The Craft of Game Design Cannot Be Measured By Any Metric

Mario Drug BoxIf game design is a craft, what becomes of it when game development is driven solely by financial metrics? Does any of the craft remain? Or are games reduced to mere commercial pit traps, luring in and monetising their unwitting victims?

A little over a decade ago, when my friend and colleague Richard Boon and I were writing 21st Century Game Design, I had predicted that this century in games was going to be characterised by a new focus upon understanding players, and that this would be attained by various models of player behaviour. I suggest (with the benefit of hindsight) that this general claim was correct, and that we have gone from an era where game design was dominated by dogmatic assumptions and self-satisfying design practices (although neither of these have gone away…) to one where understanding how players relate to games is an inescapable part of the videogame industry.

But we made one crucial error in that book. My assumption had been that modelling player behaviour entailed understanding how to satisfy play needs, which is to say, having a positive, inclusive, moral and practical relationship with players. But the dominant forms of player modelling right now have absolutely no need to understand how to satisfy players in any form, because the principal form of model we are using right now is analytic metrics – and these metrics are blind to any aspect of the mental states of the player whatsoever. If our image of game design in the 21st century was that the industry was going to be making money by creating games that deeply satisfied their players, what we are actually facing now is an industry that makes the majority of its money by simply analysing where the leaks are in their cashflow, and acting as digital predators to suck spare change out of players’ digital wallets.

It may be helpful to look at the key metrics at use today to verify what I’m claiming. Firstly, there are the measures of activity – Daily Active Users (DAUs), Sessions, Stickiness (DAU/MAU), Retention and its inverse, Churn. Then, the measures of monetisation – Conversion Rate (percentage of players making purchases), ARPDAU and ARPPU (Average Revenue Per Daily Active User, or Per Paying User). Also, game economy measures for Sources, Sinks, and the Flow Rate of in-game currencies, all geared towards engineering sufficient sparseness that players will be encouraged to pay money for advantages. And that’s what it’s all about: squeezing money out of players' impulses – although in analytics, there are no players, only users, just like the narcotics industry. As the company Game Analytics observe with the admirable unvarnished honesty that belongs to these thoroughly pragmatic commercial practices:

Successful free-to-play games create long-term relationships with users. Users that enjoy the experience enough are willing to pay to for a competitive advantage. A game needs to have strong retention to have time to build this relationship. (Emphasis added.)

One of the most coherent supporters of the free-to-play business model where such metrics dominate is Nicholas Lovell, author of The Curve and regular on the same speaking circuit as me. We first met at Develop Liverpool, many years back, and our paths still occasionally cross. He views the challenges of that side of the market as not so much about monetisation (he rankles at being called a ‘monetisation consultant’) as about retention, in accordance with the quote above. But I read very little from him about the craft of game design, and his recent talks have tended to be framed in terms of the keywords ‘Acquire, Retain, Monetise’, which sounds like a scaled down version of the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition. Nicholas continually insists our industry can self regulate itself away from abusive practices – but I still don’t see any sign of this, nor indeed do I detect much interest in doing so.

The focus on metrics over game design has brought the videogame industry closer to its less reputable but more profitable cousin ‘gaming’ – what's commonly known as gambling – and with it, we have a host of ethical questions about what we are doing, none of which can be merely presupposed. We urgently need a debate on monetisation practices to establish what ethical metrics consist of, but the industry does not want to have this talk. I offered a dynamite panel to GDC this year on this topic, but it was knocked out of contention instantly. The industry is afraid to have the conversation, but until we are ready to address questions about what metrics mean for game design as a craft, we have a serious unaddressed problem that affects the integrity of the games industry. Of course, in purely capitalistic terms there is no integrity, there is only money. But money is just another of our imaginary games – it just happens to be one that we all take very, very seriously, since we have lost our ability to feed ourselves without it.

One game designer who has taken a stand on the ethics of monetisation is former Free Realms creative lead Laralyn McWilliams, who quit a job out of disgust over the issues I’m highlighting here. In an interview back in 2014 entitled “The problem with ‘best practices’ in free-to-play”, Laralyn reports how designing for ‘friction’, which is to say, monetising player frustration, finally became something she couldn’t endorse:

…a designer came to me and said there was a spot where it got really rough; there weren't enough quests, and the grind was really terrible. He wanted to add five or ten quests to make it feel better…. But when I looked at our numbers that was the spot where we had our best monetisation. The awful feeling of that grind was getting people to spend money, so I had to say no to something that would make players happy because it would cut our revenue. At that point I said, ‘Nope,’ and I got out of social games.

