Saturday, 21 July 2012

Finding The Fun

When making a game, one of the things I like to do early, and often, is 'finding the fun'.  It's the process where you take a long hard look at your game to answer one simple question:

"What makes it fun?"

What is fun? How do we know when we've found it? I struggle with these kinds of questions because I don't play games the same way gamers do.  I'm a deconstructivist.  I tear games apart trying to understand how they were made, what were their authors motivations, what choices and alternatives did they shy away from?  That's fun for me, but I don't think that's much fun for you.

So instead, I hand a prototype of my game over to a gamer, and I watch them play. Mostly I'm looking for facial expressions - joy, wonder. But also their comments. What do they keep coming back to? If I'm trying to 'find the fun', I pretty much ignore all negative feedback, and just focus on the good.

One question I ask a lot is, "How could I make that part better?"  When I ask that question, what I'm really asking is, "What part of that do you want more of?"  If I hear multiple people want more of one thing, then I'll go and brainstorm about how to add more of that thing, using the actual gamers suggestions as a starting point for the brainstorm.

A Quick Note On Design Styles

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll know I'm a pretty hard-core programmer that's been fortunate enough to work with a great many super talented designers.  I've found they tend to have different styles and approaches.  Some, like me, are obsessed with finding the fun.  Others are much more interested in telling a story, or bringing the player along an emotional path.  Still others want to make elaborate systems for the player to explore, requiring a delicate zen moment on the player's behalf to catch glimpses of it's beauty.

And many others besides.

It's convenient for me to split designers into two camps - those who try to find the fun earlier, and those who are confident with their tools and process, and know the fun will come later.

Take a character designer for example, often in the second camp.  Someone who is building up the backstory for a character, figuring out their traits and abilities in-game.  Where they got that scar, and who was their childhood friends, and how all of that will affect their interactions with the player.  In isolation, these choices might seem meaningless and trivial, but when woven into a broader narrative, this minutiae can become intensely compelling and enjoyable.

Now, I'm not saying either camp is more or less effective. There's definitely room for both.  I'm just saying I find it more comfortable to follow along with the first camp as I find reassurance in their processes' measurability measurableness ability to be measured.

Which is important, because as a programmer, when I'm designing, I'm constantly have to ask myself, "What would [censored] choose in this situation?"

One advantage from working closely with so many designers, is the freedom to design in the style of those great designers.  I'm not stuck in any one particular school or with any baggage.

And now that I'm Indie, when I don't know the answer, I can just call them up on the phone and ask.

Before the Prototype

The approach above works fine when you have a prototype.  But what do you do before that?

Cardboard is great for this.

Scribble on cardboard, chop it up into pieces and move it around a page.

Make flowcharts, roll dice.  Get some trusted friends over and say "Hey, let's pretend we're playing a video game right now."  And you go through the exact same (watching) process outlined above, but without the actual prototype.

Before the Cardboard

Well that may be fine if you know what game you want to make, but what do you do before that?
Here's where you have to use the power of imagination.

 That's where I'm at right now.

I'm imagining what it would be like for my trusted friends to be playing a cardboard cutout of a prototype of a final game.  And then asking my imaginary designer buddies in my head :

"What makes it fun?"

Saturday, 14 July 2012


I think technology was always about bringing people together.  You can look at all the greatest inventions we humans have, things like mobile phones and automobiles, and I think you'll find their most sweeping enduring legacy will be in social terms - how they changed the way we as individuals interact with our friends, peers, families etc.

I think that used to be true of video games too.  The (enduring) impact of a video game is cultural.  You could frame it as, "How does [the game] let different players interact, come together, be playful, etc. in a social sense."

The Master and the Student

Take the arcade classic, Super Street Fighter II.  It has this simple mechanic where 1 credit buys 2 players a best-of-three match.

The master camps out on the machine - he plays for free the whole day.  One by one, the students come up to feed the machine a quarter.

