On narrative in Tetris / Match 3, and mechanics in IF

Chris Billows asked the following on Twitter:

I want to reply very quickly and briefly, but without having to split things up into 140 character chunks. So:

1. Any statement about games will create edge cases where the statement breaks down. But the statement can apply to a sufficient amount of games to be useful. Tools, not rules.

2. I make a difference between fictional (non-abstract) and narrative (some form of ‘story’, something happening to someone).

3. Every game can be said to have a degree of ‘fictiveness’: some games have more, some games less.

4. There are very few purely abstract games which have no fictional element whatsover.

5. I used to think Tetris was one of them, but no longer.

6. The setting, the fictional part, is enormously helpful in casual games to quickly and efficiently explain how a game works. They provide metaphors.

7. I learned this working on casual games. I also learned this trying to fix the UI of an existing game, and realizing that the UI was wrong because the metaphors of the underlying mechanics (what those mechanics ‘meant’) were wrong.

8. (In case you wonder, the relevant metaphors in Tetris are gravity and solidity. Obviously this is an edge case and I don’t blame you if you scoff at it. But please think about fiction and metaphors. It’s very powerful.)

9. Regarding the mechanics of IF games, I answered that here:

Hope that helps a little bit.

Resources for my talk on the dark side of game development

Here are some resources to go with my talk about the dark side of game development that I gave at ENJMIN on December 18th 2014.

Talking to people

Effective Networking in the Game Industry – Darius Kazemi


Impostor syndrome

Kill The Goddamn Vulture – Richard Dansky

Your body language shapes who you are – Amy Cuddy (especially 16 minutes in)

Sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia

1ReasonToBe panel (GDC 2013) – Leigh Alexander, Mattie Brice, Robin Hunicke, Kim McAuliffe, Brenda Romero, Elizabeth Sampat

Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is – John Scalzi

But WHAT CAN BE DONE: Dos and Don’ts To Combat Online Sexism – Leigh Alexander

Geek Feminism wiki

Misogyny, Racism and Homophobia: Where Do Video Games Stand? (GDC 2014) – Manveer Heir

Stress & Depression

The Belly of the Whale: Living a Creative Life in the Game Industry (GDC 2010) – Bob Bates

General tips

From Student To Designer – Liz England

100 things every game student should know – Kaye Elling

Some notes on narrative design

This morning I reviewed some student projects at the Ecole Bellecour here in Lyon, from a narrative design point of view. This meant listening to small teams as they presented their ideas for their projects, then giving them feedback and suggesting things they could do. In some ways, this is the most fun part of the concept phase, but with neither the investment nor the effort of fleshing it out and making it work.

I am a big believer in learning by teaching. When I explain something to others, I am forced to express it as simply and clearly as I can. And so I want to capture here some of the things I’ve learned by trying to help students.

Teaching the player

The player will need learn how your game and your world work. This applies to the mechanics as well as to the story. This is not just something that happens in the beginning, in some kind of dedicated tutorial phase, but all through the game. So you need to think about how you are going to introduce characters, convey backstory, etc., knowing that players will skip texts and cut-scenes, and that showing is better than telling.

In fact, you can even flip things around. Instead of saying “how will I convey this information to the player”, start with the constraints and try to come up with a story that can be conveyed within those constraints. Don’t be afraid of stereotypes: embrace them and use them well.

And remember that you can leave things open and explain them later, or even not at all.

The fictional and the mechanical

Make sure the logic of your fictional world matches the logic of your mechanics. Or rather, that your gameplay can cash the check your world has written.


Think about what is a convention in your game, meaning something you want the player to just accept as is, and what is diegetic, meaning something that is part of the fictional world you are trying to evoke in the player’s head. (‘Diegetic’, as used here, comes from sound design. The song from a radio inside a movie is diegetic, the song that is playing without any source is a convention of the movie medium.)

You may have things on the mechanical side of your game that you can make diegetic. By doing so, you give meaning to these elements, and you can combine them with other elements on the fictional side, making them contribute more to the player’s experience.

