Saturday, April 30, 2005

The Financial Gameboy

One of the most difficult and damning areas of the American lifestyle is personal finance. As a nation we are deeply in debt and despite our cultural wealth fixation, basic accounting skills are rarely part of a standard education.

Here is a thought experiment that attempts to define a massively multi-player game of financial responsibility. How can we improve the personal finances and savings of heavily in debt individual using the tools and techniques of game design?

A Financial Gedanken Experiment
The key concept is that by using psychological risk and reward systems, we can promote financially sound behavior in an addictive, psychologically positive fashion. The 'player' has fun, they save money, and we make money by providing an exciting (and beneficial) game service.

First, let's begin with a rough overview of the tokens in play. The player is clearly the person spending the money. Money is a primary resource that is generated through a monthly pay check and is spent on several categories:

  • Essential: The basics you need to live.
  • Luxury goods: Anything above the basics necessary to live.
  • Savings / Debt reduction.
This is a great starting place. We have activities (purchasing) that we can categorize and either reward or punish. In the typical gaming world, we would immediately begin building interlocking risk / reward systems to start training the player. Unfortunately, we run into an immediate challenge. Games are typically played on a standardized platform with a well defined user interface and strong feedback mechanisms for the player. The real world is not set up in such a convenient fashion.

Dealing with the real world
As soon as you start dealing with real people and their daily interactions with the world, we are immediately in the land of product anthropology studies. We need to build a game interface on top of the player's reality and in order to do that we need to understand the basic constraints of their environment. Below are some obvious challenges that do not lend themselves to powerful game designs.

  1. Overly long reward cycles: Typically you only get checks in lump sums every two weeks. If gaining money is a reward, this occurs at far too long of a pace. On top of this, it is a fixed reward schedule, the exact sort that causes the player to burn out rather quickly. It is a thrill getting the first paycheck, but after a very short while it becomes the status quo.
  2. Lack of positive rewards: The player's primary actions occur in the presence of advertising and sales people who reward the player if they spend on luxury goods. There is little or not reward reinforcement for putting money towards saving.
  3. Untimely feedback: Means of monitoring and providing feedback are highly divorced from the action time scale. You can purchase a very expensive item within a few minutes. Yet feedback on how that affects yours longer term savings goals doesn't occur until typically several weeks later.
  4. Micromanagement: Existing systems are poorly defined. In order fit daily activities into the type of formal system required by most game mechanics, an individual is required to spend copious amounts of time with data entry. If I spend money on garden supplies at a grocery store, what does that mean? In the standard accounting viewpoint, this must be entered into a master ledger, tagged as gardening supplies and then manually compared to one of dozen account categories. Typically this happens in an application on a computer and is more effort than it is worth.
The result of all this is that most people begin an attempt to improve their budgeting and give up shortly afterwards because they don't see immediate results for the work that they put in.

Creating a financial game platform
Solving the interface problem is a priority. The player needs to get immediate feedback every time they make a purchase. Think of a purchase as the most atomic level that any meaningful action can occur at. This is our core risk activity. It is the equivalent of a turn in a game like chess or jumping in Mario. Remember, every core game mechanic is composed of a risk activity and a reward activity. We need a way of tracking purchases and giving feedback on them.

I'm going to imagine a 'Financial Gameboy'. This is a PDA-like device that replaces all credit cards and filters the use of the credit card through software that is hooked up to the internet (This last point may or may not be necessary.) A cell phone with electronic wallet technology isn't too far off from my Financial Gameboy, but with a little engineering, this concept should be possible right now.

The Financial Gameboy is a small gadget that slips and your pocket and replaces your standard credit card.

  • It acts just like a credit card. You can swipe it in any standard credit card reader. You can make a purchase over the internet. Any purchase that you make is immediately reported back to the device over it's internet connection.
  • It has a display that can show basic text information.
  • It has a very simplified interface with 3 or 4 buttons.
Here's how the basic interface works.

  • Before you swipe the card, the Gameboy must be turned on. By simply opening the device, it goes on.
  • Basic financial information, including your current goals and progress towards those goals, are displayed in a blatant manner. Just by glancing at the device you can tell your status as either within budget or over budget.
  • When you swipe the card, you are unable to complete the transaction until you identify the basic category the purchase falls into. Once you make a purchase from the same vendor, the device remembers if you've categorized it previously and saves you a button push. There are only 3 or 4 categories, each corresponding to a big button, so 'accounting' is trivial.
  • The card shows you your new status information and any rewards you might have accumulated.
Additional gaming rules
The interface with real life is always messy. In addition to electronic rules, there are specific social constraints that are necessary to ensure that the risk / reward system can do their work within a constrained formal environment.

  • You aren't allowed to use cash beyond a predetermined weekly allowance. Lower cash use is better because it lets you sidestep the risk / reward systems of the game.
  • You aren't allowed to use any other credit cards.
  • Your paycheck is automatically deposited in your account.
  • Major bills are put on automated payment.
How the game works
All this foundational structure is wonderful and I suspect would result in major improvements to anyone's spending habits. Simply having a shorter feedback cycle and an understanding of where you are financially is more than most people have when they are making purchases.

