Being a Game Designer does not mean you know ANYTHING about Competitive Game Design

This is going to be extra rambly since I’m writing on a bit of a time limit.

I was thinking recently, due that Gamasustra debacle, that I don’t think I’ve EVER read an article about a competitive game that wasn’t offensive that wasn’t written by someone who is good at the game. The worst articles have also almost always been from game designers. I don’t think enough respect is paid to competitive game design as a discipline. It’s easy for a designer to walk in, thinking he has all the tools necessary for analysis at hand, to look at a competitive game and cling to the patterns they’re used to seeing and make totally misguided conclusion. It’s like how bird’s s see in the ultra violet (though see less red), and we don’t. Very plain birds often have very vivid colors in the ultraviolet spectrum. If we saw two species of black birds and saw that they could both easily identify their own kin, without knowledge of their ultraviolet patterns, we might assume many other systems of identification — mannerisms, smell, whatever. This could lead us to radically wrong conclusions on how they operate. When we understand their ultraviolet patterns, a lot more becomes clear and obvious.

Competitive gameplay is the ‘ultraviolet’ here. Competitive game design entails a different set of goals and design patterns and methodologies than other games. They’re not alone in the unique approach they require, but they are not often made and when they are, even rarer yet are they made well. Social gaming, for example, requires a different view on design to understand, but since we are all exposed to them and literature about them, most of us walk away with at least a passing understanding of the genre. I’m going to try and illustrate some differences with competitive games and try and explain why it’s so hard for game designers to make helpful conclusions about them without strong competitive experience.

I could come up, fairly easily, with a number of game systems and general ideas for a single player game. I could flesh out the basic mechanics without much of a problem and come up with a basic plot idea that could work in any big budget game. Ideas are cheap, and this isn’t impressive. The devil is in the detail and the bigger reaching decisions, while important, are made or broken on their execution. It’s easy to have an idea, but very difficult to execute it. Competitive games are in some ways inverted. A lot of people who could also easily write up a basic 5 page design document, could not find the same success with competitive games. Most of the time when I read an idea someone has for a competitive game, I mostly see that it would never work. There will be no juiciness to the system. Most of the ideas will be superficial. There will be no interplay between the game systems. Some things will actively hurt the game. In competitive games, the broad strokes of your basic design idea MATTER a LOT. The execution doesn’t even matter as much as a single player game (It matters quite a damn bit, but in a single player experience the execution is almost everything).

Pretty much every non Blizzard RTS falls into this. They come in with some high minded ideals and with some big gameplay concepts, in the same way one would construct a singleplayer game, and when they make the multiplayer, the game collapses. Relic managed to squeeze some juice out of smaller, more tactical minded games with fewer real units, but this was the exception, not the rule. Fighting games on the other hand stick VERY tightly to formula. Unless you’re some licensed game, straying from the formula too far is suicide. It’s taken a lot of time to refine the basic formula that exists and theirs still huge amounts of design space in how characters and say, meter or movement systems work. FPSs also follow very closely to the basic models that have existed since the 90s. Small changes cause huge effects, and thus, initial design decisions have to be careful (even amazingly super careful if you’re doing say, anything turn based, or god forbid, a board or card game, where one wrong decision can force you to scrap huge amounts of work and playtesting on the rules). So why is this more important?

Well in competitive games, unlike singleplayer experiences, games are designed in a ‘top down’ model. You design the game for the highest level of play you possibly can consider as a designer. Then you try and future proof it for the level of play that might occur that exceeds your expectations. Then you try and sand down some of the rough edges that bother low level players without damaging that high end game too much You try and keep the game reasonably fun at all levels, but the focus is that high level play. This is the Blizzard model and the model for most fighting games.. You try and make a rich, deep, game for the best and most motivated players, hoping for a ‘trickle down’ effect. You give a deep experience for your core audience and hope their excitement attracts players. Starcraft 2, an amazingly hard game to play, is extremely popular, due to all the tournament footage and hype that the game attracts.

