Wednesday 26 August 2009

Puzzles in horror games. Part 3

In the previous blog some problems with puzzles in adventure games where discussed. It was also mentioned that a major culprit in all of these where that many adventure games do not have a coherent system for doing interactions, like for example a Super Mario game. A nice way of solving this and still allowing a varied set of possible actions might seem to be physics. For the last couple of years, especially after the launch of Half-Life 2, physics have gotten a lot of attention and is pretty much a standard component of any 3D game today. It might therefore seem obvious to start using physics in adventure games in order to bring the genre forward. However, having implemented physics for four games now and working on a fifth a lot of problems have emerged. While adventure games and physics seems like the promised land at first glance, it is far from it.

Difficult controls

Classic adventure games like Myst and Broken Sword got very inntuitive and simple controls and can still give the player a very detailed and varied experience. It is just matter of moving the mouse and clicking to control games, and it is hard to make it more simple than that. For a game using physics, it is much harder. Doing something similar to Broken Sword with physics would be very hard and I have yet to hear an ideas on how it would work. A first person perspective is pretty much demanded in order to have a control system that lets the player perform enough actions to solve varied types of puzzles. This leaves games like Myst and Tex Murphy to use physics. The first person system is also what is used by Penumbra.

However, controls quickly get messy because of something called the z-axis or the third dimension. The problem comes from the main input device, the mouse, working in only two dimension and the actions on screen taking place in three. When manipulating objects this can make things a bit difficult, and in Black Plauge we added the scroll wheel to make up for this. Penumbra was also implemented on a haptic device which allows the user full 3d movement, adding a very nice way of interacting. However, given the current spread of haptic devices, it is not viable to design a system around them. As for other gadgets like the wii-mote, it only has acceleration in 3D, postioning is still in 2D and thus it does not solve the problem.

The problems with controls do not stop there though and the user also wants to rotate objects and do other kinds of manipulation. We added rotation in Black Plauge too and by now the full control system was pretty complex. All of this complexity still only allowed very basic interaction though and attempts to further enhance the interaction could easily lead to something like Trespasser which featured increadibly difficult controls.

The Chaos effect

Even though physics are controlled by a very limited set of rules, because of its complexity, even the smallest varition can cause major differences in outcome. The most striking example of this is the mining cart puzzle in Penumbra Overture. Here the player is supposed to push a cart down a slope to hit a wall, but for some reason, every now and then it would derail and miss the intended target. To fix this, extra forces where added keeping the cart in place and numerous hours was spent at getting it stable. After all this work, the cart can still derail though! In hindsight it would have been a lot easier to just use an animation. This shows how such a simple event can cause tons of problem when physics is involved.

Physics breakdown
Not only does a physical simulation suffer from undeterministic behaviour (chaos) , it can also fail. As hinted in the word "simulation", game physics is not a perfect replica of the real world and can break down at certain points. In the Penumbra games, the best example is that the player can bang objects through the floor if using enough force. Some objects are easier to bang through (because of shape, size, etc) and in Requiem we had make an important object magically appear if it went through.

Sequence breaking

In adventure games, the designer can usually set exactly the kinds of interactions possible with an object and have full control of all possible outcomes. For physics, it is impossible to anticipate all that can happen and one can only test as much as possible, hoping all gaps have been closed. For example: a pit that should not be possible to cross at certain point in the game, might be possible to cross with some ingenius use of objects. In order make sure certain things does not happen we had to add alot of extra checks and hacks in the Penumbra games, sometimes even excluding the player from doing certain actions. This can easily break the sense of immersion, but might be a must in order to have a stable game.

Another type of sequence breaking is doing something "stupid". An example from Penumbra Black Plauge is in a machine room where the player needs a steel pipe as leverage to break open a door. However, there is also a hole in this level and it is possible for the player to throw the pipe down in it. To remedy this, we added several pipes in the level and if the player where to throw them all down the hole, a pipe would magically appear inserted into the door that needed to be opened. It is not very immersive, but at least the game did not break. Luckily, most player seem to not trow imporant objects down in holes.

Player getting stuck
All of the problem listed above can lead to the player getting into a unwinnable situation. Normally physics game have a reset option that lets the player start over. This is crucial for most physics game, for example consider how World of Goo would be if it the player should never be able to end up in an unwinnable state. It would pretty much destroy the entire game.

Adventure games do not have this luxary though and unless one counts some really old games, it has always been possible for the player to continue unless death occured. This restriction ends up making many physics puzzles impossible to implement in an adventure game and when designing the Penumbra games, many puzzles had to be abandoned due to the high risk of putting the player in an unwinnable state.

