Wednesday, December 3, 2014

December 2014: Franchises

Hello and welcome to a new topic for December 2014!

Back when I was running polls for this blog, there was a topic of Sequels that apparently never got voted up.  I struggled with the name of the topic because I don't think it should be strictly about sequels and franchising.  I think it's an interesting problem to try to continue something after it's already been established and self-contained.  Or perhaps people do create the first game with cliffhanger in hand for the sequel...?

With DLC, it seems like there could be a trickling stream of additional content that further expands the story, the world, and the gameplay.  With MMOs, this is a constant endeavor.  Is there ever an ending in sight?  How do we consider the eldergame?

The Opening Hook explored the impact of beginnings.  What is the impact of an ending that may not be the ending?

As always, I take requests about new topics and even encourage people to write in with their topics and questions.  Please take a look at the submission guidelines along with submission procedure on the right hand side of the blog.  Topic suggestions and articles are welcome!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

IGDA Webinar: The Evolution of Videogame Design

In this video, creative producer Patrick Holleman describes how tenets of game design evolved during the three historical ages that he calls the arcade era, the composite era and the set piece era.

Game design Webinars from the IGDA are held on every third Wednesday of the month.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

How Wearable Technology Inspires Game Development

In this article, Josephine Tsay considers the gameplay possibilities when the player's own biology is used as an input and how the blending of physical and virtual can lead to a truly personalized gameplay experience.

New devices not only change the way we play, but the way we re-imagine the player experience. What is interesting about the intersection between wearable technology and health games, is that it removes the hardware controller as an input barrier, and puts the agent, or the player, truly at the center of the experience. Because of wearable device technology, player experience is no longer limited to pressing plastic buttons. The player is now directly using his or her biology as one, or many, inputs.

Consider, for example, using one’s own arm as an input controller1. Imagine the player is touching his/her arm to engage in gameplay. What analogies and metaphors can we, as game designers, extend with that interaction? The neural impulses that occur from a player pressing his/her own skin can trigger a very visceral response as compared to the player just tapping on hardware. A new player empathy map2 subsequently emerges, including the potential for new game scenarios. What types of horror games can push this analogy? How does this inform other genres? What is the potential to teach gameplay through this type of input from the start, the way even the menu screen for Megaman3 teaches the shooting mechanic from the get-go?

What wearable technology does for games is to bring this direct type of cause and effect feedback between virtual and physical environments. In gaming, “wearable technology” often evokes variations of next generation head mounted displays of the Oculus Rift/Google Glass variety. Yet, there are examples of various health related devices with the potential for unique immersive experiences and gameplay using the body as an input device, even if the primary purpose of the device was not intended for games. The LUMOback posture sensor4 is better known to be a posture improvement device. In its app, however, there is a stick figure that shifts, in real time, to your body movements. The magic moment there consists of a combination of how you’re moving your body, how the avatar on your phone is responding to it, and then a very physical sensation of the belt vibrating against your lower back depending on the settings. The angle of how one positions his or her body can now be part of the game design consideration set. Now, this particular device was not designed for games, but the potential of this type of interaction can serve as inspiration, at the very least, for innovative gameplay.

The intersection between wearable technology and health games is an interesting one, if mainly because it blends physical and virtual worlds in a way that goes beyond “just for fun.” Phobious “uses your smartphone as a Virtual Reality device to expose you to those situations that you fear, slowly and gradually.” Thync “creates wearable consumer products that use neurosignaling to shift your state of mind.” Such developments open up the gate for games using biofeedback to alter levels, as Nevermind strives to achieve with its “haunting gameplay experience” where “a biofeedback sensor will monitor how scared or stressed you become moment-to-moment.” By using biofeedback and neurosignals, the player experience can be further personalized in a way that’s specific to the individual player. Layer that with player types, and a game can really feel like it’s been especially crafted for you.

Nevermind screenshot
The next few years will be really exciting as wearable technology continues to disrupt and push the potential of games. As wearable controllers go beyond watches and gloves to jackets and arms, from the screen to the screen-less, the player becomes the center of the game experience in a way that continues to stretch the imagination and propels the industry forward.

1 “Skinput turns your arm into a touchscreen”, Lisa Zyga,

2 Empathy Mapping, Stanford Design School,


4 LUMOback Kickstarter page,

Josephine Tsay studied at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center, and U.C. Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design. Her work spans across story, games, wearable tech, educational tech, and mobile user experience. She worked at Google for several years and is now currently exploring the intersection of psychology and games.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

November 2014: Wearable Technology

Hello and welcome to a new topic for November 2014:  Wearable Technology.

Remember, I'm always taking requests about new topics and even encourage people to write in with their topics and questions.  Be sure to take a look at the submission guidelines along with submission procedure on the right hand side of the blog.  Topic suggestions and articles are welcome!

This month, I've combined a few requests together regarding Health Games, Input Devices, Mobile Beyond Phones into the topic of Wearable Technology.  While Oculus, Google Glass, and smartwatches are not necessarily about health and fitness, there is a whole host of wearable devices and apps focused on healthcare.  I've seen gamification attempts but would like to see more games in this area.

Some questions to consider:
  • How will these new devices impact game design?  How does the interface change the way we play games?
  • What new trends do you foresee?  Will these new devices be embraced by mainstream audiences?
  • How can the data harvested from wearable technology be used in gameplay and in games?
  • How intrusive would be these games, considering the data collected is about an individual and not a fictional character?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

IGDA Webinar: Kickstarter

In this video, Howard Tsao, Team Lead of Muse Games, describes how Muse Games created successful Kickstarter campaigns to fund Guns of Icarus Online, its multiplayer airship combat game.

Remember to sign up for the next Game Design Webinar November 19 on the evolution of game design. Creative Producer Patrick Holleman presents the history of game design from Dungeons & Dragons to the modern era.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Critical Combat Systems in Competitive Gaming

In this article, retired Dungeon Master Derrick B. Smith delves into the history of Critical Combat Systems and explains why such systems may not be the best choice for competitive games.

Computer game players are finding more games with Critical Combat Systems for entertainment. The inclusion of a random critical system in a non-competitive game can bring a level of excitement. The inclusion in any competitive gaming environment is a mistake. It turns a competitive game from being fair and balanced to one of random dumb luck. Imagine tossing a 6-sided die to decide how many points a touchdown was worth in an American Football game.

The starting point for Critical System being introduced to gaming dates back to the beginning of the RPG genre. Typically seen as “House Rules,” many groups adopted the concept. Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and similar RPG games have simplified combat systems that lend themselves to the addition of a “Critical Strike”. Many groups would later go on to add a “Critical Fail” mechanic to their existing gameplay.
Photo taken by Davi Silva.

The D&D combat system used a 20-sided die (d20) roll for combat resolution. In its easiest form, any natural d20 roll of a 20 would allow for a “Critical Hit”. This allowed the attacker to double the damage the target suffers. There were many ways to resolve this double damage. Most groups’ double the full damage including any modifiers the player’s character was entitled to utilize. Other groups adopted a doubling of only the weapons base damage die than adding any modifiers unchanged. The main difference in the two systems was the maximum damage. The second reduced the potential significantly.

Other gaming systems added complex “Critical Strike” charts typically broken down into weapon groups and creature body type/armor. Though it allowed for more diversity in the results, they also slowed gameplay down. A talented Dungeon Master could story line the results without relying on any complex charts to add flavor to the game.

