Product mechanics

In Games there’s a focus of design called Game Mechanics. It works like this: Mario jumps, that’s a mechanic. The player is pushing buttons, but that’s just how they interact with the game mechanics. In this word where Mario jumps there enemies, enemies move and have behaviors, all of these things are not game mechanics. Mario can jump on enemies, that’s a game mechanic.

Game mechanics could be said to be mental models for how your activity works.

There isn’t really anything like it for the tech industry. There’s no product mechanic for a Todo list. Just an interface, and some actions.  

We design UI. Not activity. UX is trying to change this, but often lacks the understanding and even the language to do that. Maybe we should take a page out of the game design playbook and start designing Product Mechanics.  

State of the Game Industry in Sweden

Sweden has had a strong game development industry even since before the launch of the classic shooterBattlefield 1942. In the last year though, the economic downturn has cause some large studios to file for bankruptcy or sale. But the worst economic down turns usually make the most fertile grounds for new industry. Something the Swedes are proving true. Baraboom is a small group of friends trying to make it on the iPhone. Not an original concept but not a bad one either. They've chosen to be inspired my Remedy's classic car shooter Death Rally and with a unique style and control scheme their first title Auto Crisis looks awesome. Check it out when it launches in the app store around christmas. [vimeo=http://vimeo.com/7942457]

Ludosity is another small independent studio launching their first own IP very soon. This small startup is comprised of students straight out of school into an incubator. Most impressive and looking at their really unique title Bob came in pieces you can really tell where the innovation in the industry is going on. [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9uiH-_d7InE]

So don't hesitate to innovate and stop worrying about the economy. If small companies such as these two can create high quality products like this on small funds and high spirit, we'll pull through. ;)

Also please note that while none of these companies have dedicated resources or large budgets to create their web presence, they both have more professional sites than most larger companies...

The first Real virtual world

Oh alright, virtual worlds have been around a long time. But never as alive as this. One of the largest MMOG's in the world, Eve Online, is getting a sister game from the same developer. The game, Dust 514, will feature shooter gameplay in the same world as Eve. That's right. Games in different genres played in the same game world at the same time. Even if the games themselves do not interact directly the indirect possibilities of cross game effect and not to mention news has the potential to be amazing.

This could really be the first MMO world that might live on, with the games coming and going. A true perpetual world.

The Genuine Man

The marketplace has changed radically in the past 5-10 years. All of a sudden we find ourselves in the middle of crashing multinational corporations that aren't as flexible or personal as smaller firms. The shift that has happened is a shift towards quality. Consumers today look for genuine experiences. Genuine products from genuine companies with individuals working for them, not the grey wall of suits in the giant corporations of the 80's and 90's.

But this shift has missed a small but vital point in itself. If we all look for genuine content for our lives, and that content is provided to us in genuine, but still, designed ways. Doesn't that make us anything but genuine?

In persuing the genuine experience are we trying to be genuine ourselves and if so, what does that really mean?

How can a person be genuine? Or better yet, how can a person not be genuine? Finding genuine experiences and genuine products might actually be helping in becoming more genuine people. More individual, with more specialized products. Only consuming what we really want to and not following exclusively the main stream of content.

This is a huge problem for companies today as everything from entertainment to basic services strive to be more genuine and personal without loosing it's cost efficiency. This is especially interesting for game developers as all games are crafts of art and love. There are no non genuine parts of a game. So we could, theoretically, make the entire process of creating a game, selling the game and living with the game a genuine experience available for the consumers.

But how could we do this? Well, what is a genuine experience? Creating a genuine experience is hard no doubts, and this is just a theory of mine. But let's begin with making customers part of the process from the start. Customers could be allowed to invest in the process and through investment get discounts on the finished product as well as more information about the development process such as developer commentaries, alpha footage and maybe even product testing. How much disclose is already a very fine balance and selling the information to the customers would make it even more so. But it would help keep development agile and make the product as well as the development a lot more genuine.

