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Why a Messy Desk is Creative

Filip W.
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I love productivity tips. Reading them makes me feel supercharged, ready to take on the world. If only I'd work out for fifteen minutes each morning, if only I'd wake up earlier or always wear the same type of shirt or talk in clear, action oriented sentence.

If only I'd kept my desk spotless.

That's one of the classic ones: keep your desk ordered and you'll be productive. Then I look at my own desk I see, right now: a pile of papers, a half-empty 20 ounce/0.6 liter thermos tea cup, a "world's best dad" teddy bear, a tipped over picture, an entrance pass to a conference I attended half a year ago, an entrance pass to a party I attended a month ago, another pile of papers, an ergonomic wrist support, a mouse mat stacked on top of a pile of printer paper to get it to the right height, a note with an out-of-date password to an account that was shut down months ago, another pile of scribbled papers.

Yet, somehow, I manage to write. Imagine how productive I'd be if my desk was spotless.

Except that I've tried that and it doesn't work. Here's why.

Choose the Right Environment
A desk, or any type of working environment, must match your personality in order to work for you. Some people talk about taking their laptops to a coffee shop and cranking out 15 000+ words in a single sitting. I've tried working in a coffee shop and I was very uncomfortable with it, feeling that I was taking up space, that people would read over my shoulder, that I'd meet someone I knew and would have to answer the question of "what are you doing here". I was a nervous wreck and I kept hearing snatches of conversations and breaking buses and the clink of china. Writing in a coffee shop isn't for me.

A messy desk, however, works just fine. A messy desk works better for me than an organized one, and, if what I've read about intelligence and creativity, it may be that my brain craves messiness in order to be creative.

Why Messy Desks Work
There are three factors that make a messy desk work in my favor:

1. Comfort
2. G-factor
3. Creativity

First is the fact that I find a messy desk comfortable. It tells me that it's all right not to be perfectly clean, to write a messy first draft, to work on those ideas that don't generate anything. A messy desk gives me confidence, allows me to be a messy writer as long as I do write. Messy, through being motivating, makes me productive.

Also, I know that I can put my glasses anywhere and still have them on top of a pile within easy reach whenever I need them. I don't need to align them in their correct spot. I don't need to make sure that they don't get any thumb prints on them. I can fix all that in post, sorry, in the faucet with some soap. In effect this gets me off the hook for organizing unimportant stuff. I get to sit down at my desk and start working on whatever I need to work on.

Yes, I am a messy writer. I like to crank out drafts that meander, that doesn't adhere to a strict, bullet pointed order. So does Stephen King and he did all right. Yeah, I wander into a dead end in many of my writing projects. I'm not as effective as I could be - but I'm a lot more effective than I would be if I didn't write, and having a messy desk helps me with that.

Intelligent People Don't Need Order
Here's a kicker for you: if you're intelligent you don't need order. In fact, you might find strict order stifling and the more intelligent you are the less order you require.

Well, it's not that simple, of course, but people with a high G-factor rely more on their ability to process new information than on their memory. G-factor is what psychologist call "general intelligence", "general cognitive ability", "general mental ability" or just plain old "intelligence". It's not quite the same thing as IQ but G-factor accounts for about 40-50% of the variance in IQ. Where IQ could be summed up as "pattern matching ability", G-factor could be summed up as "learning ability" (this is very simplistic, not entirely correct and doesn't take into account fluid and crystalline G components, but it works for our purposes).

So where a person with a lower G would rely on memory, i.e. everything being in the correct place, to find information a person with a high G would rely on their ability to quickly sort through lots of information in order to find what they need.

Me, I'm a high G-factory, high IQ type of person. Doesn't make me better than anyone, nor a wunderkind of any kind - my EQ, that's emotional quotient, is, well, ask my wife. Or better yet, don't.

But I rely on knowing the general whereabouts of stuff I might need and then sorting through them very fast. Which brings me to my next point:

A Messy Desk is Creative
Creativity is the ability to take two disparate ideas and merge them together into a new whole. And when I'm digging through my messy desk I get bombarded with ideas: old notes, old memories, stuff that I'd forgotten to do, stuff that I wanted to look at later. All of this front loads my brain with a wave of chaotic data, which my G-factor helps me sort through (yes, my G-factor is a small, green hominid living in my left eyeball; darn grammar). And during that sorting marvelous new ideas flood my brain - "oh, an article about tropical fish, wow a note to find out what happened to the first dog in space - hey, giant space fish coming to eat earth!".

Having a messy desk is creative in another way as well: without ordered lines, without the comfort of following set pathways, the brain tends to innovate. We're great at spotting patterns even when there are no patterns to spot. So when our brain is presented with a multitude of senseless input it tends to create sense out of it anyhow by highlighting the parts that we focused on before. Think about red cars or strollers and take a walk around town - notice how many red cars there are around? If you don't believe me, google "synchronicity".

Too Messy is Still Bad
But there's a catch: if my desk becomes too messy it becomes detrimental (not enough G-factor I guess) and I start to feel stressed about it. That removes any comfort I get from seeing my desk in disarray. And I get the feeling that I can't find anything so I don't try, meaning I don't get any flow of new ideas because who wants to dig through yard high stacks of paper?

So while I might like to have a clean desk, and I know that my wife would strongly prefer it, I work better with a messy one but only as long as it's not too messy. And when it gets too messy I get a definite feeling of accomplishment from cleaning it. Yay! Me: 1 - Desk clutter: 0. Excuse me, now I've got to go clean.

