Thursday, October 20, 2011

less pictures, more grumpy

Today before leaving work, we had a chaotic debate following the days' testing of our game "Scrolls." I love debating design. But... I tend to have better arguments and clearer thoughts AFTER the debate. Probably because at that point you don't have other people arguing against you.

Anyways... Part of the debate was about the inclusion vs. the exclusion of a certain feature. It doesn't matter which feature. The thing that bothers me is that after quite a few years of having similar debates, I can see a pattern. I seem to always find myself being alone in the corner wanting to EXCLUDE a feature.

It is probably natural to want more. More features equals more game, which equals better value, right? Wrong! (In enough cases to be held as a guiding principle.) I've actually had debates where it was unclear whether a feature was needed or not, and found myself arguing against the stakeholders to spend less of THEIR money.

Consider Hollywood movie studios. Their business is older and they seem to be able to hold on to their seniors, so chances are they have a better grasp of the creative process than the game biz. When they look at their product, and it is perceived as confusing - THEY CUT STUFF OUT OF IT. They don't add tutorials, tooltips, icons and buttons. They know that exposition is a bad thing and should be kept to a minimum.

I believe this to be true for game design and game production as well. I know it is true for illustration and visual arts. When a painting is unappealing, you should start by considering if you can remove something. A Mark Twain quote comes to mind; "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

The people in the game dev business are generally not idiots. They usually don't want cluttered games, high learning thresholds and long tutorials. Still, being passionate specialists, they are reluctant to consider budgets. I don't blame them. Budgets are boring. Games are about fun, challenge, adventure, problem-solving bla bla bla.

Maybe true about GAMES in theory, but in practicality game DEVELOPMENT is another beast altogether. IT IS ALL ABOUT BUDGETS. There is the actual budget of course. Then there are budgets of calendar time, man hours, marketing, specialist knowledge and performance limits.

On top of that you have some less obvious. Your audience, although an endless source of joy, also have budgets. I'm not talking about their allowance. They have budgets of acceptance. Acceptance of cluttering, of unintuitive interaction, unpolished graphics, lack of interpolation. Their willingness to think hard about a puzzle is budgeted. Their tolerance of repeated failure is budgeted. A very scary fact is that YOU DON'T KNOW HOW BIG THESE BUDGETS ARE! Some games (hello Minecraft) have proven that these budgets can be greatly increased when the motivation is high enough. Unfortunately that is "the philosophers' stone" of game design. If you could be sure you've gotten enough motivation into your design, your problems are over. Humans are tricky buggers to understand...

Hold on for the big finale:

* Budgets have a very unforgiving internal logic. If you spend less, they will be easier to meet.

* Therefore the burden of evidence must lie with those who wish to spend.

I hope, if you've read this far and agree with the logic, maybe next time I won't be as lonely in the corner of reductionism.

I will now proceed to posting a link to this on twitter. If this means my colleagues (past and present) reads this and go "WTF it is us he's talking about! It's been (X hours, months, years), are you still arguing, moron?" - Then the answer is Yes. No. Actually I've been thinking to write this down for a long time, but just thought of the Hollywood analogy today. Also I tried using fewer parenthesis and more screaming.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

i second that yes!

sckChui said...

Valve games are notable for the volume of ideas they cut during their development. They also have a very good idea of the player's attention/patience/whatever budget because they playtest so often and so thoroughly. The playtesting also means they don't have to argue among themselves whether an idea is good; they can just test it to see how the players respond.

Minecraft, being open since pre-alpha, has gone through an even greater amount of testing, although the process has been far less formal. The one thing I worry the most about the so-called 'pre-release betas' and the recent adding of numerous features is that it's been allowing Mojang to change a lot of the game without putting them up for review by the bulk of the players, leaving room for Mojang to deviate significantly from player opinion.

How much testing has Scrolls gone through by people who don't work for Mojang? I'm guessing zero. If so, the amount of tested knowledge you have about how your potential customers will react to possible features in that game is zero.

Johan Dam said...

Being a passionate programmer and gamer myself, I'm two-sided at this.
Yes, less features makes stuff easier and more features makes a game complicated.
But 1 of my personale favourite games (X3 Terran Conflict) is great at putting too much features in to the game. I had to fall off the steap learning-cliff 3 times before I finally overcame that giant mountain of learning.
But. Once I did I had one of the best gaming experiences I have ever had.
Some games should not look at the users who have a low budget for learning. But should aim for those who's budget of learning is financed by stuborness and the passion to learn.
Though that does not count for all games.

Anonymous said...

I have been having an argument about this myself. In the Battlefield series there are 4 classes which all complement each other, except for one. The sniper. I believe the only reason it is in the game at all is because people like to play as the sniper. Why is it there at all?

Assault heals people and shoots enemies.
Support deals out ammo and shoots enemies.
Engineer repairs/destroys vehicles and shoots enemies.
Sniper can place spawnpoints and shoot enemies.

Why does the class that spends it time far behind the lines get to place spawnpoints? I debated this way before the Battlefied 3 beta even began. My friends did not agree that "less is more". The inclusion of the feature was of course making the game better. But why was several classes removed from Battlefield 2 to 3?

