Monday, November 18, 2013

Four months after Amnesia's release

Frictional Games have now officially existed for virtually specifically 4 years (4 years and 7 days to be precise), Amnesia: The Dark Descent is our fourth game and it is now four month because we released it. Simply because of this we believed it was time for another round-up of sales and other stuff that has happened.

Those who have read our two earlier reports might have noticed a little trend of the later getting a small bit a lot more good than the earlier. This post will not be an exception and we can happily announce that issues are hunting far better than ever for us. Summarizing all sales given that release really puts us in a state that we by no means imagined becoming in.

Let's start with what I guess men and women are most interested in - sales. When counting all online sales as properly a the Russian retail copies, we have now sold virtually 200, 000 units! This is a tremendous amount and more than we ever thought we would. Our "dream estimates" before release was some thing around 100k, and to be capable to double that feels insane.

Note that more than half of these units have been sold at a discounted price (with as much has 75% of the cost off), so the total earnings are not as a lot as it first sounds. Nonetheless, we are in incredible great financial circumstance right now. Also, the daily sales are nevertheless fairly higher and the typical has not dropped below 200 units but. This signifies that we can nevertheless spend all everyday charges from these sales alone, enabling us to invest the other earnings into the future (for outsourcing, PR, and so forth). It also gives us a healthier buffer and permit us to handle any unexpected happenings the future may possibly hold.

With these figures at hand, we need to confess that it offers us new self-confidence for the Pc. The sales that we have had (and are getting) are much more than enough to motivate developing a game with the Computer as the principal (and even only) platform. Based on what we have seen, the on the web Pc industry is just obtaining larger and bigger, and we are convinced we are far from the end of this development. We feel that other developers that consider creating their game exclusive to a console might want to believe once again.

Even so, our sales have not been common and it is protected to say that we have earned more than most other indie Pc games. We have been really fortunate with our media coverage and gotten tons of totally free PR (much more on this later), some thing that has drastically influenced our sales compared to other titles. As proof of this, in the Steam sales charts we have been amongst the best 3 games for Adventure and Indie categories virtually the complete time given that release, frequently swiftly above a lot of of the games that have been released right after ours. With this we do not seek to discourage other people from producing Computer games, we are just saying that 200k units is not something that should be anticipated soon after four months of sales of an indie game. The market place does continue to grow even though, and it may well not be lengthy ahead of these kinds of numbers are deemed completely standard.

There is an additional truly important factor that requirements to be taken into account: If we have had a publisher and sold according to existing figures, we would not be in the state that we are in now. Far more most likely, we would now be anything much more like our 1st sales summary post. We would probably just have paid back our advance, and just recently been receiving royalties (at a much decrease rate, like 25% of what we get now). This signifies that we would most likely be searching for a new publishing deal at this point instead of possessing the freedom we now have. This does not mean that publishers are evil, just that 1 must believe very carefully ahead of signing up for something. Releasing a game with out any financial backing or assist with advertising is quite a struggle, but if you pull it off it is well worth the work!

Media and PR
Whilst we attempted to make as significantly noise as possible at the release of the game, our advertising efforts have been far from large. Our major tactics have been to spread film clips from the game, releasing a playable demo and to send out evaluation copies. We feel that most of this paid off as a lot as we could have hoped for, with great responses to trailers, players liking the demo and great evaluations. Nonetheless, a lot of PR came from a fairly unexpected source, namely from user generated content material.

An concept that we threw around just before release was to have some sort of audience reaction footage, like Rec and Paranormal activity trailers have had. Obtaining also significantly to do, we just left the thought lying and by no means did something about it. However, shortly after the release of Amnesia players made their own videos with precisely this content! The extent that these have spread is fairly remarkable, one video possessing 775k views at the time for writing. That is almost a million views! And without any cats!

As we have now entered a new year, there have of course been a lot of awards. What is additional exciting about that is that we actually have been gotten a few! Just lately we got three nominations for Independent Games Festival, some thing that we are really thrilled about. Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation fame was type sufficient to name Amnesia his forth best game of the year. Elder Geek awarded us Computer Game of the year which was quite unexpected. IGN is presently nominating us for greatest horror game of the year and also awarded us very best horror and coolest atmosphere for Pc. Lots of other awards have been offered as well and we are incredibly pleased about this kind of response!

How has these awards and nominations been us PR sensible? Regrettably it is a bit tough to say as all have been announced in the course of the Christmas sales, a time when sales exactly where a lot higher than usual. Now when it is more than, we do see around a 75% increase in day-to-day sales compared to prior to the Christmas sale began. We think the awards and nominations are part of this improve, but the increase in new players throughout the holidays have almost certainly also helped spreading the word and enhance the sales.

What we can tell even though, is that the awards and nominations gotten us far more consideration from the media. Specially following the IGF nomination we have gotten a lot of mails concerning interviews, evaluation requests and comparable. So even if these kind of factors are not critical for present sales, they can prove very crucial for the future of our business.

Existing scenario and future
So certainly Amnesia has been a large success for us at Frictional Games, but what does it mean for us as a business? First of all, we are now completely financially steady and have sufficient income to total our subsequent game with no any troubles. It also implies that for the very first time in our lives we can in fact get decent salaries, anything that I personally would never believed would be feasible. This means that Frictional Games is no longer a struggling endeavor that we will continue until our energy runs out. Alternatively Frictional Games has now become a correct profession, revenue provider and something we hope to continue for a lengthy time forward. Compared to how we felt just a couple of months ago, frequently contemplating receiving "proper jobs", this is quite a superb change!

