The Pitfalls of Difficulty Modes in God of War and Multi-Dimensional Games

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Just this past week, a couple of my friends and I sat down to play the new God of War. Santa Monica Studio has left behind the one-dimensional brute of previous God of War games to make a work of art. Unlike its predecessors, this game heavily relies on narrative, building the relationship between Kratos and his son, Atreus. While the game has opened to critical acclaim, I was less sold on the game while playing. We had decided to play God of War on it’s harder difficulty, choosing “Give me a Challenge.” I argue, we were playing a completely different game.

From the opening hours on the harder difficulty, it seemed apparent that enemies had more health and dealt more damage. Kratos would be killed within 2-4 hits depending on the enemy and attack. Combat was a slog. With only a couple abilities to start, it would take a miraculous amount of hits to kill an enemy, turning combat into a repetitive activity that went on far too long. Right off the bat, I thought I must be missing something. Enemies were still predictable, but just took longer to kill. Also if multiple enemies crowded the screen, we were forced to run after landing 2 hits on the enemy, otherwise risk getting killed from behind. This in combination with more enemy health drags combat on. Eventually all of us were in unanimous decision to turn the difficulty down to “Normal”. It was a completely different game.

Combat felt much more satisfying. I still used the same tactics, and the fights were more digestible. I wasn’t forced to sit in one area killing trash for a ridiculous amount of time. It felt like this is what combat was designed to feel like. The Santa Monica game designers went in and created this ideal version of combat. Every other difficulty level is a deviation from that version, and therefore feels like a different game. In a game like God of War, it’s not only combat that suffers from this difficulty change, but also its fantasy and narrative that suffers.

People will pick up God of War expecting to enter the form of Kratos, an immensely powerful demigod who viciously slays his enemies in bloody combat. Well when played on “Give me a challenge,” Kratos is a featherweight. Within 2-4 hits, Kratos is dead. Also, as mentioned before enemies take a ridiculous amount of hits to kill. Not only are you fragile, but you also only tickle enemies. For all the vicious animations and sound effects that promote Kratos as a demigod, gameplay doesn’t reflect it. We lose the fantasy of playing Kratos.

God of War really went neck deep into narrative with the relationship between Kratos and Atreus.  Narrative requires pacing. Designers expect players to move through the game at a certain pace, dropping narrative beats along the way to keep the player entertained. Well when combat is so long, the pace goes out the window. Players don’t receive the narrative within the ideal amount of time, and they may just lose interest along the way. So multiple facets of God of War break down from this one innocent decision a player may make when starting the game.

It’s important to note that God of War is a great game, which makes it a good example for this topic. I argue that we played a different game when we picked a harder difficulty. That shouldn’t happen with a game like this. What’s the solution here? Obviously harder difficulties cater to certain players. Honestly, with a game that’s multi dimensional like God of War, there’s a strong argument that there should be no difficulty modes. The game was handcrafted to be played in one particular way to present the absolute best version of itself to the player. Anything that deviates from that fundamentally lessens the intended experience. The same can be said for the Uncharted series. I’ve played multiple Uncharted games and decided to boost the difficulty while playing The Lost Legacy. Enemies became bullet sponges and changed the narrative pace of the game. It was a less enjoyable experience, which is sad. For these works of art, you should play its absolute best version.

A less elegant and less dictatorial option might be to clearly state who the game is for at different difficulties. This gives the player more information from the start. If I had read, “For those who care solely about the hardships of combat,” I would have realized that it wasn’t for me. When we turned the difficulty down to “Normal”, we found the game that everyone was talking about. I just wish we found it sooner and hadn’t been presented with a fork in the road at all.

Design Journal – The Core

Working at Blue Goji, I’ve learned a lot about collaborating with people and creating new products. I’d like to share some of these lessons in future blogs. This one will discuss the importance of your product’s core.

When designing any product, be it a game or movie, think long and hard about the “core” of that product. What are the main ideas or experiences you mean to drive home? The core is intrinsic to both the product and its development because it will guide the team, like a gentle hand toward completion. Without a core, numerous issues can arise. Some examples may be miscommunication, differing priorities, and most importantly, an amorphous final product.

