Your Writing Style

Conversational Writing Kicks Formal Writing’s Ass is another insightful post on Creating Passionate Users that say that formal writing, as nice and professional as it is, is less effective at teaching than conversational writing is. Conversational writing does something to the brain that makes it act as if it is involved in an actual conversation and so forces the reader to pay attention much more than formal writing would. You just remember certain things easier this way.

I’ve mentioned before that I am always interested in learning how to write more effectively, and this post had some good points. Of course, besides writing better, I’m wondering how this principle might apply to game development. Specificially, how do I make games that you would respond to (notice I said you instead of “the gamer” or some other third person term)?

“You Win!” was always more exciting than “Player 1 Wins!” or “GIAN is the winner!”

In RPGs, it is common to meet NPCs that talk to your character. Even though the main character in Chrono Trigger never talked back, the conversation was more compelling because you really only controlled the main character when walking around. People were talking to YOU vicariously through the character, and it was all the more real when you used your real name in the game.

Is your game an educational title? Perhaps you should make the text in the game more conversational and appear to involve the player more. I don’t think it all needs to be second-person “you” and “your”, but you definitely don’t want anything to appear stuffy and formal.

Are the instructions for a game more understandable if you say, “If you wish to access the main menu, hit ESC” rather than “Hit ESC for main menu”?

What about marketing? Can your website become more conversational? Does it sound too much like a thesis? Would changing some sentences or whole sections make the game more memorable and therefore more likely to bring back a potential customer to make a purchase?

The post, like many on that blog, has given me some things to think about.

Less is More

Roads Gone Wild is an article about making roads safer by removing traffic signals and signs. I found it through Brian Marick’s agile development blog.

Roads have historically been built with the assumption that cars and pedestrians don’t mix. Seems like a sound assumption, right? No one really questioned it. Road signs were used to enforce driving patterns. For example, blinking red lights and stop signs require drivers to stop at an intersection. Also, streets and people were segregated, and so people felt safer walking in certain areas but not in others.

Traffic congestion is the result, but it was assumed that wider roads would alleviate the problem. Studies are showing that this is not the case and will only make matters worse.

There is a new trend to reduce the number of signs on roads. Instead of placing stop signs at intersections, an island can be placed in the center, and the drivers can navigate around it safely. I presume it is because drivers are much more engaged and don’t just space out while driving through. Whatever the case is, the big idea is that the physical features of the street, the architecture, can dictate traffic much better than traffic signals can.

The bonus side effect is that pedestrians and cyclists feel safer near major roadways. Businesses get attracted to these new markets, and now you have transportation mixed with local development. Previously, transportation and storefronts didn’t mix so it required a lot more space and therefore money.

So basically, good architecture influences behavior better than arbitrary rules. The requirement of a road sign can be an admission of the road designer’s failure to make a better road. Stop signs shouldn’t be necessary because a road can be architected to require people to stop in the first place.

It’s a cool idea, and I wonder how it applies to games. I’ve seen games that present a level layout that requires the use of a special item. For instance, in Super Mario World one of the first levels that allows you to collect the feather to give Mario the ability to fly also has a coin bonus area that requires you to fly to collect the coins. There doesn’t need to be a sign or clue. Players see a feather, see a ramp next to the incredibly tall pipe, and figure out that they need to run up the pipe and start flying to collect the coins. Similarly, in Wind Waker, when you get the leaf, it gives you the ability to blast a puff of air. When you see the rotating fans in a dungeon’s room, you know you can use the leaf here. There is no need for a sign or message to let you know what to do.

I think that most games do a good job of making level layouts intuitive, but I know that some games have placed markers or signs to guide the player. In reality, they probably weren’t necessary if the level was designed better. Obviously some markers are necessary for immersion, such as wooden signposts in a fantasy RPG. Others are used as optional tutorials, such as the signs in Super Mario 64. But some might be used to make up for deficiencies in the game itself.

If anything, it should give a game designer some pause if he/she realizes that a marker is getting added to compensate for a bad design. Provide hints to the gamer instead of rules. Cracks in a wall indicate a possible cave to explore. A player should be able to place a bomb or smash through. On the other hand, if the game requires the player to set some “I-know-about-the-hidden-cave” variable before a bomb will be effective or the cracks in the wall visible, that’s just bad and arbitrary.

