You can’t say that Edmund Mcmillen is resting on his laurels. After designing the brutally difficulty throw back to old school plat forming with Super Meat Boy, his latest game, The Binding of Isaac, is a mash up of Smash TV and the rogue-like genre. Beneath the twisted visuals and story there is some excellent game design present and an example of one of the best uses of achievements I’ve seen in some time.

The story will no doubt turn some heads: Isaac has been locked up in his room by his overly Christian mother who is hearing the voice of God telling her what to do. One day his mother is told by God to sacrifice Isaac in its name and she obeys but before she can kill him, Isaac escapes into the basement to try and find a way out. Once inside the basement, he’ll have to fight monsters and lost relatives who stand in his way to freedom.

There is definitely a discussion here, but I am by no means the one who is going to delve into it, so we’re going to leave it at that and move on.

Isaac controls using a combination of WSAD keys and the arrow keys, the former controls movement while the latter attacks in that direction. The rogue-like elements come into play with how the levels are built. Bosses, the map and what items are found are all randomized at the start. The randomized levels are the main attraction and combined with the items are what make Isaac special.

While the maps are randomized, there are a few staples that will be on every floor. One of those is a treasure room that requires a key to get in. Each treasure room holds one item; some will be special items that can be used with the space key while the rest will modify Isaac and change his appearance. There are too many items to list here and each one has a different effect, from increasing damage, to changing his attack to a charge up move.

By the time you are several floors in, Isaac will not only look radically different, but play differently each time. Some games will find your attacks are weak, but you have increased range or multi-shot, while others may find you doing massive damage, but with slow attacks. Scattered around each level, you’ll also find consumable items that like in all good rogue-likes could help or hinder your game. Boss battles are challenging, made even more so due to the random items. You start the game with only one life and a set of hearts, and running out of hearts means game-over, but this is where the achievements come into play.

As you play the game, you’ll unlock achievements, some for beating bosses, while others are for finding specific items. Each achievement unlocks something new in the game, from new characters, items, enemies and even bosses, are added in to the randomization. What this means is that the more you replay the game, the more content becomes available.

This is a brilliant design decision and works perfectly with the rogue-like nature of the game. Most rogue-likes are replay-able by how difficult the game is, forcing the player to keep playing. While Isaac is also a difficult game, it also rewards people who keep playing the game. Even if someone gets lucky and beats the game on their first try, there are still plenty of things to discover in the game. For once, we have a game that not only has those extra difficult “experts only” achievements, but actively rewards the player for being crazy enough to attempt them. This is one of those games that scream for DLC and it has been announced that there should be more content coming for Halloween.

It’s hard to find any real problems with the game that aren’t inherent with the genre. Obviously the randomization is going to affect how easy or hard the game is and like other rogue-likes it is possible to be stuck in an unlucky streak. The control scheme is a point of argument, using the keys for movement and attacking only allows you to use the cardinal directions. As it stands, for people who prefer to aim with the mouse, they will have to adjust to the different control scheme. The only nitpick I have is that there isn’t even a soft save system, allowing players to take a break, but not abuse the system, such as in Dungeons of Dredmor.

The Binding of Isaac joins Dungeons of Dredmor as an excellent five dollar game and easily a huge bang for your buck. I really hope that the use of achievements in the game will inspire other designers to better implement them into their design.

Josh Bycer

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For the longest time, I’ve never been a fan of stealth mechanics in games and to shock everyone, I’ve yet to play Thief 1 and 2. Recently however, games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Assassin’s Creed 2 and Batman: Arkham Asylum has made me enjoy the act of sneaking around. As I thought about these titles and why I enjoyed them, I started to think about what goes into making a good stealth game.

Avoiding Detection: The mainstay of stealth games is giving the player ways to avoid being detected, with line of sight as the first mechanic, from there each game usually introduces another mechanic that acts as the unique hook. Both Thief and Splinter Cell had lighting and Metal Gear Solid 3 and 4 had camouflage.

