Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Justin Time!

Last night some friends and I went out to see the new Justin Timberlake movie 'In Time'.  The movie itself was a decent Sci-Fi Action Thriller, but what intrigued me the most about the film was it's underlying premise of time as a currency.  As a game designer, this of course got me thinking about how I might apply the time as currency premise to a video game.

If you think about it, this isn't an entirely new idea in video games.  Time has been treated as a type of currency, to varying degrees, in a variety of games.  You could make an argument that any game where you are rewarded points for remaining time on the clock is treating time as a currency.  The player is attempting to balance the speed at which he completes the level, for points related to time, against other means of gaining points.

There are also games where time itself is a reward for doing well in a game.  Arcade racing games like Daytona USA give the player a certain amount of time to complete the race, but also rewards the player with time extensions for reaching check points or completing laps.

However, in the world of 'In Time', time is treated more literally as a currency, in that it is used to purchase goods and services and can be earned through working or other means of income.  Time is literally money.  The amount of time a person has left to live is determined by how well they manage their time.  The rich, or those who manage their time well, can live indefinitely, while the poor, or those who manage their time poorly, live very short lives.  My self imposed design challenge was to take this concept of time as a currency and apply to a game.  This is what I came up with.

To start out I thought of a game similar to Geometry Wars.  The player is a lone spaceship fighting off wave after wave of enemies in effort to achieve a high score.

However, not only does the player have to worry about avoiding enemies, they also have to keep an eye on their clock.  If the clock times out, the game is over.  To make things a little more interesting, powerups in this game will consume the player's time.


  • Bombs (Cost: 30s) - A screen clearing bomb attack that can be either used as a panic button when the player is overwhelmed by enemies, or as a way to earn a large amount of points.
  • Multi Shot (Cost: Double Time) - The player can fire a wave of bullets instead of the usual single stream of bullets, enabling them to defeat a greater amount of enemies, but at the cost of time accelerating.
  • Shield (Cost: 30s) - Makes the player temporarily invincible to enemies.
Powerups would be available at the press of a button, so at any time the player can choose to sacrifice a bit of their time for the powerup's ability.  To counter balance the cost in time for these powerups, the player can earn additional time by reaching different point thresholds (10,000 points, 100,000 points, etc.).

I think this system of using time as a currency for powerups results in interesting choices for the player.  If I use this powerup, will I be able to earn more time before time runs out?  Will the points I gain using this powerup now be greater than the points I could gain with the time I'm consuming?

Obviously, this whole system would need to be tweaked and balance before it could be considered a final product as I'm just pulling numbers out of the air, but I think the concept would have merit if pursued.  Maybe one day I'll make some time for it.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Communicating Challenge and Super Mario Bros. Challenge Mode

A number of years ago, while goofing around with the classic Super Mario Bros., my brothers and I decided to up the challenge factor of the game by forcing the player to constantly hold both the run button and the D-Pad right, so that Mario would be forced to continually run.  This left the player with only the options of jumping or ducking.  We dubbed this new variant of game, Super Mario Bros. Challenge Mode.

This way of playing the game made it much more difficult but at the same time it was a lot of fun.  We kept passing the controller around to see if we could make it further in the game than the person before.  I later introduced Super Mario Bros. Challenge Mode to some friends at the office, and they too found it quite fun to play.

It got me wondering, what was it about this way of playing the game, that even though it was much harder than traditional Super Mario Bros., it was also tons of fun to play.  As I played and I found that whenever I would die, I could instantly see what I had done wrong and how to correct it on the next try.  I was blaming myself for my failure, not the game.  As I continued to play the game and get further with each attempt, I could feel myself improving and this was the root of what was fun about the game. 

This to me stood in contrast to what is commonly believed in some game design circles, that a difficult game is inherently frustrating to players.  I came to the conclusion that it was not the difficulty alone that causes frustration, but the lack of understanding of what causes failure.  If the player understands why they have failed and how to not fail in the future, difficulty can in fact be fun.

