Podcast: Chelsea Howe

In this episode, Adam Saltsman interviews Chelsea Howe, who is a Creative Director at EA Mobile. She is best known for her work at TinyCo, where she led the design of Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff, and for her community efforts organizing the Queerness and Games Conference, the Global Game Jam in San Francisco, student workshops, and more. They discuss how DAU’s and LTV’s compare to Quarterback Ratings, why F2P games end up as conservative as AAA games, why mobile devs have to pay people to play their games, and if a game is worthwhile if the player isn’t learning something.

Games Discussed: Choice Chamber, Renga, Twitch Plays Pokemon, Candy Crush Saga, Dragon Age series, Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff

idlethumbs.net/designernotes/episodes/chelsea-howe

The Most Surprising Thing So Far

Offworld Trading Company has been out now for six weeks, and it’s been a fun ride. We’ve seen some great early impressions. We spent three weeks in the top 25 of Steam. We’ve seen popular Let’s Play videos from Northernlion, quill18, Ohmwrecker, and Arumba (although apparently we have to wait until after Early Access to see one from TotalBiscuit). Day[9] spent an entire Friday streaming thirteen games of Offworld to around four thousand viewers. We’ve seen the fans compile extensive strategy guides. We’ve seen players log well over 200 hours of play. I was on the front page of Reddit with an AMA. We’ve seen the metagame go from thinking that Offworld Markets are overpowered, to that Hacker Arrays are overpowered, to them being fairly balanced (with the help of some game updates).

However, the most surprising thing about Offworld so far, at least to me, is how my wife has taken to the game. My wife had, before last month, never played a real-time strategy game or even a tycoon game. Indeed, Leyla had never played any PC games at all besides Civ4, which she obviously tried just because I made it. Civ is, of course, turn-based, so it’s the type of game that a non-gamer can enjoy easily. Offworld, on the other hand, is real-time, intensely competitive, fast-paced, and fairly intimidating for new players. Nonetheless, after first seeing the game, she just kept playing and playing and playing. Soon, I would notice that Leyla was playing when I was away from the house. Then, she started asking each night if, you know, we could play some more Offworld. Furthermore, she got bored pretty quickly with single-player and even team-based comp stomps and began to play online multiplayer. Even more amazing, she got pretty good at it! I’ve attached her multiplayer stats below, and she has been winning roughly 1-in-6 of her games, which means she is doing better than average considering we almost always play 6- or 8-player free-for-all games like this one or this one (which have only one winner).

leyla-mp

I should also add that in most of the games Leyla has won, she was using a trackpad; because she is not a PC gamer, she is usually playing the game from the couch without a mouse, which – needless to say – is not the typical setup for competitive RTS play! (I have begun training her how to use a mouse and WASD.) Also of note, we released Offworld 40 days ago today, which means that, with a total of 162 games played, she is averaging FOUR multiplayer games PER DAY. Here is one of the games she won that was saved on my Twitch channel:

On top of all this, Leyla is taking an active role in popularizing the game; for example, she helped setup a multiplayer match with quill18 and Arumba – which she almost won! She also started streaming the game and has developed connections throughout the Offworld multiplayer community. She discovered who the best players are (such as Zultar and Pbhead) and opened dialogues with them to help balance the game and improve the experience with our first few updates. From talking with them, she came up with the idea to start a Twitch tournament for Offworld, both to crown the best 1v1 player and to spread the game via streaming (registration is open until Thursday). Remember, Leyla had almost never played PCs game at all before six weeks ago, so to call these development unexpected is an understatement. I’m both proud of her and overjoyed that she found Offworld so much fun.

UPDATE: Two days after this post, Leyla beat an all-star groups of players, including Zultar, Pbhead, and SMG, during the Mohawk Games weekly stream. The video is up on YouTube:

Podcast: Daniel Cook

In this episode, Soren interviews Daniel Cook, who is the Chief Creative Officer at Spry Fox. He is best known for his design work on games such as Triple Town, Realm of the Mad God, and Steambirds as well as for his writing on game design at lostgarden.com. They discuss the joy of making tile sets, why Lost Garden was originally an anonymous blog, whether Triple Town should be free-to-play, and why we wish we had been neighbors.

Games Discussed: The Faery Tale Adventure, Tyrian, The Circle, 1 vs. 100, Steambirds, Triple Town, Realm of the Mad God, Road Not Taken

idlethumbs.net/designernotes/episodes/daniel-cook

My Favorite Week: 2015 Edition

Next week is GDC, and it’s going to be my craziest one yet, which is saying something. I’m doing a bunch of interviews about the release of Offworld. I’ll be trying to catch up with all the people in the industry I only get to see once a year. I’m going to be doing five new Designer Notes podcasts, with Bruce Shelley, Chris Avellone, Jamie Cheng, Nels Anderson, and George Fan. Finally, I am on a panel late Thursday afternoon on Early Access games, with which I now have direct experience. Hope to see you all there!

