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There are two fundamental ways to approach design of games (and of RPG adventures).
One approach is to set up an interesting situation and let the players cope with it as best they can, "write their own story", and in this case each group of players is likely to write quite a different story from the same situation.
The other approach is to establish a linear course, a story, for the players to follow. The designer writes the story, not the players. Each play of the game/adventure follows roughly the same course.
And there's everything in between those extremes. But it's a spectrum from one extreme to the other. Most designers are some of one and some of the other.
Whether you call this "rules emergent vs progressive", or "open vs closed" or "sandbox vs linear" or "ludology vs narratolody", or something else, it amounts, in every case, to "how much does the creator want/try to control what the players do?"
I suspect many who haven't actually created games and adventures don't quite see how clear the choice is, in the end.
I am very much of the "let them write their own story" side. For me, a designer gives players the tools to enjoy themselves, doesn't impose upon them. ("Are you a Game Designer or a Fiction Writer?" http://youtu.be/Gl9EMszhYNo ) But many take the other extreme, or something close to it.
Mon Apr 25, 2016 11:28 pm
Why aren't computer RPGs (especially MMOs)
as much FUN to play as old-time D&D?
Lewis Pulsipher (Originally written Oct 2009)
[This was originally completed in October 2009, but for various reasons has not seen the light of publication. Generally it still applies, but occasionally I’ll interject some comments in brackets from the perspective of 2016.]
Oh, but they ARE as much fun, you say? Yet I don't see much evidence of that. For so many people it seems like a lot of work especially in MMOs - "the grind" - aimed at rising in level. People don't enjoy the journey, they only enjoy the destination ("I'm 80th level!"). That's why there's a big market for sale of items and gold and even entire accounts for such games, the market addressed by "pharming". (More details later.)
How did this happen? We can observe that, in hard core video games in general, this "ennui" seems to be a problem (ennui: "a feeling of utter weariness and discontent resulting from satiety or lack of interest; boredom"). The journey isn't much fun. People brag that "I beat the game," often throwing in an impressively-short duration of play, or that "I made maximum level", but they don't appear to have enjoyed it. How many of the hard core say "did you enjoy playing?", instead they say "how long did it take you to beat the game?" They want the result, not the experience. It's as though a ten year old who wants to be wealthy when he's 60 would be happy to jump from 10 to wealthy 60 without experiencing the years in between.
Focus on “Leveling up” and lack of Group Play
Where games involve character levels, there are two possible reasons why this has happened. I played First Edition AD&D for 30 years starting in 1975; my highest level character made 14th, but the last two levels were from magic items and he never actually played higher than 12th, which is just as well because the game doesn’t handle 14th level at all well. Most of my many characters didn't make double figures of levels. It took a LONG time, many long adventures involving several people, to "level up". I recall one character that took ten adventures to reach second level. So of course, I played the game not to level up, but to enjoy the adventure - as we all did. (I can even remember discovering that a character had risen a level, but I hadn’t noticed because I’d not tallied the experience points from the past several adventures. “Leveling up” was not the objective.)
I knew a former WoW pharmer who said he could reliably go from 1st to 30th level in 16 hours. Nowadays in video games, it's quite easy to rise in level, and not surprisingly the objective of many players becomes rising in level rather than enjoying adventures. How many players say "I really enjoyed that game;" instead they say, "I made 80th level".
Perhaps much of the reason for this change in objective, and consequent change in enjoyment, is the solitary nature of MMOs and computer RPGs (something that has ended for folks who join guilds and participate in big raids). Face-to-face D&D is a social game, one that you enjoy with friends (or people who become your friends), one where much enjoyment is taken from the talk and activity between (and often during) the actual adventures, as well as from the adventures. This is only now starting to become common in MMOs and online RPGs. In times past, people playing alone didn't have other people to share their adventures with, to commiserate with, to recount old events. Lacking that, what could they do? Concentrate on "leveling up".
Too Much Like Work
But even in online games we find people doing more and more that seems like work. Nick Yee, then of Stanford University, wrote a journal article called "The Labor of Fun: How Video Games Blur the Boundaries of Work and Play" published in 2006. He used data from over 35,000 surveys completed by MMO players. From the abstract:
Video games . . . transformation into work platforms and the staggering amount of work that is being done in these games often go unnoticed. Users spend on average 20 hours a week in online games, and many of them describe their game play as obligation, tedium, and more like a second job than entertainment. Using well-known behavior conditioning principles, video games are inherently work platforms that train us to become better game workers. And the work that is being performed in video games is increasingly similar to the work performed in business corporations. (Google "Nick Yee Labor of Fun" for a PDF of the article.)
Some of this “work ethic” may be because players pay to play the game, so they feel obligated to play even if they don’t enjoy it. But that’s a minor factor, as those who really don’t enjoy it will quit.
[Far fewer games are paid for these days, rather they’re free-to-play (F2P). Though many who play long enough to reach “max level” will still be spending money.]
Even when many people participate together, the experience of actually playing the game is rarely social. Listen to accounts of the big raids in MMORPGs. Every person is assigned a task (DPS ["damage per second"], healer, etc.); must do that task with precise timing; and does nothing else. Each person's experience is uni-dimensional, a cog in a machine rather than an independent actor. If a few people mess up their timing or role, the whole raid can fail. Because of the time pressure, there's no opportunity to think, to use strategy, or to enjoy what's happening once the raid starts.
Does that sound like fun? Contrast this with old D&D played at a leisurely pace, with lots of time to think and enjoy what's happening, where every character could act independently while keeping the good of the group as a whole in mind. [I suppose the key is the difference between “brainware”, using your brain to succeed in tabletop games, and “athleticware”, using your physical prowess to succeed in video games. There’s a lot more potential stress in athleticware.]
The "play" has become work to too many people. I remember talking with someone who was a major officer in a fantasy MMO guild for many months. He finally realized that it was work, that he wasn't enjoying it, that people treated him badly if he didn't do exactly what they wanted, or if the raids weren't successful. So he quit. There are similar examples in Yee's paper.
No Fear of Death
The other reason for the change in focus involves character death. In First Edition AD&D you actually feared character death. If you died, it hurt your constitution or your experience points, or both; at worst, you were dead and gone. In an MMO or standalone RPG, character death is generally something between a minor inconvenience and no trouble at all. Think about it, if death is not to be feared, it matters much less what you do during your play, and you can pay less attention to it. The details of play tend to blur because your full attention isn't required. (Megaman 9 (for example) shows how even a minor fear of death changes a game immensely. See http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=21324.)
The co-creator of D&D (Gary Gygax) put it this way in one of his last publications (Hall of Many Panes) “a good campaign must have an element of danger and real risk or else it is meaningless - death walks at the shoulder of all adventurers, and that is the true appeal of the game.”
"Pharming" highlights both sides of this problem. If people enjoyed playing the games, would they buy characters and items from pharmers? And if the games ordinarily required more than a dreary, predictable "grind", could pharmers produce enough such items for the demand? At the very least, the scale of pharming would be much smaller.
