The End Of The Beginning

I burn with discontent. One of the greatest driving forces in my life is that I am constantly burning to know more, to keep challenging myself. I believe that human beings, much like sharks, must always be swimming, learning, or we slowly sink down into that deep, dark abyss that is irrelevancy – to drown. I say fuck that.

Last year I tasked myself with writing an article every month, a feat I was very proud to accomplish, but this year I wanted more. I needed more challenges for myself, so I tasked myself with rebuilding my website from scratch in ruby. Why Ruby? Why not. It was a challenge to overcome – and, three months later, I did.

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Fibonacci Game Design

“Add things until it starts sucking, take things away until it stops getting better”

Good systems find a balance between keeping the player guessing and keeping things simple; this means both knowing how many options to provide the player, and knowing when to say no to something regardless of how cool. It involves things like how many weapons to have in the game, how many talent trees, or how many monsters to spawn in an encounter.

Situations like this rarely have the perfect answer, and that limitless possibility shuts my brain right off. That first brush stroke on a blank canvas can be the most difficult, so I always try to constrain my options.

You are probably familiar with the Fibonacci sequence from your college math classes, but if you need a refresher it looks like this:

1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, …

There are two applications of this sequence that I apply to game design: the Rule of Three (extended edition), and the Golden Ratio.

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The Art of Boss Design

Boss fights are the linch pin of your entire combat experience, possibly your entire game, as one bad experience is all it takes to bring your game to a screeching halt. Something so important, so integral, demands effort and attention to detail, but for the majority of projects they are relegated to the very end. Why?

I was recently posed a question: why are movie boss fights superior to game boss fights. The question was framed through the stance that movie fights are, in general, more visually (and I would add, emotionally) satisfying. Yet I am sure, at this very moment, you are conjuring up your favorite video game fights; and, chances are, you are well on your way to skipping this entire post in order to rail me with examples – just hold up. If I took the stance that all video game boss fights are bad, then that would be an untenable position, yet that is not what I am saying. What I’m saying is that movies are just so damn good; more importantly, they achieve their greatness with better consistency, which is what we want, isn’t it?

So, after much thought, I realized we had the wrong question, and the real question is thus: how do movie boss fights satisfy the audience with greater consistency than games? A difficult question, but one I think we can answer. The journey starts by learning what movies are trying to accomplish.

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Resolutions and Thanks for 2011

The dawn of 2011 saw me living and working outside of California for the first time in my life. Chicago was exciting, it was daunting, but mostly, it was a chance to grow not only as a person, but also as a designer. It was a time for meaningful resolve.

I make resolutions every year; resolutions that, despite my efforts, I inevitably fail to follow through on. I wanted 2011 to be different, though, for I felt very strongly that the future of my career depended on my writing. I resolved, then, to restart my blog, and this time, THIS time, nothing was going to stop me from writing.

Mission Accomplished, I must say, but I didn’t do it alone. I had help.

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Get A GRIP On Your Systems

Design is not a linear process. A game is not assembled piece by finished piece like some elaborate puzzle, much to the chagrin of our managers. There is something compelling, though, in that mental image of an elaborate puzzle, but the quest for good design is not the quest for that single piece that you think might fit, and if only you searched hard enough you will find it. This gap between mental image and reality is hurting us dearly in the realm of game design, but it hurts, most of all, when it comes to planning and scheduling.

You can break out your process into as fine a detail you like, but if you think of it as linear steps, then you are doing it wrong. Design is not linear, my friends, because it flows in four cycles. They are cycles, not steps, because you spin around inside them, picking up speed, excitement, and eventually, if it passes the test, you fling yourself out of that cycle to the next; where, like before, the process of building up speed continues and, most importantly, if you fail to maintain your speed, you fall back to a previous cycle — possibly out of the loop completely, which means, guess what, that idea didn’t make the cut.

Wether level or system design matters not, nor do the specifics of the system itself matter, as it always flows through the same four cycles: Goals, Research, Implement, Polish.

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November 8, 2011

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The Case For Hero Units

No two companies can ever agree on units, which is to say that no two engines can ever agree on units. This I have learned. It seems a minor problem, I know, but for us, the designers, it is a problem; an annoying one, as it makes talking about certain things very difficult. Let’s say, for example, that I tell you a great starting size for a combat arena is 30 units. What have you learned? Well, nothing. What if I tell you the answer is 30 feet? Still nothing, and why? If you will remember from another article I wrote, Pacing Graphs and Proper Communication, numbers only have meaning when you compare them to other numbers, so, in this case, that statistic of 30 feet only has meaning when I tell you that the Hero is 8 feet tall. Suddenly everything has scale.

