Sunday, February 24, 2008

Limited Variety

Leiavoia’s ‘Strategy Game Designer’s Constitution’ is one of those rare sources that I keep going back to. It is, for an addict like me, one of those rare documents that I have printed out multiple times, defacing each hardcopy with highlights and scribbled notes.

The idea that strategy games should offer less variety with more choices is one of my favorite points. It sounds counter-intuitive at first, especially as hardware and software advances have allowed developers to increase complexity exponentially. But as with most great philosophical puzzles, this one blooms the more it is considered.

What I find so compelling about this idea is that it is not just a mantra to be used in Strategy games, but can be applied to almost any game genre.

If we would take a simple racing sim, for example, and give our players only the ability to accelerate and break, we are offering two variations of input, but almost unlimited choices.

We can also apply this mantra to DPS systems by introducing a static progression based on level, not uber-gear epics. One standard DPS value for all weapons at a certain level might sound like limited variety and limited choice, but by simply altering the damage range of each unique weapon type (minimum-maximum damage range), we keep the variety down, but expand player choices again.

The reduction of variables not only makes the production of the game easier, but also allows for some elegant solutions to most balance issues. The only genre I have not found an elegant translation for has been Crafting/Economy sims, but do not blame the law, blame the lawyer.
Continue reading 'Limited Variety'

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Principle of Elegance

The concept of balanced mechanics fascinates me. Core game mechanics, based on flexible yet static rules, which would react to each other in scaled perfection, are the Holy Grails of my obsession. In short, Elegance.

I am well aware that blind faith, more than factual conclusions, allows me to believe that elegant core mechanics can co-exist with each other, but that does not dim my philosophical obsession. Simplicity in games can lead to some very elegant core mechanics, but it is when complexity is added to games that we tend to lose elegance.

Why is so little effort put into balancing a games core mechanics before it is rushed into production? Or is the realization of elegant mechanics so Utopian that it is not possible, no matter how much effort is put into it? Is the need for patches and nerfs a symptom of bad core mechanics, or the resulting growing pains of an industry still in its infancy?

I believe that deconstructing and analyzing the major balance issues in most games would support the argument that it is mental laziness, not inability, which prevents truly complex yet elegant mechanics. The lack of elegant solutions is frustrating, and until more gamers demand finished products that are complex and intuitively balanced, we will be stuck with the cheaper solution of patching patches, never knowing if complex elegance can be designed.

Continue reading 'The Principle of Elegance'

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The PvP Equations

All the buzz about WAR has inevitably led to discussions about it’s PvP and RvR components. The one game mechanic that has not been mentioned in all the PvP talk is instanced PvP. The success of games like Counter Strike: Source, Doom, and even WoW’s battleground PvP seem to indicate that no matter how much sandbox PvP, or RvR perpetual PvP zones, are desired, some players still want to be able to log in and frag a few opponents without considering the ramifications of where, when, why and with whom.

How important is the multi-player instanced PvP option today? Most single player games are incorporating multi-player PvP options (see Halo), and some are even designed as multi-player PvP games with the solo play thrown in at the N’th hour (arguably, also Halo). I think the demand for instanced PvP is evident; the problem lays in the game mechanics that shape the end product.

One of the biggest obstacles is how to reward, or rank, the combatants. Segregation by experience levels, power scores based on rank, scores created by win/loss records, etc. have all been tried; yet all seem to be lacking in some way or another.

When considering how to create a ranking system (independent of gear, experience, or talent rewards) what should matter? What should separate a top ranked player from the lower masses? Do you weight the formula on dedication and time spent playing or purely on wins and losses? What about kills vs. deaths, damage dealt or Killing Blows?

From the protected secrecy of Credit Score Formulas, to the arcane (and some would say arbitrary) BCS rankings in college football, we are surrounded by complex formulas that matter in our real lives. In a world where complex esoteric formulas are fundamentally important, should not games begin attempt to also create elegant solutions, even if complex, rather than just hitting the ‘easy button’ by reducing complexity and thus representation?

Continue reading 'The PvP Equations'

Friday, February 15, 2008

Echoing the Ring

If you haven’t seen it yet, Scott Jennings is taking some heat from Brock Pierce’s lawyers over a recent blog post about IGE that he wrote. If all of the reports are to be believed, there’s no real legal basis for their demands, but Scott (wisely avoiding the headache of dealing with it) has complied anyway. As you can imagine, the whole exchange has stirred quite the little controversy, and both Ryan Shwayder and Matt Mihaly have weighed on in on the issue. Additionally, someone anonymously reposted the text of it to a temporary blog just to keep it active.
- from Random Battle

The implications of this are at once chilling, and a bit amusing. Chilling in the regard that not many bloggers would have the time or resources to fight a C&D. Amusing in that it is nice to know that even game blogs can instigate disproportionate overkill. In case you have not been able to see the original, this will bring you to the original post that raised all this fuss, and this will bring you to Broken Toys reception of the C&D, and the response to it. Continue reading 'Echoing the Ring'

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Art of Economies, MMO tangent

Linear progression in games has been segueing into open-ended experiences in every genre. From Tony Hawk to GTA, players are becoming more responsive to non-linear narratives where they can choose how to experience their own story inside the framework of a game.

