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 #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.

BrainGoodGames Design Commandments

I started BrainGoodGames last year because I felt a certain type of game was missing from the landscape. Over the years I’ve ravenously read watched and played as much varied game design thinking as I could, and I’ve come to some conclusions about the types of games I’ll strive to make. I call these the BrainGoodGames Design Commandments.

I may not meet all of these goals all the time, but they are the target that I’m aiming at. Also keep in mind that these are design guidelines for a specific type of game, and not applicable to all designs.

1) The complexity of the game should be in the strategy, not in rules comprehension (the player should know the rules!)

2) The game should have a clear win/loss state (match based play)

3) The player should be having the fun, not the designer (related to 1)

4) The game should always be moving towards its conclusion

5) The game will feature enough ambiguity to remain strategically interesting

6) The game will reward and encourage skill, learning and growth

7) The player should always be playing near the correct challenge level for them

8) The most interesting/fun way to play the game should also be strategically best

9) The game should not cease to be interesting without new content

10) The game should treat the player’s time as valuable

I plan to write a series of articles going into a bit more detail on each of these commandments, so stay tuned!

SkyBoats Released Today!

Today (Aug. 23) SkyBoats is released on Steam! We are super excited for everyone to try it out and can’t wait to see what everyone thinks! If you want to discuss any of the mechanics or strategies in the game feel free to do so here! Happy Sailing!

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Axes and Acres – Age of Legends Patch 1.03 Notes

Axes and Acres patch 1.03 is live today! We are bringing some new and exciting changes that we think you guys will love. Patch 1.03 brings the Rank Leaderboard to Axes and Acres. Now you can see how your rank stacks up compared to the very best strategists playing Axes and Acres. If this sort of pressure bothers you, don’t worry, we are also introducing a practice mode so players can fool around and try out new tactics without worrying about their rank.

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With all this focus on the ranking system we have also made a couple changes to the way rank difficulty scales. As you make your way into the highest ranks phase 1 will now have a cap on the number of Victory Points required to get to phase 2. To compensate for this phase 2 and 3 will increase in difficulty at a faster rate than before. We feel that these changes will help deal with phase 1 being the most difficult and that all phases of the game will now being equally challenging.

These changes should make the tier 3 buildings even more important than before, and as such we have tweaked the numbers on the Castle. The Castle will now cost only 6 stone to build and will provide 8 VP when finished. Get building master masons!

artisan builder

We have also made a number of small quality of life tweaks, from the ability to undo moves, to altering the way some of the objectives appear after specific events. We have also added visual queues to assist with long distance movement, and to remind you which buildings provide you with points in the buildings tabs. Finally we changed the build farm objective to give one more point, and changed the bridge to provide a victory point on construction.

We hope everyone enjoys the patch, and can’t wait to see you all play! Feel free to let us know about any issues or bugs you find, or just to let us know what you think about the new patch!

PS SkyBoats is coming to Steam on August 23rd! You will be able to check it out here when the store page goes live: http://store.steampowered.com/app/510780

Tutorials

We are super excited to announce that SkyBoats is officially funded on Kickstarter! Thanks to everyone who has supported us!

Tutorials have proven to be an extremely difficult aspect of the game development process. In fact, I recently came to the painful realization that “tutorialization” is not actually a word. The tutorial for Axes and Acres was very basic, and a lot of players had trouble grasping the main concepts of the game without using outside resources. Now I think part of this was due to the fact that Axes and Acres had mechanics that people were entirely unfamiliar with. There was no point of reference or relation to help people understand. This was compounded by the fact that the mechanics might have been familiar in some way to people who play a lot of board games, but for “computer gamers” they likely had never come across that sort of thing.

One of our basic tenets of game making is that players should be able to learn and understand all of the rules to our games. This stems from us wanting players to be making strategic decisions, and the belief that you cannot make a proper strategic decision if you do not have all the information you are supposed to have. An example of this being done poorly is Civilization. The Civilization games are so incredibly complicated and even convoluted that it is unrealistic to expect players to have an understanding of all of the rules. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that the game isn’t fun, it does mean that the game is less strategic.

civilization

When you are making a board game, you can write all of the rules in a rulebook, and you can reasonably expect the players to read them and understand the game (Provided of course that the rulebook is complete and conveys the concepts clearly). We feel that computer gamers are less interested in reading a set of rules, and would rather jump into the game. Computer games are traditionally taught through tutorials. We have struggled with keeping the tutorial short enough for the player not to get bored, but also long enough to cover all of the information.

