GDC 2010: Design in Detail XVI

Sometimes you have to let your head drive.

I’ve claimed in this talk that your rational brain is a feeble instrument and cannot handle the volume of input associated with balancing a multiplayer game. This is true, but that is not an excuse for presenting your design decisions as inexplicable black magic guided solely by intuition and guesswork. You need to have solid design values that you can point to as a general explanation for how you make decisions, and then provide specific reasons and supporting data when necessary to convince the team. Just because you don’t have time to carefully examine every detail doesn’t mean you can’t logically examine any decision. Other designers and developers have instincts, too; if they clash with yours take it as a sign that you need to look closer.

Here are some good design values to use when balancing a complicated game system. First, fix imbalance with physics when you can, and only revert to math when required. The player cannot directly experience the math behind the system, so tweaking elements by changing mathematical formulas is difficult to perceive, tough to evaluate and even if it does fix the problem in the long-term, it may not feel fixed. Of course, at their most basic level all video games software are math, so it may be impossible to address a problem without making changes to numbers and equations, but don’t resort to that immediately. I think a lot of designers got their start with board games and pen-and-paper RPGs, where the math is explicit, but modern games are simulations and respond more readily to behavioral changes than to statistical ones.

Hey look, a totally fair game… A totally boring, pointless, frustrating, fair game.

You cannot make a Sniper Rifle fair. The person being sniped cannot counter-attack, faces near-instant death, and usually doesn’t even know they are in a fight until it is too late! If you make fairness your goal you will end up removing all the interesting asymmetry from the game. Instead, focus on longevity. Create a Sniper Rifle that doesn’t make the person that was sniped want to quit, and you will succeed.

Give me a hug!

Design Sense – Perception

Rorschach Tests

Look at this picture.  What do you see?

Give me a hug!

The answer is obviously Goro

Hermann Rorschach devised the technique of using random ink blots to probe the subconscious mind, based on the idea that patients would be prone to seeing images that were more important or relevant to their mental state.  They would project their internal preoccupations onto the otherwise abstract shapes, revealing clues that could be deciphered by their psychiatrist.

The reason ink blot tests work is because humans are naturally adept at seeing images and patterns.  Our brains are composed of an enormous collection of highly specialized neural circuits, custom-built for finding, storing and matching patterns.  Parts of our brains are devoted to sensing contrasts, finding parallel lines, extrapolating three-dimensional depth, recognizing faces, anticipating motion — the list goes on and on.  In fact, so much of our cognitive potential is tied up in neural pathways that are optimized for matching specific patterns, it is actually very difficult to avoid seeing them everywhere.  In video game terms, you are almost all GPU with very little CPU.  It is difficult for us to simply perceive information without our specialized capabilities biasing our interpretation of it.

Why are you so morbid?

Completely abstract shapes

This is great for surviving in the jungle, not so great for designing games.  The problem is that we begin processing before we have all the information; we draw conclusions based on patterns that may not actually exist.  Did that element dominate an encounter because of a fluke, or does it represent a trend?  Is this feature a little out of tune, or does it hopelessly conflict with the rest of the game?  It’s impossible to tell from a single example, but that doesn’t prevent us from making judgements based on one experience.  And once we have a pattern in our head, Confirmation Bias kicks in and our brain optimizes further and starts rejecting data that doesn’t support our initial conclusion, making it even harder for us to be objective.

Confirmation Bias is especially potent for game designers, because we know what is supposed to happen.  We wrote the paper design, we know how a mechanic was intended to constrain the gameplay, so we play our games as if the mechanics work properly — even when they don’t!  We know the picture behind the ink blot, so we are incapable of seeing with unbiased eyes.  Which is why we are so often shocked during playtests; what is obvious to us proves unintuitive and confusing without the pattern already in mind.

