A point about nostalgia

For the last 10 months I have been enjoying the wonderful experience of raising a small human being – my son. Besides all the other joys of fatherhood, raising a child allows me to observe human behaviors at their most basic stage of development. This sometimes allows me to make conclusions about those behaviors that would be difficult to make from observing their complex adult forms. I would like to share with you some of those observations and today in particular I would like to make a point about nostalgia.

Nostalgia? Can a 10 months old baby even feel nostalgia? While he probably cannot feel nostalgia yet one particular thing about the way he plays with his toys allowed me to observe a key element of nostalgia that is often left unnoticed when discussing the phenomenon.

My little boy has a lot of toys and sometimes we accidentally forget about some of them. For example when one of them runs out of batteries and I keep forgetting to buy replacements. An interesting thing happens when after some time such a toy is reintroduced. He is overjoyed, sometimes to the point of not  being able to play with the toy out of excitement. In fact he is more excited about such toys than about new ones – even the particular toy in question was not met with that kind of excitement when it was first bought.

What is really relevant to the discussion of nostalgia is what happens when he starts playing with the toy. For a baby playing with a toy, even very simple, involves discovering what can be done with it and how to do it. This is an integral part of the fun and discovering how to e. g. press a button to make the toy play sounds is something very exciting for him. However, it can also lead to frustration if he cannot figure something out for a long time. When a toy is reintroduced, this process repeats itself, since the few weeks are enough for him to largely forget how it worked. However this time around the process goes much faster and smoother – his memory is not yet as capable as an adult’s but already can provide some tips to guide the discovery process and make it more streamlined.

Here I think lies the reason why my son likes those reintroductions so much – he gets to make the discoveries again, only faster. From this point of view this is literally better than a playing with a new toy – all the fun, half the frustration. Even if we allow for the possibility that a rediscovery is less satisfying than an original discovery this continues to be an attractive emotional package – most of the fun with much less frustration, delivered in a more compressed time frame.

I think this condensed high of rediscovery is a big part of why we enjoy nostalgia in the adult life. When you see someone playing a game they have played as a kid you can clearly see that a large part of the fun is rediscovering various tricks and relearning skills that lay dormant for years. When somebody is visiting a city of their childhood, which they have not seen for years, they act as if they were visiting some exotic location, discovering it anew, only with the help of their foggy memory they can still half consciously discover exactly the parts that used to be the most important to them. Of course for an adult an additional level of emotions comes from associated memories that are also brought back by the process of rediscovery.

So, to conclude, I think an important but often overlooked part of the joy of nostalgia is the process of more or less active rediscovery of the past. Getting to relearn the skills and knowledge we have almost forgotten. Which is enjoyable because of that „almost” – which makes us feel somewhat like we are discovering something new, but at the same time makes that discovery smooth and much less frustrating (hence it makes us feel smart). By the way this rediscovery hypothesis also explains why there has to be something like a 20 year window between something going out of style and it becoming an object of nostalgia – we need those 20 years to almost forget about it.

How does this point pertain to games? Well, maybe it does not directly. But games often do try to invoke a feeling of nostalgia. And many of them do it in a rather passive way, by using art and music style of the period. Now I think there is a way to do this in a more involved and deeper manner – invoking nostalgia not only by going for retro look, but also for retro play style. One example of a game I think made this quite well is Legend of Grimrock, which borrowed a lot of its design ideas directly from the old PC dungeon crawlers, even if it they did not fit modern sensibilities, making it really feel like a game from mid 90’s, despite the modern graphics. Judging from the widespread acclaim for the title this approach does appeal to players, so if you are planning to make a nostalgia based game, do consider going deeper than pixel art and chiptunes.

Liftoff League 2 – alpha demo

If you like intense racing games with focus on skill and believe that breaking during a race is for wusses, or would just like to try how does it feel to race using your mouse as a controller then you must try your hand at flying rockets in Liftoff League 2 which has just reached the early alpha demo stage

You can download the game here (for Windows) or play it here in Unity web player. Downloadable version is a tiny bit better, since it allows you to change the mouse speed.

The game is based on a rocket racing prototype I published in October 2014 under the name „Rocket Riders”. Here are some screenshots.

Please share your opinions in the comments. This is still an early demo, so they will be very useful.

Hiatus

I am going into an indefinite hiatus.

