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Welcome to Frog Fractions 2. You'll learn all about Fractions 2!
Welcome to Frog Fractions 2. You'll learn all about Fractions 2!
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Design lessons: Preserving a Sense of Discovery in the Age of Spoilers

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I gave this talk at the Game Developers Conference this year! It didn't get recorded for the GDC Vault, so I decided to re-record it and post it here, as a way to communicate some of the design philosophy behind Frog Fractions.

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    1. Missing avatar

      Joshua Carmody on June 18, 2014

      That was very interesting. Thanks.

    2. Missing avatar

      Riff Conner on April 9, 2014

      On the topic of interface lies (one of my favorite things too!) it's worth mentioning one of my favorite historical games, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and one of my favorite modern games, Virtue's Last Reward. (Spoilers for both, though if anyone seriously hasn't played SotN yet, what the hell man.)

      In SotN, you were given a completion percentage that counted up to 100% as you made your way through the castle and to the final boss. If you stopped after beating him, though, you would have thought the ending was kind of anti-climactic. (I sometimes wonder how many people stopped playing there, and remained disappointed.) More thorough exploration and experimentation presented a way to /save/ Richter, whereupon you were presented with an entire second (upside-down!) castle, and the completion percentage continues to count up to *200%*. By poking around in corners you weren't really expected to mess with, you could even get to 200.6%. Beautiful.

      Virtue's Last Reward is a visual novel concerned with parallel universes. Every now and then, you get to make a choice, which affects what conversations and events happen. In many of these paths, you acquire information that is only useful in a different story branch / parallel universe, which you can only get to by starting over and making a different choice. The developers facilitated this by giving you a flowchart-style map showing all of the game's branches and story nodes, which lit up as you experienced each one, and you could tap lit nodes to go back there, to make it easy to return to the choice points without playing the whole story from the beginning. But the map as initially presented is a lie; there are quite a few more nodes and branches than what you're initially shown, and quite frequently just when you think you're about to get to an ending because you're near the end of a branch, a whole new column of nodes appears.

    3. Dylan Martin on April 8, 2014

      You can also have a game that is so rich with interesting things to learn in their own right that it is fun to research, there is some enjoyment to be had in the feeling of exploring a game in one hand then flipping through a wiki or a guidebook in the other. Experimenting with crafting for the first time in Minecraft is quite the experience, but then being given the entire recipe book can be so exciting that it compensates for the loss of mystery. Ni No Kuni attempted to deliberately build this aspect into the game, including an almost required guide and lore book with the DS version, but a far more cryptic game like Dark Souls does a much better job of making you feel like some lost adventurer attempting to point themselves in the right direction while pouring through tomes of lore and guides.

    4. Madopal on April 7, 2014

      One more thing: games that ended also started the trend away from mystery. Newer games could hint at more there (maybe you missed a few items or something), but it felt more limited then having a game end when the player dies. However, a game that just keeps going...you never know if there's something there you've missed.

    5. Madopal on April 7, 2014

      BTW, for adventure games: I think a lot of the mystery was lost when it went from text adventure to point & click. Text adventures had it possible that the system could respond to *anything*. Point & click boiled down to a combinatorial puzzle mixed with pixel hunting.

      I love me some old school LucasArts games, but they never had that sense of "whoa" that you got when you figured out the "no tea" puzzle in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

      Also wanted to say that the idea of the false ceiling is similar to a theory I had about pulling back the curtain. I remember a game like Golgo 13 for the NES. You played a bunch through, thinking you got the engine, and then about 6 hours in, the game threw you a curveball with a completely different game play mechanic.

      Most modern development would never do things like this, and you did it very well in Frog Fractions. The counter argument from marketing/bean counters is "if we're going to spend the money developing it, we want everyone to see it." That always smacked of blowing your hit singles at the beginning of the album and having nothing left. There's nothing that builds game reputation like blowing a player's mind, and having the climax in the first few hours sure isn't the way to do it.

    6. Twinbeard Creator on April 7, 2014

      I played Star Control 2 for the first time maybe five years ago, and I was extremely impressed. The world sprawled everywhere and yet my own play experience felt very focused: never so few clues that I got stuck, and never so many that I felt overwhelmed. (More recently, the Gamecube game Chibi Robo impressed me in the same way.)

      In hindsight, it's actually more impressive to me that the developers were forward-thinking enough to allow players to skip the combat if they wanted to. Twenty years later, most developers still don't have the confidence to say that yes, even if you take out the central gameplay mechanic we worked so hard on, our game is still worth playing.

