Results tagged “design”

Making navigation work

I've been playing a bunch of mobile games this spring (for no reason except that I played a lot of PC games over the winter) and I keep thinking about navigation.

Here's a navigation scheme which is common in casual first-person adventures: you always face forward. In every room, there's some number of exits, plus one invisible exit behind you. So you can go forward in various directions (unless you're at a dead end), and you can go back (unless you're at the start). If you bang the "back" button enough times you'll always return to the start room.

I don't know if this scheme has a common name; I'll call it forward-and-back. Examples that I've played recently: The Frostrune, Agent A, Facility 47.

(I'm distinguishing forward-and-back from the common scheme of third-person adventures, where the room contains several exits but they're all visible and the character avatar walks from one to another. That's different; it has no sense of "forward" or "back", although it may have a sense of "left and right".)

Various world models in IF

Another question from the tweetzone: "What are the significant differences for object/rooms + hypertext/choice vs parser + web?"

Here's (more of) that strand(s) of conversation:

I want tools to create a hypertext based game that still has a room and object model for the engine. Any suggestions? (@KalevTait)

I've done it (in Glulx) but the game design space is poorly understood. (As compared to parser+object model.) (@zarfeblong)

this just means it needs more research (@emshort)

What are the significant differences for object/rooms + hypertext/choice vs parser + web? Maybe I’ve misunderstood. (@jurieongames)

Emily's further responses:

parser + web = you still type. world model + choice = you're selecting what to do from options based on model (@emshort)

Oh, and I guess choice-based games tend to come from a CYOA, paragraph-based design approach? (@jurieongames)

often. even if they don't, enumerating all the options that would exist with a parser gives you a too-long list (@emshort)

so you need then to build a hierarchical interface or else have a smaller tighter verb set, for instance (@emshort)

I agree with Emily here (as usual), but I want to back up and talk about ways I've approach IF design.

Designing alchemy in a puzzle game

A question about Hadean Lands from the tweet gallery: "Have you written anything about how you approached designing the alchemical system?"

Excellent question! The answer is "No, but I should, shouldn't I," yes okay. (Thanks @logodaedalus.)

My twitter-sized reply was "Sound cool while supporting the puzzles," but I can say more than that.

(Note: I will start this post by talking about HL in generalities. Later on I'll get into more spoilery detail about the game structure. It won't come down to specific puzzle solutions, but I'll put in a spoiler warning anyway.)

I spent the weekend at a delightful little game-dev conference at NYU. Much cool stuff happened there. However, I want to focus on Saturday morning.

Saturday's first talk was by Warren Spector, who has recently switched from developing games (Deus Ex, etc) to teaching the subject at UTexas. His thesis was simple: emergent gameplay, emergent gameplay, emergent gameplay are you listening people.

Here's a writeup of Spector's talk, thanks to Leigh Alexander and Gamasutra.

(Footnote: the quality of emergent gameplay should be referred to as "emergency". As in, "Yeah, that game had a lot of emergency." Hat tip to Vernor Vinge for pointing this out.)

Spector tried not to say "Everything else sucks." He stated right off that he was oversimplifying, and that he's just presenting the kind of games that interest him. But it was hard to avoid the subtext that any scripted, linear, or single-solution interaction was inferior -- bad game design. Inherently. That if players tried the emergent (simulative, rules-based) gameplay they'd be happier and never go back.

Tomorrow will be the oneth anniversary of the Hadean Lands Kickstarter project. One year of this new lifestyle.

(Technically it's eleven months of this lifestyle, because I quit for Christmas. Also eleven months since I took possession of the donated money, due to processing delays and business schedules and thinking about taxes and all the other absurd things attendant on self-employment. I could also mark it as thirteen months and five days since I decided for sure to quit my industry job; thirteen months and four days since I reached my Kickstarter funding goal. But enough with the dreamy reminesce.)

Halloween and progress report

A week ago I tweeted: "With Meanwhile stable, my Next Damn Project Slot is open as of Monday. And that means Hadean Lands (aka the Previous Damn Project)."

