Can Gameplay Ever Be Pointless?

No, no it cannot.

I am currently enrolled in a game design course taught by industry veteran Jesse Schell. Our last assignment required us to build a game of any type. The only stipulation that when the game is turned it, it will be great. In true Aaron Albert fashion, I decided to try and make a game that is pointless. Unfortunately, that is impossible. In the following, I will discuss my game This Game is Pointless, it’s so-called pointlessness, and the design evolved as a result of the attempted pointlessness.

This Game is Not Pointless

In This Game is Pointless players are thrust into a strange pixel world of silly characters and not much else. The player move around the map, talk to characters, and attempt to figure out a goal within the game. The game evolved from simply talking to characters, to adding a couple puzzles and an endstate. Talking to the characters gives the player some direction on what to do. Eventually, the player discovers a talking sword. Along with the sword is a glowing pylon. This pylon tells you to go to each other pylon in a specific order. Once that order has been established, the player can retrieve the sword. Sword in hand, the player may kill one of two characters: Hitler or the Zombie. Killing either will end the game.

Crafting Pointlessness

What is the point of a game? In early iterations of the game, there was no specific goal for the player to resolve. Yet, the point of a game is decided by the player, not the game. Players might seek challenge and enjoy overcoming obstacles and achieving a goal. Some players want competition and like to win over others. People play games to experience a wide variety of different emotions. The point of a game can be any of these things. So even if a game doesn’t seem to have a defined goal, it still can’t be pointless. Pointlessness, therefore, comes not from the game, but from the lack of it. In early playtests, after players finished talking to each of the characters, they searched for an additional goal, an additional reason to keep playing the game. Due to that reason not existing, the player would stop. This is when the game became pointless, when the player stopped interacting with the world. Pointlessness did not come from the game itself, but from the player’s desires. From these playtests, I decided that the game itself could not be pointless. If I wanted to make a pointless game, it would be impossible. Thus, the game itself cannot be pointless, but the end desire of the player. The goal of the game became to give players the odd feeling of…

Satisfactory Pointlessness

This is the desired player state after the experience. They are unsure about what they just played, confused perhaps, but sure that the overall experience was probably pointless. Yet, they aren’t frustrated. While the experience served no obvious purpose, it left them feeling at least somewhat satisfactory with their decision to engage with it (therefore it has a purpose, yes I know). To hit this emotion I added the more “gamey” features: the pylon puzzle, retrieving the sword, and killing a character. These elements gave players a goal, and were able to make them feel accomplished for completing something. Further, the games obvious end goal is killing Hitler, which everyone seems to enjoy. Overall, I failed at making a pointless game. Mostly because it was impossible. However, I’m still happy the emotional end result delivered by the experience.

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The Wait – Creating an Emotionally Engaging Hololens Experience in Two Weeks

The Wait is a mixed-reality experience developed for Hololens. It was created by a five-person team in two weeks as part of the Building Virtual Worlds course at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center. Players are given the role of an anxious mother as she waits in a hospital room while her daughter is receiving surgery. The player may interact with objects in the room that recreate memories in the form of holograms. After the mother engages with her memories, the doctor returns to report on whether the surgery was successful. Here I will discuss the challenges we faced and the design decisions we made while rapidly developing a mixed-reality experience using Unity 5.


Challenge: Mapping virtual objects to a real world environment

Early on in our development process, we knew that we wanted players to interact with real-world objects to trigger events in the virtual space and for the virtual characters to interact with the real world objects without seeming out of place. In order to accomplish this, we measured the objects and the distance between them. We created 1:1 scale models to serve as placeholders in the Unity scene. These models also used a custom shader to create proper clipping when a real object was in between the player and a hologram.

clipping

To make calibrating the objects easier, we set a real world object’s virtual counterpart at the Unity scene’s origin position (Vector3(0,0,0)). For example, one of our objects was a hospital bed, so we set one of its legs at the origin. When we were ready to deploy and test our builds, we aimed a virtual cursor at the bed’s leg and used custom voice commands to display the placeholders and calibrate their position based off of the real world bed. After, while wearing the Hololens, one of us moved the real world objects to match the positions of their virtual versions. Occasionally, calibrating in this fashion did not yield perfect results, so we added keyboard inputs that could slightly shift the objects in a chosen direction. The result of such careful calibration allowed our holographic characters to exist more authentically within the real world space.