Creating Game Ideas

Last year someone posted on a forum that they have hundreds of game ideas. At the time, I had set of game project folders that I setup for each idea I had. I thought that the point of having a game idea was to allow that idea to become a real game. Maybe the developer on the forum was exaggerating, but I still think that coming up with lots of ideas is better than coming up with fewer. Coming up with many ideas is something that has been repeated by quite a few people ranging from motivational speakers to successful authors. Of course, if I continued to do what I was doing when I came up with an idea, I would have a very large and mostly useless Projects directory on my computer.

I started to keep track of my ideas in a simple text file. I basically come up with a simple name of a potential project, and then give one line describing how it plays. I avoid using genre specific terms. I am not coming up with an RPG or a puzzle game. I basically say what the game is supposed to be like. Here’s 3 and 1/3 cents worth of examples from my Ideas.txt file:

  • Egg Fight: Protect chickens and pelt your opponent with eggs
  • Elevator Rush: Move elevators manually to get customers to destination
  • Spend My Money: Spend $1,000,000 in a month the best way you can
  • Pedestrian: Run down the street while avoiding pedestrians

It’s a completely random jumble of ideas, and I get inspiration from anywhere. Elevator Rush came about when I thought about Elevator Action and Sim Tower at the same time. When I was collecting eggs in Harvest Moon, I thought about how funny it would be to throw them at passerby, and so Egg Fight became an idea. Pedestrian is basically a real life game for anyone who leaves work at rush hour downtown in a major city, and I’ll admit to thinking about having samurai swords and fighting against hordes of the undead rushing upon me, but that’s a different idea completely. A lot of my ideas are just the result of random doodles, so I might suggest investing in a 35 cent notebook. The ROI can be great.

Anyway, while some of the simple descriptions might bring to mind specific genres that they fit best, nothing requires it to be this way. Spend My Money could be a game show, a turn based strategy game, or an action platformer. I’m not interested in the details like story or character design. These are just game ideas. When I am ready to make a game, I can look through my listing and pick one or three things that sound interesting and come up with a decent game design.

I don’t have hundreds of them yet, but whenever I update it, I try to add five ideas at a time. Even if I only came up with one idea randomly, when I record it, I try to get myself to make up four more to go with it. If I discipline myself to come up with just 5 ideas a day, that’s 35 new ideas a week. Hundreds of ideas doesn’t sound hard at all, and obviously having many ideas to choose from makes getting a winning idea more likely.

Character in Games

It Builds Character: Character Development Techniques in Games talks about techniques to make characters that your players can relate to. It provides some simple-to-implement techniques to aid in the creation of interesting characters and their relationships.

The Tarot card idea is actually pretty cool, and I’m sure if someone uses cards from other decks, like Uno or Fluxx, they could come up with some very unique ideas for characters. The Tower, a Reverse, and Squishy Chocolate?!? You could create a down-on-his luck thief who decides to be good from now on. At some point, when he can’t stand his hunger any longer, he comes across a chocolate bar but gets caught trying to steal it since it was sitting in the sun for too long.

Ok that didn’t work so well, but hey, I didn’t actually deal those cards nor was I really trying. B-)

Mock conversations and character webs are also good ideas. In fact, I think it would be cool if games would come with these things as part of the extras, similar to what’s on DVDs. I remember reading a Super Mario World strategy guide that I received through my Nintendo Power subscription. It was really cool to seeing designs of the game series complete with sketches of Mario on a dinosaur years before Yoshi came along. I imagine that storyboards and sketches could be combined with mock conversations and character webs to make great behind-the-scenes footage for a game, especially if the developers act out the roles of the characters. At the very least, they could be really funny.

Difficulty in Games

Gamasutra’s Soapbox: Difficulty and the Interstitial Gamer by Michael M. Eilers talks about the idea of gamer who grew up.

Years ago, video games were for children. Today, while a lot of non-gamers think that it is still the case, most gamers are adults. These are adults with lives outside of school and video games, and they don’t have a lot of time to spend on games. I believe I fit that description, a realization that has always been sad to think about.

