There is an Android game called Hoplite by Magma Fortress that has grabbed my attention lately. It has plenty going for it, in that it’s a quick-play mobile game with a solid turn-based strategy design. It’s a bit like a board game, feels like chess at times, and has some great progression.
But aside from giving this game generic praise, I want to discuss something Hoplite leverages that should not be dismissed. Predictability. The AI doesn’t move at random, instead it’s very specific and deliberate. Every move is based on how to best position themselves to make your life harder. Melee monsters go for the kill. Ranged monsters try to line up while staying out of reach. Alone, no single monster is much of a challenge; It’s when they combine to limit your options that the game gets you sweating. One monster throwing bombs is hardly a threat, until there’s an archer covering your escape route.
My point is this. You don’t have to be unpredictable and random to add challenge. Challenge comes from complexity and limiting viable options. It allows for strategy to be the emergent element, instead of a scripted one, which is where it belongs. Sure it might mean that puzzles have solutions, and some players will reach the echelon where the challenge becomes trivial. That’s okay! People want to be rewarded for completing tasks. From there, you can always consider adding another layer of complexity. The fact that Donkey Kong and Pac Man could be ‘solved’ back in the day didn’t limit their appeal, it created cult followings of people yearning to see a kill screen. It’s not a bad thing.
(Courtesy of Paul Dean/Bill Carlton)
P.S. I love that in his latest update blog he explains the design choices he made and why. It’s a very lucid approach to game balancing, and I honestly believe all the changes he made in this recent update were for the better. I also appreciate that he was forced to abandon some gameplay elements that seemed unified in concept (everything using energy), that didn’t play well in practice. It makes for a more interesting game. I enjoy that the only penalty for throwing a spear is that you have to go pick it up again. Very well done.
I’ve coined a term, and I’m not sure if others have used it, but the concept is pretty well known. I’m going to call it “Alpha poisoning”. It’s when you try an early release of a game before features and polish and repairs are made, and despite understanding that it’s an unfinished product, taints your perspective and enthusiasm for the final release.
I recently told my Terraria-loving friend about a similar game called King Arthur’s Gold (by the makers of Soldat, a 2D shooter that I loved). It’s on Steam now, and I recommend it. In fact, I recommended it to my friend, and his reply was that he had played the Alpha, and was disappointed. We didn’t bore into the details much, but I did explain that the version of the game I played was very fluid and polished, and he owes it to himself to try the finished game before galvanizing his opinion.
This almost happened to me with TUG. I resonate very closely with their philosophy and design approach, but when I tried the Alpha I realized just how far they still have to go. Now, understanding that, I’m not going to write off the title. Instead, I will try it periodically to check in on progress, and I will support their public release with renewed enthusiasm. But I’m learning that sometimes, despite my interest in game design and philosophy, I can’t watch how the sausage is made.
I will be joining EverQuest Next Landmark as an Alpha player. It looks like their Alpha will be much more polished (more of a PR drum than a testing phase), but I will still guard myself against having my expectations set too high. Going through the Alpha/Beta phase with Minecraft was amazing. It was glitchy and tough sometimes, maps crash, memory dumps, broken critical features, but it also felt amazingly organic, watching this world get more complex every update.
I’ll even say it. Some of the bugs and glitches have a little gold-glinted nostalgia to them these days. Minecraft is almost too polished. Okay, not really. But still, the journey of watching a sandbox game grow up was really something. I don’t mind doing that again.
Update: I should clarify that Alpha Poisoning shouldn’t be considered an appropriate or acceptable reaction, rather the opposite. We become betrayed by our indiscriminate human brain’s association and learning patterns. I think it’s directly comparable to accidentally eating under-cooked meat, and then avoiding all meat because of it. It’s an old defense mechanism that betrays our true interests, but keeps us from getting sick.
Bringing this blog back to life again here, thank you for glossing over the hiatus. I just had my first son, and life with baby is, well, life with baby. Anyways, here’s a quick thought to get the ball rolling again.
There’s a classic DOS game from 1989 called Street Rod. I enjoyed this game, even if the racing part was really crummy. And not just because it was old - keep in mind this game was 2 years after Rad Racer for NES, and that game was an amazing racer. But the racing isn’t what made the game good. It was that you had a garage and a budget, and you had to soup up your car to race.
