Am I the only one who blogs on Thanksgiving?
Don't tell the in-laws but I'm bored!
Does nobody have an answer to my questions of the day before? Could this be my opportunity to coin a new vocabulary term for gaming? How about "local minima"? That sounds nice and pretentious. I first heard the term when studying neural nets: when a neural net is learning and reaches equilibrium, it does so because it's found a local minima, but not necessarily the best configuration. When you have strategies only experts know, you create local minima in the game space: some people get stuck in these local minima and never leave. "I've got a strategy that works for me. I tried using this other strategy and got killed. That other strategy must suck." Local minima are great for hardcore games and competitive games; they're like the treasure you discover exploring the game space, trying to find the deepest minimum. But it's possible you want to keep them out of mass market games entirely; if you have them, then by definition you're locking off a part of your game from a part of your audience.
If what I just said was completely murky, here's an example: Prince of Persia's counter-attack and counter-retrieve. I am able to pull one of these off about one out of ten tries. One out of five times, I go too early and get hit. Statistically, I'm able to beat up badguys faster by using the other moves in the Prince's arsenal. Although I could probably practice the counter-retrieve and get to the point where I'm more effective with it than the Prince's other techniques, I don't: I'm content with the other moves. The counter-retrieve is a tool for players who are harder core than I am. That element of the game is lost to me. PoP could go in a few directions at this point:
- make the combat so tough that you have to master the counter-retrieve. If they do this, then they're creating a shelf level event for the non hardcore players. "I couldn't get past the such-and-such and quit." Bad move, unless you playtest to the point where you're sure most of your players will be able to master it.
- once you finish the game, allow the hardcore to play through on higher difficulty levels, or provide bonus combat levels, where the combat is so hard that you have to master the counter-retrieve. Decent move, but then you are spending time working on part of the game that not everybody sees.
- leave the counter-retrieve as a cool extra for players who care. Decent move, but then you're spending time working on a cool move that only the hardcore will appreciate. Also, this bothers me aesthetically. When I play a game where there's moves or units that are hard to use and you don't actually need, it bothers me. I'm not sure why. A sense of waste? A feeling that the whole thing doesn't fit together as a cohesive whole? An example would be the counter in Zelda: I used it, but Chris Busse played the whole game without it. Knowing it wasn't necessary makes it seem like an unsightly vestigial appendage.
I haven't finished PoP yet, so I don't know which way they actually went.
Spider-Man 2 has plenty of local minima, so I'm pretty sure it will appeal to the hardcore. Right now we're leaning towards a variation of option 2: once you've finished the game there will be incredibly difficult bonuses to complete. Things are still in flux, long time before we ship, so--who knows?--some of those harder-to-get-to local minima might become considered part of the standard player's arsenal, and we'll provide more tutorial missions to make sure the player knows them.
"Local minima" is a pretty damn crappy word. I invite you to come up with a better one.
And, finally, a new episode of Manager in A Strange Land is up, aimed primarily at coders. On distributed builds: our build time has gotten a lot slower since I wrote the article, and we actually are in the process of getting a distributed build system up and running here, but we're not using Incredibuild, because we need it to work cross-platform, and it will be nice if it can handle the gameplay scripts as well. As usual, the hardest thing about optimizing your turnaround time is finding the resources to do it, but this does seem like one of those times where the benefits will outweigh the costs, even in the short term.