Emotions in Games

Computer game developers, almost to a one, are blind to the emotional resonance of their games, but they don’t think they are. Quintessentially, they’ll talk about fun as an emotion and focus on that. They’ll talk about other emotions that they want to create, in particular: love and hate. The near universal conceit is that those sorts of emotions are hard, especially in single player games, so don’t even try.

They are blind to the emotional resonance that they do create, because they don’t think it can be done.

As an example, let’s consider an indie game called Card Crawl. It’s got wonderful art, music, sound, and gameplay. It’s the whole package, both in my estimation and that of VideoGameGeek

That’s a typical gameplay situation, sans the wonderfully subtle animations and music score. Quick run-through on the game follows. You’re the hapless adventurer in the bottom row of cards. Your sword and shield which can do, and block, 5 points respectively. You’ve managed to collected 14 loot points so far. It’s early yet with 44 cards to go, but you’re pretty beat up, and your skull is showing through…
To play, you drag cards around. In this case, I’m going to use my sword to slash the Troll, then drag him onto my shield. That’ll use up my sword, and leave me with a one point shield, and only 4 health. So, without healing, the spider would kill me. (For a moment, as I wrote this, I wondered if the adventurer was actually my younger daughter experiencing her worst fear.) Luckily there’s a Leech spell on the board which will heal me right up, based on the damage that I’ve taken at that point. One of the real fun parts of this game is the significant variety of blue spell cards and how they interact with the cards in play.

Oh, and of course there’s some LOOT on the board in the form of the coin, so into my backpack that goes… A victory will allow me to use the loot I’ve collect to acquire new blue cards.

So far, great. Really great. It’s a happy fun romp through cards with the whole Sir George and the Dragon sort of feel to it.

Until it isn’t.


I  just used my last healing potion. I’ve pulled all of the cards out, and here I am at the end of the game.

“How do you end the game?” you ask.

“How do you loose the game?” is what you should be asking.

I’m of the school that there’s winning and learning. How you “not-win” is central to what are we going to learn. In this sort of game, you really don’t know what’s going to come next card-wise, because randomness plays a huge factor. That’s the central learning of this sort of game, otherwise stated as sometimes bad things happen to good people. An interesting lesson, and necessary, as without it, nothing good could happen to good people either.

It’s how you loose the game which is of issue.

I pulled the Slime onto my shield, which softened his blow by 2 and took three damage, so down to 7 health. The only recourse I have available is to drag the Souleater onto me and die. The only thing I can do is to feed myself to the Souleater. I get to kill myself with a Souleater. Killing one’s self is the only path to more.

I killed myself with a Souleater.

The only path forward is to commit suicide.

That lesson not OK with me.



Deadlight – Random Playtest

Deadlight won the random toss for what game to playtest next. Deadlight is a zombie game, set in the 80’s near Seattle. Except it’s not really a zombie game, because you can’t seem to actually kill any of the zombies. They just fall over and get back up again after a while. Or maybe you can kill them, but heck if I know how. At least the first hour of the game is a progressive tutorial unlike any I’ve seen before. Each move comes with an explanation and a scene for you to learn it.

Good enough.

However, each line of move comes with a longwinded explanation of what to do, for both keyboard and controller.

Too much reading.

Each wall of text shows up right as you’re about to actually need to do whatever the new move is you need to know. Because there’s zombies. About to eat you.

Apparently I can read while being eaten.

I got to a wall-jumping “scene” and lost it. Seriously guys, y’all made it way too hard. Do what Lara does. We’ve been doing since the advent of 3D.


I got tired of grinding through set-piece after set-piece. The experience did NOT provide of the experience promised on the tin. I was drawn to this game because of the 80’s vibe and Seattle setting. Got none of it during the first nearly an hour of gameplay.


I ran around as a man who, in the first scene shoots someone, because they’ve been bitten, admonishes his group to not go off solo, IMMEDIATELY does so. For a really long time, while getting bitten CONSTANTLY.

Cognitive dissonance.

