The Lazy Designer,  Writing Resources

The OTHER Solution in Game Design

The Other Solution

For the most part throughout my Lazy Designer series I focus on what I believe is the right way to implement particular design tasks. Based on my experience I have a recipe book, so to speak, of design solutions to specific problems. Throughout the books I make reference to these.

The other day I was wondering if there was a different way to go about solving problems. What if you selected a random, or rather bizarre, solution? (Admittedly I hadn’t slept much the night before).

Low Morale

Some early RPG games (including Baldur’s Gate 1) allowed enemies to flee once their morale broke. The players basically kick the enemy’s butt so bad they try to get away.

Over time BioWare stopped doing this. Players did not like to chase down enemies — and occasionally the fleeing could mess with plot completion. The solution to the “running away” problem was to cut the morale system. Admittedly most of BioWare’s game had lots of other cool stuff going on that this was not a huge loss.

But what if a different solution was adopted? What if players could lasso fleeing enemies or corral them somehow? Maybe they could teleport to them, or activate a device that teleported the enemy to them. So we eliminate the fleeing with a new game mechanic. It would not have made a lot of sense in the context of most of BioWare’s games, but it might be an interesting way to experiment with reintroducing the morale mechanic.

(I’m actually experimenting with this in a game I’m working on.)

Other solutions might be to introduce a “frozen with fear” mechanic — panicked enemies only run away a bit and then cower and try to hide.

Friendly Fire

Another mechanic I enjoy is the tactical element of having to control area-of-effect devasatation. Not being able to just toss a fireball for fear of crisping your friends. Forcing the player to make the tactical decision of using consumeables to protect against flame.

Unfortunately most games cut friendly fire… friends are not hurt by anything their allies do. This makes the games easier to implement, and easier for players to understand (and control) the combat situations.

But what if…

Being hit with friendly fire (assuming it does not kill you) makes you try harder to win the battle, swiftly. That is, the fighter gets hit by his friend’s fireball and now does additional damage and maybe even additional attacks. He’s so freaked out that his crazy wizard friend is going to kill him with another fireball that he just wants to end the battle. And now.


The idea is to take an odd solution to a classic problem and then turn it into variant gameplay. Can you think of any others?

The Game: Status

I’m not going to get into the habit of updating the prototype game I’m working on, but I’ve made decent progress recently and figured a once-in-a-while update wouldn’t hurt anything.

To this point I am:

  • Fairly confident in my procedurally generated environments. They don’t look good enough for release, but they are substantially better than any manual level I’ve built previously.
  • Targeting system is about 75% complete. Players can cycle through enemies and get appropriate targeting information.
  • Faction system is about 90% complete. There’s a system for tracking like/dislike between groups, adding new groups dynamically, and adjusting reactions as necessary.
  • Save/load System is in place.
  • Conversion to a new GUI system is in-progress.
  • A handful of conversations have been written and testing in-game, but I need more work here, to figure out the direction I need to go.
  • The movement system is adequate by I need to work on it. In fact my current sprint is pushing me towards completing procedural content generation and refining the movement and camera controls.
  • No combat system… other than a placeholder.

The Lazy Designer: How To Be a Design Manager

Also, “How to be a Design Lead”, the final book in the Lazy Designer series is now available too, though the official announcement won’t be until next week.

(I’m editing the bonus content for the Lazy Designer series… which I need to get back to now.)

Former lead designer at BioWare (Dragon Age: Origins, Neverwinter Nights). Creator of Raiders of the Serpent Sea.


  • Brian Chung

    Instead of low morale and fleeing, perhaps make it more of a seek reinforcement action. So that way the player has a reason to pay attention and give chase, else they’d eventually get swarmed by guards.

    For friendly fire, I remember one of the things I did in Baldur’s Gate 2 was loading up Minsc with all the fire resistance armour, but it ended up giving him greater than 100% resistance, meaning he was now gaining health from fire damage. I’d send him into a fight then have all the mages cast fireball on him.

    So a gameplay alternative there for friendly fire could be to have your buddy be a catalyst for effects – you have to risk sending them into the thick of battle and hope they survive long enough for you to cast some mega spell to spark a chain reaction.

  • Brent Knowles

    Hi, Brian! Thanks for the comments.

    Great suggestion for the seek reinforcement. .. and that’s awesome with the “heal in fire” — I love the side effects of complicated systems.

    A catalyst effect could be interesting; it would give players a “combat move” that they are working towards. Some battles they pull it off, others, they don’t. Could be fun!

  • Brian Chung

    Yeah, the teamwork pairing is a gameplay mechanic I feel is somewhat lacking in games, especially ones like TeamFortress 2 – right now it’s just the medic+everyone else for ubers, and pyro+bow sniper (flaming arrows), but there are not many other pairings available that I could think of.