Our financial predicament also implies that we are in a position to take some amount of risk. Even though we of course do not aim to go crazy, it signifies that we can try out new issues without having danger of going bankrupt. It also means that we may have signifies to release a new game far more frequently than every single other or third year. We have some ideas on how to strategy this, and are really in the approach of trying some things out.

As for our plans to concentrate on consoles, as hinted above, this is one thing we are reconsidering. If on-line sales figures continue like they have with Amnesia, there is truly not any purpose for us to release to anything but Computer. Nevertheless, it would be foolish not to attempt consoles out and our existing thought is to function collectively with a third party to do a port. This would mean that we can still can hold a small staff and not risk growing beyond our capabilities.

We are also hard at function with our new game which we are very excited about. Although we nonetheless do not want to disclose to considerably, our purpose is to take "knowledge based gameplay" to yet another level. We aim to use the emotions that Amnesia was capable to provoke and to concentrate them in a distinct path, which will hopefully give delightfully disturbing benefits.

Lastly, a huge thanks to everyone who have supported us more than the years, played our game, spread the word, produced crazy videos, and so on. We hope you all will continue to support is into the future!

Where is your self in a game?

When you are playing a videogame, an external observer will probably say that you are sitting in a sofa or at the personal computer desk. But is this actually exactly where you are? When immersed in the virtual planet of a videogame, do you still really feel that you are sitting on a chair or in a sofa, staring at the screen?

An experiment
Ahead of moving on, I would like you to contemplate a straightforward experiment. You can very easily do it with the help of a friend if you got the right prop: a rubber hand. Put your own hand next to the rubber one particular on a table, and spot a screen amongst them, shielding your personal hand from view. Now ask your pal to stroke the fake and genuine hand at the very same time, at the very same spot. Some thing strange will now occur. Your body image will alter, and the rubber hand will turn out to be element of you. As your friend touch both hands, you will really feel as if the feeling arise in the rubber one. All of a sudden, you will have produced an external object, turn out to be portion of your self!

With this experiment in thoughts. The question of exactly where you are becomes a lot more intriguing. When playing a game, exactly where do you transport your self to? Does it depend on what the game is about and from what viewpoint it is played from?

I believe this is not only an interesting curiosity, but a quite essential part of the experience. Identifying where the player is when playing, can be very helpful. And even a lot more critical, being in a position to "location" the player correctly is a really valuable ability.

Spectator or something else?
Let's start simple and explore movies very first. In motion pictures there is no interaction, so surely you must be a spectator to each scene in a film. A clear instance of this, is when you see a horror film and have one of those "don't go in there!"-moments. This clearly puts you in a spectator seat, treating the actor as a separate entity.

Nevertheless, items does not get so polarized in other circumstances. Consider a gruesome torture scene or similar. These can get virtually unbearable to watch and blurs the line in between yourself and the actor. The reason why this is so is simply because of anything referred to as mirror neurons (right here is a good video on the subject). What these do is to make you copy emotions from other folks, replicating some of their sensations. A single could even argue that they expand yourself, no longer limiting it to your own physique.

Interaction added
Let's go back to games now. As we can see there are two forces at function: we can trick our brain into extending the physique image and we have specialized neurons that copy other people's feelings. How these will impact us will rely on what kind of videogame we are playing.

A single of the significant differences among games nowadays is the viewpoint, ie 1st or third person. Does this matter? Very first person areas you inside a character, putting your viewpoint exactly where it generally is. This increases the feeling of becoming the character. In third individual, you are removed from reality, and look upon your self as if in some type of OBE. This might make a single feel 1st person is superior, nonetheless, this only applies to the sense of sight. One more essential sense is the proprioceptic 1, which keeps track of your various body components. When in 1st individual, you see at most a hand or two, while in third-person gives you a complete physique image to copy. Third individual can also give your mirror-neurons a lot more to function with, like facial expressions. So based on the kind of actions you carry out, first or third will have a distinct feeling of being.

Also worth noting is how very easily we shift in between different states. For example, in Silent Hill 2, I feel really considerably connected to James when I run around town. Then when entering a cut-scene, I sort of float out of him and grow to be distanced. I am no longer in manage of the character and no longer part of him. Then when controls comes back I when a lot more float inside him and the virtual characters becomes an extension of my own body once again. This kind of movement happen in just about all games.

The roles we play
Now that we have explored how the self can shift position as we play a videogame, an intriguing query arise: What is the player's function in these distinct positions? As videogames contain interaction not only do you charge,l to various degrees, portion of the on-screen character, you also handle her/him/it. What does this make the player? Some kind of puppet master? An devil/angel on the shoulder? And far more importantly, can the part assumed, change how the game is played?

In most games, you do not control all actions in a game, but mainly give general commands. You tell your character to jump, but not how a lot force to use and so on. You command a character to choose up an item, but have no manage more than any finer movements. This is not that far off from genuine life though, as most of your day-to-day movements are created with no any conscious believed besides the believed of initiating them. This means that creating a character jump by pressing a button provides you a quite close connection. In these situations, you may well really feel like you are the character.

However, not all games have this close connection. Think about an adventure game exactly where you just choose a destination for the character or decide on in between prefabricated lines of dialog. What part does this give the player? Some type of guardian angle - a guiding voice inside the protagonist's head? Does this modify the way that the player consider of the character and how to interact with the game? Perhaps this role-assignment distances the player emotionally from the game's protagonist?

