[Minor spoilers about Bioshock Infinite and some older games below]
I’ve been thinking a lot about pacing lately. My design background has been heavily skewed to two genres: sports and puzzles which don’t have the traditional pacing problems that other, more narrative genres might encounter. But pacing certainly isn’t limited to genres like Adventure and FPS, despite the problems being more salient. I’ve been thinking about this and it reminds me of the visual art concept of negative space.
The concept of negative space is that the elements of the art that are not part of the subject are important as well. This page discusses negative space and has some good visual examples that I won’t steal. Music has it’s own negative space (“It’s the notes you don’t play that matter” is an apocryphal jazz adage) as does film (though it mostly cribs from the visual angle of the concept).
The Japanese have a more concise term for this, Ma, which is more appropriate to what I want to discuss here because it more general and focuses on the “gap between two structural parts”.
If a game is a series of meaningful or interesting decisions, then our concept of “Ma” in games must be the space between opportunities for a player to make meaningful decisions. Some games offer no “Ma” at all. Look at Super Hexagon or Geometry Wars. These games are nonstop decision making such that there is no time to analyze the decisions you’ve made or prepare for the next.
In contrast, you could cite a game wholly without decisions like LCR or Candy Land, but if we wanted to be more honest and stick to games that do that for aesthetic effect, we could cite something like the sailing in Wind Waker or crossing the wasteland in the latest Fallout games. In these, nothing happens for a great while, but then something shockingly important happens to remove you from your stasis.
Of course, it would be silly to say that you should never have Ma or you should always have Ma. Fallout 3 and Super Hexagon are both excellent games in their own way yet their spacing of decisions is vastly different. The real question is: when do you want to leave out decision-making for the player?
Most often, this technique is used to create drama. The original Halo was full of blistering firefights. Yet the level “343 Guilty Spark” has almost 15 minutes with no enemies. Bungie wanted to introduce the “Flood” enemies as truly frightening, so they littered the level with traces of their destruction while not allowing the player to assume that opening the next door would be safe. When you finally meet the Flood, you are almost used to not fighting, so when the hundreds of enemies come streaming out, you cue back to the fear that the corpses and tapes of dying soldiers you have found and, hopefully, feel real fear. Of course, if every level did this, it would be incredibly boring. People play Halo to shoot things, not walk through set pieces to not shoot things.
Another game that used this for dramatic effect was Resident Evil. Early in the game you are walking down a quiet hallway when all of a sudden mutated dogs burst through the windows and flank you. Along with the intense music, this is a shocking rip from negative space to action. After this, no window or room is safe for the player.
The designers could have rested here. After all, it should be easier to create a bunch of negative space rooms peppered with ones with scares and use that variable reinforcement to keep the player terrified than to fill every room with something interesting. Many horror games since indeed have used that formula. But the Resident Evil folks did something interesting, at least in the Mansion section of the game. Every room in the mansion has enemies, items, save points, cutscenes or puzzle pieces, save one. For some reason, they left one bathroom as totally useless. But what this means is that since the player is constantly reinforced that there is something worth doing in every room, they must explore every room. The Ma occurs only in backtracking, leaving the actual level design packed with interesting decisions for the player to contemplate.
Games that take their cues from movies often use negative space for respite. You see this in action films all the time. There is a very “loud” scene with a ton of action, followed by a very “quiet” scene with characters talking about what had happened. Games, too, do this. It is almost a cliche now that if the player sees health and ammo pickups followed by a save point, they must assume a boss fight is around the corner. Likewise, after a tough boss fight, the player is usually treated to more “story” pellets and won’t have to make any tactical decisions.
But this is also the case in many analog games. In Chess, for example, during your opponents turn, you get to rest and strategize your next maneuvers. If both players played chess simultaneously, it would certainly be a different feeling game, would it not?
The Walking Dead game from Telltale did something which I found was really interesting. For the most part, the game is a theme park ride, taking the player from scene to scene with little chance of affecting the course of events sans the ludic cliche of dying and restarting. You have to constantly make decisions as to what the player character will say to the other characters. Most of the time, these are meaningless choices as all options branch back to the same event. However, sometimes, what you say amounts to the life or death of another of your party. Since you don’t always know in advance which dialogue options will be truly meaningful, the player has to treat most of them as meaningful. So while the true interactions between meaningful decisions is large, the players perception of the distance is small. It’s beautiful misdirection that allows the game to feel more real and the relationships more organic.
A similar use to respite is for contrast. A game may simply want to avoid the primary interaction with the game for a while to show what the game is like without it. Comments welcome for examples, although satirical games like Progress Quest and Cow Clicker get half-credit here.
