Boy, how time flies. An eternity has passed and now time has wrapped around itself and Ka-Bloom is getting released again! But in this timeline, something weird happened and the almighty commercial arm of BBC decided to publish it!
That’s right, Strongman Games is proud, excited and slightly baffled to announce that Ka-Bloom will be released for iOS and Android in the near future! We have worked with BBC Worldwide and Spacehopper Studios to completely revamp Ka-Bloom and bring the gem-chomping, ever-smiling Floret under the thumbs of many, many lucky mobile gamers.
We’ve redone the artwork, we’ve remixed the music, we’ve designed 56 all-new levels and applied copious amounts of polish. This time, we had a way better idea of what the game really was, and the result is an all-smiling, all-chomping mind-expanding cornucopia of rope physics puzzles that will leave you wondering just why you never stroked a Floret before. We will announce release dates as soon as we have ‘em.
Wow, time flies. We’ve been promising updates about GDC, we’ve been promising games, and we’ve promised announcements. Now, then, it is time to live up to at least one of those obligations.
Strongman Games is very pleased to announce OhMyGame!
OhMyGame is a Flash-based, web-native game development environment. Once we’ve launched, you just head to http://www.omga.me, then log in and you’re presented with an editor interface that lets you quickly and simply deal with most game development tasks:
- Visual coding: A simple, powerful system for gameplay coding. Instead of dealing with UML-based spaghetti, you’re simply stacking cause and effect blocks to construct behaviours. If that sounds too good to be true, head on over to the Gamasutra piece for a more thorough description.
- Level editor: Tile-based editor featuring layers, waypoints, fully manipulable props, automatic edge detection, collision volumes and much, much more. Will be expanded to include what’s really, seriously, completely earth-shatteringly awesome procedural level generation tech. We’re so stoked about this we considered renaming the company Industrial Fucking Furnaces.
- Asset management: OhMyGame deals splendidly with your graphics, sounds and animation and even has some tricks up its sleeve. You manage graphics and animation in the same interface as your physics and collision detection, meaning you bring your world and characters to life in a single place.
- Physics: Physics sits at the very heart of OhMyGame. It’s nothing special, just completely and utterly natural as physics ought to be: It handles collisions and lets you create living, responsive worlds with proper heft.
- And everything sits in the cloud: Yep. We host your files, we manage your data, we compile your code — everything is done off-site. You don’t need to keep track of your files, you don’t need to worry about backup and you can collaborate with anyone from anywhere in the world on whatever project you can imagine.
- That means everything can be shared: And it will be. You can share assets, code, levels, even entire game templates. Absolutely everything you’ll ever author in OMGame can be shared. Of course, you’ve got a measure of control — sharing happens on your terms.
- Yes, shared: No longer will indie developers, students, hobbyists or even game industry professionals be separated. Everything they ever make can, if they choose, benefit everyone else. This is the revolution, comrades.
Astute readers may have noticed that I haven’t promised Molehill support, UI tools, networking and a slew of other obvious features, but that’s because they won’t feature in the beta and we don’t want to promise too much right away.
It’s coming, though. We’re prepared for Molehill, we’re introducing robust UI tools as soon as the core features are refined, networking is the very nature of the beast and truly radical stuff like a built-in synthesizer for run-time generation of music and sound effects rather than chunky, poorly compressed MP3 files.
Just trust us when we say that OhMyGame will change the way you make games. You’ll make games the way you think about them, the way they appear like little flickering dreamscapes on the back of your eyelids, like systems — like beautiful little machines. No code, no IDEs, no compilers, no worrying about cross-platform compatibility, API revisions and conventions.
We’ve got it handled. Just sign up to the OhMyGame beta, and all shall be well.
Ok, so it turns out GDC was a tad bit too busy for us to actually do any meaningful writing. However, that’s only because there was so much going on. The atmosphere was completely different from last year’s GDC, with a tangible sense of the era of games being confined to the PC and tightly regulated platforms is over.
There’s tons to write about, but there’s also tons of business to chase, products to be launched, announcements to be made and crazy awesome stuff like you wouldn’t believe headed your way.
Yes. Your way. Stay tuned.
