*The* List Every Game Designer Must Make

When people find out I am a game designer, the inevitable question will come up: What is your favorite game?

I always pop my eyebrow and ask: What’s your favorite leaf on that tree? Or something similarly snarky that requires them to choose a single item from a huge mass of similar items. It is easy to have a favorite color. There are about 10 basic ones, and you can easily experience them all and they all have a distinct difference from one another. There are over 100 games released every week. And that’s just the ones with publishers! Not to mention all the indie games.

But as a Game Designer, it is my job to play lots of different games and “find the fun.” Once I find the fun I can then figure out why some people find it fun and how to make a game that appeals to those play styles. So I am left with a list of games I love and a list I hate. I am not saying these are the best games ever made (though many of them are considered such by others), but rather these are the games that are ones I look back on and see true genius and a great deal of fun. To simplify matters, I am placing them in order of my discovery.

Kings Quest – To be fair, this should be Kings Quest 2. But it is an excellent series, so lets include them all. My earliest memory is watching my brother play this game on our computer. Late one night I was jolted from my sleep and informed, “I made it through the third door.” I leapt from bed, so go see what was going to happen. My mother, coming home late from work, was quite furious at us for being out of bed. But when my brother quietly stated that he made it through the third door, she joined us at the computer for a bit of late night game completion. Roberta Williams was the designer on this game and I often site her as an influence in my gaming career.

Zork – Zork is a text adventure from the days of green screens and floppy discs. I played Zork endlessly for most of my early years. Not only did it inspire my imagination at an Underground Empire, but I learned a great deal of vocabulary and reading from this game. I actually had an argument with a teacher over xyzzy being a word. I can also recall her shocked face when I called her overly verbose. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.

Myst – Myst is the game everyone loves to hate. I love Myst. It was the first game I ever beat on my own. At this point I thought, I can play games too, not just my brother. I loved it. The environments, the puzzles, the sheer story that exuded from the setting. I also encountered the books and read those. This crossover of books and games was the first step to my fascination with the meta-game.

Legend of Dragoon – LoD was a Final Fantasy like game on the Playstation. I was never into Final Fantasy, so this game filled that void. I saw the potential in timing based gameplay, learned the best way to “kill” a character in an RPG, and learned that bosses who are wildly overpowered feel like cheaters. I have also beaten this game from beginning to end about 6 times. That includes the insanely difficult side bosses.

Suikoden – Suikoden is a turn based RPG with large scale rock paper scissor battles, with a dash of collecting thrown in. You can have a party of 6 various characters and must recruit 107 characters to your cause. An inspired game, with a heart wrenching story, and this game consumed a great deal of my time. Including going back and replaying the entire thing to save those two idiot characters. You know who I am talking about.

Morrowind – Morrowind is the third Elder Scrolls game and is a perfect example of an RPG fantasy world done well. I purchased Morrowind just after getting a new computer. Then proceeded to play it approximately 4-6 hours a day, more on weekends, for the next 6 months. Also I never beat this game. I literally got completely derailed with stealing *everything* that wasn’t nailed down. I do mean everything. I robbed the rich, the poor, the merchants, the monsters… if I could pick it up, it got picked up and re-located to my “house”, which was really just an empty building I could drop stuff in.

Knights of the Old Republic – Not only was KotoR the latest in a series of excellent RPGs from Bioware, but it was also Star Wars. Annoying female characters aside, I enjoyed the world, the Pazzak and dear God, HK-47… The *best* character of all time. But this game truly made this list because of the writing. I actually cried at one point because a bunch of polygons told me he loved me. Absurd I know, but wow, did it make for a good game.

Symphony of the Night – I never played Castlevania until this game. I have played this game enough to possibly make up for it. Alucard was not only beautiful, but the animation was glorious. The different forms and the sheer genius of just flipping the castle! So awesome. I have been told Super Metroid is essentially the same game, but the theme here is so much more compelling.

Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – For years this was the only game I had on the N64. I love all Zelda games, but this one holds a special place in my heart for two reasons. 1. It was the first one I beat on my own. 2. I didn’t have a rumble pack. The lesson learned fromSuikoden about beating a game at 100% was instilled far enough. I wanted to get all 100 skull spiders, but I didn’t have the pack. What I did have was awalkthrough guide borrowed from a friend that showed screenshots for those last two locations. Commence bombing like mad in those areas to find the last two spiders. Note to game designers – random bombing is *not* fun.