Unfiltered Perception

So train yourself to see the ink, not the pattern.  Stubbornly stare until you don’t see an image, but only what is truly there.  Then, when you play your game, divest yourself of preconceived notions of what the game ought to be and strive to experience the game as it truly is.  This will allow you to see through the eyes of a new player.

Another method is to find Gestalt images, pictures that abruptly change meaning based on how you look at them, and practice switching between the competing interpretations.  This will allow you to hold multiple explanations of the same game experience in your mind at the same time, so you can evaluate them all fairly.

Old woman, young woman, old woman, young woman...

It may sound ridiculous to spend time deconstructing smudges and turning old women into young women, but it will help reclaim some of those specialized circuits and increase your ability to process unfiltered reality.  Which will make you a more effective game designer.

He's about to have an experience he won't forget!

Put to the Question

If you want to learn something, read about it.  If you want to understand something, write about it.  If you want to master something, teach it.

– Yogi Bhajan

Successful designers are those that have the discipline to edit their work.  Generating gameplay ideas is exciting and easy; discerning those with potential and removing the rest takes resolve and vision.  But you’ll never get where you are going if you walk down every road — you must cut!

Removing game elements is usually straightforward.  They are almost always part of a collection of similar elements, so they can be compared on an apples-to-apples basis.  They are often specific instances of a general system — the Assault Rifle is an instance of the Weapon system, the Goblin is an instance of the enemy AI systems — which means that most of the work that goes into them can be applied to other elements and isn’t wasted.  An element is associated with a certain amount of work that must be scheduled for the models, textures, effects, sounds and animations, so it is easy to measure its impact on the overall scope.  And finally, since an element is by definition discrete, it can usually be removed with virtually no impact on the rest of the game.

This guy's name is Needler

Some elements just don't fit in

“Is this mechanic going to be fun?” is a good question, but impossible to answer.  Prototyping can help, but it still takes discernment to recognize the potential in a prototype.  It also represents an investment of resources, which can bias the team toward keeping a prototyped mechanic that ought to be cut.  “Can we implement this mechanic?” is also a good question, but “can” is not “should” and “implemented” is not “tuned”.  “Has a mechanic appeared in another game?” is a useful question, but isn’t necessarily relevant to the current game.  “Does everyone agree this mechanic is good?” is a seductive, but destructive, question; it replaces a designer’s instinct with general consensus and will lead to “downhill design” where the only possible solutions are the easiest ones.  The single best question for determining the potential of a mechanic is “Can the player be taught to enjoy this mechanic?”

He's about to have an experience he won't forget!

Not everything is teachable

Answered honestly, this question has far-reaching implications.  If a player never uses a mechanic, it might as well not exist in the first place.  If a player fails to realize that a mechanic exists, it is too subtle or the game is overly complicated.  If a player refuses to learn a mechanic, it probably doesn’t fulfill a fundamental aspiration for them — they will never be interested.  If a player is unable to learn a mechanic, it is probably unintuitive or it clashes with other aspects of the game.  If the designer cannot distill a mechanic down to teach it, they likely don’t understand the mechanic themselves.  If a mechanic can only be learned through explicit tutorial, it probably has an awkward or obscure control scheme.  Any of these problems are fundamental enough to warrant removal.

On the other hand, if a mechanic can be taught effortlessly — or better yet, players discover it on their own — or if mere awareness that an experience is possible is enough to motivate them to learn how to access it, this is a sign that a mechanic is reaching them on a subconscious level.  This kind of mechanic can be integrated into their thought process and lead to a fluid flow experience.

GDC 2010: Design in Detail XV

Without anyone getting kicked in the face…

You always need to listen when people don’t like something. You are too close to the game; You probably already fixed all the things you didn’t like, so you should value a fresh perspective. Keep in mind that you can always trust someone’s emotional reactions, they are always authentic and valuable, but never just blindly take their advice. The designer’s job is to separate emotional feedback from thoughtful suggestions and treat the appropriately.

