My Fascination with Feedback Loops

On Monday, February 20th, I will be giving a short 8 minute presentation on Feedback Loops for Boston Indies’s February Lightning Talks. The presentation will be titled Fantastic Feedback Loops and Where To Find Them, and will focus on identifying feedback loops in games.

Feedback Loops can have a massive impact on a game experience. Yet they are frequently misunderstood by game designers, or worse, missed altogether. I hope to use this opportunity to help demystify this important topic, and give game designers some tools to deal with them.

But the complexity of this topic goes far beyond the scope of an 8 minute presentation. So I had the idea: what if I created a companion blog post to go further in-depth? With my blog carrying the crunchy systemic details, I can focus my presentation on being a fun introduction to the topic. This lets me serve multiple audiences (and my own curiosity) simultaneously.

I will be covering Feedback Loops in a three-part series:

  1. Part 1: Identification
    What are feedback loops? Where can they be found both in and out of games? What are the different types? How can you identify a feedback loop in your game?
  2. Part 2: Impact
    How do different types of feedback loops affect the player experience? Are they good or bad? How can they affect pacing, decision-making, and learning?
  3. Part 3: Dealing with Feedback Loops
    What do we do once we’ve identified a feedback loop? How can we effectively create, destroy, strengthen, and weaken feedback loops?

UPDATE 3/11/16: The lightning talk went really well! But the sibling blog post series is taking longer than expected. I will post Part 1 as soon as it is ready.

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Goals for 2017

My primary focus through 2017 will continue to be Funkitron and Cascade. But it’s important to me that even when I am off the clock, I do as much as I can to keep growing as a game designer.

So to kick off the new year, here are some of my game development goals for 2017:

1. Level Up My Game Design Toolbox

When I first started formally studying game design, I fell into the trap of obsessing over critical language. I searched for and asked community leaders to point me to a “Game Design Dictionary”, and offered to organizations like the IGDA Game Design SIG to help build one. At least one experienced designer said I should slow down, explaining to me that critical language is an organic Darwinian process that cannot be forced. But at the time I was frustrated at what seemed like a lack of tools, so I ignored the advice.

As it turns out, overthinking highly subjective semantics is a very inefficient way to learn. I should have taken that advice. Like designing games itself, it makes much more sense for me to jump into the creation process, borrow any tools available, and rapidly iterate on my own personal Game Design Toolbox as I go. I consider a toolbox a set of handy design concepts that I can apply direct to my work. Unlike a dictionary, the primary focus is on function over meaning.

One clear method to level up my toolbox is to expand it. I will continue my search for new tools by trying new games, reading articles/books on the subject, and in general exposing myself to everything life has to offer.

But the bigger the toolbox gets, the more it needs to be organized. So as I iterate, one of my goals will be to put the weaker tools on the bottom, the handy tools on top, and my trustiest tools on my tool belt. In practice, this looks like a curated collection of notes in google docs and spreadsheets, with links to more detailed sources. As it evolves, it may become more of a tree or web, and I may explore new ways to access the information.

Success here looks like a vastly improved toolbox by 2018; one that lets me quickly and effectively solve game design challenges.

2. Shrink My Games Backlog

It’s very important to me to as a designer and gamer to play a wide variety of games. I want to try classics that have shaped today’s landscape, to play innovative games that took risks, and to keep up-to-date with modern games and trends. And I do not want to be tunnel visioned by my natural preference towards certain types of games.

But to really make a dent on my backlog, I need to accept that cutting games from my list is always good, and that it’s never too early to move on from a game that isn’t giving me anything useful.

Success here looks like an smaller and more sustainable backlog by 2018. I hope to be well-versed in 2017 hits, and get a few major classics under my belt too.

3. Tinker

As a healthy creative outlet and to keep my rapid prototyping skills fresh, I hope to spend some of my off-time this year creating mini concept prototypes in HTML5 and Unity.

Tinkering is important to me, because it lets me take weird creative risks that I cannot easily get away with in the constraints of my professional work. It lets me answer lingering questions, and introduce me to even better ones. It helps me clear my head and kill my darlings.

And on the physical side, tinkering lets me practice my rapid prototyping skills and stay fresh with game making tools. Which never hurts!

Success here looks like a personal collection of microscopic digital and paper prototypes, spanning a range of genres and taking interesting risks.

4. Get Involved With The Community

Since leaving Playcrafting in late 2014, I have spent the last two years with my head down, focusing entirely on my work. As a result, I have become relatively recluse, missing out on many Boston game community events.

