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.

Case Study: Advanced Warfare Looks Promising

I’ve already said before that I’m not interested in doing straight game reviews. That goes for game previews too. So it’s pretty rare for me to be writing about my thoughts on Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. Hell, I’m not even a Call of Duty player in the first place. And considering how much bad rep the CoD series gets from the design community, it’s really weird for me to be paying so much attention to this one. But I’m really excited about this game from a design perspective, and now I’m going to break down why.

The reason why I heard about CoD:AW in the first place was because I’m a big fan of Titanfall, and I was reading a lot of internet rage about how CoD:AW was just a copycat. And if you watch some of the preliminary trailers, it really seems that way. They both have jetpacks, they both have cloak abilities, they both have lateral dashes. They both even use the name “Atlas” as a major pivot point (in Titanfall it’s a well-rounded Titan model, and in CoD:AW it’s the name of a giant world-dominating PMC).

But as a game designer, I don’t think it’s good to criticize games for copying mechanics. A lot of industry people always say “ideas don’t matter, execution is everything,” so if a game steals a mechanic and executes it brilliantly, it’s better than a game with a radical idea that fails on execution. For me, I take a different approach: I think copying mechanics is fine as long as it connects to the game’s core theme. My whole crusade against mana has been about the overuse of resource systems in games where they don’t belong. So if another game has done something that really fits into the core theme of what you’re making, I say go for it.

With CoD specifically, that kind of philosophy gets really muddy, because CoD‘s problem has always been a lack of a core theme. I think it’s really important for a game to have a solid core theme that summarizes everything the game is trying to deliver in a short phrase. Once that’s done, as you continue through development you can check every element and see whether or not it helps your core theme. But CoD as a series has always been criticized for just haphazardly dumping random elements into their games for the sake of spectacle. Remember all the controversy about their airport level? If it was a significant, meaningful part of the game’s intended experience, that level could have been a Spec Ops kind of deal, and it would have reached out to gamers in a way they haven’t seen before. Considering all the public opinion backlash we see about it now, that obviously didn’t happen. The other CoD games are filled with similar spectacle moments that never consolidate into a solid takeaway.

On the other hand, Titanfall, the game everyone says CoD:AW is copying, actually has a really solid core theme. Their core theme is “scale, verticality, and story,” and every single Respawn developer interview always includes one or more of those words. Every mechanic in Titanfall plays a part in delivering scale, verticality, and/or story. The double jump gives pilots the ability to traverse terrain on a greater scale. The wallrunning and walljumping allows pilots to wield verticality in their combat engagements. The titans break up the flow of a match and introduce “oh shit!” moments to turn every battle into a dynamic story. Everything is about scale, verticality, and story.

So if CoD:AW was trying to mimic Titanfall exactly, their core theme would be “scale, verticality, and story” too, which would be cool but not interesting enough to get my attention. But CoD:AW is actually lifting game mechanics from Titanfall and applying them to a different core theme, which really got me paying attention. It’s risky because these games were developed with different experiences in mind, and it would be a lot easier for CoD:AW to just copy everything about Titanfall down to a T, including their core theme. Since they’re not doing that, it really seems like this is the first time in recent history that a CoD game gets designed around its own unique core theme.

For CoD:AW, their core theme is “power changes everything.” And it really feels like they’re intentionally orienting their game around this theme. One of their trailers opens up with a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “Nearly all men can handle adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” From the story to the mechanics to the aesthetics, everything is about what happens when you’re given more power than you can handle. A test of your character as a player, and as a person.

One thing I’m really interested in is CoD:AW‘s battery powered weapons. The idea is that they regenerate power over time, and power is essentially their version of ammunition. That means these guns can potentially have unlimited firepower, but you can’t expend too much at once. This is really exciting for me personally, because I’ve written about resource systems in my mana essays and it sounds like the battery weapons are a way of getting around that problem. But more importantly, the battery weapons are conceptually harmonious with the core theme. You have infinite power, and it changes the way you approach situations. Do you get drunk on power and overspend recklessly, or do you back down out of fear and undershoot your full potential? Power changes everything. In this case, power has changed the reload/ammunition system that every other FPS game was driven by. They embedded the theme into the mechanics.

It really reminds me of the Smart Pistol system in Titanfall. Not mechanically, but conceptually. In Titanfall, the Smart Pistol is a weapon that automatically locks onto targets that you’re looking at, but it takes time to lock on. That means it takes emphasis away from precision aiming, so instead you need to focus on parkour, mobility, and wallrunning, which is exactly what Titanfall is all about. The Smart Pistol got a lot of attention for being something new and innovative in the FPS genre, and it really works in Titanfall‘s context. Obviously, the Smart Pistol would never work in Sniper Elite or Gears of War or CoD:AW, but it’s a perfect fit for Titanfall. Likewise, the battery powered weapons sound like they align with CoD:AW‘s core theme.

But that leads me into a discussion about why I probably shouldn’t be so hopeful. In Titanfall, no one uses the Smart Pistol. It’s outclassed by pretty much every other weapon there is, and they’re all your standard rifle/SMG/sniper FPS guns. Titanfall tried to innovate, but it chickened out halfway through, and as a result it never became the groundbreaking trailblazer it was meant to be. Nowadays, Titanfall can be considered in the same category as CoD and Halo and Battlefield, which really isn’t a bad thing. Still, I wish Titanfall had delivered on its promise to revolutionize FPS gameplay.

Likewise, CoD:AW will probably not be the amazing revolutionary FPS it sounds like it will be, either. Energy weapons are cool, having a core theme is cool, but in the end it’s still a triple A game. That means they’ve got big wig higher-ups who want senseless spectacles because they think that’s what sells games. So in all likelihood, CoD:AW will not be as good as I’m imagining. But it’s still nice to see that big developers are starting to change up the monotony we’re used to seeing as consumers. I hope CoD:AW delivers.

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.

Case Study: Gender In League of Legends

League of Legends (LoL) is an online competitive video game, and as a digital space one might assume it to be relatively free of gender norms. However, the game is filled with many instances of identity normativity ranging from artistic direction to gameplay dynamics to the player community.

In LoL, players form teams of five and fight against another team (making ten people per match). The game is won when one team successfully invades the other team’s stronghold. Each individual player selects a champion to play as, and each champion has different strengths and weaknesses. Some champions can turn invisible and sneak up behind enemies, some champions can launch attacks from a very long distance, some champions can grab enemies and pull them closer. Teams need to carefully decide what champion each player picks, because the enemy team also gets to pick five champions of their choosing. All five players on a team need to be aware of their champion’s role and how it relates to the roles that their teammates picked.

The stereotype is that women primarily play as supports. A support in LoL is a champion who specializes in protecting their teammates and enhancing their abilities. Supports are commonly able to heal their allies and confer buffs upon them (a buff is a temporary boost in combat abilities such as movement speed). They usually need to stay as far away from combat as possible, because if they die they are no longer able to help their teammates. A support is typically paired up with a “carry,” which is LoL terminology for a champion who can do lots of damage but is also very fragile: champions like this must be “carried” by their teammates early on because they are weak, but later in the match they become powerful and “carry” their teammates to victory.

This stereotype (women primarily play supports) has several nuances. First of all, it perpetuates the idea that women are caretakers and homeowners, the benevolent mothers who act as enablers for others rather than taking action themselves. Likewise, the counter stereotype is that men primarily play as carries, because carries are the ones tearing enemy teams apart and claiming all the glory (obviously, thanks to the help of their supports and tanks). In terms of gameplay, supports and carries have a relationship similar to that of the traditional homemaker wife and breadwinner husband.

However, this runs deeper than just a social norm: the stereotype is further strengthened by the idea that supports are easier to play as, so women play as supports because they’re not good enough to play a more difficult role (such as carry). This stereotype is particularly damaging because it is completely untrue at higher levels of play (professional LoL depends very much on each team’s supports), but as a beginner it feels true: all a support needs to do is heal their allies, and they can sit back away from the action and let their teammates fight in actual combat. The problem is exacerbated by ragers in the community: a rager is a person who will harass and belittle a teammate who isn’t doing well, and if a teammate isn’t doing well it drops their chances of winning the match. If a player tries a new role and does a poor job, their teammates might rage at them, and they’ll feel bad about it. It’s very tempting to stay away from the action so you don’t draw ragers to yourself, especially for new players, and support is (initially) the best way to do that.

