By Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff
I've been designing games professionally for three years and thinking about designing them for most of my life (when not playing them). I tend to present strong opinions, but I want to make it clear that these are only opinions, and I don't want to come off like some of the famous names in the industry who seem to think that selling a lot of copies of a game and getting attention from the press makes them an expert on everything about making games. My tenet is that if you claim to know everything, you're missing out on the fact that there's always something new to learn, some other opinion which is worth considering, some experience you are still lacking...
s I write this, Trespasser finally officially entered beta, after a couple weeks of being in what on other projects I've been on would have already been called beta, so I'm expecting our beta cycle to be fairly short... anyway, here I am trying to whip out this column in between fixing as many bugs as I can and getting things into their final shippable form.
One of the things I'm most looking forward to after shipping this game is getting together with my friends here and playing Baldur's Gate over our LAN. I'm looking forward to Half Life quite a bit, too, but you know what? It's not going to be the first thing I fire up multiplayer.
We have a programmer up here from Texas helping us compile our game for a different CPU, and he's a diehard Quake player who I've been talking to a lot about the whole Quake thing. We used to play a lot of Quake I ourselves here, and when I was at Looking Glass we played Doom and Warcraft II a whole lot, too. Yet despite playing many hours of all of these never, I never really had that much fun with any of them. This is going to sound like heresy, but I just don't like deathmatch.
The most fun I've had in any multiplayer experience was playing Hexen. Four of us got it the day it came out, and (as we luckily weren't in beta) started playing through it cooperatively. After months of playing the same levels and repetitively dodging rockets in Doom, here was this amazing thing where we were all different characters (well, three of us anyway), where we could experience all this unknown territory together, help each other out of jams, share the excitement of figuring out how to get to the next area, and tough it out through boss fights. We played a couple evenings and over most of a weekend until we sadly ran into a script bug which prevented us from continuing.
Since then, well, it's been back to the old rocket-dodging. Hexen II made me swear bloody murder at Raven because after the at least usable (despite script bugs) co-op of Hexen, Hexen II was a gigantic, unplayable mess, continually getting out of sync, having people lose all their experience, locking up in boss battles. After a couple nights of trying to struggle through it, we just quit. And I've found nothing else LAN-based which offers a satisfying cooperative experience since. I don't play Quake or anything like it over the net because we have a stupidly restrictive firewall here, and after hours of LAN-speed play, I'm not even going to try over my third-rate 33.6 at home, and I won't play Ultima Online because I tried out the beta and it's just not Ultima. If I didn't care about Ultima, maybe I'd stick it out, but as it is, I won't have my vision of Ultima destroyed by idiot player-killers who can't spell.
So talking to my Texan friend and asking him about what he enjoys about this whole Quake thing, and how he and most die hard Quake players don't even play Quake II, it finally became clear to me: Quake is a sport. Now sports and me go way back. I played sports all through high school, even made varsity soccer after a couple years, but basically hated every minute of it. Partly, I just wasn't all that good, and partly our tiny little school was close to the worst in the whole state of Maine - bottom of division III. One memorable year our junior varsity basketball team only won a single game: the one our opponents didn't show up to! I hated sports because they were drudgingly repetitious, because they involved a set of skills that I wasn't very inclined towards that could only be gained through incredibly tedious and exhausting labor. And even if I had become a pro, because one person does not make a team, we still would have lost. I could just never see the point of freezing my ass off at 5pm in the chill October air of New England just to get the ball stolen, get knocked over, and get tired, get shouted at, and then lose.
Even now, I can't raise any interest in professional sports. The whole thing just seems dumb and meaningless to me. Yet my favorite hobby, all-consuming job, and practically entire life, computer games, is now (at least partially) heading in the last direction I ever would have expected: it's becoming a damned sport!
