Learning From The Best To Create A Card Game That Lasts

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Everybody and their mom is trying to make collectible card games right now. Chasing the monstrous cash-cows that are Magic: The Gathering in the physical space and Hearthstone in the digital, company after company is trying their best to put out to find just the right combination of spices that can properly topple one of these giants, or at least firmly plant its own territory in the market. Some have managed to find their own way in this market: Eternal and Duelyst have seen success as digital card games alongside Hearthstone, and Fantasy Flight Games’s Limited Card Game model has produced several lasting hits to hit the table, most notably Android: Netrunner.

So, let’s say you want to stand on the shoulders of giants and create your own card game. By all means, you should! Just because a few games are currently dominating the space doesn’t mean that you can’t try to put your own spin on things. Gaming history, both physical and digital, is littered with examples of competitors rising in previously monopolistic markets and finding their own place, and even besides that, you should just make whatever games you want.

However, if you’re going to make a competitive card game, it’s worth learning from those who came before, because some of these games have been in existence for a while, and in their legacy you can find extremely valuable tidbits that can help your game, no matter what spins it takes on the model, succeed even more than it would on its own.

CCGs Need To Balance Their Game Value

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More so than any type of game, CCG players are inherently always thinking about the money they’re putting into the game. This is to be expected; after all, trading card game packs are essentially the original loot boxes, with players dumping tons of money into packs only to get garbage cards. Where physical games have an advantage is that the cards being pulled are physical objects, which a person can then sell, trade, or do whatever they want with. Digital card games tend to not have that luxury, which means that the sting of buying a bad pack of cards hurts twice as much.

Random card packs are generally player-antagonistic to begin with, for all the reasons that randomized loot boxes are. By and large, they’re tolerated in Magic for two reasons. The first is the one I listed above: cards can be traded and sold, allowing costs to be recouped. The second is that Magic‘s player base is so large that there is a large secondhand market for cards, meaning players who don’t want to participate in random packs can simply buy all the cards they want.

If you lack these two key characteristics, your players are essentially forced to buy packs for the cards they want, which is problematic for fairly obvious reasons. If you need to buy multiple packs to get the card you want (if at all), the player’s buying power per dollar, measured as how many of the cards they want they can get for one dollar, is reduced immensely.

There are a few solutions to this which are floated around. The first is to offer players a constant drip feed of free cards. Many games do this as a reward for good play (packs are commonly offered as rewards at Friday Night Magic, and Hearthstone gives you packs as rewards for arena wins). However, I’m not entirely convinced by this, because it generates a positive feedback loop: players with good cards are more likely to win, and thus more likely to get these free card rewards, while those players with bad luck are forced to buy packs, thus making already frustrated players even more frustrated.

The other solution used to increase pack value is one popularized by Fantasy Flight Games: derandomize the packs. The smallest unit of Android: Netrunner cards is more expensive than a single pack of Magic cards, but contains four times the cards and, on top of that, the contents are completely transparent. Every pack for the same set contains exactly the same cards, and on top of that, contains enough copies of each card to run a full set in the game. Players in search of specific cards know exactly where to get them in Netrunner, and thus waste less money on packs full of duds.

Keep A Fluid Meta

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I feel pretty comfortable saying that card games have probably the hardest time balancing themselves for competitive play of any type of game. Every time a set of cards is released, the number of potential interactions between two cards increases exponentially, let alone combos involving 3 or more cards. In this way, it’s almost inevitable that extremely broken card combos will emerge over time, completely missed by the original designers because it is simply impossible to consider every possible implication of a new card. Moreover, the competitive meta of a card game shifts over time, meaning cards that are bad at release become incredible in the meta five years from now, and vice versa. Consider Shivan Dragon, a Magic card that was a top-tier pick of its time now worth twenty cents, and Pot of Greed, a YuGiOh card with the simplest possible effect that is now banned in tournament play.

Because of the ever-expanding possibility space of competitive card games, it can be really easy for players to find a dominant strategy and have said strategy consume the entire meta. Magic‘s history is colored with numerous decks which have dominated competitive play for up to months at a time (see: TarmogoyfNecropotenceJace the Mind Sculptor, Delver of Secrets, etc.) Hearthstone‘s player base was (is?) up in arms over the perpetual dominance of single strategies. YuGiOh is, well, balanced like a grand piano on a seesaw, but plenty of decks have see their time in the light for that game, including the pictured-above Six Samurai.