A Thousand Voices: Open Game Development

Soren Johnson  |  Founder, Mohawk Games
Chris Avellone  |  Creative Director, Obsidian Entertainment
Jamie Cheng  |  Founder, Kei Entertainment
Adrian Goya  |  Co-Founder, Squad
Colin Campbell  |  Senior Reporter, Polygon
Location:  Room 306, South Hall
Date:  Thursday, March 5
Time:  5:30pm – 6:30pm
Format: Session
Track: Programming

Description

With the advent of Kickstarter and Early Access, many teams are now developing their games in the open, providing beta, alpha, and even prototype builds to any player willing to buy in early. In this panel, four game developers who have direct experience with open development will share their experiences with this method.How often should the players be updated to the current version? How best to communicate changes and new features to players? How does the team filter the waves of online feedback? What happens when players express displeasure over a change? How important is it to remind players about what is still missing from the game? How do the project leads ensure that feedback from the players is heard and valued while making sure that the developers can still do their jobs? Once a game has been publicly available for so long, how to ensure that the actual release is still an important event?

Takeaway

Open development is a powerful tool for making better games, by breaking teams out of the feedback vacuum that leads to wasted time and misguided features. Developers don’t have to release games while holding their breath anymore.

Intended Audience

Anyone interested in how open development could improve their own games would benefit from the hard-won experience of these four panelists.

Today’s the Day!

Today, Offworld Trading Company launches on Steam Early Access! You can buy the game now at http://store.steampowered.com/app/271240. If you want to take a look at the game, we posted a number of videos on our YouTube channel, and I’ve embedded a single-player game below with my commentary.

Also, if you’d like to hear my thoughts on the game’s design, listen to these podcasts from the last month:

Podcast: Henrik Fahraeus (with Jon Shafer)

In this episode, Soren interviews Henrik Fahraeus, who is a Game Director at Paradox Interactive, where he has worked on the Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, and Hearts of Iron series. Also sitting in on the interview is Jon Shafer, lead designer of Civilization 5 and currently at work on his independent strategy game At the Gates. They discuss whether the Civ and EU games live in alternate dimension, whether provinces are better than hexes, and why it’s bad to have too many sons.

Games Discussed: Lords of Midnight, Seven Cities of Gold, Europa Universalis series, Hearts of Iron series, Crusader Kings series, Civilization series

idlethumbs.net/designernotes/episodes/henrik-fahraeus

 

This Game Kills Fascists

Last night, Frank Lantz posted “Parley”, in which he attempted to clarify, defend, and rework a previously highly-criticized post on Gamasutra, which in turn attempted to clarify, defend, and rework a previously highly-criticized post on TwitLonger. In other words, Frank is is stuck in a cycle that, judging from the first two comment on his post, is not going to end anytime soon.

Reading “Parley” hurt, for a few reasons. First, I think very highly of Frank and his work (indeed, I did a podcast interview with him just last month), so it is tough watching him deal with the anger and heat that his posts generated, which in his words, “made me flinch at how much offense I had caused.” Second, I am very sympathetic to almost everything Frank wrote, including his oft-repeated line that “Everywhere *we* look we see pretend worlds and childish make-believe, imaginary dragons, badly written dialogue and unskippable cutscenes in which angry mannequins gesture awkwardly at each other.” Indeed, I wrote Game Developer articles with titles like “Theme is Not Meaning” and “Should Games Have Stories?” so it’s not very hard to figure out where to place me within the tired and undead narrative-vs-mechanics debate. Finally, it’s very clear that Frank’s pieces are, at their core, an attempt to take back the value of games-as-systems from the group-that-will-not-be-named (or, to use Frank’s words, “philistines”) who like to use it as a blunt instrument:

I don’t want my ideas to provide cover or support to ignorance and aesthetic & cultural conservatism, and I don’t want to be associated with anti-progressive ideas.

I can feel Frank’s frustration that he is arguing with the people with whom he agrees while he is ignored by the people with whom he disagrees.

