Better Mastery Design

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Mastery, or the building of skill, is one of the core intrinsic motivators called out by SDT and while many games seek to simulate mastery (RPG progression systems, etc.) games that seek to or require that the player build real skill have very niche appeal (with a few notable exceptions.) We have a better understanding than ever before of how skills are acquired and how performance can be improved, we should be able to do better design for mastery!

There is a lot of good research into how humans learn new skills that points toward processes and mechanics (like structured practice and spaced repetition) and there are a few games that have broken through to a large audience that focus on mastery (League of Legends is probably the largest) so it feels like there is plenty of material to work with on this topic. Additionally this group could focus on taking lessons of skill acquisition and apply them to general tutorializing even for games that are not mastery based.

Up with Player to Player Trade!

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Player to player trade in games has gotten a bad reputation; it’s risky, hard to balance, and opens the door to community and CS issues that are hard to mitigate. And yet, it is an incredibly enriching and engaging player experience. I love player to player trade and hate to see it’s decline especially as we are seeing a Renaissance of long-term progression games with interesting economies. Let’s get together and talk about all the wonderful things about player to player trade and how game designers can stop worrying and learn to love the free market.

Okay, but how do I actually manage player feedback?

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It’s easy to find a list of things developers shouldn’t do when it comes to player feedback; don’t just listen to the loud voices on Reddit, don’t get defensive, don’t feed the trolls, don’t trust player proposed solutions, don’t be too reactive, etc.

All of that is fine advice I guess, but I feel like I have been hearing this same list of don’ts for 15 years but in that same time I have hear very few dos. Also, if it is such a horrible idea to listen to player’s forum feedback why does it remain the primary source of open ended feedback for so many developers? Where is the better alternative? I have some of my own dos (and some don’ts as well) but I would love to get together with some other Horseshoers and pull our collective experience for how one does successfully manage player feedback.

Designers and Data

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Proper use of behavioral data, telemetry, and BI are a normal part of many designers work but when training new designers or experienced designers using data for the first time I can find no solid resources that layout how designers should use data, what data ethics looks like in games, or what types of data are useful for what problems or development phase. This is a part of design that would really benefit from some veteran advice and guidance and Horseshoe is just the group to provide said guidance.

Narrative in Live Games

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More and more games are being designed to be played for years instead of hours. These living games often have designs and production constraints that make narrative designs that borrow heavily from film and television difficult to implement and maintain. I am disappointed when I see developers and players conclude that this means that these “games as a service” style games should not focus on narrative. But players of live games, whether they be mobile, competitive, sandboxes, or even puzzle based, deserve great narrative design too and I believe these types of games could offer designers a chance to build uniquely game-centric narrative language. I would love to see the minds of Horseshoe chew on this problem and come up with some advice or even some innovations for live game narratives.

Using Dunbar’s Number to Design Online Worlds

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Since their inception, MMOs have been focused on scale. Massively is right in the name! And we have expended large amounts of creative and technological energy creating larger and larger simulations to support bigger and bigger groups of players. We love to design large, interconnected mechanics, and global scale systems. Managing and shaping big systems is fun for designers/developers but is often inaccessible and confusing for players. And when it comes to social systems, large scale works against community building. So we add a lot of support systems, complicated UI, and hierarchies to make our games manageable for players. This approach (make it big, then add support to navigate the big) has produced some really cool designs but what if we approached this from the other direction? What if we designed small first? What if we designed to optimize human interaction and relationship building and then create the framework to scale? Specifically, what if we used Dunbar’s number to guide design of an online world?

I am interested in exploring what design of an online world based on Dunbar’s number would look like, what approaches and constraints would look like in this type of design, and whether this lens could produce a better, more social online world. There are many resources we can draw on from psychology research, games that have unintentionally been shaped by Dunbar’s number (maybe there are even examples of games that used this lens already), online community history, and even past Horseshoe work groups. I believe this could be a rich and interesting topic for people interested in social gaming and online worlds.

What is the place of good design in games?

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I believe that there are core, fundamental design values that transcend any particular medium and can be used to evaluate the quality of design in any context. We may quibble about exactly how to express them, but I find that designers, even across diverse mediums, generally agree on what makes good design. I have my own preferred way of codifying them and I often try to drill them into the heads of designers I work with thinking that if our work follows these principles it will be well designed and therefor it will be good. But lately I have been struck by how unrelated the quality of a game’s design can be from the quality of a game as a whole. An extreme example are the games spontaneously created by children as they play; these are almost universally poorly designed and yet they are greatly enjoyable for the participants. Anecdotally¬†there are many video games that I love dearly that are not well designed or that have massive design flaws, there are also very well designed games that I find very unsatisfying. Good design is not a prerequisite for a good game so what is it? Can we quantify the value of good design in games? Can we identify the instances where good design is a priority and where it isn’t? Are there specific elements that it is appropriate for good design to take a backseat to? Is there a model or guidelines we can use to prioritize good design that is applicable for any game?

Just to be clear, I am not asking what makes a game good. I think we can all agree that there are many factors that make up the holistic experience of a game and that different elements will contribute to the overall quality of a game in different context. I am specifically interested in the value of design in games and whether we can create a model for thinking about design that goes beyond simply “your design should be good.”

Design Centric Process

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Process in video game development is often driven by production and process trends are driven by engineers in the wider tech industry. What about designers? We know process! We have opinions! We could start methodology trends and make millions as consultants too! What would a development process for video games look like if it was design driven? What if everything centered around design (schedule, workflow, prioritization, etc?) Honestly? We’d probably never get anything shipped, but I think it could be an interesting exercise. In my studio I often see design accommodate and compromise for the other disciplines because our workflow is flexible and our goals less defined. Holistically, this is a good thing and helps us ship reliably and maintain a good collaborative environment, but it also means we sometimes put design concerns last and sacrifice risk-taking and design iteration. Since Horseshoe is a time for designers to self indulge so let’s dream up a process that is all about us!

Players Don’t Read

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Text is incredibly powerful and possibly our most sophisticated communication tool, and yet it can very difficult to get players to read. This isn’t a judgement, but a challenge. We have made incredible advancements in removing text from our interfaces but what about narrative? How do we tell great stories without text or maybe even without dialog? Video games have often looked to film for inspiration but I find film techniques leave a lot to be desired in the interaction/player autonomy realm. What story telling languages has video games developed that are all our own? And how can we push further forward in this area?

(Yes there are many wonderful games that are text based and there are cool things happening in that area in games. Text based games are great and I love them! This topic is just interested in the other side of that coin.)