Sunday, September 23, 2012

A penny for your thoughts, a hundred for your life

In this article, game developer Ben McGraw offers advice on designing power-ups based on his observations of indie game platformers.

I’ve spent the last 12 years of my life as a member of the verge community. And I’ve learned a thing or two from watching a few hundred game demos fly by.

Let’s talk about platformers and power ups today. 

The Master

In Shigeru Miyamoto’s games (Mario, Zelda, infinite others), the enemies all have some unique gimmick. Each one has a distinct movement pattern and/or ability in a combination that no other enemy has:
  • Goomba : charge forward. Fire is Fatal.
  • Koopa: charge forward, plus Shell Special. Fire is Fatal.
  • Para Koopa: bounces while in Parakoopa mode, or hovers back and forth. if stomped, becomes Koopa. Fire is Fatal.
  • Spiny: Cannot be stomped. Fire is Fatal.
  • Buzzy Beetle: fireproof. Shell Special if Stomped.
  • Lakitu: usually out of reach, shoots Spinys. Fire is Fatal.
  • Podoboo: Unkillable timing hazard.
  • Piranha Plant: Unstompable timing hazard. Fire is Fatal.
  • Bullet Bill: travels in a stright line, ignoring obstructions. Fireproof.
  • Cheep-Cheep: Special ability: TO BE THE MOST ANNOYING FUCKING THING EVER. Flies diagonally upwards at high velocity.
  • Hammer Bros.: Shoot projectiles towards you in a parabolic arc. 

Each of these separate enemies has a different modus operandi that alters how the player deals with them.

Reality marches in

When I’ve played indie games towards the low end of the quality spectrum, I’ve noticed a tendency to ignore this simple design tenet. On more than one occasion I’ve encountered the Monster, and then the Palette-Swapped Monster, and then the Yet-Again-Palette-Swapped Monster. At our luckiest, they will be of increasing speed or variable hit points instead of exactly the same gameplay-wise; At our unluckiest, they will be brokenly faster or tougher.
If video games exist to make you feel like a rockstar, then power-ups are the nosecandy that fuel you and alter your world for a short time until it all comes crashing down. And then you will do anything to get another one.
Unless you’re targetting masochistic assholes with your game (which you may!), making your game insanely hard is a losing strategy. You will alienate your players. Your game will not be fun.

A lot of the time in Mario 1, the level design was built specifically around the enemies. Lakitu levels were designed for Lakitu, low and flat so he was a hazard, with occasional moderate-difficulty jumps for the opportunity to take that bitch out.

Similarly, the SMB powerups all did specific things. The Super Mushroom gave you wiggle-room HP, and was required for firepower, which was helpful against most enemies, and necessary against a few. Invincibility was rarely granted when you would’ve wanted it in SMB, but was a pleasant distraction; The player didn’t notice that it was almost never granted when needed, they were just pleased to be an all-powerful god for ten seconds.

Often when I see power-ups in beginners indie games, they aren’t as clearly black-and-white. Assuming that the power scale is held in check, you get temporary effects that are largely inconsequential for how you interact with the enemies or the levels. Whereas the super mushroom in SMB lets you break bricks and the Fire Flower lets you destroy previously unassailable enemies, these games trend more (again) towards speed increases, HP increases, and damage-inflicting buffs.

I assume that the low-end indie games trend this way because, programatically, these traits are the amoung the easiest and most straightforward to tweak.

I’ve come to believe over the years that a power up exists so you are eager to get it. Video Games exist to make the user feel badass, as the man once said, and becoming slightly more of what you were just isn’t badass. What’s badass in the context of platformers is killing the unkillable, or exploring what was previously unexplorable.

Hey guy! What should I do?

The easy-to-implement usually doesn’t equal fun for the player. Give thought to your level design, and how the player can interact with the levels. Hide tempting things in plain sight and then give them the power to grab that forbidden fruit by smashing a brick or jumping higher over a wall.

Do not fear Lack of Content. If you don’t have a really compelling reason to have a Red Slime and a Green Slime, just stick with the Green one. Super Mario Bros 1 had the plain, simple goomba in every world. It wasn’t compelled to make a color-shifted goomba that was faster or meaner.

Do not be afraid to have a short level. Do not be afraid to have a short game. As long as you’ve got some clever tricks and conceits that your levels are based around, you will entertain. If you artificially inflate your game just to be longer, you will bore.

Don’t bore your players, or they won’t be your players much longer.

[This article originally appeared on the Ben McGraw's Egometry.

Ben McGraw has been making freeware rpgs and tactics games since 1997 and is currently working on an old new title at  Silicon Valley calls him "Grue", and you can find him on the twitternets as @bengrue.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

March 2012: Immersion


So back in March 2012, there was a Poll and the topic selected was Immersion.

I was then asked, "Immersion in what sense?"  Usually, GDAM topics are fairly broad, which means you can bring your own interpretation to the topic.  If your article has anything to do with Immersion, then you should be fine.  The submission guidelines are here and feel free to suggest new Topics as well.

