How game forms are shaped by their environment
Posted by Lost Garden [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 25 May 2014, 8:12 pm



We often consider artistic works from a creative or cultural perspective, but I find it just as enlightening to examine them from an economic or evolutionary lens. How does the economic environment within which a developer finds themselves shape the form that art takes?

As a case study of this in practice, I’ve been fascinated by a class of content-focused game that’s recently found a stable niche in the maturing mobile, PC and console markets. In mobile, we see examples like Sword & Sworcery, Device 6 or Monument Valley. In PC, you've got Kentucky Route Zero, Proteus and Gone Home. On console the trend is less pronounced, though Journey and Flower share some aspects.

These games generally have the following characteristics
  • Strong focus on evocative content: Most of the game is composed of arcs that deliver heavily authored payloads. The player’s cognitive load is consumed by interpretation of stimuli not the planning or execution of actions.
  • Light use of systems: Mechanically, the games tend to have limited interactive loops. There is little room for play within a mechanical space. The systems used are often highly traditional with a long history within other genres.
  • Short playtime: Often 1-3 hours.
This form thrives not due to some sudden explosion of artistic appreciation within the human race, nor due to universally-applicable intrinsic attributes of Truth and Beauty. No, instead these games thrive because they competently execute a development strategy that matches well with the current socio-economic environment.

Form shaped by environment risk

Form is an accepted and standardized structure for a work of art. A painting stretched on canvas painted in oils that fits roughly on a living room wall is a common form of painting. A haiku is a form of writing.

Unlike many media, the forms that a game might take are still quite fluid. Where authors of literature might feel locked into to well-established structures such as poem, short story, essay or novel, game forms are both broader and have less sharp boundaries. They vary radically in mechanics, scope, topic, number of participants, and hardware. The difference between a game of Tetris and a game of Charades can seem far vaster than that of a Shakespearean play and an encyclopedia entry. And as a designer, you often get to chose the unique form of your game.

How risks shape game forms

However, different forms of game have different levels of risk and trade offs. There’s internal risk such as design risk, technical risk, production risk. And then there's external risk such as distribution risk, market fit and many others. If any one of these aspect of the project fails, the development investment is lost. Any game design can be judged by the costs associated with building the game, the benefits of success and the downsides to failure.

Fig 1. Valid terrain based off existing environmental risks

These are not abstract decisions. Most developers (even large ones) operate a paycheck or two away from bankruptcy. Paying the rent and putting food on the table are very real concerns. Many smart teams therefore choose projects of a form that minimize overall risk in order to dramatically increase their chances of future survival.

Thus game developer have a great incentive to evolve game forms to fit whatever environmental pressures are present. If something changes in the environment that increases a type of risk, then you’ll see developers selecting, from this vast palette of potential forms, the options that mitigate that risk. Picture a thousand little Brownian developers blindly adapting their game forms to half felt market forces and thus converging on useful strategies.

Using survivors to determine dominant strategies

The process of evolving games forms can feel invisible. The vast majority of projects that don’t balance their risks correctly, fail and sink out of the cultural consciousness. Most creators are barely conscious of their influences and constraints. All we really know are the the survivors.

When you see a new species of game thriving in the marketplace, you can start to ask some interesting questions. What are the culling mechanisms that let those games survive? What strategy was used that gave them an advantage over other possible designs? The things that make it through the filter give you some insight into the shape of the filter.

Some forces at play

What are some meaningful forces acting upon the modern indie developer attempt to sell a game for a fixed upfront price?
  • Digital distribution and cheap tools: At the heart of the emergence is ability for small teams to build and release games at low cost. However, those markets are now maturing.
  • A large audience trained on content consumption: The past decade of AAA titles perfected a variety of secondary content delivery standards via cutscenes, level design, voiceovers, etc. Gamers know and understand these methods. Over the decades, we've built up the equivalent of a trained audience that knows how to read.
  • Average revenue for a product is dropping. In fact they are close to zero in mobile markets. The exponential distribution of revenue is look more L-shaped, with small number of titles making the majority of the money and no middle market to speak of. You have hits or failures with little in-between.
  • Price per unit for games with an upfront cost is less than $0.99. As Steam opens up further, bundles proliferate and consoles introduce more free games, expect further price erosion for premium titles. You need to reach more people to make less money.
  • Discoverability is weak. Discovery mechanisms are weak and heavily gated. Channels are also flooded with games of difficult to determine quality. A game benefits from being able signal quality 1 to 30 seconds of exposure since that is likely all the time it will get.
  • Cost of production is increasing: Cheap tools bring the capital cost down, but labor costs remain stable. The need to hit ever increasing levels of quality results in an escalating cost curve. Five years ago, a hit premium game on mobile might cost $50,000 to build (including sweat equity). Now, for less revenue, you’ll see costs range from $200k - 1M (or higher). This expense is almost entirely due to content and feature competition: more art, more animation, increased use of 3D, more ‘required’ features.
So it is hard to stand out, hard to make money and very easy to spend more than you make.

A content-focused strategy

Given such a landscape, what is a species of game that might survive? We are looking for solutions to the problems listed, but also ways of tackling multiple problems with the same resources. Efficient solutions survive.

Fig 2. A strategy that mitigates technical and design risk.
While taking on some distribution risk.

Reduce costs
  • Target a smaller scope: Content is expensive, but what if you make a game that is 1 to 3 hours, not 20 or 30? This simple change means you can cost 1/10th what a bigger title might. This is the defining economic attribute of this game form.
  • Remove systems and features: Trim as many standard elements as possible and focus the game focus on one or two key features. Dear Esther, you walk around. In Gone Home, you walk around and click on objects. NPCs? Cut. Combat? Cut. Branching narratives? Cut.
  • Keep your team small. Since labor is your largest cost, a small team means lower investment. Team members should being able to execute multiple aspects of development so you don’t need part time specialists.
  • Keep your development cycle short(er): Spend 9-12 months on a title, not 18-24 months.
  • Excel at what you attempt: It helps to have at least one or two person who is world class. Then build your game around their signature style. This makes up for some of the inevitable weaknesses that arise from small teams sizes, wearing too many hats and short schedules.

Reduce distribution risk
  • Make high impact video and images. Since you have limited contact with potential players, you want the briefest glimpse of a game to excite them. Gorgeous visuals, evocative narrative hooks that can be grasped in a couple seconds work well. All many buyers need to see of Monument Valley is a single screenshot.
  • Form relationships to amplify your signal for free: With a small team and a low marketing budget, free distribution is ideal. By forming relationships with journalists, streamers, taste makers and platform curators, you may get a mention or a feature. Of course, what you provide in return is a sellable story or validation of their long simmering world view. ‘Games as art’ is currently easy topic to bond over and all games with this form make the most of it. 

Reduce design and production risk
  • Rely heavily on static content: Art and video rarely fails on a functional level. There’s a risk in discovering an artist initially, but once on board, a competent artist tends to continue to produce competent art. Especially over short production schedules. You already need to make high impact visuals in order to get distribution, so there’s synergy here.
  • Use existing mechanics: New mechanics take time to discover and often don’t work out. Invention is hard. By using well proven traditional mechanics, it is unlikely that the systems will delay your game. Turning a page or clicking a hyper-link is quite reliable.
  • Reduce systemic emergence: Unplanned surprises hurt the schedule and cost you money.

Reduce technical risk
  • Use existing technology: Well proven, simplistic technology. Again, you can get away something that simply puts quality content on the screen
  • Avoid complex technologies: Technology that require strong expertise such as multiplayer servers or advanced 3D rendering is likely to blow up. So don’t do that.

Reduce audience risk
  • Make the game easy to finish: You want people to play the game, finish it and then talk to their friends while still in midst of the afterglow. This is a fast virus, not a slow one. Challenge is a useful tactic in other contexts (Dark Souls, Spelunky), but it is a poor fit when you want to deliver your beautiful load of content as smoothly as possible.
  • Keep content high interpretable: To offset the risk of the game being too short, you can implement content that either vague or open to many interpretations. This means that quality of your content can be lower without anyone being able to concretely describe it as such. A certain air of mysterious brilliance can act as a prophylactic against common criticisms; seed the doubt that a player may simply be unschooled in Imperial fashion.
  • Engage the community: Ideally, you kick off a secondary wave of community engagement as players and critics invent their own detailed explanations for what may in fact be random (yet highly evocative) noise.
Notice how all these pieces fit together into a coherent strategy. A small team with a strong artist and / or writer makes a short, attractive game that sells a light narrative. This also happens to be small enough a scope that they can finish and release it. Such a game is pretty enough to be featured and can be easily talked about. There’s also little risk for the player...they get this nice watchable nugget of content that’s super cheap and feels like a reasonable value relative to other comparable consumables like books or movies.

A deeply conservative take on games

This strategy formula isn't new in the grand scheme. Cheap, consumable content differentiated on gatekeeper-approved quality variables is at the heart of most media markets.

In grand spectrum of possible games, the crop of boutique content games is one of the most conservative possible development strategies. Rosy cheeked media critics who might imagine the real history of games started in 2007 are likely excited by such titles. However, when compared to the rich systemic and narrative experimentation of the last 30 years, these forms are ultimately a retreat; survivalist risk mitigation marketed as hip cultural advancement. Such games tacitly give up on the idea that games can be something different than traditional media and adopt whole hog their limitations. You flip pages, you see content.

One should tread lightly in labeling this as a ‘bad’ change. Evolution does not judge. This strategy works. Good passionate people are making money and surviving to build another game. That’s all you can really hope for as a game developer in a staunchly capitalist world.

The future

Since we are dealing with a conservative product strategy, comparable markets suggest where these might evolve over the next 5 years.

Fig 3. Increasing costs put new pressure on the content heavy form.
Player desire for the new form increases the overall market opportunity.


  • Rapid market saturation: Since cost of entry in terms of skills and technology are quite low and first mover have almost zero competitive moats, new entrants should flood the market. This reduces the average success rate; most will not be profitable.
  • Costs increase: As more entries appear, quality becomes more important. Those with cash spend more to keep or capture profitable audiences. Form-specific blockbusters emerge that spend the maximum amount to get the maximum audience. (I've called these genre kings in the past).
  • Shorter length: Increased costs put pressure on decreasing the length even further. At some point players may decide that even an amazing 20 minutes is not worth 99 cents.
  • Use of portfolios: Anthologies, bundles or subscriptions to content streams (aka magazines) are common methods of paying a population of authors in a hit driven ecosystem. If this shift in market structure occurs, middlemen begin dictating tastes even more strongly.
  • Attempted differentiation based off thematic genre: Essentially the market fragments. As customers become trained in this new form, they’ll start to prefer specific types of content, much like we we see romance or mystery novels. First movers in thematic areas could tap a new sub-niche.
  • Fragile specialist firms: Developers will need to specialize in this specific form to produce the best of breed content. However, this makes them inflexible when the need arises to adapt to new forms. We've seen this situation play out in the past with adventure games.

It may seem silly to predict a future of saturation and collapse when there are so few of these games around. Yet markets are never eternal. Due to the lack of competitive moats, this one will mature rapidly and any golden period is likely to be short.

Fig 5. Fragmentation into sub-forms due the changing landscape


In some sense, these short content focused games have made a deal with the devil. They've reduced their inventive mechanical scope and deliver all their value through highly polished content. However, one constant of the game industry is that content costs are always rising on a given platform. The cost curve is the monster that eats our industry. It is great to trim 1/10th of the content in a game to get your costs down, but what happens when the cost of making content then jumps by 10X? That brief advantage disappears.

Lessons

Though I don't personally make short content-driven games, I find this lens immensely useful in understanding how and why my work impacts the world. All art is shaped by the economics of a specific time and place. All standardized forms of art are but niches within a socio-economic ecosystem. They are not eternal, they shift over time. Knowing that common forms are not some absolute truth empowers the clever and observant developer.

It pays to ask: Who is making money? How do the developers, journalists, museums, critics or other middlemen benefit from promoting the works that they promote? Any creative work that depends on money-making institutions (big or small) is a commercial artifact, shaped by commercial constraints. None of us are truly independent creative entities. That’s at best a pleasant illusion, a lie. We all create within systems that cull our impassioned work with pragmatic brutality. We also, like it or not, preempt this culling through self-censorship.

The flip side of this analysis is to look at the failures.  Ask who is doing something different and failing? What structural and environmental factors explain why they are not making enough to eat? Once you've identified the problem areas, is it possible to spot gaps and come up with a new strategy that lets you thrive?

When you see a new form of game emerging, ask why. Seek to understand the confluence of forces. Then use this rich understanding to invent your own unique form of game. Do your part to ensure that the evolution of games never stagnates.

take care,
Danc.


Multiplayer Logistics
Posted by Lost Garden [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 31 December 2013, 2:52 pm
How do we get players to play together in a manner that fits their schedules? This is a key logistical challenge a designer faces when building multiplayer games.

The promise
We are seeing a blossoming of innovative multiplayer systems. In previous eras there were a handful of default models that games might use (matches, play-by-mail). Games today exist on a spectrum from fully concurrent to fully asynchronous and everything in between. A game like Dark Souls is predominantly single player, but includes interactions that are asynchronous (the leaving of messages and deaths) or fully concurrent (the joining of another player into your game for PvP or Coop.)

We are entering a golden era of multiplayer gameplay. Server costs are falling dramatically with the advent of cloud computing. Broadband internet and always on mobile connections are spreading rapidly across the globe. Business models like in game payments, crowd funding and service-based gaming are evolving to the point to financially support a broad range of long-lived communities. Designers are playing with these new capabilities to invent new forms of multiplayer gaming.

The challenge
However, multiplayer is both expensive to build and has a high risk of failure. Often teams invest 50 to 100% of their development budget into creating a multiplayer mode. It seems worth it. During development, the team plays every Friday and has so much fun they are convinced that multiplayer is what will turn their game into the next League of Legends or Counter Strike.

The real test occurs when the game faces a live population of players. Upon launch, multiplayer games often see only a few weeks of active multiplayer activity. Too many people show up. Then not enough. Players visit sporadically and the player experience is deemed unreliable. The active matches trickle down to nothing. The traditional matchmaking lobbies (a design from the 1990’s) are left empty and will never be full ever again. The multiplayer portion of the game dies a sad sputtering death.

I see this as a challenge of logistics. There were players who wanted to play. However the way that the game put those players together results in weak community that was unable to self sustain.

Are there atomic elements of multiplayer logistics that lets us approach the topic of inventing new systems in a more rigorous fashion? Simply copying multiplayer patterns from previous eras works poorly. To invent new multiplayer modes, we must have conceptual tools that let us clearly and concisely manipulate topics like logistics, concurrency and interaction schedules.

Concepts when talking about multiplayer

Here are some concepts I think about when designing a multiplayer game.

Interactions

You can break up any multiplayer system into a series of interactions. An interaction is anytime players interact with one another via a game system (be it chat, hitting one another, etc.) These are the multiplayer verbs of your game. Usually a game has a set of single player verbs (move, quit, etc) and another set of multiplayer interactions mixed in. Interactions have a wide range of multiplayer properties such as frequency, scope, mode, etc.

If you map an interaction onto time, it looks something like this
  • The player starts the interaction
  • They end the interaction
  • They wait for a response.
  • If no response is forthcoming, they leave.
Interactions aren’t a new thing. The structure is identical to that found in atomic game loops. However, instead of a single loop you have something closer to a figure 8 with at least two participants. These concepts go back to communication theory that Chris Crawford adapted to games design theory in the 1980’s. This is fundamental stuff that all professional game designers should know.


Initial loop:
  • Model A: Player formulates an action and a target player or group.
  • Action A: Player performs the action.
  • Rules: The results of the action are mediated by the game logic.
  • Response A: Player A sees the immediate results as generated by the game.
  • Response B: Player B sees the immediate results as generated by the game. Note that what Player B sees is likely different than what occurs for player A. This naturally leads to divergent mental models and enables gameplay concepts such as hidden information or Yomi.
Reciprocating loop
  • Model, Action, Rules, Response B: The target players tries to understand what happened and formulates a response.
  • From here the loop ping pongs back and forth between participants.
Frequency of interaction

What is the frequency of interaction necessary to yield the impression of concurrency? You may find that you need to interact once every 5 minutes in a strategic game like Civilization while you need to interact every 200 ms to create the same impression in a twitch-based action game like Counter-Strike. See the article “Loops and Arcs” for a more detailed explanation.

In general, the higher the frequency of interactions, the more information being communicated between players. This can increase the pace of relationship formation.

As with many interaction variables, there are distinct phase changes in the players perception as the frequency hits a threshold. Simply by changing the spacing between interactions, we get radically different forms of play (and associated logistical challenges):
  • Real time: Players perceive interactions as ‘real-time’ when the frequency reaches the point where: A player starts and ends an interaction and then sees a response before they move onto other tasks; interactions overlap. Chat, for example, can feel real-time despite there often being more than a minute between responses. Real-time systems have less need for persistence but are often more expensive to run and build.
  • Asynchronous interactions: The frequency at which a player can start an interaction and end the interaction and then quit the game without seeing a response is seen as asynchronous. Generally you build in some sort of persistence so that a player that logs in later can see the results of the interaction and formulate a response.
Types of interaction
There are a variety of interaction types. Think of these as ‘how’ players interact. For a much more in depth description of all the various multiplayer interactions, see Raph Koster's seminal talk on social game mechanics.
  • Spacial avatar interaction: Two or more avatars interact with one another. Shooting players in Quake is the classic example. Following a player in Journey is another.
  • Spacial environment interaction: Players also interact through the intermediate environment. In Minecraft, players build castles that other players then explore. For a higher frequency example, in Bomberman, players place bombs that open up passages or do damage to others.
  • Decoration and Display: Players signal status, affiliations and history via what they wear or how they decorate their weapons, pets and houses.
  • Economic: Players give, trade or pay for various resources to transform or transfer to another player. This can be a typical sale of a sword to another player for gold. Or it can paying mana for a buff that boost the health of a nearby player. See Joris Dormans work on internal economies for more on this topic.
  • Text: The most common method of introducing language into an online game is through text. It tends to be low cost and there’s a rich set of tools (spam filters, stylistic conventions) for dealing with common issues. It tends to work best with a keyboard.
  • Voice: Voice offers additional nuance including emotions, age, gender and more. It has limits for group size, bandwidth and is notoriously weak when it comes to filtering.
  • Body language: In local spaces like on a couch or around a table, we pick up on high bandwidth communication such as facial expression, posture, body height and physical presence. When a tall pretty boy looks you in the eye and asks that you trade your rare treasure with him, you may be getting signals that go far beyond what is found in other types of interaction. This creates rich emergent multiplayer gameplay. However, it is also hard to mediate and incorporate explicitly into the game systems.
Size of community
There are also massive phase changes that occur as you increase the number of participants in a community.
  • 1 player: Mastery, progression, exploration, narrative are available as design tools.
  • 2 players: Communication, relationships, status, trade, cooperation and competition become available.
  • 3-4 players: Alliances, politics, gossip, othering/stereotyping become available.
  • Small group (5+): Group vs group interactions, Official leadership, role specialization, official punishment
  • Medium group (12+): Factions, barter economies, and banishment
  • Large groups (40+): Hierarchy (leaders and sub-leaders), Currency-based economies, role enforcement. Adhoc systmes of government, public codification of social norms.
  • Very Large groups (200+): Merchant classes, market-based pricing, codified systems of government, underclasses, celebrity, propaganda. This is the point at which a players is guaranteed not to know everyone.
  • Massive groups (10,000+): Polling, city-scale production efforts. There are very few dynamics that happen at this scale that isn’t also explore with 200+ or even 40+ groups.
The actual transition points fluctuate around these numbers based off contextual factors. For example, the transition to the dynamics of a Very Large Group can occur as soon as 60 or 70 people if there are weak communication channels that stress a player’s ability to maintain relationships.

Also, large groups are inevitably composed of smaller groups. So as systems are added, the dynamics of lower number groups are still present.

I personally see no need to make games for groups larger than ~200 players. The costs are high and the benefits weak. This is past the point of Dunbar’s theorized biological limit on maintaining a maximum number of relationships. The end result is that any human organization beyond this number tends to fragment or hierarchically organize into smaller functional groups.

This reality raised serious questions about the need for designs that emphasize ‘massively multiplayer’ experiences. Just because a concept sounds exciting (“a million people building a new society!”) doesn't mean it is a smart design. Human social capacities are limited and we can over engineer multiplayer systems.

Scope of interaction
How many people does a single interaction impact? A player can interact with a single individual or they can interact with one of the group sizes listed above.
Targeting a player interaction at small groups: With smaller group sizes you get communication similar to a conversation. There is a clearly defined interaction loop that can stabilize on a set of shared vocabulary and social norms quickly.
Targeting a player interaction at larger groups: With larger group sizes you see more broadcast scenarios and interactions are broader, less tailored to individuals. When interacting with large groups, it is common for the massive response to flood the recipient with too much information. Extreme reactions are also more common as people talk over and past one another.

Degree of interaction
  • Parallel: Players can behave independently from one another. A ghost racing car rarely impacts another player. Often the primary benefit here is a sense of presence though it can also tie into lower frequency zero sum interactions like a leaderboard.
  • Zero Sum: The action of one player blocks or reduces the interaction of another player. In Habbo hotel, movement is a zero sum interaction since the placement of one character blocks another character from occupying the same spot. This was famously used as a griefing tactic to box in players.
  • Non-Zero Sum: The action of one player benefits another player. In Realm of the Mad God, shooting an enemy makes that enemy easier to kill for other players. Killing an enemy gives XP to everyone on the screen.
Matchmaking
Matchmaking is the computer mediated act of introducing players to one another so they might interact.

This is a very broad definition of matchmaking, but is useful in the context of the wide range of multiplayer systems available. For example, a traditional console title might match players together by requiring players in a shared lobby to manually join a specific game. In Realm of the Mad God, players notice groups of players on a shared map and teleport to them. Both are forms of matchmaking, but they appear quite different in the player’s mind.

You can treat matchmaking abstractly as another interaction with a wait time.

Matchmaking window

The time you have to introduce a player looking for a multiplayer experience to another player. If the window is too long (and the player is not entertained during the window), they will leave.

Matchmaking failure
When a player comes online and there is not another player immediately online, the players will quickly become bored and leave. There is often an implicit promise of a fun multiplayer experience and if you don’t deliver that in seconds, your game is judged as a failure.

What can be frustrating to the developer is that another player pops in a minute later and experiences the same exact thing. If one players sticks around long enough, another player will show up.

Calculating daily failure threshold: If the matchmaking window is W in minutes, then failure will occur when the daily active population is less than Minutes In a Day / W. So for example if people are only willing to wait half a minute, you’d need a daily active population of 1440 / 0.5 or 2880 players. Actual results will be lumpy because we are dealing with a statistical process and player populations peak around specific times of day.

This may seem quite reasonable, but if you are matchmaking primarily with small groups of friends, players may feel like no one they know is ever on.

Fragmentation
When the player population is segmented by social groups, game modes, players skill levels, time playing and other factors, it becomes fragmented. This reduces the actual concurrent player numbers available to the matchmaking system and increases the chance of a matchmaking failure.

Example of fragmentation: Suppose a game has 3 multiplayer modes and matches players into 10 skill categories. If the daily failure threshold is 2880 (from the previous example), then in the worst case scenario, you’d need 3x10x2880 or 86,400 concurrent players for everyone to get their first choice.

Fragmentation creeps into a design. Someone wants to add another event or another game mode. The code is free, so why not? Surely the players will self sort. They do a little, but mostly they wonder why the matchmaking experience is so painful and then leave your game in frustration. Avoid fragmentation creep and put players together in big easily matched buckets when possible.

Concurrency ratio
Any game has a number of active accounts and a number of players that are online at once. Players cannot be playing constantly and are often offline For example, an MMO might have 100 active subscribers, but only 10 of those are on at any one time. This would result in a concurrency ratio of 10:1.

Some typical concurrency ratios:
  • MMO: 10:1
  • Online Console Service (like Xbox Live): 25:1
  • Individual Console game: 150:1
  • Flash game: 250:1
  • Couch multiplayer: 1000:1
The Active User Trap: One common mistake is that developers assume that high active player numbers will result in robust multiplayer communities. However you really need to look at actual concurrent users since many game types have extreme concurrency ratios. A game may have 1000 players but when each of those logins last 5 minutes and are spread over a week, you’ll average 0.5 concurrent players. If your matchmaking system doesn’t deal well with these sporadic, tiny populations, the game dies.

Relationship strength
Not all player interactions are equal due to unique relationships between players. Players build complex social models of other players both in game and out of game. Strangers are understood through simple, stereotype-based models. Close friends are understood through complex individual models built up over thousand or millions of minute reciprocation sequences.

Building mental models of another human is a biologically expensive operation. We seem to be able to keep 5 to 9 detailed models active at any one time though we can store many more at various levels of detail. Friendship is rare, complicated and built over long periods of time.