The Strongman crew is headed to glorious San Francisco tomorrow morning, for yet another brave assault on the Game Developers Conference. We will be making some announcements as we settle into the conference groove and start talking to people, and there’s well and truly exciting things on the horizon.
In addition, we’ll do our best to cover the convention and give a good insider’s peek. Depending on wi-fi availability at Moscone, they might be evening post-event updates rather than live-blogging, but we’re confident you will all be able to take part in the Strongman experience.
If you’re headed to GDC yourself, drop us a line at email@example.com if you want a chat, collaborate on something or just drink yourself to death in our company. We still have that viking spirit.
This rather excellent blog post prompted me to finally write about something that’s been bouncing around in my skull lately: The disparity between the narrative context and the mechanical systems of most games.
Cultural expressions, be they films, music, cookbooks or striptease, tend to be about something: They explore themes. Sure, a piece might subvert or play around with its theme, and that might turn out to be the essence of the expression, but generally there’s a certain correspondence between theme and content that provides integrity to the experience.
Games are notoriously bad at this. I could produce a laundry list of games that fail to capitalize on their premise whatsoever (sandbox games are notorious repeat offenders), but to enable the clever pun in my title I’ll focus on games featuring giant walking robots. Beware, reader: At least one sacred cow will be mercilessly slaughtered.
Consider this list:
- Steel Batallion
- Virtual On
- Shogo: Mobile Armor Division
- One Must Fall 2097
Sure, these are all very different games in terms of genre, but they share a theme: You’re in charge of a mecha fighting other mechs. Ostensibly, these games are modelling the same basic circumstances in order to give the impression of participation in mecha warfare. Some of them, however, never even attempt to realize the theme’s implications and reduces the exciting notion of manning a ten-ton bipedal death-o-rama to an empty surface metaphor.
Steel Batallion is a prime example of a game that goes to surreal lengths to immerse the player in its city-stomping subject matter. Supporting what can only be described as an optional cockpit with two controller sticks, pedals and over 40 buttons, Steel Batallion makes a serious effort to simulate something that does not even exist. It’s a great example of exactly how silly and awesome games can be:
Of course, Capcom didn’t shirk its responsibilities in designing the simulation either: Players must eject from disabled mechs or lose their character. Mechs will topple if manoeuvred too ambitiously. There are even window wipers.
Skip to about 5:35 for gameplay. It’s absolutely glorious.
The mecha is as fully embodied as possible. The weight and inertia of the machine is a central play element, along with realistic hardpoints and even the suggestion of an operating system that fails if the machine overheats. Steel Batallion faithfully reproduces even the most minute details of its fiction in both presentation and gameplay.
The contrast with Shogo: Mobile Armor Division is staggering. While ostensibly about mecha combat, the mechs are nimble and unrestrained by their suggested scale, pivoting as quickly as you can skate your mouse around, bounding like bunnies as they circle-strafe their quarry. The only real difference between the on-foot and mech sections is the elevation of the viewport and the scale of the surroundings.
While a competent FPS, Shogo completely fails to connect its surface metaphor and mechanics. The metaphor is pure window-dressing, faithfully reflecting its source material down to its faux manga aesthetics, but failing to encapsulate it in its mechanics. In a sense, the game is lying to you about what it is. It occasionally swaps textures, weapons and enemy models around and replaces the ceiling with a skybox, but that’s it.
(In the same sense, Call of Duty: World at War and Modern Warfare fails to distinguish between WW2-era and modern weaponry. They’re balanced in the same fashion, the same raycasts determining trajectory and the same canned recoil animations faking feedback.
The feeling of participating in WW2, it is implied, was similar to a modern surgical-precision operation — or at the very least, the sense of being a soldier in a war hasn’t changed. That certainly suits the CoD series’ propagandist portrayal of war.)
Of course, this is not to say that every game needs to be a simulation or constrain itself to real-world phenomena. Plants vs Zombies hardly portrays an accurate relationship between, well, plants and zombies — but that’s not the point either. It’s an interface-driven resource-management clickfest.
There is no real player embodiment and the surface metaphor is supposed to catch the player’s interest, not provide scaffolding for mental modelling of the mechanics. If anything, the surface metaphor’s wish-fulfilment fantasy lies in the juxtaposition of flora and undead, suggesting to those who like zombies that they’re perfectly acceptable pop culture tropes, while those who find zombies ridiculous have that notion reaffirmed as corncobs fling butter at them.
