A few Horseshoes ago, Crystin Cox sparked this topic by mentioning how income inequality appears inevitably in games with trade. Add trade and 6 months down the road, you’ve got an inherent power dynamic that warps every economic and social system in the game. A subtle issue, admittedly, but we are all familiar with how the naive inclusion of trade results in bots, trade spam, scams, anti-social cabals and sociopaths rising to the top of power structures. In the end, the downsides of trade are so great many teams simply remove it from our games.
Assumption: Trade is worth saving. I believe trade is a powerful motivating for good, especially if you look at it from the lens of Homo Reciprocans where reciprocal economic transactions are non-zero sum. Trade can be a net social positive.
The challenge: We, as game designers, want to make a thriving, pro-social community within our online games. What are the Utopian economics that support such as structure and avoid the downsides of traditional capitalism?
Online games are in a unique place to experiment with new forms of capitalism
- We don’t have to follow real world rules of scarcity in our games. We’ve got substantial control over the underlying means, methods and physics of production.
- We can run experiments with large scale populations.
- We have immense access to data when it comes to understanding even the most minute of interactions.
Issues to tackle:
- Valuing long term goals and consequences
- Valuing social bonds between individuals
- Valuing existing culture and traditions
- Valuing public goods
- Valuing equality and equal opportunity
- Valuing human labor
- Valuing human dignity and human rights
- Managing corruption
Personal note: I don’t feel like I know enough about this topic to do a full weekend on it. So I may not. But I wanted to put the idea out there in order to spark ad hoc conversations and find folks that are also interested in the space. What should people interested in this topic be reading?
We now have at least a decade of design experience building free-to-play game. Mobile F2P is maturing rapidly and Mobile Premium is shrinking. Both PC and console have adopted IAP within their top selling games. It isn’t hyperbole to say the majority of financially successful games would not be so if it weren’t for their IAP monetization designs.
Sometimes these systems do bad things to players. Gambling is a popular topic in the press. At the very least many of the practices can be deeply dehumanizing to players.
For me, I spend about 80% of my time designing and balancing the F2P systems outside (and inside) the core game loop. This is independent of The Man breathing down my neck. It is simply the world we live in.
Given this reality, how do we:
1. Make games that are profitable. Especially given maturing markets and intense competition.
2. AND Make games that are a positive addition to the lives of our players.
3. AND Find the joy in monetization design. It seems like there are some wonderful system design and multiplayer design challenges.
There’s a growing sub-genre of ‘cozy’ games that focus heavily on tend and befriend-style gameplay. They try to make the player feel comfortable and safe vs stressed and competitive. Stardew Valley, Animal Crossing, Hidden Folk, Neko Atsume and others fit this mold. However few have any focus on multiplayer. I just released one experiment, Beartopia, multiplayer Animal Crossing style game for VR, but it is a topic I’d love to explore more.
– What are cozy multiplayer interactions?
– What does cozy play with strangers look like?
– What sort of business models would work for such a game?
How do we level up player relationships? We work hard at leveling up their skills with careful scaffolding of level difficulty combined with a slow drip of new concepts. We level up their virtual skills and sense of power with RPG style leveling schemes. But can we level up players from strangers to friends that cooperate?
In psychology, there’s numerous studies on how friendships form. They identify factors like similarity, repeated unplanned interactions (logistics) and the economics of reciprocation loops. All those are factors we can directly manipulate with our game designs. We do this already in a folk design fashion with blindly followed MMO conventions. However, we can explicitly design systems that methodically create positive human relationships. What are the exact tools? What elements should a crafted friendship leveling system contain?
This is a group that would require some research ahead of time. Collect some papers. Bring them with you. Let’s not just sit around and bullshit, but start with materials and distill out something real and useful.
Some initial reading and viewing that might be of interest
There’s been some great work over the past years when it comes to creating practical abstract tools for game design. Internal economics (Joris Dormans) give us a language for describing and modeling feedback loops and resource sources, sinks and transformations. Interaction loops (Crawford, Koster, myself and many others) give us a diagnostic framework for identifying and fixing issues around players interactions and skills. At smaller timescales, interaction loops let us perform fine surgery on game feel (without falling back on non-transferable word salad like ‘sticky friction’) At larger times scales, scaffolding and progression concept built off internal economies and interaction loops give us tools for understand how players learn and change over time. These are shockingly useful and I find myself applying them in every game I design. Arguably you can’t help but use them because they are fundamental aspects of how games operate. Exciting times.
