This is Graham's personal blog about game design, generative art, and whatever other interesting things grab his attention.

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Code Sketching with

So I've always been a little obsessed with "sketching" with code, ever since I learned to program in BASIC. Over the years there have been many tools come and gone which let me quickly bang out a simple (visual) idea. None of them have ever been "the one", though they've each had their pros and cons.

Lately I've been noodling around with — basically Processing.js plus a simple online editor and gallery front-end.

There are always different metrics for what the "right" sketching tool is, but two that commonly rise up for me are:

  1. Easy to start a new project.
  2. Super ridiculously easy to share sketches.


While Processing.js may not be the most performance-capable sketching environment (in fact, it's terrible!), and the online editor at may be slow and clunky and feature-poor... In those two criteria it blows pretty much everything else away.

The reason those two metrics matter so much is because they are the main obstacles between me actually making something and you actually seeing it. So in the end they carry a lot of weight!

There's probably some kind of lesson here about tool design, but I'll leave that to you.

Also, check out my gallery there. Just a few sketches, but hey, it's more than zero!


One-Week Projects

Starting September 10th, I've begun a series of one-week game projects. I've shipped two so far (Super Offroad Remake and Cube Folder) and, though I've gotten quite distracted this week, don't have any intention of slowing down.

Eight games total is my goal.

So what's the deal, anyways?

It turns out my motivations are legion; making these prototypes is just exactly the thing I need to be doing right now:

  • The last project I was working on of my own design was incredibly ambitious. And so was the one before that. And one in the middle (Zombie Minesweeper) was supposed to be small, but blew out of proportion anyways. I want to get better and being concise in my design. So doing a series of small games seems like a good way to practice this.
  • Due to the same events, I haven't actually shipped anything since last summer, when Zombie Minesweeper went out the door. I want to ship something again. Even if that something is really small, I'd just rather be active and prolific at this stage, as far as the rest of the world is concerned!
  • I have opportunities coming in from all directions for projects, contracts, partnerships, and so on, but nothing is on my plate today. I spent a few weeks sitting around weighing options at the beginning of summer, and I look back on that with regret. So right now, I want to remain productive while being flexible while I wait for pieces of life to fall into place.
  • It's always been my experience that great concepts are discovered, not invented. You really don't know if a game design is fun until it's in the flesh. Everyone talks about prototyping, but I so so so so rarely see this happening around me. So I want to prototype ideas and choose the strong candidates. I have no qualms with abandoning something that I've spent only a week on, and at the end of this I can continue work on the strongest idea, knowing that — at the least — it's stronger than 7 other ideas I could have been working on.


All Protoland Waits

Unfortunately I'm kind of off the rails already; this week, which should have been game #3, has turned to working on Zombie Minesweeper for Android. That's something I really need to get done too, and I fully intend to get back into gear next week, but for now, zombies await!


Standing Out through Perfection, Innovation, and Novelty

There was a discussion at Design Dojo recently about Making Great Games, and how designers and developers often chase innovation as a means of achieving that. Part way through the discussion, I realized that I didn't actually know what the word meant. As I'm pretty particular about knowing what the words I'm saying actually mean, I looked up the definition, and it didn't meant at all what any of us thought it meant!


In any case, it got me thinking about what we are actually chasing when we say we are chasing innovation. I realized that, simply, our goal is to make a game that's somehow special or stands out from the crowd, and also that innovation (by any definition) is only one way of doing that.

I boiled it down to 3 main "modes" of standing out: Perfection, Innovation, and Novelty


There are two main thrusts to perfection: Completeness, and flawlessness. The idea is that you did everything right, fixed every problem, polished everything to a fine glimmer. Perfection doesn't necessarily involve doing anything new at all, but simply doing it better than anyone else.

This has been the guiding principal of AAA FPS development for the last, oh, 15 years: Our shooter is still just a shooter, but it's better than any other shooter to date. There may be sparks of genius in the details, but overall, the plan is to be a best-of-breed

Perfection is attained through hard work. It's something that can, to a certain extent, be solved with manpower! So the benefit of pursuing a Perfect Game is that it's conceptually very easy; you can start achieving it from day one. The cost is real resources—time and money—which are required to cover all the cases and erase all the flaws.

It's very easy to "sell" perfection: Who doesn't want something better than what they've got?


Innovation means to introduce as new. Not that the thing is actually new, but that it feels new. In fact, proper newness works against innovation. It's all about building a new things from the same old parts, about hijacking existing tropes and knowledge to provide an unexpected experience.

When Halo introduced the two-weapon inventory, it was being innovative: The idea of the character being able to hold two weapons goes way back in RPGs and countless other games, but they made it work in the context of a first person shooter. It was an old mechanic being used in a new place.

