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Quern: Undying Thoughts: design ruminations

When the Obduction kickstarter fired up in 2013, it seemed like a good moment for adventure games in general. With Unity3D well-established and the Unreal 4 engine coming up, small teams were in a good position to produce really stellar visual environments. Then Cyan got a million dollars out of nostalgic Myst fans. Good sign, right?

Sure enough, a couple of years later, I saw several Myst-inspired projects on Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight.

Of those, I have now played Haven Moon (my notes in this post) and Neptune Flux (didn't have much to say). We're still waiting on Zed and Xing. (To be sure, Xing's Kickstarter predated Obduction's -- plus one point for foresight, minus one point for taking longer. Give the point back for making progress on a KS payout way less than a million dollars.)

And I have played Obduction, and now I have played Quern: Undying Thoughts. Spoiler: those are the two good ones, so far. In fact, the great ones.

(Note: I was a Kickstarter backer on Quern. Also on Obduction and Neptune Flux.)

Just as it was impossible to talk about Obduction without comparing it to Myst, I cannot talk about Quern without comparing it to Obduction. They're both aiming at the same target: a first-person adventure in which the puzzles span every aspect of the environment. They are graphical IF in the sense that I used to talk about: you must engage with them immersively, placing yourself in the world, imagining those objects around you (and in your hands), considering what makes sense to do in that physical reality.

(Note that that "Characterizing IF" post is harsh on CYOA games. That was me writing in 2002. The field has advanced.)

Quern and Obduction are both top-notch adventure games. Both have really great, creatively constructed puzzles. They both take advantage of the 3D world engine, both visually and in their puzzle design. Both are lonely worlds; they avoid human interaction (and thus the high costs of character modeling and animation). And I finished both in roughly 15 hours of play time. So those are obvious similarities.

Now I can talk about the differences -- which are smaller, but more interesting to discuss.

Quern has lots of visual detail, but it's not so good on focus. You will frequently find a workbench full of tools, and it's not at all clear which are the important tools and which are just scenery. So many hammers! There are things in the game that I want to smash! Sorry, no hammer for you. Even more annoying, there's a loose ladder in the very first room, but you can't take it or use it to climb anywhere.

In contrast, Obduction keeps the really tempting tools out of reach. It also avoids puzzles that make you think "if I only had a hammer..." (Or garden shears, or a couple of sticks, or...)

Quern is generally in tune with Cyan's house style, but it misses a few of the details. Obduction is good about showing the difference between a two-way switch (which can be flipped back and forth) and a one-way switch (which locks after you flip it). The control might retract to show that it's locked, or you might see a pin drop into place. Quern tends not to do this. Thus, one-way switches feel arbitrary. It's particularly annoying when the effect of the switch is not directly visible; then then you have no way to experiment to figure it out.

(You might say that every control should be flippable back and forth. That's how real life works! But when designing a game, you often want to simplify. Once the power has been turned on, it stays on. Once door X is open, it stays open for the rest of the game. And so on. This is a useful trick for keeping the player out of stuck-unwinnable states.)

Obduction was built primarily around one puzzle mechanism: the seed machines. There are other sorts of puzzles (starting engines, finding passwords, using the mine cart) -- but they're very much the Lord High Everything Else. I don't mean it's 99% seed puzzles, but you wind up thinking of the puzzles as "seed machines" and "the other stuff".

Quern, in contrast, has lots of puzzle types. It's downright exuberant with them. Slider puzzles, machine puzzles, symbol-finding puzzles, symbol-matching puzzles, letter puzzles, sound puzzles, light puzzles, weight puzzles, alchemy puzzles (yay!). That's not remotely a complete list.

Moreover, Quern mostly adheres to the puzzle design rule of "do everything twice". (Once as a directly-presented puzzle; once in a new context where you have to remember that thing you did earlier in the game.) Obduction does this too, but it has fewer puzzle concepts! With Quern, by the time you're halfway through, you are balancing a mental map of everything you've encountered. Any of the mechanisms or locations could wind up being relevant again. Not to mention a mental map of the island and where every unsolved puzzle is -- because any of them might be next.

The down side of this is that, with so many puzzle types, a few are worn-out hats. There's a Mastermind game. There's a block-slider. (But not the worst block-slider, which you have to pay me $50 to solve these days. Quern's slider was okay.)

There are, as I said, a couple of audio puzzles. I did not see any accomodation for hearing-impaired players. This is not a fatal strike (not like that flippin' Donkey slider!) but you want to ask if an accomodation is possible. In some games, the puzzle is "notice the audio component at all" -- any kind of subtitling would spoil it. The audio puzzles in Quern are different; they're about noticing qualities of sounds. A non-audio indicator could work. But you'd have to think about it.

There is one terrible puzzle. I know puzzles are subjective, but at one point I said "I hit a bad puzzle" and my friend said "There is one very bad puzzle" and we were talking about the same puzzle.

I don't want to rag on that one puzzle, because the developers have said in a Steam forum thread that they're considering ways to fix it. You can read the thread for the details.

However, it's a great example of the perils of puzzle design. So I'm going to dig into it a little. I will try to avoid spoilery specifics, but I will describe some elements of the puzzle. Starting... NOW.

The puzzle has two stages. ("Do everything twice", remember?) The first stage is a straightforward information-matching puzzle. You need to look at two clues, figure out what each diagram means, combine the information, and apply the result to a device. When you push the right buttons -- you're not finished. The device ostentiatiously turns upside down.

It's clear that you have to use the device again, but with a new button sequence. You now have to interpret the clues "upside down". There are a couple of things that could mean, so you try one of them. Then you try a different one. Then you try applying those ideas to the other clue. Then you start trying combinations of interpretations...

(If you look back at the forum thread, one player mentions trying sixteen possible input sequences, based on different combinations of what "upside down" could mean. I went down the same road.)

None of this works, so eventually you give up and go to the forum. Lo, there is a thread explaining what you missed: you have to go to the other side of the island and look in a place marked by a familiar symbol. There you will find a third clue, which supersedes one of the originals. Now the second stage is solvable.

So. What is the design problem here? Missing the third clue, right? I saw players talking about ways to make the marker symbol more visible, or making it easier to extract the third clue.

But I would say that the problem is not missing the third clue; it's believing that the first two clues are sufficient! The ambiguity of the upside-down hint, while a fine puzzle element in itself, misleads players into thinking that that's the entire second stage of the puzzle -- figuring out the right interpretation of "upside down". As I noted, there are several possibilities. Each time one fails, you look harder for another. Nothing points you at the idea that you've got the wrong clues in hand.

This is, of course, why game design is hard. You have to imagine the state of not knowing -- and then keep imagining every stage of figuring out. Including the dead ends.

Also, once someone has run out of patience and looked at hints, they're not likely to appreciate your clever design any more. I went and got the third clue (nice puzzle in itself!); but then I didn't have to energy to work it back through the puzzle logic. I just looked at a walkthrough.

(PS: Video walkthroughs are still terrible, but I admit that this game would have required too many diagrams for a text file.) (PPS: Wait, someone made a text walkthrough with diagrams! See this thread. Thanks!)

I don't want to give you the wrong idea. I've spent a page and a half talking about the worst puzzle in Quern, because it makes a good case study. Quern is packed with puzzles that are much better than that. I recommend this game! You should play it. The designers should make another game.

This is a good time for adventure games.

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Favorite game mechanics of 2012

I am initiating this seasonal tradition here at the Gameshelf -- which may turn out to be a singleton tradition, that's always a danger, like New Year's resolutions, but we'll give it a shot, right?

Frequently I play a game and think "Hey, that was a well-designed game." It's not so often that I play a game and think "Wow, that one design element really stands out -- and I've never seen it before! Clever." So I wanted to pick out a few of my favorites from this year.

I'm not talking about featured gimmicks here. I'm talking about ideas that other games might reasonably think about adopting. Yes, Portal has a core game mechanic, it's very clever. If you use it, you're writing Portal 2. (Or Darksiders, but let's not get into that here.) There have been a spate of these core-puzzle-mechanic games -- Quantum Conundrum and Unfinished Swan were two fine examples I played in 2012. But I want to talk about the mechanics that quietly make your game better.

Behold, my choices for 2012. No doubt I'll think of another favorite tomorrow morning.

(I don't play all games, or even most games. So I'm probably going to name some mechanics which pre-date the games in which I discovered them. Feel free to point out my ignorance in the comments.)

Fixed-increment regeneration in Dishonored

Traditionally, magic powers in action games cost you. Most often you have a health meter and a magic meter; getting stabbed costs health, and casting spells costs magic. (Stabbing enemies is free.) This gives you your basic tradeoff economy for getting through the game.

In some games, the meters slowly replenish over time. This invites -- or, for the conservative player, enforces -- a slow game pace; it's always worth sitting around and waiting to heal. That's not necessarily what an action game should be like. It fits better with stealth games and survival horror, which want a mood of slow caution; but it's still rewarding you for doing nothing, which is boring in any game.

Dishonored is a stealth game (which I'm about halfway through). It introduces a nice twist: your magic meter regenerates about 25% from its most recent low point. This takes about five seconds.

