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.
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
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
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
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-AheadHere'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
I'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.