Innovation relies on keen design insights to succeed. In fact the whole concept is incredibly clever: Find something that people are already comfotable with and use that existing comfort to move them to a new conceptual space. Innovation can happen in a moment, but requires the right kind of thinker, and careful testing and analysis to get right. Because it tends to be perceptual, it's very easy to miss the mark entirely in the concept state, so resources must be spent on prototyping and focus testing to prove the hypothesis.

Innovation tends to be subtle—you can't really point to it and say, "Hey look! We're tweaking your expectations!"—but tends to have an enormous impact on the actual player experience.


Anything new or unusual is novel. (There is an unnecessary negative association with cheap toys and candy which we will ignore for this discussion.) It's important to distinguish from innovation, which is necessarily usual. Where innovation is comfortable, novelty is uncomfortable—and that's a good thing. The goal is to create a situation where the old tropes don't apply!

Novelty tends to be exhibited most heavily in puzzle games, where familiarity pretty much leads to boring. It can comprise individual mechanics, like the time-rewinding in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, or the entire experience, like Dance Dance Revolution.

The kinds of lateral motions required to introduce real novelty tend to start from the seed. You can't really "tack on" novelty to a project, it has to be part of the original spark of the idea. Usually novelty comes from exploring new tech, blue-ocean brainstorming, experimentation, and looking outside of games for inspiration. By definition, it's a mess of unknowns, so developing a novel concept is risky and unpredictable, both in terms of production and player experience. Historically, the payoff isn't that great either—it's usually some kind of sequel or knock-off (i.e. innovating on the concept) that ends up making the money, once the audience is comfortable with the idea. 

This risk is pretty widely known; being novel is just as likely to turn someone away from your idea as it is to attract them. But when you get it right, you stand head and shoulders above the crowd; you invent new genres.


It's extremely important to note that all these things are incredibly contextual: What's considered old-hat in the AAA Console space might be novel on Facebook; what's innovative in mobile games could be well understood in web design; and so forth. Understanding who your audience is is critical to understand how they will relate to your game—and should affect the way you develop and present your ideas!

Combining It All

Of course, no product is specifically any one of these things. Games are complex, fractal beasts, and contain all at once perfect, innovative, novel, and mundane pieces. 

Start thinking about why your game or mechanic is special, who it's going to be special for, and what you can do to optimize it for that relationship!


Mundane Fantasies

Photo by Muffet

It occurred to me as I was talking with Alex Vostrov last night that many of the games we make are realizations of wild fantasies: Traveling through space, being a secret agent, slaying demons, being a war hero...

Acknowledging that human fantasies will always be a rich well of storytelling inspiration, I wonder why games always drift to wild fantasy? Where is the mundane fantasy of telling off your boss, or of finding a date for Friday night, or of winning the cheerleading competition? Yes, fantasies which aren't resolved at gunpoint.

There's clearly lots of victory and satisfaction to be had in these scenarios, and I could probably argue that they naturally speak to the human condition better than wild fantasy.

It also got me thinking about other media, and there even the wild fantasies tend to be not about what the character does, but rather about who she is:

A movie about an assassin doesn't have him pathologically mowing down 10,000 people throughout the film. Instead, the protagonist sometimes kills one or two people, and spends the rest of the film hiding their reality from their spouse, or running away from their former employers, or dealing with guilt over the innocent person they killed.

Likewise movies about programmers or tech support rarely have characters programming or talking on phones -- maybe in montages -- and instead spend the whole movie watching the characters play pranks on each other, or get shuffled around the country by burly mercenaries.

In other words: in many of our most popular stories, the character is engaged in a mundane fantasy, and that fantasy isn't even really related to who they are or what they do! And yet we persist in creating accurate portrayals of the non-humanistic parts of the most implausible scenarios.

Even in casual games, where these mundane topics are sometimes addressed, the treatment is so sterile. Take Diner Dash, a very popular general-audience title about owning a diner. Except it's not about owning a diner, it's about mechanically waiting tables. If it was about the fantastic experience of owning a diner, there'd be snarky employees, and that one annoying customer who ends up being a millionaire, and you'd be balancing your work life with raising kids.. Or at least there'd be lots of lewd jokes using pieces of raw chicken.

Because those are the human aspects that people really care about, the ones that reveal human nature.

I challenge you to think about mundane fantasies for your next game. I also challenge you to think about the human aspect of the fantasy, and not fixate so heavily on the mechanical aspect.



Found Thoughts - Story vs. Gameplay

I found this mind map I made for an unreleased project back in 2009.