There are numerous benefits and trade offs that come from gaming with strangers or friends and friend-based play is often highly desirable. Games can help create friends by promoted repeated positive interactions. The higher the frequency, the quicker the relationship evolves.

Relationship strength is a spectrum, but there are two commonly drawn categories
  • Multiplayer with Strangers
  • Multiplayer with Friends
Multiplayer with Strangers
There are two broad matchmaking scenarios: You can either match broadly with strangers or you can match narrowly with friends or other sub-groups. This decision has a big impact on the logistics. Let’s tackle multiplayer between strangers online first.

Pros:
  • Anyone playing the game can be matched with anyone else with little regard for existing social bonds This model becomes immensely attractive when there is a small initial playerbase. Often this means if 10 people are online, 10 people can be playing together.
  • Strangers, particularly young males, historically tend to compete with one another. This means that player vs player games that emphasize open conflict are an easy means of generate fun for some stranger populations.
Cons:
  • Strangers have weak bonds and will not naturally engage in prosocial activities like collaboration.
  • Skill differentials matter since players tend to compete. This forces developers to focus on segregating experts from newbies and fragments the population.
  • Not all player populations thrive on overtly competitive gameplay. Some players prefer to collaborate. Others compete quietly for status by manipulating social relationships. These are difficult in stranger scenarios.
Multiplayer with Friends

Pros
  • Players are much more likely to schedule time together to play.
  • Cooperative and communication heavy activities are considered fun.
  • Mentoring between divergent skill levels is more likely to occur.
  • Competitive play is still valid.
Cons
  • There’s often little overlap between existing social groups and interest in a specific game.
  • There’s often little overlap between existing social groups and share scheduled.
  • Friend groups are small. Engaged players typically have 5-9 close relationships. Casual acquaintances may be higher in number, but in practice may act more like strangers. If you have 10 friends and the concurrency ratio for a service is 25:1, you will essentially never stumble upon them online.

Tools for dealing with multiplayer logistics

So far I’ve just talked about the concepts behind multiplayer. Now we’ll dig into some common patterns that make use of these. There are three broad architectures:
  • Match-based games
  • Room-based games
  • Asynchronous games

Tools: Match-based games

Due to the long history of event-based matches in sports and board games multiplayer computer games often are organized into matches that start at a specific time and stop at a specific time or win condition.

Matches are the default logistics model used for many console and PC-style online games. They are immensely problematic. The matchmaking interaction has a very narrow window during which it requires a full set of players to show up in order to enter the game successfully. If you don’t get in, you need to wait till the next match starts. If this time is longer than the wait window, you’ll quit. Considering concurrency ratios, fragmentation and the burden of a tiny matchmaking window, it is not surprising that only the most popular match-based online titles survive.

Scheduled Events
Ask people to show up at the same time. This essentially shifts play times so that they are on at the same time. Scheduling is an expensive planning activity on the part of the player. You’ll get a low overall engagement rate but those who do participate are likely to find other to play with. A special Halloween boss encounter in a MMO is an example of a scheduled event.

Events can be scheduled by the game developers or they can be scheduled by the players. Player scheduled events have the benefit of stronger social ties in play. Folks that get together for a board game night are such an event. The downside is that arranging meeting is a convoluted process (as anyone that tries to set up meetings with more than 6 people can attest). It often requires leadership or persistence, attributes that are often in low supply for lightly engaged players.

Regularly scheduled events
If you can make the event regular, people will get in the habit of being at a particular place at a particular time. This reduces the cost of planning for the player and they can just reliably show up at a specific time instead of worrying about conflicts. A standard Wednesday game night for a guild is an example of a regularly scheduled event.

Short matches
If matches are short enough (2 minutes? 30 seconds?) players that don’t get into the current match wait less time than the matchmaking window and thus are still around when the next match starts. Online word games do this, but it could be readily applied to other titles.

Spectating on matches while waiting
If you can keep players entertained by letting them watch the game in progress, you can lengthen the matchmaking window. Games like Counter Strike do this upon entrance into a server and upon death.  Chatting is often tossed into this mix since it is a nice downtime activity that can build relationships.

Bots during matchmaking to fill waits
Instead of putting players in a queue where nothing happens, put them directly into a match with bots as the opponents.

Getting bots that act like humans is often a tricky Turing test to pass. Not letting players talk and having a very narrow window of expression helps.
When players learn this is happening they will start to distrust the game and question if all opponents are bots.

Mechanical Interdependencies
Create activities that require multiple people to show up in order to achieve success. Not showing up lets down the group and thus increases the social pressure to show up. This can take the form of explicit roles or by limiting resources so that players can’t accomplish large goals independently.

Tool: Room-based games

Ultimately match based games result in often insurmountable logistical issues for smaller games. A favorite alternative is room based games. Unlike a match which has a distinct start and exit, room-based games create a persistent playspace that players may independently join the game in progress (or leave the game in progress)

Rooms have a maximum number of ‘slots’ or spaces for players to join them. Once the room is full, no more players may join. This dramatically reduces the load on matchmaking. All you need to do is find a room with an empty slot available and dump players into it.

The downsides to rooms is that they eliminate certain game types. Group starting times are obviously out which eliminates most traditional sports. Games with progression arcs result in players that start at different types having differing levels of progress. You need to get creative.

A game like Journey is essentially a room based game with join and leave in progress. The max slots was 2 and as long as there were two concurrent players you could have a multiplayer experience.

Most MMO’s are room-based games with very large rooms.

Elastic Room Instances
Create and remove rooms to fit that maximum currency. Given a room of maximum size N, you create new rooms so that the number of rooms equals Concurrent Player / N. So if 10 players are online and your default room size is 4, you’ll make sure there are 3 rooms to join.

To collapse a room, just wait until it naturally empties out as players leave the game or kick people out due to some in-game event intended to free up the instance. Once the room is empty, delete it. By giving rooms priority, you can fill the highest priority rooms first and kill off the low priority rooms. The result is that almost all rooms are constantly full and only the remainder are left alone.

We used this when creating world shards in Realm of the Mad God. The world generally felt full even when the concurrent population fluctuated dramatically.

Default to single player gameplay for rooms with one player
Room-based games have the ‘remainder’ issue. A given maximum room size rarely divides evenly into the concurrent population. If the room size is 2 and there are 3 players online, there will be 1 player placed in a new room by themselves.

To deal with this scenario, it helps to have a game that is playable as a single player game until the next player joins the room.

A retail game like Dark Souls assume very low concurrency and plays almost entirely as a single player game (with light async ghost interactions) The concurrent matchmaking is a silent parallel interaction that happens without interrupting the single player adventuring. Since having a second player in the right place at the right time is uncommon, the game instead treats it as a special occurrence. (Note that since Dark Souls promises a single player game, they make the concurrent multiplayer experience opt-in through the use of soapstones. The soapstones signal that a successful match has occurred and the player must accept it. Respect your initial promise when you mix single player and multiplayer interactions.)

Asynchronous techniques

Play-by-mail
A player complete an interaction and then the game signals to them that they have a very long period of time before the other player responds. The next day or so, the other player sees the first player’s action and composes their response. This can take place over days.

Words with Friends is a modern example of this technique, but the practice goes back decades if not centuries (if you include play-by-mail board games). It is an intimate method of play that works well with text communication much like instant messages or email. Play-by-mail is very amenable to play between friends.

A downside is that players are deeply impatient. A single turn may not be all that satisfying and then having to wait multiple days for a response has a major drop off in retention. There are still matchmaking issues if fragmentation is too high but the explicitly long wait window ensures players don’t get too worried that the system is broken (they may just not like the system).

The other downside is that in turn-based games, the non-response of one player may block another player.

High Capacity Play-by-mail
One solution is for a player to start a large number of play-by-mail games. Given a response time of T days and a desired average wait time of W days, then the optimal number of games going at once is T/W. (So if you want a game popping in every hour and it takes 24 hours to response, then you need 24 games going.)

One added benefit of all this is that player response times are semi-random. This acts as a random reinforcement schedule and can result in very long term retention.

The downside to the technique is that it requires players to start up a lot of games in order to reduce the wait window and motivating players to do so is tricky. Automated game matching may be an answer.

Inviting
You can leverage active players to invite new players to the game. These players often have strong relationships with the player and can potentially act as a source of new players into the game.

Match with friends
Since async forms of multiplayer rely heavily on players to come back later, their game designs often relies on social connections outside the game as a form of additional pressure. If you can get people to invite or match with friends (as in Farmville) a lack of reciprocation in interpreted as putting their existing relationships at risk. The threat of being rude or seeming like you don’t care to someone you like is often enough of an incentive to encourage returning to the game.

Systems that play off existing relationships run the risk of alienating players. Players not invested in the game tend to find mechanical interactions annoying. Authenticity and intentions matter when it comes to human relationships.

Visiting
In building games, you may create a persistent structure such as a town that other players can then visit independently of your presence.

Clash of Clans uses this when players attack your town. The town is a persistent structure that then acts as a level for the other player to conquer.

Visiting usually boils down to a simple resource exchange despite the trapping of being something more meaningful. The issue comes from questions of what happens when multiple people visit at once and the solution is to spin up different instances.

Jason Rohrer’s The Castle Doctrine uses the unique design of making visiting a blocking interaction. This opens the possibility for permanent changes being made to the visited location. One can imagine more complex versions of musical chairs as the foundation for some innovative designs.

Ghosts
Record players behaviors and then play them back alongside the player in a similar environment. This works particularly well with parallel interactions like you see in racing games. It can also work with the rare non-zero sum interactions like you see in multiple time track games like Cursor 10 or Super Time Force. Ghosts gives a sense of presence but removes the matchmaking time constraints.

The downside is that ghosts usually works poorly with blocking or zero-sum interactions. The other downside is that if the ghost data and the environment get out of sync, then the ghost data becomes invalid. These can be alleviated slightly by either skipping blocked actions or falling back on AI behaviors that manage exceptions

On a more abstract level, ghosts are just tracks of player data that can be replayed on any sort of trigger. They can be triggered at the start of a race, when the player comes onscreen or when the player uses the special amulet of Ally Summoning.

General practices

This essay has covered a lot of ground (and is still incomplete!), but I’ll leave you with a few quick recommendations.
  • Don’t fragment your matchmaking population. Be very wary of the point at which your concurrent game’s matchmaking fails due to high concurrency ratios.
  • Use room-base methods where possible, not match-based play.
  • Persistence is your friend since it enables asynchronous interactions.
  • Relationships are your friend since they increase retention. Try to build them where possible.
  • Prototype early and deal with low populations density issues during the prototyping phase.

Conclusion

I remain quite excited about new multiplayer games. When I look at the theoretical advances being made with game grammar via Joris Dormans internal economies and some of the multiplayer concepts in this essay, the unexplored space for new forms of game seems vast. If you want to make your mark on our modern world, make a great multiplayer game. Solve the logistical issues that prevent people from playing together and build a game that spread quickly and easily throughout communities.

take care,
Danc.

Notes and references

Topic for future investigation
Concurrency is a statistical process; there’s a chance of a player being on at a given time. This whole topic could stand to be dealt with in a mathematically more rigorous fashion.

Essays and books



Prototyping Challenge: 3D Modeling Tool for 2.5D RPG Art
Posted by Lost Garden [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 24 October 2013, 2:42 am

I was creating some 2.5D art for an game jam recently in a perspective similar to a 2D RPG like Zelda. Naturally my next step was that I started thinking about how you might recreate this style using a custom 3D modeling tool. Yes, another art tool design challenge. :-)

I’ve played with voxel editors in the past, but I’m not completely happy with the blocky results that they produce. So where's a quick and dirty minimalist 3D modeling tool design with the following goals:
  • Enable artists to make beautiful 3D models that include curves, ramps, intersecting shapes, and other sophisticated elements.
  • Make a 3D modeling tool that is as easy to use as a pixel art editor. In particular, I’ve realized that this editor can avoid a lot of the messiness that usually appears when you include 3D rotation.
The result should be art that is still stylized, but has still has an immense range for a talented illustrator. I've made other attempts at this in the past, but I think this one has legs. :-)

Target style

I put together a set of 2D art for a future game jam. The resulting 3D modeler in this essay should be able to easily create everything in this image, plus a whole bunch more.


When making this art, it occured to me that there is a rather magical property of the traditional 2.5D view that I don't think has been well tapped before. Once you adopt a forced 2.5D perspective, most 3D primitives are possible to be represented in a 2D plane. This makes a ton of traditional 3D operations dramatically simpler. You can think of a 3D space being reduced to a couple of 2D controls
  • Top Plane: The top of a cubic volume enclosing the primitive. 
  • Front Plane: The front of a cubic volume enclosing the primitive. 
Here's an example with a cylinder and the planes made explicit

With these, you can do basic moving and scaling of the object. The trade off is that you lose rotation.  My bet is that like voxel editing, you can lose rotation and still end up with a vast visual play space.

If you get fancy, you can flip an object 90 degrees forward so that:
  • Front Plane: Extrusion, XY position
  • Top Plane: Scale, XZ position

The basic flow of modeling

Here's what you do to make a model. 
  • Add primitives to an object
  • Arrange (scale, position) and color them.
  • Combine these tile-like objects together in a game to create complex scenes.

List of Operations

Here's the list of features that a simple prototype of the editor would support.

1. Add a primitive
You can add a primitive to the scene
  • Cube
  • Cylinder
  • Arc (half cylinder)
  • Ramp (NSEW variants)
2. Select a primitive
Click on a primitive in the scene to select it.
  • 6 dots appear
  • The bottom 4 define the front plane.
  • The top 4 define the top plane.
3. Move in XY plane
Grab the front face of a primitive to move in the X,Y plane

4. Scale in XY plane
Grab the corners of the front face of the primitive to scale it.

5. Extrude in Z
Grab back corners or edge of the primitive to extrude it.

6. Move in XZ plane
Grab the top of the primitive.

7. Select a color
Once you have selected a primitive, click on a color from the color palette to change the color.

Constraints

There are a variety of limitations enforced that make modeling far easier and closer to pixel art.
  • Snapping: All operations snap to a 16x16x16 grid.
  • Primitive budget: Each object is made up of a total of 32 primitives.
  • No rotation of primitives. Again, this is a hard problem in 3D. So we avoid it.
  • Limited colors: All primitives use the same 16 color palette. This allows us to appear to make complex objects out of multiple primitives by simply connecting simple shapes of the same color.
  • Surface details are generated using other primitives. Primitives whose surfaces are coplanar are rendered cleanly as 2D textures. See bricks in the example above. Use creation order or order in the selection list to determine what shape is on top.

Bonus features

The above features are the minimal set.  There are other features you could add to flesh out the tool.
  • Selection list: A list of all 32 primitive in the object. Click on one to select that primitive. Thumbnails are a plus. Bonus points if you can rearrange these. 
  • Hiding/Showing primitives: There is an eye icon in the selection list next to each primitive and you can hide or show that.
  • Rounded corners: Give the selected primitive rounded corners. These are in 1, 2, 3 or 4 grid width rounds.
  • Flip Front / Top: Rotate the primitive forward or backwards 90 degrees. Example: A flat disc becomes a wheel.
  • Cutter object: The selected primitive now subtracts from the solid instead of adding. This lets you cut holes. 
  • Textures: In addition to colors, you can specify some simple textures.

Special rendering tweaks

There is a reasonable chance that objects will look like rather ugly without the right rendering. Play with this till you get something that works.  Here's what I take into account when drawing things manually.
  • Parallel Light source (think sun) from the top so the front is in slight shade.
  • Shadows on other objects. Slight ambient occlusion will tend to make the objects feel more connected. 
  • Shading objects darker near the bottom and lighter near the top help preserve a sense of depth.

Test cases

Making art tools without art samples is tricky. The following are test cases that you can try to replicate once you’ve built the basic tool.

House


Factory


Stone


Tree


Woodchuck

If anyone makes a prototype, I'll link to it here. 

All the best, 
Danc. 




A single game as a lifelong hobby
Posted by Lost Garden [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 21 July 2013, 1:21 am

Do you finish one game and then move onto the next? This is the dominant pattern of play for gamers. What happens when players stop consuming and starts investing in a single evergreen computer game for years on end?

Players of traditional games specialize

Across the 5500+ year history of gaming and sports, players typically focus on a single game and turn it into their predominant hobby. A chess player may dabble in other games, but chess is their touchstone. They join chess clubs, they play with fellow chess fans and they spend 90% of their gaming time playing chess. Overall, players specialize.

Such players do play other games, but to a far lesser degree.

There are also communities that embrace the identity of being good at multiple games or sports. These are a minority.

And some are inclined to claim all hobbyists are 'athletes' or 'players' and thus unified in some common tribe. Such verbal gymnastics rarely provide much insight into a dedicated hobbyist's specific passions or the nature of their community.

Specializing in a hobby occurs for many reasons. Traditional sports or games often have the following attributes:
  • Evergreen activities: You don't beat them. You stop when you get bored. Usually they consist of nested loops that operate on time scales of up to a generation. Consider the nesting of Match : Event : Season : Career : Training the next generation.
  • High mastery ceiling: Most are nearly impossible to master completely. You can always get a little better.
  • Strong communities: There exist strong social groups of like minded players that have their own group norms, hierarchies and support structures. To be a dedicated basketball player is to be part of an extensive basketball playing network.
  • Life long identities: Someone who excels in the game starts to identify as a member of that group. The game becomes source of purpose bigger than themselves. They can look back on their life and say "There were some ups and downs, but I'm secure in my accomplishments as a player of game X"
  • Grass roots or service-based business models: Any cultural structure can be fruitfully analyzed by understanding the flow of money. Many traditional games have extremely low barriers to entry. It costs little to access the initial equipment. Often items like decks of cards or chessboards are either communally own or purchased by a family and one set of equipment serves multiple participants.

    At higher levels of play, cash flows into the ecosystem through purchases of more advanced or higher status equipment or various service, membership or event fees. In all cases, the businesses involved have strong financial and culture incentives to get you playing and keep you playing.

Players of digital games consume

The hobby of computer or console gaming follows a different usage pattern; gamers play a wide variety of games. NPD claims core gamers buy an average of 5.4 games in a 3-month period. In a recent discussion of Steam purchases on Kotaku, commentators chimed in that they had purchased 100 to 800 game. Games are played for a period of time and then set aside so that a new game might get some play.

These players specialize far less. They may prefer a genre of games such as RPGs or shooters, but they'll still consume many games within that genre.

Why the difference in playing patterns? Commercial digital games have some distinct attributes that encourage serial play instead of evergreen play. Not all digital games fit this mold, but the trends are worth noting.
  • Complete-able games: Most computer and console games can be completed in 5 to 40 hours. It is rare that you find digital games that retain users longer than 6 months. Actual playtime is shorter than the official length since most players do not complete their games and even fewer play through a title more than once. Compare this to the generational nested loops of traditional evergreen games.
  • Narrative and Puzzle focused gameplay: The majority of the gameplay is focused on high burnout single use puzzles or evocative narrative stimuli. Designers spend their budget handcrafting specific scenarios for maximum emotional impact the first time through.
  • Low mastery ceilings: Since the design goal is to move players through the content of a game as smoothly as possible, the game mechanics are generally balanced towards the average skills of first time players. It is rare and surprising when a single player narrative computer game offers examples of masterful play. All this leads to early burnout where players rapidly become 'bored' and put the title aside.
  • Weak player identities: It is difficult for a player to establish their identity around their excellence in any one game. To be a good Braid player just isn't that special. Lots of other people have walked the same path, there is little player creativity and outside the occasional Let's Play video, few people care.
  • Content focused business model: Digital games businesses have a strong financial incentive to get you to pay upfront and then move onto their next title. Games are treated as a content or boxed product business. An optimal strategy is to put high quality boxes on shelf (either physical or virtual) and get people to buy as many boxes as possible. Since exciting content is a large cost center, there is ever increasing pressure to make games flashier and more marketable on the front-end and shorter on the back-end.
Shortness of play is perhaps the key reason why players end up consuming multiple games. With gamers spending 16-18 hours a week gaming, it doesn't take long to burn through a single title. Since a single game fails to entirely fill a person's leisure time, players buy additional games. Only a set of multiple consumable titles provides enough engagement to make a full fledged hobby out of content focused games.

This fits the general profile of a media hobbyist. As we shifted from evergreen hobbies to digital retail focused games, we trained users to behave in a fashion similar to that of a reader who reads many books or a movie goer who watches many movies. Much of what with think of as a 'gamer' is inherently tied to logistics, business constraints and forms of gameplay that treat games as a consumable media product.

A media culture

The current gamer culture is an artifact of this usage of games are media.
  • Reviewers exist to help players select their next media purchase
  • Critics exist to demonstrate how media conveys a message society. They are trained (if they are trained) in other media-centric fields such as movies or literature. There is little systemic thinking since media is first and foremost not a functional system but an evocative stimuli.
  • The form of popular games is determined by whether or not it fits in a media box. Form is the standardized structure of a piece of media. The 2-hour narrative movie is a form of video. The 300 page novel is a form of writing. So too is the 14-hour adventure game or the level-based narrative FPS.
  • Stores and storefronts exist to sell the hobbyist a steady trickle of new media. Since media creation is expensive and the share of a player's time is small for any single piece of media, aggregators of content are typically 3rd parties that don't produce all the media themselves.
  • Communities built around mass media that act as a shared experience for large populations of consumers. Big brands like Mario, Mass Effect or Final Fantasy are cultural anchors much like Star Trek or Star Wars. Comparisons, reminiscences and fan fantasies about future sequels or expansions are common.

Digital evergreen hobbies

Into this media-centric ecosystem we've seen the reemergence of major games that hew more closely to the traditional games of old. MMOs like World of Warcraft or MOBAs like League of Legends are services. A digital game like Minecraft ties into numerous communities and is often played for years. Some like Halo or Call of Duty cleverly camouflage themselves as traditional consumable boxed products all while deriving long term engagement and retention from their extensive multiplayer services. These games share many of the attributes of older hobbies
  • They attempt to be evergreen.
  • They have high mastery ceilings and robust communities.
  • Many, especially eSports, replicate the nested yearly loops of a traditional sport.
Each of these games is a hobby onto itself. People predominantly play a single game for years. In one poll of 5400 WoW players, 49% claimed to never actively play another MMO.

The rise of services

This shift to services is accelerating, driven by business factors and steady player acceptance. Developers are slowly coming around to the realization that an evergreen service yields more money, greater stability and a more engaged player base. Experiments of the past few years with social, mobile and Steam games suggests that microtransactions are here to stay and will likely grow to become a majority of the gaming market. They already represent 70% of mobile revenue and there is little evidence to suggest this share will not also grow in other markets.

This new revenue stream places new constraints on game designs.  Types of laboriously handcrafted content that was once feasible when your game was played 10 hours is no longer profitable if revenue trickles in over hundreds or thousands of hours of play.  Deep mechanics once again matter.  Communities you want to spend time in become a competitive advantage.

There are indeed manipulative companies scamming settlers in this newish frontier. Don't act so surprised. This is the case for any frontier and this is not the first time games have attracted disreputable developers.  Look beyond the flashy, inevitable crooks, just as you looked beyond the licensed games, the porn games and the gambling games that infest your typical game markets.  Look at the big picture and observe where the new opportunities for greatness are opening.

No, they won't cross over

These new evergreen players become hobbyists but not media-centric gamers. This is most evident in the audiences that play 'casual' social and mobile titles. Many of these players never bought into the current gamer culture. It is common to see someone deep into Candy Crush and when you ask them if they are a gamer, they will deny it. They do not 'game', they never have 'gamed'. They don't share a common heritage of Mario, Zelda, COD, Halo or any of the mass media touchstones that unite current gamers. What they have is a wonderful hobby that in their mind has nothing to do with existing computer games.

There exists a fantasy that somehow new players will get hooked on one game and then transfer over to consuming other games. Since this assumes a play pattern of high volume serial consumption, I doubt that this will occur. Great evergreen games leave little room in a hobbyist's schedule for grand feasts of consumable content. You don't finish a great hobby and then look for your next dalliance. You keep playing the game game for years or even generations.

 The perfect service-based game is one worth dedicating your entire lifetime of leisure to enjoying.

If this seems an exaggeration and current titles feel unworthy of this high bar, wait a while. Developers are very talented. And the financial incentives to build the perfect service-based game are quite strong.

Not one gaming hobby but many

So where does that leave our understanding of 'gaming?'
  • Some people avidly knit in their leisure hours.
  • Others play a creative game like Farmville, Dwarf Fortress, Minecraft or the Sims.
  • Others participate in a social online game like World of Warcraft, Eve or Facebook.
  • And then there is a small but active community of proudly old-school Gamers that like consuming puzzles and story media.
What we currently think of as 'gaming' becomes just another hobby amidst a wider jungle of digitally augmented hobbies.

