Friday, December 28, 2012

Review: Spider-Man Edge of Time

In the year 2099, Walker Sloan, a scientist at Alchemax, is researching time travel for the sole purpose of re-writing history so he can introduce all of Alchemax's discoveries early and take credit for them.  Miguel O'Hara, a.k.a. Spider-Man 2099 can't let this happen.  Especially when he finds out that in this new timeline Walker Sloan is going to kill Peter Parker, the original Spider-Man.  So, Spider-Man 2099 creates a chronal link with Peter Parker so he can talk across time and warn him.  And then things get really complicated...

Throughout Spider-Man: The Edge of Time, the other timeline (2099 if you're currently Peter Parker or Peter Parker's time if you're Miguel O'Hara) will pop up in the corner to show what danger they're currently in or what effect your actions have had on the other timeline.  All of these events are scripted and the ones you have to actually succeed within a certain time have a timer displayed to indicate that.  Generally when a game says "You have to do this immediately!" I will specifically take my time and do everything but that.  However, just like the Uncharted series, for this particular game, I went with the sense of danger and tension and it made the whole game a much more cinematic experience.  And ultimately, that's what this game is, a really long, really epic movie.

Make no mistake, this is a very linear experience.  As stated above, all time changes and dramatic events are scripted, so ultimately, it's just a bunch of fight, chase, and boss scenes gameplay-wise, but the story is top notch, the voice acting is perfect (Spider-Man 2099 is voiced by the actor who was Spider-Man's voice in the 90's cartoon show), and the difficulty is just right.  Aside from the story, there are a large number of challenges (a Web of Challenges, in fact) that can be done to earn different costumes and concept art.  These challenges are unlocked as you go through the story and can be replayed individually at any time. They are just difficult enough to require skill, but there is just enough of a margin of error on all of them that they don't require you to be perfect.  I guess you're supposed to complete them as you complete the story since they award you with upgrade points you can use to make the game easier, but I waited until the very end to complete them all and the game wasn't too difficult.

I would highly recommend this game to anyone who is looking for the video game equivalent of the summer blockbuster, especially if you're a fan of Spider-Man (the loading screens are chock full of fun Spider-Man trivia).

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Cartoons I Grew Up On: Pirates of Dark Water

Mixing alien worlds with piratical themes, The Pirates of Dark Water is all about one man's quest to recover the thirteen treasures of Rule to save his planet from a mysterious dark substance in the water that eats whatever it touches.  He is joined by a gruff pirate (who turns out to have a heart of gold), a feisty female, and a monkey-bird.  However, the evil pirate Bloth wants the treasures for himself, so he and his crew are constantly chasing Ren (the main character).

This show was awesome because not only was it action packed, but since it took place on an alien world (Mer), they didn't have to follow our reality at all.  So the fact that Ren's ship could essentially transform into a glider or that parts of the planet were constantly in flux were just normal to all these adventurers, but to a little kid it was fuel for the imagination.  Also, like Avatar the Last Airbender and Greek mythology, this show liked to combine animals we know together in strange ways (like Niddler the monkey-bird).  Also also, there are pirates, which have always been cool (except if you lived in a time with real ones most likely).

Ever since college I've been waiting for these to show up on DVD, but apparently I stopped my hunt two years ago because I just discovered today that there is a DVD set of the whole show that you can get from Amazon that was released in 2010.  Unfortunately, the show itself never got to conclude, so you'll have to use your imagination to come up with how the final treasures were recovered and what happened when all of them were brought together.  If someone wanted to do a reboot/reimagining/retelling of this series and finish it, I would be totally okay with that.  Unless his name was M'Knight or Michael Bay.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Have A Corgi Christmas!

In lieu of a real post, I offer this as a Christmas present to you, the 12 Corgis of Christmas (none of these are my Corgi since I do not have snow where I live)!

1. Corgi Confounded By Snow Maze!

2. Corgi Snow Tunnel Training!

3. More Corgi Snow Tunnel Training!

4. Corgi Army Practices In Snow!

5. Corgi Attacks Spy While Doing Snow Exercises!

6. Corgi Snow Ostrich Discovered!

7. Corgi Wrestlers Unfazed By Snow!

8. Corgi Outwits Snow Field!

9. Corgis Train In 100 Times Gravity (a.k.a. Deep Snow)!

10. Guerrilla Corgi Fighters In The Snow!

11. Corgi Outwits Owner To Enjoy Snow!

12. Corgi Determination Defeats Snow and Stairs!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Review: Chrononauts

If you have ever wanted to see how saving the Titanic or assassinating Hitler would effect the timeline, Chrononauts is your game!  From the creators of Fluxx and Are You The Traitor?, this 1-6 player game takes between 20 and 45 minutes to play.

At the beginning of the game, each player is given an identity, a mission, and three cards.  On each turn, you draw one card and play one card.  You win if you restore the timestream to match your identity (you restore your proper timeline), you fulfill your mission (find 3 specific artifacts), or you have 10 cards at the end of your turn (you get more cards from patching time paradoxes).  The timeline is an 8x4 grid of cards made up of ripple points and linchpins.  Each linchpin has one of two states (e.g. Abraham Lincoln is assassinated - the true history and Abraham Lincoln was wounded - the alternate history).  Changing a linchpin will cause specific ripple points to flip over to their paradox sides.  Paradoxes can be patched by causing alternate events to take place (America never joins WW2 because they love German cake too much).  Each ID card requires one event to be in its true history side and two time cards to be either patched or on their alternate history side.

This game is a lot of fun because it combines the simplexity (simple complexity) of Fluxx (all you're doing is drawing one card and playing another each turn - that's not complicated) with hidden win conditions.  There are also cards that can cause you to get a new identity (Your parents never met!) or get a new mission, so if someone seems close to their goal (which can be hard to tell sometimes), you can essentially make them start over.  Or if someone has a lot of cards in their hand, you can cause a Discontinuity to rotate hands and you get all their cards.  Having the ability to go for three different goals at any one time makes it really easy to change strategies quickly, which you'll probably need to do often if the other players are doing their job.  If you love Fluxx, but want a little bit more (i.e. any) strategy and time traveling doesn't hurt your brain too much, I would highly recommend this game.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Anime I Grew Up On: Flying Castle Laputa

In the States, this film is known as Castle in the Sky and Wiki says its Japanese name is Laputa: Castle in the Sky, but I swear I remember this being named Flying Castle Laputa, so that's what I always call it. Even if I'm horribly wrong because my memory is really terrible.

Castle in the Sky is (like most Miyazaki films) about two kids going on a fantastical adventure.  This particular one it involves airships, air pirates, and flying castles.  Really, that should be all that's necessary to convince you to watch this: Miyazaki and airships.

This movie is a big part of my childhood because not only did my brother, Adam, let me sit and watch it with him and his friends (being the annoying youngest brother, this was a big deal), but also it was the very first anime I ever watched.  So, I was especially surprised when many years later, my nieces had a DVD with them from Disney called Castle in the Sky and that it was one of their favorite movies.  Clearly, I don't have to worry about how my brother, Jason, is raising those kids.  Also, this was another thing that makes me really appreciate Disney and am fine with them buying up Marvel and LucasArts.  I would argue that Miyazaki films are the best way to get a non-anime watcher into watching anime.  Especially since if you watch them in English, they all have really good voice actors (this one in particular has Anna Paquin and Mark Hamill among many others).  They are all fairly light-hearted, are generally missing the more embarrassing anime stereotypes, and take place in very unique and fantastic settings that vary wildly from each other.

Monday, December 17, 2012

There's Too Much Math In My Game!

