On Motivation

I've been thinking a lot recently about motivation. Specifically, what was my motivation for wanting to get into the game industry? What was it that drew me towards it despite horror stories of crunch, burnout, and under-appreciation? I decided to get into the game industry despite all of that, but why?

I know for many, the answer is simple: they love games. Others love the community of game developers.

I got into the game industry for a different reason. Sure I loved games. Sure I loved the community of game developers, but I wanted more.

In his recent retirement letter, J Allard talks about his initial decision to work at Microsoft:

During every interview, I'd challenge, "'A computer on every desk and in every home' is quaint, but why stop there?" and the typical response would be along the lines of, "That's just our ante." I liked that... +1 Microsoft.

I couldn't believe it, but it was impossible to dismiss the similarity and authenticity I felt in every conversation. On the flight home, I contemplated these discussions, the passion and IQ of the people I had encountered and their invitation to create my own space to drive a bigger agenda alongside them. It clicked. The "computer on every desk..." rhetoric was a ruse, the real purpose and ambition of these people was much, much broader:

"Make the world a better place through technology."

Like every idealistic college hire, this was the unicorn I was looking for. I wanted to do something bigger than me – "change the world!" – with a bunch of people who respected and could augment my superpowers. I had visited the Justice League of Geeks and they had invited me in and had shown me the secret handshake.

When I wanted to join the game industry, I had a similar thought process. I wanted to make the world a better place through games. That bears repeating.

I wanted to make the world a better place through games.

I think my problem now is that I was also very specific on how I wanted to do this. Certainly, there are ways to make the world better through educational games, games for health, or so called "serious games," but this wasn't particularly what I was thinking.

Growing up enjoying adventure games (specifically Sierra adventure games, many of which had more serious tones than other games in the genre) as well as many really good books, I wanted to see games reach a level of literary expression that rivaled our best works of literature. I wanted to see games deal with more mature themes, not in terms of sex and violence, but in terms of how we, as people, interact. I wanted games to take a hard look at subjects like ethics, racism, political freedoms, war, peace, trust, and betrayal among others. I felt games were in a unique place to do this because, if they allowed you to make hard decisions and see the impacts of those decisions, the lessons would necessarily be more poignant. And I believed it was all possible through story, given enough talent and enough thought.

Interestingly, for my first 7 years of GDC, every GDC only made me more convinced that this was possible, and that there were others out there thinking the same things. I would leave every year more invigorated at the possibilities of our medium, and that it was only a matter of time before we started seeing really good literary quality games.

2010 was year 8, and I came out of it a little less hopeful, for a few reasons.

First, I've realized GDC is a self-selecting group of individuals who want to discuss the "hard problems" of making games. These are the types of people that, even if they don't want the same things I do from games, they do want to discuss it. They are excited by the possibilities, even if they don't believe it to be interesting or possible. And with that said, there were fewer people talking about the hard problems this year. It's hard to explain, but GDC this year (for me at least) felt like the industry had exhaled, so to speak. Some of the spark was gone.

Second, I haven't seen games moving toward that direction in a long time. Investigations into actual ethics in games, and real consequential action I think hit its peek with Ultima 4, and with the exception of a few bright spots here and there (Ultima 6, Deus Ex), it hasn't resurfaced. And I feel both the game industry and the gaming culture moving away from such games.

Third, even if I was able to write such a game, I don't think the audience is there for it. Not enough people would buy the game for anyone to justify the effort needed to make it happen. Such a game doesn't work as a small, simple game, or in bite-size chunks. It's an undertaking that seems to provide very little reward. Generally, I think this is true for culture across the board, not just for games. Our media consumption is leaning towards pop-fiction in all forms. Don't-make-me-think media, or (more likely) tell-me-what-to-think media.

Lastly, even if the market were there, I cannot point to a company who shares this ideal. I can point to people (some indie developers, some of the art game crowd, some IF writers), but no groups. There are no Microsoft's. Even Microsoft isn't Microsoft anymore, in the game industry or out of the game industry.

I wanted to make the world a better place through games.

So my question is, given that I've found that my original motivation for entering the industry fading, how do I keep myself motivated? I don't want to leave the industry, but without this initial motivating factor being made manifest….. perhaps there are better ways to make the world a better place? Through technology? Through other ways?

