Archive for the 'features' Category

Design stream.

Jun 05 2012 Published by under features

The following is a stream of consciousness written down on my tablet as I am trying to solve a design problem I was having with Bientôt l’été. I do this regularly throughout the production process. Sometimes for concrete programming issues, sometimes for aesthetic questions, and sometimes for design problems. After the problem is solved, I erase these streams -they are usually written down in a wiki, often as part of my to do list.

I’m not sure if this will make a lot of sense to anyone who hasn’t played the game in its current form. So here’s a short description of the relevant activity.

Currently, in the game, the sea waves drop items on the beach. Most of these are quotes from Duras novels (called “Thoughts” in the game) and some are small objects (called “Things” in the game, some come straight from Vanitas, others are chess pieces, and there’s a flower, and I had plans for shells, pebbles, etc). You can collect each of these items by standing close to it and closing your eyes for a few seconds, during which time the item is shown large on screen and becomes clearer (considered to be “focusing”). Then the items are stored in an inventory that you can see any time you close your eyes: Things on the left, Thoughts on the right. You can collect 16 of each (the number of pieces needed by one player for chess) When you enter the café, the Things fall into a drawer on the left side of the table and the Thoughts appear as buttons. You can click a Thought button to speak the phrase and you can drag the Things onto the table.
Every time you exit the café an “Apparition” can be found somewhere outside. This is an object or environment feature that just stands there, in complete isolation. When you walk up to it, you can collect an item from it that you cannot find anywhere else. After you do, the Apparition disappears. There is only ever a single apparition per exterior play session.

Bientôt design issue

Sea drops items on beach
Closing eyes

Neither here nor there:
Control of the avatar


Collecting becomes about the activity, not about the item that is being collected. This item is the content of the game. The most important thing. What the game is about. The words of Duras. Love. Difficult love. Loneliness.

We need those words and objects in the café.
But players should not just fill their pockets. They should consider carefully which they want to bring.

Is sixteen too many?

The current interface invites to close the eyes to really see an object. As they are hard too see in the world. But when you do this, you are already collecting.

Do we require an extra action to effectively collect the focused item? Almost like a “like” button.

We could instead focus the closest item automatically when standing still. And then you simply blink to collect it. Bit like eating. But that’s ok. Visually translucent overlays might work great with the texts. But showing the objects in the middle of the screen, over the avatar will look weird. Unless maybe very faint?

Are Things and Thoughts collected differently?

Careful choosing only applies to the texts. The objects are fairly random and don’t even require focus.

Can we allow the character to go pick up an object independently when the player “lets go”? Though less directed as in The Path. More as part of idle behavior.
(though many players may want to do this on purpose)

Focused text would be shown larger.
Can we increase the size of the in-game object, surreal-wise?
You might be standing too close to it to see, though.

Unless we change the camera.
More independent from the character.
The camera could fly up and look down. Would make the text readable. But the object is too small.

Or we remove the Things and have only Thoughts.
But playing with Things in interior is fun.
Is that enough though? Given that the game would become clearer, more extreme and easier with only text.
Things allow for chess to happen. As if anyone will do that. Maybe that could be a separate game. Or an extra multiplayer mode. Chess pieces could already be set up.
Can’t we do this in optional DLC?

Think of Jeff Noon’s fog catchers: carefully plucking vague texts from the winds.

I have to remove the collecting activity. It is too easy to interpret it as a typical play activity, which will ruin the mood for people with gamer reflex.
Maybe it’s more like an accumulation of impressions. And it happens automatically. The words fill your head. Maybe they’re not even arranged neatly. Just a jumble of texts that are only sorted out at the café table.
As for the objects, maybe there is only ever one per session. Maybe only the Apparition objects. And there’s 16 Apparitions. These could be collected through “let go”. And you never lose them. Maybe they are chess pieces.
And you still need to go walk at the sea shore to let the wind fill your head with thoughts. Maybe these thoughts literally stick on the screen and even obscure your vision. Or at least the borders of the screen.
Get rid of the inventory. You only see your collection in the café.

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Being, not doing.

