A new “feature” – Game Design by Observation. Gamer Zone continues to move along just fine. It’s interesting how a “simple” task can go completely insane on your sometimes – here’s an example. Indie life continues at a fast pace, people on IRC really get on my nerves, and more in this edition of my “Oh my god can this guy write longer .plans?”novel in a .plan. (And the answer is no – there’s a limit on the size of a .plan. I’ve reached it before ;-)

OK, it’s not like my .plan files are a newsletter, magazine, or similar. It’s just my .plan file. But for some reason, I keep wanting to well… add something useful to it 🙂 I’m finally getting around to creating a “feature” that’s going to be regular in my .plans = “Game Design By Observation”. This should be fun, and start some interesting flame wars from time to time. Don’t worry, my usual drivel is still in here 😉
Game Design by Observation
The premise of Game Design by Observation is this: All day, 5 – 6 days a week, I see gamers playing games at my LAN Gaming Center, Gamer Zone. You start to see some interesting trends, and have some interesting conversations with people. At the same time, my wife is getting her degree in Industrial Psychology (actually a double major – she’s also getting Sociology), so we discuss a lot about what we observe since she’s also interested in the game design & development field.
A while back, I realized this could be useful information for us Indies – anything that gives us a potential edge is useful. I read game design articles in various places, and quite often it seems like the people who write ’em haven’t actually done much more than write games, and explain game design from their point of view as a developer. But what point of view matters the most?
The Gamer, duh. They are the ones who buy the games. Want to make money? Make the gamer happy. (Oversimplified of course – there’s a lot more to it than that. Marketing. Marketing. Quality product. Marketing.)
So, I’m taking the observations from my time at Gamer Zone, putting fingers to keyboard, and passing them on to anyone who bothers to read this thing 🙂 Just like the game design articles aren’t always right, my stuff shouldn’t be considered to be the worlds greatest resource for game design information 😉 It’s free advice, and sometimes when you read more than one .plan in a row, it’s going to contradict it’s self (‘Specially because different observations are made about different game types.) It should also be noted that this is from the perspective of someone who’s also very interested in the business side of things. Sure, there are people who do “Pure Game Design” – not worrying about their market, or how much money they will make, they just want a game. My hat’s off to ya guys. But I’ve got to make money when I write a game – I don’t want to have to keep a day job just so I can write games 🙂 So you’ll see a lot of intermixing of game design and the market side. Not a bad thing, trust me 😉
So here goes GDO #1..
Game Design by Observation #1: Innovation? Heck, Give Them More Of The Same!
I’ll start with something that will totally discredit me as a game designer. Forget innovation sometimes. There, I said it. It goes totally against the grain of what most of us Indies say we want to do. We talk about how we need to innovate, break the chains of sequilitis, do new things, and hit new nitch markets.
And Indies are absolutely right, sometimes. Innovation allows you to crack an entirely new area that no one is serving, is underserved currently, or hasn’t been served with a new product in a long time. Heck, I want to do a 2D platformer (Jumpman: 2049) so bad I can taste it. No one hardly does non-side scrolling 2D platformers anymore, so why not serve that area.
This is where we fall into Problem #1 with innovation. If it’s not like anything else, how do you market it? Right now, if you product a first person tactical shooter, when someone talks about the game it’s “Like Counter Strike, but with…” But what if it’s a new idea? How do you market something that breaks new territory?
If someone has invested skills in FPS games, they tend to stick in that area for the most part. That’s not to say they won’t check something new out, its just that they tend to stay within their developed skillset and gamestyle. For that matter, if they are heavy duty Halo players (for instance) getting them convinced to play anything else may require extraordinary efforts!
Now, that’s not to say that it’s a great thing to go head to head with Counter Strike or any other game. But when a market awareness of an existing game style exists, it does give you a leg up with getting people’s attention. 10 copies of Soldner are on their way to Gamer Zone right now – will it get played? Yep – there’s pleanty of Counter Strike and Battlefield 1942 players already there, so shifting to a similar game to check it out is easy. What about those 16 copies of Zap! that I have? That’s going to be harder to get players on at first since it’s so far from what they already play. (This is a subject for another day – I can now market any game within the center, once I found The Secret To Swaying Gamers in Gamer Zone 😉
Someone is going to point out “But, if I’m writing something new, I’m not nessiarily shooting for the FPS market.” Of course you’re not. You’re shooting for anyone that will possibly play the game – when you build something innovative, your potential market could be just about anywhere to a certain degree. That’s a strength and a weakness. I’m just telling you what I observe – the same things apply to RPG fans, FPS fans, MMO players, etc. – they stick to their area for the most part.