I know this whole blog post sounds ridiculously whiney and / or pompous. And I'd like to be clear that I'm not leaving the industry any time soon, but I still feel my old motivations hanging over me. Maybe I'm getting older, and getting excited over little steps isn't cutting it for me anymore. Now, I'm sure someone can point out games or movements that I'm missing, but from where I'm sitting, I feel like real innovation and evolution, especially in the story department of games, is hard to come by, which is making it hard for me to see a place where I'd be comfortable. Maybe I'm just wearing blinders and ignoring signs that this is taking place? Here's hoping.

In His Shoes

I've complained about Game Informer before. As "the world's #1 video game magazine" it leaves a lot to be desired. Mostly I think it's just catering to its audience though, so frequently I just give it a pass.

Over the weekend, I read the latest issue of Game Informer and the following letter caught my eye:

I'm writing about your interview with David Cage in issue 198. He stated that video games are unable to generate an emotional experience like those present in movies, and I have to disagree. I feel that video games can offer even more of an experience than movies because of the opportunity to fill the shoes of the lead character.

The letter goes on, but that's the important part. Now, I don't agree with David Cage, but I don't agree with the writer of this letter either. I hear the "fill the shoes" / "you are the main character" argument concerning games and emotion a lot, and before I give my opinion on the subject, I want to ask these questions:

  1. When was the last time you actually felt like you were the main character in a game, or, that the main character was you? And…
  2. Can you name a time where you had a heightened emotional experience as a result of that feeling that could not have been achieved in any other medium?

I'd like to hear responses on this before I give my own.

Is There Money To Be Made?

As I said in my last post, I'm looking at releasing an Xbox Live Indie Game in the next few months. Today, along with Darius, I started doing a little bit of math about indie game numbers, and it's gotten me wondering, can you actually support yourself, and a company, on indie games (indie, in this case, meaning a smallish team experimenting with interesting gameplay concepts and styles). Now, I understand that this whole post, since it deals more with money than passion, may end up alienating me from the indie community, but as a developer I want to see small experimental games flourish, and I want to see those people developing them do well for themselves. This post questions whether or not that's even possible under our current thoughts and models.

We've been seeing recently a number of small game companies really hitting a wall when it comes to funding. Introversion had a post on their blog about their money problems, and Mommy's Best, though still pushing ahead, made it clear that the number's on Weapon of Choice were not good. We've had rants from game players about alternative funding models and suggestions from Gabe Newell about public funding for games. What can we take from all of this? What can we do for funding models?

So this whole thing starts with one piece of information: How many copies of a single game does a developer need to sell per year in order to support themselves? Let's start at a base line of $40k per year for a single developer. This may sound like a lot for indie developers and, let's face it, it really is. But I will tell you it SHOULD be a pretty good base line number, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which include the fact that, in the US, as a single developer, you will be taxed on that both as a business and again as a person. Also take into account health insurance costs and the possibility of supporting any person other than yourself, and $40k starts to sound pretty slim.

Now we need to figure in loss to distributors. Let's ignore distributors with up front cost / approval process (XBLA, PSN, and WiiWare) because even developing for these services usually requires either an already proven game or proven team, and we're assuming neither. This leaves us with iPhone, PC (in various forms, we'll focus on two as you'll see shortly) and Xbox Live Indie Games. For each platform, you need to look at distribution numbers, likely price points, and gross income, meaning the income after your distributor (or whatever) has taken their fair share.


Let's start with the newest (and, for all accounts, sexiest) guy on the block, the iPhone. Most apps on the iPhone sell for $.99 to $3, with Apple taking 30% off the top. In addition, selling on the iPhone is really all about staying new, staying fresh, and staying on top of the most popular list. In order to do that, you need to stay at the lower price points to encourage impulse buys. That means staying at around $.99 for as long as possible. Here are the numbers:

App Price Gross to Dev Number of Sales Needed / developer
$1 $.70 57,000 / year
$2 $1.40 28,500 / year
$3 $2.10 19,000 / year
$5 $3.50 11,400 / year

So at the pretty much standard rate of $1, a single developer needs to push 57 thousand copies of their game per year in order to support themselves, or push multiple applications which can come up to that number. With the number of iPhones on the market somewhere around 6 to 10 million, the question is, how many sales can you except? Mac Rumors reports 4 apps that easily hit almost a million sales, but what's the data like for games? And indie games at that? The most telling post probably comes from the developer of Dapple, who wrote a very long post on how much money he actually made on the product (summary, he has sold a total of about 500 copies). In addition, this post on the price of apps versus their popularity shows very few indie games in the list, Field Runners (essentially an App Store Launch Title) being the notable exception, and very little money being made. Is it possible to be an indie and loved on the App Store? Only indies who have accomplished this can tell you, but 57,000 copies is a really hard number to hit with something interesting or experimental.

