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Game Design

The last week or so has been a bit odd as I’ve found myself, at the age of 36, finally getting into Minecraft for the first time. I suppose this is an appropriate time to get started – if we’re all going to be stuck inside all day, we may as well escape to a virtual outdoors (or, as the case may be, a gargantuan virtual mineshaft).

I started playing, naturally enough, because many of my online friends – mostly the community around the now dormant Idle Thumbs podcast – began playing. This all started last week when one of the erstwhile hosts of Idle Thumbs, Nick Breckon, streamed a tour through all of the previous Minecraft worlds, eight in total, created by past members of the Idle Thumbs community. It was strange and beautiful and a little sad touring through these dense and intricate worlds, filled with huge monuments, humble homes, and gratuitous in-jokes – like touring a city after the rapture, suddenly emptied of people but still in pristine condition, like looking at a photograph of a person who was born, who lived, who died, all a long time ago.

I’ve been taken by surprise by how quickly and strongly the experience of playing Minecraft has grabbed me. As with most people who spend their time attempting game development, I seem to seldom find myself able to make time to actually play them – and Minecraft has, somehow, become a big exception. While Minecraft is notorious for being compelling, many games with the same reputation tend to leave me cold – though in all cases having friends to play with helps. As with any instance where I find myself strongly compelled by an experience, though, I have to wonder exactly what need it is fulfilling – after all, when one keeps returning to the well it’s only reasonable to conclude that one is thirsty. There are a few reasons which are obvious and not really worth addressing in depth as they’re so commonplace – a sense of communal participation, a form of steady progress and outlet for creativity, a virtual place to relax where the outside world cannot intrude, much virtual ink has been spilled about these appeals – but obvious traits are the most readily emulated and made available in other similar games, so I’m left to wonder what it is about the community, the progress, the creativity, the relaxation that is unique to Minecraft.

One aspect of creativity in Minecraft that I think subtly creates the compulsion to play for long periods is how ugly and clumsy it actually is. I expect there are many builder games that have tried to follow in its footsteps and allow the player to build things which are more intricate and detailed, which offer more fine-tuned control and more powerful tools – but I don’t actually know of them, because why would one want to play something like that? The more powerful the tools get, the more detailed or realistic their output, the more we become bogged down by our desire to make things correct, to do a good job – and so, instead of focusing on what’s interesting to us and how to go about it, we end up focusing on what we’re doing wrong, and the mere possibility of quality becomes an anchor that drags us down and holds us in place. Minecraft creates a space where it’s possible to make something interesting and attractive, but impossible to make it representational or finely detailed – and, though it’s possible to get into some truly byzantine automation and functional structure, these are usually a means to whatever end the player has dedicated themselves to. I have discovered that I find it surprisingly appealing simply to be able to build at a scale that can be walked through, participated in – the degree of granularity in the 3d world of Minecraft is exactly the largest scale that can still allow for meaningful human-sized interactions. What has always interested me in games is the ability to create a space that a person experiences, create a tiny life for them to live inside their main life, and being able to quickly assemble a space, however crude, gives me a taste of that – one which I don’t have to spend weeks to manifest. Additionally, whatever I create is placed within the context of a greater world – if I spend weeks painstakingly modeling and texturing a convenience store, it’s a convenience store in a black void, but if I spend a few hours creating a convenience store in Minecraft it’s an anomaly, an incongruous white building in a forest or desert, and it takes on additional meaning.

For a game that’s considered ‘addictive’, though, Minecraft doesn’t do most of the things that games described as such usually do. There’s a character leveling system of sorts, but the levels are really more of a currency that you can spend to upgrade items, so in that regard just another resource like gold or iron – and, though finding materials and using them to make and upgrade gear is important, it’s not really the thrust of the game. While a full suit of enchanted diamond armor and tools will help you do things, it’s not much of a goal to be aspired to in and of itself – and, though the server I’m playing on has no consequences for death, under normal circumstances any of these resources could be easily lost by one severe mistake. Whatever I do I do for myself and my friends – not because I was told to do it, informed by the game that it is the goal, the correct way to play. Because I’m not being told what to do, what my goal is, what I should feel rewarded by, I don’t feel manipulated or exploited when playing the game – which is a sadly unusual sensation when playing games. That being said, there’s a newer version of the game which introduces the ‘minecoin’ premium currency for buying special cosmetics, so, uh… I can’t say how universal that freeing experience might be at this point.

