Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Clint Eastwood of Video Games

In this article, Asi Burak, Co-President of Games for Change, argues that we don't need to be rid of war games, but that we should strive for more sophisticated and realistic war games: ones that address the complexity of war and the moral dilemmas that modern soldiers face every day.

Representing Games for Change in interviews and conversations with the media, I am often asked to comment on the subject of “War Games.” It usually goes like this – an indifferent reporter on the other end of the phone line, who is expecting to wrap up her story with the obvious angle. She's almost starting to type the answer for me and expecting me to say: That we should not make war games, that they corrupt our youth, that they represent the worst in human nature and that when this content is packaged in a video game, it is even more dangerous. But no matter how hard she tries, I never give her that quote. I catch her off guard. I am not against war games, or any type of game, I would say.

War games and first person shooters are here to stay. There is an unbreakable link between the mechanics of targeting, shooting, reloading and the media of digital games. And there is no better conflict than A vs. B, where you gain your resources and achievements at the expense of the other side, an enemy. After all, the first ever video game created in 1962 was named Space-war!.

What we really need are different war games. And more sophisticated ones. A useful perspective to take is that of comparative media. It gives video games a serious consideration – arguing that it will one day be a viable media like books, movies or theatre. Not in terms of sale figures or active online users - in that front we’re already massive (and the ESA would love to provide you with the stats) - but rather in our media’s ability to speak to all tastes and ages. Its ability to create meaning, convey high-level messages and provocative concepts.

Diversity and maturity of a medium means that you would need to go beyond the “blockbuster” and the lowest common denominator. When Clint Eastwood created Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, he wanted to represent war in all its complexity, beyond the myth, icons and conventions. To play on that level, game makers would need to keep on pushing the envelope and create experiences that address a wide range of emotions, not only the thrill of action.

Veterans would tell you that war is not anything like what’s depicted in Call of Duty. The action in a real battle could take only a couple of minutes. The rest is anxious waiting, fear, missing your family at home, seeing your friends injured or die in front of your eyes. Some of my favorite war game scenes are those in which you temporarily lose your weapon. Or before you gain one like in the beginning of Half Life 2. These moments, in which you don’t have total control, seem very realistic. And they are more authentic than constantly shooting and killing hordes of AI targets.

Modern warfare is grayer and blurrier than ever. Patrolling through the streets of Gaza or Fallujah confronts you with civilians. Searching through reported targets of militants confronts you with scared women and children huddled in the corner of a room. Moral dilemmas are common and often they involve quick life-and-death decisions. These are tense and powerful moments that involve both inner and external conflicts. They are moments of truth that test soldiers’ nerves and their most fundamental assumptions about the world we live in. The reality of war is full of those moments. So far our video games are not.

Asi Burak is a veteran game-maker, technology executive and social entrepreneur. As Co-President of Games for Change, he leads on the curation, development, and execution of programs to raise the quality and reach of social impact games. He is also the co-founder of Impact Games, the creators of the internationally acclaimed “PeaceMaker” and “Play the News” gaming platforms.

Monday, December 20, 2010

January 2011 Poll

Please vote for the January 2011 topic! As always, feel free to suggest more topics!

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

  • Crafting
  • Sequels
  • Game Accessibility

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Opposite of Grind

In this article, MMO blogger Zach Best wonders if replayable story content will successfully divert player attention away from the endless grind in MMOs.

Timeless MMO topics are worming their way, yet again, around the ‘sphere. Oh, I can definitely take part of the blame since I strongly dislike subscription games, and what I feel they entail. Clearly, I am neither alone, nor am I objectively correct. Julian, KTR lurker in the threshold, threw down an excellent comment, which in part reads:
The question is why are we seemingly unable to, after 10+ years of designing these things, to avoid the grind? It is generally accepted as un-fun. It’s been a major player complaint since forever. Why are we still operating under the design assumption that grind is somehow “needed” or “part of the flavor of the genre”? Why are we unable to come up with something better?
Which made me think, okay, grind equates to gameplay, but we hate it (mostly). So, what else is there?

“Content,” is what one of my little resident voices said. If defined in such a way, content is the opposite of grind. (Random Google’d website Wordhippo tells me the opposite of “grind” is “joy.”) Yet, from another standpoint grind is content. Our blog would have a completely different name if that weren’t the case.

Let’s back up a second. What is “grind”? I view it as an artificial lengthening of the duration of active gameplay. It is completely subjective. Some people love grinding for nickels by killing hundreds of enemies. Others hate all kill ten rats quests. Some people love crafting dozens of items and using it as a social downtime; while others see it as a huge time-wasting hurdle to jump. There is gray everywhere.

For an example, suppose MMO designer Bob wants to create a quest to teach players about the local mobs, Candlehat Rats. The Candlehat Rats are a common line throughout the zone, which culminates in to a wax-making dungeon where the rats get their candle… hats. They have one trick: when they lose 66% of their life, their candle goes out, and they become enraged. So, before the player finds himself in a candle-unlit dark filled with a handful of enraged rats, Bob wants to make sure the player understands this lil’ trick. Go kill ten Candlehat Rats, Bob writes. (Later on Rob, the writer, will turn this in to some prolific quest text…. unread by thousands.)

Is that grind? A smart player will understand the trick within 1-3 Candlehat Rats. A dumb player will likely not learn it after killing 100 Candlehat Rats. A casual player might see the simple quest as substantial content; while, a jaded MMO veteran sees it as poorly designed filler. No one can agree. Still there must be some opposite, and I told myself “think, think, think, think,” while putting honey in my tea.

If grind represents an artificial stalling of advancement, then its opposite must be ever-advancing. Story! Story always advances, even if the plot doesn’t. Story isn’t artificial. Yet, story is barely gameplay in many MMOs. Story can be a loss of control of our character (“my character would never!”). Story is expensive. And, story can be just as boring as grind. Rarely, I think, do many players go for an MMO based on story.

Yet, the two big MMOs on the horizon, Guild Wars 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic, are touting story as a pillar of the games. In both MMOs, players will be making decisions that will affect their own personal story (and any gameplay stemming from it). ArenaNet and BioWare are making story core gameplay.

Furthermore, they are making the story very replayable. In Star Wars: The Old Republic, not only will each class have its own story, but there will be two wholly different sides of the story depending on whether the character is allied with the Sith or Republic. In Guild Wars 2, each race has their own prologue, and ArenaNet is heavily emphasizing that hard decisions will have to be made.

Is this the antidote for grind? Can we truly avoid grind by emphasizing an MMO so heavily on story? I do not imagine that this will destroy menial tasks, like killing ten rats, which can be considered grind. But, will this focus the developer’s attention away from so much of the combat-oriented gameplay that grind seems to originate from? Those in Star Wars: The Old Republic’s beta might already have the answer; those waiting on Guild Wars 2… are still waiting.

[This article originally appeared on Kill Ten Rats.]
Zach Best writes at the blogomerate Kill Ten Rats under the moniker of Ravious. He has written about MMOs, lesser games, and food analogies at Kill Ten Rats for over a year with Ethic, Zubon, and friends.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

December 2010: No More War Games?

December 2010's topic, No More War Games?, was submitted by graduate student Nick LaLone.

He writes: 

Thousands of video games have used war as a central component of their mechanics or narrative and it isn't surprising. They were created during a time of war and were inspired by the popularity of war board
games like Tactics II, Diplomacy, Risk, and Advanced Squad Leader. These games reflected a changing social landscape as the world metaphorically shrunk. A general fear of what could happen, what had
been happening, made its way into what the people of the 50s,60s, and 70s wanted to play.

Since that time, despite intense competition over the video game market between different cultures, war has remained a central component. As Fallout 3 stated, war never changes. And, through games like Call of Duty, 3rd World Farmer, Minarette Attack, Halo, World of Warcraft, Valkyria Chronicles, Ace Combat, or even Lego Star Wars, the gaming industry has expressed nearly every possible angle on war; war hasn't changed.
  • What would it take start developing games that do not revolve around war?
  • Is violence necessary to explore in video games?
  • How does war change violence and is that change good or bad?
  • If females were featured in a game like Bad Company, how would the game have been different? Why?
Nick LaLone is finishing up his master's in Sociology at Texas State University-San Marcos. He specializes in race, class, and gender studies of popular culture. Lately he has been playing old war games with video game designers who have never played a war game.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ponies and Space Marines: Demographics and Design

In this article, writer and designer R.M. Sean B Jaffe reminds everyone that it's the designer's job to make a game fun, even if the game is about topics outside of the designer's comfort zone.

