Overheard in the Break Room

(Coworkers playing Monster Hunter Tri. I’m sitting back asking annoying questions, watching them struggle in boss battles. Paraphrased since my short term memory blanks out at about thirty seconds.)

Me: Do these battles take a while?
Coworker: Depends on your skill mostly. Some can take 15 minutes. Some can take 45 minutes.
Me: (pauses) So how can you tell how close you are to the end? Do you know how well you are doing?
Coworker: You are the first person to ask like that. Everyone else asks “where is his health bar?”

In a game that has a lot of bars and stats and UI detritus on the screen, I am actually surprised that they have the restraint to withhold a monster health bar:

Feedback/Reinforcement Loops

I’ve been thinking a bit about feedback/reinforcement loops lately, so I figured I would write up a post on them.

Positive feedback loops in games are mechanics that reinforce the success or failure of the player and make future successes/failures more probable. This can be seen in numerous games, especially in RPGs. The cliche often used to explain positive feedback loops is “the rich get richer”. Having money is often a prerequisite to gaining more money: you need capital to start a business,  so the ones making money are the ones already rich. And so on.

But let’s take an example from board games first. In Risk, players control armies trying to take over the world. They do so by battling other armies. When players win battles and control entire continents, they receive additional armies every turn – this in turn “feeds back” into the simple result that having more armies makes you more likely to win battles. So not only does winning a battle give a direct advantage (the opponent has fewer units) but you also feed back that victory into gaining more units, which should ensure further victories.

Continent bonuses.
Continent bonuses.

Quake II faces positive feedback loops. The relevant mechanic is that when you die, you restart with guns that are not as good as the ones that can be picked up on the battlefield. The player with the first kill then has an inherent advantage – he will have better weapons than the newly respawned player and will be more likely to kill him again, given equal skill.

Professional baseball in America has a somewhat muted positive feedback loop. There are no salary caps in baseball, so teams can spend as much money as they have to procure the best players. The best players (one would think) lead to the best success on the field. Success on the field leads to more money as people bid up tickets and buy merchandise. That money can then be fed into buying even better players.

The Facebook game Mafia Wars originally had a pretty severe positive feedback problem. Players could buy properties that were constantly earning rents. Players could dump all of their money into buying “Mega-Casinos” which in turn gave a lot of additional money in rents, for which players could buy additional “Mega-Casinos”. After my first burst of playing the game, I quit. I came back three months later and had hundreds of billions of dollars, enough to buy any object in the game (that could be bought with in-game money, that is).

Sweet, delicious, infinity monies.
Sweet, delicious, infinity monies.

Positive feedback isn’t always bad. For one, it helps direct player actions. Players want to become richer, more powerful, &c., so giving them rewards for succeeding makes sense. It also breaks stalemates. Consider a game like the card game War. In it, the player with the highest card value wins. It is entirely random, so on average, each player should win 50% of the time. Series of War games will always be in stalemate. No previous game affects the current game. But if you added a positive feedback loop that changed that, the game could progress towards an end state. Say that players get to turn over an additional card if they won the last hand. This gives the winning player an advantage, that should cause a positive feedback loop leading to an end-game state where one player has dominance over the other and can be concluded the winner. I’m not saying that will make War fun (Lord knows), but it can end the damn thing.

When I was assigned to NCAA Football 08, there was a positive reinforcement system being implemented called “DPR” – dynamic player ratings. The idea was to implement the most straightforward of positive reinforcements. Player events that were tied to random die rolls were affected by ability ratings (a player with 90 catching ability would catch more often than a player with 89 catching rating), as a player succeeded during the course of a single game, his ratings would be temporarily boosted, causing more successes.  Player ratings converged to either essential perfection or complete inadequacy. That system had to be tweaked the entire cycle, the smallest change could spiral out of control creating perfect passers or punters that couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. In the end, it was tuned down to look significant, but the probabilities affected were only slightly nudged. The essential nature of the positive feedback dynamic was never addressed.

This problem is endemic to many sports games as “stat boosts” seem to be the only reward structure worth pursuing.

Negative feedback loops in games are mechanics that cause to hinder succeeding players from further success or failing players from further failures. The classic example is Mario Kart.