I used to stick to one topic per month so that we could have a conversation about it, but a few months back, that policy was changed.  So, you can look to the topics at right and send in anything that fits one of those.  In fact, I see that some topics like Cheats didn't get much love.

Most people think of Immersion in the storytelling sense.  Do you as a player believe in the world?  Are you enraptured by the play experience?  Or more importantly, does the story make sense?

However, someone else pointed out that Immersion could be about user interface.  Does the interface add or detract from the user experience?  Does it have to be exactly how it is in real life (or what you imagine it would be in real life)?

I remember there was once a somewhat noted (because it's funny) chatlog of a player trying out WWII Online for the first time and exclaiming that he had flown planes in real life and it wasn't as complicated.  Btw, if anyone has that link, please send it to me.

I also think about Assassin's Creed.  The interface was explained away in a sci-fi wrapper, but I really didn't like that.  I would rather be medieval assassin than a guy re-living ancestor memories.

What does Immersion mean to you?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Gameful Design (Part II)

In Part I of this article, game designer Chelsea Howe explains the difference between gameful design and gamification. In Part II, she lists more reasons why gameful design is more compelling than what's popularly known as gamification. 


Tokenizes social relationships

Creates & strengthens social relationships

In many social games and social services, gates are put onto mechanics that force you to be viral and connect with other players before you’re allowed to continue (for example, you need 3 friends to expand your land in FarmVille). This is tokenizing – or only considering how many connections you have, and not the type, depth, duration, or any number of other facets that make each human relationship unique. Almost every social network game is like this. Even Twitter is like this.

Tokenizing is not actually social. For something to be truly social, the experience of playing has to be different depending on who I’m playing with. Mechanically, social means other people impact the game meaningfully; they’re making interesting decisions and expressive choices too, and my game is unique because of their unique contribution to it.

Again, this comes down to remembering that people are people and not numbers in a DAU or CTR graph or mindless click-machines
When you invite allies to join you, we ask you to give them a mission – something unique that you need and would be grateful for and something specifically suited to that person’s talents. We also ask that you check in – that is, have a heart to heart or face to face conversation with them – at least once every two weeks. These aren’t just numbers helping you towards some other purpose; the strength of your relationships matters and has a real and measurable effect on your well being. Each friend is a unique ally.


Requires little to no skill

Trains up skills of players’ choosing

This is closely linked to learning a system – when developing skills is seen as learning and mastery can be either knowledge-based or skill-based. Most services that employ gamification aren’t challenging or fun to do. They require no skill. In the tired example of frequent flyer miles, for instance: is it fun to click on a flight scheduler? It is challenging to pick Virgin over Delta? No, of course not.

And believe it or not, we love a good challenge – 80% of the time we’re playing, we’re failing. And we love it! We like failing, struggling, and utilizing our skills to succeed. We play games because they challenge us. And when they don’t? We just stop caring altogether.

In SuperBetter, YOU choose how you want to improve, and the whole game is about getting stronger. Power Packs are custom tailored to challenges, and focus on different skills across the board: social, physical, emotional, mental. Not challenging enough? Add another Power Pack. Overwhelmed? Take a break, or just do a single move (3 quests, 1 battle, 3 power-ups) a day.


Promote sharing indiscriminately, constantly, to everyone

Promote sharing meaningfully, at major moments, to whom it matters

Gamers are great at tuning out irrelevant information, and if they’re constantly spammed with the same canned messages, they’re not going to get engaged. Novelty is a huge component of engagement (it’s something new to figure out, to learn, to master) and unique content adds value. As much as you can, let players add their own messages, and prompt virality when it matters: when the player has accomplished something difficult, when they’ve expressed something unique, when they’ve really made a difference. And don’t blast it to everyone if it doesn’t apply to them: send it to the people to whom it matters most.


Phew! Long post! Those were just a few examples, but I hope they helped clarify the difference between what most people call gamification and what we consider the “right” way to borrow from games (gameful design). Looking over the list, here are the three key bullets I’d pull out next time you go out and try to design a great experience:
  • Keep it intrinsic 
  • Players are people 
  • Agency, agency, agency 
Now go make it gameful

[This article originally appeared on the SuperBetter blog.]

Chelsea Howe likes making games that make a difference. At Zynga, she designed and analyzed features that touched tens of millions of people, and at SuperBetter Labs, she used research on positive emotion and social connection to make those touches more powerful, evocative,and meaningful. By night, Chelsea designs award-winning indie games, runs the San Francisco Global Game Jam, and works with developers at Cornell University on experimental gameplay demos and youth outreach, all without a bat signal.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Gameful Design (Part I)

In Part I of this article, game designer Chelsea Howe explains the difference between gameful design and gamification. 

Two years ago I attended a conference on the emerging field of gamification – or adding game elements to services and applications. Just by giving people a bit of reward, you could incentivize any behavior you wanted — navigating to another page, leaving a comment, learning multiplication.

Others celebrated this silver bullet, but I, as a game designer, was worried. The medium I’d dedicated my life to was reduced to basic behavioral response to stimulus, to operant conditioning, to dolphin training. Click. Cookie. Repeat.

