GD Column 16: Stop Making Sense

The following was published in the December 2010 issue of Game Developer magazine…

Some of our industry’s most beloved games make precious little sense. Why, for example, do players battle the trolls, goblins, and skeletons of Puzzle Quest by challenging them to a two-player version of Bejewelled? Similarly, success in Professor Layton’s world seems to revolves disproportionately around one’s ability to solve classic logic and deduction puzzles, no matter the reason.

Game stories have fared no better. Mario’s canonical plot sounds like nonsense from Lewis Carroll – the plumber punches bricks to find magic mushrooms that double his size, so that he can battle an evil turtle who has kidnapped the kingdom’s princess. The less said about the Metal Gear Solid franchise’s various twists and turns – including the infamous possession of Revolver Ocelot’s mind by Liquid Snake’s old arm – the better.

However, games have their own internal logic that is more important than whether the game’s story makes sense, or even whether the game’s mechanics hold together logically, without bizarre juxtapositions like in Puzzle Quest. The traditional concepts of levels, lives, and respawns are ultimately constructs that support a designer’s vision, whether or not they have any logical real-world parallel or thematic metaphor.

Why, for example, should players respawn – coming back to life – after being killed in a team-based shooter? Shouldn’t players expect that their dead character stay dead after being killed? The reason is that the respawn mechanic matches the inviting tone the game’s designer wishes to strike. By softening the blow of death, gamers are free to play aggressively, which rewards risk and even experimentation.

A place exists for games which do not allow respawning – Counter-Strike being the most successful example – but the designer chooses this mechanic not in pursuit of realism, but to strike a different tone. When characters stay dead, players feel more tension during the match, which encourages them to play more carefully and with greater precision. Thus, games without respawns simply occupy a different location on the play spectrum.

Be True to the Game

Sometimes, these imaginary design constructs are necessary for the existence of entire genres. The classic real-time strategy design pattern, with peons, base-building, and rush/turtle/boom dynamics, little resembles actual warfare, even when ignoring the common fantastical themes. In what type of war does each side construct army barracks to train troops – and even research labs to discover technologies – on the very field of battle? Indeed, why is every scientific breakthrough forgotten between each scenario of a fictional campaign?

Ultimately, these questions are subsumed by the genre’s needs. Strategy games work because players are forced to make tough choices between a number of options, each with its own set of tradeoffs. Although the environments of most real-time strategy battle often contain nonsensical elements, such as economic infrastructure and research facilities, these elements each create important mechanics that increase strategic depth.

Creating infrastructure gives the player an actual location on the map to defend – without it, armies could roam freely across the map with no consequences for abandoning a certain location. Discovering technologies creates short-vs-long-term tradeoffs for the player to balance – should resources be invested in science for a long-term payoff of stronger units or spent on new units to attack the enemy and press an early advantage?

These tradeoffs make sense in a fundamental way – players understand that location should matter and that making long-term investments should succeed under the right circumstances. Therefore, the gameplay itself makes sense even if the game’s world does not, with workers planting farms within sight of a pitched battle.

Too Much Consistency

Indeed, designers who worry too much about a consistent world can often hamstring their own work. In StarCraft, the designers had no qualms allowing Terran players to team up with the Zerg in multiplayer, even if fighting against other Terrans. However, Company of Heroes only allows matches with the Axis on one side and the Allies on the other. Clearly, this decision makes sense thematically, but does it make sense that the players never get to pit identical sets of virtual army men against each other?

Assassin’s Creed famously went to great lengths to cover up as many standard game conventions as possible. A frame story put the player in the shoes not of a 12th-century Middle Eastern assassin (as the game’s advertisements featured) but of his 21st-century descendant who is somehow reliving the former’s life with advanced memory reconstruction technology.

This conceit aims to explain a number of typical design constructs. Discrete game levels are simply different memories while all character deaths must be false memories. The assassin’s movements are mapped to a physical gamepad because he is actually the puppet of a latter-day character trying to relive his memories.

Did these rationales broaden the game’s appeal by explaining supposedly arbitrary gaming cliches? Or did they unnecessarily burden the game’s narrative with a convoluted and unnecessary frame story that distanced players from the fantasy of becoming a medieval assassin? Surely, the average console owner would not be surprised that the game required controlling the character with a gamepad.

Indeed, the early arcade industry was a font of creativity largely because the games were not expected to make any sense – think of the dot-eating Pac-Man or the cube-jumping Q*Bert or the ray-running Tempest. As graphics became more realistic, almost all arcade cabinets were ghettoized into just a few concrete categories – racing, fighting, shooting – because the higher resolutions discouraged bizarre, abstract games. Only now that downloadable, mobile, and Web-based gaming have brought back lower resolutions is the old eccentric energy returning.

Go Your Own Way

Sometimes, manipulating a game’s story to paper over unusual design concepts can work. Certainly, the Dagger of Time’s ability to rewind time for a few seconds in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was an elegant way to integrate a quick-save system into the game’s core functionality. In the recent Torchlight, the character’s pet can run back to town to sell loot, nicely shortening a time-consuming element of most action-RPG’s while also staying within the game’s fiction.

Still, designers should feel comfortable going their own way if a mechanics makes sense for the game they want to make. Shiren the Wanderer is a roguelike dungeon crawler, which means that all character deaths are permanent as progress cannot be saved. Roguelikes are meant to be played repeatedly, with the player improving purely through increased knowledge of the game’s rules.

However, Shiren does allow a very unusual type of progress by letting the player stash loot – including powerful weapons and armor – in various caches found throughout the game that have persistence between sessions. Thus, although a character might die an unlucky death, he still contributes to advancing the game by leaving a supply of potions for the next character’s playthrough.

This strange mechanic, where most, but not all, of the world resets on death, has few parallels either inside or outside of gaming, and the story makes no attempt to explain it. Truly, no explanation is necessary because the game is being true to itself; the designers wanted a game that combined the tense atmosphere of permadeath with a touch of power progression from a traditional RPG.

BioShock is another game which gave no explanation for an absurd element – the audio diaries which are littered about the underwater city of Rapture. These bits of recorded speech from the game’s main characters provide important backstory for this Objectivist dystopia. Still, what type of person would, after putting their personal thoughts onto tape, decide to break up the tape into pieces and then scatter those pieces around the world like junk?

That the player discovers these scattered bits of audio in roughly linear order allows the designer to tell the story without relying on stodgy cutscenes, but their placement in the world simply doesn’t make sense. However, this problem doesn’t mean that the designers made the wrong choice; perhaps a more elegant solution was possible, but better allowing a little inelegance than turning the player into a non-interactive viewer who must be force-fed the story.

The Perfect Theme

One great advantage of not worrying about a game making sense is that designers are free to use the theme which best matches the game’s mechanics. The tower defense genre emerged from user-created scenarios designed for real-time strategy games like StarCraft and WarCraft III.

The limitations of these platforms gave the genre a distinct set of conventions – stationary defenses vs. mobile “creeps” – which had little narrative justification. Why must all defenses be static? Why are the creeps so slow and mindless? If only a thematic environment existed which matched this set of game mechanics.

In fact, one did, but the designers just needed the confidence to pull it out of thin air. What type of life-form can grow but can’t move? Plants! What type shambles along slowly in a straight line without a brain? Zombies! Naturally, the answer was to pit these two groups against each other.

With Plants vs. Zombies, PopCap found the perfect theme for a tower defense game. The fact that it completely defied common sense – why are players battling zombies with mutant plants, after all? – was beside the point. The important thing is that even someone not familiar with the tower defense genre would have an intuitive understanding of what to expect simply from the game’s title – all because the designer wasn’t afraid to stop making sense.

GD Column 15: Start Making Sense

The following was published in the November 2010 issue of Game Developer magazine…

First, read the following paragraph carefully.

“The procedure is actually quite simple. First, you arrange things into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities, then that is the next step. Otherwise, you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things; that is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run, this may not seem important, but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first, the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will just become another facet of life.”

Did the paragraph make any sense, or did it seem like a string of nonsense? Most likely, it was the latter, and the reason is that the text is completely devoid of context. Now, try reading the paragraph again, but think of this simple phrase first: “dirty laundry.”

Now, the information should read completely different and actually mean something. The text is simply a set of instruction about how to wash one’s laundry. In fact, now that context has been established, reading the paragraph again without thinking about clothes is probably impossible.

Schema Theory

This transformation is an example of schema theory, which tries to explain how our brains categorizes the world. Essentially, a schema is a mental framework centering on a specific theme, helping us process and classify new information.

For example, a schema for dogs include information about their bodies (four legs, hair, tail), their behavior (barking, drooling, cat chasing), and even their breeds (collies, spaniels, poodles). Further, the dog schema can contain traits from higher-level schemas, such as for mammals (warm-blooded, vertebrates, live births) and pets (domesticated, loyal, house-trained). Thus, when encountering a dog, our pre-existing schema brings with it a wealth of information that informs us on what to expect from the animal.

However, schemas are only useful if they are activated. The original paragraph was meaningless until the appropriate schema was triggered in the reader’s mind by the simple phrase “dirty laundry.” The text itself is useless without the schema, which is an important consideration for an author who wants to communicate effectively.

Games and Schemas

Game designers also need to communicate something effectively – a set of rules and mechanics that the player must learn and master. This education process is one of the biggest challenges game developers face, and many games with fun systems have failed simply because few players get past the learning curve. Many tools exist for solving this problem – well-paced tutorials, helpful tooltips, accessible UI – but perhaps the simplest approach is to activate one of the player’s pre-existing schemas that is well matched with the game’s underlying mechanics.

For example, the board game Agricola activates the player’s farming schema to teach a fairly complex economic engine. Players already understand the order of plowing a field, planting seeds, harvesting wheat, baking bread, and feeding one’s family, which makes the complex interactions between the resources, fields, improvements, and actions easier to learn. Thus, one of the most important jobs of a game’s theme is to help the player understand and remember the mechanics, which is another reason why a game’s theme and mechanics should be well matched.

