Single-Player Skillcap – Game Design

One of the tricky aspects of creating single-player games is that the game has to slowly get more and more difficult for a long period of time in order to keep the players challenged. In a multiplayer game, a good system can allow players to all increase in skill, and constantly provide a challenge for each other through competition. With single-player games we have to replace the competition provided by other players with rising difficulty. Where this might max out has been a concern for us. A game doesn’t necessarily have to scale forever, but we do want to provide great value to our players.

gif Apr 21, 2016 15:01 (And I thought rank 18 was high!)

A discussion about the skill cap in Axes and Acres came up a number of times during development, and of course in theory it has to cap somewhere. We eventually decided that the skill cap was high enough it wasn’t something we really needed to worry about. The vast majority of players would never get to a high enough rank for the game to be impossible. Recently we have implemented Steam stat-tracking features so we could get an idea of what ranks people have achieved. We were shocked to learn how high people have reached! I personally doubted that ranks lower than what people have achieved were possible. It really makes you wonder if there are strategies people have developed that as a game designer you never even dreamed of.

? rank

Considering all of this I feel that Axes and Acres was a success with regards to a skill cap. I’m sure it still exists, but it is so far away its existence feels trivial. Ideally, we would like to come up with a system that has no skill cap, but we are still debating whether such a thing is possible in a single-player game.

Anyone have opinions on this?

Axes and Acres and Single-Player Design Struggles – (Axes and Acres Sale June 13th!!!)

Hey Readers!

When we designed Axes and Acres we wanted to create a single-player game that could be enjoyed for many hours of play without relying on content. This is partially on principle and partially for practical reasons. A small studio like us couldn’t hope to make a game with even 10 hours of well done content. Here at BrainGoodGames we rely on systems which make games interesting even with repeated play. It is difficult to create a system which can stand up to a large amount of play. On top of this, we want the system to be as elegant as possible and to have a limited number of rules, such that the play can learn ALL of the rules and make strategically informed decisions.

The limit for rules or complexity probably varies from player to player. Certainly based on the feedback we received for Axes and Acres we had responses spanning from “its too easy” to “this is impossible to learn”. Perhaps that means we found a solid middle-ground – I’m still not sure. In either case, Brett and I both prefer a more complicated system to one which can be easily solved. Truly great games have systems which are both elegant and simple in their rules, but have incredible depth of strategy. I think Go is the classic example of this.

tabletop-players

This delicate balance becomes even more difficult however when you are making a single-player game. Removing the multiplayer element forces us as designers to come up with interesting and challenging replacements for other players. This ties back in to my previous discussion on Ambiguity (http://blog.braingoodgames.com/2016/05/19/a-discussion-on-ambiguity-in-games/) – other players provide a form of ambiguity that is difficult to replace. In Axes and Acres we tried to replace this with input randomness, and we felt that it was quite interesting and stayed interesting for a long period of time, but perhaps the learning was a little too difficult for the average player. However, if you can get past the early learning stage I think the game is great fun and provides tons of interesting strategic value.

tabletop-single-players

As always I would love to hear anyone’s thoughts on all of this!

Finally to let everyone know Axes and Acres is coming to Linux and going on sale on June 13th! It’s a great time to pick it up for anyone who doesn’t have it yet!

Mechanics vs Theme – Game Design Discussions

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Here at BrainGoodGames we have thus far put a focus on mechanics in our games. We feel that mechanics are what keep games interesting over a long period of time. Mechanics are the core of most games, and are what makes you think when you are playing. Strategy games in particular rely heavily on mechanics to create ambiguous situations for the players to ponder. Manipulation of the mechanics in various situations create varied situations which the players may find more or less familiar. This is all part of building a heuristics tree for the game, and for games in general. I think this sort of thinking and heuristics generation is what makes many strategy games so satisfying for people. While theme can be very immersive it will give you a different sort of satisfaction.

Some games have extremely engaging stories or themes that can create intense feelings of immersion. This can be extremely enjoyable, and in fact I think many people play games mostly for that sense of immersion or for a feeling of escapism. The theme of a game will probably not be enough to keep someone playing a game for a long period of time. A story is never the same as the first time you experience it. Some stories are very interesting and can stand up to multiple playthroughs, but in my opinion the games that will keep players coming back over and over are games with interesting mechanics. This is not to say however, that theme isn’t important.

