Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Come on let's twist again!

Let's talk about twists. If you want to know what caused this essay, watch minute 22 of this video, but there are mild SOMA spoilers.

I have a lot of experience with twists. There are times when I've had to pull a twist on two dozen people working together, all spending more time with the world than I spent creating it.

So let me tell you: the quality of the twist is not what matters. What matters is where the twist is.

A lot of people try to outsmart their audience, put in a twist they'll never be able to figure out. Hell, maybe SOMA does that in the end. But that's the wrong approach, because it's in the wrong place. It's like saying you're going to build a bigger and better boat to sail across the Himalayas.

The point of a twist is to shatter ground the audience thinks is solid, not to shatter something that the audience already thinks is broken. If the audience is struggling to figure things out, a twist isn't going to have much impact, because it's not a twist. It's just another piece of the puzzle.

For example, if I write a story where the main character doesn't know who her father is, the audience will naturally consider each vaguely right-aged man in the story. If I drop hints about who her father is, they'll figure it out immediately. If I drop misleading clues, they'll feel annoyed that they were misled. No matter who the father ends up being, it's not really a very good twist because the audience is already on their toes searching for that mystery.

On the other hand, Star Wars has a very pedestrian "Luke, I am your father" twist. It's a bit too spoilered to still have the impact it had back then, but it had a fair amount of impact.

Nobody in the audience was thinking about Luke's father much. They thought they knew Luke and Vader's relationship. So the twist shattered that understanding and worked well.

You don't need a complex twist. You need a well-placed twist, to shatter things the audience thinks they understand.

This is especially important in science fiction stories, because magic science widgets are inherently unstable. Introducing a concept like warp drive or cloning automatically makes the audience grapple for a pattern and struggle to extrapolate. They are reaching out for everything they can find, and a twist won't even make them blink. They'll just be happy they found another piece of the puzzle.

That is, if you mention clones or androids in your story, the audience will automatically consider whether any given person might be a clone or android. If you mention psychic powers, the audience will search for things that might be psychic. If your twist is related to a sci fi concept, it's not a twist because the audience will never be on truly solid ground.

That's why worthwhile sci fi tends to fall into a few categories:

1) Extrapolations
Extrapolate faster than the audience, and you can leave them amazed at the wonders your story holds. In order to do this, you'll need a new concept or a new take on a concept, since if the audience has seen it before, they'll have extrapolated it before. A good example of this is the Foundation series.

2) The Human Twist
The most reliable way to put a twist into a sci fi story is to put the twist on the human side rather than the sci fi side. This is why nearly every sci fi story reveals that a person is something they don't appear to be. A robot, a time traveler, the inventor of space dust, a double agent, etc.

The audience will feel more comfortable with the human side of your story than the sci fi side, and they'll usually stop looking for human-side twists. Sci fi stories can get away with human-side twists more easily than other genres specifically because the audience will be focused on the razzle-dazzle magic science half of the story.

But be careful about revealing that someone is actually a robot, because that's been done. A lot.

3) The Thematic Twist
Another popular way to put a twist into a sci fi story is to set it up with a stinger that changes the audience's perspective. A very common, trashy way to do this is to reveal that your far-future space opera is actually in the past and now the heroes have just become Adam and Eve. It's a good example, I guess, but it's really overdone.

A razor-sharp twist at the end of the story can reframe the entire story and leave it lodged in your mind for a long, long time. However, this is extremely difficult to do. If the audience can guess the twist, it won't work, and if the audience thinks the twist is an ass-pull, it won't work. The only way to pull this off is to have a twist which fits into the theme of the world rather than the logic of the world.

A good example of this might be the Ghost in the Shell story where pleasure bots start going ballistic and the team has to figure out why. Rather than a terrorist, it turns out that the bots were being sabotaged by corporate slaves that desperately wanted a rescue. There's not much in the story to help you "predict" that, but it's not a murder mystery, so that's fine. The theme of GitS supports this kind of story, and therefore it doesn't feel like an ass-pull.

I do not recommend aiming for thematic twists unless your world has a very strong theme.

4) Muddy Themes
A lot of sci fi stories are built around a "moral". For example, during the sixties every sci fi movie had the moral "scientists shouldn't tamper in god's domain". However, sci fi with a moral is typically excruciatingly bad.

Instead, consider thematic mud. Not only is it easier to write, it's also easier to watch.

See, thematic mud doesn't have to be something that is foreshadowed or deeply rooted. All you need to do is cast light on different sides of the story, or on things outside the main story line that are affected by the main story. This casts mud into an otherwise straightforward experience.

For example, the original Alien movie wasn't simply "alien kills humans". The theme was muddied by a corporation trying to sacrifice the crew and an android betrayal. This became a staple of the Aliens universe, and is a big reason it remains so popular: the muddy themes give it a much wider story space than a universe where all the humans are always heroes and all the aliens are simply villains.

Obviously, this is pretty common. The original Frankenstein novel shows the monster in a sympathetic light. Vader's depth comes from knowing he is Luke's father. Nearly every hero is written flawed so we can feel this same muddy sense.

By spraying a bit of mud into the theme, you can engage the audience more and create a better environment for fanfiction.

5) Justifications
Create a world (typically a terrifying one). As the people within the world become more and more desperate, the audience will become more and more assured that they understand what is going on, although they may not understand why. Then you introduce a justification which gives the in-world characters some concrete direction and flips the audience's understanding upside-down.

