Ivan Garde’s game design studies online notebook

and also an animator’s portifolio (hopefully)

About Scary Games julho 3, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ivangarde @ 12:46 pm

When I started my formal study about games and design, some years ago, one of the first things I heard and read about was games genres. I particularly remember a topic that arose amidst one of those discussions: In which genre do horror/terror games fit or are they a genre on their on?

Most of the horror/terror games I came across after that I could label as an action/adventure with scary elements and theme, but every now and then I had the luck of playing something truly innovative, games that make me agree to think of terror games as a separated genre.

One of those unique experiences happened when I played Fatal Frame, a game with some interesting directions. Now that I am studying game design in a deeper manner I’m returning to the nightmarish setting of the series to try to identify and explain which design decisions were those that made the experience so remarkable for me.

...a ghost around the corner

...a ghost around the corner

First of all, let’s separate the core mechanic, the action that the player is doing every moment in the game: Navigate through a 3D environment and take pictures. Yes, if you haven’t played any of the Fatal Frame games you now know that the main interaction with the game world is taking pictures, which means switching form 3rd person view to a framed 1st person vision in order to capture the framed image!

Pokémon Snap already has already toyed with photography back in the Nintendo 64 era but in a safari-esque manner, I don’t know if there were games before that with a similar core mechanic. But this time the cameras were in service of fear.

What kind of experience this core mechanic brings to the table? It demands the player to be aware of the surroundings, like a ghost hunter, trying to capture a picture of a supernatural phenomenon; it demands the player to pay attention all the time.

How to capitalize this feeling to create a meaningful experience? The answer lies in the level design, I once read that it’s in the level design that art, engineering and game design meet (I think it was in a article about Bioshock or in a 2K job posting, I’m pretty sure it involved Bioshock). It happens that this sentence is particularly true in Fatal Frame. The quiet atmosphere becomes an unnerving setting when you know that a ghost can appear out of nowhere at any time, the most used paths in a level often mislead the player’s eyes, creating spots where ghost appearances can be an even greater surprise and all the textures and shadows in the level make the player paranoid, like confusing a stain on the wall for a human presence. So we have an image-capturing mechanic coupled with a morbid setting where you always have the impression to be seeing something with the corner of your eyes, a place that demands you to be on your toes and all of the sudden a sinister figure appears, scares you but can’t gaze elsewhere, you have to turn your eyes to it. In the end you have to look for the scariest thing in the scenario. This unnerving expectation for the ghosts to appear is the emergent feeling from this “mechanic + level design” arrangement.

Since the core mechanic is about the player’s line of sight, some level features acquire a new dimension in Fatal Frame, for instance a window or any hole in the wall becomes the means to capture an important image, or even to be surprised by some dark figure through the other side. It’s a fine example of how a proper level design should serve the gameplay and not just compose a beautiful photography.

Fatal Frame has other mechanics as well, some more traditional to the action/adventure genre, like a progression hindered by the acquisition of further information and items, some puzzles or elements often used by the games in the survival horror category, such as a scarce supply of ammunition, which in this case is photography film. But there’s another aspect where the core mechanic is used to fright the player: the combat. Some ghosts charge into the player and the only way to fend the attack is to photograph



them, the better the angle the player gets the most damage she deals to the ghost. I found it a clever decision because it not only integrates the combat into the game’s core mechanic but also guarantees that the player is looking to the ghost’s scariest angle, giving the artists a reference by which they can build some really intense moments.

Now that we took a brief look of how the core mechanic and level design are able to produce fear and anxiety, a question remains: Why is this experience enjoyable? For this answer, let’s turn to anthropologist Roger Caillois and his studies in Les Jeux et les Hommes (Man, Play, and Games). One aspect of his study about the relationship of games and men starts with a model for organizing some forms of play, a classification with four fundamental categories:

  • Agón – Competitive Games, like counter-strike

  • Alea – A category where luck plays a heavy role, such as poker

  • Mimicry – Role-playing or make-believe games

  • Ilinx – An interesting category, in which play occur by inducing physical sensation of vertigo, like spinning around itself or a roller-coaster.

As Caillois explains, his last kind of play consist in those based on the pursuit of vertigo, an attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception, to bring to himself an urgent sensation of panic.

It’s my belief that Ilinx is very present in today’s games, but frequently overlooked. Would adrenaline-pumping moments in online multiplayer games a facet of Ilinx in a play clearly identified as Ágon? Such affirmations require more study but I think it would be safer to classify fear-inducing elements as Ilinx. Playing to be scared is playing to lose the control of one’s nerves, to momentarily feel unsafe and in panic, same feelings of being in a roller-coaster, excluding the vertigo, but wouldn’t the vertigo be in service of the aforementioned feelings?

