A Hopeless Romantic Sim
An Evil Sim
A Great Kisser
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:
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The Sims 2
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:
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- Sloppy Sims (0-3 points) would create puddles when taking showers, make objects dirty more quickly, and could eat from the trash.
- Neat Sims (8-10 points) could get fun by cleaning objects, and could even clean objects that weren’t yet visibly dirty, causing those objects to take much longer to get dirty.
- In Between (4-7 points) didn’t have special animations or interactions. They only had varying need decays, skill rates, and autonomy behaviors.
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:
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- Tyler Durden: Stylish. Leader. Unrestrained. Monster. Rebel.
- Han Solo: Laid Back. Arrogant. Jealous. Street Smart. Rebel.
- Hermione: Friendly. Know-it-all. Mudblood.
- Patrick Bateman: Clean. Ritualistic. Egotistical. Obsessed with Business Cards. Murderer.
- The Dude: Stoner. Low Key. Loves White Russians.
- Marry Poppins: Excellent Nanny. Flies. Sings. Has Magic Bag.
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.
A Friendly Sim (probably waving to Bella)
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:
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- Loves Poetry and Chocolate
- Down to Earth
- Enjoys the Outdoors
- Appreciates Classical Music
- Walking the Fine Line between Human Being and Deity
- Mid-Life Crisis Sufferer
- Smoking Enthusiast
- Penchant for Whistling
- Likes Kissing
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:
One segment of a whiteboard brainstorm of characters and their prominent traits, circa 2005. (Note that there is no spatial relationship between the traits and the characters – we were cramming stuff in everywhere.)
In the end, a handful of fun traits in The Sims 3 were inspired by some of our favorite characters. Here are four:
- Frugal and Mooch: For both of these, we had George Costanza in mind. Remember the episode where he insists on the cheapest wedding invitations in the store, and his fiancée dies from licking the cheap toxic glue on all the envelopes? That’s Frugal right there.
- Evil: Mr. Burns from The Simpsons inspired us, right down to his finger-drumming. What’s not interesting about a guy who decides to erect a giant sky-disc to block out the sun from his town?
- Never Nude: Later on in production, Grant Rodiek, Ryan Vaughan, and I became obsessed with the show Arrested Development, which led us to the Never Nude trait. We still think Tobias Funke is one of the funniest characters of all time.
An Evil Sim, scheming about pool ladders, sharks, and laser beams.
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!).
A Green Thumb
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.
Kleptomaniac. These Sims have the ability to steal objects when nobody is looking. We knew the gameplay for this trait could be fun, but had a hard time agreeing on whether it had a home in the Sims universe. Sure, we’ve had burglars before. But was it okay to give players the control to steal things with their Sims? We typically avoid dark subjects. In the end, we shipped this trait with the fiction that these Sims couldn’t help it. They weren’t bad people, they just needed to steal. And players couldn't tell them what to steal -- you could only tell them to Swipe Something, and they would grab something random in the room... it could be a stereo, it could be a painting, or it could be a used toilet! We also gave them the ability to return stolen items to make amends with the victim. Kleptomaniac ended up being an incredibly successful trait that helped tell some interesting stories and create funny conflicts.
Excitable. These Sims were in the same boat as Clumsy. All they did was get super-excited often, without gameplay benefit. But it was so much fun to have your Sims get excited about everyday things as mundane as checking the mail. (Excitable is actually my favorite trait.)
An excitable Sim! It’s so exciting!
The Great Merge
Eventually, we had a list of over 100 traits. Far too many. It would have been overwhelming for players, and 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.
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- Scientific + Genius + Gifted --> Genius
- Angelic + Good --> Good
- Bully + Mean --> Mean
- Creative + Artistic --> Artistic
- Confident + Brave --> Confident
A Genius Sim doing some calculus in the air.
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:
Our Sims 3 “Living World” Prototype, with the Create-A-Sim screen showing our 5-trait limit. This prototype helped us learn the right approaches to features like traits early on while the lessons were cheap, rather than later in production when they would be expensive.
