Thursday, June 10, 2021

Don't Do Mystery Math!

I have been playing this tower defense game, Guardians, on the iPad for a few months now, and I am up to level 526 (?) and I was thinking about how a score is calculated in a game. In Guardians, I have no idea. I just finish the level and there is a score. Sometimes 1000, sometimes 10000.

As I was wondering about this, I noticed a "?" in a circle next to my score for the current level. I was like, "Oh, maybe I can click it!" (Which says a few things: 1. I hadn't noticed it in over 500 wins of the game, and 2. I wasn't sure it was a button. Maybe they could have made it larger, and shaped like all the other buttons in the game...) 


So I click it and it takes me to a screen which tells me the general idea of how to get a good score: finish fast, use as few towers as possible, and a few other things. And... I am still in the dark about how my scores are formed, since they made a mistake that is particularly easy to make in digital games  (as opposed to board games) which is not showing the numbers. I wrote about that here

Without numbers, you can't really evaluate, or weigh the different elements in your score. Was finishing fast more or less important than using fewer towers? I will never know because they didn't show the numbers! That screen would have been a great spot to show the exact numbers for each section, and then the total, so if I wanted, I could try to maximize my score. Which I don't, since I don't care. I just like to finish the levels.

Mystery math is that behind the scenes calculation that comes up with a score for something. Don't do it. Always tell the players the numbers that form their score. Or better yet, ask if you really need a score in your game? Can you just record if they finish a level or not? Or maybe the three stars thing? You know: one star for finishing, 3 stars for finishing without losing any health, and 2 stars for... for... some other random thing. Which I also hate, but it is slightly better than a mystery score.

My favorite thing for tower defense games, since they are real-time, is to simply record how fast you solved it. That encompasses a lot of different elements of the game, and has an easily understandable result.

If that is not the feel you want for your game, is there any other one number element that you think determines the core elements of the game? Maybe the best score in your game equals spending the least money, ie, being the most efficient.

Me and my game night buddies came up with the "Mystery Math" phrase while playing board games on Board Game Arena. Since the end scoring of a game is automated, it just starts adding up behind the scenes things and showing the end result. Albeit usually afterwords with a chart breaking down the categories, which does really help. But in many games the interface is hard to follow and you're still not sure what happened, especially while it is happening. This is a particular interface problem that comes from "porting" a real life game to an online game. Really, new interface elements have to be thought about and added to make the game play well on the new medium. Like light up outlines, and animations to help draw your eyes to whatever element is being referenced.

When playing a board game in real life, you get a better sense of the numbers that add up to your final score since you have to add up the categories by hand. (Sometimes, like in Carcasonne, with those &%$^ farmers, you still aren't sure why you lost or won.) 

I understand why many modern board games obscure each player's total points until the end. It is so that you can't tell who's ahead exactly, and be discouraged about it. It can let a player feel like they might catch up. It can help a player focus on the game dynamics and experience and not the competition. It can keep dramatic tension high until the end. Who will win? But it also feels like mystery math until the end, even though you could often do the math during play.

Its not my favorite, but I don't hate it, at least, in board games. I prefer point-threshold games (when someone reaches X points, they win), and goal oriented games. Or just whoever has the most points at the end wins. No mystery math in those.


Monday, April 26, 2021

Mistakes in Card Layout - 4 More Points

This is a collection of other common mistakes made when laying out cards for board games, to end this series on the blog.

1. Low contrast. If you have gray text on light gray background it is going to be hard to read. Make sure you use high contrasting colors between your text and the text background. White on black or black on white is the best.

2. Not enough White Space. White space is the gap between the edge of your text and the box it is in or the sheet it is on. When there is too little, your eye will "catch" on the bounding box, and make reading slower.

The text is too close to the bounding box on this card from Smash Up. They also centered the text which additionally slows down the reading and comprehension.

3. Text Background box over graphics is too transparent. So the fun graphic you put behind the text box shows... but also interferes with the text. Make the box opaque or only very slightly transparent. The goal is the most readable text.

