Just Your Luck

February 17, 2008 at 4:14 pm (Game Balance, Game Design, Philosophy) (, , )

Though the phrase “games of chance” tends to refer to gambling, random elements show up to a greater or lesser degree in many other games.  In fact, in many genres, they are so ingrained that it is difficult to imagine playing the game without them.

On the face of it, this is rather odd.  Games are fundamentally about making decisions–whether strategizing or just “playing around”–and adding in random outcomes can only reduce the amount of control the player has.  Why would so many games engage in such an apparently self-defeating behavior?  Other than the ones that are doing it to get your money, I mean.

Well, I think there are three significant reasons a for game to include randomness…

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Teetering on the Edge of Balance

January 22, 2008 at 12:17 am (Game Balance, Game Design, Philosophy)

In a previous post, The Tangled Concept of Balance, I argued that balance should be thought of as the game’s stability, or ability to maintain the shape of its gameplay under the stresses of players who are trying to win.  Actually achieving balance is hard.  Balancing a game is often a long and laborious process, requiring designers to carefully explore the large possibility space of different game strategies and search for problematic special cases.

There’s no “magic bullet” that is going to make this problem go away, but there are good design practices that can make it easier.  In this post, I’m going to discuss my favorite trick:  building in stability.

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The Tangled Concept of Balance

January 6, 2008 at 1:40 am (Game Balance, Game Design, Philosophy)

Game balance is one of those terms that is used frequently in discussion, but difficult to define.  Most people seem to have a general agreement about what the term means, but articulating it is problematic.  People agree that a fighting game where a particular character consistently beats another is unbalanced, based only on that one fact, but the same people will also agree that a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors is balanced even though paper has a 100% win rate against rock.  People agree there is a balance problem in a RTS game where a particular unit is too weak to justify its use in a competitive game, but see no problem in the fact that many combinations of units are too weak to ever be used effectively.  How can this be consistent?

Of course, there are also cases where people flatly disagree about what is and is not balanced.  Sometimes these are disagreements about the particulars of a game, but sometimes they seem to be disagreements about the theoretical meaning of “balanced.”  How are we to discuss game balance in such cases?

Is there even a common concept underlying all our ideas of balance?

I’ve wondered about this for a long time–years, in fact.  I’ve tried and discarded theory after theory.  At long last, I think I have a satisfactory answer.

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Burning Away Impurities

December 30, 2007 at 3:26 am (Game Design, Philosophy)

There is a subtle trap that game designers can easily fall into regarding exactly what they’re trying to accomplish. Obviously, we want good games. It is very tempting to say that we want games containing as much “good” as possible. This suggests we could make an optimal game by simple accumulation: just take every good idea that anyone comes up with and stuff them all into the game. There is simplicity and good sense in this approach. The idea seems elegant, even pristine.

It’s also dead wrong.

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How to Make the Player Lose

December 14, 2007 at 8:56 pm (Game Design, Philosophy)

In my rant about player control, I argued that players should be in control of their own fate; that players should only lose when they have legitimately done something wrong, and not due solely to circumstances beyond their control.  Another way of looking at this is that the game isn’t allowed to say that the player has lost unless it first provokes some sort of error from the player.

It occurred to me that it might be interesting to classify games according to the kind of errors they provoke from the player, or how they induce these errors.

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Why Analyze Games?

December 13, 2007 at 11:25 pm (Game Design, Philosophy)

A great many people, upon seeing a site like this, probably ask “Why bother?  The point of the game is to have fun, not to be all academic.”

I have a great deal of sympathy with this viewpoint, because this is how I treat most art forms.  When I watch a movie, or listen to a song, I’m generally not thinking about how it was created or how well it was made–in fact, I frequently can’t tell.  I’m just trying to enjoy it.

But there is a vast gulf between enjoying art and creating art, and games are an art form.  If you want to make good art, or even understand what art is good and why, you can’t just sit back and enjoy it.  I am deeply passionate about games; I spend a lot of time thinking about them and making them, and in order for me to improve, I need to try to understand all the nuances of games:  how they work, how the pieces interact, exactly what makes them good or bad.

Similarly, if the art form as a whole is going to improve, the artists, as a class, need to constantly perform the same sort of examination.

I don’t expect everyone to examine games in this way, just as I don’t perform this sort of examination on paintings or sculptures.  To the person seeking simple enjoyment, it doesn’t really matter precisely how that enjoyment is created–whether it’s by the game itself, or the people you play with, or the fact that you got the high score.  But if you want to make games–or even if you want to criticize them intelligently–a more detailed study is crucial.

Some might say that we ought to rely on intuition, and just make things that seem fun, but this is wrong-headed.  There are a lot of possible games we could make; a blind search–or even one guided by intuition–will have a much harder time homing in on good ones than a search guided by analysis of prior work.  Games share many things in common; in their goals, their techniques, and their technology, there is tremendous overlap.  By abstracting the commonalities and understanding them, we gain a greater understanding of games and their creation, which enables us to make better games in the future.

Of course, I can’t claim to have a perfect understanding.  Games are very complicated; usually, rather than trying to establish a connection directly between some rule-of-thumb and the quality of the game, I’ll try to tie it to some secondary goal, such as game balance or intuitiveness, with the implicit assumption that this secondary goal will generally improve the quality of, if not all games, at least some major subset of games.  But these rules are still important; they are how the art grows.

Video games are a relatively recent invention, and since their introduction, we’ve seen an explosion of genres, conventions, and technology, but there’s still much need of refinement.  I predict this art form will mature rapidly in the coming decades.  I hope that, in some way, I can contribute to that growth.

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