There’s hardly any plumbing in the Super Mario universe, but there are plenty of pipes that create a dreamlike coherence between Mario and the Mushroom Kingdom. Of course the subconscious wish-fulfilment fantasy of a Brooklyn plumber will feature pipes. Only they’ll be clean, and they lead to magical places.
(Meanwhile, consider how strangely unsuitable Sonic the Hedgehog’s signature golden rings became when coupled with a black, gun-toting hero. They changed from trope to signifier.)
Virtual On sits in a strange place. Its mechanics and physics are completely detached from reality, but the game very much captures the fantasy of mecha combat. There is a heaviness and sluggishness to the uninterruptable and occasionally lengthy attack animations suggest a certain physicality, sure, but the fantasy is the superhuman freedom, strength and combat potential afforded by technology.
It’s the fantasy that the human form (the body as separated from the mind, a silly dualism our culture fixates too much on) could become even more acrobatic, even swifter, even more powerful if only it was something we made rather than was given. Notice how I can’t even talk about embodiment without suggesting that the body was given to the mind.
Where Steel Batallion amply illustrates precisely how impractical walking tanks would actually be (and thus, in a sense, undermines its own fiction, but I’ll let that stand lest I undermine my own), Virtual On is an interactive extrapolation of the excitement and sheer exhilaration of impossible possibility that underlies mecha combat in manga and anime. It is a recreation of a comic book reality and its carefree transgression of mundanity.
The same can be said for Shogo, but the fact that the game distinguishes (or actually fails to distinguish) on-foot and mecha combat highlights that they’re just the same. Mobility, play-style and mode of participation remains the same. While the weapon models vary, their sense of power and impact doesn’t. The fiction grows hollow and bereft of significance.
Another example could be the horses in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Shadow of the Colossus. Epona is a vehicle. It’s a box sliding around topology with an animated model attached, increasing movement speed but otherwise failing to impact the mechanics of movement.
Agro, on the other hand, is a horse. You guide his movements rather than controlling them, the horse exhibiting enough intelligence to avoid cliff edges and enough physicality that he never turns on a dime. You could argue that Epona is a product of hardware limitations, but how come the fat Italian plumber physics of Super Mario 64 are so accomplished?
Virtual On, then, inhabits the same dream-made-real space as the Super Mario series. The kinetics as well as affordances reflect a particular aesthetic, a particular mode of wish-fulfilment. Steel Batallion reflects another.
One Must Fall 2097, however, fails to reflect any aesthetic at all. Often lauded for its depth (really just its customization metastructure, which in itself undermines the entire aesthetic of the fighting game genre in a doubly-whammy of groan-worthy design), the game makes no effort to embody characteristics of its subject matter.
The pre-rendered mechas are the laziest sort: No stretching and squashing, no heft and scale, not even the slightest hint of weight and balance shifts. Sure, there are sparks instead of blood, and the Mechanical Gladiators conceit supports the metastructure, but the game is not about giant mechs duking it out. Its fiction is a commercial differentiator, nothing central to the experience per se.
Now, you could say I’m being rather mean-spirited and chauvinistic about the importance of congruence in mechanics and fiction, but I believe that the honesty of games (in the sense that Robert McKee talks about honesty in story) lies in the relationship between mechanics and their representation.
The MechWarrior series strikes an elegant balance, avoiding the sheer impracticality of Steel Batallion while immersing the player in a somewhat faithful simulation of what mech combat might be like. The weight and scale of the mechs is implied by an exaggerated view bob, while the slow turn-rate and limited weapon load-out shapes play style.
While the interface is more utilitarian than wish-fulfilling, it implies the complexity and sophistication of the machinery. It’s not a very absorbing simulation (unless you own one of those crazy cockpit cabinets, you lucky pig), but it’s coherent enough to convey a real sense of participation in its fiction. In short, the game doesn’t lie about what it is and doesn’t attempt to short-change your expectations. The simulation is honest and, if anything, a little dignified about its limitations.