For example, a more memorable Star Trek episode is the one where Crusher is watching the Enterprise slowly shrink. People are vanishing, and eventually it's just her in a race against a collapsing universe. There is no foreshadowing of the twist - the authors didn't go "oh, hey let's go into WARP hey there was a bit of a WARPY WARP WARP malfunction in the WARP BUBBLE which you know COLLAPSES SLOWLY after you WARPY WARP but everything is oooookay".

Instead, they just let the tension rise, let the audience get comfortable with the world, and then revealed that it was a warp jump malfunction. They didn't need to outsmart the audience, or leave bread crumbs so the audience could figure it out. It's not a murder mystery. They just waited patiently for the right time, then let Crusher discover the justification for her adventure.

This gave Crusher something to grab, and the episode launches into a pretty tense race against a disappearing universe. The audience, now understanding that this is a warp drive malfunction, immediately begins thinking in the same way as Crusher: "What do we do to get out of this? Can we restart the warp core? What is the solution!" And the pacing of the final race is such that Crusher discovers ideas at roughly the same speed as the audience, similar to an extrapolation sci fi story on fast-forward.

It doesn't matter that it's basically nonsense, or that the phenomena is never brought up again. The pacing is fast enough to keep the general audience from being able to think that deeply.

Justifications are extremely common. Nearly every sci fi horror story is a justification story. The trick to remember is that your reveal switches your story from whatever it was to a race to extrapolate faster than the audience.

For example, in the Thing, the justification is revealed pretty early. The extrapolation is incredibly dense, though, because of the nature of the challenge. Therefore, an hour can be spent on stretching that extrapolation out just like a murder mystery, and at the end you may still be left with questions!

Terminator is similar, except that instead of a murder mystery it's an action movie. The movie continually reveals new powers for the Terminator, but each power makes perfect sense: the movie extrapolates what a robot from the future would be able to do, just a little faster than the audience will probably manage. Yeah, future robot can see better than we can. Survive getting hit by a car. Has metal underneath his skin. Can remove and repair his eye. Can imitate a voice. Terminator 2 is exactly the same technique, but with a more advanced robot that can be extrapolated with more breadth.

SOMA was likely trying to fall into this category, but they attempted to foreshadow their "twist". The problem is: it's not a twist. It's a justification. They needed to reveal it when the player started to feel comfortable with the rules of their situation. Then they needed to launch into a series of extrapolations where they reveal more and more of the things the justification can do to the world.


That's my thinking on twists.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Making Game

By mid-October, I hope to be free of some of my more annoyingly time-hoggy hobbies so I can take up some additional creative stuff. With that in mind, it's time to talk about creating games and game-like things.

Creating worthwhile games is extremely difficult.

Of course, "worthwhile" is different for everyone. I've seen people who think that short Twine stories are worthwhile, and they're not wrong. But that's not what I want to work on when I think "game".

Games can do a lot of things, but very few of them are interesting to me. I'm not interested in making a horror game, or a shooty game, or a puzzle game, or a CYOA game. There's nothing wrong with them, but they have no meaning to me. Every time I think of something to "say" in a game like that, I realize it would be better as a comic or a short story.

The only thing games can do that I really want to explore is giving more power to the player. Calling it a "game" is restrictive, but it seems like a game would be the best form, since most people want to play games and few people want to play Maya or Photoshop.

The problem with giving players power is that is requires a tremendous amount of work. You can let the players doodle their own custom figure, but that's just decoration intended to trick the player into thinking they have power. In order to properly give the player power, you have to allow the player to fundamentally access the core systems of the game, which requires a complicated balancing act and a lot of custom tools. Moreover, in order to make it worthwhile, you have to insure their work is properly integrated and shared with all the other players.

This is what I'm interested in.

Basically, tools.

This is a really difficult thing to do, but there are some ways we can leverage stuff that already exists.

A) There's no need to create very many tools inside your game, at least not if you're working on my kind of budget. Instead, allow players to use existing tools - Blender, Photoshop, Unity. Offer access to the pipeline. Unity is free: distributing a version of the project that can be opened in Unity will allow players to use your editing add-ons and assets.

This is a prickly issue. First, you have to make sure you aren't distributing anything illegal - IE, assets or libraries you bought a license for can't be redistributed like that. Second, most players won't use those tools. They're great for power users, but 99% of players are going to stick strictly to in-game stuff.

B) We can use in-game mixes and substitutions to allow those basic users more power. When they create a character, we can let them use sliders, swap out clothes, customize their character in a variety of ways. We can let them customize houses or ships not by editing them in Unity scene view like an advanced user, but by clicking on hot-spots and swapping in whatever chair they want into the chair hotspot.

C) We can allow the players the freedom to imagine things by keeping irrelevant simulation out of the picture. Things like character personality don't usually matter: it's better to let the player choose an aesthetic that seems to suggest a personalty, but then let them dictate what the character does and imagine what the character's personality is. This is also a powerful tool to allow multiplayer jam sessions.

D) Recording and playback are underutilized. Allowing players to act out a scene and then embed that into the shared version of their world is incredibly powerful. If they build a spooooooky castle, let them act out snippets of what the evil vampire lord does, and let them wire those snippets up to metagame triggers (door events, sensors, etc).