I have a powerful friend on the West Coast who asks his potential hires two questions. I’ll skip the first one since it’s irrelevant, but the second one is pretty straightforward:
“Let’s say we have a position open on My Little Pony Farmland Adventure. Would that interest you?”
As you may have guessed, the correct answer is yes. Because, as he puts it, "games are games."

While you may not have dreamed of that *exact* project when you were playing Final Fantasy or Doom back in the day and fantasizing about being a game designer, you should be aware that what sets apart a good designer is the ability to make almost anything fun. One of the most pervasive, successful, and well-known games of all time is about real estate and rent control in Atlantic City. I’ll let that sink in.

With the entire idea of games and game design turning on its ear, one of the great unspoken fears of a large element of the industry is the shift towards casual games and the demographics that come with that. The elephant in the room is that a lot of designers in the industry didn’t get into this biz to write for bored housewives, teenage girls or the elderly. They’re into goblins and lasers and space marines, and those are a hard sell for the above demographics, who seem much more into jewels, farms, and the aforementioned ponies. So, as a guy who got his start with vampires, antichrists and were-sharks, I’m writing this for you.

There was an adage in the tabletop industry where I got my start: write the *system* for the *game*. What this meant was that if you had a combat-heavy world like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, you didn’t spend days and days coming up with a perfect system for public speaking. Using that sort of logic, it makes a lot of sense to see what that people outside your comfort zone like about games, what makes them work, and what keeps them playing.

Recently I’ve heard a great deal of complaining about Farmville: “It’s not even really game!” “ You don’t *do* anything”, but not a lot of real assessment of what *does* makes it work. And while there are plenty of arguments to be made about Farmville, it can’t easily be argued that it doesn’t work.

Certain mechanics are popular with certain types of gamers: most FPS players have a fondness for “twitch” mechanics. These don’t go over so well with the casual crowd, who like a lot more time to make the decisions they are going to make. Small details like this are crucial in writing for specific demos, and it’s worthwhile for a designer to play every game they get their hands on, regardless of who it’s marketed to. That way, you get a feel for each demographic’s type of game, and can readily adapt to what a specific job might require.

When creating for any specific group, the most important thing to do is maintain a balance of what you may or may not know appeals to that group, and what you know as a designer is going to be the most fun. While Ponies and Space Marines all have their place, simple fun always has a broad appeal.

R.M. Sean B Jaffe is a writer and designer with a background in tabletop gaming and over ten years of experience in the industry working for companies like Griptonite, Vogster Entertainment, and White Wolf Game Studio. He lives in Jersey City, New Jersey with his wife, his dog, and a fanatical devotion to old-school arcade games and tabletop RPGs. He is a bad enough dude to save the president, and for a reasonable fee, he can be convinced to rise from his grave and rescue your daughter.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

December 2010 Poll

Please vote for the December 2010 topic! As always, feel free to suggest more topics!

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

  • Crafting
  • No More War Games?
  • Indie Design Revelations
No More War Games?
Videogames have a heritage in that they were constructed from display technologies developed because of the Cold War. The first games all resembled some form of war simulation (with Pong being an exception), what would it take to skirt this trend and start developing games that do not revolve around war?

Indie Design Revelations
What takeaways are there from the current crop of indie games?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

November 2010: Designing for Demographics

Apologies for the late start!

What's the best way to tackle designing a game for a specific audience? That audience could be segmented by age, gender, or even location. Some designers feel that a great game appeals to everyone while others go fishing for specific likes or dislikes of a targeted audience. For instance, if 50-year-old women are known to like gardening, then games about gardening might be a clear direction for that audience.

Or how about when a game is successful in one country, how will it be received in another? Are there specific steps to be taken when localizing?

Can any game mechanic be successfully copied and marketed to different demographics? Are there differences in design or is it just in the marketing?

So what's your methodology and the reasoning behind it?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Gaming the Game Developers (Part II)

Unfortunately, the second half of the podcast in September 2009 for Gaming the Game Developers had some sound quality issues.  I was able to get Josh Sutphin's voice louder but Grétar Hannesson is really hard to hear in the beginning of the podcast.  (And please disregard my breathing into the mike ;)

At this point of the conversation, Billy Cain had to leave (he was attending GDC Austin at the time) and Josh Sutphin joined the conversation.

Despite the poor sound quality, I think you might find the second half of the Gaming the Game Developers podcast very interesting.  We talk about the Lead Designer as "game master" and discuss how D&D and MMORPG design techniques can be used to motivate team members, what positive reinforcement loops work, and why social policy makers should look to game design for ideas.

In this podcast, producer Billy Cain, game designer Josh Sutphin, and game designer Grétar Hannesson discuss the topic of Gaming the Game Developers.

[Please note: The podcast does not appear to be showing in FireFox but is working in other browsers.]
To download the podcast: go here.

Games Referenced: Auto Assault, EVE Online, World of Warcraft, Gamestar Mechanic, Scribblenauts

Billy Cain’s game industry career began in 1992 at Origin Systems. Since then, he has designed, developed, produced, and contributed to many award-winning video games including Wing Commander: Prophecy and SpongeBob SquarePants: Revenge of the Flying Dutchman. As co-founder of Critical Mass Interactive, Mr. Cain has created a world-class game development and outsourcing company that has served Disney, Electronic Arts, Midway, NCsoft, Sega, Sony, THQ, Universal, and many other studios.

Grétar Hannesson is a game system designer and an enthusiastic student of human behavior and choice architecture. He cut his teeth on EVE-Online where he served many roles before that of a designer and is now working on an unannounced title for Ubisoft Montréal. He (sporadically) writes about game design and related workplace matters on his blog.

Josh Sutphin is the design lead at LightBox Interactive (formerly Incognito Entertainment). He also produces mods, indie games, and electronic music, and blogs on game design and politics, at

Friday, October 29, 2010

Designing Puzzles Backwards (Part II)

In Part I of this article, writer-designer Steve Ince gives an overview of how story, plot, and gameplay feed into puzzle creation in a game. In Part II, he gives an example of the process.

During my time at Revolution Software I was fortunate to work with some talented people and much of what I learned about developing and refining of puzzles comes from that period. When we developed the second Broken Sword game, The Smoking Mirror, the designers came up with one of my favourite puzzles (I was actually producer on that title).

The player character, George, arrives at the Marseilles docks at night and needs to find a specific warehouse. Unfortunately, there is a fence barring his way. The objective here is to get over that fence – it’s clear what the player needs to do and only by getting over the fence can the story progress.

Now we know the player character’s objective, how do we stop him from simply climbing over the fence? (We’ve started asking the questions.) A vicious dog is placed at the other side of the fence which makes its intentions clear as soon as the player interacts with the fence.

How will the player deal with the dog? It needs to be distracted in some way.

What can we use to distract the dog? There are biscuits inside the hut.

How do we make this more complex? There’s also a man inside the hut and the door to the hut is on the other side of the fence.

We now have two additional sub-objectives to complete that feed into the main objective of distracting the dog to climb the fence – the player must distract the man and find a way into the hut to get the biscuits.

Of course, it’s possible for George to talk to the guy in the hut, but although the conversation is fun and somewhat informative, it’s not the solution to this puzzle. What the conversation does, though, is to give the player logical options to try. If the player sees a guy in a hut it’s natural to tap on the window and have a chat.

As the details of the puzzle were expanded, not only did they add to the richness of the puzzle, they also helped define the geography of the location. For instance, the need for a trapdoor in the floor of the hut meant that we needed the player character to be able to get to the area beneath the hut without this giving a means to get to the other side of the fence.
Anyone interested in learning further details may like to play the game for themselves. :)

It may seem to make sense that, when working backwards in this way, you continue the process until you reach the previous objective conclusion. However, this only works if the game is completely linear.