Do I need to kill myself now? I’ve been bitten something like 50 times… The fact that I initially referred to the player character as “a man” instead of “me” is a tell for a broken suspension of disbelief.

The environments that guy ran through were bland, dark and dirty as hell. Apparently everything is immediately dirty and destroyed in a zombie outbreak. Look, I get it, that’s the expectation that people have. It was just not fun for me. The whole experience was built for dark black zombies with glowing orange eyes. Whatever it took to make black zombie shapes look good was what everything else in the environment had to do.

I just hated the art.

Dark-black zombies with glowing eyes and little to no blood = good idea. The cost in what it made me feel emotionally made me opt-out.

One thing I loved is the fatigue mechanic. Your guy finds a fireman axe and does what you’d expect to the zombies. However, in a sop to actual real-life, your guy can’t swing it a billion times in a row. There’s an energy bar, ho hum, but where the presentation really shines is in the display. The whole display shakes and shudders in a way that pitch-perfectly progressively indicates your guy’s tiredness. Imagine a VHS tape loosing tracking, with NTSC lines becoming visible, with color shifting.

Pitch-perfect – especially given 80’s setting.

Too damn bad that’s the only thing that I really enjoyed about this game. Swinging my axe until I got tired.

I think I’m going to go chop some wood.

Total time played: 42min
Opinion: Not worth it.

Quick Review: Torchlight II

Enjoyed the first one, but didn’t finish it. Wanted to enjoy this one, but two overwhelmingly strong feelings prevented that. First, I swear they’ve made a game for eight year olds. It’s like trying to watch Clone Wars as an adult. You just… can’t… do… it. The opening animation was especially juvenile. However, the quest text and some of the characters were authentic, but the main characters felt as if they were eleven years old at most.

The other thing that really turned me off was the gameplay felt exactly like Diablo. Utterly, exactly, completely the same. I’ll take my high gothic fantasy setting with an adult story and themes thank you. They really should have introduced characters which played differently. Instead, you get a character which shoots guns instead of hand crossbows and both throw bouncing shooting stars. OK, one uses mana, the other hatred. NO DIFFERENT.

Maybe there’s something deeper in the game, but I’m not going to stick around to find out. One clue is that they have the concept of secret rooms (click a hidden wall panel and you can gain access to a restricted area.) Neat way to encourage paying attention to the environment, especially after you’ve seen the same tileset for hours. In my case, this secret room was right next to a power-up shrine guarded by an Elite mob with randomized special powers. Gah.

42 minutes played. Uninstalled w/o finishing. Never going back. Play Reaper of Souls, Titan Quest, or even Diablo 2 instead. At least it was on sale… Maybe my kids will like it, but there’s so many other better games…

Game Site: Torchlight II

Quick Review: Tomb Raider 2014

Wonderful on so many levels. Utterly contrived on so many others. You run across a hugely complicated puzzle really early on which would have taken weeks for a construction crew to make, yet you’re supposed to believe that the pile of debris arranged itself in just exactly that manner. Totally unbelievable, and completely incongruous with the rest of the high fidelity experience.

Slogging through the muck, getting muddy, washing off in rivers and streams. Young Lara was a masterpiece. So much of the graphics and the realism of this game are the best as can be done.

Story was interesting. Most of the world was interesting to explore if you disabled the off-switch to your suspension of disbelief. As for the sexual violence media narrative, all I have to say is: have you turned on a TV or walked into a movie theater in the last 20 years? It served the story, was not gratuitous, and provided a rationale for Lara’s impending mass murder spree. Hurrah for games (and books, movies, TV, music, and every other form of media) for adults.

24 hours played. Finished. Uninstalled. Not likely to play again. Totally worth it on sale. Full price, dubious. Nothing else comes close to this experience – STILL.

Game Site: Tomb Raider

Quick Review: Wasteland 2

…drove me nuts. Such potential to be good, even great, but was just frustratingly unplayable. 25% crash rate every time you cross into a new area just doesn’t cut it. Especially not on top of an already 10-15% random crash rate as it was.

