I am speaking at this year’s GDC, and the talk will be something of a sequel to GDC 2010’s “Theme Is Not Meaning” (which was the lecture version of two GameDeveloper columns I wrote earlier that year). I reconstructed the talk from my slides and the recorded audio here:
In 2010, I argued that we need to stop assuming that a game’s theme provides its meaning and, instead, that meaning comes from the mechanics themselves. Since then, I have seen many people point out that we should stop referring to a game’s setting as its “theme” as the word “theme” should have a much broader, and more significant, meaning than whether a game is about “ancient history” or “an alien invasion” or whatever. Ideally, of course, a game’s setting should mesh well with its theme, but we need to stop conflating the two by being careless with our language.
This time around, I am tackling whether our games actually succeed at addressing their true themes and, furthermore, if we have any idea what we are doing as game designers. To be blunt, I’m swinging for the fences with this talk, am probably going to get out over my skis, and [feel free to suggest other sports-related disaster-prone metaphors in the comments]. So, if you want to see me likely crash-and-burn (or maybe pull it off), come to Room 2016, West Hall, on Thursday at 4:00. Hope to see you there!
Can games teach us about our ourselves? Can a game be a statement about the world? Do we design games intentionally or accidentally?
This talk addresses these questions and much more—including Voros McCracken, Ottoman fratricide, fancy hats, Le Corbusier, nuclear holocaust, Mt. Rushmore, and the 1994 Caribbean Cup. Come find out how hard it is to run a sweatstop. Stay for a hopeful and skeptical look at how to make games that say what we want them to say.
I gave a design postmortem at GDC this year on Old World, a game which took me six years to make. In reality, it took me 22 years to make this game as every stop in my career path informed the design, especially lessons learned from my first seven years at Firaxis, working on Civilization III and IV. It’s my elephant in the room, so to speak.
Recently, Leyla and I finally got a chance to try out Wingspan. It’s clearly a great game, and I expect to bring it to the table many times over the years ahead. I have a few thoughts on it, especially taking into consideration that the game is a huge hit, having sold well over a million copies.
The Setting Matters and also Doesn’t Matter
Making the game about birds goes a long way to explain the breakout success of the game. It’s not so much that most people don’t want to play games about orcs, aliens, or tanks; it’s more that the people who do want to play a game about orcs, aliens, or tanks have way, way, WAY too many options already. The natural law of supply-and-demand is mostly ignored by game developers and publishers. For players who would find a game about birds appealing, well, how many options do they have for a well-designed game? I’m struggling to think of another one. Further, the setting is lovingly employed; Wingspan is not the sort of Eurogame that got its setting pasted on shortly before printing. Instead, it’s clear that the game was always about birds, and that the designer and artists took their time to research the topic and consider how aspects of the setting could be turned into mechanics (it’s a pleasure see how owls, buzzards, turkeys, and so on are each turned into a single rule). The cards have beautiful and accurate bird illustrations as one might find in a great birding book. Of course, the birdhouse dice tower and little colored wooden eggs help a lot too.
However, it’s important to note that the setting doesn’t matter all that much for making the game actually work. It’s not exactly clear what role the player is in while playing the game. Are we birders who are trying to identify birds? That wouldn’t make sense as players spend food to hatch new birds. Are we trying to build the best army (fleet? armada?) of birds better than the other players? What would that even mean? Why do we place eggs on one species of birds and then use those eggs to hatch a different species of bird? Most importantly, though, none of this really matters because the game just works. It’s really a game about (surprise) managing three different resources – food, eggs, and cards – with the monkey wrench that the cards have unusual, often orthogonal, powers to keep each game fresh. A game’s setting is useful to give players a schema to understand the rules, but designers should not overthink things and worry about the parts of their games that don’t make sense. Games have their own internal logic that makes sense on its own, and Wingspan smartly knows which parts of its setting to care about and which parts to ignore.
I’m not sure if designer Elizabeth Hargrove is familiar with Donald Norman’s classic book The Design of Everyday Things and its emphasis on affordances – how simple choices that designers make determine how easy it will be for people to use their products correctly. (The classic example is using a flat metal panel to suggest – or rather, to give the affordance – that a door should be pushed to open and NOT to use a handle, which instead suggests that a door should be pulled open.) A game with good affordances is difficult to play incorrectly. Wingspan’s design is full of these types of affordances.