Yet. I still would struggle to create a good game entirely from these theories. I’ve tried. And the one piece that remains missing is topology. When we talk of core mechanics, we often are discussing some spacial, temporal or logistical problem space bound by interesting constraints. This is hinted at in the game grammar tools, but only remains addressed superficially. Raph has talked about this in the past in terms of the math of games, so that’s probably a critical starting point.
So what are spacial or topological tools for game grammar that fit the following constraints?:
- Predictive models: They make a prediction about how a game system *functions*. They are not merely descriptions like MDA or lists of descriptive categories.
- General tools: They can be used to fruitfully analyze almost any game. They are not genre specific rules of thumb.
- Transformative legos: If you break down a game into the atomic elements using a game grammar tool, you should see ways to reconfigure the problem and come up with something new. Joris’s Machinations does this with feedback loops…once you know the tool it becomes trivial to imagine adding new loops or subtle friction to something that was before a mystical black box.
- Impossible to unsee: Once you’ve understood the tool, you can no longer look at a game without seeing these foundational elements.
Twitch Plays has been moderately popular lately. Many people play a single character in games as divergent as Dark Souls and Pokemon. How far could these shared avatar games be taken?
- Fun voting systems: Everybody Votes was dumb. What is better?
- Differentiated roles: Games like Artemis where the ship is the shared avatar.
- Weirdness: Someone once pitched a super human god character in an MMO played by a team of game masters simultaneously. One for combat, one for researching players from analytics, one for the voice. Able to appear in multiple places at once. Able to switch bodies.
We’ve got lots of tools for iterating rapidly on high frequency loops at the heart of most games. Rapid prototyping and playtesting works great. However, lower frequency loops such as progression systems or metagames are harder to prototype and balance. Often issues only show up when the game is live and while spot changes are easier than ever due to analytics, structural issues may only get 1 or 2 passes over the lifetime of a game. So we typically reduce risk by just copying what we think another successful game is doing.
In the past, progression systems arguably didn’t matter as much. But now, when 30-day retention can make or break your company, these systems are now in the spotlight. How do we not mess them up? How do we innovate? What are the best practices? Are there new tools (like simulation approaches like Machinations) that could help?
Many (though not all) game live and die based off their systems design. Yet this critical discipline lingers in the shadows, poorly understood and poorly promoted. Over the years that I’ve talked about systems design, I’ve found it to be a bit like chatting about advanced math at a loud dinner party. In almost any setting available to game developers, the conversation quickly shifts to rhetorically charged chatter about art, narrative, politics, business or even programming. There’s a place for that. But…how do we encourage a rich discussion about system design?
- What is a fruitful place to discuss systems design? How to create a safe space?
- How do we create a critical mass of serious and knowledgeable practitioners so the conversation isn’t washed away?
- How do we elevate and promote the practice?
- What are useful rules of engagement with more rhetoric-focused groups that only weakly understand or appreciate systems design?
Progression systems have seen all sorts of innovation lately. F2P, MMOs, and incremental games (In a Dark Room, Cookie Clicker, Gridland) all do fascinating things to ease the learning curve and keep players engaged long term.
- Tools we can use to make new progression systems
- Common and uncommon existing variations (leveling, unlocking, events, drops, etc)
- Techniques for mixing and matching existing systems (feedback loops, internal economies)
- Ways of introducing meaningful choice.
- Common design goals for the progression system and how we might meet them.
There are multiple stages to a game. Prototyping, Production, Live game. And in each of these multiple moments, it might be a really good idea for the game to die. Life is short, resources are limited and there are more games to make in the future.
- When do you kill a game?
- What criteria do you use? What are tools that make us murder intelligently?
- What are the emotional costs and benefits? Parents are always over invested in our sickly children.
- What are ways of ending a game that open up the maximum opportunities for the future? Is the corpse worth preserving? Can its essential organs be harvested and used elsewhere?