Friday, November 26, 2010

Wait, I'm Watching the Cutscene!

Story. Stories in games in particular. It's a problem for most game developers who make a game that isn't a pure puzzle, action puzzle or otherwise abstract game. You know what I mean: Tetris doesn't really need a story. Or maybe it does? I spend a lot of time thinking about these things.

There are a lot of ways to categorize games. We categorize by genre, of course: shooter, puzzle, racing, sport, strategy, role-playing, and so on. We categorize by what  platform a game is played on: home console, personal computer, hand helds, etc. We also categorize by the format: single player, co-op, multiplayer, massively multiplayer. Each of these categories bring with them possibilities and limitations when it comes to telling a story of some kind.

Does pinball really need a story?
If you're like me, you like story. When asked, I can name hundreds of movies, books, comics, games, songs, paintings and speeches that have moved me. The story can be a few sketched out sentences, or even a song title, like “Dancing On My Own” or “Raining Blood”. In other formats, the story is long and complex, masterfully crafted throughout an entire novel, like “Crime and Punishment”, or “Out”. A movie is only about 90 minutes, but because it is a one-way, chronologically organized medium a director can pack a large amount of story in one.

Games are their own medium, good at some things and restricted in other ways. The good thing is that we get a lot to work with. We have music and sound effects, we get all the visuals like characters, enemies, levels and props - even the Graphical User Interface (GUI) and the menus.  Most games have text, delivered in different ways, and many games have voice-over, too. Unlike most other media game designers also get actions to work with. These are usually referred to as “verbs”. Typical verbs are things like “jump”, “shoot”, “open”, “run”, “evade” and “buy”. When we watch a movie or read a book the only verbs are “watching/listening” or “reading”.

Moscow: forever associated with turning 4-piece blocks
 Not all games are the same of course. In single player games the player is closer to being part of a “captive audience”, same as when we watch a movie. That means we can expect greater patience with cut scenes as well as longer voice-overs and texts. Levels can often be more linear, which means it's easier to guarantee a particular experience. In multiplayer games people have less patience with anything that locks you down or requires long periods of unbroken attention. It's pretty easy to understand: when there are other people around, a lot of our brain power is immediately diverted to “figure out what the others are up to”. We don't want to be bogged down and risk missing important signals from opponents or team mates. That means that it's close to impossible to tell a linear, attention-demanding story in a massively multiplayer game.  Who wants to get ganked (or left behind) because they're busy watching a long cut-scene? The same goes for level design: it needs to be more open, because in a multiplayer game, many players will be looking for alternative ways of doing things. Most people don't want to do what everyone else is doing: they want to be creative and feel smart when others may be watching them.

Okay, so cut-scenes and walls of text/dialogue are out. But we still want a story, so where does that leave us? First off, I'm a big fan of scenario. By using graphics, sounds and verbs, it's possible to establish a setting and a number of tasks that need doing. Are we fishing on a beautiful river, and need to find and catch as many fish as we can in a limited time? Perhaps we're stalking through the jungle at night, looking for treasure to collect while we're fighting off conquistador zombies. In these cases, the scenario itself tells a pretty powerful story.

Is this what any of us really wants?
In massively multiplayer games players usually get to create their own avatars. As a game designer, I can't know if someone's male or female, large or small, friendly or violent, dressed for utility or for a formal function. It's the player's job to create the character and whichever way the player chooses to act determines what sort of person that character is. So as a game designer, the avatar is mainly off limits. But there are characters we do get to control, such as the non-player characters (NPCs).  In MilMo, we have a lot of fun designing and writing people like Frank, Spike, Siggie and Blue. These are the people who inhabit the MilMo Universe, and each can be an individual with problems, hopes and dreams the player can learn about. In helping the NPCs with their ambitions, the players can learn more about the world and about the people who live in it. Even a lot of single player games use NPCs to boost the story. These are usually sidekicks, like your partners in Uncharted: Drake's Fortune or Oracle in Batman: Arkham Asylum.

This game has a lot of NPCs. And it's a good thing, too!
Another way of telling the story is through level progression. Players start in one type of environment, like Lightmill Island, and then more throughout the adventure along a reasonably predictable route. In Summer Tide Saga, the theme of Alien Invasion is gradually introduced as the player progresses. (I'll avoid spoilers).

One of my favorite ways of strengthening the scenario based story telling is though “fluff items”. Fluff items are things like books, bottled messages, carvings etc. that can be found throughout the world. They let curious players learn about the background of the world, and about the different things that are going on. For players who don't care about such things, they don't get in the way and they aren't necessary. It's a neat way of getting past the problems of the captive audience and offer deeper world lore to those who are interested. In other games, such fluff items can be audio snippets or animations. I recently played Mass Effect 2. In one of the rooms aboard my ship I found two people sitting at a table talking. They were always commenting on what had just happened in the world, and always related it to their own worries regarding their family members and friends. It was a clever way of reinforcing the story and putting it into perspective without actually forcing the player to sit and listen to chatty junior crew members.

