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Posts Tagged ‘design’

The Tinker Gearcoin project funded, thank you everyone!

Of course, we still have some time to go and room to grow, so we’re doing something kinda crazy.  We want to design a 12th coin, but we’re crowdsourcing the design.  Sort of.  It’s like Magic the Gathering, when they do their “You Design The Card”; we’re going to ask a series of polls and let the community decide on what we do with the design of the coin.  We’re starting with this (36mm diameter, image not to scale):

You Design The Coin Base

You Design The Coin Base

…which will be a “driver” coin.  That smaller gear’s round center will be a big hole, right through the coin, so you can put a pencil or finger in it as a handle to crank the coin around.  Or it can be a pendant, earring or something else.  It’s weird, it’s wacky, and I really don’t know where it will wind up.

So if you have a moment and are interested, please check out the campaign over here, spread the word, and join us for the crazy ride ahead!

Thanks!

Tesh

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Scope is a tricky thing in game design.

When I design a game, I want it long and deep enough to be interesting, but not so long and deep that it tires players.  I want it accessible, but not infantile.  I want it to be easy to learn and fun to play on a superficial level and/or by inexperienced players, but have enough complexity and intricacy that mastering it takes effort and feels rewarding.  I want enough features to justify making the game in the first place, rather than a tech demo.  I want to explore the implications of design choices without making busywork for the players.  There is a sweet spot to hit where I have enough in the game to satisfy those admittedly vague goals, and doing too little or too much design detracts from the play experience.

Might I recommend a few references on the subject?

“Good design is as little design as possible.”

I cannot recommend Mr. Rosewater’s articles enough.  His archive is a treasure trove of game design considerations.  Yes, he writes about designing a card game, but as he asserts in the Top Ten Principles articles, Good Design is Good Design, and some principles are universal across mediums.  I agree, and it’s nice to see someone articulate it as well as Mr. Rosewater does, and as well as Mr. Rams does.

This is why, here at my workplace in a small game dev studio, we occasionally have game nights, where we play board or card games.  Understanding why offline games work (with a side order of game theory, explicit or not) is valuable information when we get around to designing our video games.  We have to understand the tools of our trade, and how design works.

One of the hardest things to learn is restraint.  If I may, since art is the medium I’m most familiar with, a few thoughts on this notion as it’s found in the art world:

Art design ranges from minimalist to overwrought hyperdetail.  Brushwork might be exceedingly sparse in some of these lovely Chinese bamboo paintings…

…which contrasts starkly with the laborious process that produced something like this.

…which is itself dwarfed by some of the more elaborate hyperrealist paintings.

(Never mind that once you get to that level, we’re talking about a bizarre devotion to the craft of “doing it because I can” instead of just taking a photograph.  It’s sort of like the artist equivalent of a No Sphere Grid Final Fantasy X game, or climbing Mount Everest carrying a grumpy rabid wombat in your pocket.)

Each can work nicely as a piece of Art, but they tend to evoke different responses.  Some of that is strongly based in how much of the experience is left to the consumer, something that game designers should be intimately familiar with, seeing as how our medium is interactive by nature.  (Which doesn’t invalidate it as an art medium, by the way.)

There comes a point in art where enough really is enough.  One more brushstroke, one more visual element, and the composition changes, especially when working in sparse formats like the bamboo paintings.  Sometimes that change is for the better, taking the piece in new directions, but many times, going just a wee bit too far makes the piece weaker.  Sometimes it can even totally break the mood and aim of the piece.  I’ve tossed away many of my sketches that I overworked.

This is part of why I enjoy sketching with ballpoint pens, and why I encourage other artists to do so as well.  When you have to account for every move you make, as there is no erasing, you learn to carefully gauge what you do, and either make the right choice the first time, or learn to roll with mistakes and incorporate them into your work.  These are valuable tools in an artist’s toolbox.

You could also work digitally, and use the almighty Undo command and History panel, and work with layers, which give you incredible control over your artworks if used properly.  Many artists wind up working both digitally and traditionally, since both offer distinct advantages.  I often sketch in pen, then scan it into the computer for the coloring with Painter or Photoshop.

