Category: design

Conclave’s music and art direction

By now most of you have probably seen that we’re running a Kickstarter to fund the last stretch of Conclave’s development. (And if you haven’t, go check it out! This blog post will be here when you get back.) We thought we’d talk a little more here about aspects of the game and the development process that we could only touch on briefly there.

One of the pleasures of developing Conclave has been getting to watch (and hear) Sam, Chris, and Devin turn our ideas and sketches into works of art that evoke our setting in a visceral way. Take Sam’s initial composition, “Turn of the Age”:

Each of the five races of the Kin is represented musically in the piece:

  • cello for the mezoar
  • the chorus of voices for the lumyn
  • drums for the forgeborn
  • flute for the nix
  • harp for the trow

In addition, Sam came across a rare stringed instrument used in medieval times called the viola da gamba, which he uses to suggest an ancient and otherworldly (but not alien) atmosphere.

Chris also weaves details of the setting into his character portraits. Two of my favorites are ones he’s done for the nix:

Long ago the nix discovered Spiritcraft, one of the five great magical Traditions. Though the Tradition has since spread to other races of the Kin, the nix retain a strong affinity for the beings of living magic that seem to spring forth from Orn. You can see one example in the first portrait, though not all spirits are as cute as that one.

There’s a more tragic tale behind the second portrait. One of the last realms to fall was Charn, which was betrayed and usurped by the great Spiritcrafter who became known as the Heresiarch. The nix in the image still wears the hawk-inspired armor of a soldier from that northern land in honor of his ancestors who died defending it.

Up until this point, equipment has been a pretty minor part of Conclave.  When you create a character, you get assigned some basic items; at levels 3 and 5, the Council upgrades one of these for you.  You have no say in what you get, no opportunity to customize your weapons or armor or anything at all.  With the release of the Vault of Arms, that will all begin to change.

The Vault of Arms is a new place you can visit from the map.  At the Vault, you can use your Renown – the stock of faith and reputation you’ve built up with the Council – to take equipment from the Conclave.  Weapons, armor, shields, and other miscellaneous items are all available for your use.  You are only limited by the Renown you’ve built up.

When you see that brown tower appear on your quest map, you'll know the Vault is open for business.

So how do you get Renown?  Simple: by completing quests.  Each quest will earn you some Renown to “spend” in the Vault.  (Note that there may be other ways to get Renown in the future.)  I say “spend” because you never lose your Renown; your Renown simply puts a limit on how much equipment you can “check out” from the Vault.  For example, perhaps my True Bow has accumulated 500 Renown.  I might use it to borrow a Rastanhi heavy bow (250 Renown) and a bronze scale cuirass (also 250 Renown), say.  Later, I might decide to trade those items back in, and take out an Ashenweald spirit bow (500 Renown).  I can make these changes any time my party isn’t on a quest.

Why did we go with this model instead of the familiar “accumulate treasure, spend it at the shop” approach?  Flavor was the main driver.  We wanted a place where characters could go to choose from equipment that would scale up as they grew more powerful and faced greater challenges, but the traditional RPG shop is a bit of a flavor disaster: where do shopkeepers get all this great stuff?  If they have it, why are they spending their time running a shop?  But the Conclave itself has resources – smiths, artisans, some practitioners of magic – and should be able to keep characters equipped appropriately for a long time.  Renown provides an alternative currency that fits the flavor of the game better than gold and limits what the Conclave will make available to characters.  Prove yourself, and you will be rewarded with greater trust.

Mechanically, we also get the opportunity to maximize player options in tinkering with their characters’ equipment.  In a shop-based model, you lose money on each transaction: if you buy a bow for 50 GP, you can bet you’ll get a lot less than that if you sell it back.  That means experimentation is costly.  We wanted to make experimentation cheap, or more precisely free.  This means you can customize your equipment to the needs of a given quest, if you see fit.  Will this be fun?  We’re betting so, though we will also be keeping a careful eye out to make sure players don’t feel like they have to be changing equipment all the time in order to maximize the way they match up with each quest.  One reason we think we’ll be okay is that equipment will still play a fairly minor role in overall character power after the Vault is released (though it will be somewhat more important than it is today), so there’s no huge need to fiddle constantly with equipment.  Ideally, people who enjoy playing with equipment will have lots of fun, and those who don’t care as much simply won’t need to.

