Friday, July 30, 2010

Lost Planet 2 stage design lessons

One of the games that my brother and I have been playing a lot of over the last few months is Lost Planet 2, the third person shooter made by Capcom. The game's strong emphasis on co-op gameplay makes it a great game for our purposes. However, the game definitely has its mix of great stages and poorly designed stages. After a while, I think I have noticed a few patterns, which could be taken as lessons to be learned for future games.

Ironically enough, mission 1-1 is one of the hardest stages in the entire game, particularly at higher difficulty levels. This is entirely due to the final segment of the stage, where the players have to seize and maintain control over a mine. There are two main causes for this difficulty. The first is because of the open layout of the mine; it consists of a large open central area surrounded by multi-level structures with lots of open doors and windows. Essentially, every enemy in the mine area can easily get opportunities to shoot at the players, meaning that the players have to deal with all of the enemies at once, making it easy to get swarmed or surrounded. Second, the game asks the players to maintain control over four control posts at once for a certain amount of time. Because of the spacing of the control points and constant reinforcement of enemies from multiple entry points, this is very difficult to do with even two people. It feels like this part of the mission more or less requires four players in order to be easily feasible.

This second point is seen again in mission 5-1, where the players are asked to once again maintain control over certain control posts for a certain amount of time; this time it is two control posts located in different rooms separated by several corridors. In our case, my brother and I were each able to guard a room, but it was a very difficult fight for us, since powerful enemies constantly stream in from three entrances into each room. Based on these missions, it feels like missions that require maintaining control over multiple places at once vary in difficulty a lot more significantly based on the number of players than missions that require simply advancing forward. This is probably because these missions force players to split up, which is more punishing for two players than for four. I have no idea if it is even possible for a solo player to tackle these (disregarding AI helpers).

Perhaps a more positive and interesting way the game takes advantage of its co-op focus is in its stages with multiple routes. Most stages in the game are very good at having at least two routes to get from one room to the next. For example, 4-1's first area consists of a multistory building. Many floors in this building have two or even three stairways leading to the next floor. This opens up a lot of room for strategy. The players can all go down the same path and try to combine their firepower, or they can choose to split up, take different routes, and flank the enemy. This multi-route design even lets players split up to clear out enemies and independently secure objectives if they so wish.

On the flip side of the coin is the final section of mission 4-1: a narrow choke-point leading into a large area where there are multiple heavily armed mechs ready to shoot anyone passing through the choke-point. To make matters worse, the only weapons capable of talking out the enemy mechs are on the other side of the choke-point. This kind of design comes up in about three or four places in Lost Planet 2, and it really is inexcusable. In all of these occasions, the only choice is to make a beeline for the usable mechs or good weapons and pray you can find some cover before the enemy fire tears you to shreds. This kind of area layout gives an overwhelming advantage to the enemies, and can quickly become very frustrating to the players.

On a final note, I really liked the co-op cannon segments of the game. In these, all of the players need to to work together to man powerful weapons against giant enemies. While one player is aiming the cannon itself, other players are manning anti-aircraft guns to hold off threats, fighting off enemies who have boarded the player's vehicle, or working to power-up the main gunner's next big shot. These battle can be frantic, complex, exciting, and very epic. Unfortunately, I gather that they aren't very fun when one player is playing solo. That is a real shame. Unless the game designers can write AI that can actually behave the way a player wants them to in such a complex situation, this is going to remain a trade-off when choosing between making a primarily co-op vs single-player experience.

I think there is a lot about Lost Planet 2 that shows that a game built around four player co-op does have significantly different level design considerations than a game built just for single-player. As a big fan of co-op games, I do kind of wish that there were more games like Lost Planet 2 out there.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Communication and Interaction in Fable 2

It has been far too long since I have last written a blog entry here. I have finally sat down to revive this blog with a post about a game that has been out for a couple of years: Lionhead Studio's Fable 2. I finally got around to playing it for the first time over the last week, and it was actually a fair bit better than I was expecting based on some reviews I have read about it. Unfortunately, one of the key selling points of the game, the ability to interact with the common characters throughout the world to earn their love or their fear, just fell flat. In practice, the lack of any real communication and the ability to only interact with faceless NPCs devoid of characterization makes it feel like the whole game world, including the player's own character, feel empty and lifeless. Fable 2 doesn't create the feeling that there are actual relationships between characters.

The fundamental problem with Fable 2's interaction is that it is impossible to actually talk to people; all you can do is use emotes called Expressions to get vague ideas across. Every NPC in the game-world seems to have their own base impression of the hero based on a combination of his renown (a value built up by doing quests), his alignment, and his appearance. From there, it is possible to further manipulate the impressions of the NPCs by taking various action, primarily Expressions, around them. For example you can pose heroically to impress people. NPCs will then occasionally make voice-acted comments as the hero walks by based on their personality traits and current impressions of the hero. However, at no point in this process do the NPCs and the hero actually interact in any significant way. It just feels like the player and the game-world are just talking at each other rather than engaging in anything substantial. It isn't even possible to tell which specific man or woman is actually doing the talking when they are in a crowd.

The biggest reason this interaction feels so hollow is because the people filling the game world really are hollow and lifeless. They are nothing more than names pasted onto three to six character personality traits, a handful of likes and dislikes, a generic character model, and a generic voice. I wouldn't be surprised if most of them where cranked out by a random NPC generator program. Furthermore, all of those statistics are devoted to determining how the NPC reacts to the hero performing any given Expression. All these NPCs are capable of is wandering around and reacting to Expressions. At the same time, none of them really stand out at all. They have no interesting personalities, they all look the same, and, worst of all, they are all equally frivolous in their emotions. Just by having my hero put on some nice clothes, half a city fell in love with my hero. Why should the player even care what the NPCs think of the hero when the NPCs are nothing more than generic background characters?

There are several honestly interesting characters in the game who are part of the story and the games various quests, such as Barnum, Hannah, and Garth. Unfortunately, these few interesting characters are completely segregated from any interaction. They generally have no reactions to the hero performing Expressions nearby, and they can't even be killed (one quest giver still offered me a job after I shot him in the head a couple dozen times). You can't even lock onto them to check their stats like you can with every other character in the game. It is really frustration that the only characters in the game that I actually care about don't really care much about my character.

The whole problem is compounded by the limitations of the Expressions. The Expressions are grouped based on how they influence people, and these groups include Flirty, Scary, Rude, and Fun. Pretty much all of the Expressions represent conscious performances put on by the hero to influence people's emotions and impressions. What is missing are Expressions that actually express the hero's own emotions. For example, it is possible to point and laugh at people to piss them off or humiliate them, but there is no crying emote to express sadness. This actually comes up in the handful of cutscenes where the player is asked to use Expressions to interact with story characters, such as when the player is attending the funeral of a slain monk. Without the ability to actually express the hero's own emotions, it is nearly impossible to engage in anything resembling a conversation. While the game does offer up Expressions for the player to use in such situations, trying to figure out the meaning of any given Expression in the scene's context is often very difficult. As such, the player's own character feels just as hollow and lifeless as the NPCs filling the world.

In the end, I never really bothered interacting with the NPCs of Fable 2 much during my go through. The game didn't give me much real motivation to do so. The NPCs and Expressions just felt too much like a mechanical puzzle to be cracked than anything with actual emotional payoff. In order to succeed with this kind of thing, you need to breathe life into the NPCs and treat them like actual characters, not just set-pieces.