This week, I joined Dirk Knemeyer and Jon Shafer on The Game Design Round Table to discuss my new company, Mohawk Games, and new economic RTS project, code-named Mars. We talk about the challenges of making a game about economics, the ramifications of real-time versus turn-based design, and the new landscape for independent studios, including Kickstarter and Early Access.
Last week, I joined Rob Zacny and Troy Goodfellow on Three Moves Ahead to discuss the state of RTS games, how much broader the genre could be, my new independent studio Mohawk Games, and my new economic real-time strategy game (currently code-named Mars).
This year marks my thirteenth in the industry, and I have created two games (Civ3 and Civ4) which I consider roundly successful. Unfortunately, both games came from my first five years; projects from the following eight years were all either executed poorly or cancelled outright. How did I lose almost a decade of my professional life?
To answer that, I need to start in October 2005, with the release Civilization 4. The game was critically praised (94 Metacritic, highest ever for a Firaxis game) and hugely profitable, selling over 3 million copies on a modest budget. It won Game of the Year awards. The soundtrack, which I selected and edited, was acclaimed. The theme song, “Baba Yetu,” won a Grammy, the first ever for a video game. One mod, Fall from Heaven, developed a large following of its own. Civ4 was that rare project in which everything that could go right did go right.
I started the project from scratch, wrote every line of game and AI code, grew the team over two-and-a-half years, and shipped the game two weeks ahead of schedule. I gave everything I had to give to that game; my only regret was that I did not have the stamina left to contribute meaningfully to the expansions.
Six months later, after the patching process finished and my energy level returned, I needed to decide what to do next. Firaxis (or rather, the new owners, Take-Two) offered me the chance to lead Civ5, which I declined as I couldn’t make the radical changes necessary to justify a new version. In contrast, I was overflowing with ideas when Civ4 began as Civ3 had been an incredible learning experience. Most of these ideas were now explored, so I didn’t have much left to give the series.
I did, however, have plenty of ideas for new strategy games, which I was very excited to make. I had proven myself as a designer with Civ4, and it was time to make a game wholly of my own. I pitched my favorite idea, and it was rejected. I floated a few other ones, and they were declined as well. The company couldn’t afford to put resources into a new project with Railroads! in full development, Revolution beginning to ramp up, and Civ5 looming on the horizon.
Ultimately, Firaxis was in a bind. Because developments costs were rising and the window for PC retail games was shrinking, new IP had become increasingly risky. Furthermore, the company had a wealth of proven IP from Sid’s back catalog to develop, so the opportunity cost of producing new IP was huge. (In fact, between 1997’s Gettysburg and 2013’s Haunted Hollow, Firaxis released no new IP, with the possible exception of SimGolf, which was certainly original but also traded on the Sim brand.)
My pitches had all been for smaller projects, with budgets between one and two million dollars. The problem was that, at the time, no distribution method supported games of that scale. We only needed to sell a few hundred thousand copies to break even – a very reasonable goal with the company’s reputation – but the retail channel didn’t support such projects. PC games had to either sell millions in a $50 box, which was only viable with a large budget, or sell in a $10 jewel case, which was the shovelware market. Steam had just begun reaching out to third-party publishers – by 2007, only id, Capcom, and Eidos were on the service – so digital distribution was not an option.
Today, of course, things are much different as a market exists for games of all prices, from free to $60, and of all budgets, from less than $1m to more than $100m. Digital distribution, microtransactions, and platform diversity have altered the landscape of the industry, and it is likely that if I was pitching a game inside Firaxis under today’s conditions, we could have made it work. At the time, however, my only option was to hang on as a creative director, giving advice to the active teams while prototyping games which might never come out.
In fact, if I had known then what the next six years of my career would be like, I would have likely stayed at Firaxis and assumed that something good would come of it. I loved working there and still love the company, but I am only human; I felt that my work on Civ4 had earned me the right make a game of my own. Being denied that hurt, and I made a perhaps hasty decision to go.
I interviewed at the companies I respected most – Blizzard, Ensemble, Valve – and settled on joining Maxis to work on Spore. Will Wright had amazed developers and journalists with the surprise reveal at GDC 2005, and joining the team meant working on one of the highest-profile games in the industry. I have compiled my thoughts on Spore in a previous post, and despite the game’s flaws, I can’t say I regret working on it. The team was inspiring and immensely talented, and I wanted at least to ship something before too much time had passed. I joined to finish the project, and the game was done 18 months later.
The other reason I joined Maxis was that they wanted to support my future projects; if I proved myself with Maxis, some interesting opportunities existed post-Spore. Unfortunately, the game underperformed, and EA’s stock cratered shortly afterwards. (The two events, of course, were not entirely unrelated.) The company laid off a chunk of its workforce and retreated from new, risky IP towards fewer, safer titles. The chances of me pitching a new, innovative strategy game inside of EA, one which I could commit to fully and protect from compromise, dropped to zero.
I was at a crossroads again, and I didn’t know how to make a game my way inside of EA. I actually spent the months following Spore’s release pitching a browser-based strategy gaming company to various venture capitalists in nearby Silicon Valley. At the time, asynchronous and free-to-play games were hot investments, and the best way to control my next project would be to found a company to build it. Unfortunately, my vision was too niche for the VC’s – I wanted to make core strategy games that would grow from player modding – and I couldn’t find funding.
Instead, I found refuge at EA2D, a browser-based gaming studio at the Redwood Shores campus. Their main team was building Dragon Age Journeys, a Flash-based spin-off with tactical, turn-based combat. Mark Spenner, the studio’s GM, gave me the opportunity to prototype the web-based Strategy Station for a year, which was essentially the same project that I had unsuccessfully pitched to the VC’s. I built three different moddable strategy games that could be played online asynchronously, using the Google Web Toolkit as my browser engine.
I released the games with little fanfare; in fact, I never once mentioned the site on this blog although I did talk about it on one episode of Three Moves Ahead. In some ways, I was afraid of publicity or success; I didn’t know how to make the site viable, either scalable technologically or profitable financially, but I was sure that few decision makers inside EA would share my vision. I decided to make as much progress as I could on my own and hope for the best. (I rationalized that they couldn’t kill a project without a development team.)
