Deep diving into design with Spelunky

I’ve been catching up a bit with what’s up in games.  Some day I will tell you about my knitted telephone @developconf.  But today I want to share what I most enjoyed from reading Derek Yu’s book on the making of Spelunky.

knitted telephone

This is not what this article is about

Splelunky (the book) is the tale of how a small scale, free indie game (called Spelunky) ends up becoming a massive indie hit (also called Spelunky), distributed on Steam, PSA  and XBLA,  and selling over a million copies    I ran into the book via an en passant reference from Liz England on Twitter which pulled out a great quote to do with one of the challenges of games user research and user research in general – and life in general.

Yup!   People are generally pretty great at telling you when they aren’t happy, especially when you specifically give them a heads up that’s something you’re interested in hearing about.    But people are sometimes not as great at being able to attribute their unhappiness to its cause.

I think this point is a real gem.    On the basis of this  I thought the book might have other treasures in it too.

And…  it did.   The book is both easy to read and insightful.  It’s also funny and humble. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in game design.

The stories in the book aren’t recipes for success or straightforward morality tales.   Although the ending is happy,  you get the sense that despite trying to make the right choices at each progression towards publication – as we all do –  the ending might well have turned out differently.   And there is a  deeper lesson, too, when looked at as a whole.   Just as you’d expect from the author of a game which – pretty much just for the sheer mischievous joy of it – hides a deeply context-dependent eggplant.

The gems

Here are my favourite gems – starting with the one Liz England picked out.

People may know what they feel but not why

Like patients, players are often most in tune with how they feel about the problem rather than what is causing it.  Doctors and game developers, with their experience and knowledge of their fields, need to ask questions, perform tests, and eliminate possibilities in order to zero in on the correct solution.    p. 57

Users’ practice reveals the nature of a design

The next gem I found is not opaque enough to be a koan – but it is still pretty wise:

It was only after the audience entered the picture that I started to understand the reasoning behind my own designs. p. 59

I love this one.  Personally, I can’t imagine designing something and not being utterly passionately interested in how people actually use it.

There is a culture gap here.   There are many design discovery practices which – not unreasonably – talk about  all the useful insight generating things you can do ahead of actually building something, that can make the thing you build that much better.  (The Ideo field design toolkit – which I only recently discovered – is a handy resource here, even though it isn’t designed for games – and there are interesting reasons why there is an awkward stretch to map it to games, which is a story for another day).

But the practice of using real audience behaviour to understand how a design is working in practice is not so well established.   As the authors of Designing with Data point out,  taking real advantage of data from use is not always part of designers’ training.   In games, Numbers are often used measurement of the sufficiency – or insufficiency –  of the current design, rather than as source of insight into how the design operates.   For sure that can take the fun out of it.

You can’t have it all – or at least not all at once

True for games as well as just about everywhere else, this one.

We can’t have everything that we want all at once… We can’t know what to expect and also be surprised.  We can’t be free from frustration and also be challenged.  We can’t go unchallenged and also feel satisfied with our accomplishments.  Mystery, surprise, tension, challenge and a real sense of accomplishment always come at the cost of feeling uncomfortable.   p. 86

I think this tension between frustration and satisfaction is what game ‘balance’ is really about.   It isn’t fun to shoot fish in a barrel.    There needs to be a rhythm of ebb and flow between striving and accomplishment, and between exploration and the joy of discovery.

You gotta trust yourself (and your players)

As Etta James says.

It is not my intention to quote the whole book to you but the next gem follows directly after the one I just picked up.    But it’s a bit like finding great stones on a beach: it’s difficult to stop at just one.


