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The Prototyper’s Dilemma

I’ve been rather quiet of late, mostly because I’ve had quite a bit of design stuff going on. Not only is the LoLCG project now worthy of the title- a project of more than one- but the prototypes for Wild Abyss arrived and getting both sleeved, sorted and played has been taking up pretty much all of my time.

There are other things in the works, too, but I’ll leave those for later. I have the next part of the ERI framework series about half done as well as a bit of writing on bioshock: infinite, but I think the latter has been done to death so it probably won’t see the light of day.

In the meantime, I’d like to talk about a particular issue I run into as a developer, that might be interesting for other people interested in taking their design a bit more seriously. It has to do with that most terrifying of processes, playtesting. I’m also going to use the opportunity to show off some of the goodies I’ve been working on that have been keeping me quiet.

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In any game design, it’s important that you go beyond the people you are familiar with for testing purposes. Whether that’s your inhouse studio folks for an indie developer or a regular gaming group, these people will be familiar with you, your style and idiosyncrasies. They’re good for providing people against whom the most basic of tests can be performed, but beyond that any data you get from testing with them is likely to be inaccurate compared to how the game may perform in the market.

So you need to go about finding independent playtesters. If, like me, creating a commercial NDA and paid testing environment is impossible, that means finding volunteers from outside your normal circles.

This is where the prototyper’s dilemma strikes. In a perfect world, you could post your paper-slip prototypes and nascent ideas on the internet and get a bunch of enthusiastic, capable playtesters interested in a moment. In reality things are a little more difficult. Back when I was 14, I spent around 3 years prototyping and developing a warhammer army book. I wanted to make sure this thing was balanced and interesting, so I tried to organise playtesting. That experience taught me more about game development than all my university education put together. If you want to get tests done, you need to present your testers with a product that isn’t entirely dissimilar to the quality of commercial product they are used to… or at least one that looks like it. You need to get them to buy into what you’re doing through giving them a clear indication of just how serious you’re taking this. Hand scrawled notes on notepad paper do not do this.

One of the reasons the LoLCG looks so spectacular is because of those lessons I learned. You cannot get good, unbiased testing happening without that level of production pre-invested in your designs. Enthusiasm will fizzle, tests will be delayed, people will drift away and you will lose momentum or end up getting frustrated and making decisions based on insufficient data. To keep people attached to the project, you have to give them something that, even if it doesn’t play that well, looks and feels like it should.

The dilemma, however, is that a playtester coming in from the cold, especially one with little experience of the development process, will look at yourdesigns and assume that’s the best you can do, that your first prototypes are the equivalent of a videogame public beta, when in reality the guts of the game are about as polished as a rotten stick in a peatbog. This in itself creates expectations and dissappointments- I’ve found people tend to overlook the visual design of the LoLCG cards in order to focus on the text because they feel the text is more important.

While in the long run, that is true, the text of cards and the precise wordings are the last thing that needs polishing during the card design process. First the parameters under which those wordings must be constructed must be established- how much space do we have, what symbols are available, how many can we use before the cognitive burden becomes to high. There needs to be text there for the testing to actually be valid, but the balance of these texts is by nature rough and ready until it can be established what the restrictions under which a polished version must be constructed are.

Unfortunately, the sort of people likely to volunteer for playtesting are the sort likely to fixate on these sorts of discrepancies and thus you end up distracting your testers from simply playing the game in a relaxed, open state where you can get good information on how the areas you want to isolate are working out. Add on the natural focuses of the various kinds of players, whether you use Bartle’s suits metaphor or Mark Rosewater’s timmy, johnny and spike etc, and life is hard.

So this is the Prototyper’s Dilemma: Without achieving superficial similarity to a finished product, you will not be able to attract and retain testers. The more effort you spend in that regard, however, the more your testers will have unnatural reactions to the parts of the material that most need testing.

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I’ve discovered that it’s not as simple as simply getting your game to the tabletop or screen as soon as possible, nor is it about polishing like a madman before doing any testing. Like many things in game design, there is an elegant balance to be struck between conveying the identity and overall mechanisms of your game effectively and not jarring your testers into over-analyzing things.

I should note that the impact of this is largely dependent on just how hardcore you take your design. For games like LoLCG and Wild Abyss, everything matters- colour choices, fonts, layouts, grammar, amount of cards, visibility, even the size of a playset.

