Design of the Times

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:

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.

GD Column 25: When Choice is Bad

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.

GD Column 24: Should Games Have Stories?

The following was published in the February 2013 issue of Game Developer magazine…

Stories and games have always had an uneasy marriage. From the beginning, designers have written stories into their games, giving the player a fixed beginning, a narrative path to follow, and a preset ending. At the same time, many players flocked to games because of their lack of narrative structure; a game experience is a chance to create a story, not to submit oneself to a designer’s unpublished novel.

At the root of this problem is an almost theological dilemma – can a game designer tell a story if the player’s choices actually matter? If the most important element of a game is its interactivity, then every static plot point a designer crams into the experience takes away from the centrality of the player. Put another way, if a game has a spoiler, is it really still a game?

To be clear, with the exception of a few abstract game like Tetris, almost all games benefit from story elements – an interesting setting, a distinctive tone, memorable characters, engaging dialogue, dramatic conflict, and so on. The best games have characters and settings that rival those of any other media – consider GLaDOS from Portal or Rapture from BioShock.

However, the actual narrative of a game – meaning the series of events which determines the plot – is the hardest element to reconcile with the essential interactivity of games. For this reason, narrative cannot be handled as it is with books or movies, in which the story is the core element that everything else must support.

Consider how Sid Meier added story elements to Pirates!, a game set in a period dripping with narrative possibilities. Instead of creating a single swashbuckling tale, with fixed plot points and a preset ending, he filled the game with the bits and pieces of a traditional pirate story. Depending on his choices, the player can rescue a long-lost sister, duel an evil Spaniard, survive a treasonous mutiny, discover buried treasure, escape from prison, and woo the governor’s daughter. Upon retirement, the game displays the notable events of the pirate’s life, chronicling the ebbs and flows of fortune. While the plot of a single playthrough would suffer in comparison to that of an authored work, the events have a special meaning for its intimate audience of one.

However, not every game is well-suited to become a dynamic story generator; some themes and mechanics are best handled against a mostly fixed backdrop. A hero needs an evil wizard to slay; a soldier needs an enemy to fight; and a plumber needs a princess to rescue. The solution is to use a light touch, to suggest rather than to dictate, to let go of the very idea of plot. Let the player explore the world and then assemble the final story in her own head.

“The Rolling Stones confirmed that lyrics are most evocative when just short of indecipherable.” – Paul Evans, The Rolling Stone Album Guide

Indeed, the role of narrative in games is more akin to the role of lyrics in music. A song’s words give the piece its context, its mood, and its setting while still leaving a suggestive gap for the listener’s imagination. Indeed, recordings often have lyrics that are inaudible, leaving the meaning intentionally obtuse. Would a writer ever do the same with the text of a novel? Further, listeners often enjoy songs in a foreign language. How many readers pick up a book in a different tongue? The exact meaning of a lyric is not its primary role; great songs leave room – often, a great deal of room – for the listener. So too must a game’s narrative leave room for the player.

Consider LIMBO, the puzzle platformer noted for its atmosphere, with its monochromatic tone and minimalist audio. The game’s story revolves around a very primal quest – a boy’s search for his missing sister – and raises more questions than it answers. Why is the boy looking for her in a dark, mysterious forest? Why is he chased by a monstrous spider? Who are the kids trying to attack him? Although LIMBO is completely linear, the lack of a traditional narrative – with a plot and dialogue and answers – means the story must be written by the player.

Another example is Atom Zombie Smasher, the micro-RTS about a patchwork military trying to stop a zombie apocalypse in the fictional South American city of Nuevos Aires. The game is peppered with gonzo vignettes (“Esposito scores the winning goal. Minutes later, he’s eaten alive.”), showing how the citizens handle the onslaught. The epilogue is a masterpiece of bizarro narrative, with scenes of a cyborg El Presidente and AK-47 fruit trees backed by President Eisenhower’s famous “military-industrial complex” speech.

Most importantly, Atom Zombie Smasher creates an evocative world without a traditional, canned narrative; the vignettes, in fact, are delivered at random during the campaign, letting the player’s imagination fill in the gaps. Brendon Chung, the game’s designer, points out that ”piecing information together is fun and knowing the work trusts and respects you is satisfying.” The effect is perhaps a bit too jarring for a mainstream audience, but the result is that Atom Zombie Smasher feels so much more open and alive than any pre-digested corridor shooter or bloated, dialogue-heavy RPG. A fixed plot is the enemy of player engagement.

“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” – Soren Kierkegaard

One of the most tantalizing aspects of mixing video games and narrative is the possibility of interactive fiction, in which the player gets to make the big decisions in an otherwise traditional story. So far, this potential is unrealized as the player’s choices are usually limited to selecting between a few preset branches. Although there may be more than one ending, as long as the outcomes are finite, interactivity only promises a difference in degree, not in kind.

As the cost of production rises, developers cannot risk creating sections of a game without guaranteeing that the player will experience them. Thus, regardless of player choice, the interactive storyline must synchronize at key points. The plot of Knights of the Old Republic exemplifies this problem. The player can pursue a good or evil path, but both paths lead to the same place; the villain Darth Malak must be defeated, either to stop him (the good path) or to usurp him (the evil path). Even with completely divergent ethical paths, no outcome is possibly without Malak’s death.

These static plotlines lead to a jarring disconnect for many players, who might spend tens of hours playing an RPG but have no lasting memory of the story because it has nothing to do with the player’s own interests or choices. Ultimately, people write stories to share what it means to be human. What does that goal mean in the context of games? The core element of most stories is the choices made by the characters; the core of games is the choices made by the players. Thus, what makes games meaningful must be the choices made by the players themselves. Can a game ever tell a specific story and still preserve the importance of player choice?

The action RPG Bastion successfully tackles this dilemma. The game tells the story of a mysterious “Calamity” that shattered the world into pieces. As the player progresses, he learns of why the weapon which caused the disaster was created and what went wrong when it was triggered. At the game’s conclusion, the player must choose between either reversing time to possibly prevent the Calamity or to evacuate the survivors to a safer place and a new start.

What is most interesting about this decision is what happens next – which is that almost nothing happens. The game simply ends, with only a single image reflecting the player’s choice. The designers do not pretend that they are giving the player actual agency with this decision. Instead, the choice becomes almost meditative, a simple reflection of the player’s own nature. Would you undo your greatest mistake, or would you move forward as a new person?

In Bastion, the player learns about herself through the act of making a choice, not from seeing what some designer thinks should be the result. In The Walking Dead, the designers emphasize player choice by providing feedback on how one’s choices compare with those of other players. These results similarly illuminate the player’s own personality by showing which of his decisions go with or go against society at large.

Games that focus purely on the designer’s plot choices ignore that the most important part of a game is the player. Putting a story, regardless of its power or depth, inside a game is actually a crutch, an easy way out that stunts the advancement of our form. Games must leave room for the player, not just within the rules and the mechanics and the systems, but within the story as well.

GD Column 23: How to Become a Game Designer

The following was published in the Nov 2012 issue of Game Developer magazine…

People enter the games industry for many different reasons. For some talented artists, programmers, and musicians, a games job is a great way to employ their talents in a vibrant and creative field. Others simply enjoy being involved with one of their own hobbies and personal passions. However, for many, there can be only one reason to join the industry – to become an official Game Designer.

The simplest way to become a designer, of course, is simply to start making games. More powerful tools and distribution channel exist now than ever before to help individual developers create great games. Andreas Illiger made Tiny Wings. Brendon Chung made Atom Zombie Smasher. Vic Davis made Armageddon Empires. Jonathan Mak made Everyday Shooter. No one needs permission to become a game designer.

