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Month: May 2024

Self-expression means self-discovery

A report I read days ago confirms self-expression as one of the trendy drivers of motivation to play a game. This is why the top games are always Fortnite, Roblox, and Minecraft. These games are masterpieces and they are champions of self-expression.

According to the MDA Framework, there is an aesthetic of games (which means an essence of a playful experience) called expression:

Expression: the Game as self-discovery.


Expression comes from dynamics that encourage individual users to leave their mark: systems for purchasing, building, or earning game items, for designing, constructing, and changing levels or worlds, and for creating personalized, unique characters.

Self-discovery is to provide tools to the Players to create their assets inside of the game. That is expensive because there are usability issues. It’s hard to prepare an economy on self-expression motivation.

It’s dangerous to go alone, take this!

When it comes to self-expression, in my experience there are 3 archetypes:

  1. Creators: they play games that empower them to create their own worlds. They want to turn their vision into reality.
  2. Storytellers: they need freedom to hold the protagonist’s actions in their hands.
  3. Belongers: they want to be part of a team and feel a sense of relatedness.

There are 3 main drivers: creation, emotional immersion, and independence.

For creation, ask yourself these questions:

  • How can I create a world of my own?
  • How can I use my imagination?
  • Can I explore the way I want?
  • Can I create items that I can call my own?
  • Can I explore new environments in other worlds?

For the emotional immersion, ask this:

  • Do I feel completely engrossed in the world/story?
  • Can I care for something or someone within the game?
  • Will I feel an emotional connection to the story?
  • Do I feel a sense of ownership?
  • Do I have an emotional response to an experience?
  • Do I feel like an integral part of the story?
  • Can I be someone else?

Finally, for independence ask yourself:

  • Can I create a different life I want to live?
  • By playing this game can I feel in control of something important in my life?
  • Can I have an experience and not be judged by the game?
  • Can I break the rules?
  • Can I do something I can’t do in real life?

That’s it! Now take Fortnite, Minecraft, or Roblox and answer the questions above. You can see they mark all the checks.

The thing is alive!

Game design is the act of deciding how a game will be. The whole team designs the game, in the end. Every member puts its grain of salt. And then the game starts to drive the game design!

Game designers care about Players, as I said the other day. The game is a medium to realize a playful experience for them. The team builds the game brick by brick. And we play the build every day. It happens that the build itself starts to drive its iterations.

I am reading many analyses of the new game from Supercell. Many of those are written by consultants who have to sell their services. Which is good and healthy, I am a consultant too! I don’t consume all this free knowledge to know what to do. I study because it helps to improve my toolbox, not my choices.

Players, do not care about monetization flows and core loops. Players want a game on their phones fast and engaging when they feel stressed. Something that continues forever, they want to feel the sense of progress. Someone wants to connect with other people through a game.

Every tentative of building a game on best practices, breakdowns, and playbooks fails miserably. I have worked in the last 8 years on dozens of games and it’s always like that. Many business people would love to have an algorithm to create the best game, but it doesn’t exist.

The personality is impossible to imitate. There are companies built on imitation, and the result has always shown their personality. In game design, we need tools but we give our best when we work with what we truly, deeply love and understand. And that happens rarely, that’s probably the main challenge of our craft.

Games drive our work

I am reading breakdowns and opinions regarding the last game from Supercell, Squad Busters. I love to read those things, but the point of all that content (writing and video) is to sell the idea that something like that can be done following a concrete set of practices.

The real goal of the game design is to entertain people using a video game. A video game is an artifact made of technology and entertainment. When you and your team are working on a game, it’s the game itself that guides the whole thing.

You create a game one brick at a time, and you design its systems step-by-step. At some point, it becomes an entity that will inevitably drive your design choices. If the business side starts to impose the imitation of others, that’s a dead end sorry about that.

You can decide what the game should be about, of course. And it’s better to be something that comes from inside of you, somehow. You will not make the next Squad Busters, because you’re not Supercell.

It’s interesting to have a mental library of mechanisms and methods to work with. Your toolbox is important. But you need to put something truly out. There is no other way around, especially if you want to build something solid that lasts.

