Editor’s Note: Today I’m happy to release the second guest article for keithburgun.net! This piece is written by lead artist at Dinofarm Games, Blake Reynolds. Frequent visitors might also know him from the Dinofarm ART BARN articles or from the Game Design Theory Podcast, where he’s a regular. Enjoy!
I know I’m late to the party, but considering the subject matter, I suspect many have already left anyway. The party I’m talking about is a rousing discussion about PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale. I think the reason so many have departed is because the game was boring and forgettable, but many of these people might not have a full grasp as to what made it so boring and forgettable. Those who are still playing and are trying their very hardest to like or justify this product won’t last much longer, and I’ll explain why.
Most of the flak this game has caught in the past number of months has been quiet little suggestions that it is, well, a little bit similar to Super Smash Bros. It has features such as Smash Attacks like SSB, directional tilt-attacks like SSB, rolling like SSB, air dodging like SSB, blocking like SSB, double jumps and recoveries like SSB, “A” attacks in four directions on the ground and four in the air, “B” attacks in four directions, grappling from SSB, projectiles like smash, spiking, items… you know… every single mechanism to the last minute detail.
This complete thievery alone is enough of a blatant, cynical display of utter disrespect for the basic intelligence of the average consumer, and that’s enough to be insulting. But hey – people re-skin a set of mechanisms all the time. Re-theme it, tweak a few rules, and voila! “If you liked original idea X, you’ll love cynical cash-grab Y!”
But plagiarism is not actually the point of this article. A game can technically be a ripoff of another game and still have longevity, if it’s ripping off something really good and keeping what made the original thing good intact. The point of this article is to explain why will nobody be playing PlayStation All-Stars next year, yet even Super Smash Bros. 64, the oldest game in that series, is still going strong. The reason this game will be forgotten in another year is because of what they changed, not what they stole. Continue reading
Competitive games should be valued by all of us, even those of us who don’t play games competitively. This is because whether you’re playing a game competitively or not, a competitive game is, put simply, a better, stronger game. More importantly, a competitive game is also more one that’s more fun to play.
For the purposes of this article, I’d like to define “competitive games” a little bit more specifically than it is colloquially defined, although my definition is still consistent with the definition you’d expect.
A competitive game is a contest of decision-making that is both deep enough and balanced enough to withstand serious play for at least 10 years.
A few notes on this definition. The “10 years” number is totally arbitrary, and only given as a broad, general example to represent “a long time”. Preferably, a good competitive game lasts longer – the longer, the better. I simply mean that to be a competitive game at all, you have to hold up to serious play – play that is actively seeking truly optimal moves – for more than a few years.
Also, don’t think that because I’m using the phrase “contest of decision-making” that this contest can’t include other elements such as execution or randomness. I personally feel that better games use less of these elements, but that’s beyond the point of this article. It’s simply meant to imply that these are, broadly, “strategy games”, and certainly games of skill. So, a completely luck-based competitive activity, such as the card game War, would not qualify.
Finally, as with most of my writing, this article is really directed towards coming up with solutions for games that have not yet been designed. It is not primarily meant to be a lens through which to observe currently existing games, although to some degree it can be used that way, and I will use it that way to illustrate my points.
Most “videogames” or “boardgames” that most of us could name would not fall into the category I just described, which is probably obvious. Here are some of the reasons for this:
- Excessive randomness: We all draw a line in the sand somewhere at how random is “too random” for us to be interested in playing a given game. Similarly, there is a line somewhere where a game is too random to be played competitively. At some point, a system is sufficiently random where the impact of skill is too negligible for people to want to invest seriously in it, at least without some external motivator like “betting on real money” or huge cultural attachment.
- Too Solvable/Shallow: Some abstract games, and most videogames tend to fall into this category. Essentially, if people can figure out what the optimal strategy is pretty quickly, that’s a problem, because the decision-space shrinks up and players have nothing left to explore and no room to “get better” than other players, which is the basic core of competitive play.
- No Support: Boardgames tend to suffer this problem, since they can’t be easily “patched”. Indeed, there’s a tremendous cost to issuing new “editions” of boardgames, and most games never get popular enough to warrant this cost. Most boardgames that get new editions do so because it’s been 20 years since the last edition, or there’s a new publisher, or they wanted to upgrade the art. Very few boardgames actually issue new versions because they want to improve balance or gameplay – David Sirlin being one notable exception, and he gets a tremendous amount of grief for doing so. The boardgame world is not quite ready for this idea of editions for pure game-balance reasons yet, it seems.
