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...
e're 1.5 weeks away from the near-certain release of Trespasser, so in an effort to save myself a little time in writing this column, and actually because I've wanted to do this for a while, this issue I'll be exploring in a little more depth some issues I raised in my last columns. I like this idea, because in most of the magazines I have seen in print and on the web, the only acknowledgement of past columns you ever see is in the editors' response to letters. It is as if the columnist doesn't even admit their previous work even exists. Well, being a 20/20 hindsight sort of guy, I thought I'd start admitting to my own past, and bringing up some of the points I've seen in emails generated by my last writings and going deeper or correcting any misleading impressions I may have left you with.
I got overwhelmingly positive response about my first column, about innovation in gaming, but Evil Avatar did bring up the point that while I spent a lot of column space decrying a lack of innovation, I didn't really offer many examples of what I though was innovative, or ideas to make games more innovative - heck, the column even generated an entire counter-editorial from John "Karbon" Vechey. I admit to not proposing a lot, but I wanted to keep the column short (unlike this one turned out to be), and also, since Trespasser has been consuming so much of my brain power for so long, it was easier to basically just complain without coming up with any ideas. In fact the same criticism could be levied against my last column, about multiplayer gaming being largely a sport , and Steve "MagicMan" Thoms' recent guest editorial about the death of single player gaming might perhaps be somewhat of a rebuttal to that column. Interestingly enough, my emulation column generated zero response, from which I can only gather that our readership is comprised more of FPS players than people from the emulation scene.
I believe that the most lacking area in my first column was a description of which recent games I believe truly are innovative (as opposed to merely good). To me, an original game is one about which you can say "have you ever seen anything like this before?" Unreal fails this test for me: I've certainly seen things like it before - I've never seen anything as beautiful as it before, but I've seen a lot of things just like it. Cooler effects like the procedural textures and light coronas don't make it any different - this is a debatable point, but I still hold to the maxim that graphics don't make a game. Now I don't think you can say any more that good graphics are completely unnecessary for a successful game, but did any of Unreal's effects actually make it a better game than Quake II? I would say no, and I would urge anyone who thinks differently to try to imagine if Unreal the game would have been any different if it had been presented in Quake's engine.
I do have one issue with Karbon's editorial: he made a statement that comparing Total Annihilation to Dune II is like comparing The Hitchhiker's Guide series to the Foundation series. I think Trespasser's lead designer Austin Grossman made the best response to this statement by saying that only if Douglas Adams had made The Hitchhiker's Guide by changing all the names of the characters in Foundation and paraphrasing the original text, this analogy would hold up. I still say that if you have seen Dune II, you've seen Total Annihilation (TA)- you know what to expect from TA at every turn, and you are enjoying it for the little things, not constantly being wowed by an all-new experience. Yet if you've read Foundation, the very first page of Hitchhiker's Guide would immediately show you that you aren't just getting the same novel with tweaks. This actually reinforces my original point: a genre of literature like science fiction encompasses widely varying works, whereas what we've been calling computer games "genres" show much less variation, and that few people seem concerned over this lack of variation, and sometimes even embrace it, worries me greatly as a games maker.
The other point from my initial column that I need to re-stress is that I'm not even opposed to making clone games. What I am opposed to is making clone games which aren't absolutely superlative examples of their original design. I have had the extreme good fortune of playing the Half-Life OEM, and its single-player game kicks all previous FPS games' asses. Despite the fact that it is only based on the Quake 1 engine, it is still a far better game than Unreal, and even manages to approach Unreal's looks at times (and has infinitely better looking enemies). Although not present in the demo, presumably the Half-Life multiplayer game will also wipe the floor with Unreal, given that it is based on the proven Quake engine. Since one of the primary reasons I don't like Quake multiplayer (which remains more popular than Quake II among my friends and apparently on the internet as well) is that I find it very ugly, Half-Life even stands to bring me back to deathmatch by correcting the visuals I don't like while maintaining the faster gameplay that my friends like - the Half-Life character is very fast. In all respects, Half-Life is just so damn impressive that I fully endorse it becoming the game of the winter, if not the year. These are the kinds of games we need to be supporting, and if Unreal and Half-Life had shipped much closer to each other, I would have recommended that people give Unreal a miss in favor of Half-Life.
