GD Column 8: Turn-Based vs. Real-Time

The following was published in the August 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine…

One of the most important choices a designer makes at the start of a project is deciding whether to make a turn-based game or a real-time one. Each type of base game mechanic provides potential benefits and drawbacks. While turn-based games favor more strategic and transparent play, they can feel a little stodgy to players used to action-oriented titles. Real-time games, on the other hand, are more immersive and multiplayer-friendly but can also easily overwhelm new players if they are not well-paced.

Turn-based games, of course, descend directly from the board game tradition which predates video games. Indeed, the fanbase for turn-based games still overlaps significantly with the fanbase for board and card games. Real-time games (excluding sports) were only truly possible with the advent of computers. Indeed, quite a few games – Super Mario Bros.Team FortressFIFAPac-Man – could only ever conceivably be developed as real-time games.

However, quite a few games could go either way, with an understanding that each path comes with its own set of trade-offs. Roguelike dungeon-crawlers, for example, have been made as both turn-based and real-time games. Early versions, such as NetHack, were purely turn-based; the game’s clock only moves forward each time the player takes an action. However, Blizzard’s Diablo put the same explore-and-loot formula into a real-time environment and created an experience that was less strategic but more visceral and potentially addictive. Furthermore, without the waiting inherent in a turn-based system, the designers could develop a viable multiplayer mode.

Nonetheless, Diablo has not surplanted the continuing popularity of turn-based roguelikes, such as Pokemon Mystery Dungeon or Shiren the Wanderer, which maintain their own tactical charm. Thus, deciding between turn-based and real-time is not a question of which system is “better” or “worse” but rather a question of which set of trade-offs best fits the game the designer wants to make.

How Much Stuff?

One simple way to look at a game is by asking how many game systems and elements the player needs to master to feel competent. For example, a typical shooter might have ten weapons; a real-time strategy game might have fifteen units per side; a role-playing game might have twenty spells available. New players can often be intimidated by the sheer quantity of new concepts and options a game presents to them, and the time pressure of a real-time game only makes this learning experience an even greater challenge.

When first prototyping the original Civilization, Sid Meier originally built the game as a real-time simulation. Inspired by Will Wright’s SimCity, he tried to extend the concept to a global scale. He quickly found, however, that players were overwhelmed by the high number of new game systems they needed to juggle at once. After all, SimCity had no diplomacy, no trade, no combat, no research, and definitely no marauding barbarians. Thus, he changed course and rebuilt his prototype as a turn-based game, and the phrase “just one more turn” entered the gaming lexicon.

Designers always should be aware that each game can only contain so much “stuff” before the center cannot hold, and the experience overpowers the senses. By removing time pressure, turn-based games allow players to adjust the learning curve to their own needs. Veterans can still play quickly, but new players can take their time poking around the interface and thinking through their moves.

Thus, turn-based games are generally more accessible than real-time ones. It is no surprise that many of the most popular casual games are turn-based, from staples like Solitaire and Minesweeper to PopCap’s stable of BejewelledBookworm, and Peggle.

Deterministic or Chaotic Play?

At their core, turn-based and real-time games play to different strengths. One example is the question of whether an experience should be deterministic or chaotic. With the former, success often depends on knowing exactly what the results of one’s actions will be; in Puzzle Quest, for example, the player needs to know that when a row of four skulls disappears, the other pieces will fall in a specific way so that a new column of consecutive red gems might form. Just because some luck elements are involved – such as the unknown new pieces which fall from the top – doesn’t mean that the player isn’t mapping out an exact series of events in her head. This sequential gameplay is one of the core strengths of turn-based games.

On the other hand, chaotic, unpredictable gameplay is a strength of real-time games. When players first spot a heavy-medic combo in Team Fortress 2, they know that they are probably in trouble, but the sequence of events to follow is so varied that players know it’s impossible to overanalyze the situation. A sniper could kill the medic. An explosion might knock the heavy off a platform. A spy might sneak up behind them. An event on the other side of the map might encourage one side to simply abandon the area. Real-time games support chaotic gameplay best because, with the added pressure of a shared clock, players are not able to reduce each situation down to a repeatable series of moves and counter-moves.

Multiplayer or Single-Player?

Another divide which defines the different strengths of turn-based and real-time games is whether the focus of the experience is multiplayer or single-player. Generally speaking, multiplayer games work best in real-time wheras turn-based games usually focus on single-player sessions. Turn-based games, like Advance Wars and Civilization, have only a tiny, hard-core multiplayer audience. On the other hand, real-time games with similar themes, such as Command & Conquer and Age of Empires, respectively, gained much of their popularity from their multi-player modes.

The reason for this divide is clear – waiting for another player to finish his turn is anathema to fun – so designers looking for a synchronous, multiplayer experience almost always prefer real-time games. However, because no one else is waiting, designers of purely single-player games give themselves the option of using turn-based elements whenever convenient, to either add some spice or allow more strategic play. For example, the single-player game Fallout 3 allows players to pause real-time combat and enter V.A.T.S. mode to strategize which enemy body parts to target, even displaying the exact probability of success for each possible choice. Similarly, the Baldur’s Gate series is a hybrid model, with real-time combat that pauses depending on certain player-selected events, such as when a character receives damage or a new enemy becomes visible.

Breaking the Rules

Indeed, these games are but a few of the many games that blur the line between “pure” turn-based and real-time systems. For example, what about turn-based decisions with a time limit, such as Madden‘s play-calling clock? What about X-Com, with its crunchy real-time strategic shell surrounding a gooey turn-based tactical core? Or the Total War series, which does the exact opposite? What about Europa Universalis, which is technically real-time but plays out so slowly that it “feels” like a classic, sprawling turn-based strategy game. How about asynchronous Web-based games like Travian, which play out over months instead of minutes, eliminating the time pressure but keeping the multi-player benefits of real-time play? What about Bang! Howdy, which plays as a typical tile-based tactical wargame, except that each unit’s turns regenerate in real-time? In reality, a vast continuum stretches from one extreme to the other, and most games find a space somewhere in the middle.

Therefore, the most important thing to focus on is not the labels themselves but what types of gameplay they represent. For example, the tower-defense game Plants vs. Zombies is ostensibly real-time, but its characteristics are more in line with traditional turn-based games. Besides being solely a single-player game, the gameplay itself is strictly deterministic, even moreso than many turn-based games. The map consists of five tracks along which the zombies progress, each with exactly nine slots on which to place defensive plants. Furthermore, the zombies’ behavior is entirely predictable – Pole Valuting Zombies will always jump over blocking Wall-nuts, even if that means falling right into the jaws of a Chomper plant. The game may look chaotic to an observer, but – like most tower-defense games – the strategic play is built upon predictable enemy behavior. The real-time mechanics simply provide time pressure, not the other qualities usually associated with the format, such as chaotic play or a multi-player mode.

Likewise, Boom Blox is a turn-based game which eskews the usual strengths of the format. In the game, players have a discrete number of throws during which to knock down various block-based structures. Unlike most turn-based games, however, Boom Blox is a very chaotic affair, with unpredictable physics-based game mechanics. Furthermore, unlike Plants vs. Zombies, in which players’ actions take place on a precise 5-by-9 grid, players of Boom Blox use strictly analog controls to point at the screen and then “throw” the ball with the WiiMote. Chaos theory dictates that an identical series of throws will almost never happen twice in a row. Furthermore, this unpredictable nature coupled with the very short turns (each only a single throw) makes Boom Blox an excellent multi-player game, a rare feat for turn-based video games.

