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Rempton Games Blog

A weekly game design blog about various topics, but especially trading card game design.

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Video Article – History of Game Design Part 1: Race Games

Caleb Compton
United States
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Mon Mar 18, 2019 3:15 pm
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Game Design in Real Life: Playing With Incentives

Caleb Compton
United States
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The following is a reproduction, and has been modified for this site. The original article, and many more, can be found at

Why is education important? Aside from the inherent joy of learning and the desire to constantly improve yourself and enrich your life, the answer most people would probably give is that you need education to get a job. But why do you need a job? Why, to earn money of course!

Why do you need money? To buy things, such as food, clothes, shelter and entertainment. Of course, you don’t need to work to get those things. You could just steal them! Stealing food from the grocery stores, clothes from clothing shops, etc. But most people don’t live that way. Why not?

There are two main reasons. The first is the fear of punishment – if you just stole everything you needed, chances are you will eventually get caught and punished with jail-time or fines at the very least. The second reason is an understanding that society would not work if everybody behaved this way, and not wanting to contribute to the weakening of society.

These are all examples of incentives. Whether it is the promise of education helping you get a job or the fear of getting arrested preventing us from breaking the law, most things that people do can be understood in terms of the incentives that drive the behavior.

Why am I talking about this? What does it have to do with game design? Why am I asking you so many questions? I am simply trying to illustrate a point – nearly everything we do (or don’t do) is caused by one thing – incentives. Incentives are one of the primary forces in the world that guide behavior, and can be a very powerful tool in game design.

Inventive Incentives

Simply put, an incentive is anything that is designed to motivate or encourage somebody to behave a certain way. Incentives can be divided into a number of subcategories, and the type of incentive used can make a big difference in how people react. The two main areas that incentives differ are Positive vs Negative incentives and Intrinsic vs Extrinsic incentives.

First, lets look at positive and negative incentives. Put simply, a positive incentive is a reward for performing some action, while a negative incentive is a cost or punishment for performing an action. In general, if you want somebody to do something more often you should use a positive incentive to reward them for that action. If you give your dog a treat after you tell them to sit, they are more likely to obey that command in the future.

Similarly, if you want somebody to stop doing something (or do it less frequently) you would attach a negative incentive to that action. For example, if you want your co-worker to stop chewing with his mouth open you could squirt him in the face with a water gun every time you see him do that, which would incentivize him to stop.

For extra incentive-y goodness you can always combine positive and negative incentives to form a “carrot and stick”. This doubles down on encouraging a particular behavior by not only rewarding that behavior when it is performed, but also providing costs or punishment when it is not. This combination can be very effective, and should only be used when extreme motivation is necessary.

An example of positive and negative incentives in the modern world can be found in the tax system. Without getting too political, taxes are often used as an incentive by governments to encourage or discourage particular behaviors. For example, if a government wants to discourage cigarette smoking they may add a negative incentive to that behavior by raising taxes.

In the same vein, governments can encourage certain behaviors, such as charitable giving, by associating a tax break with those behaviors.

However, as you may already be able to tell from my use of this example, incentives are not always used thoughtfully. Continuing with the tax example, while taxes are occasionally used for their value as incentives, they are often simply seen as a way to raise money without regard to the effect that a particular new tax might have on behavior. This is a mistake, and I believe more thought should be put into how new taxes or tax breaks could affect the behavior of the public.

The next way to distinguish incentives is between intrinsic and extrinsic incentives. Basically, this is a distinction based on the source of the incentive. An intrinsic incentive has an internal source, whereas an extrinsic incentive comes from some outside source.

Intrinsic incentives are generally not tangible – they are positive or negative feelings and emotions that can drive behavior. In a game the most obvious example of an intrinsic incentive is fun – you perform actions in the game because you enjoy them.

Extrinsic incentives, on the other hand, tend to be more tangible. Things like money, items and services can be provided as a form of extrinsic incentive. In a game, an example of an extrinsic incentive would be providing the player with Victory Points, currency, or anything else that could improve their chances of winning.
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Obviously nobody would ever take advantage of the tax system, but its still worth thinking about

The Most Important Rules of Incentives

Rule #1 – whenever there is an incentive to do something, some subset of the population will try to take advantage of it

This is something that must be planned for, otherwise you will be caught off guard. A great example of this comes from a promotion by PepsiCo known as Pepsi Stuff from the mid 1990s. Under this promotion people could earn Pepsi Points by buying various Pepsi products, and these points could then be traded in for various prizes. While most of the prizes were relatively normal items such as t-shirts and sunglasses, one commercial showed a Harrier Jet as a prize for 7,000,000 Pepsi Points.

Including the jet as a prize was, of course, intended as a joke, and Pepsi thought that there was no chance of anybody actually collecting 7 million points. However, they had forgotten the first rule of incentive systems. It turned out that you could purchase 7 million points for a mere $700,000 dollars (far below the manufacturing cost of around $25,000,000). This meant that anybody who was actually able to redeem this prize would make a huge profit so, unsurprisingly, somebody decided to go for it.

That person turned out to be a 21 year old business student named John Leonard. Leonard was able to raise the $700,000 from a number of wealthy investors, bought the points, and mailed the off to PepsiCo. Unfortunately, Pepsi refused to give Leonard his prize, which led to a legal battle which eventually ruled in Pepsi’s favor. Sadly, Leonard never got the jet that he rightfully deserved, but through this process everybody learned an important lesson. Pepsi continued to air the commercial, but changed the 7 million points to 700 million, which now meant that the cost of buying the points was more than the cost of the jet itself.

Rule #2 – People will do things they don’t want to do if the incentive is high enough

Put another way, a strong enough extrinsic incentive can and will overcome intrinsic incentives. This may seem obvious, and in fact one of the primary uses for incentives is getting people to do things that they don’t want to do. However, the important thing to keep in mind with this rule is that it doesn’t just apply to times when you are trying to get people to do things. Incentives can and will affect behavior even if that is not the goal, and therefore it is important think about what behaviors you may unwittingly be encouraging in your game.

For another real-life example, lets look at a promotion started by Hoover vacuums that coincidentally also took place in the early 90’s. Hoover’s marketing department made an offer to provide two free airline tickets with the purchase of any vacuum worth over 100 pounds. They believed that this would encourage people to buy the more expensive models, since it would seem like a more reasonable purchase with the tickets.

Unfortunately, that’s not how incentives work, as they soon learned. Before long hundreds of thousands of people had ordered cheap vacuums that they didn’t want, for the sole purpose of getting the much more valuable free tickets. This led to huge losses for the company – while they sold around 30 million pounds worth of vacuums, they ended up spending more than 50 million pounds on airline tickets.

The fundamental mistake here is that Hoover believed that adding this additional incentive would NOT fundamentally change consumer behavior. They believed people would only buy vacuums if they needed them, but would be more willing to buy the more expensive models and less likely to go with a competitor.

The flaw in this logic is that changing behavior is literally the entire point of creating an incentive in the first place. You cannot add a new incentive and expect behavior not to change, you can only attempt to anticipate what kind of change will occur.

Incentive Tension

One interesting aspect of incentives is the tension that can occur when multiple incentives conflict with one another. In fact, this is the core of strategy in games. At any given time you have several options, and many of them will move you further towards your goal. However, in order to make one choice you have to miss out on others, and it is up to the player to decide what is the most valuable to them.

Therefore, when designing games it can sometimes be necessary to purposefully add conflicting incentives to add additional depth of strategy to the game. However, it is important not to overdo it, and finding the right balance for your particular game can be quite a difficult task.

To see why, lets consider a game that has no conflicting incentives. Generally this means that your game will only have a single goal, and a single path to achieve that goal. These games tend to be quite simple, and are played more for fun than strategy.

An example of this is Apples to Apples. The only thing the game encourages you to do is to pick the card that is most likely to be chosen. There is no tension or conflict among the incentives, which leads to a very simple and straightforward game without a lot of strategic depth.

On the other extreme you have “point salad games” such as Tokaido, where there is such constant tension between different incentives that it becomes difficult to even make an informed choice about what to do. Pretty much any action you take will give you victory points, and when you are being pulled in all directions at once it is the same as having no direction at all.

Most games are going to find themselves somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. You want enough tension to force your player to make meaningful decisions, but not too much tension that makes it impossible for them to actually choose.

However, there is one area that you absolutely want to avoid designing tension, and that is between what your player WANTS to do and what they NEED to do to win. Basically, your players are going to be drawn to the most fun parts of your game – this is an intrinsic incentive. However, if those fun parts of the game are not necessary to win (or even counterproductive) this can lead to a very dangerous type of tension.