Back to games, then, I’ve often seen Portal lauded as being a great game, even as it’s noted as being a short game.  It’s just long enough to give players the chance to experiment with the implications of Portal mechanics and the various puzzle elements, and it’s not padded out with excessive repetition for the sake of making the game seem somehow meatier via time sinks (which are really just bloated fat, not real gaming meat).  It hits a sweet spot of playability and proper exploration of game mechanics.  It’s flat out, concentrated fun, even though it’s not a mega-epic sixty hour post-apocalyptic snark opera.

On the other hand, we have Final Fantasy XIII, known for its somewhat extensive tutorial.  To be fair, they are different games with different ends, but the time spent differs by an order of magnitude.  A significant difference like that needs to be something done by design and for a good reason, not just to pad out playtime.  Whether FFXIII succeeds in that regard is arguable, but the argument is more vociferous than a similar argument about Portal’s scope and focus.

Portal tends to leave players itching for more, while FFXIII has some players crying to just get on with the game!  MMOs can be even worse.

Oh, and scope might be one reason why we don’t have a Magic the Gathering MMO, while we’re talking MTG, MMOs and game design.  The game is intricately and beautifully designed as it is, and trying to shoehorn that into an MMO makes for uncomfortable compromises.  It’s possible to bend the MTG themes, lore and other assorted IP into an MMO, perhaps, and such crossgenre game design is possible… but doing so would mean effectively building a totally different game from the ground up, just with an existing IP.  That doesn’t always work out.  It means a different scope, a different focus, and ultimately, a different feel because it really is a different game.  That can alienate fans of the existing lore, even as the existing lore already limits the audience if there are strong feelings about it among gamers or nongamers the product is trying to entice.

It might also be worth noting that stories are easier to tell when the storytelling format is a bit more focused than a series of grinds with cutscenes in between.  At least, if story is important.  It’s also worth noting that stories can have a fair amount of cruft and bloat in them as well, and one of the hardest parts of learning to write well is learning when to shut up, similar to how the best skill conversationalists learn is how to listen.

It’s a lesson I’m still learning, obviously, in writing and game design… but it’s one worth learning.

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I’ve been perusing David Sirlin’s fantastic blog, and one of his recent posts resonated with me:

The Design Of Things

I have a similar tendency to question design decisions wherever I go.  I don’t imagine meetings based on them, but I do look at nearly everything and reflexively assess the design of it.  My wife has noted more than once that when I complain about something, it’s most often pointing out that it suffers from bad design.  Whether it’s a business schedule, social construct or thingamajig, bad design bothers me.

To be sure, many altercations and accidents are simply user error, but there are a lot of boneheaded decisions industrial (and game) designers make.  Even bad UI bothers me.

I know, I know, it’s not always easy (thanks, Psychochild!) to really fix these things.  At the same time, there are some simple things that could have been solved by just a few seconds of actual thought, if you can imagine that.

One example that vexes me day in and day out is a relatively small and simple thing.

CTRL-S

It’s “Save File” in almost every single Windows program, under almost every circumstance.  That’s good, and it’s come to be expected by the end user.  You’d be an exceptionally cruel or criminally idiotic software designer if you mapped CTRL-S to “Stop Program” or “Scuttle File” or some such.  The guys behind 3DS Max, a rather expensive bit of software (it’s expensive if you have to click through three links to get a price), aren’t criminally insane, but someone flubbed this simple design task.

Y’see, if you happen to be working with UV layouts (getting to which being a dumb task in itself, with at least two clicks too many en route for a VERY common 3D art task), and have the Edit UVs window open, CTRL-S no longer saves your file.  No, now it toggles the Snap function.  You can’t even click back out of the Edit UVs window and have CTRL-S work correctly again.  As long as you have the UV editing window open, there is no keyboard shortcut to save your file.  Heaven help you if you’re working with an unstable machine (Max isn’t all that stable in itself) and have gotten into the habit of saving every few minutes or so to keep from losing a day’s work.

In the end, users get used to it.  Snap is a useful function, and it’s not all that difficult to go click on the File menu and go down to the Save command in the list.  The trouble is one of changing user expectations and lack of consistency.  The “s” key toggles Snap when you’re not editing UVs, and it does nothing when you are.  A user could be excused for thinking that “s” would toggle Snap and CRTL-S would save the file even while editing UVs because that’s what they do everywhere else.

