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.

GDC 2010: Design in Detail XIX


And there it is! The big detail!

It’s a large change. It’s very easy to convince yourself that you can feel tiny changes, but you will be fooling yourself. The balance never hinges on a 2% difference in a single value!

It was a smaller change than we tried initially. I think originally we changed it to 0.9, which broke the flow and wrecked the weapon, but did fix the problem, so we knew we were on the right track. In general, you want to overshoot and then come back. You have to make sure your change accomplishes your goal, and then dial it back.


There are lots of ways to verify that a change was successful. In this case, the Sniper Rifle didn’t get any less popular; People still use it whenever they can get it. But Optimizers stopped using it exclusively.


The other reason we could tell it was balanced was because we could compare how the behavior we were seeing in playtests matched the desired role we described in our paper design. It’s not quite an objective test, but it should help. And most importantly, I no longer got nervous when I watched people use the Sniper Rifle. You should verify a change with both your brains and your guts.


Ship it!

At this point during my GDC talk, the audience started clapping, cluing me into the fact that I was completely out of time.
So I just went with the flow and ended it there, which was fine. I had walked people through the balancing process, brought up the important principles, and applied them to the sniper rifle change. But I had also intended to mention a couple of things about the last stages of balancing, which I will get into next week!

Looks normal to me

Sackball

As a fan of international competitions and a patriot, it was tough to see the American team lose in the World Cup Finals.  But as a professional game designer, it was even worse to see them lose during a penalty shoot-out.  If I suggested such a duct-tape solution to a fundamental design flaw I’d be laughed out of the room!

My renewed frustration with the World Cup rules reminded me of a piece I wrote several years ago.  It was intended to appear in ESPN Magazine, but it was never published, so I forgot about it until this afternoon.  It was a pretty silly exercise, but I thought it might be fun to post it, unedited.  The question posed in the article was “What if video game designers invented a sport from scratch?”

Looks normal to me

Sackball

The Rules of Sackball

When we gathered the designers to talk about creating a new sport for ESPN, I must admit we were a little mystified about how to begin.  We’re known for creating Halo, a FPS shooter for the Xbox 360, which has an extensive multiplayer component used for competitive gaming, but how to translate that experience into creating a real sport?  We decided to tackle it like we would any game design challenge, by setting some ground rules to guide our brainstorming.

The first guideline we set was about the scope of this new sport.  It would have been fun to invent elaborate equipment like holographic balls, virtual reality arenas, and antigravity skateboards, but we wanted to create a game that could be played today, not in some dystopian future-sport.  In fact, we decided to stay away from expensive technology and equipment altogether.  One of the beauties of soccer is that it can be played anywhere by anyone, all you need is a field and a ball, and that is one of the reasons it is so successful.  We wanted to create a game that could be played around the world, as well, so we stayed away from expensive existing equipment like pads or indoor ice rinks or horses.

In the end, the one piece of equipment we decided to create was the epinonymous Sackball™.  Every sport has its own signature ball that defines the game and makes it unique.  Ever tried to play baseball with a hockey puck? Or bowl with a Frisbee?  Hilarious, but hardly practical.  (Although, giving Tiger a softball might be an appropriate handicap.)  Our specially-designed ball is the Sackball™.  It’s a canvas sack, about the size of a deflated beach ball, with a few double-handfuls of buckwheat, sand, or some other grainy material, sewn inside.  It’s heavy enough to make it an effort to throw, but because it’s a sack you can use a slinging motion to get some distance.  The canvas provides a good grip for carrying and catching, but its weight makes it difficult to carry at a run for long.  Also, because it is loosely packed, it doesn’t bounce but remains exactly where it lands.

In addition to being inexpensive, we wanted to make our sport accessible by allowing it to be played anywhere.  Not just in a specifically defined field, because that would not be available to some people in our increasingly urban world.  No, we wanted a game that could be literally played in any environment, in a field, in an alley, in the middle of a forest, even exotic locations like on an ancient Mayan temple or a spacestation (after all, we _are_ videogame designers!)  We wanted to come up with a set of rules that could adapt to any arena, which we would allow players to define using spray paint to create boundaries and scoring areas.  In current professional sports, small variations in stadiums create major home field advantage (think the Green Monster or Seattle’s famously loud Quest Field.)  Imagine if each team could construct totally unique fields!

Welcome to the Arena

Sing Sing Stadium

The final restriction that we set for ourselves was that our new sport had to be completely non-violent.  Not just that we weren’t making some late-night B movie blood sport, but that our game would have no intentional contact.  Boxing, Rugby and American Football are great sports, but the high risk of injury and punishing play mean they are not appropriate for most people, and we wanted our sport to work on the playground as well as the professional level.  We also wanted people of all body types and physical conditions to be able to play, and allowing contact between players might prevent that.  We imagined little league teams with elementary school kids all the way up to outrageously strong and fast professional athletes playing this game, with lots of room to improve beyond what current sports allow.  Adding the possibility of direct physical conflict seemed to undermine this goal.