    The Heavy could pick up a scout teammate and toss him over a wall. The Engineer can tweak teammate weapons for a temporary buff at the expense of double ammo usage. The sniper could also shoot homing beacons to tag opposing players as they swarm the base (maybe the beacon also acts like the Jarate and has a debuff).

  • James Paten

    I always felt gold (or money in general) was always a flat experience, which wound up more often than not simply acting as another form of experience, allowing the player to upgrade their stats (via new equipment) from their completion of quests/killing of enemies.

    I’d like to see money much more integral to the plot of a game. Imagine if you had decisions constantly that required money from the player, such that the decision of purchasing new gear or using the gold for other plot outcomes was a constant struggle.

    For instance, say your player had 20 gold and was at a town in a hostile country’s land. You are heading further into this land to complete your main quest, but you have an NPC ally who needs to escape to safety out of the country. Concurrently, you need to secure a safe way to travel further into the country. And, at the same time, you see some shiny new weapons for sale that could really help out as you delve into further danger. But you don’t have enough good for all of these things.

    Do you book safe travel for both your ally and yourself, assuming you can deal with the reduced threat without better gear? Do you upgrade yourself and help your friend escape, knowing you are better equipped for it? Do you leave your friend on their own, using your money to give your quest (the most important thing for the larger picture of being “good”) the best chance for survival?

    Now, add into the mix an unsavory NPC who offers you some gold to do something that is morally unappealing, such as putting down a group of downtrodden peasants or stealing from a church. Normally, games make it easy to let the player avoid such quests easily if they want to play a pure good character, but if the alternative is doing without the gold that the player now desperately needs, does that make their morals and choices more flexible?

    Anyway, just one mechanic I always thought was a little flat. Thanks.

  • Brent Knowles

    Yes, that’s a great idea.

    A lot more “choice” would be created if money was used like this.

    I remember on BG2 there was a major gating moment that hinged around the amount of gold earned… the player had to give up other stuff, in order to pass the gate.

    Using the mechanism on a larger range of choices, throughout the game, would add to this.

    I think the reason a mechanism like this is not used as much nowadays is because:
    – money is often detached from the story. Writers may not know what the value of anything is, the people handing out treasure might not be talking to the writers. Once an amount is written into dialog and voice recorded, it can’t be changed, et cetera.

    – In some games players are able to grind to earn gold and xp… the concern would be that they would just grind away until they earned enough cash to invalidate the choices — they would buy everything they need. *Then* the next argument would be: “Why are we making our players do all this boring grinding just to get to the next part of the plot…”

    It is interesting sometimes to think about how game design influences itself over time. It would definitely be worthwhile if some designers explored how to better integrate their economy with their story.

  • James Paten

    Very good feedback, Brent.

    I also think time limitations, in some shape or form, need to accommodate my proposed gold restriction. After all, in video games (just like real life) money is merely an abstraction of time. We are paid for our work (time we invested), we risk our money when investing (a possible loss of time if the investment fails) and we use money to pay for goods and services (which we either don’t have the time to do ourselves or which we don’t have the time to learn to do ourselves).

    While I think grinding should be possible, also having a consequence for taking such a large amount of time from the crucial tasks at hand in order to have that surplus gold and XP should be part of a game as well.

    If a game required the player to use a large amount of their gold to secure the best plot choices while also making sure they met certain time requirements (or, while maybe not a true counter clock ticking down, but a set of contingencies where if certain actions aren’t taken without too many location or quest detours, like how Mass Effect 2 tracked how long you “waited” before saving your abducted crew), it would really make the player question how they used their money and decrease their moral threshold for earning more.

    Although this would likely rub some (if not many) players the wrong way. But, then again, should game design seek to make the experience easy for the player? You quoted Minecraft as a game that should have failed using this metric, but was a huge success. And games like Crusader Kings or Victoria have a niche in the market for being punishingly difficult with a notoriously huge learning curve. Is there a place for more games that don’t eliminate interesting gameplay mechanics for fear of alienating the player in their difficulty?

  • Brent Knowles

    Valid points. Time limits — like clever use of economy — don’t show up a lot. (Really, its just easier to avoid them when designing.)

    But I think there’s opportunities for clever usages of both in games (especially as you mentioned, in niche markets). Even in more mainstream titles, I think stuff like this would work; maybe sometimes it just needs to be conveyed differently. It makes sense to have logical outcomes to events… however, it is up to the designers to train players at the start of the game… and let them know to expect such.

    That is, I think a player might cringe if they play 2/3 of a game without any consequences for the time they take to do things and then pay a heavy price for being tardy, right at the end. But if they’ve learned that time matters, from the beginning, they’ll treat time as another resource and handle it wisely.

    Anyways, great points. I hope to get to the point later this year that I can start experimenting with different quest models in my prototype. We’ll see.

  • James Paten

    I think you bring up one EXCELLENT point that I just wanted to touch on – training the player. This, in my experience, can be the difference between a feature being well received or reviled. Yet it seems very tricky to nail down most of the time.