It may be that you need to work backwards until you reach the point the player finds out what this objective is. During gameplay, reaching the previous objective could give the information to player about this objective, but there might be other ways the player gets such information. Half way towards an objective the player may discover information that gives him additional objectives that will now run in parallel to the current one.

With multiple objectives, working backwards must end up with the same starting point for each, which can be a good check that the puzzles are sound.

Like anything else used in the development of a game design, working backwards in this way is just a tool as part of a whole range. No matter how well used this tool is, it isn’t a complete solution.

The ultimate test of this kind of puzzle is to think it through forwards as if playing the game in your head, looking for potential problems, logic flaws, lack of clarity and ways to refine the steps of the puzzle.

Design it backwards, think it through forwards. Reiterate.

Steve Ince is a Writer-Designer with 17 years in game development. After 11 years with Revolution Software, Steve turned freelance in 2004. In 2008 he received an award nomination from the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain for the game, So Blonde.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

November 2010 Poll

Please vote for the November 2010 topic!

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

  • Cheats
  • Sequels
  • Designing for Demographics
Please vote by November 1. Thank you!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Designing Puzzles Backwards (Part I)

In Part I of this article, writer-designer Steve Ince gives an overview of how story, plot, and gameplay feed into puzzle creation in a game.

I’ve spent most of my game development career working on various story-based games; mostly traditional adventures but other types, too. Although there are different kinds of puzzles involved in the creation of such a game, the kind I find most satisfying are the ones that tie the gameplay directly into the story by the means of shared objectives.

When I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to create both the story and design of a game, as I did with So Blonde, for instance, I like to work in a very iterative manner. I get the basic structure of the story sorted before working up some detail, which then allows me to start defining the gameplay objectives based upon that story, which then feeds back into the developing plot. By working this way, the plot becomes a high level structure that gives both the gameplay and story the shape it needs and enables me to start working up the puzzle details.

When I’m in a position to work on an objective related puzzle, I find it’s best to start with the objective and work backwards. By taking this approach I ensure that each step of the puzzle – or other gameplay that feeds into the puzzle – links to the objective in a clear way.

As I work on such puzzles I loosely go through a series of questions that help with the process.
  • What is the objective?
  • What is stopping the player character from reaching that objective?
  • How will the player deal with that blockage?
  • How will the player get the items/skills needed to do so?
  • Are there separate or side objectives the player has to deal with in order to get what’s required?
  • How can I make this more complex?
  • How can I make this more fun?
  • Is this series of events logical?
  • Is it clear to the player what they need to achieve and what they need to do to achieve it?
There may be plenty more questions relating to the specifics of a puzzle or the objects used and even the user interface, but the main thing to remember is that if you’re not asking yourself these kinds of questions, you’ve got to ask yourself why not.

Steve Ince is a Writer-Designer with 17 years in game development. After 11 years with Revolution Software, Steve turned freelance in 2004. In 2008 he received an award nomination from the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain for the game, So Blonde.

Friday, October 8, 2010

October 2010: Puzzles

October 2010's topic, Puzzles, was submitted by postdoctoral researcher Clara Fernández-Vara.

She writes:

Puzzles are one of the most common design challenges in games, and yet their design practices remain largely undiscussed. This is because puzzles come in many shapes and sizes. Professor Layton includes a wide range of traditional puzzles (logic puzzles, riddles, jigsaws, etc.). Metroid, Zelda and Ico are packed with environmental puzzles where the player must make sense of the space and manipulate its objects in order to traverse it; adventure games bring together story and gameplay by having each puzzle be an event in the story of the game. There is also a whole genre we refer to as puzzle games, such as Zuma, Tetris or Bust-a-Move / Puzzle Bobble.

This month, Game Design Aspect of the Month wants to encourage everyone to think about their practices to create puzzles in their games, and realize that puzzles are much more common than most designers will readily admit.
  • How do puzzles contribute to the gameplay of the game? If the game is puzzle-driven, how is it fun? If puzzles are just one type of challenge in the game, how do they relate to the rest of the activities in the game?
  • How can the story be supported by puzzle design? How do the puzzles relate to world design?
  • How does one get started devising a puzzle? How can designers evaluate if it is a good puzzle? What practices should be avoided?
Clara Fernández-Vara is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. Her work concentrates on adventure games, as well as the integration of stories in simulated environments.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Using Collectibles for Player-Controlled Difficulty

In this article, game designer Doug Hill discusses how game designers can use collectibles to allow players to adjust difficulty levels in games.

In his article Risk Vs. Reward: TACOs, Achievements, and YOU, Ryon Levitt discusses the relationship between the risk a player must consider in getting a collectible versus the reward of obtaining it. This article will consider the opposite side of this problem: taking a risk by not collecting something.

In the original NES classic The Legend of Zelda, you don't have to collect everything to beat the game. You don't even have to collect half of the items. If need proof, search for a speed run of The Legend of Zelda and you will soon see players beating the game from start to finish in around thirty minutes. These players manage to beat every boss and finish every dungeon while only getting a fraction of the game's plentiful power-ups.

So how these players accomplish something like this? Practice and planning. They learn the game forwards and backwards. They learn the enemy's attack scripting and spawn algorithms. They become so proficient that they no longer have to worry about getting all of the Heart Containers to increase their health. They don't have to worry about gathering enough money to buy the Blue Ring armor upgrade. They don't have to find the hidden letter to access the medicine shop. They have more than enough skill to beat the game without these items.

Most of us mere mortals, on the other hand, need a bit of a boost. The question is – how much of a boost? The nice thing about The Legend of Zelda and other games like it is the decision is left (mostly) in the hands of the player. It lets the player continue to collect all kinds of power-ups until they feel they have enough firepower to get through a dungeon. If the player fails, they can also go and collect more power-ups so they'll have a better chance when they try again. That is, unless the player has collected all of the power-ups already.

This school of game design is one of the primary reasons that many genres of games have garnered such a widely diverse fan base. Consider the role playing game, where players have the option of trying to collect extra treasure in order to become more powerful. In this case, the player is actually choosing which risk to take – go on to an area with stronger enemies or possibly a boss without getting stronger, or go after the treasure while having to fight additional foes? Even levels and experience can be considered collectibles that put the player in control of how strong they are before they attempt to move forward.

The point I'm trying to make is that, as game designers, we should not focus on making our games specifically easy or hard. Instead, we should try to leave as much of the difficulty level decision as possible in the hands of the players. If they want their game to be easy, we should let it be easy. Give the players cheat codes. Give them extra power ups. Litter useful items everywhere. Give them difficulty levels where they barely take damage and almost never run out of ammo. If your game is fun to play in and of itself, being easy shouldn't hurt it too much.

On the other hand, make sure you give a challenge to the players who want it. This can be through harder difficulty levels, achievements and trophies, or more difficult replays after they've defeated the easy mode. Most importantly, make sure they have choices during the game, not just before they start and after they finish. Give players weapons and power-ups they can skip and not use. Give them shortcuts they can choose to ignore. Give them easy and hard ways to kill bosses.

In the end, you'll get more players to appreciate your game. It won't feel too hard, while those seeking a challenge will find one without having to look too hard.

Doug Hill is a freelance game designer and writer who has worked on a variety of published video games over the past ten years. His current focus is developing intellectual property for use in both interactive and non-interactive media.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

First, Do No Harm

In this article, gameplay programmer Nels Anderson warns that more does not equal better when it comes to collectables, especially when their very presence may contradict the gameplay experience.

Designed correctly, collectables can enrich a world, making it feel larger and more robust. Designed poorly, they exploit some of our worst tendencies as gamers. Usually games feature one or the other, and it's unusual and interesting when both exist (at times, literally) side-by-side.

Lately, I've been playing longer single-player DLC from some of the bigger releases earlier this year. Along with Minerva's Den for Bioshock 2, I've been playing The Signal for Alan Wake (it came free with the game). It reminded me of the stark contrast Alan Wake presents in its collectables. I wrote about Alan Wake previously, but I wanted to go into more detail about the collectables themselves.

