I have high aspirations. I want to go into the field of video game development, despite the high-layoff rates, the skyrocketing budgets, and the increasingly critical public. If nothing else, I’m a masochist and a fool. Regardless, there are some trends I’m noticing in the AAA industry that I think I should address to my future self, and any future game developers out there.
This week’s Three Tip Burst (I’ve got no excuse for last week) is all about the development side of things. Let’s get started.
Map design with a purpose
I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again: hate me if you must. I play Call of Duty. I even whored myself out to Activision and purchased that shitty Elite subscription. A regrettable decision, because the maps are complete trash compared to even the middling maps from CoD4 and MW2. Therefore, the first tip is on map design, and and at its core it’s simple: maps should conform to their game’s core mechanics.
Having run through the new Black Box map for MW3, I noticed that much of the map is “off limits” via the use of invisible walls. I can’t even go inside of bushes, for God’s sake. And there are two sets of scaffolding that should be completely open to use that are similarly cut off. These are just two of the many errors in design the developers made. For space reasons, I’ll analyze these two only.
First, the bushes. Like MW2, Modern Warfare 3 is a killstreak game. There are over twenty, not including the Specialist package, though those are just perks. The air is dominated not by bullets but instead by helicopters, AC-130’s, airstrikes and drones raining death upon the peons below. The most powerful streaks require the player to exit battle himself to control whatever’s about to go in the sky. For this, he should have good places to hide: enter the bush. MW2 got it right since every bush was open for camping or hiding from enemies. By walling off the bushes, the map designers have not only ignored a core mechanic of their game, they’ve spat in its face.
To compare, think of there being an invisible wall on top of some easily accessible rock in TF2 or Assassin’s Creed. In the former, this negates the mobility advantage skilled players have and punishes everyone for being creative in their movement. In the latter, stealth and intelligence are king. Players using such locations as lures or as part of a larger deception would find themselves at a loss at the whim of the developer. In both cases, obviously, this doesn’t happen because the map makers understand that the core mechanics of their game should inform and determine map design.
The scaffolding example is similar. The jumps required to reach them take a bit of skill to pull off, even a little luck. By denying players access areas so clearly meant for them, the designers not only showed their naivete but their arrogance as well. “We know better than our players,” they seem to say. No, dumbshit, you don’t. One of the strengths of CoD4 was a player’s ability to reach otherwise unreachable places through ingenuity and a keen understanding of their favorite game. I think that’s one of the many reasons CoD4’s lived so long. The dedicated player base always has something they don’t yet know, and the discovery of a new jump, a new strafe, a new fun but useless glitch gives just a hint of freshness to an aging title.
When making sequels, do not undermine the power of already good stories
I’m talking single player here, CoD4’s and MW3’s in particular. Spoilers inbound.
In CoD4’s campaign, your avatar as a US Marine dies in the irradiated air after a nuclear blast. Said nuke went off because a cowardly dissident wanted to flip off his greatest enemy from thousands of miles away. Or so it seemed. Revealed in MW3’s campaign is the real reason that nuke went off: Marakov did it, just like he did everything else, from saving Zakhaev in Pripyat to killing Soap.
For me, MW3’s narrative choice killed the power of CoD4’s story. You capture and help kill Al-Asad, the cowardly man who ran from the people he was supposed to represent as they burned. You follow the arms trail all the way to the source, Imran Zakhaev, and despite long odds, manage to kill him. You avenge not only the thousands of American soldiers he helped murder in “Generic-istan,” but also the OpFor members who died for nothing, President Al-Fulani and yourself, a soldier caught in a nuke. You, the player, have purpose, a reason to feel triumphant, powerful.
Then MW3 says, “Nope. It was all part of a larger game that you had no control over. Sorry.” There should never be a lack of control for the player in a video game. Jim Sterling makes quite a case for this idea in Monday’s Jimquisition, and his points apply to any game. As an interactive medium, removing agency from the player’s hands is a failure in design. Half-Life 2 does indeed remove agency within the Citadel, but you have a choice to enter the carriers or not. You can, if you wish, simply jump to your death at the bottom of the tower miles below, put the game down and chalk it up to Gordon Freeman failing in his mission for the G-Man.
MW3 gives no such option. Retroactively devaluing the sacrifice of both the main characters in-game and your actions years earlier as a player. “A wizard, Makarov, did it. Our story, bitch, not yours.” Shoddy design, Infinity Ward/Sledgehammer, shoddy design.
Do not cater to the most financially effective strategy.
The most frightening thing about this tip is how widespread it is. Even Valve, perhaps the best developer in the industry, is more than willing to forsake a game for financial gain. Case in point: Hat Fortress 2: Hatconomy. When I started playing TF2 in mid 2008, the game was little changed from its release form. There were a couple dozen balance and map patches, but nothing major. The spy had 10 seconds, and ten seconds only, of cloak. The Pyro was just becoming an airblast fiend, the medic was more popular because of his great initial unlocks. The heavy gained a little more utility and fun-factor with his initial items too.
Fast forward three years, and TF2 is not the same game. It looks the same, kind of. You move the same, kind of. The spy still stabs, kind of. The pyro still burns, kind of. The sniper still snipes, kind of. You get the idea. Now, though, the majority of the game is concerned with how much a new item’s worth compared to its peers, what kind of profit a player can make on a trade; ultimately what profit Valve can make from it all. TF2 went from a game about skill, fun and laughter to a business, inside and out.
On a somewhat related note, MW3 is the natural evolution of a franchise with an enormous player base. Tons of ways for new players to do well, few ways for experienced players to counter the easy stuff, and a general catering to the almighty dollar. Assassin/Blind Eye, Death streaks, Support streaks that reward death and bad play, a content delivery service that screws over non-subscribers and snorts at the PC community. I can go on for hours listing off all the things Infinity Ward, Sledgehammer, even Treyarch, have added to make CoD a business venture rather than a game. And yes, I know game companies are about money at the end of the day, but sacrificing quality for monetary gain is detrimental to everyone involved, Activision included.
You don’t hear people foretelling the death of CoD for nothing. The more greed impacts the games we play, the worse off we’ll all be.