Art Theory: Grey Eyes

In mythology, the goddess Athena was said to have “grey eyes.” Not because her eyes were actually the color grey, but because grey eyes represented a certain style of visage. Calm, steady, unnerving, wise, powerful, resolute. Like a cloudy sky.

This is artwork of the goddess Athena in the mobile game Puzzle and Dragons (which I’m currently addicted to), and I feel like she conveys the concept of grey eyes very well. Her art hits all the right notes. Her face has that charisma about it which is hard to describe. Her pose is angled so that she’s not leaping into action, but it’s still kinetic enough that she’s pushing forward through space.

After I read about this, I became curious. How might one draw a character in such a way that they could be described as “grey eyed”? What components need to go into the artwork to make that happen? It’s such a nebulous concept, but the end result can really be felt. There are plenty of ways to draw characters who are angry or sad, but I have no idea how to draw a character who has that style of quiet determination. Not loud and garish, but still somehow strong enough to make people think “I need to pay attention.”

It’s so hard, because “determination” naturally looks very similar to a face’s base resting state. Neutral mouth, open eyes, forward gaze. Try to make a determined face in real life. How does that even feel? How would you portray determinationonto your expression? Does it even end up looking different from a bored or apathetic expression? It’s hard, and I don’t know how to do it. So I decided to study a bit more and try to nail down how to create a grey eyed look.


Like any Japanese game, Athena can evolve into different forms in Puzzle and Dragons, and these alternate forms are really interesting to look at because even though they are all clearly depicting the same character, they kind of lose the grey eyed feel. Chariot Athena just tosses the whole thing out the window. Flying-magic-spear Athena kind of brings back the grey eyes, but not as well as the original artwork does in my opinion. But despite that, they are all exactly the same character. Nothing really changes about her, except a few little details with her outfit.


Here’s another set of characters to look at. The two on the left were drawn by me, and are depicting different characters. The one on the right is an alternate version of the centermost character that another artist drew in an attempt to match my style. How do grey eyes work with these characters?

I felt that the centermost character that I drew had grey eyes going on. She has that kind of expression. It’s not really anger, and it’s not really intimidation. But there’s determination, and coldness, and a strong resolve. Like a piercing gaze. The fascinating thing is, the dude on the left just doesn’t seem to have those characteristics, even though they were both drawn with the same style. I almost feel like the left dude is kind of tired, weary. Almost brooding, but not quite as melancholy. And the dude on the right just loses the grey eyes completely. The squint makes him look angry, pissed off, annoyed, disturbed.

The ridiculous thing is that I wasn’t even thinking about grey eyes when I drew the characters. So I don’t really know how I made the centermost character look that way. But one thing I do remember is that while I was drawing her, I drew inspiration from Sandra Bullock’s appearance in the film Gravity. Yes, I know that the character looks nothing like Sandra Bullock, but it just kind of felt that way to me at the time.

Does Sandra Bullock have grey eyes in Gravity? Sure, she has her moments. There are times when she really pulls herself together and brings out the bravery to do all the crazy things she does. And then there are times when she breaks down out of fear. It’s just that kind of movie. In this specific shot, I’d say she doesn’t really have the eyes, but I can’t find a shot that does.

On the other hand, here’s a character who really looks like he’s got grey eyes going on. This is a promotional picture of Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor in the upcoming Batman v Superman film (which I’m super hyped about). Lex Luthor is usually portrayed as a cackling evil maniac, but I really like how he looks in this film. It’s not a malicious look, it’s not an evil look, it’s not how we normally think villains look. At the same time, it’s not overly melancholy, it’s not meditative, it’s not contemplative. It’s determined and resolute and powerful. It’s a man with a plan, and he knows there’s a rocky road ahead but the thought of turning back hasn’t crossed his mind. Those eyes are pretty grey.

This is a good starting point to work off of. In general, character art works better when you start from reality. Of course, there’s a whole realm of stylization, but it’s nice to start stylizing based off of reality. Luthor has a lot of small details that help sell his grey eyed look. What are those small details, and how could they be embellished and emphasized to create a stylized grey eyed character?

Part of me is really attached to the way his left eyelid hangs over his eye (I’m using “left” from viewer’s perspective). His right eye just looks too open and bright for me to feel weight behind it. At the same time, go too far and you just get characters who are squinting. You can see that Luthor isn’t squinting. His brow isn’t furrowed in anger. Whatever anger there is, it’s broiling beneath the surface rather than bursting out. It’s subdued rather than obvious.