To be clear, Alan Wake has far too many collectables. There are: manuscript pages, coffee thermoses, supply crates, can pyramids, radio clips, TV shows and local history signs. The Signal adds two more, ticking clocks and cardboard standees. And, of course, there's an individual achievement for collecting every one of these. It's absurd. I can only imagine it emerged from group-think that concluded, "People like collectables, and some collectables are good, so more must be better!" And Alan Wake isn't even a sprawling open world with vast environments the player is never required to visit but can explore at their leisure. It's a linear, level-based game whose environments are, if anything, too big.

I'm not trying to pick on Remedy or Alan Wake, because they did some very good things with their collectables. It's just that the good things are sitting right next to some things that are ... less good. And the good collectables are quite good. The two most successful were the radio segments and Twilight Zone-esque TV shorts. They follow the guidelines for good collectables: 1) they're rewarding in their own right, 2) they enhance the game thematically and 3) they're sensibly located. They're rewarding because they are (at least potentially) amusing or provide some backstory. They enhance the game thematically because late night radio feels both lonely and creepy (Mitch called that one) and the TV spots are appropriately absurd. And they're sensibly located because they're both found in man-made structures (that are not ruined/abandoned).

At the complete opposite end of the spectrum are the game's one hundred coffee thermoses. They have no purpose in the game beyond provide an achievement, and beyond a tenuous Twin Peaks joke they're not thematically appropriate and they're scattered from hell to breakfast. You're as likely to find one in someone's kitchen as you are to find one perched on top of a boulder deep in the woods. The can pyramids are just as bad, while the manuscript pages and supply caches fall somewhere in the middle.

But why are "bad" collectables bad? If some people don't like them, they can just ignore them, right? The problem is poorly designed collectables can have subtle but dramatic impact on the game's pacing (again, see Mitch's piece). In Alan Wake, you're often chased or running toward something important. You're supposed to feel rushed and threatened. But as this is a pretty standard game and the world's state cannot actually change until the player is nearby, that's entirely smoke and mirrors. Now that would be okay (a lot of great games are mostly smoke and mirrors) except the presence of the poor collectables encourages the player to take the game very slowly and methodically, scouring an environment entirely before moving onward. Once again, it's that old chestnut where the game's fiction says one thing ("Run! Hurry!") and the game's rules say another ("Slow down and find all those thermoses").

There's no doubt in my mind Alan Wake would be a better, more cohesive game without those thermoses. The danger really is thinking that arbitrary, pointless collectables are good because people like them. It's true that they're effective for many people, but they might be effective for all the wrong reasons. And effective isn't the same thing as good. Alan Wake shows us how seamlessly good collectables can integrate into a game. And in the next breath, it shows how harmful poor ones can be. More isn't always better. Let's not forget that, okay?

Nels Anderson is a gameplay 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 at A version of this post originally appeared there.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Risk Vs. Reward: TACOs, Achievements, and YOU

In this article, game designer Ryon Levitt discusses how to make collecting totally arbitrary collectible objects (or TACOs) a meaningful and fulfilling activity for players.

Since as long as I can remember, I’ve been somewhat of a completist when it comes to video games. I will admit that as I’ve grown older, my definition of “complete” has changed due to the amount of time I have for any particular game, but I still feel like I should try to get as much out of any game I play. For this reason, I find that the concept of collectibles to strike a very close chord with me.

I have collected many things in my life, Sonic’s Rings and Mario’s Coins, items that let me survive longer, making game completion more achievable; Sonic’s Emeralds which changed endings; the many arbitrary icons and photo points in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas that gave me access to tools in-game; Battle Trophies in Star Ocean: Till the End of Time that gave me costumes and difficulty levels; Legendary weapons in countless RPGs; Bestiary entries; and more modernly, PS3 Trophies and Xbox Achievements.

And what have I learned from years of collecting items with little-to-no real world value? Collecting things makes you feel good… as long as:
            A) you feel you earned them.
            B) you feel that what you got was worth the effort put into it.

So what does this mean from a design standpoint?

As designers, it’s our job to make whatever collectibles we put into a game as lucrative to get as possible. A collectible with no meaning is a waste of time to collect and will only be a source of frustration to our players. At the same time, if we make them lucrative to collect, the challenge to get them should reflect that. A large reward without any risk is just a gift, which may be nice, but really is equally meaningless.

Effort vs. Reward vs. Meaning
It’s easy to see examples of games that can fit all over the above chart. MMOs and RPGs and any other game that relies on percentage chances for rewards often force players to put in a lot of effort for variable value rewards. “Get me 5 rat tails for this Health Potion”. In itself, it’s a low-effort task – rats are easy to kill. But when a rat doesn’t always drop a tail, suddenly the task has become tedious as you have to kill 50 rats for the 1/10 drop. Some developers may feel that this increases gameplay time, but I’m of the school of thought that if something needs to be earned, then it is better to make the challenge harder, not longer. As such, Tedium can be considered to reduce the value of a reward. If a reward is high effort and high reward, but extremely tedious, then it should be treated as though the reward is actually lowered.

On the other side of the graph, we look at achievements that are “earned” without having to do anything. Without naming any titles, there has been numerous mentions of games that give the entire set of Achievements by just completing each stage – and the stages aren’t particularly difficult either. Sure, people who care all about their score will pick up these titles to abuse the system, but really what do those points mean if they are getting them without actually achieving anything? Isn’t the act of achieving something the meaning of Achievements?

Finally, there is the top of the graph, the area at the top of the Meaning axis. This area is the hardest to give examples for because Meaning means different things to different people. In its purest sense it is the sense of accomplishment – getting the high score, getting the 100% completion, getting the uber weapon - whatever it may be, it is different for each game and for each player. Not every game has a collectible in this area, though the games that are considered the most satisfying by fans and critics alike always do. Having an abundance of high-meaning collectibles for a game can prolong its life – even the classics from the 8-bit and 16-bit eras have fans constantly coming back for those 100% completion runs because they feel good to achieve.

So in conclusion, collectibles are definitely an important part of the design process and one that should take a lot of thought by the design team. Collectibles need to have meaning for them to be worth getting and to give them meaning, the effort to get the collectible and the reward from getting the collectable have to be balanced. If games have meaningful collectibles, then they will enjoy longevity by people who have earned the sense of satisfaction.

Ryon Levitt is a programmer-turned-designer for TECMO KOEI CANADA, with about 3 years of credited design experience.  Ryon is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG, and helped coin the acronym GDAM.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

October 2010 Poll

Please vote for the October 2010 topic!  As always, feel free to suggest more topics!

Also, podcasts may return in the near future!

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

  • Puzzles
  • Sequels
  • No More War Games?
No More War Games?
Videogames have a heritage in that they were constructed from display technologies developed because of the Cold War. The first games all resembled some form of war simulation (with Pong being an exception), what would it take to skirt this trend and start developing games that do not revolve around war?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

September 2010: Collection and Completion

September 2010's topic, Collection and Completion, was submitted by game designer Doug Hill.

Doug writes:

From munching dots in Pac-Man to unlocking achievements and trophies in the hottest new AAA game for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, the act of collecting and completing has been a central part of video games for over three decades now.

The collection and completion design is clearly one of the most tried and true mechanics for adding longevity to the video game experience – but is it flavor or filler? Do collecting and completing enhance our design, or are we distracting players from the real heart of our games' designs?

In this month's topic, Game Design Aspect of the Month wants to explore the means and the method behind this core mechanic in so many games. Here are some potential topics to explore:
  • How can we implement 'collection and completion' mechanics that enhance the quality of our games rather than distract from it? Is it possible?
  • How does the 'collection and completion' mechanic affect player psychology? Is driving our players to complete every collection healthy or detrimental?
  • What are some of the key characteristics that make 'collection and completion'-centric games (such as Pokemon) so successful? Does it lie with the mechanic and how it is implemented, or is it found elsewhere?
Doug Hill is a freelance game designer and writer who has worked on a variety of published video games over the past ten years. His current focus is developing intellectual property for use in both interactive and non-interactive media.

