Deep Plaid One guy trying to make some interesting decisions

Pandemic: “The virus can only be stopped by the Borg Collective!”

Posted on May 6, 2011

[This is another in my recent series of board game "design reviews" - these are reviews less focused on the quality of the game and more on what interests me about them as a student of game design. Today's game: Pandemic.]

Finally, a cooperative game - one that, unlike Arkham Horror (see my previous posts), can actually be comprehended by a human being and completed in one sitting! In fact we played 4 games of Pandemic in a single evening (though I'd call 2 of them "half-games" - we aborted them early on after making mistakes). Pandemic is a game in which the players work together to attempt to cure outbreaks of 4 different diseases across the world.

This game was what I was hoping Arkham would be: a game where we're all fighting together against the game system, which unfolds itself based on card draws and simple rules (that can nonetheless have interesting results). This is definitely a challenging game - we didn't win on the first try (in fact we didn't win until the 4th try)... but that felt like an appropriate challenge level, and the fact that we had time to tackle it multiple times with a "trial and error" approach was great.

What I really want to talk about though is some interesting behavior that we started to demonstrate, one that's is probably very common to cooperative games. Like in most games, I had a "character" I was playing, an avatar that I was (supposedly) controlling on the game board - so did all the other players. We even had very distinct characters as we each had a special ability. However, from the very first turn, all of us began planning and scheming for what all of the players would do.

At first this sounds like a great thing: we're all cooperating, we're deciding strategy and conferring together, and our characters are totally working together and coordinating their movements.

But I think there's a real downside, or at least a strange disconnect, here: none of us ended up having any real connection with our avatars. The actions my avatar took were never really my decisions, they were our decisions. Functionally, we 3 players were acting like a committee that decided what the 3 characters on the board would do - there was no individuality, it was like being part of the Borg collective.

A demonstration of this, and some of the clear downsides of this, came when a 4th player joined us for the last game. She was immediately left behind by all the strategizing that the rest of us were doing - we were navigating around rules and obstacles that she was still learning. Worst of all was when it came to her turn - the game almost became a situation in which the 3 of us were going to simply tell her what to do, possibly without her even fully understanding why she was doing it (since she was still learning the game)! We managed to end up avoiding this problem and certainly there were no hard feelings... but this "decisions made by committee" dynamic, which seems to emerge inevitably in the game, clearly has some negative sides to it.

Interestingly, in the D&D campaigns I've been part of and observed, this doesn't happen as much - even though the party is effectively another cooperative group, I've observed relatively few instances of players deciding their actions "by committee" - certainly it never becomes like Pandemic where almost every single action was being decided collectively. It would be easy to say that this difference is due to D&D being a "role-playing" game and the player and their character having a special relationship. But I think a larger element may be complexity - D&D characters have complex builds, and often many options available. The question of what each character even can do, much less should do, is much less clear to the players who didn't build that character - it's often the case that only one player understands how to "drive" each character.

All this really makes me want to try to play Catacombs - I heard about this on a Games With Garfield podcast where Richard specifically mentioned this aspect of cooperative games. Catacombs' core mechanic involves players flicking game pieces into each other - although this may seem like a turnoff to more tactical and strategic players, it seems like this would bring more individualism back into the game, including each player making decisions based on their own confidence in their ability to make certain shots... preventing the game from falling into being a "Borg collective."

Anyway I did have an interesting and enjoyable experience with Pandemic, though somehow I doubt it would hold up to many repeated plays.

Puerto Rico: “We sent all the passive-aggressive people to THIS colony.”

Posted on May 1, 2011

[This is another in my recent series of board game "design reviews" - these are reviews less focused on the quality of the game and more on what interests me about them as a student of game design. Today: Puerto Rico.]

Puerto Rico shares one element with Dominion, which is that there are "decks of cards" on the board, and during one phase of the game players get to pay costs to draw them and add them to their "colony." Your choices here let you define your strategy, and again these elements can have interesting combos with each other. I love games with such element of "customization" - finding a unique strategy of your own and working towards it really adds a unique element of self-expression, which is just really addictive to me (and of course it comprises one of LeBlanc's 8 kinds of fun).

Puerto Rico has an interesting structure in that there are essentially 6 different verbs available, but each player must choose to activate only one of them per round. However, you can't choose a verb another player's already activated this round! (Note: This is actually a very incomplete description of that part of the gameplay.) I love this element - making verb selection a limited choice, and one that can be affected by other players' choices, seems like a place where some simple rules can lead to significant depth - for instance, in this game I would sometimes choose to activate a verb simply so another player wouldn't be able to do so.

