Monday, July 23, 2012

Death of DLC

I've posted about my distaste of for-pay DLC in the past. I've been thinking about why I hate it so much. I've come up with a simple answer which explains both why I hate it and why it is going to fade away as new business models emerge:

DLC weakens the game.

If two games have the same content, but one of those games has some of that content locked behind a download wall and the other has it included for free, then the one which includes it is going to be a stronger game.

A game with DLC is weaker than the same game which includes all the DLC right from the get-go.

This isn't just paid DLC - it's all DLC. Patches, free DLC - it would always be better to simply have it packaged with the game itself.

Even if it's a free download, it's an additional step and, in a few years, you'll probably shut down your server and the content will simply go away. So the DLCified game is weaker than an identical game with that same content packaged right in.

"But DLC allows the game developers to make more money off their game, which allows them to make more content, or even a whole other game!"

That's business, yeah. Games need to make money. But business models change. I feel very sure that the "freemium" or pay-DLC method is going to die out. Not only because it is weakening the game in an attempt to cash in, but also because the nature of DLC is going to change - which I'll talk about in a moment.

I don't know what the optimal solution is, but if I'm right about the nature of content, it'll be some sort of pay-curation thing which enhances the game rather than limits it.

"DLC that comes out after the game is released is~"

Things like patches and expansions are kind of a gray area. Patches are obviously best to include with the game upon acquisition, but if you're delivering DVDs, you can't reprint them all with each patch. Technical limitations often mean you'll be using DLC to try and fix a weakness in your original game. But the point stands: the game is weaker than if you could package the DLC in it.

Expansion packs are a gray area. I have a feeling their nature will radically change in the next decade. However, once the expansion pack has come out, the original game would still be improved by having the expansion pack bundled with it upon initial purchase. Putting aside the economics of how to get the expansion pack to pay off, the game is weaker without it than if it were already included.

Well, unless the expansion pack sucks.

"There are good kinds of DLC!"

Yes, there are. For example, Oblivion has tens of thousands of mods and content updates available for it, most of which are free. You can download them and radically modify the game to your preference.

Similarly, Spore and some other "massively single-player" games relied on DLC to provide content from a massive, ever-updating library.

DLC can enhance the game. As far as I can tell, there are three kinds of DLC that make sense as game enhancers:

1) DLC which appeals to a niche. For example, a mod which radically changes the game. It could be included in the game and left disabled, but I think it's okay to make it DLC.

2) DLC which is so vast that no player will ever download more than a tiny portion. For example, the billions of costumes and characters for The Sims.

3) DLC which constantly changes and cannot therefore be packaged. For example, the constantly-uploaded Spore creations.

These three kinds of DLC cannot reasonably be packaged with the game, and strengthen the game when treated as DLC.

Can you make money off of them?

Well, sure. Rather than sell a blue outfit for 40 MS points, you could instead sell a game rebalancer where ringouts are impossible and the gravity is half normal.

But if you can stop thinking about selling DLC, there are opportunities to make money by curating the DLC. For example, if you allow players to create and sell content, you can both provide a platform for other players to buy the content and also take a small cut of the sales and also promote ever-updating packages of "editor's favorite" content.

There are tons of opportunities.

I honestly think that more and more games are going to try to leverage their players. It just makes sense. If there are five hundred thousand people playing your game, there are five hundred thousand people giving you their time for free. You can leverage that by harnessing the things they create and using them to entice and enthrall other players.

Because of this, player generated DLC is the future.

I just can't imagine it any other way. Games which harness their players will have an unimaginable edge over games trying to sell "purple shirt 32" for cash.

But games which harness their players won't be the sole proprietor for DLC. DLC will come from the players. Fast. Faster than the devs can even keep up with reading descriptions of it, let alone create. In that kind of environment, trying to charge for individual pieces of developer-created content will be... difficult. Competitive.

DLC won't die out. It'll become so omnipresent that you won't be able to charge for it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Epic Adventure

I've been thinking about the games and media we get nostalgic about, and about how they felt the first time we played them. Not just video games, but tabletop games and books and movies and whatever.

There were some emotions that you felt when you played those games, watched those movies. The feeling in your chest that new places were being explored, and that amazing things were getting done.

We don't feel that way much any more. I don't, at any rate. I don't think it's because games have gotten less epic. I think it's because I've become used to epicness. Like a child learning to play the piano - at first, they finally manage to play "Chopsticks" and they feel a great sense of accomplishment. But that gets pretty tired after you've played it a hundred times.

