Power Now, Pay Later

January 10, 2008 at 1:10 pm (Game Balance, Game Design, Game Mechanics)

Short-term advantage vs. long-term advantage:  a common strategic trade-off in games, and one that resonates with modern economic systems, based around credit and interest.  Do you make a strong move now, or position yourself for a stronger one sometime in the future?  Do you build infrastructure, or seize the low-hanging fruit?

While simple and common, this seems to be another over-used tool, applied without understanding the conditions that make it work.  There are some fairly specific preconditions to making this choice compelling, and as always, some games just don’t meet them.

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Conspicuously Absent Controls

January 8, 2008 at 6:36 pm (Game Design, User Interface)

Making good user interfaces is hard–harder than many people realize.  There are a lot of trade-offs.  How do you balance the need for an indicator to be easily visible against the other demands for screen real estate?  How does one weigh the advantage of making it easy to do something against the risk that the player will do it accidentally, with disastrous results?

Video games have come up with many creative user interface designs, which are often copied or adapated by similar games.  The pieces of a user interface become better as they’re used, because players become more familiar with them, and can use them more easily.

Yet I’m continually surprised that many games refuse to implement some simple interface improvements, even after they become widely known.  Here’s a few things that I think should be included in pretty much every game:

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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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Difficulty is Hard

December 19, 2007 at 12:30 pm (Difficulty, Game Design)

We usually want games to be challenging, but reasonably beatable:  not too easy, not too hard.  Finding this point can be difficult; even worse, the desirable amount of difficulty varies from player to player, and even for a single player as they get better at the game.  Getting the difficulty right is…well, difficult.  There are several common techniques for trying to produce the right level of difficulty, with varying degrees of effectiveness.

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Those Darn Cheating Computers

December 16, 2007 at 6:06 pm (Difficulty, Game Design, Game Mechanics)

How many times have you died in a video game and thought it was the game’s fault?

How many times when you were sure you pressed the buttons in the right order, but your character didn’t perform the right move?  When you would swear that enemy wasn’t there a moment ago?  When you have accused the game of cheating?

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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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Accuracy and Reliability

December 14, 2007 at 2:05 pm (Difficulty, Game Design)

Games require players to perform lots of different tasks, and they respond differently based on how the player performs.  Most differences in gameplay involve changing the task, but today I want to talk about judging the player’s performance; how the game decides whether the player has succeeded or failed.

There are two basic requirements a game will generally ask of a player.  The first, and more basic, is accuracy:  did the player do the right thing?  Enter the right answer?  Move in the right direction?  Push the right button?  Act at the correct time?

But accuracy isn’t an all-or-nothing deal; there’s a difference between being a second late and a millisecond late, or being off by a mile and being off by an inch.  While most games expect accuracy from the player, they don’t expect perfection; they’ll consider the player to have succeeded if she acted at approximately the right time, if she aimed in roughly the right direction, if she stood in the right general area.  The degree of accuracy expected of the player can have a profound effect on the game’s difficulty.

The second basic requirement is reliability.  Games rarely require the player to do just one thing; there are many tasks, and the player’s consistency in performing the tasks is tested.

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Rant: Player Control

December 13, 2007 at 11:48 pm (Game Design, Game Mechanics, User Interface)

 This rant was originally a forum post written late on the night of December 3, 2007.  It has been slightly edited.

I’m noticing this in more and more games, and it’s really starting to get on my nerves: otherwise well-designed, well-implemented, professional games still have stupid, trivially fixable mistakes that make the game way more frustrating than it ought to be.

I’m not even talking about bugs. I’ve done a good bit of programming, and I know that bugs can often be subtle, hard to find, and hard to fix. I’m talking about clearly intentional features of the game that make you go “wait, did they even play this game before releasing it?”

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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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