The Critical Fail system allowed for comical or tragic failures. The failure was rarely automatic and very dependent on the situation at the time of the failure. This shows why a true RPG requires a Human Game Master. Though computers are great for doing calculations and simplifying some tasks, they are not able to adapt to a changing story line based on game events and player decisions. The fumbling player would in many cases be required to make additional die rolls to reduce the negative result. An example would be to prevent breaking a weapon or hitting an ally or themselves.

As computer-based games developed, it was natural to see RPG-styled games created. A “Critical Strike” component added to non-competitive games can be more exciting than harmful. Within a Player vs Computer game, the effect of this random element does not add a noticeable negative aspect to the game. This is not true when you have games designed to be competitive or built with a Player vs Player (PVP) aspect. The random element that a “Critical Strike” adds could be compared to flipping a coin to determine who goes first in each round of a Chess Match. This random factor removes the development of tactical skills from many games. Players will still develop strategies for gameplay but there will be many who only try to score that Critical to win.

There are games designed to be competitive and the random luck “Critical Strikes” add diminishes the inherent skill component some games contain. Instead of an evolution of attacks and defenses strategies being developed, players migrate to getting lucky and falsely believe that luck is similar to true skills. Though a Critical Strike system brings uncertainty and a sense of suspense, the thrill does not last long and an enduring game fails to evolve.

Derrick B. Smith is a retired Dungeon Master. He started playing D&D and similar games before it was called 1st edition. He is still waiting for the first real RPG computer game to be developed. Also, Biker, Trucker, Gamer, Seamstress.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

On Critical Systems and Fairness

In this article, educator Molly Thunderbreeze gives her thoughts on critical systems and how they impact the player's view of fairness in the game.

The introduction of a critical system into the gameplay aspects of a game has both quantitative and qualitative disadvantages in both the PVP and PVE areas of any game. Fairness should be strictly monitored and maintained in order that not only the PVE but PVP remains fair for all players through quantitative analysis of any proposed changes. At first glance, a critical system is quite exhilarating (i.e., fun!) resulting in shorter boss fights, or shorter PVP matches. However, eventually everyone will be on the receiving end, and this has long term affects on a user's attitudes towards the game.

You do not want your players screaming, “THAT'S NOT FAIR!” ripping them out of their immersion experience. A primary concern for game makers should be creating a sense of fairness in their game. A game does not have to be 'fair,' but it must have the appearance of being fair most of the time.

Typically, the implementation of these critical systems could never quantitatively maintain fairness (killing a player on the first or second round in a turn based game, or within the first three minutes in a real time strategy game will never be considered fair or fun for very long), and for this reason serious consideration of these overpowering critical systems should be abandoned.

Critical systems are an interesting concept, but are often implemented without reviewing overall ramifications. Many game makers create updates on a 'release and see' basis, testing only non-crashability of the game. Prepublication beta testing is where likability is typically tested, and then further testing in this area is abandoned with later updates, a sort of "well they are hooked so why bother?" mentality. I believe that the issue regarding balance (in both PVE and PVP) outweigh all other 'advantages' to adding a critical system. Once a critical system has been introduced, the issue of player expectancy comes into play (e.g., disappointments over not getting the critical boosting in either a PVP or PVE setting, the critical system used against the user themselves, etc.), and should be considered before incorporating any critical system into a game. Most critical systems overpower the user in both the PVP and PVE settings

For a PVE environment, we have frustration over a slower game experience when it is not 'working' for the user, and/or frustration if the monsters are successful in critical hits against the user. In the PVP environment, if any part of the arena is luck-based (turn-based games are notorious for this issue), then the addition of a critical system just stretches credulity for the arena being 'fair' in most users' minds.

SIDE NOTE: If a critical was not a 'doubling' but rather a smaller percentage boosting of the hit, it might be a viable addition to a game. However, mathematical analysis for fairness would need to be done on the overall system to see if such a system was feasible. Simply increasing all players by a flat percentage with each leveling will almost ensure skewing fairness for all users of the game at some upper level, and it gets more uncontrollable with a critical system in place. Quantitative analysis must be done with each level change to ensure a 'fair game' is experienced by all.

Wizard101 Example: Wizard101 made the mistake of doing two things with their Celestia update: adding a critical system, and doubling the stats for all users from level 50 to level 60. It resulted in users being overpowered for not only PVE, but especially PVP. The arena matching system that was broken became even more of a problem (a simple level 60 = 2*level 50 would not have sufficed as a fix). To add to the problem, there was the issues of employee turnover rates (not enough employees in the command chain that knew the game), too many short term consultants, and no prior quantitative analysis on the proposed changes. While bumping stats by 50% is a good starting point for beta testing a new level, it is not something that should have gone live without testing and analysis. The leveling of users was not a gradual consistent climb and thus, any arena matching routine that considered only level would be useless.

Molly Thunderbreeze taught both mathematics and education at the university level. Her educational background is in applied mathematics and education.  She is currently attempting to create a game that is both fun and educational in the area of mathematics in an MMO game environment.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

How GDC 2014 Changed My Life

The following article was written for the IGDA Newsletter.  

“What is IGDA?”, “What can it do for me?”, “How can I join?”, “What is this card game?” I soon join the throng to the open bar, if only to escape the endless questions and playing the soon-to-be-heavily-redesigned card game over and over. My lack of identification as a volunteer of any kind allows me to mingle freely while the line inches forward and many a fellow developer holds what is presumably their first drink of the night. Being one laden with social anxiety of a nearly dysfunctional order, I went back for several more until I was able to rattle off appropriate replies and corresponding facial movements without hesitation. Looking around, it was tough to believe it was only the first day.

Then Wednesday came. The first day of the Expo Floor. By this point, I knew my fellow volunteers well, and we all had worked out any logistical wrinkles that arose, so it was supposed to be quite smooth, albeit more populated. My social experience up to this point was limited to passing by a few hundred people at most, and I figured this would be no problem. Never had I miscalculated quite so severely.

I fought quite successfully to keep it together, until I decided to go visit the very reason the population tripled: the Expo Floor. I nonchalantly descended the escalator as I had done many times in the previous few days, only to be confronted with a wall of humanity. Being my usual headstrong self, I decided to ignore the small heart attack and press on toward the booth near the door with the familiar Project Anarchy logo. The woman at the counter was busy, so I wandered the area, slowly delving deeper and deeper into the monstrous crowds until I found myself completely surrounded. No familiar logos, friendly faces, or exit signs in sight, I felt a surge of tears which were quickly fought with a more powerful surge of adrenaline. Despite being wide-eyed and sweating bullets, I was determined to appear at least somewhat casual as I attempted to find my way out. I couldn’t ask as my voice would betray me, so I wandered toward a wall with big windows on the second level. I found myself faced with a hallway and more people, and though I didn’t see them, the escalators that would have led me back to the safety of the IGDA booth. Instead, I blindly pressed on, my iron will quickly rusting away. My breath quickened and tears stung my eyes as I followed the hallway past another escalator that would lead to the registration area (which I would later backtrack to, after encountering the GDC Play area).

I eventually found myself outside between the Moscone North and South buildings, and couldn’t hold it in anymore. I pulled off my nametag to hide my shame, and cried. I don’t know how long it was, but I eventually calmed down enough to realize people were staring at me and I should head back in. I went straight to the IGDA booth, and broke down again. Rather than stare at me, they rallied around me. I was ashamed of myself, but they were all trying to support me. A lot of them came out as feeling the same as me, so I wasn’t dealing with this alone. I cried more and drank pretty heavily that evening, but that was the day I will always remember as one where I felt like I belonged, like I was safe, like I was cared about.