Search and you shall find. Extra story for the hungry.
But do all games need story? I guess the answer is no. But almost every game can be improved by at least a hint of story. When Nintendo released Tetris for the Game Boy, the menu had graphics representing the famous onion domes of the Kremlin. That was probably to reinforce the Russian heritage of the game. A completely abstract game like “Minesweeper”, included on most PCs, has story woven into its very name. It works on me: when I imagine a mine field that I have to clear, I have a much easier time accepting that a single mistake means game over than I would have had if the game had a nonsense name like “Grix” or “Flabbermajibbit”.

A good old classic
I really hope you enjoy the story elements of MilMo. We want to give you a smooth, unobtrusive experience that still has a clear flavor to it. We always try to include extra information for the players who like the MilMo Universe as we strive to allow the game to be action oriented and fun. After all, MilMo is a game where the gameplay the players is what matters the most. But that doesn't mean a healthy helping of story is a bad thing.

All the best,


Ola Holmdahl is a game designer and CEO at Junebud. Ola's previous career includes teaching game design, doing game design, and creating concept art. In a previous life he was a freelance artist and an academic (but not at the same time).

Friday, November 12, 2010

The People Behind MilMo

In this post I want to talk about who the people behind MilMo are. If you hang around on the Forum, you probably remember me talking about "the script team" or the "design team" or the "level designers". A couple of days ago I realized this might seem confusing, so today it's time to introduce the teams working day and night to make MilMo what it is!

First out we have the famous scripting team. Scripting is a bit like being a programmer, only you kind of build upon the rules the programmers already put in place. Scripters place the enemies, tell them how to react to players and make sure they drop the right loot. But our beloved scripters have more artistic assignments, too. Scripters plan, write and implement the storyline and the quests. They make sure you get your medals and your rewards. Right now our scripting team consist of people from USA, Finland and Sweden. 

The future is bright! Ola at Games Com 2010

But to make all this scripting work, there has to be a solid foundation of code. This is the code that makes everything else work. This means work for the programmers. We have gameplay programmers, web programmers, backend programmers and interface programmers. Some people think all programmers are lurking in their dungeons, afraid of sunlight and exercise. The programmers working on MilMo are bright and funny people. Some of them like hiking, other juggling and one of the gameplay programmers even grows her own herbs and spices in her garden! It seems they like to keep all parts of their brains busy. Programming is hard work, and you have to be careful about the details.

Me and our concept artist at Games Com 2010

But who comes up with the ideas for MilMo? The same ideas programmers and scripters work so hard to implement in to the game? That's a job for the game designers, who make up the design team. Being a game designer is very complex. Usually you have a lot of different skills and know a little bit about everything. You have to have good communication skills, both written and spoken, to get your ideas across to the rest of the team. You might have to tweak numbers in order to create the perfect balance for one game system (weapons for example), or you might work with designing new game play features (like the Exploration Tokens, the Shop or the special potions). It's often the designer's job to keep an eye on the rest of the team and make sure everyone keeps their deadlines. A game designer might spend half of the day with the script team talking about the look and feel of the new island, and the rest of the day working with updating the project plan. One of our game designers have even morphed into a businessman and is responsible for meeting with new investors, meeting with other companies and making sure our public relations are taken care of. The other one sometimes takes the shape of a sound designer. Game designers are shape shifters (or at least very flexible people).

So that's some of the stuff under the hood. On the "surface" you have the graphic team (also known as the art team at some companies). When you start playing MilMo your first impression is always the surface; what the game looks like. Our graphic team consist of a bunch of people with broad skill sets. We have a concept artist who draws the portraits of all the NPCs, the map and the splash screens, among other things. His job is to transform ideas into pictures, in order to help set the look and atmosphere for the game. Our 3D-artists and level designers look at these drawings, and model the objects using special software. The animator animates them to appear lifelike. The graphic team also paints textures for all items and clothes. They have an excellent eye for color and form.
A self-portrait made by our animator. She draws comics on her spare time

Our level designers work closely with both the graphics team and the game designers when they create the "physical" world of MilMo. They are the "architects" of the MilMo Universe. They listen to the designers and look at the concept artwork when they build the new levels. They constantly have to think along the lines of, “How can I make this forest/island/basement understandable for the player? How do I set the right mood with lighting? How many trees can I use on this level, if I use too many the loading time will be too long”. Our level designers have plenty of experience in creating graphics and working with 3D. 

An early concept picture of Visitor Island, made by one of the level designers

Okay, by now you hopefully know more about the teams that design, code, create and paint the game you play! When you work with game development you can't do it all by yourself (anymore). You need a lot of different people, and they all need to have some basic team working-skills.

See you online,


Sara is the Community Manager at Junebud. She also works with Quality Assurance (QA) and social media. She's got a bachelor's degree in game design, but likes the social part a bit more than tweaking numbers. She usually spends her time moderating the forum, testing the game and planning new events.