How the Design of Overwatch Creates Toxicity

The current approach to dealing with player toxicity is like a quarantine: take the affected population and keep them from infecting the rest of the population. But what if the metaphor of a contagious disease is what was keeping us from seeing the true nature of the problem? What if it’s closer to an instinct, and in the case of online team-coop games like Overwatch, design elements are baked in the games themselves that prime players’ psyches to view each other with hostility?

I’m going to talk about online team-coop games using Overwatch as the primary example, but I believe the principles apply to many of the other notably toxic games out there like League of Legends, DotA 2, Counter Strike: Global Offensive, Call of Duty, etc. In many ways, Overwatch is typical for the space, but is worth specific examination because Blizzard has previously signaled an intent to be broadly conscientious, and because they’re willing to revise significant portions of their game’s designs when they feel like it is warranted. To me, this means Overwatch, as it exists today is the way that it is in spite of presumed efforts make the culture “good”, and is able change if need be.

So what is a toxic player? To paraphrase Lyte (Jeffrey Lin, League of Legends (LoL) Lead Social Systems Designer who worked on LoL from 2011 to 2016, and was responsible for halving toxic behavior during that period), a toxic player is one whose negativity can impact and infect other players. The current strategy developed by Lin to combat player toxicity is to permit players to address the symptoms to minimize incidences of negative actions, thereby enabling player feedback to separate the toxic population from the majority of non-toxic players. This approach assumes that player toxicity is a behavioral extension of trolling. As some have noted, online trolling behavior may the symptom of individuals enforcing perceived digital social norms, as much as it is about wanton hate spewing. In that sense, LoL’s approach and resultant success makes a lot of sense.  This approach leverages the player population as much as it relies on algorithms to identify and separate the problem population and discriminately punish them according to commensurate degrees of toxicity, rate of incidence, or other metrics. It also leaves less room for trolls to justify their actions based on individually presumed norms by codifying positive expected behaviors. Also by creating affordances for players to police their own population, the non-toxic majority can express and manifest said codified norm in the form of feedback to the toxic minority. Overall, various means of encouraging positive and discouraging negative behavior seem to be having a desirable effect in reducing the volume of abuse so its efficacy isn’t in question, but, to examine how design exacerbates the problem, it is helpful to treat it as behavior and not as demographic issue.

What the current strategy may obfuscate is the fact that the origin of this type of behavior may be a consequence of the design itself. With respect to the design of a game’s rules, Salen and Zimmerman talk about three kinds of rules: constituative, operational, and implicit. As players internalize the consituative and operational rules of the game, they will individually titrate out their own understanding of the implicit rules of the game; the resultant combination of a player community’s interpretations going on to form the base of that game’s local cultural norms. From another angle, Morton Deutsch, an American social psychologist and researcher of conflict resolution explains in his “Crude Law of Social Relations” that, “the characteristic processes and effects elicited by a given type of social relationship also tend to elicit that type of social relationship.” What Deutsch found was that the types of conditions, whether cooperative or competitive, were born of circumstances that instigated those types of behaviors in the first place like a self-reinforcing feedback loop. So if a game’s culture becomes toxic, it might have started with something communicated by the design, intentionally or unintentionally, through its rules.

A possible source of the toxicity in Overwatch may be a conflict in the interpretations of the game, with some players focusing on the obvious and advertised team combat-based matches, while others maybe playing another game that the former may not be acknowledging, and the developers don’t want to speak to explicitly. Looking at the design of the matches, players developing a team-centric and pro-social implicit rule framework logically follows. Afterall, what is a team but a collection of interdependent individuals working to achieve individual and common goals. Games involving teams will often feature challenges that test the team as a unit along its operational characteristics, such as role definition, communication, coordination; and its social characteristics, such as trust, motivation, and stress tolerance. Typically team games’ challenges are external to the group so as to allow everyone on the team to work together to overcome the problem together. Overwatch does more than most to reinforce this paradigm by framing objectives as team goals, facilitating team formation by categorizing heroes into classes, and having notifications for when a team composition is missing a necessary role. But a game isn’t constrained to just the parts that focus on obvious conflicts and challenges, and the design of systems external to the action do as much to frame the players’ experiences as much as what happens in the moments of action. When you expand the definition and scope of what the game is beyond the matches, the makings of intra-team conflict become evident as the implicit team-centric framework comes into conflict with the other games and forms of play cohabitating within the title.

Transactional Approach

Transactional Approach

Situational Approach

Situational Approach

Brian Upton’s situational approach to game design talks about how play can be thought of as the entire mentally simulated experience within the context of a game, where the game is the space that encloses the rules, and interactive space, and the play of a game. Extending this concept, in Overwatch, the rules of the game can be further broken down into different interrelated systems of rules. There’s the action portion where the teams shoot at each other, but there’s also the part of the game before the doors open and the shooting starts when you can briefly socialize with your team and admire their cosmetic accomplishments, the part before the map even loads when players pick their characters in coordination with their teammates, and the even larger non-social meta space in which players open loot boxes, visit forums for strategies and try to optimize their efforts to get the cosmetics they want as quickly and efficiently as possible. In Overwatch, the team-centric social expectations are undermined by a supporting design that emphasizes a mentality that is counterproductive in encouraging good team dynamics, and advantages players willing to look out for themselves at the expense of others.

At the heart of the intra-team conflict seems to be a combination of common design features that many other games in this genre share, namely randomized loot box rewards delivery, procedural match-making, and individualized play-driven success metrics. Firstly, players’ investment into and interpretation of the reward system can greatly change their understanding of the reward system’s implementation. Players play 5 vs 5 team matches, in which experience points (XP) are awarded for the time in the match, medals earned, completion of the match, and victory, with bonuses for consecutive matches played, voluntarily hopping in to fill a game in progress, winning your first match of the day, and for playing with friends. According to “BigAIChubbs”, after taking into account the average time in a match, the XP curve, and the number of bonuses in a game, a player is looking at between 884 and 1,064 hours of game time to earn all of the ~1200 items in the game. As Paul Tassi estimates, when pegging to real life currency, this places a value of somewhere between $1000.00 to $3000.00 -- a number that gets compounded when taking into account the rate-dependent nature of earning upgrades through play, and the time-sensitive nature of the desirable seasonal and special event rewards. As Jim Sterling points out, these rewards matter a lot to players on a psychological, meta, and social level. Given the importance of these cosmetic rewards, it might be more appropriate to frame the situational design for some players in Overwatch as one where they earn personal rewards through the social and mechanical play, than the presumed one that it is a game with mechanical and social play that merely features rewards.

Some players are as invested if not more invested in the rewards than the combat part of the game, and so the combat part of the game as well as what counts as reasonable conduct towards others in said portion of the game take on a very different light. Players that are so inclined will logically look at each match as a time investment whose rewards can be maximized by winning any given match, but also whose cost can be minimized by limiting the amount of time committed to a match that is sure to result in a loss. Through this lens, rage quitting and opposition feeding aren’t just examples of poor sportsmanship, they’re time optimization tactics.

