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Variants: The Challenge of Changeable Design

June 12, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next
 

If achievements should be abandoned because they're counter to good design practices, what should take their place? Variants, Keith Burgun argues, and in this article he explains what they are and are not.

At the end of my previous article, An Alternative to Achievements, I suggested that a good replacement for achievements, should we begin to turn away from them, would be variants. What I didn't do was go into great detail about variants, and exactly how we might -- or should -- go about employing them.

What Is a Variant?

First, I should establish clearly what I consider a "variant." People have been making variations of games for as long as there have been games to make variations of, and the line between "what is a variant" and "what is actually a completely new game" can be very blurry. If I turn off the items in Super Smash Bros., is that " Super Smash Bros.: No Items Variant"? How about if I turn off the music in Street Fighter?

While I'm aware that colloquially, neither of those things would likely be considered a variant, for the purposes of this article, I am considering anything that changes the game rules a "variant". So that means that Smash Brothers: No Items is a Smash Brothers variant, but Street Fighter With No Music wouldn't be. I do, in general, believe that by changing a single rule, you are in fact creating a new game. After all, as anyone who has ever tried to balance a game knows, changing just one rule will usually have ripple-effects throughout a game system, often dramatically changing its character.

So a variant is any set of game rules as played, whether those rules manifested in a mod, in a changed setting, in house rules or otherwise. So, for now, imagine if you will that each version of a game where the rules have been changed even a little bit -- each variant -- is its own shiny, brand-new game.

Here are two major points or questions to consider as we move on:

  • Consider visibility of your variants versus your "real game", and what that phrase even means.
  • During a game, it is paramount that the objectives and other rules are clear to the players. We should never allow the existence of variants to confuse them.

Obviously, it's not fair if the player can change what his objectives are on-the-fly during play. This needs to be agreed upon before play begins in order to be fair. 

One last thing to mention before I proceed is that this article is written for designers, not players. So, even though house rules certainly qualify as a method of creating variants, there won't be much talk of them.

Part 1: Official Variants

Often times, the developer of a given game will come up with a couple of different ways that their system can be used. We can refer to these as "official" variants. In the very early days of digital games, it was almost assumed that a game would be packaged with a number of different ways to play. The super-successful Atari 2600 had a physical switch, right on the face of the console, dedicated entirely to changing "game modes", as shown below.

This would sometimes change minor features, but sometimes switch you to a completely different game altogether, as in the case of the deathmatch shooter game Combat, wherein switching the switch would take you from "tanks that shoot bouncy bullets at each other in a maze" to "dogfighting with a cluster of ships versus a single large ship."

Earlier NES games also often had a similarly vague "mode-selection" mechanism on the title screen, details of which were included only in the game's manual.

Modern games still often come with various modes of play that are accessible from the title screen, whether they be some kind of puzzle-mode, a multiplayer mode, etc. My own 100 Rogues has a number of such modes, partially because we thought they were good ideas, but also maybe a bit because we felt we "should" have a lot of modes. For a long time, the thinking has been, "the more options and ways to play, the better!" While it's easy to understand why this would be thought to be true, there are a couple of real dangers to this sort of "spray and pray" approach.

The first problem is the question of "which is the real game?" That might sound like a silly question with an answer that can only be arbitrary and meaningless, but it's not. What I mean by "real game" is, which is the game that the most intense effort in game design has been put towards?

If the answer is "all of them equally", then that itself is a problem. A great game, as we'll all happily agree, I'm sure, is a rare thing, whereas mediocre or even bad games are extremely common and easy to design. The process of designing a game is a careful one that takes months or years, after which you're still not guaranteed to have a great game idea.


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Comments


Robert Marney
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Achievements or challenges don't have to be specific, intentional activities. Sometimes they are also a way to salve the pain of a crushing defeat, or to explore something new you found on a whim, when you originally intended to play the regular game. Getting an achievement for something you wanted to do in the first place, not expecting a reward, is a positive reinforcement that you are on the same page as the developers when it comes to having fun with the game.

Joachim Tresoor
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You seem to have a limited view of what makes a strong design. The appeal of collectible card games (and similarly RPG costumisation) is devising and tweaking new decks and combos. Taking costumisation out of the game because of costs is like taking cars out of formula 1 racing because they're expensive and dangerous.

Keith Burgun
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The opposite of a limited view would be... an unlimited view? Everyone's idea of what is a strong design is limited. It's more important that we choose our limits wisely than that we have limits at all.

And yes, CCG is well outside of my limit for what makes a strong design. That might be another article, though.