Little Inferno is also worth mentioning. The primary interactions in Little Inferno are buying and burning things, yet you spend much of your time waiting for items to be delivered just so you can burn them. It’s a striking contrast that you would consider literally doing nothing so that you can earn money to continue to buy things which leads to literally doing nothing.
Minecraft. Is there any design article that can be written without involving that indie darling? Minecraft starts out with almost nothing but negative space. While you can certainly dig anywhere, there is no reason why you should dig or punch somewhere over any other until you have a goal in mind. In these creative types of games, the use of Ma is to motivate the player towards the creation of something. If there were no sensical goals one could accomplish in Minecraft, would anyone play it? It would simply be all negative space. No possibilities would exist, so no meaningful decisions could be made.
For Punishment / Incentivizing
Hockey has a mechanic called “the penalty box”. If a player performs various behaviors that the designers of the sport wish to minimize, then they literally have to go into a segregated area where they cannot interact with their teammates or make any decisions that would have any effect on the game for a specific amount of time. Nobody says that the penalty box is boring because it has to be so. That’s the point.
In League of Legends, when you die (and you will die), you screen turns grayscale and you cannot interact with the game* until your respawn counter counts down to zero. This is to both reward the player doing the killing and punish the player doing the dying. This disincentivizes the player from making risky moves that could lead to death because the penalty is that you cannot make any meaningful decisions during that time which is both boring and contributes to your team losing the game.
Bad Uses of Negative Space
In my opinion, simply to tell story or worldbuild is not an effective use of negative space. We’ve all felt the “ugh cutscenes” moments in Japanese RPGs or in the Metal Gear games. We play games for stories, in part, but we also play games for interaction. There’s no reason these two things have to be segregated and the use of negative space to separate “game” and “story” usually is to the detriment of the experience as a whole.
A particularly salient example to me right now is Bioshock Infinite. A few levels in, the player reaches a kids museum called the “Hall of Heroes” that rewrites the history of Wounded Knee and the Boxer Rebellion in particularly racist tones. The point of it, I think, is to worldbuild and show how racist and backwards these Columbians are. As if it wasn’t obvious previously. To do so Irrational has two museum exhibits that the player walks through as racially insensitive cardboard cutouts pop out for (I guess) cheap scares. There are no enemies here (except one behind a closed door) and no pickups; the player simply walks through these long exhibits.
The problem is that if this is the respite before miniboss fights, it signals to the player that it is not because it looks dangerous and foreboding. If this is just supposed to be worldbuilding, then why could this not happen in an interactive way? Why have these long hallways with elaborate set pieces that do nothing? Having segregated washrooms in the arcade was effective and subtle worldbuilding. If the player stops to notice them, then they have done their job. But forcing players to notice them and wait for the privilege is just bad level design. Infinite has this in spades; large areas with tons to look at, but nothing to do.
I see this all the time when I am reviewing student level design submissions. Students create large sprawling spaces not because there is a need for it to be large, but because it is easy to do and makes the game look bigger. Just as your main interactions should say something, your lack of interactions should also say something. If your player is not making meaningful decisions in an area, there should be a good reason why or the area should be shrank or cut. I’m reminded of printing an email that has 10 pages of signature files under the substance of the email. We sigh when this happens and throw out the trees that died just to be etched with someone’s confidentiality notice or quote from Steve Jobs or Winston Churchill. It’s a waste. And while games don’t have that dead tree cost, waste in games has its own cost.
People’s leisure time is valuable. They can choose to spend it watching TV, reading books, playing softball, juggling, or any of millions of other things. If you are a lucky enough for someone to have invested their leisure time in your game, you have a responsibility of using that leisure time to the most value you can manage. Your players chose to spend their leisure time on interactivity. Unless there is a good reason why, you have a responsibility to provide them value for their investment and trust by giving them that meaningful interactivity.
I’m not at GDC.
That’s not particularly news, since I’ve missed many GDCs since becoming a game developer. But seeing my Twitter-stream blow up with GDC tweets is always a bit depressing not because I am missing sessions (80% of which are just total garbage), but because I’m missing spending time with the people that make me feel like I can self-identify as a game developer. Since the launch of Sudoku Together, I’ve worked on a couple things for Sky Parlor that may or may not ever be released, did some other consulting things, and made a Corrypt-inspired puzzle game by myself that also may never be released due to lack of confidence.