There are those who might see this as a threat, but that is mere fear talking. Existing hobbies tend to last for at least a generation. Those who tied their identity to consuming media-style games as their hobby will stop participating in the hobby when they die. I expect to see 80-year olds still buying adventure games because that is what they were raised on and that is what they love. Niche producers can make good money serving these avid fans.  The rise of new hobbies thus do not invalidate a current hobby.  In fact, you'll have media-centric games for at least the rest of your life.

 Though each hobby likely will need to compete for new members.

Impact on the cultural ecosystem

With this shift comes change. Expect to run into the following challenges to your existing expectations as the gaming ecosystem transitions to evergreen games.
  • Specialized interests, not shared experiences: The drop rates on defense potions matters little to your typical gamer. Yet it is of earth shattering importance to the community of Realm of the Mad God players, impacting hundreds of hours of their life. At a certain level of mastery, the language used to describe in-game concepts becomes indecipherable to casual audiences. This inhibits communication with external groups, but facilitates bonding within the group.
  • Deep systemic analysis, not broad media criticism and reviews. Hobbies are predominantly comprised of human systems and communities, not texts to analyze or boxes to sell. Political, anthropological or economic forms of discourse are more appropriate yet there are few game critics trained in these fields. Successful commentators are typically past players with a master-level understanding of the hobby. They are rarely liberal arts dilettantes flitting from media event to media event.
  • Unique cultures, not mass cultures: A hobby can develop a set of inward facing social norms. This can be both a negative if extreme viewpoints are allowed to fester. It can also be a huge positive and promote inclusivity, equality and long term positive relationships. Each hobby is a cultural petri dish that need not adopt dominant tropes or values.
  • Participation, not marketing campaigns: New players of a hobby hear about it from a friend or stumble upon a free trial. They participate first and see if they enjoy the lifestyle that the hobby promotes. Big bang media events can flood the early stages of the acquisition funnel, but they do not directly result in revenue or a sustainable community. 
One aspect that surprises me the most is the stealthiness of inwardly sufficient hobbies. A smoothly running process is barely new for those not indoctrinated into the hobby.  Over 5 million people Geocache and in my opinion, it is one of the greatest modern games ever invented.  Yet other than the occasion human interest story, it rarely breaks into the public consciousness. What would a media-focused rag say?  "People are having healthy fun...still.  Just like they were in the past year or two." That's not newsworthy. There is no new box to hype or content to whinge about.  There's no advertising to sell. So silence is the default until you look inside the vibrant magic circle. Geocachers return the favor by labeling outsiders Muggles.

Let a thousand flowers blossom

The concept of one true gamer community will be less feasible as evergreen hobbies grow in popularity. Instead, we have a crazy mixing bowl of diverse, separate, long term communities. Few will share the same values or goals. Few players will consider themselves having anything in common with players of a different game.

Social organizations such as PAX will still promote common ground, much like the Olympics promotes common ground between athletes. But day-to-day cross-pollination will be rare.

I personally value a wild explosion of diversity. We need less mass culture and more emphasis on vibrant, generative communities instead of passive consumption.

The existing society of players may be tempted to deal with this negatively through shaming ("I can't believe you play Farmville, stupid person!") Here's how we might instead react positively.
  • Freedom of Play: Like freedom of religion, any player has a right to devote their life to any game even if it not something enjoyed by another player.
  • Mutual respect: Any player deserves your respect for their hobby even if you do not personally understand it. Avoid stereotypes and engage with the person.
  • Willingness to explain: Any insider should be willing to explain to an outsider how their hobby works. Proselytize by inviting them to play with you. An open minded outsider should be willing to listen.

The fact that individual hobbies exist is not new. The shift comes from realizing that individual digital hobbies will soon to be the default play pattern. Adapt accordingly.

take care,
Danc.

References and Additional Links

Note: Gamers often wonder why Farm Equipment simulators sell.  Judged as mass media, they are horrible.  Judged however as an independent hobby, they have many of the attributes of an engaging lifelong interest.  If you laugh at them, it is because you are outside their tribe and ignorant. 



Coercive Pay-2-Play Techniques
Posted by Lost Garden [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 18 July 2013, 2:13 am

Coercive monetization models are used by many of the large corporations that dominate the "Pay to play" (P2P) charts in retail, console and mobile.

They employ carefully engineered psychological traps intended to defraud ignorant players of their money. This shocking expose shines a light on their dark, inhumane practices. Be forewarned: Despite extensive examinations of opinions similar to my own, I am intentionally unaware of any company that manages to use these systems of coercion in a positive manner.

1. Purchasing sight unseen

The primary method is to get a player to purchase something without ever playing it. If you can get players excited about a new game, most will buy it with little more to go on than a box shot and a video. Many secondary techniques tie into this basic strategy of deceit.

Companies intentionally avoid releasing demos or providing free trials in order to increase the number of purchases independent of whether or not a player might enjoy the actual game.

2. Use of propaganda to artificially increase excitement

P2P publishers feed players videos, paid end caps, advertisements and canned previews. Often the marketing spend for a title is greater than the development budget. It is cynically assumed that if you shout targeted propaganda at an audience, they will buy in increased numbers.

3. Limiting information to prevent alternate opinions

Since no one can play the game, the publishers are able to keep any information about the game tightly focused on the most effective message that drives purchases. Heavy use of the captive fan press ensures that press releases are repeated verbatim.

4. Distorted game design

Since all that matters in order to make the sale is the initial propaganda, the actual game design is sacrificed. You make money by having a catchy theme, pretty graphics and the ability to turn out short sequential games rapidly. As a result, P2P encourages developers to short, consumable interactive sequences with shallow, low risk, well-worn mechanics. I hesitate to call them "games". Most are little more than a collection of puzzles or QTE that can be clicked through in 5 to 10 hours.

Also because all that matters is if someone buys the box, game designers need not worry much about retention or engagement. Most P2P games are built with little care given to the final few levels. It is common that 50-70% of players never complete a P2P game.

5. Targeting those least able to understand modern sales techniques

Though it might be a stereotype, most P2P titles target poorly socialized teenage males. Unlike women, an educated demographic that makes the majority of purchasing decisions in Western markets, these younger males are likely to naively buy into the pre-sales propaganda without critically questioning its actual purpose. Now if these were shopping savvy 40-50 year old women, you might be willing to say "Let the buyer beware", but can we really expect an audience that has difficulty buying fresh boxers on a regular basis to purchase games responsibly?

6. Bundling and time-limited sales

One of the more effective methods of psychological manipulation is to bundle multiple products together and offer them at an apparent discount. Players perceive they are getting a massive value when in fact they are just accumulating more games that they are unlikely to play or even enjoy.

This also preys upon those damaged individuals that possess strong hoarding inclinations. How many times have you seen players with vast collections of hundreds of uncompleted games? This is an obvious sign of mental illness which P2P developers are all too willing to exploit.

7. Skinner Boxes

Players end up treating game purchases like a slot machine. They may buy dozens of games in a year, but only one or two will be worth their time. This creates a random reinforcement schedule that sets up a form of psychological addiction. Players find themselves stalking the latest game sale in the hopes of getting a new hit of gaming goodness. Of course the system is rigged so that it is nearly impossible to know upfront whether the game in question is worth their money. So they press the 'buy game button' and spin the wheel. Oh, the Steam sales!

In the process a few 'whales' spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month on games. Some even purchase meaningless, ostentatious 'arcade cabinets' or inordinately expensive peripherals that retail dealers call 'consoles'. Most of these claim their purchases are part of a healthy hobby and have no regrets. However, I've gone out of my way to find adults with poor spending habits that have stripped their meager bank accounts to 'collect 'em all'. Some young men holding down minimum wage part time jobs were forced to eat ramen in order to continue their spending spree. This deceptive form of capitalist gambling, aka 'shopping', ruins ruined lives.

Other means of manipulation

This small sampling of techniques points to the deep corruption inherent in both making and selling P2P games. There are numerous other other manipulative practices:
  1. Use of fake tribalism: "Genesis does what Nintendon't"
  2. Collector's editions: Use of socially questionable materialism to artificially increase ARPU.
  3. DRM: The pay before you play model leads directly to DRM as a means of artificially blocking non-paying users from trying the game and seeing if they might like it. Piracy becomes meaningless if you provide a long term service or hobby, but that is not the optimal strategy for money-grabbing P2P firms.
  4. $60 price tags: If you are selling a fantasy product, you might as well take any willing mark for as much as possible.
  5. False console cycles: With a mere billion dollars on fresh propaganda, P2P companies know that they can artificially stimulate a mass of people to invest in a new console and then repurchase their old games all over again.
  6. DLC: Since P2P is essentially about churning out cheap, consumable content, these "games" only get upgraded if the expansions take the form of cheesy modular DLC. Mechanical upgrades that improve the core gameplay or social systems are rare since there is little financial incentive.
  7. Overemphasis of reviews instead of actual player behavior: Good reviews are just another form of message control and propaganda. This is why dev bonuses are tied to Metacritic scores instead of statistically valid player metrics.
There is a substantial human cost to these shenanigans. Through I have zero hands-on experience making P2P games (and honestly have no interest in them), several inexperienced indie friends attempted to make a P2P game. After one attempt in a crowded and competitive market, they failed to buy a Tesla. Since I personally enjoyed the prototype they showed me at a game jam, I think it is clear that all the blame for their game's failure (and subsequent public emotional turmoil) can be laid at the feet of the P2P business model. This is not the silver bullet you fantasized about as an inexperienced non-developer.

In closing

In the end, P2P hurts gamers and the game industry as a whole. I urge you as an ethical designer to reject this immoral practice. The egregious abuse of players by popular pay-2-play practitioners makes any use of P2P invalid. I question if it is even possible to make a moral P2P title. (Indies should especially distance themselves from this culture that is little better than legalized gambling.)

What we really need is to make great games where players can try the games for free and then make an informed decision on whether or not the game is worth their money. In an ideal world, games should be meaningful long term hobbies that enrich a player's life, not some cynical scam job reliant on engineered propaganda spam, sexed up artwork, forced sequels and a captive press.

Imagine games where players only pay their hard earned cash if they find the gameplay meaningful. They can try any and all of a game for free as long as they want. If they don't feel the game is adding to their life, then they can leave at any time.

Sadly, such an honorable course seems unlikely. No doubt that we'd see overblown rhetoric and misappropriated science denouncing such an idealistic experiment by those deeply involved in coercive, yet highly profitable, P2P businesses.

Yours truly,
Monsieur Troll

PS: When posting comments be sure to see if it passes the "I understand that this essay is satire" check. I'd hate for there to be any sort of embarrassing misunderstandings.

PPS: These are exciting times where business models and design problems are evolving radically and rapidly every month.  That multiverse some call 'free to play' is mutating along dozens of different variables. The old familiar retail 'pay to play' model is also fracturing into something new.  If you think you grok how any current business model works, you probably are several years behind.

The uncertainty and change can be scary. Maybe you recently played a game that was different than ones you played as a child. Or you heard some stories. And now you feel the urge to express your emotions via loud opinion spewed onto the internet. Oh look...more precious time passed while you were ranting and you learned nothing. 


Polarized views backed by mere opinions fails to move the science and craft (and ethics) of making games forward. What are you personally doing with code and art and functional gameplay in order to carve out a viable, sustainable future for great games? Let's talk about that.  Mere gnashing of teeth, often witnessed in the same form as the essay above, is noise that drowns out thought. 


Understanding randomness in terms of mastery
Posted by Lost Garden [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 31 December 2012, 3:43 pm

Instead of categorizing games as either 'games of skill' or 'games of luck', I see games with randomness as being a subset of 'games of mastery'. This view helps the designer see randomness in games as the intersection between both the player skill set and the game mechanics. By understanding the underlying skills involved in mastering randomness, we can build more meaningful games.

Discerning cause and effect from noise

One of the fundamental elements of any game is how the player learns to distinguish useful patterns from environmental noise. Without a mental model of how a system works, most games appear random or at least arbitrary.  (Randomness is a concrete property of a rule set. However perception of randomness is a state of mind that can exist independent of the rule set.)

With time, experimentation and practice, some players build up a mental model with conceptual tools that let them manipulate the system to reach desired outcomes. They transform from unskilled players into skilled players.

The idea of noise is a broad one. A cluttered scene with hundreds of objects is said to be noisy. A combat scene rife with particle effects and crazed camera angles also is noisy. Noise is the extra stimuli that hides the next conceptual insight.

The perception of noise vary based off the player's skill in understanding and filtering various classes of noise. A chess board in the middle of a game is highly noisy to a new player trying to simply figure out how a knight moves. All the extra pieces and their subsequent movements are extraneous to what the player needs to learn next. However, that same chess board offers reams of insight to the advanced player. They are able to process the information and predict future outcomes based off their sophisticated cumulative models of chess cause and effect dynamics.

Categories of noise
Noise comes in a variety of categories that flow naturally from the basic skill atom we see in most game loops.


  • Action Noise:  These is uncertainty, extraneous elements or unmastered complexity in the player action. 
  • Rules Noise: There is uncertainty, extraneous elements or unmastered complexity in the processing of the blackbox rules. 
  • Feedback Noise: There is uncertainty, extraneous elements or unmastered complexity in the stimuli that shows the effect of the player's action. 
  • Model noise: There is These is uncertainty, extraneous elements or unmastered complexity in the player model of the situation. 
Each class of noise has its own category of skills associated with filtering the meaningful signal. In a hidden object game, the visual complexity of the scene creates noise. Advanced players cope with this by mastering silhouette detection, efficient visual search patterns and object association skills. A good hidden object game players is measurably better than a new player.

Randomness as a form of noise

From this viewpoint, randomness in the form of internal dice rolls can also be treated as a class of rules noise. There other forms of randomness that map onto Action Noise and Feedback Noise, but randomness as rules noise seems to cause people the most trouble.

Since randomness is just another form of nosie, we can expect it to have several key properties:
  • A model: There is often an underlying pattern or model that helps players deal with the randomness
  • Model ignorance: This model will not be readily apparent to new players. 
  • Learning curve: With time and education, players will learn how to appropriately deal with randomness. 
  • Learning variables:  There are also likely important variable for the system that make learning to deal with a system's randomness easier or more difficult. 

Skills for player modeling of randomness

Probability and statistics provides use with a set of mathematical skills for dealing with randomness.  Players instinctually use roughly equivalent concepts but modified by a set of well document unconscious biases.  Instead of summarizing all of probability theory, let's cover the symptomatic player behaviors you'll see in the field. 

Existing heuristics
When a player lacks a mental model for a phenomena, their immediate instinct is to adapt an existing model. They look for past experiences and skills that fit the current situation and then act accordingly. Players can pick from their personal experiences or they may use forms of social proof to follow what others are doing.

There is strong evidence that many of our default heuristics for dealing with randomness are instinctual and perhaps biological. As such, evolution selected for survival, not necessarily accuracy. This leads to a wide array of biases such as loss aversion or difficulty processing large odds.

In general, reliance on existing models is a poor method of dealing skillfully with random behavior. It is better than a purely random reaction in a pinch but is not well adapted to the engineered random systems players face in modern designs. The player can't know the properties of the random system beforehand and the wide range of different types of randomness mean that they will likely guess incorrectly.

Sampling
Perhaps the most confusing aspect of randomness it that it occurs as a result of an interaction loop. In a simple slot machine, you pull the handle once and get a single result. By its very nature, it is difficult or impossible to detect what that result might.

So the first skill players acquire is the ability to take multiple samples of the event. For very rare events, you may need to take large numbers of samples. For common, more predictable events, you may need to sample it less often.

Sampling is a general skill that is useful for both complex, yet entirely deterministic systems and for systems with high amounts of pure randomness. Humans observe the vast universe through a tiny straw. Only by repeated and methodical exposure can we build up a more comprehensive image of what exists.

Cost of sampling
Sampling almost always has a cost. Here we see one of the more interesting economic decisions at the heart of random systems: Will the expense of sampling further result in enough improved understanding that I can then leverage in the future for outsize gains?

Averages and Variability
With large enough samples, most random systems become predictable. They tend towards an average with some variability around that average. Thus with enough sampling, the next skill that players learn is getting a feel for the 'typical result' and the likelihood of an 'atypical' result.

Advanced players of Triple Town see luck as a very minor component of the game. As you plan out 30 or 40 moves into the future, you learn that there is a very good chance that you'll get a bush or bear within your window of control. You don't know the order, but there are tools for mitigating out of sequence drops. The learned mental map of average drop rates becomes a tool to be applied skillfully.

Types of distributions
Often the player sees a variety of different types of distribution. The normal curve, multi-modal or exponential distributions are most common. Advanced players get a sense of the distribution. What will outcome is most common? What outcome is least common?

Payouts
All actions in games have payouts. Sometimes they are explicit such as a pawn capturing a rook and removing it from the board. Sometimes they are implicit such as a gift to a player that may in the future be reciprocated.

Through sampling, understanding averages, and understanding distributions, players gain a sense of the value of the payouts. In a sequence of player initiated causes and effects, how useful are the effects?

Expert players weigh these benefits against the costs reaching that average outcome.

New player mistakes due to model ignorance

There are numerous and well documented mistakes that the naive player makes when dealing with systems of randomness. With training, many such players can overcome these. Some will not. Placing an inexperienced driver in the middle of a professional NASCAR race will likely end in physical harm. Even with training, a certain population will never become competitive drivers.

Reliance on non-evidence based models
Players use existing models without considering the evidence. For example, it is common to assume that because 1D6 results in an even distribution of values, 2D6 will also result in an even distribution.

Not enough samples
Players don't sample enough instances of the game to understand the typical outcomes.

Low quality sampling
Players sample, but don't actively look for patterns. Without consciously making observations and testing those observations against future results, critical signals are often ignored. Many players will perform actions, faintly register the results but never ask 'why'.

Poor cost / benefit analysis
During the learning stages of a game, players typically over invest in learning activities, beyond what is strictly necessary to accomplish the desired result. This is seen as 'play' or 'practice' depending on how experimental the routine ends up being.

However, it is common for new players to invest huge amount of resources in activities with very little future pay off. They engage in 'play' behavior (not a consciously forward looking act) and find themselves never recouping. They misjudge when hold them, when to fold them or for that matter, when to walk away.

Balancing for skill in games of luck

Like any game of mastery, we have concepts of balance and progression in games of luck. Typical balancing techniques work

Dominant strategies
Is there an average outcome that is preferable? This is tricky to ascertain since you can still have a balanced random system where a single sampled event yield a rare outcome. When new players see this, they will scream at the top of their lungs that something is overpowered. With a reasonable understanding of combinatorics, you can guarantee that such events are interesting outliers. You can also gather metrics over a large population of games and verify that the 'game breaking outcomes' are in fact rare circumstance.

Is there any benefit to even having these outliers? I think so. They certainly add a strong emotional drama to the game that would otherwise be missing. Also players are kept on their toes and must plan for blackswan events as much as the average events. That's an interesting decision.

In Triple Town, the players that come back from a scenario with 5 ninja bears dominating their game end up being better players because of the experience. If that random outcome hadn't occurred, they would never have been pushed to take their tactical skills to the next level.

Does the game structure allow for multiple samples?
A single hand of poker is deeply imbalanced since it is prone to highly variable random outcomes. However, during a poker night or tournament, players churn through dozens of hands. This allows players to take multiple samples and use their knowledge of the game's random distributions to gain material advantages over weaker players. Thus, the right number of samples results in a more balanced game full of meaningful decisions.

Progression considerations in games of luck

You can use the following learning variables to create a progression system the help teach new players the subtleties of a random system. 

Scaffolding
Can new players learn foundational rules with a small number of samples? If you start players off with a random system that takes dozen or hundreds of sample to understand, they may quite before they accumulate enough experience. Instead, use system at are reasonably easy to figure out. In Triple Town, players get grass the vast majority of the time. This helps them learn how to build up more complex structures since they learn very quickly that there's a good chance that the next object is going to be grass.

Existing schema
Is there a known random system you can mimic in order to tie into existing heuristics? For example, many games use a 6-sided die since that is a model of randomness that many players have been using since childhood.

Use of random systems that reveal structure upon inspection
One of my favorite techniques is to pull random outcomes from a fixed pool. Thus the expert players learn what they are going to get, but not in the order they are going to get it. This is the basis of all card games that disallow reshuffling.

You've got two key variables you can tweak for progression escalation:
  1. When the pool is small, players tend to learn it quickly. By increasing the size of the pool, you require additional mastery.
  2. Randomness without replacement ends up being reasonably predictable when sampled across the size of the fixed pool. So if your sample count is higher than the pool size, players will learn the pool quickly. If the sample count is less than the pool size, they'll learn it slowly (or never)

Black hat techniques

There are also cynical techniques that will result in players never learning the system. There are entire gambling journals dedicated to these methods since the number of human randomness hacks are quite large.

  • Obscuring average results through high variability and high sample requirements.
  • Use of artificial close calls so new players see patterns were there are none. There is a measurable sub-segment of players that process near misses as wins. These games prey on people who are essentially dyscadentic, or the random equivalent of dyslexic.
  • Use of social signals so players approach the game with a costly mindset.
  • Obfuscated odds combined with a high cost of playing.
  • Use of high odds that players don't process well. At a certain point the brain says 'many' and doesn't quite grasp that there is a good chance the universe may expire first.

Conclusion

A well rounded designer does not remove randomness from their games. The world is a random place and learning to deal rationally with randomness is a critical life skill. Instead, they embrace the fact that players can learn to understand and master the game's random systems.

It is your responsibility as the designer of random systems to facilitate masterful play. Put new players through a progression where you teach them the system's average results, outliers and distributions. Give them tools for managing and mitigating randomness. Create expert game modes where players roll the dice enough to manipulate the big picture.

When you use randomness as an opportunity for mastery over noise, I think you'll find that games of luck become highly meaningful games of skill.

take care
Danc.

References

Psychology of near misses
  • http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100504173817.htm
  • http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121009111233.htm

Gambling addiction as a learning disability
  • http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080326190802.htm



Building Tight Game Systems of Cause and Effect
Posted by Lost Garden [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 1 July 2012, 5:33 pm


To play a game well, a player must master a mental model of cause and effect.  You learn that pressing a specific button moves you forward.  You figure out that a sequence of controller moves lets you dodge a fired rocket.  You observe a slight pause before an enemy attack and theorize that you could fire off a headshot at that exact moment.  At each stage of learning, you create a hypothesis, test it via your actions and refine your mental models of the whirring black box at the heart of the game.

This escalating refinement and mastery of new mental models and tools is essential to what makes many a game enjoyable. Such mastery obviously depends on the player.  Yet it also is dependent on the designer and the systems they build.  You can accidentally create a broken black box. 

Not all systems are readily amenable to the intuitive formation of models of cause and effect. As a game designer, it is your job to create systems that are intriguing to master without being completely baffling. If the system is too predictable, it becomes boring. If it is not predictable at all we assume that the system is either random or spiritual in nature. Both of these are failure conditions if you are attempting to encourage mastery.

Tight and Loose systems

I am a mechanic who fixes broken black boxes. One importance concept that has served me well is to think of the relationship between systems and the feedback the game uses to describe interactions with the systems as either ‘tight’ or ‘loose’. A tight system has clearly defined cause and effect. A loose system make is more difficult to distinguish cause and effect relationships.

There is no correct ‘tightness’ of a loop. However there are clear methods of increasing either the tightness or the looseness.

Techniques for adjusting tightness

For your reading pleasure, I've put together a list of tools that I use to tweak a system's tightness.  Not all are applicable to any given system but all of them should be part of an expert designer's toolkit.  Some of the tools are worthy of dedicated books so I apologize up front for any obvious shallowness.  For example, probability has so many subtle flavors that some designers devote their lives to studying how it impacts a player's ability to predict outcomes.  At best this is an overview.

To tighten a system, I'm making the cause and effect more obvious.  To loosen a system, I'm making the connection between cause and effect less obvious.