In this situation your player only has two choices, neither of which are very desirable. On the one hand they can take the path that leads to victory, but if this path isn’t fun it can lead to disappointment. On the other hand they can take the fun path, but this too can lead to disappointment if they never win.

This sort of tension is not good for your game, and if you encounter it in your game it probably means you need to adjust some things so that the fun path is also the path that leads to victory.

Until Next Time!

That is all I have for this week. If you enjoyed this article, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Twitter, Youtube, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week for my second video article, which you can help choose on Twitter!
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Mon Mar 11, 2019 4:26 pm
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The Battle for Loot Boxes: Are they Gambling?

Caleb Compton
United States
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The following is a reproduction, and has been modified for this site. The original article, and many more, can be found at

Lately in gaming there has been a large amount of talk about gambling as a part of game design, especially regarding underage players. While very few people are fans of loot-boxes in games, some of the most vicious attacks against these tactics have called them “gambling for kids”, and accused them of using these techniques to “hook” children into playing and paying more for the game.

However, this isn’t the first time that these types of accusations have been brought up. Depending on your definition, baseball cards go back as far as the 1860’s, and accusations of gambling have gone back nearly as far. However, in my research I have been unable to find any attempts to ban or make baseball cards (or other forms of trading cards) illegal.

However, while trading cards seem to have avoided a legal backlash, loot boxes have not been so lucky. According to around 15 European gambling regulating agencies are looking at whether loot boxes would be considered gambling.

However, while these regulators do seem concerned with loot boxes themselves, which they say “blur the line between gambling and gaming”, their primary concern actually seems to be around Skin-betting, which was involved in a major scandal around CS:GO a few years back.

That isn’t to say that there has been no issues around loot boxes themselves, however. Already two countries (Belgium and the Netherlands) have declared loot boxes to be gambling and, therefore, illegal.

In today’s article I want to explore this issue, and give my thoughts on whether loot boxes should be considered gambling. To do so I am going to take a look at the legal definitions to determine what is considered gambling, examine some of the specific legal arguments against loot boxes, and finally present my argument on whether or not loot boxes should be considered gambling.

Terms and Conditions may Apply

In the following section I am going to be looking at what is and isn’t considered gambling, and how this definition varies from state to state within the US. I understand that this may not be the most interesting topic for everybody reading, so if you are not interested in these definitions you can skip to the next section, where I will look at some examples and specific cases.

Note: Most of the legal discussion in this article will pertain to the laws of the United States of America, in which I reside. Therefore if you are reading this from abroad it is likely that the specific laws that govern your country are different. That being said, many of the principles are likely to still apply.

The legal definition of gambling is not universal, as it varies from place to place. However, at least in the US there seem to be a number of similarities among these definitions. According to the article “Gambling Modes and State Gambling Laws: Changes from 1999 to 2011 and Beyond”, to be considered gambling three criteria must be met.

The first criteria is that something of value must be at risk – basically, there must be a bet. Second, there must exist the opportunity to receive something of value in return, such as a reward or prize. Finally, the third criteria is that there must be an element of chance that determines the outcome, although the amount of chance that is necessary to be considered gambling can vary and is often difficult to nail down.

When deciding whether a particular game has enough “chance” to be considered gambling there is a common test that many states use called the “Dominance factor”. This test states that in a game with an element of skill the element of chance must “dominate”, or have a larger impact on the outcome, than the element of skill. In other words, the outcome must be more than 50% chance to be considered gambling, otherwise it is considered a game of skill.

In addition, around half of states allow “social gambling”, but not “professional gambling”. Generally, this distinction allows gambling in a social context among friends. To be considered legal social gambling in these states the gambling must not be facilitated by anybody who is not an equal betting participant. This means that gambling in a professional casino context is banned, as is having a professional bookie who keeps track of bets and payouts.

Finally, some states have specific rules that ban online gambling, while others do not. However, even if a state does not specifically ban online gambling this does not necessarily make it legal – it may still be banned under other laws that are already in place.

Testing the Limits

Before I get start looking at the arguments for and against loot-boxes, I want to examine some other areas that are and are not considered gambling in the US, to get a better idea of how these legal definitions are applied.

First, lets look at some of the most clear-cut examples of gambling out there – classic casino games like slot machines and roulette. These games provide a good benchmark because they clearly fit all three criteria for gambling. You have to place a bet in order to play, if you win there is the possibility of a prize, and the outcome is entirely (or almost entirely) out of your control. These games are gambling, through and through.

However, not all cases are so cut and dry. Lets take the case of Poker, specifically No Limit Texas Hold’em. Is this game considered gambling? Maybe…and maybe not. It really depends on whether you consider it to be a game of luck or a game of skill. The first two criteria are pretty cut and dry – there is a bet, and there is the chance to win a prize. However, measuring luck vs skill is a very difficult task, and has led to a difference of opinion among state governments.

In around half of states Poker is considered completely illegal, while in around another 20 it is legal to play Poker socially. 5 states allow “cardrooms”, which are like casinos but only host card games such as Poker. Finally, online Poker is currently legal in four states – New Jersey, Delaware, Nevada, and Pennsylvania.

In addition, more evidence is being gathered to show that Poker is a game of skill, which could cause it to become legal in states that rely on the “Dominance factor” to determine whether something is considered gambling or not.

Unfortunately, this argument doesn’t do much to tell us whether loot boxes are considered gambling, since there is really no argument that player skill can affect the outcome of the game. However, this example does show the amount of complication that can go into determining whether something fits into these definitions.
The Case For Loot Boxes

I, personally do not believe that loot boxes are gambling and therefore should not be illegal. This is because I do not believe that loot boxes fit with the second criteria to be considered gambling – “there must exist a chance to win something of value”.

Although it may seem like an odd use of the term, paying for the loot box could easily be considered to be making a “bet” on the outcome, which would quality for criteria number 1. In addition, the outcome of the loot box is clearly determined randomly, so the third criteria is met. However, I don’t believe that there is enough variance among the possible outcomes to be considered gambling.

This issue all depends on whether you consider the prizes found within the loot boxes to have value or not. If you say that they have no value then buying one certainly cannot be considered gambling, since there is no chance of receiving something “of value” for your bet. In this case it would be considered more of a donation.

However, I believe that these items certainly do have value, even if they are only digital. These days most games, television shows, movies, and music is distributed digitally, so I believe that it would be naive to say that a digital loot box has no value. If we say that these goods do have real, intrinsic value, does this mean that they violate the second criteria?

I would say no, for one reason – there is no way to lose your bet. Buying a loot box is not a gamble, it is a purchase, and every time you buy one you are receiving something of value. Unlike a slot machine or a roulette table, or even Poker, there is no chance that you will completely lose your bet and walk away empty handed.

That being said, not all loot boxes are made equal, and some are much more valuable than others. For those who enjoy loot boxes this is a big part of the appeal – the chance of opening a box and getting that last skin for their collection, a legendary weapon, or some other rare prize. I would still argue that this does not constitute gambling for two reasons.

First, as mentioned above even if you open a box that is not very exciting to you it is still not worth nothing, and there is no chance that you are simply losing money. Second, most of the variation in value between loot boxes is entirely subjective, and varies from individual to individual.

Take the issue of duplicates for example. If you open a loot box and receive an item that you already have, you might feel that particular box was a waste of money. However, this same item might have been very exciting to open if you did not already have one. The difference in value is not intrinsic to the item because it depends on outside factors, such as your current collection.

Similarly lets suppose you open a box in Overwatch and get a skin for a character you don’t play. This particular skin is useless to you, and therefore you might feel like you lost money. However, this doesn’t make the skin an inherently useless item – somebody who does play that character might have been very excited to open that box.

Finally, in most games that contain loot boxes you can trade in duplicate or useless items for in-game currency, so even if you can’t use the item you get some value out of it. Because you are always receiving something of value every time you open a loot box I don’t think it can legally be considered gambling, at least in the US.

Until Next Time!

That is all I have for this week. If you enjoyed this article, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Twitter, Youtube, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week for a new installment of Game Design in Real Life!
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Mon Mar 4, 2019 3:17 pm
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Know Thy Enemy: Designing for Yomi in Games

Caleb Compton
United States
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The following is a reproduction, and has been modified for this site. The original article, and many more, can be found at

There are few thrills in gaming greater than predicting your opponent’s move and responding perfectly. Whether it’s getting a perfect parry in Smash Ultimate and following up with a devastating combo or knowing exactly which trap card your opponent just played face-down, these moments are always extremely satisfying and can often become stories that are told over and over.

This feeling – the feeling of reading your opponent’s actions before they make them – actually has a name – Yomi. Yomi can add tremendous gameplay depth to a game, but it isn’t something that will necessarily happen on it’s own in your game. Instead, the game has to be designed in such a way as to allow and encourage this type of play.

