Zen Of Design

The design and business of gaming from the perspective of an experienced developer

Category: General Musings (page 1 of 2)

No, Virginia, Gamergate isn’t Going To Destroy Christmas

I like Oliver Campbell.  As far as #GamerGaters go, he’s a moderate, reasonable guy, and he comes at the topic of ethics in games journalism with relative experience and logic for a consumer movement that frequently has no idea what ethical journalism looks like.  That being said, every now and then, he says something extremely silly.

Killing Christmas is kind of a favorite fever dream  for the far end of GamerGate, with some treating it as some sort of End Boss like event (GamerGaters like game analogies, unsurprisingly).  A similar sentiment was echoed by the short-lived Operation Krampus, a cause they abandoned  around the time that they realized they’d declared so many media outlets boycotted that Krampus would effectively mean that Game Publishers could only give review copies to Return of Kings.

Anyway, this is just me talking here, but I find Oliver’s future pretty far-fetched.  Why?

Continue reading

Little Green Footballs Has Something To Say About GamerGate

I think Little Green Footballs was exploring what Milo is up to nowadays.

Hero Rotation in League of Legends

It’s nice to see a piece on Gamasutra about free-to-play business models that don’t demonize it.  Sheldon Laframboise’s piece is lengthy, exhaustive and well thought out.  It’s a very nice change from normal, when articles on Gamasutra about the topic tend to make my teeth grind.  Every time the concept of Free-to-Play or Microtransactions comes up on Gamasutra, I can feel my teeth start to grind.  Free-to-play has quickly positioned itself to be the predominant billing model in gaming for a variety of reasons good and bad, and yet it seems like it just never gets a fair shake on what is supposedly the home turf for game development in the United States.  Instead, we get blatant scare tactics, junk science ), caricaturish descriptions of free-to-play games as “coercive” and bad for kids as well as frequent contributors openly cheering for the layoffs happening at these companies.  The commenters on the site frequently are even more anti-free-to-play than the writers.

So this article is a nice breath of fresh air.  I did note one thing in the comments section that I thought merited mention from a design perspective:

(The way Riot rotates their heroes) is actually the worst part of their model, IMO. Heroes are the core content of your game and arbitrarily gating off a vast majority of them leaves a bad taste for me personally. Compare that approach to something like Heroes of Newerth where all the characters are available for everyone from the start and I know which one I’d pick every time. Given that their userbase is so much larger you wouldn’t think it’d be a problem for them to get by exclusively on vanity items and account level modifications like HoN does.

HoN is not alone — The recently released Defense of the Ancients 2 (DOTA 2) also gives away all of their heroes for free.  To quote Valve:

“We believe restricting player access to heroes could be destructive to game design, so it’s something we plan to avoid.”

It may be that this new way of doing things may become the new normal.  Players tend to see ‘free-to-play’ games as naked attempts to nickel and dime them, but over time, the opposite tends to be true as competitive pressures reset player’s expectations of what is free vs. what is charged for in any given genre, pushing them downward as new entrants attempt to turn these sales pitches on price.

That being said, I disagree with the Valve quote pretty violently.  At least in the case of LoL, Hero Rotation does very good things for their billing model and their game as a whole.  To wit:

1) Choice Paralysis is a real thing.  Studies have been done that show that, if you present too many choices to a consumer, they are actually more likely to NOT MAKE A CHOICE AT ALL.  There is a very real and valid concern that you will make the ‘wrong’ choice, even in cases where the costs of making a wrong choice are very low.  By limiting free hero options to just 10, Riot effectively removes the pressure of having to choose from 141 options, of which the new player knows nothing about.

2) Hero rotation encourages players to play new heroes on a regular basis, rather than choose one and stick with it forever and ever.  Giving each one a spotlight also helps ensure all of the content gets focus, and helps guide community discussion towards the currently featured heroes.

3) Riot clearly uses the free heroes to both encourage a wide mix of roles (ranged vs. melee, support vs tank, etc) as well as to ensure there are always some easier heroes for you to easily reach for.  As an example, it seems like Ashe is always freakin’ free – she is widely perceived as being a good noob-friendly character, and also popular enough she’s one of the faces of the game.  Far better than hoping that players find something playable and resonant by serendipity.

This is not to say that there aren’t better ways to accomplish these goals.  That being said, sometimes Microtransaction designers make these decisions for reasons other than making money.