Thus, in the end, deciding whether to make a game real-time or turn-based is less important than deciding which aspects of those formats are most relevant to the overall design. As they say, one needs to learn the rules to know how to break them.

GD Column 7: Our Cheatin’ Hearts

The following was published in the May 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine…

The designers of Puzzle Quest have a frustrating burden to bear – everyone thinks they are a bunch of dirty cheaters. The game centers on a competitive version of Bejewelled, in which players duel with an AI to create the most “match-3” colored patterns.

The problem comes from how the pieces on the gameboard are created – when, for example, a column of three green orbs is lined up and removed from play, new pieces fall in to take their place. However, sometimes, these three new pieces happen to be of all the same type, which means that a new match is automatically made, and the player scores again. The odds of such a result are low (around 2% for getting three of the same colors in a row), but they are still high enough that a player will see it many times with enough games played.

Of course, the AI is playing the same game, so the player will see this lucky match fall into the enemy’s lap as well. At this point, human psychology takes over. Because the new pieces are hidden from view, how does the player know that the computer is not conducting some funny business and giving itself some free matches?

The human mind is notoriously bad at grasping probability, so many players are convinced that the AI is cheating. The developers have pledged over and over again that everything is fair and even, but whether they like it or not, the player experience has been affected by the simply possibility of cheating.

Trust Me

Games do not start with a player’s trust – this trust needs to be earned over time. Our audience is well aware that we can make a game do whatever we want under the hood, so the transparency and consistency of a game’s rules contribute significantly to player immersion. The worst feeling for a player is when they perceive – or just suspect – that a game is breaking its own rules and treating the human unfairly.

This situation is especially challenging for designers of symmetrical games, in which the AI is trying to solve the same problems as the human is. For asymmetrical games, cheating is simply bad game design – imagine the frustration which would result from enemies in Half-Life warping around the map to flank the player or guards in Thief instantly spotting a player hiding in the shadows.

However, under symmetrical conditions, artificial intelligence often needs to cheat just to be able to compete with the player. Accordingly, designers must learn what cheats feel fair to a player and what cheats do not. As the Puzzle Quest team knows, games need to avoid situations in which players even suspect that the game is cheating on them.

Cheating is not the same thing as difficulty levels – by which the players are asking the game to provide extra challenges for them. Cheating is whether a game is treating the player “fairly” – rewarding them for successful play and not arbitrarily punishing them just to maintain the challenge. Unfortunately, in practice, the distinction between difficulty levels and cheating is not so clear.

Show the Mechanics

Fans of racing games are quite familiar with this gray area. A common tactic employed by AI programmers to provide an appropriate level of challenge is to “rubberband” the cars together. In other words, the code ensures that if the AI cars fall too far behind the human, they will speed up. On the other hand, if the human falls behind, the AI slows down to allow the player to recover.

The problem is that this tactic is often obvious to the players, which either dulls their sense of accomplishment when they win or raises suspicions when they lose. Ironically, games which turn rubberbanding into an explicit game mechanic often becomes more palatable to their players.

For example, the Mario Kart series has long disproportionately divvied out rewards from the mystery item boxes sprinkled around the tracks relative to the riders’ current standings. While the first-place racer might receive a shell only useful for attacking other lead cars, players in the rear might get a speed bullet which automatically warps them to the middle of the pack.

These self-balancing mechanics are common to board games – think of the robber blocking the leader’s tiles in Settlers of Catan – and they don’t feel like cheating because the game is so explicit about how the system works. Thus, players understand that the bonuses available to the AI will also be available to themselves if they fall behind. With cheating, perception becomes reality, so transparency is the antidote to suspicion and distrust.

Cheating in Civilization

Sometime, however, hidden bonuses and cheats are still necessary to provide the right challenge for the player. The Civilization series provides plenty of examples of how this process can go awry and drive players crazy with poorly-handled cheating.

Being turn-based, the developers could not rely on a human’s natural limitations within a real-time environment. Instead, Civilization gives out a progressive series of unit, building, and technology discounts for the AI as the levels increase (as well as penalties at the lowest levels). Because of their incremental nature, these cheats have never earned much ire from the players. Their effect is too small to notice on a turn-by-turn basis, and players who pry into the details usually understand why these bonuses are necessary.

On the other hand, many other cheats have struck players as unfair. In the original version of the game, the AI could create units for free under the fog-of-war, a situation which clearly showed how the computer was playing by different rules from the human. Also, AI civilizations would occasionally receive free “instant” Wonders, often robbing a player of many turns of work. While an AI beating the human to a Wonder using the slow drip of steady bonuses was acceptable, granting it the Wonder instantly felt entirely different.

How a cheat will be perceived has much more to do with the inconsistencies and irrationality of human psychology than any attempt to measure up to some objective standard of fairness. Indeed, while subtle gameplay bonuses might not bother a player, other, legitimate strategies could drive players crazy, even if they know that a fellow human might pursue the exact same path as the AI has.

For example, in the original Civ, the AI was hard-wired to declare war on the human if the player was leading the game by 1900AD. This strategy felt unfair to players – who felt that the AI was ganging up on the human – even though most of them would have followed the same strategy without a second thought in a multi-player game.

In response, by the time of Civ3, we guaranteed that the AI did not consider whether an opponent was controlled by a human or a computer when conducting diplomacy. However, these changes still did not inoculate us against charges of unfairness. Civ3 allowed open trading – such as technology for maps or resources for gold. An enterprising human player would learn when to demand full price for their technologies and when to take whatever they could get – from a weak opponent with very little wealth, for example.

We adapted the AI to follow this same tactic, so that it would be able to take whatever gold it could from a backwards neighbor. To the players, however, the AI’s appeared to be once again ganging up against the human. Because the AI civs were fairly liberal with trading, they all tended to be around the same technology level, which led the player to believe that they were forming their own non-human trading cartel, spreading technologies around like candy (or, in the parlance of our forums, “tech-whoring”).

Perception is Reality

Once again, perception is reality. The question is not whether the AI is playing “fairly” but what is the game experience for the player? If questions of fairness keep creeping into the player’s mind, the game needs to be changed. Thus, for Civ4, we intentionally crippled the AI’s ability to trade with one another to ensure that a similar situation did not develop.

The computer is still a black box to players, so single events based on hidden mechanics need to be handled with great care. Sports game developers, for example, need to be very sensitive to how often a random event hurts the player, such as a fumble, steal, or ill-timed error. The dangers of perceived unfairness are simply too great.

Returning to our original example, the developers of Puzzle Quest actually should have considered cheating, but only in favor of the player. The game code could ensure that fortunate drops only happen for the human and never for the AI. The ultimate balance of the game could still be maintained by tweaking the power of the AI’s equipment and spells – changes which appear “fair” because they are explained explicitly to the player. The overall experience would thus be improved by the removal of these negative outliers that only serve to stir up suspicion. When the question is one of fairness, the player is always right.

GD Column 6: Asynchronicity

The following was published in the March 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine…

One of the first things that separated video games from board, card, and parlor games was real-time interaction. The computer could handle all the details and challenges inherent in allowing two (or more) people to play the same game at the same time. Indeed, despite the name, the first multi-player video games may have had their roots more in sports than in games. Pong, after all, was inspired by table tennis. These early experiences were inherently synchronous, meaning that the players experienced the game together, at the same time, on the same machine. Since then, the synchronous format has been the default model for multi-player video games, and – with the arrival of online gaming – this same experience could be enjoyed even by people who were not necessarily in the same location.

