Armchair Designers Episode 1

The first episode of a podcast I’ve been helping to try and put together for a while now is finally out.  Welcome to Armchair Designers where we discuss games, mechanics, and design philosophy, “from the comfort of our armchairs!”  I even made a page for it!

This episode deals with introductions in video games, funnily enough.  The conversation was pretty free-flowing, I will say, and so much more could be said than what’s covered here.  We had a little bit of audio trouble, but it’s nothing serious.  Do pardon us.  We’ll figure this out.  Also, I sound like I’m in desperate need of a speech class all throughout the episode.  I really hate it, and I hope you’ll pardon that as well.  I’ll get better at this sort of thing.

Show notes:

00:01:00

My lengthy introduction.  I’m pretty sure you could shave off a few minutes if you were to cut out all the stuttering and fumbling.  I also expected David to take point here, for some reason, so I felt like I was caught a little off-guard.  I once again plead leniency.

00:14:29

Bel’s introduction.

00:18:32

David’s introduction.  His is almost as long as mine, which made me feel a little better.

00:29:32  Show topic – Introductions in games

Game introductions is a massive topic you could easily dedicate a college course too.  For those interested, Extra Credits has some short episodes devoted to various aspects of introductions alone.

Around the 35 minute mark, David and Bel talk about iterations of a game during its development.  When designing a game, or even shooting a film, you rarely start at the beginning, chronologically speaking.  In the case of filmmaking, you will likely categorize your scenes by location, for example.  So all scenes that take place outdoors will be shot together, and the same applies for the scenes that can be done inside a studio on a set.  Then the actors perform multiple takes until the director gets what he wants–or maybe the film alternate versions of scenes and decide what works best later.  Now for games, you typically need a core concept or mechanic before you start thinking about doing anything else.  Let’s say you’re building Mario.  In a Mario platformer, jumping is your primary mechanic, so you want to make sure the jumping is down pat.  You design your Mario sprite, write code for jumping and its controls, then build a small test level to try everything out.  This is your first iteration.  You jump around and find Mario jumps too high, so you go back tweak the code, then playtest it again.  This time you might notice Mario leaps too far forward, or not enough, or that he’s unwieldy to control, and so on.  With each iteration, you adjust and (hopefully) improve your jumping mechanic until you have it the way you want it.  There are also a plethora of other things you might test as well, but I’m trying to keep this basic.  Once you get your fundamentals down, then you can start thinking about designing actual levels for people to play and teaching them the ropes.

So, of course, when David and Bel are speaking about this, by brain hones in on something completely different and I make a fool of myself.

00:41:09  Tutorials Manuals

00:46:25  Tutorials!

We talk about Portal and Half-Life 2.

00:53:00-ish  I compare Saints Row 2’s opening to those of Saints Row 3 and 4

00:58:00-ish  Morrowind vs Oblivion

Allow me to expand on my claims of Morrowind in the show.  I get that it’s easier for some people to come back from a newer installment to an older one they played beforehand.  I can think of some older games I could go back and enjoy myself.  This still doesn’t change the fact that said older game is still probably clunkier than its contemporaries.

Morrowind is awkward to play by today’s standards.  Movement is painfully slow until you can (eventually) get your Athletics skill up.  The game also has no objective markers, no compass, and a terrible map you can’t usefully read, so finding where you need to go can easily get frustrating.  I wouldn’t mind the lack of fast travel if your initial speed wasn’t so slow, but at least there’s a transit system between major cities.  Then there’s combat.  Spellcasting is the worst.  There is a percent chance to fail your casting, and your skill only goes up if a successful spell hits its target.  Needless to say, starting off as a mage is painful.  Then I realized to my horror that melee combat is not much different.  You can smack an opponent with your weapon all you want, but if the invisible diceroll (based on your skill) says you miss, then too bad for you, it’s a miss.  Yeah, it gets better the higher your skill levels are, but the beginning difficulty curve is noticeably steeper than that of other RPGs.

In Oblivion, if you cast a spell, you cast a spell.  If you see your big stick visibly connect with the target, it’s a hit.  There is no invisible dicerolling crap that conflicts with the actions on screen–why anyone thought that was a good idea in the first place, I have no clue.  Oblivion also has a compass, an objective marker, and a readable map.  It also has fast travel.  And while I understand that some people don’t like it, or feel it conflicts with the exploration aspect, the point is it’s convenient and it’s optional.

Yes, I absolutely agree that Oblivion its share of problems.  The auto-leveling enemies, the menus… we’ll touch on this in our Elder Scrolls episode.  But compared to Morrowind, it’s easier to get into.  Then Skyrim came along, and it made Oblivion’s problems more glaring.  I’m sure TES VI, when it comes, will do the same for V.

01:17:00-ish  Back to Portal

01:19:00-ish  What’s the best way to introduce a new mechanic late into a game?

Other games that didn’t occur to me during recording: adventure or puzzle games, which gradually introduce new puzzles, gadgets, or whatever else as you go alone.  Batman: Arkham Asylum, Legend of Zelda, Darksiders, or Metroid games, to list a few.  Some Assassin’s Creed games also let you use a Piece of Eden to zap everyone around you, as opposed to using your typical weapons or acrobatics.  I’m trying to think if I’ve played a game that does something really off the cuff, but I can’t think of anything.  At any rate, gradually adding new mechanics, one at a time, is generally best.

01:28:00-ish  Do you think the industry would be better or worse off if we went back to manuals over tutorials?

Echoing Bel, I think manuals (we’re talking like the big ones of yore) can still have their place for certain games.  Those with a lot of depth to their mechanics or systems would probably benefit most.  It would be something you technically wouldn’t need to play, but it would enhance or enrich your understanding of the game.  Oblivion had just such a manual that went in depth on the game’s races, character sheets, and so forth.  I found it most useful.  Otherwise, we’re better off keeping to the in-game tutorials strategy in this day and age, so long as they are short, integrated with the play, or skippable.

My silly outburst at the end was a reference to the webcomic, Order of the Stick, where one of the characters fails his stealth roll.

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