Category Archives: Game Design

REAL MAGIC: the System is the Setting.

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if I cared more about a game’s story than I did its system; I wonder what it would be like if I stared at games’ fake worlds more than their real ones. Instead, the clouds are ignored: I study the winds.

Warning: a few too many words ahead.

~ Continue reading


Breaking the Horizon

A game’s Horizon is ‘where you think the game ends’, but it’s also ‘how far it seems like the game’s content will take you (and stay the same? i’m not good at defining this, apparently)’. The way I feel as I approach a so far enjoyable game’s Horizon is best described as: worried I’m going to be disappointed. This is why I love it when Horizons are broken.


Skyrim never breaks the horizon, or at least it has never done so for me: it’s never even come close. New magic spells and new magical equipment, the most likely HORIZON BREAKERS (aside from the story — more on that later), are very often boring as hell. In almost every case I’m presented with a few numbers that I can tell are going to go up as I improve. Numbers are kind of boring. There are then the cases where I do get a genuinely new piece of equipment: however, HORIZON BREAKS are at their best when they are dramatic, as with all things, no? Skyrim — along with many games! It’s not just Skyrim, I’m just picking on it! — is a dense, slow burn through content. LIST TIME:

  • Short-range flames to FIRE BOLT! — Disappointingly inefficient without spending a perk on apprentice magic (the possible mini-horizon break is muffled and left until later; it’s a horizon nudge at best, assuming the player wasn’t expecting a goddamn fireball spell eventually anyway), and too small a change: I already had archery, and probably even a fire arrow. So, you might say, what about new bows?
  • Bad bow to AWESOME BOW! — Numbers? Are you trying to buy me over with numbers, Skyrim? Holds true for all sorts of mundane weaponry and equipment. Slowly increasing numbers are boring because they don’t break horizons.
  • Dragons are awesome, though. (Or…) — The first dragon was not frightening, and I didn’t get to fight it. It might be the Dark Souls in me talking, but when I fought my first dragon for real, I was… disappointed. Then I fought another dragon, and then I fought a blood dragon — and by this point, dragons were just kind of things to fight. Right from the beginning of the game, the game said “Okay, cool, dragons are within the horizon. You’ll be fighting them.” And then I did. Even if the first had impressed me (it didn’t!), would the second or third be any different? In every situation, all of your enemies can be turned on the dragon anyway.
  • Magical Equipment. — Numbers numbers numbers numbers numbers. So afraid to run out of content early, it doles out tiny percentages where they don’t matter. I pick up some GLASS ARMOUR OF RESTORATION and it’s better than what I have by a bit, and it increases my “restoration skill” by 22%. Of course, before this I’d already learned “better armour” and “better restoration”, so this is just a… combination of the two.


Dry Voices is a game about DISCOVERY (anagram title!). I made it for Ludum Dare once. I decided that the player would keep discovering new and unexpected things and, now, I’ve finally coined the action I was attempting so long ago:

Breaking the Horizon

is when a player’s comprehension of a game is expanded so much that his or her previous understanding has been SHATTERED.

La-Mulana is a game all about breaking the horizon! Around every corner, there is something new and ridiculous: a new puzzle, a new item, a crazy new way to travel, a new thing like an area with an incredibly slippery floor (I have never experienced a more slippery floor in any game, ever) when every floor previous has provided 100% perfect control.

Regardless of the way you feel about horizon breaking, these are absolutely moments that players REMEMBER. There may be other moments, of course, but anyone who’s paying attention to what a game is as they’re playing it will remember these moments when suddenly you punch out the floor from beneath them.

It is possible to sully a game’s horizon by breaking it too much — to the point that the horizon becomes shattered and uncertain, or to the point that the player starts figuring out which horizons look particularly breakable.

BREAKING THE HORIZON is not the perfect solution to every problem, and it can’t be all you have going for a game. However, placed properly, one huge change that breaks a Horizon is far, far better and far, far memorable compared to several small changes that leave no room for doubt about the future of the game.

So fucking break it, game designers.

You Found The Grappling Hook!
More to be added, probably.

Also, this is seriously the messiest post I’ve ever made! “Sorry!” and/or “Deal with it!”

Fortress Watch: a ‘social’ mmorpgish game thing?

DISCLAIMER THIS IS A 3 AM IDEA that i just didn’t want to forget.


Someone starts the game of Fortress Watch and it begins everywhere all at once for everyone.

When you pop into the game, you are on a fortress and you can peer into the distance.

Every so often, a bunch of enemies can be spotted (on the horizon, the edge of the screen, whatever). If you spot them far enough away, you have plenty of time to see them coming.

You can run out and fight enemies, but if your fighting avatar is killed you can’t respawn as a combatant for 24 hours (maybe you can’t even be a lookout). If you want to get more complicated, your wounds might take even longer to heal up to full fighting capacity.

Waves increase over months, and there is a global high score: how long did the largest global, worldwide, fortress stay alive?


The initial idea was: you run the game and it tells you how many people are fortress watching. If you’re the last one and you try to quit it begs: NO, PLEASE! THE FORTRESS NEEDS YOUR WATCHFUL EYES! If you quit anyway, the fortress falls. All your fault. Same thing: global highscore. How long can a fortress stay alive?