The synchronous model is so deeply embedded in the standards and traditions of the industry – think Doom, StarCraft, Madden, EverQuest, and so on – that few designers consciously consider that synchronous play is simply a design choice. Another option exists – asynchronous play, meaning multi-player games that can be experienced in bite-sized chunks at different times for each player. The board-game world provides examples of games which can be played using this format, such as play-by-mail chess or wargames. The most successful game for this format is clearly Diplomacy, the classic game of back-stabbing, which rewards secret negotiations and hidden pacts difficult to achieve in a synchronous format. Indeed, with the appearance of the Web, a number of unofficial sites have sprung up giving players a moderated, asynchronous Diplomacy experience online.

One of the reasons Diplomacy works so well as an asynchronous game is that the turns are executed simultaneously. In other words, unlike sequential games like chess, in which players take turns performing actions, all moves in Diplomacy are done at the same time. Players submit their orders secretly to a gamemaster who then handles all interactions and conflicts according to the carefully crafted rules. This format is ideal for an asynchronous experience because all players get to make a decision every single turn. More traditional board games, from Risk and Monopoly to Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride, would slow down to a painful crawl in asynchronous play because the vast majority of turns are spent waiting for other players to make their moves. Thus, asynchronous play favors a specific style of game mechanics, ones which minimize waiting and keep players involved as much as possible.

Games for Real People

Asynchronous games hold a number of advantages over their synchronous counterparts. To begin, the time pressure of a standard turn-based game is eliminated. No more are 4 or 5 other gamers sitting around a table, waiting for the slow player to make up his mind. Instead, a player could take an hour deciding what to do without negatively impacting the flow of the game. Furthermore, asynchronous play allows multi-player gaming – still the richest, most engaging experience available – to fit the schedule of regular people with busy lives and unpredictable free time, across multiple time zones. Few adults can afford the total devotion required to participate in a five-hour, 40-man MMO raid. In contrast, an asynchronous game can allow a large group of friends to play together as long as each player can find 15 minutes per day to check the game. In Diplomacy, the English player can submit her moves in the morning, and the French can do it at night – or vice-versa – whatever works best for each one.

Indeed, the ideal online asynchronous game goes a step further than Diplomacy, which can still hang if one player neglects to send in a turn, by moving to a real-time format in which the game progresses regardless of an individual player’s specific actions. In fact, fantasy sports games follow exactly this model. Once a league is initiated, scores are tabulated each day of the season whether players log-on or not. However, the players are all full participants in their league whether they check their teams once every other week or hit the waiver wire multiple times per day. The strength of this model can clearly be seen by the astounding popularity of online fantasy leagues, with at least 30 million North American players in 2007, according to a study by the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. (In fact, a case could be made that fantasy sports are the most popular form of multi-player gaming in the world.) Players with different commitment levels can play together and still enjoy the experience – a statement which definitely cannot be made about your typical RTS.

Looking to the Web

Few good examples of asynchronous gaming exist for AAA retail video games, besides some play-by-email modes for older strategy games. For Civilization 4, we created a PitBoss (“Persistent Turn-Based Server”) option which allowed large games of up to 32 players in which players could log-on at any time to execute their turns. Combined with simultaneous movement and a 24-hour turn timer, epic games of Civilization were finally manageable thanks to the asynchronous format. One could also say that World of Warcraft‘s focus on solo content is a form of asynchronous play, in that players could finally participate in a traditional MMO without needing to juggle the logistics of managing a raid schedule or looking for a pick-up group. Furthermore, Leaderboards and Achievements are also a form of asynchronous interaction layered on top of traditional single-player or synchronous multi-player games, enabling a extra level of socialization for gamers across multiple sessions.

However, most of the innovative asynchronous games exist on the Web, a platform already built upon asynchronous interactions. Many Facebook games, like Wordscraper (née Scrabulous), manage the persistence of simple turn-based games while using the social networking aspects of Facebook to make it easier to challenge one’s friends. Games can be played between two friends over a few hours or a few months – whatever matches their level of commitment. Asynchronous MMOs exist as well, such as Mob Wars and Knighthood on Facebook or Nile Online and Travian on their own sites.

All of these games allow players to grow and develop some entity within a larger world, for prestige or challenge or the simple pleasures of levellings. In Nile Online, for example, players control a city on the banks of the Nile, each one with a unique resource, such as cedar, gold, or oil. As the cities grow, they begin trading with nearby players to acquire the resources they need – perhaps bronze for sculptures or emeralds for jewelry – or to sell their own excess goods for a profit. Eventually, players can see their cities rise in the global rankings or create great Monuments for further renown.

Meaningful Interaction?

The challenge with these asynchronous MMOs is that, while they do have some of the advantages of a multi-player environment, they tend to feel more like a less predictable single-player game. Player interaction is fairly light as most of mechanics focus simply on developing one’s own domain, without much concern for the neighbors. Allowing meaningful interaction between players is a challenge because, by definition, the system can only assume one player is logged-on at a time. If one player could wipe out another player’s city, what if the latter player is asleep? Would it be fun to wake up and discover all of one’s hard-earned progress destroyed without a chance to counter the attack?

Thus, most of the games include options to lessen the impact of other players’ actions. In Travian, for example, a player can build a Cranny which automatically protect her resources when another player ransacks the town. However, these mechanics are ultimately self-defeating; player interaction is either meaningful or it is not. If zero-sum mechanics, like resource raids, are too powerful and negate the advantages of asynchronous play – the ability to set one’s own play schedule – then the developers should focus on the parallel competition mechanics of the game instead, building a Wonder first or achieving economic dominance.

One asynchronous web-based game which tries to solves this problem while keeping meaningful zero-sum mechanics is Duels, a fantasy-themed MMO in which characters level up by fighting one another. The system is asynchronous because players do not actually need to be online when their characters fight. Instead, a warrior might challenge a wizard to a duel, which is only played out when the wizard actually accepts the challenge later that same day. The advantage is that while the conflict and interaction is meaningful, the players themselves can still play the game at whatever pace they prefer without worrying about looking for games in the lobby or rage-quitters spoiling the battles. However, the problem is that, because players can be offline when combat occurs, no meaningful decisions actually occur during the duel itself. Thus, combat is a “black box” which takes in two characters and spits out a result. If a good game should be a series of interesting decisions, Duels paints itself into a corner by taking control away from the player.

Native Asynchronous Play

Truth to be told, asynchronous games are still in their infancy from a design perspective. Their future is promising as the potential audience for asynchronous multi-player games is much great than the potential audience for synchronous ones – although anyone who can find time for synchronous games can find time for asynchronous ones, the opposite is not true. The challenge is, instead of aping mechanics from established synchronous games, finding game mechanics native to the format itself, ones which make sense only in an asynchronous world. The best example of such a game is Parking Wars, a Facebook game in which players earn money by parking for an extended period of time on another player’s street. The trick is that if a car is parked illegally, then the owner of that street can steal all the money the car had earned by handing out a parking ticket.

Thus, the best strategy is knowing what times one’s friends are less likely to be checking their streets for illegally parked cars and using that knowledge to earn money. The counter-strategy, of course, is to check one’s own street at unexpected times to catch one’s friends trying to do the same. Thus, the game cleverly uses the actual time players are off-line as the game’s content. Unlike the mechanics of the other asynchronous games mentioned previously, the rules behind Parking Wars could not work at all in a synchronous environment. Designers of future asynchronous games should follow this precedent – the time has come to stop retrofitting synchronous mechanics into an asynchronous shell and to find the format’s native voice.

