Sunday, 3 October 2010

Beyond shalloware - thoughts on game design


Cute Introduction

Watch these short videos first:

So animals play games and have fun too. Why? Animals only do stuff that is somehow beneficial for them. That is how they evolved. So games are valuable in some way?

Games are about self-improvement (by gaining knowledge and skills and experience) in safer environment.

There is value in games. This article is about how we generally kill that value and how we can increase it, instead.

What are Value and Fun

Definition of Value / Meaning / Importance:
What we objectively gain from a game – knowledge, skill, etc. Varies from player to player (differences in interpretation / previous knowledge / abilities)
Important - for the purposes of this article I use the word value, as if it is synonymous with meaning and importance

Definition of Fun:
What we subjectively feel to have gained from the game. The emotion “I like this” has evolutionary meaning “I should do this more”. Fun is not the value itself, just a response to what may be valuable

As evolutionary result, fun usually tends toward some actual value:

Fun Fact:
"Tarkovsky once expressed frustration that 80% of audiences had this stupid notion that cinema is meant to entertain them"

We trade value for fun
It is obvious from the definitions above that Fun and Value are 2 different things. We are not perfect so we are not perfectly adapted to what is good and what is bad for us in this ever-changing environment. Consequently fun is not always valuable and value is not always fun.

And we actively exploit those flaws in our own brains. We developed a wide range of means to trade value for fun, to the point where a certain activity is a pure waste of time or even harmful, but is damn good fun. For a list of examples for the gap between fun and value look in this link just below the word “escapism”:

Art saves

Here are most of the definitions of “art” I managed to find:
  • “Art is moments of dreams”
  • “More than 1 answer, open to interpretation, users derive different knowledge based on their experiences and personality”
  • “Art brings a specific vision, a goal of sorts, to life”
  • “Art makes a statement about human condition”
  • “Art shows particles of truth of how the world works”
  • John Blow said “What if I build something that reaches beyond the edge of my understanding, and we all explore it?”

All of those are very poetic and beautiful, but don’t really say anything besides “there is some value there” and that is applicable to any book on molecular biology, but nobody calls those art. So lets do something more useful and give
Practical definition of Art:
Fun is proportional and correspondent to actual Value

Going hardcore

Definition of creative media:
  • Dance
  • Paintings and Sculpture
  • Literature
  • Music
  • Cinema
  • Comic books
  • “Sequential art”
  • Games
  • Generally everything people mistakenly rush to call “arts”

All creative media have some value:
None = noise, boring, waste of time, not interesting
Very Much = profound insights, life-changing
That means all of them can be art but not all necessarily are

Definition of Immersion:
I use the word “immersion” as this is the accepted term in the industry, but it is wrong. The original name of the phenomenon is “Suspension of disbelief” and you can read about it in detail here:
What it is in short – the user feels “Ok, I will forget for the moment that this is just a game (or whatever) so that I can absorb its value better”
Present in all kinds of creative media, not only games

How organisms absorb value in real life:
I will call the process “Learning”, but bear in mind that it now differs from what you normally call learning. As defined now it is not only about gaining knowledge, but also skills, experience, relations, generally anything that makes the organism improved / adapted to his environment.
Visit this link for a detailed list of types of learning:

Consequences of the above seemingly unrelated facts:
  • All creative media have value to be learned so all of them are about learning. That’s what makes a dramatic and sad movie “fun” to watch
  • Games can provide all of the above types of learning. Interaction is thus important – it makes all of those real-life types of learning possible in games
  • Most creative media can use just a few of the types of learning

All creative media are subset of games (where interaction is limited to mere observation), not vice versa. So what is said for games in this article is valid for all creative media in general … go on, restart from the beginning of the article, replace “games” with the name of your favorite painting or movie or song and see if it still makes sense.


There is some talk nowadays about games not being original enough. This part addresses the issue. What is said here about “originality” is also valid for “innovation”.

If you remember the “types of funs” link above, you already know that originality is just a “exploratory/unknown fun”. Fun is just a signal that probably there is some value there. Like any fun, originality can be deceiving, too.

