Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Stoke of Genius

Another idea I'm haunted by is the stroke of genius, the feeling that there is a wholly unique approach to games that is waiting out there to be happened upon, some utterly elegant, appealing idea, that is just out of reach. I get so excited about looking for it sometimes, but so far I've come up empty.

On a few occaisions, I've had the experience where I'm sleeping, and in my dreams something really good will happen, maybe I'll come into some great sum of money. And while I'm still dreaming, it occurs to me in this vague way that I can't "keep" the money, that its not real. I'm filled this vague, deep sense of loss that I suspect can only be felt by the sleeping mind, my dream's existential crisis, I suppose. And after that flash of recognition, fevered dream logic frantically bargains with reality, thinking there must be some way, and then the whole thing folds in on itself and I wake up, always a tiny bit disappointed that my boon didn't find its way through with me. Its sort of like that when I think way outside convention, looking for that overlooked gem of an idea: this excitement, and then sense of something slipping through my fingers.

I have a game that I respect a lot, and its not really one you'd necessarily expect. Apples to Apples is not a perfect game, and its something of a crutch when the group gets big, and we've played it to death, and the gameplay is shallow in various ways and so on. But it is such a simple idea, it is so utterly clean, and it has no precedent that I'm aware of in games. Its such a pure example of emergent gameplay, where the actual mechanics are absolutely tiny, but the discussions and repercussions of each choice are where the fun lives.

On some level, maybe I get frustrated trying to carve out a game the right way, which is really difficult, and I just hope for that flash of inspiration to free me from my "lack of having even a single game design I'm really happy with under my belt". Its like summing the numbers from one to one-thousand by hand, knowing in the back of your mind that there must be a formula that will let you find the answer in 15 seconds.

And I don't even want commercial success, just something satisfying. I think maybe the answer at the tip of my brain still has something to do with drawing, or maybe it was physical-levels, or maybe... but its always too quick to grab, too smooth to hold, as Kevin Drew says, tbtf, and so on until morning.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Theme and Mechanic Traps vs. Tension-Resolution

This idea is something that I have had percolating for some time now. I don't know if I can quite bang the whole thing out, but I wanted to get the essence down.

My early game designs fell into two approaches, both "traps", in the sense of leading me down wrong paths and ending up at games that weren't going to work.

The Theme Trap
The theme trap is where you think of an awesome scenario, and want to make a board game that creates the awesomeness of that scenario. For example, my early versions of my Monster-in-the-city games were born from this. I liked the idea of monsters wrecking a city; you could wreck buildings! Stomp tanks! So I started from that point, and let some major, important decisions be made in that spirit.

I.e.: Each player has a monster. But who controlls the city? Well, each player also has a set of army units! What are some appropriate army units, how about infantry, tanks and planes? How should those move? Well, infantry should be slow, planes should be able to move really far in a long line. And monsters should be able to have fire breath and eye beams and...

It sounds really childish, and I am giving myself a hard time a bit, but its really easy to fall into this trap. Some games can pull it off, but they usually do so with an (unpredictable) one-effect-per-card deck, give the cards to the players, and let the whole thing fall out as it may. It sort of can work, but the gameplay is usually pretty unsatisfying.

The Mechanic Trap
This is where you come up with a clever mechanic or interaction, and try to build a game around it. You would think the outcome is a successful game with no theme, but that's not quite it in my experience. For me, it doesn't even turn into a workable game.

A lot of my designs have fallen into this trap. And I think the problem is, I see an interesting interaction of rules, and I build a game around them, but there often isn't any game there. I might call a sub-problem of this the "engine trap", where basically I build an interesting engine that the players can toy with, hoping that their doing so in opposition to one another will lead to interesting gameplay, but it just doesn't. It doesn't lead to good player interaction, there are positive feedback loops of success or failure, the whole thing ends up feeling like its playing itself, or its just not fun for some reason.

I had a game design (lets call this Mistake Explanation #4) where you were a scientist/wizard who was collecting body parts and workers and buildings, and using them to create zombies, which could be used as workers, and made money for more buildings, all powered by some kind of drafting mechanic (which I spent far too long in love with). Basically, one thing lead to the next, lead to the next, lead towards a victory state, and it was up to the players to grab the right stuff. But the game ended up feeling totally arbitrary and frustrating from the player side, and the player interaction was minimal at best.

