Monday, November 19, 2012

Practice 2012: Richard Garfield on Balancing Games

To kick off the Practice conference, Richard Garfield, designer of games such as Magic: The Gathering, Robo Rally, and The Great Dalmuti, gave a lecture about the art of balancing games. 

  • We have a broad view of games. Games can mean anything from sports, board games, card games, game shows, and video games. For this talk, Richard is specifically talking about balancing orthogames, which are finite multiplayer games that result in players being ranked.
  • Games can be approached with a set of strategies. If there is a strategy that isn't viable when players think it should be, people will think the game is not balanced. If there is one strategy that is a clear winner, the game won’t seem balanced. This leads to "strategic collapse."
  • "Toy games" are not actually fun games, but are designed to illustrate a point. Imagine a toy game called Big Rock Paper Scissor. In this game, players can play a big rock (clasp both hands) which beats both rock and scissors. This would remove the viability of little rock as a strategy, but the game as a whole is still viable. If you as a developer don't think little rock should be a viable strategy, then the game is still balanced. However, if big rock is able to beat all the others, then all strategies collapse and the game is unbalanced. One strategy that is not viable is okay, but one strategy that overpowers everything else is not okay.
  • A balanced Magic: The Gathering game is said to have 4 to 8 viable deck types. Less than that, the game would be considered unbalanced.
  • Sometimes strategic collapse has nothing to do with strategy. For example, in Tic-Tac-Toe, the first player wins 90% of the time.
  • Play style collapse is when a game doesn't fit a player's expectation of play style. For example, the player wants to be a builder, but the game only rewards players who are fighters. Common play styles include builder, collector, fighter, explorer, trader, and socializer.
  • The MMO Earth & Beyond has three tracks (explorer, fighter, and trader). Richard tried to play the game as a trader but realized that the fighter strategy was way more viable.
  • Balance is not an issue with all games, such as Bingo, but there can be stochastic collapse. In the toy game Ingo, you can also win if you dab any spot next to the center. The game loses all tension because a person who is very close to making five in a row can suddenly lose to a player who got one lucky number.
  • Games can be balanced holistically (looking at the system as a whole) or componentially (looking at the components of the system). A componential balancing of Hearts, for example, is determining how many points the Queen of Hearts should be worth. A holistic balance would be determining how many points players should play up to in order to end the game.
  • When balancing for different player types, you should not balance for the expert because it'll funnel out players. Be prepared to be frequently patching your game.
  • Richard designed a game called Spectromancer, which launched with 6 classes. One class, the cleric class, was free to play. The cleric was considered balanced by the team, but because it was free, the players regarded it as the weakest. Later on, the expert players discovered that the cleric was the best class in the game.
  • Investigating deeper into this, the developers discovered that the cleric had an okay win ratio for beginner players, a low win rate for intermediate players, and a very high win rate for expert players. Meanwhile, the necromancer class had high win rate for beginners, but a low win rate for expert players. All classes had varying success rates depending on the skill level of the players. This may seem unbalanced, but in practice, casual players play with other casual players, and expert players play with the expert crowd. This makes different strategies viable in different crowds.
  • You should not balance for the role-player. You can create a weak sword and a powerful sword, and argue that role players would sometimes use the weaker sword because their character is meant to be weak in the story. However, they will soon realize this is not a viable strategy, especially when playing with non-role-players, and the game will become unbalanced. All types of players need balance.
  • Balance is an art, not a science. There is no magic formula. You don't need advanced math, and although some knowledge of math helps with balancing, so do all other topics and subjects.
  • While designing Netrunner, Richard tried to make a formula to balance the game. He ultimately failed because for every new card he introduced, he had to add a new rule to the formula. He realized that the formula can't predict any cards, it was only describing what's been done. He attributes his failure to two reasons: 1) games are complex and we cannot solve them, and 2) balance is different for difference audiences. The audience is also changing all the time, growing older and becoming more expert at the game.