It’s difficult to pick just one gem

So, moving right along to the next sentence after the previous one I quoted:

The best games come out of a mutual respect between the creator and the player… the creator must trust in the curiousity and abilities of their players.  Continuously interrupting play to steer players with direct text message and other obvious hints not only infantalises them but it also reveals the creator’s insecurity in their ability to design games…The “joy of discovery” is one of the fundamental joys of play itself.  p. 86-87

Indifference can be a virtue – but don’t take it too far

Spelunky takes a kind of extreme stance on the question how much help a design should provide for onboarding:

Unfortunately, Spelunky’s core ideas defy explanation to new players, because the game’s indifference to them is so much of its appeal.   p.  102

As Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes Minister  would say that – is a “courageous” decision. (And one that their Microsoft XBox producer tried to work with them to mitigate.)

It’s likely that this stance creates more casualties amongst the new user corps than a more gradual onramp.   But it’s also possible that those who persist end up being more committed.

I’d be interested to know the functions through which initial eventually successful effort is related to long term commitment.    As a psychologist, I could make up a number of different answers to this – but I’d prefer to ask the question and explain the answer after I know what it is.

Choose the committed and the committed will choose you

The way Yu explains his design choices,  it sounds as though he was pretty happy for  the game to select for the type of users who valued the type of experience he wanted to provide for them:

With Spelunky, I was only willing to go so far to offer new players a hand.  Beyond that point, I felt like it would hurt the experience for players who were more eager for  challenge.  And when you have to choose between those two groups, it’s not a hard choice at all. p. 108

There is for sure a tension between providing assistance and pleasing those players who want challenge.   But it seems to me there are few different escape routes:

  • making the path to skill acquisition a real and organic part of the designed experience  – rather than something that’s jury rigged afterwards with some nasty annoying pop ups
    • Yu does give a big nod to the excellence of onboarding in Super Mario – the challenge is in how to generalise this to other games
  • adjusting the challenge level dynamically, so that players are faced with a degree of challenge that is likely to be more satisfying for them
    • This moves the goal posts from finding a ‘good enough’ setting for everyone, to finding ‘good enough’ personalisation – which is always going to be not good enough for some
    • This is clearly tricky for PvP games, but can be useful in initial PvE stages
  • making ‘failure’ more enjoyable, by providing a degree of reward – such as exciting visual effects – for behaviour that approximates the behaviour you want to encourage, even if it isn’t ‘winning’
    • as discussed, near misses can – under some conditions – deliver almost the same thrill as a wins
  • changing the intent of the interaction to be less about winning and more about other aspects of the experience
    • this is partly about genre, but even within genres in which winning is important,  it is about making the game experience non-binary -the most important aspect is not necessarily about win or loss

First impressions matter

Yu realises – with hindsight – that they didn’t make it clear enough to prospective players what the game experience was supposed to be about, and they should have made the screen shot and demo promos more enticing and informative:

Spelunky’s screenshots, while packed with details, look mostly like a lot of rocks and dirt, while the interesting aspects of its randomization are hard to get across in even a few play sessions, let alone a non-interactive trailer.

Of course, beneath Spelunky’s unassuming surface are hidden big secrets and shiny treasures.  p. 158

Tough one, this.    How to communicate a mystery and keep it mysterious?   I think the strongest moral to be mined from this story is that creating draft marketing approaches should be a part of every product proposal.

Difficulty is important – but the best progression is non-linear and rhythmic

I usually wonder about why designs have the difficulty progressions that they do.    Yu gives his thoughts on it here:

The more I play and create games, the less convinced I am that the difficulty of games should be thought of in terms of a linear or exponential ramp upwards where, as the player gets stronger, you need to make the opposition increase proportionally in strength….[there is] something futile and perhaps nihilistic about endlessly cranking a single knob that goes from easy to hard.  Rather I believe it makes more sense to think about difficulty in terms of the game’s overall pacing.   Difficulty should ebb and flow, and make room for other aspects of play. p. 178

If you draw a comparison to pacing and tension in narrative, it is easy to see that establishing a rhythm – and, at times,  violating it-  is potentially a very strong design trope that resonates with how we experience meaning.    I haven’t heard anyone express this as clearly as Yu has.