The rest of the week went more smoothly, and they continued to support me while I tried my best to support them. I was among friends, and this is something I will never forget. It didn’t make the anxiety go away, and I still had some rough points. I met developers, exchanged cards, answered questions, revisited the Expo Floor with other volunteers who played it off as nothing more than what they wanted to do anyway. But on that Wednesday at GDC, I faced one of my deepest fears, and felt nothing but the warm embrace and support of friends, rather than the pain I expected. This is how GDC14 has changed my life.

Gabby Taylor is an aspiring game designer and head of GreyBox Studio. When not making design documents, she contemplates going outside, and sometimes even takes a few steps when feeling particularly frisky.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

October 2014: Randomness

This month's topic, Randomness was suggested by game designer Micheal "VektorWithAK" Brown.

He writes:
One of my favorite topics regarding game design which has also sparked up some conversation in my Bachelor course is RNG (mostly critical strikes) in PVP games combat systems and how (IMO) unhealthy it is as both a concept and in balance.

Some issues:
  • competitive environments in games that can be swayed to either end of a broad spectrum of results based solely on one or multiple favorable or unfavorable internal rolls. 
  • massive lows that can come from not just the player on the receiving end but the critical striker who gets unlucky streaks. 
  • Is the overall player satisfaction/high enough to justify RNG being applied to PVP combat systems?
Additionally the highs and lows players experience on either side of the crit RNG from the following:
  • performing the critical strike 
  • receiving a critical strike 
  • getting unlucky and getting chains of non-crit strikes. 
Higher crit rates generally are countered with lower base values of damage so an unlucky chain of RNG rolls could leave a lower damage player losing multiple fights they could have won had they simply had a weapon balanced around flat damage and non-RNG reliance.

Even looking at recent games, Destiny players have been up in arms about the RNG of the loot system and Engram rewards though I think true RNG loot/rewards vs pseudo RNG loot/rewards is a completely different topic and deserves addressing on its own.

As always, submission guidelines along with submission procedure can be found on the right hand side of the blog.  Topic suggestions and articles are welcome!

Micheal"VektorWithAK" Brown is long time gaming enthusiast turned Games Designer. Hailing from Melbourne, Australia he is better known among fellow gamers for his strong opinions on game design, approaches to balance as well as being unabashedly vocal about his thoughts on crowd-funding/free-to-play being the future of the industry.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Choice For Female Characters

In this article, game writer Sande Chen reviews data from a study on female characters in media and calls on content creators in the game industry to make a choice to include more female characters in their games.

At the 2nd Global Symposium on Gender in Media in New York this week, Dr. Stacy L. Smith, an Associate Professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, presented results from a study entitled, "Gender Bias Without Borders: An Investigation of Female Characters in Popular Films Across 11 Countries."  While this study did not include popular video games, Anita Sarkeesian's series on Tropes vs Women in Video Games has shed light on some of the same topics.

From the research, it's clear that gender equality inside the fictional worlds of films has not yet arrived.  Strikingly, the study indicated that very few of these popular films represented female characters in a manner truthful to global demographics or occupational data.  The films lacked "gender balanced casting," meaning females in roughly half of the speaking roles, strong female protagonists, and females in positions of power or employed in scientific fields.  Instead, female characters tended to be oversexualized.  They were twice as likely as male characters to be in sexually revealing clothing, partially or fully naked, thin, or referred to as attractive.  Furthermore, a girl age 13 was just as likely to be sexualized as a woman age 39. (To see more findings or an infographic of key results, visit

Why does this all matter?  

Research also indicates that with repeated exposure to this stereotyped content, viewers merely become further entrenched in gender stereotypes and beliefs. Female viewers bombarded by sexualized material may struggle with body shame and the worship of the thin ideal.  This is of particular concern when applied to young girls, who instead of embracing strong female role models, get the message that women are either unseen, at a permanent glass ceiling, or valued only for their appearance.

The authors of the study stress that content creators are part of the solution, that they can make a choice for gender equality.  It's simply a reflection of the real world (and real-world occupational data) to indicate that there are female doctors, lawyers, politicians, scientists, judges, executives, mathematicians, etc.  Indeed, films with female content creators, perhaps reflecting awareness, had roughly 6% more female characters.  Film executives have already reacted to previous studies by increasing the number of female characters, changing the occupation of female characters, and changing story development in their projects.  We can do the same in the game industry.  Already, we have seen a call for diversity in the workplace and in content.  Let's make a choice to include female characters and at the same time, encourage young girls to pursue careers in our industry.

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, September 15, 2014

Microtransactions and Theft: Here We Go Again

In this article, aspiring game designer Gabby Taylor proposes some solutions to the issue of virtual good theft in MMOs.

Disclaimer: The following post does not represent the views of the IGDA, IGDA Game Design SIG, or anyone else except Gabby. Just wanted to get that out of the way.
Some of you might remember my other post about microtransactions from way back in February. It was a bit heated, but it spells out how I feel about them pretty well:  I don’t like them. I think they hurt the industry despite bringing in large amounts of money. Most people do not agree with me on this and have brought up pretty valid points. I love it when that happens. Intellectual debate is great; that’s how minds are opened and horizons are expanded. Then something happens to people like Mike Weatherley and all I can do is less-than-professionally laugh.

For those of you who are unaware, good sir Mike Weatherley has the esteemed position of being chief adviser on intellectual property to David Cameron (yes, Prime Minister of the UK David Cameron). In his off-time, he is also a gamer. Recently, he has experienced something nearly all gamers experience: someone stole his sword in World of Warcraft, one he bought with real-world money. His reaction to it? The political version of whining to his parents. I’m not going to get into how this may or may not be the morally right way to leverage his position, but instead focus on the experience itself.

Usually, microtransactions are used as a way to enhance a game experience. For example, extra lives or power-ups can be purchased in order for someone to have more fun playing while they’re waiting for the bus, rather than miserably grinding away until these advantages are natively available. This works wonders for bringing in money for the publishers and developers, so much so that it’s quite often taken a bit further than it needs to be, or even should be. The downside to this is that theft is fairly universal, and few things sour an experience than spending $5USD on a cuirass, for example, and having it be swiped from your account (along with other items that may or may not have been purchased with real world money). This is compounded when it happens in a subscription-based game, as it’s easy to view the situation as having been doubly robbed. At this point, it’s perfectly reasonable to feel upset and some people even ‘rage quit’ over the larger instances. At this point, the game experience is completely ruined. Not because of gameplay, graphics, technical problems, or really anything to do with the game itself, but rather the greed and selfishness of a group of players and the open door to them that is microtransactions.

I believe that game experiences should be enjoyable for everyone and I bet there are many who would agree with me. In order for this to happen, though, we need to fix how things are done. Mike Weatherley is of the opinion that thefts of digital goods ought to be punished in the same way that thefts of real-world good are. I believe that a proactive solution would do gamers and developers alike a bit more good than knowing someone, somewhere received a fine of some sorts (assuming, of course, they were tracked down, which would require a lot more resources than it’s really worth). My initial idea is to just nix the microtransactions altogether, but I understand publishers and developers are businesses and still need/want to make more money than the game itself will get them. With that in mind, let’s come up with a few ideas:
  • The ability to re-obtain stolen items without spending more money. In order to prevent abuse of this system, the game can keep server-side records of what the account bought, for how much, and by what means did it leave the account’s possession. I suppose this is still open to abuse, since most stolen items are stolen by someone cracking the account’s password and trading the item to the cracker’s actual account (or an alternative account).
  • All microtransaction-obtained items are bound to character or account. This would prevent anyone from cracking in and trading it off, but it does not help if someone wants to buy a gift for someone in game (though maybe a redeem code could be purchased for a gift).
  • Microtransactions can only apply to buying in-game currency, and currency is account-bound (but not character/soul bound). This way, there are no items at stake, and the player still has the flexibility to outfit any of their characters as they see fit. It’s possible this might also bring in extra money, since not everyone would necessarily be interested in an item, but everyone wants money. The downside is this opens up a whole world of ‘pay-to-win’ problems.
Mike Weatherley is not alone in his loss of an item purchased with real world money in an MMO. This is a very widespread problem that should be looked at quite hard by the developers, as it’s their years of hard work at stake here. Theft of items that require lots of time or real world currency can ruin the entire experience, so it should be addressed proactively, not retroactively by lawmakers using methods that just drain everyone of more resources. I’ve tried to come up with a few simple ways of solving the problem that make everyone happy, but I’d like to hear what you think. What ideas do you or your studio have? Do you think it’s worth it to get lawmakers involved? Why or why not?

