Monday, November 20, 2006

Steal This Game Design: Harry the Fridge Repairman


Harry the Fridge Repairman:

Cold Day in Hell


The Story

Harry is the best fridge repairman you've ever met. He knows everything there is to know about refrigerators and freezers. After months of tinkering, his freeze gun is finally complete: it might look like a flamethrower, but it shoots out the coldest air ever. It'll freeze you to the bone before you even realize it!

After shopping his freeze gun to various companies, even the military, Harry throws his prototype in the closet and forgets about it for a couple of months.

Until a crack opens in his backyard, and he sees lava pouring out, along with all sorts of demonic-looking, devilish things that start turning his neighborhood into a place worthy of their presence. Harry gets pissed-off, remembers his freeze gun, straps on two large tanks of refrigeration gas, and starts going after the demons, freezing up the lava as he goes along.

Turns out the demons don't like the cold! Who'd'a thunk it? After single-handedly saving his town from a demonic invasion, he goes down into the crack, with the whole neighborhood cheering him on.

"When will you be back, Harry?" asks his next-door neighbor's little girl.
"When hell is frozen over, Lucy, when hell is frozen over."

Then he jumps in.

Gameplay

The game is played from a somewhat standard 3rd-person 3D platformer perspective. Harry's moves are halfway between realistic and cartoony: exaggerated, but not entirely unrealistic.

Harry can jump, walk around, run around, and shoot his freeze gun in three different ways:
  • the gun quickly condenses water from the air, freezes it, and shoots it really fast using compressed, super-cooled air. This is used to shoot down demons, or hit specific targets with some force. Uses a very small amount of refrigeration gas.
  • the gun shoots a short burst of super-cooled air, which can cool down a small target, like a platform, or stun an enemy. Uses about twice as much gas as an ice bullet shot.
  • the gun shoots a continuous stream of very cold air. This will keep enemies away for a while, freeze lava pools and lava flows, and temporarily cool off the air in places where it's too hot for Harry to breathe. This mode can also be used to propel Harry or slow his fall, if pointed down. Maneuverability is limited, however. This mode uses up a lot of gas and should not be used too often.
Fortunately for Harry, there are some "veins" of coolant gas trapped in some walls in the caves that Harry goes through. Harry can use those to refill his tanks. Harry might also get help from "above", but this only happens rarely, and at specific moments.

The game is played in stages, with the first quarter or so of the game happening above ground, in Harry's neighborhood, and the rest happening deeper and deeper down in hell, with a boss "fight" every few stages, which must be fought by judiciously using the freeze gun, and a final battle with Satan himself.

Graphics and Visual Presentation

The neighborhood should look realistic, but also like an exaggerated version of suburbia, as seen in many Hollywood movies. All the characters Harry meets are clich├ęs from the common Hollywood vision of suburbs.

Once Harry jumps down the crack, environments tend to use a red-yellow-black color scheme. On cooler walls, stones of other colors are sometimes visible, and in particular, bluish walls tend to hide veins of trapped coolant gas that Harry can harvest.

The demons themselves vary greatly in size and style, from small little imps, some of which can fly, to huge fat purple beasts that shoot napalm slime at you. Each demon type has its quirks, strengths and weaknesses.

Humor

While this game may look somewhat realistic, it should always feel a little over-the-top. Harry is a hardass who always has an ice- or cold-related one-liner ready. The demons all have quirky personalities: some will be sneaky, some are more likely to charge straight at Harry, and some others will band together and try to surround him. Some are particularly stupid, which should help create lots of funny little moments in the game.

The game should also have a physics engine that exaggerates the consequences of some actions. For example, some rocks can be shot at, causing them to tumble down and bounce around, possibly flattening a few demons in the process. When such a flattening happens, a cartoony "splat" sound is heard.

Damned Souls

In some areas, Harry will meet damned souls, doing slave work. It's his choice whether he decides to free them or not, but this choice will have consequences later on in the game: for example, souls he frees might give him some useful tips, or they might double-cross him, and some souls might help him during boss fights, but some may turn into nuisances during those same fights.

Puzzles

In order to get around in hell, Harry will have to figure out how to get past some burning hot obstacles, such as lava rivers, burning-hot floors, and so forth. Harry will have to figure out what he can cool off with his gun (some lava rivers, for instance, flow too fast to cool off) and find breakable walls, rocks that might tumble down when shot at, and so forth.

Combined with those cold-related puzzles, Harry will also face interesting jumping puzzles, which will sometimes require the use of the freeze gun's hover mode.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Video Games (and) Violence

It's funny, just a few hours after I put up a game idea that's potentially extremely violent and controversial, I find this Boondocks strip, which encapsulates many of my feelings on all the controversy that surrounds video game violence these days.