Nonetheless, not everyone has the resources, or simply the guts, to go it alone. Unfortunately, for established companies, starting game design jobs are nearly mythical; the job simply requires too much experience, and the competition is too fierce. Most game companies are already full of developers who want to be designers, so most new recruits are hired because they possess a specific skill, such as code or art.

One needs to earn the position of game designer, and one earns that position on the job. If a developer is positioned correctly to do design work, opportunities will present themselves. I earned my first design position by being ready when the Civilization 3 team lost its design and programming staff to the founding of Big Huge Games.

The team lacked a pure gameplay programmer, and our company president, Jeff Briggs, was filling in as lead designer. I was never officially titled as a designer, but I accepted every design task that was available. By the end of the project, my contributions were clear, and Jeff shared his design credit with me.

Thus, the big question for a working game developer is how to position oneself to take advantage of the opportunities that emerge to work as a designer. Here are a few suggestions that might help.

1. Learn to Program

Games are a very broad category, often encompassing multiple art forms at once (words, music, visuals). Some games have strong story elements. Some are almost pure abstractions. However, the one aspect they all share is that they are all based on algorithms. Code is the language of games, and knowing how to code will qualify one for a great variety of roles.

Perhaps someone needs to script enemy behavior? Does the team need a scenario editor but no one has time to build it? Maybe the game needs more random map scripts? Does a senior designer have an idea for a new game but needs a programmer to prototype it? All of these tasks could grow into more established game design roles, but only a programmer can undertake them.

2. Work on the UI or AI

There are two areas of game development that are not strictly thought of as “game design” but actually are – user interface and artificial intelligence. Because artificial intelligence,  which controls the behavior of non-human agents in the game world, is so inseparable from gameplay, working on AI is impossible without daily interaction with the designers. If an AI coder does a consistently good job and keeps asking for extra responsibility, game design is the obvious next step.

This path is even more clear for interface work, which is on the very forefront of the user’s experience. Game mechanics are useless if they cannot be communicated to the player, and UI is the most important tool for solving that problem. Thus, interface design is game design. The best part of the “interface track” to game design is that very few game developers want to work on the interface. Senior artists and programmers often view interface work as only suitable for junior developers. Use this prejudice to one’s advantage and volunteer for the job; game companies are always looking for capable developers excited to work on interface design.

3. Volunteer for DLC

Another nice path to game design is downloadable content. The stakes are inevitably lower for these smaller releases, and a game’s official designers are usually too burned out from the final push to even want to think about the DLC. Thus, DLC is a great opportunities for aspiring designers to step forward and demonstrate their ambition and potential. Companies want to see their employees grow into the role as hiring new designers is a huge gamble; DLC provides a great, low-risk opportunity to train them internally.

Working on the design for an expansion also has a huge benefit for the aspiring designer. Namely, one avoids the challenge of creating fun from a blank slate, which can trigger crippling pressure for a new designer. Instead, one can simply continue iterating on the core design, applying lessons learned from the game now being in the hands of thousands of players. Most games have plenty of low-hanging fruit that only becomes obvious after release; focus on these improvements, and the players will respond positively.

4. Focus on Feeback

Game design is part talent and part skill. Noah Falstein once postulated that a disproportionate number of designers are INTJ on the Myers-Briggs scale (meaning Introverted, iNtuitive, Thinking, and Judging), which suggests that some personalities are better suited to game design than others. However, talent will never be enough; one should actively develop one’s design skills, and there is only one true way to do that – implementing a design and then listening to user feedback. My own design education didn’t really begin until the day Civilization 3 was released when many of my assumptions about how the game played were proven completely false.

A game is not an inert set of algorithms; it is a shared experience existing somewhere between the designers and the players. Unless a game is constantly exposed to a neutral audience, its design is only theory. Games should have as much pre-release public testing as possible; the designer’s skills will only grow stronger with each successive exposure. Aspiring designers must find some way to experience this feedback loop. Releasing a simple mobile game or a mod to a popular game and then learning from the public feedback is much more valuable than working on some mammoth project which is unlikely to ever gain an audience before release. Even creating a simple board game can improve one’s skills as long as the designer can find a testing group for feedback.

5. Be Humble

Personal humility is a key attribute for success in today’s game industry. A designer must accept that a majority of his ideas are not going to work. Indeed, the game designer’s job is not to follow one’s muse or ego, but to choose a vision and let the team lead the way. Designers need to be humble listeners, not persuasive orators. If a designer ever finds herself arguing why a playable game mechanic is fun to a skeptical audience, then the game might be in big trouble. Designers still need to be assertive and confident – or else no one will ever take them seriously – but humility gives the clarity to see things as they are, not how one wishes them to be.

For aspiring designers, of course, this rule counts double. Coming across as arrogant or too certain of one’s ideas is a sure way to appear unready for the job. Having a great idea that no one takes seriously can be immensely frustrating, but the key is to maintain the right attitude. If one’s idea get implemented, don’t think of that idea as having won but as being tested. The real work begins once the idea is playable, and then it belongs to everyone. All game teams have more ideas than they will ever be able to implement, so developers should all ensure that the best ideas are pursued, regardless of their origin. Indeed, the origin of an idea is usually forgotten; what is remembered is who put in the hours to get it right.

Who Should Be a Designer?

Finally, all aspiring game designers should answer these simple questions: Have you ever made a video game? A scenario or a mod? A board or card game?

If you answered no to all of these, then you should ask yourself if you really are meant to be a game designer. Painters start drawing when they are young. Musicians learn to play instruments in grade school. Writers start to write. Actors act. Directors direct. Young game designers make games. If it’s a passion – and it has to be a passion to succeed – then designing games is something that you absolutely have to do, not just want to do. A true game designer cannot be stopped from creating games.

Designing games is not the same thing as playing them. The set of people who enjoy making games is much, much smaller than the group of people who enjoy playing them. Designing a game can mean years and years perfecting a single concept and demands the strength to learn from all the criticism which will be heaped upon the design. Ultimately, the mark of a true game designer is that, given free time on some random weekend, that person will sneak in a few hours of what he or she enjoys most – making a new game.

GD Column 22: When Digital Meets Physical

The following was published in the Aug 2012 issue of Game Developer magazine…

If video games and board games are cousins, then they are starting to behave like they belong to the European aristocracy. The two formats are intermixing such that the artificial line separating the two is blurring, with many digital games now built to resemble board games. Consider the recent mobile games Cabals or Hero Academy; both contain the trappings of board games – including turn-based play, a shuffled deck of game pieces, a visible board divided into tiles, and transparent rules with no hidden modifiers – even though these games only exist in digital form.

Other, more mainstream video games are including select board game elements, such as the collectible card mechanic in Rage. The designers assume that the audience is familiar with board game conventions, so that including cards or dice can be just as useful as any other video game convention in helping players feel comfortable with the design.

Meanwhile, the collision of digital and physical gaming is changing the latter as well. More specifically, the iPad is revolutionizing the board game industry as digital translations of physical games are finally viable. The iPad’s features – a large, high-resolution screen, a touch-based interface, and (perhaps most importantly) a robust infrastructure for selling digital apps – are the perfect combination for digital board games. Eric Hautemont, the founder and CEO of the board game publisher Days of Wonder, expressed his enthusiasm for the device:

The beauty of the iPad is that you could forget about it. Meaning that when you put an iPad between two players, the screen is so well done that you almost forget there are electronics behind that. When you sit down to play Small World on the iPad, you stop thinking about it as an iPad game and just think of it as Small World. In the future, the question of whether something is a “board game” or an “iPad app” or whatever it will be in the future becomes a meaningless question.

