Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy 2011: Celebrating frontiers in Game Design

When the frontiers go away, culture turns inward and begins eating itself.  For a brief period of time at the turn of the century, we saw our beloved game industry fall into the trap of thinking 'there is nothing new under the sun.' It was a dark time where risk adverse publishers and platform owners made bigger bets on more-of-the-same.  Independent developers were dropping like flies.  Bloodier methods of shooting demonized minorities in the head were considered to be "innovation".

Thankfully, new frontiers emerged as the old inward looking industry has shattered into multiple billion dollar markets seeking to bring gaming to the rest of the world. Mobile and Social games are just the tip of the iceberg of the evolutionary explosion that is pushing games into every crevice of society. Look around! The grand spirit of exploration and innovation is once again thriving like almost no other time in gaming history.

To ring in 2011, here is a list of frontiers in game design.  This list is not complete, but it gives some hint at the vast breadth of games still left to be designed.  If you come across someone who claims that all games have already been designed or that game design is a solved problem, show them this list.  And then challenge them to stop fiddling about with over-exploited games from decades past and make something new and wonderful that will change the world.  Go west, young man.

What is a frontier?

My rules of thumb for defining a game design frontier:
  • Can you easily create a new genre of game?  A game like Flight Control defines the line drawing genre on mobile devices.  This is an entirely new and deep placespace that designers will be exploring for years to come.  
  • Can you use an old genre to reach a new audience?  It doesn't matter that social games use systems beloved by 14-year old boys playing BBS door games 20-years ago.  The frontier arises from adapting those systems into a game enjoyed by 45-year old moms. 

