Recently I’ve had an idea buzzing around my head for a new kind of survival horror game. And with what seems like perfect timing, there was this news piece on Gamasutra where the producer behind the latest Resident Evil says that survival horror is no longer viable.

As I thought about his statement and my own idea, I came to a realization. The basic formula for survival horror is outdated, and today’s market is actually the best time to do horror thanks to a number of points involving technology.

1. Graphical Enhancements: One of the problems with older horror games was that they were limited by the graphical engine of the time. Because of this, designers had to cut corners when designing the environment such as copying and pasting room design, or reusing the same art assets.

With today’s game engines, there’s no reason not to skimp on the art side of a horror game. An excellent atmosphere is one of the hallmarks of a great horror game. A great example would be Silent Hill 2′s grainy look and decrepit style for the buildings and other world. The difference between the original Resident Evil and the Gamecube remake was almost night and day with how much the new graphics engine affected the mood.

2. Enemies With Bite: Graphics can go a long way to instill a mood in the minds of the audience, but good enemy design is needed to instill fear. Every horror game I’ve ever played has always had limited enemy AI. Every enemy operates the same exact way and the most complex maneuver is a long range attack.

I want to see enemies that hunt the player down, and not just in the immediate surroundings, essentially the concept of Nemesis in Resident Evil 3 taken to the extreme. A few of my earlier horror concepts were based on this concept alone. Almost like a deadly game of hide and seek where the player must escape or avoid a creature wanting to kill them.

3. Randomization: This is the big one both for my idea and for the genre as a whole. Because of the horror genre’s roots in the adventure genre, linearity has always been a major component. However, linearity breeds monotony which can ruin a horror game. What I want to see developed both from my idea and from the genre is a greater use of randomization to mix things up. In other words sort of like a horror rogue-like: forcing the player to adapt to the situations with each new play.

4. Environment Interaction: Another important point as it plays both into combat and puzzle solving. One of the oldest troupes of the adventure genre is having a room full of items, and only a one or two of those items can be interacted with. For my horror game, I want anything the player can pick up to be usable to some extent.

By having more interaction with the environment it will preserve a sense of realism to the exploration and puzzle solving. Why search for a key to a door, when you can just break it down Shining style? This will also help make combat chaotic, as the player scrambles around the area to find anything they can use to bring down the enemy. I want a room to look like a hurricane hit it after a fight.

5. Open World: Lastly, with advances in game technology we’ve seen open world games come into their own. So why haven’t we seen an open world horror game? The concept of exploring a huge environment with no right way, while being tracked and hunted would make for an interesting horror game.

I don’t believe that survival horror is a dead genre. But designers are trying to create the same games, using the new tools of today’s platforms. Other genres have had major games come out that changed how we viewed the genre: Ninja Gaiden, Uncharted and many more. With the Survival Horror genre there has been very little growth. Any new mechanics are tacked on to the previously established ones and feels like a square peg in a round hole. Such as adding more combat to Silent Hill, or the involvement of a co-op partner in Resident Evil 5.

For survival horror to continue to exist, designers need to stop repeating the past with outdated mechanics. There are plenty of things that go bump in the night, just pick one and run with it and by run with it means without clunky controls.

Josh Bycer

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I am going way back with this one. During the mid 90s there were a lot of fluctuations in the console market. As CD format consoles started to appear we had a period where the console war exploded with multiple platforms.

While most gamers know about the Nintendo 64, Sega Saturn and the Playstation, Panasonic and Atari also tried their hand with the 3DO and the Jaguar respectively. The best way to describe the 3DO would be the middle child between the SNES and the Playstation. The 3DO only lasted a few years and during its last year, they released the game: Killing Time.

Killing Time is an unusual game in the fact that not many people have played it. There are no gamefaqs for it, or walk-through videos on YouTube. This is a shame as there are several things to like about the game, but sadly they were overshadowed by major issues. The fact of the matter is that this is a case where a great game was made on the wrong platform and time.

