Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Witcher 3: An Analysis of Tactics and Strategy in Gwent

Let's talk Gwent!

If you've been playing The Witcher 3, you almost certainly know what Gwent is: the collectible card game that can be played with many AI characters in the game world. It's like Pazaak in the two Knights of the Old Republic games, only more so.

I thought it might be fun to share a few ideas about the tactics and strategies for playing Gwent that have made me, part-way through Velen, a moderately successful player. These are things I've found helpful, but I'd like to hear what approaches have worked for you.

Note: I'll try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible, but if you haven't played The Witcher 3 at all yet there may be some minor spoilers. Nothing that would ruin the game for you, but still, spoilers, so why not play TW3 first? It's a really good game.


Gwent consists of two parts: acquiring cards for four different deck types, and playing games of Gwent with NPCs.

One of the Gwent guides floating around the web says that if you want to do well at Gwent, you must embrace it as a lifestyle. Your Geralt will be wandering the world, plaintively begging everyone in sight: "Gwent! Gwent? Gweeeeeeeeent!"

This is accurate.

Winning at Gwent, especially in the higher levels, requires you to acquire as many cards as possible, in any way possible. You'll do this in two ways:

1. Buy cards from merchants. Start in White Orchard: buy every single card you see. Do as many quests and defeat as many opponents as you have to to earn the money to buy every card before leaving White Orchard. (Also play one nobleman in your next stop before moving on.) Later on, there'll be some cards you don't need to buy, such as the weak Poor Fucking Infantry for the Northern Realms deck. But most of the time, if you see a card, you'll want to buy it.

2. Win cards by defeating AI opponents. Many merchants and blacksmiths/armorers will play Gwent with you, and when you beat them (if you can!), you will gain one of their cards. (Note that which card you get is random, so in the later game you may want to save before playing -- if you don't need or like the card you win, you can try playing again for a different card.) Additionally, there are a couple of quests that involve playing particular NPCs. If you can defeat them, you'll score some really powerful cards... but they are tough opponents.

Once you've acquired at least one complete deck -- at least 22 numeric cards -- you're ready to start taking on NPCs. Here's how to play.


There are four different kinds of decks you can build and play in Gwent. The four deck types are:

  • Northern Realms
  • Nilfgaardian Empire
  • Scoia'tael
  • Monsters

I'll talk more about the styles of the different deck types later on in the Tactics and Strategy sections. For now, just note that you'll be building and improving all four of these decks all the time -- firstly to get each deck up to a full playable strength of 22+ Unit and Hero cards, and then to strengthen each deck by replacing weak cards with better ones after the full 22+ card count is achieved. (I say "22+" rather than "22" for reasons explained further on. Gwent is just like that.)

Cards in each deck type consist of "Unit cards" that have a numeric strength and possibly a special power; "Hero cards" that have a numeric strength and are immune to certain special effects; "Special cards" that apply various effects; and "Leader cards" that have one-time special effects of their own. Finally, each deck has a factional perk that can be applied. Knowing when, why, and how to use each of these cards and effects and powers and perks is what winning at Gwent is all about.

Before a game starts, both players choose a deck (if they have more than one complete deck type), select which cards to include in that deck and which Leader type to use, randomly draw ten cards from their deck, and optionally replace up to two of the cards they drew with randomly-selected cards from that deck.

To play Gwent, the two players take turns choosing cards to play onto the field, with whomever gets the first turn decided randomly (except for the Scoia'tael who play first as their factional perk). Unit and Hero cards, and some special cards, are played onto one of three rows: Close Combat, Ranged Combat, and Siege Combat. Each player has these three rows (for six rows total). All Unit and Hero cards are marked with which row they can be played onto. (Many Scoia'tael cards, and some Monster cards, can be played onto one of several possible rows.) Special cards go either onto the side of one's three rows, or into a side area if they affect multiple rows.

So "playing Gwent" is mostly choosing which cards in your hand you want to play to the field. Whoever has the most points at the end of each round (except for a Nilfgaardian factional perk) wins that round. And the winner of a game is the winner of two rounds out of three.

Before I get into the details of tactics and strategy in Gwent, let's review the kinds of cards available.


Unit cards are the most basic and common cards in Gwent. They consist of a character or creature type and have a numeric value ranging from 0 to 10.

Some Unit cards also have special powers. Because certain decks tend to emphasize Unit cards with particular special powers, I'll describe those in the Tactics section.

Hero cards are similar to Unit cards in that they have numeric values (shown on the card inside a black-and-gold sunburst circle), and possibly a special power. But they are immune to special effects as noted below, so you must be aware of this when playing Special cards.


These cards, which can be used by any deck and don't count toward the 22+ number of Unit and Hero cards required for a full deck, deserve particular attention because they play such an enormous role in Gwent tactics.

  • Biting Frost: sets all Close Combat Unit card values to 1
  • Impenetrable Fog: sets all Ranged Combat Unit card values to 1
  • Torrential Rain: sets all Siege Combat Unit card values to 1
  • Clear Weather: removes any/all weather cards and effects from all rows
  • Commander's Horn: doubles the value of all Unit cards on that row
  • Decoy: immediately put one of your Unit cards back into your playable hand
  • Scorch: immediately moves the highest-valued Unit card(s) anywhere on the board into the owner's discard pile

Note that these effects, positive and negative, apply only to Unit cards. Again, these effects do nothing at all to Hero cards, good or bad, so you'll need to keep that in mind when you play your Special cards.


Unit Powers

Before discussing tactics for particular decks, let's first consider the special powers that many of the Unit cards can have. These are important for tactical play applying to all of the decks.

Agile: Mostly a Scoia'tael power, this allows a card to be played in either of two rows (usually Close and Ranged Combat). Having numerous such cards in your hand allows you to recover (somewhat) during the same round if your opponent played a weather Special card or Scorched some of your units.

Spy: When you play the Spy card, it's actually played onto your opponent's side of the field, giving your opponent whatever numeric points that card has... but for that price, two cards randomly selected from your deck are added to your hand. These extra cards can be the difference between losing a round and winning it. Note, though, that unlike other Unit cards, the most powerful Spy card is actually the one with the lowest numeric value, since playing it into your opponent's field adds the least to your opponent's total score.

I recently had the choice, after defeating a merchant a couple of times (after restoring from a save just to see what would happen), of taking either a 3-point Muster card or a 9-point Spy card. I took the Muster. Why in the world would I do that? Because giving my opponent 9 points in return for two cards is just too much. Other players may think the special powers of two extra cards will outweigh giving my opponent 9 points. I'm not convinced of that, in part because those 9 points could become 18 points if they play a Commander's Horn on that row. (On the other end of the scale, there is a Spy card worth 0 points. That is as good as it gets. :))

Another note on playing Spy cards is that they are most valuable at either the very start of a round (to give you extra cards early for tactical advantage in that round), or at the very end of Round 1 or 2 that you've lost (because giving your opponent more points in that round costs you nothing, but it puts two extra cards in your hand for the next round).

Morale: This power adds 1 to the value of other Unit cards in the same row.

This may not seem like much, but what's interesting about this power is that it ignores weather effects! If you have four Siege Combat cards reduced to 1 by Torrential Rain, your total value for that row becomes a measly 4 points. But if you play a Kaedweni Siege Engineer card with the Morale power on that row, it still adds one to each other Unit card so that your total for that row becomes 8. This isn't much, but it may be just enough. (Also, multiple Morale cards on the same row stack... and the +1 they add can be doubled by a Commander's Horn card.)

Tight Bond: For each similar card with the Tight Bond special power on a row, the basic point value of each card is added to each card.

(Note: it would be easier to say that "Tight Bond doubles the value of all similar Unit cards on that row," which is what the game itself says, but that's not accurate. Having three Tight Bond cards of basic value 4 does not double their basic value twice for a total of 48 -- it only adds 4 to each card twice for a total value of 36. That's still a nice effect, but it's not "doubling" as advertised.)

Here's an example of Tight Bond in action. Play one Impera Brigade Guard (Close Combat) with a value of 3, and you get 3 points. Play a second Impera Brigade Guard with the Tight Bond power, and the initial value of three is added to both cards -- they're now both worth 6, for a total of 12 points. Play a third Impera Brigade Guard, and the face value of all three cards is added to all three cards -- each of the three cards is now worth 9 for a total of 27 points. Add yet a fourth Impera Brigade Guard, and all four cards are now worth 12 points, for a total of 48 points! Now play a Commander's Horn on that row for a total of 96 points... from just five cards.

