Game Spaces

I had a conversation with a friend recently about Infinity tables, and how important layout is when playing that game. As far as tabletop minis games go, Infinity isn’t unique in having a lot of the game hinge on terrain, but it’s a lot more honest about it. The game is obviously unplayable with poor or no terrain, and both players will realize this quickly.

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Compare this to a game like 40k or Warmachine. In 40k, Dark Eldar want terrain to hide behind if they aren’t going first. If they are, they run a serious risk of getting shot off the table before getting to do anything. In Warmachine, several factions have a lot of Pathfinder units that benefit from rough terrain or forests or both– a board with none of these suddenly becomes an uphill battle for them, and factions without Pathfinder struggle on boards with a lot of terrain. It’s an unequal distribution which causes issues at the game level and skews the “competitive” selection of units for both games.

Spending a lot of the weekend playing Warframe made me think about Infinity terrain as well. Levels in Warframe are randomized, but they’re highly interactive. Maps are made up of cells (or tiles) which are hand-designed, attached to each other through connectors (hallways) and the occasional smaller room, all put together to form a map for a level. It’s a surprisingly elegant system, and despite how important level design is in the game, it’s still able to put together random maps in a fairly compelling way.

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It makes me think of Infinity tables. There are major set pieces (cells) with scatter terrain (connectors) and smaller buildings (rooms), all forming the game board. Mostly, these pieces are hand-placed by one or more players before the game starts, and they then circle the table, eyeballing sight lines and other details, before deciding that the table is fit to play on and starting a game. Because of this, Infinity draws a lot of attention from passersby, because the tables it’s played on are generally very intricate.

Infinity tables that are fun to play on follow a general set of rules:

  • No unavoidable corridors running the length of the table.
  • No sniper towers that can cover the entire board.
  • Plentiful cover and places to hide behind, out of sight.
  • Good opportunities to use every type of weapon– from short range to long range.
  • No obvious choke points.
  • (Advanced) One side should be slightly more advantageous to start on than the other.
  • (Advanced) Objective locations for the missions to be played on the table should be relatively even.
  • (Advanced) Multiple tiers of elevation, and ways to reach them.
  • (Advanced) Multiple exits from points on the board, to prevent getting locked down.
  • (Advanced) Models of all sizes need to be able to maneuver.

It’s a lot of rules, but a lot of players who are used to the game just sort of internalize them. Very rarely does anyone go down a checklist of the above, but you’ll occasionally see someone look at a table and say “hmm, this is too open” or “this is too crowded”. Playing the game enough, and getting experienced enough, allows you to see the problems with a table once you’re practiced at it. it’s not easy to do– I played a game recently with another very experienced player where we both thought the board looked reasonable until we started playing on it.

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The same attention and care goes into level design elsewhere. When League of Legends was first released, people criticized it for “only having one map”, and games are often judged for not having an adequate number of maps to play on. I remember Counter-Strike and Unreal Tournament, and the large number of maps those games had, of which maybe two or three ever got seriously played. The single map of League (and the smaller numbers of maps in other games) tend to have a lot more going on, and are carefully and thoughtfully created.

Game spaces are really important. They need to be functional, navigable, and visually appealing, and varied enough to stay fresh and not get boring. I remember complaints about the original Halo, and its endless samey levels towards the end of the game, and the major complaint of the first Assassin’s Creed that it got too repetitive. It’s telling that some of the biggest changes in those two games were in their level design, with AC going to an entirely new location with new architecture and Halo varying its levels much more in its sequels.

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Probably a lot of my care for good level design comes from a childhood playing Thief. That game’s area layouts were the lynchpin of the experience, and made the game in a lot of ways. I pay attention when levels are interesting and matter, as opposed to being irrelevant, or an afterthought.

Death

Forgive me the break from usual gaming and business-y posts. It’s been a bad week for beloved celebrities, and I’ve seen a lot of people expressing their grief in a variety of ways. A conversation I had yesterday sparked this post, a friend suggested I write what I told him on my blog, so here we are.

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I have had perhaps the gentlest introduction to death anyone could ask for. My parents are both doctors, and in the medical field death is an inevitability. A lot of people dislike or distrust doctors for their clinical detachment– it feels, to them, like the doctors don’t care. Growing up with two of them, I can say the opposite is true, at least for my parents. The detachment is what keeps someone sane when they literally hold people’s lives in their hands every single day, when they can get a phone call at 3AM and have to jump out of bed and rush to the hospital, no time for coffee, barely time to get dressed, in order to see to a patient whose treatment couldn’t wait until sunrise… and then work a full day with the patients whose treatments COULD wait.

I remember dinner conversations where, growing up, I thought the casual mention of a patient dying was shocking– how could something so serious get brought up so casually? In hindsight, I realize that was my parents’ way of remembering each patient who died. You’ll note I don’t use euphemisms like “passed away” or “left us”– my parents avoided using them, possibly in order to honestly internalize the weight, possibly because neither of them are much for sugar-coating reality, so I’ve never picked up the habit.