The plot which is one of the game’s strengths is that you play an ex-Egyptology student in search of a mysterious Egyptian water clock. The story is that the clock can grant immortality and was lost in the 1930s. The last known whereabouts was on the private island of Tess Conway, a socialite obsessed with mythology, danger and high society. Everyone on the island including Tess disappeared one night leaving the island estate abandoned.

Your mission is to explore the island and figured out what happened and hopefully find the water clock. The game world is open ; once you get into the mansion, you’re free to wander around looking for clues and weapons. Spirits in the form of Tess can be interacted with to watch a brief FMV sequence of the major characters in the game. Some of them show a scene from the past while some have them talking directly to you.

Killing Time is one of those games that had style even for being from the 32 bit era. The soundtrack had several arrangements that sounded like they came straight out of the 30s and it also had a very catchy end theme. The game may also win the award for strangest ensemble of enemy characters in a game.

 Here is a brief list: duck hunters and ducks, smoking skeletons (smoking as in smoking a cigarette),giant slugs and cockroaches, maids that punch you, old ladies that throw whiskey bottles at you and clowns that I believe attack by groping you (I’m not kidding.) Also it was one of the first open ended FPS that came out. Sadly while the game sounds great so far, it has several things standing in its way of greatness.

Killing Time as mentioned is one of the first original FPS on the console market. Because of this, it came out before analog sticks were popularized and on a system before they were invented. Playing a FPS using a directional pad brings back memories of a special kind of hell. Movement is very jerky and even with strafe buttons, not easy to avoid attacks. Sadly that’s not the worst of it when it comes to technical problems.

The frame rate takes a dive when there are several enemies moving on screen, making the jerky movement worse. Because the 3DO wasn’t exactly a powerhouse, there are very few room templates, and many areas feature the same exact corridor designs repeat constantly. If the game didn’t have a mapping feature, I couldn’t see a way not to get lost.

The gun play is not that good, and there were times that my shots were missing even though I was aiming dead on at the enemy. Speaking about the enemy, another old convention of FPS design, were mindless enemies. Every enemy follows the same pattern of wandering around and attacking a few times.

While the game is open world, the level design really gets in the way of exploring. Killing Time came out during the time where FPSs were about huge sprawling levels with no realistic design. Areas are made up of twisting corridors and there are a lot of places that seem to have nothing important in them. The problem is that you are going to explore them anyway, not by choice.

Keys are hidden around the world which opens up further areas. However instead of lavish areas or recognizable spots to find them, expect to find them in one of the many room templates that are copy and pasted. I literally stumbled on one key while just wandering around a sewer area checking every room.

It’s a pain to be going through multiple areas to only be stopped by a door and have no idea where the key is. The in game map only works for the current area and there is no major map of the island making it easy to get lost. Even stranger with the level design, I noticed how some areas have two paths to the same area, with one being the more annoying way.

For example, one puzzle requires the player to turn on the correct sequence of switches to get through, but doing that successfully takes you to the same place you would have gone anyway. Another weird example is where one area has a maze where taking the wrong way warps you back to the beginning. However, the path right next to it will bypass the entire maze and take you to the other side.

The difficulty of the game feels imbalanced to me. The settings mainly control enemy health and damage, along with how much ammo and health you get back from picking up power ups. On medium and hard, I couldn’t even get through the second area before running out of ammo. Combined with the technical issues, makes playing the game on medium or hard a greater pain then it should be.

Topping off the issues with the game, there was supposedly a bug that happens in the later levels that required the developers to reprint CDs. However, so few people actually played the game that far (including me,) that those bug free discs are hard to find. As a quick side note, I did actually get a reprint for another 3DO game: Brain Dead 13, but we’ll save that game for another time. After the 3DO went under, the game was ported over to the PC and given a drastic cosmetic change to the graphics and combat system. Still, it did not find huge success even with the enhancements.

Killing Time is an unusual circumstance, on paper the game sounds like a winner:” An open world atmospheric FPS where players must solve a mystery.” However, the 3DO was just not the right platform for this idea. If it would have been developed either directly for the PC, or just a few years later when the analog stick would become standardized, things could have been different.