We spent a lot of time focusing on the tutorial for SkyBoats and are quite happy with how it has turned out. We played a number of other game tutorials to get an idea of what other games were doing well or doing poorly. We found the tutorial for Faster Than Light to be particularly helpful. After all of this we created a tutorial that we feel is more interesting, engaging, thorough and just better overall than the Axes and Acres tutorial.

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We are also using the early ranks to spread out some of the other game mechanics. We hope this will be a good compromise between extending the learning process and getting the players into the game. Hopefully players will have no trouble picking it up and will be able to enjoy the game immediately!

As always I would love to discuss anything here, so feel free to shout at me!

Thanks for reading!

SkyBoats Upgrades – Design Philosophy

(The Kickstarter for SkyBoats is live right now, and we just passed 95% funding! We’d love it if you’d check it out and consider backing!)

In SkyBoats there are a number of different upgrades that ships can start with, and that can be purchased at the SkyCities. These upgrades give boats different powers in place of a basic fuel providing cargo hold. The basic cargo hold in SkyBoats provides one fuel if used when empty or it can use the wind creation power of the good inside the hold. Most of the SkyBoats start with one upgrade.

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(Top to bottom: Clone, Magnet Grab, Blink)

When we were designing the upgrades we wanted to come up with mechanics that could be easily learned, but would provide players with a lot of different ways to use them. A lot of these upgrades are related to movement around the board. For example, the blink upgrade allows you to jump over a space, which can be useful to avoid a wind blowing a direction you do not want to follow. The blink upgrade can also be used to grab goods a little distance away and blow back to where you were, or to get yourself onto a long wind pattern to increase your wind meter! We aimed to create a number of different upgrades which can all be used in a number of different situations.

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Finally, we wanted the upgrades to function together to create even more interesting choices. We believe that this system creates a lot of interesting decisions to be made by the players, without adding a ton of complexity to the game. It is always a difficult balance between complexity and depth. I think the upgrades we have created do a great job of using up a small amount of complexity, while creating a lot of strategic depth.

Thanks for reading and as always I encourage anyone to share comments, questions, critiques etc.

 

The Most Fun Way To Play (And The Most Strategic)

(The Kickstarter for SkyBoats is live right now, and we just passed 50% funding! We’d love it if you’d check it out and consider backing! We would also love your support on Greenlight)

I think its been said before that the best way to play a game (strategically) should also be the most fun. I’m not sure who first came up with that, but I think they are mostly right. When most players sit down to play a game they would like to get into the world of the game and make choices they feel fit the game. I am sure there are some players who just think about the strategy, and don’t care about the world the game is set it, but likely most of us want to make choices that seem “cool” or fun.

It often seems that the most memorable gaming experiences are when you played a game and you did something that created a cool story. Some games do a lot to enable this sort of experience by creating extremely thematic worlds, so that almost any way the game is played it comes out as a cool story. For example, War of the Ring is dripping with theme, and it is hard to make a choice that doesn’t feel perfect for Middle-Earth. This becomes more difficult when you are playing a game that is less theme-focused.

war of the ring

There are also times where a certain strategy is very effective, but is also very boring. DotA 2 has this issue some of the time in high-level matches. The best play is often to sit back and farm, growing your advantage, but many players find this strategy boring and so they run into fights and end up losing an otherwise winnable game. Ideally, the most fun way to play a game would also be the best strategic choice. This is ideal because it would mean players are constantly encouraged to have fun.

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In SkyBoats we thought about this when we were designing the game. SkyBoats is exciting and gives you a great feeling of adventure as you fly around the map, and we’ve done our best to try and tie strategic choices to fun choices. One of the main mechanisms we used to do this was to reward players for making the plays we found the most fun. In early development we realized it was exciting to pick up goods in a far corner of the board, and find a way to sail them across the sky to a city demanding that good. Even better if it was the last points you needed on the last round! The game now rewards players for sailing along winds, and for taking goods long distances! I will discuss our wind mechanics in more depth in my next post!

I would love to hear what you think about how fun and strategy tie together in games!