For videogames, it’s cheaper to support your game years down the line, but still, many developers either don’t value doing it, or possibly can’t afford to do it, and it never gets done.
- Technical Stupidness: Weirdly enough, lots of modern videogames that would otherwise be competitive aren’t getting balance patches. Maybe someone else can fill me in on what the excuse for this is – there might be an excuse that exists, but there is certainly no justification.
In short, a large reason why so few games are really competitive games is because there’s a lack of will to make sure games can be competitive in the first place. I’ll now explain why it’s basically it’s everyone’s interest if more games (contests of decision-making) are competitive games.
“Competitive Game” versus “Pro Gamer”
If you’re a person who plays games, chances are you are not a person who plays games competitively. That is to say, you probably don’t devote hours per day to “practicing” your favorite game, you probably don’t enter into tournaments, and you almost certainly don’t make your living playing games.
Since you are probably not such a person, and you probably do not plan to ever become such a person, you may well believe that whether a game could be classified as shouldn’t be of great importance to you. If I only play Game X about two hours a week, then I won’t ever get to the point with it where I realize that it’s kind of broken and degenerate play emerges.
The thinking is, I’m only really seeing 5% of what this game is really about – only 5% of its strategy space – so who cares if the guy who sees 50% or 80% realizes it’s broken? The answer is that your brain cares. The tip of an iceberg still has a direct relationship to the iceberg and all of its qualities. A game that has a small usable decision-space will feel that way to a player, even if he or she is only barely scratching the surface of the strategic possibilities.
I’ll illustrate with a fictional example, comparing two theoretical spaceship deathmatch games: Game A and Game B. In both games, you’re in a small space arena with another player, and in the center of the screen there’s a black hole which draws both players towards it. The objective of both games is to knock the other player into the black hole, and both games have 4 buttons: turn left, turn right, accelerate, and turbo (a fast accelerate). The screen loops around at the edges, like Atari 2600’s Combat.
In Game A, when players press the accelerate button, they reach their ship’s top speed instantly and stay at it until they let go. Also, the Turbo button makes you go exactly twice the speed of accelerating, for one second. If you hit the opponent while turbo charging, it gives them the exact same amount of inertia in the direction you were moving every time.
In Game B, acceleration ramps up slowly, and Turbo has a slight exponential effect. So, if you use it while going slowly, it might bring you to 110% of your current speed, but if you use it while moving quickly, it might bring you to 200% of your current speed.
Game B has more dynamism to it, more synergistic rule relationships, and therefore more potential depth / possibility space Game A. Both games are functional, though, and if you’re only going to play it for 20 minutes, it might not seem to matter that game B has more possibility space. But it matters despite this, because even if you’re only using 5% of the possibility space of Game A, your brain can feel that larger possibility space there, and that’s exciting.
What this means is that even if you only play a given game for two hours a week, those two hours will be better in a system that can stand up to long-term competitive play, precisely because the possibility space is larger, even if you don’t access that larger possibility space, because you can feel that that larger possibility space is there, and that in and of itself is exciting. You notice that sometimes you get going really goddamn fast, and you find yourself imagining, and you notice that your velocity is passed to the opponent on contact, and your mind starts to imagine the possibilities. This is how deep games entice us to want to play more.
Essentially, what I’m saying is, competitive games are more fun, whether you’re playing them competitively or not.
More companies need to start getting serious about competitive play. Right now, if you want to play a competitive game, you’ve got a very small pool of options. I will not be listing all of the options here, but some of the most significant ones.
Blizzard’s RTSes like Starcraft 2 and Warcraft 3 are both very serious competitive games. Indeed, I probably had more fun reading the patch notes and watching the balancing process happen in both of these games than I did actually playing them.
DotA and other DotA-inspired games (League of Legends being the most notable – and by the way, I hereby formally do not recognize “MOBA” as a genre, but rather one single game design idea; it’s sad to me that when the videogame industry comes up with one new game idea they consider it a “genre”, but I digress) are also examples of competitive games, for sure, although they also seem to have a horrible habit of setting themselves up for failure with a commitment to “constantly add new content to the system”, which means that balance will be impossible.
