September 20, 2007

Halo Wars

So, Ensemble recently released a trailer demonstrating the gameplay of Halo Wars, their much-anticipated RTS for the 360.

This existence of this game is officially a Big Deal. Ensemble is one of a handful of top-flight real-time strategy developers, and the console RTS nut has yet to be cracked, despite some noble efforts. Presumably, the opportunity to lock up a console RTS from Ensemble was one of the reasons Microsoft acquired Ensemble back in 2001. (Wow, has it really been that long?) Attaching it to the Halo franchise must have been icing on the cake.

I have been following the game's news (little as there was) since it was first announced, and I had been encouraged by reports that the game would be focusing on very small squads, perhaps suggesting a rethink of RTS for the new platform. Thus, I am a little disappointed by the new video as Halo Wars appears to be another real-time strategy game focused on unit wrangling, which becomes significantly more stressful on a platform lacking a mouse and keyboard.

There are nice touches here, to be sure. The full-screen build menu nicely solves the modal problem so common to console games. The graphical detail is, of course, incredible. However, the firefight near the end of the video looks just like your standard RTS headache. Trying to handle that many units with a joystick in such a high-pressure situation looks like stress, not fun.

At the very end of the video, however, there is a tiny suggestion of just how fun an RTS could be on a console. The human side has some sort of orbiting uber-weapon they can use to wreck massive destruction on a specific target. The console interface for this system is a snap - it's simply a huge reticule. Just aim and shoot. Sure, it's a strategy game, but why not? The effect is not unlike the God Powers of Age of Mythology, Ensemble's PC RTS from 2002. However, this mechanic is a perfect fit for the console. Personally, I was hoping that Halo Wars would focus more on these types of interactions - ones where the player is taking advantage of the joystick interface instead of fighting it. RTS's truly need to be built from the ground up for consoles, without the expectation of controlling multiple groups of soldiers. Ensemble is one of the best developers in the business (Age of Kings was probably my favorite game of the '90s), so they are more than capable of delivering an awesome title. They just need to unlearn some of what they have spent the last decade learning on the PC.

So, how should an RTS on the console work? I don't know, of course, but there are a few games out there that hint at possibilities:

Moonbase Commander: The Psychonauts of the strategy genre, this brilliant game got overlooked because, ironically enough, it should have been a console game. The mechanics are hard to describe; the simplest way I can explain it would be as a cross between StarCraft and Tiger Woods. In other words, it's a land-grab, space-themed strategy game using a golf-swing game mechanic. The remarkable thing about the design was that a) it was a blast in multi-player and b) it would have worked perfectly on consoles, the native platform for most golf games. (Technically, Moonbase Commander is a turn-based game, but it moves fast enough that it "feels" like an RTS. Further, one could tweak the rules easily enough to make it work in real time.)

Rampart: This arcade classic has some similarities to Moonbase Commander in that it is a strategy game that involves firing projectiles at your opponent - a very natural action for a console controller. Rampart also includes a Tetris-style puzzle for repairing your castle. I would love to see a more detailed modern version with co-op play where one teammate focuses on rebuilding while the other focuses on lobbing cannonballs at the enemy.

Defense of the Ancients: The most popular Warcraft III mod by far, DotA is the natural progression of the hero-based RPG gameplay Blizzard introduced in the core game. Instead of controlling an army, the player controls a single hero, on a team with three other human heroes and AI-controlled grunts. The AI units fight the battle using standard RTS rules while the human heroes wander around the battlefield, acquiring levels and loot, while trying to turn the tide of battle in their team's favor. DotA is still an RTS, but the player's interaction with the world is confined to a single hero unit, taking away the mental burden of handling large groups of units. Obviously, consoles handle avatar-based games quite well. Judging from the popularity of DotA, a console version of this RPG/RTS hybrid is a hit just waiting to happen.

M.U.L.E.: If you've read my writing over the years, you would know this one was coming. You could make a convincing case that M.U.L.E. was the first significant real-time strategy game ever made. You could also make a case that it is one of the greatest games ever made. It's a game of cutthroat competition where you destroy your opponents not with missile but by controlling the market, driving up prices while reaping huge profits. The auction mechanic was legendary for creating head-to-head conflict. You don't know triumph until you've made your friends pay through the nose for energy. Most importantly, M.U.L.E. was designed for a joystick, meaning that consoles would be a natural fit for the proven gameplay.

I hope this list emphasizes that console RTS's do not need to play like PC RTS's. There are always more games out there to make than we can possibly imagine, and I don't feel like we have scratched the surface yet for strategy games.

Posted by Soren at 12:08 PM | Comments (1229)

September 18, 2007

Polycast Too

So, my design mistakes list made Polycast as well. They did a nice job going through all of my points. Once again, my story point sparked the most disagreements. To clarify, I am not against story in games. I am against the idea that having a story necessarily makes a game better. Many example exist where adding a story reduces the designer's flexibility, such as in my Rise of Legends example. Everything you put into a game comes at a cost, and story is no exception.

Posted by Soren at 4:14 PM | Comments (696)

September 13, 2007

Jeff Strain on MMOs

Jeff Strain, co-founder of ArenaNet, gave a very interesting speech on the challenges of creating a successful MMO. Here's an important point:

Before you start building the ultimate MMO, you should accept that "MMO" is a technology, not a game design. It still feels like many MMOs are trying to build on the fundamental designs established by UO and EQ in the late '90s. In the heyday of Doom and Quake we all eventually realized that "3D" was a technology, distinct from the "FPS," which was a game design. It's time we accepted that for MMOs as well. We are finding ways to overcome many of the limitations of the technology that dictated the early MMO design, such as Internet latency and limited global scalability. These improvements can enable a new class of online games that break out of the traditional MMO mold and explore new territory. It can be a daunting proposition to willfully walk away from what seems to be a "sure thing" in game design, but lack of differentiation is probably the number one reason that MMOs fail, so we all need to leave the comfort zone and start innovating, or risk creating yet another "me too" MMO.

