Thursday, September 28, 2006

What a logical world!

I was in Wendy's. The hispanic thug-types were talking about after-market value on restored classic cars. The aging jock was talking about how disappointed he was that a radio show was using "untenable" assertations. The two high-school kids I couldn't hear very well, but they must have been talking about high-level math. What else could make kids want to kiss so much?

Also, I got Soul Calibre III for $18.

The world seems smarter than yesterday.

"What a Logical World"

I see trees of green... and chlorophyll too.
Creating our oxygen... from cast-off CO2.
and I think to myself,
"What a logical world!"

I see a sky of blue... from refracted rays.
A white sun red... through atmospheric haze.
And I think to myself,
"What a logical world!"

The colors of the rainbow... at 42 ascencion,
Are shining in the eyes... of those who pay attention.
I see friends shaking hands... bumpin' molecules.
They're really saying... "Physics rules!"

I hear babies cry... I watch them grow,
to full-sized youths... from a tiny embryo!
And I think to myself,
"What a logical world!"

(Synthesizer solo!!! Preeeeeow!)

The colors of the rainbow... at 42 ascencion,
Are shining in the eyes... of those who pay attention.
I see friends shaking hands... bumpin' molecules.
They're really saying... "Physics... rules."

The stars in the night... shining ten-thousand fold,
I gaze in awe... at light twelve thousand years old.
And I think to myself,
"That's twice as old as some misguided people think the planet is..."
And I think to myself,
"That's twice as old as some misguided people think the planet is..."
Ohhhhhh yeeaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh...

Try a filk verse for your own favorite subject! It's easy!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Casual vs Retail Piracy

Last post, I noted that many casual games are being pirated - occasionally as much as retail computer games, often as much as half as much. Obviously, there's a lot of details which may screw this up. For example, I might be checking networks which tend to cater specifically to casual gamers, or some other unknown might be skewing the numbers.

However, with the numbers as they stand, it raises an important question:

How much is piracy affecting ANYONE?

If casual games are being pirated on a scale comparable to retail games, what does that mean? It means that retail games are not suffering piracy significantly worse than casual games.

There are a few possibilities:

The first is that piracy isn't really all that bad for either of them. After all, popular casual games are certainly raking in the cash. (Unpopular ones don't make anything, but that isn't piracy's fault...)

The second possibility is that both casual and retail games suffer hideously from piracy. This seems unlikely because my admittedly-handwaved numbers strongly imply that piracy is only eating a small portion of casual game profits. Retail games are suffering only slightly worse.

The third possibility is that retail games aren't selling very many copies at all, and their piracy levels are significantly higher, percentage-wise. This seems kind of unlikely to me, but I've been wrong before. And I'm probably wrong now.

The fourth possibility is that there is a huge "invisible market" of pirated retail games that isn't included in my study. For example, how much are Chinese clones costing you? I don't know a lot of Americans who get Chinese clones, so it probably doesn't terribly harm the Western sales. There may be other such markets that weren't in this study.

Which of the four possibilities is right?

All told, my opinion is that piracy is not affecting retail games in Western nations any more than casual games in Western nations. Now, that means that either both are suffering horribly from piracy, or neither is suffering much.

How much effect you believe piracy to have is probably largely determined by whether or not you pirate things. I honestly have no idea.

But I can tell you a few things about which casual games are pirated.

It appears that a certain kind of casual game is only rarely pirated: any casual game with a story. By that I don't mean "saving the cake factory". I mean a character-heavy story which progresses, however minimally.

There are absurdly few pirated copies of games like Outpost Kaloki and Aveyond. You could presume these games didn't sell very many copies, but Aveyond is holding in the top ten at Yahoo! Games, so it's sold a hell of a lot of valid copies.

Games like Zuma and Cake Mania are pirated a LOT. The only link I can see is that they don't have a story.

They "feel" "easier to program". "It's just a bunch of people walking in with bubbles over their heads" "it's just a random bunch of exploding gems". High replay value, but not much "personality".

That's just weak theory, though. I don't know why it's true, and I'm not even 100% it is true. But it's the only connection I can see. Games where you have a character that interacts with other characters seem to have less piracy.

Do they sell as well?

Well, out of the top ten Yahoo! Games, two or three are games with a narrative. Given that more non-story games are produced than story games, this seems about right.