End notes
I turns out that using physics as a way to bypass the rescritive actions and incoherence of normal adventure game interaction is not possible. Instead adventure games with physics require alot of restrictions and special cases to be added in order to make a working game. It also limits the amount of puzzles that can be used in the game and is not as groundbreaking as it first might seem. This can also be seen in games like Half-life 2 that has not only very few physics puzzles, but also heavily restricted ones. Some physics-like puzzles (for example a large bridge acting as a see-saw) does not even use physics!

Still, given all of the problems with physics, it should not by discarded. It allows for great immersion, which is especially imporant for horror games, and correctly implemented it can make puzzles seem more intuitive and fun to perform. It can also makes it easier to do puzzles with many solutions and make puzzle encounters less frustrating. We will still be using physics for our upcoming game and would like to see more adventure games trying it out!

What is your opion about physics in adventure games? Know any other games with good physics puzzles?

Wednesday 19 August 2009

Horror Tip: Elevated

Name: Elevated
Type: Short film
Link: Youtube part 1 and part 2.
This is a pretty unknown short film from the guy that made Cube (one of my favorite horror movies) and it has a lot in common with that movie. Both films are based on a fear of the unknown, have tense psychological drama and feature a very limited set.

The entire film takes place in an elevator where two people are confronted with a blood-soaked man claiming there is a monster in the building. From there things go from bad to worse as the people start to distrust each other.

I liked Elevated a lot and it is a shame that there are not more films like it available. Especially in this age of spectacular effects it is refreshing to see movies that let the viewer use her own imagination!

Tuesday 18 August 2009

Blog layout updated

I just made the blog a little wider and hopefully this will make it more readable than before. Some have asked for the blog to be a percentage of the screen width, but I do not like that because then one might have blog posts that is a single row on some screens and it will be very hard to read. It also makes layout easier to have a fixed size. Hopefully this is good enough!

Please say what you think about this and also repoort any issues you might be having. I have just made some dirty hacks to make it wider and might have broken something in the progress!

Monday 17 August 2009

Puzzles in horror games. Part 2.

Before continuing to dig deeper into the world of puzzles, I would like to clarify a thing from the last puzzle post: When I said that I thought puzzles were the best way to have as core gameplay in a horror game, I did not mean that it excluded all other kinds of gameplay. I rather meant that the basic design was based on puzzles and that other mechanisms are there as extras. Penumbra: Black Plague is a game that uses that approach while Resident Evil has a clear focus on action with puzzles as extras. Now on with the post.

In this second part I am going to discuss some problems with puzzles. The common thread of these issues is that while other mechanics usually have a very fixed set of available actions, "puzzle games" are not always clear on what is possible in the game world. In a shooter the world usually reacts as one wants when firing a weapon and when encountering an enemy the player does not feel restricted or unable to do sensible actions. When it comes to puzzles though, it is often not obvious what can be done and many puzzles ends up as an exercise in reading the designer's mind.

Now for a brief list discussing some common problem:

The hidden action
When facing some puzzles, the player might be unaware that some form of action is valid. Sometimes this is because the game has not allowed the same action in a similar situation and sometimes it is not obvious that the object can be interacted with. An example for this is the "rock catapult"-puzzle in Monkey Island. Here it is not very clear (at least was not for me...) that the player can rotate the see-saw-like catapult contraption by using the "push" and "pull" actions, mainly because no other objects had had a similar action available.

The missing item
At times an encountered obstacle will require something not yet discovered. At its worse it requires simply some information for the player character in order to perform the action, meaning that the player has all the means to complete the puzzle but the game is not allowing it. Here the example (to our shame..) comes from Penumbra: Overture which has a puzzle where the player needs to pick up a cotton string from a box but can not do so unless a book (explaining why the thread is needed) has been found. This is not very good design and we promise to (at least try to) never repeat such an abomination again!

Non sequitur
This is mainly a problem of not making the result of an action clear enough. The player might realize that a puzzle is encountered but not the use of the solving it. An example of this comes again from Monkey Island. Here the player encounters an ape in a jungle and by feeding it bananas it will follow the player and can be used to hold down a lever. In this puzzle, it is not even clear that feeding it bananas will accomplish anything and using the monkey to hold down a lever requires more trial and error than actual puzzle solving. Hotel Dusk also has something similar where solving a Rubik's cube lets the player escape an elevator.

Guess the action
At times it is obvious to the player what needs to be done in order to solve a puzzle but can not make the game perform the wanted action. This is most obvious in text adventure games where the player needs to write an action in English, but can also be present when there are very few possible ways of interaction. An example from Penumbra: Overture is when placing an explosive barrel in front of a cave in. Certain mechanics required the barrel to be a in a specific spot and some players, knowing exactly what to do, were unable to find it and thereby solving the puzzle.

