Turtle Power!

Jump Kick Designer

By this I am not describing an absurdly narrow area of expertise… I am describing my aesthetic.

It is easy to become lost in the mechanics and machinations of game design. To glorify systems and metrics and equations and definitions and exceptions and minutia — to obsess over design in detail. It is a habit hardened in the same forge as our instincts, back when we first began to hone our craft. We became accustomed to looking at our feet, wary of missteps, and now we believe the road to be the prettiest scenery. But we are no longer in danger of stubbing our toes — so look up! Beyond mere mechanics lies meaning, and deeper design requires more than technique, it demands values.

One way to understand your design values is to find your ultimate game mechanic. What gameplay action most realizes your design aesthetic? What concept always feels fresh? What tool springs to mind for every problem? For some designers, the Dialog Tree is the root of their art. Others appeal to the direct, uncompromising demands of the Headshot. Some designers have hung their entire career on the Fine-Tuned Economy or the Skill Bar, and their focus has led to many fine games.

FOUR jump kicks

What's better than a jump kick?

For me, it’s all about the Jump Kick. Taken individually, both the Jump and the Kick are atomic, fundamental, with an enormous variety of possibilities. The Jump because it completely analog, a fraction lies between safety and disaster. The Kick because it rests on rhythm, the right moment to strike comes at its own pace. For both, the subtlety and skill come before the action, leaving them pure and as simple as any mechanic could be.

But their complexity lies in their combination. Like rice and broth, staples that become more flavorful when enjoyed together.  When performed in sequence, suddenly the Jump has an offensive purpose and a target — it becomes dangerous! And the Kick expands beyond timing and gains an element of range, even into the vertical! Like two horses yoked together, they become much more powerful than the sum of their strengths. The precision required to balance a Jump Kick, and the richness it yields when well-tuned — for me it the apex of design expression.

So graceful

Beautiful in every form

So find your ultimate mechanic and explore your design values. It’s important to be intentional about choosing your aesthetic, or you’ll wander into a pit. You’ll become a Turret Sequence Designer, placing spectacle over freedom. Or a Stamina Bar Designer, with no purpose beyond controlling the player. Or the despicable Time Sink Designer, wasting the player’s time and your own. Maybe it’s acceptable to use these mechanics out of desperation, but they are hardly something to be valued. We should all aim higher! Maybe try Jump Kicking!

 

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Treating Iterationitis

Iteration is the key to good game design.  Everyone knows this, not just designers.  Artists, programmers, even the producers in charge of the schedule acknowledge that iteration is a necessary evil — a gullet of unknown appetite that must be sated.  However, this abstract understanding breaks down almost immediately when faced with this inflexible reality:  If our plan is to iterate on the design until the game is fun, it will not be fun when we begin, and will not be fun at any point in the iteration process until literally the moment before we are done.  Successful designers have accepted this reality to some extent — they have to.  But non-designers, deprived of both visibility into the iterative process and ultimate responsibility for how it turns out, have not been forced to come to terms with this uncomfortable truth, and so they get nervous.

It is in the designer’s best interest to minimize the impact of their own uncertainty on the rest of the development team.  Some of them do this through bravado — how dare you question my ability to produce results?!  Others present design as a black art, with arcane secrets known only to themselves — an illusion which a perceptive non-designer can dispel with a few well-considered questions.  Many use this uncertainty as camouflage, avoiding direct conflict by constantly iterating without revealing their ultimate goals.  The problem with all of these techniques is that they can be used not only to reduce the team’s discomfort with iteration, but to conceal a lack of design discipline or creative horsepower.  It becomes impossible to discern the difference between a good designer protecting the team from the difficulties of iteration and a bad designer hoping to stall long enough to get lucky.  What is required are methods to iterate quickly while minimizing the team-wide anxiety.

Not how iteration works

Continuity of Iteration

If a designer stops iterating on an element or system for more than a week, other team members will assume that they are done with it.  They will evaluate it as if it was finished and assume that the designer is satisfied, even though it is clearly not fun.  Left unchecked, this chain of assumptions will lead them to distrust the designer’s abilities and judgement.  This happens almost entirely subconsciously, so communication to the contrary is rarely effective.  The only real solution is to keep iterating, even when the correct next step is unclear.  Just change something so that bystanders will postpone their evaluations.  This also avoids the problem of inertia, where developers — even designers, sometimes — grow accustomed to an element’s broken state and no longer notice that it isn’t fun.

