Encounter Design

this bunny is bad at getting out of the fire. not even touching the sticks.

The first thing people usually think of when I mention “encounter design” is boss fights. Big, fancy battles in custom-made arenas, usually at the end of a dungeon. For a lot of games, they’re the only encounters that matter, and we’ve been trained to think of them that way.

In fact, if you’ve ever played an MMO, you’ve probably heard people talk about “trash mobs”, all of the encounters leading up to those boss fights (read: the only encounters that matter). There’s nothing to make them interesting or rewarding, there’s often no compelling mechanics, it’s just enemies that you have to beat to get to where you really want to be. Gotta do your chores before having fun. Gotta take out the trash.

This line of thinking has led to a lot of reduced complexity in encounters. We’ve so focused on the boss as the only end goal that it’s seeped back into game design itself.

Here’s a map of Molten Core:

god, I died a lot in here.

Linear design with offshoot tendrils that contain bosses at the end, all spiraling into the center, for the Big Boss Fight at the end.

Here’s an earlier dungeon, from Everquest– Befallen:

(via http://www.allakabor.com/eqatlas/)

(via http://www.allakabor.com/eqatlas/)

WAY less linear, still offshoot corridors but there’s no obvious linear path through the place. In fact, people don’t even play it the same way they play Molten Core; it’s an entirely different dungeon experience.

Don’t believe me that the “boss fights are the only thing that matters” mentality affects the design side? Here’s (part of) Befallen in EQ2:

never died in here.

(from http://eq2.zam.com/)


Kind of a big difference.

I do a lot of encounter design in my tabletop RPGs, where I have a bit more control over things. I take a lot of my inspiration from stealth games, where there are (ideally) multiple ways through an area and you can make your own path, figuring out who you fight, who you don’t, and how to approach each area.

I very, very rarely have boss fights. I think in a nine-month campaign, I had two, and I’ve had entire campaigns go without a single boss fight. Instead, all of my encounters are cranked up. If it’s a non-life-threatening encounter, it exists to whittle away my players over time, because I’m probably not letting them rest for a while. If it isn’t doing that, it’s going to tax them.

I think this has a lot to do with why I like stealth games so much. Every encounter is relevant, and how you approach it matters. There’s no such thing as “trash” in a stealth game. Even if you silently drop someone, you still often have to figure out if anyone else saw you, or what will happen if they find your victim. There’s little room for thoughtlessness.

If an encounter is just “trash”, if it serves no purpose other than to waste your time and offer no meaningful reward in return, I think that’s bad design. FFXIV vastly improved the fun of running dungeons when they added money drops to every mob, often in not-insignificant amounts as you get higher in level. I think they’ve failed in making treasure chests worthwhile, particularly when it comes to pulling encounters that aren’t on the linear path just to access the chest, but with any luck they’ll improve that.

New Emotions

(from Clannad, visual novel)

I really wish dating games would take off in the US. We, as a country, are terrified of them.

They’re a big hit elsewhere in the world (often called visual novels), some of the most played games out there, and they’re often held up as an example of other cultures being “perverse”. As a bit of an example: it’s been suggested to me that I include more images in my posts, so I figured I’d do some google image searching. My Google.com search picked up this:


Note: Nearly every image is focused on a female character, pretty much all of whom are sexualized in some way, text is a tiny bar at the bottom, often an afterthought. Everything is about looking at the pictures, the story is just a hurdle for you to see more pictures. This is the Western view of dating games.

Here’s Google.jp’s return:


Looks pretty similar, but a few noticeable differences. First, note the variety: particularly the ones with text in Japanese are doing rather more interesting things, visually, with their art, with a wider range of characters. Also, the text. Whereas text covers maybe a quarter of the average image in the .com search, the .jp search text takes up a LOT more, and there’s no fear of obscuring the image with story.

I’m not going to try to claim that it isn’t predominantly showing sexualized content, but it appears not to be the sole purpose of the medium.

I’ve talked before, on the podcast, about how I’m thrilled that games are exploring emotions other than wrath, going for things other than wanton mass murder, but that I’ve quickly gotten tired of the shift from anger to sadness. We’ve figured out how to make heartbreaking games, and we need a new emotion.

I brought up dating sims above because they’re a longstanding genre that’s been exploring emotions other than “rage” and “sads” for decades, but sits in its little niche without much attention (negative attention, usually). What more emotional experience is there than detailed interactions with other people? Look at the popularity of Mass Effect– as an adjunct to the shooting/stabbing/killing game, there’s some incredible, emotive storytelling that fires on all cylinders, hitting every part of the emotional spectrum. Why not make that the main focus of the game?

Japanese dating sims get a bad rap because people hold them up and show the predominantly school-aged characters, casting aspersions on the kind of person who’d want to play a game about finding love in high school. It’s absolutely a problem, particularly in the questionable ‘adult’ segment, but it’s a problem borne of too little input. The porn association is extremely strong… yet we’re playing the same type of game in Mass Effect, just with this attached shooting and killing thing.