I have to mention Outwitters on iOS, which is not only my favorite digital game that has been made, but also is making some serious effort to be competitively viable. I’ve heard rumblings about the game getting too defensive and kind of breaking down at the highest levels of play, but they’ve also been making efforts to combat that, and I really appreciate this!
Fighting games and certain FPSes (Team Fortress 2 comes to mind) also have had very rigorous balancing processes, and they are solid examples of competitive games. I feel bad for a lot of fighting games, such as Super Smash Brothers 64, who had literally zero opportunities for patching, but otherwise could have been excellent competitive games.
In the boardgame world, you have Magic: The Gathering, which again is doomed because of its horrible commitment to perpetual content additions. You have a number of other games that could certainly be made competitive, if the developers cared to / were capable of creating balance patches/editions, but for whatever reason, that doesn’t seem to happen.
This is of course not counting famous folk abstracts and card games like Bridge, Go, or Chess, which are all serious competitive games which have existed for hundreds (or thousands in the case of Go) of years. Sports, too. But again, I’m not counting these, because I’m specifically talking about the world of game design, and how we can and should move forward.
Let’s Make Competitive Games
I want to make Auro a competitive game. It don’t expect that it will be competition-ready by the time it’s released, but I hope that after a few months of balancing and tweaking post-release, it will be. And even if it isn’t, the point is, I’ll be trying.
That “trying” is really important, I think. When I see that a developer is constantly issuing new balance patches, it makes me immediately excited for a game, and when I see the opposite – a game that’s simply left to wither on the vine – I feel the opposite. I don’t want to get into a game that isn’t actively being taken care of.
Another thing I should mention: just because a game is deep and competitive does not mean that it has to be hard to play or hard to learn. The other half of the battle in game design is making an accessible game. I think Outwitters, and I hope Auro both achieve this. But there is nothing to “being a deep competitive game” that inherently means you’ll be less accessible. You can, and should strive to, achieve both.
A competitive game is a deeper game, and a deeper game is a better game. By shooting to make competitive games, we can make better games, so let’s do that.
Today I wanted to introduce people to a new game that I’m designing called EMPIRE. In order to do this, I think it makes sense to first talk about what already exists, and then talk about what I’m doing that’s different.
EMPIRE is my take on the so-called “4X Strategy” genre of digital games. I’ve always been a fan of games like Civilization, and even more so of Master of Magic. I do have a number of problems with the genre, problems which have not been getting better. For instance, Civilization V, the latest game in the Civilization series, did not correct most of the games worst problems. You can read about my problems with that game, which are fairly similar to my problems with just about every game in the genre, here.
Suffice it to say that with EMPIRE, I have an opportunity to do what I did for 4X games what AURO does for roguelikes: namely, find some kernel of an actual core gameplay mechanism, and build a carefully constructed system around that. So unlike most videogames, this game will be system-based, not component-based.
Why does that actually matter? Well, because it means that we can have an elegant design, which in turn means that we can have a system that’s both extremely easy to learn, and equally difficult to master.
In short, EMPIRE is a modern, elegant solution to the problems of 4X strategy games.
What Is EMPIRE?
EMPIRE is a game centered around the concept of maintaining a growing set of resources.
I often start with some thematic metaphor to help me in designing a game, and with EMPIRE, that metaphor was one of “the rise and fall of an empire”. I think it’s very interesting and dynamic how a real life empire can grow more and more powerful, but sort of break under the pressure of its own weight after awhile.
I’ve also been playing a lot of Puzzle Strike, and before that, Dominion, and I feel that the “deck-building” mechanism is a fantastic way to express that. So, the “set of resources” that you’re maintaining in EMPIRE are digital “cards” that you use in battle and win from victories.
So, in a sense, EMPIRE is the world’s first Deck-Building 4X Strategy game!
Right now, the game is in an early alpha stage, so you should expect some of what’s written here to change in the coming months as more playtesting begins. Also, keep in mind that all screenshots and such are very early – excuse the temporary buttons and such!
EMPIRE In Detail
EMPIRE is not only built to avoid the pitfalls of traditional 4X strategy games, but it’s also built primarily for mobile, and the game is being designed around this. I’ll explain some of the rules to show you how it works.
