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Absurd Doubts

Dream Should we entertain our most absurd doubts? If we do not, we risk becoming fanatics, but if we do, we risk undermining the foundations of our own sanity.

Nietzsche observed that all philosophy since Descartes had been a philosophy of doubt, and there is much to this claim. Descartes had said, in the 17th century, “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” But to doubt all things is a vast and dangerous challenge – for it means that one must doubt not only one’s beliefs, but whatever one takes as fact or tenet, and even one’s sense of self, without which we are vulnerable to the disintegration of our personality. 

Our most absurd doubts are the easiest to dismiss, and thus the hardest to entertain seriously. The absurd doubt of the theist, for instance, that their numinous experience of God does not correspond to the presence of God within the universe; that is, to doubt the existence or (more sophisticatedly) the sentience of God, for one can always have a God-concept that certainly exists, as in the case of the naturalistic pantheist for whom the universe and God are one. The equivalent absurd doubt for the atheist is that there might be some hitherto unconsidered idea of God that corresponds to something tangible – that God exists or (again, more sophisticatedly) that there is some sense in which the universe can be considered holistically sentient.

Yet for most of us, doubts about God (on either side of this fence) are quite natural; a mature theist knows that their idea of God is a product of their imagination, since as a mere human we cannot hope to actually conceive of God’s true nature – this is the essence of the divine mystery when seen from a theistic perspective. Similarly, a mature atheist knows that the products of our imagination can still be real – as in the case of our nations, the “imagined communities” described by Benedict Anderson, or our sense of identity, which by definition exists in our imagination. 

In our current cosmic imaginary, doubts about God are actually less absurd than doubts about the prevailing scientific beliefs. For instance, who dares doubt that the stars are super-hot balls of gas burning in the void of space? Who would be willing to entertain a truly absurd idea, such as the belief that the stars are alive? Yet this staunch faith in the current paradigms of science can lead to fanaticism as surely as any belief system, and scientific beliefs change far more rapidly than religious beliefs – the facts known to the Victorian scientist are quite dissimilar to those of a modern scientist. Plate tectonics – now axiomatic in geology – was dismissed as preposterous less than a hundred years ago!

To truly entertain our most absurd doubts is to wrestle with our very sense of reality. Back in 1995, after finishing my Masters degree, I was thrown onto an existential journey that skirted the fringes of madness and deconstructed the very tenets of my world. Beyond entertaining absurd doubts, I moved outside of belief entirely, to some other place – a tumultuous and dangerous place where nothing was certain, even my own identity. For forty days and forty nights, I hitch-hiked around the country, trying to recover something – anything – that could provide a secure foundation to build upon. I lost my faith in everything, including most damagingly, my faith in language, in the capacity for one mind to converse with another meaningfully. Regaining this belief – the belief that we can communicate – was the start of a whole new journey in my life.

Bertrand Russell wrote, in the early twentieth century, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.” Yet can we truly wish upon everyone that they begin to walk the path of the philosopher, the way of self-doubt? To truly explore one’s absurd doubts is to risk the descent into madness, and not everyone has the fortitude to survive such a journey. When we accept this – that philosophy is the concern of the few and not the many – we can begin to find the place for the philosopher within the world, to be willing to explore these absurd doubts and to find the wisdom within them.

The opening image is Branching Reflections by Vitor, which I found here, and is used with the implicit permission of the author (thanks Vitor!) who retains all rights to this image.

Introducing: Big Two

Do you know a version of the card game Big Two? Please leave a comment if you do.

Playingcards To take some of the pressure off the relentless pace of the Serials on Thursdays, I'm adding Card Games as a flipside option for the Thursday slot. This will provide opportunities not only to learn and study different card games, but also to explore the design elements of games that run on the most ubiquitous games hardware on the planet: a deck of cards. Any game designer who has never designed a card game is a fraud! There, I said it...

The first game I want to look at is hugely popular in East and South East Asia, and particularly in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. The game is usually referred to as Big Two in English, or Choh Dai Di (or just Dai Di) in Cantonese, but as with all card games, names vary depending upon who you speak to. At heart, Big Two is a climbing or shedding game like Crazy Eights or the charmingly vulgar-titled game of Asshole, which is popular among students on many different continents.

