Open Data and Game Environments

The biggest challenge in modern game development is the rising cost of content. Consumer grade systems now allow for so much detail that the amount of work required to create a game world has skyrocketed, making open-world games nearly impossible for a small studio or team. Today even large, experienced teams struggle to capitalize on the power of modern video game platforms. (Link) Players complain that games are getting too short or the worlds too limited, but at the same time are demanding visuals which are exponentially more detailed than before. Titles released during the Playstation 1 era were rendered at a resolution of 640×480 or lower (Link)  as compared to most modern games which render at 1280×720 or 1920×1080. The exponential increase in pixel resolution has also exponentially increased the potential level of detail in content, as well as the effort to produce it.

The Playstation 1 Final Fantasy games (VII, VIII, IX) featured large, open roaming sections and towns which could be explored in a free-form manner. Despite a development time of 4.5 years, in Final Fantasy XIII for the Playstation 3 players spend “…the majority of the game … negotiating very limited environments with just a few branching routes, following a yellow arrow to get to your next destination and fighting a myriad bunch of enemies as you do it.” (Link) The Final Fantasy series is only the most recent series to follow this pattern, in 2008 we saw a similar reduction in world-size going from the Playstation 2 era Grand Theft Auto games to first high definition release, Grand Theft Auto IV. According to Ars Technica, “In many ways, the slight regression of the series from San Andreas is surprising: there are fewer vehicles, weapons, and story missions, less character customization, and even the size of the city itself is smaller.” Expanding teams has not been enough to combat the rising cost of production, developers have had to make their games smaller.

John Romero's sketch of Quake E1M1

Reducing the scope of game-worlds is one solution to escalating content costs, but not one which resonates with consumers, who are ultimately the ones who determine the success or failure of a title. A more effective solution would be to combat the increased level of detail required by architecting the world in a more efficient manner. Today video game spaces are designed in much the same way they were 15 years ago, by hand both on paper and in the game engine. This hand-crafted approach provides control which is essential in action titles like Unreal Tournament or puzzle games such as Braid, but for games with larger, free-roaming sections, the same precision is not required in the environment design.  For example, the exact layout and structure of buildings in Assassin’s Creed or Grand Theft Auto does not matter nearly as much, the player spends so little time in a single place that the city acts mostly as a backdrop during transit. Key locations need to be designed to support the gameplay experience, but these are a small number of areas compared to the overall world provided.

Some games have filled in their worlds using generative algorithms,  such as Diablo II by Blizzard Entertainment, which creates a random environment for each play session, with only key set-pieces being statically defined. This works well when the structure of your environment doesn’t need to be static, and can be simplified to a tile-based representation, both elements uncommon in modern hi-def titles. Creating a algorithm for laying out rich, realistic game-worlds is an engineering task far out of the budget or scope of most game teams.

Render of Washington D.C.

A solution which provides a logical and static frame to craft a world without laying it out brick by brick is to use an environment which has already been defined. A wonderful source of existing city environments is open government data. Initiatives such as the open data catalogs in Washington DC and Vancouver provide all the required data to create the framework for a game environment, including roads, stop lights, building shapes, block outlines, shorelines, bodies of water, parks and more.  This data is often released without any practical restrictions, such as in Vancouver. “The City of Vancouver (City) now grants you a world-wide, royalty-free, non-exclusive license to use, modify, and distribute the data-sets in all current and future media and formats for any lawful purpose.” (Link)

Since January, my team has been working with Microsoft and the City of Vancouver on a project called TaxiCity ( which uses the data provided in the city’s catalog. In the beginning we planned on created game version of Vancouver by hand, using a set of template buildings and a trace pulled from Bing Maps, but looking through the catalog we found it would be possible to create a model of the city from freely available data.

Using an open source project called SharpMap (Codeplex Site)we were able to put together a quick prototype tool which reads geo-data into layers and outputs our collision maps and game-world art. . After a few tweaks allowing for better color selection and scaling, we can now render a rather rich worlds such as the map of Washington DC shown here. Since the data is stored in real world units and in vector form, once you have a parser you can easily combine different data sets. Most cities currently are missing some data required to create a complete model, but in my experience this is mostly because people have not used the data for this purpose before. In our interactions with the City of Vancouver, we have found more often than not data is unavailable only because no one has asked for it before, and the City has provided it upon request.