E) Integrating creation into the flow of everyday play is a powerful tool nobody uses. For example, games like Animal Crossing or Rune Factory allow you to refurbish your house and grow a garden. If we gently expand on these ideas, it is possible to create meaningful context within your house or garden, and therefore make it interesting for other players to visit or build from. (This is a really interesting idea that could use a lot of expansion.)

F) We need to leverage the power of each player against each player. Not in a competitive sense, but in a cooperative one. Synchronous and asynchronous cooperation, passive and explicit cooperation, there are a lot of tools we can use. Most games do not use these tools.

You'll notice that none of these things are really "game" related. None of them are about gameplay or game feel or anything like that.

Anyway, those are the things I'm interested in. Now you can see why I create so few games.

Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

"Tough Moral Choices"

These days, every RPG pitch is exactly the same. A grim, dark world where death waits around every corner, every decision could be your last! Face tough moral choices in this epic fantasy adventure with four hundred hours of gameplay!

OK, all of those pitch elements are bad. Briefly:

We can tell how grimdark your setting is from your art samples, sell us on something unique.

We can tell how epicfantasy your setting is from your art samples, sell us on something unique.

Tell me what in your game supports hundreds of hours of play, because hundreds of hours of empty fetch quests is what I assume.

Death and deadly decisions mean nothing, because we can save and load pretty easily. Also, it's bad gameplay to kill the player off for choosing poorly: don't offer a choice if one of the options is just flat-out wrong.

But by far the most egregious of these claims is the idea of "tough moral choices".

This is an incredible combination of poor gameplay, poor writing, and avoiding responsibility for the content of the game you're making.

First: poor gameplay.

Choosing between a few canned options is extremely dull gameplay. This is especially true in modern games, where unique characters are expensive to make and full voice acting makes every line expensive.

In older games, you would usually be presented with "moral choices", but the game rarely judged what you did. For example, in Fallout 2 there was a string of events where you could sleep with a farmer's daughter, then be pressured into marrying her and taking her with you. The game doesn't really care what you choose to do, it simply gives you a variety of choices, many of which are based on the core game features (gunplay or stat/skill tests) rather than being strictly canned dialog.

It isn't expected that you'll have the farmer's daughter in your party. But she was very cheap to create: her graphics are (I think) identical to other NPCs, and her dialog is very limited. That was acceptable, because it was true of all the party members. If she is in your party, there's a lot of things you can do with/about her, all due to the in-world mechanics of how party members are handled.

But today, it'd be a huge deal - you've got to give her a 10,000 polygon face and 8 hours of voice acting and an interesting back story because she's a party member! You've got to make sure that every player gets her on their team or you're wasting that cash!

Basically, "tough moral choices" are poor gameplay because choices are poor gameplay. "Tough moral gameplay" is a better thought: players should be able to make their moral choices through core gameplay, or should have direct core gameplay intertwined with them. Not small loot rewards or people liking them more - that's not core gameplay.

Second: Poor writing.

When you start every scenario thinking "what's the good, neutral, and evil path?" you end up with an extremely dull, repetitive set of quests where the player always chooses the same path.

This sabotages your writing in a lot of ways. Firstly, it makes you create canned paths through every scenario. This sabotages the tension and uniqueness of the scenarios, and it's deeply wrongheaded. The biggest thing you need to understand is that the player chose to enter a scenario, and that is a big clue as to what they want to accomplish.

For example, there's a mugging. The player steps in. You immediately know you don't need the neutral or evil paths. Nobody neutral would step in, and nobody evil would step in just to make it worse. That's nonsense.

Do you hear me, Bioware: not even a Sith would step into a robbery just because they wanted to make the situation worse!

It's easy to write a situation such that you know what a player is trying to accomplish when they step into it. If the situation does have good and bad paths, rather than offering a popup choice, make the points of entry different: if the player talks to the nice people, he's obviously trying to help the nice people, and if he talks to the baddies, he's an asshole. You can even make the context command for starting the sidequest literally pop up your goal before you hit the button: "Press A: Try to intervene".

Once you have gotten the player to commit to a "want", you have a fulcrum. You know what the player wants, so you can simply offer him different ways to get it - many of which can be integrated into the core gameplay. Are you going to try to talk the robbers into leaving? Bribe them into leaving? Threaten them? Kill them? Hypnotize them? Bluff them? Grab the victim's hand and run? These are all much better role play options than "make the robbery worse because you're a really bored cartoon villain".

Of course, this thinking can also go awry. When you come up with canned paths based on gameplay, they can end up serving the same purpose and causing the same damage as your ethical choices. Every scenario must have a warrior, rogue, and wizard path? Just as bad.

And the same solution applies. If your player waltzes up to a wizardy challenge, they are choosing the wizard path before they even see a dialog box.

These things can even be automatically generated. Can you imagine how much more interesting algorithmic quests would be if you could enter them in several different ways, each of which represented a different moral or gameplay approach?

Third: Poor authorship

Perhaps the biggest problem I have with the "moral choices" thing is that it is a cheap copout that lets you avoid putting anything of value into your writing.

When you try to brainstorm for all the things a player might do in a situation, you are throwing away your authorial intent. You can't say anything if you need to say everything.