As a result, you're never completely out of magic. You might not have enough for a big effort, but you'll always have a smidgeon. More interesting: low-level magical effects are free, if you don't overuse them. Do one short-range teleport hop, and the meter refills. Do several, spaced out, and it will refill each time. But if you panic and make three hops in a row, only the last drop regenerates; you'll have to chug a blue potion to refill the rest. So the game rewards caution, without long periods of inactivity.

Karateka: three lives, each different

Since the beginning of time (Space Invaders, etc) videogames have given you three lives. (I forget if Spacewar did.) For a good long time you had to explain specially if your game didn't.

Mechner's rebooted Karateka, which appeared this winter, gives you three lives. But they are not stylized outlines; they are instantiated as three characters. When one is defeated and hurled from the path, he falls past the next one, already climbing up to replace him.

The mechanic? Each character is stronger than the last -- but less sympathetic. The elegant Lover is followed by the sturdy Monk, and then the thuggish Brute. So if you play poorly, the game gets technically easier, but your movements are less graceful, and the princess at the end is less excited to see you. "You're here to rescue me? Thanks... I think."

(Yes, there's a princess at the end. I didn't say every game mechanic was new and interesting.)

The character trio tidily serves two orthogonal design goals. It allows all players, even klutzes, to reach the end of the (short, casual) fighting game; and it offers the skilled player a reward for fighting well. The designers could have settled for the easy answer -- popping up the cliche "achievement unlocked -- won without dying!" (And, to be fair, they do that.) But by building the character sequence into the narrative, they give it punch and make the outcome distinctive. Obvious trick, except that it took twenty years for someone to think of it.

Silent player-matching in Journey

Finding other players to multiplay with is always a nuisance, subject to unending failures, and (worse) attempts to prevent the failures. Lobbies? Either empty, or full of assholes. (Hint: the person with "Asshole" as part of his screen name is probably an asshole, or else is willing to be treated like one.) Random automatching? Won't find you anybody at your skill level. (And may still be an asshole or an "Asshole".) Offer you a friends roster? Now you have to feed the game server your contact list; the ad industry thanks you. (Or there's Nintendo. I have never tried to figure out Nintendo's arcane friend-handshake mechanism. Rumor says it involves either an exchange of tax records, or a blindfolded goat in a stone circle at midnight.)

The designers of Journey bypassed the entire question: when you play, you get matched with somebody. No name. No custom avatar. It's a person. The person may help you out, or may ignore you. The game is entirely lovely and satisfying if you ignore each other, so any interaction comes across as spontaneous generosity.

Of course this is not a general solution -- it wouldn't work in a game that required cooperation, or a game where you could grief your partner. However, for its niche, Journey's model works supremely well.

(Although not quite perfectly. I never told the story of being griefed in Journey? Well, it wasn't much -- but at the start of one level, the other player rushed ahead and triggered a demonstrative animation. I was still poking around the start location, and so I missed it. I was therefore somewhat confused about how the level worked. End of story.)

It occurs to me that Molyneux's Curiosity game/toy/bubble-wrap-thing takes a similar approach. (For all the mockery it gets, it is a carefully-designed item.) Your actions are your identity, and all actions are positive. Sure, anybody can anonymously draw a pixelated cock on the cube; but then if you don't like pixelated cocks, you're free to scrape it away. And both of you are thus contributing to progress on the current cube layer.

Uncovering cost tracks in Eclipse

Eclipse is a medium-weight 4X board game -- "4X" means you explore planets, build starships, develop technologies, and then either outgrow or outslug your neighbors for the win. ("Medium-weight" means it doesn't take all night to play.)

Board games, of course, have a venerable history of clever mechanics to simplify their in-game tradeoff economies. (The first tradeoff is "You don't need to buy an iPad first.") These mechanics started with fat wargame-style rulebooks, so famous in Avalon Hill history ("I.5.iv.3: Reducing citadels -- special case: Minas Tirith"). Gradually they evolved into smaller, postcard-sized charts ("City: 3 rocks, 2 wheat, 1 kosher deli") and each player is expected to take a card and then ostentatiously not refer to it very much.

Eclipse has such charts, but it handily builds them out of other game elements. You colonize planets by putting your little cubes on them. But instead of just starting out with a heap of cubes, you start out with a row of cubes covering a track of numbers on your board. The more planets you colonize, the more cubes you put out, and the bigger the numbers that are uncovered. These numbers tell you how much stuff you get every turn. So colonizing planets automatically gives you more stuff, and it's directly visible as you do it.

Taking actions works the same way: you can take as many actions as you like, but for each action you take a disc off your board, uncovering a higher cost. Not only does this avoid a rulebook full of charts, but it allows the game to throw in extra mechanics which are equally obvious. Ally with a neighbor? You hand him a cube, thus uncovering a number. Buy an extra disc for your board? Cover up a cost number, thus making your actions cheaper.

This is probably hard to visualize, and I apologize for the long-winded explanation, but it really does work out nicely. What might have been a brain-hurtingly complex space-civ game becomes a medium-sane one.

Enjoy your 2013.

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XCOM's mastery of player complicity

Much as Fallout: New Vegas felt like an entire season or two of a solid TV series (as Matt Weise and I discussed in Play of the Light), XCOM: Enemy Unknown feels like an epic movie or miniseries. New Vegas begins with a single motivating frame, but delivers many episodic stories while the protagonist pursues it; XCOM has only one story, but it’s a war story told across a handful of discrete acts, driven forward by a course of high and low points. That alone might have been enough to have me play through the whole thing, but I find XCOM uniquely compelling in how it makes me feel like I’m playing a sizable role in creating the story, despite its necessarily pre-scripted underpinnings.

Solitaire video games have been using well-established filmic story techniques for some time now, of course; screenwriter Todd Alcott described how Half-Life adheres satisfyingly to a modern three-act story structure. But where games like Half-Life or Bioshock speak to you through a linear series of obstacle courses, XCOM gives you a wider structure of non-predetermined procedural events, with scripted plot points acting more as targets to aim for than paths to maneuver through. I haven’t quite seen this since Star Control 2, and I believe that XCOM’s design proves even more effective in providing a real sense of agency — and therefore complicity — to its player.

This happened to me yesterday:

My satellite network — hastily assembled and sparser than I’d like, due to early-game mismanagement, but still effective — tracked the landing of what the game described as a small scout UFO in a Chinese swamp. I had recently entered what I take to be the story’s Act II, shortly into which I had shot down and captured the most enormous UFO I’d encountered so far. A surprise raid on a scout ship sounded like an easy dessert mission.

I — that is, me, in my living room, not any in-game protagonist bound to scripted events — decided to treat this as an opportunity for a live-fire training exercise. This is not a choice I picked from a menu of ways to respond to the situation, nor was it anything suggested to me by in-game advisors. Through a few minutes’ worth of manual controller-fiddling, I had most of my usual team hang up their equipment and return to the barracks, and equipped and deployed less-experienced soldiers in their place. I also rolled in a robotic mobile weapons platform that my engineers had just researched and built, but which we hadn’t fielded yet.

When the strike team reached the landing site, I had an up-and-coming heavy-weapons specialist accompany the robot in approaching the little craft directly, while the other four soldiers flanked it. No sooner did the lead man see that the ship’s door was already open did it pour forth a host of alien horrors none of us had never seen before. As the rest of the team watched in shock and confusion, they took my poor sergeant like an offered hors d’oeuvre.

The battle ended moments later with no further casualties on my side, but the camera let itself linger on the higher-ranking soldier who had rushed to the spot where his comrade fell. I couldn’t tell quite what gestures he was making underneath all the after-action-report text on the screen, but I think he may have been sobbing.

While I saved my game before this (and I’m not a lunatic who activates the permadeath-ish “Ironman Mode” on my first play-through) I didn’t go back and try the mission over. Despite the loss, it felt like a gain, narratively speaking. This thrillingly worst-way education that my team has yet to see the full scope of the alien threat yet would fit perfectly into any filmed sci-fi epic, and so it did in the epic I increasingly feel like I’m co-authoring with XCOM’s creators.

I felt like I helped make it happen. And not in the sense of “Gosh, I really screwed up — I deserved that setback,” but in the sense that I played an actual participatory role in helping the game tell its story. The game encouraged me to feel overconfident, but it was my own choice to actually adopt that stance, going so far as to put green troops in harm’s way, and paying a dear price for what we all learned. This isn’t the first time this feeling arose during this play-through, but it is the most recent, and (with the shocking on-screen death of a secondary but still “speaking-role” character) maybe the most personally affecting so far.

Many other games would either fall back on a completely scripted cutscene to express this plot point, or would treat my sub-optimal performance as a complete failure, as if I had wandered off-script and spoiled the story, and would demand a do-over. XCOM, like magic, transforms gameplay failure into a narrative “low point”, tempering the protagonists’ power and complicating their goals, and it feels right. And the story continues from there.

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Want to make games? Don't worry about the code.

At the top of this year, the Code Hero project launched its Kickstarter drive, quickly attracting positive attention ranging from highly visible blog write-ups to TV news interviews. Code Hero promised to teach anyone how to make video games by way of a videogame, an undeniably attractive proposition to many.

The team’s own enthusiasm for the concept effectively counteracted the fact that the extremely ambitious project was in the earliest stages of development, and they blew past their initial $100,000 funding goal. Their page remains frozen at the moment the drive ended, so you can still see their admirably bold appeals to US senators to plug their states’ educational budgets into the project, and their giddy promise that the game would transform from a single-user experience into an MMO if they could raise just a few more thousand dollars.

