Game Design Case Study: Kaos War

At first I was going to subtitle this post “Follow your game-making dreams like a crack-crazed, howling, insensate lemming plunging from the peaks of Mt. Everest into the fiery pits of Hell itself.” So… should you?

What am I talking about? I’m talking about big talkers and bootstrappers in videogames. And I’m talking about how to build your dream game.

I’m specifically preaching about Kaos War, an old virtual team videogame project that had some dude in San Francisco – name of Damon Grow – betting the farm and bankrupting not only his wallet but also all of his personal relationship capital. I’m talking about an MMORPG dream that either Jesus or Satan engraved into this dude’s brain with a icy scalpel. posted a series of video minidocumentaries by Wendy Chan that are unfortunately no longer online (I checked Youtube as well). There are nine of them, all revealing and painful. I regret you can’t see them, because they are full of lessons. And lesions.

It’s old news, but I think you can still profit from some of Grow’s mistakes and successes. And stick around… later I’ll post an update on Kaos War and Grow so you can see what ended up happening in this drama.

If you don’t already know, a virtual team is an international group of dreamers who group together – often never having met in real life – and communicate via the internet to cooperate on a project. Of course, especially when they’re building a game, this fails pretty frequently. In Damon’s case, I have to give him props. He seems to have picked people who are dedicated and have some experience. The video clips gloss over that fact a bit. That’s one of the big keys to success, and Damon seems to know how to pick ’em and hook ’em.

In the documentary, they made a big deal out of the fact that he has no experience. Frankly, the suits don’t need to get their hands dirty, and in the world of Kaos War, Damon’s definitely a suit, and probably best doing suit things. Damon seems to have some of the necessary elements to become a gaming executive, truth to tell. He’s obsessed. He loves to talk. He believes 100% in his game. He inspires people and gets their juices flowing. He sacrifices. He’s abusing drugs (okay, caffeine and energy drinks). He’s insane. He makes bad decisions and has skewed priorities. If you can find the video, check it out. Let me know what you think.

p.s. Nice work, Wendy.

Damon’s did a lot RIGHT with Kaos War. He worked hard. He motivated people just by his presence and his words. He recruited talented people from around the world – people he’d never even met.

This guy has charisma, and he was getting stuff done.

For Chrissake, the guy actually managed to get real funding from a game company. He deposited a check. I’ve never deposited a check except as an employee. Many, many pros in the industry have never gotten Funding with a capital F. This boy is delivering.

But what’s he doing wrong, in hopes that someday, someway someone like Damon can follow in his footsteps but do it just a tad better, causing a degree or two less human suffering? What was Damon doing wrong? What not do to when starting your project?

5. Bitch about cosmetics to the guy who just paid your rent.

In one episode, Damon and his forgiving roomie Brian go over to the warehouse district to look at a possible development location. It’s a skunky warehouse and the place is doubtlessly riddled with crime. Surprise – it’s cheap real estate in San Francisco.

Damon immediately carps on the lack of paint and the fact that “it has birds*** all over it.”

Damon, your project has no funding and your team is eating ramen and sleeping in your bathtub. Embrace the birds***.

In fact, you’re not to the birds*** stage yet. You aspire to birds***. I admit that maybe you could skip this stage entirely if you get funded. But you’re not. Why’re you even shopping? Later, Damon and the boys go over to the Boardwalk of SF real estate, Lucas’ digs in the Presidio. Someone mentions that he could hire (and pay!) a programmer a year’s salary with the rent. Hmm. I wonder which one will win in a pinch? Employee salary or fancy-pants suite next to Lucasarts? Hopefully Damon will get this one right.

4. Assume that human suffering is a substitute for excellence.

Damon tells us that one of his teammembers has been homeless for two weeks. We’ve sacrificed so much! he avers.

I’m sorry, Damon. This is wrong in two ways. First, you’re kind of using this guy’s horrible situation to further your project, and in a way, YOU made it happen because he’s spending energy on your game instead of on finding a decent crackhouse to sleep in. This is a bad example for the troops. If you don’t mind bragging that a guy went homeless to work on the game, maybe you won’t mind bragging about having the whole art department on the street.