The real benefit comes from the addition of game mechanics that actively change the player's behavior in a positive fashion.

First, we do away with the bi-weekly 'influx of cash' that seems to define everyone's bank account. Instead, the player earns the ability to make additional purchases based off their skillful daily purchasing behavior. Even though your bank account has money in it, you don't get to touch it unless the game lets you.

Mind you, the game doesn't use a simple quota system like most budgets do either. The player would only get feedback when they hit a hard budget limit and that just isn't timely enough to provide solid operant conditioning.

The player's money is dribbled out to him in the form of immediate rewards.
  • Risk Activity (a.k.a. the Purchase Challenge): Every time the player makes a purchase, it is ranked as either a good or bad purchase.
  • Good or Bad is determined by a purchasing profile: For example, food purchases are typically $10 for meals and $100 when you buy groceries. Anything over these amounts is bad. Anything under is good.
  • When you make a good purchase, you earn points (think of it as experience points in an RPG) towards luxury items.
  • Luxury items are defined the player in a big web-based wish list that they can prioritize. There are also generic items like candy bars and such they can also prioritize.
  • The amount of points you get for each purchase is governed by a complex system of combos, random bonus, and other overlapping reward systems. Buy three good food items in a row for less than you expected and get a free minor reward. Wow.
You'll win some purchases challenges and you'll lose some. The game will start out on a relatively easy setting with simple rewards giving you substantial rewards. As you 'level up', you'll start aiming for the bigger prizes and that means aiming for more good purchases, and less bad purchases. Over time, you'll start playing meta-games to optimize your path towards those larger rewards. "Aha", you'll say. "I can avoid a whole bunch of purchases by eating in." The game, sensing a lack of purchasing activity will give you additional bonuses.

Underneath all of this is running an accounting engine that is funneling X% of your income towards savings, Y% towards fundamentals, and reserving some Z% for luxury rewards. Transaction after transaction, day after day, month after month, money will be funneling towards your longer term goals. As you get better at playing the game, you'll see your goals arrive faster than you expected.

With internet connectivity, you can start layering social reward systems on top of the basic mechanics. Algorithms can generate high score lists and compare you to other people in your area. As you improve, you start climbing the list. As you make additional levels, you get social awards. You can SMS other players words of encouragement and if they feel like the comments helped, they can mod you up, giving you more points to spend on your personal financial goals.

This massively multiplayer social lubrication leads the player to websites and blogs where tips are shared for getting ahead. The trick is not to create a self help group. This is no pity party. The goal is to create a cheat site for the avid gamer so they can 'beat the system'. This highly creative lateral thinking helps them save more money and reach their goals more quickly. We are tying into the powerful psychology of solving a fun problem. We are avoiding the dead end psychology that comes from couching financial management as a painful task that must be accomplished with no short term benefit.

What this accomplishes from a game design perspective
We've done the following:
  • Shorten the risk / reward cycle dramatically from once every 2 - 4 weeks to every purchase.
  • Build multiple overlapping risk reward mechanisms that reinforce behavior and prevent burnout.
  • Create meaningful rewards and set up clear activities for reaching those goals.

Target Market and Cost
The target market is people in debt. The service costs $5 - $10 bucks a month, but promises to save the player thousands of dollars. The numbers don't lie and we gather lots of numbers. In fact, with all the successful numbers in our hands, some of our biggest customers can be financial groups trying to mitigate the cost of people who have difficulties managing their debt. They would much rather have a low-risk system that gets proven results than have to go through the morass of bankruptcy and collection.

The opportunities to sell financial and investing services are also huge. Not only do you have access to the player's money, but you can also directly influence how they are spending that money by weighing certain options as more beneficial than others. The biggest reason for bankruptcies are unexpected hospital bills hitting families who are too highly leveraged on debt. Wouldn't it be nice to build the game in a such a fashion that it makes health insurance a slightly higher point value investment than items like a new car?

The morality of the issue is neither black nor white. The application of addictive gaming systems to everyday life is relatively new ground. What do we do when we can make the 'real world' just another part of an abstract, highly addictive game?

Closing thoughts
I would certainly use my Financial Gameboy constantly. At a very basic psychological level the act of financial accounting is painful. To make this modern micromanagement affliction into an activity that is both fun and productive is a nearly god-like accomplishment. The ramifications within our capitalist society are nearly boundless.

Perhaps this is the true future of game design. The most successful games may not be art. Instead they will be useful.

take care

Monday, April 25, 2005

The child and the glass of poison: Our social duty to educate

I was in a ranting mood today and entered into a conversation at work about legislation governing the sales of mature games. On one side were the folks claiming that it was all the parent's responsibility. "Glory to the western conservative ideal and the American belief in absolute independence." Bah, humbug. On the other side was my admittedly nuanced perspective.