If someone starting to play LoL for the first time decides to play support because support is the easiest role, they will become accustomed to that role. Maybe they’ll switch roles later on as they get better and try out different champions, but there are just as many players who prefer playing the first role they picked out of habit. From this, it is easy to see “women play supports” as a self-perpetuating stereotype: women playing LoL for the first time are incentivized to play support because it’s easier, and then they continue to play support because they’re used to it, and then other people deduce that women play support.

Riot Games (the company that makes LoL) has made efforts to reduce the stigma around support role with its recent “Teamwork OP” campaign. “OP” is game terminology for “overpowered,” which refers to a mechanic that is so strong that it is unfair to play against (if an enemy champion singlehandedly defeats my whole team, that champion would be OP). In this case, Riot’s campaign raised awareness that having good teamwork is just as powerful, if not more powerful than having strong individual skill.

Riot’s Teamwork OP campaign.

Traditionally, supports were supposed to buy wards, which are items that grant vision of an area and alert teammates when an enemy is nearby, which prevents enemies from sneaking up on allied characters. Buying wards costs gold that could be spent on buying other items that increase the amount of damage you do, so carries typically never bought wards and instead saved all of their money to buy damage-boosting items instead, and supports had to spend all their income on wards. Ever since Riot’s Teamwork OP campaign, it is no longer rare to see all five champions on a team buying wards, rather than having all of them offload ward duty to the support.

LoL is almost a microcosm of society: many modern day interpersonal connections can be interpreted as a variation on the support/carry relationship. However, that is not to say that supporting is wrong and carrying is right, nor to say that women are supporters while men are carriers. People can be more nuanced than that, and LoL proved it with its recent Teamwork OP campaign. We can develop a better understanding of gender roles in our society by analyzing gender roles in LoL.

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.

Game Design: Gender Roles In Mechanics Part 2

So I recently finished Jesper Juul’s book “Half-Real,” and I felt that it gave me enough insight to revisit my old theories regarding gender roles in mechanics. This goes deeper into games as a medium and what gave rise to gender roles, so think of it as a supplement to my first essay on the topic.

Jesper Juul in his book”Half-Real” describes a new approach to thinking about video games not only as technology, but also as historical artifacts and products of culture. The traditional view of video games presents them as an escapist form of entertainment, but Juul demands a more nuanced view. In “Half-Real,” he breaks down the specific elements of gaming using a historical, technological, and cultural context. This perspective lends new insight into how we engage in games (and entertainment as a whole), and what that engagement says about us as a culture.

The title “Half-Real” refers to the difference between real rules and fictional worlds, and how games are an intricate combination of both. Take, for example, the game of chess. Every piece in chess is governed by a set of rules: pawns move forward, bishops move diagonally, move on top of another piece to capture it, etc. However, every piece in chess is also governed by a fictional persona: pawns are grunt soldiers, bishops have higher ranking, etc. If chess were to be reduced to merely a set of rules with no fictional world attached, every piece would be referred to by an identification code and all aesthetics would be thrown out. On the other hand, if the opposite occurred and chess was only observed in terms of its fiction, it would be a linear story about two warring kingdoms that players have no control over. Juul elaborates more on both the rules and the fiction of games in separate chapters of the book, and it’s necessary to understand both sides independently before attempting to merge them together.

It’s difficult to define what exactly a rule is in terms of game design, so Juul presents multiple different interpretations. Does a card game like poker follow the same kinds of rules as a sport like soccer, or a digital game like Mario? Who decides on the rules, and what medium enforces them? Juul’s argument builds off of one core postulate: rules limit player behavior. In chess, rules are in place to control various behaviors: how players win the game, where players can move their pieces, and even when players are allowed to act. These rules are necessary in order for a game to be played the way it’s meant to be played.

However, this leads into the question of how we define “player behavior”, because there is no rule in chess that prevents players from flipping the board over or punching their opponent in the face. Thus, Juul introduces the concept of “potential actions, actions that are meaningful inside the game but meaningless outside,” referring to the goals that players strive to achieve within a game’s set of rules. Under the previous example, a player who punches their opponent in their face will (usually) experience less satisfaction than a player who successfully places their opponent in checkmate, because checkmate is more meaningful. In this way, rules can be designed in a way that creates structure.

Rules and their accompanying potential actions give rise to strategies, or the methods that players will use to reach their goal. In a simple game like tic-tac-toe, players quickly discover that the dominant strategy is to play first and place their mark in the center of the 3×3 grid, and no other strategy is viable in comparison, so the game becomes boring. On the other hand, a similarly simple game like Pong provides enough room for a variety of strategies, because there is an infinite amount of possibilities: the ball can be anywhere on the screen, and at any given position of the ball each of the two paddles can be anywhere along their respective Y-axes. Is it better to constantly follow the ball’s path, or to stay in the center and only move when necessary? Strategies are an important product of a game’s rules.

Games can combine rules, potential actions, and strategies in a variety of ways: the two primary ways that Juul outlines are categorized as “emergent games” and “progressive games.” A game of emergence is one with a wide variety of strategies, whereas a game of progression is one that can only be solved by a very specific set of actions. A word search puzzle would be a game of progression because it has one answer that is reached by a specific strategy (looking at the image until all the words are found), whereas a Sudoku puzzle would be a game of emergence because there are many strategies that can be employed (i.e. trial and error, cross hatching). However, emergence/progression is also a spectrum: certain games like golf employ both emergence and progression (emergence in the decision before making a swing, and progression in the linear advancement through a course). We can use the terms of rules, potential actions, strategies, and emergent/progressive gameplay to sufficiently understand the real/technology side of games, and use that understanding as a precursor to analyze the fictional/cultural side.

Juul refers to “game fiction” as the world that players imagine as they engage in a set of rules. There are many ways that a game can do this: for example, in chess every piece has a name, a carved model, and a two-dimensional icon. This way, people can envision chess as a medieval war led by kings and queens, rather than just an abstract set of rules. A game’s fictional world can be understood in terms of abstraction: whereas chess may represent kings and queens with three-dimensional sculptures, a card game like poker represents kings and queens only with two-dimensional images printed on cards, and a game like checkers takes abstraction even further by foregoing representation completely and instead denoting kings by stacking pieces together.

The theory of the “magic circle” describes the extents and limits of a game’s fictional world. Under the magic circle theory, the real world can be seen as a circular space, and the game world is a smaller circle enclosed within the real world. Juul cites two other game theorists, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, who described the magic circle as such: “As a closed circle, the space it circumscribes is enclosed and separate from the real world… In a very basic sense, the magic circle is where the game takes place”. For example, the bounds of a basketball court are classified as the “magic circle” of basketball (even though a basketball court is not circular), because the game doesn’t exist past the court. Although a game’s core strategies are determined by rules, the game’s magic circle is determined by its fictional world.

It’s important to consider real rules and fictional worlds in conjunction with each other, because the full game experience is a combination of both. Games of progression often employ techniques from traditional narrative writing and advanced graphics rendering to create immersive fictional worlds, whereas players of emergent games often ignore the fictional world to focus instead on their strategies within the set of rules. Sometimes, a game will sacrifice fictional integrity for the sake of rule-based gameplay: in chess, it makes no logical sense that a pawn can turn into a queen, but promotions are an important dynamic in the game. Other times, a game will do the opposite and emphasize the imagined world more than the rule-based one, such as the hot lava game played by children in which they imagine that the floor is lava and must take great pains to avoid coming in contact with it. If a player does not want to participate in the fiction, they do not have to, because nearly all digital games allow players to customize the quality of the graphics that they view, and running a game with low-quality graphics boils away the fictional world while keeping the rules intact. Whereas a game’s rules are decided by the designer, the game’s fictional world is decided by the player, and is thus reliant on the player’s cultural background.

Games have existed since the beginning of humankind, but only recently have games begun to make significant deviances from the norm. The advent of new technologies have begun to blur the line between real rules and fictional worlds. Before computers were invented, analog/physical games had very clearly defined magic circles: whether they were board games or sports, the game had boundaries. When computers were invented, those magic circles were still fairly clearly defined because games could not extend past the screen that they were played on. However, with more recent technologies such as online networking, mobile devices, and touchscreen controls, games have been pushing the boundaries of their magic circles further and further. Real rules and fictional worlds were no longer separate entities, but instead started to blur and merge together.

