“COVER ME!”: Convenient covers for things you don’t know how to do

This is a second little anecdote about game design I absorbed during undergrad, while studying video games, which I think have some crossover consideration with board game design. See the entry Bonus! for the first.

My takeaway from “Bonus!” was that even if you can’t make something work, or there’s a technical hurdle between you and your exact design objective, sometimes a little wallpapering over it with theme or dopamine can make for an even better experience for players.

The story related below is third hand, and so may be apocryphal. If anyone involved in the design choices described ever reads this, please reach out so I can correct my memory and set the record straight here 🙂

When the Quake series of games came out, they were a technical marvel. When the code was open-sourced years later, things were discovered in it that were still considered remarkable at that time. However, for all it brought, “bots” were still an incredibly hard feat to accomplish in first person shooters – there wasn’t a whole lot of “I” in the AI.

The Quake designers wanted to make it appear as if the computer-controlled AI bots were actually communicating with each other in coordinated attacks on player. Which, at this point in game development, was pretty impossible. At least by any standard we’d expect today. True, they were built into the game, thus they had an edge on the player, and could actually read perfect information about each other directly from the game engine. Their algorithms also had access to other shared information about game state, stored in system variables or registers.

But play-testing concluded that having multiple bots attacking the player at once wasn’t particularly fun, because it was just too savage — they’d just come after you en masse and not let up until you were dead. So the developers set a global mutex  (short for mutual exclusion lock; i.e., only one resource can use it at a time. Imagine an elementary school hall pass) on the bots: CurrentlyAttackingPlayer. Any time a bot had it, they would come at the player, assault rifle blazing. If another bot attempted to acquire the lock, but could not (because someone else had it) — it would run around the map at random. The player might encounter them accidentally, but the bot wouldn’t seek to do the player to do damage. So even if there were six or seven bots in a level, only one would be on the offensive at a time. Moreover, a bot which had the lock, had some criteria for when it would give up the lock (allowing another bot to take it, and come after the player). The bot giving up the lock would then flee to run randomly on the map.

As you might imagine, this could have come off with a bit of an artificial feel — why are all these guys just screwing around in the hallways when they could just take me out? Then suddenly the one I’m fighting leaves, and another one always shows up out of nowhere?

The solution the id developers came up with wasn’t to make the bots even smarter, or come up with some other mechanism to make them “go easy on” the player — but a completely superficial change.

Since each bot could have a set of criteria for releasing the mutex, it’s not hard to imagine baking in “below 30% health” being a good reason to give up the mutex (and leave the player alone!). The clever bit… as a bot gave up the mutex, it would cause a clip of audio to play: a voice actor shouting “COVER ME!”, and as the bot gave up the CurrentlyAttackingPlayer mutex, another would acquire it, and come after the player. The animation of the bot leaving included turning it’s weapon skyward, it appeared to flee… creating the illusion of a coordinated strategy, and of a far higher level of sophistication among the AI units than anyone could have built at the time.

Admittedly, this is a little less applicable to board games than the “Bonus!” anecdote, but that one reminds me of this one and vise versa. Obviously AI is a lot less common in board games, there’s more and more overlap these days (many designers seem to be experimenting with it), whether like XCOM and an actual app, or decks of cards defining non-player heuristics. The common thread is that it needs to work for the player, rather than be perfectly accurate.

Socializing with a purpose

A few weeks ago, Andrea and I were sitting at a brewery discussing the ‘why’ of various things — when she asked:

“Well, how often do you stop to think about why you like the things you like?” and she threw out board games as an example. Luckily for the conversational repartee, this is a topic I have spent at least a modest amount of time thinking about.

To me, board games provide a framework for socializing, in a way that we don’t often get in our modern lives. Sure, it’s easy to have friends over for dinner, discuss the meal, catch up on each other’s jobs, or any of the usual idle chatter, but at the end of the day, I think we all feel, at least subconsciously, a little bit hollow in it, as the Eleanor Roosevelt quote goes: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” And, I’m going to posit, orthogonal to this to create a space to analyze, is the idea that creativity is born of constraints. These types of gatherings don’t provide constraints, which can lead to a lack of creativity in the interactions. Continue reading

“BONUS!”: Clever game deceptions

I’m going to talk a little about video game design today, but think there’s a lesson in it for board game design as well.

3D animation frame.

A poorly-textured Josh plays cards… in an animation project for a different class. [1]

An anecdote that I think about at least once a month:

It’s my senior year at UMich, and I’m one of the apex classes of the computer science program “EECS 494: Computer Game Design & Development”. This was the class I’d been champing at the bit to get into all four years, because this is what I was hoping to do professionally after I graduated. I’d convinced a few of my nerd housemates to take the class with me.

