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Thinking in Systems

Books, Video Games

Book cover of Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows

There is a certain class of books (Understanding Comics, The Design of Everyday Things) that aren’t ostensibly about video games, but have still found their way into the informal game design canon. Having recently read Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows, I believe it also deserves a spot on that list. The book covers a wide range of tools and methods for systems thinking, but I’d like to focus on one technique in particular and how it could apply to game design.

Stock-and-flow diagrams are used to model the interconnections between elements of a system. As the name suggests, they define systems in terms of stocks and flows. Stocks are “the elements of a system that you can see, feel, count, or measure at any given time”; they are shown as boxes.

Flows are what cause stocks to change over time. Inflows and outflows are depicted as thick grey arrows (going to or coming from a stock, respectively). The rate of a flow is represented by a faucet, because it can be adjusted higher or lower.

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If the rate of a flow changes based on the level of a stock, then this creates a feedback loop. There are two types of feedback loops. Balancing loops seek to maintain equilibrium and resist change within a system (in game design this is often called negative feedback). Reinforcing loops are the opposite; they enhance any direction of change imposed on the system (positive feedback). In stock-and-flow diagrams, feedback loops are represented by thin curved lines.

Clouds represent the boundary of the system. The boundary is an intentional choice of what is considered inside and outside the system for the purpose of analysis and conversation. In reality, “there are no separate systems. The world is a continuum.” The boundary only exists in our mental model, and thus it must occasionally be reevaluated to suit the problem at hand.

Here’s a simple real-world example as given in the book.

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In this example, the temperature in a room is a stock. Heat flows into the room from the furnace, and the rate of inflow is determined by the thermostat. It turns the flow on/off based on the difference between the temperature in the room and the goal temperature setting. Heat also flows out to the air outside. The rate of outflow is determined by the discrepancy between the indoor and outdoor temperatures. The rates of inflow and outflow are both affected by the current level of the temperature stock, which indicates that we have two feedback loops (both balancing).

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Intentionality & Improvisation

Video Games

[Left] Lightning strikes in Breath of the Wild / [Right] Grass burns in Far Cry 2

While I was playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild over the holidays, I kept thinking about Far Cry 2. Of course that’s not uncommon; I cut my teeth writing about games in ~2008, so I tend to see Far Cry 2 everywhere (game design pareidolia). However, rather than a vague impression, Breath of the Wild evoked specific ideas that director Clint Hocking explored in a 2009 GDC talk entitled “Fault Tolerance: From Intentionality to Improvisation”. I’d like to use that talk as a framework to compare the two games and discuss some common mechanics that are used to similar effect.

Clint begins his talk by discussing intentionality in games, which is “the ability of the player to devise his own meaningful goals through his understanding of the game dynamics and to formulate meaningful plans to achieve them.” Games that support high-level intentional play (e.g. immersive sims, stealth games) tend to have “robustly interconnected systems”. The player must develop a deep understanding of both how these systems work in isolation and how they interact with each other.

The flow of play can be divided into two phases: a composition phase (deciding and figuring out what to do) and an execution phase (doing it). Games that favour execution are more “ride-like” (Call of Duty), whereas favouring composition is more “puzzle-like”. Intentional play emerges when the two phases are kept in a “game-like” balance.

Clint notes that messy systems (generalized physics, crowds, fire) tend to collapse the player’s intentionality. However, he also felt that the “simulation of broader more chaotic and unpredictable systems” was the future of game design. Thus, with Far Cry 2, Clint’s initial goal was to explore how highly intentional play could be preserved in a “highly dynamic and free-form” environment.

At one point later in development, Clint and his team decided that some of the high-level faction systems they’d been developing needed to be cut. However, he was concerned that this would discourage the player from making complex plans. Shortening the composition phase might make the game more “ride-like”, which would subvert intentional play.

However, he observed that systems that inflict “small unpredictable losses” (malaria, wounding, gun jams, grenade rolling down a hill) kick the player out of the execution phase and force them to improvise. The player therefore “switches back and forth between composition and execution several times in a given battle”. A short composition phase is balanced by a short execution phase, and intentionality is preserved.

Improvisational play is therefore “intentionality compressed”, and randomness is “the pressure cooker that pushes the already intentional player to react and improvise a new plan on the fly.”

A graph showing an oscillation between composition and execution.