I’d be interested in seeing a modern dating sim focused on a twenty- or thirty-something protagonist done in the style of Mass Effect’s conversation trees. It’s fertile ground for provoking compelling emotional responses, and it doesn’t have to be a) schoolgirls or b) porn. There’s more to relationships than that.

I’d like to see games that explore relationships beyond “press all the right buttons enough times to sleep with this person”. Let’s apply the grey-area, “whatever choice you make keeps you moving forward, you just have to live with the consequences” choice structure of Dragon Age to interpersonal relationships. Even that game, which I love, quickly devolves into “talk to X person enough to sleep with them”, and there’s so much more that could be done there.

The Joys of Unsophisticated Play

I spoke yesterday about playing “solved” games, and how quickly it can make the fun of playing a game evaporate for all except the players at the top of the heap. Games tend to fall apart when there’s unequal skill and meta-level understanding between the players involved.

One of the places where this can become a huge problem is tabletop RPGs. I’ve heard countless stories of players who figure out an unstoppably powerful character in a game where the other players aren’t doing that, who dominates the game as the only relevant player– either the DM has to throw challenges appropriate to the super-player that would crush any of the others or the super-player just walks all over every encounter.

I’ve been running tabletop RPGs on and off for quite a number of years at this point, and I’ve had to figure out how to balance parties of players who absorb the rulebook and look for loopholes and players who throw together something fun and/or have never played a pen-and-paper RPG before, and figure out how to make it fun for everyone.

The tack I’ve taken is to enforce unsophisticated play. I tend not to give my players the resources to become unstoppably powerful, offering “interesting” rather than “good” rewards. Rather than giving powerful loot, I like to create powerful choices. The phrase that comes up in my group is “bad ideas treasure”. I use next to nothing from the standard magic items tables in D&D– no simple +1 swords of frost here. Instead, here’s a sword that casts a cone of flame out from your target when you kill it or roll an even number on the attack roll. The direction of the cone of flame is random. 25% of the time, it’s going to blow up in your face, but the other 75% of the time it’s going to deal a bunch of extra damage, possibly hit some extra targets, and hey, magic sword!

This item was hugely effective in mixing up the combat strategies of the group. The alternative being a stock, non-magical sword, the fancy-but-potentially-dangerous fire cone sword was quite good. The player wielding it started prioritizing things that would protect him from fire, and turned into more of a flanker than a frontline warrior, since staying close to his allies was a liability. There were some tense moments when something REALLY needed to get smacked with a magic sword but there were nearby wounded allies, and that fire cone might’ve been a disaster.

If that had been a regular +1 sword, it would’ve been boring, and combat would’ve been the same “walk up and hit things” that it frequently was before. The trick is to keep it simple but add a slight twist. Without being able to rely on particular powerful items, the ability for play to quickly turn into a game of “who’s figured the system out the best” goes down dramatically, particularly if players are trying to play around the weird items they’ve gotten rather than mark their stat boosts down and forget about them.

I’d be interested in seeing this kind of thing adapted to other sorts of games, where the level of play is maintained at a relatively unsophisticated level, offering more exploration into the low- and mid-tier play experiences and preventing a rise to the higher tiers of play. Minis games are often very good at this, with supported alternate gametypes and game sizes that significantly change the way the game is played and what strategies arise, and tend to keep things at that nice, everyone-is-still-learning tier of play.

Playing “Solved” Games

I don’t play card games with Kodra, a reality that I think makes him a bit sad. I’ve also tried, at the behest of a wide variety of friends, to play the Battlestar Galactica board game, which I’m told is a wonderful and amazingly fun experience but for me has been hours of misery as one or two experienced players dictate the entire game for everyone else.

I love the moment of stumbling into a new game experience entirely blind, and trying to make sense of it and turn confusion into victory. Stepping foot into a new dungeon in an MMO without knowing any of the mechanics of any of the encounters and figuring them out on the fly is amazing, thrilling, and magical. The magic evaporates instantly once even one person knows what’s up, because then you have the answer key.

High level play in a lot of games becomes a question of knowing the dominant metastrategy, and very rarely does it correlate to the intuitive choices being made by players learning the game. Once I know how to win a game, or beat an encounter, and can do so reliably, the game stops being fun. This is what’s called a “solved” game, and while there are often elements of randomness and uncertainty that prevent a game from being perfectly solved, there’s not a lot of fun left when a game is *almost* solved, enough so that there’s a clear right-way and wrong-way to play.

On the other hand, that learning process and the associated discovery that goes along with it is a true joy, and one that is all too often lost far too quickly.

One of the reason I like Infinity is that in three years of playing it rather heavily, and keeping up with all of the available information, a dominant, game-solivng metastrategy still hasn’t emerged, and the new releases continually stymie and obfuscate any attempts to create one. I wonder what that would be like in other types of games. I think I’d like PvP more if it were more common.

