Against Tactics and the Connect-Four CCG

How did you become a game designer? What was the path you took, going all the way back to your childhood, that lead you to want to design games? I expect that most of us can at least loosely define some "stages" of our game-design-development, and while we all have our differences, I think it's probable that many of us reading this article (and who therefore are more likely to be systems-design-oriented) have had something of a similar path. Like most, I started in videogames - Street Fighter, Doom, Final Fantasy, Zelda, and later, WarCraft 2, Starcraft, Fallout, Super Smash Bros. and Final Fantasy Tactics. And of course, I played Chess. From the vantage point of a videogame player, it's natural to see the ancient abstracts as these untouchable titans of history. We see games like Chess and Go like the classical music to our modern pop songs, or like the ancient Greek philosophers. Maybe they weren't entirely applicable to today—for as much as I talked a big game about how great these games were, I never found myself enjoying them the way I enjoyed modern videogames—but they always maintained this air of "brilliant design" and even a kind of perfection. At some point, probably around 2010, is when I dove deep into the world of designer board games, which really opened up the field for me in terms of what I think of as possible in games. Around the same time, Rogue-likes also took off somewhat and entered into the public consciousness. I have come out of this big soupy not-very-designed world of videogames, and entered into a world of highly abstract, usually grid-based, procedurally generated systems, with designer boardgames as an inspiration, but always with the great gods Chess and Go looking down on all of it. It is in that environment that I developed much of my theory and created my games.  

Indie Games on a Small Grid

In the last decade, we've seen the rise of these small, often solo game designers. And I don't mean "designers" to say "developers"—I mean designers. People like Michael Brough, Brett Lowey (I interviewed him on episode 36 of my podcast), Happy Snake, One Man Left, myself, and others. I call these the interactive merit chasers: people deeply involved in the problem of "how do I make a deep, semi-evergreen, elegantly designed system that's fun to play just because of its rules alone?" Recently, I would also add the FTL developers to this list, with their release of Into the Breach, which is part of what really spurred me to finally write this article. (more…)

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Jon Shafer on pushing the 4X genre forward

Today I have an interview with Civilization V designer, Jon Shafer. Jon's an experienced 4X strategy game player and creator, and I wanted to talk to him about the design issues these kinds of games tend to face. Here's a few subjects we talk about:

  • Diplomacy systems
  • Lack of dynamics in the late (and often mid) game
  • How combat should be resolved, if it exists at all
  • Match length
  • Victory conditions
... just to name a few. Jon is currently working on the successfully Kickstarted At the Gates, which you can play an early access version of here. Note: Jon's audio is a little bit spotty in the first 10 minutes of the interview, but it clears up! Enjoy!   Thanks for listening! If you enjoyed the show, please consider supporting my work at Special thanks to Jean-Marc Neilly, and a big thank you to all my patrons for making this show possible.

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Designing Strategy: Rushdown, Economy, and Defense

Hey everyone! Today I have a good-old-fashioned formalist-ish game design article. It's been a little while since I've really done one of those, unless it was attached to Push the Lane. This article is also a little bit different than a lot of my other work because I usually talk about rulesets: what the actual rules are. I tend to talk less about, within a set of rules, what players can do. Today, I'm talking about designing strategy space, and a specific way to think about the strategies that players can pursue in your game.

"The triangle"

If you're into strategy games, you probably at least loosely know the basic idea behind "rushdown" (or "rush"), "economy" (or "econ"), and "defense". A lot of us first heard these terms in RTS games like StarCraft, wherein the "zergling rush" was a very common and easy-to-understand manifestation of a "rush strategy". Terrans building a ton of bunkers and missile turrets and siege tanks was a pretty clear example of "defense", and expanding (getting another base with another source of minerals) was an "economy" play. In some games, it can be seen as a triangle, or rock-paper-scissors relationship, with rush beating econ, econ beating defense, and defense beating rush. It's worth noting that "rushdown" is not, itself, a strategy, but rather a family or style of strategies in a given game. There may be many different rushdown strategies. Also, it's spectral. You may pursue a strategy that's like 60% rush-y, or 80% rush-y, etc. (more…)

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Push the Lane: Loot in a Strategy Game?