Obviously this can be a devastating punch, but there are a couple of factors to be aware of if you want to use it. One: having two Tight Bond cards can be useful, but the real value is in having at least three. It will take you a while to find that many similar Tight Bond cards. Two: these are still Unit cards, so the doubling effect makes them highly vulnerable to an applicable weather card (reducing all values to 1) and to the Scorch card (which would almost certainly remove every one of your "doubled" cards). To reduce these vulnerabilities, play these cards last in a round or after you've already been Scorched, and play your Commander's Horn (if you have one) after playing all your Tight Bond cards; also, try to get a Clear Weather card into your hand... just in case.

Muster: When you play one Unit card with the Muster power, you may immediately play every similar Muster card from your entire deck.

Did you catch that? "From your entire deck," not just the cards in your hand.

If you have one Muster card in your hand with a value of 3, and five other similar cards in your deck, when you play your one Muster card it pulls every other similar Muster card onto the playing field for a total of not 3, but 18 points -- in a single turn. Making this (or Tight Bond units) your core tactic is not something you can do when you first start playing Gwent, because you will need to find enough similar Muster (or Tight Bond) cards to make playing them all in one round numerically valuable. But once you've got several of them, this is very nearly a Win Button for a round of Gwent.

Important strategic note: having Muster cards in your deck is the one time when you want to put more than 22 cards into your deck. Remember that additional Muster cards are pulled from your full deck, not just from your current hand. So the strategic penalty for having more than 22 cards in a deck (because you might get some low-value cards in your initial draw of 10 cards) is reduced as long as those "extra" cards have the Muster special power.

Medic: Medic cards, when played, immediately allow you to choose one Unit card (not Hero or Special cards!) from your discard pile and play it immediately.

This can be an extremely powerful ability. Not only do you get the points from the Medic card (if any), as well as the points from the recovered card of your choice, but you get the special powers of the recovered card as well. This can be very powerful if you restore a Tight Bond card with a related Tight Bond card already on the playing field. Interestingly, you can also restore a Spy card previously played onto your field by your opponent, although the point value of that Spy goes into your opponent's total for that round. This means that playing a Medic power potentially gives you the equivalent of putting two extra cards in your hand for no cost other than a turn.

Even if you don't restore a Spy card, however, an important tactical note for playing a Medic card is to do so early in a round, preferably as your first card -- this maximizes your tactical options in that round. (Important point, though: do not play a Medic card if you have no discards, or no Unit cards in your discard pile! Hero cards and Special cards can't be restored by a Medic. I learned this lesson the hard way.)

Row-Specific Scorch: Another special power is a limited version of Scorch that at least one Unit card and a couple of Leader cards have. This power destroys the highest-value card(s) in one of the opponent's rows (such as Close Combat) if the combined value of those cards is 10 or more.

Finally, there are also a few Unit cards that can be added to any deck. These are mostly old friends of Geralt, such as Zoltan Chivay and Vesemir.

Deck-based Tactics

Now that we've looked closely at the Unit, Hero, and Special cards, let's (finally!) get to tactics in Gwent.

Each of the four deck types has Unit cards that are particular to it. So each deck type needs particular tactics to be successful -- you want to know and use the strengths of your deck against the probable weaknesses of your opponent's deck. I'll discuss tactics for each of the four deck types from the perspective of playing that kind of deck against any NPC. In the Strategy section, I'll talk about how to play against certain deck types.

Northern Realms

This will be your first complete deck, so you'll be using it for a long time. While your Leader card, King Foltest, has several powers, what I found most effective was his ability to function as a Commander's Horn for the Siege Combat row. It can be devastating to lure an opponent into spending cards to reduce your Close Combat and Ranged Combat rows, only to smack them down by doubling 20+ points on the Siege Combat row to over 40 or 50 points by playing your Foltest power. Alternately, if you think you've already got enough actual Commander's Horns in your deck, choosing Foltest's special Clear Weather power when building this deck can win a round for you that otherwise seemed lost.

Generally speaking, Northern Realms is about straight-up beating your opponent quickly with higher-numbered unit cards. There aren't many hero cards for Northern Realms (at least that I've seen), so it's vital that you find and collect Commander's Horn cards. I keep three in my Northern Realms deck; that way I almost always get at least one in every game, and sometimes get two. Note that depending on a Commander's Horn tactic makes you vulnerable to losing a lot of points if your opponent plays a Scorch card -- if you have three 6-point cards that you've doubled to three 12-point cards, you will instantly lose 36 points if Scorched! So it's almost always best for Northern Realms to play low-valued Unit cards first, let your opponent knock out one or two "high" cards, and then double your highest-valued row with a Commander's Horn as your last move for a round.

The three negative weather effect cards are less useful to Northern Realms (and Monster) decks because, while they reduce your opponent's score, they frequently also reduce your score. The only weather card I keep (if any) is a Clear Weather card, specifically because I expect to have a lot of points in one row at a time thanks to a Commander's Horn.

Because the Northern Realms factional perk is to get one extra card after winning a round, your goal should usually be to try to win the first round. Letting your opponent win a round so that you have more cards for a later round -- a typically Nilfgaardian tactic -- makes the Northern Realms factional perk worthless. So a Northern Realms player normally throws a round only if clearly necessary, or if you're pretty sure the later round is a guaranteed win no matter what.

Nilfgaardian Empire

Will Rogers is credited with saying, "Diplomacy is the art of saying 'nice doggie' until you can find a rock." That is a perfect description of Gwent as played with a Nilfgaard deck. In fact, I would not be surprised if I learned that the deck for Nilfgaard was the main reason why Gwent was invented for The Witcher 3. It is a fantastic representation of how the Nilfgaardian Empire's culture is represented in the world of The Witcher.

A complete Nilfgaard deck (and playable hand) will probably have several Spy cards, several Medic cards, and several Hero cards. Crucially, the factional perk of the Nilfgaard deck is that the Nilfgaard player (assuming both players aren't using the Nilfgaard deck) wins all rounds that end in a tie. Combine those features and the Nilfgaard player has a clear tactical goal: make your opponent use up every single one of their numeric (Unit and Hero) cards by the end of the second round. As long as you win either of the first or second rounds, and all of your opponents Unit and Hero cards have been played by the end of the second round, you will automatically win the last round as a 0-0 tie.

See? Nilfgaard. Sneaky bastards.

(This sounds funny, but just wait until they do it to you several times, as numerous NPCs have to me. You will long for the day when you have a complete Nilfgaard deck of your own.)

Achieving this tactic usually means playing one round with mostly regular Unit and Hero cards (that don't have special powers) to try to lure your opponent into spending as many of their numeric cards as possible. It's even OK to let them win that round, even by some ludicrous amount, giving them the points of every Spy card you have in exchange for two more cards in your hand, plus a few of your own regular Unit cards for your discard pile. Because next round, you will have something like 12 cards to their 6, plus discards that you can add to your hand with Medic cards. Now play your remaining Unit cards, and Medic cards if necessary, to try to get your opponent to play their last remaining numeric cards. Not only will you win this round, you'll take the third and final round as well as a 0-0 tie, even if you have no numeric cards of your own left to play.

Because Nilfgaard depends on getting a large number of cards, rather than on high-valued cards, a round for Nilfgaard is usually less susceptible to being Scorched. That's also why you'll probably want to keep a Scorch card yourself to really give your opponent a bad day. Weather cards may also work for Nilfgaard for the same reason, but I prefer Commander's Horn as its effect is more certain.

Nilfgaard also has some sneaky tricks related to their Leader cards, such as canceling the Leader ability of the other player, but I'll give you a detailed example in the Strategy section.


The great advantage of Scoia'tael in Gwent matches the nature of Scoia'tael in the world of The Witcher: they're nimble. Elves and Dwarves know they're outnumbered, so they rely on being highly maneuverable to survive.

Most of the Unit cards in a Scoia'tael deck will have the Agile power: many cards can be played in either the Close Combat or Ranged Combat row. The Scoia'tael deck also has more Medic units than any other deck, which maximizes the number of Agile cards that you can play. Finally, they also have some Muster units, so they can also have larger-than-normal decks.

The most advantageous tactic for you when you play a Scoia'tael deck is thus flexibility -- being able switch within a round to building a high numeric value on a different row or rows than where you started. This emphasis makes the weather effect Special cards most useful for the Scoia'tael deck.

Suppose you start building on the Close Combat row. Your opponent does the same. You can go for several turns, encouraging your opponent to think it's safe to play more cards there, even with a Commander's Horn, because hey, you're playing there, too. Then you hit them with a Biting Frost Weather card, and all non-Hero Close Combat cards are only worth 1 point. Suddenly they have only five points to your three or four... but where they have only one or two (or no) Ranged Combat cards, you've still got four or five Agile cards you can play on that row. Blam. And when you use your Medic cards in Round 2 or 3 to get some of your discards back, you can once again flow your cards to match the opponent's strongest row (discouraging them from playing a weather card against you). Double-blam.

