Friday, April 7, 2017

Day 115 FotLC through the 113 lenses from The Art of Game Design

This is it! Day 115 and the 113th unique lense! It's taken more than half a year to work through the whole deck, but it was a journey worth taking.

Day 115 - Lens 93: The Nameless Quality
Certain things feel special and wonderful because of their natural, organic design. To ensure that your game has these properties, ask yourself these questions:

Does my design have a special feeling of life, or do parts of my design feel dead?  What would make my design more alive?
I think that Fall of the Last City feels very alive. I think that the simple mechanics and the emergent gameplay that they foster accomplish that well. The life of the game comes from the fact that the other five players are acting independently for their goals and the game will play out differently every time it is played. The difficulty curve of the game emerges from the skill of the players. As a group of players gains skill the gameplay becomes more difficult and nuanced.

Which of Alexander's fifteen qualities does my design have?
1. Levels of Scale. We see levels of scale in “telescoping goals, ” where a player has to satisfy short-term goals to reach mid-term ones and to eventually reach long term goals. We see it in fractal interest curves. We also see it in nested game world structures. Spore is a symphony of levels of scale.
Yes, this quality shows in the control of a base/control of a territory/control of the wasteland. In an alliance with one other player vs. the global network of all the alliances.

2. Strong Centers. We see this in visual layout, certainly, but also in our story structure. The avatar is at the center of our game universe — and generally we prefer strong avatars over weak ones. Also, we prefer strong centers when it comes to our purpose in the game — our goal.
The bases provide strong centers as do the players pawns, and the City anchors the whole board.
3. Boundaries. Many games are primarily about boundaries! Certainly any game about territory is an exploration of boundaries. But rules are another kind of boundary, and a game with no rules is no game at all.
Bases and paths have strong boundaries as do the territories. 
4. Alternating Repetition. We see this on the pleasing shape of the chessboard, and we see it too in the cycle of level/boss/level/boss that comes up in so many games. Even tense/release/tense/release is an example of pleasing alternating repetition
The six territories and the division of paths and bases provide this.

5. Positive Space. What Alexander means here is that the foreground and background elements both have beautiful, complementary shapes, like Yin and Yang. In a sense a well-balanced game has this quality — allowing multiple alternate strategies to have an interlocked beauty.
The whole of the paths and bases vs. the empty space of the board and the filled and empty spaces within bases demonstrate this.

6. Good Shape. This is as simple as it sounds — a shape that is pleasing. We certainly look for this in the visual elements of our games. But we can see and feel it, too, in level design. A good level feels “solid” and has a “good curve. ”
The overall shape of the board in play and the shapes of the hexaheses provide this.

7. Local Symmetries. This is different from an overall symmetry, like a mirror image; instead referring to multiple small, internal symmetries in a design. Zelda: The Wind Waker has this feeling throughout its architecture — when you are within a room or area, it seems to have a symmetry, but it is connected to other places in a way that feels organic. Rule systems and game balance can have this property as well.
The paths and bases under the control of each of the players embody this.

8. Deep Interlock and Ambiguity. This is when two things are so tightly intertwined that they define each other — if you took one away, the other wouldn’t be itself any longer. We see this in many board games, such as Go. The position of the pieces on the board is only meaningful relative to the opponent’s pieces.
You can see this in the choices of the prisoner's dilemma and in the territory control mechanics.

9. Contrast. In games we have many kinds of contrast. The contrast between opponents, between what is controllable and what is not, and between reward and punishment. When opposites in our game are strongly contrasted, the game feels more meaningful and more powerful.
The consequences of allying vs betraying or having a base well defended enough to discourage attack vs having enough guards with you to force your expansion are examples of this.

10. Gradients. This refers to qualities that change gradually. The gradually increasing challenge curve is an example of this, but so are appropriately designed probability curves.
The increase in a player's power and in the bases they control and in their array of alliances show this, as does the increase in mobility as they lay down paths.

11. Roughness. When a game is too perfect, it has no character. The handmade feeling of “ house rules ”often makes a game seem more alive.
This is shown in the visual design of the game and in the presentation of the rules. Also in the inter player conflict.

12. Echoes. Echoes are a kind of pleasing, unifying repetition. When the boss monster has something in common with his minions, we are experiencing echoes. Good interest curves have this property, especially fractal ones.
You see this in the taking of citizens from the city, the placement of them in bases, the removal of them from enemy bases, the loss of them in challenges and the counting of them for the control of the city.

13. The Void. As Alexander says, “In the most profound centers which have perfect wholeness, there is at the heart a void which is like water, infinite in depth, surrounded by and contrasted with the clutter of the stuff and fabric all around it. ” Think of a church, or the human heart. When boss monsters tend to be in large, hollow spaces, we are experiencing the void.
The emptiness of the wasteland at the beginning of the game and the emptyness of the city before it's fall show this.
14. Simplicity and Inner Calm. Designers talk endlessly about how important it is for a game to be simple — usually with a small number of rules that have emergent properties. Of course, these rules must be well-balanced, which gives them the inner calm that Alexander describes.
I think the limited rule set works in this direction though I feel like there are still a few rough edges here...

