Why don’t I like playing Werewolf

Werewolf is one of the most popular social deduction board games in the world. Under the special situation of social distancing caused by COVID-19, people are even more into online board games than ever. During the first week of the virus outbreak in China, there were 4 apps featuring online Werewolf games in the top 100 free iOS apps, the best of which ranked no.9 on the list¹. Some of my friends invited me to join their online Werewolf games, but I didn’t play with them. I don’t like playing werewolf because I think there are several design flaws in the game that impair the player experience.

Werewolf has many variants in which many interesting roles are added and the one I am going to talk about the most popular version in China that plays as follows:

    1. Roles:
      1. 4 × Werewolves: they can kill a player together at night, and win when all villagers or all other good people are dead.
      2. 8 × good people:
        1. 4 × Villagers: they have no special power and don’t wake up at night.
        2. 1× Seer: s/he can discover the real identity of a player at night
        3. 1 × Witch: s/he has two potions, one to save the victim and the other one to poison a player, and s/he cannot use both potions in the same night.
        4. 1 × Hunter: s/he must kill a player in the day if killed or eliminated by vote.
        5. 1 × Guard: s/he can protect a player from being killed every night, but s/he cannot protect the same person twice in a row.

        * 1 × sheriff: the sheriff is a special role who has 1.5 votes.

    1. Game flow:
      1. Night: players open their eyes, take their actions and close their eyes in the following order: Werewolves, the Seer, the Guard, the Witch
      2. Day: If it’s the first day, players will raise their hands if they want to run for the Sheriff. Candidates take turns to canvass non-candidates and they can quit anytime before voting. GM will announce the name(s) of the players who have been killed last night (and they have last words only if it was the first night). If the Sheriff is dead then s/he can either decide who is the next sheriff or abolish the role of Sheriff. Then the survivors take turns to say who they think are werewolves (starting from the dead’s next player) and vote to eliminate one player.
    2. Winning conditions:
      1. Werewolves win when all villagers or all other good people are dead.
      2. Good people win when all werewolves are dead.

First off, Werewolf’s game mechanics make the game less fun for some of the players. If you get killed on the first night, you can leave your last words, but that’s your full game experience. For the rest of the game (nearly an hour) all you can do is watch. Even if you are alive, you don’t have any additional information from the night and thus cannot really do much in the day if you are a villager without any skills or power. (If you are an active villager who wants to prove your existence and pretend to be a seer, you are not sticking to the routines which I will explain in the next paragraph.) Therefore, good game experience is not guaranteed if you are not one of the lucky living werewolves or good people with superpowers.

Secondly, it is not a game where newbies can play along well with the veterans. The strategy space of Werewolf is not large enough. By this I mean if you play enough Werewolf games, you will either learn from the veterans or find out yourself that there are some routines (i.e. optimal strategies) for different roles. For example, if you are a seer, you must run for the sheriff (who gets a more elimination vote and decides the speaking order in the day). These routines are not part of the rules, but if you don’t know or don’t follow them, you won’t be able to gain trust from your allies and will be seen as a bad player. The fact that optimal strategies are easy to find out and nearly become the unspoken rules discourages new players from playing and drives the players who want more freedom away because not following these unspoken rules equals bad sportsmanship.

The routines and small strategy space disqualify the game from being a heavy strategy one. If you want to play this game with your friends at a party, people who are eliminated early in the game won’t enjoy it, and in fact it’s easier to tell whether someone is lying if you know him/her well, which make the game even more unfair and boring. Werewolf is doomed to be in an awkward position between a serious strategy and deduction game and casual party game due to the two flaws mentioned above.

There is another famous variant of Werewolf called One Night Ultimate Werewolf that I have played with my friends before. As its name suggests, the game contains only one “night” and one “day” (an up to 20-min long discussion). No one will be killed and all the actions happen in the night will just be recognizing your partners or switching players’ role cards. When the day comes, all players need to discuss and debate in order to lynch a werewolf in the end.

