The Theory of Gaming

July 18, 2008

Resident Evil 5 and Race in Games

Filed under: game design — Tags: , — spotpuff @ 11:36

Recently there was some controversy over Resident Evil 5.  The game takes place in Africa and Chris Redfield, the white protagonist, was shown in the game trailer shooting a bunch of black zombies.  My first thoughts when I saw the trailer were “Wow, that looks great” (I enjoyed RE4) and “People are going to be mad about this”.

Now, people are going to be mad about anything, but race is always a touchy subject.  For those familiar with the Resident Evil series, you’ll know it’s about zombies.  Nasty zombies.  The kind that sprout tentacles and monsters from their heads and then try to eat your brains.  Having a white protagonist attacked by a horde of mindless black zombies is going to be about as well received as a Muslim person praying on an airplane.

There’s been the typical backlash by special interest groups and gamers (do gamers count as a special interest group?).  Those taking offense point out there’s a history of negative stereotypical portrayals of black people in video games and other media.  Gamers point out there’s been numerous other Resident Evil games portraying whites, hispanics, and other ethnic groups as mindless zombies, and no one really seemed to care about race then.  The only reason people are up in arms now is because the zombies are black this time.

Race is a tricky subject to address in any medium, and I use the term “race” with some reservation simply due to the fact that I don’t believe the traditional definition of race makes any sense; humans typically view race as based on physical appearance (skin colour, facial features, hair, etc.), but definitions based on geography, nationality, genetics and socio-economic status also exist.  None of the definitions really make any sense to me and a lot of them conflict with one another.

The question I ask of people is: is it possible to include black people in games without upsetting a lot of people?  When you look at video games, there hasn’t really been a “traditional” role occupied by black characters, unlike a lot of other media like film and theater.  You can’t really do blackface in a video game.  Well, I guess you could, but it would be ridiculous.  I can understand the concern on the part of black people with regards to adding another negative portrayal to them in video game form, even if the “traditional” discriminatory practices haven’t been prevalent in that medium yet.  It would be wise not to retread on past mistakes.

Video games have included black characters in many different roles, from gangsters to scientists (GTA & the half life series).  Granted, there haven’t exactly been a lot of black characters in video games, and the tendency for white video game designers to casually make them caricatures of people seen on Black Entertainment Television doesn’t exactly show that the video game industry can be responsible about this sort of thing. I don’t want to see affirmative action in video games, with token black characters filling out stereotypical roles, but given the scope of most video games (they’re centered on a small group of characters) that tends to be problematic without seeming somewhat patronizing. It’s like the stock photos you see on the internet: one out of every three people will be black, one out of three will be a woman, and sometimes they’ll add an Asian woman in just to be safe. Granted if enough black characters are added to video games, maybe we can finally get to the point where it won’t seem like a black character was added simply for the sake of having a black character in the game. For example, in Half Life 2, the character Alyx Vance is the main heroine, but it doesn’t feel forced since we know about her father, Eli Vance, from Half Life 1; it makes sense that he has a daughter and she’s part of the human resistance.

Unfortunately, examples like that are few and far between. Video games are, after all, made by real people who live in the real world, and who are surrounded by hip hop, television, films, and other media from which to take cues on how black people act. Games like 50 Cent: Bulletproof certainly don’t help matters, but really in these cases video games aren’t doing anything other media forms haven’t already done with regards to portrayals of black characters.

Video games do, however, have a tradition of hiding many character’s appearances or traits from the player. Gordon Freeman and Samus Aran are two such examples.

Samus Aran’s revelation as a woman character was a shock to pretty much everyone when they beat Metroid. Everyone just assumed the character was a man. That’s the way our society is; women serve only to be damsels in distress or objects of desire in video games.

In the half life series, the player never, ever sees what they look like. Gordon Freeman is only seen on the box art of the game. Mirrors do not exist in the half life universe, and reflective surfaces reflect everything but your face. The character Chell from the game Portal, also by Valve, is similarly hidden although using some careful portal placement allows you to see what your character looks like.

In that sense, there’s no reason similar approaches can’t be taken for black characters in video games. Hopefully they don’t go the way of women characters becoming hyper sexualized and typecast, but eventually if enough black characters are added to games it will become commonplace enough that it will stop becoming such a big issue. Outsiders and special interest groups won’t feel the need to attack the industry and gamers won’t have to defend it.

On the other hand, you just can’t make some people happy. I’d be the most naive person on the planet to think people would stop criticizing video games. They’ll keep criticizing video games for being too violent, too sexist, too racist, too casual, too hardcore or too addictive no matter what you try to do. So to all the game devs out there: hang in there and keep doing what you’re doing, keep touching on social issues, and your fans will keep playing.

July 14, 2008

You know you have a balance problem when…

Filed under: Game Analysis — Tags: , — spotpuff @ 14:31

It’s my belief the soldier is underpowered. Not everyone agrees (as evidenced by the comments), and in general I argued the demoman is superior to the soldier in a lot of ways. It’s hard to find good demomen because regular grenades are so hard to aim, but if you run into someone who knows what they’re doing with the grenade launcher you’ll find out why they’re so dangerous.

