Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Super Mario Galaxy: A breakup note


Last week we picked up Super Mario Galaxy. It has always been a private shame of mine that I never truly experienced Mario 64, despite all the accolades that it has garnered. Years ago, I played for the first level, enjoyed running about and marveling at the scenery. But then, as I recall, the game became impossibly difficult. Not for all people. Just for me. Completing precision jumps across lava filled 3D chasms while ominous monstrosities slobber at my heels is my own private form of hell.


The hot hookup
But Super Mario Galaxy has received universally great reviews; it maintains an ample 97.3% on Gamerankings.com. It is also supposedly relatively easy to beat and the controls are dead simple, a stance in line with Nintendo's lovely new casual bent. So, what the heck. Targ├ęt, the local French emporium of stylish goods, had it on sale for 35 smackers. I figured I'd give it a shot.

So I plopped it in the Wii and sat through the drearily long intro movie. First impressions...the camera still sucks, but it is cool that you can tag the little star bits with the wiimote. Ooh, a spherical world. Wow, this camera really does suck! I'm suddenly navigating upside down and my head is cocked at a 90 degree angle. I barely know where my little dude is heading.

So I gamely struggle with the wonky interface up until the first black hole. I immediately drive my drunken Mario tank directly off the ledge into the hole's waiting maw. Boom, back at the beginning of the level I go. And I lose a life. Confusion sets in. Shouldn't there be like a quicksave or something that lets me try this dastardly trap again? Surely, a mistake made in a fraction of a second surely shouldn't be punished by a minute long replay penalty.

The frustration of not finding your soul mate
Oh, but it is. At this point I'm pissed. For me, the first hour of Super Mario Galaxy simply isn't any fun. It is stressful, irritating and it punishes me when I make the slightest mistake. And then it gets worse. I jumped from enjoying WiiSports to playing Super Mario Galaxy. The difference in expected play styles is quite the shock.
  • Time between failure and retry is too long: If you make a mistake, retrying again should only be less than 15 seconds away. Even a minute is too long. The easy levels of Knytt are just about right...3 to 10 seconds between retries. Something like Braid promises to be even better. Replay just as much as you need to.
  • Lack of dynamic difficulty: My wife died five times in a row trying to run around behind a giant tromping plant. How hard is it to reduce the difficulty level of an enemy if they end up blocking a player's progress? Make the monster tromp slower. Require fewer hits to kill. We build games in a one size fits all manner when the obvious reality is that there are lots of different types of players. Try to meet up half away instead of asking the player to do all the work.
  • Blocking linear challenges: Naturally, my wife quit the game after this repeated punishment. Classic burnout. Never block the player with a challenge that presents no option but continued failure. When the player is presented with challenge after challenge in a linear manner, eventually they get to one that they can't pass. Beating your head against such an obstacle is frustrating. Instead, let the player try something else. (Eventually you gain access to multiple galaxies at once, but not soon enough. Also most individual levels remain quite linear)
  • Too much of a focus on learning through failure and repetition: A good 80% of the levels teach the player new skills by killing them if they screw up. A player new to the 3D platformer genre is expected to rack up hundreds of deaths before they reach the end. Many areas require a half dozen or more attempts, each lasting minutes, before success is achieved. And this is fun?
If you fixed these things, it wouldn't be a Mario game
None of these problems are the fault of Super Mario Galaxy.
I'm playing the game incorrectly. My suggestions are like trying to improve a lover that isn't quite the right match. Mario is a game about all those things I want to fix. You see, when I play, my most happy moments are exploring and chatting with the little cute mushroom guys. All this jumping crap just gets in my way. But the point of Mario is the jumping crap.

Super Mario Galaxy is all about mastering physical skills. If you map out the skill atoms, everything relies on movement and timing. This is reptile brain stuff that is learned in one very simple manner: repetition. Remember, Karate Kid? Wax on, wax off. The game design is a slave to this biological requirement. If you want to encourage the player to master navigate a narrow path above a black hole, you need to force them to perform variations on that action a thousand times. Each failure improves our muscle memory a fraction more.

This is core of Mario:
  • Move accurately.
  • If you fail, you die and try again.
  • If you succeed, a new challenge appears where you must move with even greater accuracy.
There are of course some lovely exploration elements and cute graphics mixed in with the basic activiities. However, if you removed the core elements of timing and jumping, you wouldn't have a Mario platformer any longer.

It's not you, it's me
Sometimes, it is the player, not the design that is at fault. Somewhere along the way, I have diverged from the traditional gamer path. Those simple pleasures of twitching in sequence to bizarre spacial/temporal puzzles are lost on me. Instead of finding them fun, I find them to be obnoxious time wasters.

This goes back to the work of Chris Bateman, Nicole Lazzaro, Nicholas Lee and others exploring different play styles. Not all people enjoy the same sort of games. It's an obvious statement that is still making itself heard throughout the gaming ecosystem.

For example, on Nick Lee's motivation assessment test, I happen to score high on exploration and socializing tendencies, but don't really give a damn about in-game achievement.
  • I'll put up with fighting enemies or solving puzzles into order to see new vistas or get some coin to help outfitting my character. I'm not in it for the joy of the battle.
  • For a person like myself, Street Fighter is the single dumbest game of all time.
  • On the other hand, wandering about in Animal Crossing and planting sweet rows of pretty apple trees is pure crack.
With the advent of casual and indie games as well as the efforts on the DS and the Wii to broaden the market, I'm starting to see more games that I enjoy quite thoroughly. Games are beginning to finally emerge from their geeky, masochist roots and it delights me to no end.

I should have never listened to his advice
The rest of the ecoystem hasn't quite caught up. That 98% score for Super Mario Galaxy on gamerankings.com is so horrendously polluted by a self-selection bias that it is laughable. What percentage of the reviewers fit any of the following criteria?
  • Never played a 3D platformer.
  • Mostly enjoy casual games like Bejeweled.
  • Prefer social board games like Pictionary or Scrabble.
That's a random smattering of non-hardcore play styles and skill levels present in the broader population. I suspect you'll find less than 5% of professional game reviewers fit any of those profiles. The quality signals sent by the extraordinarily biased press are completely inappropriate for anyone who hasn't been playing games as their primary hobby for the past five years.

What will it take for the game industry to adapt to the fact that different gamers like different games? I'm not sure that expert game reviewers, describing their personal tale about their unique experience with the game, have a place in telling most people which games they should play. It's like taking dating advice from a Guild Navigator, so loaded to the gills with the spice of genre addiction that they've mutated into an alien being.

