Everlasting: Narrative in Live Games

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With the growing dominance of free-to-play games, and games-as-a-service, more and more games are meant to be played for years instead of hours. But classic storytelling techniques are difficult to implement and maintain in live games. It is disappointing to see developers conclude that games-as-a-service should not focus on narrative. But players of these games deserve great narrative.

What are the best practices for delivering story for a game that never ends? There are shelf-loads of books on how to write stories for film and television, and the number of books on writing for video games is quickly catching up. But most of these how-to’s – from tumescent tomes to twerpy twitter posts – borrow heavily from the structural narrative assumptions of film, TV, AAA and premium games.  If you’re working out narrative issues while caught up in the lucrative whirlwind of free-to-play games, a good number of those structural assumptions for interactive storytelling don’t necessarily fit.

Issues to be discussed include:

  • How do you focus sharp narrative design in games that might just have to go on forever?
  • How do you get players who don’t want to read (and don’t play with their volume on) to fall in love with your characters, world and IP?
  • How do you best hook players with the emotional pull that only engrossing story and captivating characters can deliver, even when you’re working with play patterns that are optimized to be played on the bus (or on the toilet)?

Story-oriented games-as-a-service could offer designers a chance to build a uniquely game-centric narrative language. Can the minds of Horseshoe chew on this problem and come up with some advice or even some innovations for live game narratives?

Anticipation Loops

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Anticipation is everywhere. We constantly are driven by it in unsuspecting ways. When you feel your phone buzz – is that a text? Who is it? Is it important?  When you are listening to a song and that favorite part is about to come on. Why is that exciting?  When we played hide and seek as kids, the seeker is constantly anticipating finding someone, and the hiders are constantly nervous about being found.  I would like to dig further into the biology(Fast and slow dopamine), psychology(Loops) and design considerations for understanding and using Anticipation.  Aren’t you excited?  That’s Anticipation at work!

Design leadership best practices

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Design is a relatively new discipline, filled with people without formal training in the job, and I have observed that many design directors have built processes from first principles, while a handful of studios have rolled out design processes they’ve thrashed out themselves, to varied success.

Unlike engineering, writing, art or production there isn’t a lot in the way of formal process for design leadership and management.

With the thousands of years of design experience this Project Horseshoe will concentrate in one place, I’m hoping we can establish best practices for design leadership or management (or one of these, if the participants feel both is too big a goal).

Some questions to provoke discussion:

  • How do you manage designers in a way that maximises their growth, achieves your project goals, and gives them both enough direction and autonomy?
  • How do you inspire teams and get everyone working towards the same goal?

Catching Up With Dead Trees: Modernizing the Digital RPG

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‘Traditional’ games, particularly RPGs, have lapped digital games in terms of mechanics, sophistication, and even ease and approachability. I’d like to partake in a workgroup that considers the kinds of player agency, resolution systems, and expression systems that have emerged in the traditional games space, and forge ideas about which systems can be imported into digital games (and how), or what new systems we can invent that take inspiration from these innovations.

Some examples of what I’m talking about:

Games using the ‘Fate’ engine deliberately offer players moments of narrative control as a meta-mechanic, ensuring player buy in, and offers the player bribes to willingly, even eagerly, accept ‘bad events’ with promises of future dramatic payoff.

Games using the ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’ engine promote tight and expressive themes by encapsulating  a complete player narrative arc into a  ‘playbook’, and offer mechanics based on ‘moves’ that permit extreme player expression within a coherent mechanical framework.

Within the realm of ‘classic heroic fantasy’, the fifth edition of ‘Dungeons and Dragons’, and the second edition of ‘Pathfinder’ show two very different visions of how the classic RPG experience can be shaped (tight scaling versus variable tiered scaling; expressive action economies, etc. etc.) while still being similar enough in their underlying rules that a player that knows one can effortlessly learn the other.

Cyclical progression systems

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The challenge: Many service-based games last for years, which necessitates a content treadmill to keep players fed and happy. However, many common progression systems borrow from RPGs and MMOs and involve leveling up in linear fashion. Players grind up to some max cap, at which point the numbers have started to break down. Such games run into power creep, diluted rewards and other balance issues when they belatedly extend the progression for a few thousand hours more.

An alternative is cyclical progression. This is where they player starts growing in power but eventually finds themselves (due to a variety of potential reset mechanisms) coming back around to the start of the progression.