Dominant strategies are like death to card games, both in that they will bring unto them a decisive end, and in that they are inevitable. Pretending they aren’t going to happen is a fool’s errand, so having a strategy to deal with them is the only option. The most simple solution to this problem is a competitive ban on the cards that form the cornerstone of these strategies. This can backfire, however, since players might be pissed after spending a large amount of money to get powerful cards, only to have you deem them unplayable (especially if they paid that money to you).

Another option, much more easily performed by digital games than real ones, is a rebalancing of the cards in question. By tweaking the specifics, broken card combinations can be made more competitively friendly, but the art of game balancing is a difficult one, and decreasing a card’s potency too much is essentially equivalent to banning it: it’s just that the meta deems it unplayable, instead of you.

A third option available to you is to print a counter. Magic does this a lot: new sets frequently include cheap, easily-accessed cards which provide counters to dominant strategies from older sets. This strategy ties your game balance directly to your card release schedule, but is my generally preferred solution, especially in games like Magic that allow sideboarding. Players can still opt to play whatever deck they want, with players running powerful decks having to play around the gamble that their opponent hasn’t packed hard counters, and players running sub-powerful decks choosing whether to spend a sideboard slot on hard counters for a deck their opponent might not even be playing. This allows a competitive meta to remain relatively open.

The Barrier To Entry Needs To Be Low

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Look at this YuGiOh card. What the fuck, right? I have a passing knowledge of how YuGiOh is played, and this card still completely confuses me. Look at all of this goddamn textThere are two text boxes.

This is bad, that goes without saying. An important part of competitive card games is ensuring that, at any point, new players can enter the game and feel confident in knowing how to play the game. A lot of digital card games offer tutorials or story modes to ease players into the systems, but not all of your players are going to do that, or pay attention, and even still said tutorials rarely include the more complex strategies included in play.

A lot of card games solve the issue of rules complexity by compartmentalizing and homogenizing their rules. The first word, compartmentalizing, refers to keeping certain rules or mechanics contained within a subset of the cards, meaning that if you’re playing in a format that only allows for a subset of available cards to be played, you’re dealing only with a subset of all of the rules. A player getting into Magic now doesn’t need to know what the keyword “ninjitsu” does, because all of the cards with ninjitsu were in a set from over a decade ago.

The idea of keywords ties into the second idea, homogenization. Most card games use keywords as shorthand for more complex rules, meaning that the player merely has to learn keywords, instead of the effects of individual cards. When a Magic player learns what “trample” does, they now understand what every card ever printed with trample does, at least in part. In this way, the game rules are sort of encapsulated as a language, and just like a language, you don’t need to learn all of it before you’re ready to speak.

However, rules complexity isn’t the only thing scaring away new players. The above two ideas, cost to play and strategic diversity, can also serve to draw or repel new players. However, another big component is the player base itself. Card games, after all, are inherently competitive, so ensuring that a player likes the people they play with is crucial. My personal experiences with the Magic community are about as mixed as a mixed bag can get, with some wonderful interactions and some absolutely miserable ones. Hearthstone tries to decrease potential bad behavior by decreasing vectors of player interaction: direct chat between opponents is largely only possible via a limited range of emotes. Legend of the Five Rings has had some missteps in recent years due to misuse of elements of Asian cultures, which have turned off some new players sensitive to those topics. If you let your community get toxic, the only people you’ll have left are the toxic ones.

In Summary

Making a card game that lasts is hard, for all of these reasons and a million more that I would get into but am not because I’m coming on 2000 words and ain’t no one wants to read that much. But, despite that, I think making card games is still a worthwhile venture. They tap into the childhood nostalgia a lot of us have, memories of us as kids playing assorted, potentially bad, card games with school friends. They’re perfect breeding grounds for player innovation and creativity, with an open possibility space ripe for trying new strategies and building novel decks. Moreover, when done right, they can foster wonderful social spaces where people can come together, maybe even in person, make friends, and play games. That’s kickass, and I’d love to see people hit the ground with a running stride in making these things, because the world could always use more games.