This might not seem important, but it IS. If I want people to be able to realistically play a game, having a set of cards that will fit neatly into a schoolbag or a hoodie pocket or similar is the sort of thing I take into account
very early in the process. Isolating and testing these kind of dynamics is really important to getting the desired experience for a player. Tweaking and perfecting mechanics are the last priority, not the first.

So, how to resolve this? Unfortunately, the point of a dilemma- in fact the very meaning of the word- is that there is no simple solution. Luckily, unlike the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma, this one isn’t exactly binary in its solution space. For Wild Abyss, I’ve taken what I learned from earlier games and attempted to create a prototype which strikes that balance. The visual designs are colorful at a distance but minimalistic and simply executed.

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The result is a game that looks impressive but only took me around 30 hours to prototype from start to finish- less than a week’s work in the evenings. This whole game went from initial concept to first prototype in 16 days

While polished, this is clearly a first prototype- not least because it’s written all over the thing. The ship designs are just too far on the clumsy side to be finalized, the resource card designs are clean and generic etc. I’ve had a good reaction from my playtesters for this game- they’re happy to just play it, and aren’t overly inclined to focus on technicalities. The result is after only a few games I’m getting a lot of good information on where I need to make changes, and after the twenty or thirty more I want to get done with this first prototype set I should be able to make some really significant choices that will benefit the game based on solid, unbiased information.

 

LoLCG begins

So, I finally got enough proofing and polishing done to print my test set for the LolCG. The very first cards, hot off the presses.

After about six hours of sitting at a table that looked like this:

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The LoLCG finally went on her maiden voyage!

Courtesy of Master Summoners Pachi and Mike

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This is one of the most joyous culminations in the cycle of design and development, seeing your baby hit the table or the screen in a serious game for the first time. Pachi tried a strong jungle deck, but forgot to draft any good jungling champs, while Mike played my more conservative summoner spell heavy engagement deck.  At the end, Mike came out on top, but it was a close run thing. The game MVP was Warwick, healing himself through Singed’s poison clouds to build a solid lead and a strong point from which Mike could leverage his offensive.

All in all it was a promising start. Note that we’re still recruiting stage 1 testers for another few days, so if you want to get your hands on these early and are willing and able to do glados proud, sign on up!

 

 
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LoLCG is ready for testing!

 

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If you’re interested and you find this post, please share it through twitter/FB/tumblr/forums, however you like. The more interest we get, the better the game will be! Autosharing links are available if you click on the post title.

 

 

 

Introducing Wild Abyss

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I’ve had to pause the development of LoLCG for a little while so I can work out any remaining niggles with Riot (don’t worry, things are going fine there), so I’ve had a few weeks between when I hit what I felt was the most I could do safely on that project and now. In the intervening time, I’ve had a shot a whole new game, this time entirely of my own design and style. I’m using a lot of what I learned doing the LoLCG project both in terms of gameplay mechanics and technical development skills.

The result is looking pretty swell for a first prototype. Not as swell as the LoLCG, but I’m drawing all my own art here (well, the non background stuff anyway)

Wild Abyss

I’ve loved and adored civilization and epic strategy type games, ‘4x’ especially, since I played civ 1 when I was very young. Risk was the only real boardgame of that kind of scope back then, and while fun it wasn’t that great. Since then there’s been a determined attempt to bring 4x to the tabletop, from the sprawling Twilight Imperium to the sleek 7 wonders. Unfortunately, the pendulum swings one way or the other too much. From intense complexity, endless rules and hundreds of pieces, to elegant simplicity that loses much of the depth an narrative that the 4x is so good at conveying.

Wild Abyss is a space-based 4x game with an emphasis on resource allocation and combat rather than territory control, negotiations and maneuver. It’s almost entirely card based, with no star map or persistent board, meaning it doesn’t need a lot of space. Turns are largely simultaneous, so games with loads of players don’t take much longer than ones with only a few. It has a combat system that’s not much more complex than games like eclipse or TI, but offers a lot more in terms of both tactical and cinematic depth.

I’m looking forward to talking about it more in the coming weeks. I’ve kept a kind of stream of consciousness diary of the process which I’ll put up once I can edit into something that makes vague sense.