If you want the player to be able to do anything, give them gameplay options to do that. I wasn't faced with a "steal?" popup box in Oblivion or Skyrim. Instead, I was just permitted to steal. And, since it was integrated with the game world and other mechanics, I could come up with a lot of different schemes. Wait until night, or sneak behind them, or lure them out of the room then dash back in, or put a basket over their head - lots of options. And the game didn't judge me much, aside from small mechanical considerations like not being able to sell stolen goods (even in another town?!) and sometimes having the target hate me afterwards (even if they never saw me?!)

Although neither of those games has much authorial intent in it, the ethical options are nicely integrated into the play of the game rather than limited to popup boxes.

Games that offer both freedom and authorial intent are hard to come by. Planescape: Torment is a good example, as is Grand Theft Auto Anyofthem. These are games where the developers had something they wanted to say. Maybe it was worth hearing, maybe it wasn't, but they got it across by saturating the game in character. The world is full of interesting things that have some kind of impact, not generic doodads and setpieces. The characters all have personalities and act according to those personalities.

The interactions with the world echo with the authors' intents - in Planescape you can hear thoughts about the hollowness of the world and the struggle to live here anyway. In GTA you can hear thoughts about worthless bro culture vomit.

Anyway, the point is that these games let the authorial intent shine through most of the time, and the games are renowned because of it. The "moral options" within these games are largely couched inside the gameplay and progression, and the game doesn't judge you much when you delve into them.

So what do we do?

If you want moral play in your games, I recommend putting moral play in your games.

A good, easy example of this is the new Fallout Shelter mobile game. The game allows you to control the lives of a lot of people, and you have a lot of options as to what to do with them. A lot of players create outrageous vaults full of bizarre immoral stuff, but the game doesn't judge them much. Most players probably have relatively 'normal' vault cultures, but they still make a lot of moral choices about how things need to unfold. For example, who has to stand guard, who gets to train up, who gets to have kids, and so on.

Now, no game is a blank slate. The mechanics of Fallout Shelter radically tilt the kinds of cultures players are likely to express. For example, anyone can train up to max stats in about the same time, but children do not really inherit much of the stats of their parents. This means that there's no point in breeding for stats. But, contrarily, children do inherit their parent's appearances, so there's a lot of pressure to breed for appearances.

I don't know whether Fallout Shelter's devs thought of these pressures when they designed the game, but the result is very different that an alternative would be. Say, if only children could be trained to increase stats, and children inherited the adult stats of their parents. Then there would be a situation where every generation was better than the one before it, and bloodlines would be extremely important. Would it be better? Worse? It'd be different, for sure.

Diving straight into eugenics is a powerful example, and I kind of went for the jugular. Few things are as morally sensitive as "breeding humans", but it is exactly what Fallout Shelter is about. I think a more careful game could have been made to teach the dangers of that kind of thinking - without compromising the open play. Having mechanics that emerge from eugenic practices would not interfere with the player's freedom, but it would make them think twice about exercising too much control over people's personal lives.

And, of course, Fallout Shelter has a lot of moral constraints built into it. Children and pregnant women are invulnerable to hazards. Nobody ever gets sick, or angry, or dissatisfied with their life. Nobody needs to rest. Nobody ages. And nobody dies without your permission.

The point is this: your "moral choices" are better off as "moral gameplay". By allowing your player to affect NPCs in ways that cause emergent behavior, you can allow your players a lot of freedom without compromising your authorial intent or writing. You can express yourself more clearly, because you can embed your authorial intent in the rules of the game!

You may have to let go of some of your railroad, though. Linear main quests never survive an encounter with an experimental player.

But, uh... linear main quests suck, so that's fine by me!

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

What Makes Games Different

Recently I've been pretty sour about games. None of them seem even vaguely interesting to me, even games that everyone is raving about. Metal Gear 5 lets you kidnap soldiers! Mario Maker let's you create fascinating Marioish levels!


I'm burned out on "gameplay". Nothing with "gameplay" is even vaguely interesting. But if a game doesn't have gameplay, sign me up! I love games with no gameplay!

This has really got me thinking about what makes games different from, say, comics.

Obviously, one thing is gameplay. But since gameplay seems really uninteresting to me, what else have you got?

One thing I like is self-expression. Allowing a player to put a piece of themselves into the story is valuable, even if that piece is not very important. It also makes the world larger, at least in the player's head, if they think things could have gone differently.

Sometimes self-expression has no statistical, in-game meaning. For example, Saints Row lets you dress up however, and nobody ever treats you differently no matter what you wear. Even if you run around naked, the only comments you get are from nameless pedestrians. No actual gameplay effect.

Although that kind of "shallow" expression is valuable, there's also self-expression which has meaning in the game world. For example, an RPG lets you choose how to approach situations, who to be friends with, and how to spend your time. The final outcome in the very end is probably unchanged, but your choices affect your experience in getting there. They let you spend time differently, with different people or different challenges.

Sometimes this can be much more delicate. For example, in Space Engineers your self expression is mostly based around how your ships are shaped. This is not something most people think about - I mean, who cares how your ship is shaped? But when you play Space Engineers, it says a lot, because it's deeply linked to what your ship does, who it appeals to, and what sort of thing you are aesthetically trying to say. It also says a lot about your level of skill, since if you are a clumsy designer your designs will have noticeable aesthetics descending from that.

There's also self-expression as a shared endeavor. Group appreciation is a powerful tool, whether it's you getting to see what someone else has made, or someone else commenting on what you made. Fundamentally, this kind of shared experience is only available if your game allows for enough self-expression to make every player's experience quite different.

