The Trickster's Hand

Somewhere between a Royal-Flush and an Ace High

Category: Game Development

Among Rogues: Suspense, Boredom, and Neuroscience

Quintin Smith created a video a while back about the magical impact that the empty spaces of Sunless Sea have upon the game. Minutes – WHOLE MINUTES – of the game are spent crossing vast, near featureless distances between islands. Quinns ruminates on the importance of this empty space and rightly compares it to the grind found in many role-playing games.

Here’s the video. I didn’t make it. It’s Quinns. You should follow him. Support his Cool Ghosts Patreon or Shut Up & Sit Down’s donation page.

He’s not wrong. But he’s also not entirely right.

Let’s talk briefly about neuroscience. I’m going to play fast and loose with some concepts, but the following will generally be true. Also, if you suffer from depression, this whole section essentially does not apply to you. And that sucks. We’re all sorry.

Also, I am purposefully leaving out serotonin and norepinephrine. The brain is really complicated, folks. I’m trying to be brief.

Dopamine is a strange hormone that your brain uses for all sorts of weird purposes. Most famously, it’s used as “the reward chemical”, but that is a gross simplification. Yes, you release it when you eat food or have sex or exercise. It’s great for this. In these cases, it’s oddly important that the event which is rewarded was planned. Not schemed for days and days, but that you were enabled to build up expectation. That expectation is important as that’s – essentially – when the dopamine is manufactured prior to its euphoric release.

To sum up, the euphoria of reward only comes from making a decision, building expectation, and then executing. Sometimes, dopamine is talked about at the “motivation” neurotransmitter. People with depression often show a shortage of dopamine, and they can sometimes be treated by by adding more dopamine to their system. Sadly, this often causes them to lose their ability to create dopamine on their own.

Game developers use this kind of dopamine release all the time. We create clear goals, and we empower players to achieve those goals quickly. In some ways, this is great! We can sort of help with depression! Sort of!

You’ll see the same kind of goal or task list creation in all sorts of perfectly valid self-help treatments. Heck, loads of qualified therapists will encourage people to create lists of daily, short-term goals. They’ll remind their clients to take moments to celebrate completing those goals. It’s really good for you, and it can remind you how to produce dopamine if you’ve forgotten.

It’s worth noting that physical contact with loved ones – and, no, I don’t know how this works – can also produce dopamine. So, if someone you love and trust is feeling unmotivated – and you have permission for physical contact – hug them or squeeze their hand. It’ll do you both some good.

In this way, Quinns is right about what “boredom” does for Sunless Sea and for RPGs. But he’s missing something in that pairing which is unique to Sunless Sea. It’s a part of all roguelikes, and it’s particularly important to horror.

Dopamine makes episodic memories permanent.

This research is more recent. Researchers were troubled by something. Dopamine, which was getting a lot of attention as the “love neurotransmitter”, kept showing up at unexpected times. It would also be suppressed in people who definitely had not been having the positive experiences of the motivation series. Researchers kept finding dopamine suppression in sufferers of PTSD, and they find elevated levels in people who recently underwent trauma.

What recent research is showing is that dopamine is released when an episodic memory – a memory of an event rather than a skill, etc. – is written into long-term storage. This dopamine release effectively determines how long the memory will be stored. (This is a vast simplification because memory is weird. Really weird.) In Telltale’s The Walking Dead, dopamine is released every time “So-and-so will remember this” appears on screen.

For Sunless Sea, horror games, and for other roguelikes, the trauma which triggers the dopamine release is the death of a character. This traumatic release is what lets us learn from our mistakes in these games. When we die in these games, we write a memory. If we were invested in character or action, we’ll release dopamine and remember the death for a long time indeed. Importantly, whenever we encounter a similar situation, we’ll recall that memory and the emotions we felt at the time.

This will trigger us to set a goal and begin building expectation and… you see where this is going.

Those dull parts of Sunless Sea serve a purpose. They let us remember. They let us build that suspense, that suspense stimulates the production of dopamine, and, ultimately, they let us turn that suspense into joy. Without the dull parts, we can’t learn.

Next time you see me sailing Captain Penny over that calm, sunless sea, remember the turmoil roiling beneath the surface. I certainly do.

If you liked this article, check out others like it at The Crooked Thimble and please throw us some financial support at The Crooked Thimble Patreon.

Among Rogues: The Persistence of Death

“You only live once…”

I chose that tagline for RogueLife for a few reasons. In many ways, I chose it because I disagree with it. Yes, put a bullet in the right parts of me, and I’ll run out of that one life, but I’ve also lead many lives. I’ve been a preacher, a stuntman, a corporate drone. Those were whole different lives from the one I lead now. That said, each of those lives carried something with them from the previous lives.

The same is true for the best RogueLikes.

Rogue, the original Rogue, was a game of absolutes and uncertainty. When you died, it would erase your whole save game. It has more in common with coin-operated arcade games than it does with modern, popular role playing games. This facet of the game – the permanence of death – is one of its most memorable features while also being its worst.

Rogue, while definitely a cult classic, is not a commercial success by any of today’s standards. Part of this is because of its unfriendliness. It treats its players like garbage, and it revels in this treatment. It’s unfair. Like, it’s really unfair. For example, potions are necessary to survive the dungeon, but which color of potion corresponds to healing is randomized each time you create a character. Aside from healing, potions can also be poison. Experimentation is both necessary and punished.

It’s real bad, and I hate it.

Rewards only feel good when they feel earned. The same is true from punishment. In Rogue, nothing felt earned. It’s hard to crow about victory when you were always one bad roll from losing.

These last two weeks, I’ve been playing Enter the Gungeon and Sunless Sea. They have very different approaches to the concept of death.

Enter the Gungeon is very much in that coin-op shooter territory. Lives can be measured in bullets, and – initially – it appears that there is no continuity at all. You get one life, and that’s it. Now select a character and go again.

However, you start accruing a currency when you defeat bosses. That currency seems useless until you rescue the shopkeepers and unlock the ability to buy new weapons to appear in later runs. Slowly, other characters and events show up which start to affect later runs. Each run – or every few runs – players feel like they have a little more of a chance to kill their past and defeat the ruler of the gungeon.

No, there is no “reloading” after a failed run. You can’t save-scum. It still feels like a RogueLike even though it violates the most basic tenet of the Berlin Interpretation.

(I’m not going to hop on that steaming pile of garbage right now. I’ve got something special in mind for good ol’ Berlin. You have to wait for that. Sorry.)

Sunless Sea takes a different approach. It tells you from the start that your captain will die. It tells you that is alright, and it even shows you ways to improve the inheritance you can leave for later captains. Each time your captain dies, you are asked what your next captain’s relationship to them is. Were they lovers? Rivals? Kinsfolk?