The Scoia'tael deck isn't as sneaky as the Nilfgaard deck. But it does share with Nilfgaard a certain tactical style of luring one's opponent into committing to a big score on one row, then making that score meaningless.


Playing the Monsters deck is about one thing: pure, raw, brutal power. Where the Nilfgaard and Scoia'tael decks offer many opportunities for tactical improvisation, the Monsters deck is about overwhelming the opponent with numbers as quickly as possible.

(Note: I don't have a full Monsters deck myself yet, so the following is just what I've observed from playing against those decks.)

The main special power of Unit cards in the Monsters deck is the Muster power. These are usually not high-value cards, but that's not their purpose -- they win from sheer numbers. So even when you've finally got your own Monsters deck, you're probably not going to be able to win right away. You need more Muster cards.

Once you've built your Monsters deck up to 25, 28, 30 cards, with a couple good-sized packs of Muster units, you can be nigh unstoppable. Even if you double the value of a row full of Muster Unit cards with a Commander's Horn, each doubled card will still be low enough in value to be safe from the Scorch card. Bad weather can really hurt you, though, so putting one or two Clear Weather cards in your deck should be a smart strategy when playing a Monsters deck.

Speaking of strategies....


As you've seen from the above analysis of Gwent tactics, each of the four deck types has a different "flavor" due to the most common special power of the unit cards they have, as well as to their leader's special power and their factional perk. Northern Realms tends to favor straightforward army force, especially siege engines; the Nilfgaardian deck emphasizes devious, clever play to outlast opponents; the Scoia'tael cards can be used in different ways to adapt to one's opponent; and the Monster deck is geared toward overwhelming opponents.

Strategy in Gwent is thus about two things: maximizing the strengths of your chosen deck while planning to minimize the strengths of the opponent decks you expect to face. You accomplish these goals by choosing which cards to include in each deck (once you have more than 22 unit/hero cards to choose from), and by deciding which kind of deck to use against a particular opponent (once you have more than one full deck type). So let's talk about deck-building, Leader cards, and how to pick a deck to use against particular opponents.

Northern Realms

Northern Realms is, let's admit it, sort of boring as an opponent. There's nothing all that special about them; you just have to score more points than they do. They will emphasize their siege engines, plus one of the King Foltest Leader card abilities is to play a Commander's Horn on the Siege Combat row, which is like them having an extra Commander's Horn card for the kind of Unit cards they prefer. So it doesn't hurt to have a Torrential Rain card in your deck, or even two. Keeping a Scorch card ready is also great fun when they've doubled the value of several high-value cards -- those Temerian rebels just never learn their lesson.

Finally, when you can, consider playing a Monster deck against an opponent playing a Northern Realms deck. Since your advantage in overpowering numbers is the same kind of power -- only more so -- than the Northern Realms player depends on, you can usually outnumber him through your Muster cards.

Nilfgaardian Empire

Playing against a Nilfgaard opponent -- which you will do frequently in the larger cities of Velen -- can be incredibly frustrating. Just when you think you've got them dead to rights, with 60-80 points on your side, they will smile and let you have that round... because you've burned up most of your Unit cards to try to beat them in that round, which they never even planned on winning. They they will add to their pile of cards by throwing multiple Spies at you, draining the rest of your Unit cards to try to keep up with them in Round 2, which you probably won't be able to do. And then they'll take Round 3 by default because you're out of cards.

To beat a Nilfgaard opponent... play a Nilfgaard deck yourself. If you can't do that, try to have several Medic cards (by playing a Scoia'tael deck if you can). Also be sure to get at least one Decoy Special card in your hand. When your devious opponent drops a Spy Unit card on you in the first or second round, use Decoy on that card to put it in your hand, then play it right back against them to add to your own total number of cards. And then hope you're lucky, because you'll need it.


An opponent playing a Scoia'tael deck can be almost as frustrating as a Nilfgaardian because the tricky devils won't stand still for a solid hit. They'll let you spend your strength swatting them down in one row, then they'll use their Agile special powers to swarm their next cards to a different row to take the round. They're possibly the most well-rounded of all the factional decks. They can be beaten, but you'll have to either crush them (and protect your high cards from bad weather and pray they don't Scorch you), or out-sneaky them with Nilfgaardian cunning.

One NPC player in particular has an excellent Scoia'tael deck, and was basically unbeatable to me when I used a very good Northern Realms deck. My solution was to switch to a pretty good Nilfgaardian deck and use every tactical advantage I had, including the ability to count. In particular, the last round was the clincher. I'd given him the first round to try to get him to burn through his cards, but he hadn't cooperated. Midway through the second round, I was trying to wear him out again, more successfully, but it was costing me a lot of cards. He had four cards, while I had only three. I was only slightly ahead of him in total points, so it felt like somebody was about to bust things wide open at the end of the second round.

It was my turn. The factional perk I'd selected for Emperor Emreis was to be able to peek at three of my opponent's cards. I used that perk now. In addition to one card I couldn't see, he had one regular (although Agile) unit for 5 points, plus a Torrential Rain, plus a Scorch. That Scorch freaked me out, but then I realized that my cards, on the board and in my hand, were all pretty low-to-middling value -- nothing higher than a 6. If he had two unit cards that totaled up to 11 points, I could match that. After my peek, he played his card: a 6. Ouch. He now had four cards worth 6 on the board, and he was about to add the one I'd peeked at that was worth 5. I now had one unit card remaining, which was worth 5 points, plus a Commander's Horn I was saving for the right moment, plus a worthless Decoy because I couldn't afford to remove any of my cards from the board this round.

I played my 5. He played his 5. We now both had two cards left: him with his Torrential Rain and Scorch, and me with my Commander's Horn and (useless) Decoy. It was my turn, leading by just a couple of points... and I realized that if I played my next card correctly, I would win both the round and the game.

Here's why. On the board, he had a Close Combat row with three 6-point units and a Ranged Combat row with another 6-point unit, for a total of four 6-point cards on the table. Meanwhile, I had most of my cards in Close Combat for a total of 22 points on that row, but only three cards worth 6 points on the whole table. In my Ranged combat row I had two cards: one Unit card worth 1 point, and a Hero card worth 10 points. Finally, in my Siege Combat row, I had one card worth exactly 0 points (it had a Medic ability I'd used previously in the round).

What did this mean? It meant he'd chosen well as a Scoia'tael going up against a Northern Realms player, because his Torrential Rain card would be good against them. But I wasn't playing a Northern Realms deck any more, and his siege engine-confounding Torrential Rain card would do precisely diddly-squat against my 0-point Siege Expert.

Now I had a choice. My Commander's Horn card wouldn't do any good on my 0-point Siege Combat row. On my Ranged Combat row, it would add just a single point (to a 1-point Unit card plus a 10-point Hero card that couldn't be doubled). If I played Commander's Horn on my Close Combat row, it would double my score there to 44 points, and I would win the game, right? Wrong. If I'd played my Commander's Horn on that row, it would have doubled each of my three 6-point cards to be worth 12 points each... and then my opponent would have Scorched them. I'd have lost 18 points, the round, and the game.

So I doubled my single 1-point Ranged Combat card. And after forlornly playing his worthless Torrential Rain card, my opponent conceded the round. He had calculated, just as I had, that if he'd played his last card, the Scorch, he would have lost four 6-point cards to my three. So he surrendered the second round to me, with both of us out of Unit and Hero cards. And so for the third round, because we both had scores of 0, I won because of the Nilfgaardian factional perk that tied rounds go to the Nilfgaardian player.

So even a very powerful Scoia'tael deck can be beaten. But you have to have a good deck that counters Scoia'tael strengths, and you have to use every advantage and consider consequences before playing what might look like an obvious winning move.

Being lucky in your draw helps, too. :)


Finally, playing against a strong Monsters deck is incredibly frustrating due to their Muster power. They might appear weak in any turn, but in any turn they can easily add 15 or more points to their score. And because each card is low-value, you'd only hurt yourself by playing a Scorch against them. You might try keeping some weather Special cards, but those consume slots that could hold high-value Unit cards and Commander's Horns, and there's no guarantee your weather card would hurt a Monsters row but not you.

Once again, my experience has been that the solution to a strong Monsters deck is not trying to use brute force against them -- they'll almost always win in a head-to-head challenge of raw numeric power -- but to outmaneuver them. A good Scoia'tael deck might do this... but a good Nilfgaardian deck is a better bet.

The toughest Gwent fight I've had so far, in playing most of the NPC Gwent players in Velen, was against a Monsters deck player in Novigrad. Every time I played my otherwise strong Northern Realms deck against him, he would smoke me. Five times in a row (no reloads), he did this to me. How? Because he had not one, not two, but three different super-Muster combinations. Even if I somehow won one round, he would win the other two, every single time.