Some of you might be saying, “Sounds cool… but what about loot?”  Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten how much fun it is to find that awesome and unexpected sword while out on an adventure.  The Vault is just the first step – albeit a big one – in our larger plan for items within Conclave.

When will the Vault arrive?  Well, we pretty much never talk about release dates – that’s just begging for trouble – but it’s fair to say you don’t have long to wait.  Really.

If you’ve ever wondered what Conclave looked like at various stages of its development, here’s your chance. Those of you who are sensitive to crimes against good graphic design might want to skip the first few screenshots.

1. In the beginning …

Our very first prototype of Conclave had no graphics. We were too busy trying out ideas for gameplay, but even at this early stage you can see that we quickly settled on a tile-based battlemap for the combat part of the game:

Combat Iteration 0

2. You ought to be in pictures

It didn’t take long for us to get sick of looking at a text-based interface. We grabbed some placeholder graphics, came up with a preliminary layout, and switched to the default “fantasy” font, which on many browsers is the overused Papyrus:

Combat Iteration 1

3. Things start getting real

As you can see, we tested a few different dimensions for the battlemap. We started with 8×12, briefly went as small as 5×7, and finally settled on 7×9. We also made and commissioned some real graphics, replaced Papyrus with other typefaces, and began to experiment with different layouts:

Combat Iteration 2

4. The ninety-degree turn

One of our first conclusions from these experiments was that we needed to switch the orientation of the battlemap to make better use of the horizontal screen estate afforded by most monitors:

Combat Iteration 3

5. Bigger, better, brighter

Up to this point, our iterations had been fairly incremental and straightforward to implement. Our next one was not. We decided to:

  • upgrade the quality and size of the battlemap backgrounds so that they could cover pretty much the whole user interface
  • switch from a straight grid to a staggered one that behaves more like a hex map, which had some profound implications for our code and mechanics
  • cap the party size at four rather than six
  • add more effects to the battlemap: inaccessible squares would be darkened, the token of a character hiding in shadows would be made slightly translucent, and so on

The result:

Combat Iteration 4

6. What condition my condition was in

We haven’t made major changes to the battlemap itself since then, but the other interface elements have changed quite a bit as we’ve improved the game. We added persistent conditions like burning, bleeding, and off balance, and we made it possible to review prior events in combat. Both those features required us to rejigger the interface a bit:

Combat Iteration 5

7. Good things come to those who give feedback

Since the start of Conclave’s public beta, we’ve made some tweaks based on the feedback we’ve received. We added timestamps to chat messages and an icon to indicate party leadership. We also made it easier to find and manage the party’s settings:

Combat Iteration 6

I think it’s safe to say we’ve come along way since that first text-based prototype. I expect we’ll continue making changes, both big and small, as the game evolves.

[This is part two in a series of posts on probability and roleplaying games.  You can begin with part 1 here.]

Who else remembers these?

RPG designers haven’t always looked at the role of probability in action-taking in the same way.  In fact, over time, those designers have made it more and more likely that players will succeed at their actions.

What’s the most common thing players do in RPGs?  They try to whack a baddie on the head.  So let’s start from there and see how likely, historically, you’ve been to successfully whack that baddie.  And let’s narrow it further and look at fantasy RPGs:  what happens when a fighter-type tries to smack a goblin with a sword?  How often does he hit?