I feel the need to learn a new tool like Unity or GameMaker, but deep down I wonder if that is because I want to leverage something to make new things or because if I am learning something new, then I can rationalize why I’m not making something (just not good enough with the tool yet!)
I used to do a blog post every day or every other day. I’d take what was happening in the world of games and try to relate it to my experience. But lately, I’ve been completely unable to do that. Everything I find just puts me off working on games. What is there to be excited about?
I teach by day and it’s a great job, but it does take a lot of work and 75% of students don’t actually want to design games, they just want to be a game designer.
I don’t want to be like that.
I have a lot of game design-related things to say, but feel like a phony saying them in a non-student setting anymore. I look at the sessions listing at GDC and know with utmost certainty that 90% of them can be distilled down to a blog post. Danc’s made Triple Town and Leap Day, so I think he’s qualified to write articles like this. When I look at my Scrivener, I’ve written almost 100,000 words on game design in the last year. Some of them ended up in this book, but most I just co-opted to use internally in my game design classes.
So I guess what I’m saying is that I need some rah-rah time. I haven’t fallen off the face of the Earth; I’ve just been working a lot on some unseen things.
A new high water mark for me in terms of reading things this year. When you can never, ever sleep, you can get a lot of reading done. I have a GoodReads account now too, but I’ve been doing this blogside for five years or so, so I’m keeping it up. I started to dig through the “best sci-fi/fantasy of all time” lists and I’m discovering tons of absolutely unmissable stuff that is loads better than the Scalzi-esque crap that everyone holds up nowadays. This year, I’m not adding any collections of articles or professional books I didn’t read cover to cover (which was many).
In 2008, I read 31 Titles, 7,967 Pages, 21.77 Pages/Day
In 2009, I read 18 Titles, 4,960 Pages, 13.59 Pages/Day
In 2010, I read 36 Titles, 11,574 Pages, 31.71 Pages/Day
In 2011, I read 30 Titles, 10,163 Pages, 27.84 Pages/Day
In 2012, I read 45 Titles (!), 14,791 Pages, 40.52 Pages/Day
Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan (526)
I like the sci-fi detective genre. I wish there were more good entries in it. This book came highly recommended but I found it to be simultaneously full of holes and full of unlikely explanations/excuses. The secondary characters were so unmemorable that I had to keep searching back to remember who such-and-such was when they were inevitably brought to the fore as a “twist”. It wasn’t terrible, but I think my expectations were just far too high. There were a lot of cool Ideas (capital I) in here, but the execution here just was not my style. I hear he is writing the Syndicate reboot… so…. yay?
Among Others by Jo Walton (302)
This is a highly nontraditional story, but I can’t help contrast it with Ready Player One (below). Both have obsessive subculture fans as their protagonist, but Walton’s is far more believable. She gets the rock-sure opinions and the highly conflated sense of being so right. The sci-fi references aren’t just for marking off a nostalgia checklist like they are in Ready Player One, it is actually for character-building. The plot itself in this is much weaker, but because I actually care about the characters, it matters less. The plot is almost weak on purpose–the really juicy events seem to be written off as prologue and it serves the theme of being grounded in the real versus being trapped in the unreal.
Babel-17 by Samuel Delaney (158)
Some interesting ideas percolating around an uninteresting plot.
Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock (124)
I know that this was published in the 1960s. But I couldn’t help feeling the same feeling I got when reading Lord of the Rings; that I was reading a pitch-perfect cliche. Now, obviously, LotR was the original and all my other related experiences were the cliche, but that didn’t change that I didn’t get much out of reading it. I feel the same way here: time-traveler meets an important historic figure who turns out to not be what history says he is. I’ve seen that before. Moorcock may have invented it for all I know, but that doesn’t change my reaction to it. Thankfully, it was novella-length. I don’t think editors would let you get away with that today.
By Light Alone by Adam Roberts (416)
A great Science Fiction conceit, but the author doesn’t really seem to be concerned with developing his conceit. Or his plot. Or his characters. The first third is a truly awful satire of the rich carried along only by the promise of an interesting world beyond what the main characters are doing. It honestly felt a lot like Hemingway-rich people doing things that are hard to care about. The final third of the book is more interesting than anything before and a twist certainly pays off, but like most capital-L literature authors, he doesn’t feel like the audience is entitled to any sort of conclusion. There’s books that are “meh” because it is tough to care about them. Then there are books like this that are “meh” because there is so much good stuff hidden behind all the distractions.
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller (334)
Amazing. I seem to have stumbled upon a theme in the past year of sci-fi books where the Catholic church plays a major role (Hyperion, Grass, this). Really one of the best sci-fi books I’ve ever read.