Frontiers in Game mechanics

Game mechanics are the systems that beat at the heart of the game.  They are unique combinations of rules, feedback and interfaces that create a playspace within which the player gains deep skills.  Of all the frontiers, new game mechanics creates the boldest and most wide ranging opportunities. 
  • Social games:  Games that tap the social networks in order to improve relationships and facilitate developer controlled distribution.  Facebook has staked out an obvious stand, but email, mobile phones and Twitter all have roles to play.  Any system where you can communicate asynchronously with other people enables social gameplay. Think big and don't be blinded by erudite fear mongers braying about Farmville.  One lone tree does not define the forest of opportunity. 
  • Board and card games:  The wave of new design that came out of Germany is still spreading and recombining in new ways. New mechanics appear on a regular basis and new genres (such as the deck building game popularized by Dominion) keep popping up.  Board games are the ancient soul of game design and the fact that innovation is still possible after thousands of years gives me immense hope for the future of games. 
  • Touch-based game:  All games are built of a foundation their most fundamental interactive verbs.  For years, the most basic verb has been 'push the button'.  Now we have a radical new vocabulary of swiping, flicking and pinching.  If a platform game is about the joy of movement using buttons what foundational new genres will emerge from touch interfaces? 
  • Motion-based games:  Take all the possibilities of touch-based gaming and multiply the design challenges by 10x.  Using the human body as a controller rips asunder our most basic assumption of how to interact with a machine. Also our bodies are intimately tied to how we feel emotion and experience the world. There are deep skills and new pathways of applied psychology just waiting to be turned into games. 
  • Story games:  The old genre of roleplaying games has spawned a new set of stripped down mechanics that minimize combat and maximize player generated stories. 
  • Art games:  How can systems convey messages?  Jason Rohrer's work exemplifies both the aesthetics and the power of this game design movement. 
  • Performance games:  Game no longer need to exist in the living room.  Performance games involve groups of people coming together to play new games.  They turn streets into a Pacman games or Grocery carts into a multi-player game of Asteroids. 
  • Music games: A product such as Rock Band 3 hints at what can happen when games help unlock mastery of centuries of music and culture.  Games can act as training systems that rely on intrinsic motivation and are scalable to millions at minimal incremental cost.  At stake is nothing less than the radical commoditization of learning to play music by reducing both monetary and psychological entry barriers.   
  • Exercise games:  What if exercise was social, inexpensive, varied and fun instead of a repetitive, expensive chore?  The new generation of gamers will be athletes, not couch potatoes.  The next 5-year increase in human life span will come from gamers living healthy lives reinforced by the games they play. 
  • Gamification:  Games are applied psychology and can used to improve the experience of almost any process in the world today, from blogging to CRM to using Microsoft Word.  Games are the next evolution of modern user experience and usability design. Instead of merely asking how to make a task possible or efficient, games ask "How do we transform a task into a delight?"  Games can return humanity to the mechanical processes of the modern world. 
  • Location games:  As mobile phones with GPS proliferate, we can track our position in the physical world across huge populations of potential players.  What are game designs that make location and a sense of place matter?
  • Pan-media games: Alternate reality games weave stories and community driven puzzles across websites, social networks, TV ads, chat, toys and print.  How do we make powerful games that layer an alternate world over the top of our world and enable communities to interact with our evolving dance of creation using all the modern media available?  Why limit yourself to a single screen?
  • Augmented reality games:  Image processing lets us place virtual objects in images and video, annotating and transforming the everyday into reality plus. 
  • Creativity games:  When you ditch the idea that games are acts of absolutely authorial control, you realize that the act of playing is an act of creation. Let's multiply this player impulse, not constrain it.  User generated content games like Minecraft or Spore hint at the creation of of dozens of future communities of creative individuals.  Inside these community are artistic works enabled and facilitated by the game worlds we create.  What happens when designers give up direct authorial control and empower millions of players to build a utopia?
  • Conference games: Anywhere there is a concentration of like minded people, you can build a game that creates deeper connections.  A slew of conference games, played with pamphlets and business cards transform the often unreliable networking process into a joyful act of structured exploration.  Can you help connect the minds of the professionals who are busy pushing forward business, research and more?
  • Education games:  At the pace of a tortoise moving towards a treat spotted many hours ago, the educational community has started making educational games worth a damn.  Since games enable players to gain an experiential understanding of complex models, they are one of the few ways of teaching wisdom instead of rote book learning. The tricky bit? Games are great at teaching, but you need to make great games first and foremost.  The influx of real game developers driving the efforts has produced wonderfully playable titles like CellCraft and there are dozens of similar projects occurring throughout the world. 
  • Massively concurrent games:  What games can you build with 10,000 people playing at once?  1 vs 100 was a start, but there are opportunities in stadiums, movie theaters, flash mobs and of course online. As populations of players scale, the psychology of player inactions shifts and entirely new designs need to be deployed.  Yet the payoff is impressive; if 100,000 people spent fifteen minutes doing something meaningful, what could they accomplish?
  • High retention games: With the advent of metrics, we are finally realizing how few people play our games for any length of time. The last third of your game?  Sorry, didn't play it.  Metric combined with iterative design finally give us the power to tune our games so they actually work as we think they should work.  With the next generation of metrics, we are gaining new insights into intrinsic motivation.  What makes people tick?  What makes them happy?  What improves their lives? As a result, we have the tools to make better games. You can no longer fake it and try to claim success with handwaving comments about art and meaning.  If your game sucks, people leave. Can you make empirically validated games that deliver enough meaning and value that smart, informed people want to play for long periods of time?   