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Challenge: Giving the player engaging interactions between physical and virtual objects

Initially, we had player interact with real-world objects using Hololens’ gaze and gestures. Players would stand at a distance from the objects and pinch at them to start the memories. We felt that players were not actively exploring the space and looking into the meaning behind the objects, reducing their immersion. Thus, we sought a way to track the player’s hand, so that they could touch a physical object in order to trigger events within Unity.

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Utilizing Microsoft’s open source HoloToolKit for Unity and a script by Microsoft software engineer Ritchie Lozada, we were able to implement a way of tracking a player’s hand and assigning it a position in Unity, yet not without limitations. In order for the hand tracking to work, the Hololens must first detect the player’s hand in the “ready” position (the index finger raised with the remaining fingers closed). Unfortunately, the guest can’t simply touch objects, but must first put their hand in the ready position, then touch the object. While this still may not be the most natural interaction, the physical touching caused players to move around, examine the objects more closely, and develop a stronger understanding of the object’s relation to the story.

Early on, one of the major points of feedback we received from playtesters was that they felt little to no connection with their virtual daughter: Alice. This prevented them from becoming immersed in the experience. Along with a few script and story changes, we decided we needed to have meaningful interactions between the player and the virtual Alice in order to strengthen their emotional connection. Thus, we created three physical interactions with the Alice hologram. Despite her virtual nature, Alice’s dialogue and animations caused players to perceive her intractability. They are prompted to hold her hand, hug her, and bring her a physical piece of paper so she can draw them a picture. Through performing these actions, players became more empathetic towards Alice which increased their overall engagement.

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Challenge: Avoiding the limitations of the Hololens’ viewport

One of the current technological limitations of the Hololens is that its viewport only takes up a relatively small portion of a user’s visual field. This was initially a major issue for us, as we needed the player to see and interact with life-sized holograms. So, we made a few changes in order to orient the player in the proper position to view the holograms. First, we reduced the size of the daughter character, allowing her to fit inside the viewport at most distances. Second, since the character holograms were in close proximity to the bed, we increased the distance between the bed and the other interactable objects. Thus, the player would generally be at a good viewing distance right after they touched an object. Finally, we added a particle/trail effect after the player touches an object. These trails guided the player’s eye to where the next memory would begin, thus they would naturally orient themselves to best see the holograms. 

Unfortunately, there were still some limitations of the viewport that we were unable to overcome given the overall design of the game. When a player is prompted to move closer to Alice, it would often mean that she would be clipped by the viewport, often breaking the player’s immersion.

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Conclusion

Based on my experiences with the aforementioned challenges and the solutions my team and I came up with, I  conclude that the Hololens is effective at delivering immersive experiences through the following ways:

  • Give the player meaningful interactions with both physical and virtual objects.
    • Have the player deliver an object or make conversation to characters. Cause them to interact with a physical object that then changes the virtual space.
  • Have the virtual objects interact with physical objects.
    • Make a virtual character sit on a physical chair, examine real objects, or approach the player to converse.
  • Use indirect control to position the player to properly see what you want them to.
    • Implement spatial sound to cause the player to turn in a specific direction. Control the distance between where the player is likely to stand and where holograms appear so that they can be seen fully. Use particle effects or other visual cues to guide the player’s vision towards holograms.
  • Understand the tradeoff between player immersion and emotional connectedness to the virtual world.
    • Allowing players to interact closely with holograms can increase their emotional connection to them. However, the player’s sense of presence could be lost if the holograms become clipped by the Hololens’ small viewport.

If these points are properly implemented, I believe that the player will develop an understanding of the connection between the physical and virtual worlds, thus leading to greater immersion and emotional engagement.

