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…)

Read More

Incremental Complexity

Announcement! In the future, I think I'll do more articles in "video form". Very lightly edited videos, mostly a voice over and some pictures/titles/video. I think that video seems to be where more of the conversation is happening these days. Here's the first video, on incremental complexity, a new way of thinking about strategy game design (designing them, and teaching them), inspired by Pandemic: Legacy. https://youtu.be/47Q0V9a_-q8 Support my work on Patreon here! Special thanks to Patreon Patron Aaron Oman! (more…)

Read More

The Virtuosity Scale

scale One thing to think about when designing a game is trying to figure out what "degree of virtuosity" you want to allow. I mean this in a bit of a prescriptive way, which I'll explain. Some games offer you a huge number of possible choices per "turn" or per "moment". Having a high degree of range of motion means more potential for creative actions. You can literally do something that ten onlookers watching hadn't even considered. I'd say abstract games with a big grid like Go are good examples, but also complex real time games like StarCraft or Team Fortress 2 certainly qualify here, too. We'll say that these games have "high virtuosity". (more…)

Read More

Asymmetry in Games

  asymmetry A few years ago, I had written an article called "Debunking Asymmetry". I think that that piece makes some mistakes about how it framed some of the problems of asymmetric forces in games. Quickly, a definition - "asymmetry", in this context, refers to the player or players having different abilities from the start of a match. A Street Fighter II character, a StarCraft race, or a Magic: The Gathering deck all would qualify (for the purpose of this article, I will just use "character" to refer to any of these, as a shorthand). (more…)

Read More

Uncapped Look-Ahead and the Information Horizon

chess I write a lot about how bad output randomness is for games, but today I want to write about a problem common in many deterministic games - specifically ones that lack hidden information. Why doesn't everyone just play chess, if it's so great? The answer is that chess, or other ancient abstracts like Go and shogi, or even modern abstracts like the Gipf games, Through the Desert or Hive - these games really aren't that great. They are all largely "look-ahead contests", and people pick up on this, consciously or subconsciously, and it makes them all kind of annoying to play.  

Look-Ahead

Here's the process of look-ahead in action: what will happen if I make move X? Once move X is made, what will happen if the opponent makes moves A, B or C? If he should make move A, then I can make moves D, E or F... and so on. It's literally scanning through every possible (or reasonably valid-seeming) move that you can. Games of chess, at least at novice and intermediate levels of play, tend to come down to simply who does more of this. One way to put it is that it's a matter of quantity, not quality. (more…)

Read More

Toys and the Adult Mind

toys and the adultI've been thinking about this idea for awhile now that for adults, toys have inherently way less value than puzzles, contests and especially games do. A friend of mine made a point that fantasy simulators, a kind of toy, could have significant value for adults if they were just vastly better than they are now. This is, I think, what everyone assumes to be the case. However, I think even with massive improvements, exponential improvements, toys still could not compete with games. This idea of "Virtual Reality" is kind of central to everything most people do and think about and imagine and create when it comes to interactive entertainment. It's always been the be-all, end-all solution to the problem of "what would be the most fun thing to do?" I've loosely rejected that premise for years now, but I think until recently I also accepted that perhaps a super-sophisticated real-world simulator - like a real-life The Matrix kind of thing - would be probably similar in intellectual value for use by a human as chess would. But here's the problem: once you have your Matrix thing - what are you going to actually do? Crash a car? Run around in the woods? Shoot a bunch of people? Jump off a building? How long is it interesting to do those things in Grand Theft Auto? Ironically, the most interesting thing I can imagine doing in a The Matrix simulator would be to... do the same things I do in real life. Have an interesting conversation. Watch a great film. Play a great game. In real life, I spend very little time doing the kinds of things that one would do in The Matrix, and not because it's unsafe, but because it's uninteresting.

