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.

We’re Back

Thanks all for your patience while I was away!

Privateer Press formally opened their publicly-accessible playtesting today. I’m eager to see how it works out; running good playtests is demanding, so both the company and the community have their work cut out for them. Here’s hoping for good things; public beta tests could be more valuable than I think they have been for many outfits that have tried them, and I would love to see Privateer Press taking a lead in this area.

In the meantime, I think it’s interesting to see how Privateer Press describes playtesting. Many designers considering public betas have to figure out how to explain what they need to a competitive player community. The linked document is one of what I hope will someday be many examples.

Link: How the Hearthstone Designers View Data

It’s a given that large-scale digital games like Hearthstone can collect a lot of data. More interesting, I think, is how the designers interpret what they gather. What kinds of information do they use? How do they interpret the patterns they see?

Those questions make this post by Ben Brode, Hearthstone’s Game Director, worthy of study. He highlights particular statistics, and notes what they mean to the Hearthstone design team. It’s a great window into how professional designers running a major product grapple with both design problems, and the overwhelming amount of raw data that’s meant to help them address game issues.

Theory: Rule-Learning as a Campaign

Earlier today, Eric Zimmerman posted this:

Learning the rules is a journey, with a destination and trials to be faced along the way. It maps very nicely onto a strategy campaign. Why don’t games do this?

I can think of several reasons:

The game’s rules are too simple to warrant it. Love Letter is a fun game that doesn’t need an elaborate teaching process.

The game isn’t much fun until all the rules are in place. Formula D has an introductory version that actually turned off some folks I played with. It was so easy that it removed the decisions that made the game interesting. Only when the more challenging mechanics were added in did they understand the game’s appeal.

Resource considerations. Making a tutorial campaign that’s fun enough to be worth playing is a lot of work. It’s hard to blame designers for allocating their time and budget elsewhere.

How to teach the rules isn’t often thought about as closely as the core design. If the preceding reasons are understandable choices about how to teach a game, this is the unfortunate counterpart: the failure to recognize a possibility. Sometimes a game would benefit a great deal from what was once called “programmed instruction,” but has to soldier on with a shaky rulebook or poor tutorialization. The designer(s), heavily focused on the game, don’t give enough time to working out how it ought to be introduced to others.

I’ll cheerfully say I’ve never made a campaign out of learning rules. However, it’s a neat idea. We know that a game about figuring out the game can be a lot of fun. Expanding that out to a whole narrative experience is a neat idea that’s worth pursuing.


Theory: Make Some Decisions Easy

As a rule I’m not a fan of Twitter as a platform for argumentation. It’s often hard to express something compellingly in 140 characters. Sometimes it’s not even feasible to break an idea up into 140 character chunks.

Kevin Wilson (designer of, inter aliaNetrunner) was nevertheless able to make a strong case on Twitter today. Since tweets have a way of being lost–like, sadly, so much game design theory–I thought I’d keep them here for future reference.

Theory: Make Your Game Look Different

It’s hard to stand out in a crowded marketplace. Having a game that looks great is one solution, but there are a lot of titles with striking 3D art and realistic animation. Trying to get ahead by having even more realistic visuals than one’s competitors is a painfully expensive strategy, even if it works.

Better instead, I would submit, to have distinctive visuals. Using good design and a sense of style, you can set your game apart.

Planet Protection Force. The design intentionally brings Asteroids to mind, while also making the game’s unique two-characters-in-one mechanic immediately readable.
There is no end of violent video games out there. Hitman Go distinguishes itself with its boardgame-y look.

Duelyst has relatively low-res sprite art; the lower resolution allows for lots of animation.