My Game Designer’s Toolkit

I thought it would be interesting to share the tools and programs which I consider my “toolkit”, the various pouches in my designer’s utility belt. I consider these things my A-team of development tools, and have been refined and added to over the years.

Physical Objects

  • A design notebook

photo
Behold, my abysmal handwriting! Cower in fear!
Probably the single most valuable tool I have, with the exception of my laptop. I write just about every game idea that pops into my brain down in this notebook. I used to be really obsessive about making sure I had an organization system to my notebooks (one subject per game, one notebook per game, etc.) but after a while I found that stifling, so my notebook is a pure stream of game design consciousness, where ideas can co-mingle. I find that doing this allows me to read through the notebook and re-enter a game design “state of mind” whenever I’m in a writer’s block.

Lots of people have surprisingly strong opinions about notebooks. The artist types I know have a love for the classic Moleskine, but I actually prefer a far more clandestine Five Star, five subject notebook. They’re pretty cheap, have a lot of pages, they’re bulky enough to last in a backpack (although they do that thing that spiral-bound notebooks do where the back cover and pages get all mangled), and in general I’ve enjoyed them.

The thing I like about spiral-bound notebooks over hard-bound is that I have access to more of the page. In a hard-bound notebook, it’s hard to write close to the margin, whereas in a spiral-bound I can write on the whole page. Also, I can choose to either have the notebook folded, for tight spaces, and to avoid visual clutter, or to have the whole thing laid out, to look at a large amount of writing all at once.

  • Nice pens

What does and does not qualify as a “nice” pen largely varies from person to person. Some people don’t really have a standard, whereas others will only write with fountain pens. I’ve flipped back and forth as to what kind of pens I write with. I wrote with .50mm Sakura Micron Pens for a while, but I found that they profusely bled through most paper. Currently, I’ve been using Sharpie’s fine point pens with great success. There’s not a ton of bleed through the paper, and the ink doesn’t smear too terribly easily (which is good, because I write with a heavy hand).

  • Playtesting notebook

On top of my design notebook, I have a secondary notebook which tends to live in a drawer most of the time. I break it out for playtests, to write down the notes I jot down during the game. Unlike the design notebook, there is a strict rule guiding the playtesting notebook: no two playtests share a page. One playtest can take multiple pages, but the second that test ends, there’s a page break. I want to remember every instance of playtesting as distinct.

Now, for my playtesting notebook, I actually use a hard-bound notebook, specifically the 5×8 Markings Ruled Notebook by C.R Gibson. I find that my playtest notes are usually pretty brief, and so I don’t really need to worry about maximizing my page space like in the design notebook. The other thing is that I try to give a certain degree of respect to my playtest notes. These are the closest things I’ll get to raw qualitative data about my games, and studying and learning this data is crucial to good design. Keeping it in a hard-bound notebook makes these notes feel, I dunno, official.

In reality, both the design and playtest notebook could both be either spiral-bound or hard-bound, it’s up to personal taste.

Software:

You don’t use Google Drive? The hell is wrong with you!

Google Drive, joking aside, is an amazing combination of a cloud service such as Dropbox with the entire Microsoft Office suite. Create documents, spreadsheets, drawings, and presentations from any computer, view and edit them from any other computer, and collaborate with any number of other people, offering them a variety of different editing permissions. Google Drive is a great way to organize and access my design docs, and allows me to seamlessly transition between my multiple computers to work.

Also, it’s free with a free Google account, so if you’re gonna sacrifice your data to one of the big corporations, why not pick the one with the coolest perks.

Continuing the trend of “free alternatives to expensive software”, Scribus is an open source alternative to Adobe inDesign, the industry standard for page design software.

For documents that have to be visually appealing, such as tabletop RPG rulebooks, Scribus is an invaluable tool which has a bit of a learning curve, but offers an amount of control and power that Word/Google Drive does not possess, and as someone who has spent hours trying to align a picture in the middle of a Word document, I can appreciate software that lets me manipulate my pictures to the pica. Scribus offers an extreme amount of control when it comes to placing objects on a page, and it also allows for PDF exporting!

