Surprises at the PRACTICE 2012: Game Design In Detail Conference

Note: This article was written a few months ago, right after the conference, but kinda got lost in the shuffle.  Anyway, it's here now!  Enjoy! This was the second year of the new NYC-based game design conference, run by NYU Game Center staff.  It was also my second year attending.  So, having been there once before, I went in with some kind of idea of what to expect from each of the list of speakers. For those who don’t know anything about the conference, it’s kind of like a game designer’s dream-conference.  It’s not a game development or game business conference, it’s not a commercial expo - it’s merely a bunch (less than 100) game designers getting together and talking about their practice of game design.  There aren’t a lot of events in the world that focus so narrowly on my field of interest, so it’s something I’ll be attending every year, if I can. Now, having attended the conference, I think I can pull everything together into a kind of theme of “surprise”, as almost all of the speakers did not quite match my expectations. That might automatically sound negative, but it actually was positive in a couple of cases where I didn’t expect much from the speaker.  For better or for worse, what I expected to hear was often subverted, and that fact in and of itself was probably of value. Among the speakers were Richard Garfield (Magic: the Gathering), Dan Cook (Triple Town), Christina Norman (League of Legends), Stone Librande (Spore), Kjartan Emilsson (Eve Online), and many more. (more…)

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Game Systems as Engines

In a video I did recently, I talked a bit about these system-types that I originally posited in my book - the four "forms" of Toy, Puzzle, Contest and Game. This is not a breakdown of how I see things in the current state of game design, but rather a vision for what I think game design should be. Before we go on - prescriptive definition warning. I use common words to refer to very specific things, so if you see the chart and think "what the hell is this guy talking about" - simply read below. I elaborate in detail about what I mean. The main reason that this system is useful is because it gives game designers an abstract gameplay purpose to start with. It answers the question of "what should I be trying to do" at the most basic level. This might sound arbitrary to some - I'll address that quickly before going in more detail on this new chart.   It's Abitrary! Why are the systems Toy, Puzzle, Contest and Game, and not some other kinds of systems? What were these based on? As far as I can tell, these are the four things that a person can be doing when interacting with a system. I suppose that my evidence for this would basically be inductive - I cannot "prove without a shadow of a doubt" that these are the systems, but I have observed it, and I continue to observe it. In other words, every example of play I can think of fits well into this system. Secondly, even if it is not "the true four ways" in some absolute sense, it is a very useful way to divide things up. Of course, some existing systems use a combination of two or more of these types of interaction, but I have yet to find a fifth type of interaction that is unique from these.  If anyone can think of one, or argue that one of the types of interaction that I have listed here is not appropriate, or that two of the types of interaction I've listed as different are actually the same, please let me know.   