Balancing Difficulty The Easy Way

2011, October 31st 11:35 AM

Has anyone here played a perfectly balanced game?

I don't mean a game balanced perfectly for one player. We've all played games like that. Oh man, we think afterwards, that was very difficult. I barely made it through! Clearly I am awesome.

No, I mean games balanced perfectly for every player. Balanced so that everyone enjoys the game and thinks it was well-designed. Balanced so the guy who just wants to walk through the game and nuke everything can enjoy themselves, and the girl who wants to slam her head against fiendishly difficult monsters for hours on end can make it through and feel proud of a major accomplishment.


While working on an MMO, I hear balance complaints all the time. Sometimes it's interplay between the various classes, and that's understandable – if your friend really is just flat-out stronger than you, well, that's a balance bug. But sometimes it's complaints about the game difficulty. One person says "this boss is too hard, I couldn't beat him in three hours of trying!" while another says "this boss is too easy, I beat him after only three hours of trying!"

Well, fuck.

But if I think about it, I've seen games solve this. Two games, in fact. And I'm going to talk about these games.

First, The World Ends With You. I've talked about TWEWY before, though not on this subject.

In TWEWY, you could voluntarily choose to reduce the player's level. You lost hit points and attack power. In return, you got improved drop rates. Reduce your level by one, you got double drop rates. Reduce it by nine, you got tenfold increased drop rates. Level up to 100 and drop your level all the way to one – kabam, hundredfold increased drop rates!

You could also choose to change the game difficulty. By default, you were on Normal. Early on, you unlock Easy. Later, you unlock Hard. Eventually you unlock Ultimate. Each difficulty gives you new drop items from monsters, giving some of the rarest items in the game.

Note that I didn't say rarest and most powerful.

Power, in TWEWY, is surprisingly unrelated to drops. For one thing, many of your powers can be leveled up to reach the top tier of effectiveness. For another thing, many of the "higher-tier" powers aren't actually much stronger at all. Finally, you need only one copy of each power. If you have twenty copies of a power, it doesn't make you any stronger, it doesn't make the game easier. It just gives you more to sell. Which you can use to buy more powers . . . that also aren't really any stronger.

These difficulty settings are also extremely transient. You can change difficulty, or raise or lower your level, at any time you're not in battle. It's easy, it doesn't cost anything. Want the next battle to be tough? Make it tough. Want it easy? Make it easy. Additionally, almost every fight can be backed out of. You can just say "no, I want to cancel this fight, let's go back before the fight." Defeat works the same way – the "game over" screen asks if you want to try again, back out to before the fight, or change your difficulty. Want to try a boss on hard mode and get slaughtered fifty times in a row? Go ahead. The game will let you do so easily. Give up and want to just breeze through? Sure, no sweat, let's do that.

Next, let's talk about Bastion.

First, you should go play Bastion. It's really, really good.

In Bastion, you can choose to activate Idols. Each Idol represents a god. Gods aren't helpful in the world of Bastion – each god makes the game harder in some manner. Maybe enemies move faster, or slow you when they attack, or gradually heal their wounds. Or maybe you turn all ten Idols on, and the enemies absolutely wreck you. The game gets incredibly tough.

The difficulty settings, again, are quite transient. Unlike Twewy, you're stuck doing a level as a single unified run – you usually can't change settings in the middle – but the game is perfectly happy to let you tweak settings between levels. There's also no penalty for losing besides having to try again, so if you die horribly, turn an Idol or two off and give it another shot. Or just give it another shot with the same idols. Your call.

Each Idol increases your rewards a little, however – both experience and money. Experience is used for leveling up, which is surprisingly unhelpful. Money is used for buying things, which is also surprisingly unhelpeful. The gods don't increase your experience and money very much – from 5% to 10% per god, coming out to a total of under 100% with every God turned on. The end result is that the benefit from turning the idols on is nowhere near the magnitude of the penalty – you'll farm experience and money faster with the idols off, simply thanks to how much easier the creatures are to kill.

You've probably noticed similarities in these descriptions.

Each game lets you customize the difficulty in whatever manner you choose. If you want one level to be easy, and the next to be tough, it's your choice and the game won't stop you. Each game gives rewards for increasing the difficulty . . . but largely irrelevant rewards. They don't really make you stronger, just give you an excuse for the difficulty changes. The games don't penalize you for choosing an easier mode, nor do they really reward you for a harder mode.

I'm really liking this idea, and I think it should be used in more places.

Take Halo. Let's say at any point, you can go into the menu and change the difficulty. When you do, you're popped back to the last checkpoint (note that checkpoints in Halo are quite common.) The game keeps track of which checkpoints you've done at which difficulty and gives awards based on them. Maybe if you've done things at higher difficulty, Want to go back and replay something in a tougher mode? Go for it. No skin off our back.

Take any MMO of your choice. You get a little difficulty slider. Easy, Medium, Hard, Deadly. You can change it at will, and it makes you weaker and makes the enemies hit harder. Each quest keeps track of the easiest difficulty you were in while doing the quest. If you do the quest on a harder difficulty, you get a little extra money (money never matters in MMOs) and maybe a little shiny collector's token that you can turn in for vanity gear.

Want an easy ride? Do it on Easy, the plot's still all there. Want a challenge? Flip it over to Deadly, and now every single monster is potential death.

The only games this *doesn't* work well with are games that can't be easily chopped into bitesized pieces. I'm not sure how to apply it to Civilization, for example. I think you're just stuck there.

But if your game can be chopped up into pieces, and especially if death is not intended to be a catastrophe, and especially if it's very skillbased, then I'd strongly recommend considering this.

Or, at least the very least, play Bastion and TWEWY, then consider it.

Or just play Bastion and TWEWY. Seriously. They're great games.

Age of Empires Online came out recently. I played it for a bit.

