Don’t Starve: Life Begins at the End of Your Comfort Zone

Comfort Zone

I passed by this sign walking through town the other day. I liked the message – it was an exhortation to keep pushing yourself and not to go slack the moment things get rough. Taking a rest now and again is okay, even essential, but we should never stay there very long. There’s too much to do, too much to see, too much life to live and things to learn. To truly live is to be challenged and to change – staying where it’s safe and familiar is simply existing.

It’s one of the reasons that games are important. Games are a safe place to learn about the world, its systems, and ourselves. They let us practice at being human, whatever we interpret that to mean. They change us, shape us, hopefully for the better.

But they don’t always. A game can also leave you where you are, free to act on your own impulses, running on autopilot. It’s a comfortable state of mind, and games that indulge it tend to value self-directed play above all else. But should we be celebrating life within your comfort zone? Because without a little prodding, that’s where we tend to stay, content to lay about, wrapped up in who we already are. Too often, we prefer existing to living. And that way lies boredom, stagnation, and dormancy. In order to keep us from that self-inflicted state, a game’s design needs to intervene. Continue reading

“How Hard?” More Like “Hard How?” – A Response to The Meta

meta-heading

So I found these super cool guys at Kill Screen who run a column called The Meta. It’s the way they talk about games that caught my attention. Just look at the opening to a conversation they had about animation canceling in games:

“All animation cancels should be destroyed.”

Woah. I can count the people I know who make statements like that on one hand. I love that it’s such a strong position, because even if someone disagrees, the conversation that follows is bound to be interesting. You should definitely check it out.

The fundamental question of the conversation is this: “Is it okay for a game to have unintuitive, unexplained aspects of its technique in the name of skill?” Animation canceling, can of worms that it is, is only one aspect of the issue. And if you’re reading this and saying “WTF is animation canceling?” consider yourself a perfect demonstration of the problem.

But there’s one quote in particular that I want to talk about. It’s a quote that subtly colored the entire conversation, and it exposes some of the biases that we have about how to make games.

Justin Groot: “Aren’t mechanics that make things arbitrarily more difficult essentially the definition of any competitive game though?”

What a question. There’s a lot of baggage implied there, and I want to unpack it. It seems obvious that competitive games need skill, but it really matters what he means by “skill.” Not all skills are compatible with each other, and using conventional skills like dexterity and reflexes has a way of limiting a designer’s imagination, of cutting off all kinds of depth that other skills have to offer. Above all, designers should be purposeful and shrewd about which skills they put into their games instead of relying on whatever skills accidentally made it in. Continue reading

How to Play Democracy and Win!

democracy-game

Hey everyone, it’s that time again: the year when the grandest of all grand-strategy games plays out involving every single person in America. What game, you ask? Why, it’s the game of Democracy®! In development since 1787 and with a larger concurrent player base than even League of Legends, it’s one of the longest running and most popular games of all time. And here we are in the midst of the latest season. What an exciting and wonderful time to be alive!

But now that the game is on, what’s the best way to play it? Democracy® is a challenging, high-stakes game with some very tough opponents. If you want to come out on top, you’re going to need a strategy. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of people with ideas about the best way to play, and they’re definitely going to tell you all about them. In fact, there’s one strategy in particular that’s in vogue this season, and it has everything to do with wasted votes. That sounds pretty serious. Can a vote really be wasted? Maybe we can use game theory to find out how well this strategy holds up. Let’s try. Continue reading

Tourneys and Ladders: A Response to David Sirlin

Overwatch Logo

David Sirlin just published an article on his design blog regarding the newly released competitive mode for Overwatch. In it, he highlights some of the problems with the format, problems that result in a lot of draws. Sirlin approaches them from the perspective of tournament play, which is his forte. He asserts that the fundamental issue with the game types in question is that the number of rounds they require is even when it really should be odd. It’s a simple solution, but when you analyze the dynamics of that game type, it really isn’t so simple. And there’s a bigger problem than that because of one of Sirlin’s underlying assumptions: that the competitive mode needs to have a tournament format. But Overwatch competitive mode isn’t a tournament – it’s a ladder. And there’s a huge difference. Continue reading

Casual vs. Hardcore – Settling the Score

Deal With Auro Banner

There’s an idea that’s been haunting video games for years now. It permeates every corner of gaming culture: you can see it on news sites, reviews, conventions big and small, community forums, design discussions, and of course in the games themselves. It’s a specter that silently and insidiously manipulates the way we make games, the way we play games, and the way we think about games. Sometimes it even makes people go crazy and storm forums with internet torches and pitchforks. And worst of all, it creates artificial divisions between people who could otherwise coexist and enjoy themselves.

The ghost? The hardcore vs. casual narrative.

