games

The Walking Dead Bits

walking dead header The Walking Dead Bits

Summary

Description: Telltale’s episodic adventure set in Robert Kirkman’s famous zombie-apocalypse universe.

Conveniences: Mouse-overs display interaction-icons that can be selected using the mouse wheel and executed with a simple mouse click.

Annoyances: Invisible walls; bugs with save-game choices being carried over from episode to episode.

Standouts: A very well written and acted script that does a fantastic job of capturing the vibe of the comic books.

walking dead 1 The Walking Dead Bits

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design

Minimap Rotation

minimap header Minimap Rotation

Not too long ago I praised The Witcher for a plethora of things it did really well. The sequel’s not bad either, but its minimap is absolutely horrible. The main problem is that it rotates with the camera, and the lack of compass directions also exasperates the issue.

minimap witcher Minimap Rotation

Rotating minimaps are great for following a linear path, which is why GPS devices use this design. The user hardly ever needs to worry about whether they’re driving South or South-East, but they need to accurately follow the generated route. Consequently, it’s a lot easier if the path is always facing the same direction as the car, i.e., if the arrow on the screen is pointing right, they need to make a right hand turn.

However, if the map doesn’t rotate, then driving South with an arrow pointing right actually means making a left-hand turn. To avoid this confusion and unnecessary work with mentally rotating the map, the view of GPS devices is synched to match that of the car.

minimap call of duty modern warfare Minimap Rotation

FPS titles also tend to benefit from rotating minimaps. Their levels are often small or just linear, and it’s very helpful for the player to be synced with the minimap view. The reason for this is that split-second decisions often need to be made based on the immediate surroundings.

For example, if the player is following a team-mate turning right but there’s an enemy hiding just around the left corner, it’s beneficial to instantly know which direction to face in order to counter the ambush. Since FPS games also inherently don’t possess a floating camera, it’s that much more advantageous to be aware of what’s lurking beyond the player’s view as there’s no other way to peek around the scenery.

Static minimaps, on the other hand, are much more suitable for games with large areas that need to be traversed multiple times.

minimap world of warcarft1 Minimap Rotation

In these titles, it’s important to familiarize oneself with the layout of the land in order to travel through it efficiently. Goals are often described with compass directions in mind, and landmarks are used to aid in the building of a mental map for the overall area.

If the minimap constantly swings around, not only does it keep changing the direction north is pointing, but it also forces the player to digest a radically different topography each time they glance at the minimap. A static view is superior to this as it facilitates the parsing and memorization of an area’s layout. This in turn allows the player plot their own paths and comfortably maneauver through the game’s environments.

Of course some players are only used to one approach or the other, in which case why not simply include both options?

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design

The Irresistible

irresistibles header The Irresistible

Whenever an airship boss is defeated in Super Mario Bros. 3, a wand drops from the top of the screen. Picking it up is required to move on to the next world, but doing so in mid-air is not.

Despite this, jumping for the wand is a common behaviour. It’s fun to sync up Mario’s ascent with the wand’s descend, fascilitating a dramatic grab that culminates with Mario falling back down to earth and saving the day.

It’s a very satisfying moment, but there are no gameplay ramifications to simply letting the wand settle on the floor before picking it up. Jumping for it is simply hard to resist.

irresistible, adj.

  1. A representation of an optional action that does not result in any significant gameplay reward, yet is commonly carried out by a large percentage of players.

Let’s take a look at a couple more examples.

Mega Man

mega man 3 boss gate The Irresistible

In the original Mega Man games, end-level bosses are always prefaced by an empty, single-screen room with two doors. These are a clear indicator that the end is just beyond the next turn, at which point many players choose to jump straight into the boss’ lair.

When Mega Man connects with the door, the action freezes as the entrance opens up and the screen scrolls to reveal the final segment of the map. There’s no reason to jump at the door, but it results in some areal acrobatics that firmly deposit Mega Man in the next area with punctuating, “It’s on!” flair.

Street Fighter III

street fighter iii battle end The Irresistible

Many fighting games used to disable collisions or simply cut-off player input whenever a round of combat ended. Street Fighter III was one of the first to buck the trend, enabling the victor to execute a few extra moves following his opponent’s loss. This proved quite satisfying as it allowed the winner to finish off a combo — a naturally stylish string of attacks. Furthermore, it represented a contrast to the rest of the game by providing a short window of time during which some free hits could be scored.

