WHAT KURT VONNEGUT CAN TELL YOU ABOUT GAME DESIGN

Advice from a dead science fiction author and how it relates to game design

The keynote speaker at this year's GlobalGameJam spoke about games and how they're viewed by most of society as a waste of time. As a game developer himself, he despaired about what meaning his job had if all he did for a living was make works that were regarded by many as a "waste of time." In order to combat that, he said, we as game developers need to make our games worthwhile.

How do we do that?

He quoted Kurt Vonnegut, the famous American science fiction author, to answer this question. Vonnegut established eight "rules" pertaining to the writing of short stories, which the speaker insisted hold just as true for games. The most important rule, the rule that must never be violated, is this:

"Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted."

In simpler terms: do not waste your player's time. This is especially true for indie game developers like us, who offer our games for free. Why is it that it's so hard to get someone to play a game when we're giving it to them for free? Because it's not free, of course. Playing a game is a time investment. If you manage to convince someone to play your game, then you should do them the courtesy of making that time be well-spent. Make them feel that they got the most out of their 20 minutes, hour, two hours, ten hours.

Less Is More
There's a strange obsession among a lot of RM* developers with having a long playtime. It seems to be "understood" that having a longer game makes your game better. As a result, developers either feel discouraged at being unable to produce a long enough game or pad their game with needless features or side-excursions in order to artificially lengthen their game.

This is a paradigm that clearly violates Vonnegut's rule. If you're putting material into your game for the sole purpose of making it take longer, then you're wasting your player's time. It's far better to have a short but well-developed adventure than a long and drawn-out one. The more concise you keep your story/dungeon/field, the less you have to flesh out. Because there's less to focus on, you're free to add more detail to what's there, making your world feel vibrant and full of life.

There's nothing wrong with optional sidequests, but you should never be forced to go on a sidequest to complete the game. Make sure the tasks the player is required to do are to the point. Don't force your hero whose quest it is to save the world be forced to help out a hapless farmer just because he's a nice guy.

Give Grinding a Rest
Many RPG purists may disagree with me on this point, but the need to grind is another RPG paradigm that should be dispensed with. Nothing annoys a player more than conquering a dungeon and finally confronting the boss at the end only to get obliterated because he didn't spend enough hours going out of his way to fight monsters there.

There's nothing meaningful or interesting about grinding. It's a trap that many professional games fall into, too. But how do you present a challenge without requiring a player to level up? That's something to address in gameplay mechanics. Make challenging fights require more than grinding and mashing attack until you win. Have the boss use unique effects or follow a puzzle-like pattern that the player has to recognize and solve to win. If the player loses, he should be left thinking "where did I mess up?" rather than "how many more enemies do I have to fight before I can win?"

Of course, there's nothing wrong with making battles easier if the player has grinded. If your player went out of his or her way to level up, then reward that time spent by letting them win a few fights more easily. Don't punish your player. Reward every choice the player makes, even if the rewards are sometimes different and unexpected.

Conclusion
RPGs are particularly susceptible to the problem of being designed as time sinks. The vanilla RM* engines reinforce this behavior and it's a major contributor to the problem of getting other people to play your games. Be considerate of the tasks you're requiring your player to perform and how much time they take to accomplish. If something diverges too much from the point of the game, then ask yourself if it really has to be required, or if you can turn it into a sidequest instead.

This was my first article and I hope you found it helpful. Thanks for reading!

Posts

Pages: first 12 next last
What about the other 7 rules?
This is actually a good article that illustrates several key problems with makers and their perception about their projects. I also agree with it, generally.

I do agree with Shinan that this could have been expanded, though, because Kurt Vonnegut's eight writing principles do apply to (most) games.

Anyway, I put this on the front page so some of you fags will think more about your shitty projects before releasing them like dogs on our bumbling, unknowing site visitors.
This is actually a good article that illustrates several key problems with makers and their perception about their projects. I also agree with it, generally.

I do agree with Shinan that this could have been expanded, though, because Kurt Vonnegut's eight writing principles do apply to (most) games.