Consider the eight action cubes with which each player starts the game. At the end of each of the four rounds, one of these cubes goes onto the goal track, recording which player got first, second, third, etc. Then, each round the players have one less action to take, which is easy to remember because the extra action cubes are now sitting on the goal track, so players are never at risk of accidentally playing too many actions in a round. It’s a perfect way for players to understand that they get less actions per round as the game progresses. What I’m curious about is which came first, the exact pattern of 8-7-6-5 actions or the graphic design of leaving the cubes on the track? It seems unlikely that these numbers were picked independently, or that they just happen to be the perfect set of numbers for the game itself. I’d like to think that the designer decided it was more important to have the game rules match the physical design with the best affordance. (What if the game plays slightly better with four or six actions in the final round? It’s not worth breaking the affordance of one action cube being removed each round.)
Furthermore, consider the player mat, which provides a visual guide to the four player actions, the escalating powers and costs for each of the actions, a shorthand history of moves per round, and a path for processing each action (moving the action cube from right-to-left, from bird-to-bird). The game is much easier to teach and follow because this mat is designed to guide the player through each action and round. They could have shipped the game without the mat itself; I’ve played plenty of games of similar or greater complexity that leave all of the rules covered by the mat on small player info cards or just in the rulebook itself. One could play Wingspan without the player mat, but I believe it never would have achieved the success it has had – even with the exact same rules and components – without this tool to keep the player grounded.
Is it too Heavy?
Finally, it’s hard to talk about Wingspan without discussing how surprising it is that a game of this complexity has had this much success. If I had played it before release, I would have felt the same way designer Eric Lang did:
It is surprising and delightful that a complex engine-building Eurogame has had this level of success, but it’s useful to look at just where the complexity lies in the game. The rulebook itself is fairly slim as each of the possible actions is not that complicated. There are a couple tricky rules – when it is ok to re-roll the dice and when to draw new bird cards – but Wingspan is definitely less complicated than, say, Catan or Pandemic (although more complicated than Carcassonne or Ticket to Ride, to cover the few other modern board games that have sold at that level). The strength of the setting and the enticing components help get new players over the still fairly short time it takes to teach the game.
However, Wingspan is not a simple game because it takes a trick from the design of card-based wargames, which have become increasingly popular over the last few decades. Starting with Mark Herman’s We the People, and reaching the most popularity with Twilight Struggle, wargame designers have simplified their core ruleset by putting the extra complexity on the cards themselves. These games tend to have fairly slim rulebooks (at least relative to other wargames) because the real rules are written on the cards themselves, which players can digest each time they draw a new one. Players don’t have to learn the whole game upfront; they learn it simply card-by-card. Indeed, not all cards get drawn every game, so players don’t even have to learn the entire possible game space. Wingspan works the exact same way – a modest number of core rules and a bountiful quantity of extra rules that are written on the bird cards, most of which will not even be drawn every game.
Thus, new players are brought into the game slowly, one card at a time. If they follow the well-designed mat and take the time to understand the three visible bird cards, they know all they need to know to make their next decision. Having said that, there is one set of birds which I believe does hurt this otherwise elegant experience – the birds which give bonuses on other players’ turns. For example, the Belted Kingfisher gives the owning player a free fish each time another player places a bird on the wetland habitat. These birds break the flow of the game so that players have to stay at full attention during other players’ turns or risk losing a valuable boost. This demand for attention is a small but very real tax on players that slows the game down and can lead to bad feelings if one player missed their bonus (or just thinks they missed their bonus). Also, this type of card has a very different value for the player depending on if it is a two-player game or a five-player one. Furthermore, it’s a very small part of the game – only 11 of 170 birds work this way – so the game would function almost the same without them. Obviously, this one small part of the game didn’t impact the sales, and the cards are easy to remove if players prefer, but they probably should have been introduced in one of the expansions, which are naturally aimed at more dedicated players.
At any rate, Wingspan is well worth playing and a watershed game in many ways, for showing the value of non-traditional themes, modeling how graphic design affordances can make games easier to learn, and bringing the innovations of card-driven rulesets to a new audience.