Gabby Taylor is an aspiring game designer and head of GreyBox Studio. When not making design documents, she contemplates going outside, and sometimes even takes a few steps when feeling particularly frisky. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

On Wearing Multiple Hats

In this article, indie developer Judy Tyrer discusses the pros and cons of filling multiple roles in game development.

I prefer the term FOUNDER to CEO because founder implies “she who does everything she can’t hire someone else to do.” In the case of 3 Turn Productions, FOUNDER covers CEO, CTO, Creative Director, Lead Programmer and HR. That means I have to make sure we have sufficient funding while simultaneously ensuring we are using the correct technology while designing and coding the entire game and keeping my artist and community manager happy. Yes, I am crazy.

The Upside

I like talking to myself and now I have an excuse. In fact, I can even argue with myself and sometimes do. The most recent argument with myself was when the CEO got upset with the Creative Director over feature cuts. One of the features the Creative Director wanted to cut was revenue generating. They had a long argument over every other feature that could possibly go besides one that was revenue generating. The Creative Director won. She had the support of the programmer who explained that the front end could get in on schedule, it was only hooking up the backend with the payment system that we’d be postponing. And since that is work that doesn’t excite the programmer in the least, well they ganged up on the poor CEO.

But the biggest upside is the frequency with which I do not have communication issues with myself. The time saved by having all the roles thoroughly familiar with all the other roles is huge. We don’t need formal documentation. We don’t need formal process. We can just get the work done. I would estimate this is a 40% productivity gain, especially in the areas where the systems are highly complex.

I imagine that artist/designers must make very different kinds of games than programmer/designers so I can’t speak for them. But as a programmer/designer, the gameplay and the code design are tightly coupled. I believe this allows me to build systems for my game others wouldn’t think of because those systems are half gameplay and half architecture. I have the advantage of seeing the action from when the user pushes a button all the way into where the data is saved in the database and retrieved. It’s a bigger picture view that I think lends itself to riskier innovations.

The Downside

It is not possible to do five jobs well at the same time. Something is going to suffer and the challenge is choosing what that is going to be.

Had I been CEO full time, the business plan would be complete and I’d have had at least a dozen meetings with investors by now. But had I done that, the game wouldn’t have progressed as far as it has. Then again, if I’d gotten the funding I could have hired someone to do the programming, maybe even two people, and the game would have progressed even further. Of course, that assumes I would have succeeded in getting investors with all those meetings. If I hadn’t gotten the investors after all that work then we’d have no game.

Wearing too many hats means that something is always getting insufficient attention. Priority setting has taken on a much more crucial role than ever before. Wasted time going down wrong paths is infinitely more painful than when there isn’t the constant pressure of 3 jobs not being done well. The rather interesting side effect of this is that I do more experimentation of other approaches to solving problems than I have in the past, primarily because I don’t have the time to go down a rat hole so I want to make sure I’m picking the optimum choice to start.

The other challenge with wearing too many hats is getting a sense of satisfaction at the end of the day from a job well done. Instead of a job well done, it’s 3 jobs half done and 2 undone. I find that the only solution is to take off all but one hat for certain periods. This is usually 2 weeks before we release, but this time it was a full month (it was a lot of code). Just accepting that I’m not going to make progress in an area of the business this week is difficult, but I have found it essential.

So I am CEO, CTO, Creative Director, Lead Programmer, and HR Director of my company. But mostly, I’m the Lead Programmer.

Judy Tyrer began in serious games with PLATO in the late 1970s, moved into distributed operating systems and enterprise software before rejoining the game industry in 2005. She worked for Ubisoft, Sony Online Entertainment and Linden Lab before branching out to start her own studio, 3 Turn Productions LLC which is coming out with the virtual world of Jane Austen for Kickstarter this summer.

Friday, September 5, 2014

September 2014: Motivation

Hi all!

For September, I'd like people to think about the psychology of games.  As game designers, we need to understand these motivational triggers in order to design better levels, better virtual goods, and a better overall gameplay experience.  Motivation is of particular interest to the topics of Game-Based Learning and Social Impact Games because these games go beyond mere entertainment and usually have a specific learning or social objective.

Questions for Thought:
  •  As designers, what tools can we employ to keep players motivated and on track with our gameplay objectives? 
  •  How does player motivation fit into the design of your levels? Or your games?
  •  What motivates players to buy virtual currency or goods?  Are there specific tricks or tips to this?
Feel free to add more questions to the end of this post.

As always, submission guidelines along with submission procedure can be found on the right hand side of the blog.  Topic suggestions and articles are welcome! 

Friday, August 29, 2014

IGDA Webinar: Monetization

In this video, game designer Chris Crowell reviews different monetization strategies and illuminates further the concept of free-to-play and play-to-win.

Remember to sign up for the next IGDA Game Design Webinar on Wednesday, September 17 featuring Ian Schreiber on game balance.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Game Art Explained

In this article, aspiring game designer Gabby Taylor explains the role game art plays in a game's overall design.

Graphics are usually the center of the console versus PC argument (next to overall cost). We argue about how noticeable pixels should be, acceptable frame rates, and sometimes even perspective. And nearly everyone comes up with one reason or another why they’re right, but so few people seem to actually understand what role game art plays.

Our eyes play a huge role in how we explore the world around us, but it’s how the world is perceived that gives this visual information its potency. This psychological phenomenon is what game art plays on. It’s what causes you to beeline for the one lit area in an otherwise blacked out room. It’s what makes you feel confused or alarmed when things are blurred and red, and what makes the scene with a faintly violet glow seem enchanting. Horror games also use this to clash against our idea of what should be, thus making it creepy. There are a thousand different ways game art assists the design, for those who know how it works.

Game art can be broken down into two basic building blocks: color and design. Each area in a game is carefully crafted using these two principles in order to achieve the feeling the game design needs to successfully immerse the player in the gameplay and story. Think back to Batman: Arkham Asylum. If the place were brighter, or painted in pastel colors, do you think it would have felt the same? No, of course not. It sounds simple, and it is in theory, but applying them effectively requires lots of practice and expertise. Let’s clear the air of all the nonsense arguments, and briefly examine what each game artist has to know.

Colors typically have a meaning attached to them, that can vary by culture. In the United States, for example, white stands for innocence and purity. They can also have physical effects on us, like increased heart rate when we see the color red. Colors affect everything from our appetites, to how heavy something appears, to what emotion we feel when we look at it. The use of color is further broken down into values, hues, and contrast. Hues are the colors themselves, whereas the value is how light or dark that color is. For example, pink is a lighter value of red, and navy is a darker value of blue. A scene with all light values is called high key, and a scene with all dark values is, you guessed it, low key. Colors complement and contrast one another, creating different effects. Using yellow and red, for instance, creates a much different scene than using green and blue, or purple and brown, or even shades of grey.