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How the hell do I figure out the core? Well think about what inspired the idea in the first place. What made the initial concept pop into your head. Starting from your inspiration is a solid way to focus the core. Look for examples of your core in other works, assessing what was successful and what should be thrown out. Don’t be afraid of new ideas. Without stepping out of the shadow of previous games (in my case), you’ll never discover and produce something new. Just ensure these new ideas support your core. During the excitement of brainstorming, it is very easy to cultivate numerous ideas, however, many of which if gone unchecked, may actually dilute your product and confuse your end user. So how do you trim the fat?

Honestly ask yourself, is this a “make or break” feature? If this feature isn’t included in the game, will it fail? If you can cut down all the features in the game to the bare-bone essentials based on this question, you will have a higher likelihood of releasing a focused and cohesive product. Cutting ideas can be a very touchy subject because oftentimes that means diminishing the influence of someone’s work, possibly your own. When cutting ideas, give the team your reasoning. If you don’t have a compelling argument, then maybe the idea needs to sit a little longer.

Now you have your essential features. The next major step in solidifying the core of your product is to prioritize. Designers often like to tier features into a hierarchy, so they know what needs to be finished versus what can be left out. Using a 3 tier system, designers (and producers) know that tier 1 and (most of) tier 2 features need to make it into the game. Tier 3 is reserved for less essential features. This is a powerful method for not only focusing the core of your game, but also defending against feature creep. New ideas will inevitably pop up during development, but it’s your job to sift through these ideas to maintain the core.

Solidifying the core also has benefits for producers and project managers. (Who would have thought?) Make sure everyone on your team has a clear understanding of the core. Everyone should progress towards the same goal. If they do, people will feel the momentum building and will see the light at the end of tunnel. If your project lacks a core, your team will lose their motivation and become complacent. Morale is a major part of development. If you want your team to do their best work, they need good morale.

So that’s that. Honestly this isn’t enough time to talk about the core of your product, especially with that little tangent about team morale at the end. Shocking, despite how many times I used the word “core.” There are many books that talk about these concepts that I recommend, which I’ll cite at the end of this blog. I hope this gets you thinking about the core or your product. My experience stems from game development, but these tenets will be constructive in whichever industry you work.

On another note, we will be revealing our latest game soon, so I’m looking forward to doing dev blogs. Feel free to follow me on twitter to receive notifications on upcoming posts.

Level Design: Spine and Convenience

Comparing the design of Yooka Laylee with Super Mario Odyssey to determine how each handles their massive levels.


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The approach to 3D collect’em all sandbox games such as Super Mario Odyssey and Yooka Laylee have changed over the years.  With the advances in hardware, developers can now craft massive levels where players search every nook and cranny they can find.  While playing Super Mario Odyssey, I found myself instantly drawn into the worlds.  I often stayed in each level longer than required, growing a sense of familiarity and momentum.  Each time I found a moon, I knew the next could be just around the corner if I only looked.  Yooka Laylee, developed by Playtonic, has beautiful worlds as well where the player is tasked with finding Pagie’s.  The levels are vast and beautiful, but there is something missing compared to Super Mario Odyssey.  In this blog, I wanted to discuss how player direction can lead to a more compelling experience.

When the player first enters the level in Super Mario Odyssey, the camera pans across the scene, eventually pointing to your main objective, either a boss at the end of a level, a high peak you must reach, or an NPC in need.  Right off the bat the player has what I consider a spine.  A spine is different than just a main objective because it’s carefully designed to allow the player to digest most of the level and create a suitable mental model for it.  After traveling the spine, the player still can explore multiple limbs.  Super Mario Odyssey clearly lays out the spine of each world, giving the player a clear sense of direction.  If they ever become tired of wandering for off-spine points of interest, they can always return to the main objective and regain their orientation. 