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:
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- Great Kisser
- Family Oriented
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.)
A Family-Oriented Sim, gazing at her family.
We learned a strong lesson from seeing Great Kisser in the top 3. This was one of the traits surrounded by controversy about whether it had enough gameplay value to warrant its existence. All it did was give your Sims better chances of having their kisses go well with other Sims. It’s not actually a big advantage. In the world of strategy gaming, this would be a poor choice. However, Sims games don’t find their places in players’ hearts because of the strategy – instead, it’s all about the creativity, fiction, and storytelling power – and this is why Great Kisser is so popular.
Players are mostly picking traits based on the fictional character they are trying to make and not focusing on gameplay benefits as often.
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:
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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
We couldn’t implement every trait we wanted, so I thought I'd share one of my favorites from that cut list. It's the Colorblind
trait, which I thought would be super-neat (and educational). The idea is that the player would have been able to pick a type of colorblindness for their Sim, and then when that Sim was selected, the game would use a shader to render the screen as if through colorblind eyes. Similar to this website
that renders any web page (like Google
) as a colorblind person would see them. A new way to see through your Sims' eyes!
A Final Word on Traits
Character Traits ended up being a very fun, easily extensible system that we’ve had a great time supplementing with each expansion. (Even before The Sims 3 released, the concept of traits as an evolution of character was exciting enough that it inspired The Sims 2 team’s pet-personality system for The Sims 2 Pets.)
A Vegetarian with her trusty eggplant.
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.
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A few times each year, a friend of a friend will ask for advice about becoming a game designer. It's usually someone who works a completely unrelated job, or it's a student realizing their major isn't what they had hoped. But that's completely normal – most game designers start out doing something else – animation, writing, engineering, and so on. Very few go through game design programs (although that’s becoming more common).
Regardless of who it is looking to become a game designer, I find myself giving much of the same advice time and again, so I've decided to post that advice here.
1. Make a Game!
This is by far the most important because it's the best way to get an understanding of what game design is really about, and it's also the most useful for showing an interviewer what you are capable of.
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.
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:
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- Summoning a holistic vision from the depths of your creative consciousness and communicating it to the team.
- Understanding what features are possible with the team that you have.
- Articulating features in crisp detail within design docs.
- Developing prototypes to test game ideas and features [Pic 1][Pic 2][Pic 3][Pic 4][Pic 5].
- Mocking up UI.
- Writing game story and text.
- Level design.
- Leading design meetings to explain features to animators, modelers, engineers, UI designers, the audio team, and producers.
- Working with these same people on a daily basis to see features through to a satisfying completion.
- Answering thousands of questions and making hundreds of compromises.
- Scoping all designs to fit within the given schedule.
- Endlessly polishing all interactive elements, visuals, level flows, interfaces, etc.
- Running playtests to figure out and fix problem areas.
- Working with marketing to define media campaigns.
- Finding & fixing bugs (and deciding which ones not to fix).
- Working in tools and spreadsheets to mathematically determine optimal game balance, as well as balancing through instinct and feel.
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
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:
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- Play lots of games. Don't spend all your time on one game. If you've been playing WoW for nine years and haven't played much else, it's time to diversify.
- Keep a game journal. Do it. For each game you play, record 10-20 bullets about aspects of the game that stick out to you – what tweaks your emotions, what's super fun, what's annoying, what makes you laugh? It's sometimes a pain, but it helps you reflect on your games as you play them, and your journal can be a great source for ideas in the future.
- Write game reviews. Play a game, then write a critique of it as if you were going to publish it (or go ahead and publish online). Compare what you've written to professional reviews so you can see what professionals consider the salient aspects.
- Read, read, read about game design. There's plenty available on the web. For starters, try these articles:
> Behavioral Game Design by John Hopson
> Good Design, Bad Design, Great Design by Raph Koster
> Finishing a Game by Derek Yu
> The 4 Player Types by Richard Bartle
Also, I highly recommend Jesse Schell's The Art of Game Design textbook.
- Check out Kellee Santiago's commandments of Game Design here. Excellent advice.
