25 Years of Civilization

The Civilization series is turning 25 this year, and I join Sid Meier, Bruce Shelley, and Brian Reynolds at DICE to discuss the history and design of the franchise. A video of the panel is now available on YouTube.

I also joined Jon Shafer and Rob Zacny on Three Moves Ahead to discuss the Civ series, especially the ones that Jon and I designed: https://www.idlethumbs.net/3ma/episodes/civilization-at-25

How Board Games Matter

GDC started posted lecture videos a couple months ago, and they recently posted my talk from 2014 on transparency in board game design. Enjoy the mohawk!

I am very late to post these links, but I have also been on a few podcasts since the release of Offworld:

My Favorite Week: 2015 Edition

Next week is GDC, and it’s going to be my craziest one yet, which is saying something. I’m doing a bunch of interviews about the release of Offworld. I’ll be trying to catch up with all the people in the industry I only get to see once a year. I’m going to be doing five new Designer Notes podcasts, with Bruce Shelley, Chris Avellone, Jamie Cheng, Nels Anderson, and George Fan. Finally, I am on a panel late Thursday afternoon on Early Access games, with which I now have direct experience. Hope to see you all there!

A Thousand Voices: Open Game Development

Soren Johnson  |  Founder, Mohawk Games
Chris Avellone  |  Creative Director, Obsidian Entertainment
Jamie Cheng  |  Founder, Kei Entertainment
Adrian Goya  |  Co-Founder, Squad
Colin Campbell  |  Senior Reporter, Polygon
Location:  Room 306, South Hall
Date:  Thursday, March 5
Time:  5:30pm – 6:30pm
Format: Session
Track: Programming


With the advent of Kickstarter and Early Access, many teams are now developing their games in the open, providing beta, alpha, and even prototype builds to any player willing to buy in early. In this panel, four game developers who have direct experience with open development will share their experiences with this method.How often should the players be updated to the current version? How best to communicate changes and new features to players? How does the team filter the waves of online feedback? What happens when players express displeasure over a change? How important is it to remind players about what is still missing from the game? How do the project leads ensure that feedback from the players is heard and valued while making sure that the developers can still do their jobs? Once a game has been publicly available for so long, how to ensure that the actual release is still an important event?


Open development is a powerful tool for making better games, by breaking teams out of the feedback vacuum that leads to wasted time and misguided features. Developers don’t have to release games while holding their breath anymore.

Intended Audience

Anyone interested in how open development could improve their own games would benefit from the hard-won experience of these four panelists.

This Game Kills Fascists

Last night, Frank Lantz posted “Parley”, in which he attempted to clarify, defend, and rework a previously highly-criticized post on Gamasutra, which in turn attempted to clarify, defend, and rework a previously highly-criticized post on TwitLonger. In other words, Frank is is stuck in a cycle that, judging from the first two comment on his post, is not going to end anytime soon.

Reading “Parley” hurt, for a few reasons. First, I think very highly of Frank and his work (indeed, I did a podcast interview with him just last month), so it is tough watching him deal with the anger and heat that his posts generated, which in his words, “made me flinch at how much offense I had caused.” Second, I am very sympathetic to almost everything Frank wrote, including his oft-repeated line that “Everywhere *we* look we see pretend worlds and childish make-believe, imaginary dragons, badly written dialogue and unskippable cutscenes in which angry mannequins gesture awkwardly at each other.” Indeed, I wrote Game Developer articles with titles like “Theme is Not Meaning” and “Should Games Have Stories?” so it’s not very hard to figure out where to place me within the tired and undead narrative-vs-mechanics debate. Finally, it’s very clear that Frank’s pieces are, at their core, an attempt to take back the value of games-as-systems from the group-that-will-not-be-named (or, to use Frank’s words, “philistines”) who like to use it as a blunt instrument:

I don’t want my ideas to provide cover or support to ignorance and aesthetic & cultural conservatism, and I don’t want to be associated with anti-progressive ideas.

I can feel Frank’s frustration that he is arguing with the people with whom he agrees while he is ignored by the people with whom he disagrees.