Jun 04 2012 Published by under features

I’m beginning to disagree with something we wrote in the Realtime Art Manifesto in 2006. Namely to “Make the activity that the user spends most time doing the most interesting one in the game”.

Well, I don’t actually disagree with the sentiment, but more with the phrasing, or with my interpretation of it. That phrase was written mostly in response to the mind-numbing repetitive actions many games force you to do, and to the requirement in other games, to walk long distances from one event to another, without anything interesting happening on the way.

The mistake I made was to believe that what you do in a videogame is the most important thing. Possibly influenced by Chris Crawford who seems to believe that the more verbs there are in a game, the better the game is. And despite of the small amount of actions that the player can do in most games (typically to run, to jump, to shoot, and that’s it), the games industry mostly agrees with Crawford on this point: it’s all about what you do, about the action, about inter-activity. They just see no harm in repetition.

We’ve always contrasted “being” with “seeing” in favor of being in a videogame. This in relation to an aesthetic approach that favors a multi-sensory feeling of realism over photo-realistic graphics. But I’m starting to think we should also contrast “being” with “doing”.

I’ll admit slightly embarrassed that this realization really hit me when trying to understand why Journey, Dear Esther and Proteus are more widely critically recognized than our own work, despite of sharing many philosophical points and even being influenced by our work (at least in the case of Journey). When Dan Pinchbeck complained about picking flowers in The Path, my initial response was simply “Well, you’re doing it wrong. You’re one of those typical gamers who ruins the experience for himself.” but then I started thinking “Is there any way I can help such players to do it right?

And the key can be found in Dan’s own piece “Dear Esther“, but also in “Journey” and “Proteus“. There is practically nothing to do in neither of the three (as somebody pointed out recently). Once in a while something happens in the game world but most of the time, you’re just moving around. This activity is so low in intensity that it allows and encourages the player to enjoy the environment. And this is actually how you’re supposed to play our games too. And how I play them. And how I’m sure many people do. But for some stupid reason, we have always put these things to do in our games, even if we don’t particularly care about doing them. I think we were just afraid to leave the player to their own devices.

It started with our very first project “8“. We cared mostly about the world and the characters and the atmosphere. When we realized that the sort of puzzles we came up with were rather trite, we just outsourced the game design and hired Chris Bateman to help us. He came up with a wonderful concept that we would have implemented had we found the funding for the production. But in hindsight, I guess I’m glad we didn’t. The new version of 8 that Auriea is now working on, is actually much better. There’s no puzzles in it at all. And indeed, most of the time, you’re just going places.

Both Journey and Dear Esther have a single goal. Very literally a point that you are walking towards. The path towards this goal is so long, however, that the player stops obsessing over it (which is always the thing that ruins the experience). Once in a while seeing the light in the distance reminds you of some vague reason why you are in this world, and then you stop thinking about it (there’s not much to think about: it’s a mystery). Even the puzzles in Journey, while they do feel a bit out of place, are quickly forgotten through the visual splendor and the narrative progression that they unlock. The emotions brought on by the aesthetic experience wipe away any game-specific emotions the player might have had.

I guess The Graveyard is the only game of ours with a similar structure. In The Path there’s flowers to pick, memories to collect through interactions with objects, and a sort of boss rounds even when encountering wolves. In Fatale, you have to extinguish all these lights. It’s symbolic sure, but it’s also a lot of work for the player.

We have this fascination with objects. We like stuff. We are interested in how people relate to objects, in how dear some objects are to people, in how people attribute meaning to objects. In our most object-centric game, Vanitas, I clearly remember thinking of all sorts of interactions we could do with these objects. Luckily there was no time to implement these, so we just made a box with stuff in it.

In Bientôt l’été, there’s also a bunch of objects. And you collect them. And now I’m thinking that this is wrong. I can feel how it is really demanding for the player to focus on the object itself, or the text, when doing the “collect” activity. Somehow, the action dominates everything else. So you end up collecting, collecting anything, just picking stuff up, without paying much attention to what the objects are, or reading the text, or taking in the atmosphere of the environment. You’re too busy doing. There’s no time for being.