Those reasons and feelings can be applied not only to scary games, but to scary movies or scary attractions in a carnival as well, and that’s not a novelty. Losing and regaining control of your own heartbeat is pleasure-inducing indeed. Whether is the moment of losing or the moment of regaining we can’t say for sure, but that’s certainly fun!

Fatal frame is an example of how a different core mechanic can not only bring intense moments, but can almost create a game category on its own. Most games today share a few core mechanics, be it for engine or marketing restrictions, but it’s always important to keep looking for new directions. That’s the beauty of this job, there’s so much to be done and experimented!


Featured again at GameCareerGuide! julho 1, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ivangarde @ 1:59 pm

Just a quick post to say that my last entry in GameCareerGuide.com design contests was featured again, not a winner this time but a honorable mention! Take a look at the challenge and the other winners

You can see my entry with a few more words and a ugly mockup for a HUD in the post below also 🙂


Game Design Challenge: Creating Fun Communication junho 24, 2009

Filed under: Production — ivangarde @ 12:15 pm
Tags: , , , ,

The theme for this month’s design contest at GameCareerGuide is quite interesting: To create a fun and meaningful communication system in a MMO for friendly characters who can’t understand each other. You can find the whole assignment here.

My firts thoughts were something about a town crier and the inexistence of global chat, to add a layer of delay in the information travel in order to create estrategic opportunities for surprise attacks or a well defined information network. It was bit away from de the theme because people were still talking to each other, just he range of the communication had changed, so I scraped this idea and haven’t took it any further. I had reall forgotten about the contest when all of he sudden, I caught myself thinking how cool would be playing a Zerg in a ficticious World of Starcraft.  But Zergs don’t tak! Zergs don’t shout “LFG!”, so I decided to come up with some communication systemfor them and take part in the contest.

The following text is the original idea, which had around 300 word cut to fit the contest restrictions, so, without further ado, here’s the verbose version of:

The Zerg communication in World of Starcraft
Instinct, pheromones and survival of the fittest



I know many gamers crave for a World of Starcraft, I for one would like to see it, specially if Blizzard make the zergs a playable race. I believe World of Starcraft (WoS) dispenses further introductions, but for the contextualization I’m thinking in a MMO with three distinct factions with lots of open world PvP. The players gain levels normally but also have a PvP associated level, somewhat like the old honor (or renown, I can’t remember) system that used to exist in WoW.

It would be strange to see all the zerg characters chatting to each other so this would be a great case of study for an alternative yet meaningful communication system, starting with the premise that zergs don’t talk or have any kind of grammar.

This communication system should impact the gameplay by enforcing some specific characteristics of the zerg play style in the original starcraft, which I believe is amassing the largest army as fast as possible and striking with one big swarm. The communication system should enforce the feeling of being part of a hive, of safety in numbers, the feeling of riding a furious cloud of hungry grasshoppers.

The “chatless” communication system I thought about is based on 3 mechanics:

Instinct or The Hive Mind – This mechanic manifests itself as automatic information in the game HUD exclusive to the zerg faction:

  • Swarm Localization: The zerg player is able to see on the minimap, or in the zone map, colored moving stains representing groups of other zergs. The stain size should be relative to the group size. This mark just starts to appear in the map as soon as the group (or swarm, as an alternative for “raid”) reaches a certain number
  • Swarm Adrenaline: The more zergs are present in an area, the more they feel ready to attack, like a battle “frenesi”. So, even if the zergs are not together in groups, they can “feel” they are in a large number in a given area. This should be present in the player HUD as a neurotransmitter level or as a cardiac beats per second, which fluctuate in a certain range, like in figure 1.
  • Together, these two facets of the Instinct mechanic should enforce the play style of zerg characters amassing in large numbers easily.
  • Overlord Message: The player should also receive direct messages, in the form of sound and text, directly from the hive mind. Such messages would deal with global warnings, like “hive is under attack”.

<strong>Fig. 1</strong> - a piece of the Zerg HUD (I'm no interface artist!)

Fig. 1 - a piece of the Zerg HUD (I'm no interface artist!)

Pheromones – While the instinct mechanic deals with information automatically and continuously updated, the pheromones deal with communication activated by the player itself.

