Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Respect Thy Player

"Time is the most valuable thing a man can spend." -Theophrastus

We entreat customers of our games for their money. But in reciprocity, they entrust us with that most valuable thing: their time. Ultimately, it's the only thing we have that's wholly ours and completely irreplaceable. It's a bigger responsibility than many, across all entertainment industries, realize. And while games may be the only place where we can try again forever (and dammit, it's good to see Duncan again), the time we spend play games never comes back. We ought to make that time well spent.

It's something I've been thinking about a bit lately, in terms of making games with smaller scopes. We should question the seemingly prevailing wisdom that more is better, and not just because feature creep will kill you slowly and painfully. I'm interested in finding ways to create games of smaller scope that still have enough substance to carry meaning. When players invest their time in your game, they deserve you having spent some time asking "why are we doing this?"

It's a bit concerning, in that creating smaller games seems somewhat antithetical to the way the best games are made. Prototype, iterate, test, repeat is much harder on a shortened schedule, with all the other dependencies of core tech and pipeline setup, production considerations, manpower, etc. I'm sure these issues can be overcome, but they are not trivial ones.

This isn't a ubiquitous call for shorter games, don't get me wrong. I have no desire to trade my ~80 hours in Fallout 3. But we have a somewhat clearer idea of what that success looks like. And it requires excellent people, a steady hand and flawless execution. Aside from Valve's Portal, we haven't seen as much emphasis on smaller scoped games. Seems like fertile ground to me.

My marked hesitation toward social games is largely rooted in this. Much as with other casual offerings from PopCap et al., these games seem to be setup exclusively to kill time. They don't have any expressiveness or intended meaning and rarely even any craft worth admiring. And it doesn't help that the most successful ones are basically pyramid schemes that exploit the human psyche. While the same charges can absolutely be laid for many AAA games, there have been plenty that have demonstrated it needn't be that way. I have yet to see such offerings from social games and am skeptical their business climate will allow otherwise.

I actually feel the same way about a lot of MMOs being structured as digital Skinner Boxes. And that's not even considering how much of a markup $10 is to model, texture and rig a single character. Now I'm a big believer in person responsibility and don't think these games should be banned, monitored or any similar nonsense. But wow, I can't imagine being okay working on such a thing.

Steve wrote a similar statement a few days ago and it encouraged me to move this from the back burner. While his claims are a little more structural than mine, it seems cut from the same cloth. The time people invest should come with good return, be it meaningful cognitive exercise or time well spent with others. My Left 4 Dead 2 and New Super Mario Bros. Wii sessions with friends provided many good times.

It can even come in ways most unexpected. My wife helped helped me solve the final puzzle of Machinarium, a musical tone puzzle that I have a poor ear for. I tried for about 15 minutes, making an overly complicated graph until finally succumbing and requesting help. She solved it on the second try. Obviously it's much harder to design for those things, but it was still a fond moment.

That's a long-winded way of saying players give us their trust that we will not abuse the time they spend with our labours. Respect that they are choosing to spend some of that most precious time with us and make it time well worth spending.

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Of Mice and Dice

As promised last week, this post is all about German-style board games. I'll skip detailing their characteristics; the details and examples in the aforementioned Wikipedia link are solid. These games are sometimes called Eurogames, but I think that moniker does mild discredit to the handful of American companies like Rio Grande Games, Fantasy Flight and Avalon Hill that do produce excellent, substantive games. By and large though, the best games are European.

While obviously much smaller, the audience community for these games is much closer to what many would like the digital games community to be like. Audiences are quite aware of the games' designers and the release of a new game by a recognized designer is an anticipated event. In fact, in German these games are called Autorenspiel, literally "author games." The best new games are recognized with several prominent yearly awards, none of which are fueled by Mountain Dew.

There's a lot digital game designers can learn from board games, but translation often isn't direct. Many board game mechanics thrive on face to face interaction, which is becoming increasingly rare in an era of networked gaming. And by their nature, board games are turn-based multiplayer affairs, another rare combination. Still, there is plenty to learn if you're willing to take the plunge. Ahead are five of my favourite board games and compelling mechanics from each I'd like to see more of in digital games.

Diplomacy - Allan B. Calhamer
Interesting Mechanics: Complete lack of randomness, hidden actions, alliances and betrayal

One of the oldest games of its kind, Diplomacy was created in 1954. Players control one of seven pre-WWI imperial powers and seek to gain dominance over Europe. Diplomacy is interesting because it's entirely a strategic game, no dice to be rolled, no cards to be drawn. In Risk-esque fashion, player direct military forces. However, the actions for their units are submitted in secret and are only resolved once all players have turned in their orders. This means each turn consists of fierce negotiation, conspiracy and politicking. The game can be won by a single player or an allied pair, but no more. While some digital games like Civilization and Alpha Centauri have had some similar mechanics, they're often far more random and the other players' forces are largely hidden. In Diplomacy the board is laid entirely bare, and the real game takes place in the interactions between players. A serious game of Diplomacy is a rare experience and one I highly recommend (with scotch ideally, it just seems so appropriate).