However, Popcap features precisely ZERO narrative games in its top ten.

A difference in the audience of the portal, perhaps?

Anyhow, that's all that I could dig up. :)

Opinions? Comments? Fun things you can do with chicken feathers?

Monday, September 25, 2006

Casual Piracy

I've read a post that seems to imply that piracy is a big deal for casual developers.

Now, no lie, pirating a casual game is skanky. It would be evil in a way that bilking a giant evil corporation isn't. Don't argue about that last bit, it really isn't the point of this essay either way.

But is it actually a problem? Do people actually pirate casual games?

I thought, "That's absurd. People don't pirate casual games. First, they're not popular enough, second blah blah blah blah blah. Here, I'll just prove it by going and looking..."

Cake Mania, a popular Yahoo! game: more than 250 sources on the immediate net - roughly half to a quarter that of major titles such as Playboy: Mansion. (Playboy: Mansion is my yardstick. People love to pirate that game, and the numbers don't seem to go up or down much over time.)

Diner Dash, another popular Yahoo! game: 300-400 sources, although some smell like spam.

Virtual Villagers: ~175 sources.

Aveyond: ~40 sources.

Talismania, switching to popcap: ~125

Bejeweled 2: Motherlode of about 900 sources - more than many AAA games. Moreover, these are "package pirates", featuring dozens of popcap games...

Zuma reveals the same, mostly because it's in the same packages.

I'm kind of shocked. Actually, I'm just flat-out shocked, there's really no "kind of". Some of these games are pirated at rates comparable to Halo 2.

Now, if there are 250 sources for a pirated version of your game, that means that there are 250 computers actively sharing it. The net is vaster than this little region, but we'll be conservative and say that there are only 2500 sources in all the various P2P networks. Chances are, that's an order of magnitude low, because I think this P2P system stops looking at 200 sources.

These are people who keep it actively shared. For every person who keeps it actively shared, there are at least eight who download it and shlep it off to their desktop instead of their shared folders, or delete it when done. So, say, 20,000 downloads.

Now, we can argue about the validity of calling these lost sales until our faces turn blue. But many of the reasons people argue that pirates wouldn't buy are invalid here. There's no faceless corporation: at least a quarter of your payment goes straight to the devs. There's no excessive cost: these games cost, at most, $20. So lets presume that SOME of these pirates would have made legitimate purchases.

If we get standard solid conversion rates, that would be 2%. 400 copies, at $5 kickback to the developer, is $2000. That's a pretty chunk of change, and probably less than a quarter the actual loss... but how much is it, percentage-wise?

Well, Pharaoh's Curse sells about $2000 a year. However, there are NO sources for it. This implies that piracy is not a huge chunk of the profit, or there would be a few dozen sources. It could be that piracy needs a "critical mass", but that critical mass is obviously significantly more than $2000.

Galactic Civilizations 2 is NOT copy protected. How many copies of IT are there floating around?

Checking multiple spellings, there are less than a hundred (most of which claim to be "cracked". Ha!)

If I knew how much Galciv 2 sold, I could use this to frame a likely answer. It could be that Galciv is in a "middle band", not selling as much as a top ten on a major portal, but selling much more than $2000 a year. If it does sell closer to $2000 than $20,000, their unprotection may actually have brought them into a higher piracy bracket than protected games... but is that something which has affected sales, or not?

To end on a standard mainstream media note: the only thing we know for sure is that people pirate casual games.

A lot.

Sunday, September 24, 2006


Does someone want to tell me why "dx = math.sin(1);" returns an accurate number, but "a = 1; dx = math.sin(a);" returns "NaN"?

That is stupid as hell. Seriously, if somebody knows a workaround, I'm all ears. Unless it's to make "a" into a "Number", which I already tried.

Edit: Fascinating. It works if I write "Math.sin" instead of "math.sin". But then why did it work at all? The hell?

This has been your daily dose of stupid fiddly debugging.

Saturday, September 23, 2006


Working on Flash. Here's a simple game. It's flash, but should be given its own window due to dimensions:


This is the FIRST game I've made, but it's actually more than it seems. This is "Bubeq Flat". You play by clicking on the bubbles you want to pop. The cost of popping a bubble is noted in the upper right, and slowly increases. There are five hundred bubbles to deploy before deployment stops. Normally, you'd lose when the bubbles reach the top, but not in this build.

