Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Top 5 design debates I ignored in 2014

Back in the 80’s and 90’s, when conversation about game design was first bubbling up out of our community of insecure practitioners, a few polarizing topics would arise again and again. You’ll recognize them:
  • The correct definition of ‘game’
  • Narrative vs Mechanics
  • Randomness vs Skill
  • The importance of realism
  • Casual vs Hardcore
Many were (and are) merely the irritated observations of game players picking at specific games. However, with a flip of the rhetorical switch, players become designers expressing a universal design truth. Opinions inevitably differ and thus positions harden in the absence of data. And it snowballs from there.

Thankfully, as a developer community, we've grown older. With time and the accumulation of thousands published games, experienced game makers have a lot more insight into how game design actually works. It turns out there’s plenty of room for nuance.

There’s also the growing maturity to ignore false dichotomies and worn out talking points. Honestly, we don’t have time any more. We should be making great games, not arguing ancient design politics.

In the spirit of becoming a forward looking designer, here are my top 5 design debates that I've ignored in 2014.

#1 The correct definition of 'Game'

I've seen a metric ton of definitions for game over the years and have dabbled in crafting them myself. Not a single one has been useful to me in my daily practice of making great games.

Why this discussion is outdated
Games are vast and varied. A single definition tends have one or more of the following issues:
  • Overly broad: The definition is unable to provide any direction or guidance.
  • Overly narrow: The definition eliminates useful tools and influences from other areas of systems, thought or art.
  • Overly convoluted: The definition is only useful to lawyers who care primarily about edge cases and not about getting things done.
Alternative discussions to have instead
I focus on finding and exploring useful design tools. I don’t need to care about the definition of ‘woodworking’ in order to be damned happy that hammers and nails exist. The same goes for games. I focus on scaffolding. And loot drop tables. And internal economies.

A useful goal is to find general tools that a smart designer can use to radically improve their work. Like any tool, they should to be applied in the proper context. So they are rarely universal or one-size fits all. And like a craft tool, they need to be applied with skill. They aren’t a pattern that you toss at a problem and get a fixed result.

Recommendation: Build your flexible design toolbox. Master those tools. Apply them where appropriate. Ignore pedants obsessed with defining ‘game’.

#2 Narrative vs mechanics

Science was once plagued by the idea that certain behavior derived entirely from genetics (nature) or entirely from environmental effects (nurture). This turned out to be a naive simplification of a vastly most intricate and interrelated system genetic predispositions, environmental triggers and feedback loops.

Narrative and mechanics have proven to be similarly intertwined.

Why this discussion is outdated
In the end, the human brain has neither a pure systemic understanding the world. Nor does it have a purely narrative understanding of the world. Memory, learning, emotional triggers, cause and effect all feed into how our brain adapts to environmental mechanics and then flow out again as a social response.

So the model suggested by the supposed conflict is simply broken. There is no ‘versus’.

There are many explanations for how this argument even arose. My favorite: A cocky tribe from old linear media clashed with an isolated tribe of game makers. They fought a stupid fight about authority and status that had almost nothing to do with making games. Meh.

Alternative discussions to have instead
A modern discussion could include:
  • What existing schemas are activated by my game?
  • How should we implement learning and scaffolding structures?
  • What is the impact of various forms of stimuli within game loops?
  • How should we tighten or loosen our systems of cause and effect?
  • What are systems of pacing?
  • What social role does narrative serve? How can we engineer human systems to encourage it?
Theories like Interaction Loops or Emotion Engineering integrate narrative and mechanics. In the process of banging our heads against building great interactive experiences, we've been forced to break down ‘narrative’ and ‘mechanics’ into atomic chunks and see how they fit in practice. Let’s discuss the rich synthesis of story, world building and mechanical techniques that thrives in interactive systems.

Recommendation: Consider how narrative emerges from existing mechanics. And consider how theme illuminates mechanics by activating existing mental schema. We need holistic, integrated models. Ignore antagonistic dichotomies.

#3 Randomness vs Skill

There’s been a sad resurgence of this 80’s wargamer rant. Randomness is obsessively derided as less masterful or strategic relative to pure skill games.

Why this discussion is outdated
Randomness is just another design tool. Used with skill, it yields some amazing games.
  • Random systems are rife with mastery. ‘Randomness’ can provide strong elements of mastery, in terms of learning distributions, managing options and adapting to new situations.
  • Games involve loops. Random outputs almost never occurs in isolation, but are part of an internal game economy. Randomness is often an essential tool for creating strategic variation and context.
  • There are different, equally valid playstyles. Not everyone is a rigidly intellectual young man who desires only mental-skill games that let them dominate others. Some play to relax, some to socialize, some for physical mastery, some to feel part of a shared purpose. Randomness can be a beneficial tool when designing for these players.
Alternate discussions
  • What games use randomness in interesting ways?
  • How does your game use randomness as skill?
  • How does randomness map onto noise?
  • What are other noise generators? Complexity noise, social noise, feedback noise, etc.
  • How do we make people better through play?
Recommendation: Practice using randomness where appropriate. Explore the space. Make a game with randomness that is about mastery. If you happen to be someone that values intellectual rigor over chance, make a game for someone other than yourself. Stretch your humanity.

#4 Realism

Past futurists sold a vision where games must inevitably become indistinguishable from reality. We marketed the hell out of that vision to the point it became dogma. You bought a new console, a new video card, a new computer to creep ever closer to the dream. You argued for 1080p as a paladin fighting for the glorious Holodeckian cause.

