November 18, 2010

I’m a Computer Game Snob, and Why I Don’t Care About the Kinect

Well, perhaps “snob” is not the right word.  Perhaps “gourmet” or “aficionado” would be better; the point is that I have discerning tastes and I want specific things from computer games.  It’s a provocative title, though, right?

Recently I’ve been thinking about what sort of games I want to play—and more to the point, what games I want to see get made.  I’ve narrowed it down to three basic ideas.

  • I want to see games that explore what games can do, I want to see games that push the envelope and advance the art and craft of game design…or at least try something to provide a new experience.  Like The Baron, or Manufactoria.
  • I want to play games that have deep, interesting and intricate mechanics and/or simulations.  Disgaea is a good example, or Dwarf Fortress.
  • And sometimes I just want simple fun.  A recent game is Diesel Valkyrie; a less recent one is DOOM.

Simple Fun

Actually, I have no trouble finding “simple fun” games.  There are many out there, and I never have trouble “scratching the simple fun itch”, so to speak.  So, the other two ideas are more worthy of exploration.

Indie Gaming

Where can you find games that try new things?  Exploratory games, risky games?  Most often in the indie game design community.  A good place to learn about this is The Independent Gaming Source (TIGSource).

In order for people to create indie games, they need a platform that is free to design for as well as accessible.  Modern Windows operating systems are pretty good for this, especially with utilities like Game Maker and FlashDevelop.  It’s important to have a control scheme that is easy to use and easy to program, with well-defined inputs.  A keyboard is ideal, especially since every Windows computer has one; game controllers are also pretty good, as they’ve been around long enough to be pretty well standardized.

Interface Innovation

But some people might wonder exactly how innovative it’s possible to be with only a keyboard as input device, especially people who have read about Nintendo’s genre innovation strategy.  It’s true that there are games that use new interfaces in innovative ways, like Boom Blox or Bowling.  However, for the most part I haven’t been too impressed with these new experiences.  I’m glad they were made, but I don’t see much need for me, myself, to go out and play them.

Hardcore Gaming

Actually, the term “hardcore gaming” is pretty useless; see Mitch Krpata’s “A New Taxonomy of Gamers” for a great discussion on this point.  What I’m really talking about are games which require a lot of careful thinking and exploration of mechanics, and also possibly a large investment of time.  They’re often niche games, where terms like “genre addiction” or “grognard capture” can be applied.

If you play a game that has a lot of time investment, you’re usually doing lots of actions over and over.  You want these actions to be as efficient as possible; you want the input interface to be as efficient as possible.  The whole point is to master the interface so you can get in a sequence of commands as quickly as possible.


So, I have tastes that are somewhat niche; I’m willing to seek out non-mainstream experiences to get the sort of enjoyment I want.

To me, this is no different from film aficionados seeing indie films at an arthouse theater.  Someone who really enjoys a medium will figure out what sort of experiences they want and spend most of their time seeking out those experiences; they may also search for completely new experiences, things that have never been done before.  Either way, the mainstream doesn’t usually cut it.

The one part of the definition of “snob” that I don’t like is the idea of “inferiority”.  I have my own tastes, but I don’t believe they’re “better” than yours; I just think they’re better for me.  It’s possible to argue that some games are better designed or better made than others, but at the same time people have valid reasons to play “worse” games—certain specific elements they enjoy, nostalgia, and so on.

The Point of the Kinect

The Kinect is Microsoft’s new input interface for the XBox 360. It tracks your body movements to figure out what you want to do in the game.  The point, as I see it, is to provide a way for people inexperienced with games to get into the hobby.  It’s “the game where you do not need a controller“.

And in my opinion, this is—wonderful.  Yes, it’s awesome.  If more people get interested in games, then game companies get more money and the medium as a whole becomes more successful—and that means more risky and niche titles, more games that I like.  So yes, if you like the Kinect, go for it.  I would never tell someone to stop having fun.

What the Kinect Can’t Do

I don’t think the Kinect will lead to much true innovation in games.  A game where you fight people by actually moving your limbs?  That’s called “martial arts”, it’s been around for thousands of years.  A game where you move characters around on various types of terrain?  Kind of like chess, or perhaps Warhammer.  I don’t see the potential for innovation in game mechanics—I’m willing to be proven wrong, but I’m not holding my breath.  Sure, there can be innovative games on the Kinect, but they would be the kind of games that would be innovative with any interface.