However, despite all of this, Half-Life doesn't quite fall into the category of the truly innovative, just an incredibly well done variation on the FPS theme, because under it all you are still quite definitely playing a standard Quake-style game. The interruptible scripted events are great, and the entire presentation and layout of the levels is superlative, but you are still a guy with a gun who runs at 30mph constantly, fighting monsters who require dozens of rounds of ammo to kill and finding how to get to the next section of the maze. Now if every FPS were this good or better, I'd say buy them all, but I can pretty much guarantee that of the upcoming slew of titles, few, if any, will even be as good as Half-Life. Despite the furor over Sin, for instance, next to Half-Life it will be seen as almost amateurish if they don't drastically improve what was visible in the Sin demo.
So what is truly innovative? Here's a list of some games I think qualify, and why I think that. Remember my rule of originality: "Have you ever seen anything like this before?" Perhaps there are games that I never encountered which set the pattern for these games, and if so, feel free to mail me about them:
- PaRappa the Rapper: The gameplay is basically Simon, but marrying that simple idea of gameplay to rapping, and the amazingly cool look and wacky "plot" created a pretty mindblowingly original experience.
- Uprising: Who would have thought that you could play a game with the basic gameplay of C&C from a first person perspective?
- Battlezone: Despite being very similar to Uprising in basic concept (RTS meets 3D action), giving the Uprising style of gameplay a mission-based plot is what makes me say I've never seen anything like it. Also, I find the interface truly innovative. It went a long way towards making the amount of information and number of actions you could perform incredibly manageable without requiring memorizing dozens of keys or having to read the manual to understand it all.
- Mario 64: Until I saw this game, I couldn't visualize taking traditional platform gaming into 3D, but Shigeru Miyamoto is a brilliant designer, and I think that any PC developer who isn't a worshipper of his god-like talents needs to broaden their horizons. It's probably just a fantasy of mine, but I'd like to think that Tomb Raider wouldn't have been possible without Mario 64 - Mario had an incredibly long development cycle, and many details of it were public knowledge, so the Tomb Raider developers, who quite possibly started their project after Mario was already announced, may perhaps have been inspired to do 3D third person after seeing early Mario stuff…
- Gran Turisimo: I hate racing games, except occasionally in multiplayer, yet I actually became excited by this title. It is very close to merely being a very highly tweaked standard driving game, so maybe I'm being too charitable calling it "innovative," but being a racing game that finally gives a reason to play something that is at its core one of those brainless Ridge Racer style games is what did it for me. Perhaps the innovation here is that Gran Turisimo put you in a racing story of sorts - get cash, qualify for new races, get your driving certificates, get different styles of cars for different competitions, and so on. Not completely unheard of in racing games, either, but done quite a bit differently and better here.
- Commandos: This is a very cool action/strategy game. The console game-like special abilities of each commando and the almost believable guard intelligence make this quite a bit like controlling a classic WWII movie. Hopefully I'll even get to play it after we ship. I can definitely say I've never seen anything like it before - even though you click on a top view of 2D guys, it has nothing else to do with the gameplay of Dune II.
- Deer Hunter: Yes, I'd say this title is innovative, although not innovative for the right reasons. It's just a shooting gallery, but to make a shooting gallery with a couple pretenses of simulation again shows that, like PaRappa, even stupid types of gameplay can be made into something enjoyable (for someone) if you do it in a way that no one else has done. Can you say that you've ever played a first person deer hunting simulation before (even if it's a really bad simulation)? The tragedy of this game is that the story behind it is that some evil Walmart exec told some money-hungy GT exec: "a hunting game would sell real good." The industry should be finding ways to make traditional games more appealing to ordinary people, not creating games based on some research group's "ideal target demographic." One day as many people will play games as watch movies. They don't have to mostly be playing stuff as weak as Deer Hunter.