I don't think I could have put it any better myself.

Updated on Jan. 10: the old link didn't work anymore, changed to a link that should hopefully stay valid for a longer time.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Steal This Game Design: Serial

A very controversial, decidedly adults-only type of game, this week. Another possible title could be "The Kill". If you are averse to casually or even clinically discussing the killing of another person, even if it's only in a fictional setting, like a book or a movie, then I would suggest you avoid reading the game concept below.

Serial

Serial is a game about a serial killer, ideally played by multiple players. It's a kind of macabre and more vivid version of the classic board game "Clue".

When the game starts, each player selects a character template (including the character's gender, appearance, and some basic background information, such as a job), three skills, three hobbies or special interests, and two faults. One of these players is then secretly told that he or she is the serial killer.

The game is played from a first-person perspective, switching to third person when necessary to better show what's happening (such as when the serial killer does his thing.) The players all start separated from each other, in a large but enclosed space, such as a large building. There can be other characters in the environment who are AI-controlled.

The Killer

The killer has a somewhat skewed perspective (such as fish-eye, or tunnel-vision) and can't just kill anyone he or she sees. Instead, the killer gets a tightening of the view, or the view turning red, accompanied by a noticeable increase in heartbeat when he or she sees a target. If there are fewer than 10 people (players and NPCs) in the area, only one target is designated at a time. If there are more, between 1 in 10 to 1 in 20 are designated as targets. The first target(s) is (are) chosen by linking some of the characteristics the players chose at the beginning: for example, if a player likes baseball, and the killer does as well (or absolutely hates it!) there is a chance that the first target will be that baseball fan.

The killer must then kill the target without the other players and characters realizing it, using the environment to lure the target away, or destroying the environment in order to block off certain passages. Various objects lying around can also be used as tools or as weapons, but to get the maximum score for a kill, the killer must find the "fetish" weapon, which is highlighted in a similar way as the target, when the killer sees it. To keep using the baseball example, the killer's fetish weapon might be a baseball bat, or it could also be an automatic ball launcher (like the ones used for batting practice) that the killer tweaks to throw balls harder and faster.

After the killer completes the first kill, another target is designated. The killer's goal is to complete as many kills as possible before getting caught.

The killer need not betray him- or herself: the best players will be able to act like they're part of the group of the other players, and not cause any suspicion.

The Potential Victims

The other players must use their talents to manipulate the environment and find the killer before he or she kills (or kills again...) Some characters will have talents that let them manipulate things others can't. For example, some weapons will only be usable by some characters, whereas others might know how to fix an electical panel to restore the lights, or open a mechanical door.

Some paranoid players might end up killing innocent characters. Others might decide to just find a place to hide and wait things out, because when you get killed, you lose all your points. Players who survive until the killer is caught or killed get points according to how long they've survived, while the player who captures or kills the killer gets more points.

Multiple Matches

The game becomes most fun when the same group of players stays through multiple matches (each match lasts until the killer is caught/killed or everyone else dies) with the killer role moving randomly from player to player between matches.

Points are accumulated between matches.

Graphics and Visual Presentation

Creepy and macabre should be the main keywords. Lighting should be moody and mysterious, environments should be inspired by the creepiest horror movies, as should the places chosen for the various possible scenarios.

Wounds on characters should be as realistic as possible: ideally, they should appear precisely where they were dealt. There is no "life bar": painful wounds cause red flashes or momentary blackouts, bloody wounds bleed until something is done to reduce the bleeding, and while bleeding continues, the character gradually turns paler until loss of consciousness happens. Basically, you don't accumulate hits until you die, instead, you risk dying if you're hurt badly enough, and some wounds cause you to "function" worse than normal. A character's health should be visible by simply looking at the character in the game, and for the player playing the wounded character, the consequences of the wounds should be obvious when moving or trying to do things.

Communication Between Players

If the game is played over a network that permits voice communication, the only possibility is "in-character" communication: this means that you can only talk to players that would be able to hear you in the game (i.e. within earshot). In a few cases, phones, intercoms or walkie-talkies might be available, but they will have to be manipulated realistically to be used. For example, if a pair of walkie-talkies is found, maybe the group might split up and have someone in each group designated to manipulate the walkie-talkie.

Characters can also scream, which will let their voices carry more, but not necessarily across the whole environment.

Bad Taste

This would likely be a very controversial game. In the end, the "vibe" in the game should be as close as possible to the best movies in the thriller, horror or creepy science-fiction genres. Things should be kept realistic, but always with the idea of keeping maximum impact (real life is rarely this creepy or dramatic.)

At every level, the game should be close enough to the movies in such a way that anyone who would condemn this game would automatically condemn the corresponding movies.

