Instant Ambiguity Sauces

The practice of game design is one creating a functioning system that players can explore. I don’t mean explore as in “reveal areas of a map”, but explore as in push the frontiers of their understanding. Players explore a game through the action of decision-making. When you first start to play a game, you understand a certain amount, and that continues outward.

While you are learning (which is hopefully, forever – the best games aren’t solved in a lifetime), you are making decisions; decisions about things which you do not fully understand.  And actually, can you really even call something a decision if you do fully understand all the ins and outs of that system? If you already know the optimal move, there is no decision to make. You simply do the optimal thing.

Therefore, decisions – all decisions – really have to have some level of ambiguity (or uncertainty, if you prefer) to them. After a match is over, you can learn something about the system from those moves you made and start to form some rough guidelines for next time. This is what games are all about – it’s what makes them special from other forms of interactive systems.

However, not all ambiguity is equal.  There is ambiguity that is carefully crafted and a holistic, natural emergent quality of some systems… and there are some systems that really aren’t all that interesting on their own.  So we have quick-fix “sauces” that we can add to a system in a pinch.

The problem is, if you dump a can of sauce over a flavorless dish, you’re gonna taste nothing but sauce.


Instant Ambiguity

So let’s say we’re designing some kind of conquest game.  A big map, with lots of countries.  You and your opponent both have 10 little army men units, and we’re both trying to destroy the other forces.  Maybe you simply move your men into a zone to attack units in that zone, and maybe when you attack, you push the enemy forces back and they lose 1 troop.

It’s pretty clear to anyone following along with this example that we do not have enough for a functional game.  While it might seem as though we would, what we have now is easily solvable and will probably result in some kind of stalemate / draw.  So we need something.  Some kind of… sauce that will make this dry husk of a game go down smooth.

In videogames, that “something” has almost always been to place some totally unrelated obstacle between the player and agency itself.  Those things are always one or more of the following:  Execution, or Output Randomness, Labor, and/or Mass Content.  Afterwards, I’ll talk about the dangers of all of these.
Execution: In my above example, you could have a thing where players have to literally flick the bits with their finger into the opposing zones.  If they’re able to connect with an enemy piece and stay inside the territory, the enemy is killed.  If not, they are killed.  This is placing an execution requirement between you and agency.  That is to say, the decisions have become ambiguous because you simply don’t know if you’ll be able to do what it is you choose to do.

Since videogames are so heavily influenced by the need to always be fantasy simulators, and thus are generally terrified of being turn-based, putting execution requirements into them is very natural.  In fact, making a real time game – something about decisions, but that doesn’t have significant execution elements – is something difficult and must be really focused on on the part of the designer in order to work, otherwise execution can easily take over.


Output Randomness:  Output randomness is dice rolls, card draws, or random-number-generations that determine whether or not a player’s action succeeds or fails.  This is in contrast to input randomness, which is something like a randomly generated map or random spells that are available for all players or something.  This is generally expressed by “to-hit” mechanisms, “critical % chances”, as well as random item finds in something like Super Mario Kart.

This also comes very natural to videogame designers, being that Dungeons & Dragons – a fantasy simulator, through and through – was a huge inspiration for much of the roots of digital gaming.  A somewhat crappy, flat combat system can seem more interesting when there’s “to-hit” dice rolls (especially if you can increase them with lots of Labor!) and critical hits.


Labor:  Many – if not most single-player videogames of the past 15 years have been very, very heavy on forcing the player to perform hours upon hours of “busy-work”.  Grinding against hundreds of no-threat popcorn enemies, running down long corridors, fetch-quests, and collection schemes are just some of the ways that modern videogames stretch a system out, making it feel less like what they are:  an application where you press A to win.  Games with labor-sauce all over them need to have a great presentation and a massive hype train going, or else people will walk away.

In boardgames, the use of labor is less common (because it’s generally harder to hide), but there are examples of games where a lot of “fiddling” has to happen in between busy-work gameplay, to make it seem more like you’re doing something.  Breaking bills in Monopoly has always seemed like that to me.


Mass Content:  A lot of people are still under the impression that “a shit-ton of content” is something for a game to be proud of, not embarrassed by.  The idea that “more moving parts” is a good thing in a design or plan of any kind is a point of view that only exists in the world of videogame design.

But it’s not just these poor misguided “more is more” people who find a use in massive amounts of content.  Mass content, like the other sauces, can seem to make a totally dry, lifeless dish seem appealing.  Basically, it’s dependent on trying something for the first time – the element of “surprise”, if you will.  It helps even more if there’s a perpetual trickling of content into a system.  Magic: The Gathering was built with this in mind, as well as something like World of Warcraft.  One wonders how much play these systems would get with a small, tight amount of content.



What’s Wrong with A Little Sauce?

It’s not just that these things are completely expected to be in every new title released.  Worse than that is the fact that they’re almost seen by many in the videogame world as “the only way” to create ambiguity.  People don’t recognize the significance of utilizing these things.

For example, we were having a discussion recently here on my blog (in the comments), and I mentioned that if you were to make Starcraft turn-based, thus removing the execution element completely, you’d be left with a pretty boring, flat game (similar to, but not as bad as, my theoretical conquest game listed above).

A user by the name of Dasick wrote:

“But if you make SC turn based, it would loose a lot of SC flavour and tension. I think that to properly translate those elements into a turn-based board-game, you’d have to break out the dice.”

You’d have to, would you?  What he’s saying there is basically, if you don’t have execution, then you require output randomness.  In videogames, many believe that those are the only ways to create ambiguity.


The Dangers

“So what are the specific problems with these sauces?”, you might ask.  Well, I’ll tell you!

Execution:  execution has a way of swallowing up decision-making and creating needless barriers for players.  On one hand, in a game such as an RTS that involves both decision-making (what units to get, where to put them, when to expand) and execution (microing individual units, managing an economy, remembering to press the “build SCV” button every 30 seconds and I mean EVERY 30 seconds), the execution part can often take the lead.  I just wrote about this in my last article in detail.

But further, large execution requirements make it so that it’s much more difficult to get to a point of competence/understanding than it has to be.  One of the worst offenders are games like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, which intentionally make inputs difficult to do as a balance measure.  This is a ton of extra information and muscle memory that a player has to get down, just to take his normal actions!


Output Randomness:  I talked a lot about this issue in Episode 4 of the Game Design Theory Podcast.  Essentially, when you take an action in a game, and there is a dice roll to determine whether or not you’re successful, your agency is being reduced.  A system that has this is simply less efficient at giving you feedback for your agency.  When you win or lose an individual match, you can never be sure how much of a role you played, and how much of a role randomness played.

Further, it’s information that has nothing to do with the game itself.  Whether this die comes up 1 or 6 or anything in between has nothing to do with my skill, nothing to do with the game state and there’s nothing I can do to influence it.  It’s noise from outside the system and it can’t possibly be tied in well to the core mechanism of a game (which ideally, everything in a game should be tied into).


Labor:  I shouldn’t need to go on at length about this.  People don’t generally enjoy busy-work, no-brainers, etc.  It’s sort of the definition – the icon of boring.  Yes, you can achieve a sense of satisfaction for having done some busy-work – but you can achieve a sense of satisfaction for having done anything whether it’s interesting or not.  This is a blatant, callous waste of the player’s time and anyone who employs this in their game designs has my open contempt.


Mass Content:  Assuming both get the job done equally well, what’s better: a clock that has four moving parts or one that has 300 moving parts?  Elegance/efficiency is a pretty universally agreed upon “good quality” for things to have, and intentionally adding content to a system way beyond the point where it’s necessary flies in the face of that.  People need to start thinking of game designs as machines.  One faulty, out-of-balance or simply sub-par rule or bit of content can throw an otherwise working machine into disrepair.


The Solution Is Food, Not Sauce

Everyone must become vividly aware that this sauce-method is not the way that we should be operating.  You must never think that you’d ever “have” to break out the dice.  What you must not do is what most videogame developers (and some boardgame developers, mostly Americans) do, which is:

1.  Come up with a theme.

2.  Apply it to a generic gameplay model (FPS, 3rd person action, RTS) (for boardgames, usually Roll & Move or Area Control)

3.  Grease the wheels with one of the four above mentioned sauces

Instead, you need to make sure that your actual system, itself, is interesting.

Well shit, how do you do that?  That’s the hard part.  Game design is way, way harder than most people who have been operating under the sauce-method realize.  Like I said at the top of the article, it involves creating a system that can be understood, that is coherent, that can be learned, but is near-impossible to solve.  High levels of emergent complexity is the name of the game.  “Easy to learn, difficult to master” – this is a sign of elegance. 

As usual, there’s more to find in the world of boardgames than there is of videogames, but I’ll provide some examples from both.


Super Smash Bros. – Nintendo 64 revolutionary fighting game. Two major attack buttons, that are combined with the directions to make attacks in different directions.  There are a decent number of unique attacks, but they’re all intuitive and natural.  Everything in this game is tightly woven around the core mechanism of “positioning yourself and your opponent”.  Everything emerges out of that concept, cleanly and clearly (at least, with items OFF).