I don’t think the Kinect is good for games that require a lot of time, a lot of intense, you know, gaming.  Think of moving your limbs around, versus twitching your fingers to press a button.  How much energy does it take to make one selection?  How tired will you get if you have to do it 500 times?  The 2002 film Minority Report had a sequence where the main character uses a gestural interface to control software.  It’s laughable.  Who would stand there flinging their hands around for 2 hours?

Of course, it’s possible that the Kinect software will get good enough to detect fingers twitching.  Then all you’d need is perhaps somewhere to rest your hands, and maybe a guide to make sure you put your fingers where you want them to do.  So, some little board with lots of keys printed on it.

Or just, you know, a $40 computer keyboard.

Golf Clubs

So, if you want an easy way to play mainstream games, the Kinect would probably work.  But some people will want more than that.  Some people will want something more suited to experiencing everything the medium has to offer.

Imagine someone learning to play golf.  They buy a set of clubs; if they want to play on a regular basis, they buy a country club membership so they don’t have to play on public courses.  Eventually they will start buying their own specialized clubs, shoes, golf balls…

If you get into gaming, you’re going to want a controller.

(Until the hardware gets good enough to read impulses right from your brain.  That will be super awesome.)

Comments Comments Off | Categories: Game Critique, PC Games | Autor: JohnEvans

September 1, 2010

Why Social Games Aren’t That Social

Update May 24, 2011: Greg Costikyan has thoroughly dissected this very topic with Unsocial ‘Social’ Games on GamaSutra.

A lot of people have been getting excited about social games.  Apparently there’s a lot of money in them.  But are these games really “social”?

First, Some Basics

By “social games” I refer, really, to Facebook games.  Farmville would be the archetypal example.  I’m sure there are similar games on Myspace, maybe other networks, but I’m not personally familiar with them.

Every creative work is influenced by its medium.  Some take advantage of the unique features of that medium, and that often leads to success.  I believe the most successful Facebook games are highly suited to Facebook as a platform.

What is Facebook like, really?

I believe the most important feature of Facebook is one that does not get mentioned very often.  Put simply:

Facebook is a website that people check multiple times a day.

It’s this factor, more than any other, that influences the design of Facebook games.

  • Facebook games often give you “energy to play”.  You don’t have much energy, so you can’t do very much at once.  So you have to come back on a regular basis.
  • Energy recovers over time.  If you come back in an hour or two, you’ll have the opportunity to do more stuff.
  • Some games have “appointment mechanics”.  You set something up, then you have a certain window in the future where you have to return to get a benefit; not too early and not too late.  You can fit this into your schedule of website visits (8-10 hours, 12-14 hours or several days in the future).

So, the whole point of Facebook games is to be played in short bursts throughout the day.  This is why Adrian Chan tore apart the SCVNGR Playdeck for not featuring social mechanics; the mechanics weren’t social, they were focused on the style of play I’ve just described.  (There were other reasons he didn’t like the deck, but I believe that was the main one.)

Okay, Maybe a LITTLE Social

Of course, Facebook games have features that use the Facebook social network.  Key among those is the ability to invite other users to play the game.

But then, if the invitees don’t have any function in the game, the invites become merely a form of advertising for other single players.

Many games do have features that allow players to interact with their friends’ game states; however, I don’t feel like summarizing them here.  I haven’t yet seen any that, to my estimation, truly tap into the potential of social networking (beyond advertising).

But hey, if you think I’m wrong and you have a good counterexample, leave a comment and we’ll talk about it!

Comments Comments Off | Categories: Game Critique, Game Design, Web-Based Games | Autor: JohnEvans

August 8, 2010

Game Design Pattern: Dual-State Platformers

Today I’d like to write about a pattern I’ve seen in certain games.  First, “platformers”, or “platform games“, are games characterized by exploration and navigation of obstacles, specifically involving jumping up and over flat spaces (platforms).  These games can involve 2-dimensional play (side-scrolling, as in Super Mario Bros. 1-3, or more rarely top-down, as in Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past); or they can involve 3-dimensi0nal worlds (Super Mario Galaxy, Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, etc.).

I’ve played a few games that use a mechanic I call “dual-state platforming”.  Let’s start specific and then generalize; The best example I can think of is Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver.

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver

This is a game where you portray Raziel, a supernatural being.  Formerly a vampire, Raziel has become more ghostly as of late.  This esoteric undead form has some unusual features.

  • Raziel normally exists on the “physical plane”, but when he loses all his health he slips into the “spectral plane”.
  • Alternately, Raziel can move from the physical plane to the spectral plane at will.
  • The spectral plane is much like the physical plane, but some features differ.  Some platforms are at different heights, some doors differ in being open or closed.
  • Raziel may move from the spectral plane to the physical plane (and recover some health) at “planar portals”.  These are fixed locations.