The article makes the point that games that make use of the same designs employed in the 80s won’t work as well today. Designs doesn’t mean that you can’t make a Pac-man clone. It means that what is normal in games is drudge work by today’s standards. Years ago I would try over and over and over again to get past a Megaman boss or time the jumps right in Super Mario Bros. I had nothing but time to dedicate to games. Today, if I hear that a game has arbitrary jumping puzzles or has dangers that I can only get past the first time with clairvoyance or cheat guides, I tend to take a pass. I also don’t spend money on MMO games because I can’t be guaranteed that I will get good value out of my monthly fee.

Now, it isn’t to say that I don’t take pleasure in playing these games. I just don’t have the time anymore. Years ago, I played strategy and role playing games for days or weeks at a time, then stop playing those games for a few weeks or longer. When I came back to the game after such a period of time, I couldn’t remember what I had done so I usually erased my old save and started over. I get a slight empty feeling at this point because I can’t feel comfortable continuing a game that I barely remember (“that’s not my character anymore”) nor can I feel good about deleting the progress I had made. I get that exact feeling today when I get a chance to play a game for an evening but can’t return to it for weeks. When I was younger, I might stop because I wanted to play a new game or had a lot of homework for that week. These days it is because game time is rare. It is more like I was able to find some time to play a game instead of having my game time interrupted by something else. I suppose it is why LAN parties are so popular. You get to schedule an entire day or two (or three!) to just playing games.

So gamers have grown up for the most part, and the game industry’s mainstream isn’t the hardcore game player anymore. I touched on this idea slightly when I discussed the idea of making games girl friendly. I basically say that games should be more accessible in general to attract non-gamers rather than specifically female non-gamers. This article made me realize that non-gamers are actually a subset of people who aren’t playing games. Interstitial gamers make up another part of it, and while I knew they existed, I didn’t realize just how large of a group it may be.

And then there is this article at Gamers With Jobs which gives an…interesting point of view on difficulty in games. There are no pictures so it is workplace safe.

Girl Friendly Games?

People keep talking about making games more girl friendly. When women make up over 50% of the world but only a small percentage of your customers, more women gamers means more sales. Naturally, there is an emphasis on attracting women to video games. But then people guess at what to do. More cute characters would be good. What girl doesn’t like Hello, Kitty? Or what about making games geared towards girls? Barbie games? Yeah, right.

Instead of trying to attract women exclusively or specifically, why not simply make the game more accessible in general?

An example:
Debian Women is a project to get women more involved with Debian.

We will promote women’s involvement in Debian by increasing the visibility of active women, providing mentoring and role models, and creating opportunities for collaboration with new and current members of the Debian Project.

Debian’s mailing lists are known to be elitist, which turns off many newbies. People were leaving Debian for Gentoo which has newbie-friendlier web forums, and in general there are more men than women involved in computers. Still, it turned out that this community project didn’t just attract women. Debian Women also attracted men who were tired of hearing “RTFM” when asking for help. When Debian became more accessible, it allowed everyone to participate, not just more women.

Awhile back I went to see Sheri Pocilujko of Incredible Technologies give a talk on Female Friendly Gaming. When I asked her about the basis for her ideas, she admitted that there were no studies to support them. She was basically going on anecdotal evidence. Still, I think what she noted and suggested makes sense. She noted that making games more attractive to women in these ways also attracts men. I paraphrase them here, but the basic idea is to make your game more accessible, not more pretty. Women, non-gamer men, etc. Even the hardcore “mainstream” gamers of today aren’t as hardcore as they were years ago. Playing a game that has the interface of some old NES games would be a painful experience today for many who have been spoiled with modern advances.

When making a choice, you should be provided with all the information you need so that uncertainty is minimized.
Research has shown that girls are less likely to get called on in class than boys. Boys continue to get attention even if they are wrong, but girls in general are more timid about being wrong and so avoid participation. In the end, boys grow up to be men who are risk takers while girls grow up to be women who are unsure. Women don’t take mathematics or science classes as much as men do. In fact, girls are raised to believe that “Math is hard”. There are other studies that show that females are raised differently from males. Males are prepared to be independent while women are prepared to be dependent. They grow up with certain expectations which turn out to be wrong when it comes to the business world. NOTE: while I normally like to receive feedback, my experience in LA&S classes in college requires me to point out to you that these studies exist and in no way do I imply that ALL women act a certain way. I am not claiming that women are always frail flowers or that they can’t be competitive with men, so please don’t respond as if I did. Thank you.

