My experience on The Sims has been invaluable. It is such an incredible series of games and I was surrounded by veritable swarms of highly intelligent people at Maxis.
The lesson [from The Sims] that most influenced Merge Dragons is about “hidden depth.” Hidden depth can...
Nearly 3 years ago, I left Maxis, and I left The Sims. A piece of my heart remained behind, with all the wonderful people and with the games I loved working on for 10 years as an engineer, a designer, then a creative director. I strode out on my own to follow a calling -- one to make a game of my own.
I worked full time, then part time, and eventually nights and weekends as I explored a game idea that grew and flourished into Merge Dragons, which I've dubbed a “merge 3” game. What does that mean? Well, Merge Dragons immerses you in a fantasy world where you can grab almost anything directly from the land and drag it near similar things to merge them into better things. Think match-3, but better and smashed right into the game world. For example, you can merge eggs to hatch helpful dragons, which harvest useful things for you to merge -- like "life flowers" which you use to heal the dead land that plagues Dragonia.
Here's a 30-second gameplay teaser video so you can see it in action:
The experience has been transformational. Appolicious interviewed me, and I shared with them thoughts on my struggles, my philosophies, my inspirations for Merge Dragons -- including how The Sims has influenced my design approach -- and I also talk through how Merge Dragons stands out as unique and fun in a world where tens of thousands of games are released to the app store each month. If that interests you, please check it out.
Here's a snippet of the interview:
In The Sims 3, we made many additions and improvements to the lovable and quirky beings we call Sims. By far, my favorite of those is our character traits system, and I know I’m not alone – it has captured the hearts and minds of our players, too – often even more than our largest feature: the seamless, living neighborhood. So I wanted to describe the thinking that led us to the traits design, and some of the interesting choices and observations we made along the way.
Personality in The Sims and The Sims 2
First, a little background. In The Sims and The Sims 2, personalities were chosen on a ten-point scale along five different personality characteristics:
In The Sims, personality affected the choices a Sim made on their own, affected rates of skill gain, and also altered the speed a Sim’s needs would deplete. For example, a Sim with a high playful score would have their fun drop quickly, causing the Sim to do more fun things than normal.
In The Sims 2, we expanded the system to add special behaviors for specific ranges of personality. The 0-3 range was considered “low” and 8-10 points was considered “high.” Both came with unique animations and interactions for the Sims. Anything in between (4-7 points) was considered neutral, and usually did not have any special animations or interactions. For example:
All personalities worked this way. As you can see, we bundled the special content toward the extremes.
Inspiration and Philosophy for Traits
The problem we found as we were implementing personalities on The Sims 2 was that we couldn’t reasonably create enough special animation and interaction content to make each notch of the 0-10 scale feel interesting.
Additionally, players didn’t understand that there would only be a nominal difference between, say, a 2-point and a 3-point Sloppy Sim, but a huge difference between a 3-point Sloppy Sim and a 4-point Sloppy Sim. We didn’t make that clear in the UI, so players had to learn this from strategy guides and Sims wikis.
Around the time we began designing The Sims 3, I’d been reading a lot about screenwriting, and noticed that in screenplays, characters often have a few glaringly distinct traits. There’s no fuzziness about them:
We used this approach as inspiration on The Sims 3, and developed a philosophy of doing away with the continuous aspect of personality. Instead, we wanted to take the extremes from The Sims 2 and package that fun content into discrete bundles of behavior, which we dubbed Traits.
Scouring the Personal Ads (For Science!)
Now, how would we begin to figure out which traits we wanted? One of the first days we brainstormed traits, my boss called me into his office (Matt Brown, now of Blizzard). Quirky genius that he was, he sat me down and pointed to his monitor, which was littered with personal ads and dating websites. The idea was to see exactly how people described themselves. People said things like the following, which are from real personal ads:
If you play The Sims 3, you’ll notice some of these from the game with slightly altered names: Loves the Outdoors, Hopeless Romantic, Athletic, Friendly, and Loner. And although Mid Life Crisis didn’t make sense as a trait, we used it as a lifetime happiness reward which could be used to swap traits mid-game.
Seinfeld, The Simpsons, and Arrested Development
Then we locked the design team in a room and made a list of the interesting characters we knew from TV, movies, and books. We filled entire whiteboards with names, then scrawled the prominent traits of those characters in any whitespace we could find. Due to the wonders of technology, I was able to dig up a piece of one of those brainstorms. I know it looks like we had an angry chimp scribbling these down, but hey… it’s hard to keep a chimp happy all the time:
In the end, a handful of fun traits in The Sims 3 were inspired by some of our favorite characters. Here are four:
Traits for Gameplay Systems
As we fleshed out the designs for the rest of the game, we continued to add traits that enhanced the gameplay of those systems.
As we designed Fishing Skill, we added the Angler trait – these Sims are natural fishers and have lots of fun while fishing. When designing Gardening Skill, we added Green Thumb – these Sims are great at gardening, and can even revive dead plants. And as we developed the food system, we added Vegetarian – these Sims get special versions of recipes, like Tofu Dogs, and they enjoy longer lives… but be careful: force them to eat, and they’ll start throwing up (players always enjoy new ways to torture their Sims!).
Then, there were some traits that were hard to agree upon. Do we want them? Do they fit the “Sims” style? Do they provide enough value? Here are the stories of three troubling traits:
Clumsy. These Sims drop food, trip over their feet, tumble into pools, and generally lack coordination. The trouble with Clumsy was that it had no gameplay value. Some designers wondered why anyone would pick a trait that had no benefits. On the other hand, the argument was that Clumsy would be worth it just for the humor and storytelling aspects. In the end, we shipped it, and many players loved it, often saying that they themselves were clumsy, and so they felt a special attachment to it.
