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And it's about time I write something about Thaddaeus Frogley, who joined Rockstar Vienna as lead programmer on GTA3 Xbox in June. He is a very nice guy, a very talented programmer, and his personal website is even more spartan than mine and contains much more high-tech things too. He worked for Mythos Games, the company that did the UFO games (or X-Com depending on where you live). How cool is that?

He has an online diary over at Kuro5hin, where he reveals much more about daily life at R*V (as we like to call ourselves) than me. You can also read about some of Thad's hobbies, such as encouraging friends to make out with pretty "girls", and debating the finer points of Max 2 trailers.

Occasionally he links to my blog, and then people who read his diary come over to my site, and I get a warm feeling because of the sudden influx of visitors.

More on GTA3 / GTA:VC for the Xbox

GameSpy has interviewed Hannes Seifert, managing director of Rockstar Vienna, about GTA3 and GTA:Vice City for the Xbox. He was the producer of both projects. It contains information on what exactly was improved.

Slashdot linked to the interview, and, as usual, many comments were added.

The most interesting comments (for me) were by a tester at Rockstar New York, who worked on both games. He has very nice things to say. For what it's worth: the issues in the control scheme in Vice City got ironed out. The controls were much more complicated than in GTA3.

Non-violent RPGs

There's a very interesting post over at Tea Leaves about how RPGs are about leveling up, and how leveling up practically always requires combat.

This reminds me of a pervasive problem in games: a disconnect between a game's fiction (what it's trying to make you believe) and it's mechanics (what it's allowing, and encouraging, you to do).

These are two crucial aspects of interactive entertainment, and they must be designed to integrate very closely if one wants to tap the potential to evoke emotions. Yet few game developers do this. It is never easy to add new constraints to the already difficult design process, to be forced to rethink basic premises of gameplay (such as leveling up) instead of simply using the conventions of the genre you're working in, and to think about the fiction side, which requires different skills than what is required for designing, say, combat resolution rules.

A good example of the disconnect between fiction and mechanics can be found in BioWare's Knights of the Old Republic. This game contains many opportunities for the player to choose between "good" and "evil" behavior - an essential aspect of the Star Wars universe. Yet many gameplay systems do not allow you to make this choice. You can break into people's apartments. When the inhabitant is home and attacks you, as sometimes happens, your "good" party members will happily join you in killing them. You can then loot the apartment and sell the proceeds to buy weapons (and even drugs). No-one will criticize you, and your Light / Dark rating won't change. As far as I know, there are no consequences.

Another quick example. One of my pet peeves: in a lot of RPGs, you will encounter one or both of the following situations:

  1. A party member carries a Very Special weapon (or other item), which has great significance to the character. Within a few hours of playing, the player will be practically forced to sell this weapon and buy a better one. And nobody will say a word. "How may I be of service, milord?" "Hi, yeah, I'd like to swap old Excalibur here for that longsword +20, please?" "An excellent choice, milord."

  2. Two party members have sworn they will Never Leave Each Other. But their bond is obviously not that strong, because the player can easily take one of them into battle, while the other hangs out somewhere safe (Albion did this properly by the way). A variation of this problem occurs in KOTOR, where a party member swears to protect me with his life, but doesn't mind that I never ask him to accompany me on my quests.
I have struggled with these issues, and they're not easy to solve. But they can and should be solved, if we want our games to stop being, well, stupid.

But I digress.

Violence and combat are at the roots of role-playing games. Dungeons & Dragons grew out of wargames with a medieval fantasy setting (read the history here). Medieval fantasy allows for a plausible explanation of why you're murdering and looting: these are Bad Monsters after all, and conflicts were resolved in a more straightforward way back in those times.

In the decades since D&D, pen and paper RPGs have evolved, and both game mechanics and settings have become much more diverse and sophisticated. But in most cases, the violence has remained. A few pen and paper RPG designers have exposed the hypocrisy, for instance Greg "Designer X" Costikyan, who made Violence, or John Tynes, who made Power Kill. Mr. Tynes, together with Greg Stolze, later made the excellent Unknown Armies, which deals with these issues by unflinchingly simulating the effects of violence, the unnatural, isolation, self-deception. (In a way, this is "Apocalypse Now: The RPG" mentioned in the Tea Leaves post.)

