Thursday, 30 November 2017

What is SOMA's Safe Mode?

Tomorrow we will be releasing SOMA for Xbox One and along with this comes Safe Mode. This is a new way of playing the game that will also be available via Steam and GOG at the same time.

Since we announced Safe Mode there have been a lot of questions about it, so we thought this would be a good time to answer some of those and to clear up a few things. Here goes:


What is Safe Mode?
It is a version of the game where you cannot die - you are safe from harm. The game’s various creatures are still there, they just won’t attack you. If you’ve heard of the SOMA Steam mod “Wuss Mode”, by steam user The Dreamer, then you should know the basic idea. The important thing to point out is that we don’t simply turn off the creature’s ability to attack and harm you. Instead, we’ve redesigned their behavior. Our goal has been for Safe Mode to not feel like a cheat, but for it to be a genuine way of experiencing the game. So we’ve considered what each creature should be doing, given their appearance, sound, and voice.

Is the game still scary?
This obviously depends on what scares you, but the short answer is: yes, the game is still a horror game. However, since you can explore without a constant fear of failure, you will no longer have that type of tension. For people who aren’t great at handling that aspect of horror gameplay, their journey through SOMA will be a lot easier in Safe Mode. But if it is the overall atmosphere that gets to you in a horror game - and, above all, the central themes - then game will still have plenty to be scared of.

What is the major difference in gameplay?
All of the puzzles, events, and so forth are still there. The big difference is that you’ll no longer have to sneak past enemies. You don’t need stealth in order to complete the game. Monsters might sound and act more threatening if they spot you, so there is still an incentive to being careful, but it’s no longer mandatory to keep hidden. This will also allow you to explore some of environments more carefully.

Why release it now?
We actually considered releasing something similar at launch, but chose not to because we felt it would make the core intent of the game too unfocused. As people started to say that they really wanted to play the game and experience the philosophical sci-fi narrative, but couldn’t because of the monsters, we started considering doing something about it. People liking the “Wuss Mode” mod was a good sign that we could solve this. However going back to a game you have already completed is not tempting so we put it off.

What eventually tipped the scales was the Xbox release where we wanted an extra feature to make the launch more interesting. Adding some sort of no-monster mode felt like the best option, and so Safe Mode was born! It also felt like it had been long enough since the original release, and the intended version of the game had been played and evaluated enough. Adding a new play mode wouldn’t be a problem.

Will it come to PS4?
Yes! We hope to have it ready about 2 months from now. Sorry for not releasing it now, but a couple of issues have kept us from doing a simultaneous launch of Safe Mode.


I hope that clears things up! Let us know in the comments if you have any other questions!



Friday, 27 October 2017

Now Hiring: Community Manager and Event Coordinator


We are now looking for a "Community Manager and Event Coordinator" for our company. This will be a very broad role and we are looking for someone who is very driven and creative. The tasks will range from the simple, such as:
  • Managing our social media accounts and platform-specific communication channels (such as Steam communities and PS4 Game hub).
  • Answering various emails.
  • Coordinating and booking special internal and external events.
It will also include much more complex tasks such as:
  • Planning and coordinating PR for a new game release.
  • Making plans for improving our social media and implementing these.
  • Overseeing a revamp of all our webpages (company and game-specific).
  • Becoming the company’s catalyst for generating interesting posts and events on all of our public channels.

The basic requirements are as follows:
  • It’s crucial that you are a person who is highly able to work on your own initiative. No one will be laying out an exact schedule of things that you must do - you will need to drive your own workload. You will also need to be a creative member of the team, bringing a lot of your own ideas and suggestions to the table and then going on to implement them when possible.
  • You must live in Sweden or be prepared to move here. Note that any employment starts with a six month trial period, and there is no need to move until that is over.
  • You must have excellent writing skills in English.
  • You need good knowledge of how social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, works.
  • You should have a burning interest in video games and an understanding of the market.
It’s worth noting that we do not require any special education or experience. While these are of course good to have, what really matters is that you fit the requirements above.


In order to apply, start by doing the following assignments:
  1. Imagine that SOMA is about to be released. Write a short (at most 150 words) and playful cover letter that will be sent out with all of the review copies of the game.
  2. We really need to become much more frequent in our social media usage and communicate what we do as a company and what we are like as individuals. In 200 words or less, explain how you would try to go about increasing the number of interesting posts on our social media channels.
  3. An angry user has written an email complaining that our games have all become worse since Penumbra, as they no longer have proper puzzles and gameplay. Write a response.
  4. Being proactive and self-starting is crucial for this position. Therefore, write your own question similar to the ones above and answer it.
Compile these into a PDF that has a pleasing layout and send it, along with your CV, to apply@frictionalgames.com.


Wednesday, 27 September 2017

SOMA - Two Years Later


It's over two years since we released SOMA, so it's time for another update on how things have been going.

First of all, let's talk about sales. As I've said many times before, sales are not straightforward to count, and the number you come up with is reliant on many different factors. For instance, SOMA was part of the Humble Monthly Bundle, which meant that everybody subscribing to that service was able to download a copy of SOMA. These are not really "sales", so should we count them? It's also worth noting that pricing differs a lot between different sales. A single unit sold at full price means more than one sold when the game is 75% off. I think it's important to think about these things, and remember you can't directly compare the sales of two games.

With all that said, what I'm going to do here is to basically take every single download of the game as a sale. Doing so gives us a total of 650 000 units, a 200 000 units increase since the the same time last year. This is a very good result.

