Fun and Games and Hardcore Pornography

In 1964, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled that a certain French film called Les Amants wasn’t just risqué, it was obscene, and banned it from being shown in the state.  They were reversed by the Supreme Court in  Jacobellis vs Ohio, which is known not just because it restrained the ability of government to censor artists, but because of the reasoning used by Justice Potter Stewart in the case.  He argued that the Constitution protected all forms of expression except hardcore pornography, writing:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so.  But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

This arbitrary and vague definition held for almost ten years until it was replaced with the “community standards” criteria that are used today.  During that time it was notoriously useless as a law enforcement tool.  Police and prosecutors could not use this subjective standard to determine which material to ban and which to allow.  They were constantly having to wake up Justice Stewart in the middle of the night, show him some dirty pictures and get a verdict.

Phallic is in the Eye of the Beholder

Obscenity or Obelisk?

Unfortunately, most designers have a similar working definition of important concepts like fun or gameplay or balance or immersion.  How can you be a game designer if you don’t even have an intelligible description of what a game is?  “I know one when I see it” isn’t good enough if your career depends on your ability to create experiences nobody has ever seen before.

Definitions are difficult because they often prove inadequate when you try to actually use them.  This is especially true in game design because it is such a young industry.  It is rife with definitions that sound good, but are flawed for a variety of reasons:

  • Resorting to merely supplying synonyms.  You can’t define fun as “an enjoyable activity” or “the entertainment value of an event.”  Those are just thesaurus entries.
  • Simply describing the characteristics or effects.  If you define a game as “something people play” or “a contest with rules” you haven’t provided any insight into its essential nature, you are just dissecting it’s parts.  It’s like defining a human as “some bones and organs inside a thin layer of skin.”
  • Defining too broadly.  A vague definition will include too many confusing counter-examples, so any decisions based on it will be similarly fuzzy and subject to error.  (“I know it when I see it” is an example of this.)
  • Defining too narrowly.  Often a designer will have a single insight about a concept, and elevate that one aspect to the level of a definition.  This narrowness creates a blind spot that will conceal possible innovations that fall outside of those artificial limits.

In order to be useful, a definition must provide enough insight and specificity to help make practical decisions regarding the term being defined.  When people agree on a definition, they should not only be able to use it to communicate accurately, it should in some way guide their thinking and establish a standard against which they can judge their work.  Given a sufficient definition of the ideal game, a designer should be able to objectively evaluate their game, and then improve it.

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Balancing in Passes

As with any creative endeavor, balancing a game is a difficult process to predict, and even more difficult to schedule.  To alleviate some of the pressure, game designers invented a circular excuse known as The Balancer’s Paradox:

  • Balance cannot happen until the end.  Every game element and knob impacts the balance, so until they are all present and functional the game cannot be balanced (and it won’t be fun.)
  • Balance cannot wait until the end.  Until the game is balanced it is not clear what elements are actually necessary or what knobs will be needed to balance them, so a complete list cannot be finished until the game is balanced.

This is very effective at eluding production demands, but unfortunately to ship the game the designer must actually find a way around this quandry.  The best solution is to balance in passes.  At several points during development, attempt to balance the elements that exist, using the knobs that are available.  The resulting balance will not have much longevity, but it should give you enough information to prioritize the remaining elements and knobs.

There are several crucial points at which a designer should stop and do a balance pass:

Pass Stage of Development Goal
Role The paper designs for all the game elements are finished A manageable number of roles with no overlap
Flow The elements can be tried in the game Elements allow the player to achieve flow
Strengths The game rules work well enough that elements can be tested against each other Elements that are strong enough to be useful
Limits Playtesters begin to abuse elements by using them outside their role Limit every element to its intended purpose
Exceptions The balance is stable enough for small exceptions to appear Eliminate bugs, unexpected uses and local imbalances
Perceptions The balance is polished, but the assets are not yet final Support the balance with matching effects, sounds, animations, etc.

Welcome to the Soft Launch

Warning: IdeasI’ve managed to post three times a week for two weeks; I’ve even got a couple posts in the queue.  I have a rough outline of future topics, blog software I like and a site design I don’t hate.  I’ve already rocketed to the the top of Google’s search results* so I guess it’s time to find some readers!

