Exaggerated Causality

This is one of my favorite screenshots of all time:

...nothing but net

Elaborate by Dewski14

In one frame, this screenshot tells an epic tragedy worthy of Sophocles himself.  Red Sniper, furious at Blue Man for stealing the attentions of his bride, Grenadina, confronts him in an alley behind the cathedral.  After a heated exchange, the jilted lover fires a single shot at his rival, who ducks out of the way, and the hateful bullet ricochets into the heart of his beloved, who was hastening to tell them they were actually brothers, separated at birth.  The story can be told because the causes and effects are so cearly linked; by exaggerating the causal relationships and drawing out their interactions, a confusing or seemingly random event can be transformed into a dramatic moment.

At a basic level, a game can be interactive only because it is a simulation, a systematic collection of cause and effect relationships.  It doesn’t matter if the world being simulated is rigid shapes dropping into a well, a jungle teaming with Jurassic wildlife or a city populated with tiny citizens, it’s the cause and effect nature of a simulation that allows players to make predictions, develop skills and play the game.  Some game simulations have explicit causal relationships.  “If you pass “Go” then collect $200 from the bank.”  Others try to approximate the real world, including the complex cause and effect events, with more or less success.  Unfortunately, the connections between causes and effects that are obvious in the real world are often difficult to track in a game, making them unnecessarily hard to understand and master.

Like finding a barrel in a haystack

The "Where the %@$# Am I Getting Shot From?!" Effect


Linking Cause and Effect

The best way to increase the intelligibility of your simulation is to increase the strength of the link between cause and effect in the player’s mind. 

Don’t Poke the Lizard Brain.  The human brain is not like a computer; it doesn’t have a lot of computational horsepower that can be applied to arbitrary problems.  What it does have are highly specialized neural circuits designed to perform a single task very efficiently.  Just like your graphics card is specifically made to render 3d scenes, there are parts of your brain devoted to almost every function you need to operate in your daily life.  There are circuits for determining the direction a sound is coming from, circuits for reading the emotions behind facial expressions, circuits that use shading to determine the shape of an object, circuits for predicting the path of a falling object, and countless other abilities we rarely notice we have.  The problem is, these circuits are so finely tuned for reality that the slightest deviation in a game simulation disorients them, destroying the player’s suspension of disbelief.

So, if a grenade explosion sounds like it is coming from the wrong place, players won’t understand that the grenade is what killed them.  If a character’s mouth doesn’t move right, instead of conveying the emotion of a scene they enter the uncanny valley.  If the lighting on an object is incorrect, or the physics system doesn’t make it behave accurately, players will not be able to predict how it will move or how they should react.  If players are constantly confused by what is happening and unable to describe the cause and effect relationships in a game, it is often because the simulation is off, even by a small amount, and must be tuned properly.

Create a Visual Connection.  The connection between cause and effect can be reinforced with simple visual elements.  If a blue-green gun fires a blue-green projectile that explodes with a blue-green explosion that leaves a blue-green decal and causes the player’s screen to flash blue-green, they will probably be able to connect the dots.  Another technique is to conserve the momentum of the cause in the effect, so if the player is melee attacked by an enemy charging from the right, throwing their body to the left in the direction of the attack helps link them in the player’s mind.  If a certain spell causes an enemy to become confused, use the same little stars on the spell icon that are circling the confused enemy’s head.  If one character is using mind controlling powers on another, actually draw visible waves of telepathic force between them.  If an ancient artifact slows down anyone standing within 20 feet of it, attach a visible effect that extends 20 feet to indicate the range.

Avoid False Causes.  It is also important to avoid creating false connections in the player’s mind between unrelated events.  Entire lobes of your brain are devoted to finding patterns, and sometimes the unfamiliar experience of playing a game puts them into overdrive and your mind doesn’t just recognize patterns, it invents them.  “I swear, every time I hear the sound of the timpani in the background music, I take damage.  I must find a way destroy the percussion section!”  Often these coincidental connections are difficult to predict, but they can be avoided by removing superfluous sounds, effects or actions that are not related to any game mechanic.  Fires or explosions that are purely for dramatic effect, but can’t actually hurt the player.  Enemy animations that look significant, but are actually just random variations on a walk cycle.  Environmental features that stand out, like switches or doors, but are merely cosmetic.  All of these are prime candidates for false causes.