The site never grew beyond a few thousand users although it developed a dedicated audience in Japan, with some players finishing thousands of games. (Here’s a popular Japanese blog dedicated to the site, and here’s a video of Kingdoms, the most popular game, being played with the Japanese language and art mod, which replaced the human soldiers with bunnies for some reason.) I didn’t know how to justify asking for resources from EA for such an odd project, and when it became clear that EA2D needed a success to justify its existence, I preemptively killed the project myself. (I did attempt, unsuccessfully, to take the project outside of EA, so that the Japanese community could continue playing. An independent Strategy Station could have served an enthusiastic niche audience, but I had created a personal pet project inside of EA, one inappropriate for a company of that size.)
The potential success EA2D needed became Dragon Age Legends, a loose sequel to Journeys, built within Facebook. Social games were hot, hot, hot in 2010, and I wanted to see if I could make one that respected core gamers yet took advantage of the new format. The results were mixed. The game actually tested quite well within the company, especially among the executives – CEO John Riccitiello and Games Label President Frank Gibeau both had very high-level characters and spent not a little money on the game. Nonetheless, the friction of the energy model, the core gamer hostility to free-to-play, and the mismatch with the Facebook audience ultimately doomed the title.
For myself, I genuinely pursued the project as an interesting experiment, but the game was clearly not what I would have developed if I controlled my own destiny. Sadly, I did not even try to make the games I wanted to make within EA. I was unwilling to engage in the politics necessary to pitch them, doubtful they could be approved anyway, and afraid of how they would be handled if they were approved. I was, essentially, giving up before even trying.
The summer of 2011 was probably my lowest point in the industry. One of my favorite sites, Rock Paper Shotgun, lambasted Legends for its business model, and the game’s audience had dwindled down to 20,000 daily active users. The game was not the success EA2D needed to support future projects, and the group became BioWare Social and began to bleed talent. I had no idea what I should do with myself inside EA.
Enter Zynga, or – rather – enter Zynga East. Brian Reynolds and various other refugees from Big Huge Games had founded a Zynga studio in Baltimore to make social games, resulting in the hit 2010 game Frontierville, which included a number of important genre innovations, such as the energy bar and story-based quests. Zynga was flush with cash, and Tim Train, the studio’s GM (and Brian’s old BHG business partner), recruited me with the promise of developing a browser-based game on my own terms. They wanted to carve out a protected space in their Baltimore studio in which I could prototype safely.
I worked at Zynga for less than 18 months, and it was, needless to say, an interesting experience. I was indeed given the freedom to work on the game of my choosing; it was playable within a few months and was quite popular around the office. In some ways, however, I had too much freedom. Since the game had little oversight outside of Baltimore, the game had no real political support. I did not push the game through the greenlight process as I was afraid of executive interference, so it lingered on as a mystery project, free from both the negatives and the positives of the company’s attention. Thus, when Zynga East wound down after CityVille 2 performed poorly, the game was easy to cancel.
Ultimately, I was given incredible freedom at Zynga, but the project was likely doomed from the start. However, the only person to blame is myself. When leaving EA, Zynga was the easy option for me to take – the pay was good, the personal risk was low, and I was making the game that I wanted to make. The problem is that the game I most want to make is one that actually ships, and excuses about external forces are just excuses. I joined Zynga knowing that I would not have control over my game – at any moment, it could be altered drastically or cancelled outright.
Looking back at my post-Civ career, I compromised the games I wanted to make with what my employers were willing to fund. With Spore, that compromise meant finishing someone else’s game. With Strategy Station, that compromise meant working without a team. With Dragon Age Legends, that compromise meant turning an RPG into a social game. With Zynga, that compromise meant making my game under the shadow of indifferent management. I was giving up before I had even begun.
Well, I am giving up on giving up. Only one option exists if I care about making games my way, one which will demand much more of my time, my energy, and my security. I have a backlog of game ideas, more than I will ever be able to make in one lifetime, which means that I am already running late.
It is time for a change.
It is time to go independent.
Follow the story at mohawkgames.com.
The following two articles form an interesting diptych on Plants vs. Zombies 2:
- Owen Faraday slams the game because it “it exists primarily to wheedle you for money”
- Michail Katkoff argues the opposite, describing it as “pretty much a paid game without the price tag”
In other words, the first author believes that the game is ruined by microtransactions while the second author believes that EA didn’t do nearly enough because it was “afraid to upset players.” Did EA ruin PvZ2 by going free-to-play? Or did it simply not go far enough? These two pieces seem to emerge from parallel dimensions.
Indeed, the two writers are from very different worlds. Faraday is the founder of Pocket Tactics, the premier mobile strategy game blog. As it caters to core gamers, free-to-play is generally considered a dirty word there. Katkoff, in contrast, was a Product Manager for Supercell’s cash-cow free-to-play strategy MMO Clash of Clans, a game notorious for attracting whales willing to drop thousands of dollars on the game.
For Katkoff, PvZ2 represents great unfulfilled potential as a free-to-play game because EA did not aggressively tempt players enough to spend. For one thing, the game is not hard enough to force players to buy boosters:
Sadly PvZ2 is ridiculously easy. It takes absolutely no effort to pass levels, making the game unchallenging and boring. . . . PvZ2 offers boosters for real currency, which enable players to clear levels with some consumable super powers. But to create the demand for these boosters players need to have those moments where they’re just about to clear a level and realize that they’ll lose without the help of a booster. Lack of challenge results in low demand for boosters, which causes stagnant revenue.
Furthermore, the game lacks the gates that typically restrict players in free-to-play environments, which then creates demand for various unlocks and powers:
PvZ2 has no restriction mechanics and thus no core loop. An ideal core loop for the game would have been similar to the one in Candy Crush Saga, where sessions are restricted with energy mechanics. I’d argue that energy-based core loops would have increased monetization of the game by creating consistent demand for energy and increasing demand for power ups – when level restarts have a cost, not failing a level becomes valuable.
EA created plenty of ways to spend money – plant unlocks, special powers, extra plant food, and so on – but the game is not engineered to push players to spend. Hence, the game quickly dropped out of the top 20 in the Top Grossing list for iOS games and now hovers around number 50, which Katkoff considers a failure for a game with such high promotion and anticipation.
