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


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

Leveling Systems Part Two: Where We Could Go From Here

Level Up Part 2

In part one of this article, A Brief History of Leveling Systems, I talked about the problems that video games have had in implementing the D&D leveling system. While it may seem to have made sense to turn RPGs into video games, designers didn’t consider how different a social tabletop game and a single-player video game truly are. The game systems designers ended up making were clumsy and shallow, and they unwittingly paved the way for the skinner box apps of today. Rather than designing sophisticated game systems, designers accidentally got sidetracked by what seemed to work on audiences and thus sold many copies. The ultra-monetization of games has brought with it the need to continually produce commercially successful games regardless of the content, and it has probably done more harm to the art than good. It has certainly skewed our understanding of design as well as our priorities as developers. I certainly noticed a strangely happy vibe from the author of the Puzzle & Dragons breakdown.

That’s not to say that leveling systems should never be included in a video game. Indeed, computers are far more efficient at running complicated, number-based game systems than a human with paper and pencil could ever be. It does mean, however, that the game system needs to change in order to accommodate its new medium. If we take some time to really understand these game systems, we can make games that leverage our favorite genre tropes effectively while maintaining the integrity of the core game. In fact some games have even taken those first steps, though they are rarely given credit for their vision. Continue reading