Take It Out

My rule for designing a game is that anything I can take out of the game, I take out, as long as it doesn’t undermine the base part

Recent Reading

Troll Slayer, Rebecca Mead’s profile of Mary Beard in The New Yorker earlier this year:

“It doesn’t much matter what line of argument you take as a woman. If you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say that prompts it—it’s the fact that you are saying it.”

Mary Beard

The Definitive History of The West Wing:

When we were doing the show our goal was nothing grander than to entertain you for however long we’d asked for your attention.

Aaron Sorkin

Steven Johnson (one of my favourite writers) interviewed Bill Gates about his foundation:

And so I think the idea that people are worried about problems, like climate change or terrorism or these challenges of the future, that’s okay. But boy, they really lose perspective of what’s happened over the last few hundred years. And how science and innovation have been a central factor of that.

This article is the best insight I’ve found into how VC for software companies works:

Unfortunately software startups have the opposite characteristics of what Tom Perkins taught the VC industry to look for. Software companies have relatively low technical risk and high market risk. You know the company could deliver its product. The question was would anyone want to buy it. As I said before, market risk is generally not worth taking, so the intelligent VCs had to change their business model.

Hepworth’s Law of Improvement

Saving this for future use, from David Hepworth (emphasis his):

There’s improvement, then there’s the kind of improvement which is recognised by the user and finally there’s the kind of improvement which is both recognised and valued by the user.

Blizzard’s Design Rules

With the news that Rob Pardo is leaving Blizzard, it reminded me I collected his “top ten” design rules from Blizzard at a talk he gave at GDC 2010 and never posted them. There are probably more detailed write-ups elsewhere, but here they are in bullet form:

  1. Gameplay First
    • Concentrate on the fun
    • Art, design, programming all in the service of fun
    • Design isn’t more important than others
  2. Easy to Learn, Difficult to Master
    • SImple mechanics to begin with
    • Easly play
    • Actually: easy to learn, almost impossible to master
    • Provide lots of depth
    • Trying to build depth first – harder and takes longers
      • Do multiplayer first, then singleplayer
      • Accessibility second
  3. What is the Fantasy?
    • What is the expectation?
    • Where is the fun in that?
  4. Make Everything Overpowered
    • Take everything to 11
    • Every unit, class should feel unstoppable
    • Doesn’t cost anything to make something epic
    • Applies to story and world too
    • Avoid balancing to mediocrity
    • Celebrate big differences in the game
  5. Concentrated Coolness
    • Make each feature the coolest, most concentrated expression of gameplay
    • Limited amount of complexity a player can process
      • eg vehicles ruined class system since you could use clas
      • StarCraft 2 has 16 units per race
        • Killed old units to introduce new units
  6. Play Don’t Tell
    • Play as much of the story as possible
    • Use text/voiceover/movies to enhance the story
      • eg 512 character limit on WoW quest descriptions
      • bad eg 2+ minute monologues in Diablo 2
  7. Make It A Bonus
    • Players respond better to incentives
    • Path of least resistance should be most fun
    • Don’t fight player psychology
      • eg “Inspect player message”
      • Randomness & progressive percentages build up (designed randomness)
  8. Control is King
    • Controls should be as responsive as possible
    • Sacrifice “cool” for better control
    • Players unlikely to complain about slightly bad controls
    • Done well becomes a key skill differentiator for players
  9. Tune It Up
    • Easy to do, hard to do well
    • Plan for tuning hooks
    • Know who you are tuning for and why
  10. Avoid the Grand Reveal
    • Check in often and get lots of feedback
    • Difficult to tell if an idea will work
    • Must be set up to fail
    • Iteration is critical to Blizzard dev process
    • “If you can’t build that culture, it won’t work”
    • “Want people to say ‘can you help me make this better’”
  11. Culture of Polish
    • Polish doesn’t happen at the end
    • Team gets to make their favourite game better
      • Make sure team loves the game
    • Cross section from other teams and preview players to feed back into the game
    • Every voice matters – Don’t ship until it’s ready

On a related note, Pardo also mentioned something called “Strike Teams”, which were also mentioned by Dustin Browder in this interview about Heroes of the Storm:

“We have a process here at Blizzard called a strike team where we get a bunch of people who are not on the game teams, well they’re not on the game team making the game,” Browder explained. Different people come into projects they’re not a direct part of, play through the content that has been created, and give their feedback.

