Friday, May 29, 2009

The Cost of Simplicity

In this article, game designer Ryon Levitt explores how the spiraling cost of game development leads to simpler and more polished games.

As a designer and long time gamer, I learned one important aspect of simplicity in games the hard way - costs. Cost is something that is not often considered by players and even new arrivals to the design field. Sure, people toss around budget approximations (a $10,000,000 budget) but until you've entered the industry and dealt with the budget, the number exists in a black box. Even as a programmer, budget wasn't something you think about. You're told what you need to get done by when, and you do your best to achieve it. But when you get down into the thick of it, cost controls a lot of what can and cannot be done in a project.

It is a fact that as long as you are working for someone who controls the money, proper budgeting is going to be an important, though perhaps unfortunate, aspect of the game design. Every man-hour costs money and needs to be budgeted for based on the expected size of the team at any given point in the process. Without going much deeper into budgeting (since 1] I don't know too much on the subject, and 2] Budgeting will likely need a GDAM Topic of its own), it is safe to say that not everything that every designer wants to put into the game can get in and still have the game released withing a schedule that is "in budget". Furthermore, based on the specifics of the game (such as genre), not every part of the game will cost the same.

With that in mind, we can already see one potential reason for games to have gotten simpler (or at least easier) in more recent years. With the move from sprite-based games to full 3D games, the cost of many aspects have gone up significantly. As a simple example, look at someone like Megaman or Mario in one of their later 2D titles. A common action like Jumping was pretty "easy". Make a number of 2D sprites to create the animation and then program in a timing to switch between them while moving them. It was okay if they didn't look very dynamic or realistic; it was just a limitation of the medium.

But lets now look at more modern 3D animation. Search YouTube for gameplay videos of God of War, Heavenly Sword, or Ninja Gaiden (post 2004). Characters are expected to move and behave realistically. If a character is too stiff, it is usually frowned upon. Now we need modeling teams, animation teams, motion capture actors, cloth simulations, etc. This means, of course, that more people are getting paid, which translates to higher cost.

Now this is just a simple example, but this translates to a big issue - the more complicated something is, the more it costs, not just in making it, but also in testing it. Someone needs to make sure that characters don't jump into objects or fall through the ground when they land, or any number of other potential bugs that may be possible with all the new technology being used today. Not only that, for every character that is made to not be a carbon copy of any other character, the cost gets duplicated. Suddenly something that seems small - adding one more character - is greatly increasing the costs.

And with mentioning Carbon Copying, I bring up one of the many ways that various teams cut costs - they take short cuts. While this usually seems like a good way to bring the development back down to budget, the end users - the gamers - don't get to see that. All they end up seeing is the end result, and if the "wrong" things were cut, we end up with dissatisfied fans who feel cheated.

This is where cost-performance usually comes in. Various aspects within a game can be reused more easily than others. Easily, in this case, being factored both in usability - Does the object/action/system fit in other places within the game? - and fun - Will this object/action/system be fun the second or third time around? Aspects that are hard to reuse in both cases are far more expensive than aspects that are easy to reuse.

As an example, if a Dragon boss has a special fire breath attack that it only uses on hard difficulties per spec, this as an idea alone can be quite interesting. This boss has a new feature that can improve replayability if played again on a harder difficulty level - great. But is it feasible to put in? Well, by spec, it cannot be used in the lower difficulty levels, though it may be usable elsewhere in the game. However, if the ability was supposed to be a surprise new ability for the player to deal with, it cannot really be used in too many other places before it stops being a surprise and falls to common. As such, the threat of staleness limits its use. Furthermore, the average gamer does not play their first playthrough on Hard - if they did, this wouldn't be speced as an ability to promote replayability. In addition, many gamers do not have the time anymore to play a game through multiple times. This means that over 50-60% of players (probably closer to 75-90%) may never even see this feature of the game. This means that what started out as an interesting way to balance out a particular fight across difficulty settings - a feature that requires particle effects to display the attack, sound effects to follow along, AI to determine when to use it, collision checking to find out who got hit, and hours of QA making sure it happens when it should, doesn't when it shouldn't, behaves correctly, looks good, etc. - has had money spent on it that could have been perhaps better spent on something that more people would see.