This card from the Resident Evil deck building game is a good example of a transparent text box behind text, done right. They have the right side, where there is no text, more see-through than the middle, where the text is.

One other problem with the layout is: title not at the top. It would increase the immersive feel to have "Jill Valentine" at the top of the card, especially instead of "[Character]" which is dull as well as useless to have there.

This card is never used in a hand of cards, otherwise I would say it has a full bleed problem. See my next point.

4. Full bleeds! This is when the graphic on the card goes all the way to the edge of the card, instead of being interrupted by a border of some kind. It sure looks nice, but it blurs where the edge of the card is, and can result in making it hard to differentiate between individual cards, especially from the back when they are overlapping. If your cards are always face up on the board, and never overlapping, maybe this is ok, but if they are overlapping, held in a hand multiples at a time, then it is not. If you HAVE to have the image go to the card edge, at least put a pseudo border around the edge by darkening or lightening the image there.


These cards from Thunderstone Quest illustrate my point. See the middle left of the top card? Very hard to find the edge between it and the card below it, so it becomes a usability issue in terms of differentiating and picking up. But the white text on blue background has good contrast.

See what a solid border does to differentiate the cards? From Magic the Gathering.

See the other entries in this series: 

Thursday, April 15, 2021

9 Ways to Stress Test your Mobile Game

So many games (and apps) seem like they are developed in a perfect environment: the best hardware, the best lighting, and with the best accessories like stands and headphones. Unfortunately, most of us don't use the games in anything close to those environments, so in order to address that, I have made a list of ways to stress test a mobile game, for developers to follow and make their games more usable to more people.


1) Play on the couch, while eating a bag of chips. 

Take the iPad you are testing on out of the stand and go sit on the couch holding it. Put a bag of chips next to you on the couch. If you hold the iPad with one hand, can you reach all the game controls with the other? Ie, do you need to have a two handed grip because there are buttons on each bottom corner in landscape mode? Check for constraints like that. Maybe your game can't be played with one hand. But then it also can't be played while eating chips, which is a serious trade-off!

Now try laying down on the couch and playing it. Go ahead, just do it.

A screen shot from Gravity Rider on the iPad. Notice the controls are on the bottom left and right. You need two hands to play this. No eating chips and playing this one! (Also the pause is in the upper left... you will probably crash your bike often trying to get up there in time!)





2) Play it on the tiniest screen you can find. 

I know you can play it on phone or tablet and it is the same game, but  go try it on the phone for a long time and realize you might need an interface there that is different because it is so much smaller. 

A fingertip sized button (and buttons shouldn't be much smaller than that!) takes up so much more room on a phone than a tablet.


3) Turn off the sound and play it! 

Many people play with the sound turned off or very low, because they might be in a group setting or it is night or something. Are all the things the player needs to be notified of (especially in a real time game) clear enough without sound? Do you need to make the animations bigger or more central when something happens? Do you need to pause the game with a pop-up dialog?


4) Listen to the music of your game... for 3 hours. 

Did it drive you crazy with its repetition? Because most in-game music does that to me, and I shut it off after the initial play or two. If your game lasts a long time your music should ideally keep up. Maybe you need a dynamic soundscape or computer generated music.


5) Listen to the sound effects at a medium volume, not on headphones!

Are they annoying? To you or anyone nearby? Ask yourself for real. The same goes for the voice acting. Bad voice acting ruins everything. I played Smallworld 2 on the iPad, but the voice-over they had for the die roll win and loss was SOOOO gratingly bad, I had to turn off all sounds. (Partly because there was no option to just turn off the bad voice acting.)

Ok, not this old!

6) Play it on an older tablet or phone. 

Many people hold onto their old hardware until they are forced to upgrade. Does your game take that large audience into account? How did your game function on that older tablet? Was it slow? Did it crash randomly? Did it work at all? Maybe you can't make it work there, but maybe you can. It is something to think about.



7) Give it to someone who doesn't work with you and who you don't know. 

