Directory of All Essays

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Knytt time at the end of the genre lifecycle.

The lovely exploration/platformer Knytt Stories by that Swedish genius Nicklas Nygren is available. Download it, play it and spread word of its greatness throughout the land. Knytt is the epitome of accessible indie game design and one of the few titles that I've fallen deeply, passionately and madly in love with.

Raised in the Scandinavian traditions of Linus and kindly gnomes, Nicklas is giving his entire life's work away for free. This blatant socialism shall not stand. Do you believe in human goodness? Do you believe in justice? Do you believe in fair pay for honest labor? If you enjoy the game, the crotchety shareware old timer thinks that you are morally obligated to to donate a solid chunk of cash into the Nifflas paypal account. Quality pickled herring and lingon berries don't come cheap and starvation means a fewer such amazing games in the future.

Alright. Enough promotion. Knytt Stories and its prequel the original Knytt turns my crank because they are a wonderful example of how to create a landmark game in a dying genre.

2D platformers in the niche stage

2D Platform games are past their prime. The numbers, though inevitably incomplete, do not lie.

Other than some handheld holdouts, the publishers have moved on. Much of the audience has as well. It is my belief that if an original game that was identical in competence to Sonic or Super Mario Brothers was released on the market today, it would sink without much of a trace. "Ah, a platform game" gamers would say. "I remember playing those."

I'm in the group that never fell in love in the first place. Most popular platform games just make me irritable. I just don't have the skill. I still haven't completed Super Mario Brothers and my voice turns high and giggly just looking at Contra. The legends of the platform genre are mature stage games that are intended to challenge that rarefied population of gamers who have been double jumping before they started walked.

The vast majority of the level design is usually focused on solving bizarre little timing puzzles. These have evolved over the decades. At first static platforms provided enough challenge. Then came moving platforms. And rotating platforms festooned with enemies. That shot timed patterns of spikes. That were as large your head.

The core platformer audience adores repeatedly bashing themselves against such puzzles until they can fire off symphonic jump sequences with microsecond accuracy. I, on the other hand, feel like I have mittens, the bulky leather-type they wear in harsh Northern climates, permanently welded to my misshapen paw-like appendages. I remember vaguely enjoying some of the earlier platform games. I've certainly jumped over the occasional barrel in my time for mild chuckles. However as a skills of the dedicated platformer genre addicts grew and the developer merrily upped the ante, mitten wielding folks like myself were left far, far behind.

Yet I love Knytt and am very much enjoying Knytt Stories. How do a few guys in Sweden single handedly ignite my love for a genre that I had believed long overrun and corrupted by the elite gamers of the world?

Focus on accessibility
I sent Nicklas an email a while back and he was kind enough to answer some of my questions. One response about skill level stood out.
"I wanted everyone (particularly people who usually don't play computer games) to be able to play and enjoy Knytt, that's why I didn't make it very hard. Many gamers who play a lot naturally didn't like that, but to me the game is all about the atmosphere, rather than the gameplay."
With Knytt, Nicklas focused on a broader audience by creating a game that had accessible delights. He risked the wrath of the skilled platform players and intensionally broke many of the essential conventions of the genre.

Exploration, not traditional skill-based rewards
The obvious thing that everyone notices playing Knytt is just how wonderful it is to wander from room to room seeing new sights. Many of the creatures in the original game were unique and harmless.

This is a great use of readily accessible red herring skill atoms. You don't need to be a skilled player to gain joy from seeing a wild animal grazing or discovering a cute village for the first time. These are pleasures available to even the most inexperienced of players.

As such, must of the game is structured around seeing the world. Quests for items are often not resolved by hard jumps or boss battles, but instead by wandering and being curious.

Minimize the traditional UI
"I don't really like the health bar (I avoid displaying indicators on the screen, since real life doesn't have them)."
The user interface for games in a genre evolves over time, typically becoming more complex. A user interface is much like a language. It uses symbols to convey meaning in a compact efficient form. Problems arise when users have no experience with those symbols. A health bar is the most obvious thing in the world to an experienced gamer. Yet it is confusing and meaningless to those who have not seen it.

By removing the typical UI trappings, you make the game more accessible. There are fewer things to learn at first and few things to get frustrated by. Instead, Knytt Stories goes the route of incorporating learning into the game itself. Instead of tutorial screens, you have a tutorial level. Difficulty is a switch inside the game itself.

Allow for low cost experimentation
Knytt has no lives. Save points are very liberally sprinkled about so that when you do fail a jump, you are seconds away from trying it again. Most jumps aren't fatal. Due to the lovely addition of wall climbing, you can recover from most clumsily timed jumps. Pits become opportunities for exploration, not death traps.

All of this contributes to a warm feeling of safety for the player. The game isn't out to punish them for playing and exploring. Instead, it is balanced so that the player is encouraged to try new things and see what happens. They can climb to the tallest peak and jump off to see where they land. In Mario, this is suicide. In Knytt, it is a joyful act of play that has very few negative consequences and a large potential reward. What if an adorable little village lay at the end of that epic jump?

This is perhaps one of the failings of Knytt's sequel, Knytt Stories. Enemies, ineffective as they might be, litter the landscape with much great frequency. The result is you play with a bit more paranoia and dab less experimentation. By increasing the immediate challenge, the player is less likely to engage in the more unique and accessible pleasures of exploration.

Layer difficulty
Perhaps paradoxically, Knytt Stories can be a brutally hard game. You can spend hours searching out the last secrets or grinding through a seemingly infinite set of new levels. Yet even a casual gamer can complete the main scenario in an evening or two without swearing once.

You don't need to sacrifice the hardcore audience in order to make your game accessible. Instead, you can layer the difficulty levels in the game. Here are some of the techniques that Knytt Stories uses to great effect.
  • Keys: Hidden in very secret places throughout the maps are keys. You can play through the game without noticing them at all. The expert player makes it their mission to find all of them.
  • Optional jumps: There are multiple paths through a level. The main paths are very low skill. The optional paths require higher skills to reach.
  • User created levels: By including a level editor, Nicklas encourages folks to make levels to their liking. The result is a slew of 'hard' and 'very hard' levels that skilled players can load at their leisure.
By designing all high difficulty challenges to be optional, Knytt Stories still maintains its accessibility to the new user without alienating the more advanced player. In fact, I'd recommend taking someone off the street that has never played a game in your genre and seeing if they can play through your title and reach the end. If they can't, try turning the difficult portions into optional expert challenges.

Accessibility issues
As accessible as Knytt is, it does have some issues that may hold it back from broader adoption. For one, the art style relies on a deep appreciation of old school pixel art aesthetics that may be difficult to grok for many game virgins. As someone from that culture, the game is gorgeous and highly evocative. I'm curious how it might appeal to people outside the gaming culture. I'd like to imagine that retro is cool these days, but I have no data to support such hopeful musings.

Secondly, the game lacks any sort of marketing or awareness. Nintendo and Microsoft can force a new game into the public consciousness with their lavish marketing campaigns. Knytt is a simple little game on an unassuming website. Its fans are a tiny community with few ties to the larger world.

It unfortunately doesn't matter how accessible you make your game play if people don't know about the game and fail to trial it.

I could go on and on about Knytt and Knytt Stories since they are rife with some truly great design decisions. This is the game that opened my eyes to the immense design possibilities still present in 2D platformer game mechanics. More generally, the design of Knytt points to one formula for resurrecting a dying genre.
  • Focus on accessibility: Serve the needs and skills of the broader audience, not the existing genre addicts.
  • Exploration, not traditional skill-based rewards: Build the game around broadly enjoyable activities like exploration and discovery of evocative places, not those that results from grokking advanced skills.
  • Minimize the traditional UI: Don't assume the standards are necessary or even desirable.
  • Allow for low cost experimentation: Build an atmosphere of safety and experimentation
  • Layer difficulty: Make the hardcore game play optional.
What would happen if you applied this formula to an RTS title? Or an adventure game? Or a FPS? I suspect you'd end up with a fascinating title that quite a few people would want to play.

As an experiment, tell your spouse about this game. Tell her (or him!) it is like reading a great children's story and will make her life better. If she enjoys it, ask her to tell all her friends about the game. Record those things about the game that she dislikes. This is great fodder for your future designs.