Obviously, a good human referee can provide more interesting adventures than a computer. Moreover, in D&D the actions of a character can change the future, whereas in MMOs that’s rarely the case because they’re designed for thousands of players. Once again, if what you do makes no difference, you’re less likely to pay attention to, and care about, what you do.
Similar Trends in Tabletop D&D
In tabletop Dungeons and Dragons itself we can see an evolution toward this same fixation on "leveling". Second edition D&D is much like First; Third Edition D&D (3.0) is a very different game, a kind of fantasy Squad Leader, with the emphasis on players finding ways to "minimax" the system via unearned advantages (such as myriad books and articles containing new feats, skills, and prestige classes). Each character can be a one-man army, very different from First Edition where "combined arms" cooperation was absolutely necessary to survival. In First Edition fighters cannot withstand the enemy without magic-users who deal massive damage to groups, and magic-users cannot survive if the enemy gets to melee range without protecting fighters. Characters must help each other out, and each kind of character class provides an important component of "combined arms" success. (Clerics provide defensive magic and medical help, rogues provide scouting and stealth, etc.) It is rather like American football, with fighters as linemen, clerics as linebackers, rogues as wide receivers and secondary, and magic-users as quarterback and running backs. Just as a football team will fail if some of its parts fail, the First Edition adventure party will fail if some of its members fail.
In Third Edition, every character type is designed to survive pretty well on its own. Part of this evolution is attributable to the reduction in size of the typical adventuring group. One of "Lew's laws" is "the survivability of an adventuring group varies with the square of the number of characters in it". Our First Edition parties averaged seven or eight characters; Third Edition specifies four. 3.5 is essentially the same. When there are only four characters, there's rarely a practical way to prevent the enemy from getting to the magic-user(s), who must then be able to cast spells in the face of melee opposition, who must be harder to kill, and so forth. Fighters, with the proper feats, can kill several ordinary enemies in one blow. And with "buffs" from the spell-casters, a fighter can take on a ridiculous number of monsters.
Further, you are supposed to rise a level in about 11 encounters, and could have several encounters in one adventure. In other words, leveling can occur so often that leveling can become the objective, rather than focus on enjoying the adventure. When I set out to convert some First Edition characters to Third, the first thing I did was double their level to be at a near-comparable place in progression. The game was also designed to scale up to 20th level (and later 40th), whereas First Edition starts to break down when characters got well into double figure levels.
Fourth Edition D&D is for larger adventuring parties, and characters have many powers that only help other people in the party, not themselves. It appears to be designed to encourage groups to work together. Character "roles" have been added to emphasize cooperation and "combined arms". Individual characters are very hard to kill, but don't have a lot of offensive capability. Yet the general take on Fourth Edition is that it has been "WoW-ified", made to be more like World of Warcraft, with easy leveling and all the other things that have made WoW so widely popular. Fourth Edition may be a good game, but it's not D&D.
[Fifth edition D&D is much like First, except that it’s much harder to get killed because of easy healing and spells such as Revivify at third level cleric.]
Is this “bad”?
Is it "bad" that people play for the destination rather than the journey? In and of itself, no - every person has his own reasons for playing a game, and those reasons vary drastically. These people can enjoy the game, even if they're not having fun. Yet when the result is something that's more like work than play, you have to wonder what is wrong. Yee quotes a registered nurse who played Everquest: "We spend hours - HOURS - every SINGLE day playing this damn game. My fingers wake me, aching, in the middle of the night. I have headaches from the countless hours I spend staring at the screen. I hate this game, but I can’t stop playing. Quitting smoking was NEVER this hard." Maybe there IS something wrong here.
Further, when games are designed to emphasize leveling up, those who want to "enjoy the journey" are left behind. Is there anything game designers can do to help restore the fun? We can’t quite put the creativity of human referees into computer games. But already in some games, what a character does changes the world according to his view of it. (What the players do very much affects EVE Online.)
We're in "the age of instant gratification". Levels are easy to earn because video gamers expect to be rewarded at every turn. 30 years ago, experience points and the occasional magic item were sufficient reward; now expectations have been raised, and levels are the expected reward. If a designer takes away those easy levels, will people play any more? What a difficult situation! I've designed many commercially published or forthcoming boardgames, but I've only once tried to design a role-playing game - though it was a board game, not a typical RPG - and now I wouldn't even contemplate it because of the problems I’ve described.
Games are entertainment, not Life
Younger readers might howl that video games are NOT easy. Yet most long-time players recognize that, generally speaking, it's typically a lot easier to succeed at a video game than it was decades ago. Death has no sting, games are automatically saved for you, heck, some games even aim your gun for you! I'm not saying that easier is "bad", because it's what the market requires, so that people don't have to work for their entertainment; yet somehow, the entertainment has become too much like work for the hard core players, even when they're successful.
Fundamentally, then, it may be that these games aren't as fun as old D&D can be because they are designed to stroke the egos of pseudo-competitive people who think they've accomplished something important when they reach maximum level. Good D&D players know better. I remember a teenager who had an "18th level magic user", but had no clue how to play it well. He may have made it up (rather like buying an account, but much cheaper!), or he may have played with a "Monty Haul" referee. Your level didn't say anything about how well you played, and for that matter nobody outside your little group cared how well you played–you weren’t competing with the rest of the world. We played to have fun, not to brag about our level or our loot (though we surely enjoyed such things when we attained them).
"Casual" players in general, and Nintendo among major publishers, haven't forgotten that games are entertainment. You don't prove anything about your worth by being a "bad ass gamer", you don't help your family, your friends, your country, your world. Commercial video games are not training for life, they're a pause from life if not an escape from life. It just doesn't matter whether you "beat the game", or how quickly you beat the game, any more than it matters whether you complete a crossword puzzle or Rubik's Cube. Casual players know that; some hard core players seem to have forgotten it, and those are often the people who "grind", who don't enjoy the journey, because they think "beating the game" is truly important even as the rest of us wonder where they got such an unrealistic, immature notion.
This is from a proposal that I wrote several years ago for a talk at a video game conference. I think it's worth publishing; if I live long enough, I'll deal with the topic as a whole in a book about "The Nature of Games".
"50 years of evolution in game design: from consequence-based to reward-based, from depth to variety, from earning something to being given something."
Games have changed in focus. "Follow the money" for further development:
Arcade games were designed so that the player would fail within a few minutes, then put in more money to try to beat their previous level of skill (and their score).
Home video games gradually shed that "failure" based orientation, because players have already paid their money up front. As the market became larger, with less "dedicated" players, it became harder to fail at video games.
MMOs changed to revenue through monthly subscriptions. This meant players had to be enticed to stay, rewarded rather than challenged. Games became so easy to play that "the grind" became the norm, doing the same things over and over to succeed, and a game became a desired destination, not a desirable journey.
Free-to-play games have exaggerated and continued this trend: players must be constantly rewarded so that they'll play the game long enough to begin to spend real money in it. Failure is no longer allowed. And players often expect to be told exactly what to do, as in many social network games.