Frontiers in Business models

The other way to create new genres is to create games that fit new business models.  These impose new constraints and open up new ways of thinking about play. 
  • Games as services: For much of the past two decades, games have been treated as consumable media: you play a game, beat it and move on to the next tasty treat. When a game is run as a service, we are running an endless game that grows and evolves with the community.   Most are inherently multi-player and can just as easily be described as economies, governments or clubs as they can a game.  Such games are not media.  They are entirely new cultures, some of which will outlive their founders.  
  • Free-to-play games:  Games have finally broken free of the shackles of a single fixed price model.  Now players can try a game, see if they like it and pay a little or a lot in order to experience more. This single development opens games to massive audiences that never before would have paid 60 bucks for a new experience they may not enjoy.   
  • Downloadable console games:  With smaller download budgets and long tail competition, larger developers are forced to give up many of their wasteful AAA ways and find the fun in small packages.  Though platforms and publishers are desperate to maintain their demeaning practices of control and leverage over contractually enslaved developers, market pressures have so far enabled small bursts of innovation to flourish on consoles for the first time in many years.  Enjoy the now fading days of summer while it lasts. 
  • Downloadable PC games:  The indie movement combined with relatively hands off distribution partners like Steam offer both a means of making money and freedom to create new types of games.  Online communities help drive marketing and it is telling that the downloadable smash hit of the year, Minecraft, came out on PC, not the console. 
  • Sponsored games: Traditional companies have awoken to the fact that hundreds of millions of people play games and they want to either own this ability (Disney) or to have the experiences that games create associated with their products. 
  • Viral distribution systems: Developers are traditionally screwed because middle men control monetization and distribution.  Viral distribution systems lets savvy developers empower players to distribute their game, reducing the power of the middle men and freeing developers from entangling relationships. 
  • In game payments and offers: The vast array of payment system puts monetization in the hands of the developer, not the distribution channels, creating a new path for developers to gain independence from the sharecropping models practiced by publishers and retail channels.  There are rotten spots growing in the form of Facebook and Apple's emerging payment monopolies.  Ultimately, the value driven by the game design is what player are buying.  With this in mind, smart developers should carve out niches where they keep the majority of the value and payment providers are slowly but surely forced to become low cost providers of baseline services.  
  • Publicly funded games: Outside of the United States (where we are still arguing about evolution), games are considered a meaningful art that contributes to the economy and culture of a country.  Canada, Australia, Singapore and many others offer low cost grants for teams that want to make games.  Most new teams need traditional publisher funding like a slave needs an owner.  

Frontiers in platforms

  • Browser games:  At 500 million and growing, games played in browsers represent one of the largest gaming platforms on the planet.  Flash is the current mainstay and 3D is barely present in the form of Unity.  But the important thing about browser games is the reach.  
  • Mobile games:  We are starting to carry games with us wherever we go.  What will you do with a billion potential players, always on internet, GPS, address books, in-game payments, augmented reality and a device that is within reach every waking second of the day?
  • Tablet games:  Games for tablets mean new UI conventions and new multiplayer models (gather everyone around the table)  The cross pollination between tablet games, smartphone games and board games is going to create some inevitable classics.  
  • The plethora of screens:  eReaders are really just the tip of the iceberg.  My electric toothbrush has a screen now and I play a game on it every night. Anything with a screen can play games.  They don't need to be fast screens.  They don't need to be big screens.  Great games happen in the player's head.  All we need as game designers is some basic feedback systems and an input method.  With that, we can put games anywhere. 

Fading opportunities

There are really only three fading opportunities that come to mind.
  • Retail games:  The retail market has long been a cesspool of corrupt distribution practices, crippled monetization, entrenched middlemen and oppressed developers meekly serving the Man.  It is still possible to innovate here, but your chances are reduced by an order of magnitude for every layer of management piled atop the line developers. 
  • Casual games:  There are three, maybe four stagnant genres left powering (Hidden object/Adventure, Time management, Match Three) the casual games market.  With the deadly drop in prices during the recession and the enormous power of portals like Big Fish, developers have retained almost zero bargaining power.  Innovation rarely flourishes and the death crawl towards bigger budgets and winner-takes-all releases is in full swing.  Games with bloated production values like Drawn just make me sad.  We've been there.  We went down the path of prettier graphics.  Notice that the adventure genre has died before?  Ever wonder why?
  • MMOs and virtual worlds: Somewhere along the line, the MMO genres calcified. Old mechanics turned into religious commandments, bright experiments floundered and innovation stopped. Instead of building better games, we got prettier graphics and more baroque consumable content. The next deluge of overstuffed AAA games just hasten the genre decline with their expensive and inevitable implosions. There was a brief ray of hope with F2P RPGs and kids MMOs, but this spurt appears short lived.  The interesting lessons of these games have been stripped out and rendered down into the overly simple rules that drive many social games.   I have some hope.  It is still possible for independent companies to enter the market without the help of publishers/operators and create a new game that turns genre conventions upside down.  If anything, it will be a team from the social games space or the browser space.  Such a team could create an accidental variant of an MMO that ends up reigniting the market.  Fingers crossed.