In contrast, the game simply disgusts Faraday; the experience is ruined because commerce becomes a constant and unwelcome guest, poisoning the atmosphere and taking the focus away from pleasing the player:
Plants vs. Zombies 2 is designed to be fun, of course, but it’s very obviously designed to be just fun enough that the frustration of playing it will force you to open up your wallet to buy an early unlock of a plant for $5, or spend $6 to see a new part of the game world. It’s crass. It’s gauche.
After praising the charm and originality of the original, Faraday declares that “the biggest mistake EA and PopCap could have made with Plants vs Zombies 2 would have been to make it a slow, grindy treadmill.” Unfortunately, to extend the gameplay and create room for an in-game store, EA did just that:
After the first eleven levels, PvZ2 grabs the treadmill’s speed control and slams it all the way back. Once you’ve finished the 11th level in Egypt and seen everything that that game world has to offer, Plants vs Zombies 2 informs you that to progress to the next world, you have to go play all of the levels over (and over) again, gaining stars to unlock the pirates. Or you can just pay six bucks.
In some ways, the two authors seem to differ factually (the star system Faraday describes does sound a bit like the type of core loop, with built-in gates restricting the player, that Katkoff recommends). Nonetheless, that both Faraday and Katkoff view PvZ2 as a failure is damning for EA; if they couldn’t please either the free-to-play money guy or the original fan of the series, then who were they trying to please? Perhaps the ugly lesson here is that if a company decides to risk losing its core audience, then it might as well go all the way and make sure it gets the money.
EA is caught between the Scylla of core gamers and the Charybdis of whales. Core gamers care about what they play, and for decades, they made EA a very wealthy company. Unfortunately, whales are going to make other companies even wealthier. They turned Supercell into a $3 billion company from just two free-to-play games, which now generate over $2.5 million per day at an insane 75% profit margin. By comparison, EA had an anemic 2.5% profit margin last year, and they made a lot more than two games. As a public company, how can EA ignore whales and compete with companies like Supercell which cater to them? The answer is that they can’t, and Popcap won’t be making games like the original Plants vs. Zombies anymore.
I am going to be speaking at the upcoming PRACTICE: Game Design in Detail conference, which is being held November 15-17 at the NYU Game Center. I am joining a panel, entitled “The Art of Strategy Games,” with Keith Burgun (of 100 Rogues) and Brad Muir (of Massive Chalice). Here’s the description:
Strategy games occupy a special place in the hierarchy of game design as the clearest expression of the ideal of “interesting decisions”. In this panel, three designers working in the strategy realm discuss their approaches, discuss the specific challenges of designing strategy games and talk about the creative possibilities and future directions of the genre.
I’m really looking forward to hearing the rest of the talks (from interesting folks like Rob Daviau, Sean Vanaman, and Jake Rodkin) and meeting everyone at the conference. Hope to see you there!
A few weeks ago and with little fanfare, Spore turned five-years-old. The game was announced at GDC 2005 during Will Wright’s annual mind-blowing speech on whatever floats through his head. The initial concept – of a game in which the player evolves a species from cellular development to galactic dominion – generated an immense amount of hype, which the game struggled to fulfill upon its 2008 release. Spore received middling reviews from the gaming press, who found the gameplay weak and unfocused, and harsh criticism from the scientific press, who felt tricked by the promise of a game built from real science.
For myself, the time is now right to put down my own thoughts on Spore’s development – my memories of the project are still fresh, yet enough time has passed to ensure that criticism doesn’t impact active teams. I joined Spore in May 2007 for what ended up as the final 15 months of the project; however, the team started the game in 2000, which meant that I saw just 20% of the complete story.
Thus, my view of the game’s development is inevitably incomplete – bringing to mind the parable of the blind men and the elephant – and needs to be viewed from that perspective. I would welcome – indeed, encourage – other members of the Spore team to speak up on their own experiences with the project, especially if their perspectives differ from my own. Nonetheless, here are four lessons from my time with Spore.
1 – Don’t be afraid to challenge the initial vision
Ultimately, Spore was about two big ideas – powers of ten and procedural content. The first idea refers to the classic short film by American designers Charles and Ray Eames, which zooms in, by powers of ten, on a man and a woman until reaching quarks and then zooms out to the entire universe. This film inspired Will to create a game with similar radical shifts in scale, jumping from a cell to a creature, then to a tribe, then to a civilization, and finally to a space-faring empire.
The other idea – procedural content – was that all content in the game (such as creatures, vehicles, and buildings) could be represented with just a few kilobytes of data – which was, in Will’s words, “the DNA template of a creature while the game, like a womb, builds the ‘phenotypes‘ of the animal, which represent a few megabytes of texturing, animation, etc.” From this seed grew the powerful editors (which enabled some subversive creativity), procedural animation (which could truly handle anything), and content pollination (which shared the community’s best works).
When Will started developing the game, the core idea was powers of ten, reflected in the game’s original title, SimEverything, which promised a game at every zoom level. While prototyping that game, procedural content emerged as a way to fill the player’s universe, and that concept kept growing and expanding until it wasn’t clear anymore which concept was Spore’s big idea. A game can have two big ideas, of course, but the problem was that only one of these ideas was any good.
Spore’s biggest issue was that the play at each stage was fairly shallow because the team was making five games at once. (At one point, Will described each of the game’s five stages as light versions of classics – cell is like Pac-Man, creature is Diablo, tribe is Populous, civilization is Civilization, and space is Masters of Orion.) However, making five different games at once is a bad idea; making one good game is usually hard enough.
Each of the five stages had different controls, different interfaces, different nouns, different verbs, different goals, and so on. Some effort was made, of course, to share ideas and elements across stages; however, the compromises involved often watered down what was supposed to make each stage distinct in the first place. For example, each stage required a friendly means of engaging with other entities; in the creature stage, this mechanic became dancing for other creatures to make friends while, in the civilization stage, this mechanic translated into attacking other cities with music instead of bullets. Neither mechanic was the best idea for its own individual stage, and the justification was high-level consistency. Thus, the powers of ten idea put the team in a state of perpetual compromise where every major decision had to be considered according to its effect across all five stages.