Against the ruthless focus on the bottom line is the possibility, if nothing else, that game design can fulfil its calling as a craft, and that informed practitioners of that craft can satisfy the play needs of many different kinds of players. This does happen, even in the battleground of metrics, and developers that are willing to commit to doing so can build a loyal fanbase that supports them, and helps other players to find them. It’s a harder path, to be sure, because it means making commercial artworks that are worthwhile instead of just cranking the sausage machine of rehashed ideas. Nothing good comes without effort. But if we want to walk this path, it entails more than simply resisting the purely metrics-driven concept of commercial games.

Sadly, indie developers who have avoided going down the predatory monetisation path have tended to simply default to making what they like to play and then gambling upon finding an audience for it, which I view as a hugely risky way to pursue a career in game design. I’ve seen dozens (perhaps now hundreds) of developers fail doing this... it’s simply not a good enough plan to trust that – by chance – your play needs will align with enough players to magically make ends meet. As Rami Ismail of Vlambeer suggested to me when I accused him of giving this exact advice:

...I've told developers to make what they want to make - [but] never in that vacuum. My entire existence as a public figure exists because I was one of the very few prolific 2010-generation indies that was yelling about taking business seriously, engaging with publishers and marketing, and doing the work to make your game visible.

21st Century Game Design will be going out-of-print soon; its multinational publisher has withdrawn from publishing books about making games entirely, which in itself says something. Our first book’s core vision – that there are methods for game design, but there is no single, perfect method for game design – remains as true today as it ever did. Our deployment of that vision through a fusion of horizons between psychology of play and the history of videogames remains, I believe, an extremely fruitful way of understanding the craft of game design. Alas, the games industry didn’t choose this path. It choose instead an unholy schism between dogmatic indie design on the one hand, and pragmatic monetisation design on the other. Personally, I feel that the artworks we call games deserve more than this, but I appear to be in the minority. In a games industry divided between a stubborn individuality unable to reliably feed itself, and investment-glutted money farms, there seems little room left for cultivating the craft of satisfying players.

Agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear your comments! Have a blog? Any and all replies at other blogs will be promoted here to keep the conversation going – just let me know the link in the comments or on Twitter.

Pokémon GO Round-up

Before you ask, I’m not playing Pokémon GO, nor do I plan too. I’m a father, a writer, and a business owner – I don’t have time to play an MMO. But it’s interesting to me, since this is another example of a game where the fictional content is far and away the critical factor in its success. My old MUD crowd played Niantic’s previous game, Ingress, and had a lot of fun with it – but anyone who has ever enjoyed any aspect of Pokémon is playing GO, and that’s not just the power of branding – it’s the power of fictional worlds.

Here, in case you missed them, are the best articles so far about Pokémon GO:

  • Firstly, do not miss Raph Koster’s piece, AR is an MMO. The title may not grab you, but this is Raph on top form, reiterating a point he and I have both made (and that he made first…) which is that the important thing about both MMOs and AAA console games is that they are worlds – and Niantic need to wise up fast to the consequences of a player community this large sharing one world.
  • At the border of paranoia is Omari Akil’s Warning: Pokemon GO is a Death Sentence if you are a Black Man. Thanks to my old school chum, Simon Cox, for drawing my attention to this one.
  • Omari’s fears are grounded in the horrific reality of race relations in the US, of course, so it’s perhaps worth reminding everyone that there are more prosaic risks entailed in playing a game on your phone while you walk around a city… Consider the 15-year old girl in Pennsylvania who got hit by a car while allegedly playing the game.
  • As for Nintendo, the total value of their stock (their market capitalisation) has gained $11 billion (!) since the game was released…
  • …but as Steve Schaefer at Forbes correctly points out, there’s no way the game can deliver income commensurate to that increase in stock value, so Nintendo ought to prepare themselves for the other side of that particular mountain.

