Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Games are like donuts, so go get drunk.

I think that games designers, especially younger, keener, and possibly inexperienced ones can get hung-up on the idea that games are like puzzles, when in fact, games are like donuts. Even puzzle games.

When you get game design students to submit game ideas, or you encounter their ideas online, (inevitably in any discussion of game design or criticism of game ideas), you get a huge emphasis on mechanics, and on the numbers, the choices, the decisions, and the maths and principles behind game design. Books have been written on this topic. I have several myself. There are a lot of maxims, and serious theories.

The problem I have with all this, is it treats the player like a rational, thoughtful robot that is aware that games must be perfectly balanced. In other words, the player is expected to take an analytical and rational and logical approach to deciding whether or not a game is fun.

This is silly, because ultimately games are about FUN. You can take your fun seriously, and that’s fine, but lets not kid ourselves. Gaming is a leisure activity, done for fun. Choosing the right gun in Battlefield 2 isn’t the same as choosing what university course to take or your pension provider or next career. There are no life-changing implications to choosing ‘Elf’ rather than ‘Orc’.

We all make a ton of really serious decisions in our lives. I run a business, and that’s all about seriousness, contracts, numbers, blah blah. The last thing I want to do when gaming is take on a whole new serious set of decisions. I strongly suspect that a lot of gamers have a similar attitude, especially really young gamers and the 30+ generation. How many times do you pick a certain character class or weapon or role in a game because of some silly reason, some trivial gut ‘feeling’? I’ll always max out my archery stat in a game that offers it, even if it’s a dumb choice, because I find archery cool. I spent all my cash in mount n blade on the helmet with big horns, because I liked the helmet, who cares if I’m not maximising my armor stat? Horns are cool.

The reason I’m saying games are like donuts, not puzzles, is that when asked what food we want, we pick what we ‘like’, we don’t get too analytical about whether food X has 15% less calories for the same quantity as food ‘Y’. Food ‘X’ has got better reviews than food ‘Y’, but ultimately we don’t care. We like pizza, more than salad, so we choose pizza. We don’t feel like we have to justify it. In this case, the academic game designer is like a nutritionist. The customers decision makes no sense, they have picked the ‘wrong’ food, the lesser food, for completely silly reasons. Can’t they see that the salad contains a better balance of the different calories and proteins and vitamins, and thus is better than something that is all pepperoni and cheese?????? Can’t everyone see that Beethoven is better than the spice girls????

Game design is about fun, and making the player FEEL good (or bad/scared/guilty/powerful..). It’s not a puzzle of stats for the player to win. If you enjoy gratuitous space battles, then you have WON. It’s not about scoring points or beating challenges really, it’s a game that (I hope) makes you FEEL like you control a big space fleet. I’m selling your the feeling of power, not a spreadsheet. Battlefield 2 makes me feel like a cool soldier, and that’s great. It doesn’t really matter if the game is unbalanced, or if it’s just another shooter, or if Call of Duty has more guns, or cost more, or has a better plot. These are bullet points. We don’t have them on donuts.

I strongly think game designers are selling feelings. This is why I find it worrying so many of them are insular, shy, introverts with a limited range of interests / experiences. Game designers need to get drunk, have sex, get into fights and jump out of airplanes. Stop watching firefly for 10 minutes and go something that generates some different emotion in you.

What about you. Do you play and choose games for seemingly trivial reasons? Because you like the wood-chopping noise in age of empires, or because you  like the background music in eve? What’s the silliest most peripheral non-‘game-design-theory’ reason lying behind your choices?  and how does your favorite game make you FEEL?

19 thoughts on Games are like donuts, so go get drunk.

  1. I still find that balance affects my fun. If it isn’t balanced and some dick is shooting me from 80km away and one shots me, losing my ship and all the equipment it had, I’m probably not going to be happy.

    I’m not bitter. No sir.

  2. This makes me think a lot about Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design. What he hammers home there is that you’re not just selling feelings, but selling experiences. If you haven’t read it, I’d recommend it, but it feels like it’s heading down that same track. That’s at least what spoke to me the most in that book.

  3. I think that’s one of the reasons Frozen Synapse took off so suddenly. Everything about your matches is randomly generated, though almost all the time you have the same soldiers on each team. You’re not sitting there for half an hour trading off range vs damage vs reload time for each weapon you choose, or wondering if a 5% boost to accuracy is worth losing a few DPS for. And if you lose you can’t blame the equipment, it was entirely down to the *tactical* choices you made. Or sometimes bad setup ;)

  4. I don’t believe what you wrote at all there cliff, AAA games take statistics and mathematics very seriously.

    I think what you should say is that whether a game is like a Donut depends on the type of game you’re making. If you’re making a massively multiplayer first person shooter or an MMO then things like Balance and challenge matter.