It seems appropriate to collect things along the shore of the sea, much like it seems appropriate for a dead man to extinguish candles on his way to heaven, or a young girl to pick flowers in the woods. But maybe it’s wrong. Maybe such an activity, or activity as such, distracts from really dealing with the situation you’re in, from really taking it all in, and letting your emotional responses bloom. In real life, grown ups don’t collect shells, in favor of enjoying the experience of wind and noise and light and landscape. Even in The Path, I know I should ignore the flowers in order to get the nice experience of feeling lost in the woods.

But for many others, this is not so easy. If it’s a game, we are eager to do things, we want to inter-act. So if as a designer you don’t want players to do these things, don’t include them in your design. We applied this idea in The Endless Forest: if you don’t want people to fight in your mmo, don’t put in combat, if you don’t want verbal abuse, don’t put in chat (or even readable names), if you don’t want competition, don’t put in puzzles. But somewhere along the line we must have felt that certain activities are perhaps ok. That perhaps it was necessary for people to do things. Or they would be bored.

But doing things can be as boring is not doing anything. It all depends on the context. It’s the nouns and the adjectives that make the difference, not the verbs. It’s not about doing, it’s about being. So now I need to find it in my heart to remove the collecting feature from Bienôt l’été. I’ve felt that it was wrong for some time now. And I have been tweaking it to make it feel better. But now I realize that it is the very fact that you’re doing something, or at least doing so much of something, that is wrong. I need to create more time for doing nothing. And not be afraid that players might be bored.

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Fighting the gamer reflex.

Jun 03 2012 Published by under features

The notgames method is not only a challenge to designers. In many cases it’s also a necessity for creating videogames that are about mood or meaning.

In theory it is simple: avoid typical game activities and structures, and see where this takes you as a designer. In practice, it is harder to do than it sounds. At least for me.

There’s a bunch of typical game activities that I actually like. Collecting for instance. Or clearing a map. If a game offers a pleasant mood next to this, it’s not a problem for me to enjoy it too. If the game’s design permits it, I often take plenty of time not engaged in the game activities.

For other players, however, this is not so easy, as I have witnessed in playtests. They have what I would call gamer reflex. As soon as they discover a game-like activity, they will obsess over it. It will dominate their entire brain and ruin the mood completely and probably prevent them from getting any meaning out of the piece. In many cases, it even destroys their enjoyment.

Sadly, many gamers suffer from this condition, so it’s not something a game designer can ignore. One solution is to design these activities so well that the gamer still enjoys the game (albeit in another way). The other is to remove them completely (the notgames method).

Neither solution comes easy to me. Designing typical play activities is not something I have a talent for. And since I actually enjoy some such activities myself, it’s very hard to avoid having design ideas that involve them. Sometimes I realize far too late that I designed an activity that could be intepreted as a typical play activity by people who suffer from gamer reflex. And so these people go and ruin their own enjoyment and then they tell me that my game sucks.

They are right of course. I need to take their condition into account as a designer. And do what needs to be done, however much it pains me: remove any and all activity that could trigger the gamer reflex.

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Helping is wrong?

May 30 2012 Published by under features

I’m starting to get a bad feeling about adding things to Bientôt l’été in order to help the player. I design activities and interfaces because I think they would be fun to do. But when I think about it, they often don’t make sense. There’s no intuitive reason to do these things, or to do them in the way that I have designed.

So I help people by highlighting things they should pay attention to, visualizing processes so they know what’s going on, and re-designing interfaces to feel more conventional. You know, proper design work. But it’s starting to give me a bad taste in my mouth.

If I need to explain what to do and how to do it, maybe this activity or this interface is just not very interesting. Maybe I should take the need to clarify something as a cue to simply remove the feature. And only keep things that are simple and straightforward. So that people can enjoy the game and concentrate on the content rather than wondering about what to do, then how to do it, and then, unavoidably, why to do it.

Or maybe I’m just being a coward.

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Keyboard only control?