Strength of Feedback
Peggle


Tighter: Multiple channels of aligned feedback such as color, animation, sound, and touch that reinforce one another.  The classic example is Peggle which uses particles, rainbows, Ode to Joy and time dilation to let you know that yes, the match is over and glorious points are being scored.
  • Am I using all the potential channels I need to make an impact?
  • Is the feedback sequenced correctly so that player can read it clearly?
  • Does the feedback leverage an existing mental schema so that becomes more impactful?
Looser: One channel of feedback that is weakly evident.  In multiplayer FPS games often the only sense that you have that another player is near comes from the faint patter of their footsteps.   Expert players gain immense satisfaction from being able to predict the location of their opponent by combining knowledge of the levels with tiny hints of where they might be. 
  • Does the feedback have nuance that is not readily understandable upon casual inspection?
  • Can the feedback be combined with other non-obvious information to give a clear picture to an expert user?
Noisiness
Space Giraffe


Tighter: A clear signal of effect that is related to the cause.
  • What is the most important piece of information the player needs right now?
  • Have I removed extraneous elements that distract the player's attention?
  • Is my feedback at the center of the player's attention? 
Looser: A multiplicity of conflicting, attention sapping signals, which are not related to cause. One of the critical skills in Jeff Minter’s Space Giraffe is learning to see through the visual noise of the psychedelic backgrounds.
  • Are there ambient elements I can add that distract, but don't annoy?
  • Can noise create a perceptual puzzle for the player?
Sensory type
Assassin's Creed 3:  Nice use of contrast and perspective


Tighter: Visually or tactile feedback is often more clearly perceived.  Consider the many billions of dollars spent on improving visual feedback each year so that we can demonstrate the visceral impact of a players bullet on simulated flesh with ever greater fidelity.  Tight visual feedback is highly functional; it communicates the effect to the player in an elegant efficient fashion.  It is not just about making pretty pictures. In a recent update of Triple Town, we changed the color scheme so that the background was the same general value as the foreground objects.  The result was attractive, but players were pissed because the icons weren't nearly as visible as before.
  • Am I using good visual design such as color, motion, contrast, line, white space, shadow, volume, perspective so that my visuals read clearly?
  • Did I make something pretty when I needed something functional?
  • What feedback is functional and what is evocative or aesthetic?
  • Am I over investing in visual feedback?
Looser: Auditory and smell are less clearly perceived.  Not as much has been done here, but due to the looseness that come such systems it would seem that there are potential systems of mastery.  It is perhaps ironic that most music games, a topic typically associated with auditory mastery, can be played with the sound turned off. 

Tapping Existing Mental Models
Plants vs Zombies


Tighter: Closely map the theme, feedback and system to existing mental models.  Due to decades of exposure to pop culture, players know how zombies move and that they should be avoided.  One means of quickly communicating the dozens of variables in a particular slow moving group of monsters is to label them 'zombies'.

  • What is the cartoon model that players have in their heads (vs the 'realistic model of how the real world works)?
  • Does my theme support my mechanics?
  • Does my theme inspire useful variations on my core mechanics?
  • Am I engaging in the cardinal sin of watering down my mechanics to fit the theme?

Looser: Step away from existing models and introduce the player to new systems that they've never experienced.  Consider the metaphors involved in Tetris.  Falling elements are something our brain can process as reasonably familiar.  Tetriminos that you fit into lines that disappear to earn points while Russian music plays?  That doesn't fit any known metaphor that I know, yet it results in a great game.

  • At what point do I no longer need a gateway schema and the game can stand on its own internal consistency?
  • Are there opportunities for surrealism or intentional disorientation?
  • Can we step away from cliches to synthesis fresh experiences?

Discreteness
Advance Wars:  Limited units and small numbers. 


Tighter: Discrete states or low value numbers. Binary is the tightest. For example, recently we were playing with units moving a various speeds.  By making them move a 1, 2, and 4 tiles/sec, it suddenly became very obvious to the player how each unit type was distinct.  This is one of my favorite techniques for getting unruly systems under control. 
  • What is the minimum number of values that I need to create meaningful choices?
  • Can player clearly distinguish between the effect of each increment in value?
  • What would happen if I had to reduce this variable to 3 discrete values?
Looser: Analogue values or very high value numbers. For example, in Angry Birds, you can give your bird a wide range of angles and velocities.  This makes the results surprisingly uncertain.  Think of how predictable (and boring) the game would be if you could only pick 2 distinct angles and velocities. 
  • Do I have enough range that players can play creatively?
  • Do my values add interesting uncertainty to choices?
Pacing
Diablo Loot Pacing


Tighter: Short time lapses between cause and effect.  When creating mouse over boxes like you find in Diablo, a common mistake is to add a delay between when the mouse is over the inventory item and when the hover dialog appears. If the delay is too short, the hover dialog pops up when the player doesn't expect it.  If the delay is too long, the dialog feels laggy and non-responsive. (In my experience, 200ms seems ideal.  That's right inside the perception gap where you've decided to do something, but your conscious mind hasn't quite caught up) 
  • Where does the game play lag?
  • What happens if I speed timing up? 
  • What happens if slow timing down?
  • What systems allow me to vary timing in an indirect fashion?
  • Am I adjusting pacing using manual content arcs when I could instead use with algorithmic loops?
Looser: Long time lapses between cause and effect. Too long and the player misses that there is an effect at all. Imagine an RPG where you have a switch and a timer.  If you hit the switch, a door opens 60 seconds later.  Surprisingly few people will figure out that the door is linked to the switch.  On the other hand, early investment in industry in Alpha Centauri resulted in alien attacks deep in the end game.  This created a richer system of interesting trade off for players to manipulate over a long time span. 
  • What are the longer loops in the game?
  • Are there long burning effects that cause players to reconsider their models for long term play loops? 
Linearity
Castlevania Medusa movement (via Kotaku) 


Tighter: Linearly increasing variables are more predictable. Consider the general friendliness of throwing a sword in a straight line in Zelda versus catching an enemy with an arcing boomerang while moving.
  • What happen if I simplify the model and make the reaction linear?
  • How can I remove non-linear systems from early gameplay?
Looser: Non-linearly increasing variables, less so. The Medusa heads in Castlevania pose a surprisingly difficult challenge to many players because tracking them breaks the typical expectation linear movement.  Even something as commonplace as gravity throws most people off their game.  After all, it took thousands of years before we figured out how to accurately land an artillery shell. 
  • What systems are exponential in nature?
  • How do I constrain my non-linear systems so they are predictable?
  • How do I create interestingly chaotic behavior via feedback loops?
Indirection
SimEarth


Tighter: Primary effects where the cause is directly related to the effect. In Zelda again, the primary attack is highly direct. You press a button, the sword swings out and a nearby enemy is hit. 
  • What systems can I remove to make the results of an action more obvious?
  • Is my cognitive load high enough?
Looser: Secondary effects where the cause triggers a secondary (or tertiary) system that in turn triggers an effect. Simulations and AI's are notorious for rapidly become indecipherable due to numerous levels of indirection.   In a game of SimEarth, it was often possible to noodle with variables and have little idea what was actually happening.  However, the immense indirection yields systems that people can play with for decades. 
  • How can simple system interact to create useful indirect effects? 
  • How can I layer useful indirect effects to create wide expressive opportunities for the player?
Hidden information 




Mastermind


Tighter: Visible sequences that are readily apparent.  For example, in Triple Town we signal that a current position is a match.  The game isn't about matching patterns so instead the design goal is to make the available movement opportunities as obvious as possible. 
  • Is there something hidden that shouldn't be?
  • Is there something visible that doesn't matter?
Looser: Hidden information or off screen information. A game like Mastermind is entirely about a hidden code that must be carefully deciphered via indirect clues.   Board games that are converted into computer games often accidentally hide information.  In a board game, the systems are impossible to hide because they are manually executed by the players.  However, in computers the rules are often simulated in the background, turning a previously comprehensible system into mysterious gibberish. 
  • Would hiding information fully or partially make mastery more challenging?
Probability


Tighter: Deterministic where the same effect always follows a specific cause. In a game like chess, the result of a move is always the same; a knight moves in an L and will capture the piece in lands upon. You can imagine a variant where instead you role a die to determine the winner. You can make that tighter again by constraining the probability so that certain characters roll larger dice than others. The 1d20 Pawn of Doom is a grand horror.
  • How do I make the outcome highly deterministic?
  • Is this direct action still interesting if repeated hundreds of times?
Looser: Probabilistic so that sometimes one outcome occurs but occasionally a different one happens. In one prototype I worked on there was both a long time scale between the action and the results as well as a heavily weighted but still semi-random outcome. Players were convinced that the game was completely random and had zero logic. If you pacing is fast enough and your feedback strong enough, you might be able to treat this as a slot machine.
  • Do I need a simple method of simulating a complex system?
  • Do I need a means of adding interesting pacing to the game?
  • Does the player perceive that they have the situation under controls despite the randomness?
Processing Complexity
SpaceChem


Tighter: System requires simulating few steps to predict an outcome.  In a vertically scrolling shooter, you see the bullet coming towards you.  It doesn't take a lot of thought to figure out that if you stay in that location you are going to be hit.
  • How much can the player process in the time allotted?
  • Are players getting mentally fatigued playing the game?
Looser: System requires simulating multiple steps to predict an outcome.  On the other hand, in Triple Town, good players need to think dozens of moves ahead.  Thinking through all the various machinations necessary to get the result you want adds a serious cognitive load to the player.  A single mistake in the player's calculations yields unexpected results.
  • Do players feel smart?
  • Can players plan multiple moves ahead?
  • Can players debug why their plans didn't work?
Option Complexity
Steel Battalion


Tighter: Fewer options are available to consider. In a recent upgrade system I was building I give players 3 choices for their upgrades.  I could have given them a menu of 60 upgrades, but that would be rather overwhelming.  By focusing the user on a few important choices, I give them the mental space to think about each and pick the one with the biggest impact.
  • Can I reduce the options?  
  • If I had to remove one choice, what would it be? Would the game be better?
  • Which options are the most meaningful?
Looser: A large number of options must be considered.  In a game of Go there are often dozens of potential moves and hundreds of secondary moves.  This options complexity is a large part of why the game has been played for thousands of years. 
  • How do current options yield an exploding horizon of future options?
  • How do I re-balance outcomes to make more options useful?
Social Complexity
Death of Lord British in Ultima Online


Tighter: Another human broadly signals intent, capabilities and internal mental state.  In an MMO, a player dresses as a high level healer and stands in a spot where adhoc groups meet up. There's a good chance you know what they'll do if you ask them to go adventuring together.  Or in a managed trade window, you know exactly what you are getting when he puts up a potion for your sword.  There is little ambiguity.
  • Can I make a character automatically signal future intent via their current actions?
  • Do the options collapse to a reasonable number so that I can predict what the other player might do if they are acting rationally?
  • Do I know enough about the goals and resources of the other player?
  • Have a spent enough time with the other player to model their internal state?
  • Are there predictable methods of interacting between players?
Looser: Another human disguises, distorts or mutes intent, capabilities and their mental state.  
  • Can people communicate?
  • Can people lie and what is the impact of that?
  • Can people harm others? Can they help? Are there repercussions?
  • To what degree is my choice dependent on another player's choice?
  • What are group dynamics that influence behavior?
Time Pressure
WarioWare


Tighter: Requires simulating the model at the player’s preferred pace.  This is related to processing and option complexity since players can only execute their models at a given pace.  Players are more likely to make causal connections if the time pressure is greatly reduced.   For example, the game NetHack has complexly interwoven systems that require real detective work to decipher.  In order to increase the likelihood that players will make the connection, the game is set up as a turn-based game where players may take as much time as they want between turns.  You'll see that as the situation becomes more complex, even good players will slow down their play substantially so they can understand all the ramifications.
  • How much time does the player need to understand what is happening?
  • Can I let the player choose their pacing or do I need to force a universal timing?
  • What are the multiplayer ramifications?
Looser: Requires simulating the model quickly.  In a game of WarioWare, there isn't really much complexity involved in each individual puzzle.  However, we can dramatically ramp up the cognitive load and increase outcome uncertainty by setting a very short timer. 
  • Would time pressure push the player's cognitive load into a pleasurable flow zone?
  • Is the player feeling analysis paralysis?
  • Is the player feeling wildly out of control?

Applying the tightening techniques

When I run into the common situation where players don't understand the system, I often use the tightening techniques to make the system's cause and effect relationship more crisply defined for the player.  In almost all cases, my changes are in response to observations stemming from playing a prototype myself or from watching someone else play a prototype.   I find them to be most useful as tuning techniques and less reliable for making grand plans in the absence of functional code.

Gameplay is composed of loops and these loops have distinct stages (Actions, Rules, Feedback, Updating of the player's mental model).  Depending on where in the loop the observed issue might be, I use different techniques to tweak it.

Action Problems
  • Option complexity
  • Pacing
Rules Problems
  • Processing complexity
  • Probability
  • Indirection
  • Linearity
Feedback Problems:  Feedback failures are the most common error I find when dealing when implementing known systems. Most new designer make feedback errors.  Intermediate designs often focus on feedback to the exclusion of other problem areas. 
  • Strength of feedback
  • Noisiness
  • Sensory Type
  • Hidden information
  • Discreteness
Modeling Problems:  
  • Time pressure
  • Tapping existing mental models

Tightness vs the stage of player mastery

Skill loops build upon one another.  The jumping in Mario evolves into advanced platform navigating skills. What I find is that often the lowest levels of skill loops need to be the tightest. These are the systems you need to be most obvious in the first seconds of play...they are the gateway into the rest of the game, so to speak.  Keep the number of options low, tap into existing mental models and make the cause and effect as crisp and obvious as possible.  Then once the player is comfortable manipulating the basic system, you can introduce looser connections that take more effort to master.

The player's perception of tightness and looseness changes over time. There's a mental chunking operation that occurs as we master skills. Sequences that were once confusing and complex get reduced down to easily repeated and manipulated patterns. So the higher level skills that are made of multiple chunked precursor skills end up feeling very clear and obvious. You'll often find controls that a new player describes as twitchy or sloppy are described by an expert player as extremely precise and tight. Mastery can turn loose systems into tight tools.

Conclusion

New designers often treat the systems at the heart of their games as inviolate features of nature.  The properties of a sniper rifle, the combo system in Street Fighter or the energy system in a farming game are treated as mathematical facts.  You can tweak some values, but the basic system has always existed and will always exist.  Yet the truth is that these systems were invented and then adopted because they had useful properties.  They are easy to pickup, yet provide sufficient depth for long term mastery.  They are designed artifacts.

We can design new systems that hit the sweet spot between mysterious and boring.  By looking at you new games through the lenses listed above (and likely some others that I'm forgetting) you can iteratively tune the systems, models and skills at the heart of your game to be more or less understandable. By following a methodical process of invention, you can take a weak game and turn it into a great game that dances hand-in-hand with player capabilities.

take care,
Danc.



Goodbye Realm of the Mad God
Posted by Lost Garden [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 19 June 2012, 12:45 am
It is hard to let go of something you’ve worked on for such a long time, but such is life.

After a rather successful launch of Realm of the Mad God on Steam and Kongregate, our partners at Wild Shadow Studios decided that the best course of action was to sell the game to a larger operator, and we agreed to sell our stake alongside them.

Kabam will be operating the game from here on out and Willem Rosenthal, who has been designing the new dungeons and loot in RotMG for several months now, will stay on board to guide the project going forward.


Before

RotMG will always be a special game for David and I. Alex Carobus is one of the most talented programmers we’ve ever had the pleasure to work with, and the game itself pushed the boundaries of what an MMO could be. When we started out, RotMG had the bare bones of a multiplayer bullet hell shooter. The foundations of the game were fascinating: coop only, permadeath, procedurally generated worlds, and retro 8-bit art. It had such promise, but it was on track to end up as just another interesting game jam prototype.

After

Over the course of 2+ years, we worked with Alex to turn RotMG into a full-fledged MMO with more meaningful cooperation, a trading system, guilds, a compelling advancement system and community full of passionate players. We measured fun, retention and monetization and steadily increased all of them. At this point, millions of people have played a game that at first glance appears to be a niche hobby project.

I'm particularly proud of how monetization turned out in RotMG. The game is completely free-to-play, but it is not a pay-to-win game. Skill matters (much more so than in many other games) and the items we offer for sale for hard currency never imbalance the game. In fact, some purchases (such as dungeon keys) are highly social purchases that can benefit free players as much as they do the original buyer.

If you are interested in learning more about how RotMG evolved, David gave a lecture at GDC that you can watch for free at: http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1015659/Realm-of-the-Counter-Intuitive

We wish the best of luck to Kabam as it proceeds to make the most of a very special game. And to the RotMG community: we want you to know how grateful we are for the years of support and encouragement you gave us. We appreciate how hard you pushed us to be better at our craft, and how warmly and generously you treated us when we weren’t screwing things up. ;-)

We wish we could have continued to grow RotMG alongside you, but we know we’re leaving you in good hands. In the meantime, we’re going to keep cranking away on a couple of new online games that we’ve been quietly developing for the past year or so. We can’t wait to share 'em with you!

-'Chedd' and 'SpryFox' signing off from Realm of the Mad God.



Looking to hire unicorn programmer for Spry Fox
Posted by Lost Garden [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 May 2012, 6:53 pm

Hi everyone -- my company Spry Fox is looking to hire a senior-level engineer/developer. If you are not this person but have worked with someone you love and trust, let me know!

Job title
We don't really do titles here. Feel free to call yourself something amusing and/or impressive.

What we're looking for...
  • Senior level engineer (five to ten years of work experience, minimum.)
  • Can program both the front end and back end of an original online game - by themselves or as half a team of two
  • Has worked on multiple shipped games in the past
  • Very comfortable with frequent, rapid iteration (daily to weekly)
  • Excited about original, free to play games
  • Familiarity with Flash and Unity is a major plus but not a requirement. It's actually more important for whomever we hire to be flexible and not wedded to any given language, as we frequently find ourselves adjusting our tech to meet specific circumstances.
  • You must be a self-starter who can work effectively without being closely managed or prodded. This is a company for entrepreneurs, not worker bees.
  • Reliability and honesty are essential.  We love working with nice people. 
  • Location is not an issue; we all work remotely. But if you live in Seattle or the Bay Area, you'll get to have lunch with us pretty regularly. :-)
About us
Spry Fox is a successful developer of online games that have collectively reached over 30m people. Our titles include Steambirds, Triple Town, Realm of the Mad God and Panda Poet. We are passionate about two things: making great original games and bringing happiness to the world.  It is kind of a sweet gig.

Send unicorn intros to jobs@spryfox.com

take care,
Danc and David



Prototyping challenge: Make a web-based 3D modeling toy
Posted by Lost Garden [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 May 2012, 8:48 pm
I'm rather obsessed with user generated content, particularly art tools.  Recently, I had a wonderful experience with Realm of the Mad God.  Alex Carobus added in a simple pixel editor that allowed anyone to create sprites that might be used in the game.  Very rapidly, players created thousands of truly delightful pieces of art.

Inspired by this, I set a design challenge for myself.
  • 3D in a browsers. What is an easy-to-use 3D modeling tool that lives in the browser?
  • Unique style:  I want the output to be instantly recognizable as being created in this toy.  That means radically constraining the tools.  Instead, I was particularly inspired by the extruded 3D style of Land-a Panda. 

  • Minimalism: Are there any ways of simplifying 3D modeling? What is the pixel editor equivalent of a 3D modeling tool?
  • Professional results:  Can we build something where you look at the results and think "Wow, that is really nice."  Think of it as the Instagram effect. I'm particularly targeting casual games, but I suspect if that is nailed, people will find all sorts of uses for the toy. 
What I'm avoiding:
  • No copying an existing tool.  Sure there are well established paths for 3D modeling or vector editing, but that is too easy.  Lets go back to the design roots of these complex monstrosities and build up something elegant and different. 
  • No voxels: I don't want to use voxels.  Minecraft already does this so let's push in a wacky new direction. 
The closest I've found that fits these constraints is the amazing TinkerCad, which is a simplified solid modeling tool.  It is very nice, but only really ticks the first checkbox.

Here's what I've come up with.  If anyone find the idea curious enough and wants to build a prototype over a few weekends, I'm happy to collaborate.  This wacky, broken and experimental.  But what is the fun in sharing only perfect ideas?

Model Toy


Model Toy: An easy to use drawing and modeling tool for making stylized objects

Model Toy is a 'back to the roots' effort that asks if you can make a modeling tool by only manipulating vertices on simple curves. The tool is made of several basic elements
  • Grid-based drawing plane: All drawing occurs on a plane.  This can feel more like a 2D tools than a 3D tool. 
  • Shapes:  The key primitive is a unique extruded vector shape defined by 4 points on a plane. 99% of the time, the artist is moving around vertices. 
  • Shape Palette:  A list of available primitive shapes. 
  • Shape Properties:  List of the current shape's color, extrusion, etc. 

Shapes

The heart of the tool are these odd 2D path-based primitives that Pete Blois and I have been experimenting with.
  • The shape is a 2D vector composed of 3 to 4 vertices. 
  • Each vertex is either a rounded corner, half rounded or straight corner. 
  • Vertices only snap point on the grid. 
  • The shape can be extruded and beveled. 
These actually came out of a lot of different experiments and I realized something really obvious.
  • Engineers tend to make art primitives that have lots of knobs and widgets...they are highly parametric objects with a complex interface.  
  • Yet, many artists don't necessarily think in terms of complex objects.  Instead, they use simple  things that are easily manipulated and then repeat the same tweaking action thousands of times until the composite result is interesting.  There are no explicit 'rotation' or 'scale' operation when painting.  Yet the results are still impressive.  
  • So this design preferences 'tweaking thousands of times' over 'a complex object where you set variables once'.

Basic move, scale and translate operations

One interesting aspect of these primitives is that they don't have an explicit scale, rotation or translation matrix for the user to manipulate.  Instead, all those operations are performed by moving vertices around. That's all you really do in this tool...move vertices about.
  • Move shape: Click on a shape to select it. Drag on the body to move it around.  This moves all vertices together.  Note that all vertices always snap to the grid. 
  • Deformation: You can deform a primitive by moving its vertices in a 3D plane. Drag on the square surrounded a vertex to move it to a new grid point. 
  • Rotate: To rotate, move vertices one by one until the new shape looks rotated.  This is not true rotation since the snapping to the grid will not allow true rotation.   However, the result will look rotated and that is all that matters in art.  This works surprisingly well. 

There are big limits on the shapes

We could allow thousand of these objects on the screen.  But instead I'm inspired by the elegance of low resolution pixel art where beauty comes from working within limitations. 
  • All vertices are constrained to a 16x16 square grid.  This allows for easy selection of vertices and accurate adjoining of shapes. 
  • There are only 32 shapes in any one model.  This encourages the artist to create elegant compositions. 
  • Each shape is one of 16 colors in a fixed palette. 

Shape Toolbar


There are four basic shapes you can create with this method.  Click one of the primitive button on the toolbar and the shape is added to the scene.
  • Circle: 4 rounded vertices
  • Rectangle: 4 straight vertices
  • Half Circle: 3 vertices: 1 curved and 2 half curve / half straight
  • Triangle: 3 straight vertices 
Example shapes that can be created by moving vertices about on grid

    One system for defining hidden control handles

    The follow is one method of getting the desired curves using bezier handles. Straight corners are a trivia case, but round and half round need to be tweaked to allow for aesthetically pleasing circular geometries.

    • For round corners, handles are defined only by adjacent vertices (vertex 2 and 3 are adjacent to 1)
    • Handles are parallel to the line segment ‘a’
    • Length of handle is proportionate to segment ‘a’  (Note that the .27 in the diagram is a value that results in 4 round corners arranged in a square yields a perfect circle.  There is likely a mathematical means of deriving this as well, but that is beyond me. :-) 


    • For half round, half corner points, calculating the normal based off the points adjacent to vertex 1 (in the picture above) results in a bowed out shape.
    • Instead, mirror point 2 across the line segment A. This creates a new ‘Fake A’ that goes in the correct direction.
    • The new curve handle for point 1 is now parallel and proportionate to ‘Fake A’

    What this toy lacks

    • 2D scale and Rotation: With such simple primitives that are easily rearranged, we don’t need these operations.
    • Full color picker: You can’t define arbitrary colors
    • Layers and grouping: With 32 shapes, a shape list is the layer list
    • Lines: There is only the shape color. Later on, we can have effects that apply to the object as a whole.
    • Empty shapes: Shapes always have a fill color.

    Extending to 3D

    To the left is the side view palette.  This is a bit like a layer palette in photoshop, but it also lets you control Z-depth.  This is a bit geeky and isn't my favorite part of the design, but worth trying.

    • Dragging on the body of the shape moves it left or right.  This is changing the depth of the object. 
    • Dragging on the left side of the shape extrude backwards. This snaps to the grid. 
    • Dragging on the right side extrudes forwards. This snaps to the grid. 
    • The profile of the shape shows its bevel. 

    Other shape Properties


    You can select a shape and edit its properties.
    • Color: Click a shape, click a color and the shape becomes that color.
    • Bevel:  Select the bevel for the object.  No bevel, rounded corners, dome, flat bevel
    • Extrusion:  Select how far you want the object to be extruded. 

    Open questions

    • Is this expressive enough?
    • Is there a better method of expressing the 3D extrusion?
    • How might it be simplified even further?

    Near Future

    The first part of the challenge is to get a basic editor up and running. For these new drawing tools you usually need to build it and then iterate on it 5 to 10 times so that the feel of the program is solid.

    Web-based editing, saving and viewing
    The model is editable in a browser window. You can save to a database and load. You can share the model with another user and they can make a copy of it and edit their own version.

    3D view
    Once you have a 3D view you can rotate the drawing plane to see the object from from various angles.  Some experiments to try:
    • The plane always snaps back to the frontal view when you release. 
    • Alternatively if you rotate the object 90 degrees, it snap to the side view and swap the side view for the front view in the other palette.  