One thing I've realized while designing both my board and card game is that one of the easiest ways to slow a game down is to have a lot of math involved.  More specifically, if you have to frequently add or subtract a lot of small numbers.  If you have combat in your game, maybe an easy way to figure out who wins is each side has a total strength value and the highest value wins.  That sounds simple enough, especially if there are only a few units on each side.  However, if you have a lot of units, that combat gets significantly slower when adding all the numbers.  This gets even worse if you both add one unit at a time back and forth because you have to keep recalculating things.

Let's give an example.  Say you have a combat card game where each player has five card numbers whose values range between 1 and 5 with both positive and negative values.  Each player goes around the table and places a card either in front of themselves (to bolster their strength) or in front of others (to weaken their position).  The first round is easy enough, generally everyone will have a single card in front of them.  The second round isn't too bad, the third may start to get a little confusing, but then the fourth and fifth round get really confusing for anyone who has a bad short term memory or who got distracted when someone else played a card.  "I've got 2+1+3+2+4, you've got 3-1+4+5-2, you've got 4+4+3+1+1, and you've got 1+1+2+4+1..."  Maybe those calculations aren't hard for you, but if you have to do that every round of the game, it will slow things down.  Even worse if those calculations do take you a minute or two.

On top of the calculation slow down, another issue with math heavy game design is you always have to decide what happens with a tie.  Who do ties benefit?  What if every player somehow tied in something involving more than two players?  Of course, this is something to keep in mind while designing any game involving numbers (no matter how few).

I haven't quite figured out a great solution for this issue without imposing (seemingly) arbitrary limits, but it's yet another simple system that overcomplicates a game that I am on the lookout for.  I've also been trying to think of any game I've played that has a lot of math involved frequently.  The games I can think of that have point addition are at the end of the game like Dominion.  The combat games involving numbers are a one number vs. one number affair like Risk or Nexus Ops.  Maybe I've just stumbled upon an easy rookie game designer mistake to make?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Overcomplicating Through Simplicity

One goal I have for all of the games I design is to keep things simple.  That's a great motto and is useful to keep me on track, but some recent changes in my card game have made me realize that there's a lot of ways to simplify a game and sometimes simplifying a game in one way will complicate it in another.

One of the goals of my card game is to make it cheap to produce.  If I can keep the card count at or below 99 cards, then I can put the game in a smaller and cheaper box.  So I've constantly been on the lookout for ways to cut down on the number of cards the game requires.  At first, the game had a whole lot of simultaneous actions taking place, which required everyone to place cards face down to select said actions.  For one phase of the game, there were 4 different options players had, so they each had 4 cards.  The game was designed for up to 10 people (another goal of the game was a large player count), which meant that phase of the game cost me 40 cards immediately.  There is also a phase where three players vote for other players, so there are three stacks with 10 cards in each, which puts my card count at 70.  This means that if I wanted to stay under 100 cards, players would only have 29 cards to actually play the game with, which is way too few.

Also, after numerous playtests, I was starting to see a trend that that first phase was confusing to a lot of players and there wasn't as much strategy involved in it as I had expected.  So after some careful consideration, I cut that phase of the game.  This saved me 40 cards and made the flow of the game simpler. However, every decision has its costs and cutting that phase ended up making the game take a lot longer to play (which I knew was going to happen) and it took out a lot of strategy from other portions of the game (which I didn't foresee).  So by simplifying the flow of the game and reducing the card count, I introduced two large problems that needed to be fixed.

I'm still working on fixing these issues and a couple others (and the game seems to be getting farther from print to play rather than closer), but this has made me realize that I should be just as wary and careful about making the game simple as I am about making the game complicated.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Movies I Grew Up On: Elm-chanted Forest

My family had an RV growing up and we would go on a lot of trips.  I vaguely remember on one of those trips watching the movie Elm-chanted Forest while my parents were away at some church related event.  I also remember watching this with my sister when I was a little older and we'd both crack up at how ridiculously cheesy a movie it is.

The movie is about a painter, Peter Palette (clever) who falls asleep under an enchanted Elm tree and wakes up to find he can talk to animals and his paintbrush has magical abilities (I don't remember what exactly, but briefly watching a clip on YouTube, it can't instantly paint an animated picture of a fox on a canvas).  The forest is being threatened by the Emperor Spine (basically a big round cactus guy) who wants to turn the forest into a desert , first by trying to burn it down and later by trying to flood it.  If I remember right (spoiler alert) it ends with Peter making Emperor Spine's flowers bloom and then he becomes as horribly cheery as everyone else.

If you have super young kids, they may enjoy this movie, but I think for your sanity's sake it's probably not a great idea to go and find it.  Not to mention there are plenty of other far better options to distract your kids with.  If you have 83 minutes to kill and love watching bad movies, though, then maybe this will float your boat.  :)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Gaming Pet Peeves: Early Shuffling

Everyone has pet peeves while gaming.  These can range from game components not being lined up right (see #4), other players not following the rules exactly, game phases being skipped, discard piles not being face up, people not paying attention, people not strategizing during other player's turns so their turns take much longer than they should, or any other number of issues.  I've noticed each of those pet peeves in enough other people to realize it's not just me, but one pet peeve of mine that I seem to always get odd looks for is that I hate people shuffling a discard pile back into the deck before the game tells us to or the draw deck is empty.

I understand that in most cases, people are trying to save time by shuffling the discard deck into the draw deck when there are only a few cards left, but I don't think people realize how that affects the probability of getting cards and how much that can affect the game.  With a full deck, each card has a completely even chance of being drawn.  When the deck is empty, each card will have been drawn once.  When you shuffle the discard pile to form a new draw deck, all cards have either been used or are in someone's hand waiting to be used.  If you shuffle that discard deck early, the cards that were in the draw deck had no chance to be used, which means they will show up less frequently.  This means that the more powerful or popular cards will show up much more frequently since they will go into this discard pile and back into the deck much more frequently.  This sounds good, but there is a reason the game came with more cards than just the popular/powerful ones.  The balance of the game is being destroyed with this early shuffle.

Let's take it to the extreme and say that every time a card gets used, instead of putting it in a discard pile, we randomly place it somewhere in the draw deck.  If we place it above any other card in that deck, we will see the used card more often than those cards below it.  If we place it at the bottom of the deck (and repeat this every time to make sure all cards can potentially appear the same number of times) then once we hit the end of the deck, we will be playing the same game we were at the beginning since all the cards will be in the same order.  The whole purpose of the discard deck is to have a separate place to store cards that have been used from those that haven't had a chance to be used yet.  So give every card an equal chance at serving its purpose.  Don't shuffle early.

Friday, December 7, 2012


This past week, my Bible Study group had a potluck in lieu of our regular meeting.  While chatting, we had Big Bang Theory playing on the TV and at some point the topic of sitcom variety was brought up and we started reminiscing about ABC's old Friday night line up called TGIF.  Throughout the years, the 4 shows shown during TGIF changed, but they all had a common theme: they were all very family friendly.  The better shows had some humor for adults, occasionally they'd broach a harsh subject, but for the most part, they were just feel good shows trying to teach good lessons.

Looking at sitcoms today, I can't think of a single show that fits that same category.  Every single sitcom I can think of has at least one character whose sole focus is to have as much sex as possible.  (By no means are those examples a definitive list, but it's pretty clear there's an easy trope to use in a sitcom.)  Most of these shows are also about adults in their 20's or 30's dealing with life rather than about a family dealing with life together (or just dealing with each other).  I understand that kids who grew up on those shows (like myself) are now adults and are looking for something more grown up.  At the same time, there are plenty of parents that (I'm sure) would love to have a show they could watch with their kids that is good and wholesome and teaches good values.  I find it strange that there is such a gap in our programming.  Does the modern day TGIF group of shows exist and I just am unaware of it?  Where is our Cosby Show (not part of TGIF, but it totally could have been), Family Matters, Perfect Strangers, Boy Meets World (oh wait), and Step by Step?