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How Yakuza 0 Creates Combat Depth

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Yakuza 0 pulled me in almost immediately, and never let me go until the climax of the game forty hours later. I’m positively in love with this game for a wide variety of reasons. The world of Yakuza‘s Japan, centered around Kamurocho and Sotenbori, is both lovingly realized and a tribute to two of my favorite real-life Japanese neighborhoods, Kabukicho and Dotonbori. The humor is wonderful, and the characters are exquisitely written. However, I’m not a writer, I’m a game designer, so I want to talk about the way Yakuza 0 handles its combat.

Consider that a lot of games noted for having good third-person melee combat. Platinum’s long line of games come to mind, but in this case I’ll name-drop Bayonetta. One could also make the argument for the Soulslike genre, originating at Dark Souls, and the Batman: Arkham games canonzied an entire brand of melee combat all its own, so I’d me remiss not to bring it up.

When you look at all of these games, consider where the focus lies in that combat. In Bayonetta, the focus is generally all about mastery through an increase in player skill. Bayonetta‘s field of enemies aren’t terribly hard to figure out, and Bayonetta as a character is fairly durable, so the focus of the game is learning to master the moves available to Bayonetta. In Dark Souls, the goal is mastery through learning the environment and enemies. Everything about that game, most notably the way death and enemy respawns work, is focused on having a player face the same challenges multiple times, until they learn enough about the challenge to be able to defeat it. The Arkham games are generally about mastery through the collection of moves, as Batman collects a variety of tools over the course of the game, which the player weaves in to their combat along with unlocked moves.

Yakuza 0, despite having a great amount of focus on combat, doesn’t really focus on any of these three approaches. Enemies don’t really have learnable attack patterns, none of Kiryu nor Majima’s moves are terribly hard to learn, and while the moves learned throughout the game are useful, both protagonists begin the game extremely capable of wiping out large crews of mooks single-handedly. Instead, Yakuza 0 focuses on rewarding combat experimentation and discovery.

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You see, the combat of Yakuza hinges on the collection of Heat, a resource obtained by landing hits on enemies (as well as other things, depending on the moveset currently equipped), and lost over time and when hit by enemies. Heat can be spent on Heat Actions, punishing attacks that launch full cutscenes of Kiryu or Majima just hilariously beating the shit outta dudes, usually one-hit KOing weaker enemies and dealing massive damage to stronger ones.

There are a lot of Heat Actions, ranging from hurling foes off of bridges, to smashing their teeth in with the handle of a baseball bat, to stepping in between two attacking foes and causing them to accidentally knock each other out. What Heat Actions are available depends on the character and enemy’s state and orientation, what item the character is currently holding, both in their hands and in their inventory, as well as what environmental objects are within reach.

Yakuza‘s combat is, by and large, not hard. In order to challenge you, the game either throws out a boss battle featuring three or more health bars, or a pack of enemies in a quantity usually reserved for Dynasty Warriors games. Generally speaking, the entire game can be beaten fairly easily with just the base set of moves, in conjunction with just chugging a functionally endless supply of energy drinks to restore Health and Heat.

Since difficulty is not the crux of Yakuza‘s combat, the primary challenge of the game is instead to try and be as badass as humanly possible. I don’t think anything is more indicative of this as the way the game handles weapons. Kiryu and Majima can both use a style slot to equip a permanent weapon, up to and including a gun. Guns do tons of damage from range, are repaired relatively easily, and cannot be blocked. However, they’re the least visually interesting attack in the protagonists’ arsenals. As a result, I basically never used them.

Instead, over the course of the game, the player’s mastery of the combat system is based on learned and utilizing the assorted triggers for Heat Actions, in order to wipe out groups of enemies in as cool a manner as possible. While early fights in the game are somewhat clumsy, later game fights against similar enemies in similar locations are much more cinematic, as Kiryu and Majima obliterate their opponents with a variety of stylish moves. The game reinforces this: using these Heat Actions usually correlates in a much higher reward payout for the fight.

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The result of focusing on a combat system which rewards exploration and experimentation, rather than more traditional means of mastery, is that the skill ceiling for the game is lower than other third-person action games. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, it means that Yakuza 0 allows players to perform extremely gratifying combat maneuvers with relatively little mechanical expertise, which is nice for players that want to experience a combat system at its top levels without the time and effort required to master a game like, say, Bayonetta.