Go – 4,000 year old abstract strategy game. Has a 19×19 grid (somewhat large, but nothing compared to the grid in Starcraft or Civilization!), and black and white stones.  Incredibly simple rules that a, during play, expand out into one of the most complex game systems ever known to man. And it all comes out of a simple core mechanism: placing stones to capture territory.


Outwitters – An iOS wargame. Seven unit types, small grid (for videogames anyway), one resource type that’s used for both issuing commands and summoning units.  A fog of war system, which is hidden information, provides ambiguity, but it’s not random. Good players can learn to predict where their opponents will be.


All of the above systems start with a core mechanism and then tightly weave supporting mechanisms, balancing them together carefully to create a kick-ass curve of emergent complexity that is interesting, difficult, and ambiguous.  All without the use of any sauces.

Why aren’t these “sauce”?  Because they’re the meat & potatoes.  They are the game – the ambiguity and complexity and uncertainty all is coming directly from the system itself.  In go, the great emergent complexity of the board is where the ambiguity comes from.  In Outwitters, the hidden (although uncoverable) information of the fog of war does it.  In Smash Brothers, it’s the moment-to-moment prediction and reaction of a real-time decision that does it.  By the way – this is in contrast to raw execution, which is a matter of “can” rather than a matter of “should”.

This article isn’t a “how-to-design-games” article.  It’s more of a how not to design games article, but I just wanted to quickly give a nod to the way that games should be designed.  I can’t stand the idea that there’s anyone out there who’s still dumping crappy sauce all over a potential great game idea.

Related – I did a talk at NYU’s 2013 PRACTICE: Game Design in Detail conference where I detailed the matter of “sauces” versus “systems”. I also did a Q&A session afterwards. Watch it here:


  • Paladin

    As a Stracraft II player, I’m wondering if having unit production on “autocast” would made low-ranked players better than their counterparts.

  • Small nitpick about fighting games and execution:

    For high-level players, there is very little in the way of execution barrier. The top players can literally do the hardest relevant combos 99 out of 100 times, even under tournament finals pressure. On the other hand, those difficult inputs (like Zangiefs 720 command-throw) are a huge barrier of entry for everyone else. So yeah, I totally agree that difficult inputs suck.

    But there are two exceptions:
    1. A dragonpunch/shoryuken motion is forward-down-downforward, and nearly always a defensive move with some invincibility that beats most other attacks. The trick is, you can’t block and throw it out. You MUST press forward to do it, opening up your block. That’s a very relevant detail about balance and ambiguous decisions, but sadly, it gets drowned in the sea of execution problems with the games. The same holds true for some command grab commands.
    2. “Super”-moves generally have a long input (at least qcf*2), which means there are times when you cannot do them on reaction. That’s also balance. If I jump in against Ken, he cannot see me do it and super-shoryuken me. He can anticipate it, but if I don’t jump, he’s going to waste meter and possibly even get punished after whiffing.

    But in the end, these are details. I just wanted to point them out.

  • Dasick

    Cossacks does that. You might want to obtain that game and see for yourself how it changes the flavour of the game, as it’s been a while since I’ve played.

  • Logo

    If you make SC2 turn-based you get Outwitters, or some facsimile of it, with a few more complex behaviors tossed in: potential investment in economy/production, more complex unit usages and choices, and some other ambiguous decisions around tech paths and timings. Saying you’d be left with a boring and flat game is either dishonest & hypocritical or shows that you don’t have a solid understanding of the underpinnings of Starcraft beyond the execution.

    I love Outwitters, but it only captures one small part of the strategy & ambiguous decision making that you get from a game like Starcraft. It just happens to capture it pretty well.

  • Dasick

    “You’d have to, would you? What he’s saying there is basically, if you don’t have execution, then you require output randomness. In videogames, many believe that those are the only ways to create ambiguity.”

    I don’t believe that actually. What I mean is that Starcraft II for better or for worse, has execution as an integral part of the game. Given the situation, removing the execution would affect the balance, since the game assumes that you won’t have 100% perfect micro all the time. Random output is the best idea I could come up with to crutch up the game balance of our hypothetical BoardCraft, preserving it as is. To add real ambiguity would require either a complete re-work of the basics or honing in and refining the aspects that do require ambiguous decision making.

    Also proving your point about BoardCraft:

  • keithburgun

    >>The trick is, you can’t block and throw it out. You MUST press forward to do it, opening up your block.

    That’s an interesting element of it that I hadn’t really realized. I feel like in SF, that’s almost a happy accident, but it’s a concept that could be really sort of exploited in another totally new game.

  • keithburgun

    Whether or not you actually believe that, I do think it’s a common thing for people to believe so I figured I’d use your quote as an example. If you want I can remove your name from the article.

  • Logo

    It’s probably not a happy accident as it’s mimicked in many other moves. For example, charge moves have you hold back or back+diagonal which imposes restrictions on your behavior while charging. Either you jump-charge, charge & duck, or you are blocking & moving backwards while charging. The charging gives you some limited freedom, but not full freedom to move forward.

  • Dasick

    I agree that relying on “sauces” is dangerous, but I feel the need to point out that greasing the wheels a little bit is acceptable in a game. Elegant design is preferable to quick fix, but quick fix is preferable to no solution at all. And other times, people just like the flavour of ketchup 😛

    (Yes, chess manages to do just fine without any of them, but then again chess is thousands of years old and went through a lot of revisions; and I do believe that one point, in it’s infancy, it was played with dice.

    Also, “speed chess”. You’re adding the sauce of execution, but IMHO, it makes the game that much more solution resistant)

    An example of a game whose basic mechanics benefit from a “more content” sauce: Tic-tac-toe. There is a variant out there where you play it on a grid sheet of paper, 5 in a row to score (not to win!), and you keep playing until you run out of room to put down tokens (winner is highest score).

    PS Split my points into several comments, because they are separate ideas and it would be easier to respond to them this way.

  • Dasick

    When I read the title, I thought about an element I think is very good for creating ambiguity, though now I think it’s more of a main ingredient due to sarcastic tone.

    The element is: Positioning. That is, having a multidimensional (min 2D) space, where elements interact with each other with restrictions based on the relationship between the cells. Like a chess board, or a hex grid in Auro.

    Having mechanics that rely on positioning is really good at creating decisions to make. The ever-changing pattern of the relationships, the restrictions on your moves, the openness of your solutions… I haven’t quiet put it into words, but something about positioning makes for great ambiguity.

    Chess is all about positioning your pieces. So is Go, and Checkers, and Shogi, and Tetris, 100 Rogues(to a degree) and Auro.

    Take Auro for example.
    -Attack – changes the position of the enemies
    -Ice floe – Auro’s position, as well as the enemies is important. Creates framework for future position related moves
    -Flame – strict position requirements for direct attack. Area denial otherwise (changes the positioning relationships of the existing tokens)
    -Jump – Strict position requirements. Landing on enemies increases effectiveness, and changes the existing landscape
    -ice wall – unique position pattern. Changes the landscape
    -Abomination – effectiveness is related to how your ice-work, Auro and enemies are positioned.
    -Etc etc

    Again, I’m not sure about the principle behind it, and I’m sure you can have a good game without positioning, but I don’t know if you are aware of this link between positioning mechanics and ambiguity.

  • keithburgun

    Well, not exactly. Critical to Outwitters’ functionality is not just the super tight unit design (which Starcraft doesn’t have) but even more so the super tight resource “Wits” and how it functions. In short, it’s a well-designed game. If you were to literally flick a switch and make Starcraft turn based, it would be clunky, imbalanced, and obvious.

  • Logo

    Starcraft’s unit design is incredibly tight, SC2 slightly less so but still very good. In terms of BW the unit interactions are incredibly deep and varied with tons of interesting situations.

    For someone who’s system and core idea is predicated on the ability to strip a game down to its base ambiguous decisions (and mechanics) you’re really showing poor skills at doing so in practice. Yeah ripping out the real time component would leave SC unbalanced (only some small interactions like marine vs banelings, or templars in BW though), but that’s only an issue of specific balance #s that not actual design. It’s also an obvious idea since SC is tuned to the game it is, not some fantasy turn based game. But again it’s an issue of #s (marines might end up with -1 damage, banelings +x speed), not the actual mechanics. SC is already heavily invested into time as a resource (which is essentially what wit is), contains all of the positioning and prediction concerns of Outwitters, and has a rich unit interaction system.

    Basically when I picked up Outwitters there hasn’t been a single thing it’s asked of me that Starcraft didn’t demand of me.

  • Andrew

    Interesting article, and it definitely brings up some good points. However, it clearly is extremely biased towards your own personal tastes.

    You can’t possibly imply that Starcraft is a bad game. It is one of the most popular games of all time. By definition, that makes it a good game. Personally I’m not a fan, but if the goal of a game designer is to entertain people, then the creators of Starcraft are elite designers.

    What you need to realize, is that not everyone has the exact same tastes. Compare to movies, for example. There are comedies, dramas, action flicks, etc. If I told you, “look at these dramas; see how they are thought-provoking; this is the only way to make a good movie”… well using those “rules”, you might make good dramas, but you will never make a good comedy. Of course, everyone should make what they themselves are interested in, but my point is that there are many different interests, and you shouldn’t look down your nose at people who have differing interests than you.

