Wednesday, 18 December 2013

where i am at with 868-hack

When I released 868-HACK on iOS I said I'd release it on PC soon. That was like four months ago and it hasn't happened yet. In particular I may have claimed it would be released this year and now it's mid-December and it's not done and there's no way I'm going to get it out in between visiting people over Christmas, and it's probably a terrible time to release something anyway given that everything else is on sale.

And now some people are putting it in lists of their top games of the year! Which is really great, but makes me feel a little awkward because it is not a game that everybody has access to this year, maybe I am losing money by not offering it for sale to everyone at this moment when attention is being drawn to it, maybe someone is sad because they hear about it but cannot play it. (Here are some of these nice list-writing people: Kris Graft, Leigh Alexander, Brendan Keogh.) The year thing is kind of arbitrary but still it happens.

I guess I don't owe you an explanation or anything but since I have said things that were not true I would like to give some justification.
A few different factors are combined to cause this happening!
- When I spend lots of time working on one thing I get too many ideas for other things and want to try them out instead. So I really wanted to do that instead of spending even more time on 868-HACK. Distractions!
- Also I'd promised someone a game for a Kickstarter reward a while ago and not delivered, I'd tried to make it a few times but the ideas were not working out, and I'd finally figured out what to do for that so I needed to spend time on that.
- One of the things I have to do for the PC version is fix a crash that affects a few people and which I do not understand and can't replicate. I've spent a while trying to track it down but mostly I get frustrated and give up, do something that feels more productive. I will find it eventually. (A couple of my free games that have used the same API have the same problem but those are free so it kind of doesn't matter.)
- There have been a bunch of things to fix in the iOS version, and those have been higher priorities since that's OUT.
- I had been working too hard and stressing too much and really needed a break.

This last element is the main one. For the last couple of years I've been working really hard and there's been this constant worry about whether I'd be able to keep going, just making me feel tense all the time, draining. I didn't know what to do, I'd tried the "spend years polishing something" approach and that was bad for me and didn't work out, I'd tried being ridiculously prolific and out-performing almost everyone else and that got more positive responses but paid even less. I'd made - to my taste - some of the best games, felt like I was doing something worthwhile, I'd gotten some recognition for them, but it wasn't enough.
So then when 868-HACK came out and was so well-received and made enough money that it looks like I'll probably be able to keep going, I relaxed. (So far it's sold 6000 copies. I know lots of people will scoff at that, sales figures from Actually Successful games contain more digits than that, but since it was just me it's enough.) My tension fell away, I stopped feeling like I had to spend every waking hour making things or self-promoting, I took some time out to not be stressed, read some books, play some games that weren't my own ones I was working on (MOSTLY DOTA), have a social life. IT'S BEEN REALLY GOOD FOR ME.

OK so I'm feeling better about things now, I'm working on another update for the iOS version (some bugs fixed, some balance tweaks), I'm prototyping some new things which are exciting and new, and hey sometime in the new year there will be a PC version of this and also some other new games and hopefully I will keep doing game-making art things. Really sorry to everyone who's still waiting to play this game on the computer they have, I will get there but I haven't yet and it is better this way really.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

i spy variation

Dreamt this game last night. Have only tested it 2-player but it seems like it might work?

Start by playing I Spy as usual. One player is the spy, they pick an object they can see and say "I spy with my little eye, something beginning with C" (or, you know, substitute the first letter in the object's name).

Any other player may guess what the object is. If they guess correctly they get a point and start the next round as the spy. But if they guess wrong, the spy gets a point and the round continues.

Any other player may become the spy and raise the stakes by repeating the description with a new detail - e.g. "I spy with my little eye, something beginning with C that is red" - describing an object they can see (which may turn out to be the same as the original spy's object, or may be different). Guesses are now worth one more point. You can raise the stakes as many times as you like, but each time you must add a new detail while repeating all previous details.

Play as many rounds as you want to I guess?

- There's only one spy at a time; when someone raises the stakes they are now the spy and the previous spy is back to being a regular player.
- I guess there's no reason why you should have to start with a letter? Any detail will do.
- If there's a bunch of similar objects, like a shelf of books, should you have to pick a specific object? That's probably better I think?

Thursday, 7 November 2013


Most games feature an element of randomness, or something that behaves like it (e.g. hidden information, simultaneous decisions, unpredictable chaotic systems).

Sometimes I hear some games dismissed as being "just luck". Usually this isn't literally true (we're not talking about Snakes and Ladders), so why do people say this? Maybe because, even when you've made "good" moves you can lose for reasons out of your control. This isn't necessarily a bad thing - Tom Lehmann describes it as "one of the most powerful things that strategy games can teach us". But also, often this judgement is made rashly: things that appear purely random to a beginner can be taken advantage of by a skilled player. A game having elements of luck isn't opposed to it requiring skill, there can be deep skill in navigating chance.

I think of Race for the Galaxy. My skills have probably decayed a bit now, but when I played regularly I won most of the time. And at first some people dismissed this as luck - "you drew a lucky combo, I didn't get any cards that worked together" - until they realised I got lucky almost every game, and so could they. Partly this is learning to recognise good combinations among the cards you draw, and shifting course to accommodate them - often beginners will dismiss good cards because they're fixated on one "strategy" (and other times they'll insist on playing them to their detriment when they don't fit; navigating between these takes subtlety). Partly it's about learning to use the mechanisms the game offers for controlling and responding to your luck - there are so many small decisions in terms of which cards to keep or discard, whether to draw a greater number of cards or to have more control over which cards you draw, whether to reveal a card now or hold it back for later.

Ascension also is a game worth playing to study chance. Much of the game's depth comes from subtle manipulations of the randomised cards available to buy in the centre: responding to what's available, denying your opponent cards that fit their strategy, searching for the ideal cards for your own. And also recognising that removing a card from the centre may create an opportunity for your opponent, so sometimes it's best to not buy something that would benefit you just to avoid that risk (this justifies why cards in the centre are superior to always-available cards at the same price). Also there's trashing cards from your deck - beginners often find it hard to understand this because it feels like throwing away resources, but by removing the less valuable cards you increase the frequency with which you draw the better ones.

Okay here are some general concepts that I think can apply to a whole bunch of different games.
* The more random events occur, the more likely the overall distribution is to average out to something not very random at all (i.e. the Central Limit Theorem). Safer to take lots of chances rather than letting everything hang on just one. This applies in a stronger form to card games, since any given card is guaranteed to be drawn eventually if you go through the whole deck.
* So there are two broad ways of performing better at random events: increase the number of events, or increase the chances of success on each one. In an RPG: make more attacks, or improve your chances to hit.
* There's often a risk-reward trade-off; choosing between a high chance of a small advantage and low chance of a big advantage. Which one is correct depends on your position: if you're behind you want to take a long shot for a chance of getting ahead because the reliable option will reliably not be enough, and if you're ahead you usually want to play it safe to maintain your lead. When there's only one possibility that will let you win, no matter how unlikely it is, play assuming that it will happen. But usually you want to bear in mind all possible outcomes and have a plan for each.
* Flipping that around: if something comes together perfectly and someone scores extremely highly, it was probably a long shot rather than something you can count on happening again.

Don't be bitter and blame luck. Embrace it and understand it, flow with the chaos.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

general status update

- I just moved house and getting an internet connection is taking its time. So I am unreliable right now. As usual.

- OK I know some of you are waiting for 868-HACK to be released on PC. I've not been making much progress on this. There's not a huge amount to be done but I want to get it right not have BAD PORT. I think it's been really good to do this separately, I've fixed a bunch of bugs while only having to update them in one place - maintaining several copies of a game in different places is such a hassle. Probably simultaneous release is Optimal Marketing Strategy but you've got to sacrifice some things when it's just you.

- But hey the response to that game has been pretty great. Some really nice reviews link link link link link, a few negatives but hey whatever I don't expect to please everyone. A bunch of negative comments about the (DRASTICALLY EXORBITANT) price, but it's achieved my goal of being able to afford to keep doing this for a while more which is FANTASTIC (I just feel sorry for anyone who tries to do this without someone to support them for a few years to get to that point). Talked with indie statik about that. Anyway, way cool, thanks everyone.