Players are dealt thirteen cards, with the objective of getting rid of all the cards in a series of rounds. Each round is played either in singles (lone cards), pairs, triplets or in five-card poker hands, with a strict sequence specifying which cards (or combinations of cards) are higher than each other. Unusually for card games, the lowest card is a 3 (specifically, the 3 of Diamonds) and the highest card is a 2 (specifically, the 2 of Spades) - hence the name, Big Two (Dai Di).

I will be writing my own version of the rules in a future week, but anyone who can't wait can check the version of the rules I used to learn the game, which can be found here. My thanks to Matt Mower for bringing this game to my attention in the first place.

I would like to set the arbitrary goal of teaching at least a dozen people to play this delightfully evil card game, which although intended to be played by four players scales down to an excellent two player version. To begin with I must ask: does anybody already know this game?

Please leave a comment if you are already a Big Two/Choh Dai Di player. Thank you!

My Words in Other Voices

Microphone03_2 There are few aspects of being a game writer which are truly rewarding, but the one shining jewel in the experience of writing for games is the amazing transformation that voice actors perform in bringing a script to life. Good voice actors – and there are many such people – can rescue a lacklustre script, invigorate an average script and immortalise a good one. It is not much of an exaggeration to claim that the appalling general quality of videogames narrative taken as a whole would seem even more dire were it not for the incredible work that voice actors perform in making dry text into living people and tangible emotions.

My first voice recording sessions were for Discworld Noir, which was also my first videogame script. I’d worked on the previous Discworld game, but not in a lead role. I was lucky to get a truly exceptional voice cast to work with. (I mentioned them briefly before, when I noted that three out of four of them worked on Mirrormask). I was also extremely lucky to have the Discworld author himself, Terry Pratchett, edit the script for the game (while on holiday in Australia) – with the minimum of tampering, Terry brought out the comedy in the script, and polished my rough work to a neat sparkle.

Rob Brydon, a Welsh comedian now most famous for the BBC comedy Marion and Geoff, provided the voice of the protagonist, Lewton, and several other minor characters. Since the game features a hard boiled monologue for the delivery of almost all information, including error messages, Rob had to endure a grueling week of recording several thousand lines of speech. One particular aspect of the script caused ever growing frustration: a mistake in the way the shooting script had been compiled meant that every door in the game produced a line of dialogue in the script: “After all, a door is just a door”. After reading this line about twenty times, it became Rob’s own personal hell. I can only hope that he has successfully blocked it from his memory in the years since!

Nigel Planer, probably still best known as the moping hippy Neil in the BBC comedy The Young Ones, was perhaps the most meticulously professional in his approach to the recording sessions. He spent some time getting the studio set up just perfectly to his requirements, then delivered all the lines with comfortable aplomb. There was no doubt he had done this sort of voice acting job many times before.

The voice of all the female characters in Noir, Kate Robbins, was a sheer delight to work with. She completed all of her lines in a one day session, delivering them with a glorious lustre and a seemingly infinite supply of accents. Carlotta, the femme fatale of the story, exudes a smouldering quality heightened by the lustrous accent Kate performed. Most amazingly, the script called for the troll diva Sapphire to sing a song (a pastiche composed and written by Paul Weir) which Kate recorded on the day, from the sheet music, without ever having heard it before. Classy!

Finally, my favourite of the voice actors for this game was Robert Llewellyn, most famous as the android Kryten in the BBC Comedy Red Dwarf (although he is also a writer of popular novels). Throughout the long recording sessions, I was keeping myself sane by tallying a scorecard for whose lines were getting the most lasts – mine, or those added by Terry in the editing phase. (In the end, we broke about even). One line in particular has stuck in memory: it came in Robert’s lines for the Butler, my favourite character in the game. The Butler – a savagely deadpan wit – introduces Lewton (the protagonist) to the Library at the Von Uberwald mansion, saying: “The Libraris Apocrypha is a collection of obscurities and rare volumes from across the continent. If knowledge were an animal, the Libraris would be a great dragon. Sir by the same scale would be kebab on an ant’s barbecue.” It cracked Robert up so much, we had to take a short break to restore order.