Design is more about how the scene and the colors in it are arranged. This is not to be confused with overall game design, though; this is artistic design of a scene or area. When designing the scene, you’re focusing on lines and objects to which the colors are applied. You can think of design as the skeleton on which color is the fleshy bits. Going back to the Batman: Arkham Asylum reference, the whole game would have a different feel to it if Calender Man didn’t cover the walls of his cell with calendar pages, or if Poison Ivy didn’t have plants everywhere, or if the whole place looks like it had been meticulously cleaned.

These two elements come together to create game art, which is necessary for the game design to convey the intended message and emotions. That’s all it is. There is no art style that’s superior, or acceptable frame rate ceiling. It’s the emotions, the perception, that’s important to the game’s success at allowing the player to delve into the world set before them.

Gabby Taylor is an aspiring game designer and head of GreyBox Studio. When not making design documents, she contemplates going outside, and sometimes even takes a few steps when feeling particularly frisky.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Writers, Stop Obsessing Over Three-Act Structure in Games

In this article, game writer Sande Chen muses about the Three-Act Structure and whether it ought to be the dominant structure in video game writing.

If you're a writer, you probably know about the Three-Act Structure.  It's a popular yet arbitrary format for Hollywood screenplays.  It's a great framework to learn, especially if you want to know more about screenwriting, but it's not a One-Size-Fits-All solution.  Video games are not always going to be like Hollywood screenplays.  That's like trying to hammer a square peg into a triangle.  If game designers don't use the same design pattern for each and every game, why should every video game be written like a Hollywood movie?

The latest console blockbuster shooter isn't going to be designed like a free-to-play Mahjong Solitaire social game.  There are different target audiences, different genres, different technologies, different play patterns, and of importance, different business models.  Many times, the business model does inform the aims of the game designer.  Coin-operated arcade designers back in the day knew that the goal was to get customers to plunk in quarters.  Episodic game designers naturally want players to keep on buying episodes and free-to-play game designers would like to maximize sales on virtual power-ups and goods.

This situation is not unique to the game industry.  Writers, too, understand the whims of the market. TV writers use cliffhangers to entice viewers to return after commercial breaks.  Charles Dickens often wrote his novels in monthly or weekly installments and would even modify plot and character development based on reader feedback.

My point here is not to slam the Three-Act Structure, but to get people to realize that the needs of a game writing project may not be the Three-Act Structure.  There are plays with 5 Acts and screenplays with 4 Acts.  Evaluate each game writing project carefully and understand how the writing fits into the overall scheme.  The Three-Act Structure is useful, but there's no need to apply it to everything.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose experience spans over 10 years in the game industry.  Her credits include 1999 Independent Games Festival winner Terminus and the 2007 RPG of the Year, The Witcher.  She is the chapter leader of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Friday, August 1, 2014

August 2014: Agency

August 2014's topic was submitted by game designer Pascal Bélanger.

He writes: 
Agency, as defined by Janet Murray in the great industry reference "Hamlet on the Holodeck," is the fundamental feeling of having an impact on a virtual world. It is somewhat the basis of immersion and many game designer consider that their main quest is to pursue a better feeling of agency.

On the other hand, we have games like World of Warcraft that use mechanics that go against this feeling (e.g. Resetting mission states to permit players that have already completed a mission to redo them with their friends and/or clan mates). This acts as a Distanciation Brechtienne" (after Bertolt Brecht) -  a French theater concept whereby an element constantly reminds the spectator that what's in front of him is not real agency because it always reminds the player that he is in a virtual world and that in the end he does not have any real impact on it.
Even though many have gone long ways to argue about its systems, one cannot deny the success of World Of Warcraft. And all this without pursuing that particular feeling which is supposed to elevate the medium to another state.
  • How does the pursuit of agency impact you as a designer and as a player?
  • Do you think it is a requirement for immersion? 
  • Do you think it is a requirement for games in general?
Clint Hocking on Agency:
 As always, submission guidelines along with submission procedure can be found on the right hand side of the blog.  Topic suggestions and articles are welcome! 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

IGDA Webinar: Multiplayer Economies

Last week, I had the pleasure of interviewing game designer Adam Thompson on the topic of Multiplayer Economies during the IGDA's most recent Webinar on Game Design.  Adam Thompson is responsible for economy design on the upcoming MMO, First Earth
First Earth

The IGDA Webinars started recently and we hope to cover a lot of interesting topics.  Feel free to suggest topics for upcoming Webinars.  During the Webinar, which happens on every third Wednesday of the month at noon Eastern, attendees can interact with panelists and type in questions.  We have a recording of the Webinar here, but as you will see, it's better as a live event, where you can see the speakers' Webcams. 

If you want to listen in:

Adam Thompson is game developer with twelve years experience in mobile, educational, and multiplayer PC games.  For the last four years he's been consumed developing First Earth, a next-gen game meant to fulfill the promise we saw in classic MMOs like Ultima Online.  He has a particular interest in the philosophy of game design as it relates to multiplayer games. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Screw Narrative Wrappers

In this article, game writer Richard Dansky examines the assumptions behind the term, "narrative wrapper."

And here is why I hate the term “narrative wrapper”.

What is a wrapper? It’s something that’s put around an object, not intrinsically part of the object. It’s something that’s taken apart to get to the good stuff. It’s something that’s discarded as unimportant. It’s something that, 9 times out of 10, has disgusting congealed faux-cheese on it.

And so when we talk about the “narrative wrapper” of a game, we’re implicitly stating that the narrative is not of the game itself. It’s something we’re supposed to wrap around the gameplay to make it transportable and attractive, and keep the targeting reticule from dripping burger grease on our fingers, but it’s ultimately unattached and disposable.

Which, to be blunt, irritates me to no end.

Because yes, you can have a narrative wrapper on a game, one that you discard as soon as it’s time to start blasting or moving geometric shapes around or whatever. But I’d like to think we’ve moved past that. That we understand that narrative and gameplay are part of a unified whole that, when combined with a player’s choices, creates the play experience. That a game doesn’t have to have a lot of narrative to have an appropriate amount of narrative for what it presents, in order to provide context to the player actions and create a satisfying arc to their progression.

But Rich, I hear you say, not every game has a narrative element. Not every game needs a narrative element. Take, for example, tower defense games. Or Minecraft. Completely narrative free!

To which I say, cunningly, that’s absolutely not the case. Because when most people think of game narrative, they think of the explicit narrative - the story of getting from point A to point B, and probably slaughtering a zillion hapless orcs/enemy soldiers/terrorists/space aliens/zombies/geometric shapes infused with dubstep along the way.

But that’s just the explicit narrative. There’s also implicit narrative built into every game though the choice of setting, items, character design - the assets of the game tell a story, if only by their very existence. Or, to put it another way, think about the archetypal tool you get in Minecraft. It’s a pickaxe. It’s not a tricorder. It’s not a Black and Decker multi-tool. It’s a pickaxe, and through it’s very pickaxe-ness - low tech, implied manual labor, etc. - it tells part of the story of the world it exists in. Ditto for those towers in tower defense games that everyone claims come narrative free - they’re shaped like something, they’re shooting something, and those choices frame a story before word one of any dialog or plot gets written. If you’re shooting aliens in a tower defense game, you’ve established genre (science fiction) and technology (aliens with enough tech to invade, you with enough tech to fight back); your backdrop implies the course of the conflict so far, and so on. As soon as you decide what a game asset is, you’re implying the narrative that allows it to exist and function.