Temporal Separation.  One of the most effective ways to help players connect a cause to an effect is by slowing it down.  If a grenade causes a vehicle to explode, delay the second explosion by a fraction of a second.  If flipping a switch causes a gate to open, slow it down so the gate takes several seconds to open completely.  If a headshot does more damage to an enemy, exaggerate and elongate their reaction so it is clear that something unusual is happening.  These delays and exaggerations help the player perceive the two events as separate and sequential steps in a process.  When two events are simultaneous, it is difficult to tell which one is the cause and which the effect, or even if they are related at all.   But a repeated sequence of events is easily recognized and understood. 

Oh, that's what happened...

Call of Duty's Kill Cam delays and replays the cause of your death

Add Intermediate Steps.  If I punch my younger brother and all the sudden I can’t sit down without wincing, I am unlikely to connect the two events.  However, if punch my younger brother, and then my Mom yells at me, and then I have to wait for my Dad to come home, and then I have to go get the leather belt from his closet, and then bring it back and “assume the position” I will probably learn the cause and effect connection.  At least after the first few dozen times.  Sometimes, the easiest way to make a connection more noticeable is by adding intermediate steps to the sequence.  Two events happening in the same order might just be random coincidence.  Five events happening the same way every time is probably not.

Exaggerating causal connections not only helps players learn how to play a game, but it increases the dramatic context of their actions.  It will allow them to construct stories instead of just experiencing a series of events.  And it will make the game more appealing to people that are just watching a video on YouTube, drawing in new players.

Balance Pass: Role

One of the most important reasons to balance in passes is a practical one.  The earlier an element is cut from the game, the more resources are available to the remaining elements.  A good designer will always have many more ideas than they could implement, and it is tempting to push all of the ideas forward until the schedule demands cuts, but it is almost always better to trim early and avoid wasted effort.  That is the primary goal of the Role balance pass.

Please pass the roles



Post Pre-Production.  This is the first balance pass, and it happens immediately after pre-production.  During pre-production, design should focus entirely on generating ideas and prototyping systems that are not fully understood.  Prematurely worrying about schedule or scope can strain the creative process, preventing the design team from cycling through the bad ideas that eventually lead to good ones.  There are many schedule pressures to keep this brainstorming stage short, but the costs of entering production without completing this process are often much greater.  Changes made in pre-production are much cheaper than the ones that happen after resources have been committed to a bad idea.

A Paper Design for Every Element.  The designer’s primary responsibility in pre-production is to make sure that every single game element has a paper design.  It is far too easy for a designer to be vague and only fuzzily understand how a given element will work.  Taking the time to think through and write out a paper design takes discipline, but will allow the designer and the rest of the team to proceed with more confidence, and minimize expensive surprises.

Defining a Role.  The most important part the paper design is a description of the role that the element will play in the game.  Without a clear idea of what an element is for, no amount of detail will be sufficient to describe it.  On the other hand, sometimes a role so completely defines an element, that no more information is needed.  Roles can be simple:  “A long-range instant-kill sniper rifle.”  Or more nuanced:  “An enemy character that serves as the backbone of an encounter, uses every available weapon and vehicle, and provides a foil for the player to overcome.”  But they should always be singular and establish a bar for what is required for the final in-game asset.


Even though they do not exist in the game, and cannot be played yet, once each game element has a paper design and a role they can begin to be balanced.

Remove Overlap.  The most useful way to balance game elements at this stage is to make sure they are not filling the same roles.  Two elements that have the same role are a waste of resources.  Either they will be identical except for cosmetic differences, in which case they will confuse players by offering a choice with no meaningful difference.  Or one will strictly dominate the other and be better in every situation, making the weaker one redundant.  Or you will be forced to spend valuable time differentiating and balancing them, without actually increasing the player’s options.

Often, when elements have the same role, they can be merged into a single, stronger idea.  Other times elements may appear to have the same role, but further exploration will show that they are indeed different, which provides a deeper understanding of how they will function in the game.  Regardless, by the end of this balancing pass, every element should have a unique role.

Don’t Overlook Roles.  Often the brainstorming process is very chaotic and undirected.  We never know when a good idea will occur to us!  It is easy to overlook common roles or miss very niche ones.  This balance pass is a good opportunity to take stock of all of the game elements and look for any holes.  For example, if the player will be fighting against snipers, but has no long-range weapon in his arsenal, he will feel like he is unfairly limited, that part of the game is missing.

The importance of  filling every necessary role is precisely why the weapon selection for most shooters ends up virtually identical.  Most shooters require an accurate long-range weapon, a powerful short-range weapon, a weapon that is good against multiple opponents, etc.  So most shooters end up with a sniper rifle, a shotgun, an smg, etc.  Players may complain about the lack of originality, but not as much as they would complain about the lack of a shotgun!