Now multiply this again for every other boss in this hypothetical game. A lot of money may have just gotten wasted on a game balance that almost never gets seen. So we throw it out - toss out all these little features that would possibly make the hardcore gamers wet with glee because in the grand scheme of thing, they are the minority of gamers today. And not only are they a minority, they're really difficult to please. What do you put into a game for a player that has seen everything and yet make it accessible, fun for all, and cheap?

Finding a way to give every gamer what they want at cost is a daunting task, but with a bit of creative finagling and a little bit of love, it can be possible to find one. But until then, it may be better to have a slightly simpler but solid and polished game, than one that provides too much but feels incomplete.

Ryon Levitt is a programmer-turned-designer for KOEI, currently working at their main branch in Yokohama, Japan. He is currently working on his first title as a designer. Ryon is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG, and helped coin the acronym GDAM.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Building Bridges (Part II)

In Part I, QA tester and aspiring game designer Kumar Daryanani looks at the hardcore/casual dichotomy and gives suggestions on how game developers can bridge the gap between hardcore and casual players. In Part II, he explains why asymmetrical gameplay may provide the answers.

The question of what games to make is a simple one: we give them exactly what they wish for, games that a core gamer can play with their casual or non-gamer loved ones. The major problem with this, or rather, the big opportunity, is that these games haven't been made yet. There are ideas out there, waiting to materialize. A perfect example, and one that serves the game industry on many levels, is Sande Chen's idea of 'date games'. These are short games, maybe 2-3 hours long, that a young couple can play as a date. These games could prove to be a perfect new market for developers, as well as serving the purpose of maintaining young girls' interest in video games until they reach college, at which point they have the option of choosing to pursue games as a career. Developers have been asking how to change the lopsidedness of gender demographics in the industry for a long time now, and these seems a likely solution. It would also have the effect of keeping girls and young women in the market for video games, which is also a good thing. Both these factors could very well be the push the industry needs towards more mature games with a wider appeal than the current offering, which in turn could mean that video games as a whole gain a new level of legitimacy and cultural relevance.

Date games also tackle another incipient problem in the current game development environment: length. Developers face the constant struggle of creating games that are fun but finite. Since a game that is too short is perceived as not being good value for money, and one that is too long risks detracting from sales of future games because players are still enjoying it after the initial investment, developers are faced with the problem of how long to make a game. With short-form games like these, Developers could create an engine and then develop 2-3 hour long games that can be sold in an episodic fashion or as DLC. This would help offset development costs, since developers could use the same engine to create a number of different games with an accessible price point. In essence, they could create a new business model where games are closer to a service, such as movie rentals, as opposed to a physical product. With the wide variety of options available to deliver downloadable content to consumers, date games could mark an evolutionary step for episodic content, and for the monetization of games as a whole.

Why stop at date games, though? We could just as easily create games that can be played by parents and their children, dispensing with the notion that video games for young children, and creating the perfect opportunity for familial quality time and bonding experiences. In the same way, we could create games for adults to share with their older parents, for couples to play together.

In my mind, the key features of these games are cooperation and asymmetrical gameplay. Cooperation because working together towards a goal is more conducive to a shared experience, since both players participate in success and failure, and since neither benefits from the other's loss. Asymmetrical gameplay in order to cater to the relative strengths of each, and to allow both players to experience different aspects of the game at different times.

In the discussion following Sande Chen's post on her Gamasutra blog, a few good examples of hypothetical games sprang up, but I want to use an existing game to illustrate the concept: consider the game Henry Hatsworth and the Puzzling Adventure. The game is a single player 2D platform game with an element of match-3 puzzle game that is used in a clever and seamless way to add another layer of depth to the platforming elements. Now imagine that the developers had added a multiplayer game mode, where one player controls the 2D platforming action with the D-pad and the face buttons, while the second player controls the match-3 puzzle game element with the stylus. This is a perfect example of how to integrate a casual gameplay mechanic with a core one. Personally, I could picture a parent playing the game with a child in this manner, with the child sitting in the parent's lap.