Perhaps you read that with a detached, urbanely ironic skepticism. Or not. Maybe Twitter can't tolerate that much irony. Who knows. Anyhow, last Monday, I opened up my HL design notes file. I brushed the dust and dinosaur vertebrae off it and read through. Here's what I quickly realized:

The question "Are games art?" is thoroughly boring, because the answer is obvious. It's obvious to me; it's obvious to you. I don't know if our obvious answers are the same, but whatever -- either way there's nothing to discuss.

This doesn't mean I'm tired of discussing why videogames are or aren't art. A couple of days ago Tablesaw posted a quick manifesto-ation, which I thought was terrific:

The player of a game is not the audience of a game, just as an actor is not the audience of a playscript, and a musician is not the audience of a score.

Games lack an audience not in the traditionally understood manner (nobody is desires to or is able to observe the art), but in a profound and fundamental way, in that they cannot be understood except through entering collaboration.

(--from Shorter Games and Art, April 5)

Of course it's easy to pick at rough edges here (this is the Internet!) -- a game of Rock Band can have an audience. Adventure games (text and graphical) play very well in groups, with one player "driving" and the rest involved at a lower level, if at all. But these cases only make the question more interesting.

Life Flashes By

I played Life Flashes By last year, when the first public release appeared. The author had previously demoed the game at the IF gathering at PAX Prime in Seattle, so I'd already seen a "middle" chapter of the work.

I didn't write anything at the time, because I am lazy and then because Emily Short wrote a column that was more perceptive than what I was thinking. However, now it's been another few months; Life Flashes By has circulated around the various gaming communities and been discussed some; it's been featured in the recent IF Demo Fair; and Deirdra Kiai is declaring a full, final, let's get this thing on the road release. (Available as free download or collector's edition.)

"So now what do you think, smart guy?" Hm.

The IF Theory Reader

A project born in the shadowy depths of IF history has suddenly breached and flipped its tail gaily in the sunlight.

The IF Theory Reader was conceived back in 2001, by Emily Short and Dennis Jerz. They collected a stack of essays from various people active in IF at the time. But the project fell victim to life-scheduling issues, and it sat on the shelf for (if you can imagine such a span of time) ten whole years.

This past fall, Kevin Jackson-Mead volunteered to take over the project, and Things Began Happening. He dusted off the old essays and began contacting the authors. And now -- to cut a great deal of editing work short -- the IF Theory Reader is available as a free PDF download. (Or, if you are attached to the smell of paper, you can buy a POD volume from lulu.)

So is it worth reading dusty IF history? Well, I haven't read it yet. But I can say that the book really represents a tour through the past ten years of the IF community's thinking. Some of the essays are from 2001; some have been revised for this edition; some are brand-new. Many have been published in other forms, so if you've been devouring our blog posts and essays for the past few years, you will see few surprises. But if your awareness of IF dates from the last century -- or if you've been following us only casually -- I think this book has something to offer.

For the table of contents, read on.

Desktop Dungeons and tiny UI hangnails

I was bored Saturday night (yes, I'm allowed to be bored) and asked around for game suggestions. Someone mentioned that Desktop Dungeons was out for Mac. I had only the vaguest memory of having heard of Desktop Dungeons, but I gave it a shot.

Desktop Dungeons -- screenshot

The dungeon is a little larger in real life, but I've clipped the shot rather than shrinking it.

Turns out it's a microroguelike. Meaning, it's Nethack, only short. That's nifty. The designers say it's aimed at ten-minute game sessions. It takes me twenty or thirty, because of their other nifty idea: the combat is (almost) completely deterministic. You strike for a fixed amount of damage, the enemy strikes for a fixed amount of damage. You can see all the stats in advance, so you know whether you're going to win. Also, the monsters are static -- they sit still and wait for you to pick fights.

Puzzle structure in 2015

I recently read Tony Bourdain's Medium Raw, which was a fascinating look into the world of people who are really, really interested in food. I like food. These people think about food more than I do. So much so that I can barely understand their explanations.