Computer RPGs, which started out as translations of pen and paper RPGs, have taken over these roots, and have made even less effort to deal with these deep issues as the medium has grown more sophisticated.

The Tea Leaves post mentions Ultima IV and, in the comments, Planescape:Torment, as games that treat violence in a different way from most games. Sadly, I have not played the former, and stopped playing the latter too quickly to really get to know it, but I'll take the author's word for it. But there's one other game that comes to mind that tried to allow the player to avoid violence, and that also tried to rethink the basic premises of the CRPG, to the point that it is often no longer seen as one: Deus Ex. Admittedly, they failed to completely avoid combat, but it came pretty close. Supposedly, the sequel allows one to finish the entire game without killing a single entity.

Of course, Deus Ex is still, essentially, a game about a secret super-agent who is in conflict with bad guys. It just allows the conflict to be played out using other means than lethal violence. In a post on Nelson's Weblog that responds to the Tea Leaves post, another game is mentioned: Harvest Moon, an E-rated farming RPG series consisting of 11 titles so far. It reminds me of Animal Crossing. From the GameSpot review of Harvest Moon: Back To Nature:

"Harvest Moon: Back to Nature is surprisingly one of the most satisfying role-playing experiences to be found on the PlayStation. Instead of following the standard flashy FMV, save the world formula, Back to Nature involves you in the day-to-day tasks of running a farm, maintaining friendships, and building a family in a not too flashy but thoroughly involving manner."

I haven't played the game, and it's not well-known in the West. But it seems to be a fairly successful franchise.

Evidently it is possible to design games that do not focus on violent combat, or deal with violent combat in a more mature manner, or even eschew violence altogether. The next question is then: Why are so few people doing this?

Mark Barrett on producers

Mark Barrett, writer-designer extraordinaire and good friend, has written a new essay. (Sadly, due to the structure of his site, it is not possible to link directly to it. The essay in question, "The Producers", may no longer be up at the top when you click this. Scroll down, or look in the archives.)

Mark talks about our industry's failure to let people with storytelling experience actually handle the storytelling in games, despite the demonstrably positive effects this can bring, and how producers are both part of the problem, and, potentially, part of the solution. I recommend you read it.

The problem he describes is not limited to writers. It still applies to game designers, and, in a certain way, to all game developers. It is still too common to have game designers be in a situation where they are not able to do what they can and should do, or to have game designers who are not able to do what should be done. On a larger scale, in today's industry it is, sadly, still too rare to have the chance to work on an interesting title that gets shipped.

Dialogue systems in KOTOR and beyond

Some basic design questions

Designing a game means solving a problem with many, many variables. It invariably involves making tradeoffs. The hard part is making those tradeoffs well. To do this, you need to have your priorities straight.

I've been playing BioWare's Knights of the Old Republic (aka KOTOR) the last few days, and while thinking about what I didn't like about it, I came up with a couple of questions (far from a complete set) which are pertinent to ask while designing a game.

  1. What kind of choices do you want the player to be able to make? What kind of freedom can you, as the designer, handle? Where do you offer true interactivity (to use Mark Barrett's definition: choice that affects, as opposed to merely revealing, outcome), and where do you use magicianship, to use a charming term coined by Lee Sheldon?

  2. How do you convey to the player which choices will affect gameplay and which ones won't? Or rather, how do you manage the player's expectations? If selecting skin color of the player character will affect gameplay, the player needs to know this. Similarly, if insulting a non-player character has no real impact on the game, but the player has to play 20 hours to find out, he or she may be disappointed, to the point of quitting the game.

  3. What is the information the player needs to make the choices you want him or her to make? This is, basically, user interface design.