This direct and open continuity feels different from Enter the Gungeon, and it can be crueler in some ways. A life in Sunless Sea can last hours, while a life in the Gungeon will rarely go for even half an hour. The near-total loss of progress in the Gungeon feels acceptable for its session investment. Sunless Sea’s losses can be much larger, and much more cruel. In fact, one short life after a series of long ones can lead to a loss of progress in Sunless Sea that can’t be rivaled by even Rogue. Sunless Sea will happily put you right back at square one even after twenty hours of progress. Rogue would never do that. Rogue couldn’t. Rogue never had the ability to build an investment like that.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be exploring the interplay of “Persistent Death” and “Variable Success” in greater detail. Both are big parts of the game we’re building at The Crooked Thimble, and both are dear concepts to me as a craftsman.

Tomorrow, I’ll be setting out onto the Unterzee again. Captain Eliza is gone, but a woman of letters has taken her place. Perhaps Penny will fare better. I hope she does.

If you wish to see the tragedy that befell poor Eliza, take a look at our episode below. Also, please take a moment to support our Patreon:

Hidden Information: Poker and Oil

Back in the 1980s and 90s, Exxon and Imperial Oil developed a model for global climate change whose predictive power has met with almost unparalleled success. This was a major breakthrough. The model made many predictions including the relationship between various greenhouse gas emissions and the warming of the overall climate.

The model, being a predictive model, was built to advise its creators on wise investments. With emission levels unchanged, it could predict what land would be destroyed by rising sea levels and which land would become uninhabitable due to the heat. It also predicted what ice would melt and create new habitable land. It could also predict these things for reduced and increased levels of emissions.

The takeaway: Oil rights on the Canadian Beaufort Sea would become valuable indeed as long as emission rates did not decrease.


Hidden information games are among the most compelling games on the market. Most games incorporate hidden information in some form or fashion, otherwise they are a Perfect Information game. Perfect Information games include Chess and Checkers as well as any game where no element is hidden or left to an unknown chance.

Not just any game with hidden information is a Hidden Information game. To be a Hidden Information game, the hiding of the information between players needs to be an important aspect of the game itself. The classic example of this is Poker, and Texas Hold ‘em is a particularly well-crafted specimen.

Texas Hold ‘em contains all the necessary elements of a Hidden Information game: public information, private information, and unknown information.

The private information is the two cards in each player’s hand. The public information, initially, is that there are five cards in the middle of the table, two cards in each private hand, and that there are a certain number of each card in the deck. The unknown information is the values of each of the cards face down in the center.

As the game advances, all unknown information becomes public, then the game ends. That’s the key thing for a hidden information game: the game is over when all information is made public.

Prior to that, though, is the most powerful part of Texas Hold ‘em: investment. Investment is another piece of public information that is entirely created by the players. This, as well as myriad physical and social tells, constitute the strategy. In poker, wagering is where the game is.


Exxon and Imperial Oil had a problem. Their findings were not unique. The information they worked on was public even though the model they developed was still private. They neared the end of the game, and they had not yet turned a profit. They needed to create more information, and they needed that information to be unknown.

Exxon and Imperial launched an unprecedented misinformation campaign. They found spokespeople willing to put their reputations on the line to make that public information back into unknown information. This was the only way to remain in the game. Once global climate change became widely accepted in the public, Exxon and Imperial would no longer be able to leverage their private information to make investments.

And invest they did.

With the debate over climate change fueled by company owned mouthpieces, Exxon and Imperial were free to purchase frozen-over land at rock bottom prices. Without the debate, the land would rise in price – as forecasts showed it growing increasingly desirable – but that didn’t happen. With the melting of the ice in question, Exxon and Imperial were free to swoop in and buy it up on the cheap.

Here’s a tip from one gambler to another, always watch where the other players choose to put their money.


Misinformation has no mechanical equivalent in Texas Hold ‘em. Well. Not in a normal game. For the actions above to have a clear parallel, one of the players would need to conspire with the dealer to stack the deck. More likely, the deck would need to be changed to another deck entirely. Maybe only one player would know of the existence of jokers. Or perhaps there were secret hands which always win. Aces and Eights and all that.

Then we’re not really playing Texas Hold ‘em. We’re breaking its rules. Let’s look at another game: Archipelago.

In Archipelago, each player has two key pieces of hidden information: their resources and their objective. Each player has an objective, and that objective performs two tasks. It establishes a hidden end condition for the game – such as building five markets – and establishes a scoring mechanic for all players at the end of the game – such as holding iron at the end of the game provides victory points.

The possible objectives are public, so the game cultivates a dynamic whereby players watch each other’s public actions and guess which secret objective the others might be trying to fulfill. Oh, is Bob hoarding iron? Then Bob must have the iron and markets objective!

The core mechanic for teasing that private information out comes from Crises. At the start of each round, there is a crisis, and the players must pool their resources or more of the indigenous people of the archipelago will rise up in rebellion. If rebels outnumber the population controlled by players, then the rebels rise up and kill the players in their sleep. Everybody dies. Everybody loses.

In a crisis, there is a key piece of public information. How many resources each player has is private, the remaining number of resources in the game’s supply – however – is known. Following the examples from earlier, people can be pretty sure that someone has the iron objective when the players fail to fulfill the demands of an iron crisis and yet the iron supply in the box is depleted.

When that happens, everyone knows that someone has the iron objective. That person is holding out, and they are willing to risk the entire game in order to maintain their advantage. They’d rather go extinct than miss out on a chance for profit.


Back in the really real world, Exxon and Imperial’s model was making some truly dire predictions in the far term. Apocalyptic warnings foretold the extinction of the human race. These warnings were as secret as they were remote. Action on emissions could be delayed with minimal cost to the company. Property and lives would be lost, but none of that property would be company property. The lives? Well, those didn’t belong to the company either.

In Archipelago, there is one objective which stands out from the rest. There is a chance that a player is holding an objective which states that they win if the archipelago rebels. Much like millennial sects of Christianity, these players will work to make certain the end times come sooner rather than later.

When a player like our iron-hoarder from earlier is at the table, other players are forced to come to terms with the possibility that the hoarder is not holding the iron objective at all. They may just be hoping to watch the world burn. Sometimes, this is the most fun and exciting moment of the game. The whole world – the game world in this case – is held hostage by a maniac. Or is it? Maybe it’s not a maniac at all. Maybe it’s just a man who would rather see everyone lose than anyone else win.

I’ll give you another tip from a tired gambler. When a player comes to your table and you can’t tell if they are motivated by profit or suicide, thank them and send them away. Maybe not the first time, they could just be trying something new. If it happens again and again over the course of years, just lead them away.

Your life will be better without them in it.

Play and Privilege

My friend and former classmate, Tanya Short, wrote this article about the “Unique Problems of Cooperative Game Design”. It recalled to me my former article about betrayal mechanics in games as well as Wil Wheaton’s series on good gamemastering. And, as we see with Shut Up & Sit Down’s excellent Tips for the Top 5 Problem Players, there is much more to cooperative gaming than making a mechanically sound and fair system.