There are a few other wrinkles, but this gives you the basic idea.  In fact, these simple rules already lead to interesting game patterns.

  • The way is blocked on the physical plane.  In the spectral plane, the obstacle can be bypassed, and there’s a planar portal beyond that lets Raziel continue onward.
  • The way is blocked on the physical plane by a door.  A switch can open the door, but it’s inaccessible.  Traveling on the spectral plane lets Raziel access the switch, which opens a path on the physical plane.  (This requires a planar portal near the switch.)

Expanding to the Abstract

Let’s generalize a bit.

  • There is an environment that can be explored.
  • The environment has obstacles that block progress.
  • The character can enter different states.
  • The states affect the environment and its obstacles.
  • The environment influences the character’s ability to move between states.

From this we can see that dual-state platformers are much like logic mazes.

Future Directions

Of course, there’s no reason we have to be confined to only two states.  Eversion is a good example of multiple states.

Comments Comments Off | Categories: Game Design | Autor: JohnEvans

July 15, 2010

Game Design: De-Automation—Human vs. Computer Creativity

I’ve noticed a trend in recent games, a trend I’m calling “de-automation”.  From another perspective this name may be inappropriate, but I’ll get to that later.

Computers Are Good At Some Things But Not Others

Computers can keep track of vast amounts of information and manipulate it quickly.  Consider a “game state” in Dominions 3: A world made up of 200 ‘provinces’, each of which may be affected by various magic effects, inhabited by different numbers of population, hosting various army units which themselves may be suffering from effects, etc., etc.?  For a modern computer it’s easy to keep track of it all.  And then processing a turn where any and all of those units may move and interact?  Done in seconds.

However, this is possible because all the rules by which the game elements interact are clearly spelled out.  Someone had to decide what would happen in each and every case.  They worked for years to get it up and running.  Most people don’t want to spend the time to work out all that programming.

Consider, also, interactive fiction.  One of the hardest tasks is writing a parser to figure out just what the player is trying to do.  When a good parser is created, other authors will happily write hundreds of games that use it.

Humans Are Good At Some Things But Not Others

Most of us can’t keep track of a hundred provinces or armies.  However, we can weigh possibilities and make decisions in a heartbeat; decisions that it would take months to program a computer for.

The Obvious Conclusion

Recently some people have been taking the idea of a computer game and letting people make the hard decisions.  One example is Parsely.  Parsely brings to mind the environment and interaction of an interactive fiction game, but the parser is replaced by a human.  Humans are, of course, notoriously good at interpreting language.  Therefore, the game plays quite smoothly.  The experience becomes much closer to improvisational theater than game playing, since the emphasis is on humans interacting.

Along the same vein is Sleep is Death.  One player enters a computer-graphics world and interacts with it.  The consequences of the interactions are decided by the second player.  The game affords the ability to rearrange and manipulate game objects as if they were scenery.  The computer doesn’t have to interpret or decide anything; that’s all left up to the players.

Yet another example is How to Host a Dungeon.  This “game” is notable for several reasons.  First, it doesn’t include any meaningful choices, thus it may be inaccurate to call it a “game”.  It’s meant to be a solo activity of dungeon creation; through the course of How to Host a Dungeon, you’ll create a series of underground rooms with a history of habitation by various fantasy creatures.  Play consists of actually drawing rooms on a sheet of paper.  This puts a number of interesting decisions into the player’s hands; If dwarves tunnel near a cave containing water, do they dig into it or leave it be?  How close do they have to be to tunnel into it?  These are decisions the player weighs as they go through the game.  A computer might have to be programmed with dozens of complex rules to make good decisions; a human can make them in a moment.  Not only does this save time, it also lets the player guide the dungeon’s development according to their own preferences, thus making it uniquely their own creation.

Taking this concept a bit further, I could mention Dwarf Fortress.  Of course Dwarf Fortress is known for spending a lot of effort to simulate a plausible fantasy world in real time.  However, as Josh Diaz’ master’s thesis “Dwarf Fortress Gathers At The Statue And Attends A Party” notes, much of the “play” occurs when Dwarf Fortress players interpret, repurpose and guide the events occurring within the game.  The game takes care of what it does best—keeping track of an entire world’s worth of information, while the humans do what they do best—constructing meaning and narrative out of chaos.

Another Perspective—Is This Really So Impressive?

