I just stumbled on a paper that was presented by Jose Zagal, Staffan Björk and Chris Lewis at FDG 2013: Dark patterns in the design of games. The paper challenges the (rather naive) notion that the agenda of game designers coincides with that of their eventual players. While game design certainly should consider the player at all times, game design does not necessarily need to follow the wishes of the player at all times. For example, as soon as game design becomes part of an industry that is geared towards generating revenue, the player’s agenda is tossed aside in favor of a corporate agenda.
There are plenty of examples here, from the application of psychological tricks in games to the design of the new Xbox One. Of course, it does not always have to be about money. For example, while I am sure that many gamers want the games they play to be a real challenge, Call of Duty: Black Ops is well-known for faking in-game challenges. In the case of CODBLOPS, game designers are not necessarily following the player’s agenda in terms of providing a fun challenge, in favor of providing them with drama and narrative.
In their paper, Zagal et al. develop a definition for such dark game design patterns (i.e., a dark game design pattern is a pattern used intentionally by a game creator to cause negative experiences for players which are against their best interests and likely to happen without their consent) and they present examples of such patterns. It’s freely available here: http://www.fdg2013.org/program/papers/paper06_zagal_etal.pdf
Posted: May 25th, 2013
Categories: Academic Research
, Game Design
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This is hardly news to people keeping track of what happens in the gaming industry, but I still wanted to make a quick post about Cart Life in case anyone reading my blog has missed it. In short, it’s a game about poor people. Cart Life’s game designer will tell you it is actually a retail simulator (which is not a lie), but the game is a lot more interesting than calculating netto and gross incomes. Cart Life allows you to take on the role of an Ukrainian immigrant and his cat, a single mom trying to hang on to the custody of her daughter, or Vinny the bagel guy. It is not a game about going from rags to riches à la Grand Theft Auto, nor is it a consumerism simulation à la the Sims. It is a game about urban survival, about hardship, about loneliness, about poverty, about humanity, and so on. That said, here come the superlatives: It is one of the best examples of social realism I have ever seen in video games, the artwork is absolutely brilliant, it has really clever game mechanics (e.g. typing sentences that mimic the boring thoughts that go through your head while doing brainless tasks), and it is definitely one heck of a learning experience.
So come on, just should play it. It’s free so what are you waiting for. If not for me, then do it for Mr. Glembovski!
Need more convincing? Here’s a great article on the game.
Posted: May 18th, 2013
Categories: Game Design
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At South by Southwest, Rick Van Eck, Steven Malliet, Amy Adcock and I presented a session on realism in serious games. It was a fun experience, we got a positive review out of it, and I’m thrilled that the good people of SxSW released the audio of the session online. After listening to it online, I decided that I would go through the slides one more time alongside the audio while recording everything with the Camstudio. Unfortunately, our video stuttered a bit while recording, but I am sure that interested viewers will look past that.
So enjoy the video, and if you’re wondering what went on in the beginning, there was a technical difficulty which resulted in some loud audio playing on-stage.
The video comes in six parts. Give it a couple of seconds to get started. You can download the handouts here and a 480p version of the video here. For more information about the artwork, please visit my portfolio.
Posted: April 25th, 2013
Categories: Academic Research
, Game Design
Comments: 1 Comment
Ever since its release on iOS about a month ago, I’ve been playing Summoner Wars on my iPad. I have to say, this game is absolutely wonderful and the implementation for iOS is great. Of course, there are some adjustments I would like the developer to consider (e.g. undo pre-dice, battle history, auto-accept dice, create specific decks versus each faction, etc.), and apparently the iPhone version has a few issues due to the small screen size, but regardless of such nit-picking I definitely recommend this game to anyone. It is casual, easy to learn and quick to play, but at the same time it is definitely deep and very rewarding to master. If that is not enough of advertising then consider this: the physical version would cost you at least $129.50 (even more if you want to make decks that require multiples of each pack) while the iOS version has an “Everything Bundle” for $7.99. Anyway, let’s get to the point of this post. After playing Summoner Wars for about a month, I wanted to write a couple of paragraphs on two topics, the first being the mechanics of the game and the second being its achievements system.
(Skip the following paragraph if you know what game mechanics are. Oh, still here? I guess you would like some help with defining that word then? Okay, here is an overview of academic definitions by Miguel Sicart as well as a nice suggestion of his own, here is an example of what I would consider a game mechanic (provided kindly by Squidi), and here is something for people who prefer visuals over text. (Also, here is what Gamification drones think game mechanics are.) To put it in layman’s terms, I would say that I am talking about a bunch of nicely designed rules that lead to meaningful gameplay experiences. There is a lot wrong with that sentence, but I am sure we have a mutual idea of which elements of Summoner Wars I will be writing about below.)