In a single player game, you focus from the bottom up. Maybe the middle up. A few games (God Hand) will do it from the top up too, but thats the exception. Games differentiate themselves with their low level big ideas and then generally blend together a bit. God of War, Dante’s Inferno and Lords of Shadow have different setups and systems to try and make them unique, but we all know they all blend together to end up roughly the same game (God of War being the best of the 3 due to polished excellence not withstanding). Singleplayer FPSs might have various ways to upgrade your self. Upgrading guns, just picking them up or injecting your self with the psychic-essence-of-creepy-little-girls, but in the end we’re playing an FPS, using rough equivelents of the same weapons and are mostly doing the same things we always do. That’s fine, because most of us aren’t going to try and master most of these games to an extreme level and those of them that ARE worth mastering (Say DMC, Bayonetta or some earlier NES games) pay enough attention to high level play to maintain fun. But the thing is, you don’t have to be aware of any of the deeper stuff to enjoy the game or make conclusions about it’s design. That high level stuff for most games is just a bonus. You can speak on a deeper level about the game if you know about it, but you can still determine a lot even just by playing the first level of most modern games.

So when you’re a game designer who plays, say Starcraft 2 and you notice you get rushed a lot, it’s easy to go “Well, clearly we need a rush timer! Or some sort of safe space!” Like Evan Jones suggested in his horrible Gamasustra article. It’s easy to say that without seeing how that would effect the ‘real’ game or without seeing how such a change is really superficial (If you can’t rush for 7 minutes, then a rush just becomes an all-in attack at the 7 minute mark. You’ve effectively just prolonged the game for no reason). In most single player games, such things don’t have huge cascading effects. Also if something seems fun, or fair, it’s fine, even if it’s actually shallow. It’s probably also better to remove things that seem ‘unfair’, even if they COULD lead to new game play. This just doesn’t work in competitive games and that’s how we’re used to thinking.

In the end you have to be good at some of these games to make something like the,. You need to have experienced that level of gameplay to know what competitive players are looking for. Otherwise you’re relying on luck for your game to succeed. Blizzard had many hands on Starcraft 2, and when asked about the multiplayer, most of them would not say much. Why? Forget Dustin Browder, that’s the job of someone like David Kim, a designer who also plays the game at the highest level. BAS, a high level Street Fighter player was a tester at Capcom.

More respect has to be given to this branch of game design. So people stop accidentally spreading misinformation, and so more people can be educated on how to do it.

I got a Formspring

So there was this thread on IWBTF where I would answer questions. The problem wwas that it was always a pain to sort through the thread and then copy and paste all the questions properly and answer them. So I gor a formspring so I can keep that business up and figured hey, Might as well share it.

This is why I don’t post on Gamasutra

Mr. Jones never got to replying to me but someone else did, going down a road of insanity that seemed obsessed with realism and innovation. I will transcribe all of it here. He starts by responding favorably to my reply toward Jones.

Gerald:
Michael, I wish more people would realize the importance of lists when communicating. I agree that the idea the author was trying to communicate in the article was probably not communicated effectively.)

(And Evan, rushing is something that happens in almost every rts game. So I think what you are saying about “safe states” could be said about pretty much every rts game. However, unlike you, I think this is an inherent flaw of the gameplay).

I have two big problems with Starcraft 2.

1) If you ignore the graphics, it is almost an exact copy of Starcraft 1. ( and for that matter I don’t understand how it is that different from most rts games)

2) In general I do not like “traditional” rts games because they are just big clickfests. Company of Heroes is a great balance because there are fewer units and also once units engage each other your actions are pretty limited compared to a traditional rts game because they automatically take cover(and the vehicles should try not to turn alot because it will expose their sides). In, other words, the AI is alot more intelligent and realistic; and the amount of micro is intentionally reduced.

We need to get away from the “bots” of traditional rts games. I want my units to behave more realistically. I want rts games to be more about strategy and less about clickfests galores.

Morale is something that should be incorporated into rts games as well. I don’t want 10 troopers to blindly charge into 400 zerglings unless they have something special about them.

In conclusion, We need to get away from ubermicro, because it is not the strategy skill that we should be valueing the most. I would even argue that it is not really a strategy skill at all but rather a memorization/reflex/coordination skill.

Now someone recommend to me a real time strategy game where ubermicro is not the most defining characteristic that defines the level of player skill.

Gerald:
Ardney, I will make it simple for you then. Starcraft I and II both have nothing that separates them from a LARGE LARGE amount of rts clones out there. Let’s just be honest that the gameplay is not the competative advantage. It is the IP and the art assets/graphics that sell the game.

And as for expectations about a direct sequal having EXACTLY the same gameplay. Starcraft was released in 1998. THat is 12 years ago. And in that time, there have been huge advances in rts game features and UI interfaces and AI and processing speed etc etc. And yet it seems Starcraft has discarded all these things for the “vintage” gameplay of the original. It might be intentional, it might have even been the best business decision; but It was the easy way out and I don’t like it; and I’m not going to praise Blizzard for rehashing the same 12 year old gameplay over and over.

