Wednesday, February 13, 2008

GDC: Social lessons of years past

I'll be off at GDC in San Francisco all next week. It is always fun to meet up with folks that stop by the blog, so if you want to chat I'll be at the blogger meet up on Wednesday near the IDGA booth. If that doesn't work,send me a note at danc [at] lostgarden [dot] com and we'll figure something out. It should be a great week.

It is easy to forget, in the rush of learning the newest lessons about games, that a lot of wonderful thought has already passed through the hallowed halls of GDC. As an ode to what we've learned so far, I wanted to share with you an excerpt from a talk that Dani Bunten Berry gave over a decade ago. She was one of the early champions of multiplayer digital game design. Her list is still pure gold.

Good Multi-player Design Elements
by Dani Bunten Berry, Copyright 1997

"Here comes my annual punch list of things to consider when designing multi-player games updated and expanded from last year based on what we've learned:

  • Build in the "Norm Effect" if at all possible. This is named for the character from "Cheers" who when he enters the bar is greeted by everyone calling his name in unison. Pitiful old IRC chat-rooms can provide some of this effect so surely we can find some way to welcome people into our game environments.
  • "Zero sum" is bad. Games where I win and you lose are bad. Worse still is "I win and all the rest of you lose". Notwithstanding the current cultural obsession with endzone strutting by winners, losers do not enjoy themselves and if you can help take the sting out of it, you should. Alliances, cooperative play, ranked "winners" rather than "A winner" with a bunch of losers are all options.
  • Pacing needs variety. Slow periods should follow intense ones and forced "time-outs" can offer opportunities to socialize, catch your breath and anticipate things to come. Remember, the players no longer have a "pause key" as they did in a solo-game.
  • Strategies need "wiggle room". People have different personal styles and when playing against each other it's great to let them "do it their own way" rather than a single approach that all must follow. If possible you should balance the game such that a strategic planner for instance might not always beat the joystick jockey or the detailed tactical type. A game that allows for diverse people to play diverse ways is always best.
  • Legends must grow. Provide ways for players to carry their experiences with them. "Game films" are an excellent (and reasonably cost-effective option) in games where what's sent between the player's computers is a stream of "deltas". Saving that stream and running it back through the game engine provides an opportunity to review what happened during the game. This turns an ephemeral, fast paced experience into a story that can be used to "save face" if the player lost, to learn how to win or just to chronicle their accomplishments. At the very least, try to include ongoing statistics or character attributes outside the environment of a single game execution.
  • Court your newbies. Nothing will destroy a player's interest in your game quicker than being humiliated a few times when they are just trying to figure out what to do. If possible build in inducements for advanced players to help newbies in order to get something to advance further in the game environment -- like taking an "apprentice" might be the only path to "master rank". At the very least try to make starting as safe on player's egos as you can.
  • Allow personalization. Let players define their own icons that the others see or somehow personalize their own game space. A big part of the enjoyment of being with others is expressing yourself. A bunch of player avatars all dressed from the same menu gives me the creeps. Encourage graffiti.
  • Keep the features down. When humans play each other there's this "he thinks that I think that he thinks …" kind of mental gymnastics taking place. This is far more interesting than another unit type or another option to evaluate to almost everyone.
  • Include audio/visual subtleties. People are remarkably good at recognizing patterns almost subconsciously and they also find it rewarding. A couple of pixels blinking in the corner of the screen and a small sound effect that allude to a possibility allows a player to feel very astute when they can put it together with an outcome. This can also facilitate the personal playing style mentioned above since some folks are better at it than others.
  • Avoid numbers. Almost no one enjoys calculations. (At least no one "normal"). Humans prefer heuristic (rules of thumb) relationships or continuous equations far more. The heuristics feel good when you figure them out and the continuous equations can only be predicted which also seems to scratch an itch in our brains.
  • Include spectators. Leave room for "lurkers" to watch games being played and even to effect them in minor ways if possible. A design that includes taking turns, which makes the other players spectators for part of the time, can be interesting if what the player is doing has an effect on them, is interesting to watch and they can tease, taunt and kibitz while watching.
  • Facilitate relationships. Allow players to form clubs, clans, groups and facilitate scheduled as well impromptu meetings online. Help strangers mix and friends find each other.
  • Use time limits. Whenever possible design your game so it can be played within a fixed time limit. This will allow people to schedule their involvement. A game you can play a couple of times in an evening would be a good design goal. If you can't end the game at specific times try to at least facilitate a graceful exit opportunity such that a player quits while they are having fun and not after they're so exhausted they'll never come back again.
  • Include chance. Although most players hate the idea of random events that will destroy their nice safe predictable strategies, nothing keeps a game alive like a wrench in the works. Do not allow players to decide this issue. They don't know it but we're offering them an excuse for when they lose ("It was that damn random event that did me in!") and an opportunity to "beat the odds" when they win.
  • Keep the balance. Try to keep the distance between the losers and the winners small enough that the outcome is in doubt as long as possible. You can adjust random events, attrition factors or whatever. They'll thank you for keeping the games interesting even though you should probably not tell them what you're doing.
  • Include cooperation. Even in basically competitive games you can allow for alliances, collusion or at least less cutthroat behavior. In M.U.L.E. I used an interesting trick that would not allow a "Winner" unless a certain threshold of colony success was reached. In order to win players had to sometimes help each other out so the whole colony would thrive thus making the balance closer and play more interesting.
  • Make 'em stay. Figure out incentives to keep players to stay till the end of a game. It ruins everyone's fun when players bail out prematurely. At the very least you can publish the percent of the time they bailed.
  • Allow handicapping. Let players handicap themselves if they want. Some players are willing to play with one hand behind their back so let them. (The most common use of this will be parents and kids playing together).
  • Facilitate special events. "Magical appearances" (scheduled and otherwise) in FRPs are cool. Strategy game tournaments (sanctioned and not) are too.
  • Leave room for ads. Banners will be around for a while. You might even want to let Nike outfit your monsters with shoes - for a price. Be creative."
The full talk:
Some more about Dani Bunten Berry:
See you at GDC!


  1. Good stuff...every once and a while GDC really comes through

  2. Can't wait to see you at GDC Danc.

    I hope the creators of Little Big Planet were at this talk, oh so many years ago. :)


  3. very insightful. thanks for sharing.

    Though if we let spectators talk, wouldn't that create too much disruption? or is that disruption part of the plan to "keep the balance." >:D

  4. Daniel,
    This has nothing to do with your blog site, but this was the only way for me to reach to you via e-mail. I just wanted to thank you for the dinner on Saturday. Conversation with you always intrigues me a lot. I enjoyed the talk more than the food, which is rare thing to happen to me. I hope Aya did not hurt herself with my glasses when she tried to kiss me goodbye.