In this vein, Breath of the Wild has two systems that inflict small semi-unpredictable losses on the player. The first is the weapon degradation system. Weapons are fragile, which makes them unreliable. When their weapon breaks, players are forced to adapt. They can pull an alternate (perhaps less familiar) weapon from their inventory, or try to make use of whatever environmental tools are currently on hand. One streamer observed that weapon degradation naturally pushed him to explore the game’s other mechanics, such as stealth and fire.

The weather system can also work against the player. Snow and sandstorms are blinding. Thunderstorms unleash lightning strikes against metal equipment. Most commonly and annoyingly, rain makes climbing just about impossible. Unlike previous games in the series, the player also has no tools (e.g. Song of Storms) to control the weather. When inconvenient weather rolls in, their only real options are to pass the time or adapt their plans.

These chaotic systems therefore serve the same purpose in Breath of the Wild as they do in Far Cry 2: inflicting random small losses on the player to force them back into the composition phase. Unexpected setbacks compel the player to slow down, to observe, and to think; it may even push them to engage with systems that they may otherwise have ignored. Even in her annoyance with Zelda’s weather system, Patricia Hernandez pointed out that: “without these rain mechanics, I wouldn’t have all these ridiculous stories, huh?”


Video by Alex Wiltshire

Another aspect of improvisational play is how the player handles having their plans upset (i.e. being kicked out of the execution phase). As Clint points out, in a “ride-like” game, this usually means just dying and restarting from the last checkpoint. In a more intentional stealth game, the player may be able to recover from a loss, but the cost of failure is so high that they’re just as likely to just quickload the last save.

To encourage improvisation, the player must be willing to fall back into that composition phase (rather than simply reloading). This means that any random unpredictable losses have to be quite small. As Clint points out: “you rarely die from these events – unjamming a weapon takes no more time or effort than reloading does.” Furthermore, the game generally needs to be forgiving of the player’s mistakes.

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Four Lessons from Bruce

Video Games

Bruce Straley

A few weeks ago game director Bruce Straley announced that, after 18 years, he was going to be leaving Naughty Dog. He will be dearly missed.

In the last few years before his departure, I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Bruce on The Last of Us and Uncharted 4. Working under his creative direction made me grow tremendously as a game developer. His way of thinking and his design values are visible across the entire team, to the point where it’s impossible to distinguish Bruce’s process from Naughty Dog’s process as a studio. He wasn’t just a director; he was a true leader.

I’d like to share four important lessons that I learned from working with Bruce Straley.

Get Someone Else to Play It

It’s common wisdom that tools play an outsized role in game development. Developers who are comfortable with their technology can prototype their ideas faster, throwing away what doesn’t work and iterating on what does. With any luck, you won’t need to make compromises around a bad decision later in development.

However, there’s a corollary to this that’s seldom discussed. When developing a new feature, it’s very tempting to iterate on it in isolation. You develop a sense of ownership about what you make, so you balk at the idea of presenting it to others too early. You can see the obvious flaws in your unfinished feature, and you think you’ll get better feedback if you fix those first.

To counteract this impulse, Bruce always encouraged us to call over a random coworker and put a controller in their hands as early and as often as possible. Getting someone else to playtest your work will immediately reveal the most crucial problems with it. It’ll allow you to pivot much faster, and avoid wasting time polishing a prototype that requires a fundamental revision.

Furthermore, they may have ideas that you hadn’t even considered, which segues nicely into…

Everyone’s Feedback is Valuable

Game development is specialized work, and it’s very easy for the various disciplines to become siloed. This can also make it difficult to give feedback across departments. An audio technician might feel reluctant to tell an environment artist that they can’t spot the enemy NPCs in their lush environments. One fears a territorial reaction; “you don’t understand my work and are unqualified to judge it.” Better to keep it to yourself rather than step on someone else’s toes.

As a director, Bruce maintained a holistic view of making games, and encouraged everyone on the team to reach out with their feedback regardless of department. Everyone working at a game studio has a love for games and a great deal of experience playing them. If they have an issue with how a particular feature works, then there are likely hundreds of players who will share the same concern after launch.

Don’t let your studio foster a parochial attitude; encourage every department to share their concerns across disciplines. Identifying problems is often more valuable than finding solutions.

