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

Monday, July 27, 2020

Meaningful Choices in Games

Something which sets games apart from other mediums is dynamism, ie, the ability to travel through a game by a different path when you play a different time. And that ability to go by different paths requires choices to be made by a player. But not all choices are created equal! The best choices are ones that are meaningful, and by that I mean choices which are understandable and affect the dynamic environment in response to having been chosen.

There can be apparent choices when there are actually none, which is the poorest kind of dynamism in a game. For example, in this iPad game, Soda Dungeon 2 (also available on Steam and for Mac), I have been playing lately, every time your party of adventurers defeats a boss, you get to pick a treasure!

And yet, there isn't really a choice, because you have no information to use to help you make a choice. They could have just given you a random treasure and the effect would be the same. There is not actually a choice here. What they could have done to make that a more meaningful choice is to label one chest as "gold", one as "equipment" and one as "mystery". That's not perfect but it lets you think about what you need in the game a little, and if you want to take a risk, you can pick "mystery".

Also, every once in a while on your adventure in Soda Dungeon 2, you get to pick an alternative path:

While this is slightly better, since one of the choices is labeled (yet locked, so again, not a choice a lot of the time), the other two choices are complete mysteries, and since they give you no information about anything which might happen if you choose one over the other, there again is not actually a choice.

Now maybe there is something clever in their code that says the right most choice is always more dangerous or something, and you could learn that over time, but that alone isn't enough. There has to be more information presented to the player to make an informed choice with. In this example, maybe they could label the two mystery choices "risky yet rewarding" and "safe but less rewarding" and it would at least let a player pick a play style at the moment.

The bad side of including these types of non-choices in your game are two: 1) they sort of paralyze the player for a second while they try to figure out with no information which thing to pick, and 2) they add in extra clicks, which I am a fan of eliminating. Why not just pop up the found treasure? Over time, less clicks, less time wasted. Also, making choices meaningful makes a game more strategic, more replayable, and more dynamic.

Soda Dungeon 2 is a fun and silly game, despite these spots where it could be made better. You hire heroes and send them through a simple dungeon to collect loot and defeat bad guys.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Mistakes in Digital Games - Show the Numbers!

I've played a lot of Gravity Rider, an iPad game, lately, and it made me think of some user interface feedback for digital games.

Gravity Rider is a motorcycle racing game with a futuristic twist. Racing the bikes around the track is pretty fun. Everything that surrounds racing the bike is pretty tedious. Upgrade, get chests, lots of gamification and pay to play stuff, which never help a game play well.

The item to discuss today is the garage. You can flip through and see the different bikes you own and their stats... I mean you can sort of see their stats. Because the stats are just shown as bars! And you don't really have a sense of what those mean, and you definitely can't precisely compare the stat of one bike to another. I mean, sometimes you can say that THAT bike is definitely faster, and THIS one has a higher rotation stat (whatever that means, a different UI problem). And if the bars are even vaguely similar in length for a stat on different bikes, you just can't tell what is what.

The main way to fix this is SHOW THE NUMBERS!

Say, "this one has a speed of 5. This other one has a speed of 4." Put the actual number near the bar. Very helpful. In a real-time game, you might even say this one moves 3 feet per second, and this other one moves 4.5 feet per second. Even more helpful. Then people can evaluate the game better. Like, they might then say, "Oh, this one is 1 lower speed, but 2 higher acceleration. There are a lot of stops and starts on the upcoming race track, so maybe that is a good trade off." Otherwise it is more like, "Maybe I'll just try this one."

Let a player know what the numbers are, so they can make precise choices instead of approximate guesses.

Imagine your game was a board or card game. Without the numbers, it literally wouldn't be functional. So not showing the numbers in your digital game and letting the computer just use them makes the interface non-functional, even if the game runs fine with those hidden numbers.

Maybe you want to have a sense of mystery. Fine, don't show the numbers if that is what your game is all about. Otherwise, SHOW THE NUMBERS! They help a player understand and make meaningful choices in your game.

Images above are from Gravity Rider. Notice they do have a number, which is a conglomerate of all the stats. Possibly. But we don't know for sure. It is mostly a useless number to base a decision on. Except to say, overall this bike is better.

Here is the link to Gravity Rider. Give it a try. It is actually fun to ride the bikes around, yet could be a much better game overall.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Mistakes in Card Layout - Titles not at the top!