I think the core strength of games is pacing, in the same way that the core strength of movies is editing, and the core strength of comics is the panels.

Games are adept at both giving the player more control over pacing, and also forcing the player to spend specific amounts of time.

Forcing the player to spend time and effort is a valuable tool for making the rewards seem valuable. In most games, "spend time" is the actual gameplay: you move through Metal Gear doing Metal Gear things, and then sometimes you get a plot reward. But we've turned it on its head for this discussion: the plot reward is only valuable because the player has spent so much time in pursuit of it.

While some games allow you to directly pursue the plot, many games are not so linear. Open-world games and RPGs have a medium of exchange. You spend your time accruing a fungible resource - money, XP, power - and then you use it to achieve the next unlock. Whether that unlock is a plot element, a new costume, or a better sword almost doesn't matter. Your time has been turned into literal money, and spending that money makes whatever you spent it on seem that much more valuable.

I remember playing the oldschool games - Final Fantasy 1, for example. I still remember saving up for "sleep" so that I could blast through the nine-pirate fight near the beginning of the game. It all meshed together - the time spent getting the money, the perceived value of the spell I bought, the actual in-combat value of the spell, and the result of overcoming a difficult combat. This chain of value started with the game's pacing: I couldn't overcome the pirates until I spent some effort at it.

The other half of the affair is how much control the player has over the pacing of the game. This is complicated, because technically I chose what to do and how to do it as I saved up for that spell, but it was obviously the game's core pacing structure that forced me to make those choices.

Player-controlled pacing is important, because every player plays differently both from other players and from themselves at other times. Today I might want to grind for XP in a dungeon, but tomorrow I might want to explore a new town. I may want to switch rapidly from exploring a new dungeon to overworld grinding to town sidequests to chatting with my buddies at base camp.

Moreover, this gives the designer a lot of slack. Since I control my pacing, if I run into three difficult combats in a row, I can decide to head back early. If I run into a string of easy combats, I can choose to press on.

All of this has walls around it. If everything is too easy or hard, the player is just going to be annoyed. And sometimes the game might benefit from getting a bit pushy - the Zozo arc in FFVI was really aggressive, but it's one of the things I remember most clearly.

The New
I think I've come to dislike games with gameplay because the gameplay is never new to me. I've played literally thousands of games over my lifetime, and nobody is really coming up with new gameplay. However, people are coming up with new self-expression and pacing elements!

So those are what I'm interested in. Your rebalanced rehash of first-person-shooting or RPG dungeon crawls is painfully familiar to me. But... letting me trade RPG party members over the internet with other people? That's new! Giving me a home base where I can talk to my party? That's new! These are things which can grow into whole new genres!

So, yeah, hook me up with "walking simulators" and pointless construction games. They're new! That's new territory!

... for a little while longer, anyway.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Time Compression Minus Space Compression

I love base-building games. You may have noticed.

But I have a big problem with them: every base-building game reduces characters to a cog. They exist to do a job. The individuals are played down, the base played up. I want a game where the characters are more important.

A core feature of base-building games is time compression. This allows the base to progress faster than life, which is obviously something you want. There are three ways of time compression.

One way is lifestyle compression, AKA space-time compression. This is like The Sims: each character in the base has things they do over the course of the day. They wander to and from various rooms or facilities, use them for a specific amount of time, then move on according to a compressed schedule.

Lifestyle compression normally exaggerates the cost of space. It takes 10 minutes to walk 10 feet in the Sims, so you're strongly rewarded for literally compressing your space. An ideal room in that game might be a large, many-cornered room where all the furniture is right by the door, so nobody ever has to actually walk across any of that space. It's not uncommon to mix rooms together to try and put functional furniture close to each other even though it would be a disaster in real life.

You can blunt this effect by having the characters teleport rather than cross space as the timer ticks, but this is rare and largely considered immersion-breaking. Keep this in mind, because it's related to my solution.

Another method is lifestyle trimming, AKA schedule compression. This became common in Flash and mobile games, and can be clearly seen in games like the mobile Fallout game about managing a vault. This compresses time by simply trimming away all the other things people might do. They are always at work, always in the classroom, whatever you have assigned them to do, they are always doing it. They don't need rest, they don't need food breaks, they don't have a personal life. They are cogs.

This method is great for not compressing space, allowing you to build your base more freely. But it has the side effect of destroying any semblance of personality: the people in your base are simply mechanisms to make the rooms function. You can try to assign them personalities in your head, but once you have more than about 7 of them, that tends to fall aside.

The last method is lifestyle chunking, AKA turn-based/phased scheduling. This is pretty rare, but the basic idea is that time progresses in chunks. This has the uncompressed space of lifestyle trimming, but leaves people's personal lives intact enough that they can have personalities and be remembered as unique individuals by the player.

This method is pretty rare because it's normally done using a turn-based approach, and that's fallen out of favor in recent years.

I'd like to describe a variant of this method which uses a real-time approach. I've designed and paper-prototyped a game, and it might be a fun illustration of how these three approaches are far from tapped out.


You are in control of freighter space ships, traveling vast distances. Each mission lasts months, years, or even decades - although you can have several ships running missions concurrently if you want.