If I were Sony, Nintendo or the folks over at Xbox Live, I would be pounding on Nicklas' door with a juicy downloadable contract in hand. Add a spare programmer or two and a dash or marketing, and this game could easily turn into a breakthrough brand. That route may not embody the Nifflas philosophy, but at least he should have the opportunity.

take care


Evolving platform mechanics: It seems that there is a burbling of interest in the platform-esque game mechanics.
  • Braid: More traditional puzzle focused fare, albeit with quite original time-based mechanics.
  • Aquaria: Another upcoming 2d scroller that seems to have a bit of an exploration element. Perhaps not a traditional platformer, but I'm flexible.
  • Tree Story: A design sketch of my own that is a mix between Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon and a platform game. The movement technique need not determine the focus of the game.
Nifflas Games: Home of Knytt and Knytt Stories. Yes, both of them are completely free and provide a more memorable experience than easily 90% of the drek sold at Gamestop.
You can show your appreciation by donating directly to Nifflas using the link below. He runs an Open Kimono business, so you can see exactly how he spends his well earned gains. I think the word is 'frugally'

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

The game design behind the five things blog meme

First, let's start off the exercise with an example. Here are three things about me (because I write too much for five to be worth wading through), as requested by at least two enchanting human beings, Mr. Edery and Mr. Booth. Note the links to their websites and consider the form and intent of the entries below.

1) Doctor Who
Television was uncommon in my household growing up for a variety of reasons. First, it clearly rotted your soul. Second, due to our unique location in the hinterlands of Maine, we received a mere three stations, two of which were pure Canadian syrup and one of which was PBS. Luckily, generations of liberal elite had conclusively proven that any show on PBS builds enormous pulsating (and vaguely British) brain mass. Look at Ira Glass. I’ll bet he watches PBS. My parents were fans.

Every Saturday night, my amazing mother would bake a whole wheat crust pizza and we would climb up the rickety ladder to the perennially unfinished television room at the top of our sprawling hand-built home. There, around an ancient television (the sort whose tube seemed nearly spherical), the entire family would gather and watch the latest glorious episode of Doctor Who. Cybermen, Saurians, the Master, and Chameleons circuit all rock my world.

This was a tradition that continued for at least a decade, through puberty, graduations and death. Every Saturday, whole-wheat pizza and the church of Doctor Who. The core of my being still sparkles when I see long scarves and alien rubber masks. I vividly recall the second episode: time travel, petrified forests, static electricity powered Daleks. The Bible never had a chance.

2) Chocolate
Once a month, we sneak off to a strip mall Starbucks where we greet the waiting cadre of chocoholics. With a flourish, we reveal our latest decadent discoveries. The evening becomes a whirl of luscious single origin dark chocolate, roasted nibs and bon bons. Roll the sound of that word around your mouth. “Bon Bon.” We’ve dabbled in local salt caramels and liquor filled delights purchased with adult credentials, but hell, anything less with than 65% cacao is barely worth the time.

There is a ritual to the evening. First, each owner snaps off small pieces of their sacrificial bar. The sound, hardness and texture noted. The aroma is inhaled. Next, each dark nub is placed upon napkins with its own special number. Then each person simultaneously lets a small fragment melt upon their tongue. “Oh, what a delightful front taste!” someone will exclaim. “I think I taste a fruitiness, perhaps a kiwi-peachish mélange?” queries another. We take careful notes. “No. 1: kiwi-peachish mélange? Right.

We completely make it all up. I don’t even know what kiwi-peach or burnt almonds taste like. There is an unspoken rule that no one criticizes anyone’s commentary, no matter how ludicrous. Chocolate tasting, it turns out, is not the exercise in snobbery I expected. There is no status to be gained or sommelier to impress. It's all a thinly veiled excuse to gorge upon one of God’s most marvelous sins.

(Give the Michel Cluizel Concepcion try. Pure chocolate nectar.)

3) Phones
I’m a reasonable social fellow and enjoy chatting on the phone or receiving phone calls from others. But making phone calls? Not so much. Throughout college I managed to never order pizza. This required intense subterfuge and occasionally Byzantine plotting. Starvation was certainly an option, but eventually someone else would be hungry enough that they could be bribed, manipulated or coerced into making the dread call.

My deeply rooted quirk manifests not as a phobia, but more of a nearly unstoppable subconscious urge to defer, to procrastinate. My productivity shoots through the roof when someone recommends I make a call. I clean, write old friends, start Very Important Essays, paint, etc. I can easily put off calls for months or even years.

This drives my wife crazy. She is the Phone Master. Just today she tracked down a foreign exchange student that my parents knew a decade ago. Phone call, after phone call until she had the girl's name, number and location 17 times zones away. For this I, the broken caller, worship the very ground she floats above in that angel-like Phone Master sort of way.

I won’t nominate other people because the chain must die at some point.

Take care

PS: A short analysis of the “5 things about myself” from a game design perspective
Now that the example is out of the way, let’s get a wee bit meta. What we here is an elegant social game. You play it by writing something about yourself and then nominate several more people to write about themselves. Some call it a meme, but it can be easily described in game design terms. To wit:
  • Tokens: the Writer, the Readers and the Target(s).
  • Basic Verbs: Write, Nominate and Read.
I leave the drawing out of the various atomic rewards as an exercise for the reader. :-) Here are some highlights.
  • Writer reward: The writer is rewarded because they get users to drop on by and see their post. Incremental feedback that suggests one’s reputation is increasing within a community is a strong motivator for many bloggers.
  • Reader reward: Readers are rewarded because they pick up new facts about the writer. This allows them to update their social model of the writer and typically increases their overall trust in the writer. This information allows them to rank the information on the site more appropriately for use in future decisions.
  • Writer action: The writer also gets to target others. This provides them with a very direct and low cost way of updating their mental model on information sources that they use on a regular basis. If they chose someone who continues the game, they also tend to get a back-link that leads more traffic to their website, pumping up their reputation score.
  • Target reward: The targets get immediate rewards through A) being given social attention and B) more concretely through the flow of traffic to their website. However, it gets a bit stickier than just that.
  • Target punishment: There is an opportunity for punishment as well. If the target chooses not to play, the writer will feel that their invitation was spurned and the relationship damaged. Since relationships are powerful social tools, having one damaged is a strong form of punishment that most people will seek to mitigate. In simpler terms, targets feel peer pressure to continue the game.
How you play the game matters. The execution of each action has subtle ramifications.

Uses of the write verb: When writing the five things, there is an urge to appeal to your target audience and build trust in your validity as an information source. If you are boring, readers experience burnout, you hurt your reputation and get double dinged for being the blind follower of a very silly fad. In my example above, each element targeted a very specific audience that I know reads this site.

Uses of the nominate verb: The choosing of Targets is the most interesting part of the game. The obvious strategy is to pick someone with whom you share a pre-existing social bond. Otherwise, the punishment feedback cycle has no hold over them. You also typically select someone with whom you would like to build a deeper long term relationship. The sharing of links is the modern equivalent of breaking bread together.

There are less traditional uses of the Target verb.
  • You can target blogs that are much more popular than you are. If you can score a link back, you can reap substantial traffic. The trick here is to provide a hook that overcomes the lack of peer pressure. Note that there is a little cost if you fail. For example, I could challenge Digg reader to provide 5 things that no one knows about them.
  • You can select blogs that you wish to validate on a personal level. Perhaps they intrigue you, but you’d like more details. I could challenge the good folks at the Escapist if they hadn’t been tagged already.
  • You can end the game.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Wii Help Cat: A lesson in interaction design

The Nintendo Wii has an inexplicably complex help system. A cat wanders onto the screen periodically. If you move your cursor quickly towards the cat, he'll run away. However, if you are careful, you can sneak your cursor up on the cat, your cursor will turn into a hand and you can grab him. When you do, you get a tip about how to use the Wii dashboard.

From a simple efficiency driven point of view, this is a baroque UI that makes very little sense. Surely, just putting up a hint button that says "hint!" would have been more efficient and discoverable. This is what most programs do.

