Monthly Archives: May 2013

Design is Constraint

This is an essay for the indecisive. This is for the writer with the blank page, the game designer with the eternal tech demo, the perfectionist who might finish something one day.


Creative output tracks with the technical proficiency of a student, initially. (Many great games were made by budding programmers, for instance.) When the overwhelming potential of the medium becomes clear, however, a student with a wide purview and high standards suddenly becomes unable to complete anything substantial. Only when the student masters the paralyzing illusion of infinite choice does output grow again, and ascend gloriously, but specifically, through the boundless chaos of possible designs.  The master puts boundlessness aside and learns to choose.

And choice is clearly the imposition of constraint. But not all constraint is choice, and that’s the first wrinkle; we’re finite, and our mental, moral, physical, and technical capacities are finite, too. There’s no kind of guarantee that we’ll find the optimal design or anything close to it. We find our ways into media, schools, and genres, mastering techniques and tools; they open us to worlds even as they constrain us. It’s entirely possible to develop a new medium, forge a new school, or spin off a new genre (entirely possible and entirely reasonable) but it’s quite probably impossible to do without entirely. These are the constraints of the designer, though, not of the design; new techniques open new spaces while they close off others, but progress in one particular work always reduces the space open to potential designs. No matter how brilliant a decision is, it is only ever one of uncountable decisions that could have been made. When you’ve struggled to wider your options, narrowing them again runs contrary to emotional sense.

The point of recognizing all this is not to uncover the ontological underpinnings of human creativity or some balderdash like that. No, it’s closer to home: Creativity, when it gets out of the expansive phase and sets into the hard work of choice, hurts. Every possible outcome you reject was one you’d have been happy to come out with. The fear of shutting out those possibilities is worse than the feeling of erasing work already done. Work already done was one possible outcome, after all, but the vaguely perceived future is of inestimable value. Before you achieve anything, anything will do: Once you start getting results, you want the perfect realization of your artistic hopes and, if you don’t know a way to avoid the feeling, nothing less. The work of art, unbegun, is infinite.

It’s a dreary fallacy to fall for.

In Writing

No one with plenty to say will find the feeling unfamiliar, when looking at a blank piece of paper, that it’s all downhill from there.  On any theme that comes to mind, you could rhapsodize for hours over tea to an eager friend on a rainy day.  And the sum of it would come out beautifully, if a stenographer were listening in, and with a bit of cutting you’d have yourself the essay you wanted — but somehow the paper’s blank face doesn’t draw the words from you the way your friend does. Anyone who really writes must have a way around it.

The prolific writer simply avoids getting stuck. Bland, profound, insightful, insipid; whatever the product, the process looks about the same. Just keep writing, no matter whether it’s the right next thing to write. Accept that whatever you write isn’t something else you could have written, and move on.

The alternative is terrible. The longer writer’s block goes on, the more valuable the finished project must be, or the whole effort feels vain. Rapid fire writing feels inexpensive, disposable, expendable to the writer; it doesn’t lend itself to writer’s block. And volumes get written, and cruft gets cut, and the result might not be great, but it’s very probably good. Writer’s block trains the writer’s eye on the infinite, on the scenes that might be written but never will, and sets the expectation up that those scenes had better get written, or what’s all this waiting for?

Make a choice and get it written. What’s this next sentence going to be? Anything is better than the blankness there now.

In Games

The writer with no specific vision never gets anything written of any length. The game designer with no specific vision can write systems just about forever. What’s worse, it can (and inevitably does) feel like having a vision. I know; I’ve been there.

The joke goes that they made this great game that you can mod with absolute freedom, and it’s called gcc. “This is going to be the best game ever,” thinks everyone who ever dared to dream big, “because you’ll be able to do whatever you can think of.” And they never actually design anything in particular, and nothing ever shapes up.

The people who are out there, getting things done, making great games, are simply making them. They’ll write posts where they tell you to do the same. But knowing what needs to be done doesn’t help. You already wanted to make a game and just get it done, so why could they and why couldn’t you? And you know you could make an even better game than theirs, with more options. And yours would let the player map the controls however the player wants. And yours would have more variety in the level design and the puzzles. Enough. It’s all about constraints, and it’s about accepting that you need to apply them to your design, and that you have to turn it into something that can one day be complete. You need to deal with the pain of limiting your options, of accepting that most things you can do, you never will: So you’ve got to choose.