May 25 2012 Published by under features

I’m still working on making the entire game playable through keyboard input only. The keyboard in some ways feels more intimate to me than the mouse. In part because typing is mostly an activity of the finger tips, while using a mouse is something you do with your arm and wrist. So there’s more distance when using the mouse. But also because of the relationship between typing and language. The keys of the keyboard are not just buttons. They represent letters that we can use to form words that we can use to talk to another person.

I worked on the interior scene today, where you pick items to say and drag objects around over the table. The original interface is for the mouse (in part because I’m hoping the release a tablet version of this part of the game at some point). But despite my expectations, playing this scene through the keyboard feels quite well. Dragging objects around by pressing the cursor keys doesn’t feel as natural as doing it with the mouse, but the floating object as I press the key looks strangely magical.

I am always inclined to add as many interfaces as possible. So my instinct is to make the game playable through keyboard, mouse and gamepad. Even all simultaneously. And definitely to include a way to play the game by only using the mouse, without modifier keys: just single hand control.

But I’m not sure if this is the right approach here. Maybe I should choose for one interface and disable the others. To keep the controls clear to the player. For Bientôt l’été, that single interface would have to be the keyboard. But I’m hesitant to throw away the other options.

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Easily pleased.

May 22 2012 Published by under features

I made a tutorial today. For the first time ever. I’m not a fan of tutorials. I’m an old school graphic designer: if you have to explain it, it’s wrong. Though I do realize that what is good for regular design is often the opposite of what is good for game design. Since the latter usually wants to make things more difficult for you and the former easier.

That being said, I’ve had good experiences with helping people along a little in our games. Apparently our work is weird. And unconventional interfaces are just too freaky to deal with for some. Unless we clearly explain things. Then they’re usually ok.

Not that I’m just including instructions for the stubborn. I think giving hints will help all players. Figuring out the controls really isn’t part of the play experience I designed. So there’s a few hints at the bottom of the screen when the game starts. You can ignore them and even turn them off.

I was surprised by how satisfying it feels to do what the game tells you to do. Especially given that the only “reward” you get for it is the next hint. It’s really simple things too. The game will say something like “Walk forward by pressing UP” and then you press up and, lo and behold, the avatar walks forward, and then the game says “Turn left by pressing LEFT.” Etcetera. It’s completely simplistic like that. But somehow it’s fun.

Apparently humans find it fun to follow orders. That must be part of why games can be so addictive. As collections of rules, games are in fact nothing but orders and commands. Surprisingly, a big reward is not even required for satisfaction. Simply the acknowledgement that you executed the command correctly is sufficient. Must be some leftover from when cavemen lived in herds. We feel happy when we do as we’re told.

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Typing in the future.

May 07 2012 Published by under features

Have you noticed how in almost all science fiction movies, computers are operated exclusively through keyboards? Instead of using a mouse, future people just rattle on the keyboard. I presume this is because it makes them look more like hackers.

Something similar may happen in Bientôt l’été. I want at least the main part of the game to be completely controllable with only the keyboard. There’s also going to be things that can be done with the mouse (especially the multiplayer part -the conversation at the café table) and perhaps I’ll throw in a gamepad interface. But you’ll definitely be able to begin playing the game by only using the keyboard.

The game starts with traveling through space, to the space station. So typing your way through the first few scenes, might enhance the feeling of being in a space craft, operating the mouseless computers of the future.

Sometimes, there are buttons on the screen that you can click. But you can also simply type the corresponding key on the button (a letter or an arrow). Next to the button there’s text explaining its function, in the language chosen by the player. It will be your own choice to navigate using the keyboard or not. Much like you will decide yourself how far you will travel in space, before you start playing -the first scene of the game is potentially endless: it generates planets and solar systems as you continue to fly through space.

There’s something very nice about controlling a game through the keyboard alone. In a way it feels more intimate, perhaps because of the association with writing. A mouse feels like an extension of the arm. As a result it keeps things at arm’s length. The cursor should feel like a fingertip but it rarely does. And in a game where you control the entire body of an avatar, mouse control, somehow, doesn’t make much sense.

PS: Only while proofreading this post do I realize how very appropriate a keyboard interface is for a game inspired by the work of a writer.