I think this accounts for the popularity of arcade games like Pac Man or Space Invaders.  The games were designed to be difficult to force players to spend their quarters, but the reason the players kept coming back was because it was easy to tell what they had done wrong.  This type of difficulty design has seen a bit of resurgence in retro style games like Geometry Wars and Super Meat Boy, however, I think this lesson can be applied to all games.

In the end, game designers need to better communicate the challenge in their games.  If the challenge is communicated properly players will not be frustrated by it and will in fact enjoy it.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Assassin's Creed II - DLC

Like always, before reading this you should probably read my general disclaimer on game analyses.

It's been quite awhile since I posted my last blog on Assassin's Creed II, and although I had a lot more to say on the subject, I think it may be best to move on.  However, there was one nagging thing that I wanted to discuss before I do, and that is the Downloadable Content (DLC).

During the story of Assassin's Creed II, once you are about to enter Sequence 12 of Ezio's memories
there is some kind of error with the animus and the player is forced to skip ahead to a future sequence.  The resulting missing sequences of 12 and 13 can be filled in with purchased DLC.  This approach to DLC has given me somewhat mixed feelings.

The designer in me admits it's clever way to sell the player on DLC.  The game's story makes a "sales pitch" within the universe of the game by telling the player there is something that they've been forced to skip over.  The player is left wondering what it is they missed in Sequences 12 and 13, and the only way for them to find out is to buy the DLC.  Without these sequences the game wraps up the story and the player isn't necessarily missing out on any relevant details, but there is still a sense of incompleteness since the player knows that something is missing.

It's this sense of incompleteness that gives me pause and as a player I feel a bit cheated.  In most other games, DLC is used to extend the experience.  If I, as a player, really enjoyed the game I can purchase additional content to extend the experience beyond the basic story.  One could argue that the DLC for Assassin's Creed II does the same thing, but it doesn't quite feel like an extension of the experience, it feels more like a completion.  This is simultaneously the thing that is most clever about it and the most fiendish.

This doesn't seem to be a fair way to sell the player on DLC, but I may just be making a big deal out of nothing.  There aren't many games that could pull off this type of DLC, since there aren't any other games that have the animus to explain it away.  Ubisoft didn't continue with this method in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood either, so it may just end up being an isolated experiment in DLC.

Monday, October 31, 2011

It's Been Awhile - Part 2

So much for more frequent posts from me.  It's been two months, shy a day, since I last posted and I have little to show for it.  Well, I guess technically, this two month break is "more frequent" than my last break which was four months, so let's acknowledge at least that bit of progress.

Well I'm back, again, and I am planning on making a much more concerted effort to post to my blog.

Today's update is more or less administrative.  I've added a Links page to store links to friends' blogs and other stuff on the web I find interesting.  If you'd like to be included on the Links page, let me know by either commenting below or sending me an E-Mail.  I've also created a Twitter @jasonwrwilson, which is probably insane, since I can't even keep up with a blog.  Feel free to follow me, and I'll be sure to return the favour.

Anyway, that's all for now.  See ya' next time!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

It's Been Awhile

So it's certainly been awhile since I've done a blog post.  Things got a little hectic over the last few months and unfortunately the blog kind of suffered for it.  The good news, however, is that the hecticness was primarily due to getting married to my beautiful wife Daniela.  You'd be surprised how much work is involved in planning a wedding, especially in the final months leading up to it.  It was challenging and not without it's fair share of ups and downs, but in the end it was all worth it as I now have a beautiful wife to show for it.

After the wedding we embarked on our honeymoon to the beautiful Mayan Riviera.  Beautiful beaches for her, beautiful ancient ruins for me.  I definitely would recommend it for anyone seeking a mix of sun and culture.

Now that I have some free time again, I'm looking to get back to some neglected projects, including this blog.