Friday, August 27, 2010

September 2010 Poll

Please vote for the September 2010 topic!  As always, feel free to suggest more topics!

You'll see the poll to the right. The choices are:
  • Cheats
  • Collecting & Completion
  • No More War Games?
Collecting & Completion
Many games attempt to hook players with short and long term goals to collect within games, whether it is a series of items or emblems, characters and captured creatures, or simply achievements. Do these elements enhance our designs, or are we cheating our designs by diverting attention from them?

No More War Games?
Videogames have a heritage in that they were constructed from display technologies developed because of the Cold War. The first games all resembled some form of war simulation (with Pong being an exception), what would it take to skirt this trend and start developing games that do not revolve around war?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Coming AR Revolution

In this article, alternate reality game designer and writer Andrea Phillips discusses the near-future of augmented reality games.

Here in 2010, the sizzle is all about mobile games, social games, location-based games. I’ll forgive you if you’re a little tired of hearing about them. But you’d better get used to it; these trends are just getting started. Just wait until you see what’s coming down the pike for 2020! I’m talking about the coming revolution in augmented reality games.

These games will allow you to interact with real and virtual environments at the same time, overlaying visual or auditory data on your real-world experiences. If you’ve seen Minority Report or Iron Man, you’ve got the right general idea – gestural interfaces and computer-generated images floating in the air. Sure, there’s some Hollywood magic in there; hologram tech, for example, isn’t quite ready for prime time. But real tech companies are working on building devices that can deliver experiences just as amazing, if not more so.

Surprisingly, these Hollywood portrayals of AR don’t show you the real possibilities that come when you take the tech and make it mobile. Just imagine the games you could make with a system like that! (To get you started, you can take a look at some of the games I’ve predicted already. Or just read Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge.) I don’t know about you, but the game design possibilities make me positively giddy.

So how do we get there?

The biggest hurdle to augmented reality games are the same hurdles that mobile games have only recently overcome. The technology needs to be in the hands of a critical mass of potential players, which means it needs to be cheap, easy to use, and absolutely reliable. And it needs to be powerful enough to deliver a compelling gaming experience, of course.

We’re already on our way. Most smartphones are powerful enough to deliver great games already. The limiting factor in many mobile games is input/output -- screen real estate, not CPU. And these problems are well on their way to being solved.

Companies like Vuzix are already working on transparent AR glasses, so you can interact with the real world and the virtual at the same time. The MIT Media Lab is developing projects like SixthSense, which can turn the whole world – even your body – into input devices.

These may seem clunky and impossible right now, but in ten years’ time, the technology will become lighter, lighter, cheaper, and near-ubiquitous. Our precedent here is Bluetooth. It took about ten years for the now-common headsets to percolate into the mainstream; now, you can’t walk into a supermarket without seeing one.

The first warning shots of the AR gaming revolution have already been fired. Games like The Hidden Park, Kweekies, and Level Head all demonstrate some of the novel possibilities for games yet to come. And companies like Mirascape are building the gaming platforms of the future. As the tech gets better, the games will, too.

We’re not there yet; a lot of the AR work out there currently amounts to cunningly engineered party tricks. But the AR revolution is definitely coming, and I mean to be ready for it. Will you?

Andrea Phillips is a freelance alternate reality game designer and writer, and has worked on projects like the award-winning Perplex City, True Blood’s Blood Copy campaign, and Channel 4’s She writes about games and digital culture at Deus Ex Machinatio.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Learning Through Classic Games

In this article, writer and game designer Sande Chen urges game design students to take a look at classic video games.

A few weekends ago, I participated in a Playpower workshop to create 8-bit games for children in developing countries.  It turns out that the patents on these old systems have long gone, so Chinese manufacturers have been churning them out and selling them for the equivalent of $10 each.  Who would have known that 8-bit systems were still popular as ever in parts of India or Africa? Outside of the demoscene and video game console collectors, there's probably no one tinkering with a NES or Atari 2600 in the U.S.
Photo: © Imelda Katarahardja  Reprinted with permission

But, we all know the games from that era.  Games like Pac-Man or Asteroids.  These classic games have endured the test of time to become cultural icons.  It seems like more and more of these classic games are being re-released on Steam, XBLA, or Good Old Games.  Game design students should be rejoicing.

In the past, I have had one game design student tell me that he was glad he was born after that era so he didn't have to play games with stinky graphics.

The thing is...  the graphics shouldn't matter to a game design student. Photo-realistic graphics may enhance the game experience, but a game can be a great game even if your ship is an isosceles triangle.  Speaking at the recent Gamesauce conference, game designer Kent Hudson remarked that Jason Rohrer's game Passage, even with its low-rez graphics, had a deep emotional resonance for him.

Furthermore, great game design is about dealing with constraints.  Stripped of the glitzy graphics and orchestral soundtrack, a game stands and falls on its design.  The Playpower workshop outlined the many limitations faced by the original game designers.  Just think:  your watch or cell phone may be (and probably is) more powerful than an original NES.  Yet, people are still playing and enjoying classic games.  That's why game design students should be studying these classic games so they, in turn, can make enduring classic games for the next generation of game design students. 

But take a step further:  If you're up for a challenge, consider signing up and making a 8-bit game for Playpower.  The Playpower Foundation wants games of educational value, but hey, that's just another game design constraint :)  After all, your game may just become the monster hit of the developing world.

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.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

August 2010: Design 2020: Imagining the Future of Gaming

August 2010's topic, Design 2020: Imagining the Future of Gaming, was submitted by game designer Ryon Levitt with contributions from game designer Josh Sutphin. 

Join us and discuss the possibilities of the next 10 years of game design.

What major innovations will this decade bring? What tiresome trends will stubbornly cling to life? What old genres will we see resurrected and which current ones will die?

Will there be a revolution against the current corporate models that will turn around what is mainstream and what is indie? Will we all be out of jobs? Or will we all be making Holodecks?

With all the new tech that keeps popping up, and the changes in view of what is a good game for value, what do YOU think will be the future of gaming?

Ryon Levitt is a programmer-turned-designer for TECMO KOEI CANADA, with about 3 years of credited design experience.  Ryon is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG, and helped coin the acronym GDAM.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

SCUMM: The Joys of Exploration (Part II)

In Part I, postdoctoral researcher Clara Fernández-Vara elaborates on the influential design decisions that have made SCUMM adventure games just as engaging today as they were a decade ago.  In Part II, she explains the impact of those decisions.

Solving the puzzles is not a matter of “a thousand deaths” any more, but of learning more about the world. There is a lot of information that we can obtain by talking to characters or exploring the objects. One of my favourite examples is the Important Looking Pirates at the SCUMM bar at the beginning of Monkey Island. You can talk to them and get a lot of information about the island where the game starts. These characters inform you of what your immediate goals: become a master of thievery, sword fighting and finding treasure. The player does not have to talk to them to advance in the game, but since it’s one of the first accessible locations, it’s also one of the first things the player will do.

Even if there is a specific sequence of steps that the player has to follow to advance in the game, the player is free to explore the areas of the world that are open. At the beginning of Loom, for example, the player can explore the different tents of the weavers before going into the temple, where the events of the story will be triggered off. It provides the player with the impression of false freedom that other genres strive to achieve. Yes, there is one path that the player must follow, which usually coincides with the preset events in the story. But the player can take her time to explore the world, probe it, and be surprised (any shop or a cluttered room in a SCUMM game is guaranteed to have a couple of fun Easter eggs).

The absence of “game over” states before the story has actually been completed has its downsides as well. The first and more obvious is that for some players it may be easy to get lost in the world, forgetting what the short and long term goals of the game are. Dying in the game provides immediate and clear feedback to the player: “you shouldn’t be doing that.” It may be frustrating, but it is very effective. In adventure games, the player progresses by solving a series of problems in a specific way, which is one of the keys to bring together the story and the game design. If the player can explore the world, the pacing will slow down, to the point that it can also be very easy to lose sight of what to do next. Day of the Tentacle, with all its fantastic puzzle design, has a bit of this problem, since there are so many threads the player can and must pursue simultaneously.

