A Study in Transparency

GDC is around the corner and, for the first time since 2010, I’m going to be giving an actual talk instead of just doing a panel. As followers of this blog know, I am a big fan of tabletop games and am very interested in how they overlap with digital games. My talk will be about why transparency defines board games and how that matters to video game developers. (Here is a link to my slides, which are still under construction.) Furthermore, I was on The Game Design Round Table recently talking about transparency in game design, as seen in both physical and digital games.

Here is the info on my talk. Hope to see many of you in San Francisco!

A Study in Transparency: How Board Games Matter

Soren Johnson, Founder, Mohawk Games
Location: Room 3007, West Hall
Date: Thursday, March 20
Time: 2:30pm-3:30pm
What defines a board game? If a video game is described as being “like a board game,” what does that mean exactly? Judging by the recent success of video games inspired by mobile ports of tabletop games, the defining trait of board games is not, in fact, their actual physical components. Instead, the key factor is the transparency necessitated by the physical design. This transparency fosters many positive traits, including deep engagement, player comfort and meaningful choice. This talk will go into extensive detail on how transparency works for successful tabletop games and what lessons apply to the design of digital games.

Three Moves Ahead #249 and The Game Design Round Table #63

Last week, I was on a couple podcast that I frequently haunt. I joined Troy Goodfellow and Bruce Geryk on Three Moves Ahead to discuss the excellent recent iOS wargame Drive on Moscow. (Listen for my reference to noted game designer “Bruce” Reynolds.) I also discussed conflict in games on The Game Design Round Table with Jon Shafer and Dirk Knemeyer, which meant lots of talk about Diplomacy as well as why two-sided games are fundamentally different from multi-sided ones.

PRACTICE 2013: The Art of Strategy

I was on a panel (with Keith Burgun of 100 Rogues and Brad Muir of Massive Chalice) on strategy games at PRACTICE 2013, which is NYU’s annual game design conference. My talk (the first 15 minutes) was on the value of transparency and how that trait defines what we think of as “board games.” Keith’s and Brad’s talk were quite interesting, and we were also joined by Frank Lantz for a wide-ranging discussion afterwards. (Here’s a link to my slides.)

As part of the conference, I also did a short Q&A with Bruce Lan, one of the students from the NYU Game Center:

Q. Since I’m a reader of Designer Notes, and I’ve been writing my gaming blog for several years in order to share readings and establish a habit of writing down thoughts on game design, I’m curious about what motivated you to start your own blog?

A. I started my blog out of a desire to express my ideas about game design, not all of which I could put into practice with my games. I wanted to have a voice in the game industry, and the best way to have one is to just start speaking. As I’m not a particularly talented public speaker, blogging was the best way for me to communicate. I’ve often had a hard time keeping up a regular post schedule, but I was determined to never let the blog just die. Eventually, the posts add up, and the blog develops a footprint online. I was also lucky that my blog attracted the attention of Brandon Sheffield, then editor of Game Developer Magazine, who offered me their design column, which fortunately forced me to write 1500 words on a specific topic every other month. Reposting these columns kept my blog alive for a number of years, and – now that the magazine is gone – I need to develop a new posting style that fits my current career.

Q. What differences did you find the most interesting or challenging between designing for turn-based strategy (Civilization) and real-time strategy (Spore)?

A. Turn-based games excel at focusing the player on specific key decisions and making the ramifications of these decisions clear to the player. Further, because the game progresses in discrete steps, the player can project a series of events easily in her head. (If I discover Animal Husbandry in 3 turns, then my worker needs to reach Paris by then to build the Pasture to increase the rate that city is building the Pyramids, and so on.) Indeed, it is almost difficult to make a turn-based game that is NOT strategic because the format creates opportunities for interesting decisions so well. The problem with turn-based games is that they are tedious. Certain optimal strategies become rote and repetitive in time (such as optimizing a city’s growth and production each turn). Furthermore, because the game demands the player to keep making decisions, turn-based games can slow down to a crawl near the end as the player has more and more units to move each turn. Real-time games solve this problem by allowing key decisions to slip by the player, forcing him instead to make key decisions about how to spend his attention. Moreover, real-time games are easier to balance because the game’s pace is constant for everyone. Neither format is superior, of course, but the choice has a major impact on the gameplay aesthetic.

Q. The production processes and design issues for AAA games are so different from developing small games. How did you shift from developing games like Civilization 4 to mobile and social games? Do you think it’s possible for you in the future to step into the indie game scene?

A. I moved away from AAA development because the enormous budgets kill innovation as publishers are primarily concerned with predictable returns on their investment. Further, maintaining a distinct design vision become incredibly difficult as team size balloons into the hundreds. I have actually just started an independent game studio dedicated to building innovative core strategy games (check us out at mohawkgames.com). We are determined to stay small so that we have the flexibility to make games that are original while still delivering the gameplay depth of a major title like Civilization 4.

The Game Design Round Table #53: Martians & Mohawks

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.


I am Giving Up on Giving Up

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.

Plants vs. Zombies 2: Between Scylla and Charybdis

The following two articles form an interesting diptych on Plants vs. Zombies 2:

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!

Spore: My View of the Elephant

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.

2013 Podcast Roundup

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)