From another perspective, this phenomenon is nothing new.  Parsely is a lot like improvisational comedy, where the players are encouraged to portray interaction with an IF game interface (making use of the associated tropes as well).  Sleep is Death is like roleplaying, only you have scenery on the computer.

I suspect the presentation is what’s new here.  There are lots of people who assume everything in the game has to be calculated by the computer, but this recent crop of games shows that leaving it up to the humans can lead to interesting possibilities.  If nothing else, it lets the players see that they really can do interesting things on their own, and it might even encourage them to explore their creativity even more.

The Future, Part A—Computer Training

Neural networks are computer models for making tough decisions.  They are adaptive, in the sense that they go through a learning phase before being used.  In the learning phase, you give the neural network a lot of data to train it; “This is a possible input, and this is what should be output”.  Once training is over, the network knows how to make those tough decisions (in theory, anyway).  De-automation shows us that some areas of decision-making are still difficult; these might be good candidates for neural networks.  (Assuming we want to re-automate everything; I suspect some people will go that route even if not everyone does.)

The Future, Part B—Composition

Three of the examples I’ve mentioned—Sleep is Death, How to Host a Dungeon and Dwarf Fortress—are all designed to assist in the process of creation.  They explore the division of labor between humans and computers.  What other creative tasks can computers help us with?

See Also

Arcade Improv: Humans Pretending to Be Videogames

Comments 1 Comment | Categories: Game Critique, Game Design, Interactive Fiction | Autor: JohnEvans

June 25, 2010

Audience-prompted storytelling

There’s a new form of storytelling that has started to become popular in the last few years.  It seems to have been popularized with MS Paint Adventures; I don’t know if Andrew Hussie was the first person to try it, or not.  There are a great many of them popping up on the “MSPA Forum Adventures” forum.

The basic idea is that one person starts writing the story (or writing and drawing, as most often these stories can be described as comics).  After one or two panels, the author solicits ideas from the audience.  After suggestions are provided, the author picks however many he or she likes, then draws another set of panels.  Repeat.

I believe these stories are meant to emulate computer games.  That’s why they’re so often written in second person, as in “You open the door”; e.g. “What Do You Do?“.

MS Paint Adventures is not a game. Except that it is a game, absolutely.

Greg Costikyan

Of course, there are also obvious parallels to various forms of role-playing (cf. Parsely).

What are the characteristics of this “thing”?

By providing suggestions, the readers have a sense of being more involved in the story.  The process of suggesting courses of action naturally leads to an engaged community of readers.  Some choices generate enough suggestions to be put to a vote by the readers.  (Ruby Quest notably did this several times.)  Obviously, this form of storytelling is well suited to online forums; readers can discuss and have input on the story even if they only check the forum once a day.  (It depends on the speed of the story, of course.)

Another thing to note is that the readers don’t need to do much work to interact with the story.  This allows for even casual readers to participate, even if they don’t actually affect the story.  (See also 42 Entertainment’s inverted pyramid player model.)

In this form of storytelling, the author can pick and choose whichever suggestions he or she desires to take.  The characters in the story can even reject suggestions judged to be absurd.  (“That would be a stupid idea!”)  Cynical readers will say that the author is “forcing” certain actions into the story (or “railroading”, a term that I suspect is from roleplaying game fandom).  I think this is actually an intriguing criticism, because it comes from the viewpoint that interactivity is expected.  In other words, because the net-native nature of the story allows readers to influence the plot, they should be able to.

As for myself, I think the balance between “order” and “chaos” has to be worked out with each individual author and audience; in fact, with each individual story.  However, I will say that the potential of net-native literature has, at this point, barely been tapped.  If you want to create something entirely new, you’ll need to let the audience influence the story.

What do we call this “thing”?

People on the MSPA Forum call them “Forum Adventures”, which is fine for their community, but I don’t think it would work as a true umbrella term.  (After all, there are other possible game and roleplaying forms that could occur on a forum.)

1d4chan calls them “Quests”, because so many started popping up that they had to call them something.  (Enough to warrant an entirely new forum!)  However, I don’t think this term is descriptive enough.  (What doesn’t “quest” mean at this point?)