Eternal Darkness – Eternal Darkness did so many things well. The game intentionally messed with the player, was scary and creepy, and managed to reuse environments in entirely interesting ways. The sanity meter was an excellent addition and I have to say they got me. If you tried to save when you had low sanity, you had a chance to see a message that said “Deleting all saved games.” Ileapt across a coffee table and started ripping everything out of the front of my GameCube. Well played Silicone Knights, well played. The player took on the role of 8-10 different characters, and rehashed the same 4-5 locations, to great effect. You truly felt like you were a part of a struggle for the ages.

World of Warcraft – How can I write about my best loved games and not mention WoW? If I told you what my /played was, you would likely think me quite insane. WoW takes all the best things from RPGs, character classes, lots of skills, epic fights, mad loot and combines that with achievements, collecting, crafting, and socializing. I find that playing WoW is an awful lot like being in a well known club. I go to the coffee shop and I get extra caramel because the guy making my latte plays WoW. I start a new job and nose out the WoWers and next thing I know we are running dungeons over lunch. Millions of people play WoW, and I am one of those. The truly great thing is it gives me a common experience with people I encounter.

Bioshock – Bioshock should more rightly be called System Shock 3. But it is also the first FPS I have ever enjoyed. The designers worked diligently to allow the player to play the game the way they want to play. I set up traps for Big Daddies and take them out easily.

Valkyria Chronicles – I stop playing WoW for 4 days to take the time to beat this unique and yet completely familiar Strategy game. The art style was glorious and the game play was enjoyable. I especially enjoyed the third person view they used for the combat. It was a wonderful way to add a new look to a strategy game.

Plants vs. Zombies – Tower defense with a hint of whimsy and a dash of hilarity. Popcap is good at making easy games that play great and this one is no exception.

Persona 4 – Mix JRPG, with some Pokemon, and a bit of dating sim and you get Persona 4. Which is a terrible explanation. Just go buy it and play it. It’s a terribly unique game.

Sunflowers are my Friends

Game Designers play games excessively. Always with the small voice in the back of their head trying to quantify the “fun” and identify what is causing it. It is after all, our job to create this, so it helps to seek it out in other examples of our medium. The problem is after a while you get very jaded. More and more you see only the flaws and bugs within a game. You have to work very hard to see the fun. It even becomes easier to watch other people play and see the fun that way as opposed to playing it yourself.

Every once in a while though, a game comes along that is truly stellar. These are the games Designers cling to and play obsessively. They become rabid fans and insanely loyal to the games, the developers, and the mechanics. Just ask someone about the Dreamcast or Skies of Arcadia and watch them suddenly become the most vocal opinionated person you have ever met. Obviously, I feel this way about WoW. I talk about it incessantly and often try to convince people to play it. But even so, WoW is not perfect. I can see the imperfections. There is just so much to the game that I can ignore it.

A game that is perfect though: Plants vs. Zombies. Plants vs. Zombies is a casual game from Popcap, who has already proven with Bejeweled and Zuma, they know how to make addictive casual games. The basic premise of PvZ is that you are in you house and the zombies are coming. You have to plant plants that will fight the zombies. In truth the game play is very simply old school tower defense with the resource being sun and the weapons being plants. But even that simplicity is polished to such a high degree that the game is simply stunning.

Day, night, pool, roof… These are the changes in the terrain that make different plant choices critical. There are always different ways to do the same thing, the true skill coming in knowing how to mix plants that do multiple things for you. Knowing which zombies are weak against what. When is it better to plant versus out right kill a zombie.

The animations are stellar and add to the already adorable art style. The music is quirky and memorable. The art is cute and colorful, making the game feel good in general. The personification and icon-ization of the plants and their damage types is inspired. The player knows what plants and zombies do, because it is clear through the visuals. The hud is simple, and easy to read and use. The objectives are clear and concise. Even the opening levels, completely easy and wonderful for a tutorial.

In addition to all of this, they have a Zen Garden, where you can grow plants and earn money to buy upgrades. I would be lying through my teeth if I didn’t say I come back to the game every day to tend my Zen Garden.

I cannot point to anything in this game that makes it worse. Now a few things could be added to make it better, but the absence is not such that it makes the game worse. I want my Zen Garden to be bigger, even if it is just adding new “pages” that are exactly like the default ones. I want more plants in my Zen Garden. I want the snail on every page. I want *way* more puzzle levels, like five times as many. The endless survival is *awesome* and could be extended with more space to add to the frenetic joy.