ONUW does fix the issues Werewolf has by adding new roles and modifying the rules. No more killing and player elimination means ONUW means everyone can enjoy the entire game. The tricky fact that you won’t be 100% sure what role you are in the day unless you are Insomniac makes sure that even if you get a seemingly boring role like Villager, you still need to carefully listen, get as much information as possible to deduce your camp and apply different strategies accordingly. The game experience is interesting and engaging for every player, which is better than Werewolf.

The core fun of ONUW is the changing nature of players’ roles, and it’s also what enlarges the strategy space of the game. Information is the key to social deduction games. The strategy is always to gain more information you don’t know with the information you claim you know, be it the truth or logical lies. New roles like Troublemaker (who switches two players’ role cards) and Drunk (who exchanges his card with a card from three extra role cards in the center) create much more possibilities and complex situations for this game and make it difficult to find routines. Also, when players know they can be a Werewolf even though their initial role is a good one, they have to be more flexible and less aggressive about others’ lies so that they don’t burn any bridges before they confirm their current identity. According to my experience, more tolerance for lies and bold claims not only originates amazing deception and plot twists in game, but also encourages new players to join the game.

ONUW seems to solve the problems in the original Werewolf game, but is it a perfect social deduction game? Of course not. Changes of roles is a double-sided sword. If a werewolf knows s/he has been switched with a good person, s/he may immediately betray the werewolf camp and sell the person out. It happened several times before and I really felt my experience was ruined and it’s ethically wrong. Some of my friends claim that it’s sheer bad luck and betrayals actually bring much laughter. I am still torn on this question now and I guess this is another reason why I don’t like and I am not good at social deduction games like Werewolf though I do like the game mechanics of ONUW very much — I feel uncomfortable lying or betraying, even in games.

Don’t let your players see the entire iceberg

For the Frontier of Freedom assignment, my team made a turn-based survival strategy card game Quarantine under the background of a virus outbreak. Apart from the normal card drawing and playing, we added event cards into the game. At the beginning of each round, an event card is drawn from the events deck and shown to everyone. Its content (a buff or debuff) takes effect immediately and lasts for a round. Initially, we designed four types of events. During our playtest, due to the time limit we didn’t make a whole deck of cards including duplicates of these four events. Instead, we only had the content written on four notecards and rolled a D4 every round to decide which event should happen. However, we received the feedback that having all events laid out facing up ruined the surprises and anticipation players might have got from card drawing, despite the fact that these two options are roughly equivalent in terms of probability. This feedback made me think about the relationship between a game and the player’s anticipation for the game. How should we play with anticipation and use it to our advantage when designing the game?

Why do players (especially those who play the game for the first time) feel excited about the face-down events card? Because they don’t know what they are gonna get, and this unpredictability creates anticipation for the unknown and adds to the fun. Not revealing all the options/items that players might get to them is a very common strategy in game design. For example, in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, all the shops (be it Able Sister’s, Nook’s Cranny or Nook Shopping) sell only a very limited number of items, and the items they sell change daily. In my opinion, the reason is two-fold. First off, there are just so many items in the game. There are over 4000 items in the previous New Leaf version. It’s easy to browse and pick from a small number of items, but when it comes to 4000 items, players are distracted and finding something they want to buy will be a painful and time-consuming experience. The other reason is the anticipation. The anticipation for something new is a strong motivation that keeps players playing every day. Also, some items in certain colors can only be purchased from another player’s shop, which requires connections with other Switch consoles and is not a must for this game. Letting players know there is something that they might never have access to will turn their anticipation into huge frustration in this case.

This kind of huge frustration shows up in the latest Pokémon game—Pokémon Sword and Shield. Pokémon fans were angry and disappointed to find that the new game has an incomplete Pokédex, which means you can only play with Pokémon that are available in the new region and all other existing Pokémon cannot be transferred to this game. Angry fans created trends “Bring Back National Dex” and made memes to complain about and boycott the game.

Meme made by fans

This example again proves that game devs should be very careful not to ruin the player’s anticipation. A situation where the players know something is out there but they cannot get it often leads to disappointment. And a situation where they know something used to be there but it’s now taken away by the developers may result in a backlash and loss of trust.

