Category Archives: game design

I’m currently playing 3 games. Tropico 5, Company of heroes 2 and Battlefield 4. When I’m playing Battlefield 4 or COH2, I feel like I’m achieving more than T5. Why? Stats and achievements. I know…It’s crazy. When achievements first started, it didn’t seem like a bad thing. game designers would use them to do some fairly clever stuff. You can encourage people to replay a level 9and get more fun from it) by having a special achievement to play it a certain way. You can suggest people experiment with unloved or new and experimental game modes and styles by tying achievements to them. This is a great idea.

Also, slightly spookily, you can use achievements tot rack player progress. Some players get upset if the game tells the develop every move you make, but if it can do so as it tracks your ‘achievements’ we don’t mind. For the designer, this is awesome. You can see if everyone gets stuck on level 6, or not that the best players all use the same gun, so it may need nerfing…

The thing is, F2P designers have taught the paid gaming designers how to use achievements to encourage players to keep playing again and again and again and again… And although to a lot of people that’s no bad thing, it can have drawbacks. here is my BF4 stats overview (just 1 screen of about 50 showing my play stats).


The thing it doesn’t point out is that I’ve put in 92 hours of time on that game. 92 HOURS. And in terms of unlocks, stats, awards, leaderboards, achievements, prizes, battlepacks, rewards, and whatever else there is, I reckon I’ve ‘unlocked’ or ‘achieved’ about 5% of it. I might suck at games, but even so, raw calcs suggest I need to spend 1,800 hours to ‘finish’ the game.

Now I get it, that’s not the point, hardly anyone unlocks everything, but there are two drawbacks here.

1) If equipment is tied to unlocks, that means 95% of your players aren’t getting the full game. I have no idea what most of the weapons are like in BF4, I haven’t unlocked them. I didn’t even get to more than 20% in BF3 before BF4 came out…

2) Some people have OCD. I have it a *little bit*. When I see those greyed out and locked items, it DOES make me want to keep playing. I cannot imagine the life of a real OCD gamer faced with screens like these.

So I guess it’s a balance, I *LOVE* achievements and stats, I’m the guy who made getting a job and romantic relationships into a stats based game. I do wonder if sometimes, the designers are just overdoing it though. The stats screens for Company of Heroes 2 are definitely designed by someone whose wife ran off with an OCD sufferer. That’s the only explanation that makes sense.

I blog a lot about advertising. If you’ve read the books I keep pimping you’d know that modern advertising is fucking scary. Don Draper isn’t around any more, they test ads using MRI scanners. The hottest jobs in big business aren’t in engineering or finance or old-fashioned marketing. They are in neuroscience and psychology. People are getting *really good* at working out human behavior and forcing us to do things without us even knowing. I find some games pretty addictive, but they haven’t even got going yet. How addictive and fine tuned will BF5 be or BF6? We have already had people collapse and die after marathon gaming sessions. I suspect that’s going to become more and more common. Sadly.



A lot of GSB players are very hardcore. they have strong opinions on the cost/range ratios of beam lasers, and why wouldn’t they? this stuff seriously affects gameplay. This is why I’ve been asking their opinions on all manner of topics as I design the modules for Gratuitous Space Battles 2. I started a discussion on the old GSB forums here:

But in addition I thought I’d throw up the actual design doc for the modules here:

So anyone can read it, and add comments ()but can’t edit the actual doc). Hopefully this draws in some really creative ideas and shoots down any stupid decisions I try to make. I’m also working on the spreadsheet of actual raw module data, which is the way I’ll be working (as opposed to the individual ini files of GSB 1), as this allows a much simpler way to balance costs and power requirements of modules, maybe involving actual equations to ensure stuff is balanced (yikes!).

GSB 1 had a LOT of modules when you take into account extra content from expansion packs. I’m hoping to make all of that content included in the base game for GSB2, without any DLC required, so all the old faves like the decoy projector and the smart bomb will be in there. There are also some wacky new ideas, Combat tractor beams (like the cultures ‘effectors’), remote propulsion projection, fuel tanks for fighters, and so on. This kind of spreadsheet-work makes a change from my recent few days of crunching away on optimizing the asteroid rendering for the engine. I’ve got it faster now, but not as fast as I’d like, and the multi-threading is a *bit* better, but still not making that much use of extra cores yet…

Formation orders in GSB sucked a bit. You had to select a ship, then a target and basically the order was ‘stay at this position relative to that ship’. This sucks in two different ways. Firstly, it means if the ‘target’ ship gets destroyed, the formation is instantly abandoned (yikes). Secondly, it is laborious to set up 32 ships into a formation.

The new system for GSB2 is simpler. You group select a bunch of ships and then add a formation order in one go. They then attempt to stay relative to each other, regardless who gets destroyed. Internally, the ships ‘elect’ a command ship, that has ‘free-will’ and the other ships will try to stay in relative position to that ship. That ship getting destroyed or tractored results in a new election. So far so good, and certainly better when it comes to ship destruction and setting-up GUI. However, it leads me to question a few things. Take this formation (coder art!)


Just a simple line of 6 ships where randomly I’ve made the blue one the commander. If the commander heads to the right, then all is well. However, if he heads at an angle what do the ships do? Should they stay relative to the ship in absolute world terms, or in relative to the lead ships-angle terms? in other words, do we wheel?


