Game design

I play lots of games. Board games, video games, tabletop roleplaying games. I occasionally have ideas for designing my own games. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever sit down and write a complete game, so instead I write the ideas down and put them here. Sometimes I also write up critical thoughts about other people’s games.

Fantasy setting without the hack-and-slash

Several months ago, LJ user fadethecat posted a request for help identifying a dimly-remembered video game. In passing, she mentioned that

Unfortunately, all the games I’ve found with that scale of now direct your dudes to go chop down trees are inextricably linked to some tedious Also, you have to fight off enemies game.

And, frankly, if I want to fight off enemies, I’ll go play Starcraft or something. I like my city-building separate from my fighty games, thank you very much. But they seem to always come hand in hand. No, I can’t just build my dairy farms for cheese and my lovely little castle, I need to deal with frickin’ knights and invaders…

Whereupon it occurred to me that this is one of the big reasons I don’t play Dwarf Fortress anymore. The parts of DF that I enjoy are city-building, prospecting for minerals to make stuff out of, and trade. Manufacturing is too much of a micromanagey pain in the ass, and everything to do with building up an army bores me to tears (it doesn’t help that that is also far too micromanagey for my taste, and depends on manufacturing). Further, all the development since the first 3D version has been focused on precisely the parts I don’t like. But it’s a damn shame, because I really enjoy the city-building and the mining.

At about the same time, Minecraft had just started making the big news. I tried to get it to run, discovered that this would require more than zero messing with a Java installation, and gave up. But I watched a bunch of the X’s Adventures in Minecraft Let’s Play videos, enough to get a pretty good idea of what the gameplay is like. It seems like I’d have much the same opinion of it that I do of DF: yay exploring, yay building, boo micromanagement, boo having to fight monsters.

And this was also about the time I gave up on Lord of Ultima, which was a massively-multiplayer territorial competition game that billed itself as allowing a purely economic strategy—but it turned out that past a certain point everyone has far more resources than they need, so the only remaining thing to do is fight; I have absolutely no interest in PvP army duels, and guess what? Also with the way too much micromanagement! (You can pay for UX enhancements that mitigate this, but it didn’t appear that they improved it enough, and the only way I’ll pay for a premium game is if I’m already having tons of fun with the free edition.)

Finally, longtime readers will remember that the last thing I said about that roguelike I’m not writing was that perhaps the world does not need another game where what you do is kill the monsters and take their stuff. But I’m still interested in the notion of a game where you’re exploring an otherworld that’s coming apart at the seams, and maybe trying to put it back together again. So here’s a set of design elements, that feel like they add up to a game:

  • Gameplay is about exploration, construction, manufacturing, and trade.
  • Multiplayer interaction, if any, is all about the trading.
  • Micromanagement is to be avoided with extreme prejudice.
  • No fighting.
  • No crafting of legendary weapons or armor, either.
  • Like reality unless noted applies to geology, biology, and technology.
  • Magic is not tame.
  • Magic is not only for special people.
  • It might be nice to try to subvert Our Dwarves Are All The Same but then again, there’s a reason why that characterization works so well.

The tricky part is finding a source of conflict, since we’ve taken out all the fighting. Perhaps the coming apart at the seams thing is enough of an issue to hang a plot on? If not, there is always politics and diplomacy, particularly if we make it hard for a settlement to be entirely self-sufficient. Not all minerals are found under the same mountain; not all biomes are suitable for subsistence farming.

I think this would work well with a zoom level roughly the same as DF fortress mode: player sets goals, individual simulated characters carry them out to the best of their ability. Simulated characters push back on the player to fulfill their desires and carry out their agendas, but (unlike DF nobility, for instance) there is a way for the player to say no. Which has consequences, of course, but less-bad consequences than what happens if you ignore a production order in DF.

