CGD Podcast Episode 20: Options in Games

cgdplogo_superwideIn this episode – our 20th! –  I talk about the idea of “optional game rules” and why they are to be avoided. I also go into detail on some experiences designing abilities for Auro. Enjoy!


  • hilbert90

    I’d be curious to hear how you think about “conduct runs” (I think there might be another term for this). In games like NetHack, there are people who are so good, they want a more challenging way to play. so they take on voluntary conducts (never praying, never killing anything, etc). These are officially built into the game, but aren’t quite “options.” There are other games where these conducts are not built-in. For example, people do permadeath Dark Souls runs. My guess is you’d consider the game to have suboptimal design if players have to resort to self-imposed challenges to make the difficulty feel right. On the other hand, these people tend to have 1000+ hours in the game, and they still love it, so it can’t be *that* bad of a design.

  • I’m familiar with those. I think those are what players have to do when a game isn’t that deep and also doesn’t have automatic difficulty adjustment. Playing with those “conducts” are kind of like toy-play. It’s “I wonder what will happen if I”-type of playing-with the system rather than just trying to win. Alternatively, you could look at it as each conduct is the player trying to design a new game for themselves to play.

    On the “1000+ hours in the game” thing, I’d say that that’s because there’s not a lot of great alternatives (most everything else is even worse) and because it’s a decent toy/game-creation-tool.

    In terms of prescribing criteria for ideal game design, though, I don’t think players should be left having to do that kind of work to continue to enjoy a game.

  • Allan MacDonald

    Making this comment only after the first few minutes, but I think it’s an interesting point – not wanting to over structure the pod-casts because the medium can be a good illustration of a persons thoughts and way they think about something in particular. If it were to be too overly structure (artificially), then it wouldn’t be the best representation of that because peoples minds are rarely that structured. That’s what books/articles are for I guess then, hey? Cool stuff! (thinking out loud here.) : ) Haha, thanks.

  • Allan MacDonald

    Great stuff in here. I appreciate the format as is, it’s closer to how someone would think about something which is valuable in itself. Great examples with starcraft, I used to play it a bunch and would always crank up the speed too and play custom matches. At that point though people aren’t really playing startcraft any more, it’s some over variant that they’re just having some fun with. Restricting customization options in the game you make and intend players to experience vs a sort of unlimited sandbox approach for the custom maps / use map settings games seems like a reasonable approach. Especially when it ends up creating new genres. Great stuff, thanks Keith.

  • Thanks for listening.

  • Pelle Nilsson

    Good episode. Did you notice that Minecraft actually do allow you to pick any version (default “latest”)? And of coure any open source game allows that, and to some extent all drm-free game and any non-digital game.

    More importantly, I think all options you discuss are ok as long as all combinations of options are treated as their own games (designed, tested). In fact many games are very similar to other games and could easily be just the other game with some option. Deciding what game to play is like toggling that option. Moving the choice into the game (two games in one) is fine IF all options are as well-developed as if they were sold as separate games. This works for maps as well. Of course with n options the number of games you develop is n^2, so having many orthogonal options is still a bad idea. But a single option with many choices like maps is no worse than publishing that many different games using the same engine and allowing players to choose which one to play.

  • Jereshroom

    I strongly disagree with your objection to difficulty settings. It is true that messing with *some* variables will mess up the design (eg. doubling starting cash would totally change the pacing), but most single-player games have at least one variable that is safe to mess with.
    For example, let’s say you didn’t want the whole ranking system in Auro. Like people were using it on shared devices and you didn’t want to create a bunch of separate users. I imagine you would probably change the game to have 3 or so difficulties that players would choose at the start (with different selections of enemies and different point requirements).

    Having a bunch of levels to be completed once wouldn’t work, because then players would try to rush through them, playing over and over until they get lucky and win. And having just one difficulty would horribly fail at your 50/50 ideal.

  • Tuomas

    Do you consider Civilization (any of them) a bad game? You can select very freely how to play: Map type, difficulty level, opposing civilizations, your own civilization among multiple other options. Just wondering, since you mentioned in another episode that you at least used to play Civ 4 or 5. To me all iterations of Civ are tons of fun, and not ruined by the number of options at all.

    On a related thought, would you consider Civ more of a toy than a game? Its single player might actually for some players have a lot of toy-like qualities, but its multiplayer is very good and competetive and does work as a counter-argument.

    Thanks, I appreciate you doing the podcast.

  • “Bad” is relative – relative to currently existing videogames, I consider all of the Civilizations quite good. Compared to my crazy “what is possible with game design” standards, I consider them pretty bad.

    Civ, like most videogames, is largely toy, which limits its value as a strategy game but also extends its life overall. It’s not the ideal way to extend the life of a strategy game but until we understand how to make better strategy games, it’s what we know how to do.

    Thanks for listening.

  • Zen Yan

    I’ve been listening to some of your podcasts recently and while some of the
    game design theory was counter-intuitive, I’m consistently surprised by how
    well your philosophy translates into practice especially in Auro and my own
    works-in-progress. However, what exactly do you mean by “best possible
    version” particularly in regards to artwork? Isn’t aesthetics at least
    partially subjective and consequently, wouldn’t the concept of “best
    art” vary from person to person? While there are certainly amazing art directors
    who can integrate the artists’ individual quirks with universal appeal such as
    the art direction in “Faeria” or in any of Vlaada Chvatl’s games
    published by Czech Games Edition, there are plenty of games which have
    polarizing, generic, bland, or even downright dull aesthetics because some dude
    at the top believed that having 90% of the steampunk mecha look like the
    hunchback of Notre Dame was a brilliant idea (I hope you get the reference!).

    Speaking of aesthetics, I hope this doesn’t come off as condescending or
    unnecessarily critical because I truly believe Auro is a fantastic game which
    transcends the mechanical mire of grinding and unfair randomness of other
    roguelikes, although I find the artwork in Auro “meh” so I’m not
    surprised if some of the playtesters wanted a simplified yet relatively
    functional version of the art. I hate to admit it, but the request for
    alternate artwork is almost never asked for in games with excellent art
    direction (I define “excellent art” to mean artwork in which the very first
    thing a person recognizes is technique). When I looked at Auro’s failed
    Kickstarter, I immediately hypothesized that the “good-but-not-great” artwork
    might have been a contributing factor to the lack of interest in the game. For
    more evidence, I read some reviews of Auro and many of them praised its
    brilliant gameplay but not even a whisper was mentioned about its art style.

    Of course, you are the final boss of the game (no pun intended) so it’s
    ultimately up to you as to whether or not you would like to revamp Auro’s
    aesthetics. However, Czech Games Edition did an art overhaul for both “Through
    the Ages” and “Tash-Kalar” and the renovations were a major success. Even in
    the case of “Tash-Kalar”, in which I didn’t think a face-lift was necessary
    because the initial graphic design and artwork was solid, when I played it
    again with the upgrade pack, the old edition felt like a print-and-play
    designed by an amateur. Nonetheless, I’m glad you decided to make the universe
    of Auro at least different from the predictable Tolkien crap that saturates
    fantasy across most media.

    P.S. Having alternate artwork may be a good idea
    for players with color-blindness. In any case, you did mention in one of the
    lore notes of Auro that Dinofarm Games is happy to receive player feedback so I
    decided to do that in addition to commenting on your podcast!