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October 2017

Game Design: Mechanics V

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Now listening to: a bubbling coming from the wall(?!)

Walls should not bubble. That’s not a sound you want in your walls. Yet there it is. Glub glub glub flubba lubba glub burble lub. I like it, though. It reminds me of a story by H.P. Lovecraft. “The Rats in the Walls”. It reminds me that I recently ordered the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu. And I’m dying to try it out with my D&D crew.

Interesting thing, imagination. How it can spark a million ideas and trains of thought from a single station. Tarn Adams’ Dwarf Fortress makes solid use of a player’s imagination. How else can one explain people enjoying a game as stupid-fuckingly obtuse as Dwarf Fortress? And yeah, I lay it on thick there to get a reaction out of you. The game certainly fucking drips with character, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t elegant as hell as well!

It’ll be a classic.

It already is.

Balancing. Remember the jagged edges at the frontiers of structure? Who fucking cares about balancing, really? Balance doesn’t exist. Freeze the world at any one point in time and tell me it’s balanced. And in that sense, hacking away at your game with an axe or doubling it up like blackjack is not only fun, but the right way to balance?

Cry me a river. When has LoL ever been balanced? What good has perfect balance done for Starcraft II? You hear them bleat and bemoan with patch changes. At best, you can only hope to make a potion of your player base happy. But when a system is rebalanced, someone wins and someone loses.

I could talk about game economies but I find it so boring that I’d rather spare you my ramblings about things you have to deal with day in and day out as a gamer.

#51 Imagination

#52 Economy

#53 Balance

Game Design: Mechanics IV

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How do snowflakes form from something so simple as dirt, gravity and H2O?

There’s probably a beautiful algorithm for procedurally generated content hidden in there somewhere. Emergent complexity is a staple of every game considered a classic. Innate or rule-driven complexity, on the other hand, is perceived as a crass and contrived inevitability.

Crisis’ Dermot Mulroney, for my mother, has always been an example of striking the right balance between elegance and character. And I guess she has a point. Elegance without character is boring, and character without elegance is unappealing. Mulroney has that hard-to-achieve mix of rugged good looks. He wouldn’t be half as interesting without his trademark scar.

Same goes for Owen “My fucked-up nose is the stuff of legend” Wilson. Liv Tyler. Yada yada yada.

The problem with obsessive elegance is that it yields as little results as obsessive character. Water too clean holds as little fish as water too dirty. Actual charm lies somewhere in between and is never universal.

Game designers are often terrified to say “my game is this, and not that”.

#49 Elegance

#50 Character

Game Design: Rewards

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How many times have you paid attention to score in a fighting game?

Once? Twice? Most likely never, am I right?

Aren’t points a perfectly good reward in some games? In fighting games, however, points are next to meaningless. Yet, for some reason, many fighting games have a points tally stored away somewhere on the screen. Of course, points are a legacy artifact. A relic of a time where fighting games only existed in public venues like an arcade. A Mortal Kombat machine only had so many slots in a screen to rank its best players.


*the crowd cheers*


You did good. You should feel proud of yourself. You are up to the challenge. Here’s the metaphorical cookie of approval. And a pat on the head. That’ll do pig.



*a red flash blurs the screen*

“What’s the big idea, Fox?!”

You did bad. You should feel shame. You are not up to scratch.

#46 Reward

#47 Punishment

Game Design: Mechanics III

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A small one.

The antonym of synergy is antergy.

Synergy is: 2 + 2 = 5

Antergy is: 2 + 2 = 3

If a competitive game doesn’t work, try making it cooperative.

It also works the other way around.

#43 Competition

#44 Cooperation

#45 Competition vs. Cooperation

Game Design: Mechanics II

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Now listening to: “Song of Healing“, by Theophany

There’s are things called dominant strategies. Bad games like Starcraft II suffer them. Worse games like Monopoly are irretrievably broken by them.


