Saturday, December 30, 2006

Choosing Choices


Well, okay, there's no magic number. But I like the number three. That's how many choices I try to give whenever players hit a non-skill-based moment.

There's a lot of these moments in a lot of different games. Choosing whether to take a left or a right in a dungeon. Choosing whether to save someone or rob them. Choosing whether to buy a sword or a bow. Choosing what building to build, what party members to take, and so on.

What I mean by "non-skill-based" is kind of iffy. After all, there's skill in equipping your party or building a building or even choosing left from right. But it's not the primary play skill. Whereas the primary play skill needs to be deep and diverse, secondary choices are usually less about skill and more about personal preferences. If there is a best choice, then why offer the others?

These choices are very important to a player's sense of agency - his sense that his choices affect the game world. The going idea is that a player should be able to do as many different things as he wants. This leads to games like Grand Theft Auto, where you can run around and go just about anywhere whenever you want. Of course, this has side effects that you may not like.

First: Because you are offering such a wide ability to choose, you are essentially turning that facet of the game into a primary play skill. In GTA, knowing where things were and how to navigate the map was an important play skill, unlike in most other games, where navigating the map is simply a way to get a breather between today's plot event and tomorrow's plot event.

Second: For various reasons, navigating space/plot in a freeform manner generally results in an extremely shallow set of results. The typical response to this is to seed the map with random fun stuff that has little to do with long-term play. A nifty weapon, a fun comment, a shiny car. These things reward players who decide to participate in the shallow (but broad) play you give them without actually requiring complex long-term play changes.

Third: Has high development cost.

(See? Three choices of poison. I like three.)

Taking the "cheap" way out, and giving them only a few choices, is generally a more effective way to actually give players agency. A good example of this is a game where you can choose out of three approaches to any given problem (typically, stealth, fighting, and magic/ranged/social). In this case, even though the end results are essentially the same (beat the level), the ability to choose an approach gives the player a lot of agency.

Of course, the "cheap" way comes with its share of problems.

First: Insufficient options. A lot of times, the choices you offer will simply not appeal to a player. This is especially true of dialogue trees. Trying to provide choices to please everyone is a bit like trying to lift a couch with a toothpick. Even if you're incredibly skilled, the method is simply not suitable.

By making options "in-game" rather than "breaking the fourth wall", you can reduce this problem hugely. For example, offering weapons in-game and letting the player choose which weapon he wants is much better than asking him whether he wants to be stealthy or brutal.

Second: "Gilded Cage" issues. When a player is made to choose from too few artificial choices or artificially restricted in some way, it really steals away the agency and can be very irritating. This is especially true of dialogue trees. Every drawback is especially true of dialogue trees. :P

Some games try to provide a huge number of options while either making them all equate to the same few choices or while making the vast majority of the options so obviously unappetizing that nobody would choose them. This works pretty well for live games like tabletops where there are no such things as saves or second play-throughs, especially because if they do choose some wacky thing, you can always make stuff up. But this is difficult to do with a computer game, since players will often try everything and quickly figure out that you're offering meaningless choices.

You can reduce this, to some extent, by using the same "in-game" techniques explained above.

Third: Exponential growth. Given two or three distinct choices that have different results, you quickly run into The Branching Tree of Doom. There are effectively three ways to keep this from getting ridiculous. You can have choices have numerical rather than plot results. You can have choices lead to different paths that always go to the same endpoint. And/or you can have some kind of algorithm for determining outcomes based on any given choice, which minimizes scripting by adding ridiculous amounts of engine programming.

Anyhow... that's basically it.

Ahhh... I said I was going to link it up to social games and MMORPGs but, you know what? I'll have to do it in a different essay. This one's already too long.

Help! I've fallen off the internet!

Like everyone, the holiday season is very, very busy for me. Without real access to a computer, I'm rather limited in my blogging options. However, I've had access to an incredible new invention: paper!

So, yeah, I've got some essays ready for whoever still has me on feed. Unfortunately, they need transcribin'. And re-writin'. And a dose of wacky hijinks.

Later today I will give you an essay on how limiting choice enhances agency, and how that relates to social games and MMORPGs. Normally I'd just write it instead of announcing it, but I wanted to make a few simple announcements:

1) Soon I'll have a little more time to follow my favorite persuits. That is to say, ivory tower theory and programming little games. That means more posts to this contraption.

2) I have some new equipment and a backlog of ideas the size of the mooooooon. So, yeah, I'm looking forward to getting back to it.

3) There is no number three, there is only Zuul.

4) What's up with Sid Meier's Railroads? I can't install it! I get "autorungui.dll is missing or corrupt". But no matter what I do (including installing autorungui.dll), autorungui.dll is ALWAYS missing. Apparently, it happens with a couple other games to a couple other people, none of whom have figured out how to fix it.

Anybody know what's up with that?

Saturday, December 16, 2006

LEGO Theory!

LEGO Theory!

(This is longer than I intended. :P )

A player plays a game. As the player experiences the game, the software builds a complex structure of ideas (gameplay, graphics, story, etc) which interlock and support each other. The tighter and smoother these interlocks are, the tighter the game holds together. If you know what a memeplex is, it's essentially that. Regardless as to whether you know what that is, think of this as legos. Each moment of play is another tiny lego, building a giant final structure.

"Yeah, duh, games build on themselves. Who cares?"

Well, at a very basic level, how good the ending of your game is depends largely on how well it "caps" the structure you've created. Some endings which should be good endings flake out because the legos don't support them. Some endings which should be trite and bad end up quite touching because the underlying structure is built specifically to need only a little bit of additional work before the structure completes.

But how to think about your endings is only the tiniest piece of this puzzle. After all, this same basic idea applies to comics and movies and books and classes and business deals and blogs and...

In a single-player game, you'll see that a game builds its structure up much like a TV series might, although using pieces that no TV series has access to (like play).

But in multiplayer games, things can get very complex.


Imagine a tabletop RPG. Six players and a GM. The GM is simulating the world for the players. He is placing pieces and creating a structure. However, any given event usually focuses on one or two characters: this round, Anna the Angel and Bob the Barbarian got hit by a squad of storm troopers. But Cinnabun the Ranger and Drokmok the Dancer don't care as much about that.

Essentially, the GM is trying to build a complicated, tight lego structure for each player, but when he puts a piece down, he can't tell how long it's going to be! It's different for each player depending on how much they care about the event that just happened.

There are three ways to deal with this: loose structures, corrective applications, and self-construction. I bet you've never heard of at least one of these concepts before:

Loose structures are the path most GMs take unconsciously. They quickly learn to create lots of "slack" in their game structure so that players can do various things and feel various ways without making the whole game collapse like a Jenga stack. This does end up creating a structure that looks more like lace than a sturdy wall, but it works okay. It's not very efficient at creating a good game, however.

Corrective applications are not quite as common. When a GM does this, he gives another lego piece to players which don't have enough support. Essentially, he "fills in the holes". Like building a lego structure, you should fill the holes before you cap them. This usually means that the GM does one-on-one mini-sessions with the players who feel left out, or makes sure that roughly the same number of interesting things happen to every character in every session. This isn't the best way to do it, but doing it better would require an astonishing amount of micromanagement.

The third path is the path of self-construction. This is a pretty rare path for "mid-level" GMs to take. A lot of early GMs take it and a lot of advanced ones do, too... but it's too common for a GM to hold on to his game too tightly to allow for this kind of freedom.

In self-construction, the GM sets up parts of buildings and then lets the players try to put them together in any reasonable way they can think of. Players usually cooperate to glue them together into structures of incredible density. The GM is no longer really a Game Master, but a Game Guide: he gives the players new pieces if he thinks they're running out of bits to glue together, and occasionally kicks down someone's building.

The downside to this method is that each player will end up with a different building, meaning that as the game progresses it gets harder and harder to give everyone pieces that fit into their own unique structure. This can be controlled somewhat by an experienced GM, but always happens. It's especially bad for endings: typically, these games require half a dozen individual endings wrapped up into one giant blob.

"So I should think about using a loosely defined progression, keeping all my players happy, and letting them do their own thing from time to time? Gee, thanks, I would have never thought of that on my own!"

In my opinion, each of those methods could have a book written about them, but for now I don't have time to further extrapolate because I'm jumping into...


MMORPGs are kind of the ultimate example of how to do all three of these things. MMORPGs allow players to get as involved as they like with whatever they like whenever they feel the need. It lets them go to whichever piece of structure they want and claim it into their personal story. It doesn't hold them to a specific plot.

Actually, MMORPGs fall short in two ways. First, they don't really allow players to self-construct much. The players can't really build their own buildings very large, save through guild mechanics. There are other ways I would consider superior.

The second way MMORPGs fall short is that they don't have very much in the way of a Game Master (or Guide, or whatever). Essentially, there's nobody who sees a particular player and goes, "they really need this particular piece of building." This lack of guidance means that players get pieces of structures, all right, but none of these pieces have much chance of ever fitting together.

Is there a solution? Well, maybe you could record the "shape" of each piece of play, and then keep updating a player's profile to see what kind of shape might go nicely. It would, however, be quite rough. Worse, it would probably be hard to correctly guess how much time the player wanted to spend this week.