Everything in the game is a means to an end, but it’s up to the player to decide what that end ought to be. Eventually, enthusiasm will wane. Eventually all of us playing the game now will lose interest, the server will be abandoned, and the remains will be preserved – and it will be, rather than a place we spend hours every day, just another dead Idle Thumbs Minecraft world. This, too, I believe is part of the appeal: There’s a lie I like to tell myself some days, that the things I build might outlast me, might reach further than I can comprehend and last longer than I can imagine. Just another reason to strive for perfection. Just another reason to create the very best I am capable of. There’s freedom in knowing that nothing here will really last – and that knowing that what I make, I only make because it’s what I want to make – not a means to an end, but an end in and of itself.

At a certain point, one has to become comfortable with the idea of reaching an end.

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Game design is the art of building systems to generate an expressive and aesthetically interesting output. Challenge is often implied, but isn’t a necessary trait of these systems – usually challenge is the product of stated or implied rules of engagement with the systems, with the punishments it imposes policing the boundaries of proper play. However, when you build any complex system with a human participant, the outcomes aren’t necessarily predictable – rules and punishments, boundaries and rewards which seemed on paper to produce the desired result could end up producing different results altogether. Sometimes these results are fun, are interesting and resonant with the designers intent – and sometimes they aren’t.

Thus, as a game designer, we have to approach problems with an eye towards how they will interact with natural human impulses and what outcomes may emerge from the incentive structures we place. It may seem that the last few essays I’ve posted here, structure and systemic criticisms of the world we live in, are rather far afield from the normal stated goal of Problem Machine: That of understanding art (especially the art of game design), its processes, and how the process and impact of art crosses over into our lives and shapes them. I don’t see these critiques as separable from my normal writing: If you bring analytical tools to bear on your art, it’s hard not to use them elsewhere in the world. I see systems at play, I see their degenerate outcomes, how those outcomes emerge naturally from the ink of the rules and the meat and bone of the adherents to those rules – and sometimes it’s easy to forget that not everyone else sees these things, or at least sees them the way I do, and that others may find utility in this perspective. I find it useful to write out these thoughts both to formalize them for myself and to share this conceptualization of the otherwise extremely abstract problems we face.

The first thing that must be understood to understand the systems we live in is the idea of feedback. In game design we usually avoid positive feedback loops. The people who participate in our legal and economic systems are those who were born into them and raised with their value set, and as they gain influence the same factors that emerged from the system to shape those people flow back into the system to shape how it functions. If we’re raised to believe that wealth is merit and admirable in its own right, those raised that way will work to knock down any barriers to the acquisition of wealth that exist in the system, treating those barriers as a fundamental evil, a violation of the tenets they were raised on. Over time, we optimize – which is a wonderful tendency when what we are optimizing is made to meet the needs of our fellows and help them through life, but monstrous when it is made to crush them and extract capital from their bodies. So over time we cut into the world the same way that rivers cut into mountains, bit by bit, trying to find the shortest paths dictated by our personal gravity.

The second thing that must be understood is that this may or may not have anything to do with the original intent of the designers of the system. Sometimes the results that emerge once the feedback loop is firmly in place has no resemblance to what was once intended, and thus saying that a system has become degenerate is not necessarily a slight upon its originators – though it may be.

When you try to describe these outcomes and the intent behind them, though, it often sounds paranoid. When you speak of ‘intent’ others tend to hear conspiracy – however, the situation is not so much that a few people have captured and control the system through underhanded means but that the system itself is set up to produce people who have broadly shared intent and priorities, and that their aggregate behavior tends to push the system further in those directions. This same struggle emerges whether you’re talking about the hostile forces of wealth or of patriarchy or of racism (inasmuch as those are separable) – People hear these descriptive terms and assume they must be describing some sort of shadowy cabal rather than an outlook, a belief, a set of behaviors, all which work together and reinforce themselves to create a hostile society. The only way to change the long term outcome of systems like these without destroying them outright (a rather traumatic process) is to divert the flow, to redefine the collective outlook, to, as they say, change the conversation – but this is difficult when everyone already bought into the system is motivated to maintain the status quo they were brought up in.