There are three basic ways that people progress from that initial accomplishment. The first is that they play more complex songs, reveling in the technical challenge of the art. The second is that they play the songs they have mastered with more care and flair, imparting more meaning and emotion to them. The third is that they innovate - improvising, arranging, writing new songs.

I think we can consider the act of epic adventure to be similar to the act of playing the piano. The games we play now are still epic adventures, but we are focusing on the challenge of ever more complicated epic adventures. Our skill at epic adventuring is being challenged at a technical level, and there's definitely fun to be had there, like trying to master Flight of the Bumblebee on your preferred instrument.

But there are two other directions we can go. We can make epic adventures which allow us to express ourselves more meaningfully. And we can make epic adventures where we are allowed to improvise and arrange consciously.

Of course we can also do two or even all three at once, but it might be best to focus on just one at a time.

I was thinking about how to make an epic adventure feel epic again. More technically complex adventures are interesting, but they don't give you that feeling in your chest. I think you need one of the other models to do that.

I've been working with a few ideas on that front, but I'd be interested to hear any opinions you have.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Closed Combat

I was thinking about systems with open rules and closed rules. What is the difference?

Well, a closed rule is "you have a sword. If you hit someone with it, you deal 2d8 damage. Who will you hit?" An open rule is "which stats will you use to affect which things in the area, and which aspects will you use for an extra point, and which stats will the enemy use to defend?"

There's a lot of attraction to open rules. Open rules feel like you're empowering the player, and they are also a lot easier for the game designer to write. But it's not necessarily better game design.

A big part of playing any game is expressing yourself in how you play. Open rules initially seem like the best choice for that. However, a player can openly attempt to do random things whenever they like regardless of the rules. They don't need an open rule set to swing from a chandelier - they just need to pester the GM into allowing it.

On the other hand, a closed rule set narrows the focus. The player can now express herself through her performance within those well-understood confines. Not simply whether she prefers to be a magician or a warrior, but whether she chooses that +1 to hit on level-up or whether she goes for the free half-step.

Those are choices that have little or no merit from a narrative point of view. But they have a lot of merit from a "you're playing a game, not just making up a story together" point of view. Moreover, they offer three added advantages.

1) They are easy to get into. Whether or not a player can role play, long before there is any real narrative traction there are the rules. Long before the players have any emotional connection to their own characters, let alone a connection to the Demon Lord Bldhduhgu, they have a connection to whether they are performing well within the confines of the game. Every player can get drawn in, although some lose interest in fiddly balancing later on.

2) They are usually faster. A closed rule situation is built to execute smoothly and easily. They "front load" the most complex and creative decisions, offloading them to the part of the game that is open and largely rule-less.

3) They make exceptions mean more. In an open rule system, something unusual happening usually resolves to a simple +1 or +2 or whatever. In a closed rule system, something unusual usually resolves using a completely different and unexpected set of rules, or breaks the rules you normally rely on. This makes a lot bigger impact on the players.

EDIT: 4) They allow for much deeper tactical situations, as open rule sets are necessarily less rigid and structured as to how the battles progress.

Now, allowing the players to be as creative as possible can be good, especially if you can do it in a framework which doesn't instantly fly off the rails. I generally leave it to the "full open" sections of the game rather than the nitty-gritty rule resolution parts, but even in the nitty-gritty you can allow it or even promote it using a simple "window rule".

A window rule is any rule which allows the players to take any unusual action they can think of. For example, swinging on the chandelier rather than simply stabbing the enemy with the sword. There are a variety of window rules, some better thought out than others.

A bad window rule is "if you can come up with some piece of creative description, you get a +1!"

This rule is bad because it encourages the players to throw in random crap, and punishes the players who aren't as good at coming up with random crap.

A slightly better rule is "you can give an ally a +5 if you spend your turn doing something to help him."

Another decent rule is "the enemy's defenses can be reduced by 2 for the rest of the fight if you spend your turn doing something unusual."

But the basic truth is that if the players want to do cool stuff in combat, they will ask to do it. They don't need a special rule. The GM can encourage them to do cool stuff in combat by offering lavish rewards for anyone who comes up with a cool idea (assuming it isn't the same person over and over), as well as having the villains come up with cool ideas that work against the players.

