In this episode, Soren interviews veteran game developer Trent Kusters, co-founder of League of Geeks, best known for the strategy game Armello. They discuss how he faked his way into games journalism, how to sneak risky ideas past licensors, and how to make games feel big. This episode was recorded on September 8, 2023.
Games discussed:Pong, Trog, Zoo Hospital, Stunt Flyer: Heroes of the Skies, Monster Jam: Urban Assault, Scooby-Doo: First Frights, Scooby-Doo and the Spooky Swamp, Armello, Ocarina of Time, Bloodborne, Offworld Trading Company, Old World, Jumplight Odyssey, Crusader Kings series
I gave a talk on games and meaning at GDC 2023, which is now available on YouTube:
However, I fully scripted the talk ahead of time, so I decided it would be worth taking the time to post the slides online, in three parts to have mercy on your browser.
Conflict between designer intent and player behavior actually predates video games as it is a common issue with historical wargames. One of the basic challenges of wargame design is how to encourage historical play when no one knows what the likely or even plausible alternate results could be – for example, could the South have ever won the Civil War? – and how to recreate the pressures that led to bad decisions even when we all know the outcome. Maybe Napoleon should have known better than to invade Russia, but even my kids know not to start a land war in Asia.
A good example of this problem is Volko Ruhnke’s Labyrinth, a game about the War on Terror that starts in 2001 and pits the US against Al-Qaeda. It must have been a difficult game to design for many reasons, one of which is that many of the US’s historical actions, such as the invasion of Iraq, backfired horribly, which players would presumably want to avoid. However, when you read the rules for the game, it comes across like a Bush administration neo-con fantasy world. The mechanics enable a domino effect of Western support throughout the region. Establishing a democracy in one Middle Eastern country will cause it to spread to its neighbors, just like we were told would happen in Iraq back in 2003. When I first encountered the game, I was a little shocked, because it is easy to assume that the designer had fallen for this neo-con propaganda.
Years later, the designer actually addressed that question head on:
What if you as the designer have a different view of how the world works than the historical contestants? To get your players to behave historically, for your model to work and produce historically plausible outcomes, you have to incentivize your players the way people at the time were incentivized. What was the US administration’s strategy and what did they think would work? I have to allow that to work in the game; otherwise, the US player doesn’t play like the US in the War on Terror… regardless of whether Volko thinks those ideas are correct.
This raises the question of what is the point of a historical game? Is it an attempt to model history? To actually experiment with alternate outcomes? Or is it to help us understand why people made decisions that we find baffling or shocking today? With Labyrinth, Ruhnke is not trying to recreate history; instead, he is trying to recreate the historical mindset of the time. As we’ve covered, the ability of a game to simulate the actual world is extremely limited and, thus, misleading. Labyrinth shows a clear example of an alternative – simulating the pressures, the desires, and the fears of historical actors, which can be much more illuminating. The study of the past is not just about what people did but also about why they did it, and a game can probably do a better job of teaching the question of WHY people made choices they did than any other medium.
Let’s move that question to a different era, the medieval world of Crusader Kings. Now, they could have made the game with a very different focus – maybe how best to conquer the world or what is the fastest way to advance out of the Middle Ages – made it more like Civilization, in other words. Instead, they leaned into empathizing with medieval rulers, putting you under the same pressures that made it difficult to maintain a dynasty and keep you realm from fracturing. Which leads to…
…lots of posts like these. How to kill off your heir? Is it worth it to kill off your brothers? Indeed, what is the best WAY to kill off your brothers? Now that’s an interesting question for players to ask because…
… fratricide was actually official policy during a certain period of Ottoman history. For example, when Selim I assumed the throne in 1512, he quickly executed his two brothers. Mehmed III had 19 of his brothers and half-brothers murdered. Eventually, they began imprisoning their family members instead, which was quite an improvement. So, Crusader Kings certainly meets Ruhnke’s goal for a historical game, to encourage players to behave historically regardless of what the designers at Paradox think, who presumably have neither killed nor imprisoned their own brothers.
It requires creativity for a game to recreate a historical mindset as opposed to being just a historical re-enactment. For example, Europa Universalis includes a Randomized New World mode which makes the game less realistic but instead more true to the human experience of the age, of being an explorer and not knowing what is over the horizon.
There is a similar issue with Victoria, which designer Chris King outlined a number of years ago. Historically, colonies just didn’t pay. They tended to be a net-loss for the controlling countries as it cost more to subjugate, manage, and defend than it brought back home to the colonizer. However, a game about 19th Century Europe in which those nations did not race for colonies, even if to the detriment of literally everyone in the world, would clearly put players in an ahistorical mindset. In Victoria, they solved this problem by making colonies a necessary part of their economic model, providing the raw goods and, eventually, markets that the player’s factories and businesses needed. It’s not a realistic model of history, but it is a realistic model of what 19th century Europeans thought was important to them at the time.
An important consideration here is whether players will understand the line between the game incentivizing historical behavior and the game espousing a world view.
In Cole Wehrle’s An Infamous Traffic, you play English aristocrats who are profiting from selling opium in China during the 19th century. You are playing bad people doing bad things, and the designer underlines this by how victory works. The money you earn in China gets converted into frivolous prizes back home in London, including my favorite, a Fancy Hat. The game is telling you that it knows you are doing bad things, and you shouldn’t feel good about the fancy hat you ended up with as your prize. A game’s framing can matter a great deal to help players separate a historical mindset from actual reality.
What if, at the end of Civilization, instead of telling you how much land you conquered, the wrap-up screen told you how many cultures you destroyed and how many languages have disappeared?
I started my career very passionate about making games about history, games that could sit next to a book or a documentary as a legitimate secondary source on world history. My history thesis paper in college was a game that simulated the life of a shopkeeper living in early modern Oxford, based on my research in the Oxfordshire Archives. It didn’t just model the change in prices over time but also your standing in the local Mercers and Grocers Guild as well as your family life as the line between personal and business affairs was not as fixed back then, so you have to worry about your children and their future.