The other great advantage of a game like this would be that each player could see what the other was doing. This would mean that a casual gamer would get a first-row seat to how the core gamer traverses the obstacles on the screen. Ideally, at some point, one of the two players would suggest that they switch roles, and the casual gamer would get to experience the core aspects of the game while the core gamer helps them in-game and with advice or coaching on how to proceed if needed.

Games like these would not only be the perfect way of bridging the casual/core divide, but would also appeal to a larger proportion of gamers than strictly the casual or core segments. They would also be perfect grounds for creating new types of games. By exposing casual and non-gamers to core games in a cozy environment, we could increase the 'stickiness' of core game mechanics and the potential buyers for future core games.

Perhaps these games could be a cornerstone of the Gaming Renaissance Movement that Wanda Meloni foretells. Perhaps they could play a part in this recession doing for video games what the Great Depression did for movies. Perhaps they could be the standard that rallies core gamers to the Wii, or the means by which Sony and Microsoft break Nintendo's dominance in the current console generation.

Kumar Daryanani is a QA tester, videogame enthusiast and aspiring game designer. He currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife. He keeps a blog where he writes about various aspects of video games.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

June 2009: Prototyping

June 2009's topic, Prototyping, was submitted by game designer Sande Chen.

She writes:

During a visit to New York City's Morgan Library & Museum, I was enthralled by the collection of preparatory studies, sketches, and first drafts. Some were quickly drawn oil paintings, but still quite elaborate to the eye Others looked more like abstract, penciled doodles. It showed the inner workings of the artist, I thought. Some artists signed their sketches, perhaps realizing the future value, while others repeated the same study over and over without a care for posterity. Side by side, these sketches were displayed against photos of the finished works. One artist chose the most challenging part of his painting and concentrated on that in his draft. Another artist used his drafts to figure out the composition or layout. Still others used their sketches as a dry run, filling out the details in the grand masterpiece.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart reportedly wrote his music as if he could hear it in his mind. No second thoughts. But Ludwig van Beethoven's drafts are full of furious scribblings, cross-outs, and changes, indicative of his stormy music.

But what of the game designer? Do our game sketches or prototypes say anything about us?

Many times, a prototype is a functional demo, but at the same time, it's how a game designer's vision comes into view. As with the artist, the game designer may have several iterations before the final product.
  • Are there any guidelines or best practices for prototyping?
  • Are there different methodologies? What process do you take?
  • Do you prototype one aspect of the game, many aspects, or the entire game?
  • How do you use prototyping to better your designs?
  • Do you use non-digital/digital prototypes? What tools do you use?
  • Why is prototyping important?
Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Building Bridges (Part I)

In Part I of this article, QA tester and aspiring game designer Kumar Daryanani looks at the hardcore/casual dichotomy and gives suggestions on how game developers can bridge the gap between hardcore and casual players.

For the most part, video games are still a business. The underlying truth in that statement is that developers have one and only one major responsibility: to create games that will ensure that they can create more games in the future. The main means to this end are either to create games that appeal to the widest audience possible, or to create brand strength and recognition to secure repeat customers.

One of the major effects of the casual games boom is that some developers of traditionally 'core' games are attempting to tap into the new casual gamer demographic. This is a sound business strategy, since more potential users means more possibilities for revenue in the form of sales. The quandary is that casual gamers seem to have very particular tastes when it comes to games. The industry standard multi-million dollar blockbusters that keep our hit-driven business running don't see much penetration beyond the core gamer audience, for a variety of reasons: theme is an instant suspect, since casual gamers are mostly profiled as mature women who don't particularly care for the excess guns (in both senses of the words) that permeate games aimed at core audiences. Complexity also affects the appeal of core games: compare the standard button configurations on the Xbox 360 and Playstation3 controllers and how they reflect on the gameplay of a standard first- or third-person shooter, and the relative simplicity of the average PC mouse, or the Wiimote.