For me, the solution is all about trying the game out before I purchase. This is an area where immense improvement is possible.
  • Customers need to learn to seek out demos. They also need to refuse to buy sight unseen the products that fail to offer a free trial. This is a culture change that will likely take years to complete. It is inevitable. People don't like making $40 mistakes.
  • Developers need to learn the fine art of making great demos. A great demo is a viral marketing engine that cuts out the middleman. They improve customer satisfaction and can improve the margin that a developer takes home. There is a huge opportunity here to merge the lessons of free-to-play service models with the mechanics found in current downloadable games. Unfortunately, building a demo that provides instant value, an incentive to purchase and makes users want to pass it on to others is a skill that is rarely found at most game development shops. We are seeing some early attempts on Xbox Live, the PS3 and the DS download stations, though at the moment, the demo is often a separate from the full version. As the concepts of 'free to play' and 'demo' begin to merge, developers will need to address this disconnect.
  • Platforms need to make demos the default method of promoting a game. If a game is released in the store, I should be able to download a demo online. If your platform doesn't encourage this for most games, your customers are being punished. Ideally, customers can purchase the game from within the trial. This is already the case for the casual download market and I expect it to spread quickly into other areas of the game market.
If Super Mario Galaxy had a demo, I would have tried it out and likely given it a pass.

If only I liked you...
In a way, all this makes me sad. There is an entire herd of twitchy game developers, trained for decades to worship fare like Mario Galaxy. They are out there, busting their beautiful balls to make more games that push the same exact psychological buttons as the pedestal lounging AAA titles of their childhood. They are building some great games, but those games aren't for me.

It's like meeting a girl who is cute and smart, but really, really likes the whole dressing up their boyfriend in black duct tape and then whipping them until they bleed from unmentionable orifices. You'll eventually back away, but there is always that slightest tinge of regret.

You'll find someone
This tale has a happy ending. My wife picked up the controller after I set it down in frustration. The last platformer that she played was Super Mario Bros on the original Famicom, but she figured, what the heck. She came back from being crushed by the first boss, read the walk through sites for tips and finally defeated him. From that point onward, she's been clocking in six to eight hours a day and just picked up her 60th star. She dies over and over again. The addiction and delight on her face when she ends a level is palpable. For her, the game clicks.

Perhaps after she's done, I'll pop into the levels she's already conquered and cherry pick the handful of experiences that fit my style of play. There is a beach level with a cannon and a lagoon. There isn't much there, but it is rather relaxing to hang out with the one scaredy crab (I kill off the hurtful ones) and taking the occasional lazy swim through the pristine waters.

Conclusion
Even universal acclaim is not enough to justify a purchase. Each player has their own distinct playing style and many of these preferences are rarely captured by the hardcore journalists who review most games. Instead of complaining about the game post-purchase, it is far better to grab a demo and experience it directly. This goes for even such gems as Super Mario Galaxy.

Happy New Year,
Danc.

Updated 10:01AM, January 2nd: Clarified some of the minor bits and added a conclusion so that the main point isn't completely lost in the red haze that comes from hearing a heathen's encounter with the Holy One. :-)

References

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Naked Business

An essay on how to treat customers and employees like owners and reap the benefits.

In any meeting, a negotiator can adopt a variety of strategies. Typically, they horde information, pick apart their opponent's every move in hope of understanding hidden meaning, and ultimately attempt to gain the upper hand through manipulation. Sometimes you outsmart your opponent and win. Many times, you are so busy protecting yourself that a deal never happens.

There is a less common negotiation strategy that relies on going completely naked. Instead of hoarding information, you give it freely. You openly explain both your needs and what you have to offer. If the other person reciprocates with open arms, you can work together to capture amazing opportunities.

It occurs to me that many private companies play the game of business as a negotiation situation where their customers and employees are opponents that must be outsmarted. Many deals are left on the table. What would happen if they instead used the naked negotiation strategy? Imagine a company that says to their customers with conviction and honesty, "Here is what I have, and here is what I need. Let us work together to create mutual value."


The rules of an Open Kimono business
The following are simple rules of thumb that guide the behavior of a Naked company.
  • Rule #1 - We are all in this together: By purchasing a company's product, a customer becomes invested in company's continued success. By working at a company, an employee also becomes invested in company's continued success. In all areas, both the customer and the employee contribute to the business and deserve to share in its success as owners.

  • Rule #2 - We share information freely: Where possible, aggregate information that is shared freely within a company should be shared freely with the customers of a company. More is gained from sharing than from hoarding. We seek to build trust, empower both customers and employees, and solve problems together with the best tools possible.

  • Rule #3 - We win through the creation of superior value: In competitive situations, by erring on the side of openness and honesty, we discover mutually beneficial solutions. As a result the company succeeds by being able to offer superior value compared to those companies that attempt to get ahead through trickery or manipulation of perception.
Examples
All this is lovely sentiment, but what does it mean? The following practices might vary depending on the exact company, but here is a good start.
  • All major financial data is posted in an easy-to-comprehend fashion on the company web site
  • All major company metrics, goals and progress towards those goals are publicly posted and constantly updated.
  • Periodic customer research is performed and the results are also made available to all customers and employees.
  • 5% of profits are redistributed back to existing customers. Another 5% is given to the employees. If desired, the money can be donated to a charity or reinvested in company stock.
  • When problem areas are identified, customers are encouraged to contribute suggestion, time or resources to the solving of the problem.
Roots of the Naked business
The roots of the Naked business are quite traditional. Successful companies have been using these techniques for years.
  • Public companies: Public companies are required by law to divulge certain internal information to their stock holders. The result is that dishonest behavior is not allowed to fester for long without being exposed to the light of reality. It is debatable however, if public company's slavish devotion to quarterly stockholder gain is a positive long term strategy. A Naked company that has the transparency of a public company, but is measured on pertinent long term business metrics instead of only short term financial data.
  • Open Book Management: By sharing pertinent company information with employees, companies run by open book management empower everyone in the company to innovate towards a common goal. A Naked company uses the same technique to leverage not only the distributed power of their employees, but also the distributed networking power of their customers.
  • Market Orientation: Companies with market orientation listen to both the needs of their customers and the trends in the market when making strategic and tactical decisions. A Naked company's close two-way communication with its customers allows it to respond effectively to the latest market information.
  • Market as a community: Markets are often looked at as system in which buyers and sellers exchange value, where value is defined in financial and material terms. Yet strong emotional bonds form between buyers and sellers that can bring substantial social value to both parties. People will always seek to find meaning in their actions, yet companies often ignore this fundamental need. A Naked company provides both customers and employees with a self-contained community that encourages, nurtures, and thrives upon the creation of social value.
The case against the Naked business
When I bring this concept up to people, the inevitable reaction is "What an idealistic notion. Unfortunately, the world does not work like that." It is utterly self evident that close management of information is essential to any financially successful venture. In no particular order, the following are considered to be fatal flaws in the Naked philosophy.
  • Severe competitive disadvantage: The moment a company provides open information to the public, competitors will use that information to gain an advantage. Copycat tactics, preemptive product releases and attack ads that further publicize embarrassing information are all likely.
  • Expensive: By spending time providing reams of information, small companies are using scarce resources ineffectively. Seeking more sales or creating a improved product will yield better results.
  • Customers lack of business skills:No benefit is gained because customers lack the skills to interpret company information in any meaningful fashion.
  • Public relations nightmare: Honest publication of information means that the company will be displaying warts and all to the public. There is little opportunity to spin bad news or manage your financial data.
  • Customer relations nightmare: If you give customers a sense of empowerment, they will complain endlessly and publicly. This in turn leads to bad press and a loss of sales.
  • No one is doing this: Few profitable companies operate in this fashion. They must have already failed.
The case for a Naked business
The following are benefits of an OK company.
  • Passion: Companies with a strong vision tend to outperform those that focus solely on financial results. By building a culture around a philosophy that people can wholeheartedly believe in, employees and customers will give the extra effort necessary to ensure success.
  • Strong word of mouth presence: A company with a unique and appealing ideology stands out in the crowd. The fact that customers benefit from this ideology yields a powerful source of word of mouth advertising.
  • The customer's network is the company's network: A customer that truly believes that they are invested in a company feels comfortable sharing their contacts and resources. At the extreme end, the customer is a believer that happily volunteers for the company. A thousand customers have a larger and potentially more powerful network than a hundred employees.
  • Faster response to market change: Customers that complain or offer advice provide a highly responsive early warning system to changing needs or competitive threats.
  • Many eyes catch stupid mistakes: Strategic blunders are easier to catch when you have multiple people offering unbiased commentary.
  • Increased customer trust and loyalty: This in turn leads to retention and improved profits. Why go elsewhere when a company concretely demonstrates that it is deeply interested in listening to your needs?
  • Increased employee trust and loyalty: This also leads to retention and improved profits. Employees are the core asset of a knowledge-based company. By keeping them, you build an experience based sustainable competitive advantage.
  • One reality: The cost, both financial and psychological, of keeping multiple books, one for the public, one for the employees, and one for the investors is greatly reduced. The benefit is that customers and employees can talk the same language and use the same data to create mutually beneficial outcomes.
Key implementation areas
Let's suppose for a moment that benefits of an Open Kimono philosophy outweigh the detriments. What are the success factors that must be focused on to gain those benefits?. The follow are key implementation areas that must be addressed in order to achieve success.