It is not that I disagree the basic concept of individual responsibility. Certainly good stuff. However, your view of the world can't end there. We have a moral responsibility in two key areas:
  • We are obligated to help when a group is poorly educated and they are making decisions out of ignorance that are harmful to their well being.
  • We are obligated to ensure that our assistance is helpful, not harmful.
A simplified version of the dilemma goes something like this: Imagine a thirsty child with two cold clear glasses of water in front of him. One glass is simple water and is harmless. The other glass contains undetectable, yet deadly poison. You happen to know exactly which glass contains the poison.

In the viewpoint of the independent Linux using, anti-activist judge, western conservative, net-a-holic, porn addicted, GTA loving moralist you have no right to interfere with the child's right to choose a glass on their own. This viewpoint is utterly indefensible. If we possess critical information that may help someone make an informed choice then we should do everything in our power to educate.

Kids play M-rated games. You can say that they don't, but I know many who do. Why don't the parents step in? Because many parents still think that games are all played by kids. Folks in the industry and hardcore players may understand that the average age of game players is in the 30s and that there are mature game for adults and kiddy games for kids. But do parents realize this? Do they understand the difference between Gauntlet and Doom 3? Heck, the kids know more about games than the adults do. In many situations, it seems the kids get to make the choices and the parents must uneasily go along with the decision out of a profound inability to provide informed counter arguments.

So first we educate. We tell the store clerks about the bad things associated with selling M games to minors and give them lists of alternative genres and titles. We fund studies on the effects of violence games on children so we are promoting good information, not bad information. We give school money and training to teach kids alternatives to violent games. Like sports. Or art. We teach parents about the rating systems in place.

Do we hold the guardians of our children responsible? I believe the focus needs to be 99% on prevention and treatment of an ill, not punishment. We educate on the good path and we reward it. If punishment must occur, it is for the extreme cases, where abuse is undeniable.

This is a far cry from laissez faire independence. It is also different from the hellfire and brimstone approach that seems so popular on Capital Hill these days. I suspect it is the more difficult path.

Here are some ideas for responsible members of the game development community. Some already have been put in place and simply need a bit more reach.
  • Publisher dedicate X% of their revenue educating parents on the differences in game content of various categories. This needs to correspond with the reach of our industry and cannot be merely a few token advertisements. We make billions. We should be willing to give back millions.
  • Developers clearly label each and every title with the appropriate viewing category.
  • Retail locations clearly separate mature titles from titles intended for the general audience.
  • Game magazines identify their target audience and refuse to print mature rated articles or advertisements if their demographics reaches younger gamers.
If I watched the child drink the glass of poison and did nothing, would I be responsible for his death? Yes. Yes, I would.

- Danc.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Genre Addiction article posted on was kind enough to post my essay on genre addiction earlier today. You can find the full text here:

Folks have posted a few typos that I'll fix as soon as I get back into town. Comments are very welcome.


Monday, April 4, 2005

Design Testing: The use of addiction metrics to force rapid evolution of innovative game designs

One of my goals with this blog is to formulate a 'new game development methodology' that empowers the little guy and helps the growth of innovation in the game industry. How do we build innovative, highly addictive games more quickly and with lower risk? Part of the answer is the rigid application of gaming metrics to the process of improving player addiction.

The Legacy of Cowboy Designers
The traditional designer is a cowboy designer. Modern game designs are the result of the messy, content dependent process a cowboy designer intuitively follows when building a game.

Cowboy Programmers
The term comes from the land of programming where early programmers would whip out l33t code in as little time as possible. Cowboy programmers were lone guns, experts in their field who possessed a deeply intuitive understanding of what works and what doesn't.

Coding standard, methodologies, even team work were taboo for the ancient cowboy programmers. Their code was inscrutable and many decisions seemed arbitrary. Troubles inevitably arose as the industry matured. Project didn't scale and many failed as they were bogged down in a plague of bugs. Eventually the world figured out better ways of programming that were more reliable, less risky, and produced better results. God bless process advancement.

Cowboy Designers: Copy cats with a hip attitude
Cowboy Designers are similar in many ways. They shoot from the hip when it comes to decisions, relying on their own finely tuned sense of 'fun' to design systems and create requirement docs. This sense of 'fun' is typically built up after internalizing the game play of dozens of similar game titles.

Such expertise works well when you are creating a clone or focusing on the later layers of the game design where you can't do much damage. Adding the 101st 'designer inspired' Pokemon is about as risk free as adding the 100th one. Subtle, oh so well crafted variations on existing themes are the bread and butter of a cowboy designer. The 'I could build it better' syndrome that drives many game designers is not only a contributing factor to the stagnation of innovation, but is actively encouraged by most game publishers as a means of reducing risk.

