Designing Systems for Games (July 2021)

It’s still July, right? Not only have I missed my self-imposed deadline for the first time, but I have missed it by a whole week. It has been more challenging to write anything recently, partially due to travel, but mostly because every day online the games industry brings more heartbreak. The stories out of Activision-Blizzard and beyond shatter my heart to pieces. I’ve written and deleted several versions of this newsletter, but while I can say a lot of words, I don’t have much worthwhile to add to conversation. So I’ll keep this as brief and to the point as possible.

No one in games can be genuinely surprised by stories of misogyny and abuse, but whenever I think I’ve heard it all there’s something new that manages to still be shocking. The contents of the lawsuit are sickening. There is so much silent suffering by the most powerless in our communities. I am glad that the state of California is suing. We can dream that there will be repercussions, the kind that scares the culture of unchecked machismo into changing for good. However, it is not the results of the lawsuit that will create that change. Fines are worthless compared to the vast wealth held by ABK, and sacrificial firings do not change systems. The rot starts at the top. Activision and Blizzard’s executives, even those not directly implicated, bear the responsibility for fostering and protecting the culture that has harmed so many. 

For ABK, the only thing with power above the executives that could force them out are the shareholders. Unfortunately, the latest shareholders meeting demonstrated that they do not yet care about the lawsuit or the events described in it. Only two people asked about the situation, and they did so primarily concerned about how it would affect the quarter’s earnings. In the last few days the company has lost a number of large sponsors, and maybe that will cause the shareholders to change their tune. It’s discouraging that this feels like the only system of power balance available. Keeping up a vocal toxification of the brand so that sponsors drop, forcing shareholders to demand change and oust executives, with the slim chance that their replacement could be not as bad. Or at least not another Bush-era counterterrorism official and torture advocate.

It’s not just game studios that crumble under this failure of checks and balances, they are absent everywhere. Wherever there are men, this will happen on some scale. Behavior is beholden to accountability. Accountability is the friction that demands thought and care. Without it, there is just instinct, and thousands of years of conditioning have made men of poor instinct. 

Our current society developed HR to act as the system of accountability, but it is undeniable to anyone looking at the news that the system is a failure. Activision-Blizzard’s HR personal were directly implicated in many of the grossest parts of the stories! HR is a hollow promise of self-regulation, but it cannot hold the powerful accountable for anything. Better solutions are known: Unions provide leverage over powerful actors by binding the collective worth of many. It would be a vast improvement over the power dynamics of today. The shareholders of Activision-Blizzard would have to think about how to satisfy the workers in order to keep production smooth so profits can keep rolling, rather than only thinking about customers and sponsors. 

I do not think unions are a silver bullet to fix everything though. There are plenty of stories from other industries about unions ignoring abuse charges. Democracy will, by definition, always act in the interests of the majority, but that still leaves minorities without power. What fixes that? I do not know. There might not be a better solution out there right now. So it’s what we have to work with, and it is better than the feudalism of corporations.

If democracy is the best we’ve got, then it only works when art moves people to sympathize with the suffering minority, and make enough people care that they become the majority. I will keep doing my best, to make art that can do that and not give in to despair. I hope you will too.

Games I played this month:

Tamagotchi Corner Shop (DS)

  • There is a dentist minigame and I hate it and you have to google it and see.

Boomerang X (PC)

  • WOW a videogame with game mechanics that are challenged by combinations of enemies with unique behavior patterns and weak spots, and released it in 2021! Hell yeah
  • This is a very, very, very rare kind of game: I wanted to play it using mouse and keyboard. That’s how to have the proper experience! Except, I hate using a keyboard. I remapped the controls several times seeking comfort, but I don’t know if I will ever feel natural with it. I’m left-handed, and lack the dexterity to do even the small number of actions in this game without hitting the wrong the button and losing control.
  • That’s not a knock against the game, though! It has lots of accessibility options and even rebalances the game if you want to use a controller. Maybe I will look into trying out a Steam controller, the trackpad joysticks sound like they could be the ticket.

Dreams (PS4)

  • Played an extremely good pogo stick game, reminiscent of old Newgrounds stuff. Love love loved it.
  • I didn’t mess with the creation tools much — the game really wants you to be creating things using the motion sticks. Half-hearted Spicy Take #1: VR is better for making games than playing them.
  • This game engine is a technical miracle. Media Molecule should be revered.

Mega Man Battle Network (GBA)

  • Never played these games as a kid, but I realize now that we had some kind of Battle Network toy with battle chips.
  • Playing the first game now, I instantly felt that pull of all the best kid’s media; the kind that makes you feel like you live in the world. It is full of laughably dated technology and tedious fetch quests, but the art direction is cohesive, the battle mechanics are fun, and the core fantasy of having a digital imaginary friend who can save the world by plugging into any electrical outlet — that’s GOOD stuff.
  • Final review: I want Mega Man to be my best friend.