His head looks like it’s tilting slightly forward (forehead forward, chin down to chest). Not very much, but just a little bit, and I think that a subtle tilt definitely contributes to the grey eyed look. All of the Athena evolutions had their heads tilted forward, and my center character had a tiny bit of tilt going on.

On the other hand, Batman in Arkham Knight seems to take it too far. Even if you cleared out the brow furrowing (which seems like it’s practically carved into his cowl), his frown pushes his appearance away from “grey eyes” and more towards “I’m going to beat you up until you can’t move.” But if his mouth was a little more neutral, like Luthor’s mouth above, I think he would be pretty close to getting a grey eyed look.

So far, all that I’ve really got is a slight downward tilt, a neutral mouth (leaning towards a frown), and an unwrinkled brow. Eyes need to be in their natural state, with no squinting or widening, so something else needs to hang over the eye and act as a pseudo-furrow, because the eyebrow has to be clear. It’s a fine line, and there are plenty of ways to screw it up. Tilt too far, squint too much, frown too strongly. Still, I hope I can draw grey eyed characters with a little more intent behind them now.


Game Design: Charitable Criticism

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

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

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

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

Principle of Charity in Philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case Study: Difficulty in The World Ends With You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always Ask Why

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

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

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

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

Case Study: Emotion In Cave Story

Stab me with a pitchfork, but I’m really not on board with the whole nostalgia trip that’s been taking over the indie world recently. Too often, it just feels contrived and meaningless. If you want to use pixel graphics, cool, but is there any real reason why pixel graphics are good for the game, or are you just using them because you feel like it? That’s not a valid design reason for anything. There are too many games that are just nostalgic for nostalgia’s sake, which I guess is a potential target audience, but design decisions should be made for meaningful reasons within the product’s core theme.

That’s why I like Cave Story. It’s one of those nostalgia games, and usually I would just groan and roll my eyes at the pixel graphics. And that’s exactly what I did, up until one specific moment in the game that made me go “holy shit,” so that’s what I’m gonna talk about now. I started off thinking that this was gonna be a level design analysis, but this specific moment in Cave Story is much more than just level design. It’s aesthetics, it’s expectations, it’s controls, all leading to one giant punch in the gut. So, get ready for spoilers, because there’s gonna be a lot.

So Cave Story is a story about a cave. “Wow, brilliant observation skills Kenneth, you get a Nobel Prize in title deciphering.” Alright, more specifically, Cave Story is a story about a dude who wakes up in a cave. You play as this dude and you have adventures in the cave and you meet rabbit people and you get guns and you shoot things.

There’s a big giant evil dude who you have to kill to save the world, of course. It’s not a nostalgia game for nothing (although that’s not really a valid thing to say, because the “kill the dude to save the world” trope isn’t just nostalgia, it’s everywhere). But I’m not gonna talk about that. I’m gonna talk about the most strangely named character you will ever cry over: Curly Brace {?}.

Curly Brace is a robot, like you (first spoiler alert). You both have guns and you both kill things. The first time you meet Curly Brace, she’s protecting a small group of rabbit people and she thinks you’re a murderer trying to kill them, so she fights you. Later, you patch things up and become best robot buddies.

The moment I keep referring to starts with a completely unprecedented event: Curly Brace comes along with you on your way to fight some big evil boss. This is the first time in the game you have ever fought alongside a partner, and it’s empowering. Curly follows you around and she has a machine gun and she shoots everything. Her AI is a little wonky, but it’s okay, she doesn’t take damage. You and Curly have a brief segment where you fight through a bunch of bugs and things on your way to the boss.

During this segment, you notice something: Curly is immune to water. There are little puddles of water interspersed throughout the environment, and when she invariably steps into one (because of her wonky AI), a bubble surrounds her like a shield protecting her from water. This is new and interesting, because you have no such bubble. In fact, water is a very dangerous threat to you. When you enter water, an air meter starts counting down from 100, and if it reaches 0 you die. So it feels kind of unfair that Curly Brace is completely immune to water, right? But you can chalk it up to retro-style game design: she has the bubble because her AI couldn’t be improved. It’s just a lazy workaround that the game developer put in so people don’t whine about Curly being able to stay underwater: she can do it because she has a deus ex machina bubble shield you’ve never seen before, so deal with it.