Also, similar to Civ4's development, they started an external alpha test years before release:

It's crucial to get feedback from outside the development team at a very early stage. We started alpha testing over three years before Guild Wars was released. To say that the game was crude at that point is a bit of an understatement – I think we're still tracking down screenshots from that period and trying to get them burned. It was a very controversial decision at the time, and generated a lot of heated debate within the development team, because it flew in the face of the traditional wisdom that you should never show anyone outside the company what you are working on until it is perfect. I wish I could tell you that every tester we brought into the alpha test was honest, abided by the NDA, and gave the development team carefully-considered and high-quality feedback after each of the tri-weekly play sessions, but that would not be the truth. There were several times after we launched the program that we revisited the notion and discussed whether the good outweighed the bad. But we kept at it, and by the time Guild Wars shipped in April, 2005 it was clear that the game had benefited from the alpha test program, and today we consider it an essential component of the development process.
Posted by Soren at 1:06 PM | Comments (1217)

September 11, 2007

Speaking of Tutorials...

So, I just gave an interview on tutorials, during which I had hoped to give a concrete example of a game which handled its tutorial poorly. Unfortunately, my memory failed me as most game tutorials eventually seem to blur together. Naturally, just today I saw a perfect example of how not to write one. The game is called Bloxorz, and it is a quite good puzzle game that feels a bit like a turn-based version of Marble Madness, if that makes any sense.

At any rate, when the game begins, the player is moved through 9 screens that give instructions on how to play. The problem is that this information is simply too much for the player to digest before he or she has even a tangible sense of how the game works. Simply put, gameplay cannot be described with just words. Did you understand my Marble Madness analogy in the paragraph above? Probably not. However, as soon as you actually play the first level, the basic gameplay becomes quite clear.

Thus, advanced features, like switches and teleports, are meaningless to the player until he or she actually understands the core game. The tutorial could be twice as effective if each of the instructions screens was simply placed before the level in which the new feature first appears. The designer is essentially forcing the player to read the entire manual cover to cover and then hoping that everything gets remembered. Information should be handed out to the player only when needed.

Give the game a try, it's fun! Just not the best tutorial experience...

Posted by Soren at 10:46 PM | Comments (920)

September 10, 2007

GFW Podcast

Much to my surprise, my articles on game design mistakes made it onto last week's Games for Windows Podcast. I'm a regular listener, so it was cool to hear them talking about this blog. They discussed the first two points and the last, which was the one about stories. Just to be clear, I am not anti-story. I simply believe that designers should acknowledge that including a fixed story in a game comes at a cost to other potential features. Often, this trade-off makes sense - for example, RPG and adventure games would be hard to imagine without stories. However, sometimes games which could have open-ended goals (such as strategy games) limit their replayability by shoehorning in an unnecessary story.

Oh, and they mentioned that my blog is hard to read because the font is too small. Good point. I really need to actually figure out how to use Movable Type soon...

Posted by Soren at 3:57 PM | Comments (575)

September 4, 2007

If You are a Game Designer...

...this wedding cake is your goal:

photo by Jake Sones


Posted by Soren at 5:11 PM | Comments (1150)

September 1, 2007


I did an interview recently at Boing Boing Gadgets on tutorials. Here's an excerpt:

So what's the best real world example of tutorial you've ever come across?

I've seen lots of good tutorials, but I'm finding it hard to think of great ones. Making a great tutorial may be the hardest part of the developments process; it's certainly the part I find the hardest. I would like to mention one interesting thing that Prince of Persia: Sands of Time did which served as a tutorial even though it didn't feel like one. Between levels, you would see a black-and-white dream sequence which showed some of the moves you needed to make to pass the upcoming area. The visuals were not specific enough that it spoiled the puzzles, but they did introduce you to the advanced moves you would need so that you were better prepared for a new challenge. I had never done a wall run before, but when I saw one during the dream sequence, I immediately became aware that there was a new skill I should master in order to pass the next level. The game still took the time to teach me the literal button presses needed to do a wall run, but the dream sequence did a great job of making me want to learn this new move because I saw the context for it. Finding a way to show off cool features to encourage learning is a great idea—Google seems to be doing this as well with their product video demos for Street View and whatnot.

Posted by Soren at 3:31 PM | Comments (1167)

August 27, 2007

8 Things Not To Do... (Part II)

Continuing on from my previous post, here are four more common mistakes made by game developers.

5. Hidden 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 over a year ago, and - so far - the results have been fantastic. Three fan-made mods were included in the Beyond the Sword expansion - 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 mods have been heralded as one of the product's strongest features. To be clear, these mods would have been nowhere near as deep or compelling (or even possible) if we had not released our source code. I should specify that for many PC developers, I'm preaching to the choir, so I'd like to be very specific about which genre I am calling out - strategy games. For whatever reason (perhaps the lack of a pioneering developer like id?), strategy developers have been much more closed off to modding than their shooter and RPG brethren. Sure, 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 also feels 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 Brad Wardell and just leave out copy protection altogether. Thus, having some sort of mechanism to stop casual piracy is a given 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 when considering these protections is "will this added security 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 disk join a multi-player game hosted by a legitimate copy. Starcraft let you "spawn" extra copies of the game that could only join LAN multi-player games. (Interestingly, this is the same model that Ticket to Ride employs on the Net. It is always free to join a game but only paying customers can host.) Allowing unlimited LAN play was our unofficial policy for Civ 4 as well. The game does a disk check when you start the EXE but not when you actually launch the game; thus, a group of 4 friends could just pass one disk around for local multiplayer. We do not believe players are willing to buy extra discs just for the ability to play multiplayer at a LAN party, 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 Best Buy.