Diablo and other games of its type do a bit of this with randomized enemy generation and level layouts, and it keeps the game fresh for a lot longer than you might expect, lasting multiple playthroughs. I don’t think this is as big a deal, though, because when you’re not playing against other players the gap between having all the information and knowing all of the combos and not isn’t so stark. When the only point of comparison is how you perform relative to other players, one player having more information or a superior combo is a quick downward spiral.

I want games where I can continually strive to improve without ever reaching a solved state. I also want to have a metastrategy that’s either changing too rapidly for any player to get a solid, dominant foothold or that doesn’t have giant gaps between strategies. These gaps effectively shut out players who are learning from being relevant to the game as anything other than a resource to be exploited, and make for terribly unfun games. I don’t terribly enjoy games that are won or lost before the game even begins, just based on what the players already know/own.

I’m really excited by the potential of games like the new Fable, moving towards asymmetric PvP. I had a lot of hope for Netrunner, but my understanding is that the game devolves into the same “this combo wins” strategies that so many other card games do. I would like drafting in theory, except that most draft games (draft Magic, as an example) have a prevailing *draft* metastrategy that if you’re still learning and don’t have all of the cards in the set memorized, you will lose at– again, before you play the game.

I don’t know how alone I am in this feeling. I get the impression that many people prefer games, even PvP games, where they can use a dominant strategy and win continually without changing anything. Possibly I’m in the minority here, in wanting to be continually challenged and having the ground move underneath me?


JRPGs and What They’ve Become

I love watching trends in video games. Genres form and evolve, and it’s really interesting to watch how the threads move about and take shape. As you might’ve heard on the podcast, I’ve played a bunch of the Final Fantasy XV demo. To me, it’s the culmination of a decade of Final Fantasy games trying to push the genre forward.

I’ve made no secret of my feeling that JRPGs as a genre have gotten stale. The days of standing in a line selecting commands from a menu as the primary form of gameplay and watching canned animations play out is well behind the times. The formula is so well defined that you can boot up RPG Maker and whip up a functional JRPG over a weekend. Seeing “classic” JRPGs released in the states at all is fairly rare, now, doubly so on major modern consoles.

From the above, you’d think I hated JRPGs, and for a while in there I would’ve agreed with you. I think the technology has reached the point where interesting choices aren’t just doable in games, but important and expected, and the necessity of a turn-based combat system isn’t a technological limitation but a design choice. A great many JRPGs have unbending linear plots where the only choice you have is which NPCs to listen to in what order, and have a static turn-based combat system simply because that’s what the genre does. Having worked in MMOs, I’m strongly convinced that following genre conventions simply because they’re genre conventions is a fast way to a dead genre.

In the meantime, though, I’ve played the (truly excellent) Persona 3 and 4. These games are fascinating, because the core gameplay loop is not what you’d expect. Instead of wandering through areas with random encounters (ugh) or random wandering enemies that spawn a combat vignette (better), comprising the majority of your game time, Persona 3 and 4 are about time management. There are a vast number of things to do and a limited amount of time to do them in, and sometimes the things are of limited availability. The games are more about the stories of the characters against the backdrop of some calamity that you’re also dealing with than the forward press of Saving The World. You might save the world, but it almost feels incidental to the more important relationships you’re building. Both games also let you make some interesting choices– relatively shallow in scope, usually “who do I date” and “do I encourage or rebuff this person”, but the ramifications of those choices feel significant because they’re tied to a limited resource: time.

Persona games have taken the trope of JRPGs and combined them with a time management and dating sim. When you get into combat, it’s less about chipping away at an enemy’s health and more about exploiting their weaknesses– combat encounters are like a high-stakes puzzle game. The rest of the game focuses deeply on a single slice of life, where you get to know the people and the places in great detail.

At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got Final Fantasy, games about world-spanning adventure and various travels with a party who, ideally, become your friends. It’s almost like… wait for it… a road trip, really fitting for the newest upcoming installment of the series. The focus is on getting to see the sights and sounds of a great big world, and seeing a lot of variety in the process. I’ve commented before that I think that the MMORPG is the natural evolution of the JRPG– it’s a great big world that you adventure in alongside friends, and you level up and get better gear to fight bigger and badder monsters to see more of the world. The other evolution of the JRPG, the one that’s taken longer to form, are games like Mass Effect, taking the same basic construct and upping the fidelity of the story and the choices you can make in it, as well as a more modern, fast-paced combat system.

Final Fantasy has been pushing the boundaries of the genre almost since its inception. Every game is a different twist on character progression, combat mechanics, and so on. Action Combat has been something they’ve clearly wanted for a very long time– even before the prototypical spinoffs like Dirge of Cerberus, the fast-paced semi-turn-based combat of FFX-2 and Crisis Core, and the MMOs (XI and XIV) and MMO-alikes like FFXII, they’ve been incorporating the ATB (Active Time Battle) system, a way of timing your turns. They’ve previously acquiesced and allowed you to turn ATB off, and more recently have (I think) realized that that was holding back their attempts at advancing the genre.