Cowboy designers stifle innovation
The big problem is that intuitive cowboy designers have high failure rates when it comes to inventing core game mechanics. Experience in pre-existing genres is a poor guide for success when your job is to put together new rules that result in dynamically different psychological scenarios. When cowboy designers attempt to refine a new genre, one of two things typically occur.
  • The half-breed design: The designer mixes two well defined genres. Since their decisions are informed by experiance and not psychology, the result is rarely enjoyable to play.
  • The mush design: The design mixes multiple genres together with rules that are untested and arbitrary in nature. Randomly designed games tend to a remarkably low success rate.

Either way, the result is ruined teams and failed games. It is no wonder that publishers are adverse to large investments in innovation.

Bad process, not bad people
It doesn't have to be this way. We are simply using the wrong design methodology to build innovative games. The old cowboy method only works with Shooter Clone #64. It fails miserably when attempting something new. With the right design methodology built around the concept of make risky game design decisions painless, innovative games have the opportunity to prosper.

Introducing feedback: A miracle design tool
What we really need is a reliable feedback mechanism that lets us reduce investment risk in order to create a safety net for innovation.

The modern feedback desert
Consider the traditional feedback cycle in game design. You spend 12 to 18 months building a game. You recieve the majority of your feedback from traditional game testers and internal 'team testing'. The information is very useful, but runs into several difficulties

  • The information is subjective: Most feedback is qualitative and is filtered through a pre-biased team of hardcore game developers.
  • Feedback is not statistically valid: Testing occurs with small numbers of testers that do not accurately represent the target market, nor are their opinions verifiably the same as larger market.

At this stage you still don't get a chance to react. Almost all gameplay fixes occur in the higher layers of the game design due to its lower risk nature. You can change some art or a few engine variables, but rarely is there time to alter core game mechanics due to the exponential cost of change in a content heavy system.

Once the game is released and in the public's hands, you finally get your first pieces of accurate feedback on your design decisions. You either sell a lot of copies, or you don't. If your game happens to end up a failure, there is no second chance. You didn't get it right the first time and now your entire team will be culled in a grand bloodletting by your disappointed publisher.

This isn't a healthy feedback cycle. The opportunity to make meaninful changes is limited from an early stage. Those who make mistakes are punished dramatically. Those who survive see their lifeless brethren on the roadside and learn that risk taking is dangerous.

Specifying a useful feedback mechanism
We need a tool that:

  • Rapidly informs us when design decisions unbalance the game
  • Lets us test multiple variations on a rule without risk
  • Allows us to see the effects of a change before we invest heavily in expensive, difficult-to-change content.
Such a design tool would allow incremental investments in new game designs. If you make a mistake, you can back that change out without putting the entire project at risk. Since the cycle time on between changes, feedback and exception or reject of the change is short, the team can iterate through a series of changes quickly.

Enter the Metrics

There are a wide variety of testing systems available that give us interesting feedback.

  • Unit testing
  • Market testing
  • Design testing

I'll briefly describe each the first two and then explain how Design testing can radically change how you go about game design.

Unit testing
The most common testing in game development is the unit test, borrowed from Agile programming methodologies. These are covered extensively in a wide variety of books and websites and deal primarily with code integrity and refactorability. This is certainly good important stuff that is essential to creating an agile game design methodology. However, unit tests address only programmer risk, not design risk.

Market testing (aka Market Research)
Another common method of product testing involves giving a product sample to users and having them rate how likely they would be to purchase. Market tesing is a huge field and contains everything from focus groups, to concept testing, to full on market testing with a wide scale deployment of the finished product.

Traditional market testing has some fundamental problems when applied directly to game design.

  • Expensive: This restricts its use to only the biggest of game developers and publishers.
  • Provides limited insight: Second, and most damning is that it is nearly impossible to tell anything about the addictive qualities of a game without actually playing it. I can show you a box with a guy with a gun on it and ask potential players if they would buy it. But such a survey gives me no meaningful information on whether or not I have the next Halo or Daikatana on my hands. "How does it play?" is critical competitive information.
Games, as a testable product, exist in a market research vacuum. Many of the tradition techniques honed over decade of consumer product research simply do not apply. They don't capture 'addiction', the competitive essence of games.

Design testing
We need tests and metrics that capture such ephemeral qualities as 'fun' and 'addiction'.

What makes me think we can test 'fun' and 'addiction'? I believe that core game mechanics rely on relatively simple psychological reward schedules. A successfully addicted player exhibits easily identifiable behavioral symptoms. By tracking these symptoms in a statistically valid manner, the designer gains useful feedback on the addictive properties of their gaming system.

Common Metrics for Design Testing

Testing for addiction is easier than you might imagine. The following are easily gathered metrics for measuring system-wide addictive behavior.
  • Length of playtime
  • Intensity of play time
  • Willingness to play again
  • Length between play times
  • Number of play times
  • Spot exit surveys
Game Token Metrics
You can also get more atomic and measure metrics for each game token in order to dig down into why a particular pattern of addiction is occuring.