- Some concerns about whether .SCORE is too strong for single-game high scores? I suspect part of this is because it's part of the initial set of progs available, whereas other high-scoring progs are unlocked later. But I'm keeping an eye on it, it's interesting to watch. I personally pick it up very rarely because it's so risky, and I've had 90+ scores without it. But basically the problem is: a lot of what's balancing it is that risk (enemies spawned on acquisition, and lack of resources later if they're spent on it earlier) and if you just try enough times you'll get games where the risk pays off. This problem exists in the usual scoring system as well, perhaps less transparently, which was my reason for focusing on streaks (for probabilities multiply out to be very small very quickly). Perhaps I should have omitted single-game scores entirely and only had a streak table? Insufficient bravery.

- I've been making a 4-player game, SMESPORT. It started as a stripped-down dotalike for the 7-day RTS jam, but I failed the jam and kept working on it through several iterations until now it looks a lot closer to Hokra, I should write more about this process sometime. It was shown at a recent Wild Rumpus in Texas, which sadly I couldn't make it to. I'll be showing it at Nottingham Gamecity in a couple of weeks (officially in the open arcade on 20th, 21st, 23rd, 25th but I'll be around for the whole time). Hopefully watch lots of people play it and learn things to tune it to be better. Might try to organise a tournament towards the end of the week if people are into it? It's really intense competitive electrosport.

- I'm speaking at Practice at NYU in November. Can't escape academia. Upstart. Something about roguelikes.

- Yeah still doing little things on Helix sporadically. Ugh who knows, no hurry, I'm finding it good for harvesting procrastination energy anyway.

- Not sure if I mentioned BECOME AN ARTIST on here? Made it with mcc for a jam a few weeks back. I'm still finding it pretty useful for making pretty pictures.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Pierre Menard, player of the scholar's mate.

I'm not a big fan of Chess - it has too much memorisation and menial computation for my taste - but I do partake on occasion. Sometimes my wife challenges me, and she almost always wins. But there was one game I like to mention from time to time which went differently. We opened with a few turns of reasonable seeming moves - I brought out my queen, she responded with her horses. Then I noticed an opportunity for check and just went for it, even though I expected I'd probably lose my queen in the process. She reached to respond and then paused, looked closer, furrowed her brow, and laughed. I looked back at the board to see what the fuss was about, tried to work out which move she was considering and.. couldn't find any. I'd somehow stumbled into a scholar's mate and she - not expecting any such trickery - had fallen for it. Cue obnoxious gloating.

Another time my friend Martin challenged me to play without a board. We exchanged a few moves, it began as an interesting intellectual exercise, but before very long at all - just as it was reaching the limits of our ability to track it - he announced checkmate. Incredulous I thought through the board state, eventually admitting that yes, he'd pulled off a scholar's mate. He'd read of this opening and deliberately set out to attempt it.

Two games which were mathematically isomorphic, having the exact same moves and outcome, but with completely different meanings. One accidental, the other intentional.

How we read a game depends on who is playing. Each move has a process of thought behind it; identical moves can be interpreted differently if they differ in intent. How you understand Deep Blue vs. Kasparov depends on whether you view it as a conflict between Man and Machine, or between individual and collective human effort. A beginner taking a risky opening simply does not realise what they're doing; an intermediate player may be hoping to get lucky, or perhaps to throw their opponent off-guard; while an expert has calculated the outcome and is confident they can handle it. Was that a mistake, a bluff, or a brilliant gambit you don't understand yet?

When we talk about "replayability" in games we're usually thinking of them offering variety by presenting different possible situations and moves. But even identical moves and positions may mean different things. (And of course, as Ben Abraham points out any game is replayable in the sense that any book is rereadable - even if the events and words are the same, we have changed.)

There are only nine games of Rock-Paper-Scissors, and three of them are ties.

(The words in this post are based on actual events, but I have on two occasions lifted them from truth into fiction. The first game may not have been an exact scholar's mate, but it was a close approximation with perhaps an additional move. And let the record show that I thwarted Martin's attempt - at which point he lost interest for he was unprepared for the challenge of a spoken-word Chess game without having chosen his moves in advance. But in a nearby universe these could both be true.)

Monday, 23 September 2013

Last Hits

Early role-playing games attempted to simulate fantasy novels, making up characters who go on adventures / find treasure / defeat villains. There's a typical progression where characters become more powerful over time: the puny farm-boy eventually becomes an arch-mage, the nomadic barbarian leads an army and becomes king. This gets implemented in game mechanics both by gaining material resources (treasure and gold) and with "experience points", an abstract numeric score determining what abilities a character has access to.

In some early RPGs there was a direct equivalence between gold and experience points - the characters are treasure hunters, their achievements are measured by how much treasure they bring home. In others experience points were awarded primarily for defeating enemies. Treasure and monsters are usually found in proximity so these are closely related, but there's a difference: if you sneak past a dragon and steal some of its hoard, have you really defeated it? Still others took a more high-level approach rewarding heroic quests completed. Different styles of play are encouraged depending on which specific actions are rewarded.

These RPGs were administered by a human storyteller, so they were able to have a certain looseness in their rules; the dungeon-master could interpret reasonable requests and deal with unexpected situations sensibly. When computer-mediated RPGs were developed it became necessary to make the rules a lot more precise and explicit. Rules that work in a tabletop setting could lead to undesirable side-effects in a digital game.

If we give the same reward for bypassing an enemy by any means (killing it, sneaking past it, bribing it), then what happens if you first deal with them non-violently and then turn back and attack them? This isn't the intended behaviour, but if you gain something extra from doing it then optimal play means doing it. But if you don't get anything from doing this, that doesn't really make sense - surely they have worldly possessions that you can loot from them, and if you gain experience from fighting why should fighting an enemy you've already walked past be any different? You can think of ways to deal with this, but a lot of games went with the simplest option: deal with all obstacles by killing them.

So okay we got lots of games about mainly killing, that's not so interesting. But now what happens to this system when there are multiple characters, multiple players? The absolute simplest way you might program it is: when an attack kills an enemy, give a reward to the source of that attack. But in a teamwork situation that doesn't make sense - whoever landed the killing blow might not be the one who contributed the most. Maybe you come up with a more complicated system where you track how much damage was dealt by each character, but that doesn't quite work either - different character roles might deal less damage while still contributing as much to the group (a healer, for example). Maybe just divide rewards evenly amongst everyone involved: this is fine in a strictly cooperative setting, but outside of that it might create an incentive to jump in at the last moment to get a disproportionate share.

Now consider Dota 2 (and family). The basic setup is a battle between two armies in which the human players (five a side) control heroes that help out and influence the outcome of the war. The heroes advance in the now-typical CRPG manner, earning gold and experience for killing enemies. But the beautiful, absurd thing Dota does is to embrace the side-effects of specifically rewarding the killing blow. Experience is divided among everyone near a death, but gold is only given for getting the last hit, resulting in this weird bureaucracy of trying to get the reward from a fight without contributing much to it. It takes a buggy implementation of an oversimplified computerisation of a broken tabletop mechanic and expands it out into its own thing (it's the Game Title: Lost Levels of RPGs). It still pretends to simulate heroism, but in fact we roleplay heartless generals waiting while their armies slaughter each other, jumping into the fray only when the outcome is already decided in order to claim the glory. Indeed it encourages helping in the fight as little as possible, for a surfeit of success is unprofitable - it advances the battle into the opponent's territory before you're high-enough level. We sit back and watch the little people die until we secure more funding. It's pretty realistic.

And hey then also you can "deny" last hits, stabbing your own soldiers in the back to prevent your opponents getting the rewards for killing them. WHAT. This arose as a natural consequence of the previous rule but was then made explicit with the game indicating it with a unique animation and sounds.

Well what about this lovely depiction of how rules can have consequences contrary to their intended effect, how when you make laws to encourage people to do something they'll figure out what the incentive actually measures rather than what you meant them to do, how we can appear to be doing one thing while actually achieving its opposite.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

868-HACK (iOS)

868-HACK (originally the 7-day roguelike 86856527) is now on the iOS app store.

(Sorry I don't have a PC version yet - I was originally intending to release them at the same time but then I got distracted working on other things and it's not ready yet and I figured it was better not to rush it. There is only one of me!*)

Okay what's changed from the 7 day version?
basically: A LOT.
- new programs.
- almost all the old programs ones modified (some in very subtle ways).
- a tutorial (skip this if you enjoy figuring out everything for yourself).
- better balanced.
- online high scores.
- streak scores too (sum across consecutive plays without dying).
- more graphics and sounds.
- so many little details I can't remember off the top of my head.
- secret stuff.