GD Column 5: Sid’s Rules

The following was published in the January 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine…

Most game developers are familiar with Sid’s dictum that “a good game is a series of interesting choices.” In fact, my co-columnist Damion Schubert started his recent article on player choice (October 2008) by referencing this famous quote. However, over the course of his career, Sid has developed a few other general rules of game design, which I heard him discuss many times during my seven years (2000-2007) at his studio, Firaxis Games. As these insights are quite practical lessons for designers, they are also worthy of discussion.

Double it or Cut it by Half

Good games can rarely be created in a vacuum, which is why many designers advocate an iterative design process, during which a simple prototype of the game is built very early and then iterated on repeatedly until the game becomes a shippable product. Sid called this process “finding the fun,” and the probability of success is often directly related to the number of times a team can turn the crank on the loop of developing an idea, play-testing the results, and then adjusting based on feedback. As the number of times a team can go through this cycle is finite, developers should not waste time with small changes. Instead, when making gameplay adjustments, developers should aim for significant changes that will provoke a tangible response.

If a unit seems too weak, don’t lower its cost by 5%; instead, double its strength. If players feel overwhelmed by too many upgrades, try removing half of them. In the original Civilization, the gameplay kept slowing down to a painful crawl, which Sid solved by shrinking the map in half. The point is not that the new values are likely to be correct – the goal is to stake out more design territory with each successive iteration.

Imagine the design space of a new game to be an undiscovered world. The designers may have a vague notion of what exists beyond the horizon, but without experimentation and testing, these assumptions remain purely theoretically. Thus, each radical change opens up a new piece of land for the team to consider before settling down for the final product.

One Good Game is Better than Two Great Ones

Sid liked to call this one the “Covert Action Rule,” a reference to a not-altogether-successful spy game he made in the early ’90s:

The mistake I made was actually having two games competing with each other. There was an action game where you break into a building and do all sorts of picking up clues and things like that, and then there was the story which involved a plot where you had to figure out who the mastermind was and what cities they were in, and it was an involved mystery-type plot. Individually, each part could have been a good game. Together, they fought with each other. You would have this mystery that you were trying to solve, then you would be facing this action sequence, and you’d do this cool action thing, and you’d get out of the building, and you’d say, “What was the mystery I was trying to solve?” Covert Action integrated a story and action poorly because the action was actually too intense – you’d spend ten minutes or so of real time in a mission, and by the time you got out, you had no idea of what was going on in the world.

In other words, even though both sections of the game were fun on their own, their co-existence ruined the experience because the player could not focus her attention on one or the other. This rule points to a larger issue, which is that all design choices only have value in relation to one another, each coming with their own set of cost/benefit trade-offs. Choosing to make a strategic game also means choosing not to make a tactical one. Thus, an idea may be “fun” on its own but still not make the game better if it distracts the player from the target experience. Indeed, this rule is clearly the reason why the Civ franchise has never dabbled with in-depth, tactical battles every time combat occurs.

However, sometimes multiple games can co-exist in harmony with each other. Sid’s own Pirates! is an example of a successful game built out of a collection of fighting, sailing, and dancing mini-games. However, these experiences were always very short – a few minutes at the most – leaving the primary focus on the meta-game of role-playing a pirate. Each short challenge was a tiny step along a more important larger path, of plundering all Spanish cities or rescuing your long-lost relatives.

Another example of a successful mix of separate sub-games is X-Com, which combined a tactical, turn-based, squad-level combat game with a strategic, real-time, resource-management game. As with Pirates!, what makes X-Com work is that the game chose a focus – in this case, the compelling tactical battles between your marines and the invading aliens. The high-level, strategic meta-game exists only to provide a loose framework in which these battles – which could take as long as a half hour each – actually matter. One doesn’t fight the aliens to get to manage resources later; instead, one manages resources to get to perform better – and have more fun – in future battles.

Do your Research after the Game is Done

Many of the most successful games of all time – SimCityGrand Theft Auto, Civilization, Rollercoaster Tycoon, The Sims – have real-world themes, which broadens their potential audience by building the gameplay around concepts familiar to everyone. However, creating a game about a real topic can lead to a natural but dangerous tendency to cram the product full of bits of trivia and obscure knowledge to show off the amount of research the designer has done. This tendency spoils the very reason why real-world themes are so valuable – that players come to the game with all the knowledge they already need. Everybody knows that gunpowder is good for a strong military, that police stations reduce crime, and that carjacking is very illegal. As Sid puts it, “the player shouldn’t have to read the same books the designer has read in order to be able to play.”

Games still have great potential to educate, just not in the ways that many educators expect. While designers should still be careful not to include anything factually incorrect, the value of an interactive experience is the interplay of simple concepts, not the inclusion of numerous facts and figures. Many remember that the world’s earliest civilizations sprang up along river valleys – the Nile, the Tigris/Euphrates, the Indus – but nothing gets that concept across as effectively as a few simple rules in Civilization governing which tiles produce the most food during the early stages of agriculture. Furthermore, once the core work is done, research can be a very valuable way to flesh out a game’s depth, perhaps with historical scenarios, flavor text, or graphical details. Just remember that learning a new game is an intimidating experience, so don’t throw away the advantages of an approachable topic by expecting the player to already know all the details when the game starts.

The Player Should Have the Fun, not the Designer or the Computer

Creating story-based games can be an intoxicating experience for designers, many of whom go overboard with turgid back stories full of proper nouns, rarely-used consonants, and apostrophes. Furthermore, games based on complex, detailed simulations can be especially opaque if the mysterious inner workings of the algorithmic model remain hidden from view. As Sid liked to say, with these games, either the designer or the computer was the one having the fun, not the player.

For example, during the development of Civilization 4, we experimented with government types that gave significant productivity bonuses but also took away the player’s ability to pick which technologies were researched, what buildings were constructed, and which units were trained, relying instead on a hidden, internal model to simulate what the county’s people would choose on their own. The algorithms were, of course, very fun to construct and interesting to discuss outside of the game. The players, however, felt left behind – the computer was having all the fun – so we cut the feature.

Further, games require not just meaningful choices but also meaningful communication to feel right. Giving players decisions that have consequence but which they cannot understand is no fun. Role-playing games commonly fail at making this connection, such as when players are required to choose classes or skills when “rolling” a character before experiencing even a few seconds of genuine gameplay. How are players supposed to decide between being a Barbarian, a Fighter, or a Paladin before understanding how combat actually works and how each attribute performs in practice? Choice is only interesting when it is both impactful and informed.

Thus, in Sid’s words, the player must “always be the star.” As designers, we need to be the player’s greatest advocate during a game’s development, always considering carefully how design decisions affect both the player’s agency in the world and his understanding of the underlying mechanics.

GD Column 4: Designing for Free

The following was published in the November 2008 issue of Game Developer magazine…

In China, a new MMORPG with a very aggressive business model, entitled ZT Online, has gained significant popularity. With an ARPU of $40/quarter spread over one million paying users, the game has made its publisher, Giant Interactive, one of the most profitable online entertainment companies in China.  Like many Asian games, ZT is free-to-play (F2P) and focuses primarily on player-vs-player gameplay. Not only can players steal from their defeated foes, but weaker characters can even be kidnapped and held for ransom, locking their owners out of the game.

Access to equipment in ZT is very limited. First of all, there are no loot drops from killing monsters or completing quests. Further, all items in the game are completely bound to the owner, so there is no way to trade for better weapons with other players. Instead, the primary way to gain equipment to empower one’s character is by paying real money directly to the publisher to open “treasure chests.” Essentially in-game slot machines, these chest have only a small chance of producing something useful, and finding the best equipment often requires opening thousands of chests. In fact, each day, the game confers a special bonus to the player who has opened the most chests, meaning the player who has spent the most real-world money to obtain better items.

