Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Design: Responsible Glitchiness

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 17, 2015

Note: This is a heavily-edited (more like “influenced by”) version of an article that I wrote in 2006 for the old blog. If it rings at all familiar, that’s why.

My first Game Developer’s Conference was in 1995. This was when it was still called the “Computer Game Developer’s Conference” (CGDC), and it was the last year it tried to act “small.” There was rampant recruiting taking place (something which was downplayed in later years – probably because game development companies started getting reluctant to send their people there in fear of them getting snatched up by the competition). It was a great experience for me, new to the business of game development.

Panzer_General_CoverartOne of the most educational sessions I ever sat in on was from that first conference. It was a roundtable on “Simulations and Simulators.” There were guys from Lucasarts, SSI, and several other companies in attendance, but it was still a small enough crowd (maybe 20 people?) that everyone who had something to say seemed to be able to say it. The moderator didn’t have much to do, because the discussion was lively.

It was fairly eye-opening for me as a newcomer to an industry that I’d only seen from the consumer side for fifteen years. It drove home a lot of issues that I perhaps understood in principle, but had never been exposed to concrete examples. Things like dealing with customers, marketing, the trade-offs you need to make in your design to maximize appeal (realizing that you are never going to please everyone all of the time), the issues relating to sequels in certain genres (a lesson that has apparenly been forgotten by most publishers these days), and so forth.

The problem that these guys were facing (I think it was a developer from SSI who had worked on the Panzer General series) is that they were really trying to satisfy two markets at once – the hardcore “wargamer” and the far more “normal” player. You have to be careful not to upset the hardcore group, we were warned, because they form your “opinion leaders.” They are the vocal minority. They go out on the Internet (back then it was mostly newslists and Bulletin Boards – the World Wide Web was still relatively new) and will spout off about how much a game sucks or rules. Less knowledgeable players won’t want to argue with the experts, and so sales will depend upon the opinions of this group that really only represents 20% (or less) of your players.

I don’t remember if it was the guy from SSI who threw out the term or not, but the partial solution was something he termed, “Responsible Glitchiness.” In the terms of hardcore simulations or wargames, it meant that you mindfully compromise realism or detailed options in favor of abstractions or simplifications that make the game more fun or easier to play.As he explained it, the hardcore players are always going to nitpick about something not being correct. The goal was to create something that would be appealing for “normal” players, and which the hardcore fans would gripe about, but admit that in spite of that, they had a blast playing it.

While it wasn’t brought up, an example in my mind might be weapon ranges. Now, in some cases (particularly sea combat), different weapon ranges might make such a huge difference in real life that they truly changed how the entire combat is portrayed. This was exactly how the horse-archers defeated the highly-trained Roman armies, or how modern warships with both a mobility and range advantage can literally run circles around their opponents with impunity. But in other cases, the range advantage of one weapon over another didn’t make a huge difference on the battlefield. For the purpose of abstraction in a simpler wargame, or in a first-person shooter, it may be “responsible glitchiness” to deliberately give the weapons exactly the same range for the purpose of making an entertaining and “fair” game.

xcomFightFrom the perspective of a hardcore “grognard” who has these kinds of things memorized, sure, it might be a “flaw.” In a more generalized approach… well, I’d hold up Firaxis’s XCom: Enemy Unknown as a stellar example. Maybe “glitchiness” isn’t the right term … but there were a lot of changes that had the old hard-core fans of the series concerned prior to its release. Quite a few, actually. But upon release, most of us left our apprehensions at the door and embraced the compromises, which were a lot more friendly to new audiences. But in the end, it was turn-based goodness that proved to the entire world what a bunch of us had been saying for years…. turn-based tactical doesn’t mean boring! (Yeah, Civilization had been proving that for years, but it had kind of been it’s own special case).

I think the principle could also be called “Responsible Streamlining” or “Responsible Fudging” or something else. Ultimately, it means making compromises. The “responsible” part is what I think a lot of modern developers – especially in AAA mainstream games – miss, as they rush to capture the the mass-market audience. You don’t want to leave your old, “hardcore” audience out in the cold, either. It’s not about just dumbing it down.


