Music = Shareware?

Radiohead has caused a pretty big stir by announcing that their new album, In Rainbows, will be initially released as download-only, and they are allowing their customers to name-their-own-price for the album. (Further, the only physical version of the album available – the “discbox” – costs a very pricey 40 quid, essentially forcing the vast majority of fans to buy the album as a download.)

This business model sounds fairly radical to music consumers, but it is actually pretty familiar for gamers. Simply put, In Rainbows is shareware, meaning freely-distributed digital data with optional payment. Small-scale games (or larger ones, like Doom) have been distributed as shareware since the very beginnings of personal computing. I’m looking forward to seeing the results of Radiohead’s gamble. Personally, I would prefer digital music to move towards either a subscription service or a single, non-DRM download shop, but it’s nice to see a novel option been tried (or borrowed).

Hello world! (Again!)

I have been blogging on and off (mostly off) for about two-and-a-half years now. Back then, I decided to use Movable Type, which seemed awfully powerful but turned out to be not very user friendly. Further, I kept seeing all these nice features on other people’s blogs (multi-category posts, pages, blogroll sections) which must have been more than a coincidence. Indeed, they all seemed to be using WordPress, which puts the most useful features right in front of the blogger. (I had to hack an About page on Movable Type, whereas it comes built-in on WordPress.) It began dawning on me that I may have made the dreaded Wrong Software Choice. Worse still, although I wanted to change, I had nightmares that I would basically have to start a new site from scratch, and my beloved designer-notes.com would fade away into obscurity.

Not so! Thanks to the awesome support at Living Dot, my old site is reborn on WordPress. I sent them an e-mail asking if this switch was possible and not even two hours later, I was looking at my new/old site. Huzzah!

I think it is a common mistake, actually, for “technical” people like me (hey, I’ve got the MS is CS to prove it!) to always go for the “more powerful” option when choosing software, even if it ends up being less powerful because we never make it past the beginning level. Just because I know C++ doesn’t mean I’m any better at html/php than the next guy.

J.K. Rowling: Good Author, Bad Game Designer

Just finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it, especially after the drudgery of books five and six. Presumably, Rowling had book seven’s pay-offs in mind from the very beginning, which might explain it’s return to form. At any rate, Harry Potter did pretty well for itself; Rowling is obviously a gifted story-teller. What she is not, however, is a good game designer. I have yet to see anyone else take her to task for this, so it might as well be me.

Quidditch is a bad game design. For the uninitiated, it’s essentially magical soccer, where witches and wizards fly around the field, trying to throw the ball (the “Quaffle”) through one of the hoops to score 10 points. So far, so good.

The game extends beyond soccer because of the Golden Snitch, which is a small golden ball, capable of flying around the field by itself. Each side has one player (known as the “Seeker”) whose only purpose is to catch the Snitch, which is worth 150 points. A little unbalanced, perhaps, but not fatal.

The problem is that the game ends only when the Snitch is caught. I am sure most game designers would see the problem here. What should the Seeker do if his or her team is behind by more than 150 points? Obviously, the player should not catch the Snitch as that would guarantee a loss for his or her team – the 150 points would not make up for the difference in score. The Seeker is in a compromised situation.

Games should not penalize players for doing their job well. It’s not really even a game rule, it’s just common sense. Of course, if you write the stories, you can make sure the fictional games never result in such a sticky position. Quidditch as a real game, though, would be a bit of a mess.

I’ve never played any of EA’s Harry Potter games, but I am curious to know how they addressed this problem. You could leave the rules as is, I suppose, but I wouldn’t want to design a game in which, when the player finally succeeds (by catching the Snitch), the words “You Lose!” suddenly appear.

The Rockies and their Humidor

The Colorado Rockies enjoyed a strong start to their season, which of course means that it is time to be treated to the annual dosage of stories about their humidor.

I find the story of the Rockies very interesting, from a game theory perspective. Basically, the Rockies’s home stadium is – by far – the most extreme hitter’s park in the majors. Since their inception in 1993, the Rockies have had very little success, with only one playoff berth in 13 seasons. Many critics have argued that the ballpark is the chief factor hampering the franchise.

However, an understanding of game theory suggests otherwise. The extreme nature of Coors Field means that games played there are the least similar to games played anywhere else in Major League Baseball. It is essentially a different game in Denver than in the rest of the country.

It is quite simply impossible for the Rockies not to be able to use this to their advantage. For example, imagine if games played at Coors Field were even more different from vanilla baseball than they are now. Imagine if the games were – say – basketball instead. What would happen? Well, the Rockies would start filling their roster with players who were good at both baseball and basketball. If the General Manager did a good enough job, the Rockies should be able to go 81-0 at home. Even the most meager college basketball team should be able to destroy a major league baseball team on the ball court. Baseball players simply are not selected for their skills at basketball – pure and simple. Some might be naturally talented at it, of course, but probably not enough to match a team built for it.

The Rockies, of course, would do very poorly on the road. Very poorly, indeed. However, even if they could win just 15% of their games – well below the worst winning percentage of all time – they would have made the playoffs 7 of the last 10 years.

So, is it possible to find baseketball players skilled enough to win 15% of major league games? The answer is yes, of course. The real question is whether these players are affordable. I would posit that the answer is also yes – because the Rockies are the only organization in the world looking for such players, they would not be bidding against anyone else for this unique set of skills.

If this scenario was actually true, the other teams in the league would obviously cry foul. How could they possibly compete with a team with such an unique home-field advantage? The real story, of course, is not so extreme – but they are still playing what is essentially a different game from the rest of the league at Coors Field. The situation is not entirely dissimilar.

So, what should the Rockies do? I have no idea. I know one thing, though. They shouldn’t blame their park, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. In fact, they should embrace Coors Field – there must be a way to leverage a strategic advantage from it. They should lose the humidor. Perhaps they should even move IN the fences to make their home park even more unique!

Obsessive Drawing

I was in Manhattan over the weekend and experienced an absolutely incredible art exhibit entitled “Obsessive Drawing” at the American Folk Art Museum. The pieces are the work of, at the risk using an inadequate term, “doodlers” – all of whom are able to create incredible art through the application of time and persistence as opposed to talent and training. The scale and ambitions of the works are startling while the individual strokes, lines, and colorings are quite modest.

As a person with a programmer-type personality, I’ve certainly spent my own share of free time filling an empty page with strange shapes and forms. I used to create mazes on the white-paper jackets of all my high-school books – it was a very soothing release for my mind. I sensed that same feeling in these works, only with an intensity that I never imagined. Naturally, poor mental health played a role in pushing some of these artists over the edge, but nonetheless, I am still inspired by how they elevated their natural habits into beauty and into art.

Hello World!

So, here we go!

This is the first post of my game design blog. My name is Soren Johnson, and I am currently the Lead Designer of Civilization 4. I’d like to use this forum to publish designer notes based on the games that I have worked on.

The name “Designer Notes” comes from my nostalgia for the days when every game manual came with a hefty designer notes section in the back, in which the developers spun tales, explained decisions, and generally provided a window into the design process.

I hope to do the same here. Indeed, I’d like to get into the nitty-gritty; I might even start talking about numbers if I get carried away. Thus, a familiarity with my games will almost certainly help the reader. So, go out and buy Civ3! And Civ4 in 7 months! And if you are really hard-core, go find a copy of Knockout Kings 2000 (PSX). If the AI kicks you in the groin, you’ll experience my first contribution to the game industry!

At any rate, this site will probably lie dormant for a while – there’s not much I can talk about Civ4 publicly yet, but be sure to check back later this year.