- Attend the Game Developer's Conference. If it’s too expensive, sign up as a volunteer. Go to all the inspiring design talks. Also, check out the GDC vault for free design lecture videos.
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
Here are the results:
| || |*Note that the numbers are not exact. They are roughly accurate. Some sources have conflicting numbers. Some games are double-counted if they had been released in multiple versions on the same platform (demo versions, free versions, Game of the Year editions, etc). However, this data accurately portrays the relative dominance of the various platforms. Click here for the full data set with references. | |
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:
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(Design Doc, Circa 2005)
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(Better Design Doc, Circa 2009)
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:
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- Tomb Object Modularity. Traps, puzzles, doors, and rewards should interconnect with each other such that we can create countless combinations of interesting and challenging spaces.
- Non-Linearity. Allow entry to many tombs without being on an official adventure so players can stumble upon gameplay while exploring the world.
- Recognize and track progress. Surface the player’s progress through tombs and adventures in order to offer more goals and achievement-based motivation.
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:
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- “It would be great if we could get a seamless world with a huge playable area.”
- “We might want to let players use the character creator to make NPCs for the town.”
- “If possible, it would be cool to kick fallen enemies and have a chance of coins spilling out.”
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:
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- “The world will be a seamless, 25 square kilometer playable space.”
- “Players will be able to use the character creator to make NPCs for the town.”
- “Players can kick fallen enemies to have a tunable chance of additional coins spilling out with value proportional to the enemy’s normal loot.”
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:
A bird's eye view of The Sims 3 World Adventures "Tomb Technology" design doc.
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:
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- To draw attention to specific disciplines (art vs. animation vs. UI, etc).
- To emphasize hierarchy (section headers & sub-headers).
- To emphasize importance.
Here’s a fictitious example for an interaction between a Sim and a Piñata:
= 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:
Place a mood-setting image at the top of each design document.
And if a design point is vague with words alone, consider supplementing with an image:
An example from The Sims 3's design doc for Painting Skill.
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:
An Explanation of Facebook Games to the PC/Console Gamer in me of 2 Years Ago.
Recently, we launched SimCity Social on Facebook, and I’m proud of it. After nearly 10 years in the industry developing hit PC titles for Maxis/EA (primarily The Sims games), why would I be so proud of a Facebook game? What has gotten into me?
Two years ago, before I worked on social games, I just didn’t “get” them. I didn’t want to bug my friends when I needed things. I didn’t want to play on the game’s schedule rather than my own. And I didn’t see any depth or interesting gameplay (and in many cases, there was none to see).
Like many PC/console gamers, I figured that if I didn’t like a Facebook game, then it was a bad game. But that was a subjective view. Now that I understand the types of people who enjoy Facebook games, I understand why many of these games are objectively great.
So I’m writing this post to explain to my past self why Facebook games are the way they are, and to dispel some of the misunderstandings that PC/console gamers have about them.
1. Strategy is Great, But it Needs to Cater to the Target Audience
One of my goals while working on SimCity Social
was to bring more depth of gameplay to mass-market Facebook games. However, it would have been a mistake to try and shove all the complexity of a normal SimCity
game into the Facebook variant because these games need to be easy to learn and quick to play.
Instead, I think SimCity Social
hits the sweet spot – enough strategy that it tickles the mind, but not so much that it would scare away the mass market. Unfortunately, some reviews (like this one
) don’t take the time to understand the game and instead dismiss it out of a general loathing for Facebook games, making comments like, “There was never a moment where I had to sit back and think about strategy.”
The main aspect of SimCity Social
– city layout – is designed around giving players strategic choices. And it has given rise to many forum threads discussing placement strategy
, with carefully crafted suggestions like this:
(the white gaps are filled by roads)
Strategy in SimCity Social arises from a few rules and variables:
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- Homes (residential zones) hold population.
- Attractions and décor increase population in nearby homes (radii and shape vary).
- Attractions can be upgraded to increase radius of effect.
- Homes get a population multiplier from being near coastline.
- Businesses get a payout multiplier from near population.