Smithe & Howe in 3D

Flat, top-down maps are all well and good for a student web-game, but how is this a solution for companies looking to compete with AAA titles like we discussed earlier? Transitioning from our 2D maps to a full 3D world is simply a matter of creating a parser that can output in a 3D model format like OBJ rather than PNG. This allows the development team to skip the initial blocking out of the city geometry and move straight to texturing, adding detail and tweaking the space to enhance gameplay. With the right tools in place a developer could have playable, untextured game environment ready to test in weeks rather than months. Creating the tools, while not too difficult, is not necessary, CityScape is a piece of middleware shown off this year at the Game Developers Conference which supports rendering ESRI data. As a quick experiment I took the same data we use to render our 2D world and loaded into the CityScape demo to create the above render. Vancouver does not have the height information for buildings stored in the current building traces, so I adjusted a few of the building heights based upon reference photos, but such data could be stored within the ESRI files and is available in some regions.

Regardless of how the data is converted to a standard model format, once this has been accomplished artists can design the look and feel of the city. If correct geo-location is not important to the game world, multiple data sets can be merged together, taking some blocks or road segments from one city and slicing them into another. Any procedural tool is not going to get you 100% of the way to a detailed, hi-def game world, but getting 30-60% of the way there in a few weeks is a good start. Open data can provide a launch point which can be “hacked” upon by designers and artists, much like using an open source software project and expanding upon it. The open data movement provides something which has not been available before, truly free real-world data stored in a format which can be tweaked and repurposed. Learning to capitalize on this new resource will be a valuable skill in the next phase of our information economy, and much as the code hackers guide software development, a new group of data hackers will shape our future content.

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GDC 2012 – Building a Universe Through Details

Thanks for the photo

Slides: [Download]

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Jolly Rover

I played a lot of Jolly Rover this weekend, one of my favorite little moments is captured above. I have to say, this is one of the strangest games in recent memory.

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Immersive World Goals

With both Dead Space 2 released and Dead Space 2: Severed announced I have been thinking a lot about potential side-projects for my suddenly free evenings. Going through the processes of defining what sort of game I would make got me thinking more about my overall design philosophy and I hope to record a few of those ideas here.

The first goal in all of my designs is a sense of discovery or wonder. I owe a lot of debt here to Steve Gaynor’s blog, particularly his post Play. He lays this out better than I could and so I just refer you there. Through this sense wonder the player becomes invested or engrossed in the world. By creating a universe of logical if not realistic rules it is possible to facilitate this discovery.

The second goal is that of theme.  All good works of art have a theme or intent behind the creation. The creator doesn’t always have to spell out the theme, or there could be several interlocking in the work, but through themes and symbols we find meaning in art. This is something video games do very poorly and rarely. I would like to create a game that take the very simple theme of growing up and becoming independent and run that through all parts of the work. Thus not just the player will grow, but the world will change as time passes and characters within it will react to the both of these changing forces. Fable tried this but got lost, it became more about just providing choice, with no focused theme. A strong central theme should tie narrative, context and gameplay together. This would be a core part of the mechanics and the narrative. Ultimately the theme of the game should impact what the player does, how he/she does it, and what it all means.

My third goal does not stand solely on its own, but rather informs a few other design ideas. This is the concept of narrative density and creating a space where each distinct section has significance. I view a game like King’s Quest or Quest for Glory as much an open world as many modern sandbox games, just with a better content / square foot ratio. The potential of most MMO games to create a living, breathing world is hurt significantly by how spread out and hard to navigate the world’s are. If the narrative was compacted down into a smaller space where the player could interact with it better, the existing content would be more effective. This has gotten a bit off track, but I think things can be brought back to a point. Here we go: To create a living space it must be filled with characters and activities. A believable world is not a few hot spots of activity filled with empty space between like in most modern sandbox games. Since budgets are limited and content hard to create, using a small town location where every shop or house can be interacted with creates a better effort to reward ratio.

The forth goal is player choice. Now everyone wants this, but not everyone means the same thing by it. In my case, I think the player should be allowed to play the game as he or she sees fit. The player doesn’t need to create a character or a world or collect items or whatever for there to be player choice, it is in the mechanics that choice really matters. This is not to say that I am against narrative choice, I think that is more the narrative reacting to situations where the player has made mechanical choices. The idea here is that the virtual world has a set of rules and in each challenge the player is allowed to reach the goal using whatever means the world provides. There doesn’t have to be more than one solution (or resolution i suppose), but there needs to be more than one way of getting there. Ideally this all happens within the same family of systems like in Deus Ex or Vampire Bloodlines, but I don’t think that always has to be the case.