  • Swarm call: A player can actively inform the other zergs that he/she is willing to start a group. The zerg character glows in a particular color and  all players in a certain range receive in the neurotransmitter HUD an “interpreted message” in a form of text (again, figure 1 ). For the sake of usability, there could be different types of swarm calls, to differentiate PvP calls to the PvE ones.
  • Marking a prey: This marks an enemy player or monster with a scent only detected by the zergs, so everyone can attack the same target, again enforcing the furious swarm feeling. This facet of pheromones is in place to balance the lack of strategic coordination among the zergs.
  • Predator warning: After receiving damage, the zerg player can emit a warning cloud of pheromones that means “danger!”. Be warned Terrans and Protoss, mess with one zerg and you are messing with an entire hive!
  • Synthetic pheromones: Since WoS is a three faction MMO, alliances between two factions should be integral part of the social play. If players form the other two races intent to communicate with zergs, they should have flasks of synthetic pheromones, and throw then at the swarm, creating particle clouds that could make the zergs retreat or attract them, meaning “truce” or “attack the other race”. So the other would never feel like they are “talking” to zergs, instead they are trying to tame a wild force of nature.
  • It is important to notice that since the text messages received from the pheromones are automatic generated, this system allows people from different languages to communicate, in a zerg way.

Survival of the Fittest – This mechanic intertwines the communication system with the level progression system, a cornerstone of many MMOs. The higher the level and specially, the PvP level of a character, the more effective his/her pheromones are. A swarm call reaches a larger range as well as the “danger” warning, targets are strongly marked by high level zergs. A subtle reward for attaining new ranks that can also create an “alpha male” behavior among the swarm, like a rudimentary leadership.

This communication system opens other design spaces, for instance, the other factions could have weapons that mess with the zergs instincts or fake “danger” pheromones to create traps. The zergs on the other hand, could have a class with heightened senses, like a tracker, expert in finding the prey.


Demo Reel and Résumé junho 20, 2009

Filed under: Random — ivangarde @ 12:54 pm
Tags: , , ,

After a long hiatus I finally uploaded my Demo Reel, It’s on youtibe and you can find it here, under the Portfolio section, the video, credits and some lowsy ilustrations.

I have also updated this blog with some personal information and my Résumé, I hate to talk about myself, I think it sounds a bit pedantic or pretentious when I try talk about my qualities, but I have to do it if I hope to get new jobs. At least I upload some photos I like.


…and that means what? fevereiro 26, 2009

Filed under: Studies — ivangarde @ 2:09 am
Tags: ,
The lion was acting in self defense, don't blame it

The lion was acting in self defense, don't blame it

For some reason my girlfriend got Cabela’s Dangerous Hunts for PS2 (yeah, it’s still alive) and we thought we could give it a shot this weekend. I guess I should avoid games about killing the wild life, but I’ve already tried Deer Hunter to praise the national industry and found quite amusing this kind of stalk and hunt gameplay. So there I was hunting lions at the Tanzania’s savanna, got my first prey in target and with a shot I have my first kill, with that I am presented with some information, among them: “Trophy value: 104”. YAY 104! Wait, what does that means? If the game instead presented “Trophy value: Square root of Pi” it would have meant the same for me. In a game where the main objective is to hunt the bigger trophies in a way that makes them the most valuable (keeping the carcass integrity, for instance) is 104 good or bad? Did I just killed a big and healthy lion or old skinny one? What’s a good and what’s a bad score for hunting an animal?

It may be a detail, but there’s a important lesson here: If you’re going to have a rating system in your design, let your player know in advance what a good a rate is. It’s very disappointing to get to end of level and read “You scored 104…OUT OF 10000”. Game designers don’t use a standardized rating system so the payer should know how the rating system works, at least it’s length. It’s like if I said that this blog is worth a pineapple in my fruit-based rating system for blogs.

I still don't know if there's a stunt grade better than X

I still don't know if there's a stunt grade better than X

Some games attempt for a solution using an alphabet based rating system, “Well I got a C, let me try again so I can have an A” you might say, so you keep playing the game until you discover there is a S rating that’s, contrary to what you know about the alphabet, better than A! Why? Does S means Super? So if there’s a S that’s better than A, is there another rating better than S? Then you find that’s the answer is…yes, there’s a X rating! – I’m looking at you, Sonic Riders! Even a good surprise for me, The Red Star, does that. I’m not against an arbitrary rating system, but please, let your player know what’s the system’s maximums and minimums, or does uncover the length of the rating system makes part of the gameplay?