Limit the Number of Roles.  The final step to this balance pass is to get a feel for the scope of the game and the overall number of elements that will be required.  Determine what the absolute minimum number of elements are absolutely necessary to make a functional game.  (Note: Never tell Production this number!)  If the total is more than 20-30% over the minimum amount, there are probably too many elements.  It is a good idea to have a buffer, in case certain elements don’t work or are harder than anticipated.  But the fewer elements that make it through this pass, the more polished the remaining elements will be, the easier it will be for players to understand and use them all, and the tighter the gameplay will be.

This is how I Rolls

Balance the Rolls?


Confidence.  As a result of this balance pass, the entire team will feel more confident in the scope of the game and the quality of the design.  A disciplined design is less likely to have to be changed, wasting the time and effort of the artists and programmers.  It will also make the rest of the team less resistant to changes that do need to be made, because they will know the designers took every precaution to avoid them.

Depth.  Balancing the roles requires a sophisticated understanding of what each game element is for and how they will interact in the final game.  By reaching that understanding early, every subsequent decision will be able to support that role, deepening it and creating complex connections between elements.  The art, sound, effects and other aspects can reenforce this role, making it crystal clear to the player.

Manageability and Flexibility.  When overlapping or unimportant roles are removed, the following balancing passes become much easier.  Not only will there be fewer elements to balance, but they will not come into conflict as often because they will have distinct uses.  Also, a disciplined balance pass will leave some room in the schedule for the great ideas that inevitably come up later in the project.

Case Study: Tribes

Previously, we have explored how the community balances a game, sometimes despite the developer’s best intentions.  Tribes is a great example of how the community not only determines how the game is ultimately played, but often decides the path of future development.

Tribes shipped in 1998 to a fair amount of critical and commercial success.  It featured large multiplayer battles on open terrain that were beyond anything that had been seen before.  Players could choose between three armor classes (Heavy, Medium and Light), pilot vehicles, plant bases, purchase weapons and equipment… it even had jetpacks!  It also had one very significant bug, an unintended side-effect of the physics system known as “skiing”.

That flag is on fire because it's sweet

Go Zebra Tribe!

By tapping the jump button while descending a hill, players could exploit this physics bug to accelerate to an incredible speed.  Combining this technique with the jetpack would allow players to quickly cross even the largest maps, much faster than the designers anticipated.  This worked even with heavy armor, meaning there was little incentive to choose the lighter, more agile classes.  It was faster than vehicles, making them redundant.  Since most of the weapons did not have instant travel projectiles, it became almost impossible to hit anyone outdoors.  Nearly every aspect of the gameplay was affected.

In a short time, the game balance was totally wrecked… and the players loved it!  They invented new strategies, found new ways of attacking bases, used old weapons in new ways.  They became experts in using another physics bug called “body blocking” to physically bar enemies from escaping with their flag.  The chaingun, a weapon that had been scorned, became their weapon of choice because it fired one of the few projectiles fast enough to hit a skiing player.  They re-balanced the game around this new game mechanic.

Speaking of unexpected effects...

The Tribe has spoken.

The developers attempted to fix the game with a patch, but the community rejected it.  By that point, everyone who did not like the effect of skiing had already left the community.  The remaining players where those that thought it was fun.  Unfortunately, this smaller community was the only audience for a sequel, so the development team were forced to cater to them.  Tribes 2 not only included an “official” version of skiing, but even explicitly taught new players how to do it!


  1. Don’t just test for bugs, but to ensure the gameplay experience is the one the designers intended.
  2. The ultimate balance of a game lies in the hands of the community that plays it.
  3. Fun activities are rare, and when we find one (even as the result of a bug) we ought to embrace it.


Warning: IdeasI’m excited about the following post, not because it is especially insightful, but because it features this blog’s first interactive example! Games are so dependent on interactivy, it’s virtually impossible to explain certain key concepts without some kind of playable demonstration. Sometimes I need to make my point about game design with a game! To that end, I’m teaching myself Actionscript so I can make my own little illustrative experiences. I probably won’t have time to create too many of these, but this one was a lot of fun to make, and I hope you like it. (I’m still trying to come up with a good portmanteau…  Game-onstrations?  Exam-plays?)

I also registered a new domain, so now you can find this blog at www.thetipofthesphere.com.  (Some PR firm is squatting on the article-less version.)  Old links will still work, but this url is more memory friendly.

Definition: Game Mechanics

Game Mechanic

A single constraint on the possible gameplay actions that determine a part of the player’s experience.