The Damsel in Distress Trope

You may remember the kerfuffel around Anita Sarkeesian being slammed by every gamer asshole on the Internet for her attempts to kickstart a video series of feminist criticism of games.  Fortunately, the harassment crusade against her kickstarter failed (and failed hilariously, I might add), because her videos have been coming out and they are seriously, seriously awesome.  Deep, well-researched, and thought-provoking.  Watch them all.  Do it.

This is not to say I completely agree with her.  Like most media critics on the topic of gender equality in media, she takes her position too far and is somewhat naive about what the ramifications of her viewpoints.  At one point, she pretty much claims that rescuing men isn’t really a problem, but rescuing a woman almost always is, because it reinforces the idea that women are trophies that need to be rescued.

My problems are as follows: first off, the idea that more protagonists in games should be females is completely accurate.  Should they ever be the majority of protagonists?  Not while our target market is mostly male.  Players prefer characters that they can identify and bond with.  Most players prefer a character like them.  (Some may float the idea that both the protagonist and the rescued target should be  gender swappable – this is not a casual change and has dramatic, not-very-good effects on both a games’ budget and the quality of whatever storytelling, writing and character development goes on in it)

The second issue is that the general prevailing school of thought amongst modern pop culture writers is that making stakes personal is a much more mature and emotionally resonant motivation for a hero than generic ‘save the world’ or ‘steal the macguffin’ type stories.  For example, Mission: Impossible 3 was considered a much more serious movie than the first two in the series because the stakes were about the protagonist rescuing the woman he loved, rather than fighting over vaguely indistinguishable shadow agencies with interchangeable, disposable evil plans.  Taken, as well, is a movie that resonates because it is about a CIA operative who is forced to use his skills meant to topple countries and assassinate dictators, in order to kill thugs in order to rescue his daughter.  These are both damsel-in-distress stories, but they are both considered to have much stronger storytelling than, say, your average run-of-the-mill James Bond flick.

The reason why is simple: the damsel in distress trope is not uniformly negative.  One could argue that it creates the idea that women are simple objects without emotions, goals, or capabilities on their own.  And that’s fair.  However, it also teaches our kids that ‘above all, love is worth fighting for.’  And that, I would argue, is not a negative message.

That being said, the fact that Nintendo actually greenlit Super Princess Peach (1:25 in the video above) is staggering.


Planning for Obsolescence

It would seem like common sense that if you tell one of your game players that you’re going to devalue all of his shiny toys, he’d get upset.  But in practice, game designers do this all the time, and players, eager to continue their devotion to their hobby, happily jump on board.  This is most commonly visible in MMOs, of course.  Every time we add a new raid, or add 10 levels to the game, we devalue all of the ph4t purples you earned before.  In SWTOR, we do allow you to salvage that gear by putting in higher level components, if you want to keep the appearance.  But the intent is clear: we want to deliver new content, and we want that new content to have powerful carrots to pull the player through the experience.

FIFA also devalues their customer’s shiny toys.  FIFA makes millions of dollars selling packs of ‘cards’ with soccer players every year, and every new FIFA season brings a new edition of the game, and resets the card chasing game as well.  Rather than be upset about this, FIFA players hungrily jump at the chance to collect again – which isn’t too wierd, when you consider the close parallels to real life sports trading cards’ seasonal releases.

However, no one has mastered this design concept quite like Magic: the Gathering.  Magic releases releases a new base set (currently Magic 2014) and a new 3-part expansion (called a ‘block’) every year.  Late in September of this year, the first part of the new block (the greek themed ‘Theros‘) will come out.  More significantly, though, is that with the release of that block comes the annual ‘rotation’ when old cards become invalid – cards from Magic 2013 will become invalid, as will cards from the Innistrad vampire-themed block.  Casual players will still be able to play these cards against friends, and these cards will still be legal in older formats like Legacy and Modern, but they will by-and-large disappear from Standard, which is by far the most common constructed format for Magic.

Put another way, on August 27th, Wizards of the Coast will decree that roughly half of the cards that players are playing with right now are no longer legal and must be retired from your decks.  And make no mistake: players are ecstatic.  Why does this work so well?