Which is another way of saying that narrative is baked in, blood and marrow, to games. It’s not a wrapper, though God knows enough people have tried to separate story and gameplay like one of them has to walk home across the quad in last night’s jeans. Yes, you can divorce narrative elements from gameplay (Or as we used to call it, “put it in the cut scene”) but that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what the narrative elements of a game are, and how they interact, inextricably, with gameplay. If you think of narrative as something external to the game - a wrapper, perhaps - then you’re missing the point, and your game will be the worse for it.

And that’s why I hate the term “narrative wrapper” - because it damages narratives and it damages games, and it damages the understanding of how narrative works in games. And it gets crappy congealed cheese all over my deliverables, and we just can’t have that sort of thing.

[This article originally appeared on Dansky Macabre.]  

The Central Clancy Writer for Red Storm/Ubisoft, Richard Dansky is a 15 year veteran of the games industry. His credits include Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Outland, and Driver: San Francisco. The author of six novels, Dansky lives and works in North Carolina.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

July 2014: Creativity Enhancing Games

July 2014's topic was submitted by Vbwyrde GrayFalcon.

Video games can spark our creativity in so many different ways.  Some games, like Minecraft, explicitly promote a Creative mode whereas other games or simulations provide creative outlets for players to sell player-designed clothing or other items.  Players of The Sims franchise post illustrated stories, all staged in-game with characters and props from the games.  Games can also inspire mods.  Any game that allows us to build, decorate, and express ourselves is tapping into our creativity. 

If one were to focus on enhancing player-led creativity in a game, how would one go about designing such a game?

Besides allowing players to create new levels or new in-game items, is there a way for the player to leave the game with a creative masterpiece, like a song, painting, or written epic that is utterly unique to that player?  And would that application still be considered a game?

What are your thoughts on the topic?  Do you know of any examples of great creativity enhancing games?  If so, why do you feel they work as well as they do?

As always, submission guidelines along with submission procedure can be found on the right hand side of the blog.  Topic suggestions and articles are welcome! 

Friday, June 27, 2014

Interchangeable He and She

In this article, game writer Sande Chen explores the role of gender or lack of gender in branching narrative.

After all the protest about the amount of work to animate female characters, it appears that female characters, like Assassin's Creed III: Liberation 's Aveline de Grandpré, can use animations created for male characters.  As Aja Romano points out, this works out especially if animators decide not to oversexualize the movements of female characters.  It's also a production issue, since interchangeable male/female animations would have to be the plan from the beginning.  Interchangeable animations, along with a couple of gender-specific ones, would save both time and money so that there could be male and female playable characters in the game.

  These animations weren't so interchangeable...
But say, it's not the beginning, what I might call the pre-production phase, but at the beginning of crunch time hell, or even worse, at the end or after the game is released?  Then, sure, a development team may find it hard to provide a fix.

All of this reminds me of a thorny problem a video game company presented to the game writers Facebook group.  This video game company created romance games (in text) and after a game was released, customers asked why there wasn't a gay romance option a la Dragon Age 2.The company wondered if a solution could be found by simply replacing all of the love interest's pronouns by the opposite gender. 

Would that work?

I have played a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) game that did something similar and I truly felt cheated because my choice of gender was as meaningless as the selection of eye color in the game.  OK, the story was supposedly set in an enlightened (yet vaguely RenFaire) society in which men and women were treated equally and men had even achieved pregnancy, but I still felt cheated.  I can see that this might work in a different game, but not one that was all about relationships.  And a romance game is all about relationships.

I understood that the author had very cleverly done this to avoid writing whole sets of branching narrative.  Yet, I couldn't help but feel that the whole fun of choosing a female or male character in a romance game had been taken away from me.  If I had a female character, what would happen here?  How would people react differently?  Might I be able to succeed as a female character but not as a male character?  I feel that even if writers do create enlightened societies, we are still viewing their world from the present.

In our flawed and unenlightened world, females don't always act and talk like males and hence, the need for female-specific animations and dialog.  Female relationships are different from male relationships.  I believe that the experience of growing up as a female is special and worth exploring.  When this informed background isn't there, then the relationship feels hollow.  To me, all the romances, including the gay ones, in this CYOA game were somewhat shallow.

In the end, the video game company with the problem decided that a quick switch of pronouns would not be respectful to the gay community.  Gender would not be a meaningless string variable. 

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.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Female Players Want Female Playable Characters

In this article, game writer Sande Chen reviews the reasons she's heard for not including female playable characters in video games.

Oh, deja vu!  Here comes the news that there won't be female playable characters in co-op mode for Far Cry 4, following the revelation that Assassin's Creed Unity will not have female playable characters in co-op mode.  The reason why?  As other companies have responded in past queries of this sort, it's just too much work to make female playable characters: it's double the amount of animations, double the workload, and double the production cost. 

At least that sounds more reasonable than some narrative excuses that have been brokered in the past, such as, "It's not historically accurate or believable to have females in those roles" or "It's a warrior culture!" which led to my presentation at LOGIN Conference 2010 on "Hot Warrior Women."  As Brenna Hillier writes in her article about sexism and the game industry, narrative excuses come off as rather flimsy.

Let's face it, most of these games are fantasies, even if based on real-life historical eras.  That's why there are items like G-string armor for female playable characters.  In an idealized society of the future, a fantasy world, and even in a historical setting, we can surely see that writers have the option to include strong female protagonists.  And in real life, even though they may have been marginalized or overlooked, women have been in combat situations throughout history.  As Dan Golding points out, the most famous assassin in the time period of Assassin's Creed Unity was a woman.  Our world history is not just "the history of men." 

Is it any wonder that female players might want to play these kick-ass female characters?

Sure, I agree that there are production realities and I have faced those myself, but ultimately, the decision to include female playable characters really boils down to whether or not a video game company makes it a priority.  Currently, nearly half of the gaming audience is women and they have proven with their purchasing dollars that they are a demographic that shouldn't be ignored.

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.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

June 2014: Luck vs. Skill

On certain PvP forums, players may argue about whether a game is more about luck or more about skill.  Not surprisingly, players routinely attribute wins to their inherent "skill" whereas losses must be due to the opponent's "luck." Some games, like chess, people readily agree have more "skill" components whereas casino games like roulette definitely requires more "luck."  A big debate rages on about poker, because if considered a game of skill, poker could arguably not be subject to gambling laws.

The luck vs. skill debate is also of interest to economists and sociologists, especially in regards to investment strategy, capital management, and entrepreneurial studies. For economists, distinguishing between luck vs skill helps prevent decision-making biases.  Sociologists understand that the more people think they're in control, the more they believe they can influence "luck."  That's why some people throw dice harder for a high number and throw gently for a low number.  Yet, the act of throwing dice comes down to pure chance.

How does this luck vs skill ratio affect game designers?  I think when designing for certain demographics, we might consider whether the audience would appreciate a higher or lower luck vs. skill ratio.

Some questions to consider:
  • When designing a game, do you take the luck vs. skill ratio into consideration?  How does it affect your design?
  • What audiences do you think appreciate a higher level of skill? Or a higher level of luck?
  • What sort of decisions in the game would you leave to luck?
  • Is a game that is mostly luck-based a satisfying game?
  • Do luck-filled elements in a game increase game addictions?
As always, submission guidelines along with submission procedure can be found on the right hand side of the blog.  Topic suggestions and articles are welcome! 