Summoner Wars has plenty of mechanics underlying its gameplay experience. There are card draws and dice rolls, action points spendings, spatial tactics and movement, and so on. (If you know Heroscape, the game designer of Summoner Wars is Colby Dauch – the owner of Heroscapers.com - and that certainly shows in Summoner Wars’ design). Summoner Wars is pretty much a tactical war game played with cards that are laid out on a map, with dice rolls determine the damage dealt in attacks. That in itself does not sound too spectacular, but here are a few mechanics that Summoner Wars does really well.
- Assymmetric (and very thematic) gameplay - This might not even be an actual mechanic but anyway, Summoner Wars is a great example of assymmetric gameplay. None of the factions play in the same way, they all are extremely thematic, and playing a new faction takes a lot of experimenting to figure out how you can maximize them. (Right now, I am in love with the Cloaks, a faction that is build completely around deception, clever movement, and timing.) At the same time, Summoner Wars still appears to be pretty balanced to me. (Also, the fans are keeping track of battles and – while I hardly think that this is an adequate way to measure the balance of these factions – are happy to report that all the factions tend to win/lose around 50% of the games they are in.) I also think it’s great how the first turn is reduced so that there is no real benefit in starting first or second.
- Risk management – I absolutely love games that are about negotiating chances. While I do not calculate my chances while playing, I love to play games that have a little margin of luck in there, just so I can try to push that back out and play competitively. Like Heroscape did beforehand, Summoner Wars does this wonderfully. I know that there are people who want absolutely no luck in a game, but I would advise those to just play Chess or Go. Personally, I think that games that are not completely determined are tactically speaking much more interesting. Every move you make could still fail for no reason whatsoever.
- Hand management – Summoner Wars is probably one of the best hand management games I have ever played. Sid Meier apparently once said that a good game is a series of interesting choices, and I Colby Dauch seems to agree: Every turn Summoner Wars gives you an great deal of meaningful decisions regarding the cards in your hand. Which cards are you going to summon? In what order am I going to summon them? Do I wait for another one for maximum effect? Wouldn’t it be better if I would just use them to build magic and summon something bigger next turn? What if the other guy will summon this or that the next turn? What is the chance that I get another one if these? And so on.
So there you have it, three reasons/mechanics that make Summoner Wars the best game I have played all year. I guess it is not a game for fans of abstract board games or the thematic yet hardcore European board games (e.g., Puerto Rico, which involves hardly any luck is based more on selecting roles, manipulating turn orders, auctioning, gathering resources, and so on.) But still, Summoner Wars does what it does and it does it well. Now let’s have a quick look at the second bit I wanted to blog about, Summoner Wars’ achievement system.
Achievements (on iOS)
Extra Credits once did a wonderful episode on achievements, and argued that there are three types of achievements: 1) the Unavoidable (i.e., the ones you get for doing what you would have done anyway), 2) the Optional (i.e., the ones that are basically side missions that are not part of the core gaming experience, and that are often used to extend the gaming experience) and 3) the Inspiring (e.g., the ones that inspire the player to play in an alternate and engaging way that is not the main focus of the game). Personally, I do not care at all that much about the first two and would prefer it if games would only offer inspiring achievements, but I guess you need unavoidable achievements to make the player aware that there are achievements that came with the game and that it could be fun to look for them and complete them.
So how does Summoner Wars fit in there? Sadly, the game tends to range between unavoidable and optional achievements, the worst ones being “Roll a 5 or a 6 three times in a row” for the Tundra Orcs’ “Wild Man” achievement. Funny enough, I got it on my first attempt with the Orcish faction, but for someone wanting to collect achievements an unavoidable achievement based on pure luck (1/27 chance) must be awful. That said, the game even features a second luck-based achievement (“When It Counts”), which you get if you “won a game where you never rolled a miss on an attack against your opponent’s summoner”. (Granted, the latter can be made easier using some skill but using some of the very few attacks in the game that do not require dice rolls for all but one life of your opponent’s summoner and then moving in for the final blow with 2/3 odds.)