“And it’s the most brutally honest experience you could possibly have in your life. They’ll just look at you point blank and say, ‘Well, you’re not gonna release this cause it sucks, right?’ I mean they’ll just tell you whatever.”

To me, that all sounds a bit like Pixar’s Brain Trust system. (Read Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. if you haven’t already.)

In Production

Last night, I attended a UKIE/Scottish Games Network session on the new tax credit system for those games things. The fact I ran away at the end is no reflection on the session itself, which was very informative, but more of the fact I wanted to go home.

Anyway, one thing that struck me was the terminology in use. Generally speaking, the industry talks about “games development” or about games being “in development”. That sounds fine, but the word used last night over and over was “production”, a word I’ve used in the past when trying to differentiate between prototyping/noodling and actually making a thing. I think more people should use the word “production” in this way, because the scheme interprets “development” as an exploratory phase, for example attempting to identify the viability of a mechanic – which explicitly isn’t allowed as part of your claim.

It sounds like a tiny technical pedantic detail, but it is on such tiny technical pedantic details things can fall through. It also puts things on a par with other industries (a film “in development” is not the same and equal to a film “in production”). So if you’re planning on using the scheme, be careful on how you word things in your supporting documentation. And it should make things clearer to people inside and outside the industry, which can only be good.

How Early Is Too Early?

Reading “Can Godus be fixed?” by Christian Donlan this morning on Eurogamer, a section of the last paragraph stood out:

In truth, it’s still hard to pin down what, if anything, 22Cans actually wants Godus to be. It’s probably often this way in development. Maybe a team really needs to “experiment, fail, and experiment again,” to quote Molyneux, even if that’s under the harsh, critical glare provided by hundreds of customers who have already paid up for the ride.

I haven’t followed Godus particularly closely (read: at all), but the above strikes me as a failure to manage expectations (on all sides). Reading the comments on the article further reinforces this, with some defending the current state of the game and others feeling like they’ve been cheated because they already paid up for it.

Finding the fun, particularly on an experimental or “reinvention” project, can be tricky, and can take a while. Even when you have strong reference points and a fairly clear idea of what your design pillars are, it can be tricky. The problem Godus seems to be having is that they’re building out infrastructure for the game before they’ve figured out what core play is.

At Vlambeer’s GDC session on their experience with Nuclear Throne last month, Rami mentioned that at one point on the stream they’d had to explain to viewers that they had to program what happened to bullets when they hit walls. To anyone involved in development, that seems like a silly thing to have to explain, but many people clearly have no idea how games are made.

Nuclear Throne looks to be a successfully managed Early Access project – it helps that Vlambeer had a game jam produced prototype (and arguably a stronger fanbase), but I also think the fact it’s fairly clear what Nuclear Throne is trying to be helps with audience expectation (subconsciously, at least). People know what they’re getting into and Vlambeer aren’t building foundational game engine bits because they’re using Game Maker. They had something that was fun from the very start of Early Access, so players can immediately see the potential and understand what the game is.

Godus on the other hand, has different expectations everywhere you look – some of the audience just want Populous 4, but that’s perhaps not what 22Cans are trying to achieve. Either way, it’s clear they’ve let people into the process far too early – it’s not obvious what they’re trying to achieve with the game when you play it, and as a result journalists and players are reacting poorly to it.

So it seems to me that Early Access (and equivalents) can be the right thing, but only at the right time. That right time varies from project to project. It will be interesting to see how Godus fares from here on in – is the reputational damage done at this stage irreparable, or can the project be salvaged?

This Week in Reading

CAPY practise Selfish Creativity:

At CAPY, our goal has always been simple: Create unique, beautiful video games that we love… and bring them wherever there is an audience (and ideally, a great controller) to play them. This is our goal with Below. This is our goal with Super TIME Force. This will be our goal with whatever crazy idea we do next.

Lovely retrospective at Eurogamer on the creation of Clash of Heroes (which you should totally play if you haven’t, it’s awesome) amd how it changed CAPY:

That sensation, a well-made thing that acquires an aura of magic, is something every developer would love to capture - yet how few do.

Halfbrick and the importance of planning:

This is also more proof that having a great game is only one part of becoming a profitable developer. You have to have a plan, and be ready to move on your ideas.

Andrew Haydon captures what playwright Mark Ravenhill actually said at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (warning, non-direct-games-content):

Don’t look for mentors, I would suggest, who are decades older than you. People like me – ignore us. Don’t look for business models from last year. Make it up as you go along. Do everything as if for the first time. As one of the most beautiful men who Scotland ever produced once sang: ‘Rip it up and start again’.