Stickies are another matter entirely. Stickies are the bane of Engineers and no one likes being hit by crit stickies.  But you know you have a balanced problem when one of the game’s own designers admits it:

Q. Some people are saying that the stickies for the demo are to strong. To the point where 3 stickies can remove a sentry, a dispenser and a full health Engie. Is this something that can/is being addressed or is it classed internally as “balanced”?

We agree that they’re a little too overpowered right now. In fact, internall, we refer to them as “winbombs”. We haven’t reached a decision on what we’ll change yet, though.

As some of you may have noticed on Gold Rush, sentries are very strong and it’s almost impossible to take Gold Rush 2-2 or 3-4 if there are a lot of sentries around.  Demomen become essential, soldiers become more obsolete.  Hopefully things continue to balance out, but I’m not holding my breath on this one.

July 3, 2008

Heavy achievements next, Gabe Newell shares some design insights

Filed under: Game Analysis, Patches — Tags: , , — spotpuff @ 15:19

On the official Team Fortress blog, a pretty informative post was put up detailing the upcoming heavy achievements. There’s some discussion on the Steam forums about it, and while most of the ideas are probably not the best, some of them are pretty good.

The main issue with the heavy seems to be that he’s slow in combat and his gun has a spin up and down time. This allows for enemies to hit him from around a corner, then duck behind cover. If the heavy doesn’t have a medic, his health is whittled down until he dies (never mind that the soldier has the same problem and even less health). So Valve’s goal with the heavy achievements are to reduce his dependency on medics and allow him to be playable without a medic without making him so powerful that a medic/heavy combo would be more powerful than it currently is.

Replacing The Minigun

The standard things are being tossed around: a shield that reduces damage, an overheating gun, a gun that fires in bursts instead of continuously, a gun that lets you deal more damage the less health you have, etc.

Some of these make sense and others don’t; the overheating gun mentioned in the Steam forum probably makes the most sense, but keeping the spin up and spin down times defeats the purpose of the intended design goals, unless it’s ridiculously short. I mean right now the spin up and down times are only about a second, so the new gun will fix that by making it half a second? Better to eliminate it entirely.  The other issue with spin-up time is that a lot of times the spin-up time on the minigun is irrelevant because the heavy can just run, jump and spin the gun up in the air.  If he does this while going around corners, the gun is ready to fire when he’s in sight of whoever might fire at him.  So the spin up time is irrelevant in a large number of cases, and it’s really only the cases where the minigun spin-up time does matter (getting jumped unexpectedly) that you need to consider, rather than “planned” attacks.

The issue with overheating is that heavies rarely fire in bursts longer than a few bullets at a time anyways. Their gun is strong enough that if you catch anyone in your spray at low to medium range they’re going to die in a few seconds anyways, it’s not going to take 50 bullets. Unless the gun overheats ridiculously quickly, or only fires in very short bursts, it’s going to be a bit strong if the gun does more damage than mid-range, has lower spin up time, etc. So perhaps a heavy gun with a very short spin up time, or none at all, but that only fires in bursts would be ok. The gun could also allow the heavy to move at regular speed while firing.

The only issue I can see with the whole “burst fire” and allowing movement while firing is that then the heavy essentially becomes a soldier with more HP and no splash. He can duck out, fire a burst of bullets, and duck behind cover. This is the same sort of thing the rocket launcher is for, although without the juggle power or splash, and infinite velocity bullets instead of a slow moving rocket. Valve has mentioned that the heavy achievements should not encroach on another classes’ role and while they didn’t specifically note what those roles were, a burst weapon is similar enough to the rocket launcher to rule itself out.

I’ve thought about things like adding a shield for the heavy’s gun, but any shield that blocks damage and allows firing at the same time needs to have a major drawback for it to not be incredibly overpowered. Blocking incoming damage is the same as increasing the medic’s healing rate, and has a passive effect on HP. For example if the shield blocked 50% of incoming damage, a buffed 450HP heavy has, effectively, 900HP now instead of 450 and is being healed for the equivalent of 48 health per second instead of 24 in combat. So a shield is out unless it prohibits medic healing while in use, and buffing at all times. If you don’t prevent buffing at all times, the heavy can just pre-buff before going into a dangerous situation and with 900 effective HP that’s better than having a medic anyways.

Given that the heavy probably shouldn’t get a burst weapon that allows movement while firing and no shield on the gun, an overheating gun that instantly fires (0 spin up time) seems like the only viable option.  I’m not entirely convinced there’s a way to give the heavy a new gun without changing the dynamics of the class entirely or making him incredibly overpowered, though.

Replacing The Fists

The shotgun and fists are harder weapons to replace. Just as the sniper rifle makes the sniper, rocket launcher the soldier and flamethrower the pyro, the minigun defines the heavy class. Realistically the shotgun and fists don’t fill any significant tactical void in the heavy’s arsenal; the minigun is weak at range and has a spin up time, but deadly in close quarters and fairly good at medium range. So the shotgun doesn’t really help, and fists are too slow compared to the chaingun.

In that case, the secondary weapons need to augment the heavy’s current weaknesses, but how?