    Export options

    • 3D model: Exports a static 3D model for import into something like Maya, 3DS or Unity. 
    • Bitmap: Export as a series of X (64?) images rotated around a center point. Includes Alpha

    Far future

    Shader sets
    Users can load in different shader sets as alternates to the base 16 colors. For example, there is a wood set that has different types and tones of wood. Or there is a metal set that has pitted bronze, steel and copper.

    Post processing and Lighting Presets
    You can apply a variety of preset post processing filters much like Instagram. Honestly this is where the magic occurs. The idea is that these are incredibly high quality professional filters that give your simple model a distinct style.
    • Outline: Add an outline to the image so that it looks like Land-a-panda. 
    • Pop art: Dot shading.
    • Sepia: Grainy, old timey image
    States
    Define states for each model with each state have a different configuration of the 32 shapes.  For example, you could have a walk state and an attack state for a character.

    Now if you bundle these states into templates, you could provide users with a 'character template' that they can fill out to their heart's content to create a thousand unique characters that all 'work' the same.

    Animations between states
    Allow for tweening animations between states.  Add ease in and ease out for basic timing.

    Conclusion

    This odd art toy is not a perfect tool.  Having made art for a few decades now, I'm not sure there is such at thing.  Instead it is series of constraints.  The theory is that these constraints will yield interesting art when placed in the hands of motivated artists.  We've seen this happen before.  Vector art is a style that emerged from the limits and strengths of printing technology.  Pixel art emerged from the constraints of early computer displays.  There is an exuberant creativity within carefully chosen walls. Is it possible to artificially foster that?

    Mostly I wanted to share these ideas.   For the folks that love an oddball project, this might be fun to play around with for a weekend or two.  It is certainly a way to learn about curves, 3D extrusions (and the exquisite pain of iterating on an artist-centric UI.)  I'd be delighted to give feedback and try out prototypes if any emerge.

    Long term if the basics works out, I could see making an entire professionally polished game in this art style with every single character, wall, door and tree built out of these shapes. This is the real test. Once you get artist trying their hardest to build real things with a new art tool, a feedback loop is born.  The artist asks for tiny yet critical features you could have never imagined.  After a few dozen iterations, the simple odd tool begins enabling amazing artists to create a certain kind of masterpiece.

    take care,
    Danc.





    Loops and Arcs
    Posted by Lost Garden [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 29 April 2012, 8:15 pm
    Here are two tools I've been using lately to better understand the functionality of my game designs.  The first is the loop, a structure that should be very familiar to those who have looked into skill atoms.  The second is the arc.

    Loops


    The 'game' aspect of this beast we call a computer game always involves 'loops'.
    • The player starts with a mental model that prompts them to...
    • Apply an action to...
    • The game system and in return...
    • Receives feedback that...
    • Updates their mental model and starts the loop all over again.  Or kicks off a new loop. 
    These loops are fractal and occur at multiple levels and frequencies throughout a game. They are almost always exercised multiple times, either within a game or by playing the game multiple times.

    Nested, dependent loops yields complex feedback loops and unexpected dynamics.  Loops tend to deliver value through the act of being exercised.  Thus they are well suited for mastery tasks that involve trial and error or repeated exposure. The goal of both loops and arcs is to update the player's mental model, however loops tend to rely on a balance of the following:
    • Interrelated actions that trigger multiple loops in order to bring about specific system dynamics.
    • Systems of crisply defined cause and effect that yield self contained systems of meaning.
    • Functional feedback that helps players understand causation. 
    Loops are very good at building 'wisdom', a holistic understanding of a complex system.  The player ends up with a mental model that contains a thousand branches, successes, failures and nuances that lets them approach new situations with confidence.

    Arcs


    'Arcs' have similar elements to a loop, but are not built for repeated usage. The player still starts with a mental model, they apply an action to a system and receive feedback. This arc of interaction could be reading a book or watching a movie. However, the mental model that is updated rarely results in the player returning to the same interaction. The movie is watched. The book consumed. An arc is a broken loop you exit immediately.

    Arcs are well suited for delivering a payload of pre-processed information.  You'll typically find many arcs have the following footprint:
    • Simple independent actions such as turning a page or watching a movie
    • Simple systems that rely heavily on complex mental models to have meaning.  Text on a page is a good example. 
    • Complex evocative feedback that links together existing mental models in some unique, interesting or useful manner.  For arcs, the feedback is 99% of the payload and the actions and systems are simply a means to an end.  Once this payload is fully delivered, the value of repeated exposure to the arc drops substantially. 
    Arcs are highly efficient at communicating 'success stories', a singular path through a system that someone else previously explored. The best teach a lesson, either informative, positive or negative. This is a brilliant learning shortcut but the acquired knowledge is often quite different and less robust in the face of change than 'wisdom'. With a slight shift in context, the learning becomes no longer directly applicable. It is not an accident that we make the distinction between 'book learning' and 'life experience'.

    One of the common issues with arcs is that people burn out on them rapidly, rarely desiring to experience them more than once. It is possible to give arcs a bit more staying power by stringing them together serially in a sequence of arcs. This is a pretty proven technique and is at the base of the majority of commercial attempts to give content arcs longer retention.  Businesses that rely on a constant sequence of arcs to bring in ongoing revenue often find themselves running along the content treadmill.  If you stop producing content, the business fails.

    Any loop can be superficially described as a series of arcs with one arc for each pass you make through the loop. This is an expanded loop. This is useful for recording a particular play-through, however it tells you little about the possibility space described by the loops.  Where loops often describe a statistical spectrum of outcomes, the arc notation describes only a single sample.

    Mixing Loops and Arcs

    Since both loops and arcs can be easily nested and connected to one another, in practice you end up with chemistry-like mixtures of the two that can get a bit messy to tease apart.  The simplest method of analysis is to ask "What repeats and what does not?"



    Narrative games are the most common example of mixing loops and arcs.  A simple combination might involve layering a segment where the player is engaged with loops with a segments of arcs.  This is your typical cutscene-gameplay-cutescene sandwich.

    However, the analysis can get far more detailed.  For example:
    • Parallel Arcs: You can treat the emotional payload of song as an arc that plays in parallel to the looping gameplay.
    • Levels:  The spatial arc of navigating a level provides context for exploring variations on a central gameplay loop. The 'Golden Path' in a single player level is really just another name for an arc. 
    • Micro Parallel Arcs:  A game like Half Life combines both levels and parallel arcs to deliver snippets of evocative stimuli as you progress through the level. 
    These structures also exist in traditional media. For example, if you look at a traditionally arc-based form such as a book, you find an odd outlier in the form of the Bible.  At one level of analysis it can be seen as a story arc that you read through and finish.  However, it is embedded in a much larger set of loops we casually refer to as a religion. The game-like loops include everything from worship rituals to the mining of the Bible in order to synthesize weekly sermons.  The arc is a central rule book for a larger game consisting primarily of loops.

    In the past I've discussed criticism as a game that attempts to revisit an arc repeatedly and embellish it with additional meaning.  The game is to generate essays superficially based on some piece of existing art.  In turn, other players generate additional essays based off the first essays.  This acts as both a referee mechanism and judge.  Score is accumulated via reference counts and by rising through an organization hierarchy.  It is a deliciously political game of wit that is both impenetrable to outsiders and nearly independent of the actual source arcs.  Here creating an arc becomes a move in the larger game. Intriguingly, tabletop roleplaying games use a similar core structure though the high level rewards differ.

    Even in these complex cases, understanding which behavior is a loop and which is an arc helps tease apart the systemic behaviors. Of the two, loops are rarely discussed in any logical fashion.  People note the arcs and comment on them at length while being quite blind to the loops driving the outcomes. Both criticism and religions are lovely examples of how loop analysis can provide a practical description of the game's ruleset and magic circle even when the actual players are only vaguely aware of their constraints.

    The growth of arcs in games

    In the pre-computer era, games dealt almost entirely with loops.  The light arcs that games like Chess or Monopoly contained served the highly functional purpose of triggering a player's mental schema.  Once that setup payload was delivered, the games focused almost entirely on loops. One could easily claim that historically the term 'game' was used to describe an entertainment made predominantly of loops.

    With the advent of computer games, designers started mixing more arcs with their loops. Adventure games, game endings and other narrative elements became more prevalent.  There are strong cultural and economic reason why this occurred at this period of time that are not strictly an inherent function of the computer game medium.

    The primary driver for the proliferation of arc-based games is that they fit nicely into the existing retail business model.  Over the past 40-years, the dominant way you made money off media was to sell the customer an arc, be it a book, an album or a movie.  Once they had consumed that, you sold them another one.  With a large enough portfolio of games (typically managed by a publisher), you'd get a reliable stream of revenue.

    As is the case with evolutionary systems, certain ill-fitting forms of games were punished financially and thus faded from the market. Assume you tried to build a popular evergreen game. You sell it once and that is the only money you get for the rest of the consumer's life. The retailers didn't want that outcome. Nor did the publishers. They preferred to sell players multiple games a year, year after year. The developers that made games that fit the constraints of this specific market reality flourished with profits from mega hits used to fund future moon launches.  Many of the modern game tropes such as beatable games, sequels, game concept conveyable by box covers, etc are a direct result this early retail environment.

    Again, this is a statistical process, not a conspiracy.  Mammals and dinosaurs coexisted for millions of year but the shifting climate ended up being more amendable to one form than the other.  During the retail era, evergreen games still existed, but in diminished quantities.

    Since systems are hard to understand, one popular just-so story that emerged during this period that arc-heavy games are some ideal outcome of new computer technology. This matured into a strange arc-worshipping segment of the population that predicts a technology-driven singularity for games that involves ever richer payloads and an eventual acceptance as an equal of other arc-centric media. Someone like David Cage, maker of Heavy Rain, is a modern example of such ideals.  But the roots go back much further to the dreams of early science fiction writers and researchers that had little practical experience with creating games.  They sold us a delightful dream for the future of games without understanding the first thing about the actual loop-like nature of games.

    On reflection, it seems quite false to claim computers enabled arc-heavy gaming. A choose-your-own adventure was technologically feasible a hundred years ago. This suggests that arc-heavy games are not nearly as inevitable as some might imagine.

    Consider the arcade market with its very different business requirements.  The arcade owners, publishers and developers were less interested in selling consumable boxes and more interested in repeat play.  This business constraint encouraged the creation of evergreen loop-based games that thrived for decades. The market and the culture hugely shapes the form of the games we make. It is certainly not locked in stone.

    The market is shifting once again.  With in-app purchases, there is a large financial benefit to keeping the player engaged both emotionally and financially for long periods of time.  A fit game is one that you play forever all while paying for your hobby.  It is not one you beat and cast aside. This suggests that loop-heavy games may be making a comeback.

    Untangling loops and arcs in existing game forms

    So how do we evolve our designs with the market environment?  One exercise I've been performing on various games is identifying loop and arcs in a popular genre and then removing the arcs to see if what is left stands on its own.  What I've discovered is that arcs are almost never critical game elements. You can remove them and still have a playable game.

    As an exercise, take your favorite genre (such as platform games) and remove the following:
    • Puzzles
    • Missions
    • Narrative sequences that are not specifically functional feedback that powers the completion of a loop.
    To take this one step further, remove any elements of a computer game that you can 'beat' or that render the game boring or meaningless upon repeated play.

    Can you make a wonderful game out of the remaining bones?  The vast majority of the time you can.  Even deeply arc-heavy graphical adventure games yield procedural hidden object games at their root.  Now, you can never get rid of arcs completely, nor would you want to.  Loops and arcs are ingredients and the goal is to create a new recipe with different mix rather than unquestioningly recreated the same meal again and again.

    A brilliant future for loops

    However, this is admittedly a rather reductive exercise.  What I'm far more interested in is what happens when we, as designers and developers, invest our full energy in exploring the potential of loops.  The language here is far less developed and it is an extremely fertile field for a young developer to make their mark.  Consider the following sparely settled frontiers:
    • Both Will Wright and Notch made millions by exploring the loops of player expression.  
    • Eve forges forth into new territory with every update by exploring the loops of economics and politics.  
    • Star Craft thrives because it taps into the mastery loops at the competitive heart of sports.  
    • No one is even talking about the loops inherent in religion, a system that has driven the behavior of humanity for thousands of years. 
    • Games of improv or bluffing or charades are all loop-based activities with nearly zero traction in the markets today.  These are games that can be played for life. 

    Conclusion

    Look for loops and arcs in your game.  What is the balance between the two elements in your design?  What does your game need?

    This isn't a black and white situation and I respectfully ask you to avoid couching this in any tired us vs them terminology.  There is not one market.  You may find that the traditional arc-heavy recipes are exactly what you need.  If you are selling to a community whose norms for buying games were set during the retail era, creating a great beatable payload of entertainment may make you a lot of money.   Many of the popular indie sales channels remain conservative recreations of markets past.  It is a well trodden path.
    • Author evocative arcs
    • Build sequels 
    • Reduce portfolio risk in order to survive long droughts between mega hits 
    If you are making a more modern evergreen game, consider how loops may result in delivering long term value to the players.  Question the forms of a traditional game and ask yourself if they are still valid in today's market.
    • Invent dynamic loops
    • Build a hobby
    • Create a fortified island nation with an ongoing stream of revenue
    This is admittedly the harder path.  You need to analyze your design preconceptions. You need to understand the psychological functionality of what you are building something instead of merely mimicking patterns of the last generation.  Break your game down into loops and arcs.  Understand what is filler.  Understand what core elements form a endless engine for generating value (be it 'fun' or your outcome of choice.)

    Above all, evolve.

    take care,
    Danc.




    Giving a talk at plague stricken GDC 2012 on sexy-sexy innovation
    Posted by Lost Garden [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 1 March 2012, 11:15 pm
    It is that time of year when I bodysurf the sweating developer crowds in San Francisco and inevitably contract to some horrible nerd-specific viral infection. Current theory: Never touch the glasses.  The past three years have resulted in the entire week of GDC being a blur of  fever and fatigue-induced hallucinations interspersed with violently explosive sneezing fits.  Here's to GDC 2012: Reliving Twelve Monkeys for the fourth year in a row.

    Somewhere in the midst of all this, I'll be giving a talk on game design.  David, who somehow manages to thrive on the additional contact with humanity, is doubling down on two talks.  His immune system must be made of titanium.  Alternatively, I hear if you eat a school teacher at the first sign of illness, you double the effectiveness of Cold-Eeze.  No wonder there is a teacher shortage.  I blame GDC.

    Here's my plan.  I'm just going to stand on some stage, deep in a fog of over-the-counter drugs and say something, anything.  Last year, people looked like rhubarb-colored elephants.  I hope my mouth movements makes sense to the mysterious minds behind those enormous loxodontal ears.  I never watch the videos afterwards so I'm blissfully ignorant of the actual outcome.

    Realm of the Counter-Intuitive God (SOGS Postmortem)
    SPEAKER/S: David Edery (Spry Fox)
    Monday 11:15-12:15 Room 135, North Hall
    Social and Online Games Summit / 60-Minute Lecture
    Description: Realm of the Mad God is a web-based f2p MMO with a penchant for breaking rules. It’s a MMO bullet-hell-shooter… in Flash. It is based on open source art. It features permadeath (the ultimate in retention challenges)! And it just so happens to be surprisingly popular and very profitable. This lecture will review some of the unusual design and business choices we made and explore which worked, which didn’t, and why. Financial and other data will be shared (and not just the stuff that makes us look good).

    Create New Genres (and Stop Wasting Your Life in the Clone Factories)
    SPEAKER/S: Daniel Cook (Spry Fox)
    Tuesday 3:00-4:00 Room 135, North Hall
    Social and Online Games Summit / 60-Minute Lecture
    Description: Re-releasing old designs with pretty new graphics means me-too titles fighting off a crowd of similar products. This is the path to mediocrity. To become a master designer, you need to break past a slavish devotion of past forms and create vibrant, new experiences. This design talk covers practical techniques for reinventing game genres. The goal is the invention of a unique and highly differentiated customer value proposition that makes both strong business sense and is also deeply creatively fulfilling. We cover designing from the root, reducing design risk, and igniting original franchises. We also cover the pitfalls of design innovation including fending off shark-like fast followers and other cloners. The presentation covers personal examples from recent titles such as Steambirds, Realm of the Mad God, Triple Town and other innovative successes.

    How F2P Games Blur the Line Between Design and Business
    SPEAKER/S: Soren Johnson (Game Developer Magazine), Ben Cousins (ngmoco Sweden), Matthias Worch (LucasArts), Tom Chick (Quarter to Three) and David Edery (Spry Fox)
    Friday 4:00-5:00 Room 2003, West Hall, 2nd Fl
    60-Minute Panel
    The free-to-play movement is here to stay and will touch every corner of the games industry. However, the format blurs the line between game design and game business, so that business decisions will become increasingly indistinguishable from design decisions. Free-to-play content must be fun enough to attract and retain players but not so much fun that no one feels the need to spend some money. Managing this tension makes free-to-play design extremely difficult, especially for traditional game designers who are used to simply making the best game possible. Our panelists will discuss this transition and best practices for building free-to-play games with soul.

    See you there.
    Danc.



    Standing up for ourselves
    Posted by Lost Garden [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 29 January 2012, 11:00 am
    Sometimes you need to stand up for yourself, or you're just begging to be taken advantage of.

    We (Spry Fox) have filed a copyright infringement suit in federal court against 6Waves LOLAPPS in response to their release of Yeti Town, their blatant copy of Triple Town. This was a difficult decision for David and I. We are not enthusiastic about the prospect of spending our time in court as opposed to making games. And in general, we believe that only in the most extreme circumstances should a video game developer resort to legal action in order to defend their creative works — the last thing our industry needs is frivolous lawsuits. Unfortunately, it is our opinion that 6waves has behaved in a reprehensible and illegal manner, and we can not, in good conscience, ignore it.

    The full legal complaint can be downloaded here. In particular, I will call attention to these issues:

    First: Yeti Town, as launched by 6waves, was a nearly perfect copy of Triple Town. We’re not just talking about the game’s basic mechanics here. We’re talking about tons of little details, from the language in the tutorial, to many of our UI elements, to the quantities and prices of every single item in the store (how exactly did 6waves “independently” decide to price 200 turns for 950 coins, or 4 wildcards for 1500 coins each? That’s quite a coincidence!) But don’t take our word for it. Here are just a few quotes taken from the numerous press articles that were published shortly after the release of Yeti Town:

    • Gamezebo: "Unfortunately for Yeti Town, the only substantial difference between it and Facebook’s Triple Town is the platform it's on. Otherwise it’s the exact same game, only this time with snow."
    • InsideSocialGames: "Yeti Town is a matching game nearly identical to Spry Fox’s Triple Town"
    • Games.com: "Replace "saplings" with "bushes", "tents" with "houses" and "yetis" with "bears". What do you get? Something that would look a lot like independent developer Spry Fox's Triple Town"

    Second: what most people don’t know is that 6waves was in confidential (under NDA) negotiations with us to publish Triple Town at the exact same time that they were actively copying Triple Town. We gave 6waves private access to Triple Town when it was still in closed beta, months before the public was exposed to the game. We believed those negotiations were ongoing, and we continued to give private information to 6waves, until 6waves’ Executive Director of Business Development sent us a message via Facebook on the day Yeti Town was published in which he suddenly broke off negotiations and apologized for the nasty situation. His message can be found in its entirety in the body of our legal complaint.

    It’s bad enough to rip off another company. To do so while you are pumping them for private information (first, our game design ideas, and later, after the game was launched on Facebook, our private revenue and retention numbers) is profoundly unethical by any measure.

    Despite all this, David and I still struggled with the idea of initiating a lawsuit. However, 6waves brought the issue to a head when, rather than openly and honestly discuss their actions, they had the chutzpah to tell Gamasutra that they had developed Yeti Town completely independently, and characterized the legitimate public criticism of their company as simply “part of the natural process” of game development.

    We believe that there is nothing “natural” or ethical or legal about 6waves behavior. What they did was wrong. And if they get away with it, it will simply encourage more publishers to prey on independent game developers like us. We refuse to sit back and let that happen.

    -Dave & Danc



    The Real Triple Town available on iOS and Android
    Posted by Lost Garden [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 19 January 2012, 5:56 pm

    The holidays were crazy. Instead of opening presents, we were putting the finishing touches on the mobile version of Triple Town. Some late nights all around. Big kudos to Cliff Owen for doing an immense amount of the heavy lifting.

    Triple Town for iPhone and iPad
    http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/triple-town/id490532168?ls=1&mt=8

    Triple Town for Android
    https://market.android.com/details?id=com.spryfox.tripletown



    If you love Triple Town, please download it (it is free) and rate it. We are in a bit of a David and Goliath situation here since a very large and nasty company copied Triple Town on mobile right at the end of December. We're a small team and we work hard, but moving to the phone took a few precious months. I don't quite know how to express the feeling of bleeding our lives out trying to finish the game...all while watching a soulless shark lavishly spend VC cash to ride up the chart. Using my own design. That was like a punch in the gut. Betrayal, violation and powerlessness all wrapped up into one unpleasant emotion. This has easily been one of the most emotionally difficult releases I've ever done.

    To add insult to injury, the night we get ready to upload the Android version we make an awkward discovery: There was already a game called Triple Town being sold by a certain Mr. WangYang.  In fact, it was Triple Town.  The art was ripped from the web version.  The logo was the same.  Check out that screenshot...captured for posterity.  I want to send big thank you to Google.  Even though their offices had closed for the night, they took down the fake immediately.  That was deeply appreciated.

    Ripped off: An example of a counterfeit game.

    The best and most positive thing anyone who loves innovative indie games can do is spread the word about the original. Share the link. Download Triple Town. Write a review. Tell your friends. Heck, I tell strangers in coffee shops.

    No one ever complains since a good indie game is an authentic joy. The next time I see someone after introducing them to Triple Town, all they ever want to talk about is Triple Town. It becomes an essential part of their life. It doesn't matter that it was done by a few guys working out of home offices. All that matters is that it is a good, original game that players love. I figure the Fast Follower bastards may have money and evil on their side, but maybe a passionate community and some word of mouth about a decent game can carve a small space for the little guys.

    Big thanks for all the continued requests asking us to make Triple Town for mobile. It kept me going.

    take care,
    Danc.

    PS: Also a lot of folks told me they just wanted to 'buy the damned thing' so even though the game is still free if you want, you can also pay once and get unlimited turns.

    PPS: First game in Unity! Very nice!



    Plagiarism as a moral choice
    Posted by Lost Garden [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 16 November 2011, 9:44 pm

    Plagiarism is defined in dictionaries as the "wrongful appropriation," "close imitation," or "purloining and publication" of another author's "language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions," and the representation of them as one's own original work, but the notion remains problematic with nebulous boundaries.

    The modern concept of plagiarism as immoral and originality as an ideal emerged in Europe only in the 18th century, particularly with the Romantic movement, while in the previous centuries authors and artists were encouraged to "copy the masters as closely as possible" and avoid "unnecessary invention.

    The 18th century new morals have been institutionalized and enforced prominently in the sectors of academia and journalism, where plagiarism is now considered academic dishonesty and a breach of journalistic ethics, subject to sanctions like expulsion and other severe career damage...

    Plagiarism is not a crime per se but is disapproved more on the grounds of moral offence...
    -Wikipedia's entry on Plagiarism

    Thought: Most professional game developers are also professional plagiarists

    Here's a quiz for all the game developers who are reading:

    • Do you follow the rule of thumb "90% familiar, 10% fresh"?
    • When you look at the game you are working on is there a direct comparable?
    • Do your designers say "Oh for that feature, let's model how X did it" and consistently refer to the same pre-existing game?
    • Is your primary reference a game considered original or innovative in the last 3-5 years?
    • Is your primary philosophy of design "I could totally make a better version of game X"
    • Do you copy mechanics and assume that adding different content such as levels or graphics makes your game unique?

    If you follow these patterns, you are likely a plagiarist. To rewrite the industry's golden rule in the language of other arts, "90% is plagiarized and 10% is remixed to give the illusion that the player is engaged in an original work."

    This lazy and morally offensive practice has become a social norm within our incestuous industry. We don't even consider that there might be alternatives. We are the equivalent of the western world before the suffrage movement. Or the South before the civil rights movement. We look at our current derivative behavior, acknowledge that it is harmful and then proceed to dogmatically justify its continued pursuit based off economic, legal, historical and short-term selfish reasons. Yet the fact that 'everyone does it' fails to provide a strong moral foundation for an act that diminishes our industry and damages the minority that strive to create original works.

    Where plagiarism differs from borrowing or evolving key innovations of the past

    It is a common practice to include individual mechanics inspired by previous games. This is a natural part of the creative process. Plagiarism, however borrows systems en mass. It takes not just the movement mechanic from Zelda, but the flow of the dungeons, the majority of the power ups, and the millisecond by millisecond feel of the game.

