Last week I wrote

“The next test is to consider whether it would be sufficient to just have a 3 point scale in which each champion either has a bonus, a penalty or neither (or both). I suspect here many more outcomes will change as hard to acquire bonuses that are presently coded as +4ish (or “bonus bonus”) in the retest will be weakened to match easy to acquire bonuses – but it is best to carry out the test anyway rather than assume.

So I carried out that test and the results were surprising in a way that lead me to change the game for the next month of playtesting. The exact details are interesting to me, but not what this post is going to be about – the part of this process that I think is interesting is that I’m not sure I’d have run the second test at all if I didn’t mention to you that I was going to.

Game design is very often about doing a lot of work. Anything that helps in terms of motivation to do that work or impetus to get something done “now” instead of “eventually” forms an indirect part of the designers toolkit. I was sufficiently confident about the outcome of the test that I almost didn’t do it and just assumed the result, which would have knocked on to a fairly dramatic change in direction for the game this week. Writing about it here was part of what nudged us onto an alternate timeline.

Thinking on it I reckon that the important part of this is accountability. I am accountable to a network of people and institutions in my life and these shape the way that I work on games.

I’m accountable to myself. I know what I want to get done and what I achieve, I notice if there’s a discrepancy and it affects how I feel about myself and thus my quality of life. I also have standards for the quality of game I’d like to produce and take pride in some while feeling shamed by others – not everything I’ve made has met these standards. On the flip side I’m also fairly invested in myself outside of the context of game design so don’t feel any great impetus to prioritise game design over other important life goals.

I’m accountable to 3DTotal. They pay the bills and keep the lights on. Beyond that there are debts involved – when my spine failed and I was stuck in bed for 7 months they kept paying me as if I was showing up for work. The boss says we look after people here. Beyond that there’s a moral dimension from the nature of the company, I’m not meant to advertise on it but 3DT gives what I’d describe as an absurd portion of their profits over to charities which I approve of. Heck everyone who works here gets to choose some of them. Sometimes you work for a company for a paycheck, sometimes you genuinely want it to succeed, this is the latter. Of course 3DT is still a business and it can’t do any of the things that it does if it doesn’t turn a profit. Some of the times I’ve failed in what I’d call accountability to myself were because I was meeting an obligation to 3DT and business and art were in conflict.

I’m accountable to players. I design games because I want to bring people joy, whether that actually happens makes a big difference. When people tell me they’re excited to play something, then I’m excited to work on it and make sure it suits them. I’ve read every user review for every game I’ve designed, cried over some of them, experienced deep satisfaction from others. Some I reread from time to time to remember to avoid pitfalls that’ve brought trouble in the past or to build on strengths. On the flip side some people in the world are genuinely awful and criticism is abrasive rather than helpful. Some days players make me want to stop designing games, but fortunately those days are rare.

I’m accountable to you. Through this design blog. I know people read it because I see the little likes or chat with people about ideas in the comments. If I say I’m going to do something here I like to make sure it’s done – the thing that predicated this post! The downside is that I get excited writing about ideas and can commit carelessly, which would lead to me squandering time better spent elsewhere.

I’m accountable to a wide network beyond that, some of which are invested in my success as a game designer, some of which really could not care less. I’ve friends and family and girlfriends and colleagues and a whole ‘nother job I need to do things for – they all have an impact positive or negative.

I guess the point of this post is that this network exists almost entirely by accident. Almost none of these commitments were taken from a point of view of “If I adopt this thing it’ll make me a better designer” though some are doing it by happy accident.

So my advice for this week is not to let it be an accident. Start a blog, get some people reading it and use it to make commitments you’ll be proud to have kept. Or whatever other approach works for you 🙂

Modifier Precision

In games it’s not unusual to have to compare two values and to modify these based on bonuses or penalties that players have accrued throughout their actions. There are good reasons for this: It allows a designer to make a broad range of player actions meaningful, while still paring the result down to a single important outcome – whether a battle is won or lost, who gets the item, does this hero live or die. These combine creating drama with making previous meaningful decisions have a coherent reward.