But what really drove me away was I just didn’t want those people in my lives any more. Try as I might, I simply wasn’t able to get done what I wanted, and that what did come to pass was totally not OK with me. Too many crazy nut jobs. Sure it’s Arizona after a nuclear war, what do you expect? Yeah still… Just don’t need those people in my life. That’s a compliment, I suppose. At acknowledgement, at the very least, that the world was that real.

That takes some doing…

16 hours played. Uninstalled without finishing. (Not even close.) Never going back. Waste of too much money. Play XCOM instead.

Wasteland 2 Game Site

Warren Spector – Lecture 6 w/Marc “MAHK” LeBlanc

Marc “MAHK” LeBlanc


Work History:

  • BlueSky/Looking Glass
  • Origin
    ** Ultima Underworld
    ** Underworld 2
    ** System Shock
    ** Flight Unlimited
    ** Terra Nova:Strike Force Centauri
  • Ion Storm
    ** Thief
    ** System Shock 2
    ** Deus Ex
    ** Thief 2
    ** Visual Concepts – Sports Games
    ** NFL 2K2, NBA 2K2, NCAA Football 2K3
  • Mind Control Software
    ** Oasis
    ** Field Commander
  • Casual Games
    ** Stomping Grounds
    ** Arrrrrr!
    Spector met him when he was finishing up his MIT Masters degree and play testing games.
    Teacher, Lecturer, Writer, SMoG (Secret Master of Gaming)

Question: “What in your background prepared you for a career in gaming?”

Only child. Didn’t play a lot of games as a little kid. Played D&D. Played in the cell of the original town hall from the 1850’s.

Question: “All board games all the time?”

A lot of digital games once I got access to a computer in elementary school. [Boy is this a familiar story. For him it was an Apple II, for me it was a Commodore Pet.]

Question: “Was that the point where you transition from being a player to creator?”

None of the teachers knew what they were doing with it. People could just take a pass and go use the computer for whatever. They had no comprehension. [One could argue that most still don’t…]

First game was a Steve Jackson melee thing (fight and run.) Lunar Lander clone.

“Steve Jackson makes such wonderful roleplaying games, but once you get to combat it slows way down. A 15 second combat encounter takes three hours to play. I’ve always felt they should be on the computer.” – Spector [Paraphrased]

Question: “Cutting classes. Making up games… MIT?”

Was a huge Infocom fan. Zork, Planetfall, etc. They were an MIT startup. Wrote a Infocom parser. Better than most of their games. His english language parser turned into his science project. Tried to get a job there, but never heard back from them. Got him interested in AI. At the time, everyone thought strong AI was just around the corner. Used a taxonomy based approach (animals have hair, etc.)

Went straight from Basic to Lisp. Learned Pascal, some C, Prolog, Smalltalk, basic Assembly. [Interestingly, that’s Paul Graham’s list of languages almost exactly.]

Question: “I had expectations as to what working with a team of MIT team of students would be like. I’ve noticed how well-rounded they were. (At least the ones I’ve interacted with.) How real-world oriented they were – entrepreneurial. Is there something about MIT’s approach which fosters that culture?”

The CS department is in the Engineering department, not Math at MIT. [Long diatribe on the specifics of x32 programming. Answer diverged from original question.] MIT does give you a lot of perspective into the hardware as opposed to a math-based ciriculum.

Question: “One thing that amazed me about Blue Sky/Looking Glass was how strong and coherent a culture it had. That’s not to say you guys all got along. Screaming at the top of people’s lungs very frequently. I want to talk about the toxic and inspiring culture of Looking Glass in a minute. Did you guys all meet at a dorm? Doug Church. Tim Felman. Dan Schimdt. James Fleming. Moby Games is your friend, go look them up.”

Here’s the real story: Paul Shawcross used to run a D&D game. Right around the time when that happening, one of the other player’s had an uncle who was starting a game company. Doug Church left MIT for there. Once that connection got made, a giant long chain of nepotism. Friends. Boyfriends. They just kept pulling in MIT people.

Question: “Many of you started working at Blue Sky. Ended up living at the same house.”