Anyway, the core of it is that a closed rule system isn't necessarily bad. It really allows the players to jump in and express themselves, and it also allows the game designer to build up some fun and interesting exceptions that feel sharp and exciting.

Sunday, July 08, 2012


While I was out in the sweltering heat, I thought more about Star Wars.

The core problem with the Star Wars games is that Jedi and non-Jedi share the glory. According to the literature, Jedi have magic powers and beam swords and are, functionally, completely invincible death machines.

To share the stage with smugglers and soldiers and dancers, the Jedi are typically blunted down to mere mortal levels. It doesn't make any sense why their super-cool swords deal 1% of an enemy's health when passing through their head. But it's required if you want to have Han and Leia traveling with a Jedi.

Another obvious option is to go Jedi-only. But this isn't as nice as you might think. The depth of the world relies on being able to make the player interact with details. A smuggler trying to free slaves from an evil Hutt will have a difficult road involving sneaking, hacking, bribing, gathering information, finding allies... but to a strong Jedi, it involves using a laser sword. The solution a strong Jedi always uses.

So Jedi-only is restrictive in that most players won't sweat the details. You lose a lot of storytelling power when your heroes are gods: the only stories you can tell are about gods clashing.

Another option is to give the Jedi another game to play. For example, the Jedi are super-strong, but have to worry a lot about how the Force resonates. A Jedi can carve through the slaver's guard unit without difficulty, but the stink of death coats them in fetid Force. Much better to sneak in, or to let non-Jedi do your dirty work so you only get slightly tainted.

Politics could also be fun. If a smuggler shoots down an Empire ship, well, the smuggler gets a price on his head. If a Jedi shoots down an empire ship, that's an international diplomatic incident...

Anyway, the core problem with Jedi is that, as they are written in the literature, they are too powerful to really immerse the player in the world. To make up for this, you need to come up with a way to immerse them into the world. Since they don't have to worry about how much damage they take from an enemy with a blaster, you have to make them worry about some other constraint that serves the same purpose of grounding them in the world.

Now... back out into the heat, I guess. Whew.

Monday, July 02, 2012

A Guide to Offense

Not absolutely sure I should post this, but what the hell.

Plenty of kerfuffle out there these days, as the game industry's deep-set misogyny is finally being attacked. A lot of guys are upset that they are being called misogynistic. Well, the situation is pretty simple, I'll spell it out for you as much as I understand it. Keep in mind that if someone is upset at you for some other kind of insult (homophobia, racism, etc), the situation is more or less the same. These rules pretty much apply across the board.

1) If someone is offended, they are offended. You don't control them. Saying that they shouldn't be offended, or that they aren't really offended, is kinda pointless. They are offended, and that's that.

2) If someone is offended, the thing in question is offensive. That's the definition of the word.

3) Someone speaking up about how offended they are is an outlier in volume, not direction. That is, if someone tells you "thing A" is misogynistic, there are probably a hundred times that many people thinking the same thing that just haven't said anything. Dismissing "whiners" as outliers is very much not recommended. If in doubt, ask around.

4) Your behavior may be "normal", but "normal" is a culture which has a lot of misogyny built right in (and homophobia, and racism, and so on). You don't have to be consciously misogynistic to do something misogynistic: you just have to act normal, and eventually you'll probably get called on it.

5) Even if you do not see what is offensive about it, it is offensive. You are not the only human on the planet. Understand that what you did caused offense to a certain category of human, regardless of what you thought or intended.

6) You are certainly allowed to be offensive. But, generally, you'll want to know what sort of person you are offending. I'm happy to offend anti-vaxxers, for example, because child endangerment pisses me off. But categories like "woman", "gay", "black", etc? Why would I want to offend them? What sort of moral statement does that make?

7) All of this basically boils down to one choice. If you are told something you did was offensive, recognize that it was offensive and decide, consciously, whether you want to offend those people in that way. Your two options at this point are "whoa, sorry, I didn't realize! I'll try not to do that again." and "fuck off, I don't care."

8) Complaining that "they want more rights than me" or "that it happens to white guys too" is not valid. If you ever think about making this argument, stop. It's pathetic, transparently invalid. It's declaring your molehill is the same size as that mountain, because you're kneeling by your molehill, desperately getting your eye as close as possible. "My molehill sure looks big from here!"