 

On toxicity

The word ‘toxic’ appears to have gone viral, at least in the competitive games community. It’s unsurprising, really, as it provides a lovely, pithy way of describing a certain kind of player or even person, to their backs at any rate.

As far as I can tell, Riot coined the term for PR purposes, as a way of defining the typical player who is not… socially considerate when talking to their community. In that role, it’s a fantastic tool, highly expressive and intuitive as to what it means. Of course, so are the words ‘fun’ and ‘game’ and don’t we all know the trouble that’s got us into, eh?

As much as I love Riot, this is one thing I can find serious issue with in their MO. It appears the company has collectively drunk the koolaid of believing that this PR jargon they made up is an actual thing, not just a neat way of describing a stupidly complex phenomenon. What’s made worse is that every definition of toxicity I’ve seen from them is different but for one fact: they all have a negative impact on consumer retention. We can fluff that up and call it damaging game experience and so on, but when it boils down to it, this is not about game design any more. It’s about audience selection and making wads of cash money. This isn’t inherently evil, of course, but it’s certainly not unambiguously good either.

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So let’s get this straight. There is no such thing as a ‘toxic player’, at least not in the sense of actual flesh and blood players. It’s alright to use the term in pure hypotheticals and label a certain kind of action group toxic and consequently a hypothetical player who embodies that group a toxic player, but that’s not how the real world works, folks.

The worst outcome of this misuse is that people, actual people, are diagnosing themselves as toxic in fits of hypochondriac glee. Unsurprising given the peculiarly western tendency to syndromise any kind of problem, but distressing none the less. Personally, I am terrified of this development. There is no kind of psychological treatment in which repressing and punishing antisocial urges has anything but a styming effect on personal development and enjoyment for the individual being targeted.

Now I hear toxic being bandied around on unrelated podcasts, in design articles, interviews with devs, even potential research briefs. It’s a catchy, catchall meme. It’s also a delicious label to stick to someone you don’t like, a perfect tool to brand ‘the other’. It’s one of those inconspicuous little words that can worm its way into the consciousness of a populace and create divisions, excuses for unethical behavior and justifications for the unjustifiable. The sort of word that is one of many engraved in each paving stone on the road to hell.

Toxic, put simply, is toxic.

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I stress that I’m certainly not saying that there’s no such thing as a player whose play is detrimental to the fun of other players, nor that a developer shouldn’t talk about this or even design things to prevent or mitigate that. Riot, for the most part, is doing the right thing- implementing systems in their game which gently encourage players to play in a way that is tolerable to other players. The problem is mostly in the discussion and the misappropriation of the term.

The most dangerous result of this is the idea that a certain kind of play is inherently ‘wrong’. This is… it’s just plain disturbing. Play, at its core, is a process of experimentation and discovery. Play exists to push boundaries and explore what is normally not acceptable in ‘real life’. It also serves to train and develop, to instill contentment or joy and create wonder. Fundamentally, though, human beings, in fact all animals which play, play in order to do what would otherwise not be possible. To enforce a moral rhetoric upon this is almost always damaging to the player, because that concept is antithetical to the core purpose of play.

I’m not talking about something that’s nice and fluffy here. As much as the activity of play can be about exploring love and trust it is also about exploring betrayal and anger. It’s a careful balancing act, but one that is fundamentally necessary for human mental health and self development. In the end all those people calling you a noob faggot have a largely positive outcome on you as a human being, hard to believe as that may be at the time. What it doesn’t help is the developer’s profits, because you’ll probably drop the first few games where you’re exposed to that sort of antagonistic play. When these two collide we arrive at the problematic concept of toxicity. The utopian idea that all players can live in harmony and sing around the campfire at night. Like all utopian concepts it is enticing, dangerous and utterly wrong.

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If I hold this to be true, I also have to hold that it is reasonable to create exclusive communities of play, where entry requires certain rules to be accepted and adhered to by all players, that is after all the essence of a game. The important distinction between a ‘toxic’ player and one who infiltrates such a community and then breaks the rules is that the latter is simply a rulebreaker, and can be expelled as such. A toxic player, on the other hand, implies someone whose play, while acceptable within the rules, is filthy and unclean. There is a double standard there- you’re welcome to come and play however you like, but good players only play like this. If you don’t, you’re a bad player and everyone is allowed to judge you.