It's fun. They did a good job with the beginning, at the very least. You have quests, like a normal MMO, but each "quest" is an real-time-strategy mission. It's pretty cleverly built, to be honest – if one mission is too tough, you can come back to it later after you've leveled up a bit. "Leveling up a bit" is what replaces the old tech unlocking process. Instead of saying "after mission 12 you can use ballistas", they say "after you gain 12 tech points you can use ballistas", and each mission gives you a tech point, and you can reset your tech points for a fee if you want to try a different build. So that's cool.

It also has an inventory system. You can collect equipment for your units. Equipping units gives your units bonuses. I didn't get far enough to see if this is a tradeoff deal, where you'll be sitting there saying "hmm, do I want faster cavalry or stronger cavalry", or whether it's just a strict linear upgrade sequence. But it exists. Along with inventory comes crafting, where you can take raw materials that you find and turn them into gear, and I'm assuming there's an auction house and trading and all the standard stuff that comes along with crafting.

It's an interesting approach, and I'm not sure if I think it's a good idea – a good RTS is balanced on a razor wire, and this feels like wildly shaking the razor wire. But this entry isn't about that.

Age of Empires Online is "free-to-play" with "micropayments". You'll notice the scare quotes. First off, the micropayments are pretty damn macro. The cheapest things you can buy are $5, and those are purely cosmetic items for your capital city, and there's four of them. For the price of all the cosmetic items, you could buy the X-Com Complete Pack on Steam – including five games, two of which are great and a third of which is totally playable as long as you don't get frustrated easily – and still have cash left for an overpriced coffee.

You can also buy the Premium Civilization Packs. These take the civilization you choose and give you . . . well, the rest of the civilization. See, it's free to play, but it's not really free to play everything. Large segments of the game, including a lot of the gear you get, including Advisors, including a good chunk of the game's economy, are only available if you buy the complete packs, which cost $20 each. Keep in mind there's one of these per civilization. If I've been playing Greek, and I decide I want to switch to Egypt, I get to fork over another $20 for it. That's the price of an entire game.

Then there's a game mode, Defense of Crete, that costs another $10.

And the thing is that I sorta want to play these modes. I enjoy the game. It's fun. It's a nice timekiller between doing other things. But the game spends an incredible amount of time telling me I'm a second-class citizen. "You should learn a crafting skill! You can learn two! Yay, you've learned one! What, you want to learn a second? Haha, I'm sorry, you need a premium civilization for that. Lol. Loser. Hey go do this mission, you get rare equipment from it! You can't use the equipment, but you can totally look at it. Man. Isn't that shiny? Premium civilization, dude. You could make and sell gear like this! Oh, wait, I'm sorry, you need a premium civilization for that. $20. Fork it over."

Which reminds me a lot of Puzzle Pirates. Puzzle Pirates has a similar system, where large parts of the game are locked away. If you want to do all the trade puzzles, you need a trade badge. If you want to captain a ship, you need a captain badge. If you want to go sea monster hunting, you need a sea monster badge.

The difference is that, in Puzzle Pirates, these badges don't cost money. They cost doubloons. And there's two ways to buy doubloons. First, you can pay money for them. Second, you can pay in-game money for them . . . by buying them from other people who paid real money for them.

Realize that Puzzle Pirates still gets just as much cash either way. It doesn't matter who bought the doubloons. Someone bought them, and then someone spent them, and there's no need for those people to be the same person. For someone like me, who treats the game as a fun timewaster, this is perfect. I can burn some time enjoying my puzzling, make ingame money, use that money to buy doubloons, and get access to further parts of the game.

And here's the brilliant part. If, later, I decide I need a ton of ingame money to buy a boat, I can fork over $10 on doubloons, turn those doubloons into ingame money through the exact same trading system, and buy a boat without having to grind.

No matter what game you're making, there will always be people who would like to trade time for ingame shinies and people who would like to trade real money for time. These people are your best friends because, together, they give you money that you would never have gotten otherwise. But if you don't allow those transactions – if you cater only to the group of people who want to trade real money for ingame shinies – then you're cutting out a significant portion of your userbase.

One last story before I wrap this up. Recently, Eve Online added a new cosmetic item: a monocle. The monocle could be purchased in their online store for Aurum, a currency similar to Puzzle Pirates' Doubloons. A little math quickly demonstrated that this monocle would cost $60 if you were to buy it with real money. The community hated it – what moron would pay $60 for a virtual monocle – but CCP stuck to their guns. In two days, they sold fifty of 'em.

I don't know for sure, but I'd wager that the majority of those weren't purchased with dollars. There are a lot of players in Eve Online who have horrifying amounts of ingame money. I'd wager that a lot of those monocles were the result of a player saying "hey, that space monocle is pretty, and I'm space-rich, so, I'll buy it with my space money!"

And yet, CCP still made $3000 in two days, possibly without anyone giving them a single dollar for a monocle.

Guys: Knock it off with the free-to-play games with twenty-dollar mandatory micropayments. Make a sensible economy, then rig things up so that your devoted players can give you extra money and your broke players can consume it. It benefits us all.

Embracing Unintended Game Design

2011, July 29th 9:51 AM

I've done a lot of pen-and-paper roleplaying over the years.

I started with Dungeons and Dragons Second Edition, or, more exactly, I started with a horrifyingly botched interpretation of the rules, filtered through my middle-schooler mind. I vaguely recall rolling a d20 for stats and I'm pretty sure we had no idea what spell slots were. Since then I've played three major editions of D&D, three major editions of Shadowrun, had a brief and unfortunate foray into the world of Rifts and a briefer and far more unfortunate foray into a hand-rolled Xanth roleplaying system, and, to be quite honest, spent far more time thinking about roleplaying than I actually did roleplaying.

Anyone who's hung around roleplayers has heard a bunch of the same horror stories. I played this game, the whole damn thing was on rails, we had to read the GM's mind. The GM was a control freak and everything had to happen his way. It was a great game, except that the story always followed the GM's plan, no matter what. If you've played games, you know this GM. You've probably met him, you've probably played in his games, you've probably spent a frustrating hour coming up with clever plans and having them shot down unilaterally.

