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Kommander Kerf's blog

9:41 PM on 02.28.2010

DESIGN CONCEPT: Probaballistics or Be Like the A-Team.

Author's note: This article may be a bit scatter-brained and poorly arranged. I've never written anything like this before. kthxbye.


I wonder if health packs can fix cancer. They seem to be able to fix anything else: nasty falls, punches, burns, bites, stab wounds, electrocutions, suffocations, swarms of bees, getting hit by cars, getting shot. In the face. At point-blank range. It’s a wonder anyone in the world of video games dies ever; they’re theoretically immortal, short of falling into a bottomless pit.

I should probably mention, right now, that I realize video games are not realistic, nor should they be. But, I’m sure most gamers can acknowledge that the concept of a health pack, and really the whole concept of “health” in general, is very contrived.

In recent years, the shooter genre has been adopting a slightly different paradigm from the health pack: regenerating health. This leads to some interesting gameplay changes as players no longer have to frantically search for hidden health items. Now, they search for places to hide. Personally, I find this system to be better, in most cases. It promotes immersion, because players get rewarded for examining and utilizing the environment around them, rather than for trying to figure out where the sneaky developer has hidden the good stuff. The only problem with it is that it’s just as unrealistic and gamey as the system it’s replacing. I’d hate to get into a shootout with a guy whom I can shoot directly in the face only to have him duck behind some cover for 5 seconds and be perfectly fine.

So, how do other narrative forms answer this question? Well, most of America’s popular stories seem to be based on the idea that “The Bad Guys Can’t Aim.” Take, for example, the A-Team. This burley bunch of gentlemen can only make it to the end of an episode because, apparently, ten criminals with machineguns can only hit dirt. If the laws of reality applied to them, chances are they’d all be in closed caskets before the end of the first season. It’s not realistic and the audience accepts it—though it isn’t likely that the A-Team could be so good at not being hit by bullets, they aren’t doing anything impossible. Now, if Mr. T, instead of never being hit, took bullets in places all over his body and still kept standing, that would upset and confuse the audience. After all, the A-Team is never introduced to the viewer as having superpowers.

This brings me to my idea. What if games were to take the same approach as film to explain why a character can survive against overpowering odds? What if, instead of being some bullet-consuming deity, the player character was just exceptionally lucky? Books, movies, and television show us that people are more willing to believe that someone is hard to hit than that someone is able to absorb crazy amounts of damage.


I’ll be the first to say this solution is just as contrived as one involving health, but I will argue that it is more “realistic,” and, at the least, novel.

So let’s say that, instead of the ability to get shot up multiple times, your character had a “luck meter.” How could this work? Well let’s say that our hero is being shot at by a group of guards. Some bullets the AI guards shoot at the player are not well aimed will totally miss him—these do not subtract from the luck meter. However, some of those bullets were well-aimed and, following the laws of physics, will hit him—instead of the player dying, the path of the bullet is recalculated and set to some other path in the AI’s gun’s “cone of fire,” a path that barely misses the player. Points are subtracted from the luck meter, and the bullets that would’ve hit him in any game using health now forcefully crash into objects nearby. The amount of points subtracted from the luck meter would be based off of variables that affect the probability of someone getting shot, like ‘distance from shooter’, ‘type of gun’, ‘speed of player’, and others. One the player is out of luck, a good hit will bring him down. I call this theoretical system of trajectory recalculation “Probaballistics.” Why? Because everything should have a silly name.

His shirt is a shamrock because he is lucky. I am the master of both art and symbolism.

Of course, there is a lot of balance to be done with a system like this. Questions come up like “how do we display a player's luck to him?”, “do we even need to display their luck?”, “how is luck replenished”, “what happens if the player takes up an entire enemy’s cone of fire? Do we make the gun jam, or is he just dead?”, and so on. I can think of a lot of ways to play with luck and Probaballistics; I’m not sure what would be best.

Probaballistics and a luck meter, while still being very contrived, could feel less gamey than the current health-based systems. Health meters are an abstract, arbitrary construction that models something that really exists: pain, injury, death. Luck meters are an abstract, arbitrary construction that models something abstract: luck, probability. At least this way, we aren’t forced to deal with a clash of the real and the abstract. Everyone’s heard “my luck has run out” in everyday life, but “my health has run out” isn’t something someone spits out along with their last breath. We’re already used to the idea of luck being a “meter” of sorts.

