Doing the tiny, irrelevant things is good for the soul

Before I start discussing about the feature I’ve added to my card game, I must first tell you one cool thing that japanese anime artists do, that many others don’t do.

There’s something really cool in anime productions. The artists spend crazy time on adding details or scenes that are barely used in the movies at all. They do additional work that no sane producer would ever allow. They do some tedious, extra work, where gain is minimal.

The producer’s mind – and very many software development methods such as as any scrum system – usually try to follow this rule:

  • Maximize value, minimize work.

I tried googling for a certain scene image that I remember from Fullmetal Alchemist, but since I couldn’t find it, the next one needs to do. Here’s an example image from the Fullmetal Alchemist anime series:

This type of image might be shown for like 2 seconds. Just 2 seconds. And then it’s never used again. Never shown. Look at that image.

Creating this type of image takes time. It’s not born in 2 minutes. And there’s tons of other similar scenes in those series.

The city image I’m thinking had even more details, and it could have been left undone. Or it could have been done with much less effort.

Yet, the artists chose to spend quite a bit of time doing this thing, that adds quite little value. I don’t argue that it wouldn’t be important for viewers to see how the city looks and all that, but hopefully you do get my point. The point is: drawing a very detailed piece of art takes a long time. Showing/using that piece of art only for a second or two means it’s tons of work per second of film. If all seconds were like that, it would be pretty darned expensive movie to draw.

I mean… that art scene was so beatiful, that why not let me look at it for 15 or 30 seconds. Just 2? What’s going on?

But anime aside.

The point is that these type of small, meaningless details add *soul* to a game (or a movie). They add something unexpected, something different to look for. When something new, unexpected occurs… and if that’s a rare moment, that’s good.

Even if it takes some additional time.

And here we finally arrive to what I’ve been cooking the last month.

I’ve tested, balanced, shaped, manipulated, tested, balanced and done some crunch work to get my physical card game The Infected into a releasable state. During the last month, I added one feature. It is somewhat minor addition (using the very basic core elements there’s already in the game) – it’s total of 3 new cards. And 3 new pieces of art. That might not sound like a lot, but if we keep in mind there’s 108 cards in my game, so that’s about 3% of all the cards in the game.

I could have chosen not to add the feature nor these cards. I’m not saying I’m anywhere *near* the level of japanese anime masters in bringing new & exciting things into their product. I’m not saying I’m anywhere near the level of game designers who pour tremendous amount of effort into perfecting their games.

What I’m saying that in my own internal level of “how polished this game is”, I’m darned happy I chose to add the allies in the game. The allies in the game bring some amount of luck (to human team’s favor), but also add a small tactical element to use. I’m not saying they would be useless, but I could argue that this ally feature goes to the basket of “nice to have” feature. Not a critical, not useless either, but perhaps a fun one.

Here’s one of the new ally cards:

Who knows, maybe adding this feature brings something different in the game. Perhaps some fun emerges from it.

Just maybe this brings bit more soul to the game.

What Minecraft, Diablo, Civilization and Farmville have in common?

Designing a a physical card game (still in progress) has given me a new perspective in games. Or at leat strengthened the perspective of game mechanics. I’ve learned to better look the underlying structures of games. I’m definitely not suggesting that I’m now one game designer guru. But I can say that my own game design skills & understanding have improved, much thanks to developing a non-video game.

That’s enough for me to dive into thinking some of the core elements of fun in games.

Recently, I draw the following picture:

While it’s definitely not capturing all aspects of fun, not even meant to be a serious attempt of “figuring out fun”, there’s some underlying nuggets of wisdom there, I’d say.

Hitting the human nerve: growth
The games presented are totally different: Civilization is about developing nations, Diablo is about hero kicking the nasty monsters, Minecraft about mining & building, and Farmville a farming game. There’s still at least one underlying aspect that makes these games fun (for certain people): it’s the growth.

In Minecraft, you are able to dig wood in order to build a bench in order to build axes and pickaxes in order to get more resources in order to build more stuff. The more you mine and collect, the better tools you get to mine and collect. This is one aspect of fun in Minecraft, not the whole truth, but I’d dare to say very important part of it.

In Civilization you build cities to get resource to grow bigger cities (very simply put). In Diablo you kill monsters to get resources & weapons to kill bigger monsters. In Farmville you… well, you grow stuff to grow more stuff.

I think we humans have tremendous need for growth. Think of Internet. Twitter has follower count. Sounds stupid? Yes, but everybody and their mom who is active in Twitter wants more followers.

Think of military: you start at the bottom and try & make your way to the top.

Think politicians. Think of corporations. Think of any career: if the place is fun, quite likely there’s chances for growth.

Think of self defence and belt systems.

Think of sports.