Hey, listen. I didn’t invent the concept. If your game needs a balance patch every few months to keep it from crystallizing into two or three optimal strategies, that’s no one’s fault but your own. I’m not saying I can do it better. I’m just saying that, for me, playing a game where there’s little room for deviation from a tightly measured recipe is boring. I hear that a lot of people enjoy playing a classical piece flawlessly on the piano.

All games suffer from a crystallizing effect due to dominant strategies. There are no games without dominant strategies. It’s a byproduct of having rules. If there are rules, there are boundaries. If there are boundaries, there are jagged edge cases. If there are jagged edges, there are opportunities to exploit.

“Meta” is a term that arises from the need to analyze the current state of affairs as far as dominant strategies go and how players react to them, Strategy is a function of an assessment of risk and skill. A strategy that requires little skill and poses no risk and finds itself dominant is game poison.

A disparity between a player’s expectations of the levels of skill and chance required to play a game can spell disaster faster than anything else can. It is up to the designer to establish clearly what the rules are and to lay bare any clauses that a player might need to know to avoid the feeling of being cheated. A failure to do so will result in the player not understanding the boundaries of play and quitting in frustration.

I can only assume what “Head and Hands” must be all about. I’m thinking something about balancing motor skills with mental skills. That’s probably it.

#39 Meaningful Choices

#40 Triangularity

#41 Skill vs. Chance

#42 Head & Hands

Game Design: Mechanics

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Now listening to: my baby girl gurgle

This is all very theoretical and abstract. The space presented to the player is rarely the space in which the designer develops, yada yada yada… I don’t care too much for abstract thought and theoretical jerking. I get it. It’s easier to visualize the core of the game when you strip away the bells and whistles. Got it, thanks, next.

Time, however, is important. In marketing, as in comedy…

… timing is everything.

There’s something about the machine state, which makes me think about Ghost in the Shell. There’s something more about secrets, fuck if I remember, I read that bit months ago. I didn’t even write anything down. I was in such an emotional and psychological funk that I just trudged through these pieces. I’m sure that if I had been in my current mood, those paragraphs would’ve been found ladden with meaning and insight. Oh well, moving on.

Gameplay is decision making. Wow, brilliant. Yes, it is. Moving on. There’s a small annotation about the difference between tactics (raw action) and strategy (higher-level decisions). There’s something about emergent gameplay, heard the whole gaming community masturbate to that term furiously decades ago. Not much there. There’s a bracket stating that a tactic requires a verb to be considered one. That’s actually pretty clever to be sure you’re properly dimensioning them.

There’s a half-baked idea to implement elemental motes on a game I’m working on with a couple of people. It’s a horrible, slap chop piece of design, but maybe it can fix a problem we’re having.

Ah, goals! Finally! Paydirt, baby!

A goal is concrete, achievable and rewarding. You use skills to make it happen.

Holy. Shit. I was in such a bad funk that I literally forgot to jot down two lenses into my notebook. That job was fucking killing me. Well, glad that’s over. Too bad, though, cause this looks really interesting. I’ll have to revisit these chapters later. There’s a few lines about probability. I remember finding that refresher a treat.

I really like the part about players choosing between the low-powered but reliable Magic Missile and the high-powered but unreliable Lightning Bolt. A live example of this can often be found in competitive Pokemon. Most competitive players will shun the extremely powerful but fickle Hydro Pump water attack in favor of the more moderate but also more reliable Surf.

Balance is not just about raw power. It’s more like a recipe. You know when it’s just right.

#26 Functional Space

#27 Time

#28 State Machine

#29 Secrets

#30 Emergence

#31 Action

#32 Rules

#33 Goals

#34 Skill

#35 Expected Value

#36 Chance

#37 Fairness

#38 Challenge

Game Design: Speak with Child

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Sometimes called Speak with Dead.

