TGDRT #63: Theme (Plus, My Thoughts on Abstraction)

TGDRT

Episode #63 is live!

Rob Daviau pays a visit for a discussion about theme. How much theme is enough? How much is TOO much? How do you actually translate theme into gameplay mechanics. And heck, what IS a ‘theme’, anyways?

We jumped around all over the place in this one and, alas, didn’t get around to even describing what we think a theme is until the very end. This is an interesting topic that deserves more time, so I’ll be expanding on it a bit here.

As I noted during the podcast, my own definition for a “theme” is basically an element that evokes a feeling. Or, to be more specific, how our  brains translate abstract systems, names and numbers into a relatable experience. I would say that a game has a theme of discovery if it relies heavily on mechanics where you explore and make use of your surroundings. This differs quite a bit from the opinion shared by my co-hosts that “theme” is simply the story or background, and has no direct relation to mechanics.

The reason why I’m willing to blur this line is that regardless of what kind of game you’re making the goal is always to make your players feel something. This could be feeling like you’re living inside the familiar Star Wars universe, maybe even a specific battle therein. Or your objective might be for players to feel like bold explorers laying claim to mysterious territory filled with potential.

Stepping into the shoes of a 16th century conquistador or a 23rd century star admiral in particular is indeed more ‘thematic’, but these are simply deeper layers of theme. The added specificity is nice, but even the basic term ‘explorer’ evokes a clear feeling of what sorts of challenges and accomplishments await. ‘Explorer’ and ’16th century explorer’ are members not of different universes, but a single continuum.

Some might argue that to call something ‘thematic’ should mean it exhibits an especially high level of specificity, but you run into fuzziness even at the extreme end of the spectrum.

Let’s say our theme is playing as that 16th century explorer we’ve talked so much about. Within short order we realize we need to get a bit more specific as to what we actually mean by “a 16th century explorer.” Are we a violent conquistador willing to slay any native for an ounce of gold? Or are we a man of the sea, driven on by the unmatched thrill of being the first to lay eyes upon virgin landmasses on the horizon? Are we playing as one particular explorer from history?

Most likely we’re actually playing as a not-really-all-that-specific amalgamation of careers and highlights from several different individuals. Even if you are in fact assuming the role of Hernan Cortez from May 26th-August 13th 1519, you’re probably not forced to deal with the sticky and unpleasant the summer humidity, or how your horse’s injured front-right leg makes it impossible to reach a full gallop on rocky-but-not-too-rocky ground.

Reality is a mesh of near-infinite complexity. A supercomputer with the brainpower of every human that has ever lived would have no chance of fully representing even a tiny sliver of our universe and the physical forces which define it. Our grey matter doesn’t even bother wasting time on such tomfoolery, and instead very intentionally throws out the vast majority of data it collects. Rather than actually experiencing reality we swim within a model created internally containing only the tiny fraction of stuff we find important or interesting. This is virtually identical to, you guessed it: a game.

(As an aside, the same is true of dreams, which is why the passage of time within them feels so odd. If you’d like to learn more about this topic and how the brain works generally I HIGHLY recommend reading David Eagleman’s Incognito. I listened to the superb audiobook version narrated by David himself.)

Anyways, the takeaway here is that when you’re talking abstraction it isn’t a question of “if” but instead “how much?” Even the most thematic games are highly abstracted, and it’s up to our brains to flesh out what’s there.

So what do you think? Do you agree with my more general way of defining ‘theme’, or is the narrower interpretation held by my partners more in line with your own? What does the term mean to you?

- Jon

TGDRT #58: Death in Games

TGDRT

Episode #58 is live!

Jon, Dirk and David discuss the role of death in games. What is it for? How does it interact with narrative? What games has it been represented well and poorly in? And how can it be improved?

Okay, okay, #58 has actually been up for a while now – apologies for the delay in putting up this post. I’ve added a bit more meat compared to this podcast announcement, so hopefully all is forgiven. Christmas day is perfect for catching up on things!

This has been a topic rattling around inside my head for quite a while, but it came back with a vengeance while playing Chucklefish’s Starbound. There are several elements of the game that I really like (and even more in Re-Logic’s spiritual prequel Terraria - which I’ll be talking about at length soon), but what stood out to me the most was how unhappy I was with their representation of death.

