Collaborative Play to Companionship

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In the last year, we’ve seen the publication of the Trust Spectrum, and broad discussion of the ph2016 paper Game design patterns that facilitate strangers becoming Friends. But both of these papers, rightfully, take a hands-off approach to defining design best practices for motivating players to play together. Friendship and trust are a challenging frame to motivate from.

Another ph2016 paper has received less discussion: Design for Collaborative Play. It’s worth expanding on Collaborative Play, and thinking deeply about what mechanics produce collaborative play, what leads to feelings of companionship, and the implications for friendship, the trust spectrum, and general social design.

I believe Collaborative Play is the main reason players love cooperative experiences in games, and is thus the main driver of (game-specific) stranger-to-friendship relationship change. Therefore, its nature (and constraints) shape social design theory. That further understanding would greatly improve related frameworks like the trust spectrum.

Potential questions:

  • What defines collaborative play? What separates general “I’m in a group” play from collaborative play? (Even when they are on teams.)
  • Why is collaborative play such a strong motivator?
  • Beyond proximity and similarity, what rules create collaborative play?  What are the best practices for mechanics, shared goals, rewards, etc?
  • What feedback enhances collaborative play? Environment, call and response, culture, etc?
  • How is collaborative play informed by the trust spectrum? How does collaboration change at different trust levels?
  • Does collaborative play design inherently encourage players to particular trust levels?
  • What are the best practices for encouraging collaborative play?
    • One example, to show there’s more to discover: clear, authentic, positive reactions to assistance.)
  • What is companionship? How is it separate from belonging/relatedness? From friendship?
  • What creates feelings of companionship? What conditions cause collaborative play to lead to companions?
  • Can companionship exist with NPCs? What separates real people from Epona or Garrus or your dog? What separates players from NPCs?

Non-Colonization RPG Game Systems

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Here’s a Subversive Game Design Concept that might have some legs —

RPG game systems are built on a conceptual foundation of colonization without consequence. Systems that enable players to explore, exploit, refine, industrialize, and extract value from the world, either natural or social, are often the basis for our crafting systems & tech trees.

So what experiments could we propose for RPG game systems that simulate a different approach to resource & social engagement?

  • What types of games already exist with systems we can learn from?
  • What are ways to reframe existing colonization simulation systems to make seeking balance fun?
  • Who are the players who would be drawn to games where there are there fun ways to explore while pursuing balance and fairness?
  • Do some types of game systems support and enhance that pursuit?
  • How will players simmered in western value systems perceive or understand  these systems, if we can even propose them?
  • Your question here!

Saving/Loading and Pseudorandomness in single-player games

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This is one of those things that strikes me as an unsolved problem in game design. As Raph said in his book, players tend to gravitate towards game exploits even at the cost of their own fun. The solutions that prevent player exploits also tend to punish players for the horrendous sin of actually trying to play our game honestly. Some examples:

Save anywhere, saving your random number seed: game is predictable. Quicksave before a boss and know exactly what it will do. Quicksave before gambling in the in-game casino and know what numbers come up. Premonition as a superpower.

Save anywhere, without saving your random number seed: repeat until success. Quicksave before any risky thing, try it, reload and retry if it fails. Infinite time reversal as a superpower.

Save only at save points that are far enough apart to make save-scumming inconvenient: punishes players who have busy lives and can’t have their game held hostage until they find the next save point, and a pox upon the level designer that forgets to put one in somewhere that leads to a mandatory 2-hour play session to progress.

Save anywhere but with limited saves: without consulting a strategy guide, player has no way to gauge when to save, inevitably ends up conserving their precious saves, playing conservatively, spends half an hour clearing out an area with relative ease, accidentally wanders into an insta-death trap and has to repeat the whole process, rage-quits.

Save anywhere, limited saves, game strongly telegraphs when danger is coming: may as well have just used save points in those areas, why did you even give the player a choice that’s obvious.