The rewards themselves are only a part of the equation -- the individualized metrics system used to determine who gets rewarded undermines the social dynamics of the team. A team’s performance is the product of its member’s collective contributions. As Robert Huckman and Gary Pisano found in their 2005 research into cardiac surgeon performance found, no matter how exceptional a surgeon’s personal skills were, their patient outcomes weren’t notably better than baseline when they had to perform without the benefit of their normal team. This is the reason why, in the military, we culturally frame success and achievements external to individuals. Promotions, performance evaluations, and awards are obviously individualized, but even those are framed in terms of service or contribution to the unit, mission, and others. This knowledge isn’t limited to the military domain, either; as Babe Ruth famously put, “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don't play together, the club won't be worth a dime." So a system that only measures and values deterministic and individualized stats not only emphasizes the wrong thing, it totally ignores much more significant contributions to a team that a team member can provide. Some contributions can’t be measured or even correlated to deterministic outcomes; what is the quantitative measured value for coordinating the team’s efforts, analyzing and communicating information that contributes to critical situational awareness, or for identifying and remedying intra-team issues. The individualized stats are also problematic because individuation is a cerebrally antagonistic process to teamwork. Team operation fundamentals are all about best practices and techniques to maximize the synchronistic work of its members while minimizing the effort, cost, and waste in achieving said output; it’s about getting to a state where all of the barriers to acting as one have been removed or minimized. Alternatively, an emphasis and reward structure that primes players to think about themselves is not only counterproductive to good team function, but works to reframe teammates as mere obstacles to success.

For example, Overwatch’s medal system seems to be intended to encourage individual skill growth, discourage deliberate underperformance, and mitigate the externalities of unfortunate match-making, but it enables a dissociative mentality for players on a team. Players on a winning team intent on maximizing their XP earnings are incentivized to abandon their team and their common objectives to the extent that it doesn’t change the outcome. A player on a losing team could either blame their team and try to mitigate the sunk cost by playing selfishly, or become caustic to whoever they blame to get them to quit and potentially reroll a replacement player of a higher skill. Even to players that aren’t looking at their team strictly transactionally, their measure of each teammate will be influenced by a design that reduces individuals’ contributions to the team (and by extension, their culpability in their collective success or failure) to individualized performance statistics. Not only is this false, as Huckman and Pisano found, it is detrimental and disruptive in a context where players should be spending their brain cycles on ways to maximize the actions of their teammates, and working to capitalize on the opportunities that their teammates have created for them. Once the team mentality is replaced by that of individuals in this situation, how else could a player interpret their teammates other than as simple contributors and obstacles to success?

Finally, the procedural match-making approach to team formation teaches players to think of each other as expendable. The match-making system is an understandable and necessary feature in a market where player want to be able to play whenever they want with our without their irl friends. The system’s shortcomings may be inevitabile in light of said want, but still have to be acknowledge if they are to be leveraged or mitigated. Specifically here, when you pair expendability with a design that already primes players to think in terms of transactional relationships with other players, it shouldn’t be a surprise when players treat each other more like disappointed customers than invested partners.

I want to point out that this isn’t a problem with these design features in isolation, but their unsuitability for a team-coop game. For example, individual performance metrics made sense in early team-coop games like the Team Fortress mod for Quake -- in 1996 -- in a world when nascent match-making technology over Kali and GameSpy were regularly augmented by irl friends. It doesn’t in the same way in the anonymized and prolific digital culture of 2019. Cosmetic rewards are a natural fit in CRPGs and similar spaces where they are marks of progress, but become more insidious when coupled with a a FOMO approach to player engagement (and addiction). Also, it is important to realize that behaviors, like designs, carried over from contexts can result in dramatically different interpretations and results -- when a player quits because they don’t stand a chance of winning in StarCraft, their “GG” is an act of courtesy so as to not draw out a game longer than necessary, but in a team game like Overwatch and LoL, it’s rude and frustrating, so how and what designs incentivize should be considered. The point isn’t to simply criticize Overwatch; as I pointed out earlier, Overwatch has pioneered more than a few design features that work to facilitate teamwork, and that should be acknowledged, borrowed and/or adapted as we attempt to craft better cooperative digital spaces. The point is that even toxic players are an opportunity for reflection in how what we communicate through our words, actions, and designs echo through the spaces we create.

StarCraft: A Modern History of Korea

Game of the Month Talk at Babycastles on 2019-02-21.

In 2019, e-sports are the backbone of several American digital media streaming services, is even featured in traditional print media, and has become the arena in which leading modern artificial intelligence projects measures themselves. Depending on exactly when you mark its origin, e-sports might be approaching half a century of existence, but there’s no denying that the concept cemented itself into what we know it as today with Blizzard’s StarCraft -- and it all started in the Republic of Korea.

For those that don’t know, StarCraft is a real-time strategy (RTS) game. An evolutionary descendant of the strategy genre that started with Go and Chess, you can identify strategy video games by their common feature sets: large numbers of in-game units, economies, maps, and a strong emphasis on strategic and tactical decision-making. StarCraft was the much anticipated follow-up to Blizzard’s own WarCraft series. WarCraft II in particular was massively successful, debuting at #2 in sales behind Myst in 1995, and pioneered many of the conventions of the modern RTS genre.

Part of what made StarCraft successful was how strongly it delivered on expectations. The primary selling point of an RTS back in the day was its single player experience, and StarCraft’s was an expansive space opera with memorable characters, strong voice acting, and featured a varied and challenging campaign. Also, the artwork was polished, unit animations were snappy, the AI was top notch, and all of it exuded Blizzard’s iconic polish, humor, and style.

However, what made it great was the innovations it pioneered. StarCraft was the first to nail the balance of 3 unique factions at a time when most others, including their major competitor, Command and Conquer, favored a largely mirrored design between just two factions. It also had the support of a secure and stable online matchmaking service with Battle.net; something that was exceedingly rare at a time when 3rd party matchmaking services like Kali and GameSpy were still the commercial standard. It also had one of the best level editors which gave players control over terrain editing, complete unit tuning, and even trigger-based scripting -- one of the critical features that helped establish a thriving community of “Use Map Settings” custom level designers. This community can claim credit for popularizing tower defense and defend-the-temple game-types, as well as birthing Aeon of Strife, the StarCraft mod that directly spawned Defense of the Ancients, or as it is better known today, DOTA.

However, StarCraft wouldn’t be what it is today were it not for its role in the birth of e-sports. There were many other popular games at the time, none of which started the global e-sports phenomenon. The 90s saw the beginning of several tournament series that became leagues in their own right, such as ones for various Street Fighter titles, Quake, and Warcraft, but by 1998, broadband internet was still not particularly common so the geographic limitations of competition and spectatorship limited these series’ abilities to grow. Additionally, the relative nascency of the internet’s infrastructure and cultural participation made advertisement and cultural germination stagnant. Also, the cultural juxtaposition to “real sports” burdened e-sports with a diminutive connotation in the western hemisphere, negating the advantage of the technological lead of the United States and Europe as a potential host to the concept. To understand how StarCraft got to be as big as it is today, it helps to look at 1998, Korea, and the socio-historical factors that made it fertile ground from which e-sports could grow.

