Content flow

One of the many sources of frustration in the current (quest driven) generation of MMORPG’s comes from being lead back and forth through a zone in an erratic manner. It is probably in my top five of reasons why I drop certain MMO’s like a hot potato before I’ve even gotten to the meat. Yet, all it takes to rid your game of this is a structured approach to your design work. Let’s look at two complaints born out of poorly thought out content flow:

I spend more time running from a to b than actually fighting anything!
Having some travel time when going to new areas is no problem, but if you’re always having to run a marathon to get to a quest objective, it won’t take long until you’re both bored and frustrated. It’s quite common that designers wish to extend their quests through long journeys filled with mobs, but more often than not the mobs on the way can be bypassed. Traveling is not content.

I feel like I’m going through the same areas all the time!
Sometimes zones have just one main quest hub. This forces players to repeatedly pass the same areas to get and deliver quests in the same old quest hub. This continues even as the player has moved on to higher level areas in the zone, having to fight mobs outlevelled to a degree where they no longer pose any kind of challenge.

Quest pockets

“Quest pockets” is a framework for structured content flow within zones. The purpose is to avoid the problems described earlier, minimizing the need to travel back and forth time and again, using the space effectively and allowing the player to discover the zone organically. There are three important components to this:

  • Keep the content close to the quest hub.
  • Use all 360 degrees of the quest hub for content.
  • Spread the content evenly around the quest hub.

The area around a quest hub should be divided into 4 quest pockets.  The player get quests for one pocket, heads out to the corresponding pocket space to finish the quest objectives, and finally returns to deliver the quests in the quest hub. Then he progresses to the next pocket. If possible, the quest levels should be different between the quest pockets, allowing for a natural progress between them.

Each quest hub should have a budget for the number of available quests. In a best case scenario, the number of quests should be evenly divided for the four pockets. Let’s have a look at a possible formula for quest budgets.

There are 3 factors to regard. How many hours of gameplay do we expect the area to provide? How long should quests last in average on the level range of the area? How much of the gameplay time should be covered by quests?

Hours per area * quests per hour * play time ratio

Quests per hour
1-20: 6 (10 minutes)
20-40: 4 (15 minutes)
40-60: 3 (20 minutes)

If we have a quest area with a planned 4 hours of gameplay at level 50, and we say that the amount of quests per hour in that level range is 4 (15 minute quests, according to the table), and we want 30% more quests than the necessary minimum for always having your play time covered by a quest, then the numbers would be:

4 * 4 * 1,3 = 21 quests for that area. Those 21 quests would then be divided between the 4 quest pockets, giving us about 5 quests per pocket.

Picking pockets and zoning out

We control content flow throughout the game on 3 levels; between quest pockets, between quest hubs and between zones. Let’s look at quest pocket progression first.

Using the previous example, we have 5 quests per pocket. We’re trying to not overwhelm players with alternatives, but are at the same time after a sense of non-linearity. The two ways of controlling access are levels and quest chains. In an ideal situation the quest hub would involve more than one level, which guides the player in deciding what content to access first. The quests of one pocket could also unlock quests of the next pocket.

Looking at the figure above, the player would enter the zone close to quest hub 1. In our example, pocket 1.1 and 1.2 would have 5 quests each at level 48-49, and 1.3 and 1.4 5 quests each at level 50-51. Some of the quests in 1.3 and 1.4 would be followup quests from 1.1 and 1.2 This way we get a natural progression through the zones.

Players progress between the quest hubs through transition quests, leading the players between quest hubs, and zones. Returning to the example, a transition quest would become available when the player has finished some of the content in 1.4 – taking them to quest hub 2 where new quests are available starting in 2.1.

This second quest hub could have a few followup quests from the first, allowing for a continous narrative. Just be careful not to block players from finding content in later quest hubs (if they arrive in the zone with a high level character) through too many and too long quest chains.

When the player has finished the second quest hub, another transition quest takes the player from 2.4 to 3.1. This is the final hub of the zone, where 3.4 carries a new transition quest taking them to the next zone’s first quest hub.

As always, guidelines like these have to be broken to create interesting and unique experiences. Have quests go through the entire zone, or between several zone. It’s vital to make sure the experience does not feel formulaic, especially considering how formulaic MMORPG’s are by default.

Forever a Steel Sky

Even the plastic of the game cartridge promised that you were you about to experience something unique. When other NES cartridges were grey, Zelda’s was golden. Inside, just beneath the plastic cover, awaited something magical. Kids running to their game console, eager to find out what this magic was, were not in for a disappointment – Zelda was brilliant.