And second, there are a lot of homeless guys in the world who suffer every day. How many hit MMORPGs have they made?

3. Tell your team to shoot for Goliath.

Taking on World of Warcraft, geez, Damon. What kind of expectations are you trying to set? “Plan B” might be good to have. Good leaders prepare for all cases. Good leaders pick achievable goals that won’t crush the troops if they aren’t met.

A real MMORPG team is 30+ professionals working fulltime… and building ungodly amounts of art, script, story, characters, monsters, and code. These guys have done it before. They have all the tools and training. They can concentrate on their jobs without having to worry about spaghetti supplies or being pushed off the futon at 3 am by the kid they’re sharing it with. These are significant advantages.

Dreamers keep the gaming industry alive. But practical dreamers achieve their goals and start out with baby steps.

2. Shop for your Blofeld-style mountaintop headquarters.

It’s rough to see these game newbies picking their game dev “mansion” when the guy has no money and his rent is due. What the hell? Seriously, who’s supplying these boys with nose candy and uppers?

This is the equivalent of a high school baseball player shopping for bling at Shaq’s favorite jewelry store in Beverly Hills. Helloooooooooo in there! Earth to Skyler!

1. Force your CTO to pull up roots for a pitch meeting – or quit the project.

Lead programmers are gold. They make everything happen, and the whole game is built on their tech design. If your CTO is in Europe and living with his folks, you respect that and let the poor SOB telecommute.

It’s nice to have warm bodies in the boardroom with you when you meet with the publisher, but warm bodies can be hired at the local Walmart. Sure, you want the CTO there to talk tech with the brain trust, but if your publisher doesn’t have the ability to call a guy in Europe you don’t want them.

You don’t force your #1 guy to choose between leaving the country and leaving the project. Most of the time he’ll choose the latter.

Seriously, kids. I urge you. Be realistic. Do some research. Stay focused.

Well, I wanted to respond to Mike’s post from March 6th with some new angles. Hopefully you folks will find it interesting to see two designers honing and whacking on an idea a little – and hopefully Mike won’t mind. ;)

On the 6th, Mike brainstormed up a bold new idea that pivots on something very common yet also very evocative – the thumbtack. He proposed that the game involve a mystery that the player solves by arranging photos on a corkboard using the thumbtacks.

Here’s my feedback:

I like this idea – as well as the concept of building different game pitches here for people to ruminate on.

I do have some suggestions – I fear that the game as described in the main post would be technically challenging (for a developer, due to its nearly unlimited permutations) and could be hard for some gamers to get invested in (because the medium of a corkboard and flashbacks doesn’t give the game much room for interactivity and narrative).

Maybe we could make it a murder investigation where thumbtacks and pushpins are also used to plot travel paths or mark murder locations. These additional uses would introduce more scarcity and require the player to strategize their use. Each pin’s color or material (plastic, metal) could have different properties or affinities.

And for narrative/interactivity, the player could travel around the world and take photos and ask characters about the images shown in them, or combine photos of different suspects to trigger more focused flashbacks.

To explain the scarcity of such an inexpensive item as a tack or pin, we’d have to make the player’s tacks special. Perhaps she’s a psychic and can only use these tacks because they’re not her memories that she’s unlocking – they’re the victim’s, and the player/psychic found them drenched in the victim’s blood at the crime scene. Under duress, the player could even use the tacks to write notes in a desk, punch Braille messages to a blind friend, or let her own blood to trigger memories or distract a vicious dog.

Dang, I didn’t know I’d get so carried away. Thumbtacks! Who would’ve guessed. Fresh ideas come in all shapes and sizes, and they can be powerful.





Game design: Call of Juarez

Game design case study of the Xbox 360’s Call of Juarez

I played a decent chunk of this shoot-em-up – “the only Western first-person shooter experience on Xbox 360” – the other evening. I’m curious as to what other Westher shooter experiences there might be in the game universe. I’m offering $25, public accolades, and a free Space Squid t-shirt to the first person who can find me a Western second-person shooter experience on the 360! Jump on it! Wiki and google it, baby!

