Game Design: A Sense Of Wonder

I’ve been playing a ton of Fallout 4 recently. And surprisingly, it’s not because I love the game. I like it, but it has a problem that pervades the whole experience: a lack of wonder. Here, I want to talk about games that provoke a sense of wonder, what it does for players, and why recent games seem to have been dropping the ball on this.

My first Bethesda game was Morrowind, which I felt was a very wondrous game. You travel to cities made of mushrooms. You ride on giant bugs for taxis. You visit floating rocks in the sky that have been hollowed out and turned into prisons. You get attacked by crazed maniacs in your sleep. You meet talking crabs. You get interrupted by a screaming mage who falls out of the sky and lands to his death right on the road in front of you. There were so many elements in Morrowind that felt so fantastical, so different from reality. Those small bits were what made the game amazing.

Contrast that to Fallout 4, which to be fair has its share of wonder. You meet a cult of people who bathe in molten iron. You meet a mutant who believes that Shakespeare’s Macbeth will teach him how to become stronger. But really… when you sit down and look at it, it’s a little bit harder to be amazed at things in Fallout 4. And that’s sad, because there are so many things in the wasteland that could give you the same kind of otherworldly feeling that Morrowind did. So many people have become jaded by modern games, saying that they’re all the same and how they wish games could go back to the good old days, and I think a large part of that is because they’re missing a sense of wonder.

The nostalgia filter is definitely a large part of this problem. I played Morrowind in middle school, and naturally I was much more impressionable back then. People always look back at old games and remember them as being better than they actually were. But the nostalgia filter is not the only problem. Game design itself has shifted games in a different direction that can truly be felt.

Nowadays, people always talk about how games are becoming too cinematic, and I think it’s a related topic. You can try to simulate a sense of wonder by shoving the player into an unskippable cutscene where they see a brilliant beautiful horizon and the music swells into an epic climax. It sort of works, but at the same time, it sort of doesn’t.

Wonder In Dark Souls vs. Dark Souls 2

Here’s a clip from Dark Souls that I want to analyze. If you don’t feel like watching, it’s just a cutscene where a bunch of winged harpy demons carry the player and fly up to the top of a big wall and then they just drop him off. It’s exactly the kind of cinematic pseudo-wonder that I just described. But if you’ve played Dark Souls, you can probably still remember it as a wondrous moment. I certainly did. Why was that?

It’s because this cutscene represented a major shift in gameplay. You are suddenly in a new place and there is no way back. This goes completely against everything you knew up to that point, because Dark Souls is all about nonlinear levels filled with backtracking and secret paths. No matter what happens, you can always turn back… until this cutscene happens. You can’t just jump back down the wall (big edit: it turns out that there actually IS a way down that I didn’t know about). For the first time in the whole game, you are in a situation where your only option is to move forward (discounting the tutorial, of course).

Your first few steps in the game are the real source of wonder. The cutscene is pretty, but it’s just a cutscene. When it ends, it slowly dawns on you what just happened, and you’re in a situation where you don’t know what to do. Everything feels so new and different, and it gives you a mixture of wonder and fear.

The designers of Dark Souls knew this, so after you walk along your path for a few moments you run into a giant knight. They know that you as the player are struggling to come to grips with your situation, so they drop a new enemy into the mix to throw you off even more. Those moments are so much more wondrous than the cutscene.

Now, let’s look at the equivalent scene in Dark Souls 2:

Same thing. You walk up and you see a beautiful castle. But Dark Souls 2 frames the encounter very, very differently. For one, you still have a way back. You can still return to safety, which you couldn’t do in the first Dark Souls. Next, enemy encounters were placed before the player approached the castle, rather than afterwards the way it was done before.

What this means is that the castle in Dark Souls 2 functions no differently than any other area in the game. It’s a dungeon filled with enemies and loot and secret paths and you can jump around and die a lot. The castle isn’t any different from the forests or the caves that you passed through to get there. Just get through it and check it off your list.

On the other hand, the castle in the first Dark Souls was very dramatically different from the other areas. It’s filled with new game mechanics, new boss mechanics, and new traps to kill the player. But those moments aren’t as important as the first steps you take down the wall, when you get that feeling in your gut that there is no way back.

In Dark Souls 2, they actually did try to insert a fancy new game mechanic: you have to kill enemies near some cups, and their dead soul essence will fill the cup and something will happen. That definitely works as a shift in gameplay, but it’s not enough to really feel like anything new. You’re still killing enemies, you’re just trying to do it in a different way. The little burst of excitement from figuring it out is nowhere near as powerful as the first few steps you take towards the castle in the first Dark Souls.

Even though the two castles both looked very pretty and had appropriate soundtracks, one is much more wondrous than the other. In games, the sense of wonder doesn’t come from visuals or audio cues. It comes from a dramatic shift in gameplay. The sense of wonder must be felt by the player’s own hands. They must engage with the setting in order to be amazed by it. A game developer cannot directly try to build a sense of wonder: they must build a unique situation to present it in, and the player feels amazement themselves.

Wonder In Morrowind vs. Fallout 4

Let’s go back to Morrowind vs. Fallout 4. What do they do differently? I’ll pick out two examples from each game: mushroom cities and bug taxis from Morrowind, and the lava cult and Shakespeare mutant from Fallout 4.

Mushroom city? Some of the larger “buildings” don’t even have stairs, and you have to use levitation to get up. They do that intentionally to keep peasants out.

Bug taxis? They’re one of the only forms of fast travel in Morrowind. You can’t fast travel by yourself.

Lava cult? You just go and kill them all like you would with any other group of bandits.

Shakespeare mutant? He just becomes a companion that you can bring along with you, joining ten other companions that you can choose from.

The elements in Fallout 4 certainly sound wondrous and otherworldly, but when it comes to gameplay, they don’t actually do anything different. On the other hand, the mushroom cities and bug taxis in Morrowind look absolutely horrible with their 2000s-era rendering technology, but they represent major new avenues of gameplay.

There were probably all sorts of pretty things in Morrowind that I don’t even remember because they didn’t present any new gameplay mechanics. And some of the most wondrous things in Fallout 4 had pretty low art production standards.

Weapons are a great example that Fallout 4 did much better than Morrowind. In Morrowind, weapons were almost all practically the same, except for statistical differences. But in Fallout 4, different weapons can have so many different uses. You can pick up a new gun that you’ve never seen before, and feel excited to try it out. Of course, even that sense of wonder pales in comparison to something like Borderlands‘s procedural weapon generation system.

As it turns out, Fallout 4 has very little variation in its quest system. Everything that you do boils down to a form of either “kill these people” or “talk to these people.” When a random person on the street asks you to find his missing friend, you just roll your eyes and ask if he knows which bandit gang took him so you can know who to kill. It becomes very difficult to be amazed at any of the events in the quests because they all follow such a rigid formula. Go there, kill those people, pick up these things, come back, get experience and money. Wanna join a faction in Fallout 4, just go kill their enemies until the faction likes you. In Morrowind, you literally cannot progress in the mage’s guild unless you can levitate up their mushroom houses.

Nothing in Fallout 4 really amazes you. A big scary enemy jumps out at you, you just shoot it until it’s dead. A city is struggling to identify synthetic humans from real ones, you just wait for someone to tell you who to kill and then you go kill them. In the main storyline or in any of the other side quests, there was only one real part where I actually felt amazed, and that was when they revealed one of the game’s major climactic twists. Dark Souls didn’t need a story twist to make players feel amazed.

But, when an alien crash lands in the countryside or when a radiation storm hits you for the first time, you can feel amazed. Fallout 4 isn’t just completely devoid of anything new or interesting, it has its moments. But by and large, Fallout 4 and many other modern AAA games fail to deliver a sense of wonder on a scale that compares to older games.

What Does Wonder Do?

In keeping with the principle of charity, one has to ask why modern games have been moving away from these senses of wonder. The immediate obvious answer is because they want to make sure that their games are consistent. They don’t want any large variations in the core gameplay. If you’re playing for the first time or if you’re picking up from the middle, you still get pretty similar experiences. You can play for a short session, then come back later for more of the same.

But at that point, we have to ask ourselves why are players asking for this. The game studios wouldn’t be doing it if players didn’t want it. Aren’t players always talking about how they want more new content? And yet we’re stuck in a world filled with sequels and DLC packs that really aren’t that much different from what they were originally building off of.

The key is that novelty isn’t a question of black and white. It’s a spectrum where we can say that this thing is sort of new, but it’s still similar, or we can look at something else and say that it’s almost completely new but still retains some previous elements. In Dark Souls, removing backtracking was very new, whereas the soul-collecting cups were only sort of new. In Morrowind, giant mushroom houses were very new, whereas in Fallout 4 lava cults are only sort of new.

A pessimist would come to the conclusion that players simply do not want to experience a sense of wonder. When you introduce new elements, you invariably introduce something that the player has to learn and wrap their heads around, and that takes effort. No one wants to spend effort. If you could have a game that is filled with wonder and amazement versus a game that is consistently brainless, the pessimist says that people would pick the latter. People only want things that are new enough that they seem different, but nothing more than that. They say that they want new things, but in reality, they don’t. Even the greatest indie blockbusters will never make as much as the next Grand Theft Auto.

And there’s a lot of truth to that. When you start playing a new game for the very first time, you feel a little sense of wonder. You’re amazed as you explore through the world and try to figure out its mechanics. As it turns out, that sense of wonder ends up being very fleeting, especially if you’re playing a sequel or a clone game. Every time you try something new, you feel that sense of wonder. The pessimist says that people don’t actually want to try new things, and we game developers have to force them to.

But I want to be more optimistic. After all, if all of this were true, then Dark Souls 2 would be universally praised as a superior successor to the original (hint: it’s not). If people are rejecting new gameplay elements, maybe there’s an argument that they’re just being lazy, but on the other hand, there’s also the very real possibility that something is going wrong with the game design. One of the main purposes of good game design is to help ease players into new game mechanics, and the joy that they feel from doing so is manifested in the form of wonder.

I think that a game needs to prepare the player to expect dramatic shifts in difficulty. The player needs to be taught to expect challenges. They do not know what challenges to expect, but they know that whatever comes their way, they will need to struggle in order to overcome it. A game that sets players up with these expectations will later be able to spring unique moments on them, and the players will be able to take those moments in stride, moving forward through the new gameplay mechanics while still appreciating the sense of wonder.

People often talk about difficulty curves as the game’s difficulty over time, but I think it’s time to take the derivative: the rate of difficulty increase over time. If a difficulty curve is likened to velocity, then the rate of difficulty increase over time would be acceleration. It is subtle, but if done right, the player should be able to fall into a rhythm where they are receptive to radically new challenges and mechanics.

Dark Souls has a pretty consistent rate of difficulty increase over time. Every new area is approximately as difficult to conquer as the previous area, even after adjusting for the player’s increased skill. Whether you’re going into the second area of the game or the seventh one, you’re still going to die about the same number of times, even though you’ve gotten much better by the time you reach the seventh area. If I were to put this on a graph, it would look like this:

I use the term “adjusted difficulty” to refer to how difficult something is based on how skilled the player is at the time of confrontation. If something becomes more difficult but you became equally more skilled, it has the same adjusted difficulty as an easy challenge at the beginning of the game when you knew nothing.

