Reason from First Principles in Game Design

Is there such a thing as a new idea? Or are all creative products ultimately a combination of existing things? When a newly announced videogame was presented via analogy with two existing games, I had to consider how much of a role existing works should play in the creative process.

A while back I was on an email thread discussing the newly announced game by Trion, Atlas Reactor. There was a positive response, and someone commented, “Dota meets XCOM. I’m in.”

Here’s the trailer:

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Letting Go: The Designer’s Dilemma

[originally posted to my LinkedIn profile]

Creative people are trying to solve problems. Problems we haven’t realized we have, problems we forgot about, or problems of which we’re all too aware.

Having worked as both a game designer and writer, I’ve realized that they face similar obstacles. They both need to make something out of nothing. They both want to create feelings, to fill our hearts and minds with new experiences. They both want to challenge and reward us. And they both get their work questioned, prodded, scrutinized, misunderstood, and canned. Every day, all the time.
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It’s Not That Simple

So, I’ve just passed the 2-year mark working as a game designer at Certain Affinity. Although this isn’t my first rodeo, I’m blessed to work here. I continue to learn a great deal, both in practical and organizational terms.

One of the things you should know about game designers is that they pretty much universally think they know best. Continue reading

Thoughts on Videogame Pacing

I was tweeted last week by a student working on a “Best Practices of Pacing in Action/Adventure Games” essay. He wanted my thoughts, and I am happy to oblige with this post in the form of a Q&A.

In exchange for me sharing my ideas, please comment here and share your ideas right back. Tell me your ideal videogame.

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Guess the State Game

So, I was messing with the idea of making a new multi-player Hangman game for mobile, and I went home last night and put together this quick game between 8pm and 1am! I would love to know what you think of the game, which is here:

Guess the State Game

Go play it and then come back and comment on this post! If you like it, please support future development of the game by following the Amazon links on the page footer.

I’d love to add features like leaderboards, a time limit, rewards for reducing mistakes or a perfect score, levelling up, and of course, additional categories other than US states. If I do release a multi-player, competitive, timed version of the game for mobile I’ll also need funds to pay for licensing costs and bandwidth.

You can also help by visiting Zone In, the new site that answers the question, What’s happening near me?

Interview on Game Story with Wired Magazine

I was delighted to be asked about writing in games last week for a Wired Magazine piece by David Cornish. You can see the finished piece featuring some of my comments, which is well worth a read, here: Press X to skip: the challenge of storytelling in computer games.

Answering his questions gave me an opportunity to refine some of my own theories, so I decided to post my full responses here. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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Certain Affinity’s Majestic Map Pack DLC Drops Soon for Halo 4!

The Majestic Map Pack is launching soon for Halo 4, and Certain Affinity developed and produced the pack in co-development with 343 Industries:


Halo jazz: How 343 Industries and Certain Affinity collaborated to create the Majestic Map Pack


Valve’s “Cabal” System for Game Design

Valve produced a handbook for new employees at the start of 2012. It’s surprisingly gripping reading, for an employee handbook, and also features some of Valve’s trademark humor:

If you stop on the way back from your massage to play darts or work out in the Valve gym or whatever, it’s not a sign that this place is going to come crumbling down like some 1999-era dot-com startup. If we ever institute caviar-catered lunches, though, then maybe something’s wrong. Definitely panic if there’s caviar.

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Halo 4 is out today! P.S. I worked on it

It’s great to finally see my company, Certain Affinity, getting some love for our co-development of Halo 4’s competitive multiplayer, ‘War Games’, with 343, including working on game modes such as Dominion, and on a majority of multiplayer maps, such as Adrift and Longbow.

Here are the highlights, from a range of top videogame news sites:

IGN: How Halo 4 is Seeking to Win Multiplayer Wars

These guys really get multiplayer, and they have a long and intimate relationship with the Halo universe.

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How to do Internal Monologue in Videogames; plus, I’m in a book!

An interesting question came up on the IGDA Writer’s Special Interest Group‘s mailing list, from Anne Toole:

When you’ve got players playing a PC [Player Character] that you want them all to strongly identify with, such that they are the PC, and you’ve got a mechanic where the PC only speaks through internal dialog, what do you believe is the best approach, first or second person? That is, “I think I should pick up the gun on the floor.” vs. “You think you should pick up the gun on the floor.” Continue reading

My Piece on Brevity in the IGDA Perspectives Newsletter

Just a quick update to say that an article I wrote for the IGDA about brevity in games writing is now live in their “Perspectives” newsletter:

For Games Writers, Brevity is the Soul of … What Was it Again?

What with being brief and all, that’s enough from me here. Go read it!

Review of Steam Mobile App for iPhone

Steam mobile iOS app icon

I’ve been posting a bunch recently, and I’d kind of like my bold statements about the uniqueness of story design within game development to stay near the top of the blog a little while longer.

But Valve, damn their tardy-but-impeccably-engineered brilliance, have gone and unleashed a closed beta of a brand new Steam Mobile app for iPhone, and probably iPod and iPad. In fact, hell, I just checked the press release and it says ‘iOS and Android devices’, so even Google gets some love. Continue reading

How Game Writing Is The Same As, But Totally Different From, All Other Disciplines

Today I am going to blow your mind with a discipline-by-discipline comparison showing how writing fits into game development. By asking a couple of simple questions, then following up with a few nifty diagrams, this article will change your world for ever.
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Game Sales, Dead Multiplayer Servers, and Ways to Make People Happy

In the past six months two projects of mine have been released with integral multiplayer components – Driver: San Francisco and Medieval Moves: Deadmund’s Quest. I want to quickly discuss my multiplayer experience with each of these and draw a conclusion about better ways to do multiplayer today.
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Game Pitch Document for Lionhead’s “Milo”

Hi all! As a special seasonal treat for anyone still thinking games during the holidays, I’m posting a pitch document I wrote back in 2009 when Lionhead was hiring an ‘Activity Designer’ for their Milo and Kate game, originally just called Milo. I wanted to show them I had ideas for how you could make a game out of what they already had.