The City and the City by China Mieville (312)
Loved it. But not Mieville’s best, unlike the consensus opinion.
Clementine by Cherie Priest (208)
No Boneshaker, this. Pulpy steampunk airship pirate nonsense. Not much in the way of twists or setbacks. I hear her newest one has the same problems, so I may be done with her. Entertaining though to a point. No real strong feelings.
The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett (240)
Been hearing about Discworld for ages, but this didn’t hook me at all.
Costume Not Included by Matthew Hughes (384)
I like Hughes a lot, but I found this one utterly pointless.
A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin (1040)
A bad book in this series is better than average for any other series…
The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard (176)
A Heart of Darkness by any other name.
Emphyrio by Jack Vance (222)
Truly great speculative fiction is a mix of Big Ideas, Little Ideas, Plot and Character. This is one of those rare works that has all four. I’ve been told I’d like Vance again and again and they were right. I’m adding a bunch to my to-read list.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (324)
Perhaps a little overhyped. Certainly miles better than Old Man’s War which rips this off left and right without any of the cleverness. I probably won’t read any others in the series. I liked it, though.
The Futurlogical Congress by Stanislaw Lem (149)
Completely batshit insane, but in the good way. Probably the highest per-page density of made-up words reflecting actual new ideas. Still though, nuts.
Grass by Sherri Tepper (540)
Fantastic. A little too neatly resolved for my tastes, but some of the best plotting I’ve ever read. I’m excited that, like Mieville’s Bas-Lag stories, the sequels are only in the same universe and are unique stories, not just a serialization of one story.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami (400)
Excellent. I had seen Haibane Renmei a few years ago and it quickly became my favorite anime of all time, or at least is somewhere up there. Haibane is based on half of this Murakami book. Having started and put down 1Q84, I may go back to it now that I know what I’m getting into.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (374)
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (391)
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (390)
It’s a thing.
Hyperion by Dan Simmons (481)
The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons (528)
Endymion by Dan Simmons (736)
The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons (720)
Hyperion cheats a bit. Instead of having to keep one plot moving for the length of the book, it really strings six novelettes together with a small overarching tale. However, the tales themselves have some interesting parallels that keep them from being just disparate stories in the same universe. What struck me here was not just the plot and speculative twists (There were many ideas worthy of their own stories just touched briefly) but the beautiful storytelling for each. Sol Weintraub’s story is not highly original but it is highly engaging. Simmons leaves enough mystery about the Shrike monster to keep the pages turning while giving the seven pilgrims their own interesting decisions and goals. My biggest disappointment is that the first book flows into The Fall of Hyperion. The climax of Hyperion is barely a climax at all. Fall is really the second-half of the book and raises the stakes significantly. Taken as one work, one of my favorite sci-fi books of the last decade.
Endymion and Rise of Endymion is a welcome continuation of the universe. It is a bit hand-wavy and overwrought at times and filled with way too many deus ex machina (both literally and figuratively) but the ending was so compelling that I forgive it its trespasses.
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin (176)
I’m not entirely sure why this is classified as sci-fi, but it is on the “sci-fi classics” lists all over the place. It seems to me to be more magical realism of a kind. Fantastic and obviously the basis for a lot of dreams-as-reality movies that have come since. Deep in theme and powerful without sacrificing plot.
Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny (296)
I had issues with this one. Loved the premise that doesn’t actually show itself until late in the book, but felt it took a long time building.
Monster by A. Lee Martinez (295)
Lots of fun. Did Ugly Americans steal from this?
The Mount by Carol Emshwiller (240)
Excellent. A good core conceit and tons to say about ambition and freedom. May reread soon.
The Other by Matthew Hughes (240)
As in previous lists, I’ll buy pretty much anything Hughes does, especially if it is an Archonate story (which this is). The story starts very slowly and at that time suffers from Hughes’ completely uninteresting characters. Imbry could be Hapthorn for all the differences they share. For a con-man, he is relatively well-behaved. Hughes’ matter-of-fact tone and dialogue put a lot of people off but the mysteries he creates are so compelling that I always enjoy the ride. Having said that, after the rough start, this story gets pretty good with some non-obvious twists and then ends with the possibility of a sequel, which I will likely jump on. It isn’t Hughes’ best, but it is still a lot of fun.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (372)
Fanservice. I’m sure it will be a Major Motion Picture for Gen-X and Gen-Y kids to spend their coin on soon.