I'm not saying every show should be family friendly because that would be ridiculous in the opposite direction.  I'm saying that just like how not all superhero shows need to be dark and gritty, not all sitcoms need to be about bar/coffee shop/comic book shop dwelling 20-30 year old singles.  Of course, my friend Jason is probably going to tell me the same thing that the market doesn't want this type of show, but personally, I think there's more than enough room for both and if we're going to let the TV babysit our kids (as seems to happen frequently in the US), then why not give them a babysitter with good morals and values?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Games I Grew Up On: TaskMaker

Most computer games I played when I was little were what was known as shareware.  That is, they were either free to a point (essentially a demo or lite version for the game) or free with occasional pop ups for donations.  One of those games that had a big impact on me was one my brother bought me for my birthday one year: TaskMaker.  A lot of the games I played back then were top down, turn-based RPGs.  What stood out for me with TaskMaker were two things: the open exploration of the game and the puzzles scattered around.

In the game, you play an adventurer who keeps going up to the TaskMaker (the leader of the land) to be told what to do.  Really generic, honestly.  But the tasks would lead you to the town you're supposed to be in and give you some idea of where you're supposed to go.  However, you had complete freedom to go anywhere in the world you felt like.  The only repercussions were that the monsters in areas you weren't ready for would smack you down quickly.  But even within a town, it was fun to find all the nooks and crannies and unlock all the doors to collect the hidden goodies.  I always found it funny when I found the town's trash dump and I would rummage around the trash pile and find some awesome piece of equipment (or just as likely, just find a bunch of trash).  A lot of these buildings would have secret doors or passages that were unlocked with puzzles of some sort.  Maybe stepping on a button would open a wall across town.  The game had a nice map system, so it was easy to see where you have and haven't been.

Another amusing thing is that when you died in the game, instead of getting a game over screen, you would be sent to Hell where you must find the exit in a maze of flaming walls, fight a demon to open the exit, and then leave.  However, any items that were on you when you died will be dropped, so usually loading an old save was a better way to go.  Especially since whatever killed you will still be sitting around your corpse when you come back to reclaim your items.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Review: Infiltration

One of my regular game night buddies one night declared he was tired of all the fantasy board games we were playing and that he wanted to play something sci-fi.  Since that moment, I've been on the lookout for more sci-fi games and haven't found many that won't take an entire day to play through or are only for a few people.  I haven't had the greatest of luck, but one of my other friends found this game and it seemed to satisfy the sci-fi itch at least a little.

Infiltration is essentially a cyberpunk thief movie in a board game format. Players take on the role of thieves trying to break into a high-tech corporation and steal all their precious zettabytes of data.  Like any good thief movie, there is a lot of backstabbing because the person who makes it back out of the corporation in time with the most zettabytes wins the game.  Plot and strategy-wise, it's a lot like Pyramid of Horus, but the gameplay is fairly different.  The "board" is set up as 6 face down first floor rooms, 6 face down second floor rooms, and 1 face down secret room (which you may not be able to enter depending on the first/second floor rooms).  Traveling through the building is linear, you travel through each first room floor in succession and likewise through the second floor or you can backtrack through those same rooms in reverse order.  In each room, you may download any information it has, interface with it to do something special based on the room, or break a tech lock/kill a lab worker for more zettabyte tokens.  After everyone has taken their turn, the first player rolls a d6 to see how much the proximity alerts have gone up.  Once they reach 99, everyone in the building is captured and loses.  Anyone who has already escaped will count their zettabytes to see who has the most.

The higher into the complex you go, the more information there is to download and more powerful the interface abilities, but it also means it will take longer for you to get back out of the building.  You might also get wounded at some point, which means you can only advance or retreat every other turn.  So far in my experience, being wounded essentially knocks you out of the game because you either can't escape the building or your friends take all the goods before you can get to them.

Despite the fact that players choose characters with classifications like The Muscle, The Brains, The Inside Man, etc. there is no difference between the characters at all, which I find odd.  It make sense to me that they each have a special ability they can use once per game or something.  I think I'm going to work with my friends to come up with some for next time.  Aside from that oddity, the game is fun because there is a lot of risk/reward choices and strategy, a lot of direct and indirect player interaction, and games only take between 30-60 minutes.  For the $25 it seems to cost on Amazon, I would recommend this game.

Friday, November 30, 2012


I've often wondered why video game endings are typically terrible or at least not satisfying.  In some older games it was obvious - Rampage's ending was a single Congratulation, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 gave you a Game Over screen after the credits.  For some reason it didn't hit me until a couple days ago that it's because video game endings are almost always lacking a denouement.

If you're not familiar with this concept, there is a typical flow stories should follow that can be summed up with something called Freytag's pyramid (or Freytag's triangle).  To sum it up briefly, the story should start (exposition), build action (rising action) up to a high point (climax) and then fall back down (falling action) and close up everything nicely (denouement).

Freytag's Pyramid
I think video games tend to fall apart after the climax.  Everything leads up to a final boss battle or big confrontation.  You defeat said boss and the story gets wrapped up super quickly and then credits roll.  The video game endings I like the best are the ones where you get to see how the world changed because of your actions, what your crew is up to afterwards, and how life returns back to normal.  This (I believe) is the denouement of the story.  Very few games (that I can remember) even give the players the resolution.  Those that do typically do it in a credits roll or through a cinematic at the end.  But how is that different from a book or movie?  Video games have one special thing they can do that no other medium can do: be interactive.  Why not let the player explore the world after saving it?  Let them revisit old towns and see how they are rebuilding it and how their actions changed things.  If the player doesn't care, make it obvious how to trigger the conclusion of the story (a.k.a. the credits roll) so they can just skip to that point.  Obviously, this would be a bit trickier to pull off if your main character died, but that can be worked around.

When thinking about this for video games, I also started to ponder how a denouement would work for board games.  Typically, someone flips a card, rolls a die, or moves a token and declares victory and that's that.  I guess the falling action takes place during the cleanup (or setup of the next game) while people discuss what they could've done better or how they should have won.  In other games the falling action is playing for second, third, fourth, etc. place.  If you want your board game to tell a story, you should definitely keep this triangle in mind.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Games I Grew Up On: B.C.'s Quest for Tires

I remember playing B.C.'s Quest for Tires on the Apple IIe when I was really little.  I honestly don't remember too much about this game, but after watching a gameplay video (embedded below), there really isn't all that much to remember.  You are a caveman (Thor) who is trying to rescue a girl (his girlfriend the Cute Chick) from a dinosaur.  You ride your stone wheel unicycle with obstacles (such as rocks in the road, ponds filled with turtles, and other cavemen with clubs) that you must jump or duck to avoid.

The thing I do clearly remember is that this was the one game that we could hook up to our portable 16" color TV screen and play in full color.  All our other Apple IIe games were played on the black and green computer screen.  I'm not sure why only this game was playable in color or why we didn't play other games in color, but I do remember learning on my own how to plug in the right cables into the right spots on the TV to get this to work.  So this game was educational for me despite being such a silly game.  I guess on its own merits it does help teach children timing and can be a good way to teach them how hitting the spacebar harder does not make you jump better.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Review: Dominion - Intrigue

Dominion: Intrigue is both an expansion to the original Dominion and a stand-alone version of the game allowing the game to (officially) be playable for 5-6 players together or 7-8 players separately.  (The rules explain how you should play with those numbers, but I think it's possible to play with up to 8 players in one game with a few house rules).

