Probably Dance

I can program and like games

Category: Games

What Happened to the Real Time Strategy Genre

I replayed Warcraft III recently and was looking for other games I could play in the same genre. Turns out that outside of StarCraft 2, there are no recent games that are anywhere near as good. What happened?

This blog post was actually prompted by me watching a recommended video on Youtube about exactly this question, and the video gets it totally wrong:

The video really doesn’t answer the question, so lets look at what’s actually happening. Starting with whether strategy games somehow became less popular. The answer: Not really.

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Treasure Hunting Systems Found in the History of Video Games

A treasure hunting system is a system that unexpectedly puts out really good stuff. Proper treasure that makes people an enormous amount of money. An example is the Warcraft III modding community which invented several new genres of games and sprouted DotA, whose clones and offspring made their creators rich. (I don’t know how much money exactly, but Riot Games got acquired for $400 million, and their only product is a DotA-clone)

This has happened several times in the history of video games, but I didn’t link these together until I recently saw a talk about the Czechoslovakian game developer community before the iron curtain fell. The presenter talked about how the small country of Czechoslovakia had a thriving video game community despite the fact that you couldn’t buy computers in Czechoslovakia. But when I saw the talk I couldn’t help but think that “this reminds me of the Warcraft 3 modding community,” so I figured I should write up what these and other historical examples have in common so that we can build more systems that generate treasures.

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Games Are About Personal Development

Here’s an angle on the fundamental reason for why we play games: They are about personal development, learning about ourselves and about the world. This may not be a new angle, but I haven’t heard it stated this explicitly. Instead I have heard people say stupid things like “games teach hand-eye-coordination” which is true, but also bullshit because why would you spend this much time training your hand-eye-coordination? No I claim that games teach import life lessons, and that that is the fundamental reason why we play games.

I’m going to talk about video games, but this is also about games in general. Why do kids play with dolls? Because they want to learn about family life. (or about conflicts when playing with action figures) This is not explicit learning like we learn from a teacher, but you act out situations and adjust your behavior depending on how your play partner reacts. Why do we send our kids to football practice? Not because we think that they need to learn the valuable skill of kicking a ball into a net. No it’s because we want them to learn about working in teams and about pacing themselves and about playing fair and all that.

The things we learn are obvious in those scenarios. It’s well known that it’s important for kids to play in order to figure out how to act in the world in a safe environment. But I claim that the same thing is true for video games, and my example will be Super Mario World.

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Evidence For How To Make Great Games

Earlier this year I gave a talk about the Game Outcomes Project. I called that talk “Evidence For How To Make Great Games” because I think the Game Outcomes Project is the best data we have for what teams do that make great games. I wasn’t involved in the Game Outcomes Project, I just gave a talk about it because I really like it. Also I wanted to focus on different things than what they focused on in their own write-ups and talks.

People who saw the talk said that they really liked it, and they keep on telling me how much they liked it. So I decided to record the talk again and upload it.

The pitch for the talk is that the results of the Game Outcomes Project is the best evidence we have for what makes great game development teams and what makes bad game development teams. And I think that every game developer should know this stuff. So I talk about what you should focus on when making a game, and I give advice for how to get there. So the game outcomes project found “really successful teams do X” and I present that, and then also have a section at the end of the talk where I say “here is how you can actually get good at doing X.” Here is the talk:

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Lessons Learned from Shenzhen I/O

Shenzhen I/O is a brilliant game. In case you haven’t heard of it, it’s a game about programming micro-controllers. It distills programming down to the fun parts, removing the inertia, self-inflicted complexity, overhead, uncertainty and drag of real programming. It’s just about coming up with clever tiny algorithms and micro-optimizing the heck out of them. It’s great alone, but it’s even better if you have a friend that’s playing at the same time. Competing on the leaderboards for puzzles is enormous fun. From playing that game, here are a couple lessons:

1. There is no optimal code. There is only code that’s faster than the code that you’re comparing to

Shenzhen I/O shows you a histogram of all the scores that other people have reached. If my solution would fall on the right of the bell curve, I would optimize it until I was on the left. After a lot of work I would usually arrive at an “optimal” solution that puts me in the best bracket on the histogram. Those solutions were always far from optimal.

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The Best Game Stories Are Told in the Past Tense

I just finished playing Analogue: A Hate Story, and it is a great game. While playing it I noticed a few patterns of game stories that I can’t find collected anywhere, so I’ll do that here then.

The main one is that the best game stories are told in the past tense. Meaning most or all of the story has taken place before the player starts playing. Bioshock does this, Portal does it, Gone Home, To the Moon and Analogue also do it. It’s easy to come up with counter examples that also have a good story (just look at Christine Love’s previous game: don’t take it personally babe, it just ain’t your story) but it’s interesting that this pattern should prove so successful in an interactive medium.

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Job hunting in the Games Industry

I’m finishing my Master’s degree and applying to companies to work for. I had few pieces of data to know how difficult the job hunt would be: 1. Most of last year’s Master’s students didn’t get the job they wanted. 2. I know a lot of artists that graduated from DigiPen that ended up being unemployed, or who do game testing.

So I played it safe and applied to every company that I could see myself working at. Which wasn’t an incredibly long list, but it turned out that it was more than I should have applied to. Because every single company that I started talking to turned from “I could see myself working there” to “I would love to work there.”

And it surprised me that that happened so repeatedly. Maybe it shouldn’t have, because this is after all the industry that I wanted to work in. But it seems like a lot of people these days have figured out how to run a good studio and there is an impressive amount of likable personalities. And now my biggest problem is that I have to turn down companies that I would like to work at, because I have to make a decision…

But yeah, I just wanted to post something short expressing my delight at learning that this is not just a pretty cool industry in my imagination, but actually.

It’s not a generational thing

I’ve often heard that for games to be properly accepted, we just have to wait a couple of years until those people who haven’t grown up with games are no longer in positions of power and then we’ll be fine.

I no longer believe that. I think that a large part of the current generation of young adults actually has a pretty bad opinion of games.

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About Playtesting

So I’ve been thinking a lot about playtesting recently. Mainly triggered by Portal 2, my experience in making the game Leshy over the last semester, and also by lots of other stuff likeĀ this talk by Jonathan Blow.

I was showing the finished version of Leshy to our composer, Tyler and I was watching him play the game. He eventually got to an area where he got stuck. And I knew exactly that the reason why he was stuck was, that he had gotten to this area too early and that he didn’t yet know about a game mechanic that another area would have instructed him about.
If you have ever done a playtest, you know that this is a horrible situation. In playtesting you are not supposed to intervene. You don’t give hints, you just watch the player play and see if he figures it out or not. So I was sitting there watching this guy trying various different things, all of which were destined to fail. It was extremely frustrating to watch this. I knew that he couldn’t succeed because the game hadn’t instructed him yet, but yet he kept on trying. He got it almost right and failed. He got it very wrong and failed. He tried the very wrong thing again and failed. He failed, failed and failed again. And I’m sitting there just wanting to shout and scream and just tell him how to do this, and that this wasn’t his fault and that we’d fix this and oh why won’t you at least give up and go somewhere else first so that you may come across the training section that you missed.

Get the sphere up to those stairs. Shouldn't be that hard, right?

Anyway. That was my impression. He on the other hand was having a good time. For him this was a challenging puzzle that he was trying to figure out. It is totally OK for a player to be working on a puzzle for five minutes, at least as long as he can keep on trying new stuff and isn’t completely stuck. And he did eventually figure it out.
I don’t think he was frustrated at all. It was just me being frustrated. Below the jump I think about Valve in relationship to this experience:

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