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This week my first attempt at a legendary difficulty campaign of the XCOM 2 expansion, War of the Chosen, went down in flames. Also this week, I started my first real and persistent attempts at learning Unity and building a game in its toolset. It’s been a week of exploration, unfamiliarity, and uncertainty.

I’ve learned something about challenge, this week. I learned that you can either give yourself a difficult task or an unfamiliar task, and either of those might go poorly, but if you give yourself a task that is both difficult and unfamiliar you are really asking for trouble. When I started the War of the Chosen campaign, I assumed it was mostly the same as XCOM 2 with a few additions. It turned out that almost every mission type was completely different than before. It turned out that many of the things I’d learned about how to play the game from playing before the expansion either were no longer relevant or came with new caveats I wasn’t aware of. It turned out I shouldn’t position a soldier on a fire escape attached to a building that was slowly caving in on itself. It was very educational.

Not only does War of the Chosen introduce a lot of new mechanics to the game, the mechanics it introduces are comparatively opaque, driven more by narrative than mostly systems-determined missions of XCOM 2. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is a thing that will completely destroy an unprepared player who has reduced their margin for error to close to nil by playing on the hardest difficulty.

But what about Unity? Fortunately, in that case I was smart enough to not try to overlap two kinds of difficulty, and I set myself an easy task to do in an unfamiliar environment: Make some sort of game or game-like experience by the end of the month. Of course, my approach to doing that still makes things characteristically difficult for myself, such as by getting deep into the specifics of the physics system to get a jump animation to work just the way I want it to or to make a cursor in 3d space lock onto the closest available surface, but I’m getting somewhere and I’m learning a lot.

It’s important sometimes to be able to embrace ignorance. Having an appreciation of learning is only possible when you have an understanding of just how much you don’t know – the reason why so many people resent education and expertise is not resentment at the knowledge and skill people accumulate, but resentment at the implication, by having knowledge and skill, that those who do not have it are ignorant and unskilled. Learning becomes an insult, training becomes a prank. Everyone has this seed in them, a part of them that hates their limitations so much that they can’t stand to see anyone excel. Only by accepting our ignorance can we learn to move past it. It’s not like Socrates’ knowing enough to know that he knew nothing: It’s knowing that you know nothing so that you are able to replace the nothing with something.

Sometimes it helps to take a dive into the unfamiliar. Not only is it a necessary prerequisite to making the unfamiliar familiar, old assumptions and habits start to be cast into a new light and questioned anew. Scraping away superficial layers of knowledge sometimes helps one to attain a more complete, clarified knowledge.

Or, at least, these are pleasant things to tell oneself while one is being reborn, unaccustomedly ignorant, weakened, and infantilized.

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I didn’t put up a devblog last month, and I’m not sure if anyone noticed. I’ve noticed a cyclical trend over the last couple of years: I work on EverEnding, hit a point where it’s difficult or tedious to progress, decide I need to take a break from EverEnding, I start working on another project, something goes wrong with that project or I get anxious about not making progress, and I come back to EverEnding. Throughout it all, progress gets made, and I learn. Slowly.

That’s what’s killing me now. What good is slow progress? How long is the rapidly deteriorating world going to sit and let me ‘perfect my art’? Can I sit down and write another blog post about how “it may take me five more years to finish this but so be it I’m in for the long haul!” when I know so little about what the world will look like in five years? Will there be a world in five years? Even if that weren’t the situation, though, I think I’d be coming to be less comfortable with this idea of finishing art ‘eventually’, ‘someday’. It’s tenable to put art out there which you’re not sure if anyone is going to care about, and it’s tenable to spend many years making art, but combining these, spending years creating something you have no idea if anyone is going to care about…

I’m increasingly tempted to focus more on things that aren’t making games, on trying to make art and music or trying to do more writing. They might not have any more of an audience, but at least they can be done to a reasonable level of quality within a few days – or a few weeks or months, depending on the scope. At the same time, I have a hard time seeing myself ever completely focusing on any one of these pursuits – one of the reasons I’ve always been enamored with the concept of game development is the promise of being able to explore all these different media through a unifying meta-medium. Now, though, I just feel scattered – it would be bad enough to spend my days carrying water to fill a well that might not have a bottom and that I’m unsure if anyone will drink from, but I find myself pouring into several such wells. What can this achieve?