Nothing new can be predicted to be a success, you have to put yourself in it. And make the game drive your choices according to its evolution. In fact, following others using your intel will only drive you to failure.

Taxonomy of RPGs

Today I engaged in an interesting discussion on LinkedIn on RPGs and Immersive Sims. Genre names are useful to identify an audience with its expectations and needs. Often, the market creates a term, not the developer.

The container RPG hosts four main genres: CRPGs, Survival, ARPGs, and Immersive Sims.

There are two dimensions to consider. The first is the dimension of structure versus emergence. We design CRPGs around quests and stories. The Player can feel the push to follow, and see how the story ends.

Immersive sims may have great stories, too, but the way of solving them is not always structured around getting all the pieces.

The second dimension is on motivations to play. What makes these genres popular? I have heard that for CRPGs maps are more important than the characters. I think it was the original creator of Final Fantasy who said that. I agree, in part.

The main driver of fun is the discovery of the World, in CRPGs. The same thing is valid for survival games. When the focus is more on the characters we have action RPGs on one side, and Immersive Sims on another.

SDT, Friction, Supercell

Self-determination theory is the single most common theory used in game design. There are lots of theories built on that, it’s simple to build new ones. Three is the perfect number, as always.

Games that offer good emergent gameplay have the right amount of friction in the 3 aspects correlated with self-determination theory components.

  • Mastery relates to mechanical friction, meaning the challenge imposed by the controls and the mechanics of the game.
  • Autonomy relates to strategic friction, meaning the challenge related to the decisions.
  • Relatedness relates to informational friction, the things you know about the game’s status.

For instance, in games like the last Supercell’s Squad Buster, you have a good balance:

  • The Player has to understand the combat system, know when to use the turbo (also in combat) and play with the action area to attack and escape at the right time
  • The Camera doesn’t permit you to see everyone, so you never know who you will meet. There is an information friction.
  • The re is a strategic friction related to the autonomy, you can decide to attack others or collect gems, but it’s up to you. Everything has a light consequence.

Content pipelines

When I design a game the tool I use the most is a spreadsheet. I use spreadsheets for predictions, calculations, but also to define the concrete experience step-by-step. And that leads always to tasks for artists and programmers.

The things you have to produce more often have a sequence of steps to be produced. That sequence is called content pipeline. Or at least, I call it like that.

Content pipelines can make or break your game. I think in FC games from EA Sports, they managed to sell cards. Which is great for content pipeline, cards are relatively easy to produce compared with 3D models and animations.

One of my responsibilities as a designer is to find the optimal content pipeline to satisfy the product thesis. It’s a team effort, an interesting problem to solve. But design plays a big part in that, because we are usually more aware of technicalities.

Onboarding and investments

I name the first session of a mobile game, the onboarding. This starts with the tutorial, which is part of the FTPE, first time player experience.

The onboarding is critical to retain Players. Especially in free-to-play games, the currency that Players will invest in a game is always their time. You will pay to get them and you should make them return. Your duty is to give them a good welcome.

This concept is widely used in the industry as a way to attract investments. You need to prove that your game retains the Players if you want to get your project funded. But there is a trap which is very easy to follow.

The trap is to focus too much on the onboarding leaving the real juice of the game aside.

In my experience, the games that retained the better on their first launch where the games where the onboarding wasn’t present at first. The onboarding design and implementation should come later, you need to first find the real essence of your game.

Using tricks to attract investment can be detrimental on the long term. Because you basically put the whole team on a treadmill, not focusing on the core experience.

Do you want to find the best core to retain? Find the core that works great also without FTPE.

The secret of discovery and exploration

The main difference between a game and other forms of entertainment is action and interaction. As I said in the previous post, action is a verb, is to do something. Interaction, instead, means communicate with some system within the game.

It can be a narrative system, it can be a level system. It can also be an exploration system. Interacting with the World of the game means exploring the game. Some game has walking, running, and riding mechanics. Some other game has menus to navigate and figure out what to do and why.

The main reason to explore a game is discovery. Discovery can be very fun when the Players understand subtly one simple secret: you can miss something.