This game is not a final game. Not only is it missing things like win conditions and options, it is actually a restricted version of the "real" game.

The way it's built, this version of Bubeq clears three-of-a-kinds (vertical and horizontal). However, the code supports the ability to put in ANY patterns you want cleared. For example, maybe "blue-green-blue" gets cleared, or "yellow-white-white-yellow" (it's best to make them reversible). Moreover, it can be horizontal only, vertical only, or both. Plus, each pattern can be worth a different amount.

The basic idea is that you "buy" patterns. So, when you start, maybe you start with clearing only threes-of-a-kind. But after the level, you can purchase other patterns - easier or harder - to make your life more profitable. If these purchases are linked to equipment, it will not only change the way you look with each purchase, but also limit what patterns can be equipped simultaneously.

It's going to be brutally complex for the player, but not for the programmer... I think most levels will only use 3 or 4 colors.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Hardcore Casual

Recently and not-so recently I've written about casual games, and how "simplicity" isn't something you can assume for much longer.

Casual games are a fairly new market, and are just now developing the power of genre. Looking back at early computer games and arcade games, we see the same basic thing happening: start simple, get complex.

Each "wave" of game has addressed a new audience. First, video arcades. Their games were short and hard, meant to eat quarters and keep players churning together. Second, home systems (computers, Atari, etc). Their games were intended to convince players that the $60 they spent was worth it by doing just the opposite: taking forever to complete. Third: casual games. Addressing an audience who will often play for a long time, but only in small chunks and games which can be interrupted and canceled.

Each wave addressed its audience in very particular ways. Mechanics appropriate to one group need much tweaking to be appropriate to another. But each wave, without fail, steadily added complexity.

As genres were built up, short-term complexity was added. More moves, more items, more buttons, more options. Each built on the standards that the audience had liked in its genre.

You can already see this happening with Casual Games. Atlantis Sky Patrol, Virtual Villagers, Fish Tycoon, Diner Dash 2... all of these games might not feel complex to you, but compared to their ancestors, they are as much more complex as eels to earthworms. This trend will continue, restricted by the nature of the audience: an audience that can't guarantee even five minutes before the boss walks by. An audience which requires interesting play literally every minute of the game.

In addition, however, as genres were built up, long-term complexity was added. No matter what the target audience, games began to keep data long-term. First, it was simply top scores. Then it was characters and positions. Now, whole rosters. This is true of home systems, this is true of arcades, and it is coming true of casual games.

But the same restrictions apply. The long-term complexity that will be added to casual games will be, at least at first, a mild sort. Think those 3D chat avatars, or the ability to build and furnish your own homes, or to put together a complex friend tree. But as closely related to the casual games as a first-person-shooter dossiere to the first-person-shooter.

Obviously, the way this is most likely to succeed is if some game place, something like Popcap, creates a piece of middleware. The backbone of the middleware creates a massive, shared system for avatar customization, stuff collecting, friend relations, permissions, and so on. Then people can create games - mostly casual ones - which feed back onto that backbone. Like Secondlife, but without the horrible pain.

This has a whole bunch of interesting features. For example, you'll have to arrange it so that pornographic content can't be popped up on your screen without permission, ever. These are often people at work and/or children. Also, older games which few people play will still have unique rewards to offer, so there will be steady "trawling" for "oldschool loot"...

We're likely to see this kind of backbone driven by micropayments, but exactly how that will be set up is still a mystery to me. There are a lot of options.

The effect of this scattered-attention audience on "narrative"-based games is pretty dramatic. The narratives we see on big games of today won't be happening. We're more likely to see very slow narratives (adventure-title type narratives) and more of a "legend-style" narrative, where it's more about character design and a few critical events rather than a specific progression.

There are other effects... it's an exciting field!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Harmonix Says...

Saw Guitar Hero 2 tonight. Experienced it, really. Very loud.

It's pretty much the same game, as expected. The most obvious and nicest improvement is a two-player coop mode with independent difficulty levels. Their scoring hasn't improved any, though. Still doing flat DDR scoring, which I always thought was shabby. Others have agreed.