I sincerely hope the geniuses behind PvZ are working on a PvZ2. I also strongly recommend this game to everyone, tower defense fan or no.

Hero of Ages

I finished the Mistborn series and as such I am compelled to review the final book. Let me start with *SPOILERS* for this and many other series I have read. (Mistborn, WoT, Harry Potter, Mithgar.)

I must say, the first two books were exceptional. I strongly recommend them for anyone interested in fantasy but bored by the overabundance of the same old thing.

It is difficult to end a series and end it well. Do you end on a positive note? Do you conclude the entire story? Do you leave it a bit open ended? Do you have the final chapter saying “Where are they now?” When J.K. Rowling was finishing book 7 she said in an interview she was tempted to kill Harry. Not because she didn’t love him or felt he needed to die, but because she knew that would *end* the series. Without him, there is no continuing.

To go ahead and spoil it, at the end of Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson proceeds to kill off the MAIN character and her husband, who is essentially the second main character. Now I am a Joss Whedon fan. I am used to losing characters. But the ending seemed… wrong. These were not the first two characters to die. In fact, several other major characters pass in the telling of the story. But all of them “felt right” meaning that when the character died you were left with a sense of resolution and completion. You missed the character, but you could see how the death was required to make other characters stronger and progress the story. Much like Dumbledore must die, otherwise Harry will never strike out on his own and become the man and wizard required to defeat Voldemort.

So why did the ending of Hero of Ages leave me bereft? Well to begin with, I read fantasy, as opposed to Non-fiction, for enjoyment and the happy endings. I like when good conquers evil and all the good guys go home, get married and have babies. It just feels nice. It is, after all, the fantasy of any hero. Kill the dragon, save the princess. But even this isn’t 100%. When I read Voyage of the Fox Rider, I was distraught at the end of the book. Aylis was dead. Or presumed dead. But then, I understood. I knew there was a slim chance, but even if she had died it was necessary for Aravan to move forward. (Fortunately, she did not die and they were reunited 8 books or 8000 years later, depending on how you look at it. Which let me tell you, was a very emotional time for me.)

Near the end, Vin, the focus of the story, is imbued with the power of Preservation, one of the two gods in the story. (Up until this point the book is beyond excellent.) She becomes a god. At this point I immediately thought, well crap. Unless she could make Elend (her husband) a god, she was already irreparably separated from him. Then it occurred to me. No! She has to give up the power! I mean, after all, this is the crux of the story. Ruin was trapped and needed to be freed. He changed the legends to say she needed to give away the power. But what if Ruin didn’t change it much? What if instead it meant she had to give the power over to a person who could use it properly? But of course! That is it. Knowing that knowledge of religion and belief was a major theme of the book, this made sense to me. She would give the power to the one character who truly understood religion, natural and otherwise, and had all of the knowledge needed to make everything right within the world, Sazed. Ah ha! and so I kept reading.

But then the unthinkable happens. Elend is beheaded. In a short, one sentence clip, this character, so vital and central, dies. With nary a whisper. Of course, I expect Vin to go revenge mode. She doesn’t. And in fact states something to the effect of “Well you just got rid of the only thing I had to fight for.” and proceeds to suicide against the strength of Ruin, killing him as well as herself. I can honestly say I stared dumbfounded at the book for at least 5 minutes. The essences of Ruin and Preservation float down, Sazed takes over, and makes everything right, using both powers. Of course the book ends with the implication that Vin and Elend have gone on, and are happy in the after life, but all that remains are a ton of minor characters.

First, if you plan on killing the main character, you had better have a backup ready and loved. In Harry Potter, Rowling had Ron and Hermoine. If Harry had died, we would all look to those two and feel better. At least they made it. Sanderson had no such backup. Who cares if the world was saved if all the characters we truly cared about are dead? Even having Vin die, with Elend you would have had someone to hang on to.