Scribus was also what I used to lay out my card sheets for card games, due to its powerful Master Page system, that is until I found…

CardMaker is a free program which draws in information from a spreadsheet (either a CSV file, which is easily exported from any spreadsheet software worth its salt) or a Google Spreadsheet, and then imports that data into an easy-to-use card database.

Basically, you just lay out every card you want to make in the spreadsheet, and then CardMaker reads every column like a variable. Then, in CardMaker, you can dictate that you, say, want the “Name” column at the top of every card, and bam, every card’s name is in the exact same spot. The lack of a good drag-and-drop interface is the one item on my wish list for CardMaker, but it does let me generate a homogeneous deck of hundreds of distinct cards in a couple of minutes, so, you know, it’s fine by me.

GameMaker is the first piece of software I’ve mentioned that isn’t free (although it goes on drastic sale pretty regularly), but it’s an excellent first tool for learning how to make games. It’s not as full-fledged or “professional” as Unity is (you’re pretty much only making 2D games), but it’s still got quite a bit of potential. Hotline Miami, Undertale, Downwell, and Gunpoint are all GameMaker games, proving the engine can produce some really good games.

The nice thing about GameMaker is that it allows you to script at your own comfort level. If you have no experience coding, there are nice building blocks you can drag and drop, like Legos, to form simple logical structures. If you want to get into code, you can dive into Game Maker Language, the interpreted scripting language which powers the engine. It’s fairly simple to pick up, and your knowledge of “real” programming languages will translate at a 1-to-1 level with GML. However, it’s extremely forgiving, ignoring a lot of the syntactic elements of other programming languages (ex. semicolons at the ends of statements are totally optional).

All-in-all, GameMaker is an excellent tool for whipping up some really good games, that is willing to pick up the slack anywhere you might need to improve.

Ah, yes, the big guns. Unity is probably the most well-known and powerful of the free game engines (except Unreal, but Unreal isn’t really for-realsies free after a certain point, so..). Where GameMaker could only really build 2D games, Unity can build just about anything. 2D platformer? Sure. First-person shooter? Sure. Wanna use an NFC reader and an Arduino to make a response Duel Disk like in the Yu-Gi-Oh anime? DONE.

All in all, Unity has quite a few features, and also can have quite a steep leaning curve, but the range of possibility in what you can make with it is much greater. Sure, you probably do have to learn some real programming (Unity’s scripting is done in C#) and maybe even some real math (I’m still not 100% on what a quaternion is), but the payoff is well worth it.

Conclusion

Well, that’s about what I got right now. As I find and discover more tools, I’ll update and repost updated lists, but for now, quite frankly, this is all more than enough for anyone to make just about any game.

Advertisements

The Benefits of Travel in Game Design

I’m writing this post from Austin, TX, about three hours out from my home city of Dallas. You can tell I’m from Texas, because I measure distances in time, rather than distance.

fuk
Seriously, crossing the state of Texas longways takes 11 hours

Now, there are quite a few reasons I enjoy working on game design in Austin. There are, of course, Austin’s numerous and wonderful coffee shops, many of which are open 24 hours, and all of which already feature a dozen creatives also trying to pour their heart into something. (If you’re looking for recommendations, I highly recommend Summermoon, on 1st Street).

However, I have more reasons for lugging my notebook and laptop down here than just good coffee. I thoroughly believe that travel leads to better, and more interesting designs.

Game design is a study which, I believe, benefits from a knowledge of all things. The history of games, and the history of fiction even, is lined by people compiling things they’ve discovered and creating something out of them. Tolkien took what he knew about European folklore and linguistics, and turned them into The Lord of the Rings, which in turn became Dungeons and DragonsMass Effect over the series has been equal parts Star WarsSeven Samurai, and Lovecraftian horror.

