Nice hat

As Time Goes By

Seems you can find me everywhere but here, this week!

I was the “special guest” on this month’s 343 Industries’ Sparkcast and had a great time reminiscing about the original Halo with David Ellis and Frank O’conner. Halo: Anniversary looks great, but I must admit it’s a little disconcerting, like someone found a bunch of my baby pictures and photoshopped themselves into the backgrounds. “Who is that standing behind you and Mom in all these pictures?” “That’s Uncle Avery, don’t you remember him?” “Not really…”

They were kind enough to invite me to the Halo Fest, which was stellar. A great night meeting with fans, as well as a surprising number of old friends and colleagues. I also got to play Installation 04, the new firefight map. This was a special treat for me since it is based off of the second level of Halo 1, which happened to be the very first encounter space I ever designed for Halo. It took me back and I have to admit, I had a moment there, thinking about those good old times.

Nice hat

343 knows how to party!

I was also practically the fifth seat on Weekend Confirmed. Garnett and the gang read through my post about Diablo III’s real money auction house and had a lively discussion. All in all I think they treated the topic with alacrity, and only called me “crazy” three or four times. They didn’t really get my argument for why I believe the main reason Diablo III is happening is to test a new business model for future Blizzard MMOs, but I ran into Garnett later at PAX and we had fun hashing it out.

And finally, I decided that brevity is the sole of twit-ter and changed from @tipofthesphere to @32nds.  Get it, “thirty seconds”? Like “30 seconds of fun“? Whatever, it’s 9 letters shorter, so now I can add #followme to all of my tweets. (Which reminds me, follow me on twitter!)

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Cash to burn

The Diablo is in the Details

Since I was part of Bungie when they sold-out at the beginning of the halcyon Halo era, a large slice of my retirement portfolio is in Microsoft, makers of the Xbox game console. A scant few weeks after I joined them, my new employer Sucker Punch sold-out to Sony, creators of the PlayStation game console. Now, in-so-far as my contributions to Sony games makes their video game system a more effective competitor against Microsoft’s product, and to-the-degree that this competition hurts MS’s stock value, I have a conflict of interests.

Can't we all just get along?

Either way, I lose!

In my situation, the conflict is minor and insignificant. The rewards for doing a good job far outweigh the potential negative side-effects. For a game designer working on a free-to-play game, the conflict is large and debilitating.

The traditional objective of game design is to craft a game that is so much fun people will exchange money for the opportunity to play it. In order to make more money, the game must be more fun for more people. The creative and financial goals of a game designer are in perfect alignment. But no matter how fun a free-to-play game might be, nobody will give you money to play it, because they can’t. It’s free. So while it is still the creative goal to build a game that is fun, it is financially a waste of time. This is not a happy situation for a game designer.

Actually, it’s worse than that. Most free-to-play games make money by being not fun in clever ways. People will pay to skip the boring, repetitive or difficult parts. They will pay to get new floors in Tiny Tower, or earn money faster in World of Tanks, or play their favorite hero in League of Legends… In most games, “this part of the game is so boring, I would pay money to skip it” is something you would find in a bug report, not a business plan. It’s the kind of issue a good game designer would fix, no extra charge. Most micro-transaction games put the creative and financial goals at odds with each other.

Cash to burn

Guess which I would choose?

Which brings me to Diablo III. (At this point I should mention that while I know many designers at Blizzard, this post is entirely speculative.) One might assume that since WoW mints money faster than the Fed in an election year, it doesn’t really matter if any other Blizzard games make revenue. But as a consequence of their success, every minute any employee spends doing anything other than building new WoW content carries an enormous opportunity cost. After such a long development cycle, if Diablo III doesn’t make as much in revenue as two or three WoW expansions, it was a poor business decision… unless it tests out an experimental business model like a real-money auction house, that is.