The point, in the end, is that games absolutely need honesty to be meaningful. Their mechanics need to explore rather than simply reflect their surface fiction, if they are to be respected as cultural expressions. I believe a game is essentially redundant if all it aspires to is basic agency and nothing more. Unlike storytelling, fiction is not at the heart of videogames; fiction is a facilitator. A kind of Rosetta stone that gives a few clues as to the content of the system, while leaving the exploration and understanding to the player.
In a sense, games are anti-fiction because they cannot contrive meaning through structural devices, symbols or metaphor alone. They rely on projecting meaning onto the player’s actions, unlike a reader or film-viewer who projects meaning onto the symbols comprising its narrative. Unlike text, games can have intrinsic meaning that arises from the participation itself rather than the interpretation of a projected participation.
You cannot lend meaning to a film of another person playing a game unless you know the game itself or form some manner of identification with the player — at which point the game simply becomes a diegetic element in a fiction. The sense of mentally modelling the relationships between a game’s mechanics lie at the heart of the play experience.
Yes, there is also the momentary exhilaration of pure participation, as suggested by Callois’ categories of fun, but fun is a shallow definition of the simultaneous sense of learning, exploring, hypothesizing, testing and re-embodiment that distinguishes games from many other forms of entertainment. In this way, play has more in common with performance than consumption.
The aesthetics of games rely on coherence between signifiers and experience-of-dynamics (Heidegger would have invented a great word for this, bless the old contrarian) rather than possible meanings to be gleaned through interpretation. The system is objective, no matter how flexible; if you study it you will learn its truth.
That’s not to say that a negation of this relationship is not a worthwhile aesthetic (look at masocore games), but unless the negation is explicit and perhaps even the reason for the player’s participation, the game has failed. Failed as an expression, failed as a symbolic system and failed as an effort of craft.
If you’re a developer, let your game be a symphony of implication, fiction, agency and empowerment (the gratification of successful effort, not just embodiment of a warrior or all-powerful technocrat) that is above all concerned with the honesty of the relationship between fiction and system.
Let both reinforce each other’s meaning to the player’s experience and let the experience-of-dynamics be as pleasurable and believable as possible, even if the subject matter is incomprehensible horror.
(Modern Warfare 2 and its retarded little brother, Black Ops, look down in shame as the words resound through the immateria of gamespace.)
There’s a reason LARPers dress up like orcs and elves and then go on to feign their mannerisms and role-play their racial traits. If the effort of participation was tangential to the enjoyment of games, they wouldn’t. They’d make it simple, and just tell their friends that they’re fantastic exaggerations of human anatomy. Then they’d order pizza, put on a DVD and leave it at that.
If you’re a player, let yourself be fascinated not only by the representation of your chosen wish-fulfilment fantasy. Let the wish-fulfilment carry weight, a sense of reality even where there is none.
Don’t let 60-foot humanoid war machines wrought from exotic alloys and the finest cybernetics feel like the resin replicas that fetch such awful sums in comic book stores, or even worse — like some dude in a suit, like a faker-than-fake Godzilla or King Kong. Because in play, they are not symbols. They are essence.
Games are about something. They always are, even if the consensus is that they’re primarily compulsion-facilitation machines that can be applied to shopping lists and exercise regimes. No, that’s a misunderstanding — or worse! A lie and a distortion that seeks to strip the most monumentally important cross-fertilization of culture and technology down to a more addicting form of drama.
Obey the robot.
Next: Why Panzer Dragoon Orta fails to provide a believable simulacrum of dragon-back mayhem in comparison to Lair, and how World of WarCraft by merit of its action figure aesthetics and pondrous pacing perfectly encapsulates the naffness of its subject matter.
All the media attention surrounding “hacking” these last few weeks have made me think. First up, it’s funny how Julian Assange of Wikileaks has been branded a “hacker”, suggesting that whistleblowing facilitated by the digital domain is somehow a crime (or should be). Whatever he did in the past hardly concerns the legality (or technicalities) of his methods.
Next up, I detest the “hacktivism” label that’s used to describe DDoS attacks whether they stem from botnets or actual activism such as Anonymous’ LOIC parties. Again, while it’s a clever turn of phrase, it suggests that congesting the internet is somehow an illicit act and not a feature of the system.