  • Dedicated Leadership: Any culturally driven sustainable advantage needs to have buy-in and support at the leadership level. Words alone are meaningless. Consistent public actions by respected leaders help the cultural change permeate through the entire organization.
  • Customer and Employee Education: Data is useless unless the intended audience is capable of understanding it. Putting company information in format that is comprehensible to the customers and employees is a partial solution. Actively educating both customers and employees on the meaning and use of the data is equally important. If there is not an obvious connection between the data and the benefits received by the person digesting the data, then the system has failed.
  • Filtering through the noise: When everyone yells their opinion, it can be hard to capture any useful information. Rigorous data collection and analysis techniques can turn the outpouring of information into actionable solutions.
Conclusion
A strongly customer and employee oriented company is more likely to prosper than a profits oriented company. Profits are still important, but it is wise to remember that they are one metric amongst many. By focusing on satisfying a broad range of benefits instead of merely materialistic and financial benefits, a Naked company attracts and retains both superior quantities of customers and superior quality employees.

In the end, running a Naked company is as much a personal choice as it is a business decision. Openness, honesty, community and mutual respect are concepts I can believe in. All else being equal, what type of business would you want to devote your life to?

take care
Danc

PS: With some minor changes, this was an essay I wrote many years ago. In the subsequent years, transparency has come en vogue and it now seems everyone is spouting its praises. Which is a great thing. This message needs to be broadcast as loudly as possible lest it be lost in the morass of sub-optimizers twisting the truth in the name of profits.

References


Thursday, December 13, 2007

Random links and musings

Here are some random notes of interest:
  • Ballistic Wars: The good folks over at Easy Only! Games put together a delightful little tactics game using concepts similar to those found in SpaceCute. My hope is to see an entire genre based off this mechanic popping up. As we saw from the prototyping challenge, there are a huge number of different variants that are possible.
    http://jayisgames.com/archives/2007/12/ballistic_wars.php

  • Call for Participation for the Experimental Gameplay Sessions 2008: Johnathan Blow is out shaking the bushes to round up a few experimental games. I suspect there are likely a few folks that read this blog working on something intriguing in their spare time. Shine on, you crazy diamond.
    http://experimental-gameplay.org

  • March of commodification: Raph chats about how R&D on chat turns into commodity off the shelf software over a period of only a decade. What once needed to be built from scratch is now a simple option that can be toggled on if desired. It made me think that perhaps technology is not a company's long term competitive advantage. Instead, it is the unique (and fragile!) community that a service fosters. http://www.raphkoster.com/2007/12/12/the-march-of-commodification/

  • What we are missing: Another Raph presentation. Worth reading if you have somehow missed the joyous discussion about where online games are going.
    http://www.raphkoster.com/2007/12/06/gdc-prime-2007-what-we-are-missing/

  • Asynchronous games: The ever delightful Ian Bogost has a detailed discussion about the history of asynchronous multiplayer games. I love his use of personalized scores in Asteroids as an example for turning a single player experience into a highly social multiplayer experience. If you are a casual game developer who isn't thinking about asynchronous multiplayer experiences, you are missing out on some amazing opportunities.
    http://www.bogost.com/downloads/I.%20Bogost%20-%20Asynchronous%20Multiplay.pdf

  • Flash developers?: Do you know anyone with mad Flash/Flex skills who is interested in innovative casual games and social networking? I've got a good friend who is looking into prototyping some concepts in hopes of creating a startup. It would be ideal if they were in the Seattle/Puget Sound area. Drop me a note at danc [at] lostgarden [dot] com and I'll forward on the info.
take care
Danc.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

How to bootstrap your indie art needs


A goodly number of indie game developers are lured into Lostgarden.com by the free game graphics. Every few days an email pops into my inbox, "Hey, could you draw the graphics for my cool game design idea?"

I'm honored more than you can imagine when I get such a letter and they mean a lot to me. Unfortunately, I have my fingers in so many projects at the moment that squeezing in an additional graphics job wouldn't be doing anyone any favors. Still, it bothers me that talented people with amazing dreams can't make their games due to a lack of graphics.

Here's a run down of several techniques that help you get your game finished without being blocked by the graphics bottleneck.


Build a game that fits your level of art skills
The first path that you should go down is to build a game that fits your level of art skills. If you are a programmer and can only make squares, make a game that uses squares as graphics. It worked for Tetris and it can work for you.

At a functional level, graphics exist to provide feedback to the player, not to wow them with Hollywood-esque delights. Put those dreams of cinematic fantasms to the side and focus on the game mechanics, the interface and the level design. If you can nail all of these and you only have little ASCII art, people will still flock to your game.

Some successful games that designed the project around the developer's lack of traditional graphics skills include:
If they can do it, you can certainly finish your game without relying on an artist for graphics.

