The Last Station

January 08, 11

Once a student came to me and asked me, “What is the purpose of life?”  When I replied, “To play,” he was disappointed. 

“Just to play, is it?” he asked and went away. 

But, if you are still thinking that life must have a purpose, then you have not yet arrived at the last station at the end of the railroad of life.  When you arrive at the last station at the end of the line, you play. 

In the Kannon sutra, it is written, “How does the Bodhisattva Kannon play in this Saha world of suffering?”  When Kannon comes to save sentient beings in this world, the Bodhisattva is “playing.” 

When you have reached the last station at the end of the line, there is nothing to seek, all one does is play.

— Zen Master Yamada Mumon, commentary on Ten Oxherding Pictures


The Ripe Fruit

January 05, 11

I have a few squirrel friends. They PLAY. They pump and amble their nimble little bodies along a fence shared with my neighbor usually in sync with my own lunch efforts.

They seek tasty golf ball sized fruits, of the uncommon variety, to bite just once and toss into my pool for maximum filter clogging potential, definitely enjoying it all the more if they believe me to be watching.

For awhile, I was entertained just watching them traverse the four inch wide fence rail while never really witnessing a single missed step. Then I started watching the “transfer” moment when they would leap onto the tree from the fence. Once safely through the leap – again they never miss – there were several branch paths they could take to a wide variety of scattered fruit outcroppings.

I started to notice that not only did they use highly efficient paths on the branches, they always seemed to go straight to the perfectly balanced shade of fruit. Yet, they can’t see the relative shade of ripeness of fruit outcroppings all at once. They don’t have a good view of the whole.

Who does?

Does perfect fruit smell differently? Is it some kind of nasal advantage? I’ve logged some National Geographic Channel time, and squirrels ain’t bloodhounds. They can’t zoom in on fruit clusters using google Earth. No one radios in to these fuzzy pool cloggers the triangulation of perfectly shaded fruit clusters. I found myself getting kind of mad about it.

How do they know where the perfect fruit outcroppings even lie?

If I pick a mutual fund with a stellar Morningstar rating, I’ll still lose half my investment by dinner. So I’m left to just sit down with my soup bowl knowing that I’ve never had this much success or efficiency in any of my own tasks. We all feel like we’re sometimes taking the wrong branches, and often eat plenty of bad fruit.

The Crush

December 07, 10

One of the problems in the constant CRUSH of development, is that few are able to gain the luxury and benefit of play … play that involves the physical, mental, and tangible. 

The big problem here, and the weird paradox, is that most design discoveries of any impact or interest, come from play. 

So if you aren’t playing, you’re probably not doing anything very interesting.

Let’s look for more evolved accidents enjoyed while playing around. Off path from the intended target. 

You can’t plan your way to discovery, you have to play your way to discovery. We often find ourselves way too busy in execution to even fully understand the boundaries of this trap.

Fun Factor: Tension

July 19, 10

Great level designers know how to graph and vary tension well. There are patterns and normally, a fairly specific rhythm.  When the rhythm of a level is clunky or disproportionate — you feel it.  You need a tension pattern that grabs you, but isn’t obvious.

Varying level tension is a subtle art.

A great teacher of mine once showed me how a drummer can drive a song, but not be particularly noticed. The loudest instrument is driving the most delicate pulse. Yet, if you pull the drum track out, the song collapses on itself. It has no pulse to anchor or guide it.  Think about Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean without Ndugu Chancellor’s drumming.  It wouldn’t connect nearly like it does. 

You want a tension pattern that drives the level but isn’t noticed. This takes long nights and really good tools. In fact, to a large degree, when you’re talking about the experience of gameplay – you can usually draw a straight line to how well tension was used.

Some follow something like an extended A-B-A or B-A-B pattern, or any combo version of these.  In a 3rd person action level, “A” might equal something like 4-5 enemies on one and “B” might equal something closer to 2 enemies on one.  This is your basic enemy stack or pacing.

If you look at Call of Duty MW2, architecture itself is used to setup where an “A area” transitions to “B areas” or vice versa. An open courtyard area can indicate a transition, or a connector. It can be a point to catch your breath in the pattern. A dip in the pulse of the tension.

Of course you can have other shades of action between “intense” or “moderate” – these are just used to make the point that you can think of the tension in a level kind of like a song structure. If a level is flat on either side of center it won’t connect nearly as well.

Example: We’ve all seen levels that repeat a staggered 3 on 1 attack throughout the level. This is a B-B-B type experience. This is like mowing grass. Not very exciting. There is little expectation or surprise.  Tension is flat. 

There is no variance in the tension graph.

The level doesn’t go anywhere up or down in the tension intensity. It only goes sideways.

I’m not always successful to be sure, it’s hard to get it right, but I try and pay attention to the tension graph of a level and think about the rise and fall of the dynamics caused by tension.

God of War III Event

June 29, 10

Earlier this Summer, I attended a great IGDA panel featuring several members from the God of War III team. Great presentation, and what a really cool team! A couple things jumped out at me:

1)  Going after an idea based on play value in prototype without a clear or exact understanding of how the final technical integration will work (and that’s an understatement). 

I really admired the effort to get the incredible Titan based levels (the ones where you’re battling on the surface and interior of the Giant!) working quickly by prototype so that the playability could be demonstrated immediately, you could learn early, and start to refine.

We always learn late, and that’s a killer.

It was obvious engineering had other ideas towards a more elegant solution that never came to pass – but, hey, it works and damn is it fun! Plenty of challenge I’m sure both for art fabrication, integration and tools/setup requirements for getting Kratos working his punishing magic on this moveable surface.

Personally, I’m always bummed when prototyping just isn’t possible due to resources and schedule as seems to happen every time I’m at bat.

Make it possible if you want above average results.

2) Using a team of fan playtesters to really drive milestones.

For those of us who have written a bazillion milestones that the team kind of half-heartedly observes for 10 seconds and reluctantly commits to vaguely while shuffling their way back to the grind, the refrigerator, or the foos ball table — it was interesting to hear that playtesting was used as a direct milestone driver.

“Have your level section working by Thursday at 4pm next week – or see a bunch of disgusted people experience your game in a really negative way and watch them cry and text their buddies not to bother waiting for it.”

I can absolutely see how this works as a motivator. The ugliest thing in the world is someone wincing or crunchy faced playing your game, nose askance, like it’s sitting on a trash can behind the liquor store. You want smiles and screams and button fury, and this pushes you further than any paper graph on the wall ever will.