On the other hand, Fallout 4‘s difficulty increase over time drops off sharply. There’s the starting hurdle that players need to jump over, but after that, it goes straight down. That’s not to say that the difficulty stays the same: it still gets harder as you go on. But the rate that it gets harder increases much more slowly than it would in Dark Souls. Eventually, there will be a point where the player’s skill (or the character’s skill) outscales the difficulty, and it just becomes a walk in the park. Of course, the designers tried to make sure that this will not happen before the game ends, but it will still inevitably happen. If I were to put this on a graph, it would look like this:

There’s a clear difference in design philosophies. In Dark Souls, the seventh area is exponentially more difficult than the second. However, in Fallout 4, the seventh area is only linearly more difficult than the second. This means that once you account for player skill scaling, Dark Souls still gets more difficult, whereas Fallout 4 wobbles around and drops off (don’t take these graphs too literally, Fallout 4‘s velocity graph is more like a slowly descending plateau, not to mention the position fluctuations). Finally, Dark Souls constantly throws unknown challenges at the player, whereas Fallout 4 stops presenting new information very quickly.

Morrowind works a little bit like the Dark Souls graph. Even though it’s not actually introducing new mechanics as the game goes on, Morrowind‘s systems are so obscure and complicated that it takes you a long time until you figure them out, which basically means you find those new mechanics over time. It’s a lot like when you hear people talking about games where they can keep finding new things to do even after multiple playthroughs.

The “constant rate of difficulty acceleration” approach works well for Dark Souls and I think it should be generalized for more games. However, it does come with the obvious fault that the developers would then have to create more content, which isn’t always possible. Fallout 4 just reuses the same mechanics and scales the numbers around, which is clearly much easier from a development perspective. But that gets into the “quantity vs. quality” discussion, and maybe that can come at some other time.

Conclusion

There’s always the counter-culture movement that says modern gamers are stupid and need instant gratification to do anything, and the good old games from the past were so much better. I don’t exactly agree, because I don’t think it’s necessarily the gamer’s fault. Game developers should be trying harder to ease players into games that introduce more new mechanics over time. Once that happens, we can finally get games that capture the sense of wonder again, the feeling that you’re actually in a place other than the boring world we live in.

At the same time, gamers do need to be more willing to push their own boundaries. I’m guilty of this too, I bought the Master Chief collection on launch and I’m planning to do the same for the next Mirror’s Edge. But if we want to see games with those little magical sparkles of amazement again, something has to be done. Otherwise, we just get a whole heap of generic reskinned FPS clones. Hopefully, the desire for wonder can overcome the desire for habits.

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Game Design: Charitable Criticism

I like to browse game forums for titles that I play, and it’s really common to see people saying things like “hey I just had a great idea, I hope the devs are reading this.” Then they write a few paragraphs about their great idea, as if they’re expecting the game’s developers to look at their post and go “Holy shit we gotta do this now!”

And it’s not just a gamer/consumer thing, either. A lot of game developers are still wrapped up in the value of ideas. They think a good idea is valuable, and in particularly bad cases they think someone can be hired and paid to just sit there and think of good ideas. I’ve already written about why game designers are not just “idea guys.”

The thing is, it’s good to be critical of the games we play. It’s good to think about ways to improve them as we play them, or after we’re done playing them. But when you start thinking “why didn’t the game developers do this idea,” you start falling into an unknowingly destructive mindset that can hold you back from realizing your full potential.

There are enough game designers out there who will tell you that ideas are worthless because execution is everything. And it’s definitely true, but I hope to bring in a new perspective about ideas in game design and their overall value in the development process.

Principle of Charity in Philosophy

When you have an idea that you want other people to think of, you are essentially turning that idea into an argument. And once it becomes an argument, it becomes a construct of logic, and standard rules of logic begin to apply. Here, I don’t mean logic as in cause-and-effect and flowcharts, but rather I mean logic as in philosophical argumentation. Rhetoric, persuasiveness, all that jazz.

And in the world of philosophical argumentation, there’s this thing called the “principle of charity.” The principle states that when you’re hearing out someone else’s argument, you need to think of their argument in the best possible light. You should not be trying to nitpick at the small details in their argument, and you shouldn’t think of their argument in worst-case scenarios to make it easier to defeat. If you can defeat their argument at its best possible interpretation, you have truly won. Otherwise, it’s too easy for the other person to say “no, you don’t understand what I mean, so your rebuttal is invalid, here’s what I actually mean” and the cycle just keeps going on.

So if I say something like “Dishonored‘s hats have the best animal behavior in modern games,” you could say “what do you mean Kenneth, that makes no sense whatsoever,” and you would be right. Or you could give me the benefit of the doubt and assume that I meant rats, which are very prevalent and symbolic in Dishonored, and do indeed behave very realistically. Of course, everything would be fixed if I hadn’t been an idiot and mistyped “rats” in the first place, but that’s kind of the point. That was a pretty bad example because it was a physical misspelling, but the same thing happens with mental arguments. People don’t always present their arguments in their best possible light, so if you want to have a meaningful debate, you need to take on that burden even as the argument’s attacker.

If you have a cool idea for something that should have been in a game you recently played, you are essentially making an argument. Your stance is “This game would have been better if the developers did this thing,” and the opposing stance is “No, this game would not have been better (it possibly could have been worse) if the developers did that.”

Let’s take Towerfall Ascension as an example. Imagine if you said “Towerfall would be better with networked multiplayer” and I said “Towerfall would not be better with networked multiplayer.” The same argument happens for games like Samurai Gunn which are criticized for being local multiplayer only. So we’ve created our arguments and we’re about to have a logical debate, and there are two ways we could go about doing this.

One, we could strawman each other’s arguments to hell. You could say “Towerfall doesn’t have networked multiplayer because the dev is a lazy bum who doesn’t want to bother programming it.” Then I would say “Towerfall doesn’t have networked multiplayer because you stupid little gamers only want more features, you don’t want to appreciate the game as it is.” We would both see each other’s arguments in their worst possible lights, and the debate would quickly become meaningless.

Two, we could follow the principle of charity. You could say “Even though Towerfall is meant to be a personal experience shared with others in close proximity, that could still be done through networking if you also implemented a voice chat or smart ping system, and you would also get a larger target audience which means more personal experiences shared, thus fulfilling the vision that the game was supposed to achieve in the first place.” And then I would say “that’s a great argument, but then we run into the problem of internet trolls, the community nature of the game is important to get people into the game.” No name calling, no negative assumptions. Everyone takes the opposite argument in its best possible light.

And yeah, conversations don’t usually get this dramatic. Sometimes, they do (especially recently with the Phil Fish thing, the Gamergate thing, the Flappy Bird thing… way too many things) but when you’re just saying “hey devs I have a great idea, I hope you’re reading this,” it feels like just an innocent little blurb. But if you make an offhanded, absentminded comment about how much better a game would be if it added just this one tiny little thing, you’re making a pretty rude assumption without realizing it: you’re assuming that the game’s developers didn’t already think about your idea.

This is the opposite of charity. This is taking the other side’s perspective in the worst possible light. “They didn’t do this idea because they didn’t think about it,” or “they didn’t do this idea because they couldn’t implement it,” or “they couldn’t do this idea because they didn’t have enough money.” All of these assumptions are casting a negative light on the developers. You are thinking yourself to be better than they are, by assuming that your ideas are better than theirs.

Who knows, maybe some of those reasons really are true. Maybe they really didn’t have the budget or the technical know-how or the idea in the first place. But remember, the point of the principle of charity is not to maintain 100% veracity. The point is to make sure that your argument develops into its best possible form.

Try to think about why they didn’t do your idea. Assume that they thought about it, they had the budget, they had the ability, and despite all of that they still didn’t do it. Why? Maybe they had discussions where someone brought up a good point that shut the idea down. Or maybe they went even further and built a prototype for the idea, only to find a crippling problem with it. These are the kinds of things that you cannot find just by thinking about an idea.

If you can understand why another studio didn’t put your brilliant idea in their game, you can evolve as a game designer because you’re starting to understand more points of views than just your own. It’s too easy to just say “my ideas are brilliant” and go with that, but if you can recognize the flaws in your own thinking, you can fix them and get better. But if you just assume that the game developers didn’t use your idea because they didn’t think about it, you’re not challenging your own position to its maximum stress limit, and you’re not getting as much out of it.

I realized all of this the hard way. I was one of those people who sat there and said “man, why didn’t the developers do this instead, it would have been so awesome.” Then one day, I decided to get up and make those ideas myself. By doing so, I learned that there are reasons why armchair design doesn’t work out.

Case Study: Difficulty in The World Ends With You

So The World Ends With You on DS was my favorite game to think of ideas for. Its mechanics were just so novel and innovative, but the game itself didn’t really hit the ball out of the park with their delivery. Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a pin that was like a Scorpion hook to pull Noise towards you, or wouldn’t it be cool if you could use imprinting on your ally, or wouldn’t it be cool if you could switch controls between you and your partner mid-battle, or… my friends quickly got tired of me talking about TWEWY.

All along, I felt that the main problem with TWEWY was that its difficulty curve was way too punishing. The mechanics were completely alien to fans of action-RPGs, fans of hack-and-slashes, fans of fighting games, fans of anything at all because no game had really done anything like it before. In TWEWY, you control one character on the bottom screen with the stylus, and you control another character on the top screen with the directional pad, and you do it simultaneously in real time. In the heat of combat, it becomes really easy to lose your focus, so usually you just focus all your attention on one character and control the other one by mashing buttons.

The thing is, the difficulty was symbolic. Connecting to other people, understanding other people, matching other people’s rhythm is hard. That was like the whole point of TWEWY, and the mechanics made sure you lived through it. Every time you blamed the second character for dying when your primary character was doing just fine, you felt like the game would be so much easier (and less frustrating) if you only had to control one. But later, as you get better at the game and figure out the controls, you begin to figure out how to use the dual character setup. You start switching your focus back and forth, rather than only concentrating on one. At the highest level of play, you wield both characters simultaneously with equal force. It’s just that that never actually happened, because the game was so difficult.

Then they remade TWEWY. They called it The World Ends With You: Solo Remix and published it on iOS. Obviously, there weren’t any more physical buttons, so I was very curious to know how they were going to implement the control-your-partner system, and it turns out they didn’t. In Solo Remix, you control your main character with your finger exactly the same way you did with a stylus on DS, and your partner was controlled automatically.

Solo Remix was a lot easier to pick up, and arguably a lot more fun to play. However, the original TWEWY was much more symbolic and meaningful within the game’s overarching message. As a designer, this contrast interested me deeply. Frustration and fun are practically opposing concepts, but TWEWY was inherently a story about frustration: the frustration of being unable to relate to other people, which later evolves into the acceptance that different people are different and that we cannot ever simply “understand” each other. Was there possibly a way to blend the two, to create a game that maintains the symbolism but is still intuitive to pick up and fun to play?

These were the kinds of things I liked to think about, and I had whole systems planned out to tackle the problem. I had tons of ideas, and I honestly believed that somewhere in those ideas was the solution. So one day, I decided to make my masterpiece TWEWY rework.

My masterpiece was called Psychic and Gangster. PaG is a one-player, two-character game with simultaneous real-time control on a single screen. It’s played on a PC, so you have mouse and keyboard controls. The game was a combat system proof-of-concept about a psychic and a gangster in a snowy forest fighting off a pack of wolves. And yes, the story was ridiculous, but the point was that I was trying to create game mechanics that were meaningful and fun.

When I was developing PaG, I had three design pillars that I wanted to orient everything around. These design pillars were the major flaws I saw in TWEWY‘s systems and ways that I could solve their problems. My belief was that with these three pillars, PaG would be both fun and symbolic. It would be everything I wanted TWEWY to be.

The first pillar was simplification. In TWEWY, your main character can have up to six different attacks, whereas your secondary character essentially only has one. That’s too much cognitive load to balance simultaneously, so it promotes button-mash gameplay for the secondary character rather than encouraging you to devote attention to them. To balance this out, I drastically reduced the amount of possible actions each character could take at any time: no defensive ability, and only two attacks, a light attack and a heavy attack.