(I made a point to use the term “setting” instead of “theme” in this article. Game design discussion has heavily misused the term “theme” – I am guilty myself – as the word should be reserved for the MEANING of a game, not a description of the location, time period, visual style, and so on. I would encourage other designers and critics to use the word “setting” the same way everyone else in the world uses it to describe books, movies, plays, and other works of art. Misusing “theme” makes it more difficult to talk about what games actually mean, which subconsciously puts our work in a lower cultural category.)
If you follow this blog, you are probably aware that my latest game, Old World, just came out on Steam and GOG, and so the game has been in the media spotlight for the last few weeks. Accordingly, I put together all of my recent appearances if you can’t get enough of my voice!
Today is a very big day for Offworld Trading Company – the multiplayer is now free on Steam! To get a key for a MP-only version of the game, simply sign up to Mohawk’s mailing list.
Offworld was born as a multiplayer game, inspired by my own multiplayer experiences with a variety of economic-minded games, like Belter, M.U.L.E., and Age of Empires. Mohawk started the game’s development with multiplayer, usually playing the game at least once per day and usually never playing under the same rules twice. If someone came up with a great idea – like picking one’s HQ after starting the game – we figured out a way to test it out the next day.
Once Offworld came out on Early Access, the multiplayer community became the backbone of our testing and feedback group. We ran a number of tournaments (organized by my wife who remains a dedicated player to this day) that were the crucible for deciding which ideas did and didn’t make it into the final game. This community has stuck together for years now, the best place to find them is on the official unofficial Offworld Discord server.
However, multiplayer games are hard to make work because they have the biggest gap between games that take off into the stratosphere (League of Legends, Fortnite) and games that die off spectacularly from the negative feedback loop of a dying userbase (rhymes with Jawbreakers). There is very little middle ground between those two extremes, which is why multiplayer games have increasingly moved towards free-to-play as the default model as a hedge against the possibility of the player base death spiral.
Offworld never had quite this issue because the game has robust single-player, with a dynamic campaign and competent AI. Having said that, players who went to look for a multiplayer game often couldn’t find one, which is a tragic situation for a game built from and built for multiplayer. The obvious solution was to move to a free-to-play model for multiplayer, but of course, that could mean many different things.
I’ve had a long-running love–hate–fear relationship with free-to-play games; indeed, I even made one! However, after they did end up either eating or expanding the industry (depending on one’s perspective), it is clear now that there are different types of free-to-play games and different reasons to use the model. Our model is the simplest, dumbest available. Multiplayer is free, and we are developing new DLC and retrofitting old DLC to be mutually exclusive so that players can buy whatever parts of the game they like. The most obvious purchase is the base game itself, which unlocks all sorts of things, but there are other attractive options which can be bought and played without the base game:
Blue Chip Ventures, a series of scripted scenarios and challenges that help teach the game
Limited Supply, an alternate version of Offworld which takes away the market in favor of resource puzzles
There’s even a cosmetic-only set of skins for special buildings called Conspicuous Consumption. (See, we were thinking ahead!)
I’m very curious to see what will happen. In the two hours since the free version came out, our player base has already quadrupled. Hopefully, multiplayer games will now always be available for budding tycoons.
I gave a short talk at GDC this year on the importance of understanding what your game has inherited from the past. They have already posted the video here (my part starts at 28:50):
Since my talk was short and scripted, I am also posting the slides and words for your reading pleasure!
This phrase is so common, it’s basically an idiom. Indeed, while some of our non-American friends here might be baffled by baseball in general, they probably still know this rule. However…
…it’s not actually true. The batter is not out after the third strike. It’s only when the catcher catches the ball that the batter is out.
If the catcher drops or misses the pitch, then the batter is not out and has a chance to advance to first. This almost always results in an out as the catcher simply picks up the ball and makes the easy throw, but occasionally, this little-known rule can become a big deal, as it did in last year’s final game in the playoff series between the Chicago Cubs and the Washington Nationals. Max Scherzer threw a third strike past a swinging Javier Baez, but watch what happens…
…the Nationals catcher Matt Wieters missed the ball between his legs, allowing Baez to make it safely to first base. This would have been the third out of the inning. Instead, the Cubs scored two more runs and later won the game by only one run and advanced to the next round.