So, I have to ask:  Who executed this?  What were they thinking? You don’t change the function of your UI arbitrarily like that.  That’s freshman year UI design, as Ernest Adams might say.  (Thanks, No Twinkie database!)  That the software package costs more than I paid for either of our vehicles is rubbing salt in the wound.  These guys should be getting these things right.

Similarly, if you happen to be editing several polygonal surfaces via a shared “Edit Poly” modifier (modifiers themselves being an idiotic extra step, incidentally, including the inability to work on more than one object’s UV set at once), the keyboard shortcut for Rotate changes.  Let me stress:  Move and Scale shortcuts are the same, but Rotate changes.  These three operation modes are key functions of editing things in 3D, and likely a significant part of why you’re Editing the Polys in the first place.  Why change the keyboard shortcut to do something completely different if you’re working on more than one object? This is simply incompetent UI design, and annoying every time it comes up, since again, the only solution is to go click on something to get to the function the keyboard shortcut should get to, and does almost all the rest of the time.  (And when editing multiple polygonal subobjects, CTRL-S changes yet again, this time to toggle “Soft Selection”.  I really want to knock some UI designer heads together when I run into this sort of idiocy.)

Context sensitive changes in UI work with mouseovers or right-click menus, since you can preview visually what will happen and you have to go looking for the changes.  When you change the basic core functions of your UI in context sensitive ways with no warning, you’re just punishing your users who you have taught to expect certain behavior.  That’s Bad Design.  No Twinkie for you! Or, as Sirlin might note, Every Click Counts, and making users jump through unnecessary extra hoops is Bad Design.

Moving on, I’ve noted that my wife and two kids and I have moved to a new house after living in a condo for 4 years.  It’s still a bit surreal, but so it goes.  The house is older than I am, so it has its share of quirks.

The washer and dryer hookups are in the lower level bathroom.  That in itself makes some sense, since you’d not want the washer to overflow in a carpeted area or on an upper level that might drain to lower rooms.  Still, there are two elements of the setup that are clearly Bad Design.

One, the approach to the room is very narrow.  The brave souls that installed our new washer and dryer almost couldn’t get the machines in, and only barely escaped personal injury.  I have no idea what we’ll do if the darn things need service.

Two, the vent to the outside that the dryer needs is set up on the left side of the niche, but the slot for the dryer is on the right.  The washer hookups are immediately next to the vent.  This means the dryer vent hose has to reach at least twice as long as it has to (meaning failure is easier), and has to fight for space with the washer hoses.  I’m hard pressed to see why they set the thing up that way, as it’s just asking for trouble.  This isn’t rocket science.  They even had a 50/50 chance of getting it right if they designed the hookups via coin flips.  You have to TRY to be that incompetent.

The last thing that has bothered me of late is the phone line setup.  It’s a bit excusable, since it is an older building, but still, it’s annoying.  The best rooms for the computer (the main entertainment/living room and the playroom) don’t have a phone jack.  All of the bedrooms have one, and the food storage cellar has one, but not the places where I’d actually put the computer.  Sure, the jack in the kitchen makes sense if you’re just using a phone land line, but how often do all of the kids need phones in their rooms but the main room where people spend their time at home not need one?  Oh, but we do have a satellite dish with hookups piped into that room.  Small compensation for a family that has absolutely no use for satellite TV.  (Free network TV is mostly atrocious; I’m not paying for edgier, darker, smuttier garbage.  Anyone want my dish?  I’m not going to use it for internet or phone access; we’re in a nice area for landlines and DSL, and I like the consistency and cheaper price.)

So, some Bad Design decisions we inherit from past decisions.  Some are the simple lack of foresight.  Some are merely incompetence.  Some are malicious.  The key in my mind is that any that could have been avoided should have been.  It wouldn’t have taken much thought at one point in the process.

Perhaps most importantly, it makes me question myself.  What design decisions am I making that are idiotic?  Why do I do what I do?  Am I thinking when I do my work, or just going through the motions?  Do I care?

I’m always designing, always thinking of ways to better the things I use every day.  Always thinking of ways to do what I want to do with stories, games or whatever else I’m in the mood to create.  I’m always asking:  Does this work?  Does this make sense?  Will this do what I want it to?  Will this work for the end user?

Because yes, I do care.

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We all live in a steampunk submarine, a steampunk submarine, a steampunk submarine

(Yes, that’s three links to different articles about the same office, but there are some unique pictures in each, as far as I can tell.)