Friday, May 23, 2014

Chasing the Heroine's Journey in Games

In this article, game writer Sande Chen ponders how to find the heroine's journey, or the internal life of characters, in games.

A few months ago, I was fortunate to go to a lecture given by script consultant Dara Marks, author of Inside Story. She spoke of the counterpoint to the Hero's journey, which would be the Heroine's Journey.  (Note:  This is just terminology and not meant to suggest that female characters cannot follow the Hero's Journey and vice versa!)  Dara Marks conveyed that the best stories have the yin and yang of both journeys.  Masculine-type stories, often following the Hero's Journey, tend to be external, life-and-death conquests whereas feminine stories celebrate inner connectedness, compassion, and acceptance.  Without enough yin, masculine stories can feel hollow (yet action-packed).  Feminine stories without yang can get bogged down.

Marks' framework for the Heroine's Journey has a Call of Action, Midpoint, and Final Pursuit, just like the Hero's Journey.  It's definitely not just adding a love subplot into the midst of the story.  The Heroine is propelled into action after suffering a deep, emotional wound and is only redeemed through her courage and the help of others, resulting in a new perspective on love and self-acceptance.

It struck me that in the realm of video games, our blockbusters are mostly masculine stories.  It may be because of the medium.  We need to externalize our inner demons -- show not tell -- and can't afford an extended monologue.  Or if there is a monologue, like in The Darkness, which could be a technique to telling the internal story, at least make it interesting.  There are diaries, but truly, do people really leave their diaries scattered about?  Perhaps we simply need to get better at showing the entire story:  external and internal. 

For other games, it simply doesn't matter because the player-character is a blank slate to be filled in by the player.  Appearance, actions, thoughts, back stories:  all controlled by the player.  That's a different type of game, so let's stick to the games where the player has a pre-assigned role.

Here is another issue:  the blurry line between player and player-character.

I absolutely detest in an action game when a player-character declares that I, the player, had an epiphany about some story element, especially when I haven't felt any change in my feelings or thinking.  I don't suddenly care about something just because the character I'm controlling tells me I should care.  Some writers make a distinction between player and player-character.  The player-character has its own life and therefore, is free to go about having epiphanies and actions that run counter to the player's desires.

However, the identification between avatar and player is so strong that hardly anyone says "Samus did this; Samus did that" but "I beat the boss; I got to the last level."  It doesn't matter that the character isn't a blank slate.  I've been struggling through all these levels and doing all the work while controlling this player-character, so, yes, I got a little... attached. When something doesn't jive between player-character and player, it feels disconcerting and jarring.  Perhaps that's why some players chose not to play the ending of Prince of Persia rather than go through the player-character's mission to destroy all the lands.

There are probably better ways at conveying emotional truths than straight out telling the audience (or leaving written evidence).  Screenwriters handle this all the time, but in a video game, we can't have too many cut scenes (or it would be a film!).  Slower, less action-packed games that explore character growth could succeed, as well.  I wonder, since we are adept at those masculine, action-packed games, can we find the feminine there too?

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Good Free-to-Play Games (Part II)

In Part I of this article, indie game developer Howard Go expresses his philosophy on making good free-to-play games. In Part II, he discusses addiction and how games can be designed without exploiting consumers.

Here’s a side note on Candy Crush Saga. I hate King for what they did with the trademark thing. And I hate that Candy Crush Saga remains in the top ten grossing after well over a year. But I do respect how they did their game. They have the best "energy system" in place. If you successfully finish a level, you don’t lose the energy/life you spent to play it. You can play again. Candy Crush Saga is a very polished game on almost every level and is one of the most fair games as far as freemium games go (even if I hate how the game has hooked my mother into asking me to send her tickets and hearts even after I told her I deleted it after the trademark crap they did). There are ways to not spend money (or even to not ask friends to enter a new world…A little trivia here: did you know you can move to every new "world" if you get 3 stars in every level in the previous world?). Only those who truly enjoy the game continue playing it with money being spent. And that’s their call. That they spend so much is their choice. And, please, don’t call them whales. Call them what a hotel or restaurant or another business would call a big spender: a VIP. If someone loves wine so much that they think spending a thousand dollars or more on a bottle brings them pleasure, then we may shake our heads in disbelief because of our own worldview, but let’s admit that they have a choice there. A good winemaker may or may not have taken them for a ride, but I think each of us may have a thing that we spend more than normal for because it is, well, our thing.

Which brings me to a need to discuss addiction: I’ve been addicted to many games. I believe I have an addictive personality. I smoked heavily for many years in my life before I could break the habit, I drank a lot of alcohol before (now I drink a lot on special occasions), and I’ve spent shameful hours and money on games. I play a lot of games to research on what works and what doesn’t so you can imagine how tempting it is for me to just spend days playing games. But you know what game ruined my life the most? Not a freemium or paymium game. It was Final Fantasy VII. No game made me play so much that my professional and social life suffered. And it was because it was an incredibly well made game. And the chocobo breeding was ingeniously addictive. If you got into the breeding like I did, you know that after completing the game, the breeding became the game. In an almost shameful way, I have to admit that’s what happened to me. And I still love Final Fantasy VII. How I kept spending more and more hours playing it instead of the hours I originally set aside for it (which, I believe is one difference between a console game and a mobile game, one is basically scheduled/timed gameplay while the other is play when there is time) is my fault. I won’t tell its creators to stop creating awesome and addictive games. That would basically mean a request to please don’t make any game with engaging characters or story lines or gameplay.

A game should try to get people involved and, well, hooked on the gameplay, the story, and/or the characters. The question is, is it done in such a way that only spenders can reasonably and successfully move forward. And, I believe, a good number of freemium and paymium games did right for their players. While the others cause frustration instead of fun for all non-spenders or, even worse, for all small-time spenders. That’s where the bad rep essentially comes from. One game in recent memory that I soon deleted because I felt I couldn’t grind successfully was Robocop. And I do some amount of real currency spending before I grind, to make things easier. I spent 20 dollars each on Zombiewood and Dead Trigger 2 and never felt a pang of regret. These are games that essentially should follow the same grinding principles as Robocop. But Robocop just felt off for me. It was like I had to spend more and more real money and grinding would not yield results. It felt, here’s that word: greedy. This is, of course, a subjective matter. Value is in the eye of the beholder, after all.

I end this with a claim: though indie game developers can succeed with paid games and many of the people my business partner and I admire in the indie game field are people who stick to paid games, we both believe doing free-to-play right has a better chance at long term success than doing a great paid game. And, at the end of the day, we want to make games, games that people will enjoy. And this means two things: we do it right for the people who download our games and we do it right for us so it can be what we do professionally day in and day out.

Howard Go is ½ of MochiBits. His current interest in game design involves game balance, retention, and monetization. He taught philosophy for five years then sold out to work in the corporate world for seven years, finally escaping into the world of game development in December 2010.

Friday, May 2, 2014

May 2014: Game Design Practice

Hello, and welcome to May 2014's topic, Game Design Practice!

I just wanted to make sure everyone knew about the IGDA Game Design SIG's new Weekly Design Challenges on Reddit.  Every Sunday, a new design challenge goes up.  I hope you all will participate.

As with Game Design Aspect of the Month, the idea behind the weekly design challenges is to inspire you and to get you thinking about game design issues.

It's good practice to expand an idea, write it on paper, and try to make it feasible.  There have even been GDC talks from designers who mapped out a game design idea each day for a year.  It's the first step to realizing your idea rather than just talking about it.  It's often said of writers that we don't always have the luxury to wait around for inspiration to hit.  To be a writer, one has to write.  And a game designer, as we have tried to relay, is not the person who sits around telling people ideas for great games, but someone who has the skills to create and fine-tune games so that they can be great.