That’s a far cry from a simple, professional: These are the rules, to maintain the game as it is intended to be played, the rules must be adhered to. If you don’t, you’ll be removed from the game. No hard feelings, that’s just how it has to work. If it’s in the rules, the players are free to exploit it however they so choose. The responsible party for toxic outcomes is not the player, it is the designer.

So I simply ask that we should be careful with the word. It’s not entirely without merit, but it’s powerful and dangerous. It shouldn’t be thrown around to label everyone and their kid brother. Nor should it be used in formal discussion unless clearly and meticulously defined and justified.

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As a kind of postscript, I will say that Riot seems these days to have shifted their attention from toxic players to toxic environments. Unfortunately, the earlier discussions have created the implicit assumption that the former creates the latter, where Lyte’s recent analysis at the GDC shows that is clearly not the case. I applaud them for bringing that salient little fact to our collective notice. Notice it.

 

When winning isn’t the point: actual objective design.

“It’s not winning that’s the point, it’s taking part. Well, it’s not the taking part, really, it’s the sense of hopeless despair”
-Bill Bailey

Today I want to talk about a complexity in dealing with the objectives of a given game. The issue here arises from a simple linguistic failure that has yet to be clarified in formal game design language. When I talk about a game’s goal or objectives I could be talking about two different things:

  1. The stated condition under which a game is considered to be beaten or won, formally codified in the rules.
  2. The actual goal of the game in more general terms- amusement, entertainment, the conveyance of some important idea or emotion etc.

For games designers studying the structural design and development of games, it’s very easy to be caught into only examining 1) when thinking about how to go about designing a given game or, at the very least, considering only how 1) can help achieve 2). 2) however, is perhaps more important in the process of creating a valuable, or at least marketable, product. So much so, in fact, that if 2) becomes the focus of design then 1) simply becomes another obstacle or resource bandied between player and designer towards this end.

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Perhaps the simplest and most ready example of why this is rather important is a brief case study of the game Twister. Twister’s objective, to be the last man standing (well, contorting), is relatively meaningless in the face of the game’s actual objective: to facilitate a breaking down of social and personal inhibitions, enabling players to build up a sense of intimacy and familiarity with less risk of causing offense.

In this sense the game’s actual objective (to get people all twisted up around each other) is almost the opposite of its stated or systematic objective (to be the only one left, thus not having anyone else up close and personal)

While the game’s designers have never confirmed if this taboo breaking outcome was a considered goal in their design (not surprising given the somewhat more rigid social customs of the 1960s), it falls in line with a sizeable genre of such icebreaker games like truth or dare and spin the bottle, differing from these two only in that it has the systematic objective (a victory condition) where they do not.

Twister calls attention to the fact that the actual goal of the game may be different to- in fact, may be in opposition to- the systematic objective of the game. In a very literal sense, winning is not the point.

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In order to apply this principle as a designer, it’s necessary to take a step back from the challenge of systematic construction and observe the context under which your game may be played. For many games, particularly videogames, the context of play is not a variable considered that deeply. There are, notable exceptions- digitized party games like the Mario Party, BUZZ! And Singstar series. The genre of ‘party games’ are in this way not defined by their systematic content, but by the context under which they are played and their actual objective of being sociable multiplayer experiences.

In a like fashion, one can create new super-genres for many games whose genre definitions rely on systematic content – solitary, social, antagonistic, collaborative, cooperative and so on. These super-genres provide a new reference point for considering the actual objectives of the game. Is a game intended to assist the player in learning certain problem solving techniques? Guide them to a new understanding of an emotive concept? Help in relaxing and untying the mind after a hard day? providing a vessel for social interaction? The more you think about it the more you realise that many games have unstated objectives entirely unrelated to the rhetorics of their systematic content.

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Armed with this knowledge a designer can begin to make a lot more interesting choices themselves, not to mention provide more for their player, not the least of which is the recognition that the stated objectives of the game aren’t actually that important to either designer or player. It’s not the winning that matters, it’s the taking part.