And yet…

There is a Miguel Sicart quote in Frank’s piece which jumps out and slaps me in the face:

For proceduralists, games have meanings that are prior to the act of playing the game, and somewhat determine the meaning of the game; there is an essence to any game, and that essence is to be found in the rules. In words of The Dialectic of Enlightenment: “For enlightenment is as totalitarian as any system […] for enlightenment the process is always decided from the start” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2010, p. 24). Much like Enlightenment, then, proceduralism is a determinist, perhaps even totalitarian approach to play; an approach that defines the action prior to its existence, and denies the importance of anything that was not determined before the act of play, in the system design of the game. [source]

I feel these words in my bones because I live them every day as a designer. In games, the worlds player inhabit are, by definition, limited, arbitrary, and artificial. The rules become the air the players breath, the water they drink, and the food they eat. For example, the brilliant Papers Please! created player empathy for an immigration officer – an immigration officer working for an oppressive, dystopian government, no less – by putting morally gray choices within the context of the character’s need to just do his job so that his family can eat and just stay warm.

I have always found the endless public debate on the theoretical dangers of video game violence to be endlessly bemusing because it misses the true danger of video games by a mile. Video game are dangerous, but not because they might inspire players to imitate the well-armed protagonists in absurd, fictional situations. Saying that what makes video games dangerous is that they might make the player violent is a bit like saying that what makes Mein Kampf dangerous is that the reader might write a terrible autobiography. A game’s ruleset is dangerous because, in Sicart’s words, it “defines the action prior to its existence, and denies the importance of anything that was not determined before the act of play, in the system design of the game.”

In other words, games make us all fascists and communists; anarchists and tycoons; kleptocrats and ascetics, so we better hope that games are not as powerful as we once dreamed they might be.

And yet…

What makes our totalitarian game rules so slippery is that often the dynamics that emerge from these rules are actually at odds with the beliefs of their creators. For example, Will Wright, an atheist, began making Spore as a game about evolution but somehow eventually shipped a game about intelligent design. Monopoly started life as The Landlord’s Game, a board game meant to teach about the evils of capitalist landlords, who unfortunately ended up being a lot of fun to play. In his 2014 GDC talk on The Novelist, Kent Hudson described a poignant moment of crisis in the game’s development when he realized that the game’s rules had evolved into something that said the exact opposite of his own beliefs about marriage and parenthood. Basically, the death-of-the-author folks should have put down their Proust and gone down to the basement to see what video games their kids were playing.

In college, my dream was to make games about history, that made the past real in ways books never could. Thus, I started my career with my absolute dream job when I joined Firaxis to work on Civ 3. Five years later, when I shipped Civ 4, my old dream was dead (although, to be fair, a new one had started). Civilization was supposed to be a game about history but – despite my best efforts – many of the lessons it taught were somehow the opposite of what I actually believed: that revolutionary change could be controlled, that the orientation of a society flowed directly from its leader, that history was a story of continual, upward progress, and that “upward progress” could even be defined.

Games slip away from their designers because water finds a crack. The problem, so to speak, is the players, who quickly understand games far better than their designers ever could. Players are endlessly inventive, reworking forgotten chinks in the rules into dominant strategies, turning an AI’s predictable patterns against itself, and modding games into something almost unrecognizable to the original creators.

If games are about anything, they are about the futile effort of designers to create totalitarian worlds while players gleefully slip through their fingers.

And yet…

I am still hard at work, trying to build new cages for players to break. My new game, Offworld Trading Company, is set on Mars, but it is not about Mars. It is an economic game, but considering my understanding of economics can be summed up as “buy for a dollar, sell for two,” I can’t really claim the game is about economics. Instead, the game is about understanding that there is never one right choice, that success depends on seeing the world clearly, without prejudice, and then adapting. Indeed, I gave a similar reason back in 2007 to the question of why I made Civ 4:

I personally despise ideologies because they inevitably lead to a belief that there is one set of solutions to the world’s problems. One set of solutions means all other options are heretical, which means they must be controlled. Ideologues put ideas above people, which is the beginning of terror and oppression. People are more important than ideas.

Of course, discouraging rigid thinking is not the only reason I make games, but it is the best answer I can give to [the] question. If I ever get to release my dream strategy game, this idea will be clearly be at the center of the design.

I don’t know if my games can really kill fascists, but if Woody Guthrie thought his songs could do so, I don’t see why we can’t aspire to the same goal.

Offworld and Early Access

This post is a development journal from our Offworld forum. The game is available for pre-order here.

Although I have worked on Offworld Trading Company for over a year now, I still struggle to know how to first describe the game. It’s a game about making money. It’s a game about colonizing Mars. It’s a real-time strategy game, but you don’t control units or directly attack other players. It feels like a board game but one which could never exist outside of a computer. Ultimately, it’s all of these things and yet something else too: a strategy game full of simple and familiar elements that are combined in a way never before tried.