Since Push the Lane entered this latest phase back in mid-2017 (basically after the failed Kickstarter version, which was much more puzzle-game-like), it has become much more videogamey. By that, I mean, it has focused a lot more on fighting, monsters, items, special abilities, moving around a big map and such. I have been thinking of it more like "a Rogue-like DotA" recently; a turn-based, single player League of Legends. With that thought, I always kind of had it in the corner of my mind somewhere that it would be pretty cool if the game had "loot" somehow. My general feeling and belief about loot has been, for years, that it has really no place in strategy games. But maybe there's a way? First, let's define the term.

What is loot?

I think most of the time the word "loot" is used, it refers to randomly dropping items. For me, the classic version of "loot" is item drops in Diablo, or a Rogue-like. More recently, it's popular to have "loot crates" in games like Overwatch, which give the player some random metagame items, such as skins. (more…)

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Was 2017 a bad year? Personal storytelling

This was originally a Facebook status that blew up into a full article. It's not about game design, but this is my site so I'll post whatever I want! Hopefully people will get something out of it, especially as it relates to new years and resolutions and all of that. Enjoy, and Happy New Year!   I did a lot of thinking last night about storytelling, in terms of "the stories we tell ourselves about our lives". One of the big stories that many of us share is the story that "2017 was a bad year" - mostly because of Trump, I think, but also probably for other reasons. But one of the reasons that "2017 was a bad year" is because it is good for storytelling. It makes a good story if there was a really bad time, because that opens things up for a comparatively good time later on. Even if that "good time later on" never comes, it doesn't matter. We are emotionally sort of setting ourselves up for that to happen, and that kind of feels good. I have been thinking a lot about the narratives we tell ourselves and how those narratives, and not the actual reality, determine our perceptions of reality. Of course, all we have, each of us, are our own narratives, so I want to be clear that I am not saying I or anyone else actually knows the actual reality. I don't think the actual reality is all that important. We act on the stories we tell ourselves, because those are how we understand the world. Looking forward, looking back, or looking at the right now, we have a story to tell about what's going on. And those stories sound like the stories we heard growing up in fairy tales and pop culture. And the stories in fairy tales and pop culture are themselves informed by real-life experiences, so it's this big soupy interaction of art mimicing life and vice versa. But the important thing is to remember that you have a little bit of control over the stories you choose to tell. Maybe not much, but also not zero. And the stories you tell affect how you feel about your life, and also what actions you take. I guess on one level, this is kind of obvious. The obvious thought is "think positive!" or something - but that's not what I'm saying. Sometimes you DO need to think negative now, so that you can think positive later. So that you can feel the swing of a dramatic change for the better.

