maanantai 23. heinäkuuta 2012

Content flow across the Magic Circle

Possibly the main theoretical research question, and the basis for the whole design of After Now Archeology is the flow of game content through the boundaries of the game realm (a.k.a. the Magic Circle (obvious Huizinga reference here)). Quite often the game, when it is published, is kind of self-sufficient: beside a "reasonable gamer's knowledge", the game does not require content-wise anything from the player. This means, the player does not need to know or find out anything in-advance, when she is playing the game.

After Now Archeology works on a completely different level. Basically the whole game is all about bringing content-information from the "real world" to the "game realm". There is no way the player can solve the puzzles of After Now Archeology without external research for information, or a good knowledge of various areas of science, culture and mythology. Well, brute force is possible even when writing Complete Shakespeare, but on practical level it is almost impossible to brute force the whole game.

But let's get a bit deeper to the levels and actions of import/export content through the magic circle.

I have put "gamer's knowledge" and "cultural influences" in parentheses, since they are somewhat vague. These are not planned import or exports. The gamers usually have some knowledge on how games work and what they are made of. Maybe knowing the movement rules of chess pieces could be count as gamer's knowledge. Games can also create cultural influences, e.g. bookshelves in the shapes of Tetris blocks are good examples of this. They are not planned by the game makers, but the players took something from the game and used it in another field of life. This happens quite a lot and now days it can also be planned. I am not sure if the merchandise belongs here (Angry Birds toys etc).

Atmospheric essences are something that game makers take from the real world, but use in the game just for aesthetic reasons. Some examples could be the Ionian pillars in Lemmings, or images from around Soviet Union in the non-diegetic UI area of Spectrum Holobyte's Tetris-version. This content has no specific gameplay effects, although the player can possibly interact with the content. The important thing is that even if the player recognizes the content, she can get no advantage from knowing the stuff.

Useful knowledge is something that player can profit, if she knows the content, but the game is still playable without that knowledge. The most obvious example is the music in Guitar Hero and Rock Band series. The player can play the game even if she does not know the songs. But knowing the music gives the player significant advantage over non-knowers. I am not sure, if knowing the cities of Project Gotham Racing, or Assassin's Creed -series is useful or is it just atmospheric, but at least the player  can get a lot of joy from driving the cars in familiar surroundings or climbing on well known buildings.

Necessary knowledge is the area of After Now Archeology. It is also surprisingly rarely used in games. Basically the player can not progress in the game without bringing some knowledge from the outside world into the game realm. This may also work on physical level, but for now I have only been thinking of digital games. Of course the main influences of ANA, Timehunt and Torment puzzles are definitely build around this idea. But on very basic level, Carmen Sandiego -series utilizes some of these ideas. The game gives the player some hints ("The suspect drove away waving a flag of blue, white and red") and the player should figure out the country, where the suspect was heading for. On the other hand, I do not consider the puzzles of 7th Guest, Dr. Brain's Castle or Myst belonging to this category, since one can play the games without running for Google while playing.

Real world flavor - Augmented virtuality goes a bit away from the knowledge and towards some kind of physical and user-generated stuff. Right now I think of augmented virtuality as something real that is brought into the game's virtual world. This can be e.g. player's face on a game character (extremely hilarious in mobile version of Stair Dismount), but also those arty game projects, where e.g. the level for lemmings is built on a web camera image, making the player play Lemmings on her own body.

Last two imports, User generated content, goes even further. I have separated the planned use of in-game editors and making of game modifications, since there is a huge difference between the activity levels of the two. Making tracks or maps with a developer-made editor is an action planned by the developers. But making mods, changing textures, models etc. is not so planned. Sometimes it is made possible and easy by the devs, but the outcome can be completely unexpected and surprising.

On the export side, games have been used as a decoration in TV series, movies etc. This means you can see the game in the show, but the game itself has no function or significance within the story or narrative. A step deeper, games as content, makes the games as significant parts of the other-media experience. Quite often (Tron, Existenz...) movies do not use real games, but invent their own (which can become playable games through franchise development). Sometimes actual, real videogames take a central part in the plot. There have been games in some CSI-type series, but also in Reign Over Me, the game Shadow of the Colossus is in a central part. Going even deeper in the game as content, there are many movies and TV-series that have spun off from the games (Super Mario, Mortal Kombat, Max Payne...) And don't forget the game documents, like Indie Game: the Movie.

Learnt topics are something the player brings with him from the game world. This is obvious when we talk about educational games, since the main purpose of the games is to teach the player something. But this can also happen with purely entertaining games too. When playing Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, the player is given a truck load of information about ancient and renaissance Rome. The player can play the game without reading all the extra material about the society, families and buildings, but the game offers quite a lot of real information of the real places that are also incorporated in the game. Well, it also offers some alternative truths, so the player should not believe everything she is told.

