The book “Game Design. Recipes for the success of the best computer games from Super Mario and Doom to Assassin & # 039; s Creed and more »

image Hello, habrozhiteli! What is GAME DESIGN? This is not code, graphics, or sound. This is not character creation or coloring the playing field. Game design is a dream simulator, a set of rules that make the game come to life.

How to create a game that they love, from which they can’t tear themselves away? The famous game designer Tynan Sylvester on the example of cases from the most popular games tells how to combine emotions and impressions, game mechanics and player motivation. Get acquainted with the design principles that are used by the world’s leading studios!

– Create game mechanics that evoke emotions and provide variety.
– Learn how to combine story and interactivity.
– Use interactions that will make players penetrate each other “in the head”
– Engage with rewards
– Plan, test and analyze game design sequentially, rather than try to decide everything in advance
– Find out how market positioning affects game design

Tynan Sylvester has been in game design for over 15 years. During this time, he managed to work on both indie projects and the studio blockbuster BigShock Infinite, but he is best known for his work on RimWorld.

Degenerate strategies

One of the paradoxes of game design is that adding a tool can actually cause the game to lose interesting decisions, but not get them. This happens if the new tool creates a degenerate strategy.

A DEGENERATE STRATEGY is a strategy that is the best obvious choice in a given decision.

For example, imagine that strategy developers add a new character – Chuck Norris. Chuck, being the perfect person, is obviously the strongest in the game. He can defeat an entire army of soldiers alone.

At first, it might seem that Chuck is a great design move. He is awesome and gives players what they want. But in fact, Chuck destroys the game itself in much the same way as all its enemies.

Adding Chuck Norris to the game reduced its depth, as the player no longer decides who to play with. Regardless of the situation, the answer is always the same: choose Chuck. He is a degenerate strategy.
Chuck Norris is a simplified example. In real design, degenerate strategies are never so obvious. They hide in emergent interactions of various tools and mechanics.

For example, in the fantasy RPG of The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind, you can become incredibly strong by creating elixirs that enhance the character’s intelligence, and then apply the recently improved intelligence to create even more powerful elixirs and so on, exponentially. When the player’s intelligence is several hundred times higher than the conditionally normal value, the player can mix elixirs, which will significantly improve all other characteristics forever.

Thus, within a few minutes after the start of the game, the player can create a character who can jump over the mountains and kill dragons with one hit. This trick is simple and easy to do, anyone who knows it can devalue many carefully thought out tasks of the game. It’s not immediately clear, even when analyzing the design of the game, that this is possible in principle.

Degenerate strategies exist even in sports. For example, take basketball. It is hard to imagine that people use this traditional sport the way they use imbalance in video games. In the late 1990s, a lot of unusual players appeared who attacked superbly, but could not cope with free throws. Shaquille Rashone O’Neill was the most famous example. In response, the opposing teams developed a strategy called Hack-e-Shack, in which they deliberately tried to commit a violation on Shack when his team had the ball. In basketball, if a player physically interferes with another player, the judge (referee) commits a violation (foul), and the player who commits a foul receives a free throw. Opponents believed that Shack would miss a free throw rather than his team returning the ball. Therefore, the game turns into an unsuccessful attempt by rivals to catch up with Shak and touch him, while the ball is far away. Players are always trying to find degenerate strategies. They endlessly hunt for the weaknesses of game design, wanting to find an imbalance that can be used for easy victories. The irony is that if they ever find him, they will hate the designer for letting them ruin the game. They want to hunt for degenerate strategies and do not want to find them.

The fallacy of calculating viable strategies

For a solution to mean something, several viable strategies are needed that could lead to a positive outcome. If there is only one viable strategy, it is degenerate and an instant decision situation occurs.

I have long believed that the goal of balance is to maximize the number of viable strategies. The idea was that the more viable the strategies, the richer the decisions and the better the game will be balanced. I wrote the whole chapter based on this assumption, and on paper it was perfect. Then I went in search of counterexamples. And, to my horror, I found two such examples that smashed everything I wrote.