Anyway, I put this on the front page so some of you fags will think more about your shitty projects before releasing them like dogs on our bumbling, unknowing site visitors.
Starscream
Conquest is made from the ashes of one's enemies.
6110
Hey, if he gave you all eight rules in one article he wouldn't have seven other made-to-order articles he could submit later.
Sailerius
did someone say angels
3304
I had considered covering the other rules, but I felt that rule #1 was by far the most important and wanted to make it the focus of the article. I might write a follow-up that encompasses the others, though. Thanks for the feedback.
kentona
I am tired of Earth. These people. I am tired of being caught in the tangle of their lives.
21237
I approve of the general message being said here, but it is all at a pretty high level. Perhaps a followup article could identify some specific problems and possible solutions?

Max McGee
with sorrow down past the fence
9219
What about the other 7 rules?


I approve of the general message being said here, but it is all at a pretty high level. Perhaps a followup article could identify some specific problems and possible solutions?


I agree. Ironically, in the case of this article, more would have been more. : )

Good start, though!
There's nothing meaningful or interesting about grinding.


I'm going to disagree with this somewhat because there are some games where the battle system is fun to the point where you want to get into fights.
Sailerius
did someone say angels
3304
I'm going to disagree with this somewhat because there are some games where the battle system is fun to the point where you want to get into fights.

That's true, but fun is very subjective. Some players might find fights very fun and some might find them annoying. From a design standpoint, it makes more sense to give players that enjoy grinding the option to do so while not forcing those that don't enjoy it to do it. In that case, reward players that go out of their way to grind but don't punish players that don't.
There is also the question of quantity. Getting in one fight or a hundred might be fun, but after that, it's not so entertaining anymore, even if it's a great battle system.
It's actually a very hard thing to make a dungeon or some other part of the game where you get into fights long enough for the player to feel that he/she is challanged and is achiving something, WHILE still enjoying her/him-selves. Depending on how fun the battles are, this can be sort or long, but obviously, people are different, so the developer has to find the length (or amount) which is optimal for the most players, and accaptable for the rest, or, like mentioned above me, implement an option to short down (or skip) the fights. This, on the other hand can lead to some people skiping fights and then complaining about the game being too short, or unchallanging...what is lame, but nevertheless, that's how it is.

On the other hand, I disagree with the statment that indie game developers who offer their games for free shoul especially consider what is written in the article. While every game developer (or story writer for that matter) should take these advices to heart, non-commercial games actually have a little more freedom in this area, since the developers usually don't expect to gain too much (apart from experience) from their projects. It's nice to have the public opinion in favor of the game, sure, but since the developer is not depending on it, (for livelihood at least) it might not be his/her first priority.
Then again, it's kinda pointless to develop a game that no one likes...

Oh and if you feel like writing about the rest of the 8 rules, please do! This was an interesting article.
(And sorry if my writing style seems like that of a stuck up idiot. English is actually not my native language and I can't use it as freely as I might want to.)
@WolfCoder: It's only bad when it's enforced - even in a game that doesn't require grinding, you can still do it anyway.
@WolfCoder: It's only bad when it's enforced - even in a game that doesn't require grinding, you can still do it anyway.
So...games should be shorter and easier? Like all that mediocre trash in the mainstream? Yeah...what to say to that...oh, I got it! BULLSHIT. I grew up on games that didn't fuck around and gave you your money's worth. And back then, by the way, most of society thought it was a "waste of time". Nowadays, it's a big business. And to make it bigger, games have gotten easier (so as not to turn off "casual" players) and shorter (less time, less money). (Seriously, does that guy make shovelware or did he seriously not get out at all?)

As indie game makers, you guys are not supposed to have to follow these bullshit rules. You're supposed to make games YOU want to make, not whatever the ignorant masses want. The independent gaming community is hardly the place for popularity seekers. You want attention, look like a douche bag and talk into a webcam. YouTube makes people like that partners all the time. You wanna do an RPG right, though, you make that fucker 80 hours long and harder than Dick Cheney's cold, black heart.

Oh, and yeah, actually make it GOOD. THAT is the goddamn lesson you need to learn, people. Wading through a short, easy pile of shit is no different than wading through a long, hard pile of shit, 'cus either way, you just waded through a pile of shit.

-Tabris
Well that was the single most useless and retarted post of all time, tabris. I couldn't disagree more.

The only reason games were that hard back in the day were because gaming was new, and they had no idea what difficulty progression or fair challenge was. We learned from that, and made better games as a result.

Also the mass audience is incredibly important. If you don't consider the audience at all, theres no point in even making a game cause guess what... Nobody will play it, cause you made it for yourself. You can't just ignore these lessons, cause they're helpful, and they will make your game better.