If we jump in the Wayback Machine and head to the days of 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, said fighter’s chances ain’t looking so good.  A 1st-level human fighter with Strength 16 – average for a fighter using the recommended method for rolling character attributes – has only a 30% chance of hitting a lowly goblin with his sword.  That’s right:  just 30%.  Now, there were a lot of quirks to AD&D’s system are worth exploring in their own right, as they show other ways in which the genre has evolved; for example, all 1st-level characters had exactly the same chance to hit our poor goblin, but fighters were vastly more effective at higher levels, which is very different from how most modern games handle level progression.  Still, for now, we’ll just stick with our simple number.

In other words, back then, a character could be expected to fail at this core action over and over.  Fast forward to AD&D’s 3rd Edition, and the picture looks somewhat different.  Take the 1st-level human fighter again, still with Strength 16.  He’s got +4 to hit – +1 from having a level of fighter, +3 more from Strength – and he’s facing a goblin with an AC of 15.  This gives him exactly a 50% chance to hit.

Now look at the 1st-level human fighter of today.  He has a Strength of 18 if we use the standard score array and assign his +2 racial bonus to Strength.  This gives him +4 to hit from his strength, +3 more from using a long sword.  We presume he chose the one-handed combat style, for +1 more.  We assume no other bonuses from feats, and that he’s just using his basic attack, instead of a power like Sure Strike.  There’s not just a single goblin for him to face, but most goblins have an AC of 16.  Now he has a 65% chance to hit.

What we see in these numbers is a direct and dramatic climb in the chances of success over the years.  This change can’t have been accidental:  just take a look at the notes on variant rules in the 3rd Edition Dungeon Masters Guide to understand how sensitive the D&D game design team was to the impact of much more minor rules changes than than these.  The designers made a conscious decision to have players succeed more and more often at their actions.

Okay then:  why has the number changed so much over time?  I think there are four interrelated answers:

  1. Success is fun.  While letting players succeed with their characters’ actions all the time takes away the benefits of dice-rolling, players will nevertheless have more fun if they succeed more often than they fail.
  2. Inaction is boring.  Failure usually results in nothing happening; a miss in combat, or a failed skill check, is usually wasted time.
  3. Wasting limited resources feels frustrating.  If I can only cast a certain number of spells each combat, or can only use my special power twice per day, I’m going to save it up for when it matters; when the time comes, I want it to be likely to count for something.  (You can see 4th Edition D&D take this a step further by introducing a number of daily powers that are guaranteed to have at least some effect, albeit a reduced one, even if they fail.)
  4. Failing takes time.  Assuming that the rate of foe failure is similar to that of characters (not always true, but close enough), introducing more failures means that the time it takes to resolve a conflict in a game is directly lengthened by the chance of failure, without changing the eventual outcome.

Now, you can have too much of a good thing.  The previous post already explored a bit of why succeeding all the time isn’t necessarily good.  Consider also what happens if the time allotted to a conflict is compressed by a very high rate of success:  that leaves fewer opportunities for player decisions, fewer chances for tactics and dramatic roleplaying, fewer moments where a gamemaster or computer can spring a surprise on the players.

But the point is that the people in the know – the Dungeons & Dragons designers, reacting to ever increasing amounts of data – steadily hiked up the chance of success, because they saw reasons such changes would improve their game.

Now, another factor started to appear in the ’80s, and has proceeded to become ever more significant, which is the rise of computer RPGs – games which began as followers in the trends set by paper and pencil RPGs, but have since switched roles to become leaders.  More on the impact of CRPGs, and the evolution of Conclave’s own use of probability to decide the results of actions, in the next post.

A great roll... but why are we rolling in the first place?

One question a game designer must ask is how often players should be able to succeed at the actions they take.  In many games, success is automatic:  you can’t fail to use a capturing move in chess, say, or to buy a property in Monopoly.  In fact, the majority of non-electronic games are based off of automatic success.  This is not to say random elements – the roll of a die to determine movement, say, or the cards you draw from a shuffled deck – but most such games limit the actions you can take through randomness, rather than leaving up to chance whether or not you will be able to successfully take your actions.