In a similar vein, I was never told the lie, growing up, that my parents would be around “forever” to take care of me. They would always say “as long as I can”, and it was just as comforting to me as the lie would have been. I remember correcting a babysitter at one point, who told me that my parents would be around “forever”, and I told her they wouldn’t, because people don’t live forever. I think she, in her twenties at the time, was somewhat put off by this coming from a seven- or eight-year-old’s mouth.

I don’t really talk about my views on death very often, because it tends to put people off. I feel like life is inherently limited, and that accepting death is a very personal thing. I am less sad about the end of a long life well lived than I am about a life cut short too early, potential unrealized. I understand why we have funerals, but I’ve always thought it a pity that they’re such somber affairs, rather than individually tailored to the person, the way we do with weddings. The end of a life well lived should, I feel, be a raucous celebration akin to the last dance at a ball, a final party to mark the end of a good run. This bothers some people, who feel like that’s inadequately respectful. I dunno, I kind of think I’d want the last big gathering of my friends and family to be an outing that I’d actually want to attend, were I still around.

People don’t live forever. I feel like this is one of the hardest realities to come to terms with, and I consider myself lucky that I had it instilled in me early. I remember a funeral, once, and my parents’ stoic composure while everyone else in the room sobbed and wailed. I remember thinking they looked wistful, rather than sad, and later I asked why. My mom put it well: “I hope that when I die, I will have made that many people happy enough to come see me off.”

I do too.

More on Warframe (Playing With Friends)

Last night we managed to get a group together for Warframe– Ash, Bel and I got together and rocked some missions, it was a ton of fun. I want to dive in a little bit more to talk about why, after the initial coolness of motion and combat has settled down a bit, I’m still really interested in playing more of this game.

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I started with the Volt frame, and I’ve since picked up a few other frames (Ember, Trinity, Ivara), and traded a few rare items I’d picked up for the start of a Prime frame. A “frame” is essentially a character, like in League of Legends– they have their own stats, their own unique abilities, and their own appearance. A Prime frame is essentially a souped-up version of a standard frame, with better stats and usually a unique trick or two. They can’t be bought on the store, the parts have to be found on missions and constructed.

I’ve played a LOT in the last few days. I’ve got a goodly selection of mods, I’ve got a decent sense of how to level them up and how a handful of different frames play, and I know how crafting and various other systems work. Ash has about the same knowledge of the systems with a bit of a deeper understanding of the item stats and how they interact, but less playtime and thus fewer levels on fewer frames. Bel started playing this afternoon, with basically no knowledge of the game other than what he’d read about.

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Bel played the first two tutorial missions, roughly twenty or thirty minutes’ worth, and then Ash and I jumped in with fresh, unlevelled frames to join up with. The entire thing was seamless. What’s more, I had an unlocked mission that the other two did not, and I was able to load it up and bring them with me. Ash and I ran a mission that he wasn’t even close to unlocking, and when we beat it he got unlocks for the other surrounding missions, just as if he’d reached it normally. We were able to then go and fight the boss of the planet and unlock the next planet in the series. We also jumped into a mission with wildly uneven frame levels, and it worked just fine. I wasn’t overpowered and dominating the mission any more than he was underpowered and struggling. This includes story missions as well– Ash and I jumped in on several of Bel’s story missions and got XP and useful rewards, despite having played them already.

I have a hard time expressing how much I like this. Levelling up isn’t meaningless, but it is in no way an impediment to you playing with your friends. I could jump in with a max level frame with my friend who’s just started and we’d still be able to have a good time. I can carry over my progress on weapons and mods to a new frame I choose to play to get a little boost, or I can start totally fresh with an unlevelled frame and weapons with a buddy, and play at exactly their level while still benefiting– credits, XP, and levels on new frames are all worthwhile.

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There’s even a player level, which rises much more slowly than everything else and requires that you pass an exam to level up. Exams can only be attempted once per day, whether you succeed or fail. Raising your player level unlocks new options for weapons, frames, and various game features like trading and factions, but has little effect on your frames themselves. What I find interesting is that it doesn’t rise with XP earned, it rises as you level up frames and weapons. In order to get a high player level, you NEED to keep trying new weapons and frames and levelling them up, so you want to level up something new with a new friend who’s joined the game.

Kodra is out of town, but I suspect he’ll like the game once we get into it and have his own set of favorite frames. I have a frame set aside to try out once we can play together, as does Ash (I believe), and none of it will feel unnecessary or like it’s holding us back. The whole setup is very elegant, and brings a “play with your friends” mentality that I found absent even in games like Borderlands, Destiny, or even the majority of MMOs, where even a mild level or gear gap was significantly noticable.

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When I go on about games needing to let you play with your friends, and removing “levelling”, Warframe is a prime example of what I’m talking about. Sure, individual parts of the game have levels, and increase in level as you play, but none of them separate you from playing with other people, and the biggest “overall” level (your player level) is largely insignificant in actual gameplay. Levelling is distributed across a wide variety of parts of the game, and the sense of progression and advancement isn’t diminished.