I’ve had many other voice sessions since then, but few so memorable. It was, however, a great personal honour to record the narrator script for Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition with Tom Baker back in 2004. (Do I need to make it explicit that Tom is most famous as the fourth Doctor in the BBC science fiction serial Doctor Who?) He arrived at the London studio where we were holding the recordings as larger than life as ever, and immediately launched into a discussion about the tone of the script, and the use of the word “inculcate” in the introduction. Later, after recording hundreds of narration lines with effortless aplomb, he launched into a random anecdote about somebody he had been involved in years before, then straight back into reading lines. There was something magical about the whole experience.

In the book I edited on Game Writing, Coray Seifert’s chapter on voice actors is called “Adding Magic”. Undeniably, that’s what the many great voice actors and actresses contribute to every game script they animate: a miraculous, supernatural talent to bring mere words into spectacular life. Our videogame stories would be utterly impoverished without them.

Why There Are No Great Game Stories

Sevensamurai01 Battle_beyond_stars

It is unfortunate that there are no great game stories. It would be nice, when people ask what I would single out for excellence in game narrative, to have some quick and easy retort; some title I could comfortably pull from memory with the confidence of many days repetition. But alas, I am at a loss to find anything in the literary history of videogames thus far that aspires to greatness. This is not to say that there are not good stories in videogames, nor that there are not excellent writers and narrative designers working in videogames – one of the toughest storytelling media around.

The thing about great stories, in any medium, is that they are not simply of their time – they’re timeless. Great stories can be told again and again, in many different settings and retain some hint of greatness. This said, there can be a marked difference in quality. Akira Kurasawa’s Seven Samurai achieves greater mastery of the cinematic form than Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars, despite the same essential plot (which achieved its greatest commercial success in John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven). Great plot. But as entertaining as Corman’s sci fi hokum may be, it is significantly shy of the subtlety of Kurasawa’s narrative. Seven Samurai doesn’t just have a great plot, it’s a great story; The Magnificent Seven does a decent job adapting it to a Western, while Battle Beyond the Stars is... well, fun.

And maybe that’s the problem. Battle Beyond the Stars, and practically any romping genre piece (space opera, fantasy quests, treasure hunters and so on) can be fun, but can’t quite aspire to greatness, because great stories, in the sense that literary critics mean, are about the human condition – the ineffable essence of life; diverse enough to fuel endless stories, and inescapably authentic. Most game stories are either silly fun, or clumsy revenge tales that facilitate violent power fantasies in the play of the game. Maybe fun stories are better suited to videogames because videogames (or at least, their commercial form) are about having fun?

Another problem – the seedy underbelly of videogames, in fact – is the repetition. Would you like to be running down a corridor shooting droves of enemies, or running through a forest hacking down droves of enemies (and then a mine... a desert... dungeons...)? Or you could optimise an economy over and over again, or drive down the street over and over again, or perhaps you could repeat a jump over and over again? Repeat until you get it right. Which is fun – for a surprisingly large number of people. 94% of gamers say they are okay or good at completing repetitive tasks, and over a quarter of these say they find it very easy.

(Not to mention repetitive tasks are habit-forming, essentially by definition: if you learn to do it over and over again, you’ll keep doing it as long as it’s fun. And understandably, habit-forming games sell better – or at least, sell more reliably.)

Most successful videogames involve repetition – either to learn the skills to progress, or to hoard the supplies (including experience in cRPGs) needed to succeed. Great stories thus far in history have never been as repetitive as videogames, which makes it difficult to know how one would make a great story in this new form. But I think we can be pretty certain it isn’t by any of the methods we’re currently using – not by the tacked-on animated movie, neither by the well-orchestrated spookhouse ride, nor the pulp adventure story shuffled into a game. We have found many ways to make fun games, and indeed there are many great games, and some such games have good stories. But still no great stories, alas.

