Archive for category: Game Development


02 Dec
December 2, 2011

If you’d allow me, I’d like to take a moment to wave my fist angrily.

First, some context. There is this interesting site created by Mike Acton called altdevblogaday. Basically, a diverse bunch of game developers on twitter have pitched in to contribute their insight, experience and anecdotes in a blog-like format, one per day. It started out small but it’s grown in popularity quickly, posts are regularly reposted on sites like Gamasutra and the Escapist and it’s recently seen John Carmack become a contributor. All-in-all, it’s a great site, tons of interesting articles for devs and people who are interested in the industry alike. I highly recommend it.

But there was an article on Game Monetization recently that left me with a bad taste in my mouth. It summarizes everything I find distasteful about the misleadingly-named ‘social game’ genre*.

The article starts off ok by claiming that the most important thing is player engagement. That’s sort of a synonym for ‘fun’, isn’t it? Well, no. The dictionary says :

Engage : To attract and hold the attention of; engross

You’d think that if something holds your attention it must be because you enjoy it, but that isn’t necessarily true. There are other things that try to attract and hold your attention. Adverts, for example. I’d not call advertising ‘evil’, per se, but let’s be honest : you’re not consuming media for the ads (with the possible exception of industry folk). At best they are neutral, at worst they are an annoyance to be tolerated grudgingly, avoided where possible. While some adverts stand out as clever or amusing, as someone who hasn’t watched TV in years, trust me, you don’t miss them at all.

So engagement doesn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with ‘fun’. And moving through the rest of the article, that difference starts to become more apparent as social game design strategy is discussed. Let’s talk about ‘fun pain’.

One of Roger’s most interesting points was that “fun pain” was the key to social games’ success. Think about how a player needed to click each square to plant or harvest their crops in Farmville. This is a perfect example of “fun pain”, something that is simultaneously entertaining and a little bit annoying. This also gave Zynga the opportunity to upsell the player on pain-reducing items, such as a tractor that clicked four fields at once. These items were extremely popular among players, even though they only existed because it was painful to play the game in the first place!

This is where I start to lose my calm. Needing to click each square is “simultaneously entertaining and a little bit annoying”, is it? On what planet? It’s not entertaining, it’s just straight-forward tedium. There is no ambiguity here. But that isn’t the part that offends me. What offends me is that upon realizing that this tedium exists in the game, where a normal game developer might take the time and effort to make the player’s life easier by streamlining the tedium out of the interface so that all crops can be planted at once, a ‘social game designer’ gleefully pounces on it as an opportunity to sell the player an escape from the tedium their own design imposes in the first place.

And you’ll see this repeatedly in the piece. The classification of some distinctly un-fun or tedious aspect of the game design not as a flaw to fix but as an opportunity to get people to pay to have an experience that doesn’t suck.

Typically, you can earn the parts for the special item in three ways:

1. Grind for them over a long period of time
2. Spam your friends to have the send you the pieces you need
3. Pay for the parts that you are missing

Players almost always start with Grind or Spam to kick off their pursuit of the item. However, as the player grows weary of grinding and doesn’t see the response he was hoping for from his friends, he is left with a partially completed item and no use for the parts. Now, the user is willing to pay for the item to be completed.

The player growing weary is actually a design goal. It bears repeating, gradually increasing boredom is actually a design goal for a game here.

It sticks in my craw, this kind of thinking. There is no love for the art and craft of game design. The player having fun is actually an obstacle. A continuous cycle of dissatisfaction must be built into the system or the player can’t be convinced to give up money. Now, some might be about to say “but Gareth, surely they are entitled to receive money? These games aren’t cheap to develop and they give them away for free!”.

I’d suggest imagining it in another context. Imagine you open a restaurant, and your strategy to make money is to create purposefully bland food so that you can ‘upsell customers on condiments!’. Does this strike anyone as a good strategy? It may work in the short run, but I’d argue that only lasts until someone comes along and offers a superior product. Zynga made a bucketload of cash but it didn’t have much competition there for a while, and what competition it did have engages in the same practices as it does.