And yet…

There is a Miguel Sicart quote in Frank’s piece which jumps out and slaps me in the face:

For proceduralists, games have meanings that are prior to the act of playing the game, and somewhat determine the meaning of the game; there is an essence to any game, and that essence is to be found in the rules. In words of The Dialectic of Enlightenment: “For enlightenment is as totalitarian as any system […] for enlightenment the process is always decided from the start” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2010, p. 24). Much like Enlightenment, then, proceduralism is a determinist, perhaps even totalitarian approach to play; an approach that defines the action prior to its existence, and denies the importance of anything that was not determined before the act of play, in the system design of the game. [source]

I feel these words in my bones because I live them every day as a designer. In games, the worlds player inhabit are, by definition, limited, arbitrary, and artificial. The rules become the air the players breath, the water they drink, and the food they eat. For example, the brilliant Papers Please! created player empathy for an immigration officer – an immigration officer working for an oppressive, dystopian government, no less – by putting morally gray choices within the context of the character’s need to just do his job so that his family can eat and just stay warm.

I have always found the endless public debate on the theoretical dangers of video game violence to be endlessly bemusing because it misses the true danger of video games by a mile. Video game are dangerous, but not because they might inspire players to imitate the well-armed protagonists in absurd, fictional situations. Saying that what makes video games dangerous is that they might make the player violent is a bit like saying that what makes Mein Kampf dangerous is that the reader might write a terrible autobiography. A game’s ruleset is dangerous because, in Sicart’s words, it “defines the action prior to its existence, and denies the importance of anything that was not determined before the act of play, in the system design of the game.”

In other words, games make us all fascists and communists; anarchists and tycoons; kleptocrats and ascetics, so we better hope that games are not as powerful as we once dreamed they might be.

And yet…

What makes our totalitarian game rules so slippery is that often the dynamics that emerge from these rules are actually at odds with the beliefs of their creators. For example, Will Wright, an atheist, began making Spore as a game about evolution but somehow eventually shipped a game about intelligent design. Monopoly started life as The Landlord’s Game, a board game meant to teach about the evils of capitalist landlords, who unfortunately ended up being a lot of fun to play. In his 2014 GDC talk on The Novelist, Kent Hudson described a poignant moment of crisis in the game’s development when he realized that the game’s rules had evolved into something that said the exact opposite of his own beliefs about marriage and parenthood. Basically, the death-of-the-author folks should have put down their Proust and gone down to the basement to see what video games their kids were playing.

In college, my dream was to make games about history, that made the past real in ways books never could. Thus, I started my career with my absolute dream job when I joined Firaxis to work on Civ 3. Five years later, when I shipped Civ 4, my old dream was dead (although, to be fair, a new one had started). Civilization was supposed to be a game about history but – despite my best efforts – many of the lessons it taught were somehow the opposite of what I actually believed: that revolutionary change could be controlled, that the orientation of a society flowed directly from its leader, that history was a story of continual, upward progress, and that “upward progress” could even be defined.

Games slip away from their designers because water finds a crack. The problem, so to speak, is the players, who quickly understand games far better than their designers ever could. Players are endlessly inventive, reworking forgotten chinks in the rules into dominant strategies, turning an AI’s predictable patterns against itself, and modding games into something almost unrecognizable to the original creators.

If games are about anything, they are about the futile effort of designers to create totalitarian worlds while players gleefully slip through their fingers.

And yet…

I am still hard at work, trying to build new cages for players to break. My new game, Offworld Trading Company, is set on Mars, but it is not about Mars. It is an economic game, but considering my understanding of economics can be summed up as “buy for a dollar, sell for two,” I can’t really claim the game is about economics. Instead, the game is about understanding that there is never one right choice, that success depends on seeing the world clearly, without prejudice, and then adapting. Indeed, I gave a similar reason back in 2007 to the question of why I made Civ 4:

I personally despise ideologies because they inevitably lead to a belief that there is one set of solutions to the world’s problems. One set of solutions means all other options are heretical, which means they must be controlled. Ideologues put ideas above people, which is the beginning of terror and oppression. People are more important than ideas.

Of course, discouraging rigid thinking is not the only reason I make games, but it is the best answer I can give to [the] question. If I ever get to release my dream strategy game, this idea will be clearly be at the center of the design.

I don’t know if my games can really kill fascists, but if Woody Guthrie thought his songs could do so, I don’t see why we can’t aspire to the same goal.

Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Not Me?

