Theory: Make Things Appealing

Take a look at this rest stop along the New York Thruway:

“Pembroke Travel Plaza,”

Wood framing suggests a natural environment, and perhaps a cozy log cabin. It melds well with the stone for a set of calming earth tones. Grass, flowers, and small trees add to the natural atmosphere. This is a rest stop that looks welcoming during a long drive.

Now consider this one, found on the Pennsylvania Turnpike:

“Service Plazas – Lawn,”

While this also has stone and wood framing, the effect is ruined by prominent siding. The multicolored, industrial, garish roof forms a big part of the rest stop’s visual area. Rather than grass or trees, the parking lot extends all the way to the front walk. Overall, this is a rest stop that looks like it probably has dirty restrooms.

How something looks has a tremendous effect on how welcoming it is. When your design is made of inviting objects, people will want to interact with it. By contrast, you have to convince people to try uninviting things.

Brendan Byrne has pointed out that this applies, not just to service plazas, but to more directly game-related things like buttons. Simon has big, happy-looking buttons that are easy to press; they imply a game that’s easy to learn and play.


Compare that with your average fighting game layout:

Image from

I don’t think anyone could look at that without thinking that this game is pretty complicated.

Try to make your game look welcoming. One of the greatest barriers for any designer is simply getting people to try what you’ve built. You’ll find your audience much faster if you don’t have to get them over the hurdle of a system that appears hostile.

Link: Humble GameDev Software Bundle

Humble Bundle is doing another of its game design-relevant software packages. As usual, it’s a great deal. I can’t speak for most of what’s included, but PICO 8 by itself makes the bundle worthwhile.

PICO 8 is a “fantasy console”–a program that enables people to make games, and then runs the games they create. In PICO 8’s case, the goal is to make games that wouldn’t look out-of-place on 8-bit consoles like the original NES. All the necessary tools, from a sprite editor to an audio creator to a programming IDE, are built in; you make games without needing to leave the PICO 8 framework.

One of the joys of game design is exploring the capabilities of new tools, seeing what they offer and feeling out the interesting effects of the constraints they impose. The current Humble Bundle is a wealth of opportunities to do just that; how often do we try to make 8-bit games these days? Give it a look.

. . . and then there Was None

No time to write, that is! I’m afraid I’ve spent the last two days coding, discussing miniatures wargame design, tuning a thesis prototype, measuring control layouts for a refurbished arcade cabinet, and sleeping a little less than is recommended. 😉 Please forgive the non-update; I’ll hope to have something meatier for Friday!

No Quarter

If you’re in New York City, this Friday is No Quarter, an annual event showcasing indie games that play well for large groups. To date I’ve only had the opportunity to play Stephen Lawrence Clark’s work, and it’s amazing; I’ve no doubt that the other three games to be featured will be spectacular as well.

No Quarter starts at 7:00 p.m., and is entirely free. Drop by if you can!

Phalanx: Platform-Driven Performance Issues?

Oddly, the current build of Phalanx works fine on my Mac laptop . . . but stutters on my PC desktop. The stuttering is occurs when the CPU is in heavy use. I’m surprised to see that, since the PC has an i5-4590 processor; it’s pretty beefy CPU-wise. It’s certainly as powerful as the laptop is.

I checked around a bit, and it doesn’t seem like Unity (the engine behind Phalanx’s latest iteration) is known to have performance issues on PC. If anyone has insights, or things I might look into, your thoughts would be gratefully received. I’ll keep up the sleuthing on my end. 🙂

Link: Merchants of Araby

There are a small number of designers and companies whose products I’ll buy sight unseen. Jay Treat is at the top of that list.

Jay’s Merchants of Araby is on Kickstarter now. I’ve never played MoA, in playtest or final form. Nevertheless, this is a snap-back for me. Jay is an amazing designer and a past master of social games; if his name is on a negotiation title, it’s going to be great.

I’m not getting paid anything from Merchants of Araby, and my name isn’t on it anywhere. My only connection to MoA is that Jay’s a good friend of mine–and that’s no surprise, he’s an awesome person. If you knew him, you’d be friends with him too. Take a look at his games, and MoA in particular; they’re worth your time.