As winter settles in, however, the comments page for Code Hero paints a dire portrait of the project’s status: a cascade of unhappy, empty-handed backers asking for refunds, which has more recently evolved into community investigation of where their money might have gone. Clicking around the project’s Kickstarter page and the official website, one gets the picture that the project’s team went completely quiet after missing its self-imposed early-September deadline. (Though you can continue to order $13 copies of the game on its apparently still-functional order form, if you wish.)

Perhaps the team has chosen to take a hard-line approach to completing their development with no further promises or teasers, even to the point of allowing a dissatisfied-customer backlash to flourish unchecked on their Kickstarter page. I would be delighted to see the team resurface a year from now with a polished 1.0 release. But today, I do not foresee this happening.

I surprised myself by feeling a little bit angry about this development as I revisited it recently. Not simply because the project may likely fail — I have been in the software business for long enough to let Failure just keep one of my guest parking passes in its car. It happens, and we move on. But from my perspective, this particular failure helps me better see what sounded a little off-key to me about this project when I first heard during its higher-energy days. The problem, to my ear, lies right in the title: I very much doubt that an effort to teach game design or development that leads with code, or with any other technical aspect of the art, can truly succeed.

From what I can tell by reading the experiences of those who have stumbled around its extant alpha, Code Hero says “I’ll teach you how to make games!” and then proceeds to show you how to cause green cubes to float around in a bare Unity environment by pasting around chunks of JavaScript. At best, this might be laying the groundwork for eventually showing someone how to make a very particular sort of 3D-based videogame. My doubts about its effectiveness to one side, this emphasis on the technical guts of working with primitive shapes and such strikes me as near-sighted nerdery of the bad sort, an obsession on tools and execution over concepts and spirit.

My frustration stems from the fact that this project received so much attention and money from good people hoping for what I fear is a magic bullet, when as far as I’m concerned we already know the best way to learn to make games, and it is this: Start making games. Pick up any tool at all that has a decent online community, and consider something a tad less varsity-level than Unity — Twine has been getting some well-deserved attention lately, for one, and there is also things like GameMaker or my beloved Inform. Start making tiny, awful games with broken code and ill-fitting rules that barely work, but nonetheless lurch towards the model in your head of the game that you know can be beautiful. Each attempt will make you better, and you might be shocked at how quickly you can iterate and improve.

Just as someone who is truly passionate about, say, running should consider nerdery over different brands of running shoes a distraction, so should someone truly determined to make games worry far less about tools and techniques than overall design goals. Once someone is determined to make a game, and is convinced that their dream is possible, they will teach themselves what they need to in order to make it happen. As far as I’m concerned, nothing beats making small, silly, but nonetheless completely self-motivated projects to demonstrate to oneself that one’s dreams are achievable.

Good game-studies teachers already know that the path to getting students’ brains afire about their own ability to create has nothing to do with trying to get them excited about pushing around blocks of JavaScript, or learning how shaders and splines work. The best game-development classes emphasize the value of paper prototyping, or even putting the electronics away entirely and developing compelling tabletop rules.

The code is merely a means to an end. It’s a thing to get good at eventually, sure, if you decide that making video games is a thing you want to spend a lot more time doing. But just as good coders know about the evils of premature optimization, good developers should also know that premature emphasis on code over design presents a similarly tempting pitfall. It’s the wrong foot to lead with in any education about game-making, and I’m sad to see it lead to such a public and potentially discouraging failure in the case of Code Hero.

Pick up a tool. Make terrible games. Surprise yourself. Go.

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No Show videos online

Speaking of the 2012 No Show Conference, all twelve of its talks and presentations are now online for public enjoyment and enrichment. Visit its presentation page with any Flash-capable browser, and click a talk’s Continue reading button to make its video player pop up.

I attended every talk that weekend in person, and found them all rewarding. Going by the metric of new things I learned, my favorite talks include Mitchell Smallman on how economic classes affect gameplay access and Andrea Shubert on practical card game design. But I recommend the whole lot of them; this was a really well curated lineup.

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Thoughts on Dear Esther

Dear Esther came out in February, but I don't have a Windows box (worth mentioning) so I skipped all the commentary and waited for the Mac port. That just showed up; huzzah! (Unironic cheer there. Three months is sharp porting. I'd love to see Fez three months from now, but I doesn't expect it.)

Because I skipped all the commentary, I won't try to do a full-on review. I'm sure it's mostly been said. Instead, you get assorted thoughts about interactivity.

Is Dear Esther a game? Sure it is. Two decades ago I was hedging and calling things like Gadget "interactive movies" rather than "games". But at this point, "semi-hallucinatory journey across a lonely landscape with background story" is an established game genre. It turns up regularly in the IFComp; I've committed it myself.

I might still hedge if the thing didn't come off as an interactive experience. But it does -- despite the absolute lack of any verbs besides "walk" and "look around". Dear Esther is the elusive zero-button game. (Okay, you can hold down a mouse button to zoom in a little, but this didn't add anything for me and gave a weirdly non-mimetic FOV-zoom effect, so I avoided it.)

So, given this interface, whence interactivity in Dear Esther? I say: from an understated but deadly-precise sense of attention design through spatial design.

You walk along the beach; a path goes up the bluff, another along the strand. You go one way or the other. There are no game-mechanics associated with the choice, and a plot-diagram analysis would call them "the same place" -- you can try either, back up, and go the other way. But this misses the point. Precisely because the game lacks keys, switches, stars, and 1ups, it has no implicit mandate to explore every inch of territory. Instead, you want to move forward. Backtracking is dull. Worse: given the game's sedate walking pace, it's slightly frustrating. (They left out the run button for a reason, see?) Moving into new territory is always the best-rewarded move, and therefore your choice of path is a choice. You will not (unless you thrash hard against the game's intentions) see everything in your first run-through.

Much of the game uses this pattern, and the choices are always distinctive. High or low, into a cave or down the beach, towards a building or up a slope. The paths join up again eventually, and you're always going to wind up in the next chapter, but this is de-emphasized; the game's sense is that you are exploring freely.

Smaller moments: you try to edge around a gap in the path, in order to continue up to the top of the hill. But the ledge is too narrow; you slip down to the beach and cannot climb back up. This is inevitable, it's just shaped terrain. But you have acted in the game and gotten a surprising result, and that's an interaction -- choice and outcome. (You could instead have turned around and descended the path, or scrambled deliberately down the slope.)

In a couple of places you advance into an area, explore it, find no way to continue, turn around, and see a second path by the entrance. You missed it on the way in because of the angle of view. (Or perhaps you saw it, but passed by because the area was more interesting. This pattern occurs at focal points, buildings or landmarks of detail -- not at mere dead ends.) Again, a map analysis would just call it a simple bend in the path, but the experience is of discovering a new choice and trying it.

None of this would work if the game were not beautiful, and of course it is beautiful. Dear Esther is the bar for next-generation immersive environmental gaming. Comparisons to Myst are easy (the Myst series set and reset that bar how many times? Four generations running?) but I would rather call survival horror onto the stage. Dear Esther draws heavily on the techniques of horror: thickly textured environments, dim light, distant glimpses, slow introduction of off-kilter elements. (If I relabelled its screenshots as from an unknown Silent Hill game, just before the blood and flayed nurses drop in, you would have no reason to doubt me.)

The aim is not a sense of dread, in this case, but the pace of survival horror: slow movement and careful focus on the details of the world. And it is the detail, the reward of each step and the greater reward of turning a corner, that allows the rest of the game elements to work. The spoken narrative is well-written, but it can't stand on its own. Its value is as an occasional addition to the visual world. It's the visual detail that you focus on; it's the beauty that draws you forward and keeps that sense of interactivity alight.

(Speaking as a text-game author, may I say how much I envy the sensory bimodality of the graphical genres. I too like to intermingle background, scenery, and story narration -- but I use words and words come in rows. Moving through a world while listening to prose is a wonderful experience.) (I know, it's been done forever now, but this post is my opportunity to envy it.)

(Although, may I also say, the bimodality in Dear Esther is pretty much ruined by the subtitles. For zog's sake, unless you have some hearing impairment, turn off the subtitles and play with a good sound system.)

The lesson, I suppose, is to be generous where your game design needs it (visual richness, in this case) and spare everywhere else. Dear Esther is admirably minimal in its storytelling -- a few motifs repeated in the narration, then incarnated in the world, and you make of them what you wish. The sense of surreality, so often inflated to overwhelming in those survival horror games, is here limited to a single hallucinatory scene -- plus the peripheral, negative-space impossibility of following a trail blazed by your own narrated self.

And, to be sure, the game itself is short. All hail the restraint of giving the player just enough of every locale, with a few vivid variations, and then moving on before the effect palls. (You may not roll your eyes at Portal 2 -- I approved, myself -- but we don't lack for other examples of games that pad out a good design sense until it's two and a half times ruined.)

You may wish to replay Dear Esther. I'm not sure I do. I re-ran chapter 3, out of game-designer's curiosity and the desire to write a sound blog post, but the game didn't call for it. This leaves the game's randomized text ordering rather in the lurch; it's interesting, but not something a player will notice in a single run-through, so it doesn't exactly fit into my account of the design. (Which is why it doesn't fit into this blog post either.) Perhaps the right approach is to play Dear Esther, let the experience settle, and then watch a friend play it. I'll let you know if I try.