And regardless of whether it works financially or not, doesn’t that just strike you as an utterly sleazy business practice? Yeah, it’s Zynga, no surprise. But seriously, people are touting these mechanics all over the place, it’s the F2P revolution, dont’cha know?

Most of the list of ‘things that people pay for’ are more of the same thinking, features designed not for how fun they are but how much pressure they put on people to pay you :

Identity expression
Players will pay for anything that is socially surfaced in the game because you’re presenting your farm, city, or avatar to your friends.

Social pressure.

This drives demand for exclusive items: people will pay more when there is only a limited number of an item available, or to get things before other players.

Social pressure, prestige, not missing out.

Items that make the game more convenient and tip the “fun pain” scale more towards fun are worth a lot to a wide variety of players.

Surely ‘fun’ must be ok to pay for, right? Except it’s based on ‘fun pain’ in this context, ie the intentional inclusion of tedium to encourage the player to pay to escape said tedium.

Exclusive features
Having certain features or aspects of gameplay only become available for a fee can be an effective monetization model, as we see often with freemium software.

I’m ok with this. Little difference from a ‘demo’ or freeware strategy.

Hardcore players, especially males, will pay to get a competitive advantage against their opponents.

And there is a reason people find steroid use distasteful in sports, even if we know that it happens and that people will pay for it. Encouraging it is just another tick in the ‘don’t really give a fuck about gameplay, whatever makes us money’ check sheet.

Social value
Your players want their friends to play and by helping them, they increase their friend’s chance of sticking with the game. Once power becomes social, it becomes much more valuable and people pay for it.

Building social relationships, making new friends, creating community…wait, no, it’s about getting your existing friends to play to increase your social standing and power. How glorious, this ‘social value’ thing.

Roger found that random chance was a huge incentive for people to buy. We wrote a blog post that highlights the power of the Mystery Box that covers this in more detail.

Roger appears to have discovered the power of gambling. You’re only a couple of thousand years late to that realization, Roger. I’m not sure I want my games to become thinly veiled casinos, thanks.

Stat Progress
Players will pay for progress or temporary power in a game, especially a competitive one.

Already talked about my distaste for paid advantages in competitive games. Paying for progress…to me this implies that you’ve built your game so that gameplay isn’t that fun in and of itself, it’s just something people want to level through to get to a more exciting ‘endgame’. Lots of MMOs are like this, which is why services to buy fully-leveled characters exist. Imagine your favourite single-player game. Now imagine paying someone to give you a save game from the end of the game, so you can just skip all the rest. Yeah, would be pointless, wouldn’t it? if someone is paying to skip your game, what does that mean for your gameplay?

Surprisingly, people pay very well to advance the story. They feel a sense of progress when completing quests and will pay to overcome roadblocks in that progression.

I’d be happily on board with this except that the ‘roadblock’ phrasing implies that he’s not just talking about a model of creating and releasing expansion story so much as going in and chopping up what is already there for sale in pieces. Ugh.

I’ll end with 2 final lines from Roger’s Master Plan for Monetization that really summarize what I dislike about this whole design philosophy.

Negative reinforcement

Your obligation to your creations is a real driver of engagement. You don’t want your fish to die and float to the top of your tank, looking ugly and showing your neglect for all your friends to see.

Collection completion

This means mechanics like ‘do this 10 times and master it’ in Mafia Wars. “It’s kind of funny sitting there as a game designer and being like ‘our game is already kind of mundane… what if we make everyone do things 10 times?’ Well, it can work.”

What more can I say about a philosophy of game design based around obligation, social pressure and creating tedium so that your player pays you to alleviate it? Other than : I want no part in it, thanks. As a player, as a developer. Truly, the internet has a term for this :


*Misleading because ‘social games’ aren’t particularly ‘social’. They aren’t really about fostering a sense of community, forming new relationships or creating a space for engaging, dynamic shared experiences. Existing forms of multiplayer games are already vastly better at creating that shared social experience and connection than this new ‘social game’ genre. No, social games are simply about exploiting your existing social networks and relationships to get you to pay money. They’re not about creating social relationships, they’re about exploiting them. I guess ‘social exploitation games’ isn’t good PR copy.