On the other hand, the game did offer some neat ones as well, that are used as tools for teaching (even though they are possibly too close to the core gameplay experience to be referred to as inspiring). For example, “The Swarm” asks you to rush your opponent’s walls, basically suffocating her by removing summoning spots of the board. This is a technique advanced players call Wall Crowding on the forums. So while most achievements in Summoner Wars are not as well designed as they could be, there are some that are not that badly implemented, and this makes Summoner Wars’ achievements a nice example to discuss.
This looks like a great case for educators to look into. Apparently, someone who names himself Lycerius has been playing Civilization 2 for ten years and has now ended up in 3991 AD. Put briefly, the world has become an post-apocalyptic wasteland. The polar ice caps have melted, there is fall-out from nuclear warfare everywhere, all big cities have perished, and so on. All that is left of the world are 3 big factions (i.e., Celtania, New Vikingland and America) and a small island populated by the Sioux Nation. There has been non-stop war for 1700 years.
Like I said, this looks like an great example for people who are advocating the use of games as educational tools. Lycerius has managed to get his own Reddit page, and it is filled with advice from fellow Civilization 2 players on how to get out of the ongoing stalemate. How’s that for motivation, right? Civilization 2 was a great game but it’s a game from 1996, and still it is interesting enough for so many people to care about Lycerius’ save game. It is also amazing how in-depth the responses are. As an example, here’s an excerpt of one of the replies:
“Let’s start by discarding such methods of government that would be foolish to take. Lycerius, in his great wisdom has left the game as a communist state, this decision might seem weird to a lot of people, but here’s why. You would all probably say that the best government is republic and/or democracy right? Wrong. Within civ 2 republic and democracy are based on an already matured civilization changing from an inferior political system to them, in effect they require the necessary infrastructure such as temples, marketplaces and especially a great irrigation system to work, they are the perfect governments for kingdoms to flourish into a scientific age. Nearing the fourth millenium all technology has been obtained and more importantly no such irrigation exists meaning that the huge cities required to mantain the expensive lifestyle of the republics or democracies do not exist.”
And there are plenty more great examples like that on the Reddit page. While the extent to which Civilization 2′s lessons are a great simulation of real life is up for discussion, Civilization’s effectiveness as a tool to develop critical reflection and/or problem solving skills seems a lot debatable. This is nothing new to game researchers – e.g., Kurt Squire has done some wonderful research on this topic – but I nevertheless felt that this was an inspiring example to spread. It certainly reminds me of why I do design research on serious games or try to use commercial titles in class rooms.
Posted: June 13th, 2012
Categories: Academic Research
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If you know me you know how much I love basketball. I used to play it way too much, which is still evidenced by the state of my bad knees, ankles and back. So as playing on the court these days quickly leads to annoying injuries to me, I’ve taken resort to playing golf and NBA 2K12, the latter clearly being the more fun and addictive game. Okay, that might be pushing it a bit, but the NBA 2K series nevertheless are a lot of fun to me. Since NBA 2K11 I have to say that they have started to mimic real-life basketball quite a bit. I have started to run plays, consider matchups, switch things up on defense, and so on. Of course, the game still has a long way to go, but playing it at the Superstar difficulty level does give me somewhat of a feeling – however slight – that the outcome of a match of me versus the CPU is realistic. I won’t debate here what video game realism means to me; for that you should check out the academic work of Wannes Ribbens & Steven Malliet – but let’s just say that the game gives me the impression that tactics that work in real life also work in the game and vice versa. Of course, I am not using any cheap exploits which would make the game a lot less fun to me. (Even though the zone defense in the link is feasible in real life, it would also be easily exploited in real-life which is something the CPU cannot do for various reasons.)
So that’s my relationship with the NBA 2K series. I play it because I love basketball and I want to substitute for playing real life basketball, I guess. And on top of that, it’s a pretty appealing fantasy to take the role of an NBA player, coach or GM. So what about the improvements I was discussing in the title of the post? Well, since NBA 2K11 I started modding the game in a way that has improved my playing experience considerably. Mind you, these are hardly difficult mods to make if you’re the developer. All it takes is a little bit of extra development time, which probably can be reduced if project management takes it into account early in the project.
1. Put my face on my player
Just look at the forums: people who can change a player’s face in the game are actually doing requests for other people. That’s how popular this is. Sure, it is fun to design yourself a basketball freak (e.g. 7’2″ point guard) or the next superstar and play with them, but nothing beats putting yourself into the game. I’ve modded myself in games a lot of times, but this was the first time I put myself into a HD basketball game. And wow, the immersion that got me was incredible (even though it wore of at some point, probably due to the gameplay for my player not being what I wanted it to be). This shouldn’t be too difficult to arrange on a console or PC. Even without a HD three-dimensional camera, just let us import our picture and use it as a texture. Next give us the option to alter the mesh of the head using the Create-A-Player tools in the game, or even use meshes from any NBA player of our choice. This shouldn’t be a mod in 2012.