To me, only having a few ways limits the design. The more options open to the player, the better. Batman had the following mechanics:

Hiding in vents or grates
Grappling up to gargoyles
Batarang distraction
Explosive gel distraction

Assassin’s Creed 2 has:

Smoke bombs
Hiding in objects
Hiding in crowds
Using groups of people as a distraction
Going across rooftops.

Lastly Deus Ex has:

Stealth generator
Throwing objects to create distractions
Rooftops or using elevation
Going through vents
Breaking through walls

Looking at games I didn’t like, Hitman, besides line of sight had disguises and the last game added in throwing a coin to create a distraction. To me, it never feels realistic to only have a few options of avoiding detection. I can’t wait to see a stealth game combine the unique mechanics of multiple stealth games into one experience.

Having an “out”: The other problem I have with a lot of stealth games is that stealth is the only option, as being detected spells doom and one of my first painful memories of this kind of stealth design , was with the game Syphon Filter for the PS1. Near the end of the game, the player is required to sneak through a level with no gear, if they are detected the mission ends.

Not having some kind of offensive ability goes back to a thought I had about the horror genre regarding “fight or flight”. If the player’s only option is to run away or hide, it makes the game more predictable as the player knows that if they get caught, the game is over.

What was amazing to me, from playing Assassin’s Creed and Batman, was how powerful the player was and that they could deal with groups of enemies. With that said though, there has to be a limit, or you just have an action game with minor stealth elements.

That was the problem with Assassin’s Creed 2, due to sword counter attacks; it really trivialized the need to be stealthy, unless it was for a mission. Batman had two main types of enemies: unarmed and armed, unarmed enemies could be dealt with without having to sneak, but enemies with guns would kill Batman quickly if they catch him. That set up the dynamic of having sections of the game that were pure action, while still providing areas that required stealth.

The issue with AC2 was that they set up the main character to become a complete bad-ass, both as a fighter and sneaking around. Because of that, no enemy could really stand toe-to-toe with the player. Deus Ex HR: had security drones and turrets, which conventional weapons would not work on them. Only EMP grenades, rocket launchers, or hacking them would work. Now, even though these enemies are best handled by stealth, the designers still gave the option of just fighting them.

Failing Stealth: Building on the last point, one mechanic that has annoyed me about stealth games is that being detected instantly destroys being stealthy.

Chances are if you’ve played a stealth game then you ran into the following situation: The second someone sees you, every guard on the map instantly knows where you are and comes running. While I like having a way to fight back, I still prefer having a way of becoming hidden again. What I liked about Assassin’s Creed 2 was that guards had a few seconds questioning the player’s appearance before sounding the alarm, allowing the player to either hide or try to take the guard down.

Personally I prefer to see guards becoming alarmed more realistically, such as: if a guard sees you who don’t have a way of alerting their friends, they’ll either try to take you out or run to alert everyone. The farther stealth design moves away from guards with mental links to each other the better.

Less Segregation in Design: This section essentially sums up everything mentioned. One of the main ways that has improved stealth design in my opinion is moving away from having “action levels” and “stealth levels” by combining both elements into the same design. In Deus Ex: HR, with exception to one side mission, the game never forces you to be stealthy. Of course, getting into a fire fight outnumbered is going to be tough to get through, but it’s not an instant failure.

Having said that, I know that Batman: AA breaks this point, but in a sense it does work. Giving the player a limit to being aggressive can be beneficial, allowing players to decide how long they should remain hidden before the crap hits the fan. Level design moving from pure linear set pieces to a more open setting has also helped here. Before, getting detected meant that you’re only option is to go straight through the enemies to your objective, now you can try to run and hide and get around them another way.

Thinking even further back, The Mark of Kri for PS2 while predominately an action title, did combine stealth elements into play. On each level there are alarms set up that will trigger guards to attack the player if they are detected. The player is more than capable of handling themselves in a fight, but it is easy to be overwhelmed. That way, levels are set up for both stealth and fighting without being separated into specific sections.

One of the main areas that game design has evolved is designing games around more than just one main mechanic. Some of the best games developed have combined elements from different genres to create something new. Batman: Arkham Asylum, succeeded because it wasn’t just an action game, or just a stealth game, but a Batman game. With successes like the Assassin’s Creed series and Deus Ex, it will be interesting to see how they affect future stealth titles, like the upcoming Hitman game.