The fictional worlds of modern games are no longer in control of the player: they are now a product of cultural views as a whole, because those worlds have been expanding and developing with each new technology developed. Gender stereotypes in games are just one of the many cultural views prevalent in modern game design, because those views are reliant on a game’s fictional world. As technology evolves, games and other entertainment mediums have moved away from focusing on the individual fantasy and instead deliver an experience generalized for society as a whole. In terms of identity, that means delivering an experience that follows up on stereotypes and cultural norms.

Chess is a game that existed before the technological explosion, and it is free of gender norms because it places emphasis on the game rules rather than the game world. One might argue that chess is patriarchal: the king is the most important piece, and all the other pieces exist to serve the king. On the other hand, one could just as easily argue that chess is matriarchal: the queen is the most powerful piece on the board, and the king is the weakest. But either way, it is a debate over chess’s fictional world, which is not the core of what chess actually is. Anyone can simply switch the king’s and queen’s names, so that victory is attained when the queen is in checkmate and the king has free movement in eight directions, and the game would still be the same. In fact, novelty chess sets often replace the king and queen with other characters, further illustrating how little significance the gender identities are for the game. In chess, the rules are more important, and gender does not exist in the rules. Other early video games like Spacewar (released 1962) and Pong (released 1972) were similarly gender-neutral, because just like chess they focused more on rules than on fiction.

When graphics technology became advanced enough to start rendering characters on screen, game developers began populating those characters with gender norms. Donkey Kong (released 1981) put players in the role of a typical everyman who must save a helpless woman from a malicious ape. Pac-Man (released 1980) and Ms. Pac-Man (released 1982) were functionally very identical and had similar rules, but for the latter version the fictional world was tweaked to make the protagonist a female. Rampage (released 1986) featured several characters who turned into giant monsters who rampage through cities, some of which were women. At this time, novel-style characterization and personality was not necessary nor possible, so the character’s gender mattered less than the fact that the character had an identifiable gender in the first place.

Later, narrative-based games became popular, and since many such games follow a progression format they needed well-developed fictional worlds more than they needed potential actions and strategies. Final Fantasy 6 (released 1994) presented an epic tale centered around Terra Branford, a girl with magical powers who is caught up in a war against an evil empire. Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars (released 1996) guided the characters Nicole Collard and George Stobbart on a Chrichton-ian search for the Knights Templar in modern Paris. The Longest Journey (released 1999) let players direct a girl named April Ryan through a series of puzzles in an interdimensional sci-fi/fantasy setting. These kinds of games were essentially interactive novels, so the characters needed ample development in order to be relateable and likable, and gender is a part of “ample development.” In these cases, that was fine, because these games focused more on their fictional worlds than on rule-based play.

The problem arises when fictional worlds and rule-based play begin to merge together, and designers attempt to create game rules with gendered development in mind. Rules are only rules: they do not carry gender, just like how the piece that moves any amount of spaces in any direction in chess is not necessarily a female. However, recently designers have been trying to make games that incorporate gender into not only fictional worlds, but also rule sets. For example, Dead Island (released 2011) allowed players to hunt zombies as a female feminist cop named Purna, who does more damage to male zombies than female ones. Not only is this bad game design, it also perpetuates gender stereotypes in such a way that players experience those stereotypes firsthand. More and more technologies are being made that blur the line between rules and fiction, and as a result the industry is churning out games that have fiction built into the rules, when it should be the other way around.

A thorough understanding of history, technology, and gender in game design requires Juul’s half-real theory of game analysis. Games are made of both real rules and fictional worlds, and we need to look at each half separately before we can look at the whole. Gender stereotypes in modern video games are a prevalent problem for both the game industry and society’s entertainment system as a whole, and Juul’s book gives us the tools to observe and understand the problem.

Case Study: Arguing Against Mana in League of Legends

Ryze, the living embodiment of mana in LoL.

This essay takes the concepts from my previous essay The Mana System Paradox and applies it specifically to League of Legends. Knowledge of both of these is preferable, but if you haven’t read “The Mana System Paradox”, its core argument is that resource systems in action games are bad because they punish players for taking actions in a game that’s all about taking actions.

Thus the main question is this: is LoL one of those kinds of games? I believe it is, and that it would benefit from rethinking its mana systems.

In my original essay, I took apart a few games that use mana and analyzed what the resulting effects were. There is no blanket statement on mana systems: they work great for some kinds of games, but are horrible in others. Copying a mana system directly from one game to another can have drastic consequences, because every game is different and reacts differently depending on how its mechanics communicate. Just imagine if Magicka had a traditional mana system.

A game like LoL has a lot of subtle nuance: many factors go into every interaction in every match, and mana governs over a lot of those interactions. Judging mana in LoL requires a breakdown of mana’s consequences and its effect on the game as a whole.

A Quick Foreword

This essay does not argue for the immediate abolishment of mana. Simply snapping a finger and instantly making every champion manaless would have disastrous effects. Many of the game’s core systems are built off of mana, balanced around mana, and deliver engaging experiences through mana. There are many good points about mana, and the bad points aren’t quite as obvious. Personal mana control, resource management, and long-term tactics are all strong mana-based aspects of the game that I don’t intend to demean.

For example, the argument “Mana isn’t a problem if you buy an Unholy Grail and run regen seals” lies within the issue itself. I am not talking about mana on a personal scale, but rather on a game-wide level. Athene’s Unholy Grail and mana regeneration seals fall under the scope of mana that I seek to address.

Champions like Blitzcrank, Kassadin, Kog’Maw, and Ryze who depend heavily on their dynamics with mana would also need to be reconsidered in this new direction. I do not mean to say that these champions should just have all of their mana costs removed: of course more care would be necessary for cases like those.

Rethinking mana in LoL would be an extraordinarily massive shift in design philosophy, possibly one of the largest in the history of the game. Large tasks are to be approached in small steps, and I hope to make one of those small steps with this essay.

Problems With Mana: Hoarding Encourages Passive Turtling

LoL‘s design philosophy is all about interactive play between opponents, and mana doesn’t allow much of that to happen. The problem with a statement like this is that “mana” is often connected to “abilities,” but they’re two separate concepts that are considered separately in battle and need to be considered separately in design as well.

There’s no way for players to intentionally cause their enemy to run out of mana. It’s bad for you when your enemy has a lot of mana, because that means they can use a lot of abilities on you. But the only way for you to reduce their mana (and thus reduce their threat level) is to let them use abilities on you. Gameplay around the actual usage of abilities has plenty of interaction, but there’s a distinction between using an ability versus deciding whether or not you should use an ability.

Let’s say that I’m playing as Ezreal and I want to hit you with a few Mystic Shots. There are two decisions that I need to factor into the equation before I fire an ability off: how it will impact my current mana pool, and how it will impact my enemy. The net worth of my ability depends on the latter, because even though two casts of the ability cost the same amount of mana, it’s worth more to me if it hits than if it’s a complete miss. However, enemies still don’t have the ability to do anything to my mana pool: they can only change what happens after my ability is fired, if they react fast enough to dodge. All resource-consuming abilities have this dual nature between deciding when to use the ability (mana) versus deciding how to use the ability (counterplay).

Thus we run into a problem: what happens if I just decide not to use any abilities? I can maintain high amounts of mana (which means a higher threat level) and there’s nothing that my enemy can do about it. Sure, I’m not using abilities, but I’m not losing mana either. It’s beneficial for me to do damage to my enemy, but it’s also beneficial for me to have lots of mana, and I can only do one or the other because damaging my enemy costs mana. If I’m able to do enough damage to my enemy to kill him, the benefits outweigh the loss of mana. But on the other hand, if my enemy outplays me, now I’ve done no damage and I’m out of mana, which is a bad situation to be in. If I just don’t use any mana in the first place, neither of those outcomes will happen, and I’ll be in an unremarkable but safe place.

If you’re at 100% mana, you’re probably throwing out some harass now and then. If you’re at 50% mana, you’re a little bit more hesitant about using your abilities. If you’re at 10% mana, you’re saving every last drop for your escape mechanism. The degree to which you need to save mana scales with how little of it is left.