To summarize, we need to try our best to create and live up to players’ anticipation for our game. Don’t reveal everything, especially when they can’t get everything. Only letting them see the tip of the iceberg is safer and more tempting.

How much reality should a simulation game reflect?

When my mom video called me this Monday, I told her that recently I have been obsessed with Animal Crossing on Switch. She was curious about the game and asked me what the game was. Therefore I moved my character around to show her my island, telling her in this open-world simulation game you have an island where you can catch fish and bugs, dig fossils, plant fruit trees as well as sell these things to get money for new houses, furniture and clothes. 

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

She seemed to like this game a lot and asked more detailed questions. I was really happy to see she liked it (because she is not a gamer and most of the time she shows indifference to the games I play) and continued to show her my newly opened museum, especially the unusual fish I caught on my friends’ islands in the Southern Hemisphere. Then she said, “How can you keep these fish and bugs alive? They are from the other hemisphere. Can they adapt to the climate and environment here? Also, to sustain the ecosystem, I suggest you not fish too much.” 

The question and comment left me speechless for a while, and then I realized that for a person that has hardly played any games especially simulation games, I can’t assume that they know a simulation game is simplified for fun and doesn’t 100% reflect the reality. This difference in cognition prompts me to think how much reality a simulation game should reflect and the reasons behind simplification and adaptation of the reality.

In my opinion, the design choices made related to verisimilitude highly depend on the purpose of the game. Animal Crossing doesn’t have a definite and clear goal for players to achieve. There are quests you can take, but your game experience won’t be ruined if you don’t. The core pleasure of the game is to enjoy the freedom of living and thriving on your own island. Freedom is created through various activities I mentioned before. Given that there are so many things players can do in the game, the great breadth of player interactions comes with inevitable limits of depth of each interaction. If fishing in Animal Crossing were like real-life fishing where you have to wait for fish to appear for minutes or even hours and take the risk of the rod breaking when catching big fish, it might give you a greater sense of achievement. But how much time is left for other equally fun activities? Going too deep and real in activities that are only part of the gameplay deviates from the core pleasure and decreases the total amount of fun players can get from the game.

Another important factor that decides how real a simulation game should be is the target audience. We can divide game players roughly into two groups: “hardcore players” who treat the simulation seriously and want the real experience by playing the game, and “casual players” who only anticipate the fun and sense of achievement of doing something they are not able to do in real life. For the former, games with realistic details like Microsoft Flight Simulator may be their best choices. However, if a game like Animal Crossing is created for general audience, the gameplay should lean towards a design that keeps the fun of novel activities and removes the unpleasant/tedious part of them which may drive players away. If creatures caught on my friend’s island in the Southern Hemisphere cannot live on my island in the Northern Hemisphere because they cannot bear the different climate in real life, then suddenly I lose fun and motivation to go to my friends’ islands.

In conclusion, when deciding how realistic a simulation game should be, there is no universal answer. It depends on the shape (breadth and depth) of your game and the audience.

How to tell an ordinary story in an extraordinary way?

Spoiler Alert: The following article contains spoilers of the game Florence.

Florence, the Best Mobile Game of TGA 2018, is an interactive visual novel designed by Monument Valley designer Ken Wong. It takes less than an hour to finish the linear story. The main characters are average people struggling for their life and dream. Florence (the female main character) meets Krish (the male main character). They fall in love with each other. They encourage each other to pursue their dreams. No superpower and no drama is involved. And as a love story, it doesn’t have a desirable ending — Florence and Krish break up in the end. However, I was so touched and even cried when I was playing even though I haven’t been through similar heartbreaking experiences. The game definitely creates strong emotional resonance with its excellent storytelling. How does Florence tell its ordinary story in an extraordinary way?


USE OF AUDIOVISUAL METAPHORS

The story itself is ordinary, but the game takes full advantage of the medium and tells the story well to its audience. In the game, a lot of audiovisual metaphors are used to reinforce the emotions and messages that the designer tries to convey.