In the end, I am left with a sense of loss, failure, and the question of why. Why were these two deaths necessary to the story. I can only answer that they weren’t. Vin could have given up the power of Preservation to Sazed and become normal once again. Ruin was *still* thwarted by Elend and the Allomancers burning all of the Atium. Sazed still had the power and knowledge to restore the world and it’s ecosystem. He didn’t *need* Ruin to do that. What of Ruin? Well, considering the Atium crystals were destroyed and all the Atium burned… He is going to have to wait a few thousand years to regain the power to destroy the world. Plenty of time for Sazed to build power or to figure out a way to balance against Ruin once again. Essentially return to the status quo. But instead Sanderson takes the easy way out. It is a final win, but at that point you don’t care. It would have been better to allow for the short term win, with the survival of the characters you know and love, with the knowledge that in a thousand years, another battle will be fought.

The only thing I can conclude is that he wanted the story to be done with. No hope of returning or falling back on the series. We have all seen the fantasy author who writes one or two good books then proceeds to write way past the point the story can sustain. But is that a good reason to slaughter your main characters? I say no. Even with the short term win, we know all those characters will die of old age. We know that when the battle is fought in the future, that will be with different people. And even so, with one minor change, don’t allow the Atium crystals to regrow, you can prevent that to begin with! To this possible explanation I say, get some self control and be done with it!

Now I am wildly concerned about the end of Wheel of Time. Please, please please let RJ have written a list of who survives, who dies, and why. Otherwise we may see the mass slaughter of dozens of characters we love.

Bejeweled Blitz on facebook

So today I received an interesting message asking if I had hacked Bejeweled Blitz. I generally have the highest score for the week of my friends and apparently it has gotten annoying for at least one of them.

First, let me say, I would never hack a multi-player game to give myself an unfair advantage over other players. Boo to anyone who does. This is why I would never buy gold in WoW unless it was offered by Blizzard and *everyone* could get it. I like the playing field to be level.

Now this brings up the question, well if you didn’t hack it, how is it that you have *such* high scores *all* the time. So here is my guide to winning Bejeweled Blitz.

1. Play all the time. I have BB on my iPhone. Sitting on the ferry. Waiting at the ferry building. In line. Anywhere I am waiting, I can play a run or two while waiting. For those who play on a computer, this is *probably* a good reason for *why* you have lower scores. 50% of doing well in BB is simply getting a good set up. The more games you play, the more likely you are to get a good setup.

2. Know when to concede the fight. If your current high score is 100k, then any match you play where you are going to get under 100k is a wash (unless you are still training at spotting the matches). I usually watch and if I am below 25k at 30 seconds, I go ahead and restart the match. After a few days, I will restart if I don’t have a 3x (or greater) multiplier and 50k+ at the 30 sec point. This allows you to squeeze in more games and thus have a better chance of getting the really good setup.

3. Multipliers are everything. You will see the gems show up with a number on them. These, once matched, go to the upper right corner and multiply the bonus for groupings. So instead of getting 500 for matching 3 gems, you get 1000, and so on. Also, blowing up a multiplier with a power gem counts for adding it to your side.

4. Well then, how do I get multipliers?!? The multipliers appear based on the number of gems cleared from the screen in the last few seconds (I think it is somewhere between 10-12 in a single cascade). The best way to get them to appear is to cascade or get a power gem to blow. Cascading is when you make a match and as the gems fall they make other matches. Power Gems are formed when you match 4 gems and it gives you a firey gem. When you match the firey gem, it blows up itself and all the gems touching it. If you form a corner (so 5 gems that form an angle) you get a super power gem (it glows) that when match will blow all the gems in the same row and column as the super power gem. These are far and away your BEST asset for getting a high score.

5. Hypercubes, not as awesome as you think. All of my highest scores are rarely if ever gotten with hyper cubes. Hyper cubes are gotten by forming 5 in a row, then you swap it with a single gem and it blows up all the gems of that color on the board. Sounds awesome right? The thing is, those gems that get blown up *don’t* appear to count for the multipliers showing up. And unless you cascade (which I usually don’t too much) now you have a weird board with not alot of clusters. Hyper cubes are best left alone and then blown when you have multipliers of the same color on the board. For example you have 2-3 multipliers that are all green. There is a green gem next to the hyper cube. Blow green and get those multipliers.

6. Basic matching. You can’t beat just clearing gems. If you don’t see at least 2 matches on your immediate screen and you are just starting, restart. If you spend more than 5 sec looking for a match (so your hint pops) restart. If you are matching like mad and aren’t getting any cascades, restart. I always get this feeling like I am working too hard to match, and usually my score is in the 10-20k range and I am 30 seconds down. This is why I say if you are so far along and your score is so low, restart. Also you have to train your eyes a bit to look for the “odd” matches like when you have two gems on either side of a different one, but a matching gem above or below the center mismatched one.