Two years later, I started working on Civilization III, and I was super pumped. I had just read Guns, Germs, and Steel and was inspired to make the videogame version. However, I quickly ran into the goofy reality of video games, of how players will twist your games into what they want to play. I learned that you can’t just put Horses and Wheat and Pigs on one continent but not on another and expect players to be ok with starting in the wrong place.
And then I met the twin evils of Civilization, Infinite City Sprawl, which is how the game encourages cramming cities into every possible spot on the map, and the Eternal China Syndrome, which is how once the initial expansion phase is over, the game becomes static and dull. These effects have nothing to do with history and everything to do with players seeing past the historical setting to the game’s inner math.
So, after making Civ 3 and abandoning the idea that I was making a history simulator, I had to ask myself, what could I actually communicate with Civ 4. Why make that game at all? In doing so, I started down a path that led me to why I make strategy games.
Here is the Civ 4 Civics screen. In Civs 1 through 3, you adopted an ideology – Monarchy, Despotism, Communism, Democracy – which came with a bunch of bonuses and penalties, basically judgments on the designer’s part on what those ideologies meant. I dropped that entirely for Civ 4 and implemented a build-your-own-government system where you choose where power lies, the type of economy, how the legal system works, and so on. You could have a Police State with a Free Market or you could have Slavery mixed with Free Speech. Or you could mix Universal Suffrage with State Property. The whole point was to defy ideological labels to get the player to see past them.
If the twentieth century has a single theme, it is that ideology itself is a failure. Dogmatic leaders used ideologies to demonize the “opposition,” which usually meant helping the strong to terrorize the weak. From Nazi death camps to the Soviet gulags to China’s Cultural Revolution to America’s McCarthyism, the twentieth century was full of ideas that gave power to autocratic leaders not afraid to destroy the lives of those who resisted. Much as we hate to admit it, these leaders were often supported by masses of people who believed in the stories these leaders told, the ideologies they espoused.
Demagogues love the labels that ideologies provide because they obscure and dehumanize the opposition; both sides of the Cold War made liberal use of the terms “Communist” and “Capitalist” to define and differentiate each other, even though the United States government has slowly adopted communist programs piecemeal over the last century. Why exactly was the U.S. – a country with social security, medicare, welfare, a minimum wage, labor laws, and trade unions – killing people to keep Communism out of Vietnam? In fact, if you took a typical Red-fearing, union-busting industrialist from 1923 and sent him 100 years into the future and explained to him how America works now, he would probably assume that the Communists won after all!
Labels exist to separate and control people, and I wanted the civics system to encourage people to look past the labels and at the actual choices a society needs to make when governing itself. It was no accident that I attached Mt. Rushmore to Fascism; carving mammoth statues of your country’s leaders into a MOUNTAIN is fascist, even if we do not live under capital-F Fascism. Our own self-labeling as a Capitalist Democracy does not protect us from charges that our country is damaging the world when our policies hurt real people.
I often get asked whether Offworld is a free trade game or an anti-capitalist game or some other statement on the world economy. I don’t think games should make broad statements like “capitalism is good” or “capitalism is bad” – it’s just too simplistic, and as we’ve discussed, injecting a heavy-handed message can so easily go off the rails.
In Offworld, if Iron costs more than Steel, something has gone wrong, and you win by taking advantage of those discrepancies. There is a reason why everything costs what it does. Sometimes, that goes beyond just supply and demand to government policy and cultural factors, but there is always a reason, and if we don’t like what something costs, we should find out why instead of just complaining about it.
More broadly, I made Offworld for the same reason I made Civ 4, to push against dogmatic ideological thinking, the idea that there is one solution to everything. In a good strategy game, the answer to every question – which resource is most important? what should I research first? – must always begin with “Well, it depends…” The point of having to make tough choices and to adapt to the environment is that there is never, ever just one right approach to every situation. Ideologies inevitably lead to a belief that there is one set of solutions to the world’s problems, and I believe that a good strategy game always challenges this type of thinking.
OK, now I am going to tell you something that is definitely in the 10% useful part of this pie chart. We game designers have no idea what we are doing. To be a good designer, you have to abandon the idea that you are anything other than an explorer.
You know how we all feel like we are impostors? Well, what if we are actually right? It’s actually bad to lose this feeling. If you think you have figured out game design, your career is over.
We are not creating ordered systems. We are creating chaos for the player to find order in.
I would extend this quote to say that designers who try to make ordered systems put their intentions, the meaning of their games, at risk because players will break those systems. Players don’t care about the imaginary game you have in your head.
Indeed, player understand our games better than we do. When evaluating design talent, the most important trait I look for is humility. Designers need to be able to hold two contradictory ideas in their heads at all times – to hold true to their design vision even when success is uncertain BUT ALSO to always assume that their vision is meaningless until they see it the hands of real players. They need to have both a big enough ego to follow their own path but a small enough ego to assume that they are probably wrong.
So, why make games at all if the players ultimately take them away from us? Why am I still here, trying to climb up that hill?
Well, what if that infamous Barbados-Grenada match was actually the most interesting game of soccer ever played? Maybe it’s amazing that a soccer team ended up defending both goals?
Maybe it’s amazing that the socialist Landlord’s Game turned into the capitalist Monopoly?
Maybe it’s amazing that Sweatshop created more empathy for sweatshop managers than for the suffering workers?
Maybe it’s even amazing that Spent somehow made people less sympathetic towards the poor.
Strictly speaking, these four examples are all failures, but the way they fail doesn’t at all suggest that games are useless.
Instead, their failures show us just how powerful games can be.
Right now, we are like children playing with fire, we don’t know what we are doing, and we might end up setting the wrong thing ablaze.