Before you can interpret someone’s feedback, you need to understand the source. Feedback means “the game in my head is different” and often times your response to feedback should be to probe about what kind of game they are imagining. You don’t necessarily need to agree on the game you are making to benefit from their feedback; they probably represent some portion of your audience.

You see Development Bias a lot with the public when the development process is very open. Playtesters know the game isn’t finished, they know you expect them to provide constructive criticism, so they become a lot more sensitive and more likely to complain. Once the game is on the shelves, those small problems fade into the background and players rarely notice them.

You also need to understand the source of feedback; If you can categorize someone’s play style, it will help you understand how to react to their feedback. You can weight their comments appropriately.
Here are some examples:
(The names have been changed to protect the guilty)

I used to balance “Easy” by playing with my nose (true story) but Steve still couldn’t beat it. I miss that guy, he was incredibly useful for balancing.

Even more important than categorizing other players, you need to understand your own playstyle. For instance, I’m a “role-player”, so I tend to ignore small balance problems if the results are still dramatic. I have to recruit “pros” that are more sensitive to useless or underpowered elements.

Definition: Role


The features, mechanics, situation and purpose which define an element’s function in a game

According to Aristotle, we can claim to have knowledge of something only when we have understood its causes.  These causes come in four types: the material cause – the matter of which the thing is made, the formal cause – the pattern or idea which that matter takes, the efficient cause – the motivation which formed the matter, and the final cause – the purpose for which it is used.  Once we understand all four causes, we know an object fully.  In game design terms, once we can explain all four causes, we know an element’s role.

The Material Cause

Video games are not physical objects, so technically they don’t require a material cause.  However, they do have underlying components that make their existence in the game possible, like models, textures, effects and sounds.  They also require other engine features like physics, particles, etc.  Some elements even require completely unique features, and explicitly specifying these features is important to defining the role.

The Formal Cause

This aspect of a game element is what we traditionally think of as “design.”  The form of an element is the pattern that it follows and the systems in which it operates – the game mechanics that constrain it.  Aristotle is referring to the Platonic idea of an object, but in-game design this is the Paper Design.  Just as in Plato’s theory, real life cannot match the perfection of the world of ideas; the in-game experience will never realize the paper design exactly, but it does provide an objective standard.  Much like a craftsman making a chair is attempting to create a material version of the ultimate idea of “chairhood”, the designer tunes an experience to get as close as possible to the original game design.

The Efficient Cause

Often called the “moving cause” because it provides the motivating force for an object, the efficient cause is closest to our modern concept of “cause and effect.”  In game design, the efficient cause is always the player and their desires.  A game element that does not have a corresponding player desire will never be used (at least not without coercion) so it is crucial to identify and meet those needs.

The Final Cause

The most important cause, at least to Aristotle, is the purpose for which an object exists.  In a game, this is especially true because games are fundamentally about using tools to solve problems, and game elements are usually classified by the types of problems they solve.  This is why it is so important to limit an element’s power so it is only effective for its designated role; if an element is an effective solution for multiple types of problem it becomes difficult to tell what its purpose is intended to be.  This is also why a problem should be presented before or at the same time as the solution, or else the player will not have a way to categorize the solving element.  This purpose is communicated to the player through affordance and reinforced by rewarding feedback.

Taken together, these four causes define an element’s role.  The features that allow it to exist.  The mechanics that give it a form and constrain its use.  The situation that creates the player’s need for it.  The purpose for which the player will use it.  Once a designer understands all four causes for an element, they understand an element well enough to implement it successfully.

GDC 2010: Design in Detail XIV

If you were disciplined in writing your paper design, and stayed firm while doing setting up the rough balance, this stage should be very rewarding and exciting.  If not, it is going to be disappointing and frustrating.

The timing for this stage is tricky.  If you start too early, your balance changes will be swallowed up by the churn of new features coming online.  If you wait too long, the rough balance will become entrenched and the team will object to changes.  Generally, this coincides with a “First Playable” build where everything is at least in the game and functioning.

