Guilds, clans, and similar communities have been a big part of the success of a lot of midcore games, like Clash of Clans and Game of War. But attempts to unleash the power of these structures in more casual games has been lacking. Is it possible to do this right? Can you simplify the clan experience to make it work in casual genres … resource management, level-based progression, social casino, hidden object, and so on … without losing the power of what makes them so effective in midcore games? Or is there zero overlap between what casual players are willing to learn and do, and what is required to support such in-game communities?
For nearly as long as we have had video games, those games have tried to emulate the experience of talking to (and developing a relationship with) a human being.
100% of those efforts (including the ones that I have built) have produced experiences that do not at all resemble actual human interaction.
But this problem runs deep. Dialogue trees are so much the default design for human interaction in games that when I have proposed to many designers that we need a better interface, the largest hurdle has been overcoming the assumption that there simply cannot be a better design for this; that nothing else is possible.
I believe there are other possibilities, unexplored. I believe that we will find them. We must! If we imagine a future, 100 years from now, where we are still playing video games, do we believe that those character interactions will still use Mass Effect-style dialogue trees?
I do not believe that, in part because the modern design of dialogue trees is so fundamentally inhuman:
- Dialogue trees assert that NPCs should say one thing in response to the player’s choices. That design puts the power of choice for the NPC’s response on the shoulders of the players. In effect, the player is the one who chooses the NPC’s reaction. Modern NPCs are verbal vending machines.
- In modern games, there are generally only a very few (usually one) relationship spectrum being measured (often, how close are we to having sex with the character). Yet, real human beings track a wide variety of statuses in their relationships: trust, admiration, desire, intimacy, rapport… it is the multiplicity of values that make human relationships rich. We do not reflect this richness in our game designs.
- Context matters. It is strange for a person to unpack their heart to someone they just met–yet, this is so common in video game design as to be a trope.
The list goes on. Current NPC interaction systems do not produce interactions that feel like interacting with a person.
So: how might we do that? What is a better interface and a better design for interacting with an artificial human? How could we turn the player’s attention in an NPC interaction towards the same types of things they think about in a real-life conversation with a real person?
What kind of interface might better capture something closer to the true emotional & experiential nature of human relationships?
This group will not discuss the promise of neural networks, or of big data analysis, or of other magic-wand black-box approaches to this problem. We will deliberately keep the conversation out of the “technology will save us” domain. That is not to say that such advances are not coming; they clearly are. But there are lots of groups out there focusing on those approaches to this problem.
Instead, this group will focus on interface, on character data model, and on how we might generate meaningful gameplay, all around the subject of interactions with artificial humans, using today’s technology.
Let’s build a better relationship interface.
How do you create a system of game mechanics that best creates the opportunity for interesting, emergent behavior in combination with each other?
Many games have interesting combo systems, and some are better than others. Magic: The Gathering and Terraforming Mars. Skill trees in Diablo III or World of Warcraft.
What are techniques for designing a set of mechanics that have interesting combos? What types of combos are there? How can a set of mechanics be evaluated for how interesting their ‘combo’s are? Is it a systemizable problem? How can it be made fun and comprehensible? What is the best I could do procedurally?
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?
Many art forms have succeeded in changing hearts and minds on various public issues. In literature, a few clear examples are Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (slavery) and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (immigrant exploitation and food sanitation). Among non-fiction books, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring awakened people to the dangers of pesticides, but more broadly birthed the modern environmental movement.
Examples of films which changed society include “Philadelphia” (humanizing the AIDS epidemic), “An Inconvenient Truth” (increasing awareness of climate change), “The Cove” (dolphin killing), and “Super-Size Me” (the health dangers of fast food). On the darker side, “Triumph of the Will” formed the cinematic basis of the Nazi’s propaganda effort, and “Reefer Madness” ushered in three-quarters of a century of misguided drug policy.
Some games have attempted to follow the same path, with arguably less successful results. Examples include “Balance of Power” and “Trinity” (nuclear weapons); “Hidden Agenda” (US policy in Central America); “Darfur is Dying” (the humanitarian crisis in Sudan); and my own “A Mind Forever Voyaging” (the Reagan Revolution set in a dystopian future).
Can games succeed in changing minds, as other art forms have succeeding in doing in the past? Or are they fundamentally unsuited for that? Can we develop a “tool box” of techniques for doing this? If games can persuade, what is our best course?
This topic has been the discussed at Horseshoe in the past (https://www.projecthorseshoe.com/reports/ph10/ph10r3.htm), and I’d like to see this workgroup build on that earlier work.