I’ve come up with a number of possible terms:

  • Improvisational storytelling—This art form does appear to have a lot in common with improv comedy.
  • Many-to-one storytelling—Descriptive, but academic.
  • Many-to-one roleplaying—”Roleplaying” seems more in line with Parsely than this particular narrative form.  But this does make me curious as to what many-to-one roleplaying would really be like.  (I suspect there have been one or two games that tried it, but I can’t recall at the moment.)
  • Crowd-sourced storytelling—Actually, this sounds like it might be something different.  It seems to imply that there is no one author/moderator.  Once again, it makes me wonder what “crowd-sourced storytelling” would really be like.
  • Audience-prompted storytelling—This is my favorite of the terms (as you can probably tell from the title of this entry).  I think this term well captures the idea of the author creating stuff prompted by the audience.

Where can we take this in the future?

Most of the current audience-prompted stories take the forum of webcomics, with a few completely text-based ones.  There’s the whole universe of graphic design to draw on (acrylics? pencil sketches on notepaper?), but let’s go farther.  It’s easy to imagine other media forms involved, like video.  (Anyone else get a shiver imagining Joss Whedon and Neil Patrick Harris with a video camera and a web forum?)

This can lead us to think of audience-prompted storytelling as a process:

  1. Author provides content.
  2. Audience discusses content.
  3. Audience provides suggestions.
  4. Author considers suggestions for inspiration of new content.
  5. Repeat.

This definition is broad enough that many existing works fit into it.  In theory, a massively multiplayer game that pushes sets of new content has probably let player comments influence the creation of that content.  Legend of the Five Rings and its “deep, evolving story” are a better example.

While many experiences could fit into this mold, I think the real strength of this particular narrative form is h0w easy it is to participate.  Anyone can sign up to a forum and plop an idea down in the correct thread…and they might have a powerful influence on the story.  And even if they don’t, they may spark a discussion about their idea.

That’s the kind of thing that just might make people feel welcome in a new community…

Comments Comments Off | Categories: Fiction Writing, Game Design, Interactive Fiction, Role-Playing Games, Web-Based Games | Autor: JohnEvans

June 20, 2010

Game Design Basics: Components

Here’s a theory I came up with years ago.  It came from reading lots of tabletop RPG books, but as we’ll see, it applies to other types of games as well…

Most games appear to consist of three basic components:

  • Mechanics are the rules, the guidelines that tell you what happens, when.
  • Statistics are data to be used with the rules.  They often tell you how to use certain things (ideas) with the rules.
  • Setting is information that has no game effect; it’s there to explain the “world” to the players, set the mood and the atmosphere, and so on.

Some examples will make this clear.  Let’s think about, oh, say a space opera sci-fi RPG.

  • The mechanics will tell you what character attributes mean, how to use dice to resolve things, how space combat differs from hand-held laser combat, and so on.
  • The statistics will tell you how to use different spaceships, weapons, character races, etc. in the game.
  • The setting will tell you what these various alien races are doing wandering around in the universe shooting at each other.

These divisions apply to computer games as well, of course.  Mechanics would be the game “engine”, the rules that specify how game elements interact; statistics are data and assets used with the game, specifying the game elements…and the setting would be anything displayed to the player that doesn’t have a direct game effect, as well as manuals and such things.

Thoughts About Mechanics

Mechanics generally comprise only a small portion of tabletop RPG books.  Of course, they’re perhaps the most important; merely changing how dice are rolled can have a very different effect on how a game plays.  Intuitively, it seems as though mechanics are “the most important”.

Historically, computer game mechanics have been the most difficult part of the game to create; that’s where you have to have the computer actually do stuff, after all, like input and output.  Recent tools are making this easier, though.  With modding, you can use someone else’s mechanics and your own stats and setting.

Thoughts About Stats

If mechanics comprise only a small part of a game system, then statistics probably make up the largest part.  They provide the environment the players wander around in, and that leads to interesting decisions.  For example, providing a list of weapons means players get to choose which one to equip.

RPG supplements are nearly all stat.  This is where a lot of the creative hard work is done.  (Mechanics seem more like “flashes of genius”, but I’m sure there’s a lot of testing and iteration involved.)

Some games are basically defined by their stats.  Magic: the Gathering, for example, releases a new set of cards every few months.  These cards almost all work with existing rules, with a few simple additions and revisions each time.

With more game engines and game tools becoming public, more and more people are getting into creating stats.

Thoughts About Setting

It might seem that setting is the least important of these three components.  By definition, it has no game effect.  However, playing a game is more than manipulating game elements; what really matters is the player’s experience.  That experience can be greatly affected by the setting material.  This is an opportunity that shouldn’t be neglected.  Of course, some players may be unwilling to read through a novel’s worth of text in order to play a game…I guess the trick is to create material that gets its point across quickly.  (You can always provide optional, longer versions—an in-game “encyclopedia”, for example—for those who are interested.)