Think of kids.

Think of atoms, and what they are made of. Think of the universe and what it consists of.

“Everywhere” is a dangerous word, since most likely there’s exceptions, but I’m going to use this word anyway. Almost everywhere in the world, there’s need for growth, and motivation for growth. Games are no different.

Why people stop playing tic-tac-toe. Once you know the optimal strategy, the game becomes totally pointless (from the perspective of growth as in “getting better”, naturally you can still poke some fun by fooling around your opponents). Once you’ve achieved everything, there’s nothing else to do. Just boring, mindless thing to “play”. That’s no fun.

What about MineCraft? In MineCraft, there’s shitload of things to do. There’s huge amount of things you can dig that help you dig or build even cooler things.

The “digging resources and building tools in order to dig more resources to build better tools” loop is hugely important part of fun in Minecraft. It’s hugely important aspect of very many games.

This element can be either built-in to the game (for example as in Minecraft) and additionally it often is there automatically in more skill* based games (for example in FPS games where your own skills improve as you play). Or, it can be combination of both, and usually is.

For example, if we’d play game of dice where throwing bigger number wins, there’s no room for growth (in terms of who will win). You throw 4, I throw 3. You win. Play again?

In MineCraft you don’t need superfast reaction skills to survive, yet you can advance & grow your home & tunnel network in the game.

In civilization, you can grow your city and naturally become a better strategist as a player. In civilizations, the both aspects of growth in-game (cities, technologies etc) and outside the game (player strategy skills) are well represented.

In FPS shooters, you might have all the guns/roles unlocked and your survival depends on your reaction skills. There might be shooter that has no in-built system for growth, yet you as a player can “advance” in terms of honing your skills. Thus growing or becoming a more skilled player.

Minecraft, Diablo, Civilization and Farmville. Even if you love one and hate another, that wouldn’t mean these games couldn’t have one underlying common element of fun: possibilities for growth.

Artificial stupidity

Games do not need AI that makes perfect moves, or is highly intelligent in terms of strategy. What games need are acts of stupidity. Human errors. Mistakes. Stupidity – as compared to intelligent play – that occurs only sometimes.

In NHL game series the AI is evolving, but it’s also very predictable. The AI doesn’t make occasional silly moves. There’s no accidental mistakes.

What’s great in online multiplayer games: human opponents. Even the most skilled players make mistakes, silly mistakes. That’s what creates fun, memorable, unexpected moments. That’s what AI should try to replicate.

When AI programming reaches the level of emerging stupidity, then we are onto something.

How to make releasing a game really difficult

5ish years ago I was doing my Dead Wake project, and one of the most important aspect of development was incremental releases. Every 1-2 months, I put out a new release. This was a really big deal to get things tested. I even had this counter on the website that said like “27 days, 11 hours, 9 minutes till the next release”.

That was cool way to do it.

I took a different approach on my card game, which I started in 2010. It’s been now over 2 years since development started. While I’ve done some iterative development (there’s been several internal Big Releases), I notice that while actual public release approach, it becomes harder.

Is it good enough? Will it be well balanced? How will the traitor mechanism really work when there’s different groups playing? I’ve been able to solo test each version pretty well, I’m quite certain the solo version works. The traitor mechanism has had issues, and it’s been improved ever since. I do realize I need to put together this last version, and get the traitor aspect tested once more. There’s been some changes in the last couple of months, which affect this.

Another aspect has been my kids. I’ve purposefully given more attention to my kids, and I’ve took less night shifts to work on my game – thus extending the development time. And of course there has been actually waiting periods while I’ve waited ships and planes to bring me the physical version with the new art.


The point is: there’s been gaps in development. This has meant that occasionally I’ve lost momentum, needed to regain it, go on with nice pace, then stop again. And, I’ve done only internal Big Revisions, not public one. Or even beta ones, as my main testing group is me, and secondary testing group is our board game group. Keep in mind we are talking about a physical card game, not a video game.

So, two big lessons:

  • Iterative releases: set up deadlines, and stick to them. I remember that it was always cool the get a release out, even if it didn’t have all the hoped features. If you release something only every 2 years, that makes it harder to release.
  • Keep going: momentum is important. If there’s weeks of gap in the development, restarting is always hard.

And a bonus tip: physical card game development isn’t as simple as it might sound. There’s tons of reasons why people are doing iPad card games nowadays. That’s a bloody fine idea.

I haven’t ruled out the idea of iPad version of my card game, but as my dream has been to create a physical card game that I can play & enjoy with my buddies. There’s some aspects in multiplaying with buddies that computers simply cannot offer.

I’m very close to a release now. I have all the pieces here. I need to do the final run. Get it tested and I’m good to go. But for the next projects… I doubt it’s going to be a physical one.