Xbox Live Indie Games

So what about Xbox Live Indie Games. Their Gross To Dev numbers are actually exactly the same, though the $2 price point doesn't exist, and the highest amount you can charge is $5. That said, until recently $2.50 was the lowest you could charge, which required about 22,800 copies to be sold per year. Unfortunately, XBLIG sales figures came up very short for most developers. Total download rates are low, as Indie games were hard to find on the dashboard until recently, and good apps are very hard to find, so I believe most people have been ignoring the service entirely. Sales for most games topped at probably around 5,000 copies since launch, far from the required 22 thousand to support a single developer.


Finally we come to PC. On PC, sales numbers small, but you can expect to be able to charge more, though more is expected of a finished product. Games average anywhere from $5 to $30, even from indie developers, and you'd think that, hosting it on your own or through Steam, you'd get more of the pie. Steam unfortunately doesn't publish their numbers, but PayPal does, and we can actually use them as a baseline. Now, we're assuming that you're looking to get above $40,000 here, so we're going to use their range for $10,000 to $100,000, which is 2.2% + .30 per transaction. Here's the numbers:

Game Price Gross to Dev Number of Sales Needed / developer
$5 $4.59 9000 / year
$10 $9.48 4000 / year
$15 $14.37 2800 / year
$20 $19.56 2000 / year
$30 $29.04 1400 / year

Looking at these numbers, it's almost obvious why most successful indie developers start on PC. Even with the PC market shrinking (this talk form GDC shows us that you can expect PC sales numbers in the hundreds of copies, thousands if you're lucky), you get to keep a lot more of your money, and the audience is self selecting. People interested in indie games tend to have PCs and may buy your game. (A note to pirates: Look at those numbers and see how much you're taking from that developer, and the numbers EACH DEVELOPER has to hit before even becoming profitable. That, more than anything, should make you think twice about piracy). Hitting these numbers is possible, but not probable. It's quite obvious, to me, from these numbers why most successful indie devs are one man shops, making fairly quick games. This model doesn't scale to multiple developers, and definitely not for multiple years.

Alternative Funding Models

So what about Gabe's suggestion? Running basically a "stock market" for games where you can invest in projects, get a game out of it, and possibly see a little bit from the net profits off of a game? So far, We've seen a commission system partially go out, and partially work, but what about Gabe's suggestion?

Let's assume that for these systems, we're talking about multi-developer, multi-year projects. Still talking indie, let's say 4 developers over a year and a half, which is pretty reasonable I think. This totals (not taking into account taxes, office space, servers, or anything else) $240,000 that needs to be raised over the course of a year and a half. Though this is potentially possible, we'd have to look at other concerns. If a person invest in this game with a promise of returns on the net profits (after other expenses / taxes), he needs to understand the risks involved. After all, if a game company never hits that $240,000 number, and can't survive long enough to complete the game, that money is lost. Attached to this, is the idea of due diligence. Each investor is now an INVESTOR in your game, and can have possible legal rights to it. If you just take the money and never finish the game, they might be able to sue you. What is there in place to protect both the investor and the investee if this happens?

Now, provided these legal fees could be worked out, how much of net profit would you be looking at loosing, and how much would you charge for each point of net profit? What would developers look to gain, and what would investors look to gain. This post is all about numbers, so here we go.

First, let's start with a game that sells about 20,000 copies at $20 each (we're assuming these are good games that have a following, otherwise they wouldn't have been funded in the first place), on PC using the numbers above. That totals $391,000 revenue on the game, and let's assume (for argument's sake) that we have $41,000 in expenses for the game (to make nice round numbers). That leaves us with $350k net. Assuming we split to always end up with getting the funding we need, here's what the graph looks like:

Percent of Net Available Value for each point Net Total Invested Total Revenue to Investors Total Revenue / point Total Revenue to Developers
70% $3500 $245,000 $245,000 $3,500 $105,000
60% $4000 $240,000 $210,000 $3,500 $110,000
50% $5000 $250,000 $125,000 $2,500 $125,000
30% $8000 $240,000 $105,000 $3,500 $245,000

In general, that's pretty grim. Only in the 70% case do the investors come out just breaking even, and the developers have enough to fund half of their next game. Is it possible? Maybe. But is it worth it for the investors? How many times will an investor loose most of their money from games that aren't finished, or games that don't break 20 to 30 thousand copies before they just kind of give up investing? How much work is required of developers just to set up the legalities to make sure they don't get sued, and their investors don't get screwed?

