“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

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

PX 4: Neuroscience and the Thinky Bits

This is part four in a multi-part essay covering board game “Player Experience” or “PX” The earlier posts aren’t prerequisites for this one, but I recommend checking them out anyway 🙂

This week, we’re going to tackle brain chemistry, neurotransmitter hormones, and some of the deeper psychological aspects of what’s going on during a board game, and how the Player Experience is molded by those things. Full disclaimer, I’m wholly unqualified to discuss this aspect of the PX topic; I’ve done my best to research each of the aspects I’m presenting below, but if your areas of expertise overlap what I’ve got down here, I’d love to connect and revise this a little bit. Please reach out!

BPx7OA lot of popular press these days seems to be covering the hormones that influence our moods, feelings, and reactions — sometimes in fairly simplistic ways: I needed a dopamine hit, so I ate a cupcake. The science, however, appears to be painting an increasingly complex picture (he says, as he’s about to lay out a super-simplified worldview). The “heavy hitters” in your brain that we can cover at a high level here include, with very simplistic explanations:

  • Dopamine — regulates the reward center of the brain. Something good happens, and you get a little hit of it. You feel good.
  • Serotonin — has a major influence over mood regulation. The vibe at the gaming table likely is tightly connected to the players’ Serotonin levels. But that’s actually just a hypothesis; current science doesn’t actually know the exact purpose it serves, only that it’s definitely important.
  • Oxytocin — sometimes jokingly referred to as the ‘cuddle hormone’ (because it appears to be generated in high quantities during cuddling) contributes to the overall feeling of bonding among people. Ironically, it is also turning out to be related to high-stress situations as well, with research finding that extended stressful childhood experiences can lead to anxiety issues later in life.
  • Adrenaline — causing the ‘fight or flight’ feeling — released by danger or during competition.
  • Cortisol — Adrenaline’s arch enemy, released during stressful situations to lower Adrenaline levels, and has big impacts on digestion and other bodily systems.

Continue reading

Player Experience is Other People

This is the third topic in a multi-part essay covering board game “Player Experience” or “PX” You don’t have to read the others first, but it does reference several concepts from before, so I highly recommend it.

“L’expérience, c’est les autres”

— with apologies to Sartre

When designing a game, there is one major factor which is nearly impossible to predict, and accurately accommodate for, all combinations of: The other players around the table. Since most games are competitive, players are attempting to beat one another, overcome the obstacles put into place by each other, etc. Therefore, a huge aspect of Player Experience is necessarily who is sitting across the table from a player[1].

A troll player who disregards the intent of a game, or intentionally goes out of his or her way to grief the other players is going to cause a negative experience for them. Likewise, a player who never wishes to “step on toes” may also impact the game negatively by failing to drive in-game battle economies as expected. Continue reading

PX #2: The Familiarity Spectrum

This is an installment in a multi-part essay covering board game “Player Experience” or “PX” I highly recommend you start at the beginning, but it’s certainly not required 🙂

The experience a Player has with your game is going to vary based on a lot of factors. Imagine someone brand new to your game. Thay have no familiarity with any aspect of it, though perhaps they have seen the box. Maybe they have read the rules, but there’s no way to know. At the other extreme, lies you, the designer. You’re not only familiar with all the aspects, but also the history of each component, and the full evolution of each mechanic and each system. Anyone who sits down to experience your game is going to fall somewhere along this spectrum of familiarity. Continue reading