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This post was previously published on www.Wiltgren.com - Game Design, Writing, Productivity
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Mon Jun 22, 2015 10:05 am
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WooHoo! Four Gamasutra featured in a row :D

Filip W.
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As it says, four in a row [Happy Dance]
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Fri Jun 19, 2015 10:00 am
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6 Archetypes For Break-Testing Your Game

Filip W.
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When I was little I played cards with my grandmother. I loved playing cards with my grandmother. She always lost.

She didn't mean to. Grandma played to win and when we played for money, which as all the time, she played to win. Oh, she'd give me my starting cash. She'd fund me on the rare occasions when I ran out of 10 öre coins. It wasn't like she tried to fleece me, but she did play to win. And she lost.

For years I thought that I was simply better at playing cards than grandma. I was convinced that I had a gift. But when I look back on what was going on I realize that this wasn't so.

See, grandma's favorite game was rummy. And we'd play for 10 öre per card. If you had six cards in your hand when your opponent played their last cards then you lost 60 öre. Grandma always complained that I didn't play my cards but kept them in hand until I could play every card at once. She could never add any cards to my melds and I would win.

Because I had broken rummy.

In grandma's version rummy was played with two decks and a draw hand of 14 cards. But if you lost without having played a single meld (for you non-rummy types, a meld is when you put down a set or run of cards on the table, making your hand smaller) you only paid one krona (100 öre). So we had three things that worked in my favor:

I would be able to add cards to grandma's melds without her being able to add cards to mine.
I would have more flexibility in whether to play my cards as sets or run, making my card draws more efficient.
In the unlikely event that I lost I was given a free bonus - not only didn't I have to pay for the first two advantage but I'd actually get a 40 öre reward, having to pay only 1 krona för 14 cards - I was doubly rewarded.

My gaming style was simply superior to grandma's. Grandma's rummy was broken and I, quite accidentally, found out how. Grandma never did, and kept playing using her style with all her friends, none of whom would play any other way.

My point is this: when you design, find your internal 8 year old. Break your game.

I suck at breaking my games. I love them too much. I can see the potential, the great game that is there if only people would play it exactly the way I envision that it should be played. I want to create a linear, static experience for my players.

Go write a movie script, ya dofus! This isn't how games work!

Games are meant to be won. That's why we play them, to challenge us and our friends to a competition where everybody strives to win. Try playing with someone who doesn't care or plays a token game and you'll have all the fun of a shell-less snail at a crow reunion.

So what to do when you can't break your own games?

At first I tried to just playtest, playtest and playtest more. Solo. Didn't work. Oh, sure, I would find the small problems, the ones that really didn't matter because, hello!, the whole game was broken. And I didn't see it because it played OK for me.

I've got a very static playing style: if it's possible to build I build. If it's possible to develop I develop. If I can get away with turtling I turtle. I like going for the sure thing rather than taking risks where others can disrupt my plans. Which isn't the way other's play. So I formulated heuristics for solo playtesting and created a set of ideal (in the psychological sense, not the philosophical) player archetypes:

The Arse. This is the player who likes to hurt others, the very opposite of me. Very conflict oriented. If it's possible to attack the Arse will attack. If it's possible to mess with other players the Arse will mess with them. The Arse will go for the weaker player, going for the maximum hurt rather than trying to beat on the leader. Yeah, nice guy.

The Coward. Turtler galore. This is the guy who won't attack even if the enemy's is sleeping with his pants down and his head up his butt. The Coward doesn't care. It's obviously a trap; too risky. The Coward will just huddle in his corner building his defenses, not risking anything, anytime (I've had designs where the Coward would win, resoundingly - bad game design).

The Builder. This is pretty much me. The guy who'll tech Every. Single. Time. This is the guy who'll build the resource engine on the expense of everything else. Which works great against the Coward but less so against the Arse. Which is fine, since we're pitting extremes against each other. And in the instances where the Builder wins over the Arse we know that the building strategy works a lot better than the messing strategy. Time to rebalance.

Shorty. Mr. short-sighted is short-sighted, always going for the easiest gain in any situation. Strategy? Who needs it. If it's there and it's cheap, grab it!

Mr. Plan. The plan is pretty hard to play. This is the player I have the most trouble with, being rather tactical and short sighted myself. When I play a Mr. Plan I set out a set of objectives at the start of the playtest and write them down. Then I check every action against those objectives. If they don't take Mr. Plan closer to his objectives I don't do them, no matter how tempting.

The Grudge. Grudge is a grudge player. This is the player who starts out as another type and, once provoked, will relentlessly go for revenge. Effectively Grudge is a Coward/Builder/Mr. Plan or Short who in mid game turns into an Arse against one other, specific player. If the Grudge wins, or if the object of the Grudge's hate loses badly then the game needs some checks and balances.

I've found that starting with one playtest without ideals followed by a playtest where half the players are ideals usually breaks my games in such a way that I know why it's broken. The first playtest tells me if what I'm trying to achieve is even achievable, that is, with myself and myself only, would the game deliver the type of experience I want it to? And if it does, will it still deliver that experience when there are extreme players present?

Sometime it does. And then I know that the game is ready for public playtests. And I bring in The Game Breaker. But that's a story for a different time.

How about you, how do you make your solo playtests effective?