Redshirts by John Scalzi (317)
Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky (145)
Oddly enough, I started reading this a day after playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R. for the first time without knowing that the latter was highly inspired by the former. An amazing novella about living with the unexplainable. Surreal, yet identifiable.
Tau Zero by Poul Anderson (190)
Very dry. I guess this is what they call “hard” sci-fi. Water mine down a bit. Characters were a bit hard-to-believe. But the “hook”, a damaged interstellar ship that cannot decelerate and must go faster and faster towards the speed of light while leaving everything that they could ever know behind is strong enough to carry the book through.
The Twelve by Justin Cronin (568)
Alternates between moving scenes with clever wordplay and massive sections of detail that end up being irrelevant. The Passage was one of my favorite books of 2010 for its unique version of post-apocalypse (albeit absolutely trite version of apocalypse), but The Twelve felt like half an amazing book and half filler. Remember how good Heroes Season 1 was when watching it live? The possibilities. The subtle connections? This is Heroes Season 3. I didn’t not like it, but compared to its predecessor, it leaves a lot to be desired.
The Unincorporated Man by Dani and Etyan Kollin (479)
Oscillates between brilliant and unbearable, with a little bit too much Hyperion thrown in. It’s probably the first book that thoroughly fleshes out a political system without making it either a utopia or dystopia to slam through a political point.
Wool: Omnibus by Hugh Howey (540)
First Shift: Legacy by Hugh Howey (238)
Second Shift: Chaos by Hugh Howey (268)
Wool is a wonderful otherworldly post-apocalyptic short story that is then expanded into full novel form in Parts 2-5. While 1 was tight and self-contained to wonderful effect, the later parts get a little more into tropes and vary in quality but add up to an overall compelling experience.
In First Shift, Howey pulls back the curtain to so many of the unanswered questions from Wool… and it is pretty boring. Sometimes there is magic in a world with loose ends. There’s almost nowhere to go from here. It’s like he spent a ton of time building an interesting world with interesting mysteries and then he reveals all the mysteries. It’s like spoilers.
By Second Shift, Mr. Howey is clearly cashing in on the goodwill generated from his first collection of Wool novellas. Second Shift doesn’t stand alone as an interesting story. It’s almost like Wool fanfiction at this point. The inciting incident really doesn’t take place until more than halfway through the book and by that time I was really aching for it to get interesting. With the mystery of the series extinguished, there’s really little carrying reader interest forward. Every smaller-scale mystery that gets posed in this resolves in the most obvious manner possible. There was one that he leaves open (for the next one, I assume), but by then it is far too late. Howey was able to make Mayor Jahns and Deputy Marnes interesting and heartfelt characters in a small amount of space in Wool 2 but he has mostly lost that ability in this “Shift” series. There are few characters here to care about or even wonder about. There’s little to no subtext that is anything different from the first five. Everything here is just forgettable.
I’ll probably keep buying them because I feel trapped by the series, hoping it will go somewhere as interesting as it had promise to.
100 Things Every Designers Needs to Know About People by Susan Weinsheck (242)
100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People by Susan Weinsheck (272)
Nice little summaries of findings on presentation and design. Not too much I didn’t already know, but a nice accessible reference.
Conscience of a Conservative by Barry Goldwater (144)
False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency by Gene Healy (92)
Really just an addendum to Cult of the Presidency which is really the best politics book I’ve read in a decade. Not like the crap demagoguery you get from the right or left. It continues to examine the 44th president under its thesis as Cult did for up to W. Bush.
The Libertarian Vote by David Boaz, et al (224)
Mostly poll data and reprints from Cato’s site. Not a lot of original information.
Mindset by Carol Dweck (288)
Every now and again I find a pop-psychology or just general pop-non-fiction that really speaks to me. Last year, it was Drive. This year it was Mindset. An incredible theoretic tool for educators and general perfectionists like myself. I read a lot in this genre but rarely finish. This one gets highest marks, but like many in its field, can be distilled down to a chapter and probably retain the same message.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat by Oliver Sacks (256)
Reading horror novels before bed doesn’t give me the heeby-jeebies like it does some people (my wife), but this book was absolutely terrifying. It’s a collection of case studies of the oddest edge cases seen in the author’s long neurology career, from the titular doctor who was seemingly fine but could not process the shape of things into its representational object to people with full cognitive capability yet who could not control their limbs to a man who was convinced his leg was stolen and someone put a disgusting foreign leg on him to replace it. I know that comparing humans to computers is flawed, but I couldn’t help but when reading this to compare this conditions to obscure software bugs that end up teaching you more about the systems you have written.
