Mission of Bad-Ass: The problem of cross-disciplinary communication.
An Article by Trick Dempsey
We watched the screen in amazement as the player leaped skillfully from platform to platform tearing pieces of his giant, mechanical opponent. After one final, devastating blow, the titanic mecha-fiend toppled to the ground in a cloud of dust and debris. The player panned the camera as he surveyed the scene, eying carefully the path of destruction left behind after the robot attack; finally realizing how close the failure he had come with each step.
The lights came up in the conference room as the game faded to black with wild applause. Over the cheering, one voice rang out: “It’s not bad-ass enough!”
All eyes turned to the art director as he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I can’t work with this garbage. How can I make this bad-ass?”
The level designer set the controller down, making an awful click in the tense silence. “What would you suggest to make the level more bad-ass?”
The screen switched to displaying a flyby of the intricate, multi-tiered battle arena, first unscathed then in its most destroyed state. Tall, angular buildings jutted out of the playspace as the camera detailed the critical player path rising up in a spiral from the destruction below.
The art director coughed: “It’s too flat. Something that flat can’t be bad-ass. It’s uninspired. Uninspired can’t be bad-ass.”
“Alright,” the level desinger said through clenched teeth, “do you have any suggestions for how to make it more bad-ass?”
The art director stood up sharply: “If you don’t know what ‘bad-ass’ is then I’m not going to tell you.” He glanced briefly at the stunned crowd. “You are off this design until you can learn to do your job!”
And with that my coworker, a talented artist and designer, was moved into the scripting department. He has never scripted before, he has never needed to, he’s always been to valuable at his actual job to be pushed off into the work he knows the least about.
What we have here is a failure to communicate.
To a designer, phrases like “bad-ass”, “over the top”, and “uninspired” will never be sufficient feedback. Actually, those exact words will never communicate anything to any kind of developer. They are empty, meaningless phrases without qualification to back them up. On the other hand, to someone who knows what those words mean to them personally, they may carry all the meaning in the world.
To me, “bad-ass” is when James Bond sits back down at the poker table after being poisoned by his opponent and simply says “That last hand nearly killed me.” On the other hand, many people would argue that Tifa chapel battle from Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children is the definitive “bad-ass.” These two events may both, in fact, be bad-ass, which is why “bad-ass” does not act as sufficient criticism of any presentation.
It is important for anyone that hopes to communicate in this industry to learn to use valuable qualifiers. A “valuable qualifier” is any statement or phrase which illustrates a definite course of action. I’ll illustrate by expounding on the mech battle from earlier. Both of these examples would be valid responses to “What would you suggest to make the level more bad-ass?”
Example 1: “The battle as you have created it is too like a David and Goliath situation, and we were aiming for more of a clash of titans. This makes the player seem weak compared to his opponent, and they need to seem more like peers. Also, the mech is so dangerous that the player has no room for error: this battle may be too frustrating to lower-skilled players.”
This feedback is valuable. It qualifies what bad-ass means to the art director, and it opens a variety of options to the level designer. Since the mech art assets and animations have already been made, we cannot scale him down to it a more manageable size, but we can scale down its damage. Rather than knocking down whole buildings with a single swipe, it could simply do a much tighter impact damage with a high force radius. This would make the damage it causes both functionally and visibly weaker, bringing it more in line with the player powers both in defense and offense.
Secondly, we could increase the percieved and functional damage of the player. When the player tears pieces off the giant, these pieces could be accompanied by a large sound and particle effect and could cause cascade damage to many areas. This would make the player seem much more powerful, and make the fight slightly shorter. Few things improve a players feeling of power like doubling the amount of damage they do. This could also add an aspect of stratgy to the fight by allowing the player to choose what part of the mech to attack to do the most damage with a cascade.
Example 2: “The battle relies too strongly on the interplay of straight vertical and horizontal elements. Angled surfaces cause a feeling of drama and tension, the essence of bad-ass. The battle, because everything is at 90 degree angles, feels too flat even with all that jumping around. What we need is less Rampage! and more The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.“
The level designer in this case has many options: he could place the battle on a hill, forcing the player to try to get ahead of the giant in order to launch a successful attack towards its vulnerable head and shoulders. Stairs and ramps could be used in many places where jumps had been the preferred in the previous revision. The suggestion could be taken even farther by changing the way the giant interacts with buildings: rather than reducing them to rubble, his attacks could cause them to topple sideways. Now the player must run up the sides and insides of angled buildings as he climbs to eye-level with the mech.
Both of these sets of feedback are distinct and cater to very different meanings of “bad-ass.” By qualifying short, meaningless buzzwords with “valuable qualifiers”, we can communicate across disciplines and work together to create better games.
Both of my examples rely heavily on on common cultural references. What if the level designer was not raised in the West and is unfamiliar with the Bible or with the Greek mythology of the titans? Almost no designer or programmer is familiar with the groundbreaking set designs of the obscure, early-20th-century German masterpiece cited in the second example! External reference speeds up communication, normally, but it can also lead to roadblocks forming in any discussion.
We can’t be expected to play every game, but we can be expected to compare the games we work on to other games in the same genre. If you are making a shooter, you need to be able to discuss the differences between Bioshock and Call of Duty 4‘s aim assistance and enemy AI. If you are making player-ability-based puzzles, then you need to be conversant with the Zelda series and Beyond Good and Evil. If you are going for epic, David-and-Goliath boss fights, you need to play or watch Shadow of the Colossus.
This can be quite demanding on the pocketbook, but there are many ways to accomplish this cheaply. Gametrailers.com provides hundreds of video reviews, Metacritic and Gamerankings link to dozens of written reviews of games, and Gamasutra provides hundreds of searchable articles. All of these services are free. Even if you have played a game, read reviews and articles about it before you try to discuss it with your coworkers or employees: it is always important to understand how the discussion has been phrased in the past before you rephrase it towards improving your game.
No matter how hard you try to become an encyclopedia of gaming culture, you will never be able to take it all in. Some day you will be confronted with a reference or bit of vocabulary that you have no way to comprehend. When this happens, let the speaker finish his or her sentence then interrupt them with the question: “I’m sorry, but I didn’t understand the last thing you said. Could you clarify…”
Sometimes we are ignorant. This is nothing to be ashamed of. What is shameful is when you find yourself saying something like this:
“I think the idea of circle-strafing is stupid! Why don’t we just have the enemy walk sideways, at a set radius from the target, firing its weapon?”