I only remember one other game that was so evocative before you even played it. An almost completely black game box, with a minimalistic silhouette of a futuristic city in silver. A bold typeface with letters in black.

Beneath a Steel Sky.

It was released in 1994, but I have yet to see a better box design. 16 years have passed, but I doubt a studio has given any game a better name. But what of the content of the box, what of the game?

Dark, deep, funny, beautiful – I remember it to be all those things. But I was just a kid when I played it. Perhaps, with the mindset of an adult and with so many technological revolutions between now and then, all of that would be lost if I played it today. Perhaps.

A couple of months back I bought an iPod Touch. Why not. I like gadgets. But this gadget demanded software. Or, as the Apple marketing department wants me to call it, apps. I’m a gamer, so I bought some board games and some unplayable action games (yes, twitch gameplay is best played with the tactical feedback that physical buttons provide).

So what kind of games would work well on a pure touch screen interface? Searching the app store on iTunes, I decided to search for non-twitch games like point-and-click adventures. After a while, I found a “remastered” version of Beneath a Steel Sky.

The iPod/iPhone version has one thing other versions do not – a small screen. To be honest, playing Steel Sky on my 22″ monitor would not be pleasant, with pixels so large I could choke on them. On the iPod the game looks more the way I remember it, the small high resolution display making it quite pleasing on the eyes.

And yes, it still is beautiful. All the backgrounds were drawn by Dave Gibbons, the artist behind the Watchmen comic, and whatever he charged it was worth it. Every screen is filled with atmosphere and small details, and while the locations sometimes seem strange, they more often than not feel authentic. The art direction is consistent and makes exploration inviting and rewarding.

The story is a dark tale about a post-apocalyptic society of city states in Australia. Big Brother is watching, and the lives of its citizens are shaped by the status they are given. Access and material standards are all dependent on this, and the higher your status is the closer to the ground you live – far away from the pollution those closest to the steel sky breath. Make one mistake and lose it all.

The player controls Robert Foster, a free man that grew up outside the city states, in the wilderness of Australia. He’s kidnapped/arrested (depending how totalitarian your views are), but manages to escape when taken to the city, which he explores with his cynical robot friend Joey. His motivation is twofold; to flee the city and to discover the mysterious history of his family.

It handles exposition of this unknown world brilliantly, feeding you fragments of the big picture without ever deteriorating into self-serving storytelling. It knows what to leave out and what to show, giving the player a feeling of being in a consistent world with a history.

While the dialog is well written, it reveals a certain lack of self-confidence on behalf of the designers. It’s witty and entertaining according to the traditions of point-and-click adventure games, but this almost ever-present humor weakens the power of the quite dark and serious plot.

The core of the classic adventure games was the puzzle. Their narrative unfolding by solving puzzles, unlocking new areas, characters and new puzzles. Steel Sky suffers, to some degree from the same problem that plagued most adventure games. Quite often the solutions to the puzzles were abstract and could only be reached by trial-and error. What is worse, sometimes the story doesn’t even motivate the puzzles beforehand, forcing you to perform bizarre actions without realizing why.

This, perhaps, was one of the reasons why the adventure genre was largely abandoned by the games industry.

Despite these criticisms, it is still a fantastic game. Dark, deep, funny, beautiful? Yes, it still holds up! It stands apart from other games in the same genre through art direction, setting and story, all building a unique and (grown up) experience with a punch that the games industry still struggles to reach today.

If you’re interested, try the iPod version. A new intro by Dave Gibbons, a decent control system, “high resolution” graphics and a good hint system makes this perhaps the best possible way to experience Beneath a Steel Sky today.

The Prophet Speaks!

I haven’t posted anything in a while. It’s not because of a lack of opinions (heh), but time – we’re working hard to make Rise of the Godslayer as good as we can.  This post is a quick one, and it’s merely to mention that I just registered an account at formspring.me. It’s a very simple idea. You ask questions. I answer them.

Why? I have no idea. Perhaps there just wasn’t enough distractions on the web. I found the site through Scott Jennings’ blog, one of my daily distractions.

Check out my page at formspring.me/pixelpark, and fire off a question if you’re bored. And hey, let’s not pretend you’re not.

Mad as a hatter

It is almost a decade ago now. The anorexic, pierced Cheshire cat greeted me with his crooked smile, and I was instantly hooked. American McGee’s twisted and dark (but still humorous and wondrous) vision of Alice in Wonderland spoke to me like few other games had done. It wasn’t the admittedly bland gameplay that appealed to me, but the experience of exploring its grim and magical environments.