The second pillar was indication. Enemy attacks in both versions of TWEWY happened very fast, so it was too difficult to react to them, especially so when your concentration was split up between two characters. Likewise, both versions of the game compensated by giving your characters extremely powerful defensive maneuvers which only incurred concentration cost, but that just meant the preferred strategy was to have one character spam defenses while the other character attacks. Instead, all of the wolves in PaG have a long windup phase that clearly indicates their striking zone, so you can actually react with a defense rather than having to dodge all the time.

The third pillar was synchronization. Characters in sync with each other are stronger, and characters out of sync with each other are weaker. TWEWY had a “light puck” system that made alternating attacks between characters increasingly more powerful, and Solo Remix had a “sync” system that would charge up your super attack when you attacked a single target simultaneously. However, these were still only numbers: I wanted to build synchronization into the mechanics. In PaG, each character’s light attack knocks enemies back, so it’s viable to just pinball enemies back and forth with alternating attacks. However, if you screw up, you can knock an enemy away from your own threat zone, so you can gimp yourself if you’re not synchronized with your partner.

So PaG was built with all these fancy design pillars and it was totally gonna be a better version of TWEWY. Only it wasn’t. It was still too difficult and new players were getting overwhelmed. I could try toning down enemy health and spawn rates and all that jazz, but it didn’t fix the core problem: the mechanics weren’t working out. It didn’t feel symbolic and it didn’t feel fun.

Why wasn’t it working? Maybe I wasn’t a good enough programmer, and the controls didn’t feel smooth enough. Maybe I wasn’t a good enough artist, and the hit effects weren’t satisfying enough. If I was the head of TWEWY‘s development and I had fleets of experienced artists and programmers to command, I would surely be able to do my three-pillar simultaneous-control battle system justice, right?

But no, those weren’t the answers. As bad as the art and the programming on PaG were, the problem was with the underlying design. I thought I had it all figured out, but the design was still not working out. In order for simultaneous action gameplay to work, each character would have to be so extremely simplified that the game would be unable to support RPG-style character progression.

The TWEWY devs didn’t use a system like mine because it didn’t work. They probably had someone bring it up. They probably had someone write a giant treatise about a two-player simultaneous control system. They probably even threw together a quick prototype to try it, and they probably came to the same conclusion as I did: that simultaneous control does not work in an action context. That’s why they designed both TWEWY and Solo Remix around alternating individual control, rather than constant simultaneous control.

All of my fancy three-pillar theories and ideas ended up not working out. I got to find out firsthand why they would not work out. And that’s just how game design works. Some things turn out awesome, way more things turn out horrible. But I didn’t come up with a revolutionary brilliant system that could make better gameplay than a triple-A studio’s flagship title. Someone up in TWEWY‘s development team was probably as attached to the concept of simultaneous control as I was, and they were probably very sad when they found out that it didn’t work, but in the end they had to do what they did in order to make the game good.

Always Ask Why

Instead of saying “the game developers should have done this,” try saying “why didn’t the game developer’s do this?” And really think about it. It’s hard to simulate a game development environment in your head, but think about all the possible counterarguments, and think about all the possible things that could go wrong with your idea. If you just sit there thinking that your ideas are brilliant, you’re doing armchair design and that does not work.

I still believe it’s very important to be critical of games, but the principle of charity encourages us to be critical in a different way than we would be if we just assumed that the game developers didn’t think of our ideas. Even outside the realm of game critiques, anytime there’s an idea floating around, you can turn it into an argument against an imaginary opponent, and you can start honing the idea down.

A good point I like to ask myself is “would this change make this game better, or would this change push the game in a direction that it’s not supposed to go?” Most games revolve around a core theme, and if you think a new element should be added or changed, it might be a good idea in isolation but it might actually disrupt the whole theme. For example, I like to trend away from random elements as much as possible, but if you took random elements out of a game like Fire Emblem it would completely change the theme that the game is trying to convey. That’s something you can learn by applying the principle of charity to your arguments.

Basically, ideas are still worthless, but they can be made slightly less worthless by applying the principle of charity. And for people who go heavy on theory like me, that can be really helpful. But the lesson to be learned is to iterate, be ready to throw things away, and build quick prototypes to test concepts that you can’t masticate in your brain alone. The principle of charity should be an important piece of a game designer’s concept refinement process.

Game Design: Tryhard As An Insult

As a gamer, I always find it weird how so many MMO communities use the term “tryhard” as an insult. Much as its name implies, the term “tryhard” refers to a person who is trying too hard at something. In League of Legends, this might refer to a person who always picks the strongest champion in the current meta, regardless of their own personal preference, in the hopes of maximizing their chances of winning. In Titanfall, it would be the same thing, but with gun loadouts instead of champions. “Tryhard” is an applicable insult in almost every MMO game.

But shouldn’t we all be trying hard? No one wants to intentionally slack off and do nothing, otherwise they wouldn’t be playing the game in the first place. The very act of playing a game means that you are trying hard to accomplish something, so it’s a little weird that you can accuse someone of trying too hard.

So as a game designer, I started thinking about this dynamic a little bit more. There’s something a little weird about insulting people for trying too hard at your game. I’ve never made a game that was so competitive that I had diehard min-max players, but if I did, I would be really flattered that people were putting so much dedication into my game. If I made a game that’s deep enough for tryhards to exist, I think I would take that as a compliment.

Is that something that we game designers should be thinking of? Should we encourage tryhards to exist, or should we design games in the opposite direction? Many people in the games industry condemn the whole “pandering to casuals” movement that’s been happening recently, but if we use the term “tryhard” as an insult, wouldn’t pandering to casuals be the logical solution?

I think the best way to approach this topic is to first understand tryharding from a gestalt philosophical perspective. Why do we accuse people of trying too hard, inside and outside of games? Is it a bad thing to try too hard? After we understand it as a social context, we can find a way to apply that knowledge specifically to game design and what we should or shouldn’t be changing about the tryhard situation.

A Pseudo-Philosophical Treatise on Tryharding

I was born in America, but my mother is from China, and when I was a kid she always used to tell me something. She would say to me: “When you’re with your friends, play a lot, laugh a lot, have a good time. But when you’re home, study.” This kind of philosophy is deeply rooted in Chinese mentality and I didn’t understand it at the time, so I asked my mom, “Why should I do that?”

“Because,” she replied, “you want to show people your best side. If people think that you just play and have fun all day and then you beat them all in school, they’ll think you’re really smart because you don’t even need to study.”

Even though she said that, I didn’t really follow her advice. I had no friends and was a loner in school and when I was alone I played video games all the time. Basically, I did the complete opposite of what she told me to do. But now, I can see a little bit more of the reasoning behind my mom’s advice.

My mom’s advice is a great example of the anti-tryhard mentality in modern culture. It’s not even a Chinese thing, it happens in all cultures and all age groups that I know of. We don’t want to show people how hard we work. Instead, we show people the end result of our work, and we tell them it wasn’t a big deal and it was easy to do.

Take dating culture as an example. There’s a saying in the sexual strategy field: “the person who falls in love first loses.” Another similar saying is “the person who cares less holds all the power.” If you think about it, these sayings make sense. You often see the stereotype of a desperate man trying to cling onto his apathetic girlfriend, or awkward teenagers circling around each other because they don’t want to be the first to show their emotions. Unsatisfied men always complain about how girls go for the cold-hearted bad boy types, but that in itself is a manifestation of an anti-tryhard mentality.

Or look at celebrity culture. Every media outlet always makes celebrities seem so relaxed and casual. They drink martinis on the beach and party and have fun all day long, right? No one ever says anything about how difficult it is to be a celebrity. Can you imagine acting on a movie set in front of blazing hot lights? I had a class about film equipment once, and the lighting equipment that they use gets really, really hot. Now imagine that you’re not even on a movie set, you’re on an advertisement set doing some cheap shampoo commercial for a company you don’t even know. Celebrities always get so much flak for “being famous for no reason,” but that’s because no one ever shows you the reason: they were capable of smiling naturally in front of hellfire lights.

We’re all so obsessed with impressing other people with our efficiency/effort ratio. If someone is really passionately involved in something, their effort shows and they get called a tryhard, or a nerd, or a geek. So we’ve made a culture where people are afraid to speak out their true desires, to say what they really mean, to chase after their dreams. Even the phrase “chase after your dreams” reeks of negative connotations: it’s cheesy and unrealistic and it’s so much cooler to be laid back and casual than to be passionate. It’s really impressive to drop little tidbits of trivia that no one expected you to know, but it’s a total showstopper if you dive deeper into topics you’re invested in.

Likewise, we’re just as obsessed with not being impressed by other people. Anyone better than ourselves is a tryhard. We accuse them of trying to be someone/something that they’re not, which is a ridiculous accusation in the first place. No one can try to be someone that they’re not. The very act of desiring to be someone else is something inherent to the specific person at hand. If I try to act like Tim Schafer, that’s because I had some internal reason why I wanted to be like him. Everything that a person does automatically defines who they are, because they’re the ones doing it. You can’t tell someone that they’re not being themselves, because they are the ones who define who they are. And despite the paradox, people still accuse others of being tryhards, of emulating things that they are not, in an attempt to bring down their accomplishments.

But this isn’t always true. Sometimes, there are people who we respect even more for their efforts. We call these people role models, or heroes, or other positive names. So it’s definitely not some kind of natural human trait to be jealous of people better than us. How do we tell the difference between a hero and a tryhard? Is it just a matter of perspective? If this person is investing a lot of effort into a task that aligns with my personal morals, they’re a hero, but if they’re doing the same thing for a task that doesn’t, they’re a tryhard? As much as I might seem to be a pessimist, I don’t think it’s good to assume that human nature is so base and self-centered.

I think the important distinction is whether or not we’re able to understand and relate to the toil that the other person went through. If we feel a connection, that person suddenly becomes a trailblazer, a path that we ourselves can follow to reach their same destination. We can see how they got there, and we can see how we can apply that knowledge to get there ourselves, and it becomes an inspiration. On the other hand, if we have no idea how they got there, then we just have to accept that they’re magically above us, as if they were figuratively lifted by a deus ex machina. How else can we reconcile with an irrational gap in status, other than to become jealous and angry?

Look at narratives through the ages. The heroes and protagonists of the story always have some arc that follows their progression through the tale, how they changed and what shaped them to become who they are. Then on the other hand, we have villains who have no motivations for their actions other than to oppose the protagonist. Same thing with reality, we respect people whose paths we understand and we scorn people whose paths we don’t. There’s a thin line between being a role model and being an overzealous tryhard, and that line is about understanding.

Taking Understanding Back To Game Design

Now that we see the difference, I think it’s clear that we want to aim for more understanding, not less. We don’t want negativity to be directed at other players, whether they’re human or AI. Game designers will often say that frustration is difficulty with the system, whereas challenge is difficulty with your own skills. Challenge is a better goal than frustration.

We need to make games where skill differentiation can be understood quickly and easily. If someone is performing better than you, the game needs to make it obvious what they’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong. This way, even if a player is initially frustrated by the skill differentiation, they can understand why it’s there and how they can change. The better player becomes an inspiration and a goal rather than a target for malice.

Continuing that thought, we need to make games where it is possible to close the skill gap through play rather than through external factors. If there is any form of paying-to-win, then even if everyone understands the skill differentiation, the path to self-improvement is still blocked by money. Even if someone is clearly better at the game, if they have ever used any external factors they will lose all their credibility. Just look at drugs in sports as an obvious example.