And a science non-games thing for good measure:

Scientism, in this good sense, is not the belief that members of the occupational guild called “science” are particularly wise or noble. On the contrary, the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable. Scientism does not mean that all current scientific hypotheses are true; most new ones are not, since the cycle of conjecture and refutation is the lifeblood of science.

When Is a Clone Not a Clone?

When it’s a counterfeit.

Over the years, there’s been a lot of talk about clones in the games industry, but after reading this article on Indie Statik about an Android game called Slap!, I think we (the industry) need to be clearer in our word choice.

It’s easy to throw the word “clone” around, but this incident – where the copycat game is “actually using the original sprites from our game” – I’d like to suggest a different term:

counterfeit: adj. made in exact imitation of something valuable with the intention to deceive and defraud. (OED)

I think that’s a much clearer description of what’s happened in this case, and should be targeted by a DMCA.

(As an aside, I do find it amusing that Slap! is “based on” the traditional game “Red Hands”, but the creator appears to claim that a Windows game called Hand Smash has “ripped off the [Slap!] mechanic”.)

Special Guest Post by Nick Hornby

This short essay by Nick Hornby is actually taken from the sleeve notes on The Gaslight Anthem’s latest album, Handwritten. I’m sharing it with you in full because I liked what it had to say: it also feels particularly relevant to my current project:

It would be stupid to try and tell you that the music you’re listening to is like nothing you’ve ever heard before. The songs on the Gaslight Anthem’s latest album are three or four minutes long, most of them, and they’re played on loud electric guitars, and there are drums, and to be honest, if you haven’t heard anything like this before, then you’re probably listening to the wrong band anyway. What’s great about the Gaslight Anthem is that there’s an assumption you’ll have heard something like this before – on the first Clash album, or on Born to Run, or the first Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album, or maybe on a Little Richard record. That’s what hooked me in. I’ve been listening to rock’n’roll for forty years, and so maybe I’m too old to be writing this stuff, but on the other hand, maybe I know what I’m talking about, too: believe me, I know a lot of stuff sounds tired and derivative, and makes you feel as though rock music is exhausted. It’s hard to find new ways to tell stories and write songs; even clothes made out of meat won’t do you much good if your music is 1980’s dance-pop.

So you have two choices. The first is this: you do something nobody’s ever done before. You play the nose-flute underwater, put it through a computer backwards, and get a black Japanese guy to rap over the top. Or you write a novel using only consonants. Or you make a movie which nobody can see. And that’s all cool, but nobody will want to read your second novel written using only consonants, so then you’ll have to write one using only vowels. And the second is this: you think, write, play and sing as though you have a right to stand at the head of a long line of cool people – you recognise that the Clash and Little Richard got here first, but they’re not around any more, so you’re going to carry on the tradition, and you’re going to do it in your own voice, and with as much conviction and authenticity and truth as you can muster. And if you can pull that off, you’ll be amazed at how fresh you can sound.

And the Gaslight Anthem sound fresh. Anyone who has ever been frustrated by anything – a girl, a boy, a job, a self (especially that) – can listen to this music and feel understood and energised. (And if I feel energised, Lord knows what they’re going to do to you.) And I’m beginning to suspect that they, like, read books, too. ‘Great Expectations’ – now there’s a great title for a song. And here, ‘Howl’ – there’s another one. Rockers who read. Songwriters who are not scared to go head-to-head with everyone else in rock’s great tradition. The Gaslight Anthem are my kind of people.

— Nick Hornby, April 2012

Common Sense Prevails at BAFTA

Way back in March 2011, I wrote a post over at Scottish Games regarding a missing category in the BAFTA Video Games Awards:

However, I can’t help but think there’s a rather giant omission from the category list, given BAFTA’s stated aim of “developing and promoting the art forms of the moving image in the UK”: there should be a category for “Outstanding British Game“.

This week, BAFTA announced that entries were now open for the 2013 awards, along with a new category:

BRITISH GAME – For the best game of the year across all genres and platforms. Creative control and development must be led by a British development studio.

Hurrah! Well done BAFTA. Of course, I’d like to claim credit for this, but I’m just happy this particular hole has been plugged. I would still love to see an independent British game of the year prize though, an equivalent of the Turner or Mercury prize.