The point I’m trying to hammer home is that travel exposes you to new ideas, new cultures that are different in ways you wouldn’t have even thought. Even relatively short trips, like mine from Dallas to Austin, can provide this. Dallas is a city of skyscrapers, of men in suits on the phone walking fast to their next meeting, and of big companies doing…big company stuff. Austin, however, moves at a slower pace. It has skyscrapers, sure, and big companies abound, but you’re likely to gaze at those skyscrapers from the patio of a coffee shop, or a locally-sourced restaurant, in the company of hundreds of artists all trying to bring their vision to life. Dallas and Austin are both cities driven by passion, but Dallas is driven towards success, while Austin is driven towards creating something new.

By taking a trip every once in a while, and learning about a different culture, or even just seeing some different sights, can trigger different parts in your subconscious and cause you to write or code or draw or whatever with, just, a different flair. Even I’ve noticed that while I’ve been in Austin, my writing, and even the comments in my code, have gotten a little bit, I dunno, friendlier?

Furthermore, travel just gives you an opportunity to learn and find out about new things, and who knows what might stick to make an interesting game. I found that the idea of the Voodoo Veve resonated with me, and I’ll probably end up including it in a game someday, and I found out about that on a walking tour of New Orleans. Furthermore, the tale of Marie Laveau, or the concept of a gris-gris, seem ripe for inclusion in games. I have a photo album of uniforms, stories, and simple objects that I found in Austin’s Bullock Texas State History Museum which inspire me. I was scribbling notes about tales of Italian civil war when I accidentally went to Rome on the anniversary of Italian unification.

IMG_0540
I thought I had a picture of the wreath I found commemorating the anniversary, but I don’t, so instead, here’s a bust that kinda looked like Voldemort.

Travel, by its very definition, exposes you to new ideas and cultures. By exploring museums, tours, or even just walking around, you can find and discover brand-new stuff which you never would have thought of before, and you can integrate that into your game.

There’s no better time to travel, too. Gas prices are pretty cheap right now, so road trips aren’t too terribly pricey (in my Chevy truck, I made the three-hour journey to Austin with about fifteen bucks’ worth of gas). Furthermore, airbnb, the hospitality service where individuals open up their spaces for rent, has slashed the cost of room and board by quite a bit. In fact, I’m comfortable saying that, through airbnb, you can probably spend a night in any city on Earth for less than a hundred bucks a night, and get your own bedroom too.

Travel is a wonderful thing, I don’t think anyone will deny that. However, travel also provides that sort of shift in perspective that a creative field such as ours really benefits from. It exposes you to new types of stories, new types of people, new situations which you wouldn’t have even thought of otherwise. These new ideas have the potential to become amazing new games. And, with how cheap travel is nowadays, I’d highly recommend even just taking a weekend and going somewhere new.

A Love Letter to Cool Squads of Bad Guys

I am currently in the middle of an attempt to play through all 7 titles in the Metal Gear Solid series. It was originally an attempt to complete the series prior to the release of The Phantom Pain, but that plan failed miserably. So now, here I sit, having just beaten the first game in the franchise. As I completed my jaunt through Shadow Moses Island, I realized how much I love cool teams of bad guys.

Metal Gear Solid‘s manifestation of the cool team of bad guys is FOX-HOUND, and may be one of the best representations of the concept. There is a well-defined squad of soldiers that you know you’re up against from minute one of the game. You get multiple opportunities to learn who FOX-HOUND is as a group, and as individuals. Each member of the team experiences a short arc over the course of the game, each of which contribute to an unspoken group arc: the story of war creating monsters out of men.

20130715161916_foxhound_02
From left to right: Who?, Gimp Wizard, Dirty Harry, Captain Eugenics, Booby Dog Lady, and Spiritual Murder Man

The key, in my opinion, to forming a really good cool squad of bad guys, is to strike the perfect balance of the group as a group, and the group as a collection of individuals. The Pokemon games fall too close to the former: all of the admins in the various series teams are basically the same caricature of their team’s one line mantra. Meanwhile, the Quarter Knights from Wild ARMs: Alter Code F are too far to the other end: they seem too distinct, and have no real connection to one another other than their common goal.