Rise of the Videogame Zinesters by Anna Anthropy (208)
I was a bit worried about this. Anna is known for, how should I say, being a bit bombastic. None of that (okay, maybe a little drips in from time to time where the editor’s wand missed) is present here in this incredibly personal and earnest entreaty to stop letting games only be produced by giant teams for the lowest common denominator. The message is delivered well with great supporting references and asides. It is fairly bite-sized; I read it on a flight from SFO to LAX coming from GDC FWIW, but that doesn’t mean the elaborations on the central theme (make some damn video games right now) aren’t necessary or meaningful. Good stuff.
Social Game Design by Tim Fields and Brandon Cotton (223)
Full of good throwaway stats, but utterly depressing in that it treats gameplay as irrelevant and users as only important insofar as how much money can be extracted from them or how many people they can invite in order to extract money from. Great for mercenaries.
I’ve been relegating most of my public thoughts and comments recently to the social networks due to the extreme demands on my time. 2012 has been a crazy year and I’ve worked more than I ever have in any other year of my life. Nonetheless, I will still take a small consulting job on the side here and there if its scope is limited and if it interests me. It has to be good to compete for my time against my two current jobs and any free/sanity time with my wife. I miss her, you understand.
Despite not really putting too many feelers out there, I’ve been blessed with getting more than a dozen offers for consulting work this year. These come from either referrals from my network (hey, you know who might be good for that?) or oddly, organic searches that may get my name and contact info from this here blog. Since some of them have been outright odd I figured I’d take a moment and compile a short list (blog are about lists, you see) based on my experience called:
How to Convince Consultant Talent To Work For You On The Internet
- Know What Business I Am In – I guess there is some third party service sending traffic my way, but I have had multiple inquiries in the past year to work on slot machines. I have nothing particularly against slot machines, but I also don’t have any experience with the casino industry. I am a game designer who has worked and does work in consumer games. I’m mostly a systems designer, but I also do some concept work. This means my specialty is in understanding how systems interact and how to design game dynamics to reach certain “gameplay” goals. If you are having troubles getting your game to feel a certain way, that’s where I can be of a great help. If you are, say, looking for someone to dig up dirt on Zynga for a patent lawsuit, I won’t be of much help. Or if you are looking for someone to develop your “hit idea” (see below), you also won’t find me very helpful.
- Tell Me What Services You Would Like For Me To Deliver and in What Timeframe – As I said before, I have been very busy. I’m very satisfied by my work with Full Sail University and with Sky Parlor Studios. These jobs don’t leave me with a lot of free time. If you are interested enough in hiring me to provide you services, please know why you want to hire me in the first place! Let me know what you would like me to provide and in what timeframe. I do product reviews, concept work, critique, editing, content development and sometimes the miscellany of general consulting. I recently had a gig where a client wanted me to review his current game and provide him feedback on why certain systems were not working. It wouldn’t take more than a few hours. Perfect! He TestFlight’ed me a build. It took me about four hours; the project was really interesting stuff. I felt like I provided some honest value and I was able to crank it out on a weekend.On the other hand, I often get emails that say someone has “an idea” for a “hit game” and if I could just help design it and develop it, that would be great. I’m sure someone out there may fall for that one, but you are better off not wasting your, my, or anyone else’s time. Scratch that. There is one scenario in which I’d take that job. It would require at least five to six zeroes before the decimal point based on the scope of that “idea”.
- Use Professional Language – I am very much aware that for many of the folks who contact me, English is not their first language.That’s ok! But for me to know what you want from me and for me to know that I will be able to communicate with you, I must be able to decipher your requests. If I cannot understand your introduction email, I know that when money gets involved, I may not be able to deliver what you expected and that’s when business turns sour. And if English is in fact your primary language, if you do not take the care to read over your email a second time to check for basic errors that could cause confusion, what does this tell me about the level of care with which you operate your business?
- Make Sure You Are Googleable – Know this: I will Google you. If I cannot find anything tied to a person or business that has some record in the real world, I will not work with you. It is too risky for me. Give me a link to your company or project’s website that lets me know what I am getting into. Maybe your current project is under wraps and your company is operating silently. That’s fine. I will sign a professional NDA. Or send me a link to something you’ve done before that can show me you are a real person operating a real business.
- Offer Me Money – You can have the most interesting sounding work in the world for me. If your introduction letter contains “We cannot pay you right away, but…” just stop right there. I want to know you are serious. A portion of your Kickstarter proceeds (this has happened) is not payment. Show me skin in the game if I am going to spend my precious time on your project. If you think I will work for free or for the vaporware promise of payment, you just show that you think my work is worth nothing. I know otherwise and so I will not accept your offer. Maybe there will be some future in which I will work for equity, but that’s not the case now unless I know you personally.