- GoldenEye: This is also close to falling into my category of "tweaks" on an existing genre, but I say it is innovative because those tweaks were much more impressive given the weak little 4MB console on which they were performed, and the whole sniping-style of gameplay is quite different than any of the Wolfenstein-derived PC shooters. It even took a questionable license and turned out an exciting FPS that is more story based than anything that has come out on the PC yet (except for Half-Life). Okay, it isn't quite something I've never seen before, but if you change the rule to "Have I ever seen something like this on this platform before" it is. I draw my inspiration from all games published on any platform however, and try to stay abreast of as many as I can. It's not like GoldenEye or Turok could exist without Wolfenstein 3D.
- Barbie Fashion Designer. Here's another one which may draw me some flameage, but this is just a damned brilliant idea: if you don't know what it does, it includes some special printer paper which is perforated fabric that can be removed from the sheet and turned into Barbie clothes. You pick colors and patterns, check out what those patterns will look like by applying them to a 3D model of Barbie (I think the program can even render movies of Barbie walking around with the clothes you've made), and then you can print out your designs and put them on your real Barbie - though I guess if you only have a B&W printer, your designs are going to be almost avant-garde in their minimalism). This is a great idea for computers - adding value to physical toys in a way that only a computer can. (Don't let this make you think I have and play with this program - game designers of either sex often have a lot of toys and strange things in their offices, but Barbie dolls are not usually one of them! - but I used to be really opposed to the fact that this was a top-selling program, higher than most computer games, until I heard what it is actually about).
-Metal Gear Solid: I've managed to play a Japanese demo of this, and it is also truly original, from the whole alarm-condition gameplay (start undetected, if you get detected but can hide until the alarm runs out, you an roam around freely again) to the amazing always in-engine cut scenes (everything, from the opening movie to the last moment of gameplay in the demo, is done completely real time - except possibly for some exterior shots of a submarine - and it was hard to tell). The continually in-engine aspect and the third-person gameplay means that they can constantly do cinematic shots and moving camerawork, and they've taken advantage of that at every opportunity. It is also a just plain tense game - your heart is beating a mile a minute as you continually worry about accidentally stepping in front of a security camera and having to quickly find some nook before a dozen guards wipe you out. It seems like it is going to have one hell of a plot, too - the ration between talking and gameplay was nearly 1:1 (but don't worry, it was all skippable if you just can't stand cuts cenes). It really plays nothing like other third person games. This, Half-Life, and probably Zelda 64 will be the games of the winter for their respective systems.
Now that I've defined what I think some of the most innovative games out there are, I should correct the other weak point of my previous columns and provide a few more thoughts about what I think some ideal and innovative games would be. I don't mind spilling the beans on a couple of my ideas, because for one, if someone were to actually pick them up then there'd be more games that I want to play (designing a game obviously spoils most of the surprises in it for you as a player), and for another, ideas are cheap in this industry: it is the ability to actually implement those ideas which is not cheap - I would like to think that even if some other company implemented both of the following ideas, if I were running a similar project, I could do it as well, if not better.
- Team-Based Action RPG- I mentioned this last time, but let me elaborate more: My ideal FPS-like game has four different main characters (so that up to four players can play it simultaneously) all of whom participate in a plot, in a Half-Life or Final Fantasy - like way (or, because I typically game with about five other people, maybe there is a "sidekick" for each of the main characters, who speaks and participates in the plot very little if at all, but adds an extra controllable character for when you have more than four players). There is a constant and mostly linear story that you follow, developed continually by in-engine cut scenes which build the characters. It's actually not entirely certain that Final Fantasy-like cut scenes (where your characters do and say stuff mostly out of your control) would be all that palatable in first person, especially since in multiplayer other people need to control these characters so you couldn't have the other characters doing anything too spectacular like sacrificing themselves so the rest of the group can live, as always happens in Final Fantasy, but I have a suspicion that if the "cut scenes" required a lot of player input to proceed, like in Half-Life, players would feel very involved and enjoy themselves throughout. You could also build a little more branching into the cut scenes than Final Fantasy typically provides, as long as you ensure almost all the branches come out in the same place anyway. Though some people do complain about games where all choices amount to the same thing, it feels more interactive and gives you some chances to do a little, tiny bit of "roleplaying" if you can be surly in your conversations rather than nice, or if you can refuse to try to save the village when asked, but end up being compelled to do it for some other reason. I think people generally complain when it isn't made clear from up front that it doesn't matter how they respond, and they end up going back thinking they missed something, and finding out it doesn't matter, or if one of the options puts you into a loop where keep trying to answer a question one way, but to proceed you just have to break down and answer it the way the game designer wanted you to.