Probably best to keep everything simple. Maybe I’ll make this simple version one day soon. Seems like easy practice to wrap my head around internetstuff all over again.

Game Of Hands: A Card Game about secrets and punching people (not really punching people)

DISCLAIMER: I have NEVER played this game. I’d like to try, though.


Take every SPADE card out of a deck of cards except the Queen of Spades.
You now have 40 cards: Deal them out among any number of players (more is better).

Play a single card.

2-10: Valued at 2-10.
JQK: Valued at 11, 12, 13.
Ace: Valued at 14.

DIAMONDS: Give someone this card. They have to match its value by giving you cards in return whose value totals its value.
HEARTS: Give someone this card. They have to show you their hand unless they give you a single card back of greater or equal value.
CLUBS: Play this card face-up. The player you attack must discard a card; if it’s the QUEEN OF SPADES, it’s played immediately. You keep this card after playing it.
QUEEN OF SPADES: The game is over. If you have the most cards in hand, you win the game. Otherwise, everyone else wins the game.

Countering with CLUBS.
Whenever anyone plays a HEARTS or DIAMONDS card against you, you may discard a CLUBS card (of any value). You get their card and the card’s effect is cancelled.
Whenever anyone plays a CLUBS card against you, you may discard a CLUBS card of greater value to destroy it. Normally playing a CLUBS card to attack returns the card to its player’s hand.
Whenever anyone discards a CLUBS card to counter one of your cards, you may discard a CLUBS card of greater value to… counter-counter. This chain can go on forever.

Whenever anyone plays the QUEEN OF SPADES, there's nothing you can do.


DISCLAIMER: I have NEVER played this game. I'd like to try, though.


Hello. I am here to tell you a story. The other day, I was playing System Shock 2 (for maybe the third time – and I hope to play it many more), and I was running around with pockets chock-full of crap.

“I don’t really need this broken shotgun,” I told myself at last, finally having grown sick and tired of all the clutter. “I don’t really need this anti-toxin syringe, these speed-boosting syringes, or — seeing as I can’t use them — these grenades.” I didn’t have the requisite skills to use the grenade launcher, which I had ditched some distance back.

I carried on, a small pile of items left piled on the ground. This deck of the ship was infuriatingly labyrinthine despite the fact I had an easy-to-access map, but I didn’t worry about ever needing to find my stash again.

Warning: Spoilers incoming.

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late late sunday morning design ~ Hunger as Challenge, Hunger as Chore

‘Hunger’ is one of those things that isn’t used much outside of… roguelikes, basically.

Well, I suppose there are those games (almost always MMOs) that use hunger as a sort of debuff, and those who use food as a sort of buff instead (usually healing).

There are also games like the Sims, but in that case hunger rarely becomes an actual issue; it’s just another mundane thing you have to keep doing to keep up happiness and not die (which, you know, is fine and all. it’s just not what I’m talking about much!).

In both of these games — MMOs that use hunger and the Sims — hunger is a chore. I don’t necessarily mean this in a bad way, but hunger is never an interesting decision. It’s a reaction. You get hungry, and you eat whatever. It rarely even matters what kind of food it is. Or, in some cases, you get low on health and ‘food’ refills it by putting you into a ‘food state’.

So that, in a nutshell, is hunger as a chore. Not very interesting. Hunger can be much more than that, but it’s a difficult line to walk.

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forty-eight hours, first times

i was once again marginally present during a gorgeous game situation feat. droqen, and am here to share a bit with you. we attended a weekend windows phone 7 game ‘app’ development contest for fun and potential profit. if you have not heard of the windows phone 7 (i hadn’t either, beforehand), it is microsoft’s answer to the iphone and android platforms. it’s got a multi-touch screen, and fairly respectable hardware specs. it supports xna; the framework primarily used for xbox live development, with secondary windows support. beyond the dodgy install situation, the environment is surprisingly friendly and streamlined. with no practice but a quick run through handling touch events and creating balls, we set off with great ambition.

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How I Feel About AAA (warning: blabby and pointless and messy and structureless)

I got into a discussion the other day today about AAA games and big budgets and gigantic timeframes and huge, vast expanses of time. Here Ahead there be mountained molehills, by the way.

Just a warning. Continue reading

lmsd ~ Small, Discrete Numbers

lmsd: Now stands for Late “Morning Sunday Design” instead of “Late Morning” Sunday Design!

There’s something to be said about the use of small, discrete numbers. Certainly, large numbers are good for a lot of things — but it’s when the numbers go no bigger than the number of fingers you have on one hand that things really become… different.

How much health do you give your player? 100, or 5? Or 3, or 2?

I’ve thought about these things, and I’ll expose what feels so extremely special about the tiny numbers. I’ll try to tell you why you should use little numbers instead of big ones, and how to use them to your advantage in making things feel awesome. Special. Okay? Okay.
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late — er, really early — sunday morning design ~ Innovative Input & Output

There are three parts to a game if you choose to divide it in this manner.

There is the shit that the player does, the shit that the player senses (usually via sight and sound but sometimes feel i.e. force feedback and very super rarely taste or smell i.e. I can’t think of any examples), and the shit that happens in between. We’re not talking about the shit that happens in between because I think we can all agree that it is a very complicated and nuanced subject.

Then again, so are input and output.
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