Warframe (and why verbs are important)

I’ve been playing a goodly amount of Warframe lately. I played it a bit very early on, while it was still kind of half-baked and just barely out the door, and I basically hated it. It had a neat concept — acrobatic ninjas in space — but I didn’t really feel like the levels made me feel like a ninja, the weaponry and starting “character” I got weren’t to my tastes at all, and I couldn’t really do any of the cool stuff I felt like I should be able to. I also found the visuals unappealing– gross organic green and brown, and I couldn’t do anything to change them. On top of all of that, everything on the store felt ludicrously overpriced– $30-40 for a new character to play, $15 for a new gun, etc. Without being able to try any of these, there was no way I was going to pay that kind of money.

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I’ve been looking for a new cooperative game, though, one with some meat to it, and Warframe came up again. Ash really liked it, and wanted to play more of it, so he’s jumped in along with me. The very first thing I noticed is that the game actually has a tutorial now, one that sets up some basic motivations and grounds me in the world. It’s not any deeper than, say, Destiny, but it’s somewhat more coherent than Destiny was to start.

I’m going to refer to Destiny a lot in this post, because Warframe and Destiny share a lot of similarities. They both have a mission-based structure with lots of collection of materials used to create new weapons and armor. The biggest and most noticable difference is in the movement. Destiny has some incredibly tight controls, some of the best in video games, but its movement is pretty staid. You walk around on a surface, there’s not a ton of verticality (maybe two or three tiers of flat platforms), and you’re limited to a fairly low jump and whatever your class’ special movement power is, which is the most fun part of movement but tends to be somewhat limited. You also get a vehicle, a fairly cool looking jetbike that amounts to a big bonus movement speed buff, but doesn’t add any new options (and you can’t shoot while on it last time I played).

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In Warframe, movement is incredible. It’s the difference between 3D Zelda games and Assassin’s Creed. The first is very servicable and very tight but not necessarily fascinating, the latter opens up an entirely new world of motion. Warframe, by default, gives you a broader set of movement options that nearly any other game I’ve played, and THEN you can adapt those and unlock more. You have double and sometimes triple jump as a default, you can wall-run, wall climb a la Mega Man X, dodge roll, slide tackle, and at least one that I’m probably forgetting and Ash will mention to me later. There are also combinations of these– you can slam the ground while jumping, slide into an incredibly satisfying forward dive, propel yourself off walls to attack enemies, and so on and so forth. To add to this, the levels are designed to make this not only feasible, but fun, with tightropes for you to ninja-run across and plenty of walls and gaps for you to essentially fly past.

Movement is so much fun that I do more melee in the game than almost anything else, despite my penchant for playing a sniper-type character that the game hugely supports. Despite having INCREDIBLY satisfying sniper gameplay, I’m still closing to melee and skirmishing, something that I pretty much never do in this kind of game. Opting for melee means that I can dive and jump across the battlefield to my targets, which is an absolute joy.

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The two games that Warframe reminds me of are Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer (which I love), and Destiny (which I didn’t, but I understand has improved dramatically). Neither of them have movement as fun as Warframe, and that movement makes all the difference. It’s an extra verb other than “fight” that the game has made fun and compelling, and I would play an enemy-free level that was a ninja footrace through a crashing spaceship or something, just because that would be incredibly fun. As I research the game while writing this, I’ve found that this actually exists as part of the Clan system, their equivalent of guilds, so I’m going to wrap this up and go look into that.

Adding more verbs to games really makes the experience richer and a lot more interesting. Warframe has a very competent combat engine, but its movement is what really sets it apart. I’m really interested in seeing what kinds of verbs we see in games, and which ones get added. Warframe’s “vehicle” mode is a flight game in full 3D, which I’m very interested in checking out. Part of why I like stealth games is because they add another interesting verb — “hide” — to the usual mix, and often have fairly interesting movement to boot.

Design Philosophy (Part 3: Why Design Badly on Purpose?)

i’ve talked about good and bad design, and one of the things that I’ve wanted to point out is that there’s a separation between good design from a purely design-oriented perspective and something good that is designed badly, whether by accident or on purpose. I think it’s easy to stop thinking about good design at the precise moment something works– once it does what it’s intended to, there’s a temptation to say “okay, good design here” and move on. I think that’s an oversimplification, and a potentially harmful one; it leaves us out of looking to continually improve our designs.

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That being said, ideal design is not always possible, or even desirable. There are a wide variety of reasons why we might want to intentionally design something less well than we could, or even design it badly on purpose. I want to talk today about a few reasons we might do this.

In Service To A Greater Design

I’ve talked before about friction, and how important it is to a variety of (notably interactive) experiences. Friction is attained by intentionally slowing things down, making them less efficient, less direct, and in general, more frustrating in small ways. Friction in games tends to take the form of one feature being designed inefficiently to make the overall game’s design better; we make decisions about one area to improve the whole.

Outside of games, there are things like speed limiters or manual transmissions on cars. A car with a speed limiter is not as well designed as one without that kind of hardcoded restraint, but those cars help make the roads safer, contributing to the overall design of the transportation network. Similarly, while cars with manual transmissions are more efficient and give the driver finer control, they’re also more difficult to use and require more training to operate– cars without them, while less efficient and offering less control, allow more drivers to use cars without needing to overcome the training hurdle, and allowing a driver to pay attention to a wider variety of things while driving without compromising safety quite as much.

