Category Archives: Game design

The infinite novelty engine

Dwarf Fortress Story

From Bronzemurder

Entertainment generally, and therefore games specifically, create a lot of their enjoyment through surprise and novelty. Rewatching a movie is usually less exciting than seeing the first time round as your memory is busy ruining the surprises for you. There isn’t much the movie makers can do about this, the film is what it is – you can bundle some special features on the DVD but if you want to recapture the magic of the first watch you generally have to just watch a different movie or get some kind of invasive brain surgery. Bad luck movies (and books); but what about games?

Games are often designed so that the same content can be repeatedly played – they can substitute for the lack of new things to see by introducing unpredictable elements like other human players. Team Fortress 2 is a great example, the arrangement of polygons and physics shapes on the map ‘2fort’ hasn’t changed in years but it can still provide new experiences or at the very least a chaotic new arrangement of old satisfying experiences. However, even with a timeless map like ‘2fort’ one can eventually tire of its rhythms; the possibility space is only so large and the human players are only unpredictable to a certain level taken en-masse. In the end players also want new maps.

Thus even in multi-player games, the demand for new content is near infinite and the capable creators of it in short supply. This is an especially acute situation if you are an indie game developer; the number of creators of new content for your games may be very small indeed. So the arrived upon solution is procedural generation, content generally obeys a set of rules which can be identified, codified and iterated until we have a machine that can generate new content for us quickly and tirelessly. It’s like the industrial revolution all over again, a future containing out of work artists and level designers but satisfied consumers – problem solved.

Or is it? Even with procedurally generated content we see players identifying patterns enormously quickly. The rules are quickly pinned down, the wizard behind the curtain identified and the glorious future of infinite novelties lies in tatters before it had even begun. The same problem occurs with the game mechanics, the content might be randomised but the rules of the game itself remain static – there are infinite corridors but you can only walk down them one way.

So, astute readers are now thinking, what we need to do is procedurally generate the rules themselves; the content generation rules and the game rules too. Tear open the possibility space so wide that a player can be continuously surprised every time they play. For each player and each game session it would be like playing a brand new game each time. Of course this time we’d put the designers themselves out of jobs, and probably ruin the entire industry as new game sales collapsed and what we are studiously ignoring is the enormously impossible scale of the task itself.

So if it’s so impossible, why consider it at all? Simply, because it is, in some respects, the ideal form of a game. Its something to reach towards, grab a sliver of, and continually fail to achieve in glorious style. When you play Zelda and you get a new dungeon item that suddenly allows you to lift previously immovable boulders you are seeing the merest glimpse of this platonic game form. When you play Deus Ex you see the power of even a moderately opened possibility space. I wonder when we will see the first, truly indistinguishable from hand-crafted, procedural story? Dwarf Fortress is already steadily progressing down that path, prompting some players to fill in the remaining gaps.

Anyway, enough rambling speculating and theorising. On Free Company I’m just beginning the first round of a test-to-changes-to-test iteration cycle on the tactical battle gameplay with some testing assistance from my ever helpful brother. Almost all the gameplay systems are still in flux right now, I have the roughest idea of how I want it to feel but I’m trying not to get attached to any particular systematic specifics for fear they’ll impede producing something that’s fun. I’ll post more details on the results of this process once I have them.

The best games are carrot cake

Carrot Cake

There’s been a lot of talk about games as food recently. First, a week or so ago, there was Cliff Harris asserting that games were doughnuts then, more recently, I see Mr. Randy Pitchford likened Duke Nukem to a “greasy hamburger”. Now Twitter has been abuzz all day long with terrible puns involving a game and an item of food.

Clearly the stars are aligning for one reason and one reason alone. It’s time for me to finally reveal my own tremendously clever food-related game design theory. If you managed to somehow seal your vision ducts for the title and giant picture above then here it is again; fully revealed:

A good game is like carrot cake.