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Interactive fairy tales

This is a wide-open question, and historically around here the wide-open questions fall flat and deflate with a faint sad whistling sound. But I'll try it anyway.

What are the archetypes of interactive folk tales and fairy tales? I mean, what are the natural shapes of the things?

We have fairy-tale notions -- and maybe they date back no farther than Grimm and Lang, I'm no researcher, but we have them anyhow -- that if there are three brothers, then the first one gets the title and the second one gets the wealth and the third one gets to be poor and honest and goes off to be a protagonist. Three sisters (or nine, or twelve) are rarely even that lucky. You give a coin to a beggar so that he will turn out to be a wizard or the king of this-or-that; misery follows innocence and leads to triumph; and you always fail after succeeding twice, or succeed after failing twice.

(That last point should probably be tied to the observation that second marriages always work out miserably. I don't know where that one leads.)

But all of this pre-supposes a certain... certainty. Inevitability. These stories come to us in books, and there is a way the story goes. (Even if the movie then re-stitches the whole thing into a hat or a pterodactyl.)

What does a story look like when interactive tools appear, and the constraint of print and performance is removed?

I know, this is the core question of the game-design era, and I'm not going to solve it. But the fairy-tale approach appeals to me, because fairy-tale archetypes give us a model of story ideas that are simple -- boiled-down, even -- and yet still resonant. Surely we can say something as simple as "there were three brothers..." while incorporating player choice.

There were three... brothers? Sisters? Siblings? If the player merely chooses the genders and then lets the story run, is that interactivity? (Yes, and probably interestingly. But this addresses the gender roles of traditional fairy tales, rather than their static-fiction form.) If you choose the character, with his or her particular motivation, and then let that run? (Perhaps.)

There were three siblings, and the first was... The second was... Does the story have to be about the third? Can each sibling have his or her own adventure? (Certainly. This is too simple, though, if you just write three stories and paste them together at the front. The point of three siblings is so that we can cheer the least and unluckiest one to victory. Now, if each protagonist thinks he or she is the least and unluckiest -- because they all value different things -- and then each one sees the others stumbling somehow to failure, and sets off to rescue them, while being rescued along the way in two different and (from the interior view) less crucial ways... I think there's some silver to be mined in that hill.)

A child became lost in a forest, and... what happened next? The child traps or defeats the monster and escapes. (Or is devoured, sure, but that forest path doesn't need my feet to be well-trodden.) But how does it happen? (A cut leaf, a flask of spring water, the words to make the roses grow. Is it unreasonable to offer any of those tasks as the story, and let the player choose which one to unfold? The ending is inevitable, but the middle can go various ways. Or you could flip back and learn what happened before the beginning, when the innocent childhood wasn't so simple. Or it might be the beggar's story, after all, who gave the child a flask in return for...)

We have, to be sure, a set of fairy-tale tropes much like IF puzzles: fetch quests, token-gathering, and riddles. So we have the whole array of IF devices that apply to puzzles. Multiple solutions, optional puzzles, free ordering of puzzles, rewards or story events ordered independently of puzzle order. This is 1990s IF technology, and easy to take for granted, but worth mentioning.

@peterb suggested digging into the layers of retelling -- grandmother may tumble out of the wolf's corpse smiling, or maybe eaten is eaten, if that's what you want of it. Underneath the fairy-tale forest is the Schwarzwald, and below that starving bandits, perhaps. I like that notion.

We might have three stories stitched together more delicately: a cause here, an effect there. The interactivity is in choosing which story to follow, on the coarse level; but really the player must recognize the connections and cohere the fourth, unspoken story.

I'm not coming anywhere close to an archetype here, I admit. I'm listing particular patterns, if not specific game ideas. It may be that whereas condensed story ideas are recognizable, condensed interaction ideas are toys -- not compelling without their details of gameplay. I can tell you that you will decide who to adopt as your wise old mentor, or in what order you will defeat the conspirators, or even what virtue you will discover on the way to the witch's oven. Are these notions intriguing? They've been tried, and successes do not come to mind. Archetypes grow out of the stories we actually perpetuate, I suppose.

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Setting as Character in Narrative Games (PAX East 2011)

Part of Saturday’s proceedings at the 2011 IF Summit that conveniently adjoined this year’s PAX East.

In adventures and other explorational games, the setting is often the most eloquent and memorable character: an island, a castle, a starship. How do these locales tell stories, and how does the player character fit into those stories?

This panel discussion features independent IF creators Andrew Plotkin, Stephen Granade, and Rob Wheeler, and Dean Tate of Harmonix (formerly of Irrational Games).

Click here to watch this on Vimeo.

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Jeff Grubb on Spelljammer's origins

Dungeons and Dragons design veteran Jeff Grub recalls the origins of Spelljammer, an early-1990s D&D supplement that allowed players to launch their faux-medieval fantasy campaigns into outer space.

Here is the image I pitched. A knight standing on the deck of a ship in space. He doesn’t freeze. He doesn’t blow up. He doesn’t float away. Everything that follows comes out of that one image, which is captured (with more to it as well) on the final cover Jeff Easley did. All what people have called “Grubbian Physics” with its air envelopes and its gravity planes, comes from creating a universe where that image is true.

The idea using a single image as a design cornerstone for a game (or a role-playing game’s setting) resonates with me. A single, powerful seed-image also lay at the core of The Warbler’s Nest, and was instrumental in getting me to actually complete and ship the game. I really just wanted make it real and share it as an experience; the rest of the game was almost just a delivery system for that one moment. (Which helps to explain why the whole thing’s so short…)

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The Secrets Game (idea)

A while ago, Emily Short posted an online chat that I was involved in:

zarf says, "(this reminds me that I should write a blog entry about that MMO prototype that I never did anything with)"

zarf says, "the secret plan that I never did anything with was to combine the window dressing with a power law of frequency, so that the room descriptions are random but one particular random room is your home base and you see it more often"

I was referring to a gameplay prototype that I came up with back in September. The idea was for a casual MMO-RPG -- something on the level of Kingdom of Loathing or Echo Bazaar. I didn't create an online demo, though. I just wrote an interactive Python script to try out the gameplay and the text environments.

You have dreamed of this for years -- who has not? But now it's in sight. You're not bogged down in the World any more; you've reached the gates of the City.

"Welcome to Mezzohaus -- the City of Secrets."

...Or that's what's carved over the archway as you approach. You frown; wasn't this place called "Middlehorst" in the old stories? Probably vandalism. Never mind.

Why here? Because you need the City. Why you? Because you belong here: you hold your own secrets. The blood of the Martians flows in you, and that will give you an edge. You know only scraps of Martian lore; but even the smallest secret is coin here.

You pass beneath the arch, and the stink of Mezzohusse's docks rolls over you. Pheugh -- but it's a place to start. You turn, at a thought, for one last look out at the World.

There is no archway behind you. You see only a battered iron door, tight-locked, in the side of a shambled building. Fluttering on the lintel is a note, which you pull free. It reads: "The first secret is to wait and watch."

This may strike you right away as an Echo Bazaar rip-off. The setting is a mysterious city, and the gameplay is all about trading secrets. In fact I was inspired to pick up the idea by reading Emily's posts about EB, though I've never played EB myself. However, this is an iteration of a design I've been toying with since 2004. I never got far with it; I still haven't. (Last fall, of course, I put my prototype aside for the Hadean Lands kickstarter project.)

But I like the way the text generation came out. So imagine you're reading the above text in a nice Web interface, along with a nice pen-and-ink illustration maybe, and it's followed by this option:

You stand on the edge of The Docks -- a mazy expanse of piers, wharfs, warehouses -- all of low character. Surely not all of Mezzohusse is this unprepossessing? But this is where you must begin.

  1. Explore The Docks

It wouldn't be a numbered option on the web page, but I'm pasting in my test script's output directly here. You'd also have an inventory listing:

You know 3 secrets:

  • The first secret is to wait and watch. {not tradable}
  • The name of the city is Mezzohaus. {4}
  • You've found The Docks. {not tradable}

So you select "Explore The Docks":

> 1
You wander through The Docks, until you come to...

Boat Run {2}

You stand on a long splintery dock, by a dockside. The wharf is littered with bits of paper, and a rowboat is tied up nearby.

  1. Wait and watch (in Boat Run)
  2. Continue exploring The Docks

The numbers in brackets are the value of the secrets. Knowing the city's name is worth 4; knowing the location of the Boat Run is 2. Again, this is rapid-prototyped UI, not real game UI.

Following the "wait and watch" advice:

> 1
You loiter around Boat Run. Eventually you notice someone...

Meeting Tall Abdul {3}

  1. Trade a secret (with Tall Abdul)
  2. Return to Boat Run {expired}

> 1
You have 3 secrets you can trade to Tall Abdul:

  1. The name of the city is Mezzohaus. {4}
  2. You know how to find Tall Abdul (in Boat Run). {3}
  3. You know the way to Boat Run (The Docks). {expired, 1/2}

Trade which secret > 1
Tall Abdul nods attentively, and then tells you...

Love is like a bucket.

