Tokyo Jungle – Some Inspiration for Game Devs

I saw this item on Gamasutra: a 2013 GDC talk about inexperienced devs creating Tokyo Jungle. Yohei Kataoka is the speaker. The video is about an hour long, though the Q&A is the last 10-15 minutes or so, and you can skip it in my opinion.

 

From my notes, the interesting part is how many concepts the studio developed before finally settling on Tokyo Jungle. Some of those, like a lone cartographer charting a 2D open world, sound like they could have been good games. Some of the seemingly serendipitous events Katakoa describes contributed to his studio’s success with SCE and their product. The critic reviews weren’t great, but they did manage to ship a game on a console. I call that a big win.

I rather like the idea of the team handling most of its marketing materials. That initial keyframe animation for Tokyo Jungle done in After Effects was probably far more effective than any talking pitch they could have done. I instantly got what they were shooting for, without having to sift through a ten-pager or even glance at a one page DD.

In the five years since the talk, I think some are still debating what’s going on with the Japanese game front. But beyond a short anime game in 2014, I can’t find anything else that the Crispy’s team has worked on. So that’s kind of an anti-climatic feeling after the inspirational talk. The main takeaway though is to use some good business sense when getting into indie dev. Kataoka and his initial team knew that they needed funding to continue working on games, or as he puts it, to be profitable. That should be the only concern if you’re reaching beyond the hobbyist level.

Animating Horizon Zero Dawn

Horizon Zero Dawn turned out to be one of the better games that came out in 2017. I’m still working my way through it, which shouldn’t surprise my readers by now. But I’ve played enough to get a feel for the atmosphere and those robots add so much to it. Gamasutra interviewed Guerrilla Games to find out the process behind making those memorable Machines. It’s worth a read if you’re interested in animation.

From the article:

The modeling was in and of itself a colossal task. It took “man years” of work, and van Beek believes that it took five modelers around eight months for the T-Rex-like Thunderjaw. And that was just on the modeling end: it was around 18 months from the initial sketch to get it working and enjoyable in-game.

It’s a truism now in game development, much like other areas of tech, that computing time has become very cheap, relatively speaking, but design time remains very expensive. In fact, if you look into costs, I’d be surprised if 80% or more of a typical AAA title’s budget isn’t allocated to asset generation. In other words, art is very expensive. Eighteen months from concept to in-game sounds incredible, but it was worth it. As the art director van Beek says further, the team was able to, in effect, trickle down the work based on their success with that massive model.

I can say from some experience that animation does indeed take a painstaking amount of effort to get right.

As for the rest of the piece, there’s insight into how animation research goes into the final product. In this case, the model is a flightless bird, and how an in-game robot might mimic its real life counterpart’s movements. I thought it was interesting that the modeling is done quick and dirty in Z-Brush and then moved up the pipeline when a concept is approved, for polishing.

 

 

 

 

Michael Condrey Interview with PlayStation LifeStyle

Sledgehammer Games co-founder Michael Condrey sat down with PlayStation LifeStyle at the recent CWL Dallas event and shared some of his insights about the Call of Duty brand and the industry. I thought this part was interesting:

Call of Duty definitely has some of the most vocal fans. Since its the most popular series, how do you deal with all that feedback. You have millions of players tweeting at you, which I’m sure you appreciate, but I have to imagine that can be overwhelming.

You know it’s a really fascinating question, and you’re right that sometimes the volume of feedback is maybe our greatest gift. We have a very passionate fanbase, and they love to stay engaged and tell us what they think. Because there are so many voices, they don’t all agree. When we’re looking at the objective data, not the subjective feedback, but what’s happening in the game, we use a lot of match data. [We] have millions of points of data around weapon balance, time-to-kill, and good spawns. So, we have a lot of objective data.

