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.

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!


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"Don't waste the player's time" is an essential point we come back to a lot in the community. (One that bears repeating. Listen to the RMNcasts where they talk about slow walk speed or text speed - makers just have blinders on about these things sometimes.)

As far as Tabris's comment, I am not generally in favor of making RPG battles easier, but that seems to have very little to do with this discussion. Part of many RPGs is that your stats matter, and it's possible to say something like "right now there is no way I can beat this boss" or "right now I can beat this boss only if Boss Skill X misses in the first round, which has about a 15% chance of happening, which isn't worth trying with the 30-minute trek from the last save point." It's not like you can beat Final Fantasy (I) at level 1. Needing to grind in a game like that doesn't make it any harder, it just means the player's solution takes longer to implement.
Okay, but first of all, FFI is a JRPG, and japanese have an obsession with hard work, which they seem to think equals to grinding in videogames (there are exceptions of course, but many, otherwise great JRPGs, are like that). It was actually really annoying in final fantasy I, II or II (I'm ashamed to say that I don't remember which one) that even with the several hours I spent grinding throughout the game (apart from the time spent in dungeons you must get through during the stroy) I still nearly died in the first mob fight in the final dungeon. I ground a few more hours and still, no effect (and I mean, really, absoultely no change). Now, that is why I never got around to finish that game.

Also, I think that battling new(ish) enemies in a new(ish), interesting dungeon is not exactly grinding, but a new(...ish) experience. That doesen't feel like wasted time until the point that it's not a new experience anymore. A dosage of plot advancment, comedy, a cutscene where something happens, a (sub-)boss fight, some backgroung information, a bit of character development, or even a few lines of small talk is needed to "replenish" the player's patience. If this doesn't happen, that's when the real grinding begins and too much of that can really kill the game.
did someone say angels
@LEX: I think you're missing the point. Just because you make grinding more bearable by breaking it up doesn't make it any less of a waste of time.
Well it is a waste of time, or rather, something that actually makes up a decent portion of the game time. Most games have a story no longer than a huge short story (that's about 100 pages, which might be long in itself, but not compared to the actual game time).
What I mean is, everything is relative. If I don't feel like my time is being wasted, then my time is well spent, because I'm feeling useful or enjoying myself. A perfect (and obviously non-existent) developer is able to make the player feel like that every single battle he fights is very important, even if it is just grinding.
Of course, if someone has enough ideas for the game time they planned for their project, then all is good, but if that time is more than a few hours, what is very likely*, (especially in commercial games, so that the costumers won't feel like they wasted their money) then the plethoria of creative ideas needed probably won't be available. So there has to be some parts where the game becomes a bit repetitive. It's these parts that need to be made bearable.
We can also look at repetitivness on different scales. I for one, never liked when I receive the usual "get the 3-4-6-9 etc. crystall balls so that you can do whatever" type quests. They are like a big sign saying "YOU WILL BE DOING THE SAME THING OVER AND OVER". And well...that sucks. But the truth can be that each of these is a very different experience with the stroy progressing with each "crystal ball" you get. It still feels a bit repeptitive. And then, there is the reverse version, when the main quests are more colorful, but you actually do the same thing in them. You can go deeper than this and, for example look at the individual battles, and how much they differ from each other, even if they have the same types of enemies.
A good game would not feel repepetitive in any way, but that doesn't mean you won't do the same bits over and over with slight changes. If you would simply play through these parts with nothing in between them, they would feel repetitive, but with the story/etc. in between them and the slight changes, they suddenly became nearly unique events.
The least elegant (and effective) way to get this effect is to do the stuff I mentioned in my previous post. Better methods are usually the combination of these, carefully crafted, so that they won't feel out of place, or forced, with additional graphical and sound effects, if needed (and/or possible).

*(I know, it's only logical to make the game shorter if you are out of ideas, but shortness, being too "dense" and the lack of gameplay~battles come up from time to time in reviews. If one makes an enjoyable game, it is most unfortunate if it simply feels too short.)

While I tend to write these thing as if they were facts, I'm only theorizing, of course.
I like long difficult games.

I guess it's just me, though.
I like long difficult games.