Chris Hecker on Free-To-Play

20 Nov
November 20, 2011

If you don’t know who Chris Hecker is, he’s the designer behind Spy Party, one of the most interesting sounding game projects I know of, indie or otherwise. One where there primary conflict is behavioral and deception based, not violent.

Anyway, Chris had some wonderful thoughts about the free-to-play fad that’s currently so popular. Thoughts that I agree with, personally. Read them here.

Speaking personally, my goal is a sustainable living making the games I want to make. My goal is not to “maximize profits” or anything like that. Money is a means to an end, and more is not always better due to the costs of aquiring it.

Well said, Chris.

Oh, on a footnote, I’ve been having a bit of a break this last week, playing Skyrim mainly. Traditionally, at my old company, I would take a week off after the big Christmas game I’d been working on shipped. This year that completion heralded the end of my employment and the release of Skyrim, so it was a good time to take a break. Starting next week, I’ll begin to talk about Street Sorcery in earnest.

Come be we and be free!

12 Nov
November 12, 2011

“We be light, we be life, we be fire! We sing electric flame, we rumble underground wind, we dance heaven! Come be we and be free!”
Kate Griffin, A Madness of Angels

I’m finally free! I was supposed to leave Derivco at the end of October, but they asked me to stay on for 2 weeks to finish a project. The money offered was good and I’d have felt a bit bad simply walking out in the middle of things, so I agreed. Was a bit of a trial though, staying focused when your heart has already moved on. 😉

But it’s done! I’m free, free to dance a heaven of my own creation, the life I’ve dreamed of living for more than 10 years! The journey starts now!

(the quote above is the song that the electric blue angels of Kate Griffin’s ‘Matthew Swift’ series sing as they dance through the phone lines. )

Thoughts on Storytelling – Creating an Emotional Connection.

07 Nov
November 7, 2011

In my previous post in this series, I discussed how the player’s avatar doesn’t really work as a character in the traditional narrative sense. On this, Tahdg and I are in agreement. The avatar is more akin to a doll or a remote controlled limb through which the player can reach ‘through the screen’ and directly interact with the scene. This ability to interact with the game directly is a distinguishing feature of games, and it is the one which makes it such a powerful medium for engaging with an audience.

(I’ll note at this point that interactivity isn’t unique to games, there have been experiments with interactive art exhibits, plays where the cast members involve themselves with the audience, interactive books and movies (Lone Wolf & 7th Guest etc). But traditional mediums don’t have it at their core quite like gaming does.)

This interactivity also presents a distinct challenge. We’re used to dealing with an audience kept at arm’s length, we’ve got a toolbox full of techniques for building narratives in that scenario, tools that have been fine-tuned through centuries of experimentation. But now the audience is part of the show, and expects to be able to have a say in how things turn out. How do we build narratives around that? How do we control flow, pacing? How do we build emotional connection, create drama, comedy, horror etc?

I want to save some topics for later posts, so for now let’s focus on the creating emotional connection part. Given the previous post, where I argued that building emotional connections around the player tend to fail, how do we achieve this? Well, the answer has probably dawned on most of you, and it’s a fairly simple one :

Don’t build the story around the emotional development of the player. Build it around the development of the non-player characters.

Have the NPCs undergo character development arcs and give the player the ability to interact with and influence these arcs. This puts us almost back in traditional storytelling territory, with a bit of icing on the cake in the form of allowing the player to influence events and see how they turn out. While letting the player have influence reduces the absolute control the writer has on the outcome of the story, people invest more in anything they are personally involved in, so what you lose in fine control and pacing you make up for in personal investment.

You see, we don’t need events to happen to us in order to empathize. In fact that is actually what empathy is, the ability to imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes and consider how we would feel in their place. We don’t need to be Hamlet to empathize with his story. In fact, an attempt to force us to actually play Hamlet hinders our ability to experience those feelings.