In the spirit of humility, I don’t have the answers for how to make sure our games don’t end up conveying a message that is the opposite of what we intended, but I do know of some games that have succeeded better than others, and I bet you do too.
Just remember that simply stating that your game is about X or Y doesn’t make it so. The only people who truly understand your game are your players, so if you want to know what your game means, make sure you ask them.
I gave a talk on games and meaning at GDC 2023, which is now available on YouTube:
However, I fully scripted the talk ahead of time, so I decided it would be worth taking the time to post the slides online, in three parts to have mercy on your browser.
Besides the question of whether we know what we are doing as designers, what about the question of whether games can teach us anything about our world.
Or, maybe, let’s set the bar lower and see if games can at least teach us anything about sports.
To do that, we need to talk about baseball analyst Voros McCracken.
Who, despite his preposterous name, has no relation to either Zak McCracken or the Alien Mindbenders
Instead, Voros McCracken revolutionized our understanding of baseball with an idea he first published on Usenet in 1999. He called it DIPS, which stands for Defense Independent Pitching Stats.
The basic idea is that while pitchers do have control over balls and strikes, once the batter hits the ball, the results are no longer in their control. In other words, barring a strikeout or a walk, pitchers don’t control how many hits they allow.
This may seem like a fairly simple observation, but baseball is a very old game, and for over a century, everyone had assumed that the opposite was true – that some pitchers were better at getting batters out than others.
The initial response to McCracken’s idea, which threatened to turn our understanding of pitching upside-down, was shock, disbelief, even hostility.
Although Bill James, the patron saint of progressive baseball analysis, was initially skeptical, after doing the research, he determined that McCracken was correct and that he felt “stupid for not having realized this 30 years ago.”
So, why am I talking about DIPS? What does this mean for video games? Well, one part of the appeal of games is that they can theoretically simulate the real world and teach us about it, that we can make choices and see those choices be modelled accurately. But, to use just this one specific example, how could a game written before McCracken’s insight on pitching have any claim to accurately model baseball? The programmers writing these games would absolutely make some pitchers better than others at preventing hits because that was how everyone thought baseball worked before McCracken. And of course, if garbage goes in, garbage comes out. These games could only simulate a faulty understanding of how baseball works.
To underline this point even more, consider this article Bill James wrote in 2015, arguing that baseball managers were using their starting pitchers incorrectly. For decades, teams have used a five-man rotation, meaning that there is a new starting pitcher every fifth day so that each one can pitch at full strength after four days of rest. James argues that teams should instead use a three-man rotation but with much lower pitch counts, relying more on relief pitchers.
Let’s say someone wanted to test this theory with a baseball simulation. Well, even with a sport like baseball that is ideally suited for simulation as it is essentially a turn-based game, there is no way to get good results on a three-man rotation because baseball simulations are written by trying to get their internal numbers to match real-world results, not from some deeper understanding of how baseball actually works which would then produce accurate results. Because no one has tried a three-man rotation in real life, no one knows what would actually happen, how a pitcher would hold up to pitching every three days instead of every five. Game designers would just be guessing.
So, what can games simulate? Strangely, the best example I can think of is a game trying to recreate a situation MUCH more difficult to simulate than baseball, life as a border agent in a totalitarian country. Papers Please succeeds because instead of trying to simulate reality, it is trying to simulate the personal tensions someone in this position might feel.
The game puts you in difficult situations as a border agent processing immigrants who have compelling stories for why they are trying to cross the border. Would you stop a young girl fleeing from abuse just because she doesn’t have all her papers in order? Who will you let in and who will you keep out? What laws will you enforce and what will you turn a blind eye towards?
However, letting people in illegally can lead to citations which carry fines that might lead to your son dying because you don’t have enough medicine.
Is this an accurate simulation? I mean, who knows? But it creates a genuine emotional conflict which we can all relate to – Is there a right thing to do when helping someone in need will hurt your family? Losing your family is a loss condition, so you can’t just perform as a paragon.
Through this tension, Papers Please gives players an understanding of why resistance against an oppressive system is so hard for people with real lives and, thus, why the powerful are able to stay in power.
So, to put it simply, games can simulate empathy much better than they can simulate reality.
Speaking of which, here’s a classic line on one of game’s most famous simulations: SimCity doesn’t actually simulate a real city. It simulates the inside of Will Wright’s brain.
Except that’s not exactly true. Very crudely, here are the two poles of 20th-century urban planning. Le Corbusier, who was a proponent of top-down, rational city planning, which separated residential, commercial, and industrial areas. In contrast, Jane Jacobs challenged this idea with proposals for mixed-use development which reflected how cities traditionally grew without central planning.
When Will Wright talks about urban planning, he is much more likely to praise Jacobs than Corbusier. Her more contemporary ideas are the ones he would commonly refer to in his sprawling game design talks.
For example, in this interview, when asked about the inspirations for SimCity, the one urban planner he mentions is Jane Jacobs, not Corbusier.
However, Wright was not making a game in the abstract. He was trying to create a whole city on a very real Commodore 64, and the ideas of these two designers required very different types of coding. Jacobs’s mixed-use urbanism, which focused on pedestrian flow, would require agent simulation, which would be much too complex for an 8-bit system. On the other hand, Corbusier’s residential, commercial, and industrial superblocks could be handled by much simpler cellular automata, which is what Wright choose to use. In other words, the limits of the technology determined what type of city SimCity would simulate, regardless of what Will Wright might have actually believed.
So, SimCity ended up with the famous residential/commercial/industrial split that a rationalist planner like Corbusier might admire, and which – it needs to be said – is today considered bad urban design that leads to crime, slums, and general economic and social decline. As an admirer of Jacobs, Wright probably understood this too – so that leaves us with the question, what meaning should we take from the first SimCity if it represents an urban model that the designer himself doesn’t even believe in?
Is this intentional design? Accidental design? Something else?
