Monthly Archives: January 2009

Game Word of the Week

Quicktime Event (n)

A gameplay mechanic in which players are instructed to push buttons exactly as they are displayed on the screen. Frequently accompanies a cinematic-like sequence of the player character doing something cool but outside the game’s control schemes. QTE heavy games include God of War, Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, and Heavy Rain.

Usage: I can play the rest of the game well, but the quicktime events always get me.

Comment: To be honest, I hate quicktime events. I feel like if I should be watching a movie, just let me watch the movie. Otherwise, have some design discipline and don’t depend on the player character doing things completely outside of your standard verb set.

Game Word of the Week

Verb (n)

An action the player can use to interact with the game or game world. Verbs include shooting, running, jumping, pushing buttons, insulting people, and eating food.

Usage: We never properly trained the chicken-kicking verb, so how can we count on players using it to solve this puzzle?

Comment: Understanding verbs is important in creating a game that will smoothly and transparently teach players how to play it. Verbs need to be added one at a time, at a steady pace, each being given time to sink in via repetitive exposure before the next is introduced. Puzzles should arise naturally from the verb set already established. This is something that old adventure games do horribly – they often boil down to “guess the verb” games. How am I supposed to know I can use the staple gun on the camel? I’ve never done it before.

This is also why modern puzzle games like Portal are so much better. The verbs are established, the puzzle is in working out the logical implications of those verbs.

Game Word of the Week

Joe Six-Pack (n)

A proverbial average player who is not interested in thought-provoking game experiences and has a low tolerance for complex rules that he needs to learn.

Usage: The mind reading hamburger character an interesting concept, but do you think Joe Sixpack will really care?

Comment: Ah, Joe Sixpack. How I love you. Joe keeps us honest and kills self-indulgent design. There is room for games that Joe Sixpack won’t like, of course. Braid is my favourite example. But it’s a fairly small amount of room. I’m quite sure that Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4 did a lot more business than Braid or Ico. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Crafting a Joe-accessible entertainment experience is just as challenging as becoming an intellectual astronaut. It just works different muscles.

Game Word of the Week

Parse (v)
To absorb and understand information presented by the game.

Usage: The menu screen threw so much information at the player that it was impossible to parse.

Comment: Parseability is extremely important. It’s one of the main reasons (if not the main reason) that otherwise good ideas need to be thrown out. There are so many cool things we can put in games that we have no way of clearly expressing to the player. It’s the advantage that novelists and, to some extent, filmmakers have over us. They control point of view and flow of time. We control neither. If a film viewer misses a detail, the film continues fine. If a game player misses a detail, they can get completely stuck.

Mutual Storytellers

The best thing about the old tabletop role-playing games is the Dungeon Master concept. The Dungeon Master is a person who creates and presents challenges to the other players. Since the DM can essentially do anything that a fictional world could do, he can spin, together with the players, emergent stories of incredible richness and variety. The breadth of experience creatable by a good DM is astronomically greater than in any other form of gaming.

The system works because it depends on the players making things up to entertain each other in real time. We don’t even need to think of it as a game, really. One could easily imagine it as a structured mutual storytelling activity. This mutual storytelling concept is what I want to talk about.

In some sense, all multiplayer games use the mutual storytelling. Some people say that Chess is a series of puzzles that players pose to one another. Games like Team Fortress 2 or Counter-Strike essentially consist of two teams both trying to present the most interesting challenge possible to the other team. In Chess or TF2, the back-and-forth of challenges and solutions creates a story.

Still, we haven’t seen computer games that really focused on mutual storytelling. Left 4 Dead pushed this a bit further than before (as I mentioned in my Design Technologies 2008 article) by placing two totally asymmetrical teams in a rich narrative framework. The Infected team isn’t that far off from a Dungeon Master in D&D. The main difference is that their goal is still to kill the survivors as fast as possible, not to entertain them like a DM. But the idea of mutual storytelling has still never formed the core conceptual framework of a game.

I want to figure out if it’s possible to create a digital game where mutual storytelling is the core idea that drives the entire design. Is it possible to design a game where:

  • Players construct dynamic experiences for each other in real time
  • Players get points for constructing better experiences. Victory by force isn’t the goal, but victory by superior storytelling

The first mental model that comes to mind is to simply take Left 4 Dead and give points to the Infected team based not on how fast they kill the Survivors, but on how profound an experience they create for the survivor players. This reveals the core difficulty of this story trading game concept: how do we judge story effectiveness?

