Predictably Irrational Game Design

Readers of this site are well aware of my fascination with economic theory. I find there are many parallels to game design, and the tools and theories they provide are a great comfort to me. So when my good friend told me to read Predictably Irrational, I pounced on that book like a hungry hungry hippo.

The book is about Behavioral Economics. A relatively new field in the study of economics, and it starts with the assumption that human beings are not as rational as traditional economics likes to think we are, and in fact, we are irrational to the point of being—wait for it—predictably irrational (herp). It goes on to detail several major points of irrationality, and then backs them up with field experiments that are almost as much fun to read about as they are edifying.

Of the myriad of topics, that ones that stuck with me the most were, no surprise, the ones that provided clear insight into common game design problems. The topics of relativity, the power of zero, the social verses market exchange, and the power of ethics and cheating all showed me new ways to think about common problems, and I’m sure there is even more insight just out of my minds eye, waiting to be tapped. But insight for insights sake is pointless, so it’s time to share. Let’s start with how the value of things is not as simple as it appears…

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Everything I Know About Game Design I Learned From The 80′s

I’m here to tell you that if you ain’t down with 80′s films, particularly action films, then you ain’t down with me.

It’s as simple as that.

Behind the goofy dialog, sweet ass round house kicks, mysterious teachers, cruel dojo master, muscle bound heroes, and beautiful dames beats the thunderous heart of pure awesome; a heart that will guide you, mold you, and train you – if only you would listen. Thankfully, you have me, and I’m here to impart this great wisdom. Wisdom that I have learned in between sessions of breaking bricks over my face and climbing trees to karate chop coconuts. Read on, and for maximum effect, do read each section with the accompanying video.

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Stop Calling Them Design Docs

(this is a reworking, and expansion of a comment on an earlier AltDev article.)

And start calling them Design Tools. Docs get appended, while Tools are put aside as needs change. Design docs are necessary, but their definition is both antiquated and inadequate to the task they provide. In fact, their task–as tools–is threefold, and it worries me that none of this was explained to me.

A game designers job goes through three major periods: figuring out what the hell you are making, getting the team on board with the initial idea, and then managing the vision as the game is redesigned (like, a lot – a LOT a lot); similarly, your documentation, as the project goes through these stages, serves three purposes: extrapolation, communication, and collation.

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Pacing Graphs And Proper Communication

Every time you create a chart, a table, or a graph you are attempting to visualize and communicate important information, but more often than not, people approach the task with a careless and blase attitude that leads to a muddying of their message, which ultimately leads one, even with the best of intentions, to chart the wrong course. There is no greater beneficiary (and culprit) of clear communication than the Pacing Graph.

Pacing is one of those designer concepts that you just don’t order from the local design store, “uh yes, I’d like to order 2 units of good pacing please.” We know that we need it, we know when we lack it, and we sorta know how to orient ourselves in search of it, but damn if the search isn’t a complete nightmare. On our search we create tools to light or path, and the brightest light we have is the Pacing Graph.

A Pacing Graph is the graphical representation of the major moments in your flow. Much like a screenplay’s 3 act structure, games have a flow to them. You enter an area, you are presented with increasing levels of both physical and mental conflict, and you are finally rewarded with a resolution. It is easy to see how the game follows this arc, but you’ll notice that each level follows its own mini arc, and even, if you’re good, the combat encounters. A Pacing Graph helps you to visualize this sinusoidal flow to the game, and helps you to spot problem areas like too much combat, too little downtime, or too much of both.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “I’m not an idiot, Mike. I’d never make the mistake of putting two big fights next to each other.” True, you might not – at first, but what happens when the middle section of your level gets cut? (Every game ever) What happens when that creature you were counting on to be in your level is cut, so you replace it with another? (Every game ever) This kind of stuff happens all the time, and it can be hard to keep track of how things stand at any given moment.

Enter your Pacing Graph. They are an invaluable tool in your game design tool box, and not just for you level designers out there. The 300 missions in the Challenge Tower, for example, are constructed around a spike chart. When properly constructed, a Pacing Graph drives clean and clear communication of the major moments in your designs, and ensures a good balance in two major areas: balance within your own work, and balance amongst the entire game.

You see, Pacing Graphs are not just for you, and they are not just for other designers; they are for the entire team, and that means they require meaningful context, game wide consistency, and clean communication. Pacing Graphs must be constructed a certain way, and they must match in style and meaning to the designer two cubicles to your left. Look: just making a bunch of lines with accompanied notes does not, by itself, constitute a Pacing Graph, but worry not, for the following will help you to overcome two major mistakes: a lack of clarity, and a failure to recognize the difference between combat and cerebral tasks.

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Wii U and Me

Ok, so that happened.

It can be hard to remember why we got into this. Behind all the schedules, behind all the work, I like to think that I still have that childlike wonder that lets me see the world as I used to: full of possibilities and fun. Not easy. I catch myself joining in with snarky comments on Generic New Game #4, because, well, it’s just easy to hate. I find that, at least as a designer, we tend to wear the mantle of the “projects greatest critic.” He who wears that mantle isn’t always a designer, but most times I think it ends up that way. It is a heavy mantle for those that wear it, and I find that, like the One ring, it corrupts those that wear it. The heavy burden of being the critic just makes you hate. You live with constant hate; we become Haters. Maybe I’ve already been corrupted, maybe not.