We have moved from consequence-based games, where a player was responsible for choices and his actions, and expected to fail if he performed poorly, to reward-based games where players take no responsibility and expect to be rewarded merely for participation. There is no possibility of failure in typical video games, provided a player is sufficiently persistent. And many gamers play single-player video games with cheatsheet and Internet in hand to look up solutions: obstacles are circumvented by reference, rather than overcome by intellect.
Another way to express this is that "games" have gone from games to puzzles to short stories to cinema. Cinema is passive entertainment. Games are (have been) active entertainment.
Udemy.com is forcing all their online audiovisual courses into the $20-$50 price range, which means five of my courses will become more expensive. And my largest course ("Learning Game Design") will become private, not open to new students, as of April 4.
More information and discounts as pulsiphergames.com
The text of the slides is below:
(The Nature of Games) Fundamental Game Format: Functional versus Cosmetic
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” Channel on YouTube
Game format is whether a game is a tabletop board game, a tabletop card game, a TT RPG, a video game, etc.
And we could divide video games by platform, such as console, PC, tablet, handheld, etc.
But I won’t
Insofar as you can program a boardgame on a computer, or a cardgame, and vice versa, this format difference is more cosmetic than real
What is This?
Functional differences are ones that affect actual play
Cosmetic differences only affect appearance
Whether a game is physically a card game, board game, or video game is a cosmetic difference!
It’s like the difference between a man dressed “in drag” and an actual woman
Or a woman dressed to look like a man
Cosmetically, the first looks like a woman, the second like a man
Functionally, the first is still a man, the second still a woman
Example: I have a vaguely Stratego-like prototype space wargame being programmed for PC
It’s a board game, and will be even when it can be played on PC
There are fundamental factors that make this so
That’s the topic today, what are those fundamental factors?
E.g. we’ll find that many so-called board games are really something else, for which I don’t have a common name – Status Tracking games?
Why do Boards Exist?
If you think of classic (pre-commercial) board games, such as backgammon, chess, Nine Men’s Morris, mancala. Go, draughts (checkers), even Tic-Tac-Toe, etc.
Boards exist to depict maneuver or placement, and spatial relationships
There’s no other way to simply and conveniently do this: this is what boards are for
They depict racing or conflict - warfare in other words - in almost every case
Backgammon has conflict, but is mostly a racing game, as is mancala
But now . . .
Modern games often use some paper or cardboard in the middle of the table as a status tracker, not a field for spatial relationships
These are called “board games”, but then again, many card games are generically lumped in with “board games” when people talk
They don’t require boards – there are a variety of ways to track status
For example, you can depict worker placement on a piece of cardboard, but it can also be done via cards or other tokens
Some people might suggest that any status-tracking game that isn’t primarily cards, must be a board game
They might say, a board for M/P & SR is just tracking a different status than the other status-tracking “boards”
I prefer not to say that, especially now that status-tracking is the strongest characteristic of video games
And especially when cards are used as status trackers so often in games these days
A resource management game, or a worker placement game, is fundamentally different from a war or racing game
So what is fundamental about card games?
Board games naturally reveal all (they’re supposed to, originally)
Card games naturally hide almost all information in a very simple way
Card games also provide more flexibility than board games for varying numbers of players
Number of Players
Think of how many board games (in the functional sense, where the board is used for M/P and SR) are for only two players
Board games are limited by the size and shape of the board
You could play Risk with eight, but the board’s really too small for that
Even if you provide extra pieces
Racing games can often accommodate lots of players, but wargames are more limited
Number of players involves downtime
A differentiator here: card and racing games take little time per player
Conflict games often take much longer per player, so a large number of players (eight, for example) leads to a lot of downtime
Yes, video games, even more than card games, hide information
They hide EVERYTHING except what the programmers choose to depict onscreen (or on printout, or with sound)
They’re also really good at complex calculation
But more important, video games can keep track of many things, invisibly, that would be difficult or impossible to track in a physical game
Record-keeping is part of Status-Tracking
So we could say “record-keeping” is the most fundamental aspect of video games!
With hidden info and calculation not far behind
Record-keeping, status-tracking, same thing – except the status is usually displayed (as on those bogus “boards” in tabletop games), where other records may be hidden
Video games can do both excellently well
In a sense, if costs were not wildly different, it would make more sense for all those status-tracking/record-keeping games to be video games
You don’t have to fiddle around with lots of cubes and cards, the computer keeps track for you
Unfortunately, programming (and computers to run programs on) costs a lot of money
And lacks the tactile feel, the “haptic” aspects of physical games
And lacks the social interaction of face-to-face gaming
Unless every player has a tablet that displays the game to each one (a future if not already a present)
“Demise” of Board Games?
So when I spoke, in another screencast, about the “demise” of board games, I was talking in the fundamental sense
The sense that a board is used to depict maneuver/placement and spatial relationships
Again, that includes most wargames and many racing games
Video games that keep track of maneuver or placement, and spatial relationships, are often called “boardgamelike”, aren’t they?
A board game is a board game because you need the board to show the spatial relationships, not because it’s convenient for showing status, not because it’s cardboard and sits in the middle of a table
Clarity of Semantics
We would be better off by saying something like:
“A boardgame in tabletop form” OR
“A boardgame in video form” when it has been converted to video
You could make a case that Civilization IV is both a boardgame and a status-tracking/record-keeping game in video format
But definitely a boardgame, as maneuver and geospatial location are very important
Perhaps record/status would be better than the longer name
But when so many people say “board game” when actually referring to a card game, semantics are a low priority with players . . .
At Prototype Com (Kissimmee FL) I saw a three player WW II prototype tabletop board game by Mark Gelston
While I’ve seen prettier prototypes, I’ve never seen one that required so much time and effort from the designer to make it (photo next)
Lots of cubes with stickers on them, hand-made displays with insets to hold cubes of many sizes down to small wood – lots to keep track of
I talked with Mark for a long time, and found the game models many significant aspects of WW II that are often ignored
But it would cost more than $200 to produce in the small print runs typical of wargames today
This is “naturally” a computer game, for all the work in this prototype
Functional versus Cosmetic. You have to think about the purpose of things to understand the fundamental functions. Don’t let appearances deceive you.
Following is the text of the slides:
Devising RPG Monsters – Do's and Don’ts
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
From the “Game Design” channel on YouTube
In the 70s and 80s I made up lots of monsters for White Dwarf and Dungeon magazines (as well as for my own campaign)
I designed several monsters for the original Fiend Folio
“The Princes of Elemental Evil” are particularly well-known (even have their own entry in Wikipedia (Archomental))
Some of this screencast will draw on a panel discussion I attended at GenCon15 including, among others, Wolfgang Baur and Jeff Grubb
I have never thought in terms of "boss monsters" in tabletop D&D, that's a video game mentality
I tend to use numerous monsters (with several different kinds) at a climax rather than one super monster "boss“
It varies, of course
But in tabletop RPGs, unlike video games, if you die you don't have a "save game" to go back to (well, barring a Wish)
Video game bosses are designed to kill you several times before you succeed
You can't play tabletop RPGs that way – even with the easy healing prevalent nowadays
No Save Game?!