Most of the chatter indicated that there were some pretty nice additional features. Apparently, pull-offs and hammer-downs are slightly easier, there's a slow-down mode for learning hard solos, and the game's difficulty doesn't stop at merely "devilish" but continues right on to "plain evil". Apparently, there's also a lot more female guitarists.

Also, to my distinct displeasure, they continued the overamped guitar trend. In my opinion, that is a bad choice, because it really diminishes the game's party appeal. All you can hear is the lead (and, in GH2, bass) guitar. Really, really, loud. However! However! I asked the project lead, and he said he was pretty sure you could tweak the amping to normal levels, which makes me happy.

He also looked at me like a complete loon for asking it...

What I would really like for a game like this is guitar-dependant sounds. Many guitars have distinct sounds to them, and some musicians can tell the difference between two different models of Gibson. "1962... a good year." Even the most plebean, tone-deaf person will hear the difference if you substitute a banjo for an electric guitar.

I think that would be cool, if your pick of guitar actually affected the sound of your part of the song. This also means that you are likely to pick specific guitars for specific songs. Obviously, sometimes you want something a bit more razzy, death-acid style, and other times you want a more mellow, solid rock sound.

Sure, it's one of those silly hardcore things. If you could get the rights, the next and more impressive step would be to have an audio track for each singer singing each song. That would really, really rock.

That's just talk, though. Looks like Guitar Hero 2 is to Guitar Hero as what We Love Katamari was to Katamari Damacy. That's a good thing.

And, damn, they have a hell of a lot of fanboys... the crowd was 3x normal.

I was gone...

When this month's round table was decided on. But I do have a response - more like an addendum - to Corvus' commentary on game design conventions.

Let's posit that games are fun due to players exploring some kind of game space. IE, doing interesting things inside a game. For the sake of this essay, assume some variant of that statement is correct, because I don't have the time to argue it today.

If that's true, then there's really two approaches - both of which are used in every game.

One is to come up with new and interesting kinds of play space. Letting the player do something new and interesting which creates a new game space topography. Something like a gravity gun, or gaining skill points, or whatever.

The other method is to use tried and proven game spaces, allowing the player to return to a familiar setting and explore new niches of it. That would be the genre, for example.

The standard design conventions aren't simply blind adherence to an ancient and undying law. They are a place that many gamers call "home", and by starting the game in one of these places, the gamer immediately feels at ease and excited. He isn't going to have to struggle to survive the first two minutes of this game - he already knows the first two minutes of this game. But he knows that it will get exciting. It will give him new and interesting play experiences.

To achieve this end, you don't even have to use new play elements. You can simply use tried and true conventions in somewhat different topological arrangements. Focus on different pieces of an old convention, or combine two conventions in a new way.

I'm not saying new is bad, but I'm saying that old certainly isn't worthless. When a car manufacturer wants to design a popular new car, they don't say, "well, let's start from scratch. Is there an alternative to these round rolling things?"

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


I wrote a silly 1-page thing about job recommendations in the year 2055. If you feel like your daily dose of scifi, you might enjoy it.

(You might need to download it if word wrap doesn't work on your browser.)



I be busy learnin' flash and limpin' around lookin' for a slightly shorter, rounder peg leg, see? So no posts for you, and not tomorra, neither.

An' if I hear any lip, I'll make you walk the plank. If I can find it.


Sunday, September 17, 2006

Google and Blogger: Three Legged Race

And not a pretty one.

First, we're told to upgrade to Blogger 2. Cool new features, right? Okay.

Except anyone with a Blogger 1 account can't comment any more.

Now? If you have a Blogger 2 account, you can't comment on Blogger 1 blogs. And you can't change your account BACK.

Okay, pretty bad.

Next step?

They merged my Google acount with my Blogger account.

Didn't ask me, didn't warn me, no options. Just a "we merged 'em! Fuck you!"

Now, in my case, this did no harm. But some people wouldn't like it. People with multiple Blogger accounts, or people who want to keep their blogger account separate from their Google account because of, I dunno, questionable blog content, or a natural instinct that centralizing data robs them of valuable anonymity.

This is the first time I've seen Google treat their audience with such a callous disregard, and their product incorporation with such half-assed glitchy releases. Frankly, although it seems like over-reacting, it sets off little alarm bells in my head.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Casual Games

Danc is still addicted to Dice Wars.