I’ve been playing a lot of Titanfall recently, and they have a system called Burn Cards. As you play the game, you get burn cards, and you can use them as a one-time boost to some aspect of your abilities: some cards will make you run faster, some will give you stronger weapons, some will give you minimap vision, etc. They all only last a short time, but they’re a good example of power that comes from outside rather than from within. If you get killed by someone who’s using a burn card, it’s too easy to ascribe their victory to their burn card rather than to their actual skill. When that happens, you fall into the defensive anti-tryhard mentality in order to maintain your own ego.

Even though I sound accusatory, I don’t mean to blame the player for this. The problem lies with the burn card system. Granted, the burn card system certainly does accomplish a lot of good things in other aspects of the game, so I’m not condemning them as a whole. They can be a good way of catching up if you’re falling behind, or if you’re on a losing streak and you’re feeling frustrated. But for all those positives, they still carry a big negative: burn cards feed the anti-tryhard mentality, and we do not want to do that. We want everyone to be trying hard, so we want to minimize stigma around it.

Titanfall‘s burn cards are a big obvious example to work with, but there are much subtler manifestations of this problem. Fighting games in particular have always struggled with rationalizing a large skill differentiation. If someone only uses a certain character and spams a single overpowered ability all the time, we call them a tryhard (or whatever similarly-connoted negative synonym we feel like using at the time). It’s way too easy to say “I lost because I didn’t know the matchup” or “I lost because I’m still getting used to the controls” or “I lost because you know about cancels and I don’t” but those shouldn’t be our responses. We should be saying “I lost because you’re better than me, and now I understand why you’re better than me, and I can try to improve myself with what I learned from my defeat.”

So when are we supposed to convey all this information? If you lose at a fighting game, you can always go online and look up strategy guides and eventually figure out how you lost after a few weeks of research. Or would it be better to teach players these kinds of things before they begin playing the game, so that they recognize imbalanced situations as they come? Many games like these have a “death recap” system that tells you how you died, but it’s too little too late. And if players are never bothering to learn why someone else is better, even if you give them the tools to do so, they’ll fall back into the negativity spiral.

Fighting games are often the ones most plagued by “anti-tryhard” culture, but they’re also often the ones with the most interesting solutions.

There are a lot of intricacies to the anti-tryhard problem, and it’s no wonder that very few games have actually solved this dilemma. Part of it is just human nature, yes, but I still think that we can create an environment where everyone is encouraged to always try their hardest through good design. If I were to tackle this problem, here are a few of the ground rules I would lay down first.

1. Internal skill is more important to victory than external factors. By “external factors,” I mean elements of gameplay that cannot be interacted with by all involved parties. If you pay money to get a stronger weapon, there’s nothing I can do about it, unless it’s a game about economics and undermining your enemy’s resources as you fight them (which could actually be pretty cool). If you know about a glitch that you can abuse and I don’t, there’s nothing I can do about it, unless it’s a game about who can find glitches faster than the other player. A lot of people like having an external metagame and I’m not condemning that, but there are ways to bring it into the realm of internal skill where it can be processed and understood even when you’re losing.

2. Displays of skill are telegraphed, not hidden. No more obscure victories that are only understood by the elite. If someone makes a game-changing play, it’s to be given all the fanfare it deserves. The goal here is to make sure that everyone understands why the victory is happening: it happened because someone did something right, and here’s what they did right, and here’s how you can do it too. I remember when I first went to a live Starcraft 2 tournament, I didn’t even know anything about the game but all the epic moments were so cinematic that I could still understand what was going on. There was a guy who won seven matches in a row, and he kept getting caught in bad positions and losing a lot of his units but he always pulled through by micromanaging a small crack team of reserve units, and all of his victories were comebacks. Moments like those breed inspiration rather than jealousy.

3. Reward victories, rather than punish failures. It sounds like I’m just playing with words, but they’re two different mentalities. If I beat you and the game focuses on your failure, then to you it feels like you did something wrong. But if instead the game focuses on rewards, then it feels like I did something right. A lot of multiplayer FPS games have been moving away from the old round-based elimination matches that were so popular in Counter-Strike, and most modern games in the genre put a lot of effort into fast and intelligent respawn systems. That’s because if you’re eliminated and you can’t come back until the round is over, you’re being punished for your failure, and it feels bad. On the other hand, if you respawn and the person who killed you is rewarded for their skill, the lingering punishment inflicted on you is not as bad. The core essence of this philosophy is that I want players to focus on moving forward, rather than focusing on not moving backward.

4. Make trying hard fun. I haven’t really discussed the difference between “playing to win” versus “playing for fun,” which a lot of people think is critical to this kind of topic, but honestly I don’t think there should be a difference in the first place. Playing to win should be fun. If you have to make a decision between the two options in the first place, the game has a design problem. There are always the casual gamers who play games to relax and just have a good time, but making that distinction just reinforces the difference between “casual” and “hardcore” gamers, which leads to animosity between the two groups. Playing to win can be relaxing, and playing for fun can lead to victory. The recent indie couch multiplayer trend is built on this blend, when you play Towerfall or Samurai Gunn you have fun together with your friends as you try to win. Again, it all goes back to making things easier to understand, because if they’re not, it creates a division between the people who put in effort (the tryhards) versus the ones who don’t (the casuals), and we don’t want that division.

Trying Hard Is A Good Thing

I admit that this is a very personal topic for me. All my life, I’ve always felt isolated because I tried too hard in all of my endeavors. When I did little high school projects, or acted in theater roles, or took my friends to go shoot archery, I always tried too hard to succeed. For me, I’m just a person who likes throwing myself into the things I like to do, but that means I get easily frustrated when other people don’t match my pace. Likewise, they get just as frustrated with me, because I’m being a tryhard.

On one hand, I kind of wish that the whole anti-tryhard mentality didn’t have to exist in the human source code at all. On the other hand, there are plenty of very good reasons why it does. We like to understand things, and we don’t like to not understand things, and we use defense mechanisms when we’re confronted with things that we don’t like. If we can identify the problem, we can start designing systems that not only undermine the anti-tryhard mentality, but also through that create a better play experience.

And maybe once games nail this down, they can start changing the rest of the world. Maybe we can start living in a society where trying hard isn’t weird anymore. We can dive into the things we’re passionate about and get the support we need to make great things happen. People won’t have to slack off and hold themselves back for the sake of fitting in anymore. Anything anyone wants to do, they can do. Sounds like a step towards a Chen-ian utopia.

But like I keep saying, I’m not a philosopher, I’m a game designer. So before I start thinking about changing the world, I’ll think about changing the games I make instead. And after running this problem through my head, I think I’ve got a good direction for what kinds of changes I need to make. Hopefully, my future titles and all other games in general start trending towards increased understanding of skill differentiation for everyone.

Game Design: A Story Of Guilt

I used to play this game called Warframe. It was a fun multiplayer shooter where you were a badass space ninja and you jumped off walls and killed hordes of enemies. Cool stuff.

But as a game designer, I was really interested when they began announcing new end-game content for guilds. Warframe obviously had a guild system, but the guilds didn’t actually do anything: at least, not until the developers announced the Solar Rails system. Basically, a bunch of unexplored regions of space were added to the game, and guilds have to create Solar Rails to access those regions. A guild that controls a Solar Rail can impose taxes on it, but other guilds can build their own Solar Rails and challenge a pre-established one. It sounded like a system with tons of dramatic potential, and I was interested.

If two guilds are having a Solar Rail conflict, you can enter a special mission to fight for your guild. The conflict lasts for a certain period of time, and after the period ends, the guild that had the most people fighting for them wins the conflict. You can also set up battle payments for outsiders to come fight for your guild as well, so you generally wanted to make sure you were offering a higher payment than your enemy. But there was nothing stopping any one person from just running the mission a million times by themselves.

Actually, there was: the Solar Rail conflict mission was so blindingly boring that no one ever wanted to do it. Since then, the developers have been reworking the Solar Rail system heavily, and they’ve undoubtedly made Solar Rail conflict missions much more fun. But back when the system came out, back when this story took place, they were extremely boring. And they didn’t offer any meaningful rewards, either. No experience or loot drops or money, no extrinsic rewards. The only reward was that your guild might win the rail conflict thanks to your efforts.

When the whole Solar Rail system launched, I was part of a small community guild. There were already groups of giant alliances who were beginning to dominate the whole solar system. It’s hard for a single guild to go up against an alliance of guilds, because they have that many more people who would fight for them. So when our little guild was invited to an alliance, we were all excited to have a chance at joining the rail conflicts.

But I screwed it all up. I got in an argument with some people from another guild in the alliance, and I got my whole guild kicked out of the alliance. Even though I was never really planning on being one of those hardcore “I’m-gonna-run-this-mission-a-hundred-times” people, I knew that my guildmates wanted to have a stake in the rail wars, and I couldn’t blame them. It was honestly really cool to have your guild make a difference in the game world, and I blew our chance at making it happen.

No one blamed me, except myself. My guild leader sided with me in my argument. Honestly, I could be completely wrong about all of this, and maybe no one else really cared about getting kicked out of the alliance, and maybe I just got the wrong impression about them. But if that’s the case, think of this as a fictional story.

So when our guild leader announced that we were gonna launch an independent solar rail, it was big news. We were a small guild going up against an alliance’s pre-established rail, and while victory was possible, it was practically unprecedented. Our whole guild went into war mode: people stockpiled coffee so they could grind missions through the night, people donated money to the guild funds for battle payment, people reached out to their friends asking them to fight for our side.

I was in the first category. Remember that I never wanted to be deeply involved with the rail conflicts: they were too boring, and from a game design perspective it was more interesting to watch the whole solar system and see the economy fluctuating. But I always nagged at myself over how I got my guild kicked out of our first alliance. In the end, I felt guilty about what I did, and I resolved to atone by doing everything within my power to make sure my guild won this rail.

When the rail conflict started, I grinded and grinded and grinded. I burned every path of that mission into muscle memory. I measured time in terms of how many missions I had completed. I woke up at 2 AM, packed up my laptop, went to the computer labs, and kept grinding. I don’t even know how many hours I poured into that mission.

But despite all of that, my guild leader was putting in even more effort than me. My guild leader was staying up later, running through missions more efficiently, and maintaining the guild’s battle payment at the same time. I knew that he really wanted to win the rail, and it probably wasn’t because he wanted to spite the alliance that rejected us, but at the time I thought that was the reason, and so I thought it was my fault.

We did that for two days. Back then, rail conflicts lasted for two days before resolving. In the end, our guild lost, and our rail was destroyed. A handful of people’s efforts weren’t enough to fight against a whole alliance. There were no hard feelings, and we all shrugged and moved on.

Ever since then, the guild had a few flings with some other alliances, a few other rail conflicts, a couple of pledges to defend other rails. But we didn’t become one of those big giant monolithic rail companies that dominates 50% of the solar system (there were alliances like that).

I started playing Warframe less and less, until I eventually just quit. Every time I logged in and checked out my guild’s business, I felt guilty about that one argument way back in the past when we got kicked out of our first alliance.

So What’s The Point?

I bring up this story because it was interesting for me as a designer. As a game developer, I have always, always advocated for intrinsic motivators rather than extrinsic ones. From psychology to teamwork to gender studies, everything I’ve ever said about extrinsic motivators has been negative. If I believed in absolutes, I would say that we should absolutely never use extrinsic motivators for anything.

But when I was fighting for my guild’s solar rail in Warframe, I realized something. I wasn’t doing it for extrinsic motivation. There was no reason for me to fight. The guild wasn’t paying me to do it. The mission didn’t really have any significant loot drops. Even if we won, the solar rail taxes would never trickle down to me anyway.