So in video games, the purpose of the monster is often to kill the character(s) the first several times
Whereas in tabletop, the purpose is to scare the snot out of the players by threatening, but not killing, their characters
So a video game “boss” tends to be much tougher than the monster(s)-met-at-a-climax in tabletop RPGs
A Fundamental Difference
Video gamers would be disappointed if, almost every time they hit a climax, they won first time
They’d feel cheated
It’s a matter of expectations, as much as of game functionality
Of course, there are many ways that tabletop RPGs are unlike computer RPGs, because of that same lack of Save Games
The Major Element - Surprise
Some game designers say that the major objective in any game is to surprise the player(s)
So, perhaps the most effective way to design RPG monsters is to surprise the players
Many of my suggestions derive from surprise
Of course, surprise may work only once
Which is one reason why so many people keep making up new monsters!
So What do we Look at?
One unusual characteristic (kind of a loop)
Two Types of Monsters Cooperating
Characteristics from two types combined into one
“Worse things than killing you”
Really Smart Enemies
A major reason to make up new monsters is to surprise the players with the unknown
Yet the players will feel it’s more fair, and perhaps more true to real life, if they can divine some of the characteristics of unknown monsters
From past experience
From appearance (if it looks like a giant, it may be about as tough as a giant)
One Unusual Characteristic
This may work particularly well with well-known monsters that have a single, surprising, quirk
But a single characteristic can be the focus of unknown monsters, as well
Some refs won’t want to go to extremes, such as “flying orcs”
We don’t mind the flying monkeys of Wizard of Oz . . .
Unusual . . .
I made up a group of several kinds of lightning-spitting monsters (roughly analogous to military tanks!)
They were big and looked dangerous (and were) even without the lightning
The cat-like ones were fast, the slug-like ones were really hard to kill, and so on
But it was the lightning that set them apart – and scared the players
Two Types of Monsters, Cooperating
There’s hardly anything original “under the sun”, but combinations of things can provide new experiences
We see this whenever a monster type normally employs a different monster type as guards
And powerful monsters may enslave entire groups of weaker monsters
Who can nonetheless provide good interference when heroes come after the masters
Characteristics from two types combined into one
Classic: the owlbear, chimera, gryphon, dragon turtles
Normally unintelligent monsters with human intelligence
Or normally intelligent monsters, that aren’t . . .
Some combinations may not be very believable
Though in this age of TV and movie silliness, not too many people care
Play on the expectations of the players:
Pretend to be another monster
Change the stats – but it’s easy to overdo this
“Worse things than killing you”
Monsters don’t have to kill, to be frightening:
Turn bones to rubber
Rust monster eats equipment
“Permanent” level drain
Capture (slavers are monsters too)
Theft (lots of monsters that nick your items, such as leprechauns)
Clues signaling danger
Even something as simple as noises
Helps foster fear of the unknown even as it may provide some information
One of the best things about foreshadowing, is that it can be used with any monster, well-known or not
Really Smart Enemies
Face it, classic movie enemies are often DUMB
This is why the Evil Overlord list of vows exists
Do read it if you haven’t: http://www.eviloverlord.com/lists/overlord.html
Even relatively dim monsters can be cunning
(Muhammed Ali was often said to be a dim-brained man, but a cunning boxer)
YOU have to put YOUR brain into the monster preparation – if you’re not trying to be smart, how can they be smart?
This is the classic video game way to make things harder – there’s NOT ENOUGH TIME!
Time-stress leads to mistakes
“Watch out, it’s going to blow up!”
Or they’ve diverted water into a room that’s filling up
Or there’s a fire spreading
Or the monster itself has some time limit associated with it
Classic: Balcony protects otherwise-wimpy archers
Very low ceilings (with/for short monsters)
Burrows can also be hard to move about in
The group as a whole may be more effective than the sum of its individual parts
I often find that a group of monsters, even if individually weak, is more effective than one powerful monster
Especially if they’re subordinate to a powerful leader, the “commander” (or “master mind”)
Sheer numbers can be terrifying, even if individually weak monsters such as orcs or kobolds
The D&D 4e “minions rule” is quite brilliantly simple, in this connection
Any damage kills a minion
This is the opposite of the video game “boss syndrome” where an often-lone monster is super-tough
Remember, depending on game type (TT or VG), monsters have a somewhat different purpose: to scare, or to kill at first. But surprise is the key.
Three different topics in one blog post.
"The game must be fun to play"
I've been looking at tabletop publisher submission guidelines and often see some form of this ridiculous statement: "Game must be fun to play"
Why is this ridiculous? Because how enjoyable a game is depends so much on the preferences of the target market that there's no such thing as a "fun game", period. I don't use the word fun at all, because I think fun comes from the people you play with, and the circumstances, and that's how people can have fun playing a dire game like Monopoly, or even a super-serious game like chess. Lots of people enjoy playing chess, but half of them wouldn't call it fun (yes, I've asked chess players).
Look at the movie reviews at Metacritic.com and you'll see how two people can have entirely opposite views of whether a movie is good. With more genres, more variety, games are even more subject to variable opinions.
So to say "fun game" is so personal that it's no guide to a designer who may want to submit a prototype.
Occasionally I'll write to the publisher who's done the "fun thing" and try to get them to explain what they like. Sometimes it's hard to pin them down, sometimes not. They all know (or think they know) what they think a fun game is, but do they consciously know?
I am rarely in a game shop, both because they're scarce and because I live "out in the country". I recently went to one for a game designers' guild meeting, and took time to look at what was on offer (other than comic books).
First, I saw lots of boxes, large and small, containing miniatures, including games using miniatures. Star Wars X-Wing, War Machine, War Hammer, and others. A 2 inch tank was discounted to $11.51! To me, never in sympathy with miniatures prices at the best of times, the prices were breathtaking. But that means big profits for the shop.
It also showed how much game shops are driven by hit games, hardly a surprise.
I also saw lots of CCGs and accessories, also providing great profit margins to the shop.
More than half the square footage of the shop was devoted to game playing space. I was told that on Wednesdays, boardgame night, the place was full, which would be 50 people I'd guess. The Thursday I was there, with no formal organization, there were 10 in the game area.
My experience is a little different in Gainesville, Fl, where there's one boardgame shop, and another I haven't visited that is comics and so forth (and Magic) and not much in the way of boardgames.
There are game events every evening (7 days a week) at this shop. But what dominates the shop's revenue is Magic: the Gathering, and many of the events are Magic tournaments or casual play.
Not surprising about Magic, it is much more than half the CCG category, and CCGs are much more than half the tabletop game category, in the US (by revenue). Magic is about a third of the whole.
Instant Gratification, Generational Differences
I can record a hockey or basketball game and watch it a day (or two) later; as long as I haven't heard the score, it's just as "real" as at the time it was actually played. Many people absolutely don't understand how I can do this. It's because I have an imagination, and because I'm not wedded to Instant Gratification. But also, I don't rely on social media for my enjoyment of the game; I have other things to do during a game, if I'm not going to just watch it.
