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

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in 2018 Workgroup Topic Proposals

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

Posted on 2 CommentsPosted in 2018 Selected Workgroup Topics, 2018 Workgroup Topic Proposals

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

Posted on 3 CommentsPosted in 2018 Workgroup Topic Proposals

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.

Casual Clans

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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?

Better Than Dialogue Trees: The Interface of Human Interaction

Posted on 6 CommentsPosted in 2017 Selected Workgroup Topics, 2017 Workgroup Topic Proposals

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Hard Hitting Combos

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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?

Ethical Monetization

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in 2017 Selected Workgroup Topics, 2017 Workgroup Topic Proposals

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.

Cozy Online Games

Posted on 2 CommentsPosted in 2017 Selected Workgroup Topics, 2017 Workgroup Topic Proposals

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?

Power to Persuade

Posted on 2 CommentsPosted in 2017 Workgroup Topic Proposals

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.

Can we crack the echo chamber?

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in 2017 Selected Workgroup Topics, 2017 Workgroup Topic Proposals

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?

Flow Reconsidered

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in 2017 Workgroup Topic Proposals

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 Habits of Highly Successful Companies

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in 2017 Workgroup Topic Proposals

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…

Game systems that display themselves

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in 2017 Workgroup Topic Proposals

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.

Definition of “game”

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in 2017 Workgroup Topic Proposals

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.

What is the place of good design in games?

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in 2017 Workgroup Topic Proposals

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.”

Overcoming Grief

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in 2017 Workgroup Topic Proposals

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.

Writing for the Ludonarrative

Posted on 4 CommentsPosted in 2017 Workgroup Topic Proposals

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.

 

Let’s Build a Game Designer!

Posted on 2 CommentsPosted in 2017 Selected Workgroup Topics, 2017 Workgroup Topic Proposals

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!

Hybrid Games

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in 2016 Workgroup Topic Proposals

The islands of game development – videogame, boardgame, physical activities are starting to blend together in many new ways.   This often includes and physical and digital element combined in a novel way.  Cataloging the various hybrid games can be helpful to find patterns, and document new combinations that haven’t been explored.  Some examples:

  • Boardgames that use a mobile device
  • Location based gaming
  • Osmo – iPad that sees physical pieces
  • Augmented reality card games

Formalizing Boardgame Development

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in 2016 Workgroup Topic Proposals

Boardgames have been around much longer than videogames, but videogames already seem to have more vetted processes to design and develop them.  It would be valuable to collect learnings and best practices from several sources and synthesize some effective methods for designing, iterating, testing and publishing boardgames.  Sources and structures may include:  large boardgame publishers (inventor/developer pairs), videogame development(vertical slice, beta testing), software development(agile, etc), and processes of solo designers.

Game Design for Enduring Customer Relationships

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in 2016 Workgroup Topic Proposals
In this new world of ‘games as a service’ and self publishing, the responsibilities of our companies are far broader than simply designing a great core game. Our player’s experience extends beyond the digital interaction they have with our product and out into social media, customer support, live streaming, community gatherings, physical product… Each an every one of these ancillary functions are just as important to the success of our company as the code or artwork we craft for the core product.
The companies that are hugely successful these days think about all of this in a holistic fashion, forging lifelong connections with their fans that become a core part of their player’s identity. Supercell, Riot, Valve, Blizzard, all have this consistent thread of long term, umbrella brand thinking, placing their customers at the centre of everything.
How could we use best practice game design to expand the delight of our player experience beyond the software, and into every facet of interacting with our brands?

Mindfulness at Play

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in 2016 Workgroup Topic Proposals
Meditation has been used for thousands of years as a way to support our mental well being. These techniques are enjoying a resurgence in popularity in recent years, with considerable scientific evidence backing its benefits, especially for those suffering from anxiety or depression. We’ve even seen some meditation apps crack the top grossing charts!
Could our modern games benefit from the integration of mindful moments or techniques?
Could whole games even be centered around a mindful mechanic?
Ian Bogust did a good write up a few years back on ‘Video Game Zen’ and the potential for mindfulness games:
He even made a game of his own for the Atari Joyboard:
His critique of Cloud as still too “lean in” to be truely meditative was fair at the time, but TGC’s subsequent work (Flower and Journey) have smoothed out the interactions and made experiences that are more blissful. Still, these exemplary titles rely heavily on more traditional game mechanics that require the player to problem solve and traverse space in a way that breaks the meditative state.
A core principle in mindfulness that many people struggle with, is that it is not the practice of eliminating thought entirely, but instead allowing your internal (monkey mind) and external (physical senses) stimulus to rage around you without letting them control you. This video summaries it beautifully:
Could games somehow present a pathway to learning how to be more mindful?
Could ‘walking simulators’ like Firewatch present a way forward? Is zoning out in No Man’s Sky as effective as sitting in lotus chanting mantras? Are perfectly beautiful moments like the giraffe scene in The Last of Us enough to provide us brief windows into bliss that might help us appreciate the world around us more?
Let’s explore the concept of mindfulness as something we might be able to integrate into our design and thinking to create more fulfilling experiences for our players.

short attention span theatre – designing for meaning in short session replayable games

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in 2016 Workgroup Topic Proposals

[this may be mergeable with social bonds in competitive play and/or core games on mobile]

Much of mobile gaming is designed around  short session play patterns with reuseable and replayable content.   This has led vast tranches of games down a deep pit of micro-transaction-driven designs that offer little meaning, and too often leading players by the nose through a thin layer of  fun, shmeared lightly over a very long and large loaf of bread.  These games rarely offer the life-changing emotional engagement of longer-session narrative or simulation games.  Can we design our way out of the pit?  Break open the bonds of consumer purchase pattern expectations (free to play, micro transactions) while still offering replayable content that caters to the short session play pattern, yet delivers meaningful, emotionally engaging experiences? There are after all many examples in other media of meaningful  short session experiences.

Multiplayer payoff matrices and the Domains of Play

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in 2016 Selected Workgroup Topics, 2016 Workgroup Topic Proposals

This topic builds on Jason Vandenberghe’s work mapping game elements and player preferences to the Big Five motivational factors.

Looking specifically at multiplayer game scenarios, it appears that:

1) using a Prisoner’s Dilemma approach, and

2) assigning weights to various player options (as available in the game’s feature set) to create

3) a Nash equilibrium payoff matrix that attributes to each player a set of payoffs based on each player’s particular Big Five motivational model

…we might theoretically be able to predict player enjoyment and likely play styles when placed into a known game milieu with other players whose Big Five motivation maps and play choices are also known (or knowable).

How true is this theory, on a scale of bullshit to canon?

How practical/useful is this today? If the answer is “not much,” what would we need in order to really apply it? (Yes, a comprehensive motivational payoff matrix for an MMO in this model challenges even today’s definition of “Big Data.”)

Where might this be leveraged, and how? AI? Feature prioritization? Social interaction design? Marketing? Server/clan recommendations? Improved game designer navel-gazing?

What does it tell us about the opportunities for player enjoyment?

How can our games be smart about this, and help players find their particular fun in a multiplayer experience?

References:

The Five Domains Of Play:Mapping Psychology’s Five Factor Model to Game Design

The Care Bear Myth:Debunking a Game Design Urban Legend

Game Theory in Video Games: How You’re in a Prisoner’s Dilemma