How my father-in-law played basketball in Tuscany thanks to the Oculus Rift

Apparently, there's a basketball down there.Research into the use of digital games for the benefits of older adults seems to be on the rise in academic literature. At least, it has been remarkable how much more articles on the matter Google Scholar is pushing to me the last couple of months. Unfortunately, the bulk of research out there still seems to focus on the potential beneficial side effects of playing digital games, while neglecting the human aspect. Speaking from my experience with the matter, I very much feel that geronludic research will always be shooting blanks if little attention is paid to the value of the entertainment experiences of older adults, in particularly in relation to their human needs and psychosocial context. I very much see a need for a geronludology that draws lessons from other fields, such as human-computer interaction (which moved from focusing on the formulation of cognition-oriented guidelines to emphasizing context and culture in its research) or educational psychology (which also moved from cogntivist paradigms to humanist approaches to learning).

My previous research has very much been focused on this missing link in the research on how digital games can help older adults retain certain cognitive skills, increase their social networks, improve their general wellbeing, etc. For example, I studied how non-playing older adults can be motivated to play digital games (see here), how actively playing older adults attribute meaning to their digital games (see here), and I would very much like to move my line of research forward by combining proven game design principles with lifelong learning and wellbeing goals for older adults, similar to some projects I did in the past (such as Blast From The Past). While I am still in an early phase at figuring out where I will find the technical support and funding to achieve projects like that at my current occupation with Miami University, a first step in the direction would be to test out the awesome Batcave AIMS has to its disposal (aka the Smale Visualization Center) and see how the technology in there can be used for older adults. That is why I flew over my 70+ years old father-in-law and dragged him into 207 Laws Hall to have him try out everything in there, and in particular the Oculus Rift.

Now, what good could come from that?

The Oculus Rift is a cutting edge gaming output peripheral that is supposed to come out later this year. It has been designed for young wolves looking to tear up the Internet in a wide variety of highly immersive yet also highly complicated-to-navigate first person shooters. My father-in-law does not play digital games, nor does have any experience in navigating a first-person three-dimensional environment. His latest technological purchases are actually a pacemaker and a very expensive (and actually poorly designed) hearing aid. The man might get a stroke or suffer from motion sickness while trying to figure out the Oculus Rift.

Thankfully, none of that happened. While the controls took a lot of getting used to, the Oculus proved to be a hit. “Unbelievable”, “impossible” and “unfathomable” were some of the words that were used to describe the experience. “It is as if you are really there.” And you bet that he was actually there. In fact, he spend about an hour being intrinsically motivated to chase a virtual basketball inside and outside a house in Tuscany, while my wife and I could not be more entertained by the contagious playfulness of what unfolded before our eyes. For me, a mundane demonstration of the VR headset turned into the latest unforgettable moment of my career in using game technology with older adults. While the Oculus Rift is the latest possibly disruptive technology that promises many applications for our (aging) society, I would argue that its biggest potential lies in the sheer playfulness and empowerment that seems to be inherent to the virtual environment its players are immersed in.

This post is not intended to be a review of “The Last Of Us” in any way

Who would have thought that stabbing men in balaclavas as a 14-year old girl would be so fun?As I wrote in a previous post, I had some fun anticipating the arrival of The Last Of Us. I was worried that the game would be too much of a mix between great cut-scenes and bland gameplay, similar to my experiences with the Uncharted series (that was designed by the same game developer). Nevertheless, I got hyped up and I went out and bought the game on its release day. So today we are quite some time later and I finished the game yesterday at 3am. Here are some of my thoughts on it.


  • There are a lot of technical and creative merits to The Last of Us. The game has maybe the best cut-scenes I have ever seen in a video game. I felt that the acting and character development was great and there was absolutely no uncanny valley whatsoever. This is also the best game world I have ever wandered around in. There is just so much detail and personality to it, to the point where the environment is an actor in itself.
  • The game is a great example of closed ethical game design (see Miguel Sicart’s book on the Ethics of Computer Games). The game does not give you much control over ethical choices (hence the closed design) but the game is also part substracting ethical design (i.e., no commentary on the ethics behind your character’s actions) and part mirroring ethical design (i.e., you are being forced to perform actions that you deem to be unethical). Apparently, the game’s ethical dilemma’s should be perceived different by parents versus non-parents.
  • It might even be a game that does not step on any sensitive feminist toes in its portrayal of women. The character Tess is a strong, autonomous and strong-willed female character (that even dominates the male protagonist often), and there are moments where young Alexis Bledel look-a-likenot Ellen Page – Allie takes out an army of male bad guys by herself. (That section was actually my favorite part of the game play.)
  • The opening scene and the sections with Tess (which serves as tutorials) are exquisite.