What is the point? The point is that when you are making a decision, whether in a game, in business, or in life, you have a certain fear. No one wants to make the wrong choice. The more information you have, the less uncertainty you have. When you provide a choice to the player, you should be able to provide all the information that the player needs. But too many games require the player to “know” something. Imagine if you were given a choice of three potions: red, blue, or green. It might be a legitimate fear that if you pick a potion, it might be the “wrong” one. What if you should have taken the red one but you took the blue one? What do those potions do? Why might you need each? How likely will you need each one? With this information, it is enough for people to stop playing. “Math is hard, so I won’t take it in college if I can help it.” It is said by men and women alike. There are just more men who happen to like math and video games. Maybe the analogy is flawed, but I think they are related. I think men play video games more often than women because they were perfectly fine with trial and error to learn how something works. Doing it wrong the first couple of times didn’t phase them. Women, on the other hand, probably got discouraged from initial failure and went back to their training: “Math is hard, so do something else.”

Provide enough information for the player to make an informed choice. Super Mario RPG is a great example of a game that provides information on screen when you need it most without making it annoying to experts.

All relevant information needed to play the game should be provided upfront.
Pocilujko related the story of a girl who bought a fighting game for her boyfriend. She practiced for weeks so that she could surprise him by being able to play the game with him. When she gave it to him, and they started to play, he defeated her soundly. He would even make use of moves that weren’t in the instruction manual. When asked, he just claims that he “just got it”, but the girlfriend was very put off of the game. She read the instructions, practiced, but the special moves were completely missing and she wasn’t aware of them.

I personally didn’t like playing Mortal Kombat or Killer Instinct because there was no way to learn the moves in game. You had to learn it from someone else or through cheat guides. That’s not fostering community so much as making a bad first impression. Super Smash Bros is a fighting game where the controls are the same for each player. Sure, there are slight differences in results, but the interface and mechanics are roughly the same. People pick it up quickly, although it would be better if there was a way to make it obvious which buttons do what in game as opposed to requiring someone to read the manual.

Don’t hypersexualize the female characters.
Women with unrealisticly large breasts might appeal to male teenagers, but most women (and some men) will take offense. You might have scrawny males, fat males, muscle-bound males, but women are almost always sexualized in some way. I’ve heard some people, including women, claim that making the men attractive will help too, but I don’t think that showing shirtless men will really attract the other half of the world to your game.

Characters should have a purpose in the game other than fulfilling the sexual fantasies of teenagers (in age and mental capacity). Won’t it be more compelling to more people to have interesting characters, or should you continue to cater to those who would rather spend their gaming time trying to zoom the camera down a polygonal blouse? Last I heard, The Guy Game didn’t sell well at all even though those were real women.

Make it easy for people to want to buy from you.
Another thing that Pocilujko talked about was marketing and selling. Girls don’t buy games at video game stores because the exclusively male team who invariably works there almost always make them feel uncomfortable. Instead, girls shop at Walmart or Target for their games. The people who work there don’t care that she’s a gamer, so she isn’t in fear of getting asked out on a date or being told that she should look for My Little Pony games instead of Doom 3. While a girl might play at a gaming kiosk, she might back away from it the moment males start to play or a male sales representative appears. Why? Comfort. Have you heard what 12 year olds say when playing a video game? Yeesh.

She mentioned being a salesperson for a Star Wars card game at one point in time. Not only did women feel more comfortable buying from her, but imagine how the men reacted. Here is a woman who not only knows about their game but is also interested in it. Quite a few sales resulted in those interactions, although I don’t think it is necessarily for a good reason. Still, people were more open to the female salesperson who was also knowledgable in the game than they would have been to the male version. Women specifically were more open to playing a game where the person teaching them wasn’t perceived as judgmental.

It is funny because this isn’t just a secret to getting more women gamers. It is a secret to any sale in any business. Make the customer more comfortable about buying from you, and you eliminate another barrier to closing the sale.