According to our working definition of gameplay, the purpose of a game mechanic is to constrain a game’s interactivity so that it guides the player toward a fun experience.  Tuning these contraints is one of the most important game design processes.  However, in order to tune game mechanics, it is necessary to understand what mechanics are and how they combine to form gameplay.

First, let’s look at how a single game mechanic constrains the possible actions a player can take.  Often these constraints are explicit rules like “If the King is put in check and cannot legally escape, the king is checkmated and the game ends in a loss for that player.”   Sometimes they are limits enforced by the simulation; there are some gaps that Mario can only jump while running.  The most important constraints are usually determined by the game’s control scheme.  After all, the player can only perform actions which are mapped to available inputs.

Another common type of constraint is the player’s objective in the game.  For instance, a goal in Pac-Man is to eat all the dots.  This limits the player’s behavior because any interaction that does not involve eating dots is irrelevant to the game.  This mechanic divides all the entire spectrum of possible actions the player can take into two halves, actions that are permited and those that are prohibited.

More DoTs!  More DoTs!

Pac-Man suffers from OCD

Game mechanics guide the player experience by removing some alternatives and emphasizing others, but by itself, a single game mechanic is not a game and cannot lead to a fun experience.  In fact, a single game mechanic by itself is barely even interactive.  With only one constraint, there is only one option.  There is no room for choice or skill or expression.  To demonstrate this point, I built a “game” based on a single dot-eating game mechanic.


(My free Flash host can no longer keep up with demand, please click this link to load the example.)

In order to actually define an experience, game mechanics must be placed in opposition to one another, much like the legs of a tripod.  That way instead of creating a single boundary (and therefore no choices) they create a region of interactivity for the player to operate within.  This is what Will Wright calls a possibility space.  It is the sum of all the potential gameplay experiences, sort of the wave function of game design.
Triangle Man hates Pac-Man, they have a fight, Triangle wins

Or maybe the Triforce of Game Design?

Definition: Game


An interactive experience constrained by mechanics designed to reliably satisfy a common teleological aspiration.

Merriam-Webster says a game is “an activity engaged in for diversion or amusement” which is hopelessly broad.  Try pitching “Punching My Younger Brother: The Game” the next time you meet with a publisher.

Raph Koster claims that “fun is just another word for learning” and that therefore “all games are edutainment.”  This is insightful because it attempts to define games by describing the needs they meet, but is obviously too narrow.  Someone that is leveling their fifth World of Warcraft alt is not learning anything, but I dare you to try to tell them they aren’t having fun.  And shouldn’t the tutorial be the most enjoyable part of a game?  This definition commits a logical error called the fallacy of the undistributed middle.  Even if learning is fun, that doesn’t mean that everything fun must be learning.

In Rules of Play, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman define games as “a system in which players engage in artificial conflict, defined by rules, that result in a quantifiable outcome.”  Now, it would be unfair to quibble with specific word choices or come up with obscure examples of games that don’t fit this definition.  No definition is perfect.  The real difficulty of this definition, as well as many other similar efforts, is that in dissecting games into pieces they have lost the whole.  It is as if, when asked to define the word weapon, you started listing types of wounds and metallurgy techniques and sources of propulsion and got bogged down trying to figure out if a baseball bat was a weapon or not.  The best way to define weapons is to describe their purpose, committing or threatening violence against someone, and the same is true for games.

Ludwig Wittgenstein famously declared that there is no adequate definition for the word game and we don’t even need one!  But he was not known for being a particularly fun guy, so maybe we can do better.

We’ll start with our previous definition of fun: “the positive emotion associated with fulfilling a teleological aspiration.”  The first definition of game that suggests itself is “something that is fun,” or more specifically, “an experience that fulfills a teleological aspiration.”  However, there are so many ways to satisfy our needs; what makes games special?  Unlike many enjoyable activities, the only purpose of a game is to have fun, and since they have a singular focus, they are able to satisfy these aspirations very reliably.

Additionally, teleological needs like learning or achieving or performing cannot be satisfied passively or by proxy.  They require participation, so they must be interactive and respond to the player’s actions.  This interactivity is not random; it reliably leads to fun experiences because it is limited to specific set of possibilities and actions.  Some games are indeed guided by explicit rules, but many games are constrained by their simulation, or by the objectives given to the player, or even by the story setting in which the game takes place.  In many games the experience is actually constrained by the unpredictable actions of other players.  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what form these game mechanics take, as long as they constrain the experience in such a way as to more reliably fulfill the player’s needs.