It is exciting that some games in fact explicitly give the player a role. This is very widespread in adventure games, where the protagonist may look at the player and straight address her. Do developers actually take into account how this can influence the placement of the player's self? I should confess I have not thought about this until quite not too long ago and have not heard of a lot of discussing it.

I believe it is quite critical to make a decision where the player is and what her part is. If this is not coherent than it might have a unfavorable effect on how the player pick to interact with the game's planet. If you know your function in the game, it gets easier to be immersed in it and know how to behave. This does not imply that the assigned role and placement of self needs to be the same all through, but that it should be constant with what requirements to be carried out. A basic instance of when this goes wrong is rapid-time-events in the course of reduce-scenes. This can be really confusing at first, as you have just gone from becoming the character (in typical play mode) and gone to spectator mode (when cut-scene is playing). All of sudden you are necessary to handle the character, anything that is not coherent with your existing function.

This shift in placement also explains why emotional moments can be challenging to get appropriate in reduce-scenes. As you enter a cut scene you move over to "spectator mode" and all of a sudden you are no longer as connected to the character as prior to and do not care as much. JPRG:s like Final Fantasy 7 have it simpler right here, as the standard gameplay is more close to a "spectator mode" and therefore the distinction is smaller sized when getting into a reduce-scene. Exact same goes for a game like Heavy Rain. An crucial thing to note right here is that contrast in position appear to play a enormous function. When there is a violent shift in the place of self, it is very noticeable and the emotional connections are lost.

Finally, I also want to add that the very same game, can have players assume very diverse roles to themselves. A excellent, although a bit extreme, instance of this, is a recent Gamasutra article, exactly where the writer let his mother-in-law play the new Sam and Max. The interesting element is that she did not release she could or ought to handle the characters. She just assumed (probably from lessons learned from experiencing other media) that she ought to be in spectator mode. One must have this in thoughts when designing a game and tutorials for it, and not just assume that a player knows what role they play.

Our take on this
Place of self and the part of the player is anything that I have not genuinely believed about till we exactly where creating Amnesia. I would consequently like to talk about how Penumbra and Amnesia: The Dark Descent differ in this aspect. As a lot of thought have gone into generating the player turn into the protagonist in Amnesia, it has had a diverse focus compared to Penumbra.

In Penumbra, Philip narrated all the scenes, yet in regular gameplay the player very considerably was component of the character. As these narrations are very subtle, it offers a bit of schizophrenic impression. For example, at one point Philip comments that he does not like spiders upon seeing a single scuttle by. What happens right here is that we are forcing quite specific emotions on the player who will either accept or reject them. If rejecting them, it implies a huge shift in the position of the self and Philip stops becoming a component of you. From being component of the planet yourself, you are lowered to being a passenger inside Philip's head. As talked about just before, this contrast can be extremely negative for the immersion and the emotional connection.

In Amnesia, our goal is for the player to turn into the protagonist. This is essential for the story and expertise as a whole. Since of this, there are never any words spoken, and there are no Daniel-subjective comments. We hope that this will location the player's self inside the physique of the protagonist, and to believe about what "I am carrying out" and not what "Daniel is carrying out". Our hope is that when you encounter details about Daniel's past, it feels like your personal forgotten memories. I know this is not an simple factor, and I am not confident numerous players feel this way. There is also the problems of adding smaller sized cues like breathing and heartbeats. Given that these are actions that are not totally beneath our manage, it is not incoherent to force them onto the player, but only if the player accepts it. Judging from player comments so far, there are men and women on each sides and possessing it in is a bit risky (we are actually pondering of having them optional in the future due to the fact of this).

Finish notes
There is a lot more to discover, but did not want to make an currently lengthy post longer. So consider this as just a discussion starter and a brief introduction on the subject.

Now I am really interested in hearing how you really feel about this! What part do you really feel that you play in different games? Please share your experiences!

Thoughts on Heavy Rain

It is very easy to talk bad about Heavy Rain. One can say it is just an interactive movie where you press buttons at certain key moments, in rare cases changing the outcome of the story. One can talk about the hole and cliche filled story and the weakly developed characters*. One can talk about this and other negative aspects of the game and I would fully agree. But if one only focuses on these areas, there is plenty of really interesting aspects that are missed.

Despite all these flaws I really enjoyed playing Heavy Rain. Sure, the quick-time-events (QTE:s) really got me worked up on more than one occasion and a lot of other issues bugged me, but on the whole it was quite an engaging experience. There are some truly tense and disturbing moments in the game that work great. For example the scene at the mall, while lame in many ways, managed to capture the protagonists sense of panic and that in an environment and setup I have never seen in a game before. The game also features great graphics, nice music and not too shabby acting (for most of the time anyway, and once you get used to the uncanny valley feel). The game also lets you be in situations that I have never seen outside of Interactive Fiction.

What really made the game interesting though was not the things that I liked, but the things that are slightly broke. Because of the way that QTE:s work, being a quite fragile system in terms of immersion, it sort of exposes your own usually hidden thought processes as you play the game. Also, the game's filmic nature and focus on a branching narrative makes it a virtual smorgasbord of game design theory to try out. This is what truly makes Heavy Rain worth playing.

Immersion as an essence
By far, the most important realization I got when playing Heavy Rain is how interaction is not mainly about giving the player interesting choices. When playing the game I never felt the need to make choices on the basis of seeing what would happen, instead I simply wanted the characters to act in certain ways in order to confirm to my expectations of how I thought they would (and should) be acting. What I think happens is that as we interact in a videogame, there is feedback loop between us sending input to the game and us getting information back from the game (in the form of visuals, audio, etc), which builds the basis of us feeling present inside the game's virtual world. The better this loop works, the more we feel as a part of the experience.

