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Hexplosion Update: Red Slimes

hexplosion_image

I’ve just updated Hexplosion with a brand new enemy: Red Slimes.

It’s based on the design concept I first heard stated in the GDC Vault presentation, Design in Detail: Changing the Time Between Shots for the Sniper Rifle from 0.5 to 0.7 Seconds for Halo 3. I later heard it again in the Extra Credits video, Counter Play. Summed up, real quick, a new weapon in a multiplayer game should make the game more interesting for a player it’s used against. It’s kind of obvious in retrospect, but by committing it to words instead of unspoken intuition, it’s easier to keep in mind when designing.

The red slime leaves a damaging trail of fire, which keeps the witch from being able to fly through certain parts of the arena. It restricts your movement. I realized quickly that the red slime needs to be faster as well, to cover more territory, so I increased its speed to three times that of the green slime. 

After that, it occurred to me that it might make sense, thematically, if a bomb exploded instantly on contact with fire. I thought some more on the subject. Theme and world can add a lot to a game, but you need to make sure it doesn’t hurt the game. After some internal debate, I figured that the instant bomb explosions would make play more interesting for players. It allows them to break a rule, and players could use this tactically and use the fire to bomb slimes quickly. On top of that, the fire also becomes a barrier. A player can’t toss a bomb across the level if there’s fire in the way. This design space could prove very useful in future updates. After a bit of thinking, I figured I might as well make the red slime blow up bombs on contact as well. It’s natural to intuit that they must be made of lava or something, and if a red slime takes a direct hit from a bomb, they’re likely to explode within half a second when they spawn some fire anyway.

A side effect of all this is that the bombs are now a physical collider. It isn’t part of my intended design, but I’ll see how it works out. I mean, combos in Street Fighter started out as a bug, and now it’s hard to imagine a modern fighting game without combos. Anyway, bombs can now be used to block a slime’s approach, which helps to make the game a little easier and give the player more control, but the slimes don’t try to move around the bomb. They just press forward in the player’s direction. 

A minor bug that’s popped up is that if you throw the bomb forward, through the player sprite, the player sprite will be shoved forward slightly. It doesn’t impact play much, but it doesn’t add anything either. I want to squash that. There’s also the fact that a player that rams into a slime will shove the slime offscreen after dying. Again, it doesn’t impact play much, but I’d like to fix that up.

So there you have it. If there’s anything you’d like to see, just let me know in the comments!

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Posted by on August 24, 2014 in Grant's Games

 

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Energy and Retention

Let’s talk about a popular retention mechanic: Energy.

energy (1)

Sims Social Energy Icon

That’s right. Energy is a retention mechanic. It can be used to monetize (and do social stuff), but it’s primarily a retention tool.

Let’s define energy mechanics, just so we’re on the same page. Energy is a time-renewable resource consumed when players initiate a game’s core gameplay loops. It’s a rough definition and needs work, but it suits most of our discussion purposes.

I’ll break this down a little further, to make it clearer. Energy is a resource consumed when players initiate a game’s primary gameplay loops. A game’s core gameplay loop is what people would consider to be the broad actions of playing a game. Planting crops, solving puzzles, launching missions, investigating crime scenes, etc. When a player initiates this, the energy is consumed. Variations do exist, although they are still tied in concept; in Candy Crush Saga, your energy resource (“lives”) are only consumed if you do not successfully complete a puzzle. However, viewed from another angle, one could say that lives are consumed for attempting the puzzle, and your reward for beating it is to have your life refunded.

In any case, should a player exhaust all of their energy, they are unable to initiate the game’s core play loops. They may be able to do other things with the game, but these actions are usually limited to acquiring consumable resources. They cannot gain experience or see new content. The actions that cost energy and the actions that don’t cost energy aren’t decided arbitrarily. This is very deliberate.

Note how it costs SHIELD points, silver, and time to train Emma, but it does not take energy.

Note how it costs SHIELD points, silver, and time to train Emma, but it does not take energy.