One of our assignments was to develop an “arcade-style” game — simple user interactions, on the level of complexity of 80’s classics like Missile Command, Space Invaders, etc., to get a handle on concepts like ‘event loops’, ‘collision bounds checking’ and all that good stuff. I embarked on a JezzBall clone, and my roommate Josh set about building in the Bust-a-Move/Snood style.

Josh had built some data structure atop an C++ STL container, which he was using to keep track of all the “balloons” in the playfield. It implemented a clever formula for determining when three or more balloons were adjacent and should “pop” to score points for the player. There was just one problem. The code would occasionally glitch, and the data structure would “forget” about some of the balloons on the field. He’d narrowed down the bug such that his code could consistently determine that it had happened, after the fact, and it didn’t seem to cause a crash, or break anything else. Continue reading

It’s been quiet…

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: "Yeah, a little too quiet."…And writing this, I feel a little like one of those podcast hosts who opens every other episode with “I promise, we’re working on a ton of great new episodes, but meanwhile here’s one from our archives…”

But I do have a ton of great posts coming your way — a few upcoming posts include “Board Games: Socializing with Purpose”, “The Utility Value of Board Games”, and a couple of tricks from the video game universe about utilizing sleight of hand to (successfully) patch over design challenges. Plus a personal update via multi-post epic about Andrea and my visit to Sweden in December (what? 3 months is a totally reasonable amount of time to write a travelog, right…? 😧).

Things are more generally picking up at Flightless, along a couple of fronts, including some Valour news, another round of testing for Terraformist, and a non-gaming SaaS product about to hit the market; I’ve become the classic case of the engineer who gets too busy building stuff to talk about it!

But here’s a public commitment from me to you — the blog train leaves the station next week on schedule.

2016 Retrospective

Twenty Sixteen, everyone’s favorite year to hate in modern memory. I’m not really going to address any of the globally bad shit that went down here, I’m just going to talk about myself. That’s healthy, right?

2016 was a pretty big year of change for me — so a lot of the targets that I set last January… were no longer on the firing range, so I had to roll with the punches a bit. My position at Rapt Media was eliminated, so all the objectives I had for my organization there were summarily discarded in early May 🙂 From there, I shifted into consulting work; I’m incredibly grateful for my professional network here Boulder — as soon as word got out that I’d been laid off, contract work materialized within days. I entertained a few full time opportunities, interviewed with some great teams I would have been incredibly fortunate to join, but after reflection, I realized that I could take the opportunity to go full time with FlightlessCo.

Given that, I found re-opening the yearly OKRs a little bit demoralizing, but I did get to look at what I did accomplish.

I had a bit of a severance period from the layoff, during which, I sat down and wrote a first-draft manuscript of book that I’d been rolling around in my head for a while; a “Tech for Non-techs” type thing meant to grease the skids of communication between departments in business organizations. Editing is a grinding, horrible process, so a second draft is ongoing.

Addressing a few “Objectives” from the original 2016 post:

Objective: Personal Brand

  • I replaced a few items around my personal brand, before deciding that I’d fixed some of the weakest links and that money could be spent better elsewhere.
  • Smiling is hard to measure, but in February, I attended a personal growth training called the “Landmark Forum”, which takes a view of separating the way things have been before and the way you can approach things now. Coming out of that, I feel like I smile more.
  • Totally failed to learn German. It seemed so fun in the afterglow of the trip, but I dropped the ball here. Even in the run-up to this year’s trip to Stockholm, I pretty much brushed up on zero Swedish.
  • The money target changed, with the end of a monthly salaried position to self-employment. Now I just take disbursements that match my monthly spending target.

Rapt Objectives… no longer in the picture.

Objective: Launch games with Flightless

  • Short Story RPG: The Wackiest Race came out this year! Sales have been slow, and feedback on the final product has been instrumental in continuing the brand. Growth here is a slow burn, but it’s a project I believe in, so more are coming out soon, and I expect a cumulative snowballing effect as there are more adventures in the ecosystem.
  • Valour has been in front of a number of publishers now — some are still actively reviewing, some have said “No”, and some are waiting to review until the first group are done. Through taking an active stance on this in ’16, I’ve made contacts at over a dozen publishers, who will be great connections moving forward with this and other designs. I’ve also begun a collaboration with a game designer friend on a project I’m quite excited about as well.
  • Playtesting continues for Terraformist; I’ve previously only referred to this as Project T, and it is … this close to launching; our third round of player testing is currently underway, and signaling among these early players is quite strong that the game will be popular when launched. Email me if you’re interested in checking it out before launch.

Objective: Beach Bod 2016

Made some sick progress on this early on, but in the career shuffle, and then the time commitments involved getting a business of the ground, the goalpost moved from “become Adonis lookalike” to “make sure I don’t get fat again”. So far mostly successful.