But there’s one feature about this game I want to mention. In your garage, when you wanted to swap out parts of your car, you had to do a little bit of pseudo-mechanic work to do it. If you wanted to upgrade or replace your transmission, you had to unfasten the bolts that held it to the chassis, lift it out, and set the new one and bolt it in. If you wanted to change the tires, you had to lift the car on the jack. Compare this to the most current chop-shop gaming in Grand Theft Auto V, where all you do is select it on a menu and it magically appears on your cars.
Now, I’m not saying Street Rod got right what GTA V got wrong. But I’m saying that when games add a tiny bit of immersion to them, your brain fills in more of the narrative. What feels like navigating menus in GTA V, felt like working in a garage in Street Rod. And there’s a world of difference between those two things.
I really do enjoy GTA V, and it’s got some simulation in places where other games don’t even try. But every once and awhile you find a feature in a classic game that’s fallen by the wayside, not because it was bad or superfluous, but just because nobody since has thought to add it.
When you make your game, consider those little bits of immersive flare, and where even the slightest deviation from the standard tricks of video game abstraction could win you a young and impressionable fan for life.
"You dropped your transmission, you clutz!"
Man. How do you forget stuff like that.
I am going to try my best to be a calm hindu cow over this whole EverQuest Next thing. There are players who wanted it to be EverQuest 1 revisited, and there are players who want it to be something totally new. According to the press releases, it’s going to be something totally new, so the EQ1 holdovers are dealing with the stages of grief. I have to just let them go through this phase without confrontation, and just look forward to the game I’m expecting without baiting or responding to emotionally charged trollish comments, no matter how eloquent.
Some people are just sad that this game won’t be what they wanted. Some are saying that the new game is doomed to fail, that you can’t make an MMO without the tank-healer-DPS trinity, that ‘voxel generation’ is just an in-vogue gamer buzzword that doesn’t add to gameplay, and that there’s no way the AI they are promising will live up to its required capacity to make the game feel alive.
To that, there are only two outcomes. The haters are right, and the game is doomed to fail, or the haters are wrong and the game will live up to the expectations. In neither of these outcomes to the developers cut bait and say “the detractors are right, we’d better scrap the project and rebuild EverQuest 1”. That is not an option on the table.
So you can be a hater and be smug about hoping something novel in the world of WoW-clones crashes and burns, or you can be prepared to be wrong and live a bitter life while others explore new online virtual world possibilities. Those are your choices, I hope you’re comfortable with them.
Or y’know, do the converse of that and either take off and don’t come back, or hop on the bandwagon and enjoy our voxel-generated destructible cake with us. I can’t promise it’s not a lie, but it’s an entertaining lie, and in the end, isn’t that the real truth?
The answer is, stop being a hater, hater. Sorry you didn’t get the cake you ordered.
I saw the EverQuest Next event streams (not live, sadly, I had a sick daughter to tend to), I’ve digested the panels, I’ve read some criticisms, and retorts to those criticisms. My mind is a tempest, and when it settles, I’ll tackle the big things. But I can leave you with a summary.
In short, I’m very excited, a little guarded, but mostly proud. SOE is looking to rebuild the virtual fantasy world in a way that is much more aligned with my visions (if you’ve read any of my blog, you know of my love for immersive environments). My reservations come chiefly in the form of what parts turn into vaporware if the studio decides not to fully implement some of its risky decisions. It sounds great on paper, but so did SimCity and Spore, until their publisher gutted them of life. SOE isn’t above making bad business decisions. Then again, EverQuest has always been Sony’s chosen heir, so maybe they’ll be more lenient.
If the game as they’ve promised comes to light, it will be exactly what I’ve wanted in an MMO for probably a decade. A living, breathing world where mobs wander the landscape instead of standing hunched around spawns, where you can build and form cities and live within them, you can help farm and craft and literally live in the world instead of just chewing through it like a child at a carnival, and leaving sick on cotton candy. I want to be in a game that I can call home.