So that's my update for now.  My next post will be much more gaming related.  I hope to post much more often so keep a look out for that.  I will return to Assassin's Creed II soon, as well as touch on some of the other games I've played through recently including Portal 2, Uncharted 1 & 2, as well as Darksiders.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Assassin's Creed II - Story

As I started writing out this blog post on my impressions of Assassin's Creed II, it became clear that one post wasn't going to be enough.  So I've decided to break it up into a few parts.  For today, I will be discussing Assassin's Creed II's story.

Before reading my game analysis on Assassin's Creed II's story, you should read my general disclaimer

Good?  Okay, let's begin.

After sitting on my shelf in the plastic for over a year I finally finished Assassin's Creed II.  I guess "finished" might not be the correct word since I still have a couple achievements to complete, but I have played through the story, found all the hidden messages left in the animus by Subject 16, unlocked the vault and uncovered the prophecy.

I found Assassin's Creed II to be a much more story driven game than the previous Assassin's Creed. The story was much more engaging this time around as I found the game constantly urging me to move forward to the next mission.  There was always a sense of urgency with every mission, that I had to go right away and that there wasn't any time to waste. This was both good and bad in my opinion. 

Having an engaging story is certainly ideal.  An engaged player is a player who's going to play through your entire game and see all the things you worked so hard for them to see.  It also get's them invested in your world so they'll buy your DLC and play your sequels.  This is especially important in today's market as there are so many games vying for the attention of your player.  However, my one problem with the story perhaps is really a pacing issue.  The constant sense of urgency made side missions more obvious that they were just side missions.

With the first Assassin's Creed each assassination had two very clear phases, investigation and execution.  During the investigation phase you could do all or just a few of the side missions and then move on to the execution phase.  The side missions were also tied into the idea of investigating the assassination target.  This made the side missions feel like they were a part of the story.

In Assassin's Creed II this wasn't the case.  Gone was the idea of investigating a target before moving on to execution.  The story constantly pushes the player forward on to the next objective.  For a player only concerned with the story and not necessarily completing all of the side missions, this was probably not a problem.  I am not one of those players.  I found that I had to pull myself away from the main plot in order to not have all of the the side missions pile up.  This touches on a problem I have with a lot of games that seek to give the player more things to do and collect outside of the main story line.  When the side missions or collecting become obvious to the player it becomes obvious to the player that their actions are no longer those of the character in the game, they are of a player playing a game.  Ezio as a character would not, after hearing that Antonio needs to see him, run off to try to beat the track time of a random thief.

I think the team at Ubisoft made this change to the story's pacing in response to some of the criticisms the first game had with the investigation phase of the missions.  A lot of negative attention was paid to Assassin's Creed's repetitive side missions.  While I can certainly understand where the criticism comes from, I think something was lost by stripping out the investigation phases of the game.

Another aspect of Assassin's Creed II that I think suffered with the change in story pacing was the idea of planning out you assassinations.  In the first Assassin's Creed completing the side missions would gain you information about guard placement, patrol patterns and other possibly useful information about the target and the area surrounding the target.  This information could be used to plan out your method of attack.  This planning aspect helped to make the player feel like they were playing the part of an expert assassin.  Someone who would use this information to find the path of the least resistance to their target, execute them and then leave without anyone knowing they had been there.  Perhaps this part was intentional, since Ezio, for most of the game's story was not an expert.  He was an assassin in training whose methods may have been a lot cruder than the expert Altair.  However, it did seem that the game thought that planning would still be something player would do with some of the loading screen tips.

You can't really talk about the story in an Assassin's Creed game without talking about the near future world of Desmond.  The higher level story of Desmond made some subtle changes which I think hurt the consistency and logic of the world.  In the first Assassin's Creed we are introduced to the idea of the animus and it's ability to allow people to relive the memories of their ancestors.  We are presented with the idea of synchronization and that Desmond can remember things not exactly as they happened and that if he becomes too out of synch with the memory he must relive the memory again.  The motivation behind this is to explain within the world the game elements within the world.  It was a bit of a stretch, but it worked okay.  The changes to how the animus worked in this game stretched the willing suspense of disbelief a little bit more.