I think I’m improving, but improving at what? I’m improving at working on making a game, but not at actually making games – after all, in all this time, how many games have I actually made? I’m getting better at being comfortable in a cycle of development that never ends, miniscule gains that never pay off. I don’t know that this is the correct skill to learn. I need to learn how to actually make things, not how to be ceaselessly in the process of making them.

So that’s the skill I’m going to try to practice. I’m going to spend some time studying the tools that are available, most notably Unity, and techniques that I’ve neglected. I’m going to set out blocks of time which I can use to make projects, and then complete them as best as I can within those time blocks – small games, primarily, but maybe I’ll also try to make an album or two or spend a month entirely on creating characters or environments. It doesn’t really matter what it is, as long as it’s something with a beginning and an end, instead of being ceaselessly borne on a current.

I’ll write about this more later, but you can expect posts around the beginning of every month detailing these projects and, hopefully, sharing some finished work. How do I know this time is going to be different? That this isn’t just another part of the cycle? I don’t, really – but these questions have begun to weigh on me more and more, and I don’t think they’re going to stop until I do something about it.

It’s time to finish something. Maybe I’ll know what it is once it’s finished.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
All the cops have wooden legs
And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth
And the hens lay soft-boiled eggs
The farmers’ trees are full of fruit
And the barns are full of hay
Oh I’m bound to go
Where there ain’t no snow
Where the rain don’t fall
The wind don’t blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

The perspective I usually like to take on art is that we enjoy it because it serves some sort of emotional need for us. We all like a certain amount of joy and sorrow, a certain amount of anger and laughter, and when life can’t provide those sometimes we seek out art to fulfill those needs – or, alternately, sometimes we are overwhelmed with sorrow or anger, or some other strong and unpleasant emotion, and seek out art about and evocative of these sensations to help us make sense of what we’re feeling. This is a helpful perspective to see from, because if a work is extremely popular even though I personally dislike it I can still examine it and gain benefit from it by trying to determine what needs it serves and how it serves them. Inversely, if I like something I can also use this as a lens to examine why, and what part of me is hungry for this kind of art.

This is not to say that all art is equal and that judgment is impossible. Some ways of serving needs are irresponsible or malicious – for instance, it’s quite common to salve the wounds of an inequitable system by blaming all the world’s ills on minorities. Some ways of serving needs are also predatory, selling snake oil or risky gambles. Many things you might consume to serve an emotional need are like drinking sea water when you’re thirsty, seeming to ease the pain for mere moments before they make it come back worse than it was before. In this way, the lens of served need can be turned to also show the many harms that can be done by art, as well as its benefits.

As someone interested in games, then, I start to ask: What needs are served by most games? What needs are served by the most popular games, and what less predominant needs are served by games with smaller followings, and what needs of mine have made the games I love my particular favorites? Most games feed the need for learning and self-improvement: Whether directly, by giving the player a challenge that they can learn to tackle over time, or indirectly with some sort of simulation that recreates the sensation of self-improvement, like an experience system. Others feed a need to feel like we can change the world by making a world malleable, allowing the creation of grand projects, cathedrals and magic machines, in relatively short order. Many games also feed the need to feel that we are gathering things, accumulating wealth or other material to make ourselves feel safer. Some games feel rewarding just because they acknowledge when we do well in a way that the rest of the world does not. Sometimes games are enjoyable just because the tasks that they offer have clear-cut parameters with definite boundaries, so you know whether a task is solved or not in a way you frequently cannot in your daily life.

