I was interviewed yesterday by Keith Burgun of Clockwork Game Design. The episode ended up being over 90 minutes long (!) and covered a ton of interesting game design ground, focused around the BrainGoodGames Commandments and each of the BrainGoodGame releases up to this point! I enjoyed it thoroughly and through it turned out really well.
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.
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!
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.
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?
b) How do these systems work? What are my limitations?
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.
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.
If you’re not already involved in the discord, I’d love to extend an invitation! Lots of interesting feedback, game design discussion and general positivity and memery is taking place all the time. We’d love to have you 🙂