But not today. Today was all smiles.

How do I feel about the Wii U? In a word: yes.

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Depth vs Breadth in Combat Design: An Interactive Visualization

Being a good combat designer requires understanding the meaning and significance of both depth and breadth in your designs. To put it simply: depth is the Knowledge of How, and breadth is the Knowledge of Why. But what does this mean?

How do I perform that move? Why should I use this move? How come I need meter to do this move? How do I build meter? Why should I build meter?

Combat designers, the good ones, all understand the hows and the whys of the moves they are creating, but for those not seeped in the world of fighting games their meaning can be a little obtuse. One of the things I love about game design is finding new ways - either graphically, mathematically or visually – to express information, and so I have tried my best in this post to express Depth and Breadth in an interactive way that showcases not only their meaning, but also their implication.

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One Great Idea And Two Crap Ideas Is Still Just One Good Idea

There is never any excuse for not doing your best work. Not one single stinking reason. You can bring up all the excuses you want, but at the end of the day, it is unacceptable to not bring your A game.

I overheard two people having an argument today, and it drove me home to write. One artist was calling another one out, which firstly, is totally awesome. I love this kind of stuff, because this is what people need. When someone does something that’s bullshit, we should be callin them out. Secondly, he was right on the money, which just made it all the sweeter. The specifics of what was said are not important, and that is not why we are here today. What is important, is the response.

At first, like most would do, the victim was defensive. He defended his work, but it was shaking footing, and as time passed (and as his verbal opponent remained adamant) the victim began to slip. Finally, he said the phrase that set my internal alarm on fire. He said, in short, that while what he created might not be his best work, some good ideas might come from it. Then, quite insightfully, his verbal opponent pointed out, “what if this is the idea they choose? Are you going to be happy about that?” Man, my respectomoter was in FULL OVERDRIVE at this point. If I wasn’t already a cold hearted bastard, I think i would have shed a tear.

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My Personal Philosophy On Handling Negative Reviews

You will never see me qualify a phrase with “in my opinion” on this site, because I rightfully hate that phrase. Obviously what I write or say is my opinion, and people that qualify, or ask for one to qualify, are simply muddying conversation. That said, this is about as close as I get: the following is my personal philosophy. I realize that this opinion is… off putting, to some – especially if you miss the exactness of my wording, so I’m throwing out a giant blanket of “chill out”. Bundle up, read forth, and hopefully you will come to understand the truth.

The period after your game ships is, I’m sure, a pretty universal experience for most developers, and can be best summarized by a random coworker suddenly blurting out, “Dude! ISpotGiantBomba gave us a 7/10?! Those assholes!” This will be followed by a chorus of scoffs, grumbles, and general discussion of how “reviews are bullshit”. I have not been immune to these moments, but rarely do I let it upset me. I can be annoyed, or I can be sad, but I will never be angry. Which leads me to why we are here.

If negative reviews make you angry, then you didn’t work hard enough on what you created.

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Every System Designer Must Study Economics

How much experience should this monster give? What drop rate should we set on this item? How do we know two functionally distinct items are worth the same amount?

Economics is the study of choice under scarcity, and one of many ways to discuss player motivation is to view it through the lens of economics. This lens shows us that the player is constantly making choices: to play a game, to play YOUR game, to be a fighter instead of a wizard, or to take that +5 to slaying instead of that +4 to thinking. Her resources are limited, so how does she choose one over the other? Because one is more rewarding; because it makes her avatar stronger; because it enhances her status; because it makes her happy. All rewards can be expressed within economic terms, and by understanding the basics of economic theory you can answer important questions about your player’s reward system.

Players want to feel they have accomplished great things — i.e. her work product must be validated — and one way we do this is by rewarding her with Physical Capital (new gear, money, or potions), with Avatar Capital (new abilities and experience points), and with Human Goods (Fame, Story moments, or Achievements). When a system validates your work product (killing those hoplites) with rewards (red orbs) you feel good about your work; you feel your actions had purpose, and you want to keep going. You can even double the effect by adding a randomized element to the reward.

It is the system designer’s job to not only understand what drives accomplishment, but also to answer very important questions about their system: what are items worth, what drop rate should an item have, and what do the players spend their money on? The answers to all these questions comes from a good, strong understanding of the basics of Economics.

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Maintain The Chain: Game Your Life To Achieve Great Things

Twitter has its moments. It can be a cacophonous smorgasbord, even at the best of times, but recently there was the hashtag #ims211, which started with a basic request:

@ Hey, if you work in games, can you tweet hi to my class ()? I wanna make a point about Twitter and the game dev world.

On the surface, it was a joyful moment of gamedev camaraderie, with developers from all over the globe chiming in to say hi to a class of hopeful students. But below the surface, it was a challenge: if you could convey one message, one ideal, to a young, hopeful game developer, what would it be? If you could go back, what would you say to your younger self?

My answer is simple: Don’t Break the Chain.

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