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.
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
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…) Read More
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…) Read More
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 ShockI 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. Read More
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?!