Yooka Laylee does not give the player a level spine to work with.  Does that just mean Yooka Laylee was designed to be a harder game than Super Mario OdysseyYooka Laylee leaves the players to their own devices in developing their mental model of the level.  In a sense, that’s harder than Super Mario Odyssey, but it’s also less convenient for the player.  Let’s dive into the first world of Yooka Laylee, which should be considered the easiest, allowing the player to become acquainted to the controls and the challenges of the game.  Yooka Laylee thrusts its players into the “Tribalstack Tropics” with no clear level specific objective or point to reach.  As a player I only know I’m looking for Pagie’s.  Yooka Laylee’s first level has multiple peaks as well, which further dilute the level spine.  High peaks offer the player a goal to reach, looming in the distance.  Think of the Cascade Kingdom or Luncheon Kingdom in Super Mario Odyssey, each of which had one peak.  Yooka Laylee’s first level has multiple peaks, so as a player I go up all of them.  I found myself wandering, not progressing, and since the level was so large, it took an unusual amount of time to run from place to place. 

 

Unfortunately Yooka Laylee has another more game specific problem as well.  So I’ve climbed to the top of a peak.  To my dismay, I find a dead end.  Now I’m confused, and I just wasted time wandering to the peak and climbing it.  I then must exit the level to discover I can “expand” it.  By offering up some Pagie’s, I can enlarge the level, adding to what was already pretty sizable.  The way it was designed, I almost feel like the expansion idea came later in development.  The designers created massive beautiful worlds, but then realized “oh shit. These are so huge, the player won’t have the capacity to develop a mental model, so lets cut it in half.”  I don’t necessarily think size was the main issue here.  The level lacks a spine, which causes me to wander aimlessly. 

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Why isn’t level size an issue?  Super Mario Odyssey has huge levels, but Nintendo also developed ways to combat the problems a huge level incurs.  Once Mario has discovered the checkpoints around the level, he can instantly teleport to anyone at any time.  If the player prefers exploring the landscape over teleporting, Mario can travel along power lines to quickly traverse the levels, usually once they’ve traversed the entire spine.  One might argue Metro Kingdom has a lot of peaks with each building top.  Yes, but there are multiple ways to reach them, via power lines or “flick posts” (for lack of a better way to name those).  There’s convenience designed into each level.  Nintendo also jam packed each massive level with a ton of collectibles.  The player never needs to wander very far to find a new challenge.  The combination of a spine and multiple fast travel options makes the world more digestible for the player.  They travel the spine and simultaneously form their own mental model.

Side Note: Back in the day, the lack of powerful hardware made level designers think in creative ways, and I think to a degree, the advancement in hardware has spoiled us.  We think, “lets make the biggest levels we can think of.  And then lets make them bigger.”  With technology constraints, designers couldn’t just make the worlds bigger, so they tried to flip the player’s mental model on its head.  They changed aspects of the level to open up new possibilities.  The player has a mental model, and they adjust it for a new outcome.  Think of Super Mario 64 where the player drains the castle moat.  A bunch of new possibilities just opened themselves to the player.  The world is still the same size.  I think as designers, we should think back to these practices on how the levels can be altered slightly, to open up new possibilities to the player, instead of making levels larger.  In it’s defense, Yooka Laylee does alter its mental model in the “Tribalstack Tropics” by adding water, but the damage has already been done.

So in summary, including a level spine will help players become acquainted with your level.  If you plan on designing massive levels, design some convenience in for your players, including fast travel.  Fast travel and a level spine in tandem, will cut down on needless wandering for the player.  In this case, I think convenience isn’t the same thing as difficulty.  Convenience makes your level a place the player wants to be.  Therefore, I always look around the next corner to find another moon. 

Please feel free to comment or reach out with questions if you have them.

Thanks,

Adam

The Dangers of Service Game Monetization: Battlefront 2

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Many videogames are no longer a one-off purchase where the game you receive in a cartridge or disc is a final product, untouched by the developer for the rest of time.  With the internet and the ability to patch games, and offer future downloadable content, videogames are more of a service than ever before.  Many publishers have tried different ways to monetize this service model, that resonates with players but also mitigates their risk.  How can we find a model all players and publishers are happy with?

Recently Dice and EA have taken a lot of heat over their monetization scheme for Star Wars Battlefront 2.  In the Beta, Battlefront 2 has a loot box system that offers Star Cards and cosmetic rewards, such as Victory Poses.  Star Cards are where the problem arises because this is Battlefront 2’s main way of player progression.  Now loot boxes are also purchasable for real cash, turning Battlefront 2 into a gambling pay-to-win game.  Why did Dice and EA go this route?