Alright, you shrug and move on (or you ragequit, which you probably don’t). You go through the area together with Curly and her magical bubble, fighting enemies in water and solving water puzzles and doing so many water things that you’d think you were at a waterpark. Eventually, you reach the core of the floating island (second spoiler alert, the cave is a floating island). Then you start fighting the core for some reason I can’t remember. But the interesting thing about this boss fight is that it uses water in a way you’ve never seen before. The boss is in a pretty large chamber, but it’s a fully enclosed chamber, and for its attacks the core will sometimes flood the whole chamber. Since you can’t survive very long in water, you need to reach high ground and hold out until the waters recede, but sometimes the flood will last so long that you will die no matter what. When your air reaches 0, you die instantly, you don’t start losing health gradually like you might come to expect, so it gets frustrating. And while you’re being frustrated, Curly Brace is sitting there with her machine gun and her bubble shield. I don’t know if the designer’s intentionally trying to make you feel jealous of Curly’s bubble, but you definitely end up that way.

The boss’s flood attack, and the player’s dwindling air meter.

Then you defeat the boss. Once the boss is dead, something crazy happens: the whole room gets flooded. Every inch of the room, and there’s no sign that the flood is gonna recede like it did during the boss fight. You try to go back the way you came, but the door is shut tight. You go to the opposite side of the room but there’s nothing. You try to jump up, but there’s no air left. All you can do is fall down and watch your air go to zero. It’s disempowering and frustrating, and the whole time Curly is just standing there in her little bubble. Your air runs out, the screen fades to black, you’re notified that you can’t breathe anymore.

But the game doesn’t end. A text box pops up: “……? You can breathe.” Huh? What? How? The screen fades back into the game view, and you see Curly lying lifeless on the floor next to you in the flooded room. Her bubble shield is now centered around you. Even though all the water’s still there, the air meter is missing. Curly gave you her bubble shield so that you could live on.

Everything up until now has been leading up to this point. All the water, all the puzzles, all the boss attacks, everything revolved around water. And the whole time, you couldn’t help but be a little jealous of Curly’s bubble shield. It was easy to rationalize it because the whole game has a nostalgia tint around it, so you can just say that the bubble shield is a cheap workaround solution so that Curly’s AI didn’t have to take water into effect. But it wasn’t actually like that: the bubble shield was a real in-game element that she just gave to you in exchange for her own life. I don’t know about anyone else, but I felt pretty horrible about it. Here I was, blaming Curly for having a bubble shield purely because she was a dumb little AI companion. When I was treading water and managing air, I casually thought to myself that it would be nice if I had a shield like hers, and then she gave it to me.

Now that you have the air bubble, you continue on through your journey. You travel through aqueducts and you flow through underwater currents and you dodge submerged spikes and you battle giant fish. The whole time, there’s no air meter anymore, because you have the bubble. Even after the boss battle, the very next area you have to move through just continues to reinforce the water/theme and accentuate Curly’s sacrifice. For the rest of the game, you never have to worry about water ever again.

I don’t know if this is the same reaction that the average gamer will have when playing Cave Story. For me, most of this was because I had a special eye out on the nostalgia bias, and I was deconstructing the rationale behind Curly’s AI as I was playing. But there are so many level design elements at play to draw your attention to Curly’s shield. Everything is there to increase the tension at the moment of the final flood, right before she gives you the bubble.

Then, in true old-timey-JRPG fashion, there’s an obscure way to save Curly that you’ll never find out unless you read about it online. I am definitely not a fan of that design style, I think all options should be fairly presented as choices with consequences and that the game should revolve around what the player does with those choices rather than how the player finds out about those choices. Cave Story isn’t a perfect game by Chen-ian standards, but I think it’s good to break down and analyze specific pieces of games and appreciate how they worked in the larger context. There are tidbits of good design in bad games, and there are lessons of things gone wrong in good games. That’s why I never do game reviews, I do case studies.

And Cave Story is a nice game to study. It’s free, it can be completed in one sitting, and it’s got plenty of variety built into its mechanics. But more than anything, it’s one of the few games (rather, one of the few ANYTHINGS) that has made me feel sad over a character’s death. Level design is typically thought of in terms of mechanics and skill curves and learning over time, but it’s also important to recognize that level design can also carry emotions and feelings. As I get better at level design and design in general, I hope to use my skills to give players good experiences, both mechanically and emotionally.

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.