But even a statistic like 8 feet defies consistency between studios. Some companies use what I shall delightfully refer to as “deca-feet.” So a hero stands 80 units tall. You can see, now, how communication, both intra- and inter-, between designers can become muddy — and it happens very fast. This is why I have my own solution. I express everything in terms of Hero Units.

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Boss Design and the Principles of Animation

There is no truer test of the combat designer than a boss, because they, more than any other cast member, thread those tightest of needles: challenge vs frustration. Your task is difficult, and, unfortunately, this topic of boss design expands far beyond one simple article. I wish I had a simple solution for you. Every boss is different, though, which means there can be no magic formula. No, one thing, that good bosses have, and bad bosses lack.

What I have for you is Old Knowledge. A checklist, of sorts, that I like to run through in my head whenever I look at a boss. Like all great design tools I am borrowing it from greater men: Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. They, and other animators at Disney, gave us the “12 Principles of Animation.” And of those 12, which are all great to know, we designers are concerned with five: Anticipation, Staging, Timing, Exaggeration, and Appeal.

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What Makes Combat Fun

I have covered a lot of different topics about combat: How to design your enemies, how to design your combat encounters, how to define the gap, and the importance of depth and breadth. This covers a lot of ground, which is great, but it is high time we grasp for the slippery opponent that is fun. What makes Combat fun? Can we even answer a question so laden with meaning? Yes, I believe we can.

Combat is at its best when you provide the player with multiple valid Intentions and Action Sequences, and then constrain them through the situational context of their Goals, their Environment, and their Opponents.

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August 15, 2011

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Defining The Gap

Your cast is the story. The story is your cast. These are not separate entities, and if you fail to deliver a strong, compelling cast, then your grand imaginings will be as flat as day old soda.

A story follows a meaningful flow. The protagonist, our player as avatar, takes an action, and she expects a particular result from her action: she sees a lever, and she expects pulling it will open the door. The world reacts: a trap door opens under her feet! It reacts differently than we expect, and suddenly things are interesting.

This is called the Gap, and it defines the difference between what the protagonist expects and what is created, in reality, by the antagonistic forces of the story. Without this Gap we have no Story, for if everything happens as we expect, then why are we watching/playing it? How boring would it be to have every lever just open the door as we expect, to have every monster die in one hit. We need this Gap, we need conflict.


“Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict.” – Robert McKee


We create conflict, the Gap, through the environment, though the mechanics, and through the cast. However, being a simple, fleshy, moving barrier to the player’s progress is empty — gapless — for it’s not the kind of enemy that enhances the story. This is why we give our enemies a trick, and why it is such a painfully important question of your cast: “what’s this guy’s trick?”

In short, you need to define the Gap.

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Game: the Verbing Noun

I have worked on five games in the past six years. I have written countless word documents, set up countless excel files, modeled levels, written code, and even drawn a few maps; but I cannot show you any of this.

This has been bothering me for a long time. Of all the things I set out to do when I started writing, my first and greatest goal was to get down and dirty. I was going to “keep it real”. Much as I love talking about abstract concepts like fun, play, and other great game design concepts, I felt there were not enough people really showing what the system designers life is like. The REAL work. You know, documentation.

I have always been a stickler for documentation. And not just documentation, but efficient documentation. I enjoy it, and I like doing it better and better each time. I look down on designers that can’t organize their files cleanly, that can’t set up a list in excel.

In short, I’m that guy. But damnit, it’s important! The larger the team gets, the more important it becomes to be efficiently organized, and I often wonder how others do it. My style is built up from the great ideas of the designers I have worked with, which I’m sure was built upon the great ideas from designers they worked with.

Lately there have been a lot of great posts on AltDev talking to designers in school, or people first starting out, and it got me thinking. I wanted to share my style with others, so that they too can grow; and then hopefully others would talk about how THEY do things so that I can improve. But how? In exhasperation I thought, “well gee. I’d have to design a whole game from scratch in order to talk about it.”

So that’s what I did.

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