The Need for Local Multiplayer in Virtual Reality

In his VRDC 2016 presentation, Jesse Schell gave forty predictions about the future of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR). One of these predictions was that an asymmetric party game will be one of the top sellers by the end of 2017. But why will this be the case? What makes VR party games so special that they will be purchased over immersive single-player experiences?  First off, due to the current low install base of VR headsets, gamers who don’t own VR will have VR game nights with friends that do. Second, the physical presence of others can increase engagement. Finally, asymmetric gameplay provides the structure for exciting new design spaces, waiting to be explored.

“Whoa, you really bought a Vive? Do you mind if I come over?”

16513857704_7b895689a3_b.jpgAccording to reports by gaming research firm Superdata, VR sales failed to meet their expected numbers. However, their predictions indicate a continued growth for VR over the next few years anyway. Right now VR is too expensive for the average gamer, and especially for those more casually oriented. With the Oculus Rift headset costing $599, and the Vive $799, and a VR ready PC costing $800+, high-end VR isn’t the most affordable form of entertainment. Console VR is a little less pricey, with the PSVR costing $399 and a PS4 $299-$399, depending on the version. Despite the current price, gamers are still very excited to try out VR and play new, exciting games. While many gamers have yet to purchase VR, they will surely want to try it out with those who have. VR parties are certainly coming. People will flock to their friends that own VR. However, most VR games are solo experiences. One person can play an incredible, immersive, mind-blowing game, and everyone else will have to wait their turn in anticipation. In my opinion, VR platforms will need games that facilitate engaging experiences for those both inside and outside the headset. I believe this will be most effective through asymmetrical multiplayer gameplay.

The Physical Presence of Others Enhances Entertainment Experiences

160726073325-3d-glasses-1952-780x439What is so great about movie theaters? Is it the large screens, surround-sound speakers, or the overpriced popcorn? Perhaps, but I believe that the most contributing factor is the presence of others. An audience in a movie theater is a conduit of emotion. The audience becomes collectively engrossed in a film, and together they emote joy, laughter, excitement, and fear. Due to the presence of others, watching a film in a theater becomes an intimate social experience. I mention movies because I cannot think of a single film that was created to be watched by only one person at a time. It is the nature of media to engage and be experienced by as many people as possible, and this includes games. While some games are designed to be played by one person at a time, I believe that the presence of another person can, in many cases, enhance the experience for the player. VR can be a very isolating, but the presence of others can help alleviate feelings of loneliness, as long as the player is made aware of the other’s presence. While this helps the player in VR, a new problem appears for the person outside of VR. Through VR, players are given a  great sense of presence and immersion, but this is lost on those watching them play on a 2D screen. The VR player is treated to a wonderful new experience, but the watcher is left waiting for their turn. They are unable to connect with each other, unlike those watching films in a theater. I believe that through asymmetric multiplayer, this problem can be solved.

Asymmetric Design and New Ways to Play

the-playroom-vr-screen-22-ps4-us-13sep16I’ve been throwing out the phrase “asymmetric multiplayer” throughout this article, so it’s best that I define it. Asymmetric multiplayer is a form of gameplay where two or more players must achieve the same or different goals, cooperatively or competitively, while confined to separate rulesets. While this definition might appear to be fairly open, the most critical part is “separate rulesets.” Due to separate rulesets, players can play together but utilize different mechanics and interactions. The person in VR can experience the new affordances first hand, yet the outside player can still interact with these affordances. A great example of this can be found in Playstation’s Playroom VR, a PSVR title containing a collection of asymmetric multiplayer games. In one of these games, the VR player controls a giant monster, while the other players, outside of VR, control little robots. The VR player’s objective is to destroy the city and attack the other players, who must run away until they can trap the monster and fight back. During this sequence, the player inside and outside the VR headset have the chance to interact with the new gameplay affordances of VR. In this case, the VR player controls the monster by moving their head, physically. They bash their head into buildings causing destruction; later, they dodge objects tossed by the outside players. This is a new form of interaction that is only found in asymmetric multiplayer in VR. The VR player is using the affordance of VR to physically move their head, and the outside players interact with that affordance through the mechanic of tossing. Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is another example of a game that uses the affordances of VR to create an engaging asymmetrical multiplayer experience. Keep Talking uses the seclusion of VR to the game’s advantage. The VR player is tasked with defusing a bomb in a secluded room giving information about the bomb to bomb-defusal experts (the outside players) who the provide answers on how to correctly defuse the bomb. Both Keep Talking and Playroom VR use the affordances of VR, along with asymmetric design, to create original gameplay experiences. With an immense amount of open design space for game developers to explore, I believe that these are the types of games that will be most sought after by gamers, and thus push the sales of VR headsets.