I hope to develop a better understanding of what I want from mechanics design by prototyping a few game ideas in the next few months. At the very least, expect this list to get refined and expanded in the future.

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Game Design Expo 2011

I was a speaker this year at the Vancouver Game Design Expo on Jan 24th. My presentation covered what I have learned about using horror effectively while working on Dead Space 2. The raw slides are attached here as a PDF. I will be doing future posts which will go into the topics covered in the presentation, but in more detail than I was able to fit in 30 minutes.

[Download PDF]

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FTW Competition

At the tail end of last term we entered TaxiCity into the FTW Competition. A few weeks ago the announced the finalist and to our surprise TaxiCity was nominated in two categories! Now all the votes have been tallied and we are walking away with the award for best student application, which really is awesome. The winner of best open data application and the overall competition, Find-A-Home, is far more complete in execution than our project., though I feel our concept is a more unique use of open data. TaxiCity really has garnered a lot more interest than I think any of us expected when the project began, and I hope it continues in the future.

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Narrative Volume

Thinking over narrative leeway got me thinking about the volume of narrative in an experience. The narrative volume of a work is a combination of the depth of characters, world and story. Often this is thought of as having a deep story, one which the audience gains a deeper understanding of through repeat experiences or reflection, but I choose to think of it as volume rather than just depth. Limiting the analysis of narrative to a single axis is not logical when thinking of narrative in a larger sense. A rich narrative can be created in many ways, and the same strategy can have different levels of effectiveness in different mediums.

In many cases, a rich narrative is created by having a complex main character and focusing on the intricacies of that person’s journey. Supporting characters will occasionally have depth, but more often than not are just a part of the evolution of the main character. The films I have screened for CG&FN recently fall into this category, Heaven and Dog Day Afternoon are both very focused tales, with the world as a backdrop for the main characters. This focus results in a story with a narrow breadth, but expansive depth, much like a well.

For static media this system works very well, the audience needs a character to follow and become invested in, change is easier to show when you are following an individual. With few exceptions (the films of Robert Altman comes to mind), most films and books do not feature an ensemble cast. In contrast to film, this approach does not work for most games because the main character is not fully under the control of the narrative. Creating a protagonist which the player does not exert some level of control over pulls the attention off of the player’s input and thus undermines the value of the interaction. A solution which RPG designers have long used is created a world filled with character, each of which has a relatively small amount of narrative. This creates a narrative that is very broad, but not particularly deep at any one point. There can be the same or more narrative volume, but less concentrated into individual characters.

Unlike the well of narrative above, this structure looks more like a lake in which the player can swim around. This encourages exploration and by placing narrative content within characters out of the players direct control, we avoid limiting the player actions to do world-building. Another advantage of this approach is that this narrative content is optional, providing the depth for explorers and not getting in the way of other players. This is not to say all games should use this structure (many of my favorite games do not), but when paired with the funnel concept of my Narrative Leeway post, I think this forms a good basis for creating an open-world narrative experience.

I think this is generally understood intuitively by those working in the games industry, but explicitly  categorizing successfully approaches is the only way to gain the understanding required to move narrative in interactive media forward.

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Define: Meaningful Choice on Google

Looking through my incoming searches today I discovered a number of people are finding altereddreams by typing “define: meaningful choice”. It turns out the Google Gods have selected my definition from Notes on Interactive Narrative is the current definitive definition! This is the the most prominent place altereddreams has ever been on Google, so I am pretty excited.

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Narrative Leeway In Games

I have been thinking of something I am calling Narrative Leeway (the amount the plot is allowed to deviate from a predefined story), and I think I have finally condensed my thoughts down into something sensible. This all started when I was playing Heavy Rain a few weeks ago, and I am going to throw a spoiler warning here, I don’t go into details, but you have been warned!

Narrative choice is something most everyone in gaming thinks would be wonderful, but no one really knows how to implement. Indeed, this problem is doubly difficult, not only does adding choice to games require either additional content or addition gameplay systems, but telling stories through games is hard. Movies only have to entertain for 2 hours, and the pacing is mostly controlled, games can take over a day of playtime, spread over weeks or months. When a game IS able to tell a compelling story, as with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, the game community is impressed. While Uncharted 2 was one of the best games of 2009, structurally the narrative was no different from the tradition linear stories we have been trying to cram into games forever.