7. 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. With most modern RTS's, however, you're lucky 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.

8. Putting story in the wrong places
I was tempted to come up with 7 things not to do and just leave off the story one as I'm sure it's my most controversial point. A bunch of people will disagree with me over the place of story in games, so let me just say up front that I know that I am wrong. I still want to make my point, though. I don't like story in games. I don't like the boring cut-scenes. I don't like the stereotyped characters. I don't like the plots that I have no control over (and, sorry, the Bioware you-are-either-God-or-Satan twists count too). I especially don't like it when games stop me from fast-forwarding through the crappy dialogue (I'm looking at you, Japan). But what I really hate 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. Layering a story onto an RTS campaign is like putting a copy of Hamlet in my pie. I mean, sure, Hamlet is a great play, but my pie would also sure taste better without it! Put another way, how much better of a game would Rise of Legends have been (and it was already a great game) if they had given up on creating a story-based campaign and instead iterated on the cool Conquer-the-World mode 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 to 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 I don't know why.

Of course, if I ever made an RPG, I would probably name the bad guy Foozle, so what do I know?

Well, for better or worse, these are the eight things I hate seeing in games, especially strategy games. What about you?

Posted by Soren at 10:17 AM | Comments (4596)

August 24, 2007

A Star is Born

The Darkness Demo
Heavenly Sword Demo
Selling Out

Wonder how long he can keep it up...

Posted by Soren at 9:51 PM | Comments (948)

August 15, 2007

8 Things Not To Do... (Part I)

Inspired by Troy S. Goodfellow's list of the Eight Greatest Features he values in strategy games, I started thinking about the opposite question: what are the greatest mistakes that I hate to see done over and over again in game design? In no particular order, here are my first four:

1. Hard-core game conventions
One of the most common pitfalls for a game designer is to fear that the game is not hard enough. This fear often leads to hard-core game conventions, like restrictive save systems and unlockable content, that only put roadblocks in the way of the mainstream gamer who is just looking to have a good time. If you feel your game needs the tension of a restrictive save system, go ahead and implement it... but only as a feature of a higher difficulty level. Difficulty levels are the key to making a game accessible to both the casual and the hard-core gamer; we could never seem to add enough difficulty levels to Civ to keep our wide variety of fans happy. Trauma Center (DS) is a good example of a great game that was ruined by having no difficulty levels whatsoever. The surgery game is a brilliant use of the DS touch-screen, but the linear challenges get so hard by the fourth or fifth level that most people get hopelessly stuck after only a couple hours. Considering that the levels were timed, it wouldn't have taken them more than a week to implement a difficulty system that simply extended the time limits at the easier settings. A Trauma Center with difficulty levels would have enjoyed similar success to Elite Beat Agents - another great touch-screen game but one not afraid to let the player start at an easy difficulty level.

2. Repetitive interface tasks
I am currently enjoying the old-school dungeon crawler Etrian Odyssey quite a bit on my DS, enough so that I can't help day-dreaming about how much fun it would be to remake Bard's Tale or Legacy of the Ancients for the DS. Unfortunately, the game's interface does a terrible job of enabling the player to skip over needlessly repetitive tasks. Want to sell your loot? You have to click on every single Hare Tail in your inventory not once, but twice for confirmation! After a long excursion, this can often lead to around 100 presses of the A button when you get back to town. A simple "sell all of item X" would be an invaluable time-saver. Likewise, as a typical party-based RPG, there comes a time when your group no longer has to fear the lower-level creatures. However, for every random encounters, you still have to select 'Attack' and target a creature for all five of your characters even though there is literally ZERO danger to your party. (That's ten presses of the A button for those of you keeping score at home.) A "party auto-attack" command for these battles would have saved me literally hours of play time. Always remember, your player's time is valuable.
Fun Factor = Interesting Decisions / Actual Time Played.

(UPDATE: Yeah, so I blew this one. There is a "sell all" option in Etrian Odyssey, and it's even shown on the interface. The point is still valid, but I targeted the wrong game.)

3. Limited play variety
No matter how good your game is, it is going to get stale after awhile. It's a real shame when a great game doesn't take the few extra steps necessary so that the player can mess around with the settings to create alternative play experiences. Company of Heroes is an incredible tactical RTS, a watershed moment for the genre - but there is no way to have an Axis vs. Axis battle or even a game with more than two sides. This design choice may fit the fiction of WWII, but it significantly reduced the game's play variety. A good 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 designed by Mike Breitkreutz, a Firaxis programmer, that had almost no wood and tons of stone and gold, turning the game's economy upside-down. You could even have multiple players controlling the same single civilization (one player 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 guess which side won?!?) These simple variations probably doubled the life-span of AoK amongst my group of friends.

4. 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 people describe games as simply a collection of stuff ("18 Weapons! 68 Monsters! 29 Levels!") Needless to say, this is a wrong-headed approach. A game design is a collection of interesting decisions, as Sid would say, and the "stuff" in the game is there not 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? That's simple enough to answer, it's 12! (it's definitely not 42...) OK, obviously there is no magic number, but 12 is a good figure to keep in mind. It's an excellent rule-of-thumb for how many different options a player can keep in his or her mind before everything turns to mush. It's the number Blizzard uses 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 your bottom dollar 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.

Next time: pirates, modders, and black boxes...