Another funding model for indie devs is to keep titles relevant from year to year, keeping sales of the title up while you work on the next title, and into your third.  By keeping these games selling, you can start to see actual profits. However, this also means consistently releasing games year after year, and surviving until these games come out. This takes a lot of start up capital, or at least the ability or desire to eat ramen for years on end, with only the smallest chance of reward (from looking at these numbers anyway).


These numbers make it really obvious to me why most indie (and, in some cases non-indie) business models exist, and why they produce the games they produce. To be successful, you need to be in one of a few situations:

  • A single developer that makes a good title (Petri, for example)
  • A single or set of developers with short release cycles to keep multiple games relivant over short periods of time.  (Almost all iPhone developers).
  • A developer that has an already popular game and is able to get on one of the more visible services  like XBLA, PSN, or WiiWare (That Game Company, the Behemoth, 2D boy, Number None)

This is why indie games experiment the way they do.  Shorten the dev cycle, concentrate on mechanics and prototypes, keep art resources and requirements low, release lots of games quickly.  I feel like there needs to be more available.  I'm sure there are indies out there that want to experiment with things that take longer dev cycles, (weird dynamics, involved dynamic art styles, or, god fobid, strange narative structure), but can't for survivability reasons, and that's a damn shame.

So my answer to everything here is, maybe there's not a good living to be made in indie games. Even with alternative money sources, it doesn't look like you can sustain a business, even of small number of developers, without competing for AAA numbers, which seems to have a quality bar that almost requires a AAA team. Obviously, the math for that is wrong somewhere, as we've seen it happen, but is it worth it for me (or anyone else) to attempt the struggle when the reward seems to be mostly just more struggle? Is there an answer I'm possibly missing? Is there money to be made in remaining truely independent, or even survivability?  And if there is, can it be done for more models than what we have now?

Disable All You Want

I'm not one to disagree with Joel, but I actually think I will disagree (sort-of) with this post.

Personally, I have no problem with disabling menu items (graying them out), and I have no problem with showing / hiding items in context sensitive areas of your UI (be they right click menus or elsewhere). I think disabled items give a quick indication of what you can and can't do given your location current context. How horrible would it be to think you're inside a table and click something to format it, only to get an error saying "You can't do that because you're not in a table," then you click OK, then you click in the table, then you go back to your menu. That extra error box plus OK click can get real annoying real fast, whereas grey text tells you quickly that you're in the wrong place. Hiding items is fine too, so long as you're hiding the items in areas the user understand are context sensitive. Right click is always assumed to be context sensitive, but properties windows, and certain toolbars could benefit significantly from some amount of context sensitivity.

I will say, though, that I absolutely agree that a disabled menu item should always be able to display a descriptive reason for why its disabled. In addition, hidden items should only be hidden from areas that are known to be context sensitive. If an item is hidden, a user should still be able to find it in the menu, find that it's disabled, and get a reason why. I think a tool-tip or similar is sufficient for when you see the grayed out item but have no idea why it's disabled, but of course in the desktop application world support for that can be fairly limited (last I checked) which is why almost no companies do it, which is what is irking Joel (I think).

So in conclusion, hide and disable all you want because I think even the general user can work faster seeing disabled menu items and hiding unnecessary commands. Just be sure that when you hide or disable, the user can find out quickly why you've hidden or disabled the item. That assertion's nothing new, though. Chris Crawford called for that in his self-published Understanding Interactivity some 8 years ago.

Mediocre at Best

So, I'm generally disappointed in the state of game journalism and game criticism, but I won't talk about that too much today. It's been harped on by people far more eloquent than me and I don't think it needs to be reiterated. However, last night I got a copy of this month's Game Informer (the one with inFAMOUS on the cover) and I have to say I'm really, really disappointed in one of their articles, one that could have been used to actually provide critical insight into games that both gamers and game developers put up on a pedestal for whatever reason. The article is their Second Annual Sacred Cow Barbecue.