It's interesting to compare how sales have changed across the two years for SOMA. The normal day-to-day income, when there are no discounts or anything, is 33% of what it was the same time last year. However, when the game is at a discount (such as a Steam summer sale), the generated income is about 75% of what similar events generated last year. This means that discount events are extra important this year.

Taken as a whole, the sales that we make from all our games will cover all our expenses every month, and even make us a profit. This is quite amazing. Given that we currently have about 16 people working with us full time, we have a pretty high burn rate, and to still be able to support all that on your ongoing sales is great.

This means that we still have a good buffer from our launch sales. While it will by no means last forever, it gives us peace of mind and lets us take the time we need. While we'll continue to generate income next year too, I'm not so sure it'll be enough to cover all our costs. This is when that initial buffer comes in handy, and will let us continue working on our projects without any monetary worries. To put things in perspective, it is worth noting that most companies start using up their buffer just a few months after release, so we are in no ways in a dire situation right now - quite the opposite!

However, this also makes it very clear that we need to be able to release games at a more regular rate. We were lucky that SOMA was a hit, and that the money is easily able to sustain us for the time we need to complete our next project. Had SOMA been a flop, the situation would have been a lot worse now. That's why we are focusing on becoming a two project studio, and the goal is to be able to release a game every two years. Had we managed to set that up prior to SOMA, we would be in the process of releasing a game right now. Needless to say, it would makes us a lot more financially stable, and able to handle a less successful release. In turn this should allow us to take greater risks, which I think is a key element in being able to create great games.

This leads me to another thing that's been on my mind. A few months back someone asked me: "How do you get people to buy your game?". This is a fairly basic question, but it really made me think. When it comes to sales made during launch, the answer feels quite self-evident. We generate a lot of buzz, there are reviews, let's plays and so on. There are a number of fairly obvious ways that people learn about our game.

But what about the customers that buy our game two years after release - why do they do it? That's a much harder question. I think most of this is via word-of-mouth recommendation. When the right circumstances arise (e.g.: "I feel like playing a game tonight") and when external influence (e.g.: "your friends said they liked our game") is strong enough, that's when a sale happens. I know that Steam and other stores have some forms of discovery tools, but I don't think they play a major factor. What really matters is not a single source, but the slow build-up of good will around a game - eventually this will make a player consider buying it. Discovery tools, such as "you might also like"-adverts, surely help, but they are just part of a much larger process [1].

Because of this, and considering the sheer number of games that are currently being released, I think the best strategy is to focus on unique experiences. You want to create the type of experience that is not only hard to get elsewhere, but also leaves a mark on those who play it. This is now a core philosophy here at Frictional. I guess we sort of always had it unconsciously, but we have now made it official. Our goal is to create games that are more than forgettable escapism. We want people to come out of their experiences feeling changed. A lofty goal? You bet. While it'll be impossible to make sure every single player has this type of experience, it feels like the perfect thing to strive for.

Now I will round of this post with a brief discussion on the status of our current projects.

The first project is in full production, and about 80% of the team is currently working on it. The focus for most of this year has been on creating the first few maps of the game to create a solid vertical slice based on our experiments last year. However, we recently came up with some new avenues that we wanted to explore. The stuff that has come out of this recent detour is feeling really great and I am certain it'll make the game feel very special. All of this came out of what I just discussed: our focus on making games that leaves a mark on the player. I'm not sure we would have gone down this route if we hadn't explicitly stated that goal, which makes me confident it's a really good way of thinking. I'm afraid I can't go into any details on this, other than to say that the project will be horrific in nature. There will be no release this year, but we hope to announce something during the first six months of next year.

As for the other project, that's also going well. We've been a bit delayed due to new tech taking longer than anticipated to develop [2]. The upside of that has been that the game has had  more time in pre-production than any of our previous games. This has been incredibly valuable, as the things we aim to tackle in this game are quite difficult, and allowing it all to brew for a bit has meant many of the basic aspects are clearer for us. This game will be less about direct, visceral horror, and more about the player gaining an understanding of different concepts. This can, as we know from working on SOMA, be quite tricky to get right and requires a slightly different approach than when working on a more direct horror game. Release for this game is quite far off though, so don't expect to hear any concrete details in the near future.

That's it for this update. I'm incredibly excited about the things that we have planned, and I'm very eager to give you all more updates. I also want to thank everybody for the support over the years, and rest assured that while we might not reply to every single mail, tweet, etc. that you send us, we make sure to read every single one!


Notes:
1) For games that are heavily based around online communities, such as a Rocket League, I think things work slightly differently. There is still a word-of-mouth zeitgeist going on, but a lot of it comes from your game become a habit for your players, something that they participate in on a daily basis. This forms a feedback loop that helps drives new buyers, which I think is quite different from how our games work.

2) We are currently working on the fourth iteration of our HPL engine for this game, and due to some of the things we need to be able to do for the game, we've been required to make some major adjustments. These things take time, but luckily we have most of it done now.


Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Illusion of an Analog World

There is something about unclear options which make choices a lot more interesting. This post goes into the reasons behind this, and various ways of achieving it in games.

Warning: this post will include some spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line. 

The typical example for a choice in a game is something like this:


The situation is clearly set up and you are explicitly told what your options are. While they are most common in interactive movies, these sort of choices existing in just about every genre. They are easy to setup and can easily give a sense of moral drama. However, they miss out on a really important aspect of making real-life choices: that you are almost never aware what your options are or what they lead to.