Like I mentioned earlier, energy is a retention mechanic. Let’s think about what would happen if players didn’t have energy. They would start a game, and if they liked it, they’d just keep playing and playing. Eventually, they’d hit a point where they were done with all the content in the game. No more quests, no more puzzles, no more reason to keep playing. That’s when they quit. Even if you do have enough content, they can play until they burn themselves out and quit. That’s bad news for a game. A game needs money to live, and players aren’t usually willing to pay money until they’ve been playing for a while. The game needs player to come back every single day, building up a presence in that player’s life, being a constant source of fun and generating a feeling of good will. That’s when a player might decide it’s time to return the favor and give some money to the game.

That’s why energy can run out, but energy doesn’t just bottom out at zero. Energy has a cap; from casual observation, usually five iterations of the core play loop if it isn’t an invest/express game like Farmville, but in general, you get a play time of 15 to 30 minutes out of a full energy bar. I’ll save the talk about the specific numbers for a future talk, but the point is that energy can top out, and time that you spend with a full energy bar is energy that you’re losing by not having enough space in your bar to hold it. That triggers something called loss aversion. People don’t like losing things, and while a player might not literally be losing something here, they’re losing out on gaining energy, and that encourages people to check back throughout the day, see how they’re doing, and burn off some energy. This is something called an appointment mechanic. Appointment mechanics include things like rest XP in World of Warcraft, but it’s something I’ll talk more about later.

criminal case energy

Combined, those two are the main point of the energy system. Slow a player down so they don’t see all of a game’s content too quickly. Provide an incentive for them to play the game regularly. It’s both simple and effective. That said, energy can also be used for monetization and acquisition. Many games will allow players to spend money to buy energy. Used carefully, this can generate a lot of money, but you need to be careful of making sure players can’t just burn through all your content. On the other hand, if priced so a player spends more than the expected lifetime value burning through the content, maybe this might work out for you. The fact that practically every game will sell energy for money suggests that it usually works out for the best.

Energy is also used in many games as a social mechanic. You can ask your friends to give energy (or rather, click on a button that causes you to gain energy. They don’t actually lose any of their own). You can give energy to your friends. You can invite friends and get energy for it. You can visit your friends and collect energy. There are lots of ways this can work out, but it all boils down to players asking their friends to sign up and incentivizing them to play the game after they’ve signed up. This results in organic acquisitions, better retention, and an actual community of players who will talk to each other about your game.

nomorelives_copy

The player is being asked to wait, ask friends, or spend gold for additional lives.

It’s easy to see energy as primarily being a monetization mechanic, since players usually only see it as a popup that asks them for money, but its power as a retention tool really can’t be overstated. It’s simple and effective, and it’s no wonder that so many games use it.

 
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Posted by on August 22, 2014 in Game Thoughts, Retention

 

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Puzzle Design: Spaces in Tile Swapping Games

Back to puzzle games. Let’s talk about levels in puzzle design. For now, let’s ignore special objectives, special tiles, and that sort of thing. The number one most important tool in level design is the shape of the level itself. When I broke down level 65 of Candy Crush Saga, I mentioned that tiles on sides and corners are harder to match. I figured I’d zoom in on that specifically, since a level’s shape informs everything else placed in it. 

In a tile-swapping match-3 game, your basic verb is to swap tiles, and you can only swap tiles if they’ll make a horizontal or vertical match. Because this is your only verb, all objectives in tile-swapping games are based on matching tiles, whether your goal is to make specific types of matches or to make matches in particular areas of the board, which may become easier or harder depending on the board’s shape. On a micro level of design in this area, difficulty is controlled by how many usable spaces are adjacent to a tile.

Shariki

Shariki

Four: 

The space containing the dark blue tile is adjacent to four other spaces. I don’t think any official standard terminology exists, so I’m going to make my own and call it an open space. The dark blue tile can’t be matched with anything right now, but it’s certainly got a wide variety of options. It can be matched horizontally or vertically, to its left, its right, its top, or its bottom. It can be one of the edge pieces of a match, or it can be the middle. It has the widest flexibility for matching.

