24 November 2011

Bottom-up game design

Existing definitions

Adams defined bottom-up game design in 2004 as turning a simulation or a real-life mechanism into a game. It assumes that any process that is subtle or interesting to program is also going to be interesting to play with. If the simulation has too many variables, many of them end up being useless, and this results in possible dominant strategies and the game being dull.

Lopes and Kuhnen redefined bottom-up game design in 2007, as applying a particularly fun gameplay verb or mechanic, complementing it with the appropriate setting, content and story. Developers think first about the elementary game actions, called verbs, that the player can execute (move, attack, ...) and then about the aesthetics (fantasy universe, ...). Examples are games in the Doom series, which were built barely as excuses for the brutal, over-the-top shooting gameplay; the oppressing universe and mood simply fit well with the gameplay.

In 2010, Deleon focused more on the medium constraints with his definition: concept inspired by or chosen partly by its form of representation. For instance, Bubble Bobble is about shooting a ball into balls of similar color, and the little dragons or fruits are merely decorations. Same for Bejewelled. Bottom-up designed games also include games made for particular platforms with limited hardware (like Bogost's games for the Atari 2600).

More theory: ludemes

Ludeme was a term coined by Berloquin or Dawkins in the early 1970s, as a portmanteau of ludic meme, because a ludeme can be found in many (classes of) games. Ludemes are described by Parlett as conceptual elements of the game, most typically equivalent to its "rules" of play. For example, whereas the material piece shaped like a horse and designated "knight" is a component of the game, the distinctively skewed move of a knight is a ludeme of the class "rule of movement". But other types of ludemes also exist. For example, the name, referend and associated connotations of "knight" - those of a chivalric courtier - may be said to constitute a thematic ludeme.

At GDC 2005, Koster presented his vision of a grammar of gameplay, referring a lot to ludemes. For Koster, ludemes are atomic mechanics with at least 2 possible outcomes (e.g. moving a Checker piece to capture, prepare, or force the opponent to capture (which is actually a kind of preparation)), among which at least one is failure (even if failure only means closing some of the player's opportunity doors). Synonyms of ludemes are: verbs (Crawford), choices (Meier), or conflict. Each ludeme involves a UI action (e.g. pressing button). In terms of complexity, Chess is more complicated than Checkers because each of the 6 types of Chess pieces has its own movement and capture ludemes, while all Checker tokens have the same ludemes.

Bottom-up game design in practice

As Lopes and Kuhnen pointed out, designing games with a top-down approach is somewhat of a dark art when it's time for the designer to bridge the gap between the high-level concept (e.g. in terms of experience, emotions and feelings targeted to the player) and the routine tasks of the player (e.g. drawing a card, moving their avatar or attacking). Current game design textbooks such as Adams' Fundamentals or Schell's Book of Lenses, putting forward player-centricity, suggest a top-down approach by focusing on the experience the entire game should convey to the player.

But a player-centric bottom-up approach is also possible. I'm trying here to provide prescriptive rather than proscriptive steps. In the bottom-up process, the designer should ask the following questions:

  • What are the elementary actions the player can do? (define the ludemes)
  • How can these actions be fun? (feeling of latent power, fiero, schadenfreude, aesthetic pleasure, ...)
  • What are the transitions between these actions? (for the ludeme "roll a dice", it is when the dice is rolling)
  • How fun are the transitions? (surprise, feeling of progression)
  • Sanity checks: how do the actions fit together as a whole? (pointing to shoot in FPS should not be followed by a dice roll, the intense mechanical ludemes of Doom should be matched with horror-aesthetics ludemes such as the lack of light, ...) Does the overall feel of the game match the feeling of all the elementary actions put together? (ludemes should add up, not negate each other)

This process is tentative, possibly flawed, and therefore feedback is most welcome.

21 November 2011

For the win - Doctorow 2010

Doctorow C. 2010, For The Win

Notes from For The Win from Doctorow. The book's license is Creative Commons NC-SA. No spoiler here, only some interesting concepts mentioned throughout the book.