Continuing the series about card layout in board game cards, we come to Titles not being at the top of the card. They should be, if the card is ever in a player's hand and there is more than one card. Also, it is the most prominent position on a card, and usually putting a title at the top helps to solidify its identity. Occasionally a picture there will do that. But most often if the title is not at the top, the identity is more vague.

Here are some visual examples:

A stack of cards from Mage Knight. What the heck are those cards below the ice bolt? When I play the game I never refer to the cards by name, since the name is not available to be visually focused on most of the time. Thus the thematic identity of the cards is weaker. Too bad. I love Mage Knight!

A stack of Magic the Gathering cards. You can tell what the lower cards are. I always refer to these by name when playing. Much stronger thematic identity. And usability in a hand of cards.

If a card is never in a player's hand of cards, there is more leeway:

Units in Mage Knight are played to the table, so they look nice and are perfectly usable. And their identity works because you can see the name and picture at the same time.

Check out the previous entry in this series:
Mistakes in Card Layout - Centered Text

And the next one:
Mixing Symbols and Text

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

7 Ways to Stress Test your Board Game

Doesn't it seem sometimes when you sit down to play a board game that some parameter or other is out of whack and you come up with an idea, in a couple of minutes of brainstorming, that actually makes the game better? It does to me anyway, and I think sometimes not enough testing, and not enough variety of testing gets done before a game's release. So, here is my light-hearted, yet serious in many ways list of how to stress test your board game! Some are more universal than others.

The whole point of these tests is to look at your game from a different angle than your habitual one. It doesn't mean every game has to pass every test, or fit every person. It's just a way of making sure you decide the parameters of your game, instead of just letting them happen unawarely.

1. Play in low light.

Really, people have different lighting, different visual acuity, are of different ages. Simulate that some! Maybe afterwards you realize you want more contrast, larger text, more white space, less text, clearer icons, and so forth. Also color changes according to the amount of light. Subtler colors are harder to make out in low light. Maybe more saturated colors?

2. Play with a color-blind person.

This one's personal: I am color-blind and seriously dislike a game that doesn't take that into account, especially since there are several things you can do to make it a non-issue, like put symbols paired with colors as identifying marks. And 1 in 10 men is color-blind, so its a large audience. And from personal experience, I can tell you that not every person sees color in the same way, so just choosing a palette one person says is OK is not a robust solution.

3. Play at a smaller table.

There was something going around saying "Fantasy Flight Games doesn't want you to have any table space left." Because sometimes their games plus a couple of expansions don't fit on a regular person's table. I pictured them testing on their big conference tables, and was like aha! They needed to get out and play in someone's kitchen. That is not to say that every game has to fit every table, but this is an interesting thing to try and think about your game.

4. Play at a bigger table!

I know, it's the opposite of the last one, yet it is another interesting angle. Can you read and decipher parts of the board from another 2 feet away? Do you have to get up and go around the table to see something? Doing this can shed some insight. Maybe you need larger text, or clearer graphic design, or help cards for each player.

5. Try to put your game into a backpack and walk to a friend's house.

If you can't even get it into the backpack, that tells you something about who you are making the game for. Which is useful information. If you get it in, and take it to your friend's house, and it is all jumbled about, think about bags, inserts, etc. Some people, if you can believe it, don't put everything into baggies, they just throw stuff into the box. What is setting up your game like from that? A good perspective to help you think about the players of your game, and the contexts they play in.

6. Play over Zoom. (In honor of the covid-19 pandemic)

Is it even possible? Was it tedious? Was it impossible to decipher visually? When people describe a part of it over the voice, do they stumble to come up with words for parts, or is it clear what to call everything? Just think about it.

7. Play your game for at least 100 hours.

Plus or minus some depending on your game's length and style. I am dead serious about this one. This is just what should happen. What bored you? What became tedious, and after how many hours of play? This filter can and should improve your game design and game design skills. Then play it for another 100 hours. How was setup? Do you need to take out a fiddly rule that only came up 2% of the time and no one could remember without looking at the rules anyway?

I remember when I was testing Arcane Journeys the Fantasy Adventure Game, and I made two rules changes after 200 hours of play. And those changes made the game much much better. But I needed to get there. They were easy to overlook things if you played or designed casually. But to be an excellent designer, you can't be casual in your approach, you need to put in the time.

I used to make computer games, like Majesty, and for those you often need to put in many more hours of play, and take a lot of notes, due to their complexity, and that helped me hone my discipline as a designer.