Conclusion

Virtual reality is still very young, and there is plenty time for it to grow and develop. Despite lower than expected sales in 2016, I believe that the onset of new genres will increase the sales of VR headsets as gamers discover these unique gameplay experiences. As more and more people seek to play VR, asymmetrical multiplayer games will become increasingly relevant. VR players will seek freedom from the isolation of VR, and outside players will seek ways to interact with the affordances of VR even though they are not wearing a headset.

Creating Emergent Gameplay Through Choice in Character Skill Development

It is now incredibly common to imbue games of various genres with “Role-Playing Elements”. These elements are generally the addition of player choice in the development of a character’s abilities and skillset, yet lack aesthetic character customization. The RPG-FPS has emerged from this idea. Games like BioShock and Dishonored contain character upgrades that can be purchased throughout the game. These modern games are spiritual successors of 90’s RPG-FPSs such as System Shock, Thief, and Deus Ex. Yet the modern games seem to fail at something the older games did incredibly well: make player choice matter.

The System Shock 2 ExperienceSS2.jpg

System Shock 2 presents the player with a variety of different skill paths to follow. Small guns, big guns, hacking, melee, cybernetics, psionics, all are options you can go down from the start of the game. You might be thinking that BioShock is similar. You get a variety of Plasmids and other enhancements. You spend your hard earned Adam to upgrade them. In BioShock, however, what you choose to upgrade has hardly any impact on how you play the game. Upgrading Electrobolt vs. Incinerate will hardly change anything. You still use both in whatever conditions they require, one just becomes slightly more effective at killing enemies. In System Shock 2, your skills drastically change what you can do.

Walking down a corridor, low on ammo, a closed door stands before me. I’m good at shooting, I can use heavy weaponry, but I can’t hack open doors. If I could hack, I could open the door and continue to the next area. Now I must find the key. Enemies guard it, I could sneak past them, but I’m not too good at sneaking. With low ammo, every shot needs to count. The game has become very tense, my survival and progress depend entirely on a limited supply of ammo. Perhaps I’ll find more ammo, but perhaps instead I’ll find more enemies. If I was good at hacking that door would be open, but if I wasn’t good at shooting, I might never have reached that door in the first place.

System Shock 2 contains engaging situations created by the skills players choose and don’t choose. The way a player develops their character impacts how they must play the game. Many recent RPG-FPS hybrids simply don’t do this.

The Problem

The main issue I have with the modern RPGFPSs is that player choice have very little impact on actual gameplay. Their skill systems are full of engaging, fun to use abilities, but your choice causes very little change in gameplay. No matter what upgrades you choose in BioShock, the gameplay is fairly static throughout. Certain encounters or puzzles may become easier, but the way a player progresses through them is still the same.

Game Jam Prototyping, How We Made BeeBall


Rapidly prototyping games is one of my favorite aspects of game development.Thus, game Jams are some of my favorite events to attend. From two hours to forty-eight, game jams bring with them harsh time restrictions for creating games. Therefore, it is very important to have a good understanding of the rapid prototyping process in order to bring a game jam project to its full potential in the allotted time. Last weekend I attended Global Game Jam 2017 in Pittsburgh, created BeeBall with a four-person team, and we ended up taking the Pittsburgh IDGA prize for “Best Theming”. In the following, I will discuss some of the key points of our development process and how they translated into us having a fun and successful Global Game Jam.