It felt as if game director American McGee stepped unto the territory of movie director Tim Burton, borrowing some of his visual language and his habit of creating dark and sinister fairytales. When I heard that Burton was directing a new Alice in Wonderland feature, it felt like a natural step for both Burton and Alice. Lewis Carrol’s old tale had already proven to provide a perfect setting for all things Burtonesque.

Last friday was the Norwegian premiere of the movie. A mediocre trailer had dampened my expectations, but I left the cinema disappointed nonetheless. While it had rich environments and fun character designs, it lacked the sense of wonder that is so integral to the story. It carried the elements of psychadelic surrealism that Wonderland is famous for, but they felt bland, uninteresting and ultimately generic. I longed for the darkness that Burton’s brush normally is drenched with.

Generic is a keyword for this movie. The characters were almost all unengaging, with the expection of The Mad Hatter. Johnny Depp’s characterization and the character’s backstory made the Hatter interesting and entertaining, in stark contrast to the weak portrayal of Alice. Yet, the biggest problem with the movie is the story. Tim Burton has said that he was unable to connect emotionally with the original story. His unfortunate solution was to paste a generic fantasy tale about good versus evil, a magical sword and a youngling embracing her destiny of becoming a brave warrior. Clichés piled on top of each other. Clichés that have no place in the Underworld.

When we in the third act see Alice clad in armor fighting a dragon, it is quite clear how deep Burton’s disconnect with the original story was. He must never have truly understood what made it special, or the potential of its surrealism. I could go on to discuss how if a director doesn’t know how to approach a source material then he better refrain from adapting it – but I think I will let the Cheshire cat speak in my place:


One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. “Which road do I take?” she asked. “Where do you want to go?” was his response. “I don’t know,” Alice answered. “Then,” said the cat, “it doesn’t matter.”

Darwin as opera

Although it is the capital of my country, and a great city, I have spent little time in Stockholm. Too little perhaps, but me and Lena finally spent a weekend there a few weeks ago. It was her birthday gift to me. That, and tickets to the electro-opera Tomorrow, In a Year.

The music to Tomorrow, In a Year was written by The Knife, a swedish duo I’ve been a fan of ever since the release of Heartbeats. So I was excited to see it because of the music, because of the promise of a modern and experimental opera, but also because of the theme – Charles Darwin. The context was Darwin’s travels with the HMS Beagle, the writing of On The Origin of Species and his life during these time periods. Yet, the opera was not simply about the man. The music, the scenography, the dancers were all resonating what Darwin’s writing expressed about the very nature and processes of life itself, and it’s relation to humanity.

It was very cool.

There is a beauty to the human struggle to understand herself and her surroundings, and in the understanding of life as a process of everchanging shapes. In how we, as shapes that are soon to fade, can take a step back and see the process that we are elements of and just witness the majesty of it all. This is a notion that is rarely expressed when Darwin or science is discussed, but the creators behind Tomorrow, In a Year did so gracefully.

Yesterday I found out (through a review at Dagens Nyheter) that the music has been released as a double album, and I’ve been listening to it all day through Spotify. It is very enjoyable, and some of the tracks has given me a feeling of meaning and depth I normally don’t get from music. If you want to experience something different and new, and don’t mind being challenged, I recommend that you check it out on Spotify.

Change is afoot

We’re already well into the second month of the year when I’m writing this, but I still want to spend a few sentences on the notion of changing years. New year’s eve has always been important to me personally, because it’s filled to the brim with an idea of transformation. The idea that everything in your life has the potential to change, and the moment when the past year lies down to die is experienced as the moment when new doors open and old ones are left behind. It means new hope. Refueled dreams.

It is naive, of course, but how can we argue with hope?

New year’s eve no longer carries the importance to me that it once did – perhaps I’m older and more cynical, or perhaps there are fewer aspects of life I want to see changed – but this year will mean a lot of change for me nonetheless. In one way it already has. My girlfriend Lena finished her studies right before Christmas last year, and moved in with me here in Oslo on the 13th of January. I have a better life living with her.

In other ways… Well, I’ll keep you posted.

Rebooting my Unity project

I’ve started playing around with Unity again. The project I have in mind has been on hold since I accidently deleted it (don’t ask) a few months ago, but I’ve now started it all over again, and this time I’m hopefully a bit wiser on how to do it. An example of my newfound wisdom: Don’t delete your project! I’m going to write more about what I’m actually trying to achieve once the project has gotten somewhere. Here’s a screenshot of what I’ve worked on tonight.