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This post was previously published on www.Wiltgren.com - Game Design, Writing, Productivity
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Mon Jun 15, 2015 10:05 am
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How To Design Games For Optimists And Bad Losers

Filip W.
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Optimists are great. They're upbeat, they spread energy about them, they get stuff done. Being an optimist makes life easy.

Right.

Optimism is good for a great many things. Looking at life realistically isn't one of them. According to Dr. Martin Seligman, premier researcher on positive psychology (he founded the field), being an optimist, or being in an optimistic mood to be exact, makes us exaggerate everything. Good and bad.

That's right, optimists exaggerate bad experiences.

BTW, pessimists are bad at quite a lot of things, from self-motivation to achieving their goals, but they're great at one thing: seeing the world like it is. Which optimists aren't.

So what's this got to do with game design?

This: most people are optimists (ok, most people are in an optimistic mood). If you don't believe me, just look around - how many people around you are depressed? Possibly a couple but we spot them quite fast. "What's up, Joe, you're looking down." And Joe gets to unload how the Big Socks lost the Grand Lobster Trophy and now he has to cheer for the Small Panties. And Joe feels better. And gets into a (somewhat) optimistic mood.

Optimists engage in social interactions. Optimists partake in contests. Optimists play games. Which is great - until the optimist hits a wall in the game. A pessimist would, if they had the energy to play, have been able to see that yes, things are bad, and they're exactly this much bad. The optimist will exaggerate: Things aren't bad. They're BAD. BAAAAAAAAAAAD.

Rage-quit.

Game over.

I'm selling this stupid, crappy game.

Screw it, I'm stomping this game and setting it on fire. And I'll lock the ashes in a jar and bury them in concrete, so there.

Ok, so maybe that doesn't happen. (Yes it does. I've got the jar of ashes to prove it.) Point is that optimists will become terrible losers. They'll feel that their position is hopeless, that they're in a terrible position, that the game is pointless.

(Personal nature vs. nurture aside: from what I've read this might actually be a survival trait. Hey the giant leotard bit me, I'm going to die, I'll better get out of here real quick. Oh, I got depressed, oh, now I need to lie here and rest and heal and not fight Grunt-Grunt about that missing ham last week. End speculation.)

But back to the game. Your optimist, the person who absolutely loved your game ten seconds ago, will turn on a nickel and become your greatest hater. And spew about it in every online venue they can find.

So what can we do about it?

Easy. We'll use the optimists penchant to exaggerate against her. We'll make her believe that she's about to win and win big. Then, when she doesn't win, we'll make her believe that it was just pure, dumb luck on a single, really, really tiny element that kept her from winning. We'll get her revenge juices flowing and make her fight for the right to another game. Yepp, manic game player creation, here we go.

But first we need to make sure of a few things. We can't put our optimist in an untenable position. Never ever. That's one of the rage-quit conditions, remember? So make sure that there's always a way to get out of that bad spot. If you can't make sure, make sure that there's a way to respawn and try again in a different way, or a legal way to quit and walk away without tantrums. Don't let anyone sit there and have no way to win (I'm looking at you, crappy billing system at work that doesn't let you start over OR log out when you make a mistake).

So, now there's always a way to win; time for our second point: never, ever, give your players reason to beat on the loser. Only exception - ever - is if you've got a game that balances on a knifes edge and the game ends very, very quickly after someone falters. Then you get "ops, I stumbled, crap, I'm dead, ok, the game is over, let's play again". How to design something like that I'll leave as an exercise for the reader. (Hey I've got DOZENS of games like that, yeah, yeah, I do, promise. I just haven't published them because I'm waiting for George Lucas and the corpse of H.P. Lovecraft to come knocking to offer me the Star Chulhu Wars franchise.)

To recap:
1. Never make your player's situation hopeless (without killing them outright).
2. Never make people beat on the loser.

Ok, we've got a great game where nobody goes belly up without just cause and exciting possibilities (mmm... belly buttons.... I've been reading too much Chuck Wendig, bad influence). Now we move to the good part: getting your optimist to explode into a spamgasm of geek love for your marvelous mechanisms (tweet, tweet, facebook, tweet, you won't believe this shit!).

We'll start with the basics. The optimist will exaggerate the good stuff in your game. She'll see the opportunities as larger and greater than they really are. All we need to do is present her with the opportunities. So give them to her. Easy peasy.

This is, in fact, the age old adage: give the player meaningful choices with a single item added: power. Yepp, we're giving the player a chance at power. Power here, power there. If I choose this path I'll get a crap-ton of power, if I choose that path, I'll get a crap-ton of power. Do I want metric tons or imperial ones?

Ops, my opponent can get a ton of power and a pinch more if she does this and this and this and that. Please, please, please don't let her spot that opportunity. Phew. More power to me.

The optimist will exaggerate the great dangers of their opponents as well. They'll exaggerate everything. So give them the chance to exaggerate. Make them see the power plays. Make sure that there are power plays, meaning that there must be a few non-power plays as well. Something that isn't quite as good. It doesn't have to be bad (that's the "phew, glad I avoided that trap" reaction, which is something different). But if it's not quite as good, and we add exaggeration to it we'll get "oh, that move is soooo bad, and this move I'm going to make is sooooo good, yay me!". That's the feeling we're aiming for: I know that what I just chose is the greatest since white cardboard. Oh, look, there's an even better opportunity here, this is doubly greater.