Long ago, games didn’t have a lot of room for storing things like a good interface or help text. Most gamers were game developers, which mean they were programmers. Interface wasn’t as important since the person playing the game knew how to use a computer. Today, there is no excuse. A lot of research has been and is being done, and many of these problems have already been solved quite well. Most people aren’t computer science majors and you can’t expect them to be.

Still, the problem is not making games more girl friendly. There are whole communities of female gamers, so it is obviously not an intrinsic problem with the gender. The actual problem to be tackled is in making games more accessible to girls AND boys who wouldn’t normally play. “Math is hard” isn’t just a problem with females, as I’ve said. People generally accept that casual games are supposed to be made more accessible to the soccer moms who play them, but I think that lowered barriers to entry are needed in normal games as well.

My own anecdotal evidence: a friend of mine once remarked that the interface for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets on the PC was not intuitive. I didn’t notice the interface being a problem. Why? Because she doesn’t play computer games regularly and doesn’t know that the keys W-A-S-D are normal. I naturally moved my fingers to those keys whereas she was trying to use the arrow keys. It is not fun to be told by someone that you’re doing something wrong, no matter how nice they say it (and I distinctly remember being nice about it, for the record). Here was a kid’s game that was causing problems for an adult. How did children who don’t normally play games figure it out? Another story: I remember playing a game on the Apple II and getting frustrated with this same issue. I had to use I-J-K-M to move about instead of the arrow keys. “Who thought of that?” I remember thinking back when I didn’t know what “intutive” meant. I had to look up information in one of the computer manuals to find out how to move. The Computer was still new to me so I was already used to figuring out how it worked, but how many people would never play that game because they couldn’t figure it out?

I don’t think that game developers should try to cater to girls so much as they should target non-gamers. Female gamers exist and play mostly the same games that males play. It’s the people who don’t play games that need games that work for them. They need to know that math and video games aren’t painful, scary, or hard.

Power of Myth in Video Games

Awhile back, Gamasutra had an article on the Hero’s Journey that I’ve already touched on. More recently there was an article on story in games. Now, I am reading The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers to help in understanding game development and design. The introduction already had some great points about the existence of myth and ritual in modern society, and even touched on Campbell’s discussion about Luke Skywalker as the typical Hero.

I was thinking about how the Hero’s Journey and myth in general would apply in game development. I didn’t want to focus on how to write a good story for a game so much as how to make the game itself better. When reading the passage about the Hero above, I thought about my experience playing Darwinia by Introversion Software. Campbell mentions that the journey doesn’t end for the hero with access to heaven or escape from suffering. It ends when the hero changes or finds a way to serve others. In Darwinia, I thought that the game seemed to reflect this idea. When you start to play, you are there trying to fix what went wrong in the world. By the end, however, you find that your job has changed. Your role is now to help the Darwinians fight for themselves. You can’t just blast your way through the level. You need to help get the Darwinians to take control of the different areas.

And doing so is, I think, much more emotional. Their failures are your failures. You win only when they win. If the game hadn’t made the Darwinians such an important aspect of the gameplay, they probably would have been seen as annoying and in the way, like some AI sidekicks in FPS games have historically been. As it was, they played an important part of the game. They were the Others that you were supposed to serve. They learn and grow as you progress through the game. They aren’t just mindless NPC characters in a game at this point. They’ve become characters you actually care about.

I have no idea if Introversion consciously designed the gameplay around the Hero’s Journey. I may also be full of it or overanalyzing the game. Still, I think that by making use of motifs and ideas from myths, good game experiences can result. There are a number of rituals that happen in real life that people don’t relate to myths. After all, the word “myth” usually makes people think about Greek gods, so thinking of funeral or wedding services as just extensions of modern day myths is difficult. Still, that’s what made Campbell so important. He was able to relate myths to modern life. So I don’t think it would be a stretch to think that consciously working aspects of myths into game play can serve to make better game experiences for the player.

Darwinia could have just been a game where you progressed from one area to the next blasting viruses. Instead, it centered around the Darwinians and their destroyed world. Your role is not diminished. On the contrary, your role as the Hero is made all the more real to you when you know that your actions have an effect on the inhabitants of the world. You don’t just think of it as a game. You’re thinking, “They’re counting on me!”