Today, we’re going to explore the privilege, framing, and inequality.

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Union Drive

The recent strike authorization from SAG AFTRA has a lot of developers talking about unions. Game developers can have some pretty diverse political leanings ranging from my own breed of liberal feminism to the vocal proponents of Pick-Up Artistry, libertarianism, and constitutionalism. Hell, there are some people in the industry who will invoke the founding fathers in the same breath that they’ll condemn Secular Humanism. (If you don’t know why that’s problematic, you have some research to do.)

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Meta Max: Who do you trust?

I have some good news and some bad news for everyone. The bad news is that metacritic scores matter a great deal to the livelihood of game developers. The good news is that you, dear reader, can find reviewers that you can trust to share your tastes in games.

These two facts are causing a great deal of suffering.


For several years now, our increasing access to online information has caused our interactions with movie and game reviews to change. Games, due in part to the historic affluence of most game players, have seen increased traffic drawn to Metacritic.

With the dominance of console games and the high price of smartphones, the Metacritic of yesteryear saw its hits coming from people with money to burn on unnecessary gadgets. However, as smartphones became more common over the years, more and more people grew used to checking reviews less often from their website or newspaper of choice, but on their increasingly-cheap smartphones. Now that always-on internet connectivity is more common at all levels of income, we’re seeing a wider audience making purchasing decisions based on review aggregators rather than pull-quotes in commercials and on packaging.

Headlines about the forecasting of Summer blockbusters made this even more clear. Rotten Tomatoes is having a detectable impact on movie sales. As a person who has followed games for decades, this comes as no surprise, but it is playing havoc with film forecasters. Movie ticket sales are currently more closely tied to review aggregators than to forecasting and advertising spends.

Years ago, the now-beloved Fallout: New Vegas made headlines when layoffs and project cancellations followed their initial Metacritic rating of 84. 84 was just one point below their required 85 from their publisher Bethesda. Hilariously, many reviews cited crashes and performance issues as the core reason for poor reviews. Similar issues would also later plague Skyrim’s initial console release. These games use offshoots of the same engine. Luckily for Obsidian as a corporate entity, many of the issues which plagued New Vegas’s release were patched out well enough to make the DLCs and Ultimate Editions of the game into a smashing long-term success.

This, of course, did nothing to help the many people whose lives were affected by the low Metacritic score.


It would be difficult for me to discuss this nearly as well as Kotaku’s wonderful long-read on the subject of Metacritic-tied bonuses. That said, let me tell you a bit about it from a developer’s perspective.

Some of the best games of the recent console generations have been incredibly risky. Bioshock took on Objectivism head-on at a time when a rising political force was waving Atlus Shrugged and The Fountainhead as a blueprint for a better nation. Red Dead Redemption – which is the most successful game I’ve ever worked on – labored under the repeated and continuing discussion that Westerns are a dead genre. Gone Home explored homosexuality and family in a way that no wide-release game had before.

All of these games were created in an environment of extreme risk. All of these games are landmarks in the history of game development. They leave a lasting influence on the medium and on the journals which write about them.

The recent Mad Max, however, is more likely to be remembered for its controversy than its substance.


Jerry Holkins is angry. He enjoyed Mad Max. Someone did not enjoy Mad Max. Jerry has decided that there is something wrong with the man he disagrees with. I’m glad that I’m not Philip Kollar, because I would hate to be the subject of the ire of such an active group as Jerry’s fanbase.

Mr. Kollar is now plagued by the same horde of people shouting about ethics and corruption as has been hounding reputable journalists for over a year now.

Let’s make something clear here: Phil Kollar’s review is correct. The review by IGN’s Brandin Tyrrel is also correct. Polygon and IGN have built up different audiences with different concerns. Their readers know this. Both publications have remained remarkably consistent with their criticism, and they’ve built up followings which share their interests.

Not only is there nothing wrong with a reviewer criticising games based on literary analysis, but there is also nothing wrong with a reviewer being purely concerned with technical and mechanical achievement. Different readers are interested in different facets of game criticism. That’s why there isn’t just one review site on the internet.


And there’s the rub. As long as there is a wealth of human experience and an interest in expressing those experiences, review aggregators will continue to be a flawed method of judging games and movies.

For publishers, there are a great many better measurements of a product’s success than its Metacritic rating. Market performance is a good measure, as could be targeted meta-analysis from a certain set of review publications. (A weighted text and numerical algorithm based on defined market goals.) By limiting the scope of the reviews taken into account, a publisher can provide clear feedback to a developer for a definition of a product’s success.

For consumers, there are far better resources for learning whether you’ll like a game than just aggregators. Find a reviewer or group of reviewers that you agree with. When picking consumable media, it’s fine to have an echo chamber that matches your tastes. It’s preferable even. More likely than not, you’re looking to have fun. If you find yourself looking for media that will challenge you, consider reading the reviews written by people you disagree with. You might discover something that will change the way you play games, watch movies, or – perhaps – even change how you live your life.

Kill More Women: Shooters and Feminism


BOSS (Male): Trick, I see that you have put women in this enemy gang.

TRICK (Male): Of course, there are women in this gang everywhere in the game.

BOSS (Male): But your objective here is to kill off all the gang members.

TRICK (Male): I don’t understand how that’s a problem.

BOSS (Male): It is against our policies to force players to kill women. Remove them.


Present Day

In worlds where violence is the solution to most conflicts, women must be important enough to kill.

I’ve been meaning to write about this for years. The issue comes up again and again in game development, but I’ve been afraid to talk about it for fear of attacks from all sides of the “Ethics” debate.

In worlds where violence is the solution to most conflicts, women must be important enough to kill.

With shooters, in particular, developers are frightened of letting players take an active role in the killing of women. It’s strange considering these very same games may force the player to commit assault against unarmed, restrained women or even have women repeatedly violated. Ignoring storyline deaths, women are rarely the targets of player-character violence. This is particularly strange in settings with large numbers of enemies with limited or no story explanation for the lack of female enemies.

In most action games, non-player characters are limited to the role of mission-givers, enemies, and objectives. Mission-givers send players off on tasks and usually have some reason to be helpless to perform the task themselves. For characters intended to be intimidating, they are usually busy doing something else. However, most mission-givers are actively made powerless to fulfill the power fantasy for players portraying the protagonist. The player character needs to be the most influential and capable character in the game universe.

Characters who act as objectives often moonlight as mission-givers, but objectives tend to be even more underpowered than the standard mission-givers. Objectives are usually in danger and need to be unable to extract themselves from this danger. They are doctors, family members, and technicians. They are, most often, completely powerless in a fight. For the purposes of this discussion, “reward” characters are objectives. Players are told that they need them, and they players take the time to collect them as they would any object.

