Immersion: Bringing Game Environments to Life

A good game grabs your attention in a way others don’t; a great game pulls you in so far that hours can pass like minutes. The degree of immersion a game can create – whether you feel detached, involved or as if it’s you running from that zombie – is undoubtedly central to both the game’s success and it’s replay value.

There are many factors that help to build immersion, not least the mood of the gamer, but three cornerstones stand out; the appearance of the game, the use of sound, and the gameplay itself.

The importance of aesthetics in immersion helps to explain the relentless drive toward better graphics. The closer a game is to photorealism, the smoother the transition from the real world to the virtual, and hence the easier it is to become engrossed. More realistic effects and explosions help to provoke awe in the player, and inspire more genuine emotions. For example, it is certainly possible to feel vertigo when falling from a radio mast in Far Cry 3, something that is much less likely in Minecraft.

Beauty, however, is in the eyes of the beholder. Better graphics are not the whole story; developers who work effectively with the tools at hand can still achieve immersion, but they must work harder. Often, this can be achieved by choosing an artful or unique graphical form, that takes a step in a different direction to photorealism. The much-vaunted style of Journey is a beautiful example of this:

A stunning but alternative visual style.

The use of sound is another important feature, but it is not always used for immersion. Many strategy games will contain soaring orchestral scores, but these are intended to emphasise their grandiose scale and fearsome battles, not to make the player feel like a part of the conflict. On the other hand, the juxtaposition of silence with sudden, dramatic music is a staple of the horror genre, and very effective in making the player feel for the protagonist’s plight. For building immersion, a game needs to tread carefully, using ambience and dialogue. Ideally, background noise should be present but so natural as to be unnoticeable; a quiet footfall here, a rustling tree there, but nothing so noticeable as to distract the player. This is done quite effectively in many modern games.

Dialogue is very much more difficult, as there are many ways in which it can go wrong. Firstly, it is rare for the voice of an actor to be closely matched to the appearance of a character, which combined with the prevalence of American accents, results in audio-visual combinations that inspire ridicule in the player. This is compounded by the fact that often a relatively small number of voice actors are used. Secondly is the use of generic conversations to try and create an impression of activity around the player; since these are necessarily so transparent, even overhearing a few sentences is enough to weaken immersion. Finally, if the character speaks in the game then a subtle gap will be created between the protagonist and their controller, as the thoughts and opinions expressed are likely to differ from those of the player.

Gameplay, however, is probably the most important component of immersion; solid mechanics mean the player is interested and more eligible to be immersed, boring gameplay leads to a lack of focus and hence no immersion. This allows games with more jarring graphics or audio to still feeling deeply engrossing. Aside from sheer quality, genre and style have a huge effect. First person games, especially those that require the player to manage resources carefully, are by the far most immersive due to the close bond between character and controller. Third person games are next in line, with a slightly weaker connection. As the player becomes increasingly removed, either literally due to the camera being set further from the character, or due to elements that feel unnatural, such as counter-intuitive controls or a 2D style, immersion becomes increasingly difficult to achieve. By the scale of RTS games, it is essentially impossible. This is not to say games that leave the player slightly detached are not enjoyable; however, they lack a certain edge over those that are able to create immersion, and it could be argued that this is one of the reasons for the great popularity of first person games and especially first person shooters.

Even a momentary glitch can cause a loss of immersion.

Other elements of gameplay are relevant here. Long periods of play where immersion is not broken by loading screens help to keep the player engaged. Novelty, whether through new mechanics being gradually unveiled or exciting new areas, ensure more of the brain is involved in the game. Finally, a certain smoothness – few bugs or glitches in the matrix let the player forget they’re in a game, a key ingredient in immersion.

To conclude, immersion is the fragile sum of many parts. It’s not a relevant concept to a variety of games, but in those where it is possible it is a vital part of the experience. Minor failings in any key area can ruin the immersion of a game, making it something that is both difficult to achieve but always sought after.

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Survival of the Fittest: Part 4

Dragging on with my microscopic strategy game, I’ll talk a little more about game concepts.