I used to be that GM. I'll admit it. My Xanth games were the worst example – little more than a thinly veiled excuse for running through the plot of the books, including skipping entire chapters when I couldn't figure out how to shoehorn the player through the *cough* scintillating plotline. My Rifts game was better, albeit only slightly. I had one of my best moments in that game, when the players managed to spy on the enemy encampment and, as what was intended to be a throwaway bit of scenery, I mentioned a huge dragon sleeping off in the corner of the camp. This kicked off about four hours of violent explosive shenanigans that left the camp in ruins. Followed immediately by one of my worst moments when I Deus Ex Machina'ed the entire thing away so I could give a speech. Seriously, Zorba. What the hell were you thinking.

The nice thing about RPGs is that the GM is sitting there, and the GM is a human. So when the players say "fuck that, we're not going into that cave to rescue the Mayor's daughter, that's way too dangerous" the GM can come up with a solution. Maybe they get driven inside. Maybe the mayor offers a bigger reward. Or maybe they just walk away and in the next town they have to deal with people telling stories about the adventurers that ran from a fight. You can improvise, and a good GM will improvise.

You can't really do that with games. When you release a game, that's the game, that's what the player's going to play. If the player doesn't want to go into that cave, well, tough cookies, the plot isn't going to continue until you do.

And that's not really a bad thing. We've only got so much money we can pour into game development. We can't make a game where the player can go into the cave and kill goblins, or the player can go abandon his adventuring lifestyle and become a farmer, or the player can hire mercenaries to go in and clean out the cave and then turn the cave structure into an amusement park serving Goblinburgers and Gnollshakes. We can't make all that stuff fun, we just don't have the developer time. And, for many years, that's where the limit was: you implement a game, the user plays the game, the user beats the game, hooray.

Then we invented multiplayer games and all hell broke loose.

It turns out that human social structures are unbelievably complicated. It turns out that human motivations are deep and multilayered. It turns out that when you have the goal "kill a bunch of monsters, you are a better player if you kill more monsters", and you expect people to go kill monsters independently, some bright person is going to realize that, hey, you can pay people to help him kill monsters, and then he's a better player because he's killing more monsters!

The industry response to this is swift and predictable: They're playing the game wrong. Put them back in their box and tell them to play the game right this time.

And it doesn't work, because we seal up one exit to the box, and then it turns out there's another exit, and the whole thing happens again.

When World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King was released, a player named Athene had a clever strategy to reach level 80 before anyone else. Despite asking the GMs for permission, he got banned for it because he wasn't playing the game right. When World of Warcraft: Cataclysm was released, he tried again, this time succeeding. Wanna guess what will happen when they raise the cap to 90? I'm willing to bet Athene will be there powerleveling to 90.

When someone finds a hole in the rules, our first reaction as game developers isn't "whoa, awesome, they found a new way to play!", it's "We have to stop them, because this is our game and you're not allowed to do that." Which we can do, because it's our world they're playing in, we can just push a button and make them stop doing whatever they're doing. Back on the beaten path, boy. That's where you're meant to be. And the game goes on, and we rest, satisfied that we're the master of our own domain, and that the players are playing the game correctly.

Which goes all to hell when we do something outside our domain.

Example One: Chain World. Jason Rohrer bought a Flash drive and put a copy of Minecraft on it. He gave it to someone, with a single set of rules: Do not copy it. Play the game once, building and creating whatever you wish. When your character dies, pass it on to someone else. These are the rules and these are the only rules.

The rules were broken instantly. Jia Ji was the first person who got it, and he put it on eBay and made the buyer promise to send it to specific people next. The community was outraged. He's playing the game wrong. Then broken again, perhaps – the game may have been destroyed, the game may have moved on, but nobody's saying. The rules lasted exactly as long as it took Jason Rohrer to describe them.

Example Two: Eric Zimmerman's coins. At the most recent GDC, there was a talk, and during that talk, coins were handed out. At the end of the talk, the person with the most coins got to give their own talk. Those were the rules, and the rules were defined by Eric Zimmerman.

Ryan Creighton used social engineering to acquire the entire bag of coins, and the watchers were outraged. He's playing the game wrong. So Eric broke his own rules, and gave the extra talk to someone he felt was more deserving. Then Eric broke his own rules again, and let Ryan talk for ten words. Ryan, of course, broke that rule, and gave a substantially longer talk than ten words.

You make a game. You offer to let someone play the game. They play a different game than you intended. Then you get angry that they're playing the wrong game.

This is a mistake.

When Athene plays World of Warcraft, he's not playing Blizzard's World of Warcraft. He's playing Athene's World of Warcraft. It's a similar game, with some of the same fundamental rules, but with different guidelines. In Blizzard's World of Warcraft, you don't join and drop groups to maximize the amount of experience you gain. In Athene's World of Warcraft, you do. And, critically, these are the same games. Neither game has a rule that says you cannot, or that you must, but in Athene's game, which Athene plays to accomplish Athene's goals, you do.

Jason Rohrer bought a Flash drive to make Jason Rohrer's Chain World. Then he gave it to Jia Ji and Jia Ji turned it into Jia Ji's Chain World. Jason Rohrer invented Jason Rohrer's rules, and Jia Ji invented Jia Ji's rules.

Eric Zimmerman invented a game involving coins, and he made Eric Zimmerman's Coin Game. Then he gave it to a room full of people, and each person invented their own coin game. Many of these were equivalent to Eric Zimmerman's game, but Ryan Creighton's Coin Game was different. You see, Eric Zimmerman's coin game was about collecting coins, and Ryan Creighton's coin game was about collecting coins in a slightly different manner that Eric Zimmerman hadn't thought of.

