PlayMesh VP Shawn Foust on the thrill of playing and designing games with 'total loss'

'The fear of in-game risk has stymied innovation'

PlayMesh VP Shawn Foust on the thrill of playing and designing games with 'total loss'
Shawn Foust is a VP at PlayMesh, handling a mix of business development, lore writing, and game design.

Through nefarious deeds and blackmail, I have managed to convince the fine folks at PocketGamer.biz to give me some room to gab. My purpose is simple: give my (soon to be) loyal readers an inside look at how a mobile game developer operates.

Now, the twist in this story is that I'm a disciple of the troll theory of game development. That is to say my goal is maximize lulz rather than dollars (though I've noticed a strong positive correlation between the two).

By way of background: I am PlayMesh's game lead for Valor, a rather intense massively multiplayer real time strategy game available on iPhone and Android. I ended up at PlayMesh because it has a deep appreciation for shenanigans and a dedication to creating truly competitive games.

And I was particularly attracted to Valor because it goes where other mobile games do not: you can lose everything.

The game is unapologetically brutal, and I was given permission to push the design in an even more savage direction. It was just too tempting to pass up. And so I commence my journey to troll my poor users into submission. I'm betting they'll love it.

Risk in games

Total loss isn't done these days in mobile games. Many believe it's too risky from a business perspective.

There's some PowerPoint out there that has a lot of spiffy words like "synergy" and a strong recommendation that games should be easy and never require a player to confront difficult choices with meaningful consequences.

I hate that PowerPoint and I would flying ninja uppercut the person that made it if given the chance. The fear of in-game risk has stymied innovation in mobile games.

There are enough games where the player is treated like a pretty pretty butterfly who is bruised at the mere possibility of loss. These games protect the player's ego at all costs. Perhaps many players require this sort of protection.

However, there is a subset of players, the brutal savages raised on games like Super Mario Bros. (limited lives, no continues), Ultima Online (die and lose all of your loot), Dark Souls (death costs significant time and progress), and DayZ (die and you're DEAD) that hunger for meaningful decisions in games.

A choice isn't meaningful if there is no cost attached to a poor selection. That's what I saw in Valor, a chance to experiment with truly meaningful risk and consequences to make player feel like their choices matter.

Coping with loss

Allowing a player's main headquarters to be captured meant the possibility of total loss for a particular world (instance of the game). That all of their efforts and dollars would be for naught. We recognised that some players would be disturbed by this realisation.

Ultimately, we came to the conclusion that creating a game with this risk was what could differentiate Valor from every other game involved cities, armies and battles. We were willing to go down the dark path of risk friendly gaming.

An interesting design outgrowth of incorporating risk is that the game must now be about skill.

People generally aren't willing to undertake significant risk without some belief that they can affect the outcome. This meant we couldn't just rely on selling thermonuclear weapons to people in castles, we had to find a competitive core and balance around that.

This is an extremely costly and time consuming process. You cannot just create content and serve it up to players – each new feature must be designed to enhance that competitive core without breaking the balance. It's an interesting challenge.

Brutal balance

And so I spent the first two and half months after I became game lead designing features that preserved the meaningful choices in the game while moving the competitive aspects forward.

A few of these features are novel in the mobile space, and I'll spend some time in the future explaining how they work and why they were chosen.

I'll also delve into things surrounding the game, like community and lore – both of which are pretty much ignored on mobile.

PlayMesh has a long road ahead of it, and hopefully I can bring everyone who cares to read along for the ride.
To find out more about PlayMesh and Valor, take a look at the company's website. For moment-to-moment updates on everything Shawn Foust, you can follow him on Twitter.

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