Now, normally, I'd be all for this, but literally, here's their list of Sacred Cows and a basic summary of their complaints about each game:

  • Chrono Trigger: The plot is cliché and unbelievable. To quote the article: "Chrono Trigger proves that RPG dorks will buy literally anything, just as long as it's Japanese and doesn't make a lick of sense."
  • GoldenEye 007: The graphics suck and the controls are bad (compared to current dual analog controls).
  • Gran Turismo (series): It's too realistic. They also didn't like the career mode and lack of online play.
  • ESPN NFL 2k5: It's put on a pedestal only because EA stole the rights to all NFL games. It's no better than Madden.
  • Half-Life (series): The plot sucks and Gordon Freeman isn't an interesting character. To quote the article: "For a series that's been praised for its great storytelling we sure as hell can't make head or tails of this convoluted collection of sci-fi drivel." Also, no online pay "that's not Counter-Strike or an addon pack," and a one line complaint about physics puzzles.
  • Super Smash Bros. (series): All of the game's characters are Nintendo has-beens. To quote the article: "… there are [only] a few characters … that have sold a game in the last 20 years". Also, the game doesn't necessary require skill to win.
  • Rez: It's a standard rails shooter with a derivative visual style (of Batlezone and Tron according to GI), derivative gameplay (of other rail shooters) and derivative soundtrack of "generic techno music that even superstar trance hacks like DJ Tiesto and Paul Oakenfold would be embarrassed to spin."

Okay, as a challenge, I'd like my readers to find the actual design flaws that GI points out in any of these games.

Go ahead I'll wait.

That's the thing, GI fails (with the exception of possibly its complaints about ESPN NFL 2k5) to point out any actual design flaws in any of the games it attempts to knock off its high horse, even though every single one of these games has design flaws that can easily suggest that it is over-rated in one way or another. Faulting Gran Turismo for being too realistic or faulting Super Smash Bros for (essentially) implementing rubber-banding mechanics is like faulting comedies for being funny and tragedies for being sad. Faulting Golden Eye for looking like crap compared to modern games or for its bad control scheme compared to the dual analog sticks is like faulting "It's a Wonderful Life" for using old styles of directing and cutting, or faulting pre-Citizen Kane movies for not using post-Citizen Kane conventions. It misses the point of why the game is good in the first place.

If you want to write an article like this, and if you want to actually be taken seriously as a game critic, maybe you should actually think critically about the game instead of finding very small quips that don't actually affect the game in any reasonable way. Chrono Trigger is not considered amazing because of its plot, but because of the way the plot unfolds, the open ended section at the end of the game, and the amount of freedom you're given within the linear plot. Half-Life, similarly, isn't necessarily considered amazing for its story, but for how that story is presented, and how the designers worked around the fact that your character shouldn't talk (as that would break immersion).

And don't even get me started about their complaints about Rez. Faulting each individual component of that game is like faulting a hot fudge sundae because hot fudge and ice cream aren't actually interesting on their own.

Honestly, I feel like this article was simply meant as flame bait, and I'm almost sorry I felt the need to fan the flames. That said, GI is (according to their cover) "The World's #1 Computer & Video Game Magazine" and I wish that I could at least expect that magazine to publish something a little more insightful than what you can get on their forums every day, but I guess that's asking too much.

Your chocies have consequences

Though not directly in responce to Randy (and Brenda I guess), someone has made a very short Game Maker game where "your choices have consequences."  (Note: do not read the thread first.  Read it after.)  This is a very interesting "game," and I highly recommend you take the 10 minutes out of your day to give it a shot.  Found via TIGSource (where I find most of the new interesting games I get to play).

Usability for Cooking

Those of you that know me know that I really enjoy cooking. Well, really, I enjoy eating good food, but I’ve found that the easiest (and most inexpensive) way to get good food it to make it yourself. So, tangentially, I enjoy cooking.

As a result, I spend a lot of time online looking at various interesting recipes on the internet (and through cook books, but this post is mostly about the internet). One thing I’ve found is that most sites that offer a good deal of recipes, are lacking in their actual usability; not because they’re not designed like other sites, but because they’re designed exactly like other sites. Most of them are designed as simple lists of categorized articles or blogs, with ratings and comments. This may be fine for most blogs or new sites, but cooking is this inter-related web of techniques, derivations, substitutions, and adaptations that (in my mind) can’t be served properly by this common model, but does lend itself well to the web in general. The problem is that people get locked into this core method of usability, and don’t realize that it doesn’t work in all situations.