Here is another example of a choice:


The player could avoid the incoming bullet by going down, or they could do it by going up. This is a choice very much in the same vein as the one from above. However there is no explicit prompt that asks the player what direction they want to go in. Instead the choice is implicitly stated through the use of the game's mechanics. And in contrast to the explicit choice, it is unclear just what the options are. The choice might lack the ethical implications from the previous one, but the choice itself is way more interesting. It also feels like an ingrained part of the play experience instead of something that is an obviously designed situation.

Super Mario derives this choice purely from the functioning of its basic mechanics. Simulation is another game genre that does this, but manages to add a bit more philosophical depth to the choices. For instance, in a simulation game focused on survival you might not have enough food for all your party members and have to make a decision on who lives and dies. When these things work well it can have a tremendous impact - but more often that's not the case. Letting your simulated party members starve to death very rarely give rise to the same strong feelings as a scene in a game like The Walking Dead. Let's unpack why this is so.

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In order for a choice to be made, the player need to understand that they are making one. The cornerstone of this is the player's access to affordances. The player must have a robust mental model where they understand how the various aspects of the world work, and what abilities they can use to affect it. A choice then arises when it becomes clear to the player that there are two or more separate ways in which they can progress. Basically, the player understands that are at least two distinct plans for them to make, and they need to chose one of them. When this is crystal clear, the player has a choice on their hands.

Most games feature these sort of choices all the time. "What ammo should I use?", "What path should I take?", "Should I sneak or just attack?". As I explained in an earlier post, the selection of plans is a fundamental part of gameplay. What makes a choice carry depth is that there's something major at stake. So not only does the player need to understand that a choice is happening, but also that a major decision is happening. And in order to elicit the correct emotional response there needs to be a particular setup and framing.

A game like The Walking Dead has an easy time of it setting up all of these requirements. First of all, the game is explicitly stating that a choice is happening. It is impossible to miss. Secondly, since there is so much focus on the choice, it is quite clear that it is of major importance. Finally, The Walking Dead is heavily plotted and the designers have a great deal of control over what happens before the choice. It is relatively easy for that game to make sure the player is in the right frame of mind.

Things are much harder for a simulation game. Here the player takes part in choices all of the time and it's harder to work out which ones are crucial and which ones are minor. The player might miss entirely what their choice is about. For instance, take the choice where the player needs to choose whom from their group to let die. It might be that the player doesn't understand that they are running out of food, or thinks that they have some ways to survive. So at the crucial moment when the player decides who lives and who dies, they might be thinking about other things entirely. On top of that, even if the player grasps what the choice is about, it might be lacking proper build-up. The player might not be in the right mood, or have a suitable level of affection for the characters and so on.

It may of course be possible to improve the simulation to take things like this into account. However, this is very likely to run up against the complexity fallacy which I wrote about last week. Chances are that these additions to complexity will not be noticeable and instead just make the game harder to design and code.

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Instead, there's a middle ground here. Instead of explicitly stating the choices, it is possible to set up a situation that is driven by established gameplay mechanics. Since the setup is not something that happens dynamically, it's possible to properly signpost the scenario. That way you can make sure that the player is in the right mood. But when the actual situation arrives there is no menu popping up that flags a choice moment. Instead the instruction to choose can come from the story mechanics (e.g. a character can speak), or, better, arise from how the situation is designed. The actual options are then chosen, not through an abstract menu, but through interacting using standard gameplay mechanics.

The best example of this sort of design is a scene from Spec Ops: The Line. Late in the game the player finds themselves surrounded by civilians. These people are not too happy that you are here and start throwing rocks at you. It is a very dangerous situation and it is clear that you need to get out of there. At this point, the player basically only has a single verb at their disposal: "shoot". So what can you do? You really don't want to shoot civilians, but you also don't want to die. The player really has two options here. One is to shoot at the civilians, killing a few of them and making the others run away. The other option is to simply shoot in the air and scare them off, killing nobody.


The thing is that, since the game doesn't tell you what your options are, shooting in the air is not obvious to a player. And that is what makes this choice so interesting and makes it feel like a real choice. Had a prompt popped asking you to choose between "fire at civilians" and "fire in the air", the situation would have been radically different and would have lost a lot of its impact. But since you select the option with a gameplay mechanic, it not only feels like a proper part of the playable narrative, it also means that you are uncertain of what your options are.

Having choices like this makes the game feel analog. Under the hood the choice is just as discrete as the ones you would make in The Walking Dead, but it doesn't feel like it. It feels like there are a spectrum of choices to be made, a continuous space of options, and not simply "this way or the other". This concept of choices feeling analog is really important and I'll talk about it more later on.

Spec Ops: The Line features half a dozen or choices of this kind. For instance, there is one where you are to chose which of two prisoners lives or dies by shooting one of them. But what the game doesn't tell you is that there is a third options, which is to target the men that are holding the prisoners captive. Another scenario has you deciding whether or not to kill a war criminal. And again, it's unclear just what your options are. The game simply puts you in a situation where it is possible to kill him. That there is a choice to be made is something you have to make up your own mind about.

Another interesting aspect of Spec Ops: The Line is how it handles the consequences of its choices. The solution is that it simply doesn't. It just sets up the situations in such a way that either choice makes sense for what happens later in the story. While I don't think it is possible to always shy away from showing consequences, it can be very helpful in maintaining the analog feeling. Because the moment you show a consequence, it makes it clearer that there is a discrete aspect to your choice. But if you keep consequences hidden, the possibility space is larger and the player is free to fantasize more just about what took place.

