Thanks to the Nintendo DS I’ve had the chance to sample a wide variety of RPGS over the past year or so, from the insanity of The World Ends With You, to the good old days of Etrian Odyssey. Anyway this last month I picked up Dark Spire for the DS which according to fans is as old school of an RPG that you can get and I absolutely hated it. Before I get called “weaksauce” by the RPG vets, I loved Nocturne, Etrian Odyssey and TWEWY so I am a healthy member of the RPG veterans club. This got me thinking about the definition of old school and what does it mean for game design.

The description of old school is funny to me, as it means different things to who you talk to. For me old school is the NES and Atari era, to some it could be older then that and for some it could even mean the PlayStation 1 era. When we talk about the good old days a few design mechanics are always mentioned: Difficult games and highly focused on gameplay above storyline. If I used those variables then both EO and Dark Spire are both examples of the same style of game design, so then why do I love one and hate the other? I’ve come to the conclusion that old school design for the better part of it… sucks.

The problem when we refer to games as “old school” is that there is a difference in calling a design decision a “game mechanic” and a “game limitation”. To say that games have evolved since the 80s is an understatement and many of the features of older games were really limitations of the technology of the time. For example having to enter in long multi character password, I’ve never found that to be a good idea and was so happy when battery backup and saves were created. A lot of times we look at limitations in the form of a less then stellar interface such as with X-Com (yes I went there) but sometimes the design of the game get hit by this. Going back to my comparison of DS and EO there is a great litmus test to see if you like the former or the latter better. In DS you can only bring up the map by using a spell that only one class has access to and it only remains up while you’re standing still. Conversely EO has the map taking up the entire bottom screen at all times and allows the player to make notes and references and build the map on their own. If you think DS has the better mechanic then I think you would enjoy it more then EO.

If we were to compare both DS and EO to see which one is more old school then the other then DS would win easily, however I find EO to be the better game of the two. EO is brutally difficult but it makes several modern day concessions that even it out, such as being able to have a map at all times. DS is stuck in the 80s with a horrible interface and difficulty for all the wrong reasons. When we talk about leaving certain game mechanics in the past, challenge shouldn’t be one of them. However creating a game that take all those lessons learned about design and ditches them is almost as worse.

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Last month I talked about posting examples of co-op game design. Between work and having my new video card crap out on me I haven’t had time to sit down and type up my idea. With some spare time now here is the first of my co-op ideas.

I’m in the camp that co-op can add a lot to design and for my idea I’m combining it with an open world setting. The game takes place in modern day around the world with 2 former thieves/mercenaries. Most of the story at this point is up in the air although I have a good idea of what it will be (but I’ll save that for later), for now though the gameplay is set. The duo wants to perform jobs, both for money and for payback and arrive in various locales around the world. When they arrive in an area they have a target and sometimes a deadline for attempting the main mission, before that they need to go around the city performing jobs that setup the main one. Throughout the city there are missions that will aid the duo in one or more of the three phrases of the operation: infiltration, the job and escape. Missions are rated in difficulty along with what person can attempt them; some missions can be done with either person or both at the same time. The difficulty will affect how much the results will help the main mission. There are two factors that both players will need to keep track of which will affect the world around them.

The two factors are how much the police or security of the locale are alerted to the trouble you’re causing and how well known the duo is in the area. The first determines how strong of a force will come out or is defending an area that the duo wants to hit and will increase depending upon the missions the team does and how much damage they cause. The second factor is how much do they stand out or are recognized in the city and as this increases it will be harder for the duo to be stealthy and avoid suspicion. One of the two can fill up and while making the game harder won’t be considered a game over, however if the duo spends enough time in the area to fill up both variables then the mission will become impossible to achieve and the duo will fail. Eventually the players will have to attempt the mission before the two stats fill up and to make things interesting; there is no way for both players to accomplish all side objectives before the mission starts.

When the mission starts the game will create a plan based on what objectives you completed beforehand and after a briefing you and your partner will have to complete the job. I’ve always had a love for simultaneous actions as two or more people work together to achieve a bigger goal (one of the reasons I enjoyed the Ocean’s Eleven movie series). As both players work together but separate from each other, they need to complete the objective and then make their exciting escape. Imagine a GTA like car chase through a city as both players either in the same vehicle or in their own must get away from the cops and make it out of the city before they are caught.

As the game goes on the duo will take on bigger and harder jobs with different constraints. Such as completing the job before X days are up, or before one of the stats reach a certain point. I think the open world genre and co-op gameplay are perfect partners in game design and with the success of Crackdown I could see more games developed to allow players to work together to achieve something.

