Theory: Make Things Appealing

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

ny-thruway-rest-stop
“Pembroke Travel Plaza,” thruway.ny.gov

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:

pa-turnpike-rest-stop
“Service Plazas – Lawn,” paturnpike.com

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.

simon
“Simon,” boardgamegeek.com

Compare that with your average fighting game layout:

sf-cabinet-layout
Image from forums.arcade-museum.com

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.

Theory: “The Beast” and His Influence on Fighting Games

Even if you’re not a Street Fighter fan, Umehara “The Beast” Daigo’s career is worthy of study. It’s a fascinating example of how someone can become arguably the most iconic player of a game, and in the process direct and focus the energies of an entire genre’s community.

Not familiar with The Beast? Take a look at this video, now legendary, and read through Dave Sirlin’s summary of what it’s like to play against him. Although he has had fewer high-level tournament victories in recent years, Umehara Daigo remains synonymous with skill taken to almost preternatural levels, and is still considered a kind of living brass ring, the standard against which all others judge themselves.

Yet, what I find most noteworthy about The Beast isn’t his play. It’s the way he has shaped the play of others. He demonstrated the heights to which it was possible to climb, and in so doing he popularized the climb itself. I used to meet casual fighting game players, but for years now those I’ve encountered have been heavily invested in skill-building. I attribute that in large part to the specter of The Beast, and the all-consuming effort that has gone into defeating him.

Umehara Daigo has, perhaps unintentionally, reshaped the image of Street Fighter. It’s not about Ryu versus Ken; it’s about one player versus another. Many people have changed how their games were played; The Beast changed the nature of the game itself, and that makes him a remarkable figure in the history of competitive play generally.

Theory: Immersion through Options vs. Immersion through Process

There are two ways to make gameplay “feel” more thematic: by letting players do thematic things, and by having players do those things in thematic ways. Both of those approaches can work, but the former creates more room for design errors and balancing pitfalls. Achieving thematic play through a focus on how players carry out their tasks, rather than by letting them choose from the broadest possible array of options, is thus the safest course.

Many games seek to create immersion by matching play to theme. In fact, getting play and theme to line up is often considered central to having a compelling game. One need only compare the rave reviews given to the experience of playing a driving game with wheel and pedals to the critiques of board games with “pasted on” themes to see the great importance placed on theme coming out through action, and not just through art.

At Your Fingertips: Immersion Through Plentiful Options

Play and theme are frequently connected by seeking to give players all the options they would have if they were “really there.” Thus, in Starfleet Battles—a game of Star Trek space combat—players can use the transporter to move crew members . . . or to beam proximity mines near opposing ships. Shuttles can be sent out to act as fighter craft that harass the enemy vessel, or even to ram them. Whatever a person in the setting might be able to do, games like Starfleet Battles seek to let the player do. The hope is that the player will therefore feel herself an inhabitant of the fictional world.

Unfortunately, this approach has two major weaknesses. First, its limitations quickly become apparent. Shuttles in Starfleet Battles can’t (to my knowledge) have their engines tied into their parent ship’s engines, even though that’s something a starship captain who’s “really there” might want to do. Transporters can’t be used to reposition asteroids to act as navigational hazards, or to pluck out key pieces of opposing vessels, or for many of the infinite uses one might find for pinpoint matter relocation. It’s just not realistic to give the player every option, and before too long the player starts to notice these invisible walls.

Second, and more critically, the quest to make all the possibilities accessible to the player leads to severe design issues. Options might be so unrelated to each other as to need entirely different mechanisms to be satisfying: adding diplomacy to Starfleet Battles, for example, would mean more than just putting a “Talk” entry on the weapon charts. Bringing a wide range of strategies into a game’s ambit can quickly lead to the worst kind of feature-creep.

