Avoiding Player Elimination in Game Design

Dr. Lewis Pulsipher, author of Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish and creator of the strategy boardgame Britannia, has a YouTube channel on Game Design, currently with over 20 videos on topics such as tabletop game history, level design, and content creation. A number of these videos are meant to be part of a game design course Pulsipher teaches.

In Avoiding Player Elimination in Game Design, he talks about ways to keep people playing throughout a game instead of feeling that it is hopeless to continue if they are too far behind.

In the above video, he focuses heavily on war games, but he touches on a simple idea for keeping non-conflict games relevant throughout the play session: providing escalating values and rewards. You can see this effect at play in some Eurogames.

Mario Party games tend to incorporate this idea, too. Even if you’re losing, you might get bonus stars in the end to keep you competitive.

The rest of the video is a fascinating bite-size nugget of game design thoughts, and I wish there was more to the discussion.

What are you favorite game design videos on YouTube?

Game Design Pro Tip: Don’t Ban Specific Activities

Fishing ban!

In Ban the ban: essential game design advice (with examples), Nick Bentley talks about the cognitive dissonance of establishing rules and then creating special “but you can’t do X” rules to prevent problems.

Why do such rules exist? The most common reason is, during play-testing, the designer discovered players want to take an action that would hurt the experience – for example, a too-powerful action every player would take every turn if allowed. The most obvious fix is to ban it.

He then goes on to explain how doing the most obvious fix is a bad solution.

Banning otherwise-expected actions means the rules become harder to learn and the game play itself becomes awkward as you are constantly checking your planned actions against the rules.

Bentley’s post is a fascinating bit of insight into how a design problem can turn into a design success. By not banning actions, you have to allow for them. The entire point of banning a move is because it is unbalanced or otherwise ruins the game, so how do you allow it without the game suffering?

Interestingly enough, the answer can sometimes mean a much deeper and more compelling game.

Basically, take the action that you deem is too strong and assign a huge cost to it.

Bentley gives a couple of examples and a counter-example to see when it makes sense to include a ban, but the result is a choice that makes sense within the rules and can sometimes result in a more strategic game.

While Bentley is talking about boardgames, you can see how it would be applied to video games.

For example, if your game has inventory, you could limit the amount that could be carried. If a player with a full inventory comes across some new loot, the choice is to get rid of something to carry the new thing or not pick it up. Think Diablo or Minecraft.

NetHack, however, allows you to carry whatever you want, but it balances it with an encumbrance penalty. The penalties get more and more severe as you collect more things. You start off with penalties to speed and attack ability. If you carry too much, the penalties include not being able to walk up or down stairs, getting hungry faster. Carry even more, and you start taking damage for each move you take, and eventually you can get to the point where you can’t move at all.

Instead of arbitrarily deciding that a player can’t carry that much inventory, you turn it into a strategic choice. Do you want to struggle to carry all of the groceries from the car into your apartment so you can do it in one trip, or are you going to make multiple trips so it is easier?

You can see how this method of balance would apply in terms of limits on the number of units in a real-time strategy game. Some games add an upkeep cost which increases after you add so many units. Now I can choose to have too many units in my army temporarily if I’m willing to pay the cost, say for a large offensive push or to defend against the same.

“You can’t perform this quest. You don’t have a sufficient experience level.” No, by all means, try to perform the quest, but it is going to be incredibly punishing. The balance is already built in here!

Sometimes limits are technical in nature, such as the number of units you can have in your army at once. Still, you can see how allowing the player to decide if a decision is a poor one or a good one despite the cost means a deeper play experience than it would have been if you were limiting things arbitrarily.

(Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jo-h/6009234100 | CC-BY-2.0)

Explore Game Mechanics Interactively At This New Site

Flocking on GameMechanicExplorer.com

If you’re new to game development, or even if you are a veteran making a game of a type you’ve never made before, you might find yourself doing research on how to best implement the mechanics. Whether it is figuring out how best to implement ballistics or how to move a rocket ship, it’s not just the math but the approach you might be looking for.

For instance, last year I made a Frog and Flies clone called Hungry Frogs for One Game a Month. I remember spending quite a bit of time on the jumping mechanic as this was the closest I’ve ever come to implementing a platformer. In the end I wasn’t completely happy with what I had. My main complaint was that it wasn’t easy for me to identify the maximum height of the frog’s jump without tweaking variables and seeing what happens. But considering the few hours I spent on it, I delivered something that worked well enough.

Still, if GameMechanicExplorer.com had been around then, it would have saved me some time.