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Catering To A Specific Audience

Sometimes, the specific audience for something lends itself to otherwise bad design. Whether it’s a niche crowd that prefers a very specific sort of content, an enthusiast who is either intentionally pursuing older or less refined hobby materials, or a group of hardcore gamers that wants their games excessively punishing and challenging, catering to these groups will require sacrifices on the design side.

In a lot of these cases, people will just be “used to” something, and even if a superior design exists, the transition or new rules are so uncomfortable that the improvement in design gets lost. Inertia is a powerful force, and it’s often a lot easier to continue using what’s already known than attempt to improve a system, even if that system is poorly designed. The saying usually associated with this is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but I tend to think that this misses the need to continually self-improve. That having been said, incremental improvement is a solid way to shift, and that often requires intentionally bad design just to ease the overall transition.

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Creating Art

Put simply, there is a line where the science of design meets the art of design, and these two facets of the whole tend to clash. People’s reactions to design are often emotional, rather than practical, and an objectively good design may still inspire negative emotions, and vice-versa. Art is doing this intentionally, evoking emotional responses intentionally, and in the service of creating art, design can and must be sacrificed.

Everything science has to say about aerodynamics may make it clear that curved shapes are more capable of flight, but an artist creating a beautiful painting of a flying machine for a culture that despises curved shapes is going to give up the superior curved design in favor of the desired emotional response.

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Not Enough Resources

Sometimes, something needs to just be “good enough”. It’s a reality of pretty much every creative industry, and realistically the vast majority of designs are going to need to settle, rather than get continually refined to near-perfection. It’s just too resource-intensive to pursue ideal design constantly, so corners often need to get cut (or rounded, depending on the tools you’re using).

While a necessity of staying sane in a creative field, I think it’s still important not to conflate “good enough design” with “good design”– settling for poor design is fine, but convincing oneself that the “good enough design” is actually intended and is therefore above criticism or improvement is something of a dangerous trap. It leads us to stop thinking about how to improve, and I’m firmly of the opinion that we should never stop pursing improvement.

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To Teach

AI shouldn’t run into obvious traps. Systems shouldn’t obscure parts of themselves or mislead their users as far as their functionality. Games shouldn’t be wildly unbalanced or turn on cheat codes for the player. All of these are useful in the context of teaching people how things work. The AI that runs into a trap shows you that the trap is there, so it isn’t an unfair surprise. Systems may obscure parts of themselves or lie about their capabilities to break themselves down into more manageable chunks. Early levels in games will often make you invincible, or otherwise have an overwhelming advantage, just so that you can learn the controls and the basic functions.

Inflatable water wings make you a less efficient, less capable swimmer, but they’re GREAT for teaching children to swim and generally be comfortable in the water. They’re a temporary measure to be shed later on, like many teaching tools. Once we’re capable of understanding how to swim, we tend to automatically understand why floaties are unnecessary and really just hold us back. Similarly, once we’re capable of seeing the traps, understanding the systems, or competently playing a new game, we no longer need the teaching tools.

Again, it’s important to understand that the teaching tools aren’t indicative of the good design of whatever is being taught, in the same way that putting scaffolding around a building isn’t a good design for the long term, but is useful for short-term construction until the building no longer needs it. Much like things that are in service to a greater design, teaching tools aid the overall work, rather than necessarily being good design in and of themselves. A game that never sheds its tutorial cheats, or whose AI consistently runs into obvious traps gets savaged in reviews; the game needs to shed those constructs because while they’re useful for the short term, they’re bad for the long term.

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Design is a really big concept that’s often treated like something much smaller. Part of my inspiration to write this series stemmed from a discussion I had about free-to-play games, that lean heavily on randomness as a skill equalizer / spoiler and are in some cases explicitly built to draw money out of players at the cost of the game’s overall design quality. Candy Crush is a well-loved game but it frequently supplies you with unwinnable boards and carefully constructed design failures to drive you to make purchases. These things aren’t good design for the game, but they serve the product as a whole.

I find the distinction between “good design” and “justifiably bad design” to be a really important, really interesting one, which is why I’ve spent so many words over the last few days talking about it, both here and elsewhere. At a philosophical level, I don’t think being able to justify something makes it right, and that philosophy extends to things other than moral imperatives for me.

Hopefully this was interesting for some folks. Thanks for reading!

Design Philosophy (Part 2: Why is there Bad Design?)

I made an attempt yesterday to define “good design”. By extension, I tend to think that things that don’t fit the definition fall somewhere on the spectrum, where some omissions might make “great design” merely “okay design” or “passable design” and flagrant violations would start to fall into the realm of “bad design”.

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Some things are badly designed. This can be a result of omission or ignorance or error on the part of the designer, or it can be intentional. What I want to look at a bit more today is why some things are designed badly. Something can be designed badly and still be “good” on the whole, and it’s important to remember that good design isn’t the end-all-be-all, nor is something good necessarily well-designed. Design isn’t the only consideration in the creation of something, but I think it’s important to be able to tell the difference between a good thing with good design and a good thing with bad design.