Another good example of the power of schemas comes from the related board games Coloretto and Zooloretto. Both games use the same underlying game mechanic of set collection with penalties for acquiring too many different types of items. For example, in Coloretto players gather cards of seven different colors, but only the player’s three largest sets score positively; all other color sets score negatively.

The same mechanic is at play with Zooloretto but with herding animals of the same species into pens instead of gathering identical colors. This difference gives the game a strong theme that activates the player’s zoo schema, which actually justifies the scoring system. New Coloretto players need to be told explicitly that every color past their third will hurt them while new Zooloretto players can see clearly from the board that they only have so many pens available – extra animals will remain useless in the barn. The zoo schema matters because the players’ pre-existing knowledge about zoos – that animals of different species are placed into separate pens – makes the game easier to learn.

Furthermore, some themes will activate a player’s schemas easier than others. In particular, historical or contemporary themes have more resonant schemas than sci-fi or fantasy themes. Players can more easily guess how Age of Empire’s knights and archers function than how StarCraft’s mutalisks or dark templars do. Indeed, most fantasy-based games tend to follow very well-established tropes (elves, goblins, dwarves) with which the player is already familiar. Those games which color outside the lines – such as the Kohan series which based its fantasy world on Persian mythology – often fall flat because players cannot use their pre-existing Tolkein schema.

Realism vs. Fun

Using schemas as a tool to give players a window into a game system raises the question of realism because the rules also need to accurately mirror the assumptions the players bring with them. If a baseball game gave the player four outs instead of three, the use of the baseball schema would not just be useless but actually counter-productive because players would be constantly mixing up the exact rules.

Thus, realism matters and is an important tool for designers. However, realism has earned a bad name among game developers. For instance, fans who nitpick over small historical details that a game gets wrong are called “rivet counters.” Indeed, Sid Meier famously said that “when fun and realism clash, fun wins.”

However, in many ways, this choice is a false one. Realism that gives the player an easier learning curve makes a game more fun, not less. The danger from an over-zealous pursuit of realism comes when the designer expects the player to bring significant outside knowledge to the game, limiting the potential audience. If a WWII game contains realistic ratings for different flavors of German panzers, that’s fine, but if the game expects the player to already know these ratings by heart, without in-game help, that’s a problem.

Further, perceived reality is more important than actual reality. The most important question is how the player’s schema is pre-built before starting the game. If a common misperception is widespread enough, better to support the players’ expectations than to subvert them (unless, of course, the design itself has an educational goal).

For example, Sid Meier primarily based Pirates! not on exhaustive historical records, but on pirates movies, Hollywood’s version of the era. Therefore, every pirate has a long-lost sister held captive by an evil Spaniard, and each tavern holds a mysterious stranger who might have a key piece of a treasure map. Similarly, Will Wright based The Sims not on actual domestic life but on a stylized sit-com version of it.

Genre Schemas

Schemas do not need to exist entirely separate from the world of games itself. Gaming veterans will eventually develop their own schemas for which designers must accommodate. More specifically, players will develop schemas related to how a genre is “supposed” to work – a schema for first-person shooters, for platformers, for fighting games, and even for rogue-likes.

Just as people who encounters a new dog expect certain behaviors based on their dog schemas, players who pick up new real-time strategy game come with their own sizable RTS schemas into which they expect the game to fit. The players might expect a God-level view, control of mutliple units, a peon-based economy, base-building for military and technology, a high-level boom/turtle/rush game balance, and so on.

Game which eschew too many of these features can hopefully become critical darlings (Majesty, Sacrifice, Dragonshard) but almost never achieve commercial success. Consumers are generally conservative when dropping $60 on a new game, and the better they can understand a game before purchasing it – often by fitting it squarely into the framework of a genre schema – the more comfortable they will feel. Thus, genre schemas have a significant chilling effect on innovation within the industry.

Perhaps the best way to overcome the limitations of genre schemas is by providing the consumer a different yet stronger schema via the game’s actual theme. For example, Nintendogs did not fit well into a successful commercial genre but the game’s theme – taking care of a pet dog – activated the schemas of consumers with so many clear possibilities that the title became one of the best-selling games of all time. The game sold itself to players primarily on the basis of what they already knew about dogs.

Making Sense

A certain breed of player does exist that is unafraid to dive into unfamiliar territory, such as the early adopters of iconoclastic cult games like Dwarf Fortress and the Dominions series. Most players, however, need to understand what a game is about before they even touch a controller. A schema hook is required, either via the game’s visible theme or some well-established genre conventions.

However, while the latter can successfully sell a gaming to faithful core gamers, only the former can expand gaming to a mainstream audience. Certainly, the Nintendo Wii was the greatest example of this fact during the current console generation. Besides the accessibility of the controls, many of the best-selling games – such as Wii Fit, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, Just Dance, and – yes – even the oft-derided Carnival Games – all have very clear themes that easily activate consumers’ schemas and expectations. Games about space marines and evil wizards do not have this advantage.

Still, finding a resonant theme is only half the battle; a game’s mechanics must match the theme as well. The old “fun beats realism” saw has become such dogma that designers can easily fray the connections between a game’s theme and its mechanics in the very subjective pursuit of fun. Starting a new game is always a leap of faith, and players have a right to expect their games to start making sense.

(Credit for the laundry schema example belongs to the How to Play Podcast.)

GD Column 14: The Chick Parabola

The following was published in the September 2010 issue of Game Developer magazine…

On March 11, 2009 during the Three Moves Ahead strategy gaming podcast, freelance journalist Tom Chick introduce a phenomenon which has come to be known as the Chick Parabola:

My experience with Empire: Total War is this parabola of fondness. At first I don’t like it, so I’m at the bottom of the curve. I don’t like it because they do a terrible job with their documentation – it’s got a terrible manual; they want you to play through this scripted campaign if you want to learn anything; the tool-tips are really screwy. So, I’m hating it.

But then I’m playing it, and I’m learning it, and I’m liking it, so I’m climbing up that parabola. At the very top of the curve, I think, “Hey, I sort of figured it out. I like this game.” But then I start to discover that the AI is terrible, that it’s a dumb game, and I start coming down the far end of the parabola, and I am no longer fond of Empire: Total War.

Commonly, there’s this curve where I enjoy a game, and then I master the system, and then – unless it’s got a good AI – I lose all interest because I realize that mastering the system is where the challenge ends. Once I reach that point, the game is dead for me, and I hate that! That’s when the game should really start to take off.

Many veteran gamers will recognize this feeling from their own experiences – the rising enjoyment that comes from learning an interesting game system followed by an inevitable deflation as the challenge slowly disappears.

Sometimes, a simple technique or exploit becomes obvious that renders the rest of the game balance irrelevant. However, usually the culprit is a weak adversary as the artificial intelligence cannot grasp certain core game mechanics to offer the player a robust challenge. The problem is that the game’s designers have made promises on which the AI programmers cannot deliver; the former have envisioned game systems that are simply beyond the capabilities of modern game AI.

Symmetry Matters

Still, not all games suffer from the Chick Parabola. Many are so fundamentally assymetrical – Super Mario Bros., Grand Theft Auto, World of Warcraft, Half-Life – that the AI is simply a speed bump that can be easily tuned to provide the right level of challenge. The games which suffer the most are ones where the computer is forced to play the same game as the human.

These symmetrical games – StarCraft, Street Fighter, Puzzle Quest, Halo – have a unique challenge in that each game mechanic must not simply be judged on its own merits but also by asking whether the AI can reasonably understand the option and execute it successfully. Unfortunately, asking this question often disqualifies many interesting ideas.

Artificial intelligence is notoriously poor at handling issues of trust and betrayal, of long-term investments, of multi-front wars, and of avoiding traps obvious to any human. The question of trust, in particular, has torpedoed multiple attempts to make a viable single-player version of the classic board game Diplomacy, which relies so acutely on being able to read one’s enemies, one’s friends, and one’s supposed friends.

Thus, to avoid the Chick Parabola, designers of symmetrical games must weigh carefully the implications of various game mechanics. An interesting play option which over-taxes the AI runs the risk of making the game more interesting in the short-term – as the player learns the system – but less interesting in the long-term – once the player masters the system and can use the mechanic to run rings around the artificial intelligence.

Of course, designers of symmetrical games built primarily for multi-player – such as the Battlefield series or the fighting genre – can choose to sacrifice single-player longevity for multi-player depth. Non-conventional weapons are fine if we assume that veterans of the game are only interested in playing the game with each other.

The human brain is remarkably flexible, with the ability to easily process novel mechanics which are orthogonal to the rest of the game. This approach has many advantages; Valve has been able to radically change the multi-player-only Team Fortress 2 with each character update (giving the Demoman a sword and shield, for example) without having to worry about toppling over an increasingly rickety AI.

Designing for the AI

However, symmetrical single-player games need to be designed as much for the artificial intelligence as for the humans themselves. Even if painful, designers must be willing to leave some of their most orthogonal – and often most creative – ideas off the table for the sake of the AI. Game design is a series of trade-offs, and empowering the AI is important for avoiding the downward slope of the Parabola.

Nonetheless, creative developers can solve this problem at the design stage before it even reaches some doomed AI programmer. One game mechanic that pushed Chick over the edge with Empire: Total War was amphibious invasion. The AI was simply incapable of coordinating its land and naval forces together to launch a coherent and effective invasion of an overseas target. Smart players would quickly learn that if the AI could not attack amphibiously, then the strategic balance can be gamed easily. Maybe England’s troops are not such a threat after all?

This problem is not unusual; strategy games with transportation units almost always suffer from ineffective artificial intelligence. Coordinating land and naval units to be ready in the same place and at the same time – along with the necessary escort ships – is a non-trivial task.

