For the last few weeks, I’ve been dealing with a pretty rough illness of sorts that’s basically had me, more or less, couch-bound, sleeping, low on energy, and incredibly weak/sore. Once I got over the constant sleepiness, I decided to devote the couch time to catching up on a few games that I’ve put aside for the last year — namely, Metal Gear Solid 5: Phantom Pain — and, once I got most of the way through that (well, about 2/3 of the way through), I moved on to some games I’ve been anticipating for quite some time: NieR: Automata (vaguely related to the purpose of this article, so I’m largely ignoring it) and Persona 5. These games, aside from being Japanese-developed, have basically nothing in common whatsoever. Their one commonality is that their all sequels to games that I’ve long admired for one reason or another, especially Persona 5 and MGS5. Final Fantasy Tactics also fits into this whole thing, but it’s largely persisted through re-releases, a remaster on the PSP (Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions), and other platform ports.
This article isn’t about these games, but I’ll give a brief summary as to why they’re important. The final game that really changed things for me is Far Cry 2. Which, well, basically all these games have nothing linking them together whatsoever. Bear with me.
Persona was the first Playstation game that I ever bought. It was also my only Playstation game for a long while. I sunk, well, a lot of time into it over the six-nine months that it remained my sole Playstation game. I started it over, oh, about three or four times because I never felt that I did an adequate job of preparing my team for the later stages of the game. And then in one dungeon about 80-85% of the way through the game, I kept getting lost in the maze (Persona was a first-persona dungeon-crawler) and, since I’m incredibly prone to motion sickness, eventually I had to give up at the dungeon time and time again. It’s irrelevant to this article, but I didn’t succeed in getting beyond that point until it was re-released on the PSP about a decade later. It’s a game that bears little resemblance to the way the series has evolved over the years, but it’s a series I’ve stuck to as best I can. Persona 5 is, essentially, the culmination in everything the series has been building up to (including bits that, I assume, Catherine laid the roots for).
What sticks with me from Persona 5, which is a game I completed to its “true ending” (I hate multi-ending games, by the way) earlier today. Without spoiling too much, the game ends up handling its endgame in a way that reminds me a great deal of Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters 2 in a very specific way: the bonds you form with people and the public perception your group earns over the course of the game play an incredibly important role in the emotional and narrative impact of the final sequence of events.
Metal Gear Solid 5: Phantom Pain
Similarly, Metal Gear Solid was another Playstation game I was incredibly attached to. At the time, I primarily enjoyed its more “serious” tone and approach to narrative. The gameplay was, at best, loosely interwoven with the overall plot, but the series has made strides to bring gameplay and plot closer and closer together over the years. That is until Metal Gear Solid 4 when the series took an overwhelming turn into being narrative-driven to the point of hour-long cutscenes and frequent cutscene interruptions.
Then Metal Gear Solid: Peacewalker came out for PSP. A much lower-budget, “tentpole” title for the series, but one which ultimately laid the groundwork for what became Metal Gear Solid 5: Phantom Pain: a very systems-heavy, gameplay-driven game that mixed together high-level strategy (base-building, team assembly, etc.) with low-level, more Metal Gear Solid-esque gameplay that allowed players bite-sized, portable missions that were far closer to the initial glimpses into its gameplay style that the earlier games often left unexplored. And MGS5 became a huge turning point for the series in that it’s, largely, a sandbox game where most of the story-telling (most) occurs throughout gameplay, leaving the player to play the game uninterrupted alongside the narrative. It’s an exquisitely-detailed game, to the point where if you leave your horse in a place for too long, eventually it poos. If a vehicle happens to come in contact with said poo, the vehicle will slide out of control and — usually (in this tremendous edge case) — crash. It is wonderful.
Final Fantasy Tactics
Honestly, I don’t have much to say about this game that I haven’t already said before or has been echoed by others. I was quoted in a Kotaku article years back along with other game developers as to why everyone loves Final Fantasy Tactics. Essentially: it is the quintessential realization of systems-driven gameplay. It doesn’t hurt that the narrative around the game’s battles is one of the most interesting ones I’ve seen in games. It’s ludicrous at times, but it attempts to tie together an intricate plot through political subterfuge, class warfare, war-time alliances between friends, and then there’s silly things about the power of the zodiac turning people into ultra-powerful demons.