The first option is to create an AI story judge that will rate the storytellers on the effectiveness of their story. This is problematic. It starts to get into the hard AI problem of having an AI understand real-world human concepts. I think we could get an AI to rate action pacing, for example, but what about all of those more human storytelling elements? If the storytellers can place corpses or write things on the wall to imply history to an area, for example, how does an AI rate the effectiveness of this? Say that a message scratched in a wall foreshadows a challenge which the storyteller will present later. Computer can’t read or decode language, so they couldn’t judge the effectiveness of the foreshadowing device.

We could try to step around the problem by only including storytelling devices that the computer is capable of judging. This is a pretty narrow range of tools, though. And under this system, it’s not even clear that an AI judge judging a human storyteller wouldn’t be better than just using an advanced AI Director like Left 4 Dead. I think the AI story judge idea is dead; we’d be better off just investing more resources in a more advanced AI Director.

The second option is to allow the players who experience the story to rate how cool they thought it was. This can only work if they don’t have any other incentives to rate the storytellers low or high. For example, it won’t work if they are in direct or implied competition with the storytellers. This is difficult to pull off because multiplayer gamers tend to be so competitive. I think it might be doable, though.

Here are a couple possible models:

  1. MMO Framework: The first way is to have players compete not just with the people in the current game, but within a larger framework. Imagine an MMO in which you gain experience in two ways: first, through the traditional method of playing with your character, except that now the challenges are presented to you by other players. Second, you gain experience by creating great story experiences for others, who will then judge you highly, thus giving you experience points. This doesn’t necessarily need to be tied to character advancement either. Players could simply be assigned a permanent, persistent storyteller score which is very visible to everyone, like an eBay seller’s rating. Nobody will want to play with someone who has a poor storyteller rating.
  2. Forced Points-Giving: The second way is to force players to give a fixed amount of points to dole out. Imagine a game with six players. At any time, four are storyplayers and two storytellers. The game will proceed in three rounds. Each player is a storyteller for one round and a storyplayer for two. At the end of the game, players are forced to vote on which of the two stories they played was more enjoyable. This clear choice between two experiences may be workable for most players. The “voting up your enemy” problem still exists, though. You might be afraid that the better story will be voted better than yours and thus vote for the worse one. In order for this system to work, the culture and presentation of the game would have to be very non-competitive.
  3. Eliminate Storyteller vs Storyplayer Competition: The third way is to only have storytellers in competition with storytellers, and storyplayers in competition with other storyplayers. Imagine a game with one set of storyplayers, who are always storyplayers and who, within this game, only play stories and rate them. There are also a set of storytellers who are in competition with each other, and who get to take turns telling stories to the storyplayers. Whoever pleases the storyplayers the most wins. Since the storytellers and storyplayers aren’t in competition with each other at all, storyplayers are more likely to rate their enjoyment of the stories honestly.

I’m really not sure exactly how to do this. There are still many questions to be resolved. I want to discuss this concept with anyone and everyone. So consider this an open call for discussion. Please, if you’re reading this and you have an opinion or idea, write it in the comments or email me!


  1. Is there any precendent for multiplayer games that are scored based on players judging each other instead of objective criteria?
  2. Is there any significant proportion of players capable of or interested in creating an interesting storyline or accurately judging one presented to them?
  3. Is it possible to do this non-competitively while maintaining player interest? Could this fit into a larger noncompetitive framework, a la The Sims or Second Life?
  4. How much power can we give storytellers? If we give them unlimited power will they simply abuse it? How many tools can they handle?
  5. Can normal people really fathom the concept of constructing an experience for someone else? Is it possible to train them to do it using various tutorials and tooltips or an AI advisor?
  6. Do we need more time than a normal game session to create a really compelling story? Does this mean we need a broader framework which can spread games out over several days?

My Favourite New Design Technologies in 2008

Technology doesn’t just mean physical devices. The word also refers to techniques. In game design, we develop technology that has nothing to do with CPUs or game engines. We develop design technologies. This is my list of the most important developments in design technology in 2008. Note that this is heavily biased towards the types of games I like to play; I’ve probably missed many important developments.

