The Clockwork Game Design Podcast

#2
Ok, I'll bite.

Why, in the context of building systems that generate interactive merit, should we emphasize System 1 thinking (quick, spontaneous, unconscious, instinctive, heuristic-based) over System 2 thinking (slow, careful, deliberate, logical, calculative)?

In your discussion, you say that conscious, deliberate calculation isn't expressive, doesn't "feel like you". But this seems like a somewhat arbitrary distinction. Can't you make a plausible argument for the opposite case? When am I truly myself? When I make a swift knee-jerk reaction to a situation or when I stop, carefully weigh my options and make a conscious decision?

You seem to feel that there is something inherently unsatisfying when the player is able to discover the correct answer by way of methodical search. However, like it or not this is simply an inescapable fact about reality. It is true of any well-defined problem that a methodical search will yield the correct answer, and strategy games are quintessentially well-defined problems!

Now, it's true that what makes a strategy game/problem interesting to solve is that we cannot simply search methodically for the correct answer, because the search space is way too large. Therefore, we have to apply a bunch of clever methods involving heuristics, shortcuts, extrapolations, models, simplifications, logic, learning, causal explanations, etc, etc. This is the core insight at the heart of your observation and here I think we agree.

However, it doesn't follow from this insight that calculation should be banished.

What's interesting about strategic problem-solving is that it requires multiple levels of meta-cognition, by which we decide how and when to apply different ways of thinking - when to apply a learned rule, when to carefully consider our options, when to trust a gut instinct, when to stop thinking deliberately and enter into a reactive pattern-matching flow state, when to stop reacting automatically and enter into a deliberate, critical, self-aware state.

Sometimes we search through decision-space, and sometimes we stop searching and apply a heuristic to evaluate the results of a potential decision. But there's nothing *special* about these evaluative heuristics. If you examine them closely they are, themselves, just methods for searching, approximations and shortcuts that trade off accuracy for speed (exchanges that leave you ahead on material are good, except when they aren't, controlling the center is good, except when it isn't.) It's not like these heuristics contain some kind of magic quality of "interestingness", once you take them apart they they are revealed to consist of the same dumb, inert, material stuff of raw search.

If you are looking for the magic of interestingness I don't think you'll find it in any individual ingredient of the strategic problem-solving process, neither raw search nor swift evaluation, I think you have to step back and consider the overall meta-cognitive process by which we navigate between these different mental modes, decide when to apply them, mix and match them, and invent new ones. And that process can't possibly reduce to instinct. (Nor can it simply be about raw search.)

As for self-expression, I think this is perhaps just a red herring? Personally, I put a high value in the way hard strategic problem-solving can dissolve my ego, forcing me to abandon, modify, or evolve my pre-existing assumptions about how to respond to a situation. If I have a self that deserves expressing it is in this overall modifying, evolving process, not in any individual snapshot of my current cognitive habits.
 

vivafringe

Moderator
Staff member
#3
Bear with me, I’m going to make a cringey dating analogy.

This article is about paid online dating assistants who catfish as their clients. It’s fascinating in its own right and I recommend reading it, but the relevant quote is:

“Rule 1: Don’t make her think too hard,” the manual says. “When writing sales copy…the goal is to reduce her ‘cognitive load’ so she’s more likely to reach the end and still have energy to write out a reply.”

What does a “low cognitive load” pick-up line look like? My personal favorite:

A beautiful seaplane. A suitcase full of cash. And a dashing co-pilot. Whereto?
Cognitive load is a significant factor in dating. If you want to maximize your chances of asking a hottie out, the worst possible thing you can do is give a vague proposal that puts the cognitive burden on your romance-to-be.

Don’t ask them, “Would you like to do something sometime in the next two weeks?”

Instead, ask them, “Would you rather go see a movie Friday night or go hiking Saturday morning?”

Giving too many options to the other person isn’t a benefit, but a cost. You want a decision that’s meaningful but approachable.

At first, comparing online dating strategies to gaming may seem a bit of a stretch, but there’s a common link. Both involve engaging with a flighty target audience that doesn’t have much spare cognitive load - how often have people here praised a strategy game for it’s complexity, depth and endless decision tree (here’s looking at you, Codex), and then turned around and played Hearthstone or League of Legends? Just like potential dating partners prefer a small subset of things to choose from, giving a player too big a search space rapidly tires them out, causing them to move on to a less demanding game.

To Frantz’s core question - why privilege System I over System II, the answer lies in cognitive load. System I is cheap, fun, and easy - you can effortlessly play a game for hours if it contains only system I type thought. System II is hard, expensive, and draining - there aren’t a lot of people that enjoy taking IQ tests for fun. In fact if System II was really desirable at all, and not a negative for games, you could trivially increase the amount of system II thought by making the basic math in your game more onerous. Instead of having life totals of 10, why not life totals of 9441*pi? Instead of damage ranging uniformly over 4-6, why not have it drawn from a poisson distribution?

