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Game Audit Pitfalls (2): Bad Assumptions

Plan B Last week, I presented some pitfalls and pro-tips for developers looking to audit their game design or narrative materials with a focus on how to set off in the right direction for a productive audit. In this second and final instalment, I look at some of the bad assumptions that can render audit feedback useless or just downright misleading.

 

Pitfall: We Can Ignore Story, Right?

The belief that “story doesn’t matter” because it’s all about the game design is endemic to the games industry. If by “story” we’re talking about the narrative material that occurs entirely outside of game play (such as cut scenes), then there is some truth to this, but even then it’s all too easy to be distracted by personal or cultural prejudices. It’s easy to say that Metal Gear Solid succeeded despite it’s overly verbose story materials – hell, I even believe this commonplace myself. But it’s striking that fans of Metal Gear Solid rarely complain about it being verbose. Similarly, when fans of Final Fantasy (from VII onwards, at least) talk about what they love about those games, they don't complain about the excessive story content provided they liked the game overall. The vast majority of players (93%) recognise that story adds to their enjoyment of a game – and they should know!

More importantly than this, however, the relationship between a game design and its narrative content – what I would call, since writing Imaginary Games, its fiction – isn’t just peripheral. Puzzle games not withstanding, no major game I am aware of has succeeded by creating a dynamite set of game mechanics and then deciding upon an appropriate gloss (although occasionally people take someone else’s design and then apply a different setting). You don’t add the setting after working out the entire design because the fiction of a game isn’t peripheral. If you start with the design of, say Sid Meier’s Pirates!, you are not going to finish up with a pet management game, a World War II shooter or a flight sim. You’re going to end up with a pirate game. You can transplant it to fantasy or science fiction settings, but you aren’t going to interfere with the core fiction of your reference title because it is integral to the mechanics. And this is true of just about everything except the most abstract of designs (such as puzzle games).

Most game auditors will come at the relationship between game mechanics and setting in an odd way – some will expressly disavow the importance of “story”, and developers should be cautious of these viewpoints when they emerge. The number one reason for the success of a videogame – any videogame, targeting any audience – is that it appeals to its players. And the first port of call for that appeal is the fiction, the setting. Of course, players want a game that’s fun to play too, but contrary to common opinion there is much more latitude about a game’s mechanics than there is about its fiction. If players don’t want to play in your setting, they aren’t playing your game no matter how fun it might be. As soon as you’ve chosen your setting, you have locked in your audience as anyone who enjoys imagining that kind of fiction, and excluded anyone for whom that setting is a turn off.

Pro Tip: You usually can’t fix problems in the fiction of your game by an external audit – so your team needs to be on the ball about it. The problem is, most game design auditors erroneously believe that the fiction is entirely mutable, and most game narrative auditors are brought in far too late to conceivably suggest a sensible change of direction. If setting is a concern (and it should be!), consider getting a quick narrative audit of your concept documents before you do anything else.

  

Pitfall: What Matters to Your Players?

I’ve spent my entire career as a consultant trying to spread the word that players are more diverse than the games industry gives credit. It's a position that was outlandish when I first started preaching it, but thanks to Nintendo, social games and the ever-widening audience for play, I have ultimately been vindicated. Yet despite this, the majority of people working in the games industry still plan projects as if the cause of success is internal to the systems of the game – if we just get our systems right, the audience will appear. Perhaps. But you would be wise to know what matters to your players rather than just believing that “if you build it, they will come”.

Game design audit’s can produce strange feedback when it comes to taking into account the needs of the players, and it is wise not to take all such comments at face value. This is especially true for a game that is targeting a non-standard audience – which is to say, for a game targeting someone other than 15-25 year old males. When an auditor writes terms like “players” or “kids” in sentences like “players don’t want such-and-such”, be suspicious. All players are not alike, and things that some players detest are bread-and-butter to other players. The more qualified such statements are, the less problematic they become, but even then no-one has a perfect handle on the audience for games. How could they? It’s an incredibly diverse range of people, and one player’s deal-breaker is another’s driver of play.

The most secure test of a game is play trials with actual players, but of course you have to have already built the game before this is possible, and the purpose of game audits is usually to troubleshoot before investing heavily in materials. The best sanity check is often comparison to other successful titles: if your key reference title enjoyed commercial success but has few rivals, you’re exploring a potentially viable niche – but be sure to explore why the game has few rivals. Conversely, if your key reference title enjoyed commercial success but already has loads of competitors, you’re probably wasting your time ploughing money into an already crowded market. A great game audit should be able to discuss your project in the context of other titles in the market, and in the context of your intended audience – audits that talk about games as if they were one-size-fits-all will not help you.

