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Are Videogames About Their Mechanics?

Interesting video is interesting, and I had a comment that I thought deserves to be added to the blog
First of all, excuse my rambling through various attack points to the issue at hand, it’s the way my head works and I’ll be damned if I’m going to translate my thoughts in a more coherent manner (I kid because I love).

I like to think of mechanics as the layer of affordance. The level of interaction we can get out of a game depends entirely on the player input and how that is fed to the mechanics (either directly or through UI (there’s a big difference between these two but let’s not get distracted (oohh a butterfly!))). All first person shooters are about killing, because that’s what you’ll be doing the majority of the time: shooting dudes in the face. That the main protagonist has a kidnapped daughter who likes the smell of pizza in the morning doesn’t matter … because that’s how we build these games.

If someone were to describe a game to me explaining only it’s context and how meaningful it’s themes are, I’ll immediately ask about what type of game it is. Is it a shooter? a puzzle game? an IF? We are so used to having games with stories divorced from game mechanics that we don’t find it odd when a game about objectivism in a post apocalyptic future turns out to be a game about shooting zombies in the face with superpowers and guns.

Story in itself is most of the time used to provide a context to the mechanics and may very well make a big difference in how a player feels about performing or not performing a certain action. But it has to go both ways for it to be effective: The story has to inform the mechanics and the mechanics have to revolve around the story. You can’t have a game about shooting people in the face for 20 hours and expect to touch meaningful themes that don’t have anything to do with the shooting itself. Yes, you shot that guy’s wife and now he’s a little bit upset, but that doesn’t mean that the game is suddenly about loss and grief.

“Show, don’t tell” applies to movies just as much as “Do, don’t show” applies to games. For a game to be about something it has to happen to the player and the player has to be the one acting upon said something. Revenge stories work in games when and only when the player has had a chance to interact with the soon to be excuse for violence. Play a few hours around the house with your family before they are inevitably kidnapped or shot at point-blank range (… in the face).

Flap Flap Flappitty Flap Flap: Why is this thing so popular?

Flappy Bird is a spectacularly easy game to make, it’s monotonous as hell and it doesn’t provide any mechanics worth looking into as a game designer … and yet, it became EXTREMELY popular. To illustrate this point, let me just mention the fact that the ad-revenue (its only source of income and generally one of the worst ways to earn money) was generating $50.000 dollars each day.

This is the type of popularity that one can only dream of.

One could say that these types of events are dictated by luck … and, frankly, that is the truth. There are many many games that are absolutely brilliant but never achieve any kind of significant spike in popularity due to many reasons outside of the game itself. Then again, the games that do become popular do so for many reasons other than luck. One of those reasons may be a good marketing campaign, but most of the time the single most important reason is game design that caters to the masses in some way shape or form.

So, with that in mind, let’s look at this example and analyze what made this game so popular.

A half-chewed piece of lettuce could tell you that some reasons are:

  • It’s Free! (Let’s go viral! Yay!)
  • It’s Cute! (Mass market appeal! Yay!)
  • It’s polished! (Everything it does, it does well! Even if it is not much)
  • It has leaderboards connected to Social Media! (Let’s tap into that sweet sweet feeling of being one-upped by someone in something that doesn’t matter … Yay?)

Oooohhh, such insight!

such meme, much sarcasm, very overuse, wow

such meme, much obvious, very overuse, wow

*clears throat*

Alright, as you can tell by my sarcasm I’m not particularly interested in those attributes and I find it hard to believe that anyone would be. After all, those traits are common to 99.9999% (that’s a scientific percentage! you can tell by all the 9s) of all the games released for mobile platforms.

Cutting to the chase, what makes Flappy Bird interesting is that it became popular for two normally conflicting reasons.

  • The control scheme is so easy that a 2-year-old could learn it in seconds.
  • It’s friggin’ hard.

Yes, this is the novel concept of “Easy to learn, hard to master”. It is quite hard to believe that a game this simple, based on such an old design mantra became so popular. That is until you start thinking about the competition … please try to think of the amount of games you’ve played with absolutely f*cking horrible controls in a mobile device. Then think of the number of games that felt natural in said devices. Arcade games that felt natural, might I add.

