Archive for the ‘Mechanics’ Category

The Adventures of a Noob – Star Ruler

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

The Adventures of a Noob is a recurring column in which I dive into a (potentially) complex game without reading the manual, FAQ, any help files, or playing a tutorial. I then catalog my first impressions and thought process as I attempt to figure out the game. This may end up being amusing, or it may end up being informative. Hopefully a little of both.

Note that in these types of articles, information in regular font represents my thought process/knowledge at time of first playing. Addendums in italics represent information I learned after the fact, inserted into the article to clarify which of my original thoughts were accurate and which were leading me astray.

Stuff I know going in:

Star Ruler is supposed to be huge, strategic, with lots of cool AI and randomization stuff.  Oh, and it's a space game with a silly name.  Yes, that's really about all I knew going in.  I don't even think I'd viewed the official page I just linked.


Interesting Choices: Colonization’s Founding Fathers

Friday, August 6th, 2010

Interesting Choices is a recurring column that examines a decision point in a game, focusing on those that are particularly interesting.  The point of the column is to examine what particularly makes each of the choices interesting, and the impact that this has on the game as a whole.

It is fitting that the first installment of Interesting Choices is a game that has Sid Meier's name in the title.  The title of this column is itself a nod to his definition of games as a series of interesting choices.  While Colonization does indeed feature a series of these choices, the one that I particularly want to focus on is the one presented to me in the following pop up message:

Don't invite Aaron Burr too, or there might be troubleThe founding fathers are a particularly well implemented series of choices in the game, and Alexander Hamilton is a particularly appealing option for me in the current game.  Since his benefit is increased productivity (for free!) at all settlements, and I've sort of settlement spammed the new world, I'll get quite a bit of benefit from him--essentially a free carpenter that doesn't eat, at each settlement, which I have seven of.  At first glance, there seems to be little reason to say no, in fact.  Why would I even consider it?  To understand that, we've got to take a look at the system used to determine which founding fathers are available to me.

Who to recruit?You'll probably need to click on that to look at the big version to see the portions I'm referring to, but let's break this image a part a bit, and examine the important bits:

  • First, there are a lot of founding fathers available.  Here we've got John Rolfe, Jan de Witt, Peter Minuit, and Lord Baltimore.  We can further see that each founding father has a (mostly) unique effect, which may be relatively meaningless to readers who have not played the game, and which are beyond the scope of this particular document.
    • There is a scroll bar, indicating further options to the right.
    • There are tabs at the bottom, indicating even more options with other specialties.
  • Notably, we see that each of these four gentlemen are already spoken for.  I've got the two on the right in my congress, and the English colonies have John Rolfe, while the French colonies have Peter Minuit.   The important part of this:  each founding father can only serve one colony, and once they're snatched up, they are gone for good.
  • Across the center we have two progress bars, one for Political Points and one for Trade Points.  These are earned through actions in game, and represent their own series of choices.  The UI is perhaps a little bit less clear than it could be on this, but the head of each founding father lines up with the cost to recruit him.
  • In the bottom left, there is a box detailing how many of each type of point I've collected at this moment in the game.  It's worth noting that in addition to Political and Trade Points, I've also got Religion, Military, and Exploration Points.

Several things combine to ultimately make the founding fathers decision one of the most rewarding in the game.  The fact that you are racing with the competing colonies to attract the founding fathers is one factor.  As soon as they are serving one colony, the others are out of luck.  The fact that the only time they offer to join is when they first become available is another important factor.  I cannot go back an re-invite Alexander Hamilton if I turn him town now.  I'd have waived my right to Alexander Hamilton; it's now or never.  The final factor that really makes the decision intense though, is the fact that I have to pay for him.  His cost in points is deducted from my current total.   Looking ahead on the trade tab, here's what I've got coming up:

Significantly more powerful, yet costlier.I've just passed up Adam Smith (faster factory construction), and will next have a shot at John Jacob Astor (more furs) and then Eli Whitney (more cotton).  As I haven't focused much on cotton or furs, neither is particularly appealing (this game, anyway).  However, Alexander Hamilton doesn't just cost trade points, he costs political points as well.  This is true of all founding fathers in the game.  So recruiting Alexander Hamilton doesn't just diminish my chances of getting those other trade founding fathers before my competitors, it impacts my ability to recruit exploration, religious, military, and political founding fathers as well.

Every time a founding father that interests me offers to join up, I have to carefully weigh the advantages he offers compared to the other founding fathers that I might be able to recruit (from any tab) in the near future.  I also have to weigh the odds that another colony will recruit those other founding fathers first.  I also have to weigh how much impact a given founding father will have if they are recruited by an opponent.  Perhaps I want to play spoiler, and recruit Eli Whitney before the cotton-reliant French do.

Ultimately, in this case, I decide to recruit Alexander Hamilton.  His benefit is fantastic for my setup, and he's the most beneficial guy on the trade track for me (Cyrus McCormick wouldn't be bad either, though, offering increased sugar and food production).  On the other hand, these were the next 3 gentlemen available to me in the politics tab:

Patrick Henry would be a big boon to my bid fo independence

While I'm still hoping to snag at least one of them (Patrick Henry being my top choice), my chances to do so just took a serious hit.  These three, being Political founding fathers, require only Politics Points, and I just spent a boatload of those recruiting Mr. Ten-Dollar Bill.  As I continue this game, I may come to regret the decision I made with Alexander Hamilton.  It wasn't an easy decision to make, and it may have been the wrong decision.  The consequences of this single decision--good or ill--will be felt, perhaps, through the rest of this game, and that's enough to qualify it as an interesting choice from my perspective.