This is the statistical heart of the game. How long is your trip? How many supplies did you bring? How fast/efficiently can you reuse or regenerate supplies? Food, water, clothes, 3D-printer goo, multipurpose electronics, entertainment supplies, luxury goods - all are worth considering as missions get longer.

This foundation drives the rest of the game, giving the player an easily understood baseline to work from. If you want to save mass, put in a water purifier that recycles most of your water. In the beginning, a 90%-efficient recycler works great. But as your mission length stretches to years or decades, you're willing to pay out the nose for a 95%, 98%, 99% efficient recycler. Maybe even have a crew member that is especially good with them to wring out every last possible percentage.

This is a natural growth. Simple, foundational limitations that urge the player to design a base to more efficiently push back against them. Each pushback is a little more complexity on the base building and management side of things. This is a "slow-cycle" gameplay, and is perfect for putting on some medium- or fast-cycle play on top. IE, managing the crew.

But a little more about the slow-cycle gameplay:

Each ship can be designed at least partially by you. This is a base-building game, after all. The ship chassis is set in stone: all you can do is choose what rooms go where. And, in many ship designs, some of those rooms are also set in stone.

The key trick in this Newtonian (no-light-speed-limit) universe is that the space ships are all designed around the same concept: accelerating for half the journey, then flipping and decelerating for half the journey. This produces an almost constant "gravity" towards the engine of the ship, and to minimize damage from interstellar particles, the ships are all classic 70s cigar shapes.

This is not just flavor. The interior of the ships reflect this approach, and every ship has the same three "decks". At the very top of the ship, where nose is narrowest, are the living quarters. Below that, the ship begins to widen, and you have the communal space/off-duty area. Below that the ship gets wider yet, and you have the on-duty areas like engineering, 3d-printing facilities, laboratories, bridge, etc.

That's just the nose of the ship: below that is a huge space for cargo and engines and whatever. But that space just exists statistically: you only care about those top three floors. On-duty, off-duty, and downtime.

And there's the secret. Rather than chunking our lifestyles by time, we're chunking them by floor.

When you look at the on-duty floor, you see your whole crew busy at work at their stations. No matter how many days pass, they work work work work work.

But if you pop up to the off-duty floor, you see your whole crew busy with their secondary tasks. Cooking, cleaning, eating, playing games, drinking together, going to lessons, exercising, etc. While they may move between these stations sometimes, they never leave this floor. You can watch them have their off-duty life continuously. Of course, this is just a view: they are also still working, there's no work penalty for watching them hang around off-duty.

If you pop up to the downtime floor, you see them sleeping and getting up and going to bed and trying to eat breakfast and stuff. Again, you can just watch this forever. They are also working and off-duty at the same time.

This three-view split allows you to easily handle whichever floor you want whenever you want.

The on-duty floor has a minimum of personality. Your characters are basically cogs, keeping the ship running. This floor has the most rooms in it since it's the widest area: in the starter ship, there would be a circle of 8 wedge-shaped rooms with stairs running up the middle. Later ships might have multiple circles, or half-circles, or other interesting configurations, but it's always circle-based with the same wedge-shaped rooms.

The off-duty floor has a narrower circle that continues up from the on-duty circle, with 6 rooms per full circle. This area is about tending to crew needs, starting with food and cleaning, then up to recreation, training, etc. Where people are assigned here is a strong indicator of their personality and interests, along with creating a coherent shape to push the crew to higher levels. You may need to tweak this to keep the crew happy, as most people aren't going to want to be assigned to KP for ten years straight.

The downtime floor is the narrowest circle, with only four wedge-shaped rooms per circle. These are bedrooms, bathrooms, and lounges - places you would hang out quietly, sleep, or get ready for the day. This isn't just flavor, either, because the way these rooms are allocated changes what people have what pull in what groups.

For example, the starter ship (a single circle, classic cigar shape) has 4 downtime rooms. One is hardwired as a lounge. Another needs to be a bathroom. The other two are bedrooms, but since there's a crew of three, there's a two-person bunkroom and a one-person private room.

The captain gets the private room. By that I mean: whoever is in the private room is probably the captain, because social rank is determined by who has the better or worse accommodations. This is reflected in the interpersonal events which can happen, and in the flavor interactions that happens as you watch.

Later on you'll get ships with multiple cores. For example, a two-pronged ship might have two cores, which means 8 downtime rooms. But the two circle cores are important because each is a different social circle. People in circle A tend to hang out with people in circle A, and B sticks with B.

This is a natural and easy way to "cluster" your inhabitants. Even if you have 30 crew, you can "chunk" them in your mind by who they hang out with and what their social standing is in their group. Each player can choose to chunk them in any method they please - one player might prefer to have "A" be for the greasemonkeys that keep the ship going and "B" for command staff and pencilnecks. Another player might have "A" be for women and "B" for men. Another might choose to cram everyone into "A" and have "B" entirely reserved for lounges and bathrooms. Since you choose your crew, you can choose to have only a few people in palatial suites, or cram dozens of people into coffin bunks.

These clusters propagate to the off-duty area. When not actively assigned to a specific duty, people will choose to hang out with others in their group. You can use this to gently guide the crew - force-assign one person from group A to a classroom, and the rest of the people in group A will automatically try to go to class with them... but they will take breaks when they want to, keeping themselves from overstressing. So assign that bookworm that never gets tired of studying to the classroom, and just let the whole group slowly rank up.