So, definition of good design again:

Good design is when the thing in question accomplishes what is desired in an efficient, reliable, intuitive, thorough, positive, and inspiring way without contradicting its own goals, being dishonest or misleading, or being unnecessarily obtrusive or overwrought.

Let’s take an easy example: air travel. Getting on planes is inefficient and a generally frustrating experience. It contradicts its own goals of getting people from place to place effectively, it’s often misleading, and it’s certainly obtrusive.

Why?

The easy answer, and the one you hear a lot from frustrated passengers at airports, is “because the people running things are idiots”. This is rarely actually the case. A process that huge and with that many people involved that runs for decades does not continue that way because the people in charge aren’t good at their jobs. Air travel is specifically designed to be unpleasant in a variety of annoying but not enraging ways. It is intentionally designed badly.

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Again, why?

I’ve talked elsewhere about follow-the-money problems, and air travel is a pretty clear one. Most of the additional purchases you can make beyond simply buying your ticket involve removing the various annoyances that you have to put up with. The markup on these is huge, and involves relatively low overhead for the airline. Loading the plane is inefficient and obtrusive, and so you can pay money to get on sooner, ensuring that you don’t have to deal with the annoyances of waiting in line or worrying over whether you’ll have a place to put your bag. Seats get increasingly uncomfortable to encourage you to upgrade your seat to something a bit more comfortable. Sitting closer to the front of the plane means you get off sooner, and are more likely to get your connecting flight. All of this is *designed*.

There are other considerations as well. You can board earlier if you check in ahead of time on most airlines. This is another designed thing– the airlines don’t want no-shows, so they incentivize you to check in early, so they have an accurate headcount and no empty seats on the flight. If you help them get an accurate headcount sooner, they will remove a layer or two of annoyances from your trip.

So, that’s how we get bad design in things we don’t like. What about bad design in things we do like?

Since I was already talking about flying, it’s time for me to get controversial. World of Warcraft has flying mounts. They effectively function like cheat codes– you press a button and you can fly like a GM does. Because the flight mechanics are very simple and offer no opportunity for gameplay (there’s no combat in the sky), flight simply allows you to go up in the air and bypass whatever you care to, skipping mobs and obstacles to get to a particular goal. It’s probably the single most damaging thing to WoW’s gameplay that they’ve ever done, and it’s extremely telling that they “take it away” for every new expansion. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this happens– with flight enabled all the time, there’s very little game to play, just fly down, click, fly up.

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“But players love it!” you say. “I love it! Don’t tell me flight in WoW is bad design when I’m having so much fun with it!”

Here’s where it gets interesting. WoW’s flight model is bad design– it contradicts the goal of players playing the game instead of bypassing it, it creates a situation in which you’re (unintuitively) better off not playing the game than playing it, it misleads players into thinking the ground game is boring (it is, in fact, the only game), and it forces the rest of the game to be significantly overwrought just to accommodate flight. As above, it’s a cheat code, there’s little to no skill involved in flying, there’s no associated gameplay, it’s effectively an invincibility code and terrain hack all in one, with a pretty wrapper and nice effects.

It is, however, fun. Cheating is fun. Create an item that can be used to instantly kill any target and everyone would flock to it. In Destiny, the “loot caves” were immensely popular. Cheating is even more fun if it’s apparently sanctioned by the game. How can flight be cheating if it’s something the designers put in there? Well, everyone makes mistakes. Consider the outcry when Destiny shut down its loot caves, how angry players were. Imagine that multiplied ten thousandfold, if Blizzard were to come out and say “hey folks, you know what, flight was a mistake and we’re removing it to make the game better”. Pandora’s box is open, there’s no going back, even if in every interview where it comes up Blizzard devs all but say outright that flight was a terrible mistake that they wish they’d never put in the game.

I mentioned that good design inspires later design. It’s very, very telling that nearly no major MMO has implemented WoW-style flying mounts, with the exception of FFXIV (which operates on a slightly different content model anyway). Other games have included flight, but it’s been more limited, and generally included more gameplay. WoW’s flight didn’t inspire; it was a cautionary tale.

But, it’s fun, so it stays. For some people, WoW is a better game for including this feature; good design or no. It trades good design and the game’s mechanical integrity for player satisfaction.

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Another, more common example of bad design in WoW, and one that they changed: the old talent trees. These were badly designed because they were unintuitive, not very thorough (depending on the class), EXTREMELY misleading and dishonest, and very much overwrought. Talent trees presented a set of options that the game portrayed as equally good, when the reality was that there was a “right answer” and a whole lot of pitfalls along the way. For a long time, players and designers alike considered this “good design”, as being able to separate the wheat from the chaff was considered a skill.