Just like Jones, Gerald seems to have a lacking understanding of starcraft and the steps Starcraft 2 took to modernize. I felt the need to try and correct him, though I did take some issue with his direction toward realism.

Kayin:
Well Gerald, I’m not going to say anything that’ll make you like Starcraft more, but I hope I can convey a few ideas to you about how you might be looking at this the wrong way.

Firstly, Starcraft being like Starcraft 2 is an obvious must, not only due to being a sequel, but due to most other RTSs falling flat on their face whenever they tried not to be Starcraft. There are a lot more modernizations than the graphics and a lot of features for ease of use (Better path finding, multi building select, control groups without a unit limit) and a change in design philosophy to try and craft more dynamic units based on the best parts of the original Starcraft (They’re not entirely successful but you can look at the design of each unti and see what they were going for).

As for the clickfest, well, I want to defend those for a moment. Not to make you like them, as that’s a matter of taste, but because I think it’s unfair to ignore the strategic aspects of Starcraft. Anyways the biggest limiter for APM (before you get into pro speeds of 200-300 APM) is your ability to make meaningful decisions. I can type at 80 words per minute, but I am typing this reply much slower because I am trying to consider everything I say. My hand speed and the hand speed of most individuals are all generally high enough to play the game quite competently, the issue is we (including my self, my APM is fairly low) lack the strategic and tactical understanding of the game to make over 100+ decisions in a minute. The fact that even without crazy morale systems and robotic like AI, there is STILL and almost unbounded limit on how much you can optimize your unit’s behavior is a great benefit to the game, especially as a high end competitive activity.

Games also do not become intrinsically more strategic as they become more realistic. Chess is a pretty big abstraction of warfare and is far more strategically rich than virtually any boardgame that tries to depict war realistically. The capacity for a game to be strategically rich is based purely on it’s mechanics. Starcraft 1 and 2 are very well tuned games with many fine tuned numbers that give players a range of interesting, diverse options with various risks and rewards, as well as giving the players a variety of tactics that can be used to overcome disadvantages or exploit small weaknesses.

Now, this doesn’t mean you HAVE to be a clickfest or HAVE to be unrealistic to support a strategic game. Company of Heroes last I checked did fairly well, competitively. Relic found a more accessible model and made some clever design choices. Relic’s games tend to lack refinement though, so they aren’t really as successful as Blizzard’s offerings, but the base design is sound. When you’re dealing with only a hand full of ‘real’ units (since a squad is effectively a single entity, control wise), you do need more mechanics and interactions to make the the game interesting — thus morale and cover systems and everything else. It’s not that such a design is innately superior (I find it kind of boring, personally), but it fits neatly into the type of game they wanted to make, thematically.

So I would say RTS games don’t ‘need’ to do anything, besides maybe acknowledge other possibilities, as their are unserved markets out there (such as with your self). I would just be careful considering things like being more realistic or removing direct control from the player to be inherently ‘progress’. In some contexts it’s appropriate, and in other it’s absolutely terrible.

Anyways Gerald, I hope you get the game you’re looking for! I do know you’re not alone in wanting it!

Gerald:
I would argue that Starcraft is unnecessarily mundane(for the player). Alot of actions that I notice myself taking could be automated. Setting up formations buttons is a prime example of a feature that is totally missing in Startcraft and alot of RTS games, but is something that is highly important to your success and can still be completely automated. Right now you have to do this manually.

I still don’t think ubermicro is a skill we should value the highest. Even if I could get my actions up to 300 a minute, I wouldn’t want to. Like I said above, alot of those actions could be automated with better and possibly more realistic AI. Like in Company of Heroes.

And as for realism, I think there is a trend recently among some industry people to stop striving for realism in games. This is not good in my opinion. Realism with the chance for failure; that should be the end goal of games in my opinion. Hence virtual reality.

Gerald has problems separating opinion from good practices, but now that we’re at the territory of virtual reality, I’m sorta getting annoyed. Then he replies to someone else (he makes other replies too, just check the last article for the Gamasustra link if you’e interested)

Gerald:
I knew I wasn’t going to win many points by bashing a game that over a million people really seem to enjoy. But, the day that designers stop infusing there own personal preferences into games is the day that game design truly does die and in my humble opinion loses it’s status as an art form. And these “things” become just souless money-making machines.

I don’t like to bash Starcraft II. But it is unfair to the people who worked on Company of Heroes, that their game was so much less popular(still really popular though) but had so many innovative features. And Blizzard, with probably ten times the resources, rehashes the exact same game mechanics as in 1998 and scores big just because of IP, hype and advertising. That is not fair.