And, hey presto, we've got a classic game. All thanks to our exaggerating optimist (at least the game will be classic for them - everyone else may hate it, but hey, that's life).

Final recap:
1. Don't strand your players up the wazoo without a paddle.
2. Don't give anyone incentives to beat on the loser.
3. Do give players the possibility of power plays.
4. Do give players meaningful choices between different good plays.
5. Dig up Lovecraft's corpse and secure the Star Chulhu franchise.

Now go design, you optimist, you.

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This post was previously published on www.wiltgren.com - Game Design, Writing, Psychology and more.
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Mon Jun 8, 2015 10:05 am
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I'm becoming complacent

Filip W.
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I'm ahead on my work. Not ahead-ahead but ahead of what I've ever accomplished since starting to keep track. I'm 166% up on my best yearly fiction word count. I'm at 104% of my best yearly number of submissions and at 84% of my best total yearly word count and it's only May.

I'm going to break all my records this year.

Except that if I keep going like I am, I'm not going to.

See, I've started to become complacent. I'm not comparing myself to others (did you know that Lazette Gifford wrote a 50 000 word novel in 7 days? did you know that Reiner Knizia designed over 450 games?), I'm comparing myself to myself.

And I'm kicking myself's butt.

Which is the problem. My competition is too light.

I never tried to really, really find out what makes me tick creatively until I started taking writing and game design seriously about two years ago. And I found out that I don't take too well to set goals. When I've got a set goal I tend to A) make it waaaaaaay to ambitious (I'm going to write a novel in three months, I'm going to design and polish ten games and I'm going to start a game designer gathering, and next year we'll double that) and B) get scared by it even if it's rather modest (don't get me started on comparing myself to others, that kept me from writing for years...).

So goals are out, but measuring stuff is in - if I don't measure I just meander. Which makes it imperative that I compare myself to something or the measuring becomes rather pointless.

So I compared myself to myself, looking at a year-on-year improvement. Which wasn't very hard as I didn't do that much creatively for the past years. So when I really started to go down on my writing this year (and, I might add, I've got one game finished and polished already) I started breaking records like a moral majority in an ACDC van.

And I started to feel that, hey, been there, done that. I'm the greatest there is.

I now it's not true (just looking at my submission stats confirms that) but I'm growing complacent with what I've accomplished, and on the grand scale of things it's not that much. I've got to work way, way harder if I'm going to become a pro before I retire.

So, what's the way out? How can I kick complacency without stressing myself into a creative hole?

I haven't got the faintest idea.

How about you - what do you do to keep motivated?

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This post was previously published on www.wiltgren.com - Game Design, Writing, Psychology and more.
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Mon May 18, 2015 10:05 am
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An Introduction to Story Structure for Game Designers

Filip W.
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In writing there's this thing called the story structure (or plot structure). Basically it's a formula for taking a story from beginning to end via a set of key points through which a story should pass in order to give the reader the maximum reading pleasure.

Yeah, there are different readers, and there are different writers and there are definitely different stories. And yet, with most stories you will see a story structure (except in literary fiction where you can read for 250 000 words about a guy going to a funeral) since to keep tension high and reading pleasurable you need something to happen, a rise and fall, turns and twists.

The same is true for games.

So what happens when we try to use a fiction story structure to analyze games?
The 7 Point Story Structure

Lets take a simple 7 point story structure (there are other structure analysis tools but I like this one). It might look like this:

Hook
Plot point 1
Pinch 1
Midpoint
Pinch 2
Plot point 2
Resolution

The hook is the part where the reader is hooked into the story, where she sees that there's loads of cool stuff ahead. It usually begins with the hero in the opposite state than in the end of the story - Harry's a wimpy orphan underneath the stairs, Luke's a wimpy orphan on a farm.

Plot point 1, sometimes called the call to adventure, is where the hero is show that she's destined for greatness in some way - Harry Potter discovers that he isn't some silly orphan because He's Got Magic. Or the hero is kicked out of his rut - Luke Skywalker discovers that the Evil Empire has burnt down Aunt Beru's farm, now go get them boy!

The first pinch is where the evil of the opponents is shown. The Overlord razes the town. Darth Vader blows up Alderaan. Bad stuff happens.

The midpoint is where the Hero and Friends(tm) decide to do something about it. It's the point where the hero stops being pushed around and formulates a plan of attack. She goes on the offensive.

The second pinch is another chance to show how evil the evil is by having them thwart Hero in some way, removing something the hero needs - Darth Vader kills Obi Wan. It can switch places with plot point 2 or the midpoint.

CautionThe second plot point represents the part where the hero has all the information she needs to solve the case, she just doesn't know it yet. Sometime she needs a little reminder: "Use the force, Luke".

Resolution is when it all comes together and the plot is resolved. This is the climax of the story - Deathstar goes Boom! Then you've got the falling action, when everybody gets their medals.

Ok, so much for plotting. What's this got to do with game designers?

Let's see what happens when we apply the plot structure on the flow of a game.

Hook

This is where you start to form your first plans. You sit down and see what resources you've got to play with. You decide to invade Russia. You decide to build up your food production engine. You decide to do something. Note that unlike in fiction the hook isn't about getting interested in the game - if you're playing we're already assuming that you're interested. No, this is about what you, as a player, can do, how you can act within the constrains of the game. So the hook is the point at which you can start towards meaningful actions within the confines of some plan.