Even if whole new mechanics are not required, giving players additional choices still opens a can of worms. New capabilities imply a need for counter-capabilities, which may themselves require counter-counter-capabilities. If I could tie the shuttles into main power to get stronger phasers, my opponents would probably need access to better shields lest they get steamrolled by my Voltron-ship—and then I would need a way to break those shields when I don’t have a bunch of shuttles available. Complexity mounts as the options pile up.

By itself, complexity is generally something to be avoided. It’s particularly to be feared in this context, though, because game-breaking design problems lurk below its surface. Left unchecked, the profusion of choices and counter-choices leads to a game that is balanced (hopefully, anyway—it would be hard to tell) but nigh-impossible for anyone but the most invested players to come to grips with. Intimidating rulebooks are not conducive to attracting or retaining people!

Some miniatures games fall prey to this situation. Rules stack on rules: this faction gets to be invisible, so another faction gets tools to see through the invisibility, and then the first faction needs a new trick because invisibility isn’t reliable anymore. The see-through-invisibility faction can also see people hiding in underbrush, so now the “guerilla fighters” faction gets caught in the crossfire, and they need something new as well. By the time balance is restored the rules are a lot thicker!

Moreover, that’s not the worst possible outcome. Arguably a greater danger is the possibility that some choice won’t get its counter, or that the counter will prove too weak. Sooner or later players will notice, and when they do the game will devolve toward a dominant strategy. At that point the game will still be learnable, but it will no longer be worth learning!

Fighting games sometimes end up in that unfortunate situation. Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike is a lot of fun . . . but the things that were supposed to keep Yun’s Genei Jin super move in check didn’t work out. The entire game warped around the Genei Jin, such that much of 3rd Strike strategy boils down to landing or avoiding it. 3rd Strike is a tremendous entry in the pantheon of fighting games—more current games struggle to live up to its art, and that’s to say nothing of the gameplay—but among its astonishing wealth of options an overpowered one slipped through.

Giving players lots of capabilities is, therefore, a double-edged sword. It can contribute to immersion, making the player feel like she is “really there.” However, it can also highlight the options that aren’t available, and can lead to problems with complexity and balance. There are thus good reasons to think that a different approach to immersion might be more attractive.

Tending the Earth: Immersion Through Focus on Process

One such is to put emphasis, not on providing a wealth of choices, but on the nitty-gritty of each individual option. Rather than allowing shuttles to do 10 things (but not any of the 90 others one might want, and #8 is too good owing to a miscommunication with the playtesters), they might only do two—but executing each of those options is challenging and rewarding. Players thus feel that they’re “really there,” not because they can do anything they might choose, but because they get involved in carrying out the choices they make.

As an example, we might go back to flight simulators. Flight sims don’t really have very many options. Players can’t choose instead to drive a tank, or fight on foot, or resolve the issue diplomatically, or apply pressure through NGOs. Many don’t even have any sort of combat; the only thing players do is take off from one airfield, fly in a more-or-less straight line, and then land at another!

Yet, these games have enduring appeal—and that’s because they’re so good at capturing the process. A good flight sim makes the player feel like he’s the captain of the flight, living an entirely different life. Managing the plane is not easy, but doing it well feels great, and having to attend to all of the details maximizes the “you are there” feeling.

This approach to immersing a player in theme can be just as satisfying as providing lots of options. What’s more, it’s much safer from a design perspective. Since options are not proliferating, there’s less need to be concerned about layering of counters and counter-counters. It’s easier to recognize each possibility, to understand its full implications, and to ensure that it’s balanced within the game.

Furthermore, games taking this approach are often easier to learn. Actions have clear implications: do X to achieve Y, at which point you’re ready to do Z. That kind of stepwise process is much more intuitive than a slew of rock-paper-scissors relationships, many in number and some of them (all of them?) involving more than three possibilities.

This is not to say that games focusing on process necessarily have shorter rulebooks, or that they are easy to learn in an absolute sense. Falcon 4.0, a now-venerable flight sim, memorably came with a technical manual describing how to fly an F-16 in such depth that it served as the game’s packaging! By the time a player was ready to take on missions in Falcon 4.0, she was well on the way to actually being able to handle a real Fighting Falcon.