But I’m not really sure who to blame. The consumer or Blizzard? Blizzard made the safe business decision(which I can sympathize with). The Consumers don’t really seem to give a crap. And the company of heroes franchise has dissapeared. (or turned into it’s mediocre bizarro superman counterpart Dawn of War II.) – It’s been more than four years and I have not heard talk of a sequal to COH.

At this point I’m fed up with this argument. But instead of dropping it, I press on like a fool.

Kayin:
(The following quote comes from another poster and is pretty great, IMO)
“There’s a trend in articles lately to take something that an individual (or even a group of people) doesn’t like about a game, and try to extrapolate a reason why the things they don’t like equate to bad game design or to design mistakes. What these articles actually end up doing is highlighting someone who needs to learn more about game design before they touch another game.” This quote is so true.

Anyways why should anyone be blamed? I know I got the game I wanted out of Starcraft 2. Blizzard knew that other RTSs weren’t delivering the experience the old Starcraft 1 vets wanted and did a nice revision of their previous games. Should the consumers buy games because they’re more innovative? No, they should buy the games they want or that play the way they want them to play. If a new Street Fighter game came out with realistic damage models and 3d gameplay and a bunch of innovative features, I wouldn’t pick it up like with every other Street Fighter ever, I would be disappointed and disgusted that the game series I loved for so long would go do something so crazy that doesn’t even resemble the games I liked previously. Innovation is generally pretty overrated and not all designers are preoccupied with being innovation. Sometimes the game they want to make now is the game they grew up playing with some slight modernizations.

And some people will try and do something new, and if people like it, they’ll play it, and if not, it goes away.

Gerald:
You have really low standards. Let me help you try to understand where I’m coming from. What if they spent 50 million dollars improving the graphics of pong while keeping the gameplay exactly the same?

I also think that if everyone was like you we’d still be playing pong. Anyone who makes a statement like “innovation is generally pretty overrated” doesn’t really understand the game industry or any industry for that matter.

FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

Kayin:
That’s a ridiculous straw man. Is the pong formula strong enough that 50 million dollars on graphics would earn it’s money back? Does pong have the depth of gameplay to keep people interested? Or, more to what I was saying, is pong even worth a revision? Is the idea of pong worth refining and re-releasing? If you think Starcraft 2 is ‘Starcraft 1 with more graphics’, well, if that’s coming from a designer, that’s flat out ignorant. It didn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s more than a fresh coat of paint.

This is this fallacy that ‘new’ and ‘different’ is inherently better. Older gameplay formulas that work are not obsoleted by new ideas just because they’re new. Are the new ideas BETTER? Conversely, if the first game of a genre I play is a rehash of all the other games in the series, is the experience less good because it’s like other games I didn’t play? Innovation, by it’s self, doesn’t mean much. Gameplay is what matters and if what makes better gameplay happens to be innovative, well that’s great. I’d rather have the most refined version of something that’s been done before, than something ‘innovative’ but unrefined. The superficial allure of ‘innovation’ wears off pretty quickly unless their is real meat underneath it.

I also your little game designer ‘no true scotsmen’ fallacy is bullcrap. I could easily point to Blizzard and go “Are you making as much money as they are? Do they not understand the game industry? Funny, they certainly seem to!

Good ideas are good because they’re just that — GOOD, not because they’re novel or innovative. Getting there first is great for marketing, but the idea still has to hold up. Firing portals at walls and fucking with physics is pretty damn novel, but that game provided us with an excellent sequel because the interactions inherent in that system are innately fun. Some of the allure was gone the second time through, but the crunchiness was still there and in top form. Compared to say, the parkour bullshit in Brink everyone was excited about that turned out to be nothing special.

So to make an unfair generalization back at you and say that anyone who holds innovation above anything else probably doesn’t understand game design, or any design for that matter, for the devil has always been in the detail. In fact, when innovation does happen with great success, I’d dare say it comes from the people who understand and appreciate the work that has come before them, as it gives them the insight to see what is really worth doing differently.

I’m sure this will go on (and I will update this when it does), but my opinions on this I think are pretty well known on my own blog (I’d hope!). It hurts me to see people who are (or are claiming to be) designers falling for these super obvious traps and buying into silly ideas like ‘realism’. These are people who don’t see the honest to god mechanics of a game. They don’t see the interactions and gameplay systems going on nor do they appreciate craftsmanship. Not even asking the obvious question to ones self of ‘in what way does realism add to gameplay’ is such a clear sign of designing ignorance. Gerald is not alone, he merely speaks out. It makes me feel better though, as in a gross, awful, gooey way I feel elevated.

