Bernard DeKoven & Play

Few people have done more thinking about the nature of play than Bernard DeKoven. He was a leading light in the New Games movement, which sought (in an extremely minimal and perhaps unfair summary) to separate games and play on the one hand from competition on the other, demonstrating that the former could exist without the latter. In addition, he is the author of the seminal text The Well-Played Game.

Sadly, Mr. DeKoven has terminal cancer. His announcement includes this call to action:

Make up your own games. Make them up together with the people who play them. Play. Teach. Invent. Play some more.

Also especially – look into this playfulness thing too. Deeply. Because we’re not talking just games here. We’re talking about how you can let yourself be as playful as you’ve always been, how you can be playful almost anywhere with almost anyone, how you can invite people to be playful with you, in school and office and in the checkout line: all kinds of people with all kinds of abilities from all kinds of backgrounds.

Mr. DeKoven’s work is a treasure trove. Designers should check it out for an entirely unusual, and yet entirely compelling, perspective. They should also check it out because play is a good thing to bring into the world, and so few of us have created as much play Mr. DeKoven has.

Theory: Have Bad Guys, Part 2

By way of evidence for the idea that having a “bad side” is useful for introducing two-player games, consider the introductory sets for Warhammer 40,000 over the years:

We know that space marines are Games Workshop’s best selling product–and, unsurprisingly, they feature in every one of these. There’s an argument for simply doubling up on them, and letting new players divide the marines with a friend. After all, the numbers say that they’ll both end up wanting space marines more than they want Dark Eldar or Orks.

Yet, there’s always a bad guy from a less-well-selling line. I don’t have market data, but I have to think that that increases sales. Over time, players might decide that they want to play the space marines: they see the marines as the main characters of the setting, or like how they work on the tabletop. At the introductory stage, though, the villain has a unique appeal.

Games Workshop has its detractors, but I think it’s important to respect that they have been very successful for a very long time. They know how to make an introductory product. The fact that their introductory products always involve a bad guy strikes me as evidence that it’s a strong approach.

Theory: Have Bad Guys

A quick lesson I picked up at GDC last year, recorded here lest I forget: if you have two sides in your game, cast one of them as evil, nefarious, mischievous, or otherwise “bad.” Lots of people are entertained by getting to play the bad side. They’ll choose it preferentially, and by doing so they start to invest in the experience of your game.

Link: NYS Game Dev Challenge

If you’re a game designer in New York state, there’s a competition with substantial prize money slated to take applications beginning in early April. Frustratingly, this is one of those events where “game” implicitly means “video game”–but perhaps that’s based on what the funding was earmarked for. This might be a good opportunity for someone who’s (literally, physically) well-positioned . . . .

Theory: What LoL Shows Us About the World

One of the great things about presentations by Frank Lantz is that they’re full of insightful comments that aren’t necessarily even the thesis of the talk. They’re just great ideas, presented compellingly.

I was privileged to be able to sit in on Frank’s Games 101 lecture on strategy games today, and came away with this (sadly paraphrased–I couldn’t write fast enough to get the exact quote):

League of Legends may well be the most-played game today. It’s also baroque; the only way to get good at it is to devote many punishing hours to mastering its intricacies. Millions of players lose over and over, willingly battering themselves against the wall of the game’s complexity.

Moreover, League of Legends is a strategy game. Its rewards are entirely focused on problem-solving and mental accomplishment. There’s none of the power fantasy that we’re so often told is at the heart of games.

Ultimately, the fact of League of Legends’ popularity is a positive sign, for games and maybe even for the world. It says that people aren’t trapped in, as Frank put it, “a race to the bottom.” They’re willing to engage with complexity, with challenge, with things that are just plain hard, in the name of self-improvement and intellectual accomplishment.

Theory: What (Some) People Like in Games

Keith Burgun’s articles on design are always well-written and thought-provoking; his most recent, on solvability in games, is no different. Yet, I found myself unpersuaded. His argument fundamentally relies on the position that the joy of games lies in “gain[ing] heuristic understanding,” and I do not believe that his own evidence bears out that claim.