In both Dominion and Dominion: Intrigue, players start with a 10 card deck made up of money and victory points.  The object of the game is to have the most victory points in your deck at the end of the game.  The trick is that victory point cards (typically) don't serve any purpose during the game, so filling your deck with too many of them makes your turns less effective.  Each turn, the player draws 5 cards, can play one Action Card (unless the actions say otherwise), places down how much coin they want to spend (using Treasure Cards), and buys one (unless their played actions say otherwise) card from the supply pool shared between all players.  There are a limited number of each card, so players are competing with each other to purchase the more useful actions and Victory Cards.  The game ends when either all the Province Victory Cards (the cards that give the most points) are gone or a set number of stacks of cards (determined by the number of players) are gone from the supply pool.

What Intrigue adds to the mix is a lot more options.  It adds three type of Victory Cards that are also Action Cards, so they are now doubly useful.  There are a few cards that give you a choice of how it works when you use it (e.g. Choose 2 of the following: +1 Card; +1 Action; +1 Buy; +1 Coin).  I also learned that with some cards there is a big difference between something being optional (saying you may do something) and not.  There is one card that has some good effects, but you must trash (permanently discard) one card with it and possibly not gain anything in return.  The upside of all this is it makes your turns more strategic and flexible.  The downside is that it can make some turns take a lot longer for the more strategic players.  If you have played Dominion and find yourself with more than 4 people wanting to play at once, I would recommend you get this game.  If you have not played Dominion, I would recommend getting that first because it's simpler and easier to learn with.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Game Design Concepts Course

Game Design Concepts is an online course in game design in blog format.  When the course was live, there was a forum and wiki page that participants had access to to share their game designs and critique and playtest each other's work.  Unfortunately, that was 3 years ago, but Ian Schreiber (the author) has left the blog up as it is still a good source of game design information.  It's especially useful if you can go through the course with a group of friends and have time to do all the readings that go along with it.  The original course was a month long, with two blog posts occurring a week.  If you just want to read the blog, there are 20 lessons available, but if you want to design a game (as the course is designed for you to do), then I would advise taking your time a little more as some of the "homeplay" (nice word for homework) is to have playtests of your game and as I have found out repeatedly, that can be very hard to do sometimes.

The course itself is very thorough and well written for being such a short course and the reading samples are useful for getting more in depth in some of the concepts.  It is a very broad course covering many different game design concepts without getting into too great detail on some of them.  The wiki, forum, and blog comments are all still up so you can read what the participants were up to after the fact.  The wiki also contains many projects with print and play instructions, but I have not tried any of them and these were all students of the class so I don't know the quality of the games.  All in all, it's a good source for those more interested in getting a little more in depth in their overall game design knowledge.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Games I Grew Up On: Think Quick!

I was blessed growing up to have parents awesome and capable enough to have an Apple IIe computer. One of the games I distinctly remember playing on that computer was this game: Think Quick!

I guess there was a story to it, but honestly I don't remember knowing it or caring as a kid.  I just know that I was tasked to find puzzle pieces to form a map that led to a lock, find the key to that lock, and find the pieces of a suit of armor all while avoiding getting eaten by giant worms.

Being a game from The Learning Company (one of my favorite game development companies), there is learning involved, but you wouldn't even realize it because of how fun the game is (which is why the Learning Company is one of my favorites).  Kids learn pattern recognition, obstacle avoidance, cause and effect, planning, and many other incredibly useful life skills from playing this game.  I think this game is one of the many things that led to my love of puzzles and puzzle solving.  The game even comes with a level editor that I remember messing around with to build my own mazes.  If I remember right, I used it like most other level editors and just made things to goof around with the game's systems (build a room filled with worms and try to escape or build a room filled with worms and flowers to put them to sleep just to see what would happen).

Monday, November 19, 2012

Review: Bang!

The Sheriff looks at the men around the table, unsure of who is on his side.  Takes a swig of beer to steady his nerves.  He's suspected Pixie Pete has wanted him dead for awhile now.  Trusting his instincts he quickly pulls out his gun and takes a shot at Pete, but only manages to shoot his hat.  Having run out of bullets, the Sheriff ends his turn.

Bang! is a large group game (7-10 people in my experience) where each player has a different goal based on their assigned Role.  The Outlaws just need to kill the Sheriff.  The Sheriff and Deputies need to kill the Outlaws and the Renegade.  The Renegade needs to be the last man standing.  Problem is, the only role that gets revealed at the start of the game is The Sheriff.  Everyone else's roles are revealed by the actions they take.  And by actions they take, I mean who they shoot at.

Players get character cards as well as Role cards that give them certain abilities.  Maybe you draw 4 cards per turn.  Maybe you can use any card in your hand to avoid getting shot.  The more powerful the ability, the less maximum health you have during the game.

On your turn, you draw two cards, put any equipment cards down in front of you to help you reach other players or get farther away from them.  Your ability to shoot someone is based on where they are sitting at the table in relation to you.  If they are next to you, they are 1 away and you can shoot them by default.  If they are sitting next to those people, they are 2 away from you.  And so on and so forth.  You can use one Bang! card per round to shoot at someone within range.

I love playing Bang! because of its asymmetric goals and its character abilities.  It's a lot of fun trying to figure out who is what with as little information as possible.  The downside is in games where you know who is who, but just don't have the cards to do anything to help your team out.  Or if you're the Renegade.  It's really hard to win as the Renegade.  Especially for me, since people almost always point out I'm the Renegade before I even get my first turn...The other downside of the game is that it is elimination based, so it's very possible for one person to get knocked out of the game very early and then have to watch everyone else have fun until the game is over.  There is an expansion with a few cards to help fix this problem, but it still sucks to get knocked out because someone went on a successful killing spree early on.  One of my personal rules while playing is that I refuse to ever kill someone on the first round because of that.  The other thing to keep in mind is that just like you always get jokes playing Settlers of Catan about people needing or getting wood, you will hear plenty of jokes about someone banging someone else (especially if there is a married couple playing it seems) and I guarantee someone will start to sing "I Shot the Sheriff" before the game is done.

Friday, November 16, 2012


You can never please everyone.  The first thing I do in every game I play is go into the options and turn on subtitles.  Some people like super challenging games.  No matter how many times I insist no one likes it, I keep finding fans of Monopoly.  Maybe players have gotten bored of the base game and what to add in a new twist.  All of these encourage the need for options, whether in your game settings, game rules, or game cupboard.

Having designed a number of tools and editors for various projects, I have learned over and over again that the more options you have (even the ones that seem like super easy and simple options), the more complex the software.  Whether this means it's complex to setup and use or the code internally is extra complicated due to all the flags that needed to be added and checked throughout the code, it doesn't matter; the system has gotten complicated.  Not to mention that that's one more variable that needs to be tested and who knows if a certain combination of seemingly unrelated options can interfere with each other?

It's not much easier on the board game side of things for adding optional rules.  You have to playtest each one of those optional rules to make sure the game stays balanced.  And each rule you add only makes things worse since you have to test all possible combinations of play using the various optional rules.