Now we have FFXV, a game I’m surprisingly excited about. It’s Final Fantasy tone and style in a game I actually want to play, that feels like an evolution of the series (the culmination of 15-20 years of experimenting) and not a retread of existing ground. I’ve also got FFXIV’s expansion, the continuation of a slightly different evolutionary path and one that’s kept me hooked for far longer than I expected.

I’ve also got the upcoming Persona 5, which I’m unreasonably excited about for the music alone.

All of this is coming at a point in my life where I’m doing a lot of rebooting and starting over, which is itself reminiscent of things I did 10-15 years ago. It’s fitting, somehow, that I’d return to school and return to Final Fantasy in the same year.

How I Design: The Chapter (Part 2)

I talked a bit last week about worldbuilding, and how I start building a setting from scratch. All of that is the background, it becomes my notebook of details and concepts that inform the actual experience but is (usually) never exposed to the audience. It’s a very important part of things, but it’s important not to dwell on it– spending too much time fleshing out the background leaves little room for maneuvering when you get to the actual experience. As an example of what I mean by “maneuvering”: Wynne left a comment in my last post that I’m going to use in here– an idea that didn’t initially enter into things but is really interesting can and should be able to be incorporated, if it fits with the concept. Today I’d like to talk about what I call the “Chapter”. The Chapter is a single arc, a series of events for the audience to experience that, while not necessarily discrete, make a fairly complete chunk. I use the term “chapter” for my own personal use, when a whole studio is proving out the kind of concept I’m talking about, it’s often called the Vertical Slice, and elsewhere it’s called storyboarding. It’s different from medium to medium, but the concept is similar. A Chapter isn’t necessarily a single quest, or mission, or level, or scene. It’s far more often a collection of these that all come together in a particular way. It’s a focused experience that has a number of moving parts, all working to a particular set of goals. The Chapter is the story arc, the questline, the portion of the story. In a game like Dragon Age, I’d consider each of the separate locations Chapters. In a traditional three-act structure, each Act is akin to a Chapter, the way I think. Building a Chapter is the first thing I try to do once I have a good handle on worldbuilding. Note that I didn’t say “finished worldbuilding” here, because all of that is likely to change. Here’s an example of my process, using my setting example from yesterday: the near-future supernatural world with mage-gangs, territorial graffiti, and ubiquitious magic-suppression technology. One question I didn’t answer is how long magic has been around, other than “a while”, which may come up here. For the Chapter, I start with a few questions:

  1. What are the goals of the Chapter? Am I showing off the setting for my audience? Am I revealing how the setting is beginning to change? Am I making an irreparable change? A reparable one?
  2. Who are the major players at the start of this Chapter? Is the audience (or the main character, in a non-interactive medium) an important player in the events that are unfolding, or not?
  3. Who are the major players at the end of this Chapter? Does it change? Is there a shift in power, or the filling of a void?

These questions are absolutely vital, and the pacing of the experience is hugely dependent on how and when I answer them. An experience that starts in media res may skimp on the details of the setting early on and bring them in later, once the audience is hooked. A very unique, very strange setting may need some setup early on to explain motivations and the setting itself before the actions of any of the players make sense. Similarly, characters are important here, and how much agency they have at what points in the story is important. A character who starts off with very little agency in the events of the setting and ends with a lot of agency, or noticably more than they started with, creates an opportunity for character growth. This goes both ways, of course, and a character losing agency can be a central focus of a Chapter. Enough abstraction, here’s a Chapter using the worldbuilding from before, and assuming a video game as our medium:

Chapter 3: Finding the Rogue Mage This chapter focuses on locating and contacting a rogue wizard who’s gone to ground among the mage-gangs in Atlanta. The player is a low-ranking member of an “established” mage organization that’s dealing with some kind of internal difficulty that the sought rogue wizard is somehow related to.

The player will need to track the rogue wizard through the gangs. One of the goals of this Chapter is scene-setting, showing the world off to the audience. Finding the way into and around the gangs is important here, as it puts the player at “street level”, to see the everyday world and the ways in which it’s similar and different from what they might expect. The player is relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but is competent and recognized enough to be given a nontrivial role, likely due to having proven themselves earlier. There’s not a major power shift going on here, because we haven’t established the status quo enough for major shifts to matter. We want the player to feel a bit constrained; they’re working for powers greater than they are and we want to establish a reference point for their rise in power. Major players will likely include one or two authority figures (who directly command the player), at least one of which is recurring, as we want the player to develop a relationship for later. Other major players will be the rogue wizard (who the player will get to know over the course of finding them) and the player themselves.

A central focus of the Chapter is the sense of investigation, and seeking– the mage-graffiti will play a central role in that. We can express that visually in gameplay, and conceptually the player is seeking out gangs based on power, working under the assumption that a trained wizard gone rogue and her cabal will be more powerful than a ragtag band of untrained mages.

This is a good start for our Chapter. It gives a broad arc, a sense of where it fits into the bigger picture, and a vague sense of direction. That last part is where we’ll focus next. Once we have a broad arc, we can focus on individual segments: “quests” or “missions”.