Krish and Florence’s first meeting happens when Florence falls off her bike and Krish helps her up. Pictures are distorted, layered and out of focus to simulate Florence’s double vision, and the background music is also quiet and obscure. The player has to turn the focus rings to sharpen and align images to see Krish clearly, and the music becomes clear and loud as the player turns to the right mark.

Another metaphor I really like is the dialogue bubbles. There are no words in their dialogue but only color bubbles. The player as the female character needs to assemble jigsaw puzzle pieces into complete dialogue bubbles in order to talk to Krish. The number of puzzle pieces, the shape and the color are all indicative of the status of the relationship and their moods.
For example, on Florence and Krish’s first date, the player has to put 8 pieces together at the beginning. As they talk more, the number of pieces goes down to 6, 4, 3, 2 and finally 1. The puzzle is getting easier for the player, so you know it’s also the case that Florence feels more comfortable and easier talking to Krish.

Similarly, when Florence and Krish have their first argument, the interlocking part of the pieces change from round shapes to squares and then to triangles, indicating the argument is getting intense. 

In the last fight they have before breaking up, all bubbles are fierce red with the implication that they have passed the point of no return and the harm is irreparable. Krish’s blank for bubbles is automatically and quickly filled out, so if the player doesn’t react immediately, the picture of Florence and Krish facing each other quarreling will tilt towards Florence because of the imbalance.

Seeing Florence at a disadvantage provokes the player to fight back and win, and I guess this is what happens in a relationship in real life that the game designer wants us to realize: we don’t want to lose, thus we fight back and hurt our partner without even thinking about who is right and who is wrong. The designer successfully conveys the message through the well-designed metaphors.

 

INTERACTION BEYOND COLD TEXT BUTTONS

Usually, interactive romance novels branch their stories with different choices. You read the dialogue, watch the cutscenes, and click/tap on one of the text buttons. This kind of game attracts its players with a wonderful romance fantasy and multiple endings but often lacks variety in terms of interaction. In contrast, the Florence team wants to tell an ordinary but relatable love story. To make it equally appealing, the designer really put effort into interaction design so as to unify the explicit story and the player story and enhance the latter.

The reason why I love this game so much is that it truly immerses you in the story and creates empathetic connection between you and Florence by letting you do everything she does every day in the game. 

The first two chapters are Florence’s daily routine (such as brushing teeth, browsing social media, working and calling her mom) and her childhood. Frankly speaking, it’s just the background story that doesn’t have much to do with the core romance and can be explained with cutscenes. However, you have to drag and move the toothbrush around for several seconds, tap retweet or like button for every single post to finish each task and move on. These interactions let you immediately get a sense of  how tedious Florence’s life is. 

Later when Florence and Krish are in love, Krish moves to live with Florence. In this chapter, you need to place Krish’s personal items in Florence’s apartment. Starting from shoe organizers to kitchen and living room, you will realize that the space is full already and the only way you can put Krish’s stuff in is to put some of Florence’s stuff back in storage. 

Again, the designer’s message that a good relationship needs compromise is powerfully conveyed through the interaction. The golden rule of storytelling is “show, don’t tell”, and the golden rule of interactive storytelling that Florence teaches us is “interact, don’t tell”.

YOU HAVE A CHOICE, BUT YOU ACTUALLY DON’T

As I mentioned before, Florence is a linear story. There are some moments in the game where you have choices to make, but they don’t change the story. When answering phone calls from Florence’s mom, all the sentences are vague and repetitive answers like “I’m busy”, “Talk to you later”. It shows that Florence takes a perfunctory attitude toward her mom.

 I first thought phone call choices were redundant compared to other interactions, but later I changed my mind because I realized sometimes I would say the same thing to my mom. The seemingly useless choices recall my memory and make me reflect on my life.

My favorite chapter is “Let go”. The chapter starts with the title and Florence and Krish walking side by side. Krish walks more slowly than Florence, and as he falls behind, his image along with the chapter title starts fading out. No instruction or goals given, tapping is the most intuitive interaction. However, when you tap the screen, Florence will stop to wait for Krish and both Krish and the chapter title “Let go” become visible again. 