It would seem, then, that dumbing down the essence of core games is not the answer to appealing to the casual gamer. This instantly detracts from the core gamer's experience, and there is little worse in this industry than alienating the very people who have kept the game industry going for the last 30-odd years. Besides, core games still sell well as they are, and as time goes by, core gamers will continue to spend money on the games the industry creates for them. If anything, core games need to continue to evolve and cater to their target audiences.

How, then, are we to appeal to the casual gamer? Is it possible to 'convert' a casual gamer into a core gamer?

If we compare the games of today to the ones made back in the dawn of the video game era, it is easy to see that games have become relatively complex. The last 2D platformer I saw released with a minimum of media coverage was Henry Hatsworth and the Puzzling Adventure, and even that is a far cry from the original Super Mario Brothers and Sonic the Hedgehog. By comparison, icons of those early days, like Mario and Sonic, have made the jump to 3D, which is significantly more complex than 2D, requiring an extra dimension of spatial navigation that isn't necessarily accessible to uninitiated gamers.

Of course, creating such games nowadays is a gamble, because core gamers have supposedly moved on from 2D, and there is no guarantee that casual gamers will give these games a try. This leaves us in the unenviable position of having two separate kinds of games, with nothing in between that could bridge the gap that could maybe allow us to 'convert' casual gamers into core ones. Looking at it this way, is it really a surprise that the casual/core debate is discussed as a dichotomy?

Part of the reason more people don't play games is the various misconceptions about them. Many people still believe that video games are for children, or huge wastes of time, or aimed at a very specific subset of the population. One of the main advantages we have over the developers of the 70s and 80s, though, is that games are better established as a form of entertainment. Developers have evolved and refined theories on what makes games fun, on learning curves, on player incentivization and motivation, on flow and immersion, on creating meaningful experiences, on a visual language unique to the medium. As well as more complex, modern games are more polished and refined than their early counterparts. We also have amazing technology in terms of sound and graphics and AI, and more platforms for gaming than ever before.

With all of these advances in the way games are made, it is natural that some developers may balk at taking a chance at creating more basic or introductory games that casual gamers may or may not buy. As I have said before, video games are a business, and creating a game that doesn't sell is money and time lost. While these games are still necessary, it is important to ensure that they will sell, mainly by creating a market for them. We must first create interest in these games, by making casual and non-gamers more receptive to what these games have to offer.

More importantly than the technology and the ideas we now have at our disposal, we now have a group of very important people as resource: people who see games as a viable choice when it comes to entertainment. Not just the ones with visibility among the general non-gaming populace, although those are very nice to have, and my thanks and appreciation go out to them for doing what they do, but rather, we have the core gamers who have children, siblings, spouses, parents and friends who may have more than a passing interest in games, but have never taken the plunge. Gamers who think to themselves "I wish there was a game I could show them that they would get!" These are our mavens. These are the people to whom we can appeal to, who will buy our games on behalf of the casual gamers, if only we create the right games.

Kumar Daryanani is a QA tester, videogame enthusiast and aspiring game designer. He currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife. He keeps a blog where he writes about various aspects of video games.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Meaningful Simplicity

In this article, programmer Nels Anderson distinguishes between obvious and obtuse difficulty in order to explain why game developers should strive to design 'simpler' games.

There are a number of ways of looking at difficulty in games. Here I'm going to discuss only one aspect, the distinction between obvious and obtuse difficulty. (Jesper Juul has conducted a lengthy analysis of the nature of game difficulty, if you're interested in a more extensive study).

When someone says a game is “fun,” there's a great deal of variance in what they are actually referring to. A game might be “fun” because it tells an engaging story, because it makes the player feel skillful or because it makes the player laugh. Similarly, a game being “difficult” is a vague quality. It could be difficult because the controls are bad. It could be difficult because it's punishing and bordering on unfair or because it hosts complicated and cryptic puzzles.

As designers, we cannot be content to think about our games as “easy” or “difficult.” Rather, we must think about the experience we want the player to have when engaging with our game's difficulty. Failing to be rigorous here and just making a game “hard” is likely to result in a game that's frustrating rather than enjoyably difficult.