Review of Brütal Legend

Here we go with another entry in the occasional series of reviews of games that everyone has already played (because I refuse to pay more than US$20 for a game, and new releases cost $60 these days). This time, it’s Brütal Legend, Tim Schafer’s epic about love, justice, and the power of rock and roll, set in the land of all album covers, starring Jack Black and a whole bunch of heavy metal musicians as themselves.

This game is worth playing just for the chance to drive the protagonist’s hot rod around and see all the epic scenery. The art department had fun with this game. So did the character modelers. They licensed about a hundred classic metal tracks for the background music, which means it’s thematically appropriate, and never gets repetitive enough to earworm you. (The magical guitar solos, on the other hand, I got a bit tired of.) The gameplay itself is a little spotty, but I think that’s been well covered elsewhere. My main beef was with poor integration of the side quests into the story line—you don’t benefit much from doing them, even though they could have added quite a bit of interest and strategic ramification. The up side of that, though, is that I never felt like I was being forced to level-grind. There was one infuriating point where me and Pam spent three hours losing one stage battle over and over again, but that was because we were doing it wrong.

So that’s all good, but now I want to complain, at length, about the storyline.


Effects of Sleep Deprivation: a generic RPG supplement

Many RPGs have some basic notion of fatigue penalties, but they lack color. On the more cyberpunk end of the spectrum, you got to figure the PCs are regularly sneaking around late at night. It’s harder to stay awake for days on end in a setting without electric light, but players still do come up with those sneaky plans that involve, well, sneaking around late at night. There’s tons of amusement value being left on the table due to a lack of fleshed-out-ness.


Cultural appropriation, privileged narratives, and hypothetical video games

Over the past few weeks there has been what I can only describe as an epic flame war on LJ and elsewhere. I am not going to link to any of it or try to summarize. Suffice to say that it started out about racism, cultural appropriation, and privilege, and that buried in the turd-flinging (which I did not read all of, by any means) there were some really good points made on those topics.

Editor’s note, August 2009: I am talking about RaceFail 2009. If you are unfamiliar with this, I recommend reading Mary Anne Mohanraj’s two guest posts on John Scalzi’s blog; these were written after it was mostly over, and are serious, constructive discussion of implicit privilege (including but not limited to racism) in fiction in general. If you want to know about the argument proper, Anne Somerville summarized it and ryda wong has a comprehensive list of links to its many pieces.

Editor’s note, November 2014: ryda wong’s journal has been taken down; if anyone knows of a mirror of the list please let me know.

This has gotten me thinking about cultural appropriation and privileged narratives in the context of video games, and especially that roguelike I’m not writing. Video games are not where one generally goes for great storytelling or cultural sensitivity, but (assuming I were writing one) why should I make that any worse than it is? And the major motivation for the hypothetical roguelike is that the storytelling in roguelikes is threadbare, so if I’m wanting to make that better, why not be really ambitious and try to fix everything at once? So let’s have another look at the plot of that game with privilege and appropriation in mind.


Character death and save points

We’re playing God of War again and have gotten Kratos killed, oh, at least fifty times now, by falling off the rafters that you have to thread your way through while avoiding the rotating knife arms. In the Challenge of Hades. If you’ve played the game I’m sure you know what I mean.Anyway, every time he dies we just restart from the convenient save point at the beginning of the room with the rafters. Often we think of save points are an entirely out-of-game-world mechanism for making death be a minor frustration (or a major one, as in this case) rather than end of story. In light of my previous rant about the inappropriateness of the send the hero off to the deathtrap of a temple strategy for saving Athens, though … what if we construe them as in-world? Every time Kratos dies, the gods restore him to life and dump him back at the most recent save point or checkpoint. (I guess they aren’t allowed to put him ahead of the trap that keeps killing him, for the same reason they can’t just teleport him to the room with the godslayer weapon…) There’s nothing overt in the game to indicate this, unlike some (e.g. Ultima, as madmanatw pointed out last time) but the save points do say Zeus offers you the opportunity to save your progress.If so, Athena’s strategy is less horrible than it seemed - Kratos will eventually, if only by sheer luck, get through the temple. Perhaps there won’t be any of the city left to save, but at least she can have her revenge on Ares. On the other hand, it’s a good thing Kratos is completely insane already, because otherwise he would be after a few dozen cycles of that treatment!