All The King’s Theories

One of the great joys of game design is that there’s always something new to learn. There are so many fields involved in creating a game intended for public release that no one person can master them all. It’s always possible to find something new to explore.

Today, for example, I did a lot of audio mixing. Having no particular audio experience, I had to learn the skills involved from scratch. Needless to say, I touched only the surface–but even what I was able to learn in a workday was fascinating. The audio in the new version of Phalanx is better for having learned it, and future projects will no doubt benefit as well.

I don’t have anything especially insightful to say about audio mixing. I’m simply struck by how neat it is that I got to spend some time studying it at all. On the list of things I never thought I’d get to try . . . .


There’ve been a couple of posts alluding to the current thesis prototype. Now it has a name:

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 11.24.01 PM

Playful is a game about hide-and-seek. Two little kids, who happen to be a dragon and a knight, are chasing each other through a forest. Since the dragon has some natural advantages (most notably the ability to breathe fire), they agree that the dragon can’t go for the win until the knight has spotted the dragon twice. If the dragon can avoid getting tagged in those moments of risk, it’ll be possible to breathe fire on the knight and win the game.

One of my goals with Playful was to explore a form of conflict that isn’t within the violent norm of video games. We as humans compete all the time, but only a very small number of those forms of competition appear in games. I’ve been enjoying bringing kids’ makeshift, balanced-on-the-fly competitions into video gaming.

Playful is also meant to capture the notion of engaging with the risk posed by an opponent rather than controlling the opponent to negate risk; a few of my classmates summarize the idea as “honorable competition,” and I think that’s a good way to put it. Again, this is something we routinely do, giving one player small advantages or imposing limitations to ensure that a game is fun for everyone. Capturing that negotiation has been a lot of fun.

I’ve enjoyed working on Playful enough to want to polish it into something releasable, even if just as an interesting proof of concept. That process is ongoing now. Look forward to it in the coming weeks . . . .

Theory: Don’t Get Captured by Game Feel

There’s an interesting difference in decisions in video games versus those in tabletop games—one with huge implications for designers. Choices on the tabletop are usually discrete; we can quickly identify the exact point where the choice is made, and so it’s relatively easy to ask whether that decision was complex, deep, etc.* By contrast, we emphasize the “feel” of video games because that’s a sensible way to evaluate the many little decisions that go into playing most digital titles. One of the challenges in designing video games is zooming out, locating the decisions that really matter and making sure that they’re as rich as those of a good board game.

We tend not to ask whether video game decisions are difficult or interesting. That’s not surprising, because most of the choices one makes when playing most video games aren’t. I want Mario to go left; to achieve that, I hold down the left button (or hold the joystick to the left, etc.). A huge number of decisions go into that movement, since I am constantly making a binary choice between holding or letting go, and it’s not always easy to be sure which decisions among the infinity of little ones are really impacting the player’s success.

Tabletop board games work differently. The moment-to-moment is abstracted away. Every decision the player makes is weighty. Choices are limited in number, and their import is clear.

Unfortunately, the challenge involved in figuring out just where the big, meaningful decisions are in video games sometimes means that we don’t ever get around to locating them. As a result, we never check on their quality. We get caught up in polishing the infinite tiny choices—an important thing to do, given how many there are!—and fail to ask which ones are the most meaningful, or how meaningful they really are.

I ran into this issue personally with my most recent thesis prototype. Many hours in, having carefully picked out suitable 3D models and hooked up animations and tuned the movement speeds, I realized that the game wasn’t any fun. Early on the player made one choice, and then spent a long time executing that choice through a bunch of movements that had great feel but weren’t significantly changing the game state. If the player’s single important choice had been made correctly, she was rewarded with a power-up which effectively reset the game. To put it directly: the player got to do one meaningful thing, and if she did it well, she was rewarded by having it invalidated!

Several playtests later, I think the problem is (mostly, hopefully) resolved. Alas, I could’ve been here sooner had I begun by considering, not game feel, but the number and quality of interesting decisions I wanted the player to make. Emphasize sifting out and evaluating the truly meaningful decisions in your video games; they’ll be better for it.


* Answering that question might, of course, be very hard!