Essentially, EMPIRE is a war-game. This puts it in stark contrast with most other 4X games which have a more toy-like “do whatever you want” feeling to them much of the time. In this game, you are trying to conquer other civilizations in a constant need to take new territory. Eventually, your civilization will fall, so it is a matter of surviving for as long as you can and winning as many battles as you can to achieve the highest score possible. To return to the metaphor, you could say that this reflects entering your empire into the textbooks of history as one of the world’s greatest.
When you start the game, you have enough resources to found one city. When you do create a city, that city starts sucking up resources from the surrounding tiles each turn. Eventually – and this is one of the most different things about the game – those tiles will produce fewer and fewer resources, until they finally become “desolation” tiles: scars on the earth that not only produce no resources at all, but actually spawn dangerous monsters.
So, this means that you must stay on the move to keep a steady flow of resources coming in. And if you don’t keep that steady flow of resources coming in, and a nearby Empire does, well, then you can guess that he’ll likely overpower you. So, there’s a natural struggle for new, un-desolated territory.
I started with the question, “what are cities, really, in a game like this?” If we can identify that at its core, this is a war game, then cities are a stepping stone towards creating your army. With this understanding, we can realize that the system for cities is not central, and should be limited in its complexity.
The system for how cities work is extremely simple, yet still has enough resolution to support expressive gameplay choices. A city is taking in “food” from nearby tiles, and when it reaches a certain threshold, it “levels up”. When it does this, you can choose between a choice of 2 buildings. Once you choose one, that choice is permanent. You can’t go build the other building now. Eventually, you’ll level up again, and now you get another choice of 2 different buildings. This is “Tier 2”, and there are 3 such tiers.
So, you basically have 3 rounds of choices to make, which leads to somewhere around a dozen or so possibilities for the city’s configuration (someone else can do the math for this and let me know the exact number!).
Of course, you can also have more than one city. We’re currently working with a system where the maximum number of cities is 3, but even to have 3 is difficult. So, having 1 city is tax-free, but when you have a 2nd city, there’s a decently harsh tax on all income. So, if you’d normally be sucking up 10 food a turn, now it’s reduced to 8 food a turn, or something. Which might be totally fine while the surrounding resources are good and healthy, but makes the desolation tiles even more of a threat. 3 cities is almost never sustainable for very long due to a significant tax that’s imposed. If you have 3 cities, you need to either be constantly winning battles (winning some battles can yield some resources) or just moving quickly to new areas (this would probably require winning battles anyway!).
The primary role of cities is to suck up resources from the land, produce new military units, and produce new Action Cards (which I’ll get to in a second).
This is probably the biggest area that “it being a mobile game” helped influence the design, but honestly, mobile design is good design, in a way. What I mean is, you never want a game to be super fiddly UI-madness; you always want interacting with the game to be as simple as it possibly can.
With armies and units, one thing I wanted to do away with was the concept of “moving units around from city to city”. It’s extremely fiddley, and even when you have a mouse it’s just annoying. Grouping units together, waiting for that last swordsman you just produced to walk allll the way over the map to get to the rest of the group, etc. I didn’t want to deal with any of that.
So in this game, your army is ever-present. It’s like a resource. If you attack something, you have your whole army. If you’re attacked at any of your cities, your whole army defends. Making an attack on something takes time, by the way – if you want to attack an enemy city, that city is alerted to it, and it takes a certain amount of time (this amount calculated by distance, the terrain covered, and how many Mounted type units are in your army).
This way, we can avoid any fiddling. It should make for a really pleasing, easy to use, yet still super strategic experience.
It may be surprising to know that cities are not central to this game. Armies are also not central. Armies, too, are merely a resource that is used in combat. So what is central to EMPIRE?
The EMPIRE Action Deck. In the game, you start with a deck of about 10 Action Cards. These are used in combat to give your troops commands. One of them might say “all archers advance”, one might say “soldiers fortify”, or “all units retreat”. Some of them have special effects, like making one unit invulnerable for a turn, or even summoning monsters.
When a battle begins, the game draws a number of these that you may use on your turn. First, your troops advance on their own, and then you may use an Action Card from your “hand”. Then, any combat that is possible happens and is resolved. It’s a really simple system that’s still highly tactical and interesting. I made a paper mockup of the combat which worked really well.