The point instead is that process is easier to learn than arbitrary counters and counter-counters. Falcon 4.0 was workable for those willing to invest the requisite time; a list of options as long as Falcon’s technical manual would have been completely unplayable. Given a length of rules, those rules will probably be easier to grasp if they’re about process than if they’re about alternatives.

As a recent example of how this approach works, let’s look at Agricola. Agricola is a highly-rated game about farming set in Middle Ages Europe. Players feed their families, and farming is the only way to do it; there’s no option to become a trader, or to resort to banditry.

That limitation might seem unthematic—why can’t I apprentice myself to the local builder, and raise beautiful cathedrals for a living?—but it leads to a much better design. First, the game is surprisingly easy to learn considering how much is going on. There’s worker placement and cards and resources and a mini-map for each farm, but the focus on process makes it all manageable. Whenever a player isn’t sure how to do something, he can just ask “well, what steps would I take if I really were a farmer?” The answer is usually very close to how it works in the game.

In addition, focusing on process allows Agricola to create variety in a way that avoids balance issues. One of the major strategies in Agricola can be summarized as “feed the family with grain products;” another is “feed the family with meat from farm animals.” So long as those macro-level options are kept balanced, it’s much easier to let players acquire grain or animals in lots of different ways suitable to middle ages townspeople. The limitations on the “grain strategy” and the “animal strategy” as a whole provide a safety valve and ensure that none of them will get too far out of whack.

Experience has demonstrated that this works surprisingly well. Agricola has lots of cards that give players unique advantages, but only one has received official errata for power reasons. While other cards have prompted discussion as to whether they’re overpowered, the checks and balances that control all strategies—competition for action spaces, in particular—has served to, at the very least, keep the issue open. Limiting players’ food options to grain, vegetables, and meat keeps the number of things to be balanced reasonable, and that contributes to the game’s excellent play-balance track record.

Diplomacy is another example of a game about process rather than options. It offers players very few choices: they can move their pieces to a small number of neighboring locations, and try to bump other pieces out. Most of the elements that have come to be associated with the empire-building genre—technological advancement, a wide variety of military units, resources that build up—are absent. In fact, there are so few possibilities for much of the game that Diplomacy has named openings and defined midgame positions, in the manner of chess.

Nevertheless, Diplomacy is a deep, fascinating game. Like Agricola, the how is interesting even though the what is not; there are a lot of situations that could lead to “A Marseilles -> Piedmont,” all of them different and all of them worthy of exploring.

Furthermore, Diplomacy’s paucity of options helps maintain the balance that has kept it worthy of tournament play for decades. There’s no unexpected combo that can take a game over on the third turn, and no technology that hard-counters Austria’s primary weapon. Simplicity ensures that the multiplayer dynamics Diplomacy relies upon for balance have room to work.

Immerse Yourself

There’s no one right way to achieve immersion—but there are ways that are more or less likely to cause problems in the long run. Providing lots of options, allowing players to try everything they might conceivably try if they were “really there,” is appealing but hard to do thoroughly and even harder to balance. Default instead to detailing the process of a smaller number of choices; the immersive effect can be just as powerful, and the design problems will be fewer.

Inquiring Minds Want to Know: Gating Power Behind Mechanical Skill

A while ago designers at Riot Games suggested that they didn’t intend to make the more mechanically difficult characters stronger. They viewed mechanical difficulty as an opt-in experience for those interested in that particular kind of challenge.

On the other hand, fighting games often make the harder-to-play characters the strongest ones. The Street Fighters series’ Yun and Guilty Gear’s Zato-1 are both top-tier characters–in some versions of those games, dominant characters–who are very difficult to pick up.

