Thursday, 31 March 2011

Changing Games

Dragon Age 2 has upset me.

I really enjoyed the game. Sure, it had its flaws, but on the whole I was very pleased with the changes made since the original Dragon Age Origins. The fact that many fans of the original do not share this opinion would not upset me, but for the ferocity of the hatred these fans have for the sequel.

Dragon Age 2 was met with mixed reviews,
particularly among fans
I can ignore the odd hater or two hundred, but when fans write threads on the developer’s forum with titles requesting the firing of specific senior developers, it gets personal. I can’t even imagine how I would feel if I were one of the individuals being attacked in such threads.

So what have Bioware done to offend their fans so? Changed stuff. Ruthlessly – or so a hater would have it. If somebody feels something is perfect, then before you even tell them what the change is, their default stance is: a change from perfection can only be worse! This has been the case with Dragon Age 2, but the biggest pity is that not only were the changes good (in my opinion)… but they weren’t actually changing the core stuff at all!
Whats curious with change, is how it would have worked the opposite way around – if Dragon Age 2 came out before Dragon Age Origins. I hypothesise (in a statement that could never possibly be disproved) that fans would hate Dragon Age Origins.

So how does one implement change in a game series? Probably the same way you’d implement any change. So I did a search on how to cope with change, and found an iVillage article on this subject. You’d be surprised how applicable many of their tips are to changes in games. So here’s a summary, inspired by that article on how a developer should implement a change to a successful formula.

Football game developers delay planned changes
to deliver just the right amount of familiar and new.
Don't believe me? then you won't have any difficulty
identifying the game (and version) shown above...
Take your time. Thrusting a change onto someone is likely to result in an adverse reaction (see “sink or swim”). Leaving it more than 18 months is a bare minimum for a sequel with lots of change (nudge, nudge Bioware) . Implementing the changes over two or more games is better still, and will allow you to have hooks for the next game in the series. MIKENOTE: FOOTBALL GAMES

Get players on your side. Get them wanting the change: show them there’s good in it. Explain why the new is better than the old. Admitting the old was bad is a double-edged sword: you run the danger of being hostile to your fans’ nostalgia, but doing so often better demonstrates the need for the change. Handle with care.

Avoid Alienation. If you’re implementing a big change, then hang on to familiar aspects so it’s not totally alien. If you want to change so much that nothing is familiar, then take a bold step and give it a new name – if you had to change so much, it’s probably good to avoid the old title!

Some things simply have to be changed. Like this baby.
Don't let unpleasantness stop you.
Divide up the changes. Implementing changes over the course of the first half of the game (rather than all at the start) is great if possible. If not, consider releasing a demo ahead of release with some of the changes shown, provided they reflect the changes very positively.

Accept the changes. Don’t try and hide the changes away or tell players only small changes have been made – you’ll only make the shock greater. You’ve changed stuff for a reason (hopefully), so be confident about the changes.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Characters in Video Games

Utterly absorbed.
Games have an advantage over all other media. That advantage is interactivity. No other entertainment medium offers (demands?) the same level of interaction. Interactivity allows the player to connect with the elements in the game – the world, story and characters. Further than that consumers typically invest a greater span of time in a game than a film, TV episode or book.

But very few games have brought me to tears or thrilled me in the way films or TV can. To connect most deeply with the consumer, the media must nail everything just right. An unbelievable world, an uninteresting story, poor writing or acting – any of these things will break the spell. But one thing games often fail at – and consequently lose their magic – is in creating interesting characters that the player cares about.

Of course, we can make excuses for games – facial animation is still generally unbelievable, the gameplay disconnects the player from the drama, “engaging characters” don’t sell games (directly)… but the simple fact that there are games which have got this right, proves that it can be done.

I can only really list two game characters I connected deeply with. The first is Link’s childhood friend Saria in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of time. The friends part ways in Link’s youth, but even after Link learns to travel through time, he is unable to prevent Saria’s death or even say a final farewell – just her haunting melody echoes through the Kokiri Forest Meadows.

Lost Odyssey delivered short stories with simple pictures
and music to develop the characters
The other character with whom I developed a strong connection was Kaim Argonar from Lost Odyssey (2008). Much of Kaim’s character is revealed in the game’s Thousand Years of Dreams sequences where Kaim remembers things from his past. In these sequences, the player is presented with third-person prose accompanied by simple abstract visual backdrops and music and ambient sounds. Through these “dreams” the player is shown the sword-for-hire mercenary’s sympathetic and caring nature.

Curiously, neither example relies on bleeding-edge visuals or carefully orchestrated cutscenes. Written word and well-pitched audio are the only thing used to develop a connection with the player and enhance the emotional experience. While Kaim’s multifaceted character sustains interest and believable humanity, the simplicity of Link and Saria’s friendship tragedy was enough to pull at my heartstrings without overdeveloping the characters’ depth.

Poor Maximus never wanted to mutilate all those gladiators,
he just wanted to get touchy feely with the corn.
Call it macabre, but few things get the emotional response from me as a classic greek tragedy – a hero’s fall. Maximus, the protagonist from the 2000 film Gladiator is a good example of a character who “works” for me. We see him first as a general, then as a father and husband, then as a vengeful warrior. Exposing so many of these facets of the character, and being so close to him during pivotal moments in his life allows the viewer to develop a very strong relationship with the character.

In most cases the character’s appearance is only used to make an engaging first impression and provide a visual summary of the character, but this importance shouldn’t be understated. In some cases, the appearance can be used to support emotions which put greater emphasis on appearance. Familiarity is generally broken by characters with an inhuman appearance – and consequently attachment is lost. This is often intentionally the case with “the bad guys”. Physical attraction can also be important if the story nurtures a relationship between two characters; Hollywood knows all too well to use attractive actors and actresses when making romantic films and the same should be true for games.  

But ultimately, I feel the single most important part of creating an engaging character is the script. The events which happen to the character, their backstory and also what they say during the experience are what separate engaging characters from flat ones. Books are unable to use visual appearance and films are necessarily short, yet memorable and deeply emotional character engagements happen in these media frequently.

Increasingly, Hollywood talent is providing voice acting in games. But it’s still rare that big or small screen scriptwriters get contracted for games. If the games industry cannot – or will not – attract the best of this (and other) writing talent, then its little wonder the characters come up short. With the ever-increasing budgets required to make games, why not splash a little cash in the writing department? Let’s see if they can come up with some characters that players actually care about.