In one of our contests, I used all five of my siege engines and my Foltest's Commander's Horn for Siege Combat special power (plus other cards) to score over 100 points in that round. He used multiple Musters to score over 120 points.

But I finally beat him. Yes, with a Nilfgaardian Empire deck... but only by the absolute thinnest of margins.

I got lucky with the draw, and pulled several Spy and Medic cards. He obliterated me in the first round, as usual, but this time I was counting on that and used several Spy cards to add to my hand for the next round. In the second round, I used those extra cards plus my Medic cards to win, reserving three very special cards for the third round. Obviously he was saving his last big Muster for the final and deciding round.

We started the third round, and sure enough, he played his third big Muster, piling a bunch of cards on the table, followed by a Commander's Horn in one row. Ultimately he wound up with 54 points, a third-round score that would normally have me chewing my hair and pounding on the desktop in frustration. In fact, at this point, as he concluded his game by standing on his 54 points, I was convinced that he'd won again. But I had four cards left: three Impera Brigade Guards worth 3 measly points each and a Commander's Horn.

One Impera Brigade Guard: 3 points.

Two Impera Brigade Guards: 12 points.

Three Impera Brigade Guards: 27 points.

One Commander's Horn on that row: 54 points.

The Nilfgaardian factional perk wins ties.


Best. Win. Ever. :)

So again, it can be done. Even a horrendously strong deck can eventually be beaten. But again, it takes thoughtful deck selection strategy, appropriate multi-round tactics, and a healthy dollop of luck.


Obviously I've been really enjoying Gwent. I've never been one for collectible card games; I'll never be a player of Pokemon or Magic: The Gathering. Those are against real people. :)

But I think I do see the allure of these games: that by building a strong enough deck, with the right cards, and getting lucky when needed, it is possible to defeat strong opponents in a contest of skill. Even against AI players (if they're mostly pretty good, as some NPC players are in The Witcher 3), that makes a person feel pretty darn clever.

I haven't yet entered the Big Stakes Tournament Gwent-playing quest in The Witcher 3. I'm a bit nervous about that. I think I need more and better cards first.

So if you'll excuse me, I think I know where there are still a few cards to be picked up....

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Utopias in Games

Wow. It's been a while since I've had something to say here, hasn't it? Let's fix that.

Today I'd like to talk about utopias in games. This was sparked by comments from Paul Neurath about the upcoming game Underworld Ascendant, the long-awaited successor to the two Ultima Underworld games by Looking Glass Studios.

Why Utopias?

Neurath began his update #13 to the Kickstarter project for Underworld Ascendant by discussing Sir Cabirus's broken dream in Ultima Underworld. This was followed by some personal notes on utopias:

I've always had a fascination with utopias. How in fiction, as in world history, utopias seem to inevitably fall from their lofty goals, like Icarus flying too close to the sun. The all-too-brief shining moment when Greek democracy blossomed, then swiftly collapsed. In Tolkien's fiction, the short-lived attempt by Balin to reestablish a dwarven colony in Moria. There are myriad stories of utopias fallen. Yet that seems not to discourage each new generation from trying.
Either way, there seems to be a universal appeal to stories about those striving to build a grand society. We are fascinated by their hubris. Of their trying to rewrite established rules of how communities function to forge something new. We root for them to succeed, while knowing they are ultimately doomed.

It's possible to trace this notion through several of the games from Looking Glass and its descendants.

The Lineage of Utopias in Games

The original Ultima Underworld, as mentioned, was explicitly set in the debris of Sir Cabirus's beliefs. Here the idea of a utopia is for the most part treated un-ironically -- it was a noble idea that just didn't work. Was it impossible, given the nature of the inhabitants of the Stygian Abyss and the loss of Sir Cabirus? The game doesn't express an opinion on that question, leaving players free to decide that for themselves.

In System Shock, SHODAN played the role of a twisted Sir Cabirus in the days before constructing a idealized society. Fortunately for humanity, the annoying Hacker persisted in interfering with her plans. Wouldn't it be interesting to see what a world might look like in which SHODAN, like Andrew Ryan, actually succeeded in achieving her dream, only to see it lost as the imperfections of the remaining human elements in her cybernetic paradise began to assert themselves?

Thief: The Dark Project was not obviously utopian, although with some effort a case might be made that the Hammerites harbored some such dreams. Thief 2: The Metal Age, on the other hand, returned to the utopian notion with Father Karras seeking to extend his mechanical peace to all the inhabitants of The City. This was somewhat less overtly a utopian dream, but I think it's fair to say that Karras himself fit the basic model of a ruthless utopianist.

In System Shock 2, SHODAN would try again to bring all of existence within the matrix of her will, establishing a perfect chorus of machines... but this time her dreams were countered by the opposing dream of her biological "children" to form a harmony of their own. Intriguingly, the Many might indeed have been able to achieve a truly functional utopian society through the close linkage of minds. But it's also clear that the cost for this bliss would have been the elimination of human individuality and the freedom to cooperate by choice. The Many's utopia could have worked for a while, but been short-lived when faced with a survival crisis from an inability to allow the creativity of individual minds to flourish. In fact, perhaps that inability to adapt to an external reality is exactly what happened in System Shock 2.

Deus Ex was perhaps the strongest exploration yet of the utopian dream in game form. Beyond the gameplay (although its structure did contribute to the theme) and the story references (including a "character" called Icarus), Deus Ex posed an easily-asked but difficult-to-answer question familiar to the cyberpunk genre: when sensing machines are everywhere, and humans begin to join themselves directly to that world (not unlike the harmony of the Many), is that the path to a utopian security? Or the road to an Orwellian nightmare in which human liberty is lost forever? When you, the player, after playing through the implications of the options, finally must make a choice between the utopia of an ordered security and the chaotic inequalities of freedom, which will you choose? Part of the greatness of Deus Ex is that, despite their personal beliefs, the developers play absolutely fair with that question, dramatizing the consequences of both paths but refusing to tell the player which road to take.

The BioShock games were increasingly overt in their representation of utopias gone to seed. It wasn't until the ending of the final BioShock game that we could see the central belief exposed: all utopias, whether underground, underwater, or under the sky, are similar in that they all collapse under the weight of human frailty.

(Curiously, the Looking Glass homages made by Arkane, Arx Fatalis and Dishonored, have little to no element of utopianism to them. Their settings are broken places, but not from anyone's grand dream of forced equal peace -- they're just broken. It'll be interesting to see whether the next game from either of the branches of Arkane rediscover the utopian theme, or if they will continue to do without it.)

Why the Utopian Theme?

If more than one game has sought to explore this idea, that's because it's a fabulous idea for the theme of a game that means to offer a world to explore that is more than just facades and murder-mechanics.

Choosing a utopian society as the thematic framework for a game instantly helps define the world of the game. It implies that there will be artistic choices to make about the visual representation of such a world. It suggests social structures that exist in that world and how they regard each other. And it can inspire specific conversations that the player's character can have with people in the world that help gradually reveal its story to the player.

And in a truly deep game, the player, through words and deeds, is able to assert some level of informed influence over the course of that utopia. As Paul Neurath put it in Update #13:

The player finds themselves in a central role, choosing how they fit into an experiment of a utopia that is being torn ragged. Do they pick up the frayed threads of Cabirus’ dream and try to knit things back together? Do they nudge the Abyss back towards an apparently inevitable state of chaos? Or follow some other path?

With the power to drive story and setting and characters and even mechanics that a utopian theme offers, maybe the real question is why more game developers don't use it.

The Original Utopia

Of course you can't talk seriously about the idea of a Utopia without referencing the book Utopia by Sir Thomas More. The second part of his work described a place that we today would consider somewhat, though not entirely, communistic, with many liberties given up by the people in order to maintain a forced but perfectly fair state of equality. What's not clear is whether More considered this to be a desirable and widely achievable state of social organization, or if it was intended as a satirical criticism of people voluntarily choosing to cede their freedoms to a powerful state.

The latter view seems to be supported by the very title: Utopia, roughly meaning "no-place." But whether that's no-place because no one has seriously tried to achieve it, or no-place because human nature makes it impossible to maintain over any meaningful size and time span, remains unclear to this day.

To have written a book like this at all sets Thomas More apart from the typical idealist. It's conceivable that he possessed enough of the cynicism of the experienced observer of humanity to poke a stick at its occasional certainty that perfect fairness can be achieved in this life. On the other hand, to be a serious thinker implies some amount of idealism -- why write a serious work that you know will irritate some people if it doesn't matter? This seriousness could have impelled More to describe an ideal state of being, even if it is not possible to fully attain such a state.

Utopia and Underworld Ascendant

So which of those interpretations should Underworld Ascendant realize? The idealistic, optimistic view of a utopian society in which people willingly give up personal interests in favor of a powerful central government that makes sure everyone's basic needs are equally met? Or the practical, skeptical view of utopias as systems of human organization that are inherently doomed to failure beyond any trivial size because people are flawed and fallible beings by nature?