Why this discussion is outdated
Realism in graphics or simulations no longer is a dominant goal for most game developers. In practice, it turned out it wasn't really an essential feature for a successful games. In our far future era, you can snub realism and still make a billion dollars with a game like Minecraft or Puzzle & Dragons.
  • Realism has niche appeal. It is an aesthetic choice that tends to appeal to a singular sub-culture that we've trained with our decades of marketing. Cartoons, text and other stylized forms of representation are also appealing.
  • Realism can be an unnecessary expense. We sometimes wholesale replicate reality when we don’t know what specific stimuli actually appeals to players. It is sort of a shotgun approach that wastes vast amount of effort to hopefully make something interesting. A substantial portion of the exponential escalating cost of game development can be attributed directly to the pursuit of realism.
  • Simulation adds design risk: Many simulations are complex and difficult to manipulate. They also are not inherently emotionally satisfying. Insisting on mechanical realism while simultaneously trying to make a fun game tends to yield failed game designs.
  • Games are also endogenous systems of value. They are like little self contained baubles of math that set up interesting internal relationships. A game like Tetris has immensely value independent of references to the real world.
  • When players ask for realism, they often aren't asking for realism. The desire for realism is often best understood in terms of how players learn and apply existing mental schema to new system. A request for realism could be: A new player asking for a metaphor that helps them understand an abstract system. Or it could be an advanced player pointing out unnecessary edge cases. Both these have solutions outside belabored realism.
Alternative discussions to have instead
  • What is the right art style for your audience?
  • What are the trade offs between art style, production concerns and budget?
  • What sort of math or systems are interesting independent of their appearance in the real world?
  • How do we make game-like, cartoon-like, info rich, surreal virtual reality games?
Recommendation: Ask what utilitarian feedback your game truly needs. Invest your art resources making those elements amazing. Ask what level of modeling a system needs to create rich gameplay. Invest your design resources to create a tiny rule set with deep emergence. Be smart. Be frugal. When someone demands realism, try to figure out what they really want.

#5 Casual vs Hardcore

There’s a set of cultural stereotypes that casual players act one way while hardcore players act another. A surprising number of design decisions are made based off these stereotypes.

Why this discussion is outdated
The casual and hardcore stereotypes suffer from the problems typical of stereotypes. They are gross simplifications that yield the incorrect design decisions.
  • Many of the stereotypes are simply wrong: The longest average playtimes? Not console or PC. Handheld games, particularly those ‘kiddy’ Nintendo titles dominate session length. Regular daily play happens more often on smartphones and tablets than it does on consoles. When I look at data, there are very few ‘casual’ or ‘hardcore’ stereotypes that hold true. And when they do there are massive exceptions. 
  • The variation within a specific game is huge: You've got a half dozen or more distinct playstyles within almost any game of reasonable complexity. Each game is a vast city with many different people living within it. Mere averages tell you very little about how to improve the state of your game.
  • The market is shifting: Service-based games are driving for improved retention by doubling down on play. Women are playing more. Console owners are aging and slowing down. A lot of the old lessons about demographics and play styles have shifted. And they’ll continue to change in the future.
I see ‘casual’ or ‘hardcore’ as poisoned tribal labels like ‘gamer’ or ‘skinner box’. Mostly they are just weaponized stereotypes, deployed to enforce perceived group boundaries. They have little productive place in a modern design (or marketing) discussion.

Alternative discussions to have instead
  • How do you break out of thinking in cheap stereotypes in order to gain an advantage over the dinosaurs that don't see the market has it truly exists?
  • How do different groups unique to your game behave? (Hint: We can get the data!)
  • What motivates the groups unique to your game?
  • How do you include diverse hooks to appeal to multiple passionate audiences?
  • How do you make a targeted niche game using iteration with a live community?
I personally tend to make games that look 'casual', but consistently melt the brains of self identified 'hardcore' players trained on endless tutorials, cut scenes and QTEs. Some of the best players are smart 30-40-year old women that have the intense mental stamina for activities like logic, planning and creative thinking. They thrive on hard games. My market doesn't even exist if you see the world through a 'casual / hardcore' lens. Yet there it is, merrily enjoying games amidst the vast diversity of this planet's billion odd players. 

No one really makes 'hardcore' or 'casual' games. At best, we use existing markets, tribes and distribution channels to get a tentative foothold in a player’s psyche. But then it gets complicated. Embrace the complexity of your players. Learn who they actually are. Create elegant solutions that serve your many types of players.

Thoughts for 2015

If you happen to find yourself facing these 5 topics: Turn away. Our creative lives are limited. Pour your time into something productive.
  • Teachers that spread these memes: Consider teaching modern game design tools. Cull disproved dogma. 
  • Academics that expound on these ideas: Stop naive theory crafting and start referencing nuanced data from working designers.
  • Students that gnaw at these bones: Arguing ancient talking points in comment sections gets you nowhere in life. Make games instead. Base your design conversations around your hands-on experiments. You'll learn more, faster. 
Goodness knows that conversations on dead design ideas will not end. Players and their innumerable derivatives (fan press, forum warriors, cultural critics, etc) continue talking about these topics. Some talk for entertainment. Some for status. Some for business. Some talk about their game experiences in order to process them mentally and emotionally. For many of these purposes, simplistic polarizing hooks are more enticing than deep comprehension.

So these inane design views become practically tradition, or at least common hazing rituals. Like yelling at televised football games. Or laughing at trucknuts. Sure, players aren't having a productive craft conversation, but they shouldn't be judged by the same rubric. Consider their chatter a cultural performance.

As for designers, you have a different role to fill. Recognize when you are accidentally acting like a uninformed player or student. Instead of getting caught up in the babble of ill-informed internet backwash, try talking directly with other working designers. Build tools and knowledge together.

Here's to a more productive 2015,