  • Balance is psychology more than it is math. Fortunately, balance is forgiving.
  • Richard shares several techniques he uses to balance games.
    1. Iterative design. Design, prototype, evaluate, and repeat. There is no substitution for trying out your design.
      1. Magic: The Gathering was playtested for two years before it was released.
      2. All quality products are iterated a lot such as Minecraft and Blizzard's games.
      3. The benefit to playtesting is that you can't design for experts since everyone is a beginner. However, make sure that you are not using the same pool of players to playtest and that you are always adding new playtesters, so that you keep you design geared towards beginners.
    2. Rock-Paper-Scissor technique. RPS offers an excellent structure for balancing and is used in many games. You can use this technique on the component level (ie. an archer beats a lancer who beats the calvary who can beat the archer) and on the holistic level (ie. in Starcraft, a rush tactic beats an economic build which beats a defensive build which beats the rush strategy).
      1. In Magic: The Gathering, an aggressive deck beats a control deck which beats a combo deck that can beat the aggressive deck.
      2. In Hearts, shooting the moon beats out a ducker (who tries not to take any points) that beats a sheriff (who prevents moon shooting).
      3. Rock doesn't need to beat Scissors 100% of the time because you don't want the entire game to rest on one decision. An above 50% advantage is good enough.
      4. RPS technique can also work with more than three components.
    3. Component costs. Add costs to components you want to balance. This can be a single or multiple resources.
      1. Costs can be paid in-game or before the game. Usually, you use difference resources for in-game and between-sessions costs. In Magic: The Gathering for example, the in-game costs for components are mana, but the between-sessions costs would be actual money to collect the cards.
      2. Costs can be subtle such as using "mana" or "insanity." It doesn't have to be money. This is a number you can tweak.
      3. Robo Rally doesn't have any costs but it has stats. Costs and stats are basically the same in that they're both knobs you can tweak.
    4. Benchmark and non-domination. Set benchmarks (vanilla costs) and make sure any new component you add doesn't dominate the older components. Map out a network of strategies and make sure you have a range of viable choices. With less domination, there is more room for exploration and choice, but too many choices can also confuse and paralyze the players.
    5. Hosers. If a component or strategy is too strong, add a rule or a component that hoses it. This is a response to anything overpowering and adds a RPS relationship.
      1. In Settlers of Catan, robbers were added to hose players who hoard resources.
      2. Magic: The Gathering has tons and tons of hoser cards -- ones that hose a certain color, ones that hose a certain ability, and even ones that hose players who like to use a lot of cards with the same artist.
    6. Bidding. Bidding for access of elements or features can auto-balance them. Examples of this include auctions in Monopoly, Vegas Showdown, and Star Wars: Trading Card Game. In Star Wars, players bid to play a certain side (Light side or Dark side).
      1. This can also be more subtle like a draft pick.
      2. The benefit of bidding is that it adjusts itself to players. The problem is that it requires a lot of skill to participate successfully.
    7. Variance. A strategy or component that is not viable most of the time might become randomly viable sometimes if the game has a lot of variance, like shooting the moon in Hearts.
      1. In many card games, depending on what hand a player is dealt can impact what strategy is most viable to that player. 
      2. Variation can also soften the edges of your design. For example, if a game has a problem where the player who goes first usually wins, variation will even that advantage out.
      3. Luck in games is not like a panacea that can solve all problems, but more like an ibuprofen that can heal some slight pains.
Question and Answer
  • Magic: The Gathering has some deliberate unbalance with useless cards. The developers wanted to give all players the pride of acknowledging bad cards and removing them from their decks.
  • The more components in the game, the harder it is to balance. At Wizards of the Coast, the developers created two teams to work on Magic: The Gathering - one to work on overall design while the other focused on balancing the cards. The team was built around a method to balance games.
  • Magic: The Gathering avoids balancing new cards against the entire library of old cards by retiring and expiring old cards. This limits the time frame and number of components during the balancing phase.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