Pro Tip: Everyone wants the next big thing, but no-one knows what it is. It’s risky going after a completely original design, but not as risky as developing a title that has hundreds of competitors. Game audits will often be unable to see originality as a plus, and frankly it often isn’t a plus. Most original titles fail. However, if the audit steers you towards crowded markets, you’d be better off taking the risk than playing safe – because as soon as there are more than three successful franchises courting a particular genre and audience, it’s no longer a safe move to try and tag along. Take chances but do so wisely – and a good audit can help you do this.

Disagree? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.


Game Audit Pitfalls (1): Right Directions

Right Direction Over the years, I’ve been involved in dozens of game audits – the process whereby the content of the game (either on paper, or as a build) is assessed externally from the developer in order to help improve the project. I’ve been on both the kicking and the receiving team for audits – as the consultant brought in to provide feedback, and as part of the team getting that feedback. Game audits can be exceptionally useful. But they can also be a colossal waste of time and money. I would recommend that any team considers auditing their design or narrative materials – but I would also advise taking the feedback with a pinch of salt.

In this two-part series, I’ll offer some tips and warnings about auditing a game that may help developers going down this path. This week, I’ll look at how to set off in the right direction for a productive game audit – and what will happen if you don’t get it right.

 

Pitfall: Did They Get Everything They Needed?

The single biggest reason that a game audit fails miserably is when the auditor isn’t given everything they need to understand the game. Often this happens because the game design documentation is inadequate at capturing the development culture that the game is created by (which is unavoidable). Sometimes it happens because the design isn’t explicit about its reference titles, inviting a string of erroneous assumptions about what the game is supposed to be. Sometimes it happens because of a failure to take into account different target audiences. And sometimes it happens because the auditor is kept in the dark about information they actually need to do their job.

The worst of these I’ve been involved in was a Western-style cRPG project with a design entailing a span of many decades, and a central character passing through different stages of life. An audit was called by the publisher on the story materials – and the auditor was given the Narrative Design but not the Game Design documentation. As a result, they assessed the story materials as if the game was an action game, and provided feedback that was so wildly wrong-headed it was essentially impossible to get a useful direction from it. Fortunately in that case, I had subcontracted for an independent story review with an auditor who was given the design documents to take into account, but what the two audits revealed was the radical gulf between the understanding of the publisher and the understanding of the developer. This project was never completed.

Pro Tip: if you intend to audit design or narrative documentation, make sure the people in charge of those documents know about the audit and can prepare the documents with an external perspective in mind. Most game documentation is intended for the developer’s eyes only, with the decision processes undocumented because the team themselves don’t need a record of this. For audit, those decisions can be crucial, so make sure the paperwork includes context, reference titles and justifications for apparently odd decisions.

 

Pitfall: Are They the Right Person For the Job?

I’ve noticed that developers and publishers jump at the chance to get a “big name” game designer or writer involved in their project, thinking that commercial success is something that can rub off in the audit process like luck from kissing the Blarney Stone. It is my experience that while “big name” auditors can provide stellar feedback under the right circumstances, no game has enjoyed commercial success as a result of this kind of ‘star audit’.

One of the chief problems in this regard is that while most game designers consider themselves able to design any kind of game, no game designer is actually equipped to do so. If you have never worked on a role-playing game (tabletop or computerised), your shouldn’t be auditing one. If the game is targeting teenage girls, don’t get an audit from an expert in First Person Shooters. It seems obvious when you spell it out, but everyone has their strengths and weaknesses and the worst kind of audit is one that involves fitting a square peg into a round hole.

Although everyone who has built a name for themselves as a game designer or writer has (by definition) successful titles they can point to, what this usually means is that they have worked within a development culture capable of delivering games of that style, genre or for that particular target audience. They may well know what has worked for them – but do they know what doesn’t work for your style of game by virtue of their success on their style of game? The risk of getting in a superstar to audit is that what they really know is how to make games in a particular way – unless you’re certain you’re developing in an equivalent circumstance, their feedback is less likely to help you than critical input from someone specialising in the appropriate areas.

Pro Tip: Audit feedback is most useful when it can help you avoid mistakes, and for this prior experience within a particular field relevant to your project is more important than specific commercial success. The reasons specific titles succeed involve far more than just the game design or narrative materials. Market success is not a transferable skill – but experience of development problems is transferable. Hire auditors with breadth of experience wherever possible, and avoid “big name” audits except when the crossover in design is a near-perfect fit.

Next week: Bad Assumptions


Clusterpuck

The puzzle game Clusterpuck, designed by International Hobo and developed by Codename, arrived on PlayStation Home yesterday! The concept and design was developed by Joel Atkinson, under my ever-watchful eye – but neither of us have actually played it yet! During development, Codename sent us videos of player trials and that was our only point of reference for the game.