I mentioned previously that each cell would have its own resource level, rather than having a central bank. Three types of resource would be available; amino acids, carbohydrates and lipids, representing the main types of chemicals in cells. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and are used to assemble new organelles in order to grow the cell; they can also be used to repair damaged cells. Lipids are also used in some structures, particularly the cell wall, and also represent can also be used to store carbohydrates efficiently; the carbohydrates themselves are needed in all cell processes to some degree, from growth to movement. A cell that grows big enough gains the option to divide to create two smaller cells, with slightly more evolved attributes.

But how are said resources gathered? The most simple version of the game takes place on a petri dish; every area will contain good concentration of each resource, allowing any cell to passively soak up nutrients. However, as more and more is absorbed the concentration falls and this leads to resources being absorbed more slowly, forcing cells to seek out new pastures. Ultimately, this forces cell colonies into direct competition for control of an ever declining resource pile. In addition, defeated enemy cells could be defeated and absorbed – making war a valuable source of protein, provided you win.

Cells can modify their membranes to let them absorb faster, allowing gatherer cells to be developed. Conversely, combat oriented cells with tougher cell membranes will find their rate of absorbance much slower; this forces cell colonies into interdependence, as without being resupplied some types of cell will struggle to function, nevermind grow or replicate.

This is only most basic iteration of the game, with various alternatives leaping to mind. Many biological situations could be modelled as game modes; I am a particular fan of competing fungi colonies growing on a rotting tree, or of a player attempting to invade a much larger organism, fighting white blood cells and their ilk.

Alliances are an important feature in any strategy game, and this is no exception. This would allow players to work together on a new level, as colonies could focus on different paths of evolution and establish symbiotic relationships; for instance, one player focussing on top-quality military cells, whilst another shifts towards digesting dead cells and gathering nutrients.

I think that covers everything I have to say on this game; cheers for reading.

Survival of the Fittest: Part 3

Since been able to adapt your cell colony to new situations is the crux of this game, I feel the interface that allows cell modification deserves some detail. Let’s take a look at Spore’s creator, to save me drawing my own:

Cell_Editor

It’s certainly relatively basic, allowing a very limited degree of abilities – eating, moving, fighting and sensing. However, the presentation is extremely crisp and very easy to use, which is always a huge positive. There’s also a big focus on the aesthetics of the cell, with the ability to modify the position and size of appendages. The current range of abilities the cell has is displayed on the right, and the number of parts the cell is permitted is limited by the DNA collected, shown in the bottom left hand corner.

What’s useful from Spore’s creator is it’s straightforward, visual style; this is something I think should be emulated. Where I would diverge is that left hand panel. This game’s limiting factor is the number of different cells that can be created; the more variations, the more strategies that can be developed, and the deeper the game becomes. Therefore, I would split the left hand side into three more extensive tabs; external, internal and composition.

External parts would be most similar to those in the picture above. Although I’ve stated I’d like this game to have a biological foundation, aesthetically different, interesting cells are important from a player’s perspective, as commanding a heap of uniform blobs is both boring and difficult. With that in mind, this tab would contain the most visual modifications: flagella for movement, spikes and acid glands for attacking, cell walls for defence, hormone sprays to disguise presence,  folded membranes for absorbing more nutrients and so on. Colouration and patterning could also be changed here for a unique cell appearance.

The internal tab would focus on what’s inside the membrane. Biologically this covers the organelles of the cell, and has options such as mitochondria to produce energy for the cell, ribosomes to pump out proteins allowing quicker growth and repair, and reticulum structures to allow energy to be stored. Naturally there is quite a lot of specialist vocabulary here, so tooltips focussing very much on what each organelle does are important. The parts here are less obvious in game terms, but nonetheless important; for example, a scout cell would struggle without the mitochondria to keep it moving quickly.

The composition tab would be more the preserve of the hardcore gamer, and less influential to the game. Think of it as tweaking under the bonnet; not essential, but with the potential for unique results. A myriad of choices would open up here, delving into the biochemistry of the cell; I’ll save going into too much detail.

Finally, as mentioned changes would not immediately transfer into the game world, but instead gradually over new generations of cells. Very small modifications happen quickly, within one or two divisions, whereas big, fundamental changes take much longer, which means forward planning is of great importance. In addition, more complex cells contain more structures and hence require more resources to produce, making a cell that fulfils more than one or two functions very costly.

Survival of the Fittest: Part 2

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Now controlled by you.

