Commandment #4: Moving Forwards

This post is part of a series of articles detailing the BrainGoodGames Design Commandments. You can see the full list here.

This commandment is another that I’ve absorbed from another designer, Keith Burgun. Fortunately Keith wrote an excellent article about the subject that you should read!

…Oh you’re still here? Well I can go into a little detail about why I think this is important, and how it applies to BrainGoodGames. To summarize, games should always be moving towards their conclusions. That is to say, players should not be able to take repeatable actions that move the game further away from the end conditions. The simplest form of this is a simple turn timer, where the game will end at the end of X turns, but there are other ways to push towards the same goal, like having the game end when a player has built 12 buildings in San Juan, or having a finite number of resources on a StarCraft map.

As a counterexample, some DotA matches (even pro matches!) have unfortunately gone on for over two (or more!) hours (!!) when an average game is expected to take somewhere around 45 minutes. This is both very bad for planning tournaments/play sessions and boring. The reason this is allowed to happen is that the fundamental force driving towards the end of the game (creeps pushing lanes) can be circumvented by certain powerful item/hero combinations, where although the creep waves increase in size (which is intended to move the game towards it’s conclusion), the player is effectively able to deal with arbitrary numbers of them. Another oft-cited example is the StarCraft player who “flys” their buildings off to corners of the map to avoid the victory condition of “all buildings destroyed”. A more subtle example, but one that exists in many games is the concept of “rebuilding” or “healing”; mechanics which naturally undo progress and return something to an earlier state.

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The reason that this is boring in many cases is that the interest in a strategy game comes largely from dealing with novel situations that are at least somewhat comparable to past experiences. Returning to a previous game state circumvents the novel portion of that equation, and forces players to evaluate situations that are too similar to those they have seen too recently. This dramatically cuts down on the strategic value provided to the player per time spent. 

So make sure your strategy game keeps pushing towards it’s conclusion! 

Commandment #3: Player First!

This post is part of a series of articles detailing the BrainGoodGames Design Commandments. You can see the full list here.

This commandment is one that I’ve basically adopted in whole cloth from Sid Meier (the game designer behind Pirates, Railroad Tycoon and Civilization among others)! To see some more thoughts on the originator of the idea, check out this sweet design article by Soren Johnson.

This idea is fundamentally tied to a management of complexity/elegance of design. Many games (such as Sid Meier’s!) take their cues as at least partially a simulation of real-world systems. This has the twofold advantage of giving the player a reason to play your game (if they’re already interested in the subject matter) and some basic idea of the way things will work, without you having to explain them (related: Mark Rosewater’s thoughts on Piggybacking and Keith Burgun’s thoughts on theme).

However, strategy game designers need to be include to select only those elements which make for interesting player-facing decision-making. For example, in a war simulation, it may be tempting to include mechanics that revolve around supply lines, solider morale, etc etc. And then you may think that hey (!) I can tie the solider morale into the combat by giving certain bonuses, and cross compare that with the unique background of each solider, and so on and so forth.

How does this even work? What should I care about?

While this may provide value in the exploratory framework of a simulation game like Dwarf Fortress, where the value largely comes from discovering what the mechanics are and what emergent results they produce, it does not provide efficient value in terms of strategy game decision making. It may be very interesting for the designer as they set up the various status tables, modifiers and relationships between them, but so long as the player is not aware of or not considering them as an aspect of their decision, they are not a part of strategy (and therefore the fun/value of playing a strategy game, for its strategic merits).

By including a smaller and more carefully curated set of mechanics in your strategy game, you allow the player to get done with learning the rules as quickly as possible (as fun as they are to design and tweak) and move on to the joy of strategic play! (See also article 1 about Known Rules)

Commandment #2: Match-Based Play (Win/Loss)

This post is part of a series of articles detailing the BrainGoodGames Design Commandments. You can see the full list here.

Historically, single-player strategy games have primarily been focused around a campaign-based structure (see StarCraft, WarCraft, Age of Empires, etc). While it is possible to play these games single player against “bots”, there is very little or no variation in the starting conditions, so a strategy that you devise that works once will continue to work (not to mention that AI bots are typically not that fun to play against anyway, which is an article for another time).

The problems with this in my mind in terms of designing a strategy game are twofold. For one thing, as soon as the player has devised a solution that works every time (i.e after one match in the above examples, or after beating a mission once), the game has become a solved puzzle, which decreases the value of interacting with it considerably. Secondly, the sense of STAKES are greatly reduced in any given play session, because play can simply becomes a matter of trying solutions to the problem until one works.