Yet, we know from long experience that no one ever reads the hints. Designers often resort to placing the hint dialog at the startup of the application so that the user is forced to jump through the hoop of reading one hint every time. Most people immediately turn this 'feature' off after using it once. Some users find it highly irritating and form the opinion that the developer is punishing them for using the product. They complain to their friends and write pissy rants to the help desk about why your product is horribly difficult to use. This is not the way to build a viral buzz.

The Help Cat uses traditional game mechanics to help acclimate the first time Wii user to the new controller and the dashboard. In the process, it provides an interesting test case on how game mechanics can be used help users master new functionality.

I've broken down the Help Cat user experience in several levels of mastery. At each level, you'll see the user happen upon new information and adapt their behavior accordingly. I'm using my atomic game mechanics system from a previous post as a framework for identifying the various steps in the process.

This admittedly gets a tad anal retentive, but bear with me. It is a good exercise in analyzing a user interaction and understanding what works and where it can be improved.

Level 1: Passive interaction
  • Action: User looks at screen for X amount of time
  • Blackbox: Cat simulation runs
  • Feedback: A cat walks onto the screen.
  • Mastery: The user realizes it is a cat and activates their known tools for interacting with the cat. There is a small burst of delight often in the form of "Holy duck boot! It's a cat"
Level 2: Active interaction
  • Action: The user moves their cursor in the direction of the cat
  • Blackbox: Cat simulation runs
  • Feedback: The cat runs away from the cursor.
  • Mastery: Wow! It acts a lot like a cat. The user becomes aware that the speed and location of their cursor is important to interacting with the cat and begins consciously practicing mastery of these basic tools. They form an initial mental model of how the cat behaves. This too is delightful.
Level 3: Improving skills
At this point the user is engaged and will often attempt to experimentally validate their mental model.
  • Action: The user begins varying the speed at which they approach the cat. This quickly become a case of seeing how close they can get to the cat before it runs away.
  • Blackbox: Cat simulation runs
  • Feedback: The cat runs away from the hand. However, if the cursor touches the cat it turns into a hand.
  • Mastery: The user has accidentally stumbled upon a new clue. The hand again is a symbol that taps into pre-existing conceptual tools. The user understands that they can use the hand to grab objects. This also ties into their knowledge that cats are an object you can pick up. A new goal suggests itself and there is a small burst of delight.
Level 4: Completion
Experimentation continues with the goal now being to catch the cat.
  • Action: The user exercises the tools from the previous stages of mastery. They move the cursor at the right speed towards the cat and attempt to get the hand to appear. They test out their new model of how the hand works by clicking frantically on the cat. .
  • Blackbox: Cat simulation runs
  • Feedback: When you successfully click on the cat, the help box appears
  • Mastery: The user realizes the purpose behind the cat. There is a large burst of joy as all the clues finally click into place and the pattern of clicking on the cat to get help is chunked in the player's mind. They read the tip and realize that there are likely more tips if they catch the cat again.

Benefits of the Help Cat
We end up with a variety of benefits from this less efficient, but more enjoyable interaction design. Each of these benefits goes beyond utilitarian expectations of a traditional hint feature.
  • Users actively attempts to 'collect' help tips. The process of gathering them is enjoyable so it isn't really work to learn more about the product.
  • Users also build critical skills in using the new control mechanism. All that pointing and clicking builds up muscle memory skills that make the process of using the Wii more enjoyable overall.
  • Lastly, the user is left with a positive product experience. They are delighted and are much more likely to promote the product to their friends.

Future improvements
As far as it goes, the help cat is pretty nifty. However, the help cat was likely added as a minor bonus feature and as such, has limited functionality. It is easy to imagine additional game mechanics that increase the usability, enjoyment and addictiveness of the help system.
  • Tuning difficulty levels
  • User achievement tracking
  • Virtual pet rewards
Tuning difficulty levels
Not everyone likes the Help Cat, mostly they can't figure it out. Anytime you create a black box that a percentage of users cannot decipher, you'll often find frustration and irritation. Users who find a problem too difficult will assume that it is broken. Users rarely blame themselves for failure.

For some, the help cat moves too quickly at first. Or perhaps people don't make the leap that they are supposed to click on it. Or they hate cats and couldn't imagine wanting to touch one. Since the help cat leverages existing cognitive tools in order to kickstart the mastery sequence, the limitations of your users can ruin even the most 'intuitive' design.

The fix is to test user response in order to establish typical responses. Tune the difficulty so that you make most people happy and able to master the sequence. Then set up boundary conditions that trigger more explicit instructions for the slower users. For example, if the Help Cat has run away multiple times but the user has not reacted, put up text that says "Click the help cat."

You need to be careful here. If you make the feedback too obvious, users won't experience the joy of mastering the blackbox.

User achievement tracking

Mastery typically occurs through practice of a gesture. Far too often, users glances through the help and then never actually performs the suggested actions. By tracking new UI gestures as goals and rewarding the user when they complete those goals, you dramatically increase the likelihood that users will experience the full range of the interface's functionality.

Each hint that the Help Cat gives represents an additional skill that for the user to master. As they meander through the rest of the UI, the existences of the goals acts as a strong reminder to try out the skills. The system can detect and record this practice. Every time you visit the help cat, he can give you additional stats on your progress and may even reward you with additional functionality.

A big benefit to this system is that it is completely non-linear. Users don't feel constrained to slog through a linear tutorial. They can cherry pick the new skills that sound interesting. They are also rewarded for personal exploration. If you happen to discovery skills on your own, the help cat will notice and reward you for the completed quests.

A secondary benefit is that once you get achievement tracking in place, you can easily hook it up to a logging system to gain a better understanding of what skills are being mastered and which ones are not. This can lead to more focused usability testing that improves your overall product.

Virtual Pet rewards
Catching the cat to get a clue is interesting at first, but users quickly burn out on this simplistic game mechanic. You can improve usability and increase player addiction by making the cat become the user's friend. You can tap into the user's deep set of existing social tools with some well chosen feedback. The result is a strongly positive user experience for very little effort.
  • With continued usage of the Help Cat, decrease the response time when the cat runs away. Eventually, make it bounce excitedly when it sees your cursor.
  • When the cursor is over the cat, have the cat purr and rub up against the cursor.
  • After more use, when the cursor is moved over the cat, trigger various petting animations.
  • Explicitly reward goal completion with avatar items that appear on the cat and new playful animations.
These are all straight forward mechanics that require little effort to implement. However, they create strong positive feelings in the user. They can tell a little story to their friends of how they tamed the Help Cat and it is now their beloved pet. I wouldn't be surprised if there sprung up Help Cat fan sites in response. Contrast the warm and loving Help Cat to Clippy, an intrusive alien character that forced information on users. If you want the user to master an action, dangling a carrot (or in this case, a cute fuzzy cat) works much better than a hitting the user with a stick.

From a game design point of view, what we've done is cap the user's advancement along the mastery curve with an 'unwinnable' social mechanism. Such evergreen rewards like a purring cat have a much lower chance of burnout than internal rewards based off points and goals. We can only afford to put a limited amount of content into a mastery sequence, but we don't want to leave the user feeling that they've expended all this effort only to reach a meaningless dead end.

The other benefit of this mechanic is that the Help Cat becomes easier to use. Instead of chasing it around the screen, you simply click on it.

Closing thoughts
The Help Cat is a simple interaction design, but it brings out a universally applicable pattern of user behavior
  • The user performs an action
  • While performing an action, they stumble upon evidence that a modification of their behavior may have better results. At this point, they experience joy.
  • The cycle repeats
We can design explicitly for this learning cycle through careful placement of feedback and tracking of user progress. Users learn the product more quickly and they are rewarded with a continuous stream of positive feedback.

take care

Mastery-based interaction design

Atomic Game Mechanics

Help Cat video
Here's the source of the delightful Help Cat video that was the source of this post.

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Monday, September 04, 2006

Fighting the Dice Wars demon

There is no post of substance this week due to my all consuming addiction with the turn-based strategy game Dice Wars.