Less positive

  • The game play experience is better than what I remember from the Uncharted series, but – while not bad at all – it is not exceptional. Here we go.
    • The crafting system is too limited to stay interesting, and there are way too many supplies available (on normal difficulty) to create a sense of scarcity
    • The stealth sections suffer from your AI companions being detected by the bad guys (or them blatantly shouting “JOEL, LEFT!” when you’re sneaking up on one), which ruins your own planning.
    • There are too few infected enemy types to keep the gameplay interesting.
    • Throwable bottles and bricks predict whenever a big fight is coming up in an area you just got to.
    • The water-based puzzles are – while beautiful – extremely tedious.
    • Sometimes, obvious solutions to a puzzle are not available to the player, who then has to search for the one solution the game designers wanted.
    • The game feels very restrictive and linear for a world that looks very open.
    • Why can’t Joel climb on a raft that lies on water? It is not that hard, you know.

Okay. I never thought I would ever write a review here, but that is what The Last Of Us has made me do, and that says enough about how good of a game it is. Reading my negative remarks, I cannot help but feel as if I am nitpicking. Maybe I am, maybe I am not. The truth is that this is a gem of a game, and while I would not give it an “Edge 10” and I would definitely not call it the “Citizen Kane” of video games, I would definitely recommend it to anyone.

Posted: June 29th, 2013
Categories: Academic Research, Game Design
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Anticipating “The Last of Us” (aka The Next GOTY)

You probably know how these things go. The “next game of the year” is about to come out and the Internets are going bonkers over it. The hype machine has started its engines and we are all going to buy whatever it feeds us. This time it might be different, though. The next potential greatest game of all time looks like, well… like it is actually going to be great. The Last of Us will definitely have great visuals and from what we can tell from the clips we have seen, its voice acting will be top notch as well. Its gameplay seems fun too.

So why am I so cynical about its release? Well, I am the kind of guy who hates to play games that force-feed you action scene upon action scene just for it to remain a game and not turn into a movie. Uncharted, the previous golden child of Naughty Dog (the developer of the Last of Us) seemed like a great game to me, but I played the demo and it certainly failed me in that aspect. It has lovely story-telling and a triple A experience, but then the cut-scenes and Tomb Raider puzzle climber sections were finished, and it became a mindless third person shooter. That might not be a fair review of the series since I only played the demo and there might be more to the game then that, but based on that experience I did not buy any of the Uncharted games.

So while I decided to quickly jot down these thoughts here – and recommend my friends, colleagues and students to definitely play this game based on the hype surrounding it alone – I cannot shake a feeling of potential future disappointment. I have been stabbed in the back by so many hyped games in the past. Please let this not be one of them.

For further reading, I found this lovely review that shares some of the concerns I have (and it seems to be written by someone who actually played the game already):

In any case, at least you now know what I am doing if I disappear from the face of the planet somewhere around June 14.

Posted: June 6th, 2013
Categories: Miscellaneous
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In search of the perfect serious game

As educational, serious and/or applied games are becoming more and more prevalent, it does not become easier for educators and other stake holders to find a game that they can actually use for their projects. Thankfully, there have also been more and more projects that try to inventorize the games that are available to us. For this post, I decided to write up a little list of online databases that will help you find the serious game you have been looking for all your life. So grab yourself a pack of peanuts and let’s get cracking.