Systems like achievements are one example of taking this perspective into account, but are a rudimentary approach even when used to help players experience the real point of the game rather than getting trapped on the win condition. Far more often, sadly, they’re included uncritically and thus do nothing but emphasis the game’s existing systematic focuses, rewarding the player for winning when no such reward is necessary.

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Let’s take a hypothetical game whose core gameplay activity is exploration and discovery. The stated goal of the game is to get through various areas by combining objects found in the environment to prosper and proceed. The actual goal is to encourage players to come up with interesting and novel solutions to problems and experience the enjoyment that generates, preferably generating a rube-goldberg shaped trail along the way. As a designer, therefore, so long as a player achieves the latter, it doesn’t actually matter if they achieve the former. If proceeding to victory gives your players that sense of achievement and creation, that’s great! But you can make a game where victory gives little benefit and instead emphasis is placed on prolonging the experience: you can deliberately choose to make victory not the point.

For such a game, I might choose to design an exit that was immediately visible at the start of each level and easily accessible, so easily that any experienced videogamer would look twice. Combined with visually attractive side paths for those players who aren’t accustomed to videogame structures and perhaps some very gentle negative feedback for just running straight through, I could create an environment that encouraged players to explore and find all the fun toys I’d seed throughout the area.

I could emphasise cleverness in exploration by, for example, providing tantalising glimpses of spectacular or mysterious sights and hints of vantage points that can only be reached creatively. Build a psychology of soft rewards for effort to ease players out of the mentality that the only valuable actions give tangible rewards- points, items, narrative sequences and so on- and into the attitude that exploration and ingenuity for the sake of the scenery are their own reward. Provide a rival who becomes increasingly smug if the player rushes through but also provides a gentle reason to proceed after a time simply by reminding the player there’s someone to compete with, even if they’re (hopefully) more interested in looking around

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This particular example comes from memories of my childhood, bushwalking through wild Australia. The climb through a scrub forest to a mountain vantage, sliding up and down deep dunes to find an ancient salt lake in the red desert, jumping from great tree-root to tree-root to get tiny, hidden streams. None of these destinations would have been half so wonderful had I not had time to get peeks and build up cramps on the way.

Using this as a basis for design is a perfect example of altering from a systematic perspective to one centered around creating a particular player experience. It’s impossible to systematise the objectives of ‘experience wonder’ or ‘feel a sense of achievement‘, yet these are perhaps truer goals for both designer and player than any ‘score 100 points’ or ‘beat all other players’.

So step back, consider for a moment, what are the actual objectives of your games? Do those games make sacrifices to these for the sake of having a well defined stated objective?

Never get caught up in the rhetoric of your own games- the stated goal is just another lever, just another trick to get the player to experience the world a little bit more like how you want them to. The real goal is more elusive, unstated and infinitely more powerful and rewarding if directly manipulable.

 
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Posted by on May 29, 2013 in Design Analysis

 

Indepth: economies of time

This week I’m going to have a look at time economies, which is to say the way players allocate their time during games. Economies are a pretty basic part of game design, any time you have a limited resource it generates an economy for that resource. Since the advent of the videogame, time has become an important one of those resources, but even in games that are technically not time-constrained, time is often modeled through limiting actions per turn or some other similar mechanical resource. This article will look at both designing a real-time ‘attention budget’ and and interesting example of a simulated time economy, specifically in Android: Netrunner.

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Time is one of the most fundamental resources available for a game designer to manipulate. In videogames you’ll usually find it taken into account either in terms of player attention- providing a greater amount of time spending activities than the player has time to perform in order to force them to make choices about where to focus their attention, or in terms of commitment- going to the store takes 30 seconds, going to the healer takes 30 seconds, and overall time is limited in a very similar manner to a cash-resource system- you only get 30 seconds before the next wave of baddies, so you have to pick one and stick to the decision.

Precisely because it is so fundamental it is easy to overlook as a subject of design and analysis, but examining how time is handled in a game can often be incredibly fruitful in problem solving and generating new ideas.

A particularly valuable exercise, and the one I’ll focus on here, is plotting out how much time you intend players to spend on particular aspects of your game, either overall or focused in on a particular area.

Lets say I’m designing an RPG. How much time do I want my player to spend exploring? Fighting? Reading/watching narrative stuff? Browsing their customization menus?

In a fight, how much time should be spent making actions and controlling characters? How much spent planning and strategising? How much watching the action unfurl?

