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.

Anyways.

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.

What are the player benefits of pay-to-save-time games?

Free-to-play games often introduce the “pay to save your time” model. In the game, you can wait or do grinding, or you can buy your way out of these situations. It’s a pretty common way to monetize these games.

All I’ve heard is pretty much objections towards this model, from developers. Quite fierce objections – have to admit I’ve done the same as well.

But if we take a totally objective way to look at this model, is it really that bad?

Is it really that different from feature-locking, or level locking? A decade ago, there was plenty of discussion about shareware locking. Some said that 30 day trial is a good, while others recommended 60 minutes trials. And then there were many other, like locked features and whatnot.

Is pay-to-save time simply a new alternative way to lock your game?

Is it a nice way to allow people to play the game free infinitely, while also allowing those who have less time (but more money) to focus on different aspects of the game?

From a player perspective, is pay-to-save-time locking a better or worse alternative than for example demo vs full versions, where demo version shows only a little bit of the game?

What you think?

Us versus them: the new humble THQ bundle case

The new Humble Bundle has received mixed opinions. People are taking sides and preparing to attack or defend the new bundle – or something between. People have really fierce arguments over how the current bundle is nasty, evil bad thing.

I think there’s quite many irrational arguments that get dragged in the conversation to support people’s views.

Here’s the situation I’m thinking when I’m estimating the newest bundle:

If we imagine a situation where this newest bundle would be the first bundle. How would I react?

Here’s some facts:

  • I get to pay whatever I want ($1 or more)
  • I get several games from a company who has paid & owns the rights for those games.
  • I can decide the amount that charity will receive
  • I get to decide the amount that bundle creators receive
  • There’s DRM.
  • These are Windows-only games

These are the facts as I look at this offering as-is. When looking at this offer only, it’s irrelevant whether there has been previous bundles or not. Whether previous bundle had Linux games or not, is totally irrelevant when it comes to evaluating the current offering.

If I’m having a good day today, it’s irrelevant whether I had a good or bad day yesterday. I can be happy about today, even if was shitty day yesterday.

Similarly, I can objectively look at this bundle offering, and determine whether it’s a good or bad.

The actual offering looks to me pretty humble and solid. I can decide price, I have windows, so those factors are okay. Then I can determine what I think of DRM. Well, usually I prefer without… but if these games work enough, I don’t care having DRM, so that factor – to me – is fine.

Then there’s couple of other factors:

  • Charity: does these charity organisation do good things? Are they worth supporting? I can google, ask others, and do bit of research to see whether I want to support them or not.
  • THQ the company. I can ask questions such as: what is this company about? Have they’ve done such things in the past that I don’t want to support them? If I help them today, will they use my money wisely? Will they do good things? If I don’t know the answers to these questions I could google and find out. I can adjust the slider as I prefer.
  • Bundle organizing company: I can see they have investors backing them, I see they have job offerings. In the past I’ve seen nice bundles, so they’ve done good things in the past. They are collaborating with THQ – is that good? Do I want to support this? Again, I can google, ask around and do a bit of research if I want, and then decide where I set the slider.

To me, it feels that only the “which companies are participating in this” is bit more subjective. All other factors can be reasoned to be pros or cons (for example: Linux gamers can automatically reject the bundle since it’s Windows only).

Then some factors that are irrelevant:

  • Previous bundle had Linux + Windows + Mac
  • Indies made the games in previous bundles

Going to take a closer look at each of these factors.

“Previous bundle had Linux + Windows + Mac”
This argument has absolutely no meaning in measuring this current bundle. If I have a great day today, it’s irrelevant whether I had a bad day yesterday. Dogs are good at getting this, humans not. We humans tend to drag our past experiences into something where they don’t belong. And I must emphasize: I’m evaluating this current THQ bundle.

Equally well we could turn it around. Imagine that all the previous bundles were AAA, windows-only, DRM games — and you bought none of them.

And then comes a new bundle. If the new bundle offers indie, windows+linux+mac, no DRM games, would you not buy “because previous bundles were windows only”? To me, that makes no sense.

“Indies made the games in previous bundles”
Again, a factor that doesn’t matter. Two reasons why: being “indie” is not important. Providing fun games is.