I suddenly understood what I should do: do nothing. Don’t tap, and just wait for Florence to go far enough that Krish disappears in the scene. Having seen how sweet and happy they used to be, this was such a reluctant choice to make that I couldn’t help myself tapping again and again, but every time I tapped, the title “Let go” showed up and reminded me of what I should do. 

Giving the player choices that don’t make a difference is really a compelling design to evoke the player’s feeling and empathy (especially when it’s a distressing story).

Ken Wong defined “traditionalist game design” as follows:

    1. game mechanics should be about challenge and skill
    2. games should be about choice and agency
    3. games should be at least a few hours long

However, from the success of Florence, we learned that a good game can be a non-traditional one. Florence is a short game with a great number of audiovisual metaphors reinforcing the emotions. It utilizes whatever simple but effective game mechanics to help tell the story. It doesn’t give you freedom to make a choice and alter the story. It goes against the traditions, but it tells the ordinary story in an extraordinary way.

How can we create positive social experiences in games?

This semester I am working on a semester-long project to create a transformational experience exploring the issue of online toxicity for Games for Change 2020. While 74% of gamers have experienced toxicity in online multiplayer games, I still found that some games succeed to build a positive and friendly community with developers’ effort. Personally I very much value social aspects of MMOs so I looked into these games and tried to find how do they create a positive social experience for their players.

7 years after Journey came out, thatgamecompany released their new game Sky: Children of the Light on iOS in 2019. Rated 4.9/5 in App Store and winning iPhone game of the year for 2019, Sky provides its players with an enchanting flying social adventure. 

Sky: Children of the Light

Friend system and interaction design

In my opinion, Sky builds good social experiences with its unique and well-designed friend system. In the game, you become a friend with another player only if you send her/him a candle (the precious currency in game) and s/he accept your candle.  Player avatars are designed by default gender neutral, and other players cannot see your name — instead, they name you when they friend you. These design choices prevent players from giving personal information out and avoid bias/stereotype towards the player as well as possible passive toxicity deriving from the player (such as insulting user names). After you become friends with another player, you can hold your friend’s hands and follow him/her. Two players moving together enable you to fly much higher and reach places you cannot reach alone. This mechanic encourages trust between players and rewards players with greater power in game. Other available interactions with your friend are shown in a tree with locked nodes. If your friend and you want to talk, you need another three candles to reach and unlock the chatting node in the tree.

A friend tree with Ariyah

The game protects its player from hostile words by raising the bar of chatting (which often costs nothing in some online games). What’s more, the design that any advancement in friendship requires candles and no payback is guaranteed ensures that interactions between players are not driven by their own interests but genuine friendliness.


ENVIRONMENT AND ATOMSPHERE

To maintain good vibes in the game, the pleasing environment created by visuals and audio elements plays an important role as well. In Sky, levels, though some are colorful and some are snowy-white, are very dream-like and resemble the fantastic fairy tale worlds. 

Disney castle like

The association between the dream world on the clouds and peaceful mind and behaviors is made subconsciously when players are flying in the game. Also, since players can hardly talk to strangers, you can interact with strangers by tapping on your own avatar to make a sound that every player in the same space can hear. Other players may tap and echo with you. The sounds are generated following the pentatonic scale, so even if a player keeps tapping again and again, sounds are different, harmonious and not annoying.

Another game in which I had a good time playing and interacting with other people and I think a heartwarming atmosphere is successfully built through good art is Kind Words.  

Kind Words

The game space is just a small cozy room where the main character (i.e. the player) writes requests and responses to other people’s requests. The whole space is painted rosy and warm purple, filled with reassuring music from the radio. What a comforting world to be in! And how would someone under such circumstances be hard-hearted and write bad words to other people?

 

Make developers an example

From my perspective, one of the most effective approaches to encourage positive social behaviors among players is to make the developer themselves a good example. When a new player starts to play Kind Words, the tutorial guides the player through all the features including the inbox. Other players’ responses to your requests will be collected in the inbox so in the beginning the inbox should be empty. However, there is one unread letter from the developers of the game saying “we don’t want your inbox to start empty so we write you this letter and we hope you can do the same to other people”.