All of this leads to a deeper, more controversial claim that has been stewing in my head for a long time - depth is extremely overrated by gamers. People usually rank depth as one of the most important things a game could possibly have, when in fact I believe it’s one of the least necessary components of a good game. And the reason for this lies entirely in the core truth that intuitive, shallow, system I thought is more fun than expensive, deep-search, system II thought.
 

keithburgun

Administrator
Staff member
#4
An important point of clarification that I maybe didn't make strongly enough in the podcast episode is the aspect of solvability. If a game is sufficiently not-solvable, then calculation doesn't usually lead to "entering in the correct answer" or even usually anything close to that (example: Go). I have other problems with games like Go but that's not what this episode is about. This episode was not about banishing calculation. If anything it was more about how our games are too often, too solvable, which results in mostly non-variable answers.

there is something inherently unsatisfying when the player is able to discover the correct answer by way of methodical search.
No no. I am sure it is very satisfying to do this. This is not my complaint. It's just that if you do this, and if I do this, and if 50 other people do this, our answers will all be the same, so this answer cannot be saying something about Keith Burgun or about Frank Lantz.

I think we would agree that if I ask a person to A). draw me a picture or B). solve 100 simple addition problems, I'm probably going to learn more about who this person is in the case of A. This is my main point here.

When am I truly myself? When I make a swift knee-jerk reaction to a situation or when I stop, carefully weigh my options and make a conscious decision?
You're always truly yourself, and both of these could result in a lot of personal expression. This isn't the distinction I'm really concerned about - it's more just if the game allows "careful weighing of options" to result in a pretty-close-to-solved answer.
 
#5
I really liked this podcast! Probably more than the specific techniquey ones.

It always seems to me the problem of designing games is similar to the problems a good strategy game presents to the player. That is, there are no truly correct answers, just ideas which might work sometimes and might not work other times.

With both design and play a lot of the value is in swimming around the problem space looking for good ideas and evaluating how 'good' they are based on a metric which necessarily includes some aspect of our self, because no 'correct' metric is provided or known. That's what I took Keith to be driving at in the podcast - a game will be more satisfying when players feel they're always looking for and creating new ideas of their own, and less satisfying when merely squeezing efficiency out of existing ideas, or worse, just performing rote calculations.

Creativity and self expression are dicey terms because of their more usual meanings (in theatre, poetry, whatever), but I'm OK with the idea of them having a close connection to interestingness as we talk about it in strategy gameplay. They seem the opposite of mechanistic, robotic, algorithmic, etc. and how interesting are those things?
 

Nachtfischer

Moderator
Staff member
#6
And the reason for this lies entirely in the core truth that intuitive, shallow, system I thought is more fun than expensive, deep-search, system II thought.
There's truth to that but it would lead to the extreme at the other end of your overcomplication examples. We'd just make super simple feel-good systems (such as Candy Crush and become super rich, lol?) and not care about depth at all. I think that's also not the right way if you wanna make an "interesting strategy game". Which leads me back to something I said before: Good strategy games kind of live between both systems.
 
#7
... the core truth that intuitive, shallow, system I thought is more fun than expensive, deep-search, system II thought.
"Depth is overrated" is just the kind of zany, contrarian take I love, so +1 to that I guess?

However, I have to push back on the idea that an essential key to game design lies in identifying a particular ingredient that "contains more fun" and using more of it. Ingredients are important, but so are recipes. And some of the best recipes make surprising use of their ingredients, revealing hidden flavors lurking inside them. If your goal is to make something more sweet, then you should probably put in more sugar. However, as game designers, our goal is seldom that simple. Usually, what we are trying to do is not simply make something more sweet, but make something more delicious. Understanding our ingredients isn't the solution to that problem, it's the starting point.
 
#8
...our games are too often, too solvable, which results in mostly non-variable answers.
Ok. I just want to be clear-eyed and non-fuzzy about what strategy games are. Strategy games are well-defined problems. In every case there is one correct answer. All the variability you are describing is error.

For me, one of the essential properties of strategy games is precisely this relationship to objective truth, to facts, to the closed, finite, inescapability of right and wrong. It is boring, in a way. It's unpleasant to think about. It's especially uncomfortable to think about in the context of art, beauty, aesthetics, meaning, design.

But I think it's important to be blunt and honest about this quality. Not to turn away from it or hand-wave it, or discreetly hide it behind a curtain. I think this uncomfortable quality is precisely what gives games their unique, weird beauty.

This is manifestly different from game design, which is not a clearly-defined problem with correct answers (although clearly-defined problems can, and often should, be carved out of it.) And likewise the choice of which game to play, and how to interpret it, how to respond to it, whether to get good at it, whether to criticize or praise it, etc.

