Unique Fantasy

I’ve heard a lot about the Indie Bubble, #indiepocalypse, and other doomsday predictions, and watched as fellow developers released good games only to see them crater commercially. This is my assessment of why Reassembly has been a (moderate) success, and what I will focus on for the next game.

My hypothesis is that people play games as a form of fantasy fulfillment and that developers should aim to create games that fulfill a specific unique fantasy as efficiently and powerfully as possible. Anecdotally failure to fulfill a unique fantasy is the most common reason otherwise fun games fail commercially.

Fantasy Fantasy Fantasy

People buy (and enjoy!) games that offer a unique fantasy. A fantasy is like a daydream, a vision of an experience. It can be expressed in a single sentence, a single screenshot, or a couple seconds of video. A game needs to express its fantasy better than any other game or there is no reason to play it. Here are some (obviously reductive) examples:

FTL: command a spaceship like in star trek
Hotline Miami: be a psychopathic twitchy 1980s serial killer
The Stanley Parable: feel like an intellectual game designer
Papers, Please: be a border control agent for an Eastern European country
Fez: re-live 2d nostalgia while exploring the mysteries of the 3rd dimension
Nidhogg: fight in a surreal blood sport for the honor of being eaten by a giant worm
Galak-Z: be a skillful 90s mecha anime protagonist
Minecraft: survive, mine, and craft a sanctuary in a world made of cubes

Some observations:

  • The title of the game specifically references the fantasy, not mechanics.
  • Sometimes the fantasy is experienced by the game characters. Sometimes it is experienced by the human player.
  • Many games interpret a popular fantasy from other media.
  • The fantasy is fundamental to each of these games, and the mechanics and art directly support it.

Reassembly’s fantasy is “build a fleet of spaceships out of blocks and pilot them in combat”. The open world game mode was designed to give players a reason to build different types of spaceships and to generate diverse combat scenarios. Tournament mode gives more reasons to build spaceships. Story was deliberately omitted and the graphics were kept abstract to encourage players to inject their own specific spaceship fantasies into the game.

Work Efficiently

If the game provides a compelling unique fantasy, it doesn’t need excessively high production values. Building the game asymmetrically around your own core competency will insure that it does at least one thing well, which is enough. AAA games need high all-round production values because they are competing for ownership of a few fantasies: be a badass soldier, be a dragon-slaying viking warrior, etc. Don’t try to compete with them! Alexander Bruce’s talk Antichamber: An overnight success seven years in the making excellently addresses this topic.

Let players contribute to the game. This can take the form of Early Access, where players provide feedback and bug reports. Multiplayer games use players to provide high quality teammates and opponents. Games with building allow content created while naturally playing the game to be exchanged with other players (like Reassembly’s Agent/Wormhole system). Modding systems like Steam Workshop allow dedicated players to use external tools to create content. In aggregate players spend many more hours playing games than developers spend building them.

Give players as much mechanical and aesthetic control as possible so they can tune the game to better fulfill their fantasy. Even something as simple as letting players pick their favorite color can greatly increase investment and variety. Component/building systems and procedural content generation provide a huge amount of gameplay variety given how little work they are to implement.

Excessive polish or an extremely smooth tutorial are not important unless they are part of the gameplay fantasy, and can be huge time sinks. Many game developers obsess over making the intro tutorial sequence of their game incredibly smooth and pleasant. This is a form of craftsmanship which I deeply respect, but it is not really what games are about. If the game fantasy does not resonate with players they are not going to play the game anyway. If it resonates, they will be willing to deal with rough patches, even resorting to wikis for forums, in order to experience the fantasy. “Pleasant” and “painless” are not how we want our games to be described.

To reduce costs, Reassembly was developed largely out of my apartment and cafes. My primary costs were housing and food. The game uses a custom engine and vector graphics because I am a pretty good programmer but a terrible artist, and because having lots of totally custom giant spaceships on screen is fundamental to Reassembly’s fantasy. About a tenth of the upfront cost went to contractors, and another tenth to exhibition at conferences like GDC and PAX.

