September 30, 2009

Designing Your Audience

Last week, I made a comment that I should have realized would need some explanation:
Learn to recognize which parts of your game and playerbase aren't important. Your favorite part of the game may be something the playerbase doesn't care about, and there are some players who care about things that it isn't in your best interests to focus on.
I probably shouldn't have mentioned this in passing before I had a chance to do a longer writeup on it. That's a fairly sinister-sounding quote, after all.

So what did I mean by this? Why wouldn't I want to just always make all of my players happy all the time? The short answer is that's exactly what I do want. The longer answer is that if you end up with too many different groups of players who want opposing things out of your game, you'll eventually arrive at a situation where any decision you make will anger one of the player camps.

Aside from bugs and generally shoddy development, the biggest cause of /ragequits is developers and players not agreeing on what the game is supposed to be:

Players thought it was an RPG with FPS elements, developers shipped an FPS with RPG elements. Players thought the game was supposed to be mostly grouping with some soloing, developers preferred mostly soloing with some grouping. Players expected open world territorial control PvP, developers implemented consensual sport PvP.

These are very small differences in opinion that don't matter at all, until they matter more than anything and all your players have quit.

Just like every other aspect of the game, your playerbase must be carefully designed and crafted. Here's how:
1 - Know what game you're making, and for whom
If your design team can't agree on what the game's about, how can your playerbase possibly be expected to agree with your design team?

Your gameplay will determine which players will enjoy your game, and which players you intend to enjoy your game should be the driving force in all your gameplay decisions. It's not important whether you start the game with an idea of the players or an idea of the gameplay, it's just important that they both support each other.

If you wait until you have real players to start trying to make them happy, it's already too late. The game has to be tailored to the audience before the audience even exists. This can be challenging, but there are lots of shortcuts.

You can do it by treating some designers as spokespeople for the player groups you expect to have, you can define a set of archetypes that you keep in mind while designing, you can write user stories, or you can just try make a game for another game's audience and steal them.

It doesn't matter how do you it, but you have to figure out who your players will be and what game they'll want in time to actually start making it.
2 - Keep your design focused
Feature creep is arguably the worst problem in the game industry, as well as the software industry as a whole. It causes financial problems and scheduling problems, and it also causes a fragmented playerbase.

Sprawling game designs such as RPGs are the most prone to feature creep, which in my opinion explains why so few MMO gamers are actually happy. It's incredibly difficult to support divergent gameplay styles in a way that doesn't result in each style's features harming the other's gameplay.

For example, Blizzard has enough resources to put huge amounts of effort into both PvE and PvP, but even they barely pull it off. WoW players are constantly arguing over which type of gameplay that game is supposed to be about, or angry that one is receiving more content, better itemization, relevant balance changes, etc.

The best way to avoid feature creep is to make a firm choice as to what game you're not making, and which audience you're not trying to appeal to.

By adding every feature under the sun to your game, you might attract more players, but I can guarantee you that those players will be less happy. Think about whether you want to have a huge audience of unhappy players, or a small audience of happy players. It's a trick question though, because unhappy players quit, while happy players multiply.

3 - Market your game honestly
Stop giving players false hope. If you know that your game isn't a PvP game, isn't a solo game, isn't a crafting game, etc, all you have to do is make that clear up front. Nobody wants to be the bad guy in the dev chat who tells all the nice crafters and all their nice money to take a hike, but it's much better than leading them on and then disappointing them.

If you feel ashamed to tell your players honestly what your game is about, that's a pretty great sign that you game isn't about the right things.
4 - Dance with the ones that brung ya
Once your game has players who aren't on your dev team, it's too late to change what game it is. You can only make it a better and better version of itself, even if you screwed up and made the wrong game.

Once players are playing your game, even for free, they've invested themselves in it. Players always talk about how they've paid money and deserve a service, but that's not actually what's making them mad. Once they've invested their time and attention in a game, they've given you something much more precious than their money and you've reached the point of no return.

Even when you've designed and marketed a game for a specific audience, you'll still have some players from outside your audience show up and try it out. These players will be mad that the game isn't a game for them, and demand that you change it. Sometimes you can accommodate them without alienating your existing players, but sometimes you just have to have the self-restraint to allow them to quit.