It ended up feeling like sitting with your opponents at one of those conveyor-belt sushi bars, trying to get full the cheapest (god dammit, that sort of sounds like a doable game). But my point is, it was a clever machine, and you were competing, but it wasn't much of a game.

The 2-Player Monster/City Experience
Recently, its mostly been the theme trap that's been messing with me on the 2-Player Monster/City game (any name suggestions? this is getting ridiculous). I realized I wasn't getting the gameplay I wanted out of the top-down city map, and kept shrinking the board, turning the easy knobs, without looking at the root of the problem. Shouldn't it be more interesting to maneuver around the city? Why wasn't it?

I realized that I had decided on the city unit types/abilities/stats basically for thematic reasons, but not because they actually figured to lead to interesting gameplay. There should be artillery, it should have infinite range. There should be infantry, they should basically be canon fodder to slow the monster down.

Even monster rules came about this way, and I fell into traps of things that seemed to have nice synergy, but that didn't necesssarily contribute to overall gameplay. I want infantry to slow down the monster, and thematically it seems like the monster should be able to stomp right over human units, so I'll say he can kill the first unit he gets to, but then has to stop. This, lead to other decisions that were made in similarly willy-nilly ways.

This wasn't wholly responsible for the failings of the design, but it wasn't the right way to make the decisions. I wanted, at one point, for the game to be about containing the monster, but I made decisions counter to that. Artillery as a unit made no sense at all in this game, but I liked the image of artillery shooting at a monster, and in the unit went.

I've cone to realize that player interaction is crucial as a starting inspiration point and evaluation criteria, especially in a 2-player game, you would think. Further, I've started to see designing in terms of tensions. The core of a game is establishing tension and providing satisfying resolution. You have to create a situation where 1) the outcome is in question, and possible results fall into categories that are more or less advantageous to the player, 2) where the player is able to affect the outcome in a way that makes its resolution satisfying. I won't go into a long string of examples, but I think this is present in nearly any good game I can think of.

Conversely, games where the outcomes aren't forseeable enough to be hoped/pushed for, or where the possibility of outcomes produce tension but the resolution is so arbitrary that the player loses interest, abound - and can blame many of their problems for this failing. I was working on a list/taxonomy of game problems, and many of them fall into here in one way or another. A game with too much luck is an obvious choice, but the runaway leader problem is on a larger scale; it is an inability to maintain tension because while the short term outcomes are still predicatable and affectable, players are so far behind they aren't compelled to care.

So can your mechanics yield tension in the short term, on a move by move basis, and maintain it over the course of the game? And, on repeat plays, does the game remain unpredictable, yet controllable enough that it remains compelling. I think the double-sided loop game Chad and I worked on in Seattle last year was actually well designed in the sense that we put move-by-move tension as a first priority, but its most-pips-wins aspect eventually killed it, since the overall result no longer seemed to resolve satisfyingly (there's still something in that game).

Anyway, this has gone on quite long enough, I'm going to try to rethink this monster game drastically, get back to the kinds of tensions I'm trying to build, and make my choices around supporting them. Interestingly enough, I think there might be futures for both the top-down and side-scrolling games - at least if I get stuck on one I can work at the other for a bit. Cheers to you if you read this far!

Thursday, November 15, 2007


I am totally stuck on this Monster/City game (pictured here). Basically, originally, the monster started at the top, and worked its way to the bottom, with some potential for lateral movement. I found more and more that I wanted to narrow the city, since the lateral movement just wasn't interesting. If I turn it all the way into a single column, I have all this unused space. If there's only forward and back, why not make it side scrolling?

Alongside this, I jotted down some priorities I had for how the game should feel, and working with those came to what I'll call Monster/City 2.0. Basically, the monster Roborally-commits a number of move cards, then the city player gets one move, alternating with a pre-chosen monster move, and so on. The monster deck is "predictable" [man, that ended up being a key concept for me], and certain types of city attacks can counter certain types of monster moves, so it becomes a bit of the city player trying to outguess the monster player's moves.