And it's important to keep in mind that, despite being profoundly, essentially different in this core aspect (being finite and well-defined vs. open and nebulous) nevertheless, games of sufficient scope provide an opportunity for rich, complex, creative behavior. Even though two players are seeking the same, single, correct answer, the potential paths they can take through solution space are practically unlimited. Even a game that always elicits the same answer from every player might provide an infinite space for personal expression.
 
Last edited:

keithburgun

Administrator
Staff member
#9
In every case there is one correct answer.
There *is* a correct answer, technically speaking, but in a functional game, as played, there may as well not be, because no one knows what it is.

I think using the word "error" is also technically true but misleading.

I think playing a good game is much more like game design than you are suggesting - or at the very least, I think we should design games that seek to accomplish this. I think you're just really used to hyper-simple, boring games that do have pretty easily-accessible correct answers, like chess and poker (and Auro)! :D Both game-playing and game-design exist somewhere between finite/well-defined and open and nebulous.

Your last paragraph makes me think that we agree but are just sort of talking past each other. In any case, I really think we need to move away from these solvey "right answer games", without losing real meaning for game states and without losing meaningful end-game feedback.
 
#10
Games only allow self-expression to the extent there are multiple optimal solutions.
Using input randomness to allow different strategies to work in different matches is also effective.
Of course, creativity is much easier when you don't care about winning. But that's a conflict no player wants to face.

This video demonstrates that Rock Paper only has one viable strategy, "Always play paper." There is no room for self-expression.
 
#11
Games only allow self-expression to the extent there are multiple optimal solutions.
Or when there are no known optimal solutions?

Then can't we say there's self-expression in our own particular approach to finding solutions?

Or perhaps there's an optimal approach to the solution-finding process in arbitrary currently-unsolved games, in which case it'd be bad play not to follow it. Hmm, yes I guess we'd expect experienced game players to be able to move towards good heuristics in any given new game more quickly than people who don't play many games. I've never seen books like "How to git gud at any game" though, describing the kind of learning process you'd need. Maybe somebody should write one?!
 

keithburgun

Administrator
Staff member
#12
Or when there are no known optimal solutions?
This! The number of optimal solutions really doesn't matter. What matters is that there are many ways to win. That's part of the beauty of winning and losing, is that they don't have to be "optimal" or "solutions", they just have to be "good enough".
 
#13
Yeah the 'one correct answer' view seems like quite a sciencey take on strategy game playing. Sort of hardcore. I wish I could find that speech Frank made a couple of years ago encouraging the 'two cultures' to learn from each other. Or maybe it was David Deutsch - haha - anyone remember? @Frank Lantz? I thought we did discuss it on the Dinofarm forum.
 
#14
Then can't we say there's self-expression in our own particular approach to finding solutions?
Yes.

Or perhaps there's an optimal approach to the solution-finding process
Yes yes!

(And so on, and so on...)

I've never seen books like "How to git gud at any game" though, describing the kind of learning process you'd need. Maybe somebody should write one?!
This Waitzkin book about Chess/Tai Chi is pretty good: https://www.amazon.com/Art-Learning-Journey-Optimal-Performance/dp/0743277465

Or maybe we need to start here: http://web.maths.unsw.edu.au/~jim/wrongthoughts.html

/mc
 
#17
There *is* a correct answer, technically speaking, but in a functional game, as played, there may as well not be, because no one knows what it is. I think using the word "error" is also technically true but misleading.
So, I have this long thing I wrote in response to this but mostly because I'm honestly not sure...

But I do think this is something we maybe disagree on. I actually think it is important to emphasize this particular fact about games. I think a lot of people don't know it. I have game designer friends who don't seem to know it. Earlier in this thread someone said "there are no correct answers", were they being metaphorical? Hyperbolic? Sloppy? I mean it's not exactly such an obvious fact. It's actually kind of confusing and mysterious, or, at least, the way you need to talk about it is also the thing it is talking about, if you see what I mean.

So, especially here, where part of your overall project is about seeking theoretical rigor, it seems appropriate to try to make this particular fact less ambiguous and more clear.

Let's see where we do/don't agree...

- we agree, I think, that (strategy) games are problems, and playing them is (among other things) a kind of problem-solving
- problems that can be more or less hard to solve
- to be a real, playable game the problem has to be significantly harder to solve than some threshold (whatever, the capabilities of a very smart (unaided) human in some arbitrarily short amount of time - a week? 80 years? whatever)

Now, you introduce the idea that the problem you are solving is not the game, per se, but the other (lesser) problem of finding a win against any particular opponent, which is very interesting. I think this makes sense and feels right. Intuitively, this maybe does feel like what you're doing when you play a strategy game? (Or does it... now that I search my memory more carefully I'm no longer so sure, but let's just grant this for now.)