Just because the system is intentional, predictable, and produces output, though, doesn’t mean that it makes sense. We have favored systems which provide short-term profit at long-term costs to ourselves and the environment we live in (thus also to ourselves). Everybody accepts that that’s true to some extent – rather than even arguing against the external havoc wreaked by unrestrained industrialization and exploitation, it’s more frequently argued that taking care of our environment (which we, again, rely on for living) is unnecessary, or that the environment is somehow so resilient we couldn’t possibly change it in any way. Yet, even in light of this evidence, we still try to convince ourselves that this system is not dysfunctional, merely being lead astray by bad actors, and that if we remove them we can just go back to normal.

There is no normal to go back to. Normal was built on an ice cube that has melted. We’re running out of time to build something that lasts – we’re losing leverage to maintain a livable world. The status quo has enough adherents that it’s an uphill struggle. It’s a matter of survival to dismantle and reroute the current structure of power – the only question that ought to remain is how.

A lot of people perceive these problems on some level, but if one doesn’t have a systemic perspective the conclusions one often jumps to tend to be… problematic. When the world is supposed to work a certain way, and it clearly isn’t functioning, it’s natural to try to look for obvious culprits – and, if you’re not seeing the problem as systemic, that culprit is probably going to be an individual or narrow group that is largely unrelated to the problem itself. Thus we see, in times of trouble, a proliferation of usually racist conspiracy theories, a vapid desire to blame everything on the Jews or the Chinese or the Russians or whoever, when the problem is so much more insidious and so wide-spread and obvious it becomes invisible to us like the air we breathe.

This is also why I’ve been writing a lot about the role of games themselves in perpetuating this system and its ideals. Everything is, in fact, connected – not in some grandiose mystical way, but in the merest terms of the stories we tell ourselves every day to make sense of the world.

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We are surrounded in spirals by the paths we never took. Every choice ever made was a branching point, and just under the surface of our lives lie the possibilities of countless other lives we might have lived. This is a commonly, almost even universally explored theme – most stories involve some degree of wistful imagination for the things that might have been, most stories contain questions of whether the choice a character made was the right choice, and what might have happened had they chosen differently. One might even argue that a wistful imagination of something that might have been is the definition of fiction (and, for that matter, most non-fiction).

Games have a somewhat more complex relationship with causality, though: They are not just one story, one branch with one ending, but a system of stories, a tree with many branches. With a game’s story, there is often no need to question what might have been if you’d made a different choice, because if you’re really curious you can go to a wiki and look it up – or, if the title is too new or obscure for that, the truth of the matter is still only a quick-load away. The coulda-shoulda-wouldas that haunt us are, with this additional information, boiled down to did I, should I, ought I, a path chosen with full information and intent rather than blundered down in the dark as we are often left to do with the real decisions that burden us.

What does it imply about the world to create a simulation where every outcome is fundamentally foreseeable? Every computer game is at its core a simulation, where every action has a predictable outcome, where there’s a proper way to achieve every goal. Every simulation is a model of alternate reality, a statement that each effect has a particular cause. We can create whatever rules we want, whatever rules seem correct or interesting to us, regardless of how these causes map to the effects in reality. We can use this to forward arguments – we can hardly avoid doing so! So every game is a simulation and each simulation an argument for a given model of reality. Our alternate reality may be built on alternate facts while still purporting to be an accurate simulation of the real world. I discussed how certainty of outcome in simulation lead to misleading worldviews a couple of weeks ago, so I needn’t do so again here: Because every game is a static simulation, this creates the form of false certainty I discussed, a faith in the reliability of this most likely faulty model of reality.

However, we must ask: Is it mandatory that every outcome be knowable? With the emergence (or resurgence) of the roguelike genre, this isn’t necessarily so. Though many other genres use randomness to determine the outcome of particular decisions, the roguelike genre uses randomness to generate the entire game world – at least! More adventurous examples of the genre might dynamically generate story elements, usable items, and even the interactions of systemic elements. In this way, it is possible to create a true black box, by creating a layer of abstraction – by, rather than merely crafting the rules and world of the game, crafting the meta-rules, crafting the meta-world, and letting those generate the intermediary game for the player to directly interface with and experience.

We can take another step back: When we went from the traditional narrative form to game design, we went from crafting narrative to crafting systems that craft narrative – and, to once again attain the unknowability we have surrendered, we must make a system to craft a system that crafts narrative. Maybe we’ll get wise to that eventually, and will have to make AIs to craft systems to craft systems to craft narrative. The divine is that which can never be known, we seek it piece by piece, and it’s turtles all the way down.