I'm hugely impressed by CCP's new game Dust 514. After being assaulted for years by complaints of EVE not being exciting enough, CCP didn't cave in and dilute their game to include those players who were outside of their intended audience. They made an entirely new game just for those players. This is a perfect way to make a new group of players happy, without that gain in happiness costing some happiness from another group.

Time to pick on poor SWG

Star Wars Galaxies is an example that's been beaten to death, but for good reason. That game suffered from all of the problems I've mentioned here. It tried to support every style of gameplay there is, from politics and city management to crafting to avatar combat to dogfighting in spaceships.

It was seemingly designed for fans of every part of the Star Wars universe but the movies, and then inevitably marketed to people who had only ever seen the movies. Once its audience was distilled to only people who really liked SWG's gameplay and everyone else had quit, the devs decided to try and fix their mistakes.

They rereleased the game with a new design that would appeal to all of the players who had quit (who wanted it to be more like the movies), except those players didn't really care anymore. The loyal players who had remained rightly felt this was a slap in the face and began quitting in droves.

The new Star Wars game seems to have much more in common with the failed SWG revamp than it does with the original SWG. The funny thing is that this time around everyone is incredibly excited about it. This is because we can all tell what that game is trying to be, and hopefuly because it's being marketed honestly.

Nobody wants their players to quit, and it's always a bad thing to make any of your players unhappy. However, if you let your design get too diluted and your playerbase get too fractured, you'll end up in a position where it's unavoidable.

If you decide which potential players are and aren't important long before the game ships and market the game honestly, then you'll never have such a divided playerbase that you have to make those kinds of tough calls. This hopefully also means you won't see so many players /ragequit.

September 17, 2009

How A Designer Thinks

Eric and Sandra over at Elder Game run what I consider to be the best blog on MMO game design, and one of the best game design blogs in general.

Sandra just posted a succinct piece of advice about another, possibly too-succinct, piece of advice: "think like a designer."

This is a very important piece of advice, and I've seen many aspiring and even experienced designers fail interviews for being "too playerish" or "not designerly enough." But what does that mean exactly? Here's Sandra's post:
“Learn to think like a designer, not a player.”

You’ll hear this a lot from game developers giving advice to would-be designers. And it’s not wrong … but taken at face value, it leads to being a sub-par designer. There’s no value in mimicing what you think a stereotypical designer would do.

Better advice: “Learn to understand how different types of players (including you!) experience your game, and analyze that like a designer.”

Not nearly as memorable, but way more accurate.

There's still something missing

Sandra has a great point; considering your whole playerbase is very important. I think there's one more detail that both versions only hint at: Think about your whole game. This is implied by "think about your whole playerbase," but it's so important that implication alone doesn't do it justice.

In my experience, taking a high-level view is especially difficult and important for designers of MMOs and other large, multifaceted games. We have so many competing features, playstyles, and subcommunities within our games that it's very easy to get hung up on just a small set.

Here's what "think like a designer" means to me:
Learn to think about your game and playerbase holistically. The classes, features, and gameplay style that you enjoy are only a small part of what is important to the playerbase as a whole.
We spend so much time as designers reminding ourselves to be detail-oriented that thinking of the game as a gestalt is sometimes easy to forget. Balancing between these two competing modes of thinking is what can really make a designer great.

Speaking of more advanced design thinking, I think this advice also comes with a counterintuitive but important corollary:
Learn to recognize which parts of your game and playerbase aren't important. Your favorite part of the game may be something the playerbase doesn't care about, and there are some players who care about things that it isn't in your best interests to focus on.
That may sound a bit mean or negligent, but there's no faster way to game design failure than trying to please everyone. If you can learn to tell what's not important, you'll be a better designer than just about everyone in this industry. Much more on that subject another time.

All this advice rolls off of the tongue less trippingly than "think like a designer," but it's a great point that we often give people important advice without bothering to clarify what our advice actually means.

September 13, 2009

The 3 Flavors Of Enemy Design

I hadn't really noticed it, but I seem to avoid writing about whatever sort of design I'm currently doing all day at work. The past few months are the first time in my career that I haven't been involved in designing AI or enemies, so I find myself wanting to write a few posts about that.