And indeed, difficulty can be enjoyable. In fact, as evidenced in Jesper Juul's study linked above, players are more likely to be critical of a game that's too easy than too hard. This does make sense; if a game is too hard, practice might result in player skill improving to the point where they can succeed. But if a game is too easy, nothing short of self-imposed handicaps (taping your thumb to your palm?) can make it harder.

To be clear, this is not making a value judgment on difficulty. There are some players that long for the Ninja Gaidens and Devil May Crys. But difficulty is something that should be constructed with intent rather than by neglect. Neglectful difficulty often ends up as obtuse difficulty. By obtuse difficulty, I mean challenge that arises from the player not knowing what needs to be done in order to progress. The opposite being obvious difficulty, where the player knows what to do and just needs to improve upon some skill to achieve it.

Obtuse difficulty is problematic because it's often the case that there is no reliable way to move from this blocked state. Players can easily become frustrated with this kind of difficulty, and understandably so. Would soccer be as enjoyable if the rules changed every game and the players only discovered them when they received yellow and red cards for violations? Puzzles are especially susceptible to this, which I discussed here. Readability is a measure of how clear the relationships between actions in a game are and games that seem simple are often just readable. Simple is often used derisively to describe gameplay, but it's actually something more developers should strive for.

This doesn't mean that puzzles are inherently inappropriate for games. But it does mean that most players require meaningful feedback when attempt to solve puzzles, something that rarely occurs when difficulty of sort arises out of neglect rather than intent. Thus we ought to approach difficulty with a clear idea of what we want challenge in our games to emerge from. Envision how the difficulty will feel and then focus on creating that experience.

The recent trend toward simpler games is, I think, partially an attempt to avoid this kind of difficulty, and I think it's a laudable goal. Something like And Yet It Moves offers a single, simple core mechanic and the challenge arises from how to apply it. This is not the kind of challenge all games should offer, but it's very appropriate for the kind of experience And Yet It Moves was trying to create. The important thing to take from this is that difficulty is a broad category for many different kinds of dynamics. Understanding the nuances of different kinds of difficulty and intentionally create the one most appropriate for the desired experience may produce games that feel “simpler” but ultimately, as just more enjoyable to play.

Nels Anderson is a programmer at Hothead Games. He's probably the only game developer in Vancouver (and maybe all of Canada) that was born and raised in Wyoming. He writes about games and game design on his blog, Above 49.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

June 2009 Poll

Please come and vote for the June 2009 topic!

You'll see the poll to the side. The choices are:

* Prototyping
* Mature Games (Games for Grown-Ups)
* Defining Single-Play Sessions

Please choose by May 22, 2009!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Cloven Designer (Part II)

In Part I, scholar Altug Isigan looks at Italo Calvino's novel, The Cloven Viscount, in order to discover game design insights from drama theory. In Part II, he describes how to avoid the pitfalls of being too evil or too good.

The Art of Being Good and Bad

How to be good to your players without annoying them? It seems like the rules of exposure in writing apply in game design too:

• Only provide help or information if the player asks for it.

• Make it easy for them to access the info when they want to find it. But never put it into their way if they don’t want to see it or if they want to figure it out all by themselves.

• If the players do not ask by themselves for what you want them to take but you believe that you must give it to them in exactly that sequence of the game, then use the element of surprise when you attempt to pass the info/help over to them. This is a good way to make the players forgive you that you provided help/info despite them not having asked for it.

• Another good solution would be to present help/info during a dramatically tense moment, in which the players are so much occupied with solving a problem or observing the situation that they do not even realize that they receive help or info.

Subtlety rules!

On the flipside, how can you provide some quality evil that helps maintain respect to the game?

Like in many of the arts and entertainment branches, variety and surprise are helpful in making the “dumbest” level a still challenging experience. Three methods will be mentioned here (although you might claim that there are more):

• Scripted events or embedded cinematics with the purpose to build respect towards the game’s challenge: Many games have done it successfully and that is why it’s difficult to detect. Just seconds before the players enter their first encounter with the enemy, they see the enemies display their skills on a NPC-victim in a very stunning pre-scripted sequence or embedded cinematic. Witnessing this scene will give the players the creeps and increase their respect to the challenge ahead. They will enter the encounter with a feel of high tension. However, this method has to be applied carefully, because if the real encounter does not feel as challenging as the cinematic suggested, then the trick will be exposed and the players will feel like the game tried to cheat on them. What more can a game do to lose its players respect?