At my first meal at Momofuku Ssäm, one particular dish slapped me upside the head [...] It was a riff on a classic French salad of frisée aux lardons: a respectful version of the bistro staple -- smallish, garnished with puffy fried chicharrones of pork skin instead of the usual bacon, and topped with a wonderfully runny, perfectly poached quail egg. Good enough [...] But the salad sat on top of a wildly incongruous stew of spicy, Korean-style tripe -- and it was, well, it was... genius. Here, on the one hand, was everything I usually hate about modern cooking -- and in one bowl, no less. It was "fusion" -- in the sense that it combined a perfectly good European classic with Asian ingredients and preparation. It was post-modern and contained my least favorite ingredient these days: irony. [...] But this was truly audacious. It was fucking delicious. And it had tripe in it.

(--from Medium Raw, Anthony Bourdain, chapter 17)

Mind you, the whole book isn't like that. Bourdain talks about everything from hamburgers, to fatherhood, to foie gras, to the Food Network, to the stupid things he wrote in his first book. But that paragraph in particular grabbed me because I have no idea what he's talking about. I can look up the recipe (frisée lettuce with hot pork, vinaigrette); maybe I've even eaten it somewhere. I've eaten spicy Korean stews. But why is this ironic? Or audacious? What is it reacting against? What are the things it is reacting against reacting against? If I'd been sitting next to Bourdain, eating off his plate, I still wouldn't have a clue.

I recalled this paragraph on Sunday afternoon, sitting in an MIT auditorium, listening to the designers of the 2011 Mystery Hunt talk about their puzzle structures. I knew exactly what they were talking about. I'd just lived through it (or half of it, anyway, since I got two good nights' sleep during the Hunt.) Everybody in the room was smiling and nodding along to the speaker's presentation, and laughing at the jokes on the slides. This was our field. This was our side of the wall. Tony Bourdain would have been completely befuddled, see?

First-person graphical adventures -- Myst -- have become hugely successful in the past several years. Yes, even as Cyan Worlds and Presto Studios and such dinosaurs have withered in the frost. What are popular today are the tiny, casual, unbeautiful and narratively-barren games we call "room escapes". They're written in Flash, and they pour by the dozens out of our web browsers.

Viridian Room screenshot

(Of course, some are huge, some are hardcore, some are lovely, and some are rich story-worlds -- I don't have to link examples, do I? That's not the point. The escape genre has conventions, and they're not trying to live up to what we thought all graphical adventures would be like from 1994 onward.)

When I got my iPhone, I thought "Room escape games! Perfect! Little puzzle environments to explore while riding the subway to work." (This was when I rode the subway to work.) I looked through the nascent App Store, and found... a couple. There was no easy porting path for existing games, due to the whole Flash situation, and only a couple of developers were writing for iPhone directly.

More room escapes have appeared in the past two years, but it's still not a big corner of the App Store. More important: none of the games, as far as I've researched, have really thought about the iPhone (touchscreen) interface, and what it means for first-person graphical adventures.

What IF is harder and easier than

Aaron Reed's recent book Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7 opens with this quote:

All around him, the Machines' fleet and orbital stations are blasting away at his tree ships, burning the mighty trunks like firewood.
(-- from The Duel That Spanned the Ages by Oliver Ullmann)

Aaron goes on to describe the development work that this scene would require in a triple-A, commercial, graphical game. Concept artists, modellers, texture artists, animators, sound designers, probably a musician, and programmers to pull it all together. You know the drill.

"As IF, all the author had to do was write those twenty-two words," Aaron notes.

Anna Anthropy on good level design

Love this lecture from Anna Anthropy on good platformer level design, using a thin but rich slice of "Super Mario Land" (Satoru Okada, Game Boy, 1989) as an anatomical model.