Ticket to Ride - Alan Moon
Interesting Mechanics: Indirect competition

In contrast to Diplomacy, Ticket to Ride involves a great deal of randomness and only indirect competition between players. The game take place on a railway map and each player's objective is to create train lines between certain locations. Different lines require a specific number of coloured train cards, drawn semi-randomly. The routes are also cards drawn randomly and remain hidden from other players. The risk/reward decisions are very good, as each route card is worth a specified amount of points that increases with length, but that amount of points is lost if the route is not complete by the end of the game.

As your primary objective is to complete routes, it's rarely beneficial to aggressively attempt to block other players' possible routes. Occasionally it's advantageous to cut off a route another player is looking to complete, but doing so often jeopardizes your own ability to complete routes. Few digital games allow for success through indirect competition; at best it's an alternative to direct competition and aggression. I'd be very curious to see a digital game whose dynamics make indirect competition the only real option.

Of all the games mentioned here, this is one of the easiest to get into. It's quick to play and simple enough to have broad appeal. I recommend it highly, with the caveat that one should not get the North American map version of the game. It was the first released and after being played a few times, it's clear there are some more dominant strategies. The European and Nordic countries versions that came after are substantially improved.

Citadels - Bruno Faidutti
Interesting Mechanics: Scourge, shared actions

Citadels involves building a vaguely medieval city from a deck of district cards. Each turn, players choose one noble from a semi-random deck as their character for that turn. Nobles have different abilities (detailed here) that affect players' actions. There's a whole lot of getting into other players' heads, guessing at which noble they may have selected given their current money, districts, etc. Getting too far ahead too early is dangerous, as all the other players can easily gang up on a single clear leader. The game also supports up to nine players, but the most I've played it with is five. A nine player game would be madly, but wonderfully, chaotic. The game only uses cards and a few small tokens for money, so it's probably the most portable game I mention here.

Taluva - Marcel-André Casasola Merkle
Interesting Mechanics: Every action alters the game space

Taluva plays somewhat like a combination of Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne, but with several fantastic twists. The game consists of creating and settling a primitive tropical island. Each turn a player draws and lays a new geographic tile (a triangle of hexes, if that makes sense) with some conditions. The goal is build a certain number of settlements, but laying new geography can destroy existing settlements. Additionally, tiles can be played on top of other tiles (again, with certain conditions), allowing the game to expand in two dimensions. What's fascinating about this is as the game is played, the island begins to look remarkably like a proper island. Ridges, plains and valleys all emerge naturally through gameplay, as do the locations of villages and temples. At first the game seems simple, but about halfway through the first game, the full scope of its complexity starts to be revealed.

Betrayal at House on the Hill - Avalon Hill
Interesting Mechanics: Betrayal, dynamic environment

Of all the games mentioned here, Betrayal at House on the Hill has my favourite mechanic. The game consists of the players exploring a "procedurally generated" abandoned house made up of randomly drawn tiles (not unlike how Torchlight generates its dungeon). While that alone would be interesting, the twist is that at a certain point in the game, one of the players is randomly revealed as the betrayer. At this point, they become substantially more powerful and it's them vs. the rest of the players.

That former ally transforming into a villain is such a great dynamic that I cannot fathom why this hasn't been done (well) in a digital game. The closest thing would be the bank heist multiplayer in Kane & Lynch that consists of a bank heist. The heist is split amongst all the robbers that survive, but off your comrades too soon, and you may not be able to complete the heist at all. Interesting, but nowhere as compelling as Betrayal at House on the Hill. While I haven't played it, I've heard the new Battlestar Galactica board game has a similar mechanic. Currently, Betrayal at House on the Hill is out of print, but in looking for information about this post, I discovered that a second edition is forthcoming! I highly recommend giving it a look when it arrives later this year.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a mountain of German-style board games of all stripes. Arkham Horror marries cooperative play with steep, steep odds fighting horrors from the stars. Settlers of Catan's legendary trading gameplay creates a great cooperative/competitive dynamic. I just picked up Pandemic as a gift for friends and am really looking forward to seeing how it unfolds.

As creators of digital games, we ought not to lose sight of developments in the non-digital gaming world. There's a lot we can learn from there, as they can from us. Pass on Monopoly, head down to your friendly local game store (Drexoll is Vancouver's) and find something worth analyzing. You never know what lessons may dwell inside the box of a humble-looking Autorenspiel.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Did a Card Game Start the Spanish American War?

The Spanish American War is one of those largely forgotten American conflicts, due in part to it lasting less than four months. But it's a fascinating part of turn of the century history, especially the war's origins. The Spanish American War itself is interesting, between Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, the liberation of Cuba and the Philippines and how those nations have changed in the interceding years, the question of imperialism that's alarmingly familiar today and more.