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It’s introspective time once again, this time I’m looking at a topic that we’ve all heard from various news sources, video game addiction. I’ve been going to bed after 5 in the morning this past week, one part from insomnia, another chronic pain and lastly from being up playing Demigod (beta patch) and PVZ. Nights like these make me wonder if I really am addicted to video games.

I could easily say yes or no and call it a day, but where is the fun in that? I do play a lot of video games and most of my income goes towards it. I will admit getting caught up in a game and playing it for longer then I intended (My L4D friends can attest to that) however the other signs of addiction are not present. I have never lied about the fact that I play a lot of video games, nor I have ever stolen money. I am always restless but that is from chronic pain and not from having to get my fix. There are plenty of days that I don’t feel like playing video games, it does happen sometimes even for me. I have avoided the major sources of addiction in society: smoking, drinking, drugs etc and have no desire to start of any of them. Even though I play a lot of video games I do not think I’m addicted to them and I have one source of evidence why.

Even though I play a lot of video games I could never play the same game everyday for the rest of my life. No matter what the game is I cannot ever get myself so attached to a game that I forsake everything else. I play games for the different experiences and challenges and once I’m done with one I move on to the next. I will revisit games to recapture those experiences I once had but not even the games that I love, I could play every day. Still while I may not be addicted to video games, it has become apparent to me that I am obsessed with game design.

Since I was 11 years old I decided to focus on becoming a game designer and have really put everything else aside to accomplish this goal. I have two rooms filled with game guides, magazines and an unknown # of games. When I’m not playing video games I’m thinking about game ideas and thoughts on design, many have appeared on this blog. I am one of those people who eat, sleep, and drink design which I believe is the definition of an obsession. I’ve ignored the pulls of money, society and even friendship (which I hate to admit) to achieve my goal. There are many nights I lay awake thinking about what could have been, if instead of wanting to become a designer I went a different route. I try to picture myself as a rich socialite who is a lady killer and I wonder how different my life could have been. However at this time it is pointless for me to think about the past and I dedicate myself to the present and future.

For creative people like I being obsess can be a good thing, I’m focused on my goal and know what I want in life. Still the thought of “at what cost?” comes to mind sometimes, as I think about what I gave up to follow my obsession.

Josh

(P.S. I’m planning an entry now to sort of explain why these thoughts have been swirling around in my head.)

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Myself at 3:15 AM Wednesday morning:“Well my Left 4 Dead game ended early guess I can get a quick game of Plants Vs Zombies in.”

Myself at ???? Wednesday morning: ” Once I’m finished with this section I’ll turn the game off for the night.”

Myself at ???? Wednesday morning:“After this minigame I’ll turn it off, what’s with birds chirping outside they don’t do that until around 5am…wait it’s 4:51 in the morning?!

That was a recreation of my first night playing Plants vs Zombies and yes being up normally to hear the birds wake up isn’t good but that’s not important right now. I can imagine somewhere deep within the confines of PopCap is some kind of dark tomb of addictive gameplay which I would like to someday swipe for my own nefarious deeds. Playing Plants Vs Zombies it’s easy to see just what mechanics are pulling me (and others) back for more.

1.Gameplay escalation: PVZ starts out simple, with a few types of plants and zombies of varying degrees of toughness. However with each level pass something new awaits the player, whether it’s a new plant to add to their arsenal or a new zombie to fight. The game’s 5 worlds also build on this system with the first one being straight forward and going from there. The “one more turn” feeling is strong here.

2.Carrots many, many carrots: Besides just expanding on the gameplay a game needs to give the player something to look forward to and PVZ has 4 things that will keep players coming back. First is the reward for new enemies and plant types that happen after each level. Then there are the minigame rewards that unlock halfway through each world. Coins can be picked up during each level to buy items and upgrades from “Crazy Dave” and yes that’s his name. Lastly getting through the adventure mode unlocks other modes to play through. All this adds up to me staying up till the sun comes up playing yet another game that involves the undead.

3.Good old “easy to learn tough to master gameplay”: Games that you learn everything you’ll ever need to know within the first 10 minutes can get boring fast. On the other hand games that take 2 hours just to learn the basics can drive people nuts. A great game strikes a perfect balance between the two and PVZ does this incredibly well. With each new plant or zombie a new wrinkle in the game design is added forcing the player to rethink previous strategies. I heard on the Flash of Steel podcast how PVZ could be compared to a CCG and they are right, the ability to choose your own lineup of plants to use definitely scratches that itch.

Overall I’m in love with PVZ and I think this is the first game from PopCap that has managed to pull me in. The only problem I could say about it is that if the game doesn’t grab you by about 7 stages in, then the game will never hook you as you are doing the same thing in each stage but with subtle differences. For those who are for a game that pushes all the right design buttons then PVZ is a must buy.

Josh

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