Own The Game You’re Making

Disciplinary parochialism has another side effect: developers often cultivate a blindness for issues that they aren’t responsible for. An animator who is focused on fixing a bad animation blend may observe that a level’s lighting is broken, but mentally file that away as “someone else’s problem.” Nobody feels like they own the game as a whole, only the small aspect that they’re directly working on.

In my early days at Naughty Dog, I recall demoing some prototype feature to Bruce. I didn’t get much feedback on my work, because he immediately noticed that a variety of other issues were popping up. I had of course noticed those issues during my work, but the “not my problem” filter had caused me to completely disregard them. He tasked me to track down those issues before my work could be properly evaluated.

Bruce taught me to not be blind to brokenness. I should feel a sense of ownership for the entire game, even the parts that I’m not directly contributing to. Even if an issue is neither my fault nor my responsibility, I can make the development process better by tracking it down.

Talk Face to Face

The modern workplace features a cornucopia of digital collaboration tools. On many teams, the vast majority of communication takes place in emails, IMs, or some proprietary all-in-one project tracking software. These tools are indispensable, but also fundamentally flawed. Like all written communication, they lack the nuances of speech: posture, tone of voice, hand gestures. Emails also suffer from low-bandwidth and a low signal-to-noise ratio; often a two minute conversation will convey more information than a fifteen email thread.

As a director, Bruce believed that any substantial communication should happen face to face. In my first few months at Naughty Dog, I recall being (gently) reprimanded for sending a hundred word email response to someone on an issue I felt strongly about. That issue was “too big for email”; Bruce instructed me to get out of my chair, walk over to their desk and figure it out together.

Scheduled meetings are a rarity at Naughty Dog, but these sorts of informal desk-chats happen all the time. If a thorny multi-disciplinary issue needs resolving, it’s not uncommon to see a cabal with a representative from every department hovering around a single monitor.

As an introvert and a newcomer to an established studio, this way of working took me a long time to get used to. Fortunately, it helped push me out of my comfort zone and familiarize myself with the other departments. I now firmly believe that talking face-to-face is one of the “secret sauce” ingredients responsible for Naughty Dog’s tremendous success.

Bruce, I told you this in person but I’ll say it again here: thank you for everything you taught me about making games. It’s up to the whole team now to keep the lessons you imparted alive at Naughty Dog. I hope we’ll make you proud with what we’re making next.

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Looking for Canada in Games

Montreal, Video Games

SWERY at the Owl's Nest bar in Osaka

“Originally, Deadly Premonition was supposed to take place in Canada. However, when I brought the idea to game producers, they told me the story should take place in America, as it is the country that generates the most sales.” – Hidetaka Suehiro (aka SWERY)

Today marks 150 years since several British colonies in North America united to form a new dominion under the British Crown. Confederation may be fascinating1 to Canadian history nerds like myself, but it’s not exactly summertime blockbuster material. Our separation from the mother country was a lot like Canada itself: peaceful and amiable, but perhaps lacking panache.

Four years ago, Canada’s video game industry surpassed the UK to became the third largest in the world. Some of the best-selling and most acclaimed games are made out of studios in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, and Edmonton. However, this fact would be easy to miss; video games are rarely permitted to be distinctly Canadian. Canada is where media is made, but hardly ever where it’s set (see “Vancouver Never Plays Itself”).

To that end, I thought I’d take this sesquicentennial opportunity to celebrate the handful of games that are proudly and unambiguously set in Canada. This list is definitely cursory and incomplete2, so if you spot any conspicuous omissions let me know in the comments below.

Bare Minimum

Wikipedia’s list of “video games set in Canada” is dominated by sports games. For instance, there are apparently twenty-seven Formula One games that feature the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal. NHL, NBA, MLB, PGA, and FIFA games painstakingly render Canadian players, teams, and arenas.

With no disrespect to sports games, I subjectively consider these titles a bare minimum in terms of portraying Canada; that’s just where the teams happen to be. If the sport moved elsewhere, so would the game franchise.

Honourable Mentions

These games are mostly set outside of Canada, but merit an honourable mention for having some level or segment that is distinctly Canadian.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution splits its focus between Detroit and Shanghai, but the developers at Eidos Montreal snuck in one brief section in their home city. The mission features a great skyline flyover with an oversized Olympic Stadium.

Similarly, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is principally set in the 18th century Caribbean, but the present-day metafiction takes place at the headquarters of “Abstergo Entertainment” in Montreal (inspired by Ubisoft’s own office!)