Mirror's Edge4. First-Person Body Awareness (Mirror’s Edge)

We’ve been leading up to this one for a long time. Doom introduced hand models which move when you walk. By Call of Duty 4 the player’s view itself was being pushed around when you were shot or reloaded or sprinted. Condemned has scripted sequences in which you were strangled, tackled, and thrown down stairs – all in first person. Nobody made a whole game about it until now, though. And holy crap, it worked.

Mirror’s Edge is the only game that’s made me feel like I wasn’t a floating gun. The experience of sliding under vents, smashing through doors, sprinting to top speed on a straightaway, is uniquely visceral and satisfying. It made the whole game worth it for me. I hope we’ll see this concept applied to other games soon, even if they aren’t just about freerunning.

Far Cry 23. Complete Experience Games (Far Cry 2)

In Far Cry 2, you live the life of a mercenary in a war-torn African state. This doesn’t mean, as with most games, that you live snippets of this mercenary’s life. You live the entire thing. You get to get sick with malaria and drive to the other corner of the country just for some damn pills. You get to sneak by a hundred guard stations on the way there. You get to be physically patted down every time you enter your boss’s place of business. You get to walk miles to find a car after yours was destroyed. You get to serendipitously reach a perfect viewpoint just as the sun is setting and a herd of zebras crosses the plain below.

By any traditional measure, Far Cry 2‘s crescendo moments are separated by far too much driving, walking, picking up weapons, taking phone calls, and searching for pills. For the first 8 hours I was simply annoyed with it. As I kept playing, though, I began to get more and more immersed in the world. I finally hit a point where I stepped into the persona. It finally clicked when I realized that it wasn’t really a game about shooting. It was a game about being someone else.

We’ve seen elements of this before in games like Half-Life and World of Warcraft, but no game has created this levels of immersion with the method. In Half-Life it just seemed like a clever little way to transition levels without breaking fiction or game flow. World of Warcraft is too gamey to really feel that immersive. But playing FC2 feels like living someone’s life. Most of real life is relatively slow and mundane, and so it is in FC2. That’s all right. For this game, the expanses of slow time worked because they made you really notice the little things, and made the panic moments stand out even more.

Left 4 Dead2. Narrative-Centric Multiplayer Technologies (Left 4 Dead)

There are several major pieces to this one, but they all work towards the same goal: creating a multiplayer experience focused wholly around an emergent story. The pieces are:

  • Asymmetrical Roles and Player-controlled Enemies. For a long time we’ve had this idea that players on different teams have to have basically the same role with regards to each other. Sure, teams in games like Starcraft could be asymmetrical, but they didn’t have to be. Unreal Tournament had Assault mode, which involved teams attacking and defending objectives, much like L4D, but the two teams’ abilities were still the same. We haven’t seen a major game which worked so well in which one team’s entire purpose was basically to grief the other team, in which the role of these two teams was so drastically different. It almost feels like having a dungeon master in a game of Dungeons and Dragons, something I haven’t felt in a game before.
  • Named multiplayer characters. We saw hints of this in Team Fortress 2, when the developers chose to assign each class it’s own nationality, backstory, and personality. That was a knockout success. Pushing the concept even further, Valve created Left 4 Dead around four individual characters with their own personalities. Left 4 Dead is a far stronger game for being centered around the iconic individuals, as opposed to generic randomized or player-chosen survivors.
  • Context-triggered dialogue. I’ve often noticed during my own design work that players tend to miss a lot of important stuff on their first playthrough. They’ll miss dialogue, not see important scripted scenes, and so on. Left 4 Dead takes this problem and turns it into a solution, by including a large amount of dialogue, but only playing a small part of it on any particular playthrough. As players repeat the same scenarios over and over, they get more and more content each time. It’s a brilliant way to keep feeding the player new content after their tenth playthrough. It also means that the character can be deep and rich, even though they only have time to say a few lines each game. Their characterization builds up over many playthroughs.

I also include the AI director as a part of this, but it’s significant enough by itself to warrant it’s own entry.