NYU 9th Floor Talks: Creating an ARG

Frank Lantz, director of the NYU Game Center, gave a talk about Chain Factor, an alternate reality game that his company, Area/Code, developed for CBS.

  • Games were about human social interaction. In the modern era, games met computers and became more about the player's relationship to the machine. Recently, however, especially in NYC, people have become more interested in social interactions again and public space games have been on the rise. Some examples include Rockband, Payphone Warriors, physical space games, and real-world games.
  • Area/Code was about real-world games, big games, and cross-media games. They focused on location-aware technology and games that connect or overlap with the real world. They transform public space and social media into new gameplay.
  • "Area" stood for location-based media such as graffiti and billboards, while "Code" meant technology. The company had about 6-8 people doing work-for-hire.
  • CBS approached Area/Code about making an alternate reality game (ARG) for their television show, Numb3rs. At that time, ARGs were really popular with the success of A.I's The Beast., ilovebees, Year Zero, and Perplexity.
  • 42 Entertainment pioneered ARGS. The David Fincher movie called The Game also popularized the genre. ARGs are about reality hacking, making simulation seep into reality so that the players don't know what's real and what's part of the game.
  • CBS actually didn't know what an ARG was. They would sometimes confuse it with MMO, LARP, Geocaching, and VR.
  • Area/Code tackled ARGs and tried to solve traditional problems with the genre. Almost all ARGs are entirely unplayable, requiring advanced literacy of the genre and requiring players to be involved from the start. There was also no replayability given that they were focused on narrative, which plays out only once. Most people who say they love ARGs have actually never played them.
  • They identified four core values of ARGS which are collaborative problem solving, participatory storytelling, puzzles, and a narrative and performative arc.
  • The things that they didn't want to include were fake websites and blogs, improvisational writing and performances, and multimedia.
  • The problems they wanted to solve were a difficult player experience, brick walls caused by puzzles, confusion, ambiguity, obfuscation, lack of feedback and rewards, lack of progress, the requirement of specialized literacy, multimedia, and the traditional flow of story to puzzle to story.
  • Their gameplay goals included making it procedural, rule-based, emergent, fluid, accessible, suspenseful, dramatic, mysterious, challenging, intriguing, thought-provoking, and casual.
  • They wanted to make an ARG around a casual puzzle game. Numb3rs also wanted to make an episode centered around an ARG. Area/Code helped the producers of the show write the episode. The episode, Primacy, was about an evil ARG game designer named Spectre who was making a game called Chain Factor.
  • Area/Code wanted to make the game as a narrative artifact. They were inspired by several works including...
    • Oulipo, an experimental narrative collective from the 1980s who did procedural generated literature. They wanted to make sure that the story was the puzzle.
    • Maze, a choose-your-own-adventure book with illustrations of mazes. The book release was tied to a real-life prize for the first person to find the shortest path through the maze. The voice of the narrator was great and jester-like, and it served as an unreliable game master.
    • Masquerade, another book that was tied to a real-life treasure hunt. There were clues on every page that led to the location of a golden rabbit.
    • Pale Fire, a novel where the theme of the story was expressed through its structure. The writer himself is a fictional character in the novel.
    • Planet Puzzle League, a casual puzzle game based on Panel de Pon. It exhibits both lightness and depth.
  • Chain Factor's pre-production was suppose to be 30 days. Kevin Cancienne, the lead programmer, was suppose to develop a new prototype everyday for 30 days, to which he said it was "bullshit." The team built one prototype, which ended up being Chain Factor, and then stopped. It was already really fun.
  • The prototype was very configurable, which allowed the team to discover the best version of the game and find the fun. The paper prototype before the digital prototype took about 10 minutes.
  • The core mechanic of the game involved dropping numbered discs into a grid. When a number on a disc matches the number of adjacent discs in that row or column, that disc disappears.
  • On the Chain Factor website, there's a quote of the day and a FAQ, both sometimes with deep philosophical text. While playing the game, there would be random error messages that tell the backstory of the two developers, Spectre and Frank.
  • Power mode has locked boosts that can be unlocked by entering multiple keycodes. These codes were hidden all over the place outside of the game, including in the Primacy episode, posters and billboards in the real world, fake banner ads on websites, forums posts, and television spots. When you find and enter a secret code, you'd get an e-mail from Spectre.
