Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Stortelling in games: likes/dislikes

I'm going to take a break from Castle Conflict related stuff to talk a bit more about storytelling in games, something that I had hoped to have more time to do but haven't in quite some time.

Specifically, I am going to look at two games, one that I think did storytelling amazingly well, and one that demonstrates how, in some way, story and related paraphernalia can hinder gameplay as much as help.

The first game I want to talk about is HalfLife 2. As far as stories go, the story here is actually not too far from the fare of most video games. There is some evil force that threatens to overtake the human race, and you are set against it to destroy it. It is a bit more interesting than just that; the human race itself seems out to get you, with police men wearing what looks like gas masks out to get you at every turn. But there are people on your side to, and they refer to you as "the free man" and even fight alongside you during gameplay.

Okay, so the story is, really, decent at best. But the actual telling of the story in Half Life is brilliant. First of all, nothing is forced on you, and I think this is a very important point about what Half Life did successfully. Yes, the game is linear; no, there aren't really any branches in the story; and yet, I felt more a part of the story in Half Life 2 than I did in games like Tales of Symphonia, where the game is -about- the story, has story scenes all the time, and allows me to make choices that effect the story. Why? Because, when story stuff was going on, I could run around, jump on things, shoot people, ignore it entirely, pay complete attention to it. In short, I was still playing the game while the story was going on, so it was still me who was experiencing the story. It quickly became something I appreciated a lot about the game.

The other aspect was the lack of detail. As you play the game, there is no moment where someone comes up to you and says, "Okay, this is what is going on." There are some light explanations here and there, but really, you're never really told specifically what the Citadel is. who "our Benefactors" really are, or how they came to be here. (note: I have never played the original Half Life, which I am sure explains some of this). The player is forced to infer what is going on based on the snippets he does here; the situation that people are living in, and the environment around him. As a storytelling technique, this makes the game much more enjoyable. And for those who don't like story, and just want to shoot things with the Gravity Gun, they can outright ignore it.

The next game is actually a series; specifically, Fire Emblem. Fire Emblem is pretty successful in the tactical RPG realm, having been releasing games since the SNES days. But there is one specific detail about it that bothers me, which I will get to in a moment.

One discussion I remember having when I was taking Game Design courses was about consequences. About how, in many games, there were no consequences to the players' actions in a lot of games. The teacher talked about how he felt that consequences could be used to greater effect in a lot of games.

I think one thing to remember with games, even games that are heavily based on storytelling, is that they are still games. They are supposed to be fun. On the one hand, I'm a fan of the idea of consequences, and I think if implemented well, they can add a lot of depth and strategy to your game.

In Fire Emblem, they added consequences. If one of your character dies in the midst of battle, he dies forever. This might not be so bad, if there weren't a lot of weaker units (healers/mages) that suddenly seem much more useless, because you never want them close enough to the front line to be used effectively. If you do this, they will be killed. And while, in this type of games, you generally don't want your units killed, in Fire Emblem having them killed basically forces you to restart the battle or move forward for the rest of the game with a gimped army. Either option kind of sucks. And unfortunately, it is easy to have a healer off by a single square, and then have an enemy unit, out of the blue, attack it an kill it in a single hit. While this does promote awareness of careful planning, which are strong aspects of this type of game. I feel that it nonetheless is a bit too harsh.

For this specific case, I think Rondo of Swords found a much better mid ground. There is still punishment if your unit dies in battle, but instead, it's just weaker in the following fight while it recovers. A much more balanced, enjoyable feature.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Learning from your fanbase

In my last blog entry, I made the mistake about complaining about a bad review. Typically, I avoid complaining because it rarely accomplishes things, and I don't like being a whiner. But something happened as a result of my complaining - a fan of Castle Conflict went and wrote a great review. Since then, the game has got many more and with the new Egypt update out, it is doing pretty decent.Nonetheless, my last blog entry taught me two things:

1) Fans are awesome!!
2) Whining works. (Don't worry, I'm not going to start whining all the time =P)

I have a couple Castle Conflict related blogs on my plate, things that I've learned, and this will be the first of those. I was hoping to do this one about a month ago, actually, but I've been sidetracked... now that I have some time, here it is!

One of the things that we added to the Multiplayer update of Castle Conflict was a survey. The survey basically allows us to ask the users directly what they think about Castle Conflict. I set up the survey such that I could update it live, although I haven't done so as of yet, as I haven't had a chance to collate the results of the last survey.

To make the survey work, I'm using PinchMedia. It's no secret that I think Pinch is amazing and have learned a lot using it. There is some fear mongering going on about the service, but I think it's a bit too much. Especially given that Castle Conflict does not use Core Location or Facebook Connect; so some of the things that people are frightened of don't even apply to our game.

Anyways, Pinch is great because it tells you what your users do. But it's a bit more difficult to ask them outright what they think, so we added the survey. But, since we already had Pinch Media installed, instead of going through all the effort of writing a web service that would tally the results, and display it, I just made each question have a beacon, and I appended -y/-n at the end of it to mark the users response. This doesn't work perfectly; if a user takes the test more than once, for example, and answers the same question differently, I get both answers and don't know that they changed their answer. Being the optimist, I pretty much ignore all the -n answers, view by unique users instead of clicks, and tally the results that way.

Here are the results:

966 people finished the survey

945 played Campaign
918 wanted more levels
916 enjoyed campaign
909 want more units
844 want unit skins

439 would pay for more content
298 would pay for campaign levels
290 would pay for units
232 would pay for unit skins
199 would pay for multiplayer levels

307 played multiplayer
275 enjoyed multiplayer
218 thought multiplayer was stable
179 thought multiplayer had enough customisation

922 Would recommend the game to their friends

This tells me a few things.
1) Multiplayer could still use some work
2) However, very few people have played multiplayer relative to campaign
3) Despite the fact that multiplayer could use some improvements, if I were to make it more stable, I would please less than 100 people (as 2/3rds of the ~300 who had already played thought it was stable already
4) If I were to sell new campaign maps, I would please almost as many people as have played multiplayer
5) If I were to release a new, free campaign, I would please three times as many people as have played multiplayer

This tells me that, while multiplayer could use some work, the direction that the fans are interested in is campaign.

How does this compare with what I've learned via pinch?

In the month of February (when multiplayer was live):

5236 People played campaign,
972 beat it and kept playing after

1166 people created a multiplayer game
262 people challenged an existing

Result? Not a lot of people playing multiplayer in its current incarnation.

There is one other thing I would like to discuss in this entry, and that is "QuickPlay". Currently, I am thinking of axing it, despite the fact that it goes against some of my instincts. (According to Pinch, 2886 people played QuickPlay in February, so it is still being used). The reason for this is that it ruins the first experience. If the user starts a quickplay match and they haven't yet played, they are presented with 8 units + another button, and little idea what to expect. It can be overwhelming. Campaign is a much more controlled experience - the player gets 3 units to start, and gets to get new units one at a time, as features slowly unroll for them. Campaign also drives the user forward better.

If I download a game for a first time, and I'm trying to figure out how much I like it, I'm more likely to click on "QuickPlay" than "Campaign". Simply because, Campaign sounds like it has a large commitment. Whereas QuickPlay sounds light and easy - "oh yeah, I can try this out, and know if I like the game." I've seen over half the people I pass the game to test it out go to QuickPlay instead of Campaign. So either Quickplay needs some reworking ... or it should be taken away. We want users to have the best first experience possible, so that they like the game more, and are more likely to spread it via word of mouth. I think that, for this to work, we need to drive them to our best experience, which is Campaign. Will this actually happen? Stay tuned for our next update (although no date is yet set for that)