2. Let players control and veto CPU trades in the Association Mode
I’ve been playing association-type gameplay ever since my first 5 on 5 NBA simulation game (and I go way back to Double Dribble on the NES). This is what a typical association has been: 1) get a team that is bad but has potential for a turn around, 2) trade and simulate a few seasons, 3) become NBA champion, 4) stop playing and start anew. In NBA 2K12 however, I am playing my sixth season and I’ve become NBA champion twice. I’ve also played a lot of regular season games and the full playoffs, occasionally barely making it to the next round. One of the reasons for such extended longevity is REDitor. This tool allows me to change the database of my save game easily. So now I control what happens in the off-season. Duncan goes from the Spurs to the Bobcats in his twilight? Not happening. Griffin sticks with a weak Clippers team (without Paul) after his rookie deal is up? Not anymore as I signed him to a contender. And so on. Adjustments like these make sure that the future NBA is believable to me. If the CPU makes decisions that are surprising but plausible, I don’t do a thing. But on the other hand I can also create drama myself, and more importantly: I can ensure that the competition remains tough. If I win a three peat, I can create a believable team of frustrated free agent superstars to compete against the next year.
3. Provide proper profiles for procedurally generated drafts
Another issue with the association are the created players. After a while, the league looks like a bunch of nobodies without any personality. I remember basketball games where this was a lot worse than in NBA 2K12, but I am still not satisfied with NBA 2K12. What I did to solve this issue, is use real-life project drafts and fictional drafts that were manually crafted by other fans. For example, in Nictional Draft #1, there is a potential hotshot SG and a strong center, somewhat reminiscent of the 2007 draft. The draft is detailed and full of story per player up to the second round. What would it take to manually create 1000 profiles like that so that the association can have a lot more depth in recruiting new players for let’s say 10 seasons? Two FTE?
4. Provide proper faces for procedurally generated drafts
While a proper profile per player is a good step, another issue are the created player faces. They tend to look to similar unless you put a lot of work into it. To fix this, people like myself are re-texturing meshes of existing players. In 15 mins, you can create a face that doesn’t look all too familiar anymore and that can be used for a created player. But for 2K this shouldn’t even be necessary. Looking at today’s 3D scan technology, it might be possible to just scan a bunch of unknowns and use their faces in the game.
5. Bring the past to live in Association Mode
There are mods that convert faces the previous installments of NBA 2K to the last version, and I am betting that 2K doesn’t have a lot of issues in doing this themselves. Why should an association start in the year the game came out then? I’m not sure since when 2K has been using this game engine, but I’m guessing that going back three years shouldn’t be a problem. (It even seems to me that the engine hasn’t changed all that much since NBA 2K6.) Personally, I don’t think a basketball game should need more complex 3D models and/or textures, so why not keep using existing 3D model assets from now on? Of course, the real money would be in being able to start an association in the eighties or nineties, but that obviously brings a lot of financial implications with it.
6. Put my face on my coach
Similar to My Player mode, I edited the coach of my association and it’s pretty cool to see myself hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy, or shout at Paul George from the sideline. (For the record, I made Steve Nash the assistant coach for my Suns after he retired, which is also a pretty neat touch.)
7. Log the Association
My Player mode does a decent job of keeping track of your achievements as a player. The same should be implemented in My Association. I want to option as a player to save important games into an in-game history book. I used to have a blog for a fantasy league at some point, but blogging just takes too much work. All that’s needed is that you can look back on your team’s history after a lot of simulated years.
8. Fix what’s wrong with the gameplay
Finally, the game is hardly perfect and there are things that need change. Thankfully, 2K seems pretty good at fixing their gameplay every year, so I’m not going to go into this all that much. I’m really looking forward to 2K13 and hopefully, the game will not be overtaken by EA when the Live series returns, much like ISS/PES was surpassed by FIFA (through copying everything what made PES better).
And that’s a wrap. Most of my improvements relate to the association and my own playing experience, but that’s what matters to me. I hope you enjoyed reading it.