• Constructing a hierarchy of intelligent agents and confronting the players with enemies of varying intelligence simultaneously: A hierarchy of intelligent agents can be observed in many games. These present us with a mix of enemies that vary in smartness and skills. While some are quite dumb and transparent in their behavioral patterns (but have other things that we fear, like pace, accuracy or high fire rates), other enemies compensate for their comrades’ dumbness with their smart and less transparent behavioral patterns. This is a way to tell the player through variety that the challenge is a multi-faceted and by no means an easy one. The variety in intelligent agents, combined with good enemy placement, will be a strong tool to create a good challenge in even the easiest level of a game.

• Utilizing a palette of individually dumb mechanics which, when combined, make up a system with intelligent and challenging behavior: Combining various dumb mechanics as to form an intelligent system is a very interesting way to pose a challenge onto the player and it will have a very surprising effect when it’s done well. Once the players realize that the individual mechanics are easy to handle but that as a system they make up more than the sum of pieces, they will say to themselves that it isn’t as simple as it looks (which is just another way to express that they see a challenge in it). It was Will Wright who gave this beautiful example somewhere: a single ant is quite dumb and poses no threat, but a colony of ants can be very difficult to defeat, because when they combine their forces, the system that arises can behave as intelligently as a dog.

Most Common Pitfall: The Easy = Dumb Approach

Some game designers describe the easiest level of their game as the level in which the enemies will behave plain dumb. But good game designers would see no reason in having a dumb level in their games. To the opposite, they’d be aware that such a level would lack depth and meaningful challenge. To return to Hitchcock’s quote: Such a level would be the equivalent of a villain that hasn’t been given enough dimension by the writer. Hence, the credibility of the game as a whole would suffer.

Using dumb enemies to create an easy difficulty level is a bad design solution because:

It doesn’t pose a challenge onto the players and feels to them like you’re wasting their times: While playing through this “user-friendly” level, players will be hoping to face the real challenge soon... but you shouldn’t test their patience too much. If you delay the confrontation with the challenge, you risk having players walk away.

• What was designed to lower the entry barrier could turn into an eclipse of fun and cost you potential players: While the game tries to make the beginning comfortable for them, the players might not anticipate the cool things that are ahead. From their first impressions in the “user-friendly” level, they would decide that the game is boring and walk away before they come to the challenging and really fun parts of the game.

• Dumb enemies lower the experienced quality of the conflict and make us think there is nothing essential to the game that would deserve our respect: We feel that there is nothing to achieve, or, that the achievement that we have been given as our target is not worth the effort. If it’s not worth the effort, why wasting time on it?

No matter how much you are concerned about keeping low entry barriers for your game, a game’s easiest level should from the very first moment pose a somewhat serious challenge on the player and maintain the feeling that meaningful achievements lie ahead. Therefore, I define easiest level as that version of a game that can be mastered with least effort, without making us lose respect to the game’s challenge.

Conclusion: Avoid being the cloven designer

The lesson to be learned is quite clear: Don’t be too good to your players as to deprive them of some good ‘n tasty evil. On the flipside, don’t be as evil as to throw them into a sea of goodwill and leave them defenseless against it. Pure user-friendliness and pure give ‘em hell philosophies in game design are against play’s nature. Pull your halves together. Allow players to be players.

Calvino I. (2000). İkiye Bölünen Vikont [The Cloven Viscount]. Can: İstanbul.
Chion M. (1987). Bir Senaryo Yazmak [Writing a Film Script]. AFA: Istanbul.

Altug Isigan is a scholar at the Eastern Mediterranean University, Department of Radio-TV and Film, in sunny Famagusta, Cyprus, where he is writing a dissertation on narrative in games. You can read more of his work at his blog, the Ludosphere.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Cloven Designer (Part I)

In Part I of this article, scholar Altug Isigan looks at Italo Calvino's novel, The Cloven Viscount, in order to discover game design insights from drama theory.