FOX-HOUND, on the other hand, manages to remain a cohesive team while also keeping their individual personalities. Every FOX-HOUND member is an elite supersoldier, dedicated to the legacy of Big Boss. Every member was corrupted by war into a killing machine. They’re all proud, well-spoken, and well-educated. However, each has an iconic weapon of choice, a unique visual style, and their own unique set of quirks. Psycho Mantis can read your mind. Sniper Wolf has a connection to dogs. Vulcan Raven, ravens. Revolver Ocelot is a cowboy. Decoy Octopus is the exception, but that’s mostly due to his role in the story.

Overlord also has a really strong cool team of bad guys. They form a singular whole, as the heroes who dethroned the previous Overlord and became kings of the land. They are also personalized, each with their own levels, and a unique Deadly Sin which they, and their regions, personify.

Speaking of the religious theme, think of the Cardinal Virtues of Bayonetta. They all share a visual style, their booming voice and penchant for monologue, and they’re all huge. However, each has a uniquely disturbing look, and control one of the four elements.

Temperantia
The Cardinal Virtues all sort of look like your grandmother’s porcelain dolls decided to take up a Holy War.

However, the Cardinal Virtues commit a major sin of the super-cool bad guy team, and that’s teasing the final bout with them for too long. Every Cardinal Virtue gets fought no less than 3 times, meaning that fights with the Virtues quickly go from meaningful strikes at this bad guy team, to tedious repetition. If you want fighting against your bad guy team to feel satisfying, let the players make meaningful progress against the team, instead of having 3+ fights with the same guy until you finally have the “real” fight.

FOX-HOUND never teases the player with too many bait-and-switches. With few exceptions, when you have a direct, no-gimmicks fight against a FOX-HOUND member, when you win, that’s it. There’s little “Ahaha, good fight, and now I’ll run away to fight another day!”. Psycho Mantis, the first meaningful kill on the team, is killed extremely early in the story (but not early enough that he couldn’t leave a lasting impression).

Meanwhile, when a Quarter Knight appears in Wild ARMs: Alter Code F appears, it’s incredibly unsatisfying, especially after fighting and defeating (with ease!) the same Quarter Knight time after time prior to that point. You’re not anticipating a climactic battle with your foe, you’re wondering if this is going to be the time you actually get to kill them.

Fighting a member of your super cool team of bad guys needs to feel special, otherwise your team of bad guys loses the sense of awe surrounding them. You waste all that awe on the first encounter, and ensure that the following fights are tedious. The first fight against Sapientia in Bayonetta is an epic encounter, the second is a chore, and cheapens the consequences of your first fight.

In conclusion, the key to make a cool team of bad guys is to make sure they form a cohesive team, identifiable as a single unit. However, you need to balance that by making every team member distinct and unique, maybe even so far as making them all various spins on the same character arc. Make fights with your cool team of bad guys matter, and allow players to feel like they are affecting the bad guy team, not just fighting them.

 

Anarchy Reigns and the Non-Sequel Sequel

Leo_Fight
Anarchy Reigns is basically Anime: The Game

Anarchy Reigns is one of Platinum Games’s least popular titles, understandably shadowed by Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. However, I particularly enjoyed the game, and while it certainly isn’t perfect, I think there’s something to be learned from it that’s relevant to the modern gaming space: making a sequel that isn’t a sequel.

Anarchy Reigns is the pseudosequel to MadWorld, the ultraviolent brawler that Platinum put out for the Wii. Madworld followed Jack Cayman, a badass with a chainsaw sword fighting his way up the leaderboards in Deathwatch: a fully-televised murder competition. As the game progresses, Jack is revealed as an agent of the Chaser agent organization, and as the previous champion of Deathwatch. The final antagonist, Leo, is the son of a major pharmaceutical president, who hopes to use the games (which infects all people in the city with a virus, and only offers vaccines to those who participate in the bloodshed) to sell his company’s vaccines. The game ends with Leo being eviscerated and thrown off a skyscraper.