I don’t believe these “bonus shots” increased the super bar meter or affected the end-battle grade, but if they did, the rewards were minimal.

Metroid Prime

metroid prime door The Irresistible

Doorways in Metroid Prime are triggered by the player shooting them, at which point they open up after a variable amount of time (usually between 0-6 seconds). The reason for this is to hide data being streamed in the background, which leaves the player largely idle. At this point, concern over whether the shot was registered — and plain frustration — tend to set in, resulting in more blasts bombarding the door.

Unlike the other two examples, this is more of a “get on with it” behaviour that helps to vent frustration rather than being satisfying in itself.


These irresistible actions seem to be largely accidental; as far as the games are concerned, there’s no reason for players to engage in them. They can be quite important to the overall experience, though, and once identified, they often become a defining part of a series or genre.

Are there any “irresistibles” you engage in on a frequent basis?

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Design Roundup #6

articlesheader Design Roundup #6

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games

Wheel of Time Bits

wheel of time header Wheel of Time Bits

I was never a big fan of The Wheel of Time series, but I liked the actual game quite a bit.

The notable parts:

— The title largely revolves around the player’s armament of Ter’angreal, ancient artifacts that grant magical powers. They’re grouped together into numerous categories — offensive projectiles, homing attacks, shields, immobilizers, summoners, magic nullifiers, etc. — and encompass gameplay modifiers that are usually presented via inventory items.

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The tutorial does a good job of introducing the player to various facets of the game.

Many of the Ter’angreal are also only used to solve in-level puzzles, while others are strictly limited to multiplayer.

— Many of the enemies have an annoying habit of instantly sidestepping incoming projectiles. It looks awkward, wastes precious ammo, and often forces the player to aim at the ground in order to cause splash damage.

Aside from this odd quirk, the enemies themselves are quite varied. They have drastically different amounts of health, fire numerous types of projectiles, can deflect or absorb the player’s attacks, and even possess special abilities such as teleportation.

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A rather dramatic entrance by one of the more powerful enemies.

— The vast amount of Ter’angreals makes it difficult to properly use them in fast-paced battles, but when the interface doesn’t get in the way, they work quite well.

Here’s an example:

I entered a small arena where I encountered a magic-wielding boss. I immediately threw up a magic-dissipating field, activating it just in time to dissolve a barrage of incoming projectiles.

As the field’s timer began to count down, I queued up a Reflect Ter’angreal and activated it when the field wore off. It batted back an approaching Soul Barb, a homing Ter’angreal that damages its target whenever it attempts to use any of its own weapons. The Soul Barb struck my foe, and I went on the offensive with a Decay.

Decay is useful for boss battles as it homes in and damages enemies over time, but it’s also quite slow. My opponent was able to bring up her own magic-nullifying shield before the projectile reached her, but since the dissipating fields work both ways, she was unable to counterattack.

I used to the time to retreat and heal up, and as her field was about to expire, I launched a Freeze. The projectile reached my opponent right after her shield went down, encasing her in a solid block of ice. I immediately threw out an Earth Tremor, an area-of-effect Ter’angreal that causes continuous damage, and started blasting away with other offensive spells. My immobile target screamed as the ice slowly melted, and victory was mine.

Of course at other times you round a corner only to be hit by 2 Fireballs and die instantly. It’s a flawed system that encourages quick-saving/loading, but when it works, it does a good job of making combat feel like a magical duel.

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Another clever puzzle that requires the player to place some Explosive Wards on a barrier and then blow it up. This will flood the sewers and allow access to a brand new area.

— Many of the Ter’angreal are also used exclusively for puzzles. They’re placed very deliberately so that there’s never much experimentation, and the puzzles themselves are usually straightforward, e.g., using a fire shield to walk across a furnace, but there’s a handful of more interesting ones as well.

One of my favourites revolves around getting across a vast chasm between a rampart and a fortress.

The rampart contains an opening that provides a view of the fortress, complete with a metal shield adorning one of its walls. The shield can be struck with a projectile, creating a loud sound that summons the guards. Once one of the sentries is visible, the player can use the Swap Places Ter’angreal to teleport into the fortress while jettisoning the enemy back into the isolated rampart.