(I was particularly excited about a suggestion I made along these lines for one of the projects, and the students seemed to like it as well.)


Think about how you can make what happens on the fictional side change depending on the player’s actions. This is how you give meaning to what the player does.


What are you trying to express with your game? It doesn’t have to be directly in the game, it can be in the subtext.

A quote about Battlefield Hardline from Bro McBrodude

A quote from a Polygon article on Battlefield Hardline:

Polygon spoke with Hardline’s Executive Producer and Vice President of Visceral Games Steve Papoutsis at E3. EA did not provide a response to recent follow-up questions about Papoutsis’ answers.

“We did some research on the [internet],” Papoutsis said, “and we found out law enforcement have a lot of cool, kick ass stuff. These heavily armored BearCat-like attack trucks. They’ve got cool motorcycles. And they’ve got helicopters. They even have police planes. They have all this cool stuff depending on where you’re at in the country. So they have some pretty awesome gear. And then like SWAT guys. Come on, who doesn’t like all the stuff SWAT guys load up in? They look pretty sweet.”

I find it incredible this person actually said this. This is a caricature of the bro game developer. If one presented this as satire it wouldn’t be believable.

And yeah, I bet EA did not provide a response to recent follow-up questions, while Ferguson, Missouri is burning.

Two years of Gameconfs

On June 18th 2012, so a bit over two years ago, I announced Gameconfs on Twitter.

I have never talked about Gameconfs on this blog (or elsewhere), so why not do so now?

Back in 2009-2010, as I was starting to do more business development at Mipumi, it bothered me more and more that there was no good list of game events to be found anywhere. Some industry press websites have one, but they were (and are) not very comprehensive. (I’ve written to one of those websites, repeatedly, about cooperating, and they never got back to me.)

Looking at my Pinboard history, I first started collecting information about a possible game event calendar back in 2010. Back then I tentatively called it “gdcal”. I decided to actually build my own calendar in May 2012.

My goals for Gameconfs

I had (and still have) a couple of goals for the site.

First of all, I wanted to provide a free and useful service to people in the game industry, solving my own problem in the process.

Second, I wanted to use this project as an excuse to do some more web development. In 2012, I was creative director of Mipumi, and while I did more programming than the average creative director, I wanted to have a small project that I controlled and where I could apply a lot of the things I had learned about web development in my spare time.

As a consequence, Gameconfs could have been built simpler and faster. For instance, I could have just put up a public Google doc, or a page on this blog, or added every game event I came across to Lanyrd.

Gameconfs didn’t really need a database and perhaps it still doesn’t. But I wanted to use Python and learn how to use a real database, and so Gameconfs became a Python app getting event data from PostgreSQL. Right now, a dump of the entire database is about 87 kilobytes, so PostgreSQL is overkill. But I did learn a lot about web development, and that has been generally useful for me.

Third, I wanted to provide a high quality, consistent service with as small a time commitment as possible.

I’ve been paying attention to the web startup etc. scene for a while. I knew that while I wanted Gameconfs to exist, I wouldn’t be passionate enough about it to make it a full-time project. I also couldn’t see a reasonable way to make money from Gameconfs. So I was very careful to not put myself into a position where I’d have to choose between abandoning the project or doing work I didn’t want to do.

This has had a big influence on the design. I want to do things as well as I can, as consistently as I can, or not at all. This is why I don’t cover every possible event I could (more about that later). And it is why the data I collect per event is quite limited. People have asked me about adding submission dates or conference schedules, but that’d be a lot of work to do per event.

And before you ask: yes, I could use crowdsourcing. But crowdsourcing isn’t free.

For one, it requires technical infrastructure. For the first year of Gameconfs, I couldn’t even add or edit events directly on the site. Instead, I added the event data to a big text file, generated the database from that, dumped the database, uploaded it, and imported it into the live database. A bit cumbersome, but it worked.