Do not design for every possible option. Do not make it so that everything can be put in a backpack, and a room is just a special kind of container, and items take damage the same way monsters do, and the player can control more than one character at once, and every fluid can be put in any bottle, and bottles are just containers, so rooms can fill with fluids and items can rust in rooms full of Potion of Peroxide and — Enough. Pick solid abstractions so you can change your mind later, but make it all as simple as you can, for your particular design. Make a choice and get on with it. (Now, maybe you want to make the simulationist’s dream. That’s ok. That topic comes later.)

You want freedom, yes, so you can do whatever you want — but you’ve actually got to do it, and once you do, you’ve given up some freedom. That’s the bargain. That’s the point. Get better at what you do so you have more freedom; then hurry up and give it up, so you have a game.

Possible Futures

There’s a marriage waiting between the sense of meaning that applies to video games and the trees of future states you’ll find in game theory.  Meaning takes outcomes into account even if they never actually happen; these trees, likewise, branch out into every conceivable outcome.  Modification of future possibilities, even possibilities that will never be realized, will change the interpretation of the immediate situation.  Players sense this and experience it as meaning.

Decision trees

Let’s start by admitting that, for the present at least, we only need an informal sort of decision tree.  This is the kind of structure the player will actually work through mentally; a really complete enumeration of all possible futures is a useful construct for working out proofs, but it’s utterly intractable in games as they are actually played.  The number of possible moves each turn, and the number of turns, is simply monumental: Take Brogue.  With a full inventory and in a wide open space, you can wait, search, apply or equip or remove any one of your items, throw any of your items at any of the 400 or so dungeon cells around you.  Many of those applications, such as of a scroll of enchantment, will prompt for another item or for a direction to zap in.  In such a situation, the player has at least ten thousand possible moves.  Over the typical course of a twenty thousand turn ascension, that’s an astronomical profusion of futures to account for.

Thankfully, however, most of that variety is degenerate.  Many of those moves will actually be impossible (not least because they get you killed), and many others will be functionally indistinguishable.  There’s an incredible degree of self-similarity in the futures of these trees; sitting around waiting, in the absence of any enemies, takes the game to a new state that is exactly the same except that all child trees are one turn shorter — the rogue is one turn closer to starving.  The same is true, for instance, of the various ways of pathing across a room.  The exact sequence of steps really won’t matter much, and you’ll find yourself facing the same future as before.

This self-similarity turns out to be the key to making headway, which is rather unusual: In most situations, introducing the fractal nature of a problem serves as a distraction.  Look, look, it’s so complicated, but isn’t it pretty?  Here, instead, what we want to notice is that what had seemed dreadfully complicated (ten-thousand to the twenty-thousandth power) really mostly comprises the same simple patterns over and over again.  The differences between futures can largely be broken down into situation and resources, and this, again, is exactly what players do.  These are the tactical and the strategic subgames.

Situation and resources

My situation might be bad, but it’s just one path between my earlier state and a target state, and once I get there it doesn’t matter how I got there.  It doesn’t matter whether my health dropped to 50% or 10%, so long as I didn’t die.  It doesn’t matter whether I triggered a fire trap, so long as I didn’t burn a scroll.  It doesn’t matter whether I went north and then east or east and then north, so long as I end up where I’m going.  Situation is the part that gets scrubbed away by the passage of turns.  I might only have two possible moves this turn, because I’m in a corridor, but I’ll have more as soon as I step into a room.  My situation changes quickly.

Resources, on the other hand, describe the differences between sub-trees that propagate uniformly from parent to child.  Any turn on which I have a Potion of Healing is a turn on which I can use a Potion of Healing, but after that turn I have no more Potions of Healing to use: The shape of my options each turn changes the moment I actually use it.  Likewise, an item on the floor that I haven’t picked up is an item I can walk over to and grab whenever I please, until I’ve actually done it.  Once I’ve picked it up I can’t pick it up again.  Anything that functions in this way, from finite monster spawns to inflammable terrain to walls that can only be tunneled through once (and are forever open after), functions as a resource.