Point is: the systems and design of the game are largely what govern gameplay to a degree that, I believe, is unprecedented in the games industry. Like I said in the Kotaku article: there’s a mathematician/arithmetician class. It allows you to combine the powers of your secondary class with formulae for targeting enemies/allies on the battlefield. It’s beautiful.
Far Cry 2
Without going too far into detail, as I’ve written about this game excessively in the past (though I’m not sure the articles survived), but it’s essentially the game that made me pursue game design over programming as a career path. Other than my work with LightBox Interactive/Sony Santa Monica on Starhawk and work on a myriad of mobile games to follow, I’ve largely been employed as more of a programmer than as a designer. To put it as it was once put to me: “why would we want a game designer when we can get a programmer instead?” That’s a digression, but it’s a horribly reductive line of reasoning that has never proven itself out as a well-made decision (in my opinion).
But the work that Clint Hocking (Creative Director on Far Cry 2) and Patrick Redding (Narrative Designer on Far Cry 2) put into the game intrigued me, so I basically read everything from the duo online that I possibly could. I don’t think I’ve ever met either of them in person or had any detailed game conversations with… But, never the less, they both had a profound impact on my change in perspective on how games were made and what they could accomplish.
Far Cry 2 is not an example of system design and narrative culminating in the holy grail of what these two fields of design can accomplish, but it was the first game to really attempt to see how far those as dictating influences could go in a major AAA game.
Likely due to both serendipity and my pushy nature, I eventually got to talk with some designers who believe in system design and narrative design in ways that “closely align with mine” (in quotes because both of these folks are far more experienced than I am): Matthias Worch (most recently worked on the superb Mafia 3) and Harvey Smith (most recently the creative director on Dishonored 2). Conversations with both of these guys, whether they realize it or not, ultimately resulted in my fervent pursuit of system design as a dictating factor in the direction of a holistic game design and development methodology.
Joy Machine and Steel Hunters
For about almost a year now, I’ve been working on establishing my own company with its debut title being Steel Hunters. To say this is an “undertaking” is putting it lightly. I wrote about this not too long ago in “Starting a Game Studio with No Money”. I could have worded that “less than no money” as a more accurate title, but that’s beside the point.
We were planning on releasing our “announcement” (initial) trailer for the game last Friday, but that was planned right before I got ill and, as a result, has been pushed back a few weeks. Likely without us talking about a release date in advance because I want to ensure that we have proper time to put together a trailer that fully represents the game in its current state. No doctored footage (though likely tightly-edited, as we want to keep the trailer short), just what me and my art director have put together as a nice, tight structure to drive the trailer. Well, we hope. Given our lack of any budget whatsoever, which hopefully doesn’t ever even come up as a point worth mentioning, I think it’ll be a wonderful introduction to the game. Our biggest challenge has been trying to infuse a trailer about what, in the simplest terms, is an action/adventure third-person shooter centered solely around robots, explosions, and dynamic gameplay, with the personality that is most representative of the eventual tone of the game as a whole and, well, who we are as a studio.
This is all somewhat of a digression, though. The point of Steel Hunters as it relates to this article is to be the successful game that I have complete confidence it will end up being so that we, as Joy Machine, can pursue further projects in the future without requiring the same level of outside funding that we will need for this project.
My Game Development End-Game
The reason for the self-sustaining company ecosystem that we are aiming for — aside from it being a generally, like, common-sense business strategy? — is that I want to continually push dynamic, system-driven gameplay to a point where the kind of scenarios that Persona 5 ends up achieving through its entirely-scripted (though well-assembled and well-written) structure. It’s still a new game, so I won’t reveal anything about where it ends up going, so I’ll revert to another analogy:
If this is spoiling the movie experience for you by now, I have no sympathy for you. The Ghostbusters, as a team, basically take an absurd premise that the core members all fundamentally believe in, prove out despite mockery and ridicule, become mass public sensations, hit a major blockade due to legal, bureaucratic, and petty reasons, but come out on top due to a massive city-wide crisis that has them, eventually, driving through their eventual target amidst enormous public support. The movie then cuts back-and-forth between the public opinion/reaction to the battle that is largely un-seen to them other than the repercussions of Zuul’s lightning zaps. And, well, an enormous Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man that eventually rampages through the city. They notice that one.