Anarchy Reigns also stars Jack Cayman and Leo, but as dual protagonists. Jack is still with the Chasers, but this time is on a quest to gain revenge for his murdered daughter. Leo, notably not dead, is an agent for the Bureau of Public Safety, a police force staffed by cyborg/human hybrids (“Cybrids”), and now has some real sweet laser sword implants.

Deathwatch as an organization does not exist in Anarchy Reigns, nor does the original game’s setting of Varrigan City. Instead, Anarchy Reigns takes place in Altambra, a post-apocalyptic city where legions of criminals and mutants are kept in check by the Cybrid police force. The Black Baron and Mathilda, MCs of the Deathwatch games, reappear as rogue bounty hunters.

Anarchy Reigns both is a sequel and is not. 7 characters from MadWorld reappear in the game. However, none of the characters ever make the slightest nods to their past lives in the Deathwatch Games. With an unrelated plot, unrelated setting, and seemingly no acknowledgement to the previous game, Anarchy Reigns certainly doesn’t feel like a sequel.

22668baron-2-screen
The Baron also receives a pair of flaming phoenix gauntlets. Stupid weaponry is a key bulletpoint for Anarchy Reigns

 

It doesn’t really play like a sequel, either. MadWorld originally focused heavily on the usage of environmental interactables to increase the spectacle of your kills. Anarchy Reigns has a few of those interactables, but instead it focuses on more traditional melee combat.

I’m heavily reminded of Edgar Wright’s psuedotrilogy of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End. These three films do not exist in any sort of chronology, yet they have a common pool of core cast, common sense of humor, and similar plot structures. These movies can’t be called sequels, and yet, anyone familiar with one of the three movies will probably find themselves comfortable with the other two.

On the opposite end, I’m reminded of Bioshock Infinite as a sequel that was too much of a sequel. Designers transposed core mechanics like Plasmids and the looting systems, without care that Plasmids were very out of place in Columbia, and digging through the trash for food is hilariously anachronistic in a game that takes place in a living city. Infinite could have used some distance from its older brother.

As a result, I want to see more of these pseudosequels. These games don’t consider themselves continuations, but instead use the plot elements and general gameplay of their predecessor almost like an architect uses arches, colonnades, and buttresses, or like a rapper uses beats from the songs they are sampling. They are taking elements familiar to the series and remixing them, creating something which is, for all intents and purposes, new, and yet completely familiar to fans.

Instead of becoming slave to the universe you create, forcing yourself to shoehorn your new ideas in your old game structure, be like Platinum sometimes. Platinum wanted to develop a MadWorld sequel which focused more heavily on 1-on-1 combat between ridiculous characters, and wanted to abandon the Deathwatch story structure. Instead of trying to shoehorn those ideas into MadWorld, Platinum simply took their old game and sampled it, creating common threads that fans of the previous game would enjoy, but ultimately building something new.

 

Occupy Capcom: The Middle Class of Fighting Games is Underrepresented

I’m an avid Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 player. I think at last count I’ve put about 200 hours into both versions of the game, and definitely consider it my favorite fighting game of all time. I certainly have a storied history with fighting games: I have vivid memories of staying up all night at a friend’s playing Soul Calibur II and Super Smash Bros. Melee. I’ve bought every single version of Street Fighter IV like a sucker, and I’ve definitely shouted with joy at a fair share of EVO moments.