Yes, it’s unfortunate that there are no great game stories yet, but isn’t it exciting to see how things might develop? 


Having trouble sequencing my content for this week... I have an introductory piece on the DGD2 data to put up - but when? I want to get my Round Table entry up on Wednesday before the month is out, and I have a piece for Tuesday which should lead into it nicely. That leaves me uncertain what to do with the DGD2 post - hold it for Friday, or for next week? Post twice on Wednesday, maybe? None of these outcomes are particularly pleasing.

  • Thanks for all the comments about chance in games last week... Not quite ready to write about luckgames in general terms, I think, but we're getting there. A few more examples of non-gambling games clearly dominated by luck (such as Bejewelled) would really help.
  • I enjoyed the Serial format that came through for Thursdays in the Winter, but it was a bind to have to keep them going contiguously. So to give me some wiggle room, I'm going to try switching off between Serials and Card Games on Thursdays, I think.
  • Having great success digging into the neurobiology of play; the work I did linking Lazzaro to Callois is now paying off - the patterns of play link via the emotions to various biological substructures. More on this soon enough, I'm sure.
  • Not playing much at the moment except for Virus Buster (the stylus-driven version of Dr. Mario in BrainAge). Fiendishly compelling.
  • It's been so long since my wife and I had a chance to play Super Mario Galaxy, it makes me wonder if we can get back on the horse and finish the game or not. We only need a handful more Stars, and yet...

Have fun everyone!

Happy Spring Festival!

Spring_equinox It's the Vernal Equinox, which means all sorts of wonderful religious celebrations this weekend! So let me wish you all (in order of establishment) a Happy Narouz (Zoroastrian New Year), Purim (Jewish festival), Holi (Hindu Spring Festival), Magha Puja (Thai Buddhist festival), Easter (Christian festival), Mawlid (Islamic festival), Hola Mohalla (Sikh festival) and Ostara (Wiccan Spring Equinox)!

The photo is Spring Equinox, by Chris Picking, which I found here, and depicts the vernal equinox from the southern hemisphere.

The Error on War

Some believe that warfighting is a tool that can be used against terrorism. Yet suicide attacks happen as a response to foreign occupation, and civilian casualties - unavoidable in war - create new terrorists. If there are effective solutions to terrorism, they are more likely to be found in civil counter-terrorist operations and tangential diplomacy. Inequalities drive terrorism: to defeat terrorism, eliminate inequalities.

Another mistake would be to blame the reckless invasion of Iraq solely upon the Bush administration. Certainly, they are culpable, but it's important to remember that the news services in the United States sold the story to the people. We all expect politicians to push their own agendas, but shouldn't we expect  the media to provide a counterbalance to this? Journalists had choices in how to present the story, and they chose to focus on the terrible situation in Iraq, which evoked the sympathy of the people, making invasion seem morally acceptable. I contend the media had a duty to explore the question of whether or not invasion was justified - to consider the ethics of war - a duty that most prominent journalists abjectly failed.

A "War on Terror" is easy to win - simply stop being afraid. As a native of the British Isles, I grew up with terrorism in the background of my life, mostly from the IRA, and this perhaps has made it seem less frightening to me: yes, I might be killed by a terror attack, but I am more likely to be killed in a car accident, die from a fatal disease, or (for that matter) to be suddenly vapourised in a meteor impact. If you are afraid of being killed by terrorists, you are losing the "War on Terror".

Eleanor Roosevelt once said:

You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.

Her husband, the 32nd President of the United States, stated in his first inaugural address:

...the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

How far from this noble spirit have we fallen!

Outlands (Tabletop RPG)

Pilot I'm pleased to announce that after a decade of being out of print, my second tabletop RPG, Outlands (last published in 1995), is now available once again on the Discordia Incorporated website. You can find the PDF version of Outlands here. None of the illustrations are included, alas, but all of the text and tables are reproduced faithfully.