Contrastingly, if a game takes its cues from multiplayer game designs (i.e sports, MOBAs, FPS games, fighting games, card games, etc) it can find answers to both of these problems. In these games, a play session is comprised of one or more matches in which some agent (usually the other team) makes moves or plays that a player must react to. Then, based on some combination of their execution and strategy as measured against their opponent, they are given clear, distinct feedback about how good that approach was (a win or a loss). This allows players to create and refine generalized inferences about the game system rather than specific solutions to static starting parameters.

Equally as important, a clear win/loss state provides players with a sense of accomplishment. If a game simply provides a “high score” system with which to judge your approach to the game, it does give feedback about the effectiveness of your approach, but each score always comes with the nagging sensation that it “could have been better”. A win tells the player “that was good enough!” rather than simply “that was X good”. Also of importance are strategies specifically tailored to have maximum payoff right at the end of the game, which is a facet of strategic thinking that many well-designed strategy games encourage.

Commandment #1: Known Rules

This post is part of a series of articles detailing the BrainGoodGames Design Commandments. You can see the full list here.

Strategy games need something for the player to consider (re: strategize). However, humans are fantastic at immediately grokking patterns and finding solutions to problems, so it can be very difficult for your system to keep up in the arms race and remain interesting! Some games attempt to remain interesting by having a ton of rules or very complex rules (grand strategy games are a classic example of this). While this does give the player something to think about, I would argue that oftentimes what they are thinking about is not strategy. I would define strategy as more

a) How do I accomplish my goals within these limitations?

rather than

b) How do these systems work? What are my limitations?

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To that end, in order for the player to be more engaged with the types of strategic thinking I want, they need to know all the rules of the game (or at least the vast majority). This allows them to quickly understand their different options and weigh them against each other, as well as reach out mentally into future turns and still be able to process the chain of events that will happen.

TL:DR : making a carefully considered best guess as to what the correct move is when you know all the immediate ramifications will be is much more interesting than calculating out what those ramifications even ARE and then selecting the one that gives the highest number.

League Dev Diaries

Awesome to see devs thinking about design philosophies/changing and tweaking their games over time. League in particular moves extremely quickly making changes, but I think they probably have to because things are just basically guaranteed to break all the time with so many playable characters.

Basically, continual tweaking over time absolutely works, but is a pretty labor-intensive way to go about it, and ensures that your game has a definite shelf life of whenever you stop updating it. (Maybe it’s okay if the game features a revenue stream as long as players are playing it?)

Specifically, hearing Ghostcrawler talk about removing/tweaking false choices is super encouraging and cool!

Advance Wars Game Design

Today I was watching a cool video about Advance Wars map design. Makes me want to play some more Advance wars :).

In particular I really like the way randomness is handled in Advance Wars. For the unfamiliar, units all have 10hp, and when you get in a fight the system will tell you you will do 52% damage for example. This means you have a 80% chance to do 5 damage and 20% chance to do 6 damage. There are two reasons this is cool:

1) The variance is within a narrow range (i.e only one point of damage different out of 10). This means that you can normally account for both possibilities (unless you are far behind, which is fine), and often either result is fine, and will provide the same general outcome for the particular localized battle while…

2)  The different outcomes most often result in minor differences in the amount of hp surviving units are left with. This is moreso Input Randomness (more desirable) for later turns than output randomness in my opinion. (I still have to write an article outlining my thoughts on the distinction here).

In addition, Advance Wars even attempts and largely succeeds in playing with an effective and player-influenceable information horizon with fog of war (and some additional ambiguity with weather effects). Overall a very strong design achieved with a relatively low complexity in terms of unit types, terrain types and rules.

Day[9] and Single-Player Game Design

Was watching an old Day[9] video talking about single-player game design. He talks at great length about how “setbacks” are crucial for allowing long-term play and growth in most games. He uses the example of the Hearthstone ladder as a comparison point to building your city in a city-building game. He points out how on the Hearthstone ladder, you can lose and therefore go down in rank, whereas in City: Skylines, your city just continually gets better.

Interesting to see similar musings to my thoughts on single-player game design. Sounds like Day[9] might enjoy the single-player ladder in BrainGoodGames! Maybe someday…

You can find more of my thoughts on single-player evergreen games here