    7. John on April 7, 2014

      Thank you for this talk, James. I think the game that I remember most favorably as an example of mysteries done right is Star Control 2. There were so many things to discover in that game, and so many mysteries - starting with some obscure entries in the manual's index! Some things you had to figure out on your own through putting together the puzzle, and other things just weren't answered. That feeling when I'd deciphered enough of the Orz speech to really understand them was the best, and most memorable moment in my gaming life.

      On the other hand, and I mean no offense to any of its developers if they're here, I don't think I've ever been more disappointed with a game than I was with Star Control 3. They left no question unanswered, and most of the answers were less fun than what we (my friends and I) had speculated.

    8. Free Lives Games on April 7, 2014

      Thanks so much for sharing these thoughts. It's solidified, and given vocabulary to, some of the feelings I've been having about game design (I'm working on a game called "Broforce" and I want to build a mysterious world for it).

      Easily the best talk I've heard in the last few years (for me). I found it genuinely revelatory.

    9. Missing avatar

      Sleet
      Superbacker
      on April 7, 2014

      This was awesome! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this stuff. While I'm no programmer, I can definitely see this being useful in any other tales I might want to tell through other forms.

    10. Ben Serviss on April 7, 2014

      Thanks for this! I missed your talk at GDC and seeing this pop up as a backer update is a nice surprise :)

      I second Aaron Brown's example of Icarus Proudbottom Teaches Typing as taking a narrative left turn that keeps you guessing. This is also a huge part of why I'll always hold the first Metal Gear Solid game in incredibly high esteem - the packaging and marketing made it out to be a typical spy game, but almost immediately everything goes to hell and things get complicated in incredible ways.

      I love the idea of developing puzzles and solutions that don't travel well, like the Fez example. It would be awesome if there some kind of 'uncertainty puzzle' where, the more people who post the solution online, the more the solution changes to render the crowdsourced answer incorrect. I'm sure it could be done with the always-on nature of everything nowadays :)

    11. Twinbeard Creator on April 7, 2014

      Here's a transcription of the talk. Thanks to Alex Remington! http://postproductdev.com/2014/04/07/jim-crawford-on-making-games-more-mysterious/

    12. Missing avatar

      Dan Sanderson on April 7, 2014

      Excellent talk, and an exciting thesis for FF2. And thanks for timing the Kickstarter campaign window to overlap with this, so I could realize I haven't given you enough money and double my pledge.

    13. Twinbeard Creator on April 7, 2014

      I'm not so worried about protecting the game from secret dumping, because the way the internet proliferates secrets is a much bigger and more important problem to address.

      I haven't played Hack and Slash yet, but yes, that's what I've heard -- you can "crash" it and the underlying engine can recover, and that's just part of the game. Maybe a more explicit example of what you were talking about, Johnicholas.

    14. Missing avatar

      Aaron Brown on April 7, 2014

      thought provoking mr twinbeard. impatience as the enemy. Couple thoughts, is the difficulty in protecting a game from secret dumping related to the difficulty in anticheat or DRM from a systems point of view? Also glitching on purpose requires a level of control when programming the system and knowledge of where it goes south. Kinda an obfuscated C contest level of obscurity would be quite something, almost a meta game to break into it. HacknSlash from doublefine kinda pursues this where the mechanic is breaking into the underlying system.
      also narrative left turns like icarus proudbotton teaches typing vs extra narrative secrets and deeper meanings is something to examine. I'll be pondering your talk for a while. thanks!

    15. Twinbeard Creator on April 7, 2014

      Thanks, David! Maybe you've done research and know better than me, but I think kids are savvier today than you give them credit for. However, given infinite resources, the way I probably would've approached that problem is to find a way to share recipes *between players*. Maybe something like the anonymous graffiti system in Demon's Souls.

    16. David Welch on April 7, 2014

      Awesome talk, Jim. I actually struggled a lot with this exact issue in the process of adapting Terraria for console -- the tension between preserving mystery versus creating an accessible experience for younger/more casual players. I can only hope that we found a good compromise. We really didn't want to force console gamers to rely on an external wiki for crafting recipes, etc.

      The explosion of popularity in roguelikes and emergent gameplay definitely does seem like a reaction to game FAQs and Let's Plays/Twitch videos which cheapen the uniqueness of an experience with a linear game. Like you've pointed out, I'm very curious to see how games continue to evolve to preserve discovery within their mechanics.

    17. Twinbeard Creator on April 7, 2014

      I like the idea of formalizing it so that you don't have to actually rely on the glitches always behaving in a way that's favorable for the game. Arguably games kind of already do what you describe -- e.g. the underlying game engine vs. the "scripting language" that the gameplay code is written in.