Consider, you see someone crying. You might feel natural empathy for another person in pain or sadness. Now I tell you to try to cry yourself. Go on, be sad, do it. It doesn’t really work, does it? You can’t just switch on that emotion in yourself, in fact trying to do so when you aren’t actually sad feels weird, funny. Actors train themselves to slip into these personas, to try to call up genuine emotion at will, or at least the appearance of it. For most of us though, we feel a bit corny if we try it, artificial. We end up slipping into safer territory, making a bit of a joke about it, exaggerating, getting slapstick. Our self-awareness interferes.

But when we witness it in others and try to understand them, we aren’t aware of their internal state so our minds move to ‘fill in the gaps’ from our own experiences. We may not have ever lost a child, but perhaps we’ve lost a beloved family member. Our minds match it as a ‘closest fit’, recall how it felt at that time and so allow us to relate. We are not fighting our own self-awareness and identity, instead our minds have shifted to attempting to find common ground for understanding, communicating and relating with an external agent.

This ‘filling in the gaps’ is why we can relate not just to our social circle, but to fictional people, whether they are described via words in a book, cartoon figures or live actors. But there must be those gaps to fill in, and for that there needs to be some distance between us and the characters described.

So my point is this : make your emotional development character arcs about other characters but provide hooks for the player to involve themselves in the arc. Let them talk to the character, interact with them, delve into their thoughts and feelings. Let them influence, persuade, berate. And most importantly, let them witness the development, not just of the unfolding character arc that you have laid out as a writer, but of the effects of their own decisions on those arcs.

This is why I think Tahdg is wrong, that lack of agency is the core to deep storytelling. I disagree that the player needs to be helpless in order for drama or tragedy to have impact. If that were true, how would we experience such emotions in our own lives, where we certainly have agency but not absolute control of events? Yes, it is powerful to read a novel about a tragic, doomed character struggling against circumstance only to have it all prove futile in the end. But it is just as powerful, if not more so, for a player to influence a character in a certain direction only to have that path lead them to their doom. The fact that the result is a direct consequence of the player’s choices is that much more poignant.

Remember, ‘player agency’ doesn’t mean that the player always gets to find a happy ending. Consider a simple example, a narrative involving 2 highly sympathetic characters. The player gets to know each and, through skilled storytelling, even comes to like both characters. Then you put these characters into conflict, destructive conflict. Through misunderstanding or circumstance, these two strive against each other and only one can have a positive outcome, the success of one means the ruin of the other. Enter the player’s decisions, their ‘agency’. Through their actions, the player can tip the scales one way or the other. But the player cannot achieve an outcome where both parties are reconciled and everyone lives happily ever after. Whichever option they choose will result in the destruction (physically, emotionally, financially, whatever) of one of the characters they have come to be invested in.

That is incredibly powerful, for me. It wouldn’t work so well if the player was themselves one of the two characters, but by making the player choose between two sympathetic characters you force the player to battle with their own empathy to make a difficult choice.

Now, I won’t deny that there are certain types of stories that just aren’t a good fit for games. But I do think it is possible to tell powerful, moving stories within games. It requires understanding the medium and its unique nature though, and it seems to be something that most traditional writers struggle with. As I see it, there are two main problems that we keep seeing in game storytelling.

The first is in trying to emulate other storytelling mediums. Games that want to be movies, games that want to be books. Thinking we can just take a story from a novel, stuff the player into the role of the protagonist and it will work out great, better than great, it’ll be like being a character in that story! But that doesn’t quite work, as explained above.

The second problem is in sticking to stories where the player ‘wins’ the story in the same way they ‘win’ at the gameplay mechanics. We are, for the most part, stuck on stories that are light entertainment fluff, tales of adventure and power fantasies. Stories where the world is saved, the hero gets the girl and everything is made right in the end. We need to recognize that a sad or tragic ending can be just as satisfying as one where the player ‘wins’. There have been individual games that have gone to these places, but there are the exception. We need to cater for a fuller range of human experience in general.

