GDC 2010: Design in Detail IX

Ok, now you have a flowing Sniper Rifle and all the other weapons are fun by themselves. How do you put them together?

This slide is for the Engineers. Design needs to start doing rough balancing in the middle of production, probably before you hit any kind of Code Complete milestones. Properly supporting the designers this early in the project is going to be mean violating several best practices, but we need as much time to iterate as possible.

First, we need a solid build at all times. Easy for me to say, right? But stability is important. If the build is broken it interrupts the balance process and I have to start over. And if you don’t maintain the gameplay systems the whole time, the game will not have time to get fun. It sucks, but that’s why you are working on games and not productivity software.

I know the theory is to “optimize at the end”, but it is impossible to balance a game with poor performance. Not everything has to run at a playable framerate; you can turn off lighting or textures or whatever it takes, but designers need a responsive platform on which to build. Imagine coding if you couldn’t see what you typed until two seconds after you typed it. That’s what it is like trying to tune a game with bad framerate.

For example, I have seen this in playtest after playtest. If you a level doesn’t have good lighting in a playtest build, the AI will score lower. People will think it looks stupid for some unknown reason. I don’t know why, but it shows how performance problems make it hard to balance the game.

During this pass, you are balancing strength.

In What the Dog Saw, Gladwell tries to figure out why there are 50 kinds of mustard, but just one kind of Ketchup. He concludes that Heinz is the best because it has all of the tastes in balanced proportions.

Heinz Ketchup has every flavor your tongue can taste. Here’s some of the ingredients: tomatoes (bitter), vinegar (sour), corn syrup (sweet), salt (uh… salt) And then you put it on french fries (umami). Every flavor is strong (ie has a high amplitude) but they are still balanced against one another.

Halo is like ketchup! It has lots of very strong elements, but since they are all strong they blend together into a balanced whole. In fact, without strength balance is much more difficult, because random factors destabilize the experience. A game with weak elements is like ketchup with weak flavors; if they become weak enough you start to taste the plastic from the bottle and the rat poop from the bottling plant.

[To be continued…]

Shorting the Fun

Betting Against the Bank

A dizzying array of factors fed into the current global financial meltdown.  Sub-prime mortgages, anti-market regulation, credit default swaps, a real estate bubble, global conspiracy, global warming, alien sabotage… the list is endless.  But when it comes to the collapse of specific commercial institutions like Bear Sterns, it is pretty clear that short-selling accelerated or even guaranteed their failure.

A short sale (or shorting for… uh… short) is when an investor sells stock borrowed from a third-party with the intention of re-purchasing the stock and returning it at a later date.  If the stock goes down during that time, the investor gets to keep the difference as profit.  On the other hand, if the stock goes up they have to buy back the stock at the higher price and risk losing a great deal of money.  In March 2008, Bear Sterns (a global investment bank) became strapped for cash because it had over-invested in mortgage-backed securities and the bottom fell out of the housing market.  They might have been able to borrow the money to cover themselves, or at least gotten a bailout, but so many investors were short-selling Bear Sterns stock that it looked like collapse was inevitable.  This self-fulfilling prophecy ended with the company being sold to JP Morgan Chase a few weeks later.

Down with arrows!

Winning the race to the bottom

Shorting the Fun

Designers do the same thing, only instead of bringing down financial institutions, they bet against their mechanics and doom their game to mediocrity.

Take a Sniper Rifle, for instance.  Long and sleek, capable of putting a bullet through the head of a distant enemy faster than they can hear the sound of it being fired.  It has everything going for it.  Lethality to make it feel potent.  Precision to give it a high skill-ceiling.  A steady cadence with plenty of anticipation; each shot counts, but a miss isn’t a disaster.  Usable beyond the range of any counter-attack, even the hanging contrail it leaves behind is a testament to the thrill of each shot.  A designer couldn’t ask for a more perfect example of flow.

Then why do the Sniper Rifles in so many games suck out loud?  It just isn’t that hard to make a satisfying Sniper Rifle, so how do so many designers mess it up?  The surprising answer is that most Sniper Rifles probably started out fun, but at some point in development a designer got nervous about game balance and began to hedge their bets.  They made it less accurate, or decreased the damage, or added some weakness like an unstable crosshair or a really long reload time.  They were so afraid that they wouldn’t be able to make the Sniper Rifle work with the rest of the game, they shorted it and ended up losing a great deal of potential fun.

Still not a good idea...

Not to be confused with "fun shorts"

That’s how you get a Sniper Rifle that takes three shots to kill someone.  Or a tank that drives two miles an hour.  Or a spell that costs so much mana your mage can never use it in a fight.  Or any awesome and fun element with a crippling weakness that makes it all but useless.  Designers sabotaging their own games because they lost sight of what made something worth including in the first place!

