a series of interesting choices thoughts on game design from paul sottosanti


kinship and the great designer search

If you follow Magic closely, you're probably aware that The Great Designer Search 2 has just announced its eight finalists. If not, you're probably wondering what The Great Designer Search is. Essentially, it's an online "reality show" design competition that Wizards of the Coast runs when they're light on designers. When the first one completed, all four of the top contestants went on to be hired full time by WotC:

Mark Globus – It was a pleasure to work with him on Uncivilized, and he’s a great manager as well. It’s my understanding that he manages a lot of the Magic designers and developers these days, which frees up Aaron Forsythe for work that he finds more interesting.
Graeme Hopkins – A lot of credit for the success of Tiny Adventures belongs to Graeme. He not only coded most of the app singlehandedly, but was invaluable for making little tweaks to the UI that made the player experience better.
Ken Nagle – By the time that Mark Rosewater finally moves on from his head designer position (I'd guess this is at least five years out), I’ll be surprised if Ken isn’t high on the list to take over. It's clear that this man loves Magic.
Alexis Janson – Out of the four, I’ve worked the least with the winner, Alexis, but she’s a competent Magic player and programmer as well.

So, it’s fair to say that the first GDS was a huge success for WotC, and all eight of the new contestants have a good shot at finding employment as a result of this.

The first round was a series of essays, and since I can’t imagine WotC wanted to read all of them, I’m assuming this was mostly to weed out the people who weren’t serious about the whole thing. This was so that they didn’t pollute the next round, which was a multiple choice test that was automatically graded, with some percentage of the top scores moving on. I question the validity of that test in terms of finding strong designers (and there’ve been plenty of complaints about specific questions), but it did weed out people who don’t know Magic well, and some concessions have to be made to make the whole process realistic.

Now, Wizards has posted the essays for the finalists, and while I haven’t read them all, it did catch my eye that Jonathan Woodward’s answer for “worst mechanic in Extended” was kinship. As the designer of kinship and the lead designer of Morningtide (the set where it premiered), this piqued my interest. I’ve always had a soft spot for kinship and thought it was a reasonably successful mechanic for the “class matters” set that Morningtide was. Anyway, here was Jonathan’s reasoning:

"Of all of the mechanics currently in Extended, kinship is one of the worst. If the top card of the controller's library matches a creature type with the kinship creature, the controller gets a beneficial effect. In theory, this is exciting! In practice, however, there are two problems. The first problem is that the mechanic is very linear; instead of playing cards because they're fun, or good, a player needs to play them because they share a creature type with his or her kinship cards."

To me, this seems akin to saying that kicker is a bad mechanic because it’s very modular and therefore doesn’t give deckbuilders any guidance. Linear versus modular is a spectrum where both sides have their place, depending on the goal of that mechanic within the set. Both have advantages and both have disadvantages, but claiming that a mechanic’s linearity is an inherent problem requires either some specific context or the conclusion that all linear mechanics are bad.

"The second problem with kinship is that the card checked is the same card the controller is about to draw. Assuming that the controller has accepted the linear nature of the mechanic, most of the cards in his or her deck that don't share the kinship creature type are likely to be lands. Therefore, once the player has enough lands, failing to have kinship trigger is likely to be followed by failing to draw a useful spell. This leads to players feeling bad; they see the lands they are about to draw, but can't do anything about it."

While it’s absolutely true that kinship makes the highs a little higher and the lows a little lower when you draw your card for the turn, in my experience, the situation that Jonathan describes doesn’t really happen. Because we intentionally moved the trigger to upkeep, players naturally resolve kinship almost as a side effect of their draw. You look at your card, and either reveal it for kinship, or simply put it into your hand if your Kinship triggers missed. If the trigger was during, say, the attack step (as it was for awhile in development), there would be a lot of time to think about the upcoming land, but with it during upkeep I think it works out nicely.

And, for completeness, here’s a bit of history on kinship since I don’t think I wrote about it while at WotC. Sometime during Lorwyn design, we were looking for a way to separate Lorwyn and Morningtide so that each would have a compelling hook. The fact that most Magic creatures had both a race and a class was fairly new at that point, and I suggested that Lorwyn should focus on race interactions and Morningtide should focus on class. Everyone thought this had potential, so we went forward with that plan, and agreed that we would save themes like “sharing a creature type” for Morningtide. Triggering off of sharing a creature type was a great way to make it suddenly matter that your Goblin is also a Warrior, since it shares a type with that Elf Warrior that you also happen to have.

Kinship was originally designed as something like this:

Synergy – CARDNAME gets +1/+1 until end of turn. (Whenever this creature attacks, reveal the top card of your library. The synergy effect triggers once for each creature type it shares with this creature.)

There were quite a few problems:

  • The templating for the mechanic didn’t really work, and if I remember correctly, it wasn’t entirely easy to fix.
  • In order to trigger synergy, you had to attack, but in order to be able to attack, you needed the synergy to work. This often led to players just not attacking since they couldn’t be sure.
  • It was cool that it rewarded you for matching both type and class, but this was at odds with something that I mentioned in passing above, which is that we wanted you to feel just as good about matching up Warriors as you would with matching up Elves. This made it twice as good to match up both race and class, which took the emphasis away from class sharing across races.
  • At first I thought that Changelings revealing other Changelings was awesome, but it became clear that it was awkward that players didn’t really know exactly how many triggers that created (it was equal to the total number of supported creature types, but few people know that number offhand). It also would’ve been an issue for MTGO when that many triggers suddenly popped onto the stack.
  • The aforementioned problem of seeing a land during your attack step and then having to “look forward” to drawing it during your opponent’s turn.

We played with this for awhile, and eventually realized that we needed to simplify the mechanic down to more of an all or nothing based on whether or not you shared any creature types at all. This was a lot better, but of course it didn’t solve everything. The next major breakthrough was to move the trigger to upkeep (I have a vivid memory of discussing this with Forsythe in the parking lot of an IHOP…not sure why I remember that), which put the mechanic into a satisfying place. Finally, the name was changed to the much more appropriate kinship, as synergy was flavorless and could describe hundreds of other mechanics. (I’m mediocre at best at naming. My only success at naming a mechanic that I designed was ripple, which somehow remained unchanged in both effect and name throughout development. Of course, that one deservedly gets some hate as well.)

The final interesting point about kinship was that it was one of those mechanics where I ended up pushing for it despite opposition at various points. I know that Rosewater always has epic stories about how he was the only believer in something, and everyone else hated it, and then it all worked out in the end, but this wasn't really like that. There was just some skepticism amongst the team at various points about whether or not the mechanic would end up working out. I always do my best to be objective in these situations, and there were definitely times that I was worried I was clinging to something that wasn't going anywhere, but once everything fell into place I was glad that I did.

Of course, sometimes you have to give up on something even when you still believe in it. My old article The Color Purple is a good example of that happening during Planar Chaos design.

Well, I know I promised more on Tiny Adventures, but life got in the way and then I wanted to comment on the Great Designer Search. Tiny Adventures part two is still coming soon. Oh, and I don’t mean to hate on Jonathan, he’s just the one whose answers I happened to read. I wish him and the rest of the competitors the best of luck. Can’t wait to follow along!

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