Objective: Mobility on Demand

Mobility on Demand took a bit of a backseat, as the business came together, but now there’s chance for it to possibly crank.

I also put down a few contingent objectives, “just in case” I accomplished any of the main objectives. I hit some of these by accident, or something. I guess they were somewhere in the back of my mind. Here they are, since I’ve never published them anywhere else:

Objective : Write novel

I completed NaNoWriMo this year, writing a light sci-fi (somewhere between Dune and ‘steampunk’, I suppose). I spent a few times during 750 words throughout the year jotting down plot outlines and character backstories, plus notes on the science research I was doing. Then in November, I cranked it out.

Objective: Travel more.

The change from full-time to self employed/freelance certainly facilitated a time freedom to do this. Here’s a list of places I visited during 2016 (without counting the last holiday Europe trip, since the 2016 part of that was mostly just scrambling to return NYE costumes and sitting on planes):

Andrea and I are slowly practicing and improving our discipline at the Workcation, a term we didn’t make up, but we do plan on perfecting in 2017. I’ll be writing more about that for sure.

Objective: Turn woodar.dj into a force

This blog had its own ups and downs — I hired a project manager partway through 2016 in the move to full-time Flightless, and after a month or so, she suggested that I get shit done instead of stressing about not getting posts up. It was good advice, though I definitely don’t want things to go too cold, because when the momentum is up, there are great discussions in the comments, and there’s always a positive reaction to posts on reddit and elsewhere.

NaNoWriMo 2016 “Winner”!

NaNoWriMo graph to 70k words.

In another version of this post, I used mortal_kombat_flawless_victory.gif here.

I successfully “wrote” a “novel” in the month of November — at least per the rules of NaNoWriMo (the National Novel Writing Month): Written word-count of 50k in thirty days, which averages to at least 1,667 words per day. Since I was a little nervous about being able to consistently put out that quantity amount beyond my standard 750 target; I set myself a mental target to clear 2000 words a day, at least for the first days or week, to ensure I had a little buffer. Seemed reasonable enough given late-month distractions such as Thanksgiving break and all that, plus what if I just… ran out of shit to write about?

I ought to have known myself better — that “private stretch goal” became the goal in my mind, and I felt bound to clear that 2k mark every day. I ended up managing to succeed at that as well, finally landing just over 70k for the month. The whole premise of this novel (more details to come a little later on, maybe once I’ve had a chance to read the thing myself…) was based on a few scenes intended as a short story I started a while ago, and there’s a gap I left open in the novel where most of that original story can slip right into the exposition. The short story was drafted as part of a back-burner project I call Thirty Vignettes, though as of this writing, I haven’t yet published this short story draft over there. Continue reading

Player Experience 8: “Feelings”

This is the final installment of our survey of board game “Player Experience” or “PX”. Definitely pop back and give the previous chapters a read, we’ll be tying them all together here!

Feelings is a pretty tough subject (as it turns out), and I found myself quite a bit out of my depth. So I’ve roped in my friend Dr. Elliott Hedman to help us cross the finish line. Elliott is the founder and Chief Experience Designer for mPath, where he helps organizations understand and optimize their emotional experiences. Enjoy!

Games can illicit a full range of feelings in players — joy, challenge, competition, sadness, defeat, and on and on, just as with other entertainment media: movies, television shows, video games, immersive theater …a new thing I’m totally psyched on right now; More on that topic in another post.

Previously in the PX series, I’ve suggested that immersion creates a feeling of being in the situation presented by the board, rules, and situation. Given that our emotional state can color any situation we find ourselves in (think how a person can say the same exact thing to you on separate occasions — if they catch you in a good mood, you may take it in a positive light, but in a bad mood, you might take those same words as antagonistic), let’s take the abstraction of feelings and immersion one level higher, and look at how a board game experience can influence emotions, and then in turn, those emotions can influence that experience, creating a feedback cycle.

Jack Sparrow

Jack Sparrow just invaded Yggdrasil during a game of Bloodrage.

Elliott describes emotions as preparation for action, or anticipation. This drives players as they live out the moments of the game; do they want to take a crazy risk just for the chance of a big payoff on an unlikely die roll, like an adrenaline junkie; do they want to ‘take on the world’ of the other players either by taking the solo role during Fury of Dracula or Scotland Yard, or simply by antagonizing every player until you’ve got a big target on your back; do they put on an air of braggadocio and shit-talking, only to anxiously stop as they are within striking distance of victory, and fear their poker face won’t hide it? Consider the following situational anecdotes from a few games through that lens: Continue reading

PX 7: Theme v. Mechanics

This is the seventh entry in a multi-part essay covering board game “Player Experience” or “PX”. The earlier installments set up some an awesome baseline we build on below, so head back and check them out!