Three guys at Looking Glass had forgotten to buy the heating oil for the winter. When they move, they get a few more people. Grew to 10 folks. Became “the house of 10 dumb guys”.

“Saw my 1st chia-pet there. Had my first hot mountain dew with with marshmallows. (Hot molten dew.) All of the machines were named. Had to name my machine before you guys would talk to me.” – Spector
At MIT, all of the computers had DNS names with formal names. If you weren’t part of one of those clusters, you could name them as whatever you want. Themed names per group. Status symbol.

Question: “Looking Glass culture was toxic and inspired. An yet great games came out of that studio? Is that an accurate assessment of the culture?”

It was very youthful and energetic. Basically of a particular MIT campus culture. Everyone assumes you’re smart. Who did the work first got to decide how the work was done. It’s all about fighting to have your vision. Collective ambition.

“Driven by passion and respect. Incredible. Spent the last 15 years trying to recreate that somehow.” – Spector
Some of that has to do with the time and place. A group that size and inexperienced could make a game. It really was the college startup energy. Actual ones. Not just games.

It’s not just MIT. If you have an opinion you’re supposed to rant, march, protest. Very much a speak out and express your passion kind of culture. That’s the base culture required. [This is not modern day American college culture for damn sure. Way too much groupthink. Downright Orwellian. He’s disconnected ]

Question: “Read Warren Bennis: The Secrets of Great Groups. Have you left that behind personally? Are you still trying to find that passion that adversarial group?”

There’s more of a constant struggle to keep the well full when I was just a kid. Some stuff I would gladly leave behind. Better communicator now.

Question: “You’ve worked on a huge variety of games at many companies. Are you a big company guy? Little company?”

Right now, I’m a little company guy. Easier to find the energy and passion similar to Looking Glass. There’s little agility in today’s games. The production schedules are so long. Pipelines are so deep. The small games experience is pretty charming.

In small games there’s an embarrassments of riches.

Question: “For all of the roles you play, you’ve been a critical resource on the games you’ve worked on. Yet, you haven’t had that Project Director title.”

Brief period where he was the creative, technical, and everything lead on a project. 6-9 months for a prototype. They didn’t pick it up after.

Question: “What does that say about the nature of authorship. Does it mater?”

It’s a who care sort of thing. I’m not a game designer. I’m a game re-designer. Recognizes what’s good about a high concept and turns it into a little nugget of fun.

Question: “Do you think we’ve see a Mark LeBlanc game?”

Oasis is basically that. There is a AAA game he hopes to do some day. A lot like the prototype one canceled. The Game Design Workshop he runs at GDC is the Mark LeBlanc game.

Question: “You do game every system. Including life systems. That’s one of the qualities of all game designers.”

[Series of insider references.]

Question: “You have said many times: I hate the word fun.”

First, it’s vague. Second, it’s this trump card which allows people to turn their brain off. Ends discussions. It makes game design too mystical. Humanistic mystery. Limits our ability to think about games as purely objects of entertainment. Would a cathartic game be fun? [I wager he’s following this: Critical Proximity.]

Question: “Senet?”

One of the oldest games in the world. Played for 3 thousand years in Egypt. Precursor to Backgammon. Spaces on the board start to get names based on Egyptian gods. If you make it to the end you become one with Ra. Eventually this game takes on religious significance. People start playing this game to determine what their afterlife is going to be like. Every great Pharaoh has one of these games boards in their tomb to help them through it. The game goes from the daily life, two player, game to a religious, single player, game. Like the Tarot except with ultimate stakes.

Fun is an inadequate word to describe that.

Fun allows you to characterize things as kids stuff. Waste of time. Comics are going through the same thing.

Question: “You substituted a taxonomy for fun.”

The 8 kinds of fun. What you’re trying to make the player feel. As a straw man, he has a taxonomy of different ways this is done:

  1. Sensation
    Game as sense-pleasure
  2. Fantasy
    Game as make-believe
  3. Narrative Game as drama
  4. Challenge
    Game as obstacle course
  5. Fellowship
    Game as social framework
  6. Discovery
    Game as uncharted territory
  7. Expression
    Game as self-discovery
  8. Submission Game as pastime
    [Read the paper. It’s important. I should do a line-up with Koster’s Theory of Fun & Schell’s Lenses.]

