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Category: Game Design

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:

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

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.

First sparks

There is some magic in the very first idea that comes to your mind when you start any creative endeavor.

When you start working on something new, it can be a project but also simply a task, you have that first intuition. In my experience, that first spark is often the most important one.

Some of the best songs in music history have been written in a few hours, too. And with creativity in general, it often happens the same.

But of course, this is just my sensation, I have no metrics, no data, no information to back it up. I don’t know if there is a general rule, a thesis, behind this.

I like to appreciate the beauty of things and not everything has to be estimated, measured, controlled, or predicted.

Long live the first sparks. They come out of nowhere, but more often than not they are the best choice.

Nuances of play and personalized game design

A game designer thinks in the players, not in the game itself. The game is a medium to deliver a playful experience.

Every game designer has some extra to bring to the players. It can be a narrative quality or a special eye for the game feel. Maybe a good reading of spaces to design levels, or the special capacity to abstract in systems.

The first important thing is to get to know it with time. The second is that in game design everything is a system. The system thinking is critical.

When we design a game, though, we design for archetypes or personas. We design for some common denominator. And then the game arrives to real people, the Players. And everyone has their singularities.

It arrives with controls, interfaces, sounds, colors, perception load, and things that are experienced on a very personal level. Each one of us is different, so nuance makes all the difference.

What fascinates me about the clear trend of technology right now, not only LLMs, is the possibility of having a personal game designer for every player, somehow.

If we focus on the real job (system thinking with a personal extra approach) there is the chance to instruct a machine to deliver a personal experience.

Is the machine capable of changing the nuance to meet every single player’s needs?

Think simply in a level balance: too hard for Peter, too easy for Molly.

What if it can be adapted to offer the right challenge to everyone?

My feeling right now oscillates between negativity and positivity, don’t take me for a blind enthusiast.

When I read how the copyright has been assaulted to train certain models, I wanted to retire on a mountain and make offline indie games using VIM on Linux.

Still, the possibility of being capable of meeting each one of my player’s tastes is definitely exciting. Because, at the end of the day, that’s my duty as a game designer.

Small nuances in game design

I am playing Squad Busters intensively these days. Hopefully, this game will work because it contains many elements I have been working on with another project up to last year (under NDA).

I am glad when top developers make certain design choices that I proposed or I was guessing but I didn’t have enough time to complete. “Please, Paolo, focus on this other task” is a classic when I start insisting on some point. It’s like when a singer sings exactly your feelings. Satisfying!

But I was also thinking of something else. I was in the middle of an intense moment. A player with a squad better than mine was chasing me. I didn’t have enough coins to open the chest, so I used a booster to open it.

And it reminded me of a quote from J. Riccitiello: “When you are six hours into playing Battlefield and you run out of ammo in your clip and we ask you for a dollar to reload, you’re really not that price sensitive at that point in time”.

I remember that everyone hated that, the only difference was that Mr. R. was pitching a power-up instead of a booster.

(In the jargon adopted by the companies I have worked with, boosters are the ones you buy BEFORE a match, while you can get or create power-ups DURING the match)

The reality of things is that we like to win, as players. And we can also pay for that. I respect the choice of putting this element on a strategic level and not on a tactical one. The latter would have upset too many people.

Anyway, it’s interesting to see how a small nuance can make all the difference in game design. So that also a bad (in the sense of evil) idea can be played well if we have the right time and resources to work on it.

I completed my deck

Thanks to the help of two friends I have completed my deck to send as introduction to companies.

“Because its purpose is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two – and only these two — basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are ‘costs’.”

(P. Drucker)

This is valid, to me, for every business, also small like mine. Over the last couple of years that I have dedicated to helping gaming companies with innovation, I had to learn a lot about marketing and innovate my business myself.

I could have gone easier with my proposal: “I make levels for your game”, “I write narratives for your game”, “I will fix your tutorials”, or “I will create FPS maps for your game”. But I am not a specialist! I have worked on so many projects that I consider myself skilled in starting them.

Do you need to lay down your vision for a new project? I am your man. My specialization is in innovation. As many game designers out there, the vast majority of games I have worked on were never published. This is the reality of our business.

I can predict lots of issues and tackle them before it’s too late. My analogy capacity make me create new things with few elements. And I touch everything: systems, gameplay, levels and narrative. I also build in engine.

Hypercasual was R&D with glamour

Now that the “hypercasual” word is not cool anymore, let’s talk about the benefits of R&D (which is a term for dinos, at this point).

Research and development in video games leads to the discovery of new technologies, mechanics, dynamics, and narratives. It is an activity that is hard to integrate within a business, especially in high-competitive environments.

I helped a couple of years a developer of hypercasual games and, in the end, to me, that was a little miracle. Why? Because for the first time in my career, I saw the fruit of R&D becoming an actual, shippable product. The CEO was happy, the developer was happy, and the marketer was happy.

Proposals were coming directly from publishers following trends, there were syntheses of popular indie and AAA gameplays. There was also heavy research on social/viral trends. I felt a volcano of ideas, that was a good period professionally speaking.

And it was because of the collision of 3 hacks: the CEO could save money thanks to the Unity Asset Store, developers could save time and the marketer could use concrete techniques to reach the hypercasual audience.

Many Players of hypercasual games were tech-savvy and very smart. They loved to find the flaws in these prototypes and they had fun in discovering how to become a “hacker”. They went very deep into the rules (which were the only elements well thought out) and they found a way of cracking them.

A breath of fresh air in a context where timers, special offers, and artificial scarcity were playing with their compulsivity!

Today the business model is gone, because it is not possible anymore to target directly these people with ads. It’s much more expensive to reach them so the little you make with ad monetization doesn’t cover the costs.

But these Players are still there, waiting for super innovative mechanics to break. Shipping “R&D games” every 2 weeks is still an available choice.