We’d love to know what people make of Clusterpuck, so please leave a comment if you’ve played it.


The Role of Failure in Gameplay

ACSW How important is failure to the enjoyment of digital games? I contend it is the central issue in designing for an audience, since players who want to strive against impossible odds and eventually triumph must fail in order to enjoy their success, while the vast majority of mass market players will tolerate only a modest degree of failure as part of their play experience.

For many years I have advocated attention to the issue of whether gameplay should be fail-repeat – as the old school arcade games always were – or fail-continue, allowing the player to proceed even if they can’t master a particular challenge. It’s taken a long time, but the industry is finally catching up to my argument that if you want to reach a wide audience, you need to offer them tools to prevent the bottlenecking associated with fail-repeat. But there’s a cost – because fail-repeat is also important for players who are triumph-seekers, and who need to strive against impossible odds to get their eventual reward.

In this piece, I review the issues of balancing fail-repeat against fail-continue, specifically in the context of the Air Conflicts games, where I have been lucky enough to be able to experiment with new game structures for better management of frustration.

 

Infuriating Failures

Recently, I was playing Nitrome gamesCanary (at the suggestion of longtime ihobo stalward, Roman Age) and thinking about the role of repetition in gameplay, as I often do. Canary has a great central mechanic involving using a laser to cut through rock, which then drops down and can be pushed about. But it has a fixed rate of scrolling, so failure often happens as a result of bad screen positioning. This in itself would be tolerable, but alas failure means you start the entire level at the beginning, without any check-pointing, and this caused me to rapidly lose interest in the game.

Fail-repeat has long been a topic of interest for me – see this old post of mine from 2005 on Ratcheted Progress, for instance, which although rough around the edges is still quite pertinent. I have long advocated a fail-continue structure in which the player is not required to repeat gameplay sections as a vital tool for reaching out to a mass market audience – and I have often been met with incredulity and derision by publishers and developers stuck inside gamer hobbyist thinking. I wrote about this in 2008 under the title Freedom to Fail. Last year, I was thrilled to find no lesser a games industry celebrity than Miyamoto-san endorsing fail-continue in the design of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, implementing features I’ve been experimenting for many years.

It is important to recognise that for an important minority of gamer hobbyists, failure is a vital element of their play. Such players are not usually conscious of this circumstance – although they may recognise that what they enjoy is the intense states of emotional arousal games can illicit in them, characterised by heart-pounding excitement and furious anger that motivates continuing play. I have linked the role of anger in perseverance to testosterone, on the basis of recent neurobiological research, and am confident this stance will be validated. But I have written considerably less about the intensity of excitement that often (but not always) goes hand-in-hand with the anger.

It is well known that there is a relationship between risk and reward – gambling thrives on this coupling. Real time digital games also thrive on risk-reward relationships; to generate strong emotional responses from players it is not strictly necessary that they fail provided the cost of failure is sufficiently high. This is why “permadeath” (when failure has permanent consequences) creates such an extreme play experience – the risk is perceived as gigantic. It is also why permadeath will never be an especially popular game mechanic, since these extreme costs for failure radically winnow the possible players to a very tiny pool of diehards.

The main cost of failure that players are “threatened” with is repetition – complete this challenge, or you will have to do it all again. There is a fine line to be walked here, because failure is always frustrating to some degree, and frustration (being an experience of anger, connected with the neurotransmitter norepinephrine) is a cumulative emotion – the more frustration, the angrier you get. Become too angry, and you stop playing. This is where testosterone comes in, since one important effect of this chemical is to increase tolerance to anger and foster perseverance, allowing testosterone-infused players to endure frustrations that seem incomprehensible to many observers.

Because the risk of repetition is used to enhance the reward of success – to create the experience of fiero, triumph over adversity – there is an important role for failure in play. But because perseverance in the face of frustrations is a minority interest, related partly to testosterone, games that leverage these kind of mechanics narrow their audience quite significantly. There’s a reason that Nintendogs can sell 24 million units – four times as many units as Gears of War – and testosterone-moderated tolerance for frustration is an important part of the story of why the latter game appeals to a much smaller audience. The fail-repeat gameplay that violent action games depend upon is both the reason for their success, and the reason that the ceiling for their success is always radically less than it is for a true mass market game.

 

Freedom from Failure

The alternative to fail-repeat is what I have termed fail-continue structures: failure does not end the game, the game simply continues. There may be rewards for succeeding that are not won, but with fail-continue the player’s progression through the game is not linked to succeeding at specific tasks. This has become an absolutely vital force in commercial game design for the mass market, as the lineage of games that passes through Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing right into the heart of the Facebook “farming” games all attest to the increasing commercial relevance of game structures where failure is either a trivial or a non-existent element of play.