RPGs are one major exception to this rule.  Another is wargaming, roleplaying’s ancestor: Dungeons & Dragons evolved out of Chainmail, which took the mechanics of wargaming and applied them to the swords and sorcery genre.  As part of its inheritance, Dungeons & Dragons relied heavily on dice to determine if player actions succeeded.  (In fact, early editions of Dungeons & Dragons offered options to use dice to handle almost anything you might want to do in the game, from creating dungeons to determining which of twenty forms of insanity a character might develop if rendered insane, to figuring out what might happen if you mixed a potion of invisibility with a philter of love.  More on this topic later in this series of posts.)

Later RPGs questioned the centrality of dice in the game, with many seeking to reduce randomness, and some eliminating it entirely in favor of some mix of gamemaster and player dictate.  Often this came from the desire for stronger storytelling:  both gamemasters and players rebelled at having a story shredded by a particularly ill-timed lucky (or unlucky) roll.  But most RPGs kept dice.  Why?

One reason is that dice can be exciting.  Randomness – uncertainty – creates tension and variety.  This is pretty obvious!

But a second reason is that randomness helps enhance the sense that the RPG is a simulation of reality.  RPGs inevitably seek, to varying degrees, to simulate some version of reality, some cosmos.  In the real world, we are used to the idea that our actions will not always succeed or have perfectly predictable results.  The abstraction of the die roll provides a simple path to creating the same situation for our characters and their foes.  It’s easier to imagine ourselves into the bodies of our characters when we can’t know if they will succeed or fail within the larger world.

Additionally, as simulations, RPGs must handle a huge variety of possible actions, situations, and outcomes.  The RPG must be able to provide appropriate results depending on whether your warrior is trying to hit a cowering kobold, a veteran swordsman, an ancient dragon, or a deity (!).  Probability is a great mechanism here, expanding success from a simple digital yes-no to an analog range.  Boardgames cover a vastly smaller set of situations; with a simple possibility space comes the possibility of using simpler tools for resolving actions.

So die rolling is good, right?  Hold on there, sparky!  If there’s one thing any game designer, in any genre, knows, it’s that too much randomness – too much of that uncertainty mentioned above – can spoil the game-playing aspect of a game.  Players want to have control, too; they want to feel that their skill has an effect on the outcome of the game.  RPGs are funny beasts in many ways, and one is the tension they experience between giving players the unpredictability and simulationism enabled by die-rolling, and the desire to exert control.  Mess up this equation, and your game will become less fun.

What’s more, dice rolling takes time.  Every die roll involves a wait, and potential distraction from the flow of the game as a player digs for dice, adds up the results, and the roll gets checked against various charts and sheets to produce an outcome.  Such is not a concern with computer games, but you can bet that card and board game designers worth their salt take this sort of thing into account.

Having looked at some theory behind randomness in RPGs, we can next look at how randomness has evolved in RPGs over time – and what it looks like for today’s CRPGs.  That will be the topic of the next post in this series.

Bastion Runes Brushset

Bastion makes liberal use of free art from many sources (a topic for a future blog post: it’s remarkable what great work one can access for free, and we want to give the folks who have helped us in this way as much exposure as possible). Given how important the free art community is to our game, it’s only fair that we make a small contribution back. With that, here is the Bastion Runes Brushset.

At some point, I’ll make one of those schmancy brushset titles that shows the runes off in the best possible way, but for now, you get this simple image of each of the ten runes in the set. The runes were drawn by our one and only Derek Bruneau, then processed by me to make them appropriate for use as brushes. There are many more runes in the Bastion world than this, so there’s a good chance another brushset will eventually be in the offing.

We use the runes many ways in the game, all of which you’ll see soon. Runes make their way into quest images, battlemaps, and more. Soon, we’ll teach you what each one means (hint: if you download the brushset, each rune has a label). All are free for your noncommercial use. Attributions and linkbacks are much appreciated!

Battlemap Preview 1

In Bastion, every combat takes place on a battlemap. This will feel familiar to most D&D players, especially in the age of miniatures play, as well as to the folks who enjoy turn-based computer RPGs.