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It's worthwhile digging a bit deeper into this. What is it that makes the choices in Spec Ops: The Line different from a game where the options are explicitly stated? The key difference is that in the former, the player is in a position of uncertainty. There's no clear-cut information to go by and the player is forced to fill out informational gaps using their imagination. When the options are explicit there is no need for this. The brain always wants to optimize, so any concrete piece of information will remove any mental guesstimation. This leads to Spec Ops: The Line having a much more vivid mental model of the scene. Remember, we play the game based on what is in our heads - not what is in the actual systems - so that means the game itself becomes a more interesting experience.

This is what the "feeling of analog" is all about. By having situations where not everything is clearly cut and where the player is free to imagine a wide range of freedoms. The goal is for it to seem like there are a continuous space of possibilities. This makes the situation feel real and organic. It lessens the feeling of there being a designer guiding your every step, despite the experience being just as guided as in the more explicit case.

It's worth noting that there can be drawbacks to this approach. Just like in the pure simulation case, the player might misunderstand what the choice and its implications are all about. An explicit approach with a prompt laying out all the options will always be better at this. But it will also never feel analog. So there may very well be situations where an explicit choice is the right way to go. As always in design, one shouldn't get hung up on the manner of implementation, but to focus on what the end results are.

In SOMA we tried to make all of the choices feel analog, and used a similar approach the one in Spec Ops: The Line. We presented a situation and then used common game verbs to let the player make their choice. The idea was to make the choices feel embedded in the game experience, and judging from feedback we have gotten, it feels like it worked out very well.

The only choice in SOMA that didn't work properly was when you decided the fate of Wau. Here we failed create a proper emotional setup, and didn't spend enough time on implementing consequences. A lot of this was due to this choice coming quite late in design, and it feels like it shows. It is a good reminder that you can't just casually throw in these sort of choice-moments. One needs to make sure that the player is in the right mental state when they occur, and that you follow up on them in an appropriate matter. Just because something is supposed to feel analog doesn't mean it doesn't require a strict, and guided, implementation for it all to work out.

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It is not only moral choices that can take advantage of becoming more analog. There are a wide range of other types of gameplay where it is worth considering if it can be made more analog. A good example of this is in interactive fiction (ie, good old text adventures). Normally these are controlled by simply typing commands into a parser. The type of commands are things like "pick up lamp", "look under the carpet", "remove dust from the table", and so forth.


So, normally, there is no explicit prompt saying what sort of commands are possible. You have to infer the space of possibilities by reading the descriptions you get as you explore the current environment you are in. You are building up a mental model of the place at hand, and the character you are playing as, and using that to build a sense of what is possible to you. When this all works out, it feels great. It really feels like there is a living, breathing world for you to interact with. It feels analog.

This system comes with issues though and the most common one is the "guess the verb" problem. The player might know exactly what to do, but can't figure out the right commands that allow them to do it. This is really frustrating and it breaks down the sense of immersion. A way to fix this is to make it clear exactly what the various verbs at your disposal are. This solves the problem, but it adds a new one: the game loses its sense of being analog. 

I think it's worthwhile to give this a test yourself. First try a normal interactive fiction game. I would recommend something like Lost Pig as it allows a lot of commands and, especially in the beginning, shows just how engaging it is to play something that lets you type whatever you want at a blank prompt. After you have done so, try out Walker and Silhouette and only use the highlighted words to play. The two experiences are very different. Sure, the latter makes it a lot easier to progress and removes some frustration. But on the other hand, it removes a lot of what makes the medium interesting in the first place.

I think this is a really good example of just how important the feeling of analog is. Implementation-wise, these two interactive fiction games are really similar, to the point of basically being the same. But the way that they chose to do their user interface radically changes the experience. By forcing the player to build an internal mental model of the game's world, the experience becomes so much richer.

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There are lots of other instances where the feeling of analog can be useful. Another good example are puzzles. I recently played through 999 which has "escape the room"-like puzzles. While these can be quite fun to play, the way they are set up it is incredibly obvious that the game wants you to reproduce a specific number of steps. You are basically trying to read the designer's mind to find a very specific chain of actions that lead to a success state. This doesn't feel very analog.


A big reason this is so is because the game will only respond to very specific commands. Most of these commands are not part of a generic verb-set either. For instance, you only ever use a screwdriver in a specific place and so forth. So you never really build a mental model of how the world functions, because such a model would basically be worthless. It is much better to think of each object as a specific case of "what does the designer want me to do with this?".  As such the world becomes stale and never gets a rich mental model. This is a very common problem with puzzles.

However, there are puzzle games that manages to work around this. One of the best examples is Portal. In this game is rarely feels like you are following a set path. Instead it feels like you are discovering a solution. It feels analog. And this is despite the solution being no less designer-directed than your average escape-the-room game. A core reason why Portal is different is that it always uses a foundational set of mechanics for solving the puzzles. You have your portal gun, the ability to pick up certain objects and to move around. That is it. Nothing else is used in order to progress. On top of that, there is a coherent design to all of this encouraging you to build a mental model around it.


There might only be one specific sequence of events to solve a puzzle. But when playing Portal you are not as aware of this. Much of the time it's not even clear after you have completed a section. Because the puzzles are based on foundational verbs, it is much less clear whether there were other possible solutions available. There is often the sense that you could have completed it in another way.