This is seemingly the most trivial topic I have ever blogged about, but Kotaku’s article on how sports games label their difficulty levels actually resonated for me. I am a fan of many sports titles, and the NBA 2K series in particular. However, I have not gotten to the point where I am capable of playing on the highest setting. I tend to play the game at the “Superstar” level instead, which is the second highest difficulty level. I pick that difficulty level because it results in winning chances that seem realistic to me. That means that if I am playing with a team that is better than its opponent, I will more often than not win the game. This is however no longer the case when I still need to figure out my team’s skills a bit and/or the plays they are running. When I play exhibitions, I should lower the setting to “All-Star”, the third highest but also the third lowest setting. At that point, my basketball ego jumps in and prohibits me from playing at that level. It does not matter that I have the impression that the AI is already cheating a bit at the Superstar level. I simply will not go lower than Superstar, regardless of the fact that this will turn into an experience that will be less fun than when I’d just be a bit more humble.
So it’s fair to say that Kotaku hit a snare there, and I was very surprised to see that almost every other big sports game franchise uses a similar labelling method as NBA 2K12. Only Top Spin has somewhat of a subjective rating, but from my perspective calling “All-Star” “Normal” instead will only make things worse. Therefore I am an advocate of using the power of objective numbers 1 to 5, as the author suggests.
I recently stumbled upon one of the latest entries to the Wizards of the Coast’s transmedial world that is the Magic: The Gathering franchise. I have a history with MtG, although it is a very small one. I have played the game for a year when I was about 13 years old. My impression of it was that it was a highly enjoyable and strategically deep game, that costed a ton of money (that I was not able to invest into it). Also, it is important to realize here that I played the game somewhat isolated since it was a very niche hobby in the part of Belgium where I lived, and there were no tournaments, trading events or shop selling single cards anywhere near. As a result, the only way I could ever get an elusive Black Lotus, for example, would be by finding it in a booster pack. So needless to say that MtG died out for me as I decided that there were more enjoyable games to spend money on (in my situation back then).
As time went on I played the 1997 Microprose game and the more recent Duel of the Planeswalkers for Playstation 3 a bit, but did not find them as fun as playing with actual people. I also wanted to give MtG: Online a try, but decided not to do so since I thought that it would cost a lot of money to build a reasonable deck. And then I saw MtG: Tactics on Steam and decided to have a quick peak, simply to see how well they managed to blend a turn-based tactics game (e.g. Heroscape, Final Fantasy Tactics, etc.) with the original card game.
To answer that question briefly (because that is probably not why you are reading this considering the title of this post), they did a decent job. The card game part is brilliant, the tactics part is a bit thin and could be improved (e.g. by adding a more intuitive line of sight, diminishing the power of the random critical hits, etc.), but I would rate it an 8 out of 10 game, which matches its score on Metacritic if you’d deduct extra points for the terrible interface, outdated graphics and some annoying bugs. If you like mild tactics games and MtG then it is definitely work checking out. I would just give it a try to see the amazing MtG artwork come alive on the screen.
So what about the business skills, Bob? I am glad you asked. When I started playing the game, I liked it quite a bit, but I was still worried about the money it would cost me to keep playing. After all, free to play micro-payment games are seldomly, well… free to play. Reading the comments on Metacritic confirms this. For example, Aquila noted how:
“The free to play part is shockingly short. Dishonest marketing where people will trap for spending huge amounts of money. And a HUGE pay to win factor is present. So don’t trap for it people! But the game itself is fun if it was normally priced it will be a between 6 and 8. (Aquila, Metacritic)”
Normally, that would turn me away from the game, but I enjoyed the game enough to see if I could find a loop. After all, in Warstorm, another TCG I once played, I had managed to become a free player with a few competitive decks and that game sure was very tight in terms of its economic system. MtG: Tactics is a lot more flexible towards the amount of money a player needs to spend to enjoy the game. Here is what I found:
- In-game gold can be acquired by completing daily missions, up to 14 gold per day.
- Boosters can only be bought by paying $3.
- Boosters can also be acquired by defeating at least one opponent in a tournament that costs 20 in-game gold.
- Singles can be bought and sold in an auction house.
- Players are allowed to trade cards and in-game gold.
So that means that if you use tournaments as your main income of cards, that you can play a tournament every two days. The cards you win there can then be sold at the auction house for more in-game gold, potentially creating a positive feedback loop. Unfortunately, you have to defeat an opponent to convert 20 gold into a booster, so that will difficult without already having many good cards.