Question: “Are there practical applications of it?”

It’s not part of a process. There’s no checklist for it.

“I think you’re underselling it.” – Spector
I’ve written design documents this way. It’s all about communication when you’re talking with other people about a game. Allows you to focus the conversation on a specific part.

Intuition and Intellect: Deconstructing the Design of Oasis

Oasis is a minesweeper variant with some city-building mechanisms.

Audience questions.

Question: Unintelligible.
Main indicator indicator of difficulty was the ratio of the city populations and the number of barbarians that were doing go come. Proportional to the difficulty level. Some map size tweaking to make the Oasis easier/harder to find, but was a minor effect. On higher difficult levels, there are time constraints. You don’t have enough time to do everything. Even on the lowest difficult level, we wanted that sense of impending doom, so went real-time instead of turn based.

Question: Unintelligible.
Games which inspired it: minesweeper and civilization. [Duh.]

Question: Unintelligible.
Original spark was being the anti-minesweeper. Every click in minesweeper is this moment of peril. Wanted to have the inverse.

Question: Tangible metrics to tune difficulty curve.
We did collect some high level metrics internally. Level # when you finished. Didn’t do rigorous measurement.

Question: Unintelligible.
Oasis compelled him to leave his previous job. Friends game him money to make a specific game.

Question: Unintelligible.
Specific to Oasis. One click failure possible with a plague city. Don’t do this sort of thing. “Bad click causes loss.”

Question: Paper prototyping.
Didn’t do it for this. Small game.

Question: Unintelligible.
Tuned around an arbitrary choice based on tech for board size.

Question: Unintelligible.
Publishers are pushing all kinds of stuff. Example given was a shared leaderboard system used by one of their publisher. Made the game worse. Channels gameplay. The sense of competition reduces freedom. External demands on the game aren’t necessary in the interest of the game.

Question: Unintelligible.
Why not publish the game in java. Didn’t feel comfortable with Java as a toolset. The Java that has a wide install base is really really crappy. [Can you say RuneScape or MineCraft?] At the time, the widely available version was Java 1.1. Thought they could make the game faster, prettier and better by doing it in C++. Partially because that was their background.

Question: Unintelligible.
People were making an uniformed choice about difficulty. Tutorial was mandatory. Unlocking required.

Game specific ancedotes

Ultima Underworld

Suggested that you should be able to a pole & a thread and make a fishing pole. Power of emergent gameplay.

Ultima Underworld 2

Only level design experience. Did the Ice Caves by holding down the mouse and scribbling.

System Shock

Some of his art might be in the game.

Question: “First time the team mushroomed and things got much more specialized. Someone owned the combat system. etc. How did that change the dynamics at Looking Glass?”
Made it more contentious. People had territory which could be horned in on.

It was the Microsoft Word user interface. Everything you could do had an interactive user interface element. Then Doom came out and then there was nothing on the screen. Perfect counter-example.

Flight Unlimited

Worked on stuff not related to the flight simulation. Credited as a pilot.

Terra Nova

Got kicked off it for saying that we’ve been working on this for 4 years and it’s not good yet. “He was bad influence and a naysayer.”

“In retrospect you were right.” – Spector


Underlying code system where designers could specify behavior. Didn’t write directly, simulated it. Gave designers tool-level flexibility. Class Type hierarchy-based.

“Hugely influential. Changed Ion Storm. Midway. Junction Point. When applied appropriately it’s a critical tool to getting that semi-emergent gameplay that we all know and love.” – Spector
Kind of stuff that everyone takes for granted now. [What the hell are they talking about? Don’t get it. Is this just straight OO inheritance or is it something else? There was a reference to Unreal, circa 2007, but it’s not their finite state machine stuff. Reference was between AI & Sound systems. Confusion all around.]

System Shock 2

Favorite the Looking Glass game because he contributed to the least creatively. Was purely technical. So it’s the one he can play as a “player” and enjoy.