This consistency in actions also means that you can mentally simulate a number of possibilities. You know up front the type of interactions that are possible and can use that to work out the sort of things that you can do in order to progress. And that without needing to interact with the world at all. What this means is that you are able to make plans. You can think about what steps to take in advance and be fairly confident all of these are possible to execute. As discussed earlier, making plans is a core part of what makes gameplay engaging. This is another reason why making choices feel analog is good - it also makes it feel more like proper gameplay.

The consistency in actions is not the only thing that makes Portal feel analog. The level design itself also plays a big role.  By just giving the right number of hints, the player never feels pushed along a certain path, nor are they completely bewildered about what they are supposed to be doing. By not pushing the player too much, the game makes sure that the player comes up with ideas on their own. This gives a much greater sense of picking one solution out of many, instead of going along an intended route. And by making sure the solutions never feel too obscure, players refrain from trying to brute force a puzzle. Brute forcing can be quite damaging to the feeling of an analog world as this forces the player breaks down the world to its basic components, revealing the non-analog nature of it all.

Getting the level of handholding right is not an easy task and how to achieve it varies a lot from game to game. The basic idea is the same, though: you want to make the player understand what to do without revealing what your preferred route is. There needs to be enough uncertainty for the player to start building a vivid mental world around a situation. But there can't be too much uncertainty as that means there is nothing to build a world on.

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Another example of crafting analog worlds is the closet-hiding in Amnesia. We chose to simulate this using a physics-based interaction system. We also tried to make the behavior an implicit part of the gameplay, and never directly state how it is supposed to work. Despite this, a great number of players still entered closets to hide and opened the door slightly to see if the coast was clear. We could have just had an explicit prompt and some specific controls when you are hiding behind doors, but it doesn't feel like that would have been the same kind of experience. This way, the world has a much great sense of being an analog one.

There are bound to be tons of game mechanics that could make good use of becoming a bit more analog. One obvious example is dialog response, where I think there would have been a lot more to gain if the options could be chosen by using core mechanics instead from an explicit menu.

How could you go about making a scene more analog? I think there are two main aspects that you need to implement:

  • The choice selection must be made by using a set of core mechanics. The number of ways in which these mechanics can be used must also be so large that the player can't easily grasp the options available. For instance, if the player can only punch red objects, and you enter a room with a single red object, the situation doesn't feel very analog.
  • The hints on how to complete the scene can't be too direct. There needs to be a certain level of vagueness so the player feels that they have come up with the solution themselves. It's also important to teach the player (through play if possible) how the core mechanics functions. The idea is that when they encounter a choice moment (be that a puzzle, moral choice, etc.) they have an intuitive understanding of they ways they can approach it.
It's also important to not just focus on the interactions at hand, but to think of it as a multi-scene setup. In order for the player to be in the right state, and to have the right mental model, there's a lot of setup required. It is really important to think holistically about these things.


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I think there's a lot to be gained by thinking in terms of making a world more analog. I also think that it's something that hasn't really been explored enough. It is quite common to just take something that works through explicit means and stick with it. Crafting scenes in an analog way is a lot more work, but I also think it can be really rewarding. It's also a very good concept to have in mind when trying to merge more standard narrative approach with proper gameplay. Analog worlds are a core part of evolving Interactive Storytelling.



Wednesday, 28 June 2017

The Complexity Fallacy

It is easy to think that the player sees all of the complexity you put into a game, but nothing could be further from the truth. A game's complexity is basically meaningless when it comes to the end experience. All that matters is what the player actually perceives. 

Brian Upton once told me the following anecdote about a game that he got pitched to him.

The game presented to him was a space sim where the player took on the role of a space pirate. A big part of the pitch was the virtual economy that the game had. It determined what sort of goods that planets needed, what the prices of various things would be and so forth. In turn this then determined the trading routes that ships would take and what sort of cargo you were most likely to find on them. This was a really complicated system and I guess they planned on devoting quite a bit of development time for it.

Sounds cool, right?

Problem was that none of this complexity was really apparent to the player. The only feedback that the player got from the whole system just boiled down to what sort of ships and cargo they would be encountering. From this meager data it was impossible for the player to get any sort of insight into underlying systems. If all of that system was replaced with a random number generator, the player wouldn't notice. So in essence, all of this complexity was a waste.

The reason something like this happens is quite easy to see when viewed through the lense of the SSM Framework. In this framework we divide the game into three separate spaces: system, story and a mental model. Something like the virtual economy would go into to the system space. But the problem is that these systems would never end up in the player's mental model. Understanding how this works is a fundamental, perhaps the single most important, part of the game design. The player doesn't play a game based on what happens in the computer, they play it based on what happens in their head. Any feature that doesn't have a mental representation might as well not exist.

Tynan Sylvester, who is currently working on the popular Rimworld, has a great article that addresses this very issue.

In play, the Game Model is irrelevant. Players can’t perceive it directly. They can only perceive the Player Model in their minds. That’s where the stories are told. That’s where dilemmas are resolved. So the Game Model we create is just a pathway through which we create the Player Model in the player’s mind.  
The Player Model Principle indicates a source of risk. Namely, anything in the Game Model that doesn’t copy into the Player Model is worthless. That’s what happened with the ecologies in Ultima Online and BioShock. They didn’t enter the Player Model and so degraded into noise. This is a fairly obvious risk and is common in game design – all designers have seen players not understand a piece of their game.
[...]
What we want to do is create systems that are smaller and simpler than these giant hairballs, yet have more interesting, comprehensible interactions than simple systems like orbiting planets. What we really want is not a system that is complex, but a system that is story-rich. 
This is coming from a developer that is developing a hardcore simulation game. If it this sort of thinking applies to that genre then you can be sure that it applies to the entirety of game development.