Now for problem #2 – we bemoan sequels. We hate them. We talk about the lack of innovation in the market.
Ok, time to wake up – if you sell 10k copies of WolferDo3D, what’s your next game? If you say MegaPuzzler, I’m gonna take a whack at you at the next IGC. Seriously. Strike when the iron is hot – start working on WolferDo 2: Do’s Revenge when you start seeing numbers like those. And keep doing them. It WILL run out of steam, and you can do other projects (heck, if you’re talented and have way too much time on your hands, do something else as a “side project” while you’re doing WolferDo 7: Do Just Won’t Stop! so that you do have something else in the pipeline.) But if your goal is to make money and support yourself as an Indie, sequels to a game that’s doing good is a good idea. Heck, do expansion packs, sequels, and anything else you can think of to make money off of your customer base. The more noise you make with each itteration, the more people you could POTENTIALLY attract with the next release. Keep your fan base focused on your game – don’t let them wander off into Counter Strike territory and get addicted there – keep them addicted to WolferDo and active players. It’s hard to build a customer base, but when you have it, KEEP IT. 
And here’s the cool part – if you do a WolferDo expansion pack, did it cost you as much as writing a brand new MegaPuzzler? If you did it right, you didn’t get close. You already had the gameplay design down, you just added new content and elements, and possibly revamped the graphics. You cycle time from idea to release is shorter, and your resource utilization is shorter. Save your cash up from the WolferDo 3D series, and if MegaPuzzler doesn’t work out, you’ve still (hopefully) got cash reserves enough to do another game.
But be careful with sequels. There are some risks – you could be considered a one product developer. Is that bad? Not while you’re doing WolferDo’s but when you release MegaPuzzler it could be an issue. Also be extremely careful about modifying gameplay in WolferDo. I have a lot of Counter Strike 1.6 players. I don’t have jack for constant Counter Strike: Source players. Why? Small changes in gameplay can make a huge difference to the players. Headshots in CS:S are way too easy. Pacing changed a little. The buy menus aren’t as useful. Etc, etc, etc. Instead of a high adoption rate, it’s a dead product for us. How do you avoid it? Listen to your players. Halo players complain like you wouldn’t believe about Halo 2 – but Bungie listened, and released a patch (for X-Box – what a strange concept, but it works!) that changed how melee attacks work, reballanced weapons, etc. Suddenly my Halo 2 players are happy again – they LOVE Halo 2 1.1! Why? Because it’s more of the same stuff as the first game they initally fell in love with. That’s right, more of the same sells better than something completely new. So much for innovation 🙂
I’ll address two more things before I call GDO #1 good – someone is going to mention an innovative game that sold well. Of course it happens. If innovation NEVER happened, and never succeded, we’d be playing Space War right now. But weigh the number of innovative loosers -vs- innovative winners, and you’ll see a trend.
Somone is going to say that’s an unfair comparison for the Indie market. You might be right, in all honesty. I’m looking at titles from a more commercial level. But, then again… how many games have to be sold to support you, your modeler, texure artist, sound guy, and marketing guy as full time Indies? That’s a lot of games – I never sold enough Boulder Panic!’s to support that many people 🙂 If you’re going to think about “Full Time Indie” I think you’re going to have to think about projects that have a much better return.
Am I done talking about Innovation? Nope. I think GDO #2 is going to be about how you can use innovation to your advantage. Told you these things were going to conflict with each other from time to time 😉 Seriously, when I write that one, you’ll see how the two side of the same subject fit together as a recipe for potential success.
Let the flames begin… 😉
Sometimes it’s the Simple Stuff That Gets Ya!
You look at a task. Jeez, this is gonna be a piece of cake. I’ll just… and it all goes downhill from there. I’m writing this down to share the pain 🙂
The task: AI in a game. Someone asked me to do a little AI work, and even provided me with a book that has a sample that runs pretty much how they want it to run. All I have to do is translate it all over to Torque. When I looked at it, i thought… oh, maybe three, four weeks.
Try around 3 MONTHS. I’m not kidding. Talk about underestimating a task. But, if I had an example, how the heck could it be so hard?