Immersion and engagement of players is part of most games and can be extremely enjoyable. A great theme can do wonders covering up lacklustre gameplay. Ideally though a game will not need its gameplay to be covered up. In my opinion the best games are those where the gameplay and theme work together, reinforcing each other. Some games have mechanics that feel thematic – they remind you of the theme and feel like an accurate representation of the action depicted. This method helps to immerse players in the game, but also makes the rules of the game more memorable and intuitive. If a game has a series of actions players must take, with a bunch of little rules they must follow it can be very confusing. If however all of these actions and rules relate to ideas a player already has, then they may more easily remember the rules.

theme vs mechanics

Mechanics also come from themes in some ways. Many game mechanics are based on real world situations. This is especially a popular method in the design of Eurogames. For example in Puerto Rico the game is based on creating and shipping goods. There are a lot of steps to go from having nothing to shipping a good. You must first harvest materials, turn the materials into the goods, find a boat that will hold all the goods you want to ship, negotiate a price for the goods and so on. Puerto Rico focuses on some of these steps and they create a wide variety of situations which players must navigate. The mechanics of Puerto Rico are representative of the theme of shipping goods and they tie together nicely. Most people have a general understanding of the process and this helps players remember the rules. Certainly, many people will find the theme or storyline to be quite dry, but the mechanics create extremely interesting strategic decisions.

Further, sometimes when a game has mechanics and theme that are very tightly intertwined sometimes you can encounter something I like to call emergent theme. The way some thematic mechanics interact can create situations that feel very true to the theme of the game. This is a rare situation in my experience, but is very valuable. If a game could regularly create emergent theme it could create its own stories without the creators of the game adding extra content. In theory you could create a game that had satisfying mechanics and a new story every time you played. Some day I hope to make a game like this!

Once again I would love it if anyone had any comments or would like to discuss any part of this post. Reply here or tweet @BrainGoodGames!

Caleb Friesen

A Discussion on Ambiguity in Games – Part 2

So, we know that we must have ambiguity in our games, and that the amount of it is important, but that’s not all. There are different ways in which ambiguity is put into games. Some of these seem to be more or less satisfying than others. Some of the ways we create ambiguity in games are with input randomness, output randomness, hidden information, time limits (maybe), incalculability or complexity (maybe) and other players. In many strategy games (especially board games – think puerto rico), the main source of ambiguity is the other players at the table. You can look at their board state and have some idea about what they might do, but you can’t know for sure. This form of ambiguity tends to be quite satisfying (at least for me). However, it can sometimes be less interesting if one player is significantly more skilled than the others, or if a player does not take the game seriously and makes seemingly random decisions.

uncertainty

Randomness is also used in many games to create ambiguity however it can often create a feeling that players lack control or agency in the game. If you made all the correct decisions in a game, but you still lost because dice rolls or card draws went poorly you will likely not feel very good about the game experience (there are other factors which might allow you to enjoy the game despite this such as theme or immersion – more on this in another discussion). I like to further distinguish randomness into input and output randomness. I define these as randomness that happens before your decision (input randomness) and randomness that happens after your decision (output randomness). It is possible to get unlucky with either, however since with input randomness you make your decision after the randomness there tends to be less of a feeling that you didn’t control the outcome (and in fact in many cases you did control the outcome). An example of input randomness is in Axes and Acres at the start of every turn your worker dice are rolled and you will have a certain set of faces to use. You make all your decisions after the randomness has occurred allowing you to mitigate the luck of the roll (at least to some extent). An example of output randomness is the dice rolls in Risk. You choose to attack another country and then you roll to see if you are successful or unsuccessful. Output randomness is poor from a strategic standpoint, but I think the reason many people enjoy it is because of the excitement of not knowing what will happen, similar to the feeling people get from gambling. It also prevents the game becoming too deterministic – there is always a chance the outcome could change no matter how far behind you are. Input and output randomness can both be overused, but are also very useful tools for creating ambiguity in a game (especially input randomness).

Hidden information is another form of ambiguity used in many games. For example in Magic: The Gathering each player has a hand of cards that is unknown to the other player. As the player plays cards you gain a little information to make a reasoned guess at what other cards could be in their deck. For example if they play a Swamp on their first turn you know (in all likelihood) that they have black cards in their deck. As they continue to play you may come to tentative conclusions about other cards that would synergize with the cards that you have seen them play. Some information is hidden, but you have some to base your decisions on as well.

treasure-map

Here at BrainGoodGames we have so far focused on making single-player games (and our next game is going to be single-player too). Ambiguity in single-player games is especially difficult. There is no player interaction, it is difficult in many cases to distinguish hidden information from randomness, and output randomness rarely feels good in a strategically deep game. Input randomness is definitely a weapon of choice, but it is a delicate balance preventing the feeling of the game just being a randomly generated puzzle and also leaving control over the fate of the game in the player’s hands.

