Many companies struggle to find new ideas, so that I believe that it would be great to provide an audit on certain games to give them a starting point. This can become a subscription based service I can provide online.
The key to me is to start by playtesting your competitors to really understand why their games are working and what can be enhanced and improved. Then I complete my study by both playing the game for a week and studying its reviews. Finally, I create a game design audit. If you read this on my blog, here you have the audit for FREE.
I work for businesses, someone says B2B. My clients are usually medium-sized companies that are willing to find new formulas. New ideas to disrupt the market out there. And I think it’s a great choice for them to hire contractors like me for this stage. Someone calls it 0-to-1, but I still prefer the classic pre-production.
With internal teams, it is very hard to innovate, because of many factors. External contractors, instead, can help you find new ideas or variations to your ideas. You don’t have to pay the salary to an employee for this research, plus you engage with someone who is doing this every single day. I am looking at different challenges from different realities every single week of my life. My vision is broader than a common employee working on a single project every time.
Because the games industry has changed a lot in recent years, many companies are looking for people that make the whole games from start to end, but I think this should evolve. We need specializations in specific development areas. Pre-production, production, operations.
Over the last few years, I think I acquired huge experience with the first stage, the pre-production. This is because of specific requests from my clients. My clients helped to build my little business. My technical skills let me focus on both vision/strategy and content (level design with Unity, dialogues, and so on).
Pre-production: this is where I operate. I help you find new ideas to work on.
Production: your team will develop the complete game, once you decide to go for it. Once you have the 1 of the 0-to-1 stage.
Operations: your team operates the game. Still, sometimes I do small consultations for new features that need pre-production. New ideas for service based games.
One thing that I put the focus on is on the fantasies and aesthetics (more on this in another post), but the most important thing to me is quality. Oftentimes people tend to avoid quality in pre-production to quickly pass to production. For good games, the duration of pre-production is 1/3 of the whole project. Imagine your development time is 3-5 years, we are talking of 1-2 years of pre-production. A good 0-to-1 is fundamental to go 1-to-1000.
These days a protest is taking place on the ArtStation platform. Seeing some works generated with AI climb to the top positions, artists are uploading this pic everywhere.
I find that a very sensible and clever idea. I think artists are in a moment where they have to defend themselves. I want to dedicate this post also to confirm the fact that they are right. Artificial intelligence-generated works are not art.
Art is a human matter
To compose a work of art you need specific materials that are able to formalize forms. In this sense, artificial intelligence has things in common with human work. AI works on materials, in the case of digital art digital materials. But art to be art must be a physical expression of the human imagination. Artificial intelligence algorithms do not imagine. They realize a vision based on the algorithmic processing of a prompt.
If I want to create an image of my mother, I can imagine many things. I can think at any given moment that I want to put a particular pin or a special kind of tree behind her. If an algorithm has to imagine anything, it relies solely on a semantic decomposition of a sentence. The algorithm having no imagination does not add anything that is not within its analysis.
Art is a process
If human beings were able to realize what he has in mind without going through sharpening the points of the pencils and without tracing everything, they would not be human beings. They would be a deity. It would not be art, it would be a divine creation. Art requires a process. Artists are able to deal with this process. We are perfectly capable of recognizing art created with artificial intelligence. The fact that there is a market is due to the fact that creations are human. There will never be a big market made up of works generated with artificial intelligence.
In the case of video games, obviously artificial intelligence can be used to create variants of elements already created by human beings, to optimize processes. I find this interesting. Anyway, it is foolish to think of entrusting the creation of a product solely to machines. It will never be an artistically valid product.
Art starts with aesthetics
Aesthetics is the science that studies the essence of things. Art therefore also includes science (and this thing does not happen the other way around). This study is an activity that requires a lot of mental energy and all the CPUs on earth would not be enough to realize what the brain of one toddler is capable of. Studying the essence of things means imagining, forming a point of view, and expressing it with theories. Turn these theories into a thesis. It is a very difficult process even for us. How many good artists do you know? Few. These few artists are people who have succeeded in this mission: to study the essence of things. Have an aesthetic sense.
Artificial intelligence applies an algorithm to a context. This algorithm operates in a pre-determined way on each challenge it faces. The algorithm evolves and improves, of course, but it doesn’t imagine. It does not create theories, it does not seek theses. It does not reflect the aesthetics of things. It does not seek its essence.
One of those moments of radical change has arrived in our sector. I think you too have seen a beautiful image or a surprisingly well-written text. You will certainly have noticed that artificial intelligence algorithms have learned to generate content that is indistinguishable from human content.