If you don’t know about Milo, it was a sweet tech demo for Project Natal (now Kinect) Peter Molyneux showed at E3 2009. There have been calls of ‘fake!’, and I’m sure the software for the demo was rigged to deal with specific behaviors. But I think Lionhead really was working on the demo/game (and hiring for it), even if it was subsequently cancelled and there were examples of smoke and mirrors being used in the demo. But, here, check out the original presentation in HD for yourself:
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My crowdfunding article’s live in the IGDA Perspectives Newsletter

Just a quick update to say that an article I wrote for the IGDA about the ‘crowdfunding’ movement is now live in their “Perspectives” newsletter:

He Who Pays First, Laughs Last: The Rise of Crowdfunding

I had a great time at GDC Online in Austin a few weeks back, and I will probably be writing a post or two about it in the near future. Stay tuned.

Batman: Arkham City Gameplay Preview and Exclusive Q&A

Apologies for my tardiness in blogging over the past week. I was writing a piece for the next edition of IGDA’s Perspectives newsletter, which I’ll be sure to link to when it comes out.

I have not been idle, however. A week and a bit ago, I attended the Eurogamer Expo at Earl’s Court, and last Friday night I went to a preview of Batman: Arkham City at BAFTA. So… impressions?

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The Simple Complexity of Sonic

So, I attended the Eurogamer Expo again this year, and there may be a post about it in a few days. But today I want to focus on something tangentially related. At the Expo I played a level from Sonic: Generations. This is supposed to be a mesh of old and new levels from various Sonic games. Although whizzing around in a 3D environment was fun, I want to talk about when I got home and installed the classic, original Sonic the Hedgehog on my PC, thanks to SEGA’s excellent Mega Drive Classics pack on Steam (I also purchased the Sonic games separately — 1 2 3), on sale over the weekend.

Other than using an Xbox controller, it was exactly like returning to the heady days of 1991, when, aged seven, I embarked on the great Sonic adventure. One of the things I was most looking forward to was the music, which did not disappoint. Maybe one of these days I’ll post a video of my brother and I playing the Green Hill Zone theme, adapted to bass guitar and piano. Not today, though.* For now, enjoy the classic version itself in the embedded widget here:

For a change, I want to talk about the game design of Sonic. Continue reading

Zombie Jigsaw: piecing together Left 4 Dead 2

This is the sequel to the sleuthing for the truth article about Brink. First, I should say that it’s a little unfair to compare Brink to Left 4 Dead 2. Brink is essentially a competitive game, whereas Left 4 Dead 2 is co-operative – even in Versus mode. Co-op games offer more time and space for in-game storytelling than competitive ones, because competitive shooters like Team Fortress 2, Counterstrike, or Brink tend to lead to manic, twitch gaming. The best you can hope for with such limited time and attention is some well-placed one-liners. In a co-op game, the experience is more managed, with lows, highs, and potential story moments – similar to single-player.

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David Mitchell’s contribution to games writing for kids

When I was writing last week about Derek and/or Eric, the imaginary 10-year-old from Idaho, and our need to think about that potential market of 10-year-olds when working on the story and script for Driver: San Francisco, it reminded me of various discussions I’ve had at three different games developers (Free Radical Design, Ubisoft and Zindagi) about the issues which arise when you’re writing content for a young audience.

Rather than bore you with stories about those specific conversations, I’m going to let David Mitchell have his own eloquent way with the subject:

He’s got a point, right?

The second part of sleuthing for story in multiplayer games will be along on Friday.

Sleuthing for the truth: does story matter in a multiplayer game?

I’m a pretty story-aware gamer, for obvious reasons. I have a pathological need to complete every dialogue tree, a determination to hear every variation on a bark, and I even take a perverse delight in spamming all the voice commands in TF2 and Left 4 Dead to any teammate who will listen – “Who’s gonna help me capture this bloody POINT?” – imagine hearing that again and again in the loud Scottish Demoman voice (and please don’t hate me).

You might note that both TF2 and Left 4 Dead (1 & 2) are multiplayer games. You would be correct. TF2 doesn’t have much story, beyond the Class videos, the emerging Announcer / Saxton Hale comics canon, and the fact that each level is effectively a mini-scenario where two groups are fighting for control – a scenario communicated through the level design and art itself. OK, when you write it all down, that does sound like quite a lot of story.

But what I’m thinking of is the more traditional, plot-based story where things happen to characters, who evolve, resulting in new things happening – all within the game. And for this, I want to look at Brink and Left 4 Dead 2.
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Failure’s memorable – make it interesting, too

This is my first post on this blog, and it’s turned into a bit of an essay. But this idea’s been knocking about in my head for a while – so, rest assured, I probably won’t have quite this much to say all the time…

The most memorable moment in the long-running saga of me “finishing” Mass Effect 2 was when I knew I wouldn’t have a fully loyal team before The Big Showdown.

Part of the reason that this was memorable was the undeniably solid build-up to this episode. Tali, a crew-member, needed to go protect her reputation and that of her father on her homeworld. Okay, so that’s her story motivation. Big whoop, right?

But then the game invested me in the outcome, by teaching me that how I dealt with my crew’s personal problems would determine their loyalty to me – a measurable outcome affecting the gameplay, my game abilities and potentially the ending of the game (I don’t know about that yet – I did say me “finishing” the game was a long-running saga).
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