In this article I will approach game difficulty from a game writer’s perspective and eventually propose a definition for “easiest level” in games which is derived from drama theory. I will discuss the issue particularly around Italo Calvino’s novel The Cloven Viscount, which is a masterful piece of literature about the virtues of evil (and the many evils of virtue). I believe that Calvino’s book does not only tell us something about the relation of human nature and difficulty in games, but also about an essential quality of the successful game designer: her ability to treat the players good or evil without annoying them.
Too bad to be evil...

Before we get into Calvino’s The Cloven Viscount, let us first consider a quote of Alfred Hitchcock in which he states what he believes to be determining the quality of a narrative. In an interview, he says: “The more successful [the design of] the villain, the more successful the story”. (Chion; 1987: 165)
Many writers consider this statement as golden advice. At the core of the idea lies the principle of ‘maintaining the appeal of the bad guy’. Interestingly enough, applying this principle will result in a boost to the credibility of the good guy.

The villains in a script need as much of the writer’s care and attention as the protagonists. Villains should have their own unique and sophisticated ways, and they should be as skillful and intelligent as the protagonists. Even if we (as readers or players) are not in support of the villains way of conduct, we should still understand their motivations and reasons. Their evil should be grounded in something that makes sense to us, and should not feel like they were deliberately installed as trouble-making mechanisms. Villains that lack the good reasons for what they do which look flat. Don’t forget: even the devil has his reasons.

Evil for the sake of evil often looks ridiculously mindless and feels mechanical at best. Such bad designed evil has a devastating impact on the respect we feel towards the story as a whole. The more we fear and respect the villain for what he is and what he is capable of, the more we feel that solving the conflict is a true challenge to us. We enjoy it better when we can test ourselves against an exciting and “real” challenger.

...too good to be virtuous

We need to add that a purely virtuous character feels as fake as a purely evil character. In his novel The Cloven Viscount, Italo Calvino illustrates in a wonderful way the problem of characters that are pure evil or purely virtuous: The story revolves around a viscount who during war is being split into two halves by a cannonball. The viscount survives the incident and returns home as a “half person”. We soon find out that what had survived the incident was his evil half. As we read on, this purely evil half (which carries out its evil like if it were a task, and for no apparent reason) gradually turns into a parody of evil, because it becomes evil that borders at the ridiculous.

Things get worse when after a while the other half, which was thought to be dead, arrives in town. We are not surprised when this half turns out to be completely good. Soon the two halves start to compete against each other. However, the good half, which exercises its virtues because it sees it as an obligation to be good and helpful, invents for itself one welfare campaign after another, and by doing so, becomes so annoying and burdensome for those who are subject to this goodness that the people in the town realize that “the good half is worse than the bad half” (Calvino; 2000: 88). The narrator of the story summarizes the arising situation perfectly: “Our emotions lost all their colors and depth, because we felt completely lost between evil and virtue. Both pure evil and pure virtue were against human nature.” (p.89)

Which half of you designed the game?

What about games and game designers? Can they make us feel lost between good and evil through their design decisions? Unfortunately, we have to answer this question with a ‘yes’. Acting against human nature can be observed in a many game designers design philosophies and in player treatment that results from these philosophies.

For example there is this type of designer that always wants to challenge the player to the ultimate point (based on the argument that games should be designed for the “true gamer”). But often the desire to push the limits of the player, crosses an invisible border in which the player’s encounter with the game’s mechanics and system does not feel like a challenge anymore, but turns into a frustrating experience governed by some arbitrary decisions of the designer. The players will find it difficult to understand why the game is so much hostile towards them, and why it continues to be hostile even if it no longer serves a purpose. We could say that in such a design it is the evil half of the ‘cloven designer’ which is at work.