On the other hand, procedural content was a genuinely interesting and fertile idea – one which was novel for the time, appropriate for a game about evolution, and rich with gameplay possibilities. The tragedy of Spore is that the team never re-evaluated its first big idea in comparison to its second one. Indeed, one of the problems with traditional, siloed game development is that initial assumptions are rarely challenged as the game is never exposed to the oxygen of actual player feedback.
Focus is an important asset for a team; if the game’s scope could have been reduced to just the biological stages (cell and creature), the team could have focused on fully exploring the intersection of procedural content and evolutionary gameplay. In the later, social stages, the editors served a mostly cosmetic role anyway, which pushed them to the background. Unfortunately, the best thing about powers of ten was that it sounded like a great idea, generating a huge amount of hype and press, so the die was cast at the 2005 reveal. What makes players buy a game, however, is often not the same thing as what actually makes them play it.
2 – Gameplay must support the theme
I have written before on the importance of a game’s theme matching its actual gameplay, and that the mechanics can easily subvert the intended meaning of a game, regardless of the designer’s stated goals. Indeed, I wrote about how this dissonance affected Spore:
The reception of Spore, a game sold with an evolutionary theme, provides a recent example. In the October 2008 issue of Science magazine, John Bohannon wrote the following about how the game delivered on the theme’s promise:
I’ve been playing Spore with a team of scientists, grading the game on each of its scientific themes. When it comes to biology, and particularly evolution, Spore failed miserably. According to the scientists, the problem isn’t just that Spore dumbs down the science or gets a few things wrong – it’s meant to be a game, after all – but rather, it gets most of biology badly, needlessly, and often bizarrely wrong.
The source of this dissonance is that, even though it was sold as such, Spore is not really a game about evolution. Spore is actually a game about creativity – the reason to play the game was to behold the wonder of other players’ imaginations as they used (and misused) the editors to create objects not imagined by the game’s designers – from musical instruments to fantastical creatures to dramatic scenes.
Spore didn’t need to be marketed or sold as a game about evolution, but since it was, players’ expectations had to be anticipated. Although one might not be surprised that the game was a disappointment to actual scientists, the crucial decision to limit the impact of the editor on gameplay ensured that players would not be able to experience the fantasy of evolution – that the editor would enable the creation of an infinite number of unique creatures, with behavior and performance dependent on player choice.
Of course, the editor enables an infinite number of visually distinct creatures, but the gameplay effects of the creature parts are unfortunately quite discrete. The feet components each carry with them a canned set of attributes – for example, Stubbtoe gives “Sprint 2,” “Dance 1,” and “Speed 2″ – regardless of the position of the foot, the length of the attached limb, or the shape of the body. Thus, the attributes of each creature is simply a summation of all the named body parts, and although the procedural animation guarantees that a many-limbed creature will walk convincingly, the player’s creativity in designing the creature’s shape has no impact on actual gameplay.
This disconnect stand in sharp contrast to the cell stage, which does deliver an editor with consequence. The exact position of each Proboscis, Flagella, and Cilia matters as the player-designed cell swims along, chomping prey while avoiding predators. Thus, the cell editor delivers actual gameplay that the creature editor does not, a key expectation for players.
How did the creature editor lose its bite? Obviously, the 3D world of the creature stage posed a greater challenge than the 2D world of the cell stage, but reducing the game’s scope to just the biological stages could have helped considerably. However, the root issue was a philosophical debate about the role of the editor in the game. Should the editor enable unparalleled aesthetic customization, at the expense of gameplay consequence, or should the game mechanics support every choice made by the player, even if that meant limiting the flexibility of the editor? Should Spore be an interactive art museum or a customizable video game?
The question is akin to asking if Spore is a game or a toy, which is, in fact, one question that got asked a lot during the game’s development, often without a clear answer. For players able to put imagination before gameplay, Spore is a magical experience; indeed, the game is at its best when played by ten-year-olds. However, for core gamers expecting a game about evolution (or, perhaps more accurately, a God-game about intelligent design), Spore fell short.
3 – The only prototype which matters is the game
One distinctive element of Spore’s development was a focus on prototypes to test out design ideas quickly and efficiently. Chris Hecker and Chaim Gingold gave a very well-received talk at GDC 2006 on this topic; they demonstrated one important prototype which proved that the creature editor could work, that editing a creature in 3D by pulling, prodding, and stretching various body parts was fun.
Generally speaking, prototyping is a great idea; the process saves time and money, focuses the developers on tangible problems, and suggests ideas that would never emerge from a design document. However, unless a prototype is meant to answer a very specific and relevant question – such as whether the creature editor will feel right – an over-abundance of prototypes can lead to a false sense of progression. 100 compelling yet limited prototypes are less likely to lead to a great game than a single playable one.
The team eventually posted fourteen prototypes for players to try out, and what is notable about the selection is how few of them had a meaningful impact on the final game. I do remember Gonzaga/SPUG being used by the creature team, but much of the game’s core design was still up in the air when I joined, with most of the old prototypes long forgotten. (The civilization stage, for example, was just a tech demo of a spherical world.) A game must be greater than the sum of its parts, and the gameplay systems can only be understood when they exist within one complete experience, regardless of the shortcomings of the current technology.
Sid describes this process as “finding the fun” as he is pulling and prodding his prototype into a playable game; however, he is working on a single prototype, which will eventually morph into the final game. For Civilization 4, I built the game on top of a cancelled RTS project, which allowed us to have a playable game working, using 2D billboards for art, within months. Jon Shafer prototyped Civilization 5 within the Civ4 codebase, only switching over to the new graphics engine when it was ready. Visitors to Blizzard are regularly shocked by how their games appear to be shippable years before release, which is how they balance the demands of AAA production with the importance of iterative game design. These fully playable “prototypes” signal the beginning of the most crucial part of game development – when the designers can change the game rapidly based on feedback from actual playthroughs, not disparate, standalone experiments.
Spore was not fully playable until, at best, the final year of the project. Shipping the game earlier was never an option, and shipping the game latter was politically and emotionally impossible because of the time and resources already invested in the preproduction process, which did not result in a playable game. Of course, many successful games are not fully playable until months before release, but they tend to be part of established genres or franchises; the fun was already found in previous versions, and the team simply needs to improve the core gameplay without ruining anything. Having an unplayable game until shortly before shipping is not ideal, of course, but some projects have very demanding time constraints.