The deeper lesson

What is the deeper lesson revealed by these gems?  The stories Yu tells are interesting because of the the motivations he reveals for making the design choices he makes.    He has a great eye for analysing and articulating what makes a design tick, and you get the sense that his heart is in the right place, always.   To me,  what is striking about Yu’s approach is his attention, at all times,  to viewing the design of the game through the lens of the player’s possible experience of it.    That is the real eggplant that is hidden in plain sight.






Not all zones are created equal: player pleasure and player anaesthesia

I’ve been chasing the idea that, as ‘pure play’ chance experiences,  machine slots might embody interesting design patterns about the use of chance, ones that are generalisable to other genres of game designs and other types of player experiences.  To this end,  I’ve been mining  Natasha Schüll’s prize winning ethnological study, Addiction by Design for what it says about the player experience of chance.

What’s the attraction for players?  According to Schüll, people play machine slots in order to change how they feel.

“gamblers… act upon themselves through gambling devices with a goal of regulating their own affective states”,  p.20

But what is the state people are playing in order to achieve?  Players sometimes refer to it as ‘the zone’:

“The speed is relaxing,” said Lola… “It’s not exactly excitement; it’s calm, like a tranquilizer.  It gets me into the zone.” p. 54

What is ‘the zone’?  The term is often used in a way that is closely related to Csikszentmihaly’s concept of ‘flow’ – an optimal state in which people feel a sense of total absorbtion in their activity.

But clearly there’s zone and there’s zone.    The zone reached by machine slot players seems to be a zone of being zoned out, rather than the zone of peak human experience.   The experience seems to produce a kind of anaesthesia.

“The solitary, uninterrupted process of machine play…tends to produce a steady, trancelike state that ‘distracts from internal and external issues’ such as anxiety, depression, and boredom.” p. 17, Fn 89

“it is not the chance of winning to which they become addicted; rather what addicts them is the world-dissolving state of subjective suspension and affective calm they derive from machine play.” p. 18

“…the “zone” – the elusive point of absorption, beyond contingency, that machine gamblers perpetually seek…  …[is] at once ‘safe’ and ‘precarious’ – a gentle seesaw of play credit that is mirrored in a gentle seesaw of player affect, both of which might at any instance lose momentum and come to a standstill.  The zone state is attainable only at the threshold where rhythm holds sway over risk, comfort over perturbation, habituation over surprise.”  p 135 Fn 93

This is quite different from the idea that gambling is in some way exciting.


Source: Wikimedia

Schüll’s discussions with industry insiders suggest that the most successful slot machines, successful in the sense of producing maximum revenue, are those with low volatility – a stream of small payouts and small wins – but which result in players who spend a long time on device.  Players do differ in risk preferences – but the most profitable ones are those who spend time in large amounts, spend money in small increments, and win steadily but not dramatically.     Large payouts can distract players and disrupt them so much that they fall out of their dreamlike state  – and perhaps even cash out, walking away with their winnings.

“As the journalist Marc Cooper remarked in 2005, “the new generation of gambling machines has, predictably, produced a new generation of gambling addicts: not players who thive on the adrenaline rush of a high-wager roll of the dice or turn of  a card but, rather, zone-out ‘escape’ players who yearn for the smooth numbness produced by the endlessly spinning reels.”  p. 128 Fn 79

The question of why playing on low-volatility machines seems to induce a trancelike state is not much analysed, although Schüll provides eloquent descriptions of “rhythm over risk”, and”a gentle seesaw of play credit that is mirrored in a gentle seesaw of player affect” (p.135).   This question is something I’ll turn to in a post or two, after I look at what Schüll has to say about the designs which produce the player experiences she catalogues.




Morris minors and machine slots

Natasha Schüll’s study of machine gambling, Addiction by Design, won a lot of prizes when it came out in 2013.  But it’s had nil splashback on digital games – which is curious.  Most games rely on the operation of chance – or at least unpredictability – in order to unfold.  So an understanding of how and why ‘pure’ chance entrances people would seem to be a truly handy thing to have in your back pocket.  “Know your ingredients” as Joy of Cooking would say.    (18 million copies and counting!)