Comments Comments Off | Categories: Game Design, Role-Playing Games | Autor: JohnEvans

June 14, 2010

Game Design: Metagames, Part 2

So in my previous entry I talked about one version of “metagames”.  I believe there is, in fact, another phenomenon that might be considered a “metagame”.  And to talk about this, I need to talk about…zombies.

Specifically, I’m going to talk about Urban Dead.  (In fact, I’ve already written quite a bit about Urban Dead, but I should summarize for those readers just now joining me.)  UD is a text-based, browser-based massively multiplayer game.  Survivors and zombies are trapped in the city of Malton.  Starting characters acquire experience points through fighting, and they spend these points skills to let them become more lethal zombies and/or survivors.  Another interesting wrinkle is that survivors who die become zombies…and zombies can be “revived”, becoming survivors!  This lets players try out both roles and develop both skill trees.

Eventually, of course, your character will acquire all the skills that exist.  You might stop playing at this point…or you could get a bit deeper into the game.

The game truly is “massively multiplayer”.  All the players exist in the same world at the same time.  (Well, Malton is the “main” town and there are a couple other, less populated towns.)  People do stuff using action points, which accumulate over time.  Thus, people are logging in at all hours of the day to perform actions that affect the world.  If you’re a survivor who logs out in a barricaded building, you might log in the next day to find that the zombies have torn down the barricades, swarmed in and turned everyone inside into zombies…and now you get to work on your zombie skill tree.

Malton is made up of a number of neighborhoods, each with its own layout of buildings, empty lots, streets and even malls.  There is safety in numbers; Survivors will congregate and barricade buildings in their neighborhoods to keep out zombies.  Zombies will congregate and ruin buildings in their neighborhoods, making them inhospitable for survivors.  And occasionally, some motivated people will get a bunch of friends together and make a foray into enemy territory.

Malton’s map is a mix of human and zombie influence, perennially shifting as skirmishes occur. That link should take you to the “Building Information Center” on the UD Wiki; scroll down to see the current state of Malton (red for zombie presence, green for zombie-free areas).  This map is continually updated by reports from players.

Malton is, quite literally, a warzone.  The two sides struggle back and forth to gain advantage over each other.  One could imagine power players on the two sides viewing it as a giant chess game, using field reports to puzzle out their opponents’ strategies and plot new attacks.

The Warzone Metagame

This kind of metagame can actually be found in several other games nowadays.  EVE Online and Guild Wars come to mind; I’m sure there are other examples.  The whole point is organized attacks on enemy territory.  However, there are a couple of important wrinkles.

Negative feedback keeps armies from building on their advantages.  If new territory increases the conqueror’s power, then it will allow them to take even more territory; this positive feedback loop may allow an initially successful side to win in short order.  In Malton, territory doesn’t actually provide you with anything.  (For survivors, it means short supply lines and mobility; those are the only real advantages I can think of.)

Incentives for attack keep players attempting attacks.  In UD, oddly enough, there doesn’t seem to be much incentive for attack…except that fighting is what zombies and survivors do.  (It’s a very easy premise to buy into.)

Fortifications allow players to develop an emotional attachment to pieces of territory.  Investment of time and effort leads to emotional investment.

Status information lets players know the state of the world.  (In UD, most of this is provided by players, but it seems to work well.)

Outflanking allows players to take advantage of attacks.  Soldiers attacking a new territory may leave their home territory undefended.  This can lead to all sorts of wild reversals.

How about it, have I left anything out?

Comments 1 Comment | Categories: Game Design | Autor: JohnEvans

June 12, 2010

Game Design – Metagames

What is a “metagame”?  There are probably several definitions, but right now I’d like to talk about Magic: the Gathering.

In Magic, players construct decks.  Each game of Magic features two players, each with one deck, each attempting to defeat the other.  (There are variations, of course, but we’ll stick with this for now.)

One interesting thing about Magic is that decks can be constructed to take advantage of different strategies.  A deck can attempt to cast enough creatures and attack with them to cause damage; that’s usually called an “Aggro” (for “aggressive”) strategy.  A “Control” deck would neutralize all enemy threats, then field one threat that the opponent could not answer.  A “Combo” deck attempts to assemble a series of cards in play (a “combo”) that combine to create an effect that cannot be stopped.

Of course, these strategies work better or worse against opposing strategies.  For example, an Aggro deck fighting a Combo deck would most likely cause enough damage to win the game before the combo could be assembled.  However, Control decks are built to neutralize Aggro threats.  (There is sort of an RPS relationship here, but the real Magic environment is quite a bit more complicated than my summary; these are only the broadest categories, there are many archetypes and sub-archetypes of deck designs.  For purposes of illustration only!)