In the past few years, we've seen the emergence of two multi-billion dollar markets in the form of social and mobile games.  This is only the beginning.  Expect another billion dollar market to emerge in the next 5 years and at least three new billion dollar markets to pop up over the next ten years.  The game industry is dead.  Long live the game industries.

The people who tap these opportunities will not be those that stayed at home sucking down a steady paycheck from an aging company mired in incestuous politics and egotistical dreams.  It will be the designers who strike out and tackle the frontiers head on.  Be the settler of a dangerous new land.  Define the new face of games for the coming decades.

Happy New Year.  May you have an amazing 2011.

PS: Big thanks to the crew at Project Horseshoe and Nick Fortugno in particular for starting this conversation one late night when we had absolutely no right to be up and still talking.  What are we? Giddy teenagers at a sleepover?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Story as evolutionary success or failure lessons

Idle thoughts for a rainy December evening.

Viral player stories.  When you create games with deep systems, player run into amazing, emergent scenarios on a regular basis.  From these moments of player experience grow myths and legends.  Players tell them.  Press repeats them. Your game goes viral without requiring any of the whirring, queasy machinations of your local social network dealer.

Why does this occur?  It happens without prompting.  It requires no points, no bribes.  It is as if, after the right experience, the urge to tell stories bubbles up innately from inside even the least imaginative human.

A story, at an evolutionary level, is a lesson in success or failure intended to improve the survival rate of the tribe.  This is why we create them.  This is why we share them.  This is why we consume them.  Like play, story (even fiction) serves a function. Good stories were at one point a matter of life, death and reproduction. Humans have a nose for truths and when we spot them amidst the maelstrom of daily experience, we instinctively share them.

When we, as game designers, create meaningful systems whose depths are only revealed after a process of deep mastery, players instinctively extract stories from their experiences within these playscapes and pass them on to their friends and family. "When I kicked the soccer ball, my foot slide on the wet grass and I heard a distant sickening crunch in my knee." To experience a unique lesson that you've learned in your bones after a thousand trials is to hold a treasure.  And being human, we can't help but share. Over and over and over again.

A critical realization for a game designer is that meaningful success and failure, the basis of stories, can only exist in the context of the systems and value structures we design.  A gripping tale of trust crushed in a game such as Eve exists because a designer made a very explicit set of rules that defined the concept of economic value and politics and trust.  Remove the value structures inherent in the design and the stories go away.

One sign of a great game is therefore not the story that the designer tells, but instead one that contains mechanics robust enough to yield player experiences rife with lessons that must be shared. As an exercise, look at the mechanic (apples, trees, 9.8m/s^2) and the story of gravity (Apple falls on Newton's head) as two distinctly separate elements. The designer's role is not to tell the story of Newton and the apple. Players will perform that service just fine.  Instead, our unique role in the process is to define and polish the system of gravity.

Don't build games in order to tell a single story. Build meaningful systems that create an explosion of culture, spread by the players who are absolutely thrilled to share what they've learned.

take care,

Nethack, Populous, Lemmings, Sims, SimCity, Minecraft, Spelunky, Fantastic Contraption, Dwarf Fortress, Team Fortress, Ultima Online, Civilization and some I've forgotten.  Any others that you feel compelled to share?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Steambirds: Survival: Goodbye Handcrafted Levels

Steambirds: Survival, the sequel to our original steampunk airplane strategy game was just released today.   You can go play it right now at

Steambirds: Survival takes place on a grim fall morning at the start of the Battle of London.  The British forces are taken by surprise as thousands of Axis steam-planes descend upon the doomed city.  Outnumbered and outgunned, your heroic mission is to delay the invaders long enough that a handful of civilians might escape the genocidal gas attacks.  You have one plane.  How long can you last?

David has a great post about how we integrated microtransactions, but today I wanted to focus on a couple of design lessons that came up while building Steambirds: Survivial.
  • Removing handcraft levels as a method of finding deeper fun
  • Create game modes, not levels 
  • Corollary: Focusing on static levels decreases the depth of your game.