Eventually, I added user management, creating / editing / deleting forms, data validation, database backups, etc. This is not the hardest thing to program, but it’s not something you roll out after an hour’s worth of coding either.

Extending this to support proper crowdsourcing would take a lot more work. I’d want to have multiple user roles, auditing so it’s clear who changed what. I’d need views to make it possible to review recent changes and edit user roles.

Beyond the technical side, it requires some form of community management. And also some kind of forum somewhere where discussions within the community can take place. And community management takes time.

Gameconfs’ dirty little secret is that I can ignore it for a few weeks or so before it becomes obvious that I’ve not been adding events. And while that’s not something I do on a regular basis, it’s nice to know that I can do that, in case, you know, I decide to move to another country, like I did last year.

What I learned making Gameconfs

The biggest thing I learned building Gameconfs, and what most people learn when they see it, is that there are a ton of game-related events out there.

It’s been really interesting to see what’s happening in countries I didn’t know much about, or sub-sections of games I wasn’t aware of. It has also given me trivia about game events to break the ice at parties, like that conference that took place on Christmas.

I also found that there are entire classes of events that I better not add to Gameconfs. Competitions, game jams, game-related concerts, tournaments, board- and pen-and-paper-related events: they’re all not on Gameconfs, because there are other people who do a much better job tracking them than I ever could, and whose sites are better suited for it.

Andreas Zecher is more on top of independent game submission dates than I will ever be. The person behind Compohub tracks more game jams, and has a site that is better designed for it, than Gameconfs. So I link to them here.

The future

What’s in the future? I’ve been talking to people about sponsoring the site, in a tasteful way, and that might happen at some point. Because while I’ve invested a lot of time, I’ve not invested any money so far. So getting a proper logo, or letting a real web designer go over the site, have been out of the question so far.

What I do next in terms of development depends on what people ask for. Because that’s another thing I learned: the stuff I thought I’d need turned out to not be necessary.

So if you have ideas for features you’d like to see: let me know. Or, if you just like the site, let me know too, or share it with your friends and co-workers.

Here’s to many more years of Gameconfs!

Another reading list for game developers

George Buckingham, aka v21, has written this really interesting reading list for game developers. I like it because it has a lot of material on it I don’t know yet, and comes from a different angle than I tend to come from.

He asked for feedback (actually, argument) on Twitter, and so I replied, one thing led to another, and now I’ve compiled a very quick and decidedly non-comprehensive list to complement/extend George’s. I’ve read all the books on here – some classics, such as the full MDA paper, are missing because I somehow still haven’t read them.

Here is the list:

Greg Costikyan’s I Have No Words & I Must Design: Toward a Critical Vocabulary for Games. Deservedly a classic.

Chris Crawford’s The Art of Computer Game Design. Also a classic. I actually recommend reading everything Chris has written, even if you may not agree with everything.

Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things.

Donella Meadow’s Thinking In Systems: A Primer (thanks Martin for reminding me of this).

L. Rust Hills’ Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular and Thomas McCormack’s The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist, two books on writing written by editors, not writers, a crucial difference.

Those two books were recommend to me by my dear friend Mark Barrett, way back in the 90s. Mark is a very smart guy who has taught me more about storytelling than anyone else – stuff I’m still digesting to this day. I recommend reading some of his articles here.

Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing was recommended to me by Hal Barwood. It may take years before I can tell you how it has influenced me, but influenced it has.

If you’re going to read one book about classical story structure – three acts, five acts, a thousand faces, etc. – I think it should be John Yorke’s Into The Woods, because it references and analyzes all the other ones.

Lee Sheldon’s Character Development and Storytelling for Games, because Lee wouldn’t forgive me if I didn’t add it. And also it’s a good book.

Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design, probably the best general book on game design out right now.

Any game design by Robin D. Laws. I’ve learned something – specifically, something about how game mechanics and theme interact – from all of his games. As a Vance fan, I love his Dying Earth rules. I also recommend Hamlet’s Hit Points, although I think you can probably get the gist of that just from reading the archives of his blog.