About a year and a half ago I have decided to put my hobby game making activities a bit more into the spotlight. You might have noticed in the last two months both those activities and the promotional efforts have largely stopped. The reason is my newborn baby son requires a lot of attention and properly fulfilling the role of a father does not leave me with much time for, well, anything right now. Combined with a pretty hot period at my day job, I currently manage to find at best something like 2 hours of free time once every two weeks – and even then I just prefer to sleep.

I do not know how long will this situation last. Super optimistic estimation is one month. Realistic is something like 6 months. For that period I am suspending all my official development efforts, this blog and my twitter account. I might occasionally take part in some one-off projects like game jams, but most likely I will not. I hoped to take part in this year’s 7 day fps, but this is probably not going to happen. Once I have more free time I will consider whether I want to resume my game making activities. That is all I have to say right now. Good bye.

Rocket Riders Prototype

Anyone wants to test a very early game prototype?

Still with me? OK. Let me give you basic instructions, since it is too early for a tutorial. The prototype is called „Rocket Riders” and in this prototype you… well, ride a rocket around a closed circuit. The first rub is that you control the rocket using the mouse – it always turns towards the mouse cursor and the further the cursor is from the rocket the stronger the rocket’s thrust is. The second rub is that the rocket has no breaks and cannot completely turn off the engine – to slow down you need to turn the rocket around and use the engine in the opposite direction. Think Asteroids.

There are no lap times or AI competitors yet and the graphics is happy programmer’s art. Right now I mostly want to get some feedback on whether you think this vehicle controls and physics make sense. Here is the link, it requires Unity plugin to run: Rocket Riders Prototype

So, what do you think?

Weekly Update

This week my work on The Underground Guild has been mostly about improving the path finding routines and searching for fun through level design. I am indeed starting to find some moments of fun. Namely, I have found that trying to deduce where the pack of rats is running and to intercept them on the way creates a tension and release cycle that feels like it could become a part of a proper gameplay. I am currently trying to squeeze as much gameplay as I can from the already implemented systems before I start implementing new ones, however it turned out I still need to improve the pathfinding routines a little bit more, so I am doing just that.

On a personal note, I am preparing for the birth of my son, so I have less time left for development and even less for blogging. The updates might therefore become irregular for next few weeks.

The Underground Guild – Pathfinding and Avoidance

This week I have decided to show you a short clip demonstrating more advanced rat behavior in the game. Many gameplay elements can be seen in it if one looks close enough – how the rats avoid the player’s characters, how when pursued long enough they panic and start escaping towards the rat hole, how they try to avoid those characters they can see and how, if a character moves without their knowledge, upon seeing her, they will turn back and try to find another way.
 

In case you are wondering – the red bars above the rats are temporary gauges showing their level of panic and the eye icon visible sometimes above the characters is a visibility marker, obviously also temporary.

The Lack of Quality Control and the Race to the Bottom

With the recent attempts by Steam to include in their catalog every game that has ever been published we have heard many voices calling for an introduction of some sort of quality control. Those voices are mostly motivated by the care for the customers, who get cheated out of their money by developers selling barely functional junk like Air Control. Of course one can and many have made the counterargument that easier access to Steam is overall good and those players have only themselves to blame, caveat emptor and so on. Now as developer I oppose this view, for two reasons. The first is that for a seller of games, or anything really, „buyer beware” is one of the stupidest things to say, even if said in Latin. The second reason is that I believe lack of quality control can, under current circumstances in the PC market, hurt the indie developers as much if not more than it hurts the customers. In this article I will explain how exactly this might happen.

The Market for Lemons

Have you ever heard about the market for lemons? „The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism” is a 1970 paper by the economist George Akerloff describing a market failure mechanism that he observed in the used cars market. What do used cars have to do with computer games? I think the market failure mechanism described in the paper, known as „information asymmetry” may happen in the games market. In fact, I think that it has already happened in some of the markets and we might be at the verge of it happening in the PC indie games market.

But first, let’s go back to the lemons. „Lemon” is supposedly an American slang term for a used car that turns out to be defective only some time after it has been bought. Lemons are an unavoidable problem in the used car market. It is nearly impossible for the buyer to be completely sure he is not buying a lemon – checking for some types of damage, like the wear of internal engine parts, is way too difficult to be practical. What makes matters worse is that an individual seller has no incentives to disclose such problems, since that would lower his car’s price. On the other hand, if the seller is sure his car is actually good, there is no easy way to signal this fact to the buyer, since everyone can and does claim his car is in top condition.