Jia Ji wasn't following Jason Rohrer's rules, and Ryan Creighton wasn't following Eric Zimmerman's rules. But Jason and Eric had let their games escape, and someone else had found a new way to play it. When they realized that, they tried to bring the game back. No. That's my game. You can't play it like that. You're not playing the game right.

But it wasn't Jason Rohrer's game anymore, and it wasn't Eric Zimmerman's game anymore.

When we make a game, we give it life. We create the rules of its existence. But then we send it out into the world, and other people take the game and change the rules and make it their game. Traditionally, this happened in people's homes, with house rules and tweaks and simple unintended misunderstandings, with people finding a new way to play the game or inventing a strategy that we never considered. But today we make huge multiplayer games. When we let the game go out, we tell people they're allowed to play it, but then we punish them for not following our view of how it should be played. We're telling them to play, then forcing them to follow.

I think this is a mistake. More accurately: I think reflexively doing this is a mistake. With multiplayer games there are certainly situations where someone finds it fun to destroy other people's enjoyment of the game, and that should be taken care of, ideally swiftly. But in a situation where one person has invented a new way to play the game that does not harm others, what's the issue? In a singleplayer game, or a sandbox game, or even a multiplayer game, why, whenever we are confronted with someone who's playing our game in a different manner, is our first instinct to stop them?

We cannot and should not hover over people's shoulders, telling them how to play the game. We should develop games that people want to play, and if they discover a way to play the game that we were not aware of? Maybe that's for the best. Maybe we can learn from that. Maybe we can say, hey, you are not playing the game I invented, but that's cool, and your game looks like fun, how about if I change my game to behave more like your game.

Maybe we need to learn to let go of our toys and let others play with them for a while.

Maybe we'll learn about some new games.

This is going to be a tough post to write.

See, most of my dissections take the form "look, this is an excellent game, it is a lot of fun, let's talk about what it did wrong". Some of them are "I'm not sure what this is, but it's worth talking about".

For the first time, I want to talk about a game I flat-out didn't like.

You're not supposed to do this as a game developer. You're especially not supposed to do this as an independent game developer while talking about an independent game, and I feel sort of bad about it. But we're doing it anyway because I have an important point to make.

Now, before we continue, a bit of a disclaimer. Game preferences are very subjective. The fact that I don't like the game does not, in any sense, mean that the game is bad. Also, I wouldn't bother writing about the game if I thought it was awful. I had a lot of hopes for it, and it almost works for me, it just shoots itself in the foot after about two levels.

So let's talk about Dwarfs!?. And, no, I'm not going to keep including the punctuation.

Dwarfs places you in command of a town hall and a squadron of dwarves. The dwarves are mostly autonomous, mining semi-randomly in every direction. As they mine, they produce gold, which goes straight into your coffers. You can command dwarves to mine in specific directions, aiming them at caches of rare minerals and gems, but that costs the very same money they'd be mining for you, so it's a bit of a tradeoff.

The problem with autonomous mining dwarves is that they may mine in directions you don't want. The game field includes several unidentified caverns, which may be empty or contain gold. Worse, they might contain water or lava. Water spreads in all directions, drowns dwarves, and will eventually destroy your town hall if you permit it. Your only hope is to stop the water with a temporary wall (costs money), surround the dangerous cavern with unbreakable walls (which can be placed only on intact areas of the cave, and cost money), and then use explosives to create bottomless pits at every choke point before your dwarves blindly mine through the temporary wall again and release the flood. The explosives, unsurprisingly, cost money.

Lava works the same way, except it doesn't spread as quickly and it slowly burns through temporary walls.

Monsters will happily kill off your dwarven workers. For a fee, you can recruit dwarven warriors at your town hall, then give them instructions to go fight the monsters. You can also build outposts which allow warrior recruiting, allow mining dwarf recruiting, allow warrior training, and have a big cannon on the roof so you can launch your warriors around the map rapidly.

I've just described the entire game.

No, seriously. That's it. The whole thing. You've got one command you can give your dwarves ("move here"), four ways to interact with the world ("solidify", "explosive", "temporary wall", "build outpost"), and five outpost commands ("recruit workers", "recruit warriors", "train warriors", "launch warriors", "retrieve warriors").

Now, I don't mind minimalistic games. But they need to either polish that minimalistic game mechanic to a mirror shine (Canabalt), ensure that all the "simple" game mechanics interact in complicated ways (Desktop Dungeons), or create varied and well-designed game levels for those simple mechanics to interact with (Super Mario Bros. 3, which was admittedly not minimalistic by the standards then, but sort of is now).

Dwarfs, unfortunately, does none of these. It feels empty and cluttered, simultaneously. As I was playing, I kept running into these difficult questions that I had no good answer for. Why are there both lava and water, when they behave so similarly? Why do dwarves have levels? Why does dynamite require a dwarf to trigger it? Why are there travel instructions that tunnel through walls, but no way to say "travel to this destination as fast as possible, don't bother tunneling unless you have to"? Many of these features feel less like gameplay mechanics and more like click consumers.

Which is what I was mulling over until I ran into this level:

And suddenly it all made sense.

Dwarfs isn't a strategy game, and it's not a tactics game. Dwarfs is a micromanagement game. All those mechanics that I called "click consumers"? That's exactly what they are! The game isn't about optimizing the movement of your dwarves, or building a cave structure, or building an army. The game is about making as many points as possible in the shortest period of time as possible. Optimal play means speeding up the game as much as possible, and only slowing it down when doing otherwise would cause you to lose. Practice, in this game, is maybe one third strategy, and two thirds simply clicking faster.

Now, again, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. This is similar to why I don't play Starcraft II and I'm never, ever going to claim that Starcraft II is a bad game.

But I also don't think it makes for good gameplay. If the difficulty is in micromanagement, then the player is left playing the interface. Take Dwarfs, and add a "route automatically through tunnels" option, and the game gets easier. Add a "automatically dispatch dwarf to trigger dynamite" feature, and the game, again, gets easier. Take Civilization and add whatever pure UI change you want and the game is left unchanged. When I'm playing a game, I want to play the game, not the UI, and Dwarfs is all about playing the UI.