However, the MtGT community realized that this would make the game a lot less accessible for people who want to play it casually, and has made it very common for the winner of round one to refund the loser’s 20 in-game gold. After all, selling off the cards you do not need from your free booster easily nets more than 20 in-game gold.
Figuring all this out seems like an interesting exercise for economy students in secondary school. I’ll admit that this is not exactly the same as writing up a business model, but I do see some potential here. Another – albeit more obvious – application of the game is in its trading aspects. I have recently attended a session on negotation techniques at an empty moment at a conference, and it is remarkable how those techniques have paid off in MtG: Tactics.
So this could be an interesting topic for a master’s thesis or design research project. Based on my experiences with MtG: Tactics, I would therefore say that there is a lot of potential in developing a “homework” trading card game for secondary school, in particular if the game itself could be a learning experience as well (such as Elementeo). Economy teachers could use it to study the economic system that grows from within the game, art teachers could let students design their own cards, math teachers could use the game to teach probabilities, language teachers could let students write stories within the game world, and so on.
Posted: February 20th, 2012
Tags: Board games
Comments: No Comments
The technology of Microsoft surface has been around for some time and I’m assuming that this is somewhat old news. In case you have not heard about it yet, Microsoft been developing a multi-touch table which should be released in 2012 to the general public. When I first learned about this three years ago, I was a bit sceptical about the usefulness of such a device. As smart phones and tablets are becoming common goods, I did not really see the added benefits of a big multi-touch table in my living room. My feelings about it were summed up pretty well by a parody video by SarcasticGamer.com, with the memorable quote “one day your computer will be a big ass table”.
But that was before I got into board gaming again. These days, I probably enjoy playing board games just a bit more than a lot of video games. The cause for this is that board games lead to great social fun, in a way that many online games can’t even compare with. There just is something about collocated play that just trumps computer-mediated play time and time again. But that does not mean that board games are perfect.
Thankfully, I am a very dedicated and driven person with regards to the effort I devote towards entertainment, because else I would never get the manuals of quite a few of these board games I like to play. Sure, these manuals are often very clearly and thoughtfully written, but still it can be quite an achievement to learn a tabletop game’s rules, and then we are not even discussing the effort it takes to run a storytelling system. (For example, I’m currently struggling to learn White Wolf’s New World of Darkness, which I have been wanting to learn since playing the incredible Vampire – The Masquerade: Bloodlines for the first time, and I can tell you that it is a lot of text to get your “fangs” into.) Furthermore, learning the rules can be a lot of work, but then there’s also the time required to set everything up, download and print FAQs and errata, come up with a decent storage solution, etc.
Keeping all that in mind, I am looking forward to seeing Microsoft’s table to be used for what it is actually useful: playing tabletop games. A lovely implementation of the technology and Dungeons & Dragons is currently being developed at Carnegie Mellon, called SurfaceScapes. Applications like these are probably what will give the Microsoft “big ass table” some added value in comparison with a smart phone or tablet PC. And if the price is right, I am definitely installing a Surface in my living room to play board games.
I promise… this is the last post I’m writing about gamification, skinner boxes, and the likes. If you have read this blog, then you probably know why I am not a huge fan of it because its current application lacks intrinsic motivation. This morning I found an article on the topic by Ian Bogost that I somehow seemed to have missed.
Bogost provides a rhetorical analysis of the term “serious game”, “gamification” and its derivatives, while at the same time providing a glimpse at the gap between the potential of games for learning, politics, journalism and business, and the needs and wants of educators, politicians, journalists and marketeers. In the end, he proposes to stop using the existing terms (that are not very popular among gamers and industry people) and instead use the term “exploitationware”.
Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed the article and Bogost’s suggestion, even though I do not see it replacing the term “gamification”. Considering Bogost’s rhetorical analysis of the origin of the term, it should be obvious that a more positive-sounding term would be needed as a valid substitute.
I also feel that the article is a bit too negative. While I have condemned gamification’s current implementations, I still – probably a bit naïvely – hope that a counter-movement will come that will get it right, by drastically re-designing boring tasks into meaningful experiences. If such (not easy to design) applications of gamification become widely spread, most adversaries of gamification in its current form (including myself) will probably drop their concerns, eliminating the need for a substitute (and somewhat derogatory) term such as “exploitationware”.
(For further reading, Steven Poole also had a great piece on Gamification in Edge #234 (December 2011) and Sebastian Deterding has written an insightful review of Gabe Zichermann’s “Gamification by Design” – a big thank you to Jan Steurs for directing my attention to me.)
Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer was something I did not anticipate. I wasn’t sure that it would be any good, let alone that it would be good enough to be taken into consideration as one of my favorite games of the year. Its a shame that the game does not feature usage statistics, because I must have played this a lot. Its been the perfect 5 minutes break to me, and definitely worth a look of you haven’t heard of it.
So what kind of game is Ascension? Apparently, it is a deck-building card game and the first in its kind that I have played. From what I have learned, Dominion is supposed to have laid the template for the genre and there are a few games like it (e.g. Thunderstone). In essence, all you do during the game is either 1) buying cards and adding them to your deck (which will get reshuffled quite a bit during the game), or 2) defeating monsters. Buyable cards and defeatable monsters are laid out on the table, somewhat similar to Texas Hold’Em after the “river”. Both buying cards and defeating monsters leads to victory points, and the player who has the most victory points at the end of the game wins.
The game’s dynamics are quite complex, even though there are some clear routes to victory. Buying cards with high victory point values is a good strategy, although these cards are often either expensive or limited in use. Another way to win the game is to speed up your deck, either by buying cards that increase the amount of cards in your hand during a turn, or by buying cards that allow you to remove cards from your deck. Both ways allow a player to combine a lot of good cards, which will increase your victory points rapidly as well. Like in any collectible card game, buying good card combinations works in Ascension as well. Finally, defeating a lot of monsters quickly is a risky strategy that will end the game fast, preferably before your opponents manage to get a decent deck together.
So those are four strategies (i.e. point collecting, deck speeding, combo building and monster rushing) that I use when I play the game, and there are probably more strategies out there. I hope this gives an impression of how the game plays out, without having to go too much into detail. So on to the actual topic of this post: why is this such a great game?
First of all, there are a lot of well-balanced ways to success that are disruptable by your opponents. Going for a monster rush will remove any chances to win through point collection, and so on. In my opinion, these strategies are balanced pretty well, in particular since the buying and defeating takes place where everyone can see it. If you notice that your opponent is going for a monster rush, you can buy cards that will allow you to remove cards of your choice from the five cards in the middle of the table. That way, it becomes possible to remove the cards your opponent needs, which can be detrimental to his or her plans. In essence, Ascension delivers a great “schadenfreude” experience.
Second, I love how the game manages to keep the tension going to the last minute. Players will get victory points for their actions, but they still have to count the victory points on each card of their decks when the game is over. During the game it is easy to see who is winning through the first type of victory points, but it requires a Rainman-like memory to keep track of the second type of victory points. A player can have an impression of who has a lot of hidden victory points, but it will never be a certainty. As a result, Ascension keeps the drama alive to the last second.
Third, the combinations in Ascension can be absolutely epic to play out. The game is designed in a way that winning through great combinations often comes down to the last turn. I have lost quite a few games where I only needed one more turn to finish the job. So when you all of a sudden manage to have your cards come together right before the end, it is an exhilaration sight to behold. One time I managed to go through my entire deck on the last hand and turn a defeat into a dominating victory.
Fourth, I like the artwork and lore of the game. Note how I specically referred to myself there, as this might not be something for everyone. In fact, at first I felt that it was quite a bizarre look ‘n feel, even though I immediately liked the unique visual style of the card art. After a while I read up on what the fantasy world of the game is all about (on the official site), and I must say that I really enjoy it. The game has a unique feel but its fantasy really comes to life after a few games (and reading some additional information).
Finally, Ascension does a great job at balancing skills versus chance. I am a huge advocate of having some chance in a game. Jesse Schell once defined fun as “pleasure with surprises” and I do agree with him that suprises and fun go hand in hand. That does not mean that I do not enjoy a game that is all about skill (e.g. chess). It just means that I’m a bigger fan of games with some chance in them. Without some luck, the underdog would never defeat the much better player. Ascension does this very well. As a beginner, the game might even look like it’s completely random as chance plays a huge part in it. Nevertheless, after some time it becomes apparant that the game requires a lot of tactical and strategic skill, if not a lot of skill in managing chance as well (which is something I always enjoy a lot).
So that’s my brief introduction to Ascension. If you are a game designer or a fan of card games, I definitely recommend playing it. It is easy to learn and setup, especially if you own an iPad.