Name Main Field of Interest Notes Education Here because they also review educational games. Health - Health Focus on health but also features other games (e.g. language games) History -
Games 4 learning institute Math - Science Here you can review games as well.
EdWeb’s Google Spreadsheet Various This is a great database, but I just wish they turned it into a proper website. Various Contains guides for teachers, students and parents on how to use games for learning. Various - Various Love the community-driven approach. Various Use the search filters to get to the non-entertainment stuff. Various -

Of course, I would not be my opinionated self if I did not have some words of constructively meant advice for the people who build these databases. So here goes:

  1. Include entertainment games as well. Many of them are great educational tools.
  2. Get the community involved. You will have more content and your database will be up to date.
  3. Put some effort into presentation. A searchable spreadsheat and/or Microsoft Paint logos are not acceptable if you take your field serious.

Thanks to Anuar Andres Lequerica, Jantina Huizenga and Damien Djaouti for their help in assembling this list.

Posted: May 31st, 2013
Categories: Academic Research, Miscellaneous
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Micromanagement and Emergent Narrative in “Faster Than Light”

After discussing Cart Life in a previous post, I now feel obliged to share a few words on the game that lost to Cart Life at this year’s Independent Game Festival, i.e. Faster Than Light. Over the past week, I have played both and I have to say that I have played FTL a lot more than to Cart Life. While the latter is by far the most interesting game of the two for game scholars to analyze, FTL is by far the most fun game of the two.

It is basically a game in which you manage your space ship. No social realism here. There is plenty of room for intertextuality, though. Name your starship the Normandy and call the crew member who is steering the ship Joker, and you will feel like commander Shepard in no time. (For the people who have never heard of Mass Effect, just replace the names with names from your favorite science fiction franchise.)

The game is also a nice example of an emergent narrative. FTL’s space is randomly generated, and every game I have played up until now – I am currently in the low twenties I think – has been a different story. Of course, certain subplots reoccur from time to time, but I am still enjoying myself and I like the stories that have unfolded before me. For example, during my last play through I almost beat the game but I failed because I did not have enough skilled crew members to deal with the second iteration of the end boss. I had enough crew members at one point, but I lost too many of them while trying to rescue people along the way. So my last story was about a commander who is not apathetic enough to save the day, as well as of giant space spiders who are not to be messed with. (Why do I always have to play hero? Damn you, evil damsel in distress games for programming me like that!)

Another cool thing about FTL is how the game raises its difficulty level. Leveling up and buying better gear is certainly part of FTL’s core mechanics, but the game also requires the player to micromanage more and faster. In the beginning, you can just let your ship auto-fire away. In the middle of the game, you’ll need to make sure that you hit your opponent in the right spots. At the end, I will still use auto-fire for my slowest weapon, but everything else will be controlled manually. At this point, I am very grateful that the game has a space bar that allows me to go through pauze and order cycles. Maybe one day I will be able to micro everything without the pauze button, but it is not easy to open a select group of doors to remove oxygen from burning rooms, while at the same time directing your defense squad towards a teleported enemy squad on board your ship, while at the same time sending your engineers to repair the oxygen generator, while at the same time making sure that all your weapons fire in sync, while at the same time cloaking your ship whenever your enemy launches missiles, while at the same text-chatting with your friends over Steam, etc.

So in the end, FTL is a neat little game. It is very thematic and has an interesting emergent narrative every time you play, while also providing an nice blend of leveling up and more complex micromanaging throughout his curve of difficulty. Permadeath is also a lot more enjoyable here than in for example the latest X-COM, because a complete play-through is only a few hours.

And that’s a wrap. Now, if anyone would be able to explain to me how one can travel faster than light without going back in time?

Posted: May 30th, 2013
Categories: Game Design
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Anita Sarkeesian on Video Gaming’s Damsel in the Refrigerator

Thankfully, there are no refrigerators in MarioWorld.Anita Sarkeesian’s webseries “Feminist Frequency” offers an interesting exploration of gender representation in video games (and in a wider range of pop culture). The production quality is absolutely first rate, and hope many more gaming video blogs will reach this quality. In the link below, she explores the use of the damsel in distress trope in video games, as well as its many variations. (I personally had never heard of the “damsel in the refrigerator” before. If they ever invent a cocktail named like that, I am ordering one.) Thanks to the abundance of in-game examples, the video packs quite a punch and gets its message across very clearly.