Enemies, much like player characters, are measured in importance based on their potential for violence.

Enemies, much like player characters, are measured in importance based on their potential for violence. They can be cannon-fodder, elite, mini-boss, or boss. Players count the bullets or strikes needed to take them down, and they carefully measure the damage the enemy can deal. They are the closest mechanical relation to the player in that their effectiveness can be measured by the same means as the player.

Often times, this makes the enemies the most player-like characters in the game.



ART LEAD (Male): We can only make one set of animations for the zombies, so we’re going to need to remove the women.

TRICK (Male): Have any animations been made?

ART LEAD (Male): No.

TRICK (Male): Then why not remove the men?

ART LEAD (Male): Won’t it be weird if there are only women?

AUDIO LEAD (Female): No more weird than if they are all men.


Present Day

People talk a lot about women in the games industry. Largely this discussion happens in the press. In the office, open discussion of hiring policy are met with fearful glances. Discussions of uneven portrayals of women are “checked at the door” or responded to by saying that treating women differently than the status-quo “wouldn’t be realistic.”

One of the reasons I like working in a diverse workplace is when I get to watch a man tell a tattoo-covered woman in a UFC shirt that no one will believe that women can fight or lead. It’s pretty funny when they say this without noticing their audience. It’s funniest when they stop the statement with a sharp intake of breath.

Normally, I do my best to prevent the portrayal of violence against women in games. Women are often victimized just to spur male characters to action, and I want to have no part in this pattern. However, I make a special exception for women as enemies in games.

In the story above, the art lead became so uncomfortable with having an all-female enemy group that he had his team animate the men and the women on the same skeleton. They behaved and moved identically. The enemies became an exact even split between men and women.

Women became worthy of consideration only when they, themselves, were dangerous.

For the first time in the game, players had to consider these woman enemies. Players had to predict their actions, estimate their threat, and act in response to them. Suddenly, women became more than than weak characters that tell you what to do. Women became more than screaming objects to rescue from danger. Women became worthy of consideration only when they, themselves, were dangerous.



ART LEAD (Male): We can’t have men hurting women, it’s against my religion.

TRICK (Male): We hurt women plenty. They get kidnapped or murdered all the time.

ART LEAD (Male): But the players aren’t doing that!

TRICK (Male): Are you saying that it’s against your religion to have players hurt women because the players are all men?


Present Day

The men that prevent women from fighting in these games often cite religion or “chivalry” as their reasoning. They pretend that they are protecting women from harm. Some of these men are even socially progressive folk that don’t wish to normalize violence against women by forcing players to perform such violence. Generally, these same men will allow violence against women “if the story demands it”, but even then they will make that violence occur in a scripted event rather than during normal interactions.

Men – I say this as one of your own – women don’t need this kind of protection. It’s an arbitrary form of protection, and one that does not apply to real life. When you make women untouchable, you make them into alien things. You teach people to wait for prompts until some outside force tells them what to do. At its worst, you turn women into villains who cannot be punished for their poor actions. You put justice out of reach, and you make that feeling stew.

The women who play our games will see that they have the choice to be hero or villain.

When women are just objects in a story but men are participants in the action, you’ve created unaccountable monsters. We can do better than that. The men who play our games will grow used to judging characters by their actions and acting accordingly. The women who play our games will see that they have the choice to be hero or villain: they don’t need to be passive watchers of  male actions.

Brother and sister developers. Go make your hordes of faceless enemies. Let them be sacks of loot and experience. Let them cry out in anguish as they die. Don’t be afraid to let those cries be those of women fighting alongside men. Gaming will be better for it.

Tipping the Hand: Betrayal in Games

The First Betrayal

After wandering that interminable house for what felt like hours, that brat kid finally revealed that he was the Bat God and that it was time for his Bat Brethren to feed. We were all going to die, he assured us. We would be drained of our blood and eaten. Or something.

His threats weren’t that scary, actually. We were armed to the teeth, and we’d already found all the rooms we’d need to put an end to the threat. The Sudden-Yet-Inevitable betrayal fell as flat as a tire on a sea of thumbtacks.

Betrayal at House on the Hill is, for many people, the game that introduced them to the “Betrayal” mechanic, and the game has become a mainstay of thematic betrayal games ever since. However, as a betrayal game, Betrayal at House on the Hill stands out as a betrayal game without lies.

Betrayal occurs in two acts: exploration and betrayal. During the exploration act, everyone works to explore the house and gain power to fight against the inevitable second act. As such, everyone and no one is an ally. Players have no capacity to control who the betrayer will be, so there is only a small amount of caution and distrust. This removes a lot of the inherent tension in the betrayal-game genre since the answer to “Can I trust you?” is not held by the players but rather by the game itself.

This causes problems.

The Anatomy of Deceit

Successful game interactions are built to exploit the same basic cycle: anticipation, preparation, risk, and then reward. This shares similarities to dramatic structures like the Freytag Pyramid and to economic game theory concepts to risk vs reward, however this game interaction structure is vital to the production of both dopamine – which will help to write memories – and endorphins – which makes life worth living.

Betrayal takes a single major cycle of anticipation-preparation-risk-reward and stretches it over an hour-long period. It’s like watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Supernatural. It’s a dramatic arc, but it has some problems.

To really build up the payoff of that final resolution, the brain needs to pump out several smaller cycles of rewards prior to the orgy of neurotransmitters that accompany the climax. In part, this is because norepinephrine – which is largely responsible for raising your heart rate during games and life – is actually synthesized from dopamine. Since dopamine is largely produced in response to a learning or task-completion experience, that means that high excitement requires smaller, lower-excitement exchanges.

Yes. Fun games contain foreplay.

I’ve got some bad news Betrayal, but there is something wrong with your foreplay.

Humans, you see, are social animals. We actually produce more of everything if an interaction directly involves another human. While skill checks, dice, and spreadsheets can make for magically complex and balanced economic exercises, no interaction with an inanimate object compares to watching an opponent’s eyes dilate as they gaze at their cards, look up, and say “all in.”

To really get the most out of a betrayer mechanic, you need lies. You need that human moment where you doubt that you can trust someone. There’s an added exhilaration to be gotten from being lied to by humans: humans are predators. When another person speaks to you, and you’ve been primed to expect deception, your fight-or-flight instincts will trigger at every single interaction.

Overdosing on norepinephrine – the classic “fight-or-flight” neurotransmitter – can be quite tiring. That’s why Doctor Trick recommends that you control your dose.

One Night

Hidden roles games come in a few varieties ranging from the incredibly-hidden roles of Bruno Faidutti’s Masquerade to the fantastically funny Spyfall. However, when you want to really condense down the absolute thrill of the betrayer mechanic, you need to take a long, cold look at One Night Ultimate Werewolf.