My initial idea for a cell game was pretty simple. The player takes command of some microorganism in a liquid environment; swimming around, gathering food, growing. Nothing too original there. However, rather than simply growing bigger and magically gaining new abilities, the cell has the option to divide once it has gained sufficient size. This gives the player two cells.

Then four.

Then eight.

It’s pretty obvious this game can then move in a few unique directions. Competition would be crucial to a challenging experience; setting up a few rival colonies on, say, a petri dish and letting them fighting it out for dominance. However, this gather, produce and fight formula isn’t obviously a whole lot different from many other RTSs, other than in environment.

That’s where evolution jumps in. Whenever a cell replicates, its genetic code must be copied so that each daughter cell has its own version. When this copying is performed, there is a chance of errors occurring. Sometimes these are relatively harmless; sometimes they can have beneficial or detrimental side effects. In game terms, the player would be able to control the mutations of new cells, hence making new cells a little different in ability to their predecessors. This gives players the ability to produce armies of cells with the exact range of specifications that they desire, and to make cells for every role.

Example – I start off with my single cell, and decide on a basic starting strategy. Dividing the cell, I pick the first daughter and push it on a path towards becoming a combatant, which cause it to start to develop a lethal acid. I also want some excellent resource gatherers, so I tell the future divisions of the second cell to start developing the protein channels that will allow them to suck up nutrients more easily.

I feel a classic RTS interface would be most suitable here, with the player able to view his creations from a bird’s-eye perspective. Typical features such as a minimap and the ability to select and move units would be present, but it’s worth noting that traditional resource counters would not have a place. Since cells are independent units in the game, each would have its own resource levels, which would have to be transferred between individual cells rather than from a central bank. The bigger jump would be how the evolution of cells is controlled. Currently, I envision this taking place in a separate interface called the “evolution editor”, and I’ll take a look at that in the next post.

Overall I envision a game more strongly inspired by biology than anything to date, and also one that breaks the traditional strategy formula of buildings producing units; instead, units are their own form of unit production.

Survival of the Fittest: Part 1

Over the next week or two I will be examining a new game idea, which falls in to the real-time strategy genre.

Initially though, I’d like to talk about Spore, which was my earliest inspiration for this game. Spore was a vast though somewhat flawed experience; the scope of development in trying to chart the entire progression of a species was simply incredible, but the implementation of each of the five stages felt a little basic, and as a result the jack of all trades became a master of none.

The vibrancy of Spore’s cell stage.

Contrary to many other players, what I enjoyed most in the game was the cell stage. This was because although previous games have covered all the other parts of Spore, the cell environment felt like a truly unique play experience. I remember feeling truly immersed in the highly populated, brightly coloured cell world, brimming with competitors, resources and challenges. Obviously, been able to control the evolution of the cell was a major boon. However, the game’s lack of depth quickly kicked in, and the stage quickly boiled down to something akin to an RPG: get more DNA, level up your cell, get better weapons. Although at the time I was eager to rush on to the creature stage, I also felt a lot of potential for a cell game had not been realised, particularly in the very limited ways in which the cell could be evolved.

flOw: Hit 2006 indie game.

There a few flash games to be found that involve playing with cells, but most are of the ilk of the 2006 indie game “flOw”, which also made it to PS3. This was a minimalist but absorbing game that focussed on eating smaller cells to grow, whilst fighting and then consuming more aggressive opponents. However, it lacked any of the player-led evolution seen in Spore. I also never found what I feel is a very crucial part of the cell experience: growing and dividing. Spore featured cells mating, rather than splitting, and in most other games cells simply grew bigger and bigger.

I started to realise what I didn’t like about all these games that focus on the microscopic level: they focus on just a single protagonist. I feel that the player should not just be able to control a single iteration, but an entire colony with a plethora of evolutionary options. It is from this outline I developed my concept.

Upcoming: Dark Souls II

Dark Souls II will be the third in the line of Souls games, and was announced at the 2012 Spike Video Game Awards. The game’s new directors have talked about moving the series in a new direction, which has caused consternation among fans. However, what has actually been established boils down to little more than the game’s announcement, it’s trailer, and some scattered interviews.