One reason I'm bringing this up is to illustrate one way that game design/development can be work rather than fun.  The other reason is that you should think about these things early and often throughout development.  For the software options, write a list of definite options you want in the game (difficulty, subtitles, etc) and make accessing these settings easy from anywhere in the code, while also making sure to keep your checks for these settings from exploding all over the code.  For the board game options, one way to come up with possible optional rules is while you are playtesting the game.  Did some rule you tested not work out, but not completely break the game?  Maybe with a little tweaking, that could be an option.  Did some players want to eliminate each other from the game even though you know that shouldn't be how your game determines winners?  Make it an optional play style and stick it in your rule book.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Statistics (not the mathematic kind)

Nearly every video game has statistical models determining the outcome of any random event.  Did your attack hit?  How much damage did you do?  Did they save against that spell?  Games that display these statistical models to their players are typically what people mean when they label a game an RPG.  Your character has this many health points, this much energy/mana/magic points, does this much damage, has this percent chance to hit, etc.  These type of games are ideal for the min/maxers out there (like myself) because they know exactly how and what to put their emphasis in to maximize their effectiveness in their play style.  This has gotten to the point for me where being able to put an extra point in one my stats is infinitely more rewarding than getting a new weapon that does extra damage or hits more frequently.

Many RPGs that let you create your character from scratch let you determine the starting stats of your character to help define how you are going to play from the beginning.  They can determine these values in a few ways.  Some games work like D&D where a number of dice are rolled to determine your starting stats, you may then swap those numbers around or take points from one stat to put into another, but you will never have more points than what you rolled.  Another method is where you are given a set number of points and must distribute them all yourself.  Some games will mix these two styles and make sure that (unlike the D&D method) you always have the same total number of points distributed, but the computer can randomly distribute them for you.  I don't remember if I've played a game that does this, but another method I've thought of is having the player start as a blank slate and based on how they deal with the first few opening situations in the game, that determines their stats.

Each method has its pros and cons: the D&D method feels a lot like gambling, so when the player gets a bunch of high numbers, they feel like they win already.  However, since the total number of points is determined by the numbers rolled, not every one of their characters will be as good as the others (which is more realistic).  The point distribution system has a psychological con (at least for me) where I feel like I'm failing at something already since you can't make all your stats as good as possible (although I did learn years ago that making every stat slightly above average is no good either), but it gives you the most control over your stats letting you really maximize your play style.  The game determined method completely takes away any control over your stats, but it means the game designers, who know what all those stats mean better than you do, can allocate the right amount of points so you will be as good as you can be at your play style as possible.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Eliminating Elimination

As I mentioned (very briefly) before, designing a card or board game where players eliminate other players to win is a bad thing.  The obvious reason is that once you are eliminated from a game, you are no longer playing the game, so what are your options?  Go home, sit around and watch people playing a game (even worse than going to a restaurant with friends when you've already eaten), or start up your own game of something else with other people who have been eliminated.  None of those options are that great and they definitely aren't why you got together with your friends to play games.  The other reason this style of game is bad is that it fosters friendship destroying behaviors since you have to be a jerk to your friends or you lose the game.  Or as Demetri Martin put it: “There’s so many board games with so many different titles, but I feel like they could all have the same title: Which One Of My Friends Is A Competitive Prick?”

There are some exceptions to this rule: if the game is ludicrously short a la We Didn't Playtest This At All, if you all agree that being super competitive jerks won't destroy your friendship, or if you and your friends are all griefers and enjoy the misery of others.  There are also ways to have this win style and tweak it to make it work.  Maybe being eliminated doesn't take you out of the game, but changes what role you play in the game.  Maybe there is a way to be brought back in to the game (especially good for the first person knocked out of the game).  Maybe the eliminated player gets to determine the winner of the game somehow as in Survivor.  You could also completely turn this on its head and make being eliminated the goal of a player.  "If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine."  I have a sudden urge to make a Jedi Knight board game...

Friday, November 9, 2012

Amazing Race Challenge Design

Just like Survivor, The Amazing Race would be a terribly boring show if there were no challenges every episode.  Each episode would just be watching people take taxis/tuktuks/airplanes/boats/cars places and yell at each other and their drivers.  As it is now, that's only about half the show.  The other half of the show is where the meaningful choices and skill come into play: the challenges.

Every episode has at least two challenges: one Roadblock (one of the two team members must perform a task alone, the team member is chosen before the task is known) and one Detour (teams may choose to do one of two different tasks).  Sometimes there are other tasks as well: either puzzles (the clue is a picture and they must figure out what it is and go there) or just random tasks teams must perform to earn a clue.  Generally the tasks are related to their current location and are something the locals do regularly or something to help the local community (I feel REALLY bad for the people in India who got their TV antennas put up by people on the race since they clearly weren't concerned about doing a good job, just doing it quickly).

The meaningful choices come into play with the Detours since they get to choose the task.  Generally, one task is a physical task that requires a lot of strength and energy, but will be finished quicker or in a known time frame.  The other task will either involve a lot of luck (find the teacup with the red dot on the bottom out of these 1000 tea cups), mental skill (build a motorcycle from these parts using this example motorcycle as a guide), charisma (sell 20 of these local items as fast as you can), or take a long time (take a Turkish bath).  So the players have to know their strengths and weaknesses and weigh them with the time spent on the task.  If it's going to take them 3 hours to do the physical task and anywhere from 1 minute to 4 hours for the luck task, they should probably try their luck.  If they are a physically strong team, they just always pick the physical tasks and just shoot through them quickly.

Any competitive skill based games should have some method of balancing between players of differing skill levels.  Smash Brothers has items to give players with less fighting skills a chance at winning.  Cranium has a whole array of game types so if you're not good at Charades, you can do a word challenge or a Pictionary challenge.  Letting players choose the challenge with some other balancing mechanism (other players throwing roadblocks at you, each consecutive time you do the same type of challenge you go up in difficulty, etc.) lets players show off what they're good at as well as keeping the game fair for everyone.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Master Chef Game Design

I'm not sure why I'm on such a reality TV competition show analyzing kick, but I think it's interesting to figure out why I'm so easily addicted to certain types of shows and others drive me away.  Maybe this is so I can avoid being hooked to a show I'll never admit I've watched or so I can at least get some good game design ideas out of something that is mostly a waste of my time.  Another reality show type that seems to stick with me are cooking competition shows like Top Chef and Master Chef.

The overall game of Master Chef is pretty simple.  Lots of chefs compete in various challenges.  One is eliminated each week until only one remains.  However, the interesting thing about Master Chef is its format on any given episode is based on the number of players remaining.  When there are odd numbers of players, there is a Mystery Box challenge (make something with the ingredients found in a box) whose winner gains an advantage in the subsequent Elimination challenge.  The next episode will have the even number of players left over compete in teams with the losers competing in a Pressure Test (some very specific cooking challenge like cooking one rare, one medium, and one well done steak or make a souffle) to determine who is eliminated.

I think it's very interesting how the game switches from an individual competition to team and back throughout the competition because it's a very simple way to really change up a game.  Unfortunately, it's harder to design a board/card game like this because in most cases, eliminating players while playing a board/card game is a bad idea, which is a topic all its own.  Even without elimination, this constantly changing format can still be used quite effectively, as evidenced by games like The Resistance and Are You the Traitor? where your team and allies are constantly changing.  Imagine a game like Pictionary where some game element causes the teams to change mid-game and your score was based on how many times you were on a team that got a right answer.  How would that change the strategy?  Maybe you wouldn't guess the right answer because someone else with a lot of points is on your team.  Depending on how often teams change and how new teams are picked, this might be an interesting twist on a classic game.  Or maybe you could alternate between 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Survivor Challenge Design

Designing the main flow of a game is an important first step to creating a game.  However, as the saying goes the devil is in the details.  We know how a player is going to win or lose, but what does each individual turn look like?  What actions do players take to get eliminated/eliminate players or gain points/resources?  How do we make sure each player has a fair chance?