Systems As Engines Late last night, I figured that it might be helpful to see the four engine types laid out in this way: articleimage Let me clarify these a bit, because some of these words might have connotations that I don't mean, but they're as close as I could get with the words I could find. Toy - A Toy is any interactive system without a goal / problem to solve.  This is not meant to imply any kind of correlation with "childishness" or anything.  You can also call this a Bare Interactive System.  Many simulators fall into this category. Play - I mean "play" as in the expression "to play with", or "to mess with".  This isn't to say that this work is necessarily trivial, but rather that it's exploratory. Mapping - This is the result of the play I was talking about.  With play, we are finding edges, figuring out how a thing will respond.  Eventually we end up with some kind of mapping of how this thing works.  Interestingly, you could say that the object of a toy is to discover its rules. HOW CAN WE USE THIS?  A good toy will have a vast amount of rules to discover.  Think Legos, or Minecraft, or a ball.   Puzzle - Don't think about the normal colloquial (and very messy) "puzzle" word.  I simply mean anything with a goal / answer / problem.  So, a math problem counts as a puzzle. Work - Work has a bad connotation, but think along the lines of a math problem when people say "show your work".  Essentially, some effort and process towards uncovering the answer must be the input of a puzzle.  (Do not think that this means that solving a puzzle can't be fun!) Answer - This is the objective we were searching for.   Once the answer is found, the puzzle is no longer of value to us, because the search for the answer was where the value was. HOW CAN WE USE THIS?  A good puzzle will have a difficult-to-find answer.  Obvious to most people, yes - but it's still true.   Contest - Thankfully, this definition lines up pretty closely with the colloquial definition, so not much explanation needed here. Test - Think "stress test".  We are attempting to find the limits of something.  Note that this is unlike the wide, lateral exploration of "play".  This is a vertical, straight test of one specific resource. Measurement - Measurements are inherently relative and can have no meaning without something to measure up TO.  Therefore, all contests compare the measurement (result) to another result, and determine a winner and a loser. HOW CAN WE USE THIS?  Good contests don't have a low "cap" on that vertical skill possibility space.   Game - This is the most controversial word I use in my system.  Some prefer "decision-contest" and some have suggested "strategy game".  Either way, the point is that this system, as I define it, is a "contest of decision-making".  The concept is what's important here. Decide - The nature of a decision is very interesting and not trivial.  People have argued to me before that button-inputs in Guitar Hero are "decisions".  I disagree with this characterization;  I think it would then follow that if you were walking and tripped, that you decided to trip.  "Why did you decide to trip", only a jerk would ask, because obviously you did not decide this.  To help understand this aspect, perhaps think of decisions, in this context, as conscious decisions. Games present choices that are ambiguous.  Ambiguous choices are choices that live somewhere between a guess and an answer.  A "guess" would be that you have 0% of the information you need to make a decision, like if I asked you whether I was thinking of the number 1 or 2 right now and you had to make that choice, based on no other information.  An answer would be if I asked you to decide which answer to the following problem is correct:

1+1 = ?

a). 2

b). 9999

The answer is "a"; there's no ambiguity here, so this does not qualify as what I refer to as a decision. Understanding - What we gain from a game is a holistic understanding of a set of rules and their ramifications, synergies, and connections.  This is not the same as what we gain from a toy, which is a list of rules.  Instead, this is an understanding of rule relationships, and how to manipulate the system to our benefit.  Obtaining new bits of understanding is of value to us, but once there's no more understanding to gain, the game is dead. HOW CAN WE USE THIS?  A game should have a very vast and deep set of rule relationships that we can explore for as long as possible.   Anyway, I hope this is helpful for people in understanding my work.  Let me know if anything doesn't add up!

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An Introduction to MUDs (Guest Article by Emily Lutringer)

Emily Lutringer is a very experienced gamer who specializes in MMOs and other online games.  One such type of game is MUDs, which have always fascinated me, personally, being that they're kind of the "way more interesting grandfather of MMOs".  Anyway, I asked Emily to write me an article on the subject to introduce my readers to the games, and she did!  So here it is - thanks so much to Emily for her great work.  - Keith   In the end, I always return to MUDding. Fancy, flashy new games distract me for a while - long enough to forget what in the world I was doing in any particular MUD. Eventually, those games bore me, and I return, seeking out both nostalgic MUDs of my youth as well as new ones. But how can a text-based ASCII online game of the early 1990s, completely free and completely run, coded, and designed by volunteers, possibly compete for my attention in the graphical games and MMO worlds? The movie is never as good as the book. Well, 98% of the time, anyways.  A MUD is the book of the online multiplayer gaming scene. It’s where it all began. Modern MMOs have even dropped the -RPG suffix for the most part, simply because they have become so dumbed down to appeal to large audiences that they have left all the finer points (and the most fun and interesting points) out. MUDs are a labor of love. Instead of churned out by code monkeys, they are artisan-crafted, filled with creativity and individuality. MUDs are the smart people's MMO; the hackers and coders, writers, artists and scientists. It is a unique blend of art, science, mathematics, and gaming. And this is apparent in its structure, causing those who don't have the intelligence, or patience to understand its system to quickly weed out. For all of us who complain about the idiot communities of games like WoW, we can seek refuge in the world of MUDs.   MUD – Not Your Average Mix of Dirt and Water MUD stands for Multi-User Dungeon. Most MUDs are RPG style games, which exist in a persistent world where you play real time with other people. Just like in MMOs, there are monsters to fight, quests to solve, parties to form, crafting, and even epic PvP (on MUDs, this is usually called PK for Player Killing). The primary difference that you will notice is that there are no graphics. MUDs are entirely text-based, although many use ASCII for simple graphics and mapping. In fact, the early MMOs were called “graphical MUDs”. Everquest was so closely styled after a MUD that they even had to prove that their code was original. Ultima Online is another popular MMO which was based very closely on MUD gameplay. As time went on, MMOs started looking and feeling very different from the old MUDs, but they all still retain the basic structure and elements of their forefathers. Most MUDs are 100% free to play. MUDs come in various styles, and with many different features, and there is a MUD to suit almost anyone’s tastes - from roleplaying mandatory, to permadeath, to hardcore PK (PvP), from fantasy, to sci-fi, to even X-rated adult MUDs. There are usually a very large number of classes and races to choose from, and enormous amounts of character customization options. There are even MUDs which have completely done away with levels and classes, and instead, you gain in power by increasing your skills – in whichever way you choose, making your character uniquely your own. Usually, there is some system in place which allow players to own and design their own homes, ships, or even entire cities. You move around using directional commands such as “n” for north, “se” for southeast, etc. Sometimes room descriptions contain valuable information – such as clues for a quest, or objects you can interact with, which are not immediately apparent. Usually the most important things such as other players, NPCs, monsters, and items on the ground are highlighted with color and below the room description to make it easy to see those things at a quick glance.   