I should repeat about the tutorial: some people really enjoyed the blind confusion of working out all the mechanics themselves, and if that might be you then it's totally reasonable to skip it - you can always go back to it later. I've gone back and forth over whether it was right to include one at all, but ultimately most players were completely lost without some guidance and there's very much a game worth playing still there even once you understand what all the rules are. I still find it interesting to play myself and I know every detail of how it works.
Oh also - don't expect to understand everything after just the tutorial. It gives you the basics, but you still have to figure out how to put them together.

Also, several programs start out locked. Feel free to hit "unlock all" if you want to skip that, but I'd recommend going for the gradual introduction, you'll get a better understanding of the interactions between them.

Thanks so much to everyone who's helped out with this, with testing and suggestions. In particular, massive thanks to Leon Arnott, who in addition to helping out by writing most of the victory text and some of the intro text, made numerous excellent suggestions. And then repeated the suggestions when I didn't pay attention. And tirelessly kept on repeating them until I actually got around to trying them out and realised he'd been right all along. He also made a fan page (somewhat deceptive). Bless Leon.

get itttttt
(or, if you don't have one of those devices have patience I'll get a version you can play when I can! sorry!)
(also could someone please beat my high scores? ta.)

Monday, 5 August 2013

dota2 thoughts

eclectic thoughts from Dota2:

- I'm pretty lucky to have immunity to the collection urge. The game gives out MYSTERIOUS CHESTS that you can pay REAL MONEY to open and get random COSMETIC UPGRADES which accumulate to form COMPLETE SETS. My reaction to this is simply that I'm confused, I'm not sure why I'm being offered this because it doesn't seem appealing at all. But apparently some people enjoy opening these and trading these, and they spend money on them? I don't understand; it's not that I'm resisting this temptation, I just don't have that bit in my brain that would make me want to do this in the first place. However, as a game-maker this lack of sympathy for what appeals to many game-players probably puts me at a serious disadvantage in terms of mainstream appeal.

- Effects that just do a big chunk of damage, like Lion or Lina's ultimates or Dagon, actually have a surprising amount of subtlety to them. There's more depth than just click - numbers go down. Often you want to use these to finish off a wounded hero, maximising the information you have before using it, and surprising them with discontinuous damage before they can escape. But usually doing this means not all of the damage potential is used (unless you manage to click when their hp exactly equals the damage total), so there's an advantage to using these earlier in a fight as well. Also it helps your teammates to know that it will be used, and the most clear and accurate way to convey this information to them is to use it earlier - though this reveals it to your opponents too.

- It's kind of amazing to be able to play a ten-player real-time online game that might be an hour long, any time of day with usually no connection problems. At least to someone who grew up with dial-up internet and LANs that needed constant fiddling to make sure all the computers could see each other, getting parents to drive computers over to friends houses to be able to have more than one or two people playing together at once, configuring routers to open particular ports so games could be hosted; so much organisation and faff was required for networked multiplayer to exist at all. Now a game can comfortably demand ten players, not even supporting lower numbers - at least with a sufficiently powerful company behind it.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Experiment 12

The idea of a videogame anthology, a collection of small games by different people, has come up a few times. And it's easy to come up with exciting ideas around this concept - they could all use the same colour scheme (or each have a different dominant colour), there could be common themes planned out, musical elements, a story going between them (in sequence or from different angles), maybe they could share data between them so doing something in one game affects another.. so then there's a bunch of talk about how this would be cool but then it's hard to actually organise and everyone's busy with their own things so it doesn't happen. A democracy problem; nobody wants the responsibility of being in charge and while we don't actually disagree we never get around to agreeing on anything.

Terry Cavanagh initiated the most recent attempt after playing an RPG-maker chain game. This "chain" structure makes the organisation problem a lot simpler - there's no pre-planning and consensus required, everyone just looks at what's gone before and adds their own thing from there. Way easier to get off the ground. Terry decided on a schedule of 3 days per person, which turned out pretty well I think: it's long enough to do something that's not entirely trivial, but short enough that you can accurately plan for it - once you've spend a week on something then it could take months. And we ended up with strong themes coming through, colours and sounds and mechanics and ideas and words and images, just from doing things in order looking at what others had done, without having to agree on them in advance.

Terry will no doubt be typically humble and try not to take much credit, but he's responsible for prodding and poking and organising to make this happen, and actually making firm decisions for us when we'd all just keep coming up with more wild ideas. Thanks, Terry.

Experiment 12

(windows only right now, hopefully get a mac build soon)

Friday, 19 July 2013

Starseed Pilgrim

There's a curious dance that people do when talking about Starseed Pilgrim. They're so afraid of spoiling its magic that they weave in and out trying to avoid saying anything at all, until finally resorting to pointing out that hey - someone you might have heard of liked it, and it's mysterious, so um try it out maybe! I think this undersells the game by making it seem more fragile than it is. If I told you exactly what the relationship between the light world and the dark world is then maybe it would deprive you of one small moment of discovery, but much more of the game is in making use of that relationship, manipulating it once you understand it. I could show you the map I drew of where the various locations are and how they're connected, but it wouldn't even be very useful to you - your world will grow differently to mine. I could tell you every little rule and interaction I've discovered, and it might help you along some, speed up the process for you, but it wouldn't break the game - for there's a difference between facts you've been told and knowledge you understand through experience.

Yes there is exploration and discovery, but the things that are explicitly hidden are not so hard to find. You enter a geometric space that you can move through - you're not told that there are things to find in it, but if you just go ahead and move then you'll start to find them. In this perhaps it demands some personal initiative which is not present in many modern games, but no difficult insights. Simply being unafraid to act without instruction is sufficient. You see a key, you see a lock - there's no tutorial guide telling you to try putting the two together, but do you really need one? And then you see a door with three locks - well I'm not going to spell it out. There are some arbitrary "videogame-y" interactions that you can only really discover by experimenting and observing - stars point to keys, except when they point to locks; hearts become seeds, except when they don't until later - but they aren't really very hard.

This is not to say there are no difficult discoveries, but these are of a very different kind. Starseed Pilgrim's true secrets are the ones hidden in plain view. Basic rules about how plants grow and interact which are discovered in the first few minutes of play end up taking on surprising significance. You have all the tools you need to progress right from the start, but you will need to master them. When you uncover a challenge and realise what you must do to progress, it's easy to go into denial. The lonely pilgrim despairs at their seemingly insurmountable task. There must be something I haven't found yet that will make this easier. There must be a power-up - wall-climbing, double-jump - that will help me here. And so you go searching for secrets where there aren't any, hoping for a way out, trying to avoid doing what you know you must. But there are no short-cuts. You just need to get better at the game.

And that's the secret of Starseed Pilgrim: you can get better at it. It's not about uncovering obtuse facts; it's about mastering a deep system, creatively using its quirks to your advantage, getting better at it until you're able to overcome anything that's thrown at you. Red seeds bloom into a flower if they fall into darkness - initially this seems like a disadvantage because it can crush valuable hearts and enable the darkness to spread more quickly, but eventually you find yourself using it to deliberately to queue up interactions for later. Yellow branches are forced to grow upwards if they can't extend left or right - at first this is usually an accidental waste, but later you will ride them up on purpose. Dripping slime mires you, making movement more difficult, but even this you will find constructive uses for in time - the first time you're pleased to see it rather than disappointed is a beautiful moment. But even if you were told all the rules straight out - which seed best defends against blight, how each world works slightly differently to the others - there would still be much value for you in learning to use them.

So I hope I've managed to dance this dance adequately. I've held back from telling everything I know, but perhaps I've let slip enough to illustrate what the game is like, and to demonstrate that it wouldn't hurt you to be told everything. The pilgrim's magic is strong.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

overlapping-input competitive-multiplayer touchscreen games

An interesting thing that's been happening with local multiplayer videogames is the exploration of interactions that happen outside of the computer. I wrote a bit about this before when I released O. Wide range of stuff, from J.S. Joust to Fingle. I'm particularly interested in touchscreen multiplayer - devices like the ipad are ideal for playing games together, being portable enough to take places but large enough for more than one player to comfortably interact at the same time.

The key idea is that the software doesn't know whose finger is whose. This rules out some possible games you might want to make; often we would like to be able to tell. If you're to do a single-screen genre-RTS with each player dragging to move their own units, you're probably going to want to network it - if not you'll be getting in each other's way and interfering with each other's controls (whether by accident or intent). (Possibly you could constrain the design to work with each player only touching one side of the screen while sending units over to the other side, Shot Shot Shoot-style, but in this case beware of the "wandering hands" effect.) But we can embrace this interference in our designs, it enables a new type of game.