The other thing to keep in mind is that, unlike a game like Bayonetta or Dark Souls, the combat of Yakuza 0 has to share a lot of design focus with other things, namely large amounts of story and sidequesting, meaning the designers have to account for players who might not be playing Yakuza for the combat. However, on the opposite end, Yakuza 0′s grounded setting means that the potential enemy variety is pretty low, considering you’re only fighting … regular dudes. So, the designers knew that if they didn’t give the combat system of Yakuza 0 some amount of depth, it would have become a slog extremely quickly.

With Yakuza 0‘s combat, the designers managed to create a system that is fun and dynamic while still being easy to pick up, and one which conveys the strength and aptitude of the two protagonists, the greatest badasses of the long-standing series, while still allowing players to feel a sense of progression over the course of the game. I really appreciate a game like this that manages the tricky balance of making combat incredibly engaging and exciting, while keeping the mechanical barrier to entry low.

A Primer For U.S Parents About Video Games

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So, the President of the United States has decided to take some steps, or at least look like he’s about to take some steps, to address the violence in American media, most notably video games, in order to address the epidemic of gun violence in recent years. Ignoring the fact that this is stupid, it also is a good reminder that a lot of people, especially older parents, aren’t super familiar with video games, as well as they way they’re rated. So, I thought I’d take a second to talk about just that.

Hyperrealistic Violence Is Not The Norm

So, some video games are violent. Trying to argue against that is stupid, plenty of video games are violent. However, not all_of them are. In fact, when you look at the top 10 selling video games of 2017 (according to Forbes), three feature violence against realistic human enemies (Call of Duty: WWII, Grand Theft Auto V, and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands) . Three feature nonrealistic violence against fantasy enemies (The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Destiny 2, and Star Wars: Battlefront II) , and four feature either no violence or minor cartoon violence (NBA 2K18, Madden NFL 18, Super Mario Odyssey, and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe).

If you pivot over to the top 10 rated games of 2017, according to Metacritic, which aggregates the scores from assorted sources, the number of games with realistic violence drops to….zero. Literally none. Pretending that all video games are this horrible bloodbath is hilariously untrue. One of the breakout successes in gaming in 2016 was a game about farming, and every kid under the age of 13 right now is obsessed with a game about building stuff. It is perfectly possible to spend years playing some extremely good video games without ever killing a human being in any of them.

Video games are becoming increasingly varied in their subject matter as the years go on, although, admittedly, there are still a decent number of games out there about shooting guys. Call of Duty, the most prominent series about shooting guys, has been suffering declining sales for the last few years, however. So, the market isn’t quite as obsessed with shooting guys as your local congressman or a violent game montage on Facebook might suggest.

If you want some solid recommendations for squeaky-clean games, try:

  • Stardew Valley is a game about inheriting your grandfather’s farm out in the countryside, and growing crops and expanding your farm while getting to know the people in the small town you now live in.
  • Splatoon 2 (pictured above) is technically a shooter, but takes place in a hyperstylized worlds of squid…kids? The objective of the game is not to kill your opponents, but rather to paint the multiplayer map in your team’s color of ink, although “splatting” your opponents with ink is a critical part of gameplay.
  • Civilization VI is a large-scale strategy game where players control an entire civilization as it grows throughout the ages.

Not All Video Games Are For Kids

Despite stereotypes about video games, the simple fact is that the target demographic for most games is not kids. We can look at the demographics data provided by the Entertainment Software Administration, the self-governing body which monitors and polices the games industry, and see some interesting details.

  • The average age of someone who plays video games is 35. The average woman gamer is 37, the average man 33
  • Only 18% of men who play video games are under the age of 18. This number drops to 11% for women.

While there is certainly a market of games which are targeted for kids, pretending that most people playing video games are children is incorrect.

The ESRB

Anyone who’s bought a video game probably knows about the ESRB rating system. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board, a branch of the aforementioned ESA, is responsible for rating video games which are sold in some (but not all) online storefronts, as well as most retail stores. In case you are unfamiliar, here are all of their ratings:

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We’re going to actually ignore the AO rating for the moment. It’s reserved for extreme violence and lukewarm sexual content (we’ll get to that later), and few retail stores and many online stores will outright refuse to sell AO games, so there aren’t that many. When you look at the aforementioned ESA demographics report, you’ll see that 88% of all games rated by the ESRB are rated E, E10+, or T, with only 11% being rated M.

