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Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

May 14, 2008

Last night and tonight, I’ve reviewed some games as a part of my day job.  There are two design issues that are interesting to me here.

The first is a perceived lack of a lack of familiarity with a broad array of game mechanics. If you spent all your life inside of one auditorium, you’d be doomed to make art that was in some sense related to that auditorium and the experience that it provided you. I see this played out in games when people move toward more and more and more of what they see instead of pushing the boundaries of what could possibly be. Having spent over half my life in the game industry (!), I know that “more and more” is important and useful. At the same time, in a designer’s personal projects, he or she can take risks, and the ability to take risks comes only when you have a head full of rules that you know well enough to break them or use them in new ways. That variety comes from playing a huge array of games, on all kinds of platforms, including the top of a table.

The second issue that I’ve run into recently is the unintentional destruction of strategy. Imagine a game in which you take your time to make one careful decision after another. Each decision is meaningful and affects the outcome of the game. All of these decisions come to play in combat (or something similar) where the outcome is decided by a fully random die roll. All the decisions that led up to it? They weren’t so meaningful after all.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Luc permalink
    May 14, 2008 11:59 pm

    It is interesting how people, when making a game, tend to get focused on only comparing their product to other ‘like’ products, when there is inspiration that can be drawn from any number of games from other genres.

    I’m currently designing a horse game for PC and was in the company lunch room looking at Naruto on the 360, because it has a collection system that is very similar to what we have planned. I got a number of comments from people walking in and out that couldn’t understand why we were looking at something that wasn’t another horse game.

    I’ve always thought that part of my job as a designer is to look at as many different game genres (and games) as I can so that you can pull little ideas out of them, then file them away in the back of your head so that one day you can pull it out and go “this bit from this FPS would fit perfectly in this RPG”.

  2. May 15, 2008 8:57 am

    I run into the same issues. The issue of randomness totally destroying meaningful decisions is at least something you can warn students against. Sure, a lot of them won’t Get It until they do exactly what you told them not to do, and then you can say “remember when I told you not to do this? This is exactly what I meant, and why” and then, hopefully, they learn it.

    What do you do with the lack of experience, though? Personally, I’d love to run a “Game Appreciation” course that exposes students to a wide variety of fundamental video and non-digital games. The down side is that you have to actually have all these games available, not just in class but all hours (so students can play additional games as “homework”), which gets into the problem of actually having a place that’s available and staffed. Not every school has a facility like that. If you don’t have one, and the budget isn’t immediately there… then what?

  3. May 15, 2008 9:50 am


    I wrote a short blog entry about randomness and meaningful control over the outcome of player actions, but I never bothered to post it because I felt the point was a bit too obvious. I guess I was wrong.

    Here’s what I wrote: “Failure by random numbers can occur whenever the random processes that determine failure aren’t significantly influenced by the player’s choices, giving players little or no meaningful control over the outcome of their actions. For the most part, games should be designed such that players may improve their chances of success according to the choices they make in the game, giving them meaningful control over their future.”

  4. May 15, 2008 5:06 pm

    @ Luc – Totally agree with you on that. Game designers need to be masterful generalists that are too curious for their own good.

    @ Ian – Internet emulators?

    @ Adrian – thanks for posting that here. Absolutely true.

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