ZT Online‘s complete embrace, at every level of the game, of real-money transactions (RMT) may be appalling to some in the West, but the game is in many ways at the vanguard of a trend to develop games that take advantage of the players’ appetites for spending money to gain in-game advantages. Ironically, the F2P-with-RMT model traces its origins to the challenge of getting Asian gamers to buy boxed, retail games, most of whom preferred the free ride of easy and widespread piracy. In response, Korean companies like Nexon and NCsoft built server-based online games which could not be pirated and would require alternate business models.

Starting with subscriptions (including the world’s first million-subscriber MMO, NCsoft’s Lineage), the Korean industry eventually shifted to F2P games that made money from micro-transactions, such as Nexon’s KartRider and MapleStory. With many of these online games serving tens of millions of players, the Korean model has begun attracting the attention of major Western publishers, who have chartered their own F2P games in Asia, such as EA’s FIFA Online, Valve’s Counter-Strike Online, and THQ’s Company of Heroes Onine.

The promise of F2P games is that gamers will get hooked on a free game and then eventually spend their own money on their new passion. However, designing these games is not a simple endeavor; in fact, the challenges of F2P design can make developers appreciate how fortunate they were when they could design for a fixed-cost product, either a boxed, retail game or a standard, subscription-based MMO. In a fixed-cost world, the designer can focus on just one thing: making the player’s experience as engaging and interesting and fun as possible.

For a F2P game, however, designers have to balance making free content fun enough to engage first-time players but not so much fun that they would not yearn for something more, something that could be turned into a transaction sometime in the future. Every design decision must be made with a mind towards how it affects the balance between free and paid content. Thus, the true cost of piracy is that the line between game business and game design has blurred. As games move from boxed products to ongoing services, business decisions will become increasingly indistinguishable from design decisions. Of course, the industry has seen game designers play businessmen before – a fundamental part of arcade game design was understanding how to suck the most quarters out of players. Thus, understanding how successful F2P game have navigated these waters is instructive.

Business or Design?

The aforementioned 2D MMORPG MapleStory has an in-game RMT store in which players can purchase items for their characters. These purchases can range from purely cosmetic items, such as funny shades or blue-colored hair, to consumables which give actual in-game bonuses. These consumables include tickets for earning double experience points over 24 hours, avatar warps for triggering instant travel, and ability resets for realigning character traits. In a nod to in-game fairness, these bonuses only save the purchaser time instead of directly increasing the power of his character. This distinction is important as RMT can still have in-game meaning without needing to be tied to the game’s best weapons and equipment, as with ZT Online.

Maple Story Cash Store

Another popular F2P game with a different business model is the web-based MMORPG RuneScape, which uses optional subscriptions instead of optional microtransactions. Subscribers gain access to more quests, new areas, player housing, and extra skills. Again, the designers have to decide where to draw the line between free content to grow the game and paid content to drive revenue. As one in every six active players currently chooses to subscribe, they have struck a good balance.

Travian, a successful web-based MMO strategy game, does allow players to purchase temporary in-game bonuses, such as +10% attack strength or +25% wood production for a week. These bonuses have been controversial among the community as many players feel obligated to buy them in order to compete at the highest level. Gamers can also purchase Travian Plus, which unlocks an improved interface to make playing the game more efficient. The Plus mode includes a larger map display, a combat simulator, empire management tools, graphical info screens, and queued construction orders.

As a comparison, all of these features would be expected in a similar boxed, retail strategy game, such as Civilization 4. However, by withholding their best, the designers are walking a dangerous line here as players could be turned off by the purposely crippled interface. For example, in Travian, each of your towns can construct only one upgrade at a time. Thus, players are encouraged to visit their towns every time an upgrade is finished, and as each upgrade might take half an hour, players may need to check the site many, many times each day just to keep pace with their competitors. A simple order queue would fix this problem, but the designers purposely decided to offer this feature only to players willing to pay for Plus.

Whether this decision was right or wrong remains an open question, but perhaps a more important question is who made this decision? Game designers or businessmen? Does it even make sense to think of them as being different in a world where every element of a game can be given a price? Without a good balance of the needs of profit and of fun, F2P games will feel either like a con job designed to suck away all of the player’s money (as with ZT Online) or a charitable endeavor that never acquires the resources needed to develop and grow. However, when facing a difficult decision, one should always err on the side of providing the best free content possible. Greedy developers looking to maximize profits in the short-term risk losing their evangelizers willing to spread the word about a great game which is genuinely free-to-play.

A Free Market Solution

One interesting way to solve this problem – pioneered by Korean companies like Nexon – is the dual currency system, which lets the free market manage the balance. The Java-based MMO Puzzle Pirates employs such a system to meet the needs of both players who are time-rich and players who are cash-rich. One type of currency, Pieces of Eight (PoE), is earned by spending time playing puzzle games while the other type of currency, Doubloons, is bought directly with real money. A wide variety of items are available for purchase, with effects ranging from aesthetic changes to in-game upgrades. However, as items often cost both types of currency, players who cannot afford to buy Doubloons can trade for some by giving their PoE to cash-rich players. These latter players may need the PoE because they don’t have the time to spend earning it by playing puzzles for hours. By allowing players to freely trade the two currencies, the designers have created multiple paths to earning any single purchasable item.

Puzzle Pirates Exchange

Thus, the designers avoid the balance issues faced in Travian by making sure that all content and features are available to all players, whether they are willing to spend money or not. In fact, when a time-rich player trades for Doubloons, the cash-rich player is essentially “sponsoring” her peer – every Doubloon spent in Puzzle Pirates earns the developer money, whether the Doubloon is spent by the original purchaser or not. A natural free market dynamic keeps the two sides balanced. If too many time-rich players flood the game, the value of PoE will plummet, tempting players on the bubble to spend a little cash to take advantage of the low prices. Thus, with the help of the auto-balancing market forces of the dual currency system, the designer’s goal simply becomes creating a compelling experience that keeps people playing the game.

Even Giant Interactive is beginning to understand the limitations of the soak-the-rich design of ZT Online. The publisher is developing a subscription-based version of ZT (without the casino-style treasure chests) that is being launched for the low-income market not happy about playing a game full of rich players who have bought their way to the top. Another game they are publishing, Giant Online, aims for the middle-income segment by allowing RMT but adding spending caps to prevent a monetary arms race.

These developments are welcome because the free-to-play format holds great promise. F2P games have a much larger potential audience than their fixed-cost counterparts because of the former’s ability to satisfy different levels of player commitment, both in terms of time and money. Further, the potential for innovation is greater because consumers are no longer required to make a “leap of faith” when making a large, up-front retail purchase. However, the challenge of developing F2P game is that being “just” a game designer is no longer sufficient. Success, both in terms of profit and popularity, will be determined by how well the game design matches the business model.

