I had an interesting conversation here at work yesterday. We were discussing the merits of Farmville et al and I brought up (of course) Cow Clicker. One of the participants mentioned that because there are people that play Cow Clicker non-ironically that it failed. Additionally, this person said that Cow Clicker is in fact a good game because this person would enjoy it because of the “moo” sound effect.

Now, my response was/is: something that is enjoyable and purports to be a game does not equate to that thing being a) a game and b) a good or worthwhile game. Smoking a cigarette is an enjoyable activity to many but is not a game and not a healthy activity. The response to this was that it doesn’t matter. A game does not need to be “healthy” or what I called “nutritious” in order to have worth. It doesn’t need my “permission” to be worthwhile to be.

I find the argument interesting. I can see the logic. It would be easy to use my line of reasoning to pooh-pooh Dragon Lair back in the day, even though it helped lead to much more mature games in the future. So 1) is something that creates enjoyment inherently worthwhile? 2) is it okay that millions waste their lives (IMO) on –villes in the hopes that this some day it inspires something deeper that ends up being successful despite the sort of strip-mining design process?

Agree or disagree?

What is Systems Design? (02)

A few months ago I was interviewing with Ubisoft Toronto. Naturally, the conversation is confidential so I won’t get into specifics, but I was talking with a creative director about the “types” of designers they hire and where I fit in. This was a refreshing topic as many, even within the HR departments in the video game industry, use “designer” as sort of a catch-all phrase. I, for instance, have very little experience firsthand with level design. Level design requires vastly different skills than does systems design which is what I consider my forte. However, by their very natures level design is much more visible than systems design. What is it and why is it important?

I can give you a very technical answer: systems design is the design of mechanics that result in desirable play dynamics. But that likely means little to most reading. Perhaps an example will help illustrate.

The purpose of having money systems in RPGs is what? It’s a very simple system to dole out empowerment to players at various points in the game. Have you played a game before where you had more money than you could ever use by endgame? The desirable play dynamic is an interesting level of challenge throughout the game. The means to achieve that dynamic is a system of rewards that scales well to achieve that end.

Two games I played this past year are, I think, great illustrations of successful systems design: Civilization V and Etrian Odyssey III.

Civ V, I think, could possibly be the most perfectly crafted example of systems design ever. There are literally dozens of systems: culture, influence, military power, research, wealth, citizen growth, happiness (and so on and so on) and most interact with each other. Civ V’s designers had to create these systems to satisfy numerous dynamic requirements: players couldn’t get nukes in the 1700s, no track to winning must clearly dominate in all cases, players cannot have too much money or get stuck in vicious loops. Somehow, miraculously with dozens of special citizens, wonders, units and players of varying levels of understanding of the systems and skill all these moving parts work together and create a balance such that decisions are interesting. In Halo, you pretty much go for the rocket launcher or the energy sword because they are the strongest. The decision of weapon choice isn’t interesting. In Civ V, you have dozens of choices in a turn, many of which do not have a clear answer and are as such interesting.

What should the Reproduction Rate be?

Etrian Odyssey III is another example. The dynamic aimed for is to clearly create a brutally difficult classic dungeon crawl. It would be very easy to make this game too hard to be beat or too easy to provide the challenge (the side most RPGs err on, see the new Golden Sun reviews). Players can be a dozen classes each with vastly differing skill trees – which will the player choose? How much experience with these systems does the player have? How much time will he spend grinding before he gives up? Again, systems designers have to test and retest dozens of variables to elicit the proper dynamics.

How Much XP?
How much XP do you give? How strong should monsters be?

In my previous life, I was designing a Facebook game. The game had to remain challenging, yet rewarding every time the player logged on. How often would they log on? What is a sufficient reward? What is an excessive reward? Will they play optimally? What if they don’t?

Let’s say a player gains 10% or 11% in their money per session. Not much difference right? Starting with 100 “gold”, after 100 sessions the 10% player ends up with 1,252,782. The 11% player ends with 3,068,844, almost 2.5x as much. You can see how tinychanges add up. Now imagine if instead of a simple 10% or 11%, the money is generated by a formula with six variables as it was in something similar to my my Facebook game: Money Gained = k * Visits * Tourists * Number of Animals * Rarity of Animals * Interest Level * Item Modifiers. Imagine little ripples in any of those variables and how they impact the composite variables.