The Great Merge
Eventually, we had a list of over 100 traits. Far too many. It would have been an overwhelming list for new players to wade through, and also too much to implement. First, we ruthlessly cut the weakest traits. That left us with traits that we liked, but many of them didn’t have enough gameplay, or were too similar. This led us to “The Great Merge,” where we combined a lot of our proposed traits into fewer, stronger traits with more gameplay. This eventually got us to The Sims 3’s shipping set of 63 traits.
Five Traits, Period.
We limit each Sim to a maximum of 5 traits. Early in pre-production, this wasn’t the case. We originally had a system where each trait had a point value, and the player had points to spend. Positive traits cost points, but negative traits returned points as an incentive to pick them, thereby allowing players to choose many traits as long as they balanced negatives with positives. But we quickly realized this approach was far too geeky and inhuman for a Sims game.
Next, we tried removing the points, and just letting players pick to their heart’s content. And that’s just what people tended to do – pick lots of traits. There’s a reason movie characters only have a few big traits – too many and it waters down their identity. We found the same thing happening in our prototype. Ultimately, we settled on a maximum of 5 as a number that was still large enough to give virtually unlimited interesting combinations, yet was small enough that each trait felt like a meaningful choice.
Also, it’s easy for players to remember 5 traits, as opposed to 7 or 10 or more. When a player can remember a Sim’s traits easily, they are more likely to change their play style in accordance with those traits – e.g. My Sim is a Virtuoso, I should practice guitar today or play in the park for tips! That’s the kind of trait-based motivation we want to see!
We settled on this number even before production. You can see the space is limited to 5 trait slots in this screenshot of our 2D prototype. Testing these variations in our prototype saved us plenty of UI re-work we would have had to do if we’d learned these lessons later in production:
And in the final game, it looks like this:
Looks Trump Character during Creation
We wanted to emphasize character, so we considered having traits as the very first part of Sim creation, even before the appearance of the Sim. It was a well-intentioned, but ultimately doomed idea.
We quickly learned that most players don’t even think about the internal character of their Sims until they can see the visual character. If we gave them a random Sim and opened up the traits panel, they wouldn’t pay attention to the traits – they’d feel like they needed to change the look of that Sim first.
In the end, we ordered Create-A-Sim from the most prominent physical characteristics to the least (first gender, weight, & skin tone; then hair; then face & makeup; then clothing) followed by traits. It’s interesting to note that the hair step is even before face; this is because hair makes such a huge difference in visually defining a Sim – more than setting any aspect of a Sim’s face (especially from a larger viewing distance).
The Most Popular Traits
Here are the top 4 traits:
A whopping 8% of created Sims have the Friendly trait -- yes, 8% is a considered high when there are 63+ traits to choose from, and not all Sims leave Create-A-Sim with 5 traits (younger ages get fewer). Almost as many Sims have Athletic, Great Kisser, or Family Oriented. I love the uplifting message this sends about our Simmers – our community idealizes positive, wholesome qualities in humanity! (With a little smooching tossed in.)
In other words, they’re picking the words that best describe themselves, their ideal selves, or the people they are trying to make. Great Kisser sounds awesome. Traits don’t have to have large benefits (or dev time sunk into them), but rather, they need to appeal to a player’s imaginations and aspirations first.
A Case for Negative Traits
Here are the 4 least popular traits:
It’s no surprise that the negative traits were the least popular. Unflirty was chosen less than 0.25% of the time. After seeing this data, I often get the question about whether we should have not had negative traits. After all, what was their use if so few people pick them?
There are a few good reasons. First, they are necessary to create a diverse and challenging set of personalities for the NPCs in the town. If everyone was easy to flirt with, what fun would that be? So there’s the occasional Unflirty Sim to throw a wrench in things.
Second, they can be useful in describing people we know and want to make.
Third, it allows advanced players to create more interesting challenges. Try the Legacy Challenge with a Sim who Dislikes Children, is a Loner, and Insane!
And as much as possible, we tried to add benefits to the negative traits in case players decided to check them out. For example, an Unlucky Sim may burn her home down more often and get the short stick in life, but if she dies by accident or malpractice, the Grim Reaper will feel sorry for the poor Sim and resurrect her.
A Lost Trait
The movement from an analog personality system to discrete bundles of behavior gave us and players a creative toolbox to make millions of inspiring, deep, dramatic, and entertaining characters.
And they are The Sims.
You don't have to make a colossal game with 3D graphics and online multiplayer. Don’t try that. Start as simple as possible. If you know how to code, or are willing to learn, make a simple puzzle game or platformer with a few levels. If coding isn't your thing, try a program like Game Maker or Game Salad which don't require you to write code. If you're more ambitious or like to code, Unity is a powerful engine that is quickly becoming a popular staple for many studios, especially smaller ones. There's a free version, and a great extension called Playmaker for non-coders.
Or don't use a computer at all – make a card game or a board game. Print it yourself or use a service like Game Crafter. Plenty of designers draw inspiration from a host of board games and design them in their spare time. Plenty of my lunches have been spent playing board game prototypes my friends have designed (and sometimes they end up published).