Here is how some MUDs look in-game: [caption id="attachment_539" align="aligncenter" width="650"]Discworld Discworld MUD[/caption]   [caption id="attachment_540" align="aligncenter" width="650"]Batworld MUD Bat MUD[/caption]   MUDs began out of the beginnings of the internet, starting first in the realms of games on dial-up BBSes and then growing into their own coding languages and servers. The first MUD was developed in the mid-1980s, but MUDs didn’t really take off on their own until about 1990. Amazingly, many of the MUDs you see around today have been in existence since the early 1990s continuously, with various updates and improvements made over the years. You can usually even find a few players who have been playing that MUD since it’s birth – over 20 years in some cases! There are many different styles of coding systems. When you see things like LPMud, DikuMUD, MUSH, MOO, and so on, that is essentially referring to the type of coding language as well as the basic engine of the game. Some codebases are more suited to different styles of games – Diku and its derivatives, for example, are known to be great systems for hack-and-slash type games.   Who Should Play MUDs – and Who Shouldn’t MUDs take work from the player. These are not passive, absent-minded games. You must engage in the story, in your character, and in the world. Each game has its own syntax and commands you must learn. It requires lots of reading. It can get tedious. The player must have patience, as things take much longer to get done in a MUD than in a MMO. Good grammar is important, as is proper netiquette. There is very steep learning curve, which can be difficult and frustrating, but the result is an immersive experience brimming with creativity and imagination. Many times I have thought, “huh, I wonder if I can do this”… and I could. Wield an octopus and slap orcs around with it? Sure. Pick mushrooms in the forest, eat them and hallucinate? Yup. Fly, swim, sail, open portals to demonic dimensions, or play the lute? Of course. And when “smile” and “wave” just don’t cut it, there are thousands of emotes built into the game to express yourself. One of the major benefits of not having graphics is that the game can do just about anything it wants without having to visualize it for you or have huge amounts of code to do something. Additionally, MUDs tend to have very complex and intricate storylines, and many MUDs even alter their world based on how players interact with it. Too many people cutting down trees? Now that forest is a desert. Interesting places, a sense of real adventure, a tight community, and just about any scenario and environment you can imagine and a million ways to accomplish any given task – these are the essential facets of MUDding. If you have the patience and time, and a curiosity which outweighs slower gameplay and the steep learning curve, and are interested in a smarter, richer, deeper online multiplayer experience, you should play MUDs. Or, if you are simply nostalgic for the early days of the internet. If you do not have the above qualities, then you shouldn’t play MUDs (although I still suggest trying it out a few times to just learn about how they work and to make yourself a better person).   How to connect to a MUD and start playing First, you need a client. It’s possible to use plain old boring telnet if you like, but that’s a really limited experience. I suggest using MUSHclient – it’s completely free, has lots of features and customizations, and a strong community and forums if you need help. Don’t be turned off by the Windows ’95 look – most MUD clients are rather outdated, but they still work great. Another popular client is Zmud – or its more modern reincarnation as Cmud. These are paid apps, but for many serious MUDers they are simply the best clients around. They do have very advanced features and tools, but, most of that is not necessary, especially if you are new to MUDing. Additionally, many MUDs now have the option to connect using Flash through their websites, so you don’t need to download a client at all. And other MUDs have custom clients which are designed specifically for their MUD and can really take the whole experience up a notch, such as with BatMUD or Aardwolf (see the resources section below). Here, I will guide you through setting up MUSHclient to get connected for the first time. However, these instructions can be easily transferred to most other clients as well, so use what you like. Start MUSHClient. Select File > New World.  This screen will come up: window World name can be anything, but I highly suggest using the name of the MUD you want to connect to. In this case, it’s set to connect to Discworld. In the TCP/IP Address field, put the MUD address. This is usually found on a MUD’s webpage under “Play Now” or “How to Connect”. They should also list the port, and you should plug in that number too below. Check “Save World Automatically on Close” as this will remember the MUDs details for you for next time. No need to enter a proxy server unless you use one. Click OK. Now, on the toolbar, click the little icon that shows a plug, as seen here under the “save” icon and above the “3”: otherscreen And there you go! You are connected to a MUD. Every MUD has a different login screen and setup options, but they are all pretty similar and self-explanatory. In this case, on Discworld MUD, you would enter G to try out a guest character, or N to create a new character. The system will walk you through getting your character made from there and then will put you in a Newbie area, with an optional tutorial to get you familiar with the commands of the game. I suggest browsing through the website first, to get yourself familiar with the available races and classes ahead of time, as while there are usually some standard races (humans, elves, dwarves, etc) and classes (fighter, mage, healer, etc), every MUD is unique, and often have designed many, many races and classes that are not seen anywhere else, or have put their own flavor and style into the traditional roles, altering them significantly from what you would initially suspect. I currently am playing primarily on BatMUD, with the name Aniah. If you decide to play there, send me a tell and say hi! If there is sufficient interest, I may write a simple guide to the basics of getting setup in a MUD, various settings you can alter in MUSHclient to personalize your experience, general tips to make your experience easier and more enjoyable, and some help with the terminology often used in MUDs. Leave a post if you are interested, or with any questions that you have.   