Episode 44: The Thread and the Tapestry

Fabric is woven on a loom

Designing a single gameplay system is a meaningful challenge by itself, but it’s also only the first step in the design of modern games. Today’s games are built not around the single threads of individual systems, but rather around complex tapestries: multitudes of gameplay systems that overlap with and influence one other in a profusion of different ways. Economies, level progressions, social systems—even “simple” modern games involve surprisingly intricate inter-system connections. How does one approach designing these kinds of complex interdependencies? On Episode 44 of Vertical Slice we’re exploring the unique challenge of overlapping system design, and looking for the principles that can help steer the way to meaningful and fun system interactions.

Show Notes

  • Inspired by the Switch, Chris has been looking for deeper games on the iPad. Ports of slower-paced PC games like The Banner Saga and Civilization 6 are proving a good source of more meaningful iPad experiences.
  • While multi-system games are now the standard, well-crafted single-system games can still have a special appeal. Derek suggests Tiny Wings and Whale Trail as worthwhile exemplars of modern single-system design.
  • If you’re looking for games that test the limits of sprawling multi-system interaction, Paradox Interactive is the studio to study. Games like Stellaris and Europa Universalis define the far end of modern game complexity and command skilled, specialized audiences.

Image credit: raichovak

Episode 43: The Process Paradox

A pencil's reflection appears reversed

The game industry exists at the intersection of two very different worlds: the world of games as pure creative expression, and the world of games as products. Superimposing these perspectives is no easy feat; how does one reconcile the unpredictable nature of the creativity journey with inflexible business concerns like schedules and budgets? Is such reconciliation even possible? On Episode 43 of Vertical Slice, we’re debating this fundamental question, and looking for practical ways to operationalize the creative process without sapping creativity or bulldozing business plans.

Show Notes

  • For more discussion on the delicate relationship between the creative and business dimensions of game studios, we also recommend Episode 19: You Eat Last.

Image credit: Rodger Evans

Episode 42: Grist for the Grind

A grist mill's wheel in repose

The play pattern of “grinding”, or repeatedly playing the same content in order to level a character or earn rewards, is surely one of gaming’s most curious idiosyncrasies. How can playing the same content time and time again be fun? In fact, games dating back to the classic JRPGs of the 8-bit era have shown that well-designed grinds can be quite satisfying, affording players the opportunity to pursue and accomplish goals in a pleasant continuous loop. That kind of equilibrium doesn’t happen without effort though, and uninspired or careless designs can easily tip grind-based gameplay in much more tedious directions. So: what makes for the perfect grind? On Episode 42 of Vertical Slice we’re taking a careful measure of this unique gameplay motif, and looking for the delicate mechanisms that keep player-friendly grinds in balance.

Show Notes

  • Monster Hunter: World has arrived to great acclaim, enchanting veteran hunters and series newcomers alike with its deep gameplay and charming personality. If you’re curious what all the fuss is about, Gaijin Hunter offers an excellent review authored from the standpoint of a long-time Monster Hunter fan.

Image credit: Roger H. Goun

Episode 41: Open Worlds, Open Questions

The Lone Wanderer and Dogmeat take in a wasteland sunset

Open-world games promise the opportunity to immerse oneself in an entirely new reality, replete with characters to meet, adventures to undertake, and mysteries to solve. With a pitch like that, it’s not hard to understand why so much recent design effort has gone into applying open-world design concepts to so many different genres of games. Now that open worlds are big business though, there’s a very important question afoot: what’s next? How can the genre build on its past successes, while still remaining fresh and relevant in the next era of game design? On Episode 41 of Vertical Slice, we’re stepping into the wild terrain of open-world design to see what answers we can uncover. Join us!

Show Notes

Image credit: Bethesda Game Studios

Episode 40: The Explorer’s Journey

Link discovers the Master Sword in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

Think back on your most memorable gaming moments and there’s a good chance you’ll recognize the themes of exploration and discovery running through many fond memories. From The Legend of Zelda’s iconic secret passageways to the camouflaged nooks of today’s open worlds, hidden but discoverable content is something that savvy designers strive to create, both as a form of reward and as a mechanism for deepening engagement. Yet there is an important conundrum at the heart of this design motif: how do you create meaningful exploration and genuine discovery for some of your players without frustrating others? On Episode 40 of Vertical Slice we’re tinkering with this fascinating puzzle, and offering our principles for guiding players towards fruitful exploration and the thrill of the unexpected.