Posted by Soren at 11:09 PM | Comments (3202)

July 22, 2007

Puzzle Quest

I've been playing a lot of Puzzle Quest recently, and I have been very impressed with how a fairly simple RPG layer can turn Bejeweled - which has always been, for me, a fairly forgettable casual game - into a very addictive experience. Adding a layer of level grinding... er, advancing... to the basic match-3 gameplay transforms two things which are uninspiring in isolation into a very compelling package. Further, the puzzle game itself becomes significantly more interesting when there is a level of competition - knowing that matching these reds gems prevents my opponent from matching those attack skulls transforms the gameplay from mindless pattern matching into a very interesting tactical contest. The interesting thing is that Bejeweled always had look-ahead gameplay to encourage combos and whatnot, but it always felt lifeless to me when I was only competing for some abstract concept like score.

There is one further design choice of note in Puzzle Quest which deserves mention - there is no save system. Of course, the game maintains your information over multiple sessions (this is an RPG, after all), but you never actually have to tell your DS to "Save the Game." The whole save process occurs automatically in the background every time something important happens (like fighting a battle or discovering a spell or buying an item). I was kind of weirded out the first time I wanted to turn off my DS while playing PQ, but I didn't see a save option, so I just hoped for the best and shut down. The reason they can get away with this is that nothing bad can ever happen to you! You can never lose an item or fail a mission or miss an opportunity. At no time would you ever wish to go back to an "old save." Because the game gives you experience and gold even when you lose battles - and you always have a chance to try again - you will eventually get the loot or level that you want.

This is not a simple innovation as there are important trade-offs to consider - for one, player-controlled save systems encourage experimentation. Players enjoy being able to try something wacky ("What happens if I declare war on Gandhi?") because they can simply go back to an earlier version of the game. The designers might have learned from MMOs like WoW which, of course, have no player-controlled save systems either. Being single-player, they had the freedom to remove the death penalty altogether, which puts the player experimentation back into the game. For Puzzle Quest, the designers must have made it a point at the beginning of the project to take all design options which could permanently hurt the player off the table - even extending to such RPG standards as single-use equipment!

The lack of a save system is a big win for Puzzle Quest because it increases the game's accessibility. A large part of the game's potential audience - the Bejeweled crowd - has never played an RPG in their lives, which means they have never saved a game either. It's just one more hoop that new players have to learn - unless, of course, you can figure out a way to remove the hoop altogether...

Posted by Soren at 1:03 PM | Comments (639)

July 21, 2007

Advanced Protection

This afternoon, I gave a talk to some Korean game developers and academics on developing the AI for Civilization. One of them asked about a strategy game that I developed back in another lifetime which used genetic AI. I promised that I would add a link on my blog to this project, which was titled Advanced Protection. It's a little MFC app that demonstrates how genetic algorithms can be used to encourage more adaptive AI behavior (although I should mention that the game mechanics were designed largely to favor an environment in which a GA could be used...)

As an aside, there was actually a Genetic AI project for Civ4 that was ongoing for a number of months. Too bad it is currently defunct...

Posted by Soren at 3:09 AM | Comments (363)

July 19, 2007

Everything Old is New Again

So, E3 2007 - or some close approximation thereof - is come and gone, and the coolest thing I saw from the comfort of my own desk is this game. It's called Echochrome, and my minimalist heart loves the sparse black-and-white style and elegant score. The Escher-inspired puzzle gameplay looks pretty tasty as well. At first, I was afraid that the controls might be unwieldy, but on a second viewing, it became clear that the player doesn't actually control the character. Instead, the character simply always walks forward (and, smartly by the designers, doesn't die if it reaches a dead-end... that would be a little too hard-core). The player's job is just to rotate the image so the character can navigate the maze by moving ahead automatically. Brilliant.

Funnily enough, this is not the first platformer (or whatever you want to call it) to be inspired by Esher. In fact, it was not the only innovative game garnering much attention that is actually just an update of an old idea or two. Not that there's anything wrong with that! The early years of gaming were full of great ideas that were often years (or decades!) before their time. I'm glad I grew up during that very messy period; indeed, I have my own mind set on someday updating one specific classic game from the early '80s that would be just as fresh today as it was back then.

Posted by Soren at 11:16 PM | Comments (325)

April 19, 2007

The 7-Year Switch...

Since Gamespot called me out for not updating my blog, I should probably make an announcement. I have joined EA Maxis in sunny California to work on Spore. Thus, I have left Firaxis after 7 years of work, during which I was co-designer of Civ 3, lead designer of Civ 4, and project lead on various other projects that never saw the light of day. It was a great run - I got to work with Sid Meier, who lives up to the billing, played a major role in growing one of my favorite games, and made a lot of great friends.

However, working on a game like Spore and with the incredible team that Will Wright has assembled in Emeryville was an offer I couldn't refuse. So, leaving the job that almost defined my life for many years to come to EA (technically, to come back to EA) was definitely a bittersweet moment.

Of course, the more things change...



Posted by Soren at 2:07 PM | Comments (716)

March 4, 2007

My Favorite Week...

My favorite week of the year is next week. It's GDC week, which is like the holiday season for game developers - a chance to get everyone together in one place to share, help, and inspire each other in our jobs. This will be my sixth year, and I have yet to be disappointed.

I will be taking part on a panel discussion about the future of PC gaming, hosted by David Edery, from 12:00 - 1:00 on Thursday in Room 3010, West Hall. Among the questions to be answered are "Is PC Gaming D0MED?!?" For a preview of my thoughts, check out this interview with CVG.

Posted by Soren at 2:22 AM | Comments (393)

January 22, 2007

How Fast Can Risk Go?

Pretty Fast.