This freedom is perhaps most popular in MMO’s. When the fundamental object and design of a game becomes to sustain gameplay infinitely, the old way of telling a linear story in a game becomes not only obsolete, but something to be avoided. This is assuming that the MMO’s developer is not suicidal, and intends not only to retain every subscriber and widen their subscriber base, but that they also crafted their product to entice and engage current/potential customers with said intent.

While linear vs. open arcs have their pros and cons, both are still methods that share a common goal of making a game interesting to the players. The transition to more open modes has one glaring difference on the game mechanics side; when a game gives up a linear progression, it looses the ability to arbitrarily use a stick to motivate players along a set path, and can only use carrots in an attempt to lure players in a direction. As most veteran MMO players already know, this carrot is usually ‘things’. Gear is the most common form of this, but for the sake of argument, we will roll gear, money, property, and any form of player ‘owned’ virtual ‘stuff’ into our virtual carrot called ‘things’.

Chris Chapman makes an excellent point in how most games will use two currencies, XP and money. While I agree with this notion, and even think that the blending of the two, as he suggests, might help alleviate some of the problems encountered in MMO economies; I think that the amount of XP goals in most games are so small compared to the amount of ‘thing’ goals, that his one-currency idea is one of many solutions available, not the only one. Game developers also seem to consider the XP balance of games very carefully. The number of patches, polishes and planning that are common in most class/level scenarios attest to the importance developers place on their XP balance. Why game economies do not get this same amount of attention is what intrigues me.

So what are the biggest problems with current MMO economies? Supply and demand fluctuations which create risk/reward loopholes would be the simple answer. Once it is understood that inflation is a supply and demand problem (increased supply of currency, decreased supply of demanded products/services), almost all economic problems in MMO’s can be attributed to supply/demand fluctuations and overly complex variations inside their economies.

One common mistake that developers make is in assuming that variations are synonymous with choices (see Golden Rule #4 for more clarification). They mistake intricacy with engagement. Oversimplifying a virtual economy is not solved by adding complex variations, because all that accomplishes is obscuring the supply/demand chain, making the hunt for efficiency more complex, but not impossible (hello Excel!). Simple or complex, players are going to go on efficiency hunts if the economy is not balanced, seeking out the one crafting skill or loot drop that increases their time/reward ratio.

These small imbalances of time/reward are then magnified by sheer volume in the context of an MMO, creating the dual-headed monster of Inflation/Deflation that can ruin, or at least demoralize, a game’s economy. To combat this monster, the universal solution is money sinks and reward levels. They combat inflation (too much money in circulation) with money sinks (mount costs, transportation fees, durability, etc.) and fight deflation (not enough money in circulation) by increasing rewards (quest rewards, loot drops, etc.). The problem with this print-money/burn-money solution is that it is impossible to fine-tune when used in a massive population.

As MMO’s become microcosms of the real world, the economies of these games become simplified models of real world economies also. In the real world there are two common solutions used to combat inflation/deflation: interest rates and circulation volume. Burning wheelbarrows of cash in order to fight inflation or printing money to fight deflation is like using a sledgehammer to perform brain surgery. Scaling money-sinks and rewards to character levels and player-time-investment is impossible, and inconsistencies lead to imbalance, which leads to loopholes. That is why interest rates are used to fine-tune the day-to-day fluctuations of real economies. Why are games so different?

I think the idea of introducing interest rates into games both scares and overwhelms developers. The demands of creating and maintaining a MMO while making a profit is so daunting that adding a complex (and misunderstood) element to a game that requires specialized knowledge and daily attention ranks lower on developers ‘to-do-lists’ than spending money on qualified Community Directors. The problem is that by not adding interest rates, games continue to place band-aids in gaping wounds. Once understood and implemented, interest rate manipulation not only solves the inflation/deflation problems encountered in MMO’s, but does so elegantly and consistently.

Incorporating interest rates is not as complicated or potentially theme-breaking as most players and developers fear. Encouraging players to deposit money rather than spend it or vice-versa is the crux of this mechanic. This can be done using existing common MMO game mechanics already commonly misused in most games, preserving the core game mechanics and limiting player confusion.

