Category: Game Design

Life Choice – A decision you've made in the past to a repeating question you'll encounter throughout your life. For example, a vegetarian (by virtue of calling oneself a vegetarian) has made a life choice to avoid eating meat. The vegetarian will never ponder, "Should I have chicken or beef?" Restaurant menus shrink by +50%. Mealtime is now simpler for life. Though it's arguable for better or for worse, there's a definite simplicity benefit.

Humans can only comfortably handle so many options. Most humans pause at a fork in the road. Most humans freeze at a 10-way stop. When the options grow too numerous, we experience what game designers call "option paralysis." We think so long and hard about so many possible options that it's taxing, discomforting, and causes anxiety when we ponder in retrospect.

There's a huge racket for selling life choices. Huge.

Political Parties

Political parties are big businesses that, in part, sell life choices. By choosing "Democrat" or "Republican", your political party is quick to narrow your "valid" choices at each election. Granted, the candidates are performing a service as representatives of the people. After all, I elect and pay the President to make informed, smart, timely decisions so I and the rest of the USA are not burdened with making uninformed, stupid, untimely decisions. But choosing say Libertarian and voting precisely what the party shouts at you, life is simpler.


Religion is another mass seller of life choices. Religion features answers to life's big questions ("Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going?") that are appealing and comforting. Adopting a religion includes its ideals, rituals, customs, and bunch of choices that are already made for you. Religion often features routine, and routine makes life simpler.

My Life Choices

My life choices are:

  1. Live in a free country.
  2. Never do drugs.
  3. Never drink alcohol.
  4. Never smoke.
  5. Never commit adultery.
  6. Be financially independent.
  7. Stay fit and healthy.
  8. Uphold my integrity.

Looking at it now, I remember being burned on occasion for "missing out on all the fun" just to maintain an imaginary list that is hard to explain in a moment. I've thought them all through and it's burned into my skull a long time ago that the alternatives have too much downside.

And just because I didn't list "Don't murder, rape, and pillage" doesn't mean I'd happily do those things. My parents raised a good boy. Give them credit.

I recently sunk $10 and a 10-hour overnighter into a game I stumbled across.

What do you get when you combine:

  • Hyrule Field from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
  • Rogue-like dungeon crawl randomness
  • Legos
  • Diablo II's Horadric Cube
  • Art-style of Settlers of Cataan

You get the fiercely-addictive Minecraft. In alpha development for $10 from, Minecraft showcases a subtractive design that removes all unnecessary game elements (including almost all text!). In that spirit, I'll let davidr64yt walk you through his initial discoveries in Minecraft:

Episode 001:

Episode 002:

And the big reveal:

Single-Player Content

As you've seen, the single player content lacks many things you'd expect in a modern game:

  • Story to show context
  • Names to properly label things
  • Stats of various items/attacks/abilities
  • Quests to guide the player towards goals
  • Instructions of any kind

While the lack of a tutorial and basic instructions is a detriment (presumably fixed soon through the grayed-out Tutorial menu option), removing so much baggage basically boils the game down to:

  • Survive

The threat of death (which drops your items then respawns you at your beginning point – it's more like "the threat of inconvenience") taps into your primal urges. Survival means finding, gathering, and storing a surplus of:

  • Food
  • Shelter
  • Weapons

Luckily, all humans come preprogrammed desiring to do such things, and Minecraft has analogs and tech trees for all three. Due to the Lego-like nature of building materials, you'll find yourself compelling to build elaborately designed structures either for practical purposes or for your own admiration. As a kid, I played with Legos and Construx for thousands of hours.

Multiplayer Content

I haven't delved into this, but this YouTube video suggests that Minecraft multiplayer servers are like cooperative ant farms that strive to build extraordinary things:

After all, building things is how humans came to dominate the planet.

I read a rumor that Notch (Minecraft designer/programmer) had his PayPal account frozen when it inexplicably skyrocketed plus $600,000. Not inexplicable – play some Minecraft and you'll see why!

I'm extremely fond of random numbers and their results. By extension, much of life, causes, and effects can be thought of as random numbers or random events, whether it's games, music, art, schoolwork, or just conversation. Without randomness, life would be utterly dull and boring, perhaps something akin to the movie "Groundhog Day."

I've preferred to have a roommate (even a couple potluck roommates!) simply because it adds randomness to otherwise an unwaveringly planned out daily routine.

Randomness can be a deep well of fun. Take for example this ultra-fast design challenge I just finished:

Album Cover I made using randomly-generated content

This is an album cover generated from random content on the internet. The rules I followed were:

  1. The first random wikipedia article title is the name of your band.
  2. The last four or five words of the last quote on this page is the name of your album.
  3. The third picture on this page no matter what is the album cover art.
  4. You now have 15 minutes design time to make an 8"x8" album cover.

I'm a huge fan of the Rogue-like (or more graphically-inclined Diablo-like) genre of games that imbue randomness into most everything, including enemy generation, item generation, dungeon generation, and event generation. Having suffered through 10+ hours of Dragon Age: Origins yesterday, I immediately slaked my thirst and bought Titan Quest: Immortal Throne from Steam today for $40 (preordering Darksiders in the process).

A healthy and well-executed dose of randomness adds infinite replayability to a game.