15. Not-Separateness. This refers to something being well-connected to its surroundings — as if it was part of them. Each rule of our game should have this property, but so should every element of our game. If everything in our game has this quality, a certain wholeness results that makes the game feel very alive indeed.
I think the level at which all of the elements of my game from the rules to the esthetics to the emergent dynamics are the thing about the game that I am most proud.

Could it have more of them, somehow?
I could always use some more inner calm, and I will try to keep all of these qualities in mind as I make changes to the game going forward.

Where does my design feel like myself?
I think that the contradictions in the game are the things that are most like me. It's a game about taking control of a wasteland with violence... but in the end it calls that goal into question effectively enough that many players choose not to win.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Day 114 FotLC through the 113 lenses from The Art of Game Design

Wait... It's day 114 and you said there were 113 lenses! What kind of shenanigans are going on in this place?!?
Ok, so there are 113 lenses. But when I started down this road I was using the physical deck of them to draw from. Later I switched to the app. Somehow I screwed it up and ended up repeating a couple of lenses. No one noticed because there are 113 of the little guys and some of them look quite similar. In any case I am almost done, but I will end up with 115 lens posts once I track down all the duplicates and make sure I have answered all of the lenses at least once!

Day 114 - Lens 90: The Lens of Status
When people interact, they take on different behaviors depending on their status levels. To make your characters more aware of each other, ask yourself these questions:

What are the relative status levels of the characters in my game?
With respect to each other the player characters all have the same status... except that one person has taken the role of the person who found the game and is teaching it to the other players. So their wasteland game player character will have higher status. The role that character is playing in the game will be the same as all of the other players though.

In terms of NPC's the Teller has high status as he/she is the narrator.  The players are all playing tribal leaders so they have the highest status in their tribes. With tribal warriors below them.

In the larger world the tribes are below the citizens of the City. In a previous version of the game there were NPC tokens for the 'City Heads' who would have the most status in the game world, until the end of the game anyway.

How can they show appropriate status behaviors?
While all of the players are the 'same' status and are all working together to take down the City, they all know only one person will win so they are vye for power and status throughout the game. At the same time they need to know the rules and will listen to the player who is teaching the game.

Conflicts of status are interesting - how are my characters vying for status?
Throughout the game the players are trying to win, but being in a winning position involves acting against the other players. So players damage their social status with the other players by advancing their game goals in one sense. On the other hand being in the winning position and winning the game confer status in the normal way so players must balance that internal conflict.

How am I giving the player a chance to express status?
The status of players is important every time they enter into a challenge rather than just as a end game result. So having the mechanical advantage throughout the game has ongoing social consequences that affect the game outcome as much as the tactical aspects of the game.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Day 113 FotLC through the 113 lenses from The Art of Game Design

Day 113 - Lens 81: The Lens of Indirect Control
Every Designer has a vision of what they would like the players to do to have an ideal play experience. To help ensure the players will do these things of their own free will, ask yourself these questions:

Ideally, what would I like players to do?
Explore, come into conflict, ally and betray, claim victory or not and then think about what they have done.

Can constraints get players to do it?
I think that they of course help. The rules of the game are designed to shape that play pattern. You must place pieces to move onto. You must place bases to recruit from, you can challenge players when you are next to them. The high player number gives many chances to ally.

Can goals get players to do it?
The goals you have for points mean you need the territory and resources that other players have. In the end the rule that gives you an explicit choice about winning causes the players to reflect on the game in a way that I want. I was unsure if that would work but so far I have gotten positive feedback.

Can interface get players to do it?
I think that the layout of the game encourages the kind of play that I want. Presenting the player with the pieces they can place encourages exploration. Showing the position and progress of other players encourages securing your territory and defending it, or attacking your opponents weakly held territory. Showing the alliance tokens openly encourages players that have not allied to do so.

Can visual design get players to do it?
The game's thematic presentation as a game played in an apocalyptic wasteland helps put players in the ruthless aggressive mindset that I am looking for while distancing them from the real world so that they don't take the actions of other players as seriously as they might if they were playing as themselves... that is only true to the degree that players take on roles.

Can game characters get players to do it?
Well the Teller is literally telling them to behave that way so hopefully that works! Beyond that I hope that my plans to have back story created for the tribes (clans?) will help the players to identify with them and both increase investment and make the actions of other players seem less personal. Those two goals are in conflict and I am not sure to what degree it is possible to pursue both.

Can music get players to do it?
Perhaps. Many board games have provided soundtracks and I have thought of having a stretch goal of creating music for each of the tribes, the game and the climax... that is a huge cost though since I can't do it myself. I may recommend playlists for the game and I could try playtesting it with them and see if it enhanced the game.