I always hated ABC for those NASL soccer games interrupted by commercials. Not the interruption, but the fact that they didn't tape delay so that you saw the entire game. Instead they'd come back occasionally and say "while you were away a goal was scored" and show the replay. DUMB! I didn't care if it wasn't quite "live", I did care not to be told what happened "before" it happened!
Life in general isn't a matter of what's new, it's a matter of what's new to you at the time. Yes, the hockey game is "old news" to some, but to me it's new at the time.
The game Stratego is new to someone first playing it even though it's been around for more than 70 years, and its nearly-identical predecessor (L' Attaque) has been around for more than a hundred.
The whole notion of “innovative mechanic” or “innovative game” is so wrapped up with what players have known before, as to be mostly-useless.
(When I started to write this, I had no idea it would grow to exceed 3,500 words. But I think those who are interested in game design, and in why people play, will find it useful. LP)
I have been living in Gainesville, Florida temporarily, and with the advantages of being officially retired - no set schedule - I have been attending a variety of board/card game meetings and contemplating attendance at some conventions.
As my nature is to categorize phenomena to help understand them, there’s a lot of categorization below. That necessarily involves generalization over (in the end) thousands of games and game players. There are always exceptions: no generalization is always true (not even this on).
What I found in Gainesville is a lot of small groups, with almost no crossover in attendance. Even the groups with more than 200 people on Facebook have only 10 or 20 attending weekly meetings. There are three separate student groups, none of whom knew of the other two. Even though the larger group has been around for four years and more, the two new groups thought they were starting the only tabletop club at U. Florida.
There’s a lot of variation in attendance with these small groups; I went to one meeting where no one else showed up (yes, I had the right time and place - and this is the residents group, with the largest number of Facebook followers!).
There is the usual separation of groups for residents and groups for students (University of Florida has over 50,000 students, a very large university, the city population is 127,000). Residents are usually well into adulthood, up to their 50s and 60s, while the students are almost entirely 18 to 22 years old. Residents also usually have their own transportation, while the students are frequently stuck on campus. So the residents tend to meet at the primary local game shop, cleverly named Gamesville Tabletop. And the students meet on campus, usually in the Student Union food court. The one exception is that the residents meet there on Wednesdays.
Game Preferences. But there’s also a big difference in game preferences. College students tend to like “story games,” games that have a story attached in some way, often one with an avatar representing the player. Betrayal at House on the Hill is very popular. They are also happy with games that are directly competitive, because they are accustomed to playing video games that are often directly competitive if only between the player and the computer opponent. Most of the students (by actual poll) play video games more than they play tabletop games. Many of the students here, and also in Raleigh where I’ve attended the student game club for 9+ years, like RPGs as much or more than board/card games. One longtime member of the residents group here told me that at one time they tried to work with the larger student group but found that people tended to separate into two age groups at meetings. He also thought of the students as role-playing gamers, unlike the residents by and large who play boardgames.
Most of the games I have seen played at the residents group - other than a few of my own - are of the typical Euro parallel competition or multiplayer solitaire game where each player pursues his own course with little to no regard for what the other players are doing. There’s very rarely an avatar in such games. The students are happy enough to do the parallel competititions occasionally but it’s not what they’re accustomed to, and certainly not at all like RPGs, which are the epitome of avatar/story games.
Game preferences have at their poles two kinds of games: races on the one hand, and direct competitions on the other (like chess, checkers, go - many classic games). Parallel competition/multiplayer solitaire is a form of race because as in most races you can do little or nothing to hinder or help the opposition. The opposition cannot oppose you, they can only outdo you. In direct competitions the opposition can oppose you, can hinder you or cause you harm within the game, or help you significantly in some cases.
There’s another set of poles, closely related, between games that have always-correct solutions - another term might be closed games - and games that are open and have no such solutions. The extreme of the closed game is a formal puzzle with one solution. In the open games, if there is a dominant strategy, which is to say an always-correct solution, then we say there’s something wrong with the game design. In the former kind of game a dominant strategy is expected, and “multiple paths to victory” is a way to provide a multiple choice of strategies that would otherwise individually be dominant. When those multiple paths to victory are well-known (which is typical and often deliberately designed), it’s sometimes possible for players to slow down another player following one of those paths, and that’s the kind of indirect competition that one sometimes sees in what are otherwise race games. It’s somewhat like NASCAR or Formula 1 where you can block a car behind you for a while. In open games, the good lines of play often are not obvious, may intentionally not be obvious, supplying the gameplay depth we sometimes talk about but which is not present in pure parallel competitions. There are not “multiple paths to victory”, there are all kinds of ways to achieve victory, and which one works best depends on how the players interact.
The field events in Track & Field are another example of parallel competition. In most cases every competitor knows the correct strategy, it’s a case of who can execute it best. In open games, many players never figure out the best strategies, partly because they change from game to game - they depend heavily on the actions of the other players.
Of course, another word for an activity where you have an always-correct solution is “puzzle,” and for me these closed games are a form of interactive puzzle. Just as in a formal puzzle, the obstacles to be overcome are mostly or entirely provided by the game, not by the players. In an open game the obstacles/opposition are provided more by the players than by the game.
As long-time readers know, I strongly dislike most puzzles, though I have been known to play single-player turn-based video games with procedurally generated situations that alter the puzzle somewhat with each play. If I solve a typical puzzle, I am only doing what I ought to do, so I get no satisfaction from it.
Parallel competitions are often quite transparent, that is, designed so that after one play a player can know how to win (or at least thinks he knows). Those “multiple paths to victory” in Euros are usually easy to see. That’s also a characteristic of party and family games. Many of the more competitive games featuring lots of direct action are much more opaque, you have to play several times before you get a good handle on how to win - and many players never do even when they play many times.
Maneuver and Spatial Relationships.
Another strong differentiator in game preferences is whether or not the game involves maneuver (or placement) and spatial relationships (M/P & SR). Wargames and many RPGs are at one extreme in this spectrum, actual races (cars, horses) come after (“after” because the maneuver is severely constrained by the track), tile-laying is in the middle, and at the other end are most standard-deck card games and many so-called board games where the board is used as a status tracker rather than a field for maneuver and spatial relationships. (Keep in mind, virtually all ancient and early medieval games were M/P & SR games, dice being the obvious exception, cards and tile games not existing at that time.)
So to come back to game preferences in Gainesville, I think the fundamental divide between students and the residents (though with many exceptions) is a divide between open and closed games. People accustomed to “big” video games are also accustomed to using maneuver and spatial relationships, while many other video game players primarily play games without those attributes. (Yet even “Match 3" games use M & SR.) RPGs usually rely heavily on M & SR. Many of the more well-known Euros include some form of M/P & SR, such as Carcassonne and Power Grid, but most Euros do not.