I have a weakness, a fundamental flaw in the basic fabric of my personality. Sit me in front of a casual turn-based strategy game and I become its willing slave. Another turn. Another game. A short 15 minutes session turns into a lengthy marathon of dozen upon dozens of such delightfully bite sized morsels. Hour and even days fly by in a rush. For many, “Casual” just means that you get your fix quicker, not that you play the title for any less time.

I love it when someone takes a well known game and strips it down to the essentials. This is single player Risk without silly things like moving units or placing reinforcements. There are no cards or lovingly detailed card board maps. Instead we have the following:

  • Two simple verbs: Attack and End turn.
  • Two types of tokens: Board spaces and player units in the form of dice.
  • A simple score to let you know exactly how you are doing.
  • A randomly generated map.
  • Zero load time.
  • Minimal initial learning curve.
The AI isn’t brilliant, but I don’t play this sort of game to demonstrate my superiority. I play Dice Wars like others play solitaire. There is a meditative rhythm to the clicking and periodic taking of territories is quite soothing. Early on, you frantically attempt to claim some small smidge of territory in the midst of the wildly careening enemy hordes. In the midgame, the board hangs in balance and ill planned moves can swing the gathering tide against you. The tension of the early and mid game remains delicious even upon repeat play.

There are minor flaws.

  • New players find the mechanism for allocating new units to be mysterious. This can discourage players from digging deeper into the title.
  • The end game, as with most games of this genre, turns into a bit of a grind. The games are so short however, that a few minutes of grind are very bearable.
  • The abstract board game style doesn’t pull in new players as much as it might with some spiffier graphics. It is however, very easy to use and understand.

“It would be so cool…”
As a serial player of multiple Dice War games, I find myself falling into the well trodden trap of the genre addict. I briefly considered drawing up a far better strategy game that dramatically improved on Dice Wars.

  • Cute little creatures in a lovely verdant landscape instead of stacks of dice. As they grow, they evolve Tamagotchi-like into charming warriors of mass destruction.
  • Special tiles that when captured give your characters increased strength or defense. Collect enough key tiles and the end game is over in an orgy of automated mass destruction.
  • Roulette style conflict resolution that allow for carefully scheduled super combos that make the combat even more addicting.
  • A metagame system that tracked your win/loss average and provided statistics. Nothing says genre addict like a request for detailed and extensive statistics. So I can bath in them and let them lovingly run through my fingers after a game’s post victory bliss.
Drawing the creatures would be quite fun and I even sketched a couple on a napkin. But then just as I was becoming excited about the idea, I was sucked into another beautiful game of Dice Wars. So much for being productive this weekend. :-)

Take care

(So that this post isn't a complete waste of your time, I'm curious how you might redesign Dice Wars. Still keep its rapid gameplay and ease of use, but improve its appeal and perhaps even give it a valid business model.)

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Saturday, November 12, 2005

Mini Game Design Reviews: Guitar Hero and Wierd Worlds

I wanted to briefly mention two very different games that I’ve been spending time with recently. The first is Guitar Hero by Harmonix and the second is Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space by Digital Eel. Neither is a traditional game, and both have some good lessons about game design to share.

Guitar Hero: The Importance of Setting
Guitar Hero is a rhythm game at its core. The abstracted game mechanics are little different than DDR or the dozens of other titles that have come before. Yet this is one helluva amazing title. I just watched my friend rip through a couple of sets and I’m completely pumped. Adrenaline, air guitar…my lady keeps looking at me with a bemused look when I break out into “More than a feeeeling. Baawah, bam, bam”

Deep down in the core of your being, you know Boston rules. And what about Black Sabbath playing Iron Man? I grew up listening to such music and I suspect a lot of folks did as well. These songs resonate.

And this is the genius of the title from a game design perspective. The risk / rewards schedule are driven by more than just abstract tokens. When you hit a wrong note, you are letting down your audience. When you hit a note and the crowd cheers, you are experiencing a microscopic moment of rock stardom. This is an experience you’ve been wanting for years. The psychological reward of hitting a correct key is multiplied by every time that you’ve air guitared in your bedroom (with the door shut) or sung the words to your favorite rock song.

The controller completes the psychological bridge. It is a guitar in the mind of the player. The immersiveness of the basic verbs – playing cords, wailing on the whammy bar – is accentuated by the player’s ability to carry a familiar object, and holding a familiar stance. This is a game controller loaded with cultural meaning. We’ve talked before about the ‘juiciness’ of low level risk / reward schedules. The controller turns a mechanical experience, “pressing a button” into a tactile experience with strong emotional connotations, “playing my favorite power chord.”

The star power activation method is ingenious. You tilt the guitar straight up, rock star style. Give that designer a raise.

When you tie into real world desires, you strengthen the power of your risk / reward schedules dramatically. Guitar Hero is an addictive game, far more than its Simon-style mechanics suggest. The title fills a real psychological need and that gives the design impressive power over its audience

Potential to tap into the non-gamer market
I love the audience profile on this one too:

  • If you’ve ever taken guitar lessons

  • If you’ve ever air guitared to a rock song

  • Doesn’t matter one lick if you are a gamer or have never touched a game console in your life.

This market has approximately zero competition in the US and is huge. A title such as this is the equivalent of inventing karaoke (Yes, I’m aware of Guitar Freaks…doesn’t count since the ever-so-critical setting isn’t American enough). Given the proper marketing, this is the sort of the title that could spark a crazy cultural fad.

Yet, I had to call around just to find a box. Dumping a title with such broad appeal in game stores is not the path to rock star level success. My thought? Harmonix should get Nintendo on the phone right away, sign up for the Revolution and get on their marketing schedule ASAP. Get a publisher behind this who knows how to sell to non-gamers.

Weird Worlds: The Benefits of Randomly Generated Worlds
Weird Worlds is the sequel to one of my favorite indie games of all time, the wonderful Strange Adventures in Infinite Space by Digital Eel. I have to wait until I’m in my new home before I can order one of the antiquated CDs from their new publisher, but I managed to snag a Weird Worlds demo.

The core game design is roughly the same with a coat of new graphics and new user interface and lots of new content. The interface could use a bit of polishing, but the game play here is the key.

First, this is a very small team. I count three main people with the sequel seeming to have a few extra folks helping out part time. They’ve managed to create a highly addictive single player experience that evokes a strong adventure feel without spending massive amount of money on content, cut scenes or elaborately scripted set pieces.

ROI of Randomly Generated Maps
Instead, the player travels about a randomly generated map. I’m sure balancing was a complete pain, but the end result is a nearly infinite number of short adventures. Others have tried this style of game play, but SAIS and Weird World have managed to produce something that is addictive and has surprisingly long term appeal. Even after playing SAIS for months, I’ve yet to burn out on the title.

There’s an ROI that comes from randomly generated worlds that is very impressive. Content costs for static levels increase in a linear fashion. Every level you add costs roughly the same as rest. Randomly generated levels have a higher up front cost. You need to create the map generation algorithm, develop the various classes of objects and create balancing metrics for those object classes. A simple static level might take a day or two to throw together, where a competent random map generator might take two or three months.

However, after the initial investment, the random map generator is insanely efficient. New objects can be added in an iterative fashion. Major balance changes to the entire game can be made nearly instantly. What you lose in your initial investment, you gain back a hundred fold in flexibility and the ability to provide your players with lots of content.

Also, static levels have their own hidden costs. As you add new tokens to your game, the cost of building a level increases. Later levels will often take substantially longer to polish than initial test levels. Randomly generated maps don’t have this issue. You only have to pay the cost of creating the token. There is little additional level creation cost since it is an automated process.

Benefits of automated builds
The phrase, “automated build process” excites me more than you can possibly imagine. Games initially were about software development. Over time, they have turned into a production heavy activity with the vast majority of effort being spent on waterfall-style Disney-esque content creation. Production heavy endeavors tend to have a lot of momentum and be difficult to change. Project managers have a tendency to minimize changes to high risk items such as core game mechanics in order to preserve the heavy investment in existing content.

When you start making your game development more like software development and less like production work, you can more easily take advantage of agile development processes. Core game mechanics can shift more fluidly if you aren’t weighed down by the thought of breaking a hundred handcrafted levels. There is nothing worse than changing the jump distance on your character and ruining multiple man years of labor because your character can no longer successfully navigate the lovingly handcrafted map files. With content being ‘built on the fly’, such a change is trivial.