The purpose of Outlands was to take a variety of different classic science fiction sources - including Aliens, Angel Station, Blade Runner, Dune, Outland, Wetware and Blake's 7 - and merge them into a melange that would present a coherent science fiction setting, in the way that Dungeons & Dragons did with fantasy sources. Oddly, while D&D is usually not criticised for incorporated Orcs, Outlands was criticised at release for including the Fremen (from Dune) as a playable race, which makes me wonder if people are more open to amalgam backgrounds in fantasy than in science fiction.

Outlands is fairly mechanics heavy, and has a detailed character generation system that some players love (and play as a game in itself!) while others find it too complex and long. It's also the only game I know of which offers the possibility to play an animal species that has been artificially raised to sentience (with the possible exception of Paul Kidd's Albedo, but then, you can't play a human in Albedo!)

Some of the mechanics - such as those describing the singularity shots used to pilot from star system to star system - are effectively mini-games embedded within the larger framework. Perhaps the most interesting part of the background is the capacity for an individual to take a copy of their personality engrams via a wetdrive and upload them onto drones, or leave a copy at a Neozen temple so that they can still be spoken to after death. My favourite mechanics are those for generating stellar systems (p108-114), which I created while studying Astrophysics at Manchester University, and might be the most realistic rules of their kind.

My thanks to Peter Crowther for faithfully keeping the backup from which the game was rescued, Chris Keeling for an incredible repair job on the manuscript, and Neil for putting it up on the site.

Play with Fire: Post Mortem

Fireball_bar2_1 Back in 2005, I began to have ideas about how to make very stripped down, cheap to develop games that would be interesting enough that they might make some money in the budget market. Of the many “verb game” ideas we originally had, one of them stood out as the easiest to get under way, and that was Fireball, the game that would become Play with Fire. (We weren't able to use the name Fireball owing to an IP conflict with a curmudgeonly fellow on the Isle of Man).

This post examines the many things that went wrong with this project – and also the many things that worked out nicely.


1. No Money

By far the biggest problem that the project faced was the lack of budget. Now even from the outset, the plan was to develop cheaply – but I had originally been thinking $50,000 for a budget PS2 title (coming in at the end of the PS2’s life cycle, when there is the maximum possible installed base and a great opportunity for budget titles). In fact, we did have a deal with a European publisher to fund us for the full $50,000 – but for reasons that we will touch upon shortly, we never saw this money, the PS2 version had to be scrapped, and at that point the project was somewhat doomed.

The version we made had a budget of about $5,000. On the whole, it is miraculous that we delivered anything!


2. No Passage to India

We set up a new developer in India – Fantasy Labs – to work on this project, and began working with Sony in London to find a way to get a PS2 devkit to India. This turned out to be monumentally difficult! Sony wasn’t the problem – they were actually tremendously helpful and supportive – Indian customs were the point of tension.

Perhaps if we’d been a larger company we could have greased the wheels better, and found a way, but without getting the devkit into India we couldn’t get the budget for the PS2 version, and eventually the battle had gone on for so long that the publisher in question had to break the news that it was too late to develop a budget PS2 title.

We were disconsolate, but at least we could ship the PC version.


3. No Tweaking Phase

Yet there was a major problem with the PC version: we didn’t have the money to finish it. The most important stage in any game is tweaking and blind testing, when you sit it down with players and observe their reactions to the game. This phase allows you to eliminate any confusion on the part of the player, smooth any rough edges, and generally streamline the play of the game.

AAA games get months and months of tweaking time – in Nintendo and a few other places, games have the luxury of not being released until they are just right.

We had a zero-length tweaking phase. I conducted three blind trials with the game – but without the budget to pay for the programming work to fix the problems found, it was pointless continuing. Despite knowing we had problems that needed to fix, there was nothing that could be done about it.

(One particular problem haunts me: the Puzzle Path, which many players will struggle to enjoy, is directly in front when the game begins. Most players end up trying this Path first, and get very confused. I really wanted to make the Fun Path be directly in front – this Path is easiest to understand, and comes with essentially no risk of failure. But without the money, we couldn’t get even this simple fix made).