I guess it's just me, though.
did someone say angels
@LEX: You raise a good argument, but my point is that you *shouldn't* try to pad out the length of your game if you're out of ideas. If your game turns out to be short, then so be it; that's all the time it takes to get to the point of the game. Don't drag it out any longer than it has to be.
Okay, I can accept that, and you are right too, especially with (free) indie games. In this sense, you are right to say that indie game developers should really take this by heart....no deadline, nothing asked in exchange, so game can actually be short or can be in development for a very long time. Even if some people lose intrerest because of the long wait, they will come back, once it's finished, especially if it's good.

@Feldschlant IV
I think if a game has enough content, it could (or should...) be long. How much "enough" is depends entirely on the player (and the developers, though as you can see, this is debatable). I usually like long and difficult games too, but only if I feel the story worths the fight, or I enjoy battles, puzzles, whatever.
You shouldn't have to break up something boring in your game, you should probably try making the boring part not boring.
That thing you want but never who I am
You shouldn't have to break up something boring in your game, you should probably try making the boring part not boring.

Quote of the Year right here. Seriously, this is very important. People don't have the same patience for free indie games as they do, say, a commercial game they paid $60 for.
This is all very problematic because so many of the best RPGs are epic both in length and content. The pairing is key if the story is to be successful, but the you can't distill content epic-ness into a set of easy instructions. It's not just a matter of setting the stakes high; magical apocalypses are as common as broadswords in most RPGs. Different people want different things out of gameplay, so there's not a lot of help there. My gut also tells me that gameplay is often just a garnish, though it can be a wonderful garnish.

The key, I'd argue, is making the players care about what's going on. However you tell it, if you can tell the story passionately and authentically (no mean feat - passionate authenticity is not easy to come by) your audience will come to be invested in the story's outcome. This is pretty much true regardless of purpose or genre. Keep it real, in other words.

I guess Joseph Campbell is gonna be more help than Vonnegut in that regard.
did someone say angels
I think you're missing the point. There's nothing wrong with a long game as long as its length isn't artificially padded out. If it takes that long to tell the story and get to the point of the game, then that's fine. What should be avoided is intentionally dragging out the game with pointless minigames or diversions that are forced down your throat that should be optional instead of compulstory.
Well maybe we just disagree, but my point was that there's no simple formula for designers to follow that will make a "great game," "great novel," "great movie," etc. It's not just a matter of, for instance and in the case of video games, making sure that pointless minigames and/or diversions are optional. What constitutes pointlessness, anyhow?

I'm not bringing this up to be a pedant - all I want to stress is that any sort of mechanical how-to on creative work is inherently limited (and limiting.) Successful examples of any art form demonstrate knowledge of the prescriptive rules for the given art form, but they almost invariably break some of those rules, as well. That's what I was aiming for with the authenticity spiel: that creative vision really needs to trump all other concerns in the end. I'm wary of advice that could be steering people away from the game they want to make and more toward what their bourgeois audience wants with their burger and fries ;)

Of course, if we're talking about someone who is completely out of game design but insists on making the player run down two thousand more banal hallways full of the same four monsters, all so that he can get to level 99 before fighting the azure dragon king, then I find it hard to imagine that this could ever be part of any real "vision." If that's what you were aiming for with "pointless," then we're probably talking crosswise.
can't make a bad game if you don't finish any games
*rehashed "no set formula" arguement*

This article makes no claim to be an end-all be-all of game design. It's just one approach to one facet of designing a game. Does the existence of other methods make this any less valid?
Yeah, I grew up on the mandatory fun principle (what my parents said when they used to drag us along on vacations instead of having fun at home). So if you don't work at it, the effect is useless. Still, alot of sidequests, unless they are true quests, are meant to cover something lacking in the game. So make your game like a good book. If it's long, all of it should be to the point of either character-building, world-building, or the occasional jokes and fun moments. If it's short, make it really focused in what it puts across. I'd say the ideal game would be Lufia, even though it was the epitome of random fetch quests, since all of those quests worked into character or plot development. That is, true to this principle, it wasn't a long game quest, but a series of short ones, leading to the final quest.
This is a good article with even better discussion in the comments. I never saw it before now. So many insightful users back then.
What's with all the article necros lately.
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