June Games News

Some stories from my blog cluster that caught my attention:

  • Valve is being sued for not shutting down the gambling at sites such as CSGO lounge, and thus being implicitly involved in illegal gambling. Note that no-one has yet sued them for the internal economy of the drops-with-microtransactions in the game, which could equally be considered infringing on gambling laws from a certain light. (Story via Slashdot).
  • At the other end of the economic scale, Gamesbrief has a piece on Hadean Lands a low-rent contemporary text adventure selling on Steam for £8.99, to which you can add DLC to make it £26.99. What’s the DLC? A Certificate you sign to promise you won’t use hints to complete it. Clever marketing for a game that adheres to the puzzle-driven practices of a classic genre.
  • Meanwhile, ETC Press, the new publisher of my new philosophy book, Wikipedia Knows Nothing, has released Volume 1 of Analog Game Studies. While ‘analogue games’ is a foul piece of retroactive slander against boardgames, this is a magnificent collection of scholarly work on the form – and you can get it for free.
  • In sadder boardgame news, Goro Hasegawa has died at the age of 83. Hasegawa-san is famous for creating the boardgame Othello, which famously marketed with the phrase “A minute to learn… a lifetime to master”. (Story via Purple Pawn).
  • And finally, one of Purple Pawn’s writers, Yehuda, is also my favourite capsule film reviewer. Along with other reviews, check out his dismantlement of X-Men: Apocalypse, which faithfully recreates the tedium of Apocalypse in the comics.

Some major ihobo news coming soon – watch this space!

The Aesthetic Flaws of Games - in Polish

The wonderful Ewa Stasiak has begun work translating some of my work on games into Polish over at a new website Hobo Nest. The first post is based on last year’s The Aesthetics Flaws of Games, which she translates as Wady Estetyczne Gier. Here’s an extract:

Sednem jest, by zrozumieć, że reguły gry, jej mechanika i systemy są reprezentacjami bardzo szczególnego rodzaju – mianowicie reprezentacjami matematycznymi. Ważne jest, by to sobie uświadomić, gdyż nieczęsto zauważamy, że liczby i formuły są u podstaw przedstawieniowe, mimo iż jest to powszechnie przyjęte w ogólnym zarysie. Liczba trzy jest reprezentacją mocy zbioru: każdy zbiór trzech elementów, na przykład trzy reguły światów gier, jest więc reprezentowany przez liczbę trzy. Podobnie kształt krzywej dzwonowej, który przedstawiamy na wykresie funkcji Gaussa dla (powiedzmy) dwóch sześciościennych kostek, reprezentuje dystrybucję rezultatów rzutu nimi. Właśnie dlatego, że matematyka może i musi przedstawiać – przedmioty ścisłe, które wdrażają równania (jak fizyka) są w stanie otrzymywać formuły, które oddają zjawiska takie jak grawitacja i przepływ elektryczny.

So if Polish is the language for you, and you’ve longed to read my work in a Western-Slavonic tongue, head on over to Hobo Nest and check out Wady Estetyczne Gier!

No-one Plays Alone (DiGRA/FDG 2016)

Here’s the abstract for the paper I’m presenting for DiGRA/FDG at Abertay University in Scotland in August. The paper is entitled ‘No-one Plays Alone’. Special thanks to Dan Cook for setting this one in motion with me – you are quoted extensively in it!

The discourses around games have tended to focus upon either their artefactual qualities or the phenomenological experience of play. In both cases, games are primarily to be understood singularly. An alternative approach, related to Foucault’s archaeological methods, is to focus upon the manner in which games share player practices with earlier games. This technique can be applied to all eras of games, and is not merely restricted to videogames – indeed, a significant proportion of the player practices of videogames descend directly from the player practices of tabletop games, especially in terms of the progenitive role of tabletop role-playing games for contemporary digital entertainment. Such player practices can be broadly understood in terms of interface (how the player engages with the game), world (what the player imagines is happening), or the agency practices that connect the interface and the world.

Three propositions concerning the relationships between fictional setting and designed rule systems within games are explored, the last of which stresses the idea that ‘no-one plays alone’ i.e. that all play entails continuity of its practices over and above variation of those practices. These propositions are used to demonstrate three aesthetic flaws that are peculiar to, or particularly relevant for, videogames. This in turn leads to a discussion of the ways that commercially successful games have always proceeded by leveraging the existing networks of practice. The result is an alternative perspective for game design, game scholarship, or game critique, one that foregrounds the role of player practices.