If you look through the campaign levels, this becomes increasingly obvious. The game contain a tutorial plus five "campaign" levels. The tutorial is about what you'd expect (and is admittedly well-done), but the campaign starts gimmicky and ends gimmicky.

In order:

To Battle!: Defeat a number of enemies with a small squad of warriors. There's no standard mining in this battle, it's solely about choosing the right group of enemies to fight next, with a bit of micromanagement if you want the best result.

Castastrophe: You start on a map with at least a dozen pools of water and lava about to be breached. Survive for several minutes. Again, there's no standard mining, it's just learning to very quickly deal with all the mining disasters.

To The Point: The screenshots provided above. Get a number of points within a strict time limit.

The More The…: Create a large number of dwarves within a strict time limit. Again, this comes down to "hold the speed button as much as you can", with a slight emphasis on building outposts (which you can avoid in earlier levels.)

Godspeed: Survive for several minutes with a Speed button that is never released.

None of these missions introduce significant new mechanics. The first two are gimmicks where a large chunk of the gameplay mechanics are removed, without any new gameplay mechanics added. The latter three are "play the game quickly", and aside from a slight difference in scoring on "The More The…", are essentially "hey, go play the game".

The game also includes a handful of variant modes. Rush Mode, in which dwarves spawn faster. Dark Mode, in which the board is blacked out and you can only see where you've dug. Sandbox, where you can create cave layouts and spawn monsters and dwarves at will. And, finally, a Tower Defense mode. Now, to me, these feel like old development experiments and tools, not fleshed-out game features. The "Sound Test" of modern games.

Sometimes, I complain about games because I don't think they figured out what they wanted to be. I don't think that's what happened to Dwarfs. I think the real issue with Dwarfs is that they had a game in mind, and they made the game, and then instead of polishing their base gameplay to a mirror finish, they threw in a bunch of other features for the people who didn't like their base game mechanics.

And while many may like those game mechanics . . . I will admit that I don't, and the rest of the game doesn't save it for me.

I'll be watching for the next thing the developers do, because it's clear they're skilled, but I'm not going to be playing any more Dwarfs.

Roguelikes: The Misnamed Genre

2011, April 25th 4:47 PM

Recently, I've been playing a game called Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup. You should play it. It's good.

DCSS is a game about searching a dungeon for a magical McGuffin named The Orb of Zot. You choose a species and a background, get starter gear, and delve into the furthest depths of the unmapped, unexplored, randomly generated, extremely dangerous dungeon complex. There are about a dozen major areas in the world, including The Hive, The Shoals, The Abyss, and Hell itself, plus a large number of minor areas like the Ecumenical Temple and Erinya's Garden, many of which may or may not even exist. Along the way you'll find magical armor, scrolls, wands, and potions, none of which are identified. Putting on an unidentified ring could result in the discovery of a +5 Ring of Slaying (really goddamn good), it could result in "well, now you're wearing a ring, and you still don't know what it does", or it could result in discovering you've just donned a Cursed Ring of Hunger and you're about to starve to death if you can't get rid of it immediately.

Death, in DCSS, is a major event. When you die, that's it. You're done. That character is deleted. There are no save points, there is no reloading. Want to run full speed through the Hall of Blades just to find out what happens? What happens is that you get chopped to bits by the magical weapons filling the Hall of Blades and now you have to start over.

DCSS isn't a unique game. It is, however, possibly the most modern example of its genre, known as Roguelikes. The original game Rogue was released way back in 1980, sporting a text-based interface, randomized items, a randomized dungeon, and permadeath. Rogue inspired a similar game called Hack, which, itself, inspired a game called Nethack, a game notable enough that it occasionally displaces Rogue as the name of the genre. A few years later Angband was developed, then Linley's Dungeon Crawl, which was abandoned and eventually resurrected as Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup . . . sporting a text-based interface, randomized items, a randomized dungeon, and permadeath.

Those are the big names, at least. The Roguelike genre is very conducive to small projects. Its text-based "graphics" mean that any game developer can write up a little Roguelike of their very own, and the code behind Roguelikes tend to be simple to start with, albeit complicated to continue. There are easily a dozen major Roguelikes still in production, with dozens or perhaps hundreds that have been abandoned over the years. They all follow approximately the same formula: you choose a species and a background, you enter a randomly-generated dungeon with text-based art, you travel deep into the earth, using random unidentified magical items to survive until you find a magical relic which you cart back up to the surface and you win.

Except . . . they don't all follow that formula. They almost do. But not quite.

DCSS, for example, has a graphical mode. Not the prettiest graphics in the world. But it's graphics. So that kind of breaks the formula. And while it's not mandatory to use, DCSS has a Tower Defense mode known as Zot Defense, and a canned hand-made dungeon mode known as Dungeon Sprint. Which aren't really Roguelikes, because they're not about finding that magical relic in a randomly generated dungeon. But they sort of are, because they use all the same items and monsters and behaviors.

There's also Desktop Dungeons, which breaks the formula further. Most Roguelikes take many hours to beat, even if you know what you're doing. Desktop Dungeons takes about fifteen minutes per run. And it's got graphics – in fact, it has mandatory graphics. And sound. And there's no such thing as a cursed or unidentified item. But it's still a Roguelike. Sort of.

And there's Dwarf Fortress, which . . . well, it's got ASCII art. And randomly generated levels. That's all normal. But instead of controlling an adventurer, you control an entire town of dwarves, mining out a civilization into a cliff side or a convenient hill (or the frozen tundra, if you're looking for a challenge). And you're not trying to find a magical artifact. You're just trying to survive. Or maybe you're trying to make the world's largest elephant combat pit. Or maybe you're trying to build a digital computer out of pipes and gears and dwarves. It's not really a Roguelike. But it's within a stone's throw.