When the game reaches outside the virtual realm, bringing gameplay elements to the real world, we are talking about augmented reality. In fanciest mode this means the game can mix the audiovisuals of the game with the audiovisual reality, i.e. when walking down the street, the player can face a Katamari or Cacodemon coming around the next street corner. From the puzzle/adventure side, In Memoriam sends the player some real e-mail and directs him to certain websites that have been created for the game. The connection between this, and Necessary knowledge is clearly visible, but the difference is that while the game reaches outside the regular on-screen box, all the content is still created by the game makers, while with necessary knowledge, the information and content is brought in from the external sources, like actual literature, art and movies.

In the end, there is are the community products coming from the game. With this I mean the screenshots, machinima, speedrun-videos, fan art etc. that is produced by the community, using the game as a tool or primary inspiration for creation.

Well, that's what I currently have there. It seems the model still needs some expanding, since I couldn't fit the easter eggs and secret messages of Fez (in-game content requiring extra-game tools to solve), Assassin's Creed (Subject 16 puzzles and their easter eggs) and Trials HD easter egg (more than just aesthetic values, but no gameplay relevance) here. But I will, since my graduation depends on this!

Coming soon(ish): analyzing different games using this content flow theory. And something about the reference games, other puzzles and phenomena.

perjantai 13. heinäkuuta 2012

Something to play with

Well, I finally got a couple of puzzles online, just for you to try out. They are mostly made with placeholder graphics, since I have not had too much time for the artwork (voluntary artist work highly appreciated!). They may also be too difficult, but each of the puzzles have been solved by another person than me - even without the hints I am now clumsily offering in a pop-up window and not integrated to the game.

So, have fun or agony while trying them out:

sunnuntai 22. huhtikuuta 2012

Slight Progress

I have had this feeling that After Now Archeology is not progressing at all. That is mostly because work and all other distractions. Now I have had two rather solid days just for ANA, and suddenly it seems I have 5 puzzles that can actually be solved.

I tweaked the puzzle of the first playable to be more intuitive and clear, but not destroying the essence of the puzzle. I also made quick and dirty version of my earlier mathematician puzzle. Then there is the first mythology thing and a couple of others that can be played through.

The puzzles are not beautiful, since I have used placeholder graphics and quickly written code. The hints are not there, so a couple of these puzzles may be almost impossible to solve. My next goal is to add the hints for these puzzles, so enthusiastic player testers can start exploring. Then I have the first puzzles for all three paths in playable condition. That means I actually have to do the "mother" movie, that takes care of the puzzle structure, saving and loading the player progress, and some other things. That is the boring part, but I guess I have to do it at some point.

With full speed, but still slowly.

PS. Don't blame Legend of Grimrock for the delay, even if it took me some 25 hours this week. I wouldn't have worked with After Now Archeology anyways.

torstai 29. maaliskuuta 2012

First of Art

As it often happens with the non-salary projects, they have to wait for a while when the creators must earn their living. Thus, it has been a bit quiet and slow with After Now Archeology for a month or two. To do something productive code- or art-wise, I need to have many days free from other responsibilities, so I can focus on the actual task. Having small tasks for some hours 2-4 times a week break the concentration efficiently.

Anyhow, I have managed to do something for ANA. The design for the first Art-path puzzle is maybe ready, and I have even started to re-paint one photograph I took around New year, as a background image. The puzzle will be an association map but with meaningful hints. The player is given an image with one or more lines with hints starting from it, and the player must write the correct answers to the end of the lines to open new images. Repeat until the end.

The genre has been around in the internet for a while - usually without hints. The games are interesting, but they can be really frustrating, since the player really can't know what the designer has been thinking when building the network of things and connections. Hinting also works well with the information gathering idea of the game.

Anyways, here is the planned structure.

And here is a work-in-progress-version of the background.
The evil gatekeeper of the Art-path? At least, gatekeeper he is.

lauantai 25. helmikuuta 2012

A game needs a logo

As I may have told before, I am not a graphician. So drawing all the illustrations for the game, designing a logo etc are not trivial efforts. However, I have managed to produce a couple of sketches for a logo. Here is my current best effort:

Gray it is. Typography is boring. But it tells something about the game. Actually it is the map of the game too. Three intertwined spiral paths for three subjects: culture, science and myth. A triangle of all three in the middle.

Of course it will not look this boring in the game. There will be doors that can be opened by solving puzzles or riddles. Between the paths will be special puzzles about both of the paths they are connected to. Solving these special puzzles is mandatory for solving the centerpiece. But the other doors are voluntary - as long as you can make your way to the center. So, if you don't like science so much, but you are keen of culture, just open the culture doors to the center, and try to get to the mandatory puzzles some other way. You might gain some extra information from the regular one-subject doors, but the game is possible to solve without solving them all.

torstai 12. tammikuuta 2012

Lenses for puzzles

I have been reading Jesse Schell's excellent book "The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses". It is possibly the best game design book I've read so far. Recently I got to the chapter 12, which is about puzzles. Since After Now Archeology is also a kind of puzzle game (or riddle), I found the chapter really interesting and relevant to my work.