I say “many exceptions.” One of the officers of the big student group does not want to feel that he’s opposing and being opposed by someone else directly. RPGs, after all, are unique because they are co-operative games where you have actual human opposition (though the referee/DM is neutral or player-biased). You can almost do that in some video games, except with the limitation that programmed opposition is not as inventive and unpredictable (and downright sneaky) as human opposition - though you can get what Richard Garfield et. al. call in their book “one-and-a-half player games”.
Obviously, many people like multiple kinds of games, just as many people like multiple genres of music. But others want to stick to one kind. And preferences change over time. Such as, for two+ decades I would very rarely play a game against any person, so I played D&D and some single-player video games. Now I rarely play except solo testing my own designs, but I don’t mind a good “screwage” game, yet rarely play RPGs.
Not surprising that the sports I like (and participated in when younger) are team sports, not parallel competitions. Go Panthers!
Another big separation (reward-based vs consequence-based).
Some of the students in one of the new groups appear to be party gamers. Here I differentiate between people who are serious about game playing and those who are not. Party gamers expect to be rewarded for participation - that’s what party games are for, after all - whereas many serious gamers expect to earn their rewards. I’m not using the terms hard-core and casual because there are hard-core gamers, in terms of how often they play, who now expect to be rewarded for participation (thanks to MMOs and F2P games), and casual gamers who may not play very much but who still play to earn what they get in a game. If you had to choose groups to connect then I would connect hard-core and serious, and connect casual with reward for participation, but I do not intend to do that.
(MMOs and F2P: the developers must reward players constantly to try to get them to keep playing the game long enough to make in-app purchases. It comes down to marketing and money, as many things in games do.) These students, however, are by-and-large game hobbyists who prefer the party game style, rather than people who only play games at parties.
Going back to Gainesville, the students are used to RPGs and to video games where there is direct competition, and where winning (sort of) matters. (You can use Save Games to avoid losing many video games, but not the ones where two or more players take each other on, e.g. Super Smash Brothers or Street Fighter.)
The differences in meeting times and habits between the three Gainesville student groups, and the Raleigh group, are surprising. Raleigh meets Fridays at 6PM, many are present before then, peak attendance is during 7-8, then it rapidly goes down, occasionally people stay as late as 11:30. One student group in Gainesville meets Mondays 7:20 to 9-something, a short, biweekly meeting. Another group meets at 8 Fridays, most people drift in considerably later, and stay until well past midnight (they often get free meals at midnight (“Gator Nights”)). The third group meets at 5 Saturdays, and by 8 more than half have departed, latest stay I know of was 10:20. Not-free meals are available for the last two groups (Union Food Court). (Does food come into it?) I shake my head, I just don’t see any pattern to it all.
When did the players start playing games? Many of the older people who play Euros appear to have come to them in adulthood. That is, they weren’t game players while they were growing up. Perhaps they’re attracted to the serious nature of many of the newer-style games. Or they felt that other kinds of games were “kids’ stuff” (or worse, for RPGs), and here we have games that suited adults. (Recall the origin of Euros as “family games on steroids”, friendly games that actually require more brainwork than the typical American family game.)
Most of the students, I suspect, have played video games, at least, since they were small children.
If you watch a Euro game (and I have watched many for many years, trying to understand why people play them), they are calm, perhaps even sedate, there’s little outward expression of excitement. The lack of direct action/competition contributes to that, keeping the game on an impersonal basis. Many of the people who are used to that kind of game seem to be bewildered when they play a game in which one player can directly and obviously hinder or harm their position. Contrast RPGs or wargames (or many player-against-player video games), where it’s not unusual to hear someone cheer, where people often stand up and crowd around when the game nears its climax, and it’s not unusual for people to get into “heated discussions.”
Euro players don’t appear to care much who wins - which certainly fits with the puzzle orientation. It’s the activity itself, progress in the puzzle-solving, that attracts. Also not surprising, insofar as it has always been true (I think) that more people like puzzles than non-puzzle games, going back to when there were no video games. Among other things, you’re not putting your ego on the line, and that also characterizes most of the Euro play I’ve observed over many years.
I’ve been known to call Euros “wine and cheese” games for this reason. Kind of like a wine-tasting sessions, too (no, I don’t drink). Another description I’ve seen is “dusty” or “dry”.
This doesn’t mean all Euro players aren’t competitive. Many of the most well-known Euros have gotten away from the parallel competition (Catan itself, for example, Power Grid), really to the point of being a different category (that some people think are the only Euros now). I was recently told that the people who caused the most trouble through being too-competitive at the venerable World Boardgaming Championships are Euro players, not wargamers. It is, though, a tournament convention, so it’s not surprising that those in the Euro tournaments might be highly competitive.
Kinds of Opposition.
We can identify two fundamental kinds of player opposition in games. The simple expression is “blocking and tackling.” The more detailed version is, one kind of opposition involves interference in the progress/plans of another, without harming them or taking anything away from them: such as blocking in a horse or NASCAR or Formula 1 race. Bidding in an auction is this kind of opposition, as well. So is “worker placement”, and many other favored Eurostyle mechanics. Railroad/train games often involve blocking. I often call this “indirect action” or “indirect interactivity.” The other kind involves actually harming the opponent’s assets, or taking something from them (or both) - as in wargames and other conflict games (such as some business games). “Direct action,”
So we can have players who aren’t used to player opposition of any kind, players who are used to only blocking from other players, and players who are used to direct action.
When you play a game without player opposition, you can’t always ignore the other players, but you certainly don’t have to watch their every move and react to it. When you play with blocking, you’ll try to avoid putting yourself in a position to be blocked, and you’ll take the opportunity to block an opponent, but most of the time (as in a standard race) you’re only concerned with progressing as fast or far as you can. When you play with “tackling”, you have to watch every move the opposition makes, and react to it (if only to decide to ignore it, if you can).
Reactions to Direct Human Opposition.
I saw this once again with one of the student groups that appears (from the games they have) to be more or less party gamers. My recently-published game Sea Kings, a "Viking adventure" game, is (in its simpler version) primarily a "go it alone" game where you do your thing and don't worry about what others are doing (though there is no puzzle, it's more or less card-driven). But there are cards that let you interfere with other players. When this group played the simple version of Sea Kings players were visibly taken aback when someone played one of these cards against them. This was a direct action aimed directly at them - though usually blocking rather than destructive - something they clearly were not used to. (By the way, the "Rogue" version of Sea Kings involves much more direct interaction.) When they played my prototype "Off with his Head", which involves no such direct action, they appeared to be quite happy.
Design. In direct-competition games my design motto applies, because the main competition in the end is between people, not between the player and the game. ("A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." - Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Another form, about Japanese gardening actually, is "Your garden is not complete until there is nothing else that you can remove.") I don’t want the game to get in the way of the player competition. I see many puzzle-games that appear to me to be unnecessarily complex, but that complexity may be there to make the puzzle harder to solve.
You can certainly design games that are not primarily direct competitions, but lack the always-correct solutions of puzzles I've talked about, perhaps because the presence of a lot of uncertainty takes them away from the realm of formal puzzles. Nonetheless, the opposition is largely provided by the game, not the players. I recall a time when Euro players appeared to despise dice, though that era has passed. There are other ways to introduce uncertainty, of course, via cards or human opposition (uncertainty of opposing intentions).