The first point to note is that whilst Dark Souls featured an entirely new world from that of Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls II will instead be in a separate area of the new world. However, this shouldn’t be a cause for concern; games such as the Elder Scrolls franchise have very successfully done this in the past, and this should allow Dark Souls II to expand and develop the lore of the original, without limiting the scope of development. In Demon & Dark Souls director Miyazaki’s words: “If Dark Souls was set in the North Pole, this one would be in the South Pole”.

The difficulty of the new game has been a particular worry among the Souls community. Comments by the new directors about making the game more accessible and direct have led many to believe that Dark Souls II will be much easier than its predecessors in order to open the game up to a wider audience. Despite this, it’s hard to find too much cause for concern. Publisher Namco has described the game as full of “unrelenting challenge”, and new director Shibuya has said that his team are making a game “that is fresh while not forsaking its roots in presenting players with challenging gameplay”. In particular, it seems unlikely that the game will be too easy when the trailer features the main character dying!

It’s also been said that combat mechanics will be very similar in the game, with controls unlikely to change much. This is also a promising indicator with respect to difficulty, as it’s difficult to imagine Souls’ intense form of combat ever leading to an easy game.

Another prospect is that of the game featuring a singular hero, rather than a player-customised character. This had led to speculation the main character may be one from Dark Souls lore, which would support the location of the game being kept a secret. This possibility seems quite unlikely; although the trailer does feature a single character and his possible love interest, quotes from From Software scarcely back this up, and it’s hard to see the sequel taking quite such a big step away from its predecessor, particularly when consideration is made to how more direct the story would have to become.

Multiplayer will now feature dedicated servers, and as a result many new features. Without specifics, this is very encouraging; hopefully maturing the Souls system into something more balanced and useful in the game. Equally, there is the risk that multiplayer will become less unique and exciting. Without further details, it’s hard to know.

So when will the game be released? Current rumours point towards early 2014, but it’s worth noting that Dark Souls was released just two years after Demon’s Souls. With significant staff increases – and yet a world that is purported to be of a similar size – it seems possible that From Software wants to strike whilst the iron is hot, or at least warm. In short, late 2013 doesn’t seem unlikely.

No Time for Stargazing pt. 3

This article looks at practicalities – turning an idea into something vaguely playable. Any need for a backstory is going to be ignored in order to focus on the gratuitous violence.

The simplest way to play this game would be round-based – a lá counterstrike. You’re chucked into a lobby with a random crew and given a random role on the ship. You have some starting money which you can use to set yourself up for that role, for example a range of sapping and repair tools for an engineer or a variety of guns and armour for a marine. The captain would be able to choose or modify a ship, each of which would have different strengths and weaknesses. Success in a battle gives you more money to spend before your next round, but you would always have a minimum amount available.

Since this game would be played purely online, players would quickly want to form groups with friends. This could create balancing issues – several players who are very comfortable working as a team have a much greater advantage in battleship combat than in an individualistic FPS. However, this could be redressed through separating organised team matches and random matches.

A bigger issue would be that of communication between players, particularly because a captain needs to give commands. A three-way approach would probably be most effective here. Firstly, a captain could give orders straight up through voice chat. Secondly, he would be able to select them from a predefined list accessible via the keyboard. Finally, he would be able to enter a RTS-style interface in the bridge, which would allow a view of his entire ship and the ability to click players and then right-click a location for them to head to. This causes an objective to appear on the player’s screen. Naturally, if the bridge of a ship is lost then this form of command is lost, making the captain’s job that much harder.

A final consideration is size. With the captain needing to harangue each player into position, the number of crew one person can command is quite limited. This could be alleviated by having multiple commanders in the bridge, each with their own allotment of personnel, but this would likely lead to constant disagreements on strategy.

A more exciting prospect would be opening the game up to fleets. This adds another dimension of tactics to the game, and would allow for exciting engagements limited only by the resources of the gamer’s computer.

No Time for Stargazing pt. 2

Imagine two leviathan battleships trading blows in a winner-takes-all slugfest set against the chilling theatre of space.

Then think of every crew member being in the hands of a player: two ships manned entirely by humans.

One captain at the top, with access to all the data from his ship’s systems, and the ability to send direct orders to his crew. Bridge staff below him, trying to hack the opposing ship for a data advantage whilst manoeuvring into the ideal position. Being in personal control of a ship cannon and blowing chunks out of the enemy armour; or as a marine in a transport racing towards the resultant gap. Pilots escorting bombers on last ditch counterattacks. Being able to take on any of those roles.