This kind of base management feels pretty easy in the paper prototype, and it seems easy to keep track of even ~30 characters.

The last piece of the puzzle is interpersonal events.

I don't think these events should be simulated, at least not past a very basic level. Instead, my approach is that when an opportunity for an interpersonal event arises (random chance), you can click on it and it displays a variety of possible outcomes. No explanation as to what happened to get them to that result. You choose whatever result you want, and imagine whatever interaction you want to justify it.

The potential results will vary depending on what floor you were on when you clicked the event, the established basic relationship of the two, and how they are socially related. IE, a married couple might have different potential results than two people that have never met.

In the paper prototype, I simulated this by drawing random outcomes, but having "upgrade" notes - if a specific relationship existed, the outcome was morphed. IE "start dating" morphs into "get married" if they are dating, morphs into "have kid" if they are married, etc. With this in mind, I can choose from several potential outcomes that reflect their basic relationship, and the game doesn't have to simulate anything or know personalities or anything.

This means A) the player gets to imagine events and personalities, B) we don't have to simulate them and C) we rarely, if ever, conflict with the player's vision.

Anyway, that's my design. If you got this far, let me know what you think. If I get some free time, maybe I'll try programming it.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Good Bad Game Design Pt 2

Today, I'd like to talk about construction games. But I do need to revisit the last essay on RPGs, because that has direct bearing.

I discussed good bad RPGs. Basically, open-world RPGs are often considered "badly designed" - poor characters, weird pacing, 'dull' mechanics. However, judging them by more linear RPG standards is a mistake. Open world games have different specialties and their best kinds of play are different from what we have grown used to. You can't judge them by linear standards, and liking one genre doesn't mean you'll like the other.

One of the biggest features of a linear RPG is the main quest. It's right there in the name of the genre: "linear" RPG. So you have a central rail, a quest that the whole game is hung from. This affects everything about the linear RPG: how you fight, how you get and spend resources, how you level up, who you can interact with, what you can do. With a strong core, you can create a wonderful game.

In an open-world game, the main quest is typically something you do when you get bored of goofing off.

Instead, we choose our own path. There are many tiny quests scattered around the world, and we can pick them up whenever we want. Some of them might be multi-part and pretty epic, but in general they are smaller things. Moreover, the fundamental nature of progression in the game world allows us to improve along a path of our choosing even if we don't do any of those side quests. Combined, this gives us a huge amount of freedom to play as we like.

The slack built into that kind of design also allows us to easily include mods. Since there is no core quest constraining us, it doesn't matter if we include a mod that turns all the NPCs into zombies and adds a giant volcano right where you normally start the game. Everything still "works fine".

We could polish this! We could make open world games with that in mind from the start. An environment to carve a path through, rather than a train ride to enjoy.


This is exactly the same as construction games.

In the past, construction games were mostly linear. You had levels and challenges and you built to achieve those goals. There were some games that were more open, such as Sim City, but there was no content or systems in place to allow the player to truly forge their own path. The kinds of things you could do were quite limited, even if you had freedom to do anything the game could allow.

The ur-example of a linear construction game is The Incredible Machine. If linear vs open world is a spectrum, that's pretty far to the 'linear' side.

As time went on, we became better at allowing for any kind of construction.

However, we still aren't very good at it. Our "open construction" games are a lot like the early Final Fantasy games. FF6, FF7 - these allowed you to go a wide variety of places, do a lot of things. But they aren't truly "open world", because the structure doesn't reward you carving your own path.

Many other games are more truly open world. Sure, recent games like Fallout 3, Skyrim, etc. But also archaic games like Wasteland, Fallout 1, etc. The difference is not technology, it's design.

These games are structured to reward doing things however you want. The progression system is open enough that you can progress in any direction. The world is designed to offer quest fragments to you no matter where you wander. The world is structured "lumpily", so you can switch between different gameplay experiences by simply moving around - wandering the wilds, delving dungeons, or talking in towns. The player chooses which kinds of things they want to do when, and how they want to do them.

Although FF6 is a fantastic game, it isn't open like that. There is momentum built into the game, both in terms of how your stats progress and how the world quests progress. Although you can "go anywhere", there is no contiguous reward chain for going wherever you want, and there's not really much variety in the kinds of approaches you can take.

Anyway, that's where we are with open construction games.

Games like Minecraft are open construction games in the same way that FF6 is an open world RPG. You can go anywhere, build anything, but the universe isn't configured to reward you for it. Normally, the community is responsible for rewarding you for building things. That's a different topic for another day, but the point is that we can design the game itself to shoulder some of that responsibility.

Space Engineers is a bit more open than Minecraft, largely because it has more construction pressures that you can choose to optionally enable. You can choose exactly how much inventory space should be multiplied by. Whether guns need ammo. Whether power is unlimited. Whether you have to weld blocks, and how fast. Whether engines damage nearby blocks. Whether blocks can be damaged at all. Whether stations can be shaken free. Whether there are enemies, and how many, how often, how close. How safe the world is from natural catastrophes.

In addition to those environmental factors, the universe also allows you to tackle specific engineering challenges as you see fit, both large and small. Pressurized environments? Renewable energy? Docking allowances? Interior defenses? Cryo chambers? Medical bays - wired or unwired? Turrets? Mining? Refining? Natural gravity? Planets? Cars? Tools allowed or banned? Jetpacks allowed or banned? All of these can be tackled in any combination.

