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Toward a Sustainable Resource Escalation Game

An emerging form of games, born out of Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress, has occupied my thoughts lately. It doesn’t seem to have a name yet; it grew out of some Minecraft mods and had its seminal work in Factorio. It’s a cousin, or even sibling, to the idle/incremental game, but usually looks more like a management or survival sandbox game. You could call it a resource management and automation game, or a factory simulator, but I’ll use the term “resource escalation game,” because its primary features are:

  • resources to collect, usually from a world you must explore
  • crafting of resources into more complex or rich forms
  • structures for automation of the crafting, allowing you to take a higher-level conceptual view where you are concerned with the logistics of automation rather than foraging
  • and an escalation created by those resources, where your initial low-level needs become inconsequential and the pace of progression is governed primarily by what complexity of resources you have instead of a more abstract research system1

These games borrow gameplay loops from sandbox games like Terraria, where you collect resources that are rare or located in dangerous areas in order to craft equipment that lets you gain access to even more exotic resources. Resource escalation games also often include logistic challenges that bring to mind puzzle games like Infinifactory, although the goals are much less clearly-defined. They even evoke the space-claiming and hygge of farming or town-building games like Stardew Valley or Populus.

However, there’s a problem with the conventions of this new game form. It’s viciously exploitative of nature, celebrating some of the worst excesses of capitalism and colonialism. Let’s look at one of my most anticipated games at the moment, Satisfactory:

Look at the beautiful dance of conveyor belts; the delight of seeing your labor multiplied ten-, a hundred-fold; the creativity of making your own design for a factory, tweaking and optimizing it. And now look at a team of masked corporate employees clearcutting a conveniently-uninhabited valley, replacing greenery with smoke-belching smokestacks. Knowing the sense of humor of Coffee Stain, the developers, the player’s relationship to the in-game corporation is likely to be fraught. Still: this is a game about colonizing land and commodifying its resources.

The Problem

This sinister undercurrent is inherited from the budding game form’s roots. Joel Goodwin has a beautiful piece on his experience as an eventual Minecraft conservationist that also exposes the fundamentally amoral, individualistic bias at the core of a game that presents a fantasy about being the One Settler (or Few Chosen Settlers) in a world of bountiful harvests, conveniently uninhabited ruins, and residents that are either inarguably monstrous or placidly accommodating. Many of the criticisms of Stardew Valley can also be applied to these games, in that they celebrate the fantasy of the gentleman farmer without exposing the social context that surrounds agriculture and production in the real world. Finally, resource escalation games are usually violent, assuming that the player will develop weapons to fight back against an environment that is unavoidably hostile.

In short: resource escalation games see their worlds as threatening, their production as unencumbered by morals, and their characters as entitled to utilizing3 and consuming the resources they gather.

Is there a way to create a resource escalation game that is nonviolent, morally-driven, and ecologically sustainable?

The Cruces

First, let’s examine violence. I’ve written before about the potential of nonviolence in video games. We have too many games about fighting, and it’s unnecessary. While I enjoy many violent video games, I think of it as a crutch, an easy trope that plays into the worst ways our culture casts challenges as battles and treats violence as an acceptable, even inevitable, solution. This is the easiest of my criteria to satisfy.

Next: is it possible to avoid the moral quandaries that come with a lone explorer utilizing the resources of a hostile world? I believe so; these arise mainly from unexamined capitalist and colonial assumptions: for example, that it is better for a thing to be used than for it to exist for its own sake4; that the ability of an actor to do a thing inherently justifies that action; and that the appropriate way to thrive in an unfamiliar environment is to shape the environment to your existing way of life. While it’s a challenge to resist these assumptions (in part because they’re part of my real-world cultural hegemony), none of them seem essential to the appeal of resource escalation games.