Save anywhere, but only one save at a time, game deletes save upon reload so save-scumming is impossible: power goes out and player loses 50 hours of progress, tracks down and kills game designer, claims justifiable homicide.

Autosave at checkpoints: basically the same problem as save points, just without the extra button-press to save.


Can we find a better way, or at least map and explore the design space with save/load systems to quantify the tradeoffs so that the least-damaging system can be chosen for a specific application? Could we make a tool that presents a questionnaire with a bunch of options and uses the answers to spit out a functional design doc to save future designers the time and trouble of reinventing the wheel with every single game they work on?

World Systems Underrepresented in Games

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This topic is a mission to uncover unknown unknowns in the game genre space.

Probably? primarily research oriented, this could be executed in two phases: 1) mapping systems in the world, 2) comparing this map to games that are made.

For the purposes of argument, we could call a system underrepresented if it does not have a ‘hit’ game made from it (say a game found on major indeces, such as metacritic or boardgamegeek, with above 4/5 stars in rating).

The intent of this would be to provide inspiration for future areas of game development, and possibly to theorize as to why certain systems become heavily represented and others not at all. A converse of this topic would be to chart which systems have very heavy representation as a comparative analysis to finding the “blank spots” on the map.

A sub point of the first objective (mapping systems in the world) would be to create a hierarchy of world systems to organize systems into larger groups. This would allow further granularity in measuring underrepresented genres if, for instance, bees are underrepresented but insects broadly are not, or insects are broadly underrepresented but animal systems are not.

A variation on the world system map would be to categorize systems by the emotions that they evoke, and establish a genre lens based on emotion — but this is probably too large to be a subtopic.

Picking the best difficulty system for your game

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Challenging players appropriately varies enormously depending on the type of game you’re making.

With the rise of games that are deliberately hard enough to force player engagement with all of the game systems (Dark Souls, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Cuphead), challenge as a selling point for a game has never been more popular. However, games become ever-more mass market, and in most cases we want all types of players to be able to enjoy our games, hence adding features like “tourist mode”, specific difficulty sliders for different types of content and other ways for players to choose how hard the game is for them.

Discussion points:

  • What disadvantages are there to having selectable difficulty modes?
  • What does increasing difficulty mean for games with combat?
  • What about for games without combat?
  • Is it reasonable for every game to use Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s method of having sliders for combat, exploration and puzzle?
  • When should you make skill checks harder vs punishing failure more harshly as you increase difficulty?
  • Is Adaptive Difficulty a silver bullet? What are the pros and cons?
  • How important is it for the latest game in a franchise to feel just as difficult as the previous games at a selected difficulty level?
  • If cost were no object, what would be the perfect difficulty system for YOUR game?

Utopian Capitalism in Games

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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?

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.

Games for Kids Growing Up

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“How to design games for kids” is a well-tread topic in the game industry (both industries, actually, digital and tabletop). There are two areas of this that seem to be unsolved problems that I’d like to move the needle on, though.

First is that kids grow up. Most games are designed for a specific developmental stage, and once the kid passes that stage, they outgrow the game. Is there a way to design games that will grow with a kid? I’m not just talking educational games with advanced content, or standard games with difficulty levels that get harder as the player advances in skill while keeping the same mechanics. I’m talking about a core game that starts off very simple, and then gets more mechanically sophisticated once the player can handle more advanced concepts. (On Facebook, I proposed Candyland Legacy that starts off like the traditional children’s game and then gets more complex mechanics and interesting choices added to it each year on the kid’s birthday or when the parent thinks the kid is ready, where the game might ultimately evolve into a heavy strategy game for 12+.)

Second is that many kids have siblings of varying age ranges. Since games are often designed for a specific developmental stage, any given game is either going to be too advanced for the younger kid or too boring for the older one. This is similar to balancing a game for players of wildly different skill levels, but different in that players don’t just have different game skills, but different life skills in general. Adding a handicapping system is one thing, but how would you do that when (for example) some players can read and some can’t?