The ESRB’s rating system definitely works, at least to some degree. In the ESA report, 85% of parents said they understood the ESRB rating system. 90% of parents are present when their child purchases a video game. However, as a parent, there are some things worth noting about the ESRB that aren’t exactly common knowledge:

  • The ESRB was created in the 90s, during our last big video game moral panic. Much like the MPAA which rates and polices movies, the ESRB is not a government agency, but instead is composed of members of the industry itself. While one of its key goals is to inform the general public as to the content of video games, another of its key goals was to get the US government off of the games industry’s butt.
  • The ESRB, much like American media in general, tends to look at sexual content much more harshly than violence. This video describes it much better than I can, but long story short, violent games tend to get lower age ratings in the US than outside of it, while games with even softcore sexual content tend to get rated much higher.
  • The ESRB doesn’t rate all games. With the advent of the Internet and online marketplaces such as Steam, the largest online game marketplace which does not require ESRB ratings, it’s fairly easy to release unrated games. Also, since getting an AO rating is essentially a sales death sentence in most marketplaces, the games that would get it usually just don’t bother and aren’t sold in those markets.
  • The ESRB doesn’t actually play through the entirety of the games they rate. As they themselves state in their rating process, developers send in a filled-out questionnaire along with a video reel of relevant material, which is reviewed and rated by the board. This means that, hypothetically, a developer could just not disclose the more objectionable parts of their game to get a lighter rating. While there have been accusations of people doing so, I can’t find any reported instances from reliable sources.

The ESRB rating range is also fairly limited. Members of the industry most frequently complain about the very wide spectrum of content covered by the M rating, between what are often called “hard” Ms versus “soft” Ms.

For instance, Halo: The Master Chief Collection has an M rating. In it, heavily armored soldiers attack very colorful, non-realistic enemies with fantastical weaponry, with little gore and no dismemberment. There are occasional instances of blood when human NPCs die, but it’s not an emphasis and the player character is never instructed nor incentivized to attack other humans. That’s an M.

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Another game that got the same M rating is Dead By Daylight. In this multiplayer game, a team of four “survivor” characters, most of whom are teens to young adults, must elude a fifth player who plays a serial killer. The killer character is attempting to kill or otherwise incapacitate the four survivors, with means including but not limited to: knives, axes, cudgels, bonesaws, chainsaws, bear traps, and impaling them on giant meat hooks. All of this is depicted with large amounts of blood and gore. Oh, and the killers from HalloweenFriday the 13th, and Saw are all available as playable characters. Same rating as Halo.

Then there’s House Party. Besides being kind of a garbage game, House Party is a game in which the player is at an adult house party, at which they can perform a variety of explicit sexual acts, including the fact that there are literally buttons exclusively for unzipping one’s pants and pleasuring yourself. House Party, as a PC only release, doesn’t have an ESRB rating, and its Steam page can be accessed through an easily-bypassed age gate. (Also, and I really cannot stress this enough, this game sucks)

The point I’m trying to make is that while ESRB ratings can be useful, and are an alright way to roughly guesstimate the content of a game, there are problems with this system, and if you want your kids to only be playing games appropriate to them, looking at the big letter in the corner cannot be where you stop.

Staying Informed

If you’re a parent whose kid plays video games, just looking at the ESRB rating on the box isn’t going to cut it, since it might not even be there, and if it is it might be underrepresenting some element of the game. The only way to accurately understand what is in a game is to actually do some research yourself.

Ideally, you yourself as a parent would play the game yourself in order to get a sense for the content, but not all parents are into video games, and (presumably) you have less time to play video games than your child, so you’d be forgiven for not doing so.

Luckily for you, the Internet has nothing if not a glut of people who make their livings playing, recording, and talking about video games. If you want to get a decent idea of what is in a video game before buying it for your kid, there are a variety of ways to do it.