Watch them play it, and don't tell them anything about it. What are they not understanding? What are they not doing? If they are frustrated and acting stupid, that's probably your fault as the designer, not theirs.

I like to playtest a game with people that don't play games much, because it gives me a certain kind of feedback that is more useful and different than from people who play games a lot and have ingrained ideas and preferences.


8) Play your "tutorial" 10 times, and see if you hate the world after, or anytime during it. 

Do you really need that "click here, click here, click here" thing you are calling a tutorial? Because most people know how to play a mobile game. And if your interface is too complex to figure out, maybe you need to have a better interface rather than a boring tutorial that people click to get through and don't learn too much from anyway.

I have quit an enormous number of games due to these type of tutorials. I like if I am given an option to try the tutorial, or just start the game, and I really prefer the term "how to play" to "tutorial".


9) And as I usually recommend, play that game for 100 hours at least. 

And another couple hundred hours after that. More or less, depending on how complicated your game is. Notice anything that becomes tedious in the mechanics of the game, or in the use of the interface, and revise them! Try weird strategies, do random things while playing. 

Games are a dynamic medium and have many pathways through them. This is what makes them unique and interesting compared to other media. But it also means you have to put in more time traveling those pathways in order to make a good game.

If you like board games and this post, go read 7 Ways to Stress Test you Board Game.

Or read more about Digital Games and Design.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

"Focus" in Game Design

Focus: a state or condition permitting clear perception or understanding.

Focus is one of the tools you have for managing complexity successfully.

When a player has ten disparate things to do, they are less focused than when they have one thing to do.

When a player has one thing to do with with five relevant sub goals or parts, they are more focused than when they have six unrelated things to do. Hierarchies of information help focus because a player can focus on the level they need to and ignore more fine detail.

When a five player game says the way to play it with less players is to have some players play more than one character, that version of the game is less focused. It also makes it less immersive often because the focus is gone and you don't identify with the characters the same way. You switch your attention between being two characters, instead of always feeling like, "this is me."

When a game has nine phases to go through a turn, it would be easier to focus if they were grouped together in some turn sequence hierarchy, such as Income, Main and Clean up. And do you really need those nine phases?

Eliminating extra detail increases focus. Are those extra stats on your hero worth the loss in focus? Is that one action that is only taken rarely worth the loss of focus?

When something is less focused, it takes more concentration to pay attention to. This can be good or bad, depending on what type of game you are making, but there are still limits despite the type of game. For example, a board game with 200 independent pieces per side would probably turn off all but the most extreme players.

When something is less focused, it is harder to come back to later and remember what was happening, or how it works. Think of an overly complex rule set for a game, and what it is like picking up the game to play a year after your last play: check this, check that, how does that go again, and so forth. Think of a game that you haven't played in a year that you can remember how to play: oh right, that's how this goes, and you can do this, and you win by X.

There are other factors, of course, and there are trade-offs between complexity/depth and rememberability/focus. The important thing is to know and decide where your game fits along the spectrum of focus and why it is there.

Also, different players prefer different levels of focus, and the same players might prefer different levels at different moments.

I think a general rule of game design ought to be: err on the side of simpler and more focused. Especially if you can't explain why you are not doing that.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

What Does My Kitchen Have to Do With Game Design?

I have this experience every time I go into my kitchen because I hear a series of beeps:

What's that beeping?

Was the fridge left open? Because that beeps when it happens. Let me check, nope.

Is the microwave beeping for some unknown reason? Someone else's food is done? Someone left the door open. All communicated with a beep that sounds like all the other beeps. Nope, the microwave is fine.

Is it the oven? Did someone press a button on it? Is it preheated? All told via beeps!

Does the clock on something need setting? Is a battery low somewhere? They beep at you!

The only thing that seems to have a distinctive alert sound is our dishwasher. When it is done, it plays a tri-tone melodic beep-like tone. I have learned to recognize it means the dishwasher is done, but my sweetheart hasn't. So, it's better than the plain beeps, but could be better still.

And the kitchen is only one area where there is bad design...