It’s a decision between the high-stakes path versus the consistent path, and the latter is a pretty popular option. LoL has struggled with passive play for a long time, most notably with the support sustain meta. But it’s important to notice that mana systems also contribute to passive play. No one wants to get yelled at for being killed, and it’s a lot easier to avoid being killed when you have mana than when you don’t.

One solution might be to strengthen the connection from “using the ability” to “deciding when to use the ability.” Ezreal is a good example of this, because when he hits an enemy with his Mystic Shot it reduces his ability cooldowns by a second. His decision to use Mystic Shot is reliant on how well he can land Mystic Shots. For every other champion, it’s the other way around: their decisions to use their abilities is reliant on their available resources, whether it’s mana or cooldowns. Enemies can reduce the rate at which Ezreal uses Mystic Shots by dodging the ones he fires. This places emphasis within the action of the ability rather than the decision behind its usage. Olaf’s Undertow and Reckless Swing abilities were recently reworked to use similar structures.

Another possible solution would be to allow interaction with mana, but LoL decided not to go in that direction. If enemies could somehow reduce the amount of mana you have, they could actively prevent you from using your abilities. In the MOBA realm this concept is called mana burn, and LoL intentionally removed it. Having mana burn would solve this current problem, but it still feeds into the next problem I’m about to describe.

Problems With Mana: Being OOM Sucks

Naturally, resource systems cause things to run out. The paradox is that the gameplay experience depends on having resources that are consumed by the gameplay experience itself. Why does playing the game as it’s intended to be played cause you to be unable to play the game anymore? If the core gameplay experience of LoL is to use abilities, and using abilities causes you to run out of mana and be unable to use abilities, then there’s a problem. It’s antithetical and confusing for the game’s core experience to prevent you from fulfilling the game’s core experience.

But it’s a matter of understanding what exactly LoL‘s experience is supposed to be. Is it to outsmart your opponent? Get the most gold? Last-hit the enemy nexus? Kill Teemo as many times as possible? Have as much fun as possible? You could take each of these random ideas I just threw out and design a whole game around it. Implementing a mana system makes perfect sense for some of these ideas, and is a horrible idea in others. If you went all-in with a ton of mana and your opponent outsmarted you, that’s a proper punishment in a game about outsmarting your opponent. On the other hand, if you run out of mana because you killed Teemo too many times, and the only reason why you play the game is so you can kill Teemo, it’s a total buzzkill. Of course, the core gameplay experience of LoL isn’t actually to kill Teemo. What exactly is the core gameplay experience, and why don’t mana systems play into it?

Many of Riot’s prominent designers have said that counterplay and player interaction is a major focal point for LoL‘s experience, and you can feel this in the game itself. If you look at supports in LoL, traditional healers were nerfed because they didn’t provide strong counterplay: there’s not a whole lot you can do when the enemy Soraka heals your lane opponent back to full health every ten seconds. However, recent supports have been designed with counterplay in mind. Nami’s Ebb and Tide ability is a weak heal outside of combat, but gains strength when used within an engagement, so it becomes an active skill used in the heat of battle rather than a way to patch up allies after the fight. Thresh has no heals whatsoever but is able to reposition his allies, so enemies must coordinate in order to catch an enemy being assisted by a Thresh. Other trends like the rising amount of dodgeable skillshots have also pointed towards this direction.

A large part of counterplay lies in abilities. If I’m Ezreal and I fire a Mystic Shot at you, your counterplay is to dodge. If I’m Yasuo and I place a Wind Wall in front of you, your counterplay is to navigate around it. If I’m Zyra and I place a seed on the ground, your counterplay is to trample it. Other than abilities, counterplay also happens through item purchases and through metagame. But counterplay through abilities is the main hook, the event that happens most often during a match, the part you remember after an awesome play, the moment when crowds get up and cheer at tournaments. Nobody gets up to cheer when the tank buys a Randuin’s Omen.

In order for counterplay through abilities to happen, it’s obvious that abilities need to be used. However, the existence of mana presents two cases which prevent the use of abilities: holding back in order to save mana, or being out of mana. Either way, someone is unable to interact meaningfully with their opponent, and it’s frustrating.

These concepts are even used thematically in champion design. Rumble’s overheated state is functionally the same thing as being out of mana. For him, the frustration of being unable to unleash all of his abilities is a part of his character. He has to fight against himself as much as he has to fight against enemies, which is why he needs Danger Zone benefits: the more he fights against himself, the easier it is to fight against enemies and vice versa. On the other hand, manaless champions like Katarina can divert focus away from herself and more towards her enemies, like an assassin concentrating on her prey. As thematic mechanics, both of these champion’s resource systems work fine. But giving a champion mana is basically giving it a toned-down version of Rumble’s heat. It’s not for everyone, and it shouldn’t be the default. Ziggs is a “blow-up-everything” kind of guy, but since he has mana there are times when he has to stop himself from blowing things up.

There are plenty of other situations that prevent abilities, but those situations tie into LoL‘s core experience. If you’re silenced or stunned or dead, you’re unable to use abilities because the enemy outmaneuvered you in some way. The punishment is reasonable because your counterplay was not as strong as the enemy’s. However, being out of mana isn’t a matter of being outplayed, it’s a matter of using the abilities you were supposed to use. Mana systems inevitably lead towards OOM situations, but in a game about interactive counterplay it’s more fitting to focus on dealing with your opponent rather than struggle to balance your own expenses.

Problems With Mana: Balance Revolves Around It

Regardless of anything I say about mana, it’s still a valid point that LoL was built from the ground up with mana, and it’s a core part of how the game is balanced. However, mana is a balancing point for the decision to use an ability, not the action of using an ability. Attaching high post-usage costs feeds into the passive turtling and OOM scenarios described above, and doesn’t deal with the abilities themselves.

Currently, nearly all ranged champions are gated by mana costs to limit their harass potential, and manaless champions generally have higher ability cooldowns, but mana and cooldown gates both shift too much focus into the decision to act rather than the act itself. Mana and cooldowns serve very similar purposes: both of them limit ability usage by forcing the user to wait for a certain duration. An individual ability’s cooldown can be thought of as a miniature mana bar, with its own regeneration rate. Xerath’s 20-second cooldown on Locus of Power can be reimagined as a mana bar that’s capped at 100, regenerates 5 per second, and costs 100 to use. Thinking this way, it’s as if all champions have five different mana bars, one for each separate ability and one to govern them all.

Many of my arguments against mana also apply to high-cooldown abilities like ultimates and summoner spells. If you don’t use an ability, it won’t go on cooldown, and it’ll be ready to use if you’re suddenly caught in a bad situation like a gank. Offensive flashes are rarely used except when a kill is almost finished and it just needs to be secured, but defensive flashes happen all the time (in fact, offensive flashes are generally used to follow up after defensive ones). The similarities between cooldowns and mana mean that both systems carry similar effects on gameplay. High cooldowns should be condemned as much as high mana costs.

Abilities need to provide windows for counterattacks, but mana and cooldown costs present those windows outside of the ability itself. Sion’s Cryptic Gaze has a high mana cost, but it doesn’t lend much counterplay. This has historically turned Sion into a one-trick pony: once he stuns you, he either succeeds at bursting you down with his shield, or he fails and he’s unable to take other actions. In the former case, his enemy has no meaningful actions to respond with because the stun is inevitable. In the latter case, Sion himself is left out of mana and has no meaningful actions to use against enemies. The counterattack case is clear (if Sion fails to kill me, attack him), but that’s an external cost that lies outside of the ability itself. If, for example, Cryptic Gaze was a skillshot, it would provide counterplay in and of itself because it would be dodgeable. Lissandra’s Frozen Tomb is the cooldown equivalent, and presents a similar gameplay pattern (but unlike Sion she can still function without her on-demand stun).

Up until several months ago, every champion has been gated by either mana or cooldowns, but recently abilities have been gated by windups instead. Mana and cooldowns are both post-usage costs, which makes them feel more like punishments for taking action. However, windups shift the cost to pre-usage, so players need to properly set up a scene before using abilities to their full potential. Pre-usage costs are paid in preparation rather than in mana, and the effort invested in pulling off a perfect ability results in a positive payoff. Lucian’s Culling is a strong example of this: by itself, it’s rather difficult to land and doesn’t do much damage. However, when Lucian first hits an enemy with Ardent Blaze, the movement speed allows him to keep pace during The Culling, so more of his shots will land and he does more damage. If in addition he also times his Relentless Pursuits well, he gains even more potential out of his ultimate. Thanks to all of these elements, The Culling is able to have relatively low post-usage costs, because so much of its cost is shifted to pre-usage preparation.

