Monday, 19 April 2010

Bittersweet Symphony

As a preface I must clarify that I applaud developers for trying out new things, however so long as these "new things" work. By "work" I mean that they either fit the franchise or genre they are inserted into, or that they don't impede on the games overall transmission of fun, and in Splinter Cell: Convictions case, Ubisoft Montreal (the team behind the good ones) are massively guilty of ignoring the former.

This isn't Splinter Cell as you may know it.

To an outsider like myself it appears the team in Montreal sat down together during a pivotal moment in Convictions publicly troubled development cycle and watched the Bourne trilogy with their pants off. During this seminal moment they came so hard whilst watching Matt Damon that they decided to forgo all inroads the previous Splinter Cells had made into the stealth genre and made... an action game. Sam Fisher no longer asks questions, he no longer dispatches enemies from the shadows with a disabling blow to the head, he whips out a pistol an tears shit up. For all intensive purposes they may as well have called it Jason Bourne: Conviction.

After killing someone with your bear hands, you then get the ability to mark a bunch of enemies. Do you get excited in films when the protagonist enters a room only to dispatch 10 guys with a single, concise bullet to the brain? Well if you do you're going to love conviction. As much as it often feels like cheating there is no denying the mark and execute mechanic empowers the player and makes you feel like Jack Bauer's illegitimate son. This is the perfect example of everything wrong about the game, although at times it may be heaps of fun, it is not what it says on the cover, it is not Splinter Cell.

See this is one example from a long list of the changes made to conviction. You no longer need to sneak around. You no longer have to shoot out lights. You no longer have to move bodies. And while on paper these changes sound like good things, which in many ways they are, they are equally something completely different to Splinter Cells ethos. They are like putting jelly in a kebab, completely wrong.

As much as I wanted to love Conviction, and as much as I enjoyed it, I will not call it Splinter Cell.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

By Design

Have you ever had the displeasure of sitting through a traffic jam, only to realise when it clears that there was no discernible cause? Well, whilst watching The One Show, Adrian Chiles and his permanently hollow face took the time to explain this phenomenon known colloquially as the phantom traffic jam.

What actually happens, interestingly, is that as the motorway twists and curls endlessly to it's destination, the cars travelling swiftly upon it aren't moving at equal velocities, causing vehicles to slow down at certain points to accommodate other driver's unique traits and average speeds. This inconsistency in speed sends a rippling effect backwards down the motorway as all vehicles must bunch to prevent mass collision following the sudden halt in parallel proceedings, catalysing the phantom traffic jam.

Now, follow me into the most uncomfortable of metaphors. Imagine the motorway is actually the fun a video game transmits to its audience, the smoother the journey, the more fun the player receives. Each small detail such as an inconsistency in speed can have a rippling effect, leading to a metaphorical traffic jam, preventing the player from having a "fun" experience.

It is these philosophies that the most successful designers apply to their video games, most notably Bungie. Bungie are a studio that don't just aim to prevent traffic jams, they delicately measure the road surface to ensure a smooth journey, and erect signs to subliminally guide players on their way, in a direction they didn't even intend to travel. They are the masters of "fun" game design, the "pukka pies" of game studios: no compromise.

What better way to illustrate my point, apart from a fucking motorway metaphor, than a pdf file.

In Bungie land, changing the intermission between each shot with the Sniper Rifle from 0.5 seconds to 0.7 is enough to keep the motorway in a constant flow of "fun". The above PDF details Bungie's lead gameplay designer Jamie Griesemer's philosophy of breaking game design down to micro levels of detail, each of which build up to form one fun experience.

In the PDF Griesemer refers to the Bungie trademarked "30 seconds of fun" gameplay loop that if correctly utilised can keep providing audiences with gratifications in a continuous cycle. Referring back to the motorway metaphor, if the traffic keeps stalling then the driver is more likely to take the next exit, or in Bungie's case switch to a different game altogether. And it is Griesemer's job as Lead Gameplay Designer to keep the audience playing, at any cost.

In a recent Bungie podcast, when asked about the change in FOV (the players field of view) for Bungie's latest title, Sandbox designer Sage Merril discussed the many aspects that have to be considered when changing a shooters FOV, aspects that to me the ignorant player, had never crossed my mind. Firstly there is scale, what goes unnoticed in first person shooters is that the scale of the environments have to appear correctly within the players field of view, whilst also matching up to other minute elements of the game, such as grenade arc and line of sight. The field of view can also change a player's perception of speed, changing the entire pace of a game, a potentially catastrophic accident waiting to happen if not properly balanced.

By balancing these minute details, Bungie are able to stay rooted at the forefront of the first person shooter genre today, as it is these design philosophies and details which prevail above all else to keep the player engaged within the game. Fancy graphics and experience points may be a tasty substitute but they are no match for good old fashioned fun.