It is worth conceding at the outset that I agree with much of Burgun’s argument. For example, I think it is absolutely true that there is little need to worry about whether your designs are solvable in the abstract. Trivially solved games are problematic, of course, but Burgun is absolutely correct that it is very unlikely that anyone will actually solve your design. (Were they to do so, that would be a good problem to have–your game would have inspired a great deal of thoughtful play!)

He is also correct, I feel, in saying that bending one’s design in undesirable ways to make it less solvable is unnecessary. Just making a game too big to brute force does not, as Burgun points out, make it interesting. His example of 200 x 200 Tic-Tac-Toe is, I think, a good one; that might be difficult even for a computer to work though, but who cares? Such a game would not be worth the computer’s time, much less a player’s.

Despite these areas of agreement, though, I am not convinced that the “ideal amount of depth” requires one to have some Goldilocks-esque just-right amount of complexity. Burgun arrives at that conclusion through an analysis reminiscent of flow theory:

If a player has learned the rules of a game and has been playing it, and then quits, this is not going to be because they solved the game. The most likely reason is that the player has gotten far enough through the solution process that they have a sense of what it would take to complete the solution process, and they lose interest. They feel as though the system will not surprise them from here on out, and in most cases, they’re probably right to feel that way.

Imagine the total solvability of a game to be an iceberg floating in water . . . As players play, they are also getting a rough sense of how big this iceberg is. If they get the sense that the iceberg is insanely massive (as I did with, say, Go), they will lose interest because the amount that they can learn about the system . . . feels futile compared to what they can sense is there.

On the other hand, there are times where, even though you haven’t got a game even 1/3 solved, you can sense that the project of solving this thing wouldn’t be all that hard. (I got that sense from the board game Hive, as an example.)

Here, Burgun’s examples undermine his points. We know, from thousands of years of historical experience, that many people are not put off by Go’s enormous decision tree. To the contrary, Go’s challenge can be a draw for its fans. I have not done a scientific survey, but surely many appreciate that this is a game they can sink their teeth into.

Some may quit playing Go because it is too difficult to improve their skill, but even that does not mean they feel that “the system will not surprise them.” To the contrary, I would imagine that they anticipate further insights down the road. They have to allocate their time between many tasks and projects, however, and Go may be of lower priority than work, or family, or a game with online matchmaking.

In the same vein, it is not clear to me that people quit games merely because they are easily solved. Many popular games reduce down to fairly simple heuristics; I would bet that most folk card games are of this type. Nevertheless, people play such games for many years. When they stop, in my experience, it is because they lose their regular opponents, not because the project of solving the game has become unsatisfactory.

As I am not sold on his evidence, I am also unconvinced of Burgun’s conclusion that players “get bored when they either feel like there is too much or too little to learn . . . .” I am certain that that is true for some people–in particular, of Burgun himself! For some (many?) (most?) players, though, a game having a lot to learn means it rewards investment, and having little to learn turns it into a good social lubricant. Neither is sure to be a cause to stop playing in and of itself.

The examples of Go, Hive, and folk card games suggest to me that there is no single, theoretically preferable amount of stuff to learn that a game benefits from having. Rather, a design should know its audience. Some people want a lifetime of challenge; some want a game they can play with the kids while chatting about their schoolwork. The goal is not to shape every game into an iceberg with consistent volume, but rather to make thought-through choices about how large this particular iceberg ought to be.

Let me end with another concession: I think that many people who buy lots of games want, as Burgun does, a design that resists solution and remains surprising through a reasonable-but-limited number of plays. That is a sensible objective when designing for invested game players. We should not, though, hold it up as the final standard all games must reach toward. Each design has its own purposes, and their designers should choose how much players can learn accordingly.

Theory: Designing for New Parents

Years ago, when my friends began to have children, I started thinking about a board game suitable for new parents. I came back to this idea in my interview for the NYU Game Center, and a few times since, but I’ve never pursued it in earnest. Now I see that that was a good thing; I would’ve been violating the rule that one should write what one knows.