In today’s article, I want to take a deeper dive into the idea of Yomi. First, let’s take a close look at what Yomi means and where it came from. Then, we can look at the various levels of Yomi. Finally, we will examine how Yomi can be designed into your game.

Levels of Yomi

Yomi comes from the Japanese word for “reading”, and refers to the ability to read your opponent’s intentions before they actually act. This usage of the term seems to originate with David Sirlin, head designer of Sirlin games. Sirlin has an extensive background in fighting games, and the concept of Yomi originally came from playing fighting games and having to predict your opponent’s moves before they make them.

I have already briefly touched on the concepts of Yomi in my articles on Rock, Paper, Scissors strategy (part 1 and part 2). In those articles I talked a lot about why humans are very bad at being unpredictable, and how you can use this to your advantage as a player. However, there is a lot more to Yomi than simply trying to predict your opponent’s next move.

Yomi is actually a bit of a rabbit hole, and the more you begin to think about it the deeper it goes. Yomi is really all about knowing the mind of your opponents, and using it against them. This doesn’t just mean the surface level information, such as what attacks they tend to spam, but also knowing at what level of Yomi they are at. While it is true that players who are better at predicting their opponents actions will tend to do better, you must also adjust your play based on what level your opponent is at.

Yomi Level 0 – The Beginner

When you first begin playing a game you are probably going to be at Yomi level 0. In this stage you are mostly concerned with your own actions, rather than the opponents. You are becoming comfortable with the controls or components of the game, and gaining an understanding of the general rules and overall strategies of the game.

This stage is characterized by self-focused, reactive play. A level 0 player will tend to focus on their own moves, and are simply reacting to their opponent’s actions. Here the player is learning which items/characters/techniques are effective in general, rather than trying to counter any specific actions of their opponent. For example, fireball is a good attack so I will use it ALWAYS.

Yomi Level 1 – The Counter-Picker

At this stage players are learning to think 1 step ahead. Level 1 players are able to predict their opponents moves and respond to them appropriately with a counter. These players know which characters have an advantage in each matchup, they know which stages benefit them the most, and they know which items to use to exploit their opponents weaknesses and which moves will leave them helpless.

For example you notice that your opponent is just spamming fireball so you wait until they launch it and counter with a blast of water.

Yomi Level 2 – The Perspective-Shifter

While level 1 players know how to counter their opponents, Yomi level 2 players go a step deeper by predicting those counters. This is done by trying to look through the eyes of your opponent, and predicting how you would react in their place. You know that if you just keep spamming fireball your opponent will counter with water blast. Therefore, you send out a fireball to bait out the water blast, then pelt them with the lightning bolt!

Yomi Level 3 – The Fortune Teller

The deepest level of Yomi – you know what counters your opponent will use against you, and you know how they will defend against your counterattacks. You know when they are baiting you with fireball, and and you know how to counter with rock throw when they send that lightning bolt at you. You don’t rely on a single counter-move for everything. Instead, you predict which move your opponent is about to toss out before they throw it at you, and choose your response accordingly.

Designing for Yomi

Having this level of prediction and mind-games in your game can add new layers of depth and strategy, but it doesn’t come for free. Before players can begin predicting and countering your opponents moves, the game has to be designed in such a way to enable this.

Take our fireball example from earlier. Suppose that a fireball takes 2 seconds to throw, and stuns the opponent for 2 seconds if they get hit. If the opponent gets hit by the fireball 1 time, a skilled player would be able to keep this combo going infinitely without the opponent being able to respond. This does not make for very fun gameplay.

The first step to designing a game that supports reading the opponent is to adjust or get rid of overpowered items, moves and characters that have no counterplay, or add in appropriate checks and balances. In a game of predictions it is not very fun if a single wrong prediction can lead to inescapable death, so the game should be designed in such a way that any combo is escapable.

The two main ways to do this are with hard and soft limits. A hard limit is the maximum length of a combo that the game will allow. After this number is hit the game will interrupt the combo and allow the opposing player a chance to escape. One way to implement a hard limit is add a “combo finisher” move that is automatically activated once a combo reaches a certain threshold. This finisher move will be exciting to the player who pulls it off, but should reset the combo and give the opposing player a chance to escape once executed.

The second method is to add soft limits, also known as “scaling”. This method involves slowly adjusting the power of a technique to allow combos to become more escapable over time. Examples of this can be found in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. The first example is through the knockback mechanic – knockback of all moves changes based on the player’s damage, which means that certain combos will only work at certain levels of damage and cannot simply be repeated over and over.

Another example of scaling in Smash is through move staleing. This mechanic causes moves to become less effective the more often you use them, and can make attacks easier to escape the more frequently they are used. This can discourage players from simply using the same move over and over again.

What do hard and soft limits have to do with Yomi? When designing for Yomi the goal is to create a game environment that allows and encourages players to predict and respond to their opponents. If the game contains moves and combos that the opponent cannot respond to this undermines Yomi entirely and completely changes the focus of the game. While the designers should endeavor to catch and remove these combos before the game is released, it is impossible to catch everything and these systems can be an important fail-safe.

While hard and soft limits can help take care of the general case, it is also important to make sure that your game pays attention to the details as well. Even if your game has mechanics to prevent infinite combos, this by itself does not allow for Yomi play. Instead, you need to design your game to deliberately design their moves/items/characters to allow counterplay.

There are a few different parts to this. First, each player needs to have multiple viable options available. If one player only has one viable move they are easily shutdown, but if they have multiple options it makes it more difficult to predict, and therefore counter.

Secondly, each character should have the ability to counter their opponent’s moves. This could involve anything from using a shield and counter-attacking to having a rock-paper-scissors style balance of strengths and weaknesses. Regardless of how it is implemented, each opponent should have viable countermove options to their opponents.

Finally, different attacks should require different counters. Here is where the prediction element comes into play. If your have a single counter-move that works regardless of your opponent’s actions, there is no need to predict what they are about to do. If different moves require different responses, however, choosing the wrong response could put you into a bad position and allow your opponent to punish your misplay.

Yomi in Context

Since this term originally came from the world of fighting games, much of this article has been written in such a way as to primarily apply to those types of games. However, the concept of Yomi goes far beyond a single type of game, and can be applied to almost any genre. In the end, it all comes down to knowing the mind of your opponent, and responding appropriately.

In the board-game world, Stratego is a game that is designed almost entirely around the idea of Yomi. You must use your knowledge of your opponent to determine where he placed his various ranks, and you must use your own pieces to take them out.

Something similar could be said about Battleship. Is your opponent the type to spread their ships all around the edges, or clump them together in the middle? Different approaches will require different guessing strategies.

Another game that is almost entirely designed around the concept of Yomi is Poker. In Poker you never know what your opponents have, but you can generally make an educated guess based on how they are behaving, as well as past performance. Even if luck isn’t on your side the player who is best at reading their opponents will tend to come out on top.

Until Next Time!

That is all I have for this week. If you enjoyed this article, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. This weekend I am going to my first game jam, so next week’s article will probably be about that!
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Mon Feb 11, 2019 4:24 pm
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The Moral of the Story: Designing Moral Decisions in Games

Caleb Compton
United States
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The following is a reproduction, and has been modified for this site. The original article, and many more, can be found at

One of the things that defines a game is the choices that it presents to its player. Every game has choices, from deciding whether to fold your hand of cards to choosing which cybernetic enhancements to buy for your giant mech suit. However, one type of choice that this medium has difficulty presenting is moral choices.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of games that present the player with moral decisions to make. However, due to the nature of the medium of games most players don’t really think about these choices the way they are meant to be thought about. In any game players tend to do what gives them the best chance of winning, and this can lead to them making these decision based for gameplay reasons, not moral reasons.

In many cases this is fine – these are just games after all, and for the most part the player should be encouraged to do what is most fun for them. However, in some cases games can be far more than just fun. Games are a unique medium with the power to place players in situations they would never encounter in their real lives, and force them to make difficult decisions that they never would otherwise have to make. These choices can be extremely powerful, but only if they are implemented correctly.

In this article I am going to examine moral decisions in games. I am going to look at various ways they have been implemented in the past, why they often do not work, and what is necessary to make these types of choices work.

How are Moral Choices Implemented in Games?

The first type of moral choice system I want to look at is the “morality meter” system. These are systems that explicitly and visibly track the player’s morality along a 1 dimensional axis with “good” on one side and “evil” on the other. As the player progresses through the game their choices will move their position along this axis until they are “fully good” or “fully evil”.