That being said, I’m not a fan whatsoever. Don’t get me wrong here. Anita’s analysis is great and I am willing to agree that there are plenty of video games that are in bad taste, but the video goes south for me at the very end when real-life violence on women is thrown into the mix. There is not hardly enough empirical evidence to tie real-life violence on women to men playing “unsophisticated, crude male power fantasy” games, let alone damsel in distress games. So why does the video have to hint towards that?

Also, I do not like the undertone of the video. For example, “in this way these failed-hero stories are really about the perceived loss of masculinity, and then the quest to regain that masculinity, primarily by exerting dominance and control, through the performance of violence on others.” What is wrong with masculinity as an in-game theme, and is it so far-fetched that men might find the damsel in distress plot device enjoyable because it is in their biological nature to be protective of a woman they care for?

Finally, I would have loved to hear Anita explore the actual reasons behind the use of the damsel in distress in so many games. Is it really because all game designers are misogynistic bastards? Maybe other factors are more likely to be the culprits here? For example, is it really a good idea for a game developer to spend a lot of time and money on writing a sophisticated narrative for an audience that is mainly interested in actual gameplay? It would have been great to have a little interview with some game developers in there, or even with male gamers who describe how they perceive the damsel in distress narrative. After all, this is a project that went over $150,000 on Kickstarter.

In conclusion, I very much enjoyed Anita’s analysis and the quality of the video, but only as a starting point for further discussion. I am also not the only one who feels that way. So let the battle of the sexes begin! Oh, and now that I think of it: my male video game protagonists have died way more often than any damsel in distress. I am sure that they would like to feel appreciated once in a while. ;-)

Posted: May 29th, 2013
Categories: Miscellaneous
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Dark Game Design: Designing for Negative Experiences

Seriously FDG, hire a frikkin' graphical designer! What is this I don't even...I just stumbled on a paper that was presented by Jose Zagal, Staffan Björk and Chris Lewis at FDG 2013: Dark patterns in the design of games. The paper challenges the (rather naive) notion that the agenda of game designers coincides with that of their eventual players. While game design certainly should consider the player at all times, game design does not necessarily need to follow the wishes of the player at all times. For example, as soon as game design becomes part of an industry that is geared towards generating revenue, the player’s agenda is tossed aside in favor of a corporate agenda.

There are plenty of examples here, from the application of psychological tricks in games to the design of the new Xbox One. Of course, it does not always have to be about money. For example, while I am sure that many gamers want the games they play to be a real challenge, Call of Duty: Black Ops is well-known for faking in-game challenges. In the case of CODBLOPS, game designers are not necessarily following the player’s agenda in terms of providing a fun challenge, in favor of providing them with drama and narrative.

In their paper, Zagal et al. develop a definition for such dark game design patterns (i.e., a dark game design pattern is a pattern used intentionally by a game creator to cause negative experiences for players which are against their best interests and likely to happen without their consent) and they present examples of such patterns. It’s freely available here:

Social Realism in “Cart Life”

This is hardly news to people keeping track of what happens in the gaming industry, but I still wanted to make a quick post about Cart Life in case anyone reading my blog has missed it. In short, it’s a game about poor people. Cart Life’s game designer will tell you it is actually a retail simulator (which is not a lie), but the game is a lot more interesting than calculating netto and gross incomes. Cart Life allows you to take on the role of an Ukrainian immigrant and his cat, a single mom trying to hang on to the custody of her daughter, or Vinny the bagel guy. It is not a game about going from rags to riches à la Grand Theft Auto, nor is it a consumerism simulation à la the Sims. It is a game about urban survival, about hardship, about loneliness, about poverty, about humanity, and so on. That said, here come the superlatives: It is one of the best examples of social realism I have ever seen in video games, the artwork is absolutely brilliant, it has really clever game mechanics (e.g. typing sentences that mimic the boring thoughts that go through your head while doing brainless tasks), and it is definitely one heck of a learning experience.

So come on, just should play it. It’s free so what are you waiting for. If not for me, then do it for Mr. Glembovski!

Need more convincing? Here’s a great article on the game.

Posted: May 18th, 2013
Categories: Game Design
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Designing Games for Realism – What’s Real Enough?