  • The error messages that told the backstory were based on score, so people had to actually get good at the game to get the clues.
  • The backstory revolves around Spectre creating a global mathematical scheme. Millions of players thought they were just playing a simple puzzle game, but were actually solving and cracking a large-scale math problem. Spectre is trying to pull off a giant bank heist by crowd-sourcing math problems.
  • The gameflow was story, clues in the real world, unlock powers, obtain a higher score, and get more of the story.
  • The fans created an elaborate wiki that reassembled the game's structure. 
  • The core puzzle game was really good. Margaret Robinson of Lookspring wrote an article about how much she loved the game and she eventually married Kevin Cancienne.
  • Casual players were playing so much of the game that they were actually unlocking the error messages. They gradually became more involved with the ARG mystery.
  • Later, it turned out that Spectre's plan wasn't to steal money from Wall Street. He studied economy and was an anarchist. He believed the world was in dystopia and wanted to destroy the world economy.
  • This story was inspired by Ant Colony Optimization and the works of Luis von Ahn, who created Captchas and the ESP game, both games that solve real-world problems.
  • The theme of the story was reflected in the structure of the game. Both the story and the mechanics were about distributed computing.
  • Erik Wolpaw has stated that there are two kinds of stories, the story story and the game story. If he ever made a game, he would reduce the delta between the two types of stories to zero, which he did when he made Portal.
  • The climax of Chain Factor was a "shootout" between Spectre and the hired programmer, Frank. Frank grew suspicious of Spectre's plans and built a backdoor in the code to foil his plans. While Spectre's mode was the Power Mode, Frank's mode was the Survival Mode. Whichever mode acquired the more accumulated points gave that person the power to carry out their plans.
  • In the end, it was a race between the casual players who were mostly playing Power Mode and the ARG players who were trying to sway the victory towards Frank. However, some ARG players also wanted to see what would happen if Spectre won. Finally, Spectre wins in the end. The ending is a note from Spectre planting a time bomb of economic destruction and promoting distribution over accumulation. Of course, Area/Code couldn't actually crash the economic market so in the story, Spectre was merely planting the seeds of his plan. A month later, the market literally crashes and it was a great coincidence that pushed the story of Chain Factor.
  • The game played on the moral status of game choices. However, ARG players knew that it was a fictional narrative and they wanted to see how the story would play out.
  • The core puzzle game was a success. The puzzle game was an excuse for the team to make a simple abstract puzzle game instead of the large, real-world, cross-media games that they were used to.
  • Using the game as a narrative artifact led to its oblique and eccentric personality. The team needed to make a game about math and numbers to tie in with the television show, and it turned out quirkier than it would've without the story. It's good to embrace constraints because it helps guide you to solve problems.
  • Combining opposites (an abstract puzzle game with an ARG) also led to the game's success.
  • The core puzzle game was strong enough to live on its own and the mechanics were repurposed for the iOS game, Drop7.
Question and Answer
  • CBS approached Area/Code about making an ARG, but didn't exactly understand what an ARG was. It was the summer of ARGs and they were going with what was popular at the time.
  • Numb3rs fans didn't really play Chain Factor, and vice-versa.
  • The narrative was all laid out in a spreadsheet.
  • The game ran for four months.
  • Players self-organized their community.
  • How did the team design around the ads and how long it would take for players to solve the puzzles in the ads? The team assumed that once the ads were found, then the puzzles were solved, which proved to be true while the game was running. One of the animated ads was suppose to be shown at a mall. Unfortunately, the mall didn't run the ad so Area/Code faked a video of the ad and posted it on the forums.
  • Drop7 does not share any code or assets from Chain Factor, only the game mechanics. Game design cannot be copyrighted.
  • CBS wanted to find a company to help them do non-traditional advertisement. Area/Code couldn't guarantee that they'll bring more viewers to Numb3rs, but they did guarantee that they'll do something quirky and interesting that would engage a lot of people.
  • ilovebees was a good inspiration for Chain Factor because of the phone booth mechanics.
  • Chain Factor did not integrate any live events because they wanted accessibility for everyone. They also already do so many live events in the other games that they were aiming to do something different.