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If my focus as a designer is on the the narrative immersion of the player, I might want weight the player’s time economy on talking to characters, exploring the environment and engaging with the stuff I spread through the game. If my focus is on a particularly elegant combat mechanic set I’d come up with, I’d want to push a player to invest more of their time exploring that to get as much out of it as possible and so on.

So in this way you can start building up a fairly complex ‘spending plan’ for time, something like this:

early game 

  • 40% exploration/familiarisation with setting
  • 40% experimentation/learning mechanics
  • 15% combat/achievement
  • 5% character customisation

midgame

  • 20% exploration
  • 30% experimentation
  • 40% combat/achievement
  • 10% character customisation

endgame

  • 5% exploration
  • 5% experimentation
  • 70% combat/achievement
  • 20% character customisation

This one is just off the top of my head, but you should be able to get the general gist of it. In the early stages of the game I want to invest the player in the setting, get them comfortable and encourage them to spend time messing around and getting a feel for the mechanics and what does what. Combat and character customization are light and more intended to add flavor and points from which to build learning than challenge

In the main section of the game, I want the player to move their time balance out a bit. Still spend a lot of it figuring out the mechanics, as this is one of the key components of engagement in almost all RPGs, but now they’ve got a model of what’s going on to work with, I want them to spend more time mucking around tweaking their character than digging into the background material.

In the last stages of the game, the world has largely been explored and the plot established. I want the player to have figured out how all the various mechanics of the game interact and so not need to spend time mucking around- they should know how they can approach the challenges the game throws up. So we turn that up to 11 and give them a flood of such challenges to reward the knowledge they’ve built up. As with most RPGs, the last stage will also be accompanied by a fair bit more fine-tuning and tweaking of characters to overcome the challenges thrown up.

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By going through the process of establishing a ‘time economy’ you do a very important thing: you give yourself clear targets and goals in your design. You can look at the way your prototypes are developing and say- ‘man, people are just not getting into this setting enough, I need to give them more things to spend time on there’, or ‘people are just fighting all the time, I have to give them incentives to slow down a bit and look at the scenery’

I should be clear that this time economy is the one you think best expresses what your game has to offer. Individual players will always have preferences and will lean towards one or another kind of time spending, so you want to give them room to do so- nothing sucks more than a game that rails you into spending exactly the amount of time the designer prescribes on something, no more, no less. Your designs upon the player’s time should be guidelines, not hard and fast rules (unless you’re using time itself as an acknowledged resource for the player to spend, of course).

This isn’t just a useful tool for videogame designers though- I recently played Eclipse, one of many 4X boardgame attempts. Though it’s apparently one of the more elegant products of its type, I found it incredibly clunky. I did a kind of time budget in my head as I played and for the small scale, three player game mode we were using (which is apparently the fastest and most intense), the time budget for players seemed to be something like

  • 30% setting up the game and putting it away
  • 20% figuring out what you want to do
  • 5% doing it
  • 35% waiting for your turn with nothing to do

This is even accounting for the fact I was a first time player, having to figure out all the mechanics on the fly and that there were only 3 players of a potential 6. Any designer worth their salt should be able to look at that outline and immediately see that there’s some seriously frustrating games waiting to happen. People might be willing to tolerate it because, admittedly, the actual gameplay is pretty solid. Tolerance, though, is not a pretty word.

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Another note is that I’m using very general stuff for my time economy profiling here. If I was designing half-life, for example, I might budget for things like ‘physics puzzles’, ‘travel’ and ‘recuperation’. Again, by making you put your thoughts down on paper, doing this sort of analysis will help you identify these categories of behaviour and action

One last thing the time economy does is really force you to pin down what you want your game to be about. You only have one hundred %’s to play with. Your player can’t be gazing at your amazing backgrounds 80% of the time and fighting desperately for their life 80% of the time. So planning out a time economy isn’t often a fun task for the designer. Just as much as the player, you want All The Things, but you know as a designer that is rarely a good choice in design. Figuring out your game’s time budget forces you to put, in paper, where you want your player to invest their time and, consequently, where you should invest yours.

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The second part of today’s discussion is perhaps a bit more palatable for the more math and statistic oriented crowd. If you don’t like bouncing numbers off each other, however, this next bit might not be for you.

