compass atop a bowl of roasted coffee beans set inside gold laurels Tomasius Space

Ex dubium scientia. From doubt [comes] knowledge.

Star Citizen

Port-lit, metallic, Star Citizen Logo comprising a single cruciform star encapsulated by a wreath and set between the words STAR and CITIZEN

Star Systems
In-system view of a O-Type Main Sequence Star

Space Trials
Shuttle Class space ship

Cutter Class space ship

ASW Frigate Class space ship

Endurance Cutter Class space ship

Heavy Ordinance Endurance Cutter Class space ship

Life in Overlap

Technical Requirements
Starboard-lit, metallic, Star Citizen Logo comprising a single cruciform star encapsulated by a wreath and set betewen the words STAR and CITIZEN

Due Diligence

What is an RPG?
It all began with pen and paper

Gaming Concepts
USB Iconography

Gaming Psychology
Neural network node showing connective reinforcement

Gaming and Game Development Concepts


We hear a lot of talk about what developers do to short-change gamers for a few extra cents in producing a commercial game. Yet we see precious little discussion of what makes a good game; of how games facilitate the meeting of human emotional needs and how this makes the game compelling, enjoyable and, most importantly, a positive experience for the player. In this article, we briefly introduce the role of games in the lives of human beings in order to better understand what makes a game interesting and pleasureable for different people and how to bring a diverse array of contexts, items, and activities together inclusively - so that the game has something to offer to everyone.

Introducing Homo Sapiens: What human needs are met by playing games?

I tend to think that games, particularly video games, play the important role of reinforcing the fact that we can all learn, adapt and work to overcome adversity. The need for this type of empowerment long predates video games and, for example, Liberata Luciani (2013, "Borrowed, Not Fabricated: The Valley of ‘Gesufà’ in the Sicilian Prayer ‘U Vebbu’", Folklore, Vol. 124, pp. 270-288. DOI: 10.1080/0015587X.2013.812416) demonstrates quite clearly that some folklore revolves around meeting a human need to feel empowered in the face of adversity. Speaking strictly for myself, one of the things I've always considered vital to any story, novel, film or game is the empowering reinforcement of the fact human beings overcome adversity, sometimes against overwhelming odds - which is why I tend to frown on the American/English interpretation of the "anti-climactic" piece. Take away the sense of empowerment, gained vicariously through the protagonist, and the art is no longer compelling; it moves us but not in a way we would ever wish to be moved. Moreover, when it comes to video games it is my experience that when we play the game, our gameplay revolves around how we, personally, would go about prevailing in the face of adversity. While this can mean different things to different people, the range of genres, purposive context and activities, currently in extant, reflect the darkest fears of the human psyche, the perceived ideal roles of different groups of people within a community and the things we, as individuals, either aspire to doing or have confidence in doing.

Introducing genre, context, item and activity as key elements of game merchantability

In fiction, genre speaks to things like realism, surrealism, empiricism, and fantasy although, as the quality of fiction improves, these things tend to be combined according to the evolving context and ever-changing setting of a story. The modern role-playing game, for example, is centred on the fantasy genre in three broad themes or variations; historical (often Medieval), alternative contemporary (often Post Apocalyptia) and futurist (oten Interstellar space-faring civilisation). These themes often reflect either a romanticism of simpler days (Medievalism), a caraciture of the present day (Post-Apocalyptia) or an aspiration to build a better, brighter future where new frontiers offer freedom from old regimes. Interestingly, while each of these three themes of simplified life, caricature and aspiration, are presented front and centre in Medievalism, Post-Apocalyptia and Interstellarism, respectively, they all flow throughout each of the fantasy subgenres because the diversification this creates doesn't dilute the sub-genre: It enriches the sub-genre. In each case, nonetheless, the different fantasy subgenres impose extreme elements we would not expect to see in the real world. However, this is not to say that there is no small part of us which fears these things intensely enough to weave them into our nightmares from time to time. And so, from the Medievalist sub-genre, we see things like fire-breathing dragons, angels, devils, witches and magic; all elements of universal primal fears carried, at some time, by all human beings. From Post-Apocalyptia, we see monstrous mutants (often biologically improbable or impossible), invisible but deadly hard radiation (often decades after it would have cleared), and terrifying weapons of war (like the tactical nuke). From Interstellarism, we see giant star-ships with tremendously powerful weapons, biologically improbable alien species, faster than light travel and other inexplicable technologies, etc. Interestingly, these assaults on our sense of reality do not interfere with immersion while any other deviation from reality (lack of physics, absence of ballistics, absence of laws of motion, technology going forward and backward at the same time, in the same culture, etc.) raises objections which are detrimental to the player's immersion in the game's environment. The reason that realisim is so crucial to fantasy is because it give relevance to the genre. I.e. if we can defeat the dragon, we can face the boss on Monday. This is important because it demonstrates how and why, even in the fantasy genre, things must make sense and, aside from a few accommodations made to the sub-genre, all other things must conform to reality as closely as possible.

