Game Design Blogs!

There’s been an awesome resurgence on the Dinofarm discord of people blogging about game design! Tons to think about and great to have a community of people to bounce ideas off of. 

You can check out a list that Redless made on the Dinofarm forums here!

http://www.dinofarmgames.com/forum/index.php?threads/game-design-projects.2650

Logic vs Intuition

I was watching a Lewis Pulsipher game design video where he talked about players who like to use Logic vs Intuition in games. He broke things down as follows

Logic Players:
-Tend to balk at randomness
-Tend to like to “figure things out”
-Tend to want to come to a definitive conclusion
-Tend to like more serious “thinky” games

Intuition Players:
-Are okay with randomness
-Tend to go with heuristics or instincts
-Tend to be OK with fuzzy conclusions that may be incorrect
-Tend to prefer “beer n’ pretzel’ style games

I wanted to push back on this a bit an mention that I like to think about this in terms of Keith Burgun’s forms. Kieth defines puzzles as interactive systems that have “correct” solutions and games as those that feature much more ambiguity in terms of your approach. Basically this means that it is not ever confirmed whether your move was “best” or correct in a Burgun game (as it would be when you have solved a puzzle), but you can have some sense of whether it was good, or whether some moves are better than others through a developed intuitive/heuristic sense of the game system.

These Burgun games – systems that rely on heuristics/intuition rather than calculation – are what I am most interested in playing and creating. For starters, you can circumvent the calculation/busywork involved in taking a purely logical/conclusion based approach, and secondly, because your “solutions” are ambiguously correct, there is a lot of room for continual development of your internal heuristic framework as you continue to engage with the game system!

Commandment #10: Respect The Player

This commandment is in some sense the simplest, but also the most important and far reaching. It has implications that reach into all of the other mechanics, and to some extent it can be interpreted as the driving force behind the other mechanics. The fundamental premise of this commandment is to highly value the player’s time.

Players have many ways they could spend their leisure time. If they choose your game, make sure they’ve made a good decision.

This means a lot of very simple things for starters; do not have overly-long animations, do not force the player to replay content that has no new value to offer them, ensure that they spend the least amount of time fiddling around in menus and the most time actually playing your game. But the fundamental reasoning behind it goes a little deeper.

The design philosophy behind this commandment is the idea that games can in fact be a valuable use of an adult’s time through interactive merit alone. This primarily means making sure that your experience has strategic depth, presents the right challenge level for the player and encourages as much learning as possible. Games can be a worthwhile way to spend your time, if they can challenge, surprise and reward you. They can help improve your decisiveness (and the quality of those decisions), they can increase your ability to value things, and they can increase your spatial reasoning ability.

Perhaps more importantly can also teach hard-to-communicate lessons about sacrifice, determination and confidence in a safe, enjoyable environment. There is no need to try and hide the interactive systems in our games behind movies, music, fancy graphics or skinner box style manipulation. By including other sources of value or perceived value, players can develop the incorrect assumption that games need to be propped up by the values of other media, In fact, games can stand on their own as valuable as long as we give them the chance to shine by cutting away those unnecessary masks.

Commandment #9: Systems Over Content

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

I adore Super Mario World. It’s one of my favorite games ever. However, there is a point in the game that is very bittersweet!

image

Ah, the credit sequence! Triumph plus the end of the fun.

For much of human history, games never were considered to have endings. They didn’t have content you could consume. They didn’t follow the pattern of other linear media like books, movies, etc. Even in the early scratchings of arcade games, single players relied on scaling mathematical systems to provide longer arcs for players to continue engaging in their games. But somewhere along the line (perhaps MOST notably with the advent of Super Mario Bros) the foundations were laid for a linear, content-driven type of game with distinct authored content that is by its nature finite.

This isn’t to say that authored content isn’t a valid way to create games, or satisfying to play or anything of the sort, but gimmicky Mario Maker stages aside, I have no way to play more Super Mario World, even though I’d like to! I’ve developed a fair amount of skill and comfort in this game system, and enjoy interacting with it, and I think it’s a shame that it has to end in an arbitrary way! Enter roguelikes and procedurally driven single player “content” with no limit! To compare and contrast:

Content Games:
-Have tightly designed game experiences with fewer “rough edges”
-Players can directly relate their game experiences to each other
-Are much better at delivering narratives
-Are effectively “puzzles” that have one or more correct solutions, and are therefore susceptible to “guides” or “brute-force” solutions.

Procedural Games:
-Are susceptible to problems with generations the designer did not foresee (overly high difficulty variance, tutorialization problems, etc)
-Are able to theoretically be played and returned to indefinitely
-Because each board setup is different, you cannot look up definitive guides or employ “brute-force” solutions.

These last two points are especially important to me. These characteristics are the de-facto standard in multiplayer match-based game designs, but are very rarely employed in a single-player context, and I think that’s a shame. I like to return to games over the course of time, like taking a favorite old board game off the shelf, without having to re-trod over solved game situations that present little new value to me. I like to develop rules of thumb, generalized skill and make inferences about the game system, not look up a guide or brute force a solution to a give problem set. These characteristics are far too rare in single-player games, and I am committed to looking for new ways to create them.

Commandment #8: Encourage Fun

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

In a way that I alluded to in the article on Challenge players can often have a tendency to limit their own enjoyment of a game unintentionally. I talked a bit about the concept of grinding in an RPG, a fundamentally intrinsically unenjoyable activity. However, by presenting players with a challenge, you are asking them to use the tools available to overcome it, and grinding is guaranteed to work (i.e a perfect strategy!). As designers, we need to encourage them to play in the way that we predict will be the most enjoyable (and in fact, this may be the primary role of a game designer).