When you die in Starbound you get zapped back up to your spaceship, and in many cases this is actually helpful. You don’t lose any equipment, and if there’s a monetary cost I certainly didn’t notice it. By contrast, Terraria offers three interesting options for the player to choose from. Upon death you either:

  1. Drop (but not lose) half your money and respawn at home (“Softcore”)
  2. Drop all of your equipment and items (“Mediumcore”)
  3. Permadeath

In Terraria money is useful but not the end-all be-all so losing just about any amount isn’t a big deal. Additionally, you can (and probably will) return to the location of your death and recollect your cash, which remains sitting there politely waiting for you until the end of time. (Edit: Just FYI, @Tegiminis on Twitter pointed out to me that items actually do disappear eventually.) And of course, if you stuff your loot under your mattress at home before venturing off there’s no chance of losing it, so the penalty for dying in Softcore is basically just a slap on the wrist.

Mediumcore raises the stakes quite a bit, as losing not just your items but also the equipment you wear all the time in a particularly hazardous or far-from-home place is a really big deal. Not only do you always want to head back to reclaim your stuff, but it’ll also be a much weaker version of you making the journey. And if a particular item was required to even get there? Well, death basically means losing all of your items for good. Needless to say, this is something you’ll work very hard to avoid.

I really like this three-pronged approach, and in doing some research about Terraria I discovered that it only came about through iteration – originally there was no Softcore mode, then the penalty was removed completely before the developers settled on the current setup. I love permadeath but it’s obviously not for everyone. The other two options are particularly brilliant from a game design perspective as they not only dangle the omnipresent sword of Damocles over players, but dying actually provides new goals.

Oh, you died? Well, you don’t just appear back at the starting line, but you’re going to be racing along a slightly different track now.

This approach isn’t ‘perfect’ in my book as it still doesn’t feel like death, but even so, it’s far more interesting than 99.9% of what’s out there, and is exactly the kind of creative design I hope to see more of in the future.

Allowing players to die, respawn and try again a hundred times with no penalty, disincentive or new gameplay attached is not just a missed opportunity but a ‘feature’ that cheapens the rest of your game. Player actions are only meaningful when they have consequences – both good and bad. I understand why many developers feel the need to take a light-handed approach, but as both a designer and a player I relish seeing all of the new ideas popping up in the smaller and/or indie games that don’t need five million sales to break even.

- Jon

The Strategy of Playtesting

Hey all, just a short update on recent goings-on, plus a special a peek behind the curtain regarding how developers decide when to pull back said curtain. I know many of you are very eager to get your hands on the game, and we’ll be kicking the alpha off in a few weeks. So what have we been up to, and why the wait?

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July 2013 AtG Update – Alpha & Resources

At the Gates

Hey all, fairly short update this time – news I’m sure many of you are rejoicing over!

 

Alpha Testing

The plan is to kick things off in late August or early September. I’ll be wrapping up a couple more big features next week, but before spending a lot of time on playtesting I want the AI to be capable of the basics: defending itself, claiming resource deposits, taking out hostile tribes, etc. We have a good idea of how it will do this, and now it’s time to actually put that in code. AtG is very much playable right now, but ultimately, until the AI is competing with you it’s impossible to get a good feel for what state a strategy game is in.

 

Resource Distribution

As you all know, in AtG it’s important to be thinking about the opportunities in front of you, be it migrating, claiming a valuable resource that just appeared, or taking advantage of a surprise diplomatic request. Resources in particular are a major factor which drives the game, and lately I’ve been working on how they’re distributed across the map, and the rate and manner in which new ones appear.

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Ethics in Game Design

What are the ethical responsibilities of a game designer?

That is the question which has been rattling around in my mind ever since a recent discussion in a recent episode of TGDRT regarding the “ultra-violent” Hotline Miami. This article is my proposed answer to that very difficult inquiry.

But let’s first back up a bit – why are we even bothering to ask this question?

 

Environmental Products

Few of us even think about it, but most of what makes us “us” is the sum of our subconscious wiring. Much of which is, in turn, shaped by our past experiences.