Should every game adopt this system? No. Not at all. I can see this system being especially problematic with multiplayer games, where the feedback of a clean hit is necessary for the player to develop confidence and skill. Probaballistics only works when it’s just applied to the enemy’s gunfire, not the player’s.

I can’t predict completely how such a system will play. Hopefully I can implement a basic version of it in a Sourcemod this summer and find out. I’m sure Probaballistics is doable from a processing standpoint. It’s strange to visualize this concept being adopted widely, but, then again, the regenerating shield in Halo was weird to me when I first played it—and now it’s everywhere.

Comments? Criticisms? Thoughts?   read

5:08 PM on 08.01.2009

Essay: The Video Game Industry: Recession Proof?

I wrote this essay in late spring for an essay contest sponsored by the St. Louis Federal Reserve. My branch still hasn't picked its winners for whatever reason. I was intending on putting this up after finding out if I won, but it's been months now.

In retrospect, I'd say most of what I wrote has been shown correct. I'll try and find some links later, but there have been noted increases in used game sales, and parts of the industry are still struggling. What this also means is that analysts who long ago stated that "the video game industry is recession proof" were wrong, proving once again that anyone who says they understand the economy doesn't. (BTW, BBcodes aren't working for me at this time)

...And yes, this is a wall of text:

During the Great Depression of the 1930s movies became a big business. For the price of about one quarter, people could be engaged by an entertaining story and escape the turmoil that so defined the zeitgeist for that decade. Since then, it’s been doctrine that the movie industry is “recession-proof,” providing a low-cost escape during both economic peaks and troughs. Many analysts expected a relatively newer industry, electronic gaming, to exhibit this same recession-proof attribute.1 Both films and video games cost a fairly low portion of a person’s income, and both provide a similar length of entertainment per dollar, so comparing them is reasonable enough. Before we saw the worst of this recession, many analysts were predicting that the gaming industry would thrive in this recession and that video game sales would continue to rise as they have every year for the past decade.1 Video games did sell record numbers (The Economist reports around $50 billion in hardware and software2) in 2008, but, seemingly in a contradiction, many video game developers and publishers reported heavy losses.1 So why is an industry that’s selling record numbers in the gutter? The reason has multiple layers.

The most visibly hit by the recession are the smaller developers. To clarify: being a small developer in the video game industry does not necessarily mean a small audience or low sales, but it does mean less dependable funding from publishers. One small developer, Free Radical, makers of Timesplitters series of games (with over 2 million total sales) recently ran out of funding and was put up for sale. A larger developer, Midway, has also been forced to offer itself to the highest bidder. 1 Even Microsoft is laying off many of their game development teams. In a normal economy these companies were doing fine, but now publishers are weary of supporting small, innovative, risk-taking developers for fear of a lack of returns. MSNBC’s Kristin Kalning reports that publishers are sticking with well-known franchises like EA Games’s Madden series of football games: games that are proven to make profit.1 Just as investors franticly search for a secure investment in uncertain times, large publishers like EA Games and THQ are investing more money in games they know will sell well.

But even with this business strategy, the big publishing companies are still taking major hits. Game industry statistics website, VG Chartz, reports that THQ, facing $200 million in losses in Quarter 3 of 2008, will be laying off 25% of its work force in 2009. 3 The website also reports that EA Games will be laying 1,100 workers off because of a $640 million loss during that same quarter. 4 Record numbers of these companies’ games are being sold, but they are still taking losses. 2 The reason for this lies in the interesting economic properties video games exhibit.

Video game software, like home video, depreciates in price without depreciating in quality. A video game will be just as entertaining a year after it comes out as it is the day it’s released, but it will cost less. Due to constantly decreasing demand for a particular title, the cost of a game begins to decrease from the moment it hits the shelves (the same cannot be said for hardware, which decreases in value due to innovations that lower per-unit-production-costs). This phenomenon occurs to a much greater degree than it does with home video. A DVD for the classic film, Casablanca, (a movie that was originally released in 1942) costs around nine dollars at, which is on the lower end of the average price range for a DVD. In contrast, the XBOX 360 title, Mass Effect, was released in late 2007 at a price of $60. The game received some of the best responses from critics of all of the games released that year. Less than two years later, a new copy of Mass Effect can be purchased for $20. That’s one third of the original cost. This decrease can be very appealing to gamers during harsh economic times. More entertainment can be bought per dollar if one buys older games instead of new releases.