This game would also have character development, in a Jedi Knight style (after battling for a while, you can add abilities to your character), but with a more options, and would allow ability-gaining in the midst of a level, rather than in between. If you added the hit point growth and perhaps increasing accuracy or some other combat-related parameters, you'd get a lot of the feeling of statistic building that makes CRPGs so much fun (to me), without overwhelming the player with so much detail they can't make their character development choices in just a few seconds like in Jedi Knight. I think a sense of character development/power ramp-up is the biggest thing missing in shooters, where you often get the last weapon as early as halfway through the game. You shouldn't get the last, most-powerful abilities and weapons until 9/10th of the way through the game, in my opinion, so that there's enough time to use them, but not enough time to get bored of them (but this is a side issue). The final thing I'd like to see (even if it does cost extra development time) is side-quests for each of the main characters, which are only seen if you play that character, where they get separated from the other characters for a little while (no more than one hour of game time). Side quests shouldn't make up more than 10-25% of the entire gameplay, but I think it could feel very cool, and it adds replayability to the single-player game as well - if you finish the game as one character and liked the gameplay enough, you could go back and play as a different character to see their parts - also, playing those parts could allow characters to gain items or abilities they might not get when they are being computer-controlled in single player. Since it can be hard to get more than 15-20 hours of single-player out of a 3D game (unlike those SquareSoft RPGs which can provide 40-100 hours(!!), this is also a good way to potentially quadruple the playtime without quadrupling the data involved. I also just realized as I wrote this that it is entirely possible to have a character sacrifice themselves without eliminating that player from the game: you can always do what Square does in Final Fantasy 5 and have a new character come in who inherits the exact abilities of the dead character. You could give the sacrificing character special abilities just for their ultimate battle - I think it might be quite cool and fun to become temporarily super-powered, in order to deal with the huge monster who no one else can scratch, at the cost of your character's life. Depending on how the sequence was handled, I think it could be made more fun than annoying, even though the game is essentially forcing the player to die…
In a lot of ways, this description could sound like just an FPS with tweaks, rather than a game you can say you've never played before, but the underlying minute-to-minute gameplay need not be exactly like Quake. Based on which of an infinite variety of world concepts you put it in, the gameplay doesn't even have to involve fast and slow projectile combat (i.e. missiles you can and can't dodge) at all. To name just one of a dozen basic gameplay ideas I've considered, fighting could be magical based, and when you confront an enemy, defeating it basically involves something not akin to a rapid-fire game of rock-papers-scissors where you have many more options to choose from, and you analyze the attack the enemy is giving you and try to quickly set up the appropriate defense while find an offense that will defeat his defense, which is also continually changing. You could find some way of making "feints" so that the enemy will think you are trying to set up one sort of attack and sets up his defense accordingly, but you are actually preparing a different one. (This has always been my concept of how magical combat should work, quite unlike the standard fantasy game (computer or pen and paper) system where magical spells are little more than different types of missile weapons, often with no chance to miss).