So: Brainstorm for ideas. Pick one you like. Write a design for it. If the idea is simple (like it should be for your first games) then the design should be quick to write. Then implement it. Play it. Test it with others. Polish the hell out of it until every interaction feels super-satisfying. Iterate until both the second-to-second play is fun, and the long-term game loops are compelling – or go back to the drawing board. But do not give up. It will take a while. Finish a full slice of the experience. Doing just this will set you apart from other aspiring designers.
I will say it again: a complete, fun game is the best thing you can bring to an interview (or a complete slice of one). Don’t hesitate to bring your failures to an interview as well, as long as you can articulate what your intentions were, why the ideas didn't work, and what you learned from it as a designer.
2. Ideas are a Dime a Dozen. Strong Execution is the Rarity.
Actually, ideas a nickel a dozen. (A baker’s dozen at that.) Everybody and their aunt has a game idea. Ideas are plentiful. Usually, designers have scores of fantastic ideas that will never see the light of day because there isn't enough time to make them. It's the clever execution of one of those ideas and the successful solving of thousands of problems that come up along the way that counts.
So if you want to become a game designer, you cannot rely only on your list of game ideas. This is why you need to make a game first (see #1). On top of that, you must also understand the myriad other responsibilities that designers typically have when working with a team:
After you look at this (incomprehensive) list, you should begin to realize why it not only helps to make a game before trying to break into the industry, but also to make a game with other people if you can. Find an engineer, an artist, and an audio expert, and develop something together. It doesn’t have to take over your life. Game Jams are a great way to hook up with other people and get a quick feel for making games, and these relationships and games can lead to longer-term indy projects.
3. Consider a School with Game Development Programs
If you're still looking for the right university (or if you want to go back), there are a handful of great programs designed to give you the skills you need to excel at game design. Here are the top undergraduate schools according to the Princeton Review, along with the top graduate schools:
I attended CMU's Entertainment Technology Center for the two-year Master of Entertainment Technology graduate degree. It was a fantastic program as many of the others are. The great programs like these team you up with students from other disciplines to work on game projects so you build the interdisciplinary skills that will set you up to excel in the industry. In addition, many of these schools have great relations with some of the biggest companies, which makes it easier to get interviews, co-ops, and internships. Lastly, these programs typically make you part of an extended network of connections that will be great to have later.
Or, if you're already in a regular school, take whatever game courses they offer. You may quickly learn that you love it or hate it. When I was a sophomore in college, I took a game programming course, and that's when I knew that making video games for a living wasn’t just a dream, but a very real possibility.
4. Develop a Parallel Skill
Nurture another ability you have, or develop a new ability. Learn to program. Start modeling or drawing concept art. Write short stories. Compose music. Join an improv troupe. Delve into architecture.
Designers pull inspiration from all walks of life. Designers with parallel skills often find an easier time thinking about design problems from unique angles.
Also, having a parallel skill helps you...
5. Join as an Artist, Engineer, Producer, or Writer
It's hard to get a job as a designer right away. Most designers start out doing something else at their game dev studio. I started as an engineer, and with my engineering skills I was able to make prototypes and features that exhibited my game design sense.
Many start as artists, producers, or writers. Some designers even work their way up from being a game tester, though that's harder (if you are embedded with the team, you have a better chance; many testing departments are so large they're separate).
Also, don't be afraid to take an internship. I graduated with a master’s degree, but I started working as an intern because it was all that was available at the studio I wanted to join: Maxis. Use an internship to impress your team and prove you’re worth keeping. And if you don’t interview particularly well, but you’ve got the skills, then an internship is an easier way to get in the door.
6. Be Able to Talk Intelligently about the Designs of Published Games.
It sounds obvious, but I've given plenty of interviews where candidates can't get specific enough about what makes certain games (and aspects of them) great designs or terrible designs.
I usually ask candidates to list some of their favorite games, and then I dig into one or two of them.
Portal? Why is Portal a well-designed game? The levels. Tell me more about that. Is it how the minimalist style helps convey story and contrast the dirty, hidden back chambers that the player stumbles across, which creates a sense of unease? Is it how each level teaches the player a new way to use the portal gun or a new combination of previously-learned skills, which makes for a wonderfully fluid and appropriately-challenging experience? Or is it the ingenious use of space to create puzzles of momentum that have never been seen before? What else? Tell me more about each one.
Be as specific as possible. The biggest indicator of an unskilled designer is the inability to be specific. This is just the beginning. Be able to speak this way about most aspects of the games you've played.
In order to build this discussion ability in the first place, you need to...
7. Know What Makes a Good Game
And for that matter, know what makes a bad game. It sounds easy, but it takes a lot of intentional reflection on all aspects of games: their character progressions, stories, loot systems, control schemes, interfaces, visual feedback, behavioral motivators, intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, level designs, forms of creative expression, goal systems, strategies, game loops, reward schedules, difficulty ramping, economic balance, social interaction, player types, and on and on.
There are plenty of ways to start building a wealth of this knowledge:
8. Lastly, Know your Target Company's Catalog
When you go for an interview, you should know the company's prominent games. Play them. Be able to critique them, have suggestions for improving them, and be excited about the possibility of working on them or similar titles.
Breaking into game design isn't a breeze. It's hard work, just like any other job, but fortunately, the hard work can be a lot of fun. Don't expect to just waltz or gangnam-style your way into a game studio on a whim to secure a game design job. Study games, immerse yourself in design literature, and, if you can, make something! Then, you'll be on your way, and a rewarding career will be within reach, where you can make millions of players happy every day.
Are you a game dev with other helpful tips for breaking into game design? Did anything particular help you land a design job? Please share in the comments!