The Chapter will be broken down into a series of missions:

  1. Getting situated in Atlanta. This will focus on finding local contacts, standard resources (whatever those might be in the game), and introducing any local NPC authority. This will likely take the form of meeting a contact or going out into the city to find an information drop, possibly both.

  2. Investigating the gang presence. Should be hinted at in the previous section, with some mage-graffiti made evident and possibly witness to some minor gang activity (loitering, posters, etc). This is mostly going to involve more moving-about and exploring, this time looking in out-of-the-way places for mage-graffiti and potentially gaining the attention of gang members. I really like the idea of the gangs all having uniquely enchanted graffiti, that someone with magical senses can focus on to get an idea of the power and focus of the mage that left it. This can be reflected in color and glow intensity, which also gives us a good way of finding it and allows us to establish “mage-sense” as a game mechanic, if we’re using something like that. This should segue neatly into…

  3. Establishing the gangs’ personalities, as friendly, neutral, hostile, or some combination of the above. Their motivations and how they fit into the world is important here too, and we can start hinting at how the rogue wizard is making waves. This is the point where I’d normally start to introduce a bit of unexpectedness– two very powerful gangs, for example, that are the major players in the area, either one of which could house the rogue mage. This will involve getting in with one gang or another and getting embroiled in local conflicts.

  4. Introduce the rogue wizard. The player’s done investigation and gotten their hands dirty a bit, and is a powerful and effective enough agent in events for the rogue wizard to make an appearance. She can be hostile, if the player has sided with the wrong gang, or she can be friendly, seeking the player’s help. Either way, the player will wind up working with her to drive out the other major gang. Her importance to the larger narrative arc is less important here than establishing her character. Here we’ll focus on her ties to Atlanta, why she (initially) doesn’t want to leave. This portion of the Chapter likely involves a bit of legwork before the final face-to-face, giving some time for the player to find audio logs, journal entries, other gang members, etc. I particularly like the idea of staging a raid on a location, uncovering this information, and then directly facing the rogue wizard (who may be furious at the raid).

  5. The rogue wizard’s task. Whatever the wizard needs the player to do to convince her to help the player out. This should be something that either wouldn’t be possible without the player’s help or would have taken an extremely long time, and the player allows a more direct route. I prefer the latter, as it throttles back on the player as the only agent of change in the status quo. The rogue wizard would have won eventually, but with the player’s help she can win tonight. Our final encounter cripples the opposing gang and the player and the rogue wizard evade reprisal effectively.

  6. Denouement, lead in to next portion of the narrative. We don’t want an abrupt stop to our story, we want to see the aftermath, we want to see how things changed, etc. I like to have this mirror the first segment, debriefing with any local authority content and moving through Atlanta back to the airport or train station, wherever the player entered from and likely hasn’t been back to. We can see both subtle and overt changes here, like a change in the brightness and ubiquity of mage-graffiti, and the overall sense of danger vs safety in the area.

This is a pretty good breakdown of a Chapter. It’s fairly basic, but gives you an idea of flow. There are a number of things missing here, such as specific details or the kinds of spaces the player is moving in. Details will come a bit later, in the next section. They’re important for what I call Moments. Spaces are vague partly due to space (this is already really long) but also because  you may need to be extremely flexible with the spaces you’re working in, and if something has to change, you need to be able to change the space it happens in without it being a disaster.

These are long, hopefully they’re still interesting to read. The next entry will be about Moments, the little details in a Chapter and the parts you’re most likely to remember. They’re the little sparks that ignite the imagination, and they’re (to me) one of the most fun parts.

How I Design: Worldbuilding (Part 1)

Thought this might be an interesting series. I’ll cover a few different things that I’ve had come up, share my thought processes.

Worldbuilding is, broadly, the first step of design. I don’t mean the art term, though that’s crucially important, I mean the process of coming up with a setting from scratch. I tend to have a meet-in-the-middle approach to this, where I take both really big picture concepts and really fine details as opposite ends of the spectrum and build towards the center.

Here’s an example of the process. I’m coming up with this from whole cloth as I type, so it’s going to be half-baked. I just want to give a sense of the process.

First: what genre? For this example, I’m going to go with near-future modern supernatural. Magic in a modern setting. New York warlocks and Texan sorcerers. Gritty spy themes– the Bourne Identity with wizards. I like to define the concept in three or four different ways in my head in order to get a more three-dimensional high concept and not get stuck on a single thought.

Next, holding the genre in my head, I want fine details. I envision trailers when I think of this, what are the little unique details that will pique people’s interest? Magic as zero-sum energy manipulation, requiring a power source to function. Fonts of power all over the world, waiting to be tapped by world travelers. Mage-gangs in cities, leaving territory markings disguised as graffiti. Magic is commonplace enough to be recognizable. Ethereal dampeners scattered through major population centers, built into ubiquitous fixtures like lampposts, power lines, and roads, to suppress magic and keep people safe. Supernatural Crimes Divisions in major police departments. I come up with tons of these, little flashes of concept, the kind of thing you could flash in a trailer or make a quick sketch of.