1) In the book, the author has his own engine, and built up the AI based on that engine. There’s no concept of multi-player here. Heck, there’s no concept of a player in his engine, just the AI players doing their thing with other AI players.
2) It’s all in C++, but I like to keep most AI stuff in script (with some exceptions). So it’s got to be rewritten in Torque Script. TS is one o’ my favorite scripting languages (which means something coming from a script whore like me 😉 Sure, lots of people have problems with it, but, I sincerely like with some minor exceptions. However, when trying to translate something from C++ to TorqueScript, don’t try and get to litteral with the translation – accept the differences in the language, and move on 🙂
3) It does a couple o’ buggery things like use the onRender function to act as a tick for the AI. Sure, it’s a minor thing. But minor things start to add up. It starts taking time to design around the original concept to make it fit. 
4) It was zero-player code, and I knew while at the moment the goal was to replicate the functionality of the code. No matter how much you know the goal… Well, ever heard that saying “It’s hard to remember the task was to drain the swamp when you’re up to your elbows in alligators?” It applies here – working with a multi-player engine it’s hard to remember to focus on something as simple as a bot-only solution.
5) Some behaviors are a PITA because of engine differences. When I was getting close to wrapping up to move to a different project (I already have) I had to apologize for what I felt were errors in behavior – it didn’t react EXACTLY like the original because of things like, oh, collision with the terrain, going from a 2D universe to a 3D universe, collision with the player, etc. 
But still.. 3 months?! Wow. Now that I’ve done it though, I can honestly say if approached with a similar task, I could do it much much more easily now:
1) Forget the code. If it wasn’t written for the engine you’re using, it’s not really that useful ‘specially if it’s not in the same language!
2) Find and Identify the desired behaviors from the original example. Find and Identify the behaviors that are going to be an issue with the engine you are using. 
3) Iteratively design and implement those behaviors.
4) Read step 1 again, and keep it in mind. Build it from scratch, it’s faster than adapting sometimes. (Repeat – sometimes 😉
Wow – looks simple, right? Yeah, it probably is. Who knows – it’s probably going to be a while before I get another project request like that one, so I won’t be testing it for a while. And if you ask anyone else, they’d have a different (and possibly better 🙂 process.
People On IRC Really Get On My Nerves
The downside to being available on IRC all the time now – people really tick me off more and more. I’m starting a Hall of GG Shame one of these days for the dumbest things I see happen on IRC in the #GG channel. (I won’t bother talking about the #GID channel, we intentionally do stupid things from time to time like bait n00bs 😉
Someone asked a good question in IRC. So far, a good start. I told ’em no problem, there’s a resource that covers that in the resources. Yeah, this is where the story goes down hill. They privately ask me the same thing. I say it’s in the resources, just go look – sorry, I can’t be your personal Google Search Appliance. Then they ask the same thing in the channel. I tell ’em…. you guessed it, there’s a resource for that, go look. They ask AGAIN. They finally get on my nerves enough that I pop open gg, and search for it. Found it the first time. Posted the link. They inform me they already know PHP + MySQL, they want to learn about Torque + MySQL. The resource was Ron Y.’s work on Torque and MySQL. OMG!
Then there’s the disturbing trend for people to announce that they are going to ask a question, or ask if they can ask a question (which, well, you’ve just used up your one question, move along now 😉 An amazing number of people want to write MMO’s now. I mean, the list goes on and on. 
So I propose this: Everyone, send a very nice message to all the GG people who man the channel on a nearly constant basis. How in the heck they manage to filter and put up with some of this stupidity that occurs when you try and help someone is beyond me. Salute!
Gamer Zone Continues To Move Along
I thought I’d put an obligatory mention of Gamer Zone in here 🙂 Right now it’s not super-exciting cool changes or anything – little iterative changes are occurring (for instance, changing how we do memberships) that are based on our experiences to date. The longer we’re at this, the more things we figure out we can improve upon – and we do so without much fear.
We’re also going to be part of the World Cyber Games this year as a local center to play at. Cool 🙂 Guild Wars will be on the machines by the time I get back in town, and we’ve got more cool stuff like the Battlefield 2 premier coming up soon.