Use free graphics
The next step up is to use free graphics. There are thousands of game graphics out there on the web. Admittedly, they have problems:
  • They may not be the most attractive. "Dude, these free graphics are totally sucky compared to StarCraft."
  • They may not fit your exact mental vision. "No, the Xenli Sorcesses has four silver spikes on her bosom armor, not two. It is completely wrong!"
  • They may not be complete: "I really need a female knight and and they only supplied a male knight! The end is nigh!"
  • Other people might be using them in their games. "Argh, now my RPG looks just like the one done by that guy in Australia. *sigh* Now I will never be l33t."
My heartfelt recommendation is that you get over it. None of these is really a blocker. If you can build a game with limited art, you can certainly build a game with a few carefully chosen bits of free art. Here are some answers to common complaints.
  • You aren't Blizzard. That's okay. You can still make a fun game.
  • Design is about coming up with great solutions in the face of complex constraints. In order to design a great game, you will need to adapt your vision to reality a thousand times. Practice your problem solving skills by using free game graphics in the best way possible to get as close to your vision as possible.
  • If the set isn't complete, get creative! If you need two knight graphics, colorize one blue and one red. If you need a dragon boss, colorize one of your knights black and change the villain to be the Dark Knight. Even primitive graphics skills can triple the number of usable graphics if you show a little initiative.
  • You browse free game graphics archives, but your customers do not. Out of the thousands of people that play your game, only a small handful will recognize that you are using free graphics. The only ones who care are typically merely would-be game developers snobs. Ignore them. That is easy enough.
Here's an example of noted game developer Sean Cooper using my free tile graphics for his Flash game Boxhead. Sean has worked on Powermonger, Dungeon Keeper, Magic Carpet and Syndicate. It is instructive to observe how he uses free graphics to give his game a leg up.



Pay for competent graphics
If you absolutely must have quality custom graphics, you are going to need to pay an artist real money to produce them. There seems to be an odd opinion that that artists sit around all day doing nothing and whenever someone asks them for a painting, they scribble for a few moments and then non-nonchalantly hand over a masterpiece. Good art takes time and skill. Drawing a good tile set might take 20 or more hours. Drawing a simple background might take all day. If you aren't willing to pay for their very valuable time and effort, most competent artists will go work for someone who will.

Prices vary dramatically depending on the type of art, the quality of the art and the reputation of the artist. Expect to pay anywhere from $20 to $60 per hour. The best bet is to ask the artist what their standard rates might be. You can always negotiate, but remember if you squeeze the artist too much, you increase the chances that they will put your game on the back burner when a more appealing opportunity comes along. Negotiating for royalties is another option, but since 90% of the reason that games don't get finished is because the programmer flakes out, I would hope that most artists would be rather wary of this path.

There are numerous ways to bootstrap your art budget if you have your heart set on custom artwork.
  • Create art-free games to fund games with more polish. Release a version using free art. If it sells, reinvest the profits in creating the same exact game with better graphics.
  • Set aside a certain amount each month to pay for graphics. One fellow I know is setting aside 300 bucks a month to pay for game art. That will buy him about 2 days worth of a cheaper artist's output a month, but if he plans well enough and limits the amount of extravagant graphics in the game, this could be enough.
If you are looking for artist, you can find a reasonable collection of game artists for hire at these links. Just keep in mind that they all expect to be paid.

The one technique that doesn't work
The most common strategy I see used by would-be developers is the only one that doesn't work. They pray that they can find an amazing artist who will work for free on their game. If only they hang out on enough forums and email enough artists and beg loudly enough...a godly artist will drop from the sky and gift them with amazing artwork.

It generally doesn't happen this way. Good artists can generally find work that pays in cash. Most likely what will happen is that you'll make a deal with a starving student who immediately leaves you in a lurch as soon as something that lets them eat comes along. They aren't being mean. They are just hungry.

So the would-be game developer mopes about the message boards, complaining about artists leaving their projects and how artists constantly ask for real money. Yet despite the substancial energy that goes into these activities, I've yet to see prayer or complaining ship software.

The big lesson
Out of all this discussion about graphics, never lose sight of the big picture. The single most important thing is for you to finish your game. Iterating towards completion is the root of all practical knowledge about game development. Putting a complete game in the hands of player is how you'll learn to make your future games shake the world to its core.

If you are telling yourself "Oh, I can't complete my game because I don't have an artist," be honest with yourself. You are making excuses. Graphics are not an impediment to making a great game. Do what ever it takes to finish your game.
  • Design a game that doesn't need professional graphics.
  • Use free graphics when possible.
  • Set up a rational budget to purchase custom graphics from a professional artist if needed.
Best wishes,
Danc.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Project Horseshoe 2007 slides: Smashing the game design atom

Here are my slides (with talking notes) from Project Horseshoe. I blazed through this in about 30 minutes since dinner was waiting and there is nothing more ornery than a crew of wild haired game designers in complete glucose crash. See if you can spot the source of the infamous '8mm' meme that stalked the conference.


Since it was Halloween yesterday, let's start with a tale of horror. Not so long ago there was an experienced team, working with a known platform, and a known engine. They had just scored a popular girl friendly license valued at roughly $160 million. Their game had the potential to hit as big as Pokemon or Nintendogs.

The designer ignored all this. You see, he had always wanted to make a Zelda clone...one with the critical element that has always been missing from all Zelda games: Hardcore jumping puzzles. The designer thought, "Nintendo is smart, but how could they have missed such an obvious improvement?" Sure the license was targeted at tween girls, but tweens like big swords don't they? This was the game he personally had always wanted to play.

The team were contractually obligated to go along with the design. It had been green lighted. There were milestones tied to the completion of each voluminous chapter of the tome like design script. If the team missed the milestones, the penalties were extreme. So they crunched in happy little silos of artists, level designers and programmers, all in accordance to a strict production schedule. It was the only possible way to get all the specified content done in time for the looming holiday ship date.

Finally, as the end drew near, they sent it off to testing. Early reports come back that the jumps in the first few levels were rather clumsy. The designer relied on his gut and sent forth an email containing a new set of parameters that were intended to polish the jump mechanics.

Eventually, a month later, someone got around to playing the last few levels. Uh oh. They relied heavily on laboriously constructed jumping puzzles tuned to the old jump mechanics. The last few levels of the game were massively broken.

It was too late to fix all the early levels so they entered into a death march to rework the last few levels. Lacking time or resources, they busted their budget hiring extra crew to take up the extra workload. The game was still delayed by several months.

Surprise, surprise, the end result wasn’t a very good game. It received miserable scores, but even worse, the core audience who would have bought it on the license alone was completely alienated by the design decisions. They wanted to befriend and grow cute little animals. They didn't want to die repeatedly while being attacked by spiky monsters while scrambling through military obstacle courses.

When the licensee pulled out of the sequel, the team collapsed. The human cost was immense. Home were lost, families relocated, many were so burnt out on game development they left the industry permanently, their passion crushed.