Fluid core game mechanics means more low risk opportunities to polish those game mechanics. You can iterate on original mechanics more freely and ideally create games that are more psychological addictive. If the game play is what matters, build your game using a process that gives you the freedom to make changes to your game play at a low cost.

You’ll see the term algorithmically generated content tossed around. The money men focus on the cost savings over static content. That is a good benefit. The ultimate benefit however is the unique ability to inexpensively polish the game play of your new designs. Think of it as a critical building block in the practile of agile game design.

Turn-based: Fits into your life
The other aspect of Weird World that is exciting is this is a turn-based title. A busy player can stop it at any point with no worries about dying or losing their path. Life for many is a series of constant interruptions and games that fit into a multitasking environment occupy a useful niche.
I’d love to see this concept expand out into a setting with a bit more appeal. Space is great, but it is somewhat abstract and can alienate the more casual, female gamers (though there are more women sci-fi fans than men these days). Would a treasure hunting, exploration game be more popular with the casual audience? What about an urban shopping title? It would be interesting to take this great game design in additional directions.

These are two very different games with two powerful lessons. If you haven’t checked them out, you need to.

I can’t help thinking about combining the two. What if you had algorithmically generated game with a setting the resonated with a strong customer need? I’m not sure what that might be, but it certainly is a fun design exercise to contemplate. :-)

Take care


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Sunday, October 02, 2005

Game Design Review: DS Training for Adults

While we were in Japan earlier this month, Aya’s brother gave her “DS Training for Adults: Work your Brain” (Kahashima Ryuuta Kyouju no Nou wo Kitaeru Otona no DS Training). Oni-san, this article is dedicated to you!

DS Training for Adults is yet another a truly fascinating game title that straddles the edge between pure entertainment and practical software. The direct translation of the Japanese title is a good description of what to expect: ‘Whip your brain into shape under the supervision of Professor Ryuta Kawashima of Tohoku University's Advanced Science and Technology Joint Research Center”

At first glance, DS Training for Adults is a very simple quiz game that was built in under 4-months. It also happens to be a runaway commercial success in Japan, selling over 500,000 copies and show no signs of slowing down. What is happening here?

Game Anthropology
DS Training for Adults is one of the most clear cut cases of a game serving a market need that I have ever seen.

  • Problem: As people age, their brain slows down and the risk of dementia increases.

  • Solution: World renowned researchers have proven that it is possible to reverse this decay through the daily exercises that increase blood flow to the brain. By creating a software product that automates the training regimen, we can bring this revolutionary health care technique to the masses.
We have a market that skews towards older non-gamers. The problem we are solving is very important to them. Most are horrified at the thought of losing their mental capacity and would pay exorbitant amounts of money if there was a proven alternative.

And did I mention that no one else is serving this market?

Fascinating sales statistics
The sales of DS Training for Adults exhibit a sales cycle that is far longer lived than most games. To understand why it is so unique, we need to understand the sales cycle of a typical game and the market forces at work.

A typical game title sales peak in the first week and then rapidly diminish to a mere trickle. The second week is often only 20% of the original sales. A title is lucky to spend 8 weeks on the retail shelves before being moved into the bargain bins.

There are several market forces at work here.

  • Highly informed target market: Traditional gamers are a rather homogenous group that knows when a title is released and whether or not the concept is appealing. The highly efficient media system tends to carry the same stories and many gamers read at least one or more gaming websites or magazines on a regular basis. The result of all this is that within a very short period after its release, the majority of the ultimate audience owns the game.

  • Competing titles: Most games fall into specific genres that are highly competitive. As soon as a title is released, the reviews hit and the title’s rank in the pecking order of the genre is established. If you don’t make it into the rarified ranks of first or second place, your title quickly drops off the radar of the hardcore recommenders. Only the genre kings seem to extend their sales cycle through word-of-mouth.

  • Disposable experience: Most retail games are a disposable single-shot experience. You play them and you forget them. Contrast this with evergreen forms of entertainment such as chess or Monopoly. Every family has at least one copy of Monopoly hanging about the house. When the pieces are lost or it gets misplaced in a move, you buy another copy. The result is a steady, predictable number of sales.

    Games do not have this evergreen quality. Once you’ve experienced a title, it is rare for most players to repeat the experience. Most don’t even finish the game the first time. Technology is always advancing and the next genre king is always just around the corner. It is easier to buy the newest experience than it is to try to maintain the old experience. Very few games are evergreen products so the retailers move them off the shelf quickly to make room for the next big thing.
DS Training for Adults had a rather different sales curve. It started out slow and has stabilized at a steady rate of sales. Even though it was released in May 2005, it still managed to hold 8th place on the September 12th, 2005 Japanese sales list. Targeting the older non-gamers seems to be paying off.

Let’s look at some of the market factors involved

  • Fragmented target market: The core demographic that purchases the title rarely read gaming magazines. They are learning about the title slowly through friends and non-traditional media outlets. The result is a longer, slower sales ramp.

  • King of the genre: The core mechanics of DS Training for Adults fits a definite market need, but there are no few competitors available. If have a friend that is interested preventing dementia, there is only one title to recommend. This shows the benefit of an innovation strategy. You end up being the market leader by default.

  • Evergreen product: DS Brain Training is a title that is used every day for years on end. You don’t throw it away for the next best thing. It is inherently useful regardless of what comes out two weeks from now.
Successfully target an underserved niche with a meaningful product and profit. It is business 101, but most game developers were unfortunately never trained as traditional product designers.

Servicing the market need
Identifying a market opportunity is merely the first step. A game also has to provide a working solution. The market for DS Training for Adults presents several interesting design problems:

  • How can game mechanics be used to successfully deliver the basic brain training exercises?

  • What type of interface do you use for a market of non-gamers?
Game Mechanics
The designers of DS Training for Adults had some experience with the problem of productizing their research. The main author released several very popular books describing the research and various brain exercises. He also licensed his system to Sega in 2004 to create a portable quiz system that looked a lot like a small electronic dictionary. When it finally made it to the DS, there were several game specific mechanics that were added to make it more effective.

At its core, there is a simple risk / reward schedule driving the product.

  • Action: You answer a series of questions in the form of 3 quizzes.
  • Reward: At the end of the quiz, you receive a score that represents the mental age of your brain. If you did well, you lowered the age of your brain.
  • Risk: If you did poorly, your brain age is scored as older. You feel the icy albatross of dementia around your neck, slowly eating away at the very center of your identity.
The risk of our brains decaying is something that most of us live with every day. However, games have the ability to identify a risk and call it out in a very clear and effective manner. Simply by showing the player what is happening inside their brain, a primitive quiz game gains both a large carrot and a large stick for use in modifying the player’s behavior.

There is a lesson here about the strength of real world risks and rewards. You can certainly motivate people with abstract rewards. Our brains still react to getting a star or a few extra points on our final score. However, if you tie your risk / reward sequences into a meaningful real world goal, your low power psychological incentives become super charged. You see this with gambling games, with many sports that reward with real world social rank and with DS Adult training. A little bit of reality goes a long way towards improving the addictive qualities of your game.

Interface as a learned language
DS Training for Adults has a wonderful interface for its target audience. These are folks who rarely use computers and most likely never have played computer games. A traditional game interface is a giant barrier that could easily stunt the sales of the product.

I’m a great believer in the school of thought that user interfaces are a learned language. There is rarely anything inherently intuitive about an interface. Instead the best interfaces try to leverage existing knowledge about how a group of people prefer to interact with the world.

For example, in art programs, artists know that holding down the space bar changes your cursor into a hand icon that lets you drag the canvas about. This action has become so ingrained that it is purely muscle memory for most artists. If an art program comes out that lacks this feature, its UI is immediately lambasted as un-intuitive. It would be like knowing a common verb such as ‘drag’ but when you try to communicate, the other person just stares at you blankly. Heaven forbid, the program suggests an alternative verb such as “scroll bars.” No one wants to learn a new language.