Obvious solution is not correct
This has got to be the most annoying and common problem in all games that have puzzles. The player is faced with a puzzle that has an obvious solution (at least to the player), but then some more complicated solution is needed. The most common variation would be a thin wooden door needing a key to be opened when the player has a rocketlauncher at hand. Sometimes this type of problem can be hard to spot for designers though, mainly because once a solution is found others are blocked out. It might also be that the obvious solution is not supported by the game mechanics, like splashing nearby water on fire, but then the puzzled should perhaps be replaced or the environment redesigned.

Most of the time, it just takes some extra thinking to get rid of these problems, but they can also be hard to predict at times. An option is to make the way the game world more clear by letting all puzzles come directly from the game mechanics. A way to do this is by using physics, but doing so gives a lot of other problems! These issues is what will be discussed next week.

Do you know any other types of problems typical for adventure games? What puzzles in the Penumbra games were worst? Finally, I am really interested to hear about the worst puzzles you have encountered in a game!

PS: Sorry for all of the Monkey Island examples, but it was just a recently played game. I still like it for all its flaws though :) There sure are far worse puzzles in other adventure games.

EDIT: Thanks to
biomechanical923 for reminding me about the ""Obvious solution is not correct" puzzle in the comments! I think this kind of puzzle problem is the most major issue when not having coherant game mechanics for the puzzles.

Wednesday 12 August 2009

Horror Tip: Dear Esther

Name: Dear Esther
Type: Game (Half Life 2 Mod)
Link: Mod DB page (info + download)
This horror tip is quite fitting with last post's discussion on what makes a game. Dear Esther is pretty much a first person game without any gameplay and only based an a fragmented narrative. While not really scary it has got a very dark and gloomy atmosphere. The game is highly experimental and might feel a bit pretentious at first, but still very well worth playing. It takes a little over 30 min to complete and offers a very unique experience.

To play it Half Life 2 or any of the episodes is needed. Download the zip and extract to "steamapps\SourceMods". Then start the game through steam.

What did you like this narrative-only kind of gameplay? And would you consider it a game*?

*Yes, trying to categorize stuff will always fail at some point, but I still think it can create an interesting discussion. For the same reason that for example not calling pluto a planet is important.

Monday 10 August 2009

Puzzles in horror games. Part 1.

This post will be the first in a series concentrating on puzzles in games, with special focus on horror games. To start this up I would like to discuss why puzzles are needed at all. Is it really necessary to have puzzles in game when it might detract from story, immersion, etc?

In order to be a game, there needs to be some kind of interaction. I think this is pretty much the most basic feature of a game - no interaction, no game. In order to be engaging there also needs to be some kind of challenge, if the player simple makes arbitrary choices then the game is awfully close to interactive storytelling (not be mixed up with IF) instead. Even in the most linear story games, there is always something blocking progression, something that needs to be taken care of before the game advances. In Fahrenheit (aka Indigo Prophecy) the player presses random buttons and in the IF game Photopia the player needs to do the correct action. Both of these games are (in my option at least) are very close to being works of interactive storytelling, but still feel like games.

So can't the interaction be just some form on exploration? If the player is free to look at anything in the world, is that not enough to make it a game? I think no. The reason for this is that this kind of interaction is very close to a footnotes in a book or hyperlinks in some online text. The reader can choose to read the extra pieces of information or simply keep on reading, thus allowing for very basic interaction. If this would make the work a "game", then just a about any book or webpage could be considered just that. This does not seem right to me and is my main reason for thinking that some kind of challenge is needed.

So what kind of challenges can be used? Some games like Dragon's Lair requires the player to press a random button at the right time . This mechanic is awfully simplistic but used at the right time it can be quite effective and at least one upcoming game even bases its entire basic gameplay around it. It can even be more simplistic than this and just require the roll of a die, like some gamebooks. Also notice how the gamebook goes from a branching plot novel (a non-game) to an actual game as soon as these "challanges" are added. This sort of gameplay might be highly trivial, with a clear sepperation of story and game mechanics, but I still think it is what makes a difference and creates what I would like to call a game.

Modern games have plenty of fun ways to present challanges - hordes of enemies, deadly chasms, puzzles, etc. It stills plays the same role as that timed button press though, the player needs to face some kind of obstacle and try to overcome it. This comes as a problem for horror games though, since it is a genre that has a lot of focus on creating atmosphere. Everytime an obstacle is reached, the pace is broken and it can lead to frustration in the player - breaking immersion.

With this in mind, it seems like some kind of hands-on-action is the best for horror games. However, looking at horror in other mediums, classics such as The Shining, Alien and The Exorcist contain very little action. As explained in an earlier post, having too much (player induced) violence will most likely significantly lessen the horror aspects of the game. That said, action do not have to be bad, but basing the gameplay on it will probably not create a scary game.