Days of Wonder’s business experienced a significant bump from mobile. Since the release of Ticket to Ride Pocket on the iPhone, the boxed version of the game began selling more copies, by a sustained increase of 70 percent. Meanwhile, the iPad version is consistently a top-100 app, selling for a healthy $6.99. (One sign of the healthy iOS market for board games is how well they have maintained a high price point in a sea of 99-cent games; Catan and Samurai both sell for $4.99 while Carcassonne still costs a whopping $9.99 two years after release!) Indeed, since release, the digital versions of Ticket to Ride have outsold the physical one by 3-to-1, which raise the question of whether Days of Wonder is a board game company or a video game company.

Transparent Games

The success of digital board games means that they can no longer be excluded from discussions of video game design. However, as board games become increasingly digital, how do they still retain the traits of a board game? Can a board game still be defined as simply one with physical components? What about the aforementioned Cabals or Hero Academy, which exist only in digital form? What about the iOS game Assassin’s Creed Recollections, a real-time variant of Magic: The Gathering, which could not exist without a computer to handle the real-time interaction?

If the physical components are not necessary, then what is the essence of a board game? Why do some games fall into this category and other games do not? Perhaps what defines board games is not their physical elements but their absolute transparency, a philosophy that all a game’s rules should be visible.

This realization has important implications; if transparency is the thread that connects all board games, then transparency must be a major reason why people enjoy playing board games at all. Accordingly, transparency is then one possible source of fun in all games, and designers should understand the role it plays in their own designs.

For example, the Civilization series is essentially a giant board game that could only be played with a computer to handle all the calculations and record-keeping. The majority of game mechanics are clearly transparent to the player, from how much food a city produces each turn to how much time is needed to discover the next technology.

One area not so transparent was the combat system, still a black box to the player, leading to fears that a tank could lose to a spearman under the wrong circumstances. Civ 4 took steps to fix this problem by providing players with the exact probability of success for each possible battle. Civ 5 went even further, with a detailed graphical widget to show the estimated damage.


The combat systems of these games were still opaque to the average player (the hard-core, of course, reverse engineered the formulas). However, these features still honored the ideal of transparency by making the results of combat clear; the designers understood that transparency was an important virtue for the series, and the changes were well received by the fans.

When Digital Beats Physical

One of the most exciting aspects of the digital-physical merger is that some board games are greatly improved in the transition to a video game. First, digital board games require no set-up time or record-keeping, which means that games can be played much faster and in new environments; suddenly, Memoir ‘44 can be played in a coffee shop without scaring away the other customers.

Being able to play a digital board game tens, or even hundreds, of times transforms the experience. A heavy, card-driven historical simulation game like 1960 will probably be played only a handful of times in person, but the Web version allows finishing a game in an hour. The brevity and frequency of games lowers the pain of a loss, which means players can experiment with new strategies without fearing they are blowing their one chance to play the game that month.

However, one challenge of such frequent play is that imbalances are found much quicker than ever before. A Few Acres of Snow, Martin Wallace’s 2011 wargame on the French-Indian War, gained some notoriety for needing a quick patch to deal with a dominant strategy for the English known as the Halifax Hammer. This strategy emerged so soon after release because the game was playable for free on the Web; water found a crack that much sooner.

Another advantage of digital board games is asynchronous play. One of the challenges of board gaming is finding a way to get people together for long, uninterrupted blocks of time. Asynchronous play circumvents this issue by letting people run games at their own pace; the program simply waits for the next player to make her move.

One iOS game, Ascension, owes much of its success to getting this format right. The game was a competent variant to the seminal deck-builder Dominion, but Ascension met its greatest success when it hit the App Store. The developers focused on asynchronous play as not some unusual game mode but as a core feature of the game, enabling players to easily manage multiple concurrent games. Not every board game is ideal for asynchronous play (each turn needs to feature a significant number of decisions), but ones that are should find new life on mobile devices.

Analytical Fun

Whether played asynchronously or in single-player, digital translations can eliminate the waiting time associated with meaty board games. A certain type of Eurogame with little randomness and no hidden information, typified by Caylus and Puerto Rico, is painful to play with optimizers, who are unafraid to slow the game down to a crawl to ensure they make just the right decision. However, the negative experience of waiting for a slow player can often lead to the mistaken impression that optimization itself is not fun.

Optimization while under social pressure to finish faster may not be fun, but finding just the right move to handle a tricky situation is exactly why these types of games are so rewarding. Analysis paralysis, after all, is also known as intense engagement in single-player games! The problem with playing in person is not wanting to slow down the game while also fearing that rushing will lead to the wrong move.

Both asynchronous and single-player versions of board games solve this problem by giving the player all the time he needs to perfect his plan. Indeed, Puerto Rico comes alive on the iPad, shining as a tight, elegant game that can move at a comfortable speed when a single person gets to make all the decisions. Indeed, the popularity of cooperative board games in recent years, such as Pandemic and Ghost Stories, suggests a healthy market for solitaire video games with a board game soul.

This revelation underscores the value of decoupling the physical characteristics of board games from their defining feature – absolute transparency. The lesson for all designers is that transparency can be a virtue in almost any genre or format. Consider the natural tile-matching patterns in Triple Town, or the predictable enemy behaviors in Plants vs. Zombies, or the simple physical elements in Cut the Rope. These games don’t appear to be board games, but they all share the virtue of transparency.

GD Column 21: More Than Zero

The following was published in the April 2012 issue of Game Developer magazine…

A zero-sum game is one in which the gains of any one player are balanced out by the losses of all the other players, such as winning a pot of chips after a hand of poker. Using strict game theory terminology, many competitive games are not actually zero-sum. Scoring a field goal in football, for example, does not take three points away from the other team.

However, more loosely speaking, the phrase “zero-sum mechanics” can mean that hurting one’s opponent is as equally valuable as helping oneself. In a typical RTS like StarCraft, a rush strategy, which aims to destroy the enemy’s economy as soon as possible, is just as viable as a boom strategy, which focuses on building up one’s own economy. If one can quickly wipe out the enemy’s first units, it’s irrelevant what level of development one’s own troops ever reach.

Thus, whenever a game rewards the player equally for hindering the enemy as for strengthening herself, the game has a zero-sum mechanic. Most team sports (basketball, soccer, football, etc.) share this characteristic; the defense, which prevents the opposition from scoring, is just as important as the offense, which does the scoring.

Competitive games are firmly rooted in this soil. Fighting games balance protecting one’s own health with taking away the health of the opponent. Strategy games encourage countering an enemy’s plans as well as perfecting one’s own. Shooters combine killing as many enemies as possible while also fulfilling some parallel goal, such as capturing a flag or checkpoint.

Zero-sum mechanics, in fact, seem to be the default choice when designing competitive games. However, their ubiquity masks the many, many problems with this type of gameplay. Indeed, zero-sum mechanics are, at best, a necessary evil and, at worst, a wrongheaded approach to game design that turns away many potential players.

The Zero Problem

The problem with zero-sum mechanics is that they require a negative experience for someone – watching a devastating combo annihilate one’s character in Street Fighter, watching one’s buildings crumble in Age of Empires, dying and respawning over and over again in Team Fortress. One player’s pleasure results from another player’s pain.

In fact, competitive games do not require that another player must suffer. A game’s rules determine the frequency and intensity of player interaction; ultimately, the designer decides how players will interact with each other during play. Indeed, competitive games are even possible without players being able to affect one another at all – consider parallel sports like golf or bowling, for example, or online games with asynchronous leaderboards like Bejewelled Blitz or Burnout Paradise.