Examples of cyclical progression systems fall in at least a couple main categories…

Hard cycles: The player progresses upward in a roughly linear or exponential fashion. And then they do some form of a hard reset.

  • Seasonal leagues in sports and esports
  • Season passes in various F2P games
  • Permadeath in rogue-likes
  • Ascension systems in idle games

Soft cycles: Instead of a hard reset, cycles blur into one another.

  • The changing of the seasons. The original cyclical progression.
  • Item decay like the weapon breaking in BotW
  • Star Wars Galaxy’s unique crafting resources that then become scarce

Question to tackle at Project Horseshoe
What could the work group tackle? This is a relatively focused topic, but one that I suspect is worth a few hundred million for the right team.

  • What are examples of cyclical progression?
  • What are advantages?
  • What are pitfalls?
  • What are opportunities?
  • Other lenses for looking at this topic?

Other notes
Just some rough notes to kickstart people’s thinking.

1. Ideas from linear progressions
Cyclical progression is contrasted against linear progression (up and to the right!) where players steadily gain in resources and power.

Several key ideas in linear progressions that are also important to cyclical progressions.

  • Shape: Every progression has a shape that determines pacing and feel of the progression. Common shapes for linear progression include exponential and sawtooth.
  • Loss: The key benefit of linear progression is that players never are forced to feel loss. Since losses result in intense negative emotions that result in churn, many games intentionally use never-ending collection and leveling.
  • Content treadmill: The downside of using linear progressions is that they put the team on a content treadmill. Where they must constantly make large amounts of fresh content to extend the linear progression. How might cyclical systems minimize the treadmill?

2. Managing loss aversion in cyclical progressions
Cycles inevitably involve loss. There are some very solid existing systems for managing that loss.

  • Opt-in: If the player makes a conscious choice of their own volition to restart, the pain of loss is less.
  • Gearing: Idle games use gearing systems where you lose your progress on one linear progression to gain progress on a much slower linear progression. A small gear slowly turns a big gear. You transfer the player attention away from the short term loss and towards the long term gain. Rogue-lite systems like Rogue Legacy are a version of this.
  • Obsolescence due to environmental shifts: If items become slowly obsolete, players don’t feel loss as strongly. Winter boots are great in winter, but by the time summer rolls around, you don’t feel the need for them as much.
  • The fading of memory: There’s a natural decay of human attention over time, where a thing that was once important no longer matters so much a few years later. Perhaps if decay is slow enough, no one will notice.
  • Unique scarce resources: Star Wars Galaxy generated unique scarce resources that feed into the crafting system. Since the resources ran out, player would be economically incentivized to switch to more available substitution good. And once that is exhausted, the process repeats. Conceptually this is similar to obscelence, but coopts the opt-in agency of a trade economy.

3. Meditations on ritual and progress
Humans are inherently cyclical creatures. We live in a world with seasons. Our communities involves overlapping cycles of birth, growth, death. Many traditional cultures and religions emphasize cycles and their associated rituals. Are there ways of building cyclical progressions that enhance the gentle living of a player’s life? Or must games always be about climbing the infinite mountain.

Pro-social economics for games

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I hesitate to submit this topic because of my profound ignorance. In the past, this lack of personal experience can lead to a group that BSs for the weekend and then has to do huge amounts of research afterwards in order to salvage some sort of publishable result.

The big question
What are the key connections between: A. Joris Dorman’s internal economies (sources, sinks, pools, transforms, etc) and B. recent social game design discussions around the Trust Spectrum, friendship formation, group formation, social logistics and anti-toxicity? Our group might:

  • Identify and name key concepts of pro-social economics as they apply to games
  • Demonstrate with examples of those concepts
  • Describe how these socio-economic tools help build more robust social game systems (and communities)
  • Describe how they help us avoid current failures.

What is the source of this esoteric topic?
What I’ve found is that as soon as we start designing robust social systems, we jump deep into the realm of systems design. We immediately leave behind any sort of pure social psychology and start layering in an economics backbone.