Now, I suspect the natural response of many game developers to this is to view it as a "gimmick", a cute but shallow feature. I believe that it's not a gimmick. Several fundamentally different games have already been made using this concept, and I suspect that more possibilities exist. This is a potentially rich vein of design to explore further.

Chicanery is one of the simplest possible games to use this concept. The digital side of the game offers no way to win, only a way to lose: letting go of your button. So players must somehow persuade their opponents to let go. I'm honestly pretty scared of playing it.
A lot of potential designs in this space end up feeling like "essentially the same game as Chicanery": the game is decided by a physical wrestling match, and victory in the digital realm is purely a formality. I would like to avoid this for the simple reason that we already have Chicanery.

Finger Battle doesn't explicitly use this concept. Each player presses their side of the screen as many times as possible; whoever presses the most times wins. There's no overlap in inputs, no benefit in touching your opponent's side of the screen - but of course you can convert it into Chicanery by trying to prevent your opponent touching the screen while still pressing yours. Again this is a design sink - a lot of potential games essentially reduce to "press stuff as fast as possible"; let's try to avoid it.

Ready Steady Bang also doesn't use this concept, but is worth mentioning because its idea shows up later as a component of larger systems. It's a quick-draw western-themed game; players compete to be the first to touch the screen after a signal "ready, steady, bang!". The important difference here is that it demands attention; players must react to something that happens on the screen in a way that they didn't in the previous two examples. What this means is that if you Chicanerise it there's still a chance that the physically weaker player can win - by paying closer attention and managing to sneak through and press at the right time despite their opponent restraining them. This is a significant enough effect that most players will not attempt to wrestle at all.

Next in the complexity hierarchy is a hypothetical game that I don't believe anyone has released (though I briefly prototyped it during O's development). Call it "Touchscreen Snap". Pieces appear on the screen (demanding attention), and players compete to be the first to touch them (indicated by dragging them to their side of the screen, since the program doesn't know who owns a finger). This results in some physical conflict, because even if players don't actively fight each other their hands will often collide as they race to grab the same pieces. Essentially this is Ready Steady Bang with overlapping input domains.

In Circulets, pieces appear in each player's colour on their side of the screen, and players compete to collect them as fast as possible (by dragging). It is mostly a variation on Finger Battle, with a small amount of extra attention required to drag pieces from random positions rather than blindly pressing. Additionally, an occasional green piece appears in the centre which is valuable to either player - like a momentary round of Touchscreen Snap.
(There appears to have been some attempt to deepen it by making pieces worth -1 point when collected by the wrong player, but since this is an effective loss of one point for both sides there is no incentive for either player to ever do it. I'm not sure what the intent here was, but it seems poorly thought out.)

Bloop is similar to Circulets, with each player tapping pieces of their own colour. Since pieces are colour-coded it's sufficient to just touch them - no need to drag to tell the program who you are. It's greatly enriched over Circulets by the pieces being randomly intermingled across the screen rather than reliably sorted on each side: significant attention is required to touch as much of your own colour as possible while avoiding touching the others. (Note that Bloop preceded Circulets chronologically; I've just ordered them here to suit my exposition.)

Bam fu is kind of a variation on Bloop, with each player pressing pieces of a particular colour across the screen. But rather than appearing randomly, the pieces are fixed in place and just change colour when pressed according to a predictable cyclic sequence. This makes the attention element much deeper - you can predict where your colour will show up by watching for when other players press theirs. It really comes into its own with more than two players, subtly strategising to manipulate the flow of colours towards you while preventing anyone else from winning.

O has the attention element of collecting randomly-appearing coloured pieces. But rather than the colours matching the players, they feed into a set-collection scoring system: each piece of the same colour you collect in sequence is worth an extra point. Collecting a different colour breaks your sequence, which demands extra attention and avoids some of the weaknesses of Touchscreen Snap, and also creates an incentive for your opponent to sometimes force pieces onto your side of the screen. O also gains some depth from basic physics - flinging balls across the screen, bouncing them off each other, holding them in place to block others.

Slamjet Stadium has a ball that both players want to collect, but avoids Touchscreen Snap-style hand-collisions by making that something you can only indirectly interact with. There's a second kind of piece which you fling at the ball to push it around, and very rarely do you have a first-order desire to touch the same piece, because you want to push the ball from opposite sides (there may be a second-order desire to prevent your opponent doing what they want, but that's a lesser effect).

Greedy Bankers starts with an already-complex single-player game and encourages just a bit of cross-screen interaction by valuing pieces higher if they've been moved across the centre of the screen.

Centrifeud has separated inputs most of the time, but is occasionally spiced up with a powerup asking players to touch their piece - like a momentary round of Bloop.

A Bastard (touchscreen version currently unreleased) has players navigating a maze with tank controls that creep across the screen and sometimes overlap - encouraging players to press their opponent's buttons as well as their own. It feels a lot like Glitch Tank (which was an inspiration) in that you must strike a balance between planning carefully and acting quickly - but your plans may involve moving your opponent as well as yourself.

I played an unreleased prototype by @grapefrukt of a game where players tap Pipe Mania-style tiles to rotate them, attempting to join up a network of pipes in a way advantageous to them and disrupt their opponent's network. Feels very different to any of these other games.

(Fingle deserves a mention too though it's not competitive. Physical interactions obstruct digital goals; the challenge comes from your fingers getting in each other's way. The game intentionally provokes physical contact.)

I hope it's clear from these examples that very different games already exist using the "players interact on the same screen" concept, and that there's likely to be room for more that we haven't found yet. They share some common challenges and constraints - in particular, a need for a strong attention cost if they're not to degenerate into Chicanery - and many of them share some common ideas, but they have very different characters. But even the most complex of these are very minimal: what happens if you try to build a more intricate strategic game along these lines? Possibly the inherent messiness puts an upper bound on complexity, but it's worth finding out.

Friday, 7 June 2013

non-linear costs

Following on from last post I'm thinking about the relationship between the numeric cost of an object and how difficult it is to actually acquire in practise. Double the cost of something, does that make it exactly twice as hard to pay? In real life you'd want the answer to be close to yes (though it isn't really; we have feedback effects) for convenience, but games don't need to be convenient - a large part of what games provide is unnecessary obstacles and obscurity. It's easier to intuitively think about linear relationships: if the difficulty of paying costs is non-linear that makes things harder to evaluate, interesting.

Okay first concept is feedback loops. If you can spend resources to increase the rate at which you gain resources (positive feedback), then buying sufficiently expensive things is going to have sub-linear difficulty. Usually games that do this balance it out with an incentive to buy things early - e.g. rushing in an RTS vs. building your economy - because otherwise getting the steepest growth curve will eventually dominate everything else pretty easily. Similarly negative feedback loops make it harder to buy expensive things. In Settlers of Catan when a 7 is rolled any player with more than 7 cards must discard half of them, so there's a risk to accumulating lots: on average your effective wealth ends up slightly less than your apparent wealth.

In Magic you can play one land per turn, a linear constraint. But in practise this is sub-linear, because you can't rely on always having a land card to play. This gives a fuzzy threshold at which spells become harder to cast - you're very likely to be able to cast a 2-mana spell by turn 2, less likely to cast a 4-cost spell by turn 4, and quite unlikely to cast an 8-cost by turn 8 (ignoring mana-acceleration powers).
However since lands in play can be reused each turn, the total amount you can pay grows triangularly - by turn 4 you can have paid a total of 1+2+3+4=10 mana if the individual costs are small enough. (Note that cards are a resource too, which is linearly constrained in turns, so casting one 4-cost spell is cheaper than 2 2-cost because it saves a card.)

Dominion's price structure is quite complex. Because your hand is limited to five cards each turn, buying things that cost more than 5 is disproportionately hard as it requires not just more money but money in larger denominations (or a way to draw more at once). Also what you're able to buy on the first two turns is significant: you can definitely buy something costing ≤4 on the first or second turn, something costing 5 you have a 1/6 chance of being able to buy, and ≥6 is impossible (without a few specific expansion cards).
Also there's a default limit of buying one card per turn, which means with 4 money you can't buy two 2-costs - unless you've played a card that allows extra buys. So a lot of the time the actual numeric cost doesn't matter if it's below the threshold of 5; it only makes a difference if you're somehow very short on money or you have extra buys. This is the reasoning for the Chapel costing only 2 even though it's one of the most powerful cards in the game - it's not something you generally want multiple copies of so its power is not significantly increased by being so cheap.