Interestingly, 2016 will mark the 500th anniversary of the first printing (in Latin) of Utopia.

That would be a fine time to release a game that explicitly takes on the idea of a Utopia. In particular it would be very satisfying to release a game that -- as More's book did -- shows the theory and implementation of this idea, and then leaves it to the player to decide whether the concept of a utopian paradise is a good and achievable vision for a fairly ordered society, or an impossibly flawed and dangerous belief that leads inexorably to oppression and misery and ruin.

Can OtherSide do that?

Will the developers of Underworld Ascendant choose a side on this old question, deciding for players what the right answer is to the question Sir Thomas More asked five hundred years ago?

Or is it possible for them to construct a world that, like its other emergent behaviors generated through the interactions of systems, will allow the player to make a real choice -- to successfully help a utopia succeed (if only for a while), or to bring it crashing back to reality?

Can a game allow players to discover through play something meaningful about the utopian dream?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

In Defense of Personal Gaming

I'm not an extrovert.

So it's fascinating to try to imagine being one -- being certain that the only right way to experience life, including playing computer games, is with other people around. That's radically different from my own appreciation for being able to concentrate deeply on system-building, which is virtually impossible to do well with other people around demanding one's attention.

This came to mind recently from seeing two very well-written blog entries at Gamasutra promoting local multiplayer on consoles: "Play As Intended: A Case For Preferring Local Multiplayer" by Sjors Houkes, and "Couch-op is the best-op" by Auston Montville.

These authors feel that games, including computer games, are by their very nature inherently social. If you're playing alone, you're playing wrong. You're failing to get the optimal experience of play. Developers who make games that can't be shared on one board or screen are failing their players.

This means that the best way to play games is together in a room with other people, with everyone sharing the same screen. For computer games, that means the correct way to play games is using some game console, with multiple controllers plugged in, and probably in split-screen mode (or at least separate screen areas, as in Rock Band). It means that developers ought to be designing their games so that this mode of play is the primary mode, or even the only mode.

This excludes linking separate PCs on a local network. It definitely excludes online multiplayer. And single-player games are right out.

In short, if you're not playing with other people in the same room looking at the same interface, then you are Doing It Wrong.

This is really two arguments:

  1. Social games are fun.
  2. Social games are inherently more fun than personal games.

I don't think many people would object in a serious way to the first of those opinions. Social games can be great fun. There's nothing like playing with other people -- in both positive and negative ways. It is a Good Thing that there are lots of such games, computer and otherwise.

It's that second assertion that's questionable -- that must be questioned. All "real" games necessarily privilege social interactions? Really?

Declaring this as though it's a self-evident fact, that any play experience designed without social interaction is defective, that the only right way to play is sitting next to other people... that's a very, very different kind of claim. An assertion that more personally-focused games are by their very nature less fun, less game-like, less worth making, than social games, is one that requires some serious supporting evidence behind it. Otherwise it risks missing the opportunity to create enjoyable entertainment experiences for many people.

The claim that "games are inherently social" is not new. It can be heard from some experienced gamers to thoughtful game developers like Raph Koster (as in his "Designing For Everywhere" presentation). For various reasons, they say games are activities that are incomplete without the participation of other people.

I disagree. I think it's completely possible and desirable to value both social and personal play. And I think that because I think I can see how each kind of play provides access to a part of expressing life as a human being that the other doesn't.

Being with other people, giving to others and receiving from them, is an important part of fully experiencing life as a human being. So is having the opportunity to think and feel deeply without interruption, to understand, to imagine, to reflect on your own personal experiences as an individual human being.

As games are reflections of human life, they would be as diminished by being purely social as they would be by being purely personal.

We experience a game as fun when it effectively rewards what we're good at and value about ourselves. Not everybody is good at personal interaction. Not everybody is good at focused introspection. Each of us is usually better at one of those than the other, and value it more in ourselves than the other. But both have value. Both are things that can be rewarded and enjoyed through play.

So why describe only one of these as though it's the Only True Way of experiencing the human condition, the only Correct Way of having fun in a game?

Encouraging the development of social games is proper. I'm for that. It can be enormously entertaining to compete against or cooperate with other players, especially if they're right there with you and everyone is looking at the same board or screen. I fully support the development of more social games, including more games that are designed to be played with other people right there in the room with you and where everyone is sharing the same window on the gameworld, even if that's usually more fun for extroverts than for introverts like me.

But it can also be fun to understand and manipulate systems, to concentrate deeply on the structure of a system in order to grasp its fundamental patterns and principles, and then to interact dynamically with such systems to see how they respond to different stimuli. That is a kind of play experience you cannot have when part of your attention must be diverted to interacting with people in real time. Focused awareness, perception, analysis, and planning are personal activities that constitute a fundamental form of human expression unlike any other. Systems-focus, like other human capabilities with real-world utility, can be enjoyed through play, even if that's usually more fun for introverts than extroverts.

Why try to exclude either of these forms of expressive play?

How does trying to deny the validity of either social or personal fun produce more games that are more satisfying to more people?

I fully endorse the creation of more computer games that get people having fun together in a room, even though I'll never be an extrovert.

Why shouldn't extroverts likewise support the development of some games designed to satisfy our equally human need to individually comprehend and creatively engage with deep dynamic systems?

Extroverts are awesome. Introverts need gaming love, too.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Some Challenges in Designing Games with Emergent Content

I like emergent play. I enjoy games in which surprising things can happen when different aspects of complex systems bump into each other.

I believe there can also be commercial value in games whose content emerges from system-interactions. Not only is interacting with such content fun for gamers like me, it's also valuable to smaller programming teams who simply can't crank out the vast amount of content needed by a game with pre-determined events and narrative.

But having this long-standing interest in emergent-content play means that I can also see some of the potential difficulties of this kind of play. There are benefits to designing a game around emergent play. But there are risks and gotchas that need to be understood and addressed as well.

1. Emergent content is not for everyone.

Not everyone likes emergent play. A lot of people --maybe most people -- playing games today prefer well-understood rules and outcomes. They don't want to be surprised.

For example, consider the players who think of "crafting" in a MMORPG as manufacturing lots of identical widgets to compete in a sales game. If you implement crafting to have emergence, you're saying that you won't always know exactly what you're going to get... but that's pure evil to the manufacturing/sales-oriented player because it means that they're "losing" resources every time something gets made that isn't exactly what they expected.

Another example is Minecraft. Minecraft certainly has emergence -- the time my niece rode a pig into a lava stream and set both of them on fire wasn't something I ever thought I'd see. So Minecraft is great fun for people (like me) who enjoy being surprised. It's also fun for the gamers who enjoy the sensation-oriented survival challenge. What it isn't so much fun for are the gamers who prefer clearly rules-based games with clear win conditions. These are the players who, since Minecraft launched, have expressed unhappiness that "I don't know what I'm supposed to do" and wanted things like character levels and "adventure mode" rules-based play. As Minecraft's developers have added those, Minecraft has now been said to have passed WoW in terms of total revenue... but it might not have done so without understanding that emergent play alone would not be enough to satisfy the gamers who like clear rules and win conditions.

It's OK to make games with emergence. But it's important to recognize that by doing so, you're limiting the audience for your game. If you're fine with that, awesome; if you think that emergence by itself will make your game broadly popular, though, that might need a re-think.

2. Emergent content is hard to balance.

Emergence is optimal for exploratory play. It can also be good for cooperative play. It's not good for competitive play.

Competitive play demands fairness, or at least the perception of fairness. Emergence works against that because it allows one player to experience content that another player probably won't. Emergent content lets one player "get stuff" that another can't. That creates a perception of unfairness, and that snuffs out any willingness to compete.

So it's important to understand that if you're determined to make a competitive game, then you either should not try to include emergent content, or at least be extremely careful in how you include it. If the world can generate things that one player might get that another might not, unbalancing the level of challenge for different players, then the typical competitive human player will probably find that extremely annoying.

There are ways to address this; the important thing is to recognize that it's a potential issue. Then you can think carefully about how to help your players feel they're playing a fair game.

3. Emergence isn't enough.

I'm not convinced that increasing emergence is sufficient to increase player engagement.

The word I usually use for this effect is "investment." Players who stay -- and keep paying -- are those who become invested in the world of a game. It becomes a place they enjoy being in, and want to come back to, and want to see more of. I think emergence can contribute to creating that sense of place; I'm just not sure it's the primary cause of investment. The appearance and sounds of a world also matter, as does the plausibility of the AI of non-player characters.

So, as one way of increasing the "feeling of place," I could agree with a judicious enhancement to emergent play. But I would suggest looking at emergent content as just one component among several for helping the world of a game feel more dynamic in a distinctive way, and thus increasing its ability to foster investment by more players.

