Noah Brand talks game design and story theory with the creator of Artizens.
Charles Amis is an innovative game designer with a particular interest in the creation of story, not by the game’s creators, but by its players. After seeing our recent article about his work, Mr. Amis got in touch with me, and I had the opportunity to interview him about his work, his influences, and his current project,Artizens, a game designed to put a new kind of control into players’ hands.
What was the first video game to give you a powerful emotional experience?
Mega Man 2. The powerful emotional experience was the roller coaster of frustration to rage to resolve to mastery to triumph. An adult walking by might never guess that the little kid sitting cross legged in front of the CRT five feet away was going through such an intense time, but oh he was.
It’s interesting that you describe your first intense emotional experience as gameplay-related rather than story-related; as you say, most people relate it to a story experience. On the other hand, I have friends who’ve only just beaten Mega Man 2 as adults, and are intensely gratified by this accomplishment. Do you think it’s fair to say that you focus on the emotional intensity of gameplay over story?
Yeah, it’s definitely safe to say I value emotional intensity of gameplay over story for my own designs, but that wasn’t always the case. My focus in college was writing and drawing and I pretty much played JRPGs exclusively and that was for their epic stories. But over time, I’ve really found that my own strengths aren’t in authorial storytelling, but in designing systems that can foster emergent player stories. I get so much more delight in that than in direct storytelling and I also now enjoy it more in games when I come out of them with a personal story to tell my friends.
What did you read the summer you were fourteen?
I was not a great student growing up, so I may not have read anything the summer I was 14. I perceived books as punishments and obligations as I think many kids did back then and still do. It’s a shame, but it makes some sense. But oh man, it was 1997. The great thing about video games is that I can check what year it was and know exactly what I was playing! That was the year I played Final Fantasy 7. In fact, I didn’t have a Playstation and my friend who had just finished it, came over my house with his console in his backpack and said, “You have to play this, you can borrow my console.” Now that’s what I call a recommendation.
What were your favorite accomplishments early in your game design career, and what are some of your more recent favorite accomplishments?
In graduate school, when I was just getting into game design, I came up with a sport called Chamball. It’s like martial arts meets dodgeball with 15 feet of rope. It started out as an entry in the 2009 Come Out and Play, an outdoor games festival in NYC, but there were a few people there who liked it enough to want to play again after the festival was over. We kept playing and refining for over 2 years. We brought it to other festivals, played with a ton of people, got really good at it, and in the process, we all became really good friends. That’s my favorite early accomplishment, because I think it’s still one of the best games I’ve ever made, it produced some of the most fun I’ve had in my life, and it created incredible friendships.
My favorite recent accomplishment is the design for Artizens. There’s a lot of very tricky design problems involved in the game and I think I’ve found some decent solutions to them. It’s an ongoing battle and I know it’ll change a whole lot once we got more playtesting in, but I think it’s my strongest game design so far.
Tell us a little about Artizens and why our readers should be interested in it.
Artizens is a 2D action platformer where you can team up online with friends to battle intelligent monsters, harvest them for materials, and then craft your own custom gear for your next mission. The thing that makes it special is the fact that you can draw all of your own gear and give each its own modifications to make it do what you want. When you’ve made a full set of custom gear, not only do look entirely unique, but you’ll also behave uniquely.
If you’ve ever wanted to be a steampunk samurai ninja (and I know some of you have), then this is the game for you.
What design challenges do you find in creating a game like Artizens? Any surprises?
The top two design challenges are definitely content moderation and balancing the player customization. From the beginning we knew we wanted players to be able to draw their own equipment and also customize how it works, but both of those features are incredibly tricky. We had to make some hard decisions and the more time I’ve had to think about them, the more I feel we made the right choices.
With content moderation, we could have chosen to approve every drawing before it’s live in the game. We knew that would make for a ‘clean’ community, but at what price? Not being able to see your drawing come to life instantly is a huge letdown and starting off with a guilty until proven innocent system is not how I want to start a community. Instead, we have two level system for content moderation. First: Every player can immediately hide any content they don’t like. It only hides it for them and shows the default appearance for that gear instead. Quick and easy, individual solution. Second: If you feel that NO ONE should see what you just saw, you can flag the content for moderation and tell us why you’re flagging it. If we get enough flags, we’ll message the player and hide the content for everyone but them.
With player customization, the challenge is to make sure there’s never an optimal combination. We can’t let any one of our weapons, armor, or tools become so good that everyone should always have it equipped. That’s a big challenge. My strategy for keeping things in balance is to make nearly everything quite specialized. Everything has major pros and cons, so chances are good it won’t be optimal in every situation. Instead the challenge for the player becomes building a character who is optimal for their play style on THIS mission with THIS team with the materials they have at their disposal. I’m hoping that leads to a lot of interesting, meaningful choices and a great reason to have many custom builds, each made for a specific purpose.
If you could magically change one thing about the culture and/or business of games right now, what would it be?
Honestly, I think the culture and business of video games right now is amazing. We’ve got a thriving indie scene, but also AAA titles are still giving us a lot of fun. There’s the huge mobile market now, casual games, board and card games are doing well, and there’s a bunch of festivals around the country for outdoor games now as well. What I love about it is how diversified games are getting. There’s a game for everybody and I don’t feel like anyone’s being pushed out of the market. I don’t have hard data to back this up, it’s just personal opinion and anecdote, but from what I can see and from what I’m hearing, just about everyone is playing some kind of game pretty often and that’s fantastic.
If I could change one thing it would be to push us further in the direction I think we’re headed in. I want not only diversity in the games marketplace, but also in game developers. The more genders, races, and religions we have fully represented in the game development community, the more great games we’ll have and the more people they will be for. I think we’re making good head way, but having more programming education in elementary schools, more education around working on teams, more education on design at early levels, that would be incredible. I want kids to have that door opened for them early on.
If you’re interested in Artizens, you can learn more and help back development at its Kickstarter page.
Images courtesy Charles Amis