The Clockwork Game Design Podcast: Episode 10 – Design, Improvisation, and Individuality

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In today’s (short) episode I talk about design as the most consistent way to create value. I also talk about how yes, it is wonderful that we’re all special snowflakes and we should be expressing our individuality, but the idea that we do that best by creating “one draft” of our work is a myth. We express more of ourselves through the process of revision.

I also talk a bit about the concept of “can something be over-designed”, and a semi-sidetrack about general anti-science/progress thinking (as usual).

Enjoy!

Support the show here.

 

We Should Patch Our Games

I’ve been hearing more and more voices crying out against patching recently, and I wanted to unpack some of what people have said. I think this is one of the many designer-to-player communication issues that crops up in the games conversation, and so here is a designer trying to improve on(“patch”) that aspect, so that hopefully we can have better conversations in the future. Continue reading

People don’t know game design is a thing: more evidence

I’m writing my book, so I don’t have time to write a big thing today, but I wanted to share a little thing I found.

I’ve often made claims that not only are we (everyone) collectively very bad at game design, but that large segments of our population do not even know/acknowledge that game design is a discipline all its own, separate from programming, art, or other elements of game development to begin with.

There are actually even university programs with “Game Design” in their titles that actually have nothing to do with game design. Take a look at this nice, horribly wrong infographic I found in my research today.

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It’s from a website called “schools.com”, so I guess that’s kind of authoritative, and the infographic itself is nicely put together. Apparently, a game designer does the following things:

Continue reading

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.

The boardgame Hive

The boardgame Hive

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.

Rise!

Rise!

 

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 12×12), 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.

Zaga-33

Zaga-33

 

Elegance

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 boardspace.net 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.

 

Game Placebo

Homeopathy, for those who don’t know, is a form of alternative “medicine”.  It involves diluting an active medicinal ingredient into a solution so many times that there ends up being a mathematically near-zero chance of the solution containing even a single molecule of the active ingredient. Yet the United States spent 3.1 billion on homeopathic products in 2007, which can seem pretty strange to someone who understands what it really is.

Now, clearly homeopathy doesn’t “work” in the sense of having actual medicinal effects.  Homeopaths have tried to claim that it does by conjuring all sorts of bizarre theories, one of the most common being that “water has a memory” – it can “remember” the molecules that used to be in it, and somehow that memory has an effect. Whatever – pretty obviously nonsense but that’s not what concerns me here.

Delicious. It’s impossible for anyone to tell the difference between pure sugar pills and homeopathic drugs. That’s because they are the exact same thing.

What does interest me is the fact that homeopathy does work in the sense that people think it works. The placebo effect is very powerful (for some kinds of ailments, anyway), and having a “school of medicine” with practitioners all telling you that this sugar pill will stop your headache may alleviate the pain, since pain is understood to be a highly subjective sense that can be affected by the state of mind of a person.  The simple concept that “you’re being taken care of now, everything will be OK” may bring comfort to that person.  Here’s a really great Derren Brown video showing the great power of placebo. Continue reading