  4. How do you present that information so it does not destroy suspension of disbelief? This is a basic struggle unique to interactive entertainment: the conflict between making a usable application and a compelling experience. It is quite easy to design a user interface that allows for very easy control, but at the same time robs the game of all its charm.

The answer to these questions depends entirely on the kind of game you're making, on the goals you're trying to achieve with that game. KOTOR's designers have answered these questions differently for different parts of the game.

Dialogue and non-dialogue in Knights of the Old Republic

In pretty much all of it's gameplay systems except dialogue, it freely mentions the underlying game mechanics, even referring to "rolls". So a description of the stealth device will mention that enemies will have to make an awareness roll to determine if they can see you or not. I don't like this: I think it destroys suspension of disbelief, it is not really relevant information (not to this level of detail anyway), and in a sci-fi setting it is so easy to come up with a better description that fits the game's fiction (see Deus Ex for a good example).

But while most of the gameplay systems in KOTOR are very transparent, in the sense of exposing the underlying mechanics, the dialogue system is almost completely opaque. Dialogue options are presented as phrases. This is very classical and non-controversial, and it reinforces suspension of disbelief. But I think it has its downsides. These systems tend be non-systemic. In other words, the available choices for any particular situation are largely determined by a game designer, as opposed to being governed by the rules of a simulation. It is usually hard to determine exactly what effect a given phrase will have. The game designer has to clearly convey to the player what actions and intentions his or her character will express with a given phrase. But this requires heavily on interpretation of text, without the help of intonation or other additional information. You can try to solve this with very precise writing, and probably some amount of exaggeration. But precision and exaggeration will affect the tone of the phrase. How can you offer the player the choice to subtly allude to something if all phrases on offer have to state much too clearly what they mean? How can you guarantee the quality and consistency of tone over many thousands of these lines?

In KOTOR and in other games that use dialogue systems of this kind, I constantly find myself translating the phrases into actions, and then choosing based on the action. But because of the problem mentioned before, it is not easy to determine which action will be executed by a given phrase. And once my character has uttered the selected phrase, silently in the case of KOTOR, it is not easy to determine the effect of my action from the reaction of my dialogue partner (although the intonation and animation make it a bit easier).

What I would like to see, and have tried to work on in the past, is a dialogue system which is action-based instead of phrase-based, and which is much more systemic and clear. It will not have the layer of illusion that the phrases provide, which will put a stress on suspension of disbelief. But a coherent system in itself is a big enabler of suspension of disbelief. (Finding out how to simulate in an entertaining way, how to design a system that allows players to make interesting choices while maintaining suspension of disbelief, is one of the central challenges of game design.)

Captain Blood had such a dialogue system. So had Chris Crawford's Siboot: Trust and Betrayal, probably one of the more ambitious, if obscure, attempts along these lines. And so did The Sims. The Sims is a very good example of the pros and cons of a "dialogue" system that is very systemic and very transparent. The conversations in The Sims are coherent and rich in interesting choices, but do not deal with sophisticated subjects and are not presented in a sophisticated way. Yet many, many people believed in and enjoyed these conversations.

Of course, in a game that tries to tell an interesting story involving slightly more sophisticated creatures than Sims, this dialogue system would stick out like a sore thumb. That is why most games carefully constrain the possible situations and choices, and try to keep the player from being bothered by these constraints. This is what Lee Sheldon refers to as magicianship. It's a good term, seeing how it invokes distraction, and subtly persuading people to play along, because it will entertain them.

KOTOR's dialogues have some systemic aspects. There is a neat persuasion system which allows you to try and persuade people, the success of which depends on the active characters persuasion skill. Persuasion phrases are preceded by the word "[persuasion]", indicating something about the action behind the phrase. Some phrases serve to retrieve information and one can detect a system behind them: the "I'd like to ask you a question" phrase which opens the topic selection submenu, then the "What can you tell me about blah" phrases. (Something which we did in Albion, and a bit better in my humble opinion.) But despite these few elements, KOTOR makes me just as frustrated as other games that emply phrase-based dialogue systems.