Seek Criticism

Friends and game developers are too empathetic and too polite to provide ideal feedback. They can comment on the game’s craftsmanship, but are usually not the target audience and usually won’t love the fantasy. Side note: Giving polite feedback is ultimately counterproductive, and something I have been guilty of too many times.

Seek feedback from people for whom your game’s fantasy resonates. These are your prospective players. Terms like “core gamers” are meaningless and deceptive. The folks behind SteamSpy wrote an excellent article about how your target audience doesn’t exist. Send free copies of your game in development to receptive people and take their feedback extremely seriously. Reassembly’s initial alpha tester pool found out about the game via gameplay videos on youtube more than a year before launch.

Player feedback was an integral part of Reassembly’s development. Alpha testing began just over a year before the final release (about half way through development), basically immediately after the game became marginally playable. Feedback from these players was invaluable because their only motivation was to shape the game into something they personally really wanted to play. I was able to experiment and learn in a supportive environment, fixing problems as they were encountered through constant feedback. When the game launched on Steam Early Access, we deliberately priced it somewhat high to insure players would be motivated to complain about problems and we would be able to respond to all of their comments. By the time we actually launched, it was clear that there was a market for the game and that the kind of people that purchased the game would enjoy playing it.

It Was A Mistake

I made several technical decisions early on that turned into unnecessary time sinks. Reassembly uses a render thread and a simulation thread, and this dichotomy is extended to every single GUI in the game. In retrospect using a single thread would have been fine in many situations and could have prevented weeks of bug fixing and many annoying crashes. The OSX version of the game uses native Cocoa text rendering instead of SDL_ttf like the Windows and Linux versions – this extra code path duplicates a lot of functionality and honestly the Cocoa text looks worse on non-retina displays anyway.

The Steam Cloud integration in Reassembly is a bit hacky – the world steaming system as designed creates potentially thousands of small sector files, and I hadn’t realized that Steam Cloud had a hard limit of 1000 files until after the game was in Early Access. I worked around the limit with the save compaction system, which periodically stops the world for several minutes and compacts blocks of 256 sector files into a single sector cluster file. This mostly works in practice but has been a constant source of frustration for players, particularly for the most active players with the most sector files.

I wish I had been able to bring on another programmer in the months leading up to the release of the game. I think an extra set of eyes could have seen many stupid bugs and improved the quality of the game in many ways. It may have prevented me from getting quite so burned out after release. I was worried about costs and whether anyone else would be able to understand Reassembly’s scattered code. In retrospect I think it would have been worth while.

Crashes really detract from the game fantasy, particularly when they result in lost data. I wish I had built better automated testing early on. A simple bot that runs around playing the game like the one described in this Talos Principle Talk would have allowed me to find all kinds of problems earlier. I should also have invested in more testing hardware – there have been many GPU specific bugs that could have been prevented by automatically testing the game across a few machines periodically.

Conclusion

I see game development as fundamentally a form of leadership in collective imagination. First, you identify a need for a specific fantasy in your cultural community (man, if we could build spaceships and then blow them up, that would be so cool). Then you build the game, making sure the community is on board and interested. Reaching out to community leaders on youtube and twitch (thanks Deluks, Aavakis, Lathland and others) is the best way to let the relevant community know about the game. A community will ideally develop around and sustain the game (thanks sumplkrum, Camo5, and others). Everyone has a good time building spaceships together.

Tynan Sylvester’s excellent book Designing Games discusses this topic from a different angle and in more depth.

13 thoughts on “Unique Fantasy

  1. Maybe you should not make another Game.
    This Game is incredibly good, and incredibly solid.
    The Basics are there and very well working.
    The pure Idea and concept is good.
    I think you should grab yourself 5 or 50 People and build an MMO out of this.
    Cause MMO seems to be it’s true purpose.
    Let’s say you can only fly 1 Ship, upgrade it slowly, and are able to team up with Friends.
    All on 1 Giant Map with different Zones, Areas, Resources.
    It’s all already there.
    Also I would say this Game has an incredibly good Chance of getting a well paying Publisher.