And last but not least, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.

There. It could be shorter. It could be longer. It could be more balanced – it’s heavier on books and on storytelling than George’s. But perhaps it’s of interest.

Update: James Wallis also wrote a list. There’s some overlap with this one. He has gone deeper into the screenplay books. I’ve read Syd Field’s Screenplay but can’t remember a thing about it. Save the Cat sits on my shelf, unread. I’ve read Hero With A Thousand Faces but I consider it more a psychology/anthropology book. I bought and read Impro on his recommendation and remember liking it, but it obviously didn’t pop into my mind this morning, but please do not consider that to be a… whatever the opposite of an endorsement is.

Some quasi-funny German text I wrote once

TL;DR: Only funny if you speak German. And even then.

A couple of years back I worked on a game concept set in an existing fantasy setting. The potential client was German so I wrote it in German. I wrote a little example of what the game would be like. This was not sent directly to the client, for reasons that will become obvious.

It began like this:

“Dingsbums Zweiarm ist ein Zwerg der Ersten. Seine Aufgabe ist es, eine wichtige Nachricht nach ab zu liefen. Er traegt der Axt von Langobart, sein Urgrossvater und grosser Held seines Clans. Zusaetzlich hat er eine Flasche Magiwurz und eine “Hilfe in der Not” Karte dabei.

Er wird begleitet von Grummdil Knonfuttr und Aroma, eine Halbalbin.”

We didn’t get the contract.

Update: My poor German is not the joke, you nose-bears. At least that is not what I am laughing at.

“A 440 432″: A conspiracy theory

If you like a good conspiracy theory, I just stumbled upon a great one.

Modern day music is stuck in a tuning frequency that was implemented throughout Nazi Germany by propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels in 1939. His implemented 440Hz codified a New World Order of central pitch that was instrumental in leading our world into a state of discordance. For this tuning of A=440Hz is inherently out of sync with the divine music of the universe.

It is also known that Hitler and his Nazi regime were fervent in their search of the Holy Grail’s secrets in order to manipulate the masses and control the world. Their study of esoteric principals, use of occult powers, advanced technologies, altered states of consciousness, including that of sound and frequency only helped to satisfy their goals.

Recent studies have proven that ‘sound entrainment’ has been, and is still being used today to coax brainwaves into certain patterns of thought and mood, and in Hitler’s case, martial music broadcasted in 440Hz aided in altering his people into an aggressive and unbalanced state.

(From a forum thread on David Icke’s website – this alone should tell you you’re not in Kansas anymore. Unless Kansas is infiltrated by lizard people.)

A simple Google search for “A 440 432″, and what a nicely cryptic search phrase that is, leads to a number of other entertaining websites:

And much, much more. What a fun rabbit hole to fall into.

“Reverse innovator’s dilemma”

I like explaining things to other people for entirely selfish reasons. I often find myself saying unexpected things, such as today, when I was trying to explain the state of the art in interactive storytelling to a friend, and found myself using the term “reverse Innovator’s Dilemma”. That seemed interesting enough to jot down, and perhaps even interesting enough to write a blog post about.

The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail” is a classic business book by Clayton Christensen. Unlike some classic business books, this one contains a pretty useful idea. I say this never quite having finished reading it, as I recall.

Regardless! The idea is this: if you’re building something that is high quality and expensive, your market may be destroyed (disrupted – Christensen started with the whole disruption thing) by something that is cheap and good enough, especially when that something can get better much faster than you.

So PCs disrupted bigger computers, MP3 disrupted CDs, downloadable games disrupted disk-based games, browser-based games disrupted downloadable games, etc.

My point in the discussion today was that some things – specifically, certain approaches to interactive storytelling – are so hard that it is almost impossible to get them good enough before you run out of time or money, although Chris Crawford is definitely testing that idea.