So, is this an easier problem than the first one (just, the game itself)?

Yes? Obviously? Because it's much easier to beat Joe Opponent than to solve a game.

Hm... on the other hand, it seems like it could be game.hardness + psychology.hardness which is obviously much, much harder than the game. I mean, it's very hard to predict people's behavior. But let's say we black-box the opponent Burgun style by treating it as RNG. Now, what are we trying to do? What problem are we solving? Are we trying to guarantee a win against opponent RNG? No, of course not. Are we trying to maximize our winrate against them? No, that's not right. Let's say we are just "picking up wins", they're plentiful and we are out there scooping them up but in a sort of carefree way.

That sort of feels right? But then, does that mean this is just a smaller problem? And we were wrong about games needing to be above some theoretical threshold? They're just these easier problems?

But does that feel right? Is that what it feels like to play these games? Just out there lackidaisically picking up wins is, like, a slot-machiney vibe. Whereas playing these games often feels more like you're maneuvering around your opponent in order to try to stay higher on the slope of this mountain that you're fighting on. And, yes, you won't reach the top, or anywhere near it, but you are always fighting, or trying to fight, uphill. And so it doesn't feel right to say, oh the mountain doesn't really matter, it's just a local scuffle, when it's this all-important feature of the landscape and this immense looming thing, and sort of the reason we started fighting in the first place.

Maybe it's more correct to say, not that we are solving some smaller problem, but just that we are doing an activity, or a set of activities, that occur near problem-solving. Like, problem-solving adjacent. Like tailgating near a Nascar race. But no, that's not what we're talking about. I mean, the feel of the stones in your fingers, the light on the board, the sound of your opponent's breathing, the river rushing by, these are all glorious things, but we're not talking about that, are we? That's not what style in Go is, that's not what we mean.

By style in Go we mean all the things you like, the creativity, the improvisation, the personality, but all applied to, and expressed through, and defined in relation to, this mountain, this upward slope, this big problem that points somewhere, to one point. Your style is your "slope-sense", your altitude instincts, the habits of perception and interpretation that determine how you step while dancing through state space looking for uphill.

Which is kind of bummer, that it's just one point. Why not a million points? Or an infinite number of points. But that would be bad, in a way, because, sure you get more points, but what you lose is the mountain. The mountain is there because it only has one point, that's what we mean by mountain.

So, for example, the performance of someone playing Bach and the performance of someone playing Go are similar, in a way. But they are also different in some primary, fundamental way, that's related to this upward slope of single-point problem-solving. Because you can play wrong notes when performing Bach, but beyond that there isn't this same quality of "uphill". That's the nature of the distinction between a nebulous problem and a well-defined problem. And that's great, vive la différence, right?

A problem is not made nebulous just by being especially hard. Nebulous means that the definition of the problem has some essential ambiguity to it, that what counts as a solution is not entirely clear. I think game design is a problem like this, and playing a game is not, although they may share lots of features. And to me it's important that they have this sameness and this difference, I think if you lose sight of either the sameness or the difference you are missing something important.

In a way, the very essence of strategy games is their well-defined-ness and their smallness. After all, big messy ill-defined problems are nothing special, the world is full of them. Try throwing a ball through a hoop. The essence of strategy games is that they are small, well-defined problems. Problems small enough that they flirt with solvability, semi-tractable problems. Problems where you can almost see what the solution would look like.

I just don't think that being "too solvable" or "not hard enough" is really an issue in the way you suggest it is. It's trivially easy to make a game-problem harder. I think most of the strategy games we talk about are so far beyond that theoretical threshold of necessary hardness that pushing them 100 or 1,000 times farther wouldn't make any difference to our experience of playing them. I think what matters is the texture of the problem space, that it is patterned or structured enough that you can find shortcuts through it. That you can make and trade maps of it.

I think it's cool to imagine strategy games with less calculation and more intuition, but I think that's a taste/preference thing, and a style thing, not a natural or inevitable aspect of designing for interactive merit. At some points in any game your instincts and heuristics need to ground out in the step by step enumeration of options, some of which are wins and some of which are losses. Like in Hearthstone when you are seeing if you have lethal. In fact, I think the instincts and heuristics and creative flourishes are, in a way, made from the stuff of this step by step enumeration, they are bundles of it, or waves in it, or something.

Sorry this is so long and rambly, not sure I made any useful progress here, guess I'll just hit post anyway.
 
#18
Thanks for GDC talk link! Inspiring to watch again, especially the section from about 40 to 46 mins when you return to the theme of games being the artform of instrumental thought. I think that part is why this thread reminded me of it. The idea of gaming subculture being rather isolated from the rest of the world, but how there would be huge benefit in making it less so.