Children of Endymion

A wretched city soaked in servile ash
Squatting over a feculent current
She perseveres under Florian’s lash
To endure their miserable pageant

And what angel are you to call us cruel?
Whither lies that shouldered plank you carried
Uphill there in that Golgothan riddle
Where the demons of your conscience rallied?

Beneath the lunule gaze, their hounds enjoined,
The sons of Adam huddle and give song
As we children of Endymion’s loins
Split black with vulpine howl and claim all wrong

And through those streets soiled deep in human sin
Sanctioned thus, does our bloodstained feast begin

Game Design and Killing the Cat


In Hollywood, there is a particular book that few outside the hallowed realm of those who work on movies are aware of but which everyone who goes to movies today is affected by.

Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need lays out a meticulous formula for story beats that describe when the hero should get dressed down by a superior to what minute of the movie there should be a dark night of the soul moment. Everything is laid out with precision, from when the B storyline should be introduced to what order the antagonists of a film should be disposed of.

Something much like this happens in game development, though in the case of game development there is no single work that describes the problem we developers face with quite this degree of exactitude.

Whether one is talking about console games, mobile games, social games, MMORPGs, RTS, FPS or simulators, there have grown up a number of conventions that are virtually never challenged.

For example, in MMORPG game design today, the concept of characters having explicit levels is not merely assumed, it is sacrosanct. To be sure, there are exceptions, but they are vanishingly small (Ultima Online and EVE, in this particular area).

RTS mix the tactical (moving units around) with the strategic (building) and have tech trees. MMORPGs have enshrined the Holy Trinity of DPS (damage)/Healer/Tank (though this has started cracking a bit thanks in part to games like Guild Wars 2).

Are there good reasons for levels? Sure. Similarly, there are good reasons for tech trees (they make balancing much easier, for one, and make it easier for players to conceptualize reasonable development paths) and even the much-maligned Holy Trinity (communicates clearly to players what they are “supposed” to do in a group).

The problem lies in that these things have come to be assumed; they are rarely challenged, and because they are so rarely seriously challenged the reasons for their existence has become lost, enshrined on altars of design dogma.

During the conceptualization phase of a project, instead of following a policy of parsimony – that is, a principle of the smallest number of changes to get a job done – game development has a tendency to regard these bastions of design as necessary. After all, they’re proven, right?

And here lies the second problem: Why do levels work? Why do paywalls work? Why does an MMORPG need items at all? (By the way, “Because players expect it” or “World of Warcraft does it” are the wrong answer to both of the above).


There are glib answers to all of the above, but when they are applied at the very start of a project’s conception and early design they inevitably ram the game down a particular path, and one of the facts of development is that every design choice you make limits the next choice down the line, which itself limits the next one down and so on.

Take my admittedly favorite example of this that I started talking about above – levels.

As soon as you make the decision to have levels, you then all but mandate the number of items you must make, the number of zones you must build, the number of environments your artists must craft, the number of skills you must design and a dozen other major aspects of gameplay.

This is one reason why the first Guild Wars was so radical, even if in the end it blinked and backed away from a leveless system. In the first Guild Wars there were indeed twenty levels, but those twenty levels were easy to obtain and represented the smallest portion of even the average player’s gameplay time. Instead, most of the player’s time was spent hunting down specific skills that weren’t quantitatively better, but rather qualitatively different.

This was, to put it mildly, brilliant. Moreover, it was brilliant not simply from a design point of view, but also from a development point of view – if your character’s abilities are not level gated or scaled, then there is no minimum number of abilities you have to make. Instead, you can make as many as you can make distinctive and interesting.

Similarly, Skyrim‘s lack of classes meant that designers didn’t have to budget a precise number of skills for each class to make sure each class was equally viable and balanced. Instead, the criteria for a skill was that it was interesting, fun and useful.

It’s an ugly fact of game development that game studios live or die based as much on their developmental rigor and discipline as they do on the brilliance of their design team. A development team that can’t hit its targets or can’t rapidly scale up or down the scope of their game is a development team that is probably going to be looking for a new job.

Design defines development even more than development constrains design.

Conventions do exist for a reason, and it’s true that changing conventions too haphazardly can risk players feeling lost or not knowing what to expect for your game. It can, too, cause serious headaches for marketing in the effort to identify and evangelize to appropriate demographics.