I think we are ahead of a revolution, like the one that happened years ago with the arrival of 3D technologies. The revolution will inevitably involve the world of game development.
Not only do these tools allow for quick content generation, but they also learn from all the people who are entering their prompts. It is likely that in a short time the AI will optimize also the creative part of writing prompts.
There have been abuses in my opinion. Developers trained these systems with content taken from the web, without the consent of the people who generated them. Think of everything you’ve written on the Internet, think of all the articles, think of all the images posted on the most famous sites. Someone took all these images, codes, and texts and fed the algorithm which is now able to accurately imitate even the style of concrete people. I don’t know if this thing will be punished sooner or later. However, “the omelet is done”, as we say in Italy, and now these tools are there.
What does this mean to you?
The goal is human replacement
First of all, this technology has the main goal of replacing humans in certain activities. Those tools are capable to be faster of any artistic process. However, nothing can replace a human being. Our learning capacity is far superior to any existing mainframe. We are already quite capable, almost instinctively, of recognizing most AI-generated art. Did you noticed that? In the case of video games, one of the things that drive people all over the world to play games is the chance to see something created by other people.
This admiration surprises us, we like to talk about it with friends and online. “Have you seen the new God of War? They did an incredible job!”. It’s not God of War itself that surprises us as a game, it’s the thought that there are people who have been able to do this that creates a market. Games entirely made by AI will never have a big market, don’t worry. There will probably appear some pantomime of a game. And maybe someone will get rich thanks to that. But it will never be a big market, that’s my bold prediction.
Less bullshit jobs available
The second point is that surely someone will think about hiring fewer inexperienced people. In fact, many junior professionals are hired to support seniors in smaller tasks. Think of an RPG, maybe there are secondary characters in a city that the Players will visit. These characters will have barks to say, and these barks are usually left to junior writers. It will probably be possible to automate this process using AI. So that, it will so no longer be necessary to have a junior person who writes these contents. It will be enough to have only one person who will edit things already written by a machine.
However, studios will always need senior staff. And senior people inevitably have to go through the junior stage. It is convenient for the studios to also hire juniors so that one day they will become seniors. There will be less work, that’s for sure. If a company thinks of just automating, it means that that company doesn’t appreciate the value of human imagination. It means you won’t get that job, but that job was probably a bullshit job. You saved yourself a problem, believe me. My advice? Learn the techniques of your profession while also taking into account these new technologies. Be confident in your creative personality, but show that you also dominate these technologies.
We are afraid of The Terminator
The last point is that we don’t really know what will happen with all this. We can assume that the professional world will never be the same again. But we don’t know, maybe next week we discover a big scandal involving these new technologies. Maybe we will have proofs that someone stole intellectual property content from the web. As a result, regulators will shut down all these technologies. The world sometimes changes in a matter of a few hours. And this happens to us too! Therefore, when something really surprises us, the first reaction is defense. We think we’re going in the wrong direction, and maybe we’re even dramatic at times. Our defense mechanisms are also unpredictable. My final advice, therefore, is to accept the beauty of our nature as it is. Let all innovation amaze us, don’t be afraid of anything. ‘Cause none of them can stop the time, as someone said.
With the quake in the tech sector over the last few weeks, I’ve noticed a trend. The blame always lies with the CEO on duty and never with us, the employees. Still, if we were a little better able to discern where to go, we’ll save ourselves a lot of headaches.
This article is for people with more experience. When you’re a beginner, in fact, it’s not only bad to have negative experiences. You need a job and even if you get fired, you probably won’t have mouths to feed and you will find other opportunities. For me there are so many opportunities out there.
When we have more experience we must instead pay attention to every detail. The first and most important one is the project in question. Not the salary, not the team. If you have experience, find a good project to work on. Here are my recommendations:
Is this a project in a new market, a kind of game that no one has ever made? A first-person platformer for mobile? A match-3 with shooter elements for PS5? If that market doesn’t exist yet, there is a reason. Don’t join them!
Is it a game that is more than a game is an experience in a parallel universe where people will be able to own what they win like owning a pair of shoes? Flee.
Is this a game that wants to enter a crowded market? This is a good start! Is the market red or blue ocean? Are there many or few competitors? What unique things are they willing to offer to their Players? what problems will be solved? If you notice that it’s a copy of a popular game with no real thought of what to offer, get ready for a round of layoffs. Followers always end up like that.
Game writers use Twine to write stories. It’s a great tool and pretty easy to learn. I have learnt during my certification course at The Narrative Department. This week I am prototyping a new feature for Lily’s Garden, so that I decided to use this new tool to test its effectiveness also in terms of feature prototyping.