-The Ultimate Mech Game- I am a giant robot fanatic, but more of the anime-style giant robot than the American, simulation-oriented Battletech type robot. I'm currently incredibly happy that the quintessential and my personal favorite giant robot series, Mobile Suit Gundam, has finally started to become available in the US (up to now you had to search out often-low quality bootleg fan translations). You'd think, because of my anime leanings, that I'd be excited about Shogo: MAD, but it seems to me to be way too much like just Quake with anime trappings. Also, in a mech game, I want it to be all about my mech, not ever about me outside my mech doing typical Quake stuff like will happen in Shogo. I furthermore think it is a mistake to try to actually pull off anime-looking characters in 3D. What I love about Mobil Suite Gundam is that all the series have very militaristic overtones coupled with very melodramatic plots, and usually feature one or two hero characters and their personal enemies who they continually come up against. This sounds perfect for a game, and you don't need to have big-eyed anime faces weirdly mapped onto realistic-looking geometry to pull off the essentials of it, as long as you can design good-looking giant robots. In my game, I would do most of what I describe for the action RPG above: have continual in-engine cutscenes to advance the plot, rather than the somewhat ignorable and often unemotional radio messages and between-mission plot advancements used in the Activision games (the out-of-suit plot is incredibly important in a good giant robot anime, though, so perhaps Shogo does have it right after all, making you run around out of your mech a lot of the time - I am interested to see how it will turn out). I also think in a mech game, in-engine cut scenes are easier to pull off than in a game where you are a person on foot: if you are looking out through a cockpit, it may be less jarring to turn off the player's inputs for a while as their enemy taunts them, or while something cool happens that you want to make sure they see.
Another high point of the Gundam series is that the suits can usually fly for some amount of time, and a lot of the battles even take place in outer space, against battleships and huge asteroid bases and colonies. This calls for a much different type of gameplay than other mech games have. The hand-to-hand confrontations and general physicality of the mechs are also incredibly important - fighting other mechs with beam swords and smashing through the sides of buildings is crucial, but both almost demand the next level of technology before they are possible (hand to hand fighting can't really be fun until you have discrete enough physics to model the weapons and the parts of the body somewhat, and a really-destructible city environment would just require lots of physics and polygons to handle all the pieces. Supposedly Slave Zero will have some of this, but the fact that in that game you are the giant robot and the whole monster-movie feel of it turn me off - I really like the military aspects of most of your mech anime). The Gundam-like game would most likely end up playing more like an action game than a simulation, because things have to happen very quickly, and sophisticated activities like sword-fighting would be near-impossible to give complete simulated controls to, so it would need to be more automated to allow the engine to create more complicated and anime-like sword fights out of your simple inputs than could happen in a purely-simulated game. This game wouldn't feature any RPG-like character development, instead you would get cooler and more-powerful suits and weapons as the game went along, and you would take them through a series of really different-seeming. dramatic. and innovative missions. The most important facet of a good mech game, in my opinion, is that there should always be distinctive mechs on both sides (this was just about the lamest part of Heavy Gear, which it looks like they've partially addressed in the sequel). There can be some typical cannon-fodder mechs, but I don't like it when they are all treated like tanks, and aren't so unique. I like the hero and the main villains to have special and cool-looking mobile suits/mechs/whatever you want to call them, with special abilities and weapons, and then (for gameplay) a couple fodder suits and tanks for each side, which are what you blow up most of the time - also, distinctive suits let you determine who the leaders of the other side's units are, and taking out leaders can become an important part of the gameplay. This style of game could make for quite fun multiplayer, too - in addition to the multi-character aspect I described for the action-rpg, deathmatch with mechs of quite different abilities and weaponry in environments ranging from deserts to cities to deep space could be a hell of a lot of fun.
I think this already sounds unlike any mech game I've played - nothing published has ever featured much in the way of in-mission plot, or involved intense and pyrotechnical hand-to-hand combat, and I'm doubting that Shogo or Heavy Gear II will feel much different than Quake or Mechwarrior. I really do want a fundamentally different combat gameplay than in either of these games, though I may not have been sufficiently detailed about it here.
So there you have it: hopefully I've gone into enough detail about what I like in games and what I want to do with games to convince you that I wasn't just complaining baselessly in my previous columns. This is not to say that you won't be hearing plenty more fiery rants from me in the future, but keep writing me, and if I ever get the impression from my feedback that I'm not justfiying my points sufficiently well, I'll revisit those columns in a future In Retrospect.
- 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.|