Interesting talk about how mastery is maybe the fundamental driving factor behind long term player engagement. The speaker raises points about how if you include potential mastery over several skill-sets (execution, strategy, teamwork, knowledge, etc) you can allow “Random Parallel Learning”. This basically means that players are able to jump back and forth between improving on different axes at will, and often subconsciously. It also raises the potential of an “aha” moment during a match (or in the case of execution the realization of a growth in proficiency).
Another point raised is that rouge-likes set up failure as part of the natural state of play, so it doesn’t feel so harsh. Keith Burgun has advocated that a 50% win-rate is ideal for learning, and I wonder if 50% is in the realm where failure is expected. (I sort of anecdotally think the loss rate might not be high enough to remove a lot of the sting at this level).
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.
Raph Koster explains in his novel “A Theory of Fun” that perhaps the most important source of enjoyment in a game comes from learning. I absolutely agree with this claim, and framing things in this way can allow us to make many inferences about the ideal way to design our games.
As explained in my recent article, carefully crafted ambiguity allows a designer to continually present the player with novel and yet at least somewhat comparable situations to those they have encountered before. In this context, players are able to use their existing knowledge of a game’s system, without being able to rely on rote memorization of solutions to succeed. As they receive feedback (most importantly through whether they won or lost), they can develop new insights into the system (i.e learn).
However, this is not quite enough, because there is another way that learning can be prevented that is quite common. If the game situation is too easy to figure out for the player, they can simply pick an arbitrary strategy and win, without weighing/considering several options (strategic thinking). If the game situation is too hard/beyond their capability to figure out, then all of the strategic paths they come up with will be equally ineffective (resulting in a loss). Either way, learning is stifled.
Fortunately, multiplayer match-based games have already come up with an ingenious solution to this problem: a matchmaking/ladder ranking system! In such a system, players are (theoretically) matched against opponents that provide suitable difficulty for them. As Keith Burgun points out, such a system can also be applied in a single-player context in much the same way. As players win, the game gets harder, and as they lose, the game gets easier. At some point, they will be placed into matches of an appropriate challenge level (which allows for optimal learning!). This process can even be sped up by doing a “placement match” to estimate what rank/difficulty they should start at.
This does beg the question of how to scale the system mathematically to increase the challenge in a way that does not feel arbitrary (not to mention designing a system that rewards learning in the first place). This is one of the primary challenges of designing a single-player strategy game in my opinion, and needs to be considered early on in the process. It is absolutely possible to come up with satisfying answers, and provide reasonable scaling up to a very high level of skill.
As one final point, I want to mention that a system such as this has the added benefit of reflecting a player’s growth and learning in a tangible way! By ranking up a player is able to see with some degree of certainty that they have in fact improved at understanding the system strategically, which is an awesome side effect.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!