Linear Narrative Progression in Film and Games (Historically)

Since the days of the arcade, game story has been crammed between linear game levels, with little deep connection between the two. Modern games as the aforementioned Uncharted and others such as Gears of War, Final Fantasy, and Metal Gear Solid, have just gotten really good at making the transition between game and story as seamless as possible. A game which claims to buck this trend is Heavy Rain, by Quantic Dream. Now, much as been said online about the quality of the narrative in Heavy Rain, and while that impacts the play experience, here I want to focus on the structure as I did above with Uncharted 2. I propose that the narrative leeway looks like an inverted funnel, channeling the player down a limited path to an ending with far wider branching.

Heavy Rain Narrative Leeway

This observation is based upon my discussions with other players and my observation of a second play-through of the game. Whenever I recount my experience playing through the story, the part which deviates from others experience the most is how the ending of the game plays out. Before the ending scene there is limited interaction between the main characters, isolating their narrative from the actions of the player is 3/4 of the other chapters. During most of the game, a player can miss content in a scene, or end things slightly differently, but this never changes the order or tone of the following scenes (with the exception of character death, which is possible, but only in a few sections, and even then, it is hard to die), meaning the plot always stays close to the core story crafted in David Cage’s head. One possible reason for widening the possibility space at the end of the game is because nothing has to come afterwards, the game is about to end and these branches don’t have to be very deep. Another is that endings are valued by both the player and creators. Any time we talk about branching and choice, the number of possible endings comes up. An example of this obsession is the brilliant but flawed Blade Runner by Westwood Studios, packing 13 separate endings, but with a linear buildup, much like Heavy Rain.

I believe this focus on endings needs to stop for several reasons:

  1. Game are historically bad at endings, building up to a single climax worthy of 20+ hours of narrative is hard, doing it 2,3 or 13 times is almost impossible.
  2. The ending comes at the end. If players want to shape the narrative, they probably don’t want to wait till the end to do it.
    • In fact, there is this problem where a lot of players never get to the end.

Rather than focus all this energy on creating different endings, I would propose looking at ways to expand the sense of freedom during the early stages of the game. The closer the game gets to conclusion, the more locked down the narrative gets, but this is OK because tension is rising and the player is going to be focusing on that and not exploring the world, which he/she has already had hours and hours to explore. This structure would look more like a proper funnel, allowing the player lots of freedom at the start, while at the same time always moving them toward a defined ending.

This is not an original structural design, but one I think is overlooked in narrative discussions because it doesn’t work well in film or literature. The genre which this is most at home in is the open world sandbox game, most modern GTA games can be fit into this model. One of the strongest examples of this concept is Deadly Premonition, which, while flawed as a game, is well crafted as a game narrative. It is able to follow this model by giving the player a large open world, but then constricting the area that is safe to travel in as the narrative progresses. Deadly Premonition inspired this little rant, and for that reason alone, I would recommend checking it out. Another game which I have not played YET but looks to have a similar open world/developed story combo is Yakuza 3.

In our quest for better story in games, we should perhaps look at examples great storytelling in games, and try to expand on that rather than continue to steal from other media so much. The stories games are good at telling may not be the same as ones in film, but let’s look at what makes games unique first, and get to the culturally significant part later.

This all leads into a discussion of what gives a narrative depth, which I hope to post later this week.

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I have been working on TaxiCity since the end of January, but between getting the project rolling and the Olympics I haven’t had much time to update the site. This ends now!

TaxiCity is a Silverlight game created using open data from the City of Vancouver and the public Bing Maps API. Our team is working with Microsoft Government and David Eaves to create an engaging and interactive display of freely available data. In the game players will play as a taxi driver in Vancouver, picking up passengers and delivering them to key landmark locations in the city. Real world geometry creates the game map and the route tracking services provided by Bing will be used to guide the player to his/her destination.

Along with the game we are creating a generalized Silverlight game engine which we hope to release under an open source license when complete. Our tools for converting the open data into a game world will also be released so other citys or regions could be added in the future.

We are tracking development on, which contains weekly builds of the game. Go check it out!

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  • About

    Seth Marinello, game designer

    I began gaming in the early 90's during the heyday of PC shareware gaming. Somewhere during my Computer Science undergraduate studies I became interested not just in playing games, but creating them as well. I completed my Masters of Digital Media degree at the Centre for Digital Media in Vancouver, B.C. I am now a level designer at Visceral Games is my online notebook and portfolio. Here you will find my thoughts and presentations on gaming as well as the projects I have worked on during my studies.
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