    A game creates its player dynamics from a coherent set of mechanics, interface and player skill interacting to form deliciously enjoyable loops of play. A well crafted design is a holistic creation and this unified system generates a unique value proposition. Innovation in such a design space is surprisingly easy. Change up some of the central mechanics at the core of the experience and the whole thing needs to be rethought and rebalanced. You very quickly end up with a new game that is unrecognizable as a copy of the source material.

    Yet this rebalance and resynthesis of systems and psychology is risky, difficult work. The plagiarist decides that it is cheaper to copy as much a possible so that the dynamics of a previous game are preserved. Then cosmetic tweaks are applied and the produce is sold as a new thing by an original creator. Changing out the graphics or giving the game a new plot are the most common tweaks because they are easily decoupled without damaging the delicate dynamics of play.  When you look at the game released on the market, you can easily see that there is a spectrum of theft and the most blatant plagiarists are those that steal the most and innovate new mechanics and dynamics the least.

    The economic and human cost to plagiarism

    By cheaply creating games without needing to pay the cost of research and invention, plagiarists are able to quickly release games into markets that the original innovator has not fully addressed. Clones therefore capture value that would have otherwise eventually accrued to the original innovator. For example, clones of Minecraft that reach XBLA earlier tap unmet demand and reduce the audience for Minecraft when it eventually releases there.

    On first blush, consumer advocates might imagine that this is a fine situation. They get a product they like faster and as the population of plagiarists merrily plagiarize one another, you end up with an explosion of quality choices.

    Consider how this effects the original source of the innovation. While the overall market may be larger, the original innovator is left naked with no protection that lets them recoup the cost of the initial invention. There are no legal protections, nor will I argue for them. There is only the stark reality that many smaller independent developers, the life blood of innovation in our current markets, are blindsided by a blast of competition that they lack the development resources, distribution agreements or business expertise to successfully compete against. The plagiarists capture the majority of the market, establish well known evergreen brands and the original innovators are at best a footnote.

    As a result of this tragically common feedback loop, those inclined to innovate are discouraged from innovating in the first place. Why innovate when it costs you money and doesn't yield the competitive advantage you might hope due to the nearly instantaneous influx of copy-cat competitors? It may look like a better business option to simply join the plagiarists and avoid the whole expensive innovation thing in the first place. It is no surprise that the game industry tends to have a large number of evolutionary works, but fewer genre-busting founder works.

    The plagiarist's 'make a buck at any cost' attitude directly results in a creatively stagnant industry long term.  You don't need to look far to see concrete examples of these dynamics in action. Note how quickly the cartoonishly mercenary plagiarism-focused culture of social games turned a bright spot of burgeoning innovation into an endless red ocean of clone after clone within a mere handful of years. Such a wasteland fails to grow the market and ultimately leads to less consumer choice.

    Plagiarist pride

    There is of course skill in plagiarizing well, just as there is skill in forging a famous painting. To be a professional plagiarist is laborious work. I acknowledge this. We've developed a whole subculture of designers that specialize in the subtle arts of copying the work of others. A 'good designer' is one that excels at 'researching comparable games'. They steal with great care from only the best. They also excel at 'polish' which has been warped to mean the skill at reverse engineering a comparable game so that the copy feels identical down to the smallest detail.

    The current industry put such skills on a pedestal. We hire for them and we pay top dollar for reliable execution. Yet at best, these are the skills of a journeyman, mechanically copying the master works of past giants.

    If you stick to doing only this, there's a pretty clear career path. You end up as a wage slave. Typically such laborers are hired by businesses that couldn't give a damn about pushing the craft of game design forward. Instead, the goal is another product for another slot on either the retail shelf or the downloadable dashboard. Grind it out, worker bee. If you can copy a past hit by the flickering candle of midnight crunch, your family gets its ball of rice for the day. This is the entirety of your creative worth. If you go to sleep each night thinking "I'm a hack, but at least I pay the bills", you deserve pity. And you need to contemplate the brief flicker that maybe you don't need to spend your entire career diligently copying others.  Remember when you were a sparklingly original creative person?  Remember when you wanted to change the world? Remember that time before you compromised?

    Plagiarism is a moral choice

    We live in an economic world.  Yes, you need to eat. We also live in a legal world.  There is a rather low minimum bar for our behavior. But as creators and artists, we can each choose where we put our creative energy. What we create has a moral and emotional component that is perhaps more important for both our mental health than any paycheck. To be a plagiarist and to stay a plagiarist is to waste your very limited time on this planet.  What amazing things could you be making if you didn't spend so much time slavishly copying others?

    What's the alternative? Why not start up a small prototyping project? Knock a genre down to its most basic element. Give yourself constraints so you intentionally do not replicate games of the past. Rebuild your game from that simple foundation, borrowing elements from the entire breadth of game history. Finish a game that has a half dozen influences from widely disparate games that in the end create a player experience that is uniquely yours. This is how you stop being a plagiarist and start becoming a master game designer.  There is still time to create something amazing and new.

    take care,
    Danc.

    Interesting



    Panda Poet: My most social design
    Posted by Lost Garden [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 31 October 2011, 3:04 pm

    Way back in 2010, Spry Fox put out a single player word game for the Kindle called Panda Poet.  I had always had some vague ideas for a multiplayer variation so when an opportunity came up to create an original HTML 5 game, I pitched play-by-mail Panda Poet.  As David says over on his blog, this is our third release this month so things have been a wee bit hectic.  Reminder to self: do not launch multiple new games while attempting to vacation in Japan.

    As with all my projects, we spent the first few months heavily iterating on prototype designs.  I went back to the root of the original concept and ended up deviating substantially from the single player mechanics.  The game still involves growing pandas by spelling words.  But now the game is based around a capture mechanism that lets you take pandas from the other player.  The territory aspects of the game give play a rather unique feel and the end result reminds me of "Scrabble meets Go."  The timer countdowns that were such a large part of the single player game are gone.  Playing against another player who constantly creates words out of any letters you didn't use ends up being more than enough pressure to give the game forward momentum.  The arrow of play is strong in this one.

    Go give Panda Poet a try over at game.pandapoet.com.  Or install it on the Chrome Web Store. Invite a friend to play.  It is more fun.

    Putting the social into a game


    Most multiplayer games played over the computer aren't very social.  In console games, you get a lot of teabagging and swearing with very little space or time set aside for meaningful social dialog. In games on social networks, you find people poking one another using cynically automated systems. There's a pushy one-to-many broadcast aspect of the experience that does little to encourage deeper social bonds.

    My wife is a longtime player of Words with Friends and seeing her chatting with complete strangers for months on end reignited my interest in play-by-mail games.  You can think of these games as a bit like a conversation.  You make a statement by playing a turn and then pass the conversation onto the next person so they can respond.  Side by side with the game is a chat window, but the important realization is that both the chat and the moves you make in the game are forms of communication.

    Panda Poet follows a similar model.  It has an inbox, just like an email program and you can have multiple conversations going at once.  Here are some observations:
    • Every interaction is opt-in:  Everytime you choose to make a move, you are signaling that you want to continue the relationship.   There's little penalty for dropping out. 
    • Relationships grow over time:  Many random matches put strangers together.  Initially, people play silently for long stretches of time.  However, very slowly you get the occasional safe comment.  Eventually this blossoms into more detailed conversations.  Trust comes from a long series of safe and reliable interactions.  Each time you submit a turn, you are building trust and respect. 
    • Griefing is difficult: If someone is rude, you just resign from the game and stop playing with them.  Or you don't play the next turn. It is possible to spam someone, but number of people effected is so minimal and the feedback in response to your Killer cleverness so sparse that it is rarely worth it.  The typical incentives driving griefing fizzle without an audience or social status.
    • You can build on existing relationships: When was the last time you did any activity with your brother or close friend from college that now lives a thousand miles away? We live in social world fractured by Schumpeter's creative destruction.  You dwell in distant lands as determined by the latest job opening.  As a result, the deeply meaningful local relationships that dominated life of eras past suffer. Social isolation is a very real consequence of the capitalist eradication of that most charming of labor rigidities, a generational home.  Games like Panda Poet give you a private shared space to reconnect.  Take five minutes out of your day and create a new experience with the ones you once held near. 
    I see immense potential in this style of game and I'll be using similar multiplayer structures in future games.  When you design a game with real social play, ask "What is the intrinsic rhythm of back and forth conversation between participants?"  If this key pattern has no space to exist, then perhaps you aren't creating a social game after all.

    take care,
    Danc.

    Links

    Other Notes

    Successes
    • Easy initial learning curve:  People get that you are supposed to spell words.  There doesn't seem to be much confusion over the basic UI.  
    • The game is reasonably well balanced. I've seen multiple games between two skilled players that are decided based off the final few words.  You almost never find yourself halfway through the game in a position where it is impossible to make a comeback. 
    • Pacing:  I'm adore the short play sessions (a single turn takes 10-30 seconds).  However, since players can have multiple games going, you get a random distribution of games popping up throughout the day much like email or an IM conversation with a friend.  This combined with a daily email archive  prompting people to check back into the site and catch up on waiting games should yield a reasonably high rate of retention. 
    Our big challenges going forward:
    • Complex capture mechanics: The capture mechanics are a dash too complex for casual players to understand the strategic elements of the game immediately.   In particular, it takes multiple games for players to understand how to lock in pandas mid game. 
    • Poor monetization opportunities:  Right now there's just an initial Premium version that removes ads and gives access to a more expansive and strategic board layout.  My suspicion is that we are going to need to do a lot more work to craft a compelling offer. 






    Steambirds: Survival Mobile
    Posted by Lost Garden [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 October 2011, 10:26 pm


    Today, we are launching Steambirds Survival for iOS. The layout has been rejiggered to work nicely on the iPhone. And there's a wonderfully expansive HD version for the iPad that it easily my favorite way to play Steambirds. The Android version will follow shortly.  All of them are free, so give it a go and let me know what you think.

    Though this new mobile version of Steambirds Survival shares the same name as web-based game, by partnering with Halfbrick (of Fruit Ninja fame) we've transformed it into a much bigger (and my opinion, better) game.
    • Improved progression system with new missions:  There are 64 missions, 8 of which are infinite survival modes.  If you liked Steambirds and want to play it forever, this is your game.  (Sometimes you need something a bit meatier than a tiny handful of puzzle levels.)
    • Free-to-play:  This is our first free-to-play game on mobile.  Like most of our games, we take the 'free' part pretty seriously.  I want people to buy because they love the game and can't get enough.  I'm very curious what lessons we'll learn. 
    • Multiple player planes: We added a really fun recruitment system that lets you hire multiple player controlled planes.   Running through a level with three Chickadees feels amazing.  Previously lackluster planes like the Cockroach turn into fascinating exercises in multi-plane tactics. 
    • New Reinforcement powerup: You can call in NPC allies to fight along side.   This leads to rather epic mix ups with dozens of planes pinwheeling about in a deadly dance. 

    Does your game have a clear "Arrow of Play"?

    After launching the web version of Steambirds Survival, I was unhappy with the mission structure.  Originally there was an open list of planes that you could unlock in any order.  It seemed like a good idea at the time since 'openness' and 'choice' are good, right?  But we saw that a lot of players would cherry pick a few planes and then after they found one that they liked, they'd just play that plane to grind the in-game currency, copper. As a result, the progression lacked a clear feeling of momentum that encouraged you to trying out a wide variety of different play styles.

    With the new mission structure, you unlock cities one at a time and each city reveals more cities to play.  Within each city, there are 8 sub-missions that give the player to demonstrate increasing levels of mastery to pass. Now, there's a very clear direction to the unlocking and this should give players short term and long term goals to work towards.


    In physics, Arthur Eddington coined the phrase 'arrow of time' to describe how time appears to flow in a single direction.  As you dabble in general relativity, you realize that time is wonderfully compressible and can be manipulated in a variety of clever ways, especially near the speed of light.  Yet even with all this variation, it consistently advances forward.

    When I look at a design, I always ask "What is the arrow of play?"  This is a directional property of the mechanical systems that always moves the player forward. And like time, there's often a surprisingly amount of variation that occurs along the way.  Some players advance slowly, others take strange side paths, but all advance.

    Tools for creating the arrow of play

    In Steambirds Survival, there are a variety of systems that result in a distinct arrow of play.
    • Inevitable decay: Plane health almost always goes downward.  There are very rare health boosts, but they are at best a temporary reprieve. 
    • Escalation: Enemies slowly increase over time.  Waves get larger.  Difficult enemies spawn with increased frequency.  Even the best players find themselves at a point where they can't fight back the chaos any longer and errors creep in. 
    • Short term goals: Short term, you are trying to live long enough to complete mission goals that are just on the edge of your capabilities. 
    • Repeated patterns: Each mission goal unlocks new mission goals.  Once you learn the pattern you can repeat it again and again building momentum like train wheels accelerating down the track. 
    • Resource flow: Each goal you complete earns you copper, which you spend to either facilitate the completion of goals or to unlock new cities. There is a clear resource flow from sources of currency to sinks of currency. 
    • Limited choices:  Unlocking new cities in turn lets you unlock more cities, eventually getting to the point where you have explored all the content in the game.  At once point in my career I thought linearity was a curse. And it is when taken to extremes.  But it is also a tool.   If you end up overwhelming most players with too many choices, the perceived quality of the choices provides goes down.  In Steambirds Survival, there are always at least 4 choices.  You can unlock up two cities.  Or you can attempt missions in at least two cities.  The hope is that it is clear what to do next. 
    • Linear affordances:  The map of cities is a simple list that scrolls in along one dimension.  Should I have made a map that scrolls in two dimensions?  I could have, but I'm not sure it would have improved the quality of the choices that the player made.  Instead, by restricting the dimensionality of the UI, the player can focus on picking a city instead of wandering around a map, trying to remember which corner the next locked item is located at.   (I learned this lesson from map scrolling in Lemmings.  One of my favorite tools for simplify interfaces)
    Games are about change.  The system moves from one state to another at the poking and prodding of the players. Each tick of the clock or press of a button creates momentum that leads the player on a joyful rush through challenge after mastery challenge. You start slowly.  The player builds speed and eventually they steam forward in a continuous state of flow.  The arrow of play leads inevitably to a sense of pacing.  Yet critically it approaches these not from a traditional narrative perspective, but as a property of the game systems.  The beats of the game rhythm are those clicks and taps turning tight loops over and over.  Steambirds is a turn-based strategy game, a genre typically seen as a slow and plodding.  Yet in the middle of a dog fight, it can feel like an action game.

    A system that lacks a clear arrow of play results in players being mired in odd dead ends.  It isn't enough to make a game that has feedback loops, widgets to master and all the various atomic elements of a game.  It also needs a strong sense of momentum that like time or entropy hurtles the play forward.

    take care,
    Danc.



    Triple Town Beta (Now with Bears)
    Posted by Lost Garden [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 3 October 2011, 11:22 am


    Exciting times.  You can now play our puzzle game Triple Town in your web browser.  We are releasing it as a beta and the game should evolve quite substantially over time. Huge kudos to Cristian Soulos for making this project blossom after a long winter. You can play it here.

    Triple Town is a special game. It has the highest user rating of any of the games I've designed (94%). It is also the only one of my designs that I go back to again and again. Why is this?


    On the surface, it is a simple match-3 variant, but after a few games you'll start noticing the strategic depth.  The pacing is...uncommon.  There's a relaxed mellow rhythm to the game where you casually make dozens of micro decisions.  Yet these decisions add up to games that can last upwards of a week for advanced players. After a while you realize you are playing the Civilization of Match-3 games and that you care deeply about what you are building.  That burst of strong emotion always surprises me.

    The big addition for this release? Bears.

    Bears, bears everywhere

    Triple Town helped solidify how I construct the world and setting in my games.  My inclination is to look for ways of supporting the emotions inherent in the game dynamics.  If you've ever played the Kindle version, the design is a rather abstract puzzle game with highly symbolic tokens and mechanical rules. It has only the briefest of settings. Yet as I played the game and watched other play, I realized that it evoked an intense spectrum of emotions.  Here were some of the ones that I noticed:
    • Pride:  When you create a great city, you want to share it.  People take screenshots.  They brag. Pride in what they've built is the primary emotion that drives players of Triple Town. 
    • Curiosity:  You want to know what the next item looks like. Some people are driven to get a castle for the first time. 
    • Hate: You learn to hate the teleporting Ninjas.  They never attack you, but they end up blocking your plans.
    • Sadness: You have slight sadness the first time you kill a bear.  Then you learn to steel yourself against the emotion. 
    • Irritation:  When fate gives you the wrong piece at the wrong time. 
    • Competition:  When you notice that your friends are doing better than you. 
    • Despair: When you feel the board closing in and realize that you can't possible catch up to your friends. 
    • Relief:  When the board is filling up and then you perform a miraculous move that empties a swath of the board and helps you start afresh. 
    Games are great at eliciting primary emotions.  They don't need the Hero's Journey, they don't need story, they don't need hyper realistic visuals with immersive first person cameras.  You can create an emotional, deeply meaningful experience simply by using the fundamentals of system design.

    (You can read a bit more on the theory of how games are unique suited to creating emotional experiences in my previous essay on Shadow Emotions and Primary Emotions.  I include a small section at the end of this essay on the OCC emotion model that fits nicely with my process. Thanks, Aki!)

    Tuning emotions

    When I revisited the Triple Town design, the emotions were already clearly evident.  However, I wanted to explore how I could more directly shape those emotions to fit my vision of the game.

    Emotions are complex to say the least so we need some sort of entry into the topic.  There's a general consensus that you can divide emotions into rough categories.  For example 'negative feelings toward others.'  Then within those rough categories, you see variations that we recognize as distinct emotions.  For example, hate and irritation are actually highly related and are typically related to a sense of loss or constraint caused by others.  As a designer, how do I push the conditions that elicit a general class of emotion so that I can dial in the emotional variant that I desire?

    There are a variety of theories.  In Triple Town, I was influenced by the two factor theory of emotion and the somatic marker theory. Like many aspects of human cognition, multiple inputs are necessary to create the final refined experience. The 'taste' of wine is synthesized out of the actual chemical taste and the perceived quality of the wine.  A five dollar wine labeled as a 100 dollar wine can be perceived to taste better than that same wine in it's original bottle.  Similarly, we posit that our brain synthesizes most common primary emotions out of the following:
    • An ambiguous physical response (your adrenaline jumping and your heart rate elevating)
    • The system-derived context of the situation you are in. 
    • Recalled cognitive labels of related past experiences.  
    Looking at Triple Town, both the physical response and the system-derived context are very much present.  I can experimentally validate that I'm getting strong emotions from the players even using a highly abstract game board.   However the cognitive labels are underdeveloped.  So this analysis led me to try a particular tactic:
    • If you can evoke a general class of emotions with game mechanics, then you can apply evocative stimuli to label and therefore tune that response to elicit a specific emotion. 

    Monsters or children?

    Consider a very basic example of labeling in Triple Town.  The raw materials I was working with was an observation that players felt immense sense of relief when they killed annoying NPCs.  I experimented with applying various labels to see how we could tune the response.
    • Pass 1: During one early prototype, the NPCs were accidentally displayed as small children.  Naturally, players felt bad when trapped them and they turned into grave stones.  Accidental deaths led to guilt and sadness while deliberate deaths evoked a dissonant feeling of cruelty. 
    • Pass 2: So next we switched them to evil looking monsters.  This was a dramatic change.  Now players felt righteous glee when they trapped and killed the monsters. 
    • Pass 3: Finally, during this latest build, I settle on bears that have slightly evil looking eyes.  Most players feel fine killing the bears, but for some there is a slight edge of ambiguity that makes them uncomfortable. 
    • Future passes: Now that I've explored the emotional space a little, I've set up the bears so that with one simple tweak of the eyes, I can make the bears incredibly cute and bring back many of the feelings of guilt and sadness. 
    Evil bear & Good bear cognitive label.  One small part of an overall emotional experience

    In essence, I was balancing and tuning the player's emotional response.  Much like Sid Meier using a binary search ("double it or or cut it by half") to narrow in on the correct setting in his game, I was trying out various extremes to narrow in on the appropriate emotion.

    Using evocative imagery is a common enough practice, but in practice the labeling of NPCs is functionally quite different than merely putting up a picture or cut scene of a dead child.  The bear is not an image for the sake of being an image.  Instead you create a distinct label that is only meaningful due to how it builds upon an emotional foundation derived from play.  Without the mechanics, you just have a picture of a bear.  With the mechanics setting the context and providing the raw emotional reactions, you craft a carefully refined emotional moment.

    Avoiding dissonance

    With the children images in the first pass, I saw an example of dissonance.  It is easy to add a poorly fitted label that confuses the emotions the mechanics are eliciting.


    The heart of Triple Town are the strong feelings of pride and accomplishment. These comes directly from the rather amazing investment in extended tactical play that the player exerts when creating their 6x6 city.  A well crafted city can represent hours of carefully considered labor.

    In the Kindle version of the game, I used the sort of end game tropes that you find in Tetris or Bejeweled.  You play the game, you get a score and then move onto the next game.  Most designers rely on proven fallbacks to get the job done since it is difficult to always be reinventing the wheel.

    Unfortunately, this 'obvious' design choice conflicted rather painfully with the slow and steady building of pride. There comes a point at which the player presses a button and in the act of creating a new game, erases all their hard earned progress.  It is surprisingly how many times I've let the game sit on the last screen, not willing to leave it behind.  The label of 'its just a game session that you finish and move on from' didn't fit the emotional response that the other systems were creating.
    • 1st pass: The first attempt at fixing this involved added coins so there is some persistent resource you take with you after each city.  That helps a little, but not enough.   Coins are merely a resource and players weren't sad because they were losing some simple generic token.
    • 2nd pass: The second attempt involved the ability to flip back and look at your city a last few times before you move on.  This was quite effective since it lets the player say goodbye.  The emotional dissonance was channeled into an activity that let players come to terms with it at their own pace. This still isn't good enough.
    Luckily Triple Town is a service, not a game that gets launched and forgotten.  As I design future features, I'm explicitly creating them to amplify the feeling of pride. Fresh in my mind is the lesson that even something as simple as how end the game involves labeling the context. What if instead of ending the game, you are finishing cities?

    Deriving the world's metaphor from gameplay

    These individual emotional moments form a unique emotional fingerprint for Triple Town.  Due to dissonance, you can't simple apply any theme to this set of dynamic emotions and still end up with an emotionally coherent game.  Instead, you want a theme that fits the mechanics like a glove where the emotional beats elicited by the system dynamics have a clear connection with the labels you'd applied.

    With Triple Town, as with most of my designs, the theme and metaphor for the world came from watching people play.  I would observe and note the emotions and then ask questions about the fundamental nature of the experience that was evolving.  Is this a game about exploration?  Creation?  Building?  If it is a game about building, what is a related theme that matches the current unique fingerprint?  Are you building real estate?  A tomb?  What are those NPCs doing if that is the case?

    Overly on the nose

    After playing many hundreds of hours of Triple Town, I settled upon a metaphor that fit all the nuances of the mechanics.  Triple Town is a game about colonization.  Consider the following common dynamics and how labels derived from the metaphor tie them together in a coherent setting.
    • You've been ordered by the empire from across the sea to build a new city on virgin territory. 
    • In the process, natives (depicted as less than human) keep showing up on 'your' land.  They never attack you, but they keep preventing you from expanding. 
    • So you push them off to the side.  More experienced players create small reservations and pack the natives in as tightly as possible. 
    • Due to overcrowding the natives die off en mass.
    • You use their bones to build churches and cathedrals.
    • When particularly difficult natives appear that seek to escape your reservations, you bring out your overwhelming the military might and remove the pest so you can continue with your manifest destiny. 
    The match between the theme of colonization and emotions of the mechanics was so strong, I tuned it back slightly so it wasn't quite so on the nose.  Instead of selecting a recognizable group that suffered under colonization, I made the NPCs into morally ambiguous bears.   It would have been very easy to present players with a choices that were obviously black and white where players fall back on pre-learned schema.  However, I'm more interested in the edge cases in which a player does something they feel is appropriate and then as time goes on they begin to understand the larger consequences of their actions. At this point in the development of the world, player should naively explore the system and due to the dynamics of game, then form a strong justification of their role as colonists.

    What started as an abstract game is slowly but surely turning into a rich world. What is beyond the city walls? Long term, the themes of colonization, imperialism and the impact on native cultures will unfold over a series of planned game expansions.  With slight variations in labeling, I should be able to tune in a variety of powerful emotions related to the theme of colonization.