Further exacerbating this phenomenon are used game sales, which are counted in sales statistics but don’t directly fund game publishers. Given enough time, a used game can be worth 20%, 10%, or even 5% of a game’s original selling price. In these times, many gamers are being forced to buy used games instead of new ones. Used game retailers such as EB Games are seemingly untouched by the recession, so it’s no wonder that, according to the video game industry blog, Kotaku, consumer electronics giant Best Buy is toying with the idea of buying and selling used games. 5
The statement that “the video game industry is recession-proof” might require a qualifier. Video game sales are recession-proof, but it seems that the industry itself is not. But, even with the unprecedented economic behavior exhibited by video game sales, the video game industry is doing comparatively better than most other industries during this recession, and CEOs are hopeful that sales will keep increasing. 1   read

10:25 PM on 07.11.2009

BRAINSTORM: How a morality system could work in the next Grand Theft Auto

A few months ago Rockstar had an online poll asking users if they would like to see a morality system in a Grand Theft Auto game. I doubt they’re actually considering doing such a thing right now, but the idea got me thinking: how could a morality system work in a combat-oriented game where most of your actions are “bad.”

I’m thinking a system similar to the “lawful-chaos” system seen in Dungeons & Dragons could work here (I’ve never actually played D&D but I’ve attempted to get through the first chapter of Neverwinter Nights enough times to get it). D&D allows players to be good, neutral, or evil, but in addition includes a modifier based on the method in which your character portrays that morality: lawful, neutral, or chaotic.

An example of someone who is chaotic-evil would be Darth Vader, who carries out terrible deeds but certainly adheres to some sort of structure and value system. An example of chaotic evil would be the Joker, who runs around causing destruction with no consistent method or reason. These two archetypes could be applied to the almost-certainly criminal main character of the next GTA; the way you carry out missions and act during sandbox gameplay would determine whether your character is “lawful” or “chaotic.”


Actions like killing bystanders during missions, excessive use of grenades and rockets during missions, and finishing missions by making pre-defined “chaotic” choices will make your character chaotic. Actions like using pistols, sniper rifles, and melee weapons during missions and making predefined “lawful” choices will make your character lawful. (Killing pedestrians while driving would not effect your rating, because running people down in GTA is damn near unavoidable.)


Your lawful-chaotic rating could have a ton of different effects on your game. Someone who is chaotic may see such effects as being followed by more police cars per wanted level, getting free guns (the dealers would be afraid of you), enemies that are less likely to confront you, less success with women/friends, and some awesome exclusive side missions like underground death races or random opportunities to cause mass destruction (e.g. Hijack a tank). Someone who’s lawful would see things like getting fewer police cars per wanted level, more success with women/friends, possible random attempts on your life by whoever the antagonist is, and awesome exclusive side missions like hitman contracts and business opportunities (e.g. a subplot of running a nightclub or trafficking drugs)


Of course, the game doesn’t just have to change how the world reacts to you based on your rating; it could potentially change some of the game’s mechanics. For instance, if a character acts “chaotic” enough, they’re basically taking the role of a crazed killer—the game could work with that idea. On rare occasions, you may be walking down the street only to have someone start shooting at you. In response you shoot back and find that the “gangster” you just killed was actually hallucination and the person you really killed was a non-aggressive cop, starting up a police chase. Being crazy, you could also become more damage resistant, able to hang on to and ride around on the roofs of cars, able to hijack cars more quickly (just jump kick though the closed window instead of smashing it then opening the door), and learn special abilities like being able to throw two grenades or rockets at once.

An extremely “lawful” character embodies more of a James bond villain, and may become able to see whether or not a character is armed, be able to score instant headshots when popping out of cover, experience a time slow-down when using a scoped weapon, and be able to see special “car trick” or “motorcycle trick” spots where the player can, via timed button presses, execute a wildly complicated series of predefined maneuvers to evade police.

Now, obviously, I haven’t thought through all of those later ideas completely, and this system would need a lot of play-testing to balance perfectly, but I could see it working in Grand Theft Auto. The problem I’ve seen with most morality systems is that, while they give the player a choice between good and evil, they present all players with basically the same story, (see: Fable) which really makes no sense—but that’s a blog post for another day. GTA could give both lawful and chaotic players a more tailored experience but the same main story, because the character’s motivations would largely be the same, only the method would be different. This system would allow players to experience the game in more accordance with their play styles, but not bog them down with poorly executed good vs. evil decisions.

Any thoughts on these ideas?   read

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