Sunday, 5 April 2015

Can you play a game in the 'wrong' way?

This is a response to a tweet I read. I though the question was interesting so I started answering. I hope I've provided an interesting answer.

“OK, poll: who thinks that you can 'play a game the wrong way'? And if you believe so, whose fault is it when that happens? If not, why not?” - @tha_rami (link)

My original untweeted response: “@tha_rami if the player is having fun, then all good. But there is something unfortunate about playing the game contrary to the orig. vision”

I ran out of characters for this, 140 is in no way gonna drill into such a complex question...

So I’m going to over analyse this a touch. First what sort of game are we talking about, it seems the answer will change with the interactions of the participants. So 1) singleplayer in which interaction is solely with the computer AI, or with oneself/no-one else, or 2) multiplayer, in which there are interactions with other players with their own maybe conflicting concepts of ‘wrong’. I fear I’m oversimplifying things but I guess this is a good enough start.

1) Singleplayer

This is what my original response was referring to. If the player is having fun then no harm, player is having fun! It is sad that perhaps the original vision of the designer’s game is no longer being followed but maybe this is a good thing. For a computer game then chances are that the ‘wrong’ thing will lose charm as the rest of the game won’t necessarily reinforce the ‘fun but wrong’ behaviour and that behaviour will become boring soon enough, the story will move on or the levels won’t take advantage of the ‘wrong’ thing. Perhaps in a simulation game or game with lots of emergent behaviour it could accidentally become a behaviour that will give sufficiently long periods of enjoyment, but in games with lots of emergent behaviour it seems difficult to say a player is doing something ‘wrong’ since there is less/limited ‘designer’s vision’ for which the player can do the contrary.

For non-computer games, single player card games and the like it’s difficult to blame a player making up their own rules and having fun with that. They just are using the tools of the original game to make their own game. Though one might say they are playing the original game ‘wrong’ and that they are denying themselves certain experiences of that game as a result. If they are having fun or an interesting time, then all good.

2) Multiplayer

Things get more complicated here, since one player’s actions can affect the enjoyment or experience of the others. If one player is ‘ruining it’ for everyone else then from those players’ perspectives they are doing it ‘wrong’. Of course this depends on what the other players see as right or wrong.

In cooperative games a griefer is usually seen to be doing the ‘wrong’ thing because it’s counter to the goals of the majority. The griefer (I say with gritted teeth) is probably having a great time. Who is to blame here? I’m honestly not sure. My heart says the griefer is definitely wrong. My head can’t articulate exactly why. Something about the majority suffering due to the betrayal of trust from one. Anyway…

Someone could simply be not playing well enough in a multiplayer game. Think soccer or Battlefield. If they are playing badly then the squad/team suffers. Who is wrong depends on the context of the game. Hyper competitive professional sports would probably be less forgiving since people’s livelihoods are on the line. It could be that they are just hyper competitive and that clouds their ability to be compassionate. Many professional sports teams can be quite forgiving if they believe said player has genuine talent or is worthy of getting through bad patches or early inexperience. If it’s a friendly game then I’d like to think that there is no wrong if all mean well. Maybe it’s the case that someone is playing way below the rest of the team and that is dragging them down. It depends on the nature of the people for them to stick it out until they are better or ask them to train up elsewhere or take whatever action they deem necessary to ensure they have more fun/maintain their friendship/whatever their values dictate. It is just a matter of the people involved. Who is wrong? If they say something is wrong ask them to explain, I can’t see an easy generalisation here.

Competitive games are maybe more clear cut. If you are against someone else (or your team against their team) then there are usually rules set out as to what is right and wrong. The rules are enforced (usually) by a certain ‘spirit’ of the game or maybe even ‘core values’ of a game. In most competitive games a core value is a fair playing field where skill is the major or only determining factor. Otherwise ‘spirit of the game’ is often notoriously difficult to pinpoint but very easy to notice when it is violated. Cheating, and taking unfair advantages are seen as contrary to that spirit and thus are usually seen as wrong. Rules are thus amended to prevent this. However this is subject (hopefully) to scrutiny and discussion. It’s not unheard of that ‘wrong’ behaviour is seen as a ‘good tactic no one has thought of yet’. Again, this depends on the game and the values the players of that game wish to uphold. It’s possible that a ‘wrong’ action, let’s say “strafe jumping” in Quake 2 becomes a fundamental part of the game. It’s possible that this could have been nerfed and removed but I guess the designers thought it was more fun or a factor that enforced the value of “player with the greater skill should win more often than not” since it’s a hard thing to do. I’m not actually sure, I’m not a Quake historian but I hope my point is clear nonetheless.