There is actually a successful city builder based on the type of agent simulation needed to support Jacob’s ideas. Pharaoh doesn’t use districts; instead, its systems are built around little walkers that move around your city and do their jobs, so that the layout of your streets and the adjacency of your buildings actually matters. The game is considered a high-water mark for city builders, and a testament to how choosing the right model can matter.
I’d like to talk about another game, Kent Hudson’s narrative simulation, The Novelist, which explores the story of the title character who has troubling balancing his three biggest priorities – his wife, his work, and his son.
The game presents you with choices over the course of nine chapters, moving you up or down in those three different categories. The inner math is zero-sum so if you gain two points in your marriage, you lose two points between your work and your son.
However, after playtesting, Hudson realized that his game’s meaning was the exact opposite from what he wanted:
My game was telling players: You can’t have it all. Life is zero sum. You can’t win. I don’t believe that statement to be true, but people were taking a message from the game that I fundamentally disagreed with.
Games can escape the intentions of their designers just so easily.
I think one of the issues games like The Novelist face is that it’s hard to find human meaning in a game with just simple math at its core. Yet, games absolutely can teach us about ourselves. Telltale’s Walking Dead games provide a great example of this by showing you how your choices compare to everyone else’s. If you are one of the 25% of players who killed Stephanie, you might reflect on why you made that choice when so many others didn’t. Maybe the best way for games to be about people is simply to inject more real people into the game.
Let’s talk about another example of designer intent going awry. This is a SPENT, a well-intentioned game that wants to build empathy for the poor by showing players just how difficult their life can be, how they sometimes need to choose between paying the gas bill, repairing their car, and attending their grandfather’s funeral. That’s a bold goal, but is it effective?
One researcher aimed to find out. Here is an article from Psychology Today about an experiment she ran to see how effective SPENT was at increasing empathy for the poor.
After I analyzed the results from this study, I was dismayed to find that playing the game had no effect on positive feelings toward the poor. In fact, the game had a negative effect on attitudes among certain participants – including some people who were sympathetic to the poor to begin with.
The problem is agency – when holding the mouse and making the decisions, it’s very natural to assume that the poor have the same agency that you do as the player. Consider this choice right here – should you spend the money to attend your grandfather’s funeral? The problem is that it’s very easy for the player to not spend the money by just hitting the Skip the Memorial button and then end up thinking: Why do these poor people have such a hard time saving their money?!?
One very interesting finding was that the game did produce empathy… when people watched the game instead of playing it. From my perspective, this is a devastating finding because the whole thing we as game designers have been going on and on about for decades is how games are empathy machines because they put you in the shoes of someone else’s life, but here we see the exact opposite effect, and to make it worse, a passive, non-interactive medium is the one that produces empathy instead.
However, maybe things are not so dire. Why, for example. does Papers Please succeed where Spent fails? The answer is actually just game design. Papers Please took the time and energy to give bite to your decisions – either from what happens when you turn away those in need or from how your acts of defiance hurt your family. In Spent, there is no actual cost to pressing the Skip the Memorial button and saving the money, which keeps the player from actually empathizing with the protagonist.
However, even if designers take the time to build out all of the mechanics needed to create real emotional tension, things can still go awry. Consider Sweatshop, a game designed to raise awareness about the hostile labor conditions in modern sweatshops. Indeed, this game earned the honor of being banned from the Apple App Store for its depiction of child labor and unsafe working conditions, which perhaps hit a little too close to home for them.
The game puts you in the role of the sweatshop manager who, in order to meet increasingly unreasonable quota demands from the corporation, has to cut corners by lowering safety standards, hiring children, and pushing workers past their limits.
This is what Simon Parkin, one of the designers, had this to say about their intentions and the game’s meaning:
Whereas a film documentary might piece together the sweatshop story through footage and anecdote, the game allows players to experience the system from the inside with all its cat’s cradle of pressures and temptations. [A] game can present the system in a more objective manner thereby building a different sort of empathy and understanding.
However, trying to get a message across with interactivity is playing with fire. This is what journalist and game designer Tom Francis said about his experience playing Sweatshop:
At the end of it, I thought, shit, it’s hard to run a sweatshop. Previously, I was like, oh, it’s terrible these conditions in the sweatshop. Now, I’m like, man, you don’t know what pressures they’re under. It’s hard to meet these quotas!
The problem is that the game puts you in the role of the manager, so your empathy is for the pressures he is under instead of the workers. You end up understanding why managers make the compromises they do and why children end up being mutilated.
Now, there are a couple of different ways to look at that. If players are able to step back and think about what they just did, it’s sort of amazing that a game could get you to kill kids to hit your t-shirt quota.
But I think it’s just as likely that, in less obviously baleful situations like a sweatshop, players will always subconsciously identify with whoever they control in a video game. What does that mean for games where you play the king, the queen, the ruler, or – more generally – the status quo, the existing power structure?
Perhaps the most famous example of a designer’s intent being thwarted is Elizabeth Magie’s The Landlord’s Game from 1906. It was designed to shows the negative effects of rampant capitalism, with an alternate set of rules to show how all the players would be better off if they adopted a tax system where rents were paid into the public treasury instead of into the landlords’ pockets.
The original ruleset contain a very interesting passage that lays out the designer’s intentions. Magie points out that players will quickly realize that, under the default, monopolistic ruleset, “one player will own everything on the board.” The Landlord’s Game was Das Kapital made of cardboard and dice. She invented player elimination to prove out the evils of monopolies. Unfortunately for Magie, collecting rents from your properties and pushing your rivals into bankruptcy proved to be a lot more fun than having all the money going to the public treasury, and…
Today the game is known as Monopoly, minus the socialist tax ruleset. The lessons here are subtle – Monopoly absolutely does demonstrate how a capitalist system will concentrate wealth in the hands of the few and impoverish the many, which is what Magie intended after all, but I somehow doubt…
…this is exactly what she had in mind or if players perceive of the game as a critique of capitalism.