Some websites, such as Common Sense Media, do in-depth reviews of media, including games, in order to try and give parents a better idea of what’s exactly in the content their kids are consuming. One nice thing they do is break down exactly where objectionable content is in games. However, as is the case with any group that attempts to rate the family-friendliness of media, their ratings are subject to their moral compass. Their age rating of a game will increase with the presence of same-sex relationships, the presence of smoking or alcohol (regardless of who is smoking or drinking), or consumerist behavior, which may not line up with what actually concerns you. So, rely on the write-ups more than the final age rating.

It’s also worth stating that there are a lot of people who upload videos of themselves playing any given game to YouTube, and you’d be hard pressed to find a game for which a YouTube search of “<game title here> gameplay” won’t bring up > 100,000 results. If you wanna see what a game is like moment to moment, search for exactly that, and watch some of the videos of people playing it. A lot of these videos have commentary, some with extremely insightful commentary, but most with just people screaming. While most of these videos are meant to entertain, a subset of them put themselves forward as consumer resources, designed to give a detailed impression of the games they are playing. These are probably going to be your best bet for figuring out how appropriate a game is.

Here are some sources for information with regards to games that I’d give my personal seal of approval:

  • Giant Bomb is probably the most entertainment-focused thing I’ll recommend. While their videos themselves are not kid friendly, their “Quick Looks” are designed to be small encapsulations of what a given game’s experience is like, with an emphasis on providing an entertaining overview of a game to inform consumers. Giant Bomb is staffed by a number of veterans of games journalism, who can provide valuable insights into the game they’re playing. It can get “inside baseball” at times, but they’re still a good way to get a quick snapshot of what a game is.
  • TotalBiscuit, real name John Bain, is a YouTuber who specializes in PC games, meaning he covers a lot of those games that slip by the ESRB. Again, his videos themselves are not kid-friendly, but he does provide lengthy videos about games, with an emphasis on consumer advocacy and helping people make informed purchases. This heavily leans more towards trying to power consumers to be informed buyers, but it’s still a good place to find substantial gameplay clips of PC games.
  • If you search “<game title here> let’s play no commentary” on YouTube, you’ll often find people playing through video games without any commentary on their own. If you find the input of the players distracting or obnoxious, finding one of these will let you see the game exactly how it is with no outside distractions. Rabid Retrospect Games is a channel that does a lot of commentary-free playthroughs of modern games.

Wrapping Up

If you want your kid to avoid the (fictional) scars caused by being exposed by inappropriate video games, as a parent, your options basically boil down to two. The first is to do nothing, and just let them get whatever, and then get mad at some scapegoat when it turns out they’re playing some ultraviolent murderfest. The second option is to take an active role in your kid’s engagement with video games. Figure out what the games they’re playing actually are, and decide for yourself whether or not it’s appropriate for your family.

Actually, better yet, actually sit with your kid while they play games every once in a while. You don’t need to be cheering them on or rooting for them (actually, if anything that’d probably mortify them). Hell, do some work on your laptop or do a crossword or something. Watching your kid play video games will, however, let you see how your child reacts to a game, which is infinitely more valuable to you as a parent than knowing what’s in a game.

After all, every kid is different. Plenty of kids can start to watch violent and scary movies and playing violent games from a young age without any significant effect. I (hopefully) was one of them. Other kids might take certain “mature” content in a way that is worth dealing with as a parent. The only way you’re going to know is if you actually observe them for yourselves. If you see a reaction or behavior from them while they’re playing a game, something maybe concerning or even just kinda weird, then you as a parent can hop in and talk about it with them. And, if your kid is one of the ones who can see a dude get exploded into a hundred pieces without significant behavioral or emotional damage, as many are, then you’re “only” spending some quality time with your kids.

Oh, one last thing. If your kids are one of the ones that scream obscenities in online games, get them to stop that. We have enough of those. We don’t need your kids doing it too.

 

 

Into The Breach And Dynamic Puzzles

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Few genres of game are so closely linked with very deliberate design like puzzle games. Associated with intricately connected mechanics and components, arranged in such a way as to facilitate a single, solution.

It’s worth noting that the concept of a “puzzle” in games really can be stretched across a spectrum. On one end are open-ended challenges, which are problems for which the possibility space of the answer is extremely open. A camp of Bokoblins in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an open-ended challenge where the player can use any valid approach to solve it. All the way on the other end are pure puzzles, where there is a single state of the puzzle which qualifies as success. I call these pure puzzles because this category comprises the non-game things we traditionally consider “puzzles”: there’s only one correct configuration for a jigsaw puzzle, and you can’t just put any words you want into the New York Times crossword.