4. Spiraling Code Base

Additionally, we had a problem with the code base. Fantasy Labs had another development contract at the time, which was helping meet the bills. But this project required a much more complicated code base than Play with Fire, and sadly a decision was made somewhere to keep both projects on the same code base. This meant that the project was constantly being remade as the code base for the other project was refined, giving no end of development problems.


5. Too High Spec

By far the most devastating of the problems resulting from the spiraling code base was that the final game turned out to be too high spec for players in our target audience to be able to play the game! Ironically, the development tool set ran on any more machines than the final game – some people who worked on the project have never seen the finished game running!

Depressingly, this has had the most negative effect on the project. While we have had many downloads from Manifesto Games, the vast majority were unable to get the game to run.



1. Verb Game Method

The basic idea of the “verb game” methodology was to identify some unusual verbs with playful aspects, and develop these in isolation into a game. I believe this worked brilliantly, and I’d do it again if we had the budget.

The original plan – to be developing games in less than six months, and to have a portfolio so we were not dependent upon the success or failure of any one title – was completely sound. But of course, without the money we couldn’t follow through.

Nonetheless, I believe the strategy was sound, it was simply the implementation which let us down.


2. Arson IS fun!

Burning things to the ground in Play with Fire is tremendously entertaining once the player knows what they are doing. I believe there’s potential for a future game to build on this mechanic, although I very much doubt it will be done by us.

The play of the game is really quite original. Although some of the platforming elements work similarly to conventional platform games, this is the only game I know of that has serious consequences when you jump around indiscriminately, since the platforms you touch can burn to the ground shortly afterwards, along with any others that are connected to them!

Just watching the flames spread through a big object like the Trojan Horse in ‘Helen’, or the Houses of Parliament, or a WWI biplane is inherently satisfying.


3. Multiple Paths

The multiple paths to allow for players to play in different ways was a sound idea – but alas no information is provided to the player to judge how to approach this. This was a product of the lack of tweaking phase, already mentioned. Despite this, the basic idea of structuring the game to be played in different ways while using the same engine emerges as a sound concept.

Anyone can play the Fun Path and get some enjoyment from it, while Fiero-seeking players have the Challenge Path, and players who prefer cerebral riddles have the Puzzle Path. Despite the problems, I’m still pleased with how this worked out, although doing it again I might be tempted to offer a more explicit mode select screen.


4. Open Pool

The reason the multiple paths approach worked to some extent was the tremendous talent of the Open Pool – a group of non-professional level designers who worked on the project in return for a share of revenue (at least on paper – in practice, without the PS2 version we were never going to see good numbers).

The open pool method worked something like this:

  1. Firstly, we invited people to get involved, specifically looking for people who had not worked professionally in videogames before. About two dozen people registered, signed the license agreement, and were given the tools.
  2.  Of these people, only about a quarter actually produced anything like a working level. But those that did get to grips with the tools immediately started producing interesting material.
  3.  Just three or four of the members of the Open Pool contributed 60% of the material in the final game (I made 40% of the levels myself), but the quality of the best levels submitted were far better than anything I could have made.
  4.  We gave letters to the biggest contributors promising them a share of revenue proportional to their contribution to the project.

This basic method is a brilliantly simple (and cheap!) way of developing game materials, and one that I believe has further potential. Patrick Dugan (who was one of the most productive members of the pool) dubbed it “the Bateman Method”, which as a Brit I find slightly embarrassing, but it underlines the confidence we have that this approach could be used successfully.

I want to take this opportunity to thank Maurizio Pozzobon, Patrick Dugan, Ian Tyrrell, Marc Majcher, Wil Evans and Toby Everett once again for their contributions to the project – you were the best part of the development process, by far, and I loved seeing your ideas come out in the game! I also want to thank ihobo troubleshooter Neil Bundy for getting involved in the level design late in the game, and also my wife, Adria, for making a simple level!


5. Recognised as Art!

And finally, it is a cause for minor celebration that Play with Fire was featured at IndieCade in Sheffield. We may have lost money making the project, but it’s nice that what we made has been recognised as being artistically interesting.