Heavy Rain is an excellent example of this process at work. When there is flow in the controls (which is usually in the scenes giving you direct character control, such as the early mall sequence), there is a very satisfying feeling of being one with the character. Then suddenly some weird QTE pops up and you either fail at completing it, or it simply does not give the result you expected, and once again you are pulled out of your sense of presence. The game is littered with moments like this, pulling you in and the throwing you back out. When Heavy Rain manages to sustain the belief of you having agency over the character, that is when the game is at it best. These are the occasions when there is a very strong loop of interaction going on and you are the most present inside the game's world. When this loop is broken, it does not matter what kind of interesting choices you might have at your disposal. The game immediately becomes less engaging the moment the loop of interaction breaks down.

In this light of thinking, QTE events make perfect sense. It is simply a rudimentary system for trying and sustain a feedback loop during various types of scenes. It is not about setting up a competition for the player, it is just a very blunt and unreliable system to sustain a sense of presence. I really doubt that QTE:s is the way to do narrative art in videogames, but it does gives us invaluable information on how to proceed.

What all this seem to indicate is that a videogame that wants to tell a story, should not use interaction to deliver a multitude of choice, but instead to reinforce the feedback loop of immersion. This might entail having choice, but the choices in themselves are not what is of the most importance, giving a very sharp focus on how to design the mechanics. It may actually be that the very future of making artful games with focus on narrative is to focus on this interactive loop of immersion. There is a lot more to discuss on this subjects and there are other things that also points in this direction. I am hoping to devout an entire post on that subject soon, so consider this a taste of things to come.

A final note: This "interaction as a means to create immersion" does not imply that the future of videogames are incredibly linear interactive cinema -far from it. In many cases a non-linear and open game world is essential in order to support the feedback loop.

The importance of determinism
In most games you have a pretty strong sense of what the protagonist will do when a button is pressed. Not so in Heavy Rain. Apart from direct movement and a few repeatable actions (like be able to shout your son's name in the mall scene), most of the time icons just pop up with vague hints on what the input will achieve. Sometimes you will learn what action might happen (such as that an up-arrow at a railing will mean that you will lean against it), but this takes a bit time and requires that a similar action has already been carried out.

In many cases this has a drastic reduction on the sense of presence. For one, it makes you unable for you to form plans. Simply by surveying an environment you cannot determine a course of actions (even if you know all trigger spots), and during action sequences it gets even worse as QTE:s may up at any moment in pretty much unguessable form. Making up plans is one of the basic corner stones of human intelligence, and possible the reason we developed a conscioussness, so not having the option of doing this is a hard blow against the sense of agency. Another reason it reduces immersion is that your character might not act in the way you intended. Before picking an action you almost always makes some kind of assessment of what will happen, but it is quite likely that this will be dead wrong. Thus the character your are supposed to feel a connection to, ends up performing an action that you did not intend. Of course, it is very hard to feel as a part oft he game's world when this happen.

This system stands in stark contrast with how Limbo works, where you are pretty much always certain of exactly what will happen. I think this is very much connection in the level of immersion Limbo manages to have throughout (unless you get stuck in trial and error of course), and how Heavy Rain stumbles through the entire experience. One should not be too hard on Heavy Rain though as the space of interactions that are possible to perform throughout the game by far outnumber those in Limbo. The real challenge for the future is to coming closer to multitude of actions in Heavy Rain, but still having the determinism of Limbo.

The understanding between Player and Videogame
Another big problem in Heavy Rain, which is related to the point above, is that the game sometime seem to work against you. It might seem obvious that this is a dealbreaker in terms of immersion and I have already discussed the problem of camera control in Dead Space Extraction. The issue can be a bit more subtle though and Heavy Rain serves as great example of this. For instance, in one scene I had made a plan of actions: to first bandage an unconscious person and then to poke around in his stuff. There really was nothing hindering me from doing so but instead the game removed my ability to interact directly after caring for the person. The game interpreted me wanting to help the guy as I also did not want to poke around, thinking that they two were mutually exclusive actions. Of course I thought otherwise and considered it no problem at all to do some poking afterward.

There are plenty of situations like this and it makes it quite clear that you should never move ahead on a bigger outcome from a choice without being certain that this is also what the player expects. I also see this as a problem of having major choices the player in a game that lack a high level simulation (like Fallout for example). Just the simple action of walking out a door can have many different meanings to a player, and one needs to be careful and make sure that most players have same idea of what it means. Once you throw branching paths into the pot, it gets a lot more complicated and clashes between player and game is much more likely to happen.

Emotional Simulation
An interesting aspect of Heavy Rain that I have not seen (at least not this directly) in any other game using QTE:s (or normal mechanics for that matter) is to trick the player into feeling certain emotions. The way it works in the game is that the player is forced to hold down a lot of buttons at the same time, while often also moving the stick around. This creates an uncomfortable and demanding way to hold the controller in, which is meant to simulate the way the onscreen character feels. While it might sound a little dodgy, it works quite well in many cases, especially in a scene containing self-mutilation.

The research behind this kind of response is actually very well established and designer Chris Pruett has hypothesized that the effect is probably a reason why many unforgiving horror games turn out to be extra scary (a design decision that comes with other problems though). The way it works is that we humans often do not know why we are feeling a certain way and unconsciously project it onto something else. For instance one experiment had people thinking that arousal due to their fear of heights was due physical attraction instead.