The most important distinction is whether a player can lose their current progress or if they can only lose the ability to continue progressing. In the former case, the game mechanics have a zero-sum feel as losing one’s progress is usually a painful experience and often a sure route to a loss. In contrast, one of the defining traits of the Eurogame movement (epitomized by games like Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan) is eschewing such direct, zero-sum player conflict in favor of limited, indirect interaction which will not destroy a player’s progress.

For example, in worker placement Eurogames, such as Agricola and Caylus, players take turns choosing exclusive abilities; the competition emerges from players jockeying for position to determine who gets to grab the best jobs first. If a player knows his opponent needs food, choosing the food job for himself can seriously damage this opponent’s fortunes. However, this tactic is qualitatively different from actually destroying an enemy’s farms and killing his villagers in Age of Empires.

In the former case, the setback may only be temporary; in the latter, the player suffers a heavy emotional loss and has little chance of recovery. In fact, a player who spends too much time trying to disrupt his opponents in a game like Agricola can often dig his own hole as each precious action has significant opportunity costs. In contrast, damaging an opponent early in an RTS has little downside; wiping out another player’s economy can actually buy valuable time to grow one’s own much larger.

Balancing a RTS game to not reward destroying another player’s economic base as soon as possible is extremely hard. Indeed, RTS games suffer heavily from a dominance of zero-sum mechanics, which encourage the rush. Many players adopt “no-rushing” house rules to manually rebalance the gameplay away from destructive raids and towards building up for the endgame.

Further, many RTS games end with a whimper instead of a bang because the end goal is usually wiping out the enemy’s forces, which means that the outcome is obvious halfway through the match. In Ticket to Ride, during which players race to complete routes before running out of pieces, the dramatic tension is a consistently rising slope. In contrast, the dramatic tension of StarCraft is an arc which rises and then falls, and – unfortunately – the downward side of this arc is simply a sequence of painful events for the loser.

However, zero-sum mechanics need not be endemic to the RTS genre. Consider economic games, like the Anno series or Railroad Tycoon or even M.U.L.E., in which the primary goal is the acquisition of wealth; because the players are in a race to see who grows the fastest, the games need not encourage – or even allow – players to attack one another.

Alternate competitive mechanics are possible in military RTS games as well. Warcraft 3 introduced the creep – neutral characters who occupy the central area of skirmish maps and who players race to kill for the rewards and experience points. Perhaps a new RTS could take this mechanic a step further and make the game focus solely on killing creeps?

Removing the Negatives

Many competitive games solve the zero-sum problem by severely limiting interaction, so that players can only affect each other under certain circumstances. In Mario Kart, for example, racers can only shoot one another after picking up limited-use shells from certain locations; even then, players will only get the most powerful shells if they are trailing in the race. Even in a cutthroat RTS, a player can only attack after first building a barracks, then training troops, and finally moving them into position.

Thus, limiting player interaction is a powerful tool for minimizing negative emotions from zero-sum play. Games with similar themes and rules can dramatically change their feel depending on what sort of interaction is allowed. For example, Travian and Empires & Allies are similar asynchronous strategy games played over months of real-time about developing a military and then attacking one’s enemies. However, an important difference separates these two games with what happens when players invade each other’s cities.

In Travian, attacks are strictly zero-sum; resources captured by the attacker are taken from the defender’s stockpile. In Empires & Allies, however, combat is actually positive-sum; the resources captured by the attacker are conjured from nothing. Furthermore, while units which die in Travian are removed from the game, defending units in Empires always stay alive, even after a defeat.

Empires quietly belies players’ expectations for combat – that a victory requires a defeat – and this design choices pays off by making the game more accessible and less emotionally draining. In contrast, Travian uses the traditional approach that one player’s gain requires another player’s loss; accordingly, this design choice creates a nasty world full of brutish players with short tempers.

Many designers instinctively assume that conflict must be zero-sum, but this prejudice may be keeping their games from reaching a larger audience. The emotions players experience during a game are real enough, so a mechanic that requires at least some players to suffer should be used carefully.

Adding the Positives

Sometimes, alternate solutions are blindingly simple. In the board game 7 Wonders, players compete along multiple axises – earning victory points for science, civics, buildings, wealth, and military. The default way to implement military in such a game would be to allow players who invest in an army to attack other players’ units, buildings, or resources. 7 Wonders, however, employs a very different approach.

The game is split into three epochs, and at the end of each epoch, players with the largest armies receive positive points while the other players receive negative points. Furthermore, the total point distribution is actually positive-sum, so that losing combat does not hurt a player as much as winning combat helps. Thus, the military strategy does not drown out all the others and is appropriately balanced; a strong military cannot prevent an opponent from winning with strong technology because military victories do not require the loser to forfeit her progress.

Indeed, the spirit of positive-sum gameplay can benefit other aspects of game design. Puzzle Quest, for example, avoids a manual save system by ensuring every combat is positive-sum; players can never lose an item during combat and will always gain at least a little gold and experience from each battle. Thus, a player is always better off after combat, whether a win or a loss, so the game can constantly auto-save into a single slot. This feature, which would be hardcore if paired with a traditional zero-sum design, instead removes the need for a load/save system, which can be a barrier to entry for new players, thereby expanding the game’s potential reach.

Ultimately, zero-sum mechanics are still a powerful tool for game designers as they can unlock primal emotions. Sometimes, allowing players to destroy each other is exactly what a game needs. However, not all conflict need be zero-sum, especially since that design choice has significant disadvantages. Losers need not suffer so that winners can triumph.

GD Column 20: The Coming Storm

The following was published in the Feb 2012 issue of Game Developer magazine…

Ever since OnLive’s dramatic public unveiling at GDC 2009, the games industry has been watching and wondering about cloud gaming, at times skeptically, at times hopefully. The technology holds the potential to revolutionize the business, perhaps forever destroying the triangle that connects consumers with hardware manufacturers and software retailers.

Some of the immediate benefits are obvious. Instant, time-limited demos would allow every developer to showcase their games on-demand with no extra work. Frictionless per-day, or even per-hour, rentals would bypass Blockbuster and other rental chains, ensuring that more money goes directly to the people who actually make the games. Similarly, virtual ownership handicaps GameStop’s ability to resell a single disc multiple times, again making sure money flows directly from the consumer to the developer. Further, if a publisher commits fully to the cloud – with no offline version available – piracy would be virtually impossible

As for the consumer, cloud gaming enables cutting-edge graphics on any connected device, with no installing or patching ever. Although the system requires a constant Internet connection, more and more games – even single-player ones – are demanding a connection anyway. Indeed, cloud gaming can handle Internet stutters better than local gaming; in Diablo III, a dropped connection sends the player back to a checkpoint screen while OnLive returns the player to the exact frame she last encountered.

Most importantly for consumers, cloud gaming should change the economics of pricing. By removing the traditional retail middlemen, not to mention secondary drags on the system like rental and used-game sales, a developer could easily make as much money selling a game for $30 via the cloud as they could selling it for $60 via a traditional retailer. The industry could finally approach a mainstream price point, with games priced comparably to movies, books, and music – instead of the $60 price point (for a $300 console) which is absurdly out of reach of the average consumer.