Today, I read an article that made my brain shatter. If I’d been driving and reading the article at the same time, I’d probably have accidentally driven off a cliff into a ravine filled with genetically-engineered carnivorous wildebeests. The article stated that there were over 100,000 games published on the Apple iOS App Store.
The App Store launched in July of 2008. In just over four years, it became a warehouse for more games than… well… I expected it had more games than all that had existed on all platforms in all of history previous to it. But just how many games had been published on other platforms?
I decided to find out. I grabbed a list of IGN’s Top 25 video game consoles of all time and the list of best-selling game consoles, and cross-referenced them with data from Wikipedia and Moby Games. For PC and mobile games, I pulled data from across the web, including adrolib.com and 148apps.biz.
Here are the results:
At over 122,000 titles, there are enough games on the Apple App Store that I could play 10 games per day for all the days that I’ve been alive, and I’d still have some left over. This number eclipses all the console games that have ever been made (about 22,500), and stomps on all other platforms, too.
I love that it has become easy for independent developers and studios to launch titles on a platform with such a wide audience. Unfortunately, this ease, mixed with a gold-rush mentality, has made it increasingly challenging to stand out (and led to plenty of shady pay-for-placement practices). Instead of hundreds of failures, there are tens of thousands of failures.
Now, more than ever, game developers need to question their designs, and ask themselves if they have an experience that is unique. Otherwise, they will likely find their games sinking amongst the chaff.
Or, maybe the world has enough games now. Perhaps it’s time to stop making games altogether and instead take up alpaca farming.
When I first started writing design docs over seven years ago, they were disorganized, littered with weak language, and crammed with blocks of text so impenetrable to the discerning eye that they might have actually shielded a ring-wearing Frodo from Sauron’s gaze.
Compare this bird’s-eye view of a page from one of my first designs with a page from a design I wrote four years later:
Who sees the page on the left and doesn’t wince? It’s almost as friendly as a tome of tax codes. The page on the right, on the other hand, is inviting – it’s colorful, organized, and appropriately sparse.
The first problem any designer must overcome is getting their team to want to read a design. The second problem is presenting the information in a useful format for implementation. In this article, I’m going to share five tips I’ve learned that led to my current design doc style – a style which I’ve considered a success ever since developers who have moved onto other projects told me they missed this format.
1. Always Start with Design Goals
If you’re designing a feature, your developers need to know what its purpose is. It’s context for the rest of the design, and not only informs the developers how to read each aspect, but also helps them provide better suggestions for improvements.
More importantly, the goals are for you, the designer. Writing 3-5 goals forces you to get to the heart of a design’s importance. Once you’ve written them, you’ll think more clearly about each aspect of the feature, you’ll avoid unnecessary bloat, and you’ll be more creative when challenged to achieve those goals.
Here’s an example of goals for a Tomb Level-Scripting feature for The Sims 3 World Adventures:
These goals are short, sweet, and they drilled to the core of what we felt was important for our tomb development system. Goals like this will set you up to craft a better design.
2. Use Strong Statements. Ditch all Mitigated Speech.
New designers tend to write design docs like they’re compiling a Christmas list to a stodgy Santa Claus:
Every time developers read lines like this in a design doc, they lose confidence in the designer, and usually file these parts of the design into their “we don’t have to do this” category.
Designers need to take a stand in their designs. Brainstorms and early design meetings are for discussing possibilities and uncertainties, but design documents are for telling the team exactly what the game will be. Even if the designer doesn’t entirely believe in what he’s writing.
All designers are filled with doubt about some of their designs. Will a HUD-less screen work? Will the engineers laugh at me because I want to pull 20,000 cooking recipes from an online database? Will animators refuse to animate a snake latching onto a character’s face and flailing about? Yes. They will! This is normal, and this is necessary. It’s part of the process, and it leads to great conversations that narrow in on what’s right and possible for your game.
So take a stand. Ditch all mitigating speech from your designs – no more maybe, possibly, could we, it would be cool if, etc. (Malcolm Gladwell writes, in Outliers, how mitigating language likely led to at least one plane crash when a cockpit engineer and first officer were too soft-spoken to the higher authority of the pilot, rather than speaking clearly in a dangerous situation.) In addition, be as specific as possible. Instead of “large,” say “25 square kilometers.” Here’s a rewrite of the design statements with strong and precise language:
Much better. This was one of my first and most important lessons as a designer, thanks to my boss and Creative Director at the time (Matt Brown, now of Blizzard).
3. Lots of Bulleted Lists!
Design documents are, effectively, lists of tasks. So why not present them that way? Damion Schubert says in his fantastic GDC 2007 presentation, How to Write Great Design Documents (a must-read for all designers), “Programmers almost always want a short bullet list (they kind of like checking things off lists).”
This is a bird’s-eye view of the entire design for The Sims 3 World Adventures tomb technology which allowed designers to script tombs by interlinking object behaviors of traps, triggers, and objects. Notice that the majority of the text appears after bullets:
And here’s a snippet pasted from the doc:
Each bullet is either a specific implementable task, or a header for a subset of specific implementable tasks. Write your designs like this, and they will be more readable and more actionable. And your engineers won’t hate you as much. (They may even begin to like you.)
Non-bulleted text is usually an overview, introductory text, or otherwise non-implementable.
Another benefit of bullets is that they naturally reduce vague language. It’s easy to hide uncertain statements within large blocks of text and not even know you’re doing it. But bullet points shift your mind into making strong, concrete statements.
