My interest in this game was driven primarily by the desire to see and explore its celebrated and vast open world. I’m a big believer in the benefits of discovery as an interactive design mechanic, and there is no easier or more effective way to integrate discovery and interactivity than allowing players to wander through a virtual environment at their own discretion. In a narrative context there are significant obstacles to pulling off such an environment in a compelling way, but I also knew that Elden Ring was billed — correctly — not as a traditional role-playing game, but as an Action RPG. Meaning the emphasis was decidedly on combat and boss fights, and not on story or character development. [ Read more ]
Long before last year’s grisly crash of a highly-modified P-51 Mustang at the Reno Air Races, I fell madly in love with that iconic airplane. Between building model kits as a kid, to having the good fortune to have a P-51 hangared at the local airport, which I could peddle to on my bike on a sunny summer day (here’s the actual plane in the actual hangar), to the unmistakeable sound of its engine, every interaction I had with the Mustang’s perfect combination of form and function seduced me. Its power, its speed, its capability, its history — the more I learned and the more I exposed myself to that machine the more it became indelibly etched in my mind.
So when the personal computer came along, and people started making flight simulators, and flying games based on simulations, you know I eagerly anticipated the day when I could take a virtual P-51 into the skies. And when the PC developed to the point that full combat simulations were being created, often including dozens of planes in the air at the same time, and high-end joysticks hit the market with multiple functions including rudder, throttle and trigger controls, not only was I personally thrilled, but to my surprise the market for such products exploded. In fact, only a decade ago the world was awash in flight simulators of every imaginable kind.
So what happened? Where did all those flight sims go? Well, one limitation of flight sims is that they model 3-D space that you can’t actually experience. Yes, you can swivel your view around using keys on your keyboard or joystick, but it’s a very constrained view of what should literally be wide-open sky. Too, the inevitable feature-creep that infects all tech products (think Microsoft Word, which currently includes 2,016 functions that no human being has ever actually used), began driving a bigger and bigger wedge between players who wanted fun and players who wanted historical accuracy.
One of the most interesting aspects of the rise and fall of flight-sim software is not so much the fall but the rise. I don’t have sales figures handy, but I do know there were flight-sim titles all over the place, which seems a bit odd when you consider that even back in the day very few people were lamenting or protesting the lack of flight sims in the global marketplace. Even when flight sims were selling like hotcakes I suspect they didn’t top the list of games most consumers wanted to play. So why the popularity?
The answer lies in the central processing unit. Computers are good at one thing more than anything else, and that’s calculating. As long as the math can be programmed, computers can spit out results with dizzying speed and unerring accuracy. This leads to the potential not only for modeling complex processes like flight, but for allowing those processes to be affected by user inputs — which in turns leads to the intriguing idea of interactivity. (My definition of this badly abused term here.) [ Read more ]
Stand beside a mountain stream and observe the water for a while and you’ll see that most of it moves in a continuous flow. Look a little closer, however, and you’ll see that the bed of the stream and objects in and along the stream — logs, boulders, the legs of a bear — all have an effect on the flow due to friction. Look closer still — say, at a rock near the edge of the stream — and you’ll find that the flow may slow to a halt if not actually move in the opposite direction, creating what is commonly called a whirlpool, but more accurately described as an eddy. Peer at the boundary between the flowing current and the eddy and you’ll see smaller eddies form and detach again and again, dissipating as they flow downstream because they are no longer powered by the object in the stream that created them.
Known as detached eddies in the science of fluid dynamics, these disconnected but still churning whorls can also be spawned in the atmosphere, as bodies of air move over the landscape or interact with each other. Heat water to the right temperature and move a low pressure area over that water and you may spawn a monstrous hurricane that lasts for days and travels thousands of miles. Move that same hurricane over dry land, however, detaching it from its power source, and it will slowly dissipate, even as it may still wipe entire communities off the face of the earth.
The key component of an eddy, and what distinguishes an eddy from a vortex, is that in the middle of an eddy there is a void — a place of calm that experiences none of the rotational effects of the moving fluid that defines the eddy itself. Drop a leaf in the center of an eddy caused by even the most ferocious mountain stream and it will float exactly where you dropped it. In a vortex there is no void, but vortices can also detach like eddies. This is known, sensibly enough, as vortex shedding — a phenomenon that has led to practical applications in the real world such as winglets on airplanes. [ Read more ]
Over the past thirty years or so, as computer and video games have become more mainstream, basic assumptions about the design of interactive entertainment have changed. In the early days, when the majority of the market was hardcore, designers aimed for more hours of play per title because longer games were in demand. (They often did so by rigging games with impossible battles and repetitive chores, but the demand for long games was real.)
Fifteen years ago or so the demands of the market began to change. Consumer research showed players in the aggregate preferring shorter and easier games. While hardcore gamers still existed, they now made up a much smaller percentage of a market that included casual gamers and people new to computer-driven entertainment. Presenting these customers with 100+ hours of hardcore (if not also tedious and unfair) gameplay made no sense, and ran the risk of alienating them from the industry.
Like mountaineers determined to cross another peak off their list, hardcore gamers tend to finish games no matter how grueling the experience. It’s a badge of honor and a way to differentiate themselves from the masses. Casual gamers, on the other hand, tend to explore interactive works like tourists, following their whims and interests for a few hours before heading back to the hotel for a nap. And according to a recent article on CNN’s Tech page, this sight-seeing approach is fast becoming the dominant response to interactive entertainment across all demographics:
“Just 10 years ago, I recall some standard that only 20% of gamers ever finish a game,” says John Lee, VP of marketing at Raptr and former executive at Capcom, THQ and Sega.
And it’s not just dull games that go unfinished. Critically acclaimed ones do, too. Take last year’s “Red Dead Redemption.” You might think Rockstar’s gritty Western would be played more than others, given the praise it enjoyed, but you’d be wrong.
Only 10% of avid gamers completed the final mission, according to Raptr, which tracks more than 23 million gaming sessions.
Let that sink in for a minute: Of every 10 people who started playing the consensus “Game of the Year,” only one of them finished it.
Computer and video games are not cheap to produce, and the best of breed — often called triple-A or ‘AAA’ titles — can be more expensive than big-budget films. Sinking previous development resources into a product most consumers will never fully experience might make sense if the expense was recouped through additional sales, but that’s a huge gamble in even the best scenario. Making the odds worse is the ugly fact that consumers are simply hard-pressed to find time to play and enjoy longer works.
Five years ago I went to the GDC (then known as the CGDC) with one question in mind: did the industry know how much it didn’t know about the problems inherent in combining interactivity and narrative? After numerous conversations with some of the better minds in the business I came away with my answer: the industry was, as I had come to believe, essentially clueless.
In the aftermath of that experience I submitted my first roundtable proposal to the GDC on Creating Emotional Involvement in Interactive Entertainment, the intent being to use the forum as a vehicle through which to advance industry awareness. The subtext of these roundtables has been that we need to seriously address the threshold requirement of creating and sustaining suspension of disbelief over the entirety of the play experience, because without that capability we will always be seen as a lesser form of entertainment and artistic expression. (That may not be fair, but that’s the way it is.) As will become apparent, it’s also worth noting that of all the craftspeople involved in creating entertainment, none knows more about creating and sustaining suspension of disbelief than do writers. [ Read more ]