Generative Systems, Meaningful Cores

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Entertain this juxtaposition for a moment. On the one hand, you’ve got ideas. Big ideas —themes rolling around your head so heavy, so important that you just can’t wait to share them with your players. On the other hand, you want to embrace the full range of interactivity that the medium of games affords you, and (for you) that means using generative systems to produce unbounded, novel, exciting, and surprising content.

I’m of the mind that you can do both of these things (and that they’re both worthwhile things to do) by embedding your themes in the hand-crafted units that your algorithms affix together. The collaborative roleplaying game Fiasco—which relies on procedural generation via pen & paper—does this tremendously well; its theme of ‘powerful ambition and poor impulse control’ manifests itself in the carefully hand-crafted units that players then algorithmically combine in the Set-up and Tilt (when you choose a Relationship, you don’t choose from among the full range of human relationships; no, you choose from a few such relationships, like ‘con-man’ and ‘mark’, that are inlaid intrinsically with the theme of ‘ambition’).

By outlining the storyspace in this way, we’re able to let our players tell their stories while exploring our themes. Wonderful! But Fiasco is relatively simple. How do we build complex generative systems with meaningful cores? How do we reap all the benefits of procedural generation while constraining the system to sufficiently invoke a vision, make an argument? Even more fundamentally, how do we talk about this stuff? Can we construct a vocabulary to articulate the dimensions of content generation?

Screw game design, let’s solve the WORLD’S hardest problems

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We like to talk a good game about how design thinking or systems thinking is relevant in all kinds of areas outside of game design, and how the world is full of (hackable) systems.

Let’s prove it. Let’s get some great design minds together to figure out how to game a real-world system.

Politics is full of systems. Could we get one or more game designers into a high-ranking public office?

Human biology is all about systems. Can we cure cancer?

Economic systems drive our lives. Can we figure out a pathway to get to a post-scarcity society?

Something along those lines.

Iteration with Metrics

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I’m interested in creating a formal model for how to incorporate player behavior into an economic or systems model.

For example, when creating an initial model there are several types of variables- predictors of behavior (20% of players will wan this), aesthetic settings (score should be in 1000s not 10s), balance knobs (enemies should do 50 damage).  Then you create your model, and it has several outputs- “Gold earned per second”, “Damage dealt per player” “Average HP for a level 20 enemy”.

When we’ve balanced systems, we tend to pick inputs and outputs we want to set for aesthetic or pacing reasons, and then we want to solve for the remaining inputs and outputs through monte carlo (or other method) of simulation.  If our collected metrics fail to match the model, we figure out whether a behavior predictor was wrong or if our model was wrong and adjust accordingly.

We’ve never done this formally (although I am sure several horseshoers have), but it would be really useful to have a good way of setting up this iteration that could be applied to many game design problems.

Techniques for “Workshopping” Games in Development

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Each year, many people come to PH with games they are working on, looking for input/feedback/advice/comments/pies-in-the-face from other designers. Until now, this activity has taken place informally – “around the edges,” so to speak.

I propose a working group where up to four people exchange games-in-progress prior to the weekend, agree to play those games before arriving at PH, and spend the weekend “workshopping” the games with each other.  (I myself have one such game – hence my interest!). These may be games of any type – card games, board games, digital games, or whatever.

This proposal is unusual in that it breaks some PH “rules,” most particularly that it be set up prior to the event itself. But I think that advance exposure to the games will allow for more thoughtful critiquing.

In keeping with the PH spirit of community, we would have to create a group report, which I imagine would start to catalog effective techniques for workshopping games (in much the same way that “rules” for post-mortems and “rules” for effective brainstorming have emerged over time).

Also in keeping with the spirit of community, I imagine there may be people who would want to join the working group who don’t have games to bring along themselves. I think that’s fine – my proposed limit of four games is so that the group has sufficient time to devote to each of the games, not to limit the number of people doing the critiquing. And, of course, if we have more than 4 people who want to do this with their games, then we can always have two groups, so long as each group allows time to collaborate on developing an overall report.

If you are interested in bringing a game for this working session, please respond quickly to the reflector so that we can begin the process of exchanging games in the few weeks remaining before we arrive in San Antonio.



Game Design Literacy for Modern Humans

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I propose that a certain amount of game-design literacy is required for successful adulting in modern western culture.