Part of it is the nature of the medium, we’re making games so we tend to think of the ending point of our stories as being a reward, and rewards as having to be happy/positive/successful. The other side of it is the immaturity of the medium. Gaming is a young hobby and the audience is mostly younger people. That audience is growing older now, as anyone who has gotten older knows your tastes shift over time, become more nuanced. Older people want experiences they can relate to more, teenage fantasies lose their luster. With an aging audience, demand for emotional exploration and depth in games will grow, I have no doubt. There’ll be inertia, it’ll take a while for the industry to really notice that demand, caught up as it is in catering to aggressive young men. But make no mistake, where there is money to be made eventually there will be producers catering to those tastes.

Thoughts on Storytelling – The role of the Player

30 Oct
October 30, 2011

I’ve been reading a couple of interesting posts up on Tadhg Kelly’s thoughtful ‘What Games Are‘ blog, and I found myself agreeing with many of his points while disagreeing with the conclusions he reaches. So I decided it would be worth writing up some of my own thoughts. Since I’m unlikely to cover everything in one post, I thought I’d start a series called ‘Thoughts on Storytelling’. I’m no expert on the matter, but hopefully I can spark some interesting trains of thought or start a discussion, at least.

Tadhg’s posts that sparked this off can be found here :

Cars, Dolls and Video Games

Video Game Writing and the Sense of Story

It’s the second post that I have the most disagreement with, but let’s save that discussion for next time. For now, let’s talk about the subject raised in Tahdg’s first post, the role of the Player Character.

Tahdg’s assertion is summed up by this line : There is no such thing as a player character.

By which he means not that the player doesn’t exist, but that they aren’t really much of a character, in the narrative sense. And honestly, I pretty much agree with him.

Your instinct may be to disagree, but let’s go a bit deeper into what a character is, exactly. At first glance, a character seems like, well, a person. And they are, mostly. ( I say mostly because the setting or situation can be considered one of the ‘characters’ in your narrative, too ) But they’re more than that. They’re a plot device. In fact, they’re the most foundational plot device. Your story is told through your characters, conveyed through their actions and experiences. These actions are not incidental, the storyteller carefully constructs them to form a narrative. This is why, if you watch a movie or read a book, the characters only go to the toilet if it serves somepurpose, if there is some scene that takes place while the character is in the urinal.

Now, so far I’ve described nothing that would justify any statements excluding the player as a valid character within the narrative. The player performs actions and experience events, same as the non-player characters. The problem is what is called ‘character development’, not in the RPG sense but in the story sense. A story is achieved through the mechanism of this character development, the stringing together of events and actions that result in changes to the characters themselves. The emotional involvement in a story comes through observing and identifying with the changes that the characters go through, the pain and joy, the struggles, triumphs and loses. But the key part to understand here is that this requires meaningful changes in the characters themselves, ie ‘character ‘development’.

And that is near impossible to achieve when it comes to the player character.

The reason is simple. The player doesn’t exist in the setting itself, only the robotic limb extension that is the player avatar (what Tadhg calls a ‘doll’) does. With good writing, we can create the illusion of relationships between other characters. We can suspend disbelief at a convincing depiction of a mother grieving for a child killed by bandits say, forgetting for a moment that they are a collection of words or bytes and experiencing some level of empathy for their relationship and experience, but it is near impossible to make the player personally feel that kind of emotion. This is why ‘you must save your kidnapped sister/girlfriend/avenge you family!’ plots don’t work at the most fundamental level. No matter how much backstory you build around the character, no matter how well written the dialogue, the avatar is still fundamentally a robotic arm controlled by the player. And the player isn’t actually in the world, their sister hasn’t actually been kidnapped by bandits. We don’t experience the emotion, and if the player avatar appears to then it feels incongruent. Adam Jenson’s girlfriend was killed in the attack and he’s all guilt-ridden about her death and horrified at the mechanical monstrosity he’s become? Sure, if you say so. Me, I’ve got robot arms! Look at me punch through this wall, woohoo! Alright, alright, I’ll go get revenge on the people who killed her, blah blah whatever.

