On Game Design with Dan Chao

The following are excerpts from a conversation with Dan Chao, Lead Designer at Funzio.  Dan’s work runs the full gamut of design, including releases in the Core, Casual, Social and Mobile segments of the industry.  Dan has worked as gameplay engineer on Xbox launch title New Legends, lead designer on the casual game Wandering Willows, and most recently lead designer on social/mobile games Crime City, and Kingdom Age.

EL: To start with, what is game design?

DC: There are so many different parts of it. I feel like it goes down to the talents of certain types of game designers. There are obviously people that are good at writing story and coming up with characters. There are people that are just great with the numbers, tuning, the economy.

Then, there’s the system level design; how the game actually works. I guess calling it “defining the core loops” has become the fancy term that people throw around.

But to me, that’s really at the heart of everything is designing how all those systems work together, to make a cohesive, clean and consistent design.

EL: And it sounds like you trend towards system design, is kind of your passion at the heart.

DC: That’s definitely what I’m passionate about. I like to tailor the design to all the limitations of the company, whether that be the resource limitations of being engineering heavy or light, or art heavy or light. And just the talents and kind of the DNA of the company, as they say.

Nowadays, in Social, what I like is that it’s not just about making the game fun. You have to optimize the game around these other metrics, which some people might say is soulless. But there are just the realities of making the game monetize well, making the game viral. And then retention, which I feel is the same thing as fun.

So, with traditional games, the business model was you buy a $60 box product and then it basically comes to your Metacritic score, right? Your Metacritic score is high, that means the game is really fun or you paid awesome reviewers, right? And that’s what the game lives or dies by, is just that review score. So that game better be fun.

And then once they’ve bought the product, it doesn’t matter, right? They’ve already given you their money.

EL: They might hate it. They might play for half an hour and then return it to GameStop for $35.

DC: Yeah. But if it’s good enough and it’s fun enough, then word of mouth will travel and review scores will be high.

With social games, it’s a bit different. Because you have all these free players. You have some people paying. You have a lot of elements that, it’s hard to say whether it’s more addicting than fun, but I kind of feel MMOs are the same way. There are these things that may not be fun but may just be addictive.

And those things are important to have the game make money. I think more than ever, it’s important for game design to incorporate a lot of business thought behind things. Which comes back to like my original experience in the industry [on New Legends].

EL: Right.

DC: Which, that game just totally flopped [and the studio folded after not being able to land another publishing deal]. I just vowed that would never happen again. So, I think you have to consider everything, but game design to me, at the heart, is that system-level design.

EL: With regards to metrics, having done a free-to-play game recently too, I feel like you go to GDC and there are a lot of people who crap on it and say it’s soulless. You are clearly embracing metrics as “this is the world of game design now.” It always strikes me that selling games for $60 is just as soulless. Only, someone else designed the business model for you: sell at $60 and spend millions and millions on marketing. Whereas you used to have to take on reasonable requests from a marketing department or someone who controls a giant budget, and “ruins” your “artistic vision.”

Well, now it’s players. Now you’re taking your crap from the people playing your game and what they actually want, and what their behaviors actually are.

DC: There is some truth to the soulless part. I think, just with anything, there’s a sense of addiction and manipulation. But I feel like you see that in all sorts of games. No one craps all over World of Warcraft. But it does have the same certain set of mechanics.

Obviously there are other mechanics that are very fun. I feel like social games are getting there, too. There are certain things where we try to make it really fun. While, on the other side, we do also have  the appointment mechanic which forces people to come back every day.

EL: It sounds like you approach design from a very pragmatic sense in recognizing the limitations and constraints of the people you’re working with and the team you’re on and the budget. And actually taking that to inspire the design.

Do you have an example of when you recognized a constraint or a limitation within your team or within your company, and how you used to improve the quality of the design?

DC: Kingdom Age is a good example, which is out on Google+ right now, and is coming to Facebook. I think the limitation was that we were starting with the Crime City engine. And we really couldn’t stray too far from the Crime City design.

A lot of the features that went into it were small evolutions over Crime City. But all of them simple to implement for an engineer: not necessarily simple but not reinventing the wheel.

So, something with Kingdom Age which I thought was pretty good was that you trained units now. Whereas before, in Modern War/Crime City, you buy them outright and get them instantly. So this ended up being more of an RTS mechanic and we added the training time on top of that.

So, while it feels different to the player, in the end I’m definitely simplifying things, but the engineering side isn’t that crazy. “Okay, we have this item. We need to add a time to that item.” And there’s a ton of other things that we added, too. But it was definitely limited, more than limited in scope.

And I knew we had to get it out quickly.

EL: When you’re working on a game, how important is your past as an engineer to helping you be a designer? What about being a former engineer helps? Is it the communication with engineers? The ability to compromise on systems?

DC: Yeah. I design the systems to be relatively easy to implement. So I actually think, nowadays, about the database schema of a given feature. And I figure out easy ways to manipulate things.