Notably, industry and technology does not require capitalism. While their history is intertwined, there is no reason why manufacturing must be privately controlled, any more so than roads and other infrastructure. Likewise, much (perhaps most!) of our technological innovation occurs outside of a corporate context, and there is substantial evidence that common resources tend to lead toward triumph, not tragedy.

Finally: can we have a game which is about collecting and processing resources using built structures which is ecologically sustainable? I find this criterion the most challenging, in part because the vision given by the existing canon of these games is universally one of replacing the existing ecology with industrial sprawl. Factorio not only assumes you will be stripmining its worlds, but even models pollution — not as an encouragement toward responsibility but as an inevitable escalation of challenge, making the world increasingly adversarial as it responds to your activities. You can minimize this impact, but eventually you will come into conflict with the planet’s immune-system-like fauna5.

Resolving this issue will require a more fundamental re-examination of how we think of resources in these games. The prominent resources in play tend to be material and difficult to replace: wood, minerals, fossil fuels, and so on. The rules are designed so that sources can be expended, encouraging wider exploration. Sometimes resources can be farmed, but this often takes the form of replacing native forest with “efficient” orchards. As the resource escalation proceeds, play requires less player attention and effort for the same low-level tasks, but often resources are consumed at a rate that scales with the complexity of the player’s focus.

It may be that the very concept of resource escalation is inherently anti-environmentalist. The joy we take in playing these games may stem directly from our elimination of the wild and the interconnected and in our distillation and concentration of the natural into the “useful” or “productive.” I hope not. In the spirit of that hope, let’s look at some potential angles from which we can pursue sustainable versions of this game form.

The Promise

I would love to provide a completed formula for the sort of game I want to see, but I don’t have one. This style of game hasn’t even quite solidified into what it wants to be, and I am presenting some tricky problems. Instead, here’s some brainstorming. Below are seeds for ways to resolve the problems above, and I’d love to hear more suggestions for resolutions in the comments.

Eliminating violence

  • The resolution to a violent threat could be placating or creating understanding with the threat instead of battling it.
  • Survival games already present tension and danger in the form of starvation, exposure to the elements, and hazardous environments. These can provide the same thrill as violent threats with strategies that involve crafting and mastery of the space.
  • We may not need danger at all. It serves a game design purpose of limiting the pace of exploration and lending weight to decisions, but we may be able to do that by making use of things like character speed or player time investment instead.

Finding value beyond productivity

  • Instead of treating the environment simply as a source of harvestable resources, we could attach a value to in situ resources. Look at how The Sims attaches value to the environment of a room, and consider how that could apply to tradeoffs between consuming a resource and benefiting from it remaining untouched.
  • We could move away from interchangeable or fungible resources. Similar to how players of games like Diablo soon ignore items of common rarity in favor of ones with random benefits, we can attach value to diversity or uniqueness over quantity.
  • Perhaps resources in the fiction of the world are not consumed, but provide benefits when discovered or understood. See resources in Civilization and other 4X games, where their presence is useful but they are not always spent like currency.
  • Assign value to aesthetic expression. Perhaps the player’s labor does not derive its value from harvesting resources, but from curating them or using them in a creative way.

Eliminating colonial entitlement

  • Justify the player’s activities by making them a request of local stakeholders, or an active reclamation of a space previously spoiled, or make the resources sapient and explore the complexities of acquiring their consent.
  • Alternately, set the game in an active society, with the player character(s) either part of that society or coming from an underclass, where their actions are not performed with unilateral authority.
  • Contrast the player’s actions against a colonizing or exploitative force, where the player is defending against incursion instead of acting as a settler. This would require thought to avoid an implication of paternalistic oppression, where the player is “protecting” a weaker and subordinate group.
  • Incorporate peers for the player, requiring compromise and communal use of resources. These can be abstract rather than detailed AI agents.