There’s another step, beyond noticing what needs are fed by games, and that’s then interrogating the systems that give rise to these needs. The lives people lead, and the lacks that they perceive, are going to lead them to seek out different gaming experiences that offer different things. The world we live in, and the governments and systems that organize those worlds, are going to create the needs that create the cravings that create the games. In each instance, once we identify a need that people feel a game serves, comes the next question: Is this an inherent need that is being unsatisfied by the system, or is this a need created by the system in order to sustain itself? That question might not make intuitive sense, so let’s look at the list I mentioned in the previous paragraph, one by one.

  1. The need for self-improvement and learning. This may be an innate need, but it’s also deeply tied into our society’s conception of a human being as a commodity that has worth. By getting better at something, even if it’s trivial, you are demonstrating a capacity to learn and improve, and thus your worth to the system. Do you want to improve for your own sake, or to be a better cog in the machine? It can be hard to tell.
  2. The need to have an effect on the world. This one is, interestingly, relegated almost entirely to indie games – and likely reflects as much of the needs of the creators as it does the needs of its consumers. It’s probably not a coincidence that these building games have achieved their most massive success among children, largely prevented from manifesting any substantial effect on the real world
  3. The need to accumulate material wealth. This has obvious parallels in the capitalistic systems, but it’s also rooted enough in the hunting/gathering survival instinct that one can hardly lay the blame entirely at the feet of capitalism, as much as one would like to. However, the specific model of accumulation favored by games, where everyone has the same capacity to do it and every action has a predictable result, probably serves to prop up the concept of meritocracy, which is a vapid lie.
  4. The need to have one’s accomplishments acknowledged. I think this is an innate need to be seen, but is also exacerbated by a system where excellence is supposedly recognized by financial reward, but where that reward is increasingly withheld to line the pockets of the already extremely wealthy.
  5. The need to have a distinct task. This is probably a relatively recent one. Not too long ago, everyone expected to have basically the same job for life, and could wake up each day with a certain amount of confidence about what to expect next. Though many deride repetitive and simple games as seeming like work, the kind of work they supposedly seem like is becoming rarer and rarer, and some people do miss it.

When making a game, it’s important to think a bit about who wants to play it and why. Are you making something that feeds needs created by an unjust system, something that will only serve to act as propaganda for that system? Or are you creating something to serve a need that the system has failed to serve, something that will serve as an escape? Are you justifying evil, or positing good? These lines can become very blurry.

Difficulty has come back into fashion for video games. Many games now specifically go out of their way to cultivate a reputation as especially difficult, whereas not too long ago it was common for designers to regard any failure of the player as a failure of the game’s design. While I’m glad that we’re no longer assuming difficulty is bad or undesirable, I’m not really in favor of considering it inherently good or desirable either – and, in fact, I’m not entirely comfortable with using the word ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging’ as a descriptor, except in the most abstract approach to a game.

There’s a lot of different things that difficult could mean when describing a game, and a great number of them have little to nothing to do with each other. Most obviously, there’s a huge difference between games that challenge your reflexes, games that challenge your strategic ability, games that challenge your ability to solve puzzles, and games that challenge your knowledge. Though most games have more than one of these elements, they frequently only offer meaningful challenge in one of them. The difference between these starts to seem extremely relevant when you remember that, depending on the challenge proffered and who’s playing, the game may not even be possible to complete!

In addition to these different skills and abilities that can be challenged, there are different ways of challenging them: The obstacles themselves can become more difficult to navigate or the resources you have for navigating them can become scarcer such that you have less room for error, the obstacles can become more complex and numerous or failures can be punished more harshly. Even if the main skill being challenged by the game remains the same, changing how this challenge manifests can make for radically different experiences.

But that’s not all! In addition to the actual challenge of the game, there’s also the way the game presents its challenges. Part of why people responded well to the at-times punishing difficulty of Dark Souls is because the world is overtly harsh and intimidating. It’s easier to swallow getting your ass kicked when, rather than being some sort of god or legendary knight, you’re just another hapless undead. Now, you may end up becoming an undead who beats the shit out of legendary knights and gods, but that’s as much of a surprise to you as it is to anyone. The XCOM games script their tutorial missions to create the expectation that shit will go wrong and your soldiers will die, so that you know going in what the stakes and challenges are. The greatest part of making a challenging design that works is in conveying what the challenges of the game consist of – and what it means to fail at them. This is what we mean by fairness: The game establishes the parameters of its challenges and conveys those to the player effectively, and those parameters do not change.