Round 1: The master refuses to attack.  He ducks, dodges, feints and runs.  But without attacking, ultimately the score will be Master: 0, Student: 1.

Round 2: The master attacks, but only using one technique.  Punches, or fireballs.  Whatever is the student's weakness.  Of course, Master: 1, Student: 1.

Round 3: It's on!  In the deciding round they have a real fight, with the master either exploiting or avoiding the student's weakness depending on his temperament.

What's fascinating to me about this, is the community of players that it builds up around the game.  There's this implicit trust that builds up around the master/student relationship that carries forward when the student becomes skilled enough to provide a challenge to the master.

Players can have a dialog about the game, even when they're not actually playing.  If you're on the bus, you can still have a social moment with another SFII player.

The Metrics

These days, we all love our metrics. MAU - Monthly Average Users.  How many people (in numbers) are playing your game?

I think sometimes we get so blinded by the ability to measure what our players are doing, we forget to look to the quality of the interactions between our players, and (to some degree) to the qualities of the players themselves.

Take a closer look at those SFII masters.  They played that way because that's how they learned to play.  It was cultural.  But they were also self-selected because they were the players who wanted that kind of experience.  They're the kind of players who foster new players and (through their actions) create a strong community.

Your can't write a metric to capture those kinds of qualities.  (And even if you could, what would you use it for? It could only tell you about the community you had in the past, not about the one you're going to have in the future.)

A recipe?

Bringing it full circle, I believe that video games are still about bringing people together.  The games that do that well are the kinds of games that I want to make, and the kinds of games that I'm trying to make.

Of course I want a large community around each of my games, as measured by MAU.

But before that, and more importantly than that, I want a strong community around my games, as measured by good-vibes and actually talking with real people.

Now it's your turn to help me help you : How do you build the right community around your game?

Let me know in the comments below, or drop me an email and lets talk!

Thursday, 12 July 2012

I Make Video Games

For me, it all started back in 1985 with the Commodore Vic-20.  I'd while away the hours typing in games from the magazines and storing them on magnetic tape.

Fast-forward to 1995 and the Amiga.  Me and some buddies launched Super Skidmarks to outstanding critical acclaim.

I love the process of making video games.  It's a series of puzzles.  Solving each puzzle unlocks even more puzzles.  As you get deeper and deeper, the puzzles get more and more intricate, and it becomes harder and harder to distinguish the best solution amongst all the correct solutions.  Always the fascination remains.

File:Black & White 2 Coverart.pngI love making games for gamers. I love passing the gamepad over to a gamer - passing the gamepad over to you - to see how you'll react.  There's this one moment that I really love in game development.  It's that moment when I try to probe you for feedback on my game, but you're so engrossed in the gameplay, you're physically unable to stop playing long enough to engage in meaningful conversation.

In 2005, I launched Black&White 2 with Lionhead Studios on the PC.  The game was a technical masterpiece and wildly ambitious.

Over the last few years, I've worked on many, many, many, many unreleased projects.  Those are the projects during which you grow the most.

I've been incredibly fortunate to work with, and learn from, so many amazingly talented people.  From programmers and artists, from QA and production.  Gifted musicians and mocap performers.  Everyone.  Thank you so much!  It's from you I learned everything.

Most recently I've been fortunate enough to work on the Mass Effect franchise with BioWare and on the Rainbow 6 franchise with Ubisoft.

Also the surprise hit at this year's E3, Watch Dogs.

But when I sit back and reflect, it feels like I've been working on increasingly smaller and smaller pieces (with ever increasing detail) of increasingly larger and larger games.  I'm always truly excited to be a part of a AAA blockbuster... but I miss that visceral connection with the gamer that comes with smaller teams and shorter development cycles.

It's taken me a while to realize, but the thing I love the most about video games, the reason I got into all of this in the first place, is when your delicate, fragile little game, (or big game!) that you've put so much effort into, finally makes it out to the gamers - to you.   Well... that's why I Make Video Games.