There’s a great deal to be said about the how and what and why of creating battlemaps, and you can expect some posts along those lines soon. For now, though, how about some simple eye candy?

A battlemap set at the site of a recent shipwreck.

This is the wreck of the Seamaid, a ship from the north whose contents might contain certain revelations for the denizens of the Bastion. All that sea means a serious chokepoint at the middle of the thing, for good or bad.

All of the battlemaps are top-down, like this one. We are favoring a pretty realistic look to the graphics, balanced against the need for visual clarity: a map that’s too busy, filled with lots of contrasting bits, can make it hard to tell what’s going on, and we’d rather be overly simple than confusing. This map is among the busiest; it probably represents an outer limit of visual clutter.

Oh, heck, how about another?

A beach landing on a deserted (?) island.

This is from the same side quest, as the characters make their way to a landing on a dangerous island.

Want to see more of these? Let us know in the comments.

or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Ding

With World of Warcraft, Blizzard continued – and perhaps perfected – a game design they started to really shine at in Diablo 2: the art of always providing positive feedback and an ever-present goal just a few minutes away.

When a player is playing World of Warcraft, they are constantly rewarded for victory. With every normal monster fight, there is a battle, a regular “rotation” of spells/abilities that the player uses to take out the normal monsters, and victory within 5-10 seconds. The monster gives an experience reward as long as the player isn’t max level, and a loot reward regardless. If the player is in the endgame, there’s a high likelihood that the experience reward has been swapped out for a reputation reward with whatever faction is tied to the monster, but the treadmill (if you’re being cynical about it) continues. Monsters are always available, so once you get your little thrill of victory after 5-10 seconds, you look around for the next monster, which takes about 3-5 seconds, and start again. And on, and on, and on. My lizard brain reward neurons are firing just writing about this stuff.

Then, layered on top of the pure combat grind, there are the quests. One is almost never simply killing mobs in a vacuum of XP or rep grinding. Every monster killed is killed for a reason. Either you need to kill a certain number of them for a quest, or they sometimes (sometimes very rarely) drop an item you need for a quest, or they are in between you and the destination place or object you need for a quest. So not only are you getting the tiny reward for each monster beaten, you get closer and closer to a bigger reward of completing one (or often several tied to the same area of the map) quest. That quest, once completed, gives the same reward as a monster kill but in bigger doses: loot, XP, reputation.  Quests are, by the way, the most extensive way that narrative is woven into WoW.  It’s because WoW has thousands of quests that you don’t feel like you’re just doing the same thing over and over and over and over again.

Layered on top of questing is the reward of leveling either your character or your reputation with a faction. Aside from the occasional helpful loot reward from a monster or quest, this is the first reward you get that directly improves your character. With a new level you either get a new talent point to spend or a new spell. When you reach a new reputation level with a faction, you likely have access to new gear that will help your character.

Finally, at the endgame you have layered on top of leveling/rep boosts for your character the concept of getting better gear for your dungeon/raid group.  Players are rewarded by being part of a solid dungeon or raid group even if they are unlucky enough not to get any drops that help them directly by still getting drops that will help other members of the group, and so the group advances even when an individual character does not.  Blizzard has improved this formula in later expansions by granting currency to each participating party member for every endgame boss killed that, once enough are accumulated, can be traded in for gear even if that character never gets a direct gear drop from any boss fights. For each raid, there is eventually a boss considered a “gear check.” That boss encounter is impossible for the raid to beat until they have gone through the earlier raid content enough times for their entire group to have good enough gear from the earlier bosses to have the raw stats high enough to beat the gear check boss. This boss is, therefore, the gateway to higher content.

Like XP/quests before, some players are just raiding for better and better gear for their characters, others are raiding just to get to see all the content, and others are in it for both. But the raid activity for “progression” is the same for all three.