The problem here is if your hook comes too late in the game. Imagine Fresco where you'd need to do nothing but gather resources for the first four rounds. It would be incredibly boring. This is why most games start with players having some form of resources, some ways to act.

Question: Does your game let players act with agency right from the start?

Plot point 1

This is the point where the game actually start rolling. You know what you need to do and decide upon a course of action. Then the game starts presenting you with new opportunities enabling you to refine or shift your plans. You see that your opponent has a weak spot and decide to go all in on an invasion of Leningrad. You spot an opportunity to acquire cheap land and build a mill. You see how to move your game forward.

This means that your design can't be static. You need to let players develop their positions. Can they develop their positions right from the start? Do they get rewarded for developing their positions by new opportunities? I played a prototype where the players' could advance their positions but they didn't gain anything from that. They had several moves before anything meaningful happened. That entire part of the game was pointless and should be cut.

Question: Does your game reward players with increased agency for their actions?

The pinch

This is where the opponents make their move. It may be planned, it might be accidental but the opponents influence the player in some (usually negative) way. The opening in Leningrad was a rouse and now your panzer divisions are trapped. The player to your right buys the mill before you can. Your plans are tossed into disarray.

This means that your game needs to have some way for players to meaningfully influence each other. This does not need to be direct interaction: Roll for the Galaxy is a game where there is pretty much no player interaction and yet players influence each other by being closer or further away from victory. The minimum needed for a pinch is that the player needs to be able to see the distance that her opponents have remaining before reaching some goal and compare it to the distance she has remaining.

Question: Does your game offer players a meaningful way to compare or threaten each other's positions?

The midpoint

This is the point at which a player commits to a strategy or way of winning. Up until the midpoint (which doesn't have to come in the middle of the game, just as a plot midpoint doesn't have to come in the middle of the book) the players can switch strategies without incurring too many penalties. But once you've gone past a certain point you need to gain more rewards from following one, or a subset of all possible, strategies than from playing randomly.

Question: Does your game offer players meaningful synergies between sets of actions?

Pinch 2

Another threat. Your opponent breaks through your lines and rushes to encircle your front line units. The price of food plummets and now everyone can access your monopolized resources for next to nothing.

This is the point where a weak design fails to runaway leader/fallaway loser syndrome. If there is a strategy, or set of strategies, that are stronger or weaker than others it will show and some players, choosing those strategies, will find themselves in positions where they must keep playing (i.e. they aren't eliminated) but know that they can never win. You need to let players have the hope of winning throughout the game, even if it needs a long shot to do so.

Question: Does your game offer players in weaker positions meaningful ways to threaten or catch up to stronger players?

Plot point 2

This is the point at which very few additional resources enter the game. There is no longer time to build your engine, you must look to what is happening and draw the correct conclusions. The Allies are massing troops and ships in England. The price of production is getting lower. Whatever is happening on the board, this is the last time where major changes will occur.

Your players should reach a point where they can see that the game is ending and they've got to work with what resources they have in order to win. They need to know that the game is about to end, and they need to be able to see all the meaningful options remaining for them so that they can commit to one.

Question: Do your players see that the game is about to reach a critical point, and are they able to act upon that information in a meaningful way?
Resolution

Resolution
This is it, the moment of no return, where you throw everything you've got into the pot and hope that it will be enough to snatch victory. You throw your reserves onto the beaches in the hopes of beating the Allies back from Normandy. You dump your remaining corn and buy steel mills for every last coin. You act in a way that you hope will ensure victory or stave off defeat.

This point should come within the final minutes of the game. After this there is only counting points and seeing who the winner is. If timed correctly this should be the tipping point for the game at which all the strategies are resolved, the action that creates a landslide that lets you win. This is also the point at which volition is removed from the players - after this there are no meaningful decisions left. One common problem with designs is that the resolution doesn't come last - the "I've won/lost but there's still stuff to do" problem. Thus you should end the game as soon after the resolution as possible. Don't let it drag out, give the players' their rewards and let them start a new game.

Question: Does your game's climax come right before the ending or do you have book keeping rounds you can remove?

So there you have it, the 7 point story structure as a set of in-game choices. When I started using this to analyze my designs I came up with some interesting observations that let me improve them in various ways. But that's a story for another time.

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This post was previously published on www.wiltgren.com - Game Design, Writing, Psychology and more.
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Building creative habits using triggers

Filip W.
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Image: Me (yeah - diagraming master!)
Take a look at what happens when you wake up in the morning. I'm pretty sure that you do most of visiting the toilet, washing your hands, brushing your teeth, dressing, making breakfast. It may not be exactly this but I'm going to make you a bet: no matter what you do in the morning you do the same things in the same order every day.

That's because your morning routine is a ritual.

I don't mean a chanting, dancing and sacrificing small animals type of ritual. I mean a habitual ritual, something that, once triggered, leads to a series of actions in an unchanging sequence.

Here's what happens. You sit down to eat dinner. You pick up your fork. You start eating. Normally you don't go for a refreshing run in the middle of your dinner. Your dinner, with all the actions in it, the lifting of your fork, the chewing, the putting away of the dishes, is a single mental unit in your brain.

Breaking the habit of eating your dinner would be as unthinkable as a smoker smoking half a cigarette, going away for a while then coming back to smoke the rest: it can be done but it would require outside influence, a disturbance, to do it. Otherwise the ritual will complete itself.