The problem was, the optimal builds were posted online and if you weren’t following one of those, you were probably playing badly, or at the very least noticeably sub-optimally. The choices were illusions, there was a right answer and then a lot of mistakes, not a genuine series of choices. If the talent trees had been permanent and unalterable (as similar things were in earlier games), the problem would have been exposed FAR sooner. MMOs preceding WoW often had extensive “build planners”, so you could figure out what permanent choice you made as you levelled up and didn’t ruin your character by making an incorrect choice. Also bad design, and while WoW’s talents improved upon it, it still only went from “appalling” to “not great”.

But, all of that being said, up until the point Blizzard specifically came forward and said their talent system was bad design and they were removing and replacing it entirely, players would argue that it was a demonstration of skill, a sign of knowledge and expertise, and a way of separating the “good players” from those players who foolishly thought that because a game presented them with apparently equivalent choices that they could feel comfortable picking any of them.

I’m picking on WoW here, but a lot of games fail at this. They present a bunch of choices with similar costs or requirements, but the efficacy of those choices is wildly uneven. Sometimes games will be honest with you and say that this choice will make the game harder; more often they do not.

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These last two were good (or well-loved) things designed badly by mistake. What about something designed badly on purpose that we like?

It’s hard to find good examples of this, because things that we like tend to cloud our vision as far as good design goes. Microtransaction games are extremely popular, and often sacrifice good gameplay design in order to squeeze more money out of players. The ones that do this more acceptably are largely just better at hiding it, though they’re still making the same design sacrifices.

I want to look a bit more into why we might design something badly on purpose in the next part of this.

 

Design Philosophy (Part 1: What is “Good Design”?)

Design is important. Not just in games, but in everything. Design is how we make whatever is happening in our minds into reality, and it is also how we consciously improve. It’s an important part of things being functional, of things working, and of things being fixable when broken. It helps things work and it helps us understand what’s wrong when things don’t work. Design is important, and because of this, good design is inherently worth pursuing, and bad design something to be avoided.

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But it’s not enough just to say that something needs to be designed well. If we don’t know what good design is, we can’t recognize it. Good design is not simply “does [thing] do what it was intended it to do”, because there are reasons to intentionally design something badly. It’s worth recognizing the difference between something that is designed well and something that is intentionally designed badly, because they’re ultimately very different things. So, what is good design? Here’s an attempt at a general statement:

Good design is when the thing in question accomplishes what is desired in an efficient, reliable, intuitive, thorough, positive, and inspiring way without contradicting its own goals, being dishonest or misleading, or being unnecessarily obtrusive or overwrought.

It’s a mouthful; I’ll break it down:

  • Good design accomplishes what is desired.
    • This is pretty simple. If an gorgeously artistic spoon does not hold liquid, it is not a well-designed spoon, no matter how pretty it is.
  • Good design is efficient.
    • Efficiency is a big part of what separates “design” from “good design”. A user interface that requires you to navigate fifteen layers of menus to find what you’re looking for is a design, but a UI that is more carefully arranged or predictive is a superior design, because it helps you get to what you’re looking for quickly.
  • Good design is reliable.
    • It’s not enough that a designed thing should accomplish its goal. It needs to be able to do so repeatedly, in such a way that it can be trusted. A game might be fun, but if it crashes constantly or behaves erratically, that is a problem.
  • Good design is intuitive.
    • Watch a child pick up Legos for the first time. They fit together in an obvious way, pegs up, and as you add more pieces the complexity level rises, but each new piece works off of the same principles introduced already. Similarly, certain doors that open only one way have a horizontal “push” bar across the width of the door, and a vertical “pull” handle on the far edge. These make it obvious how to interact with the door, because the horizontal bar is easy to push, and the vertical handle is situated to provide maximum leverage for pulling. Even without signage, it is clear whether one needs to push or pull the door.
  • Good design is thorough.
    • It’s important to address the various ways in which a thing can be used. A game that provides features for deaf or colorblind players is naturally better designed. An automatic door that only triggers from one side doesn’t take into account people approaching it from unexpected directions.
  • Good design is positive.
    • What I mean by this is that the experience of interacting with something should uplift and please the user. A well-designed set of controls is not only usable, but a joy to use; the new PS4 controller is comfortable and pleasing just to hold and use, compared to the original Xbox controller that was equally functional, but not satisfying or pleasing to hold for most players.
  • Good design is inspiring.
    • By this I mean that it sets a standard for future design. The iPod’s interface had a massive impact on mobile device interfaces, inspiring the iOS interface which in turn has had a huge impact on other mobile devices. Compare the experience of the system interface on a Nintendo DS with the system interface of an iPhone; one you want to see everywhere, the other feels dated and clunky.
  • Good design does not contradict its own goals.
    • A fairly obvious one that tends to only come up with more complex designs. Altering a business process with the goal of saving money is not a good design if it requires enough additional overhead to run that it obliterates the money savings. More controversially, a diet plan that rewards good behavior with “cheat days” in which the good behavior can be eliminated on the “cheat day” is poorly designed.
  • Good design is neither dishonest or misleading.
    • If a design suggests that a choice you may choose to make is just as valid as another choice, then both choices should be equally viable in practice. Similarly, a design should be clear about its own capabilities and neither suggest functionality that it lacks nor obscure functionality that it has.
  • Good design is neither obtrusive nor overwrought.
    • Rube Goldberg machines are amusing, but are intentionally inefficient, take up a lot of unnecessary space, and use a lot of moving parts (with a lot of potential failure points) to accomplish something often very simple. They’re fun, but (intentionally) not good design. Similarly, a door with a recording that shouted “PUSH” or “PULL” depending on which side of it you were on would be obtrusive.