In Survivor, we know that every round of the game, one player is eliminated.  But it would be a terribly boring show if it was just a bunch of people talking.  And how would they decide who should be eliminated? This is where the challenges come in to play.  Challenges expose the weak and strong players, it chooses which team must lose a player, and it gives the audience something exciting to watch.  There are two tricky obstacles the designers of Survivor had to overcome.  If the game was individual competition the entire time, that would be almost as bad as not having challenges since players wouldn't have too much information on who to eliminate.  Secondly, they cast people from all walks of life, so they have to have some way to make the competition fair between man and woman, nerd and jock, country and city dweller.

One solution to both of these problems is to have the first half of the competition be team oriented and the second half be individuals competing.  This means strong players can make up for the weak players.  Weak players can be blamed for losses.  But they can't just always eliminate the weak players because at some point, they will have to compete with individuals and being up against weak players at that point is crucial to winning immunity.

But if that was the only solution, then poorly made teams would make for a bad season.  The other solution is in the individual design of the challenges themselves.  Early on, all competitions are either relays or turn based games.  The relays always have at least two parts: a physical component and a mental component.  A race to collect puzzle pieces and solving the puzzle.  This lets teams divide their strong physical players and their strong mental players (and the trouble lies in if they only have one and not the other).  The turn based games (shooting a coconut slingshot at a wall of tiles, a variant of basketball with three players of each team at a time, etc.) are all designed so it's near impossible for a single player to do so poorly that they make the team lose.  Just because you missed the shot once doesn't mean everyone else is forgiven for also missing their shots.

Once the competition is slim enough to go to individual competition, they alternate between challenges from one of the following categories: strength (races), endurance (keep a ball on a platform for as long as you can), mental (puzzles), social/knowledge (trivia about what other players have said).  This variety once again makes it very difficult for one player to dominate and keep gaining immunity.  It doesn't make it impossible, but if that super strong player EVER loses a challenge, you can pretty much bet they will be eliminated.

The best way to balance any game and keep it fair for all players is to have that balance built in to the game.  Whether this is through a variety of ways players can excel (in Settlers you can build more settlements, upgrade existing settlements, or use certain development cards to earn points), giving everyone an even chance of success despite skill (everyone has the same chance of drawing a high card in War), using groups (you can still win Pictionary if you aren't good at guessing as long as others on your team are), or some other way you can come up with.  The more built in balance a game has, the less you have to work at shifting numbers and probabilities to keep your game fair.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Review: The Fool and his Money

So I previously mentioned a game I had pre-ordered for what I estimated was 5 years (turns out it was 7 years ago).  It finally came out last Friday and long story short, it was well worth the wait.  The Fool and his Money is a sequel to the game The Fool's Errand.  I'm not sure if you have to play the original to understand the sequel, but it's free and it's awesome, so there's really no reason not to play the original, especially if you like puzzles.

The game is set up much like an Usborne Puzzle Adventure.  There is a page of story text with an associated puzzle to solve.  One difference is each page only shows a few sentences until the puzzle is solved.  It's ideal to play the puzzles in order so you can understand the story, but it's not necessary.  The game starts with around 10 puzzles unlocked with a new one unlocked for every puzzle solved.  So if you get stuck on one puzzle, you can move on to another and come back when you're ready.  Each puzzle solved unlocks a part of the Moon's Map.  Once all the pieces are unlocked, they will have to be arranged appropriately to unlock the final set of puzzles.

All told there are well over 150 puzzles in this game that need solving.  That's not counting the fact that you will have to figure out what the puzzle is in many cases.  For example, there are 5 different card games whose rules you will have to learn through deduction and trial and error.  Once you learn the rules, it's a whole other matter to defeat the other player.  The best part of all the puzzles is that you can trust them to be fair.  You don't have to worry about any trick questions, any hidden pixels, or any scattered information.  Everything you need to solve a puzzle is on the page you find it or has a link to send you to where the information is.  The clues are also subtle while still being obvious that there clues to be found.  If you're really stuck on solving a puzzle, the main menu has a link to a very well crafted hint page that can guide you to a puzzle's solution without necessarily ruining the answer.

For $40, this brain buster is a grand bargain for anyone who loves having their smarts challenged.  It's especially wonderful for fans of word play.  However, be warned, you better really love anagrams.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Review: Bontago

Every once in awhile, the guys at work and I play a LAN game at the office.  Since most network ports are (understandably) blocked by the office network, we can't play anything that requires an internet connection.  This makes finding new games harder and harder since a lot of multiplayer games have permanent servers or require internet verification.  One game I found while looking for LAN friendly games was Bontago.

This game was a student project from DigiPen in which players try to increase their influence to cover one or more white flags.  They increase their influence by building blocks either at the edges of their current influence (indicated by a colored area) or building a tower inside their influence.  Building up gains far more influence then building out, but is easier to have it topple, which will cost all your influence.  If one player's influence grows around someone else's blocks, those blocks will disappear allowing players to destroy each other's influence.  Random destructive weapons appear around the board that can be picked up by players by surrounding it with their influence and then tossing the weapon at another player.

Unfortunately, the physics is a little finicky in the game, which is crucial to making this game great.  If you drop the blocks from any height other than directly on top of another block or the ground, the dropped block will bounce around like it's made out of jello.  You can rotate blocks, but you can't snap them to any certain rotation, which is the only way rotating the blocks would be useful.  Also, the random weapons tend to destroy your towers way more frequently than other people's (or maybe I just build worse towers...).

So while the concept is sound and could be very fun, the control you have over your blocks isn't as tight as it should be, so the game becomes less about strategy and more about just rapidly dropping blocks and hoping for the best.  This is made even worse by the fact that there is a timer that will automatically drop your block if you're taking too long.  It seems like if you wanted to stall the game to perfectly place your block, you're only hurting yourself, so this timer only serves to ruin the ability to strategize and not add any benefit to the game.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Day/Night Cycles

As technology improves and game design gets better, more and more systems will be added to model real life in certain ways.  One of these systems is a day/night cycle.  Sometimes this cycle is event driven, which makes day and night merely a visual change.  Environments change entirely (both what events trigger, what people/creatures appear, etc.) in other games with day and night.  Some are even more specific and have hours in the day where the sun is up from 6-6, but stores are open from 8-7.

The closer to reality a game can be made, the easier it is for people to relate to it.  Day and night happens in real life, so if games can have day and night, it'll feel more realistic and developed.  Unfortunately, this realism comes at a very annoying (for me anyway) price.  Imagine this scene: in the morning you enter the big city.  You go to the tavern to see if there are any interesting rumors.  A shady character says to meet him at night for details on some possible adventure.  You go finish all your other errands in town and it's only noon. you have to wait until night to start your quest?  What do you do in the meantime?  Hopefully the game has some way to automatically make it night time, but then what did having day and night actually add to the game?  It added another step you have to do to get where you need to go.  It  is more realistic that shady people would need to be met at night, but couldn't he just have easily met you in a dark alley?  Or in a dark corner of the tavern?

Not to mention that the method to make time pass generally doesn't make sense anyway.  In Skyrim, you can "wait" for hours.  So to the NPCs there's just this guy standing in the middle of town like a statue for hours on end?  Or a group of adventurers are sleeping through the middle of the day?  I guess adventurers keep odd hours, but it seems like it would be difficult to sleep in a tavern bustling with activity, so realistically, you shouldn't get as rested as if you slept overnight, but that'd be even more annoying.  Sometimes games will have events switch between day and night on their own, but this again makes me wonder what's the point of day and night other than just a change in visuals and settings?

