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.