This brings us to time limits and incalculability which I feel are both related to one another and both create something that seems like it isn’t truly ambiguity, but is perhaps functionally equivalent for our purposes. To explain the ambiguity created by a time limit we could look at the maze example. Solving a simple maze when you can see the entire thing in front of you has no ambiguity. If however you had to solve the maze in 20 seconds you might not be able to determine the outcome in the time allotted. You might then look at the entrance and the exit of the maze and determine the direction you needed to move in. Each time you come to a junction in the maze you could base your decision for which direction to go on whether it takes you closer to the exit or not. Of course this is sort of the trick of many mazes, you sometimes have to move away from the exit to get closer to it. Anyways, the imposed time limit could create some ambiguity in the decisions since you would not have the time to calculate the correct decision.
maze

Another way to go about this is to make the decisions practically incalculable. For example in Chess there is theoretically always an ideal move, but the calculations required to figure it out are practically impossible. Even the most powerful computers can’t compute all the possibilities from the beginning of a game of chess. If a player cannot calculate the best decision they must make a (sometimes reasoned) guess. If you can give the player a lot of information to base their guess on, while still leaving the solution out of reach this can be another form of ambiguity. There are a couple main dangers with this form of ambiguity. The game can sometimes feel like a calculation rather than a game, or the rules of the game can become so complicated that it is difficult to teach and remember them all. If the player cannot keep all of the rules in their head, the decisions they make will not be based on the actual information they are given. It is very unsatisfying to lose because you forgot one of the rules of the game. To go back to the chess example, it is strategically advantageous to calculate as many moves into the future as possible to give yourself the best chance of winning, but it may not be fun or enjoyable to spend time doing this.

empty-chessboard

With Axes and Acres we used primarily input randomness and incalculability as our forms of ambiguity. I think a combination of these different methods may help avoid some of the pitfalls inherent to each method and create a better game overall. There are likely other forms of ambiguity in games, and I would love to know about any you can think of!

Thanks for reading,

Caleb Friesen

A Discussion on Ambiguity in Games – Part 1

Hello world! My name is Caleb Friesen and I am half of BrainGoodGames. I plan to write a series of posts on this blog about games, game design, game mechanics, and whatever else comes to mind (almost always/always to do with games). I am hoping that these posts will take the form of a discussion, I encourage anyone to respond, critique, and question anything I write. I would love to generate some discussions about different aspects of games so that we can all learn a little more from each other. This is the first discussion and I am going to discuss ambiguity and the role it plays in strategy games.

Capture

Pictured: Worker dice in Axes and Acres

When me and Brett started working on Axes and Acres we talked a lot about games generally. More specifically we talked about what makes a thing a game, and what makes a game a strategy game. There are countless things which could be described as games by one definition or another, but for our purposes we focused on strategy games (since that’s what we make). Recently we began brainstorming for our next project and we came back to the idea of a strategy game and what makes a game a strategy game. The idea behind these discussions is that in the pursuit of making great games, we want to take a more structured approach. We want to determine the fundamentals of strategy games – what are things that MUST be included in strategy games for them to truly be strategy games. My hope was that if we were able to boil down the elements of strategy games we might be able to create something new and interesting building up from the basics.

Now, to the point of this discussion, one of the elements we concluded was a requirement for all strategy games was ambiguity. We believe that if a game does not have ambiguity with respect to the decisions you make then it is not a strategy game (maybe we are wrong, but that is the conclusion we came to and for the sake of this discussion lets assume we are not wrong). Further, if a game is completely ambiguous, then it ceases to be a strategy game as well. To give an example – if you were presented with a simple maze you would move through the maze and at every junction you would have to decide which direction to go. If this maze is on a piece of paper in front of you and you can see the entire thing, there is no ambiguity in this decision. You can look at the maze and determine which path is the correct path definitively. I would describe this as a puzzle, likely a type of game, but not a strategy game. Now, imagine you are in this maze, you cannot see the entire thing, you don’t know where you are, and you don’t know where the exit is. You move along as before, and must make a decision about which way to go at every junction. Unlike before however, you have no information to go on. Your decisions are completely ambiguous.

Somewhere between these examples lies a strategy game. You must be able to make a reasoned decision about what to do next, without knowing exactly whether or not that is the correct decision. Some games have some ambiguity, but so little that they feel like puzzles. Others give you very limited information with a large amount of ambiguity and they can feel too random. Ambiguity in a game is an element that is important to giving the player(s) a satisfying experience. Another aspect of this is that when a player is very new to a game the decisions they make may seem, or be, much more ambiguous than the decisions a skilled player faces. This is a key element of strategy games. As you play the game you learn about the game and about which decisions tend towards success in different situations. When me and Brett discuss this we describe it as a heuristic tree which is developed as you play (I’m sure we didn’t come up with that). The development of skill, and the learning that happens during a game is part of what makes strategy games so satisfying.

Part 2 will be available soon!

Thanks for reading,

Caleb Friesen