Barrier to Entry

Most games strive very, very hard to lower the barrier to entry. Generally they do this by having an introduction which forces any player who joins to go through a tutorial. This lets the game build a lego foundation so that the player, when he starts receiving pieces of building, has something meaningful to attach them to.

For one player games, this is pretty simple since everyone starts from scratch. For MMORPGs it's actually quite hard, but they spend a lot of time and money on it and it works out.

Now, how about for a tabletop?

Ever tried to bring a new player into a tabletop only to realize that he doesn't fit? This is especially true of my games, since I build rather complex structures and I build them vertical. So a player comes in and I'm giving people pieces that fit into this one weirdly-shaped little node that they all share fifty stories off the floor. The new player gets this thing and just stares at it. It can't even stand up on its own, let alone be used as a foundation for further play.

Chances are, your games are a little less... vertical. But you probably suffer the same problem.

The obvious solution is to have an introductory session with just them and maybe one or two other guys, so you can build a foundation that makes these pieces work out okay. These kinds of sessions work well, so long as you build fast and strong rather than trying to rebuild the same building the other players have. The new player will still occasionally get pieces that don't fit, but if you're running with the player-construction method, everyone occasionally gets pieces that don't fit.

The problem with an introductory session is that it takes hours and hours. If you run games like I do, it is fundamentally impossible to have that much time. If I spent even an hour with everyone who would join Boogaloo if I only laid them a foundation, I would have to spend all my free time doing just that. Yikes!

For my grander schemes, such as an on-line version, this is an even more ridiculous idea.

But... what if...

Assistant GMs

Some GMs have assistant GMs. I generally don't, because it's impossible to tell them enough to keep them up to date as to which players need what kinds of weird structure pieces. Of course, this means that I have a player maximum (functionally about five players, despite the fact that my games generally have two or three times that). There's only so much attention I can spend.

The place you're most likely to see AGMs is in large LARPs, where they are charged with mostly just making sure people know the rules and arbitrating when the rules don't apply.

But, really, is there any reason to have them be AGMs? Can't players arbitrate and teach just as well? Sure, the player may be biased, but once word spreads as to which players are bad at it, they won't get asked to do it any more.

Can't this be used to create a kind of "pryamid scheme" for teaching new players? Instead of the GM spending time, a player spends time. This lets the game scale functionally infinitely.

At that point, the real question is how to track so many player's needs... or to automate their ability to create pieces that fit those needs.

Bleah. Sorry, this was long.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Ever been hypnotized?

Some people like MMORPGs. Some people don't. You can say the same of all games, but today, MMORPGs. Why do people vary in their preference?

Here's my hypothesis [read "wild-ass guess"]: it has something to do with how easily your brain can be led to believe that the numbers in the game are real and/or important. Which may have something - maybe - to do with hypnosis.

So. Have you been hypnotized? If, so, chime in and answer:

How easy were you to hypnotize?

How do you like MMORPGs?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Swords and Smiles 2: Electric Boogaloo

In Swords and Smiles I talked a little about abstraction. Right now, combat is abstracted out, especially in RPGs. These games have very simple combat mechanics: choose "attack", and you'll hit and do damage based on your character, skills, and/or equipment. As interfaces become more complex (Wii) we're seeing this abstraction reduced, the play more openly simulated and interactive.

The question is, can social games use these kinds of abstraction, and can they ride the same wave of unabstraction?

I say "yes". There are lots of ways to abstract out social play. The problem is that when we abstract it, it ends up being very shallow. Imagine an RPG with no levelling or equipment: you simply walk around the map fighting random fights. Click the button, cross your fingers that you'll do more damage than it will. There's not very much interesting about that.

Abstracted social play is the same way. But it can be solved the same way, too: adding in secondary play loops like equipment, levels, plot, etc. It makes just as much sense. What you wear changes how people react to you, and how long you've been doing this sort of thing affects how well you do it.

I can't see any reason why you couldn't make a compelling social game, save one:

Most games have a plot, and a lot of their pull is from that plot. Because the plot isn't affected by the combat, the writers can write pretty much whatever they please. However, in a social game, you'll have to be careful to keep the social play separated from the plot, or you'll end up with a branching plot of DESTRUCTION, impossible to write. That really limits our play options.

However, I think it's still possible. And I have an idea for a game. It involves team-based high school melodrama (or college melodrama, I suppose). I like the idea, but I don't really have the time or energy to write it up. But I'll give you a sample: everyone has confidence and loyalty, but they are opposing. When one goes up, the other goes down, and visa-versa.


Think about it...

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Laser Tag

I'm going to go back to the Swords and Smiles/Interfaces thing tomorrow, but for today I'd like to talk about something slightly simpler. Something to show everyone that game design analysis isn't just some ivory-tower voodoo that nobody ever uses. This essay may seem a little long, but it's extremely straight forward and easy to read.

Yesterday, I played laser tag. With 35 other friends - we bought the place out for a little while.

The basics of laser tag are simple: shoot the other dude to get more points. Most games of laser tag have additional features to make the play more interesting. All of them have terrain, most of them have teams, many of them have special targets (such as bases), ammo limits, lives...

The place we went did all of that - no one feature as well as I might hope, but everything somewhat well. (Except the fact that you could still get shot after you died, which was really dumb.)

They also had one feature which was... very interesting.

Every minute or so, people became invulnerable for twenty seconds. The basic idea being that they could waltz into the enemy base and shoot the base for a while, racking up the points.

Now, from my point of view, this was really a dumb idea. I mean, painfully dumb. You can't do anything to stop these people. You don't even get points for shooting them. Worse, the PA says, "green, defend your base!" every time one gets inside. You end up wanting to shoot it: you know there's some asshole in your base, and he's going to be there for precisely eight more seconds before invulnerability fades and he instantly dies. You can't defend your base. It's physically impossible.

So, why did they do it? Why this stupid "invulnerable" shit?

Take a moment to come up with some reasons they might have done so before reading on.


The more obvious reasons are ones of play rhythm. You want to keep the game going at a frantic pace, and the best way to keep people running from one side to the other is to make them invulnerable for a little while. However, this is a really bad way to control pacing. In fact, it would be better to do it just the opposite: have the various base targets themselves only vulnerable at pseudorandom times. Invulnerable players don't pull the same vigorous defense, because they can't be defeated.

But it's not a bad design. There's another reason for it. Did you think of it?

Shitty players are the problem.

See, in games of paintball, the real issue is that if you're a bad player, you spend most of the game dead and don't really accomplish anything useful. Laser tag is, at its default, the same: if you can't shoot and have no sense of tactics, you'll suck. You'll end up with a big negative score and feel like you wasted your time.

But if everyone gets to be invulnerable for a while, then no matter how bad you are, you get to kick all the ass for twenty seconds. Assuming you're alert enough to realize that you've just gone invulnerable, of course.

So the invulnerability is really to make the bad players still enjoy themselves. I, being the sort of person who doesn't much like luck as a major factor, hate the rule. But I'm also not a bad player, so I'm a bit biased.

Honestly, I don't think it's really the best way to do it. But it is an effective way to do it.

Can you think of other ways? Let's hear them!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Swords and Smiles

Melee combat is very complex, but you wouldn't guess that from most RPGs. The melee combat has been abstracted into a simpler form where we use high-level commands to control the combat, and the low-level bits aren't even simulated. Of course, once you've abstracted something like that, it's easy to include fantastical elements like magic, and re-weight things so that various approaches are balanced in game when they aren't in real life. The abstraction simplifies a lot, so we add in a lot of stuff to prop up the play - plot, highly varied monsters, an equipment-buy cycle...

Social play is very complex... but is it more complex than melee combat? Is it more complex than torque and positioning and sharpness and how the body reacts to injury? I lean towards "no", but I'm interested to hear your thoughts. I understand that social play isn't a zero-sum game like melee combat, but...

Here are the questions I'd like to figure out how to answer:

1) Can social play be abstracted out into something very similar to the play in some existing genre? Not "can we replace swords with smiles?", but "can we use a turn-based dynamic like an RPG?"

2) With the advent of "deeper" interfaces (such as the Wii), melee combat (and other situational) simulations are likely to get less abstracted. Will this new wave of "realistic" models provide us with a better foundation for abstracting social play?

3) Does anyone care?

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Games you Never Thought of

Here's a few games you Never Thought of.

First: I finally managed to get a group to play Primetime Adventures, which has to be THE hardest game to sell people on. I finally got a group together - five players, two audience members, and me. Fourteen scenes later, we had finished a comedic romp through a steampunk space opera.

It works very well, even if you have no plot planned. Our "pilot episode" plot was made up on the fly, and it still ended up being an enjoyable game. I wonder whether I can get anyone to play a second time, though. It's so hard to sell.

Second: For the past few years, I've been creating games with lower and lower levels of immersion - testing the edges of what the minimum possible immersion is. It's been a very interesting romp, striding the edges where games fail. I don't think it's too egotistical to say that Boogaloo has proven most of my theories in application: a minimum-immersion game that people like to play.

It falters, but that's expected given the fact that the game has not a hint of immersion. I can, should, and almost certainly will write a paper about it.

However, what I'd like to do now is work on games with higher and higher levels of immersion. There are dozens of possibilities, but most of them have some severe drawbacks. So far, all my ideas have had the big drawback that they take at least half a day. I think that's inevitable: you can only immerse so fast.