49861595I’ve written before about how I like to approach designing — and I know that there’s a spread of opinion on the matter, some of which doesn’t agree with me. I also think it may be one of those topics that I ascribe way more contention to than actually exists in the game design-o-sphere :). But, nonetheless, the forces of theme and mechanics — most effective when optimally balanced — factor heavily into the Player Experience. Consider a game with ‘fiddly’ or complex mechanics, which intend to simulate a simple interaction, or to generate a simple outcome? (I can’t even come up with an example, because this would be a terrible game…) This would take away from the experience, and remove the player from the immersion. Contrast with a game like Onitama, which abstracts a complex martial arts showdown between two schools of kung fu masters in an arena-style duel. The theme is incredibly understated (which, cleverly, is further on-theme by reflecting an asian minimalism); the mechanics are also about as simple as can be, with an average teaching time of two minutes. This balance leads to players experiencing not only a sense of lightness as they control their pawns as “in-game”, the pieces are making moves they’ve rigorously trained, representing balance, concentration, and a similar ‘quickness’. There’s also a sense of zen, where choosing moves to make are like a koan: after making moves, they’re available to your opponent, and no longer available to you, until your opponent chooses to make it in reply. Here, the mechanics and the theme slot together perfectly, making the player experience incredibly tight, and ‘fight-like’: It’s short, the exertion is high (here in a mental sense rather than a physical on), and the flow between players is quick and fluid. Continue reading

PX 6: Player Experience Beyond the Time Box

This is the sixth entry in a multi-part essay covering board game “Player Experience” or “PX”. We’ll reference a few earlier installments below, so maybe peek back at them before coming back here!

During early research of this topic (the Player Experience / PX) I discovered an earlier research paper by a group out of northern Europe. Their paper was focused on video games, and in general mobile, but included a great deal of interesting inquiry.

One of the concepts which struck me first, was how their concept of the “Experience” of a game extended well beyond the literal time boundaries of the session. A player begins experiencing your game from the moment it’s brought to their attention, and will continue well on into the future after the game is put away.

A different kind of time box. (Photo Credit: Flickr user rooners)

Everyone’s favorite time box. (Photo Credit: Flickr user rooners)

In Agile development and workflow, there’s a precept while running meetings to “respect the time box” — if  meeting is scheduled from 2–3, end at 3. Don’t let it drag it out. (There are likely volumes to be written about board game “play time” estimates, but this article is not that.) Here, we’ll focus on developing the context of experience reaching beyond the time before the moment the first die is rolled, and beyond when the components are packed away in the box and returned to the shelf. “Outside the time box.”

Clearly the core of the player experience is the time while the game is on the table, but let’s run through some examples of experience outside this ‘time box’:

  • How does someone hear about your game? Through a website like BoardGameGeek, an excited friend, a board game group? The way a thing is introduced to us becomes a powerful part of our memory of it, our willingness to try it, and how we view it when we do.
  • When I’m planning a session of Battlestar, while everyone coordinates their schedules, I’m reliving stories (both in my mind and in the email thread) from all previous tablings of that game — because for me, the shit talk and the paranoia begins the minute the invite goes out. In fact, I’ll sign off “—not a Cylon, Jonathan”.
  • All the buzz surrounding a regular poker night. The experience of that game includes the morning-of when your buddy texts you: “Can u believe Nate took all our money last week? I’m totally getting him back this time”. And the one the day after: “Shit, why did I fold on my pocket fours[1], I should have known that jerk was bluffing!”

Continue reading

PX 5: Determinism, Information, and Hedging Against the Future

This is the fifth topic in a multi-part essay covering board game “Player Experience” or “PX”. This entry references several key concepts from earlier installments, so you’ll either want to start at the beginning, or else drop back as they’re linked!

Spilled scrabble tray

Scrabble tray accidentally becomes “perfect information”. Photo Credit: Flickr user whiskeytango (CC-BY)

Beyond all the things we’ve discussed so far, players will all be bringing a certain set of gaming preferences with them to the table when they play your game. These may have basis in their personality types, experience levels, or brain chemistry, but these preferences also grow through the types of games they play and the life experiences that they’ve had.

Some players enjoy having perfect information about the game state, while others may have either a tolerance, or even a preference, for hidden information — finding fun in the need to deduce unknown aspects of the game state, or the hidden situations of the other players (think: ‘Cat & Mouse’ mechanics, such as Scotland Yard, Fury of Dracula, or Clue: The Great Museum Caper). Information may become un-hidden in a variety of different ways and rates, making a continuous gradation from “fully hidden” to “fully public”. (e.g.: secret drafting, simultaneous reveal like Robo Rally, or Revolution! in contrast to the trickle of revelation in the cat & mouse games listed above). Continue reading