  • Dasick

    Ok, we obviously have a disagreement here… so let’s try and solve it.

    Let’s pretend we have a typical tournament Starcraft:BW match. Care to walk us through the choices a pro is making throughout the game?

    I haven’t followed the pro plays for a while, but if you know a pro replay that demonstrates your point, I think it would be very helpful.

  • On Smash Brothers

    Everything emerges out of that concept, cleanly and clearly (at least, with items OFF).

    I really don’t think everything in smash brothers emerges ‘cleanly and clearly’ in smash. Teching, Z cancelling (removed in brawl thankfully), both incredibly vital to actually playing the game well and absolutely not explained at any point, nor do you have any reason to believe they exist.

  • Dasick

    “It is one of the most popular games of all time. By definition, that makes it a good game.”

    It just makes it popular. A good piece of art has a merit independent of it’s context.

    “the goal of a game designer is to entertain people”

    Not necessarily. Some game designers want to make good games, whether or not they entertain the maximum amount of people.

    “What you need to realize, is that not everyone has the exact same tastes. ”

    That’s why Keith has his theory. He merely chooses to focus on games, as he defines it, but he acknowledges that there are other valid forms of interactive entertainment. He just doesn’t focus on them.

  • raiderrobert

    Listen to Day9 sometime, and I’m sure that you’ll be enlightened.

  • keithburgun

    >>Starcraft’s unit design is incredibly tight

    I don’t agree. I played a ton of SC in my day and each race has at least one unit that really did not have to be in the game. Particularly the late game units – Ultralisks most clearly.

  • keithburgun

    I agree that there are flaws. I probably over-stated how clean smash brothers is, but compared to most videogames it is very clean and elegant.

  • Dasick

    I know Day9. Love what he is doing for Starcraft. But… he spends a lot of time talking about execution. This is what we have to figure out – how good is the decision making aspect of the game, and if the execution trumps (or gets in the way of) that or not.

    And looking at how the lower levels of the ladder are decided by whomever has better micro and macro, I’m guessing the strategy aspect is only available to people of equal skill. Which is a pretty high barrier to actual decision making, no?

  • Mmm! It probably helps Smash is based on Sumo (so the lead designer says) rather than lets make a good final fight type game where players Vs eachother.

  • Nahil

    Sumo would totally make sense as an inspiration. That’s awesome!

  • alasta

    In theory, the matchmaking system should put you with someone of a similar execution and intelligence level as yourself. So strategies/tactics are more important than just execution performance.

  • You describe output randomness as a sauce and contrast it to input randomness (random maps etc) and then don’t mention input randomness again.

    Is input randomness another sauce or a “meat and potatoes” thing? Or is it a crutch to quickly create “mass content” sauce? (I ask because I love using input randomness as a game creator because then even I can be surprised).

  • pkt-zer0

    Wait, I thought Ultra+ling was a fairly common strategy in BW? I’m not particularly familiar with that, though, Logo will correct me if I’m wrong.

    Also noting that you went from “clunky, imbalanced, obvious” (so, “lacking strategy” in short) to “unit design is not tight enough”. Moving goalposts, yay!

  • Random_Phobosis

    Great article!

    Now for mandatory board game time :] I fell obligated to mention Yomi – it is a card fighting game which basically takes Street Fighter (with a dash of Guilty Gear) and removes all the execution tasks, leaving only core fighting mechanics (and since it was designed by SF champion, it isn’t just “fighting-themed”). And guess what, turn-based fighting is actually a lot more intriguing thing to play, because execution was never meant to be core challenge of fighting games in the first place.

  • pkt-zer0

    Yomi being as great as it is, I think there’s still room for Fantasy Strike as well (that is, the actual fighting game in the same universe). There’s quite a bit of intriguing stuff you can’t capture as well with a turn-based board game. Heck, yomi (as in, reading your opponent) might well be one of those things. Now, that game is going to have higher execution than Yomi, but that’s not automatically bad – as long as you only have the minimal execution required for a given experience, it’s not just “sauce”. In Starcraft’s case, I’d say it’s simply that even the minimal required execution to do that idea justice is pretty high (Sirlin disagrees with me on this, though.)

  • Ultra / Ling / Defiler is an incredibly potent late-game mix, that hinges on the balance of the Dark Swarm spell. Without an execution barrier, this is essentially unstoppable. In the end, all the micro-intensive things are insanely powerful (psi-storm, EMP, dark swarm/fungal, baneling/scourge…) , and if SC was turn-based, would have to be heavily readjusted (which would require a complete rebalancing of everything).

  • Of course it is a good base to build mechanics on top of: Humans are very spacially focused beings, and our brains can cope easily with grids or cubes.
    The other thing we’re good at is resource management. That’s why the three super-common mechanics are “grid”, “mana” and execution (such as aiming a cross-hair).

    I’m actually interested in a discussion about abstract mechanics. I’ve seen “timing” used, but it feels random in comparison to something like a board of chess.

  • By your definition, Farmville is the best game ever. Popular does not mean good. It usually means influential, but so are bribes and drug-money, none of which I’d consider “good”. Good comedy is very thought-provoking. Just look at XKCD and compare it to CTRL+ALT+DEL.

    In essence, your assumptions are wrong.

  • I’m pretty sure Sirlin explicitly stated that the “macro APM killers” (like manually injecting larvae with queens) bother him. He’s generally against difficult execution (see his SF2 HD design).

    And I know for a fact that Keith knows Yomi and the other Sirlin games. Those two guys have very similar ideas.

  • keithburgun

    Well, back when I played the game a lot no one ever got Ultras at any level of play. I can’t speak for now.

    I was responding specifically to Logo’s claim that SC’s unit design is incredibly tight. You need to stop assuming that communication errors are everyone else’s fault.

  • keithburgun

    Input randomness can very easily be a solid part of game design meat & potatoes.

  • keithburgun

    I’m very familiar with Yomi, and I do enjoy it… My issues with it are that while it does indeed shuck the execution-sauce, it it’s damn heavy on the randomness. The RPS mechanism isn’t technically “random”, but because of the card draw on top of RPS, it’s so impossible to predict that it ends up being a form of output randomness. I watch some high level commentaries and it’s clear that the commentator is just guessing.

    But anyway that’s besides the point of your comment, which I agree with.

  • keithburgun

    And actually, I’ve been working on a 1on1 card game that will be far less random (actually, totally non-random, no random card drawing) than Yomi. I’ll post about it here soon.

  • keithburgun

    When/if Sirlin makes his videogame-fighting game, I think that it will have caps on execution. He told me in person that his issue with Starcraft is that there is no cap, at all, on how good you can get at execution. Which I agree, is utterly ridiculous.

  • pkt-zer0

    Wait, one of your problems with Guitar Hero was that its skill tests are NOT uncapped.

    Anyway, I’m not sure if there’d be much point to hard capping execution in SC – diminishing returns does that already in practice, without the serious design contrivances.

  • pkt-zer0

    How would card draws be output randomness? You shuffle your deck at the start, their order is the input randomness to the game. It is hidden information, because you don’t even know its contents, but that’s distinct from output randomness.

  • Guitar Hero is not a game at all*, even by less-substantial definitions than Keith’s. It’s purely a contest.

    *Or would you call biathlon or weight-lifting or playing at a concert a game?

  • There is no difference between shuffling before every draw, and shuffling once and then drawing. Both are output randomness. To give a computer-example: One is the equivalent of rolling a real die, one is the equivalent of a pseudo-random-generator (which always uses a generated list of numbers). Both are “random”. Intuition is usually wrong in the case of statistics and analysis of randomness, like it is here.

  • pkt-zer0

    I guess that makes sense. Input to the game, but an output to your “draw” action.

    Pseudo-random numbers actually not being random is something I’m exploiting for simpler network synchronization, actually. Is that a horrible idea?

  • pkt-zer0

    >>I was responding specifically to Logo’s claim that SC’s unit design is incredibly tight.

    And flat-out ignored the rest of his post. Not sure how blaming Logo for that makes sense.

  • pkt-zer0

    Yeah, the point was that Keith’s criticisms should be that SC should have no execution contesty parts at all (which makes little sense for a deliberate hybrid), not that the parts it does have should be implemented poorly (going by his description of GH as “internally conflicted” for this reason).

  • Logo

    In SC2 there’s some underused units, none unused, but HotS hopefully is fixing that and adding some utility. All mentioned units are getting buffs/new roles in HotS or replaced outright. Still it’s ~4-5 units out of the entire setup and none are entirely unused. Some, like the hydralisk, may not be made often, but provide a restrictive factor in their inclusion. Because hydras exist Protoss needs splash damage (Colossi, Templar, Archon) or at least blink in ZvP because otherwise hydras can overwhelm the protoss with cost efficiency.