When I purchase games, I make the decision based on the fun factor, or when I want to support interesting projects. Whether they were created by indies or not is irrelevant. I want that the most fun games survive in this world.

I’m an indie, but my goal is not to be an indie. My goal is to have fun creating games, and to see that other (some, not all) people find them fun. Whether I’m an indie or not is irrelevant.

And again the history aspect: whether other bundles had indie games or not is irrelevant when evaluating this current bundle. We people want continuation, and if something doesn’t match our expectations, we tend to drag the history with us to argument how this current offering cannot be good since previous offer was different.

When estimating this offering, the indie factor has little meaning.

The gaming world is not about “us” and “them”, “indie” or “aaa”. It’s more about “offering bad games” or “offering fun games”.

I vote with my wallet for “offering fun games” by companies that hopefully treat their people good, and just perhaps help make the world a bit better place.

Why Kickstarter is totally okay

There seems to be different opinions about use of kickstarter. Some devs think it’s purest form of evil, while others seem to think it as the heavenly paradise which solves all their funding problems. And then there’s the rest of us whose opinions falls somewhere between.

With that being said, let’s move forward and accept what Kickstarter is, and what it isn’t.

First of all: Kickstarter is much (not in all projects, but for many) about selling ideas or early projects. Of course it depends of the team who is using it, but for many cases it’s about “hey, Ive done this sort of stuff before and here’s what Im planning to cook next. You wouldn’t mind giving me some cash, would you?”

It’s about having idea or something bit more, and then asking for money for completing the project.

And that is perfectly okay.

Nobody is forcing anything. Everybody has freedom of choise to do as they want. People have the right to buy expensive plastic junk in giftwrapped boxes once per year and they sure have the right to support ideas. Or pay for ideas.

Even when somebody is selling indie games priced $10… That doesn’t mean it would be the “proper” or “right” way to do it. When it comes to money, it’s the customers who decide what they pay for, not the developers.

I decide how I use my wallet, not you.

If somebody is selling orange juice at certain price, that doesn’t mean he gets to decide whether the neighbour can sell his juice for subsription based fee. Whether the other guy promises too much or sells too cheap… Well that’s tough. He has the right to do so (within commonly agreed laws).

Let’s take another example. Nuclear power.

Nuclear power can be used for good stuff (think Mars rover: that beast has one cool huge nuclear powered energy source with it, no need to worry about solar panels). Or it can be done bad (recent nuclear plant issue at Japan, remember?).

Guns can be used for good (hunting: providing food for the family) or for the bad (crimes).

Similarly there are teams and projects that can use Kickstarter for good purposes, and then there’s projects that should never be there.

Kickstarter is not about being good or bad, it’s simply a different tool. It’s about having one more option.

And freedom of choice is more than welcome, in my opinion.

Pros and cons in teaming up with somebody

I’m finalizing my Infected card game, and the responsibilities have been easy to define: I do pretty much everything, except for the art (and group testing and actual card manufacturing). All art was created by Anton Brand, and I paid per asset.

But what if I had teamed up with somebody, split the profits, done the project together with someone?

Currently: most of the responsibility lies on my own shoulders
The whole game project of mine is very much my responsibility to deal with. Anton got paid per asset rather than receiving % of sales. The good news about this is that I can make all the final decisions, I can craft the game exactly the way I want it to be, and that I’m not dependant on others for most of the part.

So, dependancies I have had during this project have been:

  • Me
  • The artist
  • The test group
  • The card manufacturer

Majority of testing has been done by me, and then test group has helped going through some major revisions and helped me to gather feedback. The dependencies have been minimal (game works well as solo, so I’ve been able to test solo without actually needed to have test group near and card manufacturing at this point will go through online service, which works – I’ve tested that as well).

What if I’d want to team-up with somebody?
I’ve liked “pay per asset, not give % of royalties” since it’s a pretty straightforward way to get people working in the project. I haven’t needed to discuss design decisions, argue whether it’s okay to have “crow” as an ally or not. I’ve asked people in twitter, and then made my final call on things. It is also giving me a feeling of control: I get to decide how the game looks like.

For a card game with limited 2D art assets, this approach has been working great.