Thus, an obscure rule knocked the Nationals out of the playoffs. Where exactly did this rule come from?
It actually reaches back to the very first time the rules of baseball were put down in print, by the German Johann Christoph Friedrich Gutsmuths.
He outlined something called “English Base-ball”, which was a game of innings with a batter, fielders, safe bases, and scoring at home plate. However, there were no strikes or balls yet. The pitcher stood close to the batter and more or less “delivered” the ball as a soft lob to be hit. The pitcher wasn’t trying to challenge the batter; the game was about fielding the ball AFTER it was hit.
However, what happens when there is a terrible batter who can’t hit anything? In Gutsmuths’ game, he had a special rule for this situation – the batter gets only three swings. On the third swing, the ball is automatically in play whether it is hit or not. So, the batter will run to first either after hitting the ball or missing for the third time. Indeed, there is no catcher to receive the ball; so the pitcher would need to run to home plate to pick it up and throw to first.
In 1845, the American Knickerbocker Base Ball Club wrote down their rules for the game, and some things had changed.
The pitcher was now much farther from the batter and threw the ball horizontally, which required the new position of catcher. However, they preserved the logic of the old Gutsmuths rule – that the ball was in play after the third missed swing – like old legacy code lying around.
The “strikeout” was actually emergent gameplay because after the third miss, the ball was now technically in play, and the catcher turned it into an out by catching the pitch. Thus, there was no actual difference between the catcher making an out from catching a popup and the catcher making an out from catching the pitch after a third missed swing. In each case, the ball was now “live” and the catcher made an out by catching the ball before it hit the ground.
However, they had to patch the game later because of an unintended consequence of not taking the time to make the strikeout an official rule. Because the ball would be considered “live” after a third strike, the possibility for a cheesy double- or triple-play existed.
For example, if the bases were loaded, then the catcher could intentionally drop the ball, pick up it up again, step on home plate for an easy out, and then throw to third and on to second for two more. Therefore, in 1887, they added a new rule so that the batter would automatically be out if a runner was on first base AND there were less than two outs.
Thus, Three Strikes and You’re Out – the way everyone assumes baseball is played – is true… but only under a very specific set of circumstances. They opted for an ugly patch instead of just rewriting the rules to match how the game was actually being played!
Indeed, think about the situation with Javier Baez. There WAS a runner on first base… so, even though the catcher dropped the ball, it should have been a strikeout… except, there were two outs, so we’re now back to the original dropped third-strike rule again.
They could have just rewritten the rules so that Three Strikes and You’re Out applies at ALL times. Wouldn’t that be simpler? More intuitive? Why go to the trouble of fixing the one glaring issue with catchers intentionally dropping the ball and not just get rid of the old, vestigial rule.
The reason is that we inherit our game design from everything that comes before us.
Sometimes, this inheritance is obvious – Civ 6 inherited from Civ 5 which inherited from Civ 4, and so on.
Sometimes, a designer inherits from the games he or she played as a kid (Mario -> Braid, Myst -> The Witness)
Sometimes, games inherit from themselves. This is a timeline of the development of our economic RTS Offworld Trading Company.
You might make certain development shortcuts or hacks early on just so that you can get your prototype playable, but then these assumptions are now baked into your design whether you want them there or not. You have to REMEMBER that it was an accidental or arbitrary choice.
The most common thing to inherit, however, is game mechanics, usually from games in the same genre.
For example, although Offworld Trading Company is an RTS, it’s notable for being one without units. However, we didn’t start there as we inherited from all the other RTSs before us – StarCraft, Age of Empires, etc. Thus, we had scouts, builders, transports, pirates ships, police ships, and so on.
Over time, we discovered that this inheritance was weighing the game down, forcing the player to spend time wrangling units that would have been better spent playing the market. Slowly, we took these units out one by one, first the transports, then the combat units, then the builders, and finally the scouts. The game looks like a radical break with the past, but it took us a long time to get there.