EA has mentioned that the current DLC model of games such as the 2015 Battlefront and Battlefield 1 fragment the user base between players who’ve purchased DLC and those who only own the base game.  EA attempted to fix this issue in Battlefield 1 by allowing friends to play the new DLC with each other, if one of them has purchased it.  This was a remedy for a friend to friend case, but still the user base as a whole is fragmented.  EA and Dice want to offer more content to players, while maintaining the revenue of their DLC model.  So, they offered a compelling reason to purchase Loot boxes: Real in-game upgrades.

It’s very easy to find the fault in this system, but EA also had a reason.  They wanted to bring all DLC content to all players, but they still need to make money.  Since I’ve been developing a Free-to-play mobile game, I know there is no easy solution to monetization, especially when entering the service model.  There’s a fine line between sink or swim.  Currently with the DLC model, there is too much emphasis on releasing content post release.  The initial launch needs to be big, especially for a $60 price tag.  The 2015 release of Battlefront suffered from this tremendously.  I played for an hour or two and realized there was not much else to see.  This seems to be fixed in the sequel.

Battlefront 2 needs to lose the stigma of pay-to -win.  A system that many developers have not implemented is using gameplay to enhance cosmetic rewards, creating a progression based system.  Let’s wipe Battlefront 2’s method from our minds and start over.  Star Cards could be only in-game obtainable power ups.  Players need to play the game and unlock these Star Cards.  These Star Cards can then be placed on character skins to power them up.  Players can still purchase loot boxes for real money, however they only earn cosmetic items.  In this example, the player can use the Star Cards they’ve earned in Battlefront 2 gameplay to upgrade their cosmetic pieces.

Solution in Summary:

  • Players can obtain Star Card upgrades only through gameplay
  • Players can use in-game currency to buy new character/class skins
  • Players can purchase loot boxes for real money to earn purely cosmetic upgrades, including new character/class skins
  • Players can use their star cards to upgrade their character/class skins

 

This allows players to progress their character with gameplay, rather than money.  Players can purchase Loot Boxes to look badass, but it’s still up to their play to upgrade it.  This removes the Pay-to-win model.  Players aren’t fulfilled by real money purchases in video games.  It breaks the designed progression for the player and eventually leads to buyer’s remorse.  With the solution I mentioned above, players will still feel a connection to the items they earn in-game.  Playing the game is still a necessity to moving forward.

Unfortunately, this seems to be the trend of videogames as a service moving forward.  Using tactics to squeeze money out of the player base makes sense in a Free-to-play mobile game, but implementing systems that coerce the player to pay more money after they’ve already paid the $60 price tag is pushing the envelope too far.  EA may argue that this system makes up for the loss of revenue from DLC purchases.  In my opinion, that is a totally different case because the player knows exactly what they get for their money, and there’s only so much content the player can buy.  With Battlefront 2’s current Loot box system, it is a gamble with no limit on possible spending.

I was extremely excited about Battlefront 2.  It appeared as if EA heard what went wrong with their 2015 Battlefront release and remedied it.  This beta has really tainted my view of the game, which I find tremendously sad for the developers who poured their lives into it.  In Gamespot’s The Lobby, the team spoke about their experience with the game, mentioning that in 8 hours of gameplay, they were not able to put a scope on a preferred gun (Click here for that video).  These sort of monetization schemes seem to be coming more to the forefront with the reveal of Activisions’ patent to use matchmaking to encourage players to use microtransactions as a main means of progression (Click here for that article)

My hope is that the focus once again can be pushed towards releasing fantastic games.  A line in the sand needs to be drawn on what is fair to a player.  I believe it will be up to the player base to determine that themselves moving forward.

If these monetization developments worry you or not, please leave a comment below. Will this increased revenue for Publishers result in better games, or will this focus on monetization ruin what makes videogames special?

Designing Power in First-Person Shooters

 

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The video game industry is oversaturated with First-person Shooters.  Each AAA Publisher looks to fill a void within the industry, hoping to capture the attention of mass market appeal.  While these publishers may look at market research to discern these openings, I want to look at the current game design of FPS games, and where they might lead in the future.  Oftentimes the question that arises for game designers with an FPS is “How do we make the player feel powerful?”