Now, One Night is arguably not a betrayal game. One Night does pit all the players against an unknown number of werewolves, which is more of a direct Player-vs-player scenario than the player-vs-board present in most other betrayal games. However, since all players in One Night must pretend to be villagers, they are, ostensibly, on the same side. Kinda. Regardless, many of the same dynamics present in more cooperative betrayal games are still present and, importantly, condensed.

One Night mixes hidden roles with imperfect information in an unusual way, but the magic ingredient that makes One Night so superior to its almost-intolerable cousin is that the whole game is constrained to a 10-minute timer.

Additionally, One Night also creates a mixture of co-conspirators amongst its players that is closely mirrored by its close relative Resistance: Avalon. Werewolves, Minions, and Masons act as an important catalyst as players puzzle out who to kill in One Night. Never play the game without these parties present; they do too much to the game.

Many roles – like the Robber, the Troublemaker, and the Seer – take their action in the night and then need to build their consensus afterwards. This plays with the dynamics of anticipation and preparation, but the Werewolves, Minions, and Masons have a completely different experience. They start on a team – they already have a consensus – and that small start gives them a benefit. In addition, that puts them in a unique situation whereby they can feel tension for somebody else. Their fight-or-flight instinct can kick in by proxy when their teammate is threatened.

I have a tip for playing One Night, and it is a weird one. Never chain multiple games right after another. That climax where one player flips their role and the fate of everyone weighs on a single turn of the cards creates an incredible rush of fear followed by relief.

Give yourself some time to enjoy it. Make a drink. Talk strategy. Milk that moment for all it is worth. That moment delivers on what bluffing and uncertainty do at their absolute best. Don’t muck it up by starting another stress cycle right away.

If you want to chain those experiences, but you don’t want complexity, then you need to give The Resistance a try.

The Resistance is the older sibling of Resistance: Avalon and exists as more of a mechanic than as a full game unto itself. The Resistance does one thing perfectly, and it has acted as a springboard for a dozen similar games including its younger, sexier cousin.

In The Resistance, a group of players must conduct 5 missions against an evil empire. Surprise! Some of the players are secretly agents of the empire!

It’s not the setup that is special, but rather the implementation. Each mission must take a certain number of players, and those players will vote secretly about whether the mission will succeed. If there is even one vote to fail, then the mission fails. The game ends when three missions fail or three missions succeed.

It’s that simple. There is no randomness. No skill. Just bluffing over and over again. While any traitor does have a significant decision to make in their first mission – “should I vote for success to build cred with the other players? – most the tension comes from the team selection and voting process. (A commander nominates the team to take a mission and then all players vote openly.)

This nominating process is an unadulterated bullshit machine. Players bluff and double-bluff as they try to weed out the traitors. Sometimes a traitor takes a fall so that another traitor can sneak into just one last vital mission.

It’s madness through and through. That said,The Resistance provides something that none of the other betrayal games do. The Resistance thrives on the concept that there is no chance of a mistake. Other games, like Battlestar Galactica and Dead of Winter allow the opportunity for a betrayer to play in absolute secrecy. They allow for randomness to break a venture, but The Resistance provides no such shield. Missions only fail if there is a traitor. Period.

Unlike Werewolf’s reliance on what people say, The Resistance relies on what people do. While this series of successful or failed missions does lend to a tense hour of play, it also loses something of the human interaction. The Resistance provides a logic puzzle: people are either traitors or they are not. Aberrant behavior is always the result of being the traitor. There is not even a sub-optimal play that can cast suspicion on someone.

As such, it is easy for games of The Resistance to fall into quibbling over a growing logic puzzle rather than as a series of bluffs. This can make the game lose steam as the strength of the game – the human interactions – give way into a collective effort to defeat the cardboard.

If you want to defeat cardboard, then you may be in for a long haul.

The Long Haul

Two mainstays of tabletop betrayal games – Battlestar Galactica and Shadows Over Camelot – have faced a serious challenge to their dominance over the genre: Dead of Winter. All three games challenge the players to survive against systems which create a credible threat of defeat even without the addition of one of the players acting against the rest. Each also presents hidden information held by individual players which they are prevented from sharing directly with the others.

This creates a sustained atmosphere of distrust. Along the way, each game presents challenges – micro-climaxes – where the balance of the game is held by a handful of cards contributed in secret. Eddies of tension ebb and flow over the board with each turn. Whenever someone steps out of line, discussion erupts across the table as players turn on each other to discover the traitor.

What Dead of Winter does that none of its contemporaries do is a stroke of genius. Where each game encourages players to watch for even small transgressions against the good of the team, Dead of Winter actually forces players to make sub-optimal decisions.

Each cooperative player in Dead of Winter must complete a randomly allotted personal objective in order to share in the victory of the game. These personal objectives… well they look an awful lot like betrayal. They will see you hoarding resources, blocking off travel, and generally disrupting the order of simply keeping the colony of survivors alive.

Essentially, Dead of Winter solved the cooperative game problem, and, in doing so, solved the largest problem facing long-session betrayal games. Dead of Winter adds an enormous stress climax to the game for EACH PLAYER participating in the game. Every game will see each player given the spotlight and being scrutinized in the star room as everyone observes them for the slightest hint of disloyalty.

Dead of Winter takes eyes off the board and onto the players. It makes the players into the stars, and players should always come first.

Betrayal in Digital Games

As Matt Lees pointed out in response to my question on his Patreon page, Betrayal mechanics have not been explored much in mainstream digital games. Hell, so few have been released that I had to search for games which fit the bill.

My first thought was of The Ship. As a guest at a terrible dinner party, the players are each assigned a target by Mr. X. The strange thing is that the dinner party is full of NPC guests that each need to eat and keep clean. Additionally, so do the players. If anyone does anything suspicious in front of guests, guards, or cameras, the guards crack down on them and throw them in the brig. It’s joyous madness.

It’s not really a betrayal game, though. The players are not bound to complete a series of cooperative objectives. They are not on a team. It’s just a deathmatch in a fancy dress.

Blank Media games has released Town of Salem, a game heavily inspired by Werewolf, and Space Station 13 are examples of small-press games which have dabbled in betrayal, but they never saw wide acceptance or acclaim.

One prominent game did make waves with a betrayal mechanic: Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days. In K&L2, IO-Interactive expanded on the traitor system from the original Kane & Lynch game by adding a mode called “Undercover Cop”. Unlike the “Fragile Alliance” mode retained from the original, “Undercover Cop” assigned one player to act as a betrayer. This betrayer did not  participate in the ad-hoc traitor system, but rather could shoot at and kill other players without being tagged as hostile to the other players.

This difference – where one player is assigned the role of the betrayer – is what separates opportunistic betrayal from the “betrayer mechanic”. Diplomacy and Risk revel in allowing players to stab each other in the back, but those are winner-take-all games. “Betrayal” games require there to be a group, ostensibly working together, with a game-assigned traitor in their midst. (This is what eliminates Archipelago – one of my favorite games – from counting as a betrayer game even though there is a hidden objective for triggering the losing condition.)