  2. Interesting post (and links); great to see the mental machinations behind what you’ve made, and the general gaming context. I’m not-at-all necessarily disagreeing with what you posted (and clearly you already have major credentials here!), but here’s my perspective that might be a subtle departure/clarification of some aspects (sorry it inflated):

    I think there are 3-ish (not entirely distinct) components to getting people to play a game:

    (1) First comes the memetic (ideas) – there has to be a (familiar) concept that hooks in their attention and makes it (seem) personally relevant to them. I.e. it has to be ‘sexy’ on some level. For this reason, games all too often have a very superficial veneer that doesn’t fit well with the play mechanics themselves. Clickbait. Popularity (with friends) also makes things seem relevant.

    (2) Playing it should be easily slotted into the person’s life narative. It has to be justifiable to one’s self, at some level (and to others, where relevant). Specific ‘fantasy’ might fall into here. Also leveling up, beating high scores (or friends, opponents), revealing the plot, or satisfying social pressure.

    (3) The mental mechanics involved are physically suited to the function of the brain, and are also rewarding – they trigger the brain’s reward/motivation system in some (posibly subtle) way. (So, I find medieval themes a turn-off, but in the past I’ve found myself playing a game with this flavour and yet really getting into the adjacency bonus, town-lay-out optimisation mini game at it’s core – theme becomes irrelevant once playing, if you can bypass 1 and 2, above.)

    (Note that different brains obviously fit different mental tasks in the same way that only people with physical capable bodies enjoy sports. I.e., fundamentally non-arbitrary.)

    Terraria (for example) is great at appealing to a kind of deep rooted hunter-gather mentality, with the next patch of ore, or treasure trove, etc, always just around the corner. A “discovery simulator”. The key is little rewards, leaving you wanting more, but also not disrupting the flow of the process (i.e. with a ending score screen, or dialogue, etc). It makes you feel competent, without the task feeling trivial.

    Reassembly is fantastic at this too: not just when you’ve finished a whole new build (and it actually works!) but every time a tile slots into place just right, there’s this resonation, a little Pavlovian self-reward. It’s perhaps why I like the Penrose tiled faction more; joining pieces up either doesn’t work at all, or they fit *perfectly* into place, and it’s very pleasing. Whereas Terran, etc, are more arbitrary with the forms you can create. Less discovery, more long-term top-down goal oriented. (Hmm, they are the most popular faction though, so maybe my perspective is unrepresentative here…?)

    Reassembly is fun is because it’s build mechanics are good in the same way that playing with Lego is fun, not because those who’ve played Lego fantasise about playing a game that is like that thing they already enjoy.

    Surely the true primary reason for omitting story narrative isn’t to boost imagination (which it does definitely give space for, and is important to a lot of people); this tabula rasa approach preserves the addictive mental flow state of: design -> test -> tweak/redesign. Switching between reading a story (or even watching a cut-scene) and game play is tiring (too tiring for me, personally) because it requires turning off parts of the brain, re-orienting and activating other parts. Shifting attention like this (if it is a switch, and not part of the flow) takes a lot of energy. It also runs the risk of the player remembering themselves, of their self-narrative re-asserting.

    Most ‘fun’ activities are about loosing the burden of self awareness, in an almost meditative way. Living out a fantasy is only one way of doing this. (I took this viewpoint largely from “Meme Machine”, by Susan Blackmoore – 2000, which totally (re)shaped my conception of what humans are.)

    • I totally agree about the lost self-awareness, sometimes called “Flow,” and about gamification mechanics with rewards, large and small challenges, etc, being important parts of the game experience. But I think they are ultimately hollow without imagination. Playing a completely graybox themeless game could be distracting but I don’t think it would be fulfilling (like working in finance, haha).