But wait, there’s more! That’s just one “stack” of reward layers. There are at least three other parallel reward paths:

Crafting: As players are out in the world-whether completing lowly quests or endgame raids-they will come across nodes of resources that can be harvested for crafting components. As players build gear from these components, their crafting skills are improved, and they get closer to building better and better gear. So players will often fight monsters just to get to a harvest node so they can get more resources to build more gear and raise their crafting.

Achievements: With Wrath of the Lich King, Blizzard added explicit achievements to the game. These can range from exploring all the points in any and all maps, to accumulating vanity pets, to completing all the quests in the game, to beating all the dungeons in heroic mode. As with the main reward system, achievements are often layered. For example, players get a small reward for exploring every node on one map, a bigger one for exploring every map on a continent, and the biggest one for fully exploring every map in the game.

PvP: (Disclaimer: I never got deeply into PvP, so my knowledge of this dimension of the game is limited and may not be entirely correct.) Completely parallel to the main game, players may choose to participate in player versus player content. The PvP starts at level 10 (though you’ll be yelled at if you’re not level 19 to be the “appropriate” level for the 10-19 PvP group), and some players spend all their time “twinking” their level 19 PvP character. It ends at Arena matches, available only to characters who have gotten to max level, which have 2v2, 3v3, and 5v5 ladders. Arena PvP is associated with “seasons” in which the medium, higher, and highest ranking players are given gear roughly equivalent to the gear their characters would get at the endgame raid PvE content that is in the game for that season. As I said, I haven’t followed this aspect of the endgame very closely, but I’m pretty sure when new raid content is added to the game with the associated next level of raiding gear (your raid group will only have a fighting chance against higher end raid bosses if they’ve geared up from earlier raid bosses) a new Arena season starts at the same time with rewards on par with the new endgame gear.

What say you, gentle reader?  Did I miss anything?

The many forms of “We rule!”

Derek’s post a couple days ago on “I rule!” versus “That rules!” got me to thinking, which is always a dangerous and frightening prospect. While thinking back on my own “I rule/That rules!” experience, it suddenly struck me that my very best experiences in multiplayer role playing games have always come from two very different approaches to “We rule!”

On the one hand, we have the MMO raid endgame experience. There is nothing like 25 voices screaming in victory after taking down a raid boss that the guild has been throwing itself at over and over again for weeks. Progression raiding is painful. It’s frustrating. It’s time consuming. It can tear guilds apart. And it is one of the best video game experiences out there when you finally succeed.

On the other hand, there is the group of role players I am currently tabletop gaming with. We are the Most. Dysfunctional. Party. Ever. Our mage has a charisma of 2, but will take any opportunity upon meeting new friends or foes alike (‘friends’ in this case being defined as NPCs we haven’t made ‘foes’ of yet) to bring out his magic box which will announce to the world that he is “HARWIN THE MAGNIFICENT!” One of our fighters is a greedy halfling, who in his finest hour discovered that the urn he was hauling tightly in his arms back to town to figure out how to open was actually a trap: on our way out of the dungeon the urn evaporated, leaving dear Merbles covered in green slime. The bad kind. Our priest has a relationship with the bottle that can only be described as masterful. But even more important in understanding his personality is to realize he…ah…absconded with the robes and holy symbol he currently wears from a fellow traveler on the roads. He has no idea which deity is answering his prayers (and for our party, we need a great many prayers), but some higher power is indulging his adjurations…at least for now.

I round out the group as our second fighter, a dwarf named Lars the Epithetless, who fancies himself something of a strategist. He almost never gets to enact any great plans due to his fellow party members’ tendency to rush into the next room swords and spells blazing, but last session he finally had his chance to shine. The party had come to a halt in front of a door behind which was a room teeming with rats. Behind us was a room full of caltrops we had picked our way through earlier. 15 minutes of excited scheming and trap setting later, Lars launched into action—the final result of which was a horde of nonplussed rats, Lars’s feet riddled with rat-poop-covered caltrops (cure disease, anyone? no? lovely…) and the nasty monster who was master of this corner of the dungeon alerted to our presence. It was the best role playing I’ve done in weeks.