The point of a role playing game is the role that we choose to play. As role playing games have evolved over the years, this has proven to be a much more complex question than initially thought. Character roles are not limited to thieves, fighters, and magic users; as was once the case for Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, one could postulate that preference for a given role is related to temperament. However, as a cautionary aside, role-players often favour roles which force them out of their comfort zone in order to explore and, perhaps, understand something of how other people might see the world arond them. In this sense, statistics collected on roles played have limited value and personal information concerning who tends to play what role has no value whatsoever because only the individual can tell you why they choose to play a given role. After all, this could be any one of several motives. The most important thing about role-play is that it sets the context of what we do in a game. Both a space pirate and a fighter escort engage in dog-fighting, such as it is in space. However, while the activity remains the same, the context of the activity is a defining element for the respective players. In this sense, the roles played in a game define the context of ingame activities which, in turn, allows people to do the same thing with different purposes.

When we buy into a computer game, the primary selling point revolves around what we expect to be spending the most time doing, within the game. We buy a first-person shooter because we expect to be running around in first-person view, shooting things and, generally, making our way from one pitched battle to another. When we buy into a role-playing game, we expect to be exploring a persistent world with a variety of interactions including various types of combat, negotiation, making friends and taking on companion NPCs, mystery-solving, puzzles, choosing a base of operations and setting it up, finding treasure, selling treasure, crafting upgrades etc. However, at the end of the day, role-playing games revolve around the need to explore and discover new things. This, very much, spills over into the Interstellar space-faring game as, for example, the most popular single activity users expect to be able to spend the most time doing in Star Citizen. What the player expects to be able to do in a game, at an average level of gameplay, defines what makes the game merchantable because it specifies what the customer is paying for whenever the game is purchased. This is important because if you sell a game about space travel and, in reality, the average player spends 65% of her/his time grinding to scrape together enough fuel to fly the ship, that's called bait and switch. It's illegal because it's a form of fraud (i.e. gaining fincancial advantage by deception). So understanding and making sure the game delivers on the activity expectations of your customers is what underpins your right to license the game, commercially.

The Key Features of a Purposively Well-Formed Game

Good game design has nothing to do with "elegance" or simplicity. The most successful and inclusive games are generally inelegant and have a variable degree of complexity which begins at "very complex" and becomes progressively more complex with the addition of popular user modifications. This speaks for the necessary playability of the game. In another sense, we also see user modifications revolving around the in-game aesthetics and realism - both of which have proven sufficiently important to players for them to publish and download user modifications which enhance the game in these areas. This boils down to the game's ability to stimulate the user - after all, why voluntarily do something boring or unpleasant? Thus, the key to designing an enjoyable and entertaining game, in the broad strokes, is to ensure that it is both stimulating and playable. However, there is a lot more to these terms than meets the eye.

Stimulation comprises a combination of pleasing aesthetics and realism. The world can't be all pretty flowers, butterflies and sunsets. Also, there is city filth, rats as well as the darkness of night and underground places. After all, what kind of world has no "dark" side? Thus, in combining aesthetics and realism, we must allow for broad diversity of environments, organisms and items.

Playbility comrises a combination of accessibility with the challenge of overcoming adversity. This is not a license to force the player into situations which are adverse to their preferred activity or style of play. This is about the obstacles they face, when playing as they choose to play and doing what they choose to do. The idea is that, in a game about flying, the play finds no significant obstacle to flying but, instead, encounters obstacles and adversity while flying. In order to make room for different levels of play, it is necessary to vary the level of difficulty either according to player level or by region.

In this sense, a good game has:

Being able to do the things for which you bought the game is the basis of the game's merchantability and, in any game, people have a right to do what the sales documentation leads them to expect to do, without having to compete with others to win this right; for which they have already and explicitly paid. After all, if the activity, for which people buy the game, is accessible only to the top 10% of players, then 90% of players are not getting what they paid for and have the right to a refund on the grounds that the game is not as documented. Being legally liable to refund 90% of the playerbase is, perhaps, not such a good business model. So, when balancing a game, the objective is not to satisfy the egos of the top 1% of players but to ensure, as closely as possible, universal accessibility to the best features of the game (which have nothing to do with the "you won" cut-scenes which exist outside gameplay as consequential art rather than as features of the game itself).