The first was a comic game: “rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock.” The traditional rock-paper-scissors game has three viable strategies. But there is another version of this game – “rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock” ​​(my favorite result is “on paper evidence against Spock”). There are five strategies in this version, and all of them are viable, because everyone has equal chances to win. And we can easily add more and more characters to this game, up to an arbitrarily large number of viable strategies. But are we improving game balance? Of course, this does not happen, the game does not become deeper, but simply more difficult. Increasing the number of viable strategies has not made the game better.

The second counterexample was poker. He did not become a bad game with a lot of strategies, everything happened exactly the opposite: this is a great game with very few strategies. Poker is an infinitely interesting game, but in each situation you can only make a few moves. Many players have only two viable strategies at their disposal: fold or call. If the number of viable strategies mattered, how would poker be such a great game?

Over time, I realized that the idea of ​​calculating viable strategies was a distraction. I reasoned this way (and was mistaken): if two viable strategies are better than one, this should mean that three viable strategies are better than two, right?

No. Once you have received two viable strategies, it makes no sense to add more. If you have more viable strategies, the solution may become more interesting. But still, this is not the best way. We could invent a version of poker with a lot more useful moves, but this does not mean that the game will definitely get better.

The real balance goal for deep play is to create an intense thought process in the player’s brain. We want to ignite an exciting chain of internal algorithm that gives players insight, doubt and dilemmas, even if it is a very experienced player. To do this, we need more than one viable strategy. But once we have two such viable strategies left, adding more doesn’t improve the experience automatically. Improving experience means giving the decision-making process more details.

This idea implies something important for designers. It means that the practice of increasing choices as a way to deepen the game is wrong. It may be easy to create more options, but at its core there is nothing of value. Often only more complexity is created.

The real goal of the designer is to enrich the player’s inner experience. This goal is harder to achieve and difficult to measure, but it is true. The pursuit of this goal makes the design smaller, simpler, more elegant, and also more oriented than it would be when calculating strategies.

Balance and skill

Young children love to play tic-tac-toe. For them, this is a real game with real skills, real test and strategy. In adults, it causes laughter, because it is very simple, and the ideal strategy is obvious. We are tired of tic-tac-toe. So how can an exciting game for one group be meaningless for another? Where an expert sees a degenerate strategy, a beginner sees magic. An expert knows a degenerate strategy and has the skills to implement it. When he plays a game, he does the same thing every time without hesitation, just like an adult plays tic-tac-toe. But the beginner did not notice the degenerate strategy or he lacks the skills to implement it. For a beginner, the game is still a mystery. Children love tic-tac-toe, because they still do not have the opportunity to use a degenerate strategy. So for them it may not exist.

A game that players with one skill level consider balanced may be unbalanced for players with a different skill level because different skill levels provide access to different strategies.

We also revealed the opposite: players do not like the game because they lack the skills to use strategies that make it balanced. For example, StarCraft II is one of the best balanced games in history, but new players usually don’t think so.
StarCraft II has a class of debut strategies called rush (onslaught, pressure). They suggest an early attack on another player before he even builds any military units. They are relatively easy to implement, making them affordable for beginners. But they are pretty hard to stop. A mid-level player can stop the rush, but a beginner can not. The newcomer, defeated again and again by other newcomers using rush, seems like StarCraft II is an unbalanced game.

But rush is completely unjustified at higher levels of skill. Professional players rarely apply rush to each other, because this strategy usually does not work against those who know how to stop it. At the top of the skill range, it is the rush defenders who have the benefits. On the other side of the skill range, these benefits go to opponents, as rush is easy to start using, but harder to stop.

This creates a strange situation where rush is a degenerate strategy, but only at low levels of player skill. Beginners cannot use strategies to counter rush, so the game seems degenerate to them.

Who needs a balance?