Story Shock

I listened to a really good ON THE MEDIA episode today which I recommend. But in in they talked about about various forms of nihilism and some art movements like Dadaism that came out of nihilist philosophy. The most commonly held narrative about nihilism and some of those post-modern art movements were that it largely had to do with the rise of atheism (also amplified by two horrible world wars). So the situation there was, we had one story - God did everything and he's looking out for us, etc - and now we have a different story, where we're just creatures that live on some random rock. Looking at it now, it looks like we just kind of had a bit of a temper-tantrum that our previously held narrative wasn't working out. For my generation, and probably newer generations, some of those ideas that they thought were scary - like there being no God, no afterlife - is kind of more accepted. In the podcast above they talk a lot about how it was this huge problem that "now life has no meaning!!! Ahhhh!!" and I guess I just feel like, I was born sort of understanding that and I completely accept it and even welcome it. I wouldn't want there to be some pre-existing, prescribed meaning on reality or on human life. I like that the project of human life is to create meaning, and besides, meaning is a totally human idea anyway. This idea that there should be some grand "meaning" that's bigger than humanity is like a silly illogical idea to begin with. At least, that's how I've always felt. So this is one of the kind of issues with narratives, is that they can hurt when they don't work out. And maybe that's even the definition of "hurt", is something not going the way our narrative said it would, or should. Anyway the point is, some narratives do us harm, and I think it's worth looking at those. Classic examples are stuff like "I'm not attractive" or "I can't draw". But also we build all kinds of narratives with specific people in our lives, such as "oh this person is good for XYZ, but bad for ABC". Again, we have to build these narratives so that we can kind of understand anything and take any actions. But it's really worth remembering, and here's the thesis statement of this thing, that our ability to craft accurate narrative is really kind of shitty. Words and sentences are not reality, they are some really loose symbols which make a weak attempt at painting a picture of a view of reality. And just as words are not reality, our stories are not reality. So I'm not saying don't have stories, but I am saying, don't take your stories too seriously. Don't be too confident in them. Try to be aware of the fact that they are stories, stories which may be "based on a true story", but which are not themselves true or real. And they can be looked at in different ways. Maybe a good new year's resolution is to challenge your stories. Was 2017 really that bad a year? Maybe it was. Maybe it's helpful to look at it that way. Maybe that one friend of yours who is a bad listener isn't always a bad listener. Maybe your brother who hates surprise parties will actually like a surprise party this year. For me, I am very much looking forward to 2018 being the dramatic pendulum swing backwards in the other direction. That would make a good story, and it would also make me happy.   - ADDENDUM: Definitely do not want to minimize the degree to which Trump's year in office actively threatens people, especially minorities and women, and I am not a person in any of those groups. So I am not at all trying to minimize that. I recognize that for a lot of people, the simple fact that this man is president really does make it the worst year ever, for sure. And it sorta also does for me too. I just wanted to acknowledge that and not downplay what a threat this guy is and how much it matters to the least-privileged that this is what's happening in our world.

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The 3DO: The birth of my cynicism

Behind every super logical sounding argument or theory, there is always some kind of emotional charge. This is especially true in media studies and criticism, I think. That's not to say, however, that the argument or theories are wrong, or coming from a dishonest place. We're all people and we all have stories that are real and that happened and that do actually say something about the world, and those real things are informing our point of view now, in the form of that emotional charge. For as long as the internet has had access to me and my writing, and also for many years before that, I have been a strong videogame cynic. I pretty much hate all videogames, even the ones I play, and even the ones I endorse. Someone asked me what the best Nintendo DS game was. I said, confidently, that I thought it was Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer. They looked into it some, and were able to find out many egregiously horrible design flaws in the game. I conceded them all, saying, "I didn't say Shiren was good, I said it was the best DS game." I've met people recently who call themselves videogame cynics, who say stuff like "I feel like I hate all videogames", and I just know that they like videogames way more than I do. Over the last few years I've been telling people I'm a "videogame refugee", particularly coming out of the GamerGate situation and how so much of videogame industry and fans (at least the loud, vocal ones) seem to be toxic, angry, aggressive, lacking compassion, etc. It feels very insular sometimes, going to these game conventions with booth babes, guns, and huge muscle cars everywhere. And as a straight white dude myself, I generally have wanted to kind of back off somewhat out of that insular little circle. Oh, and also videogames cost a lot of money. And it's this big conspicuous consumption thing where people just kind of want to buy stuff, like on some level the most fun games ever are are while you're purchasing them. And also, what adult has the time to play these things, anyway? The point is: if you want to withdraw from videogames, there are ample reasons to do so. For years I've told myself that my hate for games is actually because I love them so much. I see a promise in them that other people either can't see, or don't care about - a promise of vastly better interactivity, etc. And all of that stuff, all of my criticisms, I think they're not false. But there's also an emotional charge element to it all that maybe explains it better than whether any of these points are true or false. The picture above was taken sometime around 1992 or so, I believe, and it's of me in my home-made Sonic the Hedgehog costume (thanks, Mom!). Growing up, I really liked videogames. But like, no - you don't understand. I really, really liked them. I had a massive collection of NES, Super Nintendo, Atari 2600, Gameboy, Game Gear, and Genesis games at that time, and they weren't the only things I was interested in, but they were always a main centerpiece of any social interaction or free evening. And back then, I had an optimism and a positive identity as a "gamer". I took pride in it. I would dress up as characters, draw the characters, talk to people about the games, go excitedly to Gamestop (or back then, more Babbage's) and get excited about things. In 1992, I was like how so many people are now about videogames. Excited, and able to take pride in my hobby. By 2000, I was distinctly and clearly not so. You were so cute—what happened?!  