Keywords: player practices, aesthetics, play aesthetics, games, fiction, rules, lineages

Take Your Games Career To The Next Level

Game ArtWhile I primarily teach aspiring game designers in the UK for University of Bolton’s School of Creative Technologies, I also teach Game Narrative for the fantastic Art of Game Design MFA programme at Laguna College of Art and Design (LCAD) in the US. This inventive MFA programme offers benefits to industry professionals looking to buff up their career, academics with an interest in Game Studies, and recent bachelor’s graduates who want to stand out from the crowd. It is also a point of personal pride for me, having argued for many years for the status of games as artworks, to be teaching on a Master of Fine Art degree in Game Design.

Building upon an established BFA programme that is one of the Top 10 ranked in the United States, the Art of Game Design MFA is perfect for strategic career growth. LCAD BFA programme covers Game Art, 3D Character, and 3D Environment, and is supported by innovative trans-university partnerships including USC’s GamePipe Laboratory, as well as boasting a placement record in excess of 94%. On the Masters programme, candidates work closely with some of the top names in game design and game studies, including taking my own world-class module in Game Narrative (also available in a Bachelor’s version at University of Bolton), and hone practical skills and business acumen while developing a critical, theoretically-informed framework for understanding games.

The deadline for submission for the 2016 Fall semester is June 1st. If you have any questions, contact LCAD Art of Game Design MFA Founder and Chair, Sandy Appleöff Lyons, who will be happy to discuss your career goals and educational objectives.

Steve Crow: Thirty Years in Games

Steve Crow not only made amazing games like Wizard's Lair and Starquake in the '80s, he went on to have a long and successful career, and today is at Blizzard working on World of Warcraft. I recently had a chance to ask him some questions about his incredible career in games.

SteveCrowChris Bateman:You were a regular reader of the seminal ZX Spectrum magazine Crash, and in 1986 the readers voted you Programmer of the Year on the back of a string of incredible titles in '85 and '86. That must have felt wonderful at the time! But did it come to seem as if your career had peaked too early?

Steve Crow: No – I don't think so. Many people involved in video games back then were very young; most like me were teenagers or early 20's. So anyone who was successful was more than likely to be very young. I was more concerned about making games that I and others enjoyed playing and were fun. The good reviews and awards were just in some ways confirmation I was on the right track. 

CB: So there was nothing negative about your early successes?

SC: The only bad aspect of being so young was handling the pressure of creating and completing the next game. I think in some ways I starting working on graphics to get a break from this pressure and found that I really enjoyed it. There was still a lot of pressure of course but I was working in partnership with a programmer so the creative process and stress was shared.

CB: Do you miss the way the videogames were back in its 'infancy'?

SC: Looking back I consider myself so fortunate to be in the industry at a time when one individual could be the author of an entire game. By the late 80's games started to be created by small teams of people as the programming, music and graphics became more complex and people began specializing in particular aspects of game creation. Since the mid 80's I have been involved in many very successful games so I don't consider the mid 80's as a 'golden' era of my career but it was a very exciting time to be involved in video games!

CB: You were writing the machine code for some of your Spectrum games on one of those chunky 80's home computers (the British-made Tatung Einstein), and it seems to me you must have had a great grasp of the technical capabilities – and limitations – of the platforms at the time.

SC: Using the Tatung Einstein for development (as opposed to the ZX Spectrum itself) was a great improvement – it had a real keyboard and a real disk drive! The Spectrum's main strength was that it had a fairly powerful (for the time) Z80 processor so even though it lacked features such as hardware sprites it was possible to emulate this lack of hardware with software sprites.

CB: Is there another computer you would have liked to have worked on back then?

SC: I was most envious of the Atari 800 and C64 as these machines had much better hardware such as true multicolour, smooth screen scrolling, a real sound chip, hardware sprites and interrupts etc. which more than made up for the slower 6502 processor contained in these machines.

CB: Have you ever thought about how different your career would have been if you'd had a chance to work on Nintendo's NES, or some other cartridge-based platform? There were a great many things they could do that were impossible for you...

SC: I did work on one NES game with Mark Kelly, on Overlord, and I recall it was not that powerful a machine. The processor was slow and there was very little documentation, so in some ways it was a step down from the C64 and Atari 800. Looking back the strengths and weaknesses of each machine influenced the games created. For instance I don't think Knight Lore would have been created first on the C64 or something like Uridium created first on the ZX Spectrum.

CB: So you're not drawn to any dream of 'what could have been'?