@ostroffj mentioned that the alert costs (the number of enemies spawned when you siphon a wall tile) in 868whatever behave a bit like Dominion's acquisition costs. It's hard to evaluate because the cost of a number of enemies is eventually converted into the currencies of turns/hp/energy/credits but the exact rates depend on which enemy types spawn and where, the layout of walls, how you choose to deal with them, and other random elements. But in general below 5 you can usually handle unharmed (4 is on the edge) while more than that will usually demand a real cost. And then, like Dominion, you have a limited ability to acquire things and the the distinctions between prices matter if you try to take more than one at a time; 2+2 stays comfortably sub-threshold but 4+4 is highly dangerous.

Mmm still trying to think of examples with more fundamentally different ways of complicating costs.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

non-trivial currencies

A lot of game actions involve exchanging some currency for some other currency or resource. Or, okay, depending on how reductive you want to be you could say that every action is a currency exchange, but sometimes the currencies are complex difficult-to-evaluate concepts like "a good position". But often they're just numbers of a thing - gold, credits, sheep, beans, whatever.

Thinking about different ways in which currencies can operate in real life might give some ideas for ways to make these exchanges more complex. (You don't necessarily want to add complexity everywhere, this is just something to consider).

OK first, look at international currency exchanges. Relative values change over time, which is already interesting to play with: decision-making under uncertainty to try to get the best deal. Shopping around for deals - different money-changers may offer different rates. Maybe there's a fixed fee per transaction so there's an incentive to change a large sum in one go. Obvious complexity.

More subtle is the complexity that can arise within a single currency. Typically we like to imagine you have just one number and bigger is better, but there are different conveniences. Cash vs. EFTPOS: some places won't accept cards; carrying cash is riskier; possible transaction fees. Different denominations of cash; buses which don't give change so you'll overpay if you don't have the exact amount.. basically these are like different currencies that are cheap to change between (but not free, because time has value).
Or someone sends me a cheque and it's such a hassle to actually get around to banking it (plus if I'm in Germany what am I even supposed to do with this they don't use these here anymore).
And since these things are instantiated as physical objects there are different values based on physical properties. Notes or cards weigh less than a bunch of coins, so they're easier to carry but harder to bludgeon with. The raw materials composing them have a value - if the value of a coin's metal ever exceeds the face value of the coin there's an incentive to melt it down and reuse it. Or there can be particular value in specific units - like the giant robot vending machine that only takes quarters (so we traded with a beggar; notes more valuable to him for coins more valuable to us).
Also collectors - someone might value a particular coin more highly because it completes a set for them, by denomination or year.

And hey there's complexity even in directly comparable numeric values, looking at how much relative difference they make. When you're broke finding a note lying in the street affects your situation way more than if you're doing okay; once you can afford everything you need increasing that number further just becomes a way of keeping score.

Some of these situations might be useful to think about when designing games? These types of consideration are used in board games sometimes but rarely in videogames - putting things on a computer makes it easy to treat everything as a number and think no more about it. Just something to think about using maybe I don't know!

Monday, 20 May 2013

Uniform Activations

There's this common structure a lot of games have: a list of different abilities the players choose from. Comes in a lot of different shapes - equipment, magic spells, shop purchases, research upgrades, starseeds.. sometimes they're randomly distributed, often there's an opportunity cost such that choices between them are somehow exclusive, whatever. The point is they're a collection of modular parts that do different things; removing one or adding a new one doesn't drastically change the nature of the game. It's a useful structure both for players and designers because independent pieces are easy to think about, can be introduced one at a time, can be replaced individually without much hassle, and the process of gradually understanding how disparate parts fit together can be wonderful.
(Its weakness is that a design composed of replaceable pieces lacks the particular beauty of elegant minimalism, of a pure holistic design that appears to be the only possible way it could be.)

Now, a lot of games that use this structure have these abilities behave in a variety of different ways. Classic roguelikes (just for example; other genres are similar) have collectable items that are consumed once, activated repeatedly consuming a finite number of charges, activated repeatedly consuming an energy resource, exclusively equipped to give a passive effect, non-exclusively equipped to give a passive effect, exclusively or non-exclusively equipped to give an ability that can be activated repeatedly.. as well as similar effects gained by leveling up killing monsters doing quests eating food praying to the gods. And when abilities are activated, they might require input to select a direction or an enemy or a friend or a location, and they might take effect instantly or after a delay or last for a particular duration or until deactivated. It can be a right mess.

More often than not this variety is a crutch for the designer. Pretty much any idea you come up with can be stuck into a game design without putting in any effort to ensure it behaves in a predictable way - but this offloads work onto the players to learn and keep track of the myriad different behaviours; and in a videogame it offloads work onto the programmer to implement interfaces for all these different behaviours. Here's an advantage to being both designer and programmer: if a small amount of extra design work saves you a large amount of programming work you're going to do it, and if you run into an unpleasant and unnecessary programming task you can go back and design with the grain - often making the game better by doing so.

Magic: the Gathering is probably the most egregious example of this. Seven different card types, in five different colours (and multicolour, hybrid, colourless), which depending on their type are played either by spending mana or a limited number of times per turn, and either have a one-off effect (which might target any number of different objects with any number of constraints) or create a permanent object (which might have effects later under any number of different conditions). There are no straightforward consistent rules governing how they behave - any pattern has an exception somewhere.
But there's a reason for this: they're trying to create the illusion of a "Calvinball" game where anything could happen, where every rule can be broken - but at the same time keep it constrained and balanced. (And of course sustain their business model by churning out vast numbers of new cards each year.) They're making a compromise for a particular effect. There are always compromises in design - even if not from external resource constraints there are internal tensions - and this is totally okay. The important thing is to ensure that when you're learning from the good parts that you don't copy the compromises as well if you don't have to - unfortunately when something is successful every part tends to get copied indiscriminately.
(David Sirlin wrote recently of how dropping an awkward timing system his game had inherited from Magic improved it.)

A few examples from things I've made of how I prefer for this to be done:
- All of Zaga-33's items are single-use instant-effect untargeted abilities that take one turn to use. Most of the effects are borrowed from other roguelikes but "fire a beam in a straight line" required some adaptation to avoid needing extra interface to choose a direction: the solution was to select all the directions simultaneously (other methods would have been to pick one at random, or intelligently choose the one with the most/nearest enemies).
- Early on during 86856527's design some of the abilities I wanted to include were passive effects (granting the ability to see invisible things, increasing attack damage) and some were active (blow something up right now). Converting the passive effects to active ones (durations lasting until the end of each sector) not only made things more consistent and elegant, but also made them more interesting: you have the choice each level whether to spend resources maintaining the effect. So I ended up with all abilities being multiple-use instant-effect untargeted, costing resources, not taking a turn to use. Many of these effects target specific enemies or areas but without requiring specific player input - they take a random one, or the nearest, or all of a particular type (and 868-HACK will display more methods).
- Exuberant Struggle and Vertex Dispenser both squeeze something of the base-building and army-constructing of RTS into games where you're directly controlling a single unit and activating abilities with a single key press: abilities that create units or buildings just place them at your current location, and the units go off and act automatically.
- Glitch Tank pushes unification to an extreme, with basic movement actions being shuffled in with weapon and army building cards, all activated instantly by a single button press - unlike these other examples where moving (and sometimes attacking) are a separate type of ability.

Now, there can be good reason to have different interfaces and behaviour types, this isn't a firm rule - just a suggestion. If you gain something worthwhile from this variety then by all means do it: just consider whether this could still be expressed in a cleaner system. I mentioned Magic, where they're partially justified in having a messy design to give the particular impression they want. Sometimes you can convey meaning through different behaviours. Consider Starcraft - the Zerg create units in a completely different way to the other races, rather than training them at dedicated buildings they grow larvae into different types: this reinforces their character as a weird biohorror race that mutates and evolves on the fly. But this actually argues in favour of keeping abilities consistent most of the time: you need to set up a pattern in order to break it. Keep the mundane consistent so that the magical can be magical.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Re pulling up the ladder

response to "Pulling up the ladder" by Rami Ismail

Rami makes a good point that it's not necessarily healthy for successful "indie" developers to be curating newcomers, because there's a problem of self-interest, they're putting their own hard-earned reputations on the line, making them less likely to recommend risky new things. I'm not sure how large a problem this is - though I'm not personally in such a position, I'll happily recommend anything I like any time regardless of weirdness or inaccessibility.

..which reveals another problem with this: it's based on what the people doing the recommending like, so it tends to reinforce the same set of tastes.