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The conceit of strategy games is an interesting one. Most strategy games place you as the general of an army, or some other authority figure, and tasks you with managing an army or other complex system and directing it towards victory. This makes sense as a sort of high level abstraction, but also makes it so abstract that aren’t playing so much as a leader but as a living embodiment of the army (or town, or empire) that you are meant to be managing. Giving orders is not a matter of communication with your officers or of drawing up plans, but of pressing buttons and relocating objects directly – and these orders have a narrow scope of what they can be (usually constrained to moving somewhere, building something, or attacking something), and are instantaneous, and are never misinterpreted or disobeyed.

This is a conception of what leadership looks like that is particularly interesting because it is highly erroneous. Of course, armies aren’t controlled by individuals, they are controlled by a chain of command, which has decisions made at every level, with each decision interpreted with varying levels of creativity, and communication channels that are not always reliable. Games are seldom interested in these sorts of leadership challenges, though, preferring to present players with the unsullied challenge of acquiring and allocating resources. However, this tendency extends beyond games: We seldom think of leadership in general this way, of a distant and easily-misinterpreted voice yelling from a rooftop – we instead tend to think of the leader as being in some way the heart of the system they are meant to command, to being the source of all its successes and its failures, and this is the understanding of leadership we’ve crystallized into our strategy games.

The outcome of a complex system seldom comes down to the actions of one individual. While leadership is a real skill with real consequences, the success of a system comes down to how well that system functions as a whole, not down to how well it’s managed at the top. Some more recent strategy games have a degree of awareness of this: You might have to manage individual leaders with individual personality traits, or balance a relationship with your labor force – but these are only treated as volatile resources for you, the leader, to manipulate into position, rather than actors in the system with their own approach and agenda.

These implicit assumptions about how things must work end up skewing the worlds depicted. There’s always a tendency in games to reify the idea of meritocracy, to attempt construction of a world where the most ‘worthy’ players, who understand and can execute on the systems, are rewarded with the most success. This assumption lands very differently, though, in games which portray one-time incidents with protagonists in unique situations, as in adventure or action games, than it does in games which span large number of people, such as city planning or military strategy.

We have a set of axioms that we call good game design: The player must be in ultimate control of their fate, the outcome of an action must be predictable before the action is undertaken, and there should be no options that are always the best or always useless. However, all of these are toxic as an implied model of functional reality: Individuals are seldom in ultimate control of their destiny, the outcome of our actions is never easy to predict, and there are many options that are clearly useless or obviously optimal. The reason why I say toxic, rather than merely inaccurate, is because this does start to hew rather closely to the right-wing conception of the world – where all negative consequences are due to individual failing, where if anything bad happens after someone’s actions they clearly deserved it because they ought to have known better, and where the ends can justify the most atrocious of means – after all, if you add the tactical decisions of ‘enhanced interrogation’, execution of dissidents, or even genocide to your game for historical or simulational reasons, you are then obliged to make them viable decisions for reasons of ‘game balance’.

This is one of the reasons why the idea of ’empathy games’, games designed to engender empathy for those who are systemically disadvantaged by putting you into their shoes, has never succeeded – because, in order to turn these challenges into a game, you must make them quantifiable and surmountable, which then leads the player to an even less empathetic, more right-wing mindset. To even create a simulation in the first place, you are required to systematize, in concrete terms, decisions and entities which have debatable actual effects in the world – that is, whatever our real opinions on militarized police and the carceral state, in a video game about city management adding a police station will reduce crime and reduced crime will make people happier – and it’s as simple as that. Nuance and complexity are lost because these are inimical to the fairness and clarity required by good game design as we understand it.

What might be a better model of leadership, then? It is frankly difficult to imagine one in the context of a single-player game. If we expand out to multiplayer, though, we can imagine one that is simultaneously co-operative and competitive – as so many real-life situations tend to be. One where the players are working towards the same goal, but have vastly different priorities as to how that goal is achieved. For instance, we could have a game where the players jointly control a factory: One, the CEO, tries to maximize the corporation’s monetary output at all costs, while the other, the worker, attempts to gain enough pay to survive on while expending the minimum possible cost to their time and well-being. Neither one is particularly interested in the well-being of the other, but both are interested in keeping the factory running smoothly. We could add other players, such as a spouse who has to manage the worker’s resources, a customer who tries to purchase goods as cheap as possible, or a manager who has to be the intermediary between the CEO and the worker, to create a fuller and more interesting simulation Of course, one could ask why the worker needs the CEO at all. Regardless, another version of this might be the general and the soldier, where the general needs to take a tactical objective at any cost, but the soldier’s goal is to stay alive. One might wonder why taking that objective is worth the soldier dying for. Nevertheless.