This site is an experiment to see if I can write a book on game design one page at a time.  The overall structure is still evolving, but I plan to continually reorganize anyway, so for now I’m focused on learning to write good well.  I’m struggling with the tone and style of my prose, as well as the detail and depth of the content, so I’d appreciate any feedback at “spheretip at gmail dot com”.  If you just want to tell me my design ideas suck, you can do that in the comments.

*if you search for “Jaime Griesemer’s definition of tuned

Update:  Well, hello twitter.  You found this site a little earlier than I expected and blew out my traffic numbers.  I appreciate the links and the… constructive feedback.  It’s been a long time since I have written anything for public consumption and I’m pretty rusty.  Just pretend this is an ARG for the next Michael Bay movie or something.  And leave some comments!

Definition: Tuned

Tuned  (See also: Polished, Tweaked)

A game mechanic can be considered tuned when it correctly constrains the player experience to have the desired effect

The opening four bars of “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple are perhaps the best example of the power chord.  Nothing screams sex, drugs and rock & roll like these iconic sounds.

Smoke on the Water

Smoke on the Water

 But if you play them even a tiny bit incorrectly, you’ll have a discordant mess.  Instead of the desired effect (impressing all the girls at the party) you will achieve the exact opposite.  In the same way, game mechanics must be precisely tuned to insure they work together to produce the desired experience and prevent undesired ones.

Not about war, either

A Fire in the Sky

Unlike balance, which must be considered across the entire community for the life of the game, a game that is tuned for one individual is probably tuned for most players.  That is because the tuning process constrains the entire possibility space, not a specific experience.  As it eliminates poor experiences and emphasizes or rewards the desired ones, the differences between player skill levels and choices are automatically included.

Tripping over the Starting Line

Running is risky.  Your center of mass is so far in front of your feet that you are constantly falling forward, catching yourself with each stride.  You appear to be in control and stable, but in reality you are always one misstep away from catastrophic failure.  (Thoughts like this are why game designers are rarely world-class sprinters.)

QWOP

Ready!

During development, a game can appear to be balanced, but is actually just being carried along by momentum; the instability is masked by constant change.  Releasing the game at this point is like tying a runner’s shoelaces together.

QWOP

Set!

When the designers cede control to the community, they quickly find the truly balanced state.  Unfortunately this often results in a degenerate or random experience where entire gameplay modes are untouched, fundamental mechanics no longer have an impact, and usually the game becomes too simplified to remain interesting.  Even worse, developers are often forced to incorporate the broken mechanic into a sequel or risk alienating their fan community.

QWOP

Trip!

How does this happen?  Often it is a result of a flaw in the development process.

Unenforced Conventions

Early in development, when the game is being prototyped, it seems inefficient to rigorously encode the game mechanics.  It is easier to just ask playtesters to refrain from using certain tactics, ignore logical loopholes, and pretend the game works in a different way than it actually does.  After all, the playtesters are usually on the development team, and the prototype changes faster than the code can be updated.

The problem comes when these conventions become so firmly established that the designers start making assumptions about what the community will do based on those (false) expectations.  When the game is released, the community does not respect conventions, they will exploit any tactic or loophole the game allows, ultimately breaking the balance.

Isolated Game Systems

A common production tool is to organize features into prioritized lists, with the understanding that everything below a certain line has a chance of being cut.  This encourages designers to create isolated game mechanics, parallel systems that do not interact with one another, so that the inevitable cuts have less impact on the surviving mechanics.  These layers are frequently worked on by different designers with different goals and ideas about what the game should be.

This leads to the situation where game systems are individually balanced, but in differing, or even conflicting ways.  The progression mechanics that keeps player invested in the community might break the competitive multiplayer game.  Or large sections of an environment may go unused because of the way the mission objectives are placed.  Usually, the most poorly balanced aspects of the game drag down the other systems, leveling any interesting nuance they might have had.

Ignoring the Skill Zenith

Designers are rarely as good at the games they develop as the people that play them.  (They tend to spend more time building them than mastering them.)  It is often their ability to sympathize with the “average” player that makes them good at their jobs.  Unfortunately, this means that they have a blind spot and cannot always predict how the game will be played at the very highest level of skill.

Nothing wrecks game balance as fast as a community that is more skillful than the developers anticipated.  Actions that were meant to be impossible or happen only through luck become fundamental to the game.  The community is split between those that can execute the “impossible” tactic and those that cannot, and are no longer competitive.