Part I: The gamers and their games, the workers at their work

  • Some players in developing countries like China or India farm gold or are paid to raid with richer solo players from the West to drop them gear or level them up. Western players want to keep up with their friends gear- and XP-wise.
  • The parents, whether Indians or Americans, don't understand how their kids can spend so much time playing online games. American parents talk about addiction whereas Indian parents about waste of time.
  • There are multiple, competing interworld exchanges: want to swap out your Zombie Mecha wealth for a fully loaded spaceship and a crew of jolly space-pirates to crew it? Ten different gangs want your business. Even RL traders place money on the value of virtual gold, because virtual gold fluctuates a lot and can be exchanged against RL money through the official in-game banks. RL criminal cartels also turn IG gold into real money.
  • Big gold farming businesses hire hardcore gamers to kill other farmers. The biggest sellers of virtual gold are game companies themselves and they hire killers too.
  • Dungeons are made so that farmers make less and less money: grinding gold gives 12k the first hour, 8k the second, 2k the third, and 100 at the end. Then, a GM appears and bans them, but they've already collected as much as they could for the night before going to sleep.
  • Mechanical Turks were an army of workers in gamespace. All you had to do was prove that you were a decent player -- the game had the stats to know it -- and sign up, and then log in whenever you wanted a shift. The game would ping you any time a player did something the game didn't know how to interpret -- talked too intensely to a non-player character, stuck a sword where it didn't belong, climbed a tree that no one had bothered to add any details too -- and you'd have to play spot-referee. You'd play the non-player character, choose a behavior for the stabbed object, or make a decision from a menu of possible things you might find in a tree.

Part II: Hard work at play

  • Mushroom Kingdom is a Mario-based MMO from Nintendo-Sun. You can play on the side of Princess Peach, or on Bowser's.
  • Prikell equations: a certain amount of difficulty plus a certain amount of your friends plus a certain amount of interesting strangers plus a certain amount of reward plus a certain amount of opportunity equalled fun
  • virtual currency tended to rest pretty close to its real value, plus or minus five percent
  • Socio-economics experiment about envy: lock 25 grad students in a room for 8 hours. Give each of them a poker chip and say "Every hour I'm going to give each of you $20 per chip you hold". At the beginning, each chip is worth 8*20=$160. After 2 hours, chips start being exchanged against dollars, and at the end of the 8th hour, some chips even get traded for $50, while they only bring $20 to their owner. Each of them started and kept trading because of the fear that he was missing out on what the rest of them were getting: the sirens called Someone else is getting richer, why aren't you?. Greed is "if 1 is good, then 10 is definitely better". Envy is about what other people think is good, and being part of the crowd.
  • Gamerunners spend most of their time in the Command Room, watching the world through logs, screens, chat channels, or charts, to get a feeling of the game worlds - Fingerspitzengefuhl.
  • the game soundtrack has its own AI that creates more dramatic moments

Part III: Ponzi

  • Gold farmers used to login from Asian IP addresses, give all the gold from an account to a newbie without speaking a single word, who in turn would give it silently to a bunch of other newbies from guilds with names like "afasdsadssadsa289". Later, gold farmers logged in using American proxies, started speaking broken English, and became indistinguishable from profitable Western kids.
  • After their 12-hour shift, some gold farmers relax by playing some more with a separate avatar that they only use to play, not to work with.
  • Pacific protest: ask everyone to gather in downtown and eat ice-creams. Recruit people passing-by in giving them ice-creams.
  • If you nuked every account involved in a gold-farming buy, we'd depopulate the world by something like 80 percent.
  • Coke ran games that turned over more money than Portugal, Poland or Peru.

17 November 2011

Rules of Engagement - Pardo at GDC 2008

Pardo R. 2008, Rules of Engagement: Blizzard’s Approach to Multiplayer Game Design

A talk from Rob Pardo which was actually first delivered at GDC 2008. The talk has already been covered elsewhere. You can also find the slides with Q&A of GDC 2008. Anyway, here are my take-aways.

  • Implement the multiplayer part of the game first, then the story and single-player components.
  • In PVP, focus on balance, skill differentiation (e.g. reflexes for FPS, multitasking and strategic thinking for RTS, knowledge of the mechanics for both RTS and FPS, economic dominance), and ladders/ratings. For co-op games, focus on the communication between players and complementary classes. Ex: in Warcraft 3, a mine is considered 'full' when 5 peons work on it; the economic part is dumbed-down to encourage the players to focus on the micro-management of fighting units.
  • Avoid differentiation on map knowledge: it's not really a skill. Instead, reveal the map but keep a fog of war (like in Starcraft 2), so that players know the flow of the map and where the resources are, and can pick their strategy accordingly.
  • Everything should feel overpowered, not mediocre.
  • Balance first for the expert, then for the novice.
  • Balance is affected by the maths, but also by the UI (e.g. WoW's UI mods, or the possibility to select only up to 12 units in Starcraft 1 as opposed to an arbitrary large number of units in Starcraft 2), maps/level design, special effects (e.g. too much blurs the vision, cf the War of Emperium of RO set /mineffect by default to limit the visual flood of skill effects)
  • Players hate loosing, hence make games shorter so that they can play more games per play session, and eventually win some.
  • Reward the behaviors you want people to do/make it a bonus
  • Tie art and game design together. The appearance of Heavy of Team Fortress is explicit: tough, lots of HP, and lots of damage.
  • Spectatorship enables empathy with the players, cf Poker became more popular when hole cameras were introduced because the audience understands better what's going on.
  • It does not make sense for warriors to cast spells, therefore they don't have mana but rather they have rage.