- Factories also get a payout multiplier from being near coastline (but they may produce pollution, which floats over nearby buildings, rendering them temporarily ineffective).
For example, here’s one player’s comparison of various locations for a business:
Placing businesses in higher population areas gives better payouts.
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:
One player’s theory of optimal placement for maximizing population.
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:
(A player-made Excel sheet representing their placement strategy and various bonuses conferred on and by businesses, attractions, décor, and homes.)
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.
Here’s a loose analogy. Compare playing Guitar Hero
to actually playing a real guitar. Guitar Hero
is more accessible, more immediately satisfying, and takes less of a time commitment. But playing the real guitar is more cerebral and, in the long run, more constructive.
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
Guitar Hero leads to greater appreciation for the real guitar.
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
You can’t play a Facebook game and expect the amount of content to be on the same level as, say, Skyrim. The main challenge is load time. In a Facebook game, we don’t have the luxury of expecting players to sit through a long download with gigabytes of content.
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.
Facebook games must load in seconds, or players will leave.
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…
This is an aspect of Facebook games I’ve been conflicted on. When given permission, most Facebook games like to post to your wall or timeline. A lot. This is how they self-market to reach a wide audience. And, used correctly, it also helps share interesting moments from your game.
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).
A Sim couple about to “WooHoo.”
Players get a chance to share this meaningful moment.
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
A common complaint by gamers who try to give Facebook gaming a shot is, “You have to spend energy to do anything, and it runs out. I don’t want to be limited.” I questioned this at first as well. But there are three good reasons Facebook games are built this way.
Examples of “Energy” mechanic variants.
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
Another misconception is that making a Facebook game is easy. Fortunately, Facebook games don’t yet require 4 years and 100-person teams to be successful, which is roughly what it took to develop The Sims 3. However, developing The Sims Social still took 1 year and at launch the team was about 40 devs. Then the team nearly doubled in size after we launched and knew we had a hit on our hands.
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...
Another common gripe is that you can’t play without bugging your friends. Many Facebook games require you to ask each other to staff buildings or give special collectibles:
Example of a standard staffing mechanic that requires friends.
Facebook games do this for 3 reasons:
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- It’s a way to control progress.
- It makes money from players who want to pay and skip the wait.
- Facebook notifications from these mechanics reminds players they have a reason to return to the game. (And sometimes they get new players to try the game out.)
The continual back-and-forth of asking friends for help and then thanking them also serves as a constant reminder of who is playing the game – and this lets you know who you can socialize with about the game when you’re not playing.
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:
In SCS, you can build your relationship between your cities by interacting with your friends’ buildings.
The friend bar shows the flavor of relationship with each friend city (Mean, Nice, or Twin Cities).
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
One final misconception is that you can’t progress without spending money. This only tends to be true if you have no friends who play (but I’d like to change that; see above). Otherwise, it’s easy to play SimCity Social or The Sims Social or plenty of other Facebook games without spending money. A vast majority of Facebook gamers never pay a dime, but play these games for months or even years. Where Value = Entertainment/Cost, players are getting a significant value. We’re effectively creating a singularity of infinite entertainment value.
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.
Players can pay for game coins, special objects, or more energy, among other things.
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
As a designer, I’ve had a (mostly) wonderful time working on Facebook games. After 9 years of developing PC games, it was a welcome change. I imagine it’s like going from writing plays to writing movies. It’s a new experience with some crossover; the challenges are different, and it enriches you.
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.
his post is not an attack on Diablo. Quite the opposite: it’s a suggestion from a designer to a game he loves.
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
And it’s a slot machine where even the “losing” rolls pay out, whether it’s gold, gems, crafting pages, or even just XP. But that’s not why we play. We’re here for the jackpots: the Rare items, the Set items, or better yet, the Legendary.
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.
That’s it. It’s really quite simple, but it would be an incredibly powerful mechanic. There’s a reason that progressive slot machines
are so popular. Diablo doesn’t even have to give away money! It only has to give away data, which makes it easy to have plenty of these linked jackpots.
