Monday, 28 May 2012

Small games

In the echo chamber where we discuss the upcoming episode of Roguelike Radio, high in an ivory tower from where we deign to look down at other games, one of my colleagues dared ask the question 'Is there anyone that's anti small games?'... to which I raised the shattered stump of my speaking staff (broken previously by that tea-drinking wizard Grey).

I am anti small games: both as a designer, and a game player. As a designer, I am incapable of conceiving of a small game (I can however do tiny games). The games I design have to encompass the totality of an idea: Unangband is a gumbo of all things high and low fantasy, Alternal (since renamed Historium) is the sweep of all possible human histories: past and future. The reason is simple: the idea of designing a small game simply terrifies me - I wouldn't know where to begin, and more importantly, where to end.

As a player, I need my games to be full of significant moments: where the choices I make have room to play out, and where ideas it evokes have recurrent themes. Small games don't have the depth to immerse me in: they become too coldly calculating, and more importantly, brittle. If I don't have the ability to solve the game myself, the ultimate solvent of the Internet is a quick Google away. Even classic games like Chess are ultimately reductive to a set of memorized openings which dominate play (Chess960 one possible antidote).

Instead, by piling systems on top of systems, big games have a robustness that allows for unintended play. And what is wrong enjoying the experience of playing a game, even if it is just a kinetic rush to the end? That is, if the experience has an enjoyable core, which for me, is missing from the Diablo series. (Cool downs are lazy design). And if the core design is tight, you should be welcome to find pleasure in it for as long as you can.


Abe Heron said...

I think you nailed that one on the head - small games tend to be very puzzle like and most of the time do not offer any room for emergent gameplay/strategies (one that the designers did not think of, and that require the vast masses of the internets to discover). I would argue that for most player bigger IS better - so long as quality is retained content-wise.

Darren Grey said...

Counter example to all of that is Powder. For me it stands as just a compelling and interesting game as many of the big RLs, whilst still retaining the ability to surprise the player with complex situations. It's bigger than most small games of course, but proof that you don't need epic scope to achieve that depth of play.

I like the epic games more overall, but I generally find more time for the smaller games and I appreciate a good puzzle style from time to time. And as a dev I'm just incapable of producing a big game :P

Plus big games are just as vulnerable to spoilers / walkthroughs as small games. Only well designed procedural content can overcome that!

That cooldown article you linked is interesting, but seems to completely neglect turn-based games. Cooldowns have an entirely different dynamic when they become part of your turn by turn planning.

Darren Grey said...

Oh, and didn't you say The Binding of Isaac was your roguelike of the year...?

Abe Heron said...

I do agree that the majority of players that prefer smaller games are those who are time poor - mostly adults (I believe that was mentioned on the cast). Any game is subject to cookiecutterism, but I would still argue that does not mean that new and relevant strategies cannot emerge (in spite of the internet) in a larger game much more frequently than a smaller one. A good example is chess of the last century - while a strong 'database' of openings and their variants already existed by then, that did not prevent new and interesting opening variants from being developed, though that innovation probably waned (well its been hundreds of years already, give chess a break :)).

Re: that article, I might be in the minority, but I completely disagree with almost everything it has to say. I might write something longer about it once I could be bothered. But cooldowns have been with us since PnP D&D (The Vancian magic system is probably the oldest example of a cooldown if there ever was one) and it's not going anywhere. Besides, any alternatives such as resource pools (mana/health/rage/etc.) are just cooldowns in inverse and make things far less interesting IMO, since you now restrict cooldown to a single resource (mana) rather on multiple abilities.

Dan Kline said...

Oh, y. I'd recommend re-thinking about that cooldown article a bit more. Framed interestingly, but wrong on so many levels.

Novice designers frequently get caught up in something ring "not interactive". Games are sets of rules. Rules by there nature are not interactive. So some parts of your game are not going to be interactive. It's ok.

Andrew Doull said...

Darren: I was going to make an argument about a small game being something you can't add to without wrecking the game, but based on my experience of the Wrath of the Lamb so far, the Binding of Isaac may have been a small game.

Joseph said...

Are you saying that Wrath of the Lamb ruined Binding?

I'm not thinking that Binding is all the small. Tons of bosses, characters and hundreds of items.

Seems to me the new content makes it so that the game picks up quicker in the beginning. No waiting for interesting play mods.

I had minimal experience with the original though.

Nolithius said...