In the chapter, Schell gives 10 principles for puzzle design:
  1. Make the goal easily understood
  2. Make it easy to get started
  3. Give a sense of progress
  4. Give a sense of solvability
  5. Increase difficulty gradually
  6. Parallelism lets the player rest
  7. Pyramid structure extends interest
  8. Hints extend interest
  9. Give the answer!
  10. Perceptual shifts are a double edged sword
When looking my design through these lenses, it is clear I have done something right - and something wrong. The first test version of the first puzzle exposed some clear violations of these principles. And I have to say, I violated the rules purposely.
  1. The goal was not easily understood. As Schell also writes, sometimes figuring out what to do is a part of the puzzle. But maybe I should skip that part and give the player some more hints about what to do. There seems to be enough challenge without the extra mile - which I could save for the most hardcore players.
  2. Make it easy to get started. This relates to the principles 5, 6 and 7. There are just a couple of things the player can do, she just needs to start exploring the navigable space. After a while, the puzzle starts to become clearer. Since it has quite many different parts, the player can do many things at the same time. But I promise, I'll violate rule number 2 in many places. After all many of the puzzles or riddles in the game are purposely hard to get started.
  3. Give a sense of progress. This is definitely something I need to focus more in the future. Many of my current designs don't tell the player if she is on a right track. Many of them will stay that way.
  4. Give a sense of solvability. All puzzles are solvable. But as the first test revealed, small graphical glitches or minor flaws in presentation, instructions etc can make the puzzle feel unsolvable. This is something I need to keep in mind, since I'd like to have the player to use her brain power on the problem itself, not all the unimportant things around it. This relates to good UI design and transparency. 
  5. Increase difficulty gradually. I have tried to organise the puzzles in the game so they are in increasing difficulty order. Also different parts within a puzzle should be in increasing difficulty. This is hard, since the game is based on the knowledge outside the game, and different players have very different knowledge basis. For example, if the puzzle consists of lingual part and mathematical part, there is no way to ensure that all the players feel the lingual part easier than the mathematical part. 
  6. Parallelism lets the player rest. This is why I decided to go with three separate paths. If you get stuck on one path, you can continue on another path. In the very beginning the player can choose from three different puzzles. But after solving one of them, she has 4 choices and after solving one of them she has at least 5 possible puzzles to continue with. And you don't need to solve all the puzzles to solve the last one, although it might help.
  7. Pyramid structure extends interest. Well, the whole structure of the game is kind of pyramid. There is the final puzzle, for which you need to solve at least 9 of the other puzzles and there are some extra puzzles too. Also many of the individual puzzles in the game consist of several parts, leading to the final answer. Building the puzzles around three different main themes can bring in players interested in different areas, leading them to explore the other areas too.
  8. Hints extend interest. This is one of the cornerstones of the design. Personally I love difficult puzzles. But I hate to get stuck in them. Small hints every now and then could help me to continue playing. I have been thinking to include a "easy mode" button that automatically gives the player all the hints. 
  9. Give the answer! Well, Schell says I should give the answer to the player after she has struggled with the puzzle for a long time. All the answers will be in the internet anyhow. I will not. The progress in After Now Archeology is based on solving the puzzles and if I give the answers, there is no game at all. The internet will give the answers, but that is something I can do nothing about. It is up to the player if she wants to spoil her experience by going to some forums to look at the answers. On the other hand, quite many of the similiar games have player created forums for discussion, and these forums are very nicely self-regulated. People do not want to spoil another players' game, hints are usually quite subtle and I have not accidentally stumbled on complete answers on these forums.
  10. Perceptual Shifts are a double-edged sword. This is something I know and am willing to exploit. Thinking outside the box, adding extra dimension to the thought etc etc. 
Well, they say you learn game design by designing games, not reading books. But I say you get some excellent tools for the game design by reading books.

torstai 24. marraskuuta 2011

After First Playable

Well, the first playable of the first puzzle went to test round. It was exciting to follow the fellows solving the puzzle. Guys were reporting their process and asking questions in the IRC. Unfortunately the puzzle seems to have a couple of flaws, which I need to solve. One is just graphical, one of the numbers looks too much of another one, so there is a confusion. This is an usability issue and should be fixed even for the most hard core version.

Another clear flaw in the puzzle was the last part. Since the first part of the puzzle was all about - let's say bunch of numbers, the players also assumed that the last part would also be about bunch of numbers. I think I need to change that a bit.

Thanks for the testers! Now I have a clear idea what I should do to make the puzzle more approachable to the larger audience. Not the largest audience (FarmVillers etc), but the regular people who are interested in puzzle games. I will mark the changes to the design document, but will not implement yet, since I want to get some more puzzles done before that.

I will probably make the different versions of the puzzles public, so people can go and try them out even before the game is completely ready. After all, After Now Archeology is not focused on the large story, but on the individual puzzles.