Another classic example of this phenomenon is the prevalence of obviously sub-optimal decks/cards/strategies in CCGs (collectible card games). Sometimes the argument is made that players would have more fun if they didn’t stick to “meta” deck, card or strategic choices. There is a fundamental tension here between what the game is asking you to do (win) and what will result in the most enjoyment (having unique play experiences and learning).

Hearthstone statistics might tell me to play mid-range shaman. Is it the most fun way to play? Is playing the same deck over and over the most fun way to play?

Wherever possible, we should acknowledge that this disconnect between pursuing the goal of the game and pursuing value from the game is undesirable. We should attempt to create harmony between these two aspects of a game by trying to maximize the extent to which the most fun way to play is also the most strategic.

Commandment #7: Challenge

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

In truth, this commandment is actually very closely related to the commandment about Learning. This is because if there are no gameplay paths that the player can come up with that give a reasonable chance of victory, or if the player can choose an arbitrary path (i.e if the game is too easy or too hard), then the player either cannot or does not need to learn anything! If we accept the premise that learning is a huge aspect of the fun of strategy games, then providing the correct challenge level is absolutely critical in creating an enjoyable experience.

Games have tried many methods of tailoring the challenge level correctly over the years, some overtly, others more subtly. One classic example is the concept of “grinding” in early RPG systems like Final Fantasy. The ability to grind (gaining power through some repetitive action) ensures that players of any skill level can eventually surpass whatever challenge the game throws at them. In theory this allows players to correctly tailor the challenge level to themselves. In practice it often results in players grinding until the game presents no strategic challenge (as players will often use the simplest solution available, even if it is less fun for them!). Not only that, but grindingly inherently involves engaging in a low-value activity in exchange for power, which means part of your game system is inherently boring to engage with (setting aside the quirk of human nature which assign some base-line satisfaction with gaining quantifiable power, as evidenced by clicker games).

Another common method of scaling difficulty is to allow players to simply select the difficulty from a menu at the start of the game. This is problematic as the player has no way of knowing which difficulty level will be appropriate for them in your game system until they have engaged with it. A more modern “fix” is to allow players to re-select their difficulty at any time from a menu. The problem with this approach is that it again gives players a trivial way to bypass the challenge and learning of your game, and therefore a lot of the fun! Additionally, I think that part of the job of a game designer is to do upfront work to craft a game experience the player will find enjoyable, and to some extent that includes selecting the difficulty. Players shouldn’t have to do the designer’s work for them (although I will admit that at times this is not feasible, in which case practical concessions need to be made).

Am I more of a “Ultra-Violence” guy or a “Nightmare!” guy…

BrainGoodGames have taken another approach, as outlined in the article on Learning. They use a single-player ladder system to develop a sense of player’s skill, and then adapt dynamically to continually modify the challenge to be suitable for them! In my estimation this solves a lot of the fun-circumvention problems of other systems, and removes some design burden from players. Win-win! A further augmentation present in Militia, and likely soon to be included in other BrainGoodGames is the inclusion of a “Placement Match” system to allow players who feel the difficulty is incorrectly calibrated to quickly set it to a (ideally) closer challenge level. This also allows experienced strategy game players to skip ranks that are too easy for them, and players’ to opt in to re-calibration after a large balance patch!

Commandment #6: Learning

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

Raph Koster explains in his novel “A Theory of Fun” that perhaps the most important source of enjoyment in a game comes from learning. I absolutely agree with this claim, and framing things in this way can allow us to make many inferences about the ideal way to design our games.

As explained in my recent article, carefully crafted ambiguity allows a designer to continually present the player with novel and yet at least somewhat comparable situations to those they have encountered before. In this context, players are able to use their existing knowledge of a game’s system, without being able to rely on rote memorization of solutions to succeed. As they receive feedback (most importantly through whether they won or lost), they can develop new insights into the system (i.e learn).

However, this is not quite enough, because there is another way that learning can be prevented that is quite common. If the game situation is too easy to figure out for the player, they can simply pick an arbitrary strategy and win, without weighing/considering several options (strategic thinking). If the game situation is too hard/beyond their capability to figure out, then all of the strategic paths they come up with will be equally ineffective (resulting in a loss). Either way, learning is stifled. 

Fortunately, multiplayer match-based games have already come up with an ingenious solution to this problem: a matchmaking/ladder ranking system! In such a system, players are (theoretically) matched against opponents that provide suitable difficulty for them. As Keith Burgun points out, such a system can also be applied in a single-player context in much the same way. As players win, the game gets harder, and as they lose, the game gets easier. At some point, they will be placed into matches of an appropriate challenge level (which allows for optimal learning!). This process can even be sped up by doing a “placement match” to estimate what rank/difficulty they should start at. 

This does beg the question of how to scale the system mathematically to increase the challenge in a way that does not feel arbitrary (not to mention designing a system that rewards learning in the first place). This is one of the primary challenges of designing a single-player strategy game in my opinion, and needs to be considered early on in the process. It is absolutely possible to come up with satisfying answers, and provide reasonable scaling up to a very high level of skill.

The single-player ladder system in Minos Strategos.

As one final point, I want to mention that a system such as this has the added benefit of reflecting a player’s growth and learning in a tangible way! By ranking up a player is able to see with some degree of certainty that they have in fact improved at understanding the system strategically, which is an awesome side effect.