Although there were many problems that dragged this project down to the point of commercial obscurity, I don’t regret pursuing it for a second. This was the first time I have controlled every aspect of game development, from production and design through to marketing and legal, on a single project – and the first time I’ve used my own money to fund a project. I learned a lot from having this opportunity, and more than that, I am actually really pleased with Play with Fire despite its problems.

There is a great game, buried under the hardware problems and the confusing initial experience, one that I hope will be fondly remembered by the small audience the game has received. If you have a machine that has the necessary spec, and you haven’t tried Play with Fire, why not give it a go? The demo is available from the Manifesto Games site, and is free. (It’s $20 to unlock the full game). You really need to see the game running to appreciate it – screenshots don’t capture the carnage of watching the flames spread! (Just remember to try the Fun Path first - it's on the left when you start!)

I’m glad to say that we set out to make a game about burning things to the ground, and with the help of the Open Pool, the good people at Manifesto Games and a bit of luck, we succeeded.

My infinite thanks to everyone who helped on the project!

Designing Luck

Dice All card games rest upon chance as a primary source of play, as do the vast majority of commercially successful board-games – so why are videogames less commonly found relying on chance and luck as a central mechanic? Let us explore briefly the question of designing games of luck.



This post is part of an ongoing sequence developing a new (and disposable) taxonomy of videogames, largely as a spur for discussion. The following posts are worth a look if you haven’t seen them already:

  • The Rituals of Alea: the original post about Roger Caillois’ play pattern “alea” (games of chance) – essential groundwork for this discussion.
  • Emotions of Play Revisited: a new look at the connections between emotions (and Nicole Lazzaro’s work) and Caillois’ patterns of play.
  • Wargames: the first of the new taxonomy pieces.
  • Rushgames: the second of the new taxonomy pieces


The Appeal of Luck

Believe it or not, games of luck have wider appeal than games of skill – evidence for this can be found in the vast revenues made by the gambling industry. The global gambling industry had a turnover of $950 billion in 2001 (this figure has almost certainly risen in the last six years). By comparison, the global videogame industry is worth about $30 billion, and the global movie industry is worth $27 billion (just based upon box office receipts; DVD sales add another $5 billion or more). In other words: gambling is worth fifteen times more than videogames and movies combined!

Furthermore, TV game shows based on luck are phenomenally popular. For almost as long as TV has been around, Mediterranean nations have had game shows which under the hood are essentially games of chance. Even in the United States, where the dogma of competition and meritocracy dominates all aspects of the culture, “Wheel of Fortune” remains the most watched syndicated show on television, and the successful export of Endemol’s franchise “Deal or No Deal” to the US shows beyond a doubt that luck sells.

The secret: universality. Only a competent player can be victorious in a game of skill, but anyone can win a game of luck. But there is more to chance in games than just this aspect of accessibility.


Sources of Play

There are essentially two sources of play that any game can draw upon: the first is chance, which can be seen most clearly with a game like Beggar-my-Neighbour (AKA Strip Jack Naked) or Snakes & Ladders which use only chance to drive play. The second is choice (or design), which we see in any FPS game, for instance, which eliminate all random elements (excluding, perhaps, as a driver in AI) and place the player in a tightly controlled environment.

There are few if any card games that do not use chance as the source of play; this is inherent in the nature of card games. The player learns a small set of rules, and then operates within these mechanics to process randomly generated hands in a certain way, wherein the fun of play can emerge – either by offering interesting choices for play, or by generating interesting situations within the play. (Even though the player does not choose to play an Ace in a hand of Beggar-my-Neighbour – it is turned over as the next card – it is still fun to do so; there is the schadenfreude of making the other player suffer, for a start!)

If we extend our attention to include board games, and in particular the hobby games which are the more interesting part of that commercial field (since selling “reskinned” Monopoly sets is about marketing, not about game design), we can see that successful games in this market almost always draw upon chance. There are classic strategy games like Chess, Draughts and Go that have no random elements, but these are invariably a smaller market than those games that do draw upon chance to drive play – a new non-random board game can't offer much more than Chess or Go already offers, so it would be competing with a dominating established brand. Most, such as the short lived 1979 board game Kensington, vanish without a trace. I should perhaps acknowledge that chess sets probably do make up a big market share in the board game market, but the point remains: if you want to make a new commercially viable boardgame, it will include chance either via random tiles, a deck of cards, or by dice.