Here’s where it gets really interesting, though. Winning fights is of course, the objective of the game. And when you do, you gain points. But here’s the rub: those points are given to you in the form of a Victory Point card, which goes into your action deck. Players of Dominion are very familiar with what I’m talking about right now – what this means is that your deck is slowly getting clogged up with more and more useless cards.
Late game, you may have added lots of fantastic, magical, powerful cards to your deck… but you’ve also likely won a good number of battles, and have a good number of Victory Point cards. This means that on a given turn, it’s increasingly likely that you might just draw 2 or 3 VP cards, severely limiting your combat options!
Old empires can get Action Cards that re-draw hands to help mitigate this, build buildings to increase hand size, and even sometimes trash some old unneeded cards, but these all come at a cost.
Combat is fought until 3 units are killed on either side, OR the base-line of a side takes 5 damage (it can be attacked).
Throughout the game, not only will young new Empires spring up to try to take power away from your old, mighty empire, but Monsters are also spawning with increasing frequency. It’s always a dangerous, unsafe world in Empire. When your last city is destroyed, the game ends, and your score is tallied.
I should mention that EMPIRE is not a Dinofarm Games game. Instead, I’m working with a new team, as lead designer. The lead artist for this team is a guy named Martijn Holtkamp, who has Age of Wonders 2, Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic, and Divinity 2 on his resume.
The theme for the game is loosely inspired by Conan the Barbarian illustrations by Frank Frazetta and other similar artists, but also blended with a touch of stylized cartoonyness. This is all really Martijn’s domain, which maybe I’ll get him to write more about in a future post, but for now suffice it to say that I think the game will look unique.
We expect the game to be out Fall of 2013. As for platforms, the game is being created in Unity, so where ever Unity can exist, EMPIRE can exist. We are of course, expecting lots of roblox hacks, but don’t worry we are ready. Certainly iOS, Android, Windows, OSX, just to name a few.
So that’s EMPIRE! What do you think? I’d love some feedback on the idea, and I’ve created a forum over at Dinofarm Games to talk about it. Eventually, we’ll likely start a beta phase, and if you subscribe over at Dinofarm, you’ll be the first to know about it. Thanks for reading!
Note: This article was written a few months ago, right after the conference, but kinda got lost in the shuffle. Anyway, it’s here now! Enjoy!
This was the second year of the new NYC-based game design conference, run by NYU Game Center staff. It was also my second year attending. So, having been there once before, I went in with some kind of idea of what to expect from each of the list of speakers.
For those who don’t know anything about the conference, it’s kind of like a game designer’s dream-conference. It’s not a game development or game business conference, it’s not a commercial expo – it’s merely a bunch (less than 100) game designers getting together and talking about their practice of game design. There aren’t a lot of events in the world that focus so narrowly on my field of interest, so it’s something I’ll be attending every year, if I can.
Now, having attended the conference, I think I can pull everything together into a kind of theme of “surprise”, as almost all of the speakers did not quite match my expectations. That might automatically sound negative, but it actually was positive in a couple of cases where I didn’t expect much from the speaker. For better or for worse, what I expected to hear was often subverted, and that fact in and of itself was probably of value.
Among the speakers were Richard Garfield (Magic: the Gathering), Dan Cook (Triple Town), Christina Norman (League of Legends), Stone Librande (Spore), Kjartan Emilsson (Eve Online), and many more. Continue reading
In a video I did recently, I talked a bit about these system-types that I originally posited in my book – the four “forms” of Toy, Puzzle, Contest and Game. This is not a breakdown of how I see things in the current state of game design, but rather a vision for what I think game design should be.
Before we go on – prescriptive definition warning. I use common words to refer to very specific things, so if you see the chart and think “what the hell is this guy talking about” – simply read below. I elaborate in detail about what I mean.
The main reason that this system is useful is because it gives game designers an abstract gameplay purpose to start with. It answers the question of “what should I be trying to do” at the most basic level.
This might sound arbitrary to some – I’ll address that quickly before going in more detail on this new chart.
Why are the systems Toy, Puzzle, Contest and Game, and not some other kinds of systems? What were these based on?