    In SC2 it’s:
    -Ultralisk (decent vs terrain when combined with nydus worms, and provides a good burst tier 3 attack, but otherwise BLs outshine them)
    -Hydralisk (good for timing attacks vs P and sometimes ZvZ, but otherwise too fragile and vulnerable)
    -Reaper, used for a scout timing and light harassment, otherwise useless
    -Battlecruiser, used for some late game TvT but somewhat rarely has to do with the opportunity cost of getting.
    -Raven, likewise used for late game TvT and sometimes a little ZvT or timings in TvP but the opportunity cost is again a little too high.
    -Carrier, without carrier micro the carrier is pretty crippled and vulnerable and everything it works against the void ray or phoenix works against with less investment.

    BW is even better. Queens, scouts, and valks are all slightly underused (but still have their niche uses from my understanding), but that’s pretty much it. So yeah it’s not 100% perfect, but you’re talking about 5-15% of the units being niche instead of really useful at most. That’s not bad at all, and if you compare it to Outwitters the Heavy tends to be niche itself so that’s the same % of the cast that’s niche.

  • Logo

    Here are some good articles I can link talking about the unit interactions that are so delicious in SC2 and BW:

    There’s plenty of other things to talk about too… lets look at one small slice of unit positioning: the formation.

    The gist of it is you have 3 basic formations, concave, convex, and ball/line. ball/line is the formation your units adopt while moving, and concave/convex are manually done formations. The 3 formations have an interesting interaction though, concave is the ideal formation for entering combat, but is also the most vulnerable to flanking and the slowest to re-position. Convex is the necessary formation to defend an actual point (like a building) and offers the most protection for that point while also providing some ability to reposition by dragging part of the convex formation to make a concave formation. Ball is the most mobile, is what units naturally move in, and is actually strong at busting parts of a concave/convex line so long as it engages a point of it then arcs/spreads out.

    So now you have some tough choices. Concave is awesome for defending, but vulnerable to flanks and requires you to control more ground because you need a choke point to defend rather than your building. By controling more ground you’re also more vulnerable to drops and have less of a defender’s advantage. Convex is good for controlling the minimal amount of space possible, but it’s inferior to a concave formation in an actual fight. When you move you’re going into a ball formation and are thus incredibly vulnerable to a concave, but it’s the fastest way to move and reposition and in many cases moving as a concave isn’t really an option (chokes & turns ruin the concave).

    Then on top of that you need to consider different unit types, flying units are almost always ball formation (with some notable exceptions) and they actually break the conventions a bit. Flying unit balls are strong against concave and convex, not weak. So an army that’s fighting vs air & ground mix (like muta/ling/bling) needs to manage and maintain their formation between what is actually threatening them at the moment. Being in a convex/concave formation is the best to handle the mutalisks, but the worst to handle the lings/blings.

    Now, lets go back to ground vs ground, there’s another intersting dynamic and that’s 2 armies moving into eachother. We know concave is the best formation for fighting and does the well at receiving an enemy ball or convex formation (some caveats to be mentioned), but it’s also a defensive formation. You cannot move into an enemy’s concave formation and retain an advantage. Imagine two parens meeting like (). The sides battle, but there’s no way to force the middles to meet. Your opponent at this point has the advantage as the defending formation and can jockey and reposition to take the advantage if you try to come in as a concave (by having the larger concave or splitting the middle open to flank the sides of your concave). So this creates an interesting situation when 2 armies meet. Both armies need to try to force the better concave positioning, but neither one can be aggressive while in a concave. This is when you see a lot of unit footsies with pro players where neither side engages. Both sides are trying to jockey for terrain that gives a superior arc where they can win the battle. Arc? Wait what’s that! An arc would be either concave OR convex positions, I said there were caveats to concave > convex and this is percisely it. The larger arc gains an advantage (or eliminates the disadvantage) whether it’s concave or convex. A wider convex formation that’s strong will focus down the sides of the concave arc and collapse the enemy into a small ball of the middle which can then be focused down; likewise a wider concave formation will envelop the attacking formation in a similar manner. So if you can get the enemy in a position where he can’t assume a superior arc, or is caught in a situation where you’re spread out and he’s in a ball formation, you can take that advantage and win with a convex arc that CAN be aggressive unlike the convex arc. This whole dynamic is very give and take, being caught out of position or formation can be fatal, but there’s no right formation to be in because it’s depedent on your enemy’s positioning and intentions.

    It gets even more complex when you factor in the terrain concerns, including what ground you’re willing to give up, attack routes, and also importantly the unit compositions and other formations. The other formations being spread-type formations like the siege pull formation where a perpendictular line of scattered siege tanks are setup and the marines assume a ball formation to drag the lings through the siege tanks to maximize splash damage and minimize the risk of banelings while also reducing the vulnerability of the siege tanks to mutalisks.

    Anyways I could go on and on about unit positioning, but I don’t think it’s worth the time to do so here. I hope this is enough + the linked articles to whet your appitite.

    If you don’t agree these decisions are tough or ambiguous my advice would be to learn SC2’s execution because you could make a lot of money since you appearently understand these interactions/decisions a lot better than the pros do.

  • Logo

    I should clarify. Added to the list should be Guardians and Dark Archons, but I should also explain how useful these units are.

    Valkyries – Use TvZ against mutalisks, does help to combat over investment in mutas.
    Queens – Provides a threat and strong response to valkyries, battlecruisers, or mech based T strats. Can also ensare mutas to take them out ZvZ.
    Dark Archons – Useful, but niche. Tends to deal with templars PvP, defilers PvZ, or just in general PvZ to hold units in position.
    Scouts & Guardians – Both are the 2 duds of the group, guardians are sometimes useful vs Terran for their range, scouts almost never.

  • 5799

    So, how does this change when you add a “deck manipulation” element to the draw deck?

    Like “use ability to look at top card, either replace it, or move it to the bottom”?

    At this point, the deck becomes an ambiguous element of resource management

  • 5799

    You want a completely deterministic 1 on 1 card game?

    It’s been out nearly a year, and it’s incredible.

    “BattleCON: War of Indines”

    No labour, no randomness, no execution. Best game I’ve played in years.

    However, to me, the king of “no sauce” would be Revolution! by Steve Jackson Games. I would hope you’re familiar with it, it’s absolutely sauceless, while being incredibly ambiguous.

  • keithburgun

    I own BattleCon. I think it has some really great ideas, and some piss poor ideas(“Health”, a grid that means really almost nothing, way too many characters and special rules). However, the no-randomness is one of the great ideas.

    I’ll look up Revolution! Thanks!

  • keithburgun

    Actually, my card game is loosely built off of ideas from BattleCON. There’s no health in my game though – instead, you have a long track of tiles, and you’re trying to push the other guy off the end (Think sumo or smash brothers). There’s a footing/balance stat that gets reduced (dynamically) as the match goes on which pushes characters back. Will have more details later, but it’s going super well.

  • Dasick

    I think that grid-like surfaces are easier for humans to manage, but my point is that when you start introducing position based mechanics, they have a high chance of providing meaningful decisions.

    “Timing” is alright, it worked for Tetris (positioning being the other core mechanic), but it’s also hard to distinguish between choices and execution:

    Is it timing in the sense that you are choosing the time to act? Or is it timing in the sense that your time to make a move/decision is limited? (which has a risk of overtaking decision-making)

  • Dasick

    Thank you for posting that explanation. It’s a lot, and it clearly illustrates some of the points I wanted to make about RTS tactical decisions.

    HOWEVER, there are a couple of problems still existing.

    1)These kind of “footsies” only exist when you have armies of similar sizes. Yes, a slightly inferior army can pull out a win if you catch your opponent out of position, and a lot of early games hinge on this, BUT having two armies of similar size (at least for the first encounter) requires players to have similar base management skills, in order to produce that army.

    2)There is still a very high execution barrier since concave/convex/ball are not inbuilt formations, but rather meticulously placed units. I appreciate the fact that you can position individual units with pixel-precision as opposed to a grid, but it’s still a very high execution requirement

    3)I’ve only heard of the concave from Day[9]; he pretty much asserts that you should just focus on forming a concave on your opponent (for now?). Given that his show is geared towards people who are not yet pros, the entire dynamic of unit formations is unavailable to people who are just not there yet.

    Furthermore, it begs the question: what is available to beginners? What sort of decisions a newbie has available that are not trumped by someone having better micro? I’m open to the idea of having an execution cap and new decisions opening up as you get better, but if there is a high execution barrier that requires such a massive investment of time to overcome, that is a problem for a game; and I do believe that Blizzard intended SC2 to be a game.

    4) This kind of footsie is what I believe to be SC2’s core decision-making mechanic where everything feeds into, even things like unit composition and upgrades.

    Considering point #3, you can see a problem, in terms of game design.

  • Dasick

    “I’m open to the idea of having an execution cap and new decisions opening up as you get better”

    should read

    *I’m open to the idea of NOT having an execution cap, and new decisions coming up as you get better

  • Dasick

    “Deterrent” and “transition” (which all of your examples are) units are still wasteful because of how niche their use is. For the most part, their use, or non-use, is a non-choice.

    Since units are so important to the game’s design, having so many non-choice units is bloated design.