By the way, I don't think he meant "make games short and easy" he meant "cut out the bullshit and make games accessible".
Well that was the single most useless and retarted post of all time, tabris. I couldn't disagree more.

The only reason games were that hard back in the day were because gaming was new, and they had no idea what difficulty progression or fair challenge was. We learned from that, and made better games as a result.

Also the mass audience is incredibly important. If you don't consider the audience at all, theres no point in even making a game cause guess what... Nobody will play it, cause you made it for yourself. You can't just ignore these lessons, cause they're helpful, and they will make your game better.

By the way, I don't think he meant "make games short and easy" he meant "cut out the bullshit and make games accessible".
Well that was the single most useless and retarted post of all time, tabris. I couldn't disagree more.


I'm pretty sure it's not because you're responding to it. Please don't be a big jerk. ):
Easy/Medium/Hard/Bullshit mode. Problem solved.
So...games should be shorter and easier? Like all that mediocre trash in the mainstream? Yeah...what to say to that...oh, I got it! BULLSHIT. I grew up on games that didn't fuck around and gave you your money's worth. And back then, by the way, most of society thought it was a "waste of time". Nowadays, it's a big business. And to make it bigger, games have gotten easier (so as not to turn off "casual" players) and shorter (less time, less money). (Seriously, does that guy make shovelware or did he seriously not get out at all?)

I'm one of those who prefer easier game. Take a game from a long time ago and see how much content was actually there and compare it to a recent (short) title.

I'll take some action titles I've enjoyed. Two from the 2000s and two for the NES.
The NES ones. TMNT2 and Probotector (Contra in some non-european places). I pick these games because they both had the Konami code that let you (me) cheat so I could beat them. I think I beat TMNT2 some time because frankly it wasn't THAT difficult but Probotector I could not get past the third level without the cheat. These games were fun. But for me they were only fun when the cheat code was used so you didn't have to play the first level over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Let's then compare to the more recent games. Max Payne 2 and Chronicled of Riddick Escape from Butcher Bay. The reason I pick these two is because I beat them both in one or two days of marathon-playing. These are probably short games. And apparently not that difficult since I beat them so quickly.

HOWEVER. If I compare actual content in the two games. Both Probotector and TMNT2 have content so you can beat the game in an hour. In one hour you've seen ALL the things the game has to offer. That's once you get past the doing things over and over and over and over and over again (or use cheat codes).

And in this ONE HOUR you've seen it all. So there's ONE hour of content in those games.

Riddick and Max Payne 2 then... Playing these took several hours (a day or two to complete the whole thing) so looking at content and content alone. There's a lot more of it in these more recent games. There's also some extra content to be found (though admittedly in these two games not a lot. Riddick does have a sort of RPG-mission-hub-thing going a couple of times though)

My point is. Games are getting LONGER and easier. Which means that there's MORE VARIETY. (because there's more content) and LESS FRUSTRATING TRIAL AND ERROR. A thing I just can't stand in games anymore. I'll give a link to a lovely article on the subject:
Do it again, stupid

But yes. Vonnegut's first rule applies very well to any thing in the world. Don't waste a user's time. Because usually a user has better things to do and if there's no progress he'll just move on to something else.
Ratty524
The 524 is for 524 Stone Crabs
13391
I agree with Lennon. Tabris, I think you missed the point of this article almost entirely.
Whether you selling your game are making them free for the indie-scene, you are still making these games for other people, and you are asking other people to devote time to your game. If that wasn't the goal, then why would anyone post their stuff here? True developers live on feedback, and their goal is to serve the public.

I agree with this article entirely. I'd rather play a short game that is concise and provides a memorable experience than a long game that I'll never touch again after beating it.

@Chaos: Heh, while it does sound "excessive" I think that can help in terms of replayability, and also giving the player more options. A good argument against this article is that sometimes those excessive features may actually help keep players hooked to your game.
kentona
I am tired of Earth. These people. I am tired of being caught in the tangle of their lives.
21237
Actually, I strongly believe that if you are going to make an amateur game, you make it for yourself first and foremost. If you strive to make a game you enjoy, it will be more satisfying. Plus, if you like it, others might like it, too.

Yes, you should consider your audience but don't be slave to what you think their expectations are.
Pages: first 12 next last