Point-and-click adventure games are notorious for often turning into clickfests, where players click around try every verb with every possible character or combining everything with everything. The SCUMM games are not impervious to having players clicking around, since it is almost natural player behaviour once one feels stuck in a game and does not know what to do next. Many adventure games seem to have been designed under the assumption that it’s what players will do. SCUMM games, however, often do an great job of letting the player know what may be clicked on and what not by giving visual cues. More importantly, the design of these games tries to prevent clickfests by actually providing clear goals to the player at the beginning of the game. Bernard, one of the player characters of Day of the Tentacle, has the following exchange with Dr. Fred:
Bernard: “Now what am I going to do?”
Dr. Fred: “I think I made myself perfectly clear. Step one: find plans. Step two: save world. Step three: get out of my house!”
The first step is the immediate goal of the player, finding the battery plans, which must be sent back in time so Hoagie, the character trapped in the past, can build it and start up his time machine. Saving the world is the ultimate goal in the game, and getting out is the end of the game.

The SCUMM games are usually good at giving cues to the player to the right solution to a puzzle. The cueing is very subtle, and requires the player to read the text attentively, which is part of the challenge. The game design thus depends a lot on the writing. The text is not only fun, it must provide the information the player needs. There are few “hunt the pixel” puzzles, and more “pay attention to what you read”, thus rewarding observant players. In The Secret of Monkey Island, the prisoner Otis has halitosis, so the player character Guybrush will not talk to him. Otis says “It’s hard to keep my breath minty-fresh when there’s nothing to eat in here but rats.” The player gets a hint right there about what to do: finding breath mints (which can be found in the general store nearby). Once his breath is refreshed, Guybrush will talk to Otis, who explains that he’s in jail for tampering with certain flowers in the forest, called Caniche Endormi. The player can find those flowers in the forest; a basic knowledge of French will make the player realize that the name of the flowers means “sleeping poodle.” There is indeed a pack of fierce poodles guarding the mansion of the Governor, and the player has to get them out of the way. Flowers do not have the inherent property of putting people or dogs to sleep, so it’s not knowledge the designer can expect from the player. That’s why the game provides the player with the (subtle) information needed to solve the puzzle.

Adventure games where the player character did not die have become the norm nowadays. From Myst to the recent Machinarium or Ceville, thanks to SCUMM adventure games discovered the potential as games which encourage exploration and let players figure them out at their own pace. It’s a different type of gaming, more suited for players that enjoy story-driven games and thinking their actions through rather than using twitch skills. In the end, their enduring appeal comes from a set of generally solid game design.

Clara Fernández-Vara is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. Her work concentrates on adventure games, as well as the integration of stories in simulated environments.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

SCUMM: The Joys of Exploration (Part I)

In Part I of this article, postdoctoral researcher Clara Fernández-Vara elaborates on the influential design decisions that have made SCUMM adventure games just as engaging today as they were a decade ago.

The release of Maniac Mansion in 1987 became a milestone in the history of videogames. Although the game itself was quite popular, what is important for us is the framework developed for it: the Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion, more popularly known by its acronym, SCUMM. The significance of SCUMM is not the scripting itself, but a series of design decisions that have had a tremendous influence on adventure games, even to this day.

The two first Monkey Island games and Loom have been re-released for modern platforms, with new graphics in the case of Monkey Island, and they are as engaging as ever. Why are these games so good, even today? One of the obvious answers is that they were well written, had memorable characters, and were fun, even though not all of them were comedies (see Loom or The Dig). Some of their stories are as engaging as a good movie. However, just focusing on the writing overlooks their actual design, which is what we care about. The SCUMM games created a design model that encourages exploration and experimentation in the game world, a model whose influence extends to games currently released.

The SCUMM games are distinguished by a lack rather than a design feature: the player character cannot die. This was not completely true of their earlier games (Maniac Mansion, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure), but soon it became the design statement of the Lucasfilm adventure games. Loom explained this in its manual:
“We believe that you buy games to be entertained, not to be whacked over the head every time you make a mistake. So we don’t bring the game to a screeching halt when you poke your nose into a place you haven’t visited before. Unlike conventional computer adventures, you won’t find yourself accidentally stepping off a path, or dying because you’ve picked up a sharp object.

We think you’d prefer to solve the game’s mysteries by exploring and discovering, not by dying a thousand deaths.”
This design decision was a reaction against the traditional adventure game model inherited from Adventure and Infocom interactive fiction, amongst others, and perpetuated by contemporary Sierra adventure games. These games had “game over” states, like arcade or console games. The player had to die a lot to learn how to solve a specific puzzle, often without forewarning. Although the death messages could be fun (think if Infocom’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Sierra’s Space Quest series), dying just because the player was examining something or you entered a new room could get very frustrating. Adventure game design entails a contract between the player and the designer, the designer poses the challenges, and the player must have all the information needed to solve them; that information is usually obtained by exploring the world. It’s a matter of fairness: if the designer is forces a game over state to provide information about what not to do, it is somewhat abusing the position of power. On the other hand, if the player has the information and makes a mistaken choice, it can encourage the player to decide what to do more carefully.

Knowing that the player character cannot die in the game encourages players to explore the world. One of the reasons why players remember the writing in the Lucasarts games is not only because it’s well executed and funny, but because the overall design of the game encouraged the player to talk to everybody and examine every object. The game provided fascinating worlds that the player was encouraged to explore by the design of the game.

Clara Fernández-Vara is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. Her work concentrates on adventure games, as well as the integration of stories in simulated environments.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

August 2010 Poll

Please vote for the August 2010 topic!

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

  • Cheats
  • Design 2020
  • Augmented/Alternate Reality Games
Please vote by July 21. Thank you!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

July 2010: In Search of Old School Fun

July 2010's topic, In Search of Old School Fun, was submitted by game designer Michael Lubker.

He writes:

We all love games from old-school names like Maxis, Sierra, Mecc, LucasArts (SCUMM days), Apogee, Impressions, MicroProse, Ensemble, etc. This topic discusses what's changed in the days since then and how difficulty levels, graphical complexity, popularity of genres and business models all change the perception of "fun" both from a business and gameplay perspective.

  • What makes these games good? Is it just nostalgia or is there something missing since games went 3D/ultra-realistic?
  • Why do we not see this realism trend in Asian games (besides Square Enix)?
  • What could bring the adventure genre back (more than just remaking old games or getting licenses (i.e. Nancy Drew, Back to the Future) ?
  • Why is graphical complexity important? Look at all the great games on Kongregate that aren't graphically complex.
  • Are the hardcore as hardcore as they used to be? A lot of old games seem punishing now.
  • Why are we seeing a return of arcade-style business models and why now?
  • Are there ways to make the old school games appeal to the mainstream?
Why game designers are/should be interested:

The industry is in flux and designers are conflicted in choices of
audience appeal and making a "fun" and challenging game... but for

Michael Lubker is an executive producer and designer at Axelo Inc, currently finishing up his first 2 games in a production/design position. He has also worked in QA on The Sims Castaway Stories,
Supreme Commander, and 1701AD Gold. He also was a founding advisor for the Independent Game Conference, is co-coordinator of the IGDA Indie SIG, and is a coordinator for the Global Game Jam in Austin, TX, where he helped produce a working XNA/Xbox 360 title in 48 hours.

Monday, June 21, 2010

July 2010 Poll

Please vote for the July 2010 topic!

You'll see the poll to the right. The choices are:
  • Sequels
  • Cheats
  • In Search of Old School Fun
Please vote by June 28. Thank you!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Faking an Economy (Part II)

In Part I, MMO developer Brian Green points out that a realistic economic simulation in a MMO may not actually be possible or even fun for the players.  In Part II, he explains how to create a game economy that maximizes fun.

To discuss economic adjustments, we need to have a design for the economy. The traditional and perhaps simplest design for a game economy is called "faucets and drains". In this design, you have sources of income (the faucets) and ways that income can be spent to the game (the drains). Typical faucets include rewards from quests or missions and items of value acquired from defeated enemies. Drains include consumables that must be used in the game, customization options, and taxes such as auction house fees, equipment repairs, etc. Note that faucets only include the situations where the game creates money, and drains only include the situations where the system takes money out of the system.