SC: Well it would have been fantastic to have had the capability to create Starquake as a true 4 way scrolling platform game with hardware multicolored sprites – but alas it just was not possible at the time – at least not on the ZX Spectrum.

Wizards LairCB: In 1986, when you won the award, Nintendo were changing the face of game design by incorporating a save mechanic into titles like The Legend of Zelda and Metroid. This was unthinkable for most home computer games. But in your 1985 Wizard's Lair – one of my personal favourite games, incidentally – you came up with a mechanic which circumvented these kind of limitations: the elevators. Each floor of the dungeon had a five letter code, like LYONS or CAIVE, and players who made it that far could skip ahead to that floor in a future game by using the code at an elevator in the early levels.

SC: At the time I would have my brother and sister test out my games. I would tune the difficulty according to how tricky they found it to play. I made sure they could easily play through the early stages. Wizard's Lair had such a large map it was necessary to have staging points and the elevators (lifts!) between floors seemed like a natural point to do this.

CB: What was your inspiration for this mechanic, and did you have a specific motive for including it?

SC: I must admit I did not play many contemporary games at the time and assumed other games employed a similar 'save' feature!

CB: That blows my mind – I can't imagine creating a new game mechanic and just taking it on faith that it was something everyone else was doing!

SC: Wizard's Lair was fully completed before I even found a publisher to sell it! At one point I was contemplating giving it away free with Crash magazine as no one seemed interested in picking it up! As a Christmas present for my sister I created a special version of the game with her as the main character, the lifts were renamed 'loos' and all the codes were her favourite sweets.

CB: Speaking of Wizard's Lair, this was a particularly evil game in that the use of expendable keys – and, for that matter, crosses that allowed you to phase through coloured snakes – meant it was perfectly possible to get utterly stuck and lose the game, slowly wasting away into death. It was a devastating experience as a player! But it was also part of the identity of the game. Did you feel bad about inflicting this on players, or did you enjoy some schadenfreude while laughing evilly about it?

SC: I was actually unaware of this issue – maybe I assumed no one would make such a mistake? If it causes a player to lose just one life I think I would have assumed that was OK. However, if it causes a player to lose every life, one after the other, I would have considered that a design flaw and rectified the issue.

CB: I'm pretty sure you could only lose one life, although you could fail in your overall strategy this way because the keys and crosses were a limited resource. I don't think this was in any way harder than what other games were doing at the time, to be honest.

SC: That's good to know.

StarquakeCB: Starquake is sometimes considered your magnum opus (although I know players who prefer Fire Lord), and one of the most fascinating aspects of its design is that you replaced jumping with a platform resource that allows you to ascend upwards as long as you have them in stock. As with Wizard's Lair, it could lead to players getting horrible trapped, but it also made the game stand out as entirely unique. Where did the idea for this mechanic come from?

SC: With all my games I created a sand box area of a few 'flick' screens where I prototyped ideas. I would program different mechanics and see how they played out and if they were fun or not. I am not sure where the idea for the platform-laying mechanic came from but I really like the way it worked as it allowed a player to climb but was also a limited resource. It was one of those mechanics that just felt 'right'. Maybe the idea came from a picture in a magazine? I'm just not sure.

CB: Both of these games were heavily influenced by the art designs of the Stamper brothers' company, Ultimate Play the Game, who dominated the 8-bit era in Europe. (They later went on to found Rare, of course). I believe you hadn't even played Atic Atac or Underwurlde, you just saw screenshots and used that as inspiration, is that correct?

SC: Yes this is very true! I was influenced by what the Stamper brothers' were doing (although I did not know who they were - I just knew them as 'Ultimate Play the Game'). I remember seeing one of their games for the first time at a computer fair in London, around the time we were marketing my first game, Laser Snaker. I think it was Pssst. I was blown away by the smoothness of the motion and the animation – all on a 16K Spectrum! I think I owned Pssst and Lunar Jetman, but I never played Atic Atac or Underwurlde – I'd just seen pictures in magazines.

CB: Did you ever meet the Stampers? Did they give you a hard time for 'borrowing' their visual aesthetics, or were they flattered?

SC: I never met the Stampers, and they never contacted me or any publisher in regard to the visual similarities between their 2D games and mine. I really think by the time my games were published they were moving on to bigger and better things.

CB: It has to be said, no end of companies took the forced isometric concept of their Knight Lore as an inspiration, but only you seemed to have been quite as switched on by their 2D explorers, like Sabre Wulf. Why do you think that was?