I've made things in a bunch of different genres and styles so I may be better positioned to see this than most. It's very clear to me that whenever I make a new game, those who are keenest to pick up on it are those who make similar games themselves. When I make a roguelike, it's lifted up by the roguelike crowd. When I make a fairly conventional puzzle game with a cute twist, people who make puzzle-games-with-twists talk about it. When I make a slow ambient exploration thing without much conventional "gameplay", it's those who make that kind of thing who promote it. But when I make something that doesn't already have a strong presence in the indie games scene, it fizzles. And I get the reverse effect sometimes too - people say things like "why are you wasting your time making [style of thing I don't like] when you're good at making [style of thing I do]?".

So here's the deeper problem with putting the responsibility of lifting up newcomers on those who are already successful in the field: even if they're completely willing to take risks on things that might not pay off, they're only interested in things that interest them. The gaps where things are really getting missed you don't even see, because they're not things you personally care about.

There's been more discussion recently of the "just make a great game and the rest will magically work out" fallacy. The thing is - this might work when what you want to make lines up with a wave that's there to catch, but not otherwise. The "indie games scene" acts as a filter; it's very hard for a game to reach the outside world without passing through it, the larger videogame community and the world as a whole trust small cliques to curate what might be of interest to them from the masses of stuff that gets made. But the games that might appeal to people out there but don't conform to the tastes of the successful "indie game" clique just get lost. There's no room for anything truly new if for anything to succeed it has to be liked by someone who likes the old things best.

A challenge for everyone : try to perceive the value in something that's not the kind of thing you usually like, and that also hasn't been authorised as "good" by a friend or public figure.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

do something to videogames

Quick (edit: not so quick) response to Darius' piece that's been going around because there's no comment box attached to it so everyone has to write their own post in their own place (which might not be a bad thing hey).

On the whole I agree with what he's saying, some good points. Don't limit yourself to one medium, pick the right tool for the job, find what works for you, be prepared to abandon what doesn't work for you, be careful about being guided by external validation.

Now, slide 2 specifically points out that this message is not for me - expressing myself creatively through videogames works for me - so this response may be off track. I do "struggle" to express myself, but I feel satisfied with the outcomes. But I have struggled with less satisfactory results in other artforms - the written word, music, mathematical proof - so I feel like I have some idea.

Underlying Darius' piece is this idea of "I’m trying to do X, now what can I do to make it happen?", and that maybe the particular grain of videogames makes them unsuitable for doing X. This is a 'top-down' design approach, starting with a concept or message and then trying to express it. And I'm not sure this is quite the right approach to doing creative work - insofar as there can be said to be anything like a 'right' approach.. I guess what I mean is that it's not the only approach, and it's not one that I've found to be very productive for me. I've gotten better results by picking a medium and then working with the grain to see what comes out. Usually I do start with an idea, but as I try to implement it changes, and I've found it better to be open to this than to try to force through my original concept.

I gave a talk at A MAZE in Berlin recently on this topic of 'working with the grain'. Not going to rehash everything I said there because they were videoed so I'll just link that when it's online (edit: link). But the basic points were: a lot of our brainpower is unconscious and is accessed by doing rather than thinking, the underlying structure of a form can carry truth and beauty that's revealed by working in it, it's better to create things by jumping in and creating and being open to unexpected influences than by trying to plan things out before we start.

I feel like videogames have a particularly strong and structured grain, so they might be more resistant to the top-down design approach than some other artforms. Maybe this makes a stronger point than Darius' - maybe if you're struggling to express a concept in videogames it means not only that the concept is unsuited for videogames but that your entire approach to art is unsuited for videogames. This might be related to problems Darius has had expressing himself, I'm not sure - his recent work creating curious bots has been lovely and natural and grain-exploring so I certainly don't want to claim he's taking the 'wrong approach'. But in general I think good things come from listening to the problems that come up so it's better to respond by adapting your concept to take that feedback into account rather than running away to somewhere you don't encounter resistance.

When I make a strategy game, I have particular ideas about which ways to play will be interesting. Sometimes it turns out they aren't - maybe this can be fixed, but not always. Sometimes it turns out they are, but the game discourages them because they're dominated by another strategy which is boring or 'grindy' - to fix this may requires a clever insight into how to remove the boring approach without breaking anything else. They're intricately balanced systems, and tuning them requires finding the correct underlying rules to produce the effects I want.

It's hard to lie with a game. This is an advantage to having a rigid grain, it pushes you to find the truth in what you're trying to express rather than just uncritically broadcasting what you believe. If you want to write a story that communicates "communism is bad" or "the free market is bad" that's easy - just make the villains communists or capitalists and say that's bad. But to make a game that critiques such a system requires simulating the system. If your enemies are capitalists and it turns out your simulation of capitalism makes them more efficient than the communist heroes, that challenges what you're trying to express. Don't get me wrong, you can definitely lie with a game - you don't have to accurately simulate systems, you can cheat in the background, you can use all the non-systemic parts to lie about what the system means. You can avoid simulating the systems you're talking about - games-as-propaganda tend to reskin old games and use only the text/images/sounds to convey their message rather than holistically expressing it through mechanics as well. But fundamentally: any game simulates some system honestly - even if you mislead about how that might correspond to any real-world system. If you want something to happen in a game, you have to write the rules honestly so that it happens - you can't just assume it will happen because that was your authorial intent.
(Games aren't special in this respect; it's even harder to lie with a formal logical proof - though it's easy to mislead with an argument that appears logical or that reasons from false assumptions.)

So if you're struggling to express yourself through games, do consider Darius' points and question why you're set on making games specifically, but also consider whether what you're trying to express might be 'wrong' - whether adapting your concept to avoid the problems you're having might actually make it more beautiful.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Score Conditions

Something I've been thinking about with respect to 868-HACK (yes I'm still working on it, the new version has a new name, I don't know when it will be done) is how players can approach score in a game differently depending on their goals, even when the score system itself is fixed. Some of this comes from conversations with @rocketcatgames and @stiknork.

Zaga-33 had a very minimal score system. The main focus is on the win condition of killing the end-boss; the score essentially measures progress towards achieving that condition (by counting which dungeon level you've reached), with a bonus at the end for how efficiently you achieved it when you do (by counting items remaining in your inventory). I discussed this in a previous post (which also touched on some of the other things I'm writing about here).
Before you've completed the game, playing for score is quite effective: it helps you measure your progress towards the ultimate goal. But it turned out that once you can complete it, playing for score wasn't interesting for very long. Whether you could get a high score depended largely on random factors: whether items and level configurations were favourable. Then once you'd achieved the maximum possible score, there was nothing further to achieve. (This is why I didn't include an online scoreboard, see another post.)
But that wasn't the end of it. @Rocketcatgames found another way to play: trying to get a streak of as many wins as possible in a row. I'd tried to balance the game to almost always be completable, and he put that to the test. So I patched in a streak counter that shows up when you win the game, to keep track of this for him (and anyone else who wanted to try that challenge).
In one of the previous posts I talked about how taking a very coarse measurement for score helps to average out the effects of randomness; here we have the coarsest measurement of all - win or lose - added up over multiple plays, turning out to be the best way to display skill.
The interesting thing that came out of this for me was: playing to get the maximum score and playing to get the longest streak required subtly different priorities - similar skills, but applied differently. To maximise your score requires taking reckless risks and succeeding at them, while streaking requires minimising risk as much as possible. The conservative player uses an unidentified item under controlled conditions, where the consequences won't be too bad if it turns out not to be useful; the risky player gets into a situation where only one item will do and then guesses right - or dies, which is okay because they wouldn't have gotten the top score anyway.

Consider the sequence of scores (or wins/losses) across multiple games, instead of just a single number from one game. One way to interpret that sequence is to just keep the biggest one in it, the "high score", that's fine, but there are other possibilities.
Counting streaks (where there's no win condition, you could look at streaks of scores larger than N).
Average score - Drop7 tracks this, and it affects how it's played (although it's a bit broken because you can cancel a game before the end without it contributing to the average). This is potentially really deep because you have to work out to what extent the higher scores you may get by taking extreme risks balance out the lower scores you get when those chances don't work out. In a game with an exponential score system it might be worth getting nothing most of the time in exchange for the occasional zillion-point game - or it might not.
Also there are different types of average you could take: median, geometric mean, harmonic mean.. or you could look at average streaks, or something weirder - what if the ideal way to display your skill at a game is to lose every seventh time you play and win the rest, or to guarantee that each score is higher than the last - a streak of increasing (or decreasing!) scores?

