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Reality Check: Game Design and Empathy


Creavity, logic, problem-solving skills, sense of humor, knowledge of probability, statistics, systems theory, information hierarchy, storytelling… the list of desirable game designer traits seems like something out of Da Vinci’s CV. “But what is the single, most important thing for a game designer, Mark?”, you ask, fully expecting me to contort my face for minutes before squeezing out a non-answer.

I surprise you like a ninja coming out of a cookie jar, as I throw my answer at you as quickly as my chocolate chip shuriken: the most important trait for a game designer is empathy.

If you don’t know how people work, you can’t make stuff for people to interact with. The most talented and technical designer that lacks empathy will make something that only he/she can enjoy – or, at the very best, something that can only be enjoyed when the designer is around to explain how to “play it the right way”.

My first few years of game design study and practice were very much focused on the “object” of games – how these systems actually work and how you go about designing them. As I got more experienced, I noticed that even as my understanding of the “cold” aspects of games got richer and deeper, I was still unable to design things that didn’t suck. Sure, I was now able to understand and communicate clearly why it is that my games suck. And other people’s games too, of course. There’s nothing more comforting in defeat than realizing that someone else sucks even more than you do.

Even though this critical detail and technical knowledge is super important, I was still missing something. And crossing over this chasm that exists between “good” and “excellent” has been my personal journey for the last couple of years, a quest in search of that something, the truth, the Holy Grail of design: “Just What The F*** Is Wrong With People?”.

Finding out what those drooling morons at the gamepad/keyboard/dancing mat are actually thinking when they don’t get your brilliant design is the endgame. You can never be too good at it, so expect to sharpen this skill for the rest of your life.

This article is the first of a series where I will explore different aspects of how the disconnect between your worldview and your audience’s can spell disaster to your project like a dog playing Jenga. So before I wrap up for this week, let’s discuss the concept of “empathy” in game design a little further.


Game Design Is Not Magic

So here goes an earth-shattering definition of satisfaction, do tighten your seatbelts:


Satisfaction is the fulfillment of expectation


Not very academic-sounding, I know. Not very wordy, either, and frankly just sounds obvious when you say it out loud. But this is a powerful definition to work with, because it forces us to focus on this core idea: everything we do in our game can be viewed as either expectation-setting or expectation-fulfillment.

This is a particularly useful set of lenses with which to look at your design, as it is simple to understand, use, and communicate to your teammates. It also permeates all the aspects of your game: design, sound, visuals, story, the wording on your trailer, the text on your menus, your press releases, the description on the storefront. It helps you think of your whole product as a game design problem.

This is also a tool that requires you to keep your attention on the player at all times. “Is this good enough?” ceases to be an unanswerable question and turns into action. It transforms into a new question. “Is this what our audience expect it to be?” demands you to go see if it is true. It can be tested, it can be measured, it can be answered.


Game Design Is Magic

But wait, satisfaction is not what we’re looking for, right? At least that’s how I see it. I don’t think we’re in the business of giving people what they want. We’re f***ing artists. What we really want is to cross that chasm. To build something truly awe-inspiring. We must take our understanding of what people want, and then surprise them.

Here’s another reductionist, blanket-statement definition that won’t make you popular at the nearest symposium:


Entertainment is satisfaction and surprise


If you work with that, you get something like a hierarchy of needs for your design: make sure you understand your audience’s expectations, make sure to not disappoint them, but then offer something surprising. Something they wanted, but they did not know it until that point.

So I like to compare game design with magic: the technique required to execute a prestidigitation trick is worthless by itself. Sure, you can’t do magic if you can’t even tie your shoelaces properly, but real greatness comes from understanding people better than they do themselves.

People want to believe that you’re taking them for a journey by the hand, they want to go to Disneyland, they want to have the feeling that you know what is good and that they can trust you to deliver that. It is a macroscopic version of a purple loot drop: “I know there’s something I’ll like in there, I just don’t know what it is yet”.

This kind of trust is hard to earn. You must be two or three steps ahead of your player, and unfortunately we’re usually one step behind most of the time. Our job is harder because we do not control anything directly: point of view, pacing, information, pretty much all elements that must be manipulated for good entertainment to sprout is out of our hands when the game is being played.

So those magic guys have it real easy, right? But still they focus more on understanding their audience than we do.

This article series is my attempt to contribute with my limited experience on the subject. This first one was very theoretical and fluffy, but I already have the themes for the next three, and they are all rock-solid: encounter design, reward systems and tutorials. So please do stick around if that’s something that interests you, and I’ll see you next week.



I still remember playing Super Mario Bros. 3 and trying to fly over the stage, my 12-year-old mind filled with the fluids of pride and a tiny bit of mischief as I expected to “break” the game. Almost 20 years later I still remember how magical it was to find all that stuff waiting for me in the clouds, as if old Mr. Miyamoto was talking back to me, talking in a language that only games can speak, saying “Hello, Mark, I was waiting here for you” and smiling like the smartass that he is.


Image Credit: Metadraxis

Quick Design Tips: Finding the Core Gameplay

Hey internet! Sometimes I feel like I write articles that are needlessly wordy, so this week I’m gonna try something more compact. Does this get the message across? Or are you hungry for more detail? Let’s give it a spin:

When I’m tasked with designing a new system (such as Chroma Squad’s tactical combat or Mecha fights), one of the biggest challenges is to establish a solid core to build the game upon.