Why do I call Quake a sport? It has all the earmarks of one: it takes place mainly on one (or a set) of playing fields: who plays deathmatch on a different level every time? It is competitive at its heart, even if you play something like CTF: you are always out to secure a victory over another group of people. If you only play over a LAN, like I do, then you will always be winning or losing to your friends. Becoming good at it requires a lot of tedious repetition of physical activities, and even the mental skills (level memorization, weapon use) are primarily memorized rather than demanding constant, on-your-toes creativity to deal with situations you've never encountered. The taunting and grandstanding that goes on, that I even participate in, is an expression of the same primate dominance rituals that your typical jocks get into. There's just nothing to interest a long time RPGer and strategy (pre-Dune II) gamer. Even all the Dune II clones fall victim to the same problems: it becomes a matter of being able to run through the optimal build-up, and then being able to click on things faster then your opponent. There's strategy, but not much. It's more about making the right units and getting them to their destination faster.
The most interesting revelation I came to was that what we now refer to as the "hardcore gamer" is your typical on-line Quake or Starcraft player. I consider myself the classic definition of a hardcore gamer. I've been playing on computers and consoles ever since the Atari 2600, and even somewhat before, and may have spent more time gaming than doing just about anything else. But I don't feel a part of any Quake/Starcraft/other multiplayer game community, nor do I have any desire to be part of one. I consider myself a part of the game development community now, but we are a much different and smaller group than hardcore gamers. Before I entered the industry, when I subscribed to computer game magazines back when they had less distribution than roleplaying magazines like TSR's Dragon, when I would dial into actual BBSes long before anyone knew what the Internet was, I felt I was the guy that games were made for. Supposedly, I and a couple hundred thousand more like me were the core gaming community that kept the industry afloat. So what's happened? When did the hardcore gamer who lived for the next Ultima or spent hours on Empire become a virtual athlete, comparing frags or working on the perfect Starcraft build strategy?
I think my problem is that to me, the popular multiplayer games are not actually good "games." They are fine sports, but to me, a great multiplayer game needs to be fun for all players, needs to be about new experiences, unexpected changes of luck, and the feeling that everyone is a part of the game, right up until the end. In a sport, close matches are the exception rather than the rule, and even matches that start out close can end up decided long before the game is actually over. I've also played a fair amount of traditional games and board games, that are fun for all players and are easy to become at least competent at. And if you every play paper RPG (which I have actually only slightly experienced myself), all of a sudden the game doesn't even have any losers any more, and the entire point becomes to see something new, make a story happen, clear out a new dungeon, defeat a bad guy, save the world. Even if your character dies, you can just make a new one - you aren't out of the game unless you have a particularly cruel Dungeon Master.
As it turns out, I guess I started playing computer games to go on adventures and save the world (or to rule it in something like Civilization or Master of Orion). I still play physical sports like soccer occasionally, but I do it because at this point in life I actually appreciate the workout. And out of the context of high school competition, most of the pressure to do anything but have fun is off, and even losing isn't so bad. When I boot up my computer, the last thing I want to do is lose, or look at the same level over and over as I try to make the game fun for myself by becoming good enough to stay alive for more than a second or two. Even once I become good enough at one of these sports-like games to not be essentially shut out in the very beginning, it still isn't any fun. All you can do in these games is display your raw skill instead of constantly surprising other people with stuff they never thought of, because most of these games just aren't that deep. To me, constantly displaying the same skills becomes boring quickly - I'm looking for something new, for an adventure, not a gladiator match.
My current goal as a game designer is to bring the experience I had when playing Hexen with my friends to every game I make (after Trespasser, which is sadly single player). I want to be able to play a game that has the story of a Final Fantasy VII, with my closest friends filling the key roles, and have everyone be a hero at the end of the day, rather than have someone be gritting their teeth over their two kills in three hours while someone else cleans up with over a hundred. I want to see amazing new things every day, and not just run around and around in the same old maze. I hope that this is still something the core gamers want. I don't know what I'll do if I find out we've actually all turned into geeky computer-bound versions of professional athletes.
- Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff is a game designer on the upcoming game Trespasser for DreamWorks Interactive.
|Credits: Beaker's Bent logo illustrated by and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. Beaker's Bent is © 1998 Rich Wyckoff. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't do it. We have ways of making you talk.|