Meteos (DS)

  • Kirby and Smash Bros creator Masahiro Sakurai made a match-4 puzzle game. Apparently it was a hit, but I never checked it out until now!
  • I couldn’t imagine how Sora LTD’s distinct approach to design was going to be reflected in such a steadfast genre, but I was not disappointed. There are a million modes, a trippy cosmic war, powers aplenty. Half-hearted Spicy Take #2: Is… is Masahiro Sakurai the Jack Kirby of videogames?? His name is even Kirby…

Kirby and the Amazing Mirror (GBA)

  • One of my very good friends gushed about this game to me and lent me her copy, along with many other Kirby games.
  • Like many Kirby games, you navigate a sprawling cave maze, battling enemies and collecting some mcguffins. The twist this time is that you can link up four players and all explore the same world, together or on your own. There is a cell phone button that calls up your friends, and they can choose to teleport right to the caller. Divide and conquer, and come together to gang up on bosses. I love this idea.
  • Unfortunately I have only been able to play it alone so far! I wish I had played this with my bro.

Kirby Air Ride (GameCube)

  • My brother and I have played hundreds of hours of this game together over the last eighteen years, but during a trip to visit him we made an astonishing discovery: this game has an ending. In fact, it has three endings! We accidentally triggered one of them, and then spent a few hours unlocking the second. This little hover car game gave us some closure we never even knew was available!
  • I wrote and deleted an entire separate essay tracing the design patterns in this game’s City Trial mode, Kirby and the Amazing Mirror, and Smash for 3DS’s Smash Run mode. It was incomprehensible.

Time Splitters 2 (GameCube)

  • Another game my bro and I have played for many years. 
  • This first person shooter has a highly customizable arcade mode that really asks you to make your own fun. The result is that I spend just as much time thinking about game balance as I do shooting.
  • Honestly, this game is ideal for novice designers wanting to see some simple cause and effect.

Donkey Kong 94 (GB)

  • I did not know this Game Boy game existed until last month, and I am kicking myself for not playing it sooner.
  • It is the original Donkey Kong arcade game, beefed up with Mario’s modern suite of versatile acrobatics. Rather than linear platforming, each stage is a single screen puzzle. It combines cleverness with dexterity, and is damn near perfect.
  • The game was made for the original black & white Game Boy, but using the Super Game Boy accessory paints the game is a lush palette, and adds a beautiful arcade border facsimile. It looks incredible. I can’t believe it has been forgotten by the mainstream.

Mario vs Donkey Kong (GBA)

  • This is a Game Boy Advance game continuing on the spirit of DK ‘94. Same moveset, same puzzle room approach.
  • I actually played this one first, and was rightfully admonished by friends and coworkers who know what’s good.
  • This game is not as good. Without knowledge of the original, I loved this, but by comparison it is ugly, loud, and cheap.
  • Further sequels evolved a lemmings style gameplay using autonomous Mini Mario toys. The acrobatics puzzles have died out in bastardized family tree. What a shame!

Balloon Trip GB (GB)

  • A platformer using Balloon Trip gameplay. It’s fine. 
  • Half-hearted Spicy Take #3: All the sprites are too big, I wish the camera was pulled out further. The player has about 2-3 seconds to react to anything that appears on screen, which is a very limited amount of time. Action games can challenge both anticipation and reaction. Rhythm games are on the far end of pure reaction time, and test the shortest window. On the far other end you have something like a real-time strategy game, which is all about anticipating what could happen minutes later. The window in this game is a little too close to rhythm game, and it limits the kinds of challenges that can appear. In Mario you have enough space to see an enemy wind up an attack, and to anticipate what action you need to do. Balloon Trip GB would feel less monotonous with a bit more opportunity for anticipation, maybe like 4-5 seconds.

CrisTales (Switch)

  • Art is so killer. I keep pointing at the screen and shouting “Look at that!!!”
  • When I wrote about the demo I said I was eager to find out how they maintain the quality across the full game, and now I have my answer! Unfortunately the answer was “take away the core defining mechanic for large chunks of time.” When that mechanic is having to render every single scene in past, present, and future simultaneously… I can’t fault anyone for trying to find an easy out. As a player it feels disappointing, though, because it happens without logic or foreshadowing.
  • Half-hearted Spicy Take #4: The animation and character designs carry this game. Would it be better if it played to its strength and was an animated cartoon instead of a game? Maybe, but then games wouldn’t have something that looks like this! Sorry cartoons. You can have Castlevania, I guess.

Pokémon Unite (Switch)

  • So this is what MOBA games are! Wow everyone was right, I WOULD like a MOBA.
  • Please don’t let Magmar be added as a playable Pokémon down the line. I will never hear the end of it.