The product itself is actually the simplest step to make more genuine. Simply replace the word product with experience and rethink it. Very few products sold today are simply products made to used and thrown away.  Start thinking about your products as experiences for the user and a completely new dimension for sales and value becomes visible. Does a player want to pay for content? Yes. Does it need to be large expensive expansion packs of ontent? No.

There are of course an infinite amount of possibility to what we can do to improve the genuine emotional impact of our products and services. But taking the first step and doing anything at all is really the hardest part.

Welcome the genuine consumer into the marketplace and start your company on becoming more genuine today. Shift happens, either we lead that shift or we're left behind by it.

Adaptive difficulty level

Difficulty in games is always a hard balance to find. Since a game is a continuous loop of events you want each iteration to be a little harder to keep engaging the player while being simple and enough to overcome with the training the player got from the previous iteration. Simply put, developers want difficulty to work for everyone and smoothly ramp upwards as the game progresses. This pacing of difficulty is really hard. And today's titles mostly do this by hand and play testing, which works great for many titles but becomes increasingly hard as games become more complex. One of my closest friend, a developer for one of Sweden's largest game development companies, has told me that a few of their titles actually have a form of adaptive difficulty level, but in my opinion the system he explained was very crude.

This is my suggestion, bear in mind that it is purely theoretical and not based on any single product though I will use the shooter genre as my general example:

Stop using levels and number of enemies as difficulty setting. These elements affect the players emotional response to situations and should be used as tools to do that. Nothing else.

Instead, use adaptive AI to make the difficulty adapt to the players performance. This system can be susceptible to breaking if it's not made to be imperceptible, which is a problem, but not near as big of a problem as pacing issues in current titles.

Take a shooter, make enemies miss ratio increase as players health diminishes, at the same time make enemies hits do less damage. Make sure however that these changes are small, I predict that changes larger then around 10% will be noticeable by players. Change things as much as needed, but strive to make it unnoticeable. Even 10% makes a huge difference. So far so good, this level of adaptability is surely used in titles already.

Next, monitor how often and how much damage a player takes, compare that to the kills or percentage of damage the player does (the percentage where 100% is a kill, this way HP won't affect the statistic). Use this data to restrict or increase the difficulty decrease. If a player scores a lot of kills and takes a lot of damage but does not die the difficulty might be good. If the player doesn't do any real damage however the difficulty is probably quite tough.

If monitored for the last 10 to 30 minutes of game time the numbers should give you a general performance for the player, in any situation and however good they get. And if a player tries to fool the system by playing badly it won't affect the balance for very long, the player that does very low damage for a half an hour might take less damage for a few minutes but the player wont win anything by playing this way and therefore has incentive not to try to cheat the system.

Of course, this adaptive system would also need balancing: how fast should it react? what statistics should be most important? Should it keep track across game sessions?  But the point is you'd only have to balance this system once. It could then balance your entire game, from tutorial to boss fights without the developers needing to tweak levels. They could instead spend their time creating interesting situations.

Blur dev gives stupid quote about online leaderboards

This is quoted, out of context, from developer magazine. Just to be fair. “I don't think the majority of people really care about being number one in the world.”

No?´Really? That might be because only a couple of hundred even have a chance to make that list. Leaderboards where you're way of down around the millionth place seem to loose their charm don't you think?

I'm glad Blur have good arguments behind their design choices.

Coop wrong for its purpose?

Coop play is used to let players play multiplayer without the stress of competition. But does coop serve this purpose?Most coop games simply duplicate the singleplayer gameplay mechanics to create coop play, this technique inherits the problem of competition because the players are now competing for the same objectives or, worse, taking seperate paths as in Gears of War which makes play singleplay but with extra penalties of death. A more interesting use of coop are the paralell objectives for squads in Resistance 2 online multiplayer or the paralell objectives on battlefield in the upcoming RTS Battle Forge. Perhaps paralell multiplayer is a better goal for cooperative play. What do you think?