Rise of Nations, Big Huge Games’s historical RTS, presented a blunt but effective solution to this problem; land forces which approach the shore simply turn into boats to carry themselves across the water. Once they reach their destination, the boats transform back into the original land units. No transportation ships ever needed to be built or managed at all.

With one simple stroke, Brian Reynolds, the game’s designer, removed a classic AI problem from the game, enabling water maps to remain interesting for veteran players. The design may have sacrificed the “realism” of requiring the player to build transport ships along with other naval units, but the upside was extending the game’s longevity significantly.

Furthermore, many design changes meant to bolster the AI by simplification often have the side effect of making the game itself more enjoyable for the player. Quite a few players did not miss having to build and herd transports in Rise of Nations. Civilization 3 and Civilization 4 introduced global unit support and city production overflows, respectively; both changes helped the AI manage its resources but also made the game more enjoyable for the average player by drastically reducing micromanagement.

Tough Choices

The designer’s biggest challenge comes when a mechanic which is demonstrably fun or core to the game’s theme needs to be simplified or dropped. Occasionally, a game can get away with assuming that a certain option will be human-only; in the original Civilization, Sid Meier added nukes to the end-game but didn’t allow the AI to use them. He reasoned that because the super-weapon came only at the end of a game with such scope, players who used them were not abusing the game; they were simply having a bit of crazy fun at the end.

Further, if the designer wants to implement a mechanic that the AI can’t use, cheating is not a viable solution for balancing away the AI’s disadvantage. Allowing too many human-only systems effectively turns a symmetrical game into an asymmetrical one, which will eventually affect the strategic balance.

In the Empire: Total War example, once players know that the AI will never launch an effective amphibious invasion, the rest of the game changes immediately. Maybe players don’t need to bother defending their coastal territories? Maybe land-based allies are more important than water-based ones? Maybe the AI can be tricked into wasting its resources on futile invasions? Most importantly, the player is no longer playing like a queen – she is playing like a gamer who knows that the AI doesn’t work, one who is on the downhill side of the Parabola.

Ultimately, the designer may have to make a tough choice – drop a beloved mechanic or risk shortening the replayability? Many options do exist to extend a game’s longevity outside of pure balance – scripting a variety of scenarios, supporting procedural content generation, providing robust mod support, developing post-release content, and so on.

However, for robust replayability, nothing compares to pure strategic depth with a competent computer opponent. Sacrificing the game’s longevity to provide a few moments of fun for the human is essentially eroding the design at the foundation. As Chick puts it, when the player finally learns a system, “That’s when the game should really starts to take off.” The joy of learning is a big reason why games are fun, but no one wants to study for a test which doesn’t exist.

The Paul Stephanouk Interview

The following is the full text of the interview I conducted with Zynga Senior Designer Paul Stephanouk for my column on social gaming:

Q: Before working at Zynga, you worked as a designer at Big Huge Games. Exactly what type of design work did you do?

A: I worked on several games over my nine years at Big Huge Games. The design process was very collaborative, particularly on Rise of Nations and its expansion, so I was able to touch just about every aspect of design and production at some point. I did a lot of work on core gameplay, unit design and balance. I also led the campaign team for Rise of Legends and wrote design treatments to pitch our ideas to publishers.

Q: Why did you decide to switch over to work on social games?

A: Several years ago, I got hooked on web-based games like Travian and the stuff on Kongregate. When Facebook games started to gain traction, I began to get excited about building games in that space. In early 2009, I had the opportunity to not only join Zynga but to reunite with my old boss and Jedi Master Brian Reynolds to help launch the Zynga East studio.

Q: Which titles have you worked on at Zynga? What has your role been on these teams?

A: At Zynga I wear the dual-hat of lead developer for Zynga East and senior game designer. I’ve worked on several projects since landing at Zynga.  Teams at Zynga can be fluid so it is not uncommon to end up moving across various projects from time to time as we continue to innovate in game design. I’ve done work for FarmVille and other titles on occasion as well.

Q: We often hear that FarmVille was built and launched in six weeks. If the three games you have worked on so far are still unreleased, is it fair to say that the development cycles are getting longer before launch? If so, how do you know you are going down the right path without working in front of a live audience?

A: Launch standards have risen a modest amount in the last nine months, in part because Zynga continues to develop a game after it is released. FarmVille enjoys nine months of post-launch development on top of the famous six week figure and new games have to measure up. Our ability to share best practices and game mechanics across our games is vital to launching new games that have to compete with titles with considerably more development hours. The recent success of Treasure Isle, at almost 4 million users in a week, is a great illustration of how we can launch new products that leverage both our network and our knowledge to compete in the market.

Q: What are the biggest things which have changed about your job now? What have you had to unlearn?

A: So much has changed it’s hard to list it all. We’re using a fundamentally different process, building with very different tools, reaching a very different type of player, with a very different business model. And we build games in months instead of years. And I use Mac.

I had to unlearn everything I thought I knew about what players want. All of that was information about videogame fans, not Jane and Joe Everyperson. What’s more, a lot of what I thought I knew wasn’t necessarily rooted in solid data. Learning to focus heavily on observing users and their patterns of play can be a challenge.

Q: What’s fundamentally different about the Everyperson, the mainstream audience? What can you build for them that you can’t build for the core gamer?

A: Everyperson doesn’t come equipped with a built-in library of game experiences. This limits what a game can put in front of the player without having to resort to teaching them how to play. On the other hand that lack of exposure means there are many experiences that are new to the Everyperson that may seem less exciting to the core player simply because they are familiar.

As for what you can build, I don’t recall ever thinking about it in that way. We don’t specifically try to build something that core games can’t or won’t want to play and all of our games enjoy significant numbers of core gamers.

Q: You say that a lot of your assumptions were not rooted in solid data? What have we gotten wrong as designers from working in the dark? What mistake have you learned to avoid?

A: Well, I can’t speak for all designers everywhere. One of the things I had to come around on was the importance of zero-sum conflict. Coming from strategy games as I did I was very focused on the competitive aspect of games. I was aware of players wanting to build or explore but I always saw that as serving a conflict-driven goal. I have learned that for many people the conflict-driven nature of traditional games is a major detraction. I’m not saying that overall conflict is bad or that you can’t have conflict-driven action in social games – both of these things are very much not the case. What I am saying is that there are a lot of players out there, far more than I understood, that really want a game experience that isn’t driven by the need to compete against another person.

I’ve also come to understand that facilitating social interaction has tremendous value. It’s not just another feature – it is core. People value social connections. As humans it’s who we are and what we do. Most of us tend to like activities that facilitate social interaction. It follows that games with broader appeal facilitate more players and thus have a higher “network value”. No matter what I may think of Wii Sports as a game, the fun I’ve had playing it with my family means I value it as an experience. Clearly I wasn’t alone in that assessment given its popularity.

Q: So if social mechanics are not primarily competitive, I assume they are cooperative? If so, what works the best? What are examples of some of the best social mechanics on Facebook?

A: Two of the most popular mechanics are energy, a resource that is required for continued play, and giving gifts to your friends. Sometimes you can see both of these combined such as with the Energy Packs in Mafia Wars. Players can send a single Energy Pack to their friends once per day. The Energy Pack restores your energy bar and lets you take additional actions without having to wait.

Across social games there are a lot of different variants on gifting. A successful form that I like can be seen in FarmVille. Players can make a request for assistance to a friend. That friend can respond to the request by selecting both the form of gift to send and the reward for sending the gift. This helps the exchange better match the desires of both players.

Q: A number of games (such as Pet Society or FarmVille) encourage me to take care of my friend’s stuff, but I’m unclear if my actions actually make a difference. Is the coop mostly psychological, or are there examples of social games where closer coordination is encouraged?

A: I wouldn’t under-value the visiting experience on it’s own merit. Social contact is a vital component of the experience in its own right. That said, it does make a difference. For example, in FarmVille when I visit your farm I can spread fertilizer on some of your crops that produces a bonus. Players that coordinate this feature can get a substantial amount of benefit in the growth of their crops. There are also buildings in FarmVille that require collections of specific items to complete. These require a fair amount of interaction between players to accomplish.

Q: As a former designer of traditional games, what have you brought to Zynga that social games have lacked so far?

A: I like a wide range of game styles but tend to prefer designs that use simple rules to produce interesting results. I don’t think a game being easy to grasp for a novice precludes it from also being rewarding for more advanced players. I like to focus on the core rules, the systems, and I think I can help improve our games on both fronts. My love of card and board games is probably also an asset.

Q: Steve Meretzky, VP of Game Design at Playdom, has made the point that, with social games, business and design are unified as never before. Do you agree with this assertion? Have you needed to learn more about the business side of your games to do your job?

A: I’ve always paid attention to the “business side of the business”. I mean, how can you take yourself seriously as a commercial designer and *not* care about who is buying your product and why? In the past it was just something I paid attention to out of enlightened self-interest. In social games the connection is out in the open. If you can’t command an understanding of both the business and the game rules you are trying to row with only one oar.

Q: Still, with retail games, the designers always have a clear incentive to make the game better, without reservation. However, many successful free-to-play games, like Travian, charge players for specific features, such as a more efficient UI. Is it possible to design without putting one’s best foot forward?

A: I think you’re overlooking the fact that price IS a feature of a game as much as the UI. What customers are willing to pay and how many are willing to pay  shapes almost every commercial project. What designer hasn’t had to reduce or even cut a feature? Even on a well-funded project it’s not uncommon for a designer’s best foot forward to be constrained because there isn’t enough time or because it would require “too much art.” That’s the business model talking to the features of the game right there.

Q: How does Zynga make a decision about what to charge for and what to give users for free? Is the internal decision making top-down or bottom-up? How do you know if you are being either too restrictive or too generous?