Measuring streaks of wins is pretty similar to measuring your win percentage - a high proportion of wins implies long streaks; long streaks could come from playing badly but many many times, but are most likely to come from being able to win reliably. So win percentage might be a slightly more accurate way of expressing skill, but I prefer to look at streaks because they feel more exciting - there's a psychological difference. Tension builds as you win multiple games in a row, and you may change your style to be more conservative to try not to break the streak. "I won 30 times in a row" sounds more impressive than "I win 83% of the time". (Also the average becomes hard to change once you've played a lot - though this can be solved by averaging across a rolling window of the last N plays.)

A similar consideration comes up in multiplayer games: are you trying to maximise your chances of being in first place, or maximise your expected position among the players? Often you get situations where anyone could attack the player in the lead to bring them down, but it would cost them their own position and give the game to someone else (a form of kingmaking) - and sparks can fly when players have different implicit ideas about what they should be playing for. And when there's a score, if you're behind do you take risks to try to win or do you aim to maximise your score to lose "by less"? Does the absolute value of your score mean anything at all, or is it just about how it compares to other players? Tournament structures around the game can answer this one way or another - in an elimination tournament you might just want to be first (or to not be last), whereas in Poker you typically only care about your score.

SpaceChem does something interesting with its scores, which the developer spoke about at GDC this year. It offers multiple criteria by which your solution is evaluated, so as well as completing levels you can try to improve your solution along each of these axes. But the criteria aren't independent: improving on one axis will cost you on the others. One really clever side-effect of this he pointed out: optimising for one type of score means you're likely to be below average on others, but all scores are added to all leaderboards regardless of which one the player was aiming at, which means everyone can get to be above average on one of them.

868-HACK, like Zaga-33, has both a score and a binary win condition. And, also like Zaga-33, it's possible to achieve the win condition almost every time with cautious skilled play. But unlike it, your score is not closely tied to the win condition at all. You might get 24 points and then die in the first sector, or get to the end with no points at all. There's often a choice between the two - getting points is risky and reduces your chances of survival; sometimes you can guarantee a higher score if you don't try to get out *ALIVE* as well.
The first thing I did, which is in the 7-day version, was to order the scoreboard so that any winning score - even 0 - is above any losing score. This kind of says that your score means nothing if you're dead. And this is interesting, it's a deeper challenge to figure out how exactly many points you can safely get to the exit with than to just grab the highest numbers you can find.
But over time it became clear that it suffered from a similar problem to Zaga-33: getting the highest scores was largely a matter of luck. I already knew a solution: streaking technology. But since this time scoring and winning are not coupled, the length of a streak alone wasn't enough: instead I'm tracking the cumulative score. It presents a difficult problem: how many points should you get in each game to maximise your score across a streak? This works really well.
The expected sequence of mastery is: trying to get to the end, trying to get a high score, trying to get a high streak score. Note that of course I don't expect all players to be interested in this - I'm perfectly happy if someone stops at an earlier tier. If you just get to the end and are satisfied with that that's completely fine, but if anyone wants to keep on playing then there's a greater challenge to measure themselves against.

When putting a score in a game, don't just say "try to get the biggest number" and be done with it. Consider whether it's a score that makes sense to compare against other people, or if it's (like Zaga-33's) better just as a measure of personal progress. Consider the context around the score, how different goals across the sequence of repeated plays can shape how players approach each individual play. And when you find the most interesting goal to aim for, consider how to present it to players. Show people a number and someone will care about it and try to make it bigger. Be open to players inventing their own approaches, a game can accommodate different styles of play driven by different goals.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

being good at glitch tank


I find myself in possession of what is possibly the most pathetic skill: being really good at a competitive game that I made myself and that virtually nobody else plays.

Recently I've been struggling when I try to make multiplayer games. I get excited about ideas but lose motivation very quickly. This weighs heavy on me, even though I'm doing okay making singleplayer games; multiplayer is what I care more about. I try not to be too much influenced by people's responses, or by stupid numbers like download counts or page views or sales, but I've not been able to be unaffected by the difference in response I get to singleplayer games versus multiplayer ones. I've written before about the frustration of feeling that I've failed these multiplayer games (Glitch Tank in particular) by not being able to give them the audience I feel they deserve. I suspect at this point there is no chance of them ever finding that - this culture has a singleminded obsession with newness; if something is "old" (i.e. not released THIS WEEK) then it's not worth paying attention to; new opportunities arise only for things newly made. So I must accept failure.

Was trying to explain to someone recently why Glitch Tank is the best game I've made. I thought maybe writing something about what's good about it might help me to move on (it worked for my scarf).

(Is it the best game I've made? Possible cognitive biases at play here: 868-HACK may be better but it's still too close for me to view objectively - its compromises are too fresh; Vertex Dispenser took a lot out of me and I don't much like to think about it now; O's vulnerability to violence bothers me; solved puzzles aren't interesting.)

I suspect maybe in my being-bad-at-marketing I've failed to communicate what kind of game Glitch Tank actually is. Or more importantly, what it isn't: it's not a casual party game. I think maybe people are sometimes disappointed with it because they expect this is what it should be? It's an "indie" game, it's on the ipad, and that's what most of the other local multiplayer games on there are. Glitch Tank has humour, but it's not something that plays well without giving it your full attention. It's a deep competitive game, and it's most interesting at a high level of skill. It's an "e-sport", if that's your preferred language. It's good for getting good at, it's good for playing a lot of, we still play it. This fits well with how I like to play games: picking a few to master rather than trying to keep up with everything that gets released. It's maybe not so appealing if you prefer to dip into lots of different things. It's a high-skill game; this means it doesn't work terribly well between players of widely different skill levels. The best way to enjoy it is with a group of people getting good at it together. It's not so interesting if you just get good at it and then beat people up; you want to be challenged.

You have to make decisions in a short space of time. It's hard to quickly calculate the consequences of an action; the relevant information is spread across the map and it takes time to process it. It presents a wide range of possible situations, and subtle variations can lead to very different outcomes. The heart of the game is the duplicate action, creating a copy of your tank which responds to the same input in parallel. The same instructions produce different outcomes for tanks in different positions and orientations, and all of these outcomes matter. Attacking from an unexpected direction with one of your clones expresses quick thinking, cleverness, simultaneously paying attention to disparate things, creative problem solving.

Eventually you develop an awareness of how long it will take to absorb this information and work out the consequences, and you start to take this time into account. You enter a state of "metacognition", thinking about your thought processes, making decisions based on acute self-awareness. Weighing the advantage gained from acting quickly against the advantage gained from considering your move.

Meanwhile you are of course considering your opponent's thought processes, how long they will take to think about things. You've seen that they have an opportunity to attack you but they're thinking about something else - do you act quickly to evade the attack but risk hurting your position because you haven't taken time to fully evaluate your evasive move, or do you wait to be more certain of your move but risk them becoming certain of theirs?

A key factor that makes this work is that every action carries a risk of negative side-effects. The laser and mine actions allow for friendly fire, you can damage yourself; mine especially since you place it right next to you. This makes the duplicate action risky; because your clones start near you they're more likely to harm you than your opponent (this too is why spamming actions quickly is unwise - you'll kill yourself more often than not; the "overheating" effect was not added for balance but to signal that this is a bad idea). Just moving becomes risky when you might step on a mine or into your opponent's line of fire, and even turning can ruin you if you end up stuck facing a wall or danger. So a poorly evaluated action doesn't just fail to improve your position, it can actively hurt you.

The rare invisibility action is the fullest expression of this; it's clearly advantageous to be hidden from your opponent, but unless you act very carefully (which costs attention, slows you down) you can lose track of your own position at which point you're acting blind - unless you do a action with a visible effect, which reveals you to your opponent also.

In some ways these thought processes are a lot like other high-level competitive games (which is what I was aiming for; the Kompendium project was an attempt to make the mental states of high-level RTS play more accessible). But I feel it's different enough (at least from ones I'm aware of) to be notable. The way randomness is fundamentally incorporated into your actions means your plans must be flexible, you have to manage risks and possibilities, and there are strategic considerations that aren't possible in a low-randomness game (holding onto opportunities until they're useful, trying to cycle through actions that aren't useful without endangering yourself, ensuring your hand doesn't get cluttered with problems). But the way this happens in real-time distinguishes it from the board/card games that present similar considerations; you have to think about these things quickly and manage time.

Monday, 8 April 2013

how to do a game jam

1) Start with a concept. Anything will do, it's not really going to matter. The standard form of "just like X except with Y" is perfectly fine.

