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For The Love Of Games (Part 2)

During the summer of 2008, the flame in my heart for gaming began to burn out. I had spent most of my free time over the past several years playing dozens of triple A console games, and these supposedly immersive experiences that had once filled me with thrill and wonder were beginning to feel trite and empty. Then one day, with the hype for Starcraft II building and our fond memories of Blizzard’s RTS games, my roommate and I decided to install our old copies of Warcraft III. After playing a few rounds of multiplayer, I was reminded of another game I had heard huge praise for but never actually got around to playing. Before this, my exposure to this well-known War3 mod was limited to the Basshunter song of the same name.

I became hooked on Defense of the Ancients (DotA) almost immediately and before long it was the only game I was playing. I was playing and thinking about it so much that I began having vivid dreams at night of the gameplay. It was around this time that I had something of an epiphany about my taste in gaming – that the competitive and social aspects of a multiplayer game were equally, if not more, immersive and engaging than the narrative-driven single player experiences I had previously championed as the pinnacle of game design.

At the end of part 1 of this story, I said that I was struggling with how creating immersive, emotional game experiences fit with designing balanced, competitive multiplayer games. It was thanks to this DotA-fueled epiphany that I realized the answer. Both types of games are immersive, emotional game experiences. Both types of games use systems and mechanics of play in a virtual environment to create these emotions. The player can feel emotions from deliberately designed events that are built into the game by the designers, and just as easily the player can feel emotions from events that occur within the gameplay of a multiplayer match. Just as Ico made me feel protective of Yorda, DotA made me feel protective of my lane partner in the early game when they were the carry. It turned out I was completely wrong in my belief that all the artistry of game design was found in crafting single player experiences.

Having removed this thorn from of my side, I felt like a born again gamer. I played a lot more DotA, and then a lot of League of Legends, and then Starcraft II finally came out and it quickly became my favorite game of all time. These multiplayer games immersed me in a depth of strategy and competition, and the accompanying array of emotions, that I had previously only gotten a taste of in my prior gaming experiences (primarily first person shooters and fighting games). Through SC2, I became a follower of what is known as “eSports” which turns what is for most people a recreational, leisure activity into a highly skilled, highly competitive activity requiring 100% dedication from the top players. To this day, I am fascinated by both the play of professional SC2 and the new media content that surrounds it.

I felt compelled to write this because ultimately it is a story about many of my influences and inspirations as a game designer. The events described were some of the most formative moments for me as a gamer and all of these experiences helped me discover precisely the elements of gaming I want Heartonomy to create.

For The Love Of Games (Part 1)

This is a story about how the gamer in me has evolved throughout my life.

My earliest gaming memory was playing Duck Hunt on my uncle’s NES in the late 80s when I was 4 years old. Shortly after I got my own NES Action Set and quickly discovered the other game that came bundled on the dual cartridge. As a result, my love of gaming began with 2D platformers, and this dominated my gaming tastes for the next several years. As a young child, I was drawn to the thrill of controlling the stylish cartoon characters across their vivid fantasy worlds.

As I grew up in the mid 90s, there were two major forces that would significantly broaden my perspective on gaming. The first was the introduction of RTS games on the PC to my gaming repertoire, beginning with Warcraft II and then solidifying a few years later with Starcraft. These games offered a new type of gameplay from what I was used to with platformers on the consoles. Not only could I build and control armies of stylish characters, but victory required more than just mastery of the controls. In these games, you really had to think and make decisions about the best way to play. To top it off, these games were also my first taste of competing with friends in online multiplayer.

The second major force was the arrival of 3D to console gaming. Playing Mario 64 was my first real exposure to the immersive 3D worlds that have come to be known as the “triple A games” which dominate much of the PC and console gaming we have today. For the next decade and more, I became increasingly intrigued by the emotions these types of games could conjure by combining game mechanics with their worlds, stories and characters. I was so focused on this one aspect of gaming that during college I wrote a paper about Ico which you can read here. Though I’m embarassed by how bad at writing I was back then.

The main result of these two forces as I continued to grow older was a vast proliferation of the types of games I played. It was around the turn of the millenium that I realized designing games was something I myself could do, and ever since I have considered it my craft. I began to “research” games instead of just play them, and I tried to expose myself to as many games as I could. As I mentioned above, my interest as a designer began firmly rooted in the emotional experience of playing an immersive, single player game. At the time, this just seemed to me where all the artistry of game design was found. However, I never stopped playing multiplayer games with my friends, both online and offline. In hindsight, I enjoyed those experiences just as much if not more than any single player game.

