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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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.