Josh Bycer

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Times seem to be changing for the MMO market. With the recent announcements of Star Trek Online and DC Universe Online moving to a F2P formula, along with World of Warcraft which has changed their up to level 10 trial, to a 20 level F2P model. The time of the $15 a month subscription model appears to be fading away and looking at the genre, it seems like MMOs are facing pressure from within and outside to make this change.

Let’s start by looking inward at the genre. MMO design is different from other genres, due to the size and cost of development. Most singleplayer games are aimed at 8 to 10 hours of play, MMOs want gamers to play for months and that requires a lot of time developing content. Putting out a MMO that flops can be the death of a company due to the enormous cost of development. Because of the investment, the gameplay in MMOs has not evolved as much as other genres.

When you look at the action genre for instance, we’ve gone from the days of Double Dragon, to God of War and Devil May Cry. With the MMO genre however, the majority of MMOs aim to be like WoW, which was aimed to be like EverQuest. WoW’s success was not at inventing the wheel, but building a better mousetrap. Blizzard streamlined the design and made it more accessible to everyone, along with being at the right place at the right time. Because of those factors, WoW became the 800 pound gorilla it is today. This is why many MMOs are trying to be like WoW instead of doing something different, why fix something that wasn’t broken? The times that we do see original game design, like Star Trek Online or DC Universe, it doesn’t make the same money as WoW.

MMOs have been trying to mix things up by providing more content for the subscription fee and many promise content every month to players to keep them paying. Let’s be frank here, when a developer says that they can put out expansion quality content once per month and continue to do that for the length of the game’s life-cycle, THEY ARE LYING. Unless they have been working on all that content while developing the base game, or have their entire development staff working round the clock, it just won’t happen.

DC Universe fell into that trap, they did have content for the first two months, and then after that it started to dip. Star Trek Online played it smart and instead of promising huge content, they instead put out new story arcs for players to do every month, which is far easier to develop then brand new content.

Arena.net at the time, were perhaps the most forward thinkers on the market. Instead of trying to take on WoW with Guild Wars, they instead went the expansion model route. Meaning, there was no subscription, instead gamers who wanted content could buy expansions at $40 a pop. That way, people could choose what to buy and didn’t have to worry about spending money without having new content.

From within the genre, we have a case where everyone was trying to do the same thing, and when that happens, only one or two MMOS came out on top. With other genres, there is diversity within the genre giving players reasons to play multiple games. With the MMO genre however, how many people actually subscribe to 2 or more MMOS at the exact same time?

Moving on let’s look outside of the genre and how MMOs have fallen behind. Going back to the late 90s when EverQuest came out, there weren’t games that allowed people to socialize while playing. Multiplayer games like shooters didn’t give players the options to hang out, just frag your friends. Because of this, MMOs fit into the community niche and people were willing to pay a premium to be a part of that. Another side of this was the continued support by the developers, with rare exception, once a game was released it was done and no more would be added to it with exception at the time to MMOs.

However, times have changed and MMOs existing in the bubble of social interaction has popped. Developers have seen how fostering a community can prolong the life of the game and how worthwhile it was to continue supporting it. Valve with Team Fortress 2, is still going strong with an influx of new content. It’s no longer about making a multiplayer game that will only last a short while. Activision is banking on Call of Duty: Elite to keep people playing COD all year long. As developers are adding value to their games, it is taking value away from MMOs.

The standard subscription to an MMO is $15 a month, with a yearlong cost coming out to $180. With Call of Duty: Elite coming in at $50 a year you can see the difference in price. When you can have your social interaction, with new content at more than half the cost of a subscription based game, it’s hard to justify spending the fee each month. What has been even worse for MMOs would have to be the rise of the F2P market.

F2P games have been coming into their own, with mass successes like League of Legends. More and more developers are embracing this model, with F2P games both standalone and on social networking sites. The biggest advantage to F2P games is that it allows gamers to play what they want, spend what they want and not be pressured to keep paying. The success of this market has really forced a lot of developers to look at design differently, such as with Age of Empires Online, or with Valve working on DOTA 2.