I’m not betting all my chips on EQN. I am still following TUG, and Cube World, and Stonehearth, and all these other games that are fitting my vision for immersive, interactive virtual experiences. But having one more game to anticipate is a great thing, and I’m glad it’s from a property that I’m very familiar with. I’m very excited.
Today I’ll talk about my personal gaming perspective instead of general concepts.
I’m playing Candy Crush Saga on my phone. My mother-in-law asked me to play for free stuff. I like puzzle games, but I don’t have a Facebook account, still I figured I’d give it a go.
As you might expect, I’m stuck on the infamous Level 33, and have been for three days now. I’ve read online that it’s possible to beat with a strict devotion to maximizing your luck (I can’t even say skill will save you on this level). That is, if you don’t want to be extorted to pay money for boosters that will help you win. Even just 99 cents will get you past the level.
It’s not about the money. I’ve payed much, MUCH more for worse gaming experiences. It’s about the principle. I’m using the word extortion because that’s exactly what this feels like. They want my money, and will make my game experience hell until I consider giving some money over. That’s not friendly commerce to me. That’s some manipulative, psychological marketing bullshit. And for the larger market, it works. It works very well. Suckers like giving people money.
Now, you might say it’s unfair to call them suckers, but I’m afraid it’s just as applicable as the term extortion. You see, when you hear the designers of these games talk (I attended the Mobile March convention this year in Minneapolis), they use terms like Minnows, Dolphins and Whales to describe the player castes of their market. Players who will never pay or pay very little, those who pay some, and those who pay a lot. And this can be formulated through rigorous market testing (and has), and once the formula is discovered, it is applied as scientifically as possible. Think it’s luck that level 33 is nigh unbeatable? That’s three chapters into the game, almost on the cusp of chapter Four. They have established my commitment to the game, and now want to test my monetization capacity at the most calculated cycle in my gaming experience.
(My apologies to Papaya, I’m not singling out their service, they just have a gorgeous graph)
But enough about me, I know where I stand with this company. Back to my mother-in-law. Her jaw dropped when I explained the concept of Minnows, Dolphins and Whales. She was aghast that this was happening, she thought she was just playing a game. I apologized that she is in the crosshairs of people who want her money. I felt sorry for her and all her Facebook gamer friends like her.
Now, let me backstep a moment. It disgusts me that this behavior exists, but it doesn’t surprise me. I’m not a gambler (Vegas actually coined the ‘MDW’ concept), I’m not a hustler, and I’m not a salesman - though I do work in marketing. This can all exist within the purview of the free market and I’m hesitantly okay with that. I feel bad when people are conned out of their money, but it just reminds me to stay smart about my own practices.
Where it becomes a problem is when it lies on the shores of my favorite hobby. Again, don’t get me wrong, gaming is an industry, and one that I happily give my money to. But I would rather hand my cash to someone in exchange for a product over the table, than have someone try to trick me into money. It’s an effort-to-value thing. Zynga and King aren’t interested in making good games, they want to make spit-polished rehashes of existing games that are plugged into their monetization model (play three King games, you’ll figure out the formula), and extract money from you by engineering temptation and lulling you into thinking you’re getting a perk when they’re really just setting financial punji traps on their well groomed path.
Now, I’m more apt to be suckered into Steam’s summer sales. But at least there I know I’m getting quality games that have been tested and reviewed for a modest price. Same with the Humble Bundle. Take my money, just do it in exchange for your games that are built with love of the craft.
There is a concept in science called Emergence. I’ll try not to bore you about the details, check it out on Wiki if you’re unfamiliar, or listen to my favorite RadioLab episode about it. You can come read this after.
Emergence is when smaller systems that seem chaotic result in events that are beyond the paradigms set by the initial behavior. Asimov speculated about emergence constantly when discussing robots. Contrary to popular understanding, Asimov never assumed that androids were alive, he just assumed that their emergent behavior made them unpredictable and peculiar. Making sense of what seems like nonsense.