We’re still looking at location #2 at the moment (IE, looking for space, hardware, money, and people) in Wichita. The most interesting part about it is a totally new cool layout for any new Gamer Zones we build that addresses our physical space issues we’ve ran into before. Amazing how different you do things when you have some experience 🙂
Indie Life Continues at a Fast Pace
Right now I’m actually out of town doing a contract stint back in my old field of Industrial Automation. My god I’m glad I’m not longer with a company that does this full time. I’m so bloody used to the idea of working 12 hour days when on site, I was floored when I asked about what hours they were going to be there, and they only expected me to work about 8 hours! Holy SMOKES! And to top it off, I’m not really working that many hours – part of the time I hop on, check my email, do a little more on game dev contract work, etc. as this process or that finishes up. And of course I have all night to set in a hotel room and program (which is a pretty convenient setup these days – two laptops, since I’m doing Windows stuff too, so IRC and email sets on the Mac, and I program on the PC laptop. No need to swap back and forth between windows to hold a conversation. I can be on IRC and still be productive, unlike John Vanderbeck 😉
Friday I head back to Wichita to the normal Gamer Zone / Midnight Ryder grind. I’ve got my schedule for most things pretty optimized now, so I’ve got time to put in 40 hours a week on game dev while I handle Gamer Zone at the same time – work the counter and program, then also do a little more programming at home. Very nice 🙂
One cool thing going on with contract work is that I’m working with Dave Myers, ex-21-6 guy. Dave and I had talked about doing a project together, and never quite managed to get it together. Well, now he’s the person I’m working with directly on contract stuff. Very cool, and fun to see how small of a world Indie game dev is 🙂
Oh, and if anyone cares – I now have a Skype account. Look for me as MidnightRyder – though I’m not sure how much I’ll use it yet. So far all I’ve done is talk to Tom Bampton and make fun of the IRC channels 😉
Chris Labombard   (Apr 28, 2005 at 06:01)   Resource Rating: 5
Very long, but good, plan. I would be very interested in hearing more of your views and insights regarding the state of the market and the outlook of the player.
Anton Bursch   (Apr 28, 2005 at 08:40)
Edited on May 21, 2005 01:16
Davis Ray Sickmon, Jr   (Apr 28, 2005 at 09:00)  
Aston: Dinasour… huh?
Chris: You’ll regret encouraging me – people can’t get me to shut up as it is 😉
Chris Labombard   (Apr 28, 2005 at 10:12)   Resource Rating: 5
@Davis – No… I am really really interested in hearing your views and opinions on the state of the market and how to corner it, market successfully. What players are looking for and how to move them to a new genre or game idea.
Let me start this way:
What do you think is the main thing current games are lacking?
Why do you feel most indie (or mainstream) games fail?
How can an indie take a piece of the mainstream market, through more effective game designs and marketing?
I hope these questins aren’t too far off topic.
Matthew Langley   (Apr 28, 2005 at 13:09)
If you say MegaPuzzler, I’m gonna take a whack at you at the next IGC.
lol! Well put 🙂
Jeff Gran   (Apr 28, 2005 at 13:18)
Davis, this was a very interesting read. You are definitely in a unique position… you get to surveil the “gamer demographic” in their natural habitats on a daily(?) basis, and while you work! I think your observations and advice are definitely worth taking into consideration for anyone designing games. I look forward to #2. 🙂
Davis Ray Sickmon, Jr   (Apr 28, 2005 at 14:00)  
Jeff: Thanks – we’ll just keep watching. I’ll probably start posting a .plan with a GDO “episode” in it every week or two.
Chris: Good questions but, there’s no simple answer. Question 2 and 3 I’ll be answering as time goes on (I actually have a bit of a roadmap for GDO stuff in the back of my head, but it’s not garanteed when I’ll hit a topic ;-) 
But question 1… there is no right answer. If you asked me what Guild Wars was lacking on, well, I could tell you that. What a genre is missing? That’s much harder and much much more prone to error. What current games are lacking? HA. Impossible to answer, and also assumes something – that current games ARE lacking something. If Madden 2006 sells 12 buttloads of copies, does it mean that the game is missing something? Does that mean the genre is missing something? Or does it mean that as a product, it’s evolutionary development cycle (1 a year with new stuff, new players, new stats, etc.) is doing just fine? Pretty much an impossible question that I *COULD* give a glib off the cuff answer to (Oh, well, players expect more interactivity, more content, cooler graphics, etc.) but it’s complete bull. Oddly enough, there’s pleanty o’ people that would give you that off the cuff answer 😉
Matt Fairfax   (Apr 28, 2005 at 15:31)
I used to hold weekly LAN sessions with about 6-8 other gamers and 90% of the time we’d end up playing Counter Strike *again*. I spent a lot of time learning what it took to get them to try other games and what about those games would get them to keep playing them. Thus far your Observations are right on the mark! I think we indies most often lose sight of two *very* important things: scope (size of your project/game) and audience. If you want a share of the multiplayer fps market you had better know *excatly* what makes a Counter Strike, Halo, or Battlefield player tick and how you plan to get them to try your game instead of going and playing with their friends.