Consider a phrase or mannerism you’ve picked up from a close friend. Or the time someone dragged you along to try out a new type of strange food you now love. Or how  a hobby you just didn’t “get” before has become one of your favorites after your significant other introduced you to it.

Everything we encounter reshapes us, even if only a tiny bit. Needless to say, games are no exception.

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New Thoughts on Victory

At times I’ve been “accused” of being a theme-first designer. While this is true to some extent, it’s not the whole story. My philosophy is that (most) games need to evoke a strong theme and build on it with mechanics.

With AtG virtually every idea started with “so what actually happened in history…” However, the enjoyment of a game is the result of interesting mechanics, and your theme is meaningless if you can’t translate it into something that’s fun to play. So I always start with and lean on theme, but only when doing so doesn’t get in the way of mechanics.

What this means for AtG is that I’m first and foremost looking for ways to make the experience of playing the game feel like forging a barbarian kingdom. Migration is a very cool, innovative feature, but it’s only included because, well, that’s what barbarians did.

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AtG Economics Brainstorming

 

Late last year I brainstormed in detail how the economics system for At the Gates ought to work. It would have been easy enough to just say, “Okay, there’s metal and wood and population and this unit costs 50 and that building is 75… BAM! Done.”

But a starting point like that is not what you want when building a complex strategy title. Even those decisions which seem unimportant can trigger a chain reaction that dramatically alters your game. Identifying exactly how every piece is supposed to fit together is crucial.

Is a unit intended to be powerful, but expensive? What implications does that have? In what way is wood different from metal, and what strategies can players build (or not) around each? What are the broad goals for pacing and feel?

After switching the economic focus from a social classes to depleting resources, I already knew the rough form the economic system would take. But these were the sorts of in-depth questions I still needed answers for. What follows is the brainstorming I used to find them.

- Jon

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AtG AI Mini Update

Woohoooo, the first post-Kickstarter AtG update! This is going to be a fairly short one, but I wanted to let you guys know what I’ve been up to, lest you worry that I’ve run off to a Caribbean island or something. My intention is to post one major update every month, with smaller unplanned ones in-between going up here and over on our forums.

So for the past couple weeks I’ve been heavily focused on designing the basic structure of the AI. As I’ve noted in previous articles, the basic goals are effective behavior and minimal mistakes, achieved with simple, targeted systems.

I’ve been creating several “scenario sandboxes” in the AI brainstorming docs to establish what an AI response should be to various situations, along with the process for how decisions are made. [Shameless Plug] If you’d like access to these and other documents, you can use PayPal on our website to get up to the $125 tier! [/Shameless Plug]

Right now my brainstorming has led me to an AI design with four main systems:

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Fairness, Discovery & Spelunky

Spelunky is, without a doubt, my favorite game of the past several years. I was extremely excited when its brilliant designer, Derek Yu, agreed to come on our podcast a few weeks ago. (And perhaps even more so when I heard today that a portable PSVita version is in development!)

So what kind of game gets a designer so excited? Well, I’m glad you asked! The answer is one that is extremely, incredibly and completely… unfair. Wait, hold on? Haven’t I said that “unfairness” is a bad thing?

 

What is Spelunky?

Before we start digging into details, we should first explain what Spelunky is. The game is a roguelike platformer with random levels. You play as an Indiana Jones-esque adventurer exploring abandoned mines, jungles and temples. Along the way are a variety of traps, enemies, items and equipment that can either aid or thwart your quest. If you’re curious what all of that adds up to, check out this YouTube video.

I could go on at length about how great the randomly-generated levels are, but I’ve already covered that ground in other articles. Today, I’ll be talking about the other (not so) secret ingredient which helps make roguelikes addicting – their brutal unfairness.

If you lose all of your health in Spelunky, it’s game over. There’s no saving or reloading – death is truly the end. And it’s exceptionally easy to die, as many traps and enemies will kill you with the slightest touch. Pretty unfair, right?

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Social Classes – AtG’s Design Dead End

Today I’ll be sharing the story behind social classes, among AtG’s most important features – and also one that no longer exists.

Part of game design is walking down several dead ends. Although we’re still very early in the development of AtG, I already found myself staring at one such dark corner several months ago. In this article I’ll be describing the biggest mistake I made with AtG, and the killer feature it ended up transforming into.

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