Additional Ideas
  • More than one killer. Do they have to work together, or against each other?
  • All killers: the players don't know it at the start, but they're all killers. They still get targets, and they must still try to behave "normally" so they don't get "caught".
  • Giving the "potential victims" a way out: if all the survivors can escape the place they're in without the killer escaping with them, they get a bonus. But it helps if the players can figure out who the killer is, first...
  • Adding in some fantasy, occult or sci-fi elements:
    • fantasy, as in trolls, vampires, werewolves, zombies, and fantasy-style magic,
    • occult, as in spirits, poltergeists and other ghosts, possession, demons, and occult-style magic
    • sci-fi, as in aliens, mutants, dimensional gates, teleportation, ray guns, bizarre gravity effects, energy force fields...

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

How will Wii change game design?

Gamers, these days, are polarizing between two opinions on the future of video games.

There are the hardcore gamers, who became good at a few particular genres to the point where the games in that genre now have completely solidified conventions, with developers in those genres afraid of deviating or innovating too much on those conventions in order to avoid alienating their core audience. This segment of the gamer population tends to be comfortable with either a standard gamepad or, in case of PC gamers, a keyboard and a mouse. Since the hardcore segment is currently the one most likely to adopt improved technology, earlier in a product cycle, they are the people who have been targeted most heavily in the past ten years or so. These gamers tend to specialize in certain genres, like RTS, FPS, MMORPGs, and so forth. They will be experts at a particular game (Quake, Counterstrike, Unreal Tournament, Starcraft, Warcraft, Command & Conquer, Everquest, World of Warcraft) and have very little interest for the games lying outside of their genre of choice.

Then, there are the enthusiasts, who will occasionally play games that were created for hardcore gamers and enjoy themselves, although they will always be aware of being inferior in ability to the hardcore gamers. What these enthusiasts have found, though, is that they can easily have fun with many different games, regardless of genre. These are the people who are most likely to be excited at the idea of a new game type, or a new approach to an old type of game. These are the people who have been having fun with the Nintendo DS since its launch, who got that instead of a PSP because they expected the PSP to just play the same old games they were already playing on other systems. They are the people who enjoy quirky games like Katamari Damacy, Nintendogs or Wario Ware.

Naturally, many gamers fit somewhere in-between these two extremes, but I've seen the polarization happening since around the launch of the DS, and it has progressed at an accelerated rate since about a year ago, when Nintendo and Sony both revealed many of the main characteristics of the Wii (then still code-named Revolution) and PS3, while Microsoft released its XBox 360. Gamers everywhere started declaring their allegiance to one system or another, sometimes through logical arguments, but often with emotional fanboyism.

We've all heard that Nintendo is trying to target a completely new group of people with the Wii, in order for the gamer audience to grow substantially. Meanwhile, Sony and Microsoft are fighting for the same core group of gamers which isn't really growing all that fast, with new gamers entering the market at about the same rate as older gamers are cutting down on their habit, as real life catches up with them.

Nintendo realized that, to entice casual gamers and non-gamers to play more video games, a few things needed to happen:
  1. the controls needed to be simplified, and made more intuitive. This has already been demonstrated with the DS and its Touch Generation games, and is at the core of the new Wii-mote controllers.
  2. games and gaming had to be made less threatening, especially with all the current violence trends in hardcore games. So games like Nintendogs, Brain Age, and Wario Ware were created, and had major success. If a game is easy to get into, and doesn't alienate most people who aren't already big gamers, it has more of a chance to succeed with the new group.
  3. the games had to be fun, regardless of the initial talent or ability of the player. Hardcore games tend not to be much fun for newbies; ask anyone who's ever tried to get into Counterstrike and gave up after a few tries. Even though the game was popular, its community quickly became hermetic, making it hard for newbies to enter and learn how to play well, as the game itself had a steep learning curve. Contrast that with Wario Ware on the Gamecube, which can be picked up by almost anyone, and even the players who aren't as good will find the game exciting and fun, and because of that, these players are more likely to climb the learning curve up to a point where they're competitive.
So, what's going to happen to game design, when Wii proves that it can reach more people through its innovations? That's the revolution in the console's codename.

We'll see more and more games that use as simple a control scheme as possible, using as few distinct buttons as possible. Most of the gestures the Wii-mote recognizes will be the movements that come naturally to most people. For example, jerk the controller upward to jump, swing it like a racket to hit a tennis ball, point it at the screen to select or shoot something... Even the more complex gestures will seem easier to perform than all the special moves fighting game fans have become used to, which most casual gamers can't perform.