[EDIT: Ok, so now we hit a completely different headache: the minotaur boss. All the walkthroughs seem to assume that the O-button minigame is trivial; we are finding it impossible (well, we got it once but only by chance). I don’t have any idea how to integrate that into this theory.]

[SON OF EDIT: Pam, having gotten sick of it, informs me that she knows how to do the minigame now, but that you have to do it just exactly right or you fail. We do not approve.]

Save the world? Sure, but let’s collect every bit of treasure first.

queenpam and I have been playing some old (or not-so-old) PS2 games: we’re totally done with Kingdom Hearts 2, are going back through Ratchet and Clank to pick up all the skill points (optional mini-challenges), we’re about half done with Shadow of the Colossus, and God of War is currently on hold because we got fed up with the underwater stay-ahead-of-the-thing-that-smashes-you-into-the-wall task, after being smashed into the wall … I’m going to say at least two dozen times. So I am in a mood to blather about game design.

These games all feel very different, but fundamentally they’re the same kind of game: single PC (possibly with one or two helpers) goes through 3D world in over-the-shoulder-vision, fights monsters using a variety of hand-to-hand and ranged weapons, solves lethal puzzles, eventually confronts Big Bad, saves world. (Or maybe just Athens. Or his dead girlfriend.) And they all have the same odd relation to time: time only advances when player actions trigger plot events. This is most blatant in Kingdom Hearts. You fight the Nobodies all the way to the top of their castle and drive their leader to retreat into the giant floating candy heart. Mickey Mouse¹ tells you that you must follow immediately, and defeat him once and for all. But there is a save point. Like all save points, it allows you to warp back to the over-map, which means you (the player) can spend as long as you like polishing off all the optional challenges, collecting every single treasure chest, and leveling up the PC until the final battle is a cakewalk. In terms of gameplay hours, I think we spent almost as long doing optional challenges as we did playing the main game, and we weren’t done! We gave up on some of the ridiculously hard or irritating ones.

This doesn’t especially bother me in Kingdom Hearts, because, after all, most of zones in the game are the settings of various Disney movies. You’re not playing this game for the internal self-consistency. Also, I haven’t ever played a Final Fantasy game from beginning to end, but I have the impression that this is part of the furniture of that series. It would bother me more in Ratchet and Clank, which is trying for internal self-consistency (if not for plausibility), but it’s also rather less blatant there: you have the option of delaying the final confrontation as long as you like, even though the Big Bad is going to destroy your planet Real Soon Now (and you may need to, in order to earn enough bolts to pay for the uberweapon without which defeating the Big Bad is ridiculously hard) but the Big Bad is the sort of lunatic who would postpone the completion of his project just to laugh at you for showing up just barely too late. (Also, you can go back and do the optional challenges after you defeat him.)

It really, really bugs me in God of War, even though they may not be doing the postpone the final confrontation indefinitely blatant version (we haven’t got there yet) — the PC has to go off to some desert and find a weapon that can kill a god, so he can defeat Ares, who is laying waste to Athens. Right then. With an army of monsters. Retrieving the weapon takes something like a week of in-game time. I don’t see how there can possibly be any of Athens left by the time the PC gets back! … Really, though, my objection here is not to the timescale, but to the whole plan of saving Athens by sending a hero off to the desert to retrieve a god-slaying weapon from such a deathtrap of a temple that Indiana Jones himself would quail. We got him smashed into the wall at least two dozen times. That’s twenty-four universes in which he never came back. Never mind all the other traps, many of which killed him at least once. And did I mention the monsters? If I were Athena I would go kill Ares myself, and worry about how to patch things up with Zeus later. (Or maybe I should just kill him too! He ate my mother because he was afraid their child, me, would kill him! This is Ancient Greece! You know that means I’ve got to do it one of these days!)