4. Color Code for Disciplines and/or Readability
You may have noticed that I use plenty of color in my design docs. This was inspired by the great readability of gear hovertips in World of Warcraft (which had improved on a similar presentation in Diablo II). Take a look:
Even if you were illiterate, the coloring conventions would tell you that the Infernal Mittens were more rare (purple vs. blue), you could not equip either item (red text), that the Mittens had some unrealized bonuses (gray text), and that both items had additional bonuses (green) on top of normal stats.
Now, translate this to design docs. I use color for three things:
Here’s a fictitious example for an interaction between a Sim and a Piñata:
Green = Interaction
Orange = Animation
Purple = Important Object or Related Design (like Traits)
Pink = UI Requirement
Red = Visual Effects
Light Blue = Standalone Audio (not attached to animation)
You should adapt your color styles to the needs of your game and your team. Perhaps you need to call out a lot of text requirements, or your world builders will want to easily find aspects related to level design.
This may seem like a lot of effort, but it’s worth it. Suddenly, your key disciplines will find it much easier to absorb your designs and find the portions relevant to them. Want to know all the UI requirements in a 15-page design? Just look for the pink sections. I’ve had people move onto different teams, then tell me they miss this formatting and cannot do their jobs as easily.
The success of color in my design docs has spilled over into my style in these posts. I use bold color to emphasize important points and to create visual anchors, which also helps prevent readers from skipping blocks of text. I highly recommend reading Lazy Eyes (How we read online) by Michael Agger – an article that also deeply influenced my formatting style online and in design docs.
5. Use Images to Set Mood or Explain
This one is pretty simple: a picture is worth 1000 words in a design doc.
I like to use a picture at the top of every design document to set the mood and draw the reader in (and I do the same thing with almost all of the articles on my website). For example:
And if a design point is vague with words alone, consider supplementing with an image:
In fact, if you have a complex design with many interwoven parts, a design document dominated by imagery can be preferable. For more about this, check out Stone Librande’s great One Page Designs presentation from GDC 2010:
These rules, combined with an interesting terrain layout, make a complex system. There is no easily solvable optimal strategy, and strategy varies depending on your goals. The layout in the first image of this section may be great for high population, but it doesn’t account for coastline, businesses, industry, shape variations of attractions, or how the catalog of buildings evolves.
As our audience has grown, more players have whipped out spreadsheets and whiteboards to theorize optimal strategies, leading to Excel mockups that look like someone was diagraming CPU memory blocks:
In fact, some players are geeking out on the strategy so intensely that it’s what the entire game has become about for them. Not decoration. Not quests. Not collecting for the sake of progress. Not anything – except optimizing. Here’s one Excel mockup from a player who stepped back and tried to give equal attention to optimizing placement of all building types:
And all of this ties into the core loop, which focuses on affording better mechanisms to increase population.
Having a complex system that is part of the core loop and that has a simple, understandable interface can add a wonderful dimension to Facebook games and give players a feeling of consequence. More Facebook games need to evolve in this direction.
A “simple” interface limits the amount of complexity a game can have, but this simplicity is necessary to cater to the target audience – a mass market not typically composed of PC/console gamers.
(For more reading on depth, I recommend Smart-Depth: Adding More 'Game' to Social Games by Henric Suuronen.)
Which leads me to…
2. You Are Not the Audience: Half a Billion Other People Are.
Prince even turned down the opportunity to have his music in Guitar Hero, stating that it was “more important that kids learn how to actually play the guitar.”
Does this mean Guitar Hero is a bad experience? No. In fact, Guitar Hero makes the guitar accessible to an audience who does not have the time nor the initial desire to play the real guitar. It has made 25 million such people happy. And, in fact, it has given many of them a greater understanding of and appreciation for instruments, and led to 2/3 of non-instrumentalist players deciding they’d like to learn a real instrument.
Just the same, Facebook games target a wide audience that doesn’t have the time nor desire to play other games. People who were never interested in games before are suddenly seeing the appeal. And the same as Guitar Hero leads to a desire to learn the real guitar, Facebook games can also be a gateway to PC and console games. The light experience of The Sims Social has led to increased interest in The Sims PC games, and many SimCity Social players are expressing interest in trying the SimCity PC games.
On top of this, some Facebook games have had over 100 million players. Objectively, many Facebook games are great because they give so many people enjoyment. I never liked CastleVille much, but now I can appreciate it for what it is: a game that has made many tens of millions of players happy – more players than World of Warcraft ever had – and most of them never paid a cent.
3. Fast Load Times Mean Content is Spread Out Over Time
We count our load times in seconds. If the game takes 30 seconds to load, that’s too long, and we’ll lose a lot of players before they even see the game the first time.
However, successful Facebook games make up for this by releasing new content over time – usually every week or two – cycling new features and object in, and others out. The Sims Social has had thousands of game objects in its catalog over the past year, but only a portion of them are available at any given time. Facebook games really just get started when they launch.
4. Lots of Wall Posts Means More Players. But…
My designer heart tells me that Facebook games should only post the most interesting moments from gameplay, like when two players in The Sims Social "WooHoo" with each other – the sorts of moments that carry intrinsic value for your Facebook friends and are highly comment-worthy. This would make the overall player base happier. And Facebook agrees (in fact, they use this same example from The Sims Social).
But the other side of the argument comes from the Product Managers – those in charge of the monetization and the virality of your game. Data shows that a certain high level output of posts leads to a wider audience. And a wider audience means we have a better chance of paying our dev costs. Period.