Under such conditions the most rational thing the buyer can do is make an assumption about the car’s quality based on the average quality of cars in the market. The consequence of this rational behavior is creation of a positive feedback loop between the quality of the cars and their prices. Assume that there has been a surge in the number of low quality cars on the market. Maybe the price of gas has soared and the poorest car owners, who could not afford proper maintenance, now cannot afford driving cars at all, so they are selling them. The result is that the average used car quality falls. This means that buyers will assume the used cars are of lower quality and they will be willing to pay less for them. This can cause the sellers of the good cars to decide that they do not want to sell their cars for such prices – maybe they will drive them for a few more years, or sell abroad. This further depresses the average quality of used cars and so on and so forth. Soon it may turn out that although there are people who would like to buy a premium used car and although there are people who would like to sell such cars, the market only trades „lemons”, because everybody assumes that most used cars are lemons. Note, that this state of the market might persist even though the original reason for the fall of quality has long passed. Also note, that this positive feedback loop may start at any stage – at the fall of the average quality, at the fall of prices or at the withdrawal of quality cars from the market.

This „information asymmetry” problem is, obviously, not limited to the used cars market. In fact George Akerloff and Joseph Stiglitz argue that information asymmetry is a norm rather than the exception and they got the Nobel prize in economics for their work, so I think there is something to it. Probably the most known (and the most controversial) other example of market for lemons is the market in private health insurance. I won’t discuss that particular topic, due to its rather inflammatory nature.

The Information Asymmetry in Game Markets

Now let’s consider whether under certain conditions it is possible for game markets to become markets for lemons. It is obvious that game developers usually know more about their games than the players. It is also obvious that the individual developers do not have much incentives to announce that their game is crap. But games are not like used cars since a game can be, however subjectively, reviewed. Reviews, even if not perfect, at the very least protect the players from buying utter crap. Or do they?

If the market is flooded with games, e. g. due to an explosion of shovelware, many games are not reviewed at all and many are reviewed only by minor review sites that players might not consider reliable. Nothing strange about that – reviewing takes time and nobody wants to review the 255th Flappy Bird clone. User reviews could help, but they are usually far too easy to manipulate to be useful. In fact we have a proof that people are buying games without reading any reviews – because we know there are people who have bought the Air Control and similar games. And the only way they could have done that is if they have not read a single review. So, if people are not reading the reviews, then how do they assess the quality of the games they purchase? Well, they probably make an assumption based on the average game quality in the market…

If we apply the „market for lemons” reasoning to games, we can conclude that if the supply of games surpasses the reviewers ability to review them and the quality of the games falls at the same time, the result can be a downward spiral of falling average games’ quality and prices. There will always be some exceptions to this overall trend. Developers who are able to signal their game’s quality somehow – either by getting good reviews from recognizable reviewers, by advertising, having a recognizable brand or being featured by the store – will still be able to make decent money. However those who are unable to afford such signaling will suffer.

The Case of the Mobile App Stores

I believe we have already seen this play out in the mobile app stores – when iPhone and (more importantly) iPhone 3G debuted there were many high quality, innovative, payed games in the App Store. Many considered it an indie heaven and several well known indie studios’ made their first success stories there. But pretty soon the influx of new developers both overwhelmed the reviewers and caused the prices to fall. And they kept falling, along with the average quality of games till they reached the minimum allowed price of $0.99. Soon even this barrier was broken with the move towards the F2P model, which has a ton of problems of its own.

Notice those the most affected by this situation are not the even the customers themselves. They still can buy some quality releases for the iPhone, either from large companies that can afford advertisements, branding, features etc. or from smaller developers with established brands (such as Vlambeer). In other worlds from those, who can afford to signal the quality of their games. The most affected group are the new indie developers, who can not afford traditional marketing and do not have enough brand recognition to efficiently use the social media channels. New indie developers are usually advised to completely avoid the App Store or to be prepared for a long brand awareness building process. Similar thing (only faster) happened in the Android marketplace.