Make the Toy First

After our initial brainstorming session, my team agreed to move forward with a simple idea: A two-player game where each player attempts to knock a ball toward the other. Each player has access to a row of flippers which can be used to flip the ball as it rides open a wave. For our game to work we needed to answer the question, “Is flipping a ball over a waveform fun for two players?”Thus, we prototyped this as quickly as possible. Before the end of the first night, we had this prototype.screenshot-33

As it turned out, the mechanic was fun! However, the wave needed better implementation. During playtests, the winner was determined more often by randomness caused by the wave rather than player skill. Which brings me to the next point.

Iterate, but Don’t Be Afraid to Try New Things

The time pressure in game jams can often cause people to shy away from changing their initial design decisions. However, some of the most interesting ideas will often occur during development, even if they don’t work out. One example from BeeBall was causing the wave to move based on the music. screenshot-34

The wave acted as a visualizer for the game’s music. It created a really cool effect, however, it wasn’t very balanced. During playtests, we noticed that the left side would often not move as much as the right.We liked the visualizer enough to keep it as an aesthetic feature but decided to not have it impact gameplay. Even though this iteration failed, it helped solidify our design. From this iteration, we decided that the waves needed to be player controlled, in order to reduce the randomness and add an additional element of skill. Try new ideas, even if they fail, they may still give you helpful insights about your design, and you never know when you will discover something truly amazing.

Make It Pretty at the End

Unless you have an aesthetic choice that is necessary for proper gameplay, don’t worry about art implementation until your closer to the end of the project. Your artists need time to work anyway, and if you wait for them to deliver you sprites or models, you will waste precious prototyping and iteration time. Primitives exist in Unity and Unreal for a reason, use them to their fullest extent. The majority of your game can be prototyped using primitives and not your artist’s models. Additional programming and testing during deadline crunch time are way more time consuming and stressful than implementing art. Do your best to prototype, program, and iterate first, and the art implementation will be easy later.

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Thanks for reading, I hope this article was interesting or at least insightful into our development process. And of course, much love to my awesome teammates: Christopher Weidya, Sunil Nayak, and Kuk Kim.

Rija’s Day at Meaningful Play

One of my games, Rija’s Day has been accepted into the Meaningful Play conference at Michigan State University. I’m very proud to say that my composer, Daniel, and I will be attending to present the game. Prior to my submission to the conference, I made multiple beneficial changes to the game, which I believe helped immensely in getting the game accepted. I will discuss these changes below.

Music

One thing that was missing in earlier iterations of Rija’s Day was music. While it contained some sound effects, I felt that I implemented them poorly, and the audio lacked balance. I asked my friend Daniel J. Cohen to compose music for the game. Together we decided that the musical theme should represent Rija’s emotional state throughout the game. In the beginning, she happy and excited to go about her day. During her interactions with the games bigots, the music stops, yet it starts again as Rija continues forward. By the end of the game, Rija has been through a very traumatic experience, and as such, the music takes a much sadder tone. However the melody repeats the beginning, despite being emotionally distraught, Rija perseveres.

Art Changes

The major art change I made was to change the Unity UI text elements to speech-bubbles that actually fit the game’s art style. I think this small change made the game much more visually pleasing, as the UI text felt very out of place before. Other than the speech-bubbles, I added more buildings, changed the city background, added the street, and fixed a few layering issues causing visual bugs. Overall, the art, though simple, became much more pleasing.

Code Changes

Rija’s Day was one of the first games I made using the Unity engine. At the time, my programming skills were practically nonexistent, and thus the code was quite the pile of spaghetti. While I added a few new scripts, and rewrote a couple old ones, I left the majority of the code base in its original state.

Overall, I am very happy with how this new version of the game turned out and I’m excited to display it at Meaninful Play on October 20.