Fun is an insidious requirement for a game to be played and, perhaps more importantly, re-played. Games that aren’t much fun tend to just disappear, and we have to grapple with that as designers.
The very nature of a game makes it extremely difficult to express a strong position on an issue. In order to be a game with different potential strategies, Prison Architect has to suggest that rehabilitation and punishment are both equally viable options. The game-shaped box it is in prevents it from picking a side, regardless of what the designers think.
What it can do is show the problems with each path – you can punish prisoners by searching for contraband every day, which means your addicts will go into withdrawal when they can’t get their drugs and act out violently. On the other hand, you can create job training programs, but that lets the prisoners get their hands on screwdrivers and other items that can be turned into weapons. You can have visitation programs but then you’ll discover a pipeline of drugs being smuggled into the prison.
The game is not – and never could be – an accurate simulation of prison because that’s impossible, but it can help players understand the tradeoffs, compromises, and tensions that they may not have considered before playing.
Now let’s talk about Defcon, a game about nuclear holocaust. (We are really hitting the high points, aren’t we?)
An interesting study was conducted on how playing the game affected player’s opinions of nuclear war.
The experiment separated the subjects into two groups, a control group that read articles on the dangers of nuclear war and a treatment group which played Defcon instead. There were significant differences in how these two groups changed their opinion after the experiment. Although the control group became more worried about a nuclear war in the near future, the Defcon players strangely became less concerned. On the other hand, the game players were more pessimistic that they would survive a war. The researchers’ conclusion, based also on qualitative data, was that playing Defcon was more effective at showing players how destructive nuclear war would be so that they then assumed that our governments would be more incentivized to never resort to nuclear war.
However, there is one important wrinkle in the overall results, which are divided up here by high, medium, and low frequency gamers. Note that every single group became more concerned about the threat of nuclear warfare except for one – the high-frequency gamers in the treatment group, meaning the ones who play games the most frequently. The hypothesis is that core gamers quickly saw past the setting and no longer saw a game about nuclear war and instead saw an RTS game with an unusual art style. This highlights a huge challenge for trying to communicate using game design – if you are working within familiar genre constraints, over time, both the game’s setting and meaning will eventually disappear.
A similar finding showed up in a study run by Dr. Stephen Blessing and Elena Sakosky based on a Geoff Engelstein thought experiment about whether players of Incan Gold would change their behavior based on simply changing the setting of the game. Incan Gold is a push-your-luck game where you delve into an ancient temple for gems and artifacts but risk losing it all the farther you go. To see if the setting affected players, they reskinned the game twice – first, as a firefighter game where you rescued victims instead and, second, as an abstract version where you are just playing for points.
The results they found were that players did change their behavior based on the setting, at least at first. This graph shows how often players returned to the base, which means that they have stopped pressing their luck. In the firefighter setting, this means rescuing less victims, while in the abstract version, it simply means scoring less points. In the experiment, the firefighters would push their luck more, taking more risks to save more people. However, and this is the important part, by the fourth game, the results had largely converged and players of all three versions were playing the same way. Players were now seeing past the setting and just optimizing to score the most points, whether they were called gems or victims or just points. Setting can matter, but we need to be aware that players will eventually gravitate to the game’s inner logic and start to ignore the setting. The more the setting and the rules are disconnected, the bigger a problem this becomes.
These four games have very different settings and meanings, with a very different set of messages and emotions for the player. And yet, there are significant parts of these four game that play out the exact same way, could even be built on the same shared codebase. Putting players into an established genre dulls the designer’s intent because, over time, players will stop engaging with the message and meaning of the game and instead just fall back on instinct. They are now playing shooter #34, not a philosophical game about a submerged dystopia or a jaunty adventure with a lovable rogue or a contemporary high-tech military thriller. Instead, players are warped back into their dorm room in 1994 and booting up Doom. Meaning is not a layer built on top of someone else’s game. A game’s meaning starts with its basic building blocks, the core actions that the player is going to be repeating over and over again.
I gave a talk on games and meaning at GDC 2023, which is now available on YouTube:
However, I fully scripted the talk ahead of time, so I decided it would be worth taking the time to post the slides online, in three parts to have mercy on your browser.
Hi everyone, I’m Soren Johnson, and welcome to You Have No Idea How Hard It Is To Run A Sweatshop
Here are the published games that I’ve worked on over my career, some of which I will touch on over the next hour.
I also do a podcast where I interview game designers about why they make games, and the episodes tend to run long, so check it out if you have any 4-hour road trips coming up.
So, the talk I am about to give is something of a sequel to one I gave in 2010 entitled Theme is Not Meaning. I argued then that we need to stop assuming that a game’s theme or SETTING determines its meaning and, instead, that meaning comes from the mechanics themselves. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about games which do a good job of constructing meaning from their mechanics and also about ones which do it poorly. I’d like to talk about some of these examples today and examine how best to build meaning in our games. Games have great power to affect players but, and I’m going to be bringing this up over and over again, that power can so easily slip out of the designer’s hands and sometimes end up delivering the exact opposite message from what the designer intended.
First, let’s talk about soccer and the 1994 Caribbean Cup, where they introduced a unique rule concerning Golden Goals, which are overtime goals that instantly end the game. In this tournament, Golden Goals would now be worth 2 goals instead of 1, which could matter if two teams are tied in the standings and need to use the difference in goals scored as the tiebreaker.
So, here are the standings before the final game between Barbados and Grenada.
Let me explain what we are looking at here. These columns are the number of games played and the wins and losses so far. Note that if Barbados beats Grenada, there will be a three-way tie.
In a three-way tie, each team will have 3 points in the standing because each win is worth 3 points.
So, in the event of a three-way tie, the team which advances is the one with the best Goal Differential, which is Goals For subtracted by Goals Allowed.