Adding a feature is not about adding art and systems. It about is adding content that when played with will create a certain mental model in the player's head. In this sense, it's quite a bit like being a stage magician. Just like in games, the important thing in magic is not performing a hard trick, it is making the audience believe that you did one. In fact, many spectacular-seeming magic tricks have really boring explanations. But since the audience is never directly exposed to the method of implementation, it doesn't really matter. The only thing that matters is that the magician has a high chance of succeeding and what sort of reaction it gives the audience. Games works exactly like this too.

Most of the time, an increase in complexity is a bad thing. There is a higher chance of bugs, and it is less likely that you can maintain control of the system. This is why things like artificial neural networks doesn't have much use in games except for in very specific areas. While a neural net could accomplish a lot of cool things, robustness is more important. As a game developer you want to be able to intuit how a system works in order to properly use it in design. Go past a certain point of complexity and the output might as well be random. The KISS-approach is almost always the right one to take.

The simplest way of designing a system is, of course, not designing a system at all. It cannot get more simpler than zero. While this might sound a bit silly at first, it's a crucial part of game design. Last week I wrote about utilizing gaps of the imagination, which is really all about replacing something with nothing. The best way of understanding how to do this is to not see your features as concrete content, as complex machinery, but as experiences you want to evoke in the player. This is not just limited to fuzzy things like NPC emotions, but every single aspect of the game.

As I explained in the previous post, gaps have a lot of advantages over an explicit systemic implementation. Not only are they cheaper, but they are also more malleable and easier for the player to fit into their idiosyncratic view of the game and its virtual world. It is not always the solution, and sometimes the goal cannot be reached without having an actual system managing everything. The only way to make this decision is to look at games in the right way and understand that what matters is not the underlying machinery, but the mental states it gives rise to.

In games, if a tree falls and nobody hears it, it is a feature you should cut.


Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Gaps of the Imagination

We don't perceive every single piece of information around us. Instead we must constantly fill in blanks in our knowledge to properly create a mental image of the world. This processes of filling in gaps is really important to understand and to exploit when crafting games.

At the very core, games are driven by systems. We have extremely powerful machines that can quite accurately simulate various forms of physics, economics, group dynamics, intelligence and so on. This means that at our fingertips are the tools to create entire worlds. It is therefore very tempting to use these in order to solve every single problem. But this is not always the best approach. Sometimes it's best to just leave gaps, and let the player's imagination handle the rest.

There are five core reasons why this is so:

  • We are all unique individuals with different needs and likes. By leaving things unsaid, players can personalize their experience without any asset requirements from the creator. A typical example is that players can envision the sort of monster they personally are the most afraid of.
  • It is impossible to simulate things on an atomic level; there always needs to be a cut-off at some level. Since highly complicated things tend be unstable and encourage scrutiny, it is often better to make the cut off at a higher level.
  • There are certain things which are, for various reason, not possible to implement properly. In this case a lot can be gained by simply leaving it to the imagination. This includes everything from creating immense battle scenes to conveying a particular emotional state.
  • For the sake of pacing; sometimes it's simply not possible to give the player all of the required information and it's better for them to just work it out for themselves. This could be things such as background story, details on a map, or the areas that it's possible to visit in a location.
  • There is an inherent enjoyment in filling out blanks in various forms of art. The reasons are a bit fuzzy, but you can clearly see it in all art. It's fun to wonder what a character is really feeling, what events lead to a scene, and to mentally picture what a shadow is hinting at.
All of this works because of how our brains is constructed. We are all equipped with highly capable pattern-matching machines. Our brains, and therefore we ourselves, want the world to make sense and will always try and fit things into a coherent and convincing narrative. The simplest example of this at work is motion.  Just consider this animation:

This is really just a series of circles that we see in rapid succession. Despite the fact that it's quite easy to notice the individual frames, we still see it as a ball jumping up and down. We fill in the gaps between the frames and see it all as an animation. Notice that this doesn't really take any conscious effort - it comes naturally. In fact, it is quite hard (possibly impossible) to not see this motion. When done right, gaps of the imagination never really feel like such - they simply get incorporated into the overall experience.

Here is another classic example:


There is no white triangle pointing downwards, but the other shapes suggest that there should be, and hence we see one. Again, this is something that we carry out automatically and while we can rationally understand that there really is no triangle, we cannot mentally unsee it.

Closing gaps like this is not just a fun side effect. It is a crucial way in which our brains function. Taking decisions on incomplete information is an essential skill in the function of our day to day lives. In fact, most of the information we receive is incomplete - it's quite rare that we are directly exposed to situations where we have all possible information to hand. So it's not so strange that closing gaps should come so naturally to us, we literally wouldn't be able to survive otherwise.

As I have said before, any decisions we make are based around a mental model. In our heads is a mental simulation of how we think the world works, and before we do anything we first run through the action in our model to see if it would have the effect we intend. However, it is not possible to get complete information about our surroundings. So in order to get a working map of the terrain we need to fill some of the information. That is what the gaps in imagination are all about - our process of crafting a working mental model.

Given that this is a foundational part of how people work, it is essential that we always have it in mind when designing games. After all, the end result of a game is really to create a specific mental model in the player. This can be done through direct system access, sensory input or, what this post is all about, through suggestions of something unseen.  I will now go over the most common, and most important, ways in which gaps can be used.