A: Because our games are so rooted in social mechanics the quality of a player’s experience is a function of the number of players in the game. The games are free to play and the majority of our players never purchase any virtual goods. With over 235 million monthly players that’s a lot of people playing for free. To be successful we have to provide all of our players a high quality experience, not just the ones that pay.  With virtual goods we take our best ideas, try them, and immediately measure the results. I want to stress that we don’t try every single idea nor do we build our games according to some robotic polling process. We have the ability to put ideas in front of our users quickly and measure the results. We do that when we think it makes sense and try to go about it in a way that grounds our lessons in real empirical data.

Q: Sid defines a good game as a series of interesting decisions. What are the interesting decisions in a social game? Or does the social aspect trump the need for interesting decisions?

A: I think there are gameplay decisions within our games that are meaningful. Beyond that I also feel that decisions tied to social mechanics are probably the most meaningful. That probably isn’t news to many designers. Lots of videogames have social patterns at their core. The Sims. Wii Play. Pokemon. Nintendogs. These games and others are successful on the point of social patterns or even real social interaction. That social games use social mechanics at their core isn’t a new idea. The key for Zynga is that we connect our games to your real social network–your real friends. Decisions around your real social network produce very Sid-interesting situations for most people.

Q: How so? An interesting decision is usually one based on the game’s context. For example, in an RTS, building cavalry is not always the right decision. The answer depends on the terrain, the opponent, the stage of the battle, and so on. What do players have to ponder and balance in a social game?

A: There is a lot of room for economic optimization in these games. Just like in an RTS game, a player that makes the right choices can progress faster than those that don’t. Some players like to “race” or compare their level or rate of progress. Players might also optimize because they want to fund a visual experience akin to players spending game money in the Sims to outfit their avatar and decorate their home.

Q: Let’s talk about the time-based mechanics of social games which have emerged, built around an expectation that play is done in small, five-minute bursts. Some games (such as FarmVille and Social City) use an appointment mechanic which locks players out for a certain period of time once a task is started. Other games (such as Mafia Wars or Treasure Island) use an energy mechanic, which limits player’s action but is constantly refilling, perhaps encouraging players to micromanage more. What are the pluses and minuses of these two systems?

A: Progress-oriented players tend to respond better to the energy approach – Mafia Wars is an excellent example of this. Appointment, or “return”, mechanics are perceived as a softer approach. Return works well in games like FarmVille where players are, as a whole, less competitive and more focused on the social and building components. Overall it really depends on the game. Both methods can be successful and can even be combined. FarmVille has examples of both models – tractor fuel is an example of energy.

Q: Charles Husdon, formerly of social game developer Serious Business (which was acquired by Zynga), said about the genre that “who wants to play a game that’s almost always up and to the right so long as you do what you’re supposed to do?” Social games do primarily seem to just reward time. Is there a place for skill or challenge?

A: With due respect to Mr. Husdon, it doesn’t sound like he’s tried to keep up with another competitive player in a level-up race. Which isn’t to say that level-up racing is all social games are about. Far from it. I’m just stating that competitive play can and does exist in the space. Beyond that I’d like to go back to what I mentioned earlier, which is that competitive play is NOT the universal assumption for all players of social games like it is for traditional games and any given social game may or may not cater to that sort of thing.

Q: How does the design process change when development is based so much on metrics and user feedback? Do you feel less like the “author” of the game experience?

A: Metrics are everything I thought they might be – or at least what I hoped they would be every time I found myself sitting in a room of designers fighting over if a player would rather press one button over another. Why would a designer want to remain in the dark on something that has a clear, knowable answer? Undersanding how players play doesn’t stifle creatitivity in game design any more than understanding how people live stifles creativity in architecture. I think it’s the other way around – knowledge helps us understand constraints, and constraints are usually the building blocks of good design.

Do I feel less like an “author”? That depends, fiction or non-fiction?

Q: Following that question, if games like Farmville and Mafia Wars are “non-fiction” – as they are designed by learning from data how to make games about their topics – is there room to make “fiction” social games? Games that adhere to a designer’s vision even if that vision is not appealing to the average user?

A: I’m not going to declare that something can’t be done, particularly in such a young space. In my mind it is almost certainly the case that somebody will succeed with a single-vision game. Depending on how you measure success somebody might have already done so. I also think the popular approach has growth potential. We’ve got a lot ground to cover before we’ve truly reached the average person. Facebook continues to grow as do social networks in general. I think you’ll see social games built to appeal to your average person continue to grow right along with them.

Q: Will the primary future growth of Facebook games come from a few, enormous mass-market games or from a proliferation of more “niche” games aimed at specific, underserved audiences?

A: Broad appeal is clearly the order of the day and I don’t see that changing in the short term. I think niche games can be successful, particularly as the size of the niches continues to grow but it would take a lot of successful niches to make that the primary driver of growth.

The Siqi Chen Interview

The following is the full text of the interview I conducted with Zynga Director of Product Management Siqi Chen for my column on social gaming:

Q: How did you decide to begin working on social games?

Back in mid 2007, right after the Facebook platform was announced, I made the decision to get into social games. This is before we had a name for what we now call social games.

There was a visceral sense of new possibilities opening up with the availability of the social graph data for any given user. This new data combined with low friction distribution opened up brand new possibilities around social gameplay – you could for the first time create online games that involve each and every one of your real life friends. This was a big deal – it’s something that simply wasn’t possible before. I actually remember telling a few friends that I believed the largest company on the platform would be the “EA of Facebook.”

Q: Which titles have you worked on at Serious Business and at Zynga? What has your role been on these teams?

Our best known title at Serious Business was Friends for Sale, which was a social network game created by my cofounder Alex Le and myself. The idea was to take HotOrNot and add a market economy component to it. I was (in equal parts with Alex) a designer and developer of Friends for Sale, while also running the company as the CEO.

After our acquisition by Zynga, I run the product management team for Zynga’s Treasure Isle, which just launched. It’s a really exciting launch for Zynga because, by our count, this is the fastest growing social game anyone has ever launched.

Q: In your experience, what has been the biggest challenging in making successful social games. What separates the hits from the misses?

Successful social games are a magical blend of art and science. The art involves understanding what people want, being ruthlessly disciplined with simplicity and accessibility, and creating polished, fun experiences you want to enjoy with your friends. The science involves tracking, storing, and analyzing the billions of actions your players take and figuring out how to retain, grow and monetize your players in the best and most sustainable way.

Q: Steve Meretzky, VP of Game Design at Playdom, has made the point that, with social games, business and design are unified as never before. Do you agree with this assertion? What do traditional game designers need to learn to work on social games?

I cautiously agree with this. Certainly the distribution methods and the virtual goods based business models of social games encourage closer cooperation between designers and the business side. That much needed tension between the two still exists though. Underneath all the data and analysis, at the end of the day there still needs to be a delightful experience as a foundation.

Keep in mind that this advice comes from somebody who is not a traditional game designer, but I think that in order to be successful in this space, traditional game designers need to understand: 1. The context of social games – how and why do people play them? 2. A solid grasp of the economics of distribution and monetization.

The biggest distinction from traditional games is that social games have to basically distribute themselves and monetize themselves. This distinction is the root cause of a lot of design decisions made in successful social games.

Q: How do social games “distribute and monetize themselves” in ways with which traditional game developer might not be familiar? What are some of the best examples you’ve seen?

Because social games are built on top of a social graph, you have the opportunity to get your players to interact with their friends, even if their friends aren’t already playing the game.  These are social distribution opportunities that, when properly designed for, can make your game “viral” and allow you to acquire millions of users in a matter of days. No ad budget, no publishers, no retail shelf space required.

Since these games are distributed socially, all large social game experiences are free to play, monetizing through digital goods. You can play with all your friends, even though chances are only a few of them will ever buy anything.

I think the gold standard on both fronts, objectively speaking, would have to be FarmVille, at 30 million daily players.

Q: How does Zynga make a decision about what to charge for and what to give users for free? Is the internal decision making top-down or bottom-up? How do you know if you are being either too restrictive or too generous?

It’s a combination of experience, data, and intuition. We know a lot about the type of things people have purchased in the past, we have a sense of the things our users want through community feedback, and sometimes there are just awesome things that we think users would pay for.

What’s interesting to me about Zynga is that we are huge fans of our own games, so a lot of the people who work here are some of our best customers. Sometimes they would just come up to me and tell me what they would pay for. This type of feedback mostly comes from the bottom up.

Q: Sid Meier defines a good game as a series of interesting decisions. What are the interesting decisions in a social game? Or does the social aspect trump the need for interesting decisions?

The question I’d ask is, interesting to whom and when? When you’re on Facebook during a 5 minute break from work, the kinds of decisions that are interesting are pretty different from the ones that are interesting to you when you’re engaged in a 4 hour Civ4 marathon.

In a certain context, to certain people, deciding whether to plant the grain or the grapes, whether to buy the chicken or the fruit tree, whether to make my farm look Christmasy or French, are all interesting decisions.

The social aspect doesn’t trump the need for interesting decisions, but it does open up new avenues to create interesting decisions that involve some social tradeoff (Do I help my friend finish his Treasure collection or keep it for myself?)

Q: How do you accentuate these social tradeoffs? What are the best ways to get players to face a tough, but entertaining, choice involving their network of friends?

The mechanics that can work well are going to look pretty different from game to game.

Social interactions are either cooperative or competitive. Letting players gift things to their friends is a good way to build up social currency, but it becomes an interesting choice when the gift itself is scarce, or it costs the players something real.

PvP systems are another great way to provide that interesting choice. However, most players play social games to have fun and relax for a few minutes at a time, so we have to be careful not to design PvP systems that are too punishing.

Q: Charles Hudson, who also worked at Serious Business, said about the genre that “who wants to play a game that’s almost always up and to the right so long as you do what you’re supposed to do?” Social games do primarily seem to just reward time. Is there a place for skill or challenge?

You can make a pretty strong argument that most MMOs primarily seem to just reward time, but they’re awesome games. There’s nothing inherently negative about rewarding people for spending time playing your game. Good social games are about creating the right play experience for the right people at the right time.