Thus, even though Barbados is currently in last place here, if they can beat Granada by two goals, they will advance from their group by having the highest goal differential. Remember when I said earlier that a Golden Goal is worth double? That’s called foreshadowing.
Near the end of the game, Barbados is up by exactly two goals, with a score of 2 to 0, so if the game were to end at that moment, Barbados would have the goal differential they need to win the tiebreaker.
But then, in the 82nd minute, Grenada scores and, even though Barbados is still winning the game, they will not advance because they have lost a point in goal differential. Barbados needs another goal, or they will be eliminated.
So, if Barbados can score a third goal in the final eight minutes of the game, the standings will look like the chart on the right, Barbados will get back to a +1 goal differential, win first place, and advance to the next round.
Five minutes pass, and Barbados is running out of time to score the third goal they need. If nothing changes, they will win the game but be eliminated.
However, someone on the Barbados team remembers the special Golden Goal rule and realizes that if they score on themselves and force the game to overtime, they would have a full thirty minutes to score a Golden Goal which would then be worth two goals and put Barbados into first place as you can see on the right. And so this happens…
Barbados brings the ball back to their own side and intentionally scores on themselves.
Obviously, Grenada figures something is up, and they quickly realize that they now have two very different paths to first-place, represented by both charts here. Either they score a goal to break the tie – you know, the old-fashioned way – OR INSTEAD they intentionally score on themselves to lose the game but win the group by goal differential.
Which leads to what must be the most unusual soccer game of all time because Barbados now needs to defend BOTH of the goals, and Grenada just needs to score in either one, leading to this totally, totally normal arrangement of players.
Ultimately, Grenada fails to score in either goal, and the game goes to overtime. Naturally, Barbados does score a Golden Goal, now worth double, and goes onto the next round. Their plan to score on themselves and win in overtime actually worked.
Here is the response of the Grenada manager to this outcome:
I feel cheated. The person who came up with these rules must be a candidate for a madhouse…. Our players did not even know which direction to attack: our goal or their goal… In football, you are supposed to score against the opponents to win, not for them.
Of course, Barbados did nothing wrong. They are just playing by the rules of the game, and the rules put them in a situation where scoring against themselves made sense. I’ve certainly had the same experience where a rule or mechanic I’ve added to a game ends up creating a perverse incentive that leads to the exact opposite player behavior that I wanted to encourage.
One way to put this is that nobody knows anything.
Here’s the rest of the quote from screenwriter William Goldman – Not one person knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.
Certainly, that can be said for video games. I would never have bet on a ultra-detailed dwarf simulator using ASCII art.
Or on a game with 1 winner and 99 losers.
Or on a turn-based game that plays by itself.
Or on a twin-stick shooter minus one of the sticks.
Much of game design is determined by constraints which are out of the hands of the developers. DOTA 2 and League of Legends both inherited their design from the original Warcraft 3 mod Defense of the Ancients, which had two distinctive mechanics that were just baked into how Warcraft 3 worked – Creep Denial (which means being able to kill your own minions) and Last Hitting (meaning that the experience points go to the last hero to hit the target). Dota 2 kept Creep Denial, and both games kept Last Hitting, which suggests that their existence is a happy accident as no one actually quote-unquote designed them. They were just inherited constraints from a game in a different genre.
So, is game design just sorting through accidents like this to see what works?
Consider the case of Fortnite, which started as a game about building forts while fighting off waves of zombies. Even after Fortnite blew up into the world’s largest battle royale game, these building mechanics stuck around as this weird, inherited vestige of the original game. It took Epic years to finally do the obvious thing and just get rid of them entirely so that the end of a Fortnite death match was no longer this strange, frantic building contest.
Indeed, it’s hard to describe Fortnite as intentional design at all when you draw out the strange path things took. Here is a rough history of the various games and mods that led to Fortnite Battle Royale as we know it today. Arma is a realistic tactical shooter while DayZ is a free-form survival game while PUBG is a 1-vs-100 cage match. Nobody planned this all out – it just happened. Fortnite was more discovered than designed.
So, when we design a game, are we really just throwing darts? Do we have any idea what we are doing?
Another problem with game design is that we often overcorrect from whatever lesson we just learned. With Offworld Trading Company, because the game had random maps, each game started with a short exploration phase where you scan the map and found your colony with only part of the terrain revealed. We learned quickly during Early Access that the multiplayer community didn’t want exploration at all because it added luck, and they wanted NO LUCK at the game’s start, so we added a mode with a fully revealed map for these players.
When we built Old World’s multiplayer, we assumed that we would have a similar multiplayer community which would want us to minimize randomness. So, at great effort we maintained a…
…No Characters mode where the game has literally no characters, no events, no families, nothing that could add randomness to the game. However, almost no one uses this mode. To our surprise, the multiplayer community loves the randomness; they love seeing and adapting to fresh events each game.
The lesson here is that every game finds a unique subset of players from the audience that you think you are targeting and from the ones that you aren’t.
You might have made the same mistake if you had listened to my GDC Offworld Postmortem. None of us really know what we are doing. Remember that at GDC, we are all talking about why we THINK we were successful not why we actually were successful, which is essentially unknowable. Half of what you hear at GDC is BS. Half of the rest doesn’t apply to your game. Most of what remains you can’t implement. The rest might be useful, maybe? Keep in mind, this chart itself might also be BS.
For an example of the type of thing you might have heard at GDC that turns out to be wrong, we’ve been told for years by product managers that people buy cosmetics in free-to-play games so that they can peacock, to show off their skins in front of everyone else. Well, in Valorant, all animations, graphical effects, and sounds are only visible to the purchaser. Your enemies don’t see them. So, it turns out that people will pay for cosmetics even if they are the only ones who can see them.
At this year’s GDC, I mentored Justin Gary on his Tabletop Summit talk on SolForge Fusion and, afterwards, he invited me onto his excellent game designer podcast Think Like A Game Designer. It’s a bit like my podcast except its 90% tabletop designers (although I will be having more tabletop designers on in the future). As I’m not afraid of going too long, he had to split my recording into two parts, but they serve as a pretty good overview of my career. Take a listen if you’ve got some free time!
