Charles Amis started designing games out of necessity. He had two best friends as a kid, but how many games out there are made for an odd number of players? So he started with board games and went on to design collectible card games, small video games like Obsolescence, and even a sport called Chamball—a combination of martial arts and dodgeball. Now he and his team are preparing to open up their first multiplayer video game, Artizens. The Gameological Society spoke with Amis about his first cardboard-box games is and how to make game stories for players.
The Gameological Society: What do you do as a game designer?
Charles Amis: The terms “creative director” and “game designer” often get merged, and game designers often get put in the role of something like director or creative director.
When someone designs a new board game by themselves, it’s clear they’re a game designer. They probably didn’t do the art for the board game, though. What I do is a little bit of the creative director role. I am in charge of coming up with how the game plays, what the rules are, what the level designs are like, how the monsters behave, what new weapons we should have, and all of those fun sorts of things. At least, I think they’re fun. I also do a lot of art and music direction. In part, I hold it all together, because game designers tend to be the people who have all of the game in their head. Since they’re really trying to think of what the player will experience, the whole thing, they’re trying to design that.
Gameological: What made you want to design games?
Amis: I started off making games when I was seven years old, and I loved it. I would make board games on the back of cardboard boxes and give them to my parents. I never studied game design in school, in part because I didn’t think you could. I didn’t think that was a thing people did. I played tons of video games and certainly must have realized that someone makes those. I think in my own head, I conflated “programmer” with “game designer,” so I couldn’t make video games because I wasn’t interested in programming. It took a little bit of programming in college, [the programming language] C++, but the combination of a very dispassionate professor and very lame assignments made me really not enjoy that. We made fake ATM machines, and an algorithm that figured out how many slices of pizza you should have for how many people. It was extremely inane.
Gameological: That sounds like the least engaging way possible to impart information.
I never studied game design in school, in part because I didn’t think you could. I didn’t think that was a thing people did.
Amis: Much later, at graduate school in NYU, I learned programming again, in part because I had to. That was a requirement of the course, and I loved it. The teacher was very passionate. We didn’t jump right into C++, we did Processing, which is a library on top of Java and really great for learning. It doesn’t have anything much baked into it. You don’t have to learn all this jargon. You can just start programming. I love it. And now I do a lot of scripting, which is similar to programming. I love the logical thinking of programming. I wish I had gotten into it earlier.
Gameological: What was the first board game you designed when you were a little kid? Do you remember?
Amis: It looked a bit like Chinese checkers. I gave it a funny name for the shape of it, but imagine diamonds within diamonds within diamonds. It had all these pointed edges, and lots of lines. It was a two-player game, and each person was given a number of gems, and the gems were almost like little planes, and depending on the formation you put your gems in, you could attack the other set of gems. I can’t say it was a great game at all. [Laughs.] It certainly had some certain ideas going on, even if it was completely broken.
Gameological: Did you ever run into the trouble of finding someone to play your games?
Amis: It was often the opposite. I had people who needed to be entertained. I needed to make up games—that was because I had two close friends. There were three of us, not four, and games aren’t often made for three people, especially outdoor games, backyard games. You do two-on-two soccer if you only have four people, but with three people, you’ve got to make up a lot of stuff. That’s what made me get into games in the first place.
Gameological: How has your approach to designing a game changed since you were coming up with games for three people in your backyard?
Amis: It’s a process of very rapid refinement. I was really into storytelling when I was younger. I loved games that told stories. I loved Final Fantasy VII. I loved Xenogears. I loved the way Shadow Of The Colossus told stories, but in a different way. I think that game might have been part of what started to change me. I went from really being passionate about my own stories—what I now call “developer stories,” which are the stories that people who make the games want to tell. Then I shifted toward “player stories,” the stories that players tell themselves or their friends after they play the game. The stuff you find after a great game of basketball. When people talk about it later, what do they say? That’s something that only games can do, creating player stories.
With Final Fantasy VII, the storytelling is unique but still authorial. It’s the developers telling you what happened. But in an interactive medium, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I think the times I’ve been most frustrated playing a game is when I’m making choices, and the game’s letting me—that’s really interesting—but then I get to a point where they haven’t come up with the content needed for the choice I want to make. I just run into the wall, and they’re like, “Ahh, sorry, you can’t actually do that.” That is sadness.
