GDC 2010: Design in Detail XII


Notice that these guys are getting stronger and stronger as we go?


I actually got this bug. Not only is it balance feedback presented with the authority of a bug report, it’s so incredibly early in the process, there is no way to know if the Sniper Rifle was balanced or not, since most of the game didn’t even work! Ideally, production would help shield a designer from this kind of inappropriate feedback, but in all likelihood they are the ones filing it in the first place.  [Pause for laugh]

Remember, you are getting paid to be the designer, it is your duty to use your best judgment and not swing back and forth based on the latest feedback, especially at this early stage. Hopefully the team will understand that and you will get to see it through.


If you design by committee, you end up like these guys.

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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.

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…

GDC 2010: Design in Detail IV


How do you develop your sense of balance for paper designs? It can be done, you can look at a paper design and have an intuition about how it will work. You are looking for the role, and for a couple key factors that are the results of the role.


The first thing you are looking for is to make sure the paper design is neither too simple, nor too complex. If your paper design is one sentence long, it is probably too simple. People are going to reach the limitations quickly and stop playing. (Remember, balance is longevity)

If it is more than a page long, it is likely too complex. People will never reach their comfort level, they will stop playing because they can’t understand what is happening. Balance is a barely manageable number of choices. (I bet I end up writing a post on this slide at some point.)


This is where roles come in because they provide depth without increasing complexity.

The Sniper Rifle is the best weapon in some situations. The Sniper Rifle has a clear role, times and situations where it is the best. The payoff for using the Sniper Rifle is different depending on what situation you are in. This is good, because game theory tells us that if all the possible strategies have the same payoff, players will pick randomly. As game designers we want to avoid choices that don’t ultimately matter.

Roles are also good because they cause asymmetry, which demand movement. There are incentives to move from one strategy to another depending on the situation.


One of the tropes of the design community… Rock, Paper, Scissors. But it’s a terrible game!!! Every choice has the same payoffs, so you pick randomly. There is no player agency if their choice is meaningless.

It’s a cool shirt, though (www.noisebot.com)

This was easily the most controversial slide in this talk. Several people took issue with the fact that RPS is a bad game because many journalists and designers improperly use it to describe a situation where one unit strictly dominates another, like in a good RTS. But imagine a RTS game where you could only pick one unit, you had to pick it before the game started, and if you picked wrong you couldn’t possibly win, It’d be a bad game!
The reason a RTS game works is because it isn’t RPS:
– You can play mixed strategies (choose more than one kind of unit)
– Strategies have different costs to play (tanks cost more than barbarians)
– You can change strategies mid-game
– Strategies rarely have an all-or-nothing payoff (10 Air units can usually kill 1 Anti-air unit)

So I am not using RPS in the casual sense of “a game with counter-strategies” but as defined in game theory; Hopefully that clears things up a bit.

I also got a lot of people saying, “RPS is the foundation of Street Fighter!” This is true, somewhat, more than the RTS case, anyway. but imagine a turn-based game of SF where the first hit wins the match. Again, a bad game.

The reason SF works is that it is also not really RPS:
-SF is a series of RPS interactions, so things like reputation and anticipation come in.
-It is played very quickly, so low level decision making and muscle memory determine your strategy more than choices, so it isn’t truly random.
-And even with that, most non-expert players tend to “button-mash” which is a great example of “random strategy”

Believe me, I am not trying to insult RTS games or SF (or even Ro Sham Bo Tournament Champions) but to encourage designers to see how roles lead to non-equal payoffs, and therefore avoid random strategies.


“Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock” is even worse game design. (This game is from the show “The Big-Bang Theory”) It looks more interesting, but it isn’t; it is just more complicated. It will still reduce to equal payoffs and random play.


This doesn’t even make sense! (Interesting note: Halo 1 was this close to shipping without a Shotgun, which makes even less sense…)


Avoid strict dominance…Wait, what is strict dominance?


Who picked the Health Potion? The single-use health replenisher you can buy for 30 rupees?
Who picked the Piece of Heart? The totally unique health-extender you can never buy?

Right, everyone picks the Piece of Heart. (If you didn’t, it’s ok, you were probably eight.)


Iterative deletion means you remove all the dominated strategies, then you remove all the strategies that were only good against those strategies. If you cut the Tank, cut the Anti-Tank Mine. Often when you are making cuts in the final stages of production, it seems like a good idea to cut a little bit from a lot of places, but it is uaully better to cut an entire game mechanic and all of the game elements that use it. Otherwise you end up with several systems that feel like they have missing pieces, rather than a single system that is entirely absent.


After GDC I got challenged to come with an example like Rock, Paper, Scissors that is good game design, so I invented Pirates, Ninjas, Sharks. Each has their own strengths. Ninjas are better at night, but Sharks always win in the water, while Pirates come in crews, etc. A good game is one that you can argue about forever.

[Continued]