I created one of those new-fangled Steam curator pages. Here are my comments:

Atom Zombie Smasher – A well-scoped RTS that keeps everything important and nothing else. The bizarro atmosphere helps too.

Brothers – A beautiful experience, and few game narratives integrate their actual game mechanics into the story so well.

Crusader Kings 2 – Requires an upfront commitment, but no historical game has ever made PEOPLE so important.

Frozen Synapse – Because turns can be submitted in any order, this game is ideal for asynchronous play.

FTL – A perfectly paced game, of just the right length to enable consequence (by being short enough) and progression (by being long enough).

Magicka – A hilarious game, especially in multiplayer. Wonderful joy of discovery if the player stays away from walkthroughs.

Mark of the Ninja – A masterpiece in transparency. Exposing the details of a stealth game (as well as limiting it to 2D) creates amazing intentional play.

Papers, Please – Games have immense powers of empathy, and no game does a better job of creating unexpected empathy.

Spelunky – A monument to the ability of video games to create new worlds from scratch; the last game this amazing was Seven Cities of Gold (for its time).

Steel Storm: Burning Retribution – Simply feels great to play; this game gets every little detail of twitch right.

Swords and Soldiers – 2D? 3D? How about a 1D RTS? This game is a lesson in how simplification leaves room for greater engagement with the actual game mechanics.

Thief Gold – Did you know the original Thief is on Steam? Well, the original Thief is on Steam.

Thirty Flights of Loving – Apparently, this game was made by the same guy who made Atom Zombie Smasher. I assume that’s impossible, however, as nobody can be that versatile.

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon – Get a few friends together, team up on Terrorist Hunt, thank me later.

Unity of Command – Remarkably accessible for a wargame. The supply mechanic creates an important perspective on the battles.

On the Vault

I was very pleased to hear that the GDC folks posted my 2014 talk for free on the Vault, so everyone can watch it now. I was actually quite surprised during the talk that my content only lasted 40 minutes – I had well over 100 slides, and the presentation was a much expanded version of my 15-minute mini-talk from PRACTICE. The downside is that I incorrectly thought that I wouldn’t have the time to address games that run counter to transparency, including dynamic ones such as Europa Universalis or Out of the Park. The upside is that plenty of people brought up this omission in the Q&A, and I did the best I could on the spot to clarify the value of transparency for different types of games. (I’d point to my answer to Randy Smith – who helped design Thief‘s arrow grammar! – at the 49:00 mark.)

Basically, games like EU are so complex that it’s almost impossible for them to have a transparent rule system because the explanations would probably have to be done as algorithms. Nonetheless, for dynamic, rules-driven games, transparency is still a goal to reach towards; in Crusader Kings 2, the characters’ attitudes towards the player character are broken down in explicit detail (“Long Reign: +8, Liege is Just: +10, Desires Duchy of Ostlandet: -20”) to open a window into a very complicated algorithm. For Civ 4, we similarly exposed the diplomatic AI by detailing all the factors that determine a specific ruler’s attitude towards the player, which increased player comfort significantly. I mentioned that system in the talk, but what I failed to mention is that the designers of Civ 5 tried to move back to a more opaque system by hiding these numerical values but had to patch it back in because players felt too lost dealing with the AI. Ultimately, transparency is a specific game design aesthetic that may not right for all games, especially ones which value mystery, discovery, and perhaps even player frustration, but if a game is meant to be dynamic and replayable, then transparency is a very important goal.

A Study in Transparency

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

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

A Study in Transparency: How Board Games Matter

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

PRACTICE 2013: The Art of Strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plants vs. Zombies 2: Between Scylla and Charybdis

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

In other words, the first author believes that the game is ruined by microtransactions while the second author believes that EA didn’t do nearly enough because it was “afraid to upset players.” Did EA ruin PvZ2 by going free-to-play? Or did it simply not go far enough? These two pieces seem to emerge from parallel dimensions.

Indeed, the two writers are from very different worlds. Faraday is the founder of Pocket Tactics, the premier mobile strategy game blog. As it caters to core gamers, free-to-play is generally considered a dirty word there. Katkoff, in contrast, was a Product Manager for Supercell’s cash-cow free-to-play strategy MMO Clash of Clans, a game notorious for attracting whales willing to drop thousands of dollars on the game.