  • Be original for value that current tools do not allow you to present
  • Being original without providing corresponding value is a waste
  • We feel lack of originality, because we have extremely limited set of values we explore. Finding original ways to present the same value will not fix the problem. We need fresh value. Lack of originality is just a symptom.
  • Cannot be a good game developer if all you know comes from other games

Fun Quote
“The modernist thirst for originality makes the mediocre artist believe that the secret of importance consists simply in being different”


Game Structure

Any game is a hierarchy of features, divided in 3 views

Mechanical View:

  • Game Rules
Best presented with static UML diagrams. Another useful tool is ER diagrams:

Dynamical View:

  • Interactions / Communications / Controls of the Player
  • Feedback from the system (including, but not limited to, rewards and punishments)
Best presented with dynamic UML diagrams.

Presentation View:

  • Narrative
  • Music
  • Sound
  • Graphics
  • Interface
  • Game Space / Topology / Levels (deference between mechanics and topology are similar to class definition and class instance in OOP … so yes, there is a difference)
  • Assumed Knowledge references

  • Value is primarily part of mechanical and dynamical view and partially in topology
  • Theme / mood / atmosphere are part of presentation view. They enhance value, make it accessible, demonstrate it, but are not the value itself.

This game structure model is not my invention, but I cannot remember the source.

More on game structure, innovation cost and benefit, why not innovate in presentation and else, you can read in the blog of this awesome person:

Conflicts Everywhere

In the previous part you saw short list of elements composing a game. Every element communicates something to the player and he interprets it (“What does this rule mean”, “What I learnt from this is …”, “The meaning of this event is …”). When a part of the game communicates information X, another part communicates information Y, and Y means the opposite of X, we have a Conflict.

Movie Examples:
  • A car accident kills the pregnant girlfriend of the protagonist. He is crushed with sadness, crying. In the same time music is delightfully cheerful, as if he just scored a jackpot.
  • Supper-villain uses his power to cover the environment in ice. Razor-sharp giant ice shards everywhere. Super-hero and Supper-villain both use such improvised ice-swords to fight. The special effects guy miscalculated something so those swords bend and shake at every swing and it is obvious they are made of rubber. So instead of epic battle between good and evil, you see duel with giant dildos.

Why conflicts are harmful:
  • Conflicts are fake tricks / lies and create confusion. People dislike all of those
  • Conflicts also teach wrong / misunderstood meaning
  • Players instinctively feel conflicting messages, regardless of how hard we try to hide them
  • A conflict feels like “something is not quite correct here”. As a psychological defense mechanism the player kills his suspension of disbelief to avoid believing some meaningless bullshit. So less immersion means worse learning and that means less value. Fun takes the least damage, immersion and value suffer most. If you laughed at the movie examples, you get the idea.

Less immersion (killed by conflicts) generally makes the peer care much less for the creative media. That leads to the Destructive Peer problem. Peer deliberately tries to ruin the experience. For example:
  • He can stop the media or even try to destroy it (break a statue, cut a painting to pieces, delete all game files)
  • He doesn’t take it seriously, but as a joke so replaces original value with derived interpretation. Conflicts are good tools for creating comedy (or other phenomena), but are harmful when that is not intended, which is most of the time.
  • He can look a picture upside down.
  • He can fast-forward a song
  • He can stop a movie at the climactic moment and finish it later, when the carefully built suspense is gone
  • He can read the ending of a book before the book itself.
  • He can hump a statue
  • He can step on the foot of the partner he dances with
  • In a game he can be grieving, trolling, trying to break the game in some way. In a story game he can arrange the interactive elements of the scenery so that the next cutscene is funny instead of empathic.