  • Use time of each token
  • Frequency of use for each token
  • Gap between token use
  • Spot surveys of user's token enjoyment
ROI metrics
Finally, you can gather ROI metrics by combining the information from metrics above with cost of production information from your project tracking. This gives you some interesting information on where your development investments are paying off.

  • ROI of each token: Calculated by use time / development cost.
  • ROI of each game system
Intriguing results immediately pop to the surface once you implement ROI metrics. Additional level design has a marginal ROI. Character art is the same. You can add a new monster or a new level to the game and the addictive qualities of the title don't budge an inch. On the other hand, add a new powerup system and watch the addiction rise.

Control Charts
You can track these metrics on control charts. This simple charting method tracks changes in specific metrics over time. When a system is changed, you can usually see the results immediately in the control chart.

In general there will be one or two key metrics that (Key Performance Indicators, or KPI) that give you a strong indication of the addiction of your gaming system. Other metrics will be secondary factors that influence you KPI. For example, the reuse time of the powerup system is not the single most important factor in the game, but it influences total session playing time, which is your primary indicator of addiction.

Using the data
Once you have the control charts populated with data, it is a simple matter following a clearly defined change regimen

  1. Create a design change
  2. propagate that change your game players
  3. Measure the results
  4. If the change is positive compared to the previous baseline, keep the functionality.
  5. If the change is negative or mixed, create a new set of changes
  6. Track the key metrics over time to ensure that there is a steady improvement.
Other areas of future exploration
This is a very rough overview of the techniques involved in design testing. It is both a broad and deep field that borrows from many well-developed ideas in the world of market research and process engineering and applies them them to the problem of game design. Other topics include:
Batch testing: Test a wide number of variations in game design mechanics simultaneously. Take the best results and explore them further.
Tie KPI to financially meaningful results: Use regression analysis to link key statistics to financially meaningful results. For online games, measure re-up rate on subscriptions. For ad-based games, measure customer referral rates and number of impressions. For shareware games, measure initial purchase rates.

Design Testing Limitations

Design testing is the core of a rather radical new game design methodology. Let's take a look at some of the limitations.

Not every game can be design tested
Design testing is not for every team nor is it for every type of game. To borrow a term from the agile programmer world, most modern game designs are poorly refactored. They are clumsy, non object-oriented messes of content spaghetti strung together by cowboy designers and their complacent teams of artists and programmers. The typical modern game design has the following attributes:

  • Change is expensive.
  • Testing takes forever.
  • Development cycles are long
  • Static content is king

None of this is conducive to an effective design testable system. I think of applying design testing to an adventure game and shudder. The sheer mass of the static level content combined with the linear sequencing of content results in a system where a change to one location has no effect on any other location. Players are likely to play the game only once and it will take them 40 hours to complete. Good luck getting any timely feedback.

Requirements for a design-testable game
To use design testing as part of our process, we need a game design that is ammendable to thorough application of the technique. The following are some key characteristics of a design-testable game.

  • Refactored Design: The game is composed of highly reusable object-oriented elements. Changes to these elements propagate throughout the entire game system.
  • Game Mechanics focused, not Content focused: Static content in the form of level designs, sequenced boss attacks, fixed plot points, etc is rarely used. Instead the focus is on interesting game rules, meta game rules, dynamically generated levels to create an enjoyable game experience.
  • Automated update mechanism: The game designer can rapidly push changes out to a population of game players.
  • Real-time metrics: When a change is made, statistics on current player usage are immediately sent back to a central electronic dashboard. Most commonly this will be through an internet-based tracking system connected directly into the game.
  • Large population of game players: Statistics are worse than meaningless if you do not have a pertinent population to survey. Testable games require a large standing population of active game players. This suggests extensive open betas and other mechanisms to encourage player interaction before the game is finished. Subscription-based models also work well with this requirement.
Markets ripe for design testing
Online games have a clear advantage. Many of the tracking systems are already built into the web and you already have logs and a database ready to receive the data. You are guaranteed 100% correct information since you see everything that occurs. MMOGs are already doing many of the things outlined in this essay. Their success is readily apparent and I challenge you to find a more addictive genre.

Consoles are moving online in the next generation and most gaming PC's are online already. The technological infrastructure is certainly possible. All it takes are teams innovative enough to improve their development process. Indy games, Nintendo DS titles, and mass market consumer titles all are place where new methodologies might blossom.

Is design testing worth it?

If you want to make a design testable game, you need to throw out decades of highly polished game design experience and theory. You need to rely on cold metrics instead of your warm fuzzy 'I could do it better' cowboy designer instincts. You need to shun common content heavy genres that you grew up with and love in the deepest core of your gamer heart.

What you lose
Design testing fundamentally changes how games are developed.