Indeed, the economics could change for developers too. If entirely new business models emerge, with consumers paying for a game daily, weekly, or monthly – or perhaps with a single subscription to all available games (a la Netflix)  – the design incentives change. Cloud gaming could reward developers for depth of gameplay over ornate, scripted sequences; infinitely replayable dynamic games like Left4Dead or StarCraft might suddenly be more profitable than hand-crafted semi-movies like Call of Duty or Uncharted.

Rethinking Consoles

Cloud gaming also has important implications for the next generation of consoles. The ability to run games from the cloud gives the console makers a profitable alternative to both the rental market and the retail middlemen, all within their own closed systems. As a bonus, they could even sell inexpensive “cloud-only” versions of their next-gen console, without optical drives or hard disks.

Going down this path, however, raises the thorny question of whether consoles are even necessary at all. OnLive is already selling a “MicroConsole” that provides a current-gen console experience via the cloud; there is no reason similar technology can’t be included by default in new TVs, or even in any cable box or satellite receiver. What defines a console, after all? The three necessary elements are the controller, the screen, and the couch. Soon, anyone with those three things and an Internet connection to the cloud will be seconds away from any game.

Indeed, because cloud servers already dwarf current-gen consoles in horsepower, they can bring a next-gen experience to consumers today, by default. The cloud promises a “perpetual” virtual console that get updated regularly as new, faster servers come online. Publishers should be receptive as a perpetual console promises to end the boom-bust cycle they experience with each new generation.

Indeed, this year in the current generation’s lifecycle should be when publishers are making record profits. Instead, many are fighting just to stay in business; the next wave of forced upgrades could wipe them out. Anything that could prevent the gap years when consumers are forced to migrate between consoles would be a welcome change.

Thus, for the console makers, cloud gaming’s promise is mercurial – it could break them free from the parasitic drag of traditional retail but it could also destroy them by making the hardware itself irrelevant. The best defense against the latter is an active and direct relationship with the consumer, not tied to any one machine.

On this front, Microsoft, with its comprehensive Live service, is far ahead of Sony and Nintendo – many gamers would be hesitant to leave behind their gamerscores, achievements, friends lists, and downloadable games for another ecosytem. However, a radical step could cement this bond.

Because a thin video-based client can run on almost anything, any one of the console manufacturers could start the next generation tomorrow by simply buying OnLive or Gaikai and embedding it in the next system update. Next, they could sell cloud-only versions of the current-gen consoles for almost nothing ($100? $50?), which could revolutionize the market and inoculate the company from the coming shift. Some are predicting the next generation of consoles will be the last one, but it may not even be necessary at all.

Rethinking Games

However, cloud gaming’s potential is much, much greater than changing the economics of the industry; in fact, it could revolutionized the very way games are made. For starters, the cloud could solve the number one problem that plagues most teams – a lack of feedback from real players during the early stages of development when radical change is still possible. Most game project grow slowly from fast and nimble speed boats to hulking battleships which can only change course at great effort and cost.

Using cloud technologies, a team could expose its game to fans as soon as it is playable, with almost no technological hurdles or security concerns. All players need is a browser and, if necessary, a password. Releasing games early for feedback and buzz is nothing new for indie developers (indeed, doing so is their major competitive advantage); nonetheless, for major publishers, the idea is fraught with potential risk, of leaked games and bad press.

However, as the game’s code and assets would exist only on the cloud’s servers, nothing could be leaked. As for pre-release buzz, the greatest danger, of course, is of simply releasing a bad game, and the surest way to do so is to isolate a development team from the oxygen of real players. Further, the cloud’s inherent flexibility creates myriad ways to target players for testing: 24-hour passes, geo-locked sessions, early press versions, pack-in codes, and so on.

Further, the cloud promises more from these early test than some simple metrics or private forum comments. Because the output of a cloud server is a video feed, developers would have access to a recording of every minute ever played of their game. Wonder how players are handling a certain tricky boss? The designer can simply watch saved videos of many different players tackling the encounter.

Still, the greatest change cloud gaming could bring is the end of client/server architecture. Many online games have thin clients, with the “real” calculations being done on the server, largely to prevent rampant cheating. (As Raph Koster famously put it, “The client is in the hands of the enemy.”) With cloud gaming, the client is so thin that it might be inappropriate to even call it a client; it’s simply a video player that takes input.

The upside of this system is that developers would no longer need to waste resources developing a traditional game client, plugging its security holes, worrying about peer-to-peer connectivity, and optimizing what minimal, yet necessary, set of data needs to be sent to the client. In other words, making a game multi-player would now be essentially trivial.

Writing multi-player games is a formidable challenge – keeping game state in-sync between servers and clients in a safe, fair, and accurate manner is no small feat. With cloud gaming, these issues evaporate because there are no clients anymore. Developers simply write one version of the game, run it on a single machine, and update it based on user actions – which is how single-player games are made.

Taking advantage of this feature would require some courage as the developer would need to go all-in on cloud technology. Developing an online game with no client means that the game could only be played via the cloud. There are many benefits to being cloud-only – no piracy, for one – but the greatest benefit might be not even needing a network programmer.

Perhaps the group which has the most to gain from this new model would be small, independent developers, for whom the idea of building an indie MMO seems laughable given their tiny resources. One can’t help wonder what Mojang could do with a cloud-based version of Minecraft, seamlessly updated, playable from any device or browser, that connects every world end-to-end. So far, the big question for cloud gaming is when will it be feasible, but ultimately, the more important question is what will it enable.

GD Column 19: Taking Feedback

The following was published in the Nov 2011 issue of Game Developer magazine…

“You have to design for success, plan for failure, and then know how to rebound from that failure. Our 1.0 version of AI War was successful but not wildly so. Little irritations added up and annoyed people enough that they stopped playing. When the public gets the game, they find problems that you never did, and you must devote time to fixing them. Once you do, the fans are happy, and the game becomes more successful than it would have been otherwise. You have to eat a lot of humble pie, but after awhile you get really used to that, and the stuff that used to give me a hard time emotionally when I was first starting out is just par for the course now. I don’t even notice. It’s just feedback, and whether it’s viable or not determines if it goes in the ‘yes’ bucket or the ‘no’ bucket or the ‘maybe’ bucket.”

– Chris Park, designer of AI War: Fleet Command, from the Three Moves Ahead podcast, Episode 37

To be a game designer is to be wrong. Ideas do not work out as planned. Certain mechanics prove tedious instead of fun. Players spend their time focusing on the “wrong” parts of the game. The original vision starts to slowly slip away as it come into contact with the gamer.

Furthermore, designers are often bombarded with suggestions – from the rest of the team, from vocal fans, from well-meaning friends, and from dreaded executive fly-bys. Faced with such a deluge, the natural instinct is often to defend the design. These suggestions are simply trials and tribulations to be overcome so that you, the designer, can continue making the game “your” way.

The problem is that processing feedback is a fundamental part of the game design process, as important as the original vision itself. Games are not static objects that can be observed or judged in a vacuum. Instead, they live in the minds of our players, which means that each one might experience the game in a different way.

Thus, designers need to be great listeners more than great persuaders. If a designer ever finds herself needing to explain why a player should be having fun when he is not, something has gone seriously wrong. Instead, designers must listen to players with a great sense of humility, with an understanding that this feedback is the only way to remove the fog which separates the game in the designer’s head from the one that is actually playable.

Ultimately, games must speak for themselves, so designers need to learn not to rely on the crutch of their own enthusiasm and communications skills to sell their ideas. Dropping one’s ego to learn from the criticism can be an emotional challenge for designers who identify too closely with their original vision. Instead, they need to place faith in the design process itself, not in their inevitably doomed first draft.

Listen to the Team?