The 3DO

There were a few formative events that pushed me in this direction, but if I had to point to one "inciting incident" for this change, it would probably have to be the Panasonic R.E.A.L. 3DO. Actually, I just looked it up on Wikipedia, and apparently the real, full name was the "Panasonic FZ-1 R.E.A.L. 3DO Interactive Multiplayer". I had no idea, I never heard "FZ-1" and I don't remember "Interactive Multiplayer" either. [embed][/embed] It came out in October of 1993. A hung out with a couple of friends who were older than I was, and had jobs, and were equally as obsessed with games, and they got a 3DO pretty early on. Here's the big thing about the 3DO you need to know: IT COST SEVEN HUNDRED DOLLARS. That's $699.99, specifically. And that was not normal back then, or anything - the Sega Genesis cost $189.99 when it came out. But I played the 3DO at my friend's house and I was totally sucked in. I had to have it. The only way I could get that kind of money together quickly as a 12 year old was to have a tag sale, and so I had a huge one, wherein I sold almost all of my videogames*. The gameboy, the game gear, the NES, the Atari, a ton of accessories and games, were now all gone (I believe I kept my Super Nintendo, because I was also obsessed with Mortal Kombat 1 and 2 at the time). [embed][/embed] I really did that, and I got together most of the money to get a 3DO. I remember going to Babbage's and buying it, and being so excited. I took it home, and honestly, I enjoyed some of the games a lot. The original Need for Speed was a decent racing game with the first "good car physics" I had ever seen in a game, and that was a lot of fun to play with. Crystal Dynamics' Total Eclipse and Crash n' Burn were both, totally fine videogames overall, if nothing particularly special. John Madden Football was... I mean, it was John Madden Football - it was quite like '92 and '93 which I liked a lot. Some other games were pretty obviously not-good, like Way of the Warrior, their attempt at a Mortal Kombat clone. There were a few other neat features - to this day I wonder why more systems don't use the "chaining controllers" model that the 3DO used, where a second player would plug his controller into your controller, and a third player would plug their controller into yours, and so on. (Well, I dunno, maybe that's not that cool actually, but it was novel.) Overall, my actual interactive experience with the few games I had was actually alright. But it wasn't mind-blowing. And overall, the Super Nintendo was way better. I don't think I was conscious of that fact, but the undeniability of it kind of started sinking in. But I remember the real moment everything sank in. I remember the moment so much stuff happened in my brain. About 4-5 months after I bought the 3DO, I went into Babbage's, as I had many times, and I saw the shelf where the 3DO was, with a few boxes that looked like this: All scuffed up - the mark of people abusing the hell out of Babbage's ridiculous return policy (which I myself abused many times by buying PC games, installing them, and then returning them). But the worst part of all was that there was a little sticker slapped onto the box. It was a price sticker, but it wasn't the normal small, white orange stickers you typically see on an item like this. It was an orange sticker, more like one you'd see in a supermarket on a 2-liter of store-brand cola when it was on sale. But the worst thing of all was what the sticker said: $49.99 That's right. The 3DO, between the time I bought it for $700, and the handful of months that had gone by, had now gone down in price to just fifty bucks. I had of course been following the news about various 3DO games getting reviewed badly, and how the system wasn't doing so well, but when I saw that sticker, that was the moment when I knew that the 3DO had died. But it wasn't just the 3DO that died at that moment. My belief in the greatness of videogames, the dream of videogames, was really kind of shattered. It was all just... some crap. Seeing that box all tattered and bruised like that, that early in a console's life, really just let me see behind the curtain in a way, and really realize—really know, and feel it, in my heart—that it's just marketing, all the way down. From that point on, and even today, I see new games in this state: massively marked down, in a beaten-up cardboard box. I always ask, "how much value will this have, then? Without the hype storm, without the ads, without the memes?" There wasn't any overnight change, but I think that that was the last time I bought a console as soon as it was available. Both the original Playstation and the N64 I got, but 3-4 years after they came out. And that number got bigger and bigger for each successive generation. By 2000 I remember staunchly advocating against people buying consoles anywhere near their release date. Release day is the worst possible day to buy a console, I would tell people. The system has the smallest library, and it costs the most. Wait about 10 years, so you get the largest library and the cheapest cost, I would tell them.