In DS Training for Adults, the designers based the interface on a language they assumed their audience would know. Instead of pressing buttons, you jot down numbers much like you would in school notebook. For certain mini-games, you also can yell out answers and the game will use speak recognition to record your answers. The users of DS Training for Adult may not speak ‘Video Game-ese” but they are very likely to understand “Elementary School Quiz-ese”

There are a variety of additional tricks that are used to enforce the interface metaphor.

  • The professor is a bobbing head that encourages you much like a real world teacher would.
  • The DS is held sideways, much like a traditional notebook.
  • All the ‘random buttons’ on the DS are ignored and the whole game is played through the touch screen and the microphone.
  • There are a number of risk / reward schedules that are skinned to fit the metaphor. Training each day gets you a ‘good job’ stamp. If you do a good job, you are rewarded with additional lessons and exercises much like you would if you were taking a class.

The result is amusingly enough, a game that is very intuitive to its target audience, but feels distinctly non-standard to the typical gamer. When you target new market segments, there is a natural splintering of the interface language that many designers have come to rely upon. Where the groups interact, expect to see misunderstanding and perhaps a culture war or two. I would pay money to videotape a typical DS Training for Adults purchaser as they read through a copy of EGM looking for additional brain training games.

From the flip perspective, I’ve seen DS Training for Adults described by the mainstream gaming press as “Not worth full price, since there are only nine different games to play here, but definitely a fun time-waster.” A review of a title intended for non-gamers by gamers will likely miss the point. It would be like a non-metrosexual male such as myself trying to write a cute shoe review. :-)

Big Picture: When is a game a useful consumer product and when is it merely entertainment?
DS Training for Adults is what many people these days are calling a Serious Game. It takes the techniques of classic game design and applies them to a real world problem. Most Serious Games focus on teaching a particular real world skill to the player. DS Training for Adults is unique in that it claims that act of playing the game has direct health benefits. The basic concept is the same. Games are useful software products.

Serious Games are a new (or at least rediscovered) class of software that raises big questions about commonly held definitions of games. Many people, both game designers and game critics, have argued that games are inherently pointless. Our urge to play games is a remnant of our childhood, a pleasurable leftover behavior that is at best a luxury activity in our adult world. This attitude is pervasive and influences both the consumption and the designs of modern games.

Under this shallow philosophy, games become a series of disposable baubles that contribute nothing to society. As long as it is ‘fun’, a game is devoured by the sedated masses who demand only meaningless pleasure. If, by definition, there is nothing more to games, why try to create anything beyond mere candy?

I see titles such as DS Training for Adults and I must disagree with the concept that games are mere entertainment. There exists an entire universe of applications for quality game design that reach far beyond the current status quo. We need a new philosophy. Imagine instead that a game is ultimately a consumer product that services an identifiable need in the marketplace.

If we see a game as a software product, game design becomes a practical tool for solving real world problems. DS Training for Adults uses risk / reward schedules to turn the process of reducing dementia into an enjoyable and addictive experience. In my game design Space Crack, I use the same fundamental tools to create a product that helps long lost friends connect with one another. The possibilities are limitless.

When you start treating games as consumer products that serve real needs, you look at the process of designing games in a radically different light. It is not longer about one upping a current genre king with craftsman-style clone-and-polish techniques. It is about solving problems and making the world a better place. Not only is this idealistic and heartwarming, it also happens to be a great way to make money.

The good stuff
I would have a hard time writing a traditional game review for DS Brain Training for Adults. It seems a bit odd to attempt an objective review when there are really no other comparable titles on the market. Imagine you are tasked with reviewing an immortality serum. It is the only one that works, but it smells a bit funny. Do you knock off a star because of the smell? At best you can review it based off its effectiveness. Everything else is merely noise.

Luckily this is a design review. Here is a very brief run-down of some of the design elements I enjoyed in DS Training for Adults:

  • The risk / reward schedules are simple, pure and highly effective. I’ve spent very little time describing them because they are game design 101. They follow the standard pattern of having a core mechanic and then building layer of meta-game mechanics and ladders atop the foundation.

  • The little avatar of the professor works amazingly well. When you miss a day, you feel guilty. He comes across as slightly creepy to Western sensibilities, but I’m assured that he is quite charming from a Japanese perspective.

  • The brain age charts are remarkably effective. When Aya managed to get her mental age down to 20, there was a celebration in our household that lasted most of the day. I’ve rarely seen such an effective incentive in a video game.
The bad stuff
  • The handwriting recognition still isn’t perfect. As you go along, you get better at it. Still this could be improved. Ah, the downfalls of using advanced technology in an attempt to simplify a task. However, the flaws are not fatal and overall the interface was an inspired design decision.

  • I’m curious about the long term burn out. The exercises themselves are rather solid, but there is likely to be a limited number of tips and tricks that can be dispensed. At a certain point, people will get bored of the longer term meta-game mechanics. Ideally, however, playing this game should be like taking your daily vitamins. If the game can make the transition from addiction to habit then it can avoid long term burn out.
DS Training for Adults is a very different title than most of games on the market and it brings out some extremely fascinating lessons about game design. We covered the following concepts in this essay:

  • Targeting an underserved market can extend your selling period: By servicing a real market need you can create an evergreen product that faces little immediate competition. The result is long shelf time and improved sales. The downside is a slower sales ramp and the need for non-traditional marketing campaigns.

  • Real world risk / rewards schedules can supercharge the addictiveness of your game: By focusing on a real-world concern or interest you can turn a simple game into a highly meaningful activity. The result is slower burn out and more potent risk / reward systems.

  • Interface is a learned language: Good interface design is not a universal concept. Instead, ask “what are the skills inherent in your target population and how can you leverage them to create an interface that best matches with their unspoken expectations?”

  • Game can be more than mere entertainment: Approach game design from the perspective of a product designer. Look for unmet needs and use game design techniques to create effective solutions. Adopt as your central motivating philosophy that all games serve a purpose. By clearly identifying that purpose, you’ll make vastly superior games.
I hope to see many more titles like DS Training for Adults. Designers who pursue the goal of creating useful product will build entirely new fields of game design that expand well beyond the current pool of stagnant genres. I’ve said it before, but it is worth repeating. This is an exciting time to be a game designer. :-)

Take care


There is one additional brain training game available in Japan. It is doing quite well but is still in second place. The established, pre-existing brand of DS Training for Adults seems to have been a critical factor in its capturing of the genre title crown.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Game Design Review: Advance Wars - Dual Strike

Advance Wars is the latest iteration of what I like to think of as the casual console turn-based strategy genre. Writing a design review of a highly evolved genre king like Advance Wars: Dual Strike is a distinctly different task than writing my previous review of a relatively new game design like Nintendogs.

Again, this is a game design game design review, not a game review. A game review typically is written for the consumer and is intended to help them decide if they want to purchase the title. A game design review is written for other game developers and is intended to highlight successes and failures of the various layers of the game design. The hope is that we learn from the successful design practices and apply them in an intelligent fashion to our future titles.

In this design review I’ll cover the following:

  • A brief history: What is the historical context of the Advance Wars design?
  • Game anthropology: What need does Advance Wars serve?
  • Layered game design: What is a major design lesson we can take from Advance Wars?
  • What worked and what didn’t: What design decisions worked and which ones failed?
Brief history
Any meaningful review of the game mechanics of a title such as Advance Wars needs to consider its extensive history. My personal memories of the console specific implementation of this class of games go back to Military Madness (1989) on the TurboGrafx-16. A new sub-genre was created by moving some of the core mechanics of the computer strategy game godfather Empire over to a console. The roots of Empire stretch back even further to board game forefathers such as Risk and Axis and Allies. Ultimately, you can trace the core mechanics to a wide number of chess-like games going back thousands of years.

All the games in this particular genre have the same basic mechanics. You move different units around on a board and attempt to destroy all the enemy forces or capture some set of locations. They use an “I go, you go” turn structure similar to classic board games and much of the strategy comes from strategic timing of attacks and positioning of units. Game play tends to be quite quick, with most battles taking an hour or two. Realism and simulation accuracy is sacrificed in order to maintain an enjoyable pacing of the action.

There have been dozens of titles leading up to Advance Wars, each adding small tweaks to the core game play. For the console specific sub-genre, there are at least 15 years of intense genre evolution at work. There have to be at least one or two game design lessons buried there.