I fought for the rail because of guilt. And then I realized: guilt is an intrinsic motivator.

Intrinsic motivation isn’t all happiness and passion and love. It’s not always about doing something because you want to. All along, as a game designer and as a human being, I used the terms “intrinsic motivation” and “passion” as synonyms. But I think it’s really important to understand that there are so many more hues of intrinsic motivation. Guilt is one of them. Defiance is another. Ever did something just to prove to someone else that you could do it? Then there’s anger, desperation, fear, helplessness, pride.

I recently played Spec Ops: The Line. The whole game was driven by negative intrinsic motivators: the guilt of killing innocent people, the confusion of losing sight of my original goals, the hope that maybe I can redeem myself and right my wrongs if I just continue a little bit farther. As game developers, we can open up a whole new array of experiences by tapping into alternative intrinsic motivators.

But as people, what does this mean for us? We’re all familiar with the concept of guilt-tripping. And there’s always the mean sergeant stereotype in every single war movie ever, who motivates recruits through anger. Not to mention all the times we do things out of personal pride, just to show off how good we are.

Are these healthy motivators? Previously, my philosophy was that all intrinsic motivators are healthy, and all extrinsic motivators are unhealthy. By “healthiness”, I referred to whether or not you as a person were taking anything away from the experience that you could learn from and apply to future experiences. But now, I think my classification system was a little too shallow.

I don’t think I was wrong about what I said in the past, though. I still hate achievements and gamification and input-output rewards as much as I did back then. But now, I think I’m starting to understand why. So think of this as an expansion of my philosophy, a deeper understanding of what it means to harness intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

And even with a new spectrum of intrinsic motivators, it doesn’t make my job easier. It’s still hard to get people to do what you want them to do, whether you offer them rewards or guilt-trip them or challenge them. Rather, this makes my job even harder, because now there are so many more possibilities I want to explore. I can design a game specifically to foster a player’s pride, and cause it to all come crashing down when they get too cocky. Or I can design a game about guilt, basically just an indie Spec Ops.

Well, “a desire to burn myself out by shooting for the stars” still counts as an intrinsic motivator.

Game Design: Reading List

I like to read a lot. Here’s my whole reading list, and a few brief descriptions to accompany each one. These are sorted by topics so similar articles are grouped together. But some of them are written with a very specific game in mind, so I put them in their own section.

 

Composite design

An overview of what composite design is and how we can build levels out of one core scenario

http://thegamedesignforum.com/features/GDH_1.html

 

World’s Hardest Platformer 2

Balancing difficulty and novelty

http://www.kendevblog.com/level-design-in-worlds-hardest-platformer-2/

 

League of Legends

More depth for less complexity through level design

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUWx0I5i2Jw

 

Super Mario Bros

Teaching players through carefully crafted levels

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZH2wGpEZVgE

 

Naturalism in level design

Make levels feel like real, liveable environments rather than just gamey obstacles

http://renegadesector.com/2014/05/level-design-primer-part-15-naturalism/

 

Game feel

Using screenshake and other small details to make a game feel satisfying

http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/207954/Vlambeer_cofounder_shares_advice_on_building_better_action_games.php

https://www.dropbox.com/s/c0i6jidrvk6r2io/controlconf.rar (Dropbox link to download, it’s an interactive presentation)

http://aztez.com/blog/2014/01/06/anatomy-of-a-successful-attack/

http://www.toastierepublic.com/2014/07/toastie-tips-on-juicing-responsibly.html

 

Complexity versus depth

Too much complexity means a high barrier of entry, complexity is not equivalent to depth

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n_xG1Yg_QoM

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVL4st0blGU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BWFzFsHc75U

http://keithburgun.net/minimalism-vs-elegance/

 

Counterplay

Give players opportunities to do things in response to what other players do

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRBcjsOt0_g

http://leagueoflegends.wikia.com/wiki/User_blog:JAlbor/GDC_2013:_Teamplay_and_Counterplay_in_League_of_Legends

 

Anti-design patterns

Things that don’t make games fun, and we should avoid them

http://forums.na.leagueoflegends.com/board/showthread.php?t=293417

 

No random elements

Randomness is bad for game design

http://keithburgun.net/14-points-on-randomness/

http://keithburgun.net/mastery-vs-hoping/

 

Asymmetry in game design

Asymmetry should not always be a default standard

http://keithburgun.net/debunking_asymmetry/

 

Competitive games

Trying to make a game competitive makes it better

http://keithburgun.net/the-greater-value-of-competitive-games/

 

Consistent theming in game design

Make sure that all elements of a game deliver on a core theme, even through gameplay

https://omegathorion.wordpress.com/2014/04/23/game-design-what-is-game-design/

http://keithburgun.net/the-importance-of-theme/

http://keithburgun.net/smash-bros-decapitated/

http://keithburgun.net/instant-ambiguity-sauces/

 

Rethinking fighting games

Fighting games always adhere to a certain formula but there’s a lot of potential if we switch it up

http://keithburgun.net/fighting-games/

 

Balancing multiplayer games

Four-part series by David Sirlin on balancing multiplayer games

http://www.sirlin.net/articles/balancing-multiplayer-games-part-1-definitions.html

http://www.sirlin.net/articles/balancing-multiplayer-games-part-2-viable-options.html

http://www.sirlin.net/articles/balancing-multiplayer-games-part-3-fairness.html

http://www.sirlin.net/articles/balancing-multiplayer-games-part-4-intuition.html

 

Clarity

LoL is driven by a clarity-focused philosophy: players should fight their opponents, not the game

http://na.leagueoflegends.com/en/news/game-updates/features/lol-design-values-depth-clarity

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FiSNHAJHu-c

 

Why layers

Keep asking “why” and keep giving answers, and you get better narrative

https://omegathorion.wordpress.com/2013/09/11/narrative-design-why-layers/

 

Designing game narrative

Hitbox Team (makers of Dustforce) on using game design to deliver narrative

http://hitboxteam.com/designing-game-narrative

 

Character development

Characters drive the story, not the other way around

http://badassdigest.com/2013/07/03/film-crit-hulk-man-of-steel/

http://badassdigest.com/2014/03/06/hulk-presents-character-trees/

 

GDC Vault game narrative reviews

Essays about examples of narrative in games (mine is the Binding of Isaac essay in 2013)

http://gdcvault.com/gamenarrativereview

 

The underlying issue with narratology/ludology

Why games shouldn’t separate gameplay from story

https://omegathorion.wordpress.com/2013/04/15/art-theory-the-underlying-issue-with-narratologyludology/

http://gamasutra.com/blogs/JohnWarner/20140617/219266/An_experiment_in_narrative_design__how_we_created_The_Fall.php

 

Fuck videogames

A controversial talk about how games should not be a default medium for storytelling

http://tinysubversions.com/fuckvideogames/#slide1

http://ellaguro.blogspot.com/2013/05/an-in-depth-response-to-darius-kazemis.html

 

Death to the three-act structure

Traditional storytelling for movies and books isn’t great when used in games, focus on characters instead

http://gdcvault.com/play/1020535/Death-to-the-Three-Act (needs GDC Vault access)

http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/213337/Plot_is_overrated_Game_narrative_is_all_about_your_characters.php

http://badassdigest.com/2013/12/11/hulks-screenwriting-101-excerpt-the-myth-of-3-act-structure/

 

“Therefore/but”

Beats of a story should be connected with either “therefore” or “but,” not “and then”

http://www.aerogrammestudio.com/2014/03/06/writing-advice-from-south-parks-trey-parker-and-matt-stone/ (the video is about 2 minutes long)

 

Consistent theming in narrative

Making sure that a story (and conversely, the whole game) delivers on a consistent theme

http://kasavin.blogspot.com/2011/12/developing-themes-in-games.html

 

Don’t start with story

Stories are linear, games should not start with a story, start with an idea instead

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=22HoViH4vOU

 

Stories versus games

Stories and games are different mediums and merging them can harm both of their goals

http://keithburgun.net/are-games-a-storytelling-medium-guest-article-by-fabian-fischer/

http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/firstperson/storyish

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mGTV8qLbBWE

http://www.dinofarmgames.com/games-hurt-stories-stories-hurt-games/

 

Narrative design in games

Developer from Frictional Games (makers of Amnesia) on how to make narrative interactive

http://frictionalgames.blogspot.se/2014/04/4-layers-narrative-design-approach.html

http://frictionalgames.blogspot.se/2013/08/5-core-elements-of-interactive.html

http://unbirthgame.com/TheSelfPresenceStorytelling.pdf

 

Max Payne 3

An article about the design philosophy behind Max Payne 3’s multiplayer

http://whatculture.com/gaming/max-payne-3-aims-to-weave-narrative-with-action-in-multiplayer.php

 

Titanfall

An article about how the multiplayer campaign in Titanfall works

http://www.gameinformer.com/games/titanfall/b/xboxone/archive/2013/08/21/titanfalls-narrative-multiplayer-matters.aspx

 

Brink

“The End of A Genre As We Know It,” merging single player and multiplayer

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hM4jFD-0v7c

http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/134724/a_missive_from_the_end_of_genre_.php?print=1

 

League of Legends

Riot Games (makers of League of Legends) about how they do narrative

http://gdcvault.com/play/1020449/Storytelling-in-Multiplayer-Competitive (needs GDC Vault access)

http://www.christinanorman.com/2014/03/my-gdc-2014-talk-competitive.html

Game Design: Motivators in Team Productions

The hard reality of game production is that it happens in a team. It’s just way too much for one person to handle. Sure, there are the people like Notch (maker of Minecraft) and Zun (maker of the Touhou series) who are able to do amazing things by themselves, but then there are the thousands of other solo developers we never hear about who didn’t make it and are now working as cashiers at Gamestop.

I was like that, too. My dream was (and still is) to be a solo developer. But the more I learn about the game industry and the production process, the more I have to accept that teamwork is pretty important, and that I should probably get better at it.

So… how do you actually get better at teamwork? Well, since this is a blog about game design, maybe we can pull some knowledge from our own area of expertise and see what happens.

Teamwork and Game Design

Both teamwork and game design have a common goal: they are both about getting people to do things that they don’t want to do. That’s a really weird thing for me to say. Maybe it makes sense for teamwork, but games? We play games because we want to, right?

But when you think about it, games are inherently difficult and frustrating tasks. Why do we put ourselves through so much trouble in a digital environment that has no real-world consequences anyway? Imagine describing a weekend of playing Dark Souls to a buddy. “Yeah, I was fighting this guy and I got killed when I tried to attack him, so I switched to a different weapon but I got killed again, and then I tried shooting him with arrows instead but he still killed me.” Games make you scream, games make you cry, games make you throw your controller at the wall until it breaks. A game is largely about overcoming obstacles, so why do we willingly subject ourselves to those obstacles in the first place? Why don’t we just sit on the couch and watch TV? How do we get people to get up and willingly put in effort?

And a lot of games have struggled with this problem. Sometimes, it’s so hard to find people to playtest your game that you have to pay them to do it. How do you get people to do something that they don’t want to do? Flappy Bird was a prime example of this: it was an extremely frustrating game that’s practically designed to be rage-inducing, and yet so many people still played it. The reviews for Flappy Bird communicate an overwhelming amount of negativity. People call Flappy Bird the work of the devil, and the game’s developer shut it down because it “ruined his simple life.” Yet people still play it. They make Flappy Bird ripoffs and clones with extra little gimmicks, and people still tap that little bird until it crashes. How did Flappy Bird manage to get people to willingly do something that they didn’t want to do?