  • Long development schedules cloistered away from the public: Feedback critical to the product's final success. Alphas, Closed beta, and Open betas become essential tools to releasing a polished game.
  • Offline games: If you aren't online, you've got no way of gathering data about gameplay.
  • Static level design: You need a refactored game design that allows changes to be made quickly.
  • Plot: If the ROI isn't there, kill it. You've got data that proves you better things to spend you development time working on.
What you gain
What you get in return is the ability to make radically addictive, highly competitive games with limited risk of failure.

  1. Increase your competitive advantage: The other guy is spending all his effort just to maintain his position at the top of the king-of-the-genre battle. He invest in mature genres and every game burns out his hardcore audience a little more. You can come onto the scene with a fresh new title that is more addictive than his current offering. When his FPS is merely one of many such competing titles, your title is a one of the kind 'must have' title.
  2. Reduce your costs: Instead of spending millions on movie level content, you gain your addictive rush from intelligent, informed game mechanics. The result is a lower cost structure. Because you have ROI metrics built into your design
  3. Reduce product failure risk: From the very beginning of development you know, to the decimal point, how addictive your game is with your target market. This lets you cull the bad games early, and focus your efforts on the winners.
If I can make a game that does the three things listed above, I'm willing to give up all the game design traditions that don't work for design-testable games.

The result is a refactored, innovation friendly game design methodology. You can take risks and succeed. You can spend less money and still beat the big guy. As the next generation titles come upon us, the smaller game developers have a choice. They can either work smarter or they can die. Design testing is a great tool for avoiding the later.


Sunday, April 3, 2005

A practical definition of innovation in game design

Making a great game with limited resources is all about focus. There are a wide variety of areas that you can put resources into ranging from core gameplay to level design to story. The problem facing most new game developers is that they attempt to have the best of all worlds. That, my friends, is a recipe for failure.

This little post describes the concept of game design layers and gives you some very simple analytical tools for understanding where you are investing and what the consequences can be. In the end we'll:

  • Arrive at a practical definition of innovation.
  • Describe major strategies of product differentiation.
  • Show how pursuing innovation can affect your team structure.
(And if you ever hear an indie game developer talking about level design, either shoot them in the head now to help them avoid their future misery, or direct them towards this essay.)

The layers of a game
A game is built like an onion. Each layer of the game polishes an aspect of the previous structure and makes it slightly more appealing. Areas near the inner core give you the most bang for your buck. Areas near the outer edges of the game design are easier to change without unbalancing the system, but don't make as big of an impact.

  1. Core game mechanics
  2. Meta game mechanics
  3. Base setting
  4. Contextualized Tokens (Graphics, Sound, etc.)
  5. Contextualized Scenarios (Levels and Scripted events)
  6. Overall story

1. Core game mechanics:
The basic risk and reward schedules that the player partakes in form the fundamental basis of the gameplay. In general, the gamer will spend 80% or more of their time performing simple, repetitive core game mechanics. In Doom, this might include running around and shooting enemies. In a RTS, it might involve building up units and attacking other units. Core mechanics borrow from the world of board game design and can typically be abstractly defined in the following terms:

  • Object-oriented tokens.
  • Properties on tokens.
  • The interactions between tokens and the player as defined in an explicit set of rules.
2. Meta game mechanics
Meta game mechanics are a set of game mechanics that tie together core game mechanics. The most classic example is an RPG. The first RPGs had a simple exploration mode that gave a way of linking multiple tactical battles together. Meta game mechanics also include simple initial starting conditions and end of game rules.

3. Base Setting
The base setting is simple background information that gives context to the actions performed within the game. From a marketing perspective, setting acts as an initial hook that gets the player involved and interested in the game in the period of time before the addictive quality of the core game mechanics sets in. An example setting would be labeling a game as a 'fantasy game' or 'golf game'.

4. Contextualized Tokens (Graphics, Sound, etc.)
Graphics and sound extend the base setting and provide additional visual context for the abstract game mechanics. By providing a richer, more intuitive set of symbolic stimuli to the player, the game designer can shorten the learning curve of the core mechanics. A blocky red 'alien' from Space Invaders is difficult to recognize as 'hostile'. An enemy from the latest Doom game is much more immediately understandable as a token that must be avoided.

5. Contextualized Scenarios (Levels, Scripted Events etc)
Core game mechanics often focus on the interactions between various pre-defined game tokens. Levels and pre-scripted events exist to put the player in an emotionally interesting arrangement of tokens that support both the base setting and the contextualized tokens.

6. Overall Story
The range of emotions that core gameplay can evoke is relatively limited. The context provided by levels and scripted events allows an additional level of emotional involvement. Story brings a narrative element to that game that provides an additional wrapper of context for the actions that the player performs. This lets the designer evoke additional responses beyond what the core mechanics allow.

The hierarchy of layers
Each of these six layers build upon one another. You must have the lower layers in order to attempt the higher layers.

The metagame, for example, is impossible to create without first defining core game mechanics. The story is impossible to tell without having the ability to construct pre-defined scenarios.