Here, however, are two interesting ideas me and my roomie came up with. These games would avoid most of the drawbacks, but there are still some.

A game based on road trips. You get four to ten cars (and their drivers) and 2.5 times that number of players. You then set off on a day-long road trip. Each leg of the trip is an hour or so, with all the cars meeting in various locations. The idea of the game is that it's some kind of Cthulu-esque experience where the passengers are slowly being driven mad (ar-har-har): each car ride is functionally an hour of role-play based entirely around conversation and occasional in-game paper passing.

The players would need to figure out where they wanted to go in whose cars to solve whatever their goal was.

I could make this game a lot of fun, but the downside: about $100 in gasoline per car. Yeowch.

The other game is similar, but you simply ship everyone to a nearby big town (Boston, in my case) and instead of road trips, they take trips on the local subways and/or busses. You get some of the local businesses to go along with the game - a used book store, a little restaurant, a pub somewhere, someone to play a crazed homeless person - and you have everyone check back with "central" every hour or two. Some kind of "event" that happens that they don't want to miss.

It's the same basic kind of experience. The immersion should be comparable to the road trip, but would likely be more erratic. On the plus side, day passes for busses and/or subways typically run $5-$10, dramatically cheaper than the $30 players would need to pitch in for the road trip game.

Why these game ideas evade many of the problems with immersive games is an interesting topic, but kind of a long one, and I've taken enough of everyone's time today. Feel free to muse about it in the comments: I'd be interested to see everyone's take on immersion.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Okay, I keep reading "Lucid" as "Ludic". So, I'm taking tonight off. Soon: something shorter, and maybe a re-luciding of that five page thing I did a bit ago.

Tomorrow: Peanut butter sandwiches, far as the eye can see! My eye, at any rate, being severely nearsighted.

Actually, I'm about out of bread. So: peanut butter bagels, as far as the eye can see!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Darius Sucks!

I got to play the Wii a little bit, and I'll I can say for certain is that avatars that look like Darius really suck at boxing.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Idiot's Guide to GMing

Here's five pages of the Idiot's Guide to GMing, a book I'm not really writing. These five pages are a how-to on immersion. I hope you'll find them useful or, if not, tell me why not.

Talk to Strangers

(Google Documents has some irritating issues with non-HTML formats. Anyhow, looks best at about half window width. :P )

Friday, November 17, 2006

Wandering Too Far

The restrictions of language preclude relative unknowns from propagating advanced theory, therefore they must achieve a reputation for incisive comments about common theory first.

There, academic enough for ya?

Monday, November 13, 2006

Big Book o' Social Play

Here's a 25 page essay, if you're man enough to read it! Or woman enough! Or whatever. I suggest tackling it two pages at a time, with copious amounts of webcomics, caffiene, and wild beach parties between sessions. Invite me.

Anyhow, it explains my most recent theory in grotesque detail. There really is a lot of juicy, applicable stuff in there. At least, I think so.

Just keep in mind this is not exactly a polished document. Especially at the end, it kind of dwindles to random tips and notes. But it is full of juice! You will definitely learn some interesting game design tips, although I might be talking out of my buttocks. You'll never know unless you read it.

Big Book o' Social Play

Sunday, November 12, 2006


Games are interactive.

Most people think that means that the player does something and the game reacts. This isn't quite right: it's too narrow a definition.

Games have more in common with sports, work, and hanging out with friends than with movies, books, or spreadsheets. The first three are definitely, deeply interactive, whereas the last three are arguable.

See, a player doesn't have to interact with the game. Most games - and here I'm talking the whole scope of games, not just video games - most games are more about interacting with other players than with the game itself. Most games are simply structures that support an interesting way to govern interactions. They give players an excuse to be social together in specific ways, mixing up their normal social tendencies in a pleasant, structured, and relatively low-stress way.

A game's rules can be quite complex - roll the dice, choose three cards, if such and such then such and such. But in the end, the game's primary appeal usually boils down to the way it allows for interesting forms of socialization and its various cousins. This, of course, includes dominance play and so forth - not just simple socialization.

For example, poker isn't simply about percentages and potentials. It's about interpreting the body language and bids of the other players to determine how they fit into the percentages and potentials. It's about manipulating them into giving you the most cash.

Even the most unsocial games (like go or weiqi) are actually about socializing - about you reading your enemy's capabilities and aims, and seeking to counteract and accomplish.

Even single player games are about socializing!

Solitaire creates an imaginary second player: the deck. Using randomization, it attempts to simulate the actions and reactions of a human player. In Roulette, we use a bouncing ball.

Don't believe it?

Then why do so many gamblers think about the luck of the game as if it were human? Sure, they're not usually being serious when they think of "lady Luck", but they are being serious when they say that their luck has got to change, or that they are "hot".

We're hardwired to think of everything interactive as if it were at least marginally intelligent. Kids pretend (or flat-out believe) that stuffed animals are sentient. Adults treat their cars like they were people. We curse at the game when it gets too irritating, because that's what we'd do to a person who pulled this kind of stuff.

We're social animals.

We play social games.

The rules of your game aren't there to provide a specific level of challenge or whatever. The rules of your game are there to either provide a framework for people to socialize, or provide an imaginary person to socialize with. Someone who can be interesting and reliable.

As it turns out, providing a complex pattern to learn about and fun places to explore is an excellent way to provide enough of a social pattern to keep your players playing.

But when you think of every game as a dialogue, you'll be able to start telling what is "good" play and what is "bad". You'll be able to tell when play is "shallow", because you'll think to yourself, "our imaginary person is kind of getting off-topic." You can tell when play is "deep" because you can think to yourself, "wow, our imaginary person is insightful..."

And when it comes to connecting players to players?

That's a bit different. You're not creating an imaginary person: you're guiding real people.

Maybe I'll cover that some day.


Believe it or not, I really am working on a contiguous set of topics. All the recent posts about fundementals tie into this easily: the fundamentals are the "personality" of our imaginary person. The topics they like and the things they know most about.

Sorry it's so... scattered. I suppose I should write a book, but that's so tacky. Yah, because posting to your blog isn't tacky.

Anyhow, just some thoughts. Lemme know if you agree or not.

Candy Tests

I am a huge fan of playtesting. I playtest everything I build. Every game I make has a playtest phase before I even think about releasing it, and these playtests always catch issues that didn't occur to me. Every time.

Of course, there's two weaknesses to playtesting that you have to keep in mind at all times.

The first is that playtesters aren't (usually) testing the game for the length of time that your fans are actually going to play it. This means your more long-term play usually goes largely untested.

The second problem is that playtesters are subject to what I call the "Pepsi Challenge" fallacy.

The Pepsi Challenge was to determine which soft drink tasted better: Pepsi or Coke. Random testers nearly universally chose Pepsi. Why? Because Pepsi has a higher sugar content. It's a sweeter drink.

But it turns out that over the long run, Pepsi is less pleasing. Coke still wins out for the long-term drinkers, because it isn't too sweet.

What this means in terms of game playtesting is that testers will often choose whatever mode makes them feel stronger. However, a slope of challenge is what makes the game have staying power. So the testers will choose the variant that is actually worse for the long-term appeal of your game.

Basically, what you have to remember when using testers is pretty simple:

Watch them. Don't take what they say too straight: they aren't designers, they aren't testing the long-term play of the game, and they're heading for a Pepsi Challenge Fallacy.

What matters isn't what they say they prefer: it's what their play says. If they struggle to play, you need to polish that. But if they test two variants and have no trouble with either, the better variant is not necessarily the one they prefer.

Of course, some people are naturally immune to Pepsi. These people make great playtesters, but often don't represent your target audience very well. :)

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Deep Social Gameplay?

I explain why social gameplay is a hard problem, and some various ways people have tried to solve it. It's not long, and it's not written in acad-speak! It is kinda steeped in deep game design stuff, but other than that, it should be pretty accessable.

Tell me what you think.

Social Gameplay.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A Personal Post

I generally don't make personal posts. Feel free to skip this one.

I have been told five times in twenty hours to vote.

Voting doesn't do anything. It makes you feel nice. It makes you happy. "I'm guiding my nation!"

I want the ocean to be yellow, therefore I should pee in it?

Voting is an emotional release. It has no actual mathematical merit, and the logic that convinces most people is not logic at all. It's an emotional appeal. In this case, an emotional appeal to vote for one freakjob or another, universally twisted by "public service" into horrifying monsters with painted smiles.

So, no, I'm not freaking voting. That's right, I will not change the outcome of the election.

Of course, me not voting has nothing to do with me not changing the outcome of the election.


I'm running a game of Kung Fu the Card Game the Role Playing Game Part Two: Electric Boogaloo. This link is mostly for myself, so I don't forget the file name.

But if you want to see what a typical Craig Card Game looks like, here it is.

Sorry, you can't play unless you're on WPI campus. It's a rather "in person" game. If you want to run it yourself, just mail me and I'll tell you about the GM's role.

Ugly hub link.

(It may be slightly opaque, since it's very much a "learn by playing" game... :P )

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Summary

Okay, you can now officially ignore the last four essays. I was using very muddy terminology. Here's the new explanation:

Every game (and every other kind of art) is designed based on some fundamental bits. These are not the things the player gets to see or interact with, at least, not directly. These are the foundation for those things. These are the things which anchor play, anchor plot, anchor the art.