And those things aren't false. It really is kind of irresponsible and sort of dumb in a way to buy a console really early in its lifespan. But maybe that's what it is to like things. Being a little bit dumb - believing in something, even when maybe you know you shouldn't. Because maybe you're wrong. Have a little humility in your own ability to know how it's going to go, and have a little bit of hope and optimism in the other human beings who are making these things. Now, I'm a game developer, I know indies and AAA people and everyone in between, and I've never met anyone who was very cynical about it at all. People are trying to make good things. Beyond that, though, if you wait 10 years to buy a console, or if you don't buy one at all, that means you won't be connecting with anyone about these things. Most of the big games of the last decade or so, I've done this with—always played them at least a year after everyone else did, sometimes a lot more. And okay, yeah, they're cheaper. But have fun playing them all by yourself with no one to connect with them on. There's value in being part of a current conversation. And there's even value in some of the "hype". If it takes hype to get me and a friend to sit down in front of a game and play it for a couple hours, then maybe there's something to that. I can't forget that a lot of these games are made by massive, massive corporations that are dealing in totally obscene amounts of wealth, and I can't forget that we as a society are totally brainwashed into being these conspicuous consumers for whom it gives them a weird rush of pleasure to buy things. But I can choose to try to have a positive attitude about things. Yeah, the 3DO is a good glimpse for me into the reality of what videogames, especially consoles, are. They're marketing. They're some plastic and some silicon and some metal with a good ad campaign. But they are also platforms for art, real art, made by real people, with real stories. And even for the huge AAA games, not all of those stories get their edges shaved off. We are connecting with a real person, with real people, when we play Breath of the Wild.

Going Forward

It's true that on the extremely narrow axis of interactivity that I'm generally interested in - strategy games - I do think videogames are a little bit stuck in the mud (which is what a lot of my theory work is intended to help out with). But what about other things? What about puzzles like Portal, what about toys like Minecraft, what about contests like Rock Band, and what about interactive narrative experiences like Gone Home? I don't deny that these things are all... quite fantastic. And yet I've still kind of just say that "videogames suck", overall. Ultimately, I just kind of have - or, have had, as I'm trying to change this - a negative attitude about games. This year, I bought a Nintendo Switch, and the new Mario, and the new Zelda. I also got Civilization VI and I'm excited about the upcoming expansion, which I'm going to play when it's new, for once. In my recent podcast episode, some got that I had "flip flopped" from my previous super-formal "hate everything" positions. It's not the case. I still have all the same problems that I had before, I just am taking a wider view, and a more pro-social view. We can know about these problems and have a negotiated interaction with them, which is what I want to do. And I also want to recapture some of that feeling that I had dressing up Sonic as a kid. ~ Thanks for reading! You can support my work here.   * The good news is, in my early 20's I worked at a Funcoland and got back all of my videogame collection, and then some. The bad(?) news is that I've since sold almost all of it again.

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