Most commercial games have all six layers, but historically this has not typically been the standard. Let's briefly look at the game of chess:
  • Core gameplay: Very well defined
  • Metagame mechanics: Limited to governing the beginning and end of the game
  • Base setting: Limited to an abstract conflict between to medieval forces.
  • Contextualized tokens: Limited to rough descriptions of pawns, knights, queens, etc. In reality, the names exist primarily to support the base setting and give little, if any intuitive understanding of how the pieces operate.
  • Contextualized Scenarios: None. You could make a very tenuous argument that the two lines of tokens evoke armies facing one another, but why bother?
  • Story: None.
So you can build a very successful game without investing anything in the last two layers and paying mere lip service to the concept of contextualized tokens. In a game like Tetris, the designer really only worried about core gameplay and metagame mechanics.

A new game designer should be aware of the various layers and most importantly know that you can still make a great game without investing substancial effort in all six areas. This lesson alone can save many projects from feature creep and burnout.

The cost of investing in each layer
Each game design makes an explicit decision to invest in the various layers of the final game. When you invest human resources, you are ultimately investing money. With money comes financial risk and payoff. If the game is a success, you'll receive more money back based on your investment. If the game is a failure, you made a poor investment in the various layers of the game.

Not all game design investments are equal. In general, investments in lower layers early in the game's development have the greatest impact on the addictive qualities of your game. Investment in the higher layers have smaller impact.

However, this is not the complete story. With each change, there is always a risk of unbalancing the game's psychological risk and reward schedules. Unbalancing ruins the addictive qualities of your game and increases the chance of the game's failure. Changes to lower layers have a greater risk of unbalancing a game design, while changes to higher layers have a lesser risk of unbalancing the game design.

All of this pose some fascinating resource allocation decisions for game designers and publishers. Two extreme strategies immediately become apparent. On one hand the designer may focus on early layers and get a lot of bang for their buck. However, they dramatically increase the chances of the game being a failure since any change along the way can hurt the addictive qualities of the game. On the other hand, the designer can start with a proven addictive core game mechanic and focus their efforts on later layers. This is much more expensive, but ensures the team has a good chance of producing an addictive game that is 'better than proceeding generations'.

A method of classifying games
This is all interesting, but ends up being overly abstract for most people. Let's make it practical by showing you how you can apply these concepts to your game.

  • Take a game design and break it up into the tasks necessary to complete the project.
  • Assign each task to one of the 6 layers.
  • Put a cost (either in time or dollars, depending on your project) on each task.
  • Add up the cost of all the tasks in each category and divide them by the total project cost to get the percentage of resources you are spending in each layer.
You should end up with a distribution graph that looks something like this:

The Innovation Scale
You can also calculate a general 'innovation' scale to classify your game title by taking the weighted average of all six categories. For example, you might have something that looks like this:

Chess innovation score = (60% x 1) + (20% x 2) + (10% x 3) + (10% x 4) + (0% x 5) + (0% x 6) = 1.7 out of 6

Now we have defined a scale from 1 to 6. At one end of the scale are highly innovative titles and at the other end of the scale are highly polished titles.

Uses of the innovation scale
It should be very clear that the innovation scale relates primarily to the game developer's investment and not to the market's perception of innovation. This is intended to be a tool used by game developers who have intimate understanding of their development costs. Without development costs, it is difficult to gain an objective innovation rating across multiple titles. The layer classification scheme gives developers a 'balanced' score card management tool that lets them quickly and easily understand where they are investing their valuable resources.

This is also of use to publishers when they are balancing their portfolios. The 'genre' method of balancing portfolios is limited and punishes innovative games. The layer-based classification system takes into account risk and cost of production without culling titles because they fail to fit into an established category.

Innovation and the life cycle of genres
Genres have life cycles. They start out with the majority of titles investing heavily in lower layers of the game design. These high risk titles have lots of innovation, but very little polish. As they mature, titles invest more in the higher layers of the game design. This results in less innovation, but lower risk. These are self evident results, but it is always good to throw something obvious at a new framework.

Innovation and Indie game developers
To put it simply, independent game developers generally cannot afford to invest in the higher layers of game development. With limited resources, you can't be innovative and polished at the same time.

In my opinion, the ideal indie team is a small agile group composed primarily of programmers with only 20 to 30% artists. Such a team can compete with the best teams that EA has to offer in terms of core game mechanics. They have the luxury of being able to inexpensively and rapidly change the game design, iterating through dozens of rulesets in order to find one that offers a uniquely addictive experience.

As soon as you bring complex level design and story to the design, you lose flexibility. You lose the ability to innovate. Companies that focus on polished games have artist heavy teams and rigidly defined production cycles. This results in a huge investment in human capital and a corresponding high cost of failure. Remember, each layer builds on the preceding layers. The moment you start making changes to the core game mechanics, you send a ripple of changes all the way through the rest of the game. Content needs to be tossed or reworked.

In a innovation-oriented team, an interesting change to core game mechanics might result in a few weeks lost. In a polish oriented team, changes to core mechanics late in the development of a game can result in dozens of man years lost. Polish-oriented teams are inherently anti-innovation.