There’s a place for skill and challenge, but skill and challenge in a social game might not be as obviously punishing or competitive as a traditional game. Making your farm in FarmVille look impressive is a real skill, and making it look more impressive than your neighbor can be a real challenge.

Q: Let’s talk about the time-based mechanics of social games which have emerged, built around an expectation that play is done in small, five-minute bursts. Some games (such as FarmVille and Social City) use an appointment mechanic which locks players out for a certain period of time once a task is started. Other games (such as Mafia Wars or Treasure Isle) use an energy mechanic, which limits player’s action but is constantly refilling, perhaps encouraging players to micromanage more. What are the pluses and minuses of these two systems?

Sorry, this is too specific for me to be comfortable answering.

Q: How does the design process change when development is based so much on metrics and user feedback? Do you feel less like the “author” of the game experience?

I’d argue the opposite. The biggest difference is that as the author of your game experience, you can see and react to the results of your design decisions and quickly change them.  This doesn’t reduce design to a rote process – you simply have more information available to you, and can quickly iterate and improve your designs.

Q: What specific lessons have you learned from metrics that you would have never guess intuitively? What were your biggest surprises?

Without going into anything specific, the biggest surprise to me is that often, the smallest changes can have a huge impact, and vice versa. This is hugely counter intuitive, but true.

Q: Would you be able to give a specific example? It might help deliver this point home.

This was one of the more ridiculous tests we ran, but it was interesting. Back when I was running Serious Business, Facebook allowed applications to access the notification channel, and we wanted to find out whether longer notifications performed better, or shorter ones. I guessed that it was probably a wash – the shorter ones are more concise, but the longer ones were probably more noticeable since they were physically larger.

We ran a 30-way split test where we asked our team to come up with a bunch of different copy. As it turns out, there was a roughly linear correlation between how short the notification was and how often players would click through it. The shorter it was, the better the performance. The difference in performance was up to 300%. That’s a huge impact for basically writing a few lines of copy.

GD Column 13: The Social Revolution

The following was published in the June/July 2010 issue of Game Developer magazine…

For the first time in recent memory, the dominant topic at this year’s GDC was not either the current console generation or the one coming over the horizon. Instead, the industry obsessed over the astonishing explosion of Facebook gaming over the last year. In fact, the poster child for the social network’s success – Zynga’s FarmVille, with its 82 million monthly active users – had been out for just a mere nine months.

FarmVille‘s scale is difficult to compare with that of other games. Before plateauing in March, the online game had grown by the size of the entire WoW user-base, every single month. Certainly, FarmVille must also be the first online game that can claim to be actively played by over 1% of the world’s population.

Many traditional game developers have mixed feeling about the rapid growth of these social games. While the huge audience signifies a massive broadening of the worldwide gaming demographic, the games themselves are often simplistic affairs, emphasizing time investment over interesting decisions. Further, certain practices have given the format a bad name, such as monetization through dubious lead generation offers and viral growth from wall post spam or in-game pyramid schemes.

Nonetheless, Facebook gaming does represent a real breakthrough for the industry because the social network combines an enormous audience with four advantages that promise great things for gamers and designers alike:

  • True Social Play: Gaming can now happen exclusively within the context of one’s actual friends. Multiplayer games no longer suffer from the Catch-22 of requiring friends to be fun while new players always start the game without friends.
  • Persistent, Asynchronous Play: Finding time to play with one’s real friends is difficult, especially for working, adult gamers. Asynchronous mechanics, however, let gamers play at their own pace and with their own friends, not strangers who happen to be online at the same time.
  • Free-to-Play Business Model: New players need not shell out $60 to join the crowd. Consumers don’t like buying multiplayer games unless they know that their friends are all going to buy the game as well. The free-to-play model removes that friction.
  • Metrics-Based Iteration: Retail games are developed in a vacuum, with designers working by gut instinct. Furthermore, games get only one launch, a single chance to succeed. Many developers would love, instead, to iterate quickly on genuine, live feedback.

Developers who master these four characteristics of Facebook gaming stand the best chance to break away from the pack in an increasingly crowded field. To help me understand these dynamics, I interviewed two Zynga developers, Senior Designer Paul Stephanouk and Director of Product Management Siqi Chen, asking them to describe their experiences in this new field.

Social First, Gameplay Second

Brian Reynolds, Zynga’s Chief Designer, often points out that successful social games need to be social first and games second. However, just because a feature is social first doesn’t mean that   it won’t be interesting, as Chen explains:

In a certain context, to certain people, deciding whether to plant the grain or the grapes, whether to buy the chicken or the fruit tree, are all interesting decisions. Letting players gift things to their friends is a good way to build up social currency, but it becomes an interesting choice when the gift itself is scarce, or it costs the players something real. There’s a place for skill and challenge, but skill and challenge in a social game might not be as obviously punishing or competitive as a traditional game. Making your farm in FarmVille look impressive is a real skill, and making it look more impressive than your neighbor can be a real challenge.

Playing within the context of one’s actual friends brings new emotions to the table: pride, obligation, gratitude, desire, even shame. FarmVille‘s wither mechanic – in which crops die out and shrivel if not harvested in time – is an example of a social mechanic designed to shame players into caring for their virtual farm. What will my friends think of me if my poor farm is full of dried-up strawberries?

In fact, some social games have incorrectly copied this dynamic by taking the gameplay of the whithering mechanic while ignoring the social factor. In Ponzi, a social game set in the corporate world, the reward for finishing jobs drops to zero if the player does not return in time to pick up the check. Although this mechanic does encourage players to return regularly, it lacks the social pressure found in FarmVille because the decaying jobs are invisible to one’s friends.

Asynchronous Innovations

Although the social factors are paramount, Facebook titles do pose new, interesting design challenges. More specifically, asynchronous play is still a largely unexplored territory for designers. For example, two distinct mechanics are currently evolving on Facebook to handle offline progress – the energy system and the appointment mechanic. Under the energy system, each action costs a certain amount of energy, which regenerates in real-time; eventually, the player must wait for her energy bar to refill some before continuing play. In contrast, appointment mechanics are free to start, but they lock the player out for a specific period of time; for example, after planting strawberries in FarmVille, the player must return in four hours to harvest them and collect the sale. Stephanouk explains the pros and cons:

Progress-oriented players tend to respond better to the energy approach – Mafia Wars is an excellent example of this. Appointment, or “return”, mechanics are perceived as a softer approach. Return works well in games like FarmVille where players are, as a whole, less competitive and more focused on the social and building components. Overall, it really depends on the game. Both methods can be successful and can even be combined. FarmVille has examples of both models; tractor fuel is an example of energy.

The energy system has the advantage of being a more natural match for profitable virtual items – a booster pack, for example, can allow players to refill their energy and continue playing the game. Appointment mechanics, on the other hand, allow players to strategize around their real-life schedule. Fifteen-minute tasks are useful for players staying online, who know they can tab over to the game at any time. Two-hour or eight-hour tasks, on the other hand, are great for players going to dinner or heading off to bed.

Meet the Mainstream

One big difference between social and core games is the subject matter. Instead of the niche themes usually found in retail games – fantasy, sci-fi, racing, WWII, zombies, etc. – successful social developers choose very mainstream topics. Facebook’s top ten games include titles on farms, restaurants, pets, and aquariums. The format developed so differently because, unlike with consoles, handhelds, or high-end PC’s, the audience started out mainstream, without having to grow from early adopters with more niche tastes.

In many ways, Facebook is the industry’s first “TV of gaming” – the site allows users to flip from game to game in a safe, standardized environment, with the expectations of no barriers-to-entry and that their friends will be playing the same games. By allowing players to advertise their accomplishments and invite their own personal network to play, the site goes beyond TV by letting players exert direct social influence on each other.

However, the mainstream audience affects not just the distribution or the themes of social games but their underlying mechanics as well. Stephanouk describes what he had to unlearn when transitioning from real-time games like Rise of Nations to social gaming:

One of the things I had to come around on was the importance of zero-sum conflict. Coming from strategy games as I did, I was very focused on the competitive aspect of games. I was aware of players wanting to build or explore, but I always saw that as serving a conflict-driven goal. I have learned that, for many people, the conflict-driven nature of traditional games is a major detraction. I’m not saying that overall conflict is bad or that you can’t have conflict-driven action in social games – both of these things are very much not the case. What I am saying is that there are a lot of players out there, far more than I understood, that really want a game experience that isn’t driven by the need to compete against another person.

Zero-sum conflict is indeed one mechanic core game developers usually do take for granted. Although cooperative gaming has grown in popularity in recent years, judging by the popularity of Left4Dead or the auto-grouping feature in WoW, competitive play usually means that one side triumphs and another is destroyed. Social games, however, can still be competitive without being destructive; the answer is parallel competition, the race to grow and improve one’s restaurant, for instance, faster than one’s friends.

Who is the Designer?

One final area social games differ from traditional game is the pervasive use of metrics to inform rapid iteration, often on a weekly or even daily schedule. The ability to test design hypotheses by split-testing can revolutionize development. Chen provides one simple example:

Back when I was running Serious Business [a social game company Chen founded which was later bought by Zynga], Facebook allowed applications to access the notification channel, and we wanted to find out whether longer notifications performed better, or shorter ones. I guessed that it was probably a wash – the shorter ones are more concise, but the longer ones were probably more noticeable since they were physically larger.

We ran a 30-way split test where we asked our team to come up with a bunch of different copy. As it turns out, there was a roughly linear correlation between how short the notification was and how often players would click through it. The shorter it was, the better the performance. The difference in performance was up to 300%. That’s a huge impact for basically writing a few lines of copy.