Turn-based strategy games, meanwhile, exist somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Generally speaking, the number of atomic moves available to the player in such a game are limited (ex. instead of movement being a single fluid motion, it’s usually divided into large units like spaces, which limits the number of distinct options available). This means that there are only so many valid combinations of moves that will yield success.

However, many turn-based strategy games incorporate some amount of random chance, most famously in XCOM‘s “to hit” probabilities. This inclusion creates distinction between turn-based strategy games and pure puzzles, since random chance means that the exact same set of moves can yield both success or failure, depending on the way the dice land, whereas the solution to a pure puzzle is always its solution. If you put the correct words into a New York Times crossword, there’s not some chance that you’ll be wrong still.

I mention all of this because Into The Breach, the latest game by Subset Games, is commonly referred to as a turn-based strategy game, but I’d argue there’s something to be learned by thinking of Into The Breach as crossing the boundary into becoming a pure puzzle game.

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If you’re unfamiliar, Into The Breach is a grid-based, turn-based game in which the player controls a small squad of giant mechs attempting to protect the civilian populace from a race of giant insects called the Vek. Unlike many similar games, Into The Breach does not have “to hit” chances, and enemies always broadcast the exact move they are going to perform next turn. Into The Breach is not a game of perfect information (buildings have a certain percent chance to resist destruction upon being hit, and while you can see where enemies will spawn next turn, you can’t see what they are). However, it’s much more open about information than other games which are mechanically similar.

In fact, the designers themselves have noted that this seems to push their game into the territory of being a puzzle game. “It’s very fair to say that Into the Breach is a puzzle game wrapped up in a strategy game,” said game co-creator Matthew Davis in an interview with PC Gamer. “But we just kind of stumbled into that design as we went into it.” Intentional or not, Into The Breach‘s deterministic gameplay meant that the AI of this game needed to be built with incredible care.

The AI in non-pure puzzle games, after all, is equally as much as beneficiary of random chance as the player. The need to ensure an game’s AI is beatable is, at least somewhat, lessened by the presence of random elements, as what could otherwise be an unbeatable AI will occasionally be pulled down by random chance, as will a defeated player occasionally be lifted up by random chance. In this way, an AI can exist in somewhat of a range around “perfect difficulty”, whatever that means for the game at hand, because random chance can pull an imperfect AI towards that sweet spot.

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Into The Breach‘s AI gets no such help. Since there is little to no random chance in the game, that means that every turn, the game’s AI must place every active enemy in such a place, and get them to perform such an attack, that the player, with their current position, abilities, and mech statuses, can complete the turn with minimal permanent damage.

While it is, I guess, possible that the game’s AI moves the Vek across the board without taking all of these factors into account, having played a lot of rounds of Into The Breach, I can say that the game so consistently strikes a balance of difficulty that if it doesn’t take all of these things into account, it’s a damn impressive fake-out.

Instead, it seems more likely that the game’s AI algorithm is looking at the player’ mech abilities, placement, the location of key objectives, Vek health abilities, the map itself, and probably yet more things. It is taking all of these things, performing some math stuff on them, and generating a puzzle, one for which there is at least one solution, which isn’t too easy to derive (or else it won’t be a satisfying challenge), nor too difficult to get (or people will get frustrated). Striking the balance, without having random chance in the wings to give your difficulty balance a nudge in the right direction, with such a small set of options available to the player to solve the problem, is hard.

So, I’d be interested in really seeing the AI algorithm driving Into the Breach, because what it does is really something special. Subset Games have essentially generated an engine which generates pure puzzles on a regular basis, an algorithm which spits out fairly complex and interesting puzzles with a set of pieces, some of which are outside of the algorithm’s control (the AI gets to pick what Vek spawn, but not what the player brings in to the fight). I hope this game inspires other designers to adopt this sort of “dynamic puzzle” mindset, because clearly, the idea of trying to design every moment of gameplay as a puzzle to be solved can occasionally produce some amazing games.

Now, excuse me, I’m going to go back to trying to finish my 2-island run with the Blitzkrieg.