I’ve been struggling with which approach is better for a while, and I haven’t come to any firm conclusions. Certainly I find Riot’s position appealing; it’s not obvious that mechanical challenge directly equates to interesting decisions. Furthermore, when the mechanically difficult characters are better they inevitably rise to the top of the tier lists; players will practice as much as they need to to access their power. However, Jay has reminded me previously that getting the mechanics down is part of the fun for some players; they are attaining a kind of mastery that’s important to the game, and perhaps they should be rewarded for it.

Are games with a mechanical component inherently so focused on the physical requirements of playing that we should reward players who are the best at them? Or are mechanics just a buffer between a “real game” that plays out in decisions and a “physical game” that we want to reflect the real game as perfectly as possible?

Theory: Rubber Bands

Many games have “rubber bands”–mechanisms that help a player who’s fallen behind catch up–designed into them. Done right, they keep matches entertaining throughout their duration. Done wrong, rubber bands make good play meaningless. It’s important, when adding one to your game, to make sure your rubber band is one of the good ones by using it to create new, interesting decisions for both players rather than simply punishing the leader.

Rubber Bands Done Right: Street Fighter 4 Ryu’s Metsu Hadouken

Street Fighter 4’s catch-up mechanism is the “ultra” move, a high-damage attack which a player can only use after taking a beating. Ultras are a classic rubber band: if a player is getting crushed, the ultra can even the score. They’re also, in at least some cases, very good rubber bands; when they become available they bring a suite of new, challenging decisions for both players.

Ryu, one of SF4’s characters, has a really well-designed ultra in his Metsu Hadouken. This ultra is a gigantic fireball that does a great deal of damage if it catches the opponent off-guard. It ticks the most basic comeback mechanism box, in that it allows the player using it to catch up.

Ryu winds up for a Metsu Hadouken in Street Fighter 4
Ryu winds up for a Metsu Hadouken in Street Fighter 4

However, the Metsu Hadouken doesn’t do a great deal of work for its player. If he or she just panics and tosses it out there, the opponent can easily block or avoid it. Players need to outwit the opponent and create an opening for this mega-attack, with all the decision-making and strategizing that entails.

The opponent also has decisions to make when the Metsu Hadouken charges up. Experienced players know that there are a limited number of setups that are guaranteed to make the Metsu Hadouken land. Priorities shift as the opponent reevaluates Ryu’s options in light of whether they do or do not lead to the Metsu Hadouden.

Landing or avoiding the attack, however, is just the surface issue.. Would it be better not to use the Metsu Hadouken to catch up, but rather to save it as a way to close out the game after non-ultra-aided comeback? Since the Metsu Hadouken does more damage as one takes more damage, maybe waiting would be best even if there’s a guaranteed setup available right now? Which setups are likely to work against this opponent, in light of his or her behavior and the character he or she is playing? If the opponent knows which setups are most likely to work, what will he or she do in response? The more understanding one has of Street Fighter 4 and its strategy, the more complicated using and defeating the Metsu Hadouken become.

David Sirlin has argued that ultra combos are a problematic element of SF4, and this has led to some internet discussion to the effect that he hates rubber bands in general and ultras specifically. When one goes back to the original source, however, one finds a more nuanced argument: that comeback mechanisms can be good when applied in moderation, that SF4 may need one in light of its overall design, and that there’s a balance between the elegance of designing a game that doesn’t need rubber bands and the advantage of tapping into their appeal. I agree with all of that. My argument is not that catch-up mechanisms are always good, but rather is that if one is going to include a rubber band Ryu’s Metsu Hadouken is a good source of inspiration.

This, then, is a catch-up mechanism done right. It does its job, but only for players who deploy some skill. Both sides have new, difficult decisions to make when the rubber band draws taut. As one improves new layers to the strategy surrounding the mechanism are revealed, no matter which side of the fireball one might be on. The Metsu Hadouken lets players catch up, but it does so in ways that reward skill and good play.

Rubber Bands Done Wrong: Wii Mario Kart’s Blue Shell

There may be no more hated item a player can pick up in all of gaming than the infamous blue shell. Players despise it, and with good reason: the blue shell negates good decisions rather than creating them.