Find deeper fun by killing levels

Steambirds: Survival started with the observation that the core mechanic of maneuvering planes was fun independent of the level design.  When we were building the first game, we'd toss in enemy planes nearly at random and interesting combat scenarios would emerge.  My personal design process is highly exploratory:  I examine a working prototype, identify whiffs of an opportunity and then attempt to amplify those desirable moments in the next iteration. The lack of levels was one such opportunity.

What if we built a version of Steambirds that relied entirely on randomly generated levels where planes came at you in ever increasing waves?  In essence, create the Steambirds version of Gears of War 'Horde mode'.  This path harkens back to the escalating arcade mode found in Asteroids, Space Invaders or most traditional arcade games.

At first, we randomly spawned planes and saw how the game played out.  Then we polished the systems until the game was fun to play every single time. I observed several higher level attributes of this design process.
  • No preferred perspective: We were forced experience the gameplay from a variety of perspectives.   When I create static levels, it is  easy to quickly fall into a rut where I start polishing the experience for one or two 'correct' paths.  If a specific scenario is too powerful, I might simply adjust the health of an individual enemy instance so the player has less difficulty. The result is localized polish that translates into shallow gameplay. With random levels, this class of tweaking is impossible.

Fig 1: Polishing a single scenario and a single success path leads to polishing only a narrow portion of the playspace
  • System-level iteration: In order to polish the experience, we instead needed to iterate and polish at the system-level, not the content level.  Most changes occurred in the planes, powerups and scoring. These are systems that affected the entire player experience.  In the end, a much broader playspace ends up being polished. 
Fig 2: Polishing a variety of scenarios leads to polishing a broad set of systems that yields a deep playspace
  • Depth through new systems:  When the game wasn't engaging, we added new systems such as having downed planes drop powerups. A more traditional approach might be to manually create more detailed scenarios with surprise plot points where a pack of planes pop out of a hidden cloud when you collide with a pre-determined trigger.  However, by instead focusing on new general systems, we created an entire universe of fascinating tactical possibilities.  Do you head for the heal powerup or do you turn to face the Dart at 6 o'clock?  That's a meaningful decision driven by systems, not a cheap authored thrill. 
The self imposed constraint of avoiding the creation of static content in the form of hand crafted levels resulted in a game that is in my humble opinion, more enjoyable than the original Steambirds.  Personally, I'm going to continue using this philosophy of limiting static levels in future games because I see the following benefits
  • More game for less overall effort:  You can play Steambirds: Survival for dozens (if not hundreds) of delightful hours.  Yet development time was considerably less than if we had handcrafted an equivalent number of puzzle levels. . 
  • Deeper gameplay with a longer mastery curve.  I've played a lot of Steambirds: Survival and I still find new skills and tricks that keep me coming back.  At a certain level of depth, a game transcends being a disposible blip and turns into a life-long hobby.  We aren't quite yet at a hobby-class activity with Steambirds, but this design process inevitably leads us there.  As a designer, I feel like I'm wasting my life when I create a disposable game. I feel like I've contributed in a meaningful way if I can create an evergreen activity that attracts a community that last far into the future. 

Create game modes, not levels

As designers, we have access to a much broader exploration of the space created by a set of game rules than is available to the player.  During development, it is common to run crazy experiments where speed is doubled or health knocked down to nothing.  Most of these variations are unplayable, so we chop them from the final product.

Yet a handful of tweaks end up being fascinating.   I think of these areas much like the Goldilocks zone for planets.  In order for life to exist, a planet must be close enough to the sun to be warm and far enough away so that it isn't boiled.   These two factors create a thin band around a sun in which a habitable planet may exist.  The same thing happens with games.  You push a particular variable too far and the game stops being enjoyable.  But within a certain range, the possibility for fun exists.  This experimentation helps use define the valid playspace for a particular set of mechanics. 

For Steambirds Survival, we took some time to discover the limits of the combat system.  We spent hours tweaking various variables, and testing to see if they were fun.  The goals was to build a multi-dimensional map of where the fun lurked in the Steambirds mechanics.  In the end, we took snapshot of the various gameplay variables in 24 initial states and saved these out as unique planes that you can play.  The long range sniping Aught Nine plays quite differently from a delicately swooping Chickadee-S518  The result is really 24 game modes, each of which is infinitely playable.

