The Ludology podcast, hosted by Geoff Englestein and Ryan Sturm is one of my favorite sources for thoughts on game design on the internet. I met Mr. Englestein at the PRACTICE 2013 conference. Apparently he liked my talk, and so he brought me on to talk about boardgames, videogames, and game design generally. It went really well - it was actually probably the most non-confrontational interview I've ever done. Please check it out and let me know what you thought! http://ludology.libsyn.com/ludology-epiosde-77-board-to-bitsRead More
Just thought I'd let people know that I was interviewed by Universidad Europa's game design program via Skype last year. The questions are in Spanish, but you can kind of get at what's being asked by my answers. Take a look! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nwePHM4eWvURead More
Note: I consider this article to be out-of-date. I have written a newer article on the subject which much better reflects my updated views. However, I've kept this article up, because of the excellent comments section (definitely check that out).
Like anyone else who grew up playing videogames, I have a great romance for "videogame-style asymmetry". What I'm referring to with "videogame-style asymmetry" is a quality that games such as StarCraft or Street Fighter have, where you "choose your character" or "choose your race" before the game even begins.This kind of asymmetry is so beloved for a number of reasons, all of which I understand on a deep level, having experienced and immersed myself in it for my entire life. However, after years of grappling with it, I've disappointingly come to realize that this kind of asymmetry is less than ideal for game design. I am sad to have come to this conclusion, but I'm comforted by the fact that as always, I'm only talking about guidelines for ideal game design. So, this doesn't mean you can never make a game with videogame-style asymmetry, it just means that if you do, you should understand the costs. I should qualify that this is distinct from "inherent asymmetry", as is the case in the children's game of "tag" (where one person is "it" and the other must escape), or even the popular videogame Counter-Strike. To illustrate, in Counter-Strike, one team is always "the terrorists", and they have a distinct objective. The other team is always "the counter-terrorists", and they always have a different objective than the terrorists. It's not as though teams select whether they'd like their team to be Terrorist or Counter-Terrorist and you could end up with a mirror match or something; there are no CS "matchups". And CS still has high levels of asymmetry due to the fact that you can choose your guns, which means it might be SMG versus Shotgun (although in practice, most of the time it's M4 versus AK). Beyond that, though, There aren't many popular examples of more "strong" inherent asymmetry. One that comes to mind is the boardgame 2 de Mayo, a two-player game wherein one player is the French, who have tons of forces pouring in from all directions on the map, and the Spanish, who have limited forces in the middle. They have asymmetrical amounts of power, but also asymmetrical objectives: the Spanish simply have to survive at all until the last round in order to win. [caption id="attachment_884" align="aligncenter" width="375"] 2 de Mayo: Red are Spanish, Blue are French. Each have a roughly equal shot at winning due to asymmetrical win conditions.[/caption] The difference between "inherent asymmetry" and "videogame asymmetry" (maybe a better, albeit less-catchy term for it might be "componential asymmetry") is that with inherent asymmetry, you don't get to "configure the game". Sure, you can choose who will be the French/Spanish, or you can choose who will be "It" in tag, but it's more like choosing who goes first than the process of selecting a character in Street Fighter. (more…) Read More
In the world of digital games, you generally have two ends of a spectrum. On one end, we have the AAA stuff - the stuff that has a standee at GameStop and that you might see television commercials for. On the other end of the spectrum, you have the indie stuff - stuff that you encounter simply browsing app stores or due to word of mouth. While I have a whole slew of problems with AAA games, I don't find it that interesting or worthwhile to criticize them. They are, for the most part, doing the only thing that they can do. They work in an industry where the expectation and standard is a multi-million dollar production, which in turn means that very few risks can be taken at all. This results in games that are of high production quality, but which are extremely safe, canned, and unoriginal in their gameplay. But I can't blame them for it. Not only is it asking a lot of any investor to risk millions of dollars on an idea that seems like it could be cool, but making another third-person action game about "zombie apocalypse!!!" is basically a guaranteed success. People just buy these things, year after year, over and over again, for sixty-five dollars. So you can't blame the AAA people for what they do, and that isn't what this article is about. However, you can blame the indies for some of the problems they have. Being an independent game developer myself, I feel it's particularly fair for me to criticize some of the behavior of my colleagues. And for all the hype that's been swelling around the world of indie games over the past few years, there is one issue holding them back from their potential more than anything else - and it isn't their lack of a budget. (more…)Read More
Competitive games should be valued by all of us, even those of us who don't play games competitively. This is because whether you're playing a game competitively or not, a competitive game is, put simply, a better, stronger game. More importantly, a competitive game is also more one that's more fun to play. For the purposes of this article, I'd like to define "competitive games" a little bit more specifically than it is colloquially defined, although my definition is still consistent with the definition you'd expect. A competitive game is a contest of decision-making that is both deep enough and balanced enough to withstand serious play for at least 10 years. A few notes on this definition. The "10 years" number is totally arbitrary, and only given as a broad, general example to represent "a long time". Preferably, a good competitive game lasts longer - the longer, the better. I simply mean that to be a competitive game at all, you have to hold up to serious play - play that is actively seeking truly optimal moves - for more than a few years. Also, don't think that because I'm using the phrase "contest of decision-making" that this contest can't include other elements such as execution or randomness. I personally feel that better games use less of these elements, but that's beyond the point of this article. It's simply meant to imply that these are, broadly, "strategy games", and certainly games of skill. So, a completely luck-based competitive activity, such as the card game War, would not qualify. Finally, as with most of my writing, this article is really directed towards coming up with solutions for games that have not yet been designed. It is not primarily meant to be a lens through which to observe currently existing games, although to some degree it can be used that way, and I will use it that way to illustrate my points.
Non-Competitive GamesMost "videogames" or "boardgames" that most of us could name would not fall into the category I just described, which is probably obvious. Here are some of the reasons for this:
- Excessive randomness: We all draw a line in the sand somewhere at how random is "too random" for us to be interested in playing a given game. Similarly, there is a line somewhere where a game is too random to be played competitively. At some point, a system is sufficiently random where the impact of skill is too negligible for people to want to invest seriously in it, at least without some external motivator like "betting on real money" or huge cultural attachment.
- Too Solvable/Shallow: Some abstract games, and most videogames tend to fall into this category. Essentially, if people can figure out what the optimal strategy is pretty quickly, that's a problem, because the decision-space shrinks up and players have nothing left to explore and no room to "get better" than other players, which is the basic core of competitive play.
- No Support: Boardgames tend to suffer this problem, since they can't be easily "patched". Indeed, there's a tremendous cost to issuing new "editions" of boardgames, and most games never get popular enough to warrant this cost. Most boardgames that get new editions do so because it's been 20 years since the last edition, or there's a new publisher, or they wanted to upgrade the art. Very few boardgames actually issue new versions because they want to improve balance or gameplay - David Sirlin being one notable exception, and he gets a tremendous amount of grief for doing so. The boardgame world is not quite ready for this idea of editions for pure game-balance reasons yet, it seems. For videogames, it's cheaper to support your game years down the line, but still, many developers either don't value doing it, or possibly can't afford to do it, and it never gets done.
- Technical Stupidness: Weirdly enough, lots of modern videogames that would otherwise be competitive aren't getting balance patches. Maybe someone else can fill me in on what the excuse for this is - there might be an excuse that exists, but there is certainly no justification.