I really believe you are onto a track that is maturing in the industry and I would love to be there to help that part mature. Hoping for a job in game design when I have the knowledge for it!

Andreas Larsson said...

Bra tankar, jag utbildar mig just nu inom spel design och jag har en känsla av att det stämmer. Det är ofta spel får för mycket innehåll men man missar viktiga saker. Tyvärr kan jag säga att detta är nått typiskt i Minecraft, även om jag älskar det spelet. exempel är varför man lägger in hundar, eller stora svampar när man har ett Neather som inte finns någon vettig anledning alls att åka till, eller varför lupis, den blåa dyen i spelet är så svår att hitta när den är tekniskt sett värdelös för nån som spelar spelet för att komma nånstans och inte för att bygga blåa smurfar. guld som ses som så värdefullt i verkligheten är nästan värdelöst i minecraft.

jag vill inte tracka ner på din polare Notch men han har en ovana att börja och inte göra klart, utan lägga till onödiga detaljer som inte är värt tiden, en stor svamp är jätte kul i 3 minuter.

over and out

Golven Willis said...

I'll agree with this post

Anonymous said...

layers of complexity seems to me to be the best way to do a project.

simple core principles that are easy to grasp that in turn are full of complexity.

A Continuing down the rabbit hole effect.

I guess its the differences between the ideas of complexity vs content.

Anonymous said...

I don't under stand you're use of Mark Twain's quote. It seems to me he's claiming it takes a great deal more time and effort to make something shorter have the same meaning as something longer(which is often true). If anything, this is against your point of view - you're not trying to get the same meaning into a smaller text, but chopping out part of the meaning altogether.

As for the Hollywood quote you're mentioning here - that only halfway works. While it's definitely true they cut a lot of confusing or poorly executed/written scenes out, maybe even whole characters, their desire to keep the movie short is driven by something totally different: Money. If the movie goes over a certain amount of time, you lose a showing out of the day, or even more than one. That's a lot of ticket sales that disappear because you made your movie ten minutes too long.

But yeah, I do agree that over-cluttering is a problem with some games. I personally like to have three or four major elements of game-play to work with and much over that and it gets tedious and I start ignoring parts of the game. But I'd like to think Scrolls will go into Alpha and Beta, and the input from the audience will decide with or against you in the end.

Alfred Borkmeir III said...

Being able to recognize when a design has too much in it is important. However there are some situations where complexity makes the game.

Play-testing seems to be the best way to find out if a feature is important or not. You build your code to track what features get used by the players, and cut or tweak once you know the results. The only problem with this is you may end up making a different game then you wanted.

TheSandwichLord said...

I like how the views of your blog rose greatly by the linking this to twitter

Aurifier said...

This sort of thing is true of writing as well. I am not a writer, but I am a college student, and my dad was a journalist for some time, so I know a bit about writing. Strunk and White's The Elements of Style is and has been the champion of style guides for practically ever. The driving theme of entire book is clarity and conciseness, which largely means using the word for the job, rather than the biggest or most flamboyant. I'm [politician name here], and I support your blog post.

Konstantin Vernikovskiy said...

There is a prevailing trend in the industry nowadays to streamline game-play. Nowadays a sequel can be realistically expected to have not more features than the original, but in fact fewer. here are things to be said for and against this.

For: You focus more on the core game mechanics, and making them fun. Okay, fair enough, the game aways falls apart if the core game mechanic(s) isn't(aren't) fun.

For: You reduce the chances of a feature not playing along with the core game mechanics, and making them unbalanced or unfun - such as overpowered crafting systems, or grinding mechanics that are mandatory but take too long and aren't fun.

These are two pretty significant points... But I still tend to prefer more features. Maybe I'm in the minority here, but I tend to get bored of games, even good games, very very quickly. As soon as the game stops introducing new features, more often than not, I leave, because I enjoy exploring new features almost more than the game itself. I've often thought that if one implements features in a way where they are largely optional - such as in-depth crafting in a game where stock equipment is generally good enough - you can satisfy gamers like me and also not get in the way of core game mechanics, and thus truly ending up with more game. It may still take up time and money, true, but this optional complexity can really make a game, for certain kinds of players - players such as me.

Anonymous said...

Agree with you almost completely. Just want to point out that you've mis-used the word "reductionism". It does not mean "removing things" or "keeping things simple" as you seem to believe. It is actually a rather technical term in English that means "to understand something by understanding the workings of its component parts" or "conceptually reducing a complex thing to the interaction of simpler constituents" or maybe just "explaining phenomena completely in terms of relations between more fundamental phenomena."

Anonymous said...

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Anonymous said...

Absolutely makes sense.
It is better off if you have a strong basic point of content, rather than adding all the "glitter" to something that looks great as-is. Not only that, if you can get a point straight without affecting the main point, but also still covering some issues that may worried the player, and without spending so much, why waste all that money and time?

Headless Relative said...

I would be embarassed to have written this just after such an argument. A stunning lack of professionalism is dripping from this entire post.

