Bored in Las Vegas

Last night, for the first time, I walked the Las Vegas strip.  It bothered me.  Everything was just…a little bit off.  The cigarette girls’ skimpy uniforms didn’t quite fit right.  The guy singing Third Eye Blind karaoke was neither bad nor good enough to entertain.  The Elvis impersonator sounded more like an unenthused Dean Martin.  I was bored.  I was only in Vegas because the hotels are cheap and I needed a place to stop for the night.  I probably could’ve enjoyed myself playing poker or blackjack, but my tight, travel budget (exacerbated by a dead alternator in Denver) restricted me to slots.

Looking for a place to try out this gambling thing, I dropped one dollar into a penny slot machine.  I was drawn by the repressed hipster in me that loves anything with a three-wolf moon on it.  Fifteen seconds in, I was up twenty cents.  Thirty seconds in, my money was gone.  The game-designer in me wanted to slap someone.  Not because my money was gone, but because I was not entertained, yet the place was full of people pumping money into these things ad nauseum–visibly bored, but still willingly parting from their money.

“Play Farmville or something, for crying out loud!  At least that’s constructive,” I thought silently–briefly putting aside my disdain for “cow clickers.”

Despite my internal protest, they continued.  This lady sat down at the one with cats on it, that guy at the one with Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis on it.  There were hundreds of themes for these things–movies, sports, animals, historical periods.  Seldom did two people settle on the same theme.

At a core gameplay level, these slot machines functioned identically.  Drop in money, choose what “lines” you want to check, and send it spinning, hoping for the best.  So why were there so many different machines?

Stripping Away Dressing

When designing a game, it is important to think about the core mechanic, apart from the dressing that comes from art and theming.  Raph Koster, in his (phenomenal) book, A Theory of Fun, talks about this abstraction.  In the chapter titled “What Games Aren’t,” he says “Story, setting, and backplot are nothing more than an attempt to give a side dish to the brain while it completes its challenges–sometimes the hope is that it makes up for an otherwise unremarkable game.” (p87)

Most who have been in the game industry a while have had someone approach them with a game design idea.  Usually, however, it’s not a game idea, but a theme idea.  “I think you should make a game about cattle ranching!”

If I’ve got the time and the patience, I’ll resist the temptation to blow them off and attempt to encourage them think about their idea.  “What power does the player have over the situation?  What’s the opposing force?  What would be random?  What would be determined by the designer?”  Many people haven’t considered what the game is about; they’ve only considered what the theme is about.

In the case of the slot machines, the answer to most of these questions is, “nothing,” except “what is random?”

Trail Blazing (Hooray! I’m Original!)

Saints Row 2 "Trail Blazing"


In 2008, Volition put out a game called “Saints Row 2.”  One of the elements I worked on was the “Trail Blazing” activity.  With the help of a designer and a few suggestions from the producer, I was given liberty to reinvent this nearly-cut activity, given the directive to make it “a race where you’re on fire.”

With gusto untainted by industry experience (and much to the dismay of our physics programmer), I made Trail Blazing into a checkpoint race where every person you touch bursts into flame, and every car or barrel you touch explodes in fiery glory, each giving you a little more time to make it to the next checkpoint.  I was pretty proud of myself for coming up with such an original, fun design.  Or so I thought.

S.T.U.N. Runner (Maybe I’m not so Original)

Years later, a friend told me about a S.T.U.N. Runner machine he had bought years before (which is apparently still sitting in the lounge at Dreamworks/PDI).  Fondly remembering this game from my childhood, I rushed to fire it up when I got home.

S.T.U.N. Runner

Collect the widgets to get to the checkpoint before the timer runs out.  Wait a minute…oh, dang!  Trail Blazing was S.T.U.N. Runner!  But…it didn’t feel like S.T.U.N. Runner.  I could give a number of reasons why the gameplay was slightly different from Stun Runner, but I think what made it different was the dressing of explosions and power.  The impact of all the fire and death did nothing to change the way the game played at its core, but all that carnage was exciting.  It wasn’t about how the game played, it was about how the game rewarded the player with otherwise-fluffy feedback.

Later in the book, Koster discusses the fact that “designing games isn’t just about the mechanics” and “even if players can see through fiction, the art of the game includes that fiction.” (p161,163)

In 2006 I toured a casino games company in Chicago when they were hosting open interviews.  I remember the host saying, ”the old ladies love all the flashing lights and the sounds the machines make.”  I blew it off at the time as superficial (and perhaps even a sign of mental illness), yet here I am, proud of a game that rewards you with flashy sights and booming sounds.  The lack of challenge or mastery in slot machines still bothers me, but I can’t help but wonder…are the explosions in Trail Blazing really all that different from flashing lights and bells on a slot machine?