But what I find most intriguing is the war's origins, namely that just two men are basically responsible for starting the war- William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.

The conflict between the US and Spain is in some ways a casualty itself, a casualty of the war between Hearst's New York Morning Journal and Pulitzer's New York World. Seeing the brewing conflict with Spain as, essentially, a profitable new market for selling papers, the two men led their reporters in running increasingly alarmist headlines, embellished or wholly falsified interviews, shocking photographs, etc. The two men invented and perfected yellow journalism.

Hearst also, among many other things, funded the creation of a card game called "War with Spain," with gameplay focused on sinking the Spanish navy. In a somewhat morbid way, Hearst may have created the first Game For Change. Excerpts from The Chief and Mightier Than the Sword might be of interest for further reading.

I mainly mention this because I find it an interesting moment in history involving games. But Hearst's "War with Spain" does remind that games can affect the way we see things. Including the way to see other games. (Plus I needed a segue for the next post I want to do, but was too busy to do this week)

I quite enjoy board/card games with reasonable complexity, i.e. German-style board game. Part of the reason is their mechanics are laid bare in a way largely impossible in video games. Next time I'm going to talk about a handful of my favourites and what about their mechanics I find so compelling.

Until then, remember the Maine!

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Monday, January 4, 2010

On Metaphors and Podcasts

Once again, Michael was kind enough to invite me onto his podcast, this time sharing the mic with Corvus and Leigh. We discussed some of our favourite games from last year and, as always, I was honoured to be among such insightful and interest folks. Our segment was the second of four, so be sure to give the others a listen as well.

I wanted to follow up on a comment I made on the podcast, so if you haven't listened to it yet, you may want to do so (and I'm going to discuss the game I picked for the podcast a little, so considered yourself spoiler warned).

The game I selected left me thinking a lot about the use of metaphor in games. In terms of narrative, metaphor for an archetype is quite common, especially instantiations of the Hero's Journey. More recently, we've been seeing experimentation with the use of mechanics to communicate meaning metaphorically. E.g. Jason Rohrer's Passage and Gravitation, or Jon Blow using Braid's mechanics as a metaphor for regret and inevitability.

What we haven't seen as much, and part of the reason why I found Little King's Story (my pick on the podcast) so interesting is its mechanics and fiction are a metaphor for other elements of the game's fiction. The game takes place in a child's imagination and most of the people and things you interact with in the game are based on things from the child's life. The game does a fantastic job of transporting the player into the child's imaginary world and allowing us to experience it as the child would.

This is exactly what Psychonauts tied in to (and to a lesser extent, Brutal Legend). I heard Tim discuss the origins of Psychonauts at PAX and, in short, he was fascinated by the way dreams are essentially elaborate metaphors constructed by the subconscious.

Another example of this was the 2004 game based on Tron. Now, I don't really care for Tron at all, but its use of mechanics as metaphor is interesting (and I had forgotten about it until reminded by a post on The Binary Swan). Tron takes its mechanics, most of which consist of typical game tropes, and gives them justification in the game's fiction. All the relatively dumb things that are de rigeur for games actually make sense- climbing through conveniently-sized air vents is merely the way security backdoors are visualized in cyberspace. Your character suddenly gaining more strength and new abilities is just downloading and installing better software.

As Tron takes place inside of a computer, cyberspace fiction of the game makes this layer of representation much easier to add. But the fact that we've only had a handful of instances of cyberspace in games, the most compelling of which is still probably from SNES Shadowrun, leads me to believe there's a great deal of possibility here. Dreams, the afterlife, and so forth; there are many ways a fiction can support this kind of metaphor.

It might even be possible to use mechanical metaphor to represent actions in the real world. Re-Mission uses the conventions of a shooter to symbolize the way a patient's immune system and various treatments will fight cancerous cells. Other serious games have capitalized on this as well. What I'd really like to see is a political game more symbolic than Democracy 2 (as much as I love it) or Congress Matters.

Games are well suited for presenting this kind of metaphor because they excel at conveying experiences. Visual media obviously can exploit narrative metaphor, perhaps better than games ever will. But the distinct and reoccurring actions that comprise a game's mechanics offer a vehicle for symbolism that simply doesn't exist elsewhere.

And ultimately, games are built upon metaphor and symbolism to begin with. Hit points are symbolic of a character's wellness, clicking to direct units in an RTS is a representation for a general directing their troops. It seems there's fertile ground for symbolism and metaphor that stands apart from representing archetypes, as powerful and interesting as that can be.

I realize this whole post is kind of abstract and barmy, but hey, it's a new year. I get at least one, right?

Oh, and best wishes for 2010 to you all! For me, I'm very much looking forward to finishing one project, hopefully getting to talk about another that's very exciting personally, seeing a bunch of awesome folks again at GDC and celebrating my one year anniversary of marrying the most amazing lady I've ever met. May this year bring you all the best, in games and life!

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