Dice Wars is a very well done, minimalist version of Risk, that old strategy chestnut. It is worth checking out, especially to see just how fast the classic dice battle gameplay can be streamlined. The rules are a tad opaque (you get new dice based on the highest number of connected territories you control), but the absolute lack of waiting or downtime easily makes up for it. One design decision in particular - new dice (your "armies") are placed randomly instead of by the player - strikes me as interesting because it flies in the face of conventional game design. Not being able to place your own dice does take away a strategic element, but the benefit of having a simpler game with less fussiness easily outweighs the cost. I can get my strategy fix in 15 minutes or less... that is no small feat!

Posted by Soren at 11:49 AM | Comments (340)

December 15, 2006

Odds 'n' Sods

Sorry, it's been awhile since I have updated the site. I've been working hard on my new "secret project" - which, of course, I can't talk about. However, there have been a few random bits I should post about.

I had a "personal" interview" on NextGen, which wasn't the usual batch of questions.

I did a podcast at Apolyton recently in which I discussed the release of Civ Chronicles, specifically my involvement in the extras provided in the package. (I redid my GDC presentation on prototyping Civ4 for the included DVD and wrote some articles for the book, such as this one on the Civ fan community. I also designed this card game for it.)

Speaking of my GDC presentation, a video of the PolyCon version is now available on Apolyton. Here's a link to the first clip.

Posted by Soren at 12:49 PM | Comments (284)

July 11, 2006

Interview Round-Up

I just finished a lengthy interview with the AIAS in which I talked about a few things that there usually isn't room for in the typical press interview, so I wanted to post a link. It also includes just a tiny, tiny hint of what's coming next for me.

Here's a more by-the-book interview in which I oafishly talk about Christopher Tin, the composer of Baba Yetu, without actually mentioning him by name. Sorry, Chris!

This interview was an off-the-cuff piece that came from just bumping into Gamespy's Fargo at D.I.C.E.

Here's a recap of my E3 panel on game franchises as well as a write-up of my GDC lecture on prototyping Civ 4.

And then there is this. I hope you'll forgive me for posting it - I'm sure it's the only time I'll ever be on such a list.

Posted by Soren at 5:57 PM | Comments (261)

June 18, 2006


So, I had wanted to do a write-up on D.I.C.E. but I kept delaying it and delaying it. After waiting a few months, I now no longer have much to say about it. Most of the sessions were not about games and – while interesting enough – didn’t lead to much cohesive thinking. There was one moment I will never forget though: watching Sid Meier play Pong with Will Wright. (and Sid won! twice!) Life can be surreal.

Actually, there are two moments I will never forget. The other came at the AIAS Awards ceremony. Civ 4 was nominated for two awards, and we won one - Best Strategy Game of the Year. I went up to receive the award with Sid who presumably said some nice things about me as way of an introduction. It was one of those moments in which you hear words but don’t process them – I was just thinking, focusing on my speech. I had decided earlier that after thanking the team and my parents, I wanted to say a word of thanks to Dan Bunten for inspiring me when I was so young. Bunten made two masterpieces, the first of which (M.U.L.E.) I was too young to play when it was released. The other, however, (Seven Cities of Gold) was my inspiration for becoming a game designer. You played a Spanish conquistador discovering the New World... except it wasn't the Earth that we already know. It was a new one, randomly generated inside your computer - different enough to surprise you but similar enough to feel real. It was the future, and I knew it.

At any rate, I thanked Dan Bunten for inspiring me so many years ago to start following the path that led me to the stage that night, holding that award. What I will never forget, however, is that the audience burst into applause as soon as I mentioned Dan's name. Dan Bunten has never been as famous as, say, Will Wright or Sid Meier - and not just becuase of her sad early death. Dan burned brightest so, so early - so much earlier than anyone else - that his accomplishments were only seen by a handful of early adopters. To the world, video games were Pac-Man and Frogger in the early '80s (not that there's anything wrong with that!), but Dan knew different. I don't know how many designers were inspired by Dan's vision (Sid has stated that Seven Cities of Gold inspired him to make Pirates!), but I suspect it is not a small number. Simply put, Dan is our Velvet Underground.

So, when the audience at the AIAS Awards surprised me with their warm response to Dan's name, I felt wonderful. I was home.

Posted by Soren at 9:58 PM | Comments (208)

May 12, 2006

GDC... with a Theme!

So my GDC write-up is a wee bit late... my weak excuse is that I took a two-week vacation to New Zealand immediately afterwards, which sort of broke me out of the momentum I needed to write this post. At any rate, it was a great GDC - possibly the best I have yet atteneded. Unlike most years, a certain theme actually emerged from many of the talks I heard - namely, the advantages of prototyping. In fact, a number of talks I couldn’t go to but that had people talking – such as Chaim Gingold’s and Chris Hecker’s talk on “Advanced Prototyping” – were on the same subject. The benefits of cheap experimentation were clearly in the air.

Brian Jacobson and David Speyrer gave an excellent talk on how Valve prototyped Half-Life 2. I knew prototyping worked for dynamic games like Civ, but I had always assumed it would be tricky for linear, scripted games like Half-Life. Valve seems to have solved this problem through parallelism, by splitting the game into sub-parts, each of which could be managed by a small design team. Then, they pulled in new testers from the outside world (often, just random gamers) to provide feedback for continual iteration on the design. The fast turn-around times they established (weeks, not months) was, I believe, a direct result of this reduction in scope – by focusing on small chunks of the game, their designers could afford to nit-pick over the details. The key to successful prototyping is not how you build the prototype but how you test it. After all, that testing is the whole point! The more feedback you receive, the more you will understand about which parts of your games are working and which parts aren’t. A direct linear relationship exists became the number of iterations of the game which you can test and the final quality of the product. By forcing themselves to cycle through their prototypes so quickly, they increased that number and – therefore – the quality of the final product.