That leads me to what I hate about this game: it forces players to be passive-aggressive. I'm realizing this trait is common to Euro-style games: they seem to avoid "direct attacks"... yet these games are still usually competitive. The end result? I can still screw other players, but only in odd indirect ways. Maybe it's because I'm such an American (and as my wife says, I "don't speak subtle"), but this just feels more frustrating to me. (This isn't a reaction to my being screwed in the game by the way: I actually won my first two games of PR, primarily by screwing the other players in these ways... I just felt guilty about it!) This was most pronounced in the "Shipping" phase of the game, where a complex cluster of unintuitive rules (which all seem to say "you can'ttake very specific action X" - another pet peeve of mine) results in some very non-obvious but important ways in which you can indirectly screw over other players - sometimes very dramatically. Ugh.

Dominion review: “Makes constructing broken Magic decks even more fun!”

Posted on April 27, 2011

Lately I've begun attending (sometimes hosting) a Board Game Night with some other game developers here in Austin, and have finally been getting exposure to a lot more board games... I guess these are best described as "Euro-style" board games, or maybe "you will not find these in Toys 'R Us" board games. Speaking of which, for some reason my repeated proposal of playing the Saved By The Bell Board Game at these events never goes over well... maybe someday I'll be allowed to share the joy.

To start to pick up on my sad rate of updating this blog, I'll start publishing more of these "reviews"... these are definitely from the perspective of a "student of game design", not even sure if I should call them reviews.

There's no quality of a game's design that I hold in higher regard than its being "easy to learn, impossible to master." Dominion is one of the best examples of this quality I've seen in a long time.

I'm an avid player of the WoW TCG (which is very similar to "Magic: The Gathering"), and my favorite part of the game is deckbuilding. Dominion essentially takes the "meta-game" of deckbuilding and turns it into the game itself; but it's simple enough to be picked up by those with no prior exposure to TCG's. Selecting cards, building combos, slowly iterating on and strengthening your deck - these are all done turn-by-turn, competitively against other players. Of course this means the game still includes the most exciting element of TCGs (to me at least): cards can combo in interesting ways, sometimes exactly as you planned, and other times in ways that you never saw coming.

Perhaps the most brilliant stroke is that the game can be setup very differently each time - in each game session, your decks can be built from 10 different card types, but the game includes something like 30 card types - you can choose which 10 card types are "in the game" for each session. This can lead to very different games from session to session, and the card types chosen (perhaps randomly chosen?) will greatly alter the style of the game. For instance, you may include many "direct attack" cards (making the game more directly competitive), or you can include none of those cards (and end up with players competing only indirectly -"playing solitaire at the same table").

Great game, would play it with anyone!

On Implementing Rules

Posted on March 11, 2011

As you might have noticed if you've followed my work over the last year or so, I've become a huge fan of the Flixel engine. Part of this has to do with the fact that the engine is open-source, and was developed here in Austin. (It might also be because I have a major man-crush on Austin indie game developer Adam "Atomic" Saltsman, who created the engine.)

But there's are other reasons why I'm a fan of Flixel.

I'm a game programmer and a game designer; and on some issues, those two sides of me are at war. Flixel is one of those: in terms of following solid programming principles and good engineering practices, Flixel is far from ideal, and in fact is rife with practices that good engineers would advise against (like heavy use of global variables).

But the designer side of me wins out in this argument. You see, the game designer in me only wants to do two things:

  1. Think up the rules for a game.
  2. Implement those rules as quickly as possible.

If you can't do those two things, there is no game. It doesn't matter what kind of graphics, sound, music, particle effects, lens flare, cutscenes, dialog, characters, or story makes up your "game." If it doesn't have rules, then it's not really a game at all. (Remember, you can make a compelling experience without making a system of rules, but you can't make a game without rules. And if you're only concerned with making a compelling experience, you probably shouldn't be making games at all - making films is much cheaper, much easier, and gives you much more authorial control over the moment-to-moment experience.)

But I digress; let's return to rules.

Ultimately, being a gameplay programmer can be boiled down to one simple job:

Taking the rules of the game, and writing code that implements and enforces those rules.

That's it. Therefore, as a gameplay programmer AND as a game designer implementing his own designs, I'm a huge fan of Flixel. Why? Because it is an engine in which a single game rule can usually be expressed in a minimal number of lines of code.

Take collision. Collision of 2D objects has been part of games since Spacewar. This might lead you to think that it's a trivial problem to solve; but that's not the case. I've burned many hours writing and re-writing 2D collision code, and even then it was rarely perfect.

Flixel provides a solid and very robust solution for 2D collision. And best of all, almost every "collision rule" can be expressed in a single line of code. If you want the player to collide with enemies, you express that with this line of code:

FlxU.collide( player, enemies );

That's it. This is the type of attitude Flixel seems to take towards everything: in Flixel, everything that feels like it should take only one line of code, usually actually does take only one line of code!