4. You only pay once for an emergent game.

By making an emergent game, you're choosing to put all your money-generating eggs in one basket.

You can either make multiple non-emergent games with static content, or you can make one (or a very few) emergent games with dynamic content. Making just one game that players can happily play in for years (because new content keeps emerging) means you get one shot at their money as an initial sale, versus multiple opportunities if you make a larger number of smaller, fixed-content games.

This is why I feel pretty strongly that monetizing an emergent-play game needs to be done by putting a price tag not on the base game itself but on additional developer-created system expansions (things that add more dynamic elements into the world) and on player-created content that can be purchased by other players (for which you as the developer get a cut of each transaction).

If you're just going to sell the one game -- because it has emergent content -- then you need to plan to make your money on long-term, ongoing improvements to that game, not just on initial sales of the game itself. Frankly, I'm inclined to think that the best way to monetize a game like this is to give away the base game for free (to seed it as widely as possible into the general game-playing public) and plan to earn all revenue from nominal charges to download new dynamic elements and scenarios created by you and by other players.

I hope it's clear that these comments aren't just objections to designing games to have emergent content. I like emergent content!

I do think it carries some potential gotchas, though. Those need to be considered along with the possible benefits of making a highly emergent game.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

How System Shock Can Save the Computer Game Industry

The recent flap over Arkane/Bethesda/Zenimax taking over Prey 2 and possibly turning it into a "spiritual successor" to the original System Shock computer game by Looking Glass got me thinking: why does this matter? What is it about System Shock that makes this news important?

System Shock, along with Ultima Underworld and Thief (by Looking Glass) and culminating in Deus Ex (by Ion Storm), represented what I believe was a critical branch in the evolutionary tree of computer games. This branch of games took full advantage of the RAM in the PCs of the day to create worlds -- they simulated places filled with things expressing relatively complex interacting behaviors.

What this meant was that it was possible to create game worlds in which the environment itself allowed multiple viable solutions to gameplay challenges. The world of the game enabled different kinds of players to solve challenges in ways that satisfied their preferred play styles.

For example, is there a robot blocking your way? A game designed with the Looking Glass interactive-environment philosophy would let you solve that problem in many ways. Off the top of my head, you might:

  • destroy the robot by shooting it
  • destroy the robot by throwing an EMP grenade
  • sneak up on the robot to use your Deactivate Electronic skill to turn it off
  • toss a useless object to make a noise that distracts it to a different location
  • use your Hack skill to switch local robots to an offline state
  • use your Hack skill to make local robots friendly to you
  • use your Hack skill to activate a nearby forcefield that traps the robot
  • use your Hack skill to overload a power conduit that blows up next to the robot
  • lure some other opponent into the robot's range and let them destroy each other
  • bypass the robot by activating your Stealth skill
  • bypass the robot by crawling through a conveniently human-sized airduct
  • bypass the robot by crawling through the sewers
  • talk to a nearby human to convince them to give you the robot's shutdown code

Whether you prefer action, or conversation, or stealth, or exploration, the thing that distinguishes a Looking Glass-style game from others is that many or all those play style preferences are supported. The focus was on you, the player, and how you like to have fun.

That way of thinking about how to design computer games changed drastically after the emergence of the PlayStation and Xbox. Games after 2000 -- perhaps because of the RAM limits on the new (not-PC) primary target platforms -- started to sharply limit what the player could do. The gameworld got a little prettier but much shallower. You were given one path to follow and not much problem-solving freedom beyond one or two ways to just destroy everything along that linear path.

Modern games have taken away much of your creative liberty in an attempt to guarantee that you always know exactly what you're supposed to do next, and that you never need to introspect about how to do it because there's only one way available. We got fewer games encouraging real interactivity with a dynamic world, and more games consisting of a developer-dictated (and frequently overblown) story punctuated by long theatrical cutscenes. The player-focused System Shock was eventually stripped down to the showy and literally "on rails" BioShock: Infinite, and probably was the Marketing-driven source for the painfully dumbed-down Dead Space.

In short, AAA computer games became moderately interactive big-budget movies.

If you happen to be the kind of gamer who defines a game as a set of rules to beat, who hates not knowing what you're "supposed to do" to win as quickly as possible, and who enjoys action over thinking or feeling, then this transition was just giving you more of what you like. And there was nothing wrong with that, as far as it went. The action-oriented playstyle is just as valid as any other, and it is good that there were lots of games made that cater to it...

...but it was never the only valid playstyle. The only thing wrong with the shift to action games was that the gamers who do enjoy conversation and stealth and exploration -- solving problems by thinking and feeling -- got fewer and fewer of the games that they could enjoy. There certainly wasn't much publisher support for making Looking Glass-type games that were designed to support and reward multiple play styles!

Beyond Bethesda's open-world Elder Scrolls and Fallout games, and the occasional throwback (STALKER), the evolutionary branch of games implemented as systems generating emergent behaviors seemed to die out. And that was a huge loss to the whole game industry (and gamers) for the important reason that these games used the full power of the computer.

An interactive movie is an extended cutscene in which you have a little low-level freedom to make some tactical gameplay choices that won't affect the plot of the movie that the developer has decided you're to experience. The consoles have had just enough power to run games like that.

A true computer game is one that harnesses the power of the general-purpose computer to simulate a world, and then let you solve playful challenges in that world in your own way.

We need developers who will make more games in the Looking Glass style because those are the products that will distinguish computer games from different/older forms of entertainment such as movies. If computer games are ever going to be their own unique art form, they cannot just copy movies and slap a coat of mildly interactive paint on them. They need to use the full simulationist power of a real computer to create new worlds and unleash the creativity of players to interact in deeply human ways with those worlds.

It is important that Arkane/Bethesda/Zenimax appear to be ready to make a true spiritual successor to a Looking Glass game like System Shock because making player-centric games is the healthiest course for the whole computer game industry. This is the kind of game that, as other developers follow, will keep the industry alive by giving it its own identity apart from movies. Computer games that are highly responsive environments are something only computers can do. They are what computer games should be.

I hope Arkane can get past their self-inflicted PR wounds. I hope the next game from Arkane Austin really is the first of many true spiritual successors to System Shock and the other Looking Glass-style games.

Games that use the power of the computer to simulate dynamic worlds and free players to enjoy their own kind of fun in those worlds will save the game industry. Interactive movies won't.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Player Choices and the Jack-in-the-Box Effect

The idea that player choices in computer games can have consequences generated by the game in reaction to those choices is not a new or outlandish concept. In a way, that's the core of the feedback loop behind all computer games.

A choice and its consequence are usually jammed as closely to each other as possible. In first-person shooters, things start to happen on-screen as soon as you pull the trigger. The action/result loop can be even shorter in fighting games.

What happens, though, when choices and consequences are separated in time? What's the effect when the player performs some action or actions, and there's a consequence that pops up unexpectedly (but plausibly) from what the player did in the past?

A jack-in-the-box is a trivial example. The "jack-in-the-box effect" of older tanks bursting explosively after their ammunition was hit has a similarly short-term action/result connection. But computer games can make the jack-in-the-box effect more surprising. When a game presents the consequence some time after the player's action, the experience is less "I made that happen just now" and more "Hey, this game remembered what I did!"

Doing more to let games appear to remember player actions over longer stretches of in-game time is something I'd like to see used more often.

This could go in a couple of ways (or both).


One way is to let individual player actions be pretty trivial and pass without any special results, but respond to some preset level of accumulated related actions. Getting an achievement for shooting 500 opponents is an example of this, as is being granted access to previously gated content after raising "faction" with some in-game NPC organization. In this mode players usually know exactly what they're doing and what they'll get. And that works for conventional follow-the-rules games.

But wouldn't it be interesting not to reveal all the possible player actions that the game can observe and count, or the reactions of the game to certain combinations of accumulated player actions?

This might not be a good fit for conventional "you play it to beat it" designs -- players who enjoy those games will probably find surprises frustrating, rather than pleasant, and developers of such games generally don't like player creativity. Unexpected results for additive actions might be a very good fit, though, for a game where much of the pleasure is in the exploration of the gameworld and its internal systems.


The other way of "remembering" player actions is simply to set a flag for specifically detectable individual actions, then test that flag sometime later and trigger a consequence if the flag is set. This approach is often seen in computer roleplaying games. In Bethesda's Fallout 3, for example, the game plays out in slightly different ways depending on whether you choose to detonate the warhead in Megaton. A somewhat more exotic example is the way that your choices for Commander Shepard in the first and second Mass Effect games, as preserved in your final savegame files, are reflected in minor options in the second and third installments if you let them start by reading the previous savegames.