The objective would be simple; kill the opposing captain. The beauty is the tactical possibilities that space provides. A battleship has many elements which are significant in battle: armour, shields, life support systems, mounted guns, engines, a command bridge, fighter, medical and repair bays, electronic counter measures, communication systems, reactor cores and escape pods.

Fully realised ships, with every corridor accessible; the possibility of landing in an enemy hangar and fighting the length of the ship to the bridge, or of planting bombs in the reactor before making an escape.

With players controlling the entirety of each crew, this allows endless ways to achieve victory as a team. The most obvious is to simply blast the foe to pieces: but this will fall apart quickly if enemy engineers land and sap your guns. Having different roles in each team allows the battle to take place in multiple ways at once, and keeping ground-level players lightly informed would make this highly immersive. The captain can give orders to players, which they are encouraged to follow as he has access to a full view of the battle: by comparison any crew member knows only a certain amount from what his captain or those nearby are telling him, and therefore fights without knowing the perspective creating a terse, intense experience for the player.

With each ship fully destructible, hull breaches would become inevitable, plunging sections of a ship into the vacuum and forcing unprotected players to retreat behind bulkheads. The latter stages of a match are likely to involve the fragmentation of the losing vessel. However, victory is based on killing the captain – so if the enemy has invested in vacuum-proof suits, the battle would not be over. This leads to atmospheric hunts through the darkened, damaged ship sections, marines navigating murky corridors in a player versus player rat hunt.

This is my vision for a space combat game.

Oh, and a word to finish off – ramming.

No Time for Stargazing pt. 1

Spaceships are, by the standards of the sci-fi genre, old hat. Almost any sci-fi tale is reliant on unique types of spaceship that thanks to ever convenient technologies allows the exploration of faraway worlds.

What really makes the idea of spaceships come alive is combat; high-energy lasers screeching through the void, desperate boarding manoeuvres, the silent screams of crew thrown into the vacuum. Many games have tried to capture this excitement, but always through focussing on one of these perspectives:

1) The individual ship. The player acts as one person flying a single spacecraft. Think Eve Online; you’re the commander of your own destiny, controlling every aspect of flight. This encompasses several gameplay styles; in Eve you click what to do and watch in happen, other games such as Vendetta Online let you dogfight with your joystick and some even give you a squad to order around.

2) The fleet admiral. This is typical of browser-based space strategy games. You simply send a fleet against an enemy, click a button, and see what the results are. In this kind of game combat is just one of the activities of managing a galactic empire (these are usually 4X games), and so combat is a correspondingly lower focus. A typical example of this style is Astro Empires.

3) The RTS admiral. Not much to say here: these are real-time strategy games that happen to be in space, such as Sins of a Solar Empire. Somewhere between 1) and 2), playing from this viewpoint allows you to order your ships around, but also look at a bigger picture.

However there is a fourth perspective, on an even more personal level than the individual ship. This is the hurried crew member, the hardworking ship engineer, the detached bridge staff, the grizzled marine, the veteran gunner. I highly enjoyed the space combat of Star Wars: Battlefront. It’s the only game I’ve played in which you could get out of your ship; in which you dogfight against the perspective of two mighty spaceships slugging it out, and in which you were able to take on different roles – you were able to both repair your vital systems and head out to destroy those of the enemy.

Unfortunately Battlefront suffered limitations. Taking command of a ship gun was entirely pointless, and so the fate of each battle was decided almost entirely by fighters knocking out key systems. No one usually bothered to conduct repairs. In addition, only a small portion of each ship was realised; a hangar and a few rooms, with the rest being entirely inaccessible. Some great ideas had been included, but many more had not even been considered.

Next: A few of those ideas.

But why’s it called bustermoose?

Why this blog?

Put simply, I spend a lot of time on video games. Perhaps a little too much time. But the more I have played, the more I have been able to appreciate about games – how they’ve developed and inspired each other, and evolved over time in graphics, gameplay and scope. I’ve also started to see that despite the range of genres that are now available, there are still many ideas that have never been explored.

This blog is for giving some of my own ideas a little time in the sun. Read, enjoy, or ignore.