These things, together, set a high bar for good design. Good design is hard, and it’s much rarer than you might expect, especially because so much research has been done to figure out what makes good design, both from a mathematical and from a psychological standpoint. A lot of things fall shy of the mark, and I think it’s worthwhile and sometimes even important to understand the difference between poor execution and poor design.

Tomorrow I’m going to look into that a bit more; if we know what makes for GOOD design, why do we have BAD design? What would motivate us to create bad design intentionally, and why does that happen?

Board Games

I have a weird relationship with board games. I recently played a number of them over the holidays with friends and family, and I was reminded of how much fun I can have with them, when played casually and as an accompaniment to conversation, rather than a primary focus. That having been said, however, I don’t often play board games, and it took me jumping back into Starcraft 2 to really think about and understand why.

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I jumped back into Starcraft 2 for the Legacy of the Void campaign, playing through the Zerg campaign in order to catch up with the story. I really enjoy the SC2 campaigns, because they do some interesting RPG things as you progress, and they showcase a lot of interesting mechanics that don’t come up in regular, standard matches. Having played through the campaigns, and feeling better about my Starcraft skills, I jumped into some multiplayer and vs-AI matches to try to extend the fun.

I played about ten or fifteen matches, total, before getting bored. I still know Protoss openings, and it didn’t take long for me to figure out how to adapt them to the new units in the expansion. What bored me was that every opening was the same, dominant strategies were already known and I either used them or lost, and there wasn’t really any room for creativity, because the first steps of each match were all very similar. If I were playing against players who weren’t as skilled as I was, I could feel free to experiment more, but because both the matchmaking and the AI tune themselves to keep up with my skill, I basically have to play at the top of my game all the time. I have to play competitively or I lose, generally badly enough to not have any idea if the strategy I was employing would have even worked, had I executed it more adeptly.

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This brings me back to board games. I have a number of friends who are extremely competitive board gamers, and playing games with them tends to be an extremely one-sided affair. It’s either a game I know well, like Agricola, or City of Thieves, or Galaxy trucker, or it’s a game I don’t know at all, or have played maybe once or twice. If it’s a game I know well, I basically don’t get to experiment because I have to play at the top of my game and focus hugely on competitive strategies. If it’s a game I don’t know, I lose. Often, in a game like Through The Ages or Race for the Galaxy, I can lose HOURS before I realize I’ve lost.

As a result, I tend to only really enjoy cooperative games, because unequal skill or experience doesn’t make the game one-sided. There are precious few board games I’ve seen where the experienced player won’t simply dominate a new player; it takes a few games before a new player can even begin to hold their own, much less try something creative. Similarly few board games offer a “catch-up” mechanic for players who fall behind– there is a reason why Mariokart is so popular a party game.

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On the other hand, I play minis games, where the experienced player tends to dominate the new player, where catch-up mechanics rarely exist, and where they’re purely competitive. It took me a bit to understand why I like competitive minis games, and why I don’t like competitive board games. It’s all in the opening moves. In a minis game, there’s a strategic layer that I take part in before the game even starts, where I pick my list and deploy it. The terrain, the starting player, etc are all akin to the randomization most board games have, but beyond that I have a level of creativity that applies before I even start playing, and that can be different, sometimes vastly so, from game to game.

It’s worth noting that I tend to check out of minis games that boil down to dominant strategies with same-y openings. I stick with Infinity because I can continually come up with different lists doing different things, and the variance in effectiveness between them is mostly determined by my skill, not the list itself. Conversely, I’d reached a point in Warmachine where I was playing lists that did virtually the same exact thing for the first turn of every game, which got boring quickly. Similarly, without the opportunity for strategy-layer customization prior to a game starting, I’m playing purely tactics in a board game, playing out the relatively similar first turns and reacting to the changing game state.

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I should pause a moment to describe the differences, as I see them, between strategy and tactics. This could be a post by itself (and might well be, later), but essentially, strategy is the planning you do before you take actions, and tactics are the actions you take in response to what’s happening in front of you. Nearly every board game is a purely tactical game– you don’t get to make decisions prior to the game starting; indeed, randomization often specifically blocks you from doing this. A game like Galaxy Trucker is actually predicated on you being unable to strategize effectively– you have to build a ship with what you can grab, rather than meticulously planning it out.

Pure tactics, as it turns out, kind of bore me. I tend to feel like purely tactical board games can devolve quickly into simply taking the optimal action at every juncture, and while this is a fairly complex web in most cases, it’s still a very solvable one. While it may take a lot of memorization and understanding of game mechanics to know what the optimal actions are, once you know them they aren’t going to change. With the strategic layer added in, it’s often possible to change your situation to the point where optimal actions (and sometimes the junctures themselves) may change, and I find that a lot more compelling.