As far as I can tell, these are the four things that a person can be doing when interacting with a system. I suppose that my evidence for this would basically be inductive – I cannot “prove without a shadow of a doubt” that these are the systems, but I have observed it, and I continue to observe it. In other words, every example of play I can think of fits well into this system. Secondly, even if it is not “the true four ways” in some absolute sense, it is a very useful way to divide things up.
Of course, some existing systems use a combination of two or more of these types of interaction, but I have yet to find a fifth type of interaction that is unique from these. If anyone can think of one, or argue that one of the types of interaction that I have listed here is not appropriate, or that two of the types of interaction I’ve listed as different are actually the same, please let me know.
Systems As Engines
Late last night, I figured that it might be helpful to see the four engine types laid out in this way:
Let me clarify these a bit, because some of these words might have connotations that I don’t mean, but they’re as close as I could get with the words I could find.
Toy – A Toy is any interactive system without a goal / problem to solve. This is not meant to imply any kind of correlation with “childishness” or anything. You can also call this a Bare Interactive System. Many simulators fall into this category.
Play – I mean “play” as in the expression “to play with”, or “to mess with”. This isn’t to say that this work is necessarily trivial, but rather that it’s exploratory.
Mapping – This is the result of the play I was talking about. With play, we are finding edges, figuring out how a thing will respond. Eventually we end up with some kind of mapping of how this thing works. Interestingly, you could say that the object of a toy is to discover its rules.
HOW CAN WE USE THIS? A good toy will have a vast amount of rules to discover. Think Legos, or Minecraft, or a ball.
Puzzle – Don’t think about the normal colloquial (and very messy) “puzzle” word. I simply mean anything with a goal / answer / problem. So, a math problem counts as a puzzle.
Work – Work has a bad connotation, but think along the lines of a math problem when people say “show your work”. Essentially, some effort and process towards uncovering the answer must be the input of a puzzle. (Do not think that this means that solving a puzzle can’t be fun!)
Answer – This is the objective we were searching for. Once the answer is found, the puzzle is no longer of value to us, because the search for the answer was where the value was.
HOW CAN WE USE THIS? A good puzzle will have a difficult-to-find answer. Obvious to most people, yes – but it’s still true.
Contest – Thankfully, this definition lines up pretty closely with the colloquial definition, so not much explanation needed here.
Test – Think “stress test”. We are attempting to find the limits of something. Note that this is unlike the wide, lateral exploration of “play”. This is a vertical, straight test of one specific resource.
Measurement – Measurements are inherently relative and can have no meaning without something to measure up TO. Therefore, all contests compare the measurement (result) to another result, and determine a winner and a loser.
HOW CAN WE USE THIS? Good contests don’t have a low “cap” on that vertical skill possibility space.
Game – This is the most controversial word I use in my system. Some prefer “decision-contest” and some have suggested “strategy game”. Either way, the point is that this system, as I define it, is a “contest of decision-making”. The concept is what’s important here.
Decide – The nature of a decision is very interesting and not trivial. People have argued to me before that button-inputs in Guitar Hero are “decisions”. I disagree with this characterization; I think it would then follow that if you were walking and tripped, that you decided to trip. “Why did you decide to trip”, only a jerk would ask, because obviously you did not decide this. To help understand this aspect, perhaps think of decisions, in this context, as conscious decisions.
Games present choices that are ambiguous. Ambiguous choices are choices that live somewhere between a guess and an answer. A “guess” would be that you have 0% of the information you need to make a decision, like if I asked you whether I was thinking of the number 1 or 2 right now and you had to make that choice, based on no other information. An answer would be if I asked you to decide which answer to the following problem is correct:
1+1 = ?
The answer is “a”; there’s no ambiguity here, so this does not qualify as what I refer to as a decision.
Understanding – What we gain from a game is a holistic understanding of a set of rules and their ramifications, synergies, and connections. This is not the same as what we gain from a toy, which is a list of rules. Instead, this is an understanding of rule relationships, and how to manipulate the system to our benefit. Obtaining new bits of understanding is of value to us, but once there’s no more understanding to gain, the game is dead.
HOW CAN WE USE THIS? A game should have a very vast and deep set of rule relationships that we can explore for as long as possible.
Anyway, I hope this is helpful for people in understanding my work. Let me know if anything doesn’t add up!