Designing for Friendship, Part Deux – The Trust Spectrum

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Two years ago, I was running a project to explore innovation in mobile gaming. I had the great good fortune to work with Raph Koster, Sean Vesce, and others.

Our design focus areas were:

  1. Colocated play with phones (YDKJ, SpaceTeam, “couch co-op for phones”)
  2. Design that supported true human connection between the players, based on my interpretation of hundreds of papers I read in sociology, psychology, neurobiology, popular science, etc.

At the same time, Daniel, Bill, Joel, Yuri, Michael, and others at PH2016 were working on the same challenge, and posted their report on “Game design patterns that facilitate strangers becoming ‘friends’“.

Synchronicity. The movement to reclaim our electronic lives – to counterbalance the unhealthy unintended consequences – gathers steam. The game design morphogenetic field in action. An idea whose time has come?

The result of my project was a design lens called The Trust Spectrum, which Raph published in great detail on his blog. I have been continuing to refine and update the theory in my personal work, and just gave a talk on it at the Intentional Play Summit.

Since it is no longer my ‘full time job’ to develop and refine this theory, I feel PH is an ideal forge in which to temper the concept, put it to the test with some of the greatest minds in the industry, and see if there’s anything there.

This concept – creating games that have positive social impact in the real world, that help strengthen the bonds of humanity – has become my personal lodestone, a guide in my career to help me work on things I will be proud to leave behind.

I would like help refining and solidifying the Trust Spectrum into something usable – or determine that it’s superceded by the work of others. Jumping off points for a workgroup (not a checklist – a brainstorm starter):

  • Do design analyses of a broad array of games
  • Refine the levels of the trust spectrum
  • Deep dive back into the scientific research from whence the Trust Spectrum came
  • Cut away that which does not work
  • Attempt to correlate Trust Spectrum measurements of games to other indicators – audience size, popularity, ratings scores, even profitability. Does the Trust Spectrum predict anything?
  • Pick it up and use it as a tool. See if it helps us design something healthy, something new, something beautiful. (Something blue?) One success story would be to develop a physical game to share with other PH attendees that leaves players feeling better about themselves and each other.
  • Oh, by the way – how do we define that? How do we measure it?
  • Explore the morality of ‘gamifying’ friendship. I strongly believe games should not *push* people closer together – rather, serve as enrichment, as nutrition for a relationship. Where do we draw the line, and how does a game use friendship as part of a compulsion loop? What stance should we, as an industry, take when we *know* that a game is unhealthy – and how do we know?

I’m eager for the opportunity PH offers to dive into this research and concept, and would be thrilled to have others along for the journey.

Thanks for reading!

– Aaron

The Harmony of Fun and Profit

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Once upon a time, we could sell a game for $50 in a box. Within that box, we could strive to craft the most fun experience possible that $50 could buy. Those days are largely gone now. As the entertainment landscape gets more crowded, larger budget games stand out the best, and they demand a bigger bottom line.

As the revenue demands have increased, we have invented all sorts of new ways to make more money from games over the years. Subscriptions, loot boxes, boosts, energy, DLC, and timer-rushing are the most prominent. All of these methods are effective, but have negative impacts to the player experience. Alas, this is more than just an ethical issue. It is a game design issue.

They aren’t the best possible player experiences. Each of the mentioned tactics does the same basic thing: it creates a need in the player, and offers to fill that need if only they will pay some money.

  • Subscription: Add lots of grinding
  • Pay for boosts: Add frustrating levels where you almost win
  • Loot boxes: Add highly chase-able rarities of content
  • DLC: Add cliffhangers for DLC or withhold content
  • Timer-rush: Add lots of timers gates which can be rushed

Players now come to games with skepticism. “How are they trying to part me from my money?” the player must ask. Games used to be a trusted friend; a wholesome and revitalizing activity. There must be a better way.