SC: I think I preferred the visual richness of the 2D games, and they allowed for more artistic creativity and large exploratory maps. I am not sure I would have been able to write a 3D game such as Knight Lore – it was way ahead of its time. When I first played it I was absolutely amazed, it was more impressive than Ultimate's first 2D games.

CB: Talking of exploration games, the 80s saw a great many of these (including several of your own games!) with maze-like layouts that encouraged mapping. The Spectrum in particular featured a lot of flick-screen games in both 2D and isometric forms, and maps were a big part of the 'tips' sections in magazines. Those of us playing videogames in the 80s were in love with those 2D explorers, and still remember them fondly, but today the form doesn't seem popular. What do you think was appealing about this style of play?    

SC: I think born into everyone of us is an inherent desire to explore the world around us. This, I believe, is what is behind the popularity of such games. As a child my friends and I would travel miles exploring the fields and woods around the village we lived in, sometimes we would be away from home all day. Unfortunately, children today rarely get the opportunity to have such freedom and video games allow them to exercise that exploration.

CB: Is the classic form of exploration-play gone forever, do you think?

SC: Most games have a fairly linear progression so that instead of true exploration it is more a matter of discovering what is next. It's far easier to design a linear single player experience rather than a truly exploratory game. A major component of the game I currently work on, World of Warcraft, involves exploration – of course this is a 3D game. As far as 2D exploration games are concerned it is hard to tell whether they will become popular again. There has definitely been a resurgence of 2D side scrollers – so you never know!

CB: I've been lucky enough to meet and work with a lot of the British 'bedroom coders' and many of them, like Sandy White (who made 3D Ant Attack), had difficulty getting jobs later in their career. Those that had most success, like the Oliver twins, generally formed their own company (Blitz Games, which sadly closed their doors in 2013). You seemed to have found a different path through the games industry, having worked for many different studios and ending up at what is now the world's biggest software publisher, Activision-Blizzard. What's your secret?

SC: Back then everyone was self-taught. I think my secret has been to never stop learning and growing. Concentrating on graphics certainly helped, and also trying to make everything I work on the very best it can be. Perhaps some developers had a hard time transitioning from 2D to 3D games or simply keeping up with the ever increasing complexity of video games? I would imagine that's especially true for programmers.

CB: Do you miss the days where you were an 'auteur' with absolute control over every aspect of a game's development?

SC: I don't think I really miss the days of being the author of an entire game. It would be fun to do a solo side project but modern games require large teams of people working together. I rather like working as part of a team and you still get control on the asset or portion you are responsible for – it is simply one piece in a much larger jigsaw puzzle.

With thanks to Steve for his time.

The Aesthetic Motives of Play

My piece The Aesthetic Motives of Play will appear later this year in Springer’s Emotion in Games: Theory and Praxis, edited by Dr Kostas Karpouzis and an old colleague of mine, Professor Georgios Yannakakis. Here’s my abstract:

Why do people enjoy playing games? The answer, in its most general form, is that there are aesthetic pleasures offered by games and other play experiences that meet powerful and profound human and animal needs. As such, we can identify specific aesthetic motives of play, and one of the clearest ways of characterizing these motives is in terms of the emotional experiences associated with them.

This was a super-easy chapter for me to write as I’m only summarising work I’ve already done, but it is an excellent précis of where I’m up to and I hope will complement the other chapters in this collection.

Yee Rides Again

Great to see Nick Yee getting back into player modelling over at Quantic Foundry. However, it seems he hasn’t looked into the similar work International Hobo was doing with BrainHex five years ago. In a recent post, Gaming Motivations Align with Personality Traits, he states:

Action-Social isn’t hinted at in any Existing Model: When we first saw the Action-Social cluster emerge, we were a little stumped. This grouping is unintuitive and hasn’t been proposed by any existing model or taxonomy.

That’s not true! In fact, if you look at the subclass distribution for BrainHex you’ll see that the third most popular is Conqueror-Socialiser (6.1% of sample), which is what maps most closely onto Yee’s Action-Social.

To be fair, I haven’t written much about BrainHex recently because my primary take away from that research effort was that this isn’t how we should be proceeding in this area if we want to get to anything like a science of player modelling. To see why, check out my 2011 DiGRA paper with Lennart Nacke and Rebecca Lowenhaupt, Player Typology in Theory and Practice.

