On Games...

An now for something completely different.

My Life in Games

In a past life, back before I started making money off of games, I used to plat test for a few game companies. Shocker! Back when I was in school, I spent probably 80% of my waking hours reading RPG rules, dissecting the mathematics behind the mechanics, playing video games, and reverse engineering their algorithms. I managed to play test for 3 game companies, and would often be the only one writing negative reviews of products. I couldn't tell you what would be a hit, but I definitely could tell you which would be expensive flops.

Later in life, I managed to get into the business of designing and implementing online games. I built a few sports simulation games, did a couple more as a free lancer for big name companies, and then got sucked into doing some online poker site. From my point of view, I can't sand gambling and have no interest in poker as a player. I have watched enough professional poker players to know that I have no capacity to play a game that simply involves guessing which drunks will throw the most money away. But the technical aspect of writing AIs that can play arbitrary poker variations well, and adapt to crazy new rule sets was fascinating.

Games I Love

Last night I dug up my old copy of Dungeon Keeper. As a kid, I loved Bullfrog games. Syndicate Wars was one of the best executed games ever. Dungeon Keeper is also right up there, and now 12 years later, is still capable of pleasing. And I don't mean that in a nostalgic way. The game play is actually still compelling. When compared with games like WoW or Eve Online, there's no comparison at all. Ratting in Vexor is no where near as fun as dropping 8 demon spawn on top of a load of heros surrounded by gas traps. I can't tell you how many times I've wanted my Blood Elf Witch to be able to slap her Imp around. And that Succubus has nothing on those Dark Mistresses.

Playing through a level this morning, I was amazed at how much I remembered. I could remember where all the choke points were in the map, where to dig, where to build. And I was amazed at how well paced the game is. The typical level takes 1-2 hours to play through. You can spend longer, but eventually you'll run out of gold. This tension between having to wait for your creatures to train, and the inevitable resource exhaustion makes for a game that can be played over and over again without growing stale. As a god game your options are very free form, but as you are a limited god, constrained by finances, space, and time, only a small fraction of those options are going to be viable.

Playing Games

This explores the critical component of a good game, a good game gives you the ability to play. Not just the mash the buttons in the right order style play, or even the run around the map style play, but the explore different combinations and strategies. You can try to do different things, and each action has consequences that may not be apparent until much later. You are both free to fail and free to pursue utter brilliance. Games that railroad you, or don't provide for different outcomes, just don't let you play. Games that are pure combo based, where the process is a sequence of button mashing, without the application of tactics and strategies, are also preventing you from play. You can have crap graphics, like Dwarf Fortress, but as long as there's the capacity to experiment, the game can be fun.

Ultimately, I think were WoW grew stale for me was it became an exercise in mindlessly mashing rotations. I constantly kept respecing my toons just to try out new rotations, but ultimately once all of the solo-play content was exhuasted on both Horde and Alliance, all that was left was guild politics and running BGs that never really felt satisfying. Even with a premade, you only had so much tactical muscle to exercise. Ultimately, nerfs, randomness, and gear squashed any actual creativity in play style. It was like playing D&D where every magic-user learned magic missle, and no one would ever dare learning something practical and useful like grease.

My New Game Project

In my "oh so ample" free time, I've been working on a new game system that is based on a system I developed probably 15 years ago. Some of the ideas have been fleshed out a lot more, and have finally found the right balance between complexity, probability, and creativity. Tactical thinking is built into the mechanics, as well as, rewards for creative approaches to game play. The game mechanics heavily penalize Hack & Slash style gaming, and require an attention to the art of creating an engaging encounter. And while the rules are geared towards a table top setting, they have also been designed for a computer RPG world as well.

Probably most interesting, the game is designed so that every character can be effective in any encounter. Combat is not intended to be the sole arbiter of who wins and who loses. Just as there are other options in real life, so too should there be other options in the game. In a computer setting, this flexibility requires a much more elaborate environment. Everything requires some level of intelligence. In effect, the players need a fully functional physical simulation that provides the physics and chemistry of the game world. And as in the real world, if you have the skills to manipulate those rules, you can produce astonishing results.

My Wish List

What I really want in a game basically boils down to this:

While not everyone would find this game fun, these factors are all found in Dungeon Keeper. You can drop multiple combinations of creatures into the portal to get a new one! That's a learned behavior it took me months to discover. Also your enemies only have a fixed population, you kill them all then you complete the level, and the game world map changes for good. As you progress through the game, you learn new spells, how to create new rooms, and can train more powerful creatures. Most of the time, you have to discover them first. One level you discover skeletons, another you can find spiders. If you use the right specials, you can even steal heros and train them and transfer them to the next level. Not only do your actions directly impact what you learn and access, but the choices you make can carry on to the next level too! And lastly, if they destroy your dungeon heart, you lose. Load a saved game or restart the level, no running back to your corpse for you. Oh and when you die, those creatures you brought with you from the last dungeon, they're gone. Death has consequences.