A lot of people play a game and like it or dislike it. Then they attempt to justify this like or dislike: "It has a great story!" "The gameplay is innovative and interesting!"

The thing is, a huge number of games have a great story, or great gameplay, or great art. But those games are never really mentioned. If a great story, or great gameplay, or great art were the real requirements, those games would be very popular.

You can argue that a game needs all three things combined to be very good. That's not entirely true, of course: some really fantastic games are missing one or even two of those things.

Justifications never work out very well. The real reason most people like or dislike a game (aside from hype and/or critical software issues) is dependent on the game having deep, cohesive, and fully utilized fundamentals.

Most genres come with some fundamentals. RPGs come with a few story fundamentals: save the world, gather a group of random people, explore the world. They also come with some play fundamentals and even some art fundamentals. Most RPGs simply use these fundamentals and produce an average product.

Some RPGs toss in some new fundamentals, creating a crazy-quilt of ideas that mesh poorly. Some people will like these RPGs for their innovation, but most people will find them unappealing.

The best RPGs put in new fundamentals that cut across the way the player experiences the entire game. These fundamentals allow the content of the game - rules, art, story - to unify and resonate. They allow the game to shine, because they create pearls and then shine lights on them.

These fundamentals don't have to be complex. For example, FFVI's two cross-cutting fundamentals were "emotion" and "lots of characters". Not exactly complex. At least, not on the surface. But these two fundamentals allow the rest of the game to be built beautifully.

Yay! I didn't define rule!

Outdated, go here.

Rule: a principle or regulation governing conduct, action, procedure, arrangement, etc.

Rule: the customary or normal circumstance, occurrence, manner, practice, quality, etc.

Rule: a prescribed mathematical method for performing a calculation or solving a problem.

Rule: the constellation Norma.

When most people say "rules", they seem to immediately think "laws". The two are different words for a reason: the word "rules" includes things that aren't laws, such as most of those listed above.

The first one is the important one. "A principle or regulation governing conduct, action, procedure, arrangement, etc."

That's what a rule is.

A rule set is a set of principles or regulations governing any and all of those things. Which is dramatically more than simply "gameplay".

Sorry if I was unclear. I wasn't trying to waffle: I didn't think everyone thought "rule = gameplay". I mean rule as it is actually defined. Obviously, we're talking about the constellation Norma.

A game might have a "time-travel driven plot". People don't think of this as a "rule" because it's implicit rather than explicit. But it is: implicit rules still exist. A time-travel schtick is a principle that regulates the procedure and arrangement of the game's plot (along with other facets of the game).

It is a rule. So is the standard "scrappy youths save the world" schtick. They provide you with various guidelines - principles - which shape your design.

Things that aren't a rule are things like the dialogue you actually write, the characters you design, the specific cities you create, the specific subplots... these are things which result FROM the rules. They are also the things that most people think make a game good.

Why RPGs Suck

Outdated, go here.

Sure, not all RPGs suck. But everyone seems to think that the most important factor for an RPG is it's "plot" or "story". This simply isn't true. Or, rather, it's only true tangentally.

I've recently been on a big thing about how rule sets are the most important thing in a game. So, if you're clever, you might already realize that I'm about to use RPGs as an example.

The most popular RPGs do not have any better stories than generic RPGs which make barely a splash.

For example, Chrono Trigger is undeniably one of the top ten RPGs of all time. Star Ocean II is not. Even though they had the same target audience, the same basic save-the-world plot, the same kinds of characters.

You could argue any number of other factors. Advertising, writing, character design, gameplay... but you'd be arguing wrong. Advertising (or inertia) certainly matters: the Final Fantasy series attests to that. However, I don't think anyone will argue that advertising actually makes a game better. The rest of the arguments? No.

Perhaps you're unconvinced.

Chrono Trigger's gameplay wasn't exactly innovative - it was barely even interesting. Star Ocean II actually had more interesting gameplay. Many non-fantastic RPGs that have no lasting appeal actually have innovative gameplay. 7th Saga, Persona, Parasite Eve, many others. Excellent writing, design, gameplay... these games often have a few people who continue to be fans long after the games are old. You probably are thinking, "Yeah, hey, that was a great game!" But you'd really have to stretch to consider them "top" RPGs, and you probably haven't remembered them in years.

The one thing you probably wouldn't think of comparing is rule sets. By which I mean the overall rule set of the game itself, not just the rules of the game play.

Chrono Trigger has time travel. It has a rule set that uses time travel. In addition to the solid writing and the nearly-two-dimensional characters, CT's time travel schtick allows it to give the player a level of emotional investment in the world and its characters that few other games can match. Also, it gives it some cool plot twists that flow neatly - totally unforced.

Final Fantasy VI (or III, whatever) uses a rule set that allows for many, many different characters. This allows you to build a story that spans dozens of view points and dozens of lives, and also allows you to let the player ignore the characters he doesn't much like.

Most of the really popular RPGs aren't great because of their writing or their plots. Those things are important, but dozens of RPGs that vanish without a ripple have writing just as good and plots just as good.

The really popular RPGs are great because they have a rule set that gives them the ability to produce better metacontent.

The rules drive the content. Generic rules give you generic content. This is why so many RPGs just aren't interesting to anyone other than RPG-heads. They build off solid gameplay rules, but their meta rules are given no thought, and turn out generic and patchwork.

Think meta. :)

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Content is King

Outdated, go here.

Recently, my posts have said "the rule set is the only thing that matters".

It's really a misleading statement, of course. It's kind of like saying "phsyics is the only thing that matters". Sure, everything relies on physics, but things like food and air and Wii are the things that everyone cares about. The fact that physics makes these possible is a pretty remote connection to most people.

Games are the same way. The pretty graphics, the hopefully-interesting storyline, the cool weapons, the level design, the actual play of the game... it's what players live and breathe. But all of that stuff either arises from or is brought to light by the rule set of your game.

You have a villain named Murmur. She's a kickass design with some great lines and some fun superpowers. Plus, she looks really hot in what little she's wearing.

Of course, if you've designed her without thinking about the game rules, much of your design is wasted. For example, if the game is a real-time-strategy, she's going to be about thirty pixels tall and her delicate outfit won't have any more punch than a generic bikini. On the other hand, hair that is bright pink is fine in such a scale because it sets her apart, but if she were portrayed larger, it would just be loud and ugly. (Why the heck does a villain named "Murmur" have pink hair?)

Her fun superpowers must be adapted depending on whether it's an RPG or an FPS, and that's going to be an ugly process. Even her lines will be portrayed differently depending on the game - a game with no facial animations or really tiny faces (like, say, Deus Ex) will leave every line flat, totally changing the way you have to write. Is it recorded over audio or simple text? That also changes the way you write.

The parts of Murmur and all the other things that impact the player rely on the rule set. The overall rules of the entire game, not just the tiny piece you associate with gameplay. With a different rule set, the same character has a dramatically different feel. The same event is a totally different experience. Even the same art gives an entirely different impression.

Content is king, sure. Without content, nobody cares to play. But what content gets crowned is up to the rule set.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Rule Sets Again...

Outdated, go here.

Last post I got a good comment. I'm going to try to defend myself. First, I need to say that I specified "rule sets" rather than "gameplay" for a reason:

"Gameplay" has a bad connotation. "Gameplay" means "sitting in front of the TV twiddling your controller" or "rolling dice". A rule set can give you that kind of game play, but it doesn't have to. With that in mind, we'll continue:

"Name pretty much any good Japanese RPG, and you'll find a boring, repetitive mess of gameplay which wouldn't be fun for five minutes if it didn't have a good story justifying its existence. It's gameplay is only worth anything in that it allows the story to be there."

That's patently not true. You may not like that style of gameplay (not knowing you, I can't say either way), but the fact remains that the gameplay is extremely dense. It lets you micromanage statistics and weigh variables and buy efficiently... this is especially true in JRPGs, where there is the added gameplay of synergizing your party.

The reason people like to rag on JRPG play is because it hasn't really changed in the past decade. That's doesn't mean it's bad or shallow. Actually, it means the opposite. It means it's deep enough to still appeal ten years after it plateaued.

"I've already mentioned Mario Party, which I have had a lot of fun with. But if you look only at the gameplay itself, it's not exactly impressive. A bunch of shallow minigames, separated by a primitive board game in which you spend a quarter of the time hitting dice blocks and the other three quarters watching other players hit dice blocks. The gameplay is good because it allows you to arrange a fun party around it. The gameplay, without the social context, is worthless."

Ahhhh, this is a really good counter-example, because it covers what I was going to post on next.

Social gameplay is still gameplay, and is definitely caused and fostered by the rule set. The way the game is designed in tiny, silly chunks is ideal for making people enjoy themselves en masse.

I've designed lots of games like that. It's not that they have "poor" gameplay or "shallow" gameplay, it's that their rule set is designed to make most of the gameplay meta, or more accurately, tangentally meta.

"The majority of Riven (and in my opinion, the part of the game most worth playing) is walking and looking. Deep."

Gonna hit that at the end of the essay.