Our party is terrible. But at the same time, we rule! Because playing these horribly inept adventurers is hilarious. Managing to get out of every mess we’ve made for ourselves so far has actually been something of a two-edged sword. We were never supposed to make it to level 2. Months later, now that we’re approaching level 4, I must admit, I’ll be sad when we eventually end up getting ourselves killed by plunging into the middle of more than we can handle. But that won’t change how we play this group, because that’s who these characters are.

This second form of ruling—the ability to craft a fun player-based narrative, even if it is by playing incompetent characters—is something you don’t see much in single player RPGs. It’s out there, though, if you can find it. One of my biggest “I rule!/That rules!” moments in playing Mass Effect 2 happened during one of the cutscenes. For those not familiar, if you progress far enough in either the “paragon” or “renegade” options for your character, sometimes you have the opportunity to interrupt a cutscene to your benefit. The character I was playing was primarily a paragon, though she would occasionally show traits that could be considered “renegade” under stressful situations. During one particular cutscene, a renegade interrupt became available to my character. But it just didn’t fit her character, so with great difficulty (as a player), I let the opportunity to interrupt the scene pass. Later in the same cutscene, a paragon interrupt opportunity appeared, which my character did activate. It was awesome! It was perfect! By being true to my character and keeping a cool head, I let a chance to be a nasty sort of character pass, and I was given the chance to influence the narrative in a more virtuous manner. The result was both an “I rule!” and “That rules!” moment at the same time. BioWare managed to outdo itself again by supporting this kind of gameplay opportunity, and I was thrilled that I had discovered it. At the same time, I was able to keep my character true to the personality I had crafted for her, which made the moment “rule” for me in an entirely different way.

In the end, I’m not sure how well the MMO style of ruling and the narrative crafting/role playing style of ruling can coexist. As I wrote in the comment section of Derek’s post, an MMO raider serious about progressive raiding isn’t going to be worried about whether his character’s arachnophobia should be decreasing his competence against the spider boss, nor would his teammates appreciate him playing that encounter “in-character” by /cowering in the corner during the entire fight. On the other hand, a munchkin/rules lawyer tabletop player may not be seen as the optimal partymate for a group of gamers who are injecting a lot of player-based narrative into a gaming session. Therefore, as game designers, one of the challenges we face is determining what type of gameplay experience we’re trying to build in our game and make sure that the content we’re producing allows that type of experience to shine.

“I rule!” vs. “That rules!”

On her blog Creating Passionate Users, game developer and author Kathy Sierra has often written about the need for products to create an “I rule!” experience for their users. And at their best, the web’s most popular apps do just that: Facebook makes us feel more connected, Twitter more popular, Basecamp more productive.

Those products are designed primarily for utility. For products that are meant to entertain, however, the intended reaction is less “I rule!” than “That rules!” We might get lost in the action of a movie or empathize with the protagonist of a novel, but the experience doesn’t need to leave us feeling more powerful for it to be compelling.

Part of what makes game development so challenging, I’ve recently realized, is that games can provoke both types of reactions. Intuitive and responsive controls, a steady increase in difficulty, a satisfying conclusion: these elements add up to an “I rule!” experience for players. Story and aesthetics, on the other hand, are key to provoking a “That rules!” reaction. The difficulty isn’t just that we need to worry about both goals when creating games; the goals themselves are sometimes at odds. Games that spend too much time in cutscenes, for example, risk making the player feel like a passive observer no matter how well written and rendered they are. And satisfying the player’s desire to rule often places constraints on the stories that we can tell or how we tell them: an unexpected death can be a powerful moment, but not if it causes the player to quit the game in frustration.

Considering the need for games to strike a balance between “That rules!” and “I rule!”, it’s not too surprising that some have trouble seeing games as art. Done well, a game is both art and application, art and not-art — and that’s one of the things that makes creating a good one so rewarding.

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