Anyhow, here’s our game design case study on Call of Juarez.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a decent Western shooter – since 1997’s Outlaws (Lucasarts), to be exact – and this one has some cool ideas percolating under the surface. I was thinking of starting with the game design mistakes so I could wrap with the good news, but I decided to follow a certain cinematic trope. Cliched but too fun to resist.

The good game design

I give the Juarez game designers credit for trying to inject new life without throwing out the baby with the bathwater. For example, weapons have lifetimes, and after pumping out a lot of lead, they start to cook off and finally explode. Like Halo, Gears of War, and many other shooters, Juarez dispenses with the healing item treasure hunt; you only have to avoid damage for a time and your health crawls right back up. Health status is indicated by the color of the hit direction indicator – an entirely new and harmonious idea. This eliminates the need for any kind of health bar.

Special notice goes to Juarez’s special version of “bullet time.” It’s a toned-down version of the gameplay mechanic that Max Payne made famous. You have to holster your weapons to use it, which means you have to plan for it in advance. You can’t just punch a button when things get hairy. You also can’t fire at anything; your movement is slowed. No silly diving through a hail of bullets.

Instead, you see two cursors progress from the lower corners of the screen and move toward the center. Each represents the business end of one of your holstered revolvers. As they pass over your slowed-down opponents, you can open fire and put them down. If you’ve positioned yourself wisely going into a standoff or ambush, you can change the odds dramatically.

Other good design elements: Some good level design that throws a variety of challenges at you from different directions. Nice mood and tone (the main character is a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher whose Bible is one of his weapons). Some environmental interaction, like the ability to use fire as a weapon, and to douse fire with buckets of water. Audio includes some distinctive gunshots.

The bad game design

Juarez throws in a fair percentage of jumping puzzles and narrow walks. I’ve never been a fan of designing jumping puzzles into first-person shooters. Why? Simple. You can’t see where you are. If you fall off that pipe between the barn and the water tower, whose fault is it? I’d say it’s half yours and half the game designer’s, because you can’t see your freakin’ body.

There’s also an odd plainness to the game that gives the experience a sheen of plasticity. Details are sharp enough; the texturing has been done adequately, although few items or scenes give you that “wow” that many 360 games deliver. Animations are jerky and lip-synch atrocious. Even the guns you find – marquee items if there ever were ones – are designed with a shortage of polygons. The game also is badly lit, in my opinion. In the level I saw, I think the art department was designing for stark shadows, but as a result we get either full blare or near-darkness. This is a gameplay gaffe as well as a missed opportunity for nuance that would better display the game’s textures and polys.

The ugly game design

The capper is a problem with the camera and gameplay design. I believe Juarez suffers from a distance, accuracy, and visibility issue. To survive Juarez, you have to approach enemies carefully and use cover. They’re fairly accurate and so are their weapons. You end up shooting at hidden bad guys as both you and they are hunched down behind obstacles. Basically, you end up moving the aiming reticule over dark spots on the screen where you think a bad guy might be shooting from, based on the hit direction indicator, and firing into that tiny space whenever the cursor turns red.

This is surely ugly game design. Although Juarez has plenty of virtues, for me this was the equivalent of pixel-hunting in an adventure game. You know, where the game designer has placed some special exit or item in the level, but because he’s too lazy to think up a good way to create gameplay, he’s hidden it with darkness or a bad camera angle, forcing you to click all over creation looking for it.

The game designers should’ve changed the dynamic, if you ask me. Much less accuracy for the bread-and-butter revolvers. (This is the Wild West, not Iraq. A thug shouldn’t be able to pop me repeatedly from 100 yards away.) Bigger and bolder. A different focal length on the virtual camera, if you will. Zoom in. No revolver sniping. Force both the player and the bad guys to get up close and personal, putting a premium on careful approaches followed by bold attacks and battles of nerves. It’d be a different kind of first-person shooter entirely. It’d be fresh game design.