Game Anthropology
Every game must serve a market need. Advance Wars: Dual Strike is what I like to call a genre king. It is the premier turn based strategy game on the console. It serves a built-in audience of players who have been addicted in the past to similar games.

The problem that it solves is simple. Very few games in this niche genre are being released any longer, yet the craving still exists. Release a game and make some money. Not a bad marketing strategy.

Turn-based console strategy games are in the niche stage of the genre life-cycle. I put together a list of niche stage game attributes a while ago and it is amusing to see how well they match up with the major selling factors of Advance Wars.

  • Copy the most popular game possible: Advance Wars doesn’t stray very far from the original rules set ages ago by Military Madness.
  • Try to pick up a license for cheap: Advance Wars is a great license that is proven to sell well to the GBA crowd. Using it for Dual Strike is a simple product line extension that no doubt increased the sales considerably.
  • Pay lip service to higher layers game mechanics: Dual Strike pays lip service to things like plot, character development, etc. Why spend money on flashy graphics when your core audience will pay for the experience regardless?
Dual Strike also provides an example of an interesting market launch tactic of being one of the first titles in the genre to be released on the DS. By being first to market on the DS, you decrease the competition and increase your chances of being a genre king. When you are a dealing with consumables like retail games, the release window becomes an important market factor.

First Layer: Core Mechanics
The design of Advance Wars can best be understood in an evolutionary context. You can almost think of it as an archeological dig with each layer of game design building up on what has come before. You start with the core mechanic and then layer on additional meta-mechanics until the final game emerges.

In Advance Wars, the core game mechanics is the direct combat system, which is composed of two risk / reward sequences. The first is the move / attack verb and the second is the end turn verb.

The move / attack verb is quite basic:

  • Action: Move a unit on a square board a set number of spaces. If the unit is next to the other unit, it may attack. Units that attack first tend to destroy the other unit. Units cannot move past other units.
  • Reward: You destroy an enemy unit or gain a strategic position. This opens up new movement possibilities and increases the chance of winning.
  • Risk: You put yourself in a position where the enemy can easily destroy or block your units, gaining an advantage.
The end turn verb is also rather simple

  • Action: At any point in moving their units, a player can declare that their turn is over. At this point, the opposing player can begin moving and attacking with their unit.
  • Reward: By ending your turn when the board is an optimal position, you are ready to withstand the enemy’s attack. Ideally, you’ll thrive during the player’s turn and end up in a position of great opportunity when your next turn arrives.
  • Risk: If you choose a bad board position to end the turn, you can easily be destroyed by your opponent’s reaction.
In this basic mechanic, you have the guts of a nearly infinitely replayable system. The position of the tokens on the board forms a robust player-created environment that constantly provides the player with a new puzzle to solve. The two verbs form a complimentary short term / medium term reward rhythm. Moving a single unit takes a few seconds and results in an interesting reward or punishment. Ending the turn after 4 or 5 minutes presents a bigger risk, but also a greater potential reward.

These games were the first to clue me into the concept of ‘reward momentum.’ The act of consuming rewards gives the player the psychological incentive to keep trying to gain more rewards. Turn-based strategy gamers know this as ‘one more turn’, but the concept is applicable to a wide range of games if you understand it in terms of the rhythm of risk / reward schedules.

Here’s a quick example of the psychology:

  • The candy: At the beginning of each turn, a new series of tiny rewards are immediately present. These low hanging fruit come in the form of obvious moves, an enemy tank you’re your artillery can destroy or a partially captured city.
  • The tease: However, by the time the player is done collecting the smallest rewards, the end of the next major reward is in sight. It seems a shame to end the game when the next big event requires only an incremental effort. So the player moves the last few units and finishes the turn.
  • The cycle repeats: The game immediately presents the player with another set of smaller low hanging fruit. It is nearly impossible for a player to resist repeating the cycle.
Second Layer: Create new tokens by tweaking variables
Now that we have our core mechanics in place, we can extend them by layering on additional meta-mechanics. Advance Wars uses this design technique extensively.

The next layer is created by expanding the token set. Players quickly become bored when all pieces do the same thing. First you identify all the variables that you have to play with. Then you create new tactically interesting tokens by assigning each one a unique batch of variables.

Identifying your variables is often the critical step. Here are some rules of thumb that can be useful:

  • Identify existing variables: Movement is an obvious one. Board size is another. Creating tokens based on variations of movement alone, early game designers came up with Chess, one of the most popular games in the history of the world.
  • Identify binary states and then create variables to represent those states: In Advance Wars, units are not dead or alive like in Chess. Instead they have health points. When a unit is attacked, it loses health.
  • Map out all the other variables in the risk / reward chain: If something decreases in health, then there must be another factor that causes the damage. Ah, another variable to add to your list. Does attack affect all units equally? Add a defense variable to your list.
  • Tie variables into other variables: Now that you have you list of variables, you can look at interesting equations that tie the variables together. In Advance Wars, damage is a factor of health. The lower the health of a unit, the lower the damage.
Now we can create a whole bunch of interesting units. You have fast tanks that move quickly but do very little damage. You have slow tanks that pack a big punch. This is really just the start of this technique, but it is one that we’ll see used over and over again. The creation of new and modified tokens by adjust variables is one of the basic drivers of genre evolution and is a standard tool of game designers during nearly every step of a game’s production.

Third Layer: Classes
Many designers don’t think about it, but a map is really just another series of tokens. You can ask the question, what variables can these tokens affect? Advance Wars uses two obvious modifications

  • If a unit is on a specific terrain token, its damage is modified
  • If a unit is on a specific terrain token, its movement is modified
From here we generate a whole new series of tokens. Roads, plains, water, shore lines, forest, mountains, and pipe tokens all come into play. We also get ships that can only move on water, infantry that can move through all terrain at the same pace, aircraft that can move over any space.

At this point, Advance Wars introduces a class system to keep track of everything. Class systems are useful when the complexity becomes too large for a player to hold everything in their head. My rule of thumb is that whenever you get more than 4 or 5 of variations, group similar ones together in a single class of objects.

In Advance Wars introduces the classes of vehicles, infantry, ships, subs, copters and planes. It also creates a matrix of damage and movement rules around these types. So if you have a tank, it will do more damage against infantry than it will against a Neotank.

These matrices of possible combinations become large and would easily cover a page or two if they were printed out. Having a computer to manage this complexity becomes important since it allows the interface to all this data to be given in heuristics. A tank doesn’t do 5.6 points of damage to infantry. It is ‘very effective against infantry troops’.

Numbers are scary and many players prefer to think in terms of heuristics, or simple rules of thumb. By taking the massive complexity that we’ve introduced with our token explosion and reducing it to easy to understand relationships, we help manage complexity in the mind of the player.

Other Layers
There are numerous other systems that are layered on top of these basic systems, but you should start to see how the layering of game mechanics works to create additional complexity.

Some other notable meta mechanics include:

  • Indirect fire: The ability to attack from a distance, but not during the turn your unit moves.
  • Fuel and ammo consumption: Move to far without refueling and your unit dies. Weak, non-combat supply vehicles bridge the gap between the front and your cities.
  • Unit production and money generation: You can buy units.
  • Fog of War: Units can only see a certain radius.
  • City capturing: Only infantry can capture cities.
  • Unit repairing: Special units and cities can repair damaged units.
  • CO powers: There a meta-powers that alter the balance of units.
  • Tag Powers: You can take two turns at once and use both of the super powers.
  • Weather effects: There are meta-powers in place that affect various variables such as fuel consumption and visibility.
Very few of these are unique to Advance Wars, but they all add additional risk / reward sequences to the game.

The point of layered complexity: Preventing burnout
I’ve mentioned briefly that the point of this complexity is to prevent the player from ‘getting bored.’ That is true. However, it naturally goes a bit deeper.

A game can be described a series of challenges, some small, some large. Some are based on timing, others on spatial comprehension. The player is presented with a set of possible actions and alerted to potential risks and rewards. They are required to predict the results of their actions and choose an optimal path towards reaching the rewards.
All these challenges can be described in terms of risk reward sequences and are composed of verbs, tokens and rules. We’ve covered much of this in other essays.