And beyond that, I don't think anyone would ever disagree with you on this. If you think the underlying reason people aren't cutting features is that they don't understand these principles, you should really consider what that says about the level of competence you assume in coworkers.

You're assuming you know the reason behind the disagreement without reference to the feature in question (I realize you likely can't discuss it since this involves a recent argument (again, embarassingly unprofessional and immature)). I imagine the feature itself might enter into the decision made. I don't think they said to themselves "There's no reason to ever cut features and adding features is great!". Again, the implicit assumptions about your intellectual superiority to your coworkers is very troubling (especially over such a trite sentiment - that cutting things more often improves things than adding them).

A Prog said...

You know... Scrolls is basically Mojang's second game... Mojang only has one game to back up their reputation. Minecraft. While yes, it's a heluva game, there's such a thing as a "one hit wonder" in the gaming industry. People are going to expect the next game that comes out to be just as good. If it isn't, Mojang will rapidly lose fans.

Budget, yes, is an incredibly important factor. But in this case I think popularity of the company name should be more prevalent, so long as the game doesn't become unnecessarily cluttered.

There is a way, though, to make a game well-cluttered with items and things to learn. You have to introduce these items to the player slowly over the course of the game - something Minecraft doesn't do at all. I would question if Mojang is good at doing that. If Mojang is, I'd say full steam ahead! Put as much in as you can, but keep the learning curve sensibly gentle. No matter how much you put in, if you can introduce it to the player the right way during gameplay, it will seem simple to the player in the end. But if you can't do that... I stand behind your opinion on the matter 100%. I don't see budget as a deciding factor in this matter... I'd invest in title #2 and use #3 to rake in the money. You can't make money without spending it.

Azure Lazuline said...

Sirlin wrote a very nice article saying the same thing:

I fully support this as a fellow game designer. Everything else that I could say, Sirlin says better, so I'll leave it off there.

Anonymous said...

A. what the hell, aren't you the artist. your suppose to be coming up with the unrealistic ideas and features.
its marketing's job to crush the games ambitions with pragmatism and finance issues.
don't you know anything about making games?

B. This isn't a high budget movie or a triple A high budget shooter, its an independent turn based game, there's no such thing as "too many features".
Civilizations, Masters of Orion, x-com. all had a tremendous amount of features and complexity and are the epitome of the turn based game.

Anonymous said...

Luigi Snozzi, a famous Swiss architecte (active on an international level, i mean if u r an architecte, u know him) said that when his project start to have come to a dead end, that he cannot create anymore he erase what he think is the most important think.

Why ??? Because in the creator's mind that particular thing have create compromise and have ower all the rest of his creation.

Christopher M Early said...

Uncut content is what killed Hellgate: London (and Flagship Studios as a whole)

They simply tried to put too much into the game. The end result is that when their deadline got bumped up practically nothing was actually completed. Think of engineers working three years designing components to concept car and finding out they only having a month to put it all together. Thousands of parts and only a few of them had ever been attached to the others. You should have seen all of the stuff they were planning.
At the end of the day there were so many pieces that didn't quite fit or were slightly incompatible their car ended up being a go-kart - a go-kart that stalled and handled funny with a couple flat wheels and no breaks.
You can always add content later, but it doesn't matter how many ornaments you have on your Christmas tree when it leans to one side and the evergreen leaves are everbrown.

carnalizer said...

Thank you all for the input! It is very comforting to see how many others there is who thinking about these issues. Atm I can't reply to all of you for I'm at work.

To Headless Relative in particular:
You are probably right. I thought I made it clear that the argument at work only set off thoughts I've carried for a long time.

Anyway... regarding my hubris; there will always be a fine line between that and belief in one self. I can never tell when it is one or the other. Thanks for setting me straight.

Björn Ritzl said...

@Headless Relative: I don't read the post at all the way you do. I can't see any "dripping unprofessionalism" anywhere. I've had the pleasure of working with carnalizer for many years and he's one of the most professional artists I've ever worked with.

I thought the post was very insightful. As a developer I know how tempting it is to add cool features, but it's damn hard to not lose yourself and your game in a frenzy of cool but often unnecessary stuff.

Anonymous said...

Personally I hate when game developers "dumb it down" for the users. Games are becoming increasingly simple and while people with short attention spans and a lack of a sense of accomplishment like to just blow through games I find it extremely boring. I say add as much as possible and make it as realistic as possible. More features does equal more value for the customer when it comes to games. Simple might be good when it comes to a painting or a movie, but when you have something interactive you want to interact with it as much as possible.

Max Cantor said...

"Design is the successive application of constraints until only a unique product is left."—Richard W. Pew

Anonymous said...

As always, you are so right in every way. And you know what, i kind of fight similar fights at my new job as well... :)


carnalizer said...

@staffan :) I think you said, but my memory is crap. What's your new job?

@ everyone: I believe that there is one principle that is more important than all others when developing games:

You test, and ask yourself "Is it fun?"

The sooner and more often you can test, the better game you will end up with. Early and frequent testing is a result of implementing the smallest possible feature set. Simple as that.

Peter Blom said...

You have my bow!

carnalizer said...

To Mordor!