Get Real @ SxSWAt South by Southwest, Rick Van Eck, Steven Malliet, Amy Adcock and I presented a session on realism in serious games. It was a fun experience, we got a positive review out of it, and I’m thrilled that the good people of SxSW released the audio of the session online. After listening to it online, I decided that I would go through the slides one more time alongside the audio while recording everything with the Camstudio. Unfortunately, our video stuttered a bit while recording, but I am sure that interested viewers will look past that.

So enjoy the video, and if you’re wondering what went on in the beginning, there was a technical difficulty which resulted in some loud audio playing on-stage.

The video comes in six parts. Give it a couple of seconds to get started. You can download the handouts here and a 480p version of the video here. For more information about the artwork, please visit my portfolio.

Posted: April 25th, 2013
Categories: Academic Research, Game Design
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Some Thoughts on Summoner Wars’ Mechanics and Achievements System

Ever since its release on iOS about a month ago, I’ve been playing Summoner Wars on my iPad. I have to say, this game is absolutely wonderful and the implementation for iOS is great. Of course, there are some adjustments I would like the developer to consider (e.g. undo pre-dice, battle history, auto-accept dice, create specific decks versus each faction, etc.), and apparently the iPhone version has a few issues due to the small screen size, but regardless of such nit-picking I definitely recommend this game to anyone. It is casual, easy to learn and quick to play, but at the same time it is definitely deep and very rewarding to master. If that is not enough of advertising then consider this: the physical version would cost you at least $129.50 (even more if you want to make decks that require multiples of each pack) while the iOS version has an “Everything Bundle” for $7.99. Anyway, let’s get to the point of this post. After playing Summoner Wars for about a month, I wanted to write a couple of paragraphs on two topics, the first being the mechanics of the game and the second being its achievements system.

Game Mechanics

(Skip the following paragraph if you know what game mechanics are. Oh, still here? I guess you would like some help with defining that word then? Okay, here is an overview of academic definitions by Miguel Sicart as well as a nice suggestion of his own, here is an example of what I would consider a game mechanic (provided kindly by Squidi), and here is something for people who prefer visuals over text. (Also, here is what Gamification drones think game mechanics are.) To put it in layman’s terms, I would say that I am talking about a bunch of nicely designed rules that lead to meaningful gameplay experiences. There is a lot wrong with that sentence, but I am sure we have a mutual idea of which elements of Summoner Wars I will be writing about below.) 

Summoner Wars has plenty of mechanics underlying its gameplay experience. There are card draws and dice rolls, action points spendings, spatial tactics and movement, and so on. (If you know Heroscape, the game designer of Summoner Wars is Colby Dauch – the owner of - and that certainly shows in Summoner Wars’ design). Summoner Wars is pretty much a tactical war game played with cards that are laid out on a map, with dice rolls determine the damage dealt in attacks. That in itself does not sound too spectacular, but here are a few mechanics that Summoner Wars does really well.

  1. Assymmetric (and very thematic) gameplay - This might not even be an actual mechanic but anyway, Summoner Wars is a great example of assymmetric gameplay. None of the factions play in the same way, they all are extremely thematic, and playing a new faction takes a lot of experimenting to figure out how you can maximize them. (Right now, I am in love with the Cloaks, a faction that is build completely around deception, clever movement, and timing.) At the same time, Summoner Wars still appears to be pretty balanced to me. (Also, the fans are keeping track of battles and – while I hardly think that this is an adequate way to measure the balance of these factions – are happy to report that all the factions tend to win/lose around 50% of the games they are in.) I also think it’s great how the first turn is reduced so that there is no real benefit in starting first or second.
  2. Risk management – I absolutely love games that are about negotiating chances. While I do not calculate my chances while playing, I love to play games that have a little margin of luck in there, just so I can try to push that back out and play competitively. Like Heroscape did beforehand, Summoner Wars does this wonderfully. I know that there are people who want absolutely no luck in a game, but I would advise those to just play Chess or Go. Personally, I think that games that are not completely determined are tactically speaking much more interesting. Every move you make could still fail for no reason whatsoever.
  3. Hand management – Summoner Wars is probably one of the best hand management games I have ever played. Sid Meier apparently once said that a good game is a series of interesting choices, and I Colby Dauch seems to agree: Every turn Summoner Wars gives you an great deal of meaningful decisions regarding the cards in your hand. Which cards are you going to summon? In what order am I going to summon them? Do I wait for another one for maximum effect? Wouldn’t it be better if I would just use them to build magic and summon something bigger next turn? What if the other guy will summon this or that the next turn? What is the chance that I get another one if these? And so on.