When deciding on a high-level design for the opponents in your game, it helps to decide first which of the 3 major groups you'd like your enemies to fall under:

1 - Enemies that follow the rules

There are many games with AI opponents that never do anything a player can't reasonably be expected to do. This type of enemy is often referred to as "bots" and used as a substitution for players in games that are multiplayer-focused.

With good enough AI scripting, it's possible to make enemies that mimic real players, with the same abilities, limitations, and even behaviors. Playing against AI is never exactly the same as playing against a player, but they can definitely feel similar enough to feel like good practice, to a point.

In this sort of game, players will feel cheated and angry if the AI does anything that they can't do themselves.
Chess, Starcraft, Madden, Unreal Tournament, Street Fighter, Poker, Battlefield 2142
When to use them:
This sort of enemy works really well as a way of easing players into the game and preparing them for matches against real human opponents. For this reason, it generally make sense to tune these enemies to be clumsier and easier to defeat than a human would be. Despite that, these enemies are generally the kind that make the most sense to have a high level of awareness.

It's also possible to make very very challenging AI settings for people who can't find a human partner that can challenge them, but chess is the only example I can think of where this is very common.

2 - Enemies that break the rules

There is a similar class of enemies for whom breaking the rules is a possibility. They tend to have most of the same abilities as a player and generally seem like players, but they will occasionally break the rules in the service of modifying difficulty.

It's certainly possible to make AI cheat to be more difficult, but good designers also make them cheat downward, which is to see start losing a little bit on purpose if they get too far ahead. This is also known as rubberbanding, a form of negative reinforcement.
Many racing games, many strategy games (most notably the Civilization series)
When to use them:
If you're thinking of your AI opponents as a replacement for other players, rather than a training tool, it might make sense to allow them to break some rules. This sort of AI design tends to focus a bit more on matching the player's ability and making sure that the game is challenging, but not too challenging. It can ensure that the player always feels they have a chance to win (or lose) right up to the end of the game.

3 - Enemies that ARE the rules

The most common type of enemy, by far, is that which operates in a completely different realm from the player. This type of enemy not only operates outside the set of game mechanics that the govern the player, but actually becomes a part of those mechanics.

Games that use this type of enemy design tend to have many different types of enemies, which vary from location to location. This enemy variation becomes a part of the game's content and level design palette.

It's also very common for games to use this sort of enemy design in boss battles, where there tends to be a puzzle to solve, a weakness to exploit, or a pattern to memorize. Unlike the previous two enemy types, this sort of opponent is not used to teach the player how to play against other players.

In the most extreme examples, the entire gameplay of a game can consist of learning how to defeat new and varied enemy types, in increasing numbers and more complex combinations.
The God of War series, the Diablo series, the Halflife series, World of Warcraft, the Zelda series (especially their boss fights), the Super Mario series, the Ninja Gaiden series, the Metroid series, almost all shoot-'em-ups, and on and on.
When to use them:
My guideline for when to use this sort of enemy is when you'd like to present players with a more reactive form of gameplay, where they change their tactics based on which enemies they are fighting.

It also works well in games that are very content-heavy (shooters, RPGs). In games like this, enemies that try to fight like players are likely to become monotonous over time, or much easier as the player figures out all of the AI's tricks and shortcomings.

Should you combine enemy types?

Generally I'd say that it only makes sense to have one kind of enemy in your game. If you've got a really good reason, it can make sense to combine them, but there aren't very many examples I can think of.

Champions Online's enemies are almost entirely the third type (totally seperate rules), except for player Nemeses, which are the first type (same rules as players). Time will tell if this was a good idea, but the rationale of using Nemeses to prepare the player for PvP seemed like a sound one, and Nemeses were already very special and seperate from all the rest of the enemies in the game.

September 5, 2009

The Hierarchy Of Awareness

I've done a huge amount of work on AI scripting and tuning over the years, and in the last year especially I've been thinking a lot about the different characters of NPCs: What kind of AI makes an NPC seem more or less frightening? What kind of AI makes an NPC feel more or less human?

I think the following 6 levels of AI awareness describe the difference between a very stupid, inhuman AI and a deviously frightening opponent that seems to think like a human.
Lvl 0 - I thoughtlessly follow a routine
Before there was any such thing as AI in games, we generally just dealt with completely scripted enemies that followed set movement paths and attack rotations.