Spore was given an eternity of development time, and – more importantly – was new, new, new, new, new. No game had ever been made like it, with such immense scope and without a familiar template, so the project had an immense amount of risk, which only grew greater as more and more money was spent without a fully playable prototype. Creating such a prototype for a project with as much technical innovation as Spore would have been no small feat (much of the procedural animation, for example, was not finished until the final stretch), but no other method exists to make a fun game from scratch.
4 – Team cohesion beats team quality
Of one thing I am quite certain, the Spore team was the most incredible collection of game developers I have ever seen. Their creativity, their leadership, their diversity, and their raw intellectual firepower was inspiring. Starting at the top, the game was led by Will Wright, a legendary designer, and Lucy Bradshaw, an admired veteran executive producer. Key members of the team have gone on to make notable contributions to the industry: Chris Hecker is the designer/programmer behind SpyParty; Alex Hutchinson was the Creative Director of Assassin’s Creed III; Jordan Maynard is the Creative Director of the iOS MOBA Solstice Arena; Brian Sharp is a Lead Engineer at Bungie; Caryl Shaw was an Executive Producer at ngmoco; Ocean Quigley, Stone Librande, and Andrew Wilmott were (respectively) the Creative Director, Lead Designer, Lead Architect on the new SimCity. Beyond that, companies like Valve, Double Fine, and Riot are full of Spore alumni.
The Spore team was an incredible collection of talent. It’s an old chestnut that the key to a successful project is an exceptional team, but a team cannot be measured by adding up the qualities of each individual member. Instead, a team should be measured by its cohesion – how well the members are able to align their goals, priorities, and talents. Unfortunately, the Spore team was chronically fractured, divided into factions which had completely different priorities for the project. One well-known divide was the cute-vs-science debate; the ‘cute’ team wanted a playful, emotionally engaging experience while the ‘science’ team wanted an accurate representation of how the universe worked. I joined the team after a compromise was struck, which attempted to combine cute mechanics with a scientific theme.
However, I witnessed a new divide among the team which was less well-known; as more core game developers (such as myself) were recruited to help finish the game, a cultural gap emerged between the newer ‘gameplay’ team and the older ‘Sim’ team. The former group (which went on to spearhead Darkspore) was primarily concerned with how Spore played as a game. Were the mechanics engaging? Did the player’s choices matter? Was the game replayable? In contrast, the ‘Sim’ team carried the traditional Maxis DNA and was more comfortable with Spore as a toy box. Could the players express themselves? Was sharing one’s creations with other players meaningful? Did the game spark the imagination?
These cultural divides ruined Spore’s chances to be a focused, cohesive experience. Spore could have worked either as a cute game or as a scientific one. It could have been a series of interesting decisions or the best set of magic crayons ever devised. Games design works best at the extremes, delivering a distinctive experience to a specific audience; making a game for everybody is the same thing as making a game for nobody. Moreover, there are thousands of ways to make a game about cosmic evolution or world history or modern combat or human relationships or even something as concrete as baseball; the trick is to pick the one that best matches the strength and passion of the team.
I haven’t been posting my podcast appearance recently, so I’d like to quickly mention the shows I’ve been on this year. Going forward, I’ll be posting each one separately, with perhaps a bit more detail about the content. I should also be appearing more frequently now that I know my future and no longer have to worry about what my employer would like me to say or not to say.
- Three Moves Ahead on the Best of 2012 (with Rob Zacny, Jon Shafer, and David Heron)
- Three Moves Ahead on Asynch Board Games (with Julian Murdoch, Michael Hermes, and Ryan Kuo)
- The Game Design Roundtable on 4X Games (with Jon Shafer and Dirk Knemeyer)
- The Game Design Roundtable on Progression Systems (with Jon Shafer and Dirk Knemeyer)
This summer, Game Developer magazine shipped its last issue, yet another casualty of the journalism’s transition to digital. Since 2008, I had been writing a bi- or tri-monthly design column entitled Design of the Times, so the end of the magazine marks the end of that column as well. My blog earned me the initial opportunity; I posted about “8 Things Not To Do” as a game designer, which attracted the attention of editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield, who was looking for a new design columnist who would focus more on the details and mechanics of game design. I didn’t feel equipped to produce 1,600 words every month, so I contacted my favorite game design blogger, Damion Schubert, to see if he would alternate months with me. (Damion gets credit for the name, by the way.) Eventually, we added a third columnist, Jason VandenBerghe, who probably wishes he had gotten a few more columns in before the end.
I enjoyed having a gig that forced me to put my thoughts down on paper on a set schedule. As random ideas floated through my head, I would saves the most interesting ones in a Google doc (which I may as well make public now), so that I would have a big backlog of column topics. After picking one, I would ruminate on it for a month or so until I had enough material for a full column, which is much more preparation than a typical blog post receives. I also tried to write columns that felt as much like journalism as they did like opinions, which meant doing research, quoting sources, and interviewing developers. For example, I talked to Days of Wonder CEO Eric Hautemont for my column on digital board games. Ultimately, I wanted to get out of my own head as much as possible.
My column essentially killed this blog as my writing energy focused on producing one piece of high quality every other month. Fortunately, Brandon agreed to let me repost my column online, so that my blog did not entirely disappear. (Damion’s blog, in fact, did die and only returned after the magazine disappeared.) I, too, am now returning to blogging although I am curious how relevant blogs are in the age of Twitter and Tumblr, not to mention Polygon and Gamasutra. (My post on stories and games garnered only two comments here but got 88 on Gamasutra.) I am not sure if I have the discipline to produce long-form pieces as with my old column, but I don’t think short-form posts have much value anymore. Fortunately, my career is undergoing an enormous transition, so I am at least going to have a lot to discuss.
In sum, I produced 25 columns, totaling about 40,000 words, which is almost as long as a standard size non-fiction book. My earlier columns focused mostly on very concrete, nuts-and-bolts topics and can be read almost like chapters in a game design textbook:
- #2: 2D vs. 3D
- #3: Game Economics
- #6: Asynchronicity
- #7: Our Cheatin’ Hearts (on fairness)
- #8: Turn-Based vs. Real-Time
- #9: Playing the Odds (on probability)
- #10: Challenging Design (on difficulty)
- #14: The Chick Parabola (on AI)
- #21: Less Than Zero (on zero-sum mechanics)
I also spent three separate columns struggling with the emergence of the free-to-play model as I saw it as the dominant design challenge of our time – indeed, in 2008, I predicted that the ultimate result of free-to-play would be “that the line between game business and game design has blurred.”