PLAYER POPULATION

The first factor was the population, which was eagerly looking for a new pastime. The year before StarCraft released saw the ROK embroiled in the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. When the Thai baht collapsed, many Asian countries including Korea were caught up in the domino effect, leading to widespread layoffs. With massive unemployment and the dynamics of the Korean chaebol economic system, this meant that young adults were hit hard in terms of opportunity and money. So without a job or even a good chance of getting one, many young adults found themselves with a lot of free time, and were looking for something cheap to fill it. As for the younger student population, StarCraft landed at a time when other popular pastimes were on the decline. Younger Koreans, after long hours in schools and hagwon (after school tutoring programs), would typically retreat to a dangoojang (pool hall), manhwabang (comic book cafe), and oraksil (arcade). Leading up to StarCraft’s release, the popularity of those activities were already in decline. The combination of these two factors meant that StarCraft had timed itself perfectly in alignment with a window of opportunity to win over a broad generational cross-section of an entire country.

AVAILABILITY

Widespread availability is critical to virality, and it’s availability in Korea was the product of several overlapping factors. The game itself was designed to be able to be run on lower spec machines, and that was part of what made StarCraft so popular over other PC titles. Only four years prior, the 3dfx Voodoo Graphics Card was released, and as a consequence, by 1998 pc games were well into a graphical arms race which meant that many titles simply could not be run on the dated pcs that most Koreans owned at the time. Many Koreans’ access to computers were through proto-PC bangs, then known as “modem cafes”, “network cafes”, or more simply as “net cafes”. At the time most of these cafes operated as business centers, but the low required specs of StarCraft meant that owners could transition to the entertainment centric PC bang model with no additional financial investment.  

But it wasn’t just the available hardware; the game itself was readily available thanks to the rampant digital piracy of the 90’s. The game pirating and authentication arms race that began in the 80’s was well underway, and digital pirates had made it easy to illegally install a copy of the game, provided you had the disc. StarCraft predates Napster and other popular pirating and digital content sharing platforms, but cafe owners and patrons alike could easily populate every machine in a cafe with either a single purchased copy of the game, or from game disc images that could be acquired via IRC channels and private FTP servers if they had access to a reliable internet connection and a CD-burner.

As demand rose, these net cafes quickly became home to a fleet of machines capable of running the game, and a local area network that enabled cafe patrons to play against their friends for a low hourly fee. Young Koreans could now give the game a try for a few dollars, whether their family owned a PC or not. It also provided the function of a new third space, which socially supported a player community. Piracy may have been how Koreans first got a taste for the game, but it also lead to the staggering in-country sales, with Korea accounting for over half of the global sales of the game. This also played a critical role in a new domestic economic opportunity. In the wake of StarCraft, PC bang numbers jumped from roughly 3,000 to over 21,000 in just two years; all this in the midst of a crushing recession, and an IMF loan that had imposed strict government austerity measures and restrictions in private loans.

APPEAL

The appeal of StarCraft was a much a consequence of its strengths as it was about its advantage over other huge titles of the time. Certainly it was a great game, and it’s suitability to Korean tastes account for some of its success, but this may hide the fact that StarCraft simply didn’t have the same competition in Korea that it did in other parts of the world. So, to answer the question why StarCraft succeed where other games did not, we have to look at how StarCraft benefited from cultural and social factors, where other games did not.

Korea is a small peninsula that has been surrounded by larger powers throughout its history. In fact, the history of Korea is that of a people repelling and expelling foreign invaders for thousands of years — the Khitan, the Jurchen, the Mongols, the Tang, the Japanese, and the Soviets.  Of consequence here, the mid-1800’s Meiji Restoration of Japan saw the Samurai class’ decline of financial, political, and social power. Inspired by western imperialism, Japan looked to conquest as a way to utilize the thousands of unemployed and potentially discontent samurai. The resultant annexation of Korea in 1910 was the beginning of a 35 year period of Japanese rule remembered for “comfort women”, the illegalization of the Korean language, violent suppression of dissidence, and material and cultural pillaging of the peninsula. To this day, the overwhelming majority of Korean historical artifacts in the Nation Museum of Korea are on “loan” from private Japanese collections. After Korea attained its freedom from Japanese rule, it immediately found itself host to a proxy war fought on its soil between Western and Soviet powers separated families and divided the country into the two state arrangement of today. The result was a country effectively blasted into the stone-age, fighting for its survival, with little time to process the experience of subjugation, terror, and sorrow.

Post-war Korea saw rapid economic growth and a surge of prosperity for the newly crafted middle class, but the memory of the country’s recent bloody past still lingers in the psyche of present day Koreans, as can be evidenced by the subject’s prominence in the country’s artistic mediums. As a consequence, the arcade and console phenomenon lead by Japanese manufacturers and developers was largely absent in Korea. This meant many of the popular console and arcade titles that marked this period of gaming in Japan and the United States, including fighting game series like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and Tekken; and JRPGs like Final Fantasy VII were missing, unplayable, or all but sacreligious in Korea.

Combined with the previously mentioned hardware limitations of the time, StarCraft was on a very short list of games that were playable in Korea. As the game’s availability grew through the expansion of PC bangs, Stacraft’s critical competitive advantage, Battle.net, cinched the game’s place of prominence. In the wake of StarCraft and a fortuitous demonopolization of Korean telecommunications, Korea’s computing and internet landscape rapidly grew, PC bangs flourished, and a public demand signal jump started the commercial sector’s pursuit of providing hardware and internet connectivity. By 1999, roughly 70% households had high speed internet coverage and the average Korean player (with a legitimately purchased key) could now take to Battle.net’s stable network to play with and compete against players all across the country and the globe.

SOCIAL PERMEATION AND ADOPTION

Another critical factor in StarCraft’s success in Korea was how the government, private sector, and even established institutions found ways to benefit from the phenomenon, and consequently worked to aid in its success.

Post Korean War Korea was an agricultural economy in the transitioning hands of despots, interim leadership, and military coups. In 1962, Bak Jeonghui took power through a coup, and started a period of rapid industrialization in the country under the chaebol system. Chaebols are large dynastic industrial conglomerates. Under Bak Jeonghui, the chaebols of Korea (like the internationally recognizable Samsung, LG, Hyundai), were the beneficiaries of close governmental partnerships, financial support in the form of government loans, influence over preferential legislation, and selective protectionism against international competition in its domestic market. Under this system, Korea went from one of the most impoverished countries in the world to the 11th largest economy in a few short decades. The monopolistic privilege enjoyed by the chaebols to this day effectively encompasses every major aspect of the country’s economy, including manufacturing, construction, services, media, and even entertainment.

The Asian Financial Crisis resulted in significant losses in manufacturing for many businesses, and consequently, they turned their eyes towards entertainment as a potential growth industry. Contemporaneously, South Korea and Japan was involved in a series of political exchanges concerning revisionist history in Japanese school textbooks that obfuscated or denied facts of empirical invasions, war crimes, and details concerning the extent and nature of atrocities Japanese occupying and conquering forces committed. In response to a Japanese commitment to take a tougher stance on these textbooks (which was and continues to be half hearted and vacillating), Korea had agreed to lift the ban on Japanese cultural imports such as games, anime, films, and music. The chaebols, intent on capitalizing on the broader governmental desire to brace the public against the “onslaught” of these cultural imports, made use of the government investment into Korean cultural forms, thus starting the Korean Wave, or Hallyu.