Rejecting erasure of the existing space

  • Instead of transforming local resources into more easily-digestible forms, try transforming the player character(s) to more easily exist in this new environment.
  • Explore roles like “host,” “caregiver,” or “custodian” rather than “settler” or “entrepreneur;” make the player responsible for maintaining a space or providing joy to its inhabitants rather than transforming it.
  • Make the “structures” involved in automation less intrusive. Think treehouses rather than buildings with concrete foundations.

Exploring sustainability

  • Place a greater mechanical focus on maintaining resource health; for example, instead of penalizing overharvesting by slowing production until the player finds or creates a replacement source, consider prohibiting overharvesting altogether and requiring sustainability to be a proactive practice.
  • In many resource escalation games, renewable non-biomass energy is presented as a high-tech luxury, painting bio and fossil fuels as unavoidable for development. Disrupt this by using low-tech renewable sources like waterwheels and windmills, but don’t ignore the environmental impact of activities like damming water sources.
  • Explore environmentalist approaches to resource use, such as sustainable agriculture, agroforestry, and recycling. Keep in mind the way in which these can become moral luxuries for the privileged when the poor may not be able to afford sustainable sources.
  • Instead of resource escalation allowing for consumption of resources at a higher rate, try focusing on more efficient use of existing resource supplies. At the very least, allow for the prevention of waste due to obsolete equipment, spoilage, or lack of energy storage.
  • Maybe even reject any appearance of zero-sum simulation by making the resources less concrete. Have the player collect information, or inspiration, or something mystical that avoids the problem of environmental exploration entirely. See how Cultist Simulator makes heavy use of lore, relationships, and moods as resources as opposed to physical objects and assets.

The Hope

This discussion explores the things that I would like to see in this emerging game form. I like many of the existing resource escalation games, but I want to see their successors build on their best aspects while also improving on their shortcomings.

If you’re a developer like me, let’s all work to create games that reflect our values while still providing the experiences we seek. And if you’re a player of resource escalation games, especially those in early access or ongoing development, consider compassionately advocating for these moral priorities when you give feedback on the games you love.

  1. Factorio gates a lot of things behind research, but research is driven by manufactured resources, not the more typical research-over-time approach seen in strategy games.
  2. Note some issues with how RimWorld handles identity and the dev’s not-great response.
  3. I specifically use “utilize” to mean “make useful,” in the sense that these games take resources that exist in one interconnected system and reduce their value to their usefulness for the player’s purposes.
  4. Which is not to say that there is inherent value in “authenticity” or an ideal state of nature. Some purposes are absolutely good justifications to utilize resources, but not because unused resources are valueless.
  5. On the default difficulty. You can turn off automatic escalation, but the game is designed with the assumption that it is active.

Your Only True Choice – Complicity in Unavoidable Tragedy

Complicity is the most important distinguishing feature of games.

Other media still requires your interaction. You choose the order in which to experience a series (broadcast or DVD order of Firefly? publication or chronological order of Narnia?), the way in which you experience a painting or sculpture (from a distance? different angles? different lighting?), or how you experience a play (what cast? what seat? do you read it first? do you watch it staged at all?).

However, only in games do your actions involve a complicity with the diegetic1 events of the game. When you choose not to watch an episode of Supernatural, you do not absolve yourself of the injuries the Winchesters experience. There is no way to examine Guernica which makes you responsible for the depicted atrocity. Listening to the 1812 Overture on MP3 rather than live may save on real-world gunpowder but does not inform your relationship to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, fictional or historic.

However, when you choose to punch a reporter in the Mass Effect series, your action (with the assistance of the games’ developers) causes an assault on a (fictional) civilian member of the press. You probably feel emotions as a result of this that are related to that complicity: “personal pride” or “embarrassment”, not simply “just satisfaction” or “disappointment.” The experience of consuming this work is different because it requires your active participation: pressing a button to trigger an action, not just turning a page to advance the narration.

This responsibility the player bears for the events of the game is what I’m calling complicity.