Thief 2

Wrote one line of code

Sports Games

Everyone wanted to mimic television. Didn’t want to give you the in-stadium experience. More interested in ways that games are not like TV. Learned a ton.

[Spector is really dismissive of sports games. Why? Sports are as worth as any other game aren’t they? Again and again, turns his nose up at them. Well maybe not that far, maybe he’s just be melodramatic. I REALLY REALLY REALLY wish that more time had been spent on this point. I, for one, LOVED my interactions with EA Sports folks at all levels much more so than anyone from the EA Games side. Night-and-day.]


Took an $80,000 pay cut to make that game.

Field Commander (PSP)

Kind of “interestedly” architected piece of hardware to put it politely. Remote teams in three locations.

Stomping Grounds

Wanted it to be called Andrew Leaker’s Stomping Grounds


Was procrastinating writing code for a different multiplayer game. Found a tool to hook up multiple mice to a computer. Made a bunch of prototype games based on that idea. Cute little game. Should do on-line multiplayer to make it an actual games.

Warren Questions

Question: “Board Games. Electronic Games. How much translates from one to the other?”

Board Games => Electronic Games all of it. They’re all games. Game design is design within constraints. Wants to do a game design session with the NFL to work on the overtime rules. Would want to start a sports league playing basketball using the original rules and then evolve them forward every year to see if they go in a different direction.

Question: “How important is it to be able to program to become a game designer?”

To become a game designer it’s very important. Games in their formal structure are programs. You have to be able to get that procedural logic. Lots of psychology. “If you ask Gabe Newell that’s all you need to know.” Some engineering principals. Math (probability > game theory). Be someone with a broad educations in the classic seven liberal arts. [Warren reacted positivity to that last point.]

Question: “Favorite game”

Digital: Pikmin. XCom. Star Control 2. Archon [WOOT!]. Mail Order Monsters.

Board: Go. Tigris & Euphrates. Caliss.

Question: “Names and concepts. Reiner Knizia.”

Math PhD. Massively prolific. Lord of the Rings:The Confrontation. http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/3201/lord-of-the-rings-the-confrontation

Question: “Paul Neurath

Reason why I’m here.

Question: “Burtal Countdown”

Ritual which adds drama to counting up score at the end of the game. Chris Hacker named it as such.

Question: “Rock, Paper, Scissors”

One of the great mysteries of the human mind.

Question: “Simulation and Emulation”

I thrown an object and there is a Newtonian simulator behind it that carries the object through time and space.
Emulation is I click on a doorknob and the door objective, because there is a rule.

Question: “Embedded and Emergent Narrative”

Embedded is the traditional author narrative. Cut scene based.
Emergent is the gameplay and stories that the player find themselves because game designers were kind enough to allow to happen. A soup of events from which narratives can emerge.

Game Center UI and Ratings

Ran across a positive story about Cloud Breaker‘s custom Game Center UI. Sadly, few developers take the time to do this.

Here’s what I wrote in response:

Two reasons come to mind as to why most developers don’t do this:

  1. Doing the Game Center integration, with Apple’s UI, is less work. That approach “wins” when money is tight. Many games are developed on the rockbottom development budgets, so this sort of additional feature is hard to justify especially given the potential trade for additional actual game content. Leaderboards, achievements, etc. are typically (and incorrectly) viewed as outside of core gameplay.
  2. There’s no direct API to “rate” an app, but you can on Apple’s provided Game Center UI. In an App Store where ratings (and to a lessor extent Facebook Likes) are currency of enormous value. Anything that may potentially reduce the likelihood of getting even a single rating is not viewed… favorably.

Until the second issue changes, the first argument won’t even happen because, in most cases, it’d be pointless. The elegance will come once the iOS SDK has the APIs, and only for the most resourced teams (initially.)

Bonus issue: This isn’t that easy to do. Look at your screenshot – there’s at least one critical bug (overlapping text in two places) and, IMO, there needs to be a blur layer or something to make the text more legible because there’s not enough contrast between it and the clouds.