The reasons why people do things they don’t want to can be grouped into two main categories. The first category consists of motivators that exist outside of the task itself, which provide rewards upon completion. On the other hand, the second category consists of motivators within the task, thankless but fulfilling. It’s the difference between doing something for the goal versus doing it for the journey. Various game designers have studied these motivators: Extra Credits called them extrinsic vs. intrinsic rewards, Jesse Schell called them exogenous vs. endogenous values, and even I called them character-based skill vs. player-based skill. All of these definitions refer to why we do things: do we do things because we actually want to, or do we do things for the rewards?

This is important because good game design focuses on intrinsic rewards rather than extrinsic ones. Players should be engaging in a task because it’s interesting in and of itself, not because they’re being given an external reward for doing it. If people are playing a boring game because it promises to give them rewards for doing so, the game itself is broken. A game should not be boring in the first place. Using extrinsic rewards to compensate for a lack of intrinsic ones is a way of sugarcoating bad design (or worse, a way of creating malicious money-trap Skinner boxes).

Intrinsic rewards are better than extrinsic ones because they help us develop our skills. If we are motivated by extrinsic rewards, we try to optimize and cut corners. We get through our task as quickly and inelegantly as possible, because we care more about getting the reward than doing a good job on the task itself. On the other hand, if we are driven by intrinsic rewards, we’re struggling to do our best because we want to do our best, because we want to accomplish something great for ourselves.

Back to Teamwork

Now, we can take the concept of intrinsic/extrinsic motivators and see how they apply to teamwork. Which kind of motivators are used in teamwork? If we list out the reasons why we work in teams, maybe we’ll see some trends that we can work off of. Why do we work in teams?

  • We will be rewarded for doing our work (money, grades, prestige)
  • We will avoid being punished for not doing our work
  • All our friends are in the team and we want to hang out with them
  • We want to put less burden on ourselves
  • We want to challenge ourselves
  • We find pleasure in doing our work

The most obvious motivators are the extrinsic ones. When we say that the world revolves around money, we refer to “money” as an extrinsic reward, and whether you’re being paid in currency or reputation or academic credit, it’s still just an extrinsic reward. On the other hand, we usually laugh at the intrinsic motivators. Who’s ever actually passionate about teamwork? Is there anyone who actually likes doing this stuff? What a lame nerd.

When you compare them, it seems to make more sense to use extrinsic motivators in teamwork. Sure, intrinsic motivation means higher quality work and better team morale, but it’s so extraordinarily difficult to implement that a whole field exists to study how it works (that field is game design). On the other hand, if you use extrinsic motivation, the work still gets done anyway, and you save yourself the effort of trying to motivate people. People have studied how inefficient it is to use money as a motivator, but it’s the traditional standard unquestioned approach and pretty much everything works that way already.

But there have been lots of recent movements to bring intrinsic motivation into standard practice. Pop-culture writers like Daniel Pink and Malcolm Gladwell make compelling arguments for why the future needs creative thinkers rather than rote memorization. Educators have been experimenting with new methods like blended learning to help foster intrinsic motivation in students. The world is changing, and teamwork has to change with it. Extrinsic motivators just won’t be good enough. Is there some way that we can tap into the power of intrinsic motivation and use it in team productions?

Congratulations, we have now derived the philosophy behind gamification.

Gamification has developed a pretty bad reputation. “Let’s put progress bars on your work, and make you level up when you finish a task!” Or worse, “let’s give you gold stars when you do something properly!” But the underlying idea behind gamification has a lot of potential. What if we could take all of these tactics and tools from game design, and instead apply them to teamwork so that people get intrinsic motivation in the real world? But the problem with gamification is that when you turn something into a game, you have to consider what kind of game you’re turning it into. If you turn an extrinsically-driven task into an extrinsically-driven game, nothing has changed.

A big idea in gamification is “points,” or “progress bars” or “medals” or “achievements” or “gold stars.” The idea is to give people a solid idea of how much progress they’re making towards their goal, which is a good thing. However, all of these rewards are extrinsic, and they don’t actually exist within the task. There’s no difference between “I’m doing this because I’m being paid” and “I’m doing this so I can earn another gold star.”

Another basic way to implement gamification theory in education is to count up grades over time, rather than keep an average. All people start at 0, and with each assignment they count up until 100 (or whatever their maximum is). The idea is that people would rather see positive progression than watch a fluctuating average. It might be logistically sound, but it really doesn’t do anything for intrinsic motivation because the reward is extrinsic.

One of the more popular gamification trends in real-world businesses is creating competition. In games, a lot of engagement comes from PvP tactics, so people concluded that competition leads to engagement. However, competing against someone else over an individual task is still extrinsic, because getting first place is an extrinsic reward. It’s the same reasoning behind competitive Tetris games where two people play side by side, not interacting with each other at all, seeing who lasts longer than the other. Or worse, it’s the same reasoning behind competitive social/mobile games (Your friend has $200 more than you! Better catch up by grinding more).

When we say “gamification,” we need to make a distinction between “extrinsic gamification” and “intrinsic gamification.” Too often, we’re referring to the former. Gamification is not the “economists HATE us!” solution that people misunderstand it as. You can’t just slap points or achievements onto a spreadsheet and expect your company morale to magically skyrocket. It’s hard to do gamification properly, but if it’s done properly, it can really make a difference.

So… how do we do gamification properly?

Intrinsic motivation is tied to the concept of flow. In game design, flow is the state where you are completely immersed in a task, like when you’re playing an intense game and you’re no longer aware of the controller. It’s like a trance where every fiber of your being is dedicated to overcoming whatever obstacle is in your path. When you play an intense game and you don’t notice anything but the game, when hours feel like minutes, when your body and your avatar move exactly the way you want them to, you’ve reached flow. Your concentration is at its maximum, and you can do things you couldn’t do before.

If you can make a game that pulls players into a state of flow, you’ve planted the seed of intrinsic motivation in them. There are plenty of other ways to generate intrinsic motivation, but I think flow is the one that’s best suited to taking out of game design and applying to different contexts. But before we go there, let’s look at how games make flow happen.

There are three criteria for flow: clear goals/progression, fast feedback, and a balance between challenge and skill. Each of these three pieces is important for flow, and I’ll break each one down individually.

Doing Gamification Properly – Clear Goals/Progression

The idea behind having clear goals/progression is that you need to know that you’re doing something significant and meaningful. This by itself is not enough for flow to happen (none of the three aspects by themselves can create flow), but it’s hard to concentrate on something if you don’t know what you’re doing. Humans are pretty goal-driven, and reaching a goal is an extrinsic motivator, but we can’t have a journey without a goal. Once all three pieces are in place, the journey becomes more important.

Speaking of which, Journey itself is a game about a goal. You’re a robed dude in a desert and there’s a giant mountain in front of you and you move towards the mountain. The goal is the mountain, and the levels are arranged in such a way that it’s always in sight. Dear Esther does the same thing with its red beacon. The theory is that since you can always see your goal and how far away you are from it, you come to understand that the actions you’re doing in the game are actually doing something to get you closer.

On the other hand, LIMBO is a game with no clear goal. There’s no shiny mountain or red beacon, you just always move right. In this case, it was intentional. When you play LIMBO, you feel confused and helpless and that your life has no purpose other than to trudge forward meaninglessly and die a lot. For LIMBO, that’s what they were trying to accomplish, and it’s deeply related to the game’s theme. However, we generally don’t want people to feel confused and helpless and meaningless, so we want to give people clear goals and a clear sense of their own progression.

But this doesn’t usually happen. When we work in teams, it’s common for us to just be given a task to do with no idea of what our end goal is supposed to be. The idea of assembly-line production still lingers from the Ford era, and sometimes team productions get set up like assembly lines. We do our part, pass it on to the next person, and repeat over and over. This isn’t good for intrinsic motivation, because how can you be motivated to do something if you don’t even know what you’re doing?

This happens because we separate people based on their roles. A game production team set up this way would have a group of designers, a group of artists, and a group of programmers. The designers design everything, then pass it off to the artists who make it look pretty, who pass it off to the programmers who make all the pretty stuff into a game. Each person is a cog in a wheel, turning around and around to power a system that they don’t understand.

The solution is to make the goals clear. Each person must know what the end result of what they’re working on is supposed to be, and how their own work factors into its creation. That’s why most game productions set up groups by teams rather than roles: instead of having a “designer” group and an “artist” group, they have a “player” group and an “enemy” group. This way, each team has a smaller goal that they work to achieve, and each person can see that their work is meaningful and necessary.

The role-centric grouping model above, and the team-centric grouping model below.

That also means that each person needs to be slightly multidisciplinary. Designers need to know art, artists need to know code, programmers need to know design, etc. If you’re locked into one and only one role, you don’t have a holistic understanding of how everything comes together to make the final product, and you lose sight of the team’s ultimate goal. Don’t be the one saying “I can only do this one task, and I’ll do it for you over and over again if you pay me,” because that’s just grinding in real life, and grinding is not intrinsically motivating at all.

Doing Gamification Properly – Good Feedback

The second criteria for flow is fast feedback. Once you know what you’re supposed to be doing, you need to know how well you’re doing. Am I moving closer towards my goal, or further? Or am I just treading water doing nothing? All of this information is necessary so you can evolve and adapt to whatever challenge you’re facing. With the goals and progression in place, you need to influence the situation around yourself to get there, and feedback tells you what you changed.

In Warframe, there are “laser doors” that will make you trip if you go through them (I don’t know how lasers make you trip but anyway). The laser doors have lots of feedback attached to them, and it helps you understand what’s going on. When you pass through them, they make a distinctive noise, and you stumble and lose control of your character until you get back up. But the laser doors only activate when you’ve been seen by a security camera, and when the security camera sees you it turns red and makes a sound effect. From all the feedback in the environment, you quickly learn that you can pass through by either not being seen or destroying the camera. After you learn this, you feel clever and you’re motivated to proceed because you’re so smart and cool.

The super-indie game Depict1 subverts all your expectations for feedback. Spikes look like they’ll kill you, but when you touch them you pick them up and you can throw them as weapons. All of the unclear feedback in Depict1 makes you doubt everything, and it becomes less about enjoying what you do and more about doing what others don’t want you to do. If you stripped away all the narrative significance from Depict1, it would just be a pretty average, uninteresting platformer game.

Unclear feedback isn’t good for flow, and it isn’t good for team productions either. Unfortunately, most of the feedback we get is unclear. If we make sure that feedback is fast, clear, and related to the task at hand, we can get one step closer to generating flow and intrinsic motivation.

I think the best way to give feedback is to make sure you provide explanations for what you’re saying. No game just tells you “avoid spikes,” they explain why spikes are dangerous (it’s just that in a game, “explain” means letting you fall into a spike and dying). The feedback isn’t “avoid spikes,” it’s “avoid spikes BECAUSE they will kill you.” That one word, “because,” is the key piece in feedback. If you go to an artist and say “hey, this character needs a cape,” there are a few ways for you to make sure that the artist puts a cape on that character. You could use extrinsic motivators and pay them money to put a cape on the character, or you could use intrinsic motivators and clearly explain why you want that character to have a cape. “Hey, this character needs a cape because we want cool wind physics when they jump.” Good feedback helps make the goal more clear, and a clear goal needs good feedback to be realized properly.

Feedback is also important because it opens up the possibility for counterarguments. A counterargument is a rare and valuable opportunity because it means that someone is passionate enough about what they’re arguing for that they will fight against you to make it happen. Passion is intrinsic motivation and it should be treasured. Good feedback is delivered in such a way that it’s open to counterarguments: make it clear how you could be persuaded otherwise. In the previous scenario, maybe a scarf would look even cooler with good wind physics. If you know that the goal is to have cool wind physics effects, maybe you can twist your passion to deliver that goal.