But what about when a game makes you complicit in something that you do not want, where you do not have a choice in the matter? I’ve written before about the tragedy in the ending of Prince of Persia (2008), but the most apropos in-game examination of this is the “Museum Ending” of The Stanley Parable.

Created For You Long in Advance

The Stanley Parable2 features the titular player character being guided by an unseen Narrator through a physically- and narratively-branching absurdist story, steered by more-or-less blatant binary player choices. In one ending3, Stanley is given a respite from certain death when a meta-Narrator takes over, commenting on the illusion of control the game presents and showing “behind-the-scenes” material, before returning Stanley to the previous deathtrap and entreating:

But listen to me. You can still save these two. You can stop the program before they both fail.
Press “escape” and press “quit.” There’s no other way to beat this game.
As long as you move forward, you’ll be walking someone else’s path. Stop now, and it’ll be your only true choice.
Whatever you do, choose it! Don’t let time choose for you! Don’t let time choose for you!

And if you don’t quit before the end of her narration, Stanley is killed.

This ending frames all other choices in the game as “false,” saying, “When every path you can walk has been created for you long in advance, death becomes meaningless, making life the same. ” In this view, you are complicit in the choices Stanley makes, but you have no agency in them. You are only selecting from a menu of actions not of your own creation… but this, paradoxically, makes you responsible for interacting at all with this broken system.

Is the choice to end the game at any time a “true” choice? Is it a choice that you are complicit in, within the “magic circle” that circumscribes the play space, or is it a choice akin to closing a book before the end and imagining that it preserves the fictional world in stasis?4

The Stories Themselves Might Be the Problem

What Remains of Edith Finch, by Giant Sparrow, has the player embody Edith, the youngest of a family that suffers from a “curse” that purportedly causes the dramatic death of every member. You explore the now-abandoned and implausibly-architected Finch home, uncovering accounts of these deaths. Each time you find one, you then reenact the final moments of each character.

These reenactments are tragic and brutal. Many of them involve children and require you to take action that you know will lead to their deaths. While this is thematically consistent — the game explores concepts of fatalism, death-seeking, and self-defeating self-narratives — it is a traumatic experience for many players. The game arguably avoids becoming exploitative by couching the reenactments in fantasy, but the fact remains that the player must become repeatedly and deliberately complicit in the death of a child and experience what is, on its surface, their ensuing dying fantasy.

This is a story in which the player is the villain. In any interpretation, you are repeatedly taking on the role of the cause of the characters’ demise, whether that is a literal curse, a familial disposition toward risk, or just a dangerous framing of the family’s narrative. There is no opportunity to continue experiencing the game’s story without being complicit in death.

The fact that the deaths have “already occurred” in the past of the game’s central narrative thread is immaterial, as is the fact that the player, after the first death or two, is sufficiently warned what they’re getting into. These facts don’t change the traumatic experience of embodying and enabling each death.

When I played Edith Finch, I found the experience tragic and harrowing but ultimately cathartic; my complicity in death felt worth it given the concepts and aesthetic journey it allowed me to explore. However, this experience is (of course) not universal.

Writer and sustainable technologist Aurynn Shaw writes about Edith Finch in her piece “On Forced Complicity in Games.”

What Remains of Edith Finch was rated as one of the best games of 2017… but I’m not going to remember the story or the themes or the writing. None of that touched me, because of the alienation of discomfort. All I remember is that discomfort. All I will remember is that discomfort.

Chances are, if you create works, you want those works to be read, understood, and retained by others. Traumatic emotional experiences, such as being complicit in the death of a (fictional) child, tend to override memory and perspective. To require a player be complicit in deliberately uncomfortable acts in order to experience your game is to alienate and exclude a player that might otherwise be a prime audience for your work.

There will always be (and should always be!) games which challenge the player emotionally and force them to be complicit in tragedy. However, doing so not only gives players a deeply unpleasant experience, but also undermines the retention of that experience by those most affected. The people who most strongly feel their own complicity in the tragedy of the game are those most likely to only remember that unpleasantness instead of the underlying message or story of the work.