The problem is that iterative design can be a trap – that you can no longer see those parts of your game that are holding you back from a much better design. It’s easier to make small changes that fix glaring issues rather than to re-evaluate your entire design
Sometimes, the problem with a game’s inheritance can be at the conceptual level. Consider Spore…
…which was conceived of as a “Power of 10” game that went from cellular-scale all the way up to galactic-scale. That was the hook, the point of making the game.
This part of the game was widely seen as a disappointment – that the five disparate levels felt like five different games duct-taped together. However, something interesting happened with the failure of Spore…
…which is that it wasn’t actually a failure after all. This is how many people are playing Spore right now – not bad for a 10-year-old game.
Indeed, check out this chart, which compares Spore to the two most successful PC games released the same year – 2008. Spore currently crushes them, and keep in mind that Spore didn’t even launch on Steam.
What happened was that the most interesting part of the game did not come from the Powers of Ten concept, but from the editors inside the game – especially the creature creator, which dynamically animated the players’ creations.
However, these editors were developed midway through the project; Maxis started making a game about one thing and accidentally ended up making a game about something else. One of the big unanswered questions about Spore is what could we have done if we had been able to ditch the Powers of Ten concept and refocus the game on the editors?
Here’s a classic case study in inheriting bad design. Creep denial is a mechanic in the original DOTA where you kill you OWN units to keep your opponents from getting gold and experience from them.
Indeed, creep denial is one of the focal point of high-level play in DOTA, to maximize your experience point gain relative to your opponents to outlevel them. However, it’s an open question whether this is actually GOOD design.
At the very least, creep denial is ACCIDENTAL design because DOTA inherited it from Warcraft 3 – this was simply how that game handled killing your own units. Indeed the fact that Warcraft 3 even ALLOWED killing your own units was likely an afterthought by the designers.
DOTA inherited this rule because the game was literally built inside of Warcraft 3 as a mod. Thus, MOBAs inherited a ton of design and mechanics from Warcraft 3. The original DOTA designers may have wanted many things to work differently, but they really didn’t have a choice given the limitations and assumptions of the Warcraft 3 editor.
DOTA 2 and League of Legends, of course, inherit their design from the original DOTA mod, but they made different choices about their inheritance of creep denial. Basically, League dropped it while DOTA 2 kept it.
This is from a Reddit thread on why creep denial is not in League. Don’t worry about reading this; I just want to point out how “RandomGuyDota” is trying to explain why creep denial is bad for the design using the game mechanics themselves. This is pretty typical reasoning for something that has become part of a game’s design inheritance – the burden of proof is always on why it should be removed from the game, not on how it got added in the first place.
However, I have a simpler explanation for why creep denial is bad design…
I mean, come on, you want your players to be spending their time killing their own units? Is that really a core part of what makes MOBAs work? The game would fall apart if you couldn’t kill your own guys?
aahdin perhaps sums it up better than I ever could.
At some point, you have to step back as a designer and re-evaluate your inheritance. Does the core gameplay survive without the feature? Is the feature unintuitive, making the game harder to understand or to pick up? Is there a better way for the players to be spending their time than on this feature?
In the case of creep denial, the answer to all those questions suggests that the game would be better off without it. There is only one magical core feature to MOBAs, the one feature which cannot be dropped – and that is taking the scope and complexity of an RTS but focusing the player’s control onto just one unit, which makes the game accessible to a larger audience by an order of magnitude. Everything else, EVERYTHING ELSE, is just accidental inheritance resulting from the genre’s origin as a Warcraft 3 mod.
In fact, although League doesn’t have creep denial now… they actually started with it.
These are League of Legend’s very first patch notes, published in July 2009. They inherited creep denial but killed it very early. So, although they got it from the original mod, they were willing to critically examine their game’s past.
In contrast, here is the history of creep denial from DOTA 1 to DOTA 2. You can see an awareness that creep denial might not be the best thing for the game.
Look at 6.82 – “Denied creeps now give less experience” – a clear sign that they are re-evaluating this feature by changing its rewards. However, instead of ripping it out, they are making small changes around the edges.
Basically, they are doing what baseball did when they patched the dropped third-strike rule by making it not apply in certain circumstances instead of just getting rid of the dumb rule itself.
Remember my questions on the value of creep denial? Does the core gameplay survive without the feature? Is the feature unintuitive, making the game harder to understand or to pick up? Is there a better way for the players to be spending their time than on this feature? Running this exercise with the dropped third-strike rule gets us to the same place – that it’s bad, accidental design that is ultimately hurting baseball.