Meeting Tall Abdul {2}

  1. Trade a secret (with Tall Abdul)
  2. Return to Boat Run {expired}

> i
You know 6 secrets:

  • Love is like a bucket. {4}
  • You've found The Docks. {not tradable}
  • You know the way to Boat Run (The Docks). {expired, 1/2}
  • You know how to find Tall Abdul (in Boat Run). {2/3}
  • The first secret is to wait and watch. {not tradable}
  • The name of the city is Mezzohaus. {3/4}

The core mechanic is that secrets aren't a currency. When you trade a secret away, you still have it... but it's less valuable for being more widely known. So the fact of knowing Tall Abdul is itself a secret which you can trade in the game. (Though not to Tall Abdul, obviously!) You don't lose access to him if you do this; he just becomes less of a secret.

But the reason I bring all of this up is that all the specifics you've read so far are procedurally generated text. The description of the Boat Run, the names of the city and of Tall Abdul, even the secret "love is like a bucket." (In the latter case, I wasn't trying very hard to be profound! It might equally well have been "death is like a dream.") To see more, let's go back and explore further:

Boat Run {1}

You stand on a long splintery dock, by a dockside. The wharf is littered with bits of paper, and a rowboat is tied up nearby. This place seems abandoned.

  1. Wait and watch (in Boat Run)
  2. Meet with Tall Abdul
  3. Continue exploring The Docks

> 3
You wander through The Docks, until you come to...

One Trout Course by Crate {2}

A pair of warped piers line this disused waterfront.

  1. Wait and watch (in One Trout Course by Crate)
  2. Visit Boat Run {expired}
  3. Continue exploring The Docks

> 1
You loiter around One Trout Course by Crate. Eventually you notice someone...

Meeting One Foot Dave {3}

  1. Trade a secret (with One Foot Dave)
  2. Return to One Trout Course by Crate {expired}

Now we have a different location, with a new person. (The original location, the Boat Run, is "abandoned" because we've overused it -- its value has declined to 1.)

> 1
You have 6 secrets you can trade to One Foot Dave:

  1. Love is like a bucket. {4}
  2. You know how to find One Foot Dave (in One Trout Course by Crate). {3}
  3. You know the way to Boat Run (The Docks). {expired, 1/2}
  4. You know how to find Tall Abdul (in Boat Run). {2/3}
  5. You know the way to One Trout Course by Crate (The Docks). {expired, 1/2}
  6. The name of the city is Mezzohaus. {3/4}

Trade which secret > 1
One Foot Dave nods attentively, and then tells you...

"I know this person on One Trout Course by Crate."

You know how to find Tall-Foot Tom (in One Trout Course by Crate).

Meeting One Foot Dave {2}

  1. Trade a secret (with One Foot Dave)
  2. Meet with Tall-Foot Tom
  3. Return to One Trout Course by Crate {expired}

The game proceeds by meeting more and more interesting people, who know more and more interesting secrets. Those secrets, as you see, include more locations of people. Eventually they require more work for trades -- "I'll tell you about location X if you find person Y for me", that kind of thing.

The point, however, is that a series of locations can be procedurally generated, but still feel fairly distinctive. Let's find a third location:

You wander through The Docks, until you come to...

Empty Crate Street {2}

A long dock thrusts out from the dockside here.

You can see "dock" and "dockside" as repeated elements, but the setting still has some oomph.

I haven't done any real testing at all. But I can attest, of my own experience, that the prototype really started to come alive when I added the NPC names. At first I had "Person 1", "Person 2", and so on -- running through the quests felt like turning a crank. But when they were named One Foot Dave and Sneaky Cass, it felt like experience. I'm sure if I'd gotten around to generating physical descriptions of the NPCs, it would be even better.

Obviously, if you encountered a long list of these generated descriptions, the illusion would fray. Let me put the description-generator in a loop:

The muddy seawall here sports a warped dock.

A pair of slender barnacled docks thrust out from this wharf. Decaying posts march down the seawall.

This dockside hosts only a pair of warped, splintery docks. The wharf is littered with bits of wood and rope; a pile of moldering crates stands not far off.

A long barnacled dock thrusts out from this stretch of seawall.

A narrow pier thrusts out from this muddy seawall. A pile of crates molders close by.

This length of shoreline hosts only a couple of narrow, shoddy docks. A pile of disintegrating crates stands not far off.

A barnacled pier thrusts out from this length of shoreline. A pile of crates molders nearby; bollards march down the seawall.

A splintery pier leans from this disused shoreline. A pile of crates molders close by.

A few narrow shoddy piers line the seawall here.

A couple of long piers lean out from the wharf here. Hunched, dingy warehouses loom not far off, and an illegible signpost stands nearby.

You stand on the ancient shoreline here, looking out over warped piers. An unreadable signpost stands close by.

A few long shoddy piers lean out from the dockside here.

You stand on a rotten pier, just off an ancient seawall. An illegible signpost stands nearby.

A heavy rotting pier leans from this ancient stretch of seawall.

A heavy rotten pier juts from the waterfront here. A pile of crates molders not far off.

Reading down that list isn't like playing a seaside IF game. It palls quickly. I guarantee that you skimmed most of it.

But the point of the power law is that you wouldn't encounter a long list, not all in a row like that. If you explore the Docks repeatedly, you wind up returning to the same handful of locations over and over. You'd be going back and forth between the Boat Run, One Trout Course, and Empty Crate Street. New places don't appear until you "use up" old ones. And the game mechanics make it pointless to keep revisiting old, valueless locations.

So you always have this small region of interesting areas, which change slowly over time. If the game mechanics are clever enough (I never got that far), they would change at different speeds: you'd have a "home base" which was very familiar, some common haunts that changed perhaps once a week, and more transient locations that you visited for a day and then moved on. The same is true of characters. You'd have some regular liaisons and some one-off trade partners. So Tall Abdul would become a well-known character to you, even though (from the game's point of view) he's just a generated node.

The intent isn't to fool the player. If you play this game for a while, you realize that the descriptions are not all hand-written. But I think this approach can maintain the feel of a well-written world, without requiring that effort for every single description.

Naturally, this would all lead into hand-crafted segments. Make enough progress in the Docks, and you will eventually (statistically) stumble into the first Docks storyline. The same gameplay would be the same -- you'd be meeting people, looking for secrets, and trading them. And you'd go back to your familiar locales and contacts to get the resources (the secrets) for the storyline quests. But you'd get those unique elements distributed through your game experience.

Just like any other RPG: there's grinding and there's storyline. The goals here are (1) to integrate them better; (2) to give a little bit of unique color to every single "grind" action; and ultimately (3) to let the player suspend disbelief in the mechanics and feel immersed in the world.

(For added fun, the game designers might comb through each day's logs of generated text, looking for new story ideas. Or just pick a few nodes to receive special attention. So there's a small chance that Tall Abdul would turn up in a story quest, or say something new to you tomorrow! I think that would add a lot of pizzazz.)

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The Sarcasm Game (idea)

I tossed this out on Twitter last week: "I am now imagining a text-conversation game in which you don't choose what to say -- but you have a sarcasm dial that you can turn up and down."

That thought was inspired by a card game that I found on the Web, but am now unable to re-locate. (Comment if you know it.) (EDIT-ADD: Relationship by Zach Weiner, thank you Baf.) It was a card game with a satire-romance theme. Each card had a numeric value, and some cliched romantic sentiment ("8: you complete me", etc). Then there was a "Sarcasm" card you could play, which negated the value of the card (8 to -8).

This amused me, naturally, but then the idea got mixed in with game conversation engines. We've seen games where your choices are limited to "friendly" and "hostile", or "positive" and "negative", or some such. But of course the game then spits out a complete response on your behalf. You don't have any control of what positive or negative thing you say.

Sarcasm is a nifty compromise. Imagine the conversation is running along in real time, but you can see your upcoming line displayed as a subtitle. You can slide your controller anywhere from "sincere" to "brutal sneering sarcasm". As your lines come out, the words are predetermined, but the tone shifts.

(Tweetfriends immediately commented "That's just like screenwriting!" and "That's just like business meetings!" Message received: it's just like life.)

Of course, I then immediately started thinking about technology. This idea is most cool if you can adjust the tone dynamically -- word by word, or moment by moment, even. (The responses of the other character depends on your tone, so it's a branching tree structure like most game dialogues. But it feels different to the extent that your control is continuous, rather than an occasional isolated decision.)

This requires a lot of dialogue-writing, which is why I jumped over to think about the technology, of course. But it shouldn't be too difficult to write the text for a short example. You'd write it in outline form; at any point there might be two or three possible responses. The branching could be based on the average sarcasm of the player's previous line, or you could break it up into phrases and cue on the sarcasm of a single phrase. Most of the player's input information, the fine adjustments, would be ignored by this scheme -- but so what? The varying intonation would be an interesting output all by itself. You'd feel like you had fine control over your character. You would have fine control, at one level.

I'm sure the walkthroughs would be written in terms of "slider to max, wait one sentence, slider to min, wait two sentences..." but again, so what.

Can software adjust the emotional lading of spoken text in real time? Software can do all sorts of crazy crap these days, so I'm sure the answer is "yes". How would I put it together out of off-the-shelf parts, though?