The site offers you a list of common game mechanics, each of which has at least a handful of examples with an in-browser demo and a JavaScript code example written using the Phaser framework.

Each example focuses on one concept and includes the source code for the implementation. They aren’t meant to be extremely polished or to represent a complete game. They aren’t highly optimized. They may not even be the best way to implement the mechanic being demonstrated! (They’re certainly not the only way.) They are written for clarity so that it is easier to understand the underlying concepts and apply them to your own work in your own engine. I expect that some of these examples will evolve as I gain experience. But hopefully you’ll find them useful and you can use them as a jumping off point for your own games.

At the time I am writing, there are examples for bullets, spaceship movement, following, homing missiles, raycasting, lighting, effects, easing movement, and even walking and jumping.

Line-Of-Sight on GameMechanicExplorer.com

The walking and jumping examples start out by showing you the naive approach, which has the on-screen character either stationary or moving at full speed. It’s functional, but it doesn’t feel right. The next example introduces the concept of acceleration to make the movement smoother, but it identifies a problem that is introduced. The next example introduces the concept of drag.

The next few examples take you through basic jumping mechanics, including double jumps and variable jump heights, the latter of which I needed for my hungry frog game.

I enjoyed spending time exploring different mechanics, such as seeing how various easing functions compare to each other, or how to use raycasting to do line-of-sight checks. I remember someone once posted a comparison of jumping mechanics of Mario, Meat Boy, and Mega Man among others, but I can’t find it today. GameMechanicExplorer.com is filling that void nicely.

I’m looking forward to seeing the implementation of some of the upcoming mechanics, including camera controls and the advanced platformer ones.

John Watson, you have provided aspiring game developers a great service.

The Indie Interview Series

Interview recording equipment

During the last half of 2013, Ben W. Savage conducted The Indie Interview Series “to inspire those who are considering game development” as well as those game developers looking for practical advice.

He asked the same series of questions of everyone, and prominent indies such as Christer “McFunkypants” Kaitila and Chevy Ray “Chevy Ray” Johnston spent anywhere from five minutes to a quarter of an hour answering. The topics ranged from how to get started in the game industry to who were major influences and what are major mistakes new developers make.

Adam “Atomic” Saltsman, creator of Candabalt, suggests that taking too big of a bite is a common problem. “Learning how to do a project is its own discipline … Start small, learn about the process, and then refine. That’s the key.” Nina “[insert nickname here]” Freeman of Code Liberation Foundation agrees in her own answer to the same question, repeating “simple prototypes, simple prototypes, simple prototypes” and suggests working in steps.

These are bite-sized nuggets of wisdom, and I wish there were more.

What’s your favorite interview? Did any of the answers resonate with you?

(Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/39781145@N00/254759786 | CC BY 2.0)

A Shameful Game Backlog, or a Glorious Library?

Last week, cliffski once again went on the offensive against the trend of selling games at deeply discounted prices. In We Need to Talk About Unplayed Games, he argued that the constant sales of games results in bad news for everyone.

People buy games based on almost nothing but a screenshot and a low price in an almost Pavlovian response to the announcement of a deep discount. They don’t even play the games, which sit on hard drives and rarely get considered. In fact, some people buy the games over and over again simply because they are in bundles with other games or they forgot that they already purchased them.

The results? Players Game buyers don’t value quality, the organizers of sales become gatekeepers, and the games themselves are devalued. If developers optimize for results, what role does game development have? Most players won’t see even a small percentage of the actual game, so why focus there? It’s similar to the concerns about narrative in games: if people don’t finish them and never see the story play out to completion, then why invest so much on game writing and elaborate plots in the first place?

It becomes less about the games themselves. People buy into the deep discount, no matter what is being offered, and for what? A backlog of games they ignore? That’s terrible!

Or is it? Ben Kuchera thinks otherwise in Your stack of shame is a lantern for your future, and a gift to the industry:

We respect people with large libraries of books, but we tend to look down on people with shelves and shelves of games.

Oof. When you put it that way, yeah. I suppose when I look at my shelves, I see books I haven’t read yet, as well as games that I obtained partially because they weren’t at full price. I have a copy of Civilization III still in shrink wrap when I found it at the store for only $15. Two incarnations of the series have since been released. I also have a number of Neal Stephenson books that are waiting for me to read them.

Kuchera’s argues that even if you don’t play the games now, what you are doing is sending a message to the developers and the industry about what kinds of games you want to support.

On the topic of sales, both cliffski and Kuchera agree. They work. To illustrate, I was at a party recently talking about these posts (I’m a pretty wild and crazy guy!), and a colleague told me that you don’t have to look further than JCPenny to see what happens when you buck the trend there.