GD Column 3: Game Economics

The following was published in the September 2008 issue of Game Developer magazine…

Game design and economics have a spotty history. Designing a fun and functional economy is no easy task as many design assumptions tend to backfire when they come in contact with the player. For example, the early days of Ultima Online were infamous for the game’s wild and chaotic economy. Zachary Booth Simpson wrote a classic analysis of UO in 1999, detailing some of the more notable problems experienced at launch:

  • the crafting system encouraged massive over-production by rewarding players for each item produced
  • this over-production led to hyper-inflation as NPC shopkeepers printed money on demand to buy the worthless items
  • players used vendors as unlimited safety deposit boxes by setting the prices for their own goods far above market value
  • item hoarding by players forced the team to abandon the closed-loop economy as the world began to empty out of goods
  • player cartels (including one from a rival game company!) cornered the market on magical Reagents, preventing average users from casting spells

MMO economies have come a long way since then; World of Warcraft‘s auction house is now a vibrant part of the game’s economy and overall world, with many players spending much of their time “playing the market” to good effect. CCP, developers of EVE Online, even hired an academic economist to analyze the flow of resources and the fluctuation of prices within their game world. Indeed, understanding the potential effect of market forces on gameplay is an important ability for designers to develop.

Can the Market Balance the Game?

Many designers have used economic game mechanics as a tool for balancing their games. For example, in Rise of Nations, every time a unit – such as a Knight or Archer – is purchased, the cost of future units of the same type goes up, simulating the pressure of demand upon price. This design encouraged players to diversify their armed forces, in order to maximize their civilization’s buying power. By allowing the “values” of different paths and options to float during a game, designers present players with a constantly shifting landscape, extending replayability by guaranteeing no perfect path to victory.

However, if taken too far, efforts to auto-balance by tweaking the economy can destroy a game. In 2006, Valve conducted an interesting economic experiment within Counter-Strike: Source, implementing a “Dynamic Weapon Pricing” algorithm. According to the developers, “the prices of weapons and equipment will be updated each week based on the global market demand for each item. As more people purchase a certain weapon, the price for that weapon will rise and other weapons will become less expensive.”

Unfortunately, the overwhelming popularity of certain weapons trumped the ability of the algorithm to balance the game. For example, while the very effective Desert Eagle skyrocketed to $16,000, the less useful Glock flatlined at $1, leading to some extreme edge cases (such as the pictured “Glock bomb”). A game economy is not a real economy; not everything can be balanced simply by altering its price. Gamers just want to have fun, and if the cost of the option considered the most fun is constantly tuned higher and higher until the price becomes prohibitive, players may not just alter their strategy – they may simply go play another game. The current price of gas may be making our real lives “unfun”, but only one real-world economy exists, leaving us no choice. Gamers are not in the same situation.

Ultimately, designers should remember that achieving perfect balance is a dubious goal. Players are not looking for another game like rock/paper/scissors, in which every choice is guaranteed to be valid, essentially encouraging random strategies. Players are motivated by reasons beyond purely economic ones when playing games. Raising the cost of a player’s favorite weapon is simply going to feel like a penalty and should only be done if the imbalance is actually ruining the core game.

Glock Bomb

Putting the Market Inside the Game

Perhaps a more appropriate use of economic dynamics is as a transparent mechanic within the game itself. The board game world provides some great examples of such free market mechanics at work. German-style games Puerto Rico and Vinci both use increasing subsidies to improve the appeal of unpopular roles and technologies, respectively. In the case of the former, every turn no player decides to be the Craftsman, one gold piece is added as a “reward” for choosing that role. As the gold increases slowly, few players will be able to resist such a bounty, which nicely solves the problem of making sure all roles are eventually chosen.

Puerto Rico
still has some clearly better and clearly worse options – they just change from turn to turn based on the current reward. In this case, auto-balancing actually keeps the game fun because players are rewarded for choosing less common strategies, instead of being penalized for sticking to their favorites. Perhaps more importantly, the effects of the market are spelled out clearly for the players ahead of time, so that no one feels the game is biased against them.

Perhaps the most elegant example of a pure free market mechanic based around actual resources and prices can be found in Power Grid, another German-style board game. In this case, players supply their power plants with a variety of resources (oil, coal, uranium, and garbage), all of which are purchased from a central market. Resource pieces are arranged on a linear track of escalating prices. Every turn, X new pieces of each resource are added to the market, and players take Y pieces away as purchases. As the supply goes up and down, the price correspondingly goes up and down, depending on where the next available piece is on the market track.

By making the supply-demand mechanic so explicit and transparent to the players, the market becomes its own battlefield, as much as the hex grid of a wargame might be. By buying up as much coal as possible, one player might drive the price out of the range of the player in the next seat, causing her to be unable to supply all her plants at the end of the turn, a disastrous event in Power Grid. Thus, with a true open market, price can be used as a weapon just as much as an arrow or a sword might be in a military game.

Power Grid

The Benefits of Free Trade

Similarly, a number of modern strategy games, including Sins of a Solar Empire and the Age of Empires series, have included free markets in which players could buy and sell resources, influencing global prices with their actions. These markets serve as interesting “greed tests” in that players are often tempted to sell when they need cash or to buy when they are short on a specific resource, but they know in the back of their minds that each time they use the market, they are potentially giving an advantage to another player. Buy too much wood in Age of Kings, and your opponents can make all the gold they need selling off their excess supply.

Unfortunately, the market dynamics of these games tend to repeat themselves, with prices usually bottoming out once the players’ total production overwhelms their needs. This effect stems from the fact that the game maps emphasize economic fairness – in AoK, each player is guaranteed a decent supply of gold, stone, and wood within a short distance of their starting location. Spreading resources randomly around the map could lead a much more dynamic and interesting market mechanic but at the cost of overall play balance for a game with a core military mechanic. If your opponents attack with horsemen, what if there is no wood with which to build spearmen, the appropriate counter unit?

However, a game with a core economic mechanic does not suffer from such limitations. In most business-based games, specializing in a specific resource is a basic part of the gameplay. Thus, a free market mechanic can become a compelling part of a competitive game. The ultimate example of such a game is the ’80s classic M.U.L.E., in which four players vie for economic dominance on a newly-settled world. Although only four resources exist (food, energy, smithore, and crystite), economies-of-scale encourage players to specialize. More importantly, players can rarely produce all the resources they need on their own, requiring them to buy directly from other players.

The game has a brilliant interface for facilitating this trade between players. Buyers are arranged along the bottom edge of the screen, with sellers on the top. As buyers move up, their asking price goes up accordingly. As sellers descend, their offer price decreases as well. When the two meet in the middle, a transaction occurs. Once again, the mechanic is explicit and transparent – player inventories and market prices are all clearly visible to everyone. Players understand that they either have to adjust their own prices to make a deal happen or hope that their rivals cave. Knowing how desperate another player might be to acquire the energy needed to power his buildings or the food needed to feed his labor, the temptation to pull ever last penny from him is strong. In such a case, prices tend to fall only if the player is afraid someone else might sweep in to reap the profits! The game mechanic mined here by M.U.L.E. is deep and rich. Impoverishing one’s enemies can be just as much fun as destroying them.

GD Column 2: 2D vs 3D

The following was published in the June/July 2008 issue of Game Developer magazine…

The industry’s first video games – Pong, Asteroids, Space Invaders – were all 2D by necessity. A few early games experimented with basic 3D, such as Battlezone‘s vector-based tank simulator, but these games were simply interesting footnotes, not the mainstream. Everything changed in 1992 with id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D, which popularized 3D as the leading edge of game development. Since then, almost no corner of the industry has been left untouched by the transition from 2D to 3D graphics. Almost every franchise, from Mario to Zelda to even Pac-Man himself, has tried out 3D technology.

Now that this transition is essentially complete, it may finally be a good time to ask ourselves what we have learned in the process. What are the advantages of 3D? What are its challenges? For what is 2D still best? Perhaps game developers can now at last choose the best graphics environment on a game-by-game basis instead of making the move to 3D just from competitive pressure.

