Maps, Missions and Contracts

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Last time, I talked about one of the two primary storytelling mechanics in Battletech, the event system. Today I’d like to explore the entire ecosystem of the encounter, the contract, and the mission.

When I built The Company, I envisioned the simulation portion of the game as a wrapper around an arbitrary gameplay black box. What that means is that the simulation is meant to be content-neutral. When the game hands off control to the ‘combat’ or ‘mission’ portion of play, it doesn’t know what it’s handing off to, or what will happen during that period. …


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The Event System

In the previous essay, I talked about creating a bond between you and your pilots. There are two points of interaction between you and them: the missions, which I’ll talk about in a future essay, and the event system. Of the two, the event system was the one I cared about. It’s the one I wanted to drive most of the storytelling, and its failure hurt badly, and continues to hurt even now.

So let’s talk about what it was meant to do, and what went wrong, and what could have been done differently.

You’ve Seen This Before

If you’ve played any Paradox game, you’ve seen the event system. While you’re playing, a window pops up with a piece of art, a short text description, and a choice. When you pick one of the options, you’re given some additional text describing the consequences of your choice, including any gameplay ramifications. …


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I do a lot of my design work by gut. I intuitively grasp whether something is going to be fun or not; whether something is a good idea or not; whether something is going to be worth the time to develop or not.

In the moment, I can’t explain why something feels right or not, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of thought and analysis behind each design decision. …


Water in a desert oasis.
Water in a desert oasis.

Waiting at the oasis, you had given up on ever finding a caravan to join. The ones that stopped at the rock-sheltered hollow always seemed to have several Waterseekers with them already, and a caravan only truly needed one. Unerringly, the caravans’ Waterseekers found this hidden place, the same one you’d found, the oasis that had become a kind of prison for you. If they hadn’t been able to, they would have died in the desert.

You don’t resent the oasis, despite having walked over every square foot of it, the rocky wall around it, the hollow with its tufts of dry grass and stunted trees, the hidden chamber below where the water seeped from between concrete slabs into a still, clear pool. …


In Design and Impostor Syndrome, I said:

“It’s one of those so-obvious-in-hindsight concepts, where you hear it and think ‘well, of course’: players don’t have to play your game.”

Convincing players to play your game is, I’d argue, the primary task of the game designer. Whatever experience you want them to have, you can only offer that experience to people who actually play. When we talk about ‘player motivation’, what we’re talking about at the macro-level is understanding what will cause a player to choose your game, and what will cause a player to abandon your game.

I’m not going to try to come up with good answers for ‘what is fun?’ — it’s a non-trivial question, and involves digging into philosophy and will take us pretty far afield from practical game design advice. If you’re interested in the question, though, I recommend Koster’s A Theory of Fun, which is an excellent book by a brilliant game designer who largely shaped the course of multiplayer game design since his game Ultima Online was released. …


In ‘Design and Impostor Syndrome’, I said:

“ Designers seem plagued by the notion that they’ve somehow tricked their way into their positions, fooled hiring managers into believing their facile bullshit is actual skill and experience.”

I want to explore where this notion comes from, and why it’s so corrosive to game development and good design. It’s important, because when designers cannot advocate for design itself, as a discipline, as a craft, and as a set of practical skills, they also cannot advocate for specific good design choices.

The truth is, all designers are impostors.

Nobody working in game design has any idea what they’re doing.


Every talented designer I have ever known, with only a few exceptions, has suffered from impostor syndrome. Designers seem plagued by the notion that they’ve somehow tricked their way into their positions, fooled hiring managers into believing their facile bullshit is actual skill and experience.

I think this tendency comes from a larger problem in the field of game design which I’ll come back to in a future essay, but for now I’d like to talk about the specifics: what does a game designer actually do from moment to moment? …


Why have game designers at all on your project? That’s not actually a rhetorical question; I know one major game studio that simply does not hire designers, and several others that do not have any senior design staff, just junior designers in level creation and mechanical tuning. Design is apparently optional, as a discipline and as part of a project’s leadership.

To be entirely fair, it is true that if you’re making a game that’s essentially a copy of another game with a twist thrown in, you won’t need senior design leadership (though perhaps senior design leadership could explain to you why you shouldn’t make that game). Game designs can’t be copyrighted, which means that your own take on the match-three genre or your entry in the world of action RPGs can benefit from the visionary leadership of design that someone else paid for, at another company entirely. …


This is a copy/paste of a long post I wrote for the SomethingAwful forums, picking through the Objectivist philosophy, my experiences with it, and how I realized it was nonsense. It’s about seven years old now, so there’s a fair chance it’s problematic and gross. I’m going to make a quick edit pass but I don’t promise it will catch everything.

But if you’re curious about Objectivism and why it’s so goddamn bizarre, this might be a good starting point for you.

Also, this was meant as the first post to kick off a discussion thread, so there are invitations to ask questions and offer your thoughts. But… I’m really not looking to have a discussion about any of this at this late date. …


I’ve written an alarming number of words of design specification over the past 15 years. These are, in no particular order, my guidelines for effective spec writing.

You Are Not Your Spec

Seems obvious, but this is the first thing to realize about writing any design document. Your ego is not part of the process. Your name won’t even go on the spec. Attacks on your design are not attacks on you.

Let’s get it out of the way: your spec is probably stupid. It’s probably obvious, it’s probably trite, it’s probably unbalanced and demonstrates a profound lack of design skill. …

About

kiva

game designer and professional trans person. i made battletech (2018). she/her. @persenche on twitter.

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