Just using the word ‘difficult’ to describe these varied concepts creates a number of issues: When used to describe the ambitions of a nascent project, it can easily lead you astray, because there’s a lot of types of ‘difficult’ that won’t work with the rest of your concept. When selling the game, it tells the potential player nothing about what sort of challenge is being offered or how that challenge is presented. And, as a catch-all term, it obscures important components such as they conveyance of the challenge’s parameters. It’s a difficult challenging tricky term to get away from, though! In order to be more precise and avoid pitfalls of design, we may need to build an entire new vocabulary of difficulty.

It may be quite a challenge.

I’ve noticed that when I get frustrated with playing a game, there’s usually a very specific way it happens. When I play, I keep in my mind a model of how the game works, what optimal and interesting play is, and how to achieve that. I attempt to play using that model: If I succeed, then great! I’ve made progress. If I fail to execute on the approach I have in mind, that’s also fine, since I just need to try again. The point of friction, though, comes when I succeed in doing the thing I had in mind, but the thing I had in mind completely fails to work – because that means the entire mental model I had of the game is skewed somehow. There’s a desync, somewhere, between the game I’m playing and the game that actually exists. This is a dangerous moment, because now it’s very easy to come to the conclusion that the game that exists is just an inferior version of the game I’m trying to play in my head, one which fails to account for being played in the way I expect this game to be played.

This point of friction usually emerges sooner or later, to lesser or greater degree, even in games I love. With Dishonored it came when the game provided me no avenues to non-lethally disable an opponent once they were alerted to my presence (a lack thankfully rectified by its sequel). With XCOM 2 it came with the realization that flanking tactics were sometimes far more dangerous than they were worth simply because the cost of accidentally revealing an enemy unit could be so high. At some point, inevitably, the actual design of a game tends to diverge from what I believe the most beautiful, elegant, or intuitive way to play that game to be – and, being a stubborn person in certain very bizarre ways, I still try to play it in the way that I perceive it should be played, even in the face of the actual designers of the game obviously disagreeing with me.

I may be a bit of a standout in how stubborn I get about these things, but I’m hardly unique in my initial approach. Everyone has an idea of what ‘good play’ is supposed to look like in a game they play – whether it’s based on other games they’ve played, movies they’ve played with similar theming to the game, or just on the way the first couple of times they played went, very quickly they build a mental model of what’s desirable and what isn’t. Hypothetically, that model could even line up perfectly with the game’s systems – more often than not, though, there’s a disconnect here. The ‘right’ way to play the game, from the player’s perspective, is not the same as the way most likely to actually achieve success. In order to do well, they might have to do something that feels wrong, incorrect, suboptimal – that can be a bitter pill to swallow.

In this way, it pays to be aware of what baggage players are likely to bring to your game. This is why the history of similar game designs matters to your game design, because the expectations fostered by those games are going to affect how people see, understand, and play your game. This is why understanding what your art style conveys about the nature of your design is important, because people who find the style appealing are going to come in with certain expectations about the gameplay. This is why it’s important to ensure your player has some way to understand the breadth of the design, rather than just giving them one sample encounter and leaving them to infer that the rest are pretty much like that one.

When a conflict between the player’s conception of the design and the realities of the design occurs, it can only be resolved by the player changing their mental model of the game, and not everyone’s going to be interested in doing that. There’s an art of persuasion to it: The game has to, by its design and theming, forward an argument as to why its way of doing things is better than the way the player has in mind. Does it make more sense? Is it because the opponents have some special countermeasure grounded in the narrative? Generally, players are going to be more accepting of their approach not working because they haven’t accounted for other factors in the game (such as not defending adequately against a new technique) than because the game doesn’t reward, or even punishes, their approach (such as not having an old technique work when one would expect it should).