Gameological: Why do you think it’s so difficult for an authorial voice to exist next to that player voice? That audience storytelling.
Amis: Oh man, I’ve got a line for you: It’s the Uncanny Valley Of Choice.
Gameological: All right. Explain to me what the Uncanny Valley Of Choice is.
Amis: I certainly will. Just like the Uncanny Valley of making people look realistic, where the closer you get the more they seem like animated corpses, the Uncanny Valley Of Choice is what happens when the more choices you appear to be giving the player, but have scripted outcomes for them, the more the player expects that they can do anything. In Fallout 3, I thought I could be anybody, go anywhere, but eventually, always, the built-up expectation can’t possibly be satisfied. Because it’s a promise of absolute freedom. So when I finally hit that wall, it is so much more dissatisfying than not being able to run to the left in the Mario video games.
Gameological: You mention Shadow Of The Colossus. A lot of people cite that as something they’ve been affected by. Really though, Shadow does offer a lot of these very personal stories. “I climbed this mountain, and then fell off, and it was very thrilling.” But then at the same time, it’s still just an illusion of choice. It’s not an actual choice. You still have to go through and kill these specific monsters in this specific order. Can the illusion of choice be as powerful as actual choice in a game?
Amis: It’s tricky. In some ways, Shadow gets away with it because it’s about the illusion of choice. That’s the whole theme of the game. By embracing it, they totally rock it. I think absolutely the illusion of choice is the magic of the game designer. In fact, sometimes all I think game design is is limiting choice. You go from a world where you can arguably do almost anything—I can break all the rules of any games just by walking around—but what a game designer does is say, “Here’s a handful of things you can do. All you can do is press left or right. These two little buttons. You can’t talk to people, you can’t shake hands. You can’t sit down if you want to. Nothing. You can only do this tiny little pool of things.” By making a game we’re already saying we’re going to limit choices.
The illusion of choice is the magic of the game designer.
As technologies have improved over time, and staffs have gotten massive, and budgets have gotten in the millions, we do the opposite. We say, “Look at all these things you can do! You can do anything you want!” But in part, what drew us to games in the first place is the amazing designs with so little choice.
Gameological: Tell me about Artizens.
Amis: Artizens is an online 2D multiplayer platformer action game, where you hunt monsters with your friends. It’s mainly cooperative. You can draw your own equipment, so you can customize how it works, and also draw how it looks.
Gameological: How does that work where you draw your own equipment?
Amis: It’s very focused on equipment. So after hunting a monster—like, in Monster Hunter or other games, you get materials from the kill, and then you can go back to your workshop to make various crafts. In Artizens, you can draw these. So it’s not as if you draw your full avatar at once. You draw all the components of them, like their helmet or their sword. You draw those on top of a default canvas. That way, as it gets destroyed in combat, you see the default look under it. You never have any invisible swords. You never have anything that’s too big. By putting a focus on always customizing and drawing each piece of equipment, not only do you get the nice creative expression from drawing, but you also get the nice gameplay constraints for having it be fair for everyone you play with.
Gameological: How has Artizens changed from when you first conceived it?
Amis: It started off with a big story. We wanted to tell the audience a bunch of things about how cool creativity is, and it started off as transmedia—we wanted to write a book, a comic book, and more things on top of that. Over time, it’s gotten crisper. We do platformers really well, so we’re making a platformer. We know online communities really well. I think that’s what this game always wanted to be. We’ve always had player expression at the heart. So we’ve gone further supporting player stories more than developer stories. There isn’t much overall story to the game anymore. There are more interesting scenarios for you to get into with your friend that foster stories you’ll tell later.
Gameological: What remains of that original enormous story that you wanted to tell?
Amis: It’s the setting. Which, any D&D fan knows that a good campaign is built on a foundation for stories to grow out of. So that’s what we want to have, a fertile land, a fertile setting. We have unbelievably weird monsters that we know people are going to have a reaction to. We’ve got this guy who’s extremely long, and wears a tie, but has dental tools for fingers. He’s terrifying. He’s a thing of nightmares. Also, strange locations.
It’s more of a premise than a plot. A new continent has been discovered with extremely strange mountains, but also the promise of riches, materials you can use to make stuff that looks like anything. Imagine if you could draw whatever you want to look like, and that’s who you become. Many of the artifacts you make have supernatural powers. A lot of people are attracted to the continent, and you are one of those people coming there as a pioneer on a boat. You arrive on a boat, just like everybody else in the multiplayer game, and set off on your quests.