What makes Offworld special is that each playthrough is entirely unique. The randomly-generated terrain and resources ensure that each map is a new game board that rewards certain play styles. Further, the best players will adapt to how their opponents play:

  • Perhaps everyone else builds powerful Geothermal Plants, ensuring that the power market will always be over-supplied? Just skip power entirely and jump ahead into more lucrative resources like chemicals and glass.
  • Spot a market inefficiency, such as the price of water edging above the price of food? Turn off your farms, start selling the excess water instead, buy food directly at the lower price, and pocket the difference.
  • Someone claims the only remaining source of aluminum on the map? You can patent Slant Drilling and build a mine on an adjacent tile, trigger a fake aluminum surplus to buy some up when the price drops, or just hire pirates to steal from the blimps on their way to the player’s headquarters.

We have been playing competitive Offworld game internally for over a year now, and every strategy leads to a counter-strategy and then a counter-counter-strategy, until someone finally gets enough leverage to finish the game with a hostile takeover. Lessons from these games have informed my development of the AI, so that it use the same tricks and strategies I have both employed and witnessed. We added teamplay after it became our most-requested feature and were surprised at how well it worked. For single-player, we created a dynamic campaign mode that plays out very differently from the standard skirmish game, making long, multi-hour sessions possible.

We are now taking our next step forward, releasing Offworld on Steam Early Access to expose our game to the oxygen of player feedback. Since last summer, we’ve run a small, private Founder’s Program that put the game into the hands of about a thousand fans who were willing to buy the game based simply on its promise and our reputation. So far, their feedback has been invaluable, and I will be forever grateful to the many who were willing to take a chance on us and our game. However, we need a much larger player base to be able to truly understand our game – enough players to poke at the holes in the AI, to be able to find each other for pick-up games, to help us discover if there are a few degenerate strategies that drown out the rest of the design. In time, players always understand games better than their designers, and if we are to make Offworld the best game it can be, we need to start that process as soon as possible.

I was very excited when I first learned about Steam’s Early Access program because it provides the infrastructure for making games the way I believe they should be made, by connecting developers and players as early as possible. I speak from experience; with Civilization 3, we had no player feedback outside of Firaxis and our publisher’s testing department, which led to some poorly-tuned mechanics and simply bad ideas in the initial release. Afterwards, I spent months and months digging through the forums, developing direct contact with the game’s most outspoken critics, and reworking the core design through a series of major patches. Eventually, we were happy with the final product, but I wish we had that feedback before we released the game instead of afterwards. Determined to fix that problem for Civ 4, we launch a private testing program by inviting notable members of the Civ community to start playing the game over a year and a half before release. Our ability to act early on the feedback these players provided was the primary reason that Civ 4 received universal acclaim upon release.

Thus, Early Access is a tremendous tool for small developers like Mohawk who want to learn more about their games without worrying about the infrastructure, maintenance, or distribution required to execute a widespread public beta program. To be clear, we are not launching Offworld on Early Access for financial reasons; we have enough money already to fund us through our planned release date early next year. We are going to Early Access because we are serious about making the best strategy game of the year, and the only way to do so is to find out what is wrong with our game right now when there is still time to do something about it.

I hope you’ll join us. Pre-order now at http://www.offworldgame.com/store, and we’ll see you online February 12th!

Podcast: Frank Lantz

In this episode, Soren interviews Frank Lantz, currently Director of the NYU Game Center. Frantz was also the co-founder of Area/Code where he led the design of Drop7. We discuss how to make sure your game gets written up in Boing Boing, why most people who like ARGs have never played one, and how to take advantage of your friend’s trip to the hospital in Parking Wars.

Games Discussed: The Manhole, Dungeon Master, Mortal Kombat, Wipeout, Gearheads, Diner Dash, PacManhattan, Shark Runners, Parking Wars, Drop7

idlethumbs.net/designernotes/episodes/frank-lantz

Designer Notes is a Podcast!

For years now, I’ve been a frequent guest on various video game podcasts, especially Three Moves Ahead and The Game Design Roundtable. I’ve always enjoy the format and have now decided to start one of my own. Thus, I’d like to announce the Designer Notes podcast, in which I sit down with noted game designers to discuss why we make games.

The folks at Idle Thumbs offered to host the podcast, which greatly helped getting this new endeavor started. My first guest is Rob Pardo, formerly the Chief Creative Officer at Blizzard. We had such a long discussion that I had to break it into two parts, and the first half ranges from his first gaming memories through StarCraft, Brood War, and Warcraft 3. I’ll be posting the second half in early December. Future guests include Frank Lantz, Henrik Fåhraeus, Jon Shafer, Daniel Cook, Brad Muir, Brian Reynolds, Chelsea Howe, and Daniel Benmergui.

EDIT: The second half is now available.