Tools and Systems for Iteration

Any non-designer that is an integral part of the iteration loop will be exposed to the chill of uncertainty on a daily basis.  So the simplest way to reduce their unease is to make sure the tools for iterating don’t require their constant support.  With the proper tools, a designer should be able to experiment entirely on their own, without external resources.  If these tools are unavailable, it may require the designer to broaden their skill-set until they can hack together what they need.  That’s why most experienced designers have a working knowledge of so many tools — 3D modeling software, source code editors, Photoshop, etc. — not because they can produce shippable content or code, but so they can try off-the-wall ideas without needing help from outside the design team.

Private... not on TV

Private Iteration

Another benefit of tools that designers can use on their own is that they allow for private experimentation.  Sometimes the iteration process is random and goes through an enormous number of bad ideas before discovering a good one.  Again, since most non-designers are not confronted by the constant, unmitigated stream of failures required by the iterative process, watching the ones responsible for the ultimate quality of the game appear to be blindingly incompetent for months on end can be… unsettling.  It takes an emotional toll that can be avoided when a designer does most of their failing in private, witnessed only by other sympathetic designers.

Herald Milestones

Of course, chronically working in private has one major disadvantage — nobody sees your successes, either.  Since a lack of perceptible progress can be as damaging to team morale as public regression, it is crucial to announce any concrete improvements as soon as they happen.  No need to wait for an element to be complete, so long as a decision is reasonably certain and isn’t going to change immediately, let people know!  “The speed of the tank has been decided!”  “Jump is definitely going to be on the ‘A’ button!”  Pointing out these small, but measurable, signs of certainty will give the team a sense that there is light at the end of the iteration tunnel.

We'll get there... eventually

Even permanent failures can result in more certainty.  “We have given up on the hovercraft!” “We are no longer working on the Shadow Beast!”  The objective is not to demonstrate the perfection of the design team, but to show an inexorable drive toward closure.  The team must understand — not just intellectually but in their bones — that if the iteration process continues as it is, at some point in the future, the game will be done.

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.

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.

GDC 2010: Design in Detail XI


So how do you recognize strength when you see it? How can you train yourself to appreciate strength?


The first way to develop a sense for strength is to change the balance constantly. People hate it because it resets their competence, but it will prevent them from optimizing their skills and their strategies. One theory about Beginner’s Luck is that when you first attempt a new skill your brain is very engaged and thinks the entire action through very carefully. On subsequent tries, your brian gets lazy and tries to take shortcuts, so you are more likely to be successful on your first try than on subsequent tries. Also, development is hard, and deadlines are approaching, so the temptation is to lock things down as soon as possible. Resist temptation and keep the balance changing until you find the true strength of the game elements.


As you strengthen an element, the other elements become relatively weaker. After a pass through the elements, you will find that the first one can no longer compete, and must be strengthened again. Keep doing this until all the elements feel powerful.


This guy is really good at Halo…


Pro-players often complain that “The guys making decisions suck at their own game” and it’s true! I’ll admit that I’m not very good at Halo. I’ll even claim that I’m not good on purpose! The problem is that the dopamine released for being a good player is the same as the chemical reward for being a good game designer. Since you can’t tell the difference, you may mistake the thrill of winning for the satisfaction of balancing the game. You should always feel like you are learning about your game, and if you start to feel like you have mastered it you need to change something so you aren’t good again.


You must acknowledge your own tendency to optimize and ignore problems once they have become familiar. Don’t work on the same element for too long, don’t become comfortable. If something feels so familiar you stop noticing it, change it.


At the same time, if something is right, if it is just perfect and you don’t want to lose it, you need to play it so much that it becomes part of you. I can still, after years and years, drive a new Warthog and tell you if it is tuned correctly or not. I’m known in the Animation Pit as “Three Frames” Griesemer, because if they added a single extra frame to a Halo melee attack I could tell immediately. You need to hone your sensitivity by playing with a finely tuned element over and over until it is ingrained in your muscle memory.