Resources For more information on the history and types of MUDs, see the Wikipedia article at:   Clients MUSHClient – a popular free favorite with lots of features and plugins available.   ZMud/CMud – the gold standard, best quality clients. Lots of advanced features, but often more than most people need. Costs about $30.00.   MUD Listings Top Mud Sites – A ranking website of the most popular MUDs. Remember tho, #1 doesn’t always mean the best. Results are somewhat skewed because anyone can vote as many times as they want for any game. Still, it does give a quick overview of various types and the most stable MUDs with the strongest communities.   MudConnector – A search engine and database of all the MUDs, with lots of details on what the MUD is like, and many advanced search options. Very useful for finding your perfect MUD.   MUDs BatMUD – My current favorite MUD. Has a traditional fantasy feel, but with a spicy kick! BatMUD has gone through a ton of work to create a custom graphical based client, which you can see in the screenshots above, to bring MUDding into the modern era. Has about 200 players on at a time, and lots of friendly folks who will help out newbies.   Materia Magica - A well-made fantasy themed MUD. Usually has 100+ players on at a time. Has multiple customized clients to play the game, including ones with sound effects! Been up and running for over 14 years continuously. Roleplaying is not required, but it is encouraged.   Iron Realms - This is not a MUD in itself, but a company who has produced several MUDs with unique styles and environments. Currently, they are running a total of 5 different MUDs, of which Achaea ( is probably the most popular. These are more polished MUDs than some of the others, but they also use a lot of stock rooms and maps. They are the sort of corporate, mass marketed version of MUDs. They all have large communities with several hundred players online at a time. However, they all tend to push for donations to get the best gear and other perks later in the game, and they all lack in originality, in my opinion. Still, these are solid, very popular games.   Aardwolf – Aardwolf is one of the most popular MUDs around. I have trouble understanding why. It has an interesting world, but ultimately, the game is mostly grinding and copy/pasting run paths to various areas. It has a very large community with several hundred players online at a time. It’s easier to learn than many other MUDs, but I find it rather shallow in the long haul. They have recently created a graphical interface using a customized version of MUSHClient. This could be a good place to start learning about MUDs, but don’t be discouraged if you want something more immersive or imaginative – there’s plenty more MUDs out there.   Armageddon MUD – Low fantasy, in a vicious post-apocalyptic world. This is known to be one of the most “hardcore” MUDs around. It’s extremely difficult. Roleplaying is enforced. You will die – a lot. And, it has permadeath – similar to a roguelike, when you die, you must start over. This MUD has intense PK (PvP) between individuals, clans, guilds, etc.   Two Towers – Based on the lore of Middle Earth by J.R.R. Tolkien, this MUD has a small community but with a dedicated fan base. People looking to immerse themselves in the world of Tolkien would really enjoy this MUD. It’s a little tougher to get started here than in some of the others, but, my brother enjoys playing here, mainly just to bumble around as a hobbit and smoke a pipe and chat with people, although the more involved players are very in love with and loyal to this game.   Discworld – An enjoyable game loosely based on the world created in the books by Terry Pratchett, a humorous, ironic place filled with magic and fantasy. This is a very well established MUD, with 100+ players online at any given time. You don’t need to know anything about the books to play here. This MUD is a lot of fun, but it can be really slow going at the beginning.   Rise of Praxis – Fair warning, this MUD is currently in development. It’s a work in progress to recreate one of the best and most famous LPMUDs of all time – Nightmare. This was my first MUD and one that I played for many, many years, until it was lost due to an unrecoverable server crash a few years ago. Rise of Praxis is being built by the people who loved Nightmare. This can be an interesting look at one of the best MUDs that ever was, as well as give insight as to how a MUD is created. However, be prepared that this IS a work in progress, there are unfinished areas, bugs, and very few people on and active at any given time.  