Then there’s the disturbing trend for people to announce that they are going to ask a question, or ask if they can ask a question (which, well, you’ve just used up your one question, move along now 😉
Pet Peeve #4 of mine! “Can I ask a question?” Seriously….what answer are you looking for? Even if I say “no” you are going to ask =P
Prairie Games   (Apr 28, 2005 at 17:01)
I humbly beg a pardon for jumping on GamerZone so many months ago.
I stand corrected. Very cool stuff!
Chris Labombard   (Apr 28, 2005 at 17:43)   Resource Rating: 5
@Davis – Most people would have iven an opinion. you rely on fact. Very admirable. 
How about this one: What market do you believe has the greatest potential for indies? I’m asking for your opinions here not the hard facts.
Vernon Finch   (Apr 28, 2005 at 20:52)
This was a top read Davis. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience. Its much more worthwhile to read someone’s thoughts when they don’t go for a PC approach and just tell it like they think it is. Its up to the reader then to determine if its worthwhile to them.
As for IRC. I idle on a certain irc server 24/7, yet I cant bring myself to idle in #gg. I tried it for a little while, but I found that unless I had something that was way over my head, it was quicker to figure it out myself than try to get a serious answer out of people. These forums are very well mannered, but for some reason once on irc people decide to add more than a dash of attitude to their posts.
Phil Carlisle   (Apr 29, 2005 at 08:16)
Davis, while I think casual observation is a useful thing for us all to do. It doesnt actually necassarily find the root mental process involved in players choices.
I agree that people play things they are familiar with, they tend to go into a repeated pattern which they feel safe in. But there HAVE to be more motivational factors involved here.
I think we could ALL as developers stand to do a bit more work in actually evaluating what it is players are motivated by. One of the easiest as youve seen is simply observing them. I tend towards the notion of actually testing them and questioning them (perhaps inobtrusively).
Its amazing how many of us actually go about producing games without ever letting people actually interact with them and actually listening to thier response, I think thats been a great “take away” from my few years of University work so far. We need to actually TEST with real players and customers *far more*. You have a great opportunity to do that!
Oh, btw.. hope GamerZone is interested in trialling Air Ace when we get to beta stage. We can do a GZ branded version on free-play and add any customizations you want!! 🙂
I guess my target audience is exactly your current crop of players. So its a good experiment for me, if I can interest your players to at least TRY the game then I’m golden.
Davis Ray Sickmon, Jr   (May 01, 2005 at 03:55)  
Josh: Thanks 🙂
Phil: When it comes to motivation, yep, there’s more to it. A lot more. 
Testing with reall players is a very good idea for the uni students – game developers often work in a vacuum, and that doesn’t produce a healthy development knowladge set IMO.
Heck yeah send me copies of Air Ace – dunno what customizeation we’d want, but if you want to throw the GZ logo in there somewhere (I’ve got a nice chromed one in PSD format I can send) and say it’s a beta for Gamer Zone, hey cool.
(To anyone reading)
I’m always game for throwing a Beta for playtesting into Gamer Zone, but if it’s particularly buggy or unstable, it’s not going to get onto the machines. My customers pay to play – I’d rather not frustrate them too much. A bug here or there is expected, but, constant crashing, etc. is out of the question.
As for finished projects – send me 16 copies anytime 🙂 While most of my customers are FPS or MMO’ers right now, we do get casual gamers in from time to time, so just about any market is served in one degree or another at Gamer Zone – more toys is cool, and people see the game 😉
(Rant Time)
But what you don’t do is tell me you’ll be sending me copies, and then don’t deliver them on time. Be realistic with schedules. NCSoft is on my Twit-List right now. I’m one of the 60 or so sites in the US who are hosting the Guild Wars Premier. It was supposed to be on Saturday, April 29th. Today is the 30th. My copies of the game never showed up. Very bad since anything new that’s coming in I pre-hype so people know about it, get interested, etc. So I’ve got customers in the site, waiting for Guild Wars to show up, and it never does. Very bad for business.
(Rant Over 🙂

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