I like new things. That’s what I like. I find delight in new experiences. That’s why board games appeal to me so strongly. They’re a new experience every time. Even the same game with the same people often provides a new experience.

A man desires mastery, competition, destruction, spatial reasoning and victory through trial and error. Guess that’s why I like X-wing so much. And why my wife hates it. Women prefer emotion, ties to the real world, nurturing mechanics, dialog and verbal components, to learn by following an example. She loves Great Western Trail.

Schell has a fairly interesting passage about needs and how they fit into our lives according to Maslow. Haftas vs. wannas, however, takes the cake.

Haftas solve for pain avoidance. Either I block or I’ll incur in serious damage. Wannas solve for pleasure seeking. If I chain this just right I’ll build my attack into a massive combo. The parry is a sublime mechanic. The parry marries a hafta with a wanna. The hafta portion is avoiding damage, while the wanna portion is building your combo bar.

The amazing thing about Nidhogg is that you can disarm your opponent while dueling. Without that, I don’t think the game would be nearly as fun as it is. It’s not an indispensable mechanic, oh no, but pulling a disarm makes you feel like a million dollars.

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, pain avoidance and pleasure seeking, these are the axes of drive. To me, the appeal of novelty is overwhelming, I’m a junkie for new and delightful experiences. That being said, there’s no such thing as a universal set of motivations. There are base motivations to do so, true, and if one digs deep enough one can reach the layers of instinct. But even instinct varies from person to person.

There’s no one universal motivation to play. That’s why it’s important to hit the nail in the head. You need to know what you’re building and who you’re building it for.

#22 Needs

#23 Motivation

#24 Novelty

#25 Judgement

Game Design: Resistance II

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Now listening to: “Baket Street”, by Gerry Rafferty

It’s been months, and what I wrote last was “know your audience”. I was missing a small additional sentence.

Know thyself.

This is the slowest book I’ve read in my life. Ironic, since this subject interests me immensely. I feel, though, that there’s an underlying fear crippling my efforts to move forward with this. So back on the saddle for me, I guess. There’s other stuff I want to read at least. 2017 will be a very slow book year for me otherwise, and the Discworld series is long.

I’ve learnt something reasonably important as far as skill and challenge go. Games that offer too much of a challenge drive players away out of sheer frustration. The task is so beyond your skill and reasonable chance to accomplish that you just give up. And before someone bleats “Bit whit abit Dirk Sils!”, because I just know you fucking trolls are out there, know that the Dark Souls series and roguelikes in general are a reaction to decades of dumbing down games to the mainstream audience.

There’s a band of difficulty that generates pleasure when overcome, and this band is different for everyone. Some people get off on a band that would bore others to tears. Others get off on a band that would generate despair on the hardiest of gamers.

Why am I talking about skill and challenge? Because it ties to my last post months ago. You have to know your audience, and the bands of difficulty that they get off to. If you try to peddle the Assassin’s Creed series to Dark Souls junkies you’ll burn up on entry. I myself, from time to time, like a challenge. Is it the same level of difficulty every time?

Hell no. I went on an Enter the Gungeon binge a few months back. It was fun as hell until I hit a brick wall that I just couldn’t get over. Then I scaled it back to Darkest Dungeon. That held my interest for a while until it got repetitive. Now I’m looking at Stellaris and lusting after it.

Who’s to say that in a few months I won’t be back to hardcore roguelikes? I just might. But you know what I get tired of far less frequently?

Multiplayer games.

I recently went on a WoW binge and dropped it. The challenge is kinda sorta there but there’s just so much grey paste to chew down with it that it’s just not worth it. I dabbled in LoL again. The only role I find actually fun, the jungler, holds little to no secrets I find worth exploring anymore. I’m doing a bit of Overwatch, and it’s fun. The only problem is that the difficulty levels from match to match vary so wildly that it throws me off completely.

There’s a real problem lately for me in finding the game that appeals to my specific flow of difficulty.

#22 Flow