Collectibles that only appear at night (Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom), shops that are unusable during the night (Skyrim), having a schedule you have to keep making free exploration difficult for the OCD (Bully), having monsters appear in town at night making it a big pain to explore then (Skyward Sword), and always needing some way to switch between day and night or to the hour you want or just standing around stupidly until the appropriate time.  Are there enough (or any) benefits to having day and night pass in your game to outweigh all this?

Friday, October 26, 2012

Amazing Race Game Design

In watching any competition, the most exciting thing is if it's a close match.  In television, more excitement gets more ratings.  So there are two ways to ensure a close match.  You can either script the competition and fake it (just make sure your audience never figures this out or that you're entertaining enough that it doesn't matter) or you design your competition with plenty of methods for players to make a comeback (making sure not to have any rubberbanding).  Over the years of watching The Amazing Race (my personal favorite reality TV show), I've noticed some very subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways that The Amazing Race keeps it a close race.

In case you're not familiar with the show, each episode is one leg of a race around the world.  On each leg, teams follow a series of clues to the pit stop at the end of each leg, sometimes having to compete in challenges along the way.  Usually, the last team to reach the pit stop will be eliminated from the race.  Once there are three teams left, they race to the finish line somewhere back in the United States.

Rather than making the obvious of choice of having every team start each leg at the same time, teams start the next leg of a race 12 hours after they completed the last leg.  So if one team is far ahead or far behind, they keep that same time buffer from the other teams (for better or worse).  Fortunately, the limited number of ways to fly from one country to the next help to shrink this buffer.  There are just enough options for sneaky teams to try their luck on a different route from the rest of the pack, but generally on the legs where they switch countries (which is usually every other leg), most, if not all, of the teams will be forced to take the same flight, thus evening out the playing field some.  For the legs where they don't fly to different countries, they frequently will be starting the leg in the middle of the night, so the first destination will be somewhere that doesn't open until morning.

The takeaway for this is to use natural limitations to your advantage when designing your game.  In Settlers of America, players can't drop off their supplies unless other players have built settlements, so no one can win unless everyone is doing well.  In Settlers of Catan, players only have a limited number of city tokens, so they can't get too far ahead of other players solely through cities.  In video games, this is much harder because the only real natural limitations are a player's hardware specs and you really don't want to base your games limitations on that or your game will truly be a pay to win game.  So you can make virtual limitations that seem natural.  In most RTS games, you have a population limit so you can only build so many units and the more powerful units take up more population, thus limiting the total number of powerful units you can have.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Dialogue Choices

The earliest dialogue choice that affected the game that I can remember was in Dragon Warrior at the very end of the game.  You fight and struggle to get to the end boss and after going through his monologue about how he will destroy the world, he asks if you want to join him.  In a lot of games back then a Yes/No choice would pop up and choosing No would just repeat the choice until you selected Yes (which never made sense to me and makes even less sense that some modern games still do that).  So, figuring it was one of these type of "choices" you select No to see what he says and it turns out you join him and usher the world into an age of darkness.  Well done, you just destroyed the world.  Game Over.  I absolutely love that choice until I realize I have to work my way back to the boss again to kill him.

Dialogue choices since then have evolved into (basically) three forms based on how much information you get about what you're going to say.  There are older RPGs like the Infinity Engine games and Bioware games up until Mass Effect that would display the full text of what your character would say.  There are games like Mass Effect and Rise of the Argonauts who have a short line trying to describe what the character is going to say.  Then there are games like Bard's Tale or Alpha Protocol that just show an emotion that your character will convey with what they say.  Each method has its pros and cons and requires a lot of work on a designers part.

Displaying the full text is the easiest of the three choices because no matter which method chosen, you will have to write the full dialogue and displaying it fully to the player means there will be absolutely no confusion about what the player's character will say.  I can't think of any games that use this dialogue choice method that give the main character a voiceover, but that doesn't mean it can't be done.  It probably would be annoying to read an entire line and then have to hear the exact same words be spoken out loud after selecting one.  It would be interesting to have the voiceover start when you highlighted a particular choice so you could hear the tone before selecting it and then it wouldn't have to play the voiceover afterwards.

The one liner method of dialogue choice is an interesting middle ground because it can give the player an understanding of what will be said while the character still gets to have their own voice.  The problem with it is that there are always instances of a player reading the one line of text and expecting the character to speak one way and they say something completely different.  This is especially likely if all the choices are variations of the same thing, then it's a matter of deciphering the tone from some text and as we all know from Facebook and texts, that's impossible to do and all sarcasm is lost.  A way to mitigate this problem is to be consistent about where the emotions go in the choice order (e.g. nice is always on top, snarky in the middle, and jerky is the bottom), but if you do that you might as well use the third style of dialogue choice.

Simply having a button matched to a specific emotion (press A to be sarcastic!) abstracts away what the character is going to say until merely an emotion.  This can backfire the easiest because the player has absolutely no idea what the character is going to say, just the tone they are going to take while saying it.  So, when writing the dialogue you have to make sure the setup before the choice is absolutely clear.  This method also means that you're pretty much required to have the same number of choices every time there is a choice for the player to make, whether that's good or bad is up to you.

One thing I haven't seen done too often is only sometimes giving players dialogue choices.  It's usually an all or nothing thing.  This is especially pointless and ridiculous when A) the choice makes absolutely no difference and B) all the choices are essentially the same thing (e.g. 1: "Hey!" 2: "Hello." 3: "What's up?").  If there isn't a real choice to make, why not just let the character speak for themselves and only require player input when there is an actual choice to make?  This would cue the players in that every time they make a choice, it will actually effect something thus making them feel more powerful and important and making the choices feel like they actually matter.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Hidden Rewards/Choices

One things I've noticed while playing through the Infinity Engine games is that when your choices matter and what gets rewards is much more hidden than in current RPG games.  In Rise of the Argonauts, the dialogue you hovered over would display which god you would earn favor with for selecting it.  In Mass Effect, prompts appear for when you can make a Paragon or Renegade impulse choice.  At one point in Alpha Protocol, you were told to either go left to save a group of strangers or go right to save someone you care about.  These games all make it very obvious that you have a choice to make and what the outcome will be (more or less).  On the flip side, in Baldur's Gate 2, there are at least some choices you can make without realizing it.  For example, while saving one party member's home from a troll invasion, you come upon the keep's captain of the guard.  Your party member tells you he must be under a spell.  He automatically starts attacking you, but if you can charm or mind control him, then you will actually save his life by having him switch sides.  There is only the slightest hint this is possible and it's probably not something most people automatically thought to do (or maybe it was just me...).

Normally, I don't support hidden things like this in a game because I don't like to miss anything.  But that's because I like to min-max my characters so I can be my best.  I've realized the more I just engross myself in the characters and the story that I don't WANT to min-max, I just do naturally.  So actually hiding the information is making it impossible for me to do so without following a walkthrough as I play a game (which defeats the purpose of playing the game usually).  Showing me that a certain dialogue choice will give me good points takes away my choice completely if I'm trying to be a good person.  So hiding the rewards behind my choices and even hiding the fact that I'm making choices makes it easier to fully immerse yourself as a character and get into the story.  The danger of hiding these rewards and choices is that if you're not consistent, it can be very frustrating when someone doesn't understand the logic behind the rewards (e.g. romancing the Sith governess of a planet doesn't make you evil, but romancing the girl in your fake cult does?).  So the balance needs to be found between transparency and clarity.