100 Rogues is an iPhone game, graphics and all. ADOM has a world map and multiple dungeons. Spelunky is a sidescroller action game. Toejam and Earl is about a pair of aliens repairing a crash-landed spaceship in order to go back home. There are so many exceptions, so many alternatives, so many branches, so many cases where people can't decide if a game is a roguelike or not, that I can only come to one conclusion:

The term "Roguelike" is not a well-defined term.

We've been trying to define "Roguelikes" based on what the game includes. Deep dungeons, random levels, cursed artifacts. But non-game genres aren't define that way. Imagine trying to divvy up movie genres based on their components. This movie has a car, so it must be a car movie. No, but wait, it has guns also! It must be a guns movie! No, actually, it's "The Godfather", and it's a drama movie. Or maybe it's a crime movie, or a thriller, or even a Mafia movie. But it contains cars and guns, and it's about drama and the Mafia.

Roguelikes aren't about dungeons. They're not about text-based graphics, or random artifacts, or permadeath.

Roguelikes are about complexity.

Roguelikes are about handing you a set of pieces. Roguelikes say, hey, these simple parts, when put together in this fashion, will have this obvious effect. And then they hand you more pieces, and you get to figure out the best way to combine those pieces.

Roguelikes are about using an unpredictable toolkit with complex interactions in order to overcome unpredictable challenges.

For example, there's an item in DCSS known as the Scroll of Immolation. When you read it, it blows up in your hands. Sounds kind of crappy, right? Now let's imagine you're wearing a bunch of fire resist gear, and you're in the Ice Dungeon, and you're being swarmed by a bunch of small ice critters. Read scroll, scroll blows up, you're immune, monsters aren't. Of course, this isn't the kind of thing you can plan for. You might not have that scroll. Chances are good you won't have a bunch of fire resist gear in the Ice Cave. And you're more likely to be attacked by a few big monsters than swarmed by small monsters. So what I've just described is not likely to be useful.

But DCSS contains dozens, if not hundreds, if not thousands of tricks you can use, and in any serious game you'll be close to death many times. If you can't find a good trick to survive, you'll die. The way to beat a Roguelike isn't to memorize all the tricks, it's to learn how to come up with ideas on the fly.

In Dwarf Fortress, your game will depend partially on what natural resources are available, and in what quantities. You can't always determine this early on in the game. You might reach the mid-game and run out of iron. Whoops. Time to find more iron, or learn to do without. In Desktop Dungeons, you never know quite which monsters you'll run into, which deities will be available, which spells and items you can get ahold of. These aren't traditional Roguelike games, but the core mechanic, the critical part that makes them feel Roguelikey, is preserved perfectly.

Once we acknowledge this potential new definition of Roguelikes, we start seeing it crop up in surprising places. Civilization 5 has a military that relies on finding certain important resources in order to build the best units. If you're lucky enough to find a lot of them, you might change your strategy to lean towards military conquest. If you find few of them, you might take a more defensive position, or use units that don't require iron or horses. Dominions 3, an excellent but obscure multiplayer turn-based strategy, is thoroughly laced with this – finding an important magical site, or a powerful recruitable independent mage, can change your entire long-term strategy if you're clever enough to recognize it. And here's the most unlikely comparison you'll hear in a while – Super Smash Bros Brawl multiplayer is like a Roguelike! A lot of the multiplayer strategy is seeing special items quickly and coming up with a good way to use them, or seeing what's being used against you and learning how to counter it. Compare a SSBB Pokeball and an unidentified Nethack potion or scroll. Unpredictable toolkit, unpredictable challenges.

And of course, Nieuwe Aarde, the game I've been putting more work into, is intended to be a Roguelike by this definition. I've been putting a ton of thought into how to make it more Roguelikeish – right now it frankly does a very bad job of being a Roguelike – and I think I have good ideas. Once I have the time, you'll be seeing more on this front.

There's only one problem. The word "Roguelike" is already taken. And the people who make Roguelikes would probably be a bit peeved by my claim that Super Smash Bros Brawl is a Roguelike. And worst of all, Rogue itself only has this property to a limited extent – there aren't many items, there aren't many abilities, there aren't multiple races or multiple character classes. So I think it's time to coin a new term . . . but I've had no luck coming up with a good term. My best option so far is "Highly Emergent Games", which sounds like a phrase you'd hear coming out of Zynga. Not ideal.

________ are about using an unpredictable toolkit with complex interactions in order to overcome unpredictable challenges.

I've defined a new genre of game. What do you think it should be called?

The Origin of a New Game

2011, March 25th 3:05 PM

I've got another megapost percolating, but I saw something from Warren Ellis and had to quote it:

Sometimes it works like this. You can’t choose what part of a story comes to you first. Sometimes you think of a setting first. Sometimes an interesting plot progression drops into your head and you find yourself looking for somewhere to put it, instead. Sometimes it’s the title first, or a character name, or even a line of dialogue from nowhere that kickstarts the whole thing. There’s no hard and fast method, no laws about how this works. Every job is different.

Quite, quite true. You get inspiration where it shows up and you don't complain about it.

Art That Stands The Test Of Time

2011, February 28th 11:17 PM

I just spent a lot of paragraphs talking about Super Meat Boy's artistic choices. Mostly, I talked about what made it a good facsimile of a classic console game while still, in a technical sense, being completely unlike a classic console game.

I didn't talk about what made it good. More importantly, I didn't talk about what "good" means.

From a big-business point of view, "good" is what sells games. That's cool. It's a rational choice. But it's not my choice.

From my point of view, "good" is what makes for good games. And by "good games", I mean "games that people enjoy, and games that people will continue to play well after release". The gaming landscape is littered with games that made a splash, but a stifled one – games that sunk unnoticed after their initial burst of sales. The indie market can't afford to do this. Indie marketing is a slow, gradual beast, and indie developers live or die on their long tail of sales.

