Friday, December 12, 2008

Fable 2 - Moralizing vs. Choice

For some reason there's a stigma about posting something on one's blog that one has said elsewhere. If I've said something in such a way that I think eloquently, and quickly, gets to the point, what's the harm? That's right - there is none.

This is a discussion with the ever-thoughtful Simon, over on the GA Tech News Games Blog, about Moralizing vs. Choice in Fable 2. Enjoy.


Great article.

On the topic of Fable 2, as you know, after passing the game you are given an excellent, and truly differentiated set of choices. The largest problem therein lies with the fact that each of these choices gives varying degrees of reward *quality*. Let me stress the word "quality" once again.

By presenting rewards of different quality, the game inherently biases the player toward one of the three outcomes (guess which one?).

One of the choices gives the player something they could otherwise not have (given they choose one of the other rewards), another of the choices gives the player something they could easily obtain on their own with a little more work, and the remaining choice gives no reward whatsoever (except maybe feeling a little better, morally).

By giving rewards of different quality, the game is in fact NOT asking the player to make a moral choice, but one of utility.

In order to truly task a player with moral choice, a game must offer rewards that are unique, but generally equal in utility. You hint at this briefly with your reference to the first KOTOR - by choosing one path the player inherently gives up another. In Fable 2, though, the player can effectively have it all by making a single choice, thus making the other two choices moot.

Thoughts? And keep up the good work.

~David S.



Thank you so much for this comment. It's the best I've gotten on the articles I've posted for this site (maybe because you're a designer, so you know how to cut right to the chase). I definitely tried to voice my general discontent with the alignment choices in Fable II when I said "despite the utter lack of meaningful choice I found while playing Fable II..." but you really nailed it. For me the last choice was difficult only because I'd been playing the game as a complete bastard. The third choice, the one with the least quality, would have been much better if like the other three it had anything to do with the Spire and the souls locked within it (but it doesn't). Since I'd played the game slowly over the course of a month, I had so much money from rent payments by the end that this choice was really laughable. But the other two gave me quite a pause. I liked that the game all of a sudden made it difficult for me to a bastard.

So yes, I completely agree with you that the varying levels of quality in these choices makes the somewhat obvious. Raising the idea of utility, however, I'd be interested in playing through a game like KotoR or Morrowind or Fallout 3 as a strict utilitarian to see how many "good" or "evil" choices I end up making. Also the idea of designing a game with more nuanced philosophies than "good" and "evil" would be fun (I think Fallout 3 does a good job of making neutral a viable option). Thanks again for reading and writing!


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Comedy & The (Short Essay On The) Linearity Conundrum

In early 2006, a team from Harmonix, creators of the original Guitar Hero (and now Rock Band), gave a presentation at the GDC’s Experimental Gameplay Workshop titled “Guitar Hero – The Failures.” (link) At this talk, Dan Sussman and Eric Brosius discussed their experiments with an unreleased game mode for Guitar Hero called “Freestyle Mode,” where the player is given relative free reign to create a melody of their choosing.

Ultimately, the mode didn’t work and they provided three reasons why: they couldn’t get it to sound good; they couldn’t fit it into game design; and it was hard to teach the usage to players. A simple way to sum this up would be “it’s too free.”

In mid-2008 a game called Metal Gear Solid 4 was released. Although this game received the requisite across-the-board high scores, there was one common gripe that many reviewers, and players, had with the game. Namely, the cut scenes were LOOOOONG. 30, 60, or even 90+ minutes long. During this time, the game provides you with one of two interactive options: watch the cut scene, or skip it. A simple way to sum this up would be “it’s not free enough.”

OK, I admit, MGS is only a half-assed example, but you get the point. These are two extreme examples of stochastic and linear gametypes. Many players would love to play freestyle mode, and many players enjoy watching MGS’ long cutscenes – but this article isn’t about those games or how fun they are, nor is it a critique on either.