Reasons to like small games as a player:
- Less time consuming (can play in short bursts).
- Less exclusive attention required (can play other games).
- More likely to complete before losing interest (the novelty of mechanics wears out at the same time or before the content, not halfway through, as in most longer games).
- Quality vs. quantity (interesting gameplay and content is more densely packed, as opposed to spread out along 100+ hours of content, as in longer games).

Reasons to like small games as a developer:
- Less time consuming (can develop in short bursts).
- Less exclusive attention required (can work on multiple projects and it is easier to get back on track if a long time passes between development).
- More likely to complete before losing interest (development motivation, time, and money are very limited resources for small teams, especially 1-man/woman teams).
- Quality vs. quantity (much like specialty shops or other small businesses, your product will be niche, but higher quality that connoisseurs will appreciate).

Small games can deliver the totality of an idea just as well as a short story can, and are a test of your gamedev chops as well as the latter is of a writer's. Anyone can make a hulking mass of features and content, but it takes a special kind of focus to make it tight, focused, polished, and, most importantly, packaged to sell game in a reasonable time for a reasonable price.

I've put all of my larger projects on hold for what you might call a small iOS game. It is every bit as ambitious as my previous projects, except that ambition is focused into delivering a tight experience within a feasible timeframe. Instead of fussing with multiple magic systems and complicated item interactions I am using my [very limited] development resources to design a more intuitive UI, tutorials, a clean flow of gameplay, etc.: elements of a polished product.

Adding complexity is easy, what's hard is hitting a balance between the game you want to make, the game you can afford to make, and the game you can sell.

Andrew Doull said...

"Are you saying that Wrath of the Lamb ruined Binding?"

Possibly. There's some decisions which I'm not especially happy about.

Joseph said...

Oh man! Do tell. I played the demo a bit and was not too enthused. I bought the game anyway, largely due to the enthusiasm of guys like you. I really am digging it. Much more than Dredmore, which I bought at the same time. Though the whole vegan talent is giving me lols.

I'm wondering if I should delete the expansion and go vanilla.

What decisions are we talking about here? Care to expand? Have you done so in another post that I missed? Feel free to just link me to wherever.

Joseph said...

Oh man! Do tell. I played the demo a bit and was not too enthused. I bought the game anyway, largely due to the enthusiasm of guys like you. I really am digging it. Much more than Dredmore, which I bought at the same time. Though the whole vegan talent is giving me lols.

I'm wondering if I should delete the expansion and go vanilla.

What decisions are we talking about here? Care to expand? Have you done so in another post that I missed? Feel free to just link me to wherever.

Holsety said...

I've been gravitating towards smaller games lately. Games that are short by nature, or can be played in bursts.

Diablo 2 fits, coffeebreak roguelikes are nice, fast-paced roguelikes are nice (ie. the ones closer to Hack or Rogue as opposed to Angband). Bastion would fit, in a way. Atom Zombie Smasher, etc etc.

Start the game, if it's a roguelike you play untill your character dies and then try again or do something else. In the case of D2/Bastion you finish a level or area (maybe 2, 3, 8?) and stop playing.

Dota 2's a nice example too. Each match lasts between 40 to 70 minutes, and stands on its own.

I'm absolutely terrified of playing "big" games. Oblivion, Red Dead Redemption, any Angband variant...

There's potential for so much more immersion in these games and usually they are fleshed out significantly, but I just can't bring myself to invest the time to play them for long stretches anymore.

John Harris said...

I think it's possible to design a good big game, but that it's harder, especially for a game with permadeath. The longer your game the fairer you have to be. Nethack's length forces it to be very fair with the player, which means that an expert player can win nearly every time he plays. It's not possible to win every game of Rogue, but even if that game turns out hopeless in the late stages, you still haven't been playing for more than an hour most likely so it doesn't feel like you've been jerked around. The shorter the game, the better able the player is to laugh off bad luck, instead of being rueful about it.

Joseph said...

Good points all. Looks like we are talking not just about 'big' but more specifically 'long' games here.

Dunno if that's a useful distinction though. I can't really think of a big game that isn't also long.

Joseph said...

I guess a big game, like MW3, can be enjoyable to me because of the short digestible chunks. I don't play the campaign mode. I hate the drawn out play and cut scenes. I go straight for the special missions and survival mode. Short games. 30 minutes max to complete a mission. And if you pump it up to hard mode, the only way to play, you might not even beat that mission for many many sessions. But you'll get further each time you play.

Same with Starcraft. I cannot handle the story mode for 5 minutes. I go straight to the challenges and the small map skirmishes.

So both of those are big games that provide fun for me, but they do it in digestible chunks. I think that's the key.