Robert Boyd
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Really disagree with you on a lot of things here. I think the big problem is that you're coming at this from an author-directed point of view whereas a good video game should be a collaboration between the designer & the player. The player should have the ability to play the game that they want to play and gameplay variants, different difficulty levels, and the ability to customize your character abilities all help that goal.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Keith Burgun
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I wrote a whole article about rejecting achievements on Gamasutra and my conclusion was pretty well-received, so maybe it will clear it up? http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/185436/an_alternative_to_ac
hievements.php

Sean Hayden
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Interesting read, but I strongly disagree with your discouragement of extra difficulty modes. Your "multiple books" analogy is not apt because when one rewrites a book, that implies they are changing every single word. Whereas adding a difficulty mode can be as easy as changing a variable.

And if it is that simple, that's okay! Even if "Easy Mode" results in stale gameplay, it is a worthwhile alternative for the player who does not play for mechanics in the first place. It's also a sort of emergency switch for when the design breaks down -- perhaps the player is stuck with limited resources against an imbalanced encounter through no fault of their own? Switch to easy mode. Or, if they've discovered an overpowered dominant strategy, perhaps hard mode could save them from that.

I'm not saying to treat difficulty modes like simple variable switches -- that is lazy design. But lazy design is far, far better than being so overconfident in your work that you won't even give players any option.

If you prefer, think of difficulty modes as variants themselves. In fact they're probably the most important and useful type of variant for expanding your player base. And if you want to know which is the "real" game, that's easy to make clear; use the term "Normal Mode" even if some designers have failed to use it properly.

My motto is, "options are free fun." Make it clear what the game is balanced and intended for, then give the players the power to have fun how they prefer.

TC Weidner
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I agree 100% Sean. Options are a very good thing. Sure go ahead and label one set of options "normal" as in what the designers think should be the settings for the majority, but as mentioned, there is no harm giving other players options, options that may in their case make the game more enjoyable for them.

The author seems to think all players are the same, that simply couldnt be farther from the truth. Maybe a guy with some arthritis in his hands wants to enjoy the game, but due to his condition he needs it a lil "easier" . What is the harm in allowing him to enjoy the game and a pace that allows him too?

and this is just one example of a million out there.

Keith Burgun
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> Whereas adding a difficulty mode can be as easy as changing a variable.

This is exactly the myth I'm trying to combat here. If you have a well designed, tight system, then you NEVER can just "change a variable" and have everything work. In fact, if you CAN change one variable, and have it still work, that's an indication right there of a design problem! Probably, that variable can be removed completely.

Options are not free fun. Nothing is free. I believe that a game designer working for years to hone a system can do a better job at creating a fun system than a non-expert can on a whim; call me crazy.

Sean Hayden
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It's true that in a proper system, changing a single variable is never enough to create a fun and perfect variant. What I'm getting at, though, is that having that ability as a player is still preferable.

For example, envision an RPG with sprawling sidequests alongside the main questline. Player A only wants to experience the main story and nothing else, so they end up drastically underleveled for it. Player B dives into every possible nook and cranny and winds up totally overpowered for the main quest.

A mere XP gain slider, ranging from 50% to 150%, would solve both of these problems.

---

Also, you're correct, options are only "free" fun for the player. Even a minor change takes time from the developer. I would argue that it is still more than worth it.

While a game designer might fare better on average in making game design decisions, you'd be surprised... I have played dozens and dozens of games which have vast gamebreaking problems that could be solved by editing a single variable.

Examples:
- Kingdom of Amalur -- health potions fully heal the character with no cooldown, penalty, and minimal monetary cost. Trivializes all combat. Fix: reduce HP gain from potions.

- Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together -- huge stat gains from leveling cause lower level characters to be almost worthless, meaning the best strategy is just grinding in Training mode. Fix: halve all stat gains.

- Super Smash Bros. Brawl -- features tripping. Fix: disable tripping.

And these are just a few instances where the game is ruined, all made by professional teams of skilled game developers.

Single variable fixes can also be great for well designed games. A Link to the Past may have perfectly tuned mechanics, but imagine if we included an option to halve all heart damage. How many more young, unskilled players could play their way through and still learn, struggle, and enjoy it?

And an example where this was done: Contra! The infamous Konami code is the simplest difficulty mod ever -- just increase the number of lives to 30. But I'd wager half of us would never see most of Contra without it.

Trevor Cuthbertson
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I find that when creating a good variation, you need to know the base game or your creation not only backwards and forwards, but almost living, sleeping, and breathing the game like any designer worth his salt would. I learned this from watching an 80-year old neighbor playing Solitaire with his deck of cards.