Left 4 Dead1. AI Director (Left 4 Dead)

We’ve been building up to this one for a long time. Pac Man and Space Invaders had static enemy placement via code. Wolfenstein had designer-placed enemies in unique levels. Half-Life had scripted spawns and events in unique levels. By Call of Duty 4, this scripting had evolved and became more elaborate until it was so fluid that the script triggers were almost invisible.

But it was still a stupid system. Every time a player clears a room and knows that, even though he is on an alien planet full of monsters, he can sit around for as long as he wants without being bothered, we’re breaking pacing, immersion, realism. We’ve been doing this for so long and I don’t think we even noticed it any more.

Valve has finally broken this faulty paradigm. We’ve now got a working, centralized software entity which is focused exclusively on tracking and managing the player’s experience as a whole. And it works wonderfully.

L4D didn’t even push it that far, either. All it really does is spawn enemies and pickups. But there’s still potential for so much more. It’s probably better than Valve kept the design focused because it’s a first step, but I think that there is much more potential to this incredibly simple concept. We could see it extended to open-world games like Fallout 3, and create wildlands encounters based on your loadout, your quests, and your playstyle. We can have it revise level paths, time of day, or NPC attitudes. We can have it draw from a library of rich situations it can throw at you, instead of just crowds of enemies. We can script or trigger events based on player state and have them play out wherever the player is, instead of being tied to a trigger in some location. We can focus on designing player experiences instead of just physical spaces.

My Favourite Bioshock Audio Log

Played through Bioshock again recently. This audio log jumped out at me:

“On the surface, I once bought a forest. The Parasites claimed that the land belonged to God, and demanded that I establish a public park there. Why? So the rabble could stand slack-jawed under the canopy and pretend that it was paradise earned. When Congress moved to nationalize my forest, I burnt it to the ground. God did not plant the seeds of this Arcadia, I did.”
-Andrew Ryan

Stupid is Smart

Naive design is what a 14 year old video gamer does when you ask him what kind of game he would want to play. He doesn’t know anything about design theory or analysis. He doesn’t understand game balance, player training, system performance. For him, everything in the game is real.

I don’t recommend doing naive design alone. But it’s an awesome part of a designer’s toolbox for two reasons.

First, it’s an awesome way of coming up with new ideas. Dwarf Fortress is a great example. The interface is so incomprehensible that reading the online wiki is an absolute necessity. I’ve read the Adams brothers’ changelog and as far as I can tell, there’s almost no design thought process at all. And the final product is impenetrable, totally unbalanced, downright mean. This is a game whose slogan is, “Losing is fun!”

Dwarf Fortress, aka Headache Inducing Graphics

Dwarf Fortress also has some of the most unique and compelling dynamics of any game I’ve ever played. Dwarves track a stupidly large number of “thoughts”, all of which affect their mood and behaviour. They’ve each got a thousand variables, skill levels, relationships. There are a hundred resources, all acquired in different ways, many of which are impossible to find. These mechanics are laughably information-heavy. There’s way too much to keep track of. But some of the dynamics which arise from this soup of variables are heartwarmingly (and heartbreakingly) lifelike. This is all unique to DF. None of this could have been developed by a trained designer.

Besides brainstorming, there’s another reason why naive design is useful.  It’s also a great sanity check on a finished design.

Naive design means taking on the viewpoint of the majority of our players. Gamers don’t care about design theory. As I wrote in my Scaffolding and Masonry article, they break games into a totally different set of conceptual pieces than us. Many analytically valid designs seem rather uninteresting from the naive viewpoint. Designers should all try just forgetting all our design theory now and then and seeing if what we’re making really makes sense to random people on the street. They’re the people we’re selling to, after all.

So, step back every now and then and suppress the analytical mind. Sometimes, stupid is smart.

Game Word of the Week

Bottomless (adj)

A bottomless game has more strategic depth than can be explored within years of study. Examples include Chess, Starcraft, and Street Fighter 2. Bottomless games require constant thought and re-strategizing to play properly.Expert players will be constantly inventing new strategies and counter-strategies.

Usage: People have been inventing new Starcraft strategies for years! The game is truly bottomless.

Comment: Bottomlessness is necessary for any game that is going to be played competitively for a long time after it’s release. It basically means that no matter how good you are, you will never be able to execute a degenerate strategy.