The good half of the cloven designer on the other hand, will be so good and helpful that the players will not be allowed to experience and learn something by and for themselves. The designer will always and insistently help, even when it is no longer needed (or worse, when it was not even asked for); this designer will come with universal solutions that recognize only one idealized form of a “user”, and will fail to notice individual differences and the importance of context. The game will become unbearable because of its overwhelming and unstopable help system. As an old proverb says: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Altug Isigan is a scholar at the Eastern Mediterranean University, Department of Radio-TV and Film, in sunny Famagusta, Cyprus, where he is writing a dissertation on narrative in games. You can read more of his work at his blog, the Ludosphere.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Casual is Simple

In this article, Jeremy Barwick explains why simple design elements signal success in the casual game space.

As a Developer Partnership Manager at Oberon Media, I play lots and lots of casual games. I see the best and the worst. The simplicity of the design is a common thread that can define a game as the former or the latter, and in fact I think simplicity is even more important in the casual space than others. Casual players have a much shorter attention span when it comes to learning the rules of a game.

Granted, there are some casual games with fairly complex rule sets and game play. Many sim games are like this. However, when you look at successful games in that genre, such as Virtual Villagers or Build-a-lot, you will find that within 5 minutes, you can be up and playing, even if you've never played a sim game before.

Many game designers have great ideas about how to tweak or modify a popular genre, how to add new and different mechanics and features. Which is great. That is probably one of the best ways to create a successful, if not best-selling, title. However, one of the most common mistakes when coming up with new ideas is the tendency to try to show off all your new ideas in the first few level or two. Bad idea. If you have too much newness to soon, the player quickly becomes overwhelmed, and then gives up. When they give up, your conversion rate goes down. When your conversion rate goes down, so does your bottom line.

The Build-a-Lot series is a good example of how to do things correctly. You do not have to build a fire station, town hall, chateau and garden center, plus sell 3 houses and restore 2 all in the first level. Leave that for later! "But," you may say, "players will get bored if there isn't a lot to do in the first level." This can be true. So make the opening levels quick and easy. Include an option for more experienced players to skip past the tutorial levels.

Because I am fairly familiar with most game mechanics, I tend to get frustrated if I'm forced to click through dozens of pop-up explanations in the opening level of a game. View it as selective simplicity. Let the player decide how simple they want the game to be. This principle can apply to story as well. I've written a few stories in my time, and know the feeling of wanting others to read and appreciate your work. But do not force your story onto the player. Let them decide whether or not to enjoy it.

I recently received a submission of a hidden object game. It was associated with a fairly well-known brand. Before doing any research on the history of the game, I sat down and played it. I was overwhelmed by the amount of information I saw. The "tutorial" was basically an entire screen of text! No gameplay at all, just reading. I assumed that since I am a fairly experienced gamer, I could skip past that. I clicked the button, and was hit with another page of "tutorial" text. I couldn't believe it. I skipped past this one as well. By the time I got to the actual game, I didn't have any idea what was going on.

You might be thinking that I was thinking a bit too much of myself and should have just read the instructions. That's possible. But do you really think that the average gamer (many of whom skip past the tutorials like me) will behave differently? It was supposed to be a hidden object game, but there were other mechanics that made it very frustrating, not only to understand what was going on, but also just to proceed past the first level. After quitting the game in frustration, I did some research and was not surprised to see that it had launched on other portals a few months before and had not performed very well. Needless to say, I did not accept the game.

Gameplay and tutorial should be intuitive and smoothly integrated. In the best-case scenario, the player doesn't even realized they are being taught how to play. They view the tutorial as friendly hints and tips, not a lecture.

My experience and observations are somewhat limited to the casual space, but I think the principles can be applied to game design in general. For better or worse, game design must take into consideration, if not downright appeal to, the lowest common denominator. I could write a lot more on this subject, but I think I've made my point, and would like to keep this article simple!

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, not those of Oberon Media, its affiliates, or its employees.

Jeremy Barwick currently works as a Developer Partnership Manager for Oberon Media, one of the largest distributors of PC downloadable casual games. He has a BS in Media Arts and Animation, and has been an avid PC and console gamer for over 25 years. If you have questions or comments, please feel free to contact him at this e-mail address.