I suppose I'd record each line three times -- sincere, mild irony, biting sarcasm -- and then apply some sort of audio processing to interpolate between them. I'd think that pitch and pacing should be sufficient. That is, you just (I say "just" not knowing whether it's hard or trivial) have to match up phonemes between the three versions, and then derive a pitch curve (high/low) and a duration curve (faster/slower). Interpolate on the fly and you've got it.

This doesn't require full speech recognition. It's just finding correlations between two spoken iterations of a line, and I'm sure that's much easier. I suspect (again, without any research) that you'd map each line into intervals of silence, high frequency ("s", "t") and low frequency (vowels), and then fudge those until the two lines match.

Does Echo Nest do this already? Somebody run with it.

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The Race to Expand your Dominion

expanding colony028.jpgThe only thing worse than a flawed expansion to a good tabletop game is listening to some know-it-all groan about it. Complaints about expansions, after all, suggest their own unbeatable counterargument: So, don’t play with the expansions, then! It’s not like eschewing an expansion makes the basic vanilla game suddenly stop working, right? Perhaps we don’t enjoy Knightmare Chess, but we don’t therefore conclude that the original game is forever spoiled.

So, in an attempt to turn such grumbling into an essay worth reading, let me turn it around: I hereby declare that it is not just desirable but possible to design an expansion set for a good game in such a way that actually improves the game as a whole, rather than simply making it larger. So this fact makes it that much more disappointing when a solid game releases an expansion that adds stuff, but fails to add an equal-or-greater amount of fun. Fair enough?

As it happens, I can find one example of each between two often-compared games of recent vintage. Dominion (Donald X. Vaccarino) and Race for the Galaxy (Tom Lehmann) are both quick-playing card games that have earned tremendous cachet from tabletop gamers in the last two or three years. (The Gameshelf has itself ruminated about both games, via Kevin and Zarf, respectively.) Both proved successful enough to spawn several expansions apiece; Race got its third such set into print earlier this year, and Dominion — despite being a slightly younger game — will see its fourth in stores by the holidays.

Let’s look at Race for the Galaxy’s general expansion philosophy. What comes in each of its little boxes?

First and foremost, new cards, which (after a requisite period of drooling admiration over the new goodies) get shuffled into one’s existing Race card deck, and then stay there forever, permanently expanding the size of your draw pile. Let us set aside the fact that, after two such boosts, a Race deck starts becoming rather unweildy, requiring a multi-stage effort to shuffle, and forming a teetering skyscraper on the table. I’m more interested in the implications of increasing your deck size in a shared-draw game like Race.

Optimal play requires familiarity with all the cards in the deck and the ways they can work together, a feat any attentive player can manage after several plays with the game’s basic set. When you double or triple the size of that deck, though, this becomes much harder, and — at least for players with fallible memory, like me — familiarity transforms into mystery, having a much murkier idea of the all ways the growing stew of cards can interact. No doubt, having to change one’s focus away from strategic foresight and more towards tactical improvisation brings its own flavor of fun. But I do see it as a one-for-one trade-off, permanently sacrificing one style of play for another.

Beyond the cards, each expansion brings a bevy of new rules to the game, and a handful of pretty props to help you track and enact them. The first set is the gentlest, adding only some tokens representing of new ways to score points via the established in-game actions. When it was brand new, and I was still a young and idealistic would-be galactic conqueror, this welcome first expansion felt like a patch. It gave players more things to aim at, but didn’t fundamentally alter play strategies — and those new cards sure did smell good. Mm-mm.

The next two expansions, though, proved much hairier. Between them, Race sees a new, complex game mechanic (Takeovers), an entirely new kind of resource to gain and manage (Prestige), a more complicated way of starting the game (red versus blue Homeworld cards), and rules regarding a “super-action” that each player can fire off once during a game. So it’s not just the card stack that grows; the game’s own rulebook gets fatter as well.

Here the game climbs into one of its own Terraforming Robots and digs straight down, adding depth to the rules via the rather direct method of adding more rules. (And, yes, adding height to the game as well, piling up more and more cards to draw from.) Somewhere within all these new levels, I got lost. I found the game possessing a just-right complexity level when I first learned it, a delightful mental juggling act that felt appropriate to theme of managing an upstart star-spanning empire. Now, even when playing with only some of the new rules in place, all that complexity tips over into becoming a burden. It’s so much to keep in mind, all at once.

But if Race for the Galaxy has used the depth strategy for its expansions, then Dominion has gone for breadth, and I think it works better. The three Dominion expansions published so far introduce only new “kingdom cards”, the short stacks of cards carrying unique play effects, that players vie over to build the best personal decks. The second expansion also introduces a few props and tokens, but they are each tied specifically to the effects of certain cards, rather than adding new rules global to the entire game.

That’s the key difference between Dominion’s expansions and Race’s, actually. Even if you start a game with all four available Dominion boxes as well as the various promo cards primed and ready, the core rules of the game do not change. And one of those rules is: pick ten kingdom cards somehow — randomly is just fine — and lay their stacks out. Leave your umpteen other sets of kingdom cards back in their boxes and think on them no more, because they’re not in this game. Everything relevant to the game now in session is now in the middle of the table, shared among all the players, and face-up. From here on out it’s just a question of competing strategies.

In effect, all the Dominion expansions do is broaden the pool that the game’s (usually random) initial layout comes from, making it more likely that you’ll run into delightfully novel power combinations and force-multipliers among them. The rules overhead, the amount of things you’ve got to keep in mind while you play, doesn’t significantly increase. No matter how many add-ons you pile up, you need concern yourself with only a small slice of your whole card collection in any given game. At worst, you’ll encounter new classes of cards, such as the Seaside expansion’s Duration cards or Alchemy’s Potions. But so far these have felt like natural extensions to the core rules, rather than the bolted-on mechanics of, say, Race’s Takeovers.

Clearly, I find much more satisfaction in Dominion’s approach to widening its gameplay through expansion sets than Race’s efforts to deepen itself. But these sets are so tied to their respective games’ designs that I certainly can’t say that I’d always prefer an expansion set that took the breadth-first route. I just find it interesting that two games with similar appeal took up their shovels at around the same time and dug their expansions along different axes, with the result of a startling magnification of the games’ diverging qualities.

Posted in Essays, Jmac on Games | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Jon Blow talks about the stars in Braid

Jon Blow, author of the hit indie videogame Braid, gave a talk about game design in January 2010. The talk is short, about 20 minutes, but the Q&A that followed was about an hour, and I found it to be even more interesting than the talk. In particular, he answered a question about the stars in Braid, which is a part of the game that he is usually silent about. So I thought it was worth excerpting the question and his answer (about 9 minutes total). But, if you have time to listen to the full talk and Q&A, it's got other interesting stuff too. (He initially blows off the question and takes another question, which I edited out; that question, by the way, was about Wulfram, a team-based first-person tank shooter game with some pretty cool strategic elements that he co-wrote in the mid-90s.)

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Free game | Randomness in games | IF suggestions

Wadjet Eye Games is giving away its game The Shivah (normally $5) in honor of Yom Kippur:

his weekend is the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur! It's a special time of year when Jewish folk reflect on the past year. So, on reflection, we're giving away The Shviah for free.

From now until Tuesday, simply use the coupon code "FreeShivah" when purchasing and you can nab the game absolutely free of charge.

Greg Costikyan posted his talk from Austin GDC about randomness in games. Definitely worth checking out.
Nick Montfort posted his updated list of interactive fiction suggestions, games he suggests for people who have some interest in IF but who haven't played much.

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Game Design Concepts | Free Games

Ian Schreiber posted his last blog entry for the Game Design Concepts course today. My Russia trip followed by actually working derailed my plans to work along with the whole course, but I plan to go back and finish it some time soon. And you can too! He's leaving the course up, and there is a lot of valuable information in the 20 posts. In his last post, he says that he plans to do a class with a similar structure next summer, but this time on game balance.

I just won my second free game from Out of the Box. They have a contest in each monthly newsletter (you can have it emailed to you or you can grab it from their website), where you usually have to solve some kind of puzzle associated with a game. They have 25 winners each month, either the 25 best answers or randomly selected from all the correct answers. I won a copy of Letter Roll a few months ago, and I was just informed that I won a copy of Super Circle Stacking. I'm not sure how fun either game is yet, but, hey, free games!

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Game Design Concepts: Level 2

I'm not necessarily planning on doing a post for every lesson (twice a week for ten weeks), but I thought I'd post today since I made two games.

Today's lesson talked about what game design is, the iterative process, and the benefits of paper prototyping. The readings were the second chapter in Ian and Brenda's book and an article by Doug Church.

At the end of Chapter 2 of the book are five challenges. The first challenge is basically the same as the challenge from Monday, so I decided not to repeat that. Challenge 2 is to make a territorial acquisition game, and Challenge 3 is to make an exploration game. I did both of those, and I'll present them next. Challenge 4 is to make a game with the mechanic of picking up things by passing over them, like you would in many video games. I have the germ of an idea, but I want to think about it a bit more, since this is a bit tougher than the previous challenges. Challenge 5 is an "Iron Designer Challenge", similar to Iron Chef, where two teams are supposed to work on the same design. I may or may not get to this, as it is fairly specific (make a game about a Civil War battle without using territorial acquisition or destruction of the enemy as the primary mechanic), and I think this kind of specificity would make the resulting game interesting only if there were others to compare it to. Of course, there are 1400 people taking this course, so I may end up doing it.