This mode of modeling memory could also be enhanced. Games could take important choices early on and deliver very different gameplay later on based on those choices. This is rare, but a very good recent example is in The Witcher 2. Your choice for Geralt toward the end of Act One dictates which of the two mutually exclusive Act Twos you get to play. (Not everyone was a fan of the specifics of that, but I think the idea itself was worth trying.)

The important thing about consequences for one-off player choices is that developers almost always want to plant big flashing neon signs around it: "Look! Important Choice Here! This Will Have Consequences!" That's not always a bad thing. In a typically mechanics-driven game where it's considered wrong to ever let the player be confused about anything, signposting an important choice simply meets player expectations.

Not flagging such choices might be OK (at least sometimes) in a more exploratory game, though. Part of the fun of exploration is figuring things out. This is why puzzles are common in games where the developers want to encourage exploratory play.

So in a game of discovery, maybe discrete player actions that have later consequences (minor or major) don't always have to be signposted. (There does need to be an obvious connection between the choice and the consequence, though. If the game doesn't clearly explain that the consequence flows from a specific action by the player, then it just looks random. In that case there's no value in implementing this feature. Realizing the connection is what makes a delayed consequence particularly interesting.)


In both of these cases it's a good idea to be up-front with players that choices they make may sometimes have important effects later on in the game, and players won't always know when they're making such a choice. Developers should be honest about this so that prospective players who absolutely hate not being able to control all outcomes understand that this may not be a game they'll enjoy. If that's done properly, then letting some actions have unexpected (but plausible!) consequences later could be a lot of fun for players who do enjoy interesting surprises.

Overall, I'm very happy to see games like Proteus and SoundSelf being made, and I'm looking forward to seeing how they evolve.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Where Did "Content Locusts" Come From?

The term "content locusts" came up today in a Google+ post by Richard Bartle discussing the direction of "free-to-play" online games.

This term content locusts has come into use as a shorthand way to decribe the phenomenon that, when a new computer game (especially a multiplayer online game) is released, there is a sizable subset of players who will begin playing that new game as soon as it's available, try to experience its primary content as rapidly as possible, and then move to a new game. The notion is that these players are like locusts -- they swarm a new game, buzzsaw through its content, and then fly away (often complaining that the game was "too short" or "too easy").

I remember having mentioned a few years back that the Achiever Bartle Type was most closely related to this behavior, mostly because the behavior seems keyed directly to the Achiever motivation that "game" means a challenge to be beaten.

That got me thinking: what was the earliest use of this term?

There are several forms of the basic idea. The earliest mention I could find of "locusts" in the context of computer games was a comment by "Wolfshead" (saved by Google on May 29, 2004) describing player guilds in EQ: "The EQ Devs were caught off guard by the tenacity of the uberguild phenomena. These guilds consumed content like locusts and in many cases actually tested major encounters."

The next mention showing up is by Mike Sellers at Terra Nova on June 13, 2005: "As far as I know instancing has been introduced to reduce the immersion-shattering practice of camping, lining up for spawn points, and seeing popular dungeons or hunting grounds having been essentially clear-cut by roving locust-like bands of players."

The first reference I can find that specifically links content, locusts, and Achievers was my "Will The Real Explorers Please Stand Up?" blog entry (inspired by the Terra Nova discussion of the same name from January through July of 2005): "Achievers tend to become bored quickly -- like locusts, they swarm to a new game, burn through anything resembling "content," then zoom off again to consume the Next Big Game."

According to Google, the first use of the specific term "content locusts" is in the "Time flies when you're having fun" post by Isabelle Parsley (AKA Ysharros) at the Stylish Corpse blog on November 24, 2009: "It takes work to provide a smorgasbord of content that the content locusts can NOM NOM NOM their blind hungry way through, but that the … let’s call them content slugs can enjoy much more slowly and completely."

Finally, the use of the term "content locusts" that ignited its widespread usage appears to have been the "Content Locusts Killed My MMO" article by the very same Isabelle Parsley at on January 27, 2012: "I like to blame the content locusts for this, at least to a large extent – that small percentage of players whose goal isn’t to experience content but to consume it as fast as possible as they race inexorably through a game."

Following that article, 2012 was littered with uses of the phrase "content locusts." And the design of SWTOR seems to have been directly related to how quickly the term entered general usage -- it's what most people who used the term were talking about.

Assuming anyone else is intrigued by this kind of linguistic archeology, can anyone else find earlier expressions of this idea?

Monday, March 4, 2013

Breadth and Depth in World Design

Let's say you've taken leave of your senses and have decided to create a computer game. More particularly, let's say this game you've decided to make will have as its setting a particular place in which things exist.

Congratulations! You've just decided to build a world.


Building a world means imagining and implementing stuff. The "stuff" of a new world consists of places, and of objects set within those places.

Having decided to create a computer game that exists as a world, you now get to decide what kind of world will best suit the sort of game you want to make.

If you want your newly-created world to emphasize action, you'll want most of the objects in your world to express rule-based behaviors like movement and damage status. You'll also want to provide ways for players to manipulate those behaviors, since having "verbs" that allow players to (usually destructively) manipulate objects is what allows them to feel active.

If you want your world to emphasize meaning, then you'll need to make some of your stuff look and (to some extent) act like people, or at least be artifacts created by people and imbued with emotional value. The appearance and characteristics of all places and objects should help to express their inner meanings.

If you want your world to emphasize interaction and problem-solving, then some of the stuff in the world will need to appear to have complex dynamic behaviors. These behaviors can emerge from simple internal behavioral rules, but they need to interact enough to create systems that have patterns but that can't be summed up in a wiki entry by the first person to encounter it.

These goals aren't mutually exclusive. You can have a game that emphasizes action and interaction (Minecraft), or meaning and interaction (Myst), or action and meaning (The Sims). It's even possible to build a world that provides all three of these modes of play. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is arguably a decent current example of this.

The pertinent thing about such multi-modal worlds is that they tend to be BIG. Big worlds are large places, and they are full of stuff... or as game developers like to call it, "content." How you choose to structure the content that defines the world of your game is the point of this article.


Most game developers choose to organize a big world either by breadth or by depth.

Breadth is about making a world whose navigable terrain is large relative to the player's character and that contains many objects. Open-world games such as Skyrim and Minecraft tend to feel like enormous places overflowing with objects.

A gameworld built for breadth will offer wide expanses of terrain and numerous "inside" locations with their own terrain. And all that terrain and all those interiors will have objects located on and in them (grass, rocks, plants, animals, furniture, tools, weapons, people, etc.). As a side effect of having to build large amounts of stuff, that stuff will mostly exist either as a static texture map (you can see it but you can't do anything with it), or as a usable item with a single, simple, predetermined effect.

Depth is about making a world whose places and objects have many details. Deep games don't have as many places or objects as in a broad game. But the places that are built are carefully constructed to feel lived-in like a family home in a Spielberg movie. And the pieces of stuff in these places will be tagged with highly relevant information, usually called "lore." The objects in a deep game will also typically be richly dynamic -- they'll have several "verbs," or different but plausible ways for players to interact with them as gameplay activities.

What most developers don't try to do is make a game that has both breadth and depth. They don't try to make a big world that's both very large (in spatial size and object count) and very detailed.

There's nothing that forces this as a design choice. But historically there have been two serious practical constraints: time and money.

Trying to make a big world that contains a lot of content is hard. Trying to make a big world that contains very detailed content is hard. Trying to do both (the thinking goes) doubles or trebles the required development time and money. So most developers of big worlds pick one structural approach and try to do it well.


Making either of these choices means a tradeoff.

Games that do breadth well -- they have physically large worlds filled with stuff -- are often critized as "shallow." Games that do depth well -- their places and objects are intricate and filled with meaning -- are criticized as inducing claustrophobia by not enabling the feeling of rapid and frequent motion.

Bethesda's post-Morrowind console-focused games (Oblivion, Fallout 3, Skyrim) are known for their breadth. The traversable area of these worlds is enormous compared to the linear environments of most games. But this size means they're often condemned as being shallow. The action and meaning and interaction are almost entirely surface-only -- what you can see is pretty much all there is.

In a couple of ways, that's an unfair criticism. Developers of games that use Bethesda's engine do try to include some depth in their games, in addition to the massive amount of broad content that needs to be created to fill the outdoor spaces and interiors. Objects in rooms, for example, are frequently selected and arranged to tell a kind of micro-story about the person whose place that was. Terminals and books abound, giving some emotional depth to the world through tiny stories.

Also, while it's true that these are exceptions to simply having lots of stuff, the need to fit a very broad gameworld into the constraints of a console imposes limits on depth. It's simply not possible, even if there were time and money enough to do so, to tag every object with information and to allow every object to be usable in multiple ways. Consoles enforce simplicity, which favors zone-loading breadth over information-dense depth. (Obsidian's Project Eternity and Chris Roberts's Star Citizen are two Kickstarted games that are meant to be both big and developed specifically for the PC. It will be interesting to see whether the removal of the console limits allows these games to be both broad and deep.)