F2P games have honestly knocked the wind out of the MMO genre’s sails. With a very low barrier of entry (0 dollars,) along with the social features one would have found in an MMO, there are fewer reasons to be playing a typical MMO today then 5 or 10 years ago. Perhaps the biggest evidence of the F2P model working is how it has been used to revive the same MMOs that have had trouble in the market.

Dungeons and Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online, have both found success once they switched off of the subscription model. With STO and DCUO making the switch soon, I predict that they’ll find success after the change. The reason is that a well designed F2P model works better for someone like me. I’ve always hated having to pay a subscription for a game, as with my constant switching between titles, I never felt that I was getting my money’s worth. With F2P games, I can drop in whenever I want and if I’m enjoying myself, I can spend money for more things to do.

A long time ago I joked about WoW dropping their subscription as a snowball’s chance in hell, today, I’m not joking. WoW’s numbers have been slowly slipping (still high but slipping,) and I think there will come a time where WoW will become F2P. As one of the few remaining MMOs with a subscription based model, in a sea of games offering content at a lower cost, it will be interesting to see what Blizzard will do to keep people playing WoW.

The MMO market is undergoing a shakeup, much like the transition we’re seeing of the move from retail to a digital format of buying games. As other genres continue to support their games and offer players reasons to stick around, traditional MMOs are finding themselves no longer standing out from other genres. With Star Wars: The Old Republic looking to be the next fighter in the arena and perhaps more importantly, one of the few properties that could take on WoW, it’s going to be interesting to watch these two duke it out for subscribers.

Josh Bycer.

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It’s time for another design debate. The last one regarding regenerating health brought some interesting discussions and hopefully we can have a similar discourse here. RPG systems for the longest time were designed around the world being a static progression, meaning that players will find little rats outside the starting town, and dragons halfway around the world. However as RPGs became more open-ended and other genres adopted their mechanics, there has been a push for persistent world design. This is when the world is built around the player’s level, at the start, the player will find nothing but weaklings, but once they level up, those weak enemies will be replaced by stronger ones.

Perhaps the most recognizable example of a persistent world was The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. Since then, this debate has grown and it’s time to talk about it here.

To begin with let’s look at the pros and cons of each, starting with persistent. As a way of providing a balanced experience, persistent works by keeping enemy levels either equal to, or close to the player’s level. You don’t need to worry about wandering around and running into an enemy who can kill you in a few hits. On the flip side, it also means that you don’t have to worry about grinding weak enemies for experience to level up, as every fight will be against an enemy of average strength against the player. This also has the side effect of making it easier to play with friends, if the world scales to the group, then you don’t have to worry about bringing in a lower level friend and having them useless for the game.

(As a quick side note regarding: allowing friends to play together. City of Heroes’ utilized the “side-kick “system. Here, if you are playing with a friend who is a lower level then you, they can become your side-kick for the mission, raising their level up to yours, but not learning any new skills. This allowed them to be a part of your group without weighting it down.)

There are a few disadvantages to persistent world design. First is that the balance has to be just right or it’s very easy to break the system. In Oblivion, the enemy scaling worked off of the player’s experience level. However, the game determines that level differently from other RPGs, at character creation, the player assigns primary and secondary character attributes. Leveling up primary attributes will go towards raising the character’s level, while secondary attributes will not.

What that means, is if the player chooses non combat related attributes for their primary skills, there is a good chance that they will level those up before leveling up their combat skills. In other words, they’ll be facing higher level enemies before they have the combat skills needed to win. On the other side, crafty players could do this on purpose and spend all their time honing their combat skills, thereby keeping the enemies weaker and just walk all over the game.

Another part of balancing the game is that to provide challenge, there needs to be a lot of enemy variety. The reason is that if the world is scaling to the player there needs to be variety to keep things from becoming stale. In Dead Island, there are 7 types of zombies (2 common, 5 uncommon,) that scale with the player. The problem is that once you fought one, you then know how to fight every other enemy of that type, since the only things that change with leveling up, are the amount of health the enemies have and how much damage they do.