Furthermore, if you’re going to rate your player for any given activity, let the player know why he’s getting that grade. It’s quite common to rate the player after completing a level, but seldom it’s explained what parameters are taken in account for this. In Mario Kart Wii you get a grade at the end of the championship (4 races), but even if you win every race you don’t get the highest grade, it still puzzles me what Mario Kart takes into account for this, if just the lap times or the interaction with the other racers. If I knew what it takes to improve my grade I would be more motivated to play the championship once again.

It’s true that one of the advantages of videogames over boardgames is that not all mechanisms are evident for the players, and the subjectivity of some of those features may be part of the design, but what I’m trying to say here is that the rates and scores must MEAN SOMETHING for the players efforts and the player may want to know if he’s far or near from a game’s top score (if there’s one), it will often engage him more in the experience if he can also evaluate his performance, therefore feel more at home in the system you designed! If you played California Games at Sega’s 16bit console you know how well can a grade be presented.

California Games Footbag

California Games Footbag

...and it's detailed score summary

...and it's detailed score summary


Featured! dezembro 20, 2008

Filed under: Production — ivangarde @ 3:00 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Last month I took part in a game design contest sponsored by the gamecareerguide.com. This kind of contest use to be common in the 3D artistic production area, but for game design I just found that one. The theme was to design a experimental game concept that plays with the notion of time.

Well, I found it very intriguing and wrote two entries for the contest. Submitted both here i this blog:  Dystemporalia and Cut/Insert/A day in the life (link)

The reason I’m touching this subject again is that one of the entries, Cut/Insert/A day in the life was featured as one of the three best!! Yay! You can check the result here. Also, congratulations to other winners!

The ironic part is that the concept I submitted is really something narrative-centred, those that know me in person knows that I’m always running away from defining games as a sort of narrative, like some scholars here in Brazil have been doing.

I still think games are not narratives, but narratives can be used as a game concept, specially if you like to twist tales, but this is a subject for another post.


What’s a Feedback Loop? dezembro 16, 2008

Filed under: Studies — ivangarde @ 12:24 pm
Tags: , , , ,

There’s multiple ways to look at games and frame them, one way is to study them as closed formal systems. Surely they are not entirely closed, since I don’t believe we can think of human players as elements in a fully closed system, but lets just analyze the game rules for now and so, view them as closed systems.

In this kind of systems, the relation between the system’s elements can generate an emergent behavior, and it’s wildly spread (ok, not so wildly) and I do believe that a good game needs some level of emergence. Part of the fun is the ability the player has to alter the game world (the system) and watch how the game world reacts, how does it changes and affects all it’s elements towards the game’s goal, for that reason, the way that the elements in systems communicates with each other is crucial.

Within a game there are many systems that regulate the flow of play, in the form of the rules, dynamically changing and transforming game elements, as would say Salen and Zimmerman in Rules of Play. That’s where I want to get to, a very special sub system, a way of communication between the elements, the feedback loop.

The feedback loop is like an abstract tool you can use to generate some kind of behavior in your game, but what is it and how can it help you achieve what you intended for your game? Our subject is some sort of collection of sub-systems inside the formal structure of the game that senses the game state, analyse if the changes activate any given bias and then responds activating a controller that changes the game state, closing a loop of feedback information!

The schematic of a Feedback Loop structure

The schematic of a Feedback Loop structure

I think the best way to understand feedback loops is through examples, so lets look at this entry at the Team Fortress 2 official blog, here’s an excerpt

How do respawn waves work? Is my respawn time affected by my performance? Why do they exist at all?

Respawn waves occur on regular intervals, based on the map settings. Most of our maps use a 10 second respawn wave time. That 10 seconds is then modified by the map state, generally reduced for the team that controls the most capture points. (…)

So here we can see a feedback loop sub system in action at Team Fortress 2: There’s some control tool that reads a subset of the game state, in this case, the number of capture points each team has, there’s another system that analyses if this state is above some bias (which team control the most capture points) and finally a mechanism that apply a adjustment to some element in the game, in this case, reducing the team’s time to respawn. This change will end affecting the game state back by making the life of the winning team easier a bit, helping them and driving the game to a conclusion, as they keep the larger number of capture points, the team’s respwan time is kept reduced, or as said in the original post:

in TF2, the time you take to reborn after killed is dependent on the game state

in TF2, the time you take to reborn after killed is dependent on the game state

“They provide a reward for the team that’s doingwell, in that ifthey wipe out a significant amount of the enemy team they’re rewarded with a short grace period in which they can achieve objectives.”