I don't necessarily think it's accurate (and not sure I ever did) but it contains some interesting thoughts none-the-less!

Click to view full size

Picking on Zombie Minesweeper

Here's a talk I gave at Full Indie almost a year ago, just after Zombie Minesweeper was released on Kongregate.

I talk about:


  1. Keeping the game fun and playable at all times -- possibly the pinnacle of iterative design.
  2. Different task-tracking methods for different parts of the production.
  3. A simple insight into procedural content.


Here is the powerpoint. (Make sure you have the Note panel showing.)

Not the greatest bit of public speaking I've ever done, but hey, it's a thing!


Environment Phases

Here are some collected thoughts on how to create an interesting 'cast' of levels, in the same way that character archetypes allow us to create an interesting cast of characters.

The levels and environments in your game should demonstrate narrative arc and punctuation the same as any other story-telling element.

In general, these ideas probably only apply to games which have a strong sense of place, and especially to non-linear environments (though I could probably argue that many of the environments in interesting linear games exhibit these same archetypes).

Some of the specific games I was thinking of when I came up with this list included the Metroid games, Yoshi's Island, the Final Fantasys, the Deus Exs, Zelda, and the Mario & Luigi games.


The Phases

  • "Peaceful Hub" -- Somewhere completely tamed, a 'place to come back to'. This is where the good guys hang out.
  • "Peaceful Wild Zone" -- A friendly wild region. Like a meadow with deer and bunnies, lots of greenery and waterfalls.
  • "Transformed Zone" -- A region that communicates the conflict: Evidence of the peaceful zone, but also corrupted and dangerous.
  • "Neutral Hub or Zone" -- A place with no specific antagonists, but an air of barbarism or powerful nature to it.
  • "Neutral Wild Zone" -- A dangerous region that is of neutral alignment. Conflict is optional and motivated by 'eat or be eaten'.
  • "Hostile Zone" -- The enemy territory. The player is actively opposed and the conflict is thematically motivated.
  • "Hostile Hub" -- A nexus of the antagonists to be either assaulted or escaped.
  • "Respite Hub" -- A small, usually hidden area within the hostile zones that provides the player with protection and protagonistic support. Often the location of a save point, powerup, or merchant.
  • "Distraction Hub" -- An area that explicity breaks the player out of the normal flow of the game. Minigames and optional sidequests live here.
  • "Strange Zone" -- Somewhere highly unusual, communicating a deeper truth about the world of the game. Because these are usually non-narrative, they should be transitional areas to pique player curiosity rather than destinations that get expounded on.
  • "Hard Path" -- Somewhere the player ends up by choice or by accident that is both unforgiving and forward-momentum only.
  • "Beautiful Path" -- A trail of rising positive energy, no conflict, and a strong reward at the end.

Each of these phases may appear any number of times and be of varying size and saturation. The idea is that each one provides a different kind of exploration and environmental learning. As well, a given region in the game could change from one phase to another as the story progresses.

Zones vs. Hubs vs. Paths

Hubs are feature dense areas, such as towns with people and shops in them. They often serve as destinations for plot points and player goals, that is the player is usually travelling 'to' a hub of somesort. Hubs may also include dungeons and puzzle areas, or anywhere that is a dead end.

Zones are mutidimensional areas that the player can traverse in a variety of ways and directions. They have multple entrances and exits, and may even have 'borders' to other zones, which is basically a very large exit, or a number of exits that lead to the same adjacent zone. Players travel 'through' zones, not 'to' zones.

Paths are one-dimensional, they have a single directed flow, and an entrance and exit at each end (though they may branch). They tend to be more highly narrative than a zone, because the player's progression along them is very controlled. Thus they are good for 'gating' mechanic knowledge or conveying specific features of the world. Note that in addition to the paths mentioned above, any zone type could be made into a path as well.


Microtransactions Under the Microscope

For our usual Design Dojo meeting last night, we discussed the pros and perils of microtransactions and the free-to-play business model. It was a fascinating discussion, revealing fascinating tension in our normally close-knit little group of designers! There was some intense, fruitful discussion, so this post is a bit of a doozy!

In this discussion we were trying hard to focus on, "How can we use microtransactions properly, for good?" rather than focusing on their negative perception and misuse.

I was overtired last night, so my recollection is a bit shaky. But here's the salient points as I remember them:

First, Some Definitions

The first thing was settling on a definition of microtransactions and free-to-play which we could utilize for the rest of the discussion. I proposed that, for the sake the discussion, micropayments were basically any money the player payed out after they started playing the game; that playing the game and then paying [more] later was free-to-play. There are two important consequences of this:

The first is that practically everything but a retail purchase can be analyzed in this light, notably DLC and demos that upsell to the full game! Episodic content can also be looked at this way: After the initial purchase of the first episode, the player makes choices to invest in further episodes.