That means when you're releasing an indie game, you have to release something that will still be fun a year from now. Two years from now. Five years from now. I can guarantee people will still be buying Braid in five years. I can guarantee people will still be buying Super Meat Boy in five years. And the way you get people to do that – at least, in terms of art – is to make art that lasts.

X-COM UFO Defense. This game's almost old enough to vote – seventeen years and counting. The graphics, by modern standards, are best described as chunky – this was back in the days when we were oh so excited about being able to display 256 colors on a screen at the same time, please ignore that we were restricted to a 320×200 resolution. But despite the chunkiness, they're good. You can see what's going on, the art doesn't induce pain, you get a sense of the world's style. The graphics may be old, but they're competently done and pleasant to look at.

Hold on to your hats, because we've got a shitload of screenshots coming up, all from around the same time period.

Space Quest 5 was one of the best adventure games of its time. Lavish hand-painted images, gorgeous worlds. Tyrian: a vertical shooter from Epic Megagames. It shipped with half a dozen detail levels, the highest of which would slow even the best computers down to a crawl. Jazz Jackrabbit was a successful attempt to bring the platformer genre over to the PC, merging the speed of Sonic the Hedgehog with the firepower of Doom. Master Of Orion 2 is an old 2d turn-based strategy game, setting you in command of an alien race to conquer the galaxy.

The PC wasn't the only platform with good, solid artwork. The Super Nintendo had its share as well. SNES cartridges were capable of storing up to four megabytes of data (six megabytes, if you pushed real hard) and their developers used this to its full extent. Super Metroid: still possibly the best game in its genre, it provided a gorgeous view into a strange alien planet. Chrono Trigger, a classic RPG, showed us the kind of variety an RPG could give us in graphics. I won't give away the plot twist in Final Fantasy 6, but suffice to say it was fantastically done, and – while it wasn't an SNES game – any discussion of gorgeous pixel art would be incomplete without Metal Slug. Which, if you can believe it, looks substantially better in motion.

All of these games have good graphics. I'm not saying they had good graphics for their time. I'm saying, even today, you can imagine sitting down and playing them. They look better than most modern Flash games.

(And you should play them, by the way. They're all really good. I'm not picking bad games here.)

And some games did not fare as well.

Alone In The Dark: A game that practically created the survival horror game genre. Final Fantasy 7: One of the most beloved RPGs of all time, even more so than Final Fantasy 6. Half-Life: The game that started a modern development behemoth, and one of the highest-rated games ever. Marathon: A relatively unknown first-person shooter that later spawned a somewhat better-known series called Halo. Starfox: The first 3d game on the Super Nintendo, creating an entire still-popular franchise of its own and firmly pushing consoles into the 3d world. And finally, Doom, which may well be the single most influential video game in history.

These are all considered great games. Some of them – perhaps even most of them – were even more groundbreaking and amazing than the games I've listed before. Most of them were released around the same time or later – the 2d games max out at 1995, the 3d games go all the way up to 1999.

But look at them. Seriously. They look like crap. The textures are low-resolution, either chunky or blurry. The models are blocky in the best of cases, and downright polygonal in the worst . . . and that's for the games that weren't using flat resized sprites. It feels like sacrilege saying that Doom is a game that looks bad, but, let's face it, by modern standards, X-COM looks good and Doom looks bad, even though fifteen years ago Doom is the game we were raving about.

All these games were released at roughly the same time, from 1993 for Alone In The Dark to 1998 for Half-Life. The earlier 2d games date 1995 or earlier. But all the 3d games look terrible, and all the 2d games look great. So what gives?

I didn't pick this time period arbitrarily. The mid-90's were the birth of the 3d gaming movement. Before that, we just didn't have the CPU horsepower to do 3d in any useful manner (yes yes, 3d Monster Maze and Catacomb, but I'm not even going to bother posting those). The instant we got 3d capabilities, people started making 3d games. They were new. They were amazing. And we simply didn't have the technology to make them look good.

Today, of course, 3d games are absolutely gorgeous. Photorealistic. Better than photorealistic, in fact. This is a line we've only reached recently, in the last few years. Logically, if we've only reached photorealism recently, that implies that 3d games have only just started looking good, yes?

And if you look back just a little, you'll find evidence corroborating this. Halo looked great on release, questionable now. Unreal Tournament 2004 is still a truly enjoyable shooter, but it's quite clearly dated. Serious Sam didn't look all that impressive when it was released, and it certainly hasn't improved. And Doom 3, hailed as a revolutionary graphics advance, is showing its age – blocky, not particularly atmospheric, and old looking. Better than Doom 2. Nowhere near Crysis 2.

And that means that no 3d game, before the present day, will stand up graphically. Right?

Well . . . no.

Not at all, actually.

Okami was released in 2006, but don't let the date fool you – it was one of the last games released on the rapidly aging Playstation 2, well after the release of the XBox 360. Its graphics come not from heavy hardware use, nor from a huge investment of money, but from style. Okami is a beautiful game.

Okami is not unique.

ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, two gorgeous games by the same developers. Shadow of the Colossus is a 2005 release, around the time of Quake 4. Ico was a 2001 release, back in the days of Halo. You can certainly see the lack of good technical backing to Ico, but it doesn't matter. The atmosphere of the game is clear, and the gorgeous art stands out today.

All of these games share something. They share a coherent visual style, one that could be accomplished with the technology of the day. And I do mean accomplished, not approximated. If you made Okami today, it would still look like Okami. If you made ICO today, it would still look like ICO. But if you made Half-Life today, it would look like . . . well, it would look like Half-Life 2 Episode 3. Not like Half-Life.

Today, hardware is no longer the issue. We have the hardware to do amazing things, as the above screenshot of Crysis 2 demonstrates. The issue today is money, and this is something that indie developers need to deal with regularly.