Gameological: A lot of times all you really need is that great premise to make people feel at home and invited into a game. But sometimes it doesn’t work. I’ve been playing a lot of Dishonored lately. I love playing Dishonored, I love doing the things I can do in there, but I never find myself totally taken by the game, because its setting is so schizophrenic. It ends up pushing me away. I can’t become immersed in what I’m doing because it doesn’t feel like I’m in a real place. What would you say is the key to creating that place, that fertile ground where somebody will feel at home?
Amis: It needs to be a place for a player. I haven’t played Dishonored, but there are other games I’ve played where I’ve felt something similar, where the place is so fleshed out that even my own player identity had already been decided. There wasn’t actually a place for me in the world to explore and discover my own stories for myself. Instead, I was playing into the role of someone that had already been cast for me. I was more of an actor than I was a participant.
What I’d like to see in the future is games returning to some of those physical roots.
In Fallout 3, I crafted my person in the beginning with my little baby choices, and then eventually left the Vault. I was really hoping that was it for plot. “Well, who did I become after I left the Vault? Where did I go? What did I do?” Because it gave me the freedom not to explore the plot immediately, I [didn’t]. I went out and did all these crazy things. I started freeing slaves and then really identified as someone who frees slaves, so I wanted to become Abraham Lincoln. And I wanted to get his rifle. Since it’s first person, I just imagined I had a beard and a wonderful hat and would go around killing anyone who even somehow endorsed slavery, then freeing all slaves. That’s who I was, but the game had other ideas. Turns out I was obsessed with my dad, and I had to go to the radio tower. But that wasn’t who I was. There’s the Uncanny Valley of that choice. I thought I was Abraham Lincoln, and the game disagreed.
Gameological: So in the middle of January, you’re going to start up a Kickstarter campaign to raise some funds for Artizens. How would you say crowd-funding change the way you work?
Amis: What the crowd-fund does for games like ours is as we get our funding, we also get our community. If we were funded by a publisher, pure investment, we’d have money to stay afloat and make our thing, but we don’t have the voices of players unless we specifically go out and get playtesters. But having a community of players who have actual skin in the game, they’ve got their small contribution in play, there’s a great incentive for them to provide quality feedback. It’s arguably their game as well, making them a little mini-investor. I would say that has changed our process because we’re now building specifically for that community and integrating them into the process.
Gameological: Once you do have that community integrated, though, you also have enhanced expectations.
Amis: I want them to have unrealistically high expectations. A game like ours, especially when it’s multiplayer and cooperative, it thrives on balance, it thrives on choices, and none of them are purely optimal. You can’t have everything narrowing down to a single build type. We need entitled, unrealistically optimistic players to tell us what they want, what they see. I’m much more of a believer in listening to the fans when it comes to whether some things are balanced or not, as opposed to listening to my spreadsheet. I’ve seen a lot of things in the forums of designers railing back at their communities: “No, I’m looking at the stats, this is balanced. You’re just not playing it right. You haven’t seen what it can do.” I’m a much more firm believer in perception being reality when it comes to gameplay. I’d say if it feels unbalanced in a moment, then it’s true.
Gameological: In 2003, your average game still looked similar to Shadow Of The Colossus and there’s a single path to follow. That path can often be artful, but it’s just that one path, and you walk it by yourself. And now, far more games look like Artizens, a game you can get your fingerprints on that’s predominately meant to be played with other people. What do video games look like in 2023?
Amis: I’ll tell you what I hope they look like: I want me some virtual reality. I want some sweet augmented reality where I can physically play with virtual elements. I essentially want to play Halo or Monster Hunter, but I’m out on a soccer field with my friends. Maybe some of them aren’t even actually there—they’re just being projected there even though they’re playing on a soccer field in Australia. And we’re all fighting this massive monster in the middle that we’re shooting with our guns. I love sports, and I’m missing those physical components in video games.
Games have changed, but it’s more that they’re broadening. It’s not like the games like Shadow aren’t around anymore, but there are still plenty of fantastic, cinematic single-player experiences, [like] the Uncharted series that are more linear, but tell an amazing story, and really make you feel like you are the actor in a good way. I think what I’d like to see even farther in the future is games returning to some of those physical roots too. Maybe bringing video games and physical games back together would be amazing.