Death taxes, or any such variation such as durability repairs, are already common in most games. Simply adjusting this ‘tax’ so that it both scales with gear level and includes a percentage of the ‘money’ a player has on the dying character is not too radical. Player held ‘money’ would also then need an arbitrary cap, which is once again common in most games, either by giving ‘money’ an encumbrance weight or by simply capping the maximum volume a player can carry at one time.

These two simple changes would encourage players to deposit most of their net worth, carrying only enough gold to pay for services needed when they are at risk of dying.

Once this ‘money’ is deposited, it would earn interest, the rate of which would be a variable changed constantly by the developers in response to inflation/deflation. Raising interest rates would encourage saving, while lowering the rates would encourage spending. The addition of reserve amounts, a percentage of total deposits each bank has ‘on hand’ would limit massive amounts of players from withdrawing too much money collectively on any one day. Bank reserve amounts could also be paired with personal withdrawal caps, limiting a player from massive withdrawals in one day by having a hardcap (flat value) and/or percentage of total net worth limit, all in an effort to limit economic terrorism (can you grief an economy?).

The advantage of elegant control coupled with consistency is hard to ignore. Simplification of variations while expanding choices coupled with interest rates would not solve all the problems MMO economies are facing, but they would address the most pressing issues of balance (like hyper-inflation) while also solving some annoying problems (like pigs that give ‘currency’ as a loot drop…).

Continue reading 'The Art of Economies, MMO tangent'

Friday, February 8, 2008

The Art of Economies

Economics and games are becoming inseparable. From in-game virtual economies that balance risk/reward to the real-world business of game construction/consumption.

As a game-mechanics addict, I have always had a disproportionate love for how virtual game economies work; and as a business owner I have always been sensitive to the capitalistic laws that shape the fledgling game industry.

There is plenty of criticism of modern game factories, so discussing the pros and cons of Big Business and how it affects the products we love so much is more like cannibalizing a corpse than creating discourse. While there are some tantalizing tidbits left on this particular corpse, as a broad subject it has been picked over beyond the point of death. In-depth conversations about Big Business Gaming seem to dissolve into rants and ruminations about the ‘good ole days’ more often than not. The precise effects that corporate structures have on gaming products are far more interesting, but far rarer due to the fact that flaming is just more fun than thinking.

So I will leave the real-world economics of games for anther day, and get a bit esoteric. I am going to deconstruct and examine how in-game economics are being used in Strategy games and in MMO’s. As technology, complexity, and communities advance, are game economies keeping pace? What works well, what works and what fails? Hell, what is the purpose of in-game economies?

Before I dive into these questions, here is some great background information to help illuminate this subject.

-This short piece by Edward Castronova for Wired magazine explains the basic relationship that real economic principals play in the virtual world.

-Here Nate Combs (on the site Terra Nova) discusses why MMO economies are so hard for designers and developers to get right.

-This rough essay by Chris Chapman discusses the mingling of experience and wealth to create a unified currency in games.

-Here Shannon Applecline investigates a game mechanic called “The Tragedy of the Commons” that can be applied to a variety of game systems.

-Damion Schubert from Zen of Design tackles the incentives of fun and economic gains, and how WoW is struggling with those concepts for end-game players.

-This article is merely meant to point out the effects that these virtual-economies can have on real world businesses, and the steps Developers are taking to protect their IP.

Continue reading 'The Art of Economies'

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Mods vs. Design, what is the Intent?

The recent discussions about WAR’s intended policies towards UI Mods have sparked a few conversations with my friends and got me thinking. If you are not familiar with the overall discussions, check out Keen and Graev’s posts (1,2), along with Tobold’s.

The importance of user-created content is finally being embraced by game producers, be it the inclusion of real cities in Monopoly or the ability of PotBS players to create in-game content. Mods are also user-created content. They allow their creators to care more about the game by allowing them to have a personal investment, and offer good Modders to gain respect and attention from the players who use their Mods. Even without going into how bad the original WoW UI was, Mods also can allow non-programming Mod-using players to personalize their interface, once again increasing the personal investment towards the game.

What I would like to clarify, without retreading the discussions already at the above sites, is the difference between Visual Mods (those that affect your HUD or Visual Interface) and Mechanics Mods (those that allow for game actions or processes to be manipulated). Keen attempted to state this difference a few times, but it seems that his delineation was lost amid the clamor of people attempting to fight for or against the inclusion of all Mods in any game. The importance of this delineation can not be overstated.