I still like it, but I just can't seem to get it work right in practice. I think I have the right monster moves, but can't find city player gameplayer that hooks into it well. I'm going to run it all by Robin at some point, he may be able to jar me out of my assumptions a bit.

Stepping back, I wonder if the reason that the lateral movement felt wrong was the building thing. I had it set up in a set grid of buildings, each surrounded by street spaces. But this lead to weird choke points. I wonder if I need to reexamine that assumption to make the lateral movement more interesting. For example, do we need bridges that can serve as interesting options? Also, I wonder if my (very simple, elegant, even) morale/damage solution is really quite right. I think maybe it needs some gold-type effects along the way. And I wonder if the basic monster-can-stomp rule isn't causing some of the problems. But, I'm rambling, these are notes that aren't likely to make sense except to myself. Welcome to my thought process. Still working on this design, in any case.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Portal is good

I don't want to get too review-heavy on this blog, but I just finished Portal, which is part of Valve's friginexelent new Orange Box half-life 2 comp. Portal's a short game, clocking in at a couple of hours, but it's really good. When I played it, I was strongly compelled in a way I've rarely been in a game. When I finished it, I was totally filled with joy, to similarly unexplored degrees. Granted I had been drinking. But still!

You've probably heard of its basic gimmick: there are portals that you make and go through. It pulls that part off well; going beyond the jumping puzzles I saw in Narbancular Drop and the 2d Java Portal game. They got pretty creative.

But that isn't even the point; the things that Portal does right are things that I wouldn't normally even think to look for. Something in its tone, its pacing, its feel.. it got something right. The game swept me up the way a movie or piece of widely-accepted-mediumed-art-proper might.

It seems like a lot of the time the game development process is: 1) make an engine that enables killer screenshots; 2) bang together some levels that will take "long enough" for people to complete to justify the game purchase. Portal could have gone that route, and used the gimmick to bang out some portal-jumping levels. But instead the designers demonstated a lot of creativity and a great attention to detail. There's a craft and vision to it that seems rare these days.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Zombie Trivia - A mini-game design

Edit: Ack! Fixed questions link

The weekly Escobedo game night has started having a pub quiz, where one person writes some questions and brings a prize, and everyone else tries to answer them. Angela took it up a notch by adding a bingo element, where the question numbers cooresponded to a bingo grid. After all the questions were read, the answers were read in random order, and if you got one right you could mark the appropriate spot on your bingo grid, trying to get a bingo. It was a nice twist, and worked really well.

The next week it was my turn, and I came up with 13 zombie-inspired questions for Halloween. The side game took place after players wrote down their answers, as follows:

- Each round, each person gets 2 zombies.
- An answer is read. If you get it right, kill 3 zombies of your choice.
- Each player gets one card off the top of a traditional deck of cards for each zombie they have left in front of them.
- Repeat.

Cards are face-down, but when a player gets 5 red cards they die. Dead players' zombies go away, but their future allotment of two zombies are split among their neighbors. So it can be in your best interest to kill adjacent players' zombies and keep them alive. Or just be sitting next to better trivia players :)

In my case, whoever survived the longest won the side prize, though the main, do-the-quiz-next-week winner was still whoever got the most questions right in the end.

Balancing it was tricky, since the whole game could be over in like 4 rounds if nobody got the first handful of questions, and I didn't want everyone to survive to the end - but I didn't know how tough my questions were going to be for people. But everyone died around question 9, which was acceptable, if a little bit too fast. Once the first person dies, things get out of control fast, but that seems about right. It might need tweaking to really work.

Anyway, you could theoretically play it with any old trivia cards, competitively or cooperatively, but I don't know if its really all that fun, execpt as a twist on just-trivia. It does sort of make me want to build a cooperative trivia game, somewhat in the spirit of the cooperative pictionary game. On some level, the basic premise is the same: each turn each player succeeds-or-not at some test, then outer game conditions get better or worse as a result.

As a bonus, here's my notes I jotted down, containing my questions and the answers - Robin was the winner with a score of 9 out of 13, beating Garik on the tiebreaker, though Garik got the last laugh by winning the Zombie portion by a nose. It seems like there should be a joke there, but there's not.

Questions - Answers