When implementing modifiers in a situation like this there is an important design decision to make: How fine grained should the modifiers be.

Because of how numbers work, there are an infinite number of modifiers that can be applied to any test. Even if players have a level of 0 or 1 and will never be outside of the 0-1 range a bonus could be +0.5 or +0.05 or +0.005 … you get the idea.

You should see the strengths and weaknesses of a fine grained system right away. In a system that is too fine grained the modifiers add unnecessary complexity. It’s slower to do “10 + 5.65 + 3.21 + 4.5” than “10 + 6 + 3 + 5” You’d also have more trouble tracking the game state, requiring a better memory or fiddler counters.

On the other hand a system that paints in broad strokes is unable to encapsulate things that should have a different level of impact. At its most extreme you might have a system that only allows a +1 modifier, no other value is possible. Imagine you have spent the whole game working on your city, collecting resources and trading them to develop new technologies and defences. Your laser walled sci-fi super-city gets a +1 to defence. Meanwhile your opponent decided that he’d give one of his be besieging pikemen a shiny rock. that gives him +1 attack. The battle is even despite your greater investment, both mechanically and thematically, in winning this sort of conflict.

As a designer it is usually very easy to detect when you do not have a high enough degree of precision. Playtesters are usually very quick to point out when something is unsatisfying, either because it gave them too little or gave their opponent too much.

It is harder to know where a lower degree would be useful. The only real way to find out is to trial a system with less nuance and see how it goes.

I tried this earlier today with Genesis. The current build of the game allows champions to get modifiers to their power, ranging from about -6 to +6 (Though some are in the form of “1 per character that died” and can theoretically hit higher levels).

Players are expressing difficulty in keeping track of what bonuses and penalties apply to a champion. According to their feedback forms some have proxied additional components to keep track of transient bonuses and penalties. There are suggestions that the game might embrace this, but I wonder if we could go one better and make it easy to remember, or at least easy to track with the components available.

My test is this:
Any modifier providing +1 or +2 now provides “bonus”
Any modifier providing +3 or higher now provides “bonus bonus”
Similarly negative modifiers provide “penalty” or “penalty penalty”
When a character gets a bonus they’re rotated 45 degrees right (unless already at 90 degrees)
When a character gets a penalty they’re rotated 45 degrees left (unless already at 90 degrees)
At any given moment a card can be in one of five states: Upright, one bonus, one penalty, two bonuses, two penalties.
These are assigned values of -5, -2, 0, +2 and +5
The question is “Does playing the game this way, with all modifiers reduced to bonuses or penalties on a five point scale, produce different results to playing under the current rules?”

Obviously I started playing with myself at once. After 3 games of 9 turns each the bonus/penalty system produced a different result on only 1 turn. The totals were very often slightly different, but in terms of game outcomes this often changed the margin of victory without changing the victor. It was rare for a character to miss out on a bonus or penalty because they’d already had two and when it occurred it tended not to change the outcome. Ultimately a hard to track 13 point scale is providing almost no additional nuance over an easier to track 5 point scale.

The next test is to consider whether it would be sufficient to just have a 3 point scale in which each champion either has a bonus, a penalty or neither (or both). I suspect here many more outcomes will change as hard to acquire bonuses that are presently coded as +4ish (or “bonus bonus”) in the retest will be weakened to match easy to acquire bonuses – but it is best to carry out the test anyway rather than assume.

After that the next step will be finding a sensible way to codify and explain the alternative rule. I think I’ve made a bit of a meal of it in this post, there’s probably a much simpler way to put it.

I hope that gives a good idea of why it’s meaningful to talk about how much precision modifiers have and shows a useful technique for determining if you should change yours in practice. Let me know in the comments if you think there are any games that are good examples of getting precision very precisely right or hilariously wrong.