The question on many minds is what is the role of the designer in this new environment, with virtually real-time feedback for development decisions. Is the designer still the primary “author” of the game experience, or do designers now fill a new role, surfing the incoming data while sitting in the murky middle ground between the community and the company. Indeed, Reynolds admits that his role as Zynga’s “Chief Designer” is not nearly as important as one might imagine. Stephanouk says the following about the role of metrics in his current job:

Metrics are everything I thought they might be – or at least what I hoped they would be every time I found myself sitting in a room of designers fighting over if a player would rather press one button over another. Why would a designer want to remain in the dark on something that has a clear, knowable answer? Undersanding how players play doesn’t stifle creatitivity in game design any more than understanding how people live stifles creativity in architecture. I think it’s the other way around – knowledge helps us understand constraints, and constraints are usually the building blocks of good design. Do I feel less like an “author”? That depends, fiction or non-fiction?

The designer-as-auteur ideal is perhaps incompatible with this model, but the best game makers are usually the ones willing to “get dirty” – to engage fully with the audience to discover which ideas actually work and which ones were simply wishful thinking. Social game development simply accelerates this process to new extremes.

GD Column 12: Theme is Not Meaning (Part II)

The following was published in the March 2010 issue of Game Developer magazine…

As examined in Part I, a game’s meaning springs from its mechanics and not necessarily from its theme, especially if the two are in conflict. Such a dissonance can leave players feeling lost, perhaps even cheated. Thus, designers should strive to keep the two in harmony. At the very least, they should not be fighting each other.

When they do, the game’s mechanics can actually undermine the theme that the designers want to deliver. For example, Bioshock presents players with a true ethical choice – “harvest” Little Sisters by destroying them or “rescue” them by releasing their minds? The reward for harvesting is double Adam (the game’s genetic-modification currency), which tempts players to choose a morally disturbing path.

However, the game sprinkles other rewards on players who rescue Little Sisters, so that the ultimate difference between the two paths is negligible from a statistical perspective. Players are told by the game’s fiction that their choice matters – that they are making a sacrifice by deciding to rescue the little girls – but the game’s mechanics tell them a different story. Of course, when theme and mechanics are in conflict, players know which one actually matters, which one is actually telling them what the game is about.

Similarly, many traditional RPG’s put the player in an odd position. By giving the player an epic goal from the beginning (“Kill the evil wizard!”), the game casts him in the role of the world‘s savior. However, the actual gameplay involves roaming the countryside killing most of what falls in the player’s path and looting everything else. The story tells the player that he is a hero, but the game rewards him for being something else. Richard Garriot directly attacked this dissonance when he designed Ultima IV, by making the game about achieving eight virtues instead of simply killing his way to a “Foozle” at the end.

A Perfect Union

Sometimes, a designer does achieve a perfect union of theme and mechanics. One example is Dan Bunten’s Seven Cities of Gold, the classic game of exploration. Bunten lost his way one day while hiking in the Ozarks and imagined a game in which the player struggles to keep her bearings in an unfamiliar landscape. From that seed, Bunten took the next step and chose a perfect theme – the age of the conquistadors, of Columbus, Cortez, and Pizarro, who were always partially lost – which provided wonderful raw background material with which to work.

Certain categories match theme and gameplay particularly well, including Wii games (Wii Sports), music games (Rock Band), tycoon games (Railroad Tycoon), sports games (Madden), flight sims (Wings), and racing games (Gran Turismo). Notice that while these examples are based on real-world activities, which helps to keep the mechanics tied to the theme, a designer does not need to put verisimilitude above all else.

In fact, one could argue that Mario Kart is more truly about racing than Gran Turismo is – the former’s rapid exchange of player position as shells fly around the track is perhaps closer to many players’ ideal concept of racing than a stodgy simulation’s more fixed positioning. Put another way, which object is more about Guernica – a photograph of the city’s ruins or Picasso’s masterpiece of anguish?

Further, great games can emerge when the theme simply provides an excuse to experiment with certain mechanics. Left4Dead is not really a game about zombies, after all – it’s a game about teamwork. The designers created each special zombies to encourage players to work together as a team – the hunter punishes loners, the tank requires concentrated fire, the witch demands close communication, and so on. The zombie theme simply gave the designers a plausible backdrop in which they could experiment with game mechanics that encouraged teamwork over solo play.

Does Civilization Fail?

The Civilization series provides an interesting study in the challenges inherent in trying to match theme with meaning. The games are purportedly about the sweep of world history, but one does not have to play long before cracks start to show.

To begin, societal progress is constant throughout the game – the player’s civilization can never fall into a dark age or split apart in a civil war. The user community has dubbed this dynamic the “Eternal China Syndrome.” The only entropy a player experiences comes from external invasion.

Indeed, the game actually provides a “Start a Revolution” button, so that the player can change government but only when convenient. (I’m sure Louis XVI would have appreciated such a system!) Indeed, all actions in the game are conducted top-down – the player is some strange combination of king, general, tycoon, and god.

The source of these conflicts with real history is the problem of player agency. In order to be fun, the player needs to be in control. Moreover, the consequence of each decision needs to be fair and clear, so that players can make informed choices, plan ahead, and understand their mistakes. Real history, of course, is much messier and difficult to understand, let alone control.

In fact, the game’s mechanics tell us less about world history than they do about what it would be like to be part of a league of ancient gods, who pit their subjects against each other for fun. These immortal opponents, after all, are the only characters that can destroy the player. The people themselves have little say in how history will develop.

However, player agency is actually a good thing; indeed, it is at the very center of what makes games so powerful. Perhaps some topics are simply too broad or vague or slippery to be addressed by a game’s mechanics, and – sometimes – themes can just be themes, with the player knowingly entering a fantasy space that speaks not directly to the topic but to some other need or desire.

In the case of Civilization, the desire is to control history, which may not teach us much about it, but it is not without value. Indeed, the game fares well when compared with other artistic disciplines. Few works of art tackle the sweep of world history, and the ones that exist (Birth of a Nation) are often dangerous works of ideology.

Designers who care to make games that actually speak to us about history should focus on a specific era or event, such as Bunten’s Seven Cities of Gold or Meier’s Railroad Tycoon. Put the player in the shoes of a flesh-and-blood person – let her explore the challenges and opportunities of the times but within mortal limits.

Why Theme Matters

Although a game’s theme and mechanics can tell different stories, society at large does not understand that there is a difference between the two, and if the theme is appalling to the mainstream, a good game can be unfairly tarred. For example, Grand Theft Auto has a theme of crime and urban chaos, but the game is actually about freedom and consequence. Every crime increases the player’s notoriety, which can end the game if the police send enough firepower.

Nonetheless, to the mainstream, GTA was simply about killing hookers and running over pedestrians – for outsiders, the game couldn’t be “about” anything else. Players, however, understood that the game was giving them something different – an open-world in which their decisions actually mattered. Consequence was the true killer feature.

Crackdown provides an interesting contrast in that it delivers the same open-world simulation with consequence as GTA but with a theme (fighting crime as a super-cop) much more palatable to the average person. Rockstar may have record sales to show for their work, but designers who believe they have a responsibility to society at large should take note that the criminal theme was not inevitable.

Today, many designers strive to achieve two worthy goals – reaching a mass audience and creating great art. However, both are at risk if theme and mechanics are in dissonance. The average consumer, who is not highly literate in the standard tropes of game design, expects video games to be about whatever is on the cover. Pulling a bait-and-switch – or simply not thinking critically about the lessons that a game actually teaches – will only turn new players away.

As for the question of art, one must first recognize that many great works of art are abstract. Lyrics may give some meaning to a song, but a symphony is generally meant to be interpreted and enjoyed however the listener prefers. Similarly, games can stand on their own without specific themes – Tetris being the obvious example.

Furthermore, even a pasted-on theme can work if the designers are not promising more than the game can deliver – San Juan and Race for the Galaxy are both brilliant, yet similar, card-based adaptations of Puerto Rico. That one is set in the Caribbean and the other in outer space is not a problem as the games are clearly not marketed as re-creations or simulations. The theme simply adds flavor.

However, great art never has theme and meaning in open conflict, in the way many games do. Othello is actually about the “green-eyed monster” of jealousy and not just the life of a Moor in the 16th-century Venetian military, but the latter does not detract from the former. Can the same be said about Bioshock? About Spore? About Civilization? These games do claim to be about something – do their mechanics tell the same story? To touch people, the play itself needs to deliver on the theme’s promise.

GD Column 11: Theme is Not Meaning (Part I)

The following was published in the February 2010 issue of Game Developer magazine…

Who decides what a game is about?

At first glance, the popular board game Ticket to Ride seems to be another link in the great chain of rail baron games, such as Age of SteamEurorails and the 1830 series. During the game, the player draws unique route challenges, to connect certain pairs of cities – New York to San Francisco, Miami to Chicago, and so on.

To complete them, she must claim a series of tracks that connect adjacent cities while also trying to block her opponents from finishing their own challenges. There are sub goals too, such as having the longest contiguous rail line and completing one’s network first, which ends the game for everyone.

Thus, most players would describe Ticket to Ride as a game about building the best rail service, by grabbing choice routes and cutting off the competition. However, the introduction in the rules tells a different story:

On a blustery autumn evening five old friends met in the backroom of one of the city’s oldest and most private clubs. Each had traveled a long distance – from all corners of the world – to meet on this very specific day… October 2, 1900 – 28 years to the day that the London eccentric, Phileas Fogg, accepted and then won a £20,000 bet that he could travel Around the World in 80 Days.

Each succeeding year, they met to celebrate the anniversary and pay tribute to Fogg. And each year a new expedition (always more difficult) was proposed. Now at the dawn of the century it was time for a new impossible journey. The stakes: $1 Million in a winner-takes-all competition. The objective: to see which of them could travel by rail to the most cities in North America – in just 7 days.

The official story comes as a surprise to many players, even veterans of the game, because the theme simply does not match the gameplay. For example, how can a player “claim” a route just by riding on it? Do the trains shut down, preventing anyone else from using that line? On the other hand, claiming routes matches perfectly the fiction of ruthless rail barons trying to control the best connections.