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That having been said, I do find myself returning to board games that are played casually, or cooperatively. I particularly like games that defy being played more than casually– Codenames is a great example of a game like this, that’s technically a competitive team game but doesn’t have optimal strategies other than “be good at communication”. I don’t mind that there’s no strategic layer, because the competitive part of it is really just ornamental. Similarly, games like Shadowrun: Crossfire and Eldritch Horror aren’t heavily affected by one player being more experienced than the others (unlike, say, Battlestar Galactica, where one or two out-of-band players can dominate or destroy the experience).

On the whole, I’m somewhat reticent to jump into board games with friends I know are competitive. I have an automatic flinch reaction to the sentence “Hey, want to play [board game] with me? It’s one of my favorites!” because in a lot of cases I know that what is going to happen is I’m going to lose and, like in Starcraft, lose badly enough that I’ll have no idea if my strategy might have worked if executed well. Losing that badly– badly enough to learn next to nothing– doesn’t endear me to the game. Because I have no knobs to turn or levers to pull before the game starts, jumping back into that game just restarts the chain of optimal decision points, and maybe I’ll make the right ones this time.

Tam Tries: Kingdom

A friend of mine recommended Kingdom to me, and another sent me a copy of it, so I wound up putting some time into it over the break. It’s a 2D sidescrolling strategy game where you play as a ruler who can collect money and drive construction, and you’re trying to build your kingdom in the wilderness.

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It’s one part Terraria/Starbound, one part Majesty (did anyone besides me play that game?)– essentially, you don’t have any direct influence and act entirely through your subjects. Your subjects can be found at camps and lured into joining you with money. Money comes from archers, who hunt game, and farmers, who tend crops. It appears as coins on the ground which you can pick up, and your subjects will pick them up themselves if you’re not around and hand them over if they see you.

Money is used to equip your subjects– you can spend money to make a tool or weapon and unequipped subjects will gravitate towards it and pick it up. It can also be used to build– upgrades, walls, farms, watchtowers, and so on. These will be staffed by appropriately-equipped subjects, and they’re built by builders, which is another tool type.

Opposing your progress is the Greed, bandits and monsters who continually harry your kingdom from the edges. They look to steal your money and tools, and will attack you and your subjects to get them. As the ruler, you have a crown, and if you’re hit and have no money to drop, your crown will get knocked off– if the Greed steals it or it’s otherwise destroyed, you’re done.

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The Greed comes at night, and in the night all of your subjects will rest and, with the exception of Builders (who will toil through the night heedless of the danger), will sit inside the borders of your kingdom– whatever the outermost wall is. From there, they’ll shoot at and defend your kingdom from the Greed.

Success is about expanding your kingdom while keeping yourself safe from the ever-escalating attacks from the Greed. Overextend and you’ll find yourself spread too thin to fend off the Greed, turtle up too much and you’ll be overrun. It’s important to venture beyond the borders of your kingdom, both to expand and to find important things to help your growth.

The whole game is a really interesting concept, but I ultimately found it somewhat frustrating. It ramps up in difficulty rather quickly if you’re not on top of things, and there are a number of mistakes you can make that will cripple you while seeming like sound decisions. I’ve talked about degenerative strategies before, and Kingdom suffers hugely from them– a lot of the things you can do or build are simply bad choices that you should never make, and since there’s no way to destroy buildings or manually command your units, you can find yourself stuck without realizing it.

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As an example of this, one of the structures you can build is the archer tower. If conveniently located, archers in an archer tower can shoot down at enemies over walls easily and more accurately, helping hold the line. Sounds great, except that your line is always moving, and archer towers don’t. Furthermore, archers won’t leave archer towers. As a result, you can easily get into a situation where your entire defensive force is spread thin, and a concentrated attack will cut a swathe through your entire kingdom where a focused defense would have kept everything safe. I rarely make more than two or three archer towers total in a winning game, usually just to hold against particularly nasty waves. Otherwise, massed archers handle themselves just fine.

In a similar vein, there’s a wandering merchant who, for four gold, will fill up one of your tools (to four); tools being bows to make archers, hammers to make builders, or scythes to make farmers. Considering that putting tools in costs 2-5 gold each, this seems like a good deal, up until you realize that you want a very tight control over the number of builders and farmers you have, and since both of those are likely to get picked up before bows, and you usually want more archers than anything else, that merchant is doing you no favors unless he randomly gives you bows. Again, in games I win, I basically never use the merchant.

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I understand that Kingdom is trying to be an iterative game, where you play it over and over and make better decisions each time. I theoretically like that about it, except that as I’ve gotten better at the game, I’ve mostly realized that the best strategy is the least interesting one and uses as few of the game’s mechanics as possible. I find this frustrating, because it’s already a fairly shallow game as far as complexity– having winning strategies use even fewer of the game’s limited mechanics is somewhat irritating.

That all having been said, it’s a game I had a good bit of fun with until “solving” it, and it’s a game I’m glad I picked up. It’s honestly probably worth it just for the pixel-art style and the music, which are both rather nice.