7. Horizontal is better than vertical. Not sure why, I am sure some mathy person can explain it. But regardless, horizontal matches yield more cascades than vertical ones. So if you can match something horizontally or vertically, go for the horizontal.

8. Play from the bottom up. If you play at the bottom, the gems move more. More cascades, more points!

9. Don’t focus on that one setup. I watch other people play and I see them trying to wrangle the gems to set up a hyper cube. Don’t do it. You can’t control the gems. You will waste more time. You only have a minute. Focus on making alot of small matches quickly. And as it turns out, 4 matches or angled 5 matches are *better* than the hyper cube.

10. Play fast. Match as quickly as possible. This includes the fact you can start matching as soon as the gems appear BEFORE the game begins, gaining you 3 precious seconds. Also if you hit the blazing fast event (where the whole screen turns red) all your matches explode for massive cascades and points. Also you can make matches on other sides of the screen while your last match is clearing and cascading.

11. Tailor your gameplay to match your focus. Paying too much attention to the score and timer? Ignore it then. Noise bothering you? Turn the sound off. But as you get better try to add in attention to things, like looking over the whole screen to see several matches. I can pay attention to my score and time without losing focus on matches, and that is a valuable skill in all games.

There are likely more hints and tricks, but these are the ones I use. How did I figure all these out? Well I played the game a great deal. And I tend to look for the rules and goals of a game more critically due to being a Game Designer. It is just second nature. I notice trends and percentages. I think about how they code the game.

So now you know. I expect to see some competition. 🙂

Pewter Drag

After two months of crunching on my current game project we were given two lovely weeks off at Christmas. Interestingly enough after spending so much time so intently focused on one thing it makes it exceptionally hard to focus on nothing. During this odd strange feeling like I should be doing *something* I picked up my copy of Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson’s first novel in the Mistborn series. I purchased it over a year ago when I first heard he was going to be working on Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I read Elantris, and was pleased, so I put the other books on my shelf and carried on as normal.

Sitting down to read Mistborn, I slogged through the first few chapters, once again annoyed by the belief that some authors have come to that they should simply immerse their reader in the world they have created and let them figure out what is going on by themselves. And while this *can* work, it doesn’t always. Unfortunately I felt this way about many of the new ideas introduced in Mistborn. Fortunately, I tend to be stubborn and persisted. I kept reading.

And kept reading.

Next thing I knew, I had reached the end of the book. At the dim area just before dawn. I had read the entire book in nearly one sitting. Something I rarely do anymore. I got up, put Mistborn back on the shelf and pulled The Well of Ascension off the shelf. I double checked the covers to make sure that it was in fact the second book. The second and third books seemed oddly named to me. Once again, I felt a compulsion to keep reading.

Within a day I had finished the second book. 1400+ pages in less than 2 days. I felt odd. Strangely empty, and without thought. I had returned to the same feeling I had after working for 9 days straight.

In the book, there are characters who can do magic. They are called Allomancers and their magic springs from the ability to “burn” metals within themselves. One such metal is Pewter. An Allomancer swallows pewter and then “burns” it, and it gives them strength, health, and speed. As they use the strength, health, and speed, it burns away the pewter and when they run out, they can no longer magically enhance themselves. At one point in the story two Allomancers must travel a long distance very quickly, so they “pewter drag” which is essentially burning this metal at a high rate for a long period of time. Imagine it is a great deal like sprinting, only for hours using an outside force to keep you awake and moving. When the characters arrive at their destination, they have to keep taking the pewter, otherwise they would fall unconscious from the stress they had just inflicted on their bodies.

As I sat, debating on getting the third book down, I pondered the world, the magical system, and the writing. I pondered, as always, what I would do if able to use this magic. What risks would I likely fall to. Of course, Pewter Drag came to mind. I was sitting on my couch, exhausted, but I wanted to keep going, just like the characters. At work, I had become used to the long hours, but wanted more sleep. Pewter Drag. In fact, if you consider the effects of caffeine and the quantities to which I am addicted to it, I find this metal magic system completely believable. And the repercussions believable.

As I begin the third book, I look forward to seeing how the series ends. But I also feel an odd sense of kinship to the characters as I feel a greater connection to them. We have both after all experienced Pewter Drag.