Let me state this clearly: In mobile devices, there are almost no games that let the player control the action in a precise and elegant manner. Infinite runners are the only ones that had achieved this level of control and every single one is the same as the next. This is the first infinite runner variation we’ve ever seen (that I’m aware of at least).

Man, we as an industry suck at designing arcade games for mobiles. The only games that ever feel natural take the whole screen as one single giant button. Is this a limitation of the medium or is it the limited imagination of designers (myself not included since I’ve never truly designed mobile games … should I?). It feels like we are wrestling with a new concept, like a 90s website that tries and fails spectacularly at being intuitive.

Also, the creator of Flappy Bird took the game down because he … didn’t want the fame apparently? People were calling bullsh*t, that it was a publicity stunt but he really took the game down. Weird.

Also also, Kotaku said that this game ripped-off mario because it has green pipes </facepalm> Shouldn’t they mention too that it ripped off angry birds because it features a bird? </sarcasm>  I’m not linking to that article because f*ck them and their tabloid-like posts </indignation></novelty closing tags>

——–

UPDATE: Ok, everybody was screaming bloody murder because it’s a ripoff of this: http://www.zanorg.com/prodperso/pioupiou.html

Go ahead, play that thing, I’ll be waiting here.

I’ve wasted 15 seconds of my life playing that and all I can say is that it’s no wonder it never became popular: The art is ugly and overcomplicated, the sound effects are horrible, the feeling of gravity and impulse is almost non-existent, it insults you when you lose and when you fly out of the screen the game kills you.

And people argue that flappy bird was a ripoff? What the hell?? Flappy bird took the same concept and mechanics and made them shine. It’s not novel in any way shape or form and there was an apparent CONTROVERSY over this sh*t????

</fed up with this world>

Elegantly Candy Crushing your soul

Candy Crush is a manipulative repugnant pustule of a game and it is magnificent at hiding that fact.

The sense of progression, the continuous addition of “new” mechanics, the psychological manipulations, the perceived rewards, the way it can orchestrate what the player can do or not … all of these systems are masterfully designed so that they stay on the right side of the line between barely perceptible exploitation and being openly exploitative.

SYMBOLISM!

GORGEOUS SYMBOLISM!

I’ve already talked about how these types of games openly frustrate players to scam them out of their money. Candy Crush is exactly like that, but is so much better at it. See, if you have an energy mechanic, then players know they are being constrained, that they won’t be able to do much in one sitting unless they pay. Candy Crush doesn’t have that, but it creates the same feeling of frustration in a much less visible way. How? Well, let me first take you through the actual mechanics of the game and I’ll get to that.

Candy Crush is a clone of Bejeweled in the sense that it copies every single important mechanic from it. This makes me very angry but not in the moral sense since Bejeweled was in itself a ripoff of other similar games that came before it. The reason for my anger is because I openly hate Bejeweled as well as every other Popcap game that I got my hands on. What’s interesting is that it’s always for the same reason: They maximize the ratio between interaction and spectacle, or in other words, they limit player interaction to absurd limits and then force the player to stop interacting so that they can watch and marvel at the consequences of their single input.

So, that was a very round-about way of saying that Candy Crush severely limits the player possibility space but every single action is seemingly important and can cascade into wildly different new possibility spaces. At any one time you’ll likely have 5 or less possible actions, but those actions can then cascade into very spectacular chain reactions.

That would fine if and only if the colored candies were placed at random … but of course, this is a free to play game and so it never leaves anything to randomness. Every step of the way, this game decides what to let you do, and consequently if you can win or not. In fact, it doesn’t matter how good you are at the game, you’ll always be able to progress because the game can literally make you win even if you’re trying your best to lose. And you’ll never notice unless you actively experiment on it. Just think about that for a second.