- Show Me That You Know What You Are Doing – All of these really just boil down to one principle: show me that you know what you are doing. I am a professional and will work with other professionals. I have my own hobbies that I love; working on your game isn’t one of them. If you are looking for me because you know I have a specific set of skills that can help you get over a rough point in your project, I’m happy to discuss terms with you. If you are looking for me because you Googled “game designer” and I came up in the top one thousand, then you don’t really know what you are doing.
Maybe that came off a bit curmudgeonly. I certainly know a lot of visual artists soured on the perils of freelancing. That’s not my point. If you are serious, I want your project to succeed. And if I can help, even better. The consulting work I’ve taken has been some really interesting changes of pace from my two primary jobs. But if you are wasting time trying to bark up the wrong tree, then you need to reevaluate where else you may be wasting resources. In the end, it doesn’t hurt to ask, but I’d like to save both your time and mine.
Just like it says on the tin, it allows you to play Sudoku puzzles against your Facebook friends. As is all the vogue (and rightfully so), you do this asynchronously, like your favorite board game titles or games like Words With Friends. You can even play cross-platform from Android to iOS or vice-versa.
The power-ups make it a bit more than just static Sudoku. The Cannon tests your timing as it reveals up to five unsolved squares. The Tidal Wave reveals three squares, but requires you to remember their location before they fade away. The Treasure Map narrows down squares to two possible choices for a span of time and the Glacier freezes the board. Use these to out-solve your friends. Mistakes cost you twenty seconds and the fastest time is the winner and will gain rating stars.
I always gauge games I make by how sick of them I am after it ships. I’m not sick of Sudoku Together at all. I can’t wait for the new features to hit and for you all to challenge me to a game. I dare thee.
And even more exciting, it is completely free! You only pay for coins that allow you to use more powerups (and they will allow you to do some other fun stuff in the almost ready 1.1 update). We sure would appreciate it if you enjoy the game to spend some money on coins or the Ad Squeegee or the Winner’s Club Card. We can only keep making games if players decide to spend money. As a studio, we are very against manipulating the player with sleight of hand into spending money. We want you to spend money because you enjoy the game, not because you are afraid your crops will wilt or you need to collect a fifth needle in a haystack.
If you enjoy the game and don’t have a dollar to spare, please just tell your friends that would enjoy the game about it. We are just a group of game lovers who want people to have fun and we cannot do it without your help! Updates are already in the pike and we have a number of great new ideas being incubated. I can’t wait to show you them, but until then, enjoy Sudoku Together!
(*If you find issues, especially with the Android version since there are nine hojillion Android devices to support, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will look into it right away. One of the benefits of being a small developer is that we can respond to almost all of our feedback! Maybe you’ll even find some more coins in your account afterwards.)
I’ve been looking for a good definition of a puzzle that is satisfactory to me and have been unable to find one. So I went through the highly unscientific method of reverse-engineering what I thought a puzzle is with my colleagues and came up with the following. But I still think it is missing something. Any help is appreciated.
A puzzle is a game that uses cognitive reasoning (puzzle-solving skills) to get from an unsolved state to a solved state, with some exceptions:
- The puzzle cannot be trivial: if I give you a picture of a light switch and ask you to solve it, you do not have to use any puzzle-solving skills to flip the only switch that is there. In the same way, Tic-Tac-Toe is not a puzzle for any adult because any adult can “solve” it and tie or win as long as he goes first. This does make the definition of a puzzle subjective for the audience it covers, but making a trivial puzzle and saying it is for toddlers is a cop-out.
- A puzzle must involve intellectual effort to get from unsolved to solved. If the only way to solve your puzzle is by brute force, it is not a puzzle. “Press the right combination of buttons” with no other prompting or clues is not a puzzle. “I am thinking of a number from 1 to 64″ is not a puzzle if you respond simply with yes/no, but is a (IMO, fairly weak) puzzle if you respond with “higher” or “lower” and only get six guesses.
- Solving the puzzle must be the same as winning the game. Checkers is a “solved” game. But solving checkers is a different intellectual exercise than winning the game. The goal of solving checkers is to create a strategy that always wins, but winning checkers is about jumping all of the opponent’s pieces. Solving a jigsaw puzzle is the same as completing the jigsaw puzzle.