"I'm not saying these are bad play mechanics- they're good because they serve the more important stuff well. What that important part is depends on what the game is trying to achieve: it could be story, or socializing, or world design. But the play mechanics in these cases are not the most important parts of the game."

I think you're shortchanging play mechanics. You seem to be saying that play mechanics cannot be based around story, socializing, or world design. That would be an unfortunate shock, since literally all my play mechanics are based around those. It's extremely rare that my gameplay is actually about playing the game itself.

But that doesn't change the fact that the rule set is what enables that kind of fun in that kind of way. Simply saying "it's the socializing that's fun" is ignoring the fact that the socializing is caused by the rule set.

"In fact, you could have a good time without any gameplay at all. The story of an RPG could be detached from its gameplay and still be enjoyable; socializing can certainly be fun without minigames; Myst's worlds could be appreciate in some sort of real-world 3D model."

Ah, but they wouldn't have the same appeal. There are no popular RPGs whose story/characters/pacing would make a movie that would still be popular five years from now. Socializing without the minigames doesn't have the same stability or reliable enjoyment (hence drinking games). Riven wouldn't be enjoyable to wander around because it wouldn't be couched in "solve to proceed".

The rule set for all of these games - and every other game - manipulates how the character moves through the game. It makes the character stop and look at the coolest parts of Riven. It makes the party revolve at a fun and moderated rate. It gives the RPG plots and characters their value by associating them with gameplay changes and time expenditure. All of these things grow out of the rule set.

I hope this expains my position: rule sets are the primary factor in a game.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

What Makes a Game Good?

Outdated, go here.

I've run scads of live games. RPGs, LARPs, card games. While I can't claim they were all good, they have almost all been popular.

I spend a considerable amount of time trying to figure out why person A loves the game but person B dislikes it. And I think I now know. I'm going to tell you in as short a post as I can, as an apology for the extremely long posts earlier in the week.

The thing that makes a game good is the underlying rule set.

Everything else is fluff.

"Blah blah blah, heard it."

No, please understand: everything else is meaningless.

I run games with the weakest, least-defined plots, the most irritating overhead, the most infuriating lack of GM guidance. Yet they are unfailingly popular and a majority of the players enjoy them. They go to astounding lengths to work around the nearly infinite weaknesses in the actual GAME...

Because I provide the rule set. And the rule set provides the gameplay.

If the gameplay is deep enough to keep the players interested, they will invent something to do. They will make a plot. They will ignore irritations and gleefully tackle self-motivation.

Your job is to provide a killer rule set.

Everything else is fluff.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Based on a True Story

Chewing, scratching sounds start soft, get louder.

Fade to: Cramped bedroom, dark.

Dolly in on bed. GEEKMAN is sleeping on bed. The scratching is particularly loud, and his eyes pop open, bloodshot.

Fade out, noises stop.

Text: "Just when you thought it was safe to sleep..."

Fade in on GEEKMAN slamming fists into walls, howling. Noises resume.

Fade out.

Text: "WALL MICE!"

Fade in. GEEKMAN is standing with his room-mates, looking exhausted and crazed.

Geekman: "The situation is clear."
"One of you is a traitor. One of you is working for THEM."

Flash out.

Slow text: "WALL MICE."

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Design Review

Last post I linked to an alpha version of an RPG guide to a game called "Side Effects". This post, I'm going to analyze the design decisions I made. It's more for my benefit than everyone else's, but if you feel up to it, feel free to hum along. I would suggest either reading the guide, or at least having it open for browsing while you read.

For the past year or so I've been looking into games that use something other than dice. I don't like dice. More specifically, I don't like multiple dice, adding things to dice, two players rolling dice... I don't mind a single die, but that doesn't have the same kind of PUNCH to it.

I did a lot of work with decks of cards. Cards are great, because there is a lot of long-term potential. Every card you use is a card you can't use later, at least not until the deck reshuffles. If you run out of cards, you run out of power. This is especially nifty if the decks can be customized.

The problem with cards is that everybody has to have four dozen of them, which leads to games having a remarkably high overhead in cost and time. So, instead, I settled on chits.

Chits are good - they allow people to quickly allocate their resources and even do it double-blind. The problem with chits is that they're short-term.

I really love cards. The way they make players stop and think, "do I really NEED to play a King here? I won't be able to play it later if I do..." Dice don't do that. You just roll the dice. I suppose you can claim that things like potions and magic blammies do that, but that's not elegant at all.

To work that long-term play into a chit-powered engine, I made it so that you don't get all your chits back every turn. You only regenerate a small number of chits every turn, so if you spend all your chits, you're boned for the next turns (or, at least, you have to retreat a bit). I added a little bit of randomness by using a single d6, to keep the game from simply being a "minimum effort" situation.

That was one of the bases of this game engine. After the first ten minutes of play, people get used to the unusual chit-and-slow-regen system, play moves very fast. Which is kind of something I'm focusing on this year. There's a fun interplay between the needs of this instant and the potential needs of the future.

The other basis of this game was time travel. Actually, time travel just happened to hit the right explationation for the mechanic I needed.

In most games, the characters are a universal. Send them up against a dragon, and they have N power. Send them up against a goblin, they still have N power. This really limits your narrative options. The closest you can really come to changing their power level is using brute-force methods like traps and antimagic.

My mechanic was that the terrain of the game was of critical importance to the game. The players could be gods in place A, but they'd suck in place B. Similarly, the end boss is only boss-class in place B, not place C.

The idea being that the players have to go to all these different locations, but they aren't always the same power level. This means you can expose them to a wide variety of adventure types against a huge variety of enemies and power levels.

It occurred to me that fighting weak enemies on even ground might be a little disheartening. Most of the missions while the players are weak would be things like scouting or diplomacy, but there would have to be fights, of course. How could I make those fights have some value besides sheer survival?

Time travel!

This fight changes how time comes out. It's a linchpin of some kind. Sure, you might be throwing rocks at each other, but the end result is still critical!

Hence the game was born.

The other thing I wanted to do was to use Amber's item system. The most fun part of Amber was the item-creation. So, I added in "anachronisms". This also allows the players to have a "ragged" decay from terrain to terrain, instead of a clean cut. While they are less effective in some ways, they can remain effective in their critical skills... for a price.

Of course, my item-creation system is way, way more evil than Amber's, because I needed the items to degrade depending on how far you were from their original time...

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Side Effects

I made a tabletop system - haven't done any serious testing of it yet, just really early stuff. Here's the link to the "Alpha 0.02" version of the guide. It's a full-sized guide, so expect to spend some time on it if you click. Still, I would appreciate you telling me how opaque it is, what's cool, what needs clarification...

(The bookmarks work, so that's handy.)

Side Effects

It's kind of like Stargate: SG-1, except you travel through time instead of space. And it's evil. EEEEEEVIL!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Unique vs Manufactured, and What's a Body Good For?

Raph has an interesting post up that made me think.

In most games of all types, the enemies are faceless bundles of statistics, save for bosses. Similarly, the player upgrades by buying the next generic bundle of statistics, whether it's a new gun or a nifty wizard cloak.

I've played every Elder Scrolls game that's been made. You know what the biggest rush in those games is for me? The slew of random crap you pull off of every corpse and out of every treasure chest. The idea that you'll find a dagger with a few new capabilities, or a left bracer with a funky new graphic, or a loincloth of burning.

When I play those games, I'm totally addicted for ten, fifteen hours. Then I lose all interest. Why? Because the loot doesn't hold up. By the end of those hours, I've explored everything the game has to offer, at least as far as I'm concerned. The first weapon I find that does blammies when I stab someone? What an incredible rush. The next one? Not so much. The seventh one? Not at all.

It devolves: the only thing that interests me is the graphics associated with the items. A fruit-filled hat is worth more than the flamey sword of Nimbulus, because the flamey sword is just an extra +5 to something... but the bananahat is unique. Plus, I can enchant it to be a fruity hat of flaming, if I really need the flame.

Of course, a steady progression of "unique" is required there, too. The bananahat only holds my attention for so long before I must move on to the next hat.

Actually, that's a failure on the designer's part. The problem is that there isn't really enough feedback to prolong my joy in my bananahat. If everyone commented on my bananahat and changed their interactions with me in some interesting way, the bananahat would become extremely interesting to me. Also, generally speaking, there isn't much in-world feedback.

You might be able to see yourself, but it's a rear view and the costumes aren't generally very interesting from the back. Notice that the new "custom-avatar chats" always show your character from the front, even when they're full 3D? Yeah, fronts are better in terms of feedback.

Worse, the costumes themselves leave only a small mark on the screen, especially in Elder Scrolls games. World of Warcraft got this right: the costumes are extremely loud and large, totally dominating your character's appearance. Of course, there's the problem that you have fewer pieces to play with, and that's a big drawback...

Moreover, there's only so much joy you can get from permutations on the same stock. No matter how many hats I wear, they all go on top of the same head, with the same art style and the same model. The base gets boring, even if the hats don't, and that drags the hats down. Don't get the hats down!

This is true even in games like SecondLife. It doesn't matter that there are 50,000 different kinds of "hats" and more coming out every day. The stock beneath is the same, so they stop being interesting after a while. Thus the thriving business in morphing your avatar: you can't really wear clothes, but in changing the baseline you have changed your whole... um... baseline.

