what the AI is to do when the player doesn’t do anything. How many enemies shall we release on the player at one time? What happens when the NPC runs out of ammunition? What happens when the player kills an NPC with unlimited ammunition? How much ammo can they find on the corpse? And what about enemy weapons? What happens when the enemy has some kind of super weapon? And how is the player to collect ammunition at all?
We all know how it is. In the vast majority of games, we’re attacked in waves by kamikazes with endless ammunition, yet when they’re killed, all that we find for collection is half a magazine and some basic weapon different from the one they were shooting. When the creators figure out that it’s somehow too simple and monotonous, instead of thinking up a way to improve it, they add several more waves of enemies and some kind of “wow” moment like an atomic explosion or collapsing skyscraper. And that’s only one example of many. Games are drowning in outdated mechanics and clichés – first-aid kits, endless inventories or characters incapable of carrying more than one weapon, soldiers acting like lobotomized sheep. Is it really impossible to do it another way?
It is possible.
But at what price?
Of course you can set the enemies so that they run out of ammo. But then you have to think and program for what will happen when they run out – will they run away, beg for help, take a new weapon from a corpse, jump on you with a knife or maybe all of that together? This is all extra work, but when someone finally does it, I’m convinced that gamers will cry out in joy. Just remember the plaudits for the first Medal of Honor, where precisely these kinds of things happened –enemies threw grenades back at you, hurled themselves at you when you got too close and generally did things never seen before. Coincidentally, the concept of this game was not the work of a game designer, but that of the filmmaker Steven Spielberg. We all know what happened to this franchise after Steven sold it to EA don’t we? What is sure is that nobody invested much into the AI after that.
When you break away from all of the above-mentioned clichés and do things differently, you suddenly discover that you have a much more interesting game, you don’t have to script as many things and can resolve diverse problems. Out of the blue new possibilities logically arising from the existing game mechanics will start to offer themselves to you. When you think things through and hold onto the basic logic of your game’s premise, suddenly everything falls together and a functioning whole emerges, which offers much more entertainment than individual nonsensical parts stuck together.
When enemies and players run out of ammo and they fight over what’s left scattered on the ground, it suddenly won’t bother anyone that they have to push a button to pick up a magazine, because it’s adrenaline and it’s logical in the context of the situation – when I want something and also someone else wants it, I have to do something for it, to earn it. A player with the last bullet chasing the enemy, who instead of making an easy target of himself in the center of the room, takes to his heels, because he doesn’t have any ammo is sure to have a much more interesting experience than if the enemy sprang at him with an endless supply of magazines. By the same token, when a gamer starts to play in a very safe way, for example hiding behind a column, what if, instead of the game spawning some kind of punishing commando to attack, the guy on the other side of the room started taunting the player, calling him a coward? It will seem to you as if you were THERE and the game is a living, breathing entity that reacts to your actions rather than simply using scripting to force your actions, now that may make a much greater impression on you than a collapsing Empire State Building.
All of this naturally requires very thorough planning to the smallest detail, as well as serious tuning so that it doesn’t all fall apart. It costs less to script and every attempt to go through a level will be different. But it’s hard to control and it’s very difficult to stick “wow” moments in and furthermore nobody has tried it much up to now, so there are no rules or guides for doing it like this; it seems to be a problem and of course it sounds insanely complex at the producer meetings, because the big boss doesn’t understand what’s better about enemies needing to collect bullets instead of just exploding lots of cool atom bombs. Nuclear bombs are simply gorgeous! We need more atom bombs. Collecting magazines is just a silly, tiresome hassle.
It should be pretty clear now that we’ve set out on a path of thinking things through in great detail and that we believe in the end this will pay dividends. We have certain experience with this kind of process from the past, but I admit that I’ve never done an RPG. Moreover, an RPG with these design aspects is perhaps the hardest we could have chosen. At the same time, it’s an unexplored path. I haven’t found many past examples that in practice my theory is the correct one. I firmly believe that it is for the reasons that I’ve described and not because it’s impossible. Everyone can be mistaken though and there are moments when my faith somewhat falters.
For instance, a while ago I started to plan the legal system of our game. I didn’t want to end up like all the other RPGs, where you are either executed for stealing a pair of socks, or nobody notices the piles of dead bodies you have killed in the town square. I wanted to create a system where the NPCs will adequately react to the player’s misdemeanors and crimes.