The player base’s embrace of the game would likely have been sufficient to cement StarCraft as a seminal game in Korean game culture, but its permeation into the broader cultural space rocketed it to its legendary status. The country’s extensive player base and strong emerging competitive space was something that the entertainment industry was aware of, and capitalized on by turning their cultural machine (the same one responsible for KPop idols) to replicating that formula in top StarCraft competitors. Also, by 2000, the government of Korea had formed KeSPA, the Korea e-Sports Association, under the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism. Korea, which already had a history of broadcasting Baduk on Saturday afternoons quickly retooled the formula and began televising matches that were staged in studios and arenas, with attractive prize pools, and all of the production value of high stakes sporting events. With a surge of government funds, top competitors were spotlighted, featured, sponsored, commoditized, and built into larger-than life super stars, further fueling the game and televised tournaments’ social permeation.

With the sudden internet boom in Korea, even newspapers couldn’t ignore the presence of StarCraft, and so forward looking publication, wanting to cover digital and internet based content to looked to games and found StarCraft. This lent an air of legitimacy to the game in the eyes of the public that recontextualized the game for people that weren’t immediately caught up in the craze. After all, if the country’s leading newspapers and sports editorialists are weighing in on the game, there must be something to it.

With the government’s, private sector’s, and public institutions’ investment in the game for political, commercial, and social reasons, the country created the internally multiplicative environment that took StarCraft from a young-adult pastime to a household name.

SPECTATABILITY

Finally, the design of the game lent itself to spectatability. As Dustin Browder, Senior Designer on StarCraft 2 says, a good e-sport must be clear, simple, skill-based, and have sufficient uncertainty.

Compared to many RTSs of the day, StarCraft was exceptionally legible, meaning that players and audience alike could comprehend what was going on. StarCraft’s units have very distinct sizes, silhouettes, and racial differentiation, unlike other games with redundant units with muddy visual designs and problems with visual occlusion by the environment and other units. Also, an emphasis on playability over drama meant that with each frame, at a glance, players and audience could manage a quick and accurate qualitative assessment of the state of the competition, and even how the course of a complex fight was going for any given player in real time. Lastly, the minimap made it so that experts and novices alike could passively intuit who was winning based on a visual abstraction of economy and situational awareness through territory. All of these factors meant that the state of the game was represented on the screen as much as it was in the heads of the competitors.

StarCraft also had a sort of elegant simplicity in its core concepts that people could easily grasp without a comprehensive understanding of the game. Having a bigger economy means you can make more stuff. Having more presence on the map means you have more information. Unit designs, for the most part, clearly communicated that unit’s strengths, weaknesses, and intended functions. Additionally, the layers of influence over a battle’s outcome, whether from positioning, terrain, upgrades, control, or composition; how and why whatever was happening on the screen was perceptible.

StarCraft was also watchable because the expression of skill is obvious. In StarCraft, the clearest expressible metric of skill is the now ubiquitous concept codified by StarCraft -- APM, or actions per minute. Where StarCraft and Brood War excelled as a game was in the ways that it found intuitive ways to reward player speed and precision, and punish lapses in attention -- making each map a feat of will, endurance, and mastery. An iconic example of this is the pro-player, Boxer, and his “invincible marines”. A master of precision in the control of a single unit type, the lowly Terran Marine, allowed the champion to effectively dodge area of effect attacks, extend the life of every unit under his control, minimize losses, and use input volume to win even significantly disadvantaged match-ups.

Lastly, was uncertainty. The fog of war and lack of early game vision shows that imperfect information was always core to the design, it was the type and breadth of play-styles enabled by the game that give it a tangible sense of uncertainty, making for an exciting viewing experience. For example, Koreans pioneered a rushing strategy using the Zerg race known as the “6-pool” build. This early all-in strategy fielded a serviceable army in the earliest moments of the game before most players could respond. Over time, players developed reactionary strategies to mitigate the benefits of rushing, as well as ways to punish the economic delay required to execute the “6-pool”, but the threat presented by the unknown from the earliest moments of the game were critical for a viewing experience that was never dull.

StarCraft, unlike its sequel, was never built to be an e-sport, and as its sequels showed, there was plenty of room for improvement on all of these fronts. Still, StarCraft managed to back its way into this magic formula, if somewhat by accident, which an invested competitive player population was able to manufacture a form that could support high level play, as well as an view experience that could fill stadiums.

CONCLUSION

StarCraft’s success in Korea could not have been foretold, and many of the factors responsible for the game’s legendary status are a consequence of long leading historical factors, proximate geo-political circumstances, and cultural factors inherent to Korean, specifically, the Korean people of the Republic of Korea. Other accounts of StarCraft’s success attribute internet connectivity, PC Bangs, and a social penchant for strategic games for StarCraft’s success in Korea, but those are a bit of the cart leading the horse. The miracle of the game’s success, and more specifically the beginning of the e-sports phenomenon were as uncertain and fortuitous as the country that birthed it.

SELECTED SOURCES

Punch-up: 7 Days To Die - XP System

DESIGN DECISION

As of Alpha 17 of 7 Days To Die, the XP system disproportionately privileges mining and killing zombies.

WHY IT COULD BE IMPROVED

  • Since zombies are a source of experience, players internalize a desire and need to hunt zombies, when it should be the reverse. The game’s implicit premise is about survival, and incentivizing players to actively seek out zombies to fight is counter to that conceit.

  • The game features missions at various POIs, and the rewards for the mission are undercut by the fact that the XP for killing the zombies on the way to and at the POI dwarf the reward itself; especially considering how much time it may take players to travel to shops on proc-gen games.

  • Having a large XP bonus for mining naturally drives min-maxers to perform potentially un-fun repetitive behavior for the sake of progress.

  • By selectively rewarding mining as non-shareable XP, it imbalances team progress, and dis-privileges exploration, construction, foraging, and other un-rewarded activities that may be vital for the team’s survival.

  • Creative bases and traps have a glaring down-side in that non-kills and trap-kills don’t yield any XP.

HOW IT COULD BE IMPROVED

  • Have the primary source of XP be time based - the longer each player of a party stays alive, the faster the rate of XP gained (increasing logarithmically towards a predetermined maximum).

  • Penalize death by temporarily reducing XP gain rate - a single death could be a minor dip, where as repeated deaths, temporally proximate deaths, and team wipes result in increasingly larger penalties.

  • Don’t give XP for menial actions such as mining, crafting, farming, etc. - all player contributions to the party’s survival as a whole contributes to the party’s XP.

  • Make the only external source of XP come from meaningful milestones, such as completing missions, X days without a death, deathless survival of a “blood moon” (with required kills to discourage just running away), number of POIs discovered and cleared, etc.

UPSIDES

  • Improves team-hood by encouraging players to care about their teammates, and about their survival.

  • Makes zombies scary again because every encounter has to be considered against negative consequences and not positive gains.