Level design vs initial conditions

How is this different from level design?

  • Instead of creating content that can be enjoyed only a handful of times, we are setting up game modes that can be played a very large number of times. 
  • How each mode unfolds is primarily determined by game mechanics, not a set of scripted events.  As a result there is a very wide range of possible scenarios, not a single predetermined outcome. 
  • Modes are modular, robust and loosely coupled so that tweaking critical values is rarely damaging to the mode's fun.  Level design is fragile because you are trying to squeeze fun out of a very narrow playspace.  One tiny mistake and the experience is broken. However, when you have a big broad playspace and you've plunked the player smack in the middle of a wide Goldilocks zone, you have a lot of room to push variables about without harming the rich pleasures of the game. 

Mapping the playspace

Here's the process I used to map the playspace and create the various play modes. 
  • Identify: Identify the variables.  Many of the important variables in the original Steambirds were hidden away in code.  Andy surfaced these in an XML file so they could be readily tweaked. 
  • Explore: Methodically explore the space.  I created a matrix of planes, each with one variable pushed to the extreme.  Then I played them.   The majority were unplayable and I'm not sure a single one made it into the final game.  However, through the process of testing concrete variations, I gained a sense for what worked and what didn't.  I was mapping out the Goldilocks zone. 
  • Theorize:  Now that I had some data, I created theories for fun planes.  "I think that a slow, short range plane that needed to trap enemies in webs of poison trails would result in interesting tactics" 
  • Test:  Then I would change a few variables and try it out.  Did the theory yield a new way of playing the game?
  • Refine: At this point, we'd iterate on the plane many, many times to get the feel just right. 
  • Cull: We made a lot of planes.  Some were more fun than others so those got chopped and the good ones stayed.   This follows the philosophy of designing from a position of plenty, where you are overflowing with good content and can choose to put forth only the best. 

    Static levels decreases the depth of your game

    Let's take a step back and look more broadly at what this simple observation means for the industry at large. There is a very real opportunity cost associated with creating static level content.  In fact, it is baked into the pre-production and production stages suggested by the popular Cerny method of game development.  During preproduction, you test and finalize your game mechanics.  By locking down your game systems early on, you reduce your production risk when building  large amounts of static content.  Heaven forbid you change the jump distance on your main character after you've built 20 expensive levels based off that value.

    At first glance this staged approach seems like a sane and rational practice. In fact, it originally came about as a way of giving design a place to iterate within the increasingly rigid development schedule. However, it also requires that you limit your iteration upon your mechanics at some point in your schedule.   Yet such a design lock down conflicts with how design actually occurs in the real world.

    Consider the common scenario: a designer, after playing the game for several months, finally groks a fundamental relationship in the system that will make the game immensely more enjoyable. This actually happens all the time...designs often need to sit for a while before they reveal their true nature.  We are closer to mathematicians exploring a new class of equations than we are authors banging out another variation of the Hero's Journey.  And like mathematicians, insight rarely occurs on a predictable schedule.

    In a procedural game, a new design insight translates into a quick experiment that tests the idea.  Many of our big design changes in Steambirds: Survival took minutes.  The largest, a new progression system, took a week.  In a game with a heavy production burden, a new design insight instead provokes immediate push back.  Almost all other disciplines have something to lose since almost any mechanics change occurring in the middle of production has two follow-on effects:
    1. Design changes during production threaten to invalidate many man years of labor.  The producer sees a threatened schedule.  The level designers see destroyed levels.  The gameplay programmers see destroyed scripts.  The narrative designers see altered plot lines and discarded cinematics. The reality of modern development is that any design change in production has a large political cost
    2. If the change is accepted, large amounts of new content needs to be implemented.   Even if the design change is the right thing to do for the player, it is often economically not feasible.
    As a result, polishing and improvement on the game design is almost always locked down prematurely.  It is not random chance that nearly every postmortem wishes they had a longer preproduction phase.  The entire Cerny method creates logistical constraints that unwittingly damage the team's ability to build and iterate on deep and meaningful systems.