Now, on to the games I made today. I welcome any feedback on the games.

The first game is a territorial acquisition game. I couldn't come up with a good name, so I'm just calling it Outgrow.

(Pictured above: The endgame of Outgrow. The four players were blue/purple, green/yellow, red/orange, and white/clear.)

Game: Outgrow

Players: Two to four

Theme: Each player represents a fungal colony, trying to outgrow the other colonies in the limited space available.

Materials: chess board, two Icehouse stashes for each player (10 each of small, medium, and large pieces)

Setup: Each player places a medium piece from his stash in a corner of the chess board. Randomly determine the first player.

Gameplay: A player may make one action per turn. There are four allowable actions:

  1. Grow a small piece into a medium piece.
  2. Grow a medium piece into a large piece.
  3. Make a medium piece spawn. Place two small pieces orthogonally adjacent to the medium piece, then replace the medium piece with a small piece (if you run out of small pieces, use a medium on its side to represent a small).
  4. Shoot off a spore from a large piece. Place a small piece up to three spaces away from the large piece in a straight line, either orthogonally or diagonally, then replace the large piece with a medium piece.
The one constraint is that you may not occupy a space that is already occupied.

Game end and winning: The game ends when there are no more empty spaces on the chess board. The winner is the player occupying the most squares. If there is a tie, then the winner is the tied player who has the larger pip count (small = 1, medium = 2, large = 3). If there is still a tie, then the winner is the tied player who had the fewest number of turns.

Analysis:I played one test game with four sides, and the final scores ended at 17, 17, 16, and 14, with one of the 17s having a medium while the other one had all smalls. Interestingly, the tied players started out by spawning their medium, and the other players started out by growing the medium to a large.

The next game is an exploration game. I've been interested in games that use a tarot deck where each major arcana has a different special ability (and this is now the second time that I'm mentioning that I intend to post about that here at some point, and maybe this will actually inspire me to do so), so I decided to make this game with a tarot deck. I didn't manage to get a special ability for each major arcana, but I think I got a decent selection of abilities. I may come back to this game idea and flesh out more powers (feel free to suggest some!).

Game: Tarot Dungeon (I couldn't come up with a decent name for this game, either)

Players: Two to four

Theme: Each player is a representative of one of four major powers who are working together to explore a dungeon and loot its treasure. Of course, each player has received secret instructions to get out first and seal the rest of the players inside.

Materials: tarot deck (can use a regular deck plus counters in seven different colors)

Setup: Separate the tarot deck into the major arcana and the minor arcana. Shuffle them separately. Put the minor deck in the middle of the table and set the major deck off to the side. Each player should choose a different suit (cups, disks, wands, swords, or whatever your deck uses). Randomly determine the starting player.

Gameplay: There are two phases to the game, going into the dungeon and leaving the dungeon. In the first phase, the starting player flips over the top card of the minor deck. If it matches his suit, he sets it in front of him and draws the top card from the major deck (he's found a treasure!); otherwise, he puts the card in the discard pile. Play continues clockwise until the minor deck is exhausted. (In the unlikely event that the major deck is exhausted, then play continues as normal, but new treasures are not drawn.)

This is the end of the first phase. All of the treasure has been found, and so players must race to the exit.

The first player of the second phase is the player with the least number of treasures. If there is the tie, then the first player is the tied player who went closest to last in the first phase. Reshuffle the minor discards (but not the ones that the players have kept) to form a new minor draw deck. The first player flips over the top card of the minor deck. If it matches his suit, he keeps it (separate from the cards drawn in the first phase); otherwise, he discards it. Play continues clockwise.

Game end and winning: The game ends when one player has collected five cards in the second phase. That player is the first to escape the dungeon, and he triggers a collapse, sealing the other players in the dungeon.

Treasures: Each treasure has a special ability. On a player's turn after he has flipped over a card (or sometimes before; see the list of abilities), that player may discard a single treasure card in order to activate its special ability. Once the active player has played a treasure card or passed on the opportunity to do so, each player in turn order has the option of playing a treasure card or passing. This continues until every player has passed in turn (i.e., there have been four passes in a row). A player may play more than one treasure card (assuming he plays one, then someone else plays one), and a player may pass but play a treasure card later in the round (assuming someone else plays a treasure card).

There are seven abilities, as follows:

  • Flip 2 - The player flips two cards instead of one. This is played before flipping. (Assign to major arcana 0-3.)
  • Denial - This is played when the active player flips a card that matches the active player's suit. That card is discarded. (Assign to major arcana 4-6.)
  • Leavings - This is played when the active player flips a card that matches your suit. You get that card. (Assign to major arcana 7-9.)
  • Counter - Nullifies the effect of the last-played treasure card. Note that a counter can be countered, which would let the original treasure card stand. Also note that Flip 2 can be countered (you go around playing or passing after a Flip 2 just as you would after a card is flipped). (Assign to major arcana 10-12.)
  • Double - If the card flipped is the same suit as the last card flipped, take the card that was just flipped. (Assign to major arcana 13-15.)
  • Weak Force - Take a card that you just flipped, even if it does not match your suit. (Assign to major arcana 16-18.)
  • Strong Force - Instead of flipping a card, simply take the top card. This may not be countered (but you might end up taking a card of your suit, thus wasting this treasure). (Assign to major arcana 19-21.)

Analysis: The idea is that the player with the most treasures will be bogged down the most, so they will be slower in getting out. For the second phase, in the minor deck, there will be the most cards matching the suit of the player with the fewest treasures. So theoretically, that player's lack of power will be balanced by their being more likely to flip a card that matches their suit. In the two test games that I played with four sides, one game was won by the player with the most treasures, and one game was won by the player with the fewest treasures. It's unclear whether the players in the middle are at a disadvantage.

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Game Design Concepts: Level 1

Ian Schreiber has started his free online game design course. The first post discussed what a game is, then he asked people to actually make a game (using Brenda Brathwaite's "The Easiest Game Design Exercise Ever (Really)"). When I read Brenda's post, I didn't end up making a game, but signing up for this class made me actually make a game. It took about 15 minutes (which included doing a little Wikipedia research). It's not a good game, but it's a game. The point of the exercise is simply to get people over the hump of actually making their first game. The homework (or "homeplay" as Ian calls it) is to read the first chapter of his and Brenda's book, read Greg Costikyan's I Have No Words & I Must Design, and play the series Understanding Games, which was all interesting reading/playing.

And now I will share my little game with you. We were just supposed to draw a path and make a simple race-to-the-end game. I decided on a jagged path, which made me decide to do a game about lightning. I did a bit of Wikipedia research, but I mostly didn't use it (although I might in a future game). Here is a poor picture of the game, which I drew with pencil in a notebook:

Here's the text, which is probably too hard to read at this size:


Each player is a negative charge, starting in the cloud.

Each turn, roll two six-sided dice. Pick one of the dice and move that many spaces.

If you land on a lightning bolt, send an opponent back three spaces. Being sent back to a lightning bolt does not trigger it.

The first player to the last space hits the church steeple and wins.

The two-player version is very heavily slanted towards the first player, but the four-player version seems to be a little more balanced. Like I said above, it's not a good game, but it's a game. I'm definitely looking forward to keeping up with this class.

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Free Online Game Design Course

Ian Schreiber is doing a free online game design course this summer. It's open to everyone, and you can either just follow along on the blog or actually sign up and get some additional material by email. He doesn't specifically mention the title in his post, but I'm sure the book he's using is the one he wrote recently with Brenda Brathwaite, Challenges for Game Designers: Non-Digital Exercises for Video Game Designers.

So, if you've played many games and want to get an idea of what goes into designing them, check out the blog or sign up for the course.

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Designing a casual MMO based on Zork

This week's topic of "hey, look at that" among IF fans is Legends of Zork -- a browser-based "casual MMO" being developed by Jolt. (Licensed from Activision, of course. For those of you who missed the 90s, Activision owns all the old Infocom titles; it was Activision who published the three Zork graphical adventures after Infocom dissolved.)

The Great Underground Empire has recently fallen and the land is in disarray. The Royal Treasury has been sacked. The stock market has collapsed, leading even mighty FrobozzCo International to fire employees from throughout its subsidiaries. A craze of treasure-hunting has swept through the remnants of the Great Underground Empire. The New Zork Times reports that trolls, kobolds and other dangerous creatures are venturing far from their lairs. Adventurers and monsters are increasingly coming into conflict over areas rich with loot. It's a dangerous time to be a newly-unemployed traveling salesman, but it's also a great time to try a bit of adventuring.

(-- from Jolt's press release.)

A lot of people -- both active IF fans and long-ago IF fans who remember Zork fondly -- immediately started talking about this LoZ thing as "multiplayer IF", as a game that would be "like Zork" in some sense.

Yeah, no. Let's look at the first post on the official LoZ blog:

Gain experience and wealth as you battle creatures, dodge traps and solve puzzles. The game is designed to be played at your own pace, so you can log in and do some exploring whenever you feel like it. Achieve fame by challenging other players in the arena or form a group to take on some of the more difficult quests.

The card game Double Fanucci also makes an appearance, in the form of a full deck of 174 Fanucci cards that you can collect and use to improve your skills. [...]

(-- from the Legends of Zork blog.)