Obviously the two different behaviors are vastly different. It also brings up the topic of what to do if the command ship decides to retreat when damaged, does the formation follow? what if it’s just 1 damaged frigate… I’#m guessing they leave the formation at this point. In my mind, the reason behind formations is to keep ships trogether in the sense that they should be able to cover each other in terms of support, and shooting down incoming missiles etc. With that in mind, I reckon it would make sense to always elect the biggest ship as the commander, where viable.  Theoretically you could have a super-slow ship with the entire fleet locked into formation with it, effectively preventing anyone from moving.

What do you think? do I ignore angles and stick to world space, or pivot? and will the system of commander elections work ok? For reference, this is how fighter squadrons already work in GSB 1.


GSB 2 Shields

April 08, 2014 | Filed under: game design | gsb2

I’ve been working away on GSB2 while I wait for some people to do work for the Democracy 3 Extremism expansion. There isn’t really enough polished stuff to show to people yet, but I have got quite a bit of extra fluff sorted out. One thing I’ve got vastly improved is shields. In GSB 1, shields were basically assumed to be a sphere around a ship, and things impacted on the outer shell like this:


For GSB2 I wanted shields that reflected the shape oif the ship, and eventually concluded that a combination of a grid (or in this case below, hex pattern) a blast texture and the alpha map of the target ship would let me convey the idea that a blast was absorbed at the last few millimeters by a tight ship-hugging energy field:


It looks much better animated, as usual. it really works very nicely in very dark-battles, and I think it leaves plenty of opportunity for me to customise ships shields using different energy field colors and patterns.

I’m currently working on a combination of better parallax effects for debris and smoke, and also the GUI for choosing missions, which will look totally different. GUI stuff takes ages, and the whole GUI will get a re-design from scratch. I’m just working on the basic systems right now. With the battle effects, the module mechanics re-write, the online challenge system to revamp, steam achievements and so on, there is a ton of work to do, without considering new sfx and music… Still it’s definitely making progress and I’m still aiming for late 2014.


Extremism on the way

March 26, 2014 | Filed under: democracy3 | game design

I’ve taken some time out of my GSB2 coding schedule to manage and test and work on another expansion pack for Democracy 3, called Democracy 3: Extremism. This is a huge big list of new policies and situations that represent more extreme politics. I can already predict that a lot of players will be annoyed it isn’t MORE extreme than it is.

What does political extremism mean to you? within a democratic context? I’m not talking armed mobs that overthrow the government, but parties with actual popular support. I’ve tried to walk the line between including some fairly extreme views, whilst also keeping it credible as a policy a western government might actually put into place. I’m also slightly wary of acting as fodder for any exploitative tabloid journalism along the lines of ‘Game developer endorses culling the elderly!’ for example.

When you sit down to analyze it, extremism is really a hard concept to nail down. One of the policies in the pack is ‘close all airports permanently’, presented as an environmental move. I’m sure a lot of people would think such a policy was insane, but there are quite definitely environmentalists who would argue it’s entirely reasonable. There are people who would ban private education and private healthcare, and others that would consider that practically stalinist. The base game lets you legalize or ban gun ownership, both positions that encourage cries of ‘extremism!’ in different parts of the world.

french cheese and guns

Obviously a lot of this is skewed by where you live and your background. I’m from the UK. In the grand scheme of things it’s a pretty liberal country. You can have state or private education or healthcare. Gay marriage is legal, we have pretty good freedom of speech. Divorce and abortion are perfectly accepted (abortion less so, arguably). We have very strict gun controls, and fairly strict (but not strongly enforced) drug laws. All of this gets reflected in my own prejudices. I don’t find the fact that we make gun ownership very hard to be at all extremist, yet if you banned private schooling I’d consider that an extreme move. (I went to a state school FWIW). I’d consider outlawing homosexuality insane, and consider scrapping the state health service equally insane. There is no real pattern at work here, we are all skewed by what we are used to. My position on healthcare is to the left of my general position on state-provision, almost certainly because I’ve lived all my life in the UK…

What I’m getting at is that extremism is very culturally dependent, and often entirely illogical. I consider a ban on divorce or homosexuality nuts, but many such bans exist in the world, even in the rich developed western world. Sex toys are illegal in Alabama, abortions are illegal in Ireland. It’s not a simple case of the left wing wanting to ban stuff, or the right wing wanting to ban stuff. there is no logical pattern. Stuff seems ‘extremist’ because we aren’t used to it. One of the policies in the pack is national flags on every street corner. A crazy idea in the UK, but in the USA? probably not so. Another is compulsory church attendance, seemingly crazy in the UK, maybe not in Alabama? Subsidies for new cars. Extremist? maybe a bit? but we have experimented with that in the UK. Forcing the unemployed to do community work? I bet that sounds extremist in some countries. Public Tax returns? A punitive wealth tax?

I look forward to peoples debate and discussion when the expansion gets released. My politics are very fluid. I think a lot about what I think, and my politics change over time. Twenty years ago I was against positive discrimination, but now I have finally changed my mind. Analyzing your opinions on political issues, putting them into context and rationalizing them against the backdrop of your other views is a fascinating thing to do. It’s always good to re-examine what you believe.

Except Free to Play, that’s just evil :D