I’m thinking for melee, the heavy can get a shield. Make it large and make it obstruct his view; it can be one of those riot shields with a small window that blocks 90% of his FOV (only small parts viewable on the left, right and bottom) save for the little window that still won’t let him see much other than a small area in front of him. The shield can double as a weapon (shield bash), and also serves the purpose of not being overly powerful when the medic is healing the heavy (since it’s a melee attack and not his minigun). It also helps his retreats from battle by allowing him to swap the chain gun for the shield when retreating. It protects him from snipers while the shield is up, but in order to do any damage he’s still going to have to switch to his main gun and expose himself. And just for kicks you could add a little mirror to the shield so the heavy could see what’s going on behind him and if a spy is trying to knife him or his medic in the back. The mirror would have to be large enough to see, but not so large as to make a spy’s job impossible.

A shield for melee for heavies adds a lot of interesting tactical opportunities, like side-strafing to “escort” lighter classes across sniper covered terrain, protecting a sentry gun from an uber heavy or pyro, shielding himself and another player on a CP from a sentry gun so they can cap, and more, but it depends on how they design it (if they add it at all). Would deflecting all damage be too powerful, even though the heavy can’t see effectively enough to maneuver? Does it change his class role too much into a “tank”? Is it too powerful for defense?I don’t believe on defense it’s any more powerful than a pyro airblast which can stop an uber push in its tracks and possibly get the ubered target killed when the medic is pushed out of uber range.

Blocking all damage is potentially more powerful, but also more interesting from a tactical perspective. Without actually implementing the shield though, it’d be hard to test. Valve’s going to have to do it on their own (if they think it’s a good idea) and decide whether or not to add it in. If it’s too strong defensively, they could remove the shield bash so the shield is a strictly defensive option and tweak the other various effects as well, such as making the heavy move slower with the shield equipped so he can’t just whip out the shield and rush a defensive position with a medic in tow; moving slowly gives enemies a chance to outflank the pair and still leaves the medic pretty vulnerable with the heavy unable to kill attackers.

Replacing The Shotgun

As for the shotgun, it has its uses currently, although most heavies tend to get in the mindset of only using the minigun. If someone’s trying to hit and run you to death you just chase after them until you get them in a position that the minigun is viable. In the mean time you can use the shotgun, and it’s a decently solid choice. The problem then is to have a weapon that augments the heavy class while not being too overpowered e.g. flare guns vs snipers.

The heavy’s main enemies are snipers and spies, with fast moving classes in close quarters coming in after that; scouts and pyros can strafe you to death if your firing cone is being particularly uncooperative or your sensitivity is too low. So perhaps the heavy can get some sort of small, short range AOE stun to nail those pesky scouts and pyros who try to circle strafe you. I like the idea of the heavy getting concussion grenades with no way to throw them, since it’s fits with his presented intelligence level. I can totally see him detting a flashbang on his own forehead and yelling “POW!”.

I’m thinking the stun would have an effect similar to the first iteration of concussion grenade from QuakeWorld TF, the one that made your aim go all loopy before returning to normal (this was changed at some point to a jittery, slide all over the place effect after someone created a script to counteract that in QWTF, IIRC, however QWTF also allowed for scripts to control mouse movement (forward rocket jump script, I miss you), while I believe Steam does not, so that isn’t as much of an issue I hope). This prevents scouts, pyros and spies (should you hit them early enough) from dealing excessive damage to you up close, but still leaves you vulnerable to snipers (which is fair since the shield would already mess with snipers). To be balanced the concussion would affect you as well, so you can’t aim your minigun very well; it basically just prevents two pesky classes from killing you while you spin your minigun around in vain trying to hit them.

Now the only issue with this is that the scattergun and flamethrower tend to kill you very quickly. The flamethrower will kill a heavy at point blank range in just under 2 seconds (150 DPS or so) and a scout with a scattergun can do it in ~3 seconds or so given no buffing or healing. So you really have to be quick on the draw with this stun device, and that’s assuming it fires instantly (with the normal 1 second delay for weapon switching).

The other question is whether or not this AOE stun should affect your teammates; currently none of the weapons in TF2 can affect teammates in a significantly adverse manner, so giving you a weapon that turns everyone’s aim loopy is probably opening the door to griefer heaven. Solutions could be having VERY limited ammo combined with long cooldown, and shorter duration for teammates. Some might argue that a heavy could suicide charge into an enemy formation and mess up their aim, but in practice you’re not likely to hit more than 1 or 2 enemies with this, and you have to somehow make your rush valuable in the likelihood that you die.

Summary

1. Not sure what to do about the heavy’s gun.  Current one only has limitations in certain situations, and some changes could be overpowered or too similar to other “burst” weapons like the rocket/grenade launcher.

2. Replace shotgun with small AOE concussion effect.

3. Replace fists with armor shield.

Well, those are my thoughts for now.  Obviously design isn’t an easy thing to do, but hopefully Valve does a good job on this like with the other achievement ideas.  I’m not expecting things to be balanced since it seems they don’t even test things *cough* backburner *cough* but interesting ideas are more important to me, since imbalances can always be fixed later.

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