I’m not sure if I see how DDoS-ing a website is any different from a protest march. It commands attention, it disrupts business as usual and it forces some manner of response. Considering the London Metropolitan Police’s response to the student protests against cuts in higher education, I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that the powers that be has a might-makes-right approach to policing the internet (what a sad, confused article) too.
Game activism & Newsgaming
A few years back, while I was doing my BA, our lecturer talked about Newsgames. He showed us some examples, such as that game where you blow up terrorists in a middle-eastern town, only to find your “preventative aggression” spawning more and more terrorists.
I wasn’t very impressed with that game, mainly because I saw the model presented as little more than a rhetorical trick in game form. However, the concept is sound. A picture says more than a thousand words, but a loop can be infinite.
Game design strikes me as a great idea dissemination tool, potentially more direct and detailed than any pamphlet. Good systems can be stronger than arguments, as their reading is active interpretation. There’s no way to take them literally.
In a sense, Ian Bogost’s Cow Clicker is also an activist game, again so simple that it annoys me, but quite spot on all the same. Bogost underestimates the power of metaphor, but his point about shallow, compulsive systems is very valid.
System determines behaviour, but metaphor gives rise to experience. A system without symbols has little content unless you’re a hardcore system aesthete. Those systems fall into the trap of academia: They become excluding, relevant only to experts.
But, since we’re all experts in games, I’ll have a go at system-driven activism anyway. Imagine a game built around the now-infamous LOIC.
Participative Denial of Service Attacks
It could be really simple. Imagine a sorting game in the vein of Diner Dash or Galcon. The player is given a steady stream of resources, and a number of targets to spend them on. Or something like Pipe Dream, where you guide a flow towards a target.
Now imagine that the resources are TCP packets and the targets corporate networks. This could be reflected in the surface metaphor as well, with branded targets. The metaphor would dictate the overtness of the political action.
Any innocuous-looking match-three game on a games portal could be a concealed weapon, although I suppose portals have mechanisms in place to prevent this. At least I hope they do. Other games could be overt, with freedom fighters chucking molotovs at corporate headquarters.
You could even do multiplayer games. Each player swears allegiance to a number of brands (which will be intrinsically ironic, given the objective of the game) and then sets out to protect them from DoS attacks by expending a limited pool of resources as part of a team.
Each team’s politics would revolve around what brands to protect, with arguments about their real-world usefulness, benevolence, malice and coolness. The teams could also spend resources to mount attacks, with teams targeting each other based on their brands. Or there could be resources to win by attacking, meaning brands could be “innocent bystanders” in what’s really just a raid.
It would all be anti-corporate, of course, a sort of merry dance of destruction, a sort of anti-EVE Online. Or in a sense, it’d be like EVE Online partially overlapping the real world, groups of what’s essentially cyber-opportunists whose primary social mode is trolling, looking out for number one while casually participating in an internet-economics artillery battery.
Keep it simple
It doesn’t need to be hardcore either. Just make it Diner Dash or GalconFusion with team score, and a chat window on the side where players could discuss between rounds. That’s a start.
I recently attended a Games Gone Wild schmoozing and discussion panel event headed up by Nicholas Lovell, the lovable scamp running Gamesbrief. The theme was, as always, social games and the discussion was … general, to the point of being People Saying Things despite featuring a fairly varied and interesting cross-section of the online games biz.
Might have been too varied, as practically every company represented was in different businesses despite all falling under the “online” and “game” umbrellas. In any case, Lovell got to plug his book and I asked a question about middleware, which provoked a bit of chitchat and turned out to be a good way to cast myself in a role so people would later assume I was a Middleware Guy.
I don’t know any Middleware Guys personally, but I assume the term holds ample connotations and implications for certain people. God knows if I’m one of them.
In any case, the question “what is a social game?” arose, an instant flabbergaster because it’s so bleeding obvious to the people on the panel but at the same time the intersection between “social” and “game” is different to each of them because they’re in different businesses.
Since a discussion panel is supposed to yield semi-bitesize-ish thought fodder, everyone acts serious and pro and avoids hogging the mic, giving relatively brief and well-measured opinions without providing any real insight. They’re pretty good at it. The question “what is a social game” leads, of course, to the much larger and sillier question “what is a game?”