One of the main places I’ve been experimenting with fail-continue is in the Air Conflicts games, which are made by the development team 3 Division, a part of Slovakian developer Games Farm. The first of these games, called simply Air Conflicts, was my first successful experiment with fail-continue, using an approach similar to early games such as Defender of the Crown: failing in a mission is part of the story, and the narrative continues regardless (achieved in Air Conflicts by having a squadron of planes that is restocked as the player succeeds, so losing a plane is meaningful). In the second game, Attack on Pearl Harbor, a compromise was reached between the triumph-seeking player’s desire to strive to overcome and the mass market desire never to be bottlenecked, and the fail-continue feature was simplified to something very simple: the choice, after each mission, of whether to replay it. Want to beat it, and earn the emotional reward of fiero? Try as often as you like. Don’t want to? Just move onto the next mission.

The beauty of this mechanic is that it leaves it entirely up to the player how to approach their play. If you are what I have termed a Conqueror style player, you will want to repeat the challenge until you win. But if you aren’t, you might prefer to move on rather than get stuck. Offering a choice to replay or continue after each mission failure provides a simple and elegant choice, one that we have used again in the third game in the trilogy, Air Conflicts: Secret Wars (pictured above). For this one, the idea of a hanger-full of planes has returned, so accepting failure means you can’t fly the plane you just crashed until its repaired, a mechanic that works surprisingly well to mediate replay of specific missions. There is also a limit on the number of skips per chapter, a requirement since if you don’t complete enough mission objectives you don’t earn new planes and thus find yourself at a radical disadvantage.

A new style of fail-continue was added to this new game. The story of Secret Wars involves fighting alongside the resistance movements of World War II, using real battles and events – often with very depressing outcomes. At the end of each chapter, a flashback reveals some of the backstory by using some equally depressing battles set in World War I. During the flashbacks, a narrator character – one of several pilots who flew in the Great War – tells their story, and the events are echoed in the play of the mission. Because it’s a flashback, it makes no sense to fail, so if you crash or are shot down the narrator remarks that “it didn’t happen like that…” and you take to the skies again. You can’t fail these flashbacks – they serve the narrative role of a cut scene, but the player is in control of their plane throughout. I see this as a really effective storytelling technique, that also happens to be fail-continue.

Alas, when all is said and done, the Air Conflicts games aren’t going to enjoy astronomical commercial success because they are at heart arcade flight sims – I hope that more players will discover these great little games, but I know that there is only a limited audience for any game requiring three-dimensional control skills (such as a flight sim – even an arcade-style flying game). However, I hope that my experiments with fail-continue structure here will serve as an inspiration for new possibilities in other genres – and even if no-one else pays attention to what we’ve been doing with these games

 

Conclusion

Players who want to be driven to the edge of their limits will always be an important part of the market for digital games – and for the most part, this audience will always be comprised primarily of teenage boys, not uncoincidentally, those who are in the grip of significant swings in testosterone levels. But as the rising cost of development on the power consoles has sky-rocketed, the number of franchises that can compete for this audience has been radically reduced. There is almost no point in entering this arena now unless you have the resources to compete at the level of, say, Call of Duty. Not making the grade (for instance, Brink), is a costly business, and can even result in studios closing (although I believe Splash Damage will live to fight again). For new companies, targeting this market is suicide.

Where there are still opportunities for new game developers is in the mass market for games, and one of the key ways in which game design can help open up new markets is by finding new solutions to the problem of failure. The wider audience for games is not interested in failing, or at least, is not willing to tolerate a high cost of failure (of course, some failures are very low cost – fail at Bejewelled, and you lose very little, and generally want to play again right away). Because of this aversion to repetition, frustration and costly mistakes, exploring new solutions to the problem of failure in games has the potential to be highly profitable.

Fail-continue structures are one way of reaching out to this wider audience – and there are many different ways to mount this kind of  mechanism, most of which have never been tried. Some may prove to be the foundation of entirely new game genres, and those developers that discover these untapped niches stand to make astronomical profits. Perhaps I’ll be lucky and be involved in one of these games, but even if I’m not, I’m still glad to have been ahead of the curve on the role of failure in games, and, over the course of the last five years, to have been proved correct in respect of the commercial importance of freedom from failure.


Best Learning Game Award

Greenmyplace_certificate I'm pleased to announce that Green My Place, a serious game project for which International Hobo has been serving as design consultants, was awarded first prize in the category of "Best Non-Professional Functional Game" in the 1st European Best Learning Game Competition. Congratulations to Ben and the rest of the team at CKIR for their success in the contest – it's been a great pleasure working with you on this project, and the recognition is well-deserved.