In early 2012, JCPenny changed its pricing strategy. Instead of markups and sales, there would be “every day” prices.

Late last year, the company announced it was reversing the decision, citing dismal sales figures.

So, JCPenny discovers the hard way that despite the logic that a low price is a low price, there is some psychology to a sale price, to the idea of getting a bargain. Now we get to benefit from that information.

But Kuchera says the biggest benefit is that increasing your catalog of games is good for you.

Maybe you’re not ready for the pace of a game like Gone Home today, but you can never tell when the game will satisfy an itch you don’t know you had. Buying games on sale allows us to browse our own selections, be surprised at something we had forgotten we had bought, and find that finally, we’re ready for that game.

I can relate. When I was a child and had no way to earn money but a weekly allowance, I would save my money for months in order to go to Toys R Us and browse the game selection. One time, I picked up Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. I might have been 10 years old at the time. I had no idea what the game was, but the back of the box had illustrations of dragons, knights, and skeletons. COOL!

I tried to play it, but I couldn’t figure it out. I mean, I understood the mechanics of walking around the first-person maze, entering selections to fight, and casting spells. But I had no idea what I was doing. I would fight incredibly tough enemies and have a total party kill before I knew what happened. It was too much, and the game wasn’t what I expected at all.

It was a few years later when I pulled it out of my collection of games to try it out again, and my more mature self was able to grok it way better. Oh, I have to map out the maze I’m exploring! I need to make sure that I gain experience and skills and purchase good equipment before venturing too far into it. It all clicked. It all made sense. I wasn’t ready to play the game when I bought it, but I’m glad I did all those years ago because the Wizardry series became one of my favorites.

I appreciate what cliffski is concerned about. It would be nice if when a new piece of entertainment is released that everyone played it together. Around 10 years ago, I bought Total Annihilation and Homeworld: Cataclysm due to the recommendations of a friend, both times years after the games had come out. Cavedog’s Boneyards and Sierra’s WON.net were mostly empty before eventually being shutdown entirely, but I was told that they used to be filled with active gamers ready for your challenge. Had I bought the games on release, I might have experienced it, but as I was late to the party, I missed out.

It’s captured perfectly in this xkcd comic.

The alt-text: “I remember trying to log in to the original Command and Conquer servers a year or two back and feeling like I was knocking on the boarded-up gates of a ghost town.”

Similarly, the Steve Jobs biography that was all the rage a couple of years ago? The local library had a high double-digit long waiting list. I never ended up reading it, although I still want to. But when I do finally get to read it, it would have been years after the book was topical. Am I similarly missing out by reading it so much later than everyone else?

Or isn’t that the point of books, that they are there for me to read whenever I feel like it?

And so it is with games. For years, I’ve always wondered how people can be so comfortable selling their old games to get credit towards the purchase of new games. I, on the other hand, still have my Atari 2600. I still have my NES, SNES, N64, and original Game Boy. Despite being able to play any Gamecube games on the Wii, I still have my Gamecube.

But more important than my inclination to keep consoles beyond the point that might be reasonable, I still have the games I bought for those systems. I’m still unhappy with the discovery that my father gave away the Apple II c+ from my childhood to his coworker, which means I lost my copies of Troll’s Tale, Snooper Troops, Below the Root, Bill Budge’s Pinball Construction Set, and other games. Some of them were beyond my capabilities at the time, but I’d be ready for them today.

But being able to pull out my older consoles and play games from almost two decades ago is a capability I enjoy having.

I currently have two large six-shelf bookcases in my office filled with books. I have a computer rack with a few shelves taken up by CD cases for computer games. In the living room are the console games. In another room is a set of shelves filled with boardgames and card games.

I used to fantasize about having an entire room of a house dedicated to being a library, with books and games stored from floor to ceiling.

Video games these days end up being in the cloud. I have 30 games across 7 virtual shelves on GOG.com, quite a few Humble Bundle bundles, and a few games in Steam. If not you then people you know have much larger catalogs of games stored as bits on a server.

It’s not as tactile, but we still enjoy having those collections to pick up and play whenever we allow ourselves to do so.

What I am not sure we’re seeing is a change in the game design efforts of developers, which is I think cliffski’s biggest concern. While some developers put out buggy and shoddy games, I don’t think they last long. Even if most games don’t get played, I don’t think a pretty screenshot and a sale is enough to get people to reward the developer. Reputation still matters.

How do you feel about your backlog? What impact, if any, do you believe the constant sales and discounts has on game design and the efforts of a developer?

