Friday, November 11, 2005

Mini Game Design Reviews: Guitar Hero and Wierd Worlds

I wanted to briefly mention two very different games that I’ve been spending time with recently. The first is Guitar Hero by Harmonix and the second is Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space by Digital Eel. Neither is a traditional game, and both have some good lessons about game design to share.

Guitar Hero: The Importance of Setting
Guitar Hero is a rhythm game at its core. The abstracted game mechanics are little different than DDR or the dozens of other titles that have come before. Yet this is one helluva amazing title. I just watched my friend rip through a couple of sets and I’m completely pumped. Adrenaline, air guitar…my lady keeps looking at me with a bemused look when I break out into “More than a feeeeling. Baawah, bam, bam”

Deep down in the core of your being, you know Boston rules. And what about Black Sabbath playing Iron Man? I grew up listening to such music and I suspect a lot of folks did as well. These songs resonate.

And this is the genius of the title from a game design perspective. The risk / rewards schedule are driven by more than just abstract tokens. When you hit a wrong note, you are letting down your audience. When you hit a note and the crowd cheers, you are experiencing a microscopic moment of rock stardom. This is an experience you’ve been wanting for years. The psychological reward of hitting a correct key is multiplied by every time that you’ve air guitared in your bedroom (with the door shut) or sung the words to your favorite rock song.

The controller completes the psychological bridge. It is a guitar in the mind of the player. The immersiveness of the basic verbs – playing cords, wailing on the whammy bar – is accentuated by the player’s ability to carry a familiar object, and holding a familiar stance. This is a game controller loaded with cultural meaning. We’ve talked before about the ‘juiciness’ of low level risk / reward schedules. The controller turns a mechanical experience, “pressing a button” into a tactile experience with strong emotional connotations, “playing my favorite power chord.”

The star power activation method is ingenious. You tilt the guitar straight up, rock star style. Give that designer a raise.

When you tie into real world desires, you strengthen the power of your risk / reward schedules dramatically. Guitar Hero is an addictive game, far more than its Simon-style mechanics suggest. The title fills a real psychological need and that gives the design impressive power over its audience

Potential to tap into the non-gamer market
I love the audience profile on this one too:

  • If you’ve ever taken guitar lessons

  • If you’ve ever air guitared to a rock song

  • Doesn’t matter one lick if you are a gamer or have never touched a game console in your life.

This market has approximately zero competition in the US and is huge. A title such as this is the equivalent of inventing karaoke (Yes, I’m aware of Guitar Freaks…doesn’t count since the ever-so-critical setting isn’t American enough). Given the proper marketing, this is the sort of the title that could spark a crazy cultural fad.

Yet, I had to call around just to find a box. Dumping a title with such broad appeal in game stores is not the path to rock star level success. My thought? Harmonix should get Nintendo on the phone right away, sign up for the Revolution and get on their marketing schedule ASAP. Get a publisher behind this who knows how to sell to non-gamers.

Weird Worlds: The Benefits of Randomly Generated Worlds
Weird Worlds is the sequel to one of my favorite indie games of all time, the wonderful Strange Adventures in Infinite Space by Digital Eel. I have to wait until I’m in my new home before I can order one of the antiquated CDs from their new publisher, but I managed to snag a Weird Worlds demo.

The core game design is roughly the same with a coat of new graphics and new user interface and lots of new content. The interface could use a bit of polishing, but the game play here is the key.

First, this is a very small team. I count three main people with the sequel seeming to have a few extra folks helping out part time. They’ve managed to create a highly addictive single player experience that evokes a strong adventure feel without spending massive amount of money on content, cut scenes or elaborately scripted set pieces.

ROI of Randomly Generated Maps
Instead, the player travels about a randomly generated map. I’m sure balancing was a complete pain, but the end result is a nearly infinite number of short adventures. Others have tried this style of game play, but SAIS and Weird World have managed to produce something that is addictive and has surprisingly long term appeal. Even after playing SAIS for months, I’ve yet to burn out on the title.

There’s an ROI that comes from randomly generated worlds that is very impressive. Content costs for static levels increase in a linear fashion. Every level you add costs roughly the same as rest. Randomly generated levels have a higher up front cost. You need to create the map generation algorithm, develop the various classes of objects and create balancing metrics for those object classes. A simple static level might take a day or two to throw together, where a competent random map generator might take two or three months.

However, after the initial investment, the random map generator is insanely efficient. New objects can be added in an iterative fashion. Major balance changes to the entire game can be made nearly instantly. What you lose in your initial investment, you gain back a hundred fold in flexibility and the ability to provide your players with lots of content.

Also, static levels have their own hidden costs. As you add new tokens to your game, the cost of building a level increases. Later levels will often take substantially longer to polish than initial test levels. Randomly generated maps don’t have this issue. You only have to pay the cost of creating the token. There is little additional level creation cost since it is an automated process.

Benefits of automated builds
The phrase, “automated build process” excites me more than you can possibly imagine. Games initially were about software development. Over time, they have turned into a production heavy activity with the vast majority of effort being spent on waterfall-style Disney-esque content creation. Production heavy endeavors tend to have a lot of momentum and be difficult to change. Project managers have a tendency to minimize changes to high risk items such as core game mechanics in order to preserve the heavy investment in existing content.

When you start making your game development more like software development and less like production work, you can more easily take advantage of agile development processes. Core game mechanics can shift more fluidly if you aren’t weighed down by the thought of breaking a hundred handcrafted levels. There is nothing worse than changing the jump distance on your character and ruining multiple man years of labor because your character can no longer successfully navigate the lovingly handcrafted map files. With content being ‘built on the fly’, such a change is trivial.

Fluid core game mechanics means more low risk opportunities to polish those game mechanics. You can iterate on original mechanics more freely and ideally create games that are more psychological addictive. If the game play is what matters, build your game using a process that gives you the freedom to make changes to your game play at a low cost.

You’ll see the term algorithmically generated content tossed around. The money men focus on the cost savings over static content. That is a good benefit. The ultimate benefit however is the unique ability to inexpensively polish the game play of your new designs. Think of it as a critical building block in the practile of agile game design.

Turn-based: Fits into your life
The other aspect of Weird World that is exciting is this is a turn-based title. A busy player can stop it at any point with no worries about dying or losing their path. Life for many is a series of constant interruptions and games that fit into a multitasking environment occupy a useful niche.
I’d love to see this concept expand out into a setting with a bit more appeal. Space is great, but it is somewhat abstract and can alienate the more casual, female gamers (though there are more women sci-fi fans than men these days). Would a treasure hunting, exploration game be more popular with the casual audience? What about an urban shopping title? It would be interesting to take this great game design in additional directions.

These are two very different games with two powerful lessons. If you haven’t checked them out, you need to.

I can’t help thinking about combining the two. What if you had algorithmically generated game with a setting the resonated with a strong customer need? I’m not sure what that might be, but it certainly is a fun design exercise to contemplate. :-)

Take care