Tic-tac-toe and StarCraft II represent a variation of the same problem.
If we find a problem at the same skill level, we can usually solve it. But as soon as we start to worry about several levels of skill, the number of strategies that we need to consider increases significantly. Balancing one skill point is difficult; balancing everything at once is almost impossible. The only answer is to allow the game to be unbalanced at some levels of the player’s skills. It sounds like a recognition of defeat, but almost all games do it.

Even the group of developers responsible for the balance of the expertly designed StarCraft II game does not hide its willingness to sacrifice balance at low skills in exchange for balance at high. Dustin Browder, StarCraft II’s lead designer, said: “The goal is always to find solutions that will affect everyone … But when you put the gun to my head and say:“ You have to make a decision ”… we agree [с самыми опытными игроками]”. Browder admits that balancing a game across a player’s full range of skills is not possible. Instead, his team focuses on keeping the game balanced at the expert level, while rationally improving everything possible in the rest of the skill range. And for StarCraft II, this is the right choice, since the game involves a long development by professional players.

It is almost impossible to create a skill-based game that is balanced for players of all skill levels. The designer must determine what level of skills he wants to balance, and enable other levels of skills to have degenerate strategies.

Narrative games usually use the opposite approach. Instead of balancing at the top of the skill range, they balance in the middle or bottom because they are not designed for intense games like competitive games like StarCraft II. For example, BioShock has incredibly powerful Big Daddy enemies that are not aggressive unless provoked. The battles with Big Daddies are supposed to be tough and decisive, but in fact there are many degenerate ways to kill them without fighting at all. A player can attach a few mines to a barrel bomb to create a giant superbomb that will kill Big Daddy in one hit. Or Big Daddy can be lured into many traps and also instantly killed.

BioShock is full of such degenerate strategies, but they do not matter, because the game lasts less than 10 hours and only a few players will deal with them in such a short time. And even if they do, the game remains interesting, because its meaning lies in narrative and role play, and not in improving skills.

This is why Morrowind’s degenerate strategy, presented as an intelligence potion, does not spoil the game. Morrowind is not a victory, but an exploration of the world. The player can try the potion trick once, but then he will quickly return to the usual game, because he wants to feel the narrative.

Is balance needed

In any game, the designer must decide whether to pursue balance at high levels of player skill at all. The answer depends on how much the game is related to tasks that require skills, as well as other types of experience, such as graphics and history.

Balance at the top of the craftsmanship range is expensive. This means that it is necessary to eliminate any idea that can lead to a degenerate strategy at any skill level. This restriction closes the door to many ideas that make sense in other ways. In addition, testing at high skill levels is expensive because in this case, someone has to spend weeks or months studying the game, looking for optimal strategies. Finally, players usually find degenerate strategies after the release of the game, which means that it needs to be fixed – sometimes it takes years.

Balance at lower skill levels is much cheaper. While degenerate strategies are not entirely obvious, the goal has been achieved. You can include mechanics in the game that create a solid narrative or social experience, even if they lead to the appearance of degenerate strategies. Balance testing is easy, as it does not require long training or especially dedicated players. And it’s not scary if someone finds a new degenerate strategy after the release of the game. It is still nice to play, as it is not a matter of skills.

In a skill-based game that seeks to support an infinitely deep strategy, balancing a player’s high skill level is not discussed. If such a game is not adapted to the skillful actions of the players, it is useless. This means a waste of design resources on an exhaustive balance analysis, a ban on many plot ideas that cannot be balanced, and even the possibility of imbalance at lower skill levels. This is an integral price for developing the perfect game. But predictable games like StarCraft II, Counter-Strike, or Street Fighter II are worth the price.

Developers of those games that are not based on intense competition should provide a balance for the low to medium levels of player skill. The basis of the semantic content of these games is communication, narrative, or other emotional triggers that are independent of the skills, so the cost of balancing a high level of skills is not worth it. Story games like BioShock and Morrowind benefit little from deep balance. These games are best left unbalanced so that design resources can be directed towards improving the game world and history.

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