Those defenses noted, the reality is that there just aren't many games that do depth well, even as the design emphasis.


Adventure games used to try for depth. Things in adventure games had stories, and behaviors, that you could discover if you took the time to click on them. Exploring this depth was often a necessity, in fact. The depth was built into the core game design; you could not win the game (without cheats) except by reading and interacting with the details of the world.

But this structural choice -- gameplay through investigating a small but information-rich space -- means less sensation of movement. There is vastly less of a kinesthetic sensation of energetic action in a deep game. Most of the "motion" is in one's mind. Designing that kind of game takes a very different kind of effort than designing a broad but shallow world.

Sometimes this led to simply clicking on pretty pictures, as in Myst. Later adventure games were dismissed as "hunt the pixel games" when they tried to make interaction with objects more of a gameplay activity requiring a physical challenge, rather than following a path toward greater exploratory or narrative depth.

In addition to feeling constrictive for gamers whose main playstyle interest is motion and activity, the work curve in deep games feels more like a sequence of high stairsteps. Every new place that is created in a deep game needs to be constructed with numerous very detailed and active objects. These objects must work on their own, they must contribute to the intended purpose of that particular space, and they have to support the theme of the overall world of the game. That's not a mechanical function that someone can be trained to do -- you need someone who can feel, and who is creative, and who can combine those talents to make moments that other people can feel. So adding even a single new space becomes a major undertaking in a deep game.

Compared to the generally smooth slope of the work to be done for a game with breadth, with many similar objects scattered over a large area, development of deep content is simply harder to produce.


The practical result of these structural effects is that big worlds tend to be broad (but shallow) because breadth is easier.

A small but deep world, by its nature, requires hand-crafting. When there are only a few places and only a few things in those places, every place and every thing will be seen and assessed on its merits. For the game to feel right, designers and storytellers need to carefully stage all the visible pieces.

A broad world can be filled with content using programmatic tools, then given a relatively simpler hand-crafting pass or two. Large swaths of terrain can be sculpted using terrain generation tools; vegetation can be "planted" automatically according to exposed terrain type; buildings and dungeons can be selected from a few pre-built models; and so on. There's still a lot to do, but the broad strokes on the canvas can be filled in by code that applies generative rules.

Another important reason why breadth is easier is that depth is about meaning. Programatically "planting" a tree object in a particular location in an open-world game might have some meaning if someone takes the time to go into that space and tweak the location and type of the tree to give it meaning in that place.

But it's just a tree -- just a nice-looking texture. And there are many thousands of such nice-looking objects to be placed in addition to all the other objects that need to be placed... and trying to give all such things emotional value takes time that just doesn't exist. (And let's be honest, the number of people who enjoy and are good at choosing and placing gameworld objects in ways that express meaning to gamers is probably extremely small.)

It's simply faster and easier to make a big space with lots of things in it that don't have any particular emotional content.


Not everyone has given up on depth as a viable structural option in games, however.

Richard Cobbett recently made a plea for more depth in a Eurogamer article, Saturday Soapbox: Hollow Worlds - Looking for "Look At". In this piece, he laments what today's games miss by not including the "Look At" feature. This ability to learn more about the details of places and objects was once common in text-based and point-and-click adventure games. But games increasingly emphasized action and excitement and motion. As they did, the very idea of stopping the action to learn more about the nature of the things in the gameworld became harder even to imagine.

Assuming it's implemented in any serious way, designing a look-at capability into a game creates the opportunity for more depth than is found in most of today's games. Games with exploratory and narrative depth are worth making. It will be interesting to see if anyone takes up Cobbett's challenge.

Another example of wishing for games that emphasize depth is the "One City Block" concept, as evangelized occasionally by Warren Spector. This is a game that is deliberately designed to limit the existing space of motion in the gameworld to just a single block of a city. In place of constant action and new sights, the variety and interest in a One City Block game would be found in the people and objects existing in this small patch of reality and the deep connections among them.

A potential example of this kind of design may be found in Gone Home, currently being developed by the small team that created the "Minerva's Den" DLC for BioShock 2. As in the best of the mature adventure games, Gone Home promises to reward players not for using physical dexterity to "beat" the game as quickly as possible (which is a perfectly valid playstyle satisfied by many current games), but for engaging with the deep world of the game at an emotional and intellectual level. This doesn't guarantee it will be a good game -- but it will be a different game than most of what's released today, and a deeper game, and that makes it worth watching.


Finally, is it possible to have both breadth and depth in a single game? Are there any work-organizing processes and technical capabilities by which a gameworld could be created within some reasonable time frame (say a year or two) that is both large and detailed?

One step in a positive direction is procedural content generation (PCG). To have both breadth and depth, developers need help with one of those two forms of content so that they have time to focus on the other. Since it's so much harder to define rules for meaning-filled (depth) content compared to expansive (breadth) content, having lots of both would seem to depend on creating tools that generate lots of good content.

Really large (broad) games already do this. Huge chunks of land can be generated randomly to an arbitrary level of complexity. This can be done by the developers, then hand-tweaked, in order to create a world (such as Skyrim) that is common to all players. Or it can be done dynamically, as in Minecraft -- this approach restricts placement of large, detailed structures, but it requires less data storage if world details are generated only when the player actually approaches that part of the world.

Random generation of fixed content can help greatly with providing a large amount of physical terrain. Once the first and second passes through the terrain generator are done, developers can then edit this base structure to individually adjust the look of key locations. They can then add objects (many, many objects) for yet more breadth of content. Finally, they can tag objects with meaningful deep content.

This is basically how Bethesda creates its Elder Scrolls and Fallout open-world games. Bethesda come as close as anyone to the ideal of a game that is both broad and deep... but in an ironic twist, it is the very breadth of these games that points out the shallowness of the characters and objects relative to how many of them there are. If these games were considerably smaller, the many small details of object placement and NPC behaviors would be better recognized and appreciated.

The downside to this method for trying to have both breadth and depth is that it's still almost as expensive as making a big, deep game purely by hand. Although random terrain generation helps, it's not really enough to reduce the number of people needed to hand-tweak the thousands of places and objects and actors.

Games that dynamically generate content have it even worse. While this approach makes it possible to enjoy spaces that are very large and that have lots of naturalistic "stuff" in them (rocks, trees, etc.), not generating content until the player is ready to experience it makes it impossible for the developer to hand-edit that content to add depth.


Handling both of these cases seems to drive at one question: is it possible to programmatically create depth?

Programmatically creating breadth is valuable. The more breadth that can be added using automatic systems, the more time is available for adding depth.

But the degree of difficulty is lower for breadth-creation rules. That's not to say it's easy; it's just easier to define rules that determine where and how to plop down places and objects (including people-shaped objects) than it is to imagine and apply the contextually-plausible information that gives those places and things and people emotional value.

As a general rule, anything to do with simulating people and people-related artifacts is hard. Automatically generating a forest is (relatively) easy; it's terrain and plants. There are even third-party tools like SpeedTree that help with this. If you're feeling energetic, you might add animals as well, whose impact on their environment is generally negligible. You can tweak those content elements for aesthetic or simulationist value, but it's still reasonably simple to generate lots of them according to predetermined and encoded rules.

Add people, though, and now you have the task of creatively imagining and representing the effects of human intentions and actions -- for example: roads (what kind? how should they run?), buildings (architectural style? size? purpose? proximity to other buildings? clean or filthy?), tools (what kinds of tools would different cultures use? where should they be placed outside or in a home? does the owner take care of them? does the owner have special feelings toward any of these objects?), and of course people themselves (who are they? what do they want? how do they feel about other characters? what actions are they capable of taking? what actions do they take given specific environmental phenomena?).

In a very broad game, adding people-related depth is an epic undertaking. When you have a cast of thousands, what are the rules that will let all those people behave like unique but still plausible individuals? An army of developers could hand-tweak each NPC, but that's expensive... and what if you want your game to add new characters over the course of play?

Some developers are working with the physical aspect of supplying meaningful depth to human-related content. Miguel Cepero, for example, is already doing some very interesting work with procedural generation of architecture. I expect commenters can provide plenty of examples of other efforts along these lines.

And the good folks at Storybricks are still working on ways to allow interactive emotional connections and behaviors to be dynamically generated among NPCs. This remains very much a work in progress, but it's one of the steps in the direction of games that can be both broad and deep.

For now, though, the problem remains: how do you encode the creativity and aesthetics of game developers as generative rules so that the people and things in a game can dynamically produce their own depth?


I may come back to this in a future blog post. For now... suggestions and ruminations are welcome.