I usually start my designs by searching for a solid core system that could sustain the entire game going forward. I don’t have a recipe for this, or a specific list of things that need to be satisfied, but overall what I am looking for is a system that offers:

a) Good results by itself: even reduced to the bare minimum mechanics, the system should offer the experience that I am aiming for. It’s ok if it’s shallow or repetitive, or too simple – actually it’s almost expected of it to be at this point. But it absolutely must hit the target, whether it’s getting people to yell at each other and work together (Dungeonland co-op dungeons), or to offer classic take on SRPG that still manages to contain a Tokusatsu flavor (Chroma Squad’s tactical combat).

b) Good potential for depth: this is the hardest point to explain in a few lines, as I must be convinced that the cost/benefit of adding new features vs. the resulting increase in depth will be good. This means that I can clearly see many possible ways to offer new and interesting challenges to players – possibly endless. A solid core system will generate exponentially more depth as I add/change mechanics, better if these are cheap and simple additions. For example, if I was designing Chess, the core of moving around the board capturing enemy pieces would benefit greatly from simple variations of movement rules between units – thus, I would find it to be a system with great potential for depth.

c) Character: while it may be derivative of something else (in Chroma Squad’s case it’s classic SRPG movement-and-attack, hardly groundbreaking), the system must have enough of its own flavor to be unique. At this point, the system should at least present me with novel problems, with something to learn. As a rule of thumb, if I can just transfer knowledge from similar games to be instantly good at the game, it is lacking character. A system with nothing new to teach players is not worth building.

Which reminds me that talking about emergence and depth in game systems would be a good idea for a future article. Hmm.

Oh, and as usual: playtest, playtest, playtest. At this stage I usually play by myself if it’s at all possible, or with just one or two friends. This way I can throw away bad ideas faster and speed up my iteration cycle. If it meets my criteria, I move on to include more people and test more until I feel confident that I have a solid base to work with.


Is this how you approach core gameplay? If not, how and why do you do it differently?


See you next week!

Game Feel Tips III: More On Smooth Movement

Hey game designers on the internet, I have received many messages about my previous Game Feel article, and it turns out that something that I thought was very simple and obvious is not really the case. I guess that it’s just too hard to make your case about game feel with just words or a video – you just have to make it playable to get your point across. So that’s what I’m doing this week. Please download this .ZIP file here:

Download Playable Example (Windows Only) ~10mb

  In this example you can move your character by using the arrow keys or WASD keys. For this article, all we’re interested in is the horizontal movement. You can press “G” to toggle between some different movement presets that I have created. Let’s talk about them. 1) The “Stiff Nonsense” template As described in my original article, this feels terrible, especially when changing directions. Just give it a try, quickly alternating between left and right. It feels weightless. Another common argument against using acceleration is that “Stiff Nonsense” is somehow more “precise”, which is not true. Want to see it for yourself? Try moving and stopping in between the blades of grass. You will find that when you are already moving at constant speed for a while and want to stop at a precise spot, it is perfectly ok. But trying to make small adjustments is a nightmare. To verify this, stand between two blades of grass. Now try to move as much as possible inside of this limited space without touching its boundaries. Pretty difficult, uh?   2) The “Responsiveness” template This is an example of getting rid of the “stiff” feel while maintaining the movement curves as steep as possible. With high acceleration and high friction it is possible to achieve this. Notice how everything feels smoother, and how direction changes now make more sense. You have also enhanced your control over small movements and changes in direction.   3) The “Precision” template This template sacrifices a bit of “snappy-ness” for an increased precision in horizontal movement. I achieved this by reducing acceleration considerably, while maintaining friction relatively high. This gives you slow starts and sudden stops. Notice how easier it is to stay between the blades of grass, although slower. But how can something that is not snappy be precise? “Precision” is being able to put things where you want to put them. “Snappy” controls just mean that you can do things faster. Precision and speed are inversely proportional: as the amount of value change on each step increases (“more snappy”), the possibility of reaching a specific value decrease (“less precise”). The most precise control scheme ever (inputting coordinates by hand) is arguably the slowest.   4) The “Floaty Nonsense” template The second most used argument against getting rid of “Stiff Nonsense” is: “I did it, but people complained that it was floaty and terrible so I switched it off”. This probably happened because you were not able to tune your movement correctly. Bear in mind that “correctly” is relative to your game and your goals with it. But just to make a point about how much effort actually goes into finding these values, I have included the “floaty nonsense” preset. This preset keeps the exact same ratio between Acceleration and Friction that I used in the “Responsiveness” example. But the results are terrible, as you can see for yourself.   Final Thoughts (Read Before You Comment) So that’s it, folks. I hope it complements my previous article, and I’m planning on including these playable examples on every pertinent game feel article that I write in the future. It’s also important to outline that, as anything related to design, there is not a right or wrong way of doing things. It is important that you know and understand the way that movement works in games, but it not a rule to always do it as I suggest in this article. The excellent Velocity 2X, for example, uses “stiff nonsense” and owns it as a statement of its own style. It fits the game, the animations and the pace. Other games do use acceleration and friction, but do so VERY slightly just to handle the issue of direction change and/or to allow for some movements to “slide” with less friction – see the recent Lethal League for an example of that. See you next thursday!