However, rewards that are too easily achieved lose their impact. Why this occurs is up for debate. I’ve heard several theories:

  • Repetition and subsequent burn out: When a reward is easily achieved, the player consumes too much of the reward too rapidly and tires of it.
  • There exist types of players that seek out challenges and their conquest. If there is no challenge, then there is no point to playing.
  • The brain is tuned to spend effort mastering patterns. Once a problem is mastered, there is no longer any joy to be had in performing the activity.
The layering of complexity increases the number of options for the player to consider. Achieving simple goals becomes a balancing act for the player. Should they move into the forest square? This puts them in range of the enemy next turn, but in the line of fire of the battleship sitting off the coast. Fuel is decreasing, units are repairing, money is flowing in and the enemy is building more ships. Due to the use of highly layered game mechanics, the number of options that the Advanced Wars player has to balance is mind boggling.

Mastering Advance Wars is quite difficult. And that is the point. All the systems exist to create a system that you can always get better at, but you’ll never be able to dismiss as ‘easy’. Burn out is unlikely and even the most skilled player will constantly be discovering new tactics and subtle ways of optimizing their performance. The result is a game that stays highly addictive for longer periods of time.

Benefits of layering as a design strategy
Advance Wars relies on layering for some practical production reasons as well.

  • Reduced risk: When you layer proven game systems on top of one another, it is much easier to build a stable game design. Risk reduction comes from having your core game mechanics as a foundation and anything else you add is bonus. If the sub unit hadn’t worked out, that’s okay. You can lose it without any real risk to the game’s production schedule.
  • Easily achieved complexity: If you need more challenge, you add new elements. You don’t have to worry about pruning old functionality. Just add tokens and you are done. Contrast this to a game like chess or go. Adding new tokens requires a rebalancing of the entire rule set.
  • Obvious learning path: You can gradually introduce the complexity of the title to the player by teaching them one layer at a time. The initial maps of Advance Wars start out by teaching the core mechanics and then gradually introduce new mechanics one at a time. By the end of the first 10 lessons, the player has a huge palette of verbs available.
Problems with layering
Layering is used by almost every leading game design in every established genre I can think of. However, it is not without its own problems.

  • Painful learning curve: By constantly adding new systems you increase the learning curve. This acts as an entry barrier to new users. I’ve shown many people Advance Wars and they see the screen as a mass of hieroglyphics. Only after you gain a substantial appreciation of how all the systems work in concert are you able to appreciate the game for its genius. Contrast this to Nintendogs, which though a simpler game, was immediately appealing to users unfamiliar with the genre. A title like Advance Wars rarely expands the overall game market.
  • Impossible to balance the difficulty: You end up with two very different audiences. The first are the hardcore players who have played previous games in the series and expect more of the same, only harder. The second are the new players who will struggle with what you have already. Already I’ve seen reviews by seasoned gamers complaining that Advance Wars is too easy.

    I’m on the other side of the fence. I’m taking a break from playing because the campaign reached an almost puzzle-like status where one false move dooms my entire mission. To an admittedly incompetent fellow like myself, the game is moving a bit too far away from the casual light hearted combat the originally caught my attention. It's a tricky balance because even though this is a niche title, you want to capture as much of the niche as possible.
  • The risk of accidental simplicity leads to incremental design: No new game system can be too extreme or you begin changing the existing mechanics of the title. A classic example of this are the CO powers. In a game like Cosmic Encounters, these meta game mechanics radically alter the rules of the game. You get crazy mechanics like “attack power and defense power are swapped” that force you to rethink all of your strategies.

    The CO powers in Advance Wars are tame by comparision. As the game design becomes heavily layered, there are simply too many systems to balance. You run the risk of creating ‘accidental simplicity’, a hole in the design where the player can bypass your complex game systems with a simple, highly effective tactic. For example, early RTS games allowed you to win by building only tanks. They had lots of other units, but no one ever used them.

    If you fail to isolate your design mechanics interactions from one another these strange loop holes will emerge and your game loses its challenge. As a result, designers become more tentative and subtle in their modifications. The final game is often a comfortable, mature title that will never be wildly innovative.
What worked
Now that we’ve got the basics out of the way, here are some of my favorite moments

  • Casual strategy: Highly differentiated units, fast paced combat and a refreshing lack of statistics. This is a classic beer and pretzels war game of a sort that I thought stopped being made ages ago. I’m happy I picked up a DS and was able to discover such a delightful example of one of my all time favorite genres.

  • Indirect combat: I loved how indirect combat forced you to make a choice between moving or firing. Indirect combat can win the game for you and I make use of it probably more than I should. This mechanics makes you very aware of the rhythm of turns and how turns affect your tactics.

  • The limited plot: You have a couple of tiny heads and a few lines of text per mission. The plot is the thinnest excuse possible in order to introduce interesting maps, units and COs. Yet it works quite well and was quite likely a relatively small portion of the overall budget. I love it when a game cuts substantial corners and no one really gives damn. You don’t have to turn all dials to eleven to build a successful game.

What didn’t work

  • Critical information revealed halfway through the mission: So far I’ve run into terrain effects that turn on half way through the mission. I’ve also seen massively dangerous CO powers that require building your deployment strategy around them. These are all things that are impossible to respond to until you’ve started the mission once and been smacked in the face. The result is that you need to restart and try again.

    Lesson: Give players critical information up front or at least give them enough info to succeed without restarting. If players are restarting multiple times, you’ve failed to cater to the casual gamer. One of those times they are not going to restart and your game will be shelfware.
  • CO powers and weather: CO powers seems to be the big innovation for this title, yet the impact of these meta mechanics didn’t blow me away. The minor modifications subtly affect your play style, but to my inexperienced eyes, one CO seemed only slightly better than another.

    Lesson: Be wary of overbalancing new mechanics to the point of pointlessness. Sometimes, it pays to be a bit more bold.
  • Linear mission structure: The campaign only allows you to play one mission at a time. If you are stuck on a single mission, there is no chance to improve your skills on an additional mission. You are at a dead end.

    Lesson: Never force the player into a dead end challenge. Always give them alternative paths.
  • Puzzle Maps: Some maps were open ended and allowed for creative solutions. Others required very specific movements in order to succeed. This is a player preference and I’m sure there are people who get insanely excited about puzzle maps. I’m more of an explorer type fellow so any hint of ‘one false move and you’ve lost the mission’ game design is a huge turn off. Luckily almost all the maps open up a bit after the first 4 or 5 turns and you can escape the demented planning that all level designers are guilty of inflicting on innocent players.

    Lesson: Kill all existing level designers and burn any records of their scripting tools before you hire a new batch. Seriously though, the use of heavily scripted scenarios is a design crutch that hints at a shallow player environment. If you are confident in the depth of your game, instead build maps that let players experiment. Always avoid ‘instant death’ scenarios.

I’ve enjoyed my time so far with Advance Wars: Dual Strike. It fits the portable format nicely and is a professional, well balanced example of one of my favorite genres.

There are several design concepts that I’ve discussed in this review:

  • Layered game mechanics: By layering meta-mechanics on top of one another we can extend a proven core game mechanic and reduce long term player burn out.
  • Reward momentum: By stringing rewards of various sizes after one another in a visible, predictable sequence, you can encourage the player to keep playing.
  • Creation of new tokens by tweaking variables: We can quickly increase the complexity of a title by introducing new tokens that are simple variations on implicit design variables.
  • Use of classes to simplify the learning curve: We can manage the inherent complexity of a highly layered design by chunking similar objects into classes and explaining relationships with simple heuristics
I highly recommend looking for other examples of game design layering in other titles. It is a very common technique that should be in every designer’s tool box. However, as we’ve discussed above, it should be used with care.

There are numerous other lessons to be gained from reviewing the design of a game like Advance Wars: Dual Strike and to be honest, I’ve only scratched the surface. With a title with this much history and depth, you could easily write a book that just goes into the implications of each mechanic and the theory behind it. I’ll see if I can schedule another bit of vacation. :-)

Take care

PS: Fixed a couple of typos that folks have caught so far. Apologies for any jet lag induced wackiness in this post.

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