I posit that a certain amount of knowledge about games and how they are played is extremely useful with the prevalence of gamification in so many of our interactions with entities that have some power over us, whether they be banks, employers, or government agencies large and small.

This topic may also include interpersonal games that are played, especially (but not exclusively) as played on social media.

Know how games are played can help us play these games if we so choose, or help prevent us from being played by them.

Shared avatar games

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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.

Prototyping metagames and progression systems

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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?

discouraging the dick

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One of the most requested changes to my game would let users edit the name of their spaceship. When I finally added that, they immediately named their ships “dickbutt69” or something similar. I recognize that this is part of the larger axiom, that if you give game players a creative tool (even a text entry widget) they will immediately make something obscene.

But it annoys me, and I have anecdotal evidence that it harms the game ecosphere at least a bit. So now that we’ve all acknowledged that this behavior is innate, I’d still like to explore ways to minimize and discourage it.

The “Bruce”; reexamining the job descriptions within game production

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On the podcast “designer notes”, Bruce Shelley detailed his past work relationship with Sid Meier, which resulted in historic games. He would receive a near-daily build from Sid in the morning, play it til lunchtime, and spend the afternoon with Sid discussing his analysis.  He also built levels and game content.  As he described his job, it became clear to me that his role, while critical, didn’t FIT into any existing videogame developer “roles/jobs”.

Shelley describes a job that isn’t tester, designer, or producer, but does a lot of each. Just as importantly, his job could not be held apart from the rest of the team; it was a VERY tightly integrated support role for Sid Meier, who was doing the programming and iterative design.

I think we need more “bruces” ( I know I do). But we could also ask ourselves; how can we smash the pidgeon holes that the games industry stuffs us into, and make up our own job descriptions?

Computer horsepower and videogame logical correctness

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PART ONE: Over the last decade, I’ve marveled at the increasing computing power we all have available, and I’ve asked many colleagues the question: How can we use this raw computing power in the service of game design? The answers have been dis-satisfying. Most seem confused by the question. Some proudly talk about nightly builds and backups. Others describe how art tools are used.

My mind immediately goes to GA, genetic algorithms, a powerful (and computationally expensive) way to find optimal solutions to specific problems. Unfortunately, GA requires a “fitness function”, and most of the “fitness functions” I can think of (in regards game design) determine something AESTHETIC, which is really the domain of the human mind.

PART TWO: Imagine you’re making an adventure game. In act 1, the player gets a flashlight. In act 2, the player finds a trashcan, which deletes anything the player drops into it. In act 3, there’s a dark room that requires the flashlight to traverse it. Thus, the player can accidentally choose to make an unwinnable situation for themselves.

This is a “bug” in the game design, and there are a thousand ways to fix it. But how do we avoid making the “bug” in the first place? Talk to game designers, they’ll tell you “that’s what testers are for!”. But testers can be expensive, especially for indie developers, and they aren’t a magic solution.
But also, since this problem is a “bug”, I could essentially be asking for a game language that has “prove-able correctness”, a computer science problem that has never been solved (for general cases). So, way too hard to solve.

FUSE THESE: With the new computer horsepower we have available, I suggest we revisit the idea of testing games “brute-force” (examining every possible input combination) for correctness. I also propose that we use text adventure games as a first step, because of the limited and discrete choices those games are known for.

So I’d like to spend time examining the innate structure of text adventure games, and building a representation of text adventure games that facilitates computer “brute force solving”.  Understand that I’m not trying to “revive” text adventures/interactive fiction; I’m thinking about all videogames, really.

emotionally safe spaces in game development

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Arguably, there’s a new level of social awareness in videogame development, led by young indie and LGBT groups. More specifically, I’ve read of groups that ask for (and sometimes demand) an emotionally safe space”, for working or creative interaction. As a boy in Texas in the 70’s and 80’s, I can’t imagine I could have asked for such a thing. I CAN imagine that those three words would have been alien nonsense to any authority figure I had contact with at the time. Throughout my career, “emotionally safe spaces” also did not compute. Every shop I worked in cared most about work output; emotional safety meant the ability to close your office door, and stress was just part of the job description.

“Emotionally safe space”. Does it matter for videogame developers? And if so, what are best practices to achieve it?