An important turning point came with a two-part series entitled “Theme is Not Meaning” on how a game’s theme and mechanics are related and how they can easily undermine each other if a designer is not careful. The article was well-received and eventually became a highly-rated GDC lecture. I transitioned to higher-level topics that were less easy to categorize. I wrote back-to-back columns entitled “Start Making Sense” and “Stop Making Sense.” I talked about how players inevitably ruin games for themselves in “Water Finds a Crack.” I wrote that “To be a game designer is to be wrong” in “Taking Feedback.” I asked (but didn’t answer) the question “Should Games Have Stories?” I finished my run with a column on “When Choice is Bad.”
I want to thank my editors, Brandon Sheffield and Patrick Miller, for trusting me with the column over its five year run. Looking back, I see much that I could have done better – I still can’t write a concluding paragraph to save my life, and I also wrote my share of filler columns when pressed for time. I’d like to thank the readers for taking the time to engage with my work, and I hope they continue to follow my current thoughts and projects here at my blog.
The following was published in the May 2013 issue of Game Developer magazine…
Nothing defines video games more than the importance of player choice. Interactivity is what separates games from static arts like film and literature, and when critics accuse a digital experience like Dear Esther of being “not really a game,” it is usually from a lack of meaningful player choice.
However, because choice is held up as such an ideal among game designers – armed with phrases like “enabling player agency” and “abdicating authorship” – the downside of choice is often ignored during development, hiding in a designer’s blind spot. In fact, every time a designer adds more choice to a game, a tradeoff is being made.
The game gains a degree of player engagement as a result of the new option but at the cost of something else. These costs can commonly be group together as either too much time, too much complexity, or too much repetition – all of which can far outweigh the positive qualities of the extra choice.
Too Much Time
If games can be reduced to a simple equation, a possible equivalence would be (total fun) = (meaningful decisions) / (time played). In other words, for two games with similar levels of player choice, the one which takes less actual time to play will be more fun. Of course, usually the comparison will not be so obvious; a new feature will add a meaningful decision, but is it worth the extra time added to the play session?
As an example, Dice Wars and Risk are similar games of territorial conquest which answer this question differently. In both games, players attack each other by rolling dice, and the victors are rewarded with extra armies at the start of their next turn. In Risk, the player decides where to place these armies, which can be a meaningful decision depending on the current situation. In Dice Wars, however, the armies are placed randomly by the game, and the result is a much faster game.
Which design is right? While the answer is subjective, the relevant question to ask is whether the combat decisions become more meaningful if the player takes the time arrange her new armies – or, as is likely, how much more meaningful they become. After all, the player can pursue a more intentional strategy in Risk, but is that aspect worth the not insignificant extra time taken by the army placement phase?
The answer may depend on the audience (Dice Wars is a casual Flash game while Risk is a traditional board game), but the designers should understand the ramifications of their decisions. Sometimes, army placement in Risk can be a rote decision, and sometimes, reacting to an unexpected arrangement in Dice Wars can lead to a new, more dynamic type of fun. Ultimately, the aspects of Risk which lengthen the play session must justify the time they cost to the audience.
Too Much Complexity
Besides its cost in time, each choice presented to the player also carries a cognitive load in added complexity that must be weighed in the balance. More options mean more indecision; deciding between researching five different technologies feels much different than choosing between fifty. Players worry not just about what they are choosing but also about what they are not choosing, and the more options they decline, the more reason there is to worry.
Each type of game has a sweet spot for the number of options that keep play manageable, enough to be an interesting decision but not too many to overwhelm the player. Blizzard RTS’s have maintained a constant number of units per race for decades; StarCraft, Warcraft 3, and StarCraft 2 all averaged 12 units per faction. For the third game, the designers explicitly stated that they removed old units to make room for new ones.
Indeed, RTS games as a genre are under assault from their more popular upstart progeny, the MOBA genre, best exemplified by League of Legends and Dota 2. The original MOBA was a Warcraft 3 mod entitled Defense of the Ancients, which played out like an RTS except that the player only controlled a single hero instead of an entire army.
This twist broadened the potential audience by radically reducing the complexity and, thus, the cognitive demands placed on the player. Instead of needing to manage a vast collection of mines and barracks and peons and soldiers, as in a typical RTS, the player only needed to worry about a single character. Consider the UI simplifications made possible by allowing the camera to lock onto the player’s hero instead of roaming freely across the map, which forced the player to make stressful decisions about managing his attention.
Of course, this change did take away many of the meaningful choices found in an RTS. Players no longer decide where to place buildings or what technologies to research or what units to train or even where to send them; all these choices were either abstracted away or managed by the game instead. Again, the relevant question is whether these lost decisions were worth the massive amount of complexity they added to a typical RTS.
The success of MOBA’s demonstrate that although players enjoy the thrill and spectacle of the large-scale real-time battles pioneered by RTS games, they do not necessarily enjoy the intense demands of trying to control every aspect of the game. Designer Cliff Harris discussed a similar point for his successful alt-RTS Gratuitous Space Battles, which does not allow the player any control of units during combat: “GSB does not pretend you can control 300 starships in a complex battle. It admits you can’t, and thus doesn’t make it an option. Some people hate it. Over 100,000 enjoyed it enough to buy it, so I can’t be the only person with this point of view.“
Too Much Repetition
The final way that too much player choice can negatively affect the game experience is perhaps a bit surprising, but games with too much freedom can suffer from becoming repetitive. A typical example is when a game presents the player with an extensive but ultimately static menu of choices session after session; players often develop a set of favorite choices and get stuck in that small corner of the game space.
Sometimes, a fixed set of options can work if the player needs to react to a variety of environments; the random maps in a Civilization game can prod the player down different parts of the technology tree. However, almost all games could probably benefit from reducing some player choice to increase overall variety.
