Tuesday 26 February 2013

two-player games

A two-player game is a tool for paying attention to someone and expressing yourself to them. With more players, group dynamics creep in; there's more to pay attention to and it's harder to give your focused attention to an individual. On the other hand with a larger audience self-expression is amplified - games that ask you to act, make jokes, and generally be extroverted work much better with larger groups. I value the focused attention-giving of one-on-one games over larger group interactions (though I do value both); similarly to how I perform better one-on-one conversations than in group discussions.

Good two-player games present many opportunities to impress and admire your adversary. What can these opportunities look like? When you're figuring out a game, learning together, you can show off by figuring out how to do something before your opponent does. Strategy games like Chess let you spot moves your opponent hadn't, or think ahead to come up with a cunning plan, and then surprise them with it. These surprises don't feel strictly delightful in the context of the game - they hurt your position - but there's an intellectual delight in being shown something you weren't expecting, and in being presented with a new challenge to think about. Chess also lets you demonstrate your memory and experience by learning openings and endgames, though personally I'm less interested in this.

Many different skills can be expressed through games - creativity, reasoning, reading your opponent ("yomi"), attention, humour, strength, and so on. It is unfortunately difficult to express moral virtues like generosity, selflessness, courage, love, honesty, faithfulness in many games, because either these actively cost you through inefficiency, or they're actively rewarded and feel less meaningful because they don't cost you; perhaps this sense that morality should cost something excludes it from being fully expressed in games because all in-game costs are imaginary.

Expressing your virtues in a game is not about trying to be the smartest kid in the room, to figure out who's smartest, to lift yourself up by putting your opponent down. These are attitudes of insecurity. Let's try to help each other feel more secure, to lift each other up by appreciating each other's abilities - whether it's the grudging respect of nemeses as portrayed by Holmes and Moriarty, or more likely in the context of a friendly relationship. Maybe one of us is smarter, though this is impossible to measure absolutely, but even if so we can still admire each other.

When designing a two-player game, ask these questions:
* What virtues does it allow the players to display to each other?
* How can I direct the players' attention onto each other rather than just onto the game?
* How can I avoid the feeling of "multiplayer solitaire", playing together alone?
* How can the game continually present new opportunities for players to express themselves to each other?
* How can it give scope for moves that are particularly notable in their cleverness or idiosyncrasy?
* Can it provide high-pressure moments requesting quick/clever thinking followed by low-pressure moments to reflect on the previous?
* Are there hidden depths that players can impress each other by revealing and share the joy of exploring?
* Are there unexpected combinations requiring creativity to uncover?
* Does the mastery curve exclude players low on it from having anything interesting to say to those higher?
* Are one player's clever actions sufficiently clear for their opponent to see why they're clever?
* How will actions in the game provoke admiration?

Monday 18 February 2013

acknowledgement of privilege

I'm ridiculously lucky to have been supported in making games full-time for a couple of years, and before that to have had a flexible enough occupation to spend a lot of time dabbling, and before that to have had a childhood with plenty of leisure and access to technology.

I consider that I've made some things that are worthwhile. But if not for these opportunities, I wouldn't have. If I'm any good at what I'm doing now, it's only through having had the chance to devote an incredible amount of time to it. I'm fortunate. Being able to put years of unpaid full-time work into something before seeing anything back from it is an incredible privilege.

It's still very unclear whether I'll be able to make a living from this. I hope I can. But now that I've gotten over a certain hurdle in terms of recognition, more opportunities are appearing - the IGF, interviews, people writing about my work. Opportunities that wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been able to work on this for an extended period. Just being part of a community of mutually-respecting artists; that's incredibly valuable and it's a place I've had to earn. I've been lucky to have lived in the UK for a while, where there's a thriving community of game developers, and where I've been able to meet many successful and interesting ones. I wish that everybody could have such opportunities.