Friday, November 2, 2012

NYU 9th Floor Talks: Designing a Good Game Tutorial

Gonzalo Frasca, former director of Powerful Robot studio, gave a talk about designing a good game tutorial.

  • Gonzalo also ran, which he no longer maintains.
  • Gonzalo comes from Uruguay, one of the few countries that fully implemented the One Laptop Per Child program. Every child has a free laptop and over 75% of the country has free wifi since it's a small country. Many kids make Youtube videos, mostly about cows.
  • The last game by Powerful Robot is Space Holiday, which is a connect-the-dots game for the iOS.
  • Steven Spielberg's ex-wife, Amy Irving, had a child with Steven and later married a Brazilian filmmaker named Bruno Barreto. Bruno showed a film he was working on to Steven's son, Max. Ten minutes into the film, Max tells Bruno that the film won't work because if you can't tell who's good or bad in the first ten minutes, then the film fails. This was film knowledge that Steven had passed onto his son.
  • Likewise, all game developers' efforts are worthless without a good tutorial.
  • The only good video about tutorials that Gonzalo found was an episode of Extra Credits titled Tutorial 101 (
  • The #1 rule of tutorials is that coders hate tutorials. They hate having to hardcode a first-user experience.
  • Tutorials are not just about teaching rules; they create meaning for the game. The three main aspects to creating meaning in a game are rules, signs, and performance.
    • Rules - Grand Theft Auto's Tony should kill prostitutes. SOCOM's soldiers must kill Arabs. These rules effect player's perspectives of their goals and of the game's story.
    • Signs - The Allied's Plan and Spain's Reconquest are both labyrinth games made in 1939. They are the exact same game, but themed to have completely different meanings. The graphics, art, and skinning of a game can create different meanings.
    • Performance - Dance Dance Revolution can be played with a dance pad or a customized controller for your fingers. The different controls tests player's abilities. Different hardware affects how we play the games and create different relationships between the game and its players.
  • Tutorials teach goals and rules, but also tell you about characters, the world, and the story. Tutorials should show you the enjoyable actions that the game has to offer.
  • Goombas are evil because of their evil eyebrow. Spinies are bad because they have spikes on their shells. Simple art can immediately show you whether something is good or bad.
  • "Don't show, don't tell, SIMULATE." Players learn best by doing and making mistakes.
  • CW's Arrow web game has a chunk of text to read in the tutorial. With such a text-heavy tutorial, almost every player would just close the popup and skip over it.
  • In Space Holiday, the asteroids (colloquially called "space people" or "space crap") were originally just asteroids. Unfortunately, it took a while before playtesters figured out they were bad. So the development team added angry faces to the asteroids and happy faces to the stars, and everyone immediately understood the roles of the objects.
  • There were also stars dressed as ninja (ninja stars) that can throw shuriken to destroy asteroids.
  • Teach mechanics by designing a level where the only choice is to perform that mechanic. Players would see what happens by performing the only available option.
  • There is a common idea among game developers that tutorials should be invisible and that players shouldn't even know that they are playing a tutorial. But this is sometimes not enough. There's nothing wrong about doing something supposedly less elegant. It's okay to SHOW.
  • Showing is done in many complex television series when they do "Previously on..."
  • In the tutorial for Angry Birds, the game just shows an image of how to play. The character design and backgrounds also add information.
  • Good toys are good at explaining how they work without a manual.
  • This Russian Roulette toy shows you how to play just by looking at the box. It's plastic and pink, which shows that it's safe. It has multiple bullets, only one of which has a hidden spring so that it can actually shoot out. The box shows you how to load the gun and how to use it.
  • It's also okay to TELL, but remember that "12 word headlines get almost as much readership as 3-word headlines." You don't have to be wordy to convey a message. Keep the messaging short, succinct, and to-the-point.
  • Cut the Rope has some small text in the tutorial, telling the player to cut the rope. Even though that message is shown with images and is in the title of the game itself, it doesn't hurt to drive in that point.
  • Some concepts need text explanations such as pressing the reset button to restart the level.
  • Space Holiday has a few text tutorials indicating "You can't cross the paths" and "You must use all the stars!"
  • Rovio has two rules -- there's no text in their games and that they'll sell anything with eyes.
  • Gonzalo's personal playtesting has revealed that people don't read text on iPhone, but they do on an iPad.
  • You can see fear from playtesters on an touchscreen game. The iPhone screen can be easily broken or scratch, and many playtesters understand that.
  • Tutorial is not just in the game, but also on the box and in the marketing. Design of the screenshots in the App Store is as essential as the design of the app icon. Both Cut the Rope and Star Holiday have a mini-tutorial in the App Store screenshots.
  • Tutorials teach more than just rules, characters, and the world. It's an elevator pitch to your players. It's especially important in this day and age of free-to-play games and a crowded market.
  • The often gaming trope "Game Over, Try Again" is the key. Games are about making mistakes and growing.
Question and Answer
  • The tutorial is like professing yourself on a first date. "I know I'm awesome, why aren't you getting this?"
  • A general rule that Gonzalo follows - after building a game, cut the difficulty in half. It's easy to start losing sight after working on it for a while and unconsciously add in more complexity. So even though the game is already extremely easy for you to play, since you've been working on it everyday, the difficulty is too much for a new player.
  • Don't get your friends to be playtesters because they are worried about disappointing you. Instead, get strangers or at least, other people's friends.
  • People are usually right about what is right about your game, but are always wrong about what is exactly wrong with your game.
  • Some genres are definitely harder to create tutorials for.
  • Portal is a tutorial as much as a game.
  • Immersion doesn't exist without breaking immersion.
  • The best tutorials are about breaking the rules of your game. Unfortunately for the programmer, there is no design paradigm that exists for tutorials.
  • Educational tutorials and simulations work best when people's lives or money are at risk. Tutorials tend to be less effective in a safe school environment or in a game meant for entertainment.