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

  • Maklak said,

    > If it rings at all familiar, that’s why.
    I’ve been seeing lots of deja-vu on this blog over the last year or so. For example, I’m pretty sure, you already wrote about the legend of Polybus or how arcades were fun back in the day. Other than that, I think you were repeating yourself on some other articles, but can’t quote it from the top of my head.

    Maybe try writing about how free games (free to play + open source) seem to be declining in recent years?

    > you mindfully compromise realism or detailed options in favor of abstractions
    > or simplifications that make the game more fun or easier to play.
    This makes a lot of sense. I like to learn from simulation / management games, so I like them accurate, but once they’re too detailed, you get bogged down in running the beaureaucracy of your empire and micro-managing everything. That’s what happened in Master of Orion 3; you either let the AI play it for you, or the turns took so long, it wasn’t fun anymore. Hearts of Iron 3 actually encourages players to just give some parts of the game over to the AI. I guess it looks cool to look at AI managing a front with 100 divisions (about 1M people), while trying to manually break through with a smaller force, bus shes. That’s all coming from a guy who wrote manuals for one of the bigger Dwarf Fortress mods out there for fun and wrote programs to print brute-forced dice probability tables for RPGs for fun.

    It ultimately comes down to limitations of the human brain. We can memorise, keep up to date and juggle only so much information. Then there is the delicate balance of how detailed a system needs to be to be fun, while not too slow and cumbersome to use. Let’s take character inventory as an example. In an RPG you can manage a single character’s inventory and it’s fun. Manage a party, like in UFO:AI and it becomes a chore. Manage equipment slots on 20+ people and you start wishing for an “auto” button. It is similar with combat. Manage a single character and you wish for all kinds of customisation options and tracking HP. But that would be too slow for a wargame like WH40k, so you pool the dice from similar units and weapons, roll them together to count successes and most units die in one hit, which makes it much faster. But once you moove to even more troops, you want something even more abstract and simplified, which wouldn’t work at all in an RPG. Speaking of RPGs, you could make all sorts of tables, functions and probability distributions, but it is better to have a user-friendly abstracted system that’s simple and quick enough to actually use.

    Study of how humans work also leads to some of the more compulsive-addictive gameplay.

    I don’t like weapon ranges in games much. They tend to be way too short and end abruptly (if (distance>range) always miss), rather than have a more proper spread or accurracy falloff.

    I dislike the new X-COM from Firaxis. Not that all the old ones were better… or that it makes sense to attack with a single fireteam over something like a company (80 – 250 soldiers). But I prefer having proper action points over two-phase movement.

    I wish games made fewer compromises, but well, that’s what niche games are for, I guess. I’ve learnt that you either need few (maybe even one) well-paying customers or lots and lots of customers. Going for what is appealing to many generally pays off better, especially for games and especially when they need to pay for all the man-hours it took to make them.

    Ugh, I’m rambling. Again.

  • Darius said,

    This is something I really struggled with for Aurora Redemptus. At first I wanted each component to have power demands that could be scaled, so you could have your shields and engines run on low power to pump extra power to the lasers to make them really powerful.

    Also heat, machineguns produce lots of heat, other systems might use heat, like a generator that turns heat into power, keep your heat levels under control or you’ll die.

    Also, I hope you didn’t put your batteries too close to your best weapons, because if they get destroyed they will blow up big and take out your weapons.

    Oh yeah, you also need to manage where your ship is pointing, independent of acceleration and velocity, want to rotate your ship so that it’s pointing in a direction parallel to its direction of travel? Sure thing, but I hope you have a good grasp of vector physics because you’re going to have to figure out which direction to point your engines in to get where you want to go.

    Lots of options, I wanted the player to be able to do anything and everything, but it took people forever to figure out what was going on, and it left most people cold. Fortunately I learned my lesson, and things are, I think, as simple as possible, but not any simpler.

  • The Old Farmer said,

    Well after reading what you just wrote this article comes to mind.

    They seem to have missed the responsible streamlining part over plain old dumbing it down and having everything voiced because apparently people can’t read any more.