As part of working on the League LCG, I’ve been studying up on the market. In particular i’ve begun to play Netrunner with friends and watch a lot of content there to get a feel for how FFG are managing their LCG model. It turns out Netrunner is a really good game as well and one that has some really nice mechanic/dynamic outcomes that revolve around time as a resource.

Netrunner is somewhere between Magic and chess. Where in Magic you can do whatever you want in a turn so long as you do it at the right time and you have the resources and in chess you can do one thing once per turn, in Netrunner you have a limited amount of actions per turn, but those actions are pretty versatile. Most important for us here are three- you can spend an action (you have 3 or 4 per turn) to draw a card, earn 1 unit of currency (bit) or play a card.

First up, this instantly tells us that these three actions are of equivalent worth. Drawing a card is worth 1 unit of currency, as is playing a card, and so on around in a circle.

So, for example we have a card called Diesel.

It seems pretty amazing (if you’re a magic player anyway). No cost, draw 3 cards. holy moly. But in Netrunner, playing this card costs an action, which you could use to draw a card anyway. So you’re only really up 2 cards. Not only that, but it doesn’t actually do anything for you but give you more cards, when Netrunner puts a premium on getting a lot out of your cards. So that’s really another card down. All in all, you’re up 1 card over just spending an action to draw.

Then there’s a card called Quality Time that costs 3 bits to draw 5 cards. So the card cost is 1 action to play and 3 actions to earn 3 bits to pay for it. Four actions total. In magic, it would be utterly broken, but the time limitations in Netrunner make it, at least without considering synergy, worse than Diesel.

Netrunner, however, is a subtle beast. In general, a card on its own only gets you ahead of your basic actions very slightly- with increasing power based on how hard it is to play. For example, there’s a card that costs nothing to play and gives you 3 bits, for a net bonus of 2. There’s another card that costs 5 to play, but gives you 9 bits, for a net bonus of 3. Because as a condition of play you need to have 5 bits lying around, it’s a little bit more efficient- but only a little bit. Other cards are even more efficient but have trade-offs.

Pad campaign gives you money every turn, but it costs money to play, so you need to keep it alive for 3 turns to break even (1 to pay for the action spent playing it and 2 for the actual cost) . Once you do, however, it’s a gold mine. Because it gives you 1 bit WITHOUT costing you an action, you’re effectively getting an extra action per turn- going from 3 to 4, an increase of a whopping 25% in efficiency from one card. So if your deck can keep it alive, it’s amazing.

Typically, your opponent has to spend 1 action and pay 4 bits to ‘kill’ it, so it costs them 5 overall to get rid of it. If they do that right away, you end up 2 bits ahead, but some cards let them kill it cheaper or give them free money to do it with, so you start getting this incredibly complex time-economy where players are trying to end up coming out ahead by 1 action worth of a resource- be it a card, a bit or something in play. Over the course of the game, a couple of good action ‘trades’ like this can give you a lead to let you do something that would be impossible if both of you were on even footing and thus win the game.

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Coming back to our original cards, Diesel is a great card if your deck has, for example, a lot of low cost cards, so each card draw action is worth comparatively more than if your deck was full of high-cost cards that put a premium on taking actions which earn money. If you have a lot of synergy that allows you to efficiently generate bits, then quality time becomes a better card than Diesel, since that 3 bit cost may only convert to one action, not three.

In this way, Netrunner creates a complex dynamic of time management in a non-realtime setting. A player feels incredibly constrained by their few actions, so tools which give them more ability to act feel liberating and powerful. Because pretty much every economy card gives you one or two actions worth of resources overall (excepting some which give you more but as a drip feed like pad campaign), how you fuel your economy is entirely dependent on card synergies and the structure of your deck. Time is expressed as a resource extremely successfully and good, efficient Netrunner decks are all about time management- creating efficiencies that give the player the time to execute the strategies necessary for victory.

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So there you have it. Time is something that you can explore as both mechanic and dynamics. As an overall design tool you can plan out how time will be spent playing your game to focus and clarify your design and give you signposts to use during your testing and iteration. You can also use time in a more focused way as a resource in games which aren’t formally time-constrained in order create an aesthetic of intense action without forcing real-time constraints on the player.