There’s this idea that on one side you have unskilled, nonchalant players who don’t care at all about winning, and on the other side you have these elite warriors who thrill at the thought of dominating their opponents. There’s a spectrum that’s implied, but don’t let that fool you – there’s a war going on between the two factions of gaming, and everything done to appease the casual comes at the expense of the hardcore. Lines have been drawn, and games are either for one or the other.

But the good news is the narrative is a lie! Games don’t have to cater to one of the two camps, and neither games nor people need to carry either of the labels. If a designer doesn’t put himself into a box, he doesn’t have to put his game or his players into a box either. So don’t believe in the narrative. Don’t do it! Even as a player, such thinking can warp your view of a game system and make you believe strange things about it. Take, for example, a self-identified “casual” who took one look at the ranking system in Auro and assumed it meant the game was for “hardcore” players, that he was an outsider, and that the game was for someone else. I mean, games with ranks in them are for hardcore people, right? To prove how tough and badass they are?

The hardcore vs. casual narrative is not a truism. It’s merely a perspective, and it’s a poisonous one that can bring out our worst ideas. Because actually no, ranks aren’t just for hardcore players. In fact, they help to make the play experience better for everyone, “casual” and “hardcore” alike. Continue reading

Beyond Game Balance: When to Hang Up the Nerf Bat

Nerf Bat

Want to start an argument? Start talking about religion or politics. This works especially well if you have several outspoken people in the group to get the ball rolling. If you want to maximize the vitriol, make sure that nobody involved in the conversation knows anyone else very well, so that nobody has any common ground or any context for the things people say. People will misunderstand and talk past each other to the point where nobody will make any progress, and the conversation will end with everybody hating everyone else. Mission accomplished!

So how do you start an argument on the internet? …well, pretty much the same way. But do you know how else to start an argument on the internet? Start talking about game balance. Now, there’s a topic to get the blood boiling, and you can’t get through your average forum thread without several salvos of “lol nub” and “git gud.” What’s interesting is that this conversation bears an uncanny resemblance to the religion or politics conversation. Everyone comes from a different place in their understanding of the topic, but in their experience theirs is the right one. There are plenty of people talking past each other, there’s plenty of dismissal, and everyone is definitely outspoken.

But who’s right and who’s wrong? It’s easy to write the whole thing off as opinion, and yet people win and lose games using this information, so there must be some objectivity to it all. In fact, the premise of a competitive game is founded on a form of objectivity: generally speaking, the winner is incontestably better than the loser. So these players have good reason to believe they’re right. Their experience playing the game is dedicated to learning this stuff. Players trying to eke out any advantage they can over their opponents will, as a matter of course, find things that help them to win more easily. But a player who hasn’t gotten there yet might find the same new techniques overpowering, at least until he learns a little more about how they work and how to counter them. Even the best players often advance their knowledge of the game, and by proxy so does the rest of the community at large. This is a sign of a healthy game-system – if people at all skill levels are still adjusting what they think it means to be a good player, that means there’s still undiscovered depth for players to chart.

But in the meantime, how do we sort out all these conflicting viewpoints? How can the same character be both too strong and too weak? Who is right? Well, would you believe… everyone? That may sound like a plea for, “Why can’t we all just get along?” but it’s absolutely true. The reason it’s true, however, is because we asked the wrong question. We shouldn’t be asking “Who is right?” What we should be asking is, “Who is the most right?” Let me explain. Continue reading

Dark Souls 2: Difficulty Dissected

You Died

You may have heard that the Souls franchise is hard. You may have even heard that it can make you into some sort of bizarre double-man. The director and supervisor of the series often talked about his desire to use difficulty to facilitate a sense of achievement (as opposed to collecting cheevos). I often hear gamers wearing the Souls series like a suit of armor, as though it were proof of their gaming prowess, and staunchly defending it from any attempts to improve “accessibility,” a word that seems to translate as “easier.” In fact, there was quite the kerfuffle back in 2012 when the internet suspected director Hidetaka Miyazaki of wanting to make an easy mode for Dark Souls 2, a comment that was speedily retracted. And in true PR form, Namco Bandai assured everyone in 2013 that the sequel would be “viciously hard.”

So isn’t it funny that just last month, the video series Extra Credits put out a video detailing how the true genius of Dark Souls 2 is… its easy mode! The producers detail out exactly how to make Dark Souls 2 a much easier experience, and go to great lengths to convince everyone why that’s such a great thing. It’s actually the sort of thing that EpicNameBro spoke out against during the 2012 controversy: he argued that having the option to lessen the difficulty robs the game of its tension and sense of achievement. Now, I disagree with Extra Credits (as I often do), but they’re definitely correct that Dark Souls 2 has what amounts to a “soft” easy mode, and that’s probably the reason why it slipped by so many gamers including EpicNameBro. But I think the important question here isn’t how hard the game is or isn’t. The important question is what kind of difficulty the game has.

In other words, what does it mean to be a truly “hard” game? Continue reading