Having had the experience of being a new parent, I’ve detected some constraints that must be respected:

The game can be played one-handed. The other hand has the baby, or the baby’s things.

Each game action resolves quickly. It’s hard even to have one hand free for any length of time.

The game state signals strategy. One must be able to leave the game, come back to it hours or days later, and remember what one was going to do next–and why. (In Salen and Zimmerman’s terms, the game must help the player understand why decisions are integrated, because the player might well forget.)

The game is proof against being knocked about. Maybe the pieces can’t move accidentally, or maybe their position doesn’t need to be maintained. Regardless, the game has to survive when one jumps up to handle an emergency.

No narrative, or lots of reminders. Interruptions and late nights can make it difficult to keep up with a complex plot. Either do away with story, or make it easy to get back up to speed.

These are not trivial requirements. However, a game that meets them would be interesting indeed . . . .

Theory: Control Difficulty as a Gate

There’s an ongoing debate, in fighting game circles, about whether the quarter-circle forward motion required to throw Ryu and Ken’s fireball is an interesting decision. I would argue that it is–but only for very specific reasons. Having to hold the joystick in specific positions at specific moments has the potential to give rise to meaningful choices; just the fact that the movement is physically difficult for some players is not likely to do so.

In Street Fighter games, characters who can throw projectiles at the other players usually do so by moving the joystick from pointing down to pointing toward the opponent in a quarter-circle motion.

3-11-17 - QCF t-shirt
The fireball motion is so ubiquitous in 2D fighting games that it is featured on apparel

Some argue that this motion is, in and of itself, an interesting part of gameplay. Usually they advance one or both of two reasons:

The motion involves a transition from defense to offense: Blocking enemy attacks in these games requires the player to hold the joystick away from the opponent. The fireball motion, on the other hand, points toward the opponent. In order to perform a fireball, then, one must make a conscious decision to abandon defense.

The motion is a physical challenge unto itself: Just as there are countless micro-decisions in throwing a ball, there are decisions in moving the joystick just right to perform the fireball motion.

I would suggest that the former argument is valid, at least some of the time. There can be interesting decisions in whether to go for a big move, or stay on guard. Fireballs may not be the best exemplars of that decision–the choice of whether to block or counter as one stands up puts it in sharper relief–but the tradeoff is there.

The physical challenge, on the other hand, is on weaker ground. The fireball motion is not as difficult as throwing a ball. It’s the same every time; the only questions are whether one can commit the process to memory, and then whether one can repeat it under pressure. It’s the little adjustments necessary to throw a ball further or shorter or as a curveball that make the act of throwing interesting, and the fireball motion doesn’t have them.

What’s more, physically completing the act of throwing a fireball gets less interesting over time. Again, unlike throwing a ball in the real world, it never changes. Once mastered, it stays mastered. Hence, the decisions involved in fireballing rapidly cease to be decisions at all.

The general lesson here, I would suggest, is that repetitive but difficult tasks make for uninteresting gates. Switching from defense to offense is an interesting decision, for all the context-laden reasons why that sort of choice always has the potential to be meaningful. Difficult but non-repetitive tasks, like throwing a ball, are interesting because they demand continuous adjustment. When an action is both repetitive and difficult, though, all it is is a barrier to entry that will fall over time, until it ceases to provide any grist for the decision mill at all.

Theory: Don’t Use Good UI to Paper Over Inelegance

Matt Lees at Shut Up & Sit Down made this very insightful comment:

“Good UI is the answer to a problem. But then, the question always is, does that problem need to exist.”

It’s often said in design that less is more. I think this quote is a great reminder that there are ways in which we can trick ourselves into believing that our games are more elegant, more minimal, than is the case. When a design is at a point where we’re getting concerned about having a sufficiently clear UI, the answer might not be in the interface. The answer might be in the underlying systems that are creating a need for UI in the first instance.