In fact, we decided to go even further by eliminating as much contact between players as possible.  Basketball is a non-contact sport, but the importance of position and blocking the other team’s ability to advance to the basket leads to all kinds of contact.  The big problem with that in a well-designed game is that contact requires referees.  What is the difference between a charge a foul?  Between blocking and holding?  Our ideal sport would not require judgment calls like this, so we determined to eliminate as much unintentional or ambiguous contact as possible by keeping the teams separated somehow.

So, here is our new sport, Sackball™.  It is played by two teams of five players.  We chose five players because we wanted every player to be a significant part of the game.  Even in Halo we prefer small team sizes because it allows each individual to be featured and have a major impact on the outcome, instead of getting lost on a large team.  However, we intend Sackball™ to be very physically demanding, even incredible athletes will probably not be able to play for an entire game, so the actual team size would be much larger than five.  The team size is also flexible, to allow pick-up games with other kids in the neighborhood.  (Ever tried to play baseball with only four friends?  It just doesn’t work.)

The arena can be any size, and is created by drawing a single, continuous boundary that encloses a roughly convex field of play.  It can be flat, like a football field, or contain obstacles like trees, boulders, parked cars, giant spinning saw blades, whatever is handy.  In the arena are five goal zones, spread out so they are roughly equidistant from each other and the arena boundary.  These goals or “bubbles” are painted circles about 15 feet in diameter.

One team is designated the “offense” and given the Sackball™.  We considered giving the defenders the ball, as in baseball, but that leads to a very conservative game, and what we wanted was explosive action.  The offensive team starts the game anywhere along the arena boundary.  Their goal is simple, they must get the sack into any of the goal bubbles.  They are allowed to carry the sack however they want, throw or kick the sack to other players, or take a shot on a goal bubble.  Once the sack touches the ground inside a goal bubble, either by throwing it so it lands at least partially inside the goal or when the ball carrier gets one foot into the bubble, that goal is considered “captured” and the team is awarded one point.  The offenders can then pick up the sack again and attempt to capture another goal.  When all five goal bubbles have been captured by the same team, that team is awarded three additional points and the round is over.

Circle

Gooooooooaaaaaaallllll!!!!

The defenders also have a very simple goal, to prevent the other team from scoring and gain possession of the sack.  Three of the defenders are designated as sack pursuers, or “sackers”.  They are not allowed to enter the goal bubbles, but they can go anywhere else on the field.  If at any time a sacker touches the sackball, lays a hand on the offensive sack carrier or forces the offensive team to let the sack touch the ground, the sack changes possession and the defensive team is given a chance to score. Otherwise they are not allowed to touch the other team (remember, this is a strict no-contact sport.)  The other two defenders are called goal keepers.  They are the only defenders allowed to stand inside the goal bubbles and attempt to intercept shots or tag a ball carrier trying to score.  They are not allowed to tag the ball or ball carriers outside the goals, however.

Though goal bubbles start out neutral, soon they will be captured by one team or the other, leading to a tug-of-war scenario where each team tries to re-capture the other team’s bubbles.  When the sack changes possession, the new offensive team is allowed to freely carry the sack back to any bubble they control, giving them some free space to organize a play.  Since defenders are not allowed into goal bubbles, it will be crucial for offensive teams to use them as a staging area.  The final goal in any round will be the most difficult, since there will be two defending goal keepers in the goal.  But since winning a round is worth more points, it will be important to the offensive to be able to do so.

After each round there is a short break to allow teams to make substitutions (and for commercials, we want this sport to be popular with television program directors, too!)  Play will continue with a new round until the teams have played for 90 minutes, after which the current round will continue until it finishes, but no new rounds will start.  In the case of a tie after the completion of the final round, whichever team successfully captured all five goals to end the round will win the game.  (That way the game cannot end in a tie.)

While we have not yet played a game of Sackball™ (our sack-sewing skills are sorely lacking) we believe it would be a very dynamic game, with a lot of high-energy movement, quick passing and scoring, and extremely demanding athletic play.  But it would also have room for deep strategy, which order to attack the goal bubbles, how best to use the safe zones of captured goals, and how to overcome and take advantage of any obstacles or cover included in the customized arenas.  Also, it gives the opportunity for exciting fast breaks as a good team may be able to score very quickly in succession before the defending team has a chance to reset after a goal.

The designers really enjoyed the challenge of creating a new sport that was not just fair, but also physically demanding, capable of being played at many levels of athleticism, and around the world in all conditions.  Thanks for the opportunity!

On a ‘Stiq

One of the reasons I have not been updating as regularly recently is because I was answering pages upon pages of questions from Joystiq‘s Ludwig Kietzmann for an extended interview about game design.  You can find the first part here.  He probably has enough material for a book, or at least a large pamphlet, so expect more!