Is there some other method I can use to coerce players towards ideal behavior without impinging on their feeling of freedom?
I think that in my case I use the story premise of the game, that it is a reenactment of a event that happened. To justify the rule based goals of the game and give players one more reason to act out the scenario that I have designed to be the most fun.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Day 112 FotLC through the 113 lenses from The Art of Game Design

Day 112 - Lens 72: The Lens of Projection
One key indicator that someone is enjoying an experience is that they have projected their imaginations into it. To examine whether your game is well suited to induce projection for your players, ask yourself these questions:

What is there in my game that players can relate to? What else can I add?
Currently the tribe leaders that the players portray in the game are blank slates. I want to have back-story for them available to the players as a kickstarter stretch goal. But for the moment they are non-persons and thus canvas' for projection rather than something identifiable.

The character of the Teller is pretty relatable and charismatic.

What is there in my game that will capture the players' imagination? What else can I add?
I think that the theme is very engaging. The physical presentation of the game shows the theme and invites imagination in a way I like. Giving the players things that they can investigate in the packaging and rules to dig deeper into the world will appeal to a subset of players.

Are there places in the game the players have always wanted to visit?
I think that the idea of the 'Wasteland' of Mad Max or Blood of Heroes has a place in the psyche of most modern game players and appeals to a good chunk of my potential audience as a place they would like to imagine being in.

Are there other characters in the game that the players would be interested to meet (or spy on)?
I think that the teller would be interesting to meet. I want to make the tribe leaders into identifiable characters... but I need to not be the one to do that actual work, so it has to wait until I can pay more diverse developers to do it for me.

Do the players get to do things that they would like to do in real live, but can't?
I think that living out the fantasy of being a conqueror in the Wasteland and bringing order to that chaos, perhaps starting to build a better world is powerful as we often feel like we are sitting on the edge of a catastrophic future that could lead to the world that the game is played in.

Is there any activity in the game that once a player starts doing, it is hard to stop?
Hopefully most of the gameplay fits into this category from the building out your territory to the challenges with other players.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Day 111 FotLC through the 113 lenses from The Art of Game Design

Day 111 - Lens 69: The Lens of Interest Curve
What captivates the human mind often seems different for every person - but in fact it is remarkably similar for everyone. To see how a player's interest in your experience changes over time, ask yourself these questions:

If I draw an interest curve of my experience, how is it shaped?
First off interest curves are subjective, so mine does not equate to my players. Second I have worked on the structure of the game a lot to shift the interest curve to its present shape.  My curve as the designer is also not the same as a new player or even an advanced player, it is much more focused on the reactions of the other players and how engaged I need to be to maximize their enjoyment of the game.

The curve I intend of the players starts with a spike then a extended high plateau as they go through the tutorial section, then a tough as they fill out the board to the first conflict or challenge, then a spike for each challenge, then a large spike as they take the city, then a trough as the winner reads the victory note, then a spike if they pass it.

Does it have a hook?
Yes, the hook is the real time description and the esthetic of the game. This seems to be a pretty strong hook and gets most playtesters involved in the game.

Is there gradually rising interest punctuated by periods of rest?
Yes, the game rounds are short but the time from when you finish moving and others are finished is rest, as is the time when others are having a challenge. Of course players are also interested in observing and assessing in that time so it can also be seen as a period of interest. There is not as much rest time in this game as in almost any other game. Even a real time game like Loopin Louie has more rest as it has player elimination so the time you are waiting for the next game is rest.

Is there a grand finale, more interesting than everything else?
Well, that's the idea. I keep reworking the battle for the city to make it shine as the most interesting thing in the game. I am hopeful that the idea of making it be a challenge will help punch up the interest in that fight. Having it be just a straight fight is fast but feels kind of like a let down after all the effort to get there.

What changes would give a better interest curve?
I think the stronger finally is important, it needs to involve allies and the challenge mechanic. I have taught the players all of these mechanics and the finally does not use all of them. I also think there is a rough spot between the end of the tutorial and the first conflict where players are unsure what to do. Perhaps I could suggest that they explain what they have done on their turn for a few rounds until everyone is completely comfortable with what is going on.

Is there a fractal structure to my interest curve, should there be?
I think that there is, and that perhaps that is something that is intrinsic in any real time game. If the game is discrete then there is at least a minimal level of resolution to the interest curve, but with a real time game you can just keep zooming in.

I also think that in any game it would be interesting to zoom out and look at the curve over multiple plays. How does it change from the first to the second to the fifth to the hundredth game?

Do my intuitions about the interest curve match the observed interest of the players? 
They have not always matched, but I have adjusted the game so many times that I think the observed interest is close to my intent.

If I ask players to draw an interest curve, what does it look like?
I don't know! But I will ask players to do it for my next playtest!