On Game Narrative, Again

Dan Cox said the following in reply to my recent post Plot Ignored + Unfinished Games = Useless Effort?

I’m fearful that the take-away for many developers will be to not attempt much of a story now. If people can’t remember their favorite game’s story, would go the logic, there’s not much of a reason to try at all.

Of course, I would argue that the problem is not that any particular game’s story is memorable or not, but more that, in general, they aren’t very good. Some are, sure, but way too many AAA games have very little story.

I imagine that there will be some industrial momentum that will keep writers employed in the game industry for some time.

That said, frankly, I think it’s difficult to make a good game with a fully authored story.

In game design, there’s the concept of meaningful play. If you give the player agency, then the player should expect to be able to express it. If you are trying to enforce a specific story, however, then that agency is an illusion. No matter what action the player takes, it won’t affect the story in any meaningful way, which reduces the quality of the game.

At the extreme, you have “press button to turn the page” kinds of games. Years ago, a friend of mine was excited to find a cheat code that allowed him to instantly finish missions of Star Trek: Armada because he just wanted to see the story. To him, he wasn’t playing a game, and in fact the game seemed to be an obstacle to his enjoyment of the narrative. He would have been happier if it was a a movie or new episode of Star Trek.

But many gamers want their actions to matter. So then you have games that allow you to go through XYZ branches of a story, where XYZ isn’t unlimited but is in fact quite limited, relatively speaking. But, hey, your choices affect the story!

I’ll admit to loving Wing Commander for its branching storylines. If you did poorly in a mission, you didn’t retry it until you got it right. If you survived, you kept going, and your ability to escort a supply ship or strike at a key base affected the war effort.

My favorite moment from the game, in fact, was the final mission in the branch of the story where the Tiger’s Claw is being forced out of the sector by the overwhelming Kilrathi. You were tasked with fighting off the enemy while the Tiger’s Claw slowly makes its way to the jump point to safety…and it was made clear that if you aren’t on the carrier when it leaves, you’re stranded. Everything I’ve failed to do throughout the game comes to mind as I realize that this is my last chance at doing something well.

Still, as enjoyable as the story was in that game, it was limited. There are only so many branches, scenarios, and missions.

And then you have games with no inherit story, yet the stories they generate can arguably be the most memorable. I have posted stories that were generated by the playing of NetHack plenty of times. And I’m overdue for one. B-)

Over half a decade ago (!!!), I wrote about the importance of stories:

In general, I suppose stories are important for games. I just think that they don’t necessarily have to be dictated from within the game. There is nothing wrong with games that tell a story, but games that do tell stories shouldn’t let the story get in the way of the game. Some people might prefer games that let them figure out their own stories. When I play Flatspace, I like to be a trader, but I like to hunt pirates as well. I don’t have to fight the pirates, but I’m just taking the law into my own hands, hoping to get my hands on the pirate who destroyed my life in my made-up past. There is no actual support for the story in the game, but there isn’t anything that gets in the way of that story, either. I enjoy the act of creation, even if it is only in my mind.

Amazingly, I still agree with my past self. The more games have fully authored stories, the less game-like I think they can be because authored story demands less meaningful game play. I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with such games. They are wildly popular and have an audience, so it isn’t hurting them.

But when I play games, I’m not as interested in someone else telling me what my experience will be. My experience is my story, which gets generated during play. The more a game allows me to craft my own story, the more I think it is leveraging the strengths it inherently has. Minecraft allows so much story to be generated out of the interaction of play and mechanics, for instance. The Last of Us, on the other hand, only allows so much.

Games are meant to allow players meaningful interactions within a play area. While the game design can guide a player towards moods, ideas, and concepts, the story should be the player’s to generate. Otherwise, the meaning of play is nothing more than what the player needs to do to watch the rest of the movie that’s marketed as a game.

Plot Ignored + Unfinished Games = Useless Effort?

Each time I logged into Twitter this week, I’m reminded that I’m not at GDC.

Thanks go to each of you who post about what’s happening. I live vicariously through you.

As for what’s happening, a colleague forwarded this article that covered the talk “Death to the Three Act-Structure” which mentions research by Microsoft that claims players can’t remember the plots of games.

Combine this information with the statistics that show most gamers don’t finish the games they play, and you can imagine how futile it feels to be a game developer trying to create a very intricate interactive story.

Of course, there has been a number of people pointing out that making games is not the same as making movies or books. The more you try to make your game like those other media, the less you rely on the strengths of games.

Games are less about specific details of plot and narrative and more about the experience the player has. You can guide it, you can influence it, but you can’t author it.