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Minimalism Vs. Elegance

I've been called a "minimalist" before. Depending on the definition of the term you go by, I either am, or am not a minimalist. The reason that I don't ever call myself a minimalist is because I think it has a connotation of "romanticizing the simple", or some other kind of bias towards "simpleness". In actuality, my point of view is that things need to be as simple as they can be while still accomplishing their goals. This includes the possibility that they will actually end up being incredibly complex. There are some definitions/connotations of minimalism that this qualifies as, in which case, I'm not talking about that minimalism. It's also worth mentioning that when I refer to "simpleness", I am of course only referring to inherent complexity, not emergent complexity. It's a basic tenet of design that you want the largest possible ratio of emergent complexity to inherent complexity. So, if in one brush stroke, every idea in the universe could be expressed (a 1:infinity ratio), that would be theoretically optimal. But that's super-theoretical. In reality, sometimes we need great levels of inherent complexity to get our ideas across. I think that the rub I run into with people who are primarily digital gamers is simply a matter of what our standards are.  

Standards: What Is Inherently Complex?

What we live with right now is the result of a 20+ year history of a technological and content-based arms race. Super Mario Bros. was a huge hit, so Super Mario Bros. 2 added more levels. Super Mario Bros 3. added more features. Super Mario World added even more features, and so on and so on forever. With each generation of hardware, as the computing power/storage space increased, this had to be advertised proudly by the games. SNES games would brag about the filesize of the game, I recall. Backs of boxes, to this day, brag about stuff like "80 different levels, 200 spells, 30 hurricane kicks", etc. At this point, it's almost weird if a videogame doesn't have a TON of content. With technological spectacle front and center for so long, is it any surprise that we'd become a culture whose standards for "what is a lot of complexity" is a bit... warped? In short, people classify me as a minimalist because their standards for complexity are based on a paradigm of mass content.  

Games that are Too Simple

What people probably don't realize is that I'll happily reject a game that is too simple -- it's just that this rarely happens in digital games. It's much less rare that it happens, however, in boardgames. Particularly, abstract 2-player boardgames. For example, the boardgame Hive. It's a hex-based 2-player game with no board, and little pieces themed with insects that try to surround the opponent's Queen. [caption id="attachment_523" align="aligncenter" width="500"]The boardgame Hive The boardgame Hive[/caption] This game, in my view, is too simple. From what I've played of it, it seems too solvable, flat, and it also seems like the game becomes something like a "base-race" after only a few moves, with no way for the following player to catch up. There isn't enough donkey space in Hive, it seems to me. There probably needs to be more complexity. (By the way:  I might be wrong about Hive; I've only played it a few times. The point is NOT about the game Hive, though, it's about the fact that I will reject a game if I feel it's too simple.) Another example is a game that I helped Kickstart, which seemed pretty cool, called Rise! (these four-letter games, I tell you...). Rise is another abstract hex-based 2 player game. I have similar complaints with it, too. I just don't think there's enough complexity for there to be any really interesting emergence. [caption id="attachment_522" align="aligncenter" width="520"]Rise! Rise![/caption]   And while digital games tend to be way over-complicated, there are some recent attempts at what I might call "minimalist" games that I also am not crazy about. Zaga-33, for instance. This is a "super-boiled down Rogue-like". The screens are a very small grid (something like 12x12), and your only actions are attack and a few special spell-items you'll find. It's very, very tight - probably about as tight as it can possibly be. Again, I'm not really crazy about this game because there isn't enough room for donkeyspace - for ambiguous, interesting, maybe-not-optimal-but-maybe-will-turn-out-to-be-a-kind-of-genius creative moves. I think Zaga-33 is actually too simple. [caption id="attachment_525" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Zaga-33 Zaga-33[/caption]  


What I really want from games is, for whatever their goal is, they are elegant in achieving it. I think most videogames, due to the ease of adding complexity and more is more cultural demand for greater complexity, are almost always far too complex. So if you're a videogame player primarily, I can see that you'd think that I was a minimalist. On the other side of the coin, though, someone who only plays abstract 2-player games like those found at might think that I was some kind of foolish complexity glutton! In reality, what I want is for games to be no more complex than they have to be to achieve what it is they're trying to achieve, and what they're trying to achieve should not be "super simplicity" (which I think might have been the goal in Zaga-33), and it should not be "super complexity" which I think is the goal in most videogames.  I think that games can be judged by the interestingness of the decisions they present, and in order to create interesting decisions, you do need a certain level of inherent complexity. So, I think we should be seeking to find that level in the games we're making.  It's a very difficult thing to pinpoint, and varies from game to game. But let it be known that I am not a minimalist.  

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Keith’s FOOTBALL Patch Notes

Hey guys, I thought I'd just release my patch notes for American football - the sport. Of course, I don't have the power to actually enforce these new rules, but if I did, you could expect football to be vastly more awesome and exciting next season. Without further ado, here's my changes!   fb1 Hope you liked my new rules!

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