Category Archives: Games

Game design: Responsive characters

Despite this blog post’s lofty title, I’m not a game designer. I am, however, attempting to become one, pretty much from scratch (spot the noob programming joke!).

I’m currently taking Future Learn’s programming course, which is a mostly useful but very peculiarly structured introductory course. I suspect I’ll end up learning more by working my way through Unity tutorials, in the long run.

The other thing I’m doing is working on a Twine game. This is a choose-your-own-adventure engine with an interesting, intuitive flowchart UI and support for some decent variables, stat tracking and lite programming gubbins. It’s a really nice introduction, allowing me to focus on game design aspects and on actual prose writing, while keeping the technical challenges to a minimum.

Something I’m trying to bring to the game is a sense of responsive characters. Depending on your actions, I want characters to behave differently towards you. Practically this is unlikely to massively affect the overall storyline, but having that moment-to-moment customisation of character responses will, I think, lend the fixed narrative more of a personal note. Not a million miles away from The Walking Dead’s “she’ll remember that” stuff, basically.

I’m learning on the job, though, which probably means I’m doing things incredibly inefficiently.

I’d initially considered a simple three-state setup for characters: Annoyed, Neutral and Happy. They could move between these states depending on what you’re up to, which would then drive their responses to your subsequent actions and dialogue choices. This wasn’t nuanced enough, though.

So the current system is an attitude rating, with 0 considered to be ‘neutral’. Player actions will then increase or decrease this variable. Do something a character likes and the variable goes down by 1. Do something which annoys them and it’ll go up by one. Do something intensely stupid and it’ll go up by 2. Save their life and it’ll drop by 5 – that kinda thing.

The benefit of this system is that you really have to pay attention to your actions. Piss someone off too much and you CAN still get them back on your side, but it’ll be difficult, because their attitude score will be really high. No matter how much you try to ingratiate yourself, it’s going to take a while to get that score down. Equally, if you’ve got into somebody’s good books and have a -10 attitude score, you’re going to have to do some pretty stupid stuff to really get them annoyed.

The trick is then in how many custom responses to craft. It needs to be a practical number which I actually have time to write. At the very least there needs to be 3 responses for any given situation – that annoyed/neutral/happy trio. For the system to work there really needs to be at least another 2 responses, for extremities – otherwise it won’t feel natural enough.

A problem with this setup is that I rapidly lose track of the limits of the system. With a myriad of choices and multiple narrative paths through each scene it’s really, really hard to know the potential range of attitude responses at any given time. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it does run the risk of the system getting unstable, with the player unable to ‘fix’ early actions – then again, is that really a problem, or is it a decent game-representation of the result of mis-handling a relationship with another person?

I’m intending to blog about my continuing explorations of Making A Game. So far: it’s fun.

Starting to learn to program

twine early days

I’m currently dipping two tentative toes into the murky waters of programming. Games programming, to be precise. I suspect games programming is quite a bit like normal programming but with more guns at the end.

That image above is from a game called Schism which I’m currently writing, based in the IAT Arms Race universe. It’s created using Twine, an engine specifically designed for writing Choose Your Own Adventure-style games.

I’ve dabbled with various interactive fiction engines over the years – BASIC back in the 80s, Inform in the 90s – and it’s never quite clicked. The problem with interactive fiction is that it explicitly relies upon prose writing, something which is hard enough at the best of times let alone when you’re having to code around it. Twine has a unique flowchart interface which makes it very simple to structure a narrative flow, while still allowing simple code to alter events and track decisions.

Next week I also start FutureLearn’s Begin Programming course, which aims to teach some core programming skills which are of use for creating mobile games. It’s a seven week course and I’m a little skeptical about what it can realistically achieve in that time – we shall see.

Schism is still in very early stages but I’m plugging away at it. One of my main goals is to create semi-dynamic characters which track your interactions and adjust their behaviour appropriately. I’ll be sure to write more about it once I’ve progressed a little further.

DIY gaming part 5: Building the new rig

Last week I revealed the three components that would form the core of my new gaming rig. DABS delivered them promptly on the following Monday and that evening I set about putting it all together.

For a bit of context, the first time I built a computer, 10 years-or-so ago, I completely, utterly cocked it. I actually managed to screw the motherboard directly into the chassis, rather than onto the mounting thingies, promptly shorting the entire thing when I tried to turn it on. Not an auspicious start.

My next build was considerably better, but still took me the best part of a day to complete, with much stress and fiddling about, all the while convinced I was breaking everything and throwing away hundreds of pounds of kit.

This time round, it took me an hour and a half. And that was partly due to working in a tiny room crowded with random toddler paraphernalia.

I’m not sure whether I’m more adept at fiddling around inside a computer case or whether computers have simply got easier to self-build (I suspect a bit of both), but either way I was very pleasantly surprised.

Motherboards have changed a lot since I bought my last system. You can use a mouse in the BIOS! Quite remarkable. The Z97-A has a bunch of built-in overclocking gubbins which seems to have done a good job. Still, I was expecting minimal noticeable benefits in games – this was more about getting up to date, hopefully improving loading times due to DDR3 and faster SATA connections.

Instead, the two games which were really taxing my old system – Titanfall and Star Citizen – have gone from barely playable on low settings to running rather smoothly on very high. It’s a massive, massive change and very welcome indeed.

Funnily enough, RPS published an article today with CPU recommendations, their main one being the one I just purchased. So I guess I did my research properly!