In this episode, Soren interviews tabletop designer Cole Wehrle, best known for his work on Root, Oath, Pax Pamir, and John Company. They discuss whether John Company is satire, how the East India Company was like QWOP, and the importance of German postal rates. This episode was recorded on March 22, 2023.
Games discussed:Stratego, Dungeons and Dragons, Battlecry, Diplomacy, Mafia, Oath, Settlers of Catan, Struggle of Empires, High Frontier, Pax Pamir, John Company, Pax Porfiriana, Levy & Campaign series, Root, An Infamous Traffic, Republic of Rome, Greed Incorporated, QWOP, Kremlin, Power Grid, Old World
Just watched the Todd Haynes documentary on The Velvet Underground, and it sure leaves a mark. I’m not sure how much I need to add to the mythology of the VU but, simply put, white popular music can be split into two eras, before the Velvets and everything after. Before them, white popular music was always safe, somehow both too naive and too calculated. The songwriting might be melodic enough, but there was never enough grit. Listen too much and one might get a little sick – Haynes uses “Monday, Monday” by the Mamas & the Papas as a punching bag multiple times to prove this point. (The few exceptions to this rule tended to be white musicians trying their best with black music, such as the Rolling Stones finally putting the Diddley back into “Not Fade Away” after Buddy Holly couldn’t quite get the job done.) After the Velvets, there was an explosion that ripped popular music in a multitude of directions; each of the four core albums created entire genres.
However, because each of the original albums was so unique, not everyone’s Velvet Underground is the same. Todd Haynes makes his own version clear from the start – the first words we read are a Baudelaire quote, the first face we see is John Cale, and the first sound we hear is Cale’s droning viola lifted out of the Lou Reed’s masterpiece, “Heroin.” Cale is a brilliant musician but, with the Velvets, he was also a true modernist at an innovative peak, with all that entails. Thus, Haynes’s Velvets are the Velvets of Andy Warhol and his Factory, of experimental musicians like La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, and their Dream Syndicate, and – perhaps most relevant to the director Haynes himself – of the many avant-garde filmmakers of 1960s New York whose works he uses to place the Velvets in the context of the contemporary art scene. It’s all very well put together, but it’s in service of a version of the band that I admire but don’t love.
The first two Velvet albums have sublime moments – “Heroin,” of course, and the piano vamp of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” which shows how Cale’s fearlessness could pay off. However, they are difficult albums to listen to end-to-end. “European Son” starts off well but then descends into time-filling noise. “The Black Angel’s Death Song” now betrays what it always was, Reed aping and perhaps even satirizing Dylan. Much of White Light/White Heat sounds like the jokey backing track to a long-forgotten experimental art film. Sure, “Sister Ray” still squeezes out the sparks, but it can’t match its sequel “Roadrunner” by Velvets superfan Jonathan Richman (who claims in the film, adoringly and adorably, to have seen them 60-70 times and apparently opened for them as a teenager).
If the Velvets broke up when Reed pushed Cale out of the band, then I doubt I would care about them much more than I care about, say, Frank Zappa or Captain Beefheart – interesting music in the back of my collection that I still usually skip when it comes up on shuffle. In the film, drummer Maureen Tucker makes it clear that Reed got rid of Cale so the band could “be more normal” – which is quite a statement to make about Lou Reed! Incredibly, after Reed replaced Cale with bassist and singer Doug Yule, the Velvets somehow began making music which was both wild, unhinged, AND listenable. John Cage had magically transformed into John Adams. The songs easily outshone everything being made at that time: “I Can’t Stand It,” “Pale Blue Eyes,” “What Goes On,” “After Hours“, “Lisa Says,” “Sweet Jane“, “Who Loves the Sun“, “Head Held High“, “Rock & Roll“, and the compulsive “Foggy Notion” (which, amazingly, was not released until 15 years after the band dissolved because that’s just how it is with the Velvets).
The difference was actually quite simple. Rock and roll is first and foremost dance music. Even if people aren’t actually dancing, the music is meant to move you, to make you feel happy to be alive. Joe Strummer once described rock as the feeling of, after coming across a can on the street, kicking that can because it’s proof that you are alive, and it simply feels good to be alive. Go back and listen to Yule’s amazing bass line in “Foggy Notion” – it’s six minutes and forty-seven seconds of life, that much time without pain. Reed was now writing songs that could be danced to but that still had a perverse edge, a wild buzz, with the mysterious extra tones that Richman describes in the film. The heart of what made the Velvet Underground great was the hopped-up go-go band that still remembered sock-hops. (Consider how Velvet successor Pere Ubu’s best track is essentially a rave.)
Strangely, Haynes seems to be aware of this essential part of the band’s legacy even if it is always treated as subtext in the film. He cuts twice to Bo Diddley, once to “Road Runner” when Cale discusses the first time Tony Conrad added amplification to his musical experimentation and again when he describes the repetitive beats he loves in rock and roll. (Besides the obvious musical connections with the Velvets, Diddley was also one of the few early rock musicians with a key femaleinstrumentalist.) I had to stop the film just to recover when Maureen Tucker described her experience when she first heard The Rolling Stone’s “Not Fade Away” while drive home from school – the sound hit her so hard that “I pulled off the road because it was too exciting to keep driving.” That’s the moment I recognized MY Velvet Underground in the film; I felt the exact same way, the exact same way, that she did when I first heard the avalanche of rhythm in that song. I recognized my Velvet Underground again when Haynes cuts directly to “Foggy Notion” – the band’s greatest song – to introduce Yule joining the group, a pitch-perfect moment.