Looking forward to seeing what else Nick turns up in his current round of research.

Successful Game Design

ControllersTraditional game design is based upon the practices of tabletop game design, that is, writing rules (now generally called ‘game mechanics’) that are implemented into programmed systems. This method works. But it misrepresents the practical aspects of the process by obscuring the relationship between games and players. Games are never invented from nothing: they exist as variations of successful player practices.

Excluding young children, all players come to every game with their own pre-existing player practices already well-established. Defender (1981) was difficult for arcade players to learn because it’s control scheme was nothing like the other arcade games of the late 70s and early 80s. The computer strategy game Steel Panthers (1995) uses a hex map because thirty year's earlier Avalon Hill’s second edition of Gettysburg (1961) established the benefits of these over square maps. DOOM (1993) and Quake (1996) used arrow keys rather than WASD because movement in most Western RPGs up to then had been controlled that way, with mouse-look simply creeping in as an optional alternative interface for games mounted on the Quake engine. Changes were incremental, not revolutionary, because utterly innovative practices become a barrier to play, creating negative word-of-mouth, high risk of bad reviews, and  thus no eventual community.

Community is the big issue here. As I wrote to Dan Cook earlier this year, no-one plays alone. Commercially successful game developers (and indie game devs who can feed themselves) have in common that they either made a game for existing communities of players, or they founded a new community around their game. In all cases, the player practices are contiguous with earlier player practices – either in terms of interface, fictional world, or agency (which is to say, the intersection between the two). The three work together, and all three are important – although in different ways to different players, who may experience a variety of aesthetic flaws as a result of their preferences. Clashes between interface practices create perplexity; clashes between world and agency create ruptures; clashes between agency and interface generate inelegance. All discourage players from engaging in a new community, but not all are strictly game design problems (rupture in particular is often a narrative design issue).

Successful game design doesn’t have to minimise all these aesthetic flaws, because not all players are bothered by rupture, not everyone is sensitive to inelegance, and some players willingly persist in the face of perplexity. But it is the last of these flaws – perplexity – which is the greatest problem for games courting a community of players, because players can adopt a new game easily if its players practices are close to those they already know, and this applies to interface, world, and agency practices. If a games interface practices cause perplexity instead (by being different from player expectations, founded on prior experiences), there is a barrier erected around the game and only a minority of players will get through it. Indeed, contemporary games have developed new community practices to offset this exact problem – such as Wikis that provide detailed information of player practices expressed as game mechanics, and guides that introduce players to new practices gently. Even so, successful new games achieve their success by taking advantage of existing player practices, and only vary them to a relatively small degree, such that players can switch from an existing player community to that of the new game with minimal complications.

A few examples may be helpful. Blizzard’s all-conquering World of Warcraft (2004) did not create a new community but rather absorbed others that were already engaged in very similar player practices. Firstly, the DikuMUDs that had near-identical practices to WoW but used a text interface, followed by much of the MUD community in general (including the other early ‘graphical MUDs’ like EverQuest). Secondly, computer RPG players, since they had very similar practices in interface, world, and agency, but usually played in single-player worlds. Thirdly, tabletop role-players, from whose player practices all these other communities descended. World of Warcraft effectively monopolised the role-playing game lineages, and their communities, through high production values, careful community management, and a buffed-up version of the practices of Dungeons and Dragons (1974). It ultimately became such a huge player community than even the wellspring of its player practices, D&D, began to copy it, with its fourth edition rules clearly geared to appeal to the community WoW had stolen away from the table.

Similarly, Mojang’s monolithic mega-hit Minecraft (2009) was readily available to a hugely diverse community of players because it used a standard interface, one that descended from Quake’s mouse-look combined with inventory mechanics from the cRPG lineage (those largely added to the pool of player practices by 1987’s seminal Dungeon Master). Minecraft did not succeed by monopolising existing communities, however, but by being able to be played by a huge pool of players (thanks to its low-perplexity ‘standard’ interface, and a strong supply of wiki content to bridge the gap to its high perplexity crafting system). Once it was rolling, it then supporting hugely diverse player communities thanks to the open configuration of its numerous regimes of play – from peaceful construction, to vicious permadeath that descends from early digital D&D variants such as Rogue (1980).