(An interesting contrast exists between the prototyping of Civ 4 and Half-Life 2. Both products made a point to get early feedback from the outside world years before release. However, for Civ 4, we relied on a set group of testers culled from our community boards – people who were able to play bi-weekly versions of Civ 4 over the long-term. In contrast, the Half-Life team used “kleenex” testers – meaning they used them once to get their impressions and then never dealt with them again. This difference is a natural extension of the different genres the two games inhabit. Civ is a game meant to be played over and over again, with a focus on experimentation and strategy. Half-Life is a narrative game meant to be played once with a focus on visceral experience. If we had focused on using kleenex testers like Valve did, the game balance would have suffered as first impressions for strategy games are often wrong.)

EA’s Neil Young supposedly spoke on “Feature IP” – which as far as I could tell was just a fancy way of saying “new ideas” – but was actually giving a talk on prototyping in disguise. Some teams at EA are beginning to adopt a new experimental phase before pre-production in which small teams focus on solving specific problems in a lo-fi environment. Most people would recognize this as prototyping (of course, being EA, they had there own name for it, one which I have promptly forgotten).

Louis Castle gave a wonderful presentation (in the dreaded last time slot on Friday) on this process at EA in practice while developing the control scheme for the Xbox 360 version of Battle for Middle Earth II. He was given the freedom to spend at least a year focusing on just one thing: how to create the feeling of an RTS with a joystick instead of a mouse. I enjoyed seeing just how quick-and-dirty some of the early versions were – a few were simply the original BFME with an Xbox controller plugged into a PC. Most importantly, they were able to work on the challenges that were important to them (the control scheme) and ignore the rest (graphics, sounds, gameplay, etc.) After many failed attempts, they seem to have hit on a system which might break new ground – we’ll see how the market takes to it.

My talk was also on prototyping. For those who missed it, the slides are available here – although we obviously can’t recreate the many demos Dorian and I presented of early versions of the game. If we had something different to say about prototyping compared with the other talks, it was that prototypes do not need to be disposable. We started with a “prototype” and finished with a “game” but there was no thick, black dividing line between the two. Because we always intended for the prototype to become the finished product, we were able to keep working until the game was playable from beginning to end – always finding tricks or shortcuts to support the gameplay if the art or engine code wasn’t quite in place yet. The result was that we had a LOT of versions we could supply to our testers, providing a very visible sign of our progress.

So, why are so many companies focusing on prototyping? Frankly, it is one of the few aspects of game development that can still be done cheaply yet with great results. Further, it helps teams focus on what should always be most important: play-testing. If a game turns out fun, it's because people played it early and played it often.

Posted by Soren at 6:00 PM | Comments (211)

May 10, 2006

Whither Gen?

One cringe-worthy phrase which will be ever-present at this year’s E3 is “next-gen” - as in, “that title is truly ‘next-gen’” or “those graphics just aren’t ‘next-gen’ enough” or “does it really have ‘next-gen’ gameplay?” The assumption, of course, is that there is something so fundamentally different about the new wave of consoles that our games will need to take entirely new shapes or forms in order to succeed. This assumption is just not true.

Let me ask this question – what new types of gameplay emerged in the last generation? What were the great games from the Xbox and PS2 generation that changed our gaming landscape forever? There was just as much talk back in 2000 about the “next generation” of consoles and how much games would be changing. Remember Sony’s “Emotion Engine?”

Certainly, significant improvements were made in the previous generation, but I am at a loss to describe any sort of “next-gen” gameplay that defines it. The open-ended world of the GTA series is certainly inspiring, but it seems more an important exception than anything else. Online play has finally started to come of age, of course, but PC gaming has always been the leader here. Thus, if there is “next-gen” multiplayer gameplay coming to consoles, you should already see be able to see it on the PC.

Simply put, was there actually revolutionary change over the last five years? If not, should we expect it in the next five?

I don’t. I see people still playing games in their living rooms, sitting on their same old couches 10 feet from the TV, holding the same old controllers they have since 1995. (Of course, Nintendo is an important exception - but when one hears the phrase “next-gen,” this is not what it refers to…) Sure, the TV’s might be in high-def now, but this is simply the same promise of every other generation: better graphics.

If the games are going to change in some fundamental way, why haven’t they changed already? If a programmer can imagine the gameplay working with the current inputs and outputs (controllers and screens), there is always a way to make it work. It boggles my mind that Sid was able to squeeze Civ onto an early-90s PC, but he did. The human mind hasn’t changed one bit since “Pong” - so if the consoles aren’t changing fundamentally, why should we expect the games to?

Which reminds me… I really need to post soon about why I love my Nintendo DS. Different console. Different games.

Posted by Soren at 2:05 AM | Comments (178)

May 8, 2006

Before the Noise...

I just wanted to throw out a post about the panel I will be on at E3:
Franchise Power: Understanding the DNA of the Industry's Greatest Games. I talked on this subject at length at GDC 2004, but I have some new thoughts on the topic after my second iteration within the Civ universe. (I am also looking forward to meeting Yannis Mallat as I just LOVE the newest Prince of Persia series...)

Posted by Soren at 3:09 PM | Comments (219)

April 11, 2006

The Free Market of Fun

A few months ago, David Sirlin wrote an interesting rant/article on Gamasutra criticizing various aspects of World of Warcraft for "teaching" the players the wrong things. He says some interesting things about the fairly obvious points that WoW encourages time over skill and group-play over solo-play. However... the article fails because of one false assumption, and I wanted to talk about it because it is a mistake made commonly by those who discuss game design. Namely, game designers do not get to decide how players have fun.

This point is so important, that I will imitate Sirlin by repeating it again. Game designers do not get to decide how players have fun!