Diversity as the Key to Game Balance

In the larger picture, a game balances stimulation and playability. On the one hand, a game must deliver content which is both relevant and aesthetically rewarding while, on the other hand, must do so via gameplay which is both challenging and, yet, fully accessible to all of the playerbase. This was initially achieved through the use of character levelling which not only marked the player's familiarisation with the game but, also, opened up game-play to more advanced items and opponents. This temporal variation of gameplay leads to worlds where a player's opponents are constantly levelling up with the player and, sometimes, where the long game is to level up faster than the enemy. This can be interesting gamemplay but is prone to oxymoronic gaffs where normally low-level creatures are overpowered, resulting in such silliness as a mouse that can kill a dog or a bandit who's a match for a legionnaire. There is a much more sensible way of achieving balance, however, it is only possible by emulating some of what we see in the real world. After all, the gazelle does not kill the lion quite so often as the lion might kill the gazelle and, thus, the gazelle does not lay down with the lion. In fact, the gazelle tries to stay as far away from the lion as possible.

Regional variation provides us with a natural spectrum of aesthetics and challenge. Human beings naturally draw to themselves what they find comfortable and, in essence, aesthetically pleasing. Thus, as one wanders further from home, things become less familiar and, to this extent, the aesthetic changes significantly. Likewise, most organisms make their home where it is safest and so the familiar aesthetic becomes a common marker for proximity to home and relative safety. Thus, as one wanders further from home, the challenges are perceived, from a purposive perspective, to increase in difficulty. While this does not always wind up being the case, it is the idea with respect to ideal location of a home base. And so, we see the emergence of parallel spectrums which, in turn, allow for significant variation while maintaining relevance through the realism in the spectrum of variation itself. This kind of system allows different classes of non-player characters and animals to inhabit their own specific zone with their own, commensurate levels of items and treasure. Where there is a regional balance variation, the player can find the balance of best fit without having to adjust a difficulty slider or grind their way up through character levels. When regional balancing variation is combined with realistic game mechanics (as opposed to bullet-sponge gameplay) more skilled players can thrive in the most difficult areas without having more skilled (i.e. "high level") characters.

When it comes to Massive Multiplayer Online (MMO) games, regional balance variation becomes even more important because different players play at different levels of difficulty. While one player may relax by tanking a low level area with a high level character, some of us enjoy the challenge of infiltrating a high level area with a low level character. By separating Player versus Player (PvP) areas from Player versus Environment (PvE) areas, it is possible for players of all levels to develop their characters and learn the game without interfering with one-another. However, the temporal balance variation, being achieved by adjusting balance with the level or seniority of the character leads to chronic PvP imbalance where relatively new players are no match for their senior counterparts irrespective of how much they know about the strategy and tactics of the game. In many ways, this is a variation of pay-to-win where time and effort are substituted for money (i.e. grind to win). I think it is fair to say that it is not much fun for less senior players in head to head combat. The alternative to this is to use more detailed and realistic game mechanics to allow player skill, tactics and strategy to decide all engagements, instead of character level or total skill points. Although not entirely perfect, this kind of system, applied across a regionally varied PvE balance in a PvP zone, will tend to match players more equally than advantages accrued due solely to money invested or hours played in the game in question.

The tricky part, when balancing a game with multicrew and, particularly, variable crew ships, is not falling into the trap of trying to balance ship to ship or, worse still, constructing a ship "hierarchy" with uber ships at the top and kluge ships at the bottom. All this will ever achieve is forcing everyone to fly the same "uber" ship - which is sometiems followed by the mistake of trying to force more diversity on people by restricting availablility of uber ships which, in turn, devolves to a pay to win situation via the grey market.

Instead, the trick to balancing ships is to assume the frontier's independence mentality and set all ships up so that they are balanced on the basis of crew to crew. Thus, any given ship or combination of ships with, for the sake of example, 7 crew actually manning stations should, given equal skills on both sides, win 50% of all engagements with any other ship or combination of ships with 7 crew actually manning stations. After all, why would anyone who has bought and paid for a license to play a game, ostensibly about flying starships, want to crew a station on a ship unless doing so offered a significant advantage over and above flying one's own ship? In many respects, this forms the basis for the argument that crew stations need to be a little more than equal the pilot stations of other ships. This ensures that ships are crewed before escorts are taken on. It is also worth bearing in mind that in a game where players expect to be spending most of their time piloting starships, it would be unethical to impose economic restrictions forcing players to crew stations in preference to piloting their own fighters because this would disappoint the expectation which formed the basis of the player's decision to purchase the game in the first place. A slight combat advantage which is slim enough to ensure that the universe doesn't simply fill up with big starships to the exclusion of smaller ships and fighters, will also encourage crewing without forcing players to abandon their reason for purchasing the game.