Now, every few months a new Magic set is released, changing the mix of cards available to deckbuilders.

The Standard format uses only the newest sets the game has to offer. The current block, the block that was released the previous October, and the most recent core set are all legal to play in a Standard deck. As you can tell from the name, Standard is the most commonly played format.

“Sanctioned Formats” at

So, when new sets are released, older cards are no longer available to play and newer cards enter the mix.  (Of course, there are tournaments where older cards can be played; see the Sanctioned Formats page for more information.)  With each different mix of cards, new card interactions are found and the strategies change.  Deck Type A may lose some core cards, while Deck Type B gains a really efficient card; it’s impossible to just accumulate “the best cards”.  People spend a lot of time figuring out which new cards are good and, more important, which cards work well together.

All that is fine, but what IS this metagame thing anyway?

Yeah, that was all just kind of background.

Imagine yourself in the place of someone who wants to attend a Magic tournament.  And, of course, you wish to win.  But what sort of deck should you bring?  At the tournament you’ll be matched up against several other randomly chosen people and their decks.  So it might help to figure out what other people are playing.

Let’s say that recent tournament scouting reports show 40% of people playing Deck A, 30% Deck B, 20% Deck C and 10% random other stuff (“rogue decks”).  So, if Deck C is good against Deck A, you might construct your own variant of C to bring.

But what if, in this particular area, more people play B than the average?  Is your deck good against B?  What if everyone ELSE comes to the same conclusion and brings C—How will you deal with the “mirror match” against another variant of C?  What if you’re matched up against a completely random rogue deck?

“The metagame” usually refers to the state of Magic decks.  It encompasses the currently-in-fashion deck types and variants, along with the frequencies at which they’re played.  People playing in real tournaments often spend a lot of time figuring out the metagame and trying to prepare for it.

When does a metagame appear?

Other games can have metagames.  I’ve tried to puzzle out the conditions that might lead to a metagame arising.

  • Different strategies exist.
  • There are no completely dominant strategies.  In other words, there is no “best” strategy.
  • An environment is made up of recently successful strategies.
  • Some strategies are better in some environments.
  • Strategies are tested multiple times, with time to adjust between.
  • Something happens on a regular basis to change the mix of strategies.

The one point I want to make here is…It’s easy to think of a metagame as being composed of “matches” at “tournaments”.  However, with my definition of “environment” above, we can apply the definition to other games.  Perhaps the game appears to be single player, but each successful strategy is entered into a “pool of recent winners”, which later players must face.  Something to think about, anyway.

(Also see my next entry, Metagames: Part 2!)

Comments 1 Comment | Categories: Card Games, Game Design | Autor: JohnEvans

May 29, 2010

Game Design: Inductive Continuity

All right, perhaps this should be “Inductive Stories” rather than “Inductive Continuity”, but I just love the word “Continuity”.

By “story” or “continuity”, I’m referring to a series of events, their causes and their implications.  When you read a book, you explore the continuity until the book is finished.  Everything is revealed to you by the author.  (There may be some exceptions, but let’s not bother with those right now.)  So, this is the “standard” way stories are told.

Many roleplaying game sessions are set up like this.  The “game master” thinks up a series of events, and the players explore and find out what happened…or, they find out what the GM has planned to happen.  A lot of people enjoy playing this way (at least, I hope people don’t roleplay in a way they don’t enjoy).  Of course, I suspect that a lot of people believe this is the only way to roleplay.

So, are there alternatives?  Of course there are, why else would I be writing this post?

My first example comes from a pornographic Japanese computer game (yes, really).  Season of the Sakura was released in the US in 1996 (then again in 2002).  The game deals with a male high school college student who goes through a school year and eventually falls in love with a female student (and then consummates that love).  The main story is fairly linear; it all leads up to a choice between the three “main” female characters.  However, at certain points there are branches where you can get to know other students and explore a “happy ending” with them.

The interesting bit is the choice at the end between the three characters.  These are girls that “you” have been interacting with and getting to know for an entire school year.  And eventually you simply have to choose one of them.  From a selection box, basically.

After you choose one of the characters, the protagonist goes through a long train of thought, a soliloquy.  He (“you”) thinks about the chosen character and everything that they’ve been through together.  Then he has to go talk to the other two girls and let them down gently.