OK, so it’s not exactly a submarine, but the “Captain Nemo” steampunk flavor of the Three Rings office (the Puzzle Pirates guys) sure looks like it would be a fun place to work.  The design alone is awesome, but even better is that it was fairly cheap.  Quick router cuts and simple colors fit the Three Rings design ethos, and with enough attention to art direction, even the flat colors and fairly simple shapes look fantastic.  (Chalk another one up for simple but consistent and interesting art direction over pixel shaders, gigantic poly meshes and huge texture footprints.)

These are the guys behind the office construction (with some more pictures of the same):

Because We Can

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For Instance

Instancing is one of the major tools in a designer’s hands to alter the dynamics of an MMO’s world.  Guild Wars embraces instancing, while EverQuest 2 eschews it.  There are those who passionately flame away about the inferiority of either approach.  And then there’s this:

How much is too much?

This is really just a snippet, but looking at some of the responses, I found something interesting.  One poster, “tanek”, asserts that an instanced world is a more dynamic one.  Not even two hours later, “Everrest” states that a non-instanced world is more dynamic.  …in the inimitable words of Inigo Montoya: “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

(more…)

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Product Lifespan

I’ve mused about the lifespan of MMOs before, asking “should we be trying to keep them alive for the long run, or just treat them like any other game”?  In my mind, the subscription model is built around trying to keep people playing for as long as possible.  I’ve suspected that the typical MMO lifespan is more like any other offline game, with many players playing early, and a gradual decline as time goes on.

So I found this little gem in Raph’s archives:

MMO usage graphs

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When I design games (or pontificate about other game design), I keep a few things in mind:

  • Give players choices, and give those choices consequences
  • Keep the core concept simple, but easy to expand
  • Fun before finance
  • Keep the brain engaged
  • Don’t waste players’ time
  • Aim high

Of course, there are genre-specific concerns, but I’ve found that these are the basic things that I try to incorporate into what designs I contemplate or create.  A card game that I recently designed used these as much as the crazy convoluted concepts that I have rattling around for MMOs and RPGs.

Is any of that groundbreaking?  Not likely.  It’s just my little way of getting down some thoughts I’ve had, and perhaps putting some of my other writings into context.  I see games as a unique and precious art form, and I’m always trying to raise the “state of the art”.

Games have given me a great deal over the years, and I’d like to return the favor by making any games that I work on something special.  They keep my brain alive and learning, and I hope that my work can do the same for others.

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Rethinking Thinking

Once again, I’m late to the party.  I happened upon this multipage dissertation a few days ago:

Rethinking MMOs

…and found that much of what I see wrong with the state of the MMO genre has already been elaborated on.  Sure, I might have a sibilant spin on the situation, or a particularly philosophical (or pedantic) phraseology, but in the end, I’m really just riding the tail end of the wave.

So why do I keep writing?  Because I want to, because it gets it out of my system, and because looking at things through new eyes might just help someone think a bit more.  It’s also good when I get feedback, which helps refine my thinking.  It’s also nice to think that I’m coming to similar conclusions in a relative vacuum, just from a bit of play experience and extensive research on existing MMO game mechanics and game design. (more…)

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Groundhog Day

I loved the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day.  Sure, it could have been better, but the core concept and Murray’s performance proved to be both entertaining and thought provoking.  So… yeah… MMOs.  In a world where nothing major really changes (at least, not because of player actions), and where completing a quest makes you the Hero of the Day!!! for all of ten minutes before the next schlub turns in the same quest, I think the “infinite loop day” is a relatively relevant concept.

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Endgame in-game?

There’s an interesting article over here that details a presentation from the guy behind the Zen of Design blog.  As much as I cast a baleful eye on the WoW mindset that “the game starts at 70″ and some of the misguided game design that comes from that, Damion Schubert has some great points.

Thing is, to my mind, the things that he talks about as being interesting in the endgame are really things that should be either interspersed throughout the leveling grind, or the leveling system itself needs to be severely recalibrated, or removed entirely.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but if the “endgame” is really the “true” potential of an MMO, why are we wasting time on a leveling system at all?  What sort of MMO design could embrace the “endgame” mentality as Schubert describes it, and make a complete game based entirely on the parts of the game that are the whole point of the MMO genre?

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