All is not good with this design in Heavy Rain though. Because the inputs you perform are not fluent (as it is prompted on a situational basis) and non-deterministic (as explained above) you are mostly very conscious of what you are doing with the controller. If the controls where more transparent (like in Limbo) you would be less conscious of your input, and any uncomfortable placement of the hand is much more likely to be projected into whatever the protagonist is doing. I think this can be very potent stuff if handled properly and let the player get immersed in experiences that would be hard to simulate in any other way.

Trial and error
Heavy Rain boasts that it does not have any game over screen, but it still manages to have is massive amounts of trial-and-error. This time the forceful repetition of events does not only occur in death threatening situations though. In Heavy Rain it often happens during extremely mundane actions like brushing your teeth and taking a shower. It is an extremely good example why this sort of design is so immersion destroying. From believing that you are playing an actual living character, the sudden requirement to repeat an event pulls you out from the experience directly. It is so obvious that you go from trying to become present in a virtual world to just trying and overcome a very mechanical task.

I think the biggest problem is that Heavy Rain is very sensitive in how you complete the QTE sequences. Let go of a button for a micro seconds and it results in an instant failure. When the game gets rid of so many other stigmas of old game design, it is sad to see it stuck in this one. I think the way it should have done it is to become a little bit more relaxed and to allow some more failures. Instead being competitive-like and very strict in the actions, it should instead check if the player tried enough to do something. As long as the players are playing along, I see no reason for punishing them. The game should have tried to keep the illusion of an interactive-feedback loop alive for as long as possible, instead of simply breaking it at the slightest incorrect input.

Some misc points
Now for some shorter stuff that I found interesting:
  • When done right, the direct and free control method is by far the more immersive. However it also puts a lot of pressure on the character reacting in a proper way. Quite often, the character I was controlling ended up acting like a moron, walking into walls and the like, even if I really tried hard to control him properly. The constrained events do not suffer this problem, and have the characters act much more lifelike, but at the same time they do not have the same level of interaction required for deep sense of presence.
  • Heavy Rain is at its best when simulating tightly space and time-wise bounded scenes. At these points it was much easier to give me a sense of having agency and to let me become one with the moment. The scenes self-mutilation, pushing through a crowd, escape from bench in cellar, etc are all great examples of this. Judging from what seemed to have worked best in Amnesia, I think a lot can be gained by taking this design further.
  • The game is a great test bed for a game that has decisions with big ramifications, such as the death of main characters. My own conclusion from Heavy Rain is that all of these choices are probably unneeded and did not gain me much except the sense of missing out on the story. Interestingly, Heavy Rain feels quite different in this regard from a game like Fallout (with the, as mentioned, more higher level narrative simulation).
  • Achievements (trophies on the ps3) really suck in story-centric game. Having gone through a scene and then getting a sort of grade, really removes the ability to make up your own mind of what just took place. It is quite similar to the "understanding between player and game" problem, as achievements has a high risk of going against the player's intentions (and does not really help gain anything).

End notes
As I think this post shows there are many reasons why Heavy Rain is a really interesting game to play. It does a lot of things that other videogames do not even dare to consider, and while it kind of fails on a lot of it, just attempting it is an important step on the way. If only more mainstream games were like this.

Also, after playing through Heavy Rain I have come to wish that there were more games like it. By that I do not mean more games with QTE:s (which I really hated much of the time) but games that allows the player to always progress and focus on a rich narrative experience. In most other games I either have to endure annoying puzzles or have to become an accomplish in a genocide. Given the high scores the game has gotten (from press and the public) I do not think I am alone in this. Please do not see this as an urge for people to copy Heavy Rain though, but instead to use the game it as a step towards something that truly makes use of the medium.

*Emily short has a really good essay on the story of Heavy Rain. Check it here.

On Versioning (or how the simplest thing can save you from the hardest pain)

Been there, know the feeling...

Extended titles aside, this is no flashy post. Some will even locate it a bit boring, but if at least one can find out something from it, I will be content. The motivation for it comes from an typically overlooked concern. I now have to tell how a perform day can at some point turn out:

A freelance artist we are working with found this really strange and annoying crash bug in the LevelEditor. One point listed in the Luis's common process manual when functioning with bugs says "1st, check the logs, see if anything looks strange there", next 1 states: "try to reproduce, and operate your way on from there". Occurred that the logs looked alright, and no 1 in the team could reproduce the bug in their machines, me incorporated. So neither of these points threw any light into the concern.

It began to look like I was staring at a single of those errors that no one desires to deal with, brought on by hardware incompatibilities or comparable übernice stuff (oh boy).

A new log seemed to make Luis happy, showing some strange error when loading a temporary file. It warned that the file the editor tried to study hadn't been even produced. This may sound like hint... but the way the editor performs (it checks if the file exists ahead of attempting to read) undoubtedly told me that it could not be attainable. Aggravation++ now (or for the non C speakers there, Luis begins to drop his temper a bit).

After a even though of step-by-step execution debugging, unsuccessful thinking about the trigger and some other shooting in the dark, a new log came in to my hands and, whilst it looked alright, it stank of "I fixed this warning point like three months ago". Turns out that the freelancer was making use of a dusty old version. He updated and bug gone. Gñe... now I want my sanity back.

This longish story confirms a couple issues:
- You must in no way assume your users have the most recent version when they complain about some bug.
- You undoubtedly require a way to determine what version they are operating with out needing to ask them.