Okay, as per my recent unfortunate habit, I've started to ramble. What I'm saying is:

Manufactured or unique is the wrong question to ask. Randomly generating 500,000 different kinds of sword will only broaden the game so much. In the beginning, it'll be awesome, but by midgame, you'll be just as bored of the random swords as you would be of 100 carefully scripted, balanced swords. You'll know the parameters. Random generation is really a "wide" solution rather than a "deep" solution, and unless you plan on absurdly restricted access to randomly generated things, it's not going to add play depth for anyone other than newbs.

Subtracting out the gameplay elements actually deepens the play, because now the system follows supply and demand. Nobody cares that there's only three blue swords of cystic fibrosis, because they're worse than the ten thousand red swords of blammifying. But if all swords are equal, the rarity of those blue swords makes them incredibly valuable. The same idea applies for hats.

The feedback you get on your non-combat-related equipment is pretty strong in a MMORPG, although exceedingly weak in a one-player game. This means that you don't require as much depth in a MMORPG, because feedback will create more depth. In a one-player game, you'll need to go further. Much further.

For example, being able to dress a whole roster of characters in whatever fashions you prefer. Again: linking these things to play bonuses is basically a bad idea, because it dramatically limits the player's options.

Another idea is to be able to change your avatar, either piece by piece or in whole. You could pull a Shiny trick from Messiah: let the player inhabit whatever randomly generated NPC they can lure into a dark corner alone. NPCs can have some immediate gameplay results (such as being better warriors, or having access to certain places), but in the long run have fundamentally interchangeable capabilities. NPCs should look dramatically varied - it might be best to use animal-people, since they look very different from each other. Elves vs dwarves is about the minimum.

This would allow the player to grab an avatar, equip it, and run around. If he or she wants, he or she can jump into a new NPC - one that looks very different and people react to in very different ways.

This allows them to change the baseline and all the stuff on top. That's cool. I think that would be a fun game, either one-player or massively multiplayer. Imagine the economy that would spring up in body sales. Some NPCs are extremely hard to get because they are always surrounded by people, and those call in the highest prices.

Obviously, there would need to be some, I dunno, GAME involved at some point. But, pshaw, that's the easy part.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Designing Levels

There's a very interesting article on Gamasutra about multiplayer level design.

Of course, he starts with: "The rules that govern single player level design are becoming more and more well known."

Known by who? Actually, the rules governing single player level design are still in their loose primordial stages. Some of the basics are well-known, such as "you need big/long/open rooms for long-range conflicts" and "jumping puzzles in FPS games need to be extremely forgiving". But aside from the obvious stuff, there are a lot of conflicting "cross your fingers and hope" methodologies.

That doesn't keep the article from being insightful, though: there's a lot of good data. But I would like to talk briefly about designing cooperative levels instead of competitive levels.

There is a steady rise in the number of cooperative computer games, and there are hella lot of cooperative tabletops and LARPs. But I find that, with few exceptions, these games simply don't support the rich tactical play that they should.

I've written on this basic concept before, but kind of tangentally. One of the things you might remember me talking about is how to make combat in tabletop games extremely fast yet tactically very strong.

Aside from optimizing for speed using chits, cards, and anything other than a fistful of dice, one of the most critical things mentioned was maps. Very few things communicate tactical play as quickly, naturally, and in as much detail as a map.

But a map isn't a level.

We're talking about cooperative level design. But when the players get into a firefight, the map they play on is a tiny subset of the "map" of the area they are in. It punches up the tactical play, but it isn't a "level". It's an encounter.

The "level" is how they play through that chunk of session. In a tabletop, we frequently pass on level design, preferring to wing it with vague blockades and challenges such as "there's security goons in... whatever hall it is that you're in" and "the elevator is broken". It is pretty damn rare to, say, draw out a compound or building map. If we do, it's just a quick overview: "the lab is here, the barracks here..." Otherwise, it's too much effort.

In a LARP the situation is even worse: it's extremely rare for a LARP to have levels at all. LARPs usually exist with a few specific places and anybody can really visit any of them at any time. I did get to see a LARP which used a whole building as a kind of "Aliens" run, and it looked incredibly fun. But we normally don't see that, because it takes up too much space.

In a computer game, you definitely have a level. But the level is hardcoded, so it suffers from the exact opposite problem. You give the players their strategic data, but the level cannot stretch to suit the players.

Okay, so, let's think about what we want in a cooperative level.

The purpose of having a slightly more "rigid" level is to give the players a range of strategic options and challenges, instead of limiting them to a few generic challenges tossed out by a GM. A level can tell us that not only is the elevator stuck, but the situation all around us is X, Y, and Z.

We want a level which can support a range of players. Say, 2-8. The level needs to be able to "stretch" or "shrink" to facilitate the greater threats required for larger groups. In addition, some thought needs to be given towards splitting larger parties while leaving smaller parties more whole, and to the fact that secondary challenges with less players are likely to be extremely difficult. After all, with eight players you'll probably have someone who can do anything. But with three, you'll be missing huge chunks of secondary skills - the players simply won't be able to complete objectives that require skills they do not have.

(Obviously, that last bit isn't a problem if you're running a game with no secondary skills. But that sounds like kind of a dull game.)

Okay, the level polymorphs to suit the players. Right there, that says "no map". How in the world could you build a map?

But how can you build complex strategic situations without a map? Even if you could, how could you get the players to remember the situation?

So I thought: card game.

I build a lot of crappy little games, and recently I've been dabbling in "build the board as you proceed" games. It seems to me that this dynamic is perfectly suited towards building levels.

Lets say we start with a deck. The cards in the deck represent challenges and challenge modifiers of various kinds. Guards, computerized doors, dragons in 10' rooms, whatever. Each challenge has a skill which applies and a difficulty rating.

Lets say you build a character. For every point of a skill you buy, you make a card that is a challenge of that type and hand it to the GM. For example, if you buy combat skills, you pass the GM "mook" cards, at a difficulty level of twice the skill level you just bought. If you buy science skills, you pass the GM "scientific mystery" cards. And so on, for each point of each skill you buy.

Challenging a card is simple. Each round you fight a card, you reduce its difficulty by your combined skills of that type. And each round you don't kill it, everyone involved takes a point of exhaustion. If you run out of exhaustion, you die.

Every round, you do one of three things. You can choose to fight a challenge (you must have at least a 1 in the suitable skill), in which case you draw no cards. You can choose to move, in which case you draw and place a location card and draw and place a challenge card for it. Lastly, you can just bide your time or move on existing terrain, in which case you draw a challenge card. Most challenge cards are discarded if not drawn in regards to a location, but some aren't.

Every time the GM's turn comes around, he may adjust one challenge per two players, moving it one tile if it is mobile. He may not adjust challenges currently in conflict.

Different kinds of challenges can react in different ways. For example, mooks won't attack you if the alarm hasn't gone off. This offers multiple strategic options. And, of course, challenges you "leave behind" aren't exactly inactive, as the GM can move them and specific challenge cards can turn them monstrous.

Of course, this is just a rough idea. It obviously needs tweaking. For example, hidden challenges, the set-up phase, a third deck for corporal form of challenge, goals, escape routes...

But the basic idea is that you build the level as you proceed, and have a strategic set of options.

It's not suitable as is for anything other than a simple game, but it could be modified and used for a backbone for a more serious RPG.

Anyhow, just kind of muddling along. Feel free to comment if you had a thought.

I find posts ramble more the sicker I am. I'm not entirely sure I've ever had a week where I've slept more. :P

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

What Aren't Game Mechanics?

Lost Garden made a long post on game mechanics. I will now proceed to disagree with it. Not because it's wrong, just because it's a bit cockeyed.

First, he defines feedback loops in terms of the user experience. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with viewing everything from the user's point of view, but I suggest viewing the user as part of the software. In which case, a feedback loop's definitions change to include the way that the software changes the situation in a way which changes the software's situation.

For example, if the user walks on to that big mountain, the program doesn't just change what the user sees. The program makes thousands of internal adjustments - it feeds on itself, being directed by the user, and the user just gets to see hints. This allows the program to have an "internal reality" which the player sees and deciphers. It's not just "what the player sees" that matters.

This might seem like a small difference, but it's really a critical one. His stated view underestimates the independence and power of the game. This is somewhat harmful for one-player designs, but crippling for multiplayer and, FSM forbid, massively multiplayer games. These kinds of games don't simply "provide feedback to the player". They provide a window into which the players try to make sense of the feedback algorithms the game runs.

The rest of his essay falls into the same POV. While he obviously knows that games are complex and somewhat independent entities, he approaches everything from the angle of what the player sees, does, etc.

This is a flawed approach for one reason which I would think obvious. The "nested feedback loop" idea is powerful because the player spends a lot of time trying to master the various feedback loops and deal with the permutating situations. However, thinking about everything in terms of teasing and pleasing the player can easily lead you to create a "shallow" feedback system which provides immediate fun and gratification, but doesn't offer any of the long-lasting play.

This is a very common mistake, and if there was one mistake I could keep designers from making, I think that would be it. It's very common, even in AAA games, to add more flavor, more minigames, more doodads... but each of these things adds almost nothing to the interconnected complexity of the game, and they rarely build off the same bases as the other kinds of play.