So there you have it, three reasons/mechanics that make Summoner Wars the best game I have played all year. I guess it is not a game for fans of abstract board games or the thematic yet hardcore European board games (e.g., Puerto Rico, which involves hardly any luck is based more on selecting roles, manipulating turn orders, auctioning, gathering resources, and so on.) But still, Summoner Wars does what it does and it does it well. Now let’s have a quick look at the second bit I wanted to blog about, Summoner Wars’ achievement system.

Achievements (on iOS)

Extra Credits once did a wonderful episode on achievements, and argued that there are three types of achievements: 1) the Unavoidable (i.e., the ones you get for doing what you would have done anyway), 2) the Optional (i.e., the ones that are basically side missions that are not part of the core gaming experience, and that are often used to extend the gaming experience) and 3) the Inspiring (e.g., the ones that inspire the player to play in an alternate and engaging way that is not the main focus of the game). Personally, I do not care at all that much about the first two and would prefer it if games would only offer inspiring achievements, but I guess you need unavoidable achievements to make the player aware that there are achievements that came with the game and that it could be fun to look for them and complete them.

So how does Summoner Wars fit in there? Sadly, the game tends to range between unavoidable and optional achievements, the worst ones being “Roll a 5 or a 6 three times in a row” for the Tundra Orcs’ “Wild Man” achievement. Funny enough, I got it on my first attempt with the Orcish faction, but for someone wanting to collect achievements an unavoidable achievement based on pure luck (1/27 chance) must be awful. That said, the game even features a second luck-based achievement (“When It Counts”), which you get if you “won a game where you never rolled a miss on an attack against your opponent’s summoner”. (Granted, the latter can be made easier using some skill but using some of the very few attacks in the game that do not require dice rolls for all but one life of your opponent’s summoner and then moving in for the final blow with 2/3 odds.)

On the other hand, the game did offer some neat ones as well, that are used as tools for teaching (even though they are possibly too close to the core gameplay experience to be referred to as inspiring). For example, “The Swarm” asks you to rush your opponent’s walls, basically suffocating her by removing summoning spots of the board. This is a technique advanced players call Wall Crowding on the forums. So while most achievements in Summoner Wars are not as well designed as they could be, there are some that are not that badly implemented, and this makes Summoner Wars’ achievements a nice example to discuss.

Posted: July 31st, 2012
Categories: Game Design
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What happens after 10 years of one more turn in Civ 2?

This looks like a great case for educators to look into. Apparently, someone who names himself Lycerius has been playing Civilization 2 for ten years and has now ended up in 3991 AD. Put briefly, the world has become an post-apocalyptic wasteland. The polar ice caps have melted, there is fall-out from nuclear warfare everywhere, all big cities have perished, and so on. All that is left of the world are 3 big factions (i.e., Celtania, New Vikingland and America) and a small island populated by the Sioux Nation. There has been non-stop war for 1700 years.
Like I said, this looks like an great example for people who are advocating the use of games as educational tools. Lycerius has managed to get his own Reddit page, and it is filled with advice from fellow Civilization 2 players on how to get out of the ongoing stalemate. How’s that for motivation, right? Civilization 2 was a great game but it’s a game from 1996, and still it is interesting enough for so many people to care about Lycerius’ save game. It is also amazing how in-depth the responses are. As an example, here’s an excerpt of one of the replies:

“Let’s start by discarding such methods of government that would be foolish to take. Lycerius, in his great wisdom has left the game as a communist state, this decision might seem weird to a lot of people, but here’s why. You would all probably say that the best government is republic and/or democracy right? Wrong. Within civ 2 republic and democracy are based on an already matured civilization changing from an inferior political system to them, in effect they require the necessary infrastructure such as temples, marketplaces and especially a great irrigation system to work, they are the perfect governments for kingdoms to flourish into a scientific age. Nearing the fourth millenium all technology has been obtained and more importantly no such irrigation exists meaning that the huge cities required to mantain the expensive lifestyle of the republics or democracies do not exist.”