Having that in mind, let me remind/tell you that this game has a classical lives mechanic (lose one life every time you lose, can’t play if out of lives) where you’ll get a new life every half-hour. Doesn’t this ring a bell?* It’s basically controlling how much interaction and progression the player can have in a single play-through, but it’s doing it in a much more complex way than most other games. Nothing in its presentation screams frustration and at face value no single mechanic can be accused of limiting player action.

That is impressive to me, because they designed their core mechanics to frustrate the player in a unperceptible way. It may not look like it, but it takes a good game designer to achieve that and not be tempted to apply the same generic all-purpose patch that every free-to-play designer was so fond of*.

The psychological manipulations don’t stop there though. As I’ve already stated, Candy Crush manipulates candy placement at will, but it’s very intelligent with what to do and when, for instance, there are two distinct and very consistent behaviors that I’ve witnessed in the first 65 levels:

  • When the player is stuck on a level and is also low on lives, guide him/her towards almost completing the level and then in the last 3 movements make it impossible to win unless he/she spends one or more items.
  • Once the player has been struggling with a level, the next few ones should be conquered easily.

The façade of being a “fair” game si always maintained though. There’s enough uncertainty in each match as to make it impossible to truly get a sense of when the game is manipulating the player to win or to lose. Sometimes one wins by a landslide and does a ridiculous amount of points, sometimes one barely passes the winning conditions, sometimes one almost wins and sometimes it is literally impossible to win. There’s enough apparent randomness and noise as to make it all difficult to decipher, and that is what makes Candy Crush into such an interesting and yet magnificently repugnant game.

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* Give me an “Ener”! Give me a “Gy”! Give me a “Mecha”! Here you go. Give me a “Nics”! What does that spell? Internet Porn! When do we want it? Now! How do we want it? In the form of a recreation of a scene of a movie from the 1930′s! … Wow, how did we get here? I don’t know!

Image taken from here.

Modeling real life: A common mistake

I don’t want to shock and awe all of you by just blurting this out on your unsuspecting minds but I must share my sudden revelation:

I had an idea.

A videogame idea.

And it was terrible.

But as it turns out, it was terrible in a terribly interesting way.

It all started with me thinking about this whole free to play model and within that model the possible incentives for payment. I then started to relate it to the humble bundle and kickstarter style of transaction and then the idea blossomed: An MMO or any other social network where the user chooses how much to pay and then received benefits corresponding to the amount of money spent. Basically, it’s a system that divided users into different categories.

Aaaaaand then it immediately dawned on me that this would be a horrible idea.

I mean, think about it: A system where people interact with each other but the treatment each one gets is mostly based on their economic status. Suddenly there’s hostility towards other players above you and disdain for the players below you. Attaching a numerical value or a category to each individual is a very bad idea and it becomes far worse the more important that distinction is. You could argue that this mirrors real life, that that makes it fair, but that would be a very weak excuse. Unless the game is about simulating real life, then taking aspects of it and applying them without thinking of the consequences is really bad design.

For instance, take how old MMOs handled monster looting: Every monster drops items upon death and anybody can pick them up. The problem comes when a team of players kills the final boss and it drops only one dagger of extreme awesomeness. Who keeps it? It’s a “fair” system that models real life logic but it systematically creates hostility between players. Modern MMOs have learned from this mistake and now the dead enemies drop items for everybody, each player only having access to their share of the loot. It keeps everyone happy and it even encourages cooperation: Before, if a group of guys was killing a giant monster you’d gain absolutely nothing if you came to help and now the situation is completely reversed. The result is that everybody helps everybody else. The optimal path is that of kindness and sharing instead of selfish hoarding.

My idea in and off itself isn’t doomed to failure though. As always, the details can make or break a system. For instance, making the benefits vary in type instead of power is a good start. Making the paying customers impact the community in beneficial ways is also a good idea (For example, a particular tier of paying users can force a discount on a type of item).

More on free to play, considering alternatives

Watch video, read my words later:

Done? Good! Because that video sums up my thoughts on the whole free to play thing.

