« August 2007 | Main

September 20, 2007

Halo Wars

So, Ensemble recently released a trailer demonstrating the gameplay of Halo Wars, their much-anticipated RTS for the 360.

This existence of this game is officially a Big Deal. Ensemble is one of a handful of top-flight real-time strategy developers, and the console RTS nut has yet to be cracked, despite some noble efforts. Presumably, the opportunity to lock up a console RTS from Ensemble was one of the reasons Microsoft acquired Ensemble back in 2001. (Wow, has it really been that long?) Attaching it to the Halo franchise must have been icing on the cake.

I have been following the game's news (little as there was) since it was first announced, and I had been encouraged by reports that the game would be focusing on very small squads, perhaps suggesting a rethink of RTS for the new platform. Thus, I am a little disappointed by the new video as Halo Wars appears to be another real-time strategy game focused on unit wrangling, which becomes significantly more stressful on a platform lacking a mouse and keyboard.

There are nice touches here, to be sure. The full-screen build menu nicely solves the modal problem so common to console games. The graphical detail is, of course, incredible. However, the firefight near the end of the video looks just like your standard RTS headache. Trying to handle that many units with a joystick in such a high-pressure situation looks like stress, not fun.

At the very end of the video, however, there is a tiny suggestion of just how fun an RTS could be on a console. The human side has some sort of orbiting uber-weapon they can use to wreck massive destruction on a specific target. The console interface for this system is a snap - it's simply a huge reticule. Just aim and shoot. Sure, it's a strategy game, but why not? The effect is not unlike the God Powers of Age of Mythology, Ensemble's PC RTS from 2002. However, this mechanic is a perfect fit for the console. Personally, I was hoping that Halo Wars would focus more on these types of interactions - ones where the player is taking advantage of the joystick interface instead of fighting it. RTS's truly need to be built from the ground up for consoles, without the expectation of controlling multiple groups of soldiers. Ensemble is one of the best developers in the business (Age of Kings was probably my favorite game of the '90s), so they are more than capable of delivering an awesome title. They just need to unlearn some of what they have spent the last decade learning on the PC.

So, how should an RTS on the console work? I don't know, of course, but there are a few games out there that hint at possibilities:

Moonbase Commander: The Psychonauts of the strategy genre, this brilliant game got overlooked because, ironically enough, it should have been a console game. The mechanics are hard to describe; the simplest way I can explain it would be as a cross between StarCraft and Tiger Woods. In other words, it's a land-grab, space-themed strategy game using a golf-swing game mechanic. The remarkable thing about the design was that a) it was a blast in multi-player and b) it would have worked perfectly on consoles, the native platform for most golf games. (Technically, Moonbase Commander is a turn-based game, but it moves fast enough that it "feels" like an RTS. Further, one could tweak the rules easily enough to make it work in real time.)

Rampart: This arcade classic has some similarities to Moonbase Commander in that it is a strategy game that involves firing projectiles at your opponent - a very natural action for a console controller. Rampart also includes a Tetris-style puzzle for repairing your castle. I would love to see a more detailed modern version with co-op play where one teammate focuses on rebuilding while the other focuses on lobbing cannonballs at the enemy.

Defense of the Ancients: The most popular Warcraft III mod by far, DotA is the natural progression of the hero-based RPG gameplay Blizzard introduced in the core game. Instead of controlling an army, the player controls a single hero, on a team with three other human heroes and AI-controlled grunts. The AI units fight the battle using standard RTS rules while the human heroes wander around the battlefield, acquiring levels and loot, while trying to turn the tide of battle in their team's favor. DotA is still an RTS, but the player's interaction with the world is confined to a single hero unit, taking away the mental burden of handling large groups of units. Obviously, consoles handle avatar-based games quite well. Judging from the popularity of DotA, a console version of this RPG/RTS hybrid is a hit just waiting to happen.

M.U.L.E.: If you've read my writing over the years, you would know this one was coming. You could make a convincing case that M.U.L.E. was the first significant real-time strategy game ever made. You could also make a case that it is one of the greatest games ever made. It's a game of cutthroat competition where you destroy your opponents not with missile but by controlling the market, driving up prices while reaping huge profits. The auction mechanic was legendary for creating head-to-head conflict. You don't know triumph until you've made your friends pay through the nose for energy. Most importantly, M.U.L.E. was designed for a joystick, meaning that consoles would be a natural fit for the proven gameplay.

I hope this list emphasizes that console RTS's do not need to play like PC RTS's. There are always more games out there to make than we can possibly imagine, and I don't feel like we have scratched the surface yet for strategy games.

Posted by Soren at 12:08 PM | Comments (1229)

September 18, 2007

Polycast Too

So, my design mistakes list made Polycast as well. They did a nice job going through all of my points. Once again, my story point sparked the most disagreements. To clarify, I am not against story in games. I am against the idea that having a story necessarily makes a game better. Many example exist where adding a story reduces the designer's flexibility, such as in my Rise of Legends example. Everything you put into a game comes at a cost, and story is no exception.