Game design is very different from puzzle-game/interactive puzzle design, which is different again from puzzle design, because of the varying focuses of opposition. In game design your job is to find ways for the game to help make the direct competition between people interesting and different. In puzzle-game design, you’re finding ways for the game to provide the opposition yet accommodate several people. Which may be why there’s such a strong focus on mechanics, especially “new” mechanics, for that kind of game. In puzzle design, you focus on providing all of the opposition through the activity.
Often, direct competition involves modeling some reality, which is much more rare in the two puzzle types. Most of the favorite mechanics of Euro games, such as worker placement and role assumption, have virtually nothing to do with the real world, making them useless for modeling.
Why do I need to figure this out?
Given the kinds of games I tend to design - Off with his Head is an outlier that I deliberately chose to try with the party gamers - I have to figure out what kinds of games suit each group, that is, I have to identify what target markets they fit into.
I sometimes contemplate a multi-dimensional diagram for these ideas, but it would become hopelessly complicated to show it all at once.
I’m not sure there are big tabletop game conventions anywhere in the wintertime - PrezCon in Charlottesville VA with about 700 is the largest I know of - but certainly not in north/central Florida. February is the big month for small conventions. There is Rapier Con, which has been around a while, in Jacksonville, the first year Prototype Con in Kissimmee, and marginally (because it originated as an anime con) Swamp Con at the University of Florida.
The latter is pretty informal, evidently, with no registration fee though there are tickets, being held in the university Student Union. There’s a tabletop component but I have no idea what that will amount to, probably just open gaming.
The other two are held at hotels. I’m told Rapier has an attendance of about 200, the majority of them Euro gamers. Since Prototype Con is a new convention, no telling how many people will attend. As you might guess from the name, it’s more or less a playtesting convention, and will be attended by at least one very well-known designer, Richard Borg (Command & Colors etc.), and a small number of publishers.
As I’m on a retiree’s income, I’m contemplating driving to each convention for a day, which ought to be enough for me to understand what it’s like, and to talk with people.
The Video Game Notion of “Bosses”, and Why it Doesn’t Apply to Tabletop
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
A Little History
Jeffro Johnson asked me if I’d used the monsters I contributed to the Fiend Folio back in the 70s, as “bosses”
Most of them were minor monsters, but the Princes of Elemental Evil are the most powerful, and most lasting
Recently for D&D 5e, an entire large adventure module was titled after these guys
I told Jeffro that no, my campaigns were never high enough level for the Princes
Though I ran into them once as a player – and we 9th-11th level characters “fled posthaste”
Made Me Realize . . .
I have never thought in terms of "boss monsters" in tabletop D&D, that's a video game mentality.
I tend to use numerous monsters (with several different kinds) at a climax rather than one super monster "boss“
It varies, of course.
But in tabletop D&D, unlike video games, if you die you don't have a "save game" to go back to
Video game bosses are designed to kill you many times before you succeed.
You can't play tabletop RPGs that way.
No Save Game?!
So a video game “boss” tends to be much tougher than the monster(s)-met-at-a-climax in tabletop RPGs
Video gamers would be disappointed if, almost every time they hit a climax, they won first time
They’d feel cheated
It’s a matter of expectations, as much as of game functionality
Of course, there are many ways that tabletop RPGs are unlike computer RPGs, because of the lack of Save Games
So “bosses” are really a video game phenomenon, too dangerous for tabletop RPGs. You can’t lose a computer RPG, thanks to save games, but you can “lose” a Tabletop RPG, by dying.
Additional note: Much of the disagreement about game design in general can be laid to semantics, as people say the same words and mean different things. It's very common. We cannot even agree on the definition of the word "game".
For me, the boss is "the bad-ass monster at the end of the level." That's common in video games, and while less common in tabletop RPGs, that may be because the level-orientation (even though it came from tabletop RPGs) is less strong on the tabletop. I suspect that I'm influenced by level-oriented shooters as well, which may be more extreme than other kinds of video games.
Here is the text of the slides. The presentation includes more, of course.
Confusions of Game Design Series: Game Design is NOT “Mind Control”
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” channel on YouTube
Why this topic?
Title occasioned by a recording of a GenCon presentation, “Game Design is Mind Control”
Though I never got around to listening to much of it!
Perhaps because the title is absolutely antithetical to my views about tabletop games
In single-player video games, the “mind control” idea makes somewhat more sense
Though there’s lots of disagreement there, too
A Live Presentation
The idea came up again as a result of presentation I attended at a recent convention
Essentially, the speaker wanted to tell beginning designers to get rid of anything that didn’t contribute to the core loop of a game
Good advice, usually
But English isn’t his first language (though you’d never know it)
So he used the word “manipulate”
This sounds too much like “control” or even “mind control” and got a negative reaction from some listeners
The speaker, when he later found out exactly what “manipulate” means, decided to use a different word such as influence
Manipulate: “control or influence (a person or situation) cleverly, unfairly, or unscrupulously.”
Not the only meaning, but the negative one for sure
The speaker is an engineer, so he may naturally tend to focus on elements he might control
Many engineers tend to neglect the “human component”
Engineers tend to think in scientific/highly logical ways, where most people think of game design as an art
To me, it’s 90% science and 10% art, but that 10% is very important
Especially in days of soul-less “design by metric” in the video game world
Manipulation or Mind Control Implies Passivity
Are you making a movie rather than a game?
Then your audience is passive, not active
Games are active, they’re about doing and thinking
“Horns of a dilemma” (assume player wants that, that it’s a desirable tension)
I want to give players significant choices in a game, not lead them by the hand to where I want them to go.
Another way to express the “control” idea is to say you want to make the game “addictive”
No, no, no! Addiction is BAD. People don’t want to be addicted. It indicates a loss of control by the person who is addicted. Why would a decent person want to get anyone addicted?
Is that something you want to do to other people? Do you want to treat people that way? I sure don’t
Would you like to be treated that way, as someone to become “addicted” to a game?
Perhaps if you have an addictive personality you wouldn’t mind; I’m the opposite
There’s a general principle . . .
The “Golden Rule,” in some form, should apply
E. Kant’s non-religious version is: Treat no man as a means to an end, but as an end only
I think game designers have to treat players as ends, not means
Good customer service, too treats people as ends, not means
“Mind control” is the opposite of this, it treats people as mere means to your end (“addiction”?)
End of Part 1
Part 2 of Confusions: Game Design is NOT Mind Control: - this is the other side of the arguement
Where a single-player game is conceived and created as an “experience”, what is the designer doing?
Not “controlling” a player’s mind, but certainly influencing the player’s feelings and perceptions
It can be more like a novel, where the author clearly controls all that happens
Once you get to two independent players in the same game, “mind control” doesn’t make much sense for the designer
Traditional story forms are linear and passive
Stories work better with puzzles (where there’s an always-correct solution, a route or line to follow) than with games that provide lots of choices and alternative ways to succeed
Are you a game designer or a story-teller?