Contrast Lucian’s Culling to Miss Fortune’s Bullet Time, which doesn’t benefit from prior preparation and is instead balanced by longer cooldowns. Let us imagine for the sake of example that Bullet Time has a 60 second cooldown and The Culling has a 50 second cooldown. The Culling just by itself is drastically weaker than Bullet Time, but Lucian can invest ten seconds to properly prepare a perfect scene before ulting. This means that each ability needs 60 seconds to reach its full potential. However, those ten seconds that Lucian is spending on preparation means  a ten second window for enemies to respond. His enemy can dodge Ardent Blaze, or try to force him to reposition with Relentless Pursuit, so that The Culling’s potential drops. In this case, enemies have ten seconds to exert force and try to outplay Lucian to reduce his total power. On the other hand, there’s nothing that enemies can do about Miss Fortune’s Bullet Time except dodge it and spend the next 60 seconds on offense.

Having lower post-usage costs is good because it weakens the mana-hoarding strategy and reduces OOM punishments. In this over-simplified hypothetical case, Lucian’s The Culling is able to have lower post-usage costs than Bullet Time because it’s weaker. To compensate, Lucian can invest time and effort to make The Culling stronger, but likewise enemies can interfere with his efforts. This way, both abilities can be balanced without running into the problems of high post-usage costs. Of course, there are so many other elements that play into the actual game, so I’m not trying to say that The Culling is the paragon of balance. Still, many recent champions have taken advantage of pre-usage preparation.

Mana costs work well enough at balancing abilities, but they do so on a game-wide scale rather than fixing the dynamics of individual combat scenarios. Costs are a necessary element for counterplay to exist, but they do not necessarily have to be traditional post-usage costs. Abilities can be balanced by attaching high mana or cooldown costs, but that doesn’t give the ability counterplay and runs into the mana hoarding/OOM problems. On the other hand, abilities with pre-usage costs can have windows for counterplay, low post-usage costs, and balanced power levels.

A New Direction: Externalized Mana Design

Being unable to act should be a punishment. Taking actions is what makes LoL fun, and if you’re rendered unable to do that, it should be because you did something wrong and your opponent rightfully bested you. And yet, mana systems bring you closer and closer to being unable to act every time you use an ability. When you lose mana, you’re being punished for trying to play the game.

Rewards and punishments should be justified. Punishing players for using an ability is not justified in a game where you’re supposed to use abilities. Instead, reward players for their successes and punish them for their failures. This allows opponents to focus on dealing with each other, rather than worrying about themselves. If your opponent is unable to take action, it should be because you intentionally rendered them unable to take action, not because you curled up into a ball and let them rain blows upon you until they got tired (unless you are Rammus).

Windups create anticipation, whereas cooldowns create dread. Ability gates need to exist so that opponents can have a meaningful opportunity to counterattack, but the timing of where those gates go changes how the ability is experienced. Time spent preparing for an attack makes the payoff a reward, whereas time spent waiting after an attack makes the result a punishment. This also gives enemies opportunities to disrupt a powerful attack during its preparation phase, so the outcome of the battle depends on how well the combatants play within the battle itself rather than how many costs they incurred before the fight.

I call this direction “externalized mana design (EMD),” as opposed to LoL’s current “internalized mana design (IMD).” With these definitions, internal refers to the self, whereas external refers to how the self interacts with the others around it. Internal refers to how many mistakes you make, whereas external refers to how many times your opponents best you. Internal refers to sticking to your guns and maintaining your own path, whereas external refers to how you change dynamically in response to your enemies.

Mana and ability usage gates are too much of an internal struggle and not enough of an external one. In a game about counterplay, the tools that we use to outplay our opponents are limited by personal consumption. There are still many, many benefits to IMD, but externalism and internalism are not mutually exclusive: it’s possible to get the best of both worlds.

LoL already has many examples of EMD. Cho’Gath’s and Swain’s high costs are balanced by their regeneration passives, so they’re rewarded for getting kills and punished when their enemies successfully starve them. The ninja’s energy systems are great ways to focus on in-combat dynamics: you can starve a ninja’s resources by avoiding their energy regeneration abilities, which likewise makes it a priority for them to land those abilities, but energy refills after a fight so there are no crippling long-term mana costs.

I feel that Yasuo channels the general concept of EMD most strongly. His Q and R put emphasis into windup, so they’re able to function with plenty of counterplay without having crippling cooldown costs. If his ultimate wasn’t restricted to airborne enemies, it would essentially be a 1300-range AoE stun nuke, and its cooldown would have to be ridiculously long to compensate. Since it has that prerequisite restriction, Yasuo and his enemies are able to have interactive, exciting battles where the most skillful player wins. All of his kit works on interactive reward systems that both the player and the enemy can build off of.

On the other hand, Rumble is the epitome of IMD. His internal struggle against his own resource system is his central character trait, his game balancing point, and ultimately one of the largest parts of the Rumble experience. That’s not to say that Rumble is a bad champion, nor that IMD is a bad design philosophy. There are pros and cons to both IMD and EMD, and a careful mixture of both can create uniquely engaging experiences.

Illustrating The Concept Of Externalized Mana Design

These charts are here to further illustrate what exactly EMD is and how it compares to IMD. Let’s take Varus’s Piercing Arrow as an example and analyze it using these graphs.

First, the top chart analyzes windups and cooldowns, the outside factors that go into ability uses. Windups are the parts where you try to ensure that your ability will land (or deal more damage) once you use it, but before actually using it. For Piercing Arrow, the windup is applying Blight stacks: Varus isn’t actually using Piercing Arrow, but the Blight stacks exist outside of the ability and can make it stronger. Other windup factors would include positioning, timing, and lining up so that enemy minions aren’t in the way.

The more effort Varus puts into the windup, the higher his threat level becomes. However, after he unleashes Piercing Arrow, his threat level suddenly drops: he loses mana, his ability goes on cooldown, he is vulnerable to counterattack. As he recovers mana and his cooldown continues counting down, his threat level slowly increases again as his opponent recognizes that he’ll soon be able to fire another Piercing Arrow.

EMD puts emphasis on the first portion, whereas IMD puts emphasis in the latter. For example, Karthus’s Requiem has very little windup: there is nothing he can do to increase the damage it does. To balance the lack of windup, it needs to have massive cooldown and mana costs.

While the top chart focuses on the outside elements influencing abilities, the bottom chart focuses specifically on what happens when an ability is fired.  Once again, let’s use Piercing Arrow as an example. As soon as he presses the key and starts drawing back his arrow, the mana and cooldown costs are applied, dropping the ability’s net worth. Enemies may then take actions in response to Varus’s ability. If Piercing Arrow lands, the net worth will go up and the damage dealt to the enemy will compensate for the costs incurred. However, if Piercing Arrow misses, the net worth doesn’t change: the initial cost was already paid at the start of the ability.

There are two directions that EMD can take within an ability’s specific dynamics, and both of them attempt to exaggerate the final effects. Notice the degree of the angle that occurs at “the actions that are taken in response.” Under IMD, this angle is quite low: a hit is better than a miss, but not drastically so. However, under both directions of EMD the angle is much wider, representing a much wider difference between a hit and a miss. Both directions of EMD attempt to make landing a hit drastically better than a miss (and conversely, they make missing a hit drastically more punishing).

Under EMD 1, Varus’s Piercing Arrow would cost more mana, but refund mana if it hits an enemy. Under EMD 2, Varus’s Piercing Arrow would cost less mana than it does now, but drain additional mana if it expires without hitting an enemy. Either way accomplishes the same goal of exaggerating the difference between a success and a failure. An ability’s net worth from its specific dynamics will propagate further up to the surrounding influences depicted in the first chart.

The point of EMD is to put more emphasis on “the actions that are taken in response,” in other words, counterplay. Punishments and rewards can be made to be an interactive experience rather than an individual one. Effects from these individual abilities can influence the flow of battle as a whole by strengthening the connection between long-term costs and short-term dynamics.

Applying Externalized Mana Design

Before I start, I must mention: I do not presume to be the god of design and balance. All of these are just ideas and nothing more: actually implementing these in any kind of useful fashion requires far more effort and resources than I have available. However, I hope to illustrate the general direction that EMD would take.