Furthermore, routes can be claimed in any order – there is no sense that the player actually exists in the world as a traveler with real, physical limitation. Instead, claiming routes feels a lot more like buying them rather than traveling on them.

Mechanics Give Meaning

This disconnect leads to some interesting questions. Does a game’s designer have the right to say what a game is about if it doesn’t match what’s going on inside the players’ heads? And if the designer doesn’t have this right, then does a game’s official “story” ever matter at all because it can be invalidated so easily? Isn’t a game about what one actually does during play and how that feels to the player?

Ultimately, designers need to recognize that a game’s theme does not determine its meaning. Instead, meaning emerges from a game’s mechanics – the set of decisions and consequences unique to each one. What does a game ask of the player? What does it punish, and what does it reward? What strategies and styles does the game encourage? Answering these questions reveals what a game is actually about.

Furthermore, while people buy games for the promise of the theme (“I want to be a space marine!”), the fun comes from the mechanics themselves (actually shooting the aliens). When there is a severe dissonance between the two, players can feel cheated, as if the designers executed a bait-and-switch.

The reception of Spore, a game sold with an evolutionary theme, provides a recent example. In the October 2008 issue of Science magazine, John Bohannon wrote the following about how the game delivered on the theme’s promise:

I’ve been playing Spore with a team of scientists, grading the game on each of its scientific themes. When it comes to biology, and particularly evolution, Spore failed miserably. According to the scientists, the problem isn’t just that Spore dumbs down the science or gets a few things wrong–it’s meant to be a game, after all–but rather, it gets most of biology badly, needlessly, and often bizarrely wrong.

The source of this dissonance is that, even though it was sold as such, Spore is not really a game about evolution. Spore is actually a game about creativity – the reason to play the game was to behold the wonder of other players’ imaginations as they used (and misused) the editors to create objects not imagined by the game’s designers – from musical instruments to fantastical creatures to dramatic scenes.

However, even though Spore is not about evolution, the scientists should keep looking because one of the most popular games actually is about evolution – World of Warcraft. The game may have a swords-and-sorcery theme, but the mechanics encourage the players to conduct their own form of natural selection when deciding how to develop their characters.

Over years of experience, veterans of WoW have established a number of upgrade paths (or “builds”) for each class, depending on what role the player wants the character to fill. For example, the Paladin class has three main builds: Holy (for healing), Protection (for tanking), and Retribution (for damage-per-second). Further, underneath these main categories, sub-builds exist for player-vs-player, player-vs-environment, and mob grinding. These paths have evolved organically over the years as players tried out different combinations, depending on what the game rewarded or punished.

Seeing Past the Theme

One can look at any number of games through the lens of how the mechanics affect the user experience to find out what the game actually means. Super Mario Bros., for example, is a game about timing, certainly not about plumbing. Battlefield games are about teamwork, not World War II or modern combat. Peggle is a game about chaos theory, not unicorns or rainbows.

Indeed, games with the same theme can actually be about different things. For example, human conflict with aliens has certainly been a popular theme across video game history. Nonetheless, each alien-themed game can mean something very different depending on the rule set. Galaga is actually about pattern matching. X-Com is about decision-making with limited information. Gears of War is about using cover as a defensive weapon. StarCraft is about the challenges of asymmetrical combat.

Conversely, games with different themes but the same mechanics are actually about the same thing. Civilization and Alpha Centauri are set on completely different planets, but the mechanics are largely the same. Alpha Centauri’s mind worms, probe teams, and Secret Projects are essentially identical to Civilization’s barbarians, spies, and World Wonders. Players can easily see past the game’s chrome to see that they are still making the same decisions with the same tradeoffs.

Genre choice can also affect the meaning of a game. Players expect a theme to deliver on certain nouns and verbs. (“I am a Mage – I can cast powerful Magic!”) Unfortunately, genre conventions often put a barrier between a player and the game he imagined while holding a copy in the store. Once again, players buy games for the theme – if the mechanics and traditions of the genre are wildly unfamiliar to the player, at odds with the game in his head, he may feel cheated.

For example, two recent console games – Halo Wars and Brutal Legend – surprised players by being strategy games. With the former, many players expected a Halo game to be about reflex-based combat; with the latter, heavy-metal music is not inherently strategic. Because strategy games are often played at a considered distance, players expecting the visceral thrill promised by the games’ themes were disappointed. The designers may have built fun and interesting rule sets, but the themes sold the games to the wrong fans.

Uniting Theme and Mechanics

One interesting comparison is the board games Risk and Diplomacy, which have identical themes of world conquest. Indeed, at first glance, the two games also seem quite similar mechanically. The game board is split up into territories, which the players control with generic army or (in the case of Diplomacy) navy tokens. These territories switch hands as battles are fought, and – in turn – the victors are able to field larger militaries from their new lands.

However, a small difference in the rules makes the two games about something very different. In Risk, turns occur sequentially while, in Diplomacy, they execute simultaneously. This difference makes Risk a game about risk while Diplomacy becomes a game about diplomacy. In the former, players must decide how much they can achieve during their own turn and then hope the dice are not unkind. With Diplomacy, however, there are no dice; players can only succeed with the help of others, which can only be promised but not actually delivered during the negotiation round. Only when the secretly-written orders are revealed between turns is it clear who is a true friend and who is a backstabbing traitor.

Diplomacy, in particular, is a perfect marriage between theme and mechanics. Indeed, President John F. Kennedy considered it his favorite game. The game is about exactly what it claims to be about – the twists and turns of diplomatic negotiations. On the other hand, when a game’s theme and mechanics are sharply divorced, players can react negatively to the dissonance. Part II shall discuss examples of games which made a successful union of the two and ones which did not – and the rewards and costs of doing so.

GD Column 10: Challenging Design

The following was published in the December 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine…

The surgery game Trauma Center was one of the earliest examples of how the Nintendo DS could change our industry. By turning the stylus into a scalpel, the designers let players immerse themselves into the role of a doctor as never before. Unfortunately, the game simulated the pressures of actual surgery as well by presenting staggeringly difficult, time-pressured levels.

Failure blocked the player’s progress, which proved to be a fatal flaw for the game because there were no difficulty levels at all – no way for the player to decide what level of challenge was appropriate. Considering the wide demographic of gamers today, from young children to seniors, this decision doomed the game to a tiny slice of the DS’s audience.

Challenge has always been a core component of game design. However, after video games left the arcades – in which quick difficulty ramps were a necessity of doing business – most designers realized that their games could appeal to more people if they tailored the challenge to meet the needs of the individual user.

Dynamic Difficulty

Call of Duty 4, for example, measures the player’s performance during the training level to suggest an appropriate difficulty level. Other games – such as Left 4 Dead – have developed dynamic difficulty algorithms which adjust enemy spawns and health drops to the player’s current situation and demonstrated skill.

However, dynamic difficulty can be a tricky proposition as – similarly to AI cheating – if the player can see the invisible hand controlling the challenge, the spell is broken. Players need to perceive that they are improving against a fixed measuring stick. The RPG Oblivion turned off many people by scaling the weapons and skills of enemies directly in relation to the player character’s level.

Once this mechanic became obvious, many absurd strategies emerged, such as never leveling up to ensure that enemies always stayed weak. More significantly, this dynamic ruined one of the core features of an RPG – power progression. After developing advanced characters, players enjoy easily brushing aside monsters which earlier in the game could have destroyed them.

Elective Difficulty

Indeed, the core mechanic of RPG’s – that the player character grows slowly in power after each successful battle – can be seen as a way to give players the ability to adjust the game’s difficulty themselves. Gamers who feel comfortable with the combat system can push ahead through levels at the edge of their abilities while players who prefer a more comfortable experience can grind their way to overpowered characters before proceeding. Most importantly, this system puts the player in control, not the designer.

Although selecting a difficulty level at start was a simple, early innovation, only recently have games allowed players to switch between them during normal play. On every third death in Ninja Gaiden Black, players could elect to drop to “Ninja Dog” mode, which weakened enemies but also forced Ryu to wear pink ribbons as punishment. This mechanic – minus the mockery – was quickly adopted by other games, such as God of War.

Indeed, elective difficulty itself can be a core gameplay mechanic. The browser-based Desktop Tower Defense has no difficulty levels at all but does allow the player to speed up the game (and thereby increase the challenge) by triggering attack waves prematurely. Then, the final score is calculated from not just how many enemies were destroyed but also from how quickly the game finished. Therefore, beating DTD on the default speed is just the beginning as players must learn how to master the speed-up mechanic to start improving their scores.

Orthogonal Challenges

While the difficulty levels of Thief do not determine the number of guards nor their awareness on a given level, they do specify the challenges the player sets for herself during the level. For instance, the requirements of Easy may only be stealing a certain number of jewels and artifacts while Hard also necessitates finishing the level without killing a single guard.

These different modes suggest orthogonal challenges within the same game, a smart way to extend a game’s life for the hard-core. Other official examples include the One City Challenge and Always War options in Civilization 4 and the Hardcore mode (with permanent death) in Diablo 2. Indeed, Xbox Live Achievements provide a fantastic infrastructure for adding new challenges via unorthodox goals to games that might otherwise no longer interest core gamers.

Furthermore, other settings can adjust the challenge of a game without changing the difficulty, per se. For example, a real-time strategy game could have both a difficulty setting and a speed setting, so a player could try a more difficult AI but at a slower speed if he did not enjoy time pressure. One sadly forgotten setting is the complexity option that appeared in earlier games, such as M.U.L.E. and Lords of Conquest. This option provided a simpler version of the game – with less types of resources, for example – but still with a fully-capable AI that could provide a challenge for new players.

Challenge and Punishment

However, some games choose to punish players on top of giving them a fair challenge. Games without generous save systems, for instance, are vulnerable to being ruined by challenging sub-sections, which might require multiple attempts to pass. If a player needs to repeat a lengthy but easy section (or, more shamefully, a non-skippable cut-scene) before getting to the difficult bit, the game is punishing the player instead of challenging him.