The Case of Steam

I think it will not surprise anyone if I say that the next lemon market might be the Steam based PC indie market. Most of the indie games on Steam do not have Metacritic scores due to either not having reviews at all or having them from too minor sites. Steam allows developers to simply hide unfavorable user reviews from the store page, which reduces their utility. We have clearly seen the dip in average quality due to Valve opening their doors to the flood of old games that were too bad to get on Steam when they were first released, shovelware and even barely functional shit like the already mentioned Air Control. We have definitely seen a fall in incomes – the indie mantra of recent months was „getting on Steam no longer makes you rich”. The question is whether this fall in incomes is causing a further fall in the average game quality, thus completing the cycle?

So far I have not yet noticed that. The optimistic explanation is that perhaps the incomes have fallen, but they are still at a level that allows developers to make quality games. The bitter-sweet explanation is that maybe the developers are feeling the sting, but they have no better market to take their games to, so they are biting the bullet and doing the best they can despite lower incomes. The pessimistic explanations is that the longer production cycle of PC indie games (compared to mobile games) means that we still have to wait for this effect to come into force. I have no data to prove or deny any of those hypotheses. I would like to believe that the optimistic one is true however, if the flood of shovelware continues I do not see a reason why the PC market should avoid the fate that has befallen the mobile app stores.

What Can Be Done?

That is the question. There are several things that can be done by Valve. The problem is that they will most likely not do any of them or drag their feet about it. Unfortunately I can only think of one thing that can be done by the developers.

The first thing that Valve can do is of course introducing some sort of quality control. This could even be profitable for Valve if this was done like the certification on consoles, where it is the developers or publishers that pay for the tests. However such a process would prevent Steam from releasing 200 games in a single batch, so I guess it will not happen.

The second thing, essentially a band aid, would be to at least change the store page layout to prominently show the game’s Metascore and the user score – these are not perfect, but at least they could filter out the worst cases of shovelware.

The third idea would be for Steam to change their refund policy. Currently, as far as I know, the official policy is „no refunds” however they do grant refunds on a case by case basis. If this was changed in such a way that the players could request refunds for a week after a purchase, this would make the players more willing to buy the more expensive, quality indie titles according to the logic „if I do not like it, I will just request a refund”. In fact this could even be an option enabled by the developer, as a signaling behavior to show the players „I am so confident in my game I am sure you will not want a refund”. I am rather skeptical whether Valve would like that solution due to the specifics of the economics of microtransactions, but refunds are a well known and tested method of battling the information asymmetry problem.

The fourth idea is rather controversial. Since the cause of the problem is lack of reviews or users not reading the reviews Steam could introduce a rule where the only games accepted into the marketplace would be the ones with reviews. These reviews could be from some minor site or blog, so as not to reduce the chances for the indie developers and Valve would keep a database of trustworthy reviewers and perhaps even introduce their own Metascore. The scores and excerpts from the reviews would be placed in a prominent place on the store page. Of course I realize this solution would put a lot of power and responsibility in the hands of game reviewers and this might not be to everyone’s liking.

The fifth idea is an idea for the developers – we could try reviving the old tradition of game demos. If the signaling is the name of the game, than „I will let you play a piece of the game for free, I am sure you will get hooked” is certainly a good signal to send. Of course this idea could also be helped by Valve cooperation if they somehow marked the games with available demos in the Steam store.

Conclusion

We, the developers, must fight the downward spiral of falling quality and prices. We must fight not only by making quality games, but also by calling for solutions that protect our customers from the lemon peddlers. Otherwise we risk the destruction of our currently best marketplace and with no obvious alternatives (no, not everyone can get on PS4) this could spell troubles for the whole indie game movement.

P. S.

If you find the idea of a market failure interesting or if you find it preposterous and impossible, I highly recommend reading How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities by John Cassidy. It is a very eye opening book and this is where I have originally learned about the market for lemons.

The Underground Guild Update

This week I do not have new features to show off on screenshots – or rather I do, but they require longer screen grabs to show off and those take long time to prepare. I plan to do them for the next Screenshot Saturday. During the last week I have been integrating the A* Pathfinding Project into the game and I am glad to say that after some initial hurdles the AI is starting to behave like I want it to. Long story short, the rats now can navigate complex mazes and when escaping they try to avoid the characters, even if the characters move around. With the new pathfinding, I feel just watching the rats run around the maze is starting to be fun and I feel with some new additions I have already planned, the gameplay will soon start to come together.