But, what if I need a bigger art budget or just want somebody to join my team?
I wrote earlier about creating your dream game, and while creating a physical card game has been my dream coming true, I’ve also had visions of creating certain type of video games.

One challenge is – I bet for many – the art budget. I’m not looking into creating a game that competes with AAA visuals, but even if you are going to do a simple 2D sidescroller, there can be tons of art to be created. It takes either humongous amount of time or money to get that stuff done. And the bottleneck doesn’t need to be art, it can be something else. I’m just taking art as an example here.

If you team up with somebody… well, that comes with a price.

If you happen to find a artist, and you do the programming side, that combination can work great. Each of you gets to focus on your strengths. There’s cons though. In a team of two, consider the following:

  • Who makes the final call on deciding the sounds or music?
  • Who gets to say how difficult the levels should be?
  • Who will decide what to do with feature X?
  • If the programmer is in charge of programming, and the artist is responsible over visuals… that’s fine but what about rest of the areas?
  • Discussing, talking, meeting, brainstorming, discussing again takes time. If you work solo, you can bounce ideas to the community and act on that. But with 2 people, you can get arguments over how something should work. (Just try get 2 programmers to sit down and discuss about naming conventions, and you’ll see what I mean). The bottom line is: communicating and discussions take more time.
  • Arguing over profits (or percentages)?
  • What if one guy leaves? What happens then? In solo projects, that’s not a problem. But when there’s more than 1 person involved, any key person leaving can be one nasty situation.
  • And tons of more similar things to deal with. None of these are issues is you are working solo.

On the positive side:

  • Each guy can concentrate on what they do best
  • Two guys can be motivating combination: both of you can support each other to get more stuff done
  • Seeing things differently can be a huge asset: we all have blind spots on certain things, and 2 pair of eyes can help see things differently.
  • And I bet tons of more

Taking someone into a team can be a huge asset, but also a big mistake.

Are you working solo, or in a team with somebody? Why?

Is free-to-play a clever way to sell cheat codes?

Remember how godmode ruined Doom 2 experience?

I do.

If we look at the F2P games out there in the market, I think there’s roughly two type of genres:

1) “Save time” packs: Games that are designed to exploit our gambling habits by introducing hidious grinding which takes a lot of time. Time which you can “save” by paying. For example, they tell you must kill 100 orcs in order to progress further, and it takes 10 hours with a rusty sword. If you buy a “kill 100 orcs” spell (costs just 1 USD), you can snap your fingers and get through the obstacle.

2) “Personalize”: Games that sell “cosmetic” stuff that doesn’t affect gameplay difficulty in any level, and there’s no other way to gain the cosmetic stuff besides buying. There’s no “kill 100 orcs” spell, but instead you can buy paint and colorize your rusty sword. All other players have rusty metal swords, but yours has nice blue blade. (Assuming there’s no other way to get different colored rusty sword)

Please notice that if you can get access to blue paint by going through 100 hours of grinding, then that’s closer to #1 than #2 category: it’s still about “saving time to personalize”.

That’s a pretty simplified classification, but should cover two different ends of the F2P opportunities.

I think the difficult issue with #1 type of cheat codes selling (and this is what mr. @lemmy101 stated so well in his most excellent ranting tweets around 15th of November) is that it might give framework for designing games in certain way. The designers are rewarded for designing “games that generate most revenue”, instead of “games that generate most fun moments”.

I read a good post by Daniel Cook and he arguments how “sell 10 buck games” is not working way to generate sustainable business.

My counter is:

  • Expansion packs

I’m not willing to buy new items for my character, or ways to kill 100 orcs easier. But, I am willing to buy new levels with more potential weapons to find, new monsters to hunt.

When developers have some good new DLC additions, it’s a no-brainer for me to buy more.

The “buy 10 buck game” model might not work but “10 buck game and then 5 buck add-ons” does work, and is a fair model.

It boils down to this:

  • A) Do I wanna spend real money to buy items & stuff for my *character*
  • B) or do I wanna spend real money to buy content & stuff for *me as a player*

I’m choosing option B, and that’s probably the reason why there’s not a single F2P game in my computer, and that’s the reason why there’s tons of games in my Steam list.

Which type of games you prefer and what you think of these different ways to sell items and content?