Ok, ok, not all of my thoughts. Here’s the rest of them:

Designing a game to be irritating in very specific ways in order to maximize revenue is almost a disturbing game design philosophy. It’s basically charging money to take mechanics OUT of the game so that it becomes less annoying. Like making certain sequences go faster (grinding!) or making the hard limitations more reasonable (actions per day!). Where in any other game these types of “features” are actually a sign of bad design, here they are very calculated systems.

In essence, I find this business model of annoying the f*ck out of people in the hopes that they’ll give you cash if you stop poking them with your d*ck, to be repulsive, offensive and an insult to the player’s intelligence.

It feels like these companies are scamming people out of their money and they are getting away with it.

But then again, this model wouldn’t be so popular if it didn’t have an interesting concept in it. There needs to be something that explains why such obvious bad design doesn’t drive people away fast enough (as I said before, it does drive people away in the long run). So let’s throw some grey matter at the problem. In other words, I’ll bestow upon you my knowledge (that may or may not have been pulled out of my rear).

This may sound obvious to all of you but it deserves to be stated: These games get away with being jackasses because they are free. People are willing to put up with this sh*t because they feel like it’s fair, after all, it’s free, isn’t it? They have to make money SOMEHOW, don’t they? As long as players can get access to every piece of content without paying a single cent they’ll be happy. Even if some of the content requires you to share stuff on facebook, even if it requires stupid amounts of time to get access to a premium item. If it’s possible then it doesn’t sound unreasonable.

To be fair, these are all perfectly good excuses. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more arguments in favor of free to play games, and I think that’s great believe it or not. The thing is, having the ability to get away with something doesn’t mean you should do it (sage advice that applies to everything: building sex robots with sharp genitals! government spying on everyone for the sake of security! cloning human beings with no free will to do our work for us! etc, etc, etc).

In a few words: Being free inherently creates good will in a good chunk of society. If there is no gate up front then my expectations aren’t that high and once inside if I’m enjoying myself I’m willing to put up with some annoyances.

I think free to play games won’t survive as they are now. I believe they’ll have to change and adopt new monetization strategies. Strategies that  will magically transform that good will into money without pestering players or insulting them.

I’m not going to pretend that I have the answer to this, but I will throw out some fun possibilities:

  • Charging money for specific content. Yes, this already exists, but It all depends on the execution. Too little content and it becomes a glorified demo. A little more content and it’s a lite version. A little more content and then why would you pay? It’s a balancing act that can be tackled in a great number of interesting ways. Maybe you charge for maps packs. Maybe you charge for types of guns in a shooter. Maybe you charge for premium items that in no way affect gameplay (hats!). Maybe you charge for access to daily challenges. Maybe you give the sequel to the ones that have spent more than $X in your previous title.
  • Charging money for access to advanced features. Again, it depends on the execution: You can’t charge for something trivial (nobody would pay), yet you can’t charge for something crucial (every freeloader is nerfed). The key here is to charge for trivial yet interesting features. Like deciding what weather will be like in a certain day. Or maybe what is displayed in the main screen of the city. Or changing the settings of the world for X amount of time.
  • A community marketplace like the one on Steam. Provide a limited number of premium items to each player, provide a way to buy with real money some of those same items through an in-game store and then offer a marketplace where people can sell each other these items in exchange for real money. Well, ingame real money that can then be spent on more items or other stuff. Absorb 15% or less of the money on each sale and then BOOYA, everybody is happy, freeloaders can make money and you still get rich in the end.

I don’t know if you noticed, but what I’m proposing is not that different from current free to play games. The devil is in the details, and sadly the core philosophy of the game design falls under those “details”.

Also, this goes without saying, but these aren’t recipes for success. Asking for money up front is not an inherently bad idea and good games with good marketing will sell well. If your crappy $60 game doesn’t sell don’t blame it on the idea of charging money up front. By the same token, if your crappy free to play game doesn’t sell … then maybe you should examine the corpse thoroughly before concluding that the business model is crap.

Free to play: Restrictions as features

Wanna play a game? Here play this. ... Having fun? Well, if you let me bury your face in this cactus I can let you play a little more.... or you can just pay me and there will be no face/cactus interaction, you decide! ...  Hey! Stop running away!

