Tuesday 2 August 2016

imbroglio notes 6 - meditation

In these roguelikes I've been making the trend has been to move away from epic sprawl towards smaller games. Partly this is practical for making them but it's also about valuing "interesting decisions" in games; increasing the decision density by cutting out bits where you're not making decisions or the decisions are easy ("pick the weapon with the highest number"). I've found some effective methods towards this and I think 868-HACK expressed it well. Shrinking the grid minimises time spent navigating from place to place and forces game elements closer together so they interact more often. Directly linking abilities and resources to tile positions adds extra dimension to tactical positioning. Reducing the length of games means each decision carries more weight towards the outcome.

Imbroglio continues some of these trends. Grid is even smaller. Abilities are even more tightly linked to position. But as it started to take shape it became clear that it wanted to be a longer game. This caused me some concern, since one of the principles I'd been working with was basically "shorter is better". I value games being short, it makes them easier to fit into life, they get to the point sooner, it's possible to play them more times, trying out different possibilities, there's a clearer connection between decisions and outcome.

How did it end up being longer? I hadn't imposed an explicit boundary on it (like 868-HACK's 8 sectors), instead leaving it as an open-ended scoring game. This was a deliberate move to create a different structure, to get away from just remaking a previous game. And the system of leveling up weapon tiles required a certain amount of time to separate the levels, tuning those numbers to what felt right was pushing up the overall length.

I value interface simplicity, complicated control schemes with all different modes and menus are clumsy and also I don't like programming them (good justification). You should be able to fit everything on one screen, usually if it doesn't it means people have just shoved in any idea they thought of rather than doing the work of selecting which ones actually fit harmoniously; lazy design. So I really like the classic roguelike system of attacks being triggered by moving towards an enemy, accessing movement and combat with just one set of arrow keys, lovely simplification. And I really don't like the classic roguelike thing of using every key on the keyboard for something different and also having twenty different menus for items and spells and skills and levels and. Zaga-33 and 868-HACK each had movement arrows and just one flat menu of extra abilities; excited about Imbroglio going even simpler by having only weapon effects: you attack with the weapon you're standing on so the movement controls suffice to select a weapon as well as to activate it. Giving these weapons different automatic and passive effects and leveling them up when used packs really a lot into minimal controls. Ended up with one extra button to activate hero abilities, for some heroes at least - Masina/Bob/Johnny's abilities are triggered with the movement controls too and I would have loved to do this with every hero but decided it was too limiting.

But this limited control set ends up working against decision density. Each turn you're only selecting from 1-5 possible inputs, this can still be interesting since they can give quite different outcomes in terms of what options you have available in future turns, but that requires there to be enough of those future turns to make a difference; length. In 868-HACK for comparison, each turn you could run a sequence of progs (up to ten different ones, and you can use the same one repeatedly) without ending the turn, before you move/attack/siphon/wait - potentially hundreds of different combinations; breadth. So there's a direct conflict of values; decision complexity depends on number of decisions made and number of options in each of them; interface simplicity reduces the number of options and so to maintain complexity the number of decisions must increase, increasing game length.

These kinds of values or principles are useful to guide a design towards something new; you do things for a reason rather than just because it's what you've seen done before. Principles don't have to be "right" to be useful, whatever that would even mean. But there are lots of different things we want out of our designs and it's complicated, only a very simple value system is likely to be consistent. Each design is a compromise, as idealised values meet the reality of bringing something into the world. Until two values are tested against each other one doesn't necessarily know which one is valued more; each new design creates fresh opportunities for conflict.

Another value I'm thinking about is holism, feeling like all the parts work together as a coherent entity. This sometimes aligns with simplicity as it is harder to make many different pieces fit together as one, but it is certainly possible to have many parts without any being extraneous, and sometimes carrying through an idea as far as it goes does require adding more, incompleteness is inelegant. When I talk about Imbroglio "taking shape" I am gesturing at this concept; I look at the piece I have made so far and try to envisage the whole it is part of. Not a fully rational process, letting things make themselves through me and justify it afterwards. However much I plan things and make declarations about what I intend to do really I just make a thing and find out what it is along the way.