There’s a sense, as designer, that the design of the game should stand alone, should contain all the context it needs to make it make sense to the player, and that everything they learn about how to play the game should come from the game itself. Even someone who has never played a game before, though, comes to a game with some conception of how the game should be played. If you want people to learn the game, to stick with the game, then it is your job to, no matter what these preconceptions are, guide them and endeavor to reshape them to align with what the design of the game actually is.

In art, characters are designed and presented – every aspect of the character’s design was considered at some point along the way, and most have some sort of significance. Even in live-action films and theater, people are cast to embody the traits of their character: Thus, every line, every curve, every bulge, every tone of skin and voice has Significance. Every dimple, every freckle, is a Chekhov’s gun. This causes problems, though: We learn things from art, inevitably, and in most ways people’s bodies have very little to do with who they are – or, at least, have a far more complex relationship with their personality than the simple stereotypes usually mined by character artists and directors.

Much has been written about the impacts this has. The way people with more fat are frequently portrayed as unhealthy and lazy, the way darker people are frequently portrayed as criminal and unambitious, the way more feminine people are portrayed as deceptive or as hapless victims, and so forth. But even though fat people aren’t unhealthy or lazy by constitution, the dismissive inattention of doctors gives them worse health outcomes and saps their energy: Even though darker skins don’t lead to criminality, they do lead to loss of opportunities in a bigoted system, sometimes leaving crime as the only option for those whose ambition refuses to die: Even though femininity isn’t deceptive or weak, those who show it frequently have their feelings dismissed and their vulnerabilities preyed upon, so they eventually have deceit and victimhood thrust upon them. These embodied character traits end up having a cruel backhanded truth to them: The systemic disadvantages people with these bodies encounter in their lives come to become wholly aligned with their fictional representation.

So just ignore all that stuff, right? Color-blind casting, age-blind casting, body-type-blind casting, gender-blind casting, and so forth, just make everyone draw their character names from a hat. And yet, if we do that, we lose the entire visual channel of communication about who a character is, where they’re from, and what they do – because these things do affect our bodies in certain ways. If we do that, we sacrifice the ability to have conversations about how our society treats different bodies and different backgrounds, sacrifice any real discussion of our real world in favor of making every world an aspirational one where there is no background, no history, no context, only the melting pot.

To some this conflict might seem intractable. It’s very simple, though: Your characters do not have to be statistically representative samples of their respective populations. Your characters have the freedom to be from any race, body type, age, preference, and still pursue their ambitions and hobbies, and these things will have an effect on their bodies that will modify their appearance. A blacksmith will probably have strong arms regardless of sex or weight. A bicycle courier will probably have strong legs. Someone who performs a desk job all day might put on a lot of weight – then again, they might not. Someone who hikes over mountains as a hobby might be very slender – then again, they might not. All it takes to make a character design that doesn’t propagate shitty ideas about who can be what and how is to separate the improbable from the impossible. Aren’t improbable characters more interesting, anyway? Most of the things we often tend to think of as improbable really aren’t very unlikely at all, anyway, especially at the level of serendipity fiction tends to operate at.

Even a character who’s a realistic embodiment of a societal ill, though, would be far better than what we get right now: Punchlines and cardboard cutouts, characters whose only role in the story is to be exactly what we expect them to be. If you still want to make one of these archetypal characters, at that point you have a duty to at least pay some attention to the systems that make them what they are. The cruelest villains and most pitiful victims don’t emerge from nothing, but from the societies of their worlds, their oversights and acceptable losses and untouchable elites.