And there are plenty more great examples like that on the Reddit page. While the extent to which Civilization 2′s lessons are a great simulation of real life is up for discussion, Civilization’s effectiveness as a tool to develop critical reflection and/or problem solving skills seems a lot debatable. This is nothing new to game researchers – e.g., Kurt Squire has done some wonderful research on this topic – but I nevertheless felt that this was an inspiring example to spread. It certainly reminds me of why I do design research on serious games or try to use commercial titles in class rooms.

Posted: June 13th, 2012
Categories: Academic Research, Miscellaneous
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My suggestions for improving NBA 2K12 (and other sports titles)

If you know me you know how much I love basketball. I used to play it way too much, which is still evidenced by the state of my bad knees, ankles and back. So as playing on the court these days quickly leads to annoying injuries to me, I’ve taken resort to playing golf and NBA 2K12, the latter clearly being the more fun and addictive game. Okay, that might be pushing it a bit, but the NBA 2K series nevertheless are a lot of fun to me. Since NBA 2K11 I have to say that they have started to mimic real-life basketball quite a bit. I have started to run plays, consider matchups, switch things up on defense, and so on. Of course, the game still has a long way to go, but playing it at the Superstar difficulty level does give me somewhat of a feeling – however slight – that the outcome of a match of me versus the CPU is realistic. I won’t debate here what video game realism means to me; for that you should check out the academic work of Wannes Ribbens & Steven Malliet – but let’s just say that the game gives me the impression that tactics that work in real life also work in the game and vice versa. Of course, I am not using any cheap exploits which would make the game a lot less fun to me. (Even though the zone defense in the link is feasible in real life, it would also be easily exploited in real-life which is something the CPU cannot do for various reasons.)

So that’s my relationship with the NBA 2K series. I play it because I love basketball and I want to substitute for playing real life basketball, I guess. And on top of that, it’s a pretty appealing fantasy to take the role of an NBA player, coach or GM. So what about the improvements I was discussing in the title of the post? Well, since NBA 2K11 I started modding the game in a way that has improved my playing experience considerably. Mind you, these are hardly difficult mods to make if you’re the developer. All it takes is a little bit of extra development time, which probably can be reduced if project management takes it into account early in the project.

1. Put my face on my player
Just look at the forums: people who can change a player’s face in the game are actually doing requests for other people. That’s how popular this is. Sure, it is fun to design yourself a basketball freak (e.g. 7’2″ point guard) or the next superstar and play with them, but nothing beats putting yourself into the game. I’ve modded myself in games a lot of times, but this was the first time I put myself into a HD basketball game. And wow, the immersion that got me was incredible (even though it wore of at some point, probably due to the gameplay for my player not being what I wanted it to be). This shouldn’t be too difficult to arrange on a console or PC. Even without a HD three-dimensional camera, just let us import our picture and use it as a texture. Next give us the option to alter the mesh of the head using the Create-A-Player tools in the game, or even use meshes from any NBA player of our choice. This shouldn’t be a mod in 2012.

2. Let players control and veto CPU trades in the Association Mode
I’ve been playing association-type gameplay ever since my first 5 on 5 NBA simulation game (and I go way back to Double Dribble on the NES). This is what a typical association has been: 1) get a team that is bad but has potential for a turn around, 2) trade and simulate a few seasons, 3) become NBA champion, 4) stop playing and start anew. In NBA 2K12 however, I am playing my sixth season and I’ve become NBA champion twice. I’ve also played a lot of regular season games and the full playoffs, occasionally barely making it to the next round. One of the reasons for such extended longevity is REDitor. This tool allows me to change the database of my save game easily. So now I control what happens in the off-season. Duncan goes from the Spurs to the Bobcats in his twilight? Not happening. Griffin sticks with a weak Clippers team (without Paul) after his rookie deal is up? Not anymore as I signed him to a contender. And so on. Adjustments like these make sure that the future NBA is believable to me. If the CPU makes decisions that are surprising but plausible, I don’t do a thing. But on the other hand I can also create drama myself, and more importantly: I can ensure that the competition remains tough. If I win a three peat, I can create a believable team of frustrated free agent superstars to compete against the next year.