But now that I feel that I am hitting a comfortable rhythm in my career work, I want to get involved again. I am starting to see that even as a young designer, I may have valuable things to offer to others such as advice and encouragement to recent grads and indies trying to break in, and maybe a fresh optimistic perspective to the vets.

I don’t know what form this will take exactly, but it could include speaking engagements, teaching, event planning, and more. To start, I will be giving a short 5 minute presentation for Boston Indies February Lightning Talks.

Success here looks like a strengthened bond with the Boston community, improved presentation skills, and a positive impact on some younger aspiring game developers.

Leaving 2017

These are some meaty 2017 goals for the year to accomplish on top of my career work (and on top of a social life and marriage), but they are all crucial to my growth as a person and as a game designer.

At the same time, although I’ve defined success individually for each goal, overall success is much more flexible. These goals won’t change me overnight, but help shape the kind of designer I will be long term. So even if I land below the 50% mark, I will consider that an overall success. And I expect all four of these goals to come back in 2018 regardless.

Cheers to a great 2017!

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Really Bad Theming

reallybadchess_01

I’ve been playing a lot of Zach Gage’s Really Bad Chess in the past week, and I find myself very fascinated by its use of theming.

Gage goes to great lengths to reinforce the “Really Bad” theme. Some examples:

  1. The Title
  2. Marketing text like “A definitely balanced game.” and “For everyone who quit playing chess”
  3. Quotes from Gage ranging from “This could be perceived as an affront to chess” to “It’s a stupid game”.
  4. An art style that goes beyond minimalistic; it looks like placeholder art that never got replaced.
  5. Somewhat awkward UI layout (examples: awkward line breaks in the title, no visual priority in coloring/shading)

It’s sort of sneaky and unassuming, but I think this theming accomplishes a few key things for the game.

The Impact of “Really Bad” Theming

1. It’s Inviting to “Really Bad” Players

To start with, the theme lends a helping hand to anyone who feels like they are “really bad” at chess. Chess is so embedded in our culture that it’s hard to make it to adulthood without playing a few games. And since Chess skill is often perceived as an indicator of intelligence, it follows that players who struggle might feel bad about their ability on a personal level.

…which is a bit sad, because who can blame anyone for stopping at one of Chess’s huge learning spikes, particularly the ones that involve lots of memorization? Or for being discouraged by crippling defeats, which is common with such potentially wide skill gaps? Players have no reason to feel bad, because their struggle often stems from inherent flaws in Chess itself rather than incompetence.

But the frustration is there, and Gage’s theming capitalizes on it to great effect to create an “us vs. them” feeling.

2. Players Are More Forgiving of “Really Bad” Flaws

Like any Chess variant, it’s impossible not to compare and contrast to the original subject matter. How could anyone compete with such a monumental game? But here the “Really Bad” theme offers a bit of humility – which in turn makes players more forgiving of the game’s flaws. Compare that to David Sirlin’s naming of Chess 2, which I wouldn’t call arrogant but certainly elicits a different emotional response.

A little more subtly, the “Really Bad” theme calls attention to its randomness as a direct counter to Chess’s near-perfect balance. In an era where many gamers still see luck as the opposite of skill, and designers regularly underestimate and misuse randomness (see: No Man’s Sky), it’s no wonder that randomness gets a bad rep.

The designer in me hates this misconception, but I can’t help but be impressed at how Really Bad Chess leverages it. It seems to apply imply “randomness indeed makes this game worse than the original chess, but that’s okay because we’re all in on the joke”.

3. It’s Not Bad At All!

Underneath it all, perhaps what makes the “Really Bad” theme so clever is that ironically, there is nothing really bad about the game at all. It’s not without flaws: the AI is painfully slow, the blue bar is confusing, and there could be better messaging for your turn state. But counter to the theme’s suggestion, the use of randomness in Really Bad Chess is exactly what makes it so damn good.

Really Bad Chess’s randomness does a great job of eliminating the reliance on book learning and putting the focus back on emergent strategy. But what really makes it shine is the rubberbanding system in Ranked mode, which determines your piece distribution. For example since I am hovering around Rank 75, I can expect lots of horses, a few bishops and/or Rooks, and maybe 1 Queen (and I can expect my AI opponent to have at least 2 Queens). It’s just enough of a constraint to prevent the game from feeling too random. And when combined with the promise of a static AI level, the result is a systemic learning that does for my Chess fatigue what Spelunky did for my platformer fatigue.