I have dreams where I am flipping a light-switch back and forth, and each time it does something different, and I can't figure out what it is doing.

I ALSO have several real-world appliances that have one button on them that does different things each press! It's like a user interface nightmare. Maybe it is easier to construct, but it is much more of a pain to use.

There's my bike light that you have to cycle through all the modes before it goes off. How many was that again? Oops, I pressed too many times! Got to do it again. Where was the bright light setting? And one of the settings is a flashing light. So you pull into the drive way, start a strobe light for a second, then the light goes out. It draws a lot of attention to yourself.

And there is another light I think that cycles through settings, but also has a weird setting that flashes SOS, which I activated by accident once and couldn't find again. Was it a long press on the on/off switch? Maybe. There was only one button. And it did all that!


How does this apply to game design? The basic lessons are:

1) feedback from a system or device needs to be clear and understandable. Oh, that noise, flashing blip, word, or whatever, means X and nothing else. Different subsystems need different names for their parts, and different, unique ways of telling a player that something happens. 

So, for example, if you have a real-time game, the sound for a unit is ready and the sound for a building is ready need to be identifiably different. In a physical game with cards that represent different things, the layout for each class of things should be different. Items go sideways, people go upright, legendary items have special outlines around the picture. Maybe different cards need to be different sizes to help emphasize their function or theme.

(an example from Star Realms by White Wizard Games. Bases go sideways and ships go upright, in order to help remind players of their different functions.)

2) controls (ways to interact with a system or device) need to be understandable and easy to remember. Not as simple as physically possible, but as simple as possible to avoid confusion by having too many controls or few controls which have overloaded functions. 

Long-presses in a game or app on iOS are terrible. Reminder text and/or icons on cards in physical games is very helpful if you have room.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Majesty review many decades later

A few times a year, someone contacts me about Majesty, the computer game I designed a couple of decades ago. It gratifying to know that something I created has impact and meaning for people, even after so much time.

This time, someone wanted to interview me about the game. Here is a link to that interview:

Majesty, the Fantasy Kingdom Sim – one King to rule them all (2000)

Monday, August 24, 2020

Mistakes in Card Layout - Mixing symbols and text

You've seen those cards. You've tried to read them before the rulebook. You've been mid-game and stuttered over them.

They look like this:

Take 1 @ to activate & as long as you have the %.

An you go, "Uh, take one, um, round thingie, a coin maybe? to activate a squiggle as long as you have something that looks like a slash. Maybe zap power or something?" And no one gets it!

Mixing symbols inline in text is a bad idea, because visual symbols are more ambiguous than text and they are harder to draw definitely. It actually slows down comprehension, and reading, and elegance. The more symbols you have in the game, the worse it is if you mix text and symbols.

Having symbols on a separate line, or a sidebar alongside the text is fine, because the words help define the symbols, and when they are clearly defined in people's mind from play then they can use the symbols as a shorthand, possibly.

Having symbols count as their own thing outside a sentence is fine.

Also naming something is part of creating a feeling and theme in your game and when people don't know the name, and go around calling it "thingie" or "zap power", it undermines the hard work you did to make the game how you want it.

I noticed while doing the research for this, that is a mistake that most professionals are not making, but many beginners are making.

Good examples of text and symbols together:
From Terraforming Mars. Separate lines for symbols and text. Well done. The text defines precisely what those symbols above it mean. After a while of playing the game, you will be able to read the symbols.
Examples of bad mixing text and symbols:
If you have a wound, +2, um, manhole covers? bottlecaps? I'm not sure. If it is a disease, also take 1 something totally undefinable. There are a lot of other mistakes on this card besides the mixing text and symbols. From Thunderstone Quest.
From Runebound third edition. There are too many weird symbols mixed in the text. I can guess some of the meaning, but would like it to be clearer. They could have put a box around the costs (2 zappies) to separate it visually, and that part would be fixed. Good things they did: title at the top, left aligned text in the reading area, and a border to the whole card.

Previous posts in this series about mistakes in card layout:
Centered Text
Titles Not at the Top