There are several reasons the betrayer mechanic is under-represented in digital games, and each of those reasons presents a unique hurdle.


Most digital games have some variation on character or account persistence: the concept that a game contains more than one session and that those session affect one another. This seems an odd thing to point out for digital games, but remember that a vast majority of betrayal games contain no persistence whatsoever. In fact… there is only one major stand-out for persistent tabletop betrayal games.

It may be cheating to talk about Paranoia at this point. Tabletop RPGs are so different from their digital counterparts that whole volumes could be filled discussing the issue. Paranoia can also be played in many styles, some of which are much closer to The Ship than to a traditional betrayer game, but it’s still one of the best examples of a persistent betrayal game.

It is rare in Paranoia for a player to actually be assigned to cause the whole party to fail. Rather, each member is a part of a secret society with its own objectives in any mission. Anyone caught attempting to complete such an objective is declared a traitor and must be killed by the other players. Meanwhile, they all need to complete a shared task.

It’s an interesting twist on the betrayer concept, and it can act as one example of how to alter it for very long-form, multi-session play. Completing secret objectives provides players with benefits from their society, but rooting out traitors provides benefits from “The Computer.”

Instanced Gameplay

One of the inherent strengths of tabletop play is that each gameplay session acts as a multiplayer instance: you play on an isolated island with the other immediate participants in the game. Everything that happens in that instance of the game is erased when it is over. Generally speaking, one session does not affect the next session or other session of the same game played by other people.

Additionally, it is rare for tabletop gameplay to be performed with strangers. Normally, tabletop games are played by a group of friends with preexisting relationships and social dynamics. Even in pickup games at a game store or convention, organizing the game and the table-talk that surrounds a game lead to relationships forming. This is how people work. We’re social creatures.

Multiplayer digital games are not like this. Most digital multiplayer games fall into two categories: pick-up group instanced multiplayer or persistent world MMO. Yes, there are many local multiplayer games – particularly dominated by party and fighting games – but even those are rapidly integrating online multiplayer.

These predominant multiplayer formats create an incredibly low barrier to entry for players to get into the game. They don’t need to invest time into gathering parties, they don’t need the emotional investment of meeting new people, they just need to tap “join” and be ready for fun.

This greatly reduces the amount of anticipation and preparation necessary for creating intense betrayal sessions. Essentially, this makes it difficult to provide exciting “foreplay”.

Session length and foreplay

With much of the table talk, game setup, and other preamble required to get into the mood of a betrayal game taken care of by automatic matchmaking of some sort, it becomes difficult at best to craft an experience that delivers on the nail-biting tension and sudden exultation that accompanies a betrayal game. Without the social tells brought by human interaction, the structure of the gameplay session itself becomes even more important.

In some ways, Kane & Lynch 2 actually handled much of this quite well in its “Undercover Cop” mode. In that mode, the Undercover Cop could not actually kill the criminal players until they stole the money. This created a period of the game where everyone is acting together. In small ways, bonds are forming and each player gets an impression of the effectiveness of the other players.

Once the money is stolen, the ballet of murder begins. It becomes a one against many battle game mixed with an escape sequence.

Funny thing, though. This pattern – the preamble followed by the 2nd act twist – strongly parallels Betrayal at House on the Hill. In many ways this also presents a weakness. While Undercover Cop does assign the cop right at the start of the session, that player does not have much opportunity to identify themselves before the mid-game twist.

This is one of the structural advancements that The Resistance made so clear: foreplay is important. The Resistance makes it clear that tension requires warning, tension requires multiple non-final conflicts. Undercover Cop gets this, to some degree, through its player-vs-enemy coop combat, but that does not really advance the inter-player tension and conflict. It’s a distraction. It’s playing against the cardboard.

The Ship and Space Station 13 actually handle this well. They give you something to do that isn’t necessarily a winner-take-all survival challenge. They both send you off to do several mundane tasks. These create a slow escalation of tension as you fear that you’ll be discovered or hunted while doing these somewhat meaningless errands. This creates a feelings of rising tension and provides opportunities for players to interact in isolation.

These interactions, however, cannot be rushed. The window of vulnerability they create is important for allowing players to communicate with one another. When one player follows another on one of these errands, that creates an imbalance of information. There’s a tension created as “why are they following me” is asked, but there is a greater impact on the game if both actors in this play survive. They both know that they didn’t kill each other. Are they allies? Are they amicable enemies? Regardless of the answer, they are closer now than the other players in the match.

That makes them special.

This is as close to direct human interaction as most digital games allow you to get, and that interaction creates investment in one another. It makes a relationship between the players, and that relationship is the core source of tension in betrayal games.

With the right balance of short, preliminary encounters and final, high-stakes climaxes, it’s possible for a digital game to accomplish the excitement levels of traditional betrayal games. This takes time, however. It can take minutes to let players build relationships, to let them get invested in each other, just so – right at the end – they can spend that investment in an orgy of accusations and conflict.

How long does that take? 10 minutes? 20? More? That’s all well and good for a console or for a PC game, but how do you handle betrayal on a mobile device?

A Special Hell

Here’s a secret: mobile games have very short sessions. How short?

Imagine a man sitting next to you with a stopwatch. When you decide to take your phone out of sleep mode, he starts the timer. When you complete your interaction with the game and exit to the home screen on your phone, this cruel man stops the clock. The the timer has rolled past three minutes, you go back to the drawing board.

Those three minutes… they’re called a “long session.”

A short session, where you check on timers or collect resources or maybe just rejigger some equipment, that needs to be completed in thirty to forty-five seconds. Otherwise: drawing board.

This is why a MOBA has never risen to the top of the mobile charts. This is why Hearthstone, despite being a spectacular marvel of design and art, cannot unseat Game of War. The terrible truth is that most people who play multiplayer games on PCs and consoles lend control of their lives to the game for its duration. Sleepless nights can be dedicated to “one more turn” or “one last match.”

This is true, frequently more so, for tabletop games. Tabletop games add a social pressure to commit to the game, to maintain some form of nebulously defined “immersion.” I’ve even seen designers lauded for “playing dirty” and forbidding any technology which might interrupt the game. These people put the uninterrupted continuation of gameplay above the health and safety of their players. This same pressure often manifests in online guilds and clans filled with dedicated “hardcore” players.

Such nonsense does not carry in the mobile space. Most mobile devices, were designed as extensions of telephones, and they retain that purpose. They are devices that must, at a moment’s notice, transform into a device for speaking to other human beings. A user always controls a mobile device, never the other way around.

Thus the need for brevity in gameplay sessions.

Heaven is other people

Betrayal games require interactions with other people. That’s the heart of the tension. The flirtations between truth and lies play out over a shared map of victory or death. You need success to be shared and failure to be absolute. The stakes are high in classic betrayal games. After all: you only live once.

