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!

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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 #5: Ambiguity

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

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.

Commandment #4: Moving Forwards

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

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.

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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! 

Commandment #3: Player First!

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

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)