I encourage and support most efforts to Communitfy games. Where I begin to get nervous is when we discuss the Mechanics Mods. As both Keen and Tobold stated, there is a fine line between ‘cheating’ and advantage when we talk about Mechanics Mods. If a Mechanics Mod becomes necessary for a player to compete, then it is clear that the developer needs to incorporate that Mod into the actual game or remove it, anything else is intellectually lazy on the part of the developer. Incorporating it is not akin to admitting an oversight happened during development, but rather it is embracing the idea that player-feedback can help a game evolve in positive ways. Removing it is not akin to admitting the Modder was trying to cheat, but rather it protects the integrity of the game’s core mechanics and balance. Both developers and Modders need to check their egos, and ask “How does this Mod affect the intent of the game’s core mechanics and balance?”

Another interesting question emerges from this discussion. What happens when a developer limits Mechanics Mods, in an effort to retain their intended balance (see Tobold’s example of DoT in paragraph four). While I would agree that they should be limited, some of the Mechanics Mods that have been incorporated into WoW officially by Blizzard are fantastic. How should a game allow Mechanics Mods to be created, in order to incorporate new ones into the game itself, while protecting the actual game from the ‘broken’ or ‘unintended’ ones?

Continue reading 'Mods vs. Design, what is the Intent?'

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Emotion Element

Where do games and stories intersect? Although there is no inherent story in a game of checkers, is the experience of playing that game a story? Could it be? Should it be? As important as the where is the question of should games and stories intersect.

There is a lot of critique on the execution of storylines in games (mostly bad) and quite a bit concerning making stories into games (almost all bad). Why is this?

From oral traditions, to written epics, to mass market novels, to Hollywood; storytelling has been able to evolve and thrive as technology advances. Why is the fledgling medium of games such a problem?

What is so challenging about producing real emotional responses in players? Or rather, why is evoking compassionate emotions such a challenge? Anger, frustration, excitement, etc. have all been part of the gaming experience since games were created. Sympathy, empathy, love and sadness seem to be emotions that Hollywood can mass produce to spec, but games can not translate. Is this due to the infancy of the gaming genre, with a breakthrough right over the horizon? Or are games fundamentally different than stories, and as such, internally unable to ever create those feelings?

What is possible? What about probable? And what should we attempt for tomorrow or avoid altogether?

Continue reading 'The Emotion Element'


Interaction - “Mutual or reciprocal action or influence.”

Interactivity has become a tech-buzzword for every product, service or concept in business over the past decade. In relation to games, it is universally accepted as part of the definition. Players have to interact with something in a game, no?

So can a game become a non-interactive form of entertainment, but still remain a game? What is the NFL? What about watching a chess match? What about poker tournaments on TV? The reason this distinction intrigues me is that if we can begin to understand when watching someone else playing a game becomes entertaining to us, perhaps we can better understand how to incorporate stories into games, or games into stories.

When does a cut-scene in a video game become an asset instead of an annoyance? When does a DM’s introduction to a quest become captivating instead of informational? How can the Packers break my heart in the playoffs, when losing in Madden online barely annoys me?

Is interactivity a core necessity of a game, or should it be viewed as a tool to be used judiciously in an effort only to enhance the game? How much interaction is too much, or is there such a thing? Audience vs. Player, or can it be both in a good game?

Continue reading 'Interactions'

Friday, February 1, 2008

Mass Effects

This blog is not meant to only discuss video games at the expense of other genres. My love of games covers all genres, except for perhaps the role-playing diner variety (but a role-playing cocktail game might interest me). Checkers, Solitaire, Football, The Sims, World of Warcraft, Shadowrun, the old hex-map version of Battletech and the original arcade cabinet version of Ms. Pac-Man all appeal to me even today. I still find games at old comic shops or online that I had forgotten used to enchant me. Just recently I was pointed to Matt Forbeck’s blog where I was reminded of a game that fifteen years ago had engaged me for an entire year. That game, a football game based on Orcs and bloodshed called Bloodbowl, had completely slipped my mind.

The problem that I am running into is that most of the information on the web that one encounters when Googling “games” are reviews, free flash games or press releases. Ignoring these, most of the remaining content concerns video games. It is hard to locate real discussions about the trials and tribulations of balancing a developing board game, updating a new edition of a table-top game, or even the difficulty vs. necessity of creating a compelling story for a new CCG.

As I stumble on relevant sites, am directed to some, and hear from others this balance should level out. In the meantime I am forced to rely on my own perspective as a closet tinkerer and fan/player when looking at the relevant issues pertaining to the “why” of games. I have hope that my knowledge of sites and issues will expand, and that eventually I can compel some like-minded people to engage in relevant discussions. Until that happens though, Video Games are the currency being used to fund this start-up.

PS: for those of you who do not know what News Feeds are, check them out. What a great way to have instant access to your favorite sites and self-filter what news you wish to stay on top of.

Continue reading 'Mass Effects'