Show Notes

Image credit: Nintendo

Episode 39: Respecting the Player

An origami heart folded from a Canadian banknote

The games industry, much like other creative businesses, depends on the principle of fair exchange between creators and audiences. It’s an exchange that can be enumerated in dollars and cents of course, but there is a second very important ingredient as well: respect. In a perfect world, players respect creators by offering fair financial rewards for the craft, while creators respect their audiences with honest and interesting designs. Unfortunately, changing business practices in the AAA space are starting to strain this equilibrium, with influential developers and publishers pulling the industry towards increasingly player-hostile business practices. What can be done to steer away from this unhealthy trajectory? On Episode 39 of Vertical Slice we’re grappling with this critically important issue, and offering our thoughts on how developers and publishers can do more to respect their players’ time, money, and intelligence.

Show Notes

Image credit: Nayuki

Episode 37: Solving the Right Problems

Blue puzzle pieces in a jar

Game design is a famously multifaceted pursuit, but what if you were asked to pick just one skill that most clearly distinguishes great game designers from their peers? What do you think this single powerful ability might be? On Episode 37 of Vertical Slice, we’re discussing a fascinating answer to this question brought to us by special guest Weszt Hart. Weszt is a Senior User Experience Designer at Riot Games, where he has helped to define the social systems behind League of Legends, among many other contributions. For Weszt, great designers are those who can cut to the root of creative problems by focusing on one simple question: what is the real problem that this game or system is solving? Join us as we learn how this problem-solving approach to design can unlock stronger, leaner, and braver products, in games and beyond.

Show Notes

Image credit: Olga Berrios

Episode 36: Loot Pursuit

A cache of tempting treasure

Loot boxes are a potent trend in modern game design, translating powerful mechanisms of motivation and operant conditioning into a startlingly effective form of micro-transaction. Indeed, loot boxes are so efficient at monetizing player attention that they are increasingly casting off their free-to-play roots and taking up residence in the largest AAA titles. Is the rising tide of loot boxes a net negative for consumers, or is it possible for designers to pull the trend in more player-friendly directions? On Episode 36 of Vertical Slice we’re cracking into this tricky question, and searching for the healthy design principles that can help make loot box systems fun and fair.

Show Notes

Image credit: leigh49137

Episode 35: The Perils of Perfect

Mistakes are inevitable

While we all have our own reasons for playing and loving games, fun generally features high on the list. Sometimes though, our desire to play games skillfully—to best our opponents or to achieve that elusive perfect play-through—can turn what is mean to be a source of enjoyment into a fount of frustration. Can game design help us to overcome this unfortunate human tendency? On Episode 35 of Vertical Slice, we’re exploring how designers can help their players to enjoy challenge while embracing the inevitability of mistakes and imperfections.

Show Notes

Image credit: Hometown Beauty

Episode 34: Lone Wanderers

A solo hiker contemplates Lac d'Estom in the central Pyrenees

It wasn’t so long ago that the term “single-player game” was unnecessarily descriptive, the former being implied by the technical infancy of the latter. Today though, in our world of friend lists and ubiquitous network connections, single-player experiences have started to seem a rarer breed. Are dedicated single-player games an anachronism, or are there still emotional vistas that can only be beheld by individual players? Join us on Episode 34 of Vertical Slice as we search for the answers to these questions and rediscover the power of solitude in a networked world.

Show Notes

  • After seven years of development, Cuphead has arrived to much critical and audience acclaim. It’s faithful reproduction of old-time animation’s (somewhat unsettling) vibe is a remarkable feat of technical artistry.
  • Impatient to “power level” a friend into a game that you love? Tony Mo has a great video on why you should reconsider. The deepest engagement comes from the slow unfolding of personal, often solitary discovery.
  • Warframe.market is a fascinating example of building engaging social context around a game that many players otherwise experience as solo players.
  • Twitch is a kaleidoscopic and multifaceted phenomenon, but perhaps one part of its appeal is the way in which it helps to satisfy our desire for “social single-player” experiences. Or: maybe it’s just really funny to watch streamers be scared half to death by their toddlers.

Image credit: Kitty Terwolbeck