On reflection competitive games are not quite as clear cut as cooperative games.

I think in short if everyone is having fun (or a certain desired experience) then all is good. Otherwise it depends on the people involved and what they can all come to an agreement on. Kinda like the rest of life actually...

Monday, 16 March 2015

A raxter retrospective (Part 1)


So there are a lot of people I need to thank, too many that I'm scared I'll forget someone. So for now I'm not going to mention names. Please know you are all special to me and I only omit names to omit it looking like favoritism. There is no favoritism. Guaranteed is that if you are part of my stories (whether written explicitly here or otherwise) please know you are special to me and they you've had a positive effect on my life. When I make games I make them in your honour.


I'm going on a journey! It's kinda surreal that it's actually happening. I'm heading to Germany, hopefully for a long time, but visa issues might see me back in 3 months (but only because I'll be organising a longer term visa).

So I wanted to write down some thoughts, some reflections. I don't really know how to start. I don't really know how to end or make the middle bits even. So I'll just go in order of appearance for now.

Tasty Poison Games: 2013

Man now really where do I begin with this. I'm not going into details. It was a good and not so good time for me. The company went through some rough times and I happened to be there at one of the roughest it seems. It didn't end particularly well and I don't think I handled the aftermath particularly well either.

I think the particulars are uninteresting. I would just like to say that for any ill feeling I might have expressed in the past - and I have - I am sorry for doing so. I suppose it would have taken a better person to not get down and out and irritable and mean in that situation and I wasn't quite that person. But I'd like to try be that better person, retrospectively at least. So thanks to all who were a part of my time there. Regardless of what happened, no one acted out of malice or unforced ill-will. I struggle to fault good intention no matter the outcome. It just didn't work out like we all wanted it to and that's sad. I'm just glad we are all past it now. I hope that everyone who was there when I was is finding their way ever onward and upward. I learned so much, and after all that's what you want from a first job in industry.

--- interlude ---

The year following was a mixed year of hard work, too much hard work, burnout, inspiration, imposter syndrome, validation, jealousy, more hard work (but without burnout), balance, and some pretty good games.

-- end of interlude ---

--- something I forgot ---

University of Cape Town: 2006 - 2012 (wow 7 years, fuck me)

I would just like to mention my time at UCT. Choosing to study there was more a life choice than a game dev choice. I studied because I wanted to learn, not because I wanted to do game dev. And if it weren't for UCT creating their games course I might not have actually tried making games at all (I'd like to think I would have run into it anyway, but it's scary to think I might not have). So I am eternally thankful that the course is there and there to stay. I've had my recent gripes about the course lately, please take this with a pinch of salt. It has its problems but it's more an issue that it could just be so much better. But the varying pressures that the course and course coordinators are under make change slow and difficult. And to palpable relief there have been people coming in, with experience behind their back, who are shaking things up and moving it forward. The bottom line is that the course was created by people passionate about games. They may be primarily academic and not so much indie dev, and we might not do things the same way but they love games. And through much strife and hard work of theirs they created their course. It's because of that course that I am now making games.

--- end of something I forgot ---

Renderheads! 2014

Where was I? Oh, right so I left Tasty Poison Games and needed a job, I should have wanted any job I could find but I was too stubborn to get something I wouldn't enjoy doing. Renderheads was hiring. To be honest, it wasn't the ideal job I wanted, but the ideal job I wanted didn't really exist. To be honest, it's the job I really needed. Because the ideal job I wanted required more experience than I actually had. And it was great! I was mostly making mini-games! When I wasn't making mini-games I was making interesting and challenging stuff! So what if they were client games and so what it wasn't hotshot innovative mechanics, it was game dev tech and game dev experience. I skilled up through the hellfire of tight deadlines and shifting (and very narrow) goalposts. It wasn't what I wanted, it was what I needed.

On a side note I've never worked with people who deal with pressure better than the people at Renderheads. Left to my own devices I would have panicked myself into more work than I could handle. Brutally honest whilst remaining supportive and compassionate. A true show of what is often described as 'good character'.

6x Mass Production: 2013 - 2015

Oh boy…

So sometime between the beginning of TPG and the end of Renderheads a puzzle game emerged… it was not very effective.

