Theory: Randomness and Responsibility

In the past, I’ve argued against employing control difficulty as a gate for player power. Sam Von Ehren offered an alternative perspective today, one that deserves more thought and time than I’m able to give it as the NYU Game Center End-of-Year Show approaches. For the future, then, a summary:

Randomness built into a game system can be frustrating. If players have to do something difficult, on the other hand, one gets much of the benefit of randomness–even experienced players will trip up sometimes, and will be concerned about it still more–while putting the burden on the players instead of on the game. When their errors introduce uncertainty into a match, they will see themselves as the cause, and want to improve. That’s much more palatable than feeling as though the game is out to get them.

Theory: the Dark Side of Computer Assists

Computers can help during the ideation phase of design, and can also point out new strategies to players of what might otherwise be considered a game past the point of innovation.

On the other hand, they can also enable a rate of play that forces a major design firm, with testing resources most can only dream of, to ban a card 48 hours after release.

I suppose we have to take the bad with the good.

Theory: Q’s without A’s

Fantasy Flight Games’ reboot of the classic CCG Legend of the Five Rings raises a number of intriguing issues. In fact, I’d say there’s almost nothing about it that isn’t interesting:

The license itself. The received wisdom is that licensing a fictional world is only worthwhile when the world is a major draw; otherwise, one might as well start from scratch, and forego the expense. Was Legend of the Five Rings worth the cost?

On the positive side of the ledger, it’s a long-standing name in the tabletop market, albeit not perhaps as strong a brand as it was in the past. FFG also received at least some existing art assets–we can see them in the cards displayed on the new website–which avoids the cost of recreating card art.

On the other hand, a game two decades old comes with a lot of baggage. There’s an existing base to be placated, if you’re not simply going to accept their ire. Old data floating around the internet might confuse customers. Your product has expectations out of the gate that otherwise wouldn’t burden it.

I’m not certain whether it will be possible to determine from the outside how the license works out, but it will be interesting to consider.

The gameplay. For all its mechanical warts, old Legend of the Five Rings did one thing right: it was a game about acquisition. Over the course of a winning game you got more honor, more cards, more stats, more abilities, more of just about everything. That acquisition felt good.

New Legend of the Five Rings is, in some sense, a game about losing your resources. Honor and cards are both naturally given away during a game. I can see how those negative feedback loops resolve a runaway-leader problem that bedeviled old Legend of the Five Rings, and can also imagine that they lead to interesting decisions. Yet, the fun of a game isn’t solely in whether it’s mechanically balanced. Will players see the game as punishing them for engaging with it, and move on to something else?

The theme. In the 1990s Legend of the Five Rings’s mashup of dynastic China and Shogunate Japan was seen as forward-thinking and progressive. Today, it might be seen in a different light. Will the theme and fictional history be a help, or a lightning rod for criticism? How will Fantasy Flight handle issues of portrayal going forward?

. . . and so on. Legend of the Five Rings is a venerable brand, and that throws the changes it’s undergoing into especially sharp relief. I’ll be extremely interested to see how the new release plays out.

Link: AlphaGo’s Impact on Go Strategy

I’ve always thought of top-flight AI players as a sort of death knell for strategy games. That way lies solved systems, where memorization is king. A blog post about AlphaGo, however, suggests a different use for them: exploring new tactical avenues .

In sum, the article points out that AlphaGo (a very skilled AI player of the classic game Go) sometimes does things human players have long written off as ill-advised. Never embarrassed by the risk of making a rookie mistake, and able to think about the entire board with each move, AlphaGo explores strategies that the Go world has dismissed or even actively rejected. That allows it to find not just new sequences of plays, but to reveal innovative approaches to the game.

RoboRosewater showed us that computers can help us brainstorm. AlphaGo has a new lesson on offer: if a game is deep enough, AI players can direct us toward avenues of complexity that humans have yet to explore. Computer assists can be valuable at both ends of a game’s lifecycle.

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.