My Favourite New Design Technologies in 2008

Technology doesn’t just mean physical devices. The word also refers to techniques. In game design, we develop technology that has nothing to do with CPUs or game engines. We develop design technologies. This is my list of the most important developments in design technology in 2008. Note that this is heavily biased towards the types of games I like to play; I’ve probably missed many important developments.

Mirror's Edge4. First-Person Body Awareness (Mirror’s Edge)

We’ve been leading up to this one for a long time. Doom introduced hand models which move when you walk. By Call of Duty 4 the player’s view itself was being pushed around when you were shot or reloaded or sprinted. Condemned has scripted sequences in which you were strangled, tackled, and thrown down stairs – all in first person. Nobody made a whole game about it until now, though. And holy crap, it worked.

Mirror’s Edge is the only game that’s made me feel like I wasn’t a floating gun. The experience of sliding under vents, smashing through doors, sprinting to top speed on a straightaway, is uniquely visceral and satisfying. It made the whole game worth it for me. I hope we’ll see this concept applied to other games soon, even if they aren’t just about freerunning.

Far Cry 23. Complete Experience Games (Far Cry 2)

In Far Cry 2, you live the life of a mercenary in a war-torn African state. This doesn’t mean, as with most games, that you live snippets of this mercenary’s life. You live the entire thing. You get to get sick with malaria and drive to the other corner of the country just for some damn pills. You get to sneak by a hundred guard stations on the way there. You get to be physically patted down every time you enter your boss’s place of business. You get to walk miles to find a car after yours was destroyed. You get to serendipitously reach a perfect viewpoint just as the sun is setting and a herd of zebras crosses the plain below.

By any traditional measure, Far Cry 2‘s crescendo moments are separated by far too much driving, walking, picking up weapons, taking phone calls, and searching for pills. For the first 8 hours I was simply annoyed with it. As I kept playing, though, I began to get more and more immersed in the world. I finally hit a point where I stepped into the persona. It finally clicked when I realized that it wasn’t really a game about shooting. It was a game about being someone else.

We’ve seen elements of this before in games like Half-Life and World of Warcraft, but no game has created this levels of immersion with the method. In Half-Life it just seemed like a clever little way to transition levels without breaking fiction or game flow. World of Warcraft is too gamey to really feel that immersive. But playing FC2 feels like living someone’s life. Most of real life is relatively slow and mundane, and so it is in FC2. That’s all right. For this game, the expanses of slow time worked because they made you really notice the little things, and made the panic moments stand out even more.

Left 4 Dead2. Narrative-Centric Multiplayer Technologies (Left 4 Dead)

There are several major pieces to this one, but they all work towards the same goal: creating a multiplayer experience focused wholly around an emergent story. The pieces are:

  • Asymmetrical Roles and Player-controlled Enemies. For a long time we’ve had this idea that players on different teams have to have basically the same role with regards to each other. Sure, teams in games like Starcraft could be asymmetrical, but they didn’t have to be. Unreal Tournament had Assault mode, which involved teams attacking and defending objectives, much like L4D, but the two teams’ abilities were still the same. We haven’t seen a major game which worked so well in which one team’s entire purpose was basically to grief the other team, in which the role of these two teams was so drastically different. It almost feels like having a dungeon master in a game of Dungeons and Dragons, something I haven’t felt in a game before.
  • Named multiplayer characters. We saw hints of this in Team Fortress 2, when the developers chose to assign each class it’s own nationality, backstory, and personality. That was a knockout success. Pushing the concept even further, Valve created Left 4 Dead around four individual characters with their own personalities. Left 4 Dead is a far stronger game for being centered around the iconic individuals, as opposed to generic randomized or player-chosen survivors.
  • Context-triggered dialogue. I’ve often noticed during my own design work that players tend to miss a lot of important stuff on their first playthrough. They’ll miss dialogue, not see important scripted scenes, and so on. Left 4 Dead takes this problem and turns it into a solution, by including a large amount of dialogue, but only playing a small part of it on any particular playthrough. As players repeat the same scenarios over and over, they get more and more content each time. It’s a brilliant way to keep feeding the player new content after their tenth playthrough. It also means that the character can be deep and rich, even though they only have time to say a few lines each game. Their characterization builds up over many playthroughs.

I also include the AI director as a part of this, but it’s significant enough by itself to warrant it’s own entry.

Left 4 Dead1. AI Director (Left 4 Dead)

We’ve been building up to this one for a long time. Pac Man and Space Invaders had static enemy placement via code. Wolfenstein had designer-placed enemies in unique levels. Half-Life had scripted spawns and events in unique levels. By Call of Duty 4, this scripting had evolved and became more elaborate until it was so fluid that the script triggers were almost invisible.

But it was still a stupid system. Every time a player clears a room and knows that, even though he is on an alien planet full of monsters, he can sit around for as long as he wants without being bothered, we’re breaking pacing, immersion, realism. We’ve been doing this for so long and I don’t think we even noticed it any more.

Valve has finally broken this faulty paradigm. We’ve now got a working, centralized software entity which is focused exclusively on tracking and managing the player’s experience as a whole. And it works wonderfully.

L4D didn’t even push it that far, either. All it really does is spawn enemies and pickups. But there’s still potential for so much more. It’s probably better than Valve kept the design focused because it’s a first step, but I think that there is much more potential to this incredibly simple concept. We could see it extended to open-world games like Fallout 3, and create wildlands encounters based on your loadout, your quests, and your playstyle. We can have it revise level paths, time of day, or NPC attitudes. We can have it draw from a library of rich situations it can throw at you, instead of just crowds of enemies. We can script or trigger events based on player state and have them play out wherever the player is, instead of being tied to a trigger in some location. We can focus on designing player experiences instead of just physical spaces.

4 thoughts on “My Favourite New Design Technologies in 2008

  1. Nels Anderson

    I liked the calling out of L4D’s Versus mode as being similar to a DM in D&D. The AI Director (or iterations on it, at least) actually fit into that analogy well too. The things you mentioned (pacing, customization based on equipment, playstyle, etc.) are basically what a good DM does to create a more personal, engaging and memorable experience for the PCs. The AI Director, and the potential it represents, is definitely one of the best things to come out of ’08.

    Great blog btw, Tynan. Came across it recently and you’ve got a lot of great thoughts here.

  2. Tynan Sylvester Post author

    Hey, thanks man.

    Yeah, I’ve been thinking a bit more about the DM concept because I do think it is incredibly powerful. I wonder if it would be possible to design a game where players take turns constructing experiences for each other, in which their experience-constructing skills are rated algorithmically or by other players, in which victory by force isn’t the goal, but victory by superior pacing, storytelling, action, and so on?

    Must brainstorm, must brainstorm… I smell something here…

  3. Nels Anderson

    A Little Big Planet for scenario experiences instead of level design perhaps? It’s a very fertile idea, but there are lots of challenges there too. The biggest of which might simply be making it easy enough for anyone, or at least more dedicated players, to use. Neverwinter Nights tried to do this, but I don’t remember it being very successful. Part of that was because it was a lot of work for relatively little payoff. The L4D approach has a lot more potential, I think.

    I’ll be interesting to hear your thoughts on this and I’ll keep thinking about it well. There’s definitely something good in that concept though, for sure.

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