Jeff's World of Game Design

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The virtue of secrecy

Jeff Warrender
United States
Averill Park
New York
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Of late we've been using Lost Adventures to illustrate some points of design, which has enabled us to take an affectionate look back at a beloved genre of film, which includes the Indiana Jones films, the Tomb Raider films, the Richard Chamberlain Alan Quatermain films, the Mummy films (sort of), Pee Wee's Big Adventure (yup), and of course, the Goonies.

Let us revel in the absurdity of the '80s for a moment. Cindy Lauper wrote a catchy little pop gem called "Good Enough" for the film, but the marketing wizards in the movie studio persuaded her to change the name to "Goonies R Good Enough" for no apparent reason other than that DJs would say the word "Goonies" each time they introduced the song. But the real absurdity was the music video, which is in two parts and runs a sprawling 7 minutes, and includes most of the principal cast of the film, Cindy herself, and a bunch of professional wrestlers. Captain Lou Albano is her father in the video, but Rowdy Roddy Piper, Nikolai Volkov, the Iron Sheik, and several others make appearances. Only the 80s could have given us something so delightfully preposterous.

Now in the last post we talked about secret information and the role that players must play in setting the value of that information. That doesn't mean, however, that players should have control over the value of all information in a game. Indeed, as we discuss in Ch 14 of YSTWBF, the designer must worry about how much total information is available, how easy it is for players to access and process, and most of all how much of it they're privy to. Asymmetry in information can lead to organic asymmetries in behavior that can be interesting and entertaining.

Asymmetric information introduces uncertainty, and that can inject suspense in fun ways. For example, we're playing Web of Power and I see you draw a Lothringen card and a card from the deck. I know that you're able to act in Lothringen, but I don't know for sure whether you wish to act there, and if you do, whether you can act there twice, or whether you're able to form a wild. You know something that I don't know, and the partial information I have gives me some basis to guess about your plans and your capabilities, but I don't know for certain. And we can extrapolate from there to argue that, if perfect info is not to be had, then perfect planning also can't be justified as a player behavior.

This, we must acknowledge, is one of the virtues of the often-maligned hidden trackable info. I think its chief purpose is to introduce this exact sense of "I sort of have a vague recollection that you threw a few cubes in the castillo, I can't exactly remember how many, let me try to make a play based on feel" as opposed to the perfect-planning that perfect information can enable.

But it's important to strike a good balance with respect to how much information players have.

Here's a screenshot of Lost Adventures. The row of cards along the bottom are "temple secrets cards", and these are the things players can know about the lost temple. As you can see, there are ten. As the last post said, in the present state of things, a player will get to look at on average 7.5 of these cards during the map phase. Sometimes you'll get 6, sometimes 9, but rarely 10 and rarely 5 or less.

From gallery of jwarrend

This has two benefits.

1 First, it means that players know most of the info, which is good from a player experience perspective: they feel smart, they feel empowered. If they only knew a couple of things, they'd feel like they were flailing around in the dark come the temple phase and would be frustrated.

2 Second, it means that no one knows everything, and typically the things that players don't know are asymmetric. That means that maybe I can pay attention to things you do and try to infer knowledge you have (up to a point), but also it means that there are bidding situations where I don't know the pertinent information and I also don't know for sure who does know it (unless I've been paying really close attention), so my bid sometimes has to be a "best guess"/"minimize the downside" play.

And because the effect of bidding is cumulative, I'm bidding based not just on what I know but on what I don't. If I know the current peril but don't know the next, maybe I bid hard on this one because I know I'm prepared for it, because I know I might take a loss on the next one. And if players are all making these calculations differently on each bid, it injects a layer of uncertainty and paranoia that fits the theme and the weight of the game.

I think this illustrates three principles of good hidden information design:
- Players should know most of what there is to know
- The total amount of important information should be small, such that players know approximately how much they do and don't know
- Players shouldn't all know, or not know, the same things

Let us end with the observation that, if you were a kid in the 80s and liked the Goonies, if you haven't seen it, you must, must, must watch the Goldbergs episode, season 1, episode 16, "Goldbergs Never Say Die!" Brilliant stuff.
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