Examples of this type of system include Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Shadow the Hedgehog, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. In Knights of the Old Republic the player has a meter that shows their progress towards the light or dark side of the force, and based on their alignment they can unlock various powers and abilities. In Shadow your alignment will move you along different story paths, and in Smash (spoilers) who you choose to fight (light or dark spirits) can determine which ending you eventually get.

Other games are a little less obvious with their moral choices. Instead of presenting you with clearly good and bad choices, they present the players with less clear-cut choices, and allow them to choose the one they believe in the most. This is common in the Fallout series, where the player has the options of joining various factions that have different moral stances, and it is up to them to choose the group that aligns with their beliefs.

In Fallout 4, for example, players are given choices between the Railroad which wants to free Synths, the Brotherhood of Steel which wants to destroy them, and the Institute which wants to capture and reprogram them to be humble servants. There is no clear “good” or “bad” among these choices – it all depends on the player’s own ideas about concepts about consciousness and free will.

Another way games can get a little more ambiguous is by not directly telling the players about their various options, and making the effects that their choices have a little harder to track. An example of this would be in Detroit: Become Human, with the “violent” and “pacifist” paths. The game lets you know what actions move you along this meter, but it is difficult to know exactly where you are at any given time because it doesn’t present you with a clear “pacifism” meter that clearly shows your exact score at any given time.

Do These Systems Work?

While games are amazing at providing players with choices, it becomes a little more complicated when you begin to talk about the idea of moral choices. A moral choice comes down to deeply held internal beliefs about right and wrong, and in the real world moral choices can become quite messy and complicated. Moral choices in the real world always have consequences, the outcomes may not always be clear, and they cannot be undone.

In a game, however, this is not the case. In general, any choice you make in a game can be undone. If you get an outcome you don’t like, you can always load up an old save file and go back before you made the choice. The outcomes are also known – it is entirely possible to look up a walkthrough online that will tell you exactly the outcomes of any choices that you make, but in the real world things are less clear.

The biggest difference, however, is that choices you make in a game are unlikely to have real-world consequences (other than potentially affecting your relationship with other players in a multiplayer game). Even if I make a choice in a game that permanently kills a character, and the game automatically saves so that the choice cannot be undone, my real life has not been affected. That character never really existed, and nobody was actually harmed or helped based on my actions.

Given all of this, it is very rare for me to play a game that actually makes me think deeply about the possible moral choices that I have to make. In the end, the choice often comes down to which outcome is best for the character within the game rather than any sort of strong moral conviction. Basically, if an NPC asks me to murder a nun to win a cool unique weapon, that nun never had a chance.

There are so many factors that get in the way that it begs the question – is it even possible for a game to present true moral choices to the player? Is it possible for a game to actually require you to look inside yourself and examine your own beliefs to make a decision, even if it may have a negative effect on gameplay? I think it is possible, but there are numerous factors that must be taken into account.

What is a Moral Choice?

The first question we must answer is this – what counts as a moral choice? Games present players with decisions all the time, but most of them would be considered tactical decisions, not moral ones. Take the Pokemon series for instance. Choosing which Pokemon or attack to use can be a difficult decision, but it has no moral implications.

Even the decision of whether to fight at all has all semblance of morality removed from it – you need to fight to progress the game. If you need to level up, you will fight more enemies. If you are already overlevelled you are more likely to run away from battles, but generally this is for gameplay reasons, not moral ones.

If these types of decisions clearly have no moral bearing, what does? In Skyrim there is a quest in which players are introduced to a clan of cannibals and asked to join them by feasting on a priest. Is this considered a moral choice? On the one hand, this decision seems to have a clear right and wrong – murder and cannibalism is wrong, so you shouldn’t do them. If that was all there was to it the choice would be easy – don’t kill the priest.

However, there are a number of factors that make this type of choice a bad example of moral decision making. First, it doesn’t really force the player to examine their own beliefs because it’s very clear which option is right and which is wrong. Secondly, it incentivizes players to make the immoral decision. If the player eats the priest they are presented with a unique ring, while if they don’t they will have to fight all the cannibals. Therefore, the player is strongly incentivized to kill the priest.

This turns the decision into a very different kind of choice – do what I know is right, or do what will help me in the game. The problem is, players are given very little reason to make the “right” choice. It is pretty much impossible to play Skyrim without murdering hundreds or thousands of people, elves, monsters and undead, to the point that it would be almost hypocritical to try to treat this behavior as “wrong”. In fact, in order to escape from this situation without murdering the priest the player will likely have to kill numerous other NPCs, several of which are useful merchants in the game. Couple that with the fact that we have no reason to feel any connection to this particular character and the choice becomes clear.

How to Present Difficult Moral Decisions

I believe that these examples show two things. Firstly, that if you are asking a player to make a moral choice you should present them with a choice that actually requires them to examine their own morals. The choice should not have a clear right and wrong answer, but should make them choose between two rights or two wrongs. Ideally there should be reasonable arguments for both sides, and the player will have to really examine themselves to make a decision.

Secondly, the player should not make the choice for gameplay-only reasons. If you are trying to make the player really examine their own ethics, bribing them with in-game incentives is only going to muddle the decision. If the player is incentivized within the game to choose one way this will detract from the decision that has to be made, and possibly result in a choice that doesn’t reflect their true beliefs.

This is not to say that the decision cannot have implications within the game. In fact, I would consider your choice having a significant impact to be a positive thing – the more significant the impact, the more likely the player is to seriously consider the choice. All I am saying is that gameplay factors should not be the primary driving force behind the decision.

However, if you truly want to impact the player you should try to make the choices have as significant an effect on the real world as possible. Players often don’t care about making these types of moral decisions in games because it doesn’t feel real to them – no matter what they do there are no real consequences to them.

In fact, it is extremely common to save before a major choice so that you can go back and either experience both choices or just change your decision if you made the “wrong” one. This lack of consequence removes all stakes from the choice, and in the end it becomes pretty much meaningless.

There is very little that a game can do to add stakes back into these types of decisions, but one thing that they can take is the player’s time. I think one way to add significance and impact to moral decisions in games is to make them irreversible and permanent. Once the player makes the choice the game is saved and they cannot go back or change their decisions.

This may seem extreme, and is definitely not necessary for every game. However, if you want your decisions to have real impact I think this is a very effective option, because it has real consequences for the player. Sure, they can still go back and change it if they want, but it would require them to start over from the beginning. This is very time consuming and most players would avoid it, which would cause them to put much more weight on their choice.

Warning: It’s pretty much all spoilers ahead

One great example of a truly difficult moral decision can be found at the end of Nier: Automata. This game has multiple endings, but in order to unlock the final ending you must face an extremely difficult bullet-hell style boss battle during the end credits of the game.

However, if you struggle enough during this battle you are presented with an option of receiving assistance from players who have already beaten the game. This makes the fight much easier, and by completing this sequence you are able to unlock the final ending. After completing this sequence, the player is given a final choice – they can help somebody else in the world with that final boss battle, but in return their save file will be deleted.

This is a truly difficult decision, with real moral implications. The impact and consequences of this choice will have a real effect on the world. If you say yes your ship will help someone, somewhere in the world, finish this game. However, it is likely to be somebody you have never met, and in order to do so you will have to give up a save file that you have poured dozens of hours into. Is it worth it? That’s up to you to decide.

Of course, not every decision you make in game can or should be this impactful. However, it is a great example of how even in a game you can make a choice that has real moral implications, and is one that will not be taken lightly.

Until Next Time!

That is all I have for this week. If you enjoyed this article, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week, where I will look at how to Yomi in games!
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Mon Feb 4, 2019 5:18 pm
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A Morale Victory Part 2: Making Choices Matter

Caleb Compton
United States
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The following is a reproduction, and has been modified for this site. The original article, and many more, can be found at

Hey everyone! Last week I started a two-part article on maintaining player morale. Player morale, the feeling of confidence and enthusiasm that players have while playing the game, is a major factor in determining whether players will finish your game and want to play again. If you want players to keep coming back to your game it is important to keep their morale high.

I also broke player morale into two major components. The first major component, which I looked at in-depth last week, was making players feel like they have a chance to win. However, this by itself is not enough. This feeling must also be paired with the second component of morale – the feeling that the choices and decisions that you make while playing the game actually matter in determining your victory.

Note: This article is not going to be talking about choices having to deal with the storyline of the game e.g. alternate endings, morality trees, etc. This article is about tactical and strategic decisions made during gameplay, but if you are interested in an article on that topic please let me know!

My Meeple My Choice

I recently took a trip to Arizona to visit some of my wife’s relatives, and while I was there we spent some time at a Casino near Sedona. This trip was my first time actually gambling at a real Casino, and I was shocked at how unsatisfying I found the games to be.