When I’ve got the two extreme ends of the spectrum created, I start figuring out how the audience is interacting with the world. This is really a question of medium more than anything. Is this a short story? A movie? A tabletop RPG? A video game? I save this for a little later, because occasionally I’ll come up with setting ideas that don’t have a specific medium, and I can set them aside until I have a use for them. Once I know how I want to use the setting, I can pare down the genre and the details to better fit the medium I’m working in. I used to think of the medium first, since I figured that was the most important piece, and I’ve wound up feeling like I tend to give the genre and the details short shrift when I’m already thinking ahead to how my audience is going to react. I narrowly focus my concepts too much, and I think the end result is weaker for it. Going into the process expecting everything to change is important, but making changes before anything can crystallize is like stirring the cake batter while the cake is in the oven.

As an example: In the above idea, if I started the process by thinking “I’m making a video game”, I would immediately start thinking of spaces to move around in and flashy spell effects, and interactive details like gameplay. I would tend to skip over some of the scene-setting stuff; certainly having a bunch of gangs putting up territorial graffiti wouldn’t really surface, or would be quickly dismissed as “too complicated” or “not enough gameplay”.

On the other hand, fixing on that concept, I can now imagine a stealth game, where the player plays an undercover wizard who is either a member of a gang or is investigating the gangs, and who has a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle magic to find contacts and manipulate the environment. Overt magic use (where the public can see) is verboten, but subtle magic can be used. A mix of mundane and supernatural elements on the player’s side, along with some environmental concepts. The magic suppressors make for both interesting obstacles and traps for enemies, letting the player fight more powerful, less inhibited enemies in public spaces on more even footing.

In a similar vein, if I’ve come up with this concept and it’s being used for a tabletop game, I’m looking at paring back the details in a different way. The graffiti is a way of collecting information for my players, though the suppressors allow the same tug-of-war between obstacle and opportunity, and vary the encounters significantly. Subtlety in magic use would play a much more significant role with farther-reaching consequences, whereas in a video game the consequences will likely be more localized, more immediate, and more directly remedied.

I’ve now answered the three main questions:

  1. What’s the high concept?
  2. What are some sticky details?
  3. How does the audience experience the world?

With this, I can start working towards the middle. The mage-gangs need to have started somewhere. If they’re gangs, we’re talking about magic being broad and poorly-controlled, not necessarily a mark of privilege. Enough magic users slip through the cracks for territory to be claimed. Is there a “legitimate” mage organization? How do magic users learn? Perhaps mage-gangs are more numerous, but “legitimate” mages are better trained and more powerful, but largely uninterested in the workings of the gangs? How do these two classes interact, if at all?

The suppressors came from somewhere. Magic researchers coming up with technology to suppress magic, with the influence to have their designs installed ubiquitously? How ubiquitously? Is there a secretive, far-reaching cabal, like Vampire: the Masquerade, or is magic known to the populace and the suppressors a tool to even the scales so there isn’t a panic? This neatly fits the Supernatural Crimes Divisions into the concept, as a governmental agency.

How long has magic been around? With cultural and technological emplacements like police forces, gangs, and installed magic suppressors, we’re talking about decades at least. What kind of history do we have here? This is the point where I start drilling down from the high concept to the ground, using the details as anchor points. Each detail has to fit into the world and have a history, or it’s going to feel tacked-on. These histories are what will shape my characters. If I’ve had a character concept spring up, the histories help shape that character and flesh them out.

It’s from here that I work out the day-to-day existence of the world.

I have a new set of questions, now:

  1. What is the status quo?
  2. How long has the status quo been in effect?
  3. What happened before the status quo?
  4. What kinds of people exist in the setting?
  5. What does daily life look like for the different kinds of people? Specifically, how does it differ from my everyday?
  6. Does the status quo need changing?
  7. Am I going to change it?

These all help shape the setting, and start looking forward to the narrative. I also want to know, at this point, what the setting will do if the audience never interacts with it. Events will play out and either continue as-is or change significantly, which gives me a starting point to determine what sorts of goals the audience should have. Is the audience rooting for the status quo, or are they advocates of change? How resistant is the world to being changed?

All of these help build the world, and give me a foundation for a narrative. The fewer of these questions I’ve answered and fleshed out, the more plot holes I’m going to find later and have to patch. From here, I can start working on the next step: the Chapter.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (Or: The Power of Marketing)

I played a whole ton of Borderlands 2. More than I have multiple MMOs. The writing was fantastic, it made me laugh, and while the gameplay started frustrating me, I loved the game enough that I didn’t care.

All that said, I was lukewarm on Borderlands: the Pre-Sequel, and I have a hard time putting my finger on why. By rights, I should have been ecstatic and incredibly excited for it. After all, I put more hours than I care to admit into the previous game, and it meets my perfect checkbox for a game: fun, well-written, co=op, my friends are interested.