There isn’t any way to make the player really experience the feeling of attachment that is needed to experience loss, grief or any other meaningful emotion for their own character. Without these hooks, character development is nigh impossible. This doesn’t stop game writers from trying though.

This problem is fairly unique to video games, it’s a challenge that writers of books and movies don’t face. For those mediums, the viewer is an invisible observer, they do not have a place within the narrative. The concern of the writer isn’t in trying to make the observer experience these feelings personally, it’s in creating characters that the observer can empathize with. For that we have well understood tools, the basic steps of introducing and developing the scene/characters, then introducing conflict, and finally resolution. But it falls apart with the player character because step 2, conflict, falls flat. The narrative tells us we’re supposed to be conflicted but we really aren’t. No conflict, no struggle, no resolution.

I’ll give an example from Baldur’s Gate 2. Warning, spoilers incoming. 🙂

In BG2, the Character of Keldorn the paladin is one I remember quite well. Keldorn is the usual paladin archetype, bound to duty and honour and fighting injustice and all that, but written well enough that it wasn’t annoying as paladins usually are. But his personal story takes a twist when he returns home and finds the wife he thought was waiting dutifully for him to return home has been cheating on him to alleviate her loneliness. Enraged, he goes to confront her lover. You can basically talk him down or let him betray his paladin code and stand aside as he kills the lover.

The reason it worked well was because it followed the character development path outlined above. You were given time to get to know Keldorn, you weren’t just expected to care about his problems 30 seconds after meeting him. His personality wasn’t the player’s, but you could understand it. By giving you time to engage with the character and his views, you could empathize with the conflict he later faced. Then, when you were given the chance to influence the resolution, it felt meaningful. In some ways, more meaningful than in a passive story, because you were directly involved in the outcome.

Now consider the same plot, but with the player character at the center. First the game tells you that you have a wife that you care very deeply for. Yeah, sure. Then the game tells you that you spend years on the road fighting injustice because of your tremendous sense of duty. Right. Now it tells you that she’s cheating on you and you get to see a cutscene where your control is wrenched away and you see how torn up your avatar is over this betrayal. Uh-huh. Finally, you participate in the resolution phase and afterward get to watch a custcene where your character says something introspective, something that you had no idea ‘you’ were about to say. Great!

Doesn’t work, does it? When it’s an external character telling you how they feel about the situation and giving you a chance to influence them, you can empathize. It’s not that different from real life where you can’t read other people’s minds so all that you have got to go on are the external signs of emotion and the ability to ‘put yourself in their shoes’. When the it’s the player character though, your awareness of your own emotional state and how it’s in conflict with what the narrative says it should be renders it all a bit farcical.

I don’t agree with Tadhg that it is agency or lack of agency that kills drama, tragedy or what have you. Rather, I think it’s this expectation that the player will empathize with their avatar sock puppet that fails.

In the next post I’ll examine what I think this means for storytelling in games, but I’ll end for now with some caveats. The first thing I want to bring up is that some might be about to say ‘but Gareth, not all the characters go through character arcs where they develop and face conflict, what about the bit players?’. Well yes, true. Those characters are secondary though, they are more part of the backdrop, the scenery. Their role is to be interacted with by the primary characters. They’re essentially props for the actions of the main characters. Funnily enough, the player character is more like these secondary characters than the primary ones!

The second point is that there are a certain class of conflict that does work for the player character. Intellectual conflict works where emotional conflict fails. While you cannot easily make a player feel, you can make them think. You can pose a challenge to their world view or interpretation of events. And you can, as a storyteller, get emotional payoff indirectly through this technique. What can change the nature of a man, asks Planescape : Torment? Can you ever really go back home, asked Fallout 1?

These concepts get a player to experience emotion by relying on the fact that while the player may not have any real relationships with the fictional characters in the world, they do bring with them emotional attachment to ideas, and those ideas can themselves can be brought into conflict.  Certain experienced writers, like Chris Avellone, understand this, whether consciously or unconsciously, and build their stories around the player engaging in a conflict of ideas or ideals, rather than emotional ties that you’re expected to have to characters but don’t actually. Age of Decadence does the same thing.