2) Believe that it's a real game. It already exists, in a sense; games are mathematical objects, they have independent existence in the Platonic world of forms. Or something. Whatever it takes to convince you that it will work.

3) Start with the smallest thing that the player does regularly in the game. If they're mostly moving a character around, then that. The core interaction. Code it.

4) Spend lots of time on graphics, and on getting the feel of the controls right. These are really important for being able to trick yourself that this could plausibly be an Actual Game.

5) Play with it. Lots. Pretend the rest of the game is there. Yay, you made a game! (Now you just need to finish it.)

6) Drop your original concept. There's not enough time to implement it, and it's probably stupid anyway, what were you thinking? Just forget it. What you've done already can work without it.

7) Okay that's probably left some threads hanging: tie all of them together. You had this big idea but now that you don't have time for it there's a gap there, something else needs to fill its role. Just join everything up, it'll work out somehow. If there are two characters that aren't properly fleshed out - just make them the same person. If you've dropped your elaborate crafting system but the player still needs to acquire items somehow, and you've dropped your complex AI controller but you still need to introduce enemies somehow - just make the items be the enemies. Does that even make sense? It doesn't matter.

8) Keep playing the game. This is important, way more important than programming it. You need to get a feel for what it wants to be.

9) Realise it's not going to work, and throw it all away to start again. It's stupid, it's not interesting at all, and even at its newly reduced scope there's no way you're going to finish it, you were just deceiving yourself all along. You've probably still got time to make something really small... goto 1. (NOTE: skip this step in the event that your game is actually any good.)

10) Uh if you reached this then you have something interesting, keep working on it until it's done I guess? Don't worry too much about the deadline, it's better to make something good than force it into some arbitrary constraint. Neat.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

7drl success: 86856527

edit: please bear in mind that this was a prototype made in a week. the commercial game i have now released based on it has the same basic idea but is considerably more advanced and more clearly explained. this prototype is not intended as a demo version.

Successfully completed this seven-day roguelike. It's a CYBERPUNK HACKING GAME with COMPLICATED RESOURCE MANAGEMENT and LONG-TERM DECISIONS.

There are some issues that I don't have had time to fix yet, due to the whole seven-day thing:
- It's quite complex and I skimped on explanations so expect confusion.
- The mac version doesn't work on older versions of the operating system (this is part of Apple's planned obsolescence hellhole; the latest version of xcode won't build for older systems but I'm forced to update to it because the older ones won't build for newer systems and I've been forced to update the operating system on my ipad so UGH; basically I have to have multiple xcode versions installed and I really can't be bothered untangling this mess right now so).
- It might crash on completion. Or other times, who knows?
- It doesn't save.
- It might not be that well balanced, there's lots of costs to get right and I haven't played enough yet.

I intend to spend more time on this and release a more finished version in a few weeks.

latest version: windows mac
7-day version for the record: windows mac

Some explanation if you're finding it too confusing:
- Arrow keys move, moving towards an enemy attacks it.
- You pick up resources from tiles by using DATA SIPHON, which are the smiley faces you collect.
- Siphoning floor tiles gives credits or energy, which are spent to activate programs.
- Siphoning wall tiles gives programs or points.
- The red number on a wall is how many enemies will appear when you siphon it.
- Mouse-over walls/programs to see what they do.
- Click programs (on the right sidebar) to activate them.

edit: hahahah I said "a few weeks". anyway it's released on ios now and I'm still working on an updated PC version.. it's way way better now though!
edit: now also available on steam.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

7drl: day 2

I enjoyed seeing Terry's posts about his progress on his 7-day roguelike so I'm writing one too. No promises about keeping this up consistently.

The classic roguelikes I've most played are Nethack and ADOM, so any critical generalisations I make are mostly about these. (The Angband family seems to suffer from most of the same problems without the redeeming features though.)

My 7drl last year was a curated selection of some common elements of roguelikes - tactical combat (focusing on evasion rather than slogs), inventory management (limited to single-use powerups), the identification game. This worked out pretty well, so I started thinking about trying to do something similar but with a different subset of roguelike components. Specifically, it would be nice to include richer character growth. Gaining items in Zaga-33 is a form of growth, but because they're consumed when used their effect is quite short-term (gaining identification knowledge is long-term growth, but very limited).

I'd classify the common forms character growth takes in roguelikes as follows: either intrinsic (innate abilities of the character, usually permanent or close to it) or extrinsic (granted by items which can be lost or replaced), and either interesting (granting new abilities and changing the rules) or boring (making numbers go up).

Advancement in roguelikes often ends up being quite dull because there's not much choice involved. Intrinsic growth often lacks any choice at all (you killed some things and went up a level and now you are stronger). Extrinsic growth often offers obvious choices where one alternative clearly dominates another - particularly when the choices are boring (it's very easy to determine which of two numbers is bigger; take the sword with the most plusses on it). Decisions often come down to either being obvious or a pure gamble once you understand them: either you know fire damage is going to be better because the strongest enemies are made of ice, or it's unknown whether you'll turn out to need one or the other. Worse, most of the time the correct choice is "carry both of them and switch between them as appropriate"; i.e. not a choice at all and just tedious micromanagement. (Apparently Brogue has treasure rooms which only let you take one item; this is good because it removes the "all of the above" option.)

So here I'm trying to create a character advancement system based on choosing between interesting alternatives, in such a way that there's no obvious best choice but without it being a matter of blindly gambling, and committing to them rather than micromanaging.

So far I have four enemy types with different abilities, and they're super-easy to kill because the player has a ranged attack which stuns them. No advancement yet, but that's totally the goal. (Zaga-33's goal was a system of politics based on making and breaking deals with different enemy factions so uh I guess we'll see.)

(You can only see three enemies in this picture. Like I said: abilities!)

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

two-player games

A two-player game is a tool for paying attention to someone and expressing yourself to them. With more players, group dynamics creep in; there's more to pay attention to and it's harder to give your focused attention to an individual. On the other hand with a larger audience self-expression is amplified - games that ask you to act, make jokes, and generally be extroverted work much better with larger groups. I value the focused attention-giving of one-on-one games over larger group interactions (though I do value both); similarly to how I perform better one-on-one conversations than in group discussions.

Good two-player games present many opportunities to impress and admire your adversary. What can these opportunities look like? When you're figuring out a game, learning together, you can show off by figuring out how to do something before your opponent does. Strategy games like Chess let you spot moves your opponent hadn't, or think ahead to come up with a cunning plan, and then surprise them with it. These surprises don't feel strictly delightful in the context of the game - they hurt your position - but there's an intellectual delight in being shown something you weren't expecting, and in being presented with a new challenge to think about. Chess also lets you demonstrate your memory and experience by learning openings and endgames, though personally I'm less interested in this.

Many different skills can be expressed through games - creativity, reasoning, reading your opponent ("yomi"), attention, humour, strength, and so on. It is unfortunately difficult to express moral virtues like generosity, selflessness, courage, love, honesty, faithfulness in many games, because either these actively cost you through inefficiency, or they're actively rewarded and feel less meaningful because they don't cost you; perhaps this sense that morality should cost something excludes it from being fully expressed in games because all in-game costs are imaginary.

Expressing your virtues in a game is not about trying to be the smartest kid in the room, to figure out who's smartest, to lift yourself up by putting your opponent down. These are attitudes of insecurity. Let's try to help each other feel more secure, to lift each other up by appreciating each other's abilities - whether it's the grudging respect of nemeses as portrayed by Holmes and Moriarty, or more likely in the context of a friendly relationship. Maybe one of us is smarter, though this is impossible to measure absolutely, but even if so we can still admire each other.

When designing a two-player game, ask these questions:
* What virtues does it allow the players to display to each other?
* How can I direct the players' attention onto each other rather than just onto the game?
* How can I avoid the feeling of "multiplayer solitaire", playing together alone?
* How can the game continually present new opportunities for players to express themselves to each other?
* How can it give scope for moves that are particularly notable in their cleverness or idiosyncrasy?
* Can it provide high-pressure moments requesting quick/clever thinking followed by low-pressure moments to reflect on the previous?
* Are there hidden depths that players can impress each other by revealing and share the joy of exploring?
* Are there unexpected combinations requiring creativity to uncover?
* Does the mastery curve exclude players low on it from having anything interesting to say to those higher?
* Are one player's clever actions sufficiently clear for their opponent to see why they're clever?
* How will actions in the game provoke admiration?