Larger teams try to balance both low layer activities and high layer activities by splitting the development into a 'prototyping' stage and a 'production' stage. The result is incremental innovation cut off short by the looming end of the prototyping stage and constrained the intense logistical demands of the production team.

The innovation-focused game team
What would happen if instead you doubled the resources spent on the traditional 'prototyping' period, worked in tight interative cycles and then shipped it the product directly to testers? Instead of levels, you use procedural content. Instead of plot, you focus on interesting reusable game objects that introduce delightful meta-game mechanics into the title. After every iteration, you have a playable game.

  • The development team follows agile development processes with rapid iterations and considerable playtesting
  • The majority of development effort is put into core mechanics and meta-game mechanics.
  • Graphics and sounds are abstract tokens only loosely connected to a base setting.
  • No level design is allowed since it is a waste of time.
  • No plot is allowed since it is a distraction.
  • Statistical metrics of player addiction are used to judge success. (How long did they play, how often did they play, were they willing to play again)
This is game design refactored. The result is an agile object-oriented system that responds swiftly to change, and does not inherently resist it like current team structures. Innovation-focused teams build radically different types of game that are guaranteed to be less expensive and shockingly more original that those produced by the current game development model.

The basic concept of 'innovation' has been discussed in vague terms for far too long. The concept of game design layers provides a framework for classifying the game developer's investment in innovation and polish oriented activities.

With hard numbers in-hand, developers can make more informed strategic business decisions regarding the balance of innovation, risk, and team structure. I believe that there is a huge opportunity in the game industry to create smaller, agile 'innovation-focused' teams. Smart game designs that are based on a deep understanding of balancing resource investment in the various game design layers have a greater probability of producing original, genre-busting game designs.

take care

Friday, April 1, 2005

My first experience with a PSP

I love gadgets. I'm a gadget crazed maniac who spends hours every week perusing Engadget and Gizmodo, drooling over the latest electronic bling-bling. I've been really quite curious about the PSP.

What I found was a mixed bag of features that targets hardcore gamers and leaves out the rest of the world. Do fanboi's really need another game platform?

The basics
The day it came out, several guys at the office grabbed a few of the shiny monstrosities. Let it be known that my first portable love is the Gameboy SP. It is small, cute and graphics be damned has some great games. The first shock of handling the PSP is how large it is. Both the DS and the PSP are not portables...they are luggables.

The next thing is inevitably the screen. Nice. Not "Wow, I'm going to sell my children to keep this", but "That's pretty neat" It is big and bright, yadda yadda yadda. Read other folk's impressions if you want to hear about the screen. Even better than the screen was the little details of the design. Clear plastic shoulder buttons? Mmm. The yellow power plug hole? Very cool. Whoever designed this case deserves a raise. It screams "I am a geek and I have the most powerful gadget ever. I will rock your world in a geek pissing contest."

But honestly, I don't really care about that sort of thing. I'm all about how a gadget 'feels' when you use it. Is it practical? Is it elegant? Are the buttons placed correctly? Give me a good UI in a decent case over a list of features any day.

Um...can I play the game now?
So we pop in Wipeout Pure. Cool intro screens and funky loading bar. Okay...That's fine. Now I'm in the menus and start wandering around to find the big shiny 'start game' button. Hmm...I can load games. Oops, there's that loading screen again. Finally, I get a game going.

But by this time I was bored. I generally have about 10 minutes to play a game on a bus ride going into work. If I have to spend two minutes screwing around with some attractive yet ultimately meaningless UI, it isn't even worth playing the game.

I guess I'm spoiled by 'press the on button. press start. play game.' I should be able to play the game in under 10 seconds.

The games
It is cruel to judge a system by it's first few games. They tend to suck since the developers are still building up their tricks of the trade. Having said so, Lumines is sweet. Admittedly, this is a game that takes about 1/50th of the PSP's processing power, but it loads quickly and is fun to play. My hope is that future developers will take this lesson into account.

The winner app
I read a post from an older fellow who said that he was happy to get a PSP because he and his wife watch TV in the evenings and he doesn't always like to watch what she watches. With his PSP, he can play games instead. The irony is so intense, I can't bear it. :-) "The PSP: Giving adults a way to ignore each other when they sit together in the living room"

All in all, the PSP is an intriguing device that will sell by the boatloads to geeky people everywhere. I can't imagine very many women purchasing it. Nor can I see it being used on commutes. The hardcore of the hardcore will buy it and they will spend dearly on it. The mags, which are populated by hardcore people, will gush over each new game. The Sony press engine will role on. Sony will hopefully make a good amount of money.

If a device like this dominates the portable game market, we further alienate the casual gamer. Maybe if we can grow the hardcore audience fast enough, that's okay. Still, a sexy device. If they ever come out with Animal Crossing on it, I'd buy it in a heart beat.