DIY gaming part 4: Motherboard, processor & memory

It’s been a while since the last DIY article, which was back in May. I have, however, at last committed to the next major stage of my new system build. In fact, this is the most major stage, being that it forms the skeleton, brain and memory of the new machine.

Given that I’m chasing a fairly impossible power/value sweet spot, it took a while to pinpoint exactly what to go for. While researching I stumbled across this excellent hardware guide by CynicalCyanide over on the Star Citizen forums. It’s an excellent primer for buying computer tech in 2014 and it clarified a lot of my decisions – and also saved me a bit of money here and there with its pragmatic approach.

Star Citizen has become one of my ‘target games’, being a title which is majorly stressing my current system. In fact, it’s the first game I’ve encountered which I have to run on ‘low’ settings. I’ve not had that experience since the first Crysis on my previous rig, back in 2011.

After much deliberation, I settled on the following pieces:

  • Motherboard: Asus Z97-A. From reviews and general comments this appears to be a very, very good mobo for a good price. It’s sits in the top end of the value pricing bracket but has features you’d associate with something much more expensive. It’s also a Z97, which means it’s relatively up-to-date. Currently there’s also a £30 cashback on this over at DABS, as long as you buy it with…
  • CPU: Intel Core i5-4690K. It was always a showdown between an i5 and an i7 but, ultimately, the i7s are still too expensive for me. They also don’t present immediate benefits for gaming, though I suspect that’ll start to change over the next couple of years. Therefore the i5 is a bit of a risk in terms of future proofing, but it’s an overclockable CPU and up the high end of the i5s – it seems to be the ‘go to’ CPU for gamers.
  • RAM: Corsair 8GB (2x4GB) Vengeance DDR3 1600MHz. I’d originally planned to go for some G.Skill stuff as it’s highly rated but availability is a bit all over the place here in the UK, so I instead opted for Corsair. It’s a brand I’ve used in the past and they’re known for reliability. It’s also the same brand as my new rig’s CPU.

These pieces should arrive early next week. It’s been YEARS since I last built an entirely new machine, so that should be an interesting experience. The most difficult thing will actually be the logistics of backing up and shuffling everything around on my current system so that I can entirely wipe my main drive and put a nice, clean copy of Windows 7 on it. It’s going to be a hefty job, though cloud services like Dropbox and Google docs make the whole process vastly easier than it used to be.

More once I’ve put the thing together…

DIY gaming part 3: SSD storage

Continuing my slow build of a powerful new PC gaming rig, this month it’s SSD time.

SSDs are still hugely expensive compared to traditional hard drives but they are at least within affordable limits, particularly when you factor in the speed benefits. Most importantly, you can finally get a decent 256GB SSD for under £100, which wasn’t possibly last year.

Given that Titanfall and Wolfenstein are both 50GB installers, a 256GB drive for gaming is really the absolute minimum – and note that I’m using this drive purely for gaming, I’m not installing the OS on it (that’s on a separate, smaller SSD I bought last year).

So, having rummaged about it seemed that the best option by far was to go for the Samsung 840 EVO 256GB SSD, which over at at the time of purchasing was about £93 (it appears to have gone back up to £98 now, so keep an eye on it). This is for the bare bones version, so it doesn’t include a mounting bracket or cables. Handily I already had a spare SATA cable, and I don’t even bother to mount SSDs properly – I just have them sitting loose in the case. One of the benefits of a drive with no moving parts.

One thing to note is that with my current build I can’t get maximum performance from the SSD, as my motherboard has an old version of SATA. Once I get a new mobo later in the year I’ll actually unlock up to twice the data rate, which means this new SSD is nicely future-proofed, and I’m not even seeing its full potential yet.

Thoughts, anybody?

DIY gaming part 2: The power supply

OK, time to get started on my new system build. As mentioned last time, I’m spreading the process out through the year so as to keep things affordable and take advantage of upcoming developments.

To kick off I’m taking a look at the computer’s power supply. I had originally intended to include a new SSD in this phase but prices seem to be falling all the time, so I’ll give that another month.

PSU – Corsair CX 600, £52

Ideally I wouldn’t be getting a new power supply but my old one died a couple of  months back and I’m currently borrowing one from a colleague. Time to get that back to him.

PSUs are fairly cheap. Having compared various review sites such as Hexus, Anandtech and Tom’s Hardware, plus ratings on pcpartpicker, I’ve ended up eyeing the Corsair CX 600.

With CPU and GPU efficiency improving all the time I could probably get away with less than 600w but it’s best to stay future proof, especially as I run multiple drives and peripherals. It can all add up.

Corsair do a nice 3 year warranty even on these cheaper models which is reassuring.

I went for the semi modular version, which means I won’t have any unnecessary cables flapping about.

It should arrive on Monday so I’ll let you know how the install goes.

DIY gaming part 1: The old rig

Barring some determined technical work from the likes of CD Projekt RED in The Witcher 2 and DICE’s remarkable Battlefield 3+ Frostbite engine, gaming has been in a bit of a rut for a few years now, thanks to the aging PS3 and Xbox 360 consoles holding everything back. Sure, there have been some incremental advances in Unreal games, with Arkham City looking noticeably fancier than Arkham Asylum, but we haven’t seen the seismic shifts that pushed gaming along in the 90s and 2000s.

Now, at last, the PS4 is out, unlocking a new development ceiling for cross-platform devs. This will also inevitably drive a bunch of PC gamers to upgrade their rigs to keep pace and fairly rapidly outstretch the console’s capabilities. Including myself.
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