Game design and player agency

Player agency, the ability to execute will, is key to game experiences. When a game forces something upon you, particularly something you can reasonably expect to be easily rid of, then it lessens the experience.

Some examples:
If you are forced to keep a bag of bait that you never want to use then it constantly gets in the way via your user-interface (UI). So a good game would allow the player to drop all pieces of the inventory. Removing gear ought not be done via standard play mode, eg. first-person shooting view. It is better done through an inventory screen so it’s not accidentally done in combat.

Control is agency

Automatic use of cover. I understand that this is a console gaming issue mostly but considering how console-ports retain this feature on PC it seems pertinent. Just put in the lean keys and let the player use cover.

Backpacks that you cannot drop. This is an old one. Sure you might lose your entire inventory yet it’s what soldiers do if they’re ambushed. Backpack can get you killed if it slows you down.

Unavailable items that show up all over fallen foes yet are not lootable. You’d just take it off the fallen and fix it, or cobble it together from the other fallen that have the same gear.

Over riding animations, uninterruptable effects, can sometimes be in games specifically to prevent player agency. A stun effect doesn’t need to lock out control when it could make your vision monochromatic and randomly skew your control sensitivity for a time.

There are methods to put in effects without removing player agency. Designers take heed.

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Game design and player agency

Borderlands: Diablo with Guns

Borderlands is touted as a breakthrough RPS (Role Playing Shooter). The only breakthrough is the successful implementation of cell-shading to give the world an anime/graphic-novel feel in the vein of Geoff Darrow (Hard Boiled) or Mike Osadciw (SSDC, Battlelords). The gameplay is setup to grind your way to a boss; upgrading gear along the way and occasionally purchasing something of use from the vending-machines (stores) with all the cash you accumulate.It appears the only reason it has the appellation of Role Playing in the Shooter part is that there are character levels and skill points for various %-age type abilities (like extra damage, resist damage).

What it does well:

  • Graphic design: the planet looks like it’s been strip-mined and abandoned
  • Weapons and special effects, funky gear
  • Shield units with nice extra-abilities like healing or fire-resistance
  • Driving a vehicle that is pretty good with a mouse
  • Weird and massive creatures
  • Hints of a much wider “galaxy”

Cons:

  • Everything is “spawned” and it resets at fixed times. S
  • Creatures that are ostensibly human beings but are 10 feet tall and tougher than a tank.
  • Spawning out of “generators” creates the feel of the most sophisticated version of gauntlet yet. Spawn-points are doorways and caves that the player can’t enter or destroy. So there’s little portals that spew out psycho bandits and mercenaries and there is nothing you can do about.
  • Money has little worth except for gear.
  • Vehicles are limitless and free (only 2 active instances of vehicles at a time, though)
  • So many buildings are not accesible because they are just spawn-generators.
  • Lack of depth.
  • Seamed levels that are not well-designed. Each area feels more like a dungeon than a place.

What would have made it better:

An element of survival. Food? Sleep? Water? Other people besides intangible loiterers in the “towns”, mission givers and the ever spawning bandits. I think there are only 3 women on Pandora: Patricia Tannis, Commandant Steele and Helena Pearce.

Summary:

For all its faults it has hit the right “balance” of struggle vs. rewards. Looting is great fun and if you like guns then you’ll have a great time. They have varying sounds and appearances that are quite satisfying. There’s nothing about it that really deserves the moniker of Role Playing. It is just a shooter.

Borderlands: Diablo with Guns

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare – Game Engine Candidate for Ultimate Sandbox

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (hereafter COD4: MW).

If COD4: MW is highly moddable then the skilled people that did big-mods for STALKER need to grab it and make a total conversion to a sandbox game. My time and inclination for doing such things has passed so I live in hope of someone else providing (sad as it is). Unfortunately I’ve read that the COD4: MW engine uses spawning to create enemies. I’m sure that can be rectified. Spawning is the elephant in the loungeroom of FPS games. The whole concept is flawed. Everything that was not already in the environment has to come from outside the environment. It doesn’t have to ‘fully’ exist in the sense that it is rendered but it should be reacting to the environment with AI. The environment should also be reacting to it! (see Sandbox Shooter: Emergent Genre) This can be done algorithmically or simulated: doesn’t matter as long as the new enemies/allies/critters come from outside the environment and then work their way in. It may involve them being spawned at certain points but with thought it can be done with internal consistency and not look like the kind of cheap-magic-trick that it is in most games.

Consider terrain as borders. A tunnel is a great example. Prior to more ‘bandits’ being spawned an animation of torches coming down a tunnel can be a logically consistent warning that ‘bandits’ are about to spawn at the mouth of the tunnel. I digress into sandbox design, again.

COD4: MW has all the game engine elements that would support the ultimate Sandbox Shooter with today’s technology. Playable wounding (if you don’t fall over, then you’ll survive if you’re not wounded again for a number of seconds), fantastic ballistics (allowing easy penetration of cinder-blocks with  7.62mm weapons for example, 5.56mm has a harder time and pistol rounds don’t), great environments, and good sound-engine.

If I was to pick any engine that existed it would be this one for a sandbox shooter. Rendering is excellent and the physics engine is fantastic. There’s rumours of a sequel in October this year that will add RPG elements. The unfortunate thing is that the environment is not dynamically destructible. I’ve seen shooting of a single cinder-block with over 60 rounds of 7.62mm and the cinder-block is still there: it should be gone. If the engine could cater for destructible environment it would be the perfect base for the Sandbox Shooter.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare – Game Engine Candidate for Ultimate Sandbox

Sandbox Shooter – the Emergent Genre

After playing FarCry2 and having to give up in frustration I had a try at STALKER Clear Sky. It was whilst playing yet another ‘could-have-been-excellent’ game that I realised exactly what I want in a game is a Sandbox Shooter. Somewhat simulationist and realistic-physics (for the most part) are features I’m keen on. Without sounding contradictory, it is a game so it has to be playable and that means your character needs to be able to heal without the lasting side-effects that real bullet wounds will produce. So the mysterious ‘med-kit’ that is a staple of shooters has to slot in there in some fashion (it could even be another device instead of the med-kit).

A list of features that I think make a good Sandbox Shooter:

  • Large persistent environment. Persistent meaning that changes persist, are not reset and have internal logic. That means if my character drops a shotgun somewhere, it will still be there (unless something picks it up) or if a tree is blasted and falls down it stays down.
  • NPCs have to follow the same rules. If they have weapons then they have ammo and that is limited. No unlimited ammo for NPCs.
  • NPCs that don’t all fight to the death. It’d be nice if they ran away sometimes.
  • Med-kits work on and for NPCs, too.
  • Destructible environment (or doors at the very least). I don’t know how many games have wooden doors that are invulnerable to rocket-launcher fire. It is disheartening because suddenly the suspension of disbelief fails when a moldy old door gets a little scorch mark on it from a LAW rocket!
  • Weapon/armour repair from & with other items. This is the Fallout 3 idea that an existing weapon can be ‘repaired’ by replacing the worn out bits with non-worn out bits from another identical item. Continue reading “Sandbox Shooter – the Emergent Genre”
Sandbox Shooter – the Emergent Genre