Riven – Increase the cooldowns on her basic abilities, but add an effect to her passive: if she attacks an enemy champion and consumes a charge of Runic Blade, it reduces her basic ability cooldowns by a flat amount. As an enemy, this helps clarify that Riven is a threat when she is engaged in a combo, and that you can win by breaking her combo. As Riven, this means that you have to be more careful before you rush in with a combo, because if the enemy manages to disengage, you don’t get the cooldown restoration and you are more vulnerable to counterattacks as a result. However, if she manages to get her full combo off, she’s rewarded for it with reduced cooldowns and thus higher threat potential.

Ezreal – I like the positive feedback attached to his Mystic Shot on-hit cooldown reduction, but I feel that it could be pushed further. EMD could be emphasized in his kit by increasing the base cooldown on Mystic Shot by a certain amount, but also increasing the amount that Mystic Shot reduces its own cooldown (important: only its own cooldown) by an equivalent amount. If EMD’d Ezreal lands a Mystic Shot, he is functionally identical to the current Ezreal. However, if EMD’d Ezreal misses a Mystic Shot, he is punished with a longer cooldown and enemies have a greater window for counterattack.

Nidalee – Reduce the overall damage of her spears, but if she lands a spear on an enemy currently revealed by one of her traps, it does bonus damage. I think it’s fine that she runs on mana, because her cougar form is manaless and it creates an interesting duality between human restraint versus bestial ruthlessness. However, tweaking her damage around this way gives Nidalee’s spear a preparation cost that it didn’t have, and reduces its uncounterable consistent poke damage. With this, the danger case is clear: if you’re revealed by a Nidalee trap, you better be really careful for spears coming your way, because not only can she see you, her Javelin Toss does extra damage to you. On the other hand, if she’s throwing spears randomly, she’s wasting mana on attacks that won’t make much of an impact even if they hit.

Draven – Every time he catches a Spinning Axe, he regains a bit of mana. If he misses an axe, he loses mana in addition to the mana cost he paid when first activating the ability. He’s the kind of guy who brags on and on when he catches an axe, but beats himself up when he misses one. This way, there’s even more incentive for both Draven and his enemy to focus on his axes (and of course Draven wants everyone to focus on his axes). As long as he continues catching axes, he gets rewarded with more mana to cast abilities with, but if an enemy forces him to drop an axe the enemy is rewarded for their play by actively hurting Draven’s mana pool (and ego).

Karthus – Change Defile’s mana restoration on kill to be mana restoration upon dealing magic damage instead, like a form of spell vamp that heals mana. Make Defile scale with and consume a percentage of his maximum mana. Currently, Karthus relies on getting kills to restore mana, which is how he sustains through the laning phase, and after the laning phase he hardly needs to worry about mana at all because he builds tear. By switching “kills” to damage in general, mana loss and restoration stays relevant throughout the game.

Ziggs – Create some kind of interaction from Short Fuse to his basic abilities. The interaction from basic abilities to Short Fuse is already there (using an ability reduces Short Fuse’s cooldown by 4 seconds), but it could go the other way around as well. Increase Ziggs’s basic ability cooldowns, and make Short Fuse reduce their cooldowns when it damages an enemy. Alternatively, reduce Ziggs’s basic ability damages, but Short Fuse applies a debuff to enemies that increases the damage they take from Ziggs. There are lots of things that can be done to Short Fuse that would make Ziggs more interesting than a max-range Bouncing Bomb spammer.

Yorick – Increase the cost it takes to summon a ghoul, but have all of them restore mana back to Yorick every time they strike an enemy. His ghouls are way too spammable, and enemies should have the opportunity to fight back. This way, if Yorick summons a ghoul, the enemy has to decide between going about his previous business (farming, harassing, etc) or focusing down the ghoul before it replenishes Yorick’s mana pool. However, if Yorick is smart with his ghouls, he’s rewarded with more mana.

Sivir – She’s interesting because her Spell Shield was actually changed in the opposite direction: it used to have a mana cost and restore more mana, but then the mana cost was chopped out so she can cast it free. On one hand, this is necessary to balance the high cost on Boomerang Blade, so the interaction of these two abilities creates a unified whole system that welcomes smart counterplay from both sides. On the other hand, I wonder what would happen if Boomerang Blade’s power and mana costs were reduced so it wouldn’t need an auxiliary balancing point. Either way is fine.

Brand – This is getting into personal opinion territory, but I feel like Pyroclasm’s Blaze effect is a little underwhelming compared to the Blaze effects of his basic abilities.  Shifting some of Pyroclasm’s power into its Blaze effect wouldn’t change a massive amount because it’s the last step of Brand’s combo anyway, but it’s a step towards more preparation-based abilities.

Kassadin and Kog’Maw – I’m able to lump these two together because the primary issue is their simultaneous damage/mana cost increases with consecutive uses of their ultimates. For them, I would suggest a new type of resource, Void Energy. Void Energy would work similarly to Rumble’s Heat: starts at 0, caps at 100, decreases over time (although Void Energy would decrease at a slower pace than Heat), silences the champion for a duration when 100 is reached. All of Kassadin’s and Kog’Maw’s abilities would add a certain amount of Void Energy to their pool, depending on the ability level, and thus bringing them closer to hitting 100 and becoming silenced. However, dealing damage to enemies decreases Void Energy proportional to the amount of damage dealt (reduced to a third for AoE and DoT damage, doubled against champions). This way, they are naturally capped from spamming their abilities (namely, their short cooldown ults), but they can strive to make the most out of their Void Energy before it silences them. Likewise, enemies have to shut them down before they’re able to refund Void Energy and continue their assaults. Again, I am not the god of game design, I can’t whip out a perfect new resource system out of thin air, but it’s just to illustrate the concept of EMD.

Blue buff – Change its mana regeneration component from a constant passive aura to an active effort. Something like a stronger version of Doran’s Ring’s restore mana on kill would be suitable, or restore mana upon damaging an enemy, or restore mana proportional to damage dealt. This could possibly be applied to Baron buff as well, but considering Baron buff’s rarity it’s probably not an urgent change.

Ultimates and summoner spells – I think that summoner spells are fine because they’re external forces, like deus ex machinas that you call upon to save your champion. But with long cooldown ultimates, it’s really a case by case basis. For example, Shen’s Stand United is just so powerful that there’s no way it could function without a massive cost. If some of its power was shifted to preparation cost instead, that could mitigate its strength and it would be possible to reduce its post-usage costs. On the other hand, LoL benefits from the diversity. There’s no hard line stance I can take on long cooldown ultimates, as long as they aren’t a core integral part of what makes the character engaging and fun to play. If they are, they should be integrated like Yasuo’s and Lucian’s ults.

A general EMD trend is an overall nerf on long-range poke, and I think that’s a good thing. Just like the pure healer support playstyle that was nerfed long ago, the long-range poke playstyle is frustrating and not very fun for the victim. Attaching long-range poke to in-combat dynamics reduces the effectiveness of poking outside of battle.

Consequences Of Externalized Mana Design

One major consequence that I can already tell is lane snowballing. Positive feedback is essentially another word for snowballing, and EMD is all about positive feedback where it’s due. I talked about balancing abilities with mana earlier, but mana is also used as a long-term balance to prevent snowball cases.

On a theoretical level, this is exactly what EMD is supposed to do in the first place. If one player is more skillful than the other player in a scenario where both players are given equal opportunities to demonstrate skill, then the better player should win. The whole point of preparation cost is to give those equal opportunities to both players. However, the snowball situation could spiral out of control very quickly.

The core pieces that go into snowballing a 1v1 matchup are levels, gold, and skill. EMD would place a greater emphasis on skill, and I believe that out of those three factors skill should indeed be the defining one. If you’re able to consistently outplay an enemy three levels higher than you, you should win. Likewise, if you’re three levels higher than your enemy, you shouldn’t be able to roll your face on your keyboard and still win.

In order to balance the system as a whole, emphasis on levels and gold would have to be lowered in order to compensate for the increased emphasis on skill. That would entail reducing stat gains per level and item stats across the board. This is part of what makes EMD such an enormously massive change in direction.