In many games, multiplayer matchmaking alone could take up the whole of a mobile session. Hearthstone has the advantage of an already huge player base and only needing to account for a 1-v-1 experience. Betrayal, however, necessitates a group. (the magic number is often 4 or 5 players, but it can vary.) The number needs to be large enough to conceal the traitor, but small enough that each member can build a relationship with each other member.

A common solution to this matchmaking dilemma is to have them all move into a persistent world or to a hub. Allow for some actions to be taken in the hub, but leave the meat of the game in a structured instance. This is particularly common in MMOs, but can also be found in the online multiplayer of Red Dead Redemption.

Once again, this method does not work for the mobile session length. As such, a drastic modification is in order.

Doctor Trick’s Prescription

Let’s begin by saying that my prescription is only one solution. It isn’t THE solution. It isn’t even my only solution. It is my favorite solution right now.

Also, I’m not a doctor of any kind.

In order to prevent players from leaving in annoyance, mobile platform matchmaking needs to be instant. This is a large part of why asynchronous play is so popular with mobile developers. Since asynchronous play does not require both players to be online at the same time, the matchmaking pool is enormous when compared to synchronous play. Technical reasons aside, it’s just deeply socially unlikely for synchronous play to work out.

However, since we want a back and forth between players, we need to create an environment where multiple players can interact multiple times. Additionally, we need this environment to have an end. We need to have a climax that determines success or failure after the betrayer has had multiple opportunities both to sabotage the other players but also to be discovered. As such, this instanced gameplay environment needs to exist for multiple sessions, and each player in each session needs to be able to contribute to the completion of some shared goal.

Anyone who has played a game by email or played Laser Squad Nemesis is beginning to recognize the formula already. Asynchronous turns which execute simultaneously are an absolute joy to behold and add a huge amount of tension even to digital games. This can even be seen in Trion Worlds’ recently announced Atlas Reactor.

The concept is pretty simple, create an environment where players may take turns and submit their actions to a server. When all actions are in or a time limit expires, execute all actions simultaneously. Set up rules – which can be complicated – for resolving conflicts. Repeat.

The best of these games in meatspace not only encourage table-talk, but they thrive in it. The most famous boardgame form of this – famous for its power to end friendships and marriages – is Diplomacy. The nefarious combination of long talk sessions and theatrical reveals lead into a form of interpersonal betrayal few games even attempt.

So, dear readers, when you make your betrayal-themed games – whether physical, digital, or even digital mobile – be sure to let the negotiations take place. Let players talk. Even if it’s just canned messages. There is no betrayal without words. When you find that knife in your back, you find it was the trusted lies that cut the deepest.

Tipping the Hand: Rosa and the Presumption of Rape

I’d like to pull back the curtain a bit on one of the more secretive aspects of development. When I am feeling pompous, I call it “Narrative Engineering”; most people just call it “storytelling.”

Rosa’s Revenge

Back in Defiance, we had a tough-talking badass by the name of Rosa. Rosa Rodriguez was her full name, and she was originally modeled after Rosie the Riveter. She had a tragic history. She was raised during our pre-apocalyptic conflict, The Pale Wars, but she and her father, Amelio, had survived that conflict and the Arkfall to become members of The Defiant Few: the toughest champions of inter-species unity ever to grace Earth.

Life after Arkfall wasn’t just joy in the land of milk and honey. Rosa fell in with a bad bunch. She made friends with a up-and-coming gangster by the name of “Jackleg” Joe Teach. Despite being scolded by her father, Rosa maintained the relationship.

One day, Amelio discovered Rosa socializing with Joe Teach and decided to put an end to it. In the altercation that followed, Joe Teach murdered Amelio. This crime resulted in Joe’s apprehension by Jon Cooper and subsequent incarceration in Vegas Prison. That was many years prior to the events of the game – when Rosa was a teenager – and Jackleg Joe’s return to Paradise Territory eventually drives Rosa into a revenge-fueled conflict with Joe himself.

While working on the final scene for “A Bullet for a Badman”, something strange happened. One of the developers really wanted Rosa to kick Jackleg savagely. They wanted her to get really angry. We reasoned that she’d had time to come to terms with her father’s death, that she’d played out this murder fantasy enough times in her own head that it only carried disappointment to actually execute on it. Pulling the Ark-Cell out of Jackleg Joe was the final act in the discovery that fantasy does not always match reality.

Then the developer exclaimed: “This is the guy who raped her!”

I stood, mouth agape, as I tried to figure out what had brought this man to believe that. Then I saw people around the room nodding in agreement.

Something needed to be done.

The Rape Threat

We’d purposefully avoided even implying Rosa had been raped by Jackleg Joe. Any suggestion of it was expressly expunged from the game. Jackleg, who we specifically say was Rosa’s friend, murdered Amelio Rodriguez, Rosa’s father, and that was enough revenge motivation for the action of the game. However, the impression remained. Many of our own developers believed she’d been raped, when we asked why, they all answered the same thing: she’d been alone with Jackleg Joe when Amelio arrived on the day of his murder. “Alone” was the key word, and being alone with a man was enough to create the presumption of rape.

So, much to my chagrin, we had to add the following line to the data recorder “Case # 44WKE – Teach, Joseph“:

“It was a sight. Wish I had a chance to drive something else into his lovely daughter.”

Defiance had fallen back on one of the most prevalent tropes in Western culture, and we did it in order to confirm that Rosa had not been raped. Without that line, we would have had no way to disprove what would have been a common assumption. As that scene progresses, Cooper decides to beat up Jackleg in response to the rape comment. This is the closest we ever come to “damseling” Rosa; this is the only time that a man is called on to fight on Rosa’s behalf. I would prefer that never happened.

The sad fact was that many of the men and even some of the women on the development team assumed that a lone woman in the company of a villain could expect to be raped. The San Diego office was not populated by rape-obsessed lunatics. Even with the contents of “Case # 44WKE – Teach, Joseph“, many of our players still assumed that Rosa had been violated. We even had to explicitly clarify this with our partners at NBC.

Defiance is a world of fiction. While we can only do a very little to make our world a better place, we can make our worlds of fiction healthier one bad assumption at a time. If we are very lucky, those bad assumptions – those of malice and of weakness – will wither away in the light of the fictions we create.

The Women of Paradise

We had only a relatively small number of “cinematic characters” in Defiance. These were the men and women that could be featured in cutscenes and have animated faces.  When we decided on who these characters would be, we did actively spread them as evenly as we could among the different races and sexes available. They still lean a little male, but I’m proud of the women we chose to represent the New Frontier.