Here’s how it works. Wii Mario Kart is a racing game. The blue shell hunts down whoever is currently in the lead, and stops that player dead in his or her tracks. It’s possible to avoid the blue shell, but it’s exceptionally difficult, so much so that many players don’t think it can be done–indeed, they don’t even try. Getting hit doesn’t ensure that one will fall back in the standings, but anyone who is anywhere nearby will be able to pass. It isn’t uncommon for the leader to drop back to the middle of the pack after a blue shell.

Abandon hope, all ye targeted by the blue shell
Abandon hope, all ye targeted by the blue shell

Everything the Metsu Hadouken does right, the blue shell does wrong. Are there decisions for the player using it to make? Very few; as a general rule, if one is not currently winning one uses the blue shell as soon as one gets it. Decisions for the leader? Almost none, since the blue shell can only be avoided in specific situations which rarely obtain. Even when they do the decision is completely binary–do you try the trick, or not–and “try” is essentially always the right answer.

There is, of course, a way to be almost completely safe from blue shells: don’t be the leader. In a racing game, however, it seems perverse to incentivize players not to try for first place. Mario Kart doesn’t become more exciting or skill-testing if the players are grinding their way slowly around the track, jockeying for second.

Hence, the effect of the blue shell is to undo the leader’s work while leaving almost no possible response. It punishes racing skill; the better one is, the more

likely one is to be the target of an unavoidable attack that leaves one in 4th place or worse. Blue shells are a rubber band, yes, but in carrying out their function they commit grievous design sins: they discourage good decisions and promote a boring style of play.

If you’re looking at your game and thinking players need a bit of help catching up, a rubber band can be a good way to solve your problem. Just make sure that it makes the game more interesting–for both the followers and the leader. Use it to ratchet up the tension and give players new ways to show their skill.

Theory: Balance Matters for All Skill Levels

The common wisdom about game balance–that it only matters for top-level players–is incorrect. It is true that balance is more important to the outcome in matches between highly skilled players than it is when newer players compete. However, balance has a far greater impact on fun for weaker players than it does for stronger ones. Both groups benefit from balance and are hurt by its absence.

“Balance” is a tricky word in game design. It sweeps in a lot of issues and discussions about different types of games that arguably shouldn’t be directly compared. Here, I’m talking about balance in initial choices: between characters in Street Fighter, champions in League of Legends, interstellar empires in Twilight Imperium, and other situations where players select a set of capabilities before the conflict begins.

Players of these games often argue that balance is only important at high levels of play. The argument goes something like this: in games between low- to mid-skill players, the difference in ability between the players decides who wins. Slight advantages in one’s choice of character/champion/empire are swamped by relative skill. It’s only when both players are quite good that those slight advantages matter.

The flaw in that position is that it assumes balance only affects winning. It also plays a role in determining how much fun the players have. For experienced players the role is smaller. With new and less skilled players, however, balance can be the single determining factor in whether or not they enjoy the game.

Top players, in my experience, derive most of their fun from developing mastery. They like exploring the game, understanding it, practicing it, and demonstrating the skill they gain thereby. Whether they do that with this character or that empire doesn’t matter as much as the play and the results.

I can’t think of a better example of this than Mike Flores’ view of Caw-Blade. For those who don’t play Magic: the Gathering, Caw-Blade was early 2011’s dominant tournament deck. “Dominant” can’t be emphasized enough; Caw-Blade won again and again and again, sweeping all competition before it. In its day Caw-Blade was the only reasonable choice for what to play in a tournament.

Mike Flores, a well-known Magic player with a history of tournament success and writer of many influential articles, loved the Caw-Blade environment. He conceded that Caw-Blade was by far the best deck–but, he pointed out, Caw-Blade vs. Caw-Blade games were extremely skill-intensive and rewarded good play. It didn’t matter to him that there was only one valid deck, because that deck enabled players to show their stuff.