I certainly wouldn’t call myself an “expert” or “top-tier” player though. I simply didn’t have the patience to master long button sequences. I’m not a button-masher either. I’m in a weird space where I can easily destroy anyone unfamiliar with basic fighting game paradigms face-to-face, but anyone who knows what they’re doing will wreck me online. I am, for lack of a better word, intermediate.

marvel_vs_capcom_3_fate_of_two_worlds_by_tameryesildag-d58e41b
99% of the tier list is possessed by 1% of the characters #OccupyTeamTrenchcoat

I feel like fighting games aren’t made for me, though. Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 has a “Simple” control scheme it touted for less expert players, but I find it insultingly easy. At the same time, when you enter the training mode for each character, which has you trying to complete combos for each character in a tutorial environment, are frustratingly hard after the fourth or fifth trial. The Arcade mode AI is either dumb as rocks or ball-bustingly hard. There’s nowhere for me to just play the game.

Mortal Kombat (and presumably Mortal Kombat X, which I have not played) solved this by giving me a fairly extensive set of interesting things to do with my moderate amount of skill. The story mode was extensive, and was actually fairly interesting, and the Challenge Tower allowed me to hone and practice my skills in nice, low-tension chunks.

maxresdefault
Remember that time Mileena made Scorpion a teddy bear, but he didn’t like it, so instead they just killed each other?

Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 though, gives me no such thing. Either I can knock my head against the brick wall that is the training mode, I can get curb-stomped online, or I can go into free training and goof off for twenty minutes before getting bored. There’s nothing I can do that allows me to use my skills in this game to complete something low-stakes. Everything in the game is dedicated towards being the best. I don’t want to be the best, though. Being the best at a fighting game is really hard. I wanna be the okayest.

That’s why the fighting game moments I remember most fondly from my history with the genre aren’t times where I was fighting to prove I was the best, they were goofy challenges that certainly needed skill, but at the same time were there for their own sake, not as some stepping stone on the path to EVO fame. I remember Soul Calibur IIs Adventure mode. I remember playing a 99-stock match of Smash where the only way you were allowed to kill someone was by swallowing them and jumping off the map. I remember running sets of Marvel 3 with my friends with the worst possible team compositions. I wasn’t becoming better in these moments, but I was having fun.

As fighting games enjoy their resurgence in popularity, and growing competitive scene, I wish they would focus on us, the middle-tier players of their games. The ones that enjoy interacting with their games and all of its systems, but have no desires to be the best. I want to watch the characters interact, and to have to figure out how to use the mechanics and weird and interesting scenarios. I don’t care about frames, I don’t care about framerate, and whatever the hell a link is, I don’t care about that either.

 

Section 8: Prejudice was amazing and nobody played it

hd-section-8-prejudice-1280x800
Neat.

Were you to look at my Steam Profile, and look at how long I’ve played my games, you’d notice a couple of things. One, I tend to jump very sporadically across games, with most of my 200+ games not having been played for over 5 hours. You might also notice that, in that top echelon of games I have sunk dozens of hours into, there is an oddity. The top of the list is Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II, which I have already professed my love for. After that is PC mainstay Team Fortress 2, and then, beating Left 4 Dead 2Garry’s Mod, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, is a oft-forgotten game called Section 8: Prejudice.

Let me preface this post by saying it’s less of a review and more of an obituary. Section 8: Prejudice has been doubly-killed, both by the shutdown of Games for Windows – Live, and developer Timegate getting sued into oblivion. Section 8: Prejudice has a single-player mode, but it sucks, and the game still needs a GFWL account to play, so unless you already have an account and really like bot matches, there’s no point trying to get this game.

But, man, that’s a shame. Section 8 was often called a mix between Halo and Battlefield, which is a fair comparison. Dudes in big suits of power armor shoot at each other with future guns, while also attempting to complete objectives and capture bases on a large and relatively free-form map. To simplify Section 8 down to those two components, though, ignores some of the game’s more interesting features.

For starters, there’s the simplicity of the spawning mechanic. In Section 8, you don’t spawn in, you drop in at high velocity from orbit. You pick a point on the map and drop, choosing when you want to pump the brakes. The earlier you brake out of freefall, the longer you have movement control, meaning you can actually drift away from your original landing zone and drop somewhere else. Meanwhile, if you brake at the last possible second, you’re harder to hit for the duration of your fall, and have a chance to crush someone to death with your landing.