    And yeah, I did notice what HotS is trying to do with unit roles. Which is a good sign; in general I am impressed with what Blizzard managed to accomplish while keeping a 3-way-asymmetry game balanced, and they seem to be constantly improving. I guess the fact that SC has what, 12 years of updates, balance patches and Meta-game evolution to round it out, doesn’t help the BW v SC debate.

  • OneTimer

    Invalid argument.

    Farmville is by far not the most popular game ever. If a piece of art is popular, its a good bet that it is good in its respective genre. Lets take music for example. The music you here on the radio, while you might think it sucks, is the best Pop music out there. Its the best produced, executed, performed. Lets go more obscure: Death Metal. By far and away the best Death Metal music is the most popular.

    Lets take this to a different level: Painting. Van Gogh is the incredibly popular and he is the best at what he does, which is post-Impressionism.

    My point is that when a piece of art is popular, it usually does mean it is good AT WHAT IT DOES. Farmville might not be the best game ever, but it may be the best social media based game ever.

  • Dasick

    >>SC is already heavily invested into time as a resource (which is essentially what wit is)

    I’ve never played Outwitters, I only have a bare verbal understanding of the system.

    However, the idea that you use a single resource not only to hire new units but to give them orders is better design than Starcraft’s resource system.

    First of all, Starcraft has three resources (4 if you count the meta-resource of time management, 5 if you count cooldowns and production times). Outwitters manages to accomplish that with one resource. <>

    Foodcap serves to limit the amount of in-game tokens (to avoid overwhelming the user and system), but with Wits, there will come a point where you have so many units you literally can’t use anymore units; A more elegant solution.

    Gas is fine because it provides legitimate economical choices to make, at least in the early game.

    However, there is a big issue with both minerals and gas. It is possible to stockpile them, with stockpiling rarely being the right thing to do. In current meta, as I understand it, both players tend to reach the food cap before a winner emerges. Also, when two non-pros are playing, or one player has an advantage, funds tend to get unspent.

    When you have resources stockpiled, you have a broken economy. A broken economy is a problem in terms of design because it removes the choices that come with spending. When a player realises she has 2000 minerals and gas in the bank, the usual reaction is “I have to spend it” or “At this point I don’t care about resources”; not “how am I going to spend it?” or “Excellent, I can now afford X”.

    When you have an infinite source, I believe that you need an infinite sink. While gas and minerals aren’t infinite, most games don’t last long enough for “starvation” to kick in.

    Hmm, which is actually something I would like to see – pro matches played on maps with severely reduced mineral fields. The early game would stay similar, mid game would be a gold rush where you spend wild amounts of money to gain strategic advantages, and end game will be “starvation”, where it’s an inverse early game. Would make clean up and late game very interesting (or at the very least, novel).

  • keithburgun

    That mitigates the randomness. It’s like being able to re-roll a die.

  • Logo

    Right execution factors into it, but that wasn’t the question. The question was what kind of decision making is there, and it turns out there’s a lot.

  • Sorry for jumping into the discussion so late. Also, sorry for reiterating arguments which have possibly been brought to this blog before, as I can’t afford the time to go through the amount of comments.

    I do agree with your general philosophy, as many points you brought up are good in the broader sense. But I politely disagree on some of the implications and possibly a few arguments you expose. I’d like to mainly focus on the Execution part.

    You imply that execution is an (unnecessary) block on the road to meaningful and good game-design. In essence, a way for designers to introduce ambiguity for otherwise no-brainer decision making. I guess this is because you praise the value of “well designed” rule-systems which produce fun gameplay over anything else. It is ok, but you should not disregard other approaches I think.

    What you don’t give enough credit is that for such games (like SF or SC) execution is intended as a core element of gameplay, which in turns is designed to interact with (not disrupt) the decision making process.

    Another important aspect regarding SF, SC and similar games which you spend only a few words about is the competitive aspect itself (which is the main thing really). OF COURSE you want to train your execution to the best of your possibilities, which comes on top of “making good decisions”.

    In SF (or any good competitive fighting game really) you might have exceptional execution, but if you keep using the same pattern of moves (always attempting a throw when opponent wakes up, always going for the same combo in some other instance, etc) a smart opponent with sub-par execution will likely end up winning. Execution (ability to perform commands, good reflexes) is a part of the “SF competitive game”, which goes hand-in-hand with decision making (what to do and when, mixing-up your play, guessing what your opponent will do next, etc.).

    Most importantly, execution in the “SF competitive game” indeed is a barrier of entry (just like a novice chess player is unlikely to beat a grand master level one). Execution in the “SF competitive game” is not an artificial mean to introduce ambiguity into decision making though. The ambiguity 99% of the times comes from you playing vs another human being capable of thinking and reacting in unpredictable ways.

    Coming to SC, the same still applies. The Execution part of the “SC competitive game” is not more important than it is SF. It just happens that achieving very good Execution is many orders of magnitude above that needed in fighting games.

    In SF, getting your execution skill from noob to a competent level doesn’t really take that long (your mileage may vary). Getting yourself to learn and perform all but the most complicated input commands can be achieved in hours, elaborate combos might take a tad longer. Being able to reliably successfully execute all of those during a live match most of the times takes good practice.

    It is however far less work than what it takes you to take your execution skills from noob to decent (gold to plat level) in SC. Let alone achieving top notch (diamond to low-master). I wont discuss professional level of execution here, as it pertains to a very small fraction of players around the world really.

    But still, given similar levels of execution in a SC match, the decision making matters A LOT.

    What might indeed take you out of tracks about RTS games in generals, and SC specifically (although it seems your RTS experience mainly comes from Blizzard games anyways), is the fact the vast majority of the decision-making work in this kind of games actually happens outside of live games, rather than during them.

    Ofc you still need to take decisions (hopefully good ones!) during a SC match, but you mainly lay down your strategies inbetween games, and you do train your execution skills depending on those strategies too!

    So nope, I do not really think the Execution aspect of RTS games (or within any other genre really) actually reduces the importance of the Decision making process to any significant degree.

    The argument about “a skilled player winning every time over less skilled ones, regardless of strategy” really is a very poor and flawed one as well. Would you ever expect the opposite to happen in any real life sport, say, would you ever expect a high-school basketball/football team to outperform a NBA/NFL team tanks to superior strategy alone? You wouldn’t, of course. Which is far from saying tactics are unimportant when compared to physical prowess in those games. What then, are Basketball or Football poorly designed games?

    Returning to SC, you still need to have good decision making skills. In fact there are a number of studies about how much playing SC at mid-to-high levels helps an individual with developing better decision making capabilities in real life.

    Outside of the actual game, you need to adjust your overall strategies taking into account what your opponent might throw at you. Because of the possibility space within a game of SC, you still need to identify (and hopefully plan for) things which might happen during a game which you didn’t specifically prepare for.

    Inside the game, you still need to make lots of decisions. When do you scout your opponent? Did you gather enough informations? Do you need to adjust your strategy depending on the intelligence you gathered? All of these might end up being about picking one of 2 or 3 extremely refined options you already practiced to perfection and executing it, but still a good deal of decision making is in place here. How do you place and move your armies on the battlefield? Should you split your forces and go for a two-pronged attack? Do you need to defend now? Do you spend your resources on upgrades or more units?

    It goes on, and on, and on, and on. Pro player might be so efficient and quick with making those decisions to the point all you see is the execution. It’s fine, as these kind of games are made to make for a good spectating experience too these days.

    Lastly, given enough time has passed and good players have been able to experience and study the game rules and dynamics to a good degree, it is only natural for optimum strategies and tactics to arise. It’s called the metagame. Keep in mind that process lasted many years for the original SC and BW, and new innovative/original strategies have kept popping out up to these days (about 14 years now since the release I think). Similarly with SC2, the gameplay has kept to evolve relentlessly up to this days, and this will likely be the case for many more years to come. Given how powerful the internet is, it is very easy for players of all skill levels to just take those proven strategies and copy-cat them, just focusing on the execution game (which you can’t simply download a video of to turn yourself into a micro-master).

    But Execution being the main source of ambiguity in a game of SC? No way! The main sources of ambiguity in a game of SC are the fog of war (information hiding) and the fact you’re pitched against another human being capable of creative thinking. Execution remains just one of exceptionally many factors, although an important one.

    Just remember, you need to always assume the opponents are of very similar Execution skills level if you want to make meaningful observations about the “SC competitive game”, just like you can’t really say anything smart about Chess or Go if you justify your assumption by observing novice players cannot possibly win against grand master players of those games, let alone tell if they are “good” or “bad” games.

    So, all in all, I do agree some sauces are often (ab)used in game making to give more flavor to your design recipes. That might end up working either for the best or for the worse. You’re definitely right when you say no amount of sauce can save a flavorless dish though.

    You might not like games in a given genre. You might not like that you lack the skill or time to get good at any given game. But man, implying the only good and legitimate quality about games (videogames especially) lays in the decision making process, and all of the rest needs to be stripped down in order to judge if a game (a contest of ambiguous decision making) is either “good” or “bad”? That’s too extreme of an opinion to me.

