The Chinese Room
Dan Pinchbeck opened my eyes to his style of design. I have admired his work for a few years now and focused a lot on his theories of ‘breaking the rules’ in my first two semesters of the MA course. He has a ‘what if?’ approach to game design that inspires me to create something different and unique, but do limitations play a part in his abstract designs?
Dan was at the Bradford Animation Festival along with David Hayward and started off his talk by defining what he thought a game was at its core. He pointed out that games are the only media that are engaging as well as fun. Games are generally quite narrow as a media, they are bad at ambiguity. Where a movie doesn’t have to explain all the rules for you to still enjoy the movie, if the rules aren’t explained to a player within the first 3 minutes of gameplay they will soon get bored and switch off. In other words, you act, and the system reacts. This is the relationship that works between player and game. However they are a powerful tool in terms of creating content, when S.T.A.L.K.E.R (2007) was realised there were sections of gameplay which made the player sit still for 15 minutes (in real-time) to wait for the darkness to become light, you don’t have to know why it is that you feel forced to sit there, you just do. Any sound that you hear in the far distance instantly freezes you to the spot. You have full control over the player, so why don’t you move on, it’s only a game right? You rarely find this quality of design in game content with a mass market demanding simplicity and explosions rather than a cleverly thought out game design.
Games try to break a lot of rules, and rules are best broken when you introduce ‘modding’. Modding is a term used to describe users that take an existing rule of a game and change it, flip it on its head, or entirely change the content, in other words to “modify”. It refers to taking existing software provided by the developers to perform a function not originally intended by the designer and to rearrange what is already in place. This is a powerful tool because it takes the software and pushes it further than the developers have. The technical limitations are already there, the developer has set up a specific piece of software that meets these limitations, what modders can achieve through this system are interesting and unique designs but with lower production costs than when the developers are creating the games which in turn means that money is not an issue when utilising these limitations.
“Modding shoves hard on perceived edges to innovate”
-Dan Pinchbeck, The Chinese Room
Dan Pinchbeck has created a few well know ‘mods’ such as Dear Esther (2008) which uses a purely narrative approach to lead the player around a level. In a boom, its these games that the mainstream game development studios are interested in, in contradiction to what David Hayward stated. So if indie games can get a mainstream following whilst pushing technical limitations, does this now bring us full circle in saying that technical limitations do breed creativity? Not quite.
I got a chance to speak to Dan one on one after the lecture and asked him what he thought about technical limitations and whether they where a good thing and I was quite surprised at his response.
I asked “why Source?” This is the engine that he has used to create ‘mods’ such as Dear Ester for public release. The Source engine is a very tricky thing to handle and although it creates visually stunning effects, surely to work more efficiently in a small independent company he would opt for a simpler engine to navigate. At the time, he replied “it was the only thing I knew”. It was not because of any special technical limitation that took him to the engine it was purely the existing knowledge. He then went on to mention that if you see a game in Unreal, you know it’s been made in Unreal, they also take 25% off you for a release, Source takes a cut too but with Unity, you pay one fee and that’s it. If he was going to develop another ‘mod’, his engine of choice would now be Unity. So is it purely a monetary aspect that indie developers focus on to help choose an engine or are there other factors to consider? At an indie level there will always be a monetary consideration when creating a game, Dan is currently studying at University himself and has earned a PhD in game design, so with limited funding and only through sales of the ‘mods’ he makes can he then think about releasing more titles.
‘In a perfect world where you would not take money into consideration what engine would be your choice? Would you pick it in terms of what limitations the engine has?’
In a perfect world, he replied, he would use the Cry Engine because of the nice visual effects that can be achieved in the software. So does this then mean that visuals are everything or at least play an important factor when it comes to game design? Yes, Dan replied. However we have to keep in mind that Dan is a writer, he creates things that he wants to see so from his point of view he wants everything to look good. I do not think that’s bad design, everyone wants a stunning game aesthetically, and if you can achieve this whilst still incorporating your main mechanics, then why not? He does agree however that limitations do create design choices. Constraints from an engine can shine a light on certain areas of the game that need attention and as designers you have to find a way to cheat around the player without them noticing which is all part of good design. In conclusion in my talk with Dan, he said that technical limitations can be a good thing but in a perfect world unlimited limitations would be best.
Moving into Tomorrow
Enslaved (2010) was also featured at the BAF 2010 presented by Lead Animator Guy Midgely and Senior Animator James Stevenson. A key focus of the talk for me was when they were talking about the technical limitations they faced when developing the title and how they adopted a new game development process and workflow in order to meet the requirements. Cut scenes and game play have always been a major focus for Ninja Theory in their game designs. These things used to be kept separate due to technical limitations on the old technology and it was not possible to get a seamless game experience by pairing the two. However, now more and more players want immersion and for that to be achieved the cut scenes cannot take control away from the player for extended amounts of time. The way Ninja theory have achieved this is to blend the cut scenes into game play to maintain the suspension of disbelief so that the two are seen as one. Enslaved used these set pieces and dramatic game play elements to emphasise the cinematic details in the game such as Monkeys expression at the end of the destruction of an enemy robot. Monkey is the main playable character in Enslaved, he is a playful yet cunning monkey king whose face paint is a prominent feature, he also has a strong muscular physique that has been honed from many years of clambering and combat and a headband that causes him extreme pain if he does not follow commands. The cinematics are created by cutting the camera animation to an additional camera that has been set up to show expression on Monkeys face at a specific time which they believe adds to the immersion. Ninja Theory also added in a lot of game dialogue to add flow and life to the characters. A lot of this was done in-house with their home made motion capture suit which allowed them to play through the game and add additional cut scenes and dialogue where needed to “spice things up”. Without this work flow they would have had to either fly back out to LA and film it which would have been time consuming and costly or create a small mop-cap studio in their offices and used extras to film what parts they needed, and that’s exactly what they did. Doing it this way allowed for a better development flow and kept the player emotionally connected to the characters, without these additions to Enslaved, the game may not have been as immersive.
Motion Capture is not a new technology, however achieving good motion capture in games has always been an expensive option, but now with more and more studios starting to develop with the technology, limitations aren’t as extreme as they used to be. Although people may consider motion capture to be an ‘added arm’ to an arsenal of technology when creating games, it does in itself hold limitations. With small studios able to access the technology now, does this create inventive design or is it a hindrance that the market asks for and that studios have to find a way to implement?
“Although revolutionary, the mechanical and marker-based optical systems can still run to hundreds of thousands of dollars, keeping them out of reach of the independent game developer”
– Michael Nikonov, co-founder, iPi Soft
So how do small studios such as Ninja Theory keep costs at a minimum whilst still making the most of the motion capture software? The main price of optical mocap is the price of hardware such as cameras. However with the invention of Playstation peripherals such as the ‘Eye’ camera, studios can create inexpensive mocap solutions. At Ninja theory all they had was a mocap suit with a handheld digital camera and a large bean bag on the ground to break any falls. Enslaved used motion caption to its fullest potential, they had the professional high cost set up in LA as well as their low cost home set up in Cambridge. They thought that adding motion capture was a must to achieve the most from facial animations in particular to create an immersive experience. I think it is down to what game you are creating and what you are trying to achieve whether you decide to add mocap or not. You could argue that Enslaved would have been just as good without the extra technologies and wouldn’t have had to worry as much about the added technical limitations but that is what Ninja Theory is all about, pushing boundaries and immersing the player as deep as they can take the player without controlling them.