Here are some details about how it would work:
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- Mythical Tier. There is a new tier of items above Legendary. This new tier is Mythical.
- Hard Limits. Each Mythical item has a limit to how many can exist across all servers at any given time. (E.g. – If all 20 of The Spine of Anu have dropped, then it will no longer drop for anyone.)
- Number Labels. Each Mythical item is labeled with its “number,” (e.g. 6 of 20). Its number is the order it dropped in. This makes the scarcity real and apparent, and would drive demand.
- Drop Timeouts. Each Mythical item has a timeout on the server. If one drops, another of the same Mythical item may not drop until the timeout passes.
- Tailored Stats. Mythical items are crafted toward specific classes, with only "good" combinations of stats. If a Mythical item drops for you, it is guaranteed to be for your class.
For example, the hovertip for a Mythical sword might look like this. Imagine if this dropped in your game:
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An example Mythical Item. Yes, the stats are verging on insane and would take careful balancing. The most important part is the Limited # display.
You’d want a nice spread of these items. Some lower level, some higher level, many for the end game. Some should have low counts to create extreme demand (e.g. – there’s only 1 World Cutter sword, and it says so). Some should have moderate counts. And others should have higher counts, on the order of 10K, such that most players at least have a hope of glimpsing one of the Mythical items in their time playing, whether it’s in the auction house, on a friend, or if they’re lucky, as a drop in their own game.
Okay, so what are the benefits of this design?
| || |
| |1. Creates Unprecedented Demand and Motivation
Merely by stating how many of the item will ever exist, it makes the true value of the item crystal clear. This is guaranteed scarcity. Players will know that the game won’t ever manufacture more and thus deflate their value.
Think of baseball cards. The famous 1909 Honus Wagner T206 card which sold to Wayne Gretzky for $2,800,000
is valuable not just because Wagner was one of the best players of all time, but also because the card is extremely rare, and always will be.
We are guaranteed that the universe won’t print more than the original run of a few hundred.
Just as baseball cards become more valuable as fewer remain, I’d consider buffing the stats of all of the remaining copies of Mythical
items each time one of them is sold to a vendor, or, heaven forbid, salvaged for blacksmithing parts.
1909 Honus Wagner
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.) 2. Vanity
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 GameMythical
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.
This would all work in any multiplayer online game with loot. But it feels perfect for Diablo 3. It’s time to forge new territory in loot. I believe in this so strongly that if I worked for Blizzard, I would be championing this concept with such enthusiasm that they’d have to tear away my pom-poms by force.
Have I convinced you of the value of such items to the design? What do you think?
Thanks for reading! If you have friends who play Diablo, consider sharing or tweeting this. I’d love to get more people’s thoughts.
hink 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
Once you know this, the hard work of designing a fantastic sequel becomes a little bit easier. Still an impossibly monumental task at times, but… slightly less impossible.
Playing a good sequel should be like meeting an old friend after a few years apart.
Your friend has done new things; maybe he has a tattoo now or has started an exotic dog-painting
business. Your friend has also (hopefully) improved himself. Maybe he’s gotten better at resisting the urge to hulk-smash creative displays of stacked food
in the supermarket. But most important, your friend is still the same old person you feel comfortable being around and interacting with, and because of that, it’s only a few minutes before you’re having a great time together.
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:
| || |
- What gameplay elements do your fans like best?
- What are their favorite weapons, power-ups, tactics, equipment, decorations?
- What characters are their favorites? What story elements elicited the strongest reactions? What inside jokes do players latch onto?
- Which locations are the most iconic in your game world?
- What music tracks psyche them up?
- What are players sharing the most on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube?
For example, perhaps the sniper rifle in your FPS is the weapon of choice for 45% of your players. Maybe you don’t like that balance. Maybe you feel it’s overpowered. But to change this weapon is to risk losing your loyal following. Instead, leave it the way players love it, and balance your game away from an overpowered sniper rifle through the design of your other weapons and abilities.