- A puzzle can be generated randomly, but must be deterministic once the player encounters it. A board of Sudoku can be generated pseudo-randomly, but once the player starts the puzzle, every player that makes the same moves will experience the puzzle in the same way. If you and I get the same Minesweeper board and uncover the same squares in the same order, we will have identical experiences. If you and I play tennis and make the exact same movements, we will have a very different game experience. Chess, unless against an AI specifically designed for this purpose, is not determinsitic. If I make the same five opening moves, five different players may play it in five (or more) different ways. You can make chess a puzzle by giving a set of moves and deterministic rules – there are examples in puzzle magazines where you must mate in X moves with rules for how the opponent will move.
Why sports games have to reinvent their controls annually, I don’t know. Puppeteering a guy dribbling or throwing a baseball would seem to be a basically constant thing in a video game compared to a guy hucking a grenade or acrobatically slashing his foe across his torso. Yet the latter two acts have undergone less change on a video game controller in their respective series, going back more than five years.
This was on Kotaku yesterday and it is an excellent point. As a former disgruntled sports game designer, I will try to explain exactly why.
The tipping point was marketing, lead by EA: “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game.” From that point on, the focus for both producers and consumers wasn’t about making a fun game (although that was still the secondary goal), it was about simulating the real experience.
And so sports games spend every yearly iteration adding more and more to get it closer and closer to the real thing. Awesome, right? Let’s take American football as an example. Sometime in that chain of Maddens, they added custom playbooks. Cool. They added audibles. Cool. They added custom packages. Alright, I guess? Now it is getting harder to come up with low-hanging fruit that isn’t in the game. What else can we simulate? Maybe the hand-play between a receiver and a defensive back downfield on a pass? Maybe we should simulate the QB’s eyes as he looks off receivers? (Don’t be ridiculous.)
Football video game players are generally pretty familiar with the real world mechanics of playing football. There are certainly a lot of them to choose from: running, blocking, passing, play selection, time management, coverage schemes, shifts, choosing plays and formations, and so on and so on. How do we fit all of that into the five chunks of working memory that we have?
The short answer is that we can’t.
As long as we are trying to simulate a thousand little things, only the people who have deep understanding of not only those thousand little things but how we’ve chosen to represent them in our game will be able to actually appreciate it. And it will always feel off because each of us will have a different idea about how that should work on-screen. We never had that problem in Tecmo Bowl because we weren’t as close to the Uncanny Valley. We had some sprites and two buttons; we imagined the hand-play, we imagined the blocking battles that didn’t really exist.
Sports game designers have a panacea that they always fall back on. The problem to them is never that you are asking too much of the player, just that you are asking the player in the wrong way. That’s why you see controller redesigns every year. If we just put juke moves on the right stick, then maybe everyone will get it this year!
Call of Duty doesn’t have that problem. Call of Duty doesn’t have to fulfill the expectations of a firefight, it has to fulfill the expectations of a first-person shooter. It would be moronic for the new Call of Duty to say “Now including wind that changes the trajectory of your bullets!” or “Now including cleaning your gun after battles!” More realistic maybe, but not fulfilling the expectations of the audience. Madden, for instance, isn’t simulating Tecmo Bowl. It is simulating the NFL – a real experience. If NBA 2K was simulating NBA Jam, you probably wouldn’t see changes to the control scheme every year.
Sports games are stuck marketing to the same, shrinking audience every year. As what’s “in the game” increases, the learning curve steepens. Because most of the designers are decades-long experts at playing these games, they don’t notice how utterly confounding it is. They scoff at notions of accessibility, pandering to concerns with a never-viewed tutorial or a condescending “beginner” mode that no one in their right mind would choose when playing against their buddies. The full super-hardcore mode is aspirational. Maybe we will never use offensive line shifts, but we like to know that they are there.
When developers do their consumer research, it starts with the loudest forum nerds. “WHY AREN’T THERE MEDICAL REDSHIRTS IN NCAA,” they scream as if anyone but them actually gave half a damn. The lack of medical redshirtting is absolutely breaking that one guy’s mental model of the simulation. And so designers and producers see this enthusiasm and go “Yeah, that would be pretty easy. I guess that’s what people want.”
But no one is putting down the game because there isn’t a perfect recreation of some byzantine NCAA rule. They are putting the game down because it is offering to fulfill that player’s mental model and failing. Playtest feedback never says that. I should know; I’ve been in a lot of playtest sessions. It’s never that lucid. Playtesters will either say or insinuate “I don’t get the controls.” Because obviously the controls are to blame! They are the interface between the player’s desired outcome and the actual outcome!
So what do you think the game makers try to fix next year?