I’ve been playing a fair number of board games lately. It’s interesting because the design of those games I feel are a whole different world compared to modern video game designs. In a way, I feel board games are a ‘purer’ game design in some aspects. You’re not tied down in presentation, cut-scenes, and other spectacle, and all you have to work with is a few widgets and a compelling rule set. If that rule set is boring, your players will never play again. Meanwhile, I feel I’ve played video games that hang purely on presentation, cut-scenes and spectacle in order to keep the player going. Arguments for whether this is a good or bad thing can wait for a later post.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of board games are multiplayer, so it might be seen as a bit easier to come up with really interesting rule sets because of the human element. In a single player game, where your AI is extremely limited, trying to force ‘interesting choices’ is a bit more of a dark art, but not unheard of (see Pandemic, Arkham Horror, etc). A lot of modern video games seem to have this arbitrary requirement that they must work with a single player, and as a result it seems the design tends to limit itself to what is possible in that context. Granted, this is the reality of the known market, so single player demand won’t go away. Although deep down I feel the multiplayer/social market is far wider, deeper, and more diverse than what we’re currently aiming for. The sorry excuse for games people tend to call ‘social games’ I think is only scratching the surface of what’s possible in the digital realm. Also I think the idea of having to segment out a whole area of games as ‘social games’ is amusing in my mind considering that I can’t remember a time when games weren’t social. The sad part is it’s starting to get a negative connotation, but I digress.

One interesting thing that has come to mind as of late is how board game design is becoming informed by player sensibilities. Video game developers and designers struggle for weeks and months trying to perfect the UI, tutorial, and imagery to make it easier for the player to manipulate the game and rule set. They do this in hopes that they’ll grab a larger audience, bring in new people to the fold, etc. This all works to an extent, and is sometimes all that is needed to bring a game from ‘obscurity’ to mainstream acceptance.

Yet, sometimes the rule sets themselves don’t allow for certain players to play and enjoy the game no matter how approachable the graphics are, how intuitive the UI is, or how easy to follow the tutorial is. It sounds so obvious when spoken, but I was never conscious of it while playing video games (multiplayer or single player). But when I started playing more board games I noticed how the social dynamics and temperaments of people deeply influenced the overall enjoyment of the game for the group.

The more popular games in my circle have been cooperative games or team games. Games that allowed players to work together tended to be the favorites, even among the ‘gamer’ friends. Some games have mechanics that allow the momentum of a game to swing favorably to one player and unfavorably to another. Sometimes the outcome is even unclear to both players involved, but the intent was always seen as a ‘mean’ thing. For example, having a player pluck a card from another player’s hand at random was hardly ever a happy moment for both. Other mechanics where players draw ‘action’ cards that do unfavorable things to the group or a particular player (what I like to usually call ‘bullshit’ cards) tended to be met with general hostility. If you take the analogous of this in video games you see this kind of design come up all the time. A player hits a power up and another player is arbitrarily punished (ie blue shell in mario kart), another player ‘unlocks’ an ability that leads them onto a slippery slope of dominance against sometimes an entire opposing team (see kill-streak awards in Call of Duty).

Now, is this a good or bad thing? In certain groups the competitiveness and ‘bully-mechanics’ can be seen as fun and hilarious at times, but I’ve heard comments from a few that don’t like the idea of “pillaging a player’s deck of cards” if that target player is their 6 year old son, or wife :). Given that the husband/wife and family demographic is a huge one, it seems there is a ripe opportunity there to take the lessons learned from  board game designers about player interactions and sensibilities and apply that to our own video games.

That’s probably the most non-sensical post title I’ve every come up with. Anyway, just wanted to  do a quick update post on Outwitters. I’ve got a few longer-form entries in the works but I’m letting them cook a little bit before posting. There’s a lot of moving parts right now in trying to get this game looking presentable, and all at different stages of completion. Over the next couple of weeks I’m focusing on getting this thing ‘feature complete’ so we can start iterating on the stuff we want to touch up on.

I just recently did an overhaul of our replay system. Before, you could only watch the previous round (1 turn for 1v1 or 3 turns for 2v2), and it required you to press replay to see it. The benefits:

  • Smaller data footprint
  • Simplified replay UI. The replay was short enough that there didn’t need to be anything beyond ‘play replay’.
  • Quicker access to the games. You either watched the replay if you truly cared about the game or if the game was still in the early stages you just played your turn and moved on

So those were nice things to have. But then we started having a lot of conversations between players and us that they wanted to see more info on how the game played out, and there was a desire from several that wanted the replay to automatically play when you loaded the game so you could regain the context of where you were in that particular game. I think it came down to personal preference as to whether a player wanted opt-in or opt-out replays, but we sided on the more ‘invested’ players who always wanted to know what’s up with their current game. We even noticed some players didn’t realize there was a replay function until we actually told them. In the end, defaulting to having the replays auto-load seemed like a nice compromise to allow the hardcore to keep tabs of the game and for new players to become familar with the functionality.

On the topic of data footprint size, I wasn’t concerned that much because our game state data is tiny to begin with, so that was kind of a weak plus. So expanding to ‘full game’ replays wasn’t a big data size hurdle. Now, with the UI that became a much more complicated affair, both technically and design-wise. We were moving from a simple, single button to a full-fledged UI with a tool bar and other data to display. I hated the feeling of that. But I think we were able to keep it looking simple enough (despite the crazy technical details in the background to keep it all running smoothly), so I was happy with how it worked in the end:


 

It’s always amazing to me how an outcome can look so simple but the details are so complex behind the scenes. If this was a single player game, then changing data format is not a significant matter. But given how online-centric Outwitters is, changing replay formats has huge implications to the game’s protocol with our servers. So adding this ‘full game replay’ functionality affected client side gameplay code, UI code, and backend server code. Phew.