  • Makes it easier to tune for a specific game experiences because there is a theoretical maximum at which players can reasonably progress.

  • Encourages players to contribute to the team in more subtle and abstract was by allowing intangible contributions to benefit the team consequentially as opposed to based on metrics and game stats.

  • Provides a meaningful consequence to death other than wasting players’ time traveling back to the location of their death to recover potentially dropped items by having the cost be socially borne.

  • Refreshes a variety of play styles, roles, and activities by shifting to different mindset for many common styles

    • Builders - advancement and activity vs chunk heat and increased zombie encounters

    • Squatters - building’s contained resources and depletion rate vs risk of clearing a new building

    • Nomads (Runners) - Playing the game handicapped by a compounding XP deficit from running away on “blood moons”

    • Nomads (Raiders) - POI risk assessment based on needed resources vs potential hit to XP growth

Cognitive Responsibilities of Operational Teams

In the context of a game, mechanics serve as the intermediary in constraining and translating will into permissible actions, but the preceding cognitive steps remain unabstracted. Players are advantaged by optimizing and enhancing their individual or collective ability to observe, orient and decide to maximize the desired effects of their actions.

Various designs of cooperative games often emphasize and privilege cognitive processes of varying periods, frequency, intensity, complexity, and type. In order to better describe the dynamics of cooperative games, I will cover a non-exhaustive list of certain areas of cognitive responsibility as informed by the broad roles of a self-contained independently operating military unit.

Strategy (Big)

A team’s actions are often at the service of accomplishing specific goals. The purpose of strategy is to come up with the overall plan of action, and collection of intermediate requirements in pursuit of some larger desire. Sometimes the overarching goals will be externally defined by the game’s definition of victory, however strategies are usually nested, and may employ smaller-scale recursive versions to achieve supporting subordinate goals.

In the context of a game, given specific goals, strategies can be devised and used to govern how points are allocated in a tech tree, in the assignment combat roles, in the construction/placement of objects, and in successful navigation.

Tactics (Small)

Tactics revolve around the concerns of accomplishing specific narrow ends to maximum effect. As opposed to strategy that is about the plan to attain big goals, tactics are about the means of achieving a thing. If strategy demands that a space remain clear, tactics would dictate how to clear said space as quickly and cheaply as possible. Tactics can be refined over time and adapted to changing circumstances, and are closely related to the process of heuristic development.

Logistics (Before)

Logistics is the concern of organizing, sequencing, allocating, and orchestrating human and material resources in multi-faceted endeavors. If strategy demands that something be acquired, and tactics governs how it should be captured, logistics would be concerned with who will do it, and that they have what they need in order to do it.

Coordination (During)

The execution of complex actions involving multiple individuals can be enhanced through deliberate timing, sequencing, organization, positioning, and prioritization. In this coordination can make the difference between success and failure. For that reason, command structures on warships employ coordination at multiple levels to ensure proper and timely performance of complex tasks and procedures. The act of coordination often benefits from the clarity of hierarchical organization, however, highly trained teams can contextually adapt their actions in a coordinated fashion like players on a soccer team. In a cooperative game, individuals working with imperfect information are reliant on the perspective of their teammates to fill in what they do not know or cannot see.

Expertise (Knowledge)

Decisions are often made better when in made in light of more and better information. In situations where the necessary body of information is impractically vast, models are meaningfully nuanced, or the necessary skills are sufficiently differentiated as to preclude a single individual to be in possession of everything, the team can expand it’s collective capability through localized depth. Expertise can refer to extensive knowledge or skill, and in the context of a team, it is often one of the vectors of specialization. Whether it is at the service of process optimization, strategic development, or tactical refinement, decision making can benefit from access to encyclopedic facts, situational expertise, and experience-borne insights.

Accounting (Information)

Alternatively, sometimes it is the access to the mundane, as opposed to the arcane, that might reveal the critical pieces of information necessary to make the right move. Seldom exciting, and often vital, the process of accounting involves the meticulous tracking of items, quantities, and qualities; observing, recording, and projecting trends, anomalies, and exceptions.

Vigilance (Nail)

Vigilance is about cognitive endurance. It’s watching shadows, reading instrumentation, or anything else that might reveal or highlight the things that would otherwise escape notice. It’s time intensive and unrelenting. It demands patience and discipline. It’s the way that a team stands any chance of detecting something subtle, or minor, or glacially paced as early as possible.

Maintenance (Hammer)

The act of maintenance is the custodial duty of upkeep. It may be tedious, but catastrophe can come from minor failures and neglected weaknesses. In games, this is often the most obvious in scenarios involving building like survival crafting games. For example, in 7 Days To Die, a single weakened voxel of cobblestone may become the future breach from which the zombie horde will pour through to eat your team. However, lesser versions of this same mental activity is expressed in the ammo check before a raid in Tom Clancy’s The Division, or in the equipment and potion distribution before a siege in Lineage II, or a quick walk through below-decks after a fight to check for errant cannonball holes in the hull on your pirate ship in Sea of Thieves.

Analysis

Analysis is the study and scrutiny of any of the preceding practices or resultant data and experiences. The largest part of improvement is figuring out what did and did not work well. The challenge of analysis is in navigating what is known, and minding what is yet still unknown. It entails investigation, contemplation, theorizing, and assessing. On the smallest scale, it’s the basic feedback loop by which we attempt to maximize any present effort, but can span larger periods as players attempt to optimize processes, maximize yields, minimize costs, and search for insights which might inspire the next rung on the heuristic ladder.

Executive Decision Making

Executive decision making is about making considered and informed decisions. It may be in the form of casting a deciding vote between mutually exclusive paths, arbitrating between competing interests, or even sanity checking a gut instinct. Though sometimes hierarchical, it needn’t necessarily be. In cooperative contexts, the executive decision maker may be a rotating seat from circumstance to circumstance, a collaborative process, or the responsibility of an individual. In laterally structured teams, the executive decision can fall to a neutral third party, a subject matter expert, or simply the individual with the greatest emotional investment. Though each player is ultimately the executive of their actions from moment to moment, weightier decisions that impact the team and present a collectively borne cost may be discussed amongst team members, but before actions can be taken, a decision must be made.

Negotiation

In cases where there is room for maneuvering, individuals may have to find a suitable solution somewhere within the possibility space. In the navigation of individual and collective interests, negotiation is the practice by which players will have to present their case and make their peace. In cooperative games this is an on-going activity and ultimately the heart of the social interaction that makes cooperative games enjoyable.

Mechanical Relationships in Cooperative Play

Player’s mechanics in cooperative games can be contextualized based on their relationship to other players. The following is a non-exhaustive list of inter-player mechanical relationships.

ORTHOGONAL

Player’s mechanical relationships are sometimes independent and can be considered orthogonal if it does not require, influence, or impact other players. Due to the team nature of even loosely cooperative games few mechanical relationships can be said to be truly independent, but some games have employed this sort of relationship in specific set pieces like in some of Gears of War’s levels where players progress on independent tracks. The mobs, items, and intermediate goals on these tracks allow the player’s actions to be nominally unrelated to the other’s.