Balancing the linear and stochastic elements in our medium is the difficulty we face; make a game too free and players flail in their freedom, but make a game too liner and the game fails to take advantage of what makes games great, namely, the way our choices affect the game’s outcome. Movies and books have an advantage in this sense – they are inherently linear, so do not have to deal with this quandary. A non-interactive game is nothing but a movie.

But there are certainly ways to blend the two (in fact, most games are a blend), and there are even ways to give the player a choice between a more liner experience and a more stochastic one.

Take Fallout 3, for example, the epitome of a modern day open-world game (or any of the Elder Scrolls games, for that matter). Anyone who has played this knows that they spend more time than is truly necessary pulling up their map and determining which direction to travel in the labyrinthine undercity. A simple solution would be a visible waypoint crumb trail, a la Fable 2 or even GTAIV. This would dramatically increase the accessibility of the game, and thus increase the games sales. They could even make it optional by being one of the game’s perks, so fans don’t decry such heresy.

My girlfriend spent literally 5+ hours creating her character in Oblivion, only to stumble out of the sewers into the wide world, overwhelmed with too many quests and no clear goal or direction. She wanted to play Oblivion, but it lost her due to the difficulty of figuring out what the game wanted her to do. Conversely, she played Fable 2 more than I did, and always knew where to go thanks to a proverbial yellow brick road. There’s no reason the game can’t have this option (hmmm… mod opportunity!), especially considering how there’s a strong possibility the entire world’s AI navmesh is already present, making it so the hard work is already done.

Finally, we get to the reason I wrote this article in the first place. I pose a question to you all:

Is it possible to create a game where the central premise is comedy, or is comedy inherently too stochastic and too subjective to be the pivotal gameplay determinant? There are plenty of games that include comedy as an element in their presentation, but I know of none that, for example, strive to have the player create comedic situations. And really, in what ways could a piece of software determine what is funny and what is not?

A gold star to anyone who nails this one, and a high-5 for getting half way there.


An Email...

This isn't directly related to Interactive Media, but considering my strong interest in the business of said industry, it might apply. Enjoy.


Yes, I think you're exactly right. The article definitely hit home with me, b/c I've seen the same things that he noticed years ago. All the problems we face today were visible years ago, but it was so easy to make money that everyone just went along their happy way.

The incentive structure that most CEOs and boards have created is extremely misaligned with investor interest - and not just in the financial sector. Managers are incentivized to take absurd risks, partly because the manage to quarterly earnings (not, say, 5-10+ year earnings, even though most shareholders hold their shares for a much longer period of time than a few quarters), and partly because, even if they are fired, they still walk away with millions and millions of dollars.

The best example of this, in my mind, was the CEO of Bear Stearns, who lost billions of dollars for shareholders, yet walked away afterward with hundreds of millions for himself due to his golden parachute. And just last night AIG announced that it was paying "retention bonuses" to its top executives, b/c it's no longer allowed to pay "end of the year bonuses" due to the terms of the gigantic bailout the government gave it.

The amount of money the government has already spent on this bailout is ridiculous - it adds up to about $30,000 per US citizen. Wow! It makes Iraq look like a drop in the bucket.

But this too will pass, and once things settle down another bubble will eventually come, that's just the way it works. I've come to the conclusion that there's not much that can be done to change the system - the robber barons of the early 20th century only lost their power because the great depression was so bad and so many people had so little. While the masses are placated, they have no reason to start a revolution or rock the boat, and even the poor of today have refrigerators.

We hear about all the layoffs at the financial firms, and yes there are lots of people out of jobs, but the companies are hiring them all back, just at much cheaper rates. Why pay a middle manager 200k when you can pay someone desperate, but just as good, 100k?

Can you tell that working in this industry has made me a little jaded to it all? Hehe. I think back when I first started, a wide-eyed idealist who believed that in the business world when people tell you something that they meant it, and that it was necessarily true. I like to think that I've done a lot of growing up during this time, and will be much, MUCH better prepared for the future because of it. As the famous quote goes "trust, but verify." All too true.