When you read a book you read line by line. When you watch a movie you look at a series of scenes. When you play a game, instead, you decide what to do. And maybe you can miss something out.

That is something in common with social media, nowadays. Which is also why they are partly substituting videogames as entertainment, in my opinion.

Things to consider in Bartle’s Taxonomy of MUD Players

I have been in this profession for many years and still one of the best and most used ways of identifying Players and their needs is Bartle’s Taxonomy of Players.

This was created after surveying players of MUDs, multi-user dungeons. Textual multiplayer RPGs that were played on Telnet. The taxonomy is used also for single-player 2D offline platforms. I have to still understand why. The only explanation that I have is that people are lazy. They don’t want to survey their own players.

Having said that, every game designer knows this graph:

                  Killers            |                  Achievers
          PLAYERS -------------------+------------------- WORLD
                  Socialisers        |                  Explorers

Then everyone passes to talk about the 4 Player types. There are 2 things very important to consider.

Acting and interacting

The first is the difference between acting and interacting. This is not so immediate. One may think “acting is using a mechanic while interacting is using a feature” for instance. I have heard this thousands of times.

  • Acting is to do, to perform. Is a one way verb.
  • Interacting is communicate with something. Is a two ways verb, being one of these ways stronger (listening).

If you don’t understand the difference between these two verbs, you will never understand why explorers are not achievers.

Dynamics between the types

Mr. Bartle specified in his paper that there is not a Player who always stay firm in one of the four quadrants. Usually, Players move around according to many factors. We can summarize these factors in the word: autonomy. They decide, mostly for intrinsic reasons, to switch.

When you design a game or a feature it’s important to consider the main reasons to switch and how to make that switch interesting. So that the Player who decides to do that will find always something motivating answering to that decision.

Dynamics are hard to predict when you design a game, but you can use this switch as an opportunity to create better playtest cases.

The power of microculture

I am an optimist, and that doesn’t mean that “everything’s gonna be alright”. Being an optimist means having hope that my actions can lead to better results in the future.

In the last few years, I have been perceiving the development of two spaces in the games industry (and also in music and films).

The first is the space of big corporations and companies related to them; it’s the space where serious money flows. Where the top talent works. It’s the space that right now is struggling a lot.

The second are the solo developers, the small teams, and the people who serve the minimum viable audience. This space is the one that is growing right now.

Look at the good news of the last year and a half. More than 80% of them are about some project that seems to come out of the blue. And of course, it’s not the case. It’s just that until then we weren’t part of that small audience that was following the project for months and that creator(s) for years.

I went to Retrobarcelona yesterday, a local fair dedicated to the games that made me. Arcades, pinballs, classic consoles. Craftsmanship dedicated to the IPs that still make my heart beat. People with metal band t-shirts, and a better vocabulary than the average.

I spoke with friends making more money making games for SEGA Mega Drive than they made with Switch and PS4. I met a friend who is a brilliant marketing consultant for small teams with little budget. I assisted in 2 talks of local streamers with a strong, loyal, cultured audience. I purchased books from a guy who closed his retro games store during COVID and now writes short sci-fi stories, runs a podcast, and is making a game for Dreamcast.

These realities have become bigger in the last few years. The tools to grow are there and are free. Today it’s easier for one single guy to make everything needed to run a business.

Was the other side present too? I have met a couple of friends, with exceptional talents. They were working for some of the biggest brands that landed in “sunny Barcelona”. Or they were working for investor-backed startups with huge ambitions. They either lost or left their jobs.

I am aware that my perception can lead me to the wrong reading of things, but that’s my rant for today. There are opportunities for those who are not waiting to be picked. For those who don’t use the playbook.

It’s great to have a fancy title in a corporation that belongs to the macro-culture. I still dream about it on certain days. But belonging to the micro-culture, finding and serving that minimum viable audience, can be profitable. Reddit, Substack, Patreon, Kickstarter…

That can be exciting! Not easier, you have to work a lot on it. But a concrete possibility. Something that gives me hope, that makes me an optimist.