Category Archives: Design / Production

Combatting Writer’s Block

Chris Avellone was telling me about a panel on writing that he attended at Comic-con which devolved into an interesting conversation about circumventing writer’s block. That’s a challenge I struggle with all the time, so I asked him for his notes on the panel, and he was kind enough to share them with me. And now I’m sharing them with you. And you can share them with someone else, if you like. Ain’t sharing grand? PS. Many of these tactics seem as applicable to game design as they do to writing.

  • Go buy three magazines (games) you don’t normally read (play), then flip through them and free associate.
  • Grab a Gideon Bible, open it randomly and then see what it sparks.
  • Have three creative projects going at once so you can switch off when you get stuck with one. (For games, they shouldn’t have to be large in scope; how about having a pet flash, XNA, or mod project on the side?)
  • Do something else creative that doesn’t involve writing – doodling, sketching, painting, whatever.
  • Go workout for 30-40 min with no music and no TV, and then let the endorphins do their work.
  • One guy said that “writer’s block happens because you’re writing something you’re not excited about or interested in,” and he suggests that when that happens, take a step back, ask why, then charge into it in a different direction that does excite you.
  • Keep a collection of works that excite you. When you hit a block, go back to this library, re-read them, and remember why they excited you.

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(I’ve been sitting on a bunch of posts, being too lazy and/or preoccupied to clean them up, insert hyperlinks, and publish them. I finally summoned the will to get them out this morning. Here’s the first.)

If you haven’t already done so, I recommend checking out Kongai, a digital trading card game designed by David Sirlin and publicly released on Kongregate a couple months ago. David, for those of you who don’t know him, is the guy rebalancing Street Fighter for XBLA/PSN (and a very thoughtful designer, in general.)

Kongai is a well-designed card game, but what’s remarkable about Kongai is not necessarily its gameplay, but how Kongai is positioned within the larger context of Kongregate. Kongai cards are awarded the same way LIVE Achievements are – in reward for accomplishing explicit challenges in the various games found across Kongregate. (Actually, Kongai cards are more like Pogo Badges, because Badges are awarded for time-limited challenges, unlike LIVE Achievements, which are hardcoded to a game prior to its release and which never expire.) Having played Kongai for a while now, I can personally testify to the allure of virtual awards that have concrete value in a playable metagame in addition to the “status value” of normal Achievements!

There are quite a few portals and networks claiming to offer “Achievements 2.0”, but Kongai is the first thing I have encountered that feels even remotely advanced enough to merit such a claim. Gamasutra published an article on the design of Kongai, if you’re curious to learn more.

Bubbling about Braid

As a general rule, I choose not to write about individual XBLA games on this blog. But this was a special week for XBLA, and I’d like to acknowledge the primary reason for that:

Last Wednesday, we launched Jonathan Blow’s Braid. As many other commentators have already noted, Braid is now the highest-rated game on XBLA. Its review score puts it in the company of Mass Effect. Rock Band, and Halo 3. It is being compared to Portal, but Portal had a much larger development budget. IMO, Braid is in a class all its own.

That said, I’m not writing this to promote Braid (it doesn’t need the help at this point.) I wanted to share some thoughts on the game itself, and on lessons that we can potentially learn from it.

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Back-Linking and Dormant Content

At Comic-Con, Cliff Bleszinski revealed that Gears of War 2 would feature linked Achievements, or special content that is unlocked only if you’ve earned a specific achievement in the original Gears of War. For example, if you’ve completed Act One in Gears Of War, you will unlock a playable Anthony Carmine in Gears of War 2. This is similar to what Peter Molyneux is doing with Fable on XBLA, i.e. enabling you to win currency that can then be spent within the world of Fable 2.

I suspect that this sort of thing will become increasingly popular with developers, some of whom will do it simply because it’s cool, and some of whom will do it because it can be useful for promotional purposes. (Use the earlier release of “Game A” to help drive interest in “Game B.” Or alternatively, take “Game A,” which isn’t expected to be a huge hit, and link it to “Game B,” which is expected to be a huge hit, in hopes that “Game A” benefits — a potentially more subtle or interesting version of the “bundle Game A with a demo or beta of Game B” strategy.)

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Designing for Older Gamers

Gamasutra has posted an article sharing ten lessons for designing games that appeal to “older gamers” — which they also call “silver gamers.” Most of the lessons seem obvious, but it’s worth being reminded of them.

I would have liked it if some of the lessons were expanded upon. For example, lesson #1 emphasizes the importance of repeatable tutorials, but tutorials are simply one means of addressing a larger issue: that of teaching people what they can do in a game, and then helping them to remember those lessons later on. (Lesson #2 was “better printed manuals, reiterating the importance of this issue.) Given the tremendous length of some games, and the fact that busy adults may spread that gameplay over weeks or even months, it’s easy to forget the lessons taught in a tutorial.

This problem is exaggerated in games, such as Assassin’s Creed or MGS4, that pack large amounts of functionality into disparate objects and/or context-sensitive situations. (Though MGS4 does some things nicely, like automatically displaying all the ways to use an item when you select that item from the menu.) The request for meatier printed manuals, like repeatable tutorials, is ultimately a symptom of this larger problem.