Though I feel, perhaps, I should explain in a little more detail why I’ve been thinking this ever since I first read Cliffs blog. For me this strikes to the heart of why I’m in love with the medium of games, more than any other. It’s why I’m obsessed with playing them, dissecting them and crafting them. I believe that there is something wonderful and terrifying about games, something that is going to be harnessed more and more in the future for good or ill. It’s their power to teach us; to powerfully imprint their designs on our psyche, to shape our brains.

Games, almost uniquely among mediums, put the person experiencing them directly within the experience. With a book, film or piece of music the consumer is a passive observer, they are being entertained at and being taught to. When you play a game, you shape the experience; you have a role and a place within the game world and to drive the experience onwards you are forced to engage with it and respond to its challenges. To engage with a game you are forced to understand the material it presents and to directly confront it,  with a film or a book the experience might wash over you the events happening far away, you can become disconnected & disassociated in a way not possible while experiencing a game.

As such, I believe the power of games to teach us the lessons embedded wittingly or unwittingly in their designs is a hugely powerful one. I feel that, as a medium, the experiences and knowledge gained within games are more likely to stay with you longer. Games are already much better at conveying complicated systems, like those around which much of the world turns, but I also believe that, as the mediums matures, they will have the potential to generate more emotionally affecting experiences as well.


Games are still entertainment, they are there to provide satisfying experiences. They are for people who want to relax, escape reality or all the other reasons that people play games. Lurking behind that innocent fun though is this great shaping, teaching power. Designers can choose to ignore it; just forget about any lessons their games might be unintentionally imparting let the players worry about it – if they really want to. That’s a perfectly valid approach that has and will continue to lead to many good enjoyable games. However, I think, to be truly great a game should be aware of that lurking power to teach and use it to do some good.

Teach your players the lessons you would want them to learn while you are entertaining them. Teach them powerfully but subtly. Teach them about beauty and politics, about love and chemistry. Teach them without them ever noticing they are being taught then perhaps your game will be truly great.

Which is why they are like carrot cake. The carrot cake looks just like a delicious cake – it tastes just like a delicious cake. Yet somewhere, smuggled inside that shell of pure indulgence, the cook has concealed a load of nutritious vegetable. That’s a great cake.

All hail the overgame.

The start of a shopping UI

Development on Free Company steadily continues here in the shed. I’ve had to venture out into the cruel, uncaring world a bit more than usual recently to earn enough money for those precious wheelbarrows full of coal that keep the code furnaces at full power. It slows the development rate for a few weeks on the one hand but on the other its good to eat food.

That aside, I’m currently focused on creating the primitive skeleton that will help join the 3D tactical battles together into a compelling campaign style narrative  in your minds for the initial paid alpha version. A lot of the work here will be reused when I get to making the ‘proper’ map driven campaign later on so it’s not a total waste long term and hopefully it’ll make the alpha much more fun to play for a series of battles and thereby generate a whole raft more testing feedback if any lovely person does choose to take the plunge and give it a try for a small fee.

So what’s going in this overgame skeleton for the alpha? First up I’ve been working on a shop where you can restock your mercenaries consumables and outfit them with new weapons and other equipment. Secondly, there’s going to be a menu to recruit fresh-faced wannabe mercs to build up your fighting force and tackle more contracts/tactical battles. Thirdly there is going to be some basic facilities for equipping and editing those new recruits so you can roughly shape them into the kind of fighting force of your dreams. Then finally there is going to be the contracts board where you can pick contracts to accept,  dispatch a squads of mercs to take care of accepted contracts and start the tactical battle when they arrive. The campaign screen will also have some other handy functionality, like the ability to save your game, which’ll also mean that the ‘load’ option on  the main menu finally does something! Hooray! If you can think of any other essential ‘overgame’ screens/menus/options that I should absolutely cram in before the alpha version then do let me know, perhaps in the comments below even.

I’ve recently ‘rebranded’ my twitter feed to the more personable (and more related to this fledging gamedev shop) @danintheshed. Existing followers should have transferred over with no problem, but if you are new and interested in Free Company and whatever else I might put out then that’s as good a place as any to get updates.