There were a lot of problems in this tale, but the primary one was a blatant failure of the game design process at almost every level. The game designer really didn’t know what he was doing. He thought he was writing a movie script. He thought he was making a game for himself. He had no idea that the game systems he was dabbling in were deeply interconnected.

Most game design that occurs isn’t much better off. It is a combination of craft (such as cloning Zelda) and intuition (such as when he hoped that tweaking the jumping mechanics would fix all his problems.) There is no science here. No predictability.

We have the ability to do so much better. We can create a science of game design.



If we want to modernize game design and move beyond the land of craft and intuition, we need to face and conquer four great challenges. These challenges will define game design for at least the next twenty years and perhaps longer.


  • Modeling our players: What do our player really want?
  • Generating new games systems: How do we create new mechanics that serve those player needs?
  • Metrics: How and what do we test to make sure we are doing the right thing?
  • Results: How do we get the results quickly and iterate on them so we can evolve the game quickly?
If we solve these issues and start spreading the resulting practices across the industry, horror stories like the one I just told will become mostly a thing of the past. The ultimate promise of a deep pragmatic science of game design is better game, happier teams and fewer human tragedies.


We are starting to see a smattering of theorists and teams with money to burn tackling these problems. They are creating systems that save their butts from expensive design mistakes. This is damned exciting.
  • You’ve got the Halo folks tracking heat maps of where players die. Valve has been relying on metrics for years. Nintendo builds early player tests and kleenex tester right into their dev process.
  • On the game systems side you’ve got Raph’s game grammar.
  • We are starting to rely on real data to model players moods and reactions with Chris Bateman and Nicole Lazarro’s work.
The work is still at the stage where most pragmatic folks think of these systems as the domain of eccentrics. Yet, each isolated advance reminds me of the turn of the century when physics was being cracked. Brilliant theorists. Great experiments. World changing results.



All these systems are being developed in parallel. You can measure things, but you don’t know what you are supposed to measure. You can write about game grammar, but it never is anything more than a loosely applied system of egghead analysis.

Maybe, just maybe, we can come up with a unified system that tries to answer multiple challenges simultaneously. The connections are all there. We just need to put them together.

In my Seattle laboratory, I'd been working on one attempt. It mixes game grammar, player models and measurement systems into one delightfully unified game design process. I’ve got 10 minutes left to share it with you. Think I can do it?


I started with a player model. Let's assume for a moment that players are naturally inclined to wander about, sucking up tidbits of info in the hope of learning interesting new skills.


From the player model we can construct an atomic feedback loop that describes how they learn all the new skills. This basic atomic loop includes all the fundamental pieces of a game. We are taking the deconstructed analytic elements described in so many books and tying them back together into a functional system.

  • You’ve got your game system, that black box in the center of the loops.
  • You’ve got your player input
  • You've got feedback to the player
  • You have the the players cognitive model of the game.


We’ve reduced the scope to a single atom in order to making things managable and
Press button, character jumps. That’s a skill atom.



Once we have a skill atom we can say interesting things about how the player interacts with it. First, skill atoms have states.
  • The player can figure out how to jump. They can exercise that skill by jumping on things. That is mastery. We can record this.
  • The player can fail to figure out how to jump. They never touch the button again. That’s early burnout.
  • They can get bored with jumping and ever jump again. That is late burnout. We can measure this as well.


Skill atoms are chained together. You can visualize them as a directed graph. Later stage atoms depend heavily on early stage atoms.

Want to kill a Koopa? You need to jump on him. Better hope you mastered the jump skill. We can now represent that classic relationship created by Miyamoto ages ago in a visual model. The theory is slowly catching up with the experimentalists.



You can turn these little chains into big chains that describe the entire game. Here’s a skill chain of Tetris.

Skill chains are remarkably flexible and rather easy to apply to almost any game. You look for the actions the user is performing, the skills they are learning and the positive / negative feedback you’ve built into the game. Any game with explicit rewards can be diagrammed.


There are probably a goodly number of you rolling your eyes at this point. You can create pretty diagrams to analyze anything. Here we've got someone who has created a very lovely and describing diagram of a penguin defecating. This is not a helpful diagram.

We ultimately need pragmatic everyday tools, not egghead analytics. The primary reason we create skill chains is to help solve two of our outstanding challenges:
  • Get real results quickly
  • Choose the right metrics so we aren't wading through huge quantities of data.



Skill chains can be used to create a rapid, iterative test driven game design process.

If we really rapid feedback, let’s build the feedback system into the game from the very beginning. Skip the giant paper tome phase. Start with a playable system that gives you meaningful reports.

The nice thing about skill atoms is that they eminently testable. When you write code that is going to be put in front of player, define your skill atoms. Its the same conceptual ideas behind writing unit tests.
  • You have a test framework.
  • You write the tests when you write game logic.
  • You run the test suite when you run the game logic.
  • You get a clean simple report when someone plays the game.


When you write your game systems, you can instrument each and every atom. It is a relatively inexpensive process.
  • You labels the rewards
  • You label the actions

You know when and atom is touched. You know when it is inactive. All those, states, burnout, inactive, etc you can record.


Remember burnout? The next time someone plays the game, we can visualize burnout directly on our skill chain diagram. You see instantly what atoms folks are missing. Here is someone failing to figure out how to complete a single line in Tetris.


You can also look at the data in terms of feedback channels and activity graphs.

Either way you get quick, easy to decipher feedback.
  • Instead of having a team that creates customized visualizations tailored to your game, you can use a more generalized system.
  • Instead of sorting through dozens or hundreds of badly organized logs, you can see in a glance where problems are occurring.


This requires a change in your development methodology. You want people to play your game as early as possible and as often as possible. Luckily automated testing of skill atoms reduces the cost substantially compared to traditional manual tests.
  • Anytime that anyone, anywhere in the world runs you game, you get valuable play balancing information.
  • Build up a database of a thousand players and release your daily builds to three people a day for every single day of your dev cycle.
In this day of web 2.0 and connected consoles this is now a broadly accessible practice.



Once you have rapid, daily feedback in place, you can use the resulting reports to evolve your design iteratively. All this analytical game grammar silliness becomes a foundational feedback system.
  • We can regression test game designs now.
  • We can fix busted skill atoms and see how things improve the next day.
  • What happen when we refactor our designs to make them more testable? I have no idea, but it excites me.
Imagine if a system like this had been in place when the 'designer' in our horror story made his jumping tweaks. The dashboard would have gone dark almost instantly with burnout spreading across the screen.


The systems I've described today are just the beginning; rough sketch of the future, if you will.
  • Our player models are primitive.
  • Our metrics can advance dramatically in their sophistication. We are just starting to tap into biometrics
  • Our player testing systems are still expensive to run.
  • There are amazing new games waiting to be designed and evolved into stunning experiences.
The great challenges are still out there. Both the theory and practice of our science is still very being born. Sometimes I wonder, "Who is going to take game design to the next level?"