There’s no way to argue with that unless we can dredge up metrics that show that fewer viral mechanisms leads to better results in the long-term. But in a constantly-updated game, we can’t easily do a test like this and get meaningful results.
Most surprising to me is that there are plenty of players who don’t mind. In fact, they enjoy sharing everything – it’s part of the experience, and so is getting to see everything that’s happening to your friends who are playing. The sentiment is summed up by one player on our TSS forums who said, “Why wouldn’t you post everything?”
(Check out my GDC 2012 talk for more of my opinions on this topic.)
5. Energy and Time Gates are Used for Pacing
First, we come back to the intended audience. As one player points out: “Social games are intended for people who do not have 90 minutes to play a video game because they have jobs, children, and other commitments. Playing it for 10 minutes a day, twice a day…” is exactly the sort of experience our target audience is looking for.
We’re asking our players to slow down, take a breather, and enjoy the time with their friends. Many players appreciate the relaxed schedule that these games create. Expecting too much gameplay in a single sitting will shift your game from a wide audience to more niche. In fact, on The Sims Social, some of our players complained about play sessions that were too long because we made activities you could do without needing energy. Imagine that! Players wanted the game sessions to be shorter! That’s the audience Facebook games serve.
Second, there’s a deeper gameplay and design motivation: Facebook games are Games as a Service, which means the developer intends to keep the game fresh with updates over time.
But that means the game needs to be paced. If you drop someone into SimCity 4, they could build an entire city in just a few days. Yes, the most hardcore players would continue to build city after city for weeks, but a lot of players would build a couple, and then be done with the game.
Energy and time gates are the pacemakers of Facebook games for good reason. If we didn’t have them in SimCity Social, most of our players would build up a city and then leave before we had a chance to release more content to keep them interested.
Third, selling energy can be a significant portion of revenue – so significant that it can make or break a game’s profitability.
There are alternatives to energy and explicit time gates, but they typically change the entire game design because they count on systems for creating endless content – like PvP, puzzles, or procedural worlds. And even then, puzzle games with potentially unlimited replayability (such as Triple Town or Diamond Dash) still often use energy-like mechanics because they remain great pacers and the games need to make money.
6. Facebook Games are Hard to Make
One of the biggest hidden dev costs when coming from the single-player space is the server-client structure, which at least doubles dev and QA time and gives far more opportunity for bugs. A simple single-player feature can become harrowing when translated to the online space if it requires a lot of server code and security work to prevent hacks.
The team also inevitably spends countless hours optimizing for fast load times, efficient streaming algorithms, and clean memory management. You might think that because these games appear simple when compared to a console or PC game that we might not have to do all of this – but many of the best Facebook games are pushing Flash to its limits.
On top of this, Facebook games tend to have tons of UI. It’s fast and easy to design crappy UI, but designing and implement a pleasing, easy-to-use, strongly-communicative UI takes a long time with plenty of iteration.
7. Yes, You Need to Play with Friends. But...
Facebook games do this for 3 reasons:
But the mechanic is in its adolescent years. It doesn’t scale well. For players who have no other friends playing, they can’t progress unless they’re willing to spend money. For players who have tons of friends, their game inboxes can get bogged down with hundreds or sometimes thousands of requests, at which point it’s all just noise. And as your friends slowly stop playing, your personal game gets tougher and tougher, like a wick slowly burning down until it dies out completely.
In my GDC 2012 talk, I convey my personal view that social games need to be more like World of Warcraft and less like Everquest, in that WoW is first and foremost a fun and friendly place for solo players, yet even better with friends, versus the constant impending doom of trying to play EQ solo. Incidentally, most social games aren’t very social – they need more true social features, like SimCity’s relationship feature where your cities can develop special standings with your friends’ cities based on how you interact with them:
Back to friend requirements: I would love to try having staffing and other friend requirements auto-fulfill over time, where you could use friends to speed them up, but the solo player isn’t out of luck. I would also like to see easier ways to find active players to team up with, even if they aren’t your friends on Facebook. We’ve seen Zynga making progress here, but it needs to be widespread in all social games that have heavy friend requirements.
8. You Don’t Need to Spend Money to Progress
Part of this “must spend” stigma comes from having pervasive opportunities to spend. Everywhere you look, there’s an appointment to speed up, a worker to hire, or an awesome premium object to buy. There are at least 10 different ways to spend Diamonds (the premium currency) in SimCity Social. To spenders, this represents great choice and power, and it is a very good thing. To non-spenders, it’s a reminder that they’re not getting the whole experience.
The truth is that developing a fantastic Facebook game costs a lot of money. And the overhead costs of running servers to support millions or tens of millions of players is high – especially when most of them never pay a dime. So we need to walk a fine line between adding enough opportunities for players to spend such that we become profitable, and going out of business because we offer too much for free.
So far, the ways we let players spend money are the best we’ve found. We can’t make players pay up front – it will limit our audience too much (and evidence from iPhone shows that free apps with microtransactions tend to make more than paid apps). We also can’t require subscriptions – not many people would trust a Facebook game enough to pay just to try it; instead we have to let you play for free so we can prove that our game is fun and worth spending money on. And we can’t switch to only paid episodic content or stop the game unless you pay at a certain level because again, that would drastically reduce our audience – all the free players would stop, but we need them to keep the social network strong.
I’d love to hear ideas for new ways to monetize a Facebook game that would (1) please the Console/PC gamer market, (2) not severely cut down our audience, and (3) not require more investment. But right now, this is the best we have.