Now, here’s a comparison of the two games, and some other MOBAs. There are many reasons why League outpaces DOTA 2 by an order of magnitude – an almost three year head start is a pretty big one – but I also believe that Riot’s philosophy of re-examining their inheritance from the original DOTA mod, which extends well beyond just removing creep denial, is a very important piece.
Now, I also have thoughts about last hitting, but fortunately, I don’t have time for that. I say fortunately because, Heroes of the Storm, which is the only one of these three to drop last hitting, is less successful than DOTA 2, let alone League. Thus, I can’t really make an argument that the market has proven that last hitting is bad design. Further, I don’t think it would be reasonable to expect Riot to experiment with dropping last hitting at this point; it’s just too late. League is one of the world’s most popular games. Indeed, they are lucky that they dropped creep denial so early in their development before doing so might have split community opinion.
We don’t always have the luxury of looking at the market to prove out our decisions, which is why re-examining a game’s inheritance is such a difficult and important issue.
Choosing to erase your inheritance takes real bravery. Sometimes, you have to trust your own rational design process if you see a problem. Sometimes, you have to go with your gut. Ultimately, you must be willing to see your history, know how it led you to where you are today, and then have the courage to drop the past.
(For more background on the dropped third-strike rule, check out this article.)
GDC is next week! Things are nowhere near as crazy as last year when we were pitching 10 Crowns to at least ten different publishers (which is a subset of the thirty different publishers that I had any level of discussion with for the game). We met with Starbreeze for the first time during the show and signed a deal with them a few months later. Looking forward to sharing more about the game!
This year, I get to just enjoy the show and stockpile some more podcasts. This time, the line-up is Alexis Kennedy, Jon Ingold, Andy Schatz, and Josh Sawyer. I’ve got over a year’s worth of recordings – coming soon, a three-parter with Brian Reynolds! – so look for these episodes in late 2019, I guess.
I am giving a ten-minute talk on baseball’s dropped third-strike rule and creep denial in DOTA. The mini-talk will be part of Richard Rouse’s annual “Rules of the Game” series, which has a pretty impressive lineup this year. Hope to see you there!
Rules of the Game: Five Further Techniques from Rather Clever Designers
Location: Room 2010, West Hall Date: Wednesday, March 21 Time: 5:00pm – 6:00pm Pass Type: All Access, GDC Conference + Summits, GDC Conference Topic: Design, Production & Team Management Format: Session Vault Recording: Video
How do you make your games work? There’s no sure-fire way to design great games, but over numerous successful projects the best designers develop techniques that help them craft compelling experiences. Returning for GDC 2018, the Rules of the Game session takes five renowned designers and asks them to go into detail about a rule they’ve used in their work. Each speaker has ten minutes to dive into their technique and provide detailed examples about how they have used the rule in past projects, honestly sharing the pluses and minuses including where their rule works well and where it may be less applicable. These are personal rules that you may not always agree with, but they’re guaranteed to provide interesting fodder for your own game design thoughts and help you build your own design rulebook.
Audience members will hear five very specific, practical, unique, and personal game design rules from veteran, respected game designers. Expect to leave with an interesting new set of design principles to try out on your own projects.
This session is intended for intermediate to advanced game designers who are looking to expand their knowledge of game design craft and learn new ways to tackle challenges.
I gave a talk at GDC 2008 on developing the AI for the Civilization series. I highlighted the difference between “good” AI and “fun” AI and how writing AI for Civ is tricky because it fits somewhere between those two extremes. Unfortunately, the talk was not filmed, and because I always wanted to get it online, I went ahead and reconstructed it from the original audio and slides. If you give it a watch, let me know what you think!
I gave a talk at GDC 2010 on the interaction of theme and mechanics in games, specifically arguing that a game’s mechanics take priority over its theme when determining the game’s meaning. (The talk was based heavily on thesecolumns written for Game Developer magazine.) Unfortunately, the talk was not filmed, and because I always wanted to get it online, I went ahead and reconstructed it from the original audio and slides. If you give it a watch, let me know what you think!
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.