There is a glimmer of hope. One kind of monetization is a shining example of enhancing the player experience without sacrificing what makes the best game: Cosmetics. Cosmetic economies are great, but they only work in certain types of games for certain types of players. It doesn’t seem like most games could effectively utilize a cosmetic economic model. Can we extrapolate from what is working so well here and apply it elsewhere?

I would like us to help usher in a new era of ideas around how the fun and the business side of games can work together to create a better experience. I believe it can be done…sometimes. Cosmetics show us that. The business needs of our craft are not going to go away – if anything they will become more demanding as the market gets more crowded. Let’s try to find some tools to guide us towards experimental monetization strategies that are as good as cosmetics for a wider variety of games.

  • Are there any games have good harmony between design and monetization strategy? (Cosmetics are a good starting point)
  • What can we learn from those games?
  • What are the defining characteristics of a monetization strategy that doesn’t sacrifice the player experience?
  • What are some new monetization strategies to try that would work in harmony with the games we know and love?

Armor for the Game Developer Soul

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The game industry can be a wonderful place, but it can also be harsh. Each year, we lose more skilled veterans to burnout, frustration, or plain old poor treatment. The games we make have a very human cost. While each of us can individually try to make our own personal bubbles of excellence, realistically, game industry culture and treatment of devs changes slowly, and this isn’t something we can fix on a macro scale in a weekend.

A student once said to me: “I realize that this program is supposed to prepare us for industry, and I know the industry can be rough… but you realize there’s a difference between poking us with sharp sticks so we grow a thicker skin, and equipping us with armor… right?” This stuck with me as something to consider, not just for students, but for developers at all levels.

I propose some of us work on a set of tools that could be applied on the individual level to protect against the worst the industry has to offer. Not because it should be the individual’s responsibility to deal with a broken system, but so that fewer people can be broken. Let’s save some lives and spirits of our fellows.

Abstract Mechanics vs Immersion

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In our current game project we are running into the following problem: we’ve added fairly abstract mechanics to deal with ‘skill tests’ in our action RPG. The dev team is very happy with the mechanics as it allows us to express a wide variety of situations that are hard to represent otherwise.Especially because it allows us to communicate quite clearly what risks and rewards are possible outcomes of such situations. We can use it to do negotiations. Do random encounters. Environmental magic, and so on.

The investor is less happy. They fear this abstract layer is breaking immersion.

Personally I really believe that such a mechanical layer can actually increase immersion as in theory it augments the players perception in the world. But I also realize that the interface is non-transparent at first. New players have to learn a new metaphor. I think there is an interesting tension there. That might be worth exploring. I’d be very interested in finding out what ways would be best to introduce such mechanics, and resolve the tension as quickly and elegantly as possible.

Designing the best game I’ll ever play

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If I had the rest of my life, what game would I make, for ME? None of us want to waste the time we have on this mudball. We all want to make Art that has a lasting impression on this world. I’ve had a few moments with peers to muse about the “greatest possible game ever”. It made me realize that the “greatest possible game ever” is different for everyone.

In thinking about making MY “greatest possible game ever”, I started by picking all the games I really like, and culling out the game features and mechanics I really like. It would be like X-Com, but with story like Jagged Alliance and also Motorsport Manager. A post-apocalypse world like Fallout. A hero management mechanic, like Heroes of Might and Magic.

Smashing together all the best parts of all the best games.

But isn’t that caveman thinking? By myself, I can’t think of a better way to do want I want.  But it feels reductive and shallow.

So perhaps, in a group, we can figure out not WHAT sort of game to make, but (the process of) HOW to design the best game I’ll ever play.

United Developers

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In 1919, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and DW Griffith formed their own movie studio, United Artists. The goal was to better control their creative interests, and also to keep more of the revenue generated by their creative efforts. Although the effort was ultimately a failure, with the principals selling out in the 1950s, the company served its purpose for many years.