  • Adding a Weakness – It may seem like the best way to balance an element that is too strong is to give it an equally large weakness, but it just doesn’t work out that way.  Either the weakness will not be enough, in which case you will have an element that is still too powerful and no longer fun to use.  Or it will be more than enough, in which case you will have designed an element that has a weakness as its defining feature instead of the original aspirationI would play as the invincible ninja character, but he has taken a vow of pacifism and doesn’t have any punches or kicks.
  • Creating a Counter – Another common way to address an overpowered element is to design a second element whose sole role is to counter the first.  Not only is this second element probably not fun on its own merits, but everyone will be saddled with choosing an option that they secretly hope they don’t have to employ, just to prevent everyone else from choosing the fun option they desperately want.  I will choose the unenjoyable anti-tank mine so that nobody else can have fun using a tank.
  • The Old Switch and Bait – Many games, especially those looking for a sense of progression, will initially introduce the player to a hobbled version of an element, and then unlock the truly fun version as a reward.  Of course, this ignores the fact that players usually won’t invest in a game that isn’t fun, and even if they do eventually earn the right to have fun, a vast majority of their experience will have been struggling through a crippled, unenjoyable game.  If I kill 300 more rats with this blunted shovel maybe I’ll get to use a real sword!… in this game that is ostensibly about swords.
  • Death of a Thousand Tweaks – Perhaps the most outwardly reasonable (and therefore the most nefarious) way of shorting fun is to make an endless series of minor changes, each one leaving the element a little less fun than it was.  Slightly less accurate, a touch less damage, a little longer reload, a smidge more recoil, a fraction less range, etc.  In this parody of the tuning process, the element gets gradually less fun until it is “unfun enough” to be included.  The problem is that tuning is more delicate than balance, so the element will lose the qualities that made it fun long before it becomes fair.  It will also leave players frustrated; if only this gun had been tuned better it would be really fun!

So, ignore the analysts and the pundits!  If an element or mechanic has the tiniest spark of fun, a designer’s job is to protect and nurture it, not smother it because it might out-shine the rest of the game.  No matter how tempting, there are always better options, so don’t short the fun!

So what are the alternatives to shorting the fun?

GDC 2010: Design in Detail VIII

This picture has nothing to do with the topic, I just loved it.

Certain settings have a lot more impact on how fun an element is than others. Usually they must be set precisely in order to maximize the player’s flow. Make sure to note these values for later so you know what you can change and what you should avoid messing with at later stages.

In general, flow knobs tend to be those that are limited in one extreme. You can’t make a sniper rifle round travel faster than “instantly”. You can’t make it more lethal than “always lethal”. Try to set these knobs to the extreme without compromising. It is tempting to hedge and compromise because you know you will have to balance their strength later, but the game will be more fun if you find another way.

[To be continued…]

It’s a 7.5

Uncharted 2

I recently finished Uncharted 2.  I thought the acting and the pacing were excellent.  The story followed a well-worn arc, but had enough unexpected set pieces to keep it fresh.  The combat was dramatically improved over the first game, but still didn’t come together enough to justify the amount of fighting required.  The stealth segments swerved between fantastic and frustrating, often clashing with the combat and story elements.  (We can’t shoot the museum guards, but we can throw them off a roof onto paving stones five stories below?)  I loved the sections where I was working with another character to solve puzzles or fight through enemy territory, partially because I know how difficult it is to do useful AI allies.

Useful _and_ nice to look at?

Maybe "ally" is the wrong word

My main criticism of the game is that it is crushingly linear.  There is only one path, straying from it usually ends in a fail screen, and I could rarely anticipate what was going to happen.  I just followed the breadcrumbs and assumed the level designer knew what they were doing.  On several occasions the game goes beyond leading the player by the nose and starts dragging them by the hair.  If the story required a  pistol with infinite ammo, or a checkpoint to skip me through a tough section, or a hint that told me how to solve a puzzle I hadn’t even seen yet, then gameplay took a backseat.

All in all, a new high-bar for storytelling in games and a fantastic experience.  I give it a 7.5!  (Which according to IGN means “there are some issues, maybe it lacks ambition or it is repetitive or has too many technical glitches, but I had fun playing it nonetheless and think you will too.”)


I also played a game based on the 2008 movie where Anikin Skywalker learns to teleport and Mace Windu tries to kill him… or something.  The control scheme is unique.  Instead of traditional brawler controls, each of the four face buttons represents a cardinal direction and tapping it will teleport you to that side of the targeted enemy and execute a melee attack.  By using alternating buttons, you can “jump” behind an enemy, kick him into the air, and then “jump” to where he will land and hit him again from the other side.  The animations are stellar, especially when you start chaining combos and beating the hair-dye out of the chumps trying to capture you.