Thus, gathering and assessing feedback is one of the crucial skills for a modern game designer. The first, and sometimes only, source of feedback is the team itself. Any committed development team should be ready and eager to play its own game and provide the designer crucial early feedback on what works and what doesn’t. However, feedback from the team carries significant limitations.

To begin, the team lives with the game for months, probably even years, far beyond an average player’s time with the game. As veterans of development process, they can play on auto-pilot, making themselves blind to unintuitive mechanics or confusing UI. Developers quickly lose the ability to see the game objectively, often believing that the game is either in better or in worse shape than it really is.

Further, team members are often hired for their special skills – 3D animation, sound design, network optimization – and not because of their passion for the product itself. They might forget some of the simple joys that new players will still experience when starting the game. More dangerously, they might burnout on the game altogether and begin to resent the intense demands of your most vocal community members.

Trust the Community?

The community, of course, can be an overflowing cauldron of ideas and suggestions. When developing Civilization 3, our most active fansite presented us with “The List” – an exhausting, 200,000 word tome detailing their expectations for the upcoming game. Wading into the forums can be an overwhelming experience for most designers, requiring a thick skin as posters rip apart their development choices.

However, no one understands a game better than players who are dedicated enough to join a community and make the game a part of their social life. These gamers might play for hundreds of hours, gaining knowledge of mechanics and systems that elude even the designers themselves.

The challenge with forums is that what players say and what they actually do are often two different things. In a talk at GDC 2011, Ben Cousins described just such a situation with the free-to-play online shooter Battlefield Heroes. The game had not been generating enough revenue, so the team reworked the monetization system – making it harder for non-paying players to “rent” premium items and then beginning to sell these items directly for cash.

The change caused an uproar in the forums; within a week, a 4,000-post thread developed decrying the changes, with many veterans pledging to quit the game. Exacerbating the debate was the fact that Cousins had publicly declared years earlier that “we have no plans to sell weapons.” The press picked up the controversy, leading to articles such as “Battlefield Heroes is Practically Ruined” on Kotaku.

The metrics, however, told a very different story; revenue tripled with no discernible decrease in active users. It is hard to tell if the posters who pledged to quit were actually lying or not, but they were clearly not representative of the average player. Cousins dug deeper and found that only 20% of players had ever visited the forums and that only 2% had ever actually posted a message.

Furthermore, compared with the silent majority, community members had a much higher conversion rate (27% vs. 2%) and ARPPU ($110 vs. $32). Thus, the thoughts expressed on the forums were an inaccurate and misleading representation of the player base’s actual feelings. The posters were perhaps making threats to change the game as they wanted (to save themselves money) instead of revealing their actual beliefs.

The Heroes experience highlights the importance of metrics as a secondary source of feedback. Watching what players actually do can be as important as listening to what they have to say. Still, metrics have their limitations as no set of numbers is going to help the designer understand why people have stopped playing the game.

While measuring how often unit X is built instead of unit Y provides a valuable tool for balancing an RTS, it’s not necessarily clear that making the two units equally viable will actually make the game more fun. Metrics are great at answering specific objective questions that require real data – what difficulty level is most commonly picked first? – but to learn whether a game is actually fun, the designer’s only option is to find out what players are feeling by listening closely to what they are saying.

Find Your Voices

Thus, designers are left with the conundrum that their best source of feedback – the vocal fan community – is not only an unreliable source of information, but one that might be actively trying to mislead the developers. Perhaps most frustrating is the possibility that the more forum posters are aware that the team is listening, the more likely they are to lie to the designers to get what they want. MMO developers are familiar with the player type who will always argue that his or her character’s class is woefully underpowered, all objective evidence to the contrary.

This problem can be handled with a more proactive approach to gathering fan feedback. Not all fans are the same – a precious few are able to see the forest and provide accurate feedback that speaks to the health of the game’s overall experience. While developing Civilization 4, we cultivated just such a group of enlightened fans to provide feedback we could trust.

These players had a history of being reliable sources of information during the post-release development of Civ 3, and we provided them with a special, private forum for direct communication with the team. This group became our primary source of feedback both before and after release, providing us with much greater certainty about which ideas were working and which ones were not; Civ 4 would have been significantly differently – and certainly worse – without their input.

These groups must be managed carefully, however, to prevent the members from developing a sense of entitlement or superiority over other players. For this reason, the group’s existence should be, if possible, a closely guarded secret. Further, the developers must try their best to find a representative group of players, perhaps looking outside the forums for new members.

Listen Early, Listen Often

Another accurate way to gather feedback is with “Kleenex” testing, so named because players get access to the pre-release game once and are then thrown away. The valuable lessons here come from players’ initial reactions to the game, before they become accustomed to UI holes or gameplay quirks. Valve famously runs these tests regularly by gathering up random players from local game stores.

However, depth testing is also important, which can only be achieved by giving players continual access to the game before release, to explore and experiment with the game’s systems and mechanics. Big publishers often have trouble giving fans early access to their games, for fear of leaking cracked versions to pirate sites or spreading confidential information to rival publishers.

Indies developers actually have a big advantage here because their greatest danger is not security, but obscurity. Thus, many recent indies (Spelunky, Desktop Dungeons, The Wager) have released early versions of their games, generating both marketing buzz and valuable feedback.

Some indie games, such as Frozen Synapse, Minecraft, and Spy Party, have even generated revenue by selling access to these alphas. This option gives teams the chance to bootstrap their way along while also learning how the game performs in the wild, a great option to help fight the long odds that most indies face.

GD Column 18: The End of Games?

The following was published in the May 2011 issue of Game Developer magazine…

In a GDC speech from March 2010, ngcomo’s founder Neil Young described the advent of free-to-play gaming in the West as “the most significant shift and opportunity for [game developers] since the birth of this business.” Since then, more and more game developers are making this transition.

In June, Turbine announced that it’s profitable, subscription-based MMO Lord of the Rings Online would adopt a free-to-play model, based on the success of a similar change with their MMO Dungeon and Dragons Online, which increased the game’s revenues five-fold. In November, EA announced Battlefield Play4Free, a downloadable, free-to-play shooter built on the Battlefield 2 engine, meant to improve on the success of the similar, WW2-based Battlefield Heroes. In February of this year, Riot Games, developer of the popular free-to-play strategy arena combat game League of Legends, was purchased by Chinese games behemoth Tencent for $400 million, signifying the massive revenue potential of the format.

Indeed, few major franchises are not being considered as raw material for a transition to free-to-play; the revenue potential is simply too large to ignore. In March, at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch 2011 Consumer Conference, Activision CFO Thomas Tippl stated that, shockingly, Starcraft 2 was not worth the effort from a financial perspective. Although the game sold very well, grossing over $250 million dollars, the lack of any ongoing revenue coupled with the high development costs meant the final return on investment was simply not high enough. Ultimately, publicly-traded companies, like Activision, must invest their money in projects with the highest potential profit margins and, increasingly, free-to-play games are beginning to dwarf single-purchase games in that regard.

Neil Young’s own ngmoco provides an interesting example of how this shift can change a company’s priorities. The smartphone developer’s first major hit was Rolando for the iPhone, providing the young startup with its first major revenue stream. However, ngmoco soon discovered that although they could make modest profits on singe-purchase mobile games, their most profitable releases were free-to-play games built with in-app purchases. Within a month of release, their kindgom-builder We Rule became the highest grossing “free” game on iOS devices.

Understanding that free-to-play games would be the only way to scale their business, ngmoco cancelled single-purchase games, including the guaranteed money-maker Rolando 3, in favor of games which fit the freemium model. In Young’s words, “If we can’t make the game free-to-play, we’re not going to release it.” The strategy worked as his young company was purchased by the Japanese social gaming giant DeNA in late 2010 for an impressive $400 million.