This, in my mind, actually violates a core tenant of usability in information systems: get the information that the person needs to them as quickly as possible, and allow them to access related information quickly and easily. For cooking, this is not just related reciepies. This may mean linking them to information about the techniques required for a particular recipie (creating a roux, blending a soup, searing a piece of meat, grilling, broiling, etc), the potential ingredient substitutions (can I substitute different types of mushrooms, stocks, water, etc) or additions (can I add garlic, Tabasco sauce, or rice to this dish, and where). Additionally, potential side dishes, wines, derivations (versions of the same recipe that use similar but different ingredients) and nutritional information are all common things I want to see with a recipe, but rarely see in any web recipe outlet.

And don’t get me started on comments. 90% of comments of recipe sites are worthless: “This tasted great! I will do it again!” is pretty common. But that last 10% is sometimes useful. “Lightly salt the zucchini to drain the moisture first,” “Added garlic to this dish and it really brought out some of the flavors,” are good comments, and are related specifically to an ingredient, addition, or substitution, so why are they at the bottom of the page instead of where it might be useful to me?

What does this have to do with games? Well, nothing really, but it does point out an alarming trend in general usability: this idea that once you’ve found one system that works, you tend to apply it to other systems where it’s not as useful, or (worse) where it doesn’t make sense. So, when you’re designing your user interface for your next game, just think to yourself for a second: “Am I designing this interface this way because this is the easiest and best way to access this information, or because it’s the way it’s always been done.” You’ll be surprised how often you answer yes for the later, and find another, better way to do it.

Agency Theory in 20/20

The format of the last Boston Post Mortem meeting was a series of presentations, each consisting of 20 slides for 20 seconds each slide. The last (and probably best) talk of the night has already started making the rounds around the internet.

But I was also able to finagle my way into giving a presentation that night about agency theory. I’d been waiting for the video to become available to post the slides, but I decided that since almost everything I said was available in the slide notes, I could post the slides now and then update when the video became available. So here are the slides.

The response to this talk was very positive, and I got a lot of complements on it, so that’s always nice. Thanks to Post Mortem for giving me the opportunity, and to everyone who came out for laughing where they were supposed to laugh. Again, once I get the video, I’ll point you to it and you can see the talk in all of its 6:40 glory.

Enjoyment Through Agency

Last night, on the way to the Post Mortem, I got into a discussion with my co-workers about my last post, which led to a discussion about the types of games we like. I, of course, related this all to agency theory, and started looking at things through the perspectives of what types of control (or illusions of control) people enjoy in games. What was great was that, talking in these terms, it was actually pretty easy to classify what we liked in games through this lens, far better than if we were to talk about them in terms of genre, or even other methods that are being researched now. Being able to do that is very exciting. For me anyway.

So, I thought I’d share for you some of the types of agency we hit on, and a few very interesting points about not just classifying games though types of agency, but understanding them. Let’s use Darius as an example. It turns out Darius really likes strategy games and tactical RPGs. When we dug deeper, we started seeing that what he likes in these games is the agency over the improvement of his characters, what I call “improvement agency”, over the long term and in a complex fashion, as well as the short term agency of being given free reign over single battles, and the agency over the difficulty (basically improving his own understanding of the system, and making smarter decisions over time).

This gives us a whole bunch of classifications of agency I hadn’t considered before: simple vs. complex, short vs. long term, and internal vs. external. Any game can have any combination of these in many different types of agency.

Adventure games, for example, tend to have simple short term agency over the narrative, through solving puzzles. A few also have simple long term agency over the narrative, where certain decisions affect later narrative in a small way. Very few will have complex long term narrative agency, where a single decision affects the entire game, but this is rare. More common is the illusion of long term agency, with Deus Ex being the perfect example. Here, it always feels like decisions are affecting long term goals the plot, but, in reality, all of the agency is short term and contained, with a long term illusion over top of it.

Strategy games (especially turn based strategy games) usually focus on giving the player long term agency over the improvement of their units, and short term agency over single battles. In games of strategy like chess, the complex, long term agency of the position of the pieces over time is what’s most engrossing, whereas the short term agency of taking pieces is minimized. In the RTS, however, the long term planning tends to be minimized through races for certain units, and it’s the short term battle to battle agency that’s rewarded.