Blondes have more fun

It's a Tasersword (tm)

They use the main character’s signature ability in lots of clever ways.  You can use it to travel through walls and find secret rooms or solve puzzles.  There’s a finishing move where you grab an enemy and teleport you both to some remote location like a mile above the Grand Canyon or the middle of Antarctica and leave them there to die.  (Of course, this makes it ridiculous when they use the tired trope of locking you in a room until all the enemies are dead.  Why can’t I just teleport through the door?)  There are even some enemies that are protected from certain directions, requiring you to time your attacks from different directions or risk being blocked.

A mercifully short campaign featuring unusual and well-realized combat mechanics.  I give it a 7.5!

The Game Designer Review Scale

Did I just say that some budget movie tie-in schlock is just as good as the highest rated game of 2009?  What kind of rating system would result in giving them both a 7.5?  What are you doing reviewing games anyway, isn’t this a game design blog?!  The answer is simple.  In the Game Designer Review Scale every game gets a 7.5.  From the latest AAA masterpiece to the quirky indie game to the bug-ridden RPG epic.  Because for the game designer the goal is not to compare or judge the games themselves, but to exercise and strengthen your conscious control of your own experience.

Or a 10.5 at press junkets

Your own games get a 6.5

At the beginning of a project, when you are prototyping a new game mechanic, you are not going to have a polished, tuned experience.  It’s going to be noisy and buggy and awkward.  You are going to need the ability to spot the glimpses of fun, no matter how obscured or faint, even if they only exist for a few seconds at a time.  You need to lower your flow barrier, learn to ignore distractions and technical errors, to focus in on fun gameplay instantly before it slips away.  You need to spontaneously create a polished form of the game through imagination and mental tricks like making your own sound effects and storylines.  All so you can snatch up those seeds and grow them until everyone on the team can see them.

You can practice this form of autoregulation by playing a deeply flawed game as if it were a 7.5.

On the other hand, at the end of the production cycle, when the game is smooth and playing it has become effortless and comfortable, you are going to need to look at it with fresh, critical eyes.  You need to raise your flow barrier and become oversensitive and harsh.  Every tiny flaw needs to become a glaring blight that must be fixed.  Every inconsistency or imbalance, no matter how trivial, needs to break you out of the experience.  You need to be able to put yourself in the shoes of a new player and find every confusing control mapping or unclear mission objective.

And you can practice by playing a truly exceptional game and fixating on the problems until it’s just a 7.5.  You aren’t flattening all games to the same level, you are changing yourself and controlling your experience to learn the most possible.

GDC 2010: Design in Detail VII

But how do I know which initial settings will lead to flow? How do I train myself to set things up the right way? Or an even better question, how to I make myself into a good designer?

Sniping flow is very fragile because it is so easy to break. Distractions, misses, and frustration abound. It can be difficult to focus, especially when you are first setting a game up. They key is to master your own flow so that you can control the amount of distraction it takes to break your rhythm.

First, make yourself easy to entertain, so you while you are setting it up you can put yourself in a mindset that allows you to maintain flow. Practice filling in details that don’t exist yet. I’m not kidding, get your mouth engaged! I make motor noises when balancing the Warthog and say “pew-pew” for guns.  Kids are easy to entertain because they make up the fun as they go along.

Another technique is to play B-Games with an open mind. Try to see the fun in spite of all the problems. If you can’t have fun with an imperfect game, you won’t be able to find the flow in your own imperfect game.

On the other hand, don’t be satisfied with “sorta fun”. Sniping flow is supposed to have a high ceiling. By this I mean that when you get into a flow state, it should be incredibly deep. So don’t sell it short by being too easy to entertain. A good way to learn to do this is to play good games harshly. Play Halo and then rip the hell out of it. (I do!)
Warning: This is going to wreck your ability to play games. That’s ok because you get to make games, which is a lot more fun

Control over Flow is the essential design skill. In my opinion, control over flow is what makes someone a good designer. Don’t expect other disciplines to have it. Most Programmers see bugs. Most Artists see in still frames. Most Producers see inexplicable delays. But as a designer you should cultivate this conscious control. I imagine a fun thermostat inside my head that I can set at will.

I hate to say it, but most Sniper Rifles aren’t fun. And sniper rifles are easy compared to some things. I believe it is because so many designers skip past this stage and assume that they will be able to make it fun at the end, but find the fun first at all costs! Remember, you aren’t doing Science, you don’t need a control group. Just change stuff and try different configurations. This is why you do this step in private; you don’t need everyone to know all the dead ends you ran down.