Of course none of that systemic depth comes from the theming. But when the press says things like “Who knows, that’s the point of Really Bad Chess, it throws out the balance in the game for random chaos!”, I get the impression that maybe the depth is sneakily slipping its way in for some players… just under the cover of its “Really Bad” Theming.

Takeaways

I think the major takeaway here for designers is to not underestimate the power of theming.

Really Bad Chess is not the first Chess variant to randomize pieces. It may not even be the first to combine randomization with rubberband ranking. But its unique theming invites players of all skill levels, highlights its randomization in a fun lighthearted way, and cleverly hides a strong focused design with satisfying depth.

It’s the combination of strong gameplay and intelligent theming that makes it worthy of some extra attention in my opinion, regardless of how much of its success might be attributed to outside factors (such as Gage’s existing reputation and network).

And nothing makes me happier than a great design getting love. So I wish it the best!

References:

  1. Really Bad Chess Press Kit 
  2. How Zach Gage breaks all of the rules in Really Bad Chess” (Gamasutra)
  3. Zach Gage’s ‘Really Bad Chess’ Will Shake up Chess on October 13th” (touch arcade)
  4. Really Bad Chess makes chess fun even if you’re really bad” (The Verge)
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Fall 2016 Status

I’d like to get this blog going again. It feels appropriate to start with some professional updates. Who am I today professionally, and how do I intend to use this blog?

Career Status

As of this writing…

  1. I am a Technical Game Designer at funkitron, inc. I am currently working on the casual match-3 slots game Cascade.
  2. I have a couple of years of game design and game programming experience under my belt. I have also shipped a few games.
  3. For a mixture of personal and professional reasons, I have moved on from the indie project Brain & Brawn. I still have a strong friendship with my ex-partner David Wallin, who will be continuing the project on his own. And I wish him the best!
  4. I am based in Boston, and am mildly active in the local game dev community. I try to attend meetups at least once a month so I can stay in touch, but am no longer running events like I was in my Playcrafting days.

Overall I’ve had some great fortune in my early career, and things are looking bright for the future.

This Blog

The primary goal of this blog is to explore my thoughts on game design.

I’m very fortunate that my work lets me flex my creative muscles on a regular basis. But there’s a huge mass of questions and ideas in my brain that don’t get answered in the scope of my work. My hope is that in writing, I can process some of those thoughts.

I expect future blog posts to span a wide variety of topics. I may want to do postmortems on past projects, break down one-off experiments, speculate on theory, or even dissect a specific feature or system in a game.

It’s hard to say how things will evolve, since I’m depending on my brain to unravel and respond to both the changing industry and my own growth in realtime. But what I can say with certainty is that I’m looking forward to the journey.

Thank you for reading!

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Brain and Brawn – Dev Log #2: Catching Up

After a 6-month hiatus to do game design for Demiurge Studios, I have returned to Brain and Brawn to finish the game.

During my absence, David was able to make two major updates. The first is a graphical overhaul! The result is a clean look with a slightly angled perspective that gives depth to the world. The improved graphics also do a better job of communicating the workings of different mechanics.

Before and After

Before (left) and After (right)

The second major update that was a long time coming was the switch from a physics-based system to grid-based system. This change is huge because it allows us to easily separate game logic and visuals, which opens the door for dynamic tweens, animations, and particle effects. The difference is outlined below:

Old System (physics-based): New System (grid-based):
  1. Did the player do input? (swipe/arrow keys)
  2. Accelerate player sprites in that direction
  3. Every frame, check to see if brainy or brawny sprites are colliding with another game object
  4. If a collision occurs, resolve the collision.
  1. Did the player do input? (swipe/arrow keys)
  2. Based on the grid layout and desired direction, what should happen? (cell collision)
  3. Animate all of the things that are supposed to happen?

The only down side is that we lost some features in the transition that will have to be reimplemented. These features include the HUD (with move counter), sound effects, dynamic level centering, and some pretty cool debug cheats, but they will be back and better than ever in no time.

Tomorrow, Brain and Brawn will be casually demoed at the Boston Indies Demo Night, where I hope to get feedback on 4 brand new mechanics and a Level Editor I created. Check back soon for more info on those new features!

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Brain and Brawn – Dev Log #1: Boston FIG

This post is a breakdown of our experiences leading up to FIG, our experience on the show floor, and our next steps.