He doesn’t have a computer, but plays the game as a subconscious substitute to Windows Solitaire. He’s burned out so many Bicycle decks from playing endlessly over the years until there’s hardly any face readable on the cards. Sometimes when he feels like it, he’ll add one joker into his deck, shuffle the cards, remove one card from the deck (example: let’s say Queen of Clubs he removes) and looks at the card before hiding the card from view. Then when he plays to stack and try to build foundations, if the joker appears, he’ll remember the card removed from the deck that the joker represents (in the example it’s the Queen of Clubs). Sometimes he will keep playing with the same card removed (Queen of Clubs), or change the card at the start of every new game (joker now replaces the 9 of Diamonds). I asked him about it and he says sometimes he feels like playing a game of “Replacement” that he thought up one day.

What did I learn from this? It’s almost like looking at the variation that originated from playtesting Windows Solitaire to death. He may have had a card missing from his deck as well (lol). The variation is slightly mediocre at best, but it’s a variation that fits, makes sense, done intuitively, makes the game we all know a little interesting, and not something done “spray and pray.” It also does away with “perpetually adding content” because decks of cards only come with one playable extra card: the joker. It's one way of looking at what makes a good variation in any game.

Benoit Chabert
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While I agree with some points you mentionned on your article. I beleive that games are all about experience in the end.

Classic example: do you want +1 attack, or +1 defense? Obviously, you need both; there's no way to use strategy to decide which one to get, so in this case you could simply choose based on your personal whim. The problem is that the system is asking you questions whose answers are actually meaningless.

They are indeed meaningless to the game design, yet they are meaningful to the gameplay. Maybe if I choose a +1 Attack, I'll have a tendency to use more my potions / move to try and dodge enemy attacks and get to achieve my objective. And If I choose +1 Defense maybe I'll try to get more one and one and spend my cash on offensive scrolls instead of potions. It does not change the game balance but it does change the gameplay for the player. And if it changes the gameplay should it be a valid game design decision ?

Paul Boyle
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I agree with most of the posters here. Your 'ideal' of a perfect game design, is one which is perfectly balanced, obviously. Therefore, you have a distaste for asymmetry, for customization, for anything that gets in the way of that ideal.

Unfortunately, perfectly symmetric, balanced games are on a small subset of the sort of games people like to play. And you're falling into the classic trap of only thinking about games you yourself enjoy.

Which is odd, since 100 Rogues obviously offers many different character classes. Did you end up hating your own design? Did you think those other classes are just meaningless choices you foisted onto the player?

Our challenge as designers is to undertake the tasks that make a game the most fun for our audience. If that audience really values superb, precise balance, so be it, but for most audiences, getting to play 'your way' is much higher on their list of criteria, as you can see by the feedback you're getting on this article.

Titi Naburu
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Keith, you don't seem to be very convinced that variants are a good thing. You dislike that most servers don't have the default settings; you don't like having too many options, and you don't even like players to have much control of variants. Your motto seems to be "the designer is always right", or more precisely "players don't know what they want to play".

If a game has lots of variables, players may get confused and not find good combinations, I agree. But the answer isn't to cut variants. The Worms series has lots of variables, but players can select a few default combinations, which are supposed to be well balanced. Still, the settings menu let players choose whatever they wish. I did the same in my past games ReVerSerers and PingVol.

About balancing 40 Street Fighter characters, you can always rubber band the system, so programmers don't have to do the job of tuning player's stats.

Keith Burgun
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Variants are a good thing, this is a very pro-variants article so I'm a bit perplexed that you came to that conclusion. The point is that I want each ruleset to be treated as a variant. So, don't just let the player tweak stuff willy-nilly, and don't have like 8 difficulty modes. If you have 8 difficulty modes, then you just sold me an "8 Games in 1 Fun Pack!" If one of those is the good, balanced one, please let me know which one it is.

Titi Naburu
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If ther's 8 difficuly modes, it's because each player needs a different level, not because a players is supposed to play each. That happens in racing games, but developers often hide that under rubber banding. Well, no less than Codemasters games have five levels, and some players will have trouble in either points of the spectrum.

Joe Program
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I disagree that having difficulties change the content automatically makes a weaker design. In Gunstar Heroes, the same bosses appear at all difficulties. In the harder difficulties, they use additional and more complex attack patterns. When I'm playing by myself, I prefer the additional attack patterns, while when playing with a friend I keep things easier. Both modes are well-thought out design, and appropriate in different contexts.


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