These falling techniques are important, too, because every map has AA turrets specially placed to shoot players out of the sky while they fall. Every base has an AA turret standard, meaning that they’re safe from enemies jumping into them. However, players can mount strikes to destroy the AA turret, thus allowing them to constantly bombard a base with soldiers. Players can also simply specialize in tanking shots, allowing them to dive straight into AA fire and live.

Speaking of which, this game, like Battlefield, allows for loadout customization, but the degree to which you can play with your build is far more granular.

2015-11-16_00001
Yeah, nothing gets you ready for some high-octane space war like energized weaves!

You can your 10 points into any configuration of the thirteen upgrade paths, modifying everything from your bullet or explosive damage to your shields and health to your speed and run meter.

Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention. Section 8 solves the “I’m here, but all the cool stuff is on the other side of the map” issue that Battlefield has by giving every character a jetpack and a supersonic run, allowing everyone to cross the map in record time.

On top of this, players can also use money that they earn mid-game through kills and objectives to buy one of two vehicles: as close to a Ghost from Halo as copyright lawyers would allow, and a big, dumb mechsuit. However, these funds can also be used to drop in machine gun, rocket, or AA turrets, meaning you can take a more defensive route by building and maintaining defenses for your base, or setting up FOBs in the middle of your battlefield to try and secure objectives. On the flip side, all of this stuff drops in, so you need to make sure your supply drops aren’t going to take enemy AA fire.

The objectives system, by the way, is really cool. There’s capturing and holding bases in order to secure a stream of Victory Points, in true Battlefield fashion, but on top of that these Dynamic Combat Missions, or DCMs, will trigger throughout the match randomly. There are 9 types of these, and they range from trying to place a marker for an airstrike in an enemy base, to surviving an hit put out against your entire team, to one of your teammates basically becoming a Predator. They’re varied, awesome, and always change the flow of battle whenever they appear.

Now, Section 8: Prejudice isn’t perfect. Dudes take a lot of bullets in this game, especially if they’ve spec’d for armor (meant to emphasize juggling between your anti-infantry and anti-armor loadouts), but as a result gunfights can be kind of tedious. The game’s presentation isn’t exceptionally polished, and as previously mentioned, the campaign is just butts.

However, Section 8: Prejudice gives players a lot to do, and a lot of ways in which every match can be different. They key takeaway, however, is that Section 8 always lets players do what they want. Players can assume one of multiple team roles through their loadout, far more varied than in a Battlefield or Halo. Anyone can drop down big mech suits or speeder bikes if they want, instead of having to squabble over the few vehicles on the map. Players can spawn wherever they want, and get to anywhere on the map fast, meaning downtime is extremely minimal.

The lesson, then, is that making a game which singularly focuses on a single multiplayer gametype is possible. Perhaps what is key is making sure that as little time in a match as possible is wasted waiting to do cool stuff, and as much time as possible is spent doing cool stuff.

Actually, that’s probably a good mantra for game design in general.

Guns as Avatars: Expressing Oneself Through Weaponry

So, one week later, I can say that I definitely like Fallout 4. Despite my poor experiences in Concord, the rest of the game is shaping up to be extremely engaging. I love exploring the Wasteland, meeting new people, and stealing glue.

Why am I stealing glue? I’m stealing glue because of Fallout 4‘s extremely deep crafting system, which allows me to modify every part of every weapon and piece of armor I own, allowing me to use raw materials from the environment to completely change the properties of a given item.

For example, I still have the first pistol one gets in the game, but it’s no longer recognizable as a pistol. Instead, it’s a sniper rifle, and while it’s not the best sniper rifle I have, it does use a fairly common ammo type, and plus, I made it. I feel a certain connection to it, because I hand-selected every single piece of the gun, and built it myself with parts that I had to find.