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Seeing through an avatar.

May 05 2012 Published by under features

In the exterior, single player part of Bientôt l’été, you control the avatar through pretty standard third person navigation. The main activity in this part is collecting items that are washed up on the shore by the waves. Since these items are on the floor and sometimes quite small, they are not so easy to spot. Especially not if the avatar is obstructing your view. They may see the object, but you don’t because they are standing between you and it.

I would find myself always approaching things sort of sideways, rotating the camera around looking for items on the beach. And then it dawned on me: why don’t I just move the avatar to the side, so they’re not in my line of sight?

I had had this idea before, for the new version of 8. But the reason for using it there is to give the player the feeling that they are with the character, as a different person, symbolically holding her hand. That is not what I want in Bientôt l’été. The man or woman need to really be an avatar for the player, to navigate the holodeck through, not another person.

So I made a compromise.

While you’re walking, the camera slowly moves to the side. You hardly notice it, but it does allow a view of what’s ahead. The only tricky part is to snap the camera’s rotation center back to the avatar when turning around it and changing direction. Otherwise the camera makes annoying off center orbits. But it’s working fine. It adds a slightly spinning, sliding feeling that actually goes well with the dizzying effect of staring at the waves float in over the sand.

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A man and a woman.

May 01 2012 Published by under features

I have implemented the first passes of the characters today. Auriea modeled them. They’re not finished yet but it’s good to replace the Woodsman Wolf and Misc Woman X with characters actually designed for the game.

Man and woman we created them. Or Homme and Femme as they are called in the game. They are losely inspired by the main characters in Moderato Cantibile (once played by Belmondo and Moreau in Brook’s 1960 film of the novel by Duras). In the sense that the woman is somewhat upperclass and refined and the man is working class and a bit rough. I also imagine the woman being slightly older than the man.

Their clothing was designed specifically to blow in the sea wind. Not in a gentle summery breeze kind of way, but more like the continuous almost violent tugging that happens at the Atlantic coast. We didn’t replicate any specific design, but Martin Margiela functioned as a reference for the woman’s look and Boris Bidjan Saberi for the man’s. So she’s stylish, but very modern, while he is a bit of a nomad.

Another peculiar thing about their design is that I don’t want their faces to be seen in the game. They have faces but the man wears a scarf and a hood and the woman has big sun glasses on. In the game, they will do their best to look in the same direction as the camera, showing you the back of their heads.

This is the first game we make in which the characters are actually intended to just be avatars. They have no autonomy. But they are not entirely neutral either. They have a personality. But no backstory. They are a man, and a woman.

I have made Twitter accounts for each character (@unHom and @uneFem). Not sure what I will do with those yet. Maybe I’ll find a way to connect them to the multiplayer part of the game.

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Life forms on the holodeck.

Apr 19 2012 Published by under features

Today I have added seagulls to the beach in Bientôt l’été. After careful analysis of the videos we recorded in Trouville, I created a lively bunch of birds, out of just a few simple animations and rudimentary AI.

It helps that seagulls are kind of weird, especially when interacting with the sea. They’re completely unafraid of the water. They hardly budge when a wave rolls in while they’re standing at the shoreline, all together facing the same direction. And when they fly, there’s more soaring on the wind than actual flapping of wings. The latter is even rather rough, not as elegant as other birds.

I wasn’t sure if the seagulls were going to work aesthetically, since the scene is so empty otherwise. But they do.

It’s actually quite interesting, I think. The addition of another life form, next to the avatar -whom you more or less take for granted-, adds a new layer of life to the place. This is especially poignant, I find, when contrasted with the rather overwhelming view of outer space. The seagulls look so small and so fragile. I feel like I must protect them.

Even the fact that they are exposed as an illusion when we realize that the beach scene is playing on a holodeck, has its charm. The gulls are the one living creature we represent in this fantasy, far away from the natural environment we share, our home planet Earth. The memory makes them feel very precious.

There’s something odd going on with Bientot l’été. It’s becoming its own thing, it’s starting to move away from its original inspirations, to become richer. I wonder what it’s trying to tell me.

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