I'm being a bit harsh, it was kinda effective. It started as a personal tool for learning and turned into a nearly game that I could nearly release. I developed it on and off over a period of two years mostly in my spare time.

I like it, I actually love it to bits. But I think no one else will really like it as I do. It's good but not great, not from a game design perspective. Though from my personal perspective, subjective, biased and completely without logic, it'll always be a great game for me. It is, in a sense, the diary of my game dev career so far and turned into more of a companion than a game. The biggest mistake I made was thinking I should try sell it for money. I say mistake, it was actually a great decision. It really isn't something I should have tried to make saleable. But I tried and failed nonetheless and that was the biggest lesson I learned from it.

I learned about testing, getting feedback, implementing feedback, many many programming lessons, many art lessons, many design lessons, taking criticism, when maybe not to take criticism, responding to criticism anyway, level design, ui design, and general "oh damn that feels good" design (mainly screen-shake tbh). And I might very well learn a bit more from it. But I used to be worried about it, will it do well, will people like it, can I release this and then be considered a 'real' game developer! I was worried about it like I was worried about my worth as a game developer. If it did badly then I was not a good game maker. Silly stuff, but it was real.

So after many 'one last trys' I decided to scrap the project near the beginning of 2015. It had represented so much of my growth it would really be difficult, but it was time and I was happy with that. But was lucky, a friend of mine said, "Don't see it as a project, see it as a learning tool, you don’t have to sell it or worry if it's good. If you are still learning from it then you don't need to get rid of it". That hit home, and in a really good way. It started as a learning tool and I suppose I would like to keep it that way.

It was strange, I finally decided that enough was enough and I needed to move on to making lots of prototypes rather than working on my one precious entity. It was something I knew well but I finally had realised and taken to heart. And at that very time, when scrapping my favorite project was something I felt comfortable doing, I was able to redefine what the project originally meant to me. It's technically scrapped, for sure, and I might not learn quite as much from it now as I have already. But I still want to tinker with it (but later, I have about a billion prototypes I want to try out first). But I'm glad it's there. It's not perfect, neither am I. It's an old friend who is happy with what they've done so far. And I'm happy with what I've done so far. So occasionally I'll head over, give a hug and a high five and see how it's doing. But otherwise, we are pretty happy with how things turned out. We'll be better for the future as a result.

--- end of part 1 ---

So I have more to say but this post has gone on for long enough already. Part 2 will be up soon and goes over events of more recent times: Super Friendship Arcade and AMAZE. Part 3 is not yet written but I hope for it to be less history and more of a condensation of the lessons I've learned so far.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Whistful Thinking

Hi everyone!

I want to design a board or card game. Just for practice and lulz so I was looking for physical games that I do enjoy for inspiration. I do like the more complicated board games that are about but I recently had a LOT of fun playing whist, which is a trick-taking card game played with a standard 52 card deck.

Basically whist is a 4 player game, everyone gets 13 cards. A trump suite is chosen (let's say hearts but could be any suite). A player will put down a card they have, called the lead card. Each player then puts down a card of the same suite as the lead, preferably a higher number card as to beat it. Alternatively the player can play the trump suite (say a 4 of hearts), which will always win and can only be beaten by another trump card (a 5 of hearts or higher) with higher value. After all 4 players have gone the winner gets the 'trick' and leads the next round. This goes on until no one has any cards.

I like that it is quick to play, easy to learn, and very fun to play. So this is the base on which I'd like to start designing a game.

But I've not really done this yet. I've not actually thought of any ideas on how to expand it, nor done much research on Whist-like games except that I don't think there is a game that are whist-like (not 100% sure, let me know if there is!)

But I did get distracted thinking of how this would be themed. I like the idea of each suite being warriors/soldiers/creatures of varying elemental based armies. (I'll, uhm, get to the game design stuff later, I want to do theming now). Though I do think that adding some theme or story to the game might help with thinking what mechanics would be interesting.

Like in Magic the Gathering, the themeing is technically unimportant to the raw mechanics, but oh so important when thinking about what mechanics to implement. Each color has a different feel that affects the design of those cards.

So here is my attempt at creating a theme that is consistent with the current rules of whist. It starts off with a bunch of naive attempts that don't quite make sense, I eventually lock down what elements of whist are important for themeatic considerations, and then I finally come up with a theme that actually makes some sense. I then cap off this blog post with a larger point about how theming and how it can affect the ideas and design of the game and game elements.