I love this picture. 1927 5th Solvay conference. Einstein, Bohr, Curie. 17 out of 29 attendees went on to win the Nobel prize.

The first conference was in 1911, almost a hundred years ago. Einstein was the youngest present. Who is the youngest person here? These quirky, brilliant people revolutionized our understanding of physics. Without their work, we wouldn’t have semi-conductors, computers or video games. They were theorists and experimenters not so different than what we have in our industry today. A small group of eggheads changed the world.

I look out at this group and I see the same potential. We’ve got the brains. We’ve got the time.

Let’s make this an amazing weekend."

take care
Danc.

PS: There was one more group photo shown immediately after the Solvay photo. It however, has been redacted due to national security concerns.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Project Horseshoe 2007: A recipe


Hola. Amigo.

First, isolate the group
I just stumbled back from Project Horseshoe, the amazingly intense game design think tank set in the deep wilderness of Texas. Ah, Texas. Armadillos sporting leprosy and overhanging trees dangling with dozens of wiggling arachnids were amongst the more colorful wildlife lurking on the isolated ranch where we stayed. There is nothing more endearing than having a conversation about virtual gods interrupted by a friendly eight-legged fiend swaying two inches in front of your nose. Did you know that wolf spiders merely cause agonizing pain and swelling? We absentmindedly brushed the curious observers aside and got back to the intense task of solving the world’s biggest game design problems. No time for spiders.

If you’ve ever wandered the halls of GDC and managed to hook up for a few golden moments of great design conversation, you understand the purest essence of Project Horseshoe. It is exactly like that, except the mind melds last for two and a half days and the intensity is magnified by an order of magnitude. Sleep is deferred, scotch consumed, and electric arcs of thought crackle. I always come away with a feeling of inevitability: “We shall change the world.

The quality of people in a small team matters
Key to all this was the quality of the people. With the esoteric topic of game design, you might expect perhaps 1 out of every 100 industry folks and perhaps 1 out of every 100,000 players to be able to have a coherent conversation. Every single chat here went deep. Concepts that typically require a few hours (or days) of build up, were grokked in minutes and then leapfrogged. All told, the various attendees, hailing from a spread of publisher, AAA, casual and academic backgrounds have already created experiences that were integral to the lives of millions of players. I've worked with some good eggs in my life, but never have I been around such concentrated brilliance.

Passion is also critical
And it was obvious this crew will inevitably create or influence the creation of a hundred million more experiences in the future. Over and over I heard the passionate sentiment that we are at the very beginning of games as revolutionary and fundamentally positive social force. To have such idealism and talent focused in the same room for a once-in-a-lifetime event was downright intoxicating. It was like witnessing the birth of quantum physics or the computer industry or modern cinema.

Include a few elements from left field
I had the honor of giving the talk that kicked off the geeky portion of the event on Thursday. George “The Fatman” Sanger introduced me by saying he told his wife he found me on the internet. Note: Craigs List ads do in fact work. "Slinky SWGD seeks walks in park." I’ll post up my slides shortly. I must admit that I was repeatedly surprised and humbled to find out that so many of my fellow attendees read this little blog. (Hay, everyone!)

Work towards are a clear, pragmatic goal
As is the yearly tradition, the working groups at Project Horseshoe will release their reports over the coming months. It would be impossible to capture everything discussed, but at least a few big ideas will surface. Practical, practical. Otherwise, it is just a bunch of egos gusting hot air. And that isn't the point.

What a rush. I’ve got another dozen fresh essays crammed into my bursting noggin. Life is absolutely glorious.

Take care
Danc.

References
Escapist writeup on the event:
http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/tag/project+horseshoe

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Constructing Artificial Emotions: A Design Experiment

My latest essay on emotion in games is up on Gamasutra. There are pretty pictures about brains. You can read it here.

It asks that simple, innocent question,"What can we do to make games evoke emotions?" The answers are more about applying the lessons of experimental psychology than the 300 hot tricks of screenwriting.

While I was looking into this topic, I read an essay in Scientific American on 'dangerous ideas' and it got me thinking about the sort of 'unthinkable' ideas in game design. This essay contains a smattering of them and I'm curious which ones you find intriguing.
  • "Games are great at causing emotions."
  • "You can replicate meaningful religious experiences with a game."
  • "Most media such as books, movies and poetry are far more about our past experiences than any inherent value of the work. "
  • "Isolating gamers from the outside world is a highly effective strategy for maintaining service contracts."
  • "In order to increase the impact of games, we must engage the body as well as the mind." The Wii Fit is just the start, baby. That slack faced hardcore couch potato experience is about to become an experience for dinosaurs (fat, emotionally stunted dinosaurs at that)
Does it hurt to say such things out loud? I have great faith in the ability of science and reality to weed out the ideas that contain no substance. Whether any of these concepts hold water will be directly up to the efforts of talented and innovative game designers. But what if one or two of them held a kernel of truth? My god, what a brilliant future lies ahead.

I am quite looking forward to your thoughts on the essay. Grab a mug of tea, find a comfy chair and dig in.

Enjoy!
Danc.

Constructing Artificial Emotions: A Design Experiment
http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/1992/constructing_artificial_emotions_.php

"What's the Big Idea" by Steve Mirsky
http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=42462F59-E7F2-99DF-3AC7F5B54F363D63&chanID=sa006&colID=15

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Lessons about failure


I happened across a wonderful nugget of design philosophy, while reading an interview with Clinton Keith, the head of High Moon Studios' technical department. It bundles up lessons from Miyamoto, the joy of failing fast and the benefits of using Stage Gate-type processes in one delightfully juicy quote.

"If you want someone to fail, you want them to fail fast, before they spend a lot of money. That's how Nintendo was. When I was working on the Dream Team [at Angel Studios], they wanted us to do this DNA-based driving game called Buggy Boogie. You had these vehicles that would eat other vehicles and adopt their powers and morph. It was really cool. But they would sign three month contracts, and Miyamoto himself would say that he did not want any documents. He would just say, "Find the fun, and I'll be back in three months to take a look at what you have."

We went through about three iterations of that. We busted our hump trying different things, but at the end of it, he kept coming back and saying that it wasn't there, and it wasn't fun. We were a new company that didn't know how to make games. After about six or nine months, he came back and said, "You guys have really worked hard, and we see the progress, but we're not seeing the product. But another opportunity has come up for a fantasy golf game, so why don't you guys work on that? In three months, we'll be back. Show us a golf game."