And while I never stopped making mini-games (and playful spaces) along the way, almost all of them I've been prevented from finishing because of contractual obligations.

That's why, as of today, I've returned to Indie Game Development To make video games in their entirety.  To make every little piece, from top to bottom, everything custom crafted with gamers in mind.  To make the best games for gamers.

To make video games, for you.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

The Compressed Reconstituted Potato Container Dilemma

  There's a particular brand of compressed reconstituted salty potato snack that comes packaged in a distinctive cylindrical container.  It appears to enjoy a certain popularity amongst the kids these days.

  I mention it, because it neatly divides the human population into two mutually exclusive groups.

  • Those whose hands are small enough to reach inside the container to retrieve a salty snack.  
  • Those who are unable to reach inside the container to retrieve a salty snack.

Small hands, Group A.

When there are only a few salty snacks present in the bottom of the container, those with small hands can reach deep down inside to obtain one more.


Large hands, Group B.

By contrast, when there are only a few salty snacks remaining, members of Group B must steady the container with one hand whilst simultaneously securing the container's mouth with the other.  They then gently tip the container so as not to risk undue spillage.

The Paradox

I can't reach!

  Consider what happens when two friends of the same group attempt to share when there is only a few salty snacks remaining in the bottom of the container.  Friends belonging to Group A will proffer the container at a slight angle, allowing their compatriot the opportunity to reach inside and obtain a satisfyingly tasty morsel.

  Likewise, friends belonging to Group B will pass over the entire container, to allow their compatriots the use of both hands to regulate flow control, minimizing spillage.

  For sharing involving purely Group-A, or purely Group-B, no conflict will arise, so let us not consider such cases any further.

  The paradox occurs when a member of Group A and a member of Group B attempt to share a container. 

In this instance, the container will be alternately tilted or passed, causing dissatisfaction, confusion, and lamentation for both participants.

The Dilemma

The paradox is readily observed and thereby quickly resolved in the case of the almost-empty container.

But consider the case of a freshly opened cylindrical container of compressed reconstituted salty potato snacks.

Here we have a much more subtle problem of etiquette :
  • Group A members have the expectation that the container will be offered at an angle.
  • Group B members have the expectation that the container will be passed to them.
When the container is full, both the member from Group A and the member from Group B are able to obtain snacks using either technique.  And yet each will be subtly offended by the other (being alternately greedy or lazy with each exchange), with neither knowing why the other is indulging in such bizarre counter-intuitive behavior in such a trivial matter.

Indeed, even in principle, it is not possible for such a mixed group to discover the cause for the dissatisfaction until some fraction of the salty snacks have been consumed, the first observable behavioral differences arise, and the damage has already been done.

The Designer

I see this happening all the time in Game Design. A designer will come up with a system based on their personal approach to gaming.  They might be a Group A, or a Group B.  It doesn't matter.  They'll take their design to focus testing, and these preliminary results will show, unanimously and unambiguously, that the feature is working as designed.  But I know differently.  I can tell when I'm watching the focus test in progress.  Half of the respondents will have this one particular twitch that I've come to recognize signifies something isn't quite working the way they expect, but they don't have the language to report the dissonance.  And the other half will be fine.

Occasionally, when the two groups are of vastly different sizes, and the designer is a member of the minority, I see it on the faces of all of the respondents.  But the feature invariably makes its way into the game.  And why not?  After all, it's been focus-tested and there were no problems reported.  What more can a designer do?

(As an aside, if you ever try to dissuade a self-righteous designer based on a few observed facial tics, you'll learn just how quickly you can lose credibility... even when your initial observation is subsequently confirmed independently.)

The Perils of Focus Testing

Has this happened to you? A feature focus tested without problems, but gets slammed in the marketplace?  Why not tell me more about it in the comments below.