The problem, really, is that fairness is treated as an axiom of game design, but as exasperated mothers everywhere like to say the world isn’t fair. This rock and this hard place keep butting up against each other, and slowly the tenets of game design start to give way – and we become more willing to explore the territory of unfairness, through the random territory of roguelikes to the volatile war zone of battles royale.

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For the past month, I’ve been working on my entry to the Idle Thumbs community game jam, Wizard Jam X. This is the final Wizard Jam, due to the Idle Thumbs podcast going into a long-term hiatus from which it may never awake. I really wanted to make something special for this one. I think I achieved about half of what I’d hoped to do, but I am reasonably satisfied with the result.

Without further context or explanation, I present Eight Seconds: Manipulated Through Time.

The concept of Wizard Jam is to take the title of one of the Idle Thumbs podcasts – or one of their several associated podcasts – and to make a game with the same title, which may or may not have anything whatsoever to do with its source material. Later Wizard Jams have diverged from this formula somewhat in order to keep things fresh, but I’ve always been a fan of this approach so I stuck with it. In this case, I chose the title “Manipulated Through Time”. I always find it interesting imagining to what degree we might be capable of representing time travel in video games – We have tremendous control of allowing the player to revisit everything prior to the current moment in the game, since we can freely record and play back those previous game states – but can we make it possible for them to interact with the future in a meaningful way?

Well, that’s still an interesting idea, but I wasn’t really able to robustly pursue it here because it turns out my hands were quite full with allowing the player to interact with the past – though the idea of these two interactions being equivalent is also presented. It was important to me to make it so the player interacted with that past in a meaningful way – not just as a static recording, but as something more tangible – and, in so doing, that also means that you are directly affecting your future self with the actions you’re taking now.

This is always true, just revealed a bit more explicitly here.

My original concept of the game was that every minute, time would be reversed. For each minute, you would interact with your shadow self, which was doing everything you just did but in reverse, and by so doing you would navigate puzzles and so forth. While thinking about this, I realized that in that first minute, before there was any shadow to interact with, the player would have no idea what was going on – and that even once the idea of the time reflection began to make sense, controlling your inputs precisely, with reversal in mind, for an entire minute would still be nearly impossible. The obvious solution was to shorten this feedback loop to a shorter period of time so it was more feasible to observe the results of your actions. I waffled for a while considering different time values and eventually settled on eight seconds as an appropriate length for the time loop. I also eventually ended up making variants on this time reflection idea – you’d have reflections that reversed the flow of time, or echoes that moved the same temporal direction as you but with an eight-second delay, or reflections that had an echo of their own, and so forth. This undermined the original idea of a time loop where you were interacting with yourself directly, but by the time I got to this point I’d forgotten that was the original idea – and only remembered just now, when describing it here. I included the duration into the title to make it a little bit clearer what was happening (the tutorial for a game can begin with the title!) and also had some slight visual changes with each tick and each “reversal” to add to that clarity.

Because the concept was so innately difficult to wrap one’s brain around, I tried to make the game’s other elements as simple as possible. I had some idea of physics puzzles, of raising platforms with your reflection in order to traverse them, of tossing items to yourself – and, while these aspects are not entirely absent, they’re all done within the incredible simple framework of doors, switches that open doors, and boxes that can go on switches. However, because the player can be duplicated, and because whatever the player is holding when they’re duplicated can also be duplicated, even the simplest of these can become remarkably complex in practice.

What I came to realize over the course of the project is that there’s two somewhat contradictory sets of goals at play: That which builds interesting and thought-provoking puzzles using the mechanics, and that which builds an interesting moment-to-moment experience using the mechanics. These aren’t entirely contradictory of course: The idea of a fraught cooperation with your past selves implies challenges to be surmounted, so developing the theme requires challenge and developing challenge requires use of the theme, but there are points where these impulses push me in opposite directions. For instance, a huge amount of clarity could have been added to the puzzle solving if I locked the camera into a top-down perspective and made the movement turn-based – but this would also reduce the sense of the self being reflected, and reduce your interaction to a player and a pawn rather than a player with an avatar representing that player. In this case, I made the decision to present the game in first-person early on in production before realizing these ramifications – so, in the end, it becomes more of an experience than a proper puzzle game, with most puzzles being solved by fiddling with the scenario until an answer emerges rather than actually being thought through.