One solution to this is if you’re going to only have a few core enemy types, throw in unique modifiers that start to show up when the player gets to a high level. Going back to Dead Island, there could have been zombies that can jump and tackle the player, or zombies that can’t be stunned with electricity or kicked.

The second issue is that it kills that thrill of exploring for unique challenges or the feeling of wanderlust .Because every enemy and piece of gear are tailored to the player’s level, it means that they won’t be able to find tougher challenges or powerful gear. Also this gives the world an artificial feel to it as new enemies magically appear where weaker enemies once were. Going back to hard challenges with the power to now beat them easy, shows players just how much they’ve gotten stronger since getting stuck there, which is a feeling that doesn’t work in a persistent world.

Moving on, static progression has the following advantages. First, it gives players an easy to understand progression. The further you go from the start, the more dangerous things are going to get. It’s easy to understand if your character is level 10 and an enemy is level 20, who has the advantage.

This also makes sense from a world building point of view, dragons and other powerful monsters aren’t going to move right next to the starting city, likewise it also helps motivate people to explore the world, as you never know what you’ll find in a dungeon somewhere.

In terms of enemy variety, while the more enemy types the better (as with all games,) it’s not as vital compared to a persistent world. The reason is that even basic enemy types, when pumped up to a higher level can still be a threat to a player.

Now the problems with static progression, game balance is still important, but it is a different type of balance compared to a persistent world. The key detail is: what exactly does leveling affect? Different games will have the level of the player mean different things, for instance, in most JRPGs, leveling up will improve the base attributes of your character, while in other games it could only affect your health. In RPGs with turn based combat, this is ok, as the attributes of both sides will affect the outcome. However, when you have real time or skill based combat, this can present a problem.

Borderlands had this issue, the game was all about twitch base shooting as in a normal FPS, but it also had RPG leveling. Whenever there was a level disparity between the player and enemies, the lower level character will do less damage to the higher one. When the level difference is one or two, it’s not a big deal, but when the player is three or more levels below an enemy, they’ll find that their bullets do negligible damage. At that point it doesn’t matter how good the player is when their best shots are only doing one or two points of damage.

This also feels like an artificial way of challenging the player, and it removes the need for skill. While having enemies grow stronger along with the player breaks the immersion, so does having your bullets from the same gun magically do five to ten times more damage to an enemy because you are now only two levels below it instead of three.

An interesting solution is to downplay leveling, the Disgaea series from Nis America is an example of this. While characters have levels, their attributes however are the key factor in combat. Giving a low level character, powerful items can overcome being a lower level then the enemy. Power leveling comes into play when characters can restart at level one, but with enhanced stats. What that means, is after enough restarts, a level one character could have the stats of a level 50 character.

Demon’s Souls also downplayed the priority to level. Every time the player levels up, they will gain a little more max health (more if they increase their vitality attribute.) However, the actual stats and damage that affect combat come from the weapons themselves. Being a high level in Demon’s Souls won’t help you kill bosses quicker, if you’re still using the weapon you started the game with. While the player’s attributes do dictate what they can or cannot use, it’s the actual equipment that does the work.

With everything said so far it’s time for me to share where my preference lies. I prefer static progression to persistent for several reasons. First, is that I like to explore and see what dangers and surprises I can find and knowing that every encounter out there is going to be even to my level kills that thrill. Second is that I’ve always been a numbers man, as I like getting into the details to see how much power I can squeeze out of my characters, which is also the reason why I love the Disgaea series. If I spend the time power leveling, then I want to see my characters utterly dominate lower level enemies, while still having ultimate challenges to face.

RPG elements have been finding their way to other genres and as such, are forcing designers to find the best ways to implement them and progression is a big part of that. Defining how a player becomes more powerful in a turn based game with attributes is easy, but when you are dealing with real time combat and the player’s skill level has to be factor in, that causes complications. With the line between RPG and action titles blurring, we are going to be seeing more games that will bring this discussion back up.

Josh Bycer

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