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Sensory Gap
This is the most common one and also easiest to understand. When we are presented with sensory information that is somehow incomplete, we try and fit it into a working context. There are many different ways in which to do this. It can be quick, disjointed shots of something, events seen through the eyes of a monster, a character reacting to a smell. or a sound that is so loud it shatters glass. Normally you build this sort of gap up by presenting a negative space where one or more object/events/reactions/etc. all related to something unseen. 

We tend to use this sort of gap more than we realise, simply because it is such an ingrained way of working with various artforms. But that just means you have to be extra aware of how it works. For instance, it's good to know that we are extremely prone to seeing familiar shapes, such as faces, in just about anything. 

It's actually quite hard to not see anything in an image. We have evolved in an environment where there was nothing like pure noise, everything we saw was part of the environment somehow. Therefore, when we see random patterns the brain goes into overdrive to find a connection. Of course, it is not just the direct information received that we use to do this, but anything related is accessed as well. Because of this, you can often get away with very little if the scene is just set up in the right manner. Learning to do this is incredibly important.


Informational Gap
This is very similar to the sensory gap, but instead of sensory data it deals with information in the abstract. Jeff Vogel recently wrote a blog post on how games often have too many words [1], and properly using gaps is the best remedy for that. It is often easy to underestimate just how much information a player is prepared to fill out for themselves. You might think that a player really needs to know details of everyday routines in order to fully understand how a certain society functions. But often it is just as good to simply have some brief glimpses (visually or through text) of what they are doing along with something that sets the tone (music, animation, etc). 

This sort of advice might seem a bit obvious, but it is worth keeping in mind how good we humans are at filling out these sort of gaps in information, especially if it comes in form of gossip. Gossip is something that has probably been part of our lives since before we evolved into modern humans. We are social animals and gossip serves as a tool to keep track of the group we are living in. This means our brains are extra-sensitive to this sort of information, similar to seeing shapes and motion, and can easily assess even the smallest hints.


Spatial Gap
Games are often very spatial and requires the player to navigate various places. Because of this it is often very tempting to accurately represent every single area to give a proper sense of place. However, for various reasons this might not be feasible or required. It is then important to note that spaces can also be created from gaps, just as much as sensory information and lore. Spatial gaps are a bit trickier though as we are now messing with the actual play area which means you you have to be extra careful.

The sloppy way to implement is to simply have a lot of locked doors that the player cannot access. But this can be bad for pacing and, worse, it can lead to a weak mental model. The brain is usually quite lazy and will try to optimize. If the pattern becomes 'locked door equals the room is irrelevant', it will be noticed and incorporated into the model. After all, dismissing these spaces is much easier than assuming they are there.

Instead it is better to vary the ways in which the rooms are blocked off, and to build up a negative space hinting that it is there, such as glimpses into it from a small window. It is especially effective to make the player believe that room might contain something of value. That way it is much more likely it will be part of the mental model. Remember, what matters is not what is actually there, but what the player perceives to be there.


Causal Gap
This next time is very similar to the animation example from above, but happens over longer time scales. As I said before, closing gaps is all about creating a working mental model. Where the previous gaps where are all about what we see, causal gaps is more about why we see it. Just like we humans are quick to see familiar objects in random patterns, so are we quick to correlate two events with one another. A black cat runs over the street and then you get a headache. We humans often correlate the most strange occurrences and it is quite hard not to. Many of our psychological fallacies are really based around this fact, and it takes effort to learn not to do this. Why is this so? Because for our ancestors it was okay to have a few weird beliefs if it meant we could pick up on dangerous situations and survive better. If you are a skeptic about the cat causing the headache, you might also be skeptical towards the signals of an impending avalanche. 

This is obviously the sort of brain glitch that we can make use of in art. Film is a medium that uses it all the time, in editing. See a gun fire, and then a person being hit, and it is obvious what has happened. Correlating these two events into a single event comes naturally to us. But because games are so driven by the player understanding the flow of input and output, or how the player's actions correlate to events in the game world, it gets a bit harder to deal with gaps.

The simplest way to do it is with events taking place. For instance, say the player suddenly notices that a door is blocked, and hears the sound of feet running away. They will now assume that whoever is running away is also the one who blocked the door. 

A little harder is for us to provoke imagined causal connections from actual interaction. What I mean by this is that you actually leave out certain information when actions take place, and ask the player to fill in the middle. For instance, if I click on an object in a game and it simply pops into my inventory we would like the player to mentally simulate this as "I picked up the item" and not "the item got magically teleported into my inventory". The three key elements for achieving this are consistency, negative space and optimization-avoidance.

Consistency means that we need it to happen in a way that makes it possible to distil it into a couple of universal rules. For instance, is the distance you can pick up items at consistent with the player using their hands? Negative space means that we use other events to reinforce the fantasy. These can be sounds effects when you pick up, feedback messages when you are too far away, and cutscenes where we see this happening for real. Finally, optimization-avoidance means that our intended mental model, that of the player actually picking these objects up, must be the "simplest" [2] available explanation. If there are too many edge cases, weird behaviors or simply not enough supportive negative space the "magical teleportation"-theory will win.


Anticipatory Gap
This one is quite similar to causal, but worth having in its own category. These are basically events that might happen to the player in the future and that they will take into account when planning. As explained in an earlier blog, planning is a core reason why gameplay is engaging, and thus it is important to shape what sort of consequences the player can conceive of taking place. When the player plays a game, they will generate their mental models not just based on what they are playing, but also what they know from before. This is gives us an opportunity to make the player think certain things are possible, without them never having witnessed them.