This is yet another reason why considering choice, agency, and accessibility is vital to the game design process. If Edith Finch had allowed me to skip the reminiscence of the tragic death of children, it would have been less effective for me; that discomfort was acceptable and essential to my appreciation of the work. However, it was actively disruptive to Shaw’s appreciation of the game.

Design is always a task of considering a diverse audience and making tradeoffs. Designers must consider how they force their players to be complicit in the events of the game.

Because the designer is complicit in however the game affects those who play it.

  1. Diegetic: within the game’s fiction or world, as opposed to part of the way that world is translated into a work
  2. I’ve written about The Stanley Parable previously, discussing its paradoxical lack of agency and its unsettling uncertainty.
  3. Arguably the second most “obvious” ending, as it requires doing everything you’re told until you see a large “escape” sign
  4. Spoiler: as I discuss in “Candyland: Game as Critical Lens,” this sort of choice doesn’t count and is often a cop-out.

Actual Play Podcasts Do Not Portray Actual Play, Actually

Actual play podcasts are not what the name suggests. They’re a form of podcast that purportedly serializes a recording of a group playing a tabletop roleplaying game. The listener hears the dice rolls, the out-of-character discussions, and the social interaction that surrounds the in-character story being told at the table. The apparent appeal is the fun of hearing the “actual play” occurring when creating an interesting story.

But actual play podcasts are a lie.

Actual Play

Roleplaying game systems (tabletop or otherwise) are more complex to examine than other games. I’ve written about their oddnesses over the course of years, but here is a summary1:

  • Unlike most games, what you purchase when you buy a traditional RPG is a ruleset, not a potential narrative. When you buy Arkham Horror or DUSK, you can immediately begin playing without doing much creative work of your own. With RPG systems, on the other hand, one or more players must create characters, settings, and/or conflicts, depending on the game2.
  • Once this “campaign material” has been created (or purchased as a separate supplement), then you have a potential narrative: a set of rules for simulation plus an initial world state (and potential future events).
  • Playing through the campaign concretizes this potential narrative into an actual one. The campaign material is transformed by the rules and the player choices into the actual events that occur in the narrative and can later be breathlessly related to a gracious and patient third party.

Actual play podcasts add an additional layer to this matryoshka of potentiality:

Notional Play

Games already involve a chain of fake people, and actual play podcasts add an extra few, including the editor and the listener. They also flavor the whole endeavor with the feeling of performance. A roleplaying game played with the intent to present it to a listener is different than one played “just for fun.” There can’t help but be a pressure to produce something consumable. To do what is interesting to hear rather than what is wise or fun or interesting to play. To ignore rules to avoid them bogging down the story, or to enforce rules just so you don’t get irate responses about your laxness.

There are few other artistic forms in which the process of making the final work is immortalized as part of the work. Actual play presents both in-character and out-of-character as essential. Reality television revels in presenting the process of its own creation, but generally doesn’t have an inner narrative; the story of the show is the story of the creation of the show only. Professional wrestling presents a fictional narrative partially improvised live, but it keeps the out-of-character bits blurry through the doctrine of kayfabe4.

But actual play podcasts give similar weight to the inner narrative of the game’s characters as they do to the “backstage” process of the players collaborating to construct that narrative. The closest thing I can think of is The Great British Bake Off and similar cooking competition shows, where the viewer both admires the aesthetics of the dishes being cooked and also enjoys the drama of the kitchen process.

Artificial Play

Actual play podcasts seek to provide listeners with an experience that evokes actual play, not one which documents it. Spectating tabletop roleplaying in life (not on stage) is uncommon, perhaps because it can be unsatisfying to sit passively through such a participatory experience, complete with its pauses for inside jokes and snacks and bathroom breaks.