When it came to the appearance of the game, I wanted something highly detailed but not necessarily realistic. I was imagining the hyper-detailed surreal scenes of Twin Peaks or the minimalist stop motion of the 1989 Oscar-winning animated short Balance, something that felt very physical and real but without any grounding in the physical limitations of reality. I ended up leaning heavily on a free (deprecated) 3d tileset called Simple Corridors – because it was free and had PBR (Physically Based Rendering) materials, which is a fancy name for including a standard set of rendering textures that approximate the appearance of real materials. I originally planned on having a few separate environments, but since I didn’t have the time or skillset to make this type of asset on my own and didn’t want to break the bank buying professional assets I ended up making every area of the game a variant on the first tutorial zone I created – which, honestly, was probably all for the better, since it added to the thematic idea of being suspended in time.

For the music, I wanted to integrate both reversed and unreversed instruments, and have it be at times unclear which was which – it was also, since timing was such a huge part of the game, an opportunity to convey the eight seconds conceit through another information channel. I could have, and perhaps should have, executed this as a static music track, but instead I created a simple adaptive music system using several separate music stems for each instrument, each being 8 or 16 seconds long and each with an assigned intensity value. Trigger volumes set the music intensity as the player progresses through the level, which randomly plays a random sample of the appropriate intensity at timed intervals – many of which are reversed versions of other samples. The basic idea of this worked really well, creating something that sounded more or less intentional and built over time – but, because Unity’s support for playing arbitrary sound samples is much less robust than it is for creating a dedicated sound emitter, I had a number of issues with controlling these sounds, from slight desyncs caused by frame timing to large variations created by the game being paused for the settings menu. Also, as I built the musical components out more the administrative overhead of managing even this relatively simple song structure became significant. It was a worthwhile experience, but I’ll likely try to integrate one of the existing middlewares for adaptive music next time I want to do something like this, just to have a proper editor at my disposal. All in all, I’m pleased but not entirely satisfied with how the musical component turned out – it sounds interesting some of the time, and seldom degrades into true cacophony, but it does sound like a slipshod implementation of the idea it represents – which it is. I decided that sound effects would just detract from the surreal experience, though, and didn’t bother with them.

Other technical difficulties emerged through the time reversal system itself, which should be a surprise to no one. Recording and playing back a character’s history is fairly trivial, but recording and playing back a history in a way that still acts on the world, and that can be acted on, is a more significant challenge. All values must be relative instead of absolute – and movement values must be relative both to the world and to the facing of the character. Partway through the project I decided to vary the levels by mirroring them and scaling them, and I hadn’t considered earlier on what effects this might have on game entities which existed within these worlds. The reflection of the player was modified by the transformation of the world it was placed in, which is thematically interesting but absolutely not my desired result. Suddenly whenever they were supposed to turn right they’d turn left, entirely because right and left had traded places in the world they were now put in. Other issues came in when I added the ability for the player and the reflections to grab and throw each other, which then created rotational feedback loops where, when the rotation of the character was recorded for the next playback, it would record both the player and the reflection’s rotation summed together. Some of these issues may still exist, though I tried to stomp out as many as I could – but even aside from the technical challenge of implementing a solution, figuring out what a solution even ought to look like was frequently a non-trivial design challenge. What does it mean to pick up or drop an item in reverse, and what effect should these actions have on the world? What degree of physical interaction between the player and their reflection enabled interesting outcomes, and what was unfeasible to implement? What was likely to break the game? I had to answer each of these, and though I ended up approaching most of these conservatively it was still an unpredictable game and prone to weird breaks which I had to take a few extra days to debug.

I’m happy with how the project turned out, but I don’t think my methodology was very good. I dropped everything to work on this, and I think the end result of that was unhealthier work habits and hours, a lack of focus, and a bunch of extra stress I probably didn’t need to deal with. Though this is the last Wizard Jam (for now?), I will likely participate in some other game jams in the future – and these tough lessons are ones I think I’d better keep in mind when I do.

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In August of 1993, Magic: The Gathering was released. I was 10 at the time, and it was a year or so later that I was introduced to the game, I believe somewhere in between the release of the Antiquities and Legends expansion sets. Magic was obviously a huge hit, though it didn’t reach its peak of popularity until a while later. The experience of a kid discovering it then, though, when it was relatively niche, was rather different I suspect from how most people encounter it now.