A single may possibly consider I'm playing Captain Obvious here, but the very same type of circumstance described above happens a lot of times. It is actually strange to see no new messages for a whilst in our tech assistance forum. And even stranger if they are about stuff we have in no way noticed before. Most of the time they are currently solved troubles, and the solution for them is as straightforward as updating to the newest patch.

So, after finding out this nice lesson, I created a small system that is referred to as by the IDE on the pre build occasion, and updates a construct-ID string (in the form of yyyymmddhhmmss, with y - year, first m's - month, d - day and so on... essentially a timestamp of the moment the point was constructed) that will then be hardcoded in the engine and apps, and seem at the initial line in logs. I am pretty certain there currently are greater options out there for this kind of stuff, but I felt like undertaking it ahead of any googling, and it didn't take long, so no big deal. At least it may possibly save me from obtaining to purchase a small suit:
Our Random Crash Simulator 1., feels just like crashing for real!

That is enough for right now. Don't forget to take care, and always version your stuff!
Also, merry Christmas and pleased holidays every person!

Sprout's Tale at TooManyGames Recap

Wow. What a weekend.

The adventure began on Thursday night. Matt, Murilo and I all stayed up til ~5am functioning on obtaining every little thing excellent for the show. Two hours after going to bed, it was Friday morning and I was packing up the vehicle to make the drive to Philly with my extremely old friend Mark, who graciously agreed to go with me.

The drive itself was fortunately uneventful. A 2.5 ride North on interstate 95 was light on visitors nearly devoid of streetlights. For these of you unfamiliar with driving in the mid-Atlantic area, right here is what it appears like to drive on the highway around here:

Note that despite getting nearly 20 miles apart, these two photos appear nearly identical.
You start off to get genuinely familiar with trees.

After just setting up the table. It turns out that significantly less than half of the free
IndieGame tables like this 1 really showed up. We remaind
neighborless for the duration of the show.
Anyway, the drive at some point ended, we checked into our hotel and created our way out to the convention center to set up, which took no longer than 5 minutes on any day. We were the initial of the IndieGame Showcase tables to show up, but I felt confident the rest would be along shortly.

As you can see in the image, even though, most of the booths have been currently set up. These positions cost a bit added and, being unfamilar with the con and, to be honest, these kinds of things in general, I opted against it. Maybe the incorrect move, but nothing damning. We set up a couple of little images and some small pouches and our medium-sized monitor and got prepared for visitors.

My very first pang of regret came quite quickly. I wish I'd splurged and purchased some type of giant printed logo issue for the game, but alas, I did not.

Sprout's Tale and a Creeper
I created confident to preserve my distance even though
nabbing this picture.
Friday was a slow day, in common. We got some folks playing but not many. Mixed with the fact that I had only gotten ~2 hours of sleep, I ended up leaving feeling, well, depressed. Mark recommended that the level was a bit as well spread out. Not adequate events. So that night I began more than. Spent three hours in the hotel space redoing almost everything ahead of I passed out with my face on my keyboard. I can only hope I didn't drool.

I had smartly set an alarm for 6 am the subsequent morning so I could finish, which I did. We arrived at the con about half an hour early, giving us enough time to test the new level and uncover and fix all the (several) errors. Every single time we did locate one, although, it sent a jolt of adrenaline via my body and my heart would race as I attempted to quickly right the error before I was tried and hanged for gross negligence.

After discovering a way to semi-loosen up, I went around to take some images. Among Back to the Future, a creeper, a pair of full-sized Mario dolls sitting on a couch playing Mario, and the not pictured billions of game vendors, Mark and I have been thoroughly, thoroughly pleased.

One particular of several smiling children who played Sprout
When every little thing was ready. Factors start off to go significantly much better. The reality that Matt was on hand pretty much non-cease all weekend to deal with some of the more technical troubles was a enormous boon to what we had been able to accomplish. In my opinion, compared to what we went in with on Friday, what we left with on Sunday was about a million times much better. And I consider it really showed on the faces of individuals who played. Virtually every person smiled at the sight of the vine-growth, swerved in their seat as they dodged a shadow-enemy, and remarked at how gorgeous they believed the game was. It is with some sense of embarrassment that I should admit I was virtually beaming with pride.

In spite of obtaining a total sleep time of about 11 hours over 3 nights, I'm nonetheless feeling ridiculously excellent. Confident is a word I may be taking into consideration utilizing.

Here's some more pictures:

Sprout's Tale challenge
She had a truly tough time passing one particular of our far more
 deadly obstacles.
Dante plays Sprout even though Pikachu looks on.

You know what this is. I shouldn't have to say it.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The World of Sprout

Sprout requires place in a planet with no life- this considerably has hopefully been made clear by now.

The earliest concept art for ruins had wood as a major feature.
But it appears some individuals are asking yourself what precisely "no life" signifies.

No life indicates no men and women, animals, plants, bacteria, viruses, fish, or even dance parties. Indeed, you will take on the part of the mysterious principal character, who finds himself suddenly alive in a planet with nothing else. In reality, the world of this game is so fully dead that even all organic matter- wood, cloth, bones- has fully rotted away. All that is left of the old globe- our globe- is stone and steel.

But there are monsters. These are the memories of evil deeds from the past, whose shadows reside on in a kind of stasis of wrongfulness (so apparently that's a word!).

I never want to reveal what precisely the principal character is but, but I will say that I am fairly satisfied with his "origin story" which will be revealed in the game itself. There's no huge twist or big wow moment, but I believe most players will nonetheless find some thing to like about it.