In the theoretically ideal economy, the faucets and drains should be equal. A player should be spending money as fast as they make it to prevent inflation. However, this isn't terribly fun as we mentioned before. Players want to make a bit more money than they spend, so that they can have a feeling of mastery over or helpfulness in the game. So, ideally, you should deal with a bit of inflation but should avoid hyperinflation, or the rapid increase in money leading to the value of each unit of currency decreasing significantly.

How can a designer balance the economy to maximize fun? It's important to include the proper tools to observe and adjust the economy. Metrics to show the velocity of goods and currency in your game are good to have. Even simply knowing how much money the top earners in your game have in order to track changes from day to day can help give a feel for how the economy is working on a practical level. Your game should then have tools to adjust the economic factors based on your measurements. Being able to increase or decrease randomized rewards, such as the valuable items and currency obtained from defeating an enemy, is important. Adjusting the prices that NPC charge for basic commodities is also useful, especially if you need to give newer players the ability to catch up to more established players. Another tactic is to introduce special deals in the game world for a short period of time; having a special auction of rare items for in-game currency can help reduce some of the excess money in the world. Finally, use your metrics to help notice potential bugs, such as the ability to duplicate money or abuse an NPC's faulty buying or selling routines to earn easy cash. A sudden increase in money supply can indicate the presence of such bugs.

What about the economy that happens between players such as posting goods on the auction hall, crafting, and the like? It's important to remember that a player buying an item at auction isn't really spending the money in terms of the economy, the money is just being transferred from one player to another. Except for taxes such as a fee for posting and/or selling goods, buying an item from an auction isn't a drain in terms of the game economy. However, the game economy and the level of inflation can affect the player to player economy. Players with more money, such as experienced players creating alternate characters ("alts"), will be able to offer more money for similar items compared to a player with less money.

A major component of the player to player economy is usually crafting, or the creation of usable goods from raw materials gathered by the player. This encourages some economic activity as players collect the raw materials and sell those to other players, then as the crafters create the finished product and sell that to others. In general, a game designer won't have to worry too much about this system since players will tend to find an equilibrium point for prices based on the state of the economy. The biggest game design challenge is to limit the creation of raw materials if limits on the number of craftable items; this is similar to limiting the amount of items obtained from other sources that players may want to sell to each other. The second major issue to consider is how fun crafting is. Most players expect a crafting profession that they have invested time into to be useful and even profitable for them. For example, if they have to create 100 level 1 items to get access to level 2 items, they will expect an NPC to buy those level 1 items for some amount of money, for at least as much as the fixed costs of vendor-purchased materials. Making players craft at a loss of income will make crafting unattractive and unfun in a game.

In conclusion, a designer needs to make the game economy fun. Adding controls to the game economy allows the designer some control over the money supply to adjust inflationary pressures. The game economy affects the player to player economy, but a designer has significantly less control over this; on the other hand, players tend to adjust this economy themselves since it usually operates outside of the game system. The biggest issue a designer has to worry about in a player economy is adjusting how often a player can acquire something that others may want to buy. Ultimately, a simulation may be more realistic, but it might not be more fun for the players. Sometimes you just gotta fake it.

Brian Green, known by the pseudonym Psychochild, is an experienced MMO developer. He's best known as the former developer of the classic online MMO Meridian 59 and as the writer for his professional blog.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Faking an Economy (Part I)

In Part I of this article, MMO developer Brian Green points out that a realistic economic simulation in a MMO may not actually be possible or even fun for the players.

Psst. Hey, do you fake it? It's okay, you can confide in me, I won't tell them. I'll admit, I prefer to fake it when I can; it's just a lot more fun that way.

...I'm talking about multiplayer economies! What did you think I was talking about?!

In a multiplayer game, there are actually two different economies: the economy of the game which determines how money enters and leaves the system, and the player to player economy that determines the prices that players will pay each other for goods and services. These two economies are separate but related. I'll focus first on the game economy because that is what designers have the most control over.

The main problem with economics is that few sane people would consider it fun, especially in the context of a game. Who here likes balancing their checkbook? I bet many readers at one time just checked your bank balance on occasion and hoped for the best when a big expense (or party) occurred. So, why should designers make players balance virtual checkbooks to manage their gold pieces? It's just not much fun.

Some people will say that they prefer a simulation of an economy in a game. A designer really needs to consider if a "realistic" economy really does benefit the game. I think that most simulations end up
being terribly unrealistic because people generally don't treat in-game currency like offline money. You also have all sorts of bugs that don't turn up in the offline world; one of my favorite bugs from Meridian 59 was when an non-player character (NPC) gem seller would buy back gems for more than he sold them for under certain circumstances. The NPC was programmed to accept this unfair deal with no reservations, whereas a human businessperson would probably have stopped even the first transaction from taking place.

What does it mean to make the economy fun? From an economic point of view, players have fun in a few ways. Gaining power is fun because it shows mastery of the game; this is usually the point of most multiplayer games with economies in them. Similarly, just getting new items can be fun if they give you new options to play with. Helping other people, particularly your friends, can be enjoyable for people who want to be a positive influence on others. In all these situations, players will want more than enough money to accomplish these things: getting more power (which includes accumulating more money), getting new options (usually in the form of items), and helping others out.

However, if everyone is making money and the money supply continually increases, then you have inflation. Everyone has more money to offer to acquire goods or services they want from other players, driving up the prices for items without a fixed cost. This can have some negative impacts on the game, most notably it becomes harder for new players to participate in the player to player economy since they will usually earn less money than experienced players. Increasing prices also mean that players might become interested in acquiring money with less effort, such as from gold sellers that can affect MMOs. (A discussion of the morality of gold selling is beyond the scope of this post, but let’s agree that it causes issues the designer needs to address.)

Brian Green, known by the pseudonym Psychochild, is an experienced MMO developer. He's best known as the former developer of the classic online MMO Meridian 59 and as the writer for his professional blog.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

First Five Minutes: How Tutorials Make or Break Your Social Game (Part II)

In Part I, lead social designer Aki Jarvinen explains why the first five minutes of a social game needs to engage players right away.  In Part II, he gives guidelines on how to design tutorials that accommodate, assimilate, and accelerate players into a social game. 

Tutorial as a set of metrics

As a sequence of steps where the player is guided by hand to click from one step to the next, social games’ tutorials create a funnel where less than 100% of those who start go all the way to the end. The rate of this kind of leakage is commonly called drop off rate, whereas a player who has finished the tutorial and keeps on playing is added to the conversion rate .

In general, conversion rates with social game tutorials are higher than with other apps, as game mechanics are generally more rewarding than most other applications. Third-party services, such as KISSmetrics, Kontagent, and MixPanel, offer tools for analyzing the funnels of your game. Mixpanel has reported that with social games, if the user advances beyond the second step, over 90% of the users stay for the whole tutorial, even if it has a significant number of steps. This is considerably higher than with other types of Facebook applications, which testifies for the pull of games in online social networks.

Funnel analysis is useful for identifying bottlenecks in the tutorial flow: Possible steps where players drop off due to getting stuck, losing their interest, or something similar. Yet behavior within steps, for instance whether players read the text content of the tutorial, is difficult to be measure, and therefore the reasons for what causes a bottleneck in the tutorial funnel might be ambiguous. Moreover, the funnel should be treated as a sequence more than the sum of its parts: If you are not able to produce an engaging tutorial, perhaps there is something in need of fixing in your game itself.

Tutorial design guidelines

The structure of your game as a product, i.e. how it fuses gameplay and monetization, does have consequences for the focus of the tutorial. In case the game is primarily about individual matches between players (e.g. a Wild Ones by Playdom), and only secondarily about a persistent, over-arching goal structure, then a possibility to re-access the tutorial in the form of practice is important for player engagement and retention.

The structure of the table also suggests a design framework for social game tutorials, with a set of constraints concerning length, start and end states, and the structure with which the core game mechanics are introduced. If we return to the notion of onboarding, at least traces of the three steps of accommodation, assimilation, and acceleration can be found in all of the tutorials.