I could go on, but you get the idea. What’s really cool is that none of these agencies really conflict. You can have short and long term improvement in units in strategy games, just like you can have short and long term affects on a narrative in the same game. You can have improvement agency in a game that focuses on short or long term narrative agency, or in a game that uses only difficulty as its primary system of enjoyment. Additionally, you can have single parts of the game be very short term focused, with the longer, over arching game being more complex. This is how I think game stages work and make certain games more interesting.

That said, not all people like all types of agency, and not all people like having lots of it available. We’re all familiar with the term “freedom paralysis,” something that occurs when there’s just too much available for you to do. Different people have different levels where freedom paralysis occurs, and, even more interestingly, different types of agency that will cause freedom paralysis. For example, some people will look at the giant, open world of Oblivion and basically give up right after the character generation quest. That same person may take a look at all of the options for expansion in a Japanese RPG and eat it up, even though there’s probably more to see and do in those games. For me, side quests in games like Rouge Galaxy gave me freedom paralysis. There was just too much to keep track of and I felt like I had to do it all. But sit me in front of Jak and Daxter or Ratchet and Clank and I’ll get 100% completion.

So, there is no right or wrong type of agency to use, but you should always analyze the audience you’re going to be marketing to, and figure out what types of agency they tend to enjoy, and what types of agency they tend to not enjoy. Additionally, you need to make sure that, for your audience, you’re adding the correct level of agency so that they won’t get overwhelmed (suffer freedom paralysis) or feel the game is too simple. It’s not easy, but it can be done.

Addictiveness, Agency, and Difficulty

So, I’ve proposed the theory on this blog that addictiveness of games is directly related to the amount of perceived agency present in said game. There is, of course, much more that contributes to whether or not a game is addictive or not, but I am of the opinion that perceived agency is a major contributor. Since it’s currently the season for travel, my game selections have been limited, and I’ve found myself confined to games I can get on my phone and on my girlfriend’s new handheld system. I’ve also had a lot of down time, and thus I’ve been thinking about the agency theory in between sessions of solitaire and bubble breaker on my phone, and more recently between sessions of Elite Beat Agents on my (girlfriend’s) DS. I’ve found myself wondering if the theory still applies in games where perceived agency is so subtle that it exists at all (in the case of solitaire), where perceived agency is obvious but heavily related to random factors (in the case of bubble breaker) and where perceived agency is completely related to perceived skill level.

Personally, I can see the perception of agency in each of these games, but is that part of what makes them addictive, or are other, larger factors at work? The simplicity of my phone games is a definite factor to their addictiveness, but certainly not the major contributor. Recently, we’ve actually seen solitaire take a back seat to more complicated Pop-Cap games in terms of office space wastes of time (and phone wastes of time if you’re able to get them) so solitaire’s simplicity is not a major factor to it’s addictiveness, only it’s accessibility. So what makes Pop-Cap games more addictive than games like solitaire? I’ve found a possible answer in my more recent sessions of Elite Beat Agents, but it relates to perceived skill, which, I hypothesize, is directly related to perceived agency, in a sort of round about way.

EBA is addictive for the same reason Guitar Hero is addictive; they do an excellent job of making you believe that great skill is just around the corner, by ramping up the difficulty very slowly and letting you move at your own learning pace. You are (almost) always challenged in these games, figuring that beating this one song is just out of your grasp. In games where difficulty ramps up too quickly, the perception of “I can beat this” or more importantly “I have a chance of beating this” disappears, and the game’s addictiveness and draw are completely lost. In this way, perceived agency and perceived skill level are almost inseparable. This isn’t the perception of ‘being able to edit the game” as most people think of agency, but more the perception of being able to make a difference in the overall outcome, aka winning or loosing.

Here is where difficulty and agency are intertwined. A good game creates the appearance that “winning” is just out of reach at all times, that your skill makes a difference to the outcome. Games that are too easy frequently loose our attention if they do not contain other compelling reasons to play them. Games that are too difficult frequently loose our attention even IF there are other compelling reasons to play them, and games that are completely random frequently loose our attention because there is no feeling that we can beat them since the game works against us. By keeping a consistent level where the player is constantly thinking “I could do that better” (which is actually saying, “I could change the outcome there”) we create a type of perceived agency that keeps the game compelling.

Even more interestingly, from here we can derive things about dynamic difficulty levels (and where they are a good and bad idea) and we can talk about multiple areas of agency, and ways to transparently addict people on multiple levels, through both scaling difficulty and skill as well as through systems of gameplay that promote gamer influence. Unfortunately, these will have to wait for a later post. Until then, I’d appreciate feedback on these thoughts.