Mario Kart is a racing game where players have weapons that they can use to speed themselves up or hinder the progress of their opponents. In a later installment, Nintendo added the Blue Shell weapon. The Blue Shell is the ultimate negative feedback loop. It homes in and destroys the player in first place no matter where they are on the map. There is nothing the first place player can do to avoid this. The blue shell is almost inevitable – there is almost one in every race. It is always on the mind of the player in first. Succeeding players are punished – no one wants to be too far ahead of the pack because the blue shell will knock them back. Instead, it encourages a dynamic where players want to be in second place until the final parts of the race – safe from blue shells but also close enough to take the lead by the finish.

Simply the most well-understood negative reinforcement mechanic in games.
Simply the most well-understood negative reinforcement mechanic in games.

Negative feedback is dangerous because it sends mixed signals. We direct our players to succeed – win the race, kill the bad guys &c., but at the same time our negative feedback mechanics do not agree with our stated intent.

Some racing games suffer from this problem. Since most racing games are more interesting when you are jockeying for position with other cars, if you do too well and leave the pack behind, the AI will cheat and make the opponents go supernaturally fast to catch up with player to encourage more nail-biting racing. This punishes the player for succeeding, which goes against all the other mechanics in many of these games which are tailored to encourage the player to race well. Players are almost unanimously against this technique – do a search in racing game reviews for “rubber-band AI” and you will see what I mean. Designers here are faced with a conundrum – have no “rubber banding” and let good players race off into the distance, effectively racing time trails, or have the AI cheat to make the race more exciting.

Even relatively simple games can use negative feedback. In the trivia game Buzz, the player in first place never gets to select the trivia category. The player selecting should naturally try to pick something that she knows that the leader doesn’t and thus this should serve as negative reinforcement.

Positive feedback loops are naturally occurring for a simple reason: players direct themselves towards actions that make them stronger. They buy swords in RPGs that let them kill bigger creatures that drop better loot that allow them to buy even better swords. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it can cause problems. Negative feedback loops are much harder to come by because they can be simply contradictory and non-intuitive. We guide players to help them succeed and then behind the scenes sabotage them with negative feedback so that succeeding is bad. We spend more time figuring out solutions to positive feedback situations than negative because positive loops cause more problems:

  • Interest curves. Even single player games can fall victim to this. What if the player spends all his time trying to level up instead of exploring all the great content we have for him? What if the drops he gets from such leveling up make the rest of the game too easy? How can we reward the player with one hand and take it away with the other such that he keeps progressing through the game?
  • Problems of balance. Multiplayer games need to use positive feedback sparingly. If the entire game is decided by the time the first winning move enters the positive feedback loop (like the first kill in Quake II above), then why play the rest of the game? The loser will be continually beaten by the first winner, and without hope of winning himself, probably won’t be having much fun.
  • Endgame problems. World of Warcraft has a problem. Players get stronger and stronger, but there is a finite amount of content they can offer. Eventually, you have to reach the strongest sword in the game. At that point, players cannot be directed to kill bigger bad guys for the purpose of better drops that have better stats. The designers there have to deal with the problem of “what to give the player that has everything”. Naturally, they’ve done a good job as they have a healthy base of players at the maximum level, but this problem only exists because of the positive feedback loops in the main gameplay.

Disgaea took a different approach to this. They simply scale up the numbers for weapons and monsters to ridiculous levels, encouraging an ever-moving treadmill of progression-escalation. World of Warcraft does not have this luxury because they have to deal with players of uneven levels cooperating in the same area. It is hard enough to do that for a Level 80 and a Level 70, let alone a Level 200 and a Level 70.

One technique to fix positive feedback getting out of control is to decouple what the reward affects and what the tasks require. Farmville and other “social” games are all about walking up a treadmill to get the next doo-dad. But the doo-dads in these games generally aren’t things that help the player succeed. Often they are cosmetic or tangential. For instance, while the harvester in Farmville allows the player to harvest in less clicks, it doesn’t make the plants grow faster. The reward is reinforcing the click-to-harvest mechanic and not the XP-gaining growth mechanic. Thus, players can lust over the harvester and harvest like silly without breaking the game. This is a fine technique and one that I recommend, but it isn’t perfect because the player has to want a reward of something other than what will give him more power to achieve. Thus it can only be applied in some situations.