And there are countless examples of games that evoke similar emotions when playing. Original War by Altar Interactive is a real time strategy game that concentrates on the people involved. You don’t just churn out infrantry whenever you want. If you have 10 people at your base, that is all you have to work with. There is no way to “build soldiers” the way you can build tanks. Human resources is important. When one of your people gets killed, it hurts a lot for practical reasons. That’s one less gun firing, or one less tank maneuvering, or one less mechanic to help build machines faster. But it also feels emotional. You don’t just lose Solider #42. You lose Joan, or Cpl. Frank Forsythe, or 2nd Lt. Lucy Donaldson. They won’t come back later in the game. What’s more emotional than knowing that your leadership decisions resulted in lost lives? Or saving them all?

I’d love to hear any ideas or comments from other game developers. How important a role does a specific myth play in your games? What general ideas from myths do you try to keep in mind?

Game Rules Are In Fluxx

I’m always trying to learn about new game mechanics, so when I discovered the game Fluxx by Wunderland, it was more than just fun. It got me thinking.

Fluxx is a card game in which the rules change as you play. Some people might be familiar with the game of Mao: the rules are secret, and part of the fun is figuring out what those rules are. Unfortunately it requires one or two people in the game to already know the rules, and there are apparently many variations on the game depending on the college campus you went to when you learned about it. Fluxx, on the other hand, is very specific. Everything is out for everyone to see, and so rule changes are always disclosed. Naturally, it is much easier to pick up the game after only a few hands.

Even though the rules change as you play, it isn’t difficult or confusing. In the beginning, you have three cards, and you must draw one card from the pile and then play one card from your hand. That card you play can change the rules immediately. For example, you can play a “Draw 5″ card, and now each player must draw five cards and play one. The card “X = X + 1″ means that you add 1 to any number. In this example game, playing this card will now require everyone to draw six and play two. Even the winning conditions can change as Goals are played or removed.

I thought this game would appeal mostly to technically inclined people, since it seemed like a programming game based on if statements. Apparently everyone, including children, gets into this game easily.

I think that there are a few things going for this game. The interface is simple. It’s a card game, and everyone knows how to play card games. The rules are simple. Just follow what it says on the table at any given moment. It is easy to handle the complexity. Some rules supersede others. Others simply change existing rules. And each card tells you exactly what you need to do. No need to go to the instruction booklet just to find out what it means to draw the “X = X + 1″ or “Let’s Simplify” cards.

What can I apply to making video games? Well, for one, an easy to use interface isn’t just a suggestion. It’s necessary! As Xemu has said, the interface IS the game. If Fluxx made it difficult to follow or make the changes, it would feel more like work than like play. There are definitely elements of video games that feel like work, such as jumping puzzles. Video games should be as easy to pick up and play, or if that is not possible for some reason, they should at least make it easy for the player to figure out what they have to do. Fluxx has the equivalent of context-sensitive help screens, and games such as Super Mario RPG or The Sims are perfect examples that used them nicely.

Another thing to take away from Fluxx is the idea of modifiers and rule changes during the course of play. Imagine playing a sidescroller and then hitting a spot where the gravity is reversed or a different force is in effect. It will likely change the way you play that game or at least move about. Maybe an enemy will only be revealed when the wind tunnel is on, or perhaps you can only find an item when X-Ray vision is available. While it is normal for an item to have a simple effect, such as a bullet killing an enemy, perhaps rules that have a wide effect make for interesting gameplay? If all players on a server now have attacks with 50x the force due to some muscle-enhancing gas in the level, it will definitely change the way the game is played. Even if only one player is affected, it can be interesting and fun.

Sure there are power-ups, and none of what I am talking about is really all that new in video games. Games make use of these techniques more or less all the time. For example, speeding up, slowing down, and/or stopping time for all entities in the game are used in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, Viewtiful Joe, and Max Payne. Quad damage in Quake 3 is another example. In Super Smash Bros. Melee, one of the pokemon will make the screen go dark for a few seconds, naturally affecting all players.

I simply want to be consciously aware of such generalized mechanics. Changing the rules and goals sounds like something that could make an otherwise bland game into something interesting and, as seen in Fluxx, can actually BE the entire game.