So for May 2014, I'd like to learn more about your practice and your inspiration for games.  How do you work out your ideas for games?  Do you go straight to prototyping?  I remember a talk from GDC where the designer talked about exhaustive historical research before even approaching what might be a cool mechanic to be in the game.

As always, submission guidelines along with submission procedure can be found on the right hand side of the blog.  Topic suggestions and articles are welcome!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Good Free-to-Play Games (Part I)

In Part I of this article, indie game developer Howard Go expresses his philosophy on making good free-to-play games.

I begin this with a disclaimer: I am an indie game developer who just happens to make a living from making free-to-play games. I am one-half of a team of two. We’ve been making games full time for just over three years now.

Free-to-play games have gotten a lot of bad rep and this is more true as of late, especially as some games ruined what were good games by adding in-app purchases in an update or doing a sequel that suddenly changed the gameplay by going freemium or paymium instead of the solid premium paid game that they once were. And I think my opinions on freemium apply to paymium as well, so I might as well cover both.

This is part one of my view: whether freemium or paymium, if what you get initially is of value and then IAPs are introduced by way of packs or levels or some special premium value (and by this I include unlimited simultaneous multiplayer games and the removal of ads — I actually miss that in many games now), then it is entirely the player’s choice to feel I want more of the same fun and to determine if the packs/additions are worth their cost. They already got their money’s worth for what they paid for if it was initially paid and if they had fun for about an hour with a free game, then they can judge if spending money is fine for another similar hour (like a free taste of a dish to see if you want to buy a pack, snack, or meal). Obviously, I mean a good free-to-play game gave some amount value of value at the onset. My rule of thumb is about an hour of fun. That’s short for a console game, but decent, I believe for a mobile game. I’ve played some awesome paid games on mobile that I finished in an hour or two, and I felt I got my money’s worth (though wanting to play some more because I enjoyed it so much is another thing).

Just to be clear: I’ve spent plenty of money on arcade games, saved up to buy games for the consoles I’ve owned when I was younger, and still continue to spend a bundle on mobile games (paid, freemium, and paymium). And there are a number of games where I spent a lot of money on without thinking or feeling I was cheated. I believed I got my money’s worth. For anyone who spent more than a console game’s worth in the arcade or a mobile game to finish whatever game you were hooked on, you know what I am talking about.

This is part two of my view: whether freemium or paymium, if you need to spend in order to move forward in a game that does not involve packs or levels, but rather the ability to move forward is dependent on some energy level or being equipped with certain tools, weapons, or power ups before you can successfully continue, then it is very close to being poorly done or it is very obviously poorly done. The key, I believe, is in creating enough of an opening so that anyone who plays can continue down the road, playing through the levels without feeling that unless they buy an item, let’s say a gun, that they can only afford via an IAP (meaning grinding won’t work) will get them to move forward. Making a player wait is not a bad thing. Making a player ask friends for help is not a bad thing (for both player and game developer). Mobile games allow for breaks. Being told to wait a few hours before something can happen is fine. But there are limits. Basically, my rule of thumb is that if it will allow me to successfully grind because I persevere or progress because I am good at the game, then the IAPs do not ruin the game. The patient and the skilled can enjoy the game, not just the spender.

Temple Run, Subway Surfers, and Jetpack Joyride are all among my favorite endless (runner/side-scroller) games. They remain fun whether or not you spend. That you spend is entirely your choice and will not affect the fun value of the game in any way. I love that. Disco Zoo is a great game for grinders and for spenders. But some games are so unbalanced that grinding becomes too tedious too soon and the return of investment (in this case, time) is not felt. That’s a bad game right there. Much more so because it makes it clear to the player than only spenders will progress or, even worse, have any resemblance fun.

There are puzzle games that became almost insanely impossible to finish and only get harder and harder. I think the good ones allow the (re-)entry of easy levels enough times to make it fun for the player again. It says, here’s a break so you can enjoy the game again. Which is basically how I see any good RPG game. Easy enemies, followed by a tough boss, followed by easy enemies, almost ad infinitum. It’s what makes it playable.

Bad games, whether premium, freemium, or paymium, don’t respect the balance.

Howard Go is ½ of MochiBits. His current interest in game design involves game balance, retention, and monetization. He taught philosophy for five years then sold out to work in the corporate world for seven years, finally escaping into the world of game development in December 2010.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Game Design: Creating a System Formula (Part IV)

In Part I, game designer Bud Leiser explains how to use the Fibonacci series in system design. In Part II, he shows the grind gap and how the amount of grind can quickly accelerate when using the Fibonacci series. In Part III, he discusses how to evaluate the curve based on design goals. In Part IV, he suggests how to progress from the general guideline to cover all other elements in the game.

Actually…I could see implementing this curve into a real RPG if: for the player to survive we would probably have to give lots of item drops and a low cost way of healing outside of combat. (Final Fantasy health potions anyone?).  We can also try to figure out what strategy the player will use to overcome this curve: What might happen is players grind longer at a given level to buy his armor and boots.
They might even skip weapon levels, instead of buying each one progressively they might save up money to buy 2 levels ahead, and then use that powerful sword in combat, if he has enough health to survive 1 combat he could use cheap healing outside of combat. In other words relying on that high level sword to get him through 1 combat and not worrying about keep up with armor until absolutely necessary. If we wanted to encourage this type of play we could set the monster damage levels at rates unlikely to kill a player in a single combat. Drop potions frequently and even give the player armor pieces as common rewards. Assuming he has free time out of combat to heal up to full without being attacked, this would be a completely valid RPG style.


You could create these cost progressions using “suits” (Armor, gauntlet, belt, boots, helmet, weapon). Then assign % of that to each piece. For example:

Suits Total Cost Weapons Sword Cost Armor Armor Cost Helmet Helmet Cost
A 50 20% 10 25% 13 10% 5
B 100 20% 20 25% 25 10% 10
C 150 20% 30 25% 38 10% 15
D 250 20% 50 25% 63 10% 25
E 400 20% 80 25% 100 10% 40
F 650 20% 130 25% 163 10% 65
G 1050 20% 210 25% 263 10% 105
H 1700 20% 340 25% 425 10% 170
I 2750 20% 550 25% 688 10% 275
J 4450 20% 890 25% 1113 10% 445
K 7200 20% 1440 25% 1800 10% 720
L 11650 20% 2330 25% 2913 10% 1165
M 18850 20% 3770 25% 4713 10% 1885
N 30500 20% 6100 25% 7625 10% 3050
O 49350 20% 9870 25% 12338 10% 4935
P 79850 20% 15970 25% 19963 10% 7985

With this we have a general idea of how much the player is making and how much things should cost.

The most important thing is we didn’t have to spend hours making these prices individually. 

We have at the very least a general guideline. And we once we have a guideline that works, that we understand, and that curves the way we want to (meaning the player progresses at a rate that we want them to, and slow down where we want them to). We can now add elements wherever we want. And feel free to Fudge the numbers, give the player a cool Fire Sword and increase the value 10%, or 5% or 500gp.

[This article originally appeared on Bud Leiser's personal blog.]

Bud Leiser beat Nintendo’s original Zelda when he was just 3 years old. Then went on to win money and prizes playing: D&D Miniatures, Dreamblade, Magic the Gathering and The Spoils. He’s just returned from Vietnam where he helped manage Wulven Studios as their Lead Game Designer. He was responsible for creating internal projects, game design documents and communicating with clients to help them succeed in the post-freemium app market.