A New Design

Today’s game designers will increasingly hear similar mandates from their own management teams. However, shifting to free-to-play design is not a straightforward process. Indeed, designers of single-purchase games have a much easier job as they only have to focus on one thing: making the player’s experience as much fun as possible. In contrast, designers of free-to-play games must make the game engaging enough to attract and retain players while also holding back enough of the experience to drive microtransactions.

The energy model is a proven mechanic that maintains this balance for many free-to-play games, including my own Facebook-based RPG Dragon Age Legends. Under this model, certain player actions, such as starting a battle in Legends, consume a set amount of energy. Once a player uses up all of her available energy, these actions are unavailable until the energy regenerates, commonly at the rate of one point every five minutes.

Thus, with a full energy bar, the player can typically fight four or five battles before getting stuck. At that point, he can either decide either to let the energy recharge naturally, which might take two hours for an empty bar, or to purchase an instant refill with real money. While they still have energy remaining, free players have access to the full game experience – the battles in Legends do not work differently for paying players – but they have to deal with some impatience after they hit the energy gate.

In single-purchase games, designers would rarely build a game mechanic that intentionally tests the player’s patience; in fact, that is a hallmark of bad game design. Thus, free-to-play games upend many of the assumptions that designers bring to the table from traditional single-purchase design. Indeed, this break is creating a great deal of anxiety within the game design community as many developers feel that their original motive for making games – to bring players as much fun as possible – is now in danger. Noted independent designer/programmer Chris Hecker recently echoed his own concerns:

The problem I have with free-to-play is business types rarely talk about what you’re giving up by going to that model.  Microtransactions warp game designs, not necessarily for the better or for the worse, but they certainly make the designs different. If the profitability of microtransactions makes it so most companies go towards this model with their big-budget titles, then that is a shame and a loss, because there are lots of designs that are interesting and important to the art form to explore, but that don’t lend themselves to microtransactions and free-to-play. I hope single-purchase, “complete experience” games don’t go away; not because I’m old and curmudgeonly–although I am–but because there is an entire subspace of game design there that still needs to be explored.

A New Hope

League of Legends, one of last year’s most successful strategy games, provides an interesting case study which ultimately shows that Hecker’s primary concern – the design space explored by single-purchase games could be lost – is valid. The game is commonly held up as the best example of free-to-play design done right. Not only has League of Legends been both wildly popular and commercially successful (see the $400 million purchase above), the game has also garnered critical acclaim, sweeping the first-ever Game Developers Choice Online Awards. Most importantly, however, the game’s business model has been accepted peacefully by the core gamer community, one which typically views microtransactions with suspicion.

Because Leagues of Legends is a highly-competitive, team-vs-team arena combat game, microtransactions which could give one side an advantage over another would be wholly unpalatable to a large portion of the Western audience. Instead, the game only hands out bonuses to players who have invested large amounts of time in battle.

The meta-economy employs a dual-currency model common to many free-to-play games, with a time currency (IP) which is earned through play and a cash currency (RP) which is bought with real money. Items which can boosts a player’s abilities (Runes) can only be purchased with the time currency (IP), providing players a strong incentive to keep player to earn more IP. Cosmetic items, which only change the player’s appearance, can only be purchased with the cash currency (RP), which simply appeals to a player’s pride or vanity.

The player can also buy a temporary boost with RP which increases the rate IP is earned. This microtransaction present a time-vs-money question to the player; she can spend some money now to earn Runes faster, or she can simply play some more games to earn the extra amount of IP required.

Still, the most interesting microtransaction is the character unlocks. League of Legends descends directly from the popular Warcraft 3 mod Defense of the Ancients, in which the player gives up control of an army of units for control of a single hero. The mod’s depth came from the different combination of hero types – 103 in the current version. League of Legends has a similarly large stable of “champions” – 72 as of March 2011.

However, these 72 champions are not all available at all times. Instead, a rotating selection of around ten are available each week, which means that players have only limited control over which champion they can use. This cycle can greatly upset a player who has become quite good with a specific champion but who must now learn a new one. Some players enjoy the challenge of mastering a new set of skills and attributes, but many others prefer to keep winning with a champion that works for them.

Accordingly, League of Legends gives players the option to unlock champions permanently, with either IP or RP. Like the energy mechanic common in social games, the character unlocks are charging players for their impatience. Can they wait weeks until their favorite champion is again available for free or days until they earn enough IP to buy the unlock, or will they just spend some real money right now to get back into the action with their favorite character? This model works well for both gamers, who are getting an incredible experience for free, and for the developer, who can rely on player impatience to generate revenue.

Nonetheless, single-purchase games would never be designed this way, with players limited to a small sub-set of possible characters each week. (Indeed, the single-purchase strategy game Command and Conquer 4 was roundly criticized for forcing players to “earn” the right to build certain units over multiple play sessions.) Although League of Legends could make the transition to a single-purchase game by simply unlocking the majority of champions immediately, not all single-purchase games could just as easily make the transition to free-to-play.

For example, StarCraft 2 is not so easy to imagine as a free-to-play game. The franchise is a model of a tight, elegant ruleset, with no extraneous parts or redundant options to muddy the design. Indeed, even with the new units added for the sequel, Blizzard removed enough old elements to keep the unit count down near the original 12 per race. Indeed, few reviewers even felt the need to comment on the lack of a fourth race to differentiate the two versions.

Could StarCraft 2 follow the League of Legends model? Perhaps Blizzard could allow everyone to play the Terrans for free but only offer the Zerg and the Protoss to paying players? This model would probably fail both for business reasons (not enough opportunity for repeatable purchases) and for design reasons (having 90% of the players forced to use Terrans would destroy the balance). Anything more aggressive – like actually selling extra siege tanks during battles – would violate the concept of a fair playing field, a core tenet for strategy games.

An Old Lesson

Thus, if Activision believes that making a game of StarCraft 2’s scope is not worth the effort, will this type of tight, intricate design simply disappear? Although microtransactions are still relatively new in Western video games, they are not new for physical games in the West. The emergence of Magic: The Gathering and other collectible card games (CCGs) in the ‘90s showed the power of microtransactions for encouraging players to make recurring purchases within the same game system over many years. The makers of CCGs have been dealing with this new world which necessarily mixes business and game design at least a decade before us.

However, the wild success of CCGs – Magic still regularly grosses over $200 million yearly, which dwarfs non-collectible card games – did not send single-purchase, “complete experience” physical games into extinction. Indeed, the card and board game industry is more diverse and innovative than ever before.

In fact, two of the most successful card games of the last few years have taken a mechanic directly from Magic, adapted it to fit the format of a single-purchase game, and found commercial and critical success. Dominion turned the meta-game of a CCG into a traditional card game by having players build and play a deck of cards during the game. 7 Wonders turned drafting, a folk method for distributing CCG cards, into a game by conducting a single draft after each individual card play.

These examples of successful single-purchase games emerging from the shadow of Magic prove this format can still thrive in a world with microtransactions. Indeed, these designers brought some of the gameplay of Magic to a new audience simply because not everyone is ready to buy only a small part of a card game, which will never be complete. Many gamers will never be ready for CCGs, just as many gamers will never be ready to spend money on a free-to-play game.