There is certainly a strong parallel between the revenue structure of free to play games and the revenue structure of machine games: for both, the overwhelming bulk of their revenue comes from a small number of players.  Revenue concentration in f2p is even higher than it is in slots machines – as physical machine slots carry an entry price.

But no.  There’s no quicker way to annoy your common or garden variety digital games person (designer or player) than to suggest that gambling and ‘real’ games share important design patterns.  If you are feeling brave and want to try it, I advise you to stand well back first.   (Unless, of course,  they’re into social casino – which is definitely a story for another day.)

There are other problems with using Schüll’s ethnography as a cookbook for supplying top recipes for ‘chance entrancement.   For one thing, her study  documents the detrimental effect that machine games have on some players.

For Schüll, this arises from a fundamental structural asymmetry between gamblers and the industry that supplies them:

“The gambler not only can’t win, but isn’t playing to win, while the gambling industry is playing to win all along.”

“The relationship that exists between players and the industry is not so much a clash between two systems of value as it is an asymmetric interdependency between a system of value extraction that plays by the economic rules of the market, and a fleeting zone of non-value in which those rules are, for the player, suspended.” p. 72

Not only is the problem that the relationship is asymmetric, but, according to some researchers, the design of the games is such that

“impaired control and subsequent problem development are an understandable and ‘natural’ consequences of regular high intensity [machine] play” p 16

As Schüll explains it, the industry,  by contrast, treats addiction risk as inhering in characteristics of the player, rather than the design characteristics of the gambles they partake in.  Schüll preserves a more or less discreet silence on this issue – except, perhaps, for the hint in her book’s title.

Many of the people who are the subjects of Schüll’s case studies have life histories of abuse, anxiety and rejection, and other very serious challenges.    The close focus provided by her enthographic lens leaves us none the wiser about whether her addicted subjects are typical.  Perhaps they experience a high baseline level of suffering which is relieved by the experience of gambling,  and this makes the experience more risky for them?  Less data about more people would help untangle this, of course – but that’s not the game she plays.

It is obvious that some players of machine slots become addicted.  Whether this has to do more with an individual’s predisposition to addiction, or more to do with an experience design which is intended, from the ground up, to create addiction in any player, is not entirely clear.  Common sense would suggest that both factors are important.

Whatever the answer, there’s the issue of whether it’s good to design things that some – but not all – people may have serious problems with.    You could apply a similar ethical question to the creation of cakes, or cocktails.  Or digital games – whether f2p or not.

But even putting moral qualms aside to prove,  in a low oven with a wet cloth over them, there is very different but equally difficult problem with using Schull as a cookbook: an utter lack specificity over mechanism.

She goes into a goodly amount of detail, and also has interesting insights about:

  • the phenomenology of the machine gambler’s experience (which I summarise in another post)
  • design tricks which are used to induce that experience

What you don’t get, is any deep insight into how the designers’ tricks – some of which are very tricky indeed – work to create the powerful and nihilistic phenomenal experiences she documents.   It’s like showing separate pictures of two gears, without showing how they engage, except via a hand wave at ‘math farms’ and ‘random reinforcement schedules’.

So, like any interesting piece of work, her book creates more questions.

One thing that’s clear to me that machine slots are like Morris Minors.   The Morris Minor displays the high forehead and concentrated stereotypical ‘cute’ features of a baby.  This leads to a heightened response to take care of it.   No matter that they stopped production decades ago, and fall apart the moment you turn your back or slam the door.   They are still cute.   You still want to put money into them.

They act as a kind of super stimulus, abstracted and distilled from what you would expect to find in nature, producing a response which seems inappropriate, but may simply be the result of heuristics gone wrong, in contexts which supply powerful but misleading cues.

The plot line of machine slot inputs and outcomes probably performs a similar similitude function to real world features – although what the feature detection hierarchy is that is responsible for their power has yet to be fully explained.

Morris Minor 1000 Source: /0/06/Morris_Minor_1000_1958.jpg