This is, of course, different for everyone enjoying videogames. For me, it’s somewhere between the pleasure of the impact and the weird hands-off tangibility of cybernetics. The sense of mental control over a system and all its mechanisms, all its variables.
The moment-to-moment enjoyment of involvement, the zen of motion; the sense of taming/experiencing interacting dynamics where each action ripples across a focused, controlled zero-flub environment that amplifies rather than dampens player agency. Instead of pushing against springs, the player is handed a loud hailer.
In a way, the freeze-frame impact amplifier employed so well in Street Fighter 2 and beyond is a spatio-temporal compression of pushing a wave in a DOTA-alike. The amount of compression of that moment of impact could be said to be inversely proportional of how many agents need opportunity to make a valid contribution to it.
In League of Legends, the moment of impact can last for 20 seconds and it will pass quick as lightning or seem like an eternity depending on circumstance just like that little extended pause at knock out in Street Fighter. The final freeze frame, the exaggerated one that declares winner and loser.
In a similar sense, Diablo and Final Fight is really the same sense of satisfaction, part of the same template-branch in the giant idea-organism-tree of game design. Both are social, as are DOTA and Street Fighter. Sure, not everyone plays them socially, but they facilitate that as well.
What is it that makes them games? Well, certainly tons of underlying mechanisms, some of which are commercial in nature (the spare change chucked into the arcade cabinet, the time spent on Battle.net), but to me it’s the moment of impact.
Social games modulate the moment of impact in certain ways depending on the number of players. System granularity (not complexity) usually increases as well, to “pad out” the moment of impact with resource management, risk-reward loops and tactical considerations/tension builders. That’s why a good Street Fighter 3 match is so awesome: It’s all the compressed impact of agency every few seconds.
I’m not good enough at Super Street Fighter IV to get that same lovely sense of authority over the possibility space that I get in truly great moments of successfully extending my will into social landscapes filled with means and cause for conflict, itself an amplifier rather than dampener.
That’s because I don’t have anyone to play with, and while I can learn the rules of the game, the psychology of their application eludes me as long as I don’t have any social context for them. Their architecture, both form and purpose, brings people together into conflict in the same focused way that alcohol and low lights bring them together into socializing — like the whole Games Gone Wild evening, really.
But I didn’t expect the panelists to say that. The evening was, after all, a sort of investor meat market, something I only really noticed when some pleasantly intrusive older chap, an energetic and eager sort that’s unstoppable rather than rude. He cheerfully interrupted a nice conversation I had with another Middleware Guy who did a sort of story-telling AI that I described as a dynamic foldback scheme system and got a nod for. I’m sure it’s way cooler than just that.
I think I have that guy’s card, and I know he has mine. Another social game — I make sure they all get a nice, pink Zangief business card that sit there like a little memetic time bomb, ready to blow up once an unwitting host is given some reason to remember me. The guy who did the fantastic card game Once Upon a Time, about collaborative storytelling, has a card and I hope he remembers me.
He organizes occasional board game gatherings for dabblers and industry professionals. I believe I might just kill to be there. More social games.
The night ended with a long-ish conversation with another Middleware Guy. He was American, seemed very bright and focused in the serious and slightly overwhelming way that some American professionals do. Like a momentarily friendly predator, a lion laying down with the lamb.
We chatted, he gave me some strangely sage & fatherly life advice, told me a little about his career and was critical but clearly encouraging throughout the conversation. He sidelined me to talk to someone appearing to be a paymaster-cum-chum who I promptly introduced myself to, resulting in a bit of social strongarming. I probed his shabby exterior while mustering a shield of nonchalance, trying to figure out why he smelled of money despite the unshaven face, crappy cargo pants and beer gut.
He soon threatened to kill me, so I finally managed to break into the local wi-fi and send an e-mail to my girlfriend, promising her I’d be home in about 10 minutes. Death threat untweeted, I strayed onto the Long Way Home, cheering up council workers as I completely missed Waterloo Station while the rain kept getting worse with every step I took. Another social game.
It’s time for a second bout of game design discussion, this time focusing on the design (and finally, visuals!) of Heidegger.