Every game I played I knew I had a chance of winning – there was always the possibility of winning a huge jackpot and walking away thousands of dollars richer than when I began. However, although I knew the possibility existed, I didn’t feel very hopeful because I knew that it was entirely out of my control. There is nothing that I could do at the slot machines or roulette wheel that would give me any type of advantage – I could choose my bets, but at the end my choice didn’t really matter. After losing a few bucks I decided to call it quits.

There were a wide range of different emotions that could be felt in that building – desperation, frustration, bursts of adrenaline – but morale was definitely lacking. I really don’t think that anybody was there just to enjoy the games – they were there for the possibility of financial reward.

As game designers, we can’t just bribe our players with the possibility of financial gain. Instead, we need to design games that keep players coming back again and again for no other reason than because they love playing. This means that (with the possible exception of games for very young children) your game should provide the player with real decisions that allow them to directly affect the outcome of the game.

In last week’s article I talked about possible ways to create the feeling that everyone has at least the possibility of winning. However, this week is a little different. Depending on your definition of games, games already must include player choice. However, there are a number of pitfalls to avoid in your designs that can minimize a player’s feelings of agency. These include using total output randomness, having too much hidden information, or taking last week’s strategies too far.

* Avoiding Total Output Randomness

In the last several years there has been a lot of discussion about input vs output randomness in the game design world. To briefly summarize, input randomness refers to randomness that occurs before a player decision and requires the player to react, whereas output randomness occurs after a player decision and determines the outcome of that decision.

In the game design world input randomness is usually considered to be something that can test a players skills and force them to think on their feet, while output randomness is considered to be something that reduces player skill and makes the outcome more random. However, I don’t think that this distinction is so clear cut.

I do not believe that having some amount of output randomness in a game is necessarily a bad thing as long as players know what they potential outcomes are and their relative probabilities. If this condition is met, then the player is able to make decisions that take the potential outcomes into account. I would refer to this situation as Partial Output Randomness.

An example of this type of randomness would be any game that has a player make “skill checks”, in which a random value is compared with one of the player’s stats. This can be frequently found in RPGs such as Dungeons and Dragons, the Fallout Games, Persona, or Betrayal at the House on the Hill.

If, on the other hand, the player does not have this information or is otherwise unable to prepare for the potential outcomes, this would be considered total output randomness. The casino games mentioned earlier would fit into this category. In this situation the player is essentially unable to make a meaningful decision, as there is no way of predicting or preparing for the outcome.

* Avoid Excessive Hidden Information

Hidden information is present in nearly every game, and it has a wide variety of positive uses. It can add variety to the game, create interaction between players, and test their ability to deal with uncertainty. However, it is possible to take this too far. Even if the point of the game is to discover hidden information, the game should still provide enough feedback and information that the players can make informed and meaningful choices.

Let’s look at an extreme example. Poker, specifically Texas Hold’em, is a game that contains both randomness and hidden information. However, the randomness in Poker is input randomness – it always occurs between rounds, before players act. Any time a player must act the information has already been determined, and is available. However, the players do not have access to it, and must make decisions based on what they know.

The amount of hidden information present in Texas Hold’em is necessary to make the game work – it allows experienced players to roughly determine their own likelyhood of winning by examining the available information (their own hand and the public cards) as well as the behavior of the other players at the table. This balance of public and hidden information makes the game both exciting and very skill intensive.

Suppose, however, that we made a single small change to the game. In this new version of the game players are only allowed to look at one card in their hand, and don’t see the other card until the end. This small change would nearly eliminate a player’s ability to make informed betting decisions and would severely hamper the game.

Hidden information is different from randomness because the information already exists and is available. However, if the player does not have access to this information then for all practical purposes it might as well be random. The exception to this rule is when the game allows you to learn or guess this information based on your opponent’s behavior, but in extreme cases there may not even be enough info for the other players to telegraph effectively.

* Too Much of a Good Thing

The tricky thing about these two components of morale is that they are somewhat at odds with one another, and maintaining a balance between the two can be tricky. On the one hand, if the only thing that matters in a game is player actions then the more skilled player will win 100% of the time, and morale for the less skilled player will be extremely low. On the other hand, if every player has an equal chance of winning at any point in the game it can feel like the player’s own skills don’t matter.

Taking any of the strategies suggested in these two articles too far can end up having a detrimental effect on the game overall, which is why caution must always be taken with these sorts of decisions. If your catch-up mechanism is too strong it can end up devaluing or even punishing player skill, and if your decisions later on in the game are too impactful it can make the actions taken earlier feel completely meaningless.

On the other hand, if all information is publicly available this could lead to issues such as analysis paralysis, where players are overwhelmed by the amount of information and end up making slow and often sub-optimal decisions. Similarly, if the game shies away from randomness entirely it can lead to a game with low replayability, that gets stale after you have played it a few times.

The key is to find the right balance between these two components, and this balance will differ depending on what type of game you are making. For a game that is intended for serious competition you might put a lower emphasis on players being able to come back from defeat because you want the higher skilled player to always win. On the other hand, some more casual games put a lower emphasis on strategic player decisions. Every game is different, and it is up to the designer to determine what their game needs.

Until Next Time!

That is all I have for this week. If you enjoyed this article, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week, where I look at the design of some popular fictional games and sports!
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Mon Jan 21, 2019 9:35 pm
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A Morale Victory Part 1: Giving Players a Chance to Win

Caleb Compton
United States
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The following is a reproduction, and has been modified for this site. The original article, and many more, can be found at

Playing a game is an emotional activity. Whether is be a rush of excitement when you take down a difficult enemy, or a sense of dread as your omens tick up one by one and you wait for the haunt to begin, a good game should try to create strong feelings in its players. These feelings do not come out of nowhere – as a designer, it is important to be aware of how your game is making players feel, and make sure that the emotions evoked match the intent of the game.

These feelings will not be constant throughout the game. Certain parts of the game will naturally be more exciting, tense, sad, or frightening than others. This is generally a good thing – by varying the types and intensity of emotions that player feels the designer can keep the game from feeling stale or one-note. However, there is one emotion that should remain high throughout the length of the game, and that emotion is player morale.

Player morale refers to the amount of enthusiasm that the various players feel for the game at any given time. Player morale can vary from person to person, and will fluctuate throughout the game. Player morale is a big indicator of how people will feel about the game, and plays a role in determining whether the player will return to the game or not. If morale gets too low players may decide to never play again, or may even abandon the game without finishing it.

While there is some correlation between high morale and doing well in the game, they are not the same thing, and the connection is weaker than you might expect. Feeling like you have a chance to win is good for morale, but it must be coupled with a feeling of agency – the player must feel that their actions matter. If these two elements are present for the duration of your game, it is likely that player morale will remain high as well.

How do we create this combination? Lets look at each criteria separately and examine some of the potential road-blocks that might be encountered.

Players should feel like they have a chance to win

There are many different types of players in the world, who play games for a million different reasons. However, if there is one thing that almost all of these different players can agree on it would be this – winning is good. It may seem so obvious as to not need stating, but players prefer winning to losing. This means that if a player thinks that they have no chance of winning they will have a worse experience and lower morale, which also means they will be less likely to want to play again.

In games it is generally good to make the player feel like they have a chance at winning throughout the entire game, even if the chance is small. A small chance can give the player a feeling of hope, whereas if the player has no chance to win this feeling is replaced with hopelessness. If the player is unable to win (or even just thinks they can’t win) they tend to disengage, which can lower morale for the whole playing group.

There are a few ways to create this feeling for the players. The first is to allow players to make more impactful decisions later on in the game. The second is to create a “catch-up mechanism” that allows players to come back from a bad situation. A third option, which I would try to avoid, is to make the scoring mechanism so complicated or random that nobody knows the winner until the very end of the game.

* Making Later Decisions more Impactful

One way to create more impactful decisions later in the game is to use a resource system that grows as the game progresses. This approach is quite common, and a great example of this type of system is Magic: The Gathering. In this game, players play “land” cards that provide them with a resource known as “mana”. A player can only play one land per turn, so the amount of mana available to the player increases as the game goes on. Early on the player can only afford to do simple spells, but the abilities become much more powerful as the game progresses.

Because the player has more resources later in the game, they are able to make decisions that have a larger effect on the overall state of the game. A player may be at a disadvantage early on, but a powerful effect later in the game has the potential to put them back in the lead. This can help to alleviate the feeling of hopelessness that sometimes comes when your opponent takes an early lead, as you know that there is always the possibility of making a come-back.