3. Provide proper profiles for procedurally generated drafts
Another issue with the association are the created players. After a while, the league looks like a bunch of nobodies without any personality. I remember basketball games where this was a lot worse than in NBA 2K12, but I am still not satisfied with NBA 2K12. What I did to solve this issue, is use real-life project drafts and fictional drafts that were manually crafted by other fans. For example, in Nictional Draft #1, there is a potential hotshot SG and a strong center, somewhat reminiscent of the 2007 draft. The draft is detailed and full of story per player up to the second round. What would it take to manually create 1000 profiles like that so that the association can have a lot more depth in recruiting new players for let’s say 10 seasons? Two FTE?

4. Provide proper faces for procedurally generated drafts
While a proper profile per player is a good step, another issue are the created player faces. They tend to look to similar unless you put a lot of work into it. To fix this, people like myself are re-texturing meshes of existing players. In 15 mins, you can create a face that doesn’t look all too familiar anymore and that can be used for a created player. But for 2K this shouldn’t even be necessary. Looking at today’s 3D scan technology, it might be possible to just scan a bunch of unknowns and use their faces in the game.

5. Bring the past to live in Association Mode
There are mods that convert faces the previous installments of NBA 2K to the last version, and I am betting that 2K doesn’t have a lot of issues in doing this themselves. Why should an association start in the year the game came out then? I’m not sure since when 2K has been using this game engine, but I’m guessing that going back three years shouldn’t be a problem. (It even seems to me that the engine hasn’t changed all that much since NBA 2K6.) Personally, I don’t think a basketball game should need more complex 3D models and/or textures, so why not keep using existing 3D model assets from now on? Of course, the real money would be in being able to start an association in the eighties or nineties, but that obviously brings a lot of financial implications with it.

6. Put my face on my coach
Similar to My Player mode, I edited the coach of my association and it’s pretty cool to see myself hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy, or shout at Paul George from the sideline. (For the record, I made Steve Nash the assistant coach for my Suns after he retired, which is also a pretty neat touch.)

7. Log the Association
My Player mode does a decent job of keeping track of your achievements as a player. The same should be implemented in My Association. I want to option as a player to save important games into an in-game history book. I used to have a blog for a fantasy league at some point, but blogging just takes too much work. All that’s needed is that you can look back on your team’s history after a lot of simulated years.

8. Fix what’s wrong with the gameplay
Finally, the game is hardly perfect and there are things that need change. Thankfully, 2K seems pretty good at fixing their gameplay every year, so I’m not going to go into this all that much. I’m really looking forward to 2K13 and hopefully, the game will not be overtaken by EA when the Live series returns, much like ISS/PES was surpassed by FIFA (through copying everything what made PES better).

And that’s a wrap. Most of my improvements relate to the association and my own playing experience, but that’s what matters to me. I hope you enjoyed reading it.

Posted: June 5th, 2012
Categories: Game Design
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Labelling video game difficulty levels

This is seemingly the most trivial topic I have ever blogged about, but Kotaku’s article on how sports games label their difficulty levels actually resonated for me. I am a fan of many sports titles, and the NBA 2K series in particular. However, I have not gotten to the point where I am capable of playing on the highest setting. I tend to play the game at the “Superstar” level instead, which is the second highest difficulty level. I pick that difficulty level because it results in winning chances that seem realistic to me. That means that if I am playing with a team that is better than its opponent, I will more often than not win the game. This is however no longer the case when I still need to figure out my team’s skills a bit and/or the plays they are running. When I play exhibitions, I should lower the setting to “All-Star”, the third highest but also the third lowest setting. At that point, my basketball ego jumps in and prohibits me from playing at that level. It does not matter that I have the impression that the AI is already cheating a bit at the Superstar level. I simply will not go lower than Superstar, regardless of the fact that this will turn into an experience that will be less fun than when I’d just be a bit more humble.

So it’s fair to say that Kotaku hit a snare there, and I was very surprised to see that almost every other big sports game franchise uses a similar labelling method as NBA 2K12. Only Top Spin has somewhat of a subjective rating, but from my perspective calling “All-Star” “Normal” instead will only make things worse. Therefore I am an advocate of using the power of objective numbers 1 to 5, as the author suggests.

Posted: February 27th, 2012
Categories: Game Design
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