RELIANT

A reliant mechanical relationship is one where any given player’s ability is dependent on another player’s actions. An example of this is Ibb and Obb, a two player cooperative platformer. In many of these scenarios, each player, and thus the team’s progress is dependent on the other player’s specific actions. For one player to be permitted to act, the other must do something first.

Obstructive

Similar to reliant mechanical relationships, obstructive mechanical relationships tend to have an absolute nature to them, however, whereas a reliant relationship is about one player’s actions enabling actions, obstructive relationships prevent action. An example of this is Overcooked, where a player’s presence on a station physically blocks other players’ access to the same station or even simply past the station.

COMPLEMENTARY

Complementary relationships are often driven by roles and optimization; the capabilities of one maximizing the capabilities of the other. In the case of MMOs a Tank allowed a Damage Dealer (DD) to perform their role unimpeded. However, play style preferences can also foster naturally complementary relationships in more open formats as players can define non-mechanically social or tactical roles.

SYNERGISTIC

Synergistic relationships are an extension of complementary relationships, but are unique in that they enable new capabilities beyond the sum of their parts. Aspects of a relationship could be considered synergistic if skills, abilities, play styles, amplify the capabilities of one or more of the players. A Support class’ defensive buff would be synergistic with a Tank’s naturally high defensive abilities, or a Range character’s mob kiting allows a DD’s area of effect spell to land in scenarios where they could not otherwise.

MOSAIC

Mosaic relationships are ones where individual actions are ineffectual or incoherent without the actions of other players. These types of relationships are often found where players’ individual actions are expressed through intermediaries, such as a ship. In Sea of Thieves, turning the helm, lowering and raising the sail, letting go and weighing anchor, and firing cannons would do nothing outside the concert of all of the actions. In mosaic relationships, each player’s actions and contributions are subordinated to the combine action of the whole, and might otherwise be irrelevant without those of others.

COLLINEAR

Collinear relationships are found in scenarios where there are one-dimensional goal. In death matches, every teammate’s kill count goes towards the team’s total; in a relay race, each player’s lap time is summed to the team’s time; in linear action games, each mob that’s killed enables the team to progress that much further toward completion.

TRIBAL

In tribal relationships, a player’s contributions are often contextualized on a team impact scale like a mosaic relationship, but do not strictly depend on the actions of others. Also, tribal relationships can be thought of in terms of outcome like collinear relationships, but do not frame themselves around mono-axial definitions of progress or success. For example, in a survival game, the team requires food, water, and other material resources, and each player can contribute to the whole by contributing along single or multiple vectors.

On Pure Cooperative Games

This post will be updated with links to posts relating to cooperative game design.

BACKGROUND

In multiplayer games, player relationships span a spectrum between competitive and cooperative with the space in between sometimes referred to “coopetition”. My present focus is on designs that focus on pure cooperation.

This design space is marked at present by seemingly sparse development attention, which may or may not be related to the difficulties in designing and marketing games in this space. To better understand the limitations, unique challenges, affordances, and requirements of this space, I will attempt to explore:

  1. Frameworks - Systematize concepts and vocabulary

  2. Case Studies - Examine extant designs through these framework

  3. Applications - Study aspects of present design patterns used to achieve said designs’ goals

  4. Theories - Identify areas for potential improvement

ARTICLES

An Indie Reaction to Nvidia GeForce RTX 20 Series

An Indie Reaction to Nvidia GeForce RTX 20 Series

Nvidia announced their new GeForce RTX 20-series cards today. It's kind of a big deal to a lot of people, but why are people so excited, and is it actually a big deal?

BACKGROUND

Firstly, the 20-series is the next generation of Nvidia graphics cards. PC (and recently Mac) gaming enthusiasts are likely pretty excited because the 20-series was announced later than anticipated. Historically, Nvidia has released new generations every year or two, with generational updates in the form of Ti models coming half way through the life cycle of the series. So when the 20-series was announced 2.5 years after the initial release of the preceding 10-series, you have to recognize that people have been riding the rumor and hype train for nearly a year at this point.

Also for context, the crypto-currency mining rush of the last few years have made it nearly impossible for gamers to be able to afford the 10 series for much of its life cycle. This was hardly helped by the fact that Nvidia's biggest competitor, AMD's Radeon graphics cards, who have been more or less out of the running for nearly a decade, returned with their first competitive series, only to also immediately disappear into the hands of miners.

SERIES AND GENERATIONS

So is the 20-series, just a more powerful 10-series update? Yes and no. Firstly, the 10-series were built on the 16/14nm architecture. This allowed Nvidia to more or less continue their trend of subsequent generations offering roughly 50-60% more performance from their previous series, and roughly 25-30% improvement over the preceding mid-generational Ti refresh. Despite the keynote, it's difficult to say if the 20-series will continue that trend.

A technical analysis suggests the board should support faster RAM and power delivery to support the 50-60% performance bump, and the rated clock speeds / CUDA core count seems to support this as well, so what does Nvidia CEO, Jensen Huang, mean when he's talking about the 20-series being 10-16x faster than the previous generation? He's referring to what the new Turing architecture of the 20-series chips can do.

TURING

The primary feature of recent Nvidia offerings has focused on their CUDA cores. A Compute Unified Device Architecture Core (or in the case of AMD, Stream Processors), are a means to parallelize the process of drawing the pixels to your screen. This uses hardware to "divide and conquer" the task of drawing each frame. These CUDA cores were optimized for floating point operations (FLOPS) for things like color calculations.

The new Turing chips, unlike the preceding Pascal architecture have some new features that have been borrowed from Nvidia’s last gen professional grade card’s Volta architecture. Without getting too technical, the new Turing chips have additional real estate reserved for new operations in addition to the part reserved for the CUDA cores. Namely, they come with Tensor cores, and a new RT (ray tracing) core.

With DirectX12 and more specifically DXR, ray-tracing is squarely on the horizon. Ray tracing basically performs multi-sampling of reversed bounced lighting information, allowing for accurate reflections, shadows, and secondary lighting. This will potentially make things like baked reflections and global illumination obsolete. Nvidia's inclusion of hardware ray-tracing acceleration is the reason for these new card's RTX moniker, as opposed to GTX. But, more on that later.

The Tensor cores on the other hand are optimized for A * B + C matrix operations, allowing for faster neural net operations.

FOR GAMERS

For gamers, the biggest deal is that the RTX 2070, 2080, and 2080Ti, though not inexpensive, are potentially a great sort of future-proof option. In games utilizing ray tracing, Nvidia claims that the 20-series cards may have 10-16 times the performance of their equivalent 10-series predecessor. Even in cases that don't utilize this new technology, the baseline performance increase still allows gamers to comfortably max out current AAA titles at 4K (CPU and RAM permitting). And judging from previous benchmarks, the 20-series also seems more than up to the task of handily supporting next gen VR platforms and their ever increasing pixel density.

FOR PROFESSIONALS

For professionals, the new 20-series' value is not quite as clear. In a worst case scenario, the hardware acceleration for things like rendering may be no more than 50% better than the previous 10-series equivalent. That would mean that these cards could still be relatively underpowered for video-editing, CAD, and simulations.