This is also why executive overrides are bad. Intrinsic motivation in teamwork is about balancing everyone’s morale. Maybe you really want the character to have a cape, you would put in ten extra hours a week to make sure the character has a cape, but the other artist really wants the character to have a scarf and they’d put in twenty. If you’re aware of how intrinsic motivation works (and hopefully after reading this far you are), other people’s passion is more important than yours. No matter what, you don’t want people to say “man, I’m only doing this because Omegathorion told me to.” If you give up, your own motivation will take a hit, but since you know how intrinsic motivation works you’re better off than the others who don’t.

Doing Gamification Properly – Balance Between Challenge and Skill

The last component of flow is a balance between challenge and skill. Players need to start with easy challenges because they’re not very skilled, but as they get better the challenges ramp up. If the challenge is too much for the player’s skill, they become frustrated, and if the challenge is too easy they become bored. This is the part that the last two aspects of flow were building up to. You can focus on the goal, you can focus on the feedback, but in the end this is the part that really makes flow happen. It’s that feeling when you do something perfectly and you feel like a total badass: if it was too easy it’s not satisfying, and if it was too hard you can’t do it anyway.

Most modern games use flow to some degree. In a shooting game, you start off facing few enemies, and as you continue enemies become tougher and more numerous, but it’s okay because you’re getting better too. In a racing game, maybe you start off on a simple track but the courses become more and more complex. In a strategy game, you unlock more units to control, because having everyone unlocked in the beginning would be too overwhelming. It’s the most important part, so game designers put a lot of effort into making sure there’s a good balance between challenge and skill.

Unfortunately, “balance between challenge and skill” is simultaneously the most important and most difficult part of flow in real-world team productions. It makes sense in games because you can gauge a player’s skill level. When they’re first starting out, they have no skill at all. As they progress through the challenges you set for them, their skill goes up. Some players get better very quickly, and some players are slow to learn, but in general you can count on an average skill level as players go through the game. That means you can set appropriate challenges, and when those players face your properly-tuned challenges they get pulled into a state of flow.

Not so for real life. There are just way too many factors when it comes to real-world skill levels. Different people start off with different skill levels, and they all grow differently. Even if two people have the same college degree, maybe one of them cheated to get it and actually has less skill than the other person. And then there’s the problem with fluctuating skill levels, because there isn’t really a way to gauge a person’s real-world skill level at any given point in time. Some people spend decades to get better at a task.

If you can’t judge someone’s current skill level, you can’t give them an appropriate challenge. And if they don’t have an appropriate challenge, even if the goals are clear and the feedback is good, they still won’t be engaged. An imbalanced challenge is either boring or overwhelming, and neither of those is good for flow. Truly amazing team managers are probably very good at gauging people’s skill levels.

This is a pretty big roadblock, and the safest thing to do is to assume the worst: that your teammates are unskilled until proven otherwise. It’s not good to make assumptions, but it’s better to be surprised by a high level of skill than it is to be disappointed by a low level of skill. But then you run into two problems. One, how do you make a low-skill task not seem patronizing and stupid to someone who’s overqualified? Two, what do you do when you actually do have a low-skill person? Let’s take on the second one first.

When you’re faced with a low-skill teammate, there are a few assumptions being made, and some of these are in fact true. Low skill indicates low passion/intrinsic motivation, which means they’re only doing it for extrinsic rewards anyway. Thus, to get a low-skill teammate to work, you use extrinsic rewards to motivate them rather than intrinsic ones. From what we just learned, this means two things: 1) turn them into a “cog in a machine” and 2) override their decisions.

However, this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. If someone seems incompetent, the natural reaction is to treat them like they’re incompetent. If they’re treated like they’re incompetent, they’ll lose their intrinsic motivation. If they lose their intrinsic motivation, they’ll become incompetent.

In Infinity Blade 3, if you die once against an enemy, it will ask you to retry. If you die twice against that enemy, it gives you two options, “Retry” or “Too hard?” which basically puts you on easy mode. If you die three times against that enemy, it will only let you select “Too hard?” Situations like this tend to feel patronizing for players, if they’re doing poorly they don’t need to be put down by the game.

Papers Please also uses a negative loop to make players feel bad. If you screw up, you get fined, and you’re already short on money so you’re incentivized to take more time scanning each person so you don’t screw up again. However, the game never makes it clear how your salary works, so you start thinking that maybe you’ll get paid more if you scan more people. But if you try to scan people faster, you’ll make mistakes and get fined. And when you get fined, you panic and either scan people slower (and get paid less) or scan people faster (and get fined again). Negative self-fulfilling prophecies are very good at making people feel bad.

As much as I hate Asian MMOs, Vindictus actually does something pretty cool here to break the self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s a battle where you fight against a giant dragon who’s very strong and kills everyone in one hit. If you’re not strong enough to fight the dragon directly, there are tons of other things around the arena for you to do. There are ballistas that shoot chains, and if you aim properly you can hit the dragon and incapacitate it for a brief moment. There are little mini-shelters that you can build, and people can hide in them for safety. Then there’s also blessed water that you can carry to people who have been set on fire by the dragon’s breath. The idea was to create a battle where anyone could have a significant role regardless of how skilled they were.

A game designed with challenge/skill in mind can make simple, skillless actions feel awesome and rewarding. At the same time, you’re still aware that you’re not doing too well, but it breaks the self-fulfilling prophecy by not treating you like an idiot.

All Cipher Prime games are great at this, they have tons of visual and audio polish so you feel good even when you’re not doing too well.

To get this to work in a team production, you have to be able to make low-skill jobs sound significant and important. This helps keep morale up and intrinsic motivation intact, but it’s very difficult to do for very little reward. It might even backfire, since flow is dependent on a person’s skill level increasing over time (what if it doesn’t increase?). But if it works, hooray, you’ve done a miracle.

Conclusion

With this, we’ve got all three aspects of flow covered. To ensure clear goals/progression, sort people by teams rather than by roles. To ensure good feedback, explain why and don’t use overrides. To ensure a balance between challenge and skill, make all jobs seem significant and meaningful.

The secret to better teamwork is more passion, and as game designers we have the tools to make that happen. It’s difficult, but it’s our job to make people do challenging things that they wouldn’t normally subject themselves to. Whether it’s dying to a boss ten hundred times in Dark Souls or working together in a team, we have the ability to make people actually want to do these unappealing tasks. Gamification and game design techniques might be the key to success moving forward into the future, not only in gaming but also in general business practices.

Game Design: What Is Game Design?

Maybe I’m just biased, but I honestly think that game design is one of the least appreciated fields in the industry. And a lot of it is because of the inherent nature of game design, but I think it’s also because design is an easily misunderstood concept. So this essay is going to tackle a few of those questions: what is game design? Why do we need it? How does it work? Where does it fit in to the larger scheme of a game’s production cycle?

First, we need to back up a little bit and look at production as a whole. Typically, the four main groups are the artists, the programmers, the producers, and the designers. Most of these are pretty self-explanatory: artists make art, programmers write code. In game development, “producer” refers to someone like a manager or a boss, who keeps the team running on schedule, optimizes the pipeline, and does whatever they can to make sure production runs smoothly.

Then we get to game design. We tend to think of designers as the “idea people,” the ones who sit there and think of ideas and hand them off for the programmers and artists to create. The designers are the ones critiquing everything and making a fuss when things don’t go their way. None of their work is hands-on with the actual game being made, and they sit in their reclining chairs and sip martinis while laughing evilly at the poor artists and programmers who have to make what the designers say they have to make. Design is the “easy” job, the part of the industry that you go into if you suck at art and don’t want to learn how to code. That’s the common stereotype about game design.

None of that is actually true. Game design is a whole field in and of itself. It’s something you get better at the more you study and practice it, just like art and programming. You can’t just take someone off the street and ask them to be a game designer, just like you can’t take someone off the street and ask them to be a programmer or artist. It’s not a simple matter of just coming up with ideas, it’s about understanding games on a fundamental level. All of that is something you develop as you practice game design. There’s a difference between an experienced game designer and a novice one, and to reiterate, it’s not just a question of whose ideas are better, because anyone can come up with ideas. That’s not what game design is.

The important distinction to make is that it’s possible to be good or bad at game design. A lot of us see the field as a weird foggy space for wild creative ideas to happen, and the concept of creativity itself kind of defies a good/bad dichotomy. However, that’s why game design has structures and systems set up, so that it’s not just a weird foggy space. Design is a world that has a lot more logic than one might think. Some people think that design, just like creativity, is something innate that you’re either born with or without, but that’s not true. Anyone can study game design and practice game design, and through those experiences become a better game designer. Likewise, no one can just instantly become a brilliant genius designer at the drop of a hat.

But after we look at the surrounding image of game design, the problem then becomes, what exactly is it? I could talk all day about how we perceive game design, but in the end we need to understand what it actually is. Ask ten designers and you’ll get eleven different answers. It’s a difficult question, but it’s also an important one. Everyone in any aspect of game development, whether they’re artists or programmers or anything, is taking part in the game design process whether they’re aware of it or not. Obviously, it would be great if they were actually aware of it, and I’m not saying that everyone needs to study game design as thoroughly as designers themselves need to. But if we can get a general, overarching understanding of game design, we can all benefit from it.

I have my own personal approach to game design. It might work for some people, and might not for others. You might agree, or disagree. Maybe further down the line, I’ll switch to a different approach. This is definitely not meant to be taken as a hard rule of game design, but I hope this helps as an introduction.

The Chen-ian Approach To Design

When you back up and think about it, it’s really amazing that we human beings are able to communicate with each other. We all have such different backgrounds and different perspectives that no one can ever truly understand anyone else. If we both looked up at the sky and agreed that it’s blue, how do we know that we’re both seeing the same thing? How do you know that I’m not just pounding mindlessly on my keyboard, and by sheer coincidence it formed an essay? Are we all actual conscious thinking entities, or is everyone I know just a figment of my imagination?

And it’s not just crazy philosophy. Ever said something as a joke, and other people got offended by it? Ever had to repeat yourself because someone else couldn’t understand you? Ever had a professor grade you more harshly than you expected? That’s all miscommunication. We spend our whole lives trying to avoid miscommunication, but in the end it’s sort of impossible. Different people are different.

That’s the magical power of design: it allows us to communicate, despite how radically different we are. And the way it does this is a little bit counter-intuitive. When we think “communication,” we imagine people connecting directly to each other. But what design does instead is it creates a shared space for both people to explore and engage with. People are way too different for a direct connection to work, so design uses a medium instead. This way, we’re both interacting with the same thing, but we’re each taking away a different experience.

Design is the creation of those mediums, those shared spaces for people to connect to. It’s how we’re able to get ideas out of our heads and shove those ideas into other people’s heads. We use design to influence the world around us, and likewise design influences us. My personal approach to design starts with this philosophical context.

First and foremost, some terminology definitions. A “designer” is an entity that creates a “product” for a “perceiver.” I intentionally use general language here, because a product can be anything ranging from a video game to a chair to a building, and likewise a perceiver could be anything ranging from a player to a sitter to a building-enterer.

Under my approach, the goal of design is to create a product that conveys a concept from the designer to the perceiver. Good design accomplishes this, and bad design does not.

I think of design as a three-step process. They are loosely chronological, but none of these steps is more important than the others. All of the steps are connected with each other and must be considered as a whole.

Step 1 – UNDERSTAND the THEME. The designer must understand the theme of the product they are creating. The theme is the core message, the experience that perceivers will take away from the product, the reason why the product is being made in the first place. This is the philosophical step, and it’s important for a designer to live and breathe the product’s theme in order to bring it to its full potential.