      The example you give, from Morrowind I think, is an informative one because I suspect Bethesda's games are a good example of leaving lots of entertaining glitches in the game not because the developers thought it was best that way, but because they simply didn't have the resources to fix everything, and they chose to fix the bugs that harmed the player experience first.

    18. Missing avatar

      Johnicholas Hines on April 7, 2014

      As a programmer, the possibility of "leaving glitches in games" seems awesome. We might be able to develop "glitches" by separating a game engine from the "game physics" or "game rules", and then taking the physics or rules seriously - that is, "yes, since alchemy is an intelligence-based skill, if you have enough supplies you CAN make intelligence-raising potions of exponentially increasing strength". (In contrast, the institution of baseball does not take rules seriously, changing the rules whenever a "hole" is discovered, in order to make a particular traditional pattern of play occur".)

      If you decide you want a particular guarantee (e.g. clicking the x in the upper right of the screen really does quit the game), then you put that at the engine level. If you put other "guarantees" outside the engine (things like "the X choosable races are balanced" or a typical RPG time-invested-to-character-power curve) you open yourself up to (perhaps serendipitous) glitches.

    19. Twinbeard Creator on April 7, 2014

      Yeah, I just recently -- since giving the talk -- found out just how easy it is to decompile a Flash binary. Apparently the compiler keeps all the identifier names around just in case the reflection system needs them. Well, at least they got my brace style wrong!

    20. faelnor on April 7, 2014

      Absolutely agree with everything that was said. This thrill of being part of something big, mysterious and ongoing has been the first and foremost element driving my enjoyment when playing video games. From secrets and awe playing Monkey Island to the shared discovery of game mechanics in multiplayer Minecraft; From the exploration of non-essential areas of System Shock to weird quests (that may have been bugs) in Morrowind when the UESP didn't exist yet; From taking part in video game-related ARGs to finding out you could actually use the windsurfing boards in the old Amiga game Hunter; From not being certain for years how many endings there were in Blade Runner to realizing that Frog Fractions, behind all the humor and apparent non-sequiturs actually did teach your child about fractions... Those are some of my best gaming-related memories, if not the best. Really, every excellent impression I have, the ones I could write entire articles about, had such an element of mystery.

      I would add the following bullet point to the talk: obfuscate your code and, if realistically possible, encrypt your game's resources. You did mention it but it's not in the list, if you want to delay the guides and wikis about your game as much as possible, you need to make its inner mechanics as arcane as possible.

    21. Twinbeard Creator on April 7, 2014

      I tried putting it on Youtube but it's over the 15 minute limit and apparently they don't trust me yet. I'll look at Vimeo when I get the chance.

    22. Troy Gilbert on April 7, 2014

      Would it be possible to put this video on YouTube or Vimeo? Easy sharing and watching on Apple TV at home.

    23. Twinbeard Creator on April 7, 2014

      I think the first two Legend of Zelda games were very successfully mysterious. Since then, they've gotten progressively less so. Nowadays, I think Dark Souls is a much more faithful followup to The Legend of Zelda than any modern Zelda game.

      (You may not be surprised that I love when an interface lies. That trick still hasn't gotten old for me.)

    24. Kelly MacNeill on April 7, 2014

      Very good. I too am a game developer, and I always wonder what is going through the developer's head when the put in an interface spoiler like 'number of automatons killed' or showing exactly the number of power ups you'll unlock through the whole game in the menu.

      How do you feel about the legend of zelda approach to this? The inventory menu screens have tons of spots for who knows what, and they don't tell you what goes where. In some ways, this evokes a sense of mystery, but ultimately, shows that there are a limited number of things, and undoubtedly, you can tell when you're approaching the end of the game when things start filling up. It might be a decent idea to put in interface spoiler bait, like, make it SEEM like there are only 3 more items you can get in the game, or a completion percentage, but they're both completely lies.

      I recall okami doing a decent job at the false ceiling, building up the first quest as the big bad, and even being quite lengthy, and then once you beat the big bad dragon, you're not even half way done with the game.

    25. Madopal on April 7, 2014

      It warms the cockles of my jaded 25-year gamedev heart to see a talk like this, as it is a) why I got into games, and b) exactly what mainstream commercial game development has lost.

      Thank you.

    26. Missing avatar

      Marcus Hast on April 7, 2014

      That was a really interesting speech. Thanks for sharing it!

    27. Twinbeard Creator on April 7, 2014

      No. You get to start looking for Frog Fractions 2 in exactly 46 hours.

    28. Louis Joyce on April 7, 2014

      Is this Frog Fractions 2?

    29. Rodolink on April 7, 2014

      THANK YOU so much!