Using Diversity to Solve Game Balance in N-Dimensions

The biggest advantage of using regional balance variation to harmonise aesthetics, relevance, accessibility and challenge across a broad spectrum of difficulty levels, is that this also opens up the field to compound games which involve more than one form of gameplay. The idea, extending beyond a simple zoning of difficulty with remoteness from "home", gives a number of foreign territories their own character and specialty which, in each case, presents a zoning towards the highest level of difficulty, for a particular activity, as one approaches the centre of the corresponding territory. If Star Citizen were to go down this path, it would not be inconceivable that:

Based on this, it would appear that Star Citizen is following this very natural approach to regional balance variation and utilizes a detailed enough system of combat and game mechanics to allow skill, tactics and strategy to be the deciding factor in PvP engagements without any interference from senior-superiority and pay to win mechanics.

Introducing economic game-play as a potentially conflicting rationale, for purchasing a game which others have bought for combat or exploration, may raise a conflict of interest between customers expecing combat-oriented game-play and customers expecting economic gameplay, if implemented incorrectly. However, this need not be the case. While it is necessary for relevance and realism, that ships (for example) must be maintained and fueled, there is no reason why the mission system should not provide enough to cover the in-game costs for mercenaries or simply take care of everything for army and navy regulars. Those wishing to engage in more economically demanding game-play can be accomodated by "river of trade mechanics" following supply (plenty) to demand (sparcity) with the commensurate difference of price. As the economic game becomes more difficult (e.g. delving deeper into economically more competitive territory) the entropy of trade increases and the margin between buying price and selling price falls. This ensures the presence of very demanding economic gameplay without interfering with the ability of exploration or combat-oriented players to go about their chosen activities. Of course, in the Star Citizen example, above, explorers delving too deeply into Banu territory risk falling into economic pitfall much as delving too deeply into Vanduul territory may be hazardous to the health of captain and crew. In the same way, traders and commercial interests delving too deeply into Xi'An territory may find themselves tripping over customs and regulations that only an explorer would be aware of. In this sense, players could elect to increase the left-field difficulty of their usual activities by carrying them into foreign regions specialising in other areas.

Game Economics and the Myth of In-Game Inflation

It is generally held that game currency chronically devalues, due to the inflation of in-game items, and proponents of this idea generally cite World of Warcraft and The Elder Scrolls Online as examples. Speaking from my experience of The Elder Scrolls Online, the problem, as I see it, is that traders have unrealistic expectations of the gullibility of the playerbase and, consequently, find themselves facing prices that increase suddenly when players realise how little the traders are paying compared to the gold-value of the time, necessary in-game, to find and collect the item in question. This is compounded by the senior-superiority system which restricts the use of high level items to high level players. As high level items are rarer, particularly for players at lower levels, it makes sense to never sell any high value item and stockpile it, either for use in crafting at a later date, or for trade of an equal value item that is more relevant to what the player has in mind for the player-character. This leads to the redundancy of resellers and the inevitable squeeze between producer and end user that, ultimately, leaves no room for the middleman. This leads to calls for extreme measures to be taken to force a place for resellers to remain open within the gaming world - often at the expense of other more legitimate forms of gameplay.

Irresponsible Developers and the Myth of "Exploits"

In pay to win and senior-superiority games, every time someone introduces valid, often real-world, strategy and tactics to gain an advantage, resulting in emergent gameplay, the other more invested or more senior players cry "exploit". It is because emergent gameplay is, by definition, unanticipated by the game's development that developers may be inclined to go along with this. It is worth remembering, at this point, that sole liability for the quality of the game rests upon the developers, not the players. So, if people are using built in mechanics to engage in "undesirable" activities, fundamental program design principles dictate that this is solely the fault of the developer for making the game mechanics which allow and facilitate the behaviour in the first place. In such cases, it is the responsibility of the developer to assess whether the emergent gameplay is either detrimental to the relevance/realism of game experience or detrimental to the diversity of viable game-play. When stating that emergent game-play is detrimental to the game, the developer owes it to their paying customers to demonstrate the case by using real life examples to explain how the emergent gameplay negatively impacts relevance/realism or specifying which existing modes of gameplay have been rendered unviable by the emergent gameplay and how this is so. At this point, the developer is liable for a remedy; either a refund if they cannot fix the underlying bug or the production of a patch or update to fix the bug within a reasonable period of time (usually one calendar month, in practice). This does not entitle the developer to persecute players who incorporate the bug into their playstyle. All this ever achieves is to guarantee the disadvantage of players who choose to "do the right thing" - if only because there's always someone incorporating the bug into their playstyle. Instead, the only acceptable temporary remedy is for the method of "exploit" to be published with the instruction for all players to use it as they see fit until the underlying bug is corrected by a patch. Only this approach can ensure a level playing field because policy should never, under any circumstances, allow endorsed gamplay to fall foul of the game mechanics.

compass atop a bowl of roasted coffee beans set inside gold laurels
Tuesday, ISO: 2024-April-16, 07:43 hours, UTC.