Lastly, a Reflection on Personal Satisfaction
You learn to respect metrics and use them in harmony with your gut design instincts. You get intriguing insights into the way players interact with your designs, and you get the amazing opportunity to react quickly, so the game evolves into a reflection of your players’ desires. You learn the utmost importance of crystal clear communication and how to design toward it (a skill that more PC/console games need to embrace). And among other things, you make tens or hundreds of millions of players happy – far more than most PC/console games.
A downside is that you get less respect from PC and console gamers – which, being a PC/console gamer myself, can weigh on me. But you get more respect from just about everyone else, including friends and relatives who tend to play more Facebook games than PC/console games and are looking for the lighter experience. My ultimate goal as a designer has always been to delight people. We launched The Sims Social in August of 2011, and one year later 15 million players still enjoyed it every month. That's pretty good.
But most of these design choices I've explained need to evolve, or the Facebook game audience will wither. There's plenty of territory to pioneer, and plenty of tired approaches that need rethinking. If Facebook games can evolve with more interesting gameplay and deeper, true social mechanics that are still appealing to the mass market, then there is hope, and potentially a bright future.
I love Diablo 3. I loved Diablo 2. (Perhaps I’m in love with Diablo in a geeky, game-designer-sort-of way.) And I have incredible respect for the Diablo team. Not only are the Diablo games incredibly fun, but I remember having an epiphany about Diablo 2 that ended up influencing many of my personal design philosophies over the past 10 years. It was an epiphany about the nature of Diablo, and it lies at the heart of this post.
Diablo is a game about collecting loot. It always has been, and always will be. It’s a glorified slot machine with incredibly satisfying feedback.
I won’t get into the balancing of the existing loot system or its relation to the economy of the auction house (an interesting and somewhat controversial discussion of that here). It’s a great topic, but instead, I want to offer a new way to excite and motivate players through loot.
I’d like to suggest that the current loot system is outdated because it doesn’t cater enough to the completely online, server-backed world. It’s a single player loot system rearing its head in a multiplayer game through the auction house.
Currently, everyone can find any loot in the game with the right luck. There is no history. It doesn’t matter who has already found what, or how much has been found. In other words, there is no concept of everyone competing for the same incredible jackpot. (And I’m not saying there should be less loot; I’m saying there should be more. Read on.)
Here’s how I suggest taking advantage of the online setting:
Create a new tier of items: items which are limited across all servers.
Here are some details about how it would work:
Okay, so what are the benefits of this design?
For fun, here are the parallels I see between baseball cards and Diablo loot:
Baseball player = Item stats
Card condition = Item stat variance
Card find rate in card packs (or in cigarette packs) = Item drop rate
Card print run = Limit to how many of the item will ever exist. (This is the void that Mythical items fill.)
Displaying the scarcity also shifts the item from having only functional value to suddenly having value in its mere existence. Everyone can eventually gear up in Legendary items, so there’s little vanity to be had in the end game here. But few will ever have a single Mythical item, let alone multiple. They become collectors' items. A mere number label creates value out of thin air.
3. End Game
Mythical items put a face on the unattainable. Rather than thirsting for the vague notion of a “slightly better Legendary item,” you can now thirst for a Mythical item – any Mythical item at all. It’s the ultimate jackpot, and there are enough out there that you can taste them.
We know we will come across Legendary items. But we don’t know we’ll ever touch a Mythical item. The fantasy of the mythical is more alluring than the promise of the tangible.
4. Money for Blizzard and Players.
With the nearing advent of the real currency auction house, Blizzard stands to make a few good dollars on such rare items along with their finders. How much would a one-of-a-kind Mythical amulet sell for? Have you heard of the Chinese gamer who spent $16,000 on a unique sword for an MMO… before the game was even launched? Imagine how much he would have spent if he’d been playing the game for a year first. With over 10 million Diablo copies sold, I’m sure there are a few players with heaps of money and nothing to spend it on.
5. Community, Lore, and Gossip.
The other purpose of having items this scarce (and that flaunt their scarcity so well) is to create an endless chatter about them on blogs, on forums, and in the media. These items would become lore for the community. Wikis would track which ones have been found and who owns them and when they swap hands. Stories about who was there when a Mythical item dropped would be told and retold over countless lunches with friends and coworkers. (To fuel the fire, I’d even design an in-game notification that occasionally gets sent to all online players when someone finds any Mythical with a "print run" of 20 or fewer.)
The press would also pick up on any item that breaks a new sales record by selling for thousands more US dollars than before. Mythical items would effectively help Diablo 3 market itself long after traditional marketing efforts wane.
Have I convinced you of the value of such items to the design? What do you think?
Think of some of your favorite sequels out there – Uncharted 2 or Portal 2 or Diablo 3. How do they make you feel? Sometimes it can be hard to describe what was great about a fantastic sequel, other than it was just awesome, or, phew… they didn’t screw it up!
But the recipe for a great sequel is rather simple:
- 1/3 The Same
- 1/3 Improved
- 1/3 New and Fresh
Games are no different.
1/3 The Same
The most important part is that a sequel feel familiar, otherwise you risk alienating your fans. Don’t redesign aspects of your game just because you want to leave your mark on it or because you think everything has to be better.
To get started, ask yourself these questions:
One area of your game that’s easy for a designer to overlook is music. Don’t neglect music! Sometimes your sound team will want to do an entirely original score. Don’t let them. Using a few familiar musical themes in your sequel can be a shortcut directly into your player’s emotions and make them feel at home instantaneously (and then they’ll be more willing to struggle to learn your “improved” UI). Every time the Legend of Zelda overworld music fires up in any of the Zelda games, things just feel right. In The Sims 3, we use some music from the original Sims game, The Sims, when your characters go into the day spa. (I wish we used more!)
