Three types of bad randomness, and one good one

A few years ago, I wrote an article about randomness in games. It was far from my first time taking a stab at the subject, but it is the most recent big, singular effort at describing the relationship between randomness and game design, as I see it. In this article, I'm going to talk a bit about randomness in games—ways to describe it, why it's important, how to use it, and how not to use it. There are four types of randomness, three that are bad and common, and one that is good and rare.  

Types of randomness

The basic points I would make about randomness are these:
  • Good strategy games require randomness to avoid being just calculation, or a "look-ahead contest". So randomness can not only be good, but it's crucially important!
  • Not all randomness is equal, however. Some kinds of randomness (actually, most kinds that are used, in practice) are damaging.
  • Randomness has to be used very carefully. But instead, it tends to be used frivolously and without much consideration/knowledge of the costs.
In short, while randomness is basically a requirement for good game design in my mind, I have a real problem with the way that we use randomness in games today. Mostly, we are using randomness as a cheap and easy way to get shallow systems to produce variant outcomes. (more…)

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Against Tactics and the Connect-Four CCG

How did you become a game designer? What was the path you took, going all the way back to your childhood, that lead you to want to design games? I expect that most of us can at least loosely define some "stages" of our game-design-development, and while we all have our differences, I think it's probable that many of us reading this article (and who therefore are more likely to be systems-design-oriented) have had something of a similar path. Like most, I started in videogames - Street Fighter, Doom, Final Fantasy, Zelda, and later, WarCraft 2, Starcraft, Fallout, Super Smash Bros. and Final Fantasy Tactics. And of course, I played Chess. From the vantage point of a videogame player, it's natural to see the ancient abstracts as these untouchable titans of history. We see games like Chess and Go like the classical music to our modern pop songs, or like the ancient Greek philosophers. Maybe they weren't entirely applicable to today—for as much as I talked a big game about how great these games were, I never found myself enjoying them the way I enjoyed modern videogames—but they always maintained this air of "brilliant design" and even a kind of perfection. At some point, probably around 2010, is when I dove deep into the world of designer board games, which really opened up the field for me in terms of what I think of as possible in games. Around the same time, Rogue-likes also took off somewhat and entered into the public consciousness. I have come out of this big soupy not-very-designed world of videogames, and entered into a world of highly abstract, usually grid-based, procedurally generated systems, with designer boardgames as an inspiration, but always with the great gods Chess and Go looking down on all of it. It is in that environment that I developed much of my theory and created my games.  

Indie Games on a Small Grid

In the last decade, we've seen the rise of these small, often solo game designers. And I don't mean "designers" to say "developers"—I mean designers. People like Michael Brough, Brett Lowey (I interviewed him on episode 36 of my podcast), Happy Snake, One Man Left, myself, and others. I call these the interactive merit chasers: people deeply involved in the problem of "how do I make a deep, semi-evergreen, elegantly designed system that's fun to play just because of its rules alone?" Recently, I would also add the FTL developers to this list, with their release of Into the Breach, which is part of what really spurred me to finally write this article. (more…)

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Designing Strategy: Rushdown, Economy, and Defense

Hey everyone! Today I have a good-old-fashioned formalist-ish game design article. It's been a little while since I've really done one of those, unless it was attached to Push the Lane. This article is also a little bit different than a lot of my other work because I usually talk about rulesets: what the actual rules are. I tend to talk less about, within a set of rules, what players can do. Today, I'm talking about designing strategy space, and a specific way to think about the strategies that players can pursue in your game.

"The triangle"

If you're into strategy games, you probably at least loosely know the basic idea behind "rushdown" (or "rush"), "economy" (or "econ"), and "defense". A lot of us first heard these terms in RTS games like StarCraft, wherein the "zergling rush" was a very common and easy-to-understand manifestation of a "rush strategy". Terrans building a ton of bunkers and missile turrets and siege tanks was a pretty clear example of "defense", and expanding (getting another base with another source of minerals) was an "economy" play. In some games, it can be seen as a triangle, or rock-paper-scissors relationship, with rush beating econ, econ beating defense, and defense beating rush. It's worth noting that "rushdown" is not, itself, a strategy, but rather a family or style of strategies in a given game. There may be many different rushdown strategies. Also, it's spectral. You may pursue a strategy that's like 60% rush-y, or 80% rush-y, etc. (more…)

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Push the Lane: Loot in a Strategy Game?

Since Push the Lane entered this latest phase back in mid-2017 (basically after the failed Kickstarter version, which was much more puzzle-game-like), it has become much more videogamey. By that, I mean, it has focused a lot more on fighting, monsters, items, special abilities, moving around a big map and such. I have been thinking of it more like "a Rogue-like DotA" recently; a turn-based, single player League of Legends. With that thought, I always kind of had it in the corner of my mind somewhere that it would be pretty cool if the game had "loot" somehow. My general feeling and belief about loot has been, for years, that it has really no place in strategy games. But maybe there's a way? First, let's define the term.

What is loot?

I think most of the time the word "loot" is used, it refers to randomly dropping items. For me, the classic version of "loot" is item drops in Diablo, or a Rogue-like. More recently, it's popular to have "loot crates" in games like Overwatch, which give the player some random metagame items, such as skins. (more…)

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Art is People Too

In this episode, I struggle with, and mostly reject, a lot of the formalist ideas I previously held about art. Art - whether it's games, music, movies, or anything else - is largely about connecting with other people. When you like something, it's largely because of a lot of subconscious processes that are largely informed by a specific language of art that you personally have developed for yourself, based on your own personal experiences that aren't the same as anyone else's. So just as I would be a pretty bad judge of West African music as someone who has very little exposure to it, I am also a bad judge of someone who makes puzzle platformers, or someone who makes death metal music. These are specific aesthetics, or languages, that I just don't really have the cultural capital or emotional connections to connect with. But the point is, I should try. Just as I am open to meeting and having relationships with new, different kinds of people, I should be the same way with new, different kinds of art. Art is a reflection of people, and I think it's probably healthy to look at it that way. Also, some Push the Lane updates! Don't forget, you can become a patron over at http://www.patreon.com/keithburgun. Enjoy the show! Special thanks to Aaron Oman and Jean-Marc Nielly for their generous support! <3

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Interview with James Lantz, designer of Invisible, Inc.

Today I interviewed James Lantz, game designer at Klei. Among numerous other games, he was for me most notably a designer on Invisible Inc., a really interesting X-Com-ish tactical strategy game, and Mercury, a small indie Rogue-like game that really boiled down how Rogue-likes really work in the smartest way I've ever seen. (By the way: yes-relation! James is the son of Frank Lantz, who you can hear in my episodes 23 and 24.) Some topics covered:

  • How James came to work for Klei
  • Our opinions on how to market strategy games
  • A little discussion about League of Legends and last-hitting
  • Game design writing
  • A bit about what growing up as the son of a game designer was like
Thanks for listening! As always, you can support the show on Patreon by going to http://www.patreon.com/keithburgun. Thanks for listening!  

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