Thursday 27 August 2009

Towards a Moral Code for Game Designers

I've finally played Dan Cook's Bunni Game: How We First Met - a horrendously addictive casual Flash RTS which he has blogged about as a part of his Flash Love Letters series. You can play the game here, but I recommend you don't click through until after finishing this article, because you won't be back for an hour or two. I especially enjoyed the deer quest which happens about 20 minutes in, having had to deal with deer in the garden at home recently (The local council suggested I shoot them or, failing that, throw rocks at them. I'm not sure whether IEDs would have been an appropriate substitute).

Bunni has quite a subtle resource mechanic: flowers provide support for you units, but it is also possible to over farm resources if you have too many workers which balances the urge to rush them and requires you devote attention to getting the mix of worker and resource quantities right. Later in the game you may want to do this, as it's a far easier way to upgrade resource types without having to bomb them.

In fact, the only thing missing from the game was a click through advert for Starcraft: GotY edition. ('Thank you for playing Bunni. If you enjoyed this, you may also want to try: Supreme Commander.')

But, praise for the game aside, Bunni has an excellent example of the moral quandries of game design. One mechanic in the game is very similar that in another casual game, Plants vs. Zombies, and is an example of what I'll refer to as clicklets. A clicklet is something you have to do within the game - clicking a location on the screen - for which there is no situation where it makes sense not to perform this action. In Plants vs. Zombies, the sunshine collection mechanic is a clicklet - some plants generate sunshine, which you must manually click on as it drifts across the screen in order to collect it. In Bunni, the clicklet is tree shaking, which allows you to collect fruit and other rewards. I could not see any situation which warrants not shaking a tree when fruit is available.

There's several key differences between a clicklet and other game mechanics. The only resource a clicklet uses up is player attention: clicking to attack in Diablo is not a clicklet because it distinguishes which monster you spend time attacking. A clicklet is an atomic action: it always makes sense to shoot Space Invaders, but you do this through moving left or right, firing, not by clicking on the Space Invaders individually. And a clicklet is not optional: you can choose to crouch roll or not crouch roll in Zelda: Ocarina of Time while you travel across Hyrule field and it will not impact the game in any way.

I'd argue, in fact, that a clicklet is not a game mechanic at all, it is a process of operant conditioning. But luckily I don't have to argue this, because Raph Koster has already done the hard work for me:

Now, there’s no reward in this game, there’s no winner or loser, and there’s no endgame. Yet even during testing, I had to tear myself away, and when put into Metaplace Central, average session length for the day went up 50%. But… in some sense, it’s a crummy game. Why this effect? Because the Easter Egg hunt is a confluence of a lot of highly manipulative tricks.

In the example Raph gives, he took the moral high ground and removed the Easter Egg game he designed from Metaplace. I would like Dan to consider doing the same: either redesign the tree shaking mechanic so that there are advantages to leaving fruit on the trees, or remove the need to shake trees by clicking them. I'm asking Dan, and not Pop Cap (publishers of Plants vs. Zombies), because I know Dan reads this blog and I have a good chance of engaging him in a robust discussion either here, or on his blog, about this feature.

But if Dan Cook, who I know as an experienced and thoughtful game designer, can make what I consider to be an incorrect design decision from a moral stand point, where does that leave less thoughtful, less experienced or less morally scrupulous game designers when it comes to game design?

I suggest there should be a moral code for game designers: one which provides clear examples of the boundaries of which a game design should be careful straying beyond. This code should say nothing about the content of games: I'm not interested in whether a game offends religious or ethnic groups, could be considered pornography or explores issues which would be illegal in real life such as rape, pedophilia, murder or drug use. It would however, have everything to say about the way the game mechanics work so that we have a common platform to criticise games for breaking the code unwisely.

To construct such a moral code requires a dialogue between designers, about what is appropriate and inappropriate in game design. We can all point at grinding as the whipping boy of bad design, but as I pointed out in Permadeath, there is a delicate balance to be struct between grinding and necessary exploitation. I'd like to throw open the floor to comments, sugggestions and criticism, but I'll include some quick suggestions with which to start the discussion.

'The Golden rule:' The most valuable resource in your game is the player's time and attention.

'The Monopoly rule': Any game mechanic which is designed to be instructive rather than fun should be for a game intended to be played only once, and not by children.

'The Rule of Repetition': Any repetition in the game should be to allow learning of the game rules or automated away: once learning has been successfully demonstrated, further repetition should only be as a part of learning more complex rules.

'The Supermario Rule': Your level design should exist only to support 1) the learning of game rules, 2) suspension of disbelief and 3) if it is cool enough (for content that is only to be used once).

'The N-Armed Bandit Rule': Any random rewards should be delivered via an N-armed bandit where M-arms are pulled, where N > 1, N >= M >= 1 and the underlying relationship between the quality of rewards and arms pulled is non-random. Multiple pulls should be governed by the rule of repetition.

'The Rule of Seven': A player should be at most presented with seven options at any one time.

'The Rapture of Choice': Anything which is presented as a choice, should actually be a choice.

'The Playing to Win Rule': Your summits should be scalable.

'The Axiom of Cool': Coolness and utility should be two separate axis.

'The Anti-Garfield': Everything available should be useful.

What others could you suggest?

Friday 14 August 2009

Another way of thinking about progress

Via the Greedy Goblin, Tobold has a few things to say about progress in RPGs (specifically World of Warcraft) that you may find interesting:

Tetris gets faster because that way with every level the challenge rises, so sooner or later every player gets to the point where the challenge is equal to his skill. If you can consistently get to level 10 in Tetris, you are a better Tetris player than somebody who can only get to level 5. Your skill goes up while playing, because you learn, but the challenge goes up quicker, so every single game of Tetris ends with you losing, and the level at which you lose is a measure of your skill. Then you start over, and because your skill goes up, maybe in the next game you get one level further. If you would draw a graph plotting the maximum challenge you can beat over time, you'd see a constantly rising curve, but which is getting flatter, until it levels out at your maximum potential.

Now imagine MMORPGs would work like that. You start with a level 1 character fighting level 1 mobs, and you would *NOT* get stronger by gaining levels and equipment. If your character would always remain at exactly the same strength, and only your skill and random factors like critical hits would determine your success, then the maximum level of monster you were able to kill would say something about your playing skill. Some players would be able to kill level 5 monsters with their level 1 characters, others would maybe be able to kill level 10 monsters. But obviously you'd never see 25 level 1 characters raiding Ulduar.

Reaction to Exploitation and Evasion

In a thread started in reaction to the permadeath article I wrote, Ray suggests:

I think a grindless roguelike will occasionally murder your
characters for no good reason, due to the analysis I outlined
above. And I think I *am* prepared to fully explore the
implications of that conclusion. What do you think a grindless
roguelike looks like?
You'll probably want to read the rest of the thread - there's a lot of insightful points made by a number of rgrd regulars.

Wednesday 12 August 2009

It's like free heroin in your pocket

The only thing saving me from complete addiction to Civilisation Revolution on the iPhone is the fact it isn't completely stable. I've had two crashes in the 3 days I've been playing it (And when I say 3 days, I mean every waking moment).

That, and the AI isn't the best...

Saturday 1 August 2009