When I was working on the multiplayer for Superman Returns DS, we started by drafting a pretty clever multiplayer board game where players attempted to take control of the city of Metropolis. Quickly, we fell into problems of positive feedback loops – players who controlled more of the city could move around the city easier and thus could get the bonuses that helped the players towards victory. We could have gimped it by removing the positive feedback from ease of movement around territory you control, but we chose a different method. We added a negative feedback mechanic- taking over an opponents areas gains someone more territory than taking over neutral areas. I don’t remember if this stayed in the final version or not, but since no one actually played the multiplayer of Superman Returns, even though it was far and away the best part, I’ll just make that claim and leave it at that.

There are no pictures of multiplayer SMR on the Internet.
There are no pictures of multiplayer SMR on the Internet.

This is often the best solution if the positive reinforcement is knocking the game out of balance and you cannot simply remove the offending mechanic – pair positive reinforcements with negative ones.

RPGs do this: When you level up, monsters also become tougher. So you get stronger, but your enemies do as well, likely at the same rate. Your power increase is positive feedback. Your enemy’s increase is negative feedback. This would be noticeable to players if put that explicitly, so what we do is allow the player to really beat up on some lower-level thugs after powering-up to get them feeling more invincible before throwing their ass in front of newly souped-up baddies.

But this has to be carefully balanced. In Morrowind, players could choose to level up and if they did so, stronger baddies would appear instantly, rolled from a different table. When I first played it, I stayed as a level Suck player for as long as I could, simply because the quest items I found were positively reinforcing and leveling up was a net-negative reinforcement that was under my control. Certainly, it was not what the designers intended but I’m sure many players chose that path.

“Fixing” positive feedback doesn’t even have to really fix the problem, only the appearance of a problem. Consider our Major League Baseball example above. The National Football League saw that positive feedback problem and added negative reinforcements – salary caps (limits on how much a team can spend on personnel) and reverse draft selection (the worst team gets to choose first the best players coming out of the collegiate system.) It is generally seen as more fair. In baseball, the top four teams (Yankees, Dodgers, Cardinals, Giants) combine for 50% (53/105) of all world championships. In football, the four winningest Super Bowl teams (Steelers, Cowboys, 49ers, Patriots) combine for 43% (19/44) of all Super Bowls. While football is widely considered to be more egalitarian, the statistical difference is slight.

EDIT: And I almost forgot to mention one of the most clever negative reinforcements in all of the games I’ve experienced. In Dominion, the act of buying victory points and putting them into your deck de facto makes your deck weaker since victory cards are empty draws. This means that you are always stuck with the decision of making an efficiency advantage at the cost of points versus a points advantage at the cost of efficiency.

Spoiler Ahead

Alan Wake. I’ve been playing it this weekend and have gotten to the end of Episode 4. I feel the need to tell you about an NPC you find because you may not go back to talk to him. If you abhor all spoilers, then skip this post, go to Facebook and complain about Lost some more.

Eventually, you will find yourself in a nuthouse. The doctor there introduces you to the patients and one of them “makes videogames” and is a poorly veiled avatar of some Remedy employee since he is obsessed with being scary.

Come back later after the tour and the game developer will be ranting, quite poignantly to this observer,  about his publisher. How that got through MS’ fun censors I’ll never know, but it was absolutely brilliant, along with some fun play-on-words for those who were caught in the Max Payne bullet-time-a-thon of the 2000s.

It’s a fantastic game, but why did it take four years again?

Game Designer Bookshelf

I’m on a reading kick, so I thought I’d just go ahead and list some of the most useful books for me in my short career so far as a designer:

The Art of Game Design
by Jesse Schell
I’ve read a handful of game design books. The worst are genre analyzers. They say: “this is an RTS. Here are the conventions of an RTS.” Some are way more lofty: “This is what a game is. Here are the boundaries of a game.” I didn’t find either approach very helpful.

This book is a distillation of Prof. Schell’s class on Game Design that he teaches at the ETC at Carnegie Mellon University. I was lucky enough to be both a student of his (I took the class for easy elective credit and it turned me into a game designer) and the following year, his teaching assistant.