The other consequence is the inclusion of incremental payments (like a base product with DLC), subscription models, as well as standard 'freemium' styles of monetization in this umbrella.

We purposely chose such a broad definition, because we felt that these things all sit on gradients; it's hard for a group of people to agree on the exact moment a retail game with DLC turns into microtransaction ecosystem. As well, many games use a mix of approaches simultaneously to acquire money from the player.

So Why Free-To-Play?

The reason we think this all matters is that the whole concept of free-to-play aligns better with player values. Traditional retail bombards a player with inscrutable advertising, senseless review scores, and non-interactive game media, and then demands that they fork over a large portion of money for a non-returnable box which may or may not contain a game that they actually enjoy.

From the most basic example of a demo, to a cheap-but-ongoing subscription, to a game funded entirely by the sale of novelty hat items, each of these systems allows the player to experience the game as a game and decide for themselves how much value it contains, whether it's worth their money. The punters can leave with nothing lost. The developers still get paid, and the true fans (or rich fans) have the opportunity to keep on giving. Ideally.

So we wanted to see how to make best use of that system: to figure out how micropayments can be used to make a better game for the player, not a worse one. To make a game which profits from players, but doesn't abuse them.

Overall, the meeting was fairly unstructured, so I'm just going to lay out the points we covered, in no particular order.

Microtransactions Require Long Play

Microtransactions piggyback on the value system created by the game world. One of the challenges we face as designers, on every game we make, is communicating and teaching the value system for our particular game to the player. This means that we can't expect players to realize the monetary worth of a game element until this education process is completed. A highly refined experience that lasts only two hours will likely only make its full value apparent to the player when it's all done -- or even a few days later as the player digests the experience! By then, it's too late to capture their attention for additional content or experiences. Alternatively, a game that brings the player back again and again has many opportunities to convert and upsell the player.

The consequence of this is that the most successful microtransaction-funded games tend to be RPGs, and online multiplayer, and especially online multiplayer RPGS!

There is another synergy of long-play and free-to-play, which is that in most freemium games, the non-paying players provide 'content' for the paying players just by being there. They keep the system lively, create nodes for conversation and trade, and even just make the paid players feel good about themselves. However, if the free players don't stick around very long, then there is less incentive (in this context) for the paid players to stick around either.

Danger of Relying on a Growth Market

Many standard microtransaction formulae gain a lot of their value from customer acquisition. The very real consequence of this is that once you saturate your market or niche, you will stop profiting. This happened to Nexxon; subsequent game releases basically had nowhere to grow except cannibalizing their previous games.

Microtransactions Match the Form of the Game

Farmville and its kin has been slagged from many different angles, especially by gamers deriding it's microtransaction system. I came into this meeting with spite against these games because many of the things you pay for are 'amechanical'. There is no standard in-game metaphor for paying to skip the harvest period of a crop; it's basically an arbitrary barrier that is arbitrarily removed.

But it was then pointed out to me that Farmville itself is largely amechanical! And that's nothing to hold against the game, or at least a discussion for another day. But the point is, the microtransactions actually match the nature of the gameplay.

In-Game Value and Real World Value are Tied

As mentioned above, the value of real-money purchases is largely defined by the player's perspective within the game world. But additionally, the real-world value of items affects their perception within the game. The obvious case of this is that selling a top hat item for $1,000 will provide a kind of instant prestige for any player owning that item, even if it has no intrinsic value or significant aesthetic value. It's valuable because it's expensive.

There is a more subtle case with content that can be accessed both through real money and in-game effort. Take, for example earning a new Champion in League of Legends. On one hand, the paying player can say, "Woo, I payed $5 and saved myself 5 days of effort!" But the non-paying player can also say, "Woo, I earned this myself, and saved $5!" It actually gives an extrinsic value to the time the player is spending in the game.

Create and Embrace Conventions

In World of Warcraft, players can purchase fully-leveled characters rather than grinding up through the levels. There are a variety of reasons a player may want to do this, and in their mind, the reason always makes sense. But the game doesn't officially support this kind of transaction; it is actually handled through an external site (such as eBay). It is a firmly established convention within the social circle of the game that if you want to experience the end-game content, by golly, you gotta earn the right! Players who skip the levelling process are shunned by the other high level players and slandered in the forums.