One pitfall of this approach is making the decisions at the end of the game TOO impactful. If later decisions carry too much weight it can create a feeling that the actions leading up to the end simply don’t matter. An example of this can be found in the fictional game of Quidditch. In Quidditch there are two ways to score points – throw a large red ball (called a Quaffle) through one of your opponent’s hoops – which is worth 10 points – or catch a small gold ball known as a Snitch which is worth 150 points and ends the game.

You may be able to see the problem here – catching the Snitch results in such a large swing in points that, if I remember correctly, there is only a single example in the books where the team who caught the Snitch didn’t win the game. In addition, catching the Snitch ends the game, which means that there is no opportunity for the opposing team to come back afterwards. This has the end result of making it feel like the entire game leading up to the Snitch is basically meaningless, even if it has the desired effect of creating an exciting, nail-biting ending.

* Catch-up Mechanisms

Another way to prevent players from feeling that they have no chance of winning is to create a “catch-up” mechanic. This mechanic would be placed in the game for the sole purpose of giving players who are behind the ability to come back from defeat.

There are several different ways to implement a catch-up mechanism. One way is to simply provide a small advantage to whichever player is currently going last. One way to do this is through turn order – if going first has some advantage, perhaps the player in last place at the beginning of the round could go first.

Another method is to scale resources in some way based on a player’s current position. An example of this type of mechanic would be the Mario Kart series, in which a player’s position affects what types of items they can get. If you are in first place you tend to get poor items (while being susceptible to the dreaded Blue Shell), while players in last place will often get very powerful items to help them recover.

Finally, a third method is to flip this on its head and give a disadvantage to the player who is currently in the lead. One way to do this is to use an “edge” mechanic. An example of this can be found in the game Vampire: The Eternal Struggle. In this game a player can gain the “edge” token by attacking another player who currently holds it. By holding the edge, this player gets an extra resource counter each turn, but doing so also places a target on that player’s back and encourages other players to attack them.

As with the previous method, it is possible to go too far with this technique. If the catch-up mechanism is too powerful, it may actually encourage players to stay out of first place until the very end. This can cause a skewed reward system in which the fun thing (being in first place) conflicts with the correct strategic decision (stay out of first place until the very end). If the catch-up mechanism is powerful enough it can warp the entire strategy of the game around itself and encourage players to simply take advantage of this mechanism instead of trying to play the way the game was intended.

* Incomprehensible Scoring Mechanisms

One final method to make players feel like they have a chance to win is to simply make the outcome of the game impossible to determine until the game is completely over. This is usually done by making the scoring system either so random or so complicated that the players have no reasonable way of determining how well they are doing until the game is entirely finished.

One example of this type of scoring system is the Mario Party series. In these games the players are all competing for golden power stars, and the player with the most stars at the end wins. However, at the end of the game players are also awarded with a number of “bonus stars” for various things.

These bonus stars can be awarded for anything from recruiting the most allies to earning the most coins, and you never know which bonuses will be awarded. Even if one player has the most stars by the end of the game, they may still be defeated by somebody who earns more random bonus stars.

A different type of example can be seen in what are commonly called “point-salad” games. In these games, players are awarded points for a wide variety of different actions, and it can be difficult to determine which actions would be most beneficial at any given time. Points in these games tend to be tallied at the very end, and it can be quite difficult to determine who won until the points are counted.

An example of this type of game would be Tokaido. In this game each player takes the role of a traveller on the roads of ancient Japan, and scores points for various activities along the way. These activities include buying various types of souvenirs, completing paintings, eating food, and encountering other travellers. You also get bonuses for being the first to complete each of the paintings, spending the most on food, and various other bonuses.

With so many different ways to score points, and so many bonuses that aren’t awarded until the end of the game, it can be difficult to know where you stand until the very end. While this does achieve the goal of creating a close game and making every player feel like they have a chance to win, it does so at the expense of the second necessary component for player morale – the ability to make meaningful choices.

Nearly every action will result in some amount of points for the player, but because the scoring is so inscrutable it makes it impossible to know if your decision was a good one. If the player cannot determine the value of their decisions the choice is rendered practically meaningless. So, how do you go about making a player’s decisions feel meaningful? This article is getting a little long, so you will have to come back next week to find out!

Until Next Time!

That is all I have for this week. If you enjoyed this article, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week, where I look at the second major component of player morale – making meaningful decisions!
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Mon Jan 14, 2019 7:37 pm
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How Games take the Player through The Hero’s Journey: Part 3 – Return

Caleb Compton
United States
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The following is a reproduction, and has been modified for this site. The original article, and many more, can be found at

A few weeks ago I began a series of articles about the Hero’s Journey, and ancient story structure that can be found in everything from historical epics to modern blockbusters. This series is designed to break down this structure, give an example of how it is used (using the original Star Wars trilogy as an example), and show how playing a game can actually bring the player through this journey.

This week we will go through the third and final stage of the hero’s journey – the return. At this stage the hero has already completed the objective of the quest that he originally set out on, and must return home having changed from the journey. This stage can be broken down into six sub-stages, which will be described in more detail below.

Stage 12 – Refusal of the Return

At this stage the hero has finally completed the task that she originally set out to accomplish. Her job completed, it is now time for her to return back to the mundane world that she started out in. However, the hero has changed during their journey, and have found a new level of knowledge or enlightenment. Because of this, the hero may initially refuse to return, choosing instead to stay in the new world.

For some heroes this stage represents the end of their journey. This is the case for Luke Skywalker – although he has achieved his original goals of rescuing Princess Leia and destroying the Death Star, he still refuses to go back to his ordinary mundane life. Instead, he chooses to stay and continue fighting with the rebellion to bring an end to the galactic empire.

After “finishing” a game it can often be difficult to let go and move on. However, just because you have beaten the main quest or defeated the final boss doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything else to do in the game. This stage consists of the “post-game” – which could consist of anything from completing radiant quests to unlocking hidden areas or enemies, or even an entire “New Game+” feature that allows you to play the entire game again, but different.

Stage 13 – The Magic Flight

The journey into the new world was perilous – why should the journey back be any easier? Once the hero has decided to return back to their mundane lives they must pass once again through a dangerous path in order to return. This path could be much easier than the first trip due to their new knowledge and skills, or it could be much more difficult if the hero is being chased or hunted due to their actions.

An example of this is not really seen in A New Hope, but can be seen in Return of the Jedi. In this film Luke and his allies must once again destroy a Death Star. However, this time Luke is on the Death Star while it is being destroyed. Once the Rebels initiate the destruction Luke must flee from the Death Star before it blows up.

This sequence is a common one in games – after defeating the final boss the player may have to escape the dungeon, palace or stage that they are currently in before it collapses or while being pursued by enemies. Examples of this can be seen at the end of Ocarina of Time, when the player must escape Ganondorf’s crumbling castle after defeating him, or at the end of Sonic The Hedgehog when Sonic runs through all of the previous stages.

Stage 14 – Rescue from Without

Just as the hero accomplished his journey with the help of his friends, mentors, and other allies that he met along the way, these same allies help the hero escape at the end of his quest. This stage may also relate to the heroes refusal to return to their previous lives – they may require an ally to come and convince them to leave the new world and return to their original lives.

Once again, Star Wars itself does not provide a great example of this, but an example can be seen at The Empire Strikes Back. After being defeated by his Father, Luke falls through an air vent and hangs onto an antenna underneath Cloud City. Luke is only able to escape and survive because he is rescued by Leia and the Millennium Falcon.

After playing a game and accomplishing nearly everything that there is to do within the game, the player may still have a hard time letting go. In this stage, the player may need somebody to help them “escape” the game. Alternatively, the player may have assistance in the escape sequence mentioned in the previous section. For example, in the Ocarina of Time example the player is assisted by Princess Zelda as they escape.

Stage 15 – Crossing the Return Threshold

In this stage the hero begins to reconcile their previous life with the journey that they have just returned from. They must learn to use the lessons, knowledge and abilities that they have learned in their journey in their ordinary lives. In addition, they may choose to share this knowledge with the rest of the mundane world.

At the end of the original trilogy Luke goes from being an ordinary farm boy to being the last Jedi Knight, and the hero of the galaxy. He has now defeated the leader of the empire and destroyed two of their massive super-weapons, wiping out a huge number of soldiers and resources in the process. As we learn in episodes VII and VIII, Luke then chooses to share the knowledge that he has learned throughout his journey and attempt to create a new Jedi Order to help bring order and stability to the galaxy.

Although you are now done playing, this doesn’t mean that the lessons you have learned from the game no longer matter. As with life, the skills learned through gaming can be used in many contexts. In some cases the abilities you have learned in one game can be transferred to other games, reducing the learning curve with each new game you play. In other cases the ethical dilemmas you face within the game can stick with you, and benefits such as improved hand-eye coordination can be beneficial in daily life.

