June 17th 2020
Game designer of Money Block, a crypto and blockchain game. Economist 101, old fashioned RTS gamer
Don’t search too long for it, there is no silver bullet to build a great gaming experience. But if someone (even Blizzard or Riot) has found it, I will be grateful to get its recipe right now.
Nevertheless, from our everyday life experiences I do believe that one can draw valuable lessons and maybe some ingredients of that recipe.
For the record, I’m not a game designer and I’m not pretending to be one. I’m an economist and an old-fashioned player. I started playing video games on my father’s IBM (the one with the big floppy disks) during the 90’s. I kept great memories of the hours spent with my brothers playing games such as Arkanoïd, Populous, Gorillas, Magic carpet and so on. Then I discovered RTS games in the late 90’s: Command and Conquer, Total Annihilation and StarCraft. I was fascinated by the endless possibilities of the gameplay.
As I’m starting my first game project, I want to share in this first post some of the “findings” from my journey. I hope you will enjoy reading this naive story.
First, let me tell you what I find the most attractive from a gamer perspective: uncertainty (having no clue what my opponent’s doing), optimization (thinking of the optimal resource allocation as a 101 economist), game theory (meaning strategic interactions between players), creative writing (everyone likes a genuine story) and fictional worlds (especially futuristic and technological ones). If you are building a game with all of these features, then you are pretty sure to get at least one buyer.
“Man is bound to advance through the fog.” Milan Kundera
Let’s focus on the first one. Uncertainty is the most underrated feature of a game but one of the most fundamental aspect of our lives. We don’t know what tomorrow will look like so it’s a damn good reason to act today (right?).
Players make these kind of decisions every second in a game: should I attack my opponent or defend my current position? Should I stay or should I go? When you act under imperfect information, your way is always a path full of mistakes.
You have to accept it, no matter what. That’s why you need some clues about what your opponent is doing. Scouting is one way to gain information about the opposing player(s).
If you can allow it, you can’t totally remove the uncertainty from a game because it generates a surprise. And a surprise is a key parameter of the fun equation. For example, adding probability can be a great solution to deal with luck (managed surprise).
“One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Albert Camus
The word “optimization” sounds awful to many people in real life (I couldn’t agree more with this statement) even though it has great properties. In a game, optimization means two things for a player: to discover the game’s hidden algorithm or to draw the perfect decision tree to be victorious.
As a player you can optimize many things: moves in a defined space (for example, Chess or Go), resources (StarCraft, Seven wonders), time (Civilization) and all the other game’s elements. The more you play the game, the more you will find out the optimal way to succeed (remember the loop in the movie Edge of Tomorrow).
This iterative process is very important for a player: you should design a game which gives gamers the confidence that practicing is worthwhile. The player’s emotional investment comes literally from its “homework” like Sisyphus with its big rock.
Sometimes, re-balancing the features of the game can be necessary when a main winning strategy is emerging: the so-called meta (most efficient tactic available). That’s why collecting data about each game played is so essential today.
One other way to think about optimization needs a little introspection: what is the unspeakable secret motivation of every player (except fun)? Be smarter than others. It means calculate faster and anticipate each opponent’s move. When the calculation becomes impossible, due to lack of time or too much information, the player has a natural tendency to return to a more basic strategic line. Then the game tests its ability to give up a pre-established strategy.
Game theory is not only a beautiful addition of words, it’s a well-known branch of applied mathematics and also an important field of economic studies. In short, game theory studies strategic situations where an individual or a group of people choose different actions in order to maximize their outcomes. In some way, game theory is very close to decision making under uncertainty and can be split a minima in two categories : non cooperative or cooperative games. Game theory is a very practical way to explain how cooperative interactions or behaviors lead to a better outcome for all the participants, despite a high level of competition between them. Life is all about polar opposites and moving equilibrium.
In my opinion, the best games seek to blend cooperation and competition to generate positive tension. As the players are facing simultaneous decisions, it’s up to them to decide to help (or not) the other players (even if it’s a short term and blind cooperation) depending on whether the expected benefit is higher than the expected cost.
Creative writing and fictional worlds are a game’s essential components. With your own words (not fake ones), you should try first to reach the hearts of smart people. If you want players to jump into your world, do your best by honing your vision and your narrative. I came from a world where gaming was not just about consumption but seen as an alternative way to define your identity. Words are still powerful for those who care about details. Therefore don’t give up when you will need to transpose your words into visual contents. Immersive experience happens when a player fully accepts to open himself into the game. This step is about connecting the imagination of perfect strangers. For my part, I always had a taste for futuristic world.
In every aspect, the game I’m designing respects these four criteria.
This post also gives me the opportunity to share few simple advice on how you could start from scratch :
Take a blank sheet and think of your game’s basics: state your game’s goal, define a space (boardgame, map, etc.), think about your objects (cards, scoreboards, characters etc.) and the role and actions of/and between each player.
Don’t hesitate to write down all your ideas (even the silly ones), because our memory is so weak. In my case, losing an idea during the night (not a crazy one) happens quite often.
Perspectivism is very useful to build a game. At every stage of your game’s design, you should wear a new pair of glasses. And you should ask yourself the following question: is this rule that I like so much still necessary if the player does that move? Every time you add a new rule you will have to think about the implications on the other rules. Every change has an impact somewhere. Explaining your set of rules to someone is not easy. Try different ways.
Once you have set your game’s rules, I only have one advice: make a prototype (do not care if it’s an ugly one, every small steps counts so much) and test it with some friends, test it with your family, test it with anyone until you get bored! And then, test it again and listen carefully to the player’s feedback.
Finally, here is the one billion dollars question: how to create a great game? I really don’t know. Among others, I’m always surprised when people start answering to that by listing words like frustration, reward system and addiction. I don’t deny that there is some truth to that, but let’s hope we have succeeded here to dig deeper. Building a game with a soul.