Another problem with EMD is the reduction/elimination of long-term consequences. Just like with the ninja’s energy systems, the goal of EMD is to allow players to interact meaningfully every time they clash, but many clashes can happen while waiting for a long cooldown to end. A lot of gameplay centers around these long-term effects, the abilities that trigger them, and the events that happen during the cooldown period.

EMD itself is adverse to long-term effects. Abilities that are powerful enough to warrant such costs can’t be easily shifted to a preparation-cost format, because they would have to require a ridiculous amount of preparation. In addition, if enemies are able to counterplay against these powerful abilities, the punishment for the original caster feels unproportional to the effort required by the enemy. It’s like if you were playing Magic: The Gathering and you tried to summon an 8-mana creature, but your enemy prevented it with a 2-mana counterspell. A more relevant example would be stunning Karthus as he channels Requiem, putting his ult on a 3-minute cooldown with little effort (in comparison) on your end. There’s no clean way to attach long-term effects to EMD.

This is why I am not arguing for LoL to completely convert to EMD. IMD is far better at making these long-term effects balanced and engaging. A MOBA like Awesomenauts fully embraces EMD because its design goal is very different from LoL’s, and the end result is a palpable contrast in the game experience. Awesomenauts has no mana, short cooldowns, and absolutely everything is manually aimed (and is thus dodgeable). In exchange for letting players do awesome things whenever and wherever they want, Awesomenauts loses the long-term tactical depth that LoL gets out of IMD. And likewise, the opposite is true: LoL cannot subsist solely on IMD, for the reasons I wrote this essay to argue for.

IMD and EMD can coexist, and many LoL champions are already proof of that. Yasuo can fight Rumble fairly and cleanly. Manaless champions and mana-based champions battle side by side. The effect of EMD is already there: we need only be aware of its existence, and we can reap its benefits.

Conclusion

Externalized mana design is a tool just like internalized mana design is, and like all tools, it has its uses and its flaws. Some situations are undeniably better with IMD, and some with EMD. Some situations will call for a completely different direction altogether. But it’s important to recognize that these different directions exist, and weigh their pros and cons against each other rather than defaulting to one. Right now, LoL defaults towards IMD.

It may be presumptuous for me to say this, but I want to see a game where every player strains their hardest to win. I want to see a game where people clash with absolutely everything they’ve got. I want to see a game where whether I win or lose, I understand that the result was fairly and soundly earned, and I can be satisfied thinking about how hard I tried. LoL is very, very close to being that game, and EMD is a tool to help it get there.

Game Design: The Reverse Turing Test

Diefenbach VS Wagner, a sleep-deprived production.

So I made a game called Diefenbach VS Wagner in a day. Diefenbach and Wagner are two of the game production professors I studied under, and in the game they beat each other up and there are explosions and lightning and grass and all sorts of other things. In my defense, I was sleep deprived. There were going to be DBZ-style floating rocks swirling around them, but unfortunately I didn’t get that far.

Download the game to play here. Comes with Mac, PC, and web builds. 2 players required (or you can play by yourself if you feel like it).

But I’m not bringing up DvsW as a shameless plug for my own game (well, kind of). The game design behind DvsW is actually fundamentally flawed, and it’s a good opportunity to talk about what that flaw is. This ties in to one of my principles of game design, which I call the Reverse Turing Test.

“If you can reasonably and easily create a computer program to play your game perfectly, then you have a problem.” – the Reverse Turing Test

The original Turing Test was something much more academic than this, and applied to a completely different field. But the main idea is that in the Turing Test, if a machine is successful it’s a good thing. With the Reverse Turing Test, it’s the opposite: if a machine is successful, there’s a problem. It’s also important to note that I mention “reasonably and easily creating a computer program,” so Deep Blue’s performance in chess doesn’t count.

So let’s break down DvsW and see how it plays into the Reverse Turing Test.

Mechanics of DvsW

DvsW is a minimalist fighting game, sort of like Divekick. In DvsW, each player gets three keys (ASD for Diefenbach, JKL for Wagner) that will each activate one of three attacks. The first person to land an attack on the other wins: it’s a one-hit-kill game.

The three attacks are functionally all the same, but as soon as one player launches an attack, the other player is given the opportunity to counterattack by pressing one of his three buttons. Say that Diefenbach attacks by pressing A, which executes his front kick attack. As soon as Diefenbach attacks, Wagner is able to press K (his punch) to counterattack. If a counterattack successfully happens, the counterattacker lands the hit and wins the round. But if the counterattacker presses the wrong button or doesn’t react in time, the win goes to the original attacker. Different attacks are countered differently: front kicks (A and J) are countered by punches (S and K), which are countered by side kicks (D and L), which are countered by front kicks.

However, the game also has another trick: the speed at which you attack will ramp up as the game time progresses. If you attack right at the beginning of the match, your strike will take about a second to land, which is plenty of time for your opponent to use the appropriate counterattack. But with each second that passes, your next strike will be faster, and thus give your enemy a smaller window to counterattack (which means a greater chance that your original attack will connect).

Thus, it becomes a game about timing. Should I strike now, and risk being countered by my enemy, or should I strike later and have a greater chance of landing my attack? Or should I focus on counterattacking now, so that if my enemy attacks first I’ll be ready to react, even though the longer I wait the lower my chances of a successful counterattack will be?

Now that all of that is done, let’s take a look at our Reverse Turing Test. Would it be possible for one to reasonably and easily create a computer program to play DvsW perfectly? The answer is a resounding yes.

First of all, a computer program can have (essentially) zero reaction time. It would be a simple matter to write a script that instantly reacts with the proper counter the exact moment that a player attacks. If player uses front kick, use punch. If player uses punch, use side kick. If player uses side kick, use front kick. With this, there’s absolutely no way for the computer program to lose. We can even write this computer program to go on the offensive, too. If enough game time passes that my next attack would be faster than the player’s reaction time, launch an attack.

Every frame, check two things: if the player has launched an attack, and if the speed of my next attack would be faster than the player’s reaction time. If the former is true, react with the proper counterattack. If the latter is true, attack. There you have it: a computer program that can play DvsW perfectly. It would take ten lines of code.

What Does The Reverse Turing Test Do?

The Reverse Turing Test helps identify what kind of choices players have to make in the game. Sid Meier is famously quoted (and disputed) for saying that “A game is a series of interesting choices,” and even though I don’t want to go quite THAT far, the significance of a choice is still a vital factor for game design. Players make choices, receive feedback from the game regarding the choice they made, adjust their behavior, and do it again. Say you’re playing Halo and you’re fighting a pair of Hunters. You make the choice to try to snipe them from afar, but they split up and kill you with lasers. Next time you respawn, before you pick the sniper rifle back up you remember that you died last time you tried that, so instead you fight them head-on and try to kill them with grenades. Choices are an important part of the gameplay loop, and ultimately the whole experience.

But not all choices are born equal. When you sit down at a slot machine, you have a choice: pull the lever, or not pull the lever. Well, first of all, if you choose not to pull the lever you’re not playing the game, so it’s a faulty choice right from the beginning, but let’s move on. After you’ve made the choice to pull the lever, you have no more choices to make, and you get a randomized output. There is no connection between the choice you made and the reward you get. Sometimes you get a lot of money, sometimes you get a little bit of money, sometimes you get nothing, all for the same action. It’s why some gamblers develop rituals, like periodically changing machines in the hopes of winning. They want clearer outcomes from the choices they make, but the choices they make aren’t meaningful: they’re wholly chance-based, and no matter how much agency you exert you can’t change anything. Luck-based choices are bad.

Unfortunately, the Reverse Turing Test can’t identify luck-based choices, because there is no perfect way to play a luck-based game. However, the test helps expose other problematic choices: those that are based on how well you can do menial, programmatic tasks that could be easily automated. The whole reason why humanity developed machines was so that they could do all the boring grunt labor for us and free up time for us to do more important tasks that require high-level conceptual thinking. It’s paradoxical for video games to force us to do the same boring grunt labor that machines and computers were initially invented to free us from.

Examples of Reverse Turing Test Failures

I feel like I spend a lot of time hating on Maplestory.

Asian MMOs like Maplestory have plenty of design flaws exposed by this test. There are tons of situations in Maplestory that fail the Reverse Turing Test, but my personal peeve is grinding. When I was a kid, I built a clamp out of legos to hold down a button on my keyboard, which was the button mapped to one of my character’s abilities, and my character would just keep using that one ability over and over and gain experience from it. Nowadays, people are more sophisticated: there are computer programs called “bots” that can be used to automate grinding (1). The choice that Maplestory presents to you is “do you want to spend a ton of time doing a boring routine task, or do you want to stop playing this game.” Timesink-based choices are bad.