Except… we weren’t. I’ve been trying to put my finger on why, and the only thing I can come up with (in conversations with Ash) was that the trailers were awful, and it seemed indicative of the fact that the Pre-Sequel was the B-team’s project. At some level, the poor trailers managed to make us lukewarm about a game that would absolutely have been an auto-purchase in the absence of any marketing at all.

I’m fairly sure that myself, Ash, and Kodra would have bought the game, day 1, if there had been no trailers at all. Rae even told us she was preparing to buy the fancy edition but heard that we weren’t that interested and didn’t bother. Somehow, “made by the secondary team” quickly morphed into “not going to buy the next in a beloved series” due to about six minutes of internet video.

And we’re supposedly resistant to that kind of advertising. We like to claim it doesn’t affect us.

It obviously does.

I can’t help but wonder if it works the other way– bad trailers nearly lost my purchase of a game whose predecessor I adored, but I have a hard time thinking of games that I would never have purchased had I not seen a trailer. They certainly exist, I just can’t think of them. Even browsing my Steam library, I can’t immediately bring one to mind.

At any rate, the Pre-Sequel is fun in the first 20 minutes we played of it, and while it very aggressively finishes what Borderlands 2 started in terms of telling me outright that snipers aren’t welcome, I think I’ll still have fun with it.

“Fun”, Defined (Part 2)

We left off yesterday trying to define “fun”. I spoke before about challenge and expression of mastery, two components of fun, and I want to mention them again briefly. The psychological approach says that the brain likes to learn and the ego likes to be recognized– this is the core of challenge and expression of mastery. To create fun, however, we cannot force someone to learn; it’s very difficult to have fun when coerced, and so rather than forcing players to learn, we merely provide challenges and payoffs for said challenges to encourage learning. Voluntary learning is fun. Expression of mastery is in a similar vein– we have moved past simply telling the player “great job!”, though many older games did exactly this. We instead provide high scores, online play, leaderboards, and other such external functions as a measurable demonstration of mastery. Achievements are an extension of this, and are part of the next part of the equation.


Fun = Challenge + Expression of Mastery + ?

Yesterday, I talked about following the money, as it were. Tracing the paths followed by game devs allows us to see the things that are emphasized, where a lot of effort is put forth. These are not decisions made in a vacuum, nor are they made frivolously. Resources in game development are always tight and games vary so widely that a particular feature or concept that crosses games (like difficulty settings) are worth noting, because they hint at a crucial piece of the puzzle. This next part is what we see emphasized in advertising, with each new console generation, in sequels, in indie games, and even in mobile games and flash games.

I’m talking about Spectacle. The loud, bombastic, explosive deluge of a triple-A blockbuster or the serene, calming meditations of a variety of indie games or the simple, focused pleasure of a match-3 mobile game — even the flailing-in-the-living-room spectacle of games of the Wii, Kinect, PSMove, Dance Dance Revolution, etc. I would have once described this as “exploration of beauty”, which I think is still accurate but isn’t broad enough to cover the entire spectrum. Spectacle is a term pulled from a friend and former colleague of mine, who points out that pressing “the most fun button in video games”* is much akin to enjoying the gorgeous desert of Journey and finding fantastic vistas in Skyrim. Whether that spectacle is a particularly satisfying button, a perfectly tuned user interface, a breathtaking visual, a particularly evocative musical piece, or some combination of all of these isn’t important– whatever it is that makes you stop and stare, or say “wow”, or laugh with surprise and awe, that is spectacle. Spectacles inspire awe, and awe is fun.

Fun = Challenge + Expression of Mastery + Spectacle + ?

The last piece to the equation is something that my aforementioned friend would call “delight”, which is linked to spectacle in the same way that expression of mastery is linked with challenge. I agree with the general concept, but in the same way I think “spectacle” describes a broader spectrum than “appreciation of beauty”, I think that a better term than “delight” would be “catharsis”. Video games offer, in many ways, an emotional release, and work to both inspire and satisfy emotions. If spectacle inspires emotion, cartharsis satisfies it. One builds up, the other pays off.

In the end, we have this:

Fun = Challenge + Expression of Mastery + Spectacle + Catharsis

I think this fairly well covers the spectrum of games that are fun, while realizing and accepting that different people will like different games (but all of those game can be fun!). It also gives us ways of analyzing why a game is or isn’t fun. Fun is obviously subjective, but this gives us a framework to understand how games are fun for different people in different ways. Certain games also focus more or less on these various things.

As an example, three extreme points on the gaming spectrum: Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, and Angry Birds. All three of these are highly popular games and their players will tell you they’re fun, but why? Let’s see if we can break them down:

Challenge: Call of Duty requires excellent hand-eye coordination and fast reflexes, as well as good spatial reasoning. World of Warcraft doesn’t challenge the same skills in the same way, but does have a broader scope– challenging a player’s long-term commitment, their ability to comprehend and evaluate complex data, group coordination, pattern recognition and execution, and for many, social skills. Angry Birds also offers challenge, focusing heavily on spatial reasoning and pattern recognition as well as iterative experimentation. All three of these challenge different skills (with some overlap), and it’s thus unsurprising that the playerbases for each game differ very widely (again, with some overlap).