It doesn’t come up at all in Shadow of the Colossus, but only because that game’s more linear than any of the above. You can’t even kill the colossi out of order. (There must be something preventing your dead girlfriend from rotting away all this time, but I’m prepared to assume the disembodied voice who’s promised to resurrect her if you just do this small favor for it first [Wikipedia tells me its name is Dormin] can do that.)

… I had a point somewhere in here. Maybe it’s that this is another way it’s hard to make a game also be a convincing secondary world. My suspension of disbelief is impaired because these games have done enough that my brain is filling in things that should happen and being tripped up when they don’t. But if you made those things happen, the game would actually be a worse game! You don’t want to force the player to do the final battle before they’re good and ready. Also, I probably wouldn’t have noticed so much if the optional side quests had all been interesting rather than tedious; and if there are simple adjustments one could make to the plot to alleviate these problems (like, Ares’ army is going to be in Athens in a week, and Athena wants you standing at the gates with the godslayer weapon when they get there) one should make those adjustments.

¹ Yes, that Mickey Mouse. The same one who’s in Steamboat Willie.

Vague musings on skills and levels

I really like Leonard’s suggestion of consistently applying the notion that one gets better at what one practices. I am wondering whether it is practical to do away with character attributes as well as levels, and rely exclusively on skills, or perhaps I should call them aptitudes. There is an enormous list of these, and they are all organized in some sort of cluster network by how closely related they are. If you spend all day swinging a long sword, you get better at that; but you also gain a few points in closely related skills, like bastard sword and saber. You lose a few points in other skills like rapier and dagger; the notion is that you’ve got entirely the wrong habits for those weapons. The higher your actual practiced skill is in something, the less it’s affected by practicing other skills, even if they interfere. And, as queenpam points out while reading this over my shoulder, unpracticed skills decay.

Is this good enough to cover all the times when the computer’s got to pick a random number, is the question.

Miscellaneous roguelike ideas

Basic flavor elements:

  • magic is wild; somewhat unpredictable, from the heart as well as the head
  • The High Elves were Not Nice. I’m thinking more like Pratchett’s depiction than e.g. Michael Moorcock’s. Also, they’re all dead.
  • from Earthdawn: putting back together a very broken world
  • keep the horror subtle, though (rugose, squamous ascii art! ha.)
  • references to high fantasy kept small - mob monsters ok, plot monsters not
  • take plot monsters from where? perhaps mythology?
  • references to real world should not be exclusively European
  • e.g. Chinese dragons, not European (also, dragons are much too badass to fight)
  • steampunk technology is fun and could add interest
  • high technology doesn’t fit, though

Fun stuff:

  • Ursula Vernon wombats and weird fruit
  • Secrets of the Gnomes gnomes
  • Nomadic carpet makers? Flying!
  • Non-Euclidean overworld map
  • …gets more Euclidean as the plot advances?
  • Jelaza Kazone-type sapient trees
  • At least one type of magic done with bells.

Plot and setting for a hypothetical roguelike

As mentioned in the first of these posts, one of the biggest things I’d like to experiment with in a new roguelike is the setting and plot. In particular I don’t want the plot to be a big MacGuffin hunt. Responding to that, Leonard correctly pointed out that Nethack is a MacGuffin hunt because it has no plot, and outlined some possibilities for doing something about that. In this post I’m going to outline the sort of plot I have in mind and how it might mesh with Leonard’s suggestions.


Roguelike combat rules

Leonard linked to You Only Live Once. I have not tried it, despite the only about an hour of gameplay label; I want to call attention to one element of the blurb.

Extremely tactical combat. There is no randomness in combat. You always hit and always do full damage. This means that careful placement is the difference between success and failure.

I can’t decide whether this is a terrible idea or complete freaking genius. (I assume it applies to the monsters as well.)