The method is unique (to me at least): “Here are my experiences as a game designer and here are the tools I use and have used to look at game design and career decisions.” It is thoroughly more useful to someone actually doing game design and it makes for a more entertaining read. It isn’t one unified theory for games and doesn’t try to be – although the advice is useful especially for those designing non-digital or non-traditional games. As such, something may come along and usurp Prof. Schell’s book in the future as a more holistic Grand Theory of Game Design. Maybe such a thing will never exist. But until it does, I will count this as the prima game design book that everyone who calls him/herself a designer or anyone who wants to should give a read.

Presentation Zen
by Garr Reynolds
We game designers make presentations. Our job in professional game development is to sell ideas – to artists, programmers, producers, the press, but most importantly – to the folks that hold the purse strings and either make the go-no go decisions or directly influence those who do.

And most of the time, these presentations are done with the dreadnought of Powerpoint. Even mentioning the P word triggers a narcoleptic response, not because our ideas are bad but because we’ve sat through so many presentations where some simple techniques of design and delivery could have elevated the same ideas from sleep-inducing the enthralling.

Presentation Zen is a book about getting rid of “slideuments” and delivering a message. If I could give one book to every person in the game industry to study and know, it would be this.

There’s a double-edged sword here. People are so conditioned in the awful techniques of how Powerpoint is currently used that trying to be more engaging can actually frighten and confuse particularly entrenched minds. After reading this, I was to give a presentation to a group of senior staff at EA on a new concept. When I gave it to my boss to review before the presentation, he tore into me. I paraphrase:

“What’s with all the full screen images? Where is the text? Why aren’t there captions to these diagrams?”
“Because I am going to be talking about them. That’s why I’ll be standing up there presenting.”
“No one is going to listen to you, they are just going to read what’s on the screen.”
“That’s precisely why there aren’t words on this slide.”
“No, change it. That’s not what they want.”
“Then why give a presentation? We can send them a document with all the information and save everyone the time of getting together for a meeting.”
“Because we have a meeting scheduled.”

So it may not be the easiest of transitions for some, but I damn well guarantee that your presentations will be better if you take the lessons from this book.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information
by Edward Tufte
This goes hand-in-hand with Presentation Zen but is a little more broad. The subject matter is fully explained in the title, so there is little to say about the contents. Tufte’s focus on packing the largest amount of information in the smallest amount of ink has its uses in UI design in particular, but I used to keep a copy on my desk solely to gaze at by accident and remind me of simplicity in data presentation. If that is all you get out of this, then it will be worth it, but deeper reading will present all sorts of lessons on presenting to your players. After all, every element of your game will need to be presented to your players and 95% of that will be done in a visual way. I’ll leave the aural and tactile feedback methods for another expert.
The Game Design Reader
by Various
A lot of folks pick Salen and Zimmerman’s Rules of Play as a seminal work. I find it very interesting as an academic pursuit, but found it sorely lacking in practicality. Their companion volume, however, has hundreds of pages of precious gems from a wide variety of authors. Marc LeBlanc, Richard Garfield and Richard Bartle are worth admission alone, but I could site a half-dozen other “great reads” in addition.

The organization of the texts itself feels a bit slapdash and the material contributed by Salen and Zimmerman reaches back into more academic territory, but overall there are too many interesting articles to avoid placing this on the essential bookshelf.

Brain Rules
by John Medina
Yes, it is pop psychology, but the book was practically written for game designers. Games are about decisions and this book is about how the brain makes decisions. For instance, Chapter 4 is all about what we pay attention to and what we ignore. Great for level design! How about teaching mechanics? There are great chapters on the brain’s short term and long term memory processes and the limitations thereof. How about pacing? Medina says the brain can churn for about ten minutes before needing some sort of rest.
Understanding Comics
by Scott McCloud
I’m violating my own list here because I don’t actually have this on my bookshelf. I read it back in college but I remember it being pretty encompassing when it comes to the visual medium – the domain of video games. It is so omnipresent on game designer lists that I have to include it. I’m resolved to picking it up again. Like Tufte’s book above, this is all about using images to convey information. We ask players to make decisions based on the information that we present to them – it is what a game is. We need to present these images in the most elegant and understandable ways. McCloud is consistently cited by game designers when it comes to these issues.

Other game industry people, what else should I add to the list?