The two, it should be obvious, commute.  On a long enough timescale most resources look a lot like situations; on a short enough timescale, most situations look like resources.  How far ahead you’re willing to look determines which is which, and so, again, the nature of the heuristic becomes clear: we’ve constructed one tree of futures at a fine scale and called it our tactical situation (even though we’re not likely to distinguish every one of our ten-thousand possible moves each turn, and we’re really only considering a few dozen of them), and we’ve constructed another one by recognizing self-similarity and labeling each distinct feature of each potential future with a named resource.  A tree that looks like this is one that has a healing potion; a tree that looks like this is one where the rogue is starving; a tree that looks like this is one where the player has a powerful suit of armor.  We take each of these, treat them as a single state, and get (what else?) another tree out of it.  This is the tree we actually think about for the strategic subgame; do I pursue this resource or that one, expend this one or that?  The ugly turn-by-turn of it is abstracted away.

And the ugly turn-by-turn of it goes about attaching a sense of meaning to resources.  The general sense we get of when a particular item is useful and which items we’d like to put in our kit together, itself yields a deeply rewarding sense of drive and of mastery.  Just watch the lengths that actual players of roguelikes will go to to ascend with a more peculiar build than ever before.

Randomness and uncertainty can be incorporated just as they are in game theory: Any time the dice will be thrown, you construct a turn that will be taken not by a player but by the dice, and you annotate the edges with their probabilities.  Curiously, the optimal strategy in the face of probability tends towards two extremes, depending on whether the player can mitigate the risk of absolute failure: in the one state, expected value dominates, and rolls are treated in terms of their averages; in the other, the player considers only the worst case.  At full health, for instance, a player will treat a 20% chance of hitting as doing a fixed 20% of the damage.  When that 20% chance might kill, however, a good player will treat that as inevitable.  (A bad player, on the other hand, will systematically succumb to wishful thinking, and bet on the 80%.  This is one of several hard skills that roguelike players must acquire — but that’s for another post.)

Smoothness of time and space

The heuristic we use to counter the combinatoric explosion of a roguelike’s future can be adapted with no real trouble to games with smooth time and movement.  Indeed, smoothness is no obstacle at all: Even without relying on discrete frames of motion, we can identify arbitrary key frames between which no decisions take place.  The length of time between them does not have to be uniform, and we don’t (for reasons to be developed) need to consider reaction times.  This is entirely reasonable, in practice.  No, the true obstacle is the matter of skill.

A player is certain to decide which of two platforms to attempt a jump from, for instance, on the basis of which is more amenable to success.  The player has firsthand knowledge of skill, and can treat performance as a random roll.  A thoroughly unskilled player, aware of these shortcomings, is likely to harvest resources — to grind — in order to overcome a situational weakness by resource sufficiency.  As a child playing Mario World, I would get two feathers and a blue yoshi before entering any difficult level.  Most people do the same.

Players actually do experience these exercises of skill as gambles, and I would suggest that it is because of this equation of skill with gambling that gambling tickles our reward anticipation as strongly as it does.  Before people came along, nothing could exploit this property of our learning mechanism, just as nothing could add refined sugar to a 32-oz drink.

Bringing it back around

The interesting thing is that the process by which a player identifies possible futures is itself subject to failure, and can itself be assigned a probability.  The application of our situation/resource heuristic is difficult.  Remembering present possibilities is hard enough (and it’s one of the cornerstones of roguelike difficulty).  Anticipating future consequences is another beast altogether. The savvy player, rather than fret over this, assigns a probability to the failure to consider all outcomes, just like the platformer player did when considering a jump.

A naïve player will also internalize actual randomness as an expression of skill, and experience a psychological reward accordingly.  Designers find it easy to exploit this failure.  Traditional power curves stand on several psychological legs, one of which is this inability to distinguish skill from external conditioning, in a peculiar misreading of cause and effect.  (The same effect is also, quite probably, responsible for our trancelike enjoyment of television and film, but that’s for later.)

Players plan for their own fallibility.  This can also help us understand the psychology of hoarders; cognizant of their total inability to plan for a game with unknown rules, they preserve every possible resource for later use in repairing the damage their ignorance will probably inflict.  Good players plan for fallibility, too, and attempt to distinguish between what they could have anticipated and what they never could have.  Good designers respect that.

Games and Meaning

Games hang human-crafted assets on abstract structures to give meaning to both.


There’s a sense of meaning, rather inflexible and prescriptive, that ascribes it only to the formal relationship of signifier to signified — the word to the denotation, the clothing to the fashion statement, the blush to the thrill.  There’s a contrary sense that voids meaning of meaning, makes it an ineffable, impenetrable core of subjectivity that can’t very well be conveyed or reasoned about.  We know we want meaningful experiences.  Let’s start there. Look around you.  With a little evidence from your eyes, you’re constructing a rich model of your surroundings.  You know at a glance how the floor feels to the touch.  You know what happens if you throw the screen you’re reading from against it; you won’t be doing that.  The model is the meaning of the stimulus.  Meaning is the entire body of implicit and unperformed associations: the things you feel, know, expect, or intend, yes, but especially the things that you would feel, know, expect, or intend, if some potential interaction came to pass.