Twyla Tharp writes in her "The Creative Habit" that each morning she would go down to the street, hail a cab and go to the studio to practice. The hailing of the cab was the triggering event, the ritual, for her creative work. The same way you waking up triggers your morning ritual or you sitting down to eat triggers your eating ritual. It launches you onto a path where you don't have to think about what you do, you don't have to make any decisions, you don't have to engage mentally. You just do, effortlessly.

That's what you want in your creative processes: to do, effortlessly.

I'm not saying that it will become easy to create, that you'll never doubt yourself or anything like that. But I am saying that if you've got a working ritual to start your creativity then it will become a lot easier to create, or do any work that you choose to build a ritual around.

But first a word to the wise: you're likely to have rituals, right now, that prevent you from doing good work.

For me that's my "switching on the computer" ritual. It consists of clicking on all the four icons on my taskbar: my web browser, my email client, my Evernote client and my file explorer. This is what I do every time I boot up my computer. I click those four icons. It's a ritual that's built into the triggering action of "sit down in front of the computer". And that's fine. I need those programs to work.

Except what happens then is that I go to the web browser and check the comics. Then I check my email, which has some other interesting stuff to read (I subscribe to a bunch of mailing lists). Then I check the news sites. Then I realize that it's time for a short break.

And no work gets done.

So I've been working on creating different rituals, ones where I sit down in front of the computer and start writing.

Except that I can't use the trigger of sitting down in front of the computer. I need another trigger. So now my trigger is to look through my ideas. After that I start to write.

It's a decent trigger but it's not optimal as it requires an action that isn't tied into a natural (that is pre-existing) trigger. So while I can get a sequence of events that consists of either A) writing or B) checking for ideas, then writing, I don't get a common trigger like C) drinking tea, then writing.

So, how would I go about building a new trigger? Let me give you an example for a trigger change that did work.

For quite some time I wanted to start flossing my teeth. I know it's good to floss, even better than brushing (even better if you can do both), but I never managed to get it ingrained into my teeth care ritual. So I looked at what I had tried to do: floss, then brush. There was no trigger associated with the flossing. In fact I was going against the triggers I'd set for myself which started with me brushing. So I changed the order, even though the dentists say you should floss first. And, lo and behold, I managed to tack on the floss action onto the trigger(s) that started the brush action. Ok, it was a bit tougher than that.

In the beginning I only added a minuscule amount of flossing. I knew that I didn't like to floss, that my gums weren't used to it and my technique sucked so that I'd cut myself often. So I did the minimum required to start a habit. I decided to floss one tooth.

That's pretty useless, right?

No, it's not. I wasn't out to floss my teeth, I wanted to create the habit of flossing my teeth. And starting with a trigger action linking to flossing was enough.

So for days I'd floss a single tooth. Then that started to feel a bit silly. I mean, I'm there, I'm flossing. Why not continue? So one tooth became part of a row, a full row, then all my teeth. A month after I started flossing a single tooth I was flossing all my teeth every day. Now If I don't floss it feels wrong, as if I'd skipped brushing.

That's how habits are built.

As for my writing, well, I've got the habit of idea-to-writing. And I've got the habit of starting all my programs when I start the computer. So now I'm trying to add the check ideas to the end of that starting programs sequence. I'm not there yet, and I get derailed lightly, and sometimes I've got early meetings or other things that keep me from completing the chain of actions but I'm working on it.

I'll let you know how it goes.

----------

This post was previously published on www.wiltgren.com - Game Design, Writing, Psychology and more.
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Mon May 4, 2015 10:05 am
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Is rolling a die more random than drawing a card?

Filip W.
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What is random? If I draw a card, will it yield a random result? If I roll a die, will that lead to a random result?

The answer is: we don't know. The deck of cards can be stacked, the die may be false. And yet, as humans, we tend to believe that we're pretty good at both seeing randomness and generating it.

Looking at it psychologically there are three main parts of randomness: that events aren't dependent, that events are consistently likely (meaning that their chance doesn't change much over time) and that the outcomes match what we believe about the system.

For example, we believe that die rolls are random. But if we roll ten sixes in a row we tend to believe that we shouldn't roll another one (the Gambler's Fallacy), that it's "time" for a different result. But if we are told that the system has been rigged we'll tend to believe that those sixes are a result of that rigging, even if we don't know what that rigging consists of or whether it exists at all.

That's because we've trained ourselves to think in certain terms. Dice are random. Cards are random. But cards feel slightly less random than dice. Ask someone to select an image of a random thing and in 99% of the cases they will choose a die.

We're trained to consider dice random from a very early age. Most people play die rolling games, like Snakes and Ladders, Parcheesi or Monopoly, at an early age. The idea of generating random numbers from dice becomes ingrained in our psyche.

But imagine poor Slavic tribesman from around Ceasar's time. They wouldn't have had dice (dice would have been exclusive to them, if they used them at all) and may have drawn lots instead using pieces of straw. Would they have imagined straw as an image of randomness? Maybe. Possibly. My point is that the feeling of something being random is just that, a feeling.

Randomness is a complex matter. On one side we've got mathematical randomness, the probability of events to occur. On the other hand we've got the feeling of randomness, that some things are beyond our control. And while mathematical randomness is inviolate, the feeling of something being random is not.

Which brings us back to my original question: why do some things feel more random than others?