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:
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- Skills. Self-improvement is a key aspect of creating compelling game characters and strong gameplay. In The Sims 3, we strived to give each level of every skill unique, obvious benefits. And we didn’t want them to end when you reached level 10, so we added achievements that would take more dedication to fulfill. For example, athletic skill has a “Marathon Runner” achievement for running 500 kilometers in the game, and the benefit is a longer life.
- Create-a-Sim & Build/Buy Modes. When working on The Sims 3, we’d often walk around yelling, Customize Everything! to each other. The creativity tools are fundamental to the sandbox nature of The Sims, and we wanted to give players more control over their Sims and homes. Create-a-Sim now lets you alter details of your Sim down to custom eye color or multi-tone hair colors. Build and Buy Mode upgrades include a higher-resolution placement grid, shortcut keys to go completely off-grid as well as rotate to any angle, and place objects on surfaces. And nearly all clothing and objects let players replace their textures and then customize and save the colors in those textures.
- Time Controls. I want to mention a less obvious improvement. We realized that when players fast forward in The Sims 2, often they only fast-forward a single interaction, then jump back to normal speed so they can calmly pick a new action. And they’ll bounce back and forth like this a lot. To help cater to this play style, we added a “Skip” action – which is essentially like a “next track” button on your MP3 player. It fast-forwards the Sim through the current action, then goes back to normal speed automatically, so you don’t need to try timing it yourself.
The Create-A-Style tool lets you swap materials on objects and clothing and lets you change the colors of those materials. It uses color theory to let you match multiple colors at once. In this scene, the bed is being redesigned.
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
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.
I originally wrote this piece as a guest post about tabletop game design for Hyperbole Games.
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.
This can be a great way to design a game: find a fresh, fun mechanic (easier said than done) then figure out a game to fit around it.
Here are some games that did exactly that:
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- Apples to Apples - The mechanic: judge which player-chosen noun best describes your adjective. Brilliant. The dynamics change with every set of players because there is creative input.
- Trivial Pursuit – The mechanic: guess the answers to insignificant questions. The pies and the board could have been designed a hundred different functional ways, and it would barely matter because the central mechanic is so strong.
- Pictionary - The key mechanic is your partner has to guess what you’re quickly drawing. Another simple concept constructed into a wildly successful game.
- Hungry Hungry Hippos – the key mechanic is eat marbles. Simple. Nailed it. Kids love it.
- Magic: The Gathering – the mechanic: construct a deck from spells you find, by chance, in booster packs, then face off with other players. The game has many details, but the overarching mechanic has helped render it one of the most successful games of all time.
These examples may sound dated, but you recognize them because they were (and still are) wildly successful. Yes, Hungry Hungry Hippos is on this list. To find success, you don't need to design a game with an instruction manual as long and tedious as, say, waiting for your damn friends to finish taking their turns in Settlers. Quite the opposite. The more mechanics you have, the more watered-down your game is (unless your entire game is about exceptions, like CCGs). You want only as many mechanics as you need, and no more -- especially if you have a new mechanic! Don't hide it behind a bunch of noise!
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…
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- It’s everyone (the “good” players) against a villain, and the villain has to wear a blindfold for certain quick timed portions of the game.
- The good players can only win by exchanging vital information.
- But the good players can’t talk because if the villain overhears, it will put him at an advantage. So in the quick times when the villain is blindfolded, the good players must frantically try to convey as much info as possible to each other through gestures and signals.
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.
I’ll know I’ve made it as a game designer when…
… growing up, I design games that aren’t much fun, but I have a great time doing it.
… I eventually make an amateur game that people enjoy.
… I drop out of school to become a game designer.
… I beg to be a design intern and I tell companies I’ll work for free.
… I enroll in one of those new-fangled game design programs.
… I finally design a feature for a professional game.
… I design major systems for a game.
… I ship a game.
… I go to the store on launch day to watch fans pick up copies of my game. And then I pose with them in a photo, holding armfuls of my game with a stupid grin.
… I spend hours, days reading Amazon reviews and posts in our forums. I can’t stop; it’s like a drug. Players love our game, and I love our players. I get giddy. But players hate our game, too. I get furious. I am forever influenced.