True open world FPS are a rare breed, with the only other ones that comes to my mind would be the Stalker series and Farcry 2. With the popularity of HD remakes these days, I would love to see someone take a crack at Killing Time, as Stalker has shown that the open world design can work on the PC. We may never get the chance to blast evil clowns and maids to the backdrop of a 30s party again.

Josh Bycer

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This is another one of those posts that I’ve had in the back of my mind for a long time. One of the slightly annoying parts of the game industry is how we don’t have a standardized terminology. This can make it difficult to talk about high level concepts as you need to make sure that everyone understands your definitions. Such as the focus of this post: the different definitions of a gamer.

 Some people sneer at the term “casual” while depending on your circle, “hardcore” could be an insult or a badge of honor. And now with social and mobile gamers thrown into the mix, it can be confusing. For this post I would like to redefine some terms to classify gamers as to how my opinion defines the various groups.

Casual: A casual gamer is the newest group and is represented by people who play only a few games. These are people who don’t play games for achievements or for completing the game 100%. They play just to enjoy or to kill a few minutes. Social and mobile games are popular among this group due to their lack of time commitments and why this group is also made up of the “non gamer” audience. However, they are not limited to the two and they may play console or PC games but stay away from games with high learning curves. Usually once they find a game or series they like, they’ll stick with it for as long as possible such as Call of Duty or World of Warcraft and will play that and only that.

Skill level is hard to judge, while they may play one game for a long time, it’s hard to say if they’ll reach a point of mastery or not. As their main reason to play as mention is to enjoy the game, not become the best.

Another factor is that they are the least knowledgeable on trends in the industry. They may know about major games or developers, but they don’t follow any news in the industry. They may not even know about the move to digital retailers like Origin or Steam and don’t follow Indie games unless they get a lot of buzz.

Mainstream: Mainstream gamers are the vast majority. These gamers play at least two different platforms of games and have an understanding of multiple genres. They do like to finish games and can be motivated by achievements to continue playing.

In terms of the industry, they are somewhat knowledgeable as to what is happening and usually follow a few game sites. These gamers have already taken the step to digital and use a digital retailer for their purchases. They usually have a preferred genre or developer and have an understanding of them and will follow them. Depending on their preferences they may or may not know about some indie games or smaller studios out there, however they do know about AAA studios.

As for skill level, they can become skilled at their preferred genres, due to them wanting to finish the game or reach the end of the content.

Literate: I’m actually not the one who came up with this term, I read an interview of Thatgamecompany on Gamasutra a few years ago where Kellee Santiago used the term “literate gamers” to describe their audience.

To me, a literate gamer is someone knowledgeable on both games and the industry. They play multiple platforms and genres and follow multiple companies. Usually these people are those either in the industry or trying to get in and that has helped their understanding. While they may really like one or two genres, they like to branch out and try out other games.

Like mainstream, they prefer to finish the games they play and can be motivated by achievements. However the difference is that they are more familiar with smaller developers and Indie projects. While a mainstream gamer may find out about a cool Indie game after seeing it reviewed, a literate gamer would have already found it and played it.

Skill level can be all over the place, since they are familiar with the most genres. Depending on their actual preferences, they could be excellent at one genre, and poor to average in another.

Hardcore: Hardcore to me is the idea of a casual gamer, taken to its extreme. Like a casual gamer, they will only play either one game or one specific genre. The difference is that while the casual gamer does this only for a few minutes or just for the experience, hardcore gamers play to win. When people make fun of “fan-boys” or talk about those that religiously defend certain games, they are talking about hardcores.

Hardcore gamers will play to get every little drop of gameplay accomplished out of their preferred game. Another example is when you hear about people who will beat all the new content in a MMO within a few hours or days. Because of their commitment, they have the highest skill or best gear in any game they play. In terms of industry knowledge, they don’t follow the industry as a whole, but know the ins and outs of their favorite genre or company. Achievements can be a big deal for them, and will strive to achieve 100%.