    Agile methods help here by allowing teams to lock down content on a more modular level, but this is a patch,  not a solution.  Ultimately static content is inherently difficult to refactor.  The marginal cost to change content is often equal to original cost of creation.  The reliance of the design on structurally brittle content like levels and narrative lies at the root of the problem of premature design lock-down.

    After many years of living this reality, modern AAA development teams have retreated from most meaningful exploration of deep game systems.  Over time, economics and production logistics shape design as surely as the currents in the ocean shape the rocky shoreline.  If you look at games like God of War or Uncharted, you see the end result:  Mechanically safe and simplistic games heavily larded up with a constant streams of static content.  There is no meaningful systems to learn nor choices for the player to make.  Instead, players submit themselves to a constant stream of pretty pictures whilst bashing buttons to advance.   By following the siren's call of 'evocative' static content, most AAA teams have managed to suffocate the playspaces that make games great.

    As a movie-trained consumer looking for mindless escape, I understand the appeal.  As a game designer, I find this direction repugnant.  We have a unique medium capable of immersing players in a rich systematic understanding of complex models of the universe.  It is time for a very different philosophy of design that minimizes static content and level design and maximizes the impact of game mechanics and meaningful systems.

    With Steambirds: Survival, we were able to create relatively major changes to the gameplay late in development.  What little static content existed was highly modular, contained few dependencies on other systems and was therefore quite robust in the face of changes.

    I highly recommend that you distance yourself from handcrafted static levels. Cull linear structures and content dependencies. Treat production as a form of waste that should be stripped from your development process.  These elements destroy your ability to iterate on your design and suck you into a mediocre and limited vision of what games can become.


      When I look at back at the origins of electronic games with their infinite arcade modes and their procedural levels, I see the seed of something great.  Somewhere along the way we took a wrong turn, away from interesting interactive systems and towards static disposable content.  For decades we've been investing outrageous sums of money in production activities that actively diminish the key value proposition of our interactive craft.

      My goal with the games I work on is to shift the balance back toward gameplay.   Throwaway bits of plot and puzzle are still useful as training that gets players into the game. They are great as the occasional dash of spicy emotional seasoning.  We have such things in Steambirds, modularized and tucked in the background where they belong. But they are not, nor should they ever be, the meaty center of the experience.

      What I've been describing with my last few posts is a philosophy of how I prefer to design games...a school of efficient game design, if you will.  The pillars I've discussed to far are simple stated:
      • Use design to lower costs: By following efficient design practices, we can build world changing games at low cost.  Escalating cost curves are a symptom of broken design practices. 
      • Always evergreen: Deeper, more meaningful systems yield lifelong hobbies, not disposable media.
      • New games: Design from the root using iterative, exploratory design to create unique, differentiated products.  Clones are projects for wage cogs and poor designers. 
      • Small teams: Leverage the immense creativity, flexibility and productivity of small teams of co-creators.  Large teams destroy efficiency. 
      • Robust play spaces: Create broad landscapes of possibility that can easily withstand both player and designer induced variation.  Avoid brittle structures.
      • Lean Content: Unchain our ability to iterate on design by reducing our debilitating dependency on puzzles, levels and other static content.
      • Leverage Players: Our designed systems seed value structures that empower players to create stories, community and culture.  The deepest dramas happen in the players' heads, not in our labored delivery. 
      The existence of a school of game design does not mean that all games need to follow these constraints and processes.  If anything we need passionate variety more than we need a theocracy of design.  Instead, a school of design acts as one (hopefully of many) beacons for thinking designers.  We look to the past and call out our long history of mistakes and successes.  We look to the future by building concrete works of art that boldly promote the lessons learned.

      Design is first and foremost a conscious act and we should take an educated and thoughtful stance on what styles of design we pursue and what ones we reject.  Steambirds: Survival is a simple game, but it is one that is designed based on a passionately held ideals. To make games due to habit, fads, instinct or pursuit of a mundane paycheck means that you are wasting not only your life but the lives of all your players. A thing blindly created is always a thing blindly consumed. What is your stated philosophy of game design?  What are the beliefs that drive your creation?

      Give Steambirds: Survival a try.  There is still so much more work to do, but this should give a small taste of where we are heading.

      take care,