The ideal game engine would be one in which each and every rule of the game could be written in plain but unambiguous English, and the game engine would simply interpret and enforce these rules. I actually have some ideas in mind for how something approaching this ideal game engine could be created; though I doubt I'd ever have time to properly explore such a project.

Until then, we must express our rules with code. But we can, at least, choose game engines that take care of everything possible EXCEPT our rule implementations; and in which our rule implementations can be expressed in the most simple, maintainable code possible.

Prototyping Microtalk: The Video is Up!

Posted on March 4, 2011

A YouTubevideo is up of the 10-minute "microtalk" I gave on prototyping - I previously blogged about this and posted the slides here.

Here's the video! Thanks to the local Austin IGDA chapter for providing it, and for making the event possible.

Unfortunately it looks like this video has pretty poor audio, and my slides aren't clearly visible. Oh well, at least it's there for posterity if nothing else; and if you really wanted to you could probably make out what I'm saying and follow along with the slides themselves, found here.

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories – First Impressions

Posted on January 5, 2011

We still haven't picked up our game of Arkham Horror from where it left off; so instead I thought I'd write a few thoughts about another horrifying game I've been playing... Silent Hill: Shattered Memories for the Wii.

It's too bad that the Wii has fallen into irrelevance for most gamers, because this game is quite an experience so far, and I've heard it only gets better. It takes several of the Wii's mechanics and uses them brilliantly as part of the game experience...

Arkham Horror – First Impressions

Posted on December 28, 2010

For those who haven't noticed, part of my personal quest over the last few years has been to make myself the ultimate uber-nerd. Although I haven't quite resorted to LARPing yet (mostly because my large, meaty body makes me useless in swordplay, and I would be reduced to the role of Stumbling Ogre or Beer-Swilling Oaf - roles I already fulfill regularly in real life and therefore have no need to need to roleplay), I have been trying to up my nerd cred by learning about obscure board games, especially European ones.

Games Can Create Empathy… So Why Don’t They?

Posted on July 3, 2010

I just posted a new blog post on Gamasutra; in response to Roger Ebert's latest statement in the "games as art" debate, I tackle a question implied by his definition of Great Art. Essentially: can games create empathy by communicating something real about personal experience?

You can find the full article here.

My assertion is that games are actually better-suited for this than any other art form, but for some reason this potential is under-utilized in the industry. (I also talk about zombie sensitivity training and making a game starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, if that makes the article sound more interesting.)

I'm really happy with this particular post; especially because it's sparked a renewed interest for me in a side project that I've been working on for a while.

My Personal Gaming Canon

Posted on April 29, 2010

I drew this up last week and have had it sitting in a Notepad window for a couple of weeks. Thought it was time to share it, if only to be able to close that window.

Here are the games that constitute my "personal gaming canon." Perhaps the term I should use is "ludologic canon"? That makes me feel super pretentious though.

All right so here's the games. First of all, a list of games that I think should be in anyone's gaming canon. In other words, they are both very high-quality games, and very important games (at least for their time). And of course, I love them. In no particular order:

  • Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
  • Silent Hill 2
  • Myst
  • Riven [Myst 2]
  • Fallout 1
  • Fallout 2
  • The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
  • Tetris
  • The Sims 2
  • Braid
  • Super Mario Bros.
  • Super Mario Bros. 3
  • Super Mario World
  • Half-Life
  • Half-Life 2
  • Portal
  • Team Fortress 2
  • Counter-Strike
  • Goldeneye: 007
  • Deus Ex
  • Grand Theft Auto 4
  • Starcraft
  • Shadow of the Colossus
  • Flight Control [iPhone]
  • Pac-Man
  • Asteroids

And now here are some more which are solidly in my personal gaming canon... but which I'd understand not being on someone else's list.

  • TIE Fighter
  • Dr. Mario
  • Super Mario RPG
  • Super Mario Kart
  • The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
  • Torchlight
  • World of Warcraft
  • Master of Orion
  • Urban Dead [browser-based MMO]
  • Mega Man 2

And that's it. I've finished every game on this list (of the ones that are "finishable") except for Deus Ex and Fallout 2 (I got to 90% on these and never finished them for some reason); GTA4 (which I'm still playing, albeit very slowly); Torchlight (also still playing, intermittently). Also, I never hit max level in WoW, though I did pass level 60.

Of course, this list probably says a lot about my own glaring blind spots in gaming. I've never played a Civilization, or a Metal Gear Solid... I never played a Diablo game (despite getting the Battlechest for free when I started at Blizzard) - I decided to play Torchlight instead to educate myself on the genre, and ended up loving it.