Instead, these podcasts represent their play in a way that provides a hyperreal5 experience, one in which the listener feels like they are listening to a roleplaying game, despite this feeling resulting from the experience being an inaccurate representation of typical home play.

This dishonesty may not be intentional on the part of the show creators, but that doesn’t matter. The act of recording a play session, editing it, and presenting it to an audience unavoidably transforms it, affecting both the moment-to-moment actions of the players and the shape of the final product.

The lies that are being told varies from show to show. When you listen to The Adventure Zone, you are shown a version of play that is ridiculous and informal yet transcends this mood to be deeply emotional. When you listen to Friends at the Table, you see complex worlds emerging from casual interplay between friends. When you listen to Tabletop Garden, you (hopefully) see rich characters emerging as the result of intentional play practices.

The lies told by these shows may be true of some games, some of the time. However, by presenting their curated, edited view of play experience, the shows craft a subtle argument about how roleplaying games are, or should be. The listener is complicit in their own deception, enjoying this manufactured version of play and unavoidably allowing it to shape their future views and play practices.

Actual play podcasts do not portray actual play, but an ideal that the creator has chosen to present. Keeping this distinction in mind will help a creator make sure to convey an ideal they embrace, and will help a listener to recognize how this ideal is being presented to them.

  1. Throughout this piece, I’ll use the word “players” in a way that includes the possible Game Master, Dungeon Master, Storyteller, etc.
  2. “No-prep” games like Fiasco or Lady Blackbird are weird edge-cases where the setting seems very entangled with the rules, but these still tend to require detailing and/or interpretation that happens before play proper begins.
  3. From the transcript: “They all destroyed the world and then flew away and then that was the ending and we finished recording and then almost like we hung up on the Skype call, and then like a minute later we started texting like ‘That sucked.'”
  4. In which wrestlers pretend, even outside of an event, that they are engaging in honest athletic competition rather than the partially pre-scripted acrobatic performance everyone knows they’re doing
  5. The hyperreal is an imitation of something which does not exist.

Tabletop Garden: New RPG Podcast

I’ve started a new podcast! It’s called Tabletop Garden, and it’s an “actual play” show where a rotating cast plays tabletop roleplaying games and talks about them.

Tabletop Garden is an actual-play podcast where we collaborate on short, self-contained stories about interesting characters, and we do it with an agenda. Throughout each campaign we discuss values, techniques, and how to play with intention.

Our first pilot campaign uses Mechanical Oryx by Grant Howitt to tell a tale of looming violence in the solarpunk postapocalypse. During each campaign, episodes will release weekly. Check out the show at tabletop.garden.

Punching Nazis Is a Sacred Act

Richard Spencer — a known racist and genocide advocate — got punched on video and publicly humiliated and it was funny and satisfying to watch. It was an effective way to weaken his public platform, both in an immediate sense (it silenced him mid-sentence) and in a long-term sense (he will always be the person with silly music behind videos of him being hurt). This has started a wave of public speech alternately condemning the specific act or advocating for eagerly and proactively punching more Nazis.

While there’s certainly been a range of viewpoints in this discussion, two common ways these ethics are being framed are1: “violence as political action is never acceptable” and “punching Nazis is always great so let’s do more of it.” I disagree with both of these ideas.

Violence is sometimes justified and even necessary. But it is a serious, severe, and indeed sacred act. When you commit violence in the defense of virtue, you are causing a feeling person pain, potentially permanently injuring or killing them, and you are taking the poison of that violence into yourself. It’s a transformative act, a sacrifice, and to take it lightly is not only reckless: it is sacrilege that minimizes that sacrifice.
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  1. along with disingenuous arguments that do things like evoke Martin Luther King without understanding his work or proposing elaborate counterfactuals

Breaking Down at Sex Down South

It’s the sign of a good conference if you’re affected emotionally, but I generally prefer not to end up in tears.