Expression of Mastery: Call of Duty allows players to test their skills against one another directly, as well as offering leaderboards and achievements for difficult goals. Its single-player levels also follow arcs of difficulty, allowing players to become good at fighting a particular enemy type or using a particular weapon and then allowing them to show off their skills with that weapon against foes they’ve become good at defeating. World of Warcraft follows many of the same arcs, with rare, powerful items replacing leaderboards and a heavier focus on team dynamics rather than individual skill. It also allows players to easily return to portions of the game they’ve grown past, displaying their power against enemies that once seriously threatened them — indeed, this behavior has for a long time been a cultural touchstone in MMOs. Angry Birds follows similar logic, with easier levels following difficult ones and ample opportunity to use different bird types effectively, often using fewer birds than allotted to win.

Spectacle: For Call of Duty, this is clear. Explosions, massive set pieces, loud music and flashy effects are on display. The game pits you against a variety of threats and offers you the chance to come out on top, showing off a variety of virtual locales and cinematic sequences along the way. World of Warcraft awes with the size and scope of its world– not only is the world large, but the roles a player can play in it vary widely, as do the ways in which mastery can be expressed. A highly skilled PvP warrior has a starkly different experience than a raid-focused mage, who in turn is wholly unlike the socially-oriented guild leader who spends most of their time talking to other players and growing/galvanizing their network. Angry Birds offers varied levels and a colorful, distinct art style, but for that game the spectacle is less inherent to the game itself and more a function of its convenience– Angry Birds can be played anywhere, at any time, quickly and easily, filling time that its players might otherwise spend bored or unoccupied. This transforms otherwise unsatisfying moments (where someone is forced to wait) into exciting ones (I can play Angry Birds!), giving the game an awe all its own.

Catharsis: Call of Duty’s spectacle is clear, and to some extent so is its catharsis– defeating enemies and beating the game is satisfying, but the more notable catharsis is more subtle. Call of Duty provides moments of high action followed by moments of relative calmness (on the player’s part), as non-interactive cutscenes play out, which in turn drive the high action. Cutscenes are a reward for succeeding at the action, and serve to pay off and then further set up the next action sequence. More subtly, the game is responsive and intuitive, two oft-overlooked elements that are very important. When a player’s emotional response is to move, or shoot, the game accomodates them without fuss, building and releasing that tension in every moment of gameplay. Similarly, World of Warcraft distinguished itself from its competition early on by having a highly polished, highly responsive game that enabled players to perform the actions they feel they should need to. It also pays off move execution, major milestones, and other interactions with sharp, clear audio and visual cues — the well-known “ding!” permeates the entire genre. Angry Birds has similar moments in its responsive controls and overall polish, but the real catharsis it offers is in the satisfaction it provides in what would otherwise be a boring moment, which itself is strong enough to inspire players to play at other times as well.

All four of the pieces of the “fun” equation are important, but different games emphasize them differently. It’s important to consider that different thresholds and paths for each of them will appeal to different people, or frequently the same person at different times. As developers, we can be informed by the things we are emphasizing in a game and how they might affect our audience (and how our intended audience might inform the things we emphasize). As players, we can better understand ourselves and make better-informed decisions about the games we like to play, since time and money are both limited resources.

I hope this was interesting or useful to someone. Let me know if you disagree, or if you think I missed something!


*For him, this is the “call assassins” button in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. For others, it’s the last button in that devastating ultra combo. For me, it’s frequently the “oh shit” button in MMOs.

30 Things This Blog is About (#22: The Future of Games)

One of the really neat things about having grown up playing games is getting to see the advances the industry has made, and in turn the leaps and bounds by which games have advanced themselves. Watching games evolve from chip-sound and monochromatic graphics to the audiovisual extravaganzas we have today has been a wild ride, to say the least. More than that, though, the ways in which we play games have evolved significantly.

We are long past the days where games were mostly played by teenage boys, and we’ve left the days where games meant a specific, dedicated machine used for no other purpose far behind. Arcades have risen and fallen in most places in the world, replaced by the home consoles and ubiquitous PCs. Solo or small-group multiplayer has given way to online play, and couch-gaming is rapidly less and less of the overall games breakdown as mobile and social games take the fore.

In and among all of this, the games themselves have been rapidly evolving. You can trace the lineage of many games back to their roots, and with any luck, following those paths might hint at where games will go.

We’re on the cusp of a variety of new technologies– Google Glass is poised to either overhaul our relationship with our personal devices or fall flat, while advances in streaming technology get us closer and closer to gaming on the cloud, without specialized equipment or physical software. In the meantime, tools advancements and rapidly developing middleware on the industry side are making it easier and faster to make games, while perpetually driving up the quality bar, and indies are filling in the gaps left by the massive rise in production values.

Whether any of this is sustainable is up for (heavy) debate, but one way or another the future of games should be exciting.