Open:

  • Matches Up
  • Matches Down
  • Matches Left
  • Matches Right
  • Can be middle of horizontal match
  • Can be middle of vertical match
  • Can be end of horizontal match
  • Can be end of vertical match
wall

Cookie Jam

Cookie Jam

Three: 

Let’s remove one of those possible adjacent spaces and see what happens. Look at the spaces with the blue tiles in the center. I’m calling these walls, though depending on their orientation, they could be floors or ceilings. The first image is much less forgiving than the second, but they’re the same either way: They cannot be matched on their right side. This means that any horizontal match involving them must use them as an end piece and not a middle. For the sake of brevity, I’ll only list the traits of walls oriented to the right. The same principles apply no matter what direction the walls are facing.

Walls:

  • Matches up
  • Matches down
  • Matches left
  • Does not match right
  • Cannot be middle of a horizontal match.
  • Can be middle of vertical match.
  • Can be end of horizontal match.
  • Can be end of vertical match.
Candy Blast Mania

Candy Blast Mania

Two:

There are actually two possible configurations under which a tile may only have two adjacent spaces. The first is the corner. In this example image, the space containing the green tile is a corner. Let’s examine this one:

Corner Space:

  • Cannot match up
  • Can match down
  • Can match left
  • Cannot match right
  • Cannot be middle of horizontal match
  • Cannot be middle of vertical match
  • Can be end of horizontal match
  • Can be end of vertical match

hall

The other is the hall. These can be vertical or horizontal. The purple piece and the lower blue piece in this image can be said to occupy hall spaces.

  • Can match up
  • Can match down
  • Cannot match left
  • Cannot match right
  • Can be middle of vertical match
  • Cannot be middle of horizontal match
  • Can be end of vertical match
  • Cannot be end of horizontal match

Like the corner space, the hall space is disqualified from four of those traits listed.

Candy Crush Saga

Candy Crush Saga

One:

Finally, we have the nub, called so because they can only protrude from a larger mass by itself. These only have a single adjacent space, which severely limits their matching options. The central yellow space can only swap or be matched with whatever happens to be on its right. Matching nubs is especially difficult. Let’s break this one down too.

  • Cannot match up
  • Cannot match down
  • Cannot match left
  • Can match right
  • Cannot be middle of vertical match
  • Cannot be middle of horizontal match
  • Cannot be end of vertical match
  • Can be end of horizontal match

This one looks really hard to match! You’d have to be very lucky or very skilled at exploiting opportunities to take it, but there’s one more kind of space you need to look out for!

Cookie Jam

Cookie Jam

Zero:

That’s right. There are games with tiles that have zero adjacent spaces next to them! Zero! I call these Solo Spaces! What can possibly be done about them? I’m not even going to bother running down the list for this one, because you can’t ever make matches with them or swap them.

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t ever collect them! Many tile swapping puzzle games grant you the ability to create special tiles that can clear an entire row or column. If you see a level with a solo space, that means you need to make very careful use of your special tiles, because those are the only way you’re ever going to touch tiles on a solo space.

 
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Posted by on August 20, 2014 in Game Thoughts, Puzzle Design

 

Making Monetization Fun

Games try to be fun. Games also need to monetize. Do these two needs have to be at odds? Can monetization be fun? Monetization isn’t something people usually think of as fun. At best, it’s like filling up the gas tank: An exchange of money for relief. At worst, it’s like extortion: Nice village you got there. It’d be a shame if something happened to it.

I thought for a while and rewatched the Extra Credits video on the harm that bad monetization mechanics does to the free to play industry. I rewatched it a few times, actually. The video was primarily about how to create monetization that at the very least, does no harm, but they did mention a positive example of monetization: An unnamed Korean MMO with a money bomb item. Players could throw it down, and it would explode into loot piles that everyone but the purchasing player could pick up. This led to money bomb parties and a lot of social attention. I’d write more on that, but I haven’t played the game in question, and searching for that game proved fruitless.

That’s when I realized that even if I didn’t know that game, I already knew a game with a similar fun monetization mechanic: Team Fortress 2.

Welcome to Mann Up Move

Alright, enough reading advice. It’s man-to-man talk time. I am not going to lie to you: I am going to have to lie to you. You men are absolutely prepared to deal with this, and you are going to be just fine. Right. End of lie. Now get ready to absorb some bullets so they don’t hit my factories. — Saxton Hale; TF2 Official Website

You didn’t think this blog was entirely going to be about casual games and self promotion, did you?