01 November 2011

21st Century Game Design - Part I

21st Century Game Design, by Chris Bateman and Richard Boon, 2005.

Part I - Games exist primarily to satisfy the needs of an audience

ch1 - Zen game design

Zen Buddhism can not be learned, it can only be experienced. There is no objective perspective on anything. Hence zen game design's tenets: game design reflects needs + there's no single method to design + there exist methods to game design. These methods are:

  • first principles: what you want to do -> game world abstraction -> design -> implementation
  • clone and tweak: most common method. existing design -> tweak -> implementation
  • meta-rules: goal = provoking debate. meta-rules -> design -> implementation
  • expressing technology: in teams without actual game designers. technology -> game implementation
  • Frankenstein: art or technical materials -> design -> implementation
  • story-driven: narrative -> design -> implementation

Participants in the game project: audience, publisher, producer, programmers, artists, marketing/PR, license holder. Example: saving for causal audience is vital; for hardcore audience, it should not break gameplay; for programmers, it's a technical detail; for producer, it's looking at how other games do it.

ch2 - Designing for the market

The commercial success for a medium clears the way for artistic expression, not the way around

A game design is successful when the target audience is satisfied. This justifies the need for an audience model. Existing models: simple distinction hardcore/casual, distinction by genre (but genres are too vague), EA's model, and ihobo's model.

Simple hardcore/casual distinction
hardcore casual
plays lots of games plays few games
game literate game illiterate
plays for the challenge plays to relax, kill time, and just for fun
segment can be polarized: many can buy the same title hard to polarize, diverse and disparate

EA's model:

EA's model take-away: do not ignore hardcores because they are the ones pushing a game to broader segments. Corollary: no TV ads are needed if the game is not made for casuals.

iHobo's model:

Evangelist clusters = gaming press, mainstream press, and the 3 million of hardcores in the world. Target clusters = Testosterone (9M players worldwide), lifestyle (30M), and family (90M) gamers.

Design tools for market penetration (aka demographic game design):

  • Looking for good gameplay (ie the game being performance-oriented, with stats, clear goals and victory conditions) vs good toyplay (unorganized). Hardcores are driven by gameplay, but lifestyle and family gamers are driven by both.
  • Controls should remain accessible for casuals.
  • The minimum play session length is usually expressed in terms of the duration of a level or the time between two save points. For casuals, it should be below 15 minutes, but hardcores do not mind core activities of a game taking at least an hour or two. Ex: a typical DotA match takes 45 to 60 minutes, whereas a (small size) Mine Sweeper can take less than a minute. Nintendo games are also famous for allowing the player to quit at any time and provide core activities of at most a few minutes.
  • The average play session length is also lower for casuals: they may complete one level at a time, whereas hardcores can aim at 10 levels per play session.
  • Play window: total time spent playing the game. The longer the play window, the longer hardcores will spend evangelizing the game. Therefore, despite most of the players not completing the game, content is crucial! The play window can also be extended by introducing hidden features, higher difficulty levels, variety in characters to play with (to increase replayability), and online PVP (although that only works for Testosterone and hardcore gamers).

Phases of penetration: taking the example of The Sims.

  1. Hardcore penetration: the game needs challenge, progress, and depth.
  2. Hardcore evangelism: the game needs to appeal to the Lifestyle gamer, easy to reach fun, strong marketing, and a strong license.
  3. Casual penetration: the game needs fun, toys, short minimum play session.
  4. Casual evangelism: the game needs to get the attention of the mainstream press.

ch3 - Myers-Briggs typology of gamers

Assumption: nature of games people enjoy and frequency of play vary with player personality and reaction to situations. The Myers-Briggs model was developed in the 1940s and indicates how an individual would prefer to react to situations in general. See the Myers-Briggs type frequencies in the US. Four pairs of traits:

Type Opposite type Game design
Introversion (50% of pop)
think then act, needs private time, 1-to-1 communication and relationships
Extroversion (50% of pop)
act then think, likes people, deprived when alone
Most games are played by introverts. Extraverts can take long breaks from the game, so provide a todo list for them when they come back to play, otherwise they'll forget what they had to do in their previous play session. Extraverts like DDR because of its performance aspect.
Sensing (70% of pop)
live in the present, apply common sense, based on prior experience, likes clear and concrete info
iNtuition (30% of pop)
live in near future, new and imaginative approaches, based on theory, comfortable with fuzzy information, seek for patterns)
Learning and problem solving are frequent gameplay elements in many genres. Learning: in tutorials, S will accept linear series of lessons, but N would rather guess by themselves. Problem solving: S will use trial and error, while N will like to use their lateral thinking skills. Therefore, make lateral thinking puzzles (at most) secondary objectives, or allow the player to progress without having completed all of them. Ex: Super Mario 64 only requires 30 stars to unlock new levels. S want simple and usual mechanics, while N won't mind having to guess the rules and a steep learning curve.
Thinking (30% of women, 60% of men)
decide from facts and logic, objective, focus on task, think that conflicts are sometimes unavoidable
Feeling (70% of women, 40% of men)
decide from emotion, subjective, focus on consequences to people, wish to avoid conflicts
Clear goals for T. Personal encouragement for F, but T may feel patronized. Solution: useful AND aesthetic/fun items are rewards that will satisfy both T and F. Gathering collectibles give goals to T, but should not be a grind. F are motivated and rewarded when they see their actions have impact on the world or other characters. T enjoy receiving critical feedback (a game over with tips), but F will take it personally. Ex: Zelda gives clear goals (good for T), falling or getting hit results in losing half a heart (and not instant death) and Link has an impact on the game world (good for F).
Judging (55% of pop)
plan then move, single task at a time, ahead of deadlines, targets and routines to manage life
Perceiving (45% of pop)
plan as you go, multitask, work better before deadline, avoid routine and commitment
J want to beat the game (get all the secret bonuses) and complete objectives. P want to improve their abilities, and enjoy the process. For P, goals completed = feedback that they're on track. Non-linear structure is good for P because if they don't like a level, they can try another and keep progressing. J needs to know what to do to progress. Ex: in Tony Hawk or GTA, players need to collect points (good for J) but they can collect them the way they want (various kinds of skate figures or driving/killing missions or sandbox play, good for P).

TJ vs FP: TJ want challenges to overcome (what most current games provide), FP want easy fun (cf Sims or casual games).

Study hypothesis: hardcore player is a 14-28 year old tech savvy male who plays up to 8 games per month. Supposedly, he plays on his own (hence I), is methodological, goal-oriented enjoys conflicts (T), plays games until completion and looks for perfect score/overachiever (J). Previous quantitative work from the Bartle test by Andreasen showed the average hardcore MMO player is IST. Therefore, let's suppose hardcores are IT. Overall, 15% of women and 35% of men are of type IT.

ch4 - DGD1

DGD1 is intended as a tool to aid in market-oriented game design.

Methods: between 2002 and 2004, ask 408 participants (incl 122 women) to answer a 32-question Myers-Briggs personality test, as well as questions on purchasing and playing habits, and do you consider yourself hardcore, casual, or no idea?. Only look at people who play at least one game per year. Survey advertised on hardcore and casual websites/game portals + university students.

Results: clustering gave a sketchy and incomplete result, and FE and SI dimensions did not help to cluster, but 4 clusters appeared anyway: conqueror (TJ), manager (TP), Wanderer (FP), and participant (FJ). Hypothesis rejected: hardcores are found in E and S (and not only I and T). Still, I and N are higher for hardcores and MMO players than casuals. For each of the four types, twice more respondents reported they were casuals than hardcores.