      Fantasy also provides a framework for integrating your three points. The fantasy is that sexy hook (point 1) that draws people into games. People can’t buy games on mechanics because they haven’t played the game yet. A feeling of superficial veneer happens when the mechanics (point 3) don’t express the fantasy. This mechanics/theme dichotomy is really common in the Indie game world, and I think it is a mistake. The craft of game design is mostly concerned with mechanics and maintaining flow, and tends to treat theme as an external constraint (Jesse Schell’s book has a chapter on theme, for example).

      Point two is really interesting – how does it fit into your life. League of Legends does this really really well with distinct real world (you’re an esports hero) and in game (you’re your favorite champion) fantasies. There are enough champions that basically everyone will find one they strongly identify with, and the prospect of social glory – publicly carrying your team, defeating the enemy – is compelling. The way the game happens in discrete 45 minute games is also easy to plan your day around.

      I think I may be overloading the word fantasy somewhat. In literature they say theme: the author’s generalization about the human condition. This is what I mean by fantasy: the artistic payload of the work which is hard to express directly.

      What I’m searching for is a tool for making decisions about how to make games. Fantasy is nice because every feature either expresses the fantasy or not. Non-fantasy features can be ruthlessly killed

      • > “a completely graybox themeless game could be distracting but I don’t think it would be fulfilling”

        Adventure capitalist perhaps being a prime example, IMHO. That game is basically a mind trap; an exercise in adding the absolute minimum of a fantasy/theme (and graphics) to a mechanistically addictive process. But then its fantasy (its hook meme; the suggestion) is improving at making money. (The most important kind of levelling up, IRL.) Otherwise it has some fairly opaque lessons in mathematics, at best. I had to fight myself a little to set it aside and install it (a little worrying that it is the 20th most popular Steam game).

        ‘Difficulty’ is also a key lens for analysing games. Not too much, or too little, obviously. (Somewhat as in electronics – you get maximum power output when the resistance of the load is equal to that of the source.) What’s important is that this Goldilocks difficulty is with regards to something the player is interested in (and feels they are fairly good at), while all other issues (i.e. boring practicalities) are made trivial. E.g. the Sims let you design and run your own household (a very common fantasy) without bricks, mortar or a mortgage! Shooters (which seem wildly over-popular to me) let boys get all dangerous without being maimed.

        Seems that I’ve regurgitated a lot of what I wrote in this blog piece from early 2014 on what makes a game: http://lewyland.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/what-maketh-game-problems-with.html The right level of *interactivity* is important – not too much control that everything becomes arbitrary, not too little to become frustrated. Suspension of disbelief must be maintained (AKA fantasising). And what you’d term “theme” I’d covered under the guise of “scope”.

        Re-reading that reminds me that even totally passive media consumption isn’t that at all: the mind doesn’t just record what happens on screen, it’s constantly making tiny little predictions about what it thinks will happen next, from seeing an apple fall with increasingly big mental rewards when parts of the overarching plot fall into place. That’s why art house movies are ‘hard’ to watch; few of this little rewards when everything seems unfamiliar and unpredictable.

        The interactivity of games (requiring actual actions) amplifies the power of this feedback loop. Another key term (in the article I was referencing) is ‘repetition’: all games have some. As in, it’s about learning something that works and applying it (they’re not entirely random).

        Finally, too crossover reply threads, I’d say that a most key human ‘need’ is to shape one’s environment. Something that is increasingly inaccessible to younger generations, in terms of our physical surroundings. In addition, experiments have shown that people are prepared to pay others a small amount to take on-board a thought or theirs (and visa-versa, I think). Memetics again. So the agent *upload* is super-duper important in Reassembly. I’d say perhaps even more important than the extra content they provide as a download (although inextricable); even the *chance* that others might see your creation is a big motivation to take extra time and effort building something cool. At the moment this is a message in a bottle process, though, so I wonder how much more potent the effect could be if closing the loop by letting players somehow see how well their creations are doing out in the world…

  3. NIce article. Random brain fart. A website to leave anonymous feedback so your dev friends can say what they really think. I have no idea how you’d make sure it didn’t fill up with aholes. Maybe let the reader ban anyone they want and make the feedback only readable by the devs. Just an idea

  4. Arthur, you didn’t go deep enough. Fantasy is what the apparent end result, not the actual reason.

    The real reason is human needs. A good game fulfills human needs. Be it learning something new to fulfill a need to ‘grow’ ‘advance’ ‘improve’ as a human, getting pleasure and relaxation need met from experiencing good aesthetics, getting an adrenaline rush as a need for power is being fulfilled or getting a need for community or acceptance being met in a multiplayer system or in a public sharing space portal (forums, screenshot gallery + comments, youtube videos).