Because of their level of skill at the game, hardcore gamers largely make up the group of professional gamers – gamers who play games in tournaments or groups as a sport. Due to that dedication, they are the group that finds the exploits or optimal paths through their games. Lastly in terms of size, hardcore gamers represent the smallest group, as many people just don’t have the free time to commit to one game like this.

Interestingly enough if I were to define myself, I would say that I fit somewhere between literate and hardcore. I play A LOT of video games, to the point that I could spend a few days listing them all. However, I could never sit and play just one video game day in and day out; this is why I could never be a competitive gamer.

I’m not looking to start a new movement, but it would be nice for everyone to agree to certain terminology as I think it would make all our lives easier.

Josh Bycer

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It’s been awhile since my last horror game related post. Over the years I’ve covered a lot of areas relating to horror game design and I wish there were more titles out there for me to analyze. Today’s topic goes into a little more detail about a point I mentioned in the post about making manly men cry. Combat is one of those tricky areas when designing horror titles. If it’s too much of a focus, then the game becomes an action title, not enough and it comes off as poorly implemented.

On one end of the scale we have titles like Dead Space 2 where the player becomes a walking armory. On the other end, titles like Silent Hill or the recently failed horror title: Amy which featured tank like controls and awkward combat. For this post I’m going to ignore titles without combat like Amnesia: The Dark Decent as I talked about it in the post detailing fight or flight in horror game design.

The point of contention with combat is that designers want the player to feel like they’re controlling an everyday person. This is how they rationalize poor control schemes that mostly get in the way. My issue with this is that they’re still creating unrealistic characters by trying to impose their sense of realism.

Many horror games take place over the course of several days, I would expect if someone had nothing but a lead pipe to defend themselves with. They should get acclimated to the pipe and swing it better over time. Then you have characters that use the most grandiose and worse way to use a weapon. If someone is using a blunt weapon, swinging it from side to side is not as useful as an overhead swing. I know that I’m not the strongest or smartest guy around, but if I have a knife and there is a crazy, monstrous sob coming at me, I’m aiming for the effing head every chance I get.

Going back to the second paragraph, there needs to be a balance between how powerful the player should be. The challenge of getting it right is why in my opinion; a lot of developers like to create horror games without any combat. The problem is that without combat, you lose the notion of “fight or flight” neutering the design. Combat should be involved enough that the player feels like their input is having an effect, but at the same time it can’t be the first, last and best answer to every situation.

I don’t want a six button combo system in a horror game, nor do I want to just hit one button and watch the same animation play out each time. One of my favorite combat systems is still from the Condemned series. As they made the player feel powerful but still made combat chaotic. The challenge is that even if the designer makes a compelling combat system that can still get in the way of the horror.

If the player is made to be all powerful from the start, or get that way over the course of the game, it can marginalize the horror aspect. That’s why you either want to mix up the types of enemies the player fights, or design situations where violence isn’t the best answer.

While I was at GDC I attended the post mortem on Alone in the Dark. One area that the designer talked about was how he wanted puzzle solving and thinking to be on the forefront, while combat is the last ditch solution. Many fodder enemies existed which had to be dealt with by force, but there were more situations requiring puzzle solving instead of combat. Interestingly enough, while there were guns in the game.There was so little ammo that it made the weapons used more for emergency situations.

I’ve yet to play a really scary horror game in some time. Fatal Frame 3 basically scared the fear out of me and I haven’t been bothered by horror games since. I keep hearing how so many people couldn’t finish Amnesia because it scared them while I just breezed through it. I would like to see a horror game designed around randomization of events and enemies to see how terrifying that would make the experience. And I started thinking about a game idea on that very note the other night.

While the heart of any good horror game is a combination of puzzle solving and exploration, there must be conflict and danger or all we have is a moody adventure game. On the flip side, too much action and we have an action game that slows down for light puzzle solving time after time. Balance and a specific design vision are required to create a game that will scare the hell out of people playing it.

Josh Bycer

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