For many years, even after I began working professionally in the game industry, I struggled with reconciling how creating immersive, emotional game experiences fit with designing balanced, competitive multiplayer games. It wasn’t until 2008 when I began playing DotA did I start to understand how these two concepts fit together. This new understanding ushered in my most recent and significant gaming evolution, and this is where the story will continue in part 2.

The Future Is Free

There is a lot of talk these days about “freemium” games. Freemium games are free to download and make money by offering players the option to purchase additional features from within the game. Most would agree that this model makes a lot of sense from a business standpoint. On the modern day Internet, people’s attention on any single digital product or service is becoming increasingly scarce, so anything that lowers the cost of entry increases the chance of getting attention. But outside of the business perspective, freemium is sometimes scrutinized for being exploitative, and even blamed for cheapening the whole gaming experience. In some cases, these claims are true, but these problems are not inherent to the model. Anything can go bad when implemented the wrong way. If done right, freemium gaming actually represents a much brighter future for gamers and game developers both.

First, it’s important to recognize that at its core, the freemium concept is not new. It has been around for decades in the form of shareware and free game demos. Allowing players to try before they buy is obviously good for them, and it’s good for business for the same basic reason as freemium – it lowers the barrier to entry. What makes freemium new is the way the game is proposed to a potential player. Instead of offering the player a free trial of a game which can be upgraded later to the full version for a one-time price, a freemium game is offered as a full game which can be enhanced, or even personalized, many times over for many (small) prices. This small difference enables game makers to sell games in a new way, and it can sometimes lead to problems. However, these problems are not very interesting and can generally be avoided by simply respecting and listening to players.

The great thing about this new way to sell games is that it perfectly facilitates the role of the player in the game design process. You should pause reading here for a moment and go watch this excellent episode of Extra Credits which perfectly explains what I mean by the role of the player (and while you’re there, bookmark the page since most episodes of the show are awesome). In this episode, they contrast games with other forms of media by stating, “A game without a player is nothing.” The best moments in gaming are defined by the experiences players have while playing (or watching) and are never contained entirely within the game code. To create these moments, avid players spend many hours, weeks, sometimes even years of their lives devoted to their favorite games, and often powerful communities rise up around them. Sometimes, a player will even become more familiar with a game than the game’s creators. A medium which depends so heavily on the audience to achieve greatness ought not to charge for admission. Rather, fans of great games grow attached to them, and will gladly pay for enhancements to the experience, even ones wich offer no functional value in the game. In this light, the freemium model appears to be the perfect way to sell games, as long as developers are willing to strike a healthy balance between a profitable business and a respect for the players.

Game Design Entropy

There is a trend in my development process for programming game mechanics. It begins with an idea for a mechanic. For example, a game with a ship firing different bullet types in any 2D direction. The first step is to take the idea for the mechanic and write some code to bring it from the notebook to the screen. The first version of this code always makes use of a lot of random variables and the simplest visual properties like size and color. In the example, the first version of this code would have bullets, represented by circles of random size and color, firing continuously in random directions outward from the ship. I do it this way because random variables and these basic visual properties are some of the easiest tools in the game programming toolbox, and it allows me to get some code working as quickly as possible.

Next, I incrementally remove the bits of randomness from the mechanic and replace them with specific behaviors according to the design of the game. The process of modifying code incrementally is the standard process for all iterative software development, and it works exceptionally well for game programming. In the bullet firing example, one iteration might be to change the random firing direction to always fire toward the position of the player’s cursor. Another iteration might be to replace the random bullet colors with three specific colors which represent three different weapon types. Iteration continues until the code matches up with all of the game play ideas, and then usually continues further as changes and refinements are made to the game mechanics. This process lasts until I am satisfied that the game produces the desired player experience.

I am hypothesizing that this trend is not specific to my own process of developing games, but it is indicative of something more general I call “game design entropy”. Entropy is a concept from a few different branches of science, and generally refers to the measure of disorder in a system. When the mechanics and interactions of a game are first created in computer code, the pervasive random variables result in systems containing a lot of entropy. As development continues, some or all of the entropy is deliberately removed by the creators in order to craft the best possible game experience out of those systems. In this way, the process of constructing a game can be viewed as removing entropy from a system. If it was possible for humans to remove entropy from physical systems, we would truly be masters of the universe.