Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Game Design Challenge Brainstorming: The Crisis of Credit

Over at Game Career Guide, the biweekly Game Design Challenge is design a game that explains the global credit crisis in a fun way. I've been brainstorming this for a couple hours, and I can't think of a good way to approach it.

First off, there are so many variables involved, it seems difficult to pin the cause of the crisis down. The video they linked breaks it down, but even then there appear to be many causes: the low interest rates made T-bills unappealing and borrowing cheap, which caused lots of speculation and use of leverage. Then the demand for securitized mortgages caused investors to call for more mortgage backed securities, which caused mortgage brokers to offer mortgages to high-risk borrowers, who for the most part defaulted after being led into getting into mortgages they couldn't repay or lying about their income and getting a loan anyway. These defaults led to lots of houses being on the market, and this along with the housing bubble bust caused house values to plummet, which made the mortgage based securities basically worthless.

There's much more to it, but even this simplified version seems hard to turn into a game. I'm still thinking of it from a simulation perspective, and I'm not sure that would work, since it is such a complicated issue. It just seems if you're trying to teach about it, there should be some sort of lesson. And since it's a game, there should be some sort of meaningful choice, some decisions to be made by the player. And who should the player be? An investment banker? A person trying to buy a house? A mortgage broker? Each one of these in turn? Or maybe an omniscient view, where they can see where everything when wrong? What could the player have control over that would be interesting, what interesting decisions could they make from these viewpoints?

I was originally thinking of having the player follow the path of the mortgage, starting as the person buying a house, shopping for a mortgage, seeing their choices, then becoming a mortgage broker trying to sell the mortgages, so on and so forth until they zoomed out and saw the whole picture. But the decisions at each point are basically automatic - do I buy a mortgage based security or not - or really boring - who wants to have to shop for a mortgage in a game? And then what would each of the steps teach you?

Maybe the key is to break the crisis down to the root cause. This cause seems to be a lack of transparency - homeowners didn't know they wouldn't be able to pay back the mortgages, and investors didn't know this either. None of people involved seemed to see the crisis coming, or didn't care as long as they were getting money. So how lack of transparency be a game mechanic? Hiding information in a game is usually frowned upon - it's frustrating because the player doesn't know what's going on. Can that rule be broken for the sake of teaching? And was data really hidden from the actors involved, or did they willingly deceive themselves into thinking it would all be ok? And if that's the case, can a game replicate that same feeling - where you tell yourself everything will be ok, even though it's going to end in disaster?

I'll have to sleep on it. I know there's a solution, I'm just having a hard time brainstorming it. But the process so far has shown me that educational games can be hard - to be able to teach complex subjects through doing, not showing or telling. I can visulize the issue, I could tell someone else about it now, but I'm not sure how to make it into a game. Maybe some research into other educational games is in order.

Friday, May 15, 2009


I finally started a Twitter account(@samuelcom), at the urging of Brenda Brathwaite (@bbrathwaite). Well, she didn't tell me personally, but her blog post did, and I was contemplating it for a while. Don't expect a blow by blow account of my every action, though. You should get one too. Bandwagon, woo!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Brainstorming for a HL2:DM Level

I've started brainstorming for another HL2:DM level, and this excellent article, "Basics of effective FPS encounter design" from Fullbright has helped me frame criticism of my first published level design attempt, dm_light_industrial. Unfortunately, apparently somewhere in the Snarkpit update, the comments were lost, but one that I still remember was that there were too many dead ends - basically that the level didn't flow, and it was a little generic, which I have to agree with. I didn't really understand the too many dead ends comments, but I think I do after reading Steve's post. It's geared more towards single player map design, but it still helped.
His article gives three basic guidelines:
  1. Varied, clustered cover
  2. Circular navigability
  3. Observability
Summed up, hallways make for uninteresting combat areas and there needs to be more than the binary choice of moving forward or back, with alternate paths that encourage both players to take risks, and the players need to be able to see these choices, and start in a position where they can survey the layout and make their decisions.
Unfortunately, I think dm_light_industrial failed in all three concepts to some degree or another. The map is basically hallways, broken up with rooms at the end, with a few hubs. There are quite a few areas that dead end, and I see now these areas are deathtraps, with no way out and no choices besides fighting your way out, which can be frustrating.
Also, there is no central focus to the level, the one "arena" area is too small and too hard to navigate, with very little cover. It needs to be much bigger, with more hiding spots and cover, and pathways all around the outside of the focal point. I think my next attempt needs to include at least one of these arena areas, a lot more cover, no tight hallways, and a compelling theme. I also need to playtest with other players a lot more, I only got a chance to play it with one person, and just that helped quite a bit.
I'll have to brainstorm a bit more, but I will probably have a rough outline sketched up in the near future. If anyone plays the map and has any more tips, I'd be grateful.

PS: Steve Gaynor's "make cool shit and show it off" entry is also worth a read.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Game Design Interview Continued

This would have been nice to have for my interview - Game Job Interview Questions And How to Answer Them. Questions 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9 and 12 came up in mine in some form or another. I think my responses were alright for the most part, but I know I flubbed the "Do you have any questions?" part. I asked what the day to day responsibilities would be for an intern, and I don't think that was specific enough. The article has a list of what look like pretty good questions at the end.

I don't think I was enthusiastic enough in my interview, since the interviewer told me as much in the follow-up email I sent. I think a lot of that was being nervous, which I really shouldn't have been, but I think to improve my confidence, I need to have more completed work. Right now I have three multiplayer maps made. I need some single player content, and just more content in general. I also need to polish up my portfolio website, and more it to it's own domain, but I'll worry about that once I have more content to show off.