Consider Atom Zombie Smasher, a game in which players use up to three special weapons (such as snipers or mortars or blockades) to help rescue civilians from a city overrun by zombies. However, these three weapons are randomly chosen before each mission from a set of eight, which means the player reacts as much to the current selection of weapons as to the city layout or zombie behavior. Instead of relying on a particular favorite combination, the player must learn to make unusual combinations work, which means the gameplay is constantly shifting.
Similarly, in FTL, the crew members and weapons and upgrades available change from game to game, depending on what the randomly generated shops provide. Thus, the game is not about discovering and perfecting a single strategy but about finding the best path based on the tools available. Put simply, the variety of gameplay in Atom Zombie Smasher and FTL emerges because the designers limited player choice.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, games with hefty customization systems usually devolve into a few ideal choices, robbing the flexible systems of their relevance. In Alpha Centauri, players used the Unit Workshop to create units with different values and abilities. However, the most effective combinations soon became obvious, marginalizing this feature.
Thus, giving the player too much control – with too many options and too much agency – can reduce a game’s replayability. Indeed, would Diablo be more or less fun if players couldn’t actually choose their skills? The game would certainly feel different as the loss of intentional progression would turn off many veterans, but the new variety might attract others looking for a more dynamic experience. Randomly distributed skills might force players to explore sections of the tree they would have never experienced otherwise. The important fact is that this loss of meaningful player choice would not necessarily hurt the game.
Ultimately, game design is a series of tradeoffs, and designers should recognize that choice itself is just one more factor that must be balanced with everything else. Even though player control is core to the power of games, it does not necessarily trump all the other factors, such as brevity, elegance, and variety.
I wrote the following post-mortem on Dragon Age Legends during the summer of 2011, a few months after release. Because the game was still live at the time, the piece was never published. However, as the game has now been offline for over a year, and most of the development team has moved on from EA, I feel comfortable posting my thoughts from that time period.
My thinking today is different from back then. I have largely soured on the potential of free-to-play gaming as it almost inevitably leads to an unhealthy addiction to whales – customers willing to pay thousands of dollars for various items and perks. Legends never attracted the whales necessary to sustain itself, which is perhaps for the best anyway as I’m not sure how I feel ethically about players spending that much money on my games. (Having said that, I also feel one of Legends main problems was that we priced some items, such as energy, far too high.)
I do still believe in the potential of asynchronous gaming, especially for limited-scale, turn-based games (like Hero Academy or Ascension) or for long-term, real-time games (like Neptune’s Pride or Civ4’s PitBoss mode). With Legends, however, the asynchronous format screwed up an otherwise solid gameplay loop – the energy system artificially limited game flow and tying the game’s mechanics to real-world time made balancing for every type of player a nightmare.
These novel formats – appointment mechanics, friend recruitment, limited session lengths – seemed interesting at the time, but I now believe what should have been obvious – that a game’s format should enable and support the game experience, not limit and complicate it. Looking at the core gameplay systems now, I can’t help wonder how the game would play if remade with a dynamic XCOM-style campaign, with each turn-based battle moving the game clock forward, which would then determine how fast the characters heal and consumables are crafted. The game loop would still work and all the energy gate, friend list, and free-to-play complications could just be dropped. Maybe someday…
Our primary goal with Dragon Age Legends was to create a “social game for gamers.” This social RPG combined the interesting decisions and difficult trade-offs found in traditional games with the innovations of the social game world. In fact, the game is split into two halves – a turn-based tactical combat system similar to Japanese RPGs like Final Fantasy and a persistent, appointment-based castle-building game inspired by asynchronous Facebook games like FrontierVille.
What Went Right
1. Core Design Loop
We designed our core game loop specifically to match the Facebook format, with players jumping into the game for short play sessions throughout the day. The character’s core stats (health and mana) do not regenerate naturally as they do in most RPGs. (Health does replenish but only outside of combat and only in real-time – one heart per hour.) Thus, if players want to restore their health and mana between battles, they need to rely heavily on their consumable items – health and mana potions, injury kits, and mana salves.
These consumables are the fuel that powers players though combat. What makes Legends unique compared with traditional RPGs is that the player is actually in control of the supply of consumables as the player can create them in the castle with timed appointments. (For example, the castle’s apothecary can create two health potions in 30 minutes.) If a player begins running low on a certain item, she can always invest extra time at the castle to rebuild her supply.
The two halves of the game – the castle and the combat – create a self-sustaining economic loop. Gold earned from fighting battles and completing quests can be invested in expanding the castle and upgrading its rooms. Accordingly, the castle creates the potions, salves, and bombs that the player needs to defeat the increasingly difficult monsters encountered over the course of the game.
Hence, the combat and the castle provide context for each other, motivating the player to keep fighting and to keep building. This loop gave the team a clear central vision for the game, to pair the meaningful decisions of a turn-based RPG with the compelling persistence of a castle-building game. The system proved a good fit for Facebook, in which players might dip in at any time to fight a couple battles or just to craft a few more potions.
2. Meaningful Social Hook
We also wanted our game to have a meaningful social hook – a reason to be on Facebook instead of just being on the Web, like the game’s predecessor, Dragon Age Journeys. Simply put, friends should make the game more fun.
Further, we were not impressed with how many Facebook games implemented social features, often forcing players to pay a “friend tax” by, for example, asking 10 friends to help finish a building. These features help social games spread virally, but they often feel artificial and even abusive of the player’s social network.
Instead, friends should be a part of the core gameplay, so that players will naturally want to invite their friends to join. As a party-based RPG meant to be played a few minutes at a time in a browser, we had an opportunity to address this problem with a new format – the asynchronous MMO. Although players develop a single character, they recruit their friends’ characters asynchronously to help complete the party in combat.
The details of this feature led to some interesting social dynamics. A recruited hero receives a gold bonus that the hero’s owner can pick up the next time he logs on. As players tend to recruit higher-level and better-equipped heroes, their owners have a strong incentive to keep improving their characters, so that they will earn more friend gold.
Recruited heroes enter a rest state after each use, from a few hours to most of a day, depending on how much damage they withstand in combat. Thus, deciding which friend to use and for.which battle is a strategic choice as one’s most powerful friends can only be used a few times each day. In other words, friends become an important, but limited, resource.