So, the 4 suites would be soldiers or creatures of:

  • Water - swamp dwellers
  • Air - flying
  • Earth - subterranean diggers
  • A fourth one that I've not thought up yet, fire / lava based maybe
So that isn't a particularly awe inspiring start, it's pretty cliche but it'll do for now. There would be 13 creatures per type, each more powerful than their inferiors. The trumps are represented by different terrains or elemental effects:
  • Swamps / Flooding
  • Floating islands / Strong wind or hurricanes
  • Underground caverns / Sinkholes
  • Volcanoes / Wildfires
A sinkhole in Guatemala...
F***ing terrifying.
The idea being that the trump suite is the power element, creatures of that element will get an advantage that will ensure they win the fight no matter what. If there are floods then the water based creature will always win (except if beaten by a more powerful water creature), But they problem here is that if a, say, air based creature leads the trick, the rules of whist says only other air based creatures will be able to win. 

So I was thinking that maybe the leading suite determines the terrain, so playing an earth creature as lead means you are fighting underground, but if the trump was water, then it means the underground caverns were flooded and water creatures always win

So, lets expand on all the options (first pass):
  • Lead is earth: Underground caverns mean that the fire, flying, and water creatures are ineffective, unless:
    • It is flooded, in which case water creatures always win
    • There are flash fires
    • There are strong winds, in which case flying creatures always win... err nope!
  • Lead is water: Swamps mean that fire, air, and subterranean creatures are ineffective, unless
    • There are wildfires, in which case fire creatures always win
    • There is a hurricane, in which case flying creatures always win (erm... I guess)
    • There are sinkholes, in which subterranean creatures always win (err, that kinda makes sense, does it? no? ok...)
... ok I'm stopping there this isn't working :p

Onward to idea number next!

Maybe I should think of the trump as the terrain and the lead as the elemental effect. So let's try this again. Let's say trump is water, so we are in the swamp and water will always win. If fire/air/earth leads they can still win (unless trumped). Ok this is looking better already. So if fire leads then it means there are wildfires. So only fire creatures will get involved in the fight, but we are still in swamp lands so swamp creatures will still always win... ok not the most sensical but not terrible. 

Let's try enumerate this again (second pass):
  • Trump is water: Swamplands mean that swamp creatures always win.
    • Wildfires mean that only fire creatures can fight (kinda...)
    • Sinkholes mean only subterranean creatures can fight
    • Hurricanes mean that only flying creatures can fight (uhm ...)
  • Trump is fire: Volcanoes mean that fire creatures always win
    • Sinkholes mean that only subterranean creatures can fight
    • Hurricanes mean that only flying creatures can fight (err ...)
    • Flooding means that only swamp creatures can fight
  • Trump is earth: Underground caverns mean that subterranean creatures always win
    • Wildfires mean that only fire creatures will fight (uhm, in a cave? hmm...)
    • Hurricanes mean that only air creatures can fight (uhm, in a cave!? no...)
    • Flooding means that only swamp creatures can fight (I'll accept this)
  • Trump is air: Floating islands mean that flying creatures will always win
    • Wildfires mean that only fire creatures can only fight
    • Sinkholes mean that only subterranean creatures can fight
    • Flooding means that only swamp creatures can fight

This is generally the outcome when flying creatures try fight underground

Ok so this is going a little better at least. Lets replace hurricanes with earthquakes, since it's becoming clear that the leads being elemental effects are less about giving a certain elemental creatures an advantage and more about disabling the other elemental creatures from fighting at all (unless they are trump), but the terrain ensures that the trump elemental creatures always always win. The only other problem is wildfires in a cave. Maybe let's replace wildfires with lava flows? We can't use this because it's almost too powerful. Swamplands should give swamp creatures the ability to win no matter what, but with lava flowing through a swamp. Well it wouldn't really be a swamp after that.