  • I’m talking about timing in the way that Exalted 2E and Hero System do it: Actions of the different combatants are turn-based, with the “weirdness” that not everyone gets to go every turn. For example, you go every fifth turn, and I go every fourth turn. Naturally, sometimes I am right before you, and sometimes right after, and sometimes we’re together. Both systems tried to build their strategy around it, but both failed, Exalted 2E to the point of being broken, HS just isn’t very good. Compared to D&D4E’s intuitive grid-based tactical combat, both are unwieldy and at the same time extremely shallow.

    The reason this issue is relevant to me is that I wanted to have an interesting RPG (pen & Paper) combat system that didn’t rely on positioning, because Exalted as a setting works exceptionally bad with positioning as a tactical mechanic. The only other obvious approach I could think of was resource-based, but that scales poorly without a computer to keep track of everything.

    Back to video games:
    I think this is a fabulous analysis of a highly related topic.

  • >Farmville is by far not the most popular game ever.

    About 80 million players. That’s more than the top ten PC games have sold copies, summed up and crushes nearly every other video game in history by many orders of magnitude:

    As for music you could not be farther from the truth. The big studios dictate to the radios what they must play, and marketing does the rest. If Sony BMG wants to make someone famous, they can.

    Painting: I’m pretty sure more people have Kitsch prints of rainbows and stars than they have prints of Van Gogh, and the originals are expensive because they are rare, and hyped by a very small crowd. You’re essentially succumbing to the fallacy called “ad populum”.

    Farmville isn’t even a good game. It’s just a really good drug.

  • I wish I had the time and resources to make a fighting game (like BlazBlu), get rid of long combos and put all the moves on trivially easy inputs (direction + button).

  • No, that’s actually something programmers have been doing for a long time. For example when you use Monte-Carlo in simulations, you often use static values to initialize it (called a “seed”), because that allows you to reproduce your results later. The same holds true for P2P networking code, where both clients want the same random numbers. As long as you seed them well, and generate the exact same amount of random numbers, you end up with identical results.

    There is also the anecdote of the guy winning a Nethack speed-run because he took a look at the code, and figured out at which second to start his game instance to have a seed that gave him a wand of wishing very early.

  • > But man, implying the only good and legitimate quality about games (videogames especially) lays in the decision making process, and all of the rest needs to be stripped down in order to judge if a game (a contest of ambiguous decision making) is either “good” or “bad”?

    It’s not implied. It’s assumed. The difference being that we start off by defining what makes a good game, and our definition is “lots of ambiguous decision making”. You can of course question that. Do you have a better way to measure what makes a game good?

  • I think you can develop a theory, have it be about only a part of what make games “good” games (whatever your definition of “good” is) and be perfectly successful at it.

    But if you’re trying to develop (and trying to show the value of) such a theory, and then use said theory to deal with the bigger picture… I don’t know, but it seems to me things are bound to lead to misty results. This is not to undermine Keith’s work, in fact I find it interesting to say the least. I’m just pointing out a few things which left me wondering, hopefully helping him with further refining his ideas. The elephant in the room here is (in my humble opinion) he’s too lightly dismissing (or undervaluing) the impact of main aspects of electronic gaming, in favor of what he (rightfully) theorizes being the prominent one. I do realize, however, he’s doing so only because it’s a convenient way to more easily move the focus on what he cares to talk about.

    But! To more directly reply to your inquire, no, I do not have a better definition. The closest I’m able to get to a definition would be “A good game is a game which is fun to play with. The longer the game can be played without it stopping being fun the more good the game is.”. Way less revolutionary a definition than Keith’s, my bad I guess.

    Please note, the use of as vague a word as “fun” is intentional. Different people enjoy different things in games and videogames to different degrees, which in turn makes it possible for different genres to be created, reach popularity and ultimately becoming a niche over time. I also feel acknowledged to use a term as vague as “fun” because Keith himself does so at times when discussing his theory.

    – I’m sorry, I really don’t want to post TL;DR; after TL;DR; Please feel free to stop reading this if you don’t deem it necessary or find it boring/pointless –

    I’ll also point out (just cause I find it interesting) that the part “The longer the game can be played without it stopping being fun” might suggest that longevity is an inherent quality of “good” games, which might or might not be argument of discussion.

    We would have to agree on a very strict definition of longevity. So, when I use the word longevity, I mean “the degree to which the entirety, or portions, of a (video)game can be played without it stopping being fun”. This definition comes in handy since, under different definitions, a (video)game recipe featuring huge amounts of Execution, Output Randomness, Mass Content and Labor sauces might fall under the definition of longevity, leading to clear consequences.

    I’ll go with a counter-example. Let the assumption “The more abundant in quantity and ambiguity of decisions to be made the more good the game” be true. I know I know, decisions need to be meaningful.

    In fact, one would start to wonder, is a turn-based game which has the player pick a (not no-brainer) choice (make a decision) out of 2 a good game? 1 out of 3? 1 out of 5? 1 out of 100? 1 out of 10,000?

    The obvious conclusion is, you can’t arbitrarily increase the available options, nor the number of decisions a player needs to make without rendering the decision-making process itself meaningless.

    Tic-Tac-Toe, I think we would have to agree, not the best game ever, right? It needs to be said, most people enjoy playing Tic-Tac-Toe (most likely when they’re still a kid) up until they realize how small the game-space is. The game stops being fun very quickly. It has close to no longevity. The decisions you make in Tic-Tac-Toe ultimately are false decisions (given optimum play, all moves lead to a draw). Put it however you want, but the process of learning to play Tic-Tac-Toe, and ultimately solve it, still is an engaging one to experience up to its complete consumption. Under Keith’s definitions, Tic-Tac-Toe might be regarded as a puzzle the solution of which is the strategy to systematically reach a draw itself.

    Chess? It has been completely solved (it’s longevity has been technically exhausted), but it still remains an outrageously fun game to play, mainly because the size of its game-space cannot be fully handled by a human being.

    In some variants of Chess, the player needs to make his move within a given amount of time or lose their move. You’re basically layering the game of Chess with a good squeeze of Execution sauce. Is this a good thing? Is this better or worse a game if compared to regular Chess?

    Of course you can state an arbitrary measure for how much “good” or “bad” Time-Attack Chess is when compared to regular Chess. But ultimately, is it fun? It depends (different people will pick their preferred variant of the game on a different basis).

    My point is, you can’t really strip Time-Attack Chess out of its Execution component and judge it on the ambiguous decision making aspect of the game alone. Although, to re-iterate, the decision making portion of Time-Attack Chess plays an undeniably important part.

    Regular Chess and Time-Attack Chess ultimately are two different, although very similar, games. The Execution and Ambiguous Decision Making

    This is why, for instance, you can’t really strip SC or SF away of their Execution aspects and say anything meaningful about the game as a whole. You can indeed isolate and scrutinize the decision making portion of those games and reach some meaningful conclusion, but you can’t infer “SC/SF are bad/good games because of the qualities of their decision making aspect”.

    The instant you strip SC away of Execution, you’re studying “SC the tabletop game”. It is a different game, if maybe a bad one.

    Time for another counter-example? Would you say SC would benefit from requiring the player to make more difficult and meaningful ambiguous decisions? What if, once you’ve done that, the strain on the player’s decision making process is so high he can’t make decisions and execute them efficiently at the same time? (guess what, this ultimately is more or less what makes new/inexperienced players of SC so badly).

    By significantly adding to the decision making aspect of SC, you would in turn have to get rid of the real time (Execution) one, if you wanted to still end up with an enjoyable (fun) and playable game. But then you turned “SC the Real Time Strategy (video)game” into “SC the Turn Based Strategy (video)game”. A better version of it, maybe, but still a significantly different one.

    Anyway. I perfectly understand that Keith’s theory (just like any theory in its infancy stage) is bound to sound vague or incoherent at first, and that it will likely take a lot of thought, experimentation and ultimately time to show it’s true value. I honestly wish him the best of luck with that.

  • keithburgun

    Chess hasn’t been completely solved.

  • Nahil

    In response to the comments, I think hybrid games that mix execution and decision making are okay if you like that sort of thing. It’s always clumsy since execution usually hogs a lot of the attention, but I can see how mixing that is of value to some people. I would personally love to see more games with low execution caps. Execution really gets in the way for those of us who want the best sort of decision making, though.

    If you create a game with the purpose of making a hybrid, then cool, go ahead.

  • keithburgun

    Well, what isn’t “okay if you like that sort of thing”? Seems like maybe a not-very-useful statement, you know?

  • Nahil

    You’d think it wouldn’t be useful, but people take arguments really personally sometimes; just trying to create some even ground. Anyway, what I’m saying is that hybrid games aren’t anywhere near as bad as no-decision games like WoW or FarmVille. They have their place. They even have a name: sports. Yeah I think sports suck, but people have valid reasons or liking them.

    But, everyone here who thinks execution doesn’t get in the way of decision making has frankly not spent a lot of brain power thinking about it.

  • keithburgun


  • D:

    Now I need to get what was going on with my mind in order for me to state something like that.

  • Dasick

    According to XKCD, computers are capable of beating top humans in chess. Since computers are not capable of making decisions, they only follow flowcharts, that sound pretty solved to me.