A bit of background (Skip this paragraph if you already play TF2 and know what MvM means): Team Fortress 2 is a team-based first person shooter that was originally sold for money, but is now a free to play game. On August 15, 2012, the game debuted Mann vs Machine, a brand new game mode where a team of six players takes on wave after wave of AI-controlled robots. This mode is playable for free. However, players may also purchase Tour of Duty Tickets for $1, which allow them to play MvM in Mann Up Mode. In Mann Up Mode, players play on official servers and can earn cosmetic items. A ticket is required to play, but it is not consumed until you successfully beat the mode.

Backpack_Tour_of_Duty_Ticket

Tour of Duty Ticket

Squad Surplus Voucher

Squad Surplus Voucher

The Tour of Duty Tickets are nice, but this article is about a different item: Squad Surplus Vouchers. These cost $2, and you can choose to activate them when you join an MvM game in Mann Up mode. If you fail, you can keep the voucher and nothing else happens. If you win, the ticket is consumed and every player in the match gets a random item drop. Random items in Team Fortress 2 are normally rationed out; you only get so many drops in a week before item drops are reset, so the voucher is a method of breaking this rule.

Because the Squad Surplus Voucher benefits the entire team, it has significant social value. A player who joins in the middle of a match may be considered a lesser team member because they have contributed less toward victory, but they might activate a voucher as a peace offering and enhance the reward if the team wins. It can also be used as a negotiation chip: A skilled player may be uninterested in replaying a particular MvM map, but the promise of Squad Surplus Vouchers might convince them to change their mind.

The most exciting use of the voucher, however, is the “Full Voucher Run”, when everyone on the team decides to play the mode and activate Squad Surplus Vouchers. Every player involved will gain six items upon successful completion, an entire week’s worth of loot! When someone in a group chat announces  full voucher run, Mann versus Machine transforms from a game mode into an event. Players get excited and buy vouchers so they can join in the fun. All the players are excited and motivated to push through to the end, and upon successful completion, the players get their goodies, and Valve removes $18 worth of consumables from the game economy: Six vouchers worth $2 each and six Tour of Duty tickets worth $1 each.

Even ignoring the considerable revenue, let’s look at the player experience. When a player buys a Squad Surplus Voucher, they aren’t spending money on an item drop. The personal material benefit of the voucher is marginal at best. What a player is buying is the expectation of an enjoyable future experience. The player is buying a social bargaining chip. The player is buying anticipation.

That’s what makes the Squad Surplus Voucher a fun monetization item. With any other item purchase in the game, a player is spending money on weapons for tactical flexibility or cosmetic items to customize their avatar, but the voucher is the purchase of an experience and social gratitude. In the context of a mode like Mann versus Machine, where tightly-knit teamwork is more important than ever, it helps to drive home the feeling of camaraderie. You are a team, working together, and someone just brought something awesome to the table.

The lessons learned from the Squad Surplus Voucher can apply easily to any game that has a play context where players are able to work together. It takes full advantage of human social behaviors. In the context of a single player experience, or a multiplayer experience where players are only comparing or competing with one another instead of cooperating, I admit the lessons are less directly applicable, but it does prove one thing: There is a monetization method that players think is fun! There are people who disagree with the $2 price point, but nobody wishes the voucher weren’t in the game. If one fun monetization technique exists, there must surely be others out there just waiting to be designed.

PS: You have no idea how hard it was to talk about TF2 and monetization and avoid mentioning the word “hat” outside of this sentence.

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2014 in Game Thoughts, Monetization

 

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New Game: Flappy Pipes

flappypipesGonna be honest: I did not spend most of the week on this one. I was actually working on a Match-3 game, and I realized I was jumping into something much more difficult than I anticipated. With the Sunday deadline looming, I needed to get something out, and so I made Flappy Pipes.

That isn’t to say I didn’t learn anything from the experience. It was actually pretty fun! I learned about dealing with physics and gravity in Unity, and also did a fair amount of fine-tuning the gap between the pipes. I learned a bit more about how to handle UI as well. It isn’t just in an entire other scene, and I delayed the “Click to restart” prompt to let the moment of defeat sink in a little.