So rather than getting pissed off at us and canceling the contract after two years and millions of dollars, they spent just a tiny fraction of that with a small team and said, "Well, it was just a bad idea." It maintained the relationship with them, so we could go off and do something else.
The Lessons
Here are the tidbits I squeezed out:
  • Give yourself a short period of time to 'find the fun' in a design. Give a small team for a few months to iterate on a new design idea. Your goal is come up with the enjoyable core game mechanics. Toss the lengthy design docs. That can come later. If you don't have the fun core of your game, all the design docs in the world won't help your title.
  • If the fun isn't there, move on. Many ideas are bad ideas. You didn't know until you tried. Luckily game designs are a dime a dozen, so perhaps another one will be more fruitful.
  • If you do fail, it isn't the end of the world. Failure is a reasonable and obvious part of the process of creating games.
Much of how creative people see the world is marred by the success bias. We are constantly surrounded by successful, beautiful creations. It is natural to assume that somewhere out there are people who can just create an amazing game at the snap of their fingers. We look at our lump of an attempt and the comparison can be soul shattering.

What we don't see are the failures, those thousands of experiments that never made the final cut. There is a thread over at TIGsource where they are posting incomplete projects. This is the reality, the secret underbelly of both the marvelous IGD competition entries and many commercial successes. You will fail many times before you creating something amazing.

The multitude of playtests that arise from the plethora of exploratory project will inevitably give you more failures than successes. The smart folks use failures to learn and improve. Failing quickly and cheaply means you'll get to really good ideas faster. The path to success is intentionally strewn with failure. Embracing failure is a fundamental lesson of good design and one that is not taught nearly enough.

So when you look at your feeble, twitching prototype and compare it to the latest vibrant screens of some Miyamoto masterpiece, don't give up hope. He likely went down that path as well. Pick yourself up. Is there are spark of fun in your idea? Can your coax it into a bright flame? If not, you should have no regrets. For there is always the next glorious idea waiting to be explored.

take care
Danc

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Tree Story wireframes


I've been dabbling with quick wireframes to explain the design of Tree Story. There are two common ways you can look at a spec.
  • One is that of the blueprint, a plan that will be rigorously followed by production workers in order to achieve the end result. In this model, the team members are followers who are expected to implement a list of fixed details, not innovate.
  • The other is that of a communication tool. As a communication tool, you are trying to seed key concepts in your team so that they can take ownership and run with the idea during implementation. In this model, the team members are ultimate owners of the final design and the 'designer' is more of a facilitator of the process. Any spec exists only to spark conversation so that the team can build up a shared understanding of the feature's goals.



I've found that text is rather horrible as a communication tool, especially with small teams. It takes too long to iterate on and starts bogging down as soon as there is more than one person editing the document. Even worse, text fails horribly when describing anything visual or tactile.

Instead, I'm a big believer in using storyboards augmented by multiple discussions around a whiteboard, especially for early discussions. The story boards / paper prototypes can be quite concrete, but they are still visual and tactile enough for two or three people to stand around and comment on.

The iteration process is straight forward:
  • Whip up a quick storyboard. Limit yourself to spending 30 minutes to an hour on it. Make it very rough.
  • Print your latest 'official' wireframe on the biggest paper you can lay your hands on,
  • Tape it to a whiteboard and nab the first person you spot on your list of influencers.
  • Brainstorm around the idea. The taped version acts as a starting point for the conversation and an anchor if the conversation gets lost.
  • Immediately update the wireframe with the new thoughts.
  • Rehang it on the wall. Ideally look for a spot with a lot of traffic.
  • Rinse and repeat.
Within a short period of time, you have a design that:
  • Is easily understood in a glance.
  • Is understood by multiple team members. The story board acts as quick reference to your indepth conversations.
  • Is up-to-date.
  • Is a conversation starter for the rest of the team. I've had the best results when my desk is positioned near where the drawings are hung and I can leap out and chat with people wandering by.
Example wireframes
Here's a stab at some wireframes for Tree story. Sorry that we don't have a good white board built into this blog. Someone needs to fix that. :-)

The basics of communication
In Tree Story there are NPCs you can chat with. Here is how.













Picking up objects
You can also pick up objects and drop them where you desire.
















Planting seeds
A special type of object is a seed. It lets you grow new platforms in the world.








Each seed creates a different type of tree. Use different sized
trees to reach different areas or grow interesting fruit.




These were done in a vector drawing tool because I find wireframes use a lot of objects that are the same. I personally prefer to copy and paste instead of spending time redrawing. However, they could just as easily been done by hand. They are likely a bit more detailed than necessary, but I'm compensating for the rather low bandwidth nature of a blog.

take care
Danc.

Weather system
PS: Here are some additional wireframes that describe how a sunlight and weather system might work. This could be used with Clint's idea for the weather trees and machines.






Sunday, September 2, 2007

Knytt time at the end of the genre lifecycle.


The lovely exploration/platformer Knytt Stories by that Swedish genius Nicklas Nygren is available. Download it, play it and spread word of its greatness throughout the land. Knytt is the epitome of accessible indie game design and one of the few titles that I've fallen deeply, passionately and madly in love with.

Raised in the Scandinavian traditions of Linus and kindly gnomes, Nicklas is giving his entire life's work away for free. This blatant socialism shall not stand. Do you believe in human goodness? Do you believe in justice? Do you believe in fair pay for honest labor? If you enjoy the game, the crotchety shareware old timer thinks that you are morally obligated to to donate a solid chunk of cash into the Nifflas paypal account. Quality pickled herring and lingon berries don't come cheap and starvation means a fewer such amazing games in the future.

Alright. Enough promotion. Knytt Stories and its prequel the original Knytt turns my crank because they are a wonderful example of how to create a landmark game in a dying genre.



2D platformers in the niche stage

2D Platform games are past their prime. The numbers, though inevitably incomplete, do not lie.


Other than some handheld holdouts, the publishers have moved on. Much of the audience has as well. It is my belief that if an original game that was identical in competence to Sonic or Super Mario Brothers was released on the market today, it would sink without much of a trace. "Ah, a platform game" gamers would say. "I remember playing those."

I'm in the group that never fell in love in the first place. Most popular platform games just make me irritable. I just don't have the skill. I still haven't completed Super Mario Brothers and my voice turns high and giggly just looking at Contra. The legends of the platform genre are mature stage games that are intended to challenge that rarefied population of gamers who have been double jumping before they started walked.

The vast majority of the level design is usually focused on solving bizarre little timing puzzles. These have evolved over the decades. At first static platforms provided enough challenge. Then came moving platforms. And rotating platforms festooned with enemies. That shot timed patterns of spikes. That were as large your head.

The core platformer audience adores repeatedly bashing themselves against such puzzles until they can fire off symphonic jump sequences with microsecond accuracy. I, on the other hand, feel like I have mittens, the bulky leather-type they wear in harsh Northern climates, permanently welded to my misshapen paw-like appendages. I remember vaguely enjoying some of the earlier platform games. I've certainly jumped over the occasional barrel in my time for mild chuckles. However as a skills of the dedicated platformer genre addicts grew and the developer merrily upped the ante, mitten wielding folks like myself were left far, far behind.