I may appear to be contradicting myself by criticizing KOTOR for being too transparent in its non-dialogue gameplay systems, and too opaque in its dialogue system. However, it is important to make a distinction between exposing game mechanics - making information available to the player - and dressing them up - presenting them in a way which does not clash too much with the game's fiction. KOTOR exposes its rules and values outside of dialogues, but doesn't dress them up - in fact, it goes out of its way to make references to elements which are neither part of the game's fiction nor even of the underlying code i.e. die rolls. (I know, they may well actually simulate die rolls inside the code, and this probably doesn't annoy the hard-core AD&D players who are BioWare's core audience as much as it does me. But still.) In the dialogue system, KOTOR does not give me the information I want as a player to make the choices I want to make. This is more forgiveable because nobody, including me with my big mouth, have done much better. But what disappoints me is that nobody has done better, or has even tried, for the last, what? ten years? If not more...

New directions in dialogue systems

What bothers me about current games is that interpersonal interaction has not significantly evolved for well over a decade. Like water running towards the lowest place, we have found a local optimum and we've stuck by it.

I don't have the answer, but the question remains fascinating to me, and I know I'm not alone. Apart from the action-based interface described above, I think there are some other promising directions:

  • The diplomacy systems that can be found in strategy games. Diplomacy is a way to model interpersonal interaction. Strategy games tend to do more simulation and offer more true interactivity than action-adventure games, but make fewer attempts to present in-game events dramatically.

    What is interesting here is that strategy games rarely try to hide all the values they simulate, yet they remain compelling because of the richer interactivity. What if dialogues in more story-driven games had more complex interfaces, but combined with richer interactivity?

  • Entity AI in action-adventures. Combat is also a form of interpersonal interaction. Add the simulation of stealth/awareness and morale, and things start to get interesting.

  • Interaction with NPCs in GTA3 and GTA:Vice City. The player characters and NPCs in these games react to in-game events in pretty subtle ways. There is the obvious "running away when a madman points a flamethrower at you", but GTA3 was also the first game I know of that actually simulates jostling people on the sidewalk, which is a great way to solve the problem of people blocking your way, and which adds a lot of character to the game. The player character makes rude gestures at honking cars, and in GTA:Vice City he will make remarks that are pertinent to the situation and his mood. This makes the game much more lively and compelling.

What I find interesting about the last two approaches is that they add richness without significantly extending the interface. You can still do the same old things: run, shoot, etc., and apart from visibility or wanted level gauges, nothing has been added to what is commonly referred to as the user interface. But the underlying simulation has become richer, and the depiction of the state of that simulation has followed, through the use of animation and speech.


There is much more to be said about dialogue systems. The issues that come up when designing a dialogue system affect the whole game: you cannot design it in isolation. The phrase-based model, which has been in use for over a decade, has severe limitations. Using a different model could lead to satisfying new forms of gameplay, but it will take some time to find out how to do this, and to get players and other stakeholders used to this.

Finally, I may appear to be unfairly picking on KOTOR. I was just very excited to be able to play a console role-playing by the one of the best Western RPG developers, only then to be disappointed that so little has progressed since I last shipped an RPG in 1995.


I just ran across GameTab, a site collecting game news and reviews from all over the web.

My favorite site along these lines is Game Rankings, which does not contain that much general gaming news, but is great for quick and dirty market research.


Last night, a non-gamer friend of me asked me what were the reasons for making violent games. I was stumped - partially, I admit, because I had previously drunk a bottle of wine. I could think of reasons why it's wrong to force people not to make violent games. I could think of why it was easier to use violence as a way to resolve conflicts. I could think of how people like transgression in play, which is one of the main reasons why the GTA and Tony Hawk series are so popular.

But that didn't really answer the question.

Update: by "violent" I mean "depicting or otherwise involving physical violence towards living creatures or approximations thereof".

Good news, everyone

GTA3 and GTA:Vice City for the Xbox have passed final submission. This means the whole team can finally sleep normally without dreading that someone finds some new problem which we have to come in to fix.