Does the same thing happen in videogames?


Chance in Videogames

The second most successful videogame of all time uses chance as its source of play – Tetris (33 million units on GameBoy, admittedly on the back of bundling with the handheld unit, but even without this, Tetris remains one of the most popular videogame of all time). Indeed, almost all puzzle games share this facet: Bejewelled and Bust a Move also draw upon chance as the primary driver of play (although there is a strong design factor in the latter), and it is difficult to find exceptions. Lemmings is a notably unusual case – although the appeal here can be traced in part to other factors.

What’s interesting about this link to puzzle games is that the connection – both in terms of play and in terms of popularity – between card games and puzzle games becomes apparent. Both are formed around similar principles: a small set of rules that mediate the way the player deals with a randomly generated sequence of cards, tiles, bubbles or what have you. I might go so far as to say that if you want to make a successful “Casual game”, you would do better to study the way people play solitaire card games than to study anything that happens on a Sony, Nintendo or Microsoft platform.

So why do we not see more use of chance in other videogame genres? The answer appears to be twofold: firstly, a widespread (but not universal) prejudice among game designers and programmers against chance that is probably connected to a micromanagement mentality, and secondly, a pragmatic quality assurance (QA) problem.

Games which use chance such as card games and puzzle games essentially represent atomic systems, which need to be tested and balanced in a variety of different ways. This is a viable QA task, because the scope is constrained. But consider what happens when subsystems in a larger game switch to random sources – consider (for instance) what would be implied in a subsystem that gave randomly generated monster distributions in the rooms of an FPS: the QA workload would be exponentially higher as a result of this. A single configuration could be checked in one pass, while a random configuration might not be fully checked in a thousand passes.

This resistance from QA is actually a powerful and necessary force inside the games industry, and arguably the reason that games drawing up on chance are found principally outside of the console market. Game designers love to posit design ideas that will generate “a different game every time” – but such games rarely make it through to the upper market. Games of this kind are much more commonly found as independent games, which by nature of their lack of budget have reduced scope, and thus inevitably fall into the comfortable arena of just one major randomly-driven system to balance and tweak. (Strange Adventures in Infinite Space springs to mind as an example).

The exception? Treasure tables in cRPGs and MMORPGs (think: Diablo, the game that spring-boarded Blizzard into the big time). These do employ chance as the major driver, and the QA implications are bridged by the simplicity of the mechanics involved (which are rarely more than the equivalent of a dice roll compared to a table). Animal Crossing manages to use this same random "treasure" mechanic without any violent play elements, and has outsold all but the most successful cRPG titles (8 million on DS, beaten only by Final Fantasy VII's 10 million and the Pokémon franchise's sales which go up to 14 million for Gold and Silver). Note how these exceptions reinforce the idea of the inherent appeal of chance as a mechanic within games.


You, Chance and Games

And now I must turn the discussion over to you. I have noted several instances of the use of chance to drive play – outside of videogames we have card games, board games, luck-based game shows and gambling games; inside videogames, puzzle games and treasure in cRPGs and toyplay sims. But there are doubtless situations that are using chance I have overlooked.

What other situations have you seen where a game has drawn upon chance to drive play? How successful was the attempt? Did it create play you enjoyed, or play that you hated? What is the most fun you have had with luck? What is the least? How much do you think your experiences – positive or negative – reflect your taste in games, rather than a deeper fundamental aspect of play?

At some point, the decision has to be made as to whether this new (disposable) taxonomy requires genres equivalent to Caillois’ “alea” – what I would end up terming luckgames. But while Caillois’ alea is still quite clearly a powerful force in play in general, it is not so clear that within the context of videogames a genre based on luck will hold water – especially when the main contender (puzzle games) can also be seen as rushgames. But then again, Bejewelled is not obviously a rushgame – but it is clearly a luckgame.

What do you think? Discussion in the comments is both welcomed and encouraged!