Posted: September 28th, 2011
Categories: Game Design
Tags: Game Design
, Player Experience
, Social fun
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One of the things I was definitely looking forward to at this year’s DiGRA conference in Hilversum, was Joris Dormans’ workshop. I met Joris at the Meaningful Play conference in Michigan in 2008, and I felt that his work had a lot of potential back then. In essence, he was trying to use a notation that was similar to UML in order to visualize emergence in games. By doing so, it should become easier for a designer to grasp the dynamics of gameplay.
Of course, that was 3 years ago and the project had changed quite a bit since then. The project moved away from UML into its own visual language, and the latest version of the framework is already quite powerful and useable as game design tool. It allows designers to visualize feedback loops, player actions, resource pools, etc. in an easily understandable way, which can then be tested using a Flash-based cross-platform application (which I personally would love to see on the iPad as well). Using this tool, it becomes fairly simple to acquire a deep understanding of the dynamics of the gameplay that you are designing, before having to code anything. Similarly, it is also a decent tool for game academics to describe gameplay dynamics.
For a quick example of the framework, I would suggest taking a look at this exploration of the game of basketball, although Joris has plenty of other examples online at his Machinations wiki, such as a model for Starcraft. While looking at it, you should keep in mind that there is no perfect model for a game, similar to how there is no perfect prototype. For example, a model that would take player attributes into account would be a different way to describe the game of basketball. Also, the page contains examples of positive feedback basketball (i.e. for every point of difference, the winning team receives another player) and negative feedback basketball (i.e. for every point of difference, the losing team receives another player), which are examples from Mark LeBlanc’s rant at the GDC of 1999. I particularly liked the negative feedback basketball game, as I didn’t really expect the outcome.
After playing around with Joris’ work, I decided that I wanted to add a few words to this post in order to help others understand the ideas behind machinations quicker. I mistakenly started by reading the “diagram elements” pages, but it is a lot easier to learn about the system by going through the “machinations framework” first. In fact, Joris has written an excellent guide, but a linear one as well. So I guess that it is best to forget that it is a wiki, and simply go through every page link on the main page from top to bottom. If you don’t, you’ll end up having to go back and forth constantly, simply because every page somewhat assumes that you have read the previous page.
This study by Latitude Research on digital games having become a mainstream activity for a large audience fell into my lap today, and it was definitely an interesting read. First of all, the study’s findings are presented very clearly and in quite the aesthetically pleasing way. What completely took me off guard however, was that the free version of the report even included some self-critical notes about the used methods and sample. While such remarks are essential to academic research, it is absolutely refreshing that a market study does it.
Put briefly, the study provides a description of what Latitude Research refers to as “new gamers” (aged 15 – 54). Basing itself on quantitative and qualitative data acquired from such new gamers, the study concludes that the future of gaming will characterized by 1) going beyond the screen into the offline life of players, by 2) turning life itself into play as well, and by 3) being focused on tackling large societal issues.
Personally, I would agree with the findings of the study, as this is definitely the direction gaming seems to be going. Unfortunately, I was a little bit disappointed by the findings as well, because it seemed to me that the study basically referred to the ideas behind pervasive gaming, gamification and serious gaming (which obviously are not that new). Considering the methods that were used, this is not much of surprise. The study used data that was acquired from “290 smartphone owners that considered themselves to be at least casual gamers, and 75% of them felt that they were technologically ahead of the curve”. While it could be argued that it is a good idea to interview early adopters and people who have an affinity with and an expertise in technology in order to study the future of a medium, the provided interview fragments and the conclusion of the study made me doubt this.
The participants were interviewed because they were experts but as a result the consensus in their story ended up being the next logical step for gaming that has been discussed for many years now. While it might not have been the point of this study, I would have liked it even better if the results had something a bit more innovative in them. Therefore I can’t help but wonder what the findings would be if a less technology-savvy audience (who probably make up a large part of the new audience of games as well) would have answered the questions. Maybe different methods would have led to more surprising insights here (or maybe some unanticipated interaction styles, as the ones that are mentioned are already in development).
So I guess that I ended up with mixed feelings. On the one hand I absolutely loved the presentation of the study and how the report gave me a chance to actually interpret the findings better, but on the other hand the results felt more like the opinion of a small group of 240 interaction designers than the actual opinion of a “new gamer”. Nevertheless, I do think that this report is worth a look as it brings together quite a few interesting ideas on where gaming could go next and it does that in a extremely stylish and fun way.
(And for the record: I’ve played a brainwave-controlled tech demo at GDC and it would definitely be awesome to interact with games that way. Add me to the 44%.)
Posted: August 30th, 2011
Categories: Academic Research
, Game Design
Comments: No Comments