ScreenShot0
This is my rifle. There are very few like it, but this one is mine.

This system is extremely engaging, and honestly, it’s what I’ve spent the lion’s share of my last 4 hours with the game doing. I love this mechanic so much. It provides mechanical justification for all of the junk items in the world, it produces new impetus to explore (“I need oil for this part, maybe there’s some by the gas station!”), and it also gives me one more way to customize my character. I’d argue, this is also the single most significant method of character customization in Fallout 4.

Think of the other methods of character customization. There’s the personality of character you develop, but that only comes into play when you interact with other friendly NPCs, and you can go for hours without doing that in the game. There are your stats and perks, but your stats tend to affect behind-the-scenes dice rolls and numerical attributes like health, which are hard to identify with, while your perks frequently only matter in single, distinct situations.

But your gun, that’s a whole different story. If you’re 99% of players, you’ll be playing Fallout 4 in the first person, and despite the presence of the “Holster Gun” button, you’ll probably spend most of that time with a gun drawn. That means that, for a good chunk of the game, the only part of your character you’ll be able to actually see is your gun.

Sure, you have your visual customization as well, from your face and hair to your clothes, but again, Fallout 4 is mostly first-person, and unless you’re talking to someone or in VATS, you’re not seeing that character. Plus, in both of these scenarios, there are high odds that your gun is still prominently in frame. In Fallout 4, the single element of your character which dominates your perception is your gun.

In previous modern Fallout games, there was certainly a wide enough selection of firearms to be able to select something close a weapon that defined your character, especially if you were playing a character archetype that the game was accounting for (a Brotherhood paladin, a cowboy, a raider, etc.). Fallout 4, however, gives you full control over this most prevalent part of your character, allowing your gun to be as ramshackle or pristine, as precise or as brutal, as up-close-and-personal or as distant as your character.

As I was rummaging through a file cabinet, frantically searching for screws, I was wondering why more first-person shooters don’t do this. After all, what I’ve said about guns in Fallout applies to guns in any first-person shooters: they are always the single most commonly shown element of the character. And yet, so few FPSs go to this level of weapon customization. When you look at the TV Tropes page for item crafting, it only lists three FPSs, and none of them exhibit anything close to the degree of customization as Fallout.

There’s a reason I’m using the word “gun” as much as I am, despite Fallout 4 having a range of melee weapons as well. Across cultures, East or West, we tend to associate our modern day heroes and villains with their guns. Dirty Harry isn’t Dirty Harry with a 9mm. Lupin III isn’t Lupin III with a shotgun. Ash isn’t Ash with a sniper rifle. These characters are not defined by their gun, but their gun is permanently associated with who they are.

Koushun Takami didn't include the Walthier P38 in Battle Royale because he said the gun had too strong a cultural link to Lupin III
Koushun Takami didn’t include the Walthier P38 in Battle Royale because he said the gun had too strong a cultural link to Lupin III

First-person shooters are the same. The big boys, like Call of Duty or Battlefield understand this, and allow players to select, trick-out, and custom paint every screw holding their gun together. Even still, though, this only occurs in multiplayer, where your character is a randomized avatar for whatever arbitrary faction you’re fighting for. Your character in these games is singularly your gun, because the meatbag holding it is randomly generated for you.

I think more first-person shooters should embrace the idea of customizing your gun. The gun takes up a large chunk of screen real-estate at all times. I certainly see it much more than I do an Unreal Tournament character’s head, and yet those games have featured avatar customization since the first installment, and yet have nothing allowing you to change even just the look of your guns.

Sure, not all FPSs should have weapon customization. But, those that do want players to build a custom character (like Deus Ex), those that focus on letting players “play their way” (such as Bioshock), or even those which simply have a blank slate character that players transpose themselves on (such as Halo or Doom) could implement weapon customization as a way to let players customize their character and playstyle in a noticeable and satisfying way.