Personally, I can't stand Dice Wars. The optimum strategy in any given situation is pretty clear, so it's just an exersize in rolling dice. I prefer games with a significant skill challenge to them, either in terms of puzzles to solve, clicks to finesse, or both.

But Danc likes it - and so do many other people.

This is the crux of casual games. A casual game doesn't have to be a fantastically balanced piece of joy. So long as it offers infinite replayability - infinite variation - it has the potential to be a good casual game. The environment needs to be complex enough and variable enough that each game feels new.

Nearly all casual games simply randomize the letters. Randomize which letters are placed where, which cakes people order, which upgrades appear where... and that's fine.

Here's the weird thing about it, though.

After you've played a casual game for maybe five hours, you're not playing a casual game any more. You want more options, more complexity, more variation.

Most casual games have some kind of progression, with the idea that you can get further and further as you improve. The later levels will be more difficult, or arranged in more complex patterns.

These things don't make the game take much longer, but they add deeper elements. They make a given game more complex. Having to give up on words like "this" and "doggy" in order to clear letters with words like "ichor" and "egret" gives the player a challenge and keeps them interested.

But... BUT...

That's not the most important part.

Challenge can be important, but it's doubly important never to stump the player. No popular casual game simply grinds to a halt if you can't figure something out. They give you hints, or run you out of time and kill you, or let you lose points to bypass, or let you make a bad move.

What you're looking for isn't difficulty so much as complexity. I don't mean complexity as in two hundred specific rules, I mean complexity as in simple rules, usually spatial rules, which produce a complex environment. The most popular games use either simple spacial rules on a board, or simple combinatory rules in a queue. You can make a new challenge, a complex challenge, by simply changing the board or the queue. The player never gets "stuck", they just get defeated or left behind.

If you're smart, you'll allow for that, too:

"Casual" doesn't have to mean "restart". I see no reason a casual game can't feature a loose campaign. Short games which further your position on a global map or other nearby players or something. It's important that you can't be surprisingly defeated in this long-term campaign, but it could allow you to add huge amounts of controllable variation to the casual game.

I have some ideas... how about you?

Vacation Adventures!

Friday, September 15, 2006

Rules of the Game

(Long, sorry. Just getting back, so my writing style might be a bit rough for a while.)

A while back, I wrote this translation of a Terranova article.

Now, I'm going to tell you what I think about defining a game by its rules.

Some games are defined completely by their rules, but most are not. Most games are heavily influenced by non-rule things, such as what mood a given player is in, or how much they hate another player.

Most games that are defined completely by their rules aren't defined adequately by them. For example, the games of go and chess are defined completely by their rules. There is theoretically a "best play" at any given moment. But the rules produce such a stunningly complex situation that the player cannot actually find a best path. Therefore, the player substitutes mood, emotion, and gut instinct when skill fails.

Above that, all games are run by people, for people. The effect games have on players before, after, and during play isn't contained in the rules. People play the stupidest games - for example, drinking games. They don't play to explore a dynamic play space or judge a complex pattern or whatever. They play because it's fun to hang out with your friends and get drunk, and a drinking game provides a framework to focus all your friends in the same direction. Sharing fun has never been easier.

This idea of directed attention - usually directed enjoyment - is universal to games. If a game doesn't do this, it feels painfully dull, and simply isn't any fun. But the paths games take to direct and keep directing the player(s) are as widely varied as the games themselves.

An RPG uses moderate statistical and story foci to drive the player. Apples to Apples keeps all the players oriented on the same words, allowing them to share the laughs. Competitive FPS games immerse all the players in the same game space, in a "focus or die" situation.

The tricks they use to keep the players focused, to keep them immersed, are also widely varied. In a game like Apples to Apples, the game relies on the natural pull of friends sitting around together. A game like WoW uses that, too, but the pull of friends with only a chat window connecting them is significantly less, so WoW uses a lot of other tricks to keep its players immersed together.

"Speed" of these tricks is also important. Fast, widely variable games like Apples to Apples can play it fast and loose - because they are fast and loose. But if the turnaround isn't very fast, then the friends-sitting-around focus doesn't work as well. Think of it as each time a friend says something, it adds up. So, if they don't get as many chances to say something, it doesn't add up as fast.

Now, your friends could say things seperate from the game. But those things aren't focused by the game and aren't reliably a part of the game's pull. So they shouldn't be counted.

