Friday 12 April 2013

Designing for Chaos

Slamjet Stadium's been out for almost a month now, and has received some great responses from the games press. One comment I was particularly excited about was in PocketGamer's Top 10 Games of March 2013 article.

"own goals are inevitable, power-ups are over-powered, and stealing your opponent's players is practically encouraged… It's chaotic, fast paced, unpredictable, and insane. As long as neither player expects a fair fight, you'll have a blast."

I was really happy with this statement. Something that I'd made a big deal of in Slamjet Stadium had clicked with players. It's meant to be chaotic, it's meant to be unpredictable, and cheating isn't just okay - it's encouraged!

In that respect, one of the exciting freedoms of creating Slamjet Stadium was that I could make it intentionally unfair, and powerups could be intentionally overpowered.

What would be an issue in any other kind of game actually improves the player-vs-player experience, and I find that particularly fascinating.

Starting with Systems

In many ways this is a big departure from how I used to think about game design. When I was making Greedy Bankers I was fascinated by systems - by the way game mechanics interact with other game mechanics to create a complex web to explore. With that came the belief that no mechanic should be overpowered, lest it render the other mechanics redundant and a single optimal strategy emerge.

And while I'm still fascinated by creating systems, building the multiplayer in Greedy Bankers vs The World got me exploring something completely different  - the social interaction between players.

A lot of that involved pure sensation - creating something not to make you feel smarter, but to laugh, scream, be entertained, make friends and have memorable stories to tell afterwards.

So to make this experience the best it could be, I had to focus on constantly keeping the game moving, shifting focus, raising tension and being constantly surprising. Game elements were designed to serve this purpose as their primary function, rather than as groundwork for a complex network of strategies.

Purpose of the Powerups

I'll choose the powerups as a specific example, as I'm really happy with how much they brought to the gameplay. Their primary purpose is not to give an advantage to one player - as they would be in Temple Run or Super Smash Bros. They're there to switch the gameplay, flip it on its head for a moment. All-of-a-sudden they get players acting differently.

Ice power gets players to tap vigorously at the screen for a few seconds. Last Man Standing takes focus away from the line-up-and-shoot process, and has players looking for the fastest way to throw an opponent into a deadly trap. Gust power is usually an instant goal - so attention instantly turns to activating the power at the right time.

It all means that paying attention is a big part of play, which rubs nicely against the chaos inherent in flinging your characters around the arena. It also means that at any one point in time there's a surprise right around the corner.

All of which makes for a wild ride and hilarious moments!

Intentional Imbalance

Making these power-ups flow-changingly effective actually made the game so much more fun. When something really strong appears on the screen it moves the focus of play to that element, and it raises the stakes with a hit of adrenaline.

It also gave players good moments to push each other out of the way - often the most instant response to any major change is to make sure your opponent can't make the most of it!

The Gust powerup is a prime example. If you activate it and it's pointing at your opponent's goal it's usually an instant goal.

Usually an instant goal button would suck the challenge out of a single-player game, or be considered "cheap" in a competitive game like Street Fighter. But in a physical party game it adds to the excitement!

As soon as the gust button lights up it's up to the players to press it at the right time, or to make sure their opponent doesn't do the same: an instant shift in play style. Plus, if multiball's activated at the same time, that's three balls at once. Yeah, it's cheap. It's also really satisfying.

And if you do score using Gust it feels cheeky because it shouldn't have been so easy. It creates frustration in your opponent, and spurs them on to be even more competitive! They're out for payback and that raises the tension.

Raising the Stakes

This blog by designer David Sirlin (partway through Jaime Griesemer's section) suggests an interesting rule of thumb for balancing game elements. If an element's overpowered, never nerf it. Instead, make everything else around it more powerful.

This keeps the stakes high, creates tension, and keeps the game dynamic. Imagine a weapon in an FPS that kills in one hit, and that in play it's just too powerful. If you were to reduce its damage to 33% then there'll be plenty of times where you can just say "I can afford to get hit" - entirely removing those "holy crap he's got the death ray! Run!" moments.

It's much more exciting to let that weapon stay super-powered, but to rework the other elements. Perhaps open up a way to counter its use, so the owner has to ask "should I risk firing the death ray?" Or how about putting the death ray in an easy-to-get-shot-from location, so that it's just as powerful but getting it in the first place is a risk. Or how about making the invisibility power-up better, so that the guy holding the death ray doesn't always know when to shoot it?

All of the above give the player more to think about, require smart and creative play, but maintain the high tension created by having a super-weapon.

No Such Thing as Too Powerful

In Slamjet Stadium, I never worried about any powerup being too powerful - the players' physical involvement catered for that. Rage-infected characters can just be stolen by any player's hand, for example.

Testing the game at live events showed something very important. Because of the nature of the game, pushing each other's hands would trump any long-term strategising. The range of strategies in the real world was much wider than that inside the game world. People loved the riotous pace of play so this was clearly something to enhance rather than worry about.

It also this meant that any game-changing powers needed to make a big difference to be worth including.

Rather than being a power that doubled friction, the Ice power stops players completely in their tracks. Originally planned as a power that allowed cleverly placed curved shots, the Magnet power pulls the ball towards a player with immense force - they just need to throw themselves into a goal to score!

The chaos of play meant every powerup needed to be super-powerful. In turn that made play more surprising and chaotic. It was deliciously self-perpetuating!

Playing for Laughs

At the end of the day, the most important thing for Slamjet Stadium to be was entertaining. So anything that could be considered "unfair" in another game was okay in Slamjet Stadium, because it was funny.

The experience and sensation of play are so important with a party game like this. By focusing on making gameplay surprising, unpredictable, and constantly changing focus you end up with great moments between players. Be it the schadenfreude of a cheap goal, or the epic win of getting three goals at once using the magnet, it's got to have impact.

Make it big, make it exciting, and people will get really into it!