Efficient Complexity

The problem with humans is that we're way too smart. Think about the human adult's relationship with a ball. If one is around, we might kick it around or toss it in the air, but engaging with it doesn't compete with almost anything else we spend our day doing. Most adults spend 0.01 to 0.001% of their free time, on average, bouncing or throwing a ball around, because there are just way better things to do. Bouncing a ball around, even throwing it back and forth with another person, is just too simple. We "get it" about how a ball works in space. bouncyball-30-lgSome have a fantasy about taking one of those small rubber super-bouncy balls (the kind you can find in 25-cent vending machines) and bouncing it as hard as you can in a small room. At first, it seems like this would be pretty exciting, but actually, most of the excitement of this comes from novelty, and maybe a small remaining bit of excitement comes from danger (I might break a window, or hit myself in the eye or something). In terms of what's actually happening, even in this very extreme version of "ball bouncing around", nothing will really surprise us. Let's say, though, that we want to make this interesting - let's litter the room with dominoes, army men, and fine china. This is, indeed, increasing the amount of complexity in the room, and so it should now be more interesting. But it's weird. How much more interesting is it? In a way, it takes way more time to add in that complexity than it does for us to understand what will happen when activate it. So yes, it's more complex, but in order to make this room interesting, we'd have to put millions of agents in there or something. Humans are just way too good at understanding physics. I can't even imagine a room with enough stuff where what would happen would surprise me. It's all just physics at different frequencies. Another example might be the portals in Portal. Even though we're talking about teleportation here - a total breaking of the currently understood laws of physics, human beings totally understand it within minutes of play, and then using portals is every bit as normal to us as walking or driving or any other method of moving from A to B. Playing with Portal as a toy is fun for a similar amount of time as playing with a ball.

Meaningful Complexity

So why is Portal interesting, then, if the actual portal mechanism itself isn't enough to be interesting? The reason is that the missions in Portal provide context for that complexity. Puzzles give a system a goal, and then goal then serves as an anchor which now gives relative meaning to every bit of complexity in that system. Now a spacial relationship can become interesting, because there is a goal which gives positions meaning. Both "massively increasing the complexity of GTA" and the "the "bouncy ball in the room full of china" has the same problem of horrible inefficiency, because nothing in those systems is giving anything context. Nothing "matters". Okay, so I broke a bunch of china. So what? What does that mean? The way china breaks isn't actually interesting. Or for the Matrix thing - what are you going to do that's actually going to be interesting? The best you can do is something that's novel or spectacular - both of which are values that have extremely short half-lives. In Portal, though, we have a goal - solve the puzzle. So now each bit of complexity we add actually means a lot. In fact, it means so much, that we have to be incredibly careful about what we add to it. In toys, you don't have to be particularly careful about what you add, because nothing means anything. In puzzles, contests or games, every bit of complexity can have massive impacts on the system - this is what makes it extremely hard to make a great game. In short, here's another way to frame it: imagine a chess board sitting in that room full of china. You can grab your Queen, and throw it as hard as you can against a wall, bouncing it all over the place. The complexity that's there is huge - tons of physics operations are happening, something might break in all kinds of different ways, etc - way more inherent complexity than could ever happen on a chessboard while playing chess. Yet, playing chess is vastly more interesting. This is because the complexity that is there for chess is both large and has meaning. This combination of "large possibility space and has meaning" is the reason, I think, that games have the greatest potential for delivering value to adults. They can have massive emergent complexity, and yet all of that complexity can have meaning. Puzzles and contests are necessarily limited in their potential for complexity, and toys don't have a goal. To add one caveat - toys are sometimes also "creation tools", and to the extent that they are, they no doubt have huge value that's absolutely on a par with a game. However, if you think about it, when you're using Garry's Mod or Minecraft as a "creation tool", you're actually adding a goal, turning it into a puzzle of sorts. I should also mention that for children, even understanding the basic physics of reality is profound and interesting. It takes them a long time to really get a grasp on such things - the example of the baby being amused by "Peek-a-Boo" is a good example of how much our brains really do change as we age. For us adults - forget about virtual reality, fantasy simulation, and the like. We already have the ultimate form - games - we're just so focused on stuff like fantasy simulation, technological spectacle and other novelty that we haven't really been trying to dive in to find their potential. Version 1.2 - Updated Nov 2015.   This article was made possible by the patrons at Patreon.com. To support my work, please become a patron!

Read More