Every focus is like this, but usually with another form of time pressure: a given instance of a focus takes a specific amount of time for a player to comprehend. Moving instances too fast will confuse and frustrate the player, whereas moving them too slowly will bore her to tears.

Example: there are a million games where you fire little colored balls at other little colored balls to make them vanish. These games generally move pretty quick, because the games are not usually complex. On the other hand, Freecell is generally played pretty slowly, because the situation of the game is fairly complex and needs to be thought about in some depth.

Some games use a timed progression to force the players to progress. This generally is to make up for an otherwise weak play experience or to delay games so that slower players don't get left behind. There's nothing wrong with that. Most games use a "when you're ready" progression - allowing you to think about your play for a reasonable (or unreasonable) amount of time and allowing you to make your move whenever you want. You had better have a pretty good focus to allow that form of voluntary progression. Even Apples to Apples has rules to keep players from dawdling.

Where am I going with this meandering mess?

Well, what are the rules of the games?

They are simply attempts to make the play deep enough, complex enough, fast enough, and/or shared enough to keep all the players directed into an exciting shared experience. Even if there's only one player!

This means that talking about a game in terms of its rules is a bit like talking about a movie in terms of the wattage of stage lights it used and the brand of camera. But even the most diehard filmie doesn't talk about a movie solely in terms of its technical manufacture. Instead, even the most geeky filmist will say things like "exciting" or "moving" or "catastrophically pathetic". A light, a brand of camera - these things can and should be known and used, but they are used to focus the audience more carefully, and that focus is what everyone talks about.

When we make a game, we often think of something specific we want to do. A cornerstone. For example, in B1nary Her0, it's a goofy, geeky spinoff of a goofy hit game. Darius didn't go "it should make the players feel like rock stars", he said, "boy, we could do hex codes on this guitar!"

But according to what I've seen of the designers of Guitar Hero, they thought in terms of focus. They said, "our players should feel like rock stars". This served them well, because everything they put in made the game feel more drugs, sex, and rock-n-roll.

They didn't include any real multiplayer support, unfortunately, and I don't think the game is as much fun for a non-player audience as it could be. They thought about the right thing, but too tightly: the audience (and there often is one) should feel like a rock audience. It's the other half of the equation.

The purpose of a game is not to make a player feel a certain thing, or focus in a specific way. It's to make all players share a focus. Even if you design a one-player RPG, you should do things which will get your players talking to each other about that cool scene, or that neat trick.

Once you have that core idea, you can use rules to shape a game. Like cutting away all the stone that isn't David, you start with a blob that has a golden image inside, and cut away all that fat that isn't the image by using rules. Don't cut too much away!

I've always thought of rules as bricks and mortar, but now I think they are scalpels and chisels.

Make sense? Thoughts?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


I'm back from someone's wedding, although with 13 hours of travel tomorrow. Apparently, I have some anonymous people who missed me.

Lots of things learned, lots of essays planned. According to the estimates I've seen on internet traffic, my partial hiatus will have lost me half of my never-very-large audience. I'll get right on rebuilding with quality content.

Monday, September 04, 2006

End of Legends

This week has been really harsh. Two people who are close to legendary (at least to my family) have retired.

Andre Agassi retired after showing what an absurd level of determination, skill, and modern medicine can do. Most role models and legends are engineered illusions. Agassi is one of the rare people who doesn't need the help of illusions.

Steve Irwin approached his retirement more aggressively. He was also one of the rare people that didn't need any illusions to become a legend. Holding him up as a role model is only suggested for people with quick reflexes.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Adventurous Variation

Many of my posts talk about how to keep players entertained. One basic idea is that if you throw variation at them, the players will be more immersed. Whenever a player starts to get "used to" something, you twist it or give him something new to chew on.

There are really three kinds of player interest, as far as I can tell.

Statistical is the most common one. That's when a player is caught up in the numbers and algorithms of gameplay. This version is fed by a new weapon or a level-up.

Visceral interest is the second most common one. This is one where players enjoy the results of their play on a pretty primitive level. For ease of use, this covers everything from a great death animation to succeeding in a long campaign. Even though the difference between these actions is tremendous, the end result is a "Yeah! Awesome!" feeling, and that's the feeling I'm talking about.

