Scott Howard
These are the personal musings of Scott Howard, Producer / Designer / Gamer

Over the last 15 years in the games industry I have worked on console, mobile, social and free to play games enjoying the nuance and challenges each of these brings. 
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Entries in game design (3)


Down Time = Game Time

Having some down time on my hands gave me a chance to catch up on a bunch of games I have been wanting to play for a long time now. I feel like when I got home from my grandparents house on christmas eve, busting in the door to dump the contents of my stocking on the floor and tear off wrapping paper like a thresher maw from Mass Effect. 

So what have I been playing?

I could write up a ton of stuff on each, but I actually wanted to call out three games that I thought were really doing some good stuff in the F2P mobile space. 

HearthStone - Fit, finish and polish
The attention to detail is just fantastic. The art is beautiful, just sifting through cards is a pleasure. Sound is great and doesn’t get old. Everything is animated and feels alive. They “Peggled the shit out of it” (Thanks David Scott for this term), when you win a match and even when you lose there is a sense that you can surely win the next one. What is amazing to me is that for all the visual polish, the game doesn’t feel noisey, or cluttered. In fact it feels simple and easy to use, with a clear consideration that less is more when it comes to interaction design. In short all F2P games should be looking at HearthStone and asking themselves, “How can I make my game feel like it has this level of quality”. Unfortunately, the answer is usually suck it up and make the effort to put the quality in. Don’t shortcut things or trim the details, they matter.

Hitman GO - Tactical shooter becomes turn based puzzle game. What the what?!?
I love me some stealth games, especially stealth assassin games. Metal Gear, Thief, Rogues in every Bethesda title, Assassin’s Creed, Dishonored, Deus Ex and of course Hitman. All of these scratch a particular itch for me. At their core though, they are puzzle games. How do I get in without being seen? How can I make it out alive? Etc. Since FPS’s all pretty much play like ass on tablets I thought Square Enix’s solution to bringing the Hitman franchise to mobile was brilliant. The game is incredible accessible, beautifully done and I believe will introduce a number of new players to the franchise, hopefully without alienating existing ones. This last point is of course a concern, people who play Hitman, have certain expectations, e.g. running around and either shooting people in the head or stabbing them in the neck. Time will tell if Square made the right call, but good on them for taking the risk to test the hypothesis, that there is a market for the Hitman series that doesn’t have to be more of the same, but can be something new and unique.

Trails Frontier - The complete package
Full discloser, I have worked with the amazingly talented people at RedLynx before, so of course I tend to like their work. That begin said, I was never a big fan of the Trails series of games. It’s not that they are bad games, quite the contrary in fact, it’s just that they are not really my thing. Now here comes Trails Frontier and I can’t put it down. Similar to HearthStone, the attention to detail is superb. Beyond the detail though, they have a fun story, solid humor, accessible controls, short play sessions, RPG mechanics as you level up your bike, a monetization system that feels fair and not “grindy”. In short, they put it all together extremely well. RedLynx has honed the gameplay to a razor sharp edge and packaged the whole thing up, serving it to the player like a prix fixe meal from the French Laundry

So food for thought.

Consider new ways you can use your IP. In the case of Hitman, even if you are using exsting IP, think about how you can use it in more interesting ways that might appeal to a broader audience. 

Pay attention to the details, fit, finish and polish. Sure, everyone wants to make a quality product, but that doesn’t mean you have to fill it with a ton of stuff. Take what you have and refine it so the attention to detail is unmistakable.

Lastly, make sure you put it all together like a fine meal, soup to nuts. That each piece of the puzzle works harmoniously together so your players put the game down satisfied to the fullest.

Ok now I have to get back to feeding my own personal game addiction ...



Black and White Mayhem

Ok, so this is not the most amazing game ever made and clearly the art direction is similar to Limbo, which if you have not played yet, you are really missing out, but I have to say this little gem is loads of fun and has a great sense of humor. Complete at least one mission and actually read the mission summary - Freaking hilarious. 

What I don't understand is why this is not a mobile game yet? Seriously, this type of physic based game with simple controls, solid visuals and accessible game play is what mobile is all about. That and don't get me started on all the social/network features someone could jam into this guy. Leader boards, goblin auction house with player gear trading, integrate Facebook and Twitter to change the names of the people you are steamrolling over, sending your friend's facebook notifications when they are crushed, player created levels, etc.

Come on Big Block Games, make it happen! If you need a producer to help you get started drop me a line.


Arts and Crafts

This article over at gamesindustry.bizZynga: "The game industry is not art, it's a craft"really got me thinking about the whole debate on games as art that was the topic du jour awhile back when Roger Ebert was saying games can never be art.

Without really opening up the whole dialog again, since I don't want to rehash the old debate, (though if you want to know my opinion on games as art scroll to the bottom), I would instead like to point out the difference between game mechanics and games. The real problem with the statement from Andy Tian is that he conflates games with game mechanics. What Zynga has done, very successfully, is optimize a game mechanic, specifically a reward payout scheme. This mechanic is nothing new and games have been utilizing it for eons, the quintessential example being your classic Las Vegas slot machine. These machines are indeed games, but only utilize and optimize for a single game mechanic, to pay out just enough to keep the player playing, but not too much to make the casino lose money. This mechanic is crafted to a fine edge, to cut away the purse strings of the person playing it, but perfecting a single game mechanic, on a single platform, is not art. Though games like Farm Ville, Mafia Wars, City Ville, Cafe World, etc use more than a single game mechanic, they still use very simple mechanics optimized for their specific users on one specific platform.

Unlike games (in the most general sense), which can use a limitless number of tools in their preverbal tool chest (game mechanics) to create all kinds of different emotions from their players. See Nicole Lizzaro's work on emotions in games for really in-depth look at this. To put it game example, it is like chess and poker. You can design a computer to beat world champions at chess because the game is rather simple, though deep with permutations in move making vs. poker where the game is complex, not just in basic choices the player can make (check, raise, fold, etc), but variable in why they would make those choices (bluffing, trapping, protecting, etc), coupled with how well they convinced their opponent(s) the reasons for their individual actions. This makes is very hard to "craft" a perfect poker player, but who knows in time, perhaps there will be a "Deep Purple" to rival the great Deep Blue.

To further punctuation my point, take an example from game designer Brenda Brathwaite over a LOLApps and her book - Challenges for Game Designers.

You find yourself at the very edges of a criminal empire. On the one hand, you are tasked with infiltrating it and bringing it to its knees. On the other hand, you have to work with the others already in the empire to build a case against them. Doing so requires you walk a delicate line, simultaneously working with criminals and against them all the while hoping they will implicate one another (and seeding opportunities for them to do so). Craft a set of rules which would allow for such a game. 

Could you simply craft the one perfect design for this? Doubtful. So as to my own opinions about games as art? I only have this enigmatic response - How can large groups of people, called "artists" work on something for years and not have the final piece of work called art?