Players invest their time in a game if they are enjoying themselves. We, as game designers, provide fun in a free market. In other words, we create the supply; they provide the demand. World of Warcraft is successful because it meets the "demand for fun" of some five million players. This demand comes from players who, using his arguments, prefer a game which rewards time over skill and encourages grouping over solo play. Certainly WoW is not without imperfections, but one must assume that the game's subscribers are playing the game because they like the core features which Sirlin has decried.

Of course, these features may in fact teach the players the wrong lessons about life. They may be teaching that it is wrong to be highly skilled and self-reliant. It doesn't matter. In a free market, we cannot control what games people choose to play. Sirlin may be able "to design an MMO that teaches the right things"... but will it matter if no one wants to play it?

I don't really feel good about making this point because, after all, I'm sure we would all like to think that the games we make do teach the players important lessons and perhaps make the world a slightly better place. Well, a good game always does the latter but not necessarily the former. Good games entertain us, help us enjoy ourselves and forget our troubles - that entertainment is the value for which players are looking. Creating it is not an ignoble cause... but a good game will not be made better just by making sure it teaches the right lessons.

By the way, I would like to add that Sirlin has written many, many excellent articles that do a great job of spelling out the challenges of game design. For example, his article on rock/paper/scissors mechanics is the best I have seen on the subject. (In fact, I shamelessly stole from it for my 2004 GDC presentation...)

Posted by Soren at 2:42 PM | Comments (248)

February 21, 2006

Meanwhile, Out in the Galaxy...

Galactic Civilizations II has just been released. Outside of Civ, the epic turn-based strategy game market has been pretty small this decade, so it's good to see another successful franchise in the space. Brad Wardell, the lead designer, gave me a chance to play-test the game late last year, and I had fun with it. It's certainly a step up from its predecessor, which was a good game that was probably put together on a wing and a prayer.

This version should hold a lot of appeal for fans of the Civ series. Unlike MOO, it sticks pretty closely to the turn-based, tile-based game mechanic of Sid's original game. However, it definitely falls on the "more complex" side of the spectrum (it has more "stuff" in it than Civ4, for example...), but it starts small, which is key.

At any rate, turn-based fans should give it a look!

Posted by Soren at 5:04 PM | Comments (232)

February 14, 2006

God of War: The Game

Like most great games, God of War decides to be great at just one thing - namely, beating the snot out of your enemies. For variety, there's a dash of platforming and logic puzzles, but overall it's just one, long bloodbath from beginning to end. So, fortunately, that is the part of the game which shines. The "feel" of swinging Kratos's blades is so good that it's fun to do just by itself - which makes GoW one of the few games where I welcome the crates. More stuff to smash!

My interest in God of War comes from Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, which is my favorite game of this last console cycle. PoP:SoT had a simply incredible movement/jumping/swinging mechanic which, unfortunately, was interrupted by a clumsy combat system. The game still succeeded because they got the core feature so spot-on right. When I heard that the sequel was going to focus on combat (and drop the wonderful storybook ambience), I lost all interest. Which begs the question: if Prince of Persia had God of War's great combat mechanics, would it be the action game to end all action games?

I'm not sure... I think we can often overestimate how much "stuff" the player can juggle (or, rather, enjoy to juggle) in his or her mind at one time. The idea of a PoP/GoW hybrid gives me a mental image of my brain exploding. And not in a good way.

God of War also has an insanely high level of polish, an intimidating level of polish, I would imagine, for its competition. Perhaps someday I'll write an entry on whether this is a good or bad thing for the games industry in general. It's certainly a long, long way from a game as fun and innovative and yet rough around the edges as this. Here's hoping there's room for both...

The other point to discuss is the game's relation to film - God of War is certainly the most cinematic game I have ever played. It's no surprise that the game gives you no control of the camera; I have a sense that the level designers always wanted control over where you were looking. David Jaffe, the game's lead designer, or "Game Director" in official terms, has expressed some ambivalence over the connection with film. I have similar feelings.

The challenge for understanding games is not figuring out whether games are movies or whether they are cars. The trouble is that some games really ARE like movies and some games really ARE like cars. I have a hard time thinking of another art form where its members are so radically different. Which has more in common: Star Wars and Annie Hall; or God of War and Civ 4? I would say the former, however crazy it is to link those two films together. (well, I guess there WAS the scene in the planetarium... in reality, of course, they are similar because they are both ultimately about the characters. That's what makes them both good movies.) So whenever people (like me!) pontificate that games are like this or game are like that - it's important to remember that "games" are a super-category of their own. Like sound. Or matter.

Because games have so much variation, I'm not sure how universal some of the "rules" are that designers like to state. I think it would be an interesting exercise to line up designers from all the different genres and give them an identical list of general questions about game design and see what they come up with. I haven't, for example, designed a game with a player avatar in a long time... and I bet there are a lot of designers who have never designed a tile-based game. I would love to know how the hard problems (how do you teach gameplay? how do you divy out rewards? how many difficulty levels? how do you address cheating? saving?) are solved in other genres that I have never touched.

Posted by Soren at 6:20 PM | Comments (265)

February 3, 2006

Being Awesome: Will Wright

This is awesome. It's nice to know that they've finally just cut to the chase. I've been to GDC four times, and each time the highlight of the show has been Will Wright's talk. Furthermore, his talks seem to get better and better every year - and, of course, more and more crowded. I was particularly fond of his wild tangent in 2004 about the history of the Russian space program (short version: NASA's money and engineering hasn't made the US's space program any safer or more effective than the Russians who favor low-tech solutions).

Of course, his talk last year - when he revealed Spore - has become the stuff of legend, so it's a sure thing that every person going to GDC 2006 will be trying to squeeze into whatever auditorium can't hold us at noon on Thursday. Woe to any other speaker scheduled for the same time.