Some examples that spring to mind are the aliens in Galaga and Koopa Troopas from the first Super Mario Brothers game. In modern games, it's generally not likely to see this sort of opponent except for "inanimate" objects and environmental hazards: moving sawblades, laserbeams, etc.

[Some stealth games and RPGs do put enemies on a predetermined patrol as the most basic part of their scripting, but since they change their behavior when they detect a player, they aren't truly Lvl 0 opponent.]

Lvl 1 - I blindly pursue a single goal
The racecars in Pole Position and the Hammer Bros from Super Mario are enemies that want something: they want to get to the finish line or throw a projectile toward wherever you're standing. They don't do anything but try to complete that one goal. This is really the most basic form of AI scripting.

[The ghosts in Pacman also mindlessly chase you at first, but they pay attention to whether you've  become able to kill them or not, which gives them a higher level of awareness than Lvl 1 enemies].

Lvl 2 - I think about only myself
These are NPCs that can change their behavior based on their own current state. If an enemy heals itself when its health is low, or tries to escape combat when outnumbered, they're thinking about themselves. Same goes for any enemy that realizes they have some sort of buff or invincibility and behaves more aggressively as a result.

There are lots of NPCs in games that heal themselves, self destruct at low health, or try to run away. World of Warcraft has examples of all 3 of these mechanics.

Lvl 3 - I think about other people
This is the level at which some NPCs can start to seem to have some personality or even deviousness. When a character in The Sims refuses a hug from a smelly person, or a group of enemies in Starcraft focuses fire on a damaged opponent, their AI is making decisions based on the state of another entity.

Another variety of this type of AI will change between offensive and defensive modes based on how much damage they take, or build "hate" or "aggro" toward enemies that damage it the most or in certain ways. This model is now extremely common in RPGs.

[Depending on how you think of it, the ghosts in Pacman that switch between chasing you and being chased are either thinking about themselves or other people. They either realize they are vulnerable or that their enemy has become invulnerable, but in this case the effect is the same.]

Lvl 4 - I think about what other people are thinking
Now, imagine if the ghosts in Pacman could calculate that you were trying to get to one of the power pills that would place them in danger, and start running early, or hug the center of the map. If they saw that a pill was already used up in an area, they would be much more bold. Suddenly the enemies in that game would feel much more intelligent, and be much more difficult to defeat.

AI that thinks of what a player's goals are and reacts to them are the approximation of a mediocre human opponent. Chess bots are the first thing that comes to mind when I think of this kind of AI.

Also, enemies in fighting games that try to predict the player's next move and preempt it are also on this level of awareness. If the fact that I've been playing more offensively causes an enemy to play more defensively, they're making decisions based on the fact that I will probably decide to keep attacking.

[I'm not sure if this is how the AI in fighting games actually works, though]

Lvl 5 - I think about what other people are thinking about me
This level of awareness in AI is pretty rare, mostly reserved for chess bots, RTS armies, and fighting game opponents. This is essentially AI that can trick you.

If a chess bot lures your bishop out of the way with a pawn so that it can capture your queen, or an enemy in an rpg feigns death until you let your guard down, these are all tactics based on making the player think something that isn't true.

Likewise any AI that has the ability to bluff and try to scare away a player that could actually attack them falls under this same umbrella. Generally I'd only expect to see this sort of thing in poker or strategy games.

Imagine in an RPG if enemies that have detected you in stealth didn't immediately go "HUH?" and look at you, but just subtly tried to walk toward you without indicating that they'd seen you. They'd use the fact that you thought they hadn't seen you to get in close before ambushing you at the last second. This sort of AI would be incredibly scary and make players very paranoid.

Human opponents and Yomi Layers

AI with an awareness level of 4 or 5 are generally the best way to prepare players to face off against human opponents, but they still aren't as dangerous as a real person. It's amazing how many more layers of deception human players are capable of, often without even realizing that we're doing it.

Check out this great article by Dave Sirlin about what happens when I start thinking about what you're thinking about what I'm thinking about what you're doing (and beyond). He refers to this as Yomi Layer 3, and apparently in competitive fighting games it's common for players to think about Yomi Layers 3, 4, and even 5.

The term "Yomi Layer" is probably new to you, but it describes a concept that should be very familiar if you've ever seen the The Princess Bride.