It’s not a big project, but it is many things: a road test for our technology and the first prototype of a way more ambitious project, but first and foremost it’s a game about herding. The basic form of the system is that enemies respond to the avatar’s movement in a predictable fashion. That’s the premise, the game at its vaguest conceptual level. It only turns into a game once the system grows more granular, more specific.
The player can influence the movement of the herd, but to what end? Mastery of the herd’s behaviour must lead to something, must be exploitable. Let’s add bombs. Lead a swarm of enemies towards a bomb then blow it up to wipe them all out and earn points. That adds direction to the system: Enemies are herded so they can be blown up. Since they spawn from all angles, they form a mutable element of the game space, something predictable yet plastic that forces manoeuvring and constantly threatens to end the player’s efforts.
Since the player can be cornered, he (I’ll be nice and use “she” in my next piece) needs to be capable of more than just movement to avoid the frustration of unavoidable defeat whenever surrounded or cornered. The avatar is given a weapon, but not one powerful enough to discourage herding and turn the game into a pure shooter, and the player is not awarded any points for shooting enemies. Instead, to avoid negative reinforcement, the player is awarded with an increased score multiplier. Shooting enemies rather than herding them towards bombs take away direct reward and substitute it with future, potential and compound reward – like putting money in the bank (or so banks would have you believe).
The system is taking ludic form. We have encouraged certain types of behaviour, and allowed certain others but at the cost of immediate reward to avoid de-emphasizing the core of the system. It is now a game, but there is still plenty of room for elaboration and granularity, for exploring, focusing and deepening the herding system.
Enemies could exhibit different responses to incoming weapon fire, move at different speeds and in different patterns – each of the existing mechanics give rise to more. Some enemies could dodge attacks; others could split in two and flank the avatar. There could be several avatars with different weaponry and movement, each demanding different responses to enemy behaviour. The multiplier is still underdeveloped, more of a band aid on the thematic contradiction of shooting enemies than a real mechanic. Could it be tied back into the herding, strengthening the concept rather than uncomfortably correcting one of its flaws? Of course, a path-finding algorithm could be employed to ensure escape routes from any situation, but that could cheapen the player’s effort and skill.
Skilful herding could also add to the multiplier, making it part of the essential risk/reward loop and adding further substance to it. Playing with the herd, escaping it at the last second – letting it encroach and then barely scraping by with pixels to spare, could increase the multiplier even more than shooting. By herding well rather than thinning the flock when it grows unruly, the player is rewarded for acting according to the thematic premise of the game.
That’s the aim of granularity, to strengthen and focus the system rather than simply expanding it. Variation is built into the system, not around it. This is what I see as systemic aesthetic, epitomizing the potential of a concept rather than widening it, and there are even more nooks and crannies that can be filled with meaning.
At the moment, the bomb is almost arbitrary, arguably the crux of the system but also external to the effort of herding. Say bombs spawn at set times, indicated by a countdown, to give the player a certainty about how much he has to exert himself before reaping the reward, allowing strategy on top of the tactics. Then, when the bomb has spawned, a second countdown starts – slightly longer than the first one.
Suddenly the player is tempted to exert himself further since another bomb will appear after another known period of time. Can the player cope with the enemies that are certain to spawn in that duration, or is it foolish overreaching? It’s tempting to continue since the reward will be greater and while navigating the swarms of enemies is risky, that translates into even greater opportunity for building multiplier. The complexity is self-reinforcing and as the system folds in on itself, stronger emotions are elicited – a stronger aesthetic emerges.
The second bomb appears, yet another timer starts ticking down. The neon numbers pulsate as the background slowly changes colour; this is the final one. All the mechanics encourage herding and building skills related to it; all are contained within the initial conceptual space. The herd grows enormous, little safe space remains; dodging, scraping and directing the swarm takes all the player’s cunning and skill … before the third bomb finally spawns.
No more countdowns, just more and more enemies spawning at breakneck speed. Steer them towards the bombs; try to get the bombs close to each other so they will all detonate in a destructive daisy-chain, aaaaaaaaand BOOM, the bombs go off and the herd evaporates as fireworks cover the screen, the points are multiplied by a gazillion and the granularity coalesces into a moment of breath-taking reward: Beauty.
This is the second part of a discussion of game design and aesthetics. The first part can be found here.