We’ve jeopardized Cass a few times, but she holds her own against the worst the frontier has to offer. The same can be said of Rosa. Defiance continued to find new ways to put Eren in jeopardy without making her helpless; it’s essentially a running gag that she manages to save herself. Rynn neither needs nor wants your help. Irisa, despite a whole line of missions dedicated to locating her, is much closer to an antagonist than anything else. EGO applies bizarre exuberance to her callouts in comments. Even Ara Shondu, our only female non-combatant, is a woman leading a people through the most dangerous time in Human or Votan history.

In the New Frontier, only the strong survive. This wisdom applies as much to women as it does to the men.

Mission of Bad-Ass: The problem of cross-disciplinary communication.

Mission of Bad-Ass: The problem of cross-disciplinary communication.
An Article by Trick Dempsey

We watched the screen in amazement as the player leaped skillfully from platform to platform tearing pieces of his giant, mechanical opponent. After one final, devastating blow, the titanic mecha-fiend toppled to the ground in a cloud of dust and debris. The player panned the camera as he surveyed the scene, eying carefully the path of destruction left behind after the robot attack; finally realizing how close the failure he had come with each step.

The lights came up in the conference room as the game faded to black with wild applause. Over the cheering, one voice rang out: “It’s not bad-ass enough!”

All eyes turned to the art director as he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I can’t work with this garbage. How can I make this bad-ass?”

The level designer set the controller down, making an awful click in the tense silence. “What would you suggest to make the level more bad-ass?”

The screen switched to displaying a flyby of the intricate, multi-tiered battle arena, first unscathed then in its most destroyed state. Tall, angular buildings jutted out of the playspace as the camera detailed the critical player path rising up in a spiral from the destruction below.

The art director coughed: “It’s too flat. Something that flat can’t be bad-ass. It’s uninspired. Uninspired can’t be bad-ass.”

“Alright,” the level desinger said through clenched teeth, “do you have any suggestions for how to make it more bad-ass?”

The art director stood up sharply: “If you don’t know what ‘bad-ass’ is then I’m not going to tell you.” He glanced briefly at the stunned crowd. “You are off this design until you can learn to do your job!”

And with that my coworker, a talented artist and designer, was moved into the scripting department. He has never scripted before, he has never needed to, he’s always been to valuable at his actual job to be pushed off into the work he knows the least about.

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

To a designer, phrases like “bad-ass”, “over the top”, and “uninspired” will never be sufficient feedback. Actually, those exact words will never communicate anything to any kind of developer. They are empty, meaningless phrases without qualification to back them up. On the other hand, to someone who knows what those words mean to them personally, they may carry all the meaning in the world.

To me, “bad-ass” is when James Bond sits back down at the poker table after being poisoned by his opponent and simply says “That last hand nearly killed me.” On the other hand, many people would argue that Tifa chapel battle from Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children is the definitive “bad-ass.” These two events may both, in fact, be bad-ass, which is why “bad-ass” does not act as sufficient criticism of any presentation.

It is important for anyone that hopes to communicate in this industry to learn to use valuable qualifiers. A “valuable qualifier” is any statement or phrase which illustrates a definite course of action. I’ll illustrate by expounding on the mech battle from earlier. Both of these examples would be valid responses to “What would you suggest to make the level more bad-ass?”

Example 1: “The battle as you have created it is too like a David and Goliath situation, and we were aiming for more of a clash of titans. This makes the player seem weak compared to his opponent, and they need to seem more like peers. Also, the mech is so dangerous that the player has no room for error: this battle may be too frustrating to lower-skilled players.”

This feedback is valuable. It qualifies what bad-ass means to the art director, and it opens a variety of options to the level designer. Since the mech art assets and animations have already been made, we cannot scale him down to it a more manageable size, but we can scale down its damage. Rather than knocking down whole buildings with a single swipe, it could simply do a much tighter impact damage with a high force radius. This would make the damage it causes both functionally and visibly weaker, bringing it more in line with the player powers both in defense and offense.

Secondly, we could increase the percieved and functional damage of the player. When the player tears pieces off the giant, these pieces could be accompanied by a large sound and particle effect and could cause cascade damage to many areas. This would make the player seem much more powerful, and make the fight slightly shorter. Few things improve a players feeling of power like doubling the amount of damage they do. This could also add an aspect of stratgy to the fight by allowing the player to choose what part of the mech to attack to do the most damage with a cascade.

Example 2: “The battle relies too strongly on the interplay of straight vertical and horizontal elements. Angled surfaces cause a feeling of drama and tension, the essence of bad-ass. The battle, because everything is at 90 degree angles, feels too flat even with all that jumping around. What we need is less Rampage! and more The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

The level designer in this case has many options: he could place the battle on a hill, forcing the player to try to get ahead of the giant in order to launch a successful attack towards its vulnerable head and shoulders. Stairs and ramps could be used in many places where jumps had been the preferred in the previous revision. The suggestion could be taken even farther by changing the way the giant interacts with buildings: rather than reducing them to rubble, his attacks could cause them to topple sideways. Now the player must run up the sides and insides of angled buildings as he climbs to eye-level with the mech.
Both of these sets of feedback are distinct and cater to very different meanings of “bad-ass.” By qualifying short, meaningless buzzwords with “valuable qualifiers”, we can communicate across disciplines and work together to create better games.

Play Games!

Both of my examples rely heavily on on common cultural references. What if the level designer was not raised in the West and is unfamiliar with the Bible or with the Greek mythology of the titans? Almost no designer or programmer is familiar with the groundbreaking set designs of the obscure, early-20th-century German masterpiece cited in the second example! External reference speeds up communication, normally, but it can also lead to roadblocks forming in any discussion.

We can’t be expected to play every game, but we can be expected to compare the games we work on to other games in the same genre. If you are making a shooter, you need to be able to discuss the differences between Bioshock and Call of Duty 4‘s aim assistance and enemy AI. If you are making player-ability-based puzzles, then you need to be conversant with the Zelda series and Beyond Good and Evil. If you are going for epic, David-and-Goliath boss fights, you need to play or watch Shadow of the Colossus.

This can be quite demanding on the pocketbook, but there are many ways to accomplish this cheaply. provides hundreds of video reviews, Metacritic and Gamerankings link to dozens of written reviews of games, and Gamasutra provides hundreds of searchable articles. All of these services are free. Even if you have played a game, read reviews and articles about it before you try to discuss it with your coworkers or employees: it is always important to understand how the discussion has been phrased in the past before you rephrase it towards improving your game.

No matter how hard you try to become an encyclopedia of gaming culture, you will never be able to take it all in. Some day you will be confronted with a reference or bit of vocabulary that you have no way to comprehend. When this happens, let the speaker finish his or her sentence then interrupt them with the question: “I’m sorry, but I didn’t understand the last thing you said. Could you clarify…”

Sometimes we are ignorant. This is nothing to be ashamed of. What is shameful is when you find yourself saying something like this:

“I think the idea of circle-strafing is stupid! Why don’t we just have the enemy walk sideways, at a set radius from the target, firing its weapon?”

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