The rise of social networks promised to connect us, but a little over a decade since Facebook opened to the public, these networks are dividing us more sharply along political lines, amplifying the spread of fake news, and possibly allowing foreign interests to intensify these problems to our detriment. Does analyzing this problem through lenses of game system design, gamification, and/or behavior incentivization suggest any realistic methods for softening the walls of the online age’s echo chambers?
Ever since Rules of Play, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow has been a semi-obligatory topic for game design books and courses.
Games sometimes provide Flow, but is creating that Flow a core game design consideration? Is the Flow experience central to why people play games?
Is it worth making a distinction between Flow and an immersive experience?
The first reports featured on the Project Horseshoe are from 2006. There are reports every year through 2016. This workgroup would survey the work of Horseshoers (Ferriers?) for the last ten years, gleaning trends, noting how we have changed game design (and the world) or highlighting great ideas that were ahead of their time.
There are companies that always seem to create a hit every time out, and consistently innovate and excel creatively. What are those companies, and what do they do differently? Are there commonalities that can be distilled and copied? Or is it a case of a few extraordinarily good individuals, such that their success cannot be duplicated? We know that there are some principles that everyone agrees on, like small teams with autonomy and failing fast. But can we dig deeper than that?
I just ran a workgroup on this topic at a company offsite, and would love to keep exploring it at Horseshoe…
Much of my game development can be described as “rapid prototyping”. But what’s not rapid is GUI. It’s a basic rule of thumb, that when I add a mechanic or value to my game prototype, I must then budget more time to create the GUI that exposes that feature to the player. And, despite my raft of helper functions that make GUIs a bit easier for me, it’s a hand-creation process that always takes time, especially if I want it to look pretty.
What if the basic variables that were members of a game object were smart enough to display themselves? What if you could have a member function called
::DrawMyData(RECT screenRect), and it would just magically draw all the important data of the object? And it drew the data in an intelligent way, giving more space and color to the most important data? And it did so no matter what size or shape of bounding rectangle you gave it?
Is it possible? Sure, but there’s lots of little details that would have to be worked out and coded.
Is it useful? Perhaps for lone-wolf rapid-prototypers like me, but for everyone else? I don’t know.
Assuming the idea would be useful, I’d like to explore the concept, from both coding and aesthetic perspectives, with an interested group.
Inspired by this thread: https://www.facebook.com/thebrenda/posts/10155664616687387?pnref=story
Creating a definition for the word “game” that doesn’t exclude things that are obviously games, or include things that are obviously not, is hard. It may be entirely impossible. Many individuals have tried and failed. No one has yet succeeded.
That would certainly qualify this as one of game design’s hardest problems. Perhaps if we bash enough of our brains together, we can find a better answer than any that has come before. Or at least move the needle slightly in the right direction.
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.”
Third time’s a charm…
Let’s choose a real-world problem that can be solved through game design or game creation, and actually solve it. We have some of the most brilliant designers out there in one place, let’s use that brain power to fix something that’s broken that falls directly within our shared expertise.
I recently got posed an interesting design challenge: how would you design a game specifically to help players heal after the loss of a loved one?
There is plenty of literature in psychology about stages of grief, normal vs. pathological grief, and how the commonalities and differences in how loss affects people, and there are some games that deal with the topic in various ways, but to my knowledge there’s no easily-digestible set of best practices for dealing with themes of death and loss. So, let’s make one.
We all know the basic tension between Narrative (the story the game developer tells the player) and Ludo-narrative (the story the player creates while using our game). Everyone talks about ludo-narrative dissonance, but this is not about that.
We all assume that Narrative in games is supported by lots of writing, while Ludo-narrative is supported by gameplay and emergent events. Recent experience shows me that’s not really accurate. In fact, I’ve seen lots of Ludo-narrative that’s cleverly supported by pre-written text.
Over 20 years ago, the Jagged Alliance games had lots of small chunks of writing that focused on the relationships between your hirelings.
The Fallout series has writing that supports major and minor game decisions.
Motorsport Manager has lots of small chunks of writing that support game events, and help the player contextualize them, especially regarding the drivers and mechanics you’ve hired for your racing team.
Out There and FTL have lots of text event trees that help define the game.
These examples show us that ludonarrative can be and is supported by writing. But while there’s lots of writing about writing for videogames, I haven’t found any resources that address this sort of short-form writing. Tree-structure-dialog writing IS well documented, and there is some overlap, but not enough.
Let’s discuss short-form writing designed to support the ludo-narrative, and assemble some best-practices.
I mean, it’s obvious, right? Eventually we will all have to become game designer designers.
Procedural content creation is all well and good, but what would it take to build a non-human designer that can design an entire game?
What atoms, rules, models, systems, and methods will we need?
What can be done today? Prototyped this weekend?
What do we see as the road ahead in machine-assisted game design?
Join me in embracing our future of automated creativity!