When it comes to subjective data, and what people think they want and are asking for. When you have that many voices, you’re not going to make everyone happy. Even if you’re making nine out of ten people happy with every decision you make, that tenth person will feel like you’re not listening. For us, we want fans to know that we spend a ton of time on social, on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and our forums. We’re collecting that feedback and do our best to address it while also staying true to our vision of the game.

Constructive feedback is always the best. We value it when people reach out and are earnest with what they want in a way that’s helpful, but even when it’s not as constructive, we know it comes from a place of passion. The fans want the best game, and sometimes they have a harder time articulating that in a way that is easy for us to hear, but the team knows deep down inside that we have the most passionate fanbase out there.

So, the hard part becomes “what do we react to?,” and how quickly you react to feedback. Sometimes our vision or the match data doesn’t support the ask, so we have to do a good job of communicating why that change would happen. I love that we have that fanbase, and that they’re engaged and passionate. Hopefully they see that the studio is equally engaged in this conversation.

Call of Duty has always been ripe ground for data-driven game design, and here Condrey lays his philosophy out for us. Distinguishing between objective data and subjective data is probably harder than he makes it sound. How to correlate all that user feedback with what you’re actually seeing in the game is no small feat. Regardless of how you feel about the franchise, from a data perspective that’s impressive.

Read the rest of the interview here.

For more information on CWL (Call of Duty World League) check out the official page.

Against the Loot Boxes

Chris Cobb posted a thoughtful entry about game monetization strategies, and in particular loot boxes. From his blog:

Regarding microtransactions, content can either be purchased directly or through randomized content packs known as loot boxes. When content can be purchased directly, it is much easier to evaluate the value of the transaction. Randomized content is more difficult to assess because the player must purchase the content before knowing what she will get. Loot boxes frequently contain content of different rarities, such that highly sought after content is very unlikely to appear. In addition, even within the same rarity tier, some content is considered more valuable based on its popularity or strength in the context of the game. Some regions such as China requires developers to publish the probability distribution of their loot boxes, which significantly increases transparency. It doesn’t however address the difference in desirability for content of equal rarity, but is clearly a step in the right direction.

He covers the basics of monetization strategies that have become commonplace for developers. That’s worth a read if you’re not familiar with the topic. He goes on to compare Hearthstone and Battlefront II; the latter in a far less favorable light. As you can imagine.

Cobb uses behavioral psychology as a framework for evaluating the impact of these different models. I’m not overly familiar with this approach, but on the surface, it seems to make sense. An intriguing topic, one I will revisit in the future when I have more time to review.

NPC Dialog and the NPC World

Natalie Mikkelson penned an informative blog over at Gamasutra about how to craft NPC dialog when world building. From her post:

Three years ago, I became Lo-Fi Games’ dialogue writer for our huge 355 square mile open world RPG, Kenshi. Being a sandbox, there exists no linear narrative to tell Kenshi’s story, which poses a problem: how do you breathe life into a world that has no preset path to take the player’s hand through it? Without narration or cutscene visuals, we’re left with little context for the world and it’s dialogue. Contextless writing in videogames is a subject I’ve found rarely discussed, but fortunately I learned a few things along the way of Kenshi’s development from good old research and simple trial and error… and this guide is the result

Her break down of the different types of dialog is particular insightful.

I’ve been spending more time in Phantom Pain again, which is of course a huge open world adventure game. The maps feel alive, thanks to the many NPCs. Enemy NPCs, for the most part. Creating believable NPCs that are also functional in the game world is a huge topic, and one I’ve been investigating for a while now.

Some of the games listed in the article (and the insightful comments):

  • Witcher 3
  • Dragon Age
  • Skyrim
  • Oblivion
  • Wolf Among Us
  • Walking Dead
  • Wolfenstein: New Order
  • Trails in the Sky

And of course, the game she’s written dialog for, Kenshi. This looks like an interesting game, not that I have room on my back catalog for yet another RPG. This is a substantive topic, one I’ll have to let churn for a while longer before I can give analysis. But this guide is a good starting point.