For many they are opposites
Though some game designers are frustrated story-tellers
“Create a feeling”
The idea that games always start with what feeling you want to engender in the player . . .
The implication is the designer wants to control the player, more or less
I'm of the "what happens next" school, I set up a situation and let the players make of it what they will (notice, players, plural - the “create feelings" folks are often about one player, singular).
They start MDA at A. Others are more interested in interplay of mechanics and players, the Dynamics
Players want Control
Many serious game players want to feel “in control”
And many do not like obvious manipulation
OTOH, some of those who like stories are happy to be “led around by the nose” (as I put it)
But others want to make things happen themselves
If your target market is people who want to be in a story (but not really affect the story), then you’re closer to “mind control”
But playing Within the game...
Negotiation inside a game does have an element of “mind control”
You want the other players to do exactly what you intend for them to do
Though you’d never expect them to do exactly the best thing for you
Think of game design as providing opportunities for players to enjoy and express themselves
Not as opportunities to control players
Though strict control is easier to arrange – as in many puzzles
The more your “game” is like a novel or movie, the more you’re likely to want to “mind control” the players.
Here is the text of the slides. The entire presentation (over 15 minutes), obviously, contains more than this text.
Are you Designing a Game, or Throwing one Together?
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” channel on YouTube
This is Really Important
Yes, there is creativity in game design, but it may amount to 10% of the whole
The rest is more or less engineering: identifying problems, proposing solutions, testing the results of those solutions, and so on
Scientific method is involved, more or less
It is not trial and error
(I use the meaning prevalent when I was young, that of guessing what might work, then checking to see if it does)
There seems to be a notion now that trial-and-error is more or less scientific method: NO!
It’s not a Guessing Game!
Let me use an example from programming to illustrate
While I was a college teacher, I substituted for a teacher who was ill in a beginning programming class
The students had a program to work on, so I walked around trying to help
In general, their program didn’t work
Programming is very logical. The proper response is to figure out the program flow, identify where it went wrong, change the program, and test the solution
It works the same way in game design once you’re playing a prototype
That “identify” might include some intuition, and the solution might involve some creativity, but mostly it’s logic
But the students?
Rather than try to figure out why it wasn’t working, they just guessed, changed the program, and compiled it again to see what happened
If that didn’t work, they guessed something else
They were using trial and error (guess and check)
And they were frustrated, of course
So I tried to show them how to figure out the logic and flow of the program, rather than guess
Certainly, different people have different design methods
Some design more “from the gut” than via logic, hypothesis, and test
Nonetheless, if you are actually designing something, you are primarily using your brain, I think (I hope), not just inspiration
Inspiration is not very reliable! It comes and goes
And the more you treat modification as an engineering problem, the more efficient you’ll be
Art versus Craft
The more you think of a game as art rather than craft, the more you may be inclined to rely on inspiration and intuition
Perhaps we should call that “game creation” or “game inspiration,” not “game design”
Practically speaking, though, it’s mostly craft once you have a playable prototype
NOT throwing things against the wall to see if they stick
Trial and error amounts to “throw things against the wall and see what sticks”
This is a terrible way to solve a problem, if you have any alternative
I’ve seen this dramatically illustrated
A beginning designer had his simple (< 30 minutes, cards and scoring only) card game playtested by players new to the game
The game has already been successfully Kickstarted, but clearly was far from done – most of the cards were hand-written (not even computer generated), for example
As he started the game (he played – also an error in my view) – I saw that he had no rules with him
His response was, he played it 6 or 7 different ways, and was changing it to satisfy backers as well
My comment: already Kickstarted and the rules writing wasn’t being tested, since they weren’t even at hand
But then he said he was trying out a particular rule change
How can you try a change when the rest of the game isn’t stable? You’re only trying with one of those half dozen ways to play!
When you playtest you playtest the whole game not just the part that you're experimenting with
The next question was, “how are you recording the results of the playtest”?
He usually had a notebook, he said, but not today
Though he did have a laptop on which he took notes after the game ended
By the way, this game involved player elimination – NOT desirable nowadays, even in a 30 minute game
And though it was a scoring game, the designer hadn’t bothered to bring the scoring devices, so everyone scored on their smartphones!
This is just sloppy. You’ve got to test the actual game, not substitutes!
It was a card game of direct attack on other players (in a more than two-sided game)
There was no constraint on whom you could attack
So while I didn’t watch the game much, I asked afterward if there was a strong tendency to attack the leader
The answer from the players was “yes”
The game suffered from leader-bashing, but I’m not sure the designer recognized that term when I used it, and only had glimmerings of why it was undesirable
Then people suggested solutions, but the first (only attack those adjacent) would have pretty drastically changed a game that’s already Kickstarted!
Why is leader-bashing undesirable?
It takes most decision-making out of the game
It makes people want to sandbag
It’s dull because it’s predictable
What we have here is a case of somebody throwing things against the wall to see what will stick
He tries to playtest the game in various ways and see what seems to work better
That’s Trial and Error (in the older, undesirable, sense)
And it helps show that Kickstarter is often about ideas and intentions rather than about an actual game
The art (he had it for a small number of cards) looked good, and that probably helped the KS a lot
Here’s the proper way to go about this, not just trying this and that, with a fairly detailed borrowed diagram, and with a simpler version:
Or more simply
Wikipedia’s description of the scientific method (accessed 14 April 09) can be taken as a guide to what you’re doing as part of (but not all of) this design process:
“To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. A scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.”
This is a large part of the replan and especially the monitoring tasks
But More Than That
Unlike scientists, in most cases you must rely on fewer testing iterations
These are more like usability tests than scientific experiments (Nielsen-Norman group: http://www.nngroup.com/articles/ or alertbox.com)
On the other hand, you’re making changes in a design, as well as experimenting to see what happens
This engineering versus trial and error is comparable to how people learn software or home appliances/electronics
I read the manual (shocking). It’s amazing how much you can learn that way. And far more efficient
Most people just dive in and try things
Or simply remain ignorant
The engineering style of game design is like reading the manual. The T&E method is like diving in and trying things – much less efficient
Yes, not reading the manual is easier
(And yes, I prefer to read the rules to a game in order to learn it, unlike most people)
I’ve discussed this cycle at length in my “Learning Game Design” course on Udemy.com
The major point to make here is that you follow a process that relies on solving problems you’ve identified
But you also have to know what kinds of problems might occur
Such as leader-bashing in a card game
Or many others – which is why I make so many of my videos, to educate people about those possible problems
Trial & Error (guess and check) is poison unless you have no choice but to use it
If you rely heavily on intuition, more power to you
But that’s not something we want to teach to aspiring designers
If you think it’s all about inspiration, I think you’re “dead wrong”, any more than getting ideas is all about inspiration
You have to work at something to do it well consistently, not hope to be bailed out by random flashes of brilliance
For me as a teacher, I want people to understand a good method, and “inspiration/intuition” or especially trial and error are not good methods.
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