It’s crucially important to communicate this new phase to the rest of the team, so they know what to expect and understand that now is the time for them to give the feedback they have been patiently waiting to deliver. One way to do that is to implement a controlled opportunity for them to play the latest build and provide their feedback in a structured format.  Make sure you tell them what you are currently working on, so their responses will be relevant, but don’t tell them exactly what has changed or you may bias their opinions.

So how do you balance a Sniper Rifle? It is not by adding weaknesses!  Don’t undo the work you did in making it powerful!  Balance it by narrowing its role through limitations.

The best way to detect which elements need to be limited is by watching for the game to become predictable.  If the same strategy is being used in a variety of different situations, to the point where players are no longer required to think about which strategy to choose, it means an element is too useful outside of its designated role.  If the Sniper Rifle is not only the best weapon at long range, but players are carrying it indoors and using it against vehicles, it needs to be constrained.  Give it some time first, because the playtesters might just not have figured out the new balance yet, but if it is consistent for a few tests, start looking for ways to limit the dominant element.

On the other hand, if the game is completely unpredictable, it is a sign that the elements are not effective enough at their roles.  A truly random strategy should never be as good as intentionally selecting an element that is strong in the desired role.  It may also be a symptom of a role going unfulfilled.  If there is no Sniper Rifle, the Shotgun and the SMG are equally terrible at long range combat, so it doesn’t matter which one you choose.

Up, Up and Away!

Against Eschatological Design

The last few months of a game’s development is a magical time.  Ideally, everything is coming together, the team is firing on all cylinders, and the experience is getting better by the hour.  Bugs are getting fixed, the build is more stable and performs better, the art is looking polished, and playtest results begin to climb to their highest levels right as the game is locked down.  The difference between those last precious moments of post-production, where everything is happening too fast to follow, and the months (often years) of glacially slow progress at the beginning of a project are so stark, they create the perception that a switch has been thrown, that the game has suddenly become fun.  The designer’s new-found power to affect change, and the positive feedback from the rest of the team, leads to a feeling of vindication and exhilaration.  Finally, all the hard work has paid off and the game has crossed the Fun Barrier.

It is tempting, after the flush of this experience, to look back on a game’s development as a power curve.  To retroactively smooth out the experience so it fits a nice mathematical progression, making the outcome of a fun game inevitable from the start.  To pretend as if the only unknown was if the game would cross the Fun Barrier before the project ran out of time or funding.  To ensure success on the next project by figuring out how to increase the exponent on the power curve, to work harder and add features faster, to run more playtests and balance earlier, so the game has time to reach the steep end of its exponential curve.

Up, Up and Away!

Fun = (Iterations * Time) ^Talent ?

The problem is that fun doesn’t really work that way.  A player experiences fun as a binary switch, either they are having fun at a given moment or they aren’t, like a square wave.  There’s no such thing as almost fun; an experience doesn’t gradually go from 90% enjoyable to 100% fun in a continuous curve.  A game gets better because it sustains a fun experience for longer stretches at a time, with less unfun gaps in between.

Worst Line Rider level ever

Fun = Fun * Polish ?

An experienced game designer is sensitive to very short, almost subliminal moments where a mechanic is actually fun.  Even in an early prototype phase, they can detect these snippets and predict with confidence which mechanics have potential and which ones don’t.  So, instead of finding ways to be more effective at polishing hopelessly dull gameplay, they can quickly abandon mechanics that never display those glimpses of greatness and focus exclusively on eliminating or minimizing the unfun gaps in those mechanics are already fun in spurts.  This is why exceptional designers tend to produce simpler, more reliably enjoyable games with fewer mechanics that feel almost effortless to play.  And why the vast majority of average games are released with an abundance of features, but subject players to hours of tedium or frustration as they labor to find fleeting moments of fun on their own.