The DGD1 demographic model
Type Hardcores Desc Casuals Desc Progress Story Social
Conqueror ITJ. Want meaningful challenges, strategies and puzzles, want to complete the game. Want lots of content, try to beat themselves. The game is too easy if they don't die at least a few times. Anger, frustration, boredom, and fiero. ISTJ. FPS and racing games, they play to compete and win. Rely on genre conventions and do not like deviations from the genre. Fiero (although it's oblivious to them) and schadenfreude in PVP, or in GTA for rampages Rapid advancement: stats in RPG, better gear in FPS Focus on plot twists/events, not on characters Online: vocal hardcores from forums and blogs. They also like to win discussions
Manager ITP. Strategy and tactics. Winning is less important than mastering the game systems: process-oriented, not goal oriented. Conquerors consider them rivals and targets. Patient. Look for challenging but not impossible. Don't look for hidden features but rather refine their current knowledge. Fiero. Civ series. ISTP. Want familiar settings and realism. Like construction and management games like SimCity. Hate being stuck even if they suck. Hate interruptions and like smooth difficulty curves. Steady. Give up if no reliable strategy is found quickly. Plot, not characters. None?
Wanderer INFP. Easy fun and toyplay, not challenges. Variety keeps the fun going. Complete levels in aesthetically pleasing ways. Cf Puzzle Bobble/Bust-a-Move: simple controls, bright colors, and actions with direct and satisfying changes to the environment. See also Mario Party and Super Monkey Ball. Need to be able to give up the current task for another different task. May turn to Conqueror or Manager relatives for help. Emotions: finesse, aesthetics, wonder, awe and mystery, but no fiero. ENFP. Want to accomplish something in the game world without the need for challenges. Games = way to relax. Feeling of progression or else boredom. Lack of market vectors to reach them [although nowadays there's Facebook] New toys, colorful and imaginative environments Emotions. Empathy to characters or investment in world/immersion. Talk about what they like but avoid arguments
Participant FJ. Games as social entertainment. Cf DDR, The Sims. Little survey data about this group. Narrative of group of players Characters and emotions, but in control of them, not just spectator. Multiplayer, but must face other players in person, not just online (no MMO)

ch5 - Player abilities

Flow = subjects believe they can complete their activity. Subjects have clear goals and direct and clear feedback. Effortless involvement. Goals should be short-term for participant and conqueror, but long-term for Wanderer and manager because they like to figure out the short-term goals themselves.

Caillois' table of the four categories of play helps understand how flow is related to toyplay. In the table, there really is a continuum between Paidia and Ludus.

The relation between the four play styles of DGD1 and Caillois' categories of games
Agon (Alea tolerated)
Mimicry (Alea tolerated)
Caillois' table of the four categories of play
- Agon
(spontaneous play)
Spontaneous races Counting out rhymes, coin flipping Masks and disguisement Children whirling, swinging
(structured play)
Sports Betting, lotteries Theatre Skiing, mountain climbing

People with high Myers-Briggs Feeling scores prefer avoiding conflicts, therefore they don't like Agon. They're also more likely to like Mimicry since they focus on people. For example, Wanderers appreciate finesse, which is a component of Mimicry. Ilinx resembles immersion, it appeals to everyone.

Temperament theory gives patterns of behaviors, while Myers-Briggs gives patterns of perception or judgement.

Temperament theory
Temperament Core needs Myers-Briggs traits Skills % of pop
Rational Knowledge, competence NT Strategic: Think and plan ahead, identify the means to achieve a goal, coordinate actions strategically 10%
Idealist Unique identity, search for meaning and significance NF Diplomatic: Resolve conflicts while recognizing individuality, empathy, find similarities through abstraction 15%
Artisan Freedom to act and ability to impact SP Tactical: Read the current content and manage the situation, work out the next step and take action, improvise to overcome problems 25%
Guardian Belonging and sense of responsibility/duty SJ Logistical: Organizing and meeting needs, optimizing and standardizing, protect and ensure safety 50%

Temperament, Myers-Briggs and DGD1
Type Myers-Briggs
Flow provenance Examples
Conqueror TJ strategic logistical Capacity to see in advance how to address problems (strategic) and iterate/repeat to improve/optimize the solution (logistical). Willingness to fail and repeat Production of units in RTS, monsters or bosses with patterns (cf Doom monsters)
Manager TP strategic tactical Planning ahead (strategic) and reacting to rapidly changing situations (tactical). Hardcores like to get lost in their thoughts, ideally without time limitations. Casuals have flow in the action, and need short-term goals. RTS have both spontaneous maneuvers and long-term strategies. Civ, Chess or puzzles for hardcores.
Wanderer FP diplomatic tactical Immersion, explicit short-term goals (tactical). Completion of goals is not a big thing, it happens almost as a side-effect of exploration. Give them time to explore. Platformers (goal is obvious and challenges relatively easy)
Participant FJ diplomatic logistical Feeling of belonging, toyplay, optimize relationships (logistical) with other characters or players, immerse themselves in social situation The Sims, Animal Crossing

Casual audience is best approached with familiar settings and content, and with gameplay that revolves around optimization or thinking on your feet (tactical). Hardcores prefer original games that give them a sense of identity (diplomatic), and problems to solve (strategic), e.g. Final Fantasy focuses on story and strategic battles.