Troubles with Cameras

3D games and cameras have a long, troubled history. While first-person games are essentially a solved problem for 3D, most other genres are still adapting to the new technology. Teaching the player how to use a camera while also teaching the game’s core experience can be a tough challenge. One distinct advantage 2D games have is that easiest camera to teach is one which doesn’t exist. In fact, 3D game have been trending away from giving the player extensive camera controls.

Super Mario 64 is credited with being the first successful 3D platformer, but it required the player to make extensive use of the camera controls to keep Mario visible and heading in the right direction. Platformers attempted more intelligent camera systems over the years, trying to dynamically determine the best perspective at any given time. Such solutions, however, are bound to fail at some point, such as when the character gets stuck behind a corner or under a ledge. To solve this sticky problem, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time introduced two alternative static camera perspectives that the player could access at any time. God of War took this approach a step further and enforced a single fixed camera for each of the game’s scenes, approaching the level design almost like a film cinematographer. Super Mario Galaxy has a dynamic camera without any controls whatsoever although it adopts a nearly top-down view to enable the player to always see the surrounding area. Other avatar-based games, such as World of Warcraft, prevent the player from tweaking the camera while moving, ensuring that the player can never end up running directly into the camera.

Strategy games have also gone through a progression of camera systems, similarly trending towards taking camera controls away from the player, or at least hiding them from the novice. Star Wars: Force Commander, one of the first 3D RTS games, had an infamously difficult free camera, which made finding the right angle to view your troops a constant chore. Warcraft 3 may be considered the first RTS to get 3D right. The designers achieved this feat by greatly restricting the camera’s freedom – the zoom range was minuscule, the pitch angle came directly from zoom, and the only camera rotation was attached to an obscure hot-key. Lead Designer Rob Pardo describes the process behind these restrictions:

With 3D, we decided to bring the camera down quite a bit and try out some things. The problem was with the camera pulled all the way down, it became a pseudo-third-person experience. It was disorienting when you went around the map, and it was difficult to select units in battle because your camera frustum was pointed in one direction so you didn’t have a good view of the battlefield. It was a challenge because we still wanted a fun strategy game. Eventually we pulled the camera into a more traditional isometric view, and that’s when we really started making progress.

WarCraft 3

But Which 2D?

Not all 2D games are the same. Two major styles have developed: “classic” 2D, which is a straight top-down (chess/checkers) or side-on (Sonic games) view, or isometric 2D, which tries to fake 3D with an isometric projection at a pre-set angle. Before making the full jump to 3D, many genres made a move from classic 2D to isometric 2D as an intermediary step. For example, the original Civilization had a traditional top-down grid view while Civ 2 had a three-quarters isometric view. While this new perspective gave the game world a more life-like appearance, the change did come at a cost to the user’s game experience. Namely, distances are much more difficult to judge on an isometric grid as the east-west axis takes up twice as many pixels as the north-south axis. To solve this problem, for Civ 4, our 3D perspective actually hearkened back to the original game as we showed the game’s grid straight ahead and not at an angle. The easier the players perceive the grid through the graphics, the better they can “see” their possible decisions.

It is significant that Advance Wars: Days of Ruin (DS), the latest version in this long-running series, has maintained the traditional chess-board view, keeping the player focused squarely on the core gameplay. The “chunky” unit art familiar to the series is a great example of an artistic style which flows from the limitations of the game’s presentation. In contrast, a game heavily influenced by the Advance Wars series – Age of Empires: The Age of Kings (DS) – chose to move the same game mechanics into an isometric 2D world. The transition was not altogether successful. Not only was the immediacy of the grid harder to follow, but because units extended beyond the edges of their tiles, selecting units and locations became a significant problem when groups of units overlapped one another. Thus, tile-based games tend to be more successful when a top-down view is adopted.

Advance Wars: Days Of Ruin  Age of Empires DS

Graphics are not Gameplay

3D graphics are not the same things as 3D gameplay. For example, two sci-fi RTS games – Homeworld and Sins of a Solar Empire – use very similar 3D engines to recreate the vast scale and special effects of deep space combat. However, they do not share core gameplay as Homeworld is a “true” 3D game, meaning that ships could be moved freely along the z-axis, while Sins actually has 2D gameplay as the game is played on a single, flat plane, meaning that ships cannot fly above or below each other. In fact, the game could have been implemented with a 2D engine; using 3D was a secondary choice to enable smooth zooming and to evoke the “feel” of outer space. The team’s decision to adopt 2D gameplay saved Sins from the interface complications of Homeworld, which required two or three separate clicks to give units a destination in all three dimensions.

Many other example of hybrids exist, where games use 3D graphics to render essentially flat 2D gameplay. Super Smash Bros. Brawl, for example, is fought on a single, vertical plane that uses the 3D engine for the all-important animations and fluid background environments. Cliff Bleszinski has described the gameplay of Gear of War as a horizontal version of the classic 2D platform Bionic Commando. Instead of using the grappling hook to ascend from platform to platform, Gears players “jump” from cover point to cover point along a horizontal plane.

Essentially, most games can be divided into three play mechanic categories which are related to but semi-independent from the graphics:

* Tile-Based Games (Tetris, Puzzle Quest, Civilization, Oasis, NetHack)
* Single-Plane Games (Starcraft, Madden, Geometry Wars, Super Mario Bros.)
* Real-World Games (Portal, Super Mario Galaxy, Burnout, Boom Blox)

Good rules-of-thumb exist for each of these categories. Real-world games essentially require 3D graphics. Of course, the term “real” is not meant to be taken literally. The gun from Portal is not real, but the user enjoys playing with it because of the expectation that its unique behavior exists in harmony with the physics and gravity of our own world. The easiest way to guarantee that the player bring along assumptions from the real world is to immerse them in a 3D environment that looks, behaves, and feels real. These environments are the equivalent of what-you-see-is-what-you-get for games.

On the other hand, tile-based games usually work best as top-down 2D games, with little separating the player from the core game mechanics. For single-plane games, the choice comes down to largely one of aesthetics and technology. Can the game’s platform support 3D graphics smoothly? Does 3D provide an advantage, from either shared animations or dynamic effects or general flexibility, that makes the technology worthwhile?

Habbo Hotel

All in all, 2D is an underrated style that is often unfairly ignored as an old technology. Developers should not underestimate the advantages of avoiding the technical overhead of maintaining a bulky 3D engine and asset pipeline. Furthermore, well-made 2D graphics never really go obsolete. Sulka Haro, lead designer of Habbo Hotel, likes to point out that their retro 2D style looks just as good today as when the game launched eight years ago. If they had used 3D, Habbo would probably be on its second or third engine by now. Once a 2D engine is up and running, the artists can focus on simply improving the game’s look piece by piece. If 2D helps clarify and communicate the underlying game mechanic, then all the better.