Stage 16 – Master of Two Worlds

In this stage the hero has reached a point where they no longer have to choose between the mundane world of everyday life and the dangerous and fantastic world of adventure. Instead, the hero reaches a level of balance between these two worlds. Once this balance is achieved, the hero can pass back and forth between the two worlds at will, becoming equally comfortable in each.

Throughout Return of the Jedi Luke is being pulled in two different directions. On one side is his desire to help the rebels and defeat the Empire. On the other hand is the temptation to join the dark side and rule alongside his father. These two desires seem to pull in fundamentally different directions, but it is only by achieving balance that Luke emerges victorious. He ends up helping the rebellion yet still refuses to attack his father, which in the end leads to the death of the emperor and victory over the empire.

In this stage you have left the game and returned to your everyday life. However, this does not mean that the game is no longer a part of you, or that you never revisit it from time to time. In this stage you have mastered the game but are able to control your attachment to it. You can pick it up anytime and enjoy your experience, but have now achieved a level of balance and can put it down anytime you wish.

Stage 17 – Freedom to Live

Once the hero has achieved mastery over both the world of adventure and their mundane lives they reach a certain level of peace. The hero is no longer tied down by fears or worries about the future, nor do they have regret over the past. The hero is now in a state of true balance and is able to live in the moment, unaffected by what happens around them.

Once Luke reaches a balance of the desires within himself he enters a state of calm reflection. Although the emperor nearly takes his life he still refuses to strike back or give in to the dark side. He gives up his hopes, fears and regrets, and doing so not only leads to the end of the empire but reconciliation with his father.

Once you have reached this stage the game has no hold over you. You have mastered the game, and can go back and forth as you please. You no longer are controlled by your anticipation, nor do you regret the time you spent in the game. You are at peace (at least until the next new release rolls around).

Until Next Time!

That is all I have for this week. Thanks for sticking around for this exploration of The Hero’s Journey – it ended up being much longer than expected, but hopefully it was a worthwhile adventure. If you enjoyed this article, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week, for a game design article that has nothing to do with historical storytelling frameworks!
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Mon Dec 24, 2018 4:41 pm
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How Games take the Player through The Hero’s Journey: Part 2 – Initiation

Caleb Compton
United States
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The following is a reproduction, and has been modified for this site. The original article, and many more, can be found at

Last week I started a series of three articles that describe how the process of playing games can mirror one of the most ancient storytelling structures of all time, The Hero’s Journey. Last week’s article was centered around the first stage of the journey, known as Departure (if you missed it you can find it here). This week we pick up with the second part of the adventure – Initiation.

When the initiation stage begins the hero has already chosen to follow the call to action and broken ties with his former life. Now the hero will go through a series of trials that will transform him from an ordinary farm boy / hobbit / muggle to a great hero who can achieve the goal of the adventure that they originally set out for. This stage can be further broken down into 6 sub-stages, which will be described in more detail below.

Stage 6 – The Road of Trials

Now that the hero has crossed the threshold there is no going back, and the belly of the whale was only the beginning of her troubles. In this stage the hero will be faced with a series of dangerous and difficult tests and tasks to overcome. While the hero may fail some of these tasks at first, the process will help them grow and they will eventually overcome all of the obstacles in their way. They will also be aided by their mentor and other allies, along with the advice and items that they were given earlier on.

In Star Wars, this stage is represented by Luke, Han, Chewy and Obi-Wan flying the Millenium Falcon on board the Death Star, and the trials that they face as they attempt to rescue Princess Leia. This includes getting shot at by storm-troopers, getting stuck in a trash compactor, and losing Obi-Wan to Darth Vader.

In games, this stage represents a major portion of the gameplay. Now that the player has made it past the introductory stages, much of the game could be described as a series of trials that the player must overcome. The player will not always succeed right away – they may have to try some challenges over and over, learning and training along the way, but eventually they will overcome the obstacles in their path.

Stage 7 – The Meeting with the Goddess

In the portion of the story the hero meets with a character, usually of the opposite sex, with whom they feel a strong, often romantic connection. Often this character will have complementary qualities that the hero is lacking, and can represent their “other half”. This could mean representing the feminine qualities that are lacking in a masculine hero, or the opposite. By bonding with these opposite qualities the hero can grow and become whole.

In Star Wars the character of the Goddess is represented by Princess Leia, the powerful princess that Luke and the gang rescued from the Death Star. Luke feels a strong connection with Leia right away, which he initially believes to be romantic attraction. Later Luke learns that Leia was his sister, and that the bond he felt towards her was actually a strong sibling connection.

This is one stage that is difficult to connect to the experience of playing a game, as it is usually represented by a single character, and is not universal to the experience. In addition, true romantic subplots are relatively rare in video games – often the player is given a choice of romantic partners, or if their is a singular romantic partner often the goal is to rescue them. One example of this plot point in a video game would be the first Kingdom Hearts game, when Sora rescues Kairi and returns her safely to Traverse Town. However, this stage is much less common in games than other media.

Stage 8 – The Woman as Temptress

Despite the name, this stage does not necessarily have to be represented specifically by a woman or other sexual temptation. Instead, this stage refers to anything that would try to tempt the hero away from their quest with easy satisfaction. They could be tempted with love, money, safety or anything else that could cause them to lose sight of their goals. In the end, this temptation simply represents another obstacle that the hero must overcome to fulfill their duty.

In the first Star Wars, Luke does not really have to deal with overcoming a temptation (although later on he does have to overcome his temptation to the dark side). Instead, it is actually Han Solo who must overcome this stage. After rescuing the princess Han is told that he can receive his monetary reward and leave. However, he later overcomes the temptation of a reward and returns to help Luke.

Towards the middle of a game there are numerous temptations that the player must overcome to complete their quest. Perhaps the game becomes a slog in the middle and you are tempted to quit, but persevere and make it to the end. Or maybe a newer game comes out that tempts you to play it instead of finishing the one you are on. Or it could simply be the temptation of real life, and not spending too much time in one game. In many cases these temptations are entirely valid, and it is up to the player to decide whether it’s worth it for them to keep going, or quit and move on.

Stage 9 – Atonement with the Father

In this stage the hero is confronted with a powerful figure, often their father, who wields a certain level of control over their lives. The hero must defeat, reconcile with, or gain the approval of this figure in some way. Often this figure represents authority, and the hero must overcome the power of this authority and show that they are in control of their own lives.

In Star Wars the obvious example of this is Luke having to reconcile with his literal father, Darth Vader. However, that doesn’t happen until the end of Return of the Jedi. In the original movie, however, he does face off with Vader in an space battle in the trenches of the Death Star, which could be seen as an early example of him overcoming his father.

This is another tricky one to fit into the pattern with video games, as the father figure is once again represented by a singular character with some connection to the protagonist. Although if you are a younger player this could certainly be connected with your actual parents, who might be telling you to stop spending so much time playing video games. If that is the case, the way to reconcile would be to listen to your parents! Games are an important part of millions of people’s lives, but things like homework and spending time with family are just as important, and you should make sure you are making time for them.

Step 10 – Apotheosis

After meeting the goddess, overcoming temptation and reconciling with the father, the hero has grown as a person. In this stage the hero reaches a new level of understanding, overcomes their tragic flaws, and learns a new lesson about themselves. With this greater knowledge they are finally ready to complete their quest and overcome the final obstacles in their way.

In Star Wars this stage is represented by Luke finally learning to rely on the force instead of on his own abilities. All through the movie he has been doubting himself and the force, and this moment represents a turning point in his journey to become a true Jedi. He turns off his targeting computers, closes his eyes, and prepares himself for his final task.

When playing a game, this represents the moment that it finally “clicks”. After hours and hours of playing and practice you have finally reached a level of expertise within the game. You finally understand all of the mechanics and can execute them flawlessly, you know how all of the enemies move and attack, and you can travel through the various maps blindfolded. This stage is the stage of thoroughly understanding and mastering the game.

Stage 11 – The Ultimate Boon

This is the stage in which the hero finally achieves the goal that they set out for originally. Although they may have begun as inexperienced and unprepared beginners, they have now grown into true heroes, and are ultimately able to overcome the true challenge that was the goal of their quest from the beginning. This can take many forms, from defeating a villain to reaching a destination to obtaining a powerful artifact, or a combination of these.

In Star Wars this stage is very simple – the destruction of the Death Star. Luke and Obi-Wan initially set out to help the rebels, and by destroying the Death Star they were able to deal a major blow to the empire. This moment also represents the fulfillment of all of the lessons and relationships that Luke has gained throughout the film, from being rescued by Han to finally learning to trust the force.