Suppose that the player hears footsteps from afar. These might just be coming from a couple of scripted sound effects, but the player doesn't know that. Given the right context the player will conjure up a monster that is making these sounds and assume that it might attack them. Now the player will start making plans based on a few sound effects and project a lot more onto the game than what is actually there. This is something that we saw a lot in Amnesia. The player could create long, and engaging, gameplay situations for themselves only because of a few sound effects. 

Of course, this sort of trick can't last forever. As I have mentioned several times, the brain likes to optimize and once the pattern gets to clear the illusion will go away. So it is important to constantly update the negative space, to not make the events so predictable and to setup situations in ways that feel exciting to partake in. Even more important is to make sure that this trickery is not the only gameplay there is. If the player has a baseline of actual planning  and execution going on, this sort of illusory anticipation can be sustained for quite a long time and add a lot to the experience.


Agency Gap
If you are in the jungle and the high grass suddenly moves. Do you:
  1. Assume it is a tiger with the intention of eating you?
  2. Be skeptical and consider that it might just be the wind playing tricks?
In our ancient past, the people who thought like number 2 were much less likely to survive. Sure, they escaped the embarrassment of being afraid of grass from time to time. But they also got eaten a lot more by tigers. Thinking of events as being caused by something with agency (e.g. an animal) is powerful concept for survival. It is also something that leads to all sort of weird beliefs like tree spirits and demonic possession. For many events it comes naturally to think of them as caused by intentional beings. And once again, this is great stuff to use in games.

This video that is a great example of the whole thing in action. Just note how you directly project agency on the shapes.


The most common use of this is in enemy AI. Most of the time, AI that feels smart is because the player thinks it is so, not because the underlying systems are complex [3]. F.E.A.R. is a great example of this. While the AI does have some clever systems at play, it derives most of its impressiveness from being good at giving the player feedback. For instance, by saying "cover me" while a grenade is thrown, it gives the impression that much more is happening than what actually occurs. The player projects a set of thoughts running through the soldier's mind and incorporates that into their mental model. But in reality it is just very simple code that is executed.

This is an area where the brain works a lot to our advantage. We are ill-equipped to mentally simulate things like state machines, but it comes naturally to think in terms of people. This means that we can get a lot of content to the player only through suggestion. The player's brain is really apt at simulating people and can do so much better than any existing computer system. So the more of that power we can use, the better.

All of this get harder when we get away from combat though. While players want to think of other characters in games as entities with rich mental lives, there is a limit to how far they are willing to go. If animations start to look weird, if responses come out as canned or if interaction possibilities are too limited the brain gets lazy and optimization kicks in. Characters go from intentional beings to simply being objects.

A big problem of interactive storytelling is how to keep this from happening. Just as I discussed with causal gaps, the key elements in achieving this are consistency, negative space and optimization-avoidance. How exactly to achieve this with characters is still too unclear and complex to cover this time around - I will go over some possible directions in a future blog post.



Volition gaps
Finally we have arrived at the last gap type, which is similar to causal gaps. Previously we have mostly talked about things happening when the the player is the one causing it, but volition gaps contradict that. These are events that the player thinks they cause when in fact they don't.

This is something that I think currently is quite unexplored and has a lot of potential. It is quite hard to construct control interfaces that allows the player to take all the possible actions. Therefore it would be nice if we could have actions that the game does automatically but that the player believes they used their volition to cause. This is what this gap is all about.

Just like we construct a mental model of what is happening on the outside world we are also constructing a narrative of what we are doing ourselves. While we are not conscious about it in everyday life, a lot of the time we have reasons and beliefs because we do certain things, instead of the other way around.

For instance, take choice blindness. In an experiment the subject had to pick which face they thought were the most beautiful, and then when handed back a different picture, most subjects continued to explain why they had chosen it. So a lot of the time, we make up reasons based on the actions we find ourselves doing. And as always, whenever there is a brain deficiency, we should try and exploit it for art.

The best example of this effect in use is in Assassin's Creed. When you run across the roofs in a city, the game will automatically make the character jump. Despite that, it always feels like you are the one who is willing those jumps to happen. This works as a great way of streamlining the controls and making the experience more fluent without taking away a sense of agency in the player. Another example of is in games like Uncharted where the character will interact with the world in ways that make sense and enhance the feeling of being there.

I believe that these sort of gaps can be taken further, though. An interesting example of this is The Path, where the protagonist will carry out actions of their own choice when you leave them alone. It is by no means perfect, and doesn't really provide an illusion of volition. But I think it shows the potential of this and I think causes the player to feel intimately involved with various events if used correctly. Currently, though, it is too unexplored to say for sure what the possibilities really are. I will explore some more thoughts on this in a later blog post.

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That should summarize the basics for the various gap types. I am sure there are even more than these, but this selection is what I found most useful for games. In upcoming blogs I will dig deeper into some aspects of this and give more examples on how it affects gameplay.

Until then I recommend reading Ian Thomas's excellent article on the subject where he discusses gaps for LARPs, SOMA, and much more.



Footnotes:
1) The follow-up post that looks at the game Pillars of Eternity specifically is also well worth reading:
http://jeff-vogel.blogspot.se/2017/06/games-have-too-many-words-case-study.html

2) This is simplest in terms of effort used by the brain, not in a strict theoretical sense. For instance "a witch did it" is a simple explanation for a human brain, but in reality is quite complex because it assumes a lot of attributes for the witch. But we as humans are great at just ignoring this, making the silly explanation seem simple.

3) This video shows it off nicely: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bbhJi0NBkk