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Tag: inspiration

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.

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.

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.

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.

On sacrifice and duty

When you are an employee you are there because you can do the job. Also because you can make THAT specific job, you master certain pipelines according to your level of experience. Finally, you are there because you can work in a team.

When you build your own company, you are working on creating an environment that permits your employees to build a business.

When you are a freelancer, you have a 1-person business that helps clients (usually companies) solve specific problems.

The social media era, the dopamine times in which we live suggests us “not to work for other people’s dreams”. That’s a weird lens to use to see the World. We forget the importance of sacrifice and duty for our societies to prosper.

There are different sets of skills that you need according to what you want to do. It’s not easy for me to suggest “Hey, did you lose your job? You are an expert, why don’t you build your own company?”. The responsibilities you have to tackle are completely others, and your experience will probably give you also a lot of biases. And most importantly, you should focus on the business, not on the pipelines.

The odds for a specialist to be successful in a completely different field are higher than in building a business in the same sector. The games business is full of doctors who built successful companies.

Some game designers out there can help solve wicked problems, outside of games. At this moment we have quite a few of them. That’s my wish, honestly.

A forest

When I walk in a wood, I focus my attention on the path and stop to admire the trees. Some of them are like monuments, they grew a lot. Fantastic!

Then I discover maybe a little mushroom that has grown during the same night. That mushroom will last a few hours or a couple of days.

I don’t give too much attention to the little herbs, the underwood that’s everywhere. It’s common behavior, I think. Still, they are an important part of the view and the smell that I get from the experience.

The fact is that the big tree exists and it’s big thanks to the whole biome which permits that. It’s impossible and surreal to think in a forest made out only of trees with no herbs.

The underwood is fundamental to the ecosystem, it’s what permits the big trees to be big in the first place. And the underwood can grow up to a certain point, that’s a quality, not a limitation.

If we want more trees and a bigger forest, we should let the underwood spread more and not cut it off just because it’s not tall enough.

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.

GTM, Innovation and Marketing

I read a post from a VC firm looking for projects to fund. One of the points was “clear GTM strategy”. GTM stands for go-to-market. Experts claim that the next big company will figure a novel way of distributing games out. Distribution is part of go-to-market of course.

I am fascinated by this concept of the minimum viable audience, which is the minimum number of fans you need to serve to make your business viable.

Another concept I like a lot, better than agile IMHO, is the shape-up methodology, where you basically set up deadlines and deliver making the best you can in the fraction of time you decided.

Those would be part of my go-to-market strategy, for sure.

Innovation in mobile games

The playbook is not working anymore and Players are claiming innovation, too. For mobile games, there are elements from the world of apps that mobile games never adapted and I don’t know why.

The first is the infinite scrolling feed. Mobile games are still stuck in the world of Flash games somehow. We still use pop-ups as if we’re operating on the World Wide Web. In some cases, I spend precious minutes closing pop-ups at every session. Also, video ads have to be dismissed with the X in top right corner. It is incredibly slow and frustrating.

An infinite feed guarantees engagement and also ads and special offers can be put in it. Every game can become more streamlined, helping the Players do other things while playing.

The second element is the widgets. You know that things that are not app icons that appear on your smartphone. Why should I enter the game to see who attacked me or to collect a daily bonus?

A widget would also be a reminder that the game is there, why is nobody using it?

I think that one of the issues we have with innovation is that we are not making enough efforts to find ways of measure certain design elements and choices. Everything can be measured in certain fashion. But more often than not designers are in a company just creating content, not solving problems. The “everyone is a designer” reigns always in contexts led by product managers, and there’s nothing to do with that.

The company I dream of has that issue fixed. But, I know, I am a dreamer.

Distribution

Marketing has become not about the brand, but about the people behind it. If you see the last ad from Supercell or you read about the last successes on PC, you will clearly see that.

Is it possible to make that scalable? Probably, yes. I would start from there.

The head of marketing from Larian Studios declared that marketing is dead and everyone is angry at him. He expressed quite bad, but I understood what he wanted to say. The marketing is super important, more than ever. But the old fashion of doing marketing is gone.