Magic is a complex game – and was in some ways even more so at the time, since they’ve found a few ways to streamline the rules in the meanwhile. Every box of cards came with a tiny dense little instruction booklet, and while it was fine for understanding the basic flow of play and most common interactions, edge cases and peculiarities were resolved by vigorous debate about what made the most sense. At times it was difficult to sort out the differences between what cards did and what they seemed they ought to do – it takes quite a while for a child to wholly internalize the idea that even though the Frozen Shade is clearly flying in its illustration, it still doesn’t have the flying ability.

There was, then, a sense of magic – so to speak. A feeling of imagination and wonder imbued the cards, and the illustrations, which were often crude by the standards of more recent cards, still spoke tantalizingly of an exciting fantasy narrative behind the game. In the decades since, they’ve released novels and reams of lore fleshing out this fantasy narrative, which I guess is fine too. It probably would have excited me at the time, but isn’t interesting to me now. As well, in the decades since, the mechanics have been thoroughly explored, dissected, and optimized. There’s general consensus now what the good cards and bad cards are, how to best use them, how to construct a deck, how to win. This is great, it’s fun to see a game I once loved have such a long and varied life, but it is completely different now from the game that I once played.

Magic is a game of seemingly infinite possibilities. The cards are so many and so intricate that it seems that you can build anything, build fantastic impractical contraptions or lean hard tournament-winning decks, can go wherever your imagination can take you – if you have the money. Every card has to be bought, and the more useful it is the more it will cost you. It’s a pay-to-win game in a very literal sense, and people probably would dismiss it as such if it were released now in the same format. However, at the time it was the first of its kind, and in so being it paved the way for the modern mobile game as well as every other title that sells itself in bits and pieces, components of a satisfying experience instead of a creation unto itself. Even the biggest AAA titles now have elements of Magic in their DNA.

It is a legacy one hesitates to admire, but the mark has been made.

Computer game versions of Magic have since been released, along with competing games like Hearthstone. Hearthstone has much simpler rules, but more importantly those rules are all formalized by the programming of the game. There is no room for debate, there’s no opportunity to call in judges, the game works in the way the game is made – which, again, probably removes some of the mystique, but makes it far more approachable for beginners.

All of this brings me to Slay the Spire, which I’ve gained renewed enthusiasm for after taking a long hiatus from playing. This is, first of all, not a perfect comparison – Slay the Spire is a dedicated single-player experience instead of a head-to-head dueling game, and the rules are substantially simpler, though the interactions can become extremely complex. While Magic aspires to a sort of free-market egalitarianism, Slay the Spire is overtly unfair. In Magic, it’s impossible to create a perfect deck that never loses because the rules constrain it from being possible – in Slay the Spire, it’s (nearly) impossible to create a perfect deck that never loses because you don’t know what you’re going to be given to build it. Some Slay the Spire runs are cake walks; some are walking on thin ice. Because you’re improvising with what you find, though, there’s an opportunity to discover weird edge case interactions you never would have found if you were building something with specific intent – and, indeed, there must certainly some wild and undiscovered interactions between the vast library of Magic cards released, over 10,000 separate cards, that will remain unfound indefinitely because no one ever has cause to use most of those cards.

A similar work-with-what-you-find ethic can be found in some special draft formats of Magic, where players break up a box of new cards and take turns pulling the cards they want and try to build the best deck they can out of what they get – and though this is an expensive way to play in its own right this at least helps eliminate the pay-to-win factor. When money is eliminated as a factor, the playing field is relatively level, and the game is deemed fair once more.

What interests me about the relationship between a card game released in the 90s and a card game released now, though, is how our perception of fairness has changed over time. With the popularity of Slay the Spire specifically and roguelikes, a genre where vast swathes of the gameplay experience is left to brutal chance, in general – and the explosive popularity of the battle royale genre, a genre where circumstances as much as skill determine your chances of success – it appears that the modern understanding of fairness is shifting. The belief that underpin Magic as a game is that every player should be equal in the eyes of the rules – if not necessarily economically equal. It’s a meritocracy, as long as we assume merit to equal money… And that’s usually what we mean when we say meritocracy. There’s random chance, but it usually gets ironed out for the most part by keen strategizing and the law of large numbers. However, modern games are much more willing to cede that not everyone starts on a level playing field, that some people are born dead, screwed from the start, and pose the challenge of how to do the best that you can under the worst possible circumstances.