But, if Mr. Huang's vague claims are to be believed, these cards may do a whole lot more than that. Firstly, the 20-series is the first set of commercially priced cards to feature Tensor cores. This means that the general population will have the opportunity to do neural AI training at rates up to an order of magnitude faster than before. There's also no telling if software developers may find a way to harness the Tensor cores for additional hardware acceleration in non neural net tasks. Though the metrics are still unclear, he claims that the Tensor core alone are the equivalent of "ten GTX 1080s". Transistor and operation counts aside, real world application performance is still unknown.

FOR INDIES

Indies come in all shapes and sizes, so to clarify, this is for us micro-indies. Any indie studio big enough to have a CG specialist of any type probably isn't reading this anyways. So for the rest of us, here's what I see.

Here's why the new 20-series cards are a big deal.

1) As ray-tracing becomes more of the standard, the complexity involved in making higher quality visuals will only continue to come down. As it is, up-scale graphics on the realistic end of the spectrum require nice models, quality textures, level of detail scaling, PBR shaders, an in-depth understanding of your engine of choice's lighting system, including render-pipelines, rendering paths, global illumination, post-processing, and a half-dozen other details to approach even low level realism.

However, at least for us Unity folks, the new Unity Scriptable Render Pipeline, HDRP template, and RTX should allow us to do all of that with closer to half of the bells and whistles.

2) Neural net AI have begun to make their mark on the gaming world as Elon Musk's OpenAI team have trained their bots to take on pro League of Legends players 1v1 and 5v5 with a high degree of success. Only time will tell if the benefits of having access to Tensor cores will become the standard way we make first pass, or even final pass AI for our games, but now, for the first time, those of us without the benefit of $10,000 - $20,000 computers can try to attempt rigorous training of neural network driven AI on our home computers before we experience the heat-death of the universe.

3) It's good to be aware of trends. Granted, the rate at which people are replacing their computers seem to be slowing down, so it may be that none of this will matter for the majority of the install base for 3 to 6 years, but there's also the chance that current advancements may make current hardware feel underpowered very soon. VR is gearing up for its second swing at hooking the masses; 4K displays, which quadruple the rendering overhead from the 1080p standard, are becoming more and more prevalent; gamer frame rate expectations have recently more than doubled; Intel and AMD are in the middle of a CPU war that has pushed max commercial thread counts from a decade-stagnant 8 to a staggering 64 in the last 12 months. Then there's this.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Personally, I'm very excited for the new 20-series cards. I don't think I'll be picking one up on preorder or anything, but this feels similar to when I picked up my first 3DFX VooDoo graphics card. Sure, for a while, the only thing it did was make Quake look better, but there's no denying the impact that this technology has had on not just games, but engineering physics simulations, computer graphics, new branches of computer science, and cryptography.

Hopefully this clears up what all the hoopla has been all about.  Probably not the Earth-shattering technological revolution that Nvidia would like you to believe, but an interesting and noteworthy step-increase in commercial computing technology.

When Narrative Works in Coop Multiplayer

When Narrative Works in Coop Multiplayer

Photo by Linus Sandvide on Unsplash

 

Coop stories?

Americans spent over $11 billion in box offices in 2017, so why is our patience and investment in short bits of story so much more limited in a coop gameplay space?

Anyone that's played coop videogames with a friend has probably found themselves button mashing to end cutscenes, or played with someone that did.  Despite people's best intentions and love for the title, they've probably blown through Deckard Cain's funeral, Vincent and Leo's bickering, or the narrative setup for your favorite MMO's fetch quest.

Many people are quick to dismiss the quality of the writing, production, and performances in games, but that feels a little unfair.  Sure, you could make the case the Hollywood does it better, but take a look at some of the notable coop titles of 2017, and try that again in light of the $86 million that The Emoji Movie grossed domestically.  Were entire theaters clearing out after the first 15 minutes?

I've heard some people make the case that gamers don't care about stories.  I'm even willing to completely ignore that these "story-indifferent" gamers have never been show to represent any sub-population of the US that watches movies and TV, reads books, or listens to podcasts at any lower frequency then the rest of the population.  Even then, that premise rings a little false when a quick scan of some of the most beloved franchises (exhibit A; exhibit B) feature titles remembered as much for their narrative as their mechanics.

 

So maybe it's multiplayer

After all, human beings are social animals.  Ants and bees, up to canines and primates, eusocial animals band their collective efforts to achieve collective success beyond the grasp of any individual.  And what is coop multiplayer if not the expression of that very same wiring in the form of play?

I know when I play coop multiplayer games with my friends, I slip into a distinct and particular mindset.  That tribal part of my brain pushes me to do better, work harder, think faster, anticipate the actions and needs of my teammates, and instinctively shore up any weakness that I see if I can help it.  It isn't negotiated, or demanded.  It's offered freely with the only expectation that my teammates do the same for us within their own abilities.  And in that flurry of action, functional empathy, and optimization, I know I don't want a story, no matter how good, to interrupt the yomi.

People that have played a team sport know as well as any gamer that there's something about a team that is so consuming and transcendent to our self that we're willing to do things that we wouldn't do otherwise.  That chasm is the reason why you'll sprint up and down the field at practice until your lungs burn, but you can't bring yourself to go on a light jog for fun.  In 7 Days to Die, I've spent several game days mining iron in a rectangular pit, hitting patches of ground for hours in the most mindless way possible, because I knew we needed it, and someone had to get it done.  The weird thing is that it was fun.  

 

It's different for multiplayer, and that's okay

So, is it that playing with others is so engrossing that narrative can't coexist with multiplayer?  I don't think so.

I've clocked 38 hours in The Forest, and I think the story was not only engaging, but central to the experience of the game.  As we fended off packs of cannibals, scrapped together the essentials for survival, and investigated the mystery of the inciting plane crash in terror-filled pitch-black caves, it was the subtle hints, markings on cave walls, clues in the forms of photos, recordings, and passenger mementos that drove us forward.  Each new piece of story had us battle for the next moment of peace so that we could digest what we'd just uncovered.

I suspect that a solution lies somewhere in that experience.  I think it's important to understand that the relationship between the story and the play in games can take many forms, and that relationship should be considered in light of the context it is destined for.

I feel like solitary games are uniquely contemplative and internal in a way that allows games to support a wider range of ludo-mechanical relationships.  Some have mechanics that primarily serve to enhance the narrative.  Others treat narrative as a reward for mechanical play. Yet still others have found ways to use ludo-narrative dissonance as the vehicle of presenting the game's central premise.  And in a play context where the player and the game's interests are aligned in creating meaning for one, it's much more permissive of the full range of these type of relationships, as well as tools, to include voice overs, cutscenes, pre-rendered cinematics, world-pausing overlays, etc.

However, whereas a solitary game allows us to retreat into ourselves, coop multiplayer games demand that we exist outside ourselves.  In this context, the story within the magic circle has to respect multiple people's sense of time, and space, and continuity.  A player may be willing submit themselves to a flashy cutscene, but it goes against the spirit of play to compulsorily conscript others to the same. 