And it's not because there is anything inherently wrong with skipping low-level content, but merely that the conventions of the social system don't allow for it. This can be bent both ways: If in your game, it is the convention to work for stronger items, then players who buy them will be called out for 'cheating' or 'playing unfair' or 'paying for power'. But if the convention is to only access stronger items through purchasing, then players who don't purchase are looked at as cheap or not dedicated.

Flattening the Value-Per-Player Curve

The vast majority of the money you make in free-to-play comes from the top paying players. The vast majority of players pay nothing. Not to cut it too thin, they are freeloaders.

Most of the cases where "abuse" happens is when this graph is extremely sharp. Most of the players in a game are nothing but an expense, and so the few players that pay get milked to death. A healthier game flattens out the curve. More players are paying, and each is paying a healthier amount. (Both healthier for themselves, and healthier for the developer.)

A point that strikes me really strongly when I'm playing a free-to-play game is the actual product value of the game. For example, with League of Legends: I look at the game and say to myself, "If that was in a box at retail, I'd probably pay $40 for it." What I'm trying to do when I do this is divine the value of the assets, the time spent developing and patching, and my own personal load on the servers, and still give them a profit. Obviously this is a rough estimate, but whatever this exact number is: if players don't pay this much on average, then the game is a loser.

By distributing this load across more players, the amount you need to eke out of each player is reduced. As well, there is the easily observable phenomenon that paying customers are stronger advocates of the game.

Retail, of course, takes this to the extreme, making sure that every single participant pays exactly a standard share. Subscription models sit fairly nicely in the middle, with the players who are more invested spending more money on the game overall.

Different Kinds of Microtransactions

I asserted that 'paying for content' was the most obvious format for a microtransaction. We challenged this definition and came up with some other common formats as well:


  • Paying to expand the experience. This may be access to new content; customization options for personal or social reasons; access to mechanics; gaining power within the system. "Buying a Sword."
  • Boosters and Consumables. Temporary purchases that tend to work in conjunction with the play mechanics, either multiplying player stats and activity, or providing a lift over a hurdle or out of a hole. "Buying a Strength Potion."
  • Keys and Resources. Indirectly aiding the player by increasing their ability to make choices, or making a new choice accessible. "Buying in-game gold."
  • External Privileges: Purchasing goods or powers that exist externally to the game mechanics and world. Pay for name change, a server transfer, access to guild management tools, getting priority listing in advertising channels, etc.
  • Transaction Fees: If you have players on both sides of a transaction, such as goods transfer, gifting and trading, or auctions, you can reserve a portion for yourself.



Subscriptions came up several times in the discussion as both a reliable income stream, and also a way of treating players more equally (because time passes for everyone at the same rate). We got thinking if there could be a number of smaller streams within the game that the player could subscribe to based on their needs. For example, subscribing for access to high-level content while mid-level content remains free. Or subscribing to recieve every new character that is released for the duration of the subscription. And so forth. Has anyone done this yet?

Greed is a Sliding Scale

One member brought up that such a thing was a tool evil, because the developer could tune the length between releases in a subscription to offer just a little bit less content for the same price. It was countered that, yes, all bars add salt to their food, but you don't eat at a bar with really salty food. Market forces prevail, people will pay for something what they feel it is worth.

As well, such a thing could be a tool for benevolence. A developer could tune the length between releases to offer just a little more content for the same price, if they felt that was the right thing to do. In fact, most of the factors in microtransactions work this way. The negative reputation these systems have comes from factors that are tuned to maximize profit and abuse players for their money. But that's not an inherent trait in the system; you could just as easily use it to ensure your own bankruptcy! But obviously, there are various optimums in the middle which allow a person to both make a profit and ahere to their morals.

All Games are Skinner Boxes

The comparison of the feedback loop in Farmville to a skinner box is not accidental. It is a skinner box. As are basically all games. Any time you talk about making a game 'more sticky' or 'more engaging' or 'compelling', you are talking about refining and enhancing the skinner box that resides within your game.

But it's okay if your game is engaging or compelling. Because there is more to the system than the compulsion loop. There is the experience of playing, which can be exciting and interesting and beautiful and rewarding, and there is the feedback that the game gives in reward for following that loop, which can be interesting and beautiful and rewarding.

Microtransactions have an amplifying effect here, because where most games suck up a player's time, free-to-play games suck up their time and money! But we are in the entertainment business, people are giving us their money to entertain them. We each have a choice to create a minimal structure which siphons their money away, or to create a beautiful piece of art which enriches them, and for which they give us their money. The fact that it is compelling is agnostic!


Well, that was a lot of discussion! I hope there's some new or interesting tidbit in there for you. Did anything shock or anger you? Do you strongly agree or disagree with any of these points? We'd love to hear about it, and learn and grow!