We'll still see some violent games, as that still has a wide appeal, but the shelves won't seem to be filled with such games quite as much as before. Less violent games are now less likely to use violent or sexy imagery on their covers or in their advertising, and there will be more focus on showing that the games are actually fun and easy to get into. The games that don't do this will just hit the same old gamer audience and rarely reach anyone outside of it.

More games will have smoother learning curves, and more people are going to have fun playing games, possibly with fewer thrown controllers and frustrated gamers. Some gamers are going to complain that games are getting easier, but in the end, the games will be more fun, and there will be more people playing them, so that all those hardcore games which many casual gamers find much too challenging to enjoy will start to sell less in comparison to games where it's easy to get far into the game without having to replay the same little bit dozens of times to get it perfect. Games that wish to keep the hardcore gamers in their audience, while appealing to the the rest of the now expanded group of all gamers, will instead place some very special challenges into the games for those who want a more intense challenge. An early example of this can be found in Super Metroid: the game isn't that hard, and most gamers who played the game didn't have that much trouble completing it, but finishing the game with 100% item collection, and in under two hours got the "best" ending, even though it wasn't much different from the other endings.

The last, big consequence of the Wii release is that developers will be forced to innovate, simply because the old control schemes won't work without some retooling, and because most good game designers will see the potential to make their games more intuitive. This innovation may temporarily alienate part of the hardcore audience, but these people will join back in once they have a chance to play the games.

After all, even hardcore gamers just wanna have fun.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Steal This Game Design: Voices


This week, I bring you an idea that's less defined, but which seems rich in possibilities:


Voices

This is a new kind of role-playing game. Note that in this case, I won't use the RPG abbreviation, because the gameplay will be very different from most popular RPGs, with the possible exception of the Shenmue series.

The player directly controls the main character, with the more-or-less standard controls found in most third-person 3D platformers, action games and other action RPGs. There are no character stats per se, but the player can create the appearance they want for their character (male or female) with one restriction: the character has recently reached the age of 18, and is now responsible for his or her actions in the game world.

The game world itself is essentially based on the present-day real world, with NPCs acting and reacting realistically (as much as the game engine will permit, anyway.)

The twist is that, after waking up one morning, the player's character starts hearing voices in his or her head. At first, the voices don't seem to mean anything (either they're gibberish, or they just don't apply to what's happening, and are just mysterious) so all the player has to do is complete mundane tasks in order to proceed through the day.

The player is free to do anything his character could realistically do in the real world, but not accomplishing some of the main tasks will prevent the story from moving forwards, and some extreme actions (like killing someone, or stealing certain things) could result in an end to the game.

After certain tasks are completed, the voices start telling the player to do certain things. The player is free to decide whether to do these things or not. Sometimes, acting on the voices' demands will lead to benefits to the player, who might get money, stuff, or meet someone new, and sometimes, acting on the voices' orders will lead to negative events. Not doing what the voices demand has equally (seemingly) random consequences.

As the game progresses, the player can decide on the following possible paths:

  1. Try to live a normal life, despite the voices.
  2. Try to find out the reason, the source of the voices
  3. Give him- or herself over to the voices completely (doing everything the voices ask for)
  4. Only do the things that the voices request that seem like good actions (with sometimes negative results)
  5. Only do the things that the voices request that seem like bad actions (again with sometimes positive or negative results)
Each of these paths should eventually lead to an interesting, at least partially fulfilling conclusion. Changing streams in mid-game will cause the game to last longer, but can also introduce confusing inconsistencies, which might confuse the player, and it will then be harder to reach one of the game endings.

Sometimes, the voices will seem to reveal NPC secrets, or know things no one should know, making it seem like the player has telepathy. Other times, the voices will be intentionally misleading.

The game will keep track of the player's finances, which are small at the beginning, as the player starts out with a menial job that pays minimum wage, but lives with his or her mom in a small but comfortable appartment. As the game progresses, the player's actions will affect these finances, and may cause them to balloon up or disappear almost entirely.

The attitude and reactions of the NPCs around the main character will also evolve throughout the game. If the character starts doing too many bizarre things, he or she will probably be avoided by everyone. On the other hand, if the player starts doing many good things, helping people, possibly saving lives, he or she may find him- or herself being propped up as a hero, or even a superhero.

In general, the player's character will be free to move anywhere, but with the normal limitations of the real world: many locked doors, breaking a window to enter somewhere you're not meant to leading to arrest (and Game Over) and so forth. But a large part of the city in which the game happens will be accessible, with interesting things to see, hear and do.




I'm certainly not going to reveal the 5 possible endings or any of the major plot points here, as that's not really the aim of this blog, but if anyone is interested in this game idea, and has the means to make such a game, I'd certainly like to discuss the story in more detail with you.