The last and least common type of interest is adventurous. This is often the feeling that makes you explore every building in a town, or talk to every character in the game. The idea that there is stuff out there - exciting new fun stuff to get and learn about.

Adventurous interest is the one I'll be talking about, because the other two are pretty easy and have already been covered. However, some of the details here can apply to all three kinds of interest.

Most games start out with a lot of adventurous interest. The first level or two, you'll want to explore every crack and see everything there is to see.

Why do some games quickly and quietly fade into non-adventures? A lack of reward for exploration? High cost of exploration?

Well, maybe a little. Let's take a quick look. Three very adventurous games are Chronotrigger, GTAIII, and System Shock II. In each of these very different games, there is an urge to explore everything.

Statistically, only Chronotrigger actually rewards adventure. It gives out treasures. GTAIII doesn't really give out meaningful rewards for just going to some random part of the city for kicks, and System Shock II actively hoses you for exploring.

Which means that we're probably using the wrong definition of "reward".

GTAIII does reward adventure. It allows you to play in a wider variety of spatial set-ups, whether on foot, car, bike, boat, plane... this variety is the reward. The awesome jump ramp, the high-performance ferrari, the ice-cream truck.

Although SSII does give out rewards (a few grenades, a new pointy stick), the cost of getting them is usually quite high and any given character can only use a quarter of what they find. However, SSII also hands out information: dozens of tiny plot morsels and backstory tidbits. That makes it more worth it. The reward is not only nontangible, but not even play-related. (It also rewards with interesting play spaces.)

Chronotrigger rewards not just with prosiac item treasures (ooh, my 500th "potion") but with fun NPC dialog and minigames. Sometimes, the NPC dialog is just entertainment, sometimes it's plot tidbits.

Look at some of the more boring games. They might reward exploration with another treasure, but without the variation to back it up, it feels boring. You have statistical interest - robotically exploring the town to maximize your resources - but no real joy at finding some new gem. (This would be mitigated if the games were harder, in which case visceral joy is added to the statistical joy... but it still isn't adventurous.)

The difference, to me, is obvious: variation in rewards.

The thing I've never mentioned before is that there are two kinds of variation. You can think of them as deep and wide, if you like, but I prefer "stacking" versus "transient".

Stacking rewards are a new weapon and another potion. A new version of the same old. "The same old" is hardly adventurous. To be adventurous, you have to be stumbling over new things. But it's more than that:

Stacking rewards are used in gameplay, and either never get used up or simply aren't used up fast enough to really push the player. This means that you have a steadily increasing number of play options. To keep giving "new" stacking rewards (a machine gun instead of a rifle, a rocket launcher instead of a machine gun) you essentially make the old upgrades obsolete. So the player is carrying around things he'll never use, and the new things aren't "new" at all - they're just statistically better versions of the old things.

What can you do?

Transient rewards.

Transient (or "wide") rewards are ones which do not increase the number of play options. They can do this by either not being about play options at all (plot fragments, NPC dialog) or by replacing other play options (minigames, new spatial layouts).

People talk about Halo as a very good game. They talk about what they liked about it, but none of that stuff actually stands out. The level design was boring. The weapons were pretty prosiac. The combat balance was a little flubbed up, with broken dominant strategies hitting brick walls when the player could least afford it.

When people are playing Halo, they may all have different complaints. But one complaint everyone shares, every single person says, is right at the beginning of each level. "Goddammit, they replaced my weapons with crap!"

The reason Halo maintained interest was because you could only hold two weapons, and there was usually very limited ammo for them. Transient rewards: if you want a weapon, you have to ditch a weapon. When you start disliking your weapons or running out of ammo, you'll find yourself avidly exploring the level looking for a good weapon.

Transient rewards should work just as well in tabletop games as computer games: my own experience shows it works extremely well in LARPs and board games.

So, think about it. Instead of giving players new options or a flat upgrade, keep the number of options the same. Give them plot, humor, a replacement that doesn't work the same way, a layout or monster with some weird quirks.

It usually requires more effort - creating new plot fragments and dialog - but as Halo shows, there are ways around that. I don't think Halo's "weapon selection trick" works as well as continuously NEW experiences. It only "activates" when you want another weapon: there's only a mild urge to explore a level when you're not in trouble, and when you are in trouble it's too dangerous. However, it is somewhat effective and it is cheaper.