Meaning is the part of the model that isn’t inherent in what you’re taking in. To draw a definitive line between sensation and meaning is pointless.  You’re not a clean processor of raw data; your eyes aren’t cameras plugged into a soul.  Because we’re composite and convoluted beings, meanings have meanings have meanings.  The sense that something has a meaning, but that you don’t know it yet?  That’s curiosity, ambition, exploration, playfulness.  And the sense that something has no meaning, even if you try to find it? That’s ennui, boredom, depression, despair.

And when you are actuated by meaning, you’re filled with purpose.  You’re driven not only by what’s out there and not only by what’s inside you, but by an elaborate, vibrant, and fractured blending of the two.  Purpose is the sense that action has meaning, and this kind of meaning expresses itself through the will.

… and Games

When players are having fun playing our games, and not just pulling the lever for another irregularly scheduled epic drop, we hope that they’re exhibiting curiosity, ambition, exploration, and playfulness.  We hope that they’re exhibiting a sense of purpose.  They also tell us explicitly that they want games to have meaning.  Every aspect of the high-level appreciation of games (games as art, if you’ll forgive the phrase) comes back to one facet or another of meaning.  It seems we’re back where we started — we want games to mean something, but we don’t know what and we don’t know how.  But there’s an in.

When I wrote that “meanings have meanings have meanings,” I might as well have said that meaning is recursive and transitive.  If two meanings both pertain to the same object, then they end up meaning each other; they also take meaning from each other.  Fabric that is rough to the touch, looks rough; a printed pattern that once looked rough no longer looks rough once touched.  A favorite song sets the mood for a time of life, and retains meaning from the memory of that time. Feeling like a spaceman in a game doesn’t come from a grand title or a big ship.  It comes from zipping around going pew pew pew and landing on alien planets.  Once that feeling is established, then the grand title or the big ship might further it, but only then.

Every video game experience starts with components the player understands already and assembles it into a more meaningful whole.  This is where most of the recent work has been done: Juiciness, polish, gamefeel, reward cycles, and the like, are ways of exploiting the most fundamental generators of meaning.  Anything that produces a response in us, however slight, by dint of our biology or acculturation, can be amplified by a process of the accretion of meaning.  The glint of a gem, like the glint of clean water, first caught your eye; now you’re a diamond miner.

It’s a curious fact, otherwise, that players don’t just extract the victory fanfare and the crawl and sit around like sots in an opium den, feeling victorious.  It’s a good feeling, but you can’t get it without doing the work.  The assets are like puppets; the game is a puppet show.  Without the meaning that the rest of the game experience gave to them, the assets elicit only a very slight response.  But that response that they do elicit is enough to start building upon.  A springy sound for a jump, a sad theme for failure, a mean looking mushroom: taken separately they’ll fall flat, but taken together they sparkle.

When a neophyte looks at an old game, or a tty roguelike, and calls the graphics ‘bad,’ old hands will sigh with exasperation.  The graphics look fine, they’ll explain.  They do their job.  It’s the game mechanics that matter.  This is to miss the point; the graphics (or the colorful letters) do their job not because the mechanics matter instead, but because mechanics are so powerful they can ascribe meaning even to a capital letter D.  And sometimes, of course, these more abstract forms let the mechanics do that job even better than more verisimilitudinous assets might do.

Where from here?

This is the intersection point that interests me most and that I will discuss most often here: How exactly do game mechanics cause assets to interact in ways that produce a sense of meaning, and how can that sense of meaning be exploited to produce known effects in the player?  The good news is that it is possible to answer, if haltingly, on the basis of established work.

There will be the question of how art assets evoke responses.  There will be the question of how game physics does its job (infinitely more interesting than it first seems!) and what makes it possible for players to project themselves into the game world.  There will be the question of how game mechanics interact in a purely abstract space, what game theory can tell us about the decisions players make, and how to design systems that let players extract.  And there will be the question of narrative, both within the context of written assets and scripted plots, and without them.

Game mechanics are a dancing skeleton, and game assets are a pile of flesh.  Stitch them together and your game will live.