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When Technology Isn’t Enough

Riddick and his Ulaks (read: sharp knives)

Riddick and his Ulaks (read: sharp knives)

Between being laid out with a kickboxing injury on my foot (not as manly as it sounds, I’m afraid) and food poisoning (which really is as non-manly as it sounds), I’ve had plenty of time to play some more games, without having to write it off to any significant others or advisers as “research”. Gamefly delivered “The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena”, which has touched a nerve that has been twinging a long time (not in my foot): while technology is a great gameplay enabler, it’s also no panacea when the game design is flawed.

Forest Griffin takes a beating in UFC Undisputed 2009

Forest Griffin takes a beating in UFC Undisputed 2009

Before Riddick, I was playing UFC Undisputed 2009. UFC 2009 is a game that simply could not have reached the same level of gameplay potential in the previous console generation. Yes, it is fundamentally pressing buttons to hit people, and there’s nothing new about that, but the physics engine elevates the game to something more than any fighting game has managed. Watching bodies and faces perfectly writhe and contort after repeated blows creates a feeling of contact between the characters that is unmatched. When a character weaves left, just into the path of a big right hook, you’re not surprised that it’s a flash Total Knockout. The game needed the technology to be what it is.

The Riddick games, for those who have not played them, are a stealth/FPS shooter cross, where Riddick hunts in the dark, not hides. It’s a great combination, every stealthy kill both empowering and rewarding. When you’re in the dark, your view glows blue, indicating your safety. Dark Athena boasts “improved AI” over the previous Escape From Butcher Bay, and yet even with this better technology, Dark Athena constantly violates the contract it has made with the player. The game inexcusably cheats. When hiding in the dark, regardless of how hidden you are, there are triggered points where enemies will see you, despite the fact you’re perfectly hidden. The game’s agency tanks, hampered by trigger-logic gameplay decisions that act to prevent the non-guided AI from working correctly. Andrew Phister of 1UP makes similar observations:

  • In impressive displays of prophetic knowledge, enemy combatants might immediately open fire on your location the instant you’re exposed, regardless if they saw you go there or not.
  • Similarly, they can instantly locate you and return the fire the moment you squeeze the trigger, even if they didn’t see you enter the area.
  • And they’re more accurate than you are, even from a distance.
  • Even still, some troopers will deftly sidestep your fire, as if they knew exactly where you were going to shoot. A fun example of this: There’s a bridge in a town that is patrolled by two drone guards. Standing on an overlooking platform, you can launch a SCAR charge down below. While the charge is still in flight and behind the oblivious guard, he’ll nonetheless be magically moved out of harm’s way by the game engine, as if your fire had a magnetic repulsion.
  • Enemies can track you through walls and crates, rendering cat-and-mouse techniques useless.
  • In certain situations, if you’re in stealth mode, hidden in the dark and completely motionless, enemy guards will still walk immediately and directly towards you, flushing you out into the open. Testing this in different places during the same encounter yielded the same results.

The interesting aspect of these issues is that they’re gameplay choices with fairly simple AI fixes. Yet these choices spoil an otherwise great game.

This is why I think it’s important that there’s more cross-contamination between game studies and Computer Science game research. Technology, in and of itself, is simply not enough, but without it, great new games won’t be created. EIS will be sending a sizable contingent to DiGRA 2009, one of the premiere game studies conferences, hopefully to pursue this goal. Greater understanding of the mechanics of gaming helps guide our own research to solving pertinent game design problems, rather than creating technology for its own sake.

About the author:  Chris Lewis is a British PhD student researching the intersection of software engineering and video game development. Read more from this author

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