One of the most elegant solutions to this problem was the time control mechanic in Prince of Persia: Sand of Time, in which the player is able to rewind past mistakes a limited number of times to try again. This system reduced the overhead of repeating a difficult jump to a relative minimum while still retaining tension because of the finite number of rewinds.

Another example of reducing punishment can be seen in the history of MMO’s. World of Warcraft famously reduced the penalty for death found in its predecessors, such as Everquest and Ultima Online. By removing corpse runs and experience loss, WoW enabled people to play the game they way they wanted to play it. Instead of only attacking easy monsters which would never cause the loss of experience or loot, players could attempt a difficult battle knowing that, in the worst case, they would be warped back to a safe location.

Thus, games with severe penalties for failure can actually warp the core gameplay by strongly encouraging players to always choose the safe route. Defense of the Ancient, the popular mod for Warcraft 3, rewards the opposite team with gold every time a player is killed, which makes bumbling new players extremely unpopular with their teammates. This simple dynamic makes the DotA community notoriously nasty and unpleasant, even by the meager standards of the Internet.

After Punishment

The strategy/puzzle hybrid Puzzle Quest took WoW‘s forgiving nature to the logical extreme by removing all forms of punishment from the game entirely. Players are even rewarded for losing battles, albeit much less than they would be for winning them. In fact, this mechanic has an interesting side benefit; Puzzle Quest has no need for a visible save system. Because players are never penalized in any way, the game can comfortably auto-save after every battle or action, knowing that a player will never feel the need to revert to an earlier save.

Such a forgiving system is not for every game. Bioshock used a similar mechanic by respawning dead players for free in Vita-Chambers placed throughout the game. Furthermore, enemies health rates were not reset on a player respawn, which meant that the player could chip away at any enemy with any weapon, including the wrench, if she was willing to die and be reborn enough times. This feature felt like an exploit to enough players that Irrational eventually patched in an option to disable Vita-Chambers.

However, the problem may have been with the expectations of Bioshock‘s intended audience instead of any fundamental flaw with the respawn mechanic. Lego Star Wars uses an identical mechanic, which is perfect for the target audience of a dad and a son playing together in a forgiving environment. For Bioshock, core gamers expected the game to force them to use advanced strategies to progress instead of an easy out.

Perhaps the best solution is to always allow players to progress but to rate their performance against some constant metric. Elite Beat Agents hands out letter grades of S, A, B, C, and D for each song performance based on the player’s timing. The game continues as long as the player finishes the song, but few will not want to go back to try and improve. If Trauma Center had only adopted such a simple system, the game may have become more than just an interesting footnote. Designers should take care not to head down the same dead-end.

GD Column 9: Playing the Odds

The following was published in the October 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine…

One of the most powerful tools a designer can use when developing games is probability, using random chance to determine the outcome of player actions or to build the environment in which play occurs. The use of luck, however, is not without its pitfalls, and designers should be aware of the trade-offs involved – what chance can add to the experience and when it can be counterproductive.

Failing at Probability

One challenge with using randomness is that humans are notoriously poor at accurately evaluating probability. A common example is the Gambler’s Fallacy, which is the belief that odds will even out over time. If the Roulette wheel comes up black five times in a row, players often believe that the odds of coming up black again are quite small, even though clearly the streak makes no difference whatsoever. Conversely, people also see streaks where none actually exist – the shooter with a ‘hot hand’ in basketball, for example, is a myth. Studies show that, if anything, a successful shot actually predicts a subsequent miss.

Also, as designers of slot machines and MMO’s are quite aware, setting odds unevenly between each progressive reward level makes players think that the game is more generous than it really is. One commercial slot machine had its payout odds published by in 2008:

  • 1:1 per 8 plays
  • 2:1 per 600 plays
  • 5:1 per 33 plays
  • 20:1 per 2,320 plays
  • 80:1 per 219 plays
  • 150:1 per 6,241 plays

The 80:1 payoff is common enough to give players the thrill of beating the odds for a a big win but still rare enough that the casino is in no risk of losing money. Furthermore, humans have a hard time estimating extreme odds – a 1% chance is anticipated too often and 99% odds are considered to be as safe as 100%.

Leveling the Field

These difficulties in accurately estimating odds actually work in the favor of the game designer. Simple game design systems, such as the dice-based resource generation system in Settlers of Catan, can be tantalizingly difficult to master with a dash of probability.

In fact, luck makes a game more accessible because it shrinks the gap – whether in perception or in reality – between experts and novices. In a game with a strong luck element, beginners believe that, no matter what, they have a chance to win. Few people would be willing to play a chess Grandmaster, but playing a backgammon expert is much more appealing – a few lucky throws can give anyone a chance.

In the words of designer Dani Bunten, “Although most players hate the idea of random events that will destroy their nice safe predictable strategies, nothing keeps a game alive like a wrench in the works. Do not allow players to decide this issue. They don’t know it but we’re offering them an excuse for when they lose (‘It was that damn random event that did me in!’) and an opportunity to ‘beat the odds’ when they win.”

Thus, luck serves as a social lubricant – the alcohol of gaming, so to speak – that increases the appeal of multiplayer gaming to audiences which would not normally be suited for cutthroat head-to-head competition.

Where Luck Fails

Nonetheless, randomness is not appropriate for all situations or even all games. The ‘nasty surprise’ mechanic is never a good idea. If a crate provides ammo and other bonuses when opened but explodes 1% of the time, the player has no chance to learn the probabilities in a safe manner. If the explosion occurs early enough, the player will immediately stop opening crates. If it happens much later, the player will feel unprepared and cheated.

Also, when randomness becomes just noise, the luck simply detracts from the player’s understanding of the game. If a die roll is made every time a StarCraft Marine shoots at a target, the rate of fire will simply appear uneven. Over time, the effect of luck on the game’s outcome will be negligible, but the player will have a harder time grasping how strong a Marine’s attack actually is with all the extra random noise.

Further, luck can slow down a game unnecessarily. The board games History of the World and Small World have a very similar conquest mechanic, except that the former uses dice and the latter does not (until the final attack). Making a die roll with each attack causes a History of the World turn to last at least three or four times as long as a turn in Small World. The reason is not just the logistical issues of rolling so many dice – knowing that the results of one’s decisions are completely predictable allows one to plan out all the steps at once without worrying about contingencies. Often, handling contingencies are a core part of the game design, but game speed is an important factor too, so designers should be sure that the trade-off is worthwhile.

Finally, luck is very inappropriate for calculations to determine victory. Unlucky rolls feel the fairest the longer players are given to react to them before the game’s end. Thus, the earlier luck plays a role, the better for the perception of game balance. Many classic card games – pinochle, bridge, hearts – follow a standard model of an initial random distribution of cards that establishes the game’s ‘terrain’ followed by a luck-free series of tricks which determines the winners and losers.

Probability is Content

Indeed, the idea that randomness can provide an initial challenge to be overcome plays an important role in many classic games, from simple games like Minesweeper to deeper ones like NetHack and Age of Empires. At their core, solitaire and Diablo are not so different – both present a randomly-generated environment that the player needs to navigate intelligently for success.

An interesting recent use of randomness was Spelunky, which is indie developer Derek Yu’s combination of the random level generation of NetHack with the game mechanics of 2D platformers like Lode Runner. The addictiveness of the game comes from the unlimited number of new caverns to explore, but frustration can emerge from the wild difficulty of certain, unplanned combinations of monsters and tunnels.

In fact, pure randomness can be an untamed beast, creating game dynamics that throw an otherwise solid design out of balance. For example, Civilization 3 introduced the concept of strategic resources which were required to construct certain units – Chariots need Horses, Tanks need Oil, and so on. These resources were sprinkled randomly across the world, which inevitably led to large continents with only one cluster of Iron controlled by a single AI opponent. Complaints of being unable to field armies for lack of resources were common among the community.

For Civilization 4, the problem was solved by adding a minimum amount of space between certain important resources, so that two sources of Iron could never be within seven tiles of each other. The result was a still unpredictable arrangement of resources around the globe but without the clustering that could doom an unfortunate player. On the other hand, the game actively encouraged clustering for less important luxury resources – Incense, Gems, Spices – to promote interesting trade dynamics.

Showing the Odds

Ultimately, when considering the role of probability, designers need to ask themselves ‘how is luck helping or hurting the game?’ Is randomness keeping the players pleasantly off-balance so that they can’t solve the game trivially? Or is it making the experience frustratingly unpredictable so that players are not invested in their decisions?

One factor which helps ensure the former is making the probability as explicit as possible. The strategy game Armageddon Empires based combat on a few simple die rolls and then showed the dice directly on-screen. Allowing the players to peer into the game’s calculations increases their comfort level with the mechanics, which makes chance a tool for the player instead of a mystery.

Similarly, with Civilization 4, we introduced a help mode which showed the exact probability of success in combat, which drastically increased player satisfaction with the underlying mechanics. Because humans have such a hard time estimating probability accurately, helping them make a smart decision can improve the experience immensely.

Some deck-building card games, such as Magic: The Gathering or Dominion, put probability in the foreground by centering the game experience on the likelihood of drawing cards in the player’s carefully constructed deck. These games are won by players who understand the proper ratio of rares to commons, knowing that each card will be drawn exactly once each time through the deck. This concept can be extended to other games of chance by providing, for example, a virtual “deck of dice” that ensures the distribution of die rolls is exactly even.

Another interesting – and perhaps underused – idea from the distant past of gaming history is the “Element of Chance” game option from the turn-based strategy game Lords of Conquest. The three options available – Low, Medium, and High – determined whether luck was only used to break ties or to play a larger role in resolving combat. The appropriate role of chance in a game is ultimately a subjective question, and giving players the ability to adjust the knobs themselves can open up the game to a larger audience with a greater variety of tastes.