The following aspects are of particular use when thinking about your social game’s tutorial flow:

o How do you kickstart the player into the core mechanics?
o What resources and mechanics should be available?
o Who is tutoring the player, and what is the tone of voice?

o In what situation is the player left?
o Is there punctuation to the end of the tutorial, an uplifting crescendo that leaves the player positively hanging?
o Are there incentives to instantly carry on? Is something left ‘cooking’ so that the player wants to return and smell the kitchen?
o Does the UI ‘beg’ to continue clicking, i.e. does it leave the player into a middle of a flow that he is curious and engaged enough to carry through?

Structure & Length:
o What are the core mechanics and incentives the player is presented, and in which order?
o How much of the core mechanics can be communicated in the first 60 seconds?
o How many steps are there in your tutorial funnel? What is the overall average duration players are supposed to spend with the tutorial?
o Is this in line with the complexity of your game?
o Are there bottlenecks you could streamline or remove – perhaps make a gamble that a shorter tutorial springboards the player into a commitment where learning the advanced mechanics and features organically grows from repeated plays?

Tutorials evolve through metrics and the service aspect

Nailing the tutorial both in terms of the funnel and the learning experience at a certain point of the product lifecycle does not mean the work ends there - developing social games is about constant design, redesign, implementation and deployment of new features and content. In effect, players need to be told about new features, which might mean that revisions of tutorials or 'mini-tutorials' are needed. Nevertheless, this should be seen as a positive aspect of the service business process where social game design and development is embedded.

Robert Cialdini. Influence. Psychology of persuasion.
Suhail Doshi. How to Analyze Traffic Funnels and Retention in Facebook Applications.
Christian Crumlish &; Erin Malone. Designing Social Interfaces.
Eitan Glinert. Upping your game’s Usability.

[This article was excerpted and modified from an article of the same title on Gamasutra.]

Aki Jarvinen, Ph.D, is the Lead Social Designer at Digital Chocolate, with a decade of experience from creating casual game experience through mobile, gambling, and online games. He is writing a book about social games - you can follow the progress here.  

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

First Five Minutes: How Tutorials Make or Break Your Social Game (Part I)

In this article, lead social designer Aki Jarvinen explains why the first five minutes of a social game needs to engage players right away.

In a marketplace that appeals to casual gaming sensibility, such as Facebook, competitors and distractions are literally one spontaneous click away. If a social game does not manage to spell out its rules of attraction in the first few minutes, the player has already moved on. In-game tutorials have become the way to kickstart players into social play.

Introduction: Tutorials and the Freemium business model

As the freemium business model is becoming de facto standard in social games, the key design features factoring into acquiring and retaining players are shifting. Developers can no longer trust that their players will make the effort of learning the ropes of their game through a set of challenges, just because they have spent tens of dollars to get the game at their hands.

Because players of social games do not fork out money to have the chance to try out a game, their time is of precious quantity. Therefore developers need to catch and hold their attention both through viral spread and gameplay itself. The core mechanics and social benefits of the game need to be sold to the players in a matter of minutes. Otherwise, they might never come back.

Tutorials as entry points to the user interface

Introducing a tutorial is a way to facilitate overcoming the familiar cold-start problem of a social game: Often a literally empty grid and possibly empty friends list. Therefore a number of user interface indicators are needed to communicate the game’s core mechanics, enticing players into executing them. Some players might get on with this, by pure exploration, but for those regarding themselves as non-gamers, a tutorial is in place.

In their book Designing Social Interfaces, Christian Crumlish and Erin Malone write about 'onboarding', i.e. the process, which helps people to get started and oriented with a web site. Much of their points are valid in social game development as well: When a Facebook user follows a link to the game, he is essentially taken a leap of faith, and needs to be guided by hand to get on board with the game - something especially relevant for non-gamers.

The notion of onboarding originates from human resource management. Crumlish and Malone identify three key steps in onboarding: Accommodate, assimilate, and accelerate. In terms of games, accommodation is about giving the necessary tools to the player, i.e. the necessary game mechanics & resources to start with. Assimilation gains a specific meaning from the context of the social network: It accounts for assimilation into the progress of one's friends playing the game, and the benefits from playing parallel to your friends. Acceleration then is about getting the player to engage with the game's full feature set and its possibilities.

Successful tutorials create the curiosity gap

This is particularly relevant in social games, which rely on the 'initiate & wait' type of game mechanics. This dynamic brings along the challenge of easing the player from the strongly sequential tutorial flow to asynchoronous gameplay, where something significant happens only after a certain time interval. If an empty plot does not ‘beg’ for seeds, play might stop right there, unless virality or friends manage to pull the player back. How to help your player across this gap in your social game is the first step for retention – this can be either by the means of user interface, or viral, and/or social design.

Sid Meier, in his recent GDC talk, was reportedly emphasizing how the first 15 minutes of a game have to be engaging, rewarding, fun, and foreshadow the rest of the game. In social games, tutorials try to get players engaged right from the start, towards those crucial 15 minutes – or even a shorter playtime.

In game design terms, this is about clear communication of an overall goal and the subgoals, and giving the player always something to do. In social games, this takes a turn towards marketing-like techniques of influence, such as creating scarcity and the so-called curiosity gap through, e.g. locked features and levels. The gap functions as an addictive pull that makes players continue and come back.

Tutoring for viral spread and monetization

There is another reason for tutorials' abundance in social games, stemming from the freemium model. The developers need to initiate their players into the monetization options, i.e. virtual goods, gameplay assists, etc. This need becomes evident in the visit to the in-game store, which is frequently included in social game tutorials. If the money is to be sunk to the game, the money sinks need to be part of the core mechanics, but whether they should be integrated to the tutorial needs to be carefully considered.

[This article was excerpted and modified from an article of the same title on Gamasutra.]

Aki Jarvinen, Ph.D, is the Lead Social Designer at Digital Chocolate, with a decade of experience from creating casual game experience through mobile, gambling, and online games. He is writing a book about social games - you can follow the progress here

Monday, June 7, 2010

June 2010: Multiplayer Economies

June 2010's topic, Multiplayer Economies, was submitted by game designer Sande Chen.

She writes:

Games have always had an economy or at least the semblance of an economy. In the ye olden days of single-player RPGs, you trucked your loot to the local merchant and used the gold you earned from it to purchase upgrades. Economies were more socialist by nature: prices were determined by the designer and not governed by any capitalist notions of supply and demand. Usually, the sale price was outrageously low while the purchase price was outrageously high. It was a system of inputs and outputs.

Nowadays, with auction houses and with game companies taking over what used to be the domain of eBay and other third-party intermediaries, players are used to a more dynamic in-game economy. Economies have become more sophisticated. Microtransactions have led to the development of dual currencies: one for in-game transactions and the other for funneling real-world money into the mix. Designers must adapt with the times.

Here are some questions for thought:
  • What are the challenges in designing for games with several monetization schemes?
  • Do players have different expectations based on monetization schemes?
  • How do you deal with on-going fluxes in the economy?
  • Do you prefer an open or closed economy?
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.

Monday, May 31, 2010


Apologies...  It appears we've missed the entire month of May!  It's obvious that we need some help, so here is our Call for Editors notice again in case you were interested in the responsibilities.

Call for Editors

GDAM wants to strengthen its team of editors and would like to hear from individuals who would be interested in joining us. Routine tasks of GDAM Editors include:
  • Developing or taking care of incoming topic suggestions
  • Acting as contact points for writers and assisting them during article submissions
  • Editing and preparing articles for publication
  • Participating in the production and publication of GDAM podcasts
  • Promoting GDAM via various communication platforms
A certain level of commitment is expected.

Also, we'd like to implement a change to Game Design Aspect of the Month that hopefully will make the site change for the better rather than the worse.  We've heard that sometimes the month goes by and an article doesn't get written up in time.  But, the topic is still interesting to some people.  So, rather than let our old topics lay to waste, we will start accepting articles from previous months' topics.  However, the priority will always be on the current topic of the month!

What do you think?  Let us know.