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Two enemies (one lurking in the shadows) about to duke it out in Shador Logoth.

— The overall level design is quite good with interesting environments that take advantage of 3D to loop in on themselves. Progression is still fairly linear, but with enough twists and turns (and optional passages) to feel fairly open while still guiding the player.

There’s some scripted sequences here as well, but they’re pretty sparse and clunky when compared to something like Half-Life.

— WoT contains a large amount of destructible objects, traps, climbable areas, lever/pressure plate/key based puzzles and a handful of scripted triggers that collapse floors, walls, etc. When combined with the aforementioned puzzle-Ter’angreals, these components make for pretty interactive levels that help breathe life into the world.

As an interesting side note, Balefire, the BFG of WoT, can disintegrate various props that are not part of the architecture. These objects do not regularly react to weapon use, imbuing Balefire with an added sense of power.

— Shadar Logoth is a destroyed city haunted by a deranged evil. It’s notable for its unique enemies that attack the player and his foes, as well as a monstrous boss called Legion. Its main attraction, however, is the Mashadar fog.

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The deadly fog homing in on the player.

The first time I played the game, I started anxiously looking around when I heard some soft hissing. I couldn’t spot anything coming down the hallway facing me, so I decided to hunker down and wait in ambush in case an enemy appeared.

That’s when the screen became a white haze and my character started screaming in pain.

I scrambled around, desperately firing off Ter’angreal and trying to get away from whatever was hurting me. That’s when I realized what was happening: the puffy mists I passed earlier on weren’t just an ambient decoration, they were a vicious threat!

The ethereal fog snaked out of its hole and coiled around me, mindlessly following my character like harmless prey.  My panicked counterattack actually hit the fog, forcing it to retreat, but there was no way to actually kill it. Soon the hissing filled the air, and I ran as the fog followed.

— Shador Logoth ends in an interesting mission that takes place in a large arena. The level is filled with numerous Ter’angreal and a never-ending onslaught of enemies, and its main goal is simply to survive until daybreak.

The main character is joined by a handful of NPCs, and although the powerups don’t seem to respawn (requiring a lot more exploration than in a typical Alamo standoff), the gameplay is similar to current-day multiplayer modes such as Gears of War 2′s Horde.

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A helpful Ter'angreal that lets the player snatch some extra ammo during the assault on the White Tower.

— Following the brutal assault on the White Tower, the player is tasked with recovering her arsenal of Ter’angreal and retrieving a special artifact in the citadel’s vaults.

The mission makes sense within the narrative as well as the gameplay, and provides a nice change of pace from the intense battles that preceded it. The level lacks enemies of any kind — except for an end-boss — and is filled with traps and puzzles that take advantage of various Ter’angreal such as Seeker and Levitate.

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A mirror-image fight at the end of the puzzle-filled Vault.

— The Ways are a series of stone walkways floating in a dark void that serve as shortcuts throughout the land. In one of the levels, the player character is forced to traverse them in order to pursue the antagonist. In the process, she encounters the Machin Shin.

Staying within the Ways for an extended period of time summons this infinite wall of ghostly heads that scream and whisper as they approach. It’s a very striking event, and one of the most memorable parts of the game.

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The Machin Shin approaches.

If the “Black Wind” envelops the player character, the small amount of lighting in the level — including the Light Sphere Ter’angreal — is subdued as she is slowly killed.

The Ways are also used as a clever framing device. The player must periodically exit the ways to avoid the Machin Shin, each time facing a new challenge. These mini-levels force the player to find a way to re-enter the gateway, or simply survive long enough for the the Machin Shin to recede.

— The second last level is another Alamo standoff, but this time the player is forced to protect injured NPCs. An interesting twist here is that the map is filled with portculli that the player can control, effectively funneling the enemies while setting up traps.

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The final seal being delivered via a Portal Stone.

A neat touch is a lever that opens up a floor grate above a pool of acid, and a Whirlwind Ter’angreal located just beside it. This allows the player to toss in various enemies while staying out of harm’s way.

— The audio in WoT definitely stands the test of time. The majority of the sound effects are very fitting, and the unique soundtrack (here’s a taste) does a great job of enhancing the atmosphere.

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