Newer and less practiced players, however, often have neither the experience nor the mindset to mitigate balance issues. They don’t know what the good choices are, and if they find out may not feel able to switch to them. As a result, these players can have frustrating experiences when they encounter high-level play.

This dynamic played out very clearly in the old Star Wars miniatures game. If a player did not have a plan for the “Black-and-Blue” strategy, or really wanted to play the Mandalorians even though they were weak, he or she could lose games in rock-paper-scissors fashion even against an opponent of equal skill. High-level players, and those aspiring to that status, took note of the imbalances and moved on; others just got aggravated.

To be fair, the differences in power between SWM pieces was stark. Games with smaller imbalances are less likely to produce these joyless situations. Even small imbalances, however, can build into commanding leads over time–especially in casual games between friends, where everyone involved is a repeat player and streaks are likely to be noticed.

Balance affects which top-level player wins. However, it can also affect which lower-level player has fun. Thus, balance shouldn’t be seen as irrelevant to new players and the lower ranks on the ladder. It’s important to these groups in different ways, but it’s important to all of them.

Theory: Make the Right Choice the Default, Part 2

Last time‘s post was about why having getting up slowly be the default in Street Fighter 4 is a problem. Briefly, making players input a special command to get up fast–which they will want to do virtually every time–is more a rote action than an interesting decision. It makes players feel bad when they know what they’re supposed to do but something goes wrong and they fail. New players are hurt especially badly, because they have to divide their energies between learning the strategy of the game and mastering this uninteresting-but-important skill.

Making the better choice–getting up quickly–the default resolves these issues. It removes the false choices that sound like they might be an opportunity for strategic decision-making but almost never are. It eliminates the “feel-bad” moments, since the game’s design now prevents the player from fouling up something basic. New players have one fewer hurdle to clear before they can get into the interesting aspects of the game.

This doesn’t mean that getting up slowly must or should be eliminated from the game entirely. To the contrary, giving players the choice to stay down in the unusual situations where that could be useful can lead to interesting gameplay. Making quick-standing the default, and slow-rising the special maneuver requiring extra player input, retains the strategic option for the rare situations where it’s intersting without the problems that slow-rising-as-the-default brings.

Seeing this rule applied in other contexts really brings home to me how important it is. For example, the League of Legends character Volibear has a special ability wherein, when he is near to being slain, he gets a second wind and regenerates a great deal of health. LoL is designed in such a way that Volibear will virtually always want to activate this ability when he is in a bad way; is is very, very unusual for Volibear to be in a situation where he would want to hover near death to save this ability for another moment. (Off the top of my head, if a teamfight just ended in an ace the Voli player might be happier backing with the passive intact and healing at the fountain–but it would probably still be better to use the passive and push for an objective. Sorry, back on topic.) If not activating this ability were the default, Volibear would suffer from the same problems as SF4’s slow-rising: false choices, player frustration, unnecessary burdens on new players.

Fortunately, League’s designers did it right: they made Volibear’s second wind completely automatic. When it’s available and called for, it just switches on. The opportunities for strategic choice about whether or not to regenerate were so limited that the faux decision was removed entirely, with a net positive effect.

Compare this with League’s “Barrier” ability. Barrier protects a player from some damage, but it can only be used once every few minutes. There is an actual decision to be made about whether or not to use it, even when one’s health is low: if a fight is going badly, it might be better to accept defeat and save the ability for later. Moreover, even if you know you plan to use Barrier the exact timing matters; since the Barrier only lasts for a few moments, you might want to hold off until you become the focus of enemy fire. Hence, it’s often better not to use Barrier–and indeed, that is the default.

SF4 and League of Legends demonstrate that it’s not enough to give players choices. It’s also important to think about how players interact with those choices. If the game makes it hard for players to choose correctly, it will be harder to play. It might even be aggravating! When there’s a consistent right choice, just make it the default so that players can move on to more engaging decisions.