    Differences from traditional theme generation

    I find this bottom ups, mechanics-centric method of theme generation quite different from a traditional process of storytelling.  In a narrative heavy game, I think about characters, plot, or message first and foremost and then attempting to fit supporting gameplay into the mix. Often you pitch the world and characters to a publisher and then are expected to come up with gameplay that fits. Consider the implications of these two popular styles of narrative-first development:
    • Unique mini-games and puzzles used to support narrative:  One extreme example of this is your typical adventure game where instead of a core mechanic, you have a series of plot appropriate puzzles.  The emotional aspects of the puzzle (frustration, delight) are only marginally related to the emotional beats of the plot.  Also, in order to avoid dissonance with the wide variety of emotional beats that the story requires, the style of the puzzles is switched up on a regular basis.  It is hard enough balancing one game, but asking the team to balance dozens of tinier games results in shallow systems throughout.   I think of this as chopping up gameplay to fit the story. 
    • Generic gameplay that supports the narrative: A Japanese RPG like Final Fantasy repeatedly uses turn-based tactical combat to illustrate story beats.  The time-tested tactical combat system usually produce a handful of primary emotions such as loss, victory, relief, feeling powerful and feeling powerless.  No matter what story is being told, the same system is called upon to provide emotional support.  Such a pattern avoids dissonance the majority of the time, but then when the plot veers into non-combat area, the dissonance comes back full force.  I think of this as telling more story than the gameplay can naturally support. 
    Some of the most painful design rat-holes I've have ever dug myself into followed these patterns.  In one project, I created a world based off finding relics from a post-Singularity civilization (circa 100AD) deep in the Mediterranean.  In another, I was overly attached to a set of small bobble-headed creatures. For both, I was afraid to change the world. Instead, I desperately iterated upon new game mechanics, hoping to find one that fit my world better.  And I rarely found one.  As far as I can tell, creating a compelling new game mechanic is hard and success is unpredictable.  Yet creating a functional game world's is surprisingly cheap.  Any idiot can copy a working game, toss some pirates on top and call it good.

    Now I follow a different philosophy that better reflects these costs. Gameplay comes first and the worldbuilding are flow from the dynamics of play. If, as you iterate upon gameplay you make a rule change that breaks the emotional connection with a particular world, you should feel very comfortable tossing that world aside and starting fresh.  Create a world that supports the game, not the other way around.

    Conclusion

    The amount of theming and world building in Triple Town is still quite light.  Those of players used to the extravagant productions that burden a game with an overworked story may not even recognize the labels I've choosen as having an impact on your experience.  Yet they do and most players will feel the emotional beats of the game quite clearly.

    Nothing I've outlined here is new. The important insight for me has been creating the labels and world for a game as a bottoms up process. You start with the mechanics and then find the labels that fit the emotional beats. From this game play foundation, you build the world.

    Enough rambling!  Go play Triple Town.  It is still a beta so let me know what you think.

    take care,
    Danc.

    References

    Cheat sheet: Steps for tuning primary emotions

    Here's the process for tuning emotions
    1. Create a playful system.
    2. Observe the emotional reactions of the player within that system.
    3. Adjust the system's emotion eliciting conditions to increase or decrease particular raw emotional reactions.
    4. Once you have a rich set of desired emotional responses, brainstorm natural labels that refine the emotions.
    5. Test the labels and see how they elicit specific emotional variations. 
    6. Bundle the labels into a metaphor for your game that communicates and amplifies its unique emotional fingerprint. 

    Note: OCC Model of emotions

    Aki Järvinen's thesis "Games without Frontiers" (pdf) pointed me towards a fascinating model of emotion by Ortony, Clore and Collins (OCC). It posits that emotional outcomes are tied to systemic variables.  For example the strength of a player's dissapointment would be tied to the variable 'likelihood'
    • Low likelihood: If the player predicts a particular result, but they know from past experience that it is highly unlikely, they typically won't be overly dissapointed.  
    • High likelihood: Yet the likelihood is high and the outcome doesn't occur, dissapointment will also generally be more pronounced. 
    By adjusting variables such as likilihood, degree of effort or value of results, the designer crafts a set of 'eliciting conditions'.  I love this phrase since it gives us game friendly terminology for discussing emotion without reverting to the fuzzy non-functional handwaving of the humanities.  By setting your system variables appropriately, you can create eliciting conditions that spark specific categories of emotion.

    There is far more work to be done applying these ideas to game development, but as it stands the conceptual framework is already really quite powerful.  I've referenced here several useful OCC Charts that Aki assembled that list conditions, variables, main emotional categories and emotional variants. (I do recommend you read the full thesis.  It gives a bit more context and it also one of the more clearly written works and easily consumable works to come out in recent years.)

    Emotions resulting from personal well being.  pg. 211
    (Click to enlarge)

    Emotions resulting from events involving the fortune of others. pg. 211
    (Click to enlarge)

    Emotions resulting from future prospects. pg. 212
    (Click to enlarge)


    Note: Surrealism in video games

    Often the best video games have disjointed, narratively surreal worlds. Mario, Pacman, Katamari, Bejeweled and even a game like Portal take place in distinctly surreal locations that obey the logic of association, but are freed from the logic of the real world.  Even more interesting is that despite immense amounts of effort making our labeling systems externally consistent (They aren't 'save points', they are regen tanks), the vast majority of players happily engage in surrealist worlds with nary a complaint.  If anything, the unnecessary justification introduces more unnecessary dissonance into the game by asking the player to pay attention to details that don't functionally matter.

    I see this surrealist aesthetic as the practical outcome of deriving the world from the emotional beats of the gameplay.   The constantly tuning and tweaking of  various labels needed to bring out the best parts of your game fragments the traditional narrative process.  Why is there a walking turtle?  Because it fits the mechanics like a glove. That is all the justification that is required and layering on more burdens both the experience and the development process.  In the end, light surrealist labels are a positive thing since they gives you substantial wiggle room to avoid dissonance. And due to the solid fit with existing emotional dynamics, they often yields stronger game-centric experiences.





    Shadow Emotions and Primary Emotions
    Posted by Lost Garden [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 16 July 2011, 8:54 pm

    Not all emotions are created equal.

    Consider: It is a distinctly different thing to feel sad while reading about a dying mother than to actually feel sad because your mother is dying. The former is a shadowy reflection that we intuitively understand is not immediately threatening. The later is raw, primary and life changing.

    I've yet to see existing terminology for this phenomena, so at the risk of stepping on existing toes, let's use the following labels.
    • Shadow emotions:  The emotions we feel when partaking in narratives, art and other safely evocative stimuli
    • Primary emotions: The emotions we feel when we are in a situation with real perceived consequences.
    No doubt this is a well studied topic, so if someone educated in the neurosciences is able to provide more accurate labels or links to existing models I'll happily amend this essay.

    The distinction between these two classes of emotion may seem academic, but I find myself fascinated by a game's ability to provoke primary emotions in a manner that is difficult if not impossible for more reflective forms of media.  As a game designer, I can and have put the player in situation where they experience real loss.   The best a movie or book can manage is evoking a shadow of loss.

      Brief thoughts on memory and emotion

      A small bit of background is necessary to describe the mechanism of shadow emotions.   It starts with the link between memory and emotion.

      Memories come loaded with judgments.  In some sense, the true function of memory has been polluted by a modern concept of coldly analytic 'data storage'.   Perhaps a better term for 'memory' is 'lesson'.  Each memory has deeply integrated emotional tags that informs us of how we might want to react if we call upon that memory in relation to our current stimuli.   When you see a dog sitting on the sidewalk, you instinctively compare it to your existing mental models and memories of past dogs.  In that basic act of cognition, you nearly instantly become awash with emotions.  Perhaps you feel a sense of comfort and fondness.  Or perhaps a wave of anxiety passes through you as you recall the sharp teeth of past encounters gone awry.  In a split second, you know exactly how you feel about that dog.

      One way of thinking of emotion as an early specialized form of cognition that serves a clear survival function. Quite often you need to make a decision, but you don't have time to think about. Quick! Act now! At this moment, you are flooded with an emotional signal. It is strong, primitive and highly effective at making you either run, attack, bond, threaten or pause.  Emotions tied to memories help us boil vast decades of experience  down into an immediate instinctive reaction.

      Hair trigger emotions exists because more complex cognition takes time and for certain classes of decision, delays yield failure and failure is costly. If you are attacked by wolf, it likely isn't prudent to debate the finer details of how you classify canids. Much later, be it seconds or hours, your conscious understanding of the situation kicks in and moderates the emotional response.  More often than not, what we think of as consciousness is little more than a post processed justification of our ongoing roller coaster of instinctive emotional reactions.

      Emotions are necessary but they are not civilized.  It is easy to imprint rapid fire lessons that trigger at the worst possible moment.  A child who learns to lash out in anger as a way of surviving neighborhood bullies might have difficulty as an adult if he reacts the same way when he perceives a more subtle theme of bullying from his boss.  What makes managing emotions so tricky is that such emotional triggering situations unfold before we are even aware they are occurring.  Emotions are by definition lessons turned into lightning, unconscious action (or inaction as the case may be).

      Narrative as a means of playing emotional scenarios

      You cannot easily or consciously stop emotions in full activation; however you can train them ahead of time.  One method (of many!) is to test and explore our emotions in the safe mediums of narrative, sound and imagery. The mechanism for triggering a safe emotional response seems to be primarily based off a mixture of empathy and the emotional aspects of memory that we've previously covered.
      • Stimuli: When we see or read a particular evocative narrative or scene.
      • Memory: We tap into our own related stored memories
      • Synthesis: We assemble disparate elements into a coherent whole
      • Empathy: We simulate what we might feel in this particular situation
      • Conscious understanding: We process the resulting safe emotions from a safe distance. 
      Now imagine that you read about the dog sitting on the sidewalk.  You can confront your anxiety with crystal clear understanding that he cannot hurt you.  You activate your empathy and simulate how you might feel if the dog were in fact in front of you.  Now you roll the emotion around and savor it, examining it from multiple angles.  You instinctively role-play the scenario.  Perhaps you become comfortable with the idea that you don't need to immediately run away from all dogs.  By storing this revised impression, you slightly moderate your future emotional reactions.

      In a biological sense, this is a surprisingly inexpensive method of practicing how to moderate our emotions.  Instead of placing yourself in potentially mortal danger, you can instead read about what it while sitting in a chair.  The training that occurs is not perfect, but I suspect that it helps.  There is a wide body of experimental research that shows how emotions are differentiated through a process of psychological response and then the application of a cognitive label.  If you can practice labeling a rush of adrenaline as bravery instead of fear, you may be able to successfully alter your emotions in real world situations.

      Though by no means proof of this theory, it is suggestive that many popular fictional and artistic works are highly focused on evoking emotion and chains of strong drama.  Situations that are risky, expensive or socially compromising regularly find their way into the evocative arts and enable us to practice those scenarios in a safe fashion.

      Shadow Emotions

      The relatively safe emotions that result from consuming and simulating evocative stimuli are what I'm calling shadow emotions.

      A shadow emotion is by no means a 'fake' emotion.  Your heart rate increases, your palms sweat.  The patterns of the past carry echos of real emotions and your body responds accordingly.  All the physiological signs of experiencing an emotion are present.  However, you know intellectually it is a carefully controlled experiment.   Despite hysterical claims to the contrary, humans appear to have a surprisingly robust understanding of simulation vs. reality.  We labels our simulations as such and can usually set them aside at our convenience.

      Shadow emotions are by no means completely safe. Anyone that goes through a therapeutic process where they directly recall past trauma can bear witness to the fact that recalling strong emotions is an intense and even frightening experience.  Distance matters when role-playing stored emotions and the more closely you simulate the original event, the stronger the response.

      All this leads to many of the common techniques found in making powerful drama or art.  This list is by no comprehensive, but it is a good sample of the practical tools available to a craftsman interested evoking shadow emotions:
      • Richly describe salient stimuli
      • Exaggerate stimuli (Peak Shift Principle)
      • Layer multiple channels of stimuli
      • Target commonly shared emotional triggers (Love, Death, Triumph, etc) 
      • Create coherent chains of context and causation to facilitate easy simulation
      • Personalize the stimuli to better match the emotional history of an individual.  
      As an artist, a story teller and a game designer, I've used all of these and they are far less mysterious than many would presume. When such techniques are well executed, you'll increase the intensity of the evoked shadow emotion.  The word 'evoke' is key since our concern is more about using a signal to trigger emotions that already exists.  As such I think of these techniques clumped primarily into methods of simplifying processing our evocative signal or methods of increasing strength of that signal.

      Shadow emotions absolutely exist in games.  In fact, the game industry spends ludicrous sums of money attempting to ensure that high end console titles are as good at evoking shadow emotions as media such as movies or books.  During the dark reign of the techno-cultists who preached the ascendancy of visual immersion, realism and games as predominantly narrative medium, a thousand chained craftsmen made heroic attempts to evoke stronger shadow emotions.  See such baroque creations as Mortal Combat, God of War or L.A. Noire.  This expensive pursuit will continue because shadow emotions are a very real and soothingly effective. Humans crave shadow emotions as a path to more effective emotional cognition.  Game developers, as paid schmucks making disposable consumable media, have an economic incentive to fill this need.

      The next time you safely experience the emotion of shooting a minority-skinned terrorist in the head and watching the beautifully rendered blood and brains splatter in slow motion, step back and consider the emotional role-playing that you are simulating.  It obviously isn't real, but you do feel something. Perhaps it is even therapeutic These are shadow emotions in action.  I remain unimpressed, but perhaps if we render those skull fragments at a higher resolution, AAA games will one day achieve something deeply meaningful.

      Primary emotions in games

      In this expensive pursuit of shadow emotions, we may have accidentally sidelined deeper exploration of a phenomena more fundamental to the emotional capabilities of games.

      I spend large portions of my day observing game players.  Some of this is observation of others, but there is also a peculiar detached observation of my own reactions to a particular game or prototype. Repeatedly, I see sparkles of emotion that seem to have different roots than shadow emotions.  A player might become frustrated that they don't understand a particular level layout.  Or they may feel anguish when their character suffers permadeath in Realm of the Mad God.  Or they may feel elation at finally getting the long tetrimino necessary to clear four rows in Tetris.

      I would make the bold and perhaps unsupportable claim that these responses are not a reference to a past emotional experience.  Instead they seem to be derived from much more primitive circuitry.   Where do emotions originally come from?  Not all are reflections of memories past.  There are means of creating emotions from scratch.

      Consider the sense of anguish that one feels when the character you've built up over many hours of dedicated play dies for all eternity.  This system, permadeath, is quite uncommon in many modern games, but thousands of players go through the process everyday in the game Realm of the Mad God.  As a designer you can think of this experience in almost purely mechanical terms.  A player invests time and energy into accumulating a resources and capabilities inside a defined value structure.  Then due mostly to a failure of skill, the player gets hit with a barrage of bullets and that investment is irretrievably lost.

      Despite the coldly mechanistic nature of the system, the player feels intense anguish.  It is a raw, primordial thing that courses through your veins and makes breathing difficult.  There is really nothing playful or distant about this emotion. The magnitude and newness of the loss directly correlates to the intensity of the experience. Most players I know have great difficulty setting aside the first major loss and pretending that it did not matter. Some will even quit the game because the emotional intensity is just too much to bear.

      What I find intriguing about this particular emotion reaction is that it pops up in other non-gaming scenarios.  Recently I forgot to save a file and in one horrible instant lost hours of labor.  The self recrimination and sense of loss is quite similar. In a more extreme example, when the stock market collapsed in the 1920's the emotional response to abrupt and permanent loss was so great that people took to jumping from buildings. The systemic creation of emotion is a powerful phenomena.

      There are variations on the theme that result in a spectrum of different yet equally reproducible emotions.  If the player is struck with lag or a control glitch or they feel that some other player helped cause their demise, the emotional reaction is almost always incandescent rage.  Small adjustments to the mechanical systems of cause and effect result in distinct emotional responses.

      Primary emotions appear to be emotions triggered by interactive situations not evocative stimuli.  They tend to involve several telling mechanical factors:
      • Territory
      • Time 
      • Resources
      • Information
      • Investment and Loss
      • Skill and Randomness 
      • Social interaction  
      As I write this list, I can't help but realize that these sound like many of the fundamental elements of games.  Yes, we can easily talk about games as systems in same breath as emotions.  There is no need to scurry back to the well worn tropes of evocative media.  As game developers, we really do not need the crutch of shadow emotions to create a meaningful emotional experience for our players.  Instead, we can succeed by making "games as games" not "games as some bizarrely crippled copy of another industry."

      I wish I could say more about the exact biological process behind generating primary emotions, but alas it is not my area of expertise.  Instead, the best I can do for the moment is to describe the pragmatic process that I use to create desired primary emotions in a population of players.  Compare the following process to the one I listed above for shadow emotions.  They are rather different.
      • Define: Create mechanics and models that describe a player-centric system of value.  What should the player care about and how do the systems and resources reinforce their interest?
      • Acclimate the player to value structure by having them interact with it repeatedly via various loops and processes.  Pay careful attention to skill and resource acquisition as well as the formation of social bonds since these must be grown. 
      • Trigger: Put the player directly in situations involve a practical loss or gain that triggers the generation of new primary emotions.  
      You can certain use evocative stimuli within such a process, but it will always be a supporting tool.  The emotions are engineered from the players interactions and experience with the system and not by bombarding someone with  images, dialog or sound. Player choice matters.  Failure matters.  Learning and skill matters.  The game matters.

      My friend Stephane Bura has done important work in mapping game systems onto emotions, but there is far more to be done. I highly recommend you read through his pioneering essay Emotion Engineering in Games.  It took several years before it started to sink in, but I'm hoping that you'll have a head start.

      Conclusion

      I've derived immense practical value from the distinction between primary emotions and shadow emotions.  Once you've internalized the concept, you can look at a game and ask with great clarity "How is this player emotion being generated?"   Once you know the mechanism, you can then take steps to amplify or soften the observed effect. Should you increase the fidelity of visual feedback or merely change a resource variable? If you know neither the type of emotion nor mechanism driving the emotion, you are designing blindly.

      It is also important that we start talking about how games generate primary emotions. The feeling of victory in a game of Chess is real. The feeling of anger at a Counter Strike camper is real and visceral. The feeling of belonging when you are asked to join a popular guild will stay with you for the rest of your life. We are not reflecting or empathizing (though this can occur in parallel). Due to the interactive nature of the game and our ability to adopt the value structure of the game, there are consequences that are real enough for our body to  muster actual new-to-the-world emotions.  This is an amazing and fundamental property of games that is at best weakly represented in more traditional media.  Let's play to our strengths.

      Every second you spend blathering on about the damnable Hero's Journey or the role of traditional evocative narrative is a second you could instead be exploring the vast and uncharted frontier of emotional game design. We make games.  And games are great and powerful entities in their own right.  What happens if you strip out as much of your reliance on shadow emotions as possible and focus your design efforts on creating primary emotions in your players?

      In Realm of the Mad God, the player dies. And he can't come back. It is a harsh penalty with strong sense of failure. Colliding with a 8x8 pixelated bullet with no fidelity, realism or crafted narrative means something emotionally that no movie or novel will ever capture.

      take care,
      Danc.



      Realm of the Mad God Released!
      Posted by Lost Garden [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 20 June 2011, 2:25 pm


      A little over a year ago, Alex Carobus and Rob Shillingsburg from WildShadow created a prototype of a re-imagined MMO for the TIGSource Assemblee game jam. David and I started working with them a few months later through Spry Fox, helping flesh out with the monetization, interface and cooperative mechanics. The game has been in public beta for a year, rigorously tested by thousands of passionate players. The metrics look good. The tech is in place. Today, after a huge amount of work by a truly talented team, we are officially launching on the Chrome Web Store.

      As with any online game, this is just the start. On the feature side, expect to see the game grow and evolve substantially in the coming months. On the distribution side, we'll also be slowly be rolling the game out to thousands of portal sites. Limber up your shooting finger and give Realm a go. Don't forget to dodge.

      Indies Innovate



      Realm of the Mad God is unique. If you were to toss various gaming labels at it, you'd get the following:
      • Fantasy MMORPG
      • Bullet Hell Shooter (so many bullets!)
      • Co-op only
      • Real-time combat (with 80+ players on screen)
      • Permadeath
      As added spice, it runs in a browser using Flash, has a scalable cloud-based backend, sports user generated art and is rather effectively funded by a free-to-play business model.

      It turns out that only an indie has the ability to reinvent the MMO genre from the ground up. Certainly no large studio could have made Realm. The original idea contained risky design, challenging hardcore gameplay, hitherto unseen technology. Heck, who even thinks of greenlighting a modern game with permadeath? Yet because of exactly these moonshot design constraints, Realm is fresher than 90% of the games that ever get released. Core gamers who love great games will love Realm.

      Realm falls into the emerging category I think of as "Top Shelf Indie": highly playable games that offer deep, polished experiences that are just as much fun as more bloated titles but come with the distinctive spin that only a smaller independent team can manage. Pulling such a feat off requires three ingredients that are rare in our industry:
      • A highly talented small team
      • Freedom to pursue an innovative unified design vision
      • The ability to rapidly release and iterate on playable builds.
      Simple stuff. If you love making games, you should look at your current project and ask yourself how many of these ingredients you have in place. (Yes, you deserve to work on a team with all of these.)

      Lessons

      Here are a couple of the big design challenges:
      • Co-op is a pervasive design philosophy, not a tacked on feature.
      • Rival goods are a form of PvP

      Co-op is a pervasive design philosophy, not a tacked on feature.

      The rule of thumb for everything is "Does this mechanic make the game better to play together?" Here are a few of the systems in place the encourage cooperative play.
      • Experience is shared. All you need to do in order to earn experience is to be close by when an enemy is killed. There is a simple yet effective benefit from playing with others. More players means enemies die more quickly, so players working together level and earn our time-based currency (fame) more quickly.
      • Teleporting is cheap. Players can quickly and easily teleport to other players. In early builds, most players would wander for hours without seeing another human being. A smaller percentage of players liked this, but most simply assumed the game was single player and then left. We also wanted to avoid requiring a complex guild and grouping system, especially for new players. As it stands now, it is difficult to play for long without another player jumping to your position and playing alongside you.
      • All experience levels plays together: Level 1 players can easily play alongside Level 20 players. They increase their chance of dying, but there are few artificial barriers if you want to group together with friends of a different level. It also helps that the leveling curves are more shallow than is typical. he most powerful player is only about 30 times more powerful than a first level player.
      • Twinking is encouraged since loot is plentiful, inventory is limited and there isn't a direct means of cashing in items for a more liquid currency. As such there is a culture of players sharing stuff they've found with other players.
      Crowds form organically and you'd find many small bands merrily adventuring through the world.

      Yet even with all these core systems in place co-op can still be quite fragile. One incredibly cool (and powerful) character is the rogue who has the ability to go invisible and rush in for a sneak attack. Yet, since this class can still be hit by stray bullets, the rogue prefers to work alone where he have better control over exactly how enemy attacks are triggered. As a result there is now a large population of solo-focused players that often complain bitterly when anyone from the larger community attempts to play cooperatively. Other players resent the aptly named rogue for playing selfishly and stealing loot they would have otherwise had a chance to pick up. In essence, an individually fun class actively pollutes the core intent of the game.

      So lesson I've learned is that co-op works best when every system in the game is tuned to encourage inexpensive and easy cooperation. This can mean tossing many traditional concepts like expensive travel or requiring guilds for groups. It may mean nerfing or changing a fun and delightful mechanic if it somehow damages the community as a whole. In multiplayer games, finding the fun isn't enough. You need to maximize the fun without poisoning the experience of others.

      Rival goods are a form of PvP

      An early decision made for the first prototype haunted the game for far too long. Loot in Realm is a rival good; to paraphrase Raph Koster, "If I grab it, you can't." While the rest of the game is all about mutual benefit, loot as a rival good brought out the bloodlust in our players on a number of levels.
      • Initial looting: A team of players will cooperate beautiful to bring down a large boss. They'll coordinate, send happy messages and joke with one another. Yet as soon as someone snags loot that another person desired, the conversation turns acrimonious. Inevitably one player grabs far more loot than others and the predominate emotions of the game decay into greed, distrust and a deeply felt lack of fairness.
      • Death: When someone dies, a percentage of their items stay on the body. This yields a huge incentive to steal from your fellow players. I'd love to run some experiments where all items on a body go away or are soulbound and see how that changes the mood of the community.
      What is tricky about both of these is that both looting and stealing from corpses is surprisingly fun. Players treat it as a form of survival of the fittest PvP and a mercenary minority have perfected their skills as efficient looters. Yet as a whole, these 'fun' moments for individuals create a dysfunctional society.

      We are methodically solving for these issues by awarding players with soulbound loot. This removes much of the competitive nature of picking up loot and turns loot into a non-rival good. Showing up and helping out gets you loot, not stealing from others.

      Other lessons

      The game does some other things worth noting that are common to other games I've mentioned here. These help ensure that a small team can release a game that traditionally requires the efforts of hundreds:
      • Design from the root: Instead of accepting genre conventions, each new feature was vigorously questioned to see if it fit the core concept of the game as a co-op MMO shooter.
      • Procedural generation: All the maps and dungeons are procedurally generated. This means content is quite cheap.
      • User generated content: The initial graphics used in the game came from the wonderful Oryx set. However, Alex invested a good amount of time in building a full featured sprite editor that allows users to make new monsters, items and animations. Now almost all new visuals end up being sourced from the community.