(This is where indie games have a huge advantage; because they depend on word of mouth rather than large marketing budgets, they can afford to find their own audience rather than needing to establish an audience and establish it quickly).

In the end, though, a game benefits immensely where the design is built to consider development – which includes post-launch maintenance, expandability, database bloat and a hundred other factors – from the very beginning.

It’s fine (really) to make a game with levels or tech trees or any of a hundred other design conventions. Just don’t assume it, and understand exactly what the cost is in design freedom or development realities when you create those designs.

So when you are staring at a blank computer screen and starting to conceive of a design, whether for a single mob or an entire game – don’t be afraid to kill the cat.


Majoritarian Politics from the United States to Turkey to Egypt


One of the interesting things about both the now-in-progress military coup in Egypt and the tide of protests in Turkey is how both are reflected in U.S. politics.

In modern American politics, we decry – with good reason – the seemingly permanent deadlock in modern U.S. politics that is the result of institutional mechanisms preventing majoritarian over-reach.

Historically, one of the biggest concerns of the founders of the U.S. was “tyranny of the majority”, which is the flip side of not having requirements for super-majorities and filibusters to pass fundamental legislation.

From a coldly practical point of view, the efficacy of democracy as a system lies not in some kind of general moral superiority, but simply that assuming free and fair elections, any protest against the system is doomed to represent only a minority of the population (granted, of course, that armed support is evenly represented across the population, which of course is rarely the case in fact.)

Put more bluntly, democracy’s success as a modern institution may lie simply in its inclination to discourage armed dissent as being a doomed enterprise.

When a democratic state either shuffles between rival internal power structures – for example, in the U.S., where Republicans and Democrats battle fiercely for control of Congress and the office of the President – or, alternatively, possesses sufficient checks on majoritarian abuse – either by tradition, legal requirements for super-majorities, or judicial oversight based on constitutional minority protections – the system more or less works.

But what happens when this balance collapses, or never existed in the first place?


I would suggest that this is exactly what is happening in both Egypt and Turkey. In both places there is a solid – albeit slim – majority that stands in favor of a religious-ish state. In Turkey, the current prime minister has been in power for some ten years, and interprets democracy in a majoritarian light which says, “Well, my party won the election, so I don’t care what the other 49% of the population thinks.” It Egypt, Morsi clearly believes likewise, that a majority – however slim – justifies complete disregard of any minority position.

This is, in fact, a fair interpretation of a “truly” democratic state. It is also a complete disaster in the making.

To be sure, the majority should take the lead in the political process, but where a solid-but-slim majority sees nothing wrong with utterly disregarding the nearly half of their population that disagrees with them, they are in effect just putting up a big sign saying, “Please start a civil war, ‘kay?”

When any political faction feels that it has no hope of ever even influencing the political process, such a political faction will inevitably become divested from having a stake in the nation. When there is no reason to participate in the political process, the political process is no longer seen as a viable engine for change, and other options – usually violent – begin to be considered, first on the fringes, but then increasingly in the mainstream.


The United States has a long democratic tradition, and, as well, the levers of powers are more evenly split than in either Turkey or Egypt. The trouble lurking behind all this, however, is that the primary source of the current split in power in the United States is primarily due to absolutely horrific levels of district gerrymandering and other policies that have the effect of diluting votes and leading voters to conclude – correctly – that their vote can’t actually have an impact.

Ironically, although this cooking of the political system promotes more deadlocks in the political process in the United States, it also has the effect of dampening what would otherwise be the impact of the massive demographic shifts occurring today. Longer term, one can expect the effects of the current political deadlock to force more and more issues to be deferred rather than directly addressed, chipping away at the United States’ once-great physical and human infrastructure until it is a shadow of what it once was.

No modern state is purely democratic, and the reasons for that are playing out right now on the world stage. While it is probably futile at this point in history, we would be better served by approaching the political system in a more nuanced manner, as opposed to the current rigid focus on the “democratic” part of our political engines.

Contrary to popular cultural belief, we really haven’t solved the problem of how to structure a political system that fairly invests and balances the needs of both the majority and the minority of any population. It’s time to stop congratulating ourselves on what fine political systems we have developed, and get back to work at improving said systems.