Fortunately for me (note the effortless segue here!), my talk is scheduled for a different time slot. I will be giving a presentation with Dorian Newcomb (our Lead Animator) on the prototyping phase of Civ4. We'll be showing off some very, very early versions of the game, revealing what was playable and what wasn't in the first year of the project. By the way, my 2004 GDC talk was given right in the middle of that prototyping phase, which lasted roughly from Fall 2003 to Summer 2004.

Posted by Soren at 11:18 PM | Comments (178)

July 19, 2005

That's SO Punk Rock!

I love this crazy Japanese cube game

I've always had a soft spot for minimalist music, both classical and not. I've never seen a game I would describe as minimalist, but there you go. In 100 years, when we're all playing Mario 4096, that little flash app will STILL be fun. There must be something hard-wired into the human psyche (or, at least, my psyche) about evading predators, like little red cubes.

The really odd thing about the game is that it is actually deterministic. I didn't notice it at first, but the pattern of the chase is always the same, which actually leads to (a little) high-level strategy. I keep getting killed in the upper-left corner at 20 seconds, so I do my best to remember to keep low after the 15 second mark.

Still, it's begging for a random version. Is one available? Anyone know Japanese?

Posted by Soren at 12:53 PM | Comments (246)

July 14, 2005

Are Games Movies... or Cars?

Like everybody else, it seems, I've been playing some Battlefield 2 recently (which, I must say, is a very strange name for a third game in a series - I guess Battlefield:Iraq wouldn't fly?) At any rate, it's an excellent game, a big step up from BF:Vietnam.

What I find most interesting about the game is that it is so obviously not a brand new product. The graphics and subject matter are both compelling enough that it's going to hook plenty of new players, but most of the innovations (the squad system, saved ranks/medals, tank/anti-tank/special forces balance, the simple but effective fatigue model, etc.) are clearly built upon years and years and years spent developing exactly the same game over and over again. Simply put, Battlefield 2 is so much fun because the people at DICE really knows what they are doing.

Which, as a game designer, begs the question: could I possibly make a game that could compete with Battlefield 2? Could they make a game to compete with Civ 4? I am constantly being reminded by the fans about all the details they expect from a Civilization game. Hitting F1-12 should open AND close the Advisor screens. There must be SEPARATE options for quick attacks and/or defends. Sometimes they'd like to watch all rival moves and sometimes only enemy moves. Yes, double-click may select all units in a tile, but what if one just want to select all the workers? I don't envy the next guy who has to remember all of this.

It's not the '80s anymore, when EA seemed to reinvent gaming each Christmas. (Dude.) Nowadays, a game like San Andreas is described as innovative, even though it's the FIFTH game in a series. However, it's possible that, in 2005, "innovation" is really beside the point.

The old, hoary games-as-movies analogy always breaks down because - in gaming - the sequel is often better than the original. I'd like to present a better analogy: games-as-cars. In the auto industry, the "genres" are pretty well established (sedans, trucks, cycles, minivans, etc). Much of the significant progress is technical (gas mileage, horse-power), and design improvements are usually of the tweak variety - a volume knob for your steering wheel! Every once in a while, a new hybrid emerges (SUVs), but it's usually some variation on earlier ideas.

OK, so every analogy has holes, but I think this one is most relevant in terms of developers. Car companies are usually known for one type of car - I'm not going to be buying a Porsche truck anytime soon. Each car class has thousands and thousands of details that prevent creating new models out of whole cloth. Computer games have reached that point of complexity - it is becoming prohibitively difficult to just dip a toe into a new genre or style. Is it that hard to guess what's coming next from Bioware? from Rainbow? from Rockstar? from Insomniac? from Ensemble?

er, nevermind. Well, let's check back in three years and see how THAT turns out.

Posted by Soren at 10:52 PM | Comments (359)

May 30, 2005


So, I made it out to my first E3. It wasn't quite as loud and crazy as I expected it to be - although that may be my perspective from having a nice, cool, quiet room to give our Civ4 demos. With the biggest plasma TV screen I've ever seen. It must have about 70" - I heard it cost upwards of $25K.

Giving the demos was a more fun than I expected, especially once I got my rhythm down. It actually reminds of what I learned about writing in college; writing is only difficult when you don't actually have something interesting to write about. Demoing Civ4 was easy because there is so much to show. Even with a 30 minute demo, we were only revealing a small fraction of the game, let alone all of the stuff you can't really demo (multi-player, mod support, micromanagement fixes, improved AI, etc).


As for the show, I'd like to say I saw something that blew me away, but I didn't. (besides the real-life Katamari ball!!!) Graphics are starting to hit diminishing returns. Most of the first-person games look the same, and the bloom shader has definitely lost its initial, er, shine. Interesting game-play? E3 is not the best forum for that. (I loved Prince of Persia but was put off by the “hardness” of the sequel. The only thing I discovered about the newest version was that it would be “bigger and badder than ever.” Gee, thanks…)

Age of Empires III did look incredible, especially the water, which may be the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in a game. (Naturally, they have a programmer working full-time on it.) The shading and choice of color is remarkable. I actually expect the art world to take notice. The game could be fun too - impossible to tell from a quick demo, of course. The trick will be whether they've learned from the "more is less" problems of Age of Myth (that game would have been twice as good if all human units had been removed). Rise of Legends also looked remarkably good for a game a full year out - I assume Microsoft won't let them release until x months after AoE3. Somehow, the graphics retained the "fun-ness" of 2D while still being 3D, which is a neat trick. Steampunk is going to be a hard sell, though.

Posted by Soren at 2:18 PM | Comments (307)