That’s why I am frustrated by commentators accusing the Diablo team of selling out and cashing in on the popularity of the franchise. They must test a new business model to generates revenue beyond initial sales, or they don’t get to make their game. (Just like Starcraft II needed to be an e-sport experiment.) They could have tried free-to-play, but thankfully they didn’t. I hope they never do! It would mean they had compromised themselves as designers and would doom a lot of other companies to following the same path. The real-money auction house is a long-term revenue source, but it doesn’t force designers to choose between making the game more fun and making more money. And nobody else is in a position to take a risk and show the industry another way.

So, as a designer, I am excited by the direction Blizzard has taken with Diablo III because it can save us from the conflict of interest caused by the glut of free-to-play games. And as a gamer, you ought to be happy about the auction house because it means the Blizzard designers haven’t sold-out and still prize gameplay above all. At the very least, everyone should understand that without the real-money auction house, or something like it, Diablo III probably wouldn’t exist.

Game Developer Magazine

Game Developer

Hey!  I’m in the August issue of Game Developer Magazine!

Game Developer Magazine

I didn't make the cover.

There I was, noodling around in my little corner of the internet — creatively avoiding updating the blog — when I got an email from the editors at Game Developer asking if I’d like to write a guest column for them. Boy, would I! So I combined a couple previous blog posts (Achievements Considered and Achievements Considered II) into a single piece. And after some excellent editing by the GD staff, I am now a paid writer! Check it out!

I'm well red...

They gave me a stack.

If you aren’t a subscriber, you easily could be, and then you could read it! They even have an online version.

Simon says "Come up with a better idea"

Making Enemies III

The final fundamental question that needs to be answered when designing enemies for an action game is:

3.  How will the enemy overreact and expose their fatal weakness?

Every enemy needs a flaw, a chink in their armor that can be exploited by the player. A massive enemy with an equally massive health bar that virtually ignores you as you whittle away isn’t very satisfying. Their defeat is too gradual; the moment of their defeat nearly imperceptible. The true glory of victory isn’t the explosion or the death rattle, it’s before that, when the outcome is guaranteed, but not yet realized. That requires a fatal flaw.

  • A melee charge that travels a bit too far, letting the player get behind them
  • Running out of ammo at just the wrong time, leaving them defenseless at a crucial moment
  • Losing their temper and leaving cover, giving up their advantageous position
  • Realizing a second too late they are standing next to an explosive barrel

The issue for game designers is not the flaw, but calling the player’s attention to it. Shooting at the glowy bits is a common trope. It works precisely because it is a cliche, but it’s about as elegant as putting up a sign that says “Shoot here, dummy.” And not as effective, either. Using Water spells on Fire enemies makes more sense, but is about as exciting as turning a key in a lock. It’s easy to see why so many games have resorted to flashing random button sequences as a facsimile of exploiting a weakness, at least screen-filling UI prompts are hard to miss.

Simon says "Come up with a better idea"

The ultimate warrior

The problem is that there shouldn’t be a problem. Nature’s molded us into natural born killers.  We know when an enemy is vulnerable — from injury or inattention or separation from the herd — we can spot the target of opportunity if we see it. But there is so much going on in an action game, so much happening at such a relentless pace, it can be hard to filter out what is important. That’s why the best flaws are revealed when an enemy reacts to the player, or more accurately when they overreact.

The moment of reaction is ideal because the player is paying attention. Their action caused the reaction.  Everyone over-emphasizes the results of their own activity and focuses on the effects that they cause. They want to watch the ripples from the stones they are throwing. So they will be watching closely and are more likely to notice their opportunity. Also, since the player is the cause of the reaction, they will naturally experiment with it and understand the connection much faster. We are natural scientists, even children employ the scientific method, so giving the player control over the weakness will make them more likely to discover it.

Making it an overreaction will make it more obvious. It can be exaggerated and call attention to itself by being slightly inappropriate. It will also give the player the satisfaction of having outsmarted an enemy. It’s one thing to exploit a weakness they cannot control, but it’s so much better to capitalize on a mistake they shouldn’t have made. Provoking an enemy into a fatal error is one of the most satisfying experiences a game can provide, and the more cunning an enemy seems, the more delightful it is to fool them.