You can play the Twine prototype here: we have the feature, Lilys Choices.
Twine is a great tool to create a proper Player experience narrative for a new feature.
The idea of having an extra resource to start extra Dramas is not new, but it is very important that the dramas end up with a surprise for the Players. Also in terms of concrete rewards!
It is important for this kind of games not giving to the Players choices that exclude specific branches. First of all, produce all this content has a cost. Second, some Player may feel frustrated and may want to try the other way around. This thing is not possible in those games.
The narrative should be focused on a true fan of the game. At this stage other profiles in the team will probably find risks and flaws to the designs, so be prepared! It is very important to push things forward boldly.
This week just for the sake of ikigai I am prototyping a new narrative system for Lily’s Garden. Today I focused my efforts to the idea generation. I wrote down hundreds of ideas and preselected just some of them, which will be shown here.
The narrative of Lily’s Garden
The story is divided into large day arcs with subplots. Each day involves renovating a specific location. In order to do that, the Player has to beat puzzle levels earning Stars. Stars are useful to start tasks.
In the course of the game’s renovations, Lily collects items like keys and photographs, builds her relationships with other characters, and discovers more about the estate and her family history.
We will use those terms in this post:
Day: set of specific tasks that complete a story arc. We can consider a day like a sequence of an episode in TV series.
Positive action: use power-up/boosters, lives refill, use extra movement, complete a goal also if not beating the level, and so on.
In order to better select the ideas, I’ve spent 1 hour reading reviews. Data.ai allows you to filter favorable and critical reviews.
The game let’s you decide the style of your house and decorations. It is fun and easy to play. The perfect experience for when you just want to relax. Engaging and full of power-ups to beat hard levels that you can create on the board or get by using ingots and completing tasks. The main character Lily reacts to everything and completes tasks.
The new system should be built on those strengths. Maybe it is better to have something more specific towards power-ups and tasks completion.
Many levels are hard to beat and some Player feels stuck. The day’s storylines have not always the same quality, probably because of different kind of writers involved in the project. Players lose what they got at the end of some event. Some Player may feel that the game is too greedy in monetizing the puzzle part (extra movements and boosters).
Our system should be able to mitigate the puzzle limitations. The Player should not feel stuck and if they are doing all the efforts to beat a specific level, that should be rewarded somehow.
I took some notes on things used in other games with a narrative component. I didn’t looked at top competitors, I just took notes on type of games that I already worked on in the past. This because one of the requirements of this task is agility.
Episode: Choose your Story: Premium choices for premium paths. Great for re-playability, usually something that is not considered in puzzle-renovation games because the days cannot be replayed.
It is interesting to be able to unlock an extra path during a Day, also if some Player may want to get to other outcomes. Branches should always connect again before of the end, to avoid this effect.
Tales: Choose your own Story: Trials and paths according to stats accumulated during the Story like in a roleplaying game. It would be great to connect the puzzle and the story somehow. Maybe associating each character to every level and let them accumulate statistics according to the power-up used and more in general to the positive actions done.
From the other side, this can complicate too much the system and it may become hard to balance and monitor the Player’s progression on the long term.
Fallout Shelter: There are characters to whom the Player can assign specific tasks to get more points and currency. What if during a specific day you can put your characters performing extra tasks to get extra perks?
This adds an idle/farming layer which may be not suitable to the core audience of this kind of games.
Project Makeover: Customize the aesthetics of avatars in order to make them successful for the end of the episode (day). Maybe the characters of a specific day set can strive to arrive perfect to the end of the arc, in order to the ending be more satisfying.
The risk is to fall in the trap of misogynic and racist narratives, thou. While makeover is great, it should be carefully designed to not offend anyone. Especially when something works out and translates to UA creatives it enters in a dangerous territory. Is that what we want as designers? I don’t think so.
Survivor.io: Complete missions and get an extra currency, useful to be exchanged with other resources during a season. It’s a pretty common practice among casual games and gives lots of agency to the Players.
The problem comes when the event end because Players may accumulate a resource and then they lose it or it’s automatically converted in something not valuable to them.
I wrote down hundreds of ideas and, since I am doing this alone, preselected some of them. The format I use is: title, wireframe and short description. It is the best way of taking them the day after and decide what to do.
How can we engage more the Players more interested in the story, rewarding every effort they make to reach better outcomes during the puzzle part?
Accumulate perks during a day and collect them based on the positive actions done at the end of the day. Each day has a limited numbers of perks that can be achieved and unlocked at the end.