StarCraft II is the 10-year-overdue sequel to the eminent StarCraft, history's most successful Real-Time Strategy game. Everyone from Korean Pro E-Sport gamers to MSU honors dorm students have been looking forward to SC2 for more than a decade.

Photo of my copy of StarCraft II Collector's Edition

"I bought the Collector\'s Edition, which includes a behind-the-scenes DVD that told me nothing about game design I didn't already know."


Blizzard put off making a sequel for so long…why? They believe StarCraft was such a masterpiece, it could not be improved, and protecting brands is Blizzard's #1 priority. Lame cash-grab sequels can be brand murder; they wanted Terminator 2, not The Matrix Reloaded. Blizzard even scrapped a First-Person-Shooter set in the StarCraft universe dubbed StarCraft: Ghost because it was not up to its rigorous standards. So does StarCraft II deliver?

In short: yes. The basics remain – three races (Terran, Protoss, Zerg) vying for intergalactic dominance, real-time strategy, and massive sci-fi battles. As I understand it, Wings of Liberty is installment 1 of 3 featuring the Terran race. Indeed, Blizzard will collect full title sales x3 from customers for StarCraft II (instead of the usual twice evidenced from StarCraft: Brood War and Diablo II: Lord of Destruction). StarCraft II sports a huge graphics improvement, more units, a better campaign, more integrated online experience, and sick movie-industry-quality animated movies. The UI has been massively improved, removing many clicks. Most notably, you can select and hotkey an infinite number of units. Indeed, "attack-moving" with all your units is a couple clicks. Competitive StarCraft, defined by click-efficiency, rejoices that strategic thinking gains ground here.

Single-Player Content

The 29-mission long campaign mode is much improved with a deep achievement system (integral to all modern games) that incentivizes retrying missions. Jim Raynor (This is Jimmy!), Sarah Kerrigan the Queen of Blades, and Zeratul return as the three race's main characters and plot drivers. There are two distinct "leveling" systems – one you simply spend money to upgrade units, the other you must make a choice of one technology (say, Bunkers with automatic guns) which forgoes another (Bunkers with +2 capacity). Most early missions unlock a new Terran unit (and the well-designed mission objectives showcase the new unit). The storytelling is mostly through the realtime in-game engine (I always like when games do this, like Final Fantasy III/6), which can render a convincing Jim Raynor drinking at a bar, among other things. The real treats are the full-rendered animated movies with some incredible details (including Hydralisk saliva)! Obviously, Blizzard has been paying attention to what single-player gamers like and incorporated every trick in the book. There must be 200 individual "unlocks" that remain greyed out, waiting for you to complete them, lighting them up. For some reason, players can't walk away from an unlit completion task. Upon completing the campaign, this gamer found the whole experience on par with God of War 1/2/3 but a significant step below Mass Effect 1/2. To be fair, God of War and Mass Effect have the best story-driven single player content in the business. God of War has the best presentation of all, but no other game captures the player's choices and interest the way Mass Effect does. Granted it took BioWare many titles to arrive at the winning formulae Mass Effect employs. In SC2's favor, its single player content is inferior these industry giants, but neither has SC2's multiplayer content.

Multi-Player Content

I've played the Cooperative options extensively and "Comp Stomp"ing certainly has its merits. I imagine I will get curb-stomped against real players, however, and not have fun. Becoming a game designer, I pick gaming choices with extreme precision and in truth I think I'd enjoy more Devil May Cry. I'll mention that the integration is crazy-powerful; being "logged into" SC2 almost feels like a PlayStation Network or XBox Live environment – there's even a "import friends from Facebook" button. Social networking is humanity's most powerful and alluring technology, and it's still being explored.

New Features

From a game design perspective, my favorite new mechanic is what I call the "semi-flying" units – the Stalkers, Colossus, and Reapers that can disobey some terrain but not all, with my personal favorite Colossus (you'll recognize them from Spielberg's "War of the Worlds"). Each race has a new macro mechanic – fast build times for Protoss, fast larvae or creep for Zerg, and a super-SCV or scans for Terran. There's a noticeable bottleneck of vespene gas, meaning you'll be making mineral-only units (Zealots/Marines/Hellions/Zerglings) all game just to spend your abundant minerals. There's some blatant Mass Effect mechanics in the SC2 campaign. WoW is a collection of the very best MMORPG mechanics from EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot, and others and super-polished. Even the hauntingly-mesmerizing Diablo is a graphical NetHack, a super-polished version of the best dungeon crawl Rogue-like games. There is nothing wrong with this – if the goal is to make the game as polished and safe for the brand as possible, innovating new game-genres like Magic: The Gathering did is going to be inherently unpolished.


In summary, Blizzard did do their sequel justice, but in the way they are good at – they steal all the very best gameplay mechanics, storytelling avenues, and tried-and-true features and simply polish it to oblivion. Blizzard titles are pretty, fun, and safe.

Working in the game industry, you come to truly appreciate the seriously great games in human history. Stuff like The Legend of Zelda, Magic: The Gathering, Super Metroid, and Mass Effect that are unbelievably far ahead of their times and will influence games henceforth. The kinds of games move the industry forward large strides.

This gamer CAN'T WAIT to sink hundreds of hours into Diablo 3. That's my kind of game.