  • Dasick

    Fellow TwentySider here. Do you really think I haven’t watched every ErrantSignal a couple of times?

    Positioning: it’s not that positioning is something that humans are good at, it’s that something about mechanics that use positioning that tend to produce meaningful decisions. Even more abstract games, like Go or Chess, have their basic mechanics related to positioning. And speaking of chess, ain’t nothing intuitive bout the way the knight moves.

    Just like what Keith says about input randomness, I think positioning is another element that lends itself to ambiguous decision making, perhaps even better than input randomness.

    Weird turn-based RPG: While I haven’t played either of those games, I can imagine what you are talking about and how it can fall flat. I don’t know what is it that makes Exalted bad for position-based mechanics, but if you’re going to go with the turn-skip thing, I got a hunch that prime numbers are going to be your pals when it comes to mechanics design:

    Essentially, using prime numbers will create a very varied game space, with very few “moving parts”.

  • Dasick

    Oh, and with prime numbers, “both moving together” is going to be something rare. Perhaps some sort of an ultimate/finisher/big pay-off move that you’re all building up to?

  • Justify that baseless claim. Give us a rubrik for separating the wheat from the chaff. You can just pick any mechanic and say “if we eliminate this mechanic from these games, they suck.” You claim that these mechanics are cheap ways of adding ambiguity (ambiguous decisions?) to games, but isn’t procedural content generation just a cheap way of achieving mass content?

    The key differences between mass content and content generation are:
    1. Mass Content is inherently a finite amount of content (though procedural generation can sometimes lead to finite content.)
    2. Mass Content is handmade, which allows it to be crafted consciously and gives it the potential to be better than even the best best procedurally generated level.

    Procedural generation is just throwing a potentially limitless amount of content at the player. Seems like a pretty cheap ambiguity sauce when compared to competitive play against human opponents.

  • keithburgun

    Input randomness can work very well because it vastly mitigates the use of memorization, which itself is a force that can undermine decisions.

    >isn’t procedural content generation just a cheap way of achieving mass content?

    Well, it can be. In the case of something like Diablo, absolutely, and that’s a problem. Mass Content is *always* a problem, for a game (although not for a skinner box like Diablo).

    A better example of input randomness would be the plantations in Puerto Rico, locations of oases in Through the Desert, or even level generation in my own game AURO (or perhaps Civilization).

    So, this statement:

    >Procedural generation is just throwing a potentially limitless amount of content at the player.

    …is just not accurate, unless you’re using the word “content” in a weird way, like considering a generated Civ map “content”, which I find very strange (are Tetronimoes also content?).

    Highly controlled, tightly designed input randomness causes no problems for game design.

  • I’m using the word content *exactly the same way* as you were using it in the phrase “mass content.”

    Content isn’t a particularly well-defined thing, but we can at least say that the the kinds of things that we call content when humans make it remains content when we procedurally generate it. So it’d be things like maps most of the times and somewhat less often other game bits like enemies.

    So you disagree that procedural generation ideally leads to a limitless amount of content? I think this is pretty basic to the definition and assumptions behind procedurally generated content–the whole POINT of procedurally generated content is to provide limitless content.

    So how isn’t procedural content an ambiguity sauce compared to providing a platform for player vs. player competition? The same well-balanced static content can be replayed thousands of times (the board and piece configuration in chess, for example) while still gaining an understand of a game if you have human players directly competing and interacting with you who are also gaining understand as time passes and can offer you ever increasing amounts of challenge.

    I’m simply trying to apply your formula for determining when something is “ambiguity sauce” and should therefore be avoided or used with particular care. I don’t see why you should choose random content generation over direct player interaction and competition when designing a game, because random content generation certainly is less solution resistant than human opponents given the same quality ruleset for the rest of the game.

  • ahah, love XKCD. Good luck solving Seven Minutes in Heaven…

  • Maybe it’s not just that some people think “execution doesn’t get in the way of decision making”. In fact it does get in the way indeed, although saying “execution nullifies the meaning of any decision whatsoever” would be as much of an unreasonable thing to say. But that’s exactly what makes this kind of hybrid interesting in the first place.

    Rather, maybe some people find that having to perform good execution while making the best decisions you’re capable of at the same time makes for an interesting challenge in of itself and, in turn, for fun gameplay.

    That being said, it’s still a matter of you liking a specific genre or not, as with anything else really.

    Feel free to dismiss any argument along these lines by saying anyone with a counterargument “has frankly not spent a lot of brain power thinking about it” if that makes you feel any better about your opinions.

  • keithburgun

    Honestly, dude, your comment just contains no useful content. Basically, you could sum up what you just said by saying, “No”. You can’t just dismiss stuff without backing it up.

    >although saying “execution nullifies the meaning of any decision whatsoever” would be as much of an unreasonable thing to say.


  • Nahil

    Actually, Bandreus, what you said goes along perfectly with what I said. People like sports and that’s cool. None of that actually counters my point so I don’t see what you’re arguing with. Yeah some people like the way execution gets in the way of decision making. That’s pretty much what I wrote in my comment.

  • Nahil


  • Nahil

    I was gonna ask if you had any plans to make a multiplayer game, but here’s my answer. Color me interested!

  • Nahil

    Hm, well player vs player gaming is pretty much gaming in its purest form I’d say. This isn’t really about multiplayer games because those have their own problems. It’s mainly about singleplayer games. The problem with human-crafted content is that it boils down to a puzzle waiting to be solved. Procedural content, on the other hand, can’t be memorized, and it actually is usually used as a replacement for the ambiguity normally offered by a human opponent. When there is no human opponent to offer endless non-memorizable situations, we go to procedural generation.

  • keithburgun

    Yep. Single player is much harder to design! That’s part of what attracts me to it, though, honestly.

  • Cause execution doesn’t really nullifies the execution process, that’s still a false statement.

    If your execution is THAT bad, you’re just bad at the game.

    A good player of those kind of games can execute while still making all of the needed decisions.

  • Yes, on a second though, I think we were pointing out the same thing exactly.

    I’m guessing the “has frankly not spent a lot of brain power thinking about it” just put me off a little bit.

    But otherwise it’s cool!

  • ahah that’s going to be an entertaining process even if not a successful one!

  • Logo

    It won’t. Bronze-Diamond players make bad decisions in addition to bad execution, help their execution and they’re still making bad decisions.

  • “…I can’t afford the time to go through the amount of comments.”
    Considering the ratio total comments to the length of your comments, you must type much more quickly than you read. Congratulations on your expert typing skills, or consolations on your reading impairment, whichever the case may be.

  • Well, part of what makes a decision “ambiguous” is how long you have to consider it. Even Chess has timers to limit how long you have to ponder the situation. I think we have to place this somewhere on a continuum. “Pure” execution and “pure” time-unlimited decisions are both a fiction. At some level each decision involves both time pressure, ambiguous states, and incomplete information. Even “Go” has these elements, since players (usually) will not live forever, do not know how the other player will act, and can not “fit” the entire board state into their head.

    In real life the “best sort of decision making” includes making decisions before you die. Sometimes that deadline (haha!) approaches very quickly.

  • keithburgun

    Agreed. Except, I think that in general using “in real life X therefore games should X too” is a very bad way to think of problems of game design. Doesn’t matter how real life is, really.

  • Right. Games don’t have to imitate real life, but they can steal solutions or problems from it, especially to re-contextualize or abstract into broader forms.
    I think “time pressure” deserves to make the list of ambiguity sauces. Enticing in moderation, enhancing to true ambiguity, but definitely not the meat of emergent complexity. Also, far over-used and abused in “real time games”.

  • Dasick

    I don’t think ‘time pressure’ is a sauce when you have a seriously ambiguous decision to make, especially when the circumstances of the decision rely on a continuous time system (ie real-time).

    Execution becomes less of a hurdle when there are no false-choices to makes like “do X or die” (what a thought-provoking choice that it).

  • Marco Salamone

    Bit late finding this.

    I think you’ve got the right idea, but you’ve presented your ideas in an (intentionally?) inflammatory manner. Your “sauces” describe psychographic profiles. These qualities, in part, emerge from game design as a sort of natural selection. People enjoy the idea that they are becoming more powerful. They enjoy a game that requires ‘skill’ to play. A game that challenges them to solve problems with unclear consequences. Or a game that simply provides an opportunity to get lost in and explore an inspiring virtual environment.

    I think the concern you’re trying to draw light to can be address as– At what point does the sauce work against the narrative? Or, even more importantly, at what point does optional content feel required by the player?

    In Final Fantasy games- if you stick to the story in a direct and linear fashion (not necessarily speed-running, but close to it), you can always finish the game without having to waste time grinding your characters up. For those that fail at the execution, the option to grind is available. For those that want to experience what the full scope of the game has to offer, they may optionally grind and experience a new level of challenges (optional super-bosses). For those drawn to the environment- there are optional areas for that as well.

    Does this mean that Final Fantasy relies on sauces? Or do the sauces create attractive surfaces for a broader spectrum of gamers? Or… do players feel compelled to grind because, as the game costs money, they want to experience the full range of content offered? The most value for their investment? Is the game designer at fault for including superfluous elements?