Everytime you create and use a power-up (selecting it in level intro or creating it during the match), you accumulate points useful to take specific paths. If you want to take a specific path, then, you should create use more boosters in the puzzle game.
Start specific tasks by performing positive actions and get extra perks on completion. If the day ends, all the tasks are immediately completed.
Achievement system for positive actions with special resource to collect and use for special choices during the story.
Obtain extra personalization options if you manage to perform a certain number of positive actions.
At the end of an event, recount all the positive actions done and give extra perks according to the milestone. Giving the premium currency can be extremely valuable for the Players, but it may influence the monetization.
If the Player uses X boosters/power-ups/extra movements to beat a level and still loses, he is allowed to postpone that level for a while.
In a real context with a real team, all this process would be a workshop. Also, the study of top competitors is very important. This exercise is good to keep my mind fresh and to quickly play with narrative techniques I learnt in past weeks.
Puzzle games with renovation mechanic are on top of the charts. They success is tremendous and they are clearly a red ocean market. Many companies try to swim that ocean, so that this week I have decided to make an experiment to celebrate that I got a certification from The Narrative Department.
The narrative system of Puzzle-Renovation games
The experiment consists of a design iteration to improve the narrative of puzzle-renovation games. I will consider this experiment completed once I have a playable prototype made in Twine featuring the result of this process.
One of the reasons why the Players churn is that they get stuck at some point. The progression curve of levels always goes up, so that with the time the puzzle part gets harder and it’s more difficult to progress through the story.
The issue comes because those games consider a positive outcome the fact of beating a level, but they do not consider all the efforts the Players make at all.
At the start of the level, the Player may decide to use a power-up to get help for the level. The first time, the Player will not know how is the layout. Which is why new games warns when there is a hard level.
The Player needs lives to start a level. In case they have no lives they should wait or get a lives refill. In order to mitigate this friction, most modern games use lives as an engagement tool. Give the Players infinite lives for X minutes and you will get longer sessions.
Puzzle levels are based on a limited number of moves. When they end, the Player can get 2-5 extra moves to beat the level. There is strategy here, in fact the Players study the status of their goals and decide. When the Player is near to the win condition is generally more willing to get extra movements. In order to reach the sweet spot, the number of moves is data driven.
During the level the Players may decide to use boosters which are like power-ups but “live”, because they can be got and used on the fly. The Players know the status of the board when they decide to get and use a booster. Boosters add deepness and strategy, they a great driver for monetization.
The Lens of Problem Statement
When the Player completes all the goals, the story continues and the house can be renovated. If we study this flowchart, thou, we can see that the Players can do a lot of things that can be considered positive toward that goal.
They can use a power-up at level start. Get a lives refill. They can get extra moves if they are near the win condition. They can use boosters. All those things are hardly rewarded by the renovation narrative of those games. This is the problem statement for this week:
How can we engage more the Players more interested in the story, rewarding every effort they make to reach better outcomes during the puzzle part?
Target: puzzle renovation Players more interested in the story
KPI engagement: average session number/day and average duration / session
What: create new rewards that help the Players get interesting story outcomes based on puzzle efforts
The game I will use for the exercise is Lily’s Garden, by Tactile Games.
A few years ago I found myself in a bar having a coffee with the studio manager of a company that created games for children on smartphones. It was an informal interview process. The interview went somehow well and badly.
Good because this person showed me real numbers and the idea of working on games that reached so many people was stimulating for me. Bad because I did not seem very interested in the development of these games, but just in the economic benefits.
When it came to my time to ask questions, I asked a simple one: How do you rate the quality of the game designers’ work? What makes you say “Paolo, you did a good job”?
The gentleman replied sarcastically: “If I’m drinking champagne from Prada shoes, it means that you did a good job!”
I immediately got up, thanked him for the interview, paid for our coffee and left.
Prepare your questions
Many colleagues find it uncomfortable when we are allowed to ask questions at an interview. I’m not waiting for anything else! Before of the interview, I study in detail everything I can. I go into detail, explore each text on the company’s website and prepare my questions. I have always noticed that it is a key moment.
Especially people at a senior level who are also lucky enough to have a job already, should not forget that an interview is a conversation between two parties. The company is examining us, but we are also examining the company. A great brand is not enough, the news is full of horrible stories about what real life is like in famous and successful companies.
I wish I could write down the questions I always ask, but there aren’t any.
First, I carefully study the offer in every single word.
Then I study the company’s website in detail.
I proceed to look at their titles and the reviews they receive.
Finally I study the history of the company on crunchbase and other similar sites to understand how they got where they are.
I find myself with a lot of questions and filter a maximum of three, from which I lead the conversation!