… I ship a sequel to that game.
… I’m about to ship another game, and it has already been pirated and is available on the internet.
… I balance an entire game. It takes weeks. It feels wrong. So I balance it again. And again. After it’s perfect, we release, and players find ways to break the economy within hours.
… I work on new IP.
… I have to cut 70% of the entire game because it’s so over scope. It nearly destroys my soul.
… I come to enjoy the process of cutting and scoping. It makes my designs clean and elegant.
… I spend four years on a project that gets cancelled.
… I have total faith in my designs, but when I play them, they’re terrible. I rework them. I think they’re finally good. Players get confused in focus tests. I rework them again. Some end up great. Others get cut.
… I design a game that I can’t bear to see.
… I get hate mail. It scars me and I eat soup in bed and consider becoming a doctor, someone who can make a serious difference in life.
… I design a game that’s a success. I momentarily wonder if I can ever do that again.
… I secretly think my designs are better than anyone else’s.
… I secretly think my designs are boring and uninspired.
… I become a lead designer.
… I then realize my design opinions aren’t as important as supporting my team of designers, even if we disagree.
… I care so strongly that I uncharacteristically yell and swear in meetings to protect certain designs.
… I become a creative director.
… I pitch revolutionary ideas and concepts. But they’re too crazy.
… I work on a game that sells one million copies. Five million copies. Ten million copies.
… my game scores 95 on Metacritic and wins Game of the Year in the Game Developer Choice Awards.
… the game I designed lives on years after launch, a new team keeps releasing content for it, and I’m excited about that.
… I design a game with one of my favorite celebrities in it, but never get to meet that celebrity. But we get a mannequin with one of her dresses in our lobby.
… I go to the GDC five years in a row. Ten years in a row. Twenty years. I’m inspired every time.
… I give a game design talk at the GDC. I make a name for myself. I burn or tear money on stage to make a point.
… I start a blog. And the more I talk about design, the less I actually design.
… my shelf is packed with games I’ll never have time to play.
… I no longer play games until I beat them. The games that I do play, I often play just once. I see flaws in design everywhere and the games are nothing new.
… occasionally I find a great game that I want to play for hundreds of hours, but then I feel guilty that I’m not trying other games to expand my horizons.
… I have pages and pages of design notes for games I will never have the time to make.
… I work for 5 years jumping from team to team, and never ship a single project.
… I denounce the corporate culture and quit to join a startup.
… I work for a well-funded startup with rock-star executives. It falls apart.
… I work for a different startup, and realize startups aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
… I consider working for Zynga, and then I do.
… I consider working for Zynga, and then I don’t. But half of my friends do.
… I work on a Facebook game that 100,000,000 people play.
… I work for yet another startup, and it takes off. We get bought out.
… I get fed up with the mass market, and quit to go design indie games. Games that will be hailed as art.
… I release an indie game and only five people play it. It breaks my heart. But those five people are awesome.
… I travel from game jam to game jam, chasing novelty and heartbreaking works of staggering genius.
… I make an indie game with meaningful gameplay, and have to live with my parents so I have someone to remind me to eat and to not die.
… I design something truly original that the world has never seen.
… I earn over $50 million selling my game’s beta build on my website.
… a fan recognizes me.
… fans recognize me wherever I go. And they want to know if I’ll ever get around to making a new game.
… fans stop recognizing me. Or maybe I never had any.
… I return to my old job because the corporate culture is great and I miss my team.
… I pull all-nighters and crunch for months on end. Not because my boss makes me, but because I want to make an incredible game.
… I design a game that makes players laugh and smile, that makes them shout and cry.
… and, above all …
… I design a game that I am truly happy with.
This post was inspired by Justine Larbalestier’s “I’ll Know I’ve Made it as a Writer When…” It’s a fantastic piece and deserves to become a meme, so I’m getting the ball rolling.
Speaking of writing: I recently published a novel series about a company that grows a super-intelligent human in a computer and the mayhem that results. It is something I am truly happy with. Check it out here.