    If you don’t believe this, one of the reasons Starcraft 1 became so popular at all was because the races were fairly well designed and balanced. A lot of work went into the game post release with the brood war expansion which I’m sure required a lot of serious thinking.

    You’re confusing what you like with what every gamer likes. I hate Eve online for instance because it is more like a giant spreadsheet then a game at all, but I understand that many people like doing boring work and will pay for it because they find the work interesting.

    Many games are in fact like work but they are interesting enough to keep us hooked. The whole concept behind diablo 1 and 2 was simply killing monsters to get more powerful stats and items and they sold millions. I think trying to predict whether a game will be successful or not is folly to begin with because designing games is more like testing hypotheses then it is catering to “what people want”. Most people don’t know what they want anyway.

    I think it was Henry ford who said “If I asked customers what the want, they would have said a faster horse”.

    The automobile was a whole new paradigm that the average customer couldn’t imagine before it was invented.

  5. When I play games, I want to win, not just kill time. I hate wasting time, and playing just for fun is wasting fun IMO. Games aren’t about fun, they’re about crushing your opponent, preferably a real person who’s getting their feelings hurt by their defeat. Well in the end, that’s what you can call fun.

  6. Obviously there are some hardcore gamers (or such, *glances upward*) who would sell their first-born to get a few extra DPS. The sort of player who berates others for not following a heavily scripted method of playing. But honestly, they are very much the minority. Their perception is often skewed by being part of a group/clan/whatever of similar players, resulting in the idea that all players are either the same as them or noobs.

    On the other hand, the majority of people have lives, jobs, families, responsibilities. When they play it’s to get away from work and relax, to do something very different to their day-to-day. They care more about enjoying the game for what it is.

    This is why enabling PvP is often a hard choice for MMORPG developers. On the one hand they have the hardcore gamers who see PvP as essential, because otherwise they can’t crush people as often as they want. On the other hand, the majority of players will find it annoying when they’re trying to return Farmer Giles’ flock of sheep and suddenly someone’s trying to kill them for no reason. The decision is made harder as the hardcore minority are the ones most likely to spend additional real money to boost their character.

  7. I think that you are underestimating the lasting power of “fun”. “Fun” games turning into boring games after about 15 minutes if you don’t back the fun up with challenge, story, or some other reward, and that is when balance and mechcanics come in.

    I’ll give a couple of examples. I haven’t bought GSB yet, but I’ve played through the demo a few times. Each time I have fun, but by the end I am just jamming the fast forward button in an effort to win more honor. Then I go and stare at the “buy now” page and wonder if I really want to pay good money to watch an AI play with itself for hours on end.

    On the other side, I don’t want to imagine the hours I’ve spent playing Dwarf Fortress. Sure, it’s fun to carve a 50′ penis into the side of a mountain, but once you’ve done that, eventually it dawns on you that you can build an anatomically correct functional penis the size of a mountain. That challenge is what drives the player once the initial “oh isn’t this fun” novelty wears off.

  8. I think the “pizza vs. salad” bit gets at the heart of the matter: people have intrinsic tastes. Tastes that they were born with or developed over time and almost certainly without any concious effort or notice on their part. If a specific person likes the taste of cheese and pepperoni on baked pizza dough more than the taste of italian dressing on lettuce and tomato… well, they just do. It’s not impossible for them to change that about themselves, but it’s rare. This extends into appreciation for visual or aural art, stories, etc. To varying degrees, their enjoyment of a particular set of sensations is involuntary. They can fight it, they can change it, they can voluntarily enhance it, but those are edge cases.

    With games it’s pretty similar. Their tastes reflect the intrinsic properties of their character.

    But some people have an intrinsic taste for spreadsheets. When I run into a suitably meaty game it’s usually just a matter of time before I’ve cracked open Excel to enter some data and run some comparisons. Not because I care all that much about winning, but I just enjoy that process. Making pivot tables out of interesting data is like popping bubble-wrap for me. Thankfully I also enjoy other things and can draw on those when designing games for people who don’t share my particular brand of insanity ;)

    Anyway: yea, on the average people do not make a rational-analysis-based decision when presented the choice to buy or not buy a game, and even fewer take that approach to answering the question “is it fun?”. But some have tastes distinctly inclined towards games which encourage rational-analysis-based decisions.

  9. I love blogs with a more mature readership. This conversation right here is why the internet is great sometimes.

  10. “Can’t everyone see that Beethoven is better than the spice girls????”

    Except that for some people, Beethoven *is* fun, and the Spice Girls, looks aside, are as interesting as a police box, minus any Doctor Who connotations. Plus, if the idea is that something more sophisticated is less fun, why, Democracy isn’t fun, and Tomb Raider is. Kudos isn’t fun, and Half Life is. Is this true? Of course it isn’t.