Now you have an idea of the complexities of systems design. It’s a house of cards ready to be blown over by the first person to come along with an idea to “improve”. What is your opinion of Monopoly? Is it too slow to get to the interesting bits? Does it drag on too long? If so, you probably play with the “house rule” variants where you get money (for some reason) by landing on Free Parking and don’t auction unsold properties. Both of these mechanics are part of a well-balanced system. But the Free Parking modification floods the game with money, making it last much longer. The ignoring auctions modification makes the game take much longer to get to the interesting bits where players are competing for monopolies.

Free Money!
Free Money!

To outsiders, it seems like you just make up some numbers off the cuff and if they work, super. In reality, a good systems designer does a lot more work, testing and carefully tweaking values until either the tower balances or falls over.

Dragon Quest Runaway Leader

I noticed a subtle positive feedback loop in Dragon Quest IX last night. You have to be careful of these in long form games because they exacerbate over time.

Experience points are distributed by taking the defeated monster’s XP and dividing it by the weighted level of each character. This means if your party was a Level 3 Warrior, Level 2 Mage, Level 1 Priest and Level 4 Minstrel and the monster was 100 XP then the warrior would get 30 (100 * 3/[3+2+1+4]) XP, Mage 20, Priest 10 and Minstrel 40. The weakest characters get the least XP.

The problem with this is that the first time one character dies, the other characters get a relative XP boost and continue to get that boost for the rest of the game. Let’s say the priest in the above example keeps dying. He keeps getting a smaller and smaller share of the XP loot as the other party members take more of the pie, leveling up faster and hence getting more of the pie. While it is almost an accepted mechanic that there is no “catching up” in XP totals, usually the penalty is only for the time that character was out of commission and becomes moot by endgame. In the Dragon Quest example, since it applies to every single battle, the inequity gets larger and larger as the game goes on for mistakes that may have happened thirty game hours prior.

It’s not game-breaking by any means, but it makes it more difficult to go forward when one member of your party can get insta-killed and the others are shrugging it off. A simple thing like an XP formula can cause problems in the game dynamic if unchecked.

Purity (01)

I’ve gotten away from posting here and I hope to make amends in the new year. A particularly easy source of material is to just take what you are playing and pull a design lesson from it.

I’m aiming for thirty of these posts this year and as a way of sticking to the resolution, I’m numbering them. My holiday-inspired nomadic lifestyle has pushed me back to the DS as the platform of choice, and I picked up and have been hammering on two Japanese RPGs: Etrian Odyssey III and recent DS-game-of-the-year accolade winner Dragon Quest IX. Both are excellent examples of their genre, but one point is a salient difference between the two: mechanical purity. Etrian Odyssey is an example of what I’m calling mechanical purity. Reviews label it as a “hardcore” game and it most certainly is, even in comparison to Dragon Quest which is itself a hardcore game. But DQ (as I’ll label from now on – not Dairy Queen) spends a lot of game time on dressing: story is presented through animated cutscenes in the traditional manner. Enemies and characters are animated in both battle and overland. There is an impressive number of battle environments. EO on the other hand does not represent its characters in anything but portraits, monsters do not appear on the overland (even bosses are just spheres).

Because of this mechanical purity in EO, it feels like the player can understand the mechanics that remain with more certainty. For instance, there are three types of elemental damage in EO with identical types of attacks. It is much easier to narrow down elemental weaknesses in EO because characters are customized around very simple models for offense and defense. In DQ, the vast array of types of monsters and spells makes this much more of a guessing game. Both are impressive examples of systems design (a post I’ve had brewing for a few months that may see light of day soon), but one is simply more spartan in its offered mechanics.

Is one better than the other because of it? No, clearly not. People love the glossy presentation and bevy of features in DQ. DQ has reviewed better than EO, yet I prefer EO. The design lesson from this in a development scenario where you have an oppressively limited budget, a focus on mechanical purity can offer a bang-for-the-buck that allows you to compete with the titles that are throwing the kitchen sink at the player.

For instance, is your game about story? I’d say that neither DQ or EO are about story, yet one spent significant dev time on character design, animation, camera systems and all the other accoutrements of a story-based game.

Note the purity of EO on the right: 2D models, 2D effects, no PCs. Everything in EO is
about mastering the mechanical systems.