Is “reverse Innovator’s Dilemma” a great term? Perhaps not. The classic diagram in the Innovator’s Dilemma maps quality over time, it doesn’t talk about development costs at all. “Local maximum” is probably a much better analogy for the situation in interactive storytelling. To add insult to injury, my casual use of “reverse Innovator’s Dilemma” may hide a concept that is much more deserving of the phrase.

But I thought it was a fun thing to say, so there.

Metaphors and originality: the power of explosions

I was reading this interview with Bungie’s Jason Jones on Destiny, and this bit really jumped out at me:

And then it evolved, as we evolved into sci-fi, because we felt the pure fantasy was missing all these things we loved. Literally, explosions. It’s kind of a joke, but it’s not really a joke. Explosions are awesome, just as a gameplay device and all kinds of other things. People understand them, they’re a really easy metaphor for projecting power into the world.

There are two aspects about this quote that struck me.

First of all, metaphors are an incredibly powerful aspect of game design. Game design often (I would argue virtually always but that’s an argument I’ll try to make another time) involves melding mechanical aspects (rules) with fictional aspects into one coherent experience. Metaphors are the most basic and most powerful technique to do this. My personal hierarchy of interactive storytelling techniques goes something like: metaphors, world-building, actual stories.

(I’m not using the term ‘metaphor’ in a very precise way: ‘analogy’ would probably work as well. But most people roughly understand metaphor.)

Second, I’ve been working on mobile and casual games the last couple of years, and I really learned to appreciate and respect proven techniques, sometimes referred to as ‘clichés’. Especially when we tried very hard to question, reinvent or abandon all well-known techniques in one particular project.

Using proven techniques often helps you understand and explain the game, which benefits players, the team, and yourself.

If you cannot explain the game to others on your team, you will probably encounter friction because it will be harder to imagine why it will be fun, and how you will build it. And really, that goes for yourself as well as for others on your team. “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself” and all that. (Although as any game designer knows, you can have a very clear vision and still not be able to explain it sometimes.)

If you cannot explain the game to players, and I would count the press as players in this case, you have a marketing risk. It’s not impossible to make a successful game that’s hard to explain, but it’s a lot harder. And these days every developer should think more about marketing. (I always hated the demand to “explain your game in one line”, but I changed my mind as soon as marketing became something I had to think about myself.)

(Should I mention that I think that players and developers learning what games are is how the medium evolves? Let’s not put too many asides in parentheses.)

I’m not arguing you should use clichés, but that you should understand a rule (or proven technique) before you try to break it, and that originality purely for its own sake is a bad idea. (And those rules are themselves hardly original.)

In the context of having to ship a certain kind of game into the marketplace with a limited amount of resources, I prefer a risk-oriented approach to game development. Breaking rules you don’t understand is risky.

Games are often criticized for being unoriginal. And it is not a bad thing to criticize: games are often unoriginal for bad reasons. But there are, in fact, good reasons why certain things, like explosions, come up again and again. (That doesn’t mean they are essential, or that we will never find a better way.)

Update: In fact, after thinking about it a bit more, the power of metaphors and of proven techniques (patterns, elements) are probably two of the biggest things I’ve learned about games in the last five years.

Update: From the same interview (which I haven’t finished reading yet):

And classes are a great short-hand so that when I look at you, I can have some expectations about what your abilities are and how you’re likely to behave in the world, and what kinds of things I might depend on you to do, and a lot of games have done this very successfully.

I would say that one of the origins of class is that it gives people some way to look at each other and talk about their abilities without actually talking.

Remember, this is one of the best and smartest studios in the world, who have enough money and creative freedom that they designed an entire fantasy universe then threw it away. (I was at their GDC art lecture, it was crazy to see all the art they did only to then go “Naaaaah let’s do science fiction”. Because of explosions.)

Also the classes they have, while not groundbreakingly original, are already different from the classical Holy Trinity that people have been talking about changing for 3 decades.

It’s not impossible to use something else than the classes Bungie picked. They have constraints and biases others might not have. They have to please an enormous amount of players, including their own fan base, for one. But there are some good reasons why Bungie chose this approach.