Now that we understand what a feedback loop is, we should note that they can be divided into two categories:

  • Positive Feedback Loop: Encourages the system to exhibit ore and more extreme behavior by rewarding  the actions that drive the system out of stability, like the case in team fortress 2 where a team that’s already winning gets even further advantages.
  • Negative Feedback Loop: Those are stabilizing and bring the system to a fixed, steady state. A nice example is Mario Kart Wii, where the player that’s in first place never gets the best power ups from the “?” boxes while those player that are in the 2 last places always get power-ups that gives them a great boost, this mechanism prevents the player in first place to get too much ahead and the last positioned from being too far behind, which encourages a close and more competitive race.

In Mario Kart,the item you get depends on your place in the race, and they will most of the time, alter your place in the race.

In Mario Kart,the item you get depends on your place in the race, and they will most of the time, alter your place in the race.

Several boardgames use negative feedback loops to keep the player toe-to-toe with each other until the end. A fine example is Power Grid, a game about supplying cities with electricity, the first player to supply a certain number of cities is the winner but, every turn, the play order is changed so the players that supplies most cities are penalized in several ways, keeping the competition very tight until the conclusion.

A power Grid Board

A power Grid Board

The scholar Joris Dormans used Power Grid as a case of study for his Visualizing Game Dynamics and Emergent Gameplay article, in wich he proposes an UML model to describe the relation between elements in the game system, a model to analyze the emergent gameplay with a special notation to feedback loops, great article!

It’s important to notice that a game usually has more than one feedback loop, take the Power Grid example, the main structure of the game is a whole positive feedback loop: you buy plants to generate electricity and power up cities so they pay you, with this money you can buy more and better plants to power up more cities to get more money and so forth. This loop is the heart of the game and it pushes it towards a conclusion, but besides this one we can find the negative feedback loop aforementioned that keep the runway leaders at bay.

We can use the feedback loops as tools to achieve a certain tendency in a game:

  • Positive feedback loops usually destabilize the game, drive it to an end, magnifies early success
  • Negative feedback loops on the other hand stabilize the game, prolong it and magnifies later successes

But due to that kind of behavior, you need to have some care using this abstract tools in your game

A Chicken Cha Cha Cha game in progress

A Chicken Cha Cha Cha game in progress

  • The positive feedback loop can drive the game to a conclusion too early, or even worst, help one player get so far ahead that his/her opponents lose all hopes of catching the leader, like in the kids game Chicken Cha Cha Cha players move around in a circuit by memorizing a number of tiles, every time the player reveals a tile with the same illustration as the one in front of it’s chicken, that player can move one space and then play again. So as long as he/she keeps finding the correct tile (what can be done buy memorizing those that were opened early) he/she can keep playing until win, without giving a chance for the other players. Although it can be fun for the player in the a winning streak, it can be very frustrating for those that are only watching the other to play. Fighting games developed at the same time a kind of positive feedback loop and an answer to a problem like in chicken cha cha cha, at certain point, combo system were added to fighting games, it’s very rewarding for a player to land several blows in sequence, while keeping that sequence the opponent can’t defend (positive feedback loop), so, in theory, the first player to start a combo could keep it until defeating his opponent, but it never happened, because that fighting game designers always made this system limited: combos always end after a streak of 5 to 7 blows, even if the attacking player hadn’t missed anything, limiting thus, the effect of the combo positive feedback loop.
  • On the other hand, the presence of negative feedback loops in your design may make the players feel that are out of control, or feel they’re being penalised for a good performance. In the fourth incarnation of the famous RPG series, Elder’s Scroll Oblivion, Bethesda Software created a system in which every encounter in the game is always on par (levelwise) with the player’s character. Theoretically a very nice solution for creating a truly open world, without any kind of high level area in which the character can’t enter until reaching a specific level. We can think of this system as a negative feedback system, as the player keeps advancing his character, the creatures in the game’s world advance as well. It was designed to make every encounter worthwhile, to make the player feel challenged at each fight, but it had a side effect: due to this system, most of the players felt that they were not advancing anything, they couldn’t feel the power-curve, which is an important feature in RPG games. It was like “the same small goblin that killed me when I was level 1 is still giving me a headache now that I’m level 10, doesn’t matter if a level so”. The same system is in place in Fallout 3, but this time, it was highly tweaked so not all foes were evolving at the same rate as the player.

We are excluding form this discussion the players’  mind, which is always adapting and adjusting his plays during the game, we excluded the observer from the system, but even though, this kind of analysis is very useful for game design.
Now that we had this discussion I’ll try to identify feedback loops inside the games’ rules in the design analysis I plan to do in the next weeks.