My award for "Most Perfect Game" goes to Zelda: Ocarina of Time; no game has ever achieved what it set out to do more completely or consistently (though Braid and GTA4 are close contenders on that one). My personal, subjective, biased favorite (i.e. I fell in love with it during my personal "golden age of gaming", and may love it more than it deserves) is definitely TIE Fighter (with Goldeneye hot on its heels).

For those wondering why Fallout 3 isn't on here, it's because I haven't played very much of it (and the fact that it hasn't sucked me in the way the first ones did might be a sign that it doesn't belong on here, or just a sign that I have very little time to actually play games anymore).

That is all. Maybe I'll write posts in the future elaborating why I love some of these games so much...?

My Super-Awesome Lego MMO Design

Posted on April 9, 2010

I've decided that whenever I come up with a game design that I know there's no chance in hell will ever get made, I'll throw that idea up here, in order to prove how awesome I am.

In this case I also get to prove what I've long complained about: I come up with every good idea about 5 days before someone else does.

It was around August of 2007 that I was walking my dogs and I said: to myself "Lego MMO." Then, I burped. Then, the design below sprung into my head. It was kinda painful.

5 days later, NetDevil announced that they were making that game. When I heard about it, I fell to my knees and cursed the heavens - which got me some odd looks at work.

But of course I was frustrated - they weren't doing the most interesting part of my design, which so far as I can tell is substantially different from theirs (and of course, infinitely more awesome)!

Here Is My Awesome Design

The elevator pitch: "Webkinz meets 'Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts' meets MMO meets Lego". Here's the design that makes that sound less like a train wreck of unrelated ideas:

  1. Special (physical) Lego bricks would be manufactured. They would have tiny microchips inside them; these microchips would hold an identifier of what kind of brick it was, and could also be able to connect to other such microchips. The bricks would have tiny electric connections on all the places on the piece where that piece could connect with other pieces (e.g. on the pegs of a brick, and on the slots on the bottom of a brick where pegs fit in).
  2. A special piece of equipment would be packaged with the game: a USB connector that had a standard Lego peg on it, and could thereby be connected onto any Lego piece.
  3. So. Let's say you buy these special Lego pieces, and you then build a spaceship out of them. Then you buy our game; you can simply set that spaceship next to your computer and plug the USB piece onto it, and the other end into your computer. Special software then sends a signal to the USB piece, which queries the microchip on the piece you plug it into, which then queries all of the pieces that it's connected to, and so on, recursively building a data tree of every single piece type used in the spaceship and where they are connected to each other!
  4. This information is sent to the computer, which recreates the spaceship on the screen with virtual bricks! Every piece is replicated, and in its proper place, in your software. You can view the spaceship in 3D, perhaps even modifying its color (charging for 'paint buckets' seems it might be good Microtransaction material).
  5. And now, here's the part that's so awesome it will blow your eyeballs clean out of your face. Some of the pieces (say, a spaceship engine piece) are functional in the game world! If it has an engine piece on it, then the spaceship can actually fly around. If it has a laser piece on it, then you can actually fire lasers. And it's all in a true physics engine - the weight of the pieces, the center-of-gravity, etc. will all have a huge impact on the movement and handling of your ship! All very similar to Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts - if that game was an MMO, and let you actually have a physical copy of your creations!

It looks like the actual Lego MMO might be doing some of #5, though I'm skeptical. As Jesse Schell pointed out in his Dice 2010 talk (which I finally watched yesterday, and found that it was very interesting up until the very end, which was oddly the part everyone talked about), people are currently extremely "into" virtual elements that have a solid real-world connection: WebKinz, the physical guitars in Guitar Hero, etc. This game has that in spades. I played with Legos a ton as a kid - and there's nothing I would have enjoyed more than finishing my awesome little creation, walking over to my computer, plugging it in, and actually playing with it in a game world, where suddenly it could fly around, the lasers actually fired, etc.

And of course financially speaking, this design is incredible because there are about a billion ways to make money from it. Don't have a piece in the real-world? Buy it in-game. Making people pay for individual virtual Lego bricks is like a corporate wet-dream, right?

Oh, of course I'm a little sketchy on what you can actually do with this stuff in-game. Actually upon reflection the game doesn't even need to be an MMO, though I would say that making it multiplayer in some way that allows you to play with your friends is incredibly important. (That would also help with "time to cock" issue that would be so prevalent in a kids' game with user-created content.) In fact, this could actually be a Wii game that used friend codes... can you imagine flying your self-created spaceship around by holding up your Wiimote like a paper airplane and tilting it this way and that? That's even more of the kinetic, real-world element that kids would love.

As you can see this design is a bit "hazy at the edges" and starting to become a bit vague - because I'm not going to take the time to think it all out, because it will never be made. But though the edges are hazy, the core is solid - I'm sure a great game could be made around this core idea. It's a game I would have killed to play as a kid, or even now for that matter. Too bad it will never be made!