Game Design and 20 Atari Games

I finally got around to going through this 2008 article by John Harris, in which he discusses 20 Atari games and their impact on game design. Many of these are classics you’ve probably heard of before (Asteroids, Gauntlet, Marble Madness, etc.) whereas some are relatively obscure (Quantum, Qwak, Skull & Crossbones). The article is a treasure trove for budding game designers who may not be familiar with these older games, though Mr. Harris’ discussions about them can wander. Clicking through 23 pages is annoying, but I appreciate his logical divisions of the subject matter. The first three pages are his introduction and a bit of Atari history. The remainder covers one game per page, which are divided “pre Crash” and “post Crash,” meaning before and after the great 1983 game crash.

Atari’s History

As he mentioned in his intro, this piece is about Atari Games’ arcade efforts. If you’re at all familiar with the company brand, then you know it has a Byzantine history, with several ownership changes over several decades. So you won’t find any information about Atari’s many console or computer games here. (I wrote a brief post about the Atari 2600 if you’re interested in the home console. And of course, you can relieve those glory years with a Flashback console.)

Here is the list of games Harris discusses, linked to the appropriate page in the article:

“Pre Crash Games”

“Post Crash Games”

Commentary on the Article

Mr. Harris style is an unusual mixture of early games journalism (“I find this to be unspeakably awesome!”), hagiography (“And at its best, Atari Games seemed almost embarrassingly creative”), and nostalgia (“Times certainly have changed”). At the end of the article, there are some comments which are worth reading through. In particular, I was dubious about his claims regarding Asteroids, as was another reader, so Harris clarified what he meant. But these are minor complaints; the gameplay descriptions are worth reading unless you have access to these cabinets to try yourself.

There are various links in the article, in particular, check out the Atari history page. It contains pdfs of game design documents and other historical information about the company. There’s a broken link to David Theur’s interview on the Tempest page, so here it is retrieved via the Wayback Machine. And I took the liberty of finding as many gameplay videos on YouTube and embedding them here.

Sprint 

Asteroids (Game review)

Centipede (Cabinet Overview and Gameplay)

Tempest (Cabinet Overview and Gameplay)

Quantum 

Major Havoc

Qwak

I, Robot

Marble Madness

720 Degrees

Tetris

Klax

S.T.U.N. Runner

Paperboy

Vindicators

Skull & Crossbones

Gauntlet

Batman

Rampart

Gauntlet Legends

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Theseus VR Design

Over at Gamasutra, developer Forge Reply gives some details about the camera and level design of Theseus. It looks like a VR survival horror game, but the interesting tidbits are how they overcame certain obstacles and limitations of the medium. From the article:

When we envisioned Theseus as a Virtual Reality game, a first-person approach came naturally to our minds. However, as we produced the first prototypes we realized that in order to create the alchemy we envisioned, the first-person perspective would not have been the best choice.

Therefore, we considered our options and we decided to switch to a third-person game. We thought about it almost like an out-of-body experience (or the experience of the camera-wielding Lakitu in Super Mario 64). Our main references were old survival horror masterpieces like Resident Evil and Alone in the Dark; in those games the camera is fixed and its position changes depending on the Player’s movement (usually when there’s a room/zone change).

The article goes on to describe in some detail level design philosophy, camrea design, and even some problems with how to present UI text. I found their mixed camera system solution useful:

The Mixed-Camera System has given us great versatility, allowing level designers to choose the best camera solution depending on any given gameplay situation.

Follow cameras, for example, proved to be the best choice for all those situations where we wanted to increase the player’s sense of immersion, and increase the tension. Fixed cameras, on the other hand, were the most suitable choice during combat sessions, or to address certain situations that otherwise could have caused the Player to feel VR sickness.

If you’re a developer in the VR space, it might be worth your while to take a look at the whole article.

People interested in the title should check out the website. I’ve included the teaser trailer below: