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.
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!
A strategy game is a delicate thing. Humans are excellent at using heuristics to reduce complex problems to simple rules of thumb, and the formation of those heuristics (learning) is a huge part of the enjoyment. However, if a game features too much rules complexity, the player will spend their time trying to internalize the rules rather than engaging in higher level strategic thinking (more on this in Commandment #1 here). On the other hand, the less inherent (rules) complexity a game has, the easier it is for human minds to “solve” it, at which point it becomes more like a puzzle than a game. A classic example of a game that is highly solvable is tic-tac-toe.
Games do have a secret weapon to employ to help resist solvability, while maintaining some degree of elegance: Ambiguity. Interestingly, one of the most prevalent and oldest forms of ambiguity in games is simply another player! You are unable to know definitively what other players will do in a game (although some games are designed to test your ability to guess), so even in the case of a very deterministic system like Chess, your opponent contributes to a very high degree of unpredictability/unsolvability (such that we have played Chess for many many years without “solving” it).
However, in a single-player strategy game, we do not have the luxury of all this free ambiguity; designers must thoughtfully add it themselves. The most natural solution may seem to be to come up with an intelligent AI opponent to play against. This has a few drawbacks. Firstly, in a practical sense, playing against an AI opponent in a strategy game frequently has players casting about for ways to exploit the patterns in the behavior of the AI, rather than trying to form a deep understanding of the game system itself. Secondly, if we think of an AI as a set of rules, adding even the simplest AI to our game has a huge ballooning effect on the rules complexity of our game. Players may not need to know about the AI behavior, but they can learn about it, and doing so pushes against learning how the core systems of the game interact strategically.
Fortunately, there are many more techniques available to a game designer to add ambiguity to their games. Dice, cards and coins provide convenient metaphors so that the player can understand the possible outcomes and their likelihood without having a big reference table. Procedural generation is another fantastic tool for providing new non-rules information to the player while they have time to strategically react. The enemy movements in Militia are yet another example of providing new information for future turns. Each enemy chooses from ~4-8 possible moves, within simple rules, which has the effect of mixing up the board for next turn, but in a way that can be understood and planned for.
This board is a product of the board that came before it plus some simple enemy movement rules.
There are absolutely ways in which introducing too much ambiguity, or ambiguity that the player cannot react to or plan around can reduce the learning potential of your system or make it unsatisfying to play. I’ll be going into more detail about my take on the different forms ambiguity can take in later articles, but for now you can check out Keith Burgun’s excellent article on the subject.
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.
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!
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)
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.
Was watching an old Day 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 might enjoy the single-player ladder in BrainGoodGames! Maybe someday…
You can find more of my thoughts on single-player evergreen games here…
Been playing a bit of Stardew Valley as a way to unwind from release, and I’ve come to really value the way it provides a relaxing atmosphere.
Like a soothing piece of music, or meditative poetry, I think this chillout vibe is something I want to explore more. Puzzles like Sudoku already demonstrate this kind of thing in a way, and I imagine the decreased rigidity in games may allow for even more of this. I’m curious to see what playing around with winrate %s, rank presentation and a couple other things does to de-emhpasize learning, growth and calculation and emphasize meditation, relaxation and the feeling of things “falling into place”.
I have a couple ideas in the tank for an experience like this, and I’m excited for when I’ll be able to show you guys more!