    Human needs are finite and can be categorized into a few core needs:
    https://www.cnvc.org/Training/needs-inventory
    http://www.ejolt.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/max-neef-needs-table.jpg

    • You are right of course. My motivation for writing this article is to develop tools for deciding how to make games. I’m ok with being a little reductive if it helps make good decisions more easily. I think fantasy is a pretty good lens for deciding which mechanics to include. Thinking about needs is good for categorizing fantasies.

      It would be interesting to categorize games according to the doing column in the needs table.
      Reassembly is understanding, creation, freedom (participation if you count forums).
      FTL has practically everything, protection/affection for crew being particularly unique.

      I bet categorizing games this way would make a pretty good recommendation engine.

      • I think it would be dangerous to view games through the lens of them being a fantasy and give advice to other developers that fantasy is the core from which everything spawns.

        It would be like calling a green color object as red color, just because the light source in the room is of strong red color. You know, the old einstein quote “Problems cannot be solved on the level they occured.”

        Furthermore it would be sad to think that games are nothing more than fantasy, having no impact on real life, even if its all apparently just a virtual simulation. Going with the mindset of developing games as a fantasy would only further reinforce the creation of game designs that are disconnected from life, when they could equally have real life enrichment.

        I prefer going about game design through the lens of Purpose. As in; Why do you want to make a game, and using the human needs to pinpoint the true reasons, and using those needs as a compass to inform every design decision.

        I regard the Purpose approach very highly, since games have the potential to be much more than just fantasy. They can teach something new, they can bring awareness to certain issues, they can give relaxation, they can give adrenaline rushes, they can allow a person to connect with others, they can allow a person to express themselves and they also can create real world value. Its a great shame that so many devs regard games as fantasy when it strongly has a real life impact.

        Games, if developed through fantasy, alienate us from life.
        Games, if developed through purpose, empower us and enrich life.

        Don’t be fooled in to using fantasy.

        • Games that enrich life are still based on fantasy. Not necessarily unicorns and pots of gold, but a game based-on life would still not affect ‘my’ life.

          Each week I play a game called ‘balancing my checkbook.’ Decisions and tallies must be made and there are rewards for doing it well, or punishments for screwing it up. We all make decisions each day at work, at home, in our relationships with other people, and in learning. You could consider these things mini-games.

          Life is a game. But it gets boring after a while, and perhaps some of the consequences are a little too harsh. It’s nice to have a game that is an escape either to someone else’s life, or to another reality altogether.

          You can also make a game based-off of these things, life lessons, learning tools, etc. But, they will still fall under the umbrella of fantasy because they can only be representations of real scenarios. Even a simple math game becomes it’s own space, or has a themed casing.

          Fantasy is imagination, and anything that is a game requires imagination. Anything that’s human requires imagination. … I’m fantasising right now.
          Gamification can be anything that fits within your brain-space.

          This being said, a game that blasts zombies with a shot-gun is going to be way more popular then ‘balancing my checkbook’. 🙂

          • The important point to notice is that when making a game, a fantasy is the end result, but NOT how to go about creating it.

            If you go telling people to create a game out of fantasy, thats like saying “to win a race you must go fast”. Its useless and misleading. Going fast is the result, not the actual thing that makes it work. Same with Fantasy. Its the result, not the actual real component that makes it that.

            More over, going about creating a game through the lens of a fantasy will have you make design decisions that do not take real life into account, causing the creation of a game, that after you’ve done playing, you will feel hollow inside, while a game based on purpose and human needs enriches you and makes you fullfilled instead. Huge difference.

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