So often it’s just adding a multiplier and some additive component that I feel will change the game for players. But not be that bad for the engineer to implement.

Which is how a lot of RPGs work. There’s just some large spreadsheet and I feel like if you’re going to add another column to that spreadsheet, it can’t be that bad. Not everything works out like that. But I try to measure the cost of the feature in terms of how long it’s going to take to implement and how many people it’s going to take. And think about what the return is going to be.

EL: For people who have never developed a game before, from the outside, you would never think about the difficulty to implement the thing. You just want the cool stuff. From your experience, why is it so important to consider the cost of developing a feature when proposing it?

DC: For me it comes down to a business decision. It’s ultimately your return on investment. If whatever you’re developing isn’t going to make its money back, then it’s not worth it and you need to figure out a better way to do it, or a different way to make money.

Being able to figure out how long something’s going to take, not everyone can do it off the top of their head. Ultimately you need to talk to the engineers and the artists. But it is important to understand every single aspect of the project. And not just the engineering costs, but even the asset costs. How many art assets are you going to have to generate in order for this feature to come to life and monetize?

I think that’s more important now than ever, with social games, where you can literally just launch one feature on your already-launched game, and see how much money it makes you.

EL: Yeah. I can say from experience having done one or two of those features where it’s every engineer on the project, every artist, a whole month, you release it and people play it for a week and they’re done. And you can calculate how much money you’ve spent and how much time people spent playing it. And you go “Oh my God.” It was a hard lesson to learn; you do one or two of those and you say “I’m never doing anything that takes over a week again.”

DC: Yeah. With those sorts of things, especially social games, obviously the server-side features are the best. They need no client implementation and you can add a few tweaks of the numbers.

EL: What do you find most frustrating about game design?

DC: I think there are decisions you have to make, one way or the other, you know? Sometimes it can be about whether you want a more story-rich game, but then that means sometimes you have to introduce less choices to the player. Sometimes it means you have to emphasize monetization here and you can’t emphasize the actual fun or choice of the game.

I think those choices have to be made. I don’t know if it’s necessarily frustrating or not. But it’s definitely the hardest part.

EL: Can you give a good example of a choice you’ve had to make that you found especially difficult at the time and now, in hindsight, you think “I did the right thing and the game’s better for it.”

DC: [laughs]

EL: Or is only a world of regret when you look back?

DC: [laughs] there are a lot of regrets, sure. I could definitely give the opposite example. [laughs] I guess the harder things in social games like virality and monetization, which feels unnatural to the game designer to make a decision in favor of. Like adding more materials to build a building you have to ask your friends for. Obviously, it’s going to be way more of a pain in the ass and you’re making them post it on their wall or do a request. And it’s going to take them longer to get.

But ultimately, it may lead to like better virality. I think something that’s also true with, especially more modern games, the tendency to front load a game with as much cool stuff as possible so the user gets to see all that stuff. So, Dragon Age 2, right? The opening tutorial, you had all this awesome stuff.

EL: Right. You were Super Hawke.

DC: Yeah. And then you get stripped of a lot of that stuff. And the same thing is true with the casual downloadable industry. It’s ruled by the one-hour trial, so you pack as much cool crap into that one hour as possible.

But then it means your ramp is totally fucked up at that point. It’s like, “Okay, now how do I ramp from here?” And that’s true in social games, too. “Okay, they’re in the tutorial. They can see all this cool crap.” You make a dragon come by or a tank shoot.

And then you’re running around with this little pig sticker. Or maybe you give them an awesome sword. But then how do you know how to ramp up the game from there? How do you make something cooler? And that’s definitely frustrating. I get it from a business standpoint. It’s definitely not how games were in the 90s or 80s.

But, I don’t think we’re in as puritanical an age anymore.

EL: Well, do you think that the experience of being on New Legends, where Jedi Knight was at the time, was it PC gamers’ number one PC game of all time…

DC: Something like that, yeah.

EL …and was it Justin Chin?

DC: Yeah, Justin Chin.

EL: Was one of PC Gamer’s top designers in the world. I read every one of those magazines; they were like a Bible to me. To have such talented team who had previously worked on such an incredible game, to spend so long in development on New Legends and then not be able to get another deal after that.

Seeing what happens when you don’t pay attention to the business side of the business, does that make it easier for you to make those viral or monetization choices? Because you know what happens?

DC: Yeah. [Laughs] I mean, I’ve definitely been part of many studios that were either crumbled right after a game or, from project to project, like a project finishes, you don’t really see royalties off that in the console industry. And then you’re just scrambling for the next deal and cold-calling all the publishers.

So no one wants to be in that position and no one wants to miss payroll. I definitely think about that and it makes things easier. Maybe I’ve gone in totally the opposite direction where it’s like I’ve totally joined the dark side.

But, I guess I don’t see as much wrong with it as I feel like other people do, you know? But that’s just me.

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