    So much for the “majority rules” argument. I figure fun in a game is whatever floats the player’s boat, and if there are enough boats, the dev makes money. From my admittedly very personal perspective, it isn’t so much about how X is fun and Y isn’t, but how well the dev’s imagination allows him/her to disguise Y in such a way as to make it fun.

    …which leads me to think you’re not arguing so much for fun and against numbers/puzzles/whatever, but for your idea of what fun is. And there’s nothing wrong with that idea,either–unless you say, as you have, that other devs have simply forgotten that fun is as you define it.

  11. Personally, I like creating/building, gathering, coop and challenge game play. I don’t play most triple A title because they are just linear stories. But minecraft, on the other hand, is a the perfect donuts for me. I just wish their where more challenges.

    I find the same appealing aspect in making games. I create the game by coding. I gather information for game design. Implementing a feature is a challenge. The only difference is I’m not willing to make bad decisions because I have to live with the consequences. Game dev is serious gaming. :P

  12. I’m not suggesting that complexity equals fun, or than a lack of complexity equals fun either. I’m suggesting that what matters is the strength of the emotion produced, not the construction of the mechanics involved in producing it.
    In some cases, this can seem weird to the creator, because as creators of entertainment, we naturally like to assume that effort + abiltiy is rewarded, whereas often it isn’t.

    Most people would agree that the musicianship involved in beethoven is greater than the spice girls. The fact that the spice girls may be more popular depresses some musicians, and I’m saying they need to realise why this happens.

    I see it in games a lot. People think if they have a better engine than X, and more features, and are cheaper, they will sell more, but they never do. The ‘X’ factor is massive and often overrules everything else. What I’m thinking, is that the X factor is powerfully conveying some sense of emotion.

    I think that this is partly why minecraft suceeded. It gave us emotional feelings of both fear, and creativity. it really doesn’t matter that the game is half finished, lacking features or low tech. Minecraft is just selling us an emotional experience in the way that generic FPS shooters often are not.

  13. Along with PC games I enjoy board games. There is a community called Board Game Geek that caters to the hard core, esoteric gaming types.

    Adults who enjoy board games are a distinct minority. But within that minority there is a sub-group who consider board games “Serious Business”. They don’t play for anything that a normal person would consider “fun”, but instead obsess over being human computers that optimize every turn. People who *don’t* optimize as well as them will be berated, belittled and generally faced with walls of text on how playing for “fun” is wrong headed. They turn off many potential board gamers with their diatribes and I left the community after fatiguing of their omnipresence on threads.

    They are, effectively, functional autistics. They seem to have little recognizable emotional empathy, understand little about social norms, but they excel at “beating” people at games so they feel like they are morally superior.

    Sadly, it is this sub-group that generates the majority of the designers of board games for this community. It is bad for all the reasons you point out for the PC game realm.

  14. Those people you mentioned above are the “Playing to Win” sorts.

    Those folks don’t make a game profitable, but they can make your future games profitable, and will buy loads of DLC. They are what keeps fighting games profitable despite it being a genre that is extremely hostile to new blood.

  15. A few weeks ago I met and had an interesting discussion with a game designer who has never played games and never programmed before he made his first game a year ago.

    He’s a theatrical composer and conductor who had an idea for a game which he hacked together with XNA, he only bought an XBox so he could port and test his game for XBLIG (XBox live indie games).

    I on the other hand have been mucking about with hobby game projects for 15 years, code for a living, have played games since they were invented and too have a game on XBLIG.

    The kicker is that his super simple but well polished rhythm action platformer has sold 40 times more copies than my ambitious, physics enhanced, multiplayer kart racer.

    This guy had a completely different view to design than me (all about feel and rhythm) and made me realised my game was more a collection of personal technical feats (that no-one but myself can see) rather than a cohesive experience.

    Something I’m now working hard to remedy in version 2.

    I think a lot of us have our heads too far up our own gaming behinds to see what we’re really trying to achieve!

  16. I can back you up here. I will never forget the first time I stood before the Order of the Radiant Heart building in Athkatla. The Soundtrack which was played on that occasion (a variation of “The Good”) blew my head off.

    Since then the most important thing in PC Games is the Soundtrack for me. Why did all Bioware games since the end of the Infinity Engine suck (or since end of black isle)? Because there was no soundtrack!

  17. It wasn’t the declining population, the long long wait for any help for my class or even the ridiculousness of some of the new unbalanced classes that drove me away from Dark Age of Camelot in the end…

    It was the change to the smite sound.. it used to make a satisfying lightning *smash* then when they actually finally improved the spell – they improved it by making it heal everyone friendly around the target. Was fine with that – but the sound also changed to a healing spell *bling* sound.

    Game just didn’t seem fun any more…

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