There’s another major thing I learned: Object pooling. It’s a little technical, but here’s the basics: Instead of creating and destroying objects constantly, you just create a bunch of an object off-stage and bring them into the stage when you need them, saving on processor power. This’ll allow me to design games with way more sprites on the screen, such as shooters.

I also did something I never thought I’d actually do: Make sprites. The pipes and birds are the very first sprites I’ve ever made, and you know what? They aren’t all that bad! The birds could definitely use a lot more work, but they look close enough to their tribute material that you know what’s going on. The pipe is simple, but I got to apply some of my shading intuition from my miniatures-painting. The dark line underneath the wider pipe section really adds depth.

So, yeah. It’s not the most original game, but I learned a lot by making it!

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2014 in Grant's Games

 

Update Schedule

I figured I’d go ahead and set a firmer update schedule here. Each week, I aim to make at least five updates , likely on the weekdays. Ideally, I’ll throw something new up each day. Each week, I also intend to have a game release of some kind. I want to explore a wide variety of games, but I want to be able to create more fleshed-out experiences as well. I’m thinking that I’ll cycle between providing updates that enhance previously-released games and creating new games that push my design and scripting boundaries.

 
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Posted by on August 16, 2014 in Meta

 

Monetization Tool #1: Advertising

sim2

I was at a Silicon Valley IGDA meeting last night, and the topic of advertising came up, and it’s been sitting on my mind. Let’s talk about it. TV lives on advertising. Websites live on advertising. Magazines and newspapers are full of advertising. Phone books are almost entirely advertising. I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that it’s the most widespread method of content monetization in the world.

It’s much rarer in games. When you do see ads, they fall into two general categories: Ad banners and video ads. Ad banners don’t really make much money. People have been trained to ignore them from years of internet usage, and they rarely click through. 

Video ads pop up in plenty of mobile games, but the strange thing is, they only ever advertise other mobile games. Stranger still, they often advertise games that belong to competitors. That seems short-sighted, since you’re presenting your players with your competitors’ games. That aside, though, advertisers are missing out on an opportunity. Many mobile games are integrated with Facebook, and advertisers can get loads of information to tailor their ads to those players.

I realize that video advertisements are seen kind of annoying. Ads break the flow and pull you out of the experience. However, when it comes to TV, we put up with it. Why is that? My speculation is that this is because TV shows build the ads into their flow, pausing at dramatically appropriate moments. It’s my belief that if games want to use video ads, they need to work them into the design.

Game experiences are heavily reliant on pacing and flow management, and AdventureQuest Worlds discovered a unique method of integrated advertising into that pacing and flow. When you die in that game, players have to watch a short ad. What a clever idea! You usually want a small break after a player dies in the game, a moment to let the death sink in. That’s a moment when a player is highly engaged with the game, so their attention is at a high point. It’s prime temporal real estate for an advertisement! Not one that’s too long, but it’s a good spot nonetheless, and I’m surprised we haven’t seen more games try to emulate this.

There are also games like the now-defunct Sims Social, which had events advertising real world products. This had the benefit of integrating the game into the world itself and creating a limited-time event item. Ads can’t always be tailored specifically for games like this, but it might be the ideal way of integrating advertising with a game.

With all that said, if a viable method were found to support a game entirely through advertising, in-app purchases could afford to become less central to a free game’s design. Sure, in-app purchases might still exist, but the entirety of the game would no longer have to be chained to the habits of the 1% of players who pay money. Free to play games are often accused of being exploitative and soulless, and many of those accusations are based around the in-app purchase monetization model built around this 1% of players. I think there’s certainly a place for in-app purchases in game design, but if companies could discover how to elegantly integrate advertising and monetize the 99% of players who don’t pay, then the game could be designed without the assumption that in-app purchases are its lifeblood.

Unfortunately, the situation right now is tricky. Advertisers aren’t making ads for games, and people who make games with in-app purchases are wary of experimenting with them, and rightly so: It’s hard enough to get players and convert them to paying players. Why take a huge risk, show them ads, and drive them away from the game? 

Eventually, someone’s going to figure it out, but let’s not be passive about this. This isn’t just about making money. It’s about freeing designers and giving them more creative flexibility to create better games.

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2014 in Game Thoughts

 

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