Eventually, once the dust settles, all the Ghostbusters emerge victorious and the credits roll as you see huge public support for their actions.
Ghostbusters 2 takes this whole thing in a somewhat different and less effective direction, but what’s of note is the role that the pink slime factors into the storyline. The pink slime, essentially, is intended to harness the negative energy and anger and bitterness and complacency of the public masses to manifest incredibly dark energy for the film’s antagonist to harness. But what the antagonist doesn’t anticipate is the same thing that Persona 5‘s antagonist didn’t anticipate: that the bonds that you form with individuals and society as a whole are ultimately critical to your success as a team.
Sure, day-to-day, people are largely solely concerned with their own life and not the lives of the public or country as a whole. Not to take a political stance here, but I think the general public apathy is fairly well-represented in the reprehensible President of the United States right now. And that tangerine shit-show is, now, doing more to unify and inform the country (and, likely to a more effective extent, the world) to the dangers of ignorance, complacency, racism, greed, and all those other things that we’d all like to think we’re above.
I Promised This would Get to a Point
My ultimate goal as a game developer to create a game that serves as a sandbox for players to form meaningful relationships with characters in the world that aren’t solely governed by a scripted progression of emotional bonds. And a game in which the world reacts to the player’s actions in a meaningful way — both positively and negatively. And I want this all to occur in a game genre that is typically not known for evocative, emotional reactions in its players: moderately well-budgeted action games. Personally, I don’t ever really aspire to the level of making AAA games, but I’d adore being able to carve out a niche in the “AA” budget target.
I’m not saying something akin to what many series writers often say about long-running series: I have no inkling as to what form this eventual game will take. No idea whatsoever. Not even a glimmer of a speck of an idea.
What I do know is that I’m an idealist to a borderline-naive degree. I’ve always been most-absorbed with and fascinated by books, shows, games, and movies that explore the human condition in a positive (if not bittersweet) way. I’ve long said that one of my favorite books is The Fall by Albert Camus. And it’s one of my favorite books because it serves as a pitch-perfect example of the main character (who is not the narrator of the book; it’s all a series of stories between the main character to the book’s narrator) preying on what he knows is the weakness of mankind to the point of falling directly into a premeditated trap.
My goal as a game developer is to be able to systemically simulate the the emotional response and player-to-character bonds that tend to form in games like Persona (well, Persona 3 – Persona 5) in a wholly player-driven way. And have those bonds spur the progression of the player through the game. Have the game’s environment (in the Ghostbusters case: the general public) react in accordance with the way the player approaches the game. And then force the player into a world where they must react as best as possible to a situation that is entirely of their own creation through their actions, bonds with other characters, and perspective on whatever the game’s larger purpose/environment may be.
And I’m being vague because that’s, to put it in incredibly understated terms, a difficult design to achieve. But, I believe that it’s possible, and I’m planning on taking “baby-steps” in that direction with every single game I work on in whatever capacity I can influence it within. With Steel Hunters, we’re going to be heavily exploring an angle where a fully-realized physical, turbulent environment centered around enormous bosses which are capable of adapting to player strategies force players into situations where they must take everything they know about the game and adapt to situations they couldn’t possibly expect. But, with that said, these situations are all the result of a series of events which is repeatable and predictable if you take into account all of the factors that led to a given situation. And all of this is done systemically and dynamically. When I say “repeatable” I mean, following the exact same path that both the player and environmental conditions took in a prior play session, the result ends up being the same because the overall game is designed well enough predictability if players are ever able to fully grasp all of the high-level and low-level variables that are all operating in a dynamic, real-time environment — and then take advantage of that to their advantage.
Steel Hunters will definitely not be a game where players form meaningful relationships with in-game characters/AI, but it will, hopefully, be a game where players form meaningful relationships with their co-op partners due to the experiences they’ve all ended up in and worked together to overcome. I have no interest in competitive gameplay, in general, because the way that the internet “is” seems to generally result in competitive gameplay yielding toxic, unapproachable real-world environments. So, to the degree I can with our studio’s debut title, I’d like to focus on teamwork and seeing the positive community that can form around a game where players can form bonds with each other based on unforeseen challenges that required snap decisions and teamwork to overcome.
Which, I think, will be a huge step towards reaching my end goal.