Is a similar model possible in the game industry? I know there have been some attempts along these lines, such as Manifesto Games, founded by Greg Costikyan and Johnny Wilson. I’d be interested in a workgroup to discuss that ways in which such a model was feasible, as well as identifying the obstacles to this model, and to write these findings into a roadmap for future game developers to potentially follow.

Constructing Emergence

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Emergent gameplay holds a lot of fascination for many people, and yet we have a difficult time nailing down what it is — much less how to reliably create it. There are a lot of descriptions and attempts at definitions of emergence, but they’re often incompatible and fairly ad hoc in nature. As a quick and dirty definition (with thanks to John Holland) I’ll propose that something is an emergent effect when it creates a new “thing,” a new object based on the interactions of multiple parts, but without being dependent on any of them.

A simple example of this is the “glider” in Conway’s Life: it can be described by the way individual cells turn on and off, but is more compactly described one organizational level up from that as a thing in itself that moves on its own.

There are a lot of other examples too of course: Nicky Case’s fireflies is one of my favorites.

As systemic/procedural/rogue-like gameplay gains popularity, creating emergent effects reliably is becoming more important, and I believe is an important part of the game designer’s toolkit.

I’ve been working on this problem a fair amount, and would love to chew on this topic with others (I may well be lost in the Dark Forest). What I’d like to get to is a minimum set of requirements for reliably constructing emergence but without constraining the emergent result itself: “do these things and you’ll get emergent behavior/gameplay.” And, just as important, some examples of how that actually works in game-like situations.

What I have gotten to currently is that to construct emergence you need objects with internal state and behaviors at affect other objects (i.e., nouns and verbs). To further set the stage, the verbs must be:

  • Local: operating only on “nearby” objects, typically spatially but also in terms of level of organization. A single bird changing direction doesn’t on its own immediately change the flock, and a single cell in Conway’s Life doesn’t determine the state of an entire region.
  • Narrow: they have one or at most a few very well-defined, clear effects. They affect only one or two attributes in another object, not many all at once.
  • Modular: they have well-defined bounds and unambiguous effects.
  • Generic: they operate the same way no matter what, without special exceptions or needing to know the context in which they’re operating.
  • Hierarchical: going back to “local,” emergence appears at different levels of organization. At each level, the emergent effect creates a new object “one level up,” which can then interact with other objects at that level.

The examples I’ve poked at — Conway’s Life, flocking, firefly displays, slimes in Slime Rancher, etc. — all fit these requirements. Are these necessary? Sufficient? Does this help us understand and construct emergence? Are there aspects missing? Is this worth looking at for creating engaging gameplay? (I believe so, as it helps reduce reliance on the content treadmill but… maybe that’s an illusion?)

I’d love to get a group of like-minded people to dig into this, or at the very least all end up looking as baffled as I sometimes feel.

Verbs from the edge

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Games are interactive, and we often think of interactions as verbs. Run, jump, shoot, get, unlock. Any of us can conceive of a game that uses these verbs.

But games are a huge market, with loads of competition. To break from the crowd, we can try to find verbs that no one has used in a game. We can also try to design games that don’t rely on verbs (at least in the way we normally use them).

I’d like to be part of a workgroup that collects and documents ways to break from the common verbs of game design. I think we could focus on 1) finding verbs that are unused in games, 2) find design paradigms that can’t be reduced to verbs, or don’t rely on verbs, 3) finding ways to combine verbs in new ways to produce unusual gameplay.

Design for Passivity

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YouTube streamers have become a major force affecting the game industry. We now live in an environment where games don’t just have to consider what it’s like to play, but also what it’s like to watch.

Professional sports have been designed this way for many years (although we only get a new one of those that catches on once every several generations), but it’s a relatively new design consideration for today’s video game and board game designers.

The purpose of this group would be to create a set of core design principles and best practices specifically towards creating games that are at least as fun to watch as they are to play.