I would hesitate to infer too much from this shift. These axioms could come from a belief that the world is unjust and that the human struggle is one of creating justice. These axioms could just as easily come from a belief that anyone can succeed no matter where they come from, the old American Dream – as opposed to the new one, where anyone might not merely succeed but become wildly wealthy. It is a fascinating shift in the way we talk about and think about games, though: Fairness is, as a tenet of game design, becoming rather passe.

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Last week I wrote about how no two people walk away from a piece of art with the same conception of what they just saw. I mostly couched that in terms of older media like visual art and film, but this idea applies to games in an especially interesting way. If we regard a film as a set of visual moments set to narrative that creates an experience in the viewer, a game is sort of like a set of systems that generate those visual and narrative moments – a sort of movie machine. This is not an especially popular perspective, since most games that try to directly reproduce the experience of seeing a movie tend to be hamhanded and tedious, but it’s a useful analogy for understanding some of the ways games can be interesting.

Sometimes, as in the case of a strategy or classic arcade game, the point of interest is meant to lie within the systems and learning how to understand and exploit them, with the visuals and narrative working to express the system state – sometimes, instead, as with RPGs or visual novels, the point of interest is in the narrative, with the systems working to vary the expression of that narrative. The art of games becomes a kind of meta-art – so, just as our perception of the experience of the game varies from person to person and context to context, so does our perception of the systems of the game that created this experience. Most people, in effect, never end up playing the game itself, but playing their perception of the game – they don’t follow the rules that are coded in, they just follow their understanding of the rules. They don’t engage with the systems that exist, they engage with the systems that they find useful and interesting. The game which they experience is, in the end, just a sub-game made of a larger whole.

All this is very abstract, but one doesn’t have to look very far to see instances of this dynamic. An obvious example of this is in skill trees, which many RPGs such as the Diablo series have and which only allow you to pick a small subset of the existing abilities to use. A somewhat less obvious example are the huge variety of spells and weapons in Dark Souls, of which most people have only used a few. A perhaps even less obvious example is when games provide some tactical option that many players simply choose not to use – such as the cover system in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which I personally largely ignored after about 15 minutes of play. In each of these, the game that you actually end up playing is a smaller subset of the game as it exists, comprised of those systems which you find interesting or believe to be useful.

What do we mean when we say that a game allows the player a large degree of choice? To a significant degree, what we are saying is that we allow the player to choose what parts of the game to ignore, to allow them the freedom to create the sub-game within the game that most appeals to them. Puzzle games offer very little choice, because you’re forced to fully engage with and understand the systems in order to solve them – since, in most cases, the puzzles have but one solution. Strategy games provide a vast field of solutions to various interlaced dilemmas, many of which you can ignore in order to implement your chosen approach.

This understanding of choice through systemic engagement is of particular interest when considered in the discussion of difficulty and accessibility. While it’s often possible in RPGs to hammer through challenges through sheer skill or cleverness, the systems other players might ignore frequently become ways to progress to those who can’t manage the straightforward solutions. Helpful tools such as turrets, which might be useless to a player who has no issue with aiming, could be fundamental to a player who does not have that capability. If the game is designed to be expansive, and to encompass many approaches that are applicable to different capabilities, then the sub-game the player ends up creating might end up feeling more complete and satisfying – potentially more so than if you simply offer difficulty or accessibility settings to achieve the same purpose.

However, this comes with a drawback. If the player is creating their sub-game out of the systems you have provided, there’s nothing that guarantees whatever system-combination they devise will actually generate a satisfying experience. Many games are actually designed in such a way that this outcome becomes likely – such as, for instance, having a mechanic that’s de-emphasized for much of the game only to become useful, or even necessary, at the end – long after the player’s forgotten about it. Or, as in many cases, the method of play that the player identifies as most effective are actually the most tedious ways to play the game, so the player quickly gets bored of the experience, a problem which I’ve discussed in the past.

This all adds up to be a lot to keep in mind while designing your game. How necessary are the different mechanics? What capabilities and aptitudes do they open windows for? Are there combinations of these systems that will create a bland and uninteresting experience? What will the scope of created experiences look like? It seems, at times, impossible to account for all of these permutations and their significance. Just like the player, you may never fully grasp your game. All you can do is seek to shape it into something which ends up interesting and appealing, no matter how you slice it.

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