Anyway, that's my approach to "if someone gets offended by you". I'm pretty oblivious, so I pretty much just accept that if someone was offended by something I did, then what I did was offensive.

Of course, I'm also an ass, so I'm pretty much okay with offending anyone who's made a choice I disagree with. But "women"? Why would you want to? What's the point? What's the moral argument?

I ask these questions rhetorically. That means "don't answer them". I really have no interest in anyone's arguments on why they think being misogynistic is fine.

Tabletop Mass Effect

A fun challenge for any designer is to try to make a "paper" version of a game where it seems impossible. For example, a version of Dance Dance Revolution or Super Mario Bros that is played with cards or boards or dice.

Probably the hardest part of this is getting the same fundamental feel without the physical skill play. You can substitute in another kind of skill play (such as memory in place of timing), or you can try to come up with a mechanic that produces the same dynamic and feel as the skill play by other means.

For example, in first-person cover-based shooters such as Mass Effect, Halo, and every other FPS made in the past five years, there are a lot of highly polished game mechanics reused and recycled to produce the same dynamics. Fundamentally, we might consider firing (accuracy and DPS), exposure (timing and concealment), tactics (flanking, prioritizing targets, maneuver), and resource management (ammo, health, powers, squadmates, etc).

So you can start to break those four into basic relationships. If you want to fire on an enemy, you need to break cover. So you inflict a certain DPS at a certain accuracy, while paying in exposure. You will probably wait until fire dies down (enemy reload, for example) before popping up, to minimize the actual chance of getting hit.

Maybe you want to reduce exposure even more, so you maneuver to an area surrounded by pillars. Now you pop cover to fire on an enemy, but the pillars are still between you and the other enemies, meaning that your exposure is limited.

A rocket launcher has a long reload speed. It probably has roughly the same DPS as an assault rifle using naive calculations. But you can reload while in cover. So the rocket launcher fundamentally has a super-high DPS followed by a required reload phase - which is a different class of cost. So "DPS" must be calculated by "seconds exposed", not "seconds including reload time".

A psychic throwing magical balls of tracky force has a similar issue, where he may not even have to break cover to fire the magical balls, and then they home in or are piloted. Again, a very low level of exposure and, often, a very high effectiveness against targets who are hiding (goes above/around cover). Largely balanced by the low level of damage and the long recharge time, but it may be the reason why I feel that the most powerful class in Mass Effect was the pure biotic. Those long recharge rates don't matter much when you don't ever have to break cover.

That can backfire, though, if the enemy presses and you have no place to fall back into. Cover can be broken by an enemy simply flanking or even flat-out entering melee. A biotic has relatively poor direct survivability, so when they lose control of the tactical situation, it goes poorly for them.

I'm thinking it could be fun to theorize a simple tabletop game like this:

Cover is a resource. Fundamentally, it is shields - the more cover you have, the less the enemy will be able to damage you. However, you must reduce your cover to fire upon the enemy. You can gain cover by maneuvering or destroy the enemy's cover by maneuvering against them, but either way requires you to temporarily reduce your cover. This is called a "tactical maneuver".

Position is a resource. The better your position, the more effective tactical maneuvering is, and the less effective your enemy's tactical maneuvers are. Also, the better your position as compared to your target's, the less exposure you need to fire on them. Position can be gained by a different kind of maneuvering ("strategic maneuver"), but this is often limited by the realities of the terrain. If you're stuck on a veranda and there are airships firing on you, your position is not going to improve.

From those two resources spring the majority of the dynamics of our tabletop game. After that it's secondary resource definition. Here's a sample of how you might define a character:

Health vs speed. What is your bonus to maneuver vs your durability?

Size. Smaller means more effective cover, larger means more effective melee.


Rocket launcher. Upside: Low exposure, high damage. Downside: expensive, heavy (reduces speed).

Assault rifle. Upside: Reasonable DPS, variable exposure to fit your tactical situation. Downside: No exceptional stats.

Pistol. Upside: low weight (no speed penalty), low exposure. Downside: low damage.


Ghost. Can momentarily vanish, allowing for tactical maneuvers without exposure.

Psycher. Can lob energy balls which flush out the enemy, bypassing cover.

Traceur. Can make a tactical and strategic maneuver simultaneously, but only wears the lightest gear.

Commando. Can attack while making a tactical maneuver.

Cyborg. May fire two weapons at once at only the exposure cost of one.

Etc, etc, etc.

Could be fun.