Easy answer: mental (and cultural) bias. It might be just as random to roll a die as it is to draw a chit from a cup but on casual examination the drawing of the chit feels less random (yes, I am aware that there's great variance in this). My personal theory is that the action of pulling something makes people feel that they're actively choosing, as opposed to waiting for the result of the thrown die. Add to this the common "dice are random" mental image and we get a spread of randomness amongst equally good randomizers.

This is something that we can use in designing our games. When we're looking for a feeling of randomness we can use dice. When we're looking for a feeling of action, possibly even control, we can use cards, chits or something that doesn't have quite as strong mental ties to randomness. We can increase a certain feeling in our designs by leveraging common biases.

--------

This post was previously published on www.wiltgren.com - game design, writing, and more.
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How Your Brain Is Fooling You - Evaluating Ideas

Filip W.
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Quote:
Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing... I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times... The first draft of anything is shit.
- Ernest Hemingway


All accolades to the master and all that but Hemingway is quite wrong. The first draft of anything is glorious.

That's because the first draft isn't the one you set down on paper. It's the one you see in your head.

The first paper draft of anything is shit, but the first glimpse of your idea, the first vision, is amazing.

See, what happens when we get an idea is that we very rapidly judge it: is this idea good or bad. This happens on an instinctive level, and is why we act impulsively. "Oh, I'd like to eat a cookie." "Good idea!" "Why am I fat?" That's us, acting in "reaction mode". We get an idea and we react to it, carrying it out.

The opposite is also true: "Oh, an orphan with a mysterious past gets an invitation to attend a wizards accademy." "What a crap idea." "Who's Harry Potter?". We react to our ideas emotionally, judging them based on our preconceptions of what is expected of us. That's a very basic human trait allowing us to spot that hungry lion in the bushes and start running before we even realize we're in danger. It's also something that stops us from destroying the social structures surrounding us by censoring our words and actions (for what happens when we lack that censorship, take a look at the common stereotype of Tourette syndrome or your average frat party). Unfortunately it also stops lots of great ideas, but that's a whole different can of worms.

So what's this got to do with your first draft or first prototype sucking or not?

Consider what happens when we think that an idea is great. We've just come up with the idea. We've evaluated it: Great idea! Now we're a tenth of a second into our thought process of fleshing out the idea and we're full of very positive emotions about it.

Now something interesting happens.

Enter our ability to pattern match. We come up with one idea, we feel positive about it, we expand it. We're not expanding the idea linearly. No. We're jumping from one idea to another without making a connection between them. Harry doesn't lose his parents under mysterious circumstances, goes to live in a closet, meets a mysterious owl, reads his invitation and so on. Harry, in our chain of linked ideas, goes from mysterious past to wizards academy. Everything else is still in "fill in the blanks" mode. But that's OK since our brain can pattern match from one part to the other. We're skipping the stuff in between and seeing the whole. But since our mind is full of positive emotion (the "idea rush" if you want) the stuff in between gets filled in not with blanks but with positive blanks - we see the glorious, fantastic, amazing whole without any blemishes. And the parts we might see may be glorious, fantastic and amazing but the parts between them will, by force, be otherwise.

You can't have a novel that's uniformly high tension, high stakes, amazing words etc. (Ok, you can if you're Roger Zelazny or Jack Vance). You can't have a game that's entirely tense, where the player's are always active, where everyone is on their toes no matter their skill level. That simply doesn't work - you need the slow downs, the downtime, the exceptions that allow the reader or player to lean back and rest for a while or you risk burning them out (which is why the TED conference organizers show funny dog videos between sessions). But those parts aren't quite as glorious as the highlights that you see in your chain of ideas.

Ok, you've had your idea. You're full of the glory of it. You might even manage to produce the entire work while being idea high. And what happens? You look back on it, read it, playtest it and you spot all those weak parts, all those parts where your skill couldn't quite match your vision, or just the parts where rest is necessary (or you spot that you missed those parts and your game is all break neck speed and no strategy).

And suddenly your glorious idea falls to pieces. You no longer see the highlights spanned by glory. You see the entire progression of steps from high to low to high. And suddenly the first draft sucks.

BTW, Hemingway loved to mess with beginning writer's minds. Most of what he said is pure BS, such as only writing standing up (photos of his study are preserved, including the position of his typewriter). That part of rewriting the opening 50 times? Sounds great, lots of work. Unless he was the world's fastest typist by several orders of magnitude he would not have had the time to write as much as he did, not to mention drink, fish, womanize and boast, if he kept rewriting stuff 50 times.

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This post was previously published on www.wiltgren.com - Game Design, Writing, Psychology and more.
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Talent, schmalent - The one trait successful creators need

Filip W.
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Quote:
Starting is the toughest part of it. Inertia is a very real condition, and getting started when you would rather be in bed or at the beach or anywhere except there at your desk takes guts. I am going to let you in on a secret: Only the writers with guts succeed. Have you ever wondered why writers of mediocre talent get published while greater talents do not? The answer is guts. Drive.

Perseverance. Talent is not enough. You must have the drive to overcome all obstacles, including your own inertia.

Judith Krantz put it this way: “To be successful you must have talent joined with the willingness, the eagerness, to work like a dog. I write seven days a week from ten until four, and I begrudge every minute I have to spend on the phone or away from my typewriter.”

- Ben Bova


I admire people with persistence. Mostly this is because I haven't got much of it myself. I tend to dither around, collect belly button lint and dream about how great things will be when I've managed to do whatever it is that I'm procrastinating about.