GD Column 1: Seven Deadly Sins for Strategy Games

The following was published in the April 2008 issue of Game Developer magazine…

Amongst computer games, the strategy genre is one of the oldest and proudest, with a strong tradition, running from M.U.L.E. to Civilization to Starcraft and beyond. Nonetheless, certain design mistakes keep being made over and over again. Here are seven of the most common:

1. Too much scripting

Strategy games have a direct lineage from board games, and the fun of playing the latter comes from understanding the rules and mechanics of the game world and then making decisions that have consequence within that world. Computerized strategy games allow a single player to experience this same world on his or her own. At some point, however, strategy developers began to create lengthy, scripted scenarios as the single-player portion of their games. (In fact, the recent World in Conflict shipped without a single-player skirmish mode altogether.) These scenarios have a peculiar feeling – they use some of the same rules as the core game while often violating others. The AI takes action depending not on its own development rate or strategic priorities but on whether the human has hit certain triggers. In many scenarios, in fact, the human cannot even lose because – when defeat approaches – the script will freeze the AI and starting pumping in free units for the player. Further, these scenarios are often built around specific “objectives” to achieve, such as destroying a specific structure or capturing a single point. This artificial environment takes decision-making away from the player. Not only is there only one path to victory, but the player’s performance along that path may not even matter. Games without interesting decisions get boring quickly. Fortunately, some recent strategy games, such as Sins of a Solar Empire and Armageddon Empires, have returned to open-world, random-map gameplay – without pre-set objectives or artificial triggers – and are reminding us of the joy of cohesive and consistent strategy games.

2. Too much stuff

The temptation to pile extra units and buildings and whatnot onto to an already complete design is strong. Indeed, I have seen many developers describe games as simply a collection of stuff (“18 Weapons! 68 Monsters! 29 Levels!”) This approach is wrong-headed. A game design is a collection of interesting decisions, and the “stuff” in the game is there not just to fill space but to let you execute decisions. Games can provide too few options for the player but – more commonly – games provide too many. How many is just right? Obviously, there is no magic number, but it is possible to come up with a good rule-of-thumb for how many different options a player can keep in his or her mind before everything turns to mush. Blizzard uses the number 12 to make sure their RTS’s don’t get too complex. StarCraft averaged 12 units per side. So did WarCraft 3 (not counting Heroes). And you can bet that StarCraft 2 is going to be in that neighborhood as well. In fact, Blizzard has already announced that, for the sequel, they will be removing some of the old units to make room for the new ones. Players must be able to mentally track their in-game options at one time, and putting too many choices on the table makes it impossible to understand the possibility space.

3. Limited play variety

No matter how good your game, it is going to get stale after awhile. It’s unfortunate when a great game doesn’t take the few steps necessary so that players can change the settings to create alternate play experiences. Company of Heroes is an incredible tactical RTS, a watershed moment for the genre – but the game allows neither Axis vs. Axis battles nor matches with more than two teams. This design choice may fit the fiction of WWII, but it significantly reduced the game’s play variety. An example of an RTS that got this right is the Age of Empires series. Not only could you mix-and-match any combination of civilizations and players and teams, but you could also design your own map scripts. I remember one interesting Age of Kings map that had almost no wood but tons of stone and gold, which turned the game’s economy upside-down. The game even allowed multiple players to control the same single civilization (one could control the military, the other the economy, for example). Thus, I’ve played 2-vs-3 games of AoK where the sides with 2 civs was actually controlled by 4 players (and, in fact, handily won the game!) These simple variations probably doubled the life-span of AoK amongst my group of friends. Significantly, these options should be orthogonal to the game’s core mechanics – they need to add variety without adding complexity.

4. Black box mechanics

Sometime during the late-90’s, around when Black & White was being developed, the concept of an interface-less game came into vogue. The idea was that interfaces were holding games back from larger, more mainstream audiences. Ever since then, I have noticed a discernible trend to hide game mechanics from the player. Age of Kings shipped in 1999 with an incredible reference card listing every cost, value, and modifier in the game. For modern RTS’s, however, it’s unusual if the manual actually contains numbers. I want to emphasize that the answer here is not to bathe the players in complicated mathematics in the name of transparency. Instead, designers should think of their interfaces as having two levels: a teaching level and a reference level. The teaching level focuses on first-time players who need to know the basics, like how to build a tank and go kill the bad guys. The reference level should answer any question the player can think of about how a game mechanic works. It is perfectly fine, by the way, to put this info inside of a separate in-game resource, like the Civilopedia. Rise of Legends implemented an interesting version of this two-interfaces idea. Most of the popup help in the game had an “advanced” mode that you could unlock by holding down a key, giving you significantly more details about the game’s underlying mechanics.

5. Locked code/data

Protecting your code and data is a very natural instinct – after all, you may have spent years working on the project, developing unique features, pushing the boundaries of the genre. Giving away the innards of your game is a hard step for many developers, especially executives, to take. Nonetheless, we released the game/AI source code for Civ 4 shortly after shipping, and – so far – the results have been fantastic. Three fan-made mods were included in the game’s second expansion pack – Derek Paxton’s Fall from Heaven: Age of Ice, Gabriele Trovato’s Rhye’s and Fall of Civilization, and Dale Kent’s WWII: The Road to War – and so far, these scenarios have been heralded as one of Beyond the Sword’s strongest features. These mods would have been nowhere near as deep or compelling (or even possible) if we had not released our source code. For many PC developers, I’m preaching to the choir, so I’d like to be very clear that the problem is worst amongst strategy games. For whatever reason (perhaps the lack of a pioneering developer like id Software?), strategy developers have been much more closed off to modding than their shooter and RPG brethren. There are exceptions, like Blizzard’s fantastic scenario editor for WarCraft 3, but by and large, strategy modders do not have many places to turn for platforms on which to work, which was one reason we felt compelled to focus on modding for Civ 4. Giving stuff away can feel good. It should also feel smart.

6. Anti-piracy paranoia

The damage that piracy does to our industry is impossible to calculate but also impossible to ignore. Few company heads can be as brave as Stardock’s Brad Wardell, who chose to leave out copy protection altogether for the Galactic Civilization series. (They encourage paying customers by providing on-line updates to players with legitimate serial numbers.) Having some sort of mechanism to stop casual piracy is a given in the industry, but what is not a given is the hoops companies will make their customers jump through just to be able to start the game. The most important question to ask is “will this added security layer actually increase our sales?” A good place to be lenient, for example, is with local multi-player games – in other words, can players without the CD join a multi-player game hosted by a legitimate copy. Starcraft let you “spawn” extra copies of the game that could only join local multi-player games. Allowing unlimited LAN play was our unofficial policy for Civ 4 as well. The game does a disk check when opening the executable but not when you actually launch the game; thus, a group of 4 friends could just pass one disk around for local multiplayer games. We do not believe players are willing to buy extra discs just for LAN parties, which are rare events. However, we would love for new players to be introduced to Civ in these environments, encouraged by their friends who are already fans. At some point, they are going to want to try single-player – in which case, it is time for a trip down to the local retailer to buy their own copy.

7. Putting story in the wrong places

Story and games have a checkered history. Too many have suffered from boring cut-scenes, stereotyped characters, and plots that take control away from the player. Especially problematic are games which don’t let the player fast-forwarding through cringe-worthy dialogue. The worst offense, however, is when a story gets stuck somewhere it really doesn’t belong. Like in a strategy game. After all, strategy games are the original games. Humans first discovered gameplay with backgammon and chess and go; it’s a noble tradition. The “story” in a strategy game is the game itself. Picking a specific example, how much better of a game would Rise of Legends have been if Big Huge Games had given up on creating a story-based campaign and instead iterated on the excellent turn-based Conquer the World strategy layer from Rise of Nations? Ironically, the campaign mode was my favorite way to play RoL. I loved that you could only acquire technologies and advanced units on the strategic map between missions, which helped simplify the core RTS game. However, I enjoyed the campaign in spite of the story, not because of it. The key point here is that, for the sake of chasing a story, Big Huge Games missed a big opportunity to match a great core RTS game with a simple, overarching strategy layer that could be infinitely replayable. They are not alone; almost every other RTS developer seems to be falling into the same trap, and it is time for this trend to stop.