  • New cards.  It probably goes without saying that this rotation will happen at the same time as a new set will be added to the mix, which means that players’ attention is already devoted to hunting down new strategies and tactics amongst their new shinies.  The need to fill holes left by disappearing cards undoubtedly sells packs, but it also forces players to rethink decks and entire strategies.
  • The hunt for hidden treasure.  There are plenty of cards that aren’t played right now because there are better alternatives (Deadbridge Goliath, for example, will probably enjoy more play once Thragtusk leaves) , or are affected poorly by the overall meta (decks involving any amount of use of the graveyard generally suffered because everyone was building hate for Unburial Rites, a powerful standard deck linchpin now).  Certain players (myself included) love searching for undervalued gems.
  • A controllable metagame.  Rotating out cards means that in Standard format, there is a controllable number of interactions to track.  Gatherer currently lists 1734 standard legal cards, which seems like a hell of a lot of game components to balance against each other until you realize that more than 15000 unique cards have been printed in Magic’s 20-year life.  The generally smaller pool of cards has managed to allow the Wizards’ team to do a good job at least preventing utterly abusive card combinations, as evidenced by the fact that they’ve only had to ban 2 cards from standard in the last decade.
  • Shifts in the metagame.  The rotating environment allows Wizards to experiment with major changes in the overall flow of the game, adding major new mechanics or shifting key balance points.  As an example, for the last two years, the addition of a card called Cavern of Souls has pretty much resulted in the disappearance of pure counter control decks, where the opponent never gets to cast a spell.  I don’t know what Wizards thinks about that experiment, but I think that it’s probably not entirely coincidental that interest in Magic has blossomed in that time.
  • The death of hated cards.  Perhaps most importantly, now is the time when the dominant cards that you’re sick of playing against (including whatever mistakes Wizards made from chances they took) get corrected.  As an example, Thragtusk is currently appearing in 35% of top end decks, and is the only non-land card to appear in the top 9.  It appears almost as frequently as the aforementioned Cavern of Souls, which is staggering.  Which means that if you don’t play green, you will likely dance a jig once Thragtusk disappears forever.

 Magic is a master of reinventing itself every year.  Strategies that work today won’t work tomorrow.  This means that there are always new cards to try, new strategies to consider, and new combos to experiment with.  This idea of planned obsolescence is what makes this design strategy work.

The Next Evolution of Guitar Hero

What’s the boys over at Harmonix doing? They’re doing what every armchair designer suggested doing after the launch of the original Guitar Hero – getting the whole band involved. EA is publishing, and MTV is helping fund it and line up musical acts. Continue reading

Guitar Hero Sequels Coming

These are the things that make Mondays tolerable: RedOctane says we could be seeing ‘five or six’ titles by mid-07.

“We are working on Guitar Hero 2, which will have 40-plus new tracks,” Sumner told MCV. He also confirmed that genre spin-offs including Country Rock for the US and a Metal edition are on the cards. He even pointed to further possibilities for the peripheral, adding, “you could absolutely do a plug and play version”.

Clearly, I can go on living now.


Sleep, Precious Sleep

The National Institute on Media and the Family has recommended, among many of their other recommendations, that parents set up their children’s bedrooms as media-free zones (buried in page 1). I find this interesting – I grew up in a media rich bedroom – mostly books and music, which I doubt NIMF is trying to get rid of. That being said, I never had the luxury of having a computer, game machine or television in my bedroom. If I wanted to play at night, I had to sneak across the house in the dark. More likely, I’d read under the covers with a flashlight. And yes, sometimes, I’d get caught, and get in trouble. Continue reading

The Rise of Manga in America

I found this article about the emergence of Shoujo Manga in America to be a fascinating read. The general thesis is that Manga is taking the American girl market by storm, largely because American comic book producers simply refuse to make content for that market. Sounds like another industry I know. Relevant quote:

Speaking for myself, the straw that broke the camel’s back fell during this year’s Emerald City Con in Seattle. I’d stepped out to smoke a cigarette and was watching the passersby. I noticed a family leaving the convention — a Mom, a Dad, and a little girl no older than eight years of age. The girl was decked out in a beautiful, elaborate kimono and clearly distressed by what she’d just encountered. “But they didn’t hardly have any manga at all!” she said as they walked away.

When I was done with my cigarette, I went back inside and relayed this story to an acquaintance prominent in the art-comics publishing scene. “I hate to say it, but good,” was his reply. Indeed, I told the story several more times that day, to both indy-comics and superhero-comics professionals, and the reaction was more or less the same each time. A young reader disappointed by the selection offered to her? Good. The future of comics walks out the door, unable to find what she wants? Good. I left the convention early, lost in a foul mood. I swear: I love the comics art form with a passion, but my utter contempt for the American comics industry grows like a cancer with each passing day.

Continue reading

I’m PK+, Bitch!

So, apparently, we’ve discovered the addiction that derailed Season 3 (thanks to MMODIG). Continue reading

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