This system led to much interesting discussion between our players about how friends should develop their heroes and even whether one friend was using another friend’s character reciprocally enough. In other words, the social interactions between players had become meaningful. As a nice side benefit, Legends differentiated itself from other RPGs because players were regularly exposed to the entire skill tree via their friends’ characters.
3. An Actual Closed Beta
The term “Beta” has lost some meaning over the years as almost every Web-based game exists in a state of perpetual Beta. FarmVille, for example, didn’t remove the Beta tag until April of 2011, 22 months after the initial release and well after falling from its peak of 83 million monthly active users in March 2010 to today’s 43 million.
Many Facebook games are developed iteratively in public, starting from a minimal initial version with many missing features. This approach has many benefits as teams get immediate feedback about what is working and what isn’t – a big improvement from the multi-year silos of traditional game development. However, there are disadvantages to a continuous public development process; early design decisions can become permanent as backing away from them might upset the current community.
We took a different approach as we started our public development with a Closed Beta from January 2011 to our release in mid-March. Just like a traditional MMO, we encouraged players to sign-up for the Beta online and then periodically sent out keys to grow our player base, letting in over 50,000 players.
During this period, we conducted a database wipe every two weeks, both for the sake of lowering our engineering overhead as well as helping to focus attention on the early game by funneling players through it repeatedly. Because our players understood that their characters and castles were not permanent, we were able to experiment and make rapid changes in ways not possible during an Open Beta.
For example, during the Closed Beta, we added a strict inventory cap, removed Always Critical Hit items, slowed the leveling curve, rebuilt the first five maps, and reworked the skills system multiple times. Although these changes were not always popular, any negative impact was lessened by the known lack of persistence.
In fact, we even began charging real money for our premium currency (Crowns) during the Closed Beta, mostly to make sure the system worked. Surprisingly, players began spending large sums of money, even with the knowledge that their characters would soon be erased. We quickly developed a system to return all spent Crowns to players after each database wipe to give spenders more confidence in their purchases. This simple change was worth the effort as the information we gained was invaluable to our monetization strategy.
What Went Wrong
1. Client/Server Synchronization
We devoted the first few months of the project to rapidly prototyping the combat system. which went quickly because we reused code, art, and animation from EA2D’s previous Flash-based RPG, Dragon Age Journeys. This period of quick-and-dirty development led to important innovations, such as the accessible, icon-based health/mana system and the extra combat step for consumable use.
However, Journeys is a more straightforward game that runs entirely in the player’s browser, unlike Legends, which requires a client-server architecture. When building the prototype, we ignored this difference for the sake of development speed, which cost us in the long run. Because of concerns over player cheating, we couldn’t just allow the client to handle the combat, and because of lag issues, we couldn’t let the server handle it. Thus, the combat calculations needed to run in parallel on both the server and the client, which meant we had to ensure that the two sets of algorithms were identical.
In the end, we adopted the simple, but painful, solution of using manual brute force to ensure that every combat function was written identically in both Java and ActionScript. This process cost months of time for our lead gameplay programmer, during which time design and testing was essentially paused because the combat system no longer worked. This ugly solution blew a gaping hole in our schedule as little design or testing could be done.
2. Brittle Quest System
One big advantage of developing games on the Web is that they can be constantly updated – multiple times a day, if necessary. Bugs get fixed faster, and no gatekeeper stands between the developer and the player, slowing down the delivery of content. This rapid pace, however, does have its downsides, one of which is the challenge of keeping the persistent data of hundreds of thousands of characters in a playable state after every update.
Unfortunately, our quest system commonly dropped a small, but significant, number of players into a broken state after game updates. The problem was that the system did not fail gracefully. If a player was in the middle of a certain event that got changed, renamed, or even removed during an update, she may suddenly have no way to finish her current quest.
This problem was compounded by the strict linearity of the map and quest design. Maps were often a linear series of nodes that were paired with a linear set of quests that a player could only progress through in a certain, set order. If these nodes or quests were modified in any way, then players in an intermediate state could easily fall off the quest chain, with no hope of recovery. They might play through the rest of the game without ever seeing another quest!
As these issues began appearing, our engineers scoured the database, looking for characters with broken quest states, and then manually repaired the data. Eventually, we developed a tool to assist with this labor-intensive process as well as safeguards within the code to automatically fix stuck characters, if possible. Nonetheless, we lost significant engineering time during a key part of the project. The lesson learned is to design game content and systems that are flexible enough to fail gracefully when change inevitably occurs.
3. A Fear of Social
Our goal was to make a social game for gamers, many of whom express grave reservations about the tactics used by typical Facebook games to spread virally, by spamming friends with requests and notifications to pull them into the game. We put our greatest effort into making an engaging RPG and only developed social features that treated our players’ social capital with respect.
Thus, although we developed what we believed to be a fun, core MMO that fit the asynchronous format of the Web, our game was light on the viral loops found in most social games. Although Legends attracted a committed audience eager for new features and more content, our viral factor was very low; our players were neither inviting their friends into the game nor convincing lapsed veterans to return.
The majority of our team, including all of our designers, had never made a social game before, which meant that we were simply not familiar enough with the social hooks and viral features Facebook provided us. The list of standard features that we did not have at launch speaks to our naivety about what makes social games work and spread:
- No use of Facebook’s notification/request channel
- No rewards for clicking on another player’s wall posts
- No collaborative tasks or reasons to ask friends for help
- No gifting between players (even of actual loot items, as is common in MMOs)
- No daily bonus for returning to the game
Further, we lacked many of the tools common to social game developers, such as A/B testing and a metrics viewer customized for our game. Instead, we had to rely on our own intuition and feedback drifting in from our community, which meant that we were never quite sure why our basic numbers (DAUs, MAUs, ARPU, K-factor, etc.) were either going up or going down. Ultimately, we were not developing a game that played to the strengths of its platform.
When the game was taken offline in June 2012, the team released a free standalone version that dropped the energy system and allowed people to either start from scratch or import their online characters. The game balance is not quite right as the Legends was not built to be played in long, offline sessions. For example, friend cooldowns were removed but not replaced by anything else, so the player can simply recruit the best allies for every battle, which was supposed to be a core gameplay decision. Further, the crafting system is still in real-time, which goes far too slow if the game is not played in bursts. Still, the game is at least available, which is better than many other Web games which just vanish into the ether.