While Haynes does recognize Yule’s contributions, it is also unclear if he tried to interview him for the film. Indeed, Doug Yule has always occupied an odd place in the Velvet’s orbit. He is typically viewed as the most lightweight member of the band – a journeyman drafted to replace the irreplaceable Cale – but I can’t help feeling that, without his arrival at just the right time, the Velvets would have never hit their peak, never become the band that I love. Cale makes a stunning admission in the film – that he has never met Doug Yule. Although original guitarist Sterling Morrison lobbied for his inclusion, Reed and Cale did not include Yule in their 1992 reunion, underlining that he was somehow not a part of the “real” Velvets. Well, Doug, if you ever somehow read this, you are absolutely part of my Velvet Underground.
I first heard of the Velvets as a teenager when thumbing through the sublime third edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide, which described them as “the most influential rock & roll band of the last 20 years – no contest.” That was an intriguing statement, but how would I even hear their music? The few music stores of my hometown of Centralia, WA, certainly didn’t stock them, and even trips to nearby Olympia didn’t produce anything. They certainly weren’t played on our local radio stations, which was ironically in the full throes of early 90s alternative music at the time, a direct descendant of the Velvets. MP3s shared over the Internet were still a few years away and not something I could even imagine at the time.
Strangely, the first time I heard the band was on the soundtrack to Oliver Stone’s The Doors, which I had borrowed so I could dub Carmina Burana onto one of the camcorder movies my friends and I produced during high school. (We used Carmina Burana as a musical punchline because, even then, it was a cliché for overwrought direction.) The track immediately before that one was “Heroin” which to a sheltered teenager growing up in rural Washington state sounded like it might as well have come from the moon. I barely knew who the Talking Heads or the Clash were, and I certainly had no idea who Television or Gang of Four were. I had never heard anything so audacious, something so propulsive and unnerving at the same time. How could something this disturbing also sound so good?
Still, it took years and years for me to hear more Velvets. I caught up quickly on music before them, falling hard for Little Richard and Bo Diddley, while also finally getting ahold of their progeny such as Horses, LondonCalling, MarqueeMoon, and More Songs about Buildings and Food. I noticed that one of my Columbia House catalogs finally had one – ONE! – Velvet Underground album, the compilation The Best of the Velvet Underground, which was a revelation when it finally arrived in the mail. For the first time, I heard “Sweet Jane” and “I Can’t Stand It” – songs which, again, sounded like nothing else I had ever heard.
Of course, I needed to get my hands on their actual albums, and if you grew up in the age of either iTunes or Spotify, it will be hard to describe to you just how difficult that was back then. Loaded, for example, was actually out-of-print in the US and only available via import. In other words, Americans had to pay foreigners to manufacture albums from one of the greatest American bands and then ship them on boats to us because, apparently, we had bad taste in music or something. I finally found my own copy of Loaded in a London CD shop in the spring of 1997 while spending a quarter at Oxford, costing me 20 pounds of my food stipend. Thus, I finally heard “Who Loves the Sun” while sharing a room with Christopher Tin on the portable CD player and mini-speaker I had packed with me from home. It was all worth it.
Years later, one of the perks of leading the design of Civilization IV was that I got to select the music for the game’s soundtrack, from the medieval Giovanni Palestrina through the modern John Adams. When it came time to pick music for the video of the Rock & Roll Wonder, a new addition for the series, I knew exactly which band I wanted. I asked Take-Two, a little sheepishly, if we could get ahold of The Velvet Underground or, at least, their label. I really had no idea what to expect, whether they would even consider it or how much it might cost. To Take-Two’s credit, they humored me and contacted Universal to find out. Turns out, we could get “Rock & Roll” for $5K, which sounded like a bargain to me.
The song choice itself was perhaps a little too on-the-nose; I probably thought having the song share its name with the Wonder would help distract my superiors from noticing that I was licensing a song from the people who had brought us the very family-friendly “Heroin.” Next time, I’ll just ask for “Foggy Notion” instead because it would be the best way to introduce a teenager living in rural Washington to the Velvet Underground.
In this episode, Soren interviews veteran game designer Tanya Short, co-founder of Kitfox Games and best known for her work on Moon Hunters and Boyfriend Dungeon. They discuss why her parents had to get a second phone like, how she accidentally made a roguelike, and whether Moon Hunters should have combat. This episode was recorded on March 23, 2023.
Games discussed:Bubble Bobble, Various MUDs, Boyfriend Dungeon, A Tale In the Desert, Morrowind, World of WarCraft, Ultima Online, Age of Conan, The Secret World, Fashion Week Live, For Honor, Dungeons of Fate, Moon Hunters, Puzzle Pirates, Oasis, Dragon Age Legends, Shattered Planet, Civilization, King of Dragon Pass, Spore, 80 Days, Seven Cities of Gold, Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire, Hatoful Boyfriend, Dream Daddy, Pentiment, Immortality
In this episode, Soren and Leyla interview veteran game designer Charlie Cleveland, founder of Unknown Worlds and best known for his work on Natural Selection and Subnautica. They discuss why Moonbreaker is the first digital miniatures game, if players would notice if critical hits were removed, and whether the game should have an undo. This episode was recorded on March 19, 2023.
Games discussed: Moonbreaker, Warhammer series, Hardspace: Shipbreaker, Magic: The Gathering, Civilization 4, Duelyst, Marvel Snap, Air Land & Sea, Old World, KeyForge, Subnautica, CPU Bach
In this episode, Soren and Leyla interview veteran game designer Charlie Cleveland, founder of Unknown Worlds and best known for his work on Natural Selection and Subnautica. They discuss why Charlie Cleveland moved to Cleveland, how he did Kickstarter before Kickstarter, and whether Subnautica was intended to be a survival game. This episode was recorded on March 20, 2022.
Games discussed:Pong, Dungeons and Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, Diplomacy, Aquarium Fighter, MindRover, Empire Earth, Natural Selection, Roblox, Natural Selection 2, Subnautica, Don’t Starve