Wanna play a game? Here play this. … Having fun? Well, if you let me bury your face in this cactus I can let you play a little more or you can just pay me and there will be no face/cactus interaction, you decide! … Hey! Stop running away! You’re missing out on a great game!

Energy mechanics are “features” of free-to-play games that restrict the player’s actions so that only a few things can be accomplished in a single day. If you were to wish this feature away, you’d find yourself paying real money for the privilege of doing more of the same virtual stuff at a faster pace. They are restrictions that serve to psychologically torture people into giving up money so the pain they cause goes away. They are systematic pain inducers that punish the player in the only way a game can: by wasting time. Although this type of system is quite new, this type of punishment has always been part of games in general, we just didn’t apply the concept in such a morally corrupt way.

On the other hand, an actually new system aimed at psychological manipulation is what I call the bait and switch. Simply put, the game presents you with something you won, congratulates you and then proceeds to inject an obstacle between you and the thing you won. Probably a share button or in the worst case, a convoluted system where you end up spending money. But wait, if you already won, why do you have to do anything to get it? Well, as simple as it may sound, you don’t want to lose what you feel you already have and if the same reward was presented as “Win this item IF…” then it wouldn’t have the same negative impact and therefore convert fewer people into paying customers.

The same brain mechanism worked wonders for Farmville, by forcing players into a schedule of planting and harvesting. Once players invested in-game currency into seeds and planted them, they were forced to harvest the results before the crops went bad and the investment went kaput. This pressure was designed specifically to form a habit in the player, so that they continue to invest their time on the game and eventually spend money. The more time invested into a game the higher the pain once things go bad.

The problem with these mechanics, apart from being morally corrupt, is that not many players respond to this pain by investing further into the game. It takes a susceptible mind* with enough spare time and income to consider investing in a painful game so that it momentarily becomes less painful. After that, the handful of paying customers will receive special treatment in the form of even more intense pain because statistically, once a customer puts money on the game they are X times more likely to pay again. So you get more pain for your money … yeah, that’s f*cked up.

Of course, as you might have imagined by now, the single largest problem with this scheme is that players can get fed up. Too much pain can drive a player away. Being painful translates into money some of the time, but it creates an expiration date for the product. No matter how massive a game gets, if it’s painful it will eventually fall on its face and be completely abandoned. Once the fad goes away, almost no player will speak well of the game or their creators.

So, in a nutshell, these mechanics make money, but they drive away their userbase in the long run.

I just hope that people start getting fed up with this kind of manipulation and start requesting content for their money instead of the removal of “features”.

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*Teenagers and older people. The latter experiencing casual games just recently and both unaccustomed to these types of psychological exploitation techniques.

Dear [REDACTED] Super Meat Boy

Dear Super Meat Boy*,

Go [insert expletive here] yourself

XOXO,

Me

——————

Super Meat Boy is a game about many things, it has many qualities that some people would find infuriating, but not me. The game in itself is pretty good actually. I’m not mad at SMB for being extremely difficult. No, the source of my anger comes from an admitedly far less interesting place.

See, this game is controlled by four keys in total: A (constantly pressed) running key, a jumping key and two directional keys. That’s it. So, please tell me dear reader which keys would you choose to use for each of these.

Done? Great! It almost doesn’t matter what you chose because I’m pretty sure that you didn’t choose SHIFT as the (constantly pressed) running key. That’s what SMB does and not only is it a pinky-destroying configuration, but the game doesn’t have a way to change any key binding**.

It doesn’t sound so terrible until you play for a few hours and your pinky starts to scream in agony.

So, SMB not only has a horrible key binding but it also doesn’t have a menu to change it. Dark Souls, one of the worst PC ports I’ve ever seen has such a menu, what’s this game’s excuse? Oh right, lazyness, sorry, I forgot about that.

(╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

——————-

*Yes, I’m addressing the game directly as if it were a sentient being, because that’s how I roll.

**Upon further research, it seems that there’s a configuration file where the key bindings can be modified … that’s literally the laziest way possible to do this feature.

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