In search of other kinds of challanges, the three major found in horror are: sneaking, running and puzzles. Sneaking has been briefly metnioned earlier and running has had whole post dedicated to it. I think the problem is the same for both of these mechanics though: they are likely to add an element of trial-and-error. This means replaying which in turn means frustation and loss of atmosphere. This is something one wants to avoid in horror games and thus these two mechanics should be used sparesly.

Left is now puzzles and it is my belief that this is the best suiting horror gameplay mechanic. Infact, horror in other media use similar ways to add drama to the story. Often a horror story has some kind of mystery, a puzzle, at it's core, making it similar to detective fiction. Events that onfold also often come in the form of puzzles, in Ringu the main characters try to learn the mystery of a cursed video tape and many characters in horror story has to find a way out of locked room, etc. Puzzles also offer a nice change of pace from an intense section, making the player calm down and get ready (more vunerable) for the next scary part. This is probably why action based horror games like Silent Hill and Resident Evil, come with many puzzle sections.

Puzzles come with a lot of problem though and can too lead to frustration and loss of immersion in a game. What kind of problems that might arise and ideas for solving these will featured in the upcoming posts.

Until then: What do you think is the most basic essence of a game? Are challanges really needed to create a game? Are puzzles the best basic mechanic for a scary game?

Wednesday 5 August 2009

Horror Tip: The Awakening

Name: The Awakening
Type: Game (Interactive Fiction)
Link: Info and download
Time for another work of interactive fiction and this time there are some puzzles to be solved as well. The game is pretty simple though and also comes with a nice help system making it a good beginner game.

The game starts out as you wake up in a grave and needs to find out what has happened to you. The story is quite lovecraftian and the game has a very nice atmosphere. It is not as scary as All Alone but still a very good horror IF game.

To play the game you need a Z-machine and the most popular is probably Frotz.

Tuesday 4 August 2009

Briefly Being Frictional

In this blog post I am going to give a very brief overview of our "business model". Hopefully it will be interesting to see how we run the company and how we manage to pay salaries and such.

Frictional games was properly started 2007 (although part of the team has worked together before that), meaning we will celebrate 3 year anniversary next year. During this time we have paid salary to all employees ranging from 2 - 4 people. As far I can recall, we have never missed a month (jens: as the one that pays the salaries - no we have not!). We have been very lucky in this regard as the income can be quite unstable, with periods of very meager cash flow. Our salaries have not been all that good, often around what we had as students (right now I am below that!), but I guess that is what you have to deal with when running your own game company.

During the entire duration of the company we have always been working at home and so have all employees. Even though we have this very bedroom-coder approach, I do not think we live up to being "indie". This because we have relied on publisher support to some extent, especially with Black Plague and Requiem. However, now we have managed to be get enough funds to become completely self-supporting and will finance the upcoming game Unknown all by ourselves. Does this mean we are indie now? I have no idea.

Now a bit on the cashflow and a brief explanation on where we get our income. In the past we have gotten most of our income as pre-payments from publishers. The reason why one wants to get advances is because it can take a long time before publisher money arrives from the actual sales of a game (at least 6 months) and it is also a proof that the publisher is serious.
For Overture, we got the money a few weeks before release of the game and a bit afterward. A great deal of the money never reached us (the bit that did was thanks to the "give us the promised cash or you will not get the promised game" method) because of the not-so-honest Lexicon Entertainment (now out of business I think, go figure). But that is another story.
For Black Plague and Requiem we got a good deal of the payments several months before release and the money acted as a kind of funding. It is important to point out that an advance is more like a loan though, and must be paid back using royalties before we get anything more. So far we have not reached this limit even though it has been over 1.5 years since release (we are very close though). By not having pre-payments you can usually get a higher royalty rate, but in the case of Black Plague and Requiem, it would not have been possible to create the games without being paid in advance.

Another source of income are the online sales. The major part of this are the titles that we own digital rights to (all mac/linux versions and windows version of Overture). In the past this have not been a huge amount of income but have still made it possible for us to keep alive during some harsher months and we would probably not have survived without it.
Recently with the weekend sale on steam, and later in our own shop, this have changed. These sales have shown us just how lucrative online sales can be and is also the reason why we are now able to finance the upcoming game ourselves.

Apart from the income of online sales and publishers we have also had a few other lucky extras. Last year we were awarded funding from the Nordic Game Program. This was something arriving just at the right time and kept the company alive. Another stroke of luck was our cooperation with Reachin and the development of the haptic version of Penumbra. This project was a financial boost right when we needed and also a very exciting thing to be involved in.

Looking back at the past I think we have been very lucky and it still feels a bit strange to be able to make a living out of making games from my living room. Sure we have had our bad times too and there have been plenty of times when I thought it was time to look for a "real" job. We are still alive and kicking though and are extremely excited in seeing what the future holds.

Finally thanks to everybody that have supported over the years! It would be fun to hear what company aspects you are interested in hearing more about.