“Hm, if these guys are working in the industry, I might have more of a chance than I thought!”

Granted I think the low standards for a lot of designers is something that is slowly disappearing as more and more educated people come into the fold. It’s clearly for the best. I also got to remember not to post on Gamasustra. God, Evan Jones was wrong, but he at least didn’t seem like he was from outerspace.

Edit:

It continues, but gets more sane. I think Gerald realized he wasn’t being careful with his words and got himself too deep. You can accidentally make a lot of contradictory points in an argument if you’re not careful. It’s easy to say a few things off-handedly that you aren’t totally committed too that bites you in the ass later. Even Gerald gets me with one. I think this’ll be a peaceful wind-down.

Gerald:
Ok, fair enough. You make alot of good points about Brink(which you are correct, turned out to not to be extraordinarily successful). But at least they are trying. At least they are being bold. And I think with some patches, it will make it’s money back. Just remember, that for every success in innovation their are several failures.

But I just can’t stand the people who think Starcraft II is some paragon form of gameplay that will be with us for a hundred years. rehashed over and over and over again.

I didn’t mean to be insulting(well I did; but I shouldn’t have).

I have to make one more insulting comment though, And then I will cede the argument:
I think their are alot of people who think the free market will always result in good outcomes or “just” outcomes(although the free market is an important and efficient part of society). But just remember that the free market is only as good as the consumers and producers behind it. And it is OK to get pissed at people, if they are doing something you think is stupid.

So please don’t justify all your arguments with a phrase like “well, people bought it and liked it, and Blizzard made alot of money, so everyone is happy right”. Because that’s basically like saying: “Well, alot of other people agree with me so you should too”. Always argue the point on the merits of the point. And remember, McDonald’s was for a long time, (and might still be) the most successful restaurant in the world. That doesn’t make McDonald’s food “good”. or ther business model “just”.

Kayin:

I accept your last insult, but let me just the defend the context it was used a bit. But your right, by this logic I couldn’t criticize Zygna, whom I hate… but at the same time I think there is truth for that. At least I couldn’t accuse them of bad game design — pyschological manipulation like that is rather skillful. I do think I’m free to call them evil though.

In Blizzard’s case, I feel fine using them (though you may disagree), because they release polished products and those products don’t just make them money — they hold up for years. WoW has an obvious hook to keep people playing, but Starcraft 1 was totally alive and kicking when SC2 came out. Both Diablo games are alive too. I still couldn’t stop there though, so I will say this…

I am a competitively minded gamer and also learned much of what I’ve learned about game design from competitive play and looking at the design of competitive games. They do something I respect, money aside. The fact that they make boatloads of money doing it is just icing on the cake.

I think it was rather bold of them in fact to not change some of the things they didn’t change. The deeply challenging and hard to learn multiplayer is not something people generally do to make a quick buck. Doing that is a bit risk that requires you to do it right. You need the competitive aspect of the game to flourish so much that the word of mouth makes up for the sheer amount of intimidation the game projects. Or, I think it was Bold for Team Fortress 2 to, when it came out (the current state of the game is another story) to not add anything particularly innovative (well, the artstyle maybe!), but to trim the game down to it’s most fun parts.

So to impose a similar request to you as we wrap this up… One slight one is to just be careful with sweeping generalizations on what games should do or be (Example: Realistic). Wanting a particular thing and hating another thing is great, but shouldn’t be presented as fact. But more importantly then that, when you see an innovative game, just ask your self what you’re actually doing, mechanically, and than see if it’s still as innovative as it superficially feels. Or if you see a successful game that doesn’t seem innovative, at least ask your self if there could be more to it that you’re not seeing? That maybe it isn’t a shameless cash-in.

Not saying that you’ll 180 on any positions or that you should see the same things in games that I do, I just feel those are important questions to ask, even if a lot of things end up being similar to how they first appear. The exceptions though can be really interesting to look at.

While I didn’t mean to suggest “Capitalism is the perfect metric for game design”, I certainly did on accident and the best thing I could do is accept it and try and frame what I meant better. But I think this is all done with. I’d like to think Gerald just got worked up a little too early and got himself into trouble. He has some belief’s I think are wrong (in the sense that he holds them as factual), but perhaps he wasn’t as nuts as I thought. We’ll see.