When coop narratives works for me, it manages to be considerate towards what everyone wants.  And if it exists outside of the play, it strives to make itself a welcome guest, and not an obnoxious intruder.  It doesn't try to supplant the player's generated narrative, it augments and informs it.

Top-Down Approach To Interdependence

Top-Down Approach To Interdependence

Original Photo by Olga Guryanova on Unsplash

 

Why Interdependence?

Des and I have officially kicked off the redesign of our game.  The original design suffered from a lack of clarity; we were interested in something new for first time players, multiplayer as an on-boarding technique, a narrative-first experience, and at least a half dozen more aspirational like-to-haves that we Katamari'd over the course of the project's first 9 months. 

Since then, we've established interdependence as one of our design pillars.  I personally feel very attached to interdependence as the framework for our multiplayer experience because that is an aspect of teamwork I personally value.  I can't think of many "cooperative" activities that I've done that has been more rewarding or satisfying than being an officer on a warship.  There, everyone on the team is reliant on each other.  As a command, we were a single unit; each of us integrated into the execution of the mission while at the same time, individuals, having to exercise our own judgement, feelings, and relationships.  So, how might we go about successfully evoking a sense of interdependence between our players?

 

Top-Down Process

Being, if nothing else, a product of my Navy and engineering training, one of my current areas of obsession is process.  In grad school, there was a strong emphasis on bottom-up design, which makes sense.  It is a font of creativity, affording interesting admixtures of ideas, and has the upside of allowing you to have the freedom to follow the fun before you get married to any ideas.  Consequently, that's the process that I'm now most (or near exclusively, tbh) familiar with.  However, for this project, it isn't for us.  We've already got ideas, play contexts, and themes we're wedded to, and so now we find ourselves heading down the "other" path.  And like any process I undertake, I felt like I and it would benefit from examination.

I stumbled across the Practical Creativity GDC talk from 2014 by Raph Koster, author of Theory of Fun for Game Design.  The talk is focused on an approach to thinking about the quantum elements of mechanics, and practical approaches to avoid inadvertently recreating existing designs without meaning to.  About 40 minutes in he says of designing from the top down, "You might start at the experience end.  Think of a cool, interesting, complex thing that you want say from an experience point of view... The risk here is that you drill down into the same mechanics as always.  Odds are that if you do that, you're going to undermine the message because the mechanics that you'll be using probably map to other things in people's minds already.  If you want to be really successful at getting across a point, you want to find mechanics that cleave closely to the same point as your theme."

And here lies the core of our challenge: what mechanics can we use to evoke interdependent cooperation while avoiding undesirable baggage?  We don't have any complete solutions as of yet, but here are a few things that we've discovered.

 

Working Together Is Not Enough

We played A Way Out for nearly an hour before the internet decided we couldn't play together any more.  For those unfamiliar with the game, A Way Out is a split-screen cooperative multiplayer game that follows the story of two inmates turned partners and the adventure of their escape and subsequent run from the law.

The game is heavily reliant on quick-time events (QTEs), with players alternating or sequencing their inputs to advance the plot.  This system is at its best when players are waiting for their prompt to contribute to the action.  It keeps players alert and focused on the game; a big challenge in a multiplayer game where the game has to compete with the other player for the attention of the first.  

I want to point out that there are a number of things that A Way Out does really well, but I didn't feel like we were working together.  When I was sneaking passed guards that Des distracted, it felt like we were playing our part in the game's story, as opposed to fulfilling roles in a team.  When we were taking turns punching and dodging our way through fight sequences, I felt more like I was playing a game alongside someone than with someone.  Though the game did a good job of holding our attention, it did so in a way that made me feel less aware of the co-inhabitant of that magic circle.

Plenty of modern games have used them to good effect, but QTEs are a means of engaging players during scripted experiences by inviting interaction.  What does it say about the nature of our teamwork when, under the hood, the message from the mechanics can be reduced to, "do what you ought when we say so"?  

 

Being Dependent Is Not Enough

Early in our thesis process, we played Spaceteam: a game where players are reliant on their teammates to keep their ship and the team alive.  It's a fast-paced networked mobile game with much shouting, repeating of the thing you just said, and naked unabashed frustration.  I personally thought it was fun, but it was definitely not everybody's cup of tea.

The mechanics of the game are set up such that each player, on their phone sees a prompt for what needs to be done to save the team's ship with an accompanying timer for how long until failure results in the team's death.  However the ability to do said thing only exists on their teammate's phone.  Seemingly, all at once, everyone is trying to simultaneously shout orders while listening for instructions relevant to the actions available for them to perform on their own device.  Each player is strictly reliant on their teammates, and the design made that clear under no uncertain terms.

Though the game had the structure of strict literal dependence, it didn't evoke a satisfying version that I know to be possible.  Our tasks were random, our actions were meaningless, and the proper execution of the gameplay loop only invited another prompt.  Unlike A Way Out, I definitely felt that I was playing with my team, but at best I felt like I was participating, and at worst I felt like I was holding the team back.

Stakes and emotional investment aside, the Spaceteam approach seemed inappropriate for our design goals because the play accentuates only mono-directional aspect of interdependence.  You feel the need to be heard, and the desire for your teammate to do what you need them to do, but you never have the time to consider that you are needed by others.  Maybe it's because your actions are dictated to you as opposed to being something that required a level of participation that would create a sense of ownership of your role.  Also, their needs and desires only serve to hamper you in your ability to communicate your own needs, so any opportunity to feel good about being needed is lost.

 

Lessons Learned (LL)

We haven't settled on our complete mechanics set quite yet, but some things have become pretty clear. 

LL1 - Top-Down Is Slow

Firstly, a top-down approach has the double problem that each mechanic and resulting dynamics cannot simply be good, but must also be appropriate.  Appropriate in its dynamics, in the feelings that it evokes, and in how it relates to the theme.  That may seem obvious, but it was a challenge that I had underappreciated.  On the other hand, it is great exercise in the study of mechanics.  Raph Koster, in the linked video, proposes that, "Mechanics are usually games.  Games are built out of smaller games...  Learning to see things this abstractly is actually an enormous help... What it does is help you build a library [of common, small game mechanics]."  And that's what this exercise has helped me to do: to not only do the work of cataloging multiplayer mechanics, but also to examine them in a way that I might not have otherwise.

LL2 - Look At Dynamics

When examining a mechanic's suitability, it should be examined on all levels.  In our case, because the pillar is relationship-centric, it's about how the mechanics frame the relationship between the players.  Approaching mechanics with a checklist of keywords didn't help.  The way I think about interdependence is that it's cooperative, but the cooperation in an assembly line is not the same as in moving heavy furniture with someone.  Interdependence is a two way road, and it's possible to mechanically accentuate one direction over the other.  That is to say nothing of the combinatorial dynamics from mixing and matching one set of rules with another.

LL3 - No Shame In Going Back To Basics

Given the length of this project, and the number of incarnations and forms this game has taken on, I found myself overwhelmed from trying to juggle all of the ideas that we'd amassed.  The progress that we've made lately has been in no small part due to going back to basics.  None of what I've written feels groundbreaking, but when my heads in the clouds sometimes what I need is to be able to see the obvious to get my feet back on the ground.