    I haven’t really explored your blog yet, but I sense that I fall into the same category of snobbery for games that you do. When I reached the end of your post, however, I was taken back a bit.

    Go and SSB as recommendations for good design? What? I have a lot of experience with both of these games, so, if you do not, I would at least like to take this opportunity to dispel whatever myth you’re holding onto.

    Go is a poorly designed game because it is fully observable and calculable. While it appears to be a battle of wits, it’s nothing more than an interactive puzzle game. The player is only ever playing against the board state, not their opponent. The advantage, then, always passes to the player with the most amount of time invested into understanding the game– either by memorizing board configurations or by the number of moves they can look ahead. Neither the player’s personalities nor their dialog or interaction really plays a role in how the game progresses. Chess is only interesting, now, as a game to see who can program the better AI- Go will soon fall into the same category. Go provides us with a many more orders of magnitude of possibility than Chess, but that doesn’t really change the game, only the amount of Labor necessary to master it. There are some psychological elements, but the board never lies. There is nothing to hide, there is no strategy, only the state space.

    SSB is a fun party game that attracts players for two reasons– the Novelty of playing loved characters and the fact that four people can play at a time. Otherwise, the actual rules that the designers implement into the game are so poorly conceived that there emerges a completely alternative way in which the game is played– one that is inaccessible to those that don’t commit themselves to it in a similar manner as successful Chess players do (which is a bad thing for the fidelity of the game). SSB boils down to there always being a best decision to make, but players not always being able to execute them. There are some mind games involved, but the winner is determined by execution solely, and really finicky execution at that. Even at an introductory level– the difference between tilt and smash attacks is difficult to distinguish. It looks simple, but it’s difficult to achieve consistent results.

    Your examples are bad because your article is heavy-handed. A better thing to do would be to outline games that make one of your sauces an essential component to the game being interesting (at which point they aren’t really ‘sauces’), or to outline how the sauces in a game work against the overall flavor.

    You mention SF4 and SSB, round out your fighter knowledge a bit with Tekken and Bushido Blade. BB mechanics are very simple and easy to master, quickly allowing the game to serve the role of a fighting experience– read the actual mechanics for the game as well. Not perfect nor necessarily ideal, but it’s a good reference point. Tekken is a game that demands very little in regards to execution. The move-lists require some study, but the advantage cap for execution and labor is really quite low– the game quickly becomes more about the implicit tug of war.

    You also seem to dislike dice-rolling, not sure to what degree. I would also recommend checking out Brogue- a traditional and well-crafted rogue-like. The learning curve is very high, but, despite being heavily based on the RNG, losing never leaves the player’s domain of responsibility.

    A few analog games that use an RNG but depend very little on it to determine the winner. Find a group of 4 people and play them all now. They are loads of fun and the strategical depth is obvious to anyone with even a little intelligence.
    Kemps – The meta-game is elegantly supported by the actual game.
    Cribbage – The trade-off between pegging and strong hands.
    Parcheesi – There isn’t a clearly best move and dice doesn’t govern who wins.

    Games like Whist, Spades, and Bridge fall short of the above because the entire deck is dealt out. Because every card is accounted for, it’s very easy to determine the results of each hand based upon your own hand and the bidding. Poker makes up for its lack of interesting gameplay with an interesting meta-game (which Bridge lacks), but that doesn’t make it a worthwhile ‘game.’

    FYI (so you sound less ignorant in the future), Seeds, in games, serve a technical role, not a balancing one. Saving games and recording replays is MUCH simpler with Seeded RNG because we don’t have to store the entire board configuration EVERY time it changes. We can simply store each player’s actions/decisions and simulate the game forward.

  • Thanks for your comment, but there are many, many things that you’ve said in this comment that make me feel like it isn’t really in either of our interest to try and have a conversation. It’s like we’re speaking completely different languages. If you insist that I respond to one thing at a time, you can pose a specific question and I’ll answer it. Responding to this entire post would take me probably a full day.

  • Marco Salamone

    *shrugs* That’s up to you. You can at least tell that my contention isn’t aimed necessarily at what you’ve written. You should realize that it’s just an open invitation for a dialog.

    Respond to however little or much you want if you think it will be worthwhile. You make a lot of assertions that are likely more thoroughly explored throughout your blog. My reply is similarly without context or underlying theories. Trying to dive into all that I’ve said without context and come up with a reply, just as I did, wouldn’t be very productive (all dialog begins with semantics so that people can understand one another).

    If you want something more specific… How does sauce relate to narrative? When a game is partially driven by a narrative, the key element, the meat-and-potatoes, is the story. The gameplay mechanics are just a form of pacing, suspension of disbelief, and flow management (ie. Mass Effect). The mechanics themselves can be utter crap, but if their function complements the narrative in the ways described, is it ‘bad’ design? Consider the Final Fantasy example I provide– how does your Sauce paradigm apply to a game where the mechanics are a gimmick to pull the player further into the narrative (such as in The Cave)?

    I’ll probably look at your blog some more. It’s nice that you keep an open dialog and I’ll probably hit you up on some of your more recent posts in the near future.

  • Ok, well I’ll reply to this but only to illustrate the incredible distance in worldview between yourself and myself, which should also indicate that unless we both want to make it a part-time job for the next 6-12 months, it’s probably not worth either of our efforts to come to some kind of understanding.

    “How does sauce relate to narrative? When a game is partially driven by a narrative, the key element, the meat-and-potatoes, is the story.”

    Firstly, you should know that your position – that you can have “crap” interaction if it’s in support of a story – is the status quo position. It is the automatic assumption of just about everyone making videogames for the last 15-20 years. So you don’t need to explain it to me, I understand it. I embraced it for a long time, played many RPGs and other story-based games, and ultimately came to the conclusion that stories hurt interactivity, and interactivity hurts stories. If you combine stories and interactivity you will end up with something that sucks at one, or often, both. This isn’t because we aren’t trying hard enough, it’s because of a fundamental conflict between the values of story and the values of interactive systems. I run through some of it here:

    So to me having “crap” mechanisms is not at all excusable because you’re supporting a story, because I think that the very concept of building an interactive system around a story is misguided to begin with.

  • Marco Salamone

    I’m not in support of or excusing crap mechanisms. Just trying to rationalize how your ‘sauces’ interact with narrative. I can’t touch most games without being completely disenchanted by the sauces you’ve outlined, but there are some games where these sauces don’t feel like sauces even though they’re clearly not meat-and-potatoes. Are sauce-like mechanics only sauces when they’re inclusion is to pander to community expectations or to exploit user psychology? I agree that these sorts of things are bad, but the rules of games are necessarily arbitrary. At what point do we clearly distinguish between a sauce and a feature? The intent of the designer or the experience of the player? This, above all else, is what I’m asking. How can we tell the difference? I apologize for being roundabout.

    Otherwise, I respect the point you’re trying to make in the other article (stories vs games), but the user-defined narrative exists in all games- it’s a paradoxical argument. I find it odd that you acknowledge that it exists and then encourage caution. Making bad games is a good thing so long as it promotes innovation. Procedural narrative generation is going to happen in our lifetime if people aren’t afraid to.

  • I mean narrative, or story, has its own kinds of sauces that are totally unrelated to those that exist for interactive systems.

    Some games do a better job of hiding their sauces, and sometimes, a little bit of sauce is just what a game needs. So I’m not like 100% anti-sauce or something.

    But the problem is, very few videogames are anything but sauce. That is to say, if you were to “boil them down”, you’d be left with NOTHING. There’s nothing to boil down to.

    You said “features” – sauces and systems are both features. Everything is a feature. The thing that’s missing from modern videogames is “systems”, something that is a working machine. We don’t have that. We have empty boxes with a ton of content in them, asset tours.

    I don’t understand anything you said in your second paragraph.

  • As this is multiple years later, I hope that you’ll forgive me for necroing a comments section.

    Mindless execution isn’t so great, but there is a huge realm of difficult execution that is interesting.

    Say you have 4 choices:
    A) perform a move that you know you can execute and gains a tiny advantage
    B) perform a move that you can probably execute and gains a small advantage
    C) perform a move that you only sometimes execute successfully and gains a moderate advantage
    D) perform a move that you rarely succeed with but if you do you gain a large advantage

    This now means that your own mental state and physical capabilities become part of the decision making process. This can lead to advantages in player mind state, giving people the tools to get into their opponents heads and manipulate them. These moments are incredibly powerful to both experience and observe, and are a large part of what makes competitive games compelling. Using execution barriers to achieve this seems like a legitimate decision.

  • morphles

    Very nice article indeed! Though I have some issues with, what appears to be statement that dice can only be sauce and not potatoes. Probabilities are very important in real life, so there is no reason to not have them simulated in games. And nondeterminism is not intrinsiclty bad. For example, take a look “Battle for Wesnoth” it uses probabilities as core mechaninc in combat, and I view it as a very good game and with very good mechanics. Thise dice rolling simply simulates what reality does automatically, so I would almost say that adding random generators properly often can be very beneficial to the game, if done approporiately. Evaluating/calculating probabilities as much skill as evalutating deterministic things (well realistically it’s more complicated).