The really interesting part about all of this is the tone of the monologue and dialogues.  If you choose Reiko, the protagonist reflects on all the things they’d shared and how it was obvious Reiko was the right girl all along.  Choosing Mio will result in the protagonist explaining all his feelings for her and how they were more important than anything else.  In essence, the game attempts to convince you, the player, that whatever choice you make was the right choice all along.  In other words, continuity is not set in stone; it changes based on the choice you make.

Other games have run with this idea a bit more.  I’m going to quote a bit from a pencil-and-paper roleplaying game called InSpectres, released in 2002.  (Note that in this quotation, Jared Sorenson is first talking about what he doesn’t like in roleplaying games, and then he talks about how InSpectres does things differently.)

…the players stumble across a mystery of some sort.  The GM then provides clues…If the players are smart, they’ll figure it out.  If not, then the GM has to guide them along until they do figure it out.  In effect, it becomes an exercise for the GM in which the players are guided down a pre-built track and react to stuff that pops up along the way (not unlike a funhouse ride).  In the end, the game succeeds or fails on the merits of the GM running that game.

What this game does is to allow the GM to set up the events, but then have the players (through their characters) decide waht is really going on.  The GM then reacts to the players and what they see as intriguing or exciting elements of the story.

…This is a game where the players determine how the story progresses.  The GM is there to keep the pace, just like the bass player in the band…

So, what I call “inductive continuity” is the whole point of InSpectres (one of the points, anyway).

What’s the point of all this?  Actually, I’m not sure yet.  It’s just a particular game design strategy that may prove useful in the future…

Comments Comments Off | Categories: Game Design | Autor: JohnEvans

May 17, 2010

Game Design: System splitting

A lot of games are made up of interlocking systems.  I think it might be useful to pull these systems apart and see what makes them tick.

A classic example of what I mean is the X-COM series of games.  X-COM games all feature an overarching game system where you construct bases, buy weapons, hire staff and research new technologies.  (In the first 2 games this was called the “Geoscape”.)  Occasionally an opportunity for combat will arise in the game, and you will send forth your agents to meet the foe.  (The first 3 games used a turn-based tactical battle system; Interceptor had space dogfights, and Enforcer was more of an FPS with RPG-ish skill progression.)

The cool thing about the X-COM games is how the two systems interconnected.  Your agents were situated at the bases you constructed, and that influenced how quickly they could intercept the aliens.  They were equipped with whatever you bought/researched/manufactured.  Afterwards, any items scavenged from the battlefield (assuming your soldiers weren’t completely wiped out) could be used as you see fit.  The alien items would often open up new lines of research, allowing your soldiers to equip themselves with alien weapons, or even allowing you to construct new hybrid human/alien technology.  If nothing else, you could sell the spoils for cash.

For an example in a very different sort of game (OR IS IT?), let’s go for Pokémon.  Most of the Pokémon games are similar to what people call “role-playing games”, but they have their own flow that revolves around collecting the titular monsters.

  • Start with one monster.
  • Battle wild monsters to catch them.
  • Battle wild monsters to cause your monsters to build in strength.
  • Battle NPCs to allow you to advance the plot and get to new areas.
  • New areas have new monsters.

It’s a straightforward cycle of increasing in strength.  Monsters have different abilities, so reaching a new area will let you do things you could never do before (by catching monsters with new abilities).

But you’ll notice that I haven’t discussed the battle system at all.  Pokémon’s battle system is not too difficult in theory: Each monster has various abilities that have different attack strength calculations.  Monsters and abilities have elemental affinities that fit into a huge graph of relationships (imagine rock-paper-scissors to the 5th power).  You can have six monsters “ready” at one time and switch between them during battle.  There are also abilities with strange effects, like “self-destruct to knock myself out but cause huge amounts of damage to the opponent”.  And so on, and so forth.

There are several links between the systems.  The “plot” advancement doles out new abilities and elemental affinities in a steady stream.  Wandering around, you can search for the best places to train your monsters.  Training itself can be complicated as you pick and choose which abilities to let your monster learn.  There are also helpful items you can accumulate.  And of course the battle system acts as the resolution mechanic for the overall game.

So what?

What we’re really doing here is studying the ways different game systems can interconnect.  This can help us understand why games are the way they are, how they might be improved and what other possibilites exist.  For example, an RPG-ish advancement “frame” coupled with a match-3 resolution mechanic is the recipe for Puzzle Quest.  The later X-COM games attempted to replaced the tactical battle system with other resolution systems (with, sadly, unpopular results).  And so on…

Comments Comments Off | Categories: Game Design | Autor: JohnEvans