Experience points, money, combat, skills, buffs. This is an online CRPG. That's what they're announcing, that's what it is. I immediately said "Oh, Kingdom of Loathing with Zork monsters," and I wasn't the first one to say it, either.

So that's fine; I played a lot of KoL for a year or two. The question which I wish to tromp on today is, what kind of CRPG should a Zork CRPG be?

I am, of course, being arrogant and probably irrelevant here. LoZ is in beta-testing now; Jolt has done their design work. It's too late for me to be making suggestions, even if they had a mind to pay attention to suggestions from random IF amateurs out on the Web.

But it's such a cool question.

The default CRPG used to be rat-clubbing for gold pieces; you could be a fighter, a cleric, a mage, or a thief. That's what "CRPG" meant. D&D did it, so Ultima did it and Wizardry did it. Then there were variations (you need bards for the Bard's Tale) but that was the setup.

(Kids these days will tell you that the classes are tank, damage-dealer, buffer, healer, and controller... or something like that... I'm not a kid these days, so I'll leave it to them to explain.)

It's hard to argue that the Zork tradition is unrelated to the fighter-cleric-mage-thief quadrangle. I wrote a whole post about Gary Gygax and his fundamental interconnectedness to all things, including Colossal Cave and Zork.

But D&D style combat has never meshed well with IF. Zork 1 starts off with a swordfight, straight-up dice rolling and hit points -- and then that mechanic essentially vanishes from the Infocom tradition for seven years. The other combat in Zork 1 is so heavily plot-biased that it's essentially a deterministic puzzle: nearly impossible if you plunge straight into it, but easily winnable at the right place and time.

And that's how Infocom set up their subsequent games -- up until Beyond Zork, which had several interludes of typical RPG combat. I, like nearly everybody, "solved" those scenes by saving and restoring the game. It wasn't fun, it wasn't immersive, and it didn't fit in with the rest of the game. I don't think I'm far off the concensus if I say that those elements of BZ were a failed experiment.

So am I saying that a Zork CRPG should eschew combat entirely? Heck no. There are plenty of battles in Infocom games. You defeat enemies. But they're not D&D, CRPG, wear-down-stat-X-using-stat-Y battles. (I have another whole design screed about a combatless RPG, but I feel like I should implement it rather than blogging about it... maybe next year.)

But yet, we're talking about a CRPG here! I'd love to go off and say "Jolt should have implemented true multiplayer narrative IF," but they didn't -- as far as they've announced.

Let's stipulate that the design problem is "a CRPG with the flavor of Zork". We will have stats, treasure, and skills. The game will be about burning time on repetitive actions that crank up some numbers until you can succeed at tougher actions.

But -- it doesn't have to be arranged the same way as Ultima 1 and Wizardry. I want to see how far I can break down the traditional concepts.

Treasure. When you win fights, you get treasure. Treasure buys stuff. Okay, that's good. But what is treasure? Nearly all games have currency -- a simple scalar of how rich you are. D&D had gold pieces (and a table of other coins, roundly ignored). CRPGs followed suit, although some call them "credits" or "meat".

Zork doesn't have money. Treasure, yes. Coins, sure. Barter, sometimes. Money, no. You collect and use items, distinct and distinctive. (Even the stack of zorkmid bills is a unique item -- you never cash it in for face value.)

What if we built our hypothetical Zork game (let me stress that I'm not talking about Legends of Zork here, I'm making stuff up) on a "monetary" basis of unique treasures? We could randomly generate their names and descriptions -- that's not hard. Succeed in a quest, find an antique Dwarvish black opal. Do it again, discover a handful of silver-inlaid knucklebones. Or a rare blue faience brooch. These don't auto-convert into gold; they retain their identity.

The point is to trade these in for useful tools and items -- I'm not throwing that idea away. So there will still be an underlying monetary value. Maybe it'll say "...rank-3 treasure" on the back of the brooch. But you would still have the experience of finding something, something new and interesting. (Even if it's really generated from a template algorithm.) The game designers could throw new adjectives and templates into the database occasionally. Find a treasure that takes your fancy? Don't sell it -- put it in your trophy case to display!

And you can open a market for players to swap for treasures they want.

There are design consequences, of course. You can't pile up treasures as a reward, the way you can with gold pieces. Eighty treasures are not eighty times as cool as one; they blur together and spoil the point. So rewards become much more granular -- you might get one or two per hour. That affects the rhythm of buying (or bartering) tools for further play. That affects the way you design those tools, and the challenges that the tools resolve.

Doesn't this start to sound more interesting than yet another Wizardry knockoff?

Algorithmically generating instances of things is a good trick. Let's run with it. How about locations? Kingdom of Loathing has lots of locations, but you visit each one over and over again, and the descriptions never change. (Well, rarely.) Let's set up our game so that you enter the forest, and find a unique, freshly-generated forest clearing.

(Again, the template and random-table work for this is pretty easy. You aren't trying to fool the player into thinking that there's a human being writing this stuff. It just has to read well. As long as the game doesn't lead you past a hundred of them in quick succession, players will buy into the descriptions. My own experiments with this tool are in Hunter in Darkness, and the cave section of my web site.)

If you explore out from the clearing, you find more forest locations. New room names, new descriptions. These are just "instances", in the usual MMO sense -- but you're going to visit them frequently, first to "solve" a location, and then passing through to more distant ones. You'll remember the descriptions; they'll feel like a real environment. And if you can invite other players into your instances, they'll find your part of the forest to be different from theirs.

(Maybe draw all this out on the traditional IF box-and-line grid... Oh, I'm not against graphics here. But if you have a generic forest illustration that appears above varying textual descriptions, I guarantee that the players will read and be interested in the text.) (If you can procedurally generate interesting forest illustrations too, you're really in clover...)

I did promise to get back around to combat. The burning-stats-against-enemy-stats model is a rich and well-explored mechanic, and I'm not going to try to discard it. (Today...) But who says that a "combat" must be a blow-by-blow struggle against a monster?

The fundamental act of Zork is exploration. What if the basic quest of our Zork CRPG was exploring a dungeon? (Or forest copse, or temple...) An "attack" would be the entire act of entering a room and facing its challenge -- by stealth, or trickery, or courage, or willpower. You'd still find monsters in the dungeon -- but the rhythm of the game would not be fighting blow-by-blow-by-blow, but rather exploring trap-by-monster-by-maze.

Of course you'd have to have a rich set of "combat" (exploration) mechanics. You'd have options on each move; you'd have tools and resources to use up. Ink and map parchment? Bread crumbs? Arrows? (I smell a Wumpus...) Maybe willpower and courage and steath and cunning are your solvent stats, expended against the dungeon -- just as the traditional CRPG hero expends his hit points frugally, trying to reach the orc's last hit point before the orc reaches his. Reach the end of the dungeon, and you find a treasure.

Ooh, treasures! They come in lots of varieties, right? (Since we're randomly generating them.) So they can have properties. There's the depth we want for the exploration "combat". Treasures can bribe monsters, treasures can jam traps, treasures can be left behind to mark your path through a maze. (Very Zork, that idea.) I know, I said treasures would be rare -- but you're bartering some of them for tools, and tools can be randomly generated too. Ropes, spikes, torches. Oil and batteries, food and water, all usable as "hit points" against the dungeon.

Clues! Use up clues to solve puzzles. I'm not talking about actual IF-style puzzles. Tell the player "There is a mysterious altar here, covered with Gnomic runes." To pass, he has to expend some of the Gnomic lore or rune lore in his inventory. Instead of healing potions, you find more lore. Instead of strength potions, you find a book of Gnomish history, which enables you to understand all Gnomish puzzles better...

You see where I'm going? Starting to go? Sketching a path in the direction of going? It isn't Zork-the-text-adventure -- as stipulated. But it tells the same kind of story.


I see I completely forgot to talk about character classes, you know, the fighter and the mage...

Well, I don't know if I want them, in the traditional sense. The adventure-game experience rather assumes that you, the adventurer, go everywhere and do everything. You cast the spells and defeat the monsters and solve the puzzles. Then you go back and find all the alternate solutions too.

But there are different approaches, and maybe specialization is okay. (Sneaking, courage, etc, etc.) Or maybe those specialties should be per adventure? That might be fun. Gear up as a thief and go after that dungeon -- but if you're defeated by a surfeit of mazes, you'd try again from the riddle-master's point of view. Or the warrior hero, for monsters. "Healer" is not a concept that makes sense, given the model, but there just might be room for the dungeon master to make a few key changes for his own benefit...

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From the old to the new

Another in our series of game design documents. Jeff Howard, author of Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives (standard disclaimer: this book was published by the company I work for, and I acquired it, but I have no direct financial stake in the book), recently started blogging on the topics associated with his book. He just posted a game design document for a game that he's going to start building, called Arcana Manor, a "3D, first-person action-adventure/platforming game about leaping, swinging, and crawling through a surreal funhouse while battling demons." You can also check out his post where he talks about his initial idea for the game, and I find it interesting to see the modifications and refinements that take place just in the two weeks between the posts. I'm particularly interested in the fact that he's going to use tarot symbolism, with the possibility of wandering through rooms based on the major arcana. (I've had this minor fascination with card games that use a tarot deck where each major arcana has a different ability, and I've been meaning to post here about that.)

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