It’s 2014, and it sounds like people are finally figuring out that writing for games isn’t the same as writing a novel.

What was your takeaway from the talk?

November #1GAM Entry: Raking Leaves

November’s One Game a Month entry is uncreatively-named Raking Leaves, a leaf raking simulator chock full of leaf-raking action!

Download Raking Leaves for Linux 64-bit (1.2 MB tar.gz file)

The object of the game is to rake all of the leaves into a single pile. The wind will blow the leaves around, however, and if you lose too many leaves off of your lawn, the game is over.

I had a lot going on this month, and so I didn’t dedicate a lot of time to making a game. Still, I wanted to make something for #1GAM. What could I make?

I recently bought a house, and with home ownership comes the oh-so-fun task of raking leaves. I decided to make a game out of that experience, and raking leaves is usually done in the Fall, which goes along with the optional theme of “Change”, so it was a perfect concept.

I started out making leaves and randomly throwing them about the yard.

November #1GAM

I then added a rake, which replaces the mouse cursor:

November #1GAM

I wanted to capture the frustration of raking leaves, and so when you click and move the rake, the leaves will move, albeit a bit slower than the rake. This means you have to go rake the same leaves over and over to move them a long distance. I was pleased that it was working as well as I had planned.

November #1GAM

I had some funny bugs, such as this accident which features the level resetting over and over, except it wouldn’t reset the number of leaves but merely add to them. It looks like a giant set of orange hedges.

November #1GAM

Another funny moment was after I added wind. I wanted early levels be less windy, while later levels would get more wind. Here is what it looks like to rake in a hurricane:

November #1GAM

Wind affects leaves in a radius around it, and the farther away the leaves are from the center of the wind, the less of an impact the wind will have. It works very well, but out of curiosity, I set the level to 1,100, which has over 20,000 leaves in it and has winds every second. It resulted in some cool visual effects, as you can see in this video:

Eventually I think I achieved a good balance, complete with a scoring system to let you know how well you’ve done compared to your best raking.

November #1GAM

Considering I worked less than seven hours on this project, I’m pleased with what I came up with. I had plans for rocks, bushes, trees, and other obstacles, as well as a child running around jumping into your pile and scattering the leaves. Having sound would help, too, but for now, I think I’ve got one of the best games about raking leaves out there.

October #1GAM Entry: Candypreneur

October’s One Game a Month entry is Candypreneur, a candy tycoon game inspired by the classic Apple II game Lemonade Stand.

Download Candypreneur for Linux 64-bit (432 kb tar.gz file)

I wish I had dedicated more time to this project. I had surgery and wasn’t able to work on it while I recuperated, and when I was able to spend time on it, I squandered it.

Still, I learned some things, such as that a best practice for representing money in software is by using integer values to represent cents rather than using doubles to represent dollars.

October #1GAM

October #1GAM

I wish I had time to theme it up a bit more. Some candy icons would have helped.

Also, the economics model is too simple. I managed to add random events that can impact the number of prospective customers, which you can sometimes prepare for if you check the reports screen for the upcoming month.

For this project, I had a much more complex simulation in mind. I wanted competitors, suppliers, customer moods, storefronts, candy ingredients, and research & development.

Even when I scaled down, I still didn’t put in things such as the rising cost of advertising or the ability to take out and pay back bank loans.

I’d say this is probably the project I’m least happiest with. I feel like there isn’t enough there, although some last minute additions make it less certain you’ll sell that candy.

September #1GAM Entry: Hextrap

September’s One Game a Month entry is a clone of the NES game Yoshi.

Download Hextrap for Linux 64-bit (410 kb tar.gz file)

I’ve never made a falling block puzzle game before. I had more ambitious plans, but with ISVCon 2013 taking up a lot of my time, I ended up doing most of my game development hours on the four planes I rode to and from Reno, Nevada.

I started out with creating the four stack platforms, and a swapper which the player controls.

September #1GAM

I created shapes to act as the various pieces: circles, triangles, squares, and pentagons. Hexagons were special. If a top hexagon piece is over a bottom hexagon piece, the pieces in the middle were consumed and the player got bonus points.

September #1GAM

I think what put this project in jeopardy was that I wanted some particle effects. It didn’t take long to implement, but I could have spent my precious time on the game play.

September #1GAM

But it came together quite well, even if I think it feels kind of hacked together at times.

I think the only thing missing is an issue involving the interaction of a swapping stack that is higher than a falling piece. Right now, the falling piece stacks on top, whereas it should flip around to a different stack.

Oh, and sound effects and music would be nice.

The scoring is also much simpler than in the original game.