This stage is also simple in the video game analogy – it is completing the game. Or, more specifically, it is represented by completing the main quest of the game. Similar to in other media, this often involves defeating the antagonist in the form of a final boss, and the player is often rewarded for doing so with a powerful weapon or other boon.

Until Next Time!

That is all I have for this week. If you enjoyed this article, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week, for the final stage of the hero’s journey – Return.
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Mon Dec 17, 2018 5:02 pm
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How Games take the Player through The Hero’s Journey: Part 1 – Departure

Caleb Compton
United States
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The following is a reproduction, and has been modified for this site. The original article, and many more, can be found at

On this blog I mostly write about games. I love playing games, but that is only one of my passions. Other than games, my biggest hobby is watching films. I have written some articles in the past that combine these two loves, such as analyzing Ready Player One from a game design perspective or looking at two categories of games I like to refer to as “movies” and “toys”. But, in the nearly two years that this blog has been running I have never taken the time to analyze the difference between these two mediums in terms of storytelling.

To do this, I am going to be taking a look at an ancient storytelling structure known as The Hero’s Journey. If you have ever read a book, watched a movie or heard a fairytale, you are probably already familiar with the Hero’s Journey, even if you don’t know it. The Hero’s Journey has been around for thousands of years, and this structure has been used in countless stories throughout the ages.

In this article and the next I am going to be looking at the Hero’s Journey in depth, but I’ll start off with a brief summary. Although this story structure has been around for thousands of years, the term “The Hero’s Journey”, and the 17 steps were codified by literature professor Joseph Campbell in his 1949 book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”.

According to this book, The Hero’s Journey has 17 steps that are broken up into 3 main parts. The first part is the Departure, in which the hero leaves the comfort of home and enters a strange new land. The second stage is Initiation, in which the hero must overcome a series of trials in the new world. Finally, the last stage is the return, in which the hero returns to their old world having undergone a change from their journey.

Many of my favorite films of all time use this structure, ranging from The Odyssey to The Lord of the Rings, and even more modern stories such as Iron Man. However, there is probably no film that provides a better example of The Hero’s Journey than Star Wars: A New Hope. George Lucas was a student of Joseph Campbell’s, and when writing the script for the original Star Wars he hit every single point on the list. Because of this, Star Wars will be the primary film used for comparison in these next three articles.

Like any storytelling medium, games are also capable of telling stories that use The Hero’s Journey structure. The thing that sets games apart from any other medium, however, is the way that they make the player feel like they are going through this journey. The Hero’s Journey story structure is one that naturally resonates with people, and one that every player experiences with pretty much every new game that they play.

How do games make players feel like they are going through The Hero’s Journey? To answer this question, in these next few articles I am going to be looking at all 17 stages of the Hero’s Journey, show how it is used in film, and then show how games take players through that experience.

Note: Some stories may not use all 17 steps, and occasionally some of the steps are combined or presented is a different order. The order I am listing them is the order they were presented in Campbell’s book, but may not hold for every story.

Stage 1 – Call to Adventure

The first step of The Hero’s Journey is designed to transport the hero from their normal, mundane life in the real world to a fantastic new world of adventure. This step usually involves an event known as the “inciting incident” that forces the hero to abandon their ordinary life and go on an extraordinary quest.

In the Star Wars example, the Call to Adventure comes when Luke finds R2D2 and C3PO in the desert and receives R2D2’s message from Princess Leia. This event spurs him on to find Obi-Wan Kenobi and kicks off the entire Star Wars saga. Without this call to action, Luke may have remained a humble moisture farmer for the rest of his life, but this life-changing event calls him to become something more.

Similarly, many games themselves contain Calls to Adventure, ranging from Navi waking Link at the beginning of Ocarina of Time to Kratos being attacked by Baldur spurring on the events of the new God of War. However, in some ways the game itself could also be considered a Call to Adventure. Simply by choosing to play a game, players are choosing to step away from their ordinary lives and enter the imaginative world of the game. The Call to Adventure is not just for the character, but for the player as well.

Stage 2 –Refusal of the Call

After receiving the Call to Adventure, sometimes the hero would prefer to stay in their ordinary lives rather than go on a journey into an unknown world. This refusal may be due to fear, satisfaction with their lives, or believing that they are not worthy of the task. The hero tries to go back to their normal routine, but find themselves unable to. Maybe they simply have trouble resisting the call, or perhaps some event occurs that changes their mind and causes them to embark upon the adventure.

In Star Wars, Luke originally refuses to go with Obi-Wan and save Princess Leia. It is only after the Storm Troopers burn down his house and kill his Aunt and Uncle that Luke decides he must join Obi-Wan and fight the empire.

There are a few ways this refusal could be represented in games. If the desire to play the game is the Call to Adventure, there are many reasons why players would refuse to heed this call. For example, there are numerous games that I have been wary of playing because I know that if I begin I will spend all my time on it for weeks and not get much else done.

Another example could be refusing the call of the main quest-line. I often do this in open-world games – I may be presented with the primary quest right away, but I usually spend the early parts of the game doing various side-quests and becoming acquainted with the world before I progress any further.

Step 3 – Supernatural Aid

After the hero decides to embark upon the quest, the hero will meet a person or people that will help them along their journey. This person will provide the player with knowledge and items that they will use to complete their quest. This stage is also commonly referred to as “meeting the mentor”. Usually the mentor takes the form of a wise, elderly individual that can grant the player useful advice and guidance.

In Star Wars, this stage occurs in a somewhat different position, as he actually meets Obi-Wan before he actually refuses the call. Obi-Wan tells him about the Jedi, some lies about his father (or perhaps not, from a certain point of view), and offers him his father’s lightsaber. However, it is not until after his Aunt and Uncle were killed that Luke accepts the offer and begins his journey with Obi-Wan.

In the meta-story of video games, this stage consists of the early parts of the game in which the player is becoming familiar with the mechanics and world of the game, AKA the tutorial portion. During this time the game explicitly or implicitly provides the player with the items and knowledge that they need to undergo their journeys.

Stage 4 – Crossing the First Threshold

Once the hero has been properly prepared for the dangers ahead of her, she must take the first steps forward into a new and unknown world. To do so, the hero will break boundaries that they have never broken before, and that they may have never even realized existed. This stage is the hero’s first introduction to the world of the adventure, and helps illustrate the stark contrast between the normal, mundane life they are leaving behind with the dark and dangerous new world they are entering.

For Luke, the threshold crossing moment comes when he travels with Obi-Wan to the Mos Eisley spaceport. This spaceport is described as “a wretched hive of scum and villainy”, and is shown to be very dirty, crowded, and full of rude and dangerous individuals. This is in stark contrast to the relatively isolated and peaceful moisture desert that Luke had been inhabiting up until this point.

For games, this is the moment that it “gets real”. Specifically, the threshold moment in games can be seen as the moment when the game makes the switch from trying to teach you how to play to actually testing your skills. The tutorial is over, and now it is up to you to use your wits and abilities to make your own path forward.

Stage 5 – Belly of the Whale

In this stage the hero encounters the first real challenge or danger of their journey. This first obstacle represent the final and complete separation of the hero from her previous life, and shows her willingness to face adversity for the sake of the quest. It also represents the beginning of the change that will happen within the hero as they go through their journey.

In Star Wars, the Belly of the Whale could be represented by the Mos Eisley Cantina. It is here that Luke begins to realize just how much danger he is taking on by embarking on this quest. Here Luke meets Han Solo and Chewbacca, and hire them as pilots to help them rescue Princess Leia. During this process Luke and Obi-Wan end up dealing with aggressive aliens, Stormtroopers, and ruthless bounty hunters that are all trying to kill them or otherwise prevent them from completing their quest. However, the gang is able to overcome these obstacles and escape in the Millenium Falcon, bound for Alderaan to rescue the Princess.

In games, this is the first obstacle that truly challenges the player and makes them work to overcome it. This could be a particularly difficult puzzle, a level that jumps up in difficulty, or the first boss battle that the player struggles to defeat. Up until this point it had been relatively smooth sailing, but after this point the player knows what they are up against, and they know that the challenges ahead are only going to get worse before they get better.

Until Next Time!

That is all I have for this week. If you enjoyed this article, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week, for the second act of the Hero’s Journey – Initiation.


If you haven’t seen it already, I recently began work on a project called “The Game Designer’s Dictionary”, where I am attempting to compile a reference list of gaming and game design terms, phrases and acronyms. It is very much a work in progress, and I would appreciate any help I can get. Please let me know if you have any ideas for new words to add, better formatting, or other changes that could be improved about the page. Thanks!
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Tue Dec 11, 2018 6:17 pm
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