Kind letter from the developers

Often we would tell or show players what rewards they could get if they achieve the intended goal (in Kind Words, the goal is to care about others). But in fact, the most powerful incentive we can give our players is to let them experience in person what it is like to be cared about by strangers. It’s much easier for them to empathize once they know how good it feels to receive care. We as game developers want a virtuous cycle of positive interactions among players, then why don’t we start the cycle by inputting kindness to our players?


It’s not easy to create positive social experiences in a game, and I have to admit that the suggestions I mentioned above are not suitable for all kinds of games. But I think if we can reflect on successful cases and find what is effective and helpful for a good community in casual games, it can shed light on the games that are more competitive and intense.

What is the magic behind match-three games?

The Treasures of Montezuma 3

I won’t call myself a “gamer” because I haven’t played many games and in general I am a three-minute passion person. However, the game I have been playing for the longest period of time both on PC or on my phone is match-three games. I started playing “The Treasure of Montezuma 2” when I was in junior high school and played the series for five years until I switched to Macbook. In terms of mobile games, though I have been obsessed with RPG games shortly several times, a match-three game is what I always have in my phone and play for quick simple fun. Realizing this fact, I start to wonder what the magic is behind match-three games that makes my love for it persist.

Low Demanding Game for Everyone

One of the biggest reasons why players come and stay is that match-three games are low demanding both intellectually and temporally. 

The core mechanics of match-three games is to swap, make 3 or more in a row, watch them disappear and score. It makes the barrier to entry low, yet this simple mechanics satisfies people’s primitive desire/need — to turn chaos into order. 

Most of match-three games are level-based, and one level usually only takes less than 5 minutes to finish. I can start a game when I have a period of free time but it’s too short or not suitable for doing something meaningful (e.g. waiting in line, sitting on a bus/shuttle), and I can stop the current level at any time without a severe penalty. In the long term, when I am busy with my work, I cannot commit as much time to games. Compared with those mobile RPG games which keep their players active with live in-game events or grinding, the cost of being AFK is much lower. I won’t miss anything and being AFK won’t ruin my future game experience.

Fancy Feedback

In one of the readings we are assigned in game design class, the theory of player acknowledgement is mentioned. That is, “the game world must acknowledge players every time they perform an action”. Match-three games do well in giving players feedback. When you make a match successfully, you will immediately get feedback from the game. Matched elements will disappear, accompanied by fancy visual effects such as glitters, explosion, the text of points you just earned (often an excessively high number, say, multiples of 100) and delightful sound. If there are combos, all the fancy effects are further intensified and you may even have to wait for seconds for them to finish. Match-three games are very generous with reward for their players. The feedback they provide to their players is much more than what the players input to the game and it gives the players a huge sense of achievement.

Match-three and …

For every plus, there is a minus. A simple mechanics set a low barrier to entry, but players also lose interest quickly if the game is all about the simple mechanics. Therefore, game developers work on improving their match-three games, hoping to build a good interest curve for their players. 

A common solution is to bring in another mechanics or systems as meta-game. For example, what I like the most about The Treasure of Montezuma is its totem power-up system. There are seven totems of different colors, each representing a kind of power-ups in game. For example, the red totem shoots fireballs to eliminate 2 tokens and the orange totem can pause the time temporarily. Players finish levels to get stars that can be used to activate and upgrade totems. Once a totem is activated, players can use it in game by making two matches of tokens in that color in a row. I like this system because it is connected with the core match-three game experience. If I make wise choices when distributing stars to different totem power-ups, I can get a positive feedback by taking advantage of the enhanced power-ups in the next game. I will also be able to improve my performance at previous levels to get more stars and unlock achievements that seemed impossible before. This type of add-in system feels organic and improves game experience in a way of 1+1 > 2.

picture credit: https://store.steampowered.com/app/320690/The_Treasures_of_Montezuma_3/