Theory: the Value of Being Explicit

Magic’s designers have known for a long time that theme helps teach a game. Sometimes the game’s flavor is in the background, helping players get an intuitive understanding of complex mechanics. In the most recent set, though, the Magic design team has chosen an even more direct approach–one that I think is a good move for new players.

Theme has been helping teach Magic since its first set. Fireball, from way back when, is an elaborate card from a rules perspective. Nevertheless, it plays easily because everyone gets how a fantasy fireball works. This is the classic Magic use of theme: tapping into what players expect,so that they follow the rules just by playing cards intuitively.

Now compare that to italicized helper text on this forthcoming card:


“Your artifacts can help cast this spell” is the key line. Those few words accomplish at least two things:

  1. They create a framework for the text. Even though it includes intimidating, precise timing (“after you’re done activating mana abilities”), the rules are easy to understand because it’s clear that the critical part is “pays for 1.”
  2. They give new players a reason to use the ability. Tapping my own stuff is bad, right? Because I can’t use tapped cards? Oh, but it’s making bigger stuff cheaper–I get it!

It’s hard to emphasize enough how important both of those are. New players often don’t do powerful things because they have a drawback (e.g., painlands) or because one has to have a deep understanding of the game to know why an effect is strong (e.g., Timetwister). Clarifying why new players should use an ability with an apparent drawback and potentially unclear value is huge.

The framework for understanding also must not be underestimated. New players could be forgiven for thinking that Improvise’s timing is central; it appears immediately after the ability’s cost, where one might look for its effect. Thanks to the key line, though, we understand that we haven’t gotten the point of the rule until we find out how it helps pay for things. Complicated timing recedes, appropriately, in importance.

I’m curious to see how the Magic community views this kind of explanatory text. There are tradeoffs; if nothing else, it takes up valuable card real estate. On balance, though, I think it’s great for the game. Here’s hoping others agree, and that we see more of it in sets to come.

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.

Talk on Cooperative Game Design: Following Up

Thanks to all who came out for my talk at the Tech Valley Game Space on Wednesday. I hope those who were there found it informative–certainly, I enjoyed the chance to give it!

When the video of the talk is available, I’ll add a link to it. I’d put up the slide deck, but it’s frankly incomprehensible without the audio. 😉

By the by, the Tech Valley Game Space is a remarkable spot. Housed in a maker space in downtown Troy, NY, it offers access to all manner and hue of equipment. 3D printers are just the start of what it has–and of course, that’s to say nothing of the community. The organizers are knowledgeable, helpful, and doing a lot to foster an independent game design and development community in the area. Stop in if you get the chance.

Again, thanks to everyone who joined us!

How Not to Improve Visuals

I don’t often venture into the realm of graphics and graphic design. Making a game look great is a skill all its own, and I don’t really have it. Nevertheless, being at a design school I’ve at least learned some basics–and the forthcoming visual update to King of Fighters XIV is breaking with one of them. In the process, it’s missing what I think is the major problem with the game’s look.

For reference, here’s a video advertising the graphics changes:

Right away one can see that shadows on characters are deeper. That goes some distance toward making them look less plastic. Only some distance–they still don’t look lifelike–but it’s better.

A subtler issue appears 20 seconds into the video. Watch how Kyo rises into the air. More importantly, note how Kyo lands at 22 seconds in.

It doesn’t look right, does it? To understand why, take a look at this post by Blake Reynolds of Dinofarm Games. He compares Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike’s animation to how characters move in Street Fighter IV, and notes that Third Strike’s animations impart a much stronger sense of motion. Chun-li “looks full of adrenaline and intensity” in Third Strike, whereas in SFIV “the animation is just kind of dead . . . .”

That sense of deadness is the big problem with the landing in King of Fighters XIV. Kyo doesn’t hit the ground, he glides to a halt. (In pseudo-technical terms, Kyo looks like the programmers are moving him with a clamped lerp.) His clothing doesn’t even ruffle. There’s no sense of motion, of a weight coming to a sudden stop–and there’s no feeling of power as a result.

KoFXIV will look better after the update. Unfortunately, it’s still not going to be as compelling as such a long-running and beloved franchise deserves. New lighting can’t substitute for great animation, and KoFXIV still won’t have that.

Frank Lantz on the Immersive Fallacy

One of my formative moments in game design was reading the critique of immersion in Salen and Zimmerman’s Rules of Play. They cite Frank Lantz, director of the NYU Game Center, in pointing out that Star Trek‘s holodeck is not the be-all and end-all of game design. Even if one built the holodeck–the perfectly immersive experience–that would not be a game. It would be, at best, a place in which to have a game. Immersion is not gameplay.

I just found out that the original talk in which Frank Lantz makes this point is available online. Let me urge you to take six minutes and ten seconds to listen to it; I think it will prove valuable for your thinking as well.

And then there Was Everyone

Privateer Press released a much-awaited round of balance errata for Warmachine and Hordes today–but those weren’t the most interesting changes. The real news is that from hereon out, they’ll conduct open playtests of forthcoming models. It’s a neat idea, and an interesting test of how willing the playing (and paying) public is to do testing right.

An integral element of really good playtesting is getting context. What kinds of games does this tester like? Are they more into competitive play, or casual games? Do they tend to win or lose? What’s their favorite game, and why? All of these questions help designers understand and interpret the feedback they’re receiving.

For example, suppose you want to test a character in a fighting game who you think is powerful, but subtle and difficult to use. If a tournament player who regularly defeats pros says “this character is bad,” the character might well be weaker than you expected. By contrast, a tournament player who never gets out of the loser’s bracket saying “this character is bad” isn’t convincing evidence that the character is weak. You might, though, consider it a sign that the character is very complex indeed, so much so that even highly invested players have trouble with them.

Now consider a tester who’s a fan of tournament games . . . but mostly because they’ve developed a crazy, unique style, and they like to show it off . When that tester calls a character “bad,” is it because the character is weak, or because there isn’t enough opportunity for self-expression in their moveset? If you haven’t asked about the tester’s background in games, you won’t even know to explore the issue.

I imagine that Privateer Press’ goal in running open playtests is, at least in part, to get useful data. (There may also be a political objective, whereby players are encouraged to view new models more positively because they had a hand in their creation; I’ll be curious to see whether this works out.) They can do that, but the players need to hold up their–our, I’m one of them–end. Privateer Press has to create surveys, and players must be rigorous about filling them out. Interviews will sometimes be necessary, and everyone involved has to make time for them.

Playtesting isn’t just about gathering information. It’s also about interpreting all of that data. If PP wants help, I’m available. 🙂

Last Bastion: Getting There

Last Bastion‘s design process has been . . . involved. The game is currently on version 8.4; each new whole number represents a completely new prototype. Moreover, that does not include the very earliest concept-exploration prototypes over the summer.

Fortunately, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. My major stakeholder was very pleased with how today’s test went, and I’m excited about the current direction. It’s interesting from a design perspective, and has a neat, wild magic feeling to it.

While it’s not yet ready for prime time, Last Bastion is getting there. Look for more news on it in the future.

Theory: Prototype Early

It’s been said before, but as I saw the evidence again today it bears repeating:

Get your game into a playable state as soon as possible, so that you can try it out. Eric Zimmerman suggests 20% of the way through a project as the deadline for having a playable prototype. If you go any deeper without being able to see how the game works in practice, you’re running a grave risk.