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Combatting Antisocial Behavior

The Freakanomics blog is worth subscribing to, if you haven’t already. Via it comes word of a neat experiment: in the psychology department coffee room at Newcastle University, prices for tea and coffee were posted on the wall, and an “honesty box” (i.e., in which to place your payment) was set nearby. This sort of experiment is fairly common, but the twist was that, in some weeks, a photo of flowers appeared above the price list. In other weeks, it was a pair of human eyes, staring directly at the person reading the price list. In weeks with eyes on the list, staff paid 2.76 times as much for their drinks.

This brought to mind my earlier post on the wonderful book Predictably Irrational, which noted that you could dramatically cut down on cheating in exams if you simply asked students to recall the Ten Commandments before they took a test, or — more pointedly — by reminding them of a school honor code. (You had to do this right before the test — it couldn’t happen weeks before and still retain the effect.)

A long time ago, I wrote an article for Gamasutra exploring the possible design of a feedback/rating system that would discourage antisocial behavior in MMOs. That system, which still may have merit, pales in comparison to the wonderful elegance and simplicity of these psychological tricks. And given that (1) one of the biggest challenges for online, anonymous systems like MMOs (and LIVE) is antisocial behavior, and (2) companies are spending tens of millions of dollars on these systems (if not more), why aren’t more companies hiring psychologists and behavioral economists as consultants or full-time employees? The cost seems justified, given the potential benefits.

(Actually, I’ve heard of a few MMO developers hiring economists, but I think that most are focused on the optimization of in-game economies, as opposed to tackling anti-social behavior. There is a relationship between the two, but they are not equivalent.)

Debating Difficulty

There are two design issues that I have been thinking about lately. One is the question of consequences, which smart guys like Clint Hocking and Randy Smith have lectured and written about. Are we robbing games of meaning (and/or eliminating the sense of wonder they can create) by reducing player choice, amping up positive feedback, and increasing the degree to which we hold the player’s hand? The second is the question of difficulty — how challenging should a game be, and is it “pandering” or “betraying the spirit of the game” to do things like offer a very easy play mode, design more forgiving checkpoints, add a hint system, etc? (Accessibility and difficulty issues are, in fact, a recurring theme on this blog.)

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How to Increase Trial, Improve Conversion Rate, and Sell More Games

I’ve debated writing this article for a long time. My hesitation has stemmed, in part, from the recognition that many people have already beaten this particular horse. At least once a year, I hear an excellent presentation on this subject, usually at a casual games conference (where necessity breeds ingenuity). That said, I believe that many developers and publishers are making mistakes — on many platforms, not just XBLA — which if corrected could improve the sales of their games. So what the heck, I’ll jump on the bandwagon and say a few things. Hopefully some of them will actually seem insightful.

PR… it’s not just for Halo

Having a free trial does not exempt a downloadable game from taking advantage of PR; not even in XBLA, where every game gets downloaded by a large number of people. Why? Two reasons. First, that “large number of people” could be a lot larger. 2x (or more times) larger, in fact. Just because a lot of people download every game that comes their way doesn’t mean you can afford to ignore the people who don’t. Plenty of consumers only think to download the titles they are familiar with — that’s why licensed IP is so popular with many publishers.

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Serving Customers Instead of Labeling Them

Nothing says “the holidays” like plenty of food, drink, friends, and family. And party games, of course. My closet is overflowing with board games and peripherals just waiting to be unleashed on visitors (aka “informal market research participants,” aka “gracious victims of enthusiasm.”)

Guitar Hero remains popular on these occasions (which is no statement against Rock Band — I simply haven’t acquired a personal copy yet. Much as I’ve enjoyed my three fruitless visits to EB…) And yet, Guitar Hero 3 failed me as a party game until I finally gave up on “principle” and unlocked a couple cheats — specifically “no fail” mode and “unlock all songs.” So now I’m having more fun with my friends and family, but I’m a “cheater.” Oops.

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Working Without A Crystal Ball

Note: I think this post may be interesting to anyone creating, investing in, or distributing games (regardless of whether or not they are Xbox Live Arcade games.) However, I needed to ramble through some seemingly tangential stuff to make my point. Please bear with me. :-)

XBLA portfolio management is a complex thing… I’m one part cat-herder, one part traffic cop, one part talent scout, and one part “quality control.” (The latter part is especially tricky… who wants to be the guy who turned down Katamari because “the art was weak”, or one of the eight publishers who turned down Harry Potter because “the writing could use polish.”) I approach these roles with a healthy dose of humility (and even anxiety), knowing that at any moment I could become “the moron who turned down [fill in the blank].” Unfortunately, the longer I hold this position, the more likely that becomes!

Trying not to be a moron

So I’ve put systems in place to hopefully help reduce the risk of my own tastes (or lack of vision) from polluting the portfolio. I can’t really discuss the details, but they include a sort of “wisdom of crowds” feedback loop, in which indie submissions are screened and rated by a group of my colleagues within Microsoft (who are asked NOT to discuss the submissions with each other before rating them — mainly to avoid group-think.) The wisdom of crowds can make my forecasts more accurate, and it can help compensate for any subconscious biases I have. Unfortunately, what I don’t believe it can do is help me identify future mega-hits (i.e. “the next Geo Wars“.)

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