Imagine you were trying to teach yourself how to drive. If you just fiddled with one control at a time, you might never figure it out. Pressing the accelerator before you find the ignition doesn’t do anything. You might misinterpret the turn signal until you see how the car operates in motion. Again, this is not science, it is training. You are training your powerful emotional brain through dopamine, and if you leave things static your brain will stop trying to figure it out.

Daniel Tammet has Asperger’s disease and it has given him amazing skill with numbers. He can just intuitively spot prime numbers. Everyone has this power to more or less extent. For me, there is an audible click when something hits the sweet spot, like a record player falling into the groove, that lets me know when something is going to be fun for players.

So, go with your gut!  Trust your heart.  Reach out with your feelings?

To be continued…

Definition: Cadence


A pattern of beats and rests that describes a recognizable rhythm and creates a sense of repose or resolution

But first, a verse:

Roses are red,

Violets are blue,

Poetry has cadence,

And so should your gameplay.

What a terrible poem! Any second-grader could write a better one. It isn’t the content; if I simply wanted to argue that gameplay, like poetry, should obey rules of meter and form, it wouldn’t offend your sensibilities. The poem is bad because the cadence is wrong. Instead of resolving the contrasts set up in the first half, the second half breaks the rhythm and leads to a jarring and abrupt end.

In the same way, the wrong cadence can take a good game mechanic and make it feel awkward or even abrasive.  A gun that fires slightly too fast and ends up degrading into a buzz.  A melee combo that is a touch too slow and never feels like it flows smoothly from one hit to the next.  The boss monster whose sweeping tail attack is a little too regular, making it feel robotic and gamey.

There are a few basic components to cadence, and usually just taking the time to notice them is enough to know how they should be adjusted.

  • Tempo – The speed of a cadence, often described by the number of beats per minute.  A good rule of thumb for finding tempos that feel good is to use the same ones found in music.  For instance, the rate of fire of the Halo Battle Rifle is almost exactly the same as the BPM of Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust.
  • Regularity – Some cadences need to be extremely consistent, like a metronome.  The ticking of a clock or the firing of a machine gun sounds mechanical and precise because there is no variance in the cadence.  Others need a slightly irregular rhythm, like footsteps or a series of punches.  Slight variations in the timing leave a more organic impression.
  • Acceleration/Deceleration – Known in music as Accelerando and Ritardando, this describes the way in which a cadence changes from one tempo to another.  Very slow changes in tempo create tension, like a train departing a station.  Quick changes in tempo will attract the players attention, and are great for helping them to anticipate an attack or other event.
  • Style – Some cadences have short, crisp beats (called Staccato), while others feel blended, like pulses (called Legato).  Varying the styles of cadences can change the mood or provide contrast between two game elements.  Having one gun that fires short, separated bursts of bullets and another that emits a continuous wavy beam, for instance, would allow players to choose their own style, and give them a deeper array of options.

 If a game mechanic or other element fulfills its intended role, but still feels unsatisfying or mysteriously broken, try changing the cadence to reinforce and amplify the experience.

GDC 2010: Design in Detail VI

After paper design, we move to initial settings. Usually there is a period in between while the programmers build the system into the game.

Some of the best producers I have worked with really understood the fact that this stage needs some breathing room!

How many of you are familiar with the concept of Flow? Lots of talks have been done on this, I’m going to assume you know what I am talking about, in general.
The problem is, he wrote in the ‘70s, he doesn’t address video games. So what does flow look like in a video game?

Smiling makes you happy; laughing makes you healthy. Certain finger movements make you have flow. We call that Cadence! This timing for the Sniper Rifle is very specific, because the cadence determines the type of flow created. It is different for different weapons or different parts of the game, but cadence is important in all kinds of flow.

Verisimilitude: the quality of seeming to be true. For controls this means that the physical action of your character in some way corresponds to (or at least doesn’t clash with) the action taken by the player. Remember the Paper Design for Halo 1? It speculated that zoom was on a trigger. If I could go back in time, it probably would be.

The sniper rifle doesn’t unzoom as soon as you fire your last shot (even though that would be more efficient). It unzooms with a slight delay so you can see the results of your last shot. Why is this important?
Studies have shown that blue sleeping pills work better. They are chemically identical, but the placebo effect is enormous. Slow-mo explosions look more “real”. Ask any action director, authentic explosions look fake because we have been looking at slow ones for so long. Your brain has expectations and when those expectations are met, the effect is amplified and that encourages your brain to maintain flow.

Let me tell you a story.

The Sniper Rifle looks great on YouTube because you can really follow the action.  Even someone that has never played Halo can figure out what happened.  Maintining a thread from beginning to end is a key component of staying in the flow state.  For more information, check a specific post I wrote on the topic.