Finally, our definition should acknowledge the fact that in order to ensure that a game’s mechanics lead to an experience that satisfies the player’s needs, they must be carefully designed to do so by a game designer.  Games do not appear naturally in nature.

So, now we not only have a useful definition for the term game, we have also determined the role of the game designer and have a reasonable criteria for evaluating design skill.  A game designer is someone that creates and tunes game mechanics to constrain an interactive experience such that it reliably fulfills common teleological aspirations, and the more reliably these needs are met, the more skillful the game designer.

Definition: Fun

If you are not a game designer:


(see also: Enjoyable, Cool, I Like It)

Something that I think is cool;

something that I imagine other people would think is cool, if a designer would just listen to my idea

If you are a game designer:


(see also: Blah Blah, Nice)

A completely meaningless term that should never be used;

except when describing the job responsibilities of a game designer to someone over 40

If you are a game designer writing about game design:


The positive emotion associated with fulfilling a common teleological aspiration

 (I realize this definition may itself need some explanation.)

Human Needs 

One way of understanding human behavior is to look at our needs.  If you assume that people are basically reasonable and that they are motivated to act in a way that fulfills their needs, then you can categorize different behavior based on the need that it satisfies.  The most well-known example of this technique is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  It’s like the Food Pyramid of human desires.  Unfortunately, neither the Hierarchy or the Pyramid are based on solid scientific research, so they tend to be misleading.

A more rigorous categorization of needs has been put forth by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester.  They have researched people’s need for self-determination, specifically their needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness.  They have even applied this theory to games with fascinating and practical results.  (If you are interested in this topic or their research, I recommend reading Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation.)

When our needs are being met, we describe the resulting emotion with a variety of terms.  Satisfying, Fulfilling, Relieving, Gratifying, Pleasurable, and Fun.  Each of these emotions is specific to the type of need that is being met, so if we can determine which kinds of needs result in fun we will be closer to defining the word, and have a greater understanding of our goal as designers.

The Need for Fun?

An immediate objection springs to mind against linking fun to needs.  Despite what you told your mom when you were a kid, you can’t die from fun deprivation.  How can fun be related to needs if you don’t actually have to have it to survive?  Well, psychology doesn’t make a distinction between needs and wants, in fact a better term might be desires or appetites.  However, this does bring up an important distinction that will help narrow down what sorts of needs result in fun when they are satisfied.

Some needs produce a negative emotion when we lack them, but are virtually forgotten once met.  These needs are requirements.  Carbohydrates, for example, are a requirement.  If you don’t have any, you will experience wracking hunger pangs, but if you have a sufficient supply you no longer think about them.  Other needs are just the opposite.  When these aspirational needs are not met, they rarely bring themselves to mind, but when they are fulfilled we experience a strong positive reaction.  Pancakes, for instance, are an aspirational need.  Nobody suffers greatly when pancakes are not available, but everyone enjoys them if given the opportunity.

I have a need for charts

Indisputable Proof

Having made this distinction, it’s clear that fun is the result of satisfying an aspirational need.  Much like pancakes, fun experiences are not required for survival, but we still enjoy them when they are offered.  However, this category is still too broad.  Pancakes are delicious, but not necessarily fun.

Even sad Pancakes make me hungry

Sorry Pancakes. We still love you.

The Need for Greek?

One characteristic that is unique to fun experiences is that they require participation.  Many needs can be met by an external source, the way a mother provides for the needs of a baby.  These kinds of needs are often physical objects: food, water, a place to live, a large screen TV.  But they can even be psychological needs like the desire to have the respect of one’s peers, or the need to know how something works.  These needs are ontological needs, meaning they are ends in and of themselves, they exist for the person.

Needs that result in fun are very different.  One person cannot play or learn or rest for another person; they must do it for themselves.  These teleological needs are met when we allow ourselves to be the means for some purpose beyond ourselves.  That purpose may or may not be useful; work can be as fun as play, even though it also provides for many other needs.  They key component is participation.

Every individual values needs differently, but with both of these axis we can arrange all needs into four quadrants: 

I have a need for greek words

Incontrovertible Evidence

The Need for a Conclusion

Now we have a sufficiently narrow range of needs that result in fun, specifically those in the upper-right quadrantThese needs are aspirations because we get a positive emotion when they are met, but do not necessarily suffer when they aren’t, and they are teleological because they allow us achieve some potential end and require our participation.

It remains to be seen if this will prove itself to be a useful definition, but at least it is more specific than “I know it when I see it.”