Mass Effect 3 doesn’t spend much time on Earth, but it opens with an escape from Vancouver as the Reapers begin their invasion. Art director Derek Watts notes that they specifically chose a Canadian city (over Hong Kong or Rio) to acknowledge Bioware’s Canadian roots.

Sly 2: Band of Thieves has a heist set in Canada. Players take part in the Lumberjack Games run by Jean Bison (literally a bison), and seek to collect energy from the Northern Lights.

Like the show, South Park: The Stick of Truth portrays Canada in its idiosyncratic flappy-headed style. The game has the Prince of Canada send players on a cross-country quest to meet the Earl of Winnipeg, the Minister of Montreal, and the Bishop of Banff.

Finally, while it takes place entirely in Europe, Valiant Hearts: The Great War depicts a significant event in Canadian history. The Battle of Vimy Ridge (1917) marks the first time that all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force participated in a combined offensive.

Set in Canada

This category highlights games that are nominally set in Canada, but otherwise aren’t particularly Canadian. For instance, the Dreamcast survival horror game D2 takes place in “the Canadian wilderness”, but that mostly serves the purpose of being an archetypal winter environment. In fact, the setting was allegedly inspired by director Kenji Eno’s visit to snowy New Zealand.

Vancouver hosted the Olympic Winter Games in 2010, which resulted in two officially licensed games by Sega: Vancouver 2010 and Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games. I imagine they have a lot in common with the licensed Olympic games set in other countries.

While rather divergent in terms of theme, the games Until Dawn and Nancy Drew: The White Wolf of Icicle Creek are both set in winter lodges in the mountains of Alberta. The former also features the wendigo, which is a monster from Algonquian folklore.

Distinctly Canadian

The Yukon Trail is a 1994 educational game set during the Klondike Gold Rush. While it’s told from an American perspective (the player starts out in Seattle), the game portrays an important era in northern Canada’s history. On their journey, the player will even encounter Sam Steele, the legendary officer of the North-West Mounted Police.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game is a beat ’em up based on the bestselling comic series by Bryan Lee O’Malley. Like the comic, the game is distinctively set in Toronto, with levels featuring landmarks such as the CN Tower, Casa Loma, and TTC Streetcars.

Set in a rural 19th century village, the action-strategy game Sang-Froid – Tales of Werewolves features monsters from French-Canadian mythology. Studio founder Yan Pepin wanted to “create a game inspired by the old Quebec folktales he had grown up with”.

Fort McMoney is a NFB documentary and strategy game about the Athabasca oil sands. The episodic web game allows players to virtually tour Fort McMurray, interview real residents, and make decisions about how their virtual city should develop.

Assassin’s Creed Rogue’s protagonist fights with the British Americans (i.e. the Templars) against New France (i.e. the Assassins) during the Seven Years’ War3. Players can sail the open world of the North Atlantic, visiting settlements in Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland.

The Long Dark is a survival game set in the Canadian wilderness. Players are confronted with the real-life dangers of hunger and exposure, and must explore and scavenge to survive. Creative director Raphael van Lierop says that he was inspired by the natural surroundings of his home on Vancouver Island, and that he seeks “to make games that have a Canadian angle to them”.

Kona is an interactive murder-mystery set in northern Canada in the 1970’s. It’s an unapologetically Québécois game; while the audio and subtitles are localized, the in-game text textures are all in French. It also features an original soundtrack by Quebec folk band CuréLabel.

Happy birthday to my former home and native land. My sincere wish is that, for your bicentennial, the number of games set in Canada will be so large that it will impossible to list them all in a single short essay. 🇨🇦

1. While not directly about Confederation, I recommend Pierre Berton’s “The National Dream”.
2. The lack of games by and for indigenous peoples is a particularly glaring omission on my part.
3. Americans call it the “French and Indian War” but that’s a silly name.

Header image of the Owl’s Nest bar in Osaka excerpted from toco toco ep.24

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Clash Royale’s Economical Design

Video Games

Clash Royale

Clash Royale has been my go-to phone game lately. I didn’t pay it much attention when it launched early last year; I just assumed it was Supercell’s latest entry in the “shouting man icon” mobile game genre. But it kept popping it when I was searching for new deckbuilding games to play, so I decided to give it a shot.