Yet I love Knytt and am very much enjoying Knytt Stories. How do a few guys in Sweden single handedly ignite my love for a genre that I had believed long overrun and corrupted by the elite gamers of the world?

Focus on accessibility
I sent Nicklas an email a while back and he was kind enough to answer some of my questions. One response about skill level stood out.
"I wanted everyone (particularly people who usually don't play computer games) to be able to play and enjoy Knytt, that's why I didn't make it very hard. Many gamers who play a lot naturally didn't like that, but to me the game is all about the atmosphere, rather than the gameplay."
With Knytt, Nicklas focused on a broader audience by creating a game that had accessible delights. He risked the wrath of the skilled platform players and intensionally broke many of the essential conventions of the genre.

Exploration, not traditional skill-based rewards
The obvious thing that everyone notices playing Knytt is just how wonderful it is to wander from room to room seeing new sights. Many of the creatures in the original game were unique and harmless.



This is a great use of readily accessible red herring skill atoms. You don't need to be a skilled player to gain joy from seeing a wild animal grazing or discovering a cute village for the first time. These are pleasures available to even the most inexperienced of players.

As such, must of the game is structured around seeing the world. Quests for items are often not resolved by hard jumps or boss battles, but instead by wandering and being curious.

Minimize the traditional UI
"I don't really like the health bar (I avoid displaying indicators on the screen, since real life doesn't have them)."
The user interface for games in a genre evolves over time, typically becoming more complex. A user interface is much like a language. It uses symbols to convey meaning in a compact efficient form. Problems arise when users have no experience with those symbols. A health bar is the most obvious thing in the world to an experienced gamer. Yet it is confusing and meaningless to those who have not seen it.

By removing the typical UI trappings, you make the game more accessible. There are fewer things to learn at first and few things to get frustrated by. Instead, Knytt Stories goes the route of incorporating learning into the game itself. Instead of tutorial screens, you have a tutorial level. Difficulty is a switch inside the game itself.

Allow for low cost experimentation
Knytt has no lives. Save points are very liberally sprinkled about so that when you do fail a jump, you are seconds away from trying it again. Most jumps aren't fatal. Due to the lovely addition of wall climbing, you can recover from most clumsily timed jumps. Pits become opportunities for exploration, not death traps.

All of this contributes to a warm feeling of safety for the player. The game isn't out to punish them for playing and exploring. Instead, it is balanced so that the player is encouraged to try new things and see what happens. They can climb to the tallest peak and jump off to see where they land. In Mario, this is suicide. In Knytt, it is a joyful act of play that has very few negative consequences and a large potential reward. What if an adorable little village lay at the end of that epic jump?

This is perhaps one of the failings of Knytt's sequel, Knytt Stories. Enemies, ineffective as they might be, litter the landscape with much great frequency. The result is you play with a bit more paranoia and dab less experimentation. By increasing the immediate challenge, the player is less likely to engage in the more unique and accessible pleasures of exploration.

Layer difficulty
Perhaps paradoxically, Knytt Stories can be a brutally hard game. You can spend hours searching out the last secrets or grinding through a seemingly infinite set of new levels. Yet even a casual gamer can complete the main scenario in an evening or two without swearing once.

You don't need to sacrifice the hardcore audience in order to make your game accessible. Instead, you can layer the difficulty levels in the game. Here are some of the techniques that Knytt Stories uses to great effect.
  • Keys: Hidden in very secret places throughout the maps are keys. You can play through the game without noticing them at all. The expert player makes it their mission to find all of them.
  • Optional jumps: There are multiple paths through a level. The main paths are very low skill. The optional paths require higher skills to reach.
  • User created levels: By including a level editor, Nicklas encourages folks to make levels to their liking. The result is a slew of 'hard' and 'very hard' levels that skilled players can load at their leisure.
By designing all high difficulty challenges to be optional, Knytt Stories still maintains its accessibility to the new user without alienating the more advanced player. In fact, I'd recommend taking someone off the street that has never played a game in your genre and seeing if they can play through your title and reach the end. If they can't, try turning the difficult portions into optional expert challenges.

Accessibility issues
As accessible as Knytt is, it does have some issues that may hold it back from broader adoption. For one, the art style relies on a deep appreciation of old school pixel art aesthetics that may be difficult to grok for many game virgins. As someone from that culture, the game is gorgeous and highly evocative. I'm curious how it might appeal to people outside the gaming culture. I'd like to imagine that retro is cool these days, but I have no data to support such hopeful musings.

Secondly, the game lacks any sort of marketing or awareness. Nintendo and Microsoft can force a new game into the public consciousness with their lavish marketing campaigns. Knytt is a simple little game on an unassuming website. Its fans are a tiny community with few ties to the larger world.

It unfortunately doesn't matter how accessible you make your game play if people don't know about the game and fail to trial it.

Conclusion
I could go on and on about Knytt and Knytt Stories since they are rife with some truly great design decisions. This is the game that opened my eyes to the immense design possibilities still present in 2D platformer game mechanics. More generally, the design of Knytt points to one formula for resurrecting a dying genre.
  • Focus on accessibility: Serve the needs and skills of the broader audience, not the existing genre addicts.
  • Exploration, not traditional skill-based rewards: Build the game around broadly enjoyable activities like exploration and discovery of evocative places, not those that results from grokking advanced skills.
  • Minimize the traditional UI: Don't assume the standards are necessary or even desirable.
  • Allow for low cost experimentation: Build an atmosphere of safety and experimentation
  • Layer difficulty: Make the hardcore game play optional.
What would happen if you applied this formula to an RTS title? Or an adventure game? Or a FPS? I suspect you'd end up with a fascinating title that quite a few people would want to play.

As an experiment, tell your spouse about this game. Tell her (or him!) it is like reading a great children's story and will make her life better. If she enjoys it, ask her to tell all her friends about the game. Record those things about the game that she dislikes. This is great fodder for your future designs.

If I were Sony, Nintendo or the folks over at Xbox Live, I would be pounding on Nicklas' door with a juicy downloadable contract in hand. Add a spare programmer or two and a dash or marketing, and this game could easily turn into a breakthrough brand. That route may not embody the Nifflas philosophy, but at least he should have the opportunity.

take care
Danc.

References

Evolving platform mechanics: It seems that there is a burbling of interest in the platform-esque game mechanics.
  • Braid: More traditional puzzle focused fare, albeit with quite original time-based mechanics.
  • Aquaria: Another upcoming 2d scroller that seems to have a bit of an exploration element. Perhaps not a traditional platformer, but I'm flexible.
  • Tree Story: A design sketch of my own that is a mix between Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon and a platform game. The movement technique need not determine the focus of the game.
Nifflas Games: Home of Knytt and Knytt Stories. Yes, both of them are completely free and provide a more memorable experience than easily 90% of the drek sold at Gamestop.
You can show your appreciation by donating directly to Nifflas using the link below. He runs an Open Kimono business, so you can see exactly how he spends his well earned gains. I think the word is 'frugally'