  • The basic cross-over: We need to manage resources, time, concurrency and other player logistics. What are these resources? How do things like zero-sum, positive sum, currencies (of various sorts), communal resources interact with social physics in our small virtual worlds?
  • The complexities of trade, both in terms of virtual goods and political capital. Clever humans start gaming the system, usually in highly coordinated, adaptive groups. This directly drives dominant social strategies and erodes most utopian ‘good intentions’.
  • Failures of naive capitalism. Such systems inevitably run into the limitations of capitalism: unmitigated corruption, inability to value public goods and weak long term planning.
  • The need for governance: In order to deal with societal failures, you need legislative, executive and judicial systems.

It feels like in order to build rich, robust social systems, a working designer needs to tackle the economic foundations and ramifications of that system.

Where do we start?
There’s conservatively a 150+ years of dense writing on these topics. And as far as I can tell, much of it is incomprehensible rhetoric highly specific to the time and place it was written. So I’d need 2+ decades intense research to be mildly educated on past thought experiments. (Despite my socialist leanings, Marxism and its faux scientific rants-masquerading-as-theory is an absolute blight on search engines. Nothing builds on past discoveries; just a century of wordy folks bickering.)

And let’s also be clear. Most of the *good* work out there involves laboriously constructed but completely untested models. These are proposed with the hope of convincing some government in the next 50-200 years to maybe (pretty please) give it a try. Or they rely on natural experiments (which are mostly commenting on stuff that happened in the hopes of boosting a pet theory)

There’s very little experimental stuff outside what you can do with Mechanical Turk or a tiny captive herd of WEIRD young grad students. And of course very little of this is associated with making games.

Some references
So I’m ignorant. But it feels like I should at least making an attempt to ground this investigation. In that spirit, here’s a horribly incomplete list of reading. If people were to read these before November, it might be better than just sitting around in a circle jawing.

Basic game economies:

Basic social psych for games:

Economics focused reading:

  • A Survey of Economic Theories and Field Evidence on Pro‐Social Behavior: How economists talk about some of these topics. https://www.bostonfed.org/-/media/Documents/Workingpapers/PDF/wp0606.pdf
  • Voting systems: Ultimately voting is ‘just’ an internal economy (vote are resource tokens). Most voting systems are simplified due to their need to be implemented by humans (they are board games) What is the computer video game version of a voting system where we have full access to all the tools of an expert systems designer? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voting
  • Radical markets: Interesting thinking around applying bottoms-up market signals to social systems (instead of relying so much on government intervention.) Hmm…worryingly close to libertarianism, the kissing cousin of objectivism (both philosophies that seem to obstinately ignore everything outside the sociopathically selfish 20ish male. You know: Individuals.) https://www.amazon.com/Radical-Markets-Uprooting-Capitalism-Democracy/dp/0691177503
  • Cybernetics and economic systems: Essentially asking the question what computer systems can do automate command-and-control economic systems in a cost effective fashion. Crazy talk in the 60s when the Soviets were using human computers. But maybe more interesting now, especially since corporations are already doing this internally at a vast scale.  Nothing here is actually surprising to a F2P economy designer. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cybernetics#Cybernetics_and_economic_systems

Questions for those with a passing interest
Questions worth answering before tackling this topic (which feels like a black hole)

  • What else should a designer be reading on this topic? The reference list above is obviously, woefully incomplete. 🙁
  • What is a narrow scope we could tackle at Project Horseshoe in a productive manner?
  • Is it possible to get enough people together who have knowledge of these topics that the weekend would be productive? The best sessions are ones where everyone contributes something to the stone soup. So…who has an economics, political philosophy and/or social psych background? Maybe a small group?

Existential Game Design

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The proposed workgroup examines experience goals and design strategies for games that contribute to a meaningful life by way of drawing on Existential psychotherapy and depth psychology (e.g. myth and ritual). I am particularly interested in designing for “psychological resonance”, a principle described by clinical psychologist Erik Goodwyn, who exstentisvely researched the use of ritual in psychotherapy. Reading his and related work over the last few years showed me so many connections (and differences, of course) to game design and I’d love to explore this further, particularly to create a counter-approach to how Games 4 Change tend to see transformative game design: namely as prescriptive and directive rather than empowering and self-guided.

This workgroup, I imagine, would speak to designers interested in creating games that illuminate the human experience and aim to enrich player’s lives on a deep level, by prompting them to ponder the Big Questions – life, death, meaning, freedom of choice, connection and identity – and identifying areas of personal growth through artistic, creative engagement.