Many First-person shooters are all about individual skill and power.  Titanfall, Overwatch, and Destiny all try to answer this question.  Recently with Titanfall and Call of Duty, the answer was fast paced highly mobile combat.  It seems though that we are reaching the limits with how individual-player power affects gameplay (Arguably Battlefield 1 and the new CoD WWI weaken the players for a different experience).  Games need to be balanced, making sure everyone has a level playing field.  Power in that regard, is really a false promise.  Players feel powerful when they first play the game, but that feeling withers away once you’ve played for a long period of time.

The question remains the same.  “How do we make players feel more powerful?”  I turn to Overwatch.  For anyone unfamiliar, Overwatch is a team-based shooter where each character has their own role and abilities.  Overwatch takes a different stance because Blizzard did not focus on making the individual powerful, but the team.  Team composition is a massive part of Overwatch, selecting the correct characters for the match’s objective.  Alone, the individual player is weak.  This creates very fun and deep gameplay collaboration mechanics.  Players can learn the abilities of multiple characters and the synergies between them, sinking hours into the minute details and strategies.  What is the negative side of this style of game?

If collaboration doesn’t exist in the match, you will most definitely lose, which can be extremely frustrating.  Also, toxicity continues to plague Overwatch’s community, so much so that it has slowed development (Click here for article).  Players often throw games out of spite and immaturity, ruining the experience for many.  Unfortunately, I believe this may be an issue that plagues Overwatch forever.  Now I want to look at a recently released game that strikes an exciting balance between Team-based and individual gameplay.

Destiny 2 is an MMORPG First-person shooter that builds on the model of its predecessor with better storytelling, more nuanced class abilities, and the most satisfying guns to shoot (in my opinion).  Destiny uses a class-based RPG style progression, where each class has 3 subclasses, possibly more on the way.  These three classes each have their own abilities, either to tank, support, or deal damage, which shines in PvE gameplay.  Destiny 2 offers 6-player raids, where players need to collaborate and strategize to overcome tough bosses and waves of enemies (Click here for a Youtube example)  In the Crucible, Destiny 2’s PvP mode, gameplay still feels very individual based, where players usually pick abilities for the sole purpose of killing other players, not team-based synergies.

Destiny 2 offers options and caters to different players.  It strikes a balance between team-based collaboration and solo gunplay.  People can either play PvP for that solo experience, or take on PvE challenges if they want that team-based style gameplay.  Those styles of play are bolstered by a deep RPG progression system.  I look forward to seeing how the game evolves with its future patches and DLC.

Leave a comment below if you enjoy team-based or individual-based shooter.  Or if you’ve played something wildly different than discussed such as Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds.

Successful Implementation of Extrinsic Motivation in Splatoon 2

 

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With the unique proposition of the Switch, Nintendo finds themselves in new territory in between a console and a mobile device.  This has led to an integration of mobile game techniques into Splatoon 2 to motivate the player to return.

 

Games have both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators.  Free-to-play mobile games often use extrinsic motivation to encourage the player to return back to the game.  Developers do this to increase their chance at revenue.  They stall gameplay behind a waiting period, purposely slowing the experience so that the player wants to speed it up (possibly spending money to do so).  For example, in Clash of Clans, the developer uses building as a means for the player to return to the game.  If I start constructing a barracks now, it’ll finish in a certain amount of time, and I’ll return to the game to reap the benefits.  Mobile games are not the only ones that utilize this mechanic.  Blizzard has done this as well in regard to Garrisons and Order Halls in their MMORPG, World of Warcraft.  Players can spend resources to engage in missions for rewards.  After the mission duration, the player has a reward waiting for them when they return.

 

Extrinsic motivation can be dangerous because developers can lose sight of what really makes a game fun.  When extrinsic motivation is overused, players often find themselves returning to a game, but they are unsure why.  It isn’t fun.  It becomes more of an obligation, and the developer risks losing the player.  Nintendo, on the other hand, has a history of developing games primarily based on intrinsic motivation.  The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild is a great example.  The player wants to explore the world to simply see what’s on the other side of a hill or up a waterfall.  The experience itself is rewarding.