Also, locating and grabbing the collectibles all through the game will revive a handful of lost souls that will then settle and build a village that offers the player access to the game's specific functions and some crucial character upgrades.
Anyway, that is all I'm going to say for now. I can't wait til you guys can play it!

Future of Adventure Game Interaction

Interactions in adventure games has gone from written input (aka "text adventures") to todays mouse controlled (and often single-button-driven) games. There still exist text adventures though, although now called "Interactive Fiction", and here the complexity of interaction has increased instead of becoming simpler. It seems like the way of interacting has on one end gotten more and more complex over the years, while on the other end it has gotten more and more simplified. What I want to explore in this post is if this great polarization has made us miss out on other ways to interact in adventure games and in what other ways interaction might be possible.

Before moving on to the core of this post I need to very briefly discuss the history of interaction. It is always important to know the past in order to figure a way to progress in the future.

The first adventure game created was Colossal Cave Adventure, aka "Adventure", which was built on top of a cave simulator and featured interaction through text commands. After Adventure more text adventures followed and as time went on the parser became more and more advanced. The parser is what handles the text input and translates it into game commands and the better the parser the more synonyms and complex grammar is supported. A few years after the release of Adventure, text adventures started to get a graphics, but still had a the text input (like Mystery House).

The first evolution in terms of interaction was to add third person character and allow movement using the arrow keys. Text was still needed to do actions, but the player could explore the environments more freely (moving around in text adventures can easily become quite confusing). Examples of this type are the original King's Quest and Leisure Suit Larry.

It is important to note that the divide between text and graphical adventures started here. Texture adventures continued to evolve along their own path, getting more complex interactions, while graphic adventures instead started to become more and more simplified. Both types co-existed commercially until the early 90s when commerical text adventure games where pretty much extinct. Text adventures still continued to be developed by hobbyist though and has continued to evolved the entire time (now days called Interactive Fiction).

The next evolution was made in Maniac Mansion by skipping the text input and instead exclusively using the mouse (except for some shortcut keys) and a predefined verb list with words such as "Push", "Open", "Walk to", etc (all in all there where 15 verbs) . To simplify things further objects that could be interacted with had their name displayed when the mouse was over and right clicking carried out a default command (such as "walk to" an empty spot or "look at" a sign). This trend of interaction continued and was further evolved by cutting down on the number of verbs.

The next and most recent big step has been to take away the verb list altogether and restrict the possible actions in such a way that all the user has to do is to click on things that requires interaction. An early example of this is Myst and now days pretty much every adventure game use this system.

An important thing to note is that as adventure games have evolved with the interaction, the unforgivingness (mostly meaning how easy it is to die and get stuck in an unwinnable state) have decreased as well. This is of course due to improved design, but I also believe it has to do with the interaction systems. With more actions, there are also more ways to mess up. Text adventures actually tend to be more unforgiving than adventure games released in the same time period. Although it is certainly possible to make text adventures free of cheap deaths and places where player can get stuck (there are many modern examples of this), but the large space of possible actions makes it more easy to do so. More on this later.

Why simplicity?
The main (and probably obvious) reason for making the interactions simpler, is to make the game easier to play. For example, games like Samorost are extremely simple to get hang of. In text based interaction (especially with older parsers) one quite often ended up in a guess-the-verb- situation and having to pick from a list of verbs can easily become a boring activity. Also, text input requires a bit of knowledge of what kind of actions usually works and which doesn't. This makes text based games harder to get into for beginners.

When using verb lists much of the freedom from text input was lost and interaction could become the boring task of testing every word in the list against every object in a scene. This is similar to the situation of branching dialogs but mostly without without a fun response for a specific combination ("cannot push door", "cannot pick up lawn", etc are quite common). Because of this, just using a single command context-sensitive interaction for each object can even increase the immersion.

Another major reason for simplifying is that it makes the games more laid back to play. Modern graphical adventure games are often quite relaxing and one can easily lie down (or some other comfy position) while playing. Actually, requiring the player to use the keyboard seems to be a hideous crime in some gamer circles. We have even gotten quite a few angry emails regarding the "dated input method" in Penumbra.

Why complexity?
So if having simplified interactions makes adventure games easier to play and more relaxing, why add more complexity? Does the years of evolution from complex to simple not show the right way to go? I confess that this might be the truth, perhaps the current system is the best way to go and further enhancement should be concentrated around making things simpler still (like the evolution has been so far). However, I suspect that there is bias towards simplicity lurking and that the success of some titles have set the path for other designers as well. Before moving on to the reason for me suspicions, I would like to quickly discuss why I think increased complexity is a good thing.

My main motivation for increasing complexity comes from playing Interactive Fiction (ie "text adventures"). As stated before, this genre diverged from graphical adventures almost 30 years ago and has, contrary to graphical adventures, increased in complexity since. By using the rich space of actions provided by words, there is a lot of actions possible that are not possible in graphical adventures. A major feature is ability to use all senses: the player character (abbreviated PC) can "touch" an object hidden from view in order to get more information, smell the air for tell-tale signs of some gas, listen next to a door to overhear a conversation and more. It also allows for more intricate interaction, for example when holding a piece of paper it can be crumbled to a ball, folded to become a container or rolled up to act as a funnel. To include these actions in a modern graphical adventure game they would either have to be special cases (like a folding-paper mini game) or implemented as a default action in some situation (using the door when in cell makes the PC listen next to it). Both of these solutions are forced though and do not give the sense freedom that a text parser would.