I’ve been playing a lot of XCOM 2 recently, and after a discussion on the differences between it and its precursor the other day I started thinking about the nature of decisions in games. In XCOM (the first one), you’re expected to make a few very clear-cut decisions in the strategy layer – what to research, what abilities to train, what missions to take, and so forth. Each of these has extremely clear trade-offs. The tactical layer, similarly, has fairly clear-cut decisions, though the effects of decisions can be a bit confusing – it’s not clear, for example, whether you’ll be able to see an enemy unit if you reposition, or see why your odds of hitting are particularly high or low. In XCOM 2, the strategy layer has more decisions with murkier effects: Rather than having a choice of three missions pop up periodically, events you can investigate are constantly popping up all over the map, and since it takes time to investigate these or to do anything else on the map you can realistically only get to so many of them. The tactical combat, however, is much more clear-cut: You can see everything that affects your shot percentages, and the UI will tell you whether you can see an enemy or not when you move, and helpful icons will show if you’re moving a soldier into harm’s way.

It’s interesting to me, given all this, that players generally seem to prefer XCOM to XCOM 2. I think there are a few reasons for this, but the confusing unquantifiability of XCOM 2’s event system is probably the main turn-off, especially nestled, as it is, within the highly regimented and quantifiable decision-making that defined XCOM and, to a lesser extent, its sequel.

It all just goes to make me think about the old Sid Meier quote (or misquote?) about a game being a series of interesting decisions. Though I love XCOM, a game with a relatively few important decisions, a lot of the games I like most have you making little decisions constantly, all of which add up to a big effect in aggregate. In a game like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, the decision to crouch or not to crouch, lean or not to lean, go full-auto or single-shot, equip an angled or a vertical foregrip, run into the circle at a 5 degree angle or a 6 degree angle, any one of these can be the difference between life or death – and that’s what makes it, despite its many flaws, still so fun to play for me.

In thinking about this, I started classifying the differences in decisions. In general, I think a decision in a game can be considered in two parts: One, how the decision is made (choice properties), and two, the effects of that decision (effect properties). Each of these have three parts – that I’ve thought of so far, anyway.

Choice properties:

  1. Frequency: How often decisions are made
  2. Quantity: The number of options available with each decision
  3. Temporality: How much time pressure there is to make the decision

Effect properties:

  1. Impact: How much they can change the game state
  2. Clarity: How evident these changes are beforehand
  3. Expression: How much the player can express themselves using the decisions

Different games prioritize aspects of decision-making differently. XCOM has medium-low frequency decisions with little temporal pressure and high impact and clarity, with little focus on player expression. The Street Fighter games have fairly high frequency of decisions, making choices at each moment of where to position yourself and which attack to use, with a fairly high quantity of different attack maneuvers, high temporal pressure and impact and moderate clarity (since move effects depend on what your opponent is doing) and a small-moderate amount of player expression… except, that is, in the menu where you select which character you want to use, which is a single (minimal frequency) choice with large quantity, no temporality, and huge impact, clarity, and expression. Super Hexagon is a game with extremely frequent decisions with almost no quantity (left, right, or neither), unbelievably high temporal pressure, high impact and clarity, no expression. The Walking Dead, Season 1 has low-frequency, low-quantity decisions, with some temporal pressure, moderate impact, relatively little clarity, but a huge amount of player expression.

Genres start mapping pretty closely to different decision models, when viewed in this respect. Strategy games prioritize low frequency and temporal pressure with high impact and clarity, tactical shooters like PUBG value high frequency, quantity, temporality, and impact with moderate clarity, RPGs like Fallout medium frequency, impact, and clarity, high quantity, low temporality, and extremely high expression.

From this viewpoint, it becomes clear why many of the decisions made in XCOM 2 rub people the wrong way. The decisions presented to the player in the strategic layer of the game don’t hew as closely to the ideal of what strategic gameplay decisions look like, and though they’re valid as a design in their own right, and I still find them enjoyable, and while they don’t necessarily make it a worse game, they may, in fact, make it a worse strategy game.

It’s important to know what sorts of decisions you want to present to the player, and what sorts of decisions they came to you to get. Trade-offs which may seem like good design when viewed through the lens of balance or of excitement may simply not fit the type of decision system the game is most suited to.