Homebrew tabletop mashups

I have many clever and creative friends who like games. One or another of them will regularly host game-playing gatherings at their homes, where we sink a few hours or more into various tabletop contests. But sometimes, some of these clever and creative people will find themselves a little tired of the well-worn titles, and that's when the combinatory experimentation starts.

quiddler_texas_holdem.jpgI took this photo last weekend, during one such event. The card-based word game Quiddler (published by Set Enterprises) is an old favorite of many-perhaps-most of my gamer friends. My pal Marc, one of the weekend-long game-gathering's hosts, led a groggy Sunday-morning group in inventing the mashup of Quiddler and Texas Hold Em depicted here. Players each held two of Quiddler's letter-cards, and as community cards appeared according to the standard flop-turn-river pattern, players bet on wether they held the highest-scoring Quiddler hand. This photo shows the final round's winning hand in the lower left; it allowed Marc to spell ZITHERS.


One especially memorable mashup I enjoyed several years ago, via the same group of friends, was "Apples to Ideas", a collision of the increasingly well-known party game Apples to Apples (Out of the Box Publishing) with the rather more obscure party game The Big Idea (Cheapass Games). It essentially involved pitching pairs of the green and red apple cards instead of using the standard Big Idea cards, and otherwise playing according to the The Big Idea's rules, which involves rapid-fire pitching of cockamamie startup-company ideas based on the cards you play. We found that this not only led to a much larger pool of cards, but players had to get more creative coming up with (at least vaguely) legitimate-sounding business models based on cards not tuned for this purpose. During this one game, I scored big by playing the card pair [Industrious] [Industrial Revolution], selling it with the slogan The socioeconomic paradigm shift so nice, we named it twice!™

Have you seen, pondered, or even invented and playtested any game-mashup ideas, yourself?

Games that don't exist

Greetings, devoted bloggees. I am Andrew Plotkin -- or, as some of you know me, the Internet's Zarf. You have no doubt seen me on the Gameshelf, abetting werewolves and villagers in their mutual slaughter. I also write text adventures, review games, and generally mess around with the notion of gaming. And I am delighted to join the Gameshelf Blog.

For my first post, two variations on the theme of "games that don't exist"...


Invisible Games is an occasionally-updated collection of... of... you know Italo Calvino? He wrote Invisible Cities, a collection of brief and wonderful accounts of cities. Magical, impossible cities -- cities that do not exist, but ought to.

Fantasy author Catherynne Valente has created a few such cities herself. Thus her Invisible Games: the games that might have been. A story here, a photograph there -- redacted, uncontexted, obscurely indexed.

In 1971 a small advertisement appeared in the back pages of Scientific American. It read, simply:

Never Be Alone Again.

It has been estimated that some thirty-five people responded to the ad, and another seventeen the following year. However, it cannot be ascertained at this point whether these fifty-two participants comprised the entirety of mail-in replies or merely selected out of a larger pool. In either case, each of the fifty-two respondents received a package approximately six weeks after enclosing twelve dollars in an envelope and sending it to a P.O Box in St. Paul Minnesota. The package contained a simple lightboard, various cables, a 103A modem, and a black button that depressed with a satisfying click.

(From The Loneliness Engine.)


Caverns, in contrast, is the story of a game that was never invented. As a child, David Whiteland played a game of dungeon exploration, assembled out of hand-drawn bits of cardboard.

Although I was told at the time that what I was seeing was a copy of a real, commercially-available game, it was over a quarter of a century later that I finally saw the original on which it had been based. By which time I had played it for years, grown up, and made several versions for friends' children.

The "original" that Whiteland eventually discovered was The Sorcerer's Cave, by Peter Donnelly. But Caverns is not The Sorcerer's Cave. Donnelly's game was a solitaire adventure; Caverns has players competing to finish quests (a mechanic taken from a different Donnelly game). More interestingly, Caverns gives an eliminated player the option to keep his hand in, by controlling monsters for the rest of the game. And Whiteland describes the fine game-balance that he remembers from his childhood Caverns set.

Where did these differences come from? New rules are big changes. Game balance comes from months of variation and testing. Someone invented each element of Caverns -- presumably a child, playing the eternal metagame of "Let's try it this way!" But this was no game-design studio; it was a kid's basement. Quite possibly the players didn't think of their work as game design, or testing. They were playing their favorite game. And what came out the other end was a coherent game, recalled by an adult who went on to make sets for more kids.

Whiteland does not include the rules of Caverns on his site. He merely describes them. If you play the game, you will invent it too.

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