I have a plan worked out for this summer to treat building levels and games as a job, scheduling out a time every day to work on something, and that doesn't mean blogging or gaming or surfing the web, it mean mapping or designing quests or writing design documents. This summer is going to be my last block of free time before I start job hunting, so I need to get some work done. My plan right now is to try another HL2 : Deathmatch map first, since I know there's a community for it and I know Hammer and the Source engine pretty well, then something for Fallout 3, to demonstrate my quest design, writing and single player design skills. That should be good for a start, and if I have more time, probably a single player map for Half-Life 2 or a map for Men of War. I'll have more to update on that when I'm done with finals and back home for the summer.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Fallout 3 Thoughts

I've started up Fallout 3 again with a new game, abandoning my first after I actually stumbled upon Vault 112 before I was supposed to. I never bothered to trek to GNR or any of downtown Washington, since I took the Blood Ties quest in Megaton my first playthrough, and that took me out into the wastes instead.

I felt a little cheated skipping over such a big part of the story, I was just exploring and tripped on it, which I think made it a bit more rewarding experience. I was just looking for ammo and stimpacks in an abandoned gas station, and it was a complete surprise to find a fully functional vault in the basement. It felt like I had done all of the work, there wasn't a quest arrow pointing me right to it, even though I did miss out on the storyline missions that led up that far.

But having now played the part I skipped, I don't think I missed out on that much. The city feels artificial and claustrophobic compared to the wasteland. The convenient rubble piles that block the city streets pop up way too often, dividing the city up into pockets of gameplay, with the Metro interlinking it all. I understand why the blocks are there, to keep the "fun per square inch" up and avoid players getting easily lost and bored in featureless ruins, and it does keep the game well paced. But it breaks the immersion every time I run into them, kind of like the wire fences in Stalker. I don't know that there's anything that could be done to fix that, it's part of the locked door syndrome that every game seems to have to some degree.

But the way the city areas are implemented in Fallout 3, it makes it hard to navigate without the ever-present quest arrows showing you the way. It removes some of the incentive to explore when there's something telling you exactly where you need to go, there aren't many incentives to wander off the set path if you're on a quest. This could be fixed - there aren't enough visible landmarks, which is kind of funny to say about Washington, D.C. But there's no way to just look around and know where you are or where your destination is. The Washington Monument could be a direct analog to the Citadel in Half-Life 2, a constant reminder of where the player is and where they need to go. A minor thing, but I think it could have helped a lot with immersion, being able to place yourself without opening the Pip-Boy 3000 and puzzling through the map.

On more of a theme/style note, Fallout 3 aims for a cartoonish, pulp comic, retro future feel when it's at its best - over the top bloody slowmo deaths in VATS that somehow never get old, cars exploding in mini-mushroom clouds, giant fire breathing ants - where it falls down is when it tries to be serious or make the player really care about the characters. I can't think of a single person in the game I can identify with. Not the inhabitants of Vault 101 and the barely believable Tunnel Snakes, not my in-game father with his phoned in lines, even the captives of the mutants are hard to relate to - I freed one only to have her run directly into another mutant camp and have her head blown off.

I think there are a variety of reasons I'm apathetic about the characters in Fallout 3. The mediocre to downright terrible voice acting - the combat taunts are unintentionally hilarious at first, then just grinding on the ears. Then there are the dialog options I'm given, which are really shallow. There's either "I love you and I'd love to help!" or "Fuck you!" without a whole lot of middle ground options or alternatives.

It's been a while since I've played the original Fallout, but I remember the characters being a lot more engaging, with deeper motivations, and more choice as to how quests turned out. It could jut be fuzzy memory, but I felt like I had more power and responsibility in the original Fallout. There was an entire vault at stake, that their lives depended on me, and I was told that from the start, with a deadline every time I opened my PipBoy, a handwritten note tracking the days of water left in Vault 13.

There's no such driving force in Fallout 3. My father is gone, I have to go find him because someone I've seen twice before with no authority says so, because I'm going to be killed by a character I saw for ten seconds earlier in the game. There's a negative goal: survive, but no overarching goal besides following my father. I'm following in someone else's footsteps, just like the title of one of the quests: but it's hard to feel like you're very important when your father has been to all of these places before. You're almost a supporting character. Even when you find your father and escort him back, he can't die, he can only faint. He could have basically done this himself.

The story of Fallout 3 doesn't put the player in a position to feel powerful, with the father's accomplishments looming over you. Maybe I'm reading too much into that, but I think it's part of it. There's nothing wrong with not making the player all powerful, and it gets boring being the only force changing the landscape in a open world RPG, but you're given very little power in the current game. You do errands for any Joe Blow that asks, the key characters are unkillable (unlike you), and almost all of the quests amount to glorified package delivery.

I don't want anyone to get the impression that I don't like the game - I've put more than 20 hours into two separate (partial) playthroughs, and I've enjoyed the exploration part, but none of the quests have been that rewarding. I've had to make my own fun, but the game allows for that. It's a sandbox to play in, and it's a big sandbox - I haven't even seen a quarter of the locations. I'll probably come back to Fallout 3, once I've seen the ending and the rest of the main quest myself.

I'm also considering starting a small mod, adding in a new dungeon. I need a portfolio piece, and Fallout 3 has a powerful, easy to use toolkit, so hopefully I'll have something to show soon.