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In a change of pace, Nintendo dapples with extrinsic motivation in Splatoon 2 by adding a mobile companion app where the player can order gear from Splatnet.  The gear takes a certain amount of time to arrive, thus motivating the player to return to the game later to collect their reward.  This is new territory for Nintendo, using mobile gaming extrinsic motivators to get players to come back.  Is Nintendo profiting from this?

 

Splatoon 2 is different from Clash of Clans and World of Warcraft because Nintendo isn’t directly profiting from the system.  Clash of Clans encourages players to spend real money to speed up the game.  Encouraging the player to return to the game equals more revenue.

 

Despite the different models in which the publisher receives revenue, i.e. subscription, micro-transaction, or retail purchase, they all want to prolong the games ability to make money.  With free-to-play games (F2P), publishers often use micro-transactions, allowing the player to purchase items with real money to enhance their experience.  For subscription based games, such as World of Warcraft, the longer the developer can keep you playing the game, the more subscription time you’ll purchase.  Nintendo’s model however is different.  Once you have purchased the game, they have their 60 dollars, however word of mouth is a powerful thing.  The viral reception of a game is essential to all revenue models.  This is referred to as the game’s K-factor, how many new players does your average player bring in?

 

Nintendo’s usage of extrinsic motivation popular in mobile games is more persuasive because it encourages me to play more Splatoon 2, not to pay more money.  The Splatnet feature and Splatoon 2 companion app show the potential synergies between mobile gaming and console gaming.  Seems like a good fit for the Nintendo Switch, a portable game console.

 

 

AGC: What is AR and Does it Matter for Games?

That’s a wrap on the Austin Game Conference.  I thought I would write one blog post including all sessions, however my topics just keep going.  So here is AGC post #1 focusing on the opening keynote.


 

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To open the conference, John Hanke, from Niantic, the developers of Pokemon GO and Ingress, took the stage with Chris Plante from Polygon, to discuss the current state and future of Augmented Reality.  The beginning of AR was a letdown.  Augmented Reality started back about four to five years ago with marker tracking, where a person would place an object/marker in view of a camera, and a digital construct would pop out of it.  Hanke asserted that this never took off because it felt gimmicky.  It lacked depth and did not connect with the general consumer.  What is different now with Pokemon Go and the advancements in AR?

The push from tech giants such as Apple and Google have moved the field forward, accelerating the growth of the technology.  Hanke believes the technology we see in phones such as Apple’s ARkit, will be featured in AR devices of the future, such as AR glasses.  As game designers, it is up to us to decide how we use this technology.

Hanke argues that Pokemon GO’s success stems from how they used the medium.  Using both the camera and the players geo location, it encourages players to go outside and interface with the real world, creating an experience that doesn’t otherwise exist.  Players leave their homes and travel to locations for special Pokemon, items, and raids.  Players share this experience with others, connecting through techniques commonly used in MMO games.  Niantic’s games even offer up massive events where millions come from all over the world to share one experience.  Hanke stated that the social aspect of Pokemon GO will remain its most prominent pillar in gameplay features moving forward.  Niantic intends to connect people by connecting the real world and the digital.  Okay, so Pokemon GO was a success, what about your AR game?

Table_Top_One.0.0.PNG.jpegWe are on the bleeding edge of technology, which means there will be experimentation.  Developers will try to set a standard for what an AR experience is, and I believe we have a good example with Pokemon GO.  Ask yourselves, how am I using my medium to best serve the game?  (A question you should ask yourself with any medium) The example of AR tabletop games arose during discussion.  Hanke disliked it, mentioning that it doesn’t use AR to the fullest.  He argued that the experience isn’t enhanced merely by existing in AR.  Designers should ask themselves: How is this game better because of AR?

What makes AR special then?  What should you do with it?  AR is a unique interconnection between the real world and the digital.  Currently at Blue Goji, we’re building a mobile game that blends the two experiences.  We not only want to create relationships and interactions in the real world, that otherwise wouldn’t exist, but also add to ones that do (Unfortunately I can’t say more about my current project).  A tabletop game already exists in other mediums.  How can AR build on and add to the experience, whether it’s an app, game, or any product?  Find ways to incorporate the real world and the people that live in it. Use AR to cultivate the human experience.