In Praise of the Greet Button

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

As you've probably gathered from previous posts, I've been playing a fair bit of Red Dead Redemption lately.  Similarly, as you may have gathered if you follow me on twitter, one of the features in the game that I find most rewarding is the greet button.

The rather brave decision to include a button on the controller dedicated (even partially) to something so seemingly superfluous must have been a tough sell to producers on the game.  While surely it would not take too terribly many man hours to implement the feature, and the few lines necessary were undoubtedly a drop in the budget bucket for recording sessions, the part that I imagine was difficult was convincing the producers that the impact of the feature would be anything more than negligible.

My experience with the game, though, has been made much more memorable by the services of that red B button on my 360 controller.  As I walk through town (cowboys don't run, even if it is faster), passersby will occasionally float a greeting at me.  This is no different from most other open world games, of course, with the possible exception of me walking rather than running.  In some of these games, my character will even respond to these floats (notably, I have a strong memory of CJ from GTA: San Andreas responding to civilian chatter, usually with something a bit insulting).

The simple inclusion of a button to control whether or not I respond ultimately drives what was initially a decent audio feature into a great tool for both immersion and even role playing for the player.  As I am playing with John Marston being an honorable fellow, I've been diligently using the greet button to maintain his polite character in the public's eye.  I do this despite the fact that greetings seem to have no tie into the honor and reputation system at all (missed opportunity?).   From a power gaming perspective, there is absolutely zero reason to bother with the greeting.  Yet, as I pass by a woman standing outside the general store, tip my hat, and say "Ma'am", I feel more like a cowboy than at just about any other time during the game.   Since I had to press the button to do that, it was an active choice by the player, so it makes me feel like a cowboy, not a person controlling a cowboy.   The difference is noticeable, and appreciated.

Gamasutra – Features – Evaluating Game Mechanics For Depth

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Another great article posted up on Gamasutra.  This one is written by Mike Stout, formerly of Insomniac.  It's really good look at how to fix mechanics in your game that seem to get old quickly, due to lacking depth.

Gamasutra - Features - Evaluating Game Mechanics For Depth.

At this time in my career, I didn't yet understand the important distinction between meaningful skills and too-basic skills. I didn't know how important clearly identifiable objectives were. And so, lacking experience, I decided to just start adding features until the mechanic was deep enough. If you're groaning at this, then I congratulate you. I'm groaning, myself, as I write this.

Besides moving blocks around, I decided it would be great if the player could grab and drag around a wacky robot (if you're reading this and thinking "oh, you improved the theatrics," you get a cookie). The player could then drop the robot on buttons to open doors. This didn't help as much as I wanted it to -- it just still seemed way to shallow.

So I forged ahead and kept adding features (groan).

Under the Hood: Red Dead Redemption’s Camera

Monday, July 19th, 2010

Once you have done any sort of development work, it becomes difficult to play a game without entering developer mode here and there.  This happened to me while playing Red Dead Redemption as I noticed a couple of things about the camera, and I figured I might as well share my observations.  So I sat down and did some tests with it, and noted the results.

The camera is, of course, freely rotated with the right thumbstick.  If it is left "out of position"--that is, not directly behind John Marston--it will be pulled back into position as the player walks along, unless the player actively maintains the unorthodox position.

One of the biggest challenges when implementing a third person camera is what to do about intersecting objects--those that come between the player and the camera.  Rockstar San Diego opted for "snapping through" intersecting objects, rather than fading them into transparency.  This means that if there is an object between the camera and the character, the camera quickly snaps to a closer zoom level just on the other side of the intersecting object.  Moving either the character or the camera so that the object no longer interferes causes it to snap to the default position.  The sudden camera move can be slightly disorienting, but is not particularly glaring.  Some objects are considered to interfere, others are not:

  • Environmental objects all are considered interfering (buildings, trees, random art props)
  • Doors are considered interfering, but the camera can zoom back out once the door opens
  • Windows are considered interfering, despite being transparent, even if they are broken out by the player's actions
  • Horses and people (and presumably wild animals) do not interfere, and can pass between character and camera without moving it.
  • Stagecoaches do interfere with the camera, but the horses pulling them do not

When the player enters targeting mode, the camera will never snap due to interfering objects, and any such objects simply block the player's view; they do not go transparent.

Speaking of targeting mode, when the player switches to this mode, the targeting reticule attempts to position itself in the center of the player's current camera facing, rather than having John Marston simply target in front of his own facing.  This means that if the camera is looking back at Marston's face, entering targeting mode causes him to turn around, while maintaining the camera's current position and orientation.  If the player's camera is oriented in a non-aimable direction (notably, directly down, at least when using a rifle) the camera angle is preserved, but no reticule is displayed, to indicate that the player cannot target this location.  Moving the camera to a targetable position brings the reticule up, and the camera can be moved back into the ineligible location after the fact.

The developer acknowledges the camera's existence in the world in a couple instances.  Certain activities can cause blood splatter to hit the camera.  These include getting wounded, skinning animals, and messing up in the Five Finger Fillet mini-game.  Additionally, water can splatter the camera.  Thus far, this has only occurred during rain storms.  Notably, water only gets on the lens of the camera when it is inclined upwards, a keen moment of attention to detail by one of the designers on the project.