    In ye olden days (since I feel like a senior citizen sometimes when it comes to my video game experience), complex games would often come with a 50 or 100+ page instruction manual that went into the details of how a game work. As this became increasingly more expensive to include, the options then became to include a “tutorial” like level or explanation, which was built into the game.

    The problem with the tutorial is that, often, the explanation is only for the most basic of mechanics and skims over more nuanced systems. Or, in many cases, a tutorial is completely foregone altogether, as many developers view it as too “gamey.” This often leads to the player having to figure out how a system works on their own, which leads to either player frustration, the developer wanting to keep features simple and intuitive or a combination of both.

    If a designer can progressively walk the player through a complex system without it feeling too forced or breaking immersion, I think people may be surprised at many people’s threshold for more “complex” mechanics. Because with good explanation and training, even the most complex things are simple.

  • Brent Knowles

    Agreed. Often complex features are downgraded once it becomes clear that it will be a challenge to explain them, succinctly. It is not the players won’t understand; it is that the designer/interface/gameplay struggles to explain it well.

    This is really tricky, especially since different player types benefit from different kinds of tutorials (some like a reactive tutorial environment where they experiment but those experiments are commented on; others prefer to be walked through sample gameplay). In both cases the tutorials can be too gamey, as you mentioned, and for products that are attempting to mimic the aesthetic of a movie experience, that can be a deal breaker.

    It might be useful sometimes for designers to think a bit more about how they’d present the system, while designing it — perhaps breaking the gameplay into teachable chunks, at the design-stage, and imagining how the player will experience each chunk, progressively.

    Regardless the more intuitive/logical the system, the easy it is for players to figure out how to use it. In the real world we deal with complex interactions all the time — whenever gameplay can mimic an interaction we are familiar with, I suspect players will more readily pick it up in-game.

  • James Paten

    Although I usually dislike having conversations in a comments section, this is very interesting for me, so I’ll beg you indulge me as I continue further.

    You do mention that real life mechanics, even if they are complex, would be easy for players to replicate, if designed in a way that the players can recognize and feel is intuitive. And I completely agree.

    However, I’ve also heard the opposite from many gamers – the practical realities of the real world are what they hope to ESCAPE when playing a video game. Sorting laundry may be a relatively complex task – organizing by color, fabric type, water temp/wash type preference, etc. – and also one that many people are very familiar with… but many people would not want to wash clothes as part of an epic video game adventure, even if it is realistic.

    Which comes full circle to the conversation – maybe the problem is not that certain mechanics are difficult or too complex… but maybe they just become too tedious or boring? If slaying a ferocious dragon seems a bit too much like crunching numbers on a spreadsheet, you may lose some players, while other games thrive on the simple (and tedious sounding) idea of matching up three pieces of similar-colored candy (a la Candy Crush) in an addictive and engaging way.

    I’m sure there is a whole Paychology dissertation that’s possible on the different mindsets of gamers who enjoy gameplay features that being extra realism and challeneg versus those that enjoy a more engaging and visceral gameplay experience.

  • Brent Knowles

    Yep, there’s definitely a lot of research that could be done on different player types. And even within the same player type certain types of games are more appealing at particular times — a game like Candy Crush can be played while occupied with other tasks, like watching a show or having a conversation (not that I do that :)

    And you are right about how some mechanics just become tedious but different players experience them differently. I actually found the fight-loot cycle in the Diablo games too boring, for example. Obviously I’m in the minority on this.

    New abilities and new items and level advancement do help break up otherwise monotonous gameplay. New moves and new creatures and unexpected creature abilities help break up the tedium as well. And I think story moments help here too… a variety of experiences to positively influence the game’s flow.

    Back to the reality aspect though, I was thinking also along the lines of helping players understand how something worked by applying a real world analogy to it. Or the inverse — don’t introduce a game mechanic that is contrary to what players would expect, based on real life.

    I was not initially a fan of shared inventory systems for example (when an entire party shares an inventory to make it more convenient to move goods between each other). I think this confuses players (maybe not so much anymore, as they have been trained on the mechanic).

    But initially it was difficult for players to understand what was going on. As well, when each party member has their own inventory, the player “remembers” where they put stuff — ah, that potion of healing is in the bottom row, middle column, of Joe’s backpack. They may not remember this consciously, but their body intuitively remembers.

    You lose that with a shared inventory list, especially an infinite list.

    Likewise, in a game set in the real world, if I speed in a car I expect to be chased by cops. If I’m not chased by cops but then harassed by them for parking funny, I’m going to be annoyed. I sometimes struggle with games set in the real world because the designers have had to make gameplay choices that make it challenging for me to predict what the outcome of my actions will be — sometimes it does not match up with what would happen in real life.

    So, I’m not looking for realism for realism’s sake, but because I think it can often help build a comfortable player experience, when applied properly. When a gameplay component really goes against what players expect (either based on past games or reality) the designer must expend extra effort to train the player.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.