No game ships with flawless balance, but by avoiding these pitfalls your game community may last long enough for you to tweak it.

Balance by Attrition

In classical physics, Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics states that over time, differences in temperature, pressure, and energy even out across an isolated physical system.  If you leave a fresh cup of coffee on your desk in the morning, by the afternoon the coffee will be much colder and the room will be slightly warmer, leaving them both at the same temperature.  (Most game designers aren’t physicists, so we are constantly surprised by mouthfuls of disgusting lukewarm dreck.)

A similar law holds for multiplayer games.  Immediately after release they are in a very energetic state as the community tries every game mode, tests every tactic, exhausts every possibility.  (Like a human Monte Carlo simulation.)  Gradually the community activity slows down.  Certain gametypes become ghost towns.  Entire classes, tech trees and strategic choices are dismissed.  Carefully crafted game mechanics are ignored.  Map rotations shrink to a few prefered maps.

de_dust

Or maybe just one

Ultimately every game is balanced by the community through this pruning process.  Ideally the surviving experience is close to what the developer intended, but they will not stop until they reach one of the following stable states:

1.  There is no game left. 

Unfortunately, once the players remove the broken game mechanics, unfinished features, buggy networking and superfluous options from some games, there is nothing to play anymore.

Potential Community:  The immediate families of the dev team and game reviewers looking for easy targets.

2.  The game outcome is random.

Many games have random factors with enough impact that they determine the course of a match.  (The first player always wins Tic-Tac-Toe.)  Other games do not allow players to adapt or execute more skillfully, so the winner is determined by the game’s initial conditions.  (All the strategies in Rock-Paper-Scissors have the same chance of winning.)  Some games have an inherent imbalance that cannot be overcome, so your chance of winning is determined by who you are playing against.  (Games with a severe host advantage favor players with good connections.)  No matter what the cause, these games are essentially decided by dice rolls.

Potential Community:  New or non-competitive players who want an equal chance of winning.

3.The game is determined only by skill.

If the players discover a single dominant strategy, or if a superior strategic choice can be overcome by faster reflexes or more skillful execution, the game will be simplified to a straightforward contest of skill.  (The only strategy in the 100 yard dash is “run faster.”)  Any subtle game mechanics will be ignored and the experience will become extremely predictable, allowing players to focus entirely on improving their execution.

Potential Community: “Pro” gamers who want to remove every consideration except execution skill, especially random factors.

4. The game has irreducible strategic complexity.

If there are enough choices, mechanics and contexts that nobody can completely predict them all, players must make decisions on incomplete information. This allows for mistakes and adaptations as the game plays out, and the winner is often the player that changes their strategy to fit changing circumstances.

Potential Community:  Gamers that want to invest a lot of time learning a complex game and do not want it to become predictable.

If you can anticipate the eventual balance the community will reach, you can design more intentionally, avoiding features or mechanics that will be removed, and ensure that the experience is tuned properly from the beginning.

Definition: Balanced

Balanced (see also: Fairness, Longevity)

A state in which a game can be played indefinitely by its entire community without developer interventions or player conventions.

There is no such thing as a “balanced game”.

This is not to say that there is no such thing as a perfectly balanced game, but that balance is not a quality of a game at all, but of the experience of playing a game.  And since this experience depends on who is playing, a game can only be considered “balanced” for a specific group of players.

The latest 2d fighting game might be balanced when you and your friends are taking turns mashing buttons, but degenerate into ridiculous 100+ hit combos when mastered by a some over-zealous Japanese teenager.  To be considered truly balanced, a game must go beyond this kind of local balance and be balanced for the entire game community.

Welcome to the Wire

Balance is often temporary; Imbalance usually permanent

In a similar way, it’s clear that any game may be balanced for brief periods of time. Often the most balanced point in a multiplayer game’s life-cycle are the first few nights after launch, before the community has discovered the optimal strategies, glitches and cheap tactics, before the unending train of patches and tweaks.  So any useful definition of balance must also require the game experience to remain stable for a significant time.

Finally, balance requires a certain amount of independence and permanence.  The purpose of balancing a game is to allow players to strategically plan and skillfully execute within an impartial system that they can predict.  This does not happen if the game requires constant changes and tweaks, either by direct developer updates or community-endorsed “honor rules”.

Note:  This definition of balanced does not require that a game be “fun” to be “balanced”.