Let's put that thought on hold. I would just like to list what we've found so far:
  1. We need distinct representations for each set of playing objects
  2. The thing representing trump set must give that set ultimate advantage no matter the lead set
  3. The thing representing the lead set must be something that allows only that set to engage in the trick with any effect (whilst still allowing trumps to engage in the trick too)
In our case:
  1. Sets are differing creatures types: fire, flying, swamp, and subterranean
  2. Trumps are the terrain or area the battle is taking place
  3. Leads are elemental effects that disallow other creature types from fighting (while the terrain will always ensure that its creature type will always win)
So were doing pretty well with our theme, but are running into too many problems. The wildfire doesn't quite make sense in the subterranean terrain or in a swamp. So let's rather think of what effect would disallow swamp, flying and subterranean creatures from fighting. Leading ideas are intense heat or hot topsoil, but these aren't great. Also earthquakes are quite quite powerful so those aren't working either since that elemental effect can outweigh the advantage of the terrain (an earthquake in a swamp will probably mean swamp creatures will die too).

Theming with terrain and elemental effects, I think, might not be that effective since it's very difficult to come up with elemental effects (the lead) that don't override the ultimate advantage of the terrain (the trump).

So I might need to rethink this a touch. I don't have any great ideas right now but what I do have is 3 constraints to follow that will allow me to better come up with ideas that will work. I might even return to having elemental effects being the trump, but make the effect super powerful or an effect that will make the creatures super powerful. The lead can be represented by a minor terrain buff. Just enough to allows creatures of that element to survive over the others, not enough to overpower the super power effect.

Ok, let's try this: 
  1. Sets are again elements (Water, Flying , Subterranean, and Fire)
  2. Trump is a super buff
  3. Lead is the terrain
So (Element set / Super buff trump / Terrain  lead):
  • Water / Heavy rain and flooding / Wetlands
  • Flying / Earthquakes / High cliff faces
  • Subterranean / Sinkholes / Subterranean caverns
  • Fire / Magma Flows / Charred Wasteland
So this could work! I'm not totally sold on the fire type. I'm sure I can come up with something less cliche but no matter! Each of the super buffs will destroy the advantage of the other terrains while preserving the advantage of that creature type. For water I had to use a double whammy effect since I couldn't come up with a single one that would affect both overground and underground landscapes. Hell, to simplify this all we could even replace the super buffs with elemental deities that will help their creatures types out in battle. The deity that s out is the trump, ain't no one gonna win a god assisted fight! 

And with that I'll stop my eager over (the top) thinking on the topic. From confused attempts we managed to come up with constraints or important points for theming. Using that it's not quite as hard to reframe the game with a different theme. There is still the problem of how these representations will physically play out. First thought is perhaps a central board/card with the four terrains layed out. The leading player (who will be the first player for that trick) will place their creature on the appropriate terrain (thus giving it the advantage). The trump (chosen beforehand) can go in the middle of the four terrains. 

"BUT!", I hear you cry out, "now you can place a fire creature on the wetlands terrain! Oh noes this doesn't make sense in terms of whist rules! Also basically all you have done now is make a themed deck of cards with a redundant board in the middle and pretty pictures"

Some sweet themed cards ("Alchemy playing cards") ... couldn't find elemental style ones,
just imagine Magic the Gathering cards with less text and more image

Yup, you are correct, there is no reason to have the 4 terrains actually there. The first card played determines the terrain type and is hence quite redundant. So it's not ideal now, but maybe with more rules it will make more sense. Maybe we can have lots of terrains in a Settlers of Catan-like hex layout and the battle takes places. Maybe the 4 terrains can be placed in random orientations and you can only battle in the same or adjacent terrain as the last battle. Maybe you can place a water creature in the subterranean caverns and essentially force the next player to play their earth creatures. Maybe it's fun, maybe not... maybe there's a better way to fit the rules of whist whilst reinforcing our theme rather than introducing extra objects. But I can't think of any right now.

My point is that with a theme in place we can now think of the game mechanics in a different light and come up with different rules that reinforce the theme. We could make whist a cooking game about making the best cake. The sets could be different ingredients, the lead would be the key ingredient and the trump would be the cake judge who would prefer a certain ingredient regardless of the rest of the cake (disclaimer: I haven't thought it through 100% but you get the point). 

But how would that game get expanded? I am no longer thinking of battle and territory, I'm thinking ingredients and coloured sprinkles as bonuses. I'm thinking of stacking up the cards to make a layers of an awesome cake and whoever has the 'best' ingredient gets credit from the cake judges. I'm thinking of specials to bride the cake judges. Maybe rules that will have certain effects if you mix two ingredients one after the other.

So in the end I guess I just find it interesting that framing a game in a different light nudges one to think about that game in different ways. 

Yeah, sorry it took 2000 words to get to that rather obvious conclusion.