Posted by Soren at 4:14 PM | Comments (696)

September 13, 2007

Jeff Strain on MMOs

Jeff Strain, co-founder of ArenaNet, gave a very interesting speech on the challenges of creating a successful MMO. Here's an important point:

Before you start building the ultimate MMO, you should accept that "MMO" is a technology, not a game design. It still feels like many MMOs are trying to build on the fundamental designs established by UO and EQ in the late '90s. In the heyday of Doom and Quake we all eventually realized that "3D" was a technology, distinct from the "FPS," which was a game design. It's time we accepted that for MMOs as well. We are finding ways to overcome many of the limitations of the technology that dictated the early MMO design, such as Internet latency and limited global scalability. These improvements can enable a new class of online games that break out of the traditional MMO mold and explore new territory. It can be a daunting proposition to willfully walk away from what seems to be a "sure thing" in game design, but lack of differentiation is probably the number one reason that MMOs fail, so we all need to leave the comfort zone and start innovating, or risk creating yet another "me too" MMO.

Also, similar to Civ4's development, they started an external alpha test years before release:

It's crucial to get feedback from outside the development team at a very early stage. We started alpha testing over three years before Guild Wars was released. To say that the game was crude at that point is a bit of an understatement – I think we're still tracking down screenshots from that period and trying to get them burned. It was a very controversial decision at the time, and generated a lot of heated debate within the development team, because it flew in the face of the traditional wisdom that you should never show anyone outside the company what you are working on until it is perfect. I wish I could tell you that every tester we brought into the alpha test was honest, abided by the NDA, and gave the development team carefully-considered and high-quality feedback after each of the tri-weekly play sessions, but that would not be the truth. There were several times after we launched the program that we revisited the notion and discussed whether the good outweighed the bad. But we kept at it, and by the time Guild Wars shipped in April, 2005 it was clear that the game had benefited from the alpha test program, and today we consider it an essential component of the development process.
Posted by Soren at 1:06 PM | Comments (1217)

September 11, 2007

Speaking of Tutorials...

So, I just gave an interview on tutorials, during which I had hoped to give a concrete example of a game which handled its tutorial poorly. Unfortunately, my memory failed me as most game tutorials eventually seem to blur together. Naturally, just today I saw a perfect example of how not to write one. The game is called Bloxorz, and it is a quite good puzzle game that feels a bit like a turn-based version of Marble Madness, if that makes any sense.

At any rate, when the game begins, the player is moved through 9 screens that give instructions on how to play. The problem is that this information is simply too much for the player to digest before he or she has even a tangible sense of how the game works. Simply put, gameplay cannot be described with just words. Did you understand my Marble Madness analogy in the paragraph above? Probably not. However, as soon as you actually play the first level, the basic gameplay becomes quite clear.

Thus, advanced features, like switches and teleports, are meaningless to the player until he or she actually understands the core game. The tutorial could be twice as effective if each of the instructions screens was simply placed before the level in which the new feature first appears. The designer is essentially forcing the player to read the entire manual cover to cover and then hoping that everything gets remembered. Information should be handed out to the player only when needed.

Give the game a try, it's fun! Just not the best tutorial experience...

Posted by Soren at 10:46 PM | Comments (920)

September 10, 2007

GFW Podcast

Much to my surprise, my articles on game design mistakes made it onto last week's Games for Windows Podcast. I'm a regular listener, so it was cool to hear them talking about this blog. They discussed the first two points and the last, which was the one about stories. Just to be clear, I am not anti-story. I simply believe that designers should acknowledge that including a fixed story in a game comes at a cost to other potential features. Often, this trade-off makes sense - for example, RPG and adventure games would be hard to imagine without stories. However, sometimes games which could have open-ended goals (such as strategy games) limit their replayability by shoehorning in an unnecessary story.

Oh, and they mentioned that my blog is hard to read because the font is too small. Good point. I really need to actually figure out how to use Movable Type soon...

Posted by Soren at 3:57 PM | Comments (575)

September 4, 2007

If You are a Game Designer...

...this wedding cake is your goal:

photo by Jake Sones


Posted by Soren at 5:11 PM | Comments (1150)

September 1, 2007


I did an interview recently at Boing Boing Gadgets on tutorials. Here's an excerpt:

So what's the best real world example of tutorial you've ever come across?

I've seen lots of good tutorials, but I'm finding it hard to think of great ones. Making a great tutorial may be the hardest part of the developments process; it's certainly the part I find the hardest. I would like to mention one interesting thing that Prince of Persia: Sands of Time did which served as a tutorial even though it didn't feel like one. Between levels, you would see a black-and-white dream sequence which showed some of the moves you needed to make to pass the upcoming area. The visuals were not specific enough that it spoiled the puzzles, but they did introduce you to the advanced moves you would need so that you were better prepared for a new challenge. I had never done a wall run before, but when I saw one during the dream sequence, I immediately became aware that there was a new skill I should master in order to pass the next level. The game still took the time to teach me the literal button presses needed to do a wall run, but the dream sequence did a great job of making me want to learn this new move because I saw the context for it. Finding a way to show off cool features to encourage learning is a great idea—Google seems to be doing this as well with their product video demos for Street View and whatnot.

Posted by Soren at 3:31 PM | Comments (1167)