We can use conflicts deliberately to communicate certain value (as some other creative media do) but ONLY after we know how to avoid them all the time. Now we cannot. To avoid conflicts, every creative media has notation, terminology and theory. We do not, we got optimistic hypotheses at best. The proof that they are all wrong is that they systematically produce conflicts on every possible level. Just to demonstrate how full of flaws the game industry currently is, I made a small list of the most famous conflicts in modern games:

Interactivity Sabotages Delivery

Cinema history fun fact – camera invented between 1860 and 1878, depends on definition. About 40 years of experimentation passed and in the beginning of 20th century somebody said “Dudes, why don’t we move the camera around while we shoot”. Until then they copied other media – theatres, picture slideshows, etc. This happens again. Games copy cinema now, the way cinema copied screenplays in its beginning. Video games are relatively new creative media, so we are still in our “searching” stage of development. Every organism first tries to apply already available knowledge to a new problem. It is normal, but there is a reason it doesn’t work well in this case.

In all creative media until now conflicts can occur primarily between elements in the presentation view. Games are interactive so they have exponentially more places where conflicts can occur.

Here we will discuss the worst such conflict, the damage it does and how to solve it. For the sake of simplicity “delivery of value” will be called “delivery” in this article.

Conflict – Interactivity Sabotages Delivery

Popular delivery techniques:
  • Tone/Vocal Emphasis / Body Language – more difficult in games
  • Foreshadowing – interactivity allows players to miss it
  • Chekhov’s Gun / Justification - every element must have some purpose, direct one or indirect (setting theme and mood). An interacting player can involuntarily damage that purpose.
  • Pacing – set by the designer but also by the player through his interactions. “What level to choose, the puzzle or the racing?” or “Should I explore some more before engaging that challenge?” or “What weapon do I use now – precision sniper rifle or heavy machine gun?”

All of those delivery techniques can achieve better results in a linear media. Pre-made content always have better delivery of its value

Possible Solutions:

Provide more delivery resources – more death animations, more physics animations, more dialogue, more story branches, more voiced lines, more of everything you can anticipate.

The “per problem” basis of this solution results in exponential rise in costs, so it is not practical. Some games (Heavy Rain, interesting one) still continue to use it, so lets assume for a moment that in some ideal future the costs in time, effort and money will not be an issue (yes, it will never happen) and games can be infinitely large. The real problem then is – you cannot model a continuous possibility space with a discrete set of resources.

Limit interactivity by using pre-made content and non-interactive elements – scripted events, scripted AI behavior, cutscenes, pre-made dialogue trees, etc

This is the preferred method for solving this conflict, and there is a reason for it. Players choose optimal solutions for problems, they don’t follow some intended gameplay. That is problematic for designers, they want to maintain control. To do that they usually design problems with solutions already in mind (either very simple problems or limited interactivity for solving them). The result is limited possibility space that is easily explored and thus soon becomes boring.

Example -
In the beginning of Fable, you can sneak behind the house of a merchant. There he is flirting with a girl. You can eavesdrop to learn she is not his wife. If you get close he sees you and suggests bribing you so that you do not tell his wife. You can take the bribe or tell his wife. Some questions arise from this otherwise interesting dilemma. Why you cannot take the bribe AND then tell his wife? Why the game is ok with me sneaking now, but warns me it may be dangerous later. Why you cannot use the eavesdrop interactivity to solve other problems in the game. Why after I refuse the bribe he and his girl do not go somewhere else so they are more difficult to be caught? That merchant is lying to his wife so people in the game universe can lie. So why his wife believes me right away without any proof? Why he does not take revenge or react to me in any way? The game communicates to me that my interactivity is determined by the designer individually for each event. So why the knowledge I gained from this experience will be valuable in the rest of the game?

“Because the designers said so” is not the greatest justification (justification is harder for games, remember?). You can ask a slight variation of them every time a game uses pre-made content or another form of limited interactivity.

Interactivity is useful for all those additional types of learning we talked before. “No” to interactivity means “no” to them. Without them, as already demonstrated, results are worse compared to other linear creative media.