Significant growth in community was also fuelled by the ingenious early access business model, which Minecraft both invented and popularised. Unlike later early access schemes, Notch offered rising entry fees from a very low starting point – it was about $10 when I got it, I think it'd been half that when I first saw it, then later it was $20 and $30. Part of my buying decision was precisely the thought that I didn’t want to pay more later, and I’ll wager I'm not the only one who was drawn in this way. This is one of the two key reasons why Minecraft could not have come from a publisher, and could only have been an indie project. The other issue was its low-fi visual aesthetic, very much resembling my indie flop Play with Fire (2006) three years earlier, although there is no direct connection between the two games to my knowledge. (Indeed, the only person I’ve ever found who even saw Play with Fire is Miguel Sicart).

In Minecraft’s case, we can see how its success did not primarily come from its game design ingenuity, which merely provided the seed of appeal around which its communities gathered. It’s success was rooted to continuity of player practices from the lineages of FPS (for interface) and RPG (for world and agency). Minecraft cross-bred and thus hybridised the two key videogame lineages, but it was its inventive business model that provided a means of growing a new community organically and thus had a far bigger part to play in its success than design innovation. This is in no way a criticism. I have enormous admiration for the variations to player practices that Minecraft introduced, which have still not settled into any stable configuration in the games community at large.

Equivalently, superior community maintenance was more important to World of Warcraft’s success than design innovation, of which it had very little – and not because Blizzard isn’t full of extremely capable designers. A gainful comparison here could be made to id software, the only company to get significant traction from the shareware business model. It innovated the ‘standard’ interface – but it built its community on pre-existing interface practices, from the Western cRPG lineages (as noted above), and then grew a community with a non-standard business model. Only when that community was established did id get a chance to spread the now-standard mouse-look FPS interface (which eventually gives us the twin stick control scheme on console as well, via other developers’ variations).

Traditional game design works much of the time because game designers are already members of communities of practice and can therefore replicate and vary those player practices effectively. Those capable of abstracting these practices into ‘rules’ or ‘game mechanics’ inevitably end up in the role of game designer, because they can communicate play in the written form that helps holds big projects together. (Small teams can avoid documentation entirely in many cases, but larger games have no other reasonable option). Nonetheless, the work of games designers will succeed or fail according to how well it maintains and varies the established practices. When it fails, it is often because of unresolved conflicts over precisely which practices are being replicated or modified – especially in traditional publishing relationships. But successful game design has always been embedded within the already existing player communities, and new directions have worked far less often than variations on known themes, no matter what players say about what they think they want.

Traditional marketing is an even less reliable method than game design, in so much as the openly stated strategies (such as target demographics) utterly miss the point about why spending money can fuel the formation of communities. The players are largely already inside the communities for the various big game brands (Mario, Call of Duty, Mortal Kombat, GTA etc.) but can easily be enticed to play games with similar interface, world, or agency. Meanwhile, world-focussed media brands (Middle Earth, Disney, Lego, Star Wars, Harry Potter) provide further opportunities to bring existing player practices to their (largely zero-agency) communities, offering substantial commercial benefits – at a substantial price to developers. Indies can’t afford to do this, so they typically just rip them off – just like the big companies, actually! Tomb Raider comes from Indiana Jones, just as Halo comes from Aliens (with a Larry Niven twist), and Call of Duty comes from Medal of Honor, which comes from Saving Private Ryan (both being concurrent Spielberg-produced projects). Even the much-vaunted indie game Braid (2008) wholly depends upon the player practices of Mario it has borrowed.

So what should you do if you want to be a successful game designer? Well, the primary route to success is to be backed by big publishing money like Shigeru Miyamoto, Peter Molyneux, or Wil Wright – but there’s no way onto the thrones these days without first getting into the trenches. Indeed, there never was. So if you’re aiming for success, you have to be planning to grow a community somehow. If you can’t get, or don’t want, a brand license to make acquiring that community easier, you have to modify the player practices of an existing set of communities. There is only one other option: set your living costs low enough that you get to set the criteria of ‘success’ below the rest of the industry. I have great respect for those that do. But even they are still engaged in variations on the existing player practices. That’s what game design was always about – talk of ‘game mechanics’ is only a medium for the exchange of ideas. We should not let it distract us from acknowledging our intimate familiarity with the player practices of successful games, because we are all a part of at least some of these communities, and always have been.

ihobo will return in the Gregorian New Year.