Familiar settings have similar emotional effects, and can serve gameplay at the same time. The Diablo series uses Tristram in all three games – it’s the same location, but different spots in time. The player feels a familiarity, but also a sense of wonder as they experience the changes. My personal favorite example is Super Metroid, which uses some locations from the original – there’s even an energy tank in the same spot in the ceiling – but time has passed, and you get to see beyond the borders of the first game and explore the old spots in new ways. You even get to see where you first destroyed Mother Brain, which brings back a wash of memories. Instantly, you are more attached to this game. And then you find a secret below her holding tank. It’s one of my all-time favorite level-design spots in gaming:
This is perhaps the easiest part of designing a sequel. It’s a designer’s natural tendency to improve all things (and this is also why the part above is so difficult).
This 1/3 of the game is all the stuff that worked pretty well in your previous installments which maybe players didn’t respond to as positively as you’d expected. Or maybe these things worked well for a while, but with added depth or tweaks, could be fantastic. Or you just need to live up to the current bar in gaming.
Here are just three examples of the features we improved in The Sims 3:
1/3 New and Fresh
The new stuff! This is the most exciting part of the game to design, and this 1/3 will probably take 80% of the effort. It’s a journey of good ideas, bad ideas, trial and error, play tests, and constant iteration. (And also pizza binges and one too many beach balls... yes, those are behind-the-scenes photos.)
Sometimes the next step is clear. In The Sims 3, that step was: build a seamless, clockwork neighborhood where all the Sims are living alongside you. This one big step led us to many of our other new features, which built on it, or supported it – features like collecting butterflies and gems in the world (to keep the space between homes interesting), and a “story progression” system (to keep all the other Sims aging, employed, and full of drama as time passes).
Sometimes the next step is not clear. Either way, this part must come from reflecting on your previous titles, from an awareness of your community’s desires, and from your design-filled heart.
This recipe isn’t a magic hammer, and the proportions are just general guidelines. You’ll also still have all the hard work of actually designing the ingredients. But if you begin to think in these terms of 1/3 The Same, 1/3 Improved, and 1/3 New, you’ll be more likely to end up with a sequel that broadens your audience, makes your fans feel at home, and builds your brand into a series of hits.
The market is saturated with game mechanics, and it's only getting more saturated over time. Games aren't un-inventing themselves.
Because of this, 99+% of games are merely existing mechanics combined in a new way or with a new theme slapped on them. These games can certainly be fun and successful, but will have a far harder time standing out than a game with a completely fresh mechanic.
And this, friends, is why developing a new mechanic is the holy grail of game design.
So if you can come up with a mechanic that is both fun and novel, you should strongly consider developing it. That is one of the surest ways to create a unique game that has a chance of standing out amongst the crowd.
Here are some games that did exactly that:
So how do you find your holy grail? Start by understanding what kind of mechanics you are the most drawn to. Which ones get you the most excited, the most emotional... make you want to play for hours or throw that scheming troublemaker next to you into a running jet engine. Maybe you like deck building. Or traitors. Maybe voting, bidding, or trade. Perhaps storytelling. Or lying. Then brainstorm around those and combinations thereof to see if you happen upon something new.
Also, try and figure out why you like those mechanics, and imagine similar concepts in real life that may not have been applied to gaming yet. Yes – if you want a new mechanic, you might be better served searching for inspiration outside of gaming. What mechanics do people use in interesting or desperate situations in real life? Why do conflicts arise and how are they solved or manipulated? There are countless places to look for inspiration. You can look to math. Or nature. Or politics. And so on.
For example, a movie scene just came to mind – it’s an action movie with two heroes held hostage. They can escape, but can’t communicate by speaking or they’ll be heard and give up their plan. Maybe there’s a mechanic in there. Could we design a fun game where…
What’s the new mechanic here? Timed windows of opportunity to communicate vital information while impaired. Is it fun? Maybe. Maybe not. Any possible new mechanic deserves some investigation. Perhaps the players are drawing cards, so they never know what they’re communicating ahead of time. Or perhaps there’s an element of lying that can be involved, “accidentally” being overheard communicating misinformation to mislead the villain. Or maybe players would develop a system while the villain is blindfolded, then use that system to communicate when he’s not. And maybe we mix it up and sometimes the villain is blindfolded, sometimes he can’t hear, sometimes both, sometimes neither – you never know.
The point is: there are plenty of these unfound mechanics waiting to be discovered and toyed with, and hopefully with a little persistence you can make them fun and design them into a game that will stand out as unique. And hey, maybe you’ll even hit the mass market.
Or you can design a game with a bunch of resources. Some wood, perhaps. Or stone – stone’s a popular one these days. And cards that alter the number of resources you get. Like cloth or gold, which you can spend on more cards. And then make the scoring complicated, where you have to add up a bunch of stuff at the end and you never really know who wins until you do some calculus. Then you know you’ve got a great game, right?
Why don’t you look for your holy grail instead?
Because it’s out there... waiting for you to find it, waiting for you to influence the gaming industry forever and inspire countless generations of games to come.
About the Author
I make stuff up. 10 Year vet of Maxis as Lead Designer & Creative Director on The Sims, turned indie. Also, a self-proclaimed mental-neurosurgeon.