Invent a new delivery method that allows continuous, unlimited and self-expanding possibility spaces and all types of learning. This is called simulation:
  • Set of rules and relationships
  • Rules model a value behavior, not some arbitrary player response
  • ALL (no exceptions) interactions and events are consequences of those rules and relationships
  • The optimal solution of a problem is a consequence, as well
  • The player can find that solution through exploration, experimentation, pattern matching (logic), understanding of the basic rules
  • The rules are transparent so the player can learn them
  • If something is not interactive at some point, it needs a good justification why
  • Inconsistencies are conflicts

Balancing simulation extent is difficult:
  • very few rules and interactions make it limited and not very different from the flawed approach discusses above
  • imagine a perfect real life simulation in every aspect. That may be great technologically but in terms of artistic expression does not provide a specific value.
Designers can structure the experience by providing a focus of the simulation in terms of what and how is simulated

Fun fact - the single story phenomenon:
This is an example of a linear creative media pitfall that good simulations can avoid more effectively

This train of thought was started by Jonathan Blow:
Note than the talk is concerned primarily with stories, but the problem is more general. Still credit goes where credit is due


Rules we already know that work:

  • Focus on providing value so that the fun comes as consequence of the value
Fun Quote - How do we appeal to a wider audience? Jonathan Blow said “Be meaningful enough for more people”

  • Feel free to combine types of interactions while modeling value:

  • Eliminate ALL conflicts

  • Make consistent simulation (as previously defined)

  • Make sure as many of the learning types are active (except the last 2, the bad ones) as much as possible, ALL the time:

  • Give frequent feedback for everything (consequences of player actions, his progress, reasons for failure, possible improvements, etc)

  • Gradually introduce the elements of the system as the player is learning

  • Facilitate Flow
Definition of Flow – skill matches challenge, both gradually increase

  • Teach players that every problem has some solution and outcome is a result of learning and effort, not of permanent personal disability. Kill pessimism.

  • Make action consequences (results & rewards included) contextual - solving puzzles should make you better at solving puzzles, defeating enemies should make you better in defeating them, trading should make you better trader, etc

  • Keep it simple. Simplicity is good, because it makes the value more obvious

  • Eliminate / Automate all routines
Definition of Routine – no exploration and no challenge, so no learning.
Example - bloated game times:
- forced to replay levels due to rare check points
- unskippable cutscenes
- instant failure quicktime events
Sometimes repetition can also become a routine

  • Adjust player action costs by tweaking Time required, Effort required, Risk involved, etc. Use the correct motivators for different aspects of your simulation:

  • Don’t always make the game fair (rewards proportionate to challenge)
Fairness is a motivation tool to achieve dramatic situations, as well

  • Don’t always make the game structure convenient
Convenience is a motivational tool with multiple applications

  • Invest heavily in believable (if a bit stupid) AI if your game has humans

  • Draw design ideas from nature and life

  • Break the above rules only if the benefit in value is greater than the cost.

Possible value in good games

  • Games can simulate looong term results in shorter time, like a century presented in a minute. So they can help us restructure our intuition for the consequences of our actions.

  • Games can make us more adaptive. Sports like Starcraft and Quake are valuable, because they are very difficult and can be mastered. Players practice at mastering stuff, regardless of actual problem. So they learn how to master anything faster.

  • Games can facilitate relationship and cooperation with real people

  • Games can stimulate your emotions. Games don't need to be fun, they can be intensely weird, freaky or make you cry. Every possible emotion has discrete factors that cause it and that can be simulated, so any emotion can be modeled:
Obvious example: surprise, expectation, love

  • Games can stimulate your intellect too. Intellect and emotions are the way we make decisions and that makes them important for modeling and exploration:

  • Games can simulate empathy and morality

  • If that is not enough, you can start by making simulated worlds out of these:

More on value in games:


Games can be:
-         recreational (entertainment)
-         sports
-         artistic expressions
-         educational tools

I wrote this article because of 2 phenomena in game industry:
1 – most current games are ONLY from the entertainment type. Recreation is great, but it is the least a game can do, so why we don’t explore the other fields as well?
2 – most current games focus on maximum fun at all costs, even at the expense of actual value. Isn’t that harmful?

If you agree those 2 are problems, we have achieved something here J. Keep up the good work, friend.

Special Thanks to:
Everybody I linked to, those people are inspiring
Vesselin Jilov for providing insight on human psychology