I recently attended Sex Down South, a sex and sexuality conference in Atlanta. It’s a great event featuring sex educators and layfolk discussing sex, advocacy, and relationships in an array of lectures, panels, and workshops. One of the things I love about it is that it explicitly prioritizes the experiences of people of color and queer folk: perspectives that are often overlooked in discussions about sex.

This year’s theme was “The Politics of Pleasure,” and most talks explored that in some way: the idea that how we choose our partners is political, the difficulty of approaching consent around trauma survivors or when exploring complicated kinks, or the process of effective advocacy for healthier sexuality. It was heavy stuff, and by early in the third and final day I was socially exhausted.

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Invisible Design in Picross 3D: Round 2

Why is no one talking about Picross 3D: Round 2?

Picross 3D Round 2 Complete Puzzle

To put it another way, what can I say about Picross 3D: Round 2?

It is an ideal game. It’s not perfect; I could list flaws like the error-prone controls if I were ever inclined to write a review. But as someone who likes to write about games as works of art and craft, it’s almost too ideal to grasp. Like the smooth carved-wood toys you produce when solving puzzles in the game, there are no hard corners or rough spots to get a rhetorical grip on.

The game just follows. It follows from its ruleset and its heritage and the decisions made in its design are all either necessary or arbitrary. The decisions are hard to even notice and games like these receive less attention in the critical space due to this invisible design.

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“The Majesty of Colors” Remastered

Majesty Greenlight PromoBig news! As part of Future Proof Games, I’m remastering my classic Flash art game “The Majesty of Colors” for modern technologies. Instead of Flash, the game will be available natively for Windows, OSX, Linux, iOS, and Android. We’re polishing some rough edges but otherwise staying true to the original.

This feels very odd! “(I Fell in Love With) The Majesty of Colors” is one of the first games I made that got any attention and remains one of my most-recognized games. It can be a bit frustrating sometimes that a game I made almost eight years ago is more familiar to folks than my recent work, but the truth is that “Majesty” is one of my favorite projects I’ve worked on, along with Looming, Ossuary, and Exploit: Zero Day. Out of all my games that are becoming inaccessible due to the fading of Adobe Flash, “Majesty” is the one I most want to preserve.

I’m hoping that there’s an audience for weird little art games in the modern gaming world, especially on Steam. If you think there is, please vote for us on Steam Greenlight.

Otherwise, you can see the trailer and get more information on the official website of “The Majesty of Colors”.

Let me know if you have any questions!

Strange Symmetra: Accretive Design in Overwatch

Symmetra_Overwatch_001Symmetra is the most strangely-designed character in Blizzard’s Overwatch. In a game where most heroes’ roles can be summed up in a few words (“fast flanker,” “mobile area-denial tank,” “AOE healer,” “slowing defender”) and their story concepts naturally arise from their roles (“time-traveling jet pilot,” “leaping electric gorilla,” “portable DJ,” “cute ice Satan”1), Symmetra makes little sense.

She builds many tiny sentries, gives minor shields to allies, builds teleporters, and can attack with either a short-range cumulative auto-aim beam or a slow-moving death orb. This is explained by her being a combination architect and sci-fi construction worker, shaping solid forms out of light. She is the only character with “photonic” technology, and it is not explained how being able to project physical holograms also lets you bend space and time to craft a teleportation portal.

I have no special insight into the Overwatch design process, but I can speculate with some confidence about how it proceeded. Symmetra (and indeed all the heroes) were not designed from the ground up. They were assembled using an accretive process, where abilities were assembled piecemeal and then unified with a story-based concept.
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  1. I find Mei infuriating to play against.

Audacious Compassion Podcast

My partner Melissa and I have started a new project: a monthly podcast called Audacious Compassion about how to demonstrate empathy in difficult everyday situations. The first episode, “Go Buy a Caddy,” is up and you can subscribe via RSS or iTunes. You can even rate us five stars on iTunes if you like!
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