So I decided to train myself to be more of a doer. And while I haven't managed to go all the way yet I do crank out a lot more work than I used to. How? Simple.

(And please do not that I did say "simple" not "easy".)

First off, you've got to realize that your brain is a muscle. Ok, it's not strictly a muscle but we aren't biologists here. Except you. Get out.

Now that we're all on the same wavelength: the brain can be exercised to be stronger and more skilled at any mental activity you care to name.

Believe that IQ is given? Think again. With two weeks of practice you can raise your results on an IQ score by some 20 percent. That's right, you can go from average to the top tenth percentile in two weeks. There are even books that teach you how (it's boring though, rote solving lots of type questions). My point is that you can increase your IQ, that "God given, inane, genetic ability" that authors, poets and politicians favoring a certain shade of brown clothing tend to rave about.

The same goes with willpower. Want to increase your willpower? Deny yourself. That's right. Deny yourself the luxuries you crave. Want a slice of cheesecake? Look at it. Think about it. Don't take it. The more you act like this, the better you will become at controlling your cravings and the more successful you will become at whatever you want to do (that's right, remember the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment). Practice enough and you will experience the Triumph of the Will (and I'll better knock it of with the brown jokes before Leni Riefenstahl's ghost firebombs my house).

Point being, you can increase your persistence by increasing your willpower and overcoming the lure of fast gratification.

That's psychology speak for "Don't eat that cheesecake and you'll grow rich". But I promised you that I've found a simple way of not eating cheesecake. Here's what I did.

I started out with the stuff that I dreamed of doing, writing, designing games and getting published. And I noticed that I could create just fine when I was in the mood but I had a hard time doing it when I wasn't in flow. So I started to think about what knocked me out of the flow and came to the conclusion that it was A) fear and B) uncertainty.

I was afraid of being seen as an impostor, the old "if you follow your dreams people will laugh at you, you'll lose your family and little children will pee on your head". And that would be absolutely, completely, definitely horrible.

No it wouldn't.

See, no one really cares about your bad attempts at art. Even if you send them in, editors don't gather in secret ceremonies where they wear flowing robes covered with intricate print marks and laugh at the tribulations of beginners (well, no more than twice a year at least).

Truth is that an editor will look at a manuscript, or a game, or a piece of art and decide whether they like it enough to buy or not. If they like it, they might remember your name the next time something of yours comes across their desks (horray!). If they don't like it the only person to remember your rejection is you.

You.

All your fear, all your uncertainty, resides in you. And how you manage to deal with it resides in you as well.

That's where persistence comes into the picture. Being able to act decisively isn't a matter of being without fear. It's a matter of feeling fear and still managing to take the next step. This is what I practiced on. I've got a small stack of rejections. More than 50, less than 100. I know of writers with hundreds of rejections. One online acquaintance collected 287 rejections before he managed to land an agent. Stephen King collected rejections on a large nail on his wall until the nail broke. Rejections aren't the end of the world.

It took me a long time to realize that. The first time I submitted to Writers of the Future I ended up a semi-finalist. This was my first fiction submission ever, my third submission in total. I ended up a semi-finalist. What I saw was "I didn't win". It stopped me from writing for years. Literally.

Takes a lot of work to grow a pair and get persistent.

Today I get rejections on a weekly basis. I started to submit on a weekly basis as well. I send out stories and when they come back I send them out again. Working through my fear had taught me that it is possible to overcome it.

Not that I don't feel fear, I do. Every time I'm about to submit I feel that gulf in my gut. When I accidentally submitted simultaneously to two markets that didn't allow it I didn't sleep for days (both markets rejected my story). But I keep submitting, and I keep working on my fear and I keep building my ability to be persistent (and I've got five acceptances, including three from paying markets to show for it).

On to uncertainty. When I'm uncertain about where to take something, or if something will work, I procrastinate. I don't want to, I can see that I'm doing it but I still procrastinate. Lots of small excuses that make a big mess.

So I've started trying to force myself to write, or playtest, even when I'm not sure that I want to. I try to keep going even though I don't know what to write, or if a certain mechanic will work or not. Here my main obstacle isn't fear. Fear is sharp, you can feel it. Uncertainty is slow, dull, a heavy, wet blanket covering my mind. It feels a bit like being depressed. No idea will come, no solution is visible. I can go in this state for days, weeks, even months.

So I've devised two work arounds. One is to have several projects going at once. Right now I'm world building one novel, I've got another on "pantser-improvisation", I've got six short stories that are in need of finishing and another fourteen that are in various stages of editing.

I've got one game that's got an editor request for changes that I'm working on, one that I just sent back after changes, three other that are in various stages of being looked at by publishers. I've got another four that are in various "soon to be prototyped" stages.

This is way, way, way too much, and as sign of my procrastination. So here's where my persistence comes into the picture: whenever I don't have any ideas I pull up one of my "working on" projects and dive in.

Which sounds a lot easier than it is.

I go days without doing any real work. Then I go days without accomplishing anything meaningful. I haven't managed to get as far with my uncertainty as I have with my fear. I need to work on my persistence here some more. The important thing isn't to succeed every time. The important thing is to get up after I fail.

And that's what persistence is all about.

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This article was previously published on www.wiltgren.com.
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Mon Mar 30, 2015 10:05 am
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