The Lead Up

Before we could figure out long term goals, we had an immediate short term goal. The Boston Festival of Indie Games was in 3 weeks, and since I had submitted my browser demo in June we were scheduled to be on the floor. But I was tired of showing a mobile game concept on a desktop browser. We needed to get it on the target platform.

The initial goal: To prepare a working mobile demo, complete with touch controls and at least 15 strong mobile levels, for Boston FIG on Saturday 9/13.

What did that mean? How did that goal break down into objectives?

The Breakdown:

  • Wrapping – We needed to figure out how to get our demo working properly on a phone. Do we rely on the mobile web, or a wrapper app such as CocoonJS or PhoneGap?
  • Resizing – The game needed to move from 800×690 pixels the iPhone 4 resolution of 600×960, and the the tiles needed to increase from 40×40 to 64×64 to be more visible.
  • Touch controls – The player should be able to tap to select buttons and progress through menus, and swipe in cardinal directions to move Brainy and Brawny
  • Art – Instruction screens needed to be reformatted to fit the mobile screen ratio.

This was ambitious on its own, but there was one extra challenge. Moving to a smaller screen resolution while increasing the size of the sprites meant a drastic shift from 320 tiles (20×16) to 150 tiles (10×15). A 53% decrease in level design real estate. If I wanted to have good levels, I knew that I needed a full week of dedicated level design, which meant that I needed to have all of the other features implemented in just two weeks.

But even though it was a scary amount of work to be doing in just evenings and weekends, especially factoring in a move into a new apartment… we pulled it off and had lots of fun doing it! By BFIG we had 16 strong levels that were hand-designed for a newly resized game, all wrapped in CocoonJS and working smoothly with touch screen controls.

Postmortem: Showing the Game at BFIG

Showing Brain and Brawn at Boston FIG was an awesome experience. About 80 people stopped by our booth and played our game, and 33 of them signed up for our mailing list. The overall reception was very positive, and we learned a lot!

Boston FIG

Some of the things we learned:

  1. Everyone plays, thinks, and learns differently. That may sound obvious, but seeing it in action was something else entirely. Swipes ranged from fast to slow, exaggerated to subtle, sloppy to precise, and long to short. Different approaches included trial-and-error, waiting and strategizing, and a combination.
  2. There is no replacement for raw data. Of a sample of ~80 people, an overwhelming majority of players stopped on one of two levels: 8 and 14. We knew that the difficulty curve wasn’t perfect, but to see such massive spikes was enlightening. It was also frustrating because we couldn’t do anything about it mid-show! It would be tedious for sure, but putting analytics in place could do wonders for our game design.
  3. Players won’t assume that your game has depth. The moment that aliens are first introduced (level 6) is an eye-opening moment for players, because the possibility space opens up significantly, and players suddenly want to keep playing to discover more mechanics. If a player believes that they’ve grokked the possibility space before getting to level 6, then they will write off your game without ever knowing how far it can go.
    (Interesting Note: Fast grokking is fine as long as actual proficiency rises just as fast or faster… in other words a good puzzle player will zoom to level 6 so fast that grokking beforehand is a non-issue.)
  4. Kids rule! Some of my favorite moments involve watching younger kids pick up the game, smile when they “get it”, ignore their impatient parents who wanted to move on, and fully commit to beating the very last level. Equally awesome were the parents who actively participated in the experience, weighed in on tougher levels, and encouraged them to do their very best.
  5. There is no easy way to communicate that development on your game has only just begun, and saying it explicitly comes off as an excuse. I would have thought that the lack of polish made it obvious… but instead the average person thought it was already complete! Either they loved the puzzles and wanted to buy it, or they were thoroughly disappointed with the visuals/graphics and asked us to do better next time. O_o

And that’s just the start of it. We actually learned even more, but it would take forever for me to list it all out!

What’s next?

The next step is actually to take a step back! We crunched for FIG, but now we want to look at the bigger picture and figure out our long term development plan. David and I have set a target of Q1 2015 release, with hopes of getting the meat of the work done by January. We scoped out what features we thought were realistic, and now it’s time to restructure our code to be more accommodating of future growth spurts and major changes.

It’s a slower time for sure, but it won’t be long until we are once again pushing hard for our next major milestone. We’ll keep you updated on cool things as they get closer, but in the  meantime it’s just great to be working on indie games again. 🙂

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Postmortem: GGJ 2014 and Negative Space

This past weekend I participated in Global Game Jam 2014 at the NYU Game Center. It was my first time competing in a jam of this size and scope, so when I showed up at 5pm on Friday 1/24 I had no idea what to expect. Amazingly enough, I was one of 279 jammers at Game Center, making it the biggest jam site in North America (5th biggest in the world)!