Thus, if every video game adopts microtransactions, many players will be left behind who are looking for a different type of experience. Microtransactions DO warp the game design towards a model that supports recurring purchases. However, this shift leaves a great deal of space behind as a vacuum ready to be filled by smaller publishers and developers who are looking for great opportunities. The profits from single-purchase games can easily justify the development costs for teams that take their budgets seriously, and these profits can only go up as more and more big publishers abandon this still fertile design space.

GD Column 17: Water Finds a Crack

The following was published in the March 2011 issue of Game Developer magazine…

“This is what games are for. They teach us things so that we can minimize risk and know what choices to make. Phrased another way, the destiny of games is to become boring, not to be fun. Those of us who want games to be fun are fighting a losing battle against the human brain because fun is a process and routine is its destination.”

– Raph Koster, A Theory of Fun

Many players cannot help approaching a game as an optimization puzzle. What gives the most reward for the least risk? What strategy provides the highest chance – or even a guaranteed chance – of success? Given the opportunity, players will optimize the fun out of a game.

Games, however, are so complex that it is difficult to anticipate exactly how players will optimize a game until after release, once thousands bang away at the game and share their ideas with each other online. Often, designers don’t even understand their own games until they finally see them in the wild.

A phrase we used on the Civilization development team to describe this phenomenon is that “water finds a crack” – meaning that any hole a player can possibly find in the game’s design will be inevitably abused over and over. The greatest danger is that once a player discovers such an exploit, she will never be able to play the game again without using it – the knowledge cannot be ignored or forgotten, even if the player wishes otherwise.

Civilization 3 provides a simple example with “lumberjacking” – the practice of farming forests for infinite production. Chopping down a forest gives 10 hammers to the nearest city. However, forests can also be replanted once the appropriate tech is discovered.

This set of rules encourages players to have a worker planting a forest and chopping it down on every tile within their empire in order to create an endless supply of hammers. However, the process itself is tedious and mind-numbing, killing the fun for players who wanted to play optimally.

Tank-Mages and Infinite City Sleaze

One of the dangers of players looking to optimize a game is that a single dominant strategy will emerge that drowns out all others. In the MMO world, the shorthand term for this predicament is the “tank-mage” – a reference to Ultima Online, in which certain hybrid class builds could both wear heavy armor and cast powerful damage spells.

Thus, the character served as both the damage absorber (the “tank”) and the damage dealer (the “mage”), displacing most other possible character builds. Almost every MMO has experienced some version of the tank-mage as players try to find the optimal build for all situations.

The Civ series has its own version of the tank-mage – the strategy of spamming settlers for “infinite city sleaze” (or ICS), a bane of the franchise from the beginning. The essential problem is that 50 size-2 cities are more powerful than 5 size-20 cities as a number of bonuses are given out on a per-city basis. For example, every city gets to work its home tile for free, which means that a size-2 city works 3 tiles with only 2 citizens (1.5 tiles per citizen) while a size-20 city works 21 tiles (only 1.05 tiles per citizen).

The problem is that while ICS makes beating the highest difficulty levels trivially easy, handling 100 cities is a management nightmare. Players who pursued this strategy – or even less extreme versions of it – were always aware that they were breaking the game but often simply couldn’t stop themselves.

Armed with knowledge from the earlier versions of the game, we were able to counter ICS ahead of time with Civ 4 by adding a per-city maintenance cost that scaled with the total number of cities. Thus, building too many cities too early crippled a player’s economy, killing ICS at long last.

The reason to kill tank-mages and ICS is that a single, dominant strategy actually takes away choice from a game because all other options are provably sub-optimal. The sweet spot for game design is when a specific decision is right in some circumstances but not in others, with a wide grey area between the two extremes. Games lose their dynamic quality once a strategy emerges that dominates under all conditions.

Undervaluing Time

When presenting players with a choice, games typically pairs a specific reward with a certain level of risk. When gamers discover that one play style offers a trickle of reward for little or no risk, they will inevitably gravitate towards that degenerate strategy.

In other words, players will trade time for safety, but they risk undervaluing their own time to the point that they are undermining their own enjoyment of the game. A classic example is the skill system from Morrowind, which rewards players for repeating any activity. Running into a wall for hours increases the Athletics skill while jumping over and over again increases the Acrobatics skill. Many players couldn’t stop themselves from spending hours doing mindless activities for these cheap rewards.

Another example of players undervaluing their own time comes from growth, production, and research overflow in the Civ series. Every turn, cities produce food, hammers, and beakers, filling up various boxes. Once these boxes are full, new citizens, buildings, units, and technologies are created.

For example, if a civilization produces 20 beakers per turn, and Writing costs 100 beakers, the technology will be discovered after 5 turns. However, if the same civilization produces 21 beakers per turn, the box for Writing will contain 105 beakers at the end of 5 turns. In that situation, after Writing is discovered, the extra 5 beakers are thrown away so that the box will be empty when the player starts researching Alphabet on the next turn. Players quickly realized that when they came close to finishing a tech, they could adjust their tax rate so that no beakers would be wasted (because those beakers are all potential gold at a different rate).

A similar dynamic exists with food and hammers for city growth and production. Thus, the game’s rules encourage players to visit every city every turn to rearrange their citizens to ensure no food or hammers will be lost. This micro-management is actually a somewhat interesting sub-game, but clearly not how the designers want the players to be spending their time as it completely bogs down the game. (We solved this in Civ 4 by simply applying the overflow food/hammers/beakers to the next citizen/unit/building/technology.)

Players who adopt this strategy often refer to the game as being heavy on “micro-management” because they can no longer resist playing the game without squeezing every last drop out of their cities. The problem is even worse in multi-player as gamers who don’t micro-manage their cities will always fall behind in the race for more growth and production.

The designers don’t want people to play this way; nonetheless, the rules inadvertently encourage it. Again, designers often don’t understand their own games as well as the players do. The problem with a gamer undervaluing his own time is that, while the easy rewards may feel good at first, eventually the amount of time required will slowly seep away the fun per minute, until the game begins to feel like a grind.

Good Exploits?

However, designers can go too far by trying to remove all exploits from a game. Often, the right choice depends upon the game’s context. Does the exploit drown out all other play styles, or is it a fun, alternative way to play? Does the degenerate strategy create an endless grind, or is it a quick shortcut for players who need a little help?

The famous, endless free lives trick from Super Mario Bros. – in which the player bounced a turtle shell repeatedly against a block staircase for long strings of 1UP’s – was actually not a bug but a feature the team included on purpose. In exchange for mastering a small dexterity challenge, players can quickly mine all the free lives they need to progress in the game. Discovering and abusing a hole in a game’s design can be a fun experience – giving the player a unique sense of mastery – as long as the exploit doesn’t ruin the game for the player (or the player’s opponents).

If possible, designers should provide the ability to turn an exploit on or off, giving the players control over their worst instincts. For example, most games with save/load functionality can be abused by players to improve their odds; an RPG in which smashing a box produces random loot can be reloaded as many times as necessary until the best possible weapon or armor appears.

With Civ 3, we introduced a feature that preserved the game’s random seed in the save game file, guaranteeing that individual combats would play out the same way regardless of how many times the player reloaded the game. No longer were players tempted to reload every bad combat result, which could slow the game to a crawl.

However, the community response was not what we anticipated. Although some players appreciated that they were no longer tempted to reload combats, many others were frustrated that one of their old tricks disappeared. Indeed, some angry fans actually felt that the game was cheating on them by always reproducing the same combat result!

We solved this problem by turning this feature into an option on game start. Players who want the chance to reload a particularly unlucky roll can use the old exploit, but the game, by default, discourages this work-intensive strategy. Ultimately, the designer can’t go wrong putting the player in control of his or her own experience.