These gamification experts extolled all the superficial, short-term psychological hooks from games and none of the meaningful, metaphysical joy and satisfaction produced from playing. They forgot that players are people. 

As we designed SuperBetter, we wanted to prove that games are more than just dopamine injections, that players are more than chemical machines.

SuperBetter offers an alternative to gamification. Instead of taking the psychological hooks and operant conditioning from games, we use their deeply satisfying properties – things like agency, emotion, and immediate feedback - to help people do what they really want to do: feel better, reach their goals, connect with others, and live with meaning. We call this a gameful approach to design.

So, what does this look like in practice? Here are a few key differences in how we approach design. Of course, not everyone who calls themselves a gamification company hits all of these points, but too many do.

We can do better.


Makes you do what companies want you to do

Helps you do what YOU want to do

You play games because it’s what you want to do. No one is telling you to play, no one is giving you money to play, no one is holding a gun to your head making you play. You’re intrinsically motivated. Intrinsic motivation means you take pleasure in the activity itself.

If you don’t want to do something, no amount of awards, badges, leaderboards, or points is going to make you do it – not long term, not sustainably.


Relies on operant conditioning (reward, punishment)

Harnesses the good of games (feedback, agency, emotion)

You don’t actually play games for points or badges– those are just progress indicators that help you contextualize your improvements/skill (which is exciting). People love games because they are in control and can affect the world (this is called agency), because they can make meaningful choices and interesting decisions. They play because games are delightful, challenging, and filled with clear goals. Operant conditioning ignores all of those things, and tries to motivate using our most basic human instincts instead of the complex depth that makes us human.

SuperBetter’s core elements — quests, power-ups, bad guys, and allies — help people feel more in control of their lives and capable of changing them (this is agency). Instead of setting goals for you, we let you choose goals that challenge you, and we make sure you’re creating a toolbox of ways to spark positive emotions in your life while identifying and gaining control over those things that hold you back.


Added to an existing platform, curriculum, or service

Integrated into design from the ground up

All games teach. All play and all fun is learning. If the entirety of a system is “Leave Comment, Get Badge” people will learn that very quickly, and once a system is learned, it loses its charm, its fun, its pleasure. Tack on something like badges or leaderboards, and after an initial engagement spike, the system suddenly becomes a transparently irrelevant annoyance – or worse, an unavoidable reason to leave the site/service altogether.


Uses extrinsic rewards

Uses intrinsic rewards

Rewards only motivate people to get rewards. Here’s a true story about extrinsic rewards: A child with a love for music starts playing the piano. Her mother, wanting to encourage her interest, begins rewarding her every time she plays. When the mother stops rewarding, the child stops playing, her initial curiosity and intrinsic desire to play diminished by the reward system.

Lasting behavior change comes from within. Giving someone cash to do something taints the nature of whatever they do. Even if it’s something they wanted to do, getting a reward for it decreases intrinsic motivation, and actually makes people less likely to perform the behavior without reward. The moment you give someone a reward, you’re decreasing the likelihood of lasting, sustainable change for them. 

Intrinsic reward is a fine line and hugely nuanced. In SuperBetter, when players report actions, we increase their Resilience score. But Resilience isn’t a made up thing – it’s not just magical, virtual “points” – it’s a reflection of a very real, validated principle of psychology. You’re rewarded by seeing your progress in an immediate, tangible way, but not by the points themselves. SuperBetter also lets you track changes to your well-being, so over time seeing the difference is its own reward. Most importantly, players are rewarded because as they do these actions, they really do start to feel better and reach their goals.


Limited meaning/social context

Meaningful/customized awards

But wait – didn’t I just say rewards can be bad? There’s a difference between celebrating accomplishment (“award”) and incentivizing actions (“reward”). This is about the former!

Getting an award is a great feeling – when you’ve worked for it. When it feels relevant and special to you. When it represents success at something appropriately challenging. There’s nothing wrong about celebrating accomplishment; it feels great to be recognized for what you’ve done, as long as what you’ve done is actually something worthwhile.

If you go to certain sites you’ll find yourself with random badges for seemingly no reason at all, after just clicking through a few pages (and of course, you have to sign up to keep them). Is that satisfying? (No.)

While we do have a few automatically awarded achievements in SuperBetter, we found the best way to make awards meaningful was to ensure it wasn’t a machine giving them to you. Allies have the option to give achievements to their heroes: to create a title and customize the icon and provide a reason/description for the award. When players get awards from friends, it means something unique to them, their relationship, and their actions. It matters.

[This article originally appeared on the SuperBetter blog.]

Chelsea Howe likes making games that make a difference. At Zynga, she designed and analyzed features that touched tens of millions of people, and at SuperBetter Labs, she used research on positive emotion and social connection to make those touches more powerful, evocative,and meaningful. By night, Chelsea designs award-winning indie games, runs the San Francisco Global Game Jam, and works with developers at Cornell University on experimental gameplay demos and youth outreach, all without a bat signal.