Thinking about the opening of Imbroglio. I definitely liked that in 868-HACK you could optionally face a serious challenge right from the start, depending what you siphon, here you can't really - or, you kind of can by kiting around while more enemies spawn but it doesn't gain you much. Some suggestions for making it shorter, what if I cut off the opening, like what if some weapons start already leveled up, maybe you choose that as part of your build? But leveling 16x0 to 16x4 is a complete arc, hopping off the start to 12x0+4x1 or whatever feels clearly incomplete. And you are doing stuff and making choices in those early turns even if there is not much risk, it is very fuzzy to try define which is the first turn that matters, if I could say for certain that the first ten turns have no effect on the outcome (or like 0.00001%) but the eleventh turn has 2% then that might be a good argument for starting the game there, but maybe every turn matters because of the subtle effects on where you are and what you can do in subsequent turns, maybe nothing matters at all because it's just a game and we're all going to die. Also it depends which hero, some of the disadvantages are harder to deal with at the start so there are more risks early on, and I was trying to tune the balance for all of them at once; giving the harder ones enough space to survive meant leaving the easier ones unchallenged at first; I could have had different enemy waves for each hero but it felt more coherent to have everything the same apart from the two explicit rules for each hero, no hidden extra rules differentiating them. I eventually concluded that I'm okay with there being a ritual opening to the game before you're really at risk if it keeps it holistic. Different games, different conflicts, different compromises. Like maybe from the perspective of 868-HACK's values it's a worse game but it should be what it is in its own terms.

Also there's the question of board construction, there's a basic challenge in all pre-constructed-deck-type games: the choice of deck has to matter and there's only a limited amount of matter to go around so the decisions made after that matter less. But it doesn't matter! These games can still be really good, it's just something to be aware of that the turn-by-turn decisions are going to carry a bit less weight. Here also there's kind of a third layer with leveling up weapons; it also interacts closely with the turn-by-turn tactics but draws some attention away. I'm pretty satisfied with the balance of these, they do all end up being relevant. Was very excited the first time I found a board where playing it the way that (at the time) seemed obvious performed worse than leveling things up in a different order; makes the choice to share boards along with highscores interesting because the board alone isn't complete information, you can't necessarily replicate someone's score just from their board if you don't also know their strategy and tactics.

All the talk about decisions comes down to valuing play as intellectual challenge, I also value play as meditation. A game can be the object of my apparent attention while my mind processes other thoughts and feelings, regenerates itself. And this kind of requires the game to not be all the most difficult decisions all the time, it needs to leave some space, actions that occupy enough attention to maintain some kind of focus while leaving enough free to wander. So again there's an apparent conflict of values, but on consideration many of the games I meditate best with I've first appreciated as intellectual challenges, then learnt some patterns and heuristics to guide less intellectual play. I think part of what makes this work for me is shifting attention demands, games that sometimes occupy all of my thoughts but then fade back into semi-autopilot until the next critical juncture, guiding the meditation between external and internal focus. And this kind of play I think Imbroglio achieves fairly well; you can zone out for a while - but not disengage completely, a couple of bad spawns can always kill you pretty quickly so you still have to maintain awareness of possibilities - and then you zone back in, ebb and flow of attention. (And this is important for making the game work as constructed deck game! When there is a gap in attention you can think about how to adjust the board for next time using the new information you have from playing it out.) Whereas 868-HACK you couldn't (/shouldn't), it really is full-on all the time, which is great but kind of stressful.

Optimising decision density is sometimes expressed in terms like "don't waste the player's time", but this is very narrow in how it defines certain kinds of activity as being a valuable use of time. Valuing the player's time doesn't necessarily mean making them do the maximum number of things with it, trying to pack in as much game as possible into every moment with no room to breathe. Guiding a meditation isn't a waste of time. Thinking about board games, even when the decisions you make every turn are beyond the computational limits of the human brain, usually there's some downtime between turns, maybe this is important? I had thought they were an intrusion, a problem happily avoided by single-player games because you don't have to wait for anyone else and you can just get back to work straight away, but maybe they could be a valuable part of the game's rhythm. And it is a kind of labour, playing these games, enjoyable though it can be. I've sometimes approached for-money-work the same way, trying optimise my time to do as many things as possible, pressure to succeed, rush rush rush the money's running out. Easy to fall into in our society where you have to work more than you can afford to just so you can afford to sometimes not work, and then we'd better use our free time as efficiently as possible too because it's a limited resource. You burn out that way, have to learn to take things slow.

Anyway all this rambling maybe seems a bit silly because what I ended up with is still fairly short as games go, has hard decisions, doesn't really waste time. But along the way I felt conflict!

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