Belying its wacky cartoonish aesthetic, Clash Royale is actually a very elegantly designed real-time strategy game (with a tolerable free-to-play metagame). Players select 8 cards (troops, spells & buildings) for their deck, then spend “elixir” to deploy them on their side of a two-lane arena. Their units will push towards the opponent’s side of the map, with the aim of toppling their three towers. The entire battlefield fits on a vertical phone screen, and matches only last 3-4 minutes.

Players select where to summon their units, but they fight autonomously once deployed1. This simple touchscreen interface is approachable for mobile players, but there is deep skill and strategy in the timing and placement of deployment. In essence, Clash Royale refines mechanics from the notoriously complex RTS, MOBA and deckbuilding genres into a very elegant and accessible hybrid game.

While there’s a lot to praise about Clash Royale’s design, I’d like to expand on a small detail that caught my eye. It’s an ingenious design decision that allows the developers to efficiently reuse their existing content. It also opens up strategic options for the player without sacrificing simplicity.

Skeleton cards from Clash Royale

Skeletons are the weakest units in Clash Royale. They die in one hit and their melee attacks deal negligible damage. The base version of the card spawns 4 skeletons and is one of the only 1-elixir cards in the game. It’s mostly used as a quick distraction, tanking damage from a stronger unit while your towers whittle it down. Its low cost also makes it good for an emergency defense. Because it’s a common card that fits well into beginner decks, players will very quickly get a sense of a skeleton’s relative strength and strategic uses.

A different card, Skeleton Army, deploys 14 skeletons for the cost of 3 elixir. This has an obvious benefit in elixir efficiency (2 extra skeletons for the cost), but it also provides a distinct strategic utility. A horde of weak units can easily overwhelm stronger units that have high hitpoints and move slowly. Skeleton Army is a hard counter to Giants & Hog Riders, two of the strongest pushing units in the game. However, a concentrated swarm is more susceptible to AOE spells, giving the opponent to the option to trade effectively using Zap or Arrows.

Concocting two cards from a single unit is pretty good, but Clash Royale goes even further. The Witch is a slow-moving AOE-damage unit that summons 3 skeletons in front of her every few seconds. The Tombstone is a low-cost defensive building that periodically spawns a skeleton, and spawns 4 additional skeletons on death. Finally, The Graveyard is a legendary spell that gradually summons a swarm of skeletons in a large radius. It can be deployed anywhere in the arena, even directly on top of your opponent’s towers. Each of these five cards gets to reuse the skeleton code and assets while serving distinctly different strategic purposes.

A similar design pattern is used for goblins, which are a slightly-stronger base unit. They come in two basic flavours: Goblins (melee) and Spear Goblins (ranged) both cost 2 elixir for 3 units, while the Goblin Gang summons 6 goblins (3 of each) for 3 elixir. Goblin Hut is a building that periodically spawns spear goblins, and Goblin Barrel delivers 3 melee goblins anywhere on the map.

Goblin cards from Clash Royale

From a production point of view, there are many benefits to this type of content reuse. Supercell have stated that they keep their game downloads under 100 MB, which is the maximum size that iOS will allow to be downloaded without wifi. Having multiple cards use the same unit models, textures, and sounds is a huge benefit to Clash Royale‘s memory footprint. I suspect that the minor unit variations (such as the melee and ranged goblins) likely have some shared assets. This decision undoubtedly helps with development scheduling as well, as they can create more content in the same amount of time.

Furthermore, this approach also has benefits for game design. Once players understand a unit’s strengths and weaknesses, they won’t be confused if that unit pops up in a different context. For instance, I remember the first match where my opponent played The Witch. I had to take some time to observe and understand her behaviour, but the skeletons she summoned were a known quantity. I felt confident about reacting to them.

Having fewer individual unit types simplifies game balance and tuning. If The Graveyard spell were to hypothetically summon it’s own bespoke unit called the zombie, then the design team would have to reconsider the zombie’s strength relative to the skeleton every time either unit was adjusted. Keeping the units consistent allows Supercell to focus instead on what makes each card unique. For instance, they’ve nerfed Skeleton Army twice this year by simply reducing its skeleton count by one.

Designers often fret about reusing assets, fearing that players might burn out on repetition. Clash Royale’s economical design demonstrates how clever tweaks to existing content can afford distinct strategies for the player. NPCs are more than their base stats; variations in quantity, economy, and deployment are cost-effective ways of reinterpreting existing units.

1 Purely incidentally, the game actually has a lot in common with Pax Britannica.

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