The genius of Super Meat Boy's art isn't just that the art is good. It's that the art is inexpensive. I have a hard time imagining that the game cost vastly more than Braid, and Jonathan Blow has estimated that Braid cost $200,000. The credits of Halo indicates that there were at least fifty full-time employees involved there, possibly more, and even calculating it conservatively, $200,000 isn't enough for half a month's salary for that many people.

Today, Halo doesn't look good, and Super Meat Boy does.

The trick for modern indie games is to come up with art styles that are beautiful for what they are. We have the horsepower to do whatever we want, but we don't have the manpower. Luckily, this is nowhere near impossible.

And Yet It Moves: A gravity-based sidescroller, with an art style based around photographs on torn paper. I can't even imagine how cheap the art for this game was, and it forms a visual style that is still nearly unique.

Darwinia: Vector-based realtime strategy game. Us coders love our simple geometric designs with hardware tricks to make it pretty – they're cheap to do and very, very effective, if perhaps a bit cliche.

Gemini Rue: Classic Sierra-style adventure. Is it handpainted? I don't know, but it may as well be. This is a game that would fit in perfectly next to Space Quest 5.

Shatter: I did say we loved our geometric designs! Modern hardware is fast, and with the right backing behind it, that speed can be turned into prettiness without a lot of money. Particles and rendering effects are easy on the wallet and easy on the eyes.

machinarium: When you don't want to do the coding tricks, you can just do 2d handpainted art. And when you're handpainting, why bother with realism? Photorealism is a dead end for the indie developer – it's too hard to get right, and you can fall into the Uncanny Valley without even trying. Graphical style is a much better idea.

The Witness: Light and shadows are one of an indie developer's best tools, and we already visited that in Super Meat Boy. They're computationally expensive, but simple to code, and shockingly beautiful. The Witness is making great use of them, putting more coding muscle behind lighting than many AAA games do.

Design your art so that you can do it competently. It doesn't matter how technologically advanced it is. It doesn't matter how many buzzwords you can fit in. It doesn't matter whether it uses 20% or 90% of someone's graphics card.

What matters is that you know what the goal of your art is, and you choose a goal that you can accomplish.

Ten years from now, nobody will remember the games that pushed the cutting-edge of technology. Nobody will remember the games whose main selling point was how much it would overload your graphics card. The games people will remember are the games that still look good in 2020, the games that still play well even then. And those are the games people will keep buying.

Your Shopping Adventure! Postmortem

2010, November 17th 12:51 AM

I'm having a tough time making a postmortem for this because almost nobody played it. C'mon, people! Gimme something to work with!

I had a few goals for this game.

First off, I wanted to piss off people who thought I was making a sexist game. I got a few bites on that front so I'm considering it a success. Sort-of-unfortunately, everyone laughed it off once they realized what was actually going on. I guess my friends are just too reasonable. I'm not really complaining about this aspect of things.

Second, I was trying to come up with a game that wasn't trivial to minmax. I made great strides in this direction and figured out the first really interesting scoring mechanism I feel I've managed. That, along with the "grades", made for a game where people were competing for highest score. Some of my early testers and most of the people who commented on it later, in fact. That's pretty cool! I thought score was a worthless mechanic, but I may have finally figured out a way to make it worthful: first, make it interesting to max out, and second, introduce goals so people know what they're shooting for. Doubling your score isn't motivating, but getting from a B to an A is damn motivating.

I'll probably write up more on my scoring mechanic later.

Third, I was doing more with 3d. Some of this was successful – the isometric viewpoint turned out pretty neat – but I had trouble getting stuff to work right. I need to learn more about 3d math and I just plain haven't. That's bad. It could have been much better.

Unfortunately, the rest of the game kind of fell flat. The entire thing – to me, at least – feels a bit sterile. I had trouble putting soul into it, like I have with several before, and I'm starting to feel like that's just sort of a random thing. Either it Works, or it Doesn't. K0R and Nieuwe Aarde worked. This one didn't. I'm going to be keeping a close eye on my future games to see what results in style and what results in no style, but that'll take quite a while to narrow down. On the list.

I'd say "it might have been that I had so little time available for this, it was really time-crunched" but I mean look at Nieuwe Aarde which was completely made in basically a state of constant panic, or K0R where I spent almost the entire game development process saying "goddamn, there is no way I'll get this done in time", and . . . well, honestly, being time-crunched generally seems to help. So I have no idea.

In terms of score, I broke fantastic new ground. In terms of everything else . . . well, needs some work, let's say.

Your Shopping Adventure!

2010, October 31st 11:36 PM

Windows (.zip version available)
Linux (32-bit only)

I told you guys I'd have a game this month, and by Jove I've got a game this month!

(For comedy value: check the timestamp of this post.)

The Experimental Gameplay Project theme this month is Boys And Girls. If we're a boy, we're challenged to make a game that girls will like, and vice-versa. I, of course, decided to make two games. One for each gender! How could this go wrong? I can appeal to everyone!

You should go play it immediately.


2010, September 28th 2:23 PM

Windows (.zip version available)
Linux (32-bit only)

A few months ago I did the first Reddit Game Jam. The theme was Opposites, and I managed to finish this shortly before falling asleep on the second day. That same month I'd done some other game (I'm thinking it might have been K0R) and so I never got around to posting this.

Luckily, the terms of the Monthly Game Project don't require that I post a project anywhere near the time of me finishing it! So I've been holding it in reserve for a month when I don't manage to complete a game otherwise. This month is that month, so here's Ramsgate!

Commentary, as always, welcome.

Speaking of the terms of the Monthly Game Project: I've got a few major things possibly coming up that are totally exciting. For example, I may be getting a job working on a commercial game that I think looks damn cool. And I'm putting a lot more time into making Robert Recurring into a commercial indie game.

Guess what I don't have time for anymore?

That's right: the Monthly Game Project.

I'm going to keep posting games when I can, but that might not be once per month. Things may slack off a bit. I'll try to compensate with more journal posts. We'll see how that goes. It is an adventure!