Asking questions at PRACTICE

Last weekend, three of the Brooklyn Game Ensemble (Eric, Josh, and Naomi) were at PRACTICE, an incredible conference on game design orchestrated by the NYU Game Center, where Eric teaches and helps coordinate the program. PRACTICE was an unparalleled opportunity to have great conversations about game design and hear about the techniques and challenges that designers are working with all over the industry (and beyond!) Our Ensemble might be a little biased since we know a lot of the people who helped make it happen, but I can honestly say that it sparked my thinking on at least half a dozen deep topics, and it was the most worthwhile symposium of ideas that I’ve been to in years.

Besides all of the amazing information and concepts flying around the space, we also got to show some of our work on LIBRARY in public for the very first time. One of the most popular sessions at PRACTICE involved a series of designers getting up to present their work along with a problem they’d encountered in the design. The rest of the assembled designers shouted out potential solutions and suggestions in an free-flowing exchange of ideas. We kicked off the session by showing the procedural generation of the play environment that we’re experimenting with in the current LIBRARY prototype. The image above shows an overhead view of a space made out of hundreds of tiny blocks, shaped into circular “rooms.” Kris coded this procedural generation technique based on aesthetic ideas that Nathalie provided for the space.

This process started with a whiteboard drawing we created collaboratively while imagining what a journey through LIBRARY might look like. We envisioned circular rooms with interstitial spaces that could be explored through excavation or the happenstance of “walls” with varying thickness. Each member of our team brings something different to the group: Nathalie’s vision of an architected space quite different that what we’re used to seeing in digital games; Kris’s love for algorithmically generated worlds; and my own thoughts about what kind of game experience we wanted to craft. The rest of us were quite impressed when Kris produced some code, just a few days of work later, which could replicate the kind of sketches we’d done on the whiteboard in a digital environment, producing a different set of circular rooms each time.

As we explored these ideas I started to feel a little nervous about carving out a “good game experience” from terrain generated by math and abstract design. We had been taking some inspiration from roguelike games, which offer an ever-changing layout of rooms and corridors to explore, but we wanted to go further in exploring the possibilities of space, away from the tried-and-true “dungeon crawl” of tight mazes and chambers full of goblins and chests. At the same time, I was all too aware that roguelike games are often punishing to new players due to their sheer unpredictability — you never know whether you’re going to start a game to find significant advantages early on, or a meager set of improvements for your starting condition which will mean a much more risky and difficult game (probably ending in an early GAME OVER). Even some modern-day hits in the gaming community, from the wildly popular Minecraft to polished, bite-sized gems like Desktop Dungeons, sometimes leave players stranded in un-winnable or overwhelmingly difficult situations early on in the game. Would our approach buy us the endlessly varied experiences of a procedural world at the cost of a broader appeal to players who might not want to face certain doom at the vagaries of a random system?

Determined to have our cake and eat it too, we posed the question to the assembled group of top-notch designers at PRACTICE, capped by this tongue-in-cheek diagram:

The responses were great, ranging from a suggestion for a very complex set of heuristics to manage the player’s experience without diminishing the potential complexity to a suggestion that we get to know the nooks and crannies of our emerging (and as of yet, mostly un-constructed) system to find the key factors of difficulty and replayability. The strongest consensus, however, was around the idea that games don’t need to be managed, orchestrated experiences, especially if the experience is short enough to feel replayable and lenient enough that losing doesn’t feel like a grievous blow. Klondike solitaire, for instance, ends in an unwinnable situation most of the time, simply due to the random ordering of the cards, but it’s still accepted by all kinds of players as a quick, engaging experience. Procedural content, whether arising from a shuffled deck or a dense algorithm, can lend a wild, exciting quality to a game, something that Magic: the Gathering designer Skaff Elias had reminded us all to strive for earlier in the conference when he averred that game design was “not dressage, but rodeo.” The unpredictable bucking of a stallion — or a system of rules — isn’t a problem to be controlled, but part of the entertainment: a force that has to be reckoned with and handled enough that it doesn’t fling you off, but isn’t tamed into submission.

Ultimately, our question was probably a little premature — we haven’t quite reached a first prototype that includes every essential ingredient, and onc we do we’ll be taking a hard look at all of our assumptions to date. We got a little ahead of ourselves in thinking about how to fine-tune the player experience for newcomers to procedural content as well as seasoned veterans — but it’s the kind of thought exercise that game designers live for!

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