      Conclusion

      MMOs are intensely complex games where even simple systems blossom into a thousand layers of culture and community. The rules of the game create explosive economies, ecosystems and power structures that deeply intertwine with the lives of players. I'm really not surprised that so many MMOs are essentially clones. The genre canon is a tightly wound mechanism where even small changes can destroy your game. Every MMO team faces this particular minefield and must ask themselves if they have the guts to mess with standards that have been gingerly polished over decades.

      Most back away from the challenge with fear in their eyes. Instead of making something new, they take the coward's path and desperately try to differentiate their me-too creation with pointless cut-scenes, laborious writing and gaudy graphics.

      Alex and Rob took the challenge. Yes, rebuilding many of these systems from a unique starting place is an epic undertaking. But it worked. We need more teams with the guts and the ability to reinvent genre conventions. We need more games like Realm of the Mad God.

      take care,
      Danc.



      A blunt critique of game criticism
      Posted by Lost Garden [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 7 May 2011, 9:09 pm

      I read Ben Abraham's weekly summary of game criticism over at Critical Distance.  Unlike a decade ago, there is now an absolute deluge of thoughtful essays being written about games.  Most of it is a waste of my time as a game developer.

      There are two factors here:
      • We need better methods of filtering game criticism.  The signal-to-noise ratio has gotten worse.  The quantity and literary quality of writing has improved in recent year. However the writing tends to be informed by the impoverished experiences of gamers, journalists and academics that know little to nothing about the philosophy and process of making games.  The vast drek of game criticism is written by game illiterates. 
      • We need a new breed of developer-writers who hold their game analysis to a higher standard.  It is not enough to be a gamer. It is not enough to merely write. It isn't even enough to have experience with all the facets of game creation.  Instead, each author should produce writing that ratchets forward the creative conversation.  If your meandering opinion does not point with clarion clarity towards a means of making better games, you can do better. 

      The blossoming of shallow game criticism

      When I started writing about games, there was hardly anyone talking about games in a thoughtful manner. At best, you had the chatter of more vocal gamers.  Even journalists were little more than gamers with a bigger podium.  The developers snuck in peer conversations once or twice a year in hotel bars and then went off to toil in intellectual isolation. An admittedly sad state of affairs.

      Today,we've got the developer blogs on Gamasutra, dozens of conferences, the efforts of the Escapist, the rise of the intellectual game journalist and the slow blossoming of academic writing. The language has improved dramatically.  With the arrival of communities of like-minded bloggers and the co-opting of various university departments, writers find themselves encouraged to say what little they can say in increasingly wordy missives. Each week I find myself inundated with essays that appear on the surface to be fascinating treasure troves of insight.

      When I waste my time digging past the fresh coat of erudite language, much of the content is a regurgitation of the same tired discussion from ages past.  Consider Adam Ruch's recent article "First Or Third Person – What’s Your Perspective?"  (I chose this example not to be cruel, but because it was at the top of Ben's recent list of game criticism.) Adam is introduced as "a PhD candidate, currently writing about Video Games Criticism" and "a pretty smart guy!"

      Yet the essay is little more than a series of personal descriptions of how he feels when he plays certain games.  There is little insight that couldn't be gained by sitting down with a beer and a controller. There is no attempt at gathering empirical evidence. Adam could have saved everyone a vast amount of time with the TL;DR summary: "In 3rd person you can see (and thus empathize) with a visualized character and in 1st person, you can't." Once you strip away the laborious language, you have yet another bit of fluffy gamer opinion written by a young student.

      I need a filter. With the blossoming of game writing, Sturgeon's Law comes into full effect. If your essay merely rehashes the bong water ramblings of a several generations of gamers, I really do not care to read it.

      Classifying game criticism

      Here's the start of a heuristic for culling the crap. There are several classes of article being written under the general "game criticism" category.
      • Gamer navel gazing: "I played a game or heard about people talking about a game.  Here is my random opinion." This is the most rampant and least useful. 
      • Journalist navel gazing:  "I write about games for the gaming press.  Why am I doing this again?"
      • Academic justification: "I see connections that may or may not actually exist between games and the rest of art history and / or philosophy. Tenure?"
      • Industry drama: "I heard that something vaguely controversial occurred in the game industry.  OMG."
      • Game developer analysis: "Here's a working game.  Here's the experiment.  Here are the repeatable lessons I learned."  
      Only game developer analysis is useful to someone who seeks to improve future games by engaging in the radically straightforward act of making games.  I realize that there are other types of readers out there, but to be blunt, they consistently fail to affect change.  And I make the assumption that you want your writing to change the world.

      The problem with writing by gamers

      Why is there so little practical value in the writings of gamers, journalists and academics?  The vast majority of the rest of writers listed above do not make games, nor do they understand how games are made.

      That may sounds like a harsh requirement, but imagine a population that has books read to them, but they are unable to read nor write.  This functionally illiterate population then goes forth and creates a vast number of rambling YouTube videos talking about their experience that they collectively call 'book criticism".  Things as minor as grammar and as major as the context of the creative process are treated as an impenetrable mystery. The level of discussion such a group can provide is substantially more limited than that provided by literate creators.

      Likewise, most game criticism suffers from an immense lack of hands-on knowledge about what it takes to make a competent game.   In the past week of essays on Critical Distance, I found 1 writer of 12 had any declared experience making games.  I'm sorry...but based off your worldly education level alone, I don't think you are adding all that you could to the conversation.

      Instead, most writing is by gamers for gamers. The resulting impaired discussion is at best a form of guilty intellectual entertainment.  I have no issues with someone sitting on their dilapidated couch and spouting esoteric blather. With a little wine and the right company, it is an evening well spent. Yet when that same ignorant blather is elevated to a respective voice of authority, my skin crawls.  As I scan through page upon page of dilute thought, I worry that the entire game criticism movement is but an attempt to turn being an opinionated gamer into a real job (paid for by some bizarro self congratulatory eco-system of pseudo-intellectual wannabes.)

      Sadly, we appear to be aping the accepted critical practices that form an institutionalized parasite on other media.  Yet, games are not and never will be the same sort of purely evocative media as music, video, writing or painting. Game have a functional heart that resists being reduced to the softest of sciences in the same way there is little room 'rock criticism' in the practice of geology. Aesthetics, rhetoric, literary theory, film theory, art history may be how you were trained to think. And these are indeed a possible starting point if that's all you've got to work from. But exploring games using with only limited tools and philosophies of past media is often results in blinders that cause us to ignore the whirring, clicking mechanical reality of games in practice.

      Games have more in common with functional works involving mathematics, psychology, governments, economics or other complex systems. Given population A with skills B, we experimentally validate that we get result C. We have a rich tradition of design practice stretch across Miyamoto to Sid Meier to modern metrics-driven social games.  There exists game design theory stemming from folks like Chris Crawford, Eric Zimmerman and Raph Koster. The instinct of practicing designers alone is an immense iceberg of unwritten knowledge just waiting to be described and shared. If you cannot speak these languages and have no direct experience with how you can pragmatically weave these time-tested concepts into the creation of a game, your spew of text only adds noise.

      At times when I read what passes for insight, I despair. There is still so much empirical, hands-on exploration and experimentation to do before People-Who-Make surrender the future of our medium to the recursive navel-gazers that infect other media.

      Identifying an informed perspective

      As someone who paints, I always want to know the following when I hear someone talk of painting:
      • Are you a viewer / critic of paintings?
      • Are you a painter?
      • If you are a painter, are you an apprentice or a journeyman?
      For each of these classifications, I turn on a different portion of my brain.  Viewers and critics yield small opinion-based data points. Apprentices are given the initial benefit of the doubt, but are filtered out when they start dogmatically insisting on mere opinions.  Journeymen get my undivided attention.

      In light of this hierarchy, I make a very simple request to help time-poor folks like myself.  If you are writing about games in language that suggest intelligent analysis, state upfront in your bio or perhaps even at the start of the article your perspective and experience.
      • Are you primarily a viewer or critic of games?  Are you one of the people listed above?  A gamer? A journalist?  An academic? 
      • Alternatively have you participated in the process of building and releasing games?
      • Are you an apprentice or student who has dabbled in a game or two? Or are you a journeyman who has devoted the majority of your waking life to making (and releasing!) games over a period of years?   
      Naturally, anyone has the right to say whatever the hell they want about games.  However, if you fail to disclose your perspective, you are very likely wasting the precious time of your reader.  If you deliberately obscure this information (as I've seen many student or indies tempted to do) you are being a dishonest member of our community.  If this classification system frustrates you and you want to be taken more seriously, do the following:
      1. Make games. Again and again and again.  
      2. Study the fields of science that deal with complex functional systems. 
      3. Then come back and write useful thoughts from your newly upgraded perspective.

        Holding game criticism by developers to a higher standard

        There is a price to be paid for putting writing by experienced creators on a pedestal.  Game developers who identify themselves as sources knowledgeable about the craft of development and design should actually say something meaningful and useful when they write.

        Simply making games does not make you a good writer about games. I have a friend who makes games, but publicly writes gamer-esque drivel.  Then he wonders why no one pays attention.  A developer ranting about their personal, emotional experience with the controls in Super Meat Boy from the perspective of 'Dude, I'm a gamer just like you" is no more helpful than a 13-year old gamer engaged in the same shallow analysis.

        For those with real world understanding of how to make games better, ask yourself the following questions about what you write:
        • Grounded: Are you basing your theories off empirical evidence?  Do not write something merely because you had a feeling to express.  
        • Aware: Do you know what other people have written in the past?  Do the research and be an informed commenter. 
        • Insightful:  Does your writing add a substantial new perspective or tool that moves the conversation forward?  Do not rehash the same old thing simply because you have an opinion on the currently popular meme.  
        • Actionable:  Does your writing identify a course of action that previously was obscured? Do not let an exploration of an idea wander off into vague hand-waving.  Ask the reader to perform an experiment that increases the knowledge of the community as a whole. 
        There is a clear benefit when you follow these guidelines.
        • Your writing stands out from the muck.  The world craves a path forward and the intelligent people you attract by being a grounded, aware, insightful and actionable writer open doors that you would never otherwise find.
        • You improve the world.  Your small contributions build upon the work of others to create a mountain of human endeavor that builds our medium to heights we can only barely imagine. 
        As a small closing note, I do realize that my comments may seem overly narrow in their focus. Surely game criticism is a big tent in which any bozo can say anything and gentle respect is given to all who share a love for games.  I come at this topic with the belief that merely making something is not nearly enough.  As a creator, you have only a few short years to build something great that changes the world.  Hold yourself to a higher standard and do not waste your talent writing game criticism that yields little more than entertainment for People-Who-Consume. I deeply believe that the writers in this industry are better and more capable than what I'm witnessing right now.

        take care
        Danc.

        PS: Some game essays that fit the criteria above.  Heaven forbid I write an essay like this one without giving some positive examples. ;-)
        Note:  This is a first draft of this essay.  It is a broad topic with multiple highly entrenched perspectives so I know it won't go down smoothly on the first pass.   Let me know where I'm wrong.  Let me know which portions makes sense. 



        Game Design Logs
        Posted by Lost Garden [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 3 May 2011, 2:53 am
        If you still practice or encourage the outdated practice of writing long design documents, you are doing your team and your business a grave disfavor. Long design docs embody and promote an insidious world view: They make the false claim that the most effective way to make a game is to create a fixed engineering specification and then hand that off to developers to implement feature by bullet-pointed feature.

        Great game development is actively harmed by this assumption.  Pre-allocating resources at an early stage interrupts the exploratory iteration needed to find the fun in a game. A written plan that stretches months into the future is like a stake through the heart of a good game process. Instead of quickly pivoting to amplify a delightful opportunity found during play testing, you end up blindly barreling towards completion on a some ineffectual paper fantasy.

        Yet, there is still a need for documentation.  Why?
        • We need a persistent repository of decisions: Teams include many people and conversation occurs asynchronously.  Without centralized documents, you end up with a fragmented conversation where many decisions made in one-on-one conversations are lost to the broader team forever.   
        • We need a shared vision: Documents also helps forge a common vision of the next iteration.   In a situation where everyone has strong and varied opinions, it is essential that someone can lead the team to by unambiguously stating what comes next.  Apparently even God needed documentation. 

        Design logs

        What I do now is write a little something I call a 'design log.' Game design is a process of informed iteration, not a fixed engineering plan that you implement.  The form of your design documentation should flow from this philosophy.


        How to write a design log

        1. Start with a concept:  At the very bottom of the design log is the initial concept.   This is the rough idea started the design in the first place.  These are 2 to 10 pages long and contain just enough text, images and inspiration to start development.  I usually focus mine on the core interaction loop that we want to first prototype. 
        2. Build the prototype:  Design logs exist as a supplement to a working version of the game.  Make something you can play as soon as humanly possible.  Kill graphics, features, plot or anything that gets in the way of making a game you can react to on a tactile and experiential level. 
        3. Add a Daily Entry: After substantial fiddling with your prototype, add a daily entry above the concept to your design log.  This contains daily play notes, prioritized next steps and ideas.  The goal of the daily entry is to move the project forward. You are constantly trying to answer the question "How do we improve the current game?" 
        4. Repeat: Every day or two, you add a new daily entry and the old ones eventually roll off the bottom of the screen.  Much like a blog, the fresh stuff is at the top and the old stuff is at the bottom. 
        For the daily entry, I try to keep to the following format, but it is really quite flexible.
        • Heading: The heading is today's date.     
        • Play Notes:  These are the designer's reaction to the day's working build.  I list what worked well and issues I ran into.  For every issue that's raised, I try to come up with a reasonable solution. 
        • Prioritized Next Steps:  If the list of issues is long, I'll call out the order in which they could be tackled.  Sometimes I'll work to create this list, if the backlog has gotten large.  For those agile folks out there, think of it as a Just-In-Time backlog. If you don't need this section at a point in time, don't add it.  
        • Tasks accomplished:  If work has been done, we mark it on the document.  Some teams add a new list of work accomplished to the daily entry.  Others just cross off notes directly in the doc.  
        • Experiments: Big, crazy experiments that move the game forward in big steps.  Without these, you cannot leap to a better local maxima. 

        Tools for creating a design log

        I personally love using Google Docs for my design logs.  Here are some of the advantages.
        • Real time conversation:  Multiple people can edit the doc at the same time.  I've had some very high bandwidth editing sessions with 3 people all adding and resolving comments like crazy.  No more passing documents around or managing versions. 
        • Comments tied to text:  People can comment on specific section of the text. They can also reply to the comments.  This keeps the conversation focused on specific details instead of hand waving.  No more long rambling thread that diverged from the original topic long ago. 
        • Ability to resolve comments:  Once a comment thread is finished and the resolution incorporated back into the doc, you can resolve it and hide it away.  This keeps the document clean and lets you know when it is time to move on. 
        •  Email alerts: When someone adds a comment, other users subscribed to the doc get an email.  This acts as a re-engagement system that brings the very busy people on the team back to the document. 
        Some tools are poor choices for creating design logs:
        • Microsoft Word:  The lack of decent collaboration tools results in locked files, overwritten files and stagnant conversations.  Word is the single most used writing tool, yet it remains the worst possible choice for working designers. 
        • Blogs:  I've been trying to get blogs to work as design spaces for years.  The inability to tie comments directly to text is the major failing as is the inability for others to edit the post simultaneously.  Many developers create developer blog, but most feel like one-to-many medium instead of a collaborative conversation that moves the game forward.  Consider these issues a challenge for those of you who love blogs. 

        Some tips for using the design log effectively

        • Don't add too much in a single day:  It can be tempting for the designer to add dozens of pages of notes and ideas in a single day.  This just overwhelms the team.  A good rule of thumb is to keep the daily notes to a level that can be read in 5 minutes.  It is uncommon that even a large team will be able to accomplish more than a page or two worth of work in a day, so self edit and focus the writing on things that will make the biggest impact.   When it comes to design, there are no awards for quantity only quality.  Instead of pouring out a giant missive, take a walk and consider what really matters.  Your designs will improve. 
        • For larger teams consider having a handful of logs.  We have a design log and an art log for one project and that splits up the discussion nicely.  I intentionally work with small teams, so I'd be curious to hear how the concept works with production heavy teams that traditionally have difficulty iterating on and evolving their design. 
        • Make sure you have a conversation, not a monologue: Ultimately, a good design log is an ongoing conversation, not the rambling of an isolated individual.  By talking things through together, everyone internalizes the design and makes it their own. Without this conversation, you just have meaningless words on a page.  

        Benefits

        Here are the benefits I've noticed of the design log approach.  These are attributes you should look for in any healthy design process.
        • Real:  The design notes are heavily based off the last working build.  This reduces the tendency for the designer to wander off into la-la land imagining cool systems that don't tie back to the game you are actively growing. 
        • Actionable:  Each day there is a list of improvements that the team can work on next.  Very little about the design is theoretical. 
        • Communal:  Everyone can jump in and comment and make suggestions. The design notes often act as a lightning rod for directing comments and prompting ideas. 
        • Focused:   This is not a spaghetti wiki.  There is a clear thread of intentional design from the bottom of the document all the way to the top.  You can approach the document as a new team member and read the story of how the game has evolved.   
        • Fresh: The topmost items on the log are always new insights based off new learning from the latest build.   Stale items fall to the bottom of the doc.  This ensures that the document is meaningful to reads and encourages you to create an always living and evolving document. 
        • Agile:  As you learn more about the dynamics of the design, you can very easily steer towards the most promising opportunities.  For many teams, especially ones in preproduction, a design log can replace backlogs and task lists. 
        Most importantly, the game design log fits the nature of design:  It is an essential quality of a game design that it evolves over time.  At the heart is a functioning product used by real people who have real reactions to what you've built.  You try new things.  You trim experiments that you imagined would work but didn't.  You double down on the delightful surprises that you could have never predicted upfront.  A design is not plan of execution.  A design is living process that grows a result organically from the journey that team takes together. It is an alchemical chain reaction of players, systems, teams, talents and design.  The starting point influences, but cannot fully define the end result.

        There is no place for a dusty design tome in such a dynamic world of evolution.  On the other hand a design log fits. It helps remove the oppressive emphasis on completing preordained features.  Day-by-day, an active design log encourages the team to embrace the iterative spirit of great game development.

        take care
        Danc.



        What the heck happened to Clippy? Ribbon Hero 2 released
        Posted by Lost Garden [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 26 April 2011, 3:37 am

        Last year, Ribbon Hero, a game that teaches people how to use Microsoft Office came out.  It was one of the few gamification projects that tried to be an actual game instead of being just lame slathering of points and achievements.  Now comes the sequel.

        David Edery and I have been helping the team over at Office Labs take that initial experiment and fulfill its fascinating potential.  I'm super proud of what Jen and crew made.  You can download Ribbon Hero 2: Clippy's Second Chance at http://www.ribbonhero.com

        In it, you find out what the heck happened to Clippy after he was fired for being...well, an internet meme for failure.   'Tis a lurid tale of shame and angry mobs.  Apparently a spoonful of narrative makes it far more likely that folks finish.

        Lessons in gamification

        I've worked with a large number of teams on the applying game design real world activities.   Not all are successes. Why did the Office Labs team succeed in releasing a polished, effective, enjoyable game when so many gamification projects fail to live up to their goals?  Here's my take:

        • Identify the core game loop:  Ribbon Hero is a game first and foremost.  At the heart of the game is a light challenge where you demonstrate your knowledge of using Office.  The team searched for and found a fun activity to build their product around.  Very few gamification projects invest in the extensive prototyping necessary to identify their core loop.  As a result, they end up throwing away their budget  finishing a crap core mechanic. Your team needs to be willing to iterate in order to converge on the fun. 
        • Support the core game loop by killing extraneous features: Most application teams believe they win if they complete features.  A good game wins by providing a great experience and more often than not this means actively removing and streamlining features.  Any feature that isn't fundamental to the core game is a stumbling block.  New features that cause confusion actively destroy value. Ribbon Hero 2 has fewer features than Ribbon Hero 1, yet is a substantially better game.   I've noticed this key concept goes against what most application teams dream about at night. Your team should adopt the mindset that features are your enemy and subtract all those that do not support the core loop. 
        • Master the art of polish:  Game mechanics are like musical instruments, not patterns you apply and get some predetermined result.  The difference between a well-executed point system that supports a player's intrinsic motivation and a pre-packaged leaderboard API is the difference between a violin concerto and some imbecile screeching away on a busted fiddle.  Polish matters.  A good team takes the extra months to smooth away rough edges, emphasize rewards, add tiny details and make the entire experience glow.  During polish, no new features are added.  Instead, you observe and live with the game, making it better in a thousand little ways. 
        • Get long term buy in:  A game project often costs 3 to 10 times as much as a basic feature that serves the same functional task.  During large parts of the project (prototyping, early production and late production) the project appears to either be completely schizophrenic or stagnant with little visible change.  Very few companies other than game companies are culturally capable of dealing with such frustrating progress signals.  The Ribbon Hero team trusted the process of game development enough to double down on resources and extend the schedule when they needed.  Your team needs to do the same. 
        • Willingness to learn:  The team knew nothing about game development when they started. Instead of taking the easy path and trying to turn a game into an application, they admitted that their previous expertise wasn't enough.  In an act of humbleness that I find rare, Jen and crew buckled down to the task of learning a radically new discipline.  They visited GDC, participated in game design workshops, prototyped crazy ideas, and trained themselves to foster moments of delight. They found out that game design is to application development what dance is to running. And in the end, after years of training (and re-training), they learned to dance. 
        Very few teams successfully apply game mechanics to real life because making a game is an exhausting iterative activity.  It takes immense political will, dedicated resources and deep belief that the right experience, not just the right feature, can change the world.   Games are no silver bullet.  Instead, real gamification is a master-level exercise in passionately pursuing great usability and user experience.  Most such projects fail because few teams have the skill, the patience or the values to pull off making a great game.

        Was it worth it?  The metrics will be the final judge.  However, I joked with the team that if the Ribbon Hero managed to get played by enough people, it is likely more effective at helping Microsoft's brand than any of the last billion dollars they spent on PR.  This simple game is probably the most human thing to come out of Microsoft in years.  Take that for what you will, but I'm happy to have been part of the journey.

        take care,
        Danc.



        GDC 2011: The Game of Platform Power
        Posted by Lost Garden [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 March 2011, 8:20 pm
        Here are the slides and notes to my GDC presentation, "The Game of Platform Power".   In our industry, history repeats itself again and again, but each new generation of developers often fails to learn past lessons.  Platforms in particular have a well established life cycle and their relationship with a developer changes as they mature.    Yet, I regularly see developers completely caught off guards as their new favorite platform suddenly stops being their friend and starts treating them as a harvestable resource.  Don't be surprised.  This is the way of things and it has happened dozens of times in the past.

        My small hope is that by naming and illuminating some of the common phases and practices of platforms, developers will be able to better deal with the inevitable shifts.  I would like nothing better than smart game developers to divorce their businesses from the platform life cycle and build direct relationships with long lasting communities of passionate gamers.

        Gdc 2011 game of platform power
        View more documents from Daniel Cook.

        I will note that I have nothing against platforms despite what my occasionally spicy rhetoric may suggest. I respect and appreciate them like a biologist appreciates a large predator. I've personally walked many miles in the shoes of platform developer. (I spent 10 years building platforms and I loved it.) It is a hard path and platforms do their best. However, ultimately I feel it is better for everyone to be a strong advocate for the users and the game developers that directly serve them.  In the long view of history picture, these two are the essential players.

        take care,
        Danc.



        List of Game Artists
        Posted by Lost Garden [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 March 2011, 9:17 pm

        A very large number of game developers come to Lostgarden looking for game art. (Apparently I'm on the first page of results if you search for 'free game art')

        Of those folks that show up, some are happy to find my collections of free art.  A whole slew of other write me asking if I can make art for them.  Unfortunately I haven't done contract art for decades and now pretty much exclusively focus on game design.  My artist days happened about three careers ago. :-)  But still I hate the idea of not being able to connect talented teams with amazing artists.

        This post is an experiment.   If you are a talented artist looking to do freelance game art, add the following information in a comment below:

        • Your name
        • A link to a gallery of your work
        • A note on if you are wiling to work for revenue share or you prefer upfront payment only. 
        • Some means of contacting you.  For example bob [at] gameart.com

        The goal is to build up a living directory of talented game artists.  If you've worked with an artist on a game and you know they are open for work, do them a favor and post their portfolio here using the format above.    Post a link to this page on any forum or list where game artists hang out.

        All the best,
        Danc.


        PS: I'm actively looking for an illustrator for a project, so if you post a link there's a good chance at least I'll be checking out your portfolio. :-) (The current gig involves dozens of adorable panda illustrations.)  And there seem to be an unending stream of new projects that need art rolling into Spry Fox all the time. 




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