Step 2 – UNIFY the COMPONENTS. Once the theme is identified, the designer creates all the elements that make up the product in such a way that they all feed back into the theme. There is nothing needlessly extraneous, nor is there anything to be lacked. Everything about the product relates to the theme in a unified way. This step is what people usually imagine when they think of “design,” but under my approach it is only one step out of three.

Step 3 – ENSURE the DELIVERY. The perceiver, when interacting with the product, should recognize and understand the theme as the designer intended with as little loss in translation as possible. For this to happen, the designer must focus not only on the product itself, but also on how the product is experienced by the perceiver. If the delivery is weak, the product’s theme will never be conveyed to anyone, regardless of how unified its components were.

Each of these three steps are deeply nuanced and complex, vitally essential yet useless without the others. I won’t be able to do them justice in this essay, but at least I’ll try.

Step 1 – Understand The Theme

Before we say something, it’s usually a good idea to know what we’re trying to say first. A lot of miscommunication happens when people don’t think before they speak. As designers, we need to have a very firm grasp of what we want to convey. If we don’t even understand it ourselves, how can we expect our perceivers to understand it?

The theme can be anything. Go wild. Maybe you want to make something about insanity, or California, or narwhals. Most game jams will give people a theme to work with, so that they all have to make a game based on what they’re given. This is the easy part, because anything goes. Think about your theme this way: what do I want perceivers to feel when they interact with my product?

But once you decide what you want to use as your theme, you need to understand it inside and out. You need to know everything you can possibly know about it. Do research, talk to experts, learn more about related topics. Whatever your theme ends up becoming, you need to live and breathe it with every pore of your body.

An English professor I once had used a clever little brainstorming exercise. He would give us a short story to read, and then he would tell us to imagine the text as an object. If this story could somehow be embodied in a three-dimensional physical object, what would it look like? How would it feel? Maybe you imagine Wuthering Heights as a flowery vase, old and cracked. Why do you imagine the text to be this kind of object? What cues pointed you towards that direction? This exercise forces people to take a step back from the obvious side of things and think from a wider perspective, which helps them develop a deeper understanding of the subject at hand.

Do the same thing with your theme. Rather, do even more. If your theme was personified as a human being, what would it eat for breakfast? What’s the first thing that comes to other people’s minds when you tell them your theme? When you pronounce your theme out loud, what syllables do you stress? You must understand it as thoroughly as you possibly can.

On a personal level, you need to understand why you chose the theme. The things you want to say are informed by who you are as a person: your history, your beliefs, your perspective on the world. What concept do you want other people to understand through your work, and why did you pick that specific concept? At this stage, self-reflection is just as important as research. Something must have happened in your life that caused you to reach the theme you chose. If you understand your own journey, you are all the more equipped to create a product that creates a similar journey for your perceivers to follow, and they will reach the same theme that you did.

Step 2 – Unify The Components

Step 2 is where we decide what everything is going to be. That sounds pretty intimidating already, but there’s even more: everything needs to exist in relationship to the theme that was identified in Step 1. Otherwise, you end up with a jumbled mess of mismatching elements, and it won’t carry the theme to the perceiver.

Before anything else, you have to decide on the medium: what is your product going to be? A video game, a painting, a chair, a choreographed dance? This is the first step to unification, because the medium itself is the highest level component of your product, and thus it must be well-equipped to carry the theme. Everything else during this process branches off of the medium you decide to use.

Different mediums are capable of different things, and you must carefully decide which one will be best for your theme. Take some time to do research before you decide on the medium. Have there been products made with this medium that carry a similar theme to yours? Did they succeed at conveying their theme, and why or why not? Absorb as much knowledge as you can, because this is an important decision. Some academics argue that video games are not yet capable of rendering internal emotions as well as novels or films can. If your theme requires the rendering of internal emotions and you want it to be a game, do you have a counterargument against those academics? How would your theme benefit from the medium you chose?

I wish that there was some kind of medium cheat-sheet that could nicely summarize what mediums are good at doing which things, but something like that can never exist. Technology moves so quickly that it seems as if any medium can do anything. Instead, you’ll just have to take it on a case-by-case basis. This is why Step 1 was so important: if you understand your theme well enough, you will naturally arrive at the medium that best suits it.

Let’s say that the core theme you want to use is “despair.” There are books about despair (A Series of Unfortunate Events), there are paintings about despair (The Scream), there are plays about despair (Hamlet), there are video games about despair (Binding of Isaac). And yet, each of these conveys a very different version of despair. The Series of Unfortunate Events is about despair in unexpected situations, The Scream is about all-pervading infinite despair, Hamlet is about a slowly creeping yet inevitable despair, and Binding of Isaac is about the despair of confusion. Try to make a game about Series of Unfortunate Events and you’ll get a bad game. Likewise, try to make a painting about Binding of Isaac, and you won’t capture the same sense of confusion.

So take some time. Maybe do some prototypes, try your theme out in a different medium and see how it feels to you. If you can, make an outline of your product, or a flowchart of how it should be experienced, and see if that helps you identify a medium. You don’t want to screw up on this decision. This is the reason why everyone hates video game spin-offs of movies or books, but even original titles can suffer from a poor choice in medium. Remember that everything should point back towards the theme you decided on.

Once you decide on your medium, good job. You’ve unified your very first component. Now get a little bit more specific and do it again, and again, and again. If you’re making a video game, what platform will it be for? If it’ll be a web browser game, what will the perspective be? If it’ll be a 2D sidescroller, what actions can the player take? If players can have their character shoot rockets, what are rockets used for? If rockets are used to blast away terrain, why do players need to blast away terrain? If players need to blast away enough terrain to reach a goal, where should the goal be placed? If the goal is 100 abstract units directly to the right of the player character’s starting location, where is the terrain? And so on and so forth.

Every single one of those components is another decision, another part of the medium you are creating. And each of those decisions is just as significant as the first one. Just as a book is different from a video game, a 2D game is different from a 3D game. Each time you face a decision, you need to weigh all the options and decide on which one will carry your theme most efficiently. If you want to make a game about pervasive despair like The Scream, maybe it’ll be good to aim for mobile devices for quick access and persistent notifications. Or if you want to make a game about unexpected despair like Series of Unfortunate Events, it might be more interesting to randomize the terrain layout and have sudden cave-ins, rather than designing the terrain by hand. But maybe you’ll decide that shooting rockets isn’t the best way to convey despair in the first place. Remember all the effort it took just to figure out which medium to use? Step 2 means doing that a couple thousand more times.

As a massive oversimplification, games in the component unification process will generally progress from the medium to the technology to the genre to the mechanics to the level design. Remember that this is a massive oversimplification, and design is never a clean linear path: maybe a cool level will inspire you to change the game mechanics, or maybe you’ll need to design for multiple genres simultaneously. But as a designer, you want to move from the general idea down to the specific details, so you can make sure that everything points towards the theme.

Step 2 is the part that is most traditionally associated with “design.” People write books about this, teach classes about this, devote their whole lives to this. There is so much more to design than what I’ve written here. This approach is only a bare skeleton, but hopefully it is a generalized enough skeleton that it gives a cursory idea of what design is. But it doesn’t end here: there’s still one more step to consider during the process.

Step 3 – Ensure The Delivery

So you’ve unified every single component you could possibly think of. It seems great and everything works for your theme. But everything that has happened up until this point has been internal, only existing within the designer’s world. Remember that the goal of design is “to create a product that conveys a concept from the designer to the perceiver.” This is the step where you must consider the last part of that sentence: the perceiver.

There’s a lot of debate on the difference between art and design, and I think it’s all about whether or not you take this step. Art is when you make what you want to make for your own purposes, and maybe you’ll throw it out into the world and let other people take what they will from it. It’s selfish, it’s self-fulfilling, it’s masturbatory, it’s cathartic. And when you make something that you’re really proud of, it’s tempting to just hold it close like a baby, protecting it from the harsh world outside.

In design, we have a saying: “kill your babies.” Take those precious works of art you’ve done, take everything you’re proud of, and rip them to shreds. Art is internal, but design is external. Designers have a job to do, and that job is to make sure that the theme gets safely delivered to the perceiver. The product must be crafted carefully and lovingly in order for that to happen, but the product is not the end goal.

This is the step that I personally struggle the most with. When I make something that I’m proud of, I’m very reluctant to change it. People look at my work and tell me that it’s confusing and they don’t get it, and even though it’s clear that they’re not getting the theme I still won’t make changes. I’ll explain away their complaints by saying “their way of thinking is old-fashioned” or “they didn’t spend enough time to get used to my product” or “they’re just stupid.” If you’re attached to something you made, it’s really hard to listen to other people when they want to change it.

Maybe you’re designing a gladiator arena and you love how perfectly symmetrical it is, but the symmetry causes perceivers to think that they’re going to see fair matches. Maybe a villain delivers a beautiful poetic monologue before their death, but perceivers just skip the scene anyway. Maybe you shrink your game’s resolution size so that the player character lines up with the rule of thirds, but the reduced size makes the screen more cluttered and perceivers get confused. Maybe you carefully tuned an ambient sound effect to resonate with the scene as a whole, but perceivers are too focused to even notice it. This can happen anywhere.

Even if you think that a component you designed is brilliant and marvelous and perfectly captures the essence of your theme, you must remember that all of that is from your own perspective. Perceivers aren’t looking at the product through your perspective, they’re looking at it through their own. That means you need to step out of your shoes and into theirs. You need to be able to admit that you are wrong, because even if you’re absolutely 100% correct from your own perspective, your own perspective doesn’t matter.

In the world of game development, this step is called “playtesting”. Film calls it “test screenings” and other industries call it “focus groups.” Step 3 is the key part of agile development and rapid prototyping. This step is important for all types of design, but especially so for game design because of its interactive nature. Perceivers of a video game choose their own paths, and we have to ensure that they still receive the theme while enjoying their freedom of agency.

There isn’t really a method to completing Step 3. Rather, having a clear-cut method here would be a little antithetical. Step 3 is all about reacting to the perceiver rather than focusing on yourself as a designer, so it’s about being receptive to everything your perceiver says about your product. Some people say that design is all about listening, and I think that’s definitely true for Step 3. I can’t provide anything practical here, people have written whole books about how to do this step properly.

The good news is, this step is quite possibly the most rewarding one when it’s executed properly. When other people interact with the message you’re trying to tell and raise discussions about it that you never even thought of, it feels great. You’ve left your mark on the world and you’ve changed it in your image. That feeling is one of the reasons why I chose to be a designer in the first place.

Conclusion

I only recently got my thoughts in order to frame my approach, but good design (and bad design) can be felt without explicitly knowing these three steps. All of my past critiques of games have been about disconnections between these design steps. Likewise, all of my favorite games (and products as a whole) were the ones that delivered a resonant message and made me think.

Whether or not we’re conscious of it, we go through these three steps many times in our daily lives. When you talk to someone, you’re designing an improv speech so that they understand you. When you get dressed in the morning, you’re designing an outfit to match your personality. When you sit down in a chair, you’re designing a pose that conveys your mood at the time. At its core, design is communication, and we communicate a lot.

You don’t need to be a designer to benefit from knowing how design works. Likewise, knowing how design works doesn’t make you a designer. It’s not a simple clear-cut field that you can encapsulate in a neat little definition: rather, design is more like a mindset, a way of seeing the world and responding to it. Maybe that ambiguity is the reason why design is so underappreciated in the game industry.

And as I’ve been saying over and over and over again, my three-step model is only scratching the tip of the iceberg. So yeah. Design is serious business.