Essentially, if you think in terms of what pleases the player most, you're likely to feed the player "junk food" play. It's the shiniest, tastiest kind, in that initial moment.

But if you think of the player as part of the game system - a knob torquing feedback loops - you can create games which are suitably deep. Deep games provide just as much fun, for longer, for cheaper. Obviously, you still have to the think of the player. But now you think of the player as part of a whole, rather than the whole that the game is part of. And you design the game to run through all the variations and paces at a fun rate. Call it "game-centric games", if you like.

I know it sounds like I'm connecting two separate things. "Good rule design and how you view the player... they don't seem connected!"

But they are. An artist can't paint very well if he views his art as something which serves the paper. A doctor can't doctor very well if he views his patient's comfort higher than their health.

Take the long-term view: your players are pieces of your game, and your game is part of them. While in play, they are one entity, and you have to give it a nice workout.

Saturday, October 21, 2006


Presumably none of you have been watching, but the X-Prize cup was this weekend.

It's really only cool to giant space geeks, I suppose. As I write this, John Carmack has already flown his earth-version lunar lander once, and they've just started a second attempt. They go into some fun details on the nature of the contests and the vehicles, and so forth.

There was apparently an impressive beam-climb that I missed, and some other contests featuring huge pieces of equipment doing loud, dangerous things.

The funny thing about the broadcast is that it feels a lot like some small-town coverage of a local festival. Their geek commentary is very good. I'm not sure why they decided they needed a squad of wannabe-stereotyped-anchorpeople, though. Doesn't really fit the mood.

Starting small. I expect that every year, they'll have more flights, more contests, more contestants. I just hope they keep a really high geek-to-anchor ratio, because the more the reporting turns into a generic wannabe-news-report, the less useful stuff gets said.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Code Cancer

Programs and living things are very similar.

One of the ways in which they are similar is that every health problem a person (or dog, or iguana) can have can be seen in programs. Pneumonia, infection, alzheimers, even cancer.

It's a big business treating humans (and animals) to cure their health problems. But there is no similar business for programs.

Say your fledgling program comes down with the digital equivalent of whooping cough (chronic, catastrophic data seizures corrupting the output). It's more efficient for the parent (that would be you) to treat the program yourself. If you fail, it's simply cheaper to start over than to bring in a "doctor".

But it isn't too terribly long before your ten-pound infant becomes a two-hundred-pound college athlete. Now it's not so young, with twenty years of time invested in it. (Amusingly, data years are very similar to dog years...)

Even though it would now be bad in every way to restart from scratch, we've gotten so into the "do-it-ourself" mentality that we still try to treat these illnesses ourselves. But it no longer makes sense, because a programmer is almost never a very good doctor. We patch, we route around, we hack.

Our college athlete comes down with pneumonia, we program them an iron lung to carry around. Sure, he's still alive and kicking, but he isn't going to be winning any championships any more.

Bring him to a doctor? There's a cure. Your boy can be up and running again with no side effects.

That birth defect he was "born" with? Fixable with some invasive surgery. Heart failure? The doctor can put in a new heart, first checking for compatibility and then giving a prescription for anti-rejection drugs. Cancer? The doctor might even be able to do something with that, cutting out the damaged data and starting a rigorous series of low-level rewrites.

As programs get older, they get more prone to ill health. This is made a hundred times worse by the "parent"'s clumsy fixes for early health problems. These days, a program's life expectancy is only forty or fifty (dog) years, with the last fifteen or twenty of them spent in a mindblowing agony of total systemic collapse.

Data "nurses" stand by, to restart the failing heart as it falls silent for the fifteenth time today. They spoon-feed the program the required data, and when it collapses too far even for that, they arrange an IV. It's a fine show of dedication and fear of change, but it could have been prevented if only they had had the digital equivalent of emergency rooms and annual checkups.

This horrifying mistreatment must end! Seeing programs wheezing and tumorous brings me great pain, and using them leaves me feeling sickly myself. Even open-source programs grow frail before their time, and a monolithic beast like Windows? Forget it.

What they need is digital doctors.

"Well, time to do Firefox's yearly inspection. See this sloppy RAM footprint? Sign that it's not getting enough fiber."

"Errrr... Firefox isn't getting enough fiber?"

"Well, digital fiber. It's getting congested - it's not really 'passing' memory like it should. Effectively, it has constipation. Digital constipation."

"Okaaaaay... and you would fix this how, exactly?"



If you want to see the primitive alpha prototype of the evillest, geekiest game EVER, go and visit my newest glorious invention: Turing Prison.

If you can beat level 3, you're pretty good. Ha!

Edit: Updated to be not QUITE so unfriendly.

Edit: No extra levels, but spades more functionality.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Peter Says...

I love reading postmortems. Of games, companies, people, whatever. A look into the inner workings of... whatever... is always fascinating. I also like DVD extras.

One of the most interesting things is the viewpoint. I like to read postmortems written by someone (or multiple someones) actually involved in whatever the thing was. Why? This is why.

When someone else writes the postmortem, you have to read between the hero-worship bullshit before you can tell what actually happened. "...the game [Black and White]... sold two and a half million copies on the PC, despite a slightly mixed critical reception following the extreme hype."

Slightly mixed? If "slightly mixed" means "some 2/5s and some 4/10s and some 37%s" then, yes, the reviews were slightly mixed.

The whole thing oooooooozes slippery yellow pus. Every paragraph contains a subtle or not-so-subtle "of course, as everyone knows, my heroes, my boys down at Lionhead, the heroic legend called Molyneux, did I mention I know him, he can do no wrong..."

Pisses me right off, especially since I really do want to know, in detail, what happened at Lionhead. I'm extremely curious, since it was effectively Molyneux's fall from grace... but I can't trust this source of information.

So I hereby give the "Derisive Barracus Stamp" to Simon Carless, the author of that article.

"Stop that jibba-jabba and talk straight, foo!"

Sunday, October 15, 2006

I woke up this mornin'

Ever have one of those weeks where there are just NO ideas? No inspiration, no thinking, no nothing?

I usually try to make something - anything - to try and break that problem. Here's a shitty Flash game. It didn't work: I'm still tired and uninspired. I don't even have the energy to turn that into a series of rhyming puns. :{


Saturday, October 14, 2006

Monkey See, Monkey Roll Disbelief Check

(I'm skipping a lengthy dissertation on fear. If you want to see a hint of what you're missing, here's a slightly outdated Doom III dissection. This essay turned out boring anyway. Argh!)

What's your favorite game?

Okay, unfair question. Nobody should have an answer to that. Here's a different one: what's your favorite horror game?

Maybe you're a Resident Evil kinda guy. Maybe you prefer Eternal Darkness. Maybe you have the good taste to prefer a System Shock. Maybe you picked something else - perhaps even something not normally considered a horror game, like Myst.

If you look at all the horror games you enjoy, you may notice that there is something fundamentally similar about them. Or, perhaps you can barely see the difference in the first place. Either way, you're right: there's something fundamentally similar about them.


Aside from the most primitive forms of shock, all the kinds of fear require the player to be immersed. A running gunfight is most terrifying when we're in danger. A freakshow of a cutscene is only horrifying if we care about what's going on in some way.

Immersion is the blood pumping through a horror game. The goal of every horror game is to sink the player into the setting so deeply he reacts forcefully to the mere sight of an enemy.

Breaking immersion is therefore the worst thing a game can do.

But "immersion" is a rather messy word. For example, I consider it immersion-breaking when my gun-weilding heroine can't simply blast the locked cabinet open. But others don't even notice. On the other hand, they might consider it immersion-breaking to have a health meter and ammo readout. I don't even notice.

What kind of immersion you're going for is a critical first thought a designer needs to consider before the alpha is even a twinkle in a programmer's eye.

If you want more of a "horror" game, you usually want to specialize your game to give maximum view with minimum combat effectiveness. This means a third-person view - can't shoot worth a damn, but you can see items and enemies creeping up from every direction while you're busy shooting the one spot on the wall without zombies. You're going for a slightly more "movie-ish" feel, so HUDs are out and complex stats are goners. This has the benefit of also reducing combat effectiveness, since players can no longer twink out. But you have to do very good set design, because the players are going to be interacting with it so much.

Of course, if you want more of a "terror" game, you want to specialize your game to give minimum view with maximum combat effectiveness. First person all the way: an intense, powerful view that makes it hard to look around a level (for monsters or stuff). You're going for a more "realistic" feel, so the character needs to be able to move quickly and be focused on things other than hexagonal keys and telescopes.

These aren't the only two choices, of course. But they are the most common.

Once you've designed your game to immerse the player, you have to avoid breaking that immersion on pain worse than death: unprofitability. Now, if you're doing a first-person "terror" game, you can break the setting immersion slightly without penalty. The layout doesn't have to make a terrible amount of sense, you can forego bathrooms, and so on. On the other hand, a third-person "horror" game can afford to screw up the kinetic feel a little bit more, say by making you unable to shoot out the glass between you and that hexagonal key, or by making combat somewhat uninteresting.

Their focuses are different, so their immersion is "directed" in a particular way. If the game screws up in its focus, it's very obvious. For example, Doom III screwed up. It was a terror game which screwed up the realism/kinetic feel. You couldn't use a gun and a flashlight at the same time, as the obvious example. More critical, the difficulty of the game was not immersive. (To be honest, this is because most of the game was designed to have gun OR flashlight, but ubiquitous mods made it gun AND flashlight.)