The way construction and use can be decoupled offer additional challenges. You can build something in creative, but intend it to be used in survival. Or perhaps it was planned in creative, and you use a blueprint to slowly manufacture it in survival. Or maybe it was created in survival right from the start, painstakingly assembled block by block. The resulting ship is just a ship, but the exact method of its design and construction radically changes the experience.

There is also room for your own personal ideas - recreating a popular starship, or making a starship that's actually a challenging adventure map, or trying to make a personal ship that suits a fictional character you created. A planetary base, a floating chair, and office building - things that make no sense in the context of the game, but make sense to the players.

The freedom to approach your construction in such a wide variety of ways, with such a wide variety of goals and such a wide variety of optional challenges is very "open".

Add in mods, and it all extends even further.


Space Engineers is a bad construction game. Compared even to something like Minecraft, it is needlessly complex without adding much of value. But those judgments don't apply very well, because Space Engineers is not a survival crafting game, nor is it a linear construction puzzle game.

Space Engineers has a survival crafting element in it, but only as an optional challenge. There is power in tackling that challenge - but the challenge is not a lump sum. You can challenge it piecemeal - create a mining ship in creative, build a refinery in survival, change the inventory rules, alter the assembler speed multiple, switch back into creative...

Space Engineers isn't structured "perfectly". I don't think it pushes things anywhere near far enough, and the bugs inherent to its multiplayer wall off at least a dozen kinds of play. But you can see hints of how things could go: a construction game where you tackle challenges with a huge amount of freedom.

One thing Space Engineers doesn't have that an open-world RPG does have is continuity. It's not easy to "chain" your constructions, so there's not much sense of history or progress between builds. I would like to see a game where designs were "chained". You build a mining vessel, and then there's some kind of reward or flow to building a refinery base that interfaces with it. You build a frigate and then there's some kind of flow or reward for building a fighter or a carrier or something that travels with it.

Space Engineers cannot do this because they have more technical debt than any other game I've ever seen, and are too creaky to implement something like that. But it's certainly possible.

Anyway, I originally had a lot more to say. I wanted to talk about Kerbal, and Dragon's Dogma, and some theoretical game designs, and adding human elements... but this is the fourth time I've written this essay, so I had better stop.

Hope you found it interesting!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Good Bad Game Design

Skyrim is designed really badly. It's also designed really well.

For an RPG, Skyrim is hilariously bad. The characters are incredibly dull, the places are bland, the voice acting is generic to a hilarious extent, the graphics are uninteresting, the fighting is uninteresting.

Compared to non-open-world RPGs such as the Mass Effect series, Skyrim falls short on every measure.

Despite that, more people still play Skyrim than still play Mass Effect 3.

See, in that dry, generic, empty world, there is space for the player. Even in vanilla Skyrim, there is an endless variety of options. You can go in any direction, stumble across any number of little challenges, see any number of sights.

Yes, all the directions are boring. All the challenges are boring. All the sights are boring.

So why is it fun?

Something about a Role Playing Game that most people seem to forget is that the player gets out what they put in. Most RPGs have very generic protagonists. The game may offer you good and evil options, but even they are quite generic. Closed-world games like Mass Effect or Dragon Age supplement this with interesting characters: Shepard and, uh... Medieval Shepard... have no personality on their own. But you define a personality by surrounding them with characters that do. You build the personality of your hero by choosing their companions. Even if you just choose the companions you happen to like best, you are defining your Shepard as someone with a very similar personality to you.

If you offer enough secondary characters and constrain the number you can choose, you can allow a player some freedom to "put in" their personality and "get" role play out of it. Shepard has a character because you mentally justify why these party members are her favorite. You also get some characterization out of the choices you're presented with in the game, but I'd argue that the party member choice is the most compelling. At the very least, it's continuous and ongoing, rather than a one-off, so it wriggles in your brain and forces you to continually imagine how Shepard feels about how things are going.

In an open-world RPG, parties are rarer. Games like Fallout and Skyrim technically have a party mechanic, but it's very vague, and the characters you can add to your party have almost no impact, personality-wise. Is this a weakness?

No, not at all. In an open-world RPG, you "put in" actions rather than choices. Sure, there may still be choices. Maybe those choices are critical for planting the seed of personality.

But the continuous actions of play are where the character grows and blooms. Trying to sneak through a house or barracks. Deciding to shoot from afar. Deciding to rely on your dull party member to defend you. Looking for a secret inside the waterfall. Opening a creaking chest in the dark. Reacting to the sudden appearance of a pack of wolves.

Unlike a closed-world game, these events are all contiguous. Sometimes they move faster or slower, but they are almost never The Event You Should Be Having. Your avatar is living every second of this adventure, and it is developing in tandem with your actions. You are free to do anything and, in doing anything, you are free to be anyone.

Compound this with mods that change the world, and now you have even more options.

I think these ideas are important.

"Role play" requires the player to feel like the avatar exists. One way to do that is with pieces you painstakingly create for that purpose - a bitter choice, an amazing sight, an interesting companion. Another way to do that is to simply provide a world for the player to live in.

Anyway, I was going to go on and talk about the same "bad vs good" design in other kinds of games (comparing Space Engineers and Kerbal), but I think that's more than enough for today. Let me know what you think.