I also have probably found a graphics artist for the project. He is an old friend of mine who, coincidentally, introduced me many years ago to The Order of the Stick webcomic. Our reunion was celebrated with so much beer I am not sure he remembers volunteering for the project – that is why I wrote „probably found”.

What can I say more – it is insanely hot in Warsaw recently. 30 degrees Celsius second week in a row and it is supposed to stay that way for at least the next 2 weeks. As you may imagine, this is not exactly great for my motivation. Neither was working on the pathfinding – I wanted it to do some nonstandard things and this took quite some time to get right – enough to make me wonder whether this project makes sense at all. This made me think that perhaps, as an indie developer, I should do some relatively simple „like X, but” game to get some sort of success under my belt. That would help me power through the periods of doubt that arise whenever I am doing some kind of a bigger feature. Perhaps I will do just that if The Underground Guild does not work out, however, for now, I am sticking to it – so far it is working out pretty well and such a rather unique design is a difficult, but instructive exercise in game design.

The Choice Oriented Design

Continuing from the last post on the subject, I will now explain the individual rules. Starting with the first one:

  1. The choices made by the player are the atoms of the gameplay. There is no gameplay without choices. The goal of game design is to make these choices interesting.

I mean this in a very atomic sense. If there is one thing that is common to every single game ever is that they all require that the player makes some choices when playing them. At the basic level this might be as simple as a choice between pressing and not pressing button A. Or the choice might be more complicated, like pressing the button now, or 190 ms later. Or the choice might be between pressing button A or button B. These are very primitive choices and few games state them that crudely – but such choices are the common element of all the existing games and of all the games that are yet to be created. Without these elemental choices available to the player there can be no game.

Now, of course almost all games, save for a few that are complete quick time events fests, do not state their choices in such a primitive manner and do not offer only such primitive choices. The button presses have meanings, like moving the character, or using an item, or firing a gun. So the choice to press the button A becomes a choice to shoot an enemy or not. The choice to press the button now or 190 ms later becomes a choice when to dodge an incoming attack. The choice whether to press button A or button B becomes a choice between firing your gun at an enemy, or raising your shield. Combined these three choices form a higher level choice between firing at the enemy, dodging his attack or blocking it with your shield. On even higher level, there might have been a choice between fighting this enemy or bribing him with money. In some games, on a yet higher level the player could have chosen to walk a completely different corridor, therefore not having to meet this enemy at all – but maybe meeting another one. In some other games, on some sort of a top level, the player could have joined the same faction as the enemy, so he would just let him in. There are choices all the way up and all the way down. That is why I call the player’s choices the atoms of the gameplay.

This is a very powerful observation. If the gameplay is built out of player choices, or as Side Meier said „A game is a series of interesting choices”, then we can reason about the gameplay by asking questions about those choices. The basic questions are:

  • What is the choice that the player is making at the moment?
  • What are the factors influencing that choice?
  • Is this a choice you want the player to make?
  • Is this choice interesting?
  • If not, why? Is it meaningless, trivial, too hard… ?

Answering those questions, although sometimes difficult, usually yields very good insights about problems with the game design. And as every programmer will tell you, finding the problem is 80% of solving it. The other rules on my list are largely supportive to this first one, supposed either to help you identify, or to help you solve problems with the choices in your game. Due to this focus on choices, I sometimes call my design methods the „choice oriented design”.

The Underground Guild – First Gameplay Snapshots

The time has come to show first snapshots of gameplay from The Underground Guild and reveal what is the twist of its gameplay. So, without further ado.

The Underground Guild screen grab

And a little bit more…

The Underground Guild screengrab 2

The game puts the player in a role of a rat catcher in a medieval fantasy city. What? You think this is not a job worthy of a hero? Well, so does the heroine, but the job market is tough and the ratcatcher’s guild known as The Underground Guild is the only one with openings.

Now the tactical twist of the game is that, unlike the enemies in a typical strategy game, the rats do not want to be killed – they avoid the player’s team and if startled enough will make a run for the rat holes. This means the player has to employ various hunting techniques – chasing the rats into dead ends, surrounding them, placing traps on the paths to rat holes. To make matters worse, rats are not the only thing that lives in the basements, dungeons and sewers of the city. But that is a story for another time…