Kindle as Gaming Device

About two weeks ago, I purchased a Kindle off of a young woman via Craigslist. While I was a staunch proponent of the dead tree format, I was running out of books that were small enough physically to comfortably read one-handed on the subway. When I was researching books based on physical dimensions rather than on content, I knew I had a problem.

You could say I am a fan. I’ve read the equivalent of 1300 physical pages in less than two weeks. When reviews say “the Kindle will change the way you read”, they are right. You will read much faster. Perhaps it is just my quirky ADHD-ness, but in physical books I often find myself paging ahead to see where chapter breaks are or I get distracted by noticing something on the opposing page. These distractions are gone on the Kindle. It displays a digestible chunk at a time and the chapter markers are clearly delineated at the bottom of the screen.

But since I am a Game Nerd, I’ve found myself wondering about how games could work on the device. Amazon has released a Kindle Development Kit and is actively courting developers to make ‘apps’ for the device. But there are harsh limitations to the Kindle as a gaming device:

  1. No Touchscreen – We are spoiled with our iPhones and smartphones and Nintendo DSs that offer that most intuitive of interfaces. Puzzle games and card games benefit greatly from having a touch interface. Well, that’s okay, right? The NES didn’t offer a touchscreen and it had some great games.
  2. Shitty D-Pad Nub – Well crap. You need tweezers to move the tiny directional toggle and it often doesn’t trigger in the direction you desire.
  3. Awful Framerate – eInk is a very interesting technology, but it isn’t an LCD replacement. The screen refresh can top out at about 2 hz where you need at least 30 hz for a reasonably smooth gaming experience.

So, are folks going to be putting games on Kindle just to say they could? Will this be akin to running doom on an old iPod or linux on a toaster? Perhaps. Certainly you will see shitty games a-plenty, especially if any of them make money. But I reckon that you can minimize those weaknesses and play to the strengths of the device:

  1. Ergonomics – The device is ergonomically pleasing. The ‘Next Page’ buttons are easy to reach and responsive.
  2. Free Internet – The device is always connected to the internet for free. While Amazon charges a different royalty rate for those that use a lot of data, that doesn’t mean the device has to stream video to take advantage of this.
  3. Large screen – The screen itself is large and can hold a lot more information at a readable size than the iPhone or Nintendo DS.

So here is a brainstorm idea off the top of my head:

Short, episodic D&D style modules that range from dungeon-crawls to graphic adventures. Players subscribe and receive a new adventure every month, like Telltale’s games. Some months you have a little rogue-like in the vein of an Etrian Odyssey. Some months you have a whodunnit like a Phoenix Wright. Focus on storytelling and keep it short. Controls in both of those games are not real-time and surprisingly light on options. Refresh rate is irrelevant. The two “Next Page” buttons and the “Previous Page” button should be sufficient for most functions and the keyboard could take speciality functions. It keeps with the user dynamic of the Kindle (light reading, on the go) while introducing the vast possibilities of interactive entertainment (letting the reader make decisions).

Hell, I’d subscribe even if it was mediocre for the novelty and to support that kind of risk-taking. But that is just off the top of my head. Surely someone more clever than I will come along and put something together smarter. The question is whether the market is there on the device or whether it will only hold fertile for Sudoku and Hearts developers or folks that don’t pause to take in the constraints and strengths of the device and try to make Mario work:

What other ideas could take advantage of being on a Kindle? What kind of game would be better on a Kindle than on any other platform?

Dear Internet

You are ridiculous:

  • 4676 diggs (#1 overall),
  • 707,000 hits on Kotaku,
  • +180,000 unique visitors to this blog (there wasn’t even a link on Kotaku) from 168 countries, (Hi Finland! You are the second most popular country for some reason. I’ll have to write more about Sonata Arctica)
  • +120 Twitter Followers,
  • +20 Facebook friend requests, 0 accepted, (sorry folks, I only FB with people I know, no offense)
  • 5 coworkers insinuating I’d be fired (why?),
  • 10 telling me how much they liked the post,
  • Countless friendly messages from long lost classmates and colleagues,

It wasn’t that funny.

Looks like I’ll have to post some more relevant stuff to keep you folks around. Sorry. It’s mostly game design minutiae here.