Hardcore fighting games such as Dead or Alive have a different kind of problem. Many fighting games are notorious for having high skill caps because you need to input a very specific button combo in a short period of time in order for your character to execute a certain move. The choice of whether or not to do the move is meaningful: your timing and your distance from your opponent are all factors to consider, and that’s where the core gameplay actually is. However, say you’ve decided to do a certain move, and now you have to actually make sure you do it. In this case, there is no choice: you either do the move, or you fail to do it and screw yourself over. No one would ever voluntarily choose to fail the move, but it depends on how much time you dedicated to moving your fingers in a precise pattern. Time that you could have spent dedicating to playing the actual game of yomi and enemy prediction. It’s no wonder that so many high-end gaming equipments allow you to set macros to single buttons, which is essentially using a computer program to do the task for you. Dexterity-based choices are bad.

Diefenbach VS Wagner is a game wholly decided by reaction time. There is never a time when you would intentionally choose to press a button other than the one that activates your counterattack. The speed at which you react is a constant, not something you can design meaningful choice around. It would be like if I designed a game where the taller person wins: there are no choices involved, and the players have no mechanisms that they can use to strive for victory. Deciding on when you want to attack is a meaningful choice, but counterattacking is not, so essentially only one person (the attacker) has the agency to exert force on the game state. Reaction-based choices are bad.

Examples of Reverse Turing Test Successes

Divekick should have a robot character named Turing who plays like a badly programmed AI.

Divekick, one of the games that inspired DvsW‘s design philosophy, managed to boil down the essence of fighting games into two aspects: positioning and timing. In fact, if you really want to get philosophical, positioning and timing are basically the same concept, so I’ll focus on positioning. Understanding the distance between you and your opponent, your own threat range versus your enemy’s threat range, the speed at which you can take action, your enemy’s behavior patterns, and more are all aspects that feed into positioning. Do I move closer and possibly walk into my enemy’s trap, or do I fall back and prepare a trap of my own for the enemy to walk into? Do I poke with weak long-ranged attacks, or do I close in for the kill? All of these decisions have to be made dynamically in reaction to the opponent’s actions, and there’s no perfectly correct answer to any given situation. Positioning-based choices are good. The largest fighting game series in the world (Super Smash Bros) is a game of positioning and movement.

League of Legends has certain abilities that are “skill shots,” which means that they have to be aimed manually rather than automatically homing in on targets like most other abilities. At first glance, using a skill shot seems like something that could be easily automated: calculate enemy position and velocity, find out the speed of my own skill shot, make sure they both line up at the same point, and you have a hit. However, interaction around skill shots is so much more nuanced than a mathematical formula. Maybe you can try to bait out an enemy skill shot by moving in an erratic pattern. Maybe you can try to force an enemy in a bad position by firing a skill shot with the intention of having them dodge it in a certain direction. Maybe if you’re rushing at an enemy and they’re firing a skill shot at you, you’ll choose to eat the attack and continue your pursuit, rather than dodge and lose your target. It’s the same reason why FPS games will pass the Reverse Turing Test: even if you’re fighting against a computer program with perfect accuracy, accuracy isn’t everything. Aiming-based choices with proper counterplay measures in place are good. That’s a subtle but important distinction from aiming-based choices without counterplay, such as the turn-based artillery game Gunbound (and guess what, Gunbound is dominated by aimbots).

Games about managing resource systems (2) such as Magic: The Gathering involve a lot of decision making that can’t be boiled down to computational formulas. If I use all my mana and summon this big powerful monster now, what do I do if the enemy casts a game-changing spell during his turn and I can’t do anything about it because I’m out of mana? What if I don’t actually have a way of dealing with enemy game-changing spells, but I decide to bluff and leave my mana untapped as if I were going to unleash a counter? But what if my enemy doesn’t have any kind of game-changing spell in the first place? Playing against a MtG bot or a Starcraft 2 bot is obvious because the decisions involved in resource-based games play into the human element: bluffing, lying, taunting, luring. You can calculate the odds as much as you want, but ultimately the decisions are based on human judgments rather than computerized ones. Resource-based choices are good (in strategic games).

Is The Reverse Turing Test Always Right?

There are plenty of games that fail the Reverse Turing Test that are still successful. Guitar HeroInfinity BladeBit Trip Runner. Arguably golf. What’s the point of a design principle if all these games ignore it and still do perfectly fine in the market? Why are these games still appealing, even if the decisions presented in them are reaction-based (3)?

Tasks that can be computerized or automated are also tasks that can spit out instantaneous feedback, and instantaneous feedback is a good way of inducing flow. All you have to do is compare the player’s performance with a perfect performance, and you get feedback. DDR and Guitar Hero are flow machines because of how quickly they’re able to give you feedback. When you’re playing Divekick and you’re hanging out a good distance away from your enemy, there’s no feedback telling you whether or not you’re doing the right move (because there is no such thing as a “right” move). But as soon as you miss a key in Guitar Hero, the game tells you that you suck (well, the audience does, but same thing). Computerize-able tasks are good at giving fast feedback, and fast feedback is good feedback.

And that’s a perfectly fine design direction to go in, if that’s your cup of tea. I’ve had a lot of fun playing Diefenbach VS Wagner with friends, despite how much I whine about its design. But fun isn’t and shouldn’t be how we measure the quality of game design. Anything can be fun if you add explosions and lightning. How, then, are we able to measure the quality of game design?

That’s up to you, but my personal design philosophy has always focused on the development of individualized player skill. People should be able to find their own unique ways of playing games, because different people are different. Choices in games allow players to make decisions based on their own personal style, and they’re able to develop in different directions. But look at every game I’ve accused of failing the Reverse Turing Test. In Maplestory, you develop in one direction, and that’s getting a higher level. In Dead or Alive, your development correlates to your dexterity and combo memorization. In Diefenbach VS Wagner, you don’t develop at all, and instead rely on your reaction time that was built into you from birth.

But Divekick, League of Legends, and Magic: The Gathering? These games all have very unique ways of being played. You can be a defensive turtle, or an all-in berserker, or a speedy cocky trickster, or any multitude of styles. As you play these games, you develop your own style, and you clash against other people who have developed their own styles, and you see who wins. But if they win, you don’t just roll over and say “oh, well I guess they were right and I was wrong, I should conform to their style.” Instead, you stick to your own method and refine it based on what you learned, and after you’ve evolved you throw yourself right back into the fray and do it all over again. But when you play games that fail the Reverse Turing Test, it’s a competition of who can be more computer-like. There’s no personal style involved.

My goal is not to make games that have one perfect correct answer. Computer programs can find perfect correct answers, but people are different. People are weird and strange and confusing and ambiguous, and they each come to their own answers. Individual skill is a virtue, and games are one of the few mediums that can nurture that virtue. I want to make games about individual skill, and the Reverse Turing Test is one of the tools I use to identify and create such games.

ENDNOTES

(1) There are actual businesses where you can hire someone (a human, not a bot) to grind on your MMO character for you while you go to work or something else. At that point it’s just ridiculous. Why play a game that’s so boring that you would pay someone else to play it for you?

(2) I write more about resource systems in game design in my essay on The Mana System Paradox. In fact, the problem I define as the mana system paradox can be reworded as a problem of choice. Do you choose to play the game as it was intended to be played and be punished for it, or do you choose a boring and uninteresting way of playing? Just like all of the other Reverse Turing Test failures, it’s a false choice that players shouldn’t be forced to make on their own.

(3) The game Zorba actually puts a lot of this discussion to practice. The developer Pippin Barr wrote a certain excerpt that’s especially relevant:

“Specifically, I became attached to the idea that in many video games it’s effectively the case that the AI is only pretending you can beat it. A computer dancing (digitally) to the Zorba song obviously doesn’t have to make a single mistake. And so I immediately wanted a game where you dance to the song against a computer and, as it becomes impossibly fast and beyond your capacity, the computer just keeps right on dancing without a care in the world. It plays on ideas of what “skill” is, what’s “fair” from an AI opponent, and so on. Amusing.”