The moment the design document reached thirty pages and I was about to consider ways of preventing the player from killing off an entire town so cunningly that nobody saw him in that and therefore nobody would arrest and prosecute him and, at the same time, so that the handful of survivors in the middle of the pile of corpses wouldn’t act as if nothing was happening, it occurred to me that I might have crossed a line and I was beginning to get entangled in something that was not in the plan at all. In some RPGs, they don’t worry about even much more important things and when something happens, the resolution of which makes my brain beginning to melt, the game simply stops working. My colleagues in the office had funny expressions, but they didn’t try to stop me, so I persisted, though significantly concerned that perhaps I was creating something that was absolute overkill, which we’d throw out in the end and instead do what all the others do, because the result is entirely inadequate to the efforts invested in the attempt of a perfect solution to the problem.
When I was fifteen, I had a patch of these guys on my denim jacket to “give the creeps” to people. Now, the word gives me the creeps in connection with design.
In the end, I (may) have found a solution which also brings with it a whole range of play mechanics that subsequently can be utilized in quite innovative quests, or thanks to which, interesting situations can arise of their own accord for the player in the world. It took up a lot of my time conceiving this design path and it is going to consume a lot more time of some programmer, but theoretically it should then already work on its own without the necessity of scripting and pretense. In the end, it may take as much time as some kind cheat solution, but our method will be much more robust and essentially better. Moreover, if our game is released and works as intended, all of the other designers will see that it can be done, they will be able to use it as an argument in presentations and it will be enough for them to copy our mechanism without having to reinvent the wheel. That is called progress…
…naturally on the condition that what I have thought up works, we manage to implement it, our game comes out and somebody likes it. All of which is still quite uncertain.
I ran into the same problem when designing some of our other game mechanics. In my work on the inventory, I discovered that I’m also actually thinking up the solution for the player’s stamina and overloading of the player and in connection with stamina also the issue of food usage came up and subsequently this added new functions to the inventory and when I then thought about how to present all of these ”logical and realistic” mechanisms to the player through the user interface, I started to have real fears as to whether anyone would ever be able to understand the influence of a rotten sausage on a player’s maximum load, speed and fatigue and then if it would seem to them as marvelous as it does to me, or if they would say that I’m a complete numbskull and it’s all a horrible nuisance.
Because I wouldn’t like to end up like the old classic Robinson’s Requiem for the Amiga – a simulator of a castaway on an unknown planet, which took it so far that if you dressed badly, you caught a cold and when you caught a cold… I don’t know what happened beyond that, because it could not be played.
Robinson’s Requiem was a hardcore simulator of a castaway, or rather of a sick man and amateur doctor, where it was possible to get sick, heal and die in almost every way imaginable.
I simply began to have serious worries as to the possibility that I was overdoing it a little too much and if it wouldn’t be better to do it like all the others, i.e. to say, at a certain point, this is simply impossible, when you do that, it’s game over and when an odd corpse lies on the street for a week, nobody will notice, because nobody cares anyway.
Even though I still believe that we’ve set out on the right path, a fear gnaws in me that we’re just overdoing it and one fine day we’ll discover that it simply cannot be put together and I’ll have to pipe down and admit that all of those who I thought were incompetent fools who did it badly were actually right.
Unfortunately, the only way to find out if I’m right is to test my theories. If it works out, it should be damned visible. Instead of stupid clowns reacting only to an axe blow to the head, the things in the game should work entirely naturally, logically and allow the player many new, as-yet unseen tricks in an open world sandbox; all of that only with a minimum of work on the part of the level designers.
In the meantime, you can let us know what kind of clichés and nonsensical designs you hate most in games. Inapropriate NPC reactions? Exploding barrels? Naked people running in the snow? It could be very interesting discussion.
Dan Vavra, Creative Director
PS: Thanks for the terrific reaction to the last article. We’ve received an enormous amount of opinions on our questions and it has to be said that they were very good ideas and many of them were either very similar to what we’re trying to implement or developed ideas from the article in such a way that we will definitely try to include them in the game in one way or another. I have to admit that I had no idea how many potential designers we would find amongst our fans.