Board games can also play with the concept of hidden or transparent rewards.  In a lot of adventuring board games, the rewards you get for either exploring or killing monsters is usually drawing the top face-down card from some deck.  This means you don't know what the result of your adventuring will get you, so it makes the reward (and subsequently your choices) more about luck than about strategy.  You can mitigate the luck aspect if you have one deck of high risk/high reward cards and one of low risk/low reward cards.  If the rewards were face-up then players could race for the ideal rewards or form a strategy around acquiring the rewards.  This is all another balancing act between where you want the luck and the strategy of your game to  be.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Survivor Game Design

I started watching Survivor years ago because my mom was a big fan and I wanted a show we could share and talk about.  The more I watched it, the more I realized how much game design there is in the show (which is probably why it's my favorite reality TV show followed by The Amazing Race).  Not only are there 1 or 2 weekly challenge games that all have to be designed, built, and (hopefully) tested prior to the competitors playing it, but there is also the larger game as a whole that had to be designed and is constantly evolving as the show continues to air.  Most competition shows like this will keep the exact same game season to season and will just alter the difficulty of the challenges or find a new group of people to fill the show with drama (the one thing I don't like about all of these shows).  However, Survivor and The Amazing Race will alter or add rules at least every few seasons to keep the game interesting - the Hidden Immunity idol, Exile Island, Redemption Island, having three teams compete, boys vs. girls, young vs. old, etc.

All of these changes are interesting, but none of them fix the broken aspect of the first half of the game of Survivor.  When the game starts, two (or now three) tribes compete against each other in challenges after which the loser has to vote off one of their members, thus making the winners of the challenge even more of a threat for the next competition.  In subsequent challenges, since the losing team will have less players, either their members will have to participate multiple times in one challenge or the winning side will get to sit someone out giving them a chance to rest up for future challenges, or both.  In game design, this is called a positive feedback loop (I know that sounds weird for something bad to be called positive).  The player who does well has an easier time doing well in the game.  This is why the vast majority of the seasons, one team will continuously lose multiple challenges in a row.  Sometimes if both sides have a bad apple that poisons the bunch and the losing side votes theirs out or if one of the losing side competitors is exceptionally good at one of the challenges then the losing side can make a comeback.  This doesn't fix the feedback loop, but it at least makes it less of an issue that season.

For me, it's very depressing and boring to watch one side consistently lose at something (unless it's a feel-good Disney sports movie like Mighty Ducks where you know they're going to get better).  So I would love it if the game designers behind Survivor could come up with some way to break this positive feedback loop with a negative feedback loop.  For example, have the losing team pick which member of the winning team sits out in a challenge so that most likely their strongest team member would not be a factor.  Or alternate individual and team challenges somehow similar to what Master Chef does.  Simply fixing this feedback loop would have major repercussions on the game and would make it much more competitive and dramatic without having to trust the film editors to make a one sided game dramatic.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Suspension of Disbelief

The crux of any story in any non-modern, real world setting, is suspension of disbelief.  If there is anything at all that isn't exactly how it is in real life, then at some point the viewer/reader/gamer needs to accept that that is the way that works in your world and things will continue to operate within the bounds set unless given some explanation to cause an exception.  If these bounds are ever broken with no explanation, then the viewer/reader/gamer's suspension of disbelief will be broken, the illusion will be shattered, and your content will be seen as the ridiculous nonsense that it is (or maybe I'm just really harsh about my SoD being broken...).

One example of where my SoD has been broken recently is the new J.J. Abrams show, The Revolution.  The premise is that for some reason unknown to everyone, all power has gone out in the world and no one can generate more.  That's pretty fantastical and unrealistic, so it gives the show fairly large bounds within which they can set up the world 15 years later.  I'm fine with not knowing why there's no power, I accept that as a fact, so it would make sense that the ability to manufacture much of what we have today would be difficult or impossible.  My suspension of disbelief is broken when some of the militia has working civil war-era musket ball style guns.  They would have had to manufacture those guns somehow, which begs the question what happened to all the other guns in the world?  Did they stop working?  Are modern bullets really THAT hard to make without electricity?  You still have fire, metal, and I just not know how bullets are made?  Even if you accept that, I guarantee there will be some technological dissonance for every person.  Some technology that can still function or be adapted with modern knowledge.  It's not like humanity got stupider, just we have no access to electricity.  So in 15 years no one was able to adapt any of our current technology to a powerless world?

Another example is the movie Inception.  In the very beginning of the movie, Leonardo Decaprio explains the rules of the dream world to Ellen Page.  He has set in stone the bounds of the world, so I know what to expect.  Problem is that those rules are very quickly broken and tossed out.  So the world does not work at all how I was told it would, so my SoD is broken.  If they had said that they think the dream world works a certain way and it didn't, then I could have accepted that no one had dove that many layers down (which they established) so the rules changed from what was known.  However, they were very adamant that the world did work that way, so what am I supposed to think when it doesn't work the way it should?

One last example is the anime Samurai 7.  I touched on this in my review, but let me go into more detail.  Throughout the show, it was shown that the seven main Samurai could perform fairly ridiculous feats defying normal laws of physics (swords that could cut through buildings, being able to jump giant robots in a single bound, being able to catch arrows, slice bullets/missiles in half, etc.).  They were very consistent with these rules, so I gladly accepted them as how this world worked.   However, in the final two episodes, they were suddenly able to perform feats that made me wonder how the leader samurai had never won a war (as he claimed).  The engineer samurai converted one of the robot samurai's limbs into a flying ship (sure whatever, ridiculous, but I'll accept it).  The capital ship they are attacking shoots a giant laser beam at them through their own arm.  The enemy robots all blow up in this beam, but somehow this robot limb the samurai are flying can ride on top of the laser beam like a surfboard.  Ummm....what?  It's as if they project an aura of samurai-ness to whatever they touch.  Too ridiculous for me.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Journey

I just finished reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (still going through classics thanks to the fact that they are all free on the Kindle) and it started me thinking about the journey characters take during epic quests.  I googled for tropes to see if I've once again inadvertently stumbled across one and the closest I can seem to find is The Hero's Journey - warning TVTropes link.  Whereas that trope is all about the events of the journey that the character goes through, my thought was more about the location.  In many stories - Wizard of Oz, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and Kingdom Hearts to name a few - the characters start in an ideal world.  Actually, Wizard of Oz is slightly different because she starts in Kansas, which is described as incredibly grey and flat, so hardly ideal, but I'm thinking more about the Munchkin's land she really starts her journey on.

So they start in this super nice area they'd be crazy to leave, but they must for some reason (they're determined to get back to the land of the grey and flat, a tall man with a pointy beard and even pointier hat told them to, they fall into a black hole and end up in a different place, etc.).  The next step is always safe with the illusion of danger (like a Disneyland ride) - a forest with the feeling of danger, but either no real danger or some guardian to keep the character safe, a strange town full of strangers, but no one really threatening and usually there's a guide to help the character out.  As the journey continues, the locations get darker, scarier, and more dangerous directly proportional to the character's growth level.  The journey ends somewhere either completely gothic, demonic, or void.  Basically, there will be lots of spike and/or fire or there will be lots of nothing.

My favorite part is that once the quest is completed, the characters usually just appear back at the beginning.  Story-wise it makes sense, the climax has happened, another climax is not what a reader really wants, but if the characters were struggling to reach their destination (running low on food, sneaking past armies, etc.) then that should still be an issue on the way back, right?  And if they do get magically apparated or taken home by giant eagles, then why didn't those take them to their destination in the first place?  Definitely food for thought when coming up with the ending of the journey.

This transition from idyllic settings to terror can be something really interesting to play with when designing games, especially if you make the transition slow and subtle so the player doesn't even realize it's happening. I'd especially love to see this concept played with in a board game.  Somehow the board itself changes as the game continues on and gets darker and more twisted (mostly just the art, not so much the components).