Either way you point it, there are some shared points of immersion. The most obvious is the plot. No matter what you do to immerse people in the action and puzzle sequences of the game, the plot exists separate. It doesn't require a special view type, or a combat engine. All it requires is some way of telling the player something. Cutscenes, emails, disembodied voices, s'all good.

Not every game has to have an immersive plot, but if you choose to try for one, you need to remember that you have now chosen an additional type of immersion. And now you have to struggle not to break it.

In a game whose plot is unimportant, you can make plot points that serve the gameplay but make no real sense. But not in a game where plot matters.

There are other kinds of immersion. Character development. Skill and metaphysics use. Character interactions. Team dynamics. Map building. Stealth.

Keeping things immersive gets exponentially worse with each kind of play you add. Stealth and combat? The player might be mostly stealth, mostly combat, or a mix, and those need to all be viable. Stealth, combat and teams? The player might be one of the three, mixes of two, or a combination of all three. Seven options rather than three. It gets steadily worse from there.

Each play type needs to not only be interesting and challenging, but needs to be available at every moment in every situation, including cutscenes and plots.

So, what's your favorite horror game?

I bet it focuses on just two immersions, maybe three. Probably one kind of game play and one non-gameplay shtick, such as plot or insanity or something. All the other things that could be immersive are deep in the background.

I guess the moral of this essay is: keep it simple. Every kind of play you add exponentially increases the difficulty of making the game good. Not just because you need more content, but because you need to manage immersion.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Curiosity Killed the Curve

(Boring game review.)

So, I tried a MMORPG called Ryzom. It sounded interesting to me - it was pitched kind of loosely and confusingly, but I liked what I saw of the setting and the price (free), so I downloaded the gig and a half... unzipped it... ran the installer... installed the 6.5 gig game... who has 10 gigs free? I did, as it turns out.

I've got them free again, but that's getting ahead of myself.

Now, look, I always hate MMORPGs. They're like the bastard children of D&D's retarded second cousin and a Hostess cupcake. But occasionally, when it's free, I stick my fingers back into the water to see if it's changed from "tepid".

The setting is interesting. It's kind of a cross between Beyond Good and Evil and Phantasy Star. And, for a few hours, the game was interesting, too.

Most MMORPGs I can't even play for two hours. The lack of... well, ANYTHING... is palpable. This game wasn't quite that bad. The initial levels are very quick and diverse, and you aren't locked into a particular progression. You can be a crafter, forager, warrior, mage - all with one character. Although, obviously, you'll get stronger, faster, if you concentrate.

Ryzom held my interest for a full EIGHT HOURS - spread out over about a week. The initial bursts of discovery are actually very interesting. Everything is built out of pieces. When you craft something, its ZOUNDS! of stats are determined by what ingredients you toss into the craft-pot. There are hundreds of ingredients, each with different ZOUNDS! stats, allowing you to craft weapons, armor, and so forth exactly to your liking.

Similarly, spells and feats are done by choosing a type, which powers it should have, and what drawbacks it should have to pay for those powers. Even things like prospecting and digging shit out of the ground had this level of customizability.

So, naturally, I'm thinking "hell yeah. This is worth playing."

Except... it's not.

Okay, if you're the sort that likes MMORPGs, I highly recommend at least trying Ryzom. It's free. But if you, like me, hate MMORPGs, this one does not break tradition. It merely gives you a bigger first bite.

After tempting you with a glimpse of its potential, the game immediately hits a brick wall. After about level 20 in a skill (which is roughly equivalent to 6-8th level in most games), the game reverts to treadmill. This is exactly when you're just starting to really get into the customization.

What's really irritating is that the monsters you initially encounter are doable - they're good fights, not too hard, not too easy. But then they JUMP in difficulty. Not a little: a lot. As in, you can't even defeat one of them. They probably want you to party up. I'm sure it would be easier if you did. I hate parties, and the setting feels like it should be done solo.

Whereas before you had to craft five or six things to get a few more points of craft-skill to buy blueprints with, now you have to craft fifteen or twenty... then thirty or forty. Bleah.

"Standard MMORPG tactics, Craig!" you say. Yeah... but here's the real kicker.

All that potential it had? Doesn't actually exist.

The customization ends at a certain depth. You can't customize what things look like, you can't do any kind of complex work, all you can do is muck around with stats. That's just not enough.

Actually, that's not even interesting. It just feels interesting at first.

So... what's with the title?

Intellectual curiosity is one of the strongest forces that drives a player. If you give a player a chance to stretch his neural legs, he'll be happy to oblige... for hours and hours, month after month.

The problem comes when you tease the geek. The game told me I could, then it told me that not only was it impossible, but that I would have to work my ass off doing boring shit to plumb its limited depths any further.

You can't use a treadmill system if you want to appeal to intellectual curiosity. An hour without a new creation or a new discovery is risky. Five hours is idiocy.

Curiosity kills the curve. Or, perhaps more commonly, the curve kills the curious.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Generative Stories = Pain

Like many of my compadres, I have a lot of interest in generative storytelling. Storytelling which isn't entirely preprogrammed and can adapt to the player.

There are a lot of problems everyone else has mentioned, but these problems all have workarounds. Dialog is a pain? Use symbolic languages. Dynamic characters a pain? Painstakingly program them on top of some mythical middleware. (Mythical Middleware... Mythical Middleware... I want to start a company named Mythical Middleware...)

But there's one problem that people don't really address. When I finally noticed it, I went "whoa!". (That's a Wayne "whoa!" not a Bill & Ted "whoa!")

All my attempts - all everyone's attempts - have been based on putting characters in a world.

Well, durr, right? Not exactly.

Take a look. That ever-so-popular story-game about divorce? Took place in one house. (Wasn't even really a story: just a vignette.) Crawford's storytron engine? You build a world, and release people to inhabit it. Even story games you've never heard of, like Jaruu Tenk or any recent text adventure game... they all are based around locations.

Characters are made to inhabit specific locations. Sometimes, which locations they inhabit changes based on a schedule or even on occasional special events, but the fact remains that they are thought of as part of the local world.

Sometimes you get characters who aren't. For example, in Knights of the Old Republic and Planescape: Torment there are party members who follow you around. But they are considered wholly separate from the location. Occasionally, they have a triggered comment based on who else is in your party or whether you've just walked into some place the writers thought they should have an opinion on. It certainly isn't generative: it's painstakingly scripted. Taking hundreds of hours.

That's the problem, you see.

A story is really about people in places. There are occasionally vignettes which take place in one place, but even close-to-home stories like My Big Fat Greek Wedding have dozens of sets which any or all of the characters visit at the drop of someone's big fat Greek hat.

Characters who stay in one place or aren't affected by places aren't actually in a story. They're backdrops. Occasionally, one has a little vignette where they ask you to save their grandpa or give you a golden moose head in exchange for painting their house. The main characters - the ones that are actually in the story - have every movement and every moment painfully scripted out.

This is because we're taking our ideas from movies and books. We're making characters like we would see in movies and books. Police Commish spends most of his time in the police station, save for when he's out looking at a crime scene. Leggy Dame shows up dozens of places, and for each place what she says, wears, and thinks is carefully (and literally) spelled out by the author.

So we do the same thing.

Perhaps we should think about transfering in some LARP design instead.

In a LARP, each character acts in character regardless of what they have, where they are, or who they're with. If you play the hard-boiled private eye, you interact with EVERY possible person, location, and widget like a private eye. "It was dark and quiet in the hotel lobby. Too quiet. That's how I knew before they came out: Ninja." "The gun had recently been fired... but by whom? Who could accurately fire an invisible laser?" "The magician was out of magic, so I stepped over and broke his staff like a toothpick. The glint in my eye said I would be happy to do the same to his neck."

Yeah, yeah. "But Craig, nobody can program a character to act in character everywhere. If we could, you wouldn't be writing this essay."


But you can.

So long as you're careful about characters.

Sure, you can't program a private eye to act in character everywhere. Well, you can, but not affordably. But how about a malfunctioning robot? How about a feral elf-child? How about an overloading psychic? A disdainful, inhuman demigod? How about a dog?

Or, if you prefer, simply don't use any dialog. The noir detective can't wax eloquent about the way his client's dress shimmers, but he can have dress-related thought bubbles while muttering incoherently in a smoky voice. Think the Sims, except where the conversations actually have some bearing on the local color.

Of course, this doesn't solve the issue of having them actually be part of a story. But it's a new angle. Don't think of characters in terms of where they can be found. And don't think of characters as separate from where they are. Think of characters as travelling from location to location, and interacting meaningfully with every location, every event, every person. Or, at least, the interesting ones.

That's what a story IS.

You can even think of the world as not existing - any given location only begins to exist once it is needed for the story to progress. It is generated pseudorandomly within the story's restrictions...

After all, that's what writers do. This idea of a predesigned world? Piss-poor for storytelling.

When you think of it like that, you can come up with a plot-fragment array and start gluing things together, leave a lot to the player's imagination... suddenly, things seem a whole lot more plausible.

At least, they do to me. Comments?