Am I suggesting that we should go back to some older type of interaction? No, I am not. What I am suggesting is that instead of improving the interaction by simplification, some other route should be taken. Making a user interface better does not always mean making it simpler. Consider first person movements as an example. The first FPS games like Wolfenstein 3D had really simple controls, with arrows for moving and strafe modifier key for sidestepping. Later on games like System Shock made the controls more complex, adding the ability to look up and down and more. These where then made easier to use in Quake by using mouse control for head movements. Since then controls have become even more complex with leaning, crouching, etc. The controls for first person games have over time become more simple to use, yet more advanced and allowing greater interaction in environment. I think that the same could be true for the future adventure game interaction.

The problem with freedom
So, what should be the goal with interaction in adventure games? The first reaction might be to use some kind of virtual reality suite (or matrix-like brain connection) that can entirely immerse the player in the game, allowing any kind of interaction. I do not think this would be wanted though as a big part of designing a game is actually to restrict the player from doing certain actions. If the player picks up a very important key and then throws it into a bottomless pit, it will probably be very hard for the player to continue. Although a designer can add alternative solutions for situations like this, due to time and resources it will not be possible to add for every possible bad choice the player makes. It is also impossible to find all of these situations during testing, given the huge amount of choice a realistically simulated world would give. Some actions might seem so stupid that player deserves ending up in an unwinnable state, but this can be a really fine line at times (especially for a designer that knows how the game is "supposed to be played").

The problem with freedom is actually a lot easier to control in a modern point-and-click system. When the designer can exactly determine all possible actions, it is a lot easier to make sure that the player does not end up in an unwinnable state or manages to skip large sections of the story. This is a really important bit to have in mind when designing a new system and simply going for whatever gives the most freedom will simply not be enough.

Because of the problems with too much freedom, it might actually be harder to design puzzles for adventure games with high interaction complexity. When designing a puzzle in Amnesia the idea was that the player should open a door connected to rope throwing the rope through a pulley, tie the rope around a rock and then push the rock into a hole, pulling the door up. When doing this with physics as implemented in penumbra it simply was not possible without adding lots of restrictions. The stone should not be possible to push down the hole before rope was in the pulley and tied around it. Also, the rope should not be possible to tie around rock until it was pulled through the pulley. Restrictions could be added to make it work, but would make the game too inconsistent (it would the depend on the situation if a rock could be pushed or not, etc). Making alternative solutions is possibility, but cannot be done indefinitely (especially if the difficultly level of the solutions should be similar).

The problem here is that more complexity is wanted, but at the same time the player must be restricted. How can these ideas be united? I do not have an answer to this, but have at least some ideas in what directions to start looking.

First of all I do not think it would be worth thinking about things that might be possible in the future. This would include things hooking up some device to the players brain or to have some kind of AI in the parser that could understand a wide variety of phrases and respond accordingly. I think it is more interesting to discuss what can be done now or even that which could have been in the past. When it comes to the evolution of first person control, much of it does not depend on technology and could have been implemented much earlier than it did.

A path that might lead fruitful results is the use of predefined verbs. The major problem with this was that they where always visible to the player and easily became an exercise in trying combinations. Text adventures are not far from this kind of interaction, since they too have a set list of verbs, but these are never visible to the player and because of this, they feel more free. So, the idea is simply to add some kind of way to use a certain amount of actions without listing them in view for the player. This can be done using mouse gestures which, if similar to the action performed (for instance: move mouse in a circle to spin something), could be quite intuitive. Even if intuitive, it would take some time to get into and would be far from as easy to pick up as the modern point and click mechanic. A sort of remedy could be to allow combinations of gestures to make more actions, requiring only a few base movement to be learned. An example would be that there was a gesture for each body part and then some other gesture for the type of movement performed. Of course this does not require mouse movements and key combinations is another alternative. Games that kind of use a similar approach are Loom and The Void.

Farenheit (and the upcoming Heavy Rain) has another way to tackle this problem: By having context-sensitive inputs depending on where the PC is. This system works pretty well to add a great deal of possible actions and the additions of "gestures" (this might stretch the definition, as I do not think calling button mashing a "gesture" is entirely correct) can add some simply gameplay and challenge to this. These gestures are quite nice at the start of the game, and gives the feeling of actually performing the action, but later on they get quite arbitrary and feel more like a chore. This system would work without gesture though and could just be a single button push or icon click (if using a mouse-only system). The main problem with the system is that it just like visible verb list boils down to a try-all-combinations-exercise (even more so than the verb list!). I think that for a system like this to work, the actions available need to be meaningful choices and not just different ways of interacting (which is also the direction Heavy Rain seem to be going).

Finally, I do not want to rule out physics even though we have had some problems with it. Physics work extremely well for objects that are in limited in their movements, like doors and drawers. It is much more complicated when it comes to stones and furniture that can be moved in any which way. I think that using some kind of hybrid system would be investigating more, but the focus must be on providing consistency. What works so good with physics is that it uses the simple and intuitive point and click input, but allow for a lot more possibilities. And that is something must be retained as much as possible.

Getting interaction in adventure game has taken quite a bit to come where it is today, both for text-based and graphical adventures. This means that finding another way of doing it will not happen over night, but will take a lot of time, testing and iteration. I do however think that it is something well worth exploring and although we will not have anything revolutionary for Amnesia we plan to give this some more thought and research for what ever game comes after.

If you know any adventure game that have an interesting way of doing interactions, please let us know! We are also very interesting in seeing what other people have written and of course hearing your thoughts about this!