For Katkoff, PvZ2 represents great unfulfilled potential as a free-to-play game because EA did not aggressively tempt players enough to spend. For one thing, the game is not hard enough to force players to buy boosters:

Sadly PvZ2 is ridiculously easy. It takes absolutely no effort to pass levels, making the game unchallenging and boring. . . . PvZ2 offers boosters for real currency, which enable players to clear levels with some consumable super powers. But to create the demand for these boosters players need to have those moments where they’re just about to clear a level and realize that they’ll lose without the help of a booster. Lack of challenge results in low demand for boosters, which causes stagnant revenue.

Furthermore, the game lacks the gates that typically restrict players in free-to-play environments, which then creates demand for various unlocks and powers:

PvZ2 has no restriction mechanics and thus no core loop. An ideal core loop for the game would have been similar to the one in Candy Crush Saga, where sessions are restricted with energy mechanics. I’d argue that energy-based core loops would have increased monetization of the game by creating consistent demand for energy and increasing demand for power ups – when level restarts have a cost, not failing a level becomes valuable.

EA created plenty of ways to spend money – plant unlocks, special powers, extra plant food, and so on – but the game is not engineered to push players to spend. Hence, the game quickly dropped out of the top 20 in the Top Grossing list for iOS games and now hovers around number 50, which Katkoff considers a failure for a game with such high promotion and anticipation.

In contrast, the game simply disgusts Faraday; the experience is ruined because commerce becomes a constant and unwelcome guest, poisoning the atmosphere and taking the focus away from pleasing the player:

Plants vs. Zombies 2 is designed to be fun, of course, but it’s very obviously designed to be just fun enough that the frustration of playing it will force you to open up your wallet to buy an early unlock of a plant for $5, or spend $6 to see a new part of the game world. It’s crass. It’s gauche.

After praising the charm and originality of the original, Faraday declares that “the biggest mistake EA and PopCap could have made with Plants vs Zombies 2 would have been to make it a slow, grindy treadmill.” Unfortunately, to extend the gameplay and create room for an in-game store, EA did just that:

After the first eleven levels, PvZ2 grabs the treadmill’s speed control and slams it all the way back. Once you’ve finished the 11th level in Egypt and seen everything that that game world has to offer, Plants vs Zombies 2 informs you that to progress to the next world, you have to go play all of the levels over (and over) again, gaining stars to unlock the pirates. Or you can just pay six bucks.

In some ways, the two authors seem to differ factually (the star system Faraday describes does sound a bit like the type of core loop, with built-in gates restricting the player, that Katkoff recommends). Nonetheless, that both Faraday and Katkoff view PvZ2 as a failure is damning for EA; if they couldn’t please either the free-to-play money guy or the original fan of the series, then who were they trying to please? Perhaps the ugly lesson here is that if a company decides to risk losing its core audience, then it might as well go all the way and make sure it gets the money.

EA is caught between the Scylla of core gamers and the Charybdis of whales. Core gamers care about what they play, and for decades, they made EA a very wealthy company. Unfortunately, whales are going to make other companies even wealthier. They turned Supercell into a $3 billion company from just two free-to-play games, which now generate over $2.5 million per day at an insane 75% profit margin. By comparison, EA had an anemic 2.5% profit margin last year, and they made a lot more than two games. As a public company, how can EA ignore whales and compete with companies like Supercell which cater to them? The answer is that they can’t, and Popcap won’t be making games like the original Plants vs. Zombies anymore.


I am going to be speaking at the upcoming PRACTICE: Game Design in Detail conference, which is being held November 15-17 at the NYU Game Center. I am joining a panel, entitled “The Art of Strategy Games,” with Keith Burgun (of 100 Rogues) and Brad Muir (of Massive Chalice). Here’s the description:

Strategy games occupy a special place in the hierarchy of game design as the clearest expression of the ideal of “interesting decisions”. In this panel, three designers working in the strategy realm discuss their approaches, discuss the specific challenges of designing strategy games and talk about the creative possibilities and future directions of the genre.

I’m really looking forward to hearing the rest of the talks (from interesting folks like Rob Daviau, Sean Vanaman, and Jake Rodkin) and meeting everyone at the conference. Hope to see you there!