Emergence in games is a rather difficult thing, but it happens; and when it does, it creates that ”ghost in the machine” feel that the game is actually more complex than the code and design that comprises it. Your Sims feel like actual little people, not just scripted dolls. Some people have been moved to tears by the actions of their Sims, simply because their behavior imitates life. Animal Crossing is another fantastic example. You can be tricked into feeling your town is alive and breathing, because there are changes and conditions in play. Weather controls what bugs come out, weeds grow in and townsfolk interact. Things are going on in the game that aren’t the result of direct player agency.
The most basic and widespread game about emergence is Conway’s Game of Life. Take a simple grid, give it a state, and then give it rules on how to change that state. But in order for this to work, the rules for state change need to be just right (known as the Goldilocks Paradigm); too little change and the environment stagnates or starves out. Too much change and the environment overpopulates and explodes. It needs to be the proper balance of growth and decay, resulting in a changing environment that is sustainable.
Kinda sounds like real life and planet Earth, huh? Hence why Conway named it.
This is a real, documented thing. It’s why Earth is considered perfect for life. It’s incidental, not accidental, that life can survive on a planet that isn’t too hot or too cold to sustain it. We can grow and sustain and change. We die out, we grow back. And through this process, life gets really creative.
I’m getting tangential. Back to gaming.
Most games don’t have emergence simply because they don’t have the arbitrary state changes required to cause it. Most games are sleek and streamlined without a whole lot of noisy behavior going on. NPC’s do what they’re programmed to do, everything is in its place performing its assigned task. To welcome emergence into a game, you have to have code systems that operate and interact with the probability of unforeseen conditions resulting from these interactions. That’s scary for developers who want to build a bulletproof game that prevents players from gaming the system or cheating. It’s best to know what does what.
To introduce emergence into a game, you have to have things that affect their environment, and an environment that reacts. Minecraft has animals that eat grass. They eat a patch of grass, the grass turns to dirt. Dirt then grows back into grass.
That’s a close example, but it doesn’t result in any emergence for one main reason; the balance we talked about before. The grass grows back far quicker than the sheep can eat it. So you don’t get an emergent field of half-eaten grass, instead you just have a patch disappear and soon refill itself. Nevertheless, it’s a good example of AI systems that interact with each other independent of one another’s goals. Sheep eat grass regardless of the grass growing algorithm and grass grows on dirt regardless of if sheep are the cause.
The point to take home is this. If you would like to have your game feel alive and real, you need to introduce systems into the game world that grow and change with time, independent of player interaction that work with, through, or in spite of each other. Finding the balance of these systems is tricky, and there’s no blanket solution. But if you’re clever enough to figure it out, your game will transcend its programming and turn into a veritable magic trick — you managed to make your virtual world come alive.
Video games use abstractions all the time. Health bars, levels, et cetera. And from the name of the blog, you’d think I have an aversion to abstraction. I don’t, I just don’t believe in relying on someone else’s invented abstraction as a crutch for your own game design. That all being said, some abstractions really hit the nail on the head, and aren’t emulated enough.
I believe the strength/stamina meter to be one of the better abstractions a game can use. What it effectively does is balance action with recovery, and adds a degree of pacing to how the player interacts with the world.
Done poorly, a stamina bar acts as a deterrent, preventing the player from performing at their peak. Done correctly, however, it gives instead a boost to the players actions, allowing them to over-exert themselves to accomplish feats of extraordinary capacity.
My favorite implementation of the stamina bar comes from Shadow of the Colossus. In that game, stamina was required to grasp and climb your way through the world, and if the bar (circle in this case) ran empty, you lost your grip. It refilled as you rested, but quickly enough to keep the pace of the game frantic. Most importantly, you could perform actions in the game to grow your meter, so it became easier to exert yourself over longer periods of time.
This ties into another discussion, so I’ll make this a two-fer. Part of the reason diminishing meters are a valuable mechanic is that they allow the player to perform feats with known limitations. You can’t swim to the bottom of the ocean, you’ll run out of air. You can’t fly towards the sun, your wings will melt. And you can’t sprint for ten miles because your muscles will give out.
If you don’t like having bars and meters on your HUD, you can come up with other visual representations for diminishing values. Maybe your character can only fly for a limited time, have their wings fade as they lose power, or perhaps a climber will start to struggle or sweat. Any clues you can give the player so they understand they’re running low on juice.