The crowd was electric when the keynotes began, and the atmosphere quickly shifted to one of wonder and suspense as the words of Jenova Chen, Kaho Abe, and Richard Lemarchand gave sound advice and hinted at the kind of theme that was about to be unveiled. And then, by accident, it was very suddenly revealed on the projector:

“We don’t see things as they are, but as we are.”

The Global Game Jam experience

I quickly teamed up with artist David Wallin and programmer Altay Murat, with the intent of creating a game using the Phaser HTML5  Game Framework. Our plan was to get a barebones working prototype by the end of Friday night, but this jam ended up being very different from my past experiences.

In past jams, my makeshift team would settle on an idea very quickly (in less than 1 hour),and begin working on a prototype right away. There would be a great deal of overscoping, and we would wait too long to drop unnecessary features. Throw in some heavy sleep deprivation, and by Sunday we would be exhausted and stressed beyond belief.

But this jam was backward. We spent the entire Friday evening going back and forth on possible directions before finally settling on an idea. But from that point onward it because easier and easier. David is a phenomenal artist and Altay is an excellent programmer, so our workflow was very smooth. Every few hours we would re-evaluate our situation, adjust the scope if necessary, assign tasks, and continue. By early afternoon on Saturday, our core mechanic was implemented and FUN.

One helpful difference was that the NYU Game Center closed at midnight on Friday and Saturday, preventing us from pulling all-nighters. This forced us to get some much needed sleep, which made all of the difference in our focus, communication, and motivation.

Negative Space

Our efforts resulted in a game called Negative Space, which you can check out right here. It was nominated for “Best Use of Theme!!”

**IMPORTANT: If you do not want our theme interpretation to be spelled out for you, play the game before reading on!!**

NegSpace_screen2

Negative Space is a commentary on the different world views of the introverted and the extroverted. Players take the role of two characters in a social scenario and control the simultaneously with the arrow keys. On the left, the introvert dislikes overstimulation through engagement, and prefers to have space. On the right, the extrovert gets energy from engagement with others, and prefers to be around other people. The goal of the game is to fill up both characters’ happiness meters by catering to their preferences.

Mechanically, the game is about coordinated movement. Since you are avoiding on the left and chasing on the right, you need to analyze the flow of the crowd and constantly make small adjustments to both characters’ positions. Most players loved the challenge of playing two characters at once, but a few felt it was too stressful. People in the crowd move randomly in the early levels, but later take on different simple movement behaviors (ie: Seek, Avoid, etc.).

Level Design Aesthetics

As the game’s Level Designer, I really enjoyed using the mechanics to paint different aesthetic scenarios. For example, in one scenario the Introvert is surrounded by 10 different Seekers. Inevitably, as player weaves in and out, the seekers coalesce into a mob formation, which feels very intimidating and forces the Introvert to always be on the run.

In another scenario, the Extrovert is surrounded by 25 Avoiders. The result is a wave-like radius organically forming around you, as if you truly do not belong at the party. Fittingly, the dominant strategy here is to pin a poor soul in the corner, which many players said “felt wrong”. Even better, this same strategy also puts the Introver safely in the corner, where he can easily hide from social interactions.

I would have loved to have explored these ideas further by implementing and playing with other kinds of movement behaviors, but such is the nature of a game jam.

Playtesting

Watching people play Negative Space was pure joy. We made a bold move in not explicitly stating the concept of the game, which made it that much more satisfying to witness the “Aha!” moment first hand. There were many moments where people would be playing, figuring out the properties and differences between the introvert and the extrovert, when suddenly it would click and they would exclaim “Oh I get it! It’s an introvert and an extrovert!!”

I also really enjoyed collecting and consolidating feedback. Although I am inexperienced, I feel like I have a natural ability to interpret feedback (even when it is not constructive), and ask the right questions to get them thinking and articulating their thoughts and frustrations in a clear and useful way. Or maybe it’s just luck… but I really enjoy the process and I cannot wait to dive deeper into the process and become a better designer.

Final Thoughts

Global Game Jam 2014 may just be my favorite jam yet! The environment, the energy, the scope and theme… it is just awesome and epic and gets my creative juices flowing in a really satisfying way.

I can’t wait to do it all over again for GGJ 2015! But this time… in Boston. 🙂

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