The thing that I think hurt the believability of the animus the most was the hidden glyphs left behind by Subject 16.  Throughout the game the player is tasked with finding these hidden glyphs that are placed on landmarks throughout Italy.  Desmond is tasked with finding these to unlock the hidden message left by Subject 16.  This, however, doesn't make any sense within the context of the world.  Desmond is supposed to be only reliving the memories of his ancestor.  He is not supposed to be an active agent in these memories.  So Desmond can't really do anything that his ancestor Ezio didn't do.  So if Ezio didn't go up to the top of some building and stare at the wall for no descernible reason, there should be no way that Desmond could find these.  They could've explained this away by making it that these places are all places Ezio ends up for whatever reason and they were hidden in those places for a reason.  Instead, they made it clear that Desmond had to find them himself by the dialogue with the other characters.

I think this is part poor dialogue choice and part Ubisoft painting themselves into a corner.  They've committed to this idea of the animus as an excuse to explain the game elements in the world.  As the world expands and they add new game mechanics, they are going to find it increasingly difficult to explain them in a way that keeps the story consistent and logical.

Well, that's my take on the story of Assassin's Creed II and how it changed from the first game.  Next time I'll start to discuss more of the game mechanics and what can be learned from that.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Week Long Game-a-thon!! - Wrap Up

My "Week Long Game-a-thon!!" has come and gone and now it's time to wrap things up.  So how did I do?  Not as well as I had hoped.  I was off for an entire week and managed to get most of the way through 1 game, Assassin's Creed II.  Not exactly the epic playing of games I had anticipated when the week had started, but at the very least, I was able to knock off a good portion of a game that had been in my back log of games to play and finish.

I did end up finishing Assassin's Creed II this past weekend, so I will make a post discussing that game in the near future.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Week Long Game-a-thon!! - Update

So it's Friday of my "Week Long Game-a-thon!!" and I'm still working on Assassin's Creed II, and it's not for lack of trying.  I've put in a solid 8+ hours a day on that game since Monday and I'm still only about 2/3rds of the way done.  I guess I overestimated how much gaming I could get done in a week and underestimated my compulsion to complete every single thing possible before moving on to the next part of the game.

So far, I'm really enjoying it but I'll post my final thoughts on the game once I'm done.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Week Long Game-a-thon!!

So since I’m out of work for a at least a week, I thought I would spend some time catching up on games I haven’t had a chance to play. To kick things off I’m going to be playing Assassin’s Creed II for the Xbox 360. This should be interesting since I just finished playing the first Assassin’s Creed game a little over a month ago and it will be fresh in my mind. It should make for some interesting observations of what things the team changed in the sequel. Anyway, time to get playing. I’ll keep you all posted.

A Fresh Start

Hello everybody.  I'm Jason Wilson.  I'm a game designer from Ontario Canada.  This week is a week of new beginnings for me.  Last week I was employed as a Game Designer at Tecmo Koei Canada.  This week, that's no longer the case.  I won't get into the details of what exactly happened, but suffice it to say I am temporarily unemployed.  I've also moved into a new apartment, but that's not quite as exciting.

Some of you may be wondering, "Wasn't there a blog here before and where did all the